Siege of the deaD



Disclaimer:  This story takes place in the world portrayed by George Romero’s classic Living Dead horror movies.  It is unofficial because I, the author, have had no contact with Mr. Romero and do not have his permission, so this story has no connection to his work aside from my use of his movies for inspiration.


            Jill shook her child gently in an effort to stop his wailing.  She tried to calm him with her voice, but her voice trembled.  She had driven her car into the bed of a trickling creek and indulged in the simple pleasure of standing in warm sunlight, but Alex had decided that it was a good time to cry and she knew that the noise would attract them.  They would love to get their rotten hands on Alex.  The thought sent an electric, sickening feeling through Jill that made her look around.  She suppressed the memory of losing Alex’s father and the way he had used his last breath to yell at her to run, just after they had gotten him. Where she stood, the muddy walls of the creek bed were high enough to hide her presence, but hid her surroundings as well.  She listened, which never did much good because they made very little noise.  A mental picture of one of them falling upon her from above while she held Alex haunted her.  The creek bed looked like a trap, although it had seemed so safe when she had arrived. Jill inhaled deeply through her nose, examining the air and finding only the natural scent of the moist earth around her.  She began to plan.  Making a plan always made her feel safe, as though thinking ahead would make the world less dangerous.  She had gas for the car.  She had siphoned some form an abandoned truck and could still taste the gasoline fumes she had gotten a mouthful of while pulling the stuff through a length of garden hose with her breath.  She needed food, so she would wander along the country roads looking for something.  Lately, she had been looting farms or shooting wild game.  They did not eat anything but people, for some miserable reason.  She used to look for stores, but everything was decaying in the absence of electricity.  She only had three cartages left in the revolver on her hip and was out of shells for the shotgun on the floor of her car.  Before she could go hunting, she would have to look for a store that had sold firearms and hope to find one that had not been picked clean.

            Alex stopped crying.  Jill’s ears searched her surroundings in the sudden quiet.  The air was still and warm as the creek trickled past her.  She noticed a rhythmic thumping and a strange rattle.  She asked herself what they were doing.  The sound retreated and she realized that they could not have been the source of the unfamiliar noises.  They were dead people, barely able to walk but still somehow seeking the living with a relentless hunger.  The sound had been too active and had moved too fast.  Also, she had heard similar thumps before, when a bull had charged after her while she was attempting to loot a farm.

            Holding Alex with one hand, she drew her revolver and backed up against the side of her car.  The sound came back.  Tha-thump, tha-thump.  It was more relaxed and close.  Jill smiled to herself as she wondered if food on the hoof was about to arrive.

            Jill let out a startled squeak as Alex suddenly began to cry again.  She looked around, franticly, without making an attempt to quiet her child.  She could see a metal ball just ahead of her, peeking over the edge of the creek bed. It moved forward and what Jill saw made her think that she must be seeing things.  A man on a horse rode into view.  He wore a suit of smooth armor, carefully fitted to cover him completely, like something out of the middle ages.  A round ball of metal with two circular eyeholes protected his head and Jill could see his brown eyes inspecting her.  He sat on a leather saddle over a blanket of metallic ring mesh that covered his horse from head to backside, leaving its legs free, and made with holes for the animal’s eyes, ears, snout and tail.  The stranger wore a long, curved sword, which made Jill nervous. In her experience, the living could be as dangerous as the dead and far less predictable.  She cocked her revolver, knowing that the anachronistic stranger would see the point of a cartage shift into the weapon’s chamber.

            “You OK, Lady?” the man’s muffled voice asked.  She half expected an English accent from this nut in a knight costume, but his voice was distinctly that of an American Yankee.  He raised one hand and Jill could hear others moving closer.

            Jill just stood looking, not knowing what to say.  Her face was hard and suspicious and the revolver was steady with determination in her hand.  Two more metal-clad horses with armor-plated riders walked forward.  One of them hopped into the creek bed from above and the horse pranced and fidgeted a few feet away, snorting.

            “We’re alive.”  The rider’s voice was muffled, but his tone explained that the horsemen were on the side of the living clearly enough.  The rider reached forward to stroke the horse’s neck.  The animal calmed immediately and one exposed ear swiveled to face backward.

            The three riders waited quietly.  Somewhere a bird sang.  Jill bent her arm so that the revolver pointed to the sky and carefully eased its cocked hammer down.  Alex tugged on her sleeve.  One after another, the riders took off their round helmets, revealing their heads.  Jill had expected them to look the part, like something out of the past, and was surprised to see the faces of modern soldiers.  The nearest rider was unexpectedly young, with a thin face and a film of stubble on his shaved head.  The Yankee, although a little older than his companion, was a young man with a twinkle in his dark eyes and a broad strip of black hair on his otherwise bare head. The third rider held back, watching for surprises.  When the helmet came off, Jill realized that she was a woman.  Her electric blue eyes looked at Jill and away, into the distance, as she rubbed absently at her light brown fringe of close-cropped hair with one hand.

            The young man spoke in a surprisingly deep, flat voice.  “I’m Beakles and this is Guillo and Trouber.”  He began to say more, but Alex was crying again.  The kid’s horse fidgeted and twitched his ears irritably.  Trouber brought her horse closer to the edge of the creek bed. “Don’t you love that sound?” she asked. Guillo let out a guffaw of surprised agreement.  Trouber dismounted, sat on the ground with her legs dangling over the creek bed and then dropped carefully, landing on her feet to plop clumsily against the earth wall behind her.  She straightened up and unhooked something on her belt.  As she stepped forward, Jill could see that she held a soft leather bag topped with a hardened nipple.  Trouber favored Jill with a nervous, questioning smile but did not try to talk over Alex. 

            “May I?”  Trouber offered the bag to Alex. Jill holstered her revolver and held the infant with both hands.  Trouber held the bag over his face and squeezed, squirting a sip of water into his open mouth.  Alex stopped crying and reached for the bag.  Trouber carefully helped the infant drink.  She glanced at Jill with a satisfied smile.

            “Who are you folks?” Jill asked, delicately.

            “Cleaners”, Trouber answered with her adoring attention on Alex.  Jill’s face asked what she meant.  She had a closer look at Trouber’s armor.  The shaped metal had an improvised look and the pieces were held together with familiar hardware-store screws, but had been skillfully fitted to overlap and cover the woman completely, leaving no exposed part that one of them could sink its diseased teeth into.

            “Cleaners?” Jill asked.

            “You’re not local, huh?” Guillo observed.

            “We work for the Librarian,” Beakles informed her.  “It’s our job to protect the community.  We look for corpses to put down, but we also offer a deal to any live people we can find.  Most people take the deal.”  Jill’s look invited him to continue.  “We offer membership in our community and protection.  The more living people, the better.”

            Jill thought for a moment.  “There is a community nearby?” she asked excitedly.

            “You and the little one are welcome, of course,” Trouber added, softly.  “We don’t see many babies these days.  Not outside, anyway.”  Jill noticed the note of wonder in the woman’s voice.  She had not thought about it much.  She had successfully defended Alex, the only family she had left, even though the dead had suddenly decided to get up and attack the living and the modern world was slowly being overwhelmed. 

