The Days of Flaming Motorcycles17 min read


Catherynne M. Valente
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To tell you the truth, my father wasn’t really that much different after he became a zombie.

My mother just wandered off. I think she always wanted to do that, anyway. Just set off walking down the road and never look back. Just like my father always wanted to stop washing his hair and hunker down in the basement and snarling at everyone he met. He chased me and hollered and hit me before. Once, when I stayed out with some boy whose name I can’t even remember, he even bit me. He slapped me and for once I slapped him back, and we did this standing-wrestling thing, trying to hold each other back. Finally, in frustration, he bit me, hard, on the side of my hand. I didn’t know what to do-we just stared at each other, breathing heavily, knowing something really absurd or horrible had just happened, and if we laughed it could be absurd and if we didn’t we’d never get over it. I laughed. But I knew the look in his eye that meant he was coming for me, that glowering, black look, and now it’s the only look he’s got.

It’s been a year now, and that’s about all I can tell you about the apocalypse. There was no flash of gold in the sky, no chasms opened up in the earth, no pale riders with silver scythes. People just started acting the way they’d always wanted to but hadn’t because they were more afraid of the police or their boss or losing out on the prime mating opportunities offered by the greater Augusta area. Everyone stopped being afraid. Of anything. And sometimes that means eating each other.

But sometimes it doesn’t. They don’t always do that, you know. Sometimes they just stand there and watch you, shoulders slumped, blood dripping off their noses, their eyes all unfocused. And then they howl. But not like a wolf. Like something broken and small. Like they’re sad.

Now, zombies aren’t supposed to get sad. Everyone knows that. I’ve had a lot of time to think since working down at the Java Shack on Front Street became seriously pointless. I still go to the shop in the morning, though. If you don’t have habits, you don’t have anything. I turn over the sign, I boot up the register-I even made the muffins for a while, until the flour ran out. Carrot-macadamia on Mondays, mascarpone-mango on Tuesdays, blueberry with a dusting of marzipan on Wednesdays. So on. So forth. Used to be I’d have a line of senators out the door by 8:00 a.m. I brought the last of the muffins home to my dad. He turned one over and over in his bloody, swollen hands until it came apart, then he made that awful howling-crying sound and licked the crumbs off his fingers. And he starting saying my name over and over, only muddled, because his tongue had gone all puffy and purple in his mouth. Caitlin, Caitlin, Caitlin.

So now I drink the pot of coffee by myself and I write down everything I can think of in a kid’s notebook with a flaming motorcycle on the cover. I have a bunch like it. I cleaned out all the stores. In a few months I’ll move on to the punky princess covers, and then the Looney Tunes ones. I mark time that way. I don’t even think of seasons. These are the days of Flaming Motorcycles. Those were the days of Football Ogres. So on. So forth.

They don’t bother me, mostly. And okay, the pot of coffee is just hot water now. No arabica for months. But at least the power’s still on. But what I was saying is that I’ve had a lot of time to think, about them, about me, about the virus-because of course it must have been a virus, right? Which isn’t really any better than saying fairies or angels did it. Didn’t monks used to argue about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin? I seem to think I remember that, in some book, somewhere. So angels are tiny, like viruses. Invisible, too, or you wouldn’t have to argue about it, you’d just count the bastards up. So they said virus, I said it doesn’t matter, my dad just bit his own finger off. And he howls like he’s so sad he wants to die, but being sad means you have a soul and they don’t; they’re worse than animals. It’s a kindness to put them down. That’s what the manuals say. Back when there were new manuals every week. Sometimes I think the only way you can tell if something has a soul is if they can still be sad. Sometimes it’s the only way I know I have one. Sometimes I don’t think I do.

 * * * *

I’m not the last person on Earth. Not by a long way. I get radio reports on the regular news from Portland, Boston-just a month ago New York was broadcasting loud and clear, loading zombies into the same hangars they kept protesters in back in ‘04. They gas them and dump them at sea. Brooklyn is still a problem, but Manhattan is coming around. Channel 3 is still going strong, but it’s all emergency directives. I don’t watch it. I mean, how many times can you sit through The Warning Signs or What We Know? Plus, I have reason to believe they don’t know shit.

I might be the last person in Augusta, though. That wouldn’t be hard. Did you ever see Augusta before the angel-virus? It was a burnt-out hole. It is a burnt-out hole. Just about every year, the Kennebec floods downtown, so at any given time there’s only about three businesses on the main street, and one of them will have a cheerful We’ll Be Back! sign up with the clock hands broken off. There’s literally nothing going on in this town. Not now, and not then. Down by the river the buildings are pockmarked and broken, the houses are boarded up, windows shattered, only one or two people wandering dazed down the streets. All gas supplied by the Dead River Company, all your dead interred at Burnt Hill Burying Ground. And that was before. Even our Wal-Mart had to close up because nobody ever shopped there.

