– 1 –
When Charlie Mason had headed out west, leaving behind the rancid ghettos and run-down tenements of New York in favor of the open skies and relative solitude of Nevada, he’d thought it was a new lease on life — What life? Ha ha. — a chance to escape the hatred and the constant fight just to keep alive and out of sight.
Seeing the news in August, the bit where some lifers had shot his friend Allen up with some kind of super-rabies and beat him to death, had decided him. Charlie hadn’t waited, just tossed a trashbag full of clothes in the back of the truck, refilled his protein supplements and took off.
He’d made his way across the country, keeping to the back roads and keeping the speedometer on his ’48 Chevy a nice and healthy five miles under — wouldn’t do to catch the eye of a lifeist cop, traveling all by his lonesome — until he’d pulled into Ely. Stopping to fill the tank — and grumbling at the thirty-three cent cost per gallon, more than double what it had been the year before — he’d limped into the store in search of a soda while a kid had set about filling the tank, and had found a job instead.
The proprietor had been squinting at him, sizing him up; the man was a round little ball of meat, maybe five-four and two-ten. Dusky skin and something in the pattern of wrinkles on his face gave Charlie the suggestion of some Indian ancestry; the wide-brimmed white hat with the peacock feather the man was wearing helped obscure his eyes, but Charlie had learned to recognize the feel of being scrutinized. Given his appearance and the general sentiment of the normals about his kind, it was usually a given.
Charlie was tall and slender, topping out just over six feet and coming in around one-fifty on a good day. With his thick black hair, cut sensibly at the base of his ears and slate grey eyes, he might have made it to handsome. If, that was, his throat wasn’t mostly a ragged flap held together with knitting yarn, the left side of his face wasn’t torn from the corner of his mouth to the ear and missing the skin between them and he hadn’t been missing the last two fingers of his left hand, having only stumps that had a mangled, chewed look and required regular resealing with super glue to keep them from suppurating a rancid mixture of pus and blood. He counted himself lucky; a lot of his kind looked a hell of a lot worse. Sure, if he took his shirt off the damage became a lot more severe, but he wasn’t the type to strip in front of others.
Setting two glass bottles of Co’-Cola on the counter, Charlie was rummaging for his wallet with his good hand, prepared to lay out a five — the Chevy had a huge tank, and he was used to tipping well, an often-futile gesture to offset some of the prejudice against his kind — when the shopkeeper spoke.
“Got somewhere particular you’re goin’, son?”
While the squinting and staring along with the words should have set off alarm bells — a deader like him telling someone just where he was headed was almost always a terrible idea — the tone was kind, curious. Glancing out the window and seeing the kid was busy polishing the road-dust off the Chevy’s cracked windshield, Charlie figured he could spare a minute to chat, at least.
“Haven’t decided, yet,” he rumbled in a cracked and dusty voice, initially damaged in the attack that had made him what he was and further atrophied by the dusty climate and lack of use.
The shopkeep made Charlie’s five disappear, sliding across a pair of dollar bills and nodding. Something almost like a smile lurked at the edges of the old man’s lips as he responded. “Yeah, you’ve got that look about you. But maybe you’d be willing to stay a bit? Might be somethin’ in it for you, and I know from experience that going your way a little later but with a bit of cash in your pocket makes it a mite easier.”
Charlie arched a brow as he popped the cap on his soda with the edge of the counter. Digging in his pocket for his pills, he swallowed two with a draught, draining half the bottle while he thought it over. Rolling his shoulders in a shrug, he tried to get a read on the proprietor’s eyes.
Still seeing nothing malicious there — and Charlie considered himself a good judge of character, out of necessity — he shrugged again. “It might. What’re you looking for?”
Charlie was surprised when the shopkeep stuck his hand out, the longtime gesture of the well-trained American male that was so rarely extended to his kind — despite all evidence to the contrary, most folks considered the deaders to be ridiculously contagious, and wouldn’t touch them unless absolutely necessary — and nodded at the proffered arm. “Name’s Randall. Randall Whiteheart.”
Feeling oddly touched, Charlie shook, careful not to squeeze too hard, since the older man’s fingers had the bunched and knotted look of long-time arthritis. “Charlie Mason.”
Whiteheart nodded, gave a three-pumps-and-done shake before pulling his hand back. Glancing out the dusty window and pointing, he continued. “Nicetameetcha, Charlie. Did you see the old ranch on your way in? Guessin’ you did, since you pulled in from the east, and it’s hard to miss.”