“I do need a place to raise Alex,” she conceded in a tone that asked what the catch was.

            “It’s not a free ride, yaknow,” Guillo pointed out.  “Everyone who can work does something to help out.  We will also want your car.”

            “A functioning car,” Beakles added lustfully.

            “It’s just a big hunk of metal.  We can melt it down for armor,” Guillo suggested with a predatory grin.

            Beakles looked stunned.  When he spoke, his voice was slow and condescending.  “It’s more useful as it is.  The community should have at least one car.  It’s been months!”

            Guillo chuckled.  Beakles realized that he had been had and shot him an annoyed look.  Guillo continued to examine the distance for movement with an amused smile on his face.

            “I haven’t agreed to hand over my car,” Jill interjected.  “I’ve had it a long time and been through a lot with it.”  Beakles nodded with understanding.

            “Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from turning us down and driving off to be with the corpses.  Up to you, Lady,” Guillo answered with feigned indifference. 

            Jill ignored him and spoke quietly to Trouber, who had finished giving Alex a drink but still stood close.  “I would like to see this community before I agree to anything,” Jill explained, quietly.

            Trouber gave her a measuring look.  “I think we can extend a day’s hospitality to you.  It should not be a problem.”  She turned to Guillo and spoke up.  “We’ll take her and the kid in for the night, OK?”

            “We should leave the car here for now, if you don’t mind riding one of our horses,” Guillo offered.  He nodded to Beakles.

            “But...” Beakles protested, eyeing the car.

            “You think the corpses’ll drive off with it?” Guillo asked with a grin. Beakles slowly dismounted and tucked his helmet under his arm.  As he led the animal closer, Trouber moved to squat next to the horse and put her hands together.  Beakles held Alex while Jill put one uncertain foot in Trouber’s clasped hands and swung onto the animal’s back as best she could.

            “I’ve never ridden a horse,” she admitted.

            Beakles smiled reassuringly.  “I’ll lead. He won’t give you no trouble.” He handed Alex up to her and put his helmet back on.  Beakles led the horse by the reins while Trouber followed on foot with Guillo leading her mount as he rode his own.  Beakles led the horse up the gentlest slope he could find.  When the four of them were together, Trouber mounted and rode ahead while Guillo rode next to Jill as Beakles plodded forward in his armor with her in tow.  They traveled northeast, using the afternoon sun to determine the direction.  The land was clear with occasional young trees.  It may have once been a suburb with neat, grassy yards, but was now untamed.  Every so often, they would pass the burnt remains of a house or building.

            After some quiet travel, Jill addressed Guillo.  “Um,” he turned to look at her.  “What happened here?  Everything’s been burned.”

            “That was us,” Guillo admitted proudly.  “Everything within a day’s ride.  We did it early on.  Took anything we could use and torched the rest.  Buildings just attract corpses and the owners were either gone or part of our community.” 

            “Hm.  So that’s how the community survived.  You figured out how not to attract them?”

            Guillo chuckled.  “And how to deal with ‘em when they do show up.  The Librarian figured it all out.  He had the idea that the corpses could not bite through armor and used museum pieces as an example of how to make more.  He was right.  And swords don’t run out of ammo.  He was holed up in a museum library while the town around him was overrun, just like everyone else, but he read up on how they did things before guns and factories and all the stuff people would have to do without.  He’s a little nuts, but he’s right.  It all works.”

            “Cool,” said Jill in a voice filled with wonder. 

            “MM-HM!” Guillo said with enthusiasm.

            “So, this Librarian is your leader?  I’d like to meet him.  He sounds interesting.”

            Guillo chuckled.  “He’s more like a advisor,” he explained.  “We elect a mayor.  We listen to him, though.  His ideas have saved lots of lives.” 

As she listened, Jill began to reflect on all of the close calls she had had and the pure luck that had kept her alive over the past...  How long had it been?  She had been with a group of survivors who had found each other and had watched as they, “corpses” as her new friends called them, had taken her companions one by one.  Every time the survivors had stayed a night in one place, a car had broken down or they tried to find something they needed, the hungry corpses had swarmed after them.  She had thought it was the same everywhere.  Her mind flashed back to the loss of one companion.  She was just a kid, fourteen maybe. When the group had stopped for gas, she had gone looking for somewhere private to urinate.  The kid had gone just out of sight around a corner of the abandoned gas station that Jill and the others were using and had come running back, bleeding, with a dead man stumbling after her.  The walking corpse had gone down easily enough and the girl was safe.  But she had been bitten. Everyone in the group had seen people get sick and die from a bite, but no one was willing to give up on the girl. She had died and become one of them while the group was on the road.  That was how their only R.V. had been destroyed.  It had crashed and three more of their number had been lost.

            “All right?” Guillo asked, interrupting the memory.  Jill nodded.

            Guillo looked sympathetic for a moment and then the twinkle in his eye returned.  “I try not to think about the bad stuff.  We all got memories.”  He grinned and made a shrug-like gesture in his armor by moving one hand outward.

            “How long have you been with the community?” Jill asked.

            “Long enough for a city boy to learn to ride one of these,” he answered, stroking his horse’s neck.  One ear turned back toward him.

            “Cleaners?” she wondered.

            “Yeah.  We put down a lot of corpses and now we can patrol outside the wall and clear the area.  Keeps them from ganging up like they used to.”

            Trouber’s hand went up and Guillo was suddenly silent and alert.  He slipped his helmet over his head. Trouber pointed two fingers at her eyes and then pointed one finger forward as she put on her own helmet.  Where she pointed, three walking dead could be seen stumbling toward her.  One was the body of a fat man in casual cloths.  It was missing an arm and had obviously been partially eaten.  Another was a blond woman’s corpse, nearly whole and wearing a housedress, and the last was the body of a ghastly elderly man who had probably looked like a walking corpse when he was alive.  Its hip was broken, so that its posterior swung back and forth as it walked.  Guillo and Trouber drew their swords.  Beakles took a firm hold of the horse Jill was riding.  Facing her, he pointed to his eyes and swung his fist in a circle over his head before drawing his sword and preparing himself.  “Look around?” Jill wondered. 

            Guillo and Trouber charged, urging their horses into action.  They covered the grassy ground fast.  Trouber made straight for the fat man’s body and turned just enough to avoid running into it.  She brought down her saber in a graceful gesture timed for impact just as the horse passed.  The sword went easily through its neck and the corpse fell forward, headless and unmoving.  The woman’s corpse turned toward her and Guillo passed behind it, holding his sword out and low so that it went through the target just below the ribs, cleaving it in half.  He raised the weapon a bit and surged on to decapitate the elderly corpse with a casual swing.  The two riders turned inward and passed each other, steering back toward the three bodies.  The upper half of the female corpse was dragging itself toward them with its head raised so that its greedy eyes could stare at them.  Guillo halted next to it and leaned over with his free hand on his horse’s neck.  He swung his weapon once, then again and a third time.  The half-corpse stopped squirming.

