Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The True Death

by Colin Heintze


The gutters swelled from the recent rains, billowing grey sludge into the street. The flotsam pooling in the potholes was the usual filth of the city: tattered fliers and torn clothes and excrement molded together in colorful whorls like fingerprints of the city's excesses.

Mike and Ruiz walked together down the promenade.

Mike had taken to accompanying Ruiz on many of his nightly strolls. Ruiz walked slowly, drawing all the sensations of the city into him. He wore his best shoes and coat, as was his tendency during these dusk excursions, despite the miasma of feculence swirling about his footfalls. Swinging flamboyantly at his hip, a hickory walking stick -- an affectation, Mike had always thought, though he knew that its shaft contained a hollowed-out cache of treasures Ruiz would want to keep close at hand.

The pair veered from their course to observe a scene that was forming in the café square. A morbidly rotund man, fully nude save for high heels, feather boa, and delicate layers of metallic makeup, was strutting through the crowd. Struggling at his heels, a nude boy twisted on a leash lashed around the fat man's wrist. A mob of spectators had formed around the man, launching volleys of rubbish and jeers. Amid the fusillade of flying waste and catcalls the great nude strutted haughtily, relishing the attention. A woman broke from the mob and seized the boy by the arm. He appeared to be ten years old, which should have made him nearly twenty-five at the time.

"You don't have to do this, you know," the woman barked.

The child spat in her eye. "Mind your own business!"

"Yeah!" A drunken voice called over the crowd, "Stupid bitch!"

Ruiz resumed his stroll, quickly becoming bored of the spectacle. His pace was moving a little slower than usual, Mike noticed, due to a gimp in the old professor's foot. As they came upon the café, Mike asked him about it.

"My foot?" Ruiz said, pointing at the appendage in question. "It's gout. That's right, gout." And, adding with a wink, "Probably from eating here every night."

After several delays, arguments, and near-brawls in the queue, Mike and Ruiz got their food and set themselves down on one of the long benches lining the square.

Mike was downcast. He was running out of money. After several months peddling his ass down at the meat-markets and going on smash-and-grabs, he had little left to show for. Just the other day, he had had the good fortune of running into a lone courier transporting bags bursting at the seams with beer vouchers. Must have been new. The submachine gun still hung by a chain from his neck and his motorcycle was still fine-tuned to run as quietly as ghost, but he was alone and his reflexes soft. Mike had whipped the man without much effort, leaving only a few broken teeth and patches of hair where the man's face had been. Tempting as they were, he left the gun and motorcycle, knowing that the courier company's enforcers had a knack for tracking down stolen merchandise and exacting vengeance from the purloiners.

For two days afterwards, Mike had hit the stalls trying to pass off his newfound wealth, perplexed that none of the peddlers would even consider accepting his money. Later he discovered the brewer that issued the vouchers had been kidnapped. His associates, rather than pay the ransom, had simply burned down the brewery and moved into other businesses. Those big bags of riches, Mike realized, were about as worthless as the cardboard they were printed on.

Mike stared into his lap. He was well aware that no money meant no more morphine, and that was a situation he could not accept. That was why, in recent months, he had worked so hard at cultivating a relationship with Ruiz, the man whose hollowed-out cane hoarded the goods that were as essential to Mike as air or water. But, Ruiz required some form of currency, be it vouchers, gems, or specie. Privately, Mike cursed Ruiz for not being a homosexual.

The young man's dejection was momentarily broken by a new spectacle forming in the square.

Count So-and-So of Such-and-Such was leading a triumph through the streets, attracting gangs of onlookers jostling with one another in the hopes that the count was in a generous way. The man himself sat atop a gargantuan wheeled platform that rumbled like a panzer-tank over the asphalt. A column of zombies provided locomotion to the ziggurat, yoked to its base by heavy chains around their shoulders. One foot over the other, the shambling thralls dug into the pavement, straining forward in indifferent silence. The weaker ones, losing their time to the slow-beating galley-drums, were trampled over by their continually advancing companions. Eventually, the fallen zombies found themselves ground under the massive iron wheels and spat out as an unrecognizable heap of carnage in the procession's wake.

Ruiz sucked at his fingers and rose from the bench, gingerly shifting the weight from the swollen foot.

"Should we continue, Mike?"

"No, I don't think I want to go any further, I'm not feeling well."

"No? Fine by me. This foot of mine is bothering me like hell, now that I think about it. Care to come over? I have drinks, and some ice even."

Mike nodded solemnly.

"You're really not doing well, are you? Well, come over and we'll talk about it."

Dusk was turning into night and the more timid residents of the city began to shut themselves indoors. Picking their way over heaps of trash and the occasional suicide sprawled over the walkway, the pair made the long meandering course to Ruiz's apartment. In front of the building, a group of teenage dealers were aggressively hawking their wares in high, cracking voices. They wore long, sagging T-shirts that hung nearly to the ankles from their slender bodies. Despite their appearance as little more than slight-framed tweens, Mike knew that they had to be nearer thirty by then, with at least that many murders to their names - murder, of course, being as misleading a concept as age.

"Pure, uncut LSD!" they called at passing pedestrians, waving small perfume-vials of clear liquid over their heads. Approaching the group, Mike thought to himself: now those must be worth something.

Quickening his pace, leaving the lame Ruiz hobbling abruptly in his wake, Mike made a bee-line for the three boys. He put on his most absent-minded expression and bumped shoulders with one of the child-sized dealers, barking out his most astonished 'excuse me' while palming a vial into his pocket. He continued walking as casually as he could after the collision, never looking back for fear of a guilty expression showing on his face.

Within reach of Ruiz's front door, Mike heard a small, fractious voice behind him. He spun around into the barrel of a revolver leveled at his chest. His body shuddered from the echoing report of five thunderclaps and collapsed into the street.

####

Mike and Annie were driving on a warm February day. Last week's snow storm had thawed, leaving the road slick enough to reflect the clouds overhead. In the dream, all but the principle players took on distorted qualities: the oblong sun was bloated and pink; the sky a dim purple; the trees heaved and breathed and shook their leaves like angry whiskers. A road crew had put gravel on the asphalt during the storm, which had coalesced into small dunes lying on the pavement.

Mike looked over at Annie. She was wearing headphones, undulating slightly to some new jam ripped from the computer propped up against her lap. He considered leaning over to kiss her on the cheek, but thought better of it -- she was drifting away in the music, her rhythmic bobbing a trance Mike did not wish to interrupt. 'Let her be, for now.' Mike thought 'When we get to the motel I can talk her ear off.'

