Monday, October 17, 2011

The Short Bus

“Well?  You can take it, can’t you?”
                The farmer stood back a ways from his old wooden fence, arms crossed over his hefty torso. His wife watched worriedly from the kitchen window. This type of fence is the kind that is made out of old, dark wood, cut thick and round, like miniature logs, laid longwise. For the most part there were only one, maybe two pieces between each post, tilted diagonally. They have little practical use beside decoration, except that they’re good for keeping out things that are big, stupid, and slow.
                Now it kept in a zombie, awkwardly shifting its body weight to stumble this way, fall that way, and occasionally hit the fence with one of its forearms. It was making noise, far too much noise for something this slow and dead, by kicking through the mountains of dead leaves, stepping on broken branches. The forest was normally a haven of silence, now spoiled by a terrible and unnatural ruckus.
                The farmer watched the zombie with an annoyed look, as if this person – what used to be a person – was a large pest that buckshot could easily remove, if it were not against the law.
                Richard answered the farmer’s question.
                “Yes. Yeah, we can take this off your hands immediately.”

                The cup of coffee almost flew off the small metal ledge towards Richard’s legs.
                “Jesus, Menka, take it easy with the turns!” Richard yelled.
                “Why don’t you take it easy with the complaints, I am the one driving ‘the short bus’,” Menka replied while she spun the wheel this way and that to change lanes. “The short bus” is what Menka liked to call the Plague Control transport. Similar to an ambulance, it was a little bit longer to put some space between the driver and the afflicted passengers, of which there was currently one: the zombie found in the woods. Menka found the similarities between the passengers of a short school bus and her own passengers very amusing.
                “Well, both of us back here are very proud of you, but how about you drive like a sane woman when we pick up our rookie?”
                “The rookie will need excitement on her first day,” Menka stated simply.
                “Yes, clearly. Transporting a zombie to the CDC on her first day would not be exciting enough without fifteen near head-on collisions, would it?”
                “I can aim for twenty, if you like.” Menka checked her rear view mirror for any hint of a smile. However, Richard was sitting on the bench with his back to the driver’s seat, facing the zombie. She couldn’t tell if he appreciated her humor or not; she never could. Richard slowly reached for the cup of coffee. Menka’s eyes drifted to the zombie’s through the reflection. For a brief moment the zombie’s eyes seemed to lock on hers – tendons tightened and icy needles rose from her neck – and she quickly refocused on the road in front of her. Soon they would be at the hospital.

                Julie stood at the drive-up, outside the bright glass doors. She tapped her pen against the metal cover of her notepad. Her hair kept whipping across her face as she turned her head this way, and then that way. The call had come suddenly. “You’re up. They’re coming with one now.” Her first ride-along, really taking one of the plague victims to the CDC. It was such a rare thing now, with the sightings so limited, the attacks almost non-existent…
                And then the plague wagon was driving around the circle and was there. Julie’s breathing was a sputtering machine. A fair woman sat behind the wheel, looking both amused and severe. The side door opened and a thin man with short-trimmed hair leaned out, holding himself in the vehicle with one arm while the other extended forward. “You Julia Sawicky?”
                She took a second to realize what was being asked. “Yes. Yes, that’s me,” she beamed up at him.
                “Great. Get in here already,” he replied with a broad waving of his hand. He slipped back inside of the wagon and sat down on the small bench. Julia eagerly climbed inside. “Close the door…” started Richard – Julie pulled it closed behind her – “…and sit down, Ms. Sawicky.”
                “You can just call me Julie.” Julie’s face was nothing but a smile, as she sat next to Richard.
                “Excellent,” Richard spoke into the lid of his coffee cup like a microphone. “I’m Richard Thurman, the driver is Spomenka… uh, Zerr?”
                “Zore,” came the reply from the front seat. “And do not call me that!”
                Richard nodded. “Right, just call her Menka, she hates the full name.” Julie nodded seriously in reply. Taking his time, Richard carefully unsnapped the top of the coffee cup and took a sip. “Oh, and that’s a zombie,” he added, pointing through the glass partition.
                Julie steeled herself and turned to it, the creature that was once a man. No, she thought to herself. He is still a man. They are all still people, in need of help. That was her job now. She looked at the zombie’s – the man’s – graying skin, his lolling eyes, chattering teeth…
                “Is he cold?” Julie asked Richard.
                Richard raised his eyes above the rim of his coffee cup. “Who, the zombie?”
                “Um, yes. His teeth are chattering.”
                A chortle emanated from the front of the wagon. Richard ignored it and answered her. “Probably, but there’s not much we can do about it. The zombie often has a lowered body temperature, so a cover won’t do much to stop his chills. Besides, you want to try to put a sweater on him?”
                Julie laughed a little. Richard didn’t. “Oh, no, I guess not.”
                Richard nodded and concentrated on his coffee. Julie leaned forward a bit and looked out the windshield. Menka was driving aggressively, and they were headed out of town. Des Moines had the closest CDC Plague Housing, and it was a good two hour drive, even on the freeway.
                Sitting back again, Julie looked at the disheveled man behind the glass. Jesus, something about him looked familiar… “Do we know the man’s name?” Julie spoke up, her notepad held studiously between her thigh and her writing hand.
                “Hah! ‘The man!’” Menka shouted from the driver’s seat.
                A look of embarrassed confusion landed on Julie’s face. “I’m sorry, all throughout my training and internship they told us to refer to the plague victims as you would normally talk about any healthy person, and not as a different type of being.”
                Richard gave a little exhale. “Don’t mind Menka, she’s rather harsh on our passengers. She had a little trouble with them back in the old country.”   Richard actually grinned a little as he said the last part, looking up at Menka. Menka did not turn or react in any way. Julie noted that Richard had a nasty, cruel-looking grin.
                Richard let the smile drop and turned back to Julie. “But yeah, you’re right. It’s true we’re supposed to treat them like people in every way, so the CDC can take care of them in hopes of finding a cure and so forth, but honestly, I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon. So the fact of the matter is that these people are not normal or healthy. They are zombies and they will hurt you.”
                Julie gave a little diffusing smile. “I’ll still call them people if I can.”
                “Yeah, of course.” Another sip of coffee.
                “So where was he found?” Julie looked back to the man behind the glass. Something was brewing in Julie’s stomach, a warning or premonition about something and her mind was running and a realization was rising because the resemblance was so uncanny…
                “He was found on a farm on the other side of town. Apparently missing two weeks, he had gone hunting in the woods and showed up again today. Oh, you asked about the name, it’s-”
                Richard looked up at the outburst. Julie had dropped her notepad. Her hands covered her mouth, her eyes wide and terrified above her fingertips. “…Bradley Struthers,” Richard finished. “Julie, are you alright?”
                Julie shook her head silently. The effort of it seemed to make her eyelids quiver. Her hands moved down to her lap. “I know this man,” she said quietly. “We used to date.”
                Richard looked up to the zombie. They always had this nasty way of looking like they were about to fall asleep or be sick. “You’re shitting me.”

No comments:

Post a Comment