            Jill waved both hands over her head and pointed.  Off to her left, a large woman’s corpse was closing in on her position. Guillo pointed, made a fist, pulled it back toward himself and pointed again.  Beakles responded with a slight bow and then gently took hold of the horse’s neck to make sure that the mount would stay calm, although the animal had been steady throughout the action.  Trouber sped by at a gallop and raced toward the corpse.  She employed the same high-speed strike that she had used in her last attack and the corpse dropped.  She turned and her horse pranced in place as she pointed two fingers to her eyes and swung her fist in the air.  Guillo unfastened his helmet and looked around as he trotted back toward Beakles and Jill.  Trouber had her horse turn in place and walk back, slowly, while taking off her helmet.

            Guillo reached Jill while removing his own helmet.  “How’s that for some action?” he exclaimed with a proud grin.

            “Four down and four billion to go,” Beakles pointed out in a cynical tone.

            “An’ we’re the ones to do it, kid!” Guillo countered.

            Beakles let out the kind of laugh that said he was just playing.  “Clean the world!” he ordered with gusto. Guillo’s horse let out a whinny that made Alex raise his voice in protest.

Jill shook the infant gently and reassured him in a soft voice.  “They’re on our side.  Yeah, pretty horses.”  Alex was quiet again and Guillo and Beakles had waited patiently.  Trouber eased next to Jill on her breathless horse and grinned in greeting.

            Jill and the cleaners moved on after a brief break.  Guillo was once again at Jill’s side and Trouber was a short distance away, with her helmet off.  Guillo wanted to talk and Jill easily questioned him.  She asked about the hand signals and he told her it was something that the cleaners had worked out, as it was hard to be heard with one’s face covered. He showed her the basics. Pointing to ones eyes meant ‘look’. A fist moved in a circle in the air meant ‘around’, or ‘everyone’ depending on the situation.  Closing a hand in a grabbing motion and then pulling the fist toward oneself meant ‘protect’ or ‘go get’.  Obviously, pointing to someone or something indicated the subject that was being referred to.  A raised open hand meant either ‘stop’ or ‘be alert’, usually a sign of trouble.

            Also, Guillo told her about his past.  His name was actually Alfonse Guerillano, but the shortened “Guillo” was his nickname.  He had had an ordinary life back in New York City, until the dead started walking around. He had barely made it out of there with his skin intact.  Jill had been to the city once, before it all happened, but she did not want to ask what it was like after.  Having left his old life behind, Guillo had gone west and become part of a caravan of people who looked out for each other.  That had only lasted until the food and water ran low.  People fought each other over what little they had left and the corpses finished the fight that the living had started.  Guillo had simply bailed.  He had drifted, alone, from one hiding place to another until he had found the community.  That was before the wall had been built, back when the town had only had a makeshift wooden fence with barbed wire on top for protection.  The fence had to be guarded day and night to keep the corpses out, but people did what they had to do.  It was the Librarian’s ideas about armor that saved the community.  Early on, people were wearing suits made from hardware, sporting goods, coat hangers and the like.  As he reminisced, Guillo showed her the inside of his helmet.  She could see the remains of a football helmet, without a facemask and with metal placed over it.

            Jill reached out and fingered the smooth metal surface of the helmet. “You must have a lot of steel,” she observed.

            “I think it’s mostly aluminum,” Guillo informed her.  “When the community was built, we dismantled the town around it.  There were more abandoned cars than we knew what to do with and no gas.  Jorge, a new member of our community, made these new suits of armor when he joined us and put a crew together.  He used to be a construction guy and he knew all about metal and how to make stuff with it.  He and the Librarian decided to go the King Arthur route after we liberated a small herd of horses.  I know it looks funny, but we haven’t lost anyone since we got it all up and running, at least not to the corpses.”

            He told her a little more about the community, but then asked her about her life. She told him about the suburban town that she used to live in, how it had been overrun and traveling with a group of random people.  She even told him about having Alex on a conference table in an abandoned office building, with a desk pushed against the room’s only door and a pack of corpses on the other side, relentlessly pounding their way in.  Guillo listened sympathetically as she complained about being alone and having to move from one place to another.  When she talked about how hard it was to find food and fuel, she began to cry.  Guillo retrieved a bandanna from his saddle and handed it to her.  It was red and decorated with a familiar pattern that identified it as a relic from before, when red bandannas were commonplace.  Seeing it cheered her up just enough to stop her tears and she wiped her face before handing it back to him.

            “Keep it,” Guillo said with a grin.

            Jill looked around, trying to find something else to think about.  Guillo rode next to her, waiting quietly as she composed herself.  He sensed that she did not want to reminisce, and Beakles did not seem to be much interested in conversation, so the contingent plodded on, making only the relaxed sound of walking horses and the easygoing rattle of armor.  The day was clear and warm and the occasional bird or insect caught her attention.  Soon, Jill had her first look at the community.  From the outside, she could see a wall made of blocks of pale yellow stone surrounded by a broad trench.  From where she was looking, she could see unfamiliar devices sitting on top of the wall, which were most likely weapons of some sort.  She took as close a look at the wall as she could.

            Guillo smiled as he saw her examine the structure.  “Somethin’, huh?” he said with pride.

            “Looks a little unsafe,” she criticized with concern.

            “Uh, the blocks are fitted together, kind of like Legos.  The Librarian says it’s the way buildings in South America were built.  It stays up just fine and we can take it apart and move it if we got to.  Done it twice as we brought in more people.”

            Jill thought for a moment and then made a sour face, suddenly.  “What’s that smell?” she asked.

            “That’s the rendering plant where we turn corpse-meat into grease.  We built it as far away from the houses as possible. The process does make a big stink.”

            Jill chuckled.  “Grease?” she prompted.

            “Like cooking oil only less appetizing,” he observed.


            Guillo chuckled.  “Yeah, but it’s useful.  We pour it in the moat and light it if a lot of corpses come at once, or we can shoot a jug of the stuff out of a ballsa, kinda like a big Molotov cocktail.”  He gestured to the trench as he spoke. Jill could see that the inside of it was scorched.  She wondered what a ballsa was.

            The group made their way to a single arch behind a mound that interrupted the moat. The arch was made up of blocks stacked diagonally where the wall ended, as if they had been removed in a triangular shape and the two stacks leaned against a keystone at the top.  Jill could see sockets on the underside of the exposed blocks and Guillo’s Lego analogy made more sense.  The inside of the opening was covered with a set of bars reminiscent of a prison cell, but larger.  The opening was large enough to accommodate two horses beside each other.

            “Go away, we don’t want any!” a voice called from inside.

            Guillo let out a belly laugh.  “Yeah-yeah-yeah!  Open up!”  Jill could hear the rhythmic squeak of a wheel turning and the rattle of a heavy chain as the set of bars rose slowly upward.  Guillo and Trouber eased their horses under the arch and Beakles followed, leading Jill inside.  Jill got a close look at the wall blocks.  They were slightly larger than standard cinderblocks and a bit longer, lined up neatly to form a solid wall about as wide as a horse is long.  As soon as Jill’s horse was inside, a man wearing a suit of the same sort of ring mesh that covered the horses turned a wheel and the gate lowered back into place.  From the inside, Jill could see that it was held in place by runners that were screwed into the wall.  When the gate eased fully into place and settled into a groove in the stone floor of the archway, the wheel-turner straightened up and turned around.  The man’s bearded face could be seen inside a circular hole in his armor, which covered his cheeks, forehead and chin.  His weapon, a battleaxe head on a shaft about as long as he was tall, rested against the wall near the wheel.