As Mike was passing a long eighteen-wheeler a motorcycle came screaming down the center line between them. Mike blasted the horn. Annie jolted in her seat, her hypnosis suddenly broken by the daredevil maneuver. The biker threw up his arm, knuckles out, as if ready to make an obscene gesture when he ran into one of the dunes lying across the road. The biker grabbed at the handle bars and tried to right the warbling machine. There was nothing he could do. The bike lost its balance and fell into the path of the monstrous eighteen-wheeler. The truck veered recklessly to evade the accident, smashing into Mike's car and sending both careening to the roadside. The twenty-ton giant easily clawed over the small sedan, its trailer leaping into the air and crashing down on top of the helpless car.

They were pinned. Somehow, a tank ruptured, flooding the ground with diesel fuel. Annie was screaming, her arm tangled in a mass of twisted gears. Mike pulled at her desperately, soon joined by the truck driver who had vaulted from the cab to aid in the rescue.

Then, a strange thing happened. Mike saw the hand of the trucker, doggedly working at freeing Annie's arm from the wreck, begin to glow. It was a soft glow at first, like a small fire had been lit inside the man, but it soon grew into a blinding radiance that beamed from the man's mouth, eyes, and ears. The driver's hand lost the ability to grasp at the knotted hunk of gears and flesh, fumbling madly until the fingers could only pass through the solid material. As the man shined ever brighter, he became weightless. He began drifting into the air. What was left of his face conveyed the deepest concern and sympathy. Vainly, he tried to swim back down towards the accident, towards Annie screaming in the wreckage and Mike struggling to pull her away.

The deranged gears lurched, snapping away Annie's arm between their cruel, grating teeth. Newly unencumbered, they ground against each other and sent a shower of sparks to the ground. The diesel ignited. Annie's seat caught fire, then Annie -- first in a few sporadic flares, then in a roaring orange blaze. Mike wrapped her in a blanket from the back seat and carried her away from the smoldering wreck. Throwing the blanket back, Annie howled, louder than before, as the blanket peeled away strips of flesh melted into the coarse fabric.

The truck driver was very small now, just a floating blip in the clouds, though he burned with all the piercing brilliance of an ascending star. Looking down to earth, he saw that the girl was dead. She lay in a crackling purple pile, more thing than human. The young man Mike knelt at her side, staring with horrified disbelief at the charred mound of creature whose cheek he had declined to kiss only minutes before. The truck driver looked down sadly at the disaster. He had tried his best, but there was nothing that could have been done. In a blinding flash, he transformed into a beam of light and shot into the sky.

All around him, Mike saw scintillating neon rays. The horizon in every direction buzzed with columns of light racing to the heavens. Soon, the frequency increased and Mike found himself in what seemed to be the eye of a meteor shower, though the celestial missiles streaked upwards towards heaven instead of down to earth.

Eventually, the light-show ceased with a few final, isolated barrages. Mike sat in the road, too stunned to speak, too ravaged to think. The adrenaline that had flooded his system had dissipated, leaving him feeling hollow and depleted and searching for a hidden reserve of strength to retain consciousness. 'All those beams...were people?' he thought in wonderment.

A few yards in front of him in the road, something stirred. Mike crept forward on four rubbery limbs. The smoldering heap stirred again, louder, a grating moan issuing from it like the droning of a passing airplane. Instinctively, Mike recoiled, but in time summoned his courage and pressed forward. A blackened, ghoulish face rolled over towards him.

"Muk..." it hissed like a rusted kettle.

That is where the dream ended. Her big yellow eyes swelled larger and larger until they encompassed the entire world and beyond. Mike writhed on their surface, snared in the slimy membrane, an insect caught on fly-paper.

####

Mike awoke with what he knew was the beginning a pounding headache. He rolled in the sticky web that had congealed around him, freeing his arms from under the folds of tarp that had been laid under his corpse. To his relief, he found himself in Ruiz's apartment.

"How long was I dead?" he called out in a hoarse whisper, his vocal chords not yet fully regenerated.

"Why hello, lazy boy!" Ruiz exclaimed, poking his head out from the room that served as both kitchen and laboratory. From the smell, he seemed to be cooking eggs in his ridiculous-looking apron. "About two days."

"Two days! Shit, I have to get home!"

"Don't worry, kid, I took care of it. I gave her a whole dose of the morphine, and a half of sedatives. She'll be in never-never land for a few more hours."

"Shit, man that was downright decent of you."

"You're goddamn right. And don't you dare tell anyone, either. After that shit you pulled, I should have just left you out there on the stoop to rot. I don't need that kind of attention, you know? If you really wanted acid that badly anyways, why didn't you just ask me? You know I could have always cooked some up for you."

"It wasn't for me." Mike said. His headache was beginning to pound in perfect symmetry with his pulse. "I was going to sell it."

"Stupid idea." Ruiz retorted, scooping the eggs onto a plate. "Acid doesn't draw squat around here. Can you imagine, this place on acid?"

"I guess you're right."

"I always am." Ruiz beamed, bits off egg tumbling down his beard.

Mike prodded himself. He was still soft and lean, muscle always being the last thing to regenerate. Mostly, he noticed, he stank -- his entire body was pasted over with dried blood, and flies swam in long looping arcs over his head.

"Mind if I use your shower, guy?"

"Sure kiddo, if you can get it to work. You know, you bled more than I've ever seen in my life, and that's really saying something. They must have gotten the carotid artery."

"Must have."

Mike picked himself up and staggered to the shower-stall. Turning the handle, the innards of the building went into spasms of rumbles and groans. After a moment of sputtering air, a pathetic trickle of brownish water issued from the showerhead. This was Ruiz's building. He had bought out most of his neighbors in order to pursue his two great loves: privacy, and the mass production of medical-grade narcotics.

Mike called to Ruiz over the faint dribble of water.

"Clothes, you say?" Ruiz called back as Mike exited the stall, feeling no cleaner than when he had entered.

Mike was presented with pants that sagged from his waist and shirts that came over his knuckles.

"I'll just go in the buff, if you don't mind"

Ruiz shrugged. "Hey, whatever floats your boat."

Minutes later, they sat facing each other, glasses of beer at hand. Mike was shuddering from time to time, itching with the post-mortem creepy-crawlies. Mike fought through the cement in his throat and asked the question that had been nagging him for fifteen years, as much to put an end to the uncomfortable silence as to sate his curiosity.

"Ruiz, why are we here?"

"Ah yes, the eternal question!" the old man exclaimed.

"No, that's not what I mean. I meant why are we here?"

"As a scientist, I can only give you one honest answer: I haven't the faintest damn idea."

