Do know the only thing that smells worse than undead? Untreated halitosis.Yes. I’m serious.
All those people, crammed into Zyracuse Central like cattle — everyone scrambling to meet their chore quota, getting ready to cash in their ration tokens, or worse just sitting there, rocking back and forth muttering to themselves. A thousand “survivors” in one place, and not a single one of them had seen the business end of a toothbrush in a year. Let me tell you something — using a plant to scrape the crap off your teeth is about as effective as trying to clear a foot of snow from the sidewalk by breathing hard.
I know it sounds like a small price to pay for surviving the plague, the hordes of undead coming through the state, and the chaos of people going loony with the craziness of it all, but I can’t stand bad breath. Zombies want to eat my brains? No sweat — give me my axe and room to swing, and I’ll be fine. Looters want to break into Central and steal our food? Just point the Corps at them and stand back; everything will be just fine.
Force me to have an extended conversation with someone with rancid, rotting-meat breath and I’m no better than one of the weepers who snap. It’s almost as bad as fresh dead-head.
It all began when we were on patrol. The Corpse Corps made the regular sweeps — push into an area in the Rumbler, clear out any obvious Zach infestations, then get collecting — nowadays we look more for scrap than tools or food; it really brings into contrast how pathetic this place has become. The streets were empty with a few ghoulish exception — a few quick shots solved that problem. A scan of the area found us some piles of scrap metal layered-up between a pair of decapitated shops, their shattered glass windows still offering the remnants of an “Irish Bargain Party.”
“Somehow, I don’t think the luck o’ the Irish applies anymore,” Tina said wryly. No one laughed, but I don’t think Tina intended to be funny. She hefted her rifle and spat in disgust.
Tina had been a kindergarten teacher before the plague — all chipper with her hugs, dresses and holiday-themed pins. Now, she wore the blue jacket and fatigues of the Corps; she traded in her chalk for something with a little more kick (of the bolt-action variety). No one teased her about this. No one teased her about anything; that woman had a hard-core attitude and the firearm to back it up.
Chuck and I guarded the Rumbler while Peter and Tina started gathering pulling down the pile of scrap. The metal ground harsh in the empty streets, louder than the ghosts of children playing on the corner. The noise was sure to draw some Zed from their holes, so Chuck and I started circling the Rumbler — looking for the awkward, stumbling figures in the harsh, summer sunlight.
The zombie count had been low for the past few weeks, though never much lower than “Elevated” on the Gray Scale; one zombie for every hundred citizens. We weren’t expecting much. It’s funny that even after all that time we still could be caught off guard.
Chuck and I were drawn to the sound coming down from between the burned husk of a pair of houses; it’s not the kind of sound you can mistake for anything else. It still makes me feel queasy. Like an auditory nightmare.
This one had been some kind of clerk from the looks of him — he still wore his name tag, though it was too bloodstained to read. He came down the street spasmodically, his limbs dragging and knock-kneed. Even from two hundred feet away you could see his hands clawing in our directions — eager for the living flesh on our bones. It’s eyes were sunk so far into its head that you could barely see the white film.
The ghoul never got within one hundred feet.
Chuck called out faster than I, “Dibs!” The shot followed shortly, and I watched the Zak’s head explode like a dry balloon filled with ash. The body shuddered for about four seconds before the muscles finally gave out, and the corpse collapsed for the last time.
“Requiem in pacem.” Chuck was fond of that phrase; I thought it was a distinctly morbid type of humor.
We jumped as Tina dropped a bucket of scrap into the back of the Rumbler. She sneered at us in a way that would make anyone want to crawl under a rock.
“Ladies. If you’re quite done…” She hefted her empty buck and backed away from the truck, circling her free hand, “There’s a look-out to be kept.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I shrugged and started my rounds again. Tina watched for a few seconds before we heard the crash of metal from between the stores, followed by Peter’s swearing. Tina spun around and Chuck came around from the other side of the Rumbler to check what the problem was.
The pile of scrap had been put-up as a barrier; that much was easy to see. Make-shift walls were common after the first waves. People tried holing up in case the whole “z-word” thing would “blow over.”
It never did.
Peter happened to be pulling on a piece of steel pipe when he upended the whole darn thing. About three hundred pounds of metal came tumbling down on top of him, burying his large frame from the waist down in a rusty steel trap.
“I’m all right!” he called, his voice echoing long between the buildings. He was pinned face down, so he could lift his head to look at us. For a split second he looked hilarious. Even Tina almost started laughing…almost.
Then she noticed the shape turning the corner further down the alley. The moan. The gleam of pale, hungry eyes, and the stink of rotting meat. Peter saw the look in Tina’s eyes, and his face went pale.
