Fiction: Zombie Free Not Free

By J.G.P. MacAdam

Garbled voices. Screeching scorpion-men whip-snapping their poison-tipped tails. Blistering desert sands. Now, shadows. Mere shapes shifting beyond a woolly veil. Someone, some thing, some seraph, or demon, taps him on his shoulder, though their talon or claw seems simultaneously to be jabbing some other shoulder, not his own, can’t be his own. Devils sear the ends of his every nerve. He wants to puke with pain, but things don’t feel normal, inside. He must hold to the crinkly sandwich baggie in his hand. He must hold to it. Someone else, some shade, some other—not a blistering present prior, the malicious present ever-swallowing the past—had tried to take the baggie from him. Or had they? What had they tried to take? They had tried to take the gold wedding band from his finger. Graverobber? Of course. No runes etched into stone to protect his otherworldly possessions. No incantations. No threats from beyond. Only his own fingers, his own bones, his own will, and sudden awareness, and—he’d broken their fingers. They’d fled from him, wailing. It had been an instinct. To hurt, to fight, to kill if need be. A God-damned gut reaction. To keep what was yours. To protect what belonged to you, who you were, once and always. 
Reluctantly, his eyes began to re-educate themselves. The ache in his pupils spread through his skull, down his spine, into the very depths of him. Still, the fingernail jabbed, jabbed his shoulder. Leave me alone! He had to read whose name it was chiseled into cold stone before him. 
Zal looked down at the baggie clasped in his fingers. It was justlike Purse to think ahead. Sealed inside the dirty plastic, safe from the rot of him and the inexorableness of time, a pudgy face eased into perception, then irrefutable recognition. 
Good God, look at those cheeks. 
He blinked and stared at the photograph. The snapshot of a baby, a newborn, wrapped in pink linens, and he knew with a sureness bordering on madness: a baby girl, his baby girl. 
A metallic squeal sank carpenter’s nails into his ears. A Bobcat excavator dove its arm into the hole in the ground beside his own, straining under the weight of an upside-down U of concrete clamped in its maw. The excavator lifted the grave liner clear of the hole before dropping it with a thunk onto the chilly wet grass. 
I am not David, he said—or at least that’s what he thought he said to the lady with the fingernails and perm and sad, moist eyes. Can’t you read the tombstone, lady? The lady huffed at him before stumbling on, whimpering, searching, reading, andrereading other names etched into other tombstones. 
Tombstones, milky, maddening, somehow consoling in their repetitiveness, shot out in every direction. 
The hell am I? 
He slid the photo into the inside pocket of his dress uniform, at the same time realizing he wore his dress uniform, withered and worm-eaten as it was, and that— 
My hands are green. 
Into the opened hole next to him leapt a man, a flesh-and-blood man, wearing a flannel button-down. On the lip of the hole stood another man with arms naked and raised, a man who wore a robe, a beard, and a crown of blackberry thorns. Who’s this guy trying to fool? But then The Christ-pretender bellowed, “Rise, Catherine!” and it was as though his command cut through the static of the world, the chugging of generators, the shouting of orders, the groans and pleas for mercy reverberating out of every inch of earth. Up out of the hole came the flannel man again and, in his arms, he carried… 
Zal couldn’t, wouldn’t, believe his eyes. She was only half of herself, or what was once herself, once a body with skin and blood and pumping organs, with flesh warm to the touch, but now… The flannel man wept, holding up his hand, a glinting ring encompassing his finger, holding it before her face, begging the remnants of her to—“Remember, baby? Huh, you remember?” 
The corpse fluttered her (its?) eyelids. She struggled to focus, but soon registered the face hovering over her own: the face of her husband, his tears falling plip-plop onto her ghastly cheeks. 
“Love triumphs over death!” 
“Praise the resurrection!” 
A gaggle of revelers thumped their chests and held holy doorstoppers to the dark sky. 
“The petty wars of man shall end!” 
“The dead shall rise up outta the earth until they outnumber the living.” 