            Trouber had removed her helmet and was absently rubbing her hair.  Beakles detached his own helmet.  Guillo smiled warmly, with a rascally twinkle in his eyes. “Jack, meet Jill!” he exclaimed. Jack smiled tightly and his eyebrows went up so that his eyes could roll toward Guillo and back to Jill. 

            “Welcome,” he said simply, extending a hand.  He wore leathery work gloves with the sleeve of his armor tucked inside.

            “Thank you,” Jill responded warmly, moving Alex so she could lean over and shake hands.

            “The lady might be joining our community.  I offered her shelter while she decides,” Guillo explained.

            Jack nodded.  “And who’s this little one?” he asked softly.

            “Alex.”  Jill cradled the infant so Jack could see.

            “I’m sure you’re welcome to take him to Marla’s.  She’ll feed him and she has diapers.”

            “Marla cares for children,” Guillo explained, simply.

            “She has her house set up for it,” Jack added.

            Jill paused, weighing her options.  After being alone with the infant for months, a break was an irresistible relief.  She looked around.  Inside the wall were neat rows of wheat and other food crops bisected by narrow dirt roads lined with simple, unpainted wooden fences.  In the distance, she could see the roofs of makeshift cottages, surrounding a cluster of buildings.  One large building drew her attention.  It was square and institutional, an out of place throwback to a time before the dead walked.

            Guillo dismounted and helped Jill out of Beakles’s saddle while Jack helped Beakles remove his armor.  Jill turned to Beakles and Trouber.  “Thanks,” she said with a warm smile.  Trouber saluted and Beakles looked up with a grin. 

Guillo led Jill down a road through the fields, where people dressed in simple clothing were working. One of them looked up or waved on occasion, to receive a smile and a wave or salute from Guillo.  Jill had to slow her pace as Guillo walked in his armor.  She kept her eyes down as the day was bright and she did not want to stare at strangers, but she could smell fresh earth and growing plants and hear good-natured chatting from the fields.  A relaxed atmosphere where the people around her were not in a hurry to stay ahead of danger or scrambling to survive was something that had been missing from her life for so long that she had nearly forgotten what it was like.  She stopped behind Guillo, closed her eyes and raised her head, inhaling slowly to pull the earthy scent around her into herself.  The sound made Guillo glance at her and his eyes twinkled with understanding.

            As the two of them followed the road, they came out of the fields to a jumble of makeshift homes.  Jill looked around.  She could see that they were basic cottages made of wood and stone, only slightly different from a modern home.  They were scattered around and, unlike the modern way of lining homes up along a street, each was facing in its own direction.  Guillo lead her to a home by the road that was larger than the other houses and had a grass-covered yard.  The distinctive rhythm of a swing set and happy sounds of children at play could be heard from behind.  Guillo knocked twice on the door and opened it, poking his head inside. 


            A female voice said something in response.

            “Marla around?  We found a woman with a infant while we were on patrol and she wants to drop him off so she can have some time to herself.”

            Guillo stood back as a teenaged girl walked out the door and over to Jill.  She had long brown hair and wore a basic white dress that looked like she might just have made it herself.  “Hi,” she said, greeting Jill coolly.  “Marla’s, like, in back.”  Jill nodded.  “You’re a survivor?”  The girl was sizing her up. 

            “Guillo and some other cleaners invited me,” Jill answered.

            The girl favored her with a polite but insincere smile and spoke in a businesslike tone.  “I, like, need to see the child before I put him with the others.  Make sure he’s not sick.”

            Jill smiled, a bit relieved.  The request made sense to her.  “Alex has never had any major health problems.  He’s a little hungry, but he’s fine.”  She presented the infant, who reached out and grabbed the girl’s hair.  She did not seem to notice and her face brightened up as she looked.

            “May I?”  She took the infant and held him.  “You’re just a tiny little guy to be out in the wilderness,” she said softly.  She held Alex with one hand and probed him with the other, skillfully examining him.  Guillo grinned reassuringly as he looked over the girl’s head.

            She looked up.  “He looks fine.  I can get him a change and some milk.”

            “Please,” Jill said with appreciation.  The girl lifted her head and gently freed her hair from the infant’s grasp.  Alex suddenly began to wail. 

            “Guillo, you big softy!” a cheerful voice came from the doorway, projecting over the baby.  “Picking up strays again, I see!”

            Guillo turned.  “Who was it who picked you up?  Hmm?”

            A short, plump black woman with a tight fringe of white hair filled the doorway, with a playful smirk on her face.  “You did, sweetie.”  She bounced into the yard and gave the armored man an enthusiastic hug.  When she let go, she extended a hand to Jill and favored her with a casual smile.  “Marla,” she introduced herself.

            Jill shook hands.  “I’m Jill and this is Alex.”

            “You look like you could really use a cold beer,” Marla observed.  She moved her attention to Alex.  “And how about you?  I think a bottle of warm milk would put you right.”  She turned to Guillo and knocked twice on his metal-plated chest.  “Take off your armor and stay a while.”

            Marla looked to the teen, who still held Alex, and motioned her to come inside with a movement of her head.

            “Um,” the girl protested quietly.

            Marla leaned close and said something to her in a whisper before turning to Jill.  “I hope you’ll understand that Lucy is very cautious about newcomers.  She does tend to put the safety of the little ones ahead of hospitality.”

            Lucy, Jill thought.  The girl had not given her name.  “You provide free day care?” Jill asked.  She wanted to find out what was expected of her as payment, if anything.

            “Always,” Marla assured her.  “Children are what this place is all about.” 

Marla led Jill, Guillo and Lucy, who still carried Alex, into a small room that contained a round table and wooden chairs, as well as a cabinet against one wall.  Jill could see into the next room, where three more adults supervised a number of cribs holding infants.  She assumed the older children were outside.  Marla began to help Guillo remove his armor while Lucy went to the cabinet.  She carefully laid Alex down on the lower shelf and found a clay jug, removed the top with an airtight pop and smelled the contents, filled a plastic bottle with milk from the jug and offered it to Alex, who accepted it immediately.  Holding the milk bottle with one hand, she reached into a bucket that rested on an upper shelf and pulled out four wet plastic bottles filled with pale yellow liquid.  The girl held the bottles just below the cap, between her fingers, and offered them to Jill.  Lucy let her take three of them and opened the fourth.  The plastic bottles were wrinkled with wear and only a trace of glue remained of the labels they had once worn.  They were cool, but not cold, from sitting in a bucket of water.  Jill could clearly see the liquid inside, which looked suspiciously like urine.  She opened one bottle and sniffed cautiously, confirming that it was actually beer.  Lucy took a sip and put the cap back on her beer before she began to change Alex.  Jill handed one beer to Marla and another to Guillo before giving it a try.  It was not what she was used to.  The beer was mild-flavored and a lightly sweetened, but was not at all carbonated.  Still, it tasted good and she could tell that it was quite strong.