And you know, way back in the pilgrim days, or Maine’s version of them, which starts in the 1700s sometime, there was a guy named James Purington who freaked out one winter and murdered his whole family with an axe. Eight children and his wife. They hanged him and buried him at the crossroads so he wouldn’t come back as a vampire. Which would seem silly, except, well, look around. The point is life in Augusta has been both shitty and deeply warped for quite some time. So we greeted this particular horrific circumstance much as Mainers have greeted economic collapse and the total disregard of the rest of the country for the better part of forever: with no surprise whatsoever. Anyway, I haven’t seen anyone else on the pink and healthy side in a long time. A big group took off for Portland on foot a few months ago (the days of Kermit and Company), but I stayed behind. I have to think of my father. I know that sounds bizarre, but there’s nothing like a parent who bites you to make you incapable of leaving them. Incapable of not wanting their love. I’ll probably turn thirty and still be stuck here, trying to be a good daughter while his blood dries on the kitchen tiles.

 * * * *

Channel 3 says a zombie is a reanimated corpse with no observable sell-by date and seriously poor id-control. But I have come to realize that my situation is not like Manhattan or Boston or even Portland. See, I live with zombies. My dad isn’t chained up in the basement. He lives with me like he always lived with me. My neighbors, those of them who didn’t wander off, are all among the pustulous and dripping. I watched those movies before it happened and I think we all, for a little while, just reacted like the movies told us to: get a bat and start swinging. But I’ve never killed one, and I’ve never even come close to being bitten. It’s not a fucking movie.

And if Channel 3 slaps their bullet points all over everywhere, I guess I should write my own What We Know here. Just in case anyone wonders why zombies can cry.

What Is a Zombie?

by Caitlin Zielinski

Grade…well, if the college were still going

I guess I’d be Grade 14.

A zombie is not a reanimated corpse. This was never a Night of the Living Dead scenario. The word zombie isn’t even right-a zombie is something a voudoun priest makes, to obey his will. That has nothing to do with the price of coffee in Augusta. My dad didn’t die. His skin ruptured and he got boils and he started snorting instead of talking and bleeding out of his eyes and lunging at Mr. Almeida next door with his fingernails out, but he didn’t die. If he didn’t die, he’s not a corpse. QED, Channel 3.

A zombie is not a cannibal. This is kind of complicated: Channel 3 says they’re not human, which is why you can’t get arrested for killing one. So if they eat us, it wouldn’t be cannibalism anyway, just, you know, lunch. Like if I ate a dog. Not what you expect from a nice American girl, but not cannibalism. But also, zombies don’t just eat humans. If that were true, I’d have been dinner and they’d have been dead long before now, because, as I said, Augusta is pretty empty of anything resembling bright eyed and bushy tailed. They eat animals, they eat old meat in any freezer they can get open, they eat energy bars if that’s what they find. Anything. Once I saw a woman-I didn’t know her-on her hands and knees down by the river bank, clawing up the mud and eating it, smearing it on her bleeding breasts, staring up at the sky, her jaw wagging uselessly.

A zombie is not mindless. Channel 3 would have a fit if they heard me say that. It’s dogma-zombies are slow and stupid. Well, I saw plenty of people slower and stupider than a zombie in the old days. I worked next the state capitol, after all. Sometimes I think the only difference is that they’re ugly. The world was always full of drooling morons who only wanted me for my body. Anyway, some are fast and some are slow. If the girl was a jogger before, she’s probably pretty spry now. If the guy never moved but to change the channel, he’s not gonna catch you any time soon. And my father still knows my name. I can’t be sure but I think it’s only that they can’t talk. Their tongues swell up and their throats expand-all of them. One of the early warning signs is slurred speech. They might be as smart as they ever were-see jogging-but they can’t communicate except by screaming. I’d scream, too, if I were bleeding from my ears and my skin were melting off.

Zombies will not kill anything that moves. My dad hasn’t bitten me. He could have, plenty of times. They’re not harmless. I’ve had to get good at running and I have six locks on every door of the house. Even my bedroom, because my father can’t be trusted. He hits me, still. His fist leaves a smear of blood and pus and something darker, purpler, on my face. But he doesn’t bite me. At first, he barked and went for my neck at least once a day. But I’m faster. I’m always faster. He doesn’t even try anymore. Sometimes he just stands in the living room, drool pooling in the side of his mouth till it falls out, and he looks at me like he remembers that strange night when he bit me before, and he’s still ashamed. I laugh, and he almost smiles. He shambles back down the hall and starts peeling off the wallpaper, shoving it into his mouth in long pink strips like skin.

