3LBE #15
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Zombie

by Edward C. Lynskey

 

Beyond the truck scales, the Peterbilt’s eighteen tires thrumming on rain-slick slab lulled driver Buster Chapman into a hypnotic daze verging on much needed sleep. These overnight jaunts from Asheville tested his professional endurance. Could he jockey 24 hours straight? Letting loose a Rebel yell, Buster entered the mind game he had concocted to combat dozing off. The game activated him even after the Quaaludes wore thin and whippoorwills simmered down.

Buster’s mind game was simple to play. Inside his brain where magic and mystery ruled the air, he’d build a town’s infrastructure — measuring street grids, pouring concrete sidewalks, bricking up a courthouse, and painting bungalows their Easter egg colors. He mentally directed the anthill bustle. The town was all; the inhabitants could move in later.

Because there were a slew of peaks to conquer, by the end of Buster’s haul, a string of nameless towns awaited prosperous futures. Of late, there had been one sore spot on the map. Buster’s hometown of Zombie was out of harmony with her sister towns. Before long, he’d have to knuckle down to lick Zombie into shape. For the moment, the blue drench had abated, though a stiff head wind buffeted his load.

It was just after moonset and with dawn weighing in, the smell of ripening cantaloupes washed over Buster’s face. Hitting the airbrakes, he coasted down the final switchback, cruising onto the valley floor. Having soldiered this far, Buster had to decide whether to advance over the bridge or cower like a cornered roof rat.

Ah, therein lay the rub — the bridge. Other travelers crossed it, day and night, without mishap and mayhem. Buster no longer enjoyed such peace. As he drew to its side, his heart mounted in his throat kicked and knocked. His callused palms sweated on the custom steering wheel as he geared down to a terrapin’s crawl, then braked to a stop, the idling diesel engine left to its pops and hisses. The mud flaps embossed with chrome cutouts of skull-and-crossbones swayed like a finger beckoning him to approach.

Sunup was marching forward. Hanging loose high up in the cab, Buster dined on beef jerky and Head-Bang cola. Switching on the CB radio, he waded through five minutes of white static before giving up. He rolled himself a homemade cigarette and after lighting up and studying its fiery end for a few seconds, decided to roll the dice. He would challenge the bridge in broad daylight, accept whatever lumps Zombie decided to dish out. In a mad dash across the bridge, perhaps he’d outrun the fears and doubts dogging him over the mountains.

The sunbeams cast on Lake Iuka dissolved its opaqueness right before Buster’s eyes. Cursing, Buster conked the side of his head with the heel of his palm. Nothing helped. The water remained clear as gin. If anglers in bass boats blitzing to a secluded cove witnessed what he did, they were unfazed. A stationwagon towing a pop-up camper headed in the opposite direction zipped by him. They too were immune from what assailed his eyes. Though Lake Iuka was deeper and icier than Loch Ness, Buster was able to see every physical detail informing its bottom. With trepidation, he directed his gaze down the crystal waters at Zombie, anticipating the worst.

• • •

On that fatal dawn three summers ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dam clanging shut its enormous gates on the Iuka River had spelled Zombie’s doom. To their credit, the TVA had rescued some churches and cemeteries, resettled a few larger towns boasting Post Offices. The TVA had also compensated the A-list tobacco farmers for land they owned but left most mountain people to fend for themselves. Families in mule-drawn carts scuttled to higher ground. Zombie lay in the bulls-eye of the vast acreage legislated to swirl under a deluge that politicians termed “Appalachian progress”.

At first, unimpressive stygian ripples backed up. Those dribbles by late morning deepened inch by inch into a broad, murky pond. From White Buzzard’s Overlook, former Zombie residents squatted in ragged rows, fortified with bourbon fifths and licorice-flavored tobacco chaws. Women wore lipstick. A fiddler sawed an old-time rag. Together they watched the flood sloshing below in abject horror. Moans amplified as trickles splayed over Zombie’s curbstones. One harridan, her crowbait arms stirring the air, stomped atop a black rock and screeched. The Red Snout hounds began to bay; the Domineckers squawked.

