Carniepunk: The Sweeter the Juice
“?The Sweeter the Juice” Mark Henry
The fruit cart vendor on the curb is persistent if not articulate. He alternates shouting “All da lovely ladies love da frew-its” into his PA system with slapping his palm against his Plexiglas surround.
“You!” he pleads, his voice echoing. “You take. You try!”
He’s annoying me, and I’m already edgy from three days dry off the Jimmy. This can only end in bloodshed.
The drawer embedded in the side of the cart’s guard glass slams out toward me, a slice of mango glistening inside. The dark fruit rests not on a polite napkin but directly on the greasy metal bottom. A red smear of juice sets it off like a gory still life, makes it pop . . . and makes my stomach turn.
I wave my hand, shake my head as apologetically as I can fake.
As I pass, I notice the body in the gutter. A woman’s, perhaps. The pink bouclé Chanel knockoff suit appears part of its flesh, the body’s rot seeping through the weave of the fabric, turning it a murky green in spots, sludgy. There’s a hole in its dimpled forehead, and a sliver of mango dangles between its still-twitching fingers.
I hear a sharp tapping and look up to see the vendor rap a
Glock against the Plexi. “Samples for customer who pay-ay!” he says into his mic, and gives me a big gummy grin.
He’s clearly known for his comic banter. Or at least he thinks so.
Zombies don’t pay for fruit any more than they do for dry cleaning. A shame. The suit was actually cute at one time. But worse than a fashion tragedy, the thing’s thin hips and sturdy legs belie a truth I’d rather deny.
The dead woman was a Sister of Perpetual Disappointment.
And by sister . . . I mean the kind with a penis.
The order is strictly my terminology. Don’t get me wrong, at times I feel like a nun, but there’s no convent, unless you consider all the transgendered gathering around Dr. Bloom’s office cloistering.
When death became passé, none of the Sisters expected the harsh toll the epidemic would exact on our small community. The hospitals were hard hit by the infected; doctors and nurses and worse—plastic surgeons specializing in gender reassignment surgeries—were some of the first casualties of the plague. It’s hard to maintain a practice from the inside of a zombie’s intestinal tract.
Needless to say, a heavy blow to transsexuals everywhere. It’s no wonder I took up the Jimmy. A few puffs and I almost didn’t care that I might be stuck with these disgusting crotch accessories forever.
A few of the sisters simply gave up, running windmill-armed into a nest of the undead just to get it over with, leaving behind a crimson concrete smear and an empty pair of stilettos—licked clean, naturally. Sure, suicide by zombie is a tad dramatic, considering handguns sell out of hot dog carts like condiments, but it’s undeniably effective.
It’s easy to go from dead to undead—a cinch, in fact: get bitten—but a bitch to go from man to woman . . . or vice versa.
As the virus began to weaken and some of the newly deceased started to stay dead, you’d think it would have become easier to find a doc somewhere in Manhattan. That they’d ship some in from Buffalo or Amish country, somewhere less affected. But no, for the longest time, it was damn near impossible to find any sort of medical care, let alone a pharmacy with some damn hormones to take care of my hot flashes.
That is, until we found Dr. Bloom, the last sex-change surgeon in New York City.
I PRESS THE buzzer of her building on the Upper East Side—too far east to be a decent address, and not far enough for a river view. No doorman, so that tells you something—in this case, that he’s probably dead.
“Yes?” the receptionist’s voice crackles from the circle of black mesh.
“Jade Reynolds for Dr. Bloom,” I say. “I have a two-thirty appointment?”
A quick note about the name. Jade. Exotic, right?
My given name is James Dean Reynolds. But my mother, God rest her soul, took to calling me J.D. when I was in single digits. The sound of those two letters together was the one thing I wasn’t willing to give up about my life as Gloria Reynolds’s son.
So I didn’t.
The door buzzes and I push inside. Three floors up in the coffin-sized elevator and I’m dumped into a cramped waiting room full of ugly men in makeup and hard women in stenciled sideburns.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my people; just don’t expect me to be attracted to them.
Speaking of unattractive . . .
“Jade!” Gretta Graves waves a gloved hand from a love seat nearest the receptionist’s window and then lets it flutter dramatically to her distended abdomen.
“Oh, hello” is all I manage.
Gretta pats the seat next to her. “Come on over, doll. Let’s chat.”
I wince, glancing at her belly, but decide to humor her. She could get pretty testy on fake-pregnancy days.
You might want to sit down for this next part.
Gretta is what’s called a maternally fixated transsexual. She goes through cycles of believing she’s pregnant, complete with terribly detailed prosthetics and a delivery routine that’s not a hit at parties. The amniotic fluid is a shoe killer—Gretta uses at least three times as much of that shit as is even necessary to emulate water breaking. When she blows, it’s The Poseidon Adventure. I’m told the “baby” is a disturbingly lifelike infant doll called an Exactie—the breast-feeding is apparently nightmare inducing.
It’s this specific delusion that prevents the doctor from moving forward with Gretta’s surgery.
That’s rule number one: Crazy people have to cut off their own dicks.
It doesn’t stop Gretta from haunting Dr. Bloom’s office, though. Not a bit.
As I scoot in beside her, she leans in close and whispers, “She’s really active today.”
I glance at her swollen belly and before I can shove my hand under my thigh, Gretta locks her fist around my wrist like a handcuff. “Wanna feel?”
Snatching my hand away, I hiss, “No, I don’t want to feel your fake baby! I need to get smoked. I need some Jimmy.”
Gretta nods and leans in close, eyes narrowing shrewdly. “I’ve got a line on something new.”
“You said that last time.”
“Something newer.” Gretta pulls away and nods at me, eyebrows raised lasciviously; then, when I don’t respond, she scrunches up her lips testily and leans back in.
“I’m talking about drugs,” she says, so loud that everyone in the room hears.
The receptionist raises her overly penciled eyebrow in judgment.
“Absolutely not!” I say, loud enough for the judgers amongst us. I have to think on my feet. Scramble. I hate that. “They don’t know what Pitocin will do to the baby! She’ll come out when she’s good and ready, that’s what I say.”