            “Thank you,” Jill said in a tone that told the others how long it had been since she had tasted beer.

            “Certainly,” Marla said from where she knelt.  She was undoing the armor on Guillo’s legs and he laughed and squirmed as Marla’s hand eased between his thighs.  Marla paused to sip beer.

            Soon, the three of them sat down at the table.  Jill motioned with her head toward Lucy and spoke quietly.  “Milk?  Do you have cows, or, um?”

            Marla shook her head.  “Donations.”

Jill looked confused for a moment and then understood.  “Oh,” she said.

            “We make as much of what we need as we can, ourselves.” Guillo pointed out.

            “Including this beer of yours,” Marla added.

            That started a conversation as Guillo gave a history of his brewing project and how he had acquired wheat and then fermented and distilled it by trial and error.  Lucy presented a fed and changed Alex to Jill.  He wore a diaper of padded cloth under a homemade gown and smelled of scented soap.

            “Thank you, dear,” Marla said.  “I think we can put him with the others.”  Lucy nodded and took Alex into the other room.

            “How long can I leave him here?” Jill asked Marla as Lucy moved out of earshot.

            Marla shrugged.  “As long as you like.”  She leaned forward.  “There is one delicate question.  We do ask that you donate, if you are able.”  Marla held one hand in front of her breast and made a squeezing motion.  Guillo looked away and snickered, only to receive a gentle poke from Marla’s elbow. 

            Jill nodded, uncomfortable.

            “Maybe she should eat first.  Besides, I told her I would take her to meet the Librarian,” Guillo commented, changing the subject.

            “I hope you have time to finish your beer,” Marla said with a smile.  “We don’t get news from outside often.  Are things still bad?”

            Jill began to cry and Marla rose and moved behind her to rub her shoulders. After a moment, Jill spoke.  “It looks like the end.  I’ve been traveling and I can’t find anywhere that has not been overrun by those rotten things.  They just keep coming.  I know they’ll get me and Alex sooner or later.”

            Marla leaned over and whispered in her ear.  “We have not been overrun.”  Jill felt the reassuring strength in the older woman’s hands as they kneaded her shoulders and neck.  “Listen,” Marla suggested quietly.  Jill could hear the sounds of children playing outside in the yard.

            Jill stopped crying and finished her beer in one gulp before wiping her eyes with the red bandanna Guillo had given her.  “I’ve seen what’s left of the cities.  Millions of them just wandering, waiting to hear a living person moving around so they can riot.  They seem so unstoppable.”

            Guillo snorted.  “You do things right, they’re plenty stoppable!”

            Jill laughed.

            Guillo sipped his beer.  “We’ve cleaned the corpses out of everywhere within a days ride,” he boasted.  “And we’ll take care of any more that come by. They want in here, they’ll have to get through a circle of fire and a stone wall with ballsas on top.”

            “You mentioned that before,” Jill said, interested.  “What are ballsas?”

            “You saw them on top of the wall.”  He drank the last of his beer.  “A ballsa is a big honkin’ crossbow that’ll shoot spears, rocks, jugs or just about anything you can come up with.  Real accurate if you have three people who know what they’re doing. You need a spotter to figure the shot, a aimer to move the machine, someone to crank back the rope and load and thwack.  Drop anything you can see.”

            Jill listened, fascinated.  She could remember the scorched moat she had passed and Guillo’s description had her nearly picturing it.  “They’ve never gotten in here?”  She directed the question to Marla.

            “Not from outside,” Marla answered.  “They did early on, but not since we organized the cleaners and built the wall.  Every now and then someone breaks the rules and we end up with what used to be one of our own walking around. We’ve always dealt with it.”

            “All dead are to be processed,” Guillo said, as if quoting scripture. “Whether someone dies here or we drop ‘em outside.”

            Jill sat looking with understanding.  The rule was a harsh one and probably often painful for the grieving, but necessary.

            Marla spoke up.  “The Librarian can tell you more.”

            Guillo took the hint and stood.  “Ready?”

            “I’m sorry I can’t come along but I have my duties here,” Marla apologized.

            “Of course,” Jill responded.  “Thanks for the beer.”  She gave Marla an enthusiastic hug before following Guillo out the door.  The older woman did not even seem to find it strange, coming from someone she had just met.  Jill was just so grateful for a break from caring for Alex, a beer and sympathy.  She could not help but see Marla as a friend.

            “Marla’s somthin’,” Guillo observed.  “Always makes you feel good.”

            “Yeah,” Jill said softly. 

Guillo lead the way around the jumble of homes toward a large building at the center of town. As Jill had a closer look, she realized that it was a museum, or had been.  The outside had not been maintained, but two classical stone statues of musclemen in action poses stood in on either side of the modest courtyard that lay beyond a short, stone stairway.  The original facade was long gone and the front of the building had been boarded up.  What appeared to have once been the interior door of a house had been installed in the covering of scavenged wood.  Guillo strode up and pushed a button by the door.

            A large bell rang somewhere inside, filling the air with a single note. Guillo gave Jill a smirk that asked her to wait.  Eventually, the door swung open from inside and a smallish man stood in the doorway.  His head was bald in front and the graying hair that he did have was long and tied back.  A pair of thick glasses with black frames stood on his nose, making his eyes appear unnaturally large.  The man was dressed in a homemade robe tied with a rope. 

            “Guillo, hey,” he greeted his guest with surprise.

            “Hey”, Guillo answered.  “Me and the team found a couple survivors, Jill here and an infant, Alex, who’s with Marla.”

            The man’s magnified eyes widened.  “A baby.  Outside.”

            Guillo grinned and nodded enthusiastically.  The man turned to Jill.  “That’s quite an achievement!  It’s a pleasure to see you.  Please, come in.”

            The man turned around and strode back into the building.  Jill followed with Guillo behind her.  The interior looked like a library and must have been maintained, as it was as clean and intact as such places used to be.  Under skylights that illuminated the lobby, a semi-circle of bookcases had been arranged around several chairs and a single couch.  Jill could see a modest museum beyond the bookcases that consisted of a number of exotic things under glass.  A mannequin wearing a suit of armor looked back at her from a pedestal.  The man led her into the bookcase area and set up a stand of the sort that one used to hold music while playing an instrument.  He turned it toward Jill and she could see that it held a hand-drawn map of the surrounding area littered with scattered notations.  Guillo sat on the couch and relaxed as if he were in his own home.

            “You must tell me where you have been, what you have seen,” the small man said enthusiastically.

            “Jill,” Guillo added.

            “Hm?”  The small man seemed to lose his train of thought.

            Guillo’s eyes twinkled.  “I thought you might want to know her name, before we get down to business.”

            The man chuckled.  “Yes. It is nice to meet you, Jill. I’m Karl, but most people call me the Librarian.  I’m not much on manners, ask anyone.”  He extended a hand.

            Jill shook hands and smiled.  A thought seemed to occur to Karl  “Have you been fed?”