"You're not a spiritual man... no, of course you're not."

"When the rapture came -- and I use that term liberally, for lack of a better one - the event was completely non-denominational, conforming to no real ethical standard we can decipher. Everyone wondered why our most kind and wholesome people were taken up. Maybe it was God calling home his elect, or the alien mothership cruising for prime specimens, or maybe this world just got too wicked for all those gentle souls. Damned if I know, really. To be honest, I don't care."

"You don't care, not at all?" Mike asked incredulously.

"Why should I?" Ruiz snapped back, letting the wild gesticulation of his hands do most of the talking. "Humanity has been granted its greatest wish: immortality! We live in a world without fear, regret, or loss, able to indulge our every passion without consequence. Don't let the thrash in the street and the whores in the alleyway mislead you: this place is Eden, my friend! It may be a consolation prize for us left-behinds, but you don't see me complaining, do you?"

"Why do you think you were left behind then, you ass?"

Ruiz let out a heavy sigh and hesitated, measuring his words.

"Because my entire life I have been an unceasing, unabashed asshole -- and completely unashamed of it. You may not know this, but I have had five wives in my life. If you want to know why all those marriages failed, just ask some of the girls that were in my organic chemistry course. They usually had the pleasure of becoming my next one. When I was teaching chemistry at the university, I passed and failed my students based as much on their cup size as anything else. I delegated all the hard work to my TA's and took credit for whatever they discovered. I fucked girls a third my age by dangling internships and research grants over their heads. So, in answer to your question, that is why I am here, and I have absolutely no regrets. Satisfied?"

"I suppose so. At least you're honest."

Ruiz was curling a finger in his beard. A villainous look came across his face.

"So, I told you something about me, now would you tell me something about you?"

"I suppose so. I have nothing to hide. After all, I am sitting naked on your couch."

"It's about Annie."

"Excuse me?"

Ruiz tiptoed around the question, trying to gauge Mike's reaction.

"It's just that...you've always spoken of her in such high regard, like she was an angel. Why then, do you think she was left behind?"

Mike fought for the self-control not to hurl himself at the old man.

"How should I know? Maybe she was embezzling from her company, or maybe she was fucking everybody in the neighborhood in their kid's beds. I don't know, and I don't care!"

"Easy, easy." Ruiz cooed, holding out his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Just curious, is all. It's just that...everybody is stuck with the exact body they had at the moment of the 'rapture'. So, there are a lot of people out there walking around with a broken arm or a terminal illness from here to eternity. Most of us are lucky. If we get HIV from some whore at the meat-markets, or a toothache, or anything for that matter, even a bad haircut, we can throw ourselves off a balcony and wake up a few days later a new man. I suppose I thought that maybe Annie, to be in the state she is, had done something really reprehensible. Keep in mind, I'm not judging -- that became passé fifteen years ago."

"Well, you thought wrong" Mike growled sullenly.

"My apologies, then." Ruiz decided to change the subject, knowing he had overstepped his boundaries. "Why the existentialism, all of the sudden? Are you thinking of finding religion, my boy?"

Mike let out a puff of hot air. "No, I don't think so. If there's one thing I'm sure about, it's that all the old religions were finally exposed for what they are -- frauds."

"I find it funny that all religions, in one form or another, promised one big pay-off: eternal life. Here we are, immortal, and people still aren't satisfied! We've been given the keys to the pyramid, but we can't stop fussing that we've been given the raw deal instead. Bunch of ingrates if you ask me -- present company excluded, of course."

"What about those people that want to die?"

"That is the other irony, all these new religions popping up promising the path to the true death. Fifteen years ago, they guaranteed eternal life, something as fundamentally impossible then as death is today. The grass, young man, is always greener on the other side."

"So, you haven't heard of any of these cults actually delivering on their promise?" Mike asked. He had considered the question for a long time, and finally felt confident that he had met in Ruiz a person informed enough to answer it.

"No, not that I know of. There's the Sirians, stoking their bonfires on the mountaintop to call back the Alpha Centauri mothership. There's the Penitents, those long, ragged processions you see in the streets whipping themselves in the hope of purging their sins by the flesh of their backs. Personally, I prefer the cults that celebrate our immortality, not lament it -- take the Valhallans, for example: running around in chain-mail and battle axes, drinking until they die sitting at their feasts-- now that's religion."

"How many of these religions do you think are out there?"

"Thousands, at least. But we're forgetting the big one, the only really organized sect, the good old tee-double-o."

Mike knew that one. Everyone did. The Temple of Oblivion, or simply "The Temple", was the primary manufacturer of the zombies that labored in the streets below. The Temple's philosophy was simple: if death is unattainable, than settle for the next best thing via massive doses of neurotoxins and prefrontal lobotomy. The mystical connotations of the sect's name were mostly theatre. Beneath the solemn black robes of the priests and the high, gilded altars of the temples was a thriving, bustling industry. What afforded the Temple its great success, meaning hundreds of chapters on six continents, was that it was catholic in nature: anyone could join up, and its services were free. The drugs cost next to nothing to produce, and the 'sacred dispatchers' were not exactly highly skilled professionals. Whatever the meager operation costs of the faith were, they reaped profits many times over by the sale of zombies as pets, sexual objects, or, most commonly, brute laborers. Whatever reservations potential clients had about becoming some gentry's personal rickshaw driver were easily dispelled by viewing a zombie in action: a zombie never expressed pain, exhaustion, sadness, or joy. The powerful neurotoxins deprived the thrall of almost all sensory input and self-awareness, save for a basic stimulus-response mechanism and a strong susceptibility to suggestion. It was, as advertised, the closest thing to a real death.

"What about that one I heard about, the Peterians? I kept seeing fliers that they guaranteed the true death. Maybe if..."

Ruiz threw up his hand and interrupted, "So you haven't heard then, have you?"

"Heard what?" Mike was exasperated, his newly-formed throat raw from the discourse.

"The Peterians were just turning their clients into zombies and hiding them in underground complexes. Some of the Baron's men discovered it: a subterranean cavern a mile long, stuffed to the gills with zombies stacked together like cordwood."

"How awful."

"All's well that ends well. The Baron had the church elders seized and sealed up in the hollow, only without the luxury of having had their brains liquefied."

The conversation was taking its toll on Mike, physically and spiritually. He looked at his watch and saw that it had stopped, having gone unwound during the two days he was dead. From the volume of the rapes and brawls filtering through the heavy concrete walls, Mike guessed it was just past nightfall.