The rest of the waiting room looks away, satisfied Gretta and I are having the kind of regular conversation you might have with a schizophrenic, and not a heated argument between junkies. My gaze settles on the pinched face behind the front desk. The woman’s expression weakens into disinterest, and though she keeps an eye on me, she doesn’t reach for the phone or call Dr. Bloom for a know-it-all report.
Rule number two: Drug addicts are in the same dick-severing boat as crazies.
You have to be of sound mind to mutilate your body—never mind that the predicament itself is enough to drive a person crazy. Imagine spending your day trapped inside someone else’s body.
And not someone awesome.
“When I get done with this appointment, I’ll get you a hot dog and you can fill me in on all your maternity issues. Okay?” I pat Gretta’s belly.
She covers my hand with her meaty mitt, pressing it tight against the arc of the prosthetic. I try to pull away, but she’s persistent and stronger than I am, bullish. A moment goes by before I feel it, a sharp thud in my palm. A cold shiver snakes through me. There’s something in there. Something not a doll.
“What have you got in there, Gretta?”
Her only response is a smile.
“A cat?” I ask. “You’d tell me if it was a cat, right?”
She lets go and turns away, ignoring my questions. But I can’t shake the feeling.
DR. BLOOM’S EXAM room doesn’t have windows; it’s lined, floor to ceiling, with library cabinets, and above them a domed fresco of clouds floods the room in a pink hue that seems almost natural. It’s serene, and I realize I like it so much because the buffered room affords a reprieve from the periodic gunshots and screams we’ve all gotten used to.
The doctor sits across from me with her clipboard. My physical exam was routine; the counseling portion, while brief, is where my anxiety kicks up.
“How have you been managing, Jade?” Dr. Bloom crosses her legs and watches me intently.
“Fine, of course. I’ve been working a lot lately,” I say, hoping it’s enough to indicate a lack of free time. Free time in which I might get myself into trouble.
She jots down a note. “In the same place?”
“Yes. City Restructuring Office. Nothing exciting.”
“And you’ve been going to work as Jade, correct? I know you’ve had some backsliding.”
My jaw tenses. “Of course. It’s been fine.”
“How about socially?”
I think of my lover, H.G., probably passed out on dirty linoleum in some public restroom, a needle pegging his arm like a mosquito. He was nearly eaten the last time it happened. Lucky. But he doesn’t have any luck left. Once he’s gone, there won’t be any social life for a while.
“Fine.” I nod, producing a faint smile. Noncommittal. If she didn’t want lies, she shouldn’t make the process so damn difficult.
Dr. Bloom taps her pen against the board and waits a moment. “Have you got something you need to share, Jade?”
“Um”—I feign searching for a memory, when I already have one lined up for this moment—“I’m a little concerned about my weight, Dr. Bloom. I’ve been exercising, but I’m getting a bit of a pudge.”
The statement is enough to send the doctor on an exposition about hormones and the natural progression of the transition. I know all about it, but there’s nothing like acting stupid to distract Dr. Bloom. She loves to be helpful, and the truth is, despite my habit, I follow all the rules.
I am Jade. Everywhere.
I haven’t been J.D. since about six months before the plague hit.
I stand, straighten my skirt, and slip my purse under my arm.
“You’re doing just fine, lady,” Dr. Bloom says. “You keep it up. And don’t worry about a little weight. It’s called curves. Enjoy them.”
I’m about to close her office door behind me when I hear those jarring words: “Please see Annick on your way out.”
ANNICK IS A Hun—as in Attila the Hun—both brutish and brooding. She hunches behind an aging computer that’s been hollowed out and turned into a stash box for the bartered items she accepts for Dr. Bloom.
Her lip curls back from clenched teeth. “You’re late with your bill, Mr. Reynolds.”
She’s also decidedly unambiguous about her disdain for transsexuals, which is always pleasant.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t get the ham. My source is out of stock.”
She takes off her glasses, letting them dangle from a knot of twine around her neck. “From the looks of it, no corn, either.”
“Sorry. Next time, I promise.”
“There won’t be a next time, Mr. Reynolds. This is the third time, and you know what they say—”
“Third time’s a charm?” I venture with a crooked smile.
She responds with a smirk and a quick shake of the head. “Three strikes and you’re out.”
“But, Annick, my progress. I can’t backtrack. My chest will start to fur. You know how terrible my cleavage looks with hair!”
Annick sucks at her teeth, her cold stare is unblinking, and I’m certain I’m sunk.
“I’m afraid I have some rather bad news, Mr. Reynolds.”
“Ms. It shouldn’t be that difficult to refer to me as Ms. I am wearing women’s clothes.”
“Yes, well, it’s bad news regardless of gender. You see, it’s come to our attention that your trades have been consistently irregular. A barter system only works if the patient keeps up their end. That hasn’t been happening. We pride ourselves on flexibility, but your doctor can only bend so far before your lack of payment breaks her back. We don’t want that to happen, do we, Mr. Reynolds?” Annick shrugs. “I’m afraid we’re discontinuing your treatment.”
“Now. Right this very minute.”
“But what am I supposed to do?” I lurch forward, gripping the edge of Annick’s desk for support. “How can I make this right?”
“You should have considered that before you started taking drugs.”
“Of course, not. I’m certainly mistaken.” Her crinkled lips form a crooked, empathetic circle. “But not about this bill. You’ve made
promises you haven’t kept. And there are others who don’t seem to have any problem making appropriate trades.” She pouts and puts her hand over both of mine. Pats them gently. “I’m sure you’ll find other . . . arrangements.”
“Like what? What is there? I’m six months from surgery. I’m in the middle of something here. I can’t just live this . . . this . . . half life.” I grab my breasts as a reminder.
And with those words I feel the hope slip away. One moment I’m a transitioning woman with a plan, the next I’m a thing, with hormone-enhanced breasts and a shriveled dick. I imagine what will come next: the horrible decision to hack it off like the rest of the unfortunates who can’t work out a deal with Dr. Bloom, dick in a jar of brine, my balls and groin cinched up with dental floss.