            “Just beer,” Jill answered with a shrug.  Karl gave Guillo a reproachful look before removing the map from the stand.  “Let’s talk over supper.”

            Karl led his two guests past the glass display cases, through a dimly lit opening and into a cafeteria.  The evening sun lit the place, reflecting off of the institutionally white walls. Karl strode around vacant counters into the kitchen and opened a freezer door.  Jill followed and could feel that the air inside was cool, but not freezing. Karl rummaged around in plastic containers and found a large one.  “Chicken OK?”

            “Chicken?”  Jill said with wonder.  “I haven’t had chicken in forever.”

            “We eat lots of chicken here.  They’re easy to keep.”  Karl babbled enthusiastically about raising chickens as he opened the container with an airtight pop, found three plates and filled them with chicken parts, bread stuffing and yellow gravy.  He had begun to chatter about the pulley system used to make the freezer almost work by circulating the coolant without electricity as he opened the oven.  Jill heard him banging something together and peeked.  Karl was making sparks over a pan of inert charcoal pieces covered in grease by striking two rocks together.  A spark landed in the right place and lit the greasy charcoal.  Using an oven mitt, Karl placed the plates on the oven’s one remaining wrack and closed the door.  Karl continued to explain technical details as he waited.  Soon, the smell of chicken filled the room and Karl took the plates out and set them on top of the oven to cool.  The charcoal had suffocated, but glowed red.  He pulled a hand crank out of a drawer and pushed it into a hole in the fan assembly over the oven.  Still talking, he cranked it several times and the fan made a metallic rattle as it turned. 

            Soon, the three of them were enjoying a meal of warm chicken at a table by the window and Jill could see the sunset.  Guillo had gone into the freezer and filled three plastic cups with beer.  Jill ate slowly, enjoying the rare treat.  Karl had opened his map and was asking for all of the details of her travels that he could acquire, making notes with a short yellow pencil.  After supper, Karl bagged the bones and washed the dishes, still asking questions across the room from the kitchen.  Then he invited his guests outside for a smoke.

            The Librarian found and lit a candle and then went back to his bookcases, where he found a pipe and a leather pouch after a few moments of rummaging.  The trio then went out to a bench near the steps in front of the museum.  Karl lit the pipe using the candle, took a long draw and held it in while passing the smoking pipe to Guillo, who did the same and passed it to Jill.  Jill sucked the smoke into her lungs, noticing an odd, bitter flavor, and passed the pipe back to Karl.  After the pipe went around a few times, Karl started a conversation by looking into the nearly dark sky at the purple remains of the sunset, causing Jill and Guillo to look up.

            “Nice out, tonight,” he observed.

            “Too dry,” Guillo answered.  “Be time for harvest soon and we don’t want to lose the crops.”

            “Won’t.”  Karl was sure.  “We know where to find water if we need to.”

            “Escort duty,” Guillo said, picturing it in his mind.  “All cleaners with the caravan and no one to patrol.”

            Karl leaned forward.  “Corpse activity has been low lately.  We can afford an expedition.”

            Jill had been looking into the depth of the sky, but was now following the conversation with wonder.  She interjected her thoughts.  “If you don’t have food, they won’t have to come.  People won’t make it and they will be here, inside.”

            “Not if I can help it,” Guillo said, making the powerful statement in a strangely relaxed tone.

            “You’re both paranoid,” Karl accused, knocking the ashes out of the pipe and refilling it.  “It’s the smoke talking.”  He lit the pipe and inhaled.

            Guillo giggled and Jill nodded with a look of realization.  “I am a little uncomfortable here.  It’s getting dark and they can sneak up on you at night.”  Karl handed her the pipe.

            “Not here, it’s safe,” Guillo said reassuringly.

            Jill paused, inhaled and handed him the pipe.  She exhaled smoke before answering.  “I know.  It’s just that you have it so good here.  You get to relax and live.”

            The three of them contemplated that statement as they passed the pipe.  Karl broke the silence.  “That’s what it’s all about,” he concluded.  “All of this.”

            Guillo spoke up.  “You are going to stay, right?”

            Jill nodded.  “I’ve got nowhere else to go.  No one else to talk to.”  She paused for a moment.  “Nowhere else to raise Alex.”

            “And we need all the help we can get,” Karl added.

            Jill began to plan.  “I guess I have to build one of those houses first.”  She looked to the makeshift homes and the shadows of people moving between them. 

            Guillo took her hand in his and she looked back at him.  “You’re welcome to stay with me,” he invited.  Karl leered but said nothing.  Jill thought about this for a moment.  Guillo was tall and lean, with the muscles of a soldier and large hands with long fingers.  She would guess that he was a big man, so to speak.  It has been a long time, she thought to herself.

            “You don’t mind having Alex around?” she asked.

            “No,” he said, slightly shocked. 

            “Marla could look after him for tonight,” Karl suggested.

            Guillo put an arm around her as Karl stood and walked in front of the couple. “Thanks for everything, Karl,” she said.  “You’re so sweet, giving me all this luxury.  Smoke, full belly, babysitting, safety.  It’s all your doing, isn’t it?”

            “Everyone helps,” Karl pointed out.  “I like company.”  He glanced back at the boarded-up front door of the museum in a way that made Jill wince slightly.  The look told her what it must have been like for him, hiding in the museum alone while they overwhelmed the town.  He must have known that he had to accept what was happening or get in a fight that he could not win and end up as one of them, wandering in search of someone to eat. 

            “But your the leader,” she pointed out.

            “I have ideas.”  He shrugged.  Karl began a verbal history of the community.  He spoke as if he were talking to himself and moved around, pointing.  The community had begun when a few survivors made it into the museum and found him.  They raided the display cases and took the antiquated weapons and armor. The survivors were really surprised how easy it was to clean the town.  The books told them how to do everything.  How to be self-sufficient and replace the fence they had erected with a wall.  After losing too many people foraging, they had decided to remove the pavement and grow their own food. Also, they had gone looking for survivors, adding everyone they could find to their numbers.  Soon, he was explaining how the forges and rendering plant had been set up.  How the community had recycled the entire town, found good stone for the wall and even turned the walking dead into something useful.  Jill sat and listened.  Guillo still had his meaty arm around her and it felt like the community had taken her under its wing.  She put her contented head on his shoulder. 

            Karl paced and pointed as he continued.  He explained where and how the community did everything, sorting through the technical details.  Jill’s attention drifted to the mild warmth of the evening, the way the cool marble beneath her contrasted with the warm man beside her and the relaxed beauty of a night without having to keep an eye out for them. 

            She and Guillo sat quietly and it seemed that Karl could keep talking all night. Eventually, Jill began to nod off and Guillo waved to get Karl’s attention.  Karl finished his sentence and stood still.

            Guillo got up, rousing Jill in the process.  “Time to go,” he said with an amused smile. 

            “Yes,” Karl said.  “Come see me tomorrow?”

            Guillo nodded, knowingly.  “Sure,” Jill said with gratitude.

            Karl started to say something and it seemed as if he were about to start lecturing again, but he stopped himself.  “Evening,” he said simply. 