Charlie thought he’d seen a mess of a ranch house about a mile back, but he’d mostly been thinking his own thoughts while keeping half an eye on the gas gauge. He shook his head. “Might have seen it, not sure. The one with half the roof gone?” He took another swallow of his soda, trying to ease his throat; it hurt most of the time and talking always made it worse, but when it came down to his budget and medical treatment, he could afford his protein pills, or he could afford a down payment on that new plastique technique, but not both. Not having to make a habit of eating raw meat outranked being able to filibuster, in his opinion.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Whiteheart snorted. “And it’s mine. Last caretaker didn’t fare so well in the hail we got a month back, got leg-broke trying to batten down that roof. I’m a little too old to stay out there and try to put it to rights, and Joseph out there —” he gestured to the kid, who was now standing beside Charlie’s truck and fidgeting with his hands in the pockets of his overalls, “— he’s got to stick here and make sure folks get taken care of. No gas for another hunnret and fifty miles, yanno.”
Charlie grunted, bobbing his head slightly while he thought it over. A little bit of a repair job, a roof over his head and some time to think about what else he could be doing wouldn’t be so bad, he reasoned. He glanced back to Whiteheart’s eyes, testing the weather there, then plunged.
“Sure. What were you thinkin’?”
Whiteheart’s smile grew wider. He tapped a button on the register, popping the cash drawer with a clang. He extracted the five Charlie had paid with, then a twenty, and set them atop the two bills already on the counter. “Well, figure if you can get that roof fixed, clean up the place a bit and keep the squatters and coyotes away while I make some other arrangements to open her back up, twenty-five a week plus lodgin’s and all the gas and cola you could want’d be fair enough. Shouldn’t take no more than two months. If you decide you like it out there, we can probably work somethin’ out and keep you on once we’ve got the stock running again. If not, you get yourself a little vacation and head your way with a few large bills in your wallet.”
Charlie nudged at the bills with his good hand, glancing back up to Whiteheart and trying to hide his surprise. The pay was good — better than he’d been making at Russel’s hole-in-the-wall diner, at least — but the he found it hard to believe the other man would be so willing to take in a deader. Some of his disbelief must have shown on the remains of his face, because Whitehead laughed and put up his palms.
“No trick, son. I just need a body, and figure you might be up to it. Seem strong enough, and folks like you don’t seem to mind the isolation. Plus, wasn’t too long ago that folks like me was looked at funny and not trusted, figure it never hurts to show some goodwill.”
Whitehead’s smile seemed to turn a trifle sad, one corner quirking down and a shadow floating across his eyes. Charlie supposed the man must have his own tales to tell. He nodded, pocketing the cash.
“Well, sounds like a deal. Thanks, Mr. Whitehead.” Charlie’s voice cracked more than usual; he’d been almost absurdly touched by the trust of a stranger.
Flapping his hands, Whitehead deposited a small key on the counter where the bills had been. “Now, now, none of that. Just call me Randall. That there’ll open the padlock on the front; rest of the keys are hung by the door once you’re in. Go on, check the place out, make yourself at home.”
Charlie scooped up the key, clipping it to his own — almost empty — keyring while the part of his mouth that was still able perked up in a smile. Coming this way was the right idea, he thought.
He offered his hand to Whiteheart again, who shook willingly enough. Charlie’s smile managed to creep outward another inch or so — though it caused a tugging sensation on the ripped side of his face, leaving him worried that if he had any more happy-thoughts today he’d need stitches — as he released the older man’s hand.
“Thank you,” he croaked.
“Not a care, son, not a care. I’ll stop by later to check on you, bring you some staples, make sure Doc Flanagan knows you’re out there and can get your pills if you’re on them, that sort of thing.”
Charlie nodded, and slipped back to his truck.
– 2 –
He’d been bitten three days ago. Only the second day on the job — his first had been primarily inventory and getting settled in — the day had gone by without incident, the simple work of cleaning up, tearing down damaged roofing and sorting through the woodpile for the pieces that weren’t too warped. He’d found an ancient radio in the living room, one of the huge floor models that hadn’t quite been completely phased out by those little Asian transistor jobs; he’d drug it out the door, to the edge of the house where he was working and strung together a series of extension cables so he could hear Kennedy’s latest State of the Union address. Not that it was anything really new — the joint space venture with Russia was still on hiatus while they tested decompression on deaders, the People’s Rights were still being argued by the lifers and the racists down south, what was left of the Irish were still prepping war declarations — but it gave Charlie a bit of hope to hear the President’s stutter fading a bit, his moments of forgetfulness being fewer.
