“Son, let me tell you somethin'. Anyone says truth is stranger than fiction, really means he just saw somethin' impossible happen, an' can’t believe it ain’t. Nothin’s stranger than fiction, an' whoever denies it only wants to run away from the truth. The truth is mean, Son, an' cold. It ain’t no fairy tale; that you can believe.”
A figure in the background sniggered. “You crazy, man!” shouted another. A low rumble of agreement met their skepticism.
“That I am!” bellowed the man, with a chuckle. “But I’m gonna run my mouth anyway. Maybe earn my keep.” Way I always done. He mulled for a moment before humming to himself. “But I got a new one I know you ain’t heard, least not from me.”
Whatever racket remained in the bar died down immediately. Ben was a storyteller of a kind, a hard drinker of another. A deep haunting darkened his eyes, suggesting, just perhaps, he told God’s truth. That look dared any to disagree, and knew none would. No man stared so forlornly at a pint who didn’t live the saddest Country song there was, and not even the most dedicated regular could remember Ben so wrung of hope. As always, some asshole rose to spoil the mood.
“Man,” muttered New Guy, “you got five stories you always tellin'. Fulla boasts about some Mick you swindled. Fuckin' Jew.”
“Hey! Fuck you, New Guy!”
New Guy spun around and snarled. “My name’s Chris, asshole!”
“Until someone else starts commin' to the bar all regular, you is. An' you just proved it, anyway. Ben’s got good ones; man jus' don’t waste ‘em.” Even drunk off his ass, JD told it straight, and smarter than New Guy in the bargain.
New Guy scoffed and returned to nursing his beer. He knew they’d take Ben’s side like they always did. That fat old fuck hadn’t told a new story in over a year, but they always listened like he was the reincarnation of Shakespeare. Anyway, it was better–if only by the skin of his taint–than watching the Patriots lose again. Hell, maybe he’d tell the one about the hooker.
“I met the man thirteen years ago in this very bar.” Ben paused to gulp about a quarter of his beer and scratch the week-old stubble on his chin. “Back afore everything went to hell, an’ zombies was jus' something you’d see in a horror flick.” Another gulp.
Zombies?! The bar transformed from merely quiet to deathly silent.
“Holy shit!” whispered New Guy. “It is a new one . . .”
“His name was Erin McCreedy, an' there weren’t nothin' he hated more than zombies. Ater all, it was them that took his Lilly.”
McCreedy sobbed into his hands. Sprawled on the floor in his birthday suit, convulsing with each wracking breath. A slow tapping sounded across the room, like a leaky faucet, but thicker, more disturbing to a man.
By now, Her blood had soaked through the sheets, and these many days later, only the great volume maintained the slow assault on the hardwood floor. A rank stink of rotting meat drowned the room, having long since wrung every recent meal from Erin’s stomach. And then, there was what he’d done.
It didn’t matter he’d done the right thing. Self defense or not, the love of his life had gone for his jugular with her teeth, growling like a mindless animal. In a panic, he’d smashed her head with a clock radio and ran for the pantry, scrabbling to load his double-barrel. And when he returned to the room, carefully peeking around the corner, wasn’t she still conscious? Her eyes were rolled backwards to the whites, and she moaned, reaching toward the sound of his footsteps like something possessed.
There wasn’t much left of her head after taking both barrels simultaneously. McCreedy was sure he’d ruined his right shoulder, having panicked and pulled both triggers like a damn fool. And for three days he’d mourned her, crying like a baby over the crushing loss. It didn’t really matter who had infected her, or how he’d missed it while they made love. It didn’t matter because he was alone now, with nothing left in the world to believe in, nobody to care for. All he had was himself.
That, and a solemn vow to kill as many zombies as he could before they finally took him down.
“Jesus Christ,” whispered New Guy. A low murmur suggested he spoke for everyone on that rare occasion.
Ben nodded. “That was my first thought. But the Good Lord had nothing to do with it; maybe not even ol' Scratch played a part in Erin’s tale. All I know is that I listened.” Ben let the silence percolate while he ordered another beer.
“Why, Ben?” The bartender delivered the beer with the question.
“Because it’s right, Son.”
The room quieted in expectation, so Ben started again.
Erin’s first stop was, once again, his pantry. He was no gun nut, no mindless shill for the NRA, but he believed a man needed to own a gun; something simple to handle the unexpected. Very few things were as final, or as raw as a 10-gauge double-barrel. Easy enough for a child, terrifying for all but the most foolish men.
There were disadvantages to that approach, though. The backpack Erin loaded with supplies contained only two packages of buckshot and a dusty pack of deer-slug. That meant he’d have to hit the general store on his way out of town. It was a necessary risk, and one he’d be taking often once away from the homestead. Might as well do it now.
He set out with a rucksack full of food, bottled-water, and ammo. With that out of the way, Erin clambered into his rusty Dodge pickup. His worst fear was that the zombies had infected the market, that despite his precautions, he’d be jumped while crouching over some Doritos.
As it turned out, the second creature he shot was Frank Krantz, who owned and operated the shop he meant to loot. It lurched around the corner, waving its arms and gibbering for his flesh. But Erin was experienced now, and pulled just one trigger to put the thing down. Frank was a good friend, and Erin felt like dying as he stepped over the corpse on the way to the hunting and camping supplies. One way or another, his truck would contain a tent, the arsenal he’d need for the coming weeks, and enough equipment to keep him fed and watered for a month in the woods where zombies were scarce.
He picked off another two monsters at the gas station before it was safe to fill his two five-gallon plastic jugs with some 87 octane. He planned to use those when the stations finally ran dry, or maybe just to immolate a bunch of zombies; he wasn’t sure. After that, it was the road and nothing else. With no destination in mind and only revenge in his heart, he set off into the sunrise.
Old Ben halted his saga to order another beer, and a neat whiskey just to be safe. “I ain’t here picklin' my liver ‘cause I like your company!” Ben shouted. He knew that’d break their stupor, force them to really listen for once.
Sometime during Ben’s narration, everyone in the bar stopped drinking. Each man felt guilty at Ben’s outburst without really knowing why; knew it wouldn’t matter if they had. Even New Guy found wisdom and uncharacteristically refrained from comment.
“His first real success,” began Ben after a long sigh, “was at the mall.”