Jill and Guillo wished him a good night.  The pair held hands as Guillo led Jill to his simple home.  The place was near the center of the village and they had to walk between sleepy cabins to get there.  His home was small by most standards, consisting of one room with a table, a few chairs and a small, black stove in one corner.  The bed on one side was a pile of something covered with cloth.  Guillo casually undressed and waited, leering at Jill as she tentatively took off her own cloths. The two of them had a good night.

            The next morning, Jill woke with a start to the smell of burning wood. “Alex!” she called fearfully as she took in her surroundings.  The sun was barely up and the dim light let her see where she was.  The smell was coming from the stove, which was lit.  A pipe carried most of the smoke outside, but she could still smell fire.  Guillo knelt over the stove and turned with a look that asked if she was OK.  Jill relaxed and smiled.  Guillo went back to work and soon the smells of eggs being fried and potatoes flavored with onions being boiled added themselves to the fire odor.  Breakfast, Jill realized with anticipation.  Soon, the two of them were eating eggs and home fries off of simple plates at Guillo’s small table.  He also showed her to his bathing stall and gave her some homemade soap, a jug of water and a washcloth so she could wash up, as well as a toothbrush and something that resembled toothpaste. 

            Guillo mentioned a meeting and soon they were on their way.  Jill was distracted by fun memories of the night before, but became alert as Guillo led her near the museum.  A crowd of people stood in front of the building, listening.  An older man wearing military fatigues stood near the place where she had been smoking the previous evening, with Karl and Marla next to him.  Marla was holding an infant.  Jill squinted to get a closer look.  Was that Alex?

            The man in fatigues spoke up for all to hear, listing jobs that needed doing. Karl tapped him on the shoulder and pointed.  “She’s here,” the man informed the crowd while looking straight at Jill.  The crowd turned and looked with expectation.  Guillo put his arm around her and led her through the crowd, which parted for her, and up the stairs. 

“You know Karl and Marla and this is Mayor Randy,” Guillo said.  Everyone waited as Marla handed Alex over to her and then Mayor Randy shook Jill’s hand with a politician’s smile on his face.  He put a hand on her shoulder and turned to address the crowd.

            “As many of you know, our cleaners found Jill and her son Alex yesterday. A living woman with a baby!  Karl has informed me that she has decided to stay.” To Jill’s surprise, the crowd seemed to erupt with applause, cheers and whistles.  She grinned nervously and Alex began to fidget.  She shook him gently.

            Karl addressed Jill using a businesslike tone.  “Marla has requested that you volunteer at her place, as you do have experience caring for a child.”  He smiled.  Jill looked to Marla, who gave her an inviting look in response.

            “Sure,” Jill agreed.

            Mayor Randy picked up where he had left off.  He went through the jobs that needed doing and called for volunteers. With Karl’s assistance, Mayor Randy directed the crowd as it organized itself into clusters, shifting and murmuring as the people worked things out so that each detail had enough volunteers.  Guillo joined a huddle, along with Beakles, Trouber and a few others who were the only people with military-style haircuts.  A small cluster formed around Marla and many of the folks wanted to see Alex.

            The assembly broke up and the community went to work.  Jill spent a relaxed day with Marla.  She soon found out that Marla provided easy work for the community’s teenagers, who often volunteered to help her when they tired of more strenuous jobs and would find something else to do when they became bored with childcare.  With Marla’s encouragement, Jill stayed on at her place for several days and became something like her assistant.  Every morning, community members would assemble by the museum and organize into groups of volunteers.  People were rather casual about who did what and always were able to negotiate if there were not enough people for a job.  Marla’s job was to provide a place for any child that was to young to be unsupervised and people were invited to leave their children or come and take them at any time.  It was also where Marla lived, but that did not seem to bother her, and she did see to it that someone was around to help, or fill in when she was out.

            Soon, Jill moved on to doing other work.  She had arrived in late summer, shortly before the community would harvest the wide variety of crops they grew and store food for the winter. Community members shifted jobs often, except for specialists.  The cleaners were one type of specialist.  Their job was always to patrol or escort anyone who needed to go outside the wall and they had been given suits of plate armor that would not fit anyone else.  They were also the only people who cut their hair close.  Marla was another specialist, as was the team of metallurgists under the direction of a man named Jorge.  Jill did not meet him as he lived in the area that housed the rendering plant and forges, away from everyone else.  Specialists often had support.  Volunteers would help Marla or Jorge, or accept duty as guards stationed on top of the wall.

            One day, Jill volunteered for guard duty out of curiosity and boredom.  She was given mesh armor to wear, a loose fitting robe made of small metal rings that covered all but her face and hands, and partnered with Cal, a little old man who volunteered for guard duty as often as he could.  As he led Jill down a dirt road, Cal had drawn a map of the wall on the ground with a stick as a way of showing Jill the layout.  He showed her where a single ramp was located, so that equipment could be placed or removed from on top, as well as the eight metal ladders attached to the inside of the wall for quicker access.  Then, Jill followed him up the nearest ladder.  Being on top of the wall was a little creepy.  It was only one story high or so and a fall probably would not kill her, but there was no railing or anything to keep people from falling off.  Once she had gotten used to it, she started to enjoy the unobstructed view of the surrounding terrain.

            On top of the wall, twenty ballsas were placed so that they faced in all directions and were evenly spaced.  Cal walked to the nearest one and showed Jill how it worked.  The ballsa consisted of a device similar to a crossbow, slightly longer than a man is tall, on a wheeled frame.  The frame was equipped with a system of leavers that aimed the crossbow mechanism by tilting it up or down and moving it right or left along positions marked with numbers, as well as a pulley to draw the thick hemp rope which was used as a bowstring.  As Cal explained, each device took three people to operate.  One person, an experienced user, would spot targets and call out the numbers and the type of ammo.  A second person worked the pulleys to aim the device by the numbers given.  Meanwhile, a third person would draw back the rope by placing a foot on the widened end of the rear leaver with enough force to make the pulley take the rope back to a hook.  Then the loader placed the ammo and pulled the trigger.  Now, one person can operate it, if you don’t mind waiting.  If you do have to use it yourself, load first, then spot and aim.  After showing her the device, Cal uncovered the three crates that sat next to it, each covered with a leather blanket.  One crate held javelins as long as Jill was tall, each tipped with a steel head.  Some had crescent heads with the points facing forward, others had triangular tips and still others were topped with spikes.  The second crate was filled with small, cast iron cannonballs each about the size of a billiard ball.  The third crate was filled with rounded clay pots.  The pots were about the same size as the balls, but were hollow and each had a greasy rag stuck in the top.  Cal explained that they were half full of grease and would be lit just before they were shot.  The result was a lot like napalm.  Next, Cal showed her a carving on the left side of the ballsa’s stand.  It showed a stick figure gesturing with a sword or something.  Cal explained that the cleaners used those commands to instruct the spotters.

            “I’m ready,” Jill said as Cal finished.  “What can we shoot?”

            Cal looked as if he had not expected to actually use the device.  “We can practice later.”  He gestured below and Jill saw that the cleaners, mounted and armored, were riding off in different directions.

