Erin lasted longer than he expected. Two weeks he’d traveled through towns picking up supplies and killin’ every damn zombie he saw. But Erin knew he’d never make any genuine progress that way, so he left the back-roads for good. He followed the tributary streets into highways and finally the interstates, heading to the biggest mall he could find, knowing the zombies would congregate there to feed.
He went in with guns blazing, hurling Molotov cocktails in every direction, and somehow emerged unscathed, like an immortal action hero. There were no uninfected there. The last survivors likely lost their safe haven over a week ago with nothing to protect themselves but sporting goods and fashionable accessories. Just shambling hordes as far as the eye could see, mindlessly carrying bags they didn’t know to drop; poor things.
But that wasn’t enough for McCreedy. Someone had abandoned a fuel tanker at a nearby gas station, and to him, that was the voice of God. All it took was a brick for the gas pedal and a rope to secure the steering wheel, and he had himself a rolling bomb. The man wasn’t an idiot, though. He needed a fuel to air mixture, so he punctured the tanker with a hammer and an icepick near the bottom so pressure would spray gas in a wide arc as it drove. He didn’t even mind being soaked by the stuff, so long as it worked.
Once the vehicle smashed into the main concourse of the mall, he gave it a few minutes and pulled a strange amalgam of PVC pipes from his truck. It was about six feet long with pipe-fittings on each end, and chicken-wire strung from one end to the other to stabilize the wobbly plastic. A slightly larger pipe and a Y-fitting were cemented toward the middle as a handle. Call the man anything, but he was a crafty son of a bitch; it wasn’t pretty, but Erin had a jerry-rigged tube launcher. This was one of his smaller samples, meant to fire road flares.
The tanker didn’t go right away. The flare hit and bounced to the ground nearby, but the mist spraying from the truck had mixed with the surrounding air, and that was all it took. A small fireball swelled under the truck and followed the streams of fuel to their sources, infiltrating the main tank. The ground explosion flipped the truck, turning it into a whipping flamethrower, and when it struck the roof, the steel tank ripped and spilled the remaining gas into the conflagration. The series of detonations that caused, obliterated whatever remained of the mall and reduced it to burning wreckage.
McCreedy didn’t stick around to watch the aftermath from anything but a distance. The intense heat of the inferno drew creatures of all shape and description; some stood merely watching, enveloped in the sweltering heat but never retreating; others, perhaps trapped in some aspect of their old lives, tried futilely combating the blaze.
Erin was only emboldened by the exercise. It was clear proof that the efforts of one man could actually drive back the hordes. Thousands must have met God at his hands, unholy animated bodies finally rendered to dust. As his truck sped away, he racked his brain for a larger, more conspicuous target that might even eliminate millions. The mall was a good start, a great success in fact, but in the grand scheme it was hardly a dent in the number of swarming undead that must surely afflict the country by now.
It wasn’t until several days later when the idea came. It was both terrible and right in its scope, and all the more horrifying for it.
“Well?” sang a very brave and conspicuously anonymous man from a corner booth.
“Well, what?” Ben stubbed a cigar directly into his table, staring at the smoke as it whispered through the air. By now, he’d been in the bar nearly five hours, all of them christened by at least one slug of Jack, and punctuated intermittently with whatever was on tap that day, followed by warm rum, or neat whiskey, while he spoke. It was a symphony of alcoholism alien even to Ben, and everyone knew it.
“You OK, Old Hoss?” JD stared skeptically at Ben. “You ain’t need ta finish.”
Ben closed his eyes and sighed. “I ain’t stoppin’. Jes need to put ‘er in order. I ain’t never told a livin’ soul any o’ this, an’ . . .” He shook his head.
The bartender chose that moment to pipe in. “You met him, didn’t you? McCreedy.”
Ben coughed a raspy laugh that made a few men cringe; Drunk or not, Ben didn’t sound too healthy. “Oh. Don’t do that, Rick. I can’t take it!” His lungs grated for a moment more, and he lit another cigar with a dented Zippo, which he promptly sent skipping along the floor where it came to rest near the entrance.
“Met ‘im. You folk kill me. Yeah, I met ‘im. Came here, if you’ll believe it. Jes’ another stop in the road to infamy. Those days, I was more social, so I saw a man order a drink and never once touch it for an hour, and thought I could pick his brain. Tol’ me he had a plan, an’ . . . I was jes’ drunk enough to listen to ‘im rant.” He paused to gulp the entire contents of his current poison, and a bitter rage seemed to fill him.
“But that weren’t enough! No sir! I went with ‘im. Converted me, he did. Can’t remember if I was jes’ humerin’ ‘im, or I was curious. But I went. All the way to Chicago, we went, so he could hatch the plan brewin’ in ‘is noggin to stop those creatures he hated so well.”
A pregnant silence worked through his audience. “An’ I wish to God I hadn’t.”
“So,” Ben giggled as he strapped the last charges on the immense hulk of machinery, “what we doin’, again?” Not quite sure how he’d managed it, Ben had maintained a constant drunken haze after meeting the stranger. McCreedy had a vast supply and wasn’t stingy about sharing it.
Erin pointed back to the river. “Those pumps,” he said, gesturing at the room-sized monstrosities, “keep the river flowing backwards. If we stop it, the flow goes back into the lake instead. Then, you need to go. I’m glad for your help, but I’m not entirely sure how this’ll turn out, and you probably shouldn’t be around when it happens. We’re lucky to have gotten this far.”
“Heh.” Ben shook his head in disbelief at the madman. “Whatever you say, boss.”
“Don’t call me ‘Boss,’ Ben,” said McCreedy. “You’re the first real man I’ve met for months.” Erin’s voice choked and a dirty tear skied down the grime on his face. “Even though those creatures have ruined everything, I finally met a kindred soul to help put things right.” He tightened a final screw in a control panel and stared Ben right in the eye. “I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to you, too. So go home and find someplace safe. I’m done.”
Something cold ran up Ben’s spine, but he knew better than to argue. He’d learned how stubborn McCreedy could be. At least, the thinking part of him reacted that way; the rest drunkenly embraced Erin and added tears to the mix. “I promise I won’t forget you, ya beautiful bastard!” he said. “I hope you done whatever it is you meant to, and I’m glad to help a fella right some wrongs when I can.”
McCreedy nodded, rubbed away his tears, and shooed Ben to leave. “Go before I change my mind! And fight the good fight. For me, OK?”
“You know it.”
Ben turned away and left the pumping station, trudged back to his addition to the convoy, a stupendously ugly El Camino sporting parts from at least five junkyard rejects, and drove–or, more accurately weaved–West as fast as the highways would allow.
Erin never told him the rest of the plan, but it didn’t matter. What did matter, was that those arrogant City Slickers would wake up to a huge surprise. Anybody who needed a pump to make a river flow backwards needed to reassess his priorities, and Ben was more than glad to help. Besides, fleeing Chicago with the sun at his back made for an exciting and fulfilling morning. With the booze thick in his veins, he never even felt the ground shake.