Things had been going just fine until night came. Charlie had been tinkering with the radio, getting some mileage out of the electronics education he’d been pursuing before he’d turned; while it’d never be on par with the gadgets the kids stuck their D-cells into and carried with them, he was pretty sure he could at least improve the range to pick up something other than the local NPR repeater.
Then he’d heard something, a scratching outside. Taking down the Winchester rifle from above the couch — which he’d been coached in the use of by Whiteheart, with a warning that coyotes had a tendency to come sniffing around, but were usually scattered by a shot or two — he’d opened the door and peered outside.
The thing out there hadn’t looked much like a coyote to Charlie… but he was a city boy, probably not the best judge of character. It had looked skeletal, starving; the eyes had been rolling in the sockets and the chest wracked with heaving pants. Thick runners of drool had been slipping between the heavy jaws. The sight of it — the near-instinctual terror that his kind felt at even the barest hint of rabies — had paralyzed him for a moment.
That moment had been enough. It had pounced, ragged nails digging into Charlie’s shoulders, muzzle going for his throat. He’d squeezed the trigger of the rifle in shocked reflex, the velocity of the shot throwing the scrawny carcass back across the threshold. There’d been some blood at his throat, but he’d spent the last three days convincing himself that it wasn’t a nip, that he had nothing to worry about.
He could no longer tell himself that. His eyesight was shot; a red haze obscured most of his peripheral vision, and anything live and moving pulsed with a rage-inducing glow. He’d been unable to get much done yesterday, and today was probably right out as well; the sun was just too bright, sending lances into his eyes and burying them in the back of his skull. He was out of pills — and they weren’t helping much, anyway — and felt like he was starving. Even devouring the twenty-two pound turkey he’d found in the freezer, tearing it apart and swallowing it whole and raw, had done little to curb it.
Flanagan. He’ll have the serum. Have to get there. Great thinking, but Flanagan’s office was more than thirty miles away. Still, Charlie felt he had to try; he’d seen what became of the Yellers — and their victims — and had no desire to end up like that. The little voice in the back of his head, still there despite the consciousness-obscuring rage that was trying to cloud everything else out, tried to warn him that it was probably already too late, that the best thing he could do now was put the Winchester in his mouth and pull the trigger… but he pushed it away.
A survey of one of the closets provided what he needed; a thick pair of polarized plastic glasses, probably left over from a visit to the optometrist in the days when Whiteheart’s family had still lived in the house. It wasn’t ideal, but it’d have to do. Adding a Mets baseball cap from one of his garbage bags provided enough cover to make the light outside bearable.
As he lurched out the door and towards his truck, he hardly noticed the bloody froth forming at the corners of his mouth or the way the stitches that held his face and throat together were now pulling apart as the flesh putrefied and lost elasticity. All he could focus on was the thought of Flanagan, of a nice, safe, dark room where they would take him in and make him better. Where there would be a doctor, and a nurse or two, and maybe a patient or five in the waiting room.
The back of his mind barely gave a peep of protest as he pulled onto the Highway, made no further comments as the words for people were consumed by the rage and hunger and were replaced with a single, all-consuming thought: food.
– 3 –
Sandra Kane, receptionist for Doctor Elias Flanagan in the — jokingly named, she was certain — Ely Medical Center, sighed as she set another clipboard with blank treatment forms on the counter and snuck a look at the clock. Her job normally consisted of calling across the street to Nana’s Breakfast & Biscuits when the doctor was ready for lunch, gossiping with Nurse Reynolds, and shuttling children or parents with the sniffles or the occasional snakebite or broken arm to and from the reception area to the examination room. Today had proven to be one of the abnormal days, the kind that made her question why she hadn’t accepted that slick and pretty young man’s offer to come with him out West and take a few pictures; surely she’d be living the life of a starlet, instead of being beset by angry folks from as far away as Elko, drawn here by the whispers that a deader was in the area.
I wonder what the big commotion is, she thought to herself. It’s not like we ain’t had ‘em here before. True enough; of course, the few that had decided to stick around for any period were locals and thus known factors. Mr. Mason was an out-of-towner, from somewhere back East they said, and thus doubly dangerous; a city-slicker and a deader.
So far today she had sent twelve families into the doctor’s inner sanctum for the standard speech regarding the deader’s lack of contagion, warning signs of rabies and what to do about it, and refills on the — utterly ridiculous, in Sandra’s opinion — placebo aspirators that claimed to impede the progression of the leprosy-D virus but actually did little but provide peace of mind for hypochondriac bigots.