There was more than one.
Tina charged the alley — her rifle already lifted to her shoulder. The bullet caught the first zombie in the eye and sent it spinning down in front of the others. They didn’t pause over their fallen and just kept pushing forward. Chuck ran to the driver’s side and threw himself into the seat, twisting the key and sending the Rumbler roaring to life.
“Tina!” I shouted, running forward with my own rifle raised. Another shot, and another zombie down.
Tina was pulling on Peter frantically, tearing her fingers open as she clawed at the rusty metal that covered his legs. Peter fought to twist around, his hands fumbling for the pistol at his hip. I kept firing, sliding into that easy trance that comes when you’re taking down zombie.
Aim. Fire. Bolt. Aim. Fire. Rinse and repeat. The fear was twisting in my gut as I realized that they were still coming — a whole pack from around the distant corner.
“Come on!” Chuck shouted from the driver’s seat. I ran as fast as I could to help Tina — but the metal was too twisted and rusted to be cleared. Pulling on Peter only seemed to wedge him tighter. Tina paused to drop a few Z’s before pulling again hysterically — the dust on her face rinsed away in rivulets from his eyes. The pack was closer now — thirty feet max.
The smell was terrible. A choking, gut-stabbing stench that made me dry-heave right there.
“Guys, now!” Chuck called one more time.
“Tina.” This time it was Peter talking. I stood to fire at the advancing undead. I knew what he was going to say, but Tina was the one who needed to hear it.
“Don’t you even think about it!” She warned, but Peter didn’t listen.
Twenty feet away. You could see their rotted teeth, gnashing at the air.
“You need to go.” He grunted, and finally got his pistol out from his holster.
“No, no, no.” She sobbed. I had never seen Tina sob. I don’t think anyone had.
Fifteen feet. The stink was worse now. I couldn’t even see straight. There were at least a hundred of them — all surging forward.
“Get her out of here, man.” Peter was talking to me this time. I didn’t need an excuse.
“Sorry,” I said lamely, and I grabbed her by the arm. She fought me weakly, but I was able to pull her back from the alley. Peter tossed the clip from his pistol at me. I paused to throw him a curious look.
“I kept one. Now go!”
Tina wailed as I dragged her to the idling Rumbler.
We didn’t look back. But we heard the single, lonely gunshot. I was screaming inside my head — so loud, so loud that it hurt…then everything went all quiet, save for whispers that seemed to echo just far enough to make me snap my head around, but there was nothing there.
Tina’s eyes dried, but she kept twisting the gold ring on her finger. She stared out the window silently. Chuck bit his lips until they bled. He did the same to his fingers in his free time. He kept his gaze on the road as we maneuvered the trash-littered roads back through Zyracuse.
I couldn’t shake the smell.
“What stinks so much in here?” I asked quietly. No one answered, but the smell was so strong I twisted around to check the back. As I leaned over the seat, my pack hit Tina’s shoulder jarringly.
“Watch it, moron!” She snapped, and I gagged on the smell that came from her mouth. Like week-old zombie.
“Just chill, guys,” said Chuck, and a fresh wave of toxic fumes came washing over me.
It was all I could focus on. The smell of zombie issuing forth with every word they spoke. I pulled my shirt up over my nose, and we rode the rest of the ride in silence. Behind us, the sun painted the sky with orange fire. It still smelled terrible.
Zyracuse Central was worse.
Imagine a thousand people all crammed into an old shipping center — everyone on top of everyone else. Each and every one of them without a tooth brush for over a year. I felt sick the second I stepped out of the Rumbler. Clipboard met us at the bay door — his list in hand. He didn’t need to ask what happened when he saw our faces. He just made a note on his board, and called for some folks to gather the scrap.
Every time they exhaled, I wanted to puke.
“Clipboard,” I called from a few feet away, “I don’t suppose we have any mouthwash kicking around anywhere, do we?” I kept my shirt pulled over my face, and Clipboard looked at me like I had two heads. When he answered me I had to take a step back.
“Yea…Scope’s pretty low on the priority list at the moment, man.” He laughed, and I fought to keep my gorge down. I could even see the bits of decay and scum clinging to his yellowed enamel, “I haven’t seen mouthwash in a long time, what…”
I didn’t hear the rest of his answer; I had to get outside.
The fenced clearing area in the back was awash in the summer wind, and for the first time in an hour I was able to draw a single, solid breath. I sat in the high grass and stared up at the sky. The sound of the wind and the high weeds drowned out the whispers that kept ringing in my ears. I started laughing, and images of Peter as a zombie flicked past my brain. It was so, so funny. There he was — a towering undead cretin with the most perfect rows of pearly whites. His moans were a wave of spearmint, and I gladly let him in — uncaring as his zombie hands began to pull my flesh from my bones…
I woke up with a start in the middle of the night, beneath the cloud-shaded stars. I sat up and held my aching head in my hands. Then I smelled something terrible.
