” ‘Fight the good fight,’ he said,” mumbled Ben, almost incoherently, to nobody in particular.
The silence became a living thing. Everyone knew about the Chicago explosion. By then, everyone in the bar stared at Ben in complete shock, not even breathing to disrupt his narrative.
“I dunno if the man knew his plan or not, but those wasn’t water pumps we blew. That bullshit about the river flowin’ backwards is fer the tourists,” Ben said unevenly, “an’ gullible bastards like me.” He coughed tiredly and if anyone saw the tear rolling down his cheek, none dared to say so. “But I don’t read no papers, and news traveled slow back then, even news like that.” He gestured for one more round of scotch and got two instead, the bartender not willing to interrupt what was clearly the end of something significant.
“I saw McCreedy one last time,” he began after pounding back the first scotch like a parched runner. “Came to my bar like afore, maybe on ‘is way home.” Ben shook his head and downed the second drink, never taking his eyes off his otherwise empty table. “He looked like Hell might, after bein’ barbecued in an outhouse. I thought of the Old West and grizzled gunslingers who’d seen and done the worst a man can imagine. I never been so scared. I thought he meant to kill me.”
A dawn of recognition grew in the eyes of the older among his bedraggled audience. Someone in the background choked back a cough as the points of Ben’s tale finally hit home.
“I didn’t know! What he done . . . what we . . .” And Ben cried, then. The tears finally fell freely as he waded into his finale with a forceful momentum. “He came here to thank me for my help. To thank me!” yelling the last at his glass. “Said he was sorry he lied. To think of the undead masses we put to rest. All them zombies, them things he hated so well.” He paused for a moment to gather something, maybe courage, to finish.
“I don’t even know when I hit ‘im. Jus’ whacked him in the head with a handle of whatever bottle was closest. I ain’t never gonna forget the look on ‘is face, like I betrayed him, that I was prolly one’a them in disguise.” He stopped and shuddered. “But you know the rest.”
McCreedy was no dummy, and though he hated tricking his new friend Ben, he knew the man would never–even at his drunkest–agree to blow a national landmark like Chicago into rubble. He watched Ben drive away, and waited only long enough to see his taillights disappear before absconding to a prepared bunker on the outskirts of a distant suburb. When he popped the charge, every major natural-gas line in Chicago, both beneath and through every major apartment, most restaurants, and even the high-rises, became a corridor of flame.
It was tough rigging half the pumps to mix outside air into the pipes, but he’d searched long and hard for the main reservoirs and Ben only helped with some of them. The payoff however, was a sight deserving of Viking song.
The city went up like a volcano. There was no mushroom cloud, for no area contained a concentration great enough for that kind of effect. But almost every gas pipe distended and ruptured like a snake full of M80s, spewing forth gouts of scathing devastation through the city’s raised streets and every other building through most of its considerable length. Streets first rose, then buckled, raining shattered pavement and superheated detritus into the sky. The city’s foundation, now nothing but obliterated or uneven pylons, caused streets to sag unevenly, and buildings to topple. Apartments became roman candles, jetting flame into the night from blown windows and vents.
McCreedy stared at the night’s dawn, and cried for his lost Lilly, having avenged her the only way he could. “I’ll get them for you, girl. Every last one.” He whispered into the night as the burning metropolis heated his face.
In the muted bar, Ben stared at a bottle he procured directly from the barkeep, having downed a quarter of its contents, holding his head up through sheer force of will. The reality of who and what Ben was, still weighed heavily upon the patrons, and some still didn’t understand the significance of what he admitted.
“Two mill’in dead, at least. Th’papers say them ‘burbs burned for days. I din’t kill ‘im with the bottle, but them cops and shrinks said McCreedy ‘us nuts.” One swig. ” ‘is girl wuz jes’ gettin’ frisky, an’ her growl made sumthin’ snap inna man. After that, ever’one was a zombie, ‘fected an’ spreadin’ death.” Another, longer draw on the bottle. “An’ he tol’ me he came t’the bar, ’cause zombies don’t drink. Th’only reason I ain’t dead, s’cause I’ma filthy drunk. Th’only reason I weren’t executed, s’cause I caught ‘im an’ never tol’ the rest. S’far as everyone knows, McCreedy did it hisself.” The rest of the bottle’s contents disappeared down his throat.
“Fuck,” whispered New Guy. “Why are you tellin’ us this, man?!”
” ’cause th’cancer’s got me, boy. Mayhap two weeks, I got, pro’lly less. An’ I ain’t goin’ to the grave wit’ this.” By then, Ben’s bleary mumbling had sent his head lower and lower to the table, but his eyes never closed. Whether it was alcohol poisoning or cancer, or a combination of the two, a deep shudder consumed his body and left him twitching in a violent spasm that sent the contents of his table scattering and smashing into the floor.
New Guy lurched to his feet and rushed over to try and help the man, but an arm swung out to stop him. “No, Chris,” said the man who stopped him.
“What do you mean, ‘No!?’ Somebody needs to help him!”
But no man stood, but to block his path. The bartender motioned and the bar’s courtesy phone vanished under some cubby of the wide counter. Chris stared around the room in shock, unwilling to believe all these men would simply allow Ben to die, even if he accidentally helped murder two million people over a decade ago.
“Let him go,” whispered a voice in his ear. “He ain’t livin’ through that much liquor, an’ maybe he shouldn’t anyway. Jus’ let him go.” And then, more harshly, “This. Never. Happened. You get me, kid? Ben never said any o’ this.”
New Guy, Chris, could only nod and watch Ben’s death throes, wondering if he now respected the man more, or less than before, for having the strength to admit his part in the disaster. He certainly never expected to see Ben as anything other than a crazy old man. But then he remembered what they always say, that truth is stranger than fiction, and he decided they were right.
He’d have to leave it at that.