 * * * *

There’s something else I know. It’s hard to talk about, because I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it because I’m not a zombie. It’s like a secret society, and I’m on the outside. I can watch what they do, but I don’t know the code. I couldn’t tell Channel 3 about this, even if they came to town with all their cameras and sat me in a plush chair like one of their endless Rockette-line of doctors. What makes you think they have intelligence, Miss Zielinski? And I would tell them about my father saying my name, but not about the river. No one would believe me. After all, it’s never happened anywhere else. And I have an idea about that, too. Because people in Manhattan are pretty up on their zombie-killing tactics, and god help a zombie in Texas if he should ever be so unfortunate as to encounter a human. But here there’s nothing left. No one to kill them. They own this town, and they’re learning how to live in it, just like anyone does. Maybe Augusta always belonged to them and James Purington and the Dead River Company. All hail the oozing, pestilent kings and queens of the apocalypse.

This is what I know: one night, my father picked up our toaster and left the house. I’m not overly attached to the toaster, but he didn’t often leave. I feed him good hamburger, nice and raw, and I don’t knock him in his brainpan with a bat. Zombies know a good thing.

The next night he took the hallway mirror. Then the microwave, then the coffee-pot, then a sack full of pots and pans. All the zombie movies in the world do not prepare you to see your father, his hair matted with blood, his bathrobe torn and seeping, packing your cooking materiel into a flowered king-size pillowcase. And then one night he took a picture off of the bookshelf. My mother, himself, and me, smiling in one of those terrible posed portraits. I was eight or nine in the picture, wearing a green corduroy jumper and big, long brown pigtails. I was smiling so wide, and so were they. You have to, in those kinds of portraits. The photographer makes you, and if you don’t, he practically starts turning cartwheels to get you to smile like an angel just appeared over his left shoulder clutching a handful of pins. My mother, her glasses way too big for her face. My father, in plaid flannel, his big hand holding me protectively.

I followed him. It wasn’t difficult; his hearing went about the same time as his tongue. In a way, I guess it’s a lot like getting old. Your body starts failing in all sorts of weird ways, and you can’t talk right or hear well or see clearly, and you just rage at things because everything is slipping away and you’re never going to get any better. If one person goes that way, it’s tragic. If everyone does, it’s the end of the world.

It gets really dark in Augusta, and the streetlights have all been shot out or burned out. There is no darker night than a Maine night before the first snow, all starless and cold. No friendly pools of orange chemical light to break the long, black street. Just my father, shuffling along with his portrait clutched to his suppurating chest. He turned toward downtown, crossing Front Street after looking both ways out of sheer muscle memory. I crept behind him, down past the riverside shops, past the Java Shack, down to the riverbank and the empty parking lots along the waterfront.

Hundreds of zombies gathered down there by the slowly lapping water. Maybe the whole of dead Augusta, everyone left. My father joined the crowd. I tried not to breathe; I’d never seen so many in one place. They weren’t fighting or hunting, either. They moaned, a little. Most of them had brought something-more toasters, dresser drawers, light bulbs, broken kitchen chairs, coat racks, televisions, car doors. All junk, gouged out of houses, out of their old lives. They arranged it, almost lovingly, around a massive tower of garbage, teetering, swaying in the wet night wind. A light bulb fell from the top, shattering with a bright pop. They didn’t notice. The tower was sloppy, but even I could see that it was meant to be a tower, more than a tower-bed-slats formed flying buttresses between the main column and a smaller one, still being built. Masses of electric devices, dead and inert, piled up between them, showing their screens and grey, lifeless displays to the water. And below the screens rested dozens of family portraits just like ours, leaning against the dark plasma screens and speakers. A few zombies added to the pile-and some of them lay photos down that clearly belonged to some other family. I thought I saw Mrs. Halloway, my first grade teacher, among them, and she treated her portrait of a Chinese family as tenderly as a child. I don’t think they knew who exactly the pictures showed. They just understood the general sense they conveyed, of happiness and family. My father added his picture to the crowd and rocked back and forth, howling, crying, holding his head in his hands.

I wriggled down between a dark streetlamp and a park bench, trying to turn invisible as quickly as possible. But they paid no attention to me. And then the moon crowned the spikes of junk, cresting between the two towers.

The zombies all fell to their knees, their arms outstretched to the white, full moon, horrible black tears streaming down their ruined faces, keening and ululating, throwing their faces down into the river-mud, bits of them falling off in their rapture, their eagerness to abase themselves before their cathedral. I think it was a cathedral, when I think about it now. I think it had to be. They sent up their awful crooning moan, and I clapped my hands over my ears to escape it. Finally, Mrs. Halloway stood up and turned to the rest of them. She dragged her nails across her cheeks and shrieked wordlessly into the night. My father went to her and I thought he was going to bite her, the way he bit me, the way zombies bite anyone when they want to.