Annick taps a pencil on the desk, her eyes narrowed in thought. “There may be something. We’ve heard word of an alternative to the surgery. A . . .” She pauses, searches the room for a word and then seeming to find it, her eyes snap back to mine. “Transformative agent.”
“What does that even mean?”
“We only know that it’s called Zed. We don’t know who’s supplying it or where it comes from. Just that it’s post-pharmaceutical, so there hasn’t been any testing done, obviously. No guarantees of efficacy. But there have been claims of transformations. Body changes. Miraculous to hear them tell . . .” Her voice trails away. “If you were to verify this for Dr. Bloom—and bring some back, of course—your entire care here would be gratis.”
The words don’t register quite right.
“Gratis,” I repeat.
“It means free treatment, Mr. Reynolds.”
Free treatment. Let’s bask in that for a moment. I’m not a lucky person. I never have been. Except surviving the zombies—that’s pretty lucky. Still, I think you’ll agree, that little trick was entirely offset by being born into the wrong body.
I nod that I understand, lost in thought.
It’s not the worst thing that could happen. In fact, it could be a godsend. Black-market meds for Dr. Bloom in exchange for the freedom I’ve always longed for—freedom from this torturous prison of a body . . . and these horrible, foreign genitals.
The more I think about it, the more I feel like I’d be providing a service to the Sisters of Perpetual Disappointment. Bringing hormones to my people. Like Moses, only instead of slaves from Egypt, I’d deliver the transsexuals from crippling dick dependence. Obviously, there’d be no Red Sea parting—because, FYI, a monthly period cannot be re-created through surgery.
I’m woken from my daydream by fingers drumming.
Annick glares like I’ve just shit in her oatmeal. “Why are you still here?”
IF I’VE LEARNED anything from the zombie apocalypse, it’s that you take advantage of every spot of fortune that comes your way. Those moments are fleeting. Think you’re safe enough to relax? A zombie horde pops in for a surprise party—one in which you’re the cake. You’re well fed and your pantry’s stocked? Your place is targeted by scavengers and cleaned out. Sex-change financing in the bag?
Shit. I don’t even want to think about how that could fuck up.
I have to move quick. I have to be smart.
Outside, I’m confronted not by the fruit vendor, who’s sadly packed up his stand and disappeared—“sadly” because I could really go for a mango now—but by an impromptu street carnival.
It is the smell that hits me first.
Already steamy in the afternoon heat, the air rumples with the all-too-common stench of rotten flesh.
And then Gretta stumbles into me, clutching my shoulders like a railing and pressing the hard shell of her fake stomach against my back.
“Jesus,” I mutter.
She gropes and clings and struggles to remain upright. I finally have to twist on my heels and snatch both of her arms to balance her. When she’s settled and I’m sufficiently fondled, she looks over my shoulder, lets out a sharp whistle, and says, “Now, that’s a float.”
And she’s right.
An old El Camino fitted with a wooden stage cantilevered over the bed of the truck by a good six feet on either side creeps up the street. It’s flanked by several scantily clad women and men, both young and old, some horrendously sagging but all unapologetically gyrating, kick-stepping to big band music blaring from a pair of precariously duct-taped speakers on the roof of a trailing taxi. Atop the stage, in all its macabre glory, a family diorama is on proud display. Three corpses positioned in the roles of swing dancers, two males dressed in zoot suits and a female, hair in victory rolls and a retro dress tight enough to keep her withered flesh from falling apart.
As is customary, the immediate family follows behind, puppeting the movement of their beloved dead, with rods fitted with slipknots strung around decaying wrists, necks, and precarious kneecaps.
These are no ordinary dead. They are the blessed, the unrisen, the precious few who have died since the plague and were unmoved by reanimation.
They are the new American iconography.
I find the entire display almost tasteful. But I’ve attended some where the celebrants were clearly half-assing it. Shoddy
costuming. Incongruent theming. Missing body parts. It’s enough to make me want to judge them openly, like when we used to have Olympics.
This float earns at least an eight point three—points off for not working in a Mexican theme with the El Camino.
But festive nonetheless.
“Annick made me an offer,” I say. “I need to track down this drug. Zed.”
Gretta nods. “This is a job for Neuter.”
The name sends a shiver up my spine. Neuter is the epitome of a botched sex change, right down to the name. He represents the kind of failure that terrifies me. A place where we all might end up without the kind of prospects Annick has offered up. Plus he tries to make out with everyone, which is only okay if I’m really really stoned.
“Seriously?” I ask.
I groan, but I know it’s true. Neuter is also a gigantic drug addict. Nearly to the point of fetishism. He collects information on new drugs and where to get them like girls used to do with high heels. If he doesn’t know where to find Zed, no one will.
“Fine,” I say. “Let’s go.”
“After the parade, okay?” Gretta asks. She leans back on the stoop, rubs her belly, and bops her head along to the music.
EVENTUALLY I NOTICE that somewhere behind the music, and outside the possibility of speaker feedback, another sort of buzzing vibrates, familiar enough to have me collecting my things and searching the street for an escape route.
Not close, but coming.
The taxi stops first. Its driver, a curious youth with more ink than not and a bulbous head crammed into a wool cap, sticks his needle neck out the window, putting an ear to the wind. He twists off the tunes and the El Camino stops too. The parade goes still.
The sound is like cards being shuffled through thumbs. Slap. Slap. Slap.
I turn to Gretta; everything about her face is wide open: eyes, nostrils, mouth. That’s the look. Zombie radar.
Alleys and streets begin to echo with their footfalls. There are no groans like the films have led us to believe. Zombies have no use for their vocal cords. The only thing their throats are good for is inhaling large quantities of flesh. Gulping back the wet stuff. They don’t even bother to chew. I came across one, once, lying on its side like an opium addict, an intestine dangling from its mouth. It slowly pushed the organ down its esophagus with a loose chop-stick. It watched me but wasn’t interested in anything fresher. They’re pretty calm once they are eating.