“She’s useless as a screen door on a submarine,” scoffed Buster’s daddy.

Old Man Tapscott bellowed: “Hell fart. Shut up and stand down, crone. It’s far too late to invoke the Harshener’s aid at this point.”

Buster’s daddy belched. “He’s right. It’d take luck and a miracle.”

Throughout that week, Buster sat glued to the vantage point, grieving for the only place he had ever called home as it submerged under what the neon signboard at the TVA dam labeled Lake Iuka.

A week later, Buster escorted his daddy back to White Buzzard’s Overlook. He pointed to the feed store, the IGA, the drugstore, to all lost in Zombie. It was fabulously visible to the naked eye, Buster maintained, if you stared hard and long enough. Zombie remained real — their little town would never vaporize into a wispy memory or a stale reminiscence. Buster was busting a gut to share his joyful discovery about Zombie.

“Sorry, Buster.” Shielding his eyes with his knobby knuckles, his daddy had wagged his head. “I espy nothing but a scummy lake, son.”

Crestfallen, Buster had continued to defend what he saw until his daddy steered him by the elbow to parley underneath a crab apple tree. Like cowboys, they crouched across from each other, smoking, sipping, chewing, and spitting. It was a true father-son moment. A bright breeze fluttered through White Buzzard’s Overlook tumbling down a shower of pale apple blossoms.

His daddy jostled his balls before sizing up Buster with a spurious grin. “Son, you may as well be let in on a little secret. I expect you possess what we older Chapmans prefer to call ‘the tweaks’. A pretty virulent case of it, too.”

“Huh? The tweaks? What, an inbred disease? You mean I carry an inbred disease?” Buster’s wild-eye gaze met his father’s beady squint.

“Nope, the tweaks is not a malady, not like the common cold.” His father spat and nailed a katydid. “It’s a born energy, akin to a witch woman’s power plying a divining rod. Something along those lines, if you can understand that.”

“Does every Chapman have this born energy?” Buster sputtered. “Do you?”

“Again, no. Last Chapman I know to host it was your Great Great Uncle Johnny. The tweaks drove him like the Wandering Jew. Johnny toted only a powderhorn of apple seeds and a rust-pitted harmonica for company. He was, you see, a planter of apple trees.”

Buster’s jaws slackened. “Yeah, but wasn’t Uncle Johnny Appleseed regarded as a kook?”

“Depends on who you ask. I happen to admire him. Johnny sported a tin pot for a hat, a flour sack for a tunic. He expended a lifetime hoofing it over 100,000 square miles, dibbling apple seeds this way and that, starlit nights communing with owls.”

“How did I end up with these tweaks?” asked Buster.

His father again hiccuped. “You pose more questions than I hold answers. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which line of Chapmans is afflicted. Suffice to say, you’re the one.”

Shaken, Buster edged closer. “So, just how will these tweaks leave me?” he asked, not at all certain he wanted to learn the answer.

His father had paused whittling a whistle from the green willow sprig, upended a brown whiskey bottle before fashioning an explanation. “Can’t determine off the bat. To hear the way you tell things, could be you are a born dreamer of towns. Except your hometown, Zombie, lurks underneath ten fathoms of water. What that means, we’ll have to wait and see, son.”

• • •

Now halfway across the bridge span, Buster struggled to control a violent trembling racking his body. He detected distant shouts of anguish. Leaning out the cranked down window, he spotted through the clear water people sprinting through Zombie’s streets, hysterically screaming. One or two of the bearded men brandished shotguns. Something harrowing threatened their peace of mind. Their eve of destruction was nigh. Their icy venom of fear vicariously electrified Buster’s veins, a cold sweat beaded up on his forehead. Their horror played full tilt in his mind.