"I should get going" He said, rising stiffly to his feet. "Annie will be up soon. Take this. While I'm here, I should get a little more."

Mike slid a handful of copper coins across the table. The professor lifted them off the damp wood and scrutinized them closely. The façade on the coin bore the profile of a strikingly handsome man, a former movie-star turned petty hegemon, if Ruiz recalled correctly.

"These won't be worth anything after this guy's deposed again." Ruiz remarked dryly.

"Then you'll just have to spend them quickly."

Ruiz, defeated, sighed as he unscrewed the head of his hickory walking-stick. Holding the cane over Mike's hand, a few syringes and pills tumbled out of the hollow chamber into his palm.

"Thanks, pal. You're a lifesaver."

Ruiz murmured bitterly and waived Mike away with an annoyed gesture.

Mike had gotten halfway down the landing when he heard Ruiz hailing him from above. Mike glanced up to see Ruiz hanging over the balcony three stories above him.

"Hey, kid!" Ruiz shouted "I almost forgot. This isn't really a religion -- it's more of a company, though that may be splitting hairs - but you may still find it interesting..."

Ruiz released a small card from his fingers that drifted down like a feather on the breeze. Mike snatched it out of the air, turned the card over in his hands, and read:

Dis Pater

Tel:(3)9164795

"It will be hard to find a working phone, you know." Mike hollered at the grinning puck balancing over the ledge. Mike had hoped this comment would result in an invitation to use the phone Ruiz had jacked into his laboratory wall.

"I'm not worried, you're a resourceful kid. Take care of yourself!"

With a clang of the heavy steel door closing on its hinges, Ruiz shut himself back into the apartment.

####

Mike came home to the distressing sound of heavy breathing emanating from the back room. Annie was awake as Mike had feared. By the lack of anguished cries she seemed to be just coming out of the tranquilizers. He rushed into the rear bedroom, trampling over the crusty browned sheets that carpeted the floor.

If Annie was awake already, Mike thought, she must be building up a tolerance to the medications again. Soon, Mike realized, he would have to give her another lethal overdose to bring her resistances back to zero.

"Muk?" the voice whined from beneath the mound of coiled bandages.

"Ya, iz Muk." He soothed. This was the speech they shared, their private language.

"Muk?" She said more urgently, her way of drawing him closer.

He put his ear against the small crevice in the wrappings where Annie's voice sputtered through.

"Kul me, Muk. Kul me."

He placed a hand gently on the wheezing heap of flesh and gauze. Annie winced at the contact, issuing a small yelp.

"I'm working on it, babe."

####

Mike made his way up the long drive towards the complex on the hill. The short hike made him uneasy. There was an uncomfortable sense of familiarity with the place. He became overwhelmed by the distinct feeling that he was being watched, not by the snipers on the tower, who were an intentionally visible menace, but by eyes lurking from the hedgerows at his sides. The path ended abruptly at a deserted round-about. With the entirety of the complex in full view, Mike realized why he was being nagged by the strange feeling of deja vu: the compound was formerly a hospital. He had taken Annie there after her accident, only to have the overwrought and hysterical staff tell him that there were no beds, no doctors, and all the medicine had been looted anyways.

Mike proceeded a few more steps when the ground began to rumble beneath him. Three circles of artificial turf skillfully blended into the natural grass flew open like trap doors. As swiftly as snapping elastic three chambers shot from the ground, the concussion knocking Mike to the turf.

Three men, fully armed and armored, emerged from the pods, Uzis leveled at mike's chest.

One of them barked at Mike. His face was covered in a tactical mask, only his hard eyes peeking through his helmet's visor.

"Who are you?" the man demanded.

"My name is Mike, I called on the phone, I --"

"What's the passcode!" The man screamed. He appeared to be enraged. If it was an act, it was very convincing.

Mike cleared his throat and answered softly, almost reverentially, "Dis Pater."

The trio of mercenaries relaxed their combat-stances and lowered the weapons to their hips. The barrels pointed at the ground, though one slight gesture could quickly bring up a storm of firepower if needed.

"Front door!" The masked man snarled, motioning with the butt of his Uzi.

Shaken, Mike proceeded through the automatic doors into a reception area. Behind a large desk, a receptionist sat filing her nails. She was young and beautiful and smartly dressed and smelled lightly of a perfume that was both subtle and expensive. Her hair was rigidly combed and cropped and there was something about her that seemed to conjure associations with boarding schools or fascist rallies.

"My name is Mike --" Mike began as he approached the desk.

"I know. Take a right, a left, then another left. Stop at the blue sign"

She sent Mike away without once looking up from her manicure.

The building was newly renovated. Mike smelled fresh paint and disinfectant. Everything was in shades of white, grey, or stainless steel -- just like the old hospital, it was frightening in its calculated efficiency. Emanating from somewhere far off, a hint of hydrochloric acid hung in the air.

Mike arrived at the blue sign and saw that it was a feature of the old hospital not yet taken down. The sign read: "Pediatrics".

Mike knocked at the door and entered.

The room shared little difference with the rest of the building: it was bare, sanitary, and institutional. In the center of the room, a pudgy, balding man sat behind a simple lacquered desk. The imposing security guards and immaculate receptionist had nothing on this man. Though he was balding and paunchy, he wore both with an aplomb approaching caricature. Every detail, from the huge, uniform pores on his face, to the perfectly tailored suit, to even the waxy sheen on the few hairs left anchored to his temples, presented the man as the very image of perfection. He beckoned Mike to sit at the desk, Mike quickly obeying.

The man initiated, "I apologize for all the security measures. The survival of this enterprise depends on things being accomplished in a very strict, organized fashion -- we can't have the chaos of the outside world breaking in and spoiling all our hard work, now can we?" His voice was rich and eloquent and he rolled his R's with purring elegance. Occasionally, hints of a foreign accent snuck through, but generally the man's voice, like his appearance, was impeccable.

"So, if you don't mind me asking, what exactly do you do here?" Mike ventured coyly. He was nervous in the presence of such monstrous perfection.

"What we do here," the man said, folding his hands gracefully "is offer what all the prophets and oracles always promise, but never deliver: the true death."

Mike nearly jolted in his seat. He fought for words but could not speak, electing to stare stupidly at the man instead.

"Allow me to explain. Everybody who has endeavored death in the last fifteen years has universally met failure. Even those who attempted creative solutions -- dissolving in a vat of acid, incineration -- were resurrected several days later, usually away from the place of death. Our researchers, through several years of study, have found the explanation: every living thing on this planet will, upon death, regenerate from the largest piece of material bearing its DNA. Thus, even if one manages to completely annihilate their body, they will regenerate from an errant skin flake or eyelash of theirs somewhere in the world."