The Christ-pretender ululated a similar sacrament, burped, then loped his plastic sandals around to the next wrenched-open grave. 
Catherine—for she was Catherine, or an expired version of her once living, laughing self, now missing both her legs lost via whatever battle precipitated the packaging of her into a transfer case, then a coffin, then the receipt of a final salute and the lowering of her into the cool, grey ground beside Zal—lookeddown at the shameful state of her uniform, the mold metastasized across her ribs, at that which she had now become, and her jaw flopped open onto her chest, and she howled. 
“We got one! Over here!” A burly somebody scooped their hairy forearms under Zal’s pits. “I know it hurts, buddy.” He hauled Zal’s dead weight out of the dirt. “Don’t worry; it’ll pass. You’re a bit stiff is all.” 
A thumping echoed out of the gloom. For a disorienting moment or two, Zal thought he might be back overseas, or rather, had never left, but then a blinding beam struck out from one of the Black Hawks circling overhead. The beam bore down upon the scene below: the ruining of a sanctuary, the selling-out of the sole remaining sacred soil of a nation. 
“C’mon, buddy!” The burly man’s breath fogged through the Stars and Stripes bandana wrapped around his face as he half-carried, half-dragged Zal down the rows of tombstones. “Loosen up those joints. Let’s go!” 
Zal’s head felt ten times too big, an ache omnipresent in his crackling vertebrae and popping hip sockets, and yet beyond the pain, beyond the gates and graves and rolls of dew-laden grass, he managed to glimpse a city rising out of the midnight mists. A bridge spanned a river, its reflection angelic in the dark waters, and above it, an obelisk, luminous and gold, with twin red eyes blinking open and shut against a ceiling of cloud. Zal recognized it, just as he recognized the layout of the Lincoln Memorial, the colonnades of the Capitol, all aglow with people and movement and something else, something anxious and terrible, something radiant, although the sun had long since set and no moon yet shone. The burly man dragged Zal onto the asphalt before standing him upright. “These guys’ll take care of ya, okay?” He gave Zal a smack on the shoulder, nearly tipping him over, before disappearing again into the tombstones. 
Zal stood, swaying slightly, amid what looked like an emergency room crossed with a speedway pit crew. Gurneys and socket wrenches. Scalpels and hydraulic jacks. All of it plopped in the middle of the road in the middle of the cemetery under an ad hoc dome of halogen lamps. 
A flashlight screamed into his eyes. “Zalarus. Am I saying that right?” 
Zal tried to answer but his voice came out more gurgle than words. 
“Looks like they put dowels in your wrist…” The doctor double-tapped her blue-latex fingers down his cadaver. “And another in your thigh. Those won’t last. Follow me.” 
“Cease and desist!” hurled down from above, out of a megaphone from one of the Black Hawks. “You are trespassing on federal property!” 
“C’mon, people!” A man in scrubs clapped his hands. “Hustle, hustle, hustle!” The badge on his sleeve read The AM TeamAfor Anti-, M for Mortician. 
“Brother, over here—” 
“Next in line! Over here!” 
A woman wearing nurse’s scrubs and a lot of foundation to try and hide the all-too-obvious deadness of her face snatched his chin and tilted a repurposed soda bottle to his lips. Purplish slime chugged into his mouth, Formal-he-died scrawled in black letters on the side of the bottle. “Get his baggy spots,” said the zombie-nurse. Someone else unbuttoned his jacket and undid his fly. He was too loosey-goosey in the head to shoo them off as they jammed handfuls of embalming powder under the flaps of his skin before staple-gunning them shut. He jerked with every shot of staple, tickled more than anything else. The formaldehyde dripped through his cheeks, down his chest, his legs, onto the disintegrated laces of his dress shoes. 
The zombie-nurse held up an electric drill—vrrr vrrr—and she went to work on him. She screwed pins, plates, and rods into his forearm, wrist, thigh, shin, ankle before— 
“Alright, lemme see you make a fist.” 