She glanced up from her paperwork, and saw a beat-up green Chevy pickup pulling into the lot, swaying drunkenly as it made the turn and stopping ten feet away from the actual parking space. Three of the seven others in the waiting room — four of whom were here for the deader speech, one with a painkiller prescription refill, and two with hay-fever issues — also turned to look as the truck’s tired screeched against the blacktop.
A figure almost fell out of the driver’s side door, collapsing with an odd and boneless grace by his own wheel well before putting one shaky hand on the bumper and pulling himself up with obvious strain.
Sandra jumped from her seat — Oh, great, like we need more crazies today, she thought rather unkindly — and darted towards the door, hollering for the doctor as she went. Billy Went — the previous caretaker of Whitehead’s ranch, here to get a refill on his pain ‘scrip — lurched up on his good leg and started limping after her.
Sandra reached the figure first, though Billy wasn’t too far behind, broken leg or not. As she drew closer, she recognized the clothes — and the vehicle — as belonging to Ely’s celebrity-of-the-month. Something in the deep part of her mind — the lizard-brain, some of the psychologists were calling it — called out a warning, finding his posture and twitching movements to have a subtle menace. Sandra ignored it, thinking it was just the natural aversion most folks seemed to have for the deaders. The man was obviously hurt, and she was no lifeist.
She reached him just as he reached his full height, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Mason?” she squeaked, hating the tremble of fear in her voice but helpless to rid herself of it. “Are you alright?”
Belying the slowness of his rising, he spun around at her touch. Sandra had a moment — a very long moment in her head, but surely no more than a second or two — to realize just what was wrong with him before he grabbed her arm and bent it back, producing a pair of dry and brittle cracks as the bones in her forearm snapped like twigs.
It was Charlie Mason, she had been right about that, but the part of him that had marked him as a quiet and cautious but likable man was gone. The wound in his throat was open and dripping black clots of slime, and the stitches that held his cheek together had let go completely, leaving the left side of his face flapping. The flesh there was rotted and black, gangrenous. From somewhere beneath the thick plastic lenses he wore, more of the black sludge leaked, mixed with yellowing pus and gobbets of something less identifiable. The part of his mouth that still seemed to work was gnashing at the air, as though he was trying to bite and chew an invisible something.
Rabid. A yeller. You’re dead. Should have gone to L.A. after all. The thought streaked across her mind, the image of what she would have been doing — staring in one of the new color films, perhaps, or waving her hand tantalizingly in front of a Colgate or Co’-Cola display — so vivid that it obscured the pain from her arm breaking. She froze as Charlie drug her shattered arm towards the ruins of his mouth, tearing off all four of her fingers and swallowing them whole.
Behind her, she could hear someone screaming; the part of her that was still aware of what was happening rather than hearing the cheers of an adoring crowd assumed it was Billy. She hardly noticed as the yeller dropped her mangled hand and cast her aside, punching one of his fists through her stomach as she dropped.
She hit the pavement, her face stretching in a smile. Even though part of her was aware of Mason bullrushing Billy as he stuffed a party-streamer of her entrails into his gaping maw, was aware of Billy falling back as he mistakenly put his weight on his bad leg, in her mind she was waving to the New York crowds as they cheered her on in the Macy’s Day Parade. Her shattered arm twitched, the stumps of her fingers twiddling, as she waved to the adoring fans she had never had.
Part of her saw the yeller crush Billy’s skull between its hands, licking them clean of brains, bone and blood even as it charged towards the doctor’s office. The small building with only the one glass door between those inside and the monster coming towards them. She heard the screams of those inside and the guttural vocalizations of the thing — which, if not for Mason’s throat wound, would have been more akin to a teakettle shriek, the sound for which the yellers had become known — transformed in her mind to cries of glee as she shook hands and offered blown kisses to the legions of fans who had come to see her ride by.
Her lips pursed and a trickle of blood spilled down her cheek to boil on the sun-baked pavement. Her arm twitched, the shoulder trying to bring her hand to her mouth and failing. As she stepped from her float, taking the hand of Ronald Regan — and interpreting the bright splash of blood that flew against the window of the office as party-favor streamers surrounding her — her eyes closed for the last time.
Inside, the screams stopped. A moment later, the heavy thunder of gunfire came from behind Flanagan’s office, and the grunts and squeals of Mason stopped as well. One more gunshot, and the desert was completely silent again.