But there’s always that smell. Acrid. Cloyingly sweet. A human innately knows the smell of their own kind’s rotting flesh. The first couple of times, it wrenches the bile out of your gut, but after a while you learn to use it as a tool.
The approaching horde has either figured out how to hide their own putrification—unlikely—or they are an unusually fresh group of undead. Whatever. They are clearly coming toward the impromptu carnivale like the once-happy family staging it rang a dinner bell.
Gretta claws at my back. “Save yourself!” she cries dramatically, hand fluttering at her chest like an honest-to-God self-sacrificing southern belle. “I’ve already lived a life!”
Normally, I’d be fine with that, but something’s wrong here. Something that stops me from climbing atop her like a drowning victim.
In an alley across from where the El Camino idles, its desiccated passengers abandoned by the scattered revelers, shadows begin to stretch up the brick walls. I push us back into an alcove, Gretta’s fake pregnancy bump jutting into my suddenly aching back. I feel a thud and worry about whether the cat or whatever she’s smuggling in the shell under her dress is getting enough air.
The first of the marauders appears. He’s small and angry, and what looks to be a port-wine stain blotches the area around his mouth. Something glints in his hand in the seconds before he bolts into the street. And then it’s slashing its way through what’s left of the crowd.
Knives. His compatriots flood the street.
There are too many of them to be zombies. There hasn’t been a decent horde in weeks; they just can’t assemble like they used to. These folks are different, and as they each appear from the alley, darting into the street to join the fray, it’s clear exactly how different. Besides being blind with fury and armed—zombies never carry weapons—each and every one of them is disfigured by a purpling splotch radiating from their lips. One of them, a craggy branch of a woman, staggers up and points a metal skewer at us. Her stain is as dark as plum and stretches across her cheeks like a black doctor’s mask. We make eye contact, and her eyes narrow.
Alive . . . and crazy. Clearly.
I hold up my hands instinctively, but she isn’t interested in us.
“Bitch is trippin’, ” Gretta whispers.
The woman’s eyes roll back into her head as she catches the scent of what the group is really after, and her head lolls to the side,
facing the family iconography. Two men have already heaved themselves atop the El Camino’s stage and are busy tearing at the corpses. An arm detaches and lands on the hot concrete, and I could swear I hear the damn thing sizzle before the woman dives atop it, grips it between her clawed hands like a hoagie, and begins to gnaw at the bone end, tugging at the dry flesh as a dog does with rawhide.
Soon the street turns into a smorgasbord for the living carrion. Even the Sister of Perpetual Disappointment lying prone in the gutter isn’t immune to their savage foodfest. A pair of the grape-mouthed sickos tear at her clothing and dig into the weak flesh of her abdomen, using their spread fingers to wind up intestines like spaghetti caught in the spinning tines of a fork.
A niggling stitch winds in my stomach as I try to hold back my disgust.
They devour dead flesh like vultures but seem to be completely uninterested in the living. A reversal of what we’ve become so used to with the undead.
Gretta, who can’t be bothered with discretion, retches behind me, bumping me forward onto the sidewalk in the process with that disgusting growth of hers.
“Dammit, woman!” I shout.
The movement catches the feeders’ attention, and before I can back away, one of the bigger freaks—a real pushy bastard—rushes past me, sending me spinning into a tumble across the concrete. I hear Gretta’s hoarse screams first, followed by the rapid clops of her gigantic platforms.
The man is gaining ground on her and, like any good pseudo-acquaintance would, I reach for the gun in my purse, kick off my heels, and give motherfuckin’ chase. I’ve never shot a person, living or dead, that I recall—though things got pretty hairy in the thick of the apocalypse, so you never stuck around to see if your bullet found a soft home.
That I’d be totally conscious of this, paired with the way my day was going, brings a tiny smile to my face.
Gretta ducks into the gaping doorway of a ground-floor apartment decorated to look like the dash of a third-world cab. A rope of fuzzy puffs garlands the frame, and instead of a knocker, a brass Virgin Mary clings to the open door. The guy darts in behind her.
I leap the three stairs and rush inside, but what I’m witness to isn’t altogether clear. The carrion eater has Gretta Graves on the floor, backed into a corner and screaming her head off. Her legs are spread and he’s chomping away, and at first I wonder if they’d like some privacy, and then I realize I hear the scraping of teeth against plastic.
“What the fuck?” The words escape without any real control on my part.
Grape Ape’s head pivots in my direction and that indigo tongue of his laps at bleeding black gums. Whatever he’s been eating is staining them from the inside out. His eyes are crazy, and I’m certain it’s drugs. I look past him to my friend’s torn dress. The man’s blood trickles from the fake navel of Gretta’s prosthetic gut. Beside the belly button a dark spot. The freak managed to puncture it, and the hole is just large enough for what’s inside to make itself known.
“Oh, Jesus, Gretta,” I say.
The freak’s head jerks back and it howls, lunging for the gray protuberance. Wiggling out of the hole is a tiny finger. Correction: a tiny dead finger.
Gretta shrieks and bats at the junkie as I lurch forward, taking the gun by the barrel and driving the butt into the man’s skull hard enough to crack it open and taste the resulting ferrous spray. He collapses into a heap.
I kneel beside Gretta, who is frantically coaxing the fingers back inside. “Hush, now,” she coos. “You’re safe in Mama’s belly.”
I fall against the wall, panting. “You’re crazy, Gretta. You’re fucking crazy.”
But all she can do is smile and stuff the hole with a red bandanna the apartment’s previous occupant had been using as an end-table cozy.
WE HIT THE Jimmy on the floor of Neuter’s apartment. Nothing says escapist drug use like sucking smoke off of a sizzling pie tin through fast-food straws. Squalor is the perfect design scheme, and Neuter has it down. I collapse into the only chair that’s not held together with electrical tape and plastic shopping bags and let the smoke soothe my edges.
“What the hell is causing those people to eat the dead?” Gretta mumbles.
