I get out of my sun-burnt recliner and peer over the ledge. The sheep down below –a mix of the soon-to-be dead and the un-dead - stare blankly up and a few jump trying to reach me, although I am fifty-five stories above their heads. I laugh, and it sounds more like a cackle than the charming laugh my girlfriend loved. That scares me more than the hordes of undead under me. Once the 911 attacks started, more people on the streets died because of stress, panic, and sheer madness than from my Winchester Custom Sharpshooter. Broadway Street had become the perfect hunting ground, for me and the hungry hordes of the un-dead as well.
The doors to the elevator are well-barricaded and I check them regularly, reinforcing them here and there. Between the food court, the building’s generator and the many vending machines I had enough food, fuel, and water for a hundred people. I even have enough work to keep me busy and happy, just making blots for my crossbow and thinking of new weapons. I just have to make sure I stay sane enough to enjoy all my wonderful blessings. The Woolworth building is old, but is still a regular fortress. Built in 1913, it was one of the original five-and-dime stores, but by September of 2011, an outlet of Foot Locker.
I was having some reservations at first, about going through with my plans; the streets below and the air in general were both a swirling haze of black smoke and dust, limiting my visibility and moving closer to my position by the second. There are countless variables to consider in my line of work, wind speed, wind direction, range, and target movement only the beginning. The maze of madness below was only serving to hinder me in my efforts, but at the same time was providing me with something I’d grown accustomed to: a challenge. Although I must admit, I hadn’t expected the planes that hit the World Trade Centers to be filled with canisters full of a deadly zombie virus. That was one I hadn’t seen coming, nor anyone else down there, I’m quite sure.
I had become used to challenges again when I was informed that my wife, Laura, was dying of a rare blood disorder, TTP. Its symptoms included kidney failure, bizarre behavior, altered mental status, and strokes. The latter is what killed my Laura, at the age of thirty-two. I still think about her every day; dream her, breathe her memory. I lie awake at night sometimes, unable to shake the haunting visions from my head. And with no Military ‘’benefits,’’ no insurance, no way to keep paying her mounting medical bills. She’d become nothing more than another name on a sheet of paper, another file number amidst a gazillion other forgotten names and numbers.
''I still love you,'' I say, to the vision of surreal beauty that haunts my mind. She asks me to join her, before I am unable to feel her presence. As insane as her loss makes me feel, it is a reminder of life. She asks me to join her, here and now, before I am unable to feel her. Her, gone to me, as I would be gone to her. If I joined her now, we’d be together forever, I know her ghost tries to say to me. The choice is a slower and still painful death. But I want to feel her, our life, our love, too. If I pretend to be dead, to stop feeling, would that make it better? Make her happy? Make her just be and leave me alone except for her beauty? ''But I'm not going to pretend that I'm dead, either. Because I'm not. As much as I hate it, I'm still with the living.'' My words echo through the buildings and trees and past the river smoke, where they were carried away on the wind, just as all signs of living things were eventually in the future city of the dead.
No matter, for now. I have a different challenge to live up to today.
My current dilemma with the wind currents and my flashbacks seemed pale in comparison to an old friend of mine, though, I’d just spoken with prior to my decision to take out my frustrations on an unsuspecting American public. His name was Eddie, and here is a quick rundown of our visit.
The Hotel Vagabond, East 1st Street; was one hell of a place for an ex-Marine fresh out of prison to be setting up housekeeping.
East 1st Street had been a haven for low-lifes for years now. You didn't want to drive through there at night, let alone walk.
But thats where Eddie had chosen to live. Maybe he felt at home around his own kind. Who knows?
He'd called me on the 21st of October, 2000, told me he'd been out three months now, and was clean. No drugs, no booze, no crime. Said he had something real important to talk to me about. Me? I thought, stunned and confused. Why would he want to talk to his former snipe partner? Most ex-Snipes did their best to avoid such confrontations, didn’t want to think about all of those lives they snuffed out with the squeeze of a trigger. But, since Eddie had always been harmless otherwise, I had agreed to meet with him.