"Then...how can you do it?"

"Our program is a long-term commitment. For two years, long enough for most pieces of your DNA in the outside world to break down, we keep you in a totally self-contained environment. While you wait out the grace period, we send teams to sanitize every place you can remember being in the last two years: your home, your favorite bar, your workplace - if you have one, that is. After all the preparations have been made, we bombard your body with a specific radiation designed to alter and destroy your genetic code, then incinerate your body totally, all inside the self-contained environment located in the East wing of this building."

Two years!

The man lit a long, slim cigarette and continued his address.

"Of course, it's all very expensive. This company was started with funds by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, and as such, they are mostly our clients. Do you think you can afford our services?"

"It's not for me. It's for someone else. If we both can do it, that would be best, but if I have to stay behind, then I'd accept that too."

"That still doesn't answer my question," the man said flatly.

"No, I don't think I can afford it."

"Don't dismay yet, young man. We have a program for that, too. In exchange for our services, you may do work for us in order to settle your fee."

"What kind of work?' Mike said, his eyes narrowing. "Dirty work?"

"Whatever best suits your aptitudes. Frankly, you won't have much choice in the matter."

"How long will I have to work for you before we can go into the East wing?"

"That depends entirely on what kind of work you are doing for us. The average length is three years."

Another three years, bringing the total up to five. Five years for some fancy program for world-weary kings and celebrities.

By the fresh paint on the walls Mike knew the enterprise was still too young to have yet seen results. More and more, a five-year commitment seemed less attractive. Besides, what if the "work" he would be performing took him away from Annie? He would not be able to live with himself, though he would certainly have to.

Mike slumped in his chair and began to cry. The pudgy man, always the professional, produced a box of tissues and indifferently pushed them across the table.

####

Ruiz awoke to the sound of loud banging on his door. Coming out of a deep sleep, he wasn't sure if it was day or night; like most people in the city, he kept no regular hours.

Mike pounded on the forged steel until his fists were raw. A hidden slat slid away and two cobalt-blue barrels pressed against Mike's nostrils.

"Ruiz, it's me, Mike!"

"Mike? How did you get past the front door?"

"I picked the lock."

"You little shit."

"Come on, let me in, I've got to show you something."

With a reluctant sigh Ruiz shut the peephole and removed the bar on his side. Pulling with all his might, Ruiz swung open the door.

Mike dashed over the threshold with no invitation or observance. He was eagerly waving a green piece of paper in his hand, beaming like a child with a good report card.

"Here!" He said, practically pummeling the sheet into Ruiz's chest. "Read."

Ruiz unfolded the paper and read it.

"Interesting," he said, becoming infected with Mike's enthusiasm in spite of himself. "This flier says that one of the Utah warlords got his hands on an old fission bomb. As a demonstration of his magnanimity, he will be throwing an 'end of the world' party and detonating the device over the 'seekers of the true death'".

"I know! Isn't it wonderful?"

"I can see you're excited, but why did you have to go and interrupt my nap for this? I was having the loveliest dream about a girl I used to privately tutor..."

Mike's face became very serious.

"Ah. You want to go, and bring Annie with you...and you need money?"

Mike nodded grimly.

Ruiz turned away from Mike and limped -- his foot had become swollen to the size of a buffalo's -- to a bookshelf. Heaving and grunting, Ruiz pulled an overstuffed binder from the shelves and put the flier inside it.

"Do you know what this is?" Ruiz asked in a strange timbre.

Mike shook his head.

"History. These last fifteen years, I've been collecting every flier I can find to keep as a record of what the world was feeling in these infant years of immortality. Most people believe that, since there are no more births and no more deaths, history ended fifteen years ago. I am of the opinion, however, that our real history is just beginning. One day, someone will resurrect the dying study of history. When they do, my fliers will be a huge contribution to what will no doubt be a mission of vital academic importance."

Ruiz was wheezing from holding the heavy binder. His point made, he clumsily shoved the bloated codex into the empty space on the shelf.

"It will be very dangerous." Ruiz said, approaching Mike. "You will most likely have to travel through the last of the federal lands, the Kansas-Nebraska territories."

"What's there?" Mike asked, not welcoming a diversion from the topic but unwilling to offend his potential benefactor.

"In the first years after the rapture, all anybody could do was wonder what happened. All of our social, political, and moral institutions were torn down, those institutions being in some abstruse way founded upon the expectation of a finite lifetime. The region that would come to pass as the last stronghold of federalism became determined to hang onto those traditions, while simultaneously meting out punishment to those they thought responsible. The only thing that flew up faster than churches, in those days, were prisons. Can you imagine, what serving a life sentence means today? The worst came with the people they labeled as 'reprobates' - homosexuals, abortionists, and atheists mostly. The places they constructed to contain them...let's just say they made Auschwitz look like the Holiday Inn."

"What happened?"

"Oh, nothing much. Most were let go. As society collapsed, so did the funds and discipline to run the concentration camp system. The reprobates were mostly crowded into basements and cellars and walled in. I just felt I should warn you, since you'll be going there: keep your nose clean, and for God's sake, don't tell anyone you're from the city!"

"Does this mean you're giving me the money?" Mike exclaimed, a surge of joy pulsing through him.

"On several conditions. One: if your little suicide-mission fails, which I believe it will, you must tell me about everything that you saw on your journey. I'm sure your experiences will provide excellent perspective for the historical record. Two: If you have the chance to send a postcard, if such a thing still exists, you must do so at every opportunity. And, three: you must help me out with this little foot problem of mine."

"Anything! Anything!"

Ruiz hobbled over to the brick wall facing the kitchen. Counting the bricks one-by-one, he stopped at a particular cell and pulled it from the wall.

"Hold out your hand." Ruiz commanded, and commenced to pour a stream of sparkling stones into Mike's outstretched palm from the hollowed-out brick. "Besides sex and drugs, this is the only universal currency I know of. Spend it wisely -- just one of these is worth a week's whore-mongering down at the canal meat-markets."

"Thank You!" Mike whooped, embracing the old man and slapping his back.

Ruiz struggled feebly to push the young man away.

"Enough of that nonsense! Remember my conditions. Come, follow me to the bathroom. While it's in my mouth, the damned shotgun is too long to pull the trigger with anything but my toes, which, as you can plainly see, are out of commission right now."

Mike followed the disrobing Ruiz into the bathroom. With a groan, Ruiz lowered his pale body into the tub.

"I never should have let it go this far," Ruiz sighed, scowling at his bloated foot. "But I was curious to see how much I could endure."