“Here’s a better question,” I say. “What the hell are you doing toting around a zombie baby?”
“Shh,” Gretta scolds. “You’re going to make her upset.”
“Her? It’s those things out there you need to worry about . . . and me, when I leave your ass the next time it happens. And I expect it will unless—”
“Lula,” Gretta cuts in. “Her name is Lula Belle Graves. And when I birth her, I’m gonna dress her in frills and teach her to spin. Spin so fast.”
At some point, hard to say when, Gretta clearly lost what was left of her already paper-thin grasp on reality.
“Sweet Jesus,” I sigh, and slump back against the wall, drained from the futility.
But then Gretta reaches across the chasm back into sanity, grasping my hand as though to make a vow. “If we’re attacked again, I’ll run. I won’t leave you with a decision like that. To leave your bestest best friend of all time.”
Her smile is genuine. Mine is, well, less so.
“Sure.” I nod and then turn to our companion. “How are those cocktails comin’, Neuter? I’m gonna need something high-octane to make Gretta sound like she’s not going to kill us in our sleep.”
“Pshaw.” Gretta shrugs off my volley with a jiggle of her head. “You are so funny, Jade!”
Neuter leans over the pan, shaking his pimply face in judgment, and takes another hit. “There’s been more attacks than just that one. I heard about one a few days ago. A bunch of trust fund kids committed suicide up on Central Park West and they only found them because of these purple-faced crazies sniffing the place out and chomping away at them where they hung from the rafters. Crazy shit, right?”
Gretta takes a break from cooing at her abomination to say, “Jade needs some Zed. Quantity. You know who’s holding?”
Neuter smiles, thin lips scraping back over a grisly graveyard of teeth. “Yeah. When you need it?”
“Yesterday,” I say, but Neuter is already drifting to sleep.
“Gotta go see the Geek,” he mumbles.
“ZED AIN’T EASY, ladies,” Neuter says, stopping in the middle of the street. “It’s about as hard to get as a new pussy.”
“Didn’t mean that shit to be funny. Meant it to sound like you’re about to walk through hell to get the transformation you’re after. A whole bunch of hells. Starting with this one.”
Neuter points down the way a bit. A few people line the shadowed side of the street, avoiding the heat and the black smoke billowing from the subway entrance. He whips the backpack off his shoulder and strides up to a vendor, a crooked little
man cowering under a parasol, rubbing a pistol like a lover. Neuter digs out three oranges and drops them in a basket at the guy’s feet.
“Rent,” Neuter says. “Need three kits to get us through to Coney.”
Dark eyes narrowing to slits and brows curling up, thick as caterpillars, the vendor holsters his gun and reaches for the fruit, twisting each around, examining them. “This one got a bruise.”
Neuter shrugs. “Don’t matter. They’re sweet, man. Sweet as fuck. But if you don’t want ’em, someone else will.”
He hunches over as if to take the oranges back. The vendor, quick to change his tune, drops a hat over them and brushes the basket under his cart with the toe of his shoe. The man pulls out some bulky masks, hoses, and metal tanks from his cart and lines them up on the curb. “Three kits. You need tickets?”
“Don’t try to pull that shit. The conductor don’t take no tickets.”
The little man’s lip curls back from blackened nicotine-flecked teeth.
“Let’s go,” Neuter says, still looking at him.
We don’t have to be told twice.
A few steps from the hole vomiting up coal smoke, Neuter pulls a mask over his face before helping Gretta with hers, then me with mine. The descent into the subway is surely a disastrous idea, but what choice did they have? Maybe the oxygen will help calm me; that’s what it’s supposed to do, right? Flood your brain, make you euphoric so you don’t mind the fact that you’re roasting like a pig in a giant tubular oven?
Keep you alive.
The whole process would have been a shit ton easier if someone had survived the zombies who knew one thing about the trains. Hooking up coal locomotives has caused a whole new set of problems.
The elastic straps pinch the tips of my ears, and the goggles steam up almost immediately, but when the nozzle turns and the oxygen storms in, cool and clean, I feel an unfamiliar surge of optimism. This might just work.
Neuter ties a thin loop of rope around his waist and then ours, linking us. I look into the gaping hole of the stairwell, vomiting black smoke like a chimney stack.
“It’s now or never!” Neuter shouts, and disappears into the dark cloud. The rope tied around Gretta’s waist snaps tight, and she stumbles forward.
The only thing stopping me from tumbling down the stairs and breaking a hip is my white-knuckle grip on a railing so loose, it clings to the wall by no more than a thick coat of grease. So, not much. It certainly isn’t my quaking knees. The way I figure it, there’s plenty of residual fear left in these tunnels, smoke aside. We’ve all heard stories about the subway and what happened down here during the initial outbreak. No need to rehash it.
The lamp on my head does very little to cut through the black cloud, but I can occasionally see Gretta’s muumuu and the hint of her body struggling forward into the grim depths. There is a clattering waller that seems to accompany each new mass of smoke, a grating, jarring scrape of a sound so pervasive that it shakes the very air.
“This way!” Neuter screams. “Don’t lag, the train’s here!”
I’m jostled forward by the rope at my waist. My feet shuffle over the oily cement until the space opens up around us, like we’ve entered some great cavern. The thick haze clings to the ceiling here a bit, and I’m able to make out Gretta and Neuter and just the impression of a subway car a few steps away.
We’ve stumbled into a charcoal sketch, but it’s all dark-shaded black. We’ve lost our edges. Our definition. Despite the mask, the sooty air creeps in and crystallizes on my eyelids, each blink scraping painfully.
“Almost there!” Neuter shouts over the din, and the rope tugs at my waist.
Several yards past the base of the stair, a blue light breaks through the gray haze and a figure materializes.
The conductor wears a full hazmat suit, neon glowing around his face like the undercarriage of a street racer. “All aboard,” he yells, but when I take a step toward the open door of the train, he snatches my arm.
“Where do you think you’re going, missy?”