Zal made a fist with his left hand. 
“Lemme see you stomp your leg.” 
He stomped his right leg. 
“You’re gonna knock ‘em dead,” she said, cupping his cheek.He wasn’t sure whether he should smile or head back to his holeand try and go back to sleep, to the place he had been in, before. But then, what of the baby girl in the picture in his pocket? 
“Did we win? Did we?” A withered, eyeless veteran bounced by in a wheelbarrow, every atom of him brown with rot, followed by another missing so much of her skull she was completely unresponsive to snapping fingers, waving flashlights, anything to do with this side of existence whatsoever. 
“Ready up!” cried the zombie-nurse. One pair of hands, then another, and another pointed, pulled, and pressed him down the hill. Before he rightly knew what the hell was happening, he was standing in a formation with someone else out in front shouting,“Heft, heft, yer heft, hight, heft!” and Zal marched along. Columns of reanimated flesh bounced in mark time to the fore, aft, right, and left of him, every species of rank, service, experience, war wound seemingly represented; muscle memory proving its worth with every swing of their arms, at least for those who still had their arms. “Horward—march!” and as one organism, they surged across the green—a regiment on the move. “Let’s go, revenants! Get in step!” 
They marched down the hill towards the cemetery gates where more zealots and AM Team people than Zal could count were screaming and pointing guns. The police—stacked rows deep in riot gear—were on the other side of the gates, unable to gain so much as an inch of admittance. Zal and company marched past the gates. The fence bordering the parking lot had been bulldozed over: the zombies marched straight through the hole, out into the world, whether the world was ready for them or not. Another regiment of undead was already halfway across the bridge leading into the National Mall, followed by another, and another. Bikers with sunburnt shoulders and tattooed arms braced on handlebars streamed in one continuous loop off the GW Parkway, likewise storming the District in all their thundering glory. More veterans marched, limped, wheeled themselves across, living and nonliving alike; it hardly mattered. The fella out in front of Zal’s formation roared, “Time to show all those Beltway bigwigs what the face of war really looks like!” and they were on the bridge, marching headlong into the din resounding across the Potomac. A solid mass of bodies stretched from Lincoln’s toes all the way to the steps of the Capitol Building. An emotion pulsed through the air, a brotherhood, a sense of purpose unlike any Zal had ever known upon this plane of reality or the next, and for one pure, blurry moment, he found himself captive to it. 
Onlookers angled their phones to snap pics, record reels, or livestream the regiments of war dead pouring in one after the next. Loudspeakers on either side of the Reflecting Pool boomed with the garble of speeches. A jumbotron broadcasted the entire event: headlines, posts, and tweets scrolled by—“President Locks Himself Inside White House Amid Zombie Mob!” Many bystanders saluted the veterans; others flipped them the bird. A reporter sputtered into a camera, “As you can see behind me, massive numbers of veterans have woken from their graves and are marching on the Capitol. Some call them a warrior mob. Some call them saviors. Some call them a threat to the stability of government at home…” 
Zal didn’t know how it happened. One minute he was marching,the next he knew the columns had melted into the crowd. The regiments broke apart and dissolved into the crush of disorganized human flesh, impromptu gaggles, and breath. 
A hot-cheeked someone shouted into his face, “Go back to your hole in the ground!”  
Clusters of suburbanites shook crosses at anything so much as resembling a rancid leaf of lettuce. “The dead should stay dead!” 
An undead girl came up to Zal and gave him a hug. Upon second glance, Zal realized she wasn’t undead at all but plastered head-to-hand with Hollywood-worthy makeup. He read Zombies are people too on her t-shirt before she left him and went in search of another corpse to embrace. 
“Veterans, on me!” shouted a camo-faced gal over the crowd. “On me! Follow my voice!” Some in the crowd pushed and shoved; others smoked and shared smokes; another with a glinting gaze showed off his Beretta to much praise. Camo-gal’s bullhorn squealed, “…violates the social contract between the people of the United States and those who fight the wars of the United States! We demand a no-vote! Vote no on the war authorization!”