Ruiz handed the stock to Mike and put the barrel in his mouth, resting his head against the cracked tile. The old man flashed a thumbs-up to his executioner.

Mike stood over Ruiz, finger on the trigger.

"You said, Ruiz," Mike delivered with deliberate gravity "That you could not understand why people didn't embrace the 'rapture'. I'll tell you why: because that day, we lost the best of ourselves, and wish more than anything to be reunited with it."

Mike pulled the trigger. >From outside, the blast was met with a retort of other shots shattering the night.

####

Fortunately, Mike left ample time for unforeseen surprises. He made it as far as Grand Junction, Colorado with a handful of diamonds. The price he paid to the aviator was obscene, more than three times what it should have been, but the pilot -- a shrewd, dirty man -- pointed out that Mike was traveling alone and burdened by unusual baggage.

"A lot of nasty things can happen, out there on the road." The man said, his voice thick with innuendo. "Plus, that thing you got with you makes me nervous. I don't like it, being that close to something like that." He spat in the direction of Annie, who was slumped over in her wheelchair.

Mike had no room to negotiate. He paid the exorbitant fee to the aviator and crawled into the cab of the old twin-engine aircraft.

The flight was nearly unbearable. The pilot was drunk throughout the journey and filled the cab with a carrion-like stench. Between terrifying dives and rolls, he delivered epic diatribes describing his sexual encounters past and present, some of which took place before the events of fifteen years ago when they were still illegal. Mike tried to ignore the pilot's depraved rants by focusing on the beautiful cloudscapes below, only to be jolted from his meditations by a sudden corkscrew or banking maneuver.

Several times during the flight, Annie came out of the drugs. Mike reached for the syringes but was halted by Annie's grunting protests. In their secret language, she told him to prop her head on his shoulder so she could look out the window with her good eye at the passing scenery. Try as she did to restrain herself, after a few minutes her groans grew louder. Three times Mike administered morphine and tranquilizers to the pilot's demands to 'shut that thing up.' Mike, powerless against the filthy pilot's abuses, anticipated being on solid ground, where he daydreamed about lopping off the man's head and placing it on the prow of the plane. For the time being, however, Mike would have to endure the stomach-turning company of the babbling lecher.

The pilot stuck a near crash-landing on a rural airstrip outside of Pallisade under the pretense of refueling. Mike and Annie waited on the runway for two hours before the pilot returned with two other men bearing rifles.

"End of the line for you." The pilot sneered as he drew upon Mike.

"What's this?" Mike demanded.

"I know you got more of those diamonds. Hand them over."

Mike fought the instinctive urge to pat his hand against the seam he had sewn the few remaining stones into.

"I already gave you everything I had."

"Bullshit."

Mike threw the unconscious Annie over one shoulder, the collapsible wheelchair over the other, and sprinted towards the tree line. The men gave no chase, either believing his bluff or unwilling to exert themselves chasing an obviously desperate man. For the next two days, Mike pushed Annie along deserted rural roads until eventually connecting with the highway.

Just as the pilot had promised, the road was hard and dangerous. Mike learned from his experience with the aviator to only reveal the diamonds as a last resort, opting instead to trade in one or two for local currency.

He used most of the remainder of his money hiring a zombie rickshaw to take him over the mountains. Most of the highway traffic was some means of conveyance powered by zombies -- not the bloated, disfigured thralls of the city but young, lean, and muscular beasts of burden that could cover forty miles a day at a dead sprint. Privately, Mike suspected that these zombies were not volunteers, as the young were generally satisfied with their lot of an eternity of youth and beauty.

Travel by zombie was especially unnerving. The monsters were stupid enough that traffic jams and collisions frequently halted their progress. The mindless mules seemed doggedly determined to always advance in a straight line, and on several occasions Mike and Annie's zombie nearly plunged them over cliffsides at sharp bends in the road. Early in the grotesque procession, Mike gave Annie a lethal overdose to keep her quiet over the long, jarring ride. He always hated resorting to killing her, and noted with bitter shame that it was as much for his own peace of mind as her comfort.

On a deserted stretch of Highway they were attacked. Two men hiding in roadside foliage sprung from their ambushes and kicked over the rickshaw. The zombie, lying on its side, continued to pantomime the motions of running through the air.

The two men's eyes were glassy and wavering, a clear indication to Mike that they were frenzied by one of the household chemical drug concoctions rumored to have reached epidemic proportions in the countryside. Mike managed to knock one of the men down with a kick to the gut while simultaneously jabbing a syringe full of Oxycontin into the other's neck. The second man fell dead instantly. Mike scuffled briefly with the first man until pinning him and crushing his skull with a boulder lying in the road. Breathing heavily, combat weary, Mike buried them in shallow graves. His flesh crawling as he picked up and righted the fallen zombie, Mike sought comfort in the knowledge that it would take two or three resurrections before the men could claw their way up to the surface again.

Mike's salvation came in the form of beaten van sputtering down the road in a plume of bilious smoke. The mangled vehicle drew to a squealing halt alongside Mike and Annie, spraying them with a shower of gravel. Immediately, Mike thrust a hand into his jacket. There he had hidden a shank he had hammered on the railroad tracks from and old scrap of metal. It was a nasty implement. One stab guaranteed death, if not immediately from the trauma then weeks later from infection.

The door of the van opened with an ear-splitting creak. Just as Mike was bracing himself for a fresh assault, a shrunken, grinning face poked out from within the rumbling beast.

"You kids need a ride?" an old man said. He was nearly bald save for wildly disheveled silver plumage growing like coral from his temples. His grinning mouth was little more than a puckered hole, one rotten tooth protruding from his long, orange gums.

Mike circled cautiously until he could steal a look inside the van. There was no one else in it, as far as he could see -- though the tangled briar of cords, cables, wires, and lengths of pipe could have easily concealed a small army. The frail man was wearing a stained pair of long johns stuffed into some oversized, scuffed army boots.

"So, how bout' it son?"

Mike realized that he was in the desert, fifty miles away from his destination, pushing a wheel-chair-bound corpse to an end of the world party that was only two days away. He approached the driver cautiously. The old man thrust out his hand, causing Mike to momentarily recoil. In the city, physical contact was anathema -- most touching inevitably lead to some form of violence. Here in the country, Mike reasoned, maybe people were less territorial. Anyways, the old man seemed to be of the harmless and endearing type of lunacy. Mike seized the spotty hand and was given a surprisingly firm shake, the old man's grip all sinew and gristle.

"The name's Whitney." The ancient lips drawled.