I sneer. His hand lingers on the girth of my bicep and his expression changes. He turns toward Gretta, who’s holding her belly immaculately—or maybe it’s merely the halo of light reflecting off the cheap plastic flesh.
“Did you pay me? I’m pretty sure I haven’t received payment.”
“But you said—”
“I was using the term ironically. By ‘All aboard,’ I meant ‘Pay up, bitch.’?”
Neuter sweeps in between us, already digging into his backpack. “Nuh-no see,” he stutters. “I got our fare, right here.”
The conductor tries to get a peek into the bag, his finger stretching toward the open zipper. Neuter rankles and pivots away.
“Un-unh.” He turns back with a paper sack and drops it into the man’s gloved palm. “Enough to get us to Coney.”
He seems to weigh it, his hand raising and lowering it, and then decides whatever it is is sufficient and tosses it into the darkness.
“Well, then!” he shouts, suddenly perky. “Why didn’t we do that right away, instead of getting so snotty?”
My mouth drops open. Did he seriously?
But I don’t have time to argue before he starts yammering again. “All aboard! And I mean it this time.” He leans in close. Too close. “The ride to Coney Island isn’t a short one. And it’s
been a long time since I’ve met such a sturdy lady; you’re just my type.”
“I doubt that,” I say, rolling my eyes, and rush into the car before the conductor can launch into any more of his revolting courtship maneuvers. The last thing I need is to figure out that he is turned on by what I’m so desperately trying to get rid of. I’m pretty sure I didn’t misread the intent of the word sturdy.
I take the closest seat and Gretta crowds in next to me, while Neuter takes up opposite, coiling the slack rope onto the floor at his feet. The conductor peeks in, winks, and then stabs a thumb in the direction of the front of the train.
“Just gotta check on the rest of the passengers.” He gives me another wink and then disappears.
“He’s into you,” Gretta says, elbowing my arm.
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
And I already have enough to worry about, I think. Tracking down the Zed is the least of it. There seems to be something sinister in the world that wasn’t there just hours ago. Something spreading.
What exactly are living people doing eating the dead? Why are there so many of them? And what is that sound in the distance?
“Christ!” I scream.
“Shut the door!” Gretta is on her feet and flanking me even as the footfalls get louder. The carrion stampede down the stairs. I lean out of the car and see a hint of blue light ahead.
The lights bounce as he shrugs and he continues to inch toward the smoking coal locomotive attached to the front of the train. He doesn’t hear me. I struggle with the knotted rope around my waist.
“Get this door shut, Gretta,” I beg as the knot frees. “You
know what they’ll be after if they make it down here before we get moving!”
“What about you?”
“They’re not coming for me.” I point at her gut and she grits her teeth. The realization settles on her like a weight.
I sprint after the conductor, crouching as low as I can to see beneath the smoke, whipping around the concrete columns, passing one empty car after the next until I can see the man’s blue aura and something else in the car next to me.
Lots of it. Shambling death bumbles behind the glass, some of them looking over at me hungrily, black tongues lapping between loose rotten teeth. And coming down the stairs, a shit ton of two-legged vultures, stumbling and coughing. Coughing.
The smoke is probably slowing them down, I think. But it won’t stop them. They’re crazy. They can somehow smell the dead down here.
Hell. I can smell the dead.
“What the hell, Conductor!”
He shrugs. “What? It’s a shipment for the Geek.”
I don’t even want to know what this means. “We have to go!” I shout. “Don’t you hear that?”
His eyes dart toward the stairs, where the dark haze seems to vibrate. In the distance feet appear, and then faces. The carrion aren’t so crazy that they don’t stop, drop, and crawl beneath the toxic cloud to get to their dead meat. They scrabble forward, purple smears black in the dim light.
Gagging and coughing.
The conductor’s face freezes, shock pushing every orifice wide. I claw at him, scream for him to move, and then we’re running, too, into the open engine car. He slams his palm against a lever and suddenly, thankfully, we’re moving.
But it’s too slow.
The carrion are already attacking the zombie car, desperate for their food. They jack tiles from the station walls and stab at the glass. Toss garbage can covers and benches. Windows shatter, and the dead seem to explode outward along with the shards.
“Faster!” I scream.
And the train does pick up some speed, but as I lean out to watch the melee unfold, I wonder if it’s going to be enough. The carrion and the zombies that aren’t clinging to the sides of the subway car are locked in a culinary embrace, feeding on each other. Human on the dead, zombie on living flesh.
Blood and bile surge forward across the station floor in a wave and I can’t hold back any longer. I lean out, lift up my mask, and vomit as the scene behind us falls into darkness.
I WAKE ON the floor of the engine, the sounds of shovel stabbing coal reminding me of where I am. Where I’m headed and what we’ve somehow managed to survive.
I wonder about Gretta Graves and Neuter.
Had they been able to get their door shut? If they hadn’t, Gretta’s special package certainly didn’t make it. But would that have been enough for such a horde? Would they have killed just to have more dead flesh later? Are some of them smart like that? Like packing a lunch?
“Why you headed to the carnival?” The conductor’s deep voice shakes me out of the dwelling.
“We’re looking for something.”
“Only one thing to find at Coney and that’s the Geek. You jonesing for the Jimmy?” He steps up close to me and slides down the wall until we’re real close. “Or is it something else?”
“What do you know about Zed?” I ask.
He winces. “I know it ain’t natural. Somethin’ the Geek cooked up wrong and took off like new sugar. Tell me a tough chick like you ain’t gonna get mixed up with nothin’ like that.”
“I have to. I don’t have a choice.”
And I didn’t, did I? Whether I took it on my own or as a result of delivering a batch to Dr. Bloom, I was looking at getting mixed up in some Zed.
“Well.” The conductor pats me on my leg and stands up. I notice that I can see him more clearly, and it isn’t because his helmet light has gotten brighter.
Daylight filters through the greasy glass as the subway train rises from the depths of the tunnel. We’re close. I slip off the oxygen mask and gulp at the fresh air. Craning my neck out the side window, I half expect to see an ongoing struggle, but the car that holds the zombies is quiet.