Friday night, East 1st street. Eight p.m. Sidewalks jammed with old men, young men. Bag ladies, painted ladies, blacks, whites, Asians, hispanics, drug addicts, winos, hookers, pimps, and thieves. Cheap hotels, seedy bars, greasy spoons, and liquor stores with barred windows and gun toting proprietors. The stenches of urine, vomit, unwashed bodies, and rotgut hooch fills the air like a cloud, choking me as I walk quickly by on my way to the Vagabond.
I knock on the door of room number 13#, second floor. A smell of disinfectant permeated the hallway like a hospital room. I heard footsteps, then; ''Yeah?''
I identified myself. A lock clicked, a chain rattled, and for the first time in almost eight years I was looking into the weathered face of Eddie Stokes.
He hadn't changed much; little fella, about five feet six inches tall, tired blue eyes, sandy hair flecked with gray. Crowsfeet lined the corners of his eyes now. ''Hey, Leo,'' he said, smiling. His teeth could have used some work. ''Thanks for coming. I mean it, honest.''
''Come on in, Leo.''
The room he lived in was a filthy, roach infested shithole, filled with second hand furniture and ancient appliances. But to Eddie, after all that time spent in stir, it probably seemed like a palace. ''Not much, is it?'' Eddie asked, apparently sensing what I was thinking. He could see it in my eyes.
I didn't say anything.
He shut the door behind me, locked it. ''Only place to sit is that chair over there. It's clean. I keep the place as clean as I can.''
''The chair's fine. Thanks.'' I sat down.
Eddie walked over to the ancient icebox, grabbed a can od Diet Coke. ''Want one?'' he asked.
''No, thanks. So why did you ask me here for, Eddie? If you've turned snitch, selling info, I'm not buying right now, and I am out of the mercenary business.”
''No, no,'' he said. ''It's nothing like that at all.''
''What then?'' I was feeling a little uneasy. I knew a probation officer who'd had his throat sliced once by a former Snipe.
''Just wanted you to know, prison taught me a lesson, Leo. I'm a new man.''
''Glad to hear it, Eddie.''
''I been a good boy since I got out, Leo. Really. I ain't even been in a bar, or had a drink.''
''That's good. What are you doing for money, though?''
''Got me a job. I'm unloading trucks for a wholesale warehouse over on Arlington Avenue. It don't pay much, but it's honest work for a change.''
''Thats good.'' I was getting impatient. ''What is it you want, Eddie? I don't have all night.''
''Just someone to talk to, that's all. Someone who'll - understand, that's all I want. You always treated me like a human being, Leo. Most of 'em, they treated me like shit. Like I was a turd or something, something to flush down the crapper.''
''What is it you want me to understand, Eddie?''
''About what's happening down there, Leo.'' He pointed to the window as he walked over to it, looked down at the street below with grimace of disgust. ‘’I don’t want to be like them. It’s bad enough to deal with PTSD, and be on meds that make me feel like a zombie.”
He’d said a mouthful there.
''What's happening down there, Eddie?''
''Just look at it,'' he said. He tapped the window with his index finger, staring through it like it was a portal into a another dimension. ''Look at....at all of those people down there. They're all so....lost.''
I got up from my chair, walked over to the window and looked out. He was right; all I saw below me were lost souls wandering the dirty streets in search of something that wasn't there, never would be. ''Yeah,'' I said, lighting a cigarette. ''I see them. But not all of theirs is a case of war neurosis, Eddie.”
He paid no mind to my remark. ''See that guy in the wheelchair down there? '' he asked me. ''The one with the tin can begging for chump change? Well, until about two months ago, he could walk, and he had a job. Some big honker broke his neck with a baseball bat and rolled him for his wallet. Now he's paralyzed from the waist down. Can you believe that shit? He’s a veteran too, Leo.”
''I can believe it,'' I said, glumly.
''And they're not even the worst on the streets,'' he said, shaking his head.
''I can believe that too.''
“You know, before I went to prison? I used to live and work with guys like that, and never saw them for what they really are. But, now I do see them for what they are, Leo. I look down on them every night from up here, and it makes me sick, makes me wanna puke.''