"Mike."

"Clear out some room in the back for your missus. Don't worry about moving nothin', I got the whole place memorized." Whitney said, pointing proudly at his forehead.

"Excuse me, Whitney, but how'd you know that she's a girl...I mean with all the bandages?"

"I seen the way you pushin' her down the road. I seen how you watch over her, and I figure a boy your age, it must be a girl you're lookin' after with that kind of attention."

Mike nodded. The codger was harmless as a caterpillar.

"She all right there, young man?"

"Fine. Just resting."

"I've seen that before." The old man reminisced, his voice cracking. "Awful thing. My wife -- chemical accident. I thank God every day she was taken up to heaven, bless her soul."

The van lumbered westward with Whitney behind the wheel, Mike in the passenger seat, and Annie set upright in the back, nestled in a niche of debris that had been cleared away to accommodate her.

"I'm an inventor, kid." Whitney said after a long silence sucking at his tooth. "That's what I'm all about. I want to make things that help people. Like one day, all the oil's gonna run out and won't nobody be able to use cars or airplanes no more, so I try to find new ways to make oil."

"How about a death machine?" Mike scoffed bitterly.

"Uh uh. That one wouldn't work, cause' people don't die no more." The old man said without a trace of irony in his voice. "Reach under yonder seat there, son, and I'll show you something."

Mike navigated the maze of cracked circuit boards and surgical tubing before finally emerging with an odd contraption. The object was composite of metal, plastic disks, and leather straps. A seemingly random placement of loose wires and bolts sprang out from its surface.

"What is it?" Mike asked. His curiosity was not feigned for the old man's sake. The object was certainly a success as modern art, though any functional purpose it could possess was lost on him.

"That is what's known as a pro-to-type. This here particular prototype is an arm for people who ain't got one. Try it on, just put your arm behind you like it ain't there and strap that pad to your shoulder."

At Whitney's insistence, Mike donned the strange apparatus. Against all his expectations, with an involuntary twitch of his neck the mechanical arm lurched forward and clumsily groped the dashboard before snapping off at the shoulder. The contraption fell to the floorboards, writhing momentarily like a drowning worm before seizing into rigid flex.

"Aw, shoot!" Whitney cried, diving after his creation. Mike dove as well - to grab the wheel Whitney was neglecting while he tore the van apart for his soldering iron. "It'll work! Just needs some adjustments is all. It needs aluminum. You don't got any aluminum, do yas?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Aw well, I'll find some. People throw things away, call it trash, but I ain't never seen something that could be called real trash. Everything can be useful, if you got the knowledge to use it."

In the following hours with Whitney trundling over the pock-marked highway, the old man revealed himself as a member of the Kindness Society. The Kindness Society, Whitney explained through a lengthy discourse, was a group of people dedicated to spreading good deeds in the hopes that, be it meager weeks or long centuries in the future, God would issue a recall and ascend a few thousand more into the kingdom of heaven. As they drew nearer to the end of the world, Mike found himself regretting that he would have to leave Whitney behind. For a moment, the vision of the three of them traveling around the country planting seeds of hope and friendship flashed warmly in his mind. It had been a long time since he'd met a kind person, long enough to overwhelm him with emotions he had thought horror and bitter experience had killed in him.

The stream of pilgrims gradually became a rising flood. The first pilgrims they had passed clung together in small, wary groups. Whitney had tooted on the horn and waved. Nearing the site of the party -- an old, long-abandoned army proving-ground - the trickle became a torrent. The van was snarled in a traffic jam, creeping forth at the speed of walking. Whitney laid on the horn, futilely attempting to part the congested sea of motor vehicles, zombies, and pedestrians swarming to the apocalypse.

"If we keep goin' slow like this, the engine's gonna stall." Whitney announced.

"That's okay. I think it's time for us to leave, anyways."

"You sure? If you want, I can take you a little further up..."

"No, we'll be fine." Mike interrupted, placing a hand on Whitney's shoulder.

The van squealed to a halt. The current of pilgrims changed course to move around the obstruction.

"Well kid, it's been nice knowin' ya. I hope everything works out at your party."

Whitney offered his hand. Mike seized the knobby fingers and squeezed them fondly. The day with Whitney had left him feeling refreshed -- he could not remember the last time he spent a day as anything other than a hard man.

"Don't ever change." He pleaded affectionately. "You keep working for your spot in heaven, you got me? Christ knows, you deserve it."

"Ain't nothing. Way I see it, I got nothin' but time on my hands. Maybe that's why we're here, because there is certain things what can't be accomplished in one lifetime."

Mike wiggled his little finger through the seam of trousers, scooping the last of the precious diamonds into his palm.

"Whitney, I want you to have these."

Whitney threw up his hands and grimaced. "The hell I want those for? You keep em' -- you need them more than me. Now if you had some aluminum for me, it might be a different story..."

Mike laughed and threw his arms around the old codger's shoulders. The close physical contact made Mike uncomfortable, but he had a thief's honor that demanded satisfaction. Delicately, Mike slipped his hand into the pocket of Whitney's long johns and deposited the few remaining stones.

####

Mike stood anxiously in the great, barren plain waiting for the party to begin. He had heard rumors attesting to the egos of the Western warlords, but had never believed that such a degree of pomposity could be concentrated in a single man. Everywhere expanding far into the ocean of pilgrims, massive columns bore heroic renderings of their host like the paintings of the totalitarian despots of old. It was well into night, and Mike had already stood in the baking heat through a fully electric band, commencement speeches, and a rambling sermon from the generous demagogue himself, "America" Jim Meyers.

Mostly, Mike watched the crowds. By his estimation, though it would be impossible to tell from the ground, half a million people had shown up for Meyer's apocalypse. Mike witnessed the usual characters in the crowd: the penitents in their wire shirts flaying the flesh from each other's backs; the old-religious muttering verse as they cradled their bibles and Korans; and, a freshly-formed sect, the newest item of devotional worship a papier-mâché replica of the bomb. Amidst their chanting and kowtowing Mike turned away, fearful that one of them would spy him laughing.

Not surprisingly, isolated pockets of the crowd erupted into orgies of rape and violence, suicidals out for one last thrill before annihilation. Mike, feeling Annie and himself at the edge of one such conflagration, fled into the camp of some old-time Mormons, sheltering safely amongst their pressed trousers, combed hair, and solemn prayer circles.

To Mike's relief, Annie started to stir during the air show. He wanted her alive for the events to come.