The Peterbilt’s fender grating against the low concrete barrier snapped Buster out of his hairy reverie. Hot front tires chewed up the concrete as if bent on vaulting straight over and hurling the rig into Lake Iuka. Burned rubber curdled in Buster’s nostrils. The twin stacked exhausts coughed wide open. Buster locked his arms to propel the Peterbilt to the center of the road.

“Get off my back you damn tweaks,” Buster cried.

Muscling the steering wheel to stabilize the semi, Buster managed to limp with his cargo intact to the far shore. Unnerved, he rolled a cigarette and the smoking calmed him enough to plot his next move. He’d have to make it a smart move, too, before catastrophe struck.

After delivering the cantaloupes to the dumpy warehouse and retrieving his premium, Buster hunted up his daddy who dwelled just above the tree line in the hazy mountains off to the west. The hike, long and arduous, scuffed blisters on the balls of his feet and the back of his heels. The boots he wore were for marshalling trucks, not prowling over boulders. Hands on his knees, Buster leaned against a birch trunk, his lungs heaving for fresh air.

“Holding up?” His daddy slipped out from the shadows of a lichen-crusted ledge.

Still breathless, Buster inhaled a few reps before his reply. “I damn near veered my rig off the Lake Iuka bridge this morning.”

“The tweaks?” his daddy speculated.

“Expect so. Absolute worse case ever gripped me. Pure bedlam rocked Zombie like I never witnessed before,” Buster confessed to him. “I’m coming unraveled, I tell you. Either that or I curry a death wish”

“I might have a bead on your woes,” his daddy mysteriously said.

“Say what?”

“Yesterday I went gobbler hunting with your Uncle Amos,” his daddy said. “He admitted so much as pulling this prank on you.”

“What did he do?” Buster demanded.

“The fool geezer dug up Uncle Johnny Appleseed’s grave,” his daddy explained. “Then he pried the iron-studded coffin apart, sneaked a double-bitted axe inside, replanted the mess.”

Buster took a weary sip from the gin flask his daddy thrust at him. “So?”

“So as the axe destroyed Uncle Johnny’s apple trees, it presently vexes Zombie. Leastways, it does in your mind.”

“Well the joke has turned sour,” Buster snapped. “What now?”

“In order to return things to normalcy, remove the axe,” declared his daddy. “Has to be done at night, too, when the energy flow undulates at its lowest wavelength. Less risk to upset your equilibrium.”

“That’s pure Mumbo Jumbo to me,” said Buster. “But I’m desperate for relief.”

That midnight the two men hitched up red suspenders to their bib overalls, departed Buster’s daddy’s cabin to tramp along moonlit Sugarloaf Hogback and then on some three miles up steeper ridges Buster didn’t recognize. He knew Prince Modoc, the Welsh explorer centuries before Columbus was born, reputedly had prowled these same summits. The “moon-eyed people” were seeking asylum from the marauding Cherokees. It occurred to Buster that their chances to gain safe haven were about the same as his were. Nevertheless, he shared a same trait with the “moon-eyed people” — a gritty persistence to survive.

Eventually, they emerged on a bald dome, tramped through a dewy sedge meadow to a granite cairn. The plot of earth beneath it appeared freshly disturbed where Uncle Amos had dug.

“X marks the spot,” said his daddy, consulting the map Uncle Amos had sketched up to the Coleman lantern. “You excavate. I’ll hoist the light.”

“Hand me that blasted shovel,” snorted Buster. “Let’s finish this onus.”

“Best pace yourself, Buster,” advised his daddy. “Uncle Johnny’s buried plenty deep. Don’t disrupt the energy flow, end up doubled over with stomach cramps. I ain’t equipped with a sturdy enough back to lug you off the mountain.”

Down, down, down Buster scratched and scooped away the flint-studded dirt. He sweated through his work shirt, soon stripped to the waist. The thin airs robbed him of oxygen or else the sedentary lifestyle of truck driving had transformed him into a flaccid slug. He made a quick mental resolution to pump iron again.

At last, the shovel tip scraped metal. Within ten minutes, both men had excavated the dirt free around Johnny Chapman’s coffin. Climbing into the quarried pit, one on each side, on the count of three, they hefted it out.