“You all right?” It was Chuck. Literally, foul-mouthed Chuck. I opened my mouth to answer him, but my stomach rebelled violently at that exact moment, and I vomited in the grass.
“Jeeze.” Chuck said, “I’ll get the doc.”
My head hurt. I could see the flashes of light exploding in the corners of my vision, and my nose was clogged with the stench of breath. Every heartbeat pounded my head with a steel hammer, and I could feel my eyes roll back into my head before I slipped back into unconsciousness.
The next week was pure torture. I was pent-up in the medical wing with makeshift nurses checking my vitals every few minutes. I was hooked to an IV, and regular shots of “medicine” were administered. All this attention, and all this salvaged equipment, and not even the med staff could find the means to fix their breath. Every time they came close I cringed and wept; each question stabbed my stomach with the violent urge to puke. The whispers kept pointing out the bits of food and plaque visible in their teeth.
Did you know that plaque rhymes with Zak? Hardly a coincidence.
The nurses must have heard me talking to the whispers, because they brought in a “councilor.”
She tried to talk to me about the whispers, but I couldn’t concentrate on her questions — hers was a unique stink, the smell of mold and month-old pasta primavera.
Later, the whispers made it clear to me — I wasn’t getting out of here unless I pretended not to smell them anymore. That’s why they wouldn’t let me out of the wing, I was sure. They were so ashamed of their oral hygiene that they didn’t want me pointing it out. I lay there that night preparing, flexing my face muscles so they would not betray me.
It was a perfect performance. I was able to keep it up long enough to be released back into population…back into the cloud of filth belching from their greasy throats and petri-dish tongues. I immediately requested outside work, and out of pity Clipboard obliged. I was able to stomach it out there, where the wind blew.
Eventually, I was put back on Corps rotation — salvage job. The whispers told me that the others didn’t want me to go, but I was anxious for the opportunity to get away from Central for a few hours. I didn’t mind; it would mean time spent in the open air.
“What did you say?” It was Chuck, shouldering his rifle. He looked at me cautiously.
I didn’t realize I had been talking out loud, “I’m…uh…just saying a prayer.” That would shut Chuck up.
Tina had retired from salvage, and joined the education department. I wonder if she found her old holiday pins; it was almost Memorial Day. Instead, we were going out with a pair of twins — Kalvin and Kevin. They had matching initials, matching mustaches, and matching, rank mouths.
“Let’s get a move on.” I said, “Time’s wasting.” Everyone nodded, and within a few minutes we were on the road. I rolled down the window and stuck my head out — fresh air.
We drove through the skeletal remains of the city clawing up from the ground on either side, their insides splayed open by fire or storm. We didn’t see many zombies, just a single here and there. We would pause long enough to fire off a shot before heading back on down the road.
About half-way through the drive we passed the spot where Peter had died. I saw the pile of metal had been pulled way — probably while I was in the med wing. I could still see the “Irish Bargain Party” paint that peeled away from the shattered glass, and I chuckled.
Then I noticed what the other store window had said.
“Yanni’s Grocery.” The interior looked fairly in-tact.
“Hey…stop here for a second,” I called to Chuck. He passed a series of looks between the twins, but ultimately obliged. The whispers were louder now, frenzied and high-pitched. When I looked down that alley I swore I saw something shamble around the corner. A second look and it was gone. I didn’t mention this to the others.
“What are we here for?” Asked Chuck — his voice thick with doubt.
“I just want to check something.” I answered, “Pay some last respects…you know…for Pete.” I must have sounded funny talking with my nose plugged, but the others didn’t say anything. Carefully, I stepped out of the Rumbler, and hefted my rifle. I walked slowly over to the mouth of the alley — mawing there in front of me. The whispers were so fast now that they blended into a static, white noise. For some strange reason, the stench of breath was still strong.
The concrete was stained brown, as were parts of the walls. The metal had been cleared away, and now the alley stretched far back — fully clear of debris. From the corner of my eyes I spied through the smoked glass of the next-door market. The shelves were down, but there was still loose products littering the tiles. Nothing moved.
“You all right, man?” Chuck was calling from the Rumbler, and the twins were on patrol.
I nodded my head in the affirmative — I couldn’t really hear Chuck through the whispers anyway.
I pressed my face to the glass, and wrenched my eyes over the interior. The sunlight fingered deep into the darkness of the store with long lances of yellow. I kept staring, and the whispers pounded my head.