A deafening din erupted from the crowd during Jim Meyers' speech, half a million eager souls chanting in frenzied unison: 'bring on the bomb'. The impatience became mutinous, and the mob began surging towards the stage where Meyers' was delivering his oratory. Automatic fire crackled from Meyers' security personal. In a few tense moments, the suicide pact seemed on the verge of turning into a full-scale riot. Meyers, however, cut his address short and hurried, under heavy escort, into a limousine that sped him off into the desert. It seemed, Mike noted with delicious irony, that Meyer's plan had backfired. In trying to install himself as a demigod, Meyer's experienced the backlash against gods that don't hurry up with their promises. The bomb was God, and Meyers but an irritating apostle standing between it and the masses clamoring for salvation.

The planes scattered to the winds along with Meyers. The crowd was treated to a pyrotechnics show, the midnight sky illuminating with fiery rings and novas of pink embers. Eventually, the fireworks went silent and the sky dark. A hush descended over the enraptured multitudes. Mike sensed the time was near.

Mike reached into his bag and found a spike of adrenaline. His well-practiced hands found the seam in Annie's wrappings and plunged the concoction into her swollen vein. She awoke with a jolt, groaning fearfully at the sudden, unfamiliar surroundings. Mike soothed over her, gently sweeping his fingers over the outline of her brow.

The concussive blast of half a million people roaring in ecstasy nearly sent Mike sprawling in the dirt. A glowing orange bolt, the instrument of their deliverance, came barreling out of the dark horizon, streaming like a comet towards the cheering camp. Mike lifted the veil of gauze from Annie's face and planted a kiss on her trembling cheek.

"Now will you tell me what you did to get left behind?"

"Nu."

"I've done what I've promised."

"NU!"

"That's okay." He said, nuzzling her with his nose. "I love you anyways."

In an instant so short as to be barely discernable, there was a blinding flash, then total darkness.

####

It took three weeks for Mike to fully regenerate.

The first week was hell. Blind, deaf, conscious but unable to move, he strained for some sound, some minute vibration coming to him from the back room. Early on, he had recognized the contours of his own sheets, easily persuaded that it was reasonable to be resurrected in that old depository of DNA, the bed. What filled him with more dread than a thousand deaths, however, was the thought that somehow Annie was somewhere in the world resurrecting away from him.

Slowly, like a pup coming into its senses, Mike regained his perception. The moldy tiles on the ceiling blurred into focus and the hum of activity in the streets below buzzed in his ears.

Thirteen days after complete nuclear annihilation, Mike heard Annie in the back room. She began with a series of low croaks. As the days progressed the octaves went higher, until the apartment was filled with a constant, hideous siren-wail. Mike, drowning in tears, looked down on his unformed legs, mere fetal twigs. When he felt himself on the edge of madness, he rolled himself off the bed, landing with a splat on the floor. Three hours later, he had pulled himself four feet across the grimy carpet. All the while, Annie's vocal chords filled in and the screaming became more shrill and anguished.

Mike would gather the strength to stand. Hours later, he was walking under his own power. He clawed through the small apartment, looking for the emergency syringes he had hidden in the walls and floorboards, but found that in his absence it had been looted down to the copper wiring in the walls. He stumbled into Annie's room and looked at the formless wreck of shrieking nerves. Her eyes were no longer human. What stared back at him were the eyes of a cornered animal, howling in deranged bestial screeches.

Mike wrapped his fingers around Annie's throat and squeezed. His muscles were weak and his tendons raw. All his strength had not yet returned. He knew it would take time.

####

Ruiz walked leisurely through the littered streets of the city on his evening stroll.

It had been a trying time for the old professor. A week ago, an arsonist had burned down his building, sending his lab and most of the block up with it. One source of satisfaction, however, was that he had managed to rescue his histories from the blaze. Far from dismaying from this setback, Ruiz was looking forward to the challenge of starting over. Life for the old professor had become unbearably routine and dull as of late. He had needed a change without having realized it, until the crisis presented by the fire gave him the opportunity to ascend from his rut.

Homeless and bereft of possessions, Ruiz found ample time to study the contents of the overstuffed binder. One day, sitting with his feet dangling over an aquifer, he came to a revelation spurred on by the old newspaper clippings and fliers: things were getting better. The post-rapture hysteria was settling down, and the hedonist lifestyle was falling slowly out of favor. The brief spasm of depravity -- fifteen years, mere moments in the eons of life that were to come -- was losing its draw, for unlike in mortal times it held no real danger and ceased to carry with it any titillating stigma or forbiddenness. Even some of the old institutions were coming back: across town, the university was re-opening, and Ruiz thought he might apply for a job at, or create, the history department. He had always wanted to try his hand at the liberal arts.

In a winding back-alley Ruiz took in the sights of a minor countess leading a triumph through the streets. Her retinue was small; only a few acrobats and musicians whirled about her, and still fewer citizens loped at her heels begging for alms. She was draped in a luxuriant kimono, flanked by two oiled muscle-men. The man-slaves held aloft a great Japanese parasol, shielding her from the barrage of detritus being hurled at her from the upper-story windows. Her conveyance was simple and elegant: a gilded bronze chariot pulled by two zombies.

Ruiz was about to pass by the spectacle with only feigned interest when something drew his eye. Normally, Ruiz never looked at zombies -- their lifeless, vacant faces upset his already sensitive digestion. With just a cursory glance, however, Ruiz felt a twang of recognition.

He stepped closer to the procession, braving the volleys of offal raining down from above, and stared the male zombie directly in the face. The gaping monster made no sign of acknowledgement, but continued to wordlessly strain against the bit wedged between its jaws. The other zombie, Ruiz realized, must be Annie. Though he had never had the courage to peek under the wrappings at her disfigured body, something told Ruiz that the crisp, purple beast plodding over the asphalt was her.

A strange thing happened. Ruiz had always avoided zombies, and as such was not up to speed on all their behaviors. He could not be sure if he was witnessing a phenomenon. Every minute or so, one of the zombies would reach up and gently grope its companion's face. Neither their dead expressions nor the steady pace of their tow changed as they took turns fumbling affectionately over the other's features.

The countess and her zombies proceeded through the alleyway and rounded the corner onto the main drag. Ruiz didn't follow. Already, his stomach was purring with indigestion. Wiping the cold sweat from his brow, he repeated to himself, less surely than before: things are getting better. We have time on our side.

The End

THE END


© 2010 Colin Heintze

Bio: Colin Heintze is currently located in Denver, CO after a long stint living overseas. His work has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Aphelion, the excellent noir zine Plots with Guns, and he was the screenwriter for the upcoming indie horror film The Future Belongs to Undead Gods.

E-mail: Colin Heintze

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