Shredded clothing and gore flap against the sides of broken windows like tattered curtains. The battle has burned itself out, or rather eaten itself still.
The tracks bank slightly, and the full crescent of the collection of cars becomes visible. My eyes scan each for signs of life and then, four cars back, I find some. Gretta and Neuter waving.
As we approach the station, the conductor touches me on the shoulder.
“You know that old saying, ‘The darker the berry . . . ’?”
I shake my head no.
“?‘The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.’ That’s how it goes. But that ain’t true. There’s nothin’ sweet anymore. You remember that.” He withdraws his hand and eases the train to a stop.
I suppose he’s right. There isn’t a whole lot of sweet to go around.
And all I can think about at the mention of berries are the stains on the carrion’s faces. Purple as blackberry jam.
“Jade!” Gretta’s big heels clop across the platform toward me. Her smile fades as she passes the zombie car but she doesn’t stop to inspect it. Nothing springs out, so that’s some luck.
“You managed to keep that baby, I see.”
“Yep. Ain’t that somethin’? I’d have thought for sure a night like what we just went through would have set off my labor quicker than a shot of Pitocin, but nope. She’s hangin’ in there. Don’t want to be born just yet and that’s just fine with me.” She rubs at the curvature, secures the bandanna into the gnawed hole, and smiles again.
To that, all I can say is, “Just remember your promise.”
CONEY ISLAND USED to be a shambles on a good day, but post–zombie apocalypse it turned into an actual garbage dump. Trash drifts dwarf the already short buildings, turning them into mountains of junk. To get from the elevated train platform to the street level, we climb down, carefully avoiding the hypodermic needles and skinny rats.
But it’s the larger vermin moving in the distance that I’m worried about. Carrion wander the streets. A few people without the purple stains, too, but they’re much less frequent. We have to move quickly and quietly.
As if it’s heard my thoughts, the dead thing in Gretta’s gut scrabbles against the plastic shell.
“Shut it up, Gretta,” I hiss.
She pouts, rubbing her belly. “We’re fine. Just fine . . .”
We tumble into the shadows between buildings and wait, observing the carrion. They stagger to and fro, stumble, and half of them wallow in the refuse like they can’t figure out how their appendages work. Something’s different about these, disorganized to the point of being slovenly and not the predators the others are.
But we can’t risk them noticing. Even if they are high or completely stoned out of their minds.
“This place is magical,” Gretta quips, holding her stomach as she crabwalks down toward where Nathan’s used to sit, now just another pile of rotting waste and enough of it to provide some cover.
“So where is this guy?” I ask. “The Geek.”
Neuter juts his chin toward the water and we follow. The boardwalk is impassable; chopped into shards and used for firewood, it’s a valley of splinters and spears. So we cut along the empty street side, diving into alcoves and busted storefronts as we need to, until we arrive at the carnival.
Clouds roll in and cast a dark shadow over the crumbling amusement park. The rides are rusted and still, the cotton candy kiosks empty, unmanned. Rotting husks of stuffed animals decorate the empty game booths, termites and roaches having turned them into prime real estate.
In the past, this kind of place would have been crawling with homeless people. That particular social issue had been completely eradicated by the undead’s appearance.
A sharp grinding noise draws my attention to the Wonder Wheel. Strung with lights, it rotates slowly.
“There,” Neuter says. “That’s where we’ll find him.”
We crouch in the darkness as more of the stained freaks pass. Up close, they appear asleep, purple tongues thrusting from their mouths like those of overmedicated mental patients. Their faces aren’t nearly as stained, but those tongues are unreal.
I glance at Gretta, a.k.a. the target on our back. If these carrion snap to and get the munchies, I just know I’ll trip her to create a diversion.
Neuter is right, though, and we hear the Geek before we see
him. His voice is mechanized, as though he’s speaking through a megaphone.
“Rest easy, friends. The conductor will be here soon. Restocking the lake! You’ll have your fill and these will come to you! Right to you.”
I creep up to a junction and cast my eyes up a glowing gallery lined with torches and strewn with dozing carrion up toward a Roman-esque scene of debauchery. Bodies curled around each other, lazing in their purpled stupors like a new litter of puppies—if puppies ate the flesh of the dead and somehow weren’t cute. Some writhe and clutch their guts and even those of their neighbors as if in sympathy. Beyond them sits a raised dais and atop that a man . . . or what looks like a man, from this distance. He’s dark as an oil slick.
“Friends, friends—rest easy!” he shouts, and taps a megaphone-topped scepter like a gavel against the grit under his feet. “We have visitors.”
My breath hitches in my chest. He’s spotted us, which shouldn’t surprise me—at six foot six in these heels, I’m not exactly inconspicuous. But it does.
The Geek himself sits on a throne that sparkles like a cell phone kiosk, and as I approach I realize, instead of the bones of his enemies, the man has embedded his chair with those memories of a more connected time. That he’s chosen the most blinged-out cases makes me think we might have something in common—until I get a good look at the Geek up close. He wears a black leather hood, and as he watches us approach, he unzips the mouth to reveal his jagged smile and metal teeth.
“Hello!” he shouts pleasantly. “Welcome!”
I push ahead of Gretta and Neuter and advance. “Hello . . . Mr. Geek, is it?”
“You may call me the Geek. There’s no need to get caught up in
gender trappings, is there?” He nods as though we have an understanding.
“Now, how may I help you? A sample, perhaps?”
“Zed,” I say.
“Zed!” he laughs.
A rustle of interest sweeps across his entourage, an unconscious lavender lip-licking that sets my nerves on edge.
“Of course. It’s all anyone asks for now.” The Geek stands, slips his hand around the crook of my elbow. “Walk with me.”
We move closer to the Wonder Wheel, to a stand set up with levers and buttons, and the Geek presses one, causing the giant Ferris wheel to shudder and rotate. From this angle I notice there are bars on the window, and as each car passes I see that it carries a load of passengers, mostly dead and thudding their heads against their prison, others drooling purple juice.