“Stand on the other side of the cairn,” Buster’s daddy ordered. “Once I open the coffin, Lord only knows how Johnny’s energy field will zap you.”

“You better know what you’re doing,” Buster grumbled. “Otherwise, well, otherwise, I’m toast.”

Buster’s daddy cracked the lid, snatched the axe by its hickory handle, and clumped the coffin shut. Before he flipped the axe aside, Buster had returned to stash it in a burlap sack.

“Nope, this bedevilment conveys with us,” Buster determined. “I’ve suffered enough dad blame torment.”

While hurrying back down the switchbacks, Buster and his daddy overtook Uncle Amos transporting on his back a bundle of sticks to burn in his pot-bellied stove.

“You’re not sore at me, are you?” Uncle Amos asked Buster, his chuckle going hollow.

His face growing red, Buster glared at Uncle Amos until his father nudged him in the knee. “No harm done,” muttered Buster.

“Amos, we reburied the coffin,” Buster’s dad explained. “Backfilled the dirt, tamped it down.”

“Of course you nailed down the lid before all that,” said Uncle Amos.

Buster and his dad exchanged alarmed glances. “No actually, I didn’t,” admitted Buster’s dad. “Is that a bad thing?”

Uncle Amos whistled between his teeth. “Fact is, I don’t know. It’s probably no big deal. Tell you what. Next full moon, I’ll hike back up, nail it extra tight.”

Continuing on, by the time they could smell the smoke from the cabin, Buster had concocted a slick way to cure the mountain clan’s blues pining for Zombie.

At the week’s end, Buster Chapman radioed in his resignation to the home office and sold his Peterbilt semi to a new driver determined to score a mint in the newly deregulated trucking industry. Draining his life savings, Buster placed his order and the wooden crate arrived in a couple weeks strapped down to a flatbed railroad car shuttled to a spur.

By word of mouth, a crowd of onlookers swarmed around Buster and his dad, gawking, panting, and pointing at the wooden crate as if it were the Holy Grail. A wheezing and wobbling forklift shoved its tines under the ponderous crate to hoist off the flatbed car and alight on a hay wagon welded with extra leaf springs.

While Buster ripped the splintery and knotty slats apart, his daddy snipped the metal banding. Once the sides toppled to reveal the contents, the expectant crowd gasped oohs and ahhs at what greeted their eyes.

• • •

The diving bell was nickel-plated and gleamed like a cheval mirror. Two rows of oval windows encircled the hatch along with a bristling array of underwater watch lamps. The instrument was state of the art and patented.

“What are you charging?” a handsome man in his early thirties with a well-trimmed jet mustache prompted Buster. He wore a clean plaid shirt and pleated chino trousers. A Charlotte lawyer, Buster thought, slumming for the weekend desired a rustic experience to tell his tweed-clad cronies at the cigar bar. Peculiar, though, how the man had the twangy mountain patios down pat.

Buster paused at unkinking the air hose. “It’ll set you back one quarter, Mister. What’s more, it’s more fun than a hoochy-koochy show or a tractor pull in any month of Sundays.”

“Does Zombie look same as when I last visited it?” the handsome man wondered. He deftly waltzed around the oxygen tanks.

“Zombie never glittered any grander,” Buster assured him. “Imagine going home again, seeing the lane where you sauntered with your first sweetheart, the hardware store where you purchased your maiden shotgun for pheasant season, or Ratfink’s Alley where you almost lost your jalopy playing craps.”

Buster shagged the tossed quarter the handsome man fished out of a powder horn.

“Pencil me in as the first fellow down,” the handsome man insisted. “I ain’t seen my apple trees in over 150 years.”

 

 

Edward C. Lynskey’s work has appeared in such venues as Strange Horizons, Chizine, Twilight Times, Alien Skin Magazine, Quantum Muse, and Planet Magazine.


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ISSUE #15

Summer 2005

FICTION