“Vote no!” chanted the crowd. “Vote no! Vote no!” 
“To the Capitol!” She raised her bullhorn like a lance and began leading the march. 
“Vote no! Vote no!” 
A body thrust an American flag into Zal’s hands. Unthinking, heheld the flag high and waved it. His arms, his body, the relic of him wanted nothing more than to cling to the collective euphoria all around him—a feeling that, more than anything, seemed to return some semblance of life to him. 
Counter-protesters ganged up to stem the flood of flag-waving veterans. 
“Worm food!” 
“Eat dirt, ya bums!” 
They brandished shovels and threw mud. 
“This land is for the living!” 
“Sense of entitlement!” 
The veterans marched straight through those who would argue against them. 
“They’re not real veterans,” prattled a blue-suited somebody into their smartphone. “They’re losers in costumes. I’m standing down here watching this whole thing, and I’m telling you there is no such thing as zombies.” Organizers insisted into television cameras that they were leading a law-abiding, peaceful protest. “We’re not terrorists. We’re not a mob. We’re not commies. We fought commies!” Someone pepper-sprayed their neighbor. “We’re here to stop a war that should not be happening.” A zombie in an Air Force uniform assaulted then bit the neck of a woman dressed up like Lady Liberty. “We’re here to remind everyday Americans that our sacrifice wasn’t for nothing.” 
It began as a hum. A layer of melody under the din. Then, it rose above, the new but old psalm, the sacred song. Zal couldn’t help himself. He began singing along: 
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming,
And the rocket’s red—!
Wait a tick. 
Whose idea was this? He didn’t wake himself, did he? Who woke him? Why was he marching down Constitution Avenue towards what looked more and more like an impassable police blockade? Just what the hell was going on? 
My hands are green. 
A veil suddenly seemed to lift. Mists evaporated from the edges of his vision. Out the corner of his eye, he caught the glints of tiny constellations across the top of the nearest federal building. Scopes? As in, rifle scopes? 
bang rolled down one of the side streets, the reverberation putting to mind nothing less than the detonation of a car bomb. 
Zal tried to stop, to turn back, but the flag-wavers marched on, packing ever closer—catacomb close, mass-burial close. The throng of them stopped not twenty paces before a row of riot shields and face masks and the shining tongued bits in horses’ mouths, their mounts thumbing stippled pistol grips. Soldiers, too, roamed among the blockade, maybe National Guard or on-call active duty from any number of nearby bases. A desert-camo truck out of a warzone vroomed into the no-man’s land between the protesters and the security forces. A speaker imbedded in the truck’s armor blared, “No further!” and down between the riot shields and the columns of horse’s legs, pacing like predators behind the bars of their cages, Zal glimpsedvigilantes. The vigilantes sported makeshift masks, football helmets, fake-swords, flimsy shields, and not a few concealed-carries-at-the-ready of their own. For a moment, he thought he might sneak away, free himself of this political nonsense, as though anyone could be free of politics, or deserved to be. But then one of the vigilantes strode across the divide and with a single swipe of their baseball bat they sent one hapless zombie’s head sailing over the horde and, well, all hell broke loose. 
“Fix bayonets!” cried an officer. “Flush out the rot!” The vigilantes were the first to charge—armed with clubs, capes, and selfie sticks. A firehose of pepper spray deluged the protestersand their banners; the living writhed in agony, scraping at their eyelids; the dead simply flicked the stuff off. A canister clanged between Zal’s legs. Whitish nettle clouds seeped into the air, filling the lungs of the living who coughed and wept and tried to run. Some zombies protected the living by fending off baton blows, by rendering their flesh into nonliving shields, and some—was that another explosion? 
A plume of smoke and flame rolled up across the face of the American History Museum. 
Zal shoved himself free and ran. 