''Why don't you just move?'' I asked.
''And go where? I can't afford no better place than this.''
''Well,'' I said, ''Maybe no better room, but a better neighborhood.''
''Bullshit, Leo. It wouldn't be any better in any neighborhood I could buy into.'' He paused, then; ''Why, Leo? Why does it have to be this way? I paid my debt to society and all that good shit.''
''I don't know, Eddie. I know it doesn't seem fair, but-''
''It ain't fair,'' he said, cutting me off. He looked out the window again, shaking his head. ''Look at all those poor lost souls, burning in hell,'' he said, as if he'd read my mind earlier. ''Lost souls....burning in hell....''
He was making me nervous. '' You find religion in prison, Eddie?'' I asked.
''No, but...but I can still see what's going on down there. It don't take no rocket scientist to figure it out. All them souls....burning and burning all day and all night long....''
''Don't let it get to you, Eddie.''
''Don't it get to you?''
He nodded in understanding. ''Sometimes....sometimes you just wanna do something about it, you know? You wanna fix it....put out the fires of them lost souls burning. I mean...there's gotta be a way.''
''I'm sorry, Eddie. I can't tell you how to do that.''
''There's gotta be a way,'' he said, opening the window now. Angry voices rose up from the street, a woman screamed, people laughed in unison. Shouts, cries, horns honking, a distant gunshot, more screaming, a blood curdling shriek. ''I guess you just got to believe,'' he said. ''That's all...just gotta believe.''
I didn't like the look in his eyes. ''Eddie, just what is it you want from me? I'm a busy man.''
''Like I told you, someone to talk to. Someone who understands how it is down there.''
''Is that the only reason you asked me here?''
''Ain't it enough of a reason?''
''For you, maybe.'' I began walking toward the door. ''I've got to be going now, Eddie.''
He didn't argue. ''Sure, Leo. You go on ahead, take care of business. I've got some to take care of myself.''
I didn't like the sound of that, but I wanted to get out of there. ''Well, good luck, Eddie.'' I extended my hand. He took it, shook it, dropped it.
''You too,'' he said, ''Keep the faith now, Leo. You hear?''
''You too,'' I said, and went out into the hall as he shut the door behind me and locked it.
I found out later that night - it was all over the TV - that Eddie Stokes had figured out a way to help all of those poor lost souls.
It must have been about twenty minutes after I'd left him, he'd stood at the window of his room, and within less than five minutes, using a high powered rifle he'd snatched from the warehouse where he worked, had shot and killed fifteen people.
Fifteen dead, six wounded. Most of the victims had been known criminals with long records; drug dealers, pimps, hookers, thieves. The guy in the wheelchair, the one Eddie had told me had been mugged and paralyzed, had come out of the middle of the carnage unscathed. Go figure.
Afterwards, Eddie had sat down on his bed, put the rifle's muzzle in his mouth, and used his big toe to pull the trigger. My first reaction was to blame myself. But how could I have known, or even guessed? Eddie Stokes; harmless ex-Snipe and loser. How could anyone have figured him for something like that?
Somebody I can talk to, he'd said. Somebody who'll understand - that's all I want.
But no, that wasn't it at all. He'd wanted someone to help him justify what he was getting ready to do. A sucker to record his verbal suicide note. Some poor sucker to pass the story on and tell it right and true to the world of lost souls he'd left behind.
You just wanna fix it somehow....put out all them fires....there has to be a way, you know?
Yeah, Eddie. I know.
Souls in question....which ones do I take, Leo? They all burn so bright and all day and all night long........I could imagine him saying.
The soul that had burned the brightest that night had been Eddie's.
I hadn’t realized it until later, but through that visit, Eddie had become sort of a mentor to me.
A short scream for help somewhere in the distance makes me leap up and rush to the ledge. I am surprised I even heard it amidst the other screams and blaring sirens and the whoosh of helicopter blades slicing the air. Another group of terrified onlookers is now scrambling for cover, their faces already caked with white dust. I use my 4x scope to get a better look. One of them, a heavy-set woman with an obvious head trauma, is zig-zagging through the crowd, bumping into other people and generally getting nowhere fast. A well-placed .308 caliber slug from my Winchester assures her there is no need for her to suffer any longer.