Instead, he kissed her.

He kissed her on the cheek, heavily, smackingly, and his face came away with her blood on it. One by one the others kissed her too, surrounding her with groping hands and hungry mouths, and the moon shone down on her face, blanching her so she was nothing but black and white, blood and skin, an old movie monster, only she wept. She wept from a place so deep I can’t imagine it; she wept, and she smiled, even as they finished kissing her and began pulling her apart, each keeping a piece of her for themselves, just a scrap of flesh, which they ate solemnly, reverently. They didn’t squabble over it, her leg or her arm or her eyes, and Mrs. Halloway didn’t try to fight them. She had offered herself, I think, and they took her. I know what worship looks like.

I was crying by that time. You would, too, if you saw that. I had to cry or I had to throw up, and crying was quieter. Your body can make calculations like that, if it has to. But crying isn’t that quiet, really. One of them sniffed the air and turned toward me-the rest turned as one. They’re a herd, if they are anything. They know much more together than they know separately. I wonder if, in a few decades, they will have figured out how to run Channel 3, and will broadcast How to Recognize a Human in Three Easy Steps, or What We Know.

They fell on me, which is pretty much how zombies do anything. They groped and pulled, but there were too many of them for any one to get a good grip, and I may not have killed one before but I wasn’t opposed to the idea. I swung my fists and oh, they were so soft, like jam. I clamped my mouth shut-I knew my infection vectors as well as any kid in my generation. But they didn’t bite me, and finally my father threw back his head and bellowed. I know that bellow. I’ve always known it, and it hasn’t changed. They pulled away, panting, exhausted. That was the first time I realized how fragile they are. They’re like lions. In short bursts, they’ll eviscerate you and your zebra without a second thought. But they have to save up the strength for it, day in and day out. I stood there, back against the streetlamp, fingernails out, asthma kicking in because of course, it would. And my father limped over to me, dragging his broken left foot-they don’t die but they don’t heal. I tried to set it once and that was the closest I ever came to getting bitten before that night on the river.

He stood over me, his eyebrows crusted with old fluid, his eyes streaming tears like ink, his jaw dislocated and hanging, his cheeks puffed out with infection. He reached out and hooted gently like an ape. To anyone else it would have been just another animal noise from a rotting zombie, but I heard it as clear as anything: Caitlin, Caitlin, Caitlin. I had nowhere to go, and he reached for me, brushing my hair out of my face. With one bloody thumb he traced a circle onto my forehead, like a priest on Ash Wednesday. Caitlin, Caitlin, Caitlin.

His blood was cold.

 * * * *

After that, none of them ever came after me again. That’s why I can have my nice little habit of opening the Java Shack and writing in my notebooks. These are the days of Punky Princesses, and I am safe. The mark on my forehead never went away. It’s faint, like a birthmark, but it’s there. Sometimes I meet one of them on the road, wandering dazed and unhappy in the daylight, squinting as if it doesn’t understand where the light is coming from. When they see me, their eyes go dark with hunger-but then, their gaze flicks up to my forehead, and they fall down on their knees, keening and sobbing. It’s not me, I know that. It’s the cathedral, still growing, on the banks of the Kennebec. The mark means I’m of the faith, somehow. Saint Caitlin of the Java Shack, Patroness of the Living.

Sometimes I think about leaving. I hear Portsmouth is mostly clean. I could make that on my bicycle. Maybe I could even hotwire a car. I’ve seen them do it on television. The first time I stayed, I stayed for my father. But he doesn’t come home much anymore. There’s little enough left for him to scavenge for the church. He keeps up his kneeling and praying down there, except when the moon is dark, and then they mourn like lost children. Now, I think I stay because I want to see the finished cathedral, I want to understand what they are doing when they eat one of their own. If it’s like communion, the way I understand it, or something else entirely. I want to see the world they’re building out here in the abandoned capital. If maybe they’re not sick, but just new, like babies, incomprehensible and violent and frustrated that nothing is as they expected it to be.

It’s afternoon in the Java Shack. The sun is thin and wintry. I pour myself hot water and it occurs to me that apocalypse originally meant to uncover something. To reveal a hidden thing. I get that now. It was never about fire and lightning shearing off the palaces of the world. And if I wait, here on the black shores of the Kennebec, here in the city that has been ruined for as long as it has lived, maybe, someday soon, the face of their god will come up out of the depths, uncovered, revealed.

So on. So forth.

  • Catherynne M. Valente

    Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, Radiance, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton, Tiptree, Mythopoeic, Rhysling, Lambda, Locus and Hugo awards. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with a small but growing menagerie of beasts, some of which are human.

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