A Marine in dress blues tripped on the pavement behind him. Zal reached out a hand to help a brother. The Marine’s forehead blew open. Cold, oily brains spattered across Zal’s face and openpalm. The rooftops flickered like Christmas lights—cracklingwith the promise of expended rounds. Green lasers splintered through the elms. The very air shook with a subsonic piercing so low it wasn’t heard, it was felt, and both the living and the dead were stopped in their tracks, forced to their knees, and whatever in their stomachs retched out. 
Zal scrambled around the museum. Bullets stitched themselves through the fenders of double-parked cars. “They got tanks coming across the bridge!” screamed a sailor sprinting as fast as her rotten legs could carry her, before one of those legs popped out of its socket, leaving her splayed across the street, gawpingat her emptied hip. Zal ran over her, and other bodies, ignoring their pleas for help. He hid behind a row of shot-to-shit tour buses, before following them back towards the Lincoln. He scurried across the muddied green under the obelisk; sloshed through more than one fountain; dead-sprinted across deserted, trash-strewn streets. Elsewhere, security forces hemmed the remaining protesters in, squeezing them between rings of riot shields, bodies pressed to bodies. People wailed as they were trampled—and those unable to stop themselves from trampling, they wailed, too. 
Zal dove into the Reflecting Pool as a cavalcade of cops galloped by. Face down, he floated, motionless, relieved to realize he was not breathing and need not breathe. The water rippled with firelight. Slowly, he slithered across the Pool. Flames licked up the willow oaks bordering the Lincoln. He nudged other corpses out of his way. Smoke snaked into the sky. Zal moved opposite the shrieks and wails and pop-shots echoing amid the din. This wasn’t his fight. Rank, medals, some new war authorization—what could these matter to one former Staff Sergeant? All that mattered was the crinkling sandwich baggie in the inside pocket of his dress uniform and all of what was or could’ve been he didn’t know but had to. 
He slunk out of the Pool and into the comparative quiet of the Korean War Memorial. Among the soldier-statues stepping in perennial patrol, keeping their spacing, Zal spotted another woken-dead, their scaly arms flung around the point man’s stony shoulders. 
“Carry me, brother,” said the undead to the statue, one hand signaling for others to follow. “I’m lost.” 
The embossed letters of a nation’s mantra FREEDOM IS NOT FREE wavered under the light of the fires. The underbellies of the clouds hummed an infernal red. 
“Can’t you hear me, brother?” said the undead. “I said I’m lost.” 
“Over there!” 
“I see one!” 
Zal watched as the other zombie-vet was caught in a beam of light and begged for mercy before being shot to pieces. 
“Another, over here!” 
Shots fired. 
Zal ran. 
Through rhododendron, he crashed onto a highway conspicuously busy at this hour of midnight and mayhem as though rush hour and traffic and everyday commuter consumer life need never stop but drum ever on, and on—tires screeching, headlights spinning, he tripped off the edge of the highway(actually an overpass) and into the water he belly-flopped and sank down, down, down to the goopy bottom. He held himself there, amid the dead leaves and broken bicycle rims, a moment, before finally forcing his body to move, to swim air-ward, light-ward, no heart to beat within him anymore but his will, his singular soul, or consciousness, or id, or whatever it was that made anyone through yet another day, and yet another, the enlivening or at least life-mimicking power within him—it beaton, and on, up and up, until at long last his face broke throughthe surface of the Tidal Basin. 
Jefferson stood yonder in his house of words and light. 
Up on the sidewalk, a gang of black-clad militia stood in a semicircle crucifying what zombies they could find into the leafed-out limbs of the cherry trees. 
A floating flotsam bopped him in his face—no, it was some poor soul’s arm. Jefferson’s light shimmered across the Basin; across the dismemberments of who knew how many or what; a small sea of debris and carcasses. The traffic rolled on, relentless, oblivious, or worse, indifferent. Zal made like a corpse and floated out into the Potomac.

J.G.P. MacAdam is an ably disabled combat vet and the first in his family to earn a college degree. His fiction and nonfiction can be found in The Colorado ReviewThe Line Literary, and forthcoming in Consequence.