“Don’t mind them, they’re in process.” He shrugs.
“Process of what?” I ask, but I remember Annick’s description.
A transformative agent.
“They are changing. Becoming something different. Who knows what, eventually? Aren’t we all becoming something that we’re not yet?”
I nod, but without enthusiasm, with the beginnings of fear.
“You yourself appear to understand this more than most.” The Geek smiles broadly, shiny teeth grinding. He runs a pink tongue across his likewise flesh-toned lips, his silver teeth glinting.
“You’re unstained.” The words pop out before I can evaluate whether it’s wise to note the difference.
He continues to smile. “Transformation is not my end goal. My medicinal need is for something . . . different. My friends, on the other hand, are freshly dosed and eventually will head off on their own journeys. God bless their souls. It’s a wonderful
age we live in, full of new possibilities. ‘Momentous’ is the word—don’t you think?”
With a flick of a lever the Wonder Wheel stops its noisy rotation and a dark car sits before us. I am coaxed toward it by the elbow of mine he holds, and when I look back over my shoulder, I’m terrified by the scene playing out behind me. While the Geek has been distracting me, Gretta has been quietly tied to a telephone pole, while Neuter lies in a crumpled heap. A pair of carrion sniff at Gretta’s belly, tug at the bandanna, rap at the prosthetic, and listen—all while the big tranny just smiles and nods as if she’s witnessing some tribal custom.
“Wait!” I cry, but the door to the rocking room is already open and already I’m being forced inside.
The door clangs shut behind me.
“I don’t want this. I don’t want to become a carrion. I don’t.”
The Geek shrugs nonchalantly. “What you seek is there before you.”
I turn slowly to find a crate in the center of the gently rocking cell and atop it a box, wooden on all sides but one, where a metal plate is set into a grooved frame, a handle in its center.
“It’s a nightmare box, to be sure, but it’s the source of Zed. It’s what you’re after. It’s what everyone is after—a new outlook to experience!”
“If that’s the case,” I say, sweat trickling down my face, “then I just need to get it back to my doctor. That’s all I need. I don’t need to see it.”
The Geek smiles again—actually, he never stopped smiling, the gold glinting in the darkness like a tiny constellation. “Oh, no. You do. You need to see it. And you will. After all, you’ve already brought your payment and everything. I don’t renege on deals.”
“We haven’t made a deal! I haven’t paid!”
He motions toward Gretta. “You’ve brought us a wonderful gift, and in return, you’ll have your transformation.”
“No, I won’t. Let Gretta go!”
“Let me rephrase. You’ll have your transformation. Or your friends will die.”
Gretta’s eyes are wide with terror now, and a few more of the carrion begin to sniff around her; one thunks her belly like a watermelon. I glance at the box and then back to the Geek.
His smile is insanity. His shiny teeth grinding out sparks.
I’m out of choices.
I reach for the handle on the metal plate. When I wrap my shaking fingers around it, I feel a thud jar the wall of the crate. There’s something inside. Something moving. I release it and push back, shaking my head.
I can’t do it.
What the fuck is it?
“Go on,” the Geek coaxes in his hoarse, overly amiable voice.
I can’t stand to look at him again, and outside of the cell I can hear Gretta moaning. Or maybe it’s inside the cell. A guttural gurgling reverberates all around me. Coming from inside the box.
Three steps. Grab the handle and lift off the side and then I’ll know.
Pull off the bandage, I think. Do it quick enough and it won’t hurt.
I lunge forward. The thing inside thuds against the wall as I feel the metal plate’s weight. I lift, slipping the square up and out of its tracks, and fling it to the floor with a clatter.
But all that’s behind it is another flat surface. I can see this one has an oval cut into it, though a dirty pair of curtains mostly covers it. Something flutters against them. I swipe them open frantically, unable to take the nightmare a second longer.
What I see there stops my breath dead in my chest.
The rotten ear and gray flesh of a corpse.
A zombie. Trapped in a cell within a cell. Its head braced with leather straps nailed to the ceiling of the box so it can’t turn.
But something else too. Something I’ve never noticed in any of the walking dead I’ve come into contact with—this one is leaking something from its pores. Dark. Gelatinous.
More of the juice trickles as the thing cranes its neck, teeth snapping.
“Lick it!” the Geek hisses. “Lick it and transform!”
I scream. Fall to my knees and hold my head in my hands. There is no hormone. No easy fix. Annick has sent me on a doomsday mission. Did she know? Was she just trying to get rid of me?
I look back at the zombie and see myself. We are the same, all of us trapped in our own cells. The juice trickles.
“No!” I cry. “No!”
“You must!” The Geek giggles both words.
“I’m not turning into one of them.”
“No,” he agrees. “Not turning.”
I don’t need him to elaborate. We are them. We feed. We consume. It’s all a trap. Carrion, zombie, flesh. All the same.
“I’m done with this,” I say, scanning the distance for Gretta, who is sobbing softly. Her prosthetic torn open. Empty.
“Is that your choice?” the Geek asks.
I train my eyes on him, muster up all the hate I have, and hiss, “Fuck you.” I cram my hand into my purse and wrap my fingers around the gun that waits for me there. The door of the cell clangs open and suddenly he’s there, a knife raised, lunging across the cell toward me. I lift the purse in the Geek’s direction and fire. And he’s on me.
I feel a stitch in my side. And then warm wetness. And I damn myself for not practicing with the gun more.
The stitch turns into five.
I WAKE IN the darkness. I’m hungry.
I’m bound about my chest and legs. I can’t tell by what. I can’t see. My arms are shackled behind my back. But I don’t care. There’s that. I don’t care.
I hear a sharp swipe to my left ear. Close.
And then light pours in and I strain to see a familiar face. Neuter. His eyes are downcast.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, and leans in as though to kiss me.
To comfort me.
I try to forget the pangs scratching at my gut. The scent of him. The sweet iron of his flesh. And I close me eyes, tilting my cheek toward his lips.
But it’s not a kiss he delivers.
It’s a slow, wet lick.