“Dibs!” A gunshot followed. I turned around to see the twins drop a Z from fifty feet away — it had come from the garage kitty-corner to the shops.
“More of ’em!” The pepper of gunshots started to ring through the echoes in my ear. I cocked my rifle, and stood to add my bullets to the barrage.
Then I saw it. Gleaming. Blue and silver. The whispers even stopped for a second. Listerine. Sweet, blessed, manna-from-heaven Lister-freaking-rine. It lay in the corner of the store, under a fallen display of deodorant and anti-fungal foot cream just at the tip of a gentle finger of golden light.
The whispers started screaming. Without even pausing, I shattered the window with the butt of my rifle. The rain of shards cut me in a few places, but I didn’t even notice. I kicked the edge clear and stepped over the threshold when one of the twins grabbed my arm.
“What are you doing?” he shouted — barely over the din in my head. His breath made me angry, it was so terrible. How dare he assault me with that reek? There were more gunshots from the Rumbler, and several shouts of, “Hurry up!”
“Come on, man, there’s a whole pack of them! We need to clear out!” The twin (whichever one he was) pulled on my arm again. I yanked back with all my strength.
“No! Let go!” He didn’t. We struggled for a second, shouting at each other over the chorus of gunshots and zombie groans. The twin punched me in the face, and I felt my head explode — the voices screaming and frothing in rage as I fell backward into the darkness of the store.
“Now, man — shake out of it!” He reached down to pull me up and out.
The mouthwash was only a few feet away. Salvation in spearmint.
I lifted my rifle without really aiming. The whispers urged me on. The twin’s eyes widened for a second before he backed way. I pulled the trigger and he spun like a top — a stream of blood flying from his shoulder. There were more shouts, but I couldn’t hear them.
The twin staggered away from the store — his eyes wide and his hand pressed to his bleeding arm.
“You’re crazy, man.” One last wave of vomit-scented words.
I smiled, and the whispers raved, “Your breath stinks.” I aimed more carefully this time: “Now back off.” His eyes widened with realization as he saw the bottle just behind me, “Mouth wash?! You shot me over mouth wash!? Man… Zak’s gonna use your brains for mouthwash!”
The twin retrieved his rifle and fled back to the car, leaving a trail of blood. As he retreated, I reached up and pulled down the metal grate over the window and door. The whispers wanted to rush me, but I took my time, laughing out loud.
The lock still worked, though it was a bit rusty, but at least it would keep the Z’s out. I didn’t even register that the Rumbler had peeled away. I vaguely heard Chuck arguing with the twins as they sped off. There was only a moment of silence before the zombies realized that I was still here — I risked a glance and saw them standing there, staring at me with their dead eyes. Slowly, they began to shuffle my way.
“Tough luck, Zak!” I screamed, and pushed my way back into the store. I cleared away the deodorant and foot creams, and reached down with a trembling hand. I was almost afraid to touch it — I had the distinct fear that it would vanish. The roaring in my head died to a whimper as my fingers curled around the bottle. I put my gun down and tore off the wrapper, twisting free the lid with a growing fury — the smell was divine.
Then I heard the sound of zombies. Not from beyond the gate, where they reached and pushed against the metal bars in a huge undead chorus, but from the back doors that swung in from the stock area. The clamor of something stumbling over fallen merchandise. The groans were audible within a few seconds.
I set the mouthwash down on the ground — that was painful, I tell you. I ran to the back and saw shadows shifting slowly towards the door. The unlockable door. The whispers were weeping now, but I ignored them long enough to grab a heavy shelf unit. Screaming, I pulled until I felt muscles tear in protest, but the metal moved; I dragged it across the entryway and shoved it flush to the door just as a single ghoul hand tried to push the portals open. It squished between the doors as they were forced shut — fingers grasping at the air comically.
I backed away, laughing.
“Zombies here. Zombies there. Zombies everywhere!” I sang. I almost danced. The whispers were too confused to make much noise. The whole store stank of zombie.
My back burned like it was on fire, and I slumped down against the wall. I put my gun in my lap, and lifted the bottle of mouthwash. From all around me was the cacophony of zombies gasping and moaning as they fought to get in. The din was so loud I thought my ears would bleed. I laughed anyway. I laughed so hard that I could barely hear the ghouls. I roared so I couldn’t hear the whispers in my head.
I howled as I poured the sweet spearmint fluid into my dry mouth — letting it bubble down my chin as I laughed at the same time. It filled my nose with the scent of mint and sugar at the same time my taste buds exploded in pleasure.
Outside the hordes pushed and groaned. The metal whined in protest. The door frames cracked.
Cackling, with tears streaming from my eyes, I gargled.