Lost souls, burning in Hell.
That’s the way Eddie had described the scene below.
But in my world, they wouldn’t have to burn much longer.
Am I here for the same reasons? Am I simply an unstable man with a chip on his shoulder, or a crusader for all of those lost and forgotten veterans out there, who spend their days begging for handouts and their nights huddled up in cardboard boxes? So many questions, so few real answers. At times like these, actions – regardless of the outcome – speak louder than words. Talk is cheap, in my world, and in the world of those lost souls below me. I too, was lost, upon my return from the burning fields of blood; practically submerged in thorazine, I’d lived inside a permanent third day high, with, of course, necessary periods of intermission to refuel the fires that burned through the jaundiced substance known as my flesh. In the beginning, my flesh was so soft and supple I could have been cut to pieces by simple dust particles, air currents, or brushing overcoats of wind. Not even the simplest of wounds would heal in my flesh, though; long white tendrils of fungus had curled around my naked bones.
I’d finally reached the highest plateau; Snipe Hell.
I had come from a long line of lost souls; my mother, God bless her soul, had been a stay-at-home mother, whose penchant for selling Amway products would have surely made at least independently wealthy, if she’d done so during the age of the internet. As it turned out, she’d died from cancer, at home, with my father sitting in close proximity to her bedroom, spending his days drinking cheap bourbon to drown his sorrows and his nights sitting in front of a blank TV screen, chain-smoking Pall Mall non-filters and listening for the little bell in my mother’s room to tinkle when she couldn’t take the pain anymore, and needed an adjustment to her IV drip.
I’d come home to stay with them upon my release from a VA hospital, jobless, still suffering from with-drawl symptoms, and still living in a fantasy world where Mr. Bush would make my life all better. It hadn’t taken me long to wake up from that dream, brother.
Anyway, back to my father; he likes to sit in the dark. Sometimes I’d come home late, tip-toe around as not to wake anyone, and there he'd be; sitting in his favorite recliner, puffing on a Pall Mall non-filter, in the dark.
No TV, no music playing, just complete and total silence, and tendrils of smoke from his cigarette rising up into the moonlight coming through the window. It was almost eerie.
''Hiya pop,'' I'd always say.
''Hiya son,'' he’d always answer back.
''Going to bed soon, pop?''
''Soon,'' he’d always say, ''soon. You know your mom is a heavy sleeper, son, and I'm not. Sometimes the two just don't mix, you know?'' I can't see him, but I know he's smiling as he says it.
''Yeah, pop, I know. You've told me before.''
But he never does get up soon and go to bed; he's always afraid he's going to wake up my mom. I've always told him, Pop, how are you gonna wake mom up when she sleeps as heavily as she does? And he always says the same thing; Well, son, you know I don't like to disturb her, now that she's gotten some peace. That cancer, it really ate her up for a while. The chemo and all. I'll just let her rest in peace and quiet.
Okay, I'd always tell him, and say goodnight.
Then I'd sneak into the kitchen, grab a snack for my mom out of the fridge, and sneak down the hallway to their bedroom, my secret snack in tow.
I'd quietly close the door behind me, grab a chair, set it down by the bed. Then I'd take a bottle of my mom's favorite snack out of my pocket, and whisper, ''Mom? Wake up, mom.'' Then I'd nudge her a little with my finger, and say it again.
That process had been going on for six months , but to no avail. She’d never wakes up. She’d just lay there, dead to the world, not wanting to get out of that bed. Like pop says, she's worn out from all that chemo and stuff, and just wants to sleep. I didn’t blame her, really.
But, I still feel I have to give her some sort of nutrient, so I’d always slide the IV needle into her arm, insert the other end into the bottle of embalming fluid, and hold it up in the air so it will drain. The smell was starting to get really bad, but it was my mom, you know?
Shortly thereafter, my father was taken away in a loony wagon, and my mother’s corpse properly buried. I was on my own.
Until I met Marla.