            Cal and Jill had guard duty, which simply involved sitting in wooden chairs and watching.  There were four guard stations, each with two chairs and a bugle to be blown if anyone saw anything dangerous.  Cal explained that guards were always assigned in pairs, so that they could keep each other from getting bored, which caused a lack of alertness, and to back each other up when one person had to leave.  Jill and Cal spent the day chatting and watching.  Around midday, the conversation drifted back to the use of a ballsa and Cal boasted about the weapon’s accuracy.  He said that a curvehead could decapitate a corpse before it reached the moat.

            Cal stood.  “Want to give it a try?” Jill looked around.  The surrounding land was empty. 


            “I’ll spot,” Cal said, taking a position to the left of the weapon.  He pointed.  “We should be able to hit that tree.  Use a broadhead, they usually survive impact.”

            Jill understood and pulled a javelin with a triangular steel head out of the crate.

            “Three, five,” Cal instructed, with his eyes on the target.  Pull that leaver toward you.”  Jill found it surprisingly easy to work the leaver, making the ballsa kerchunk its way up until it was in the position marked with the number three.  She then pushed the second leaver to the right and the ballsa easily slid left.  She let go when it reached the number five position.  Next, she tried to step on the rear leaver.  The part would not budge, which surprised her and made her stumble and catch herself on the weapon’s frame.

            “All right?” Cal asked gently.  Jill nodded.  “Try putting your hand on your knee and all your weight on the leaver.  There you go!”

            The leaver moved under Jill’s weight and she saw the rope being pulled back by a hook.  It moved slowly and she could feel overwhelming tension through the leaver.  The rope was pulled over a second, stationary hook and twanged into place.  When Jill released the rear leaver, the hook it controlled eased forward and sank below the groove it was set in. 

            “Looks ready,” Cal chirped.

            “Should I pull the trigger?”

            “Careful,” Cal advised.  He looked the loaded ballsa over and then pointed to a handle that protruded from underneath the crossbow mechanism.  “Pull that back on three.”  Cal stepped back as he counted.  “One. Two.  Three!” 

            Jill hauled on the leaver, which was easier to work than she expected.  Her sharp scream of surprise blended with the rope’s single, crisp note as the broadhead disappeared in a blur.  Jill stood.

            “Nice shot!” Cal observed, looking.  Jill could see the broadhead stuck in the tree and marveled.  More than half the Javelin had gone in and she was sure that the point was sticking out the other end of the tree trunk. 

            “Ouch!” Jill commented after a pause.

            “Yeah,” Cal agreed.

            A lone figure walked into view.  The person wore the same kind of mesh armor Jill and Cal had donned at the start of guard duty and made a gesture that Jill recognized from the diagrams on the ballsa. It meant cover me.  The person strode to the wounded tree and moved behind it.  Jill watched as the lone figure grabbed the javelin by the shaft just below the head, lifted a foot to push against the tree trunk and pulled, removing it and stumbling backward.  The person held it up before walking back toward the wall and out of sight.

            Jill spent the day chatting with Cal about how the community was defended from them.  He told her that she would find out if she stayed any length of time.  The corpses came every so often and seeing one at dawn was always a bad sign.  During the day, the cleaner patrols could usually keep them away.  However, any commotion outside the wall would attract them and they would gather somewhere under cover of darkness.  Cleaners did not patrol at night because it was too easy to miss them in the dark.  Seeing a corpse or two walking around when the sun came up often meant that there were more around and they would be attracted by the commotion when the closer ones were put down.  The first thing the guards would do when a corpse was spotted was to sound the alarm using a bugle.  Crews would then go to the ballsas and the cleaners would prepare to ride.  There was always at least one cleaner somewhere inside the wall, ready for action and not far from a horse.  Once the cleaners were out, the ballsa crews would dump grease into the moat and someone would light it.  Meanwhile, the cleaners would do their work.  Cal boasted that mounted and armored cleaners could put down the corpses even if they were outnumbered a thousand to one.  Once the moat was lit, they would not have backup, but the ballsa crews would fire at will.  Curveheads worked really well against single targets and a grease-pot was useful if they clustered together.  If there were too many, a cleaner usually stayed in one place, let them gather and then rode away so that the ballsa crews could send two or three pots.  It was a good way to put down a bunch at once. The cleaners or their horses sometimes were sprinkled a little, but their armor would prevent serious injury. Once the corpses were down and the moat had burned itself out, volunteers in armor would gather the corpses, finishing any that were still moving.  They were taken to the rendering plant where Jorge and his crew turned them into grease. The process made a big stink, but grease was good to have around.

            Jill felt a little ill.  She remembered the chicken that Karl had reheated using grease and charcoal.  She knew it was safe, as no germs could survive rendering and being burned, but the idea of using something made from them was just plain gross.  It’s better not to know what’s in a hot dog, she thought.

            The conversation drifted to life inside the wall, which Jill had become acquainted with.  Her relationship with Guillo had ended amiably enough and she now had her own home, which her neighbors had helped to build.  Guillo understood that she had simply needed to be taken care of.  In fact, Jill was astonished by how much cabin hopping went on in the community.  Well, there was not much else to do for entertainment and a taboo had developed against talking about it.  Criticizing the sex lives of others would cause one to be called a hypocrite. Jill had also noticed how laid-back the people around her were.  Some of the fellows had made advances, but they had not been pushy or anything. When she had been working at Marla’s, she had found out that Guillo always welcomed female survivors.  There had been a time when such a thing would have upset her, but it just made her laugh knowingly.  She was not really ready for a relationship anyway, after having been alone with Alex for so long.

            As the sun was going down, the cleaners returned and Cal and Jill were relieved by two young men.  Over the next several days, Jill volunteered to help with the harvest.  She was helping pick strawberries and lettuce in one of the gardens when she heard the alarm being raised for the first time.  She heard what sounded like a car horn in the distance and then bugles were blown, one after another.  The community responded immediately.  The people dropped what they were doing and most of them gathered in front of the museum, while several people made their way up the ladders and organized themselves into ballsa crews.  Jill was part of the crowd by the museum, which was strangely silent.  She could hear a car horn again, much closer, and then the sound of an engine.  Soon after, she heard the twanging song of the ballsas ringing with uneven frequency.  A cleaner with a drawn sword rode nearby and gave the all-clear signal.  As the crowd broke into chatty knots of people, Jill made her way to the front gate to find out what had happened.

            To her surprise, Jill saw her car parked just inside the arch.  Beakles sat in the drivers seat, talking with Karl and Jorge. Jill had almost forgotten that she had a car and realized that she had left it in the creek bed, with the key in the ignition and her empty shotgun on the floor under the passenger seat.  She still had no ammunition for the weapon. She was also surprised to see Jorge.  The only time he left his section of town was when something was up.  Karl saw Jill and bounced over to her.

            “Jorge has plans for your car!” he announced, excited.  Jill had gotten used to Karl.  He was the community’s idea man and his head was busy enough that he often forgot to say hello or employ polite formalities.  His tone seemed to ask for her approval.

            “Cool,” she answered.  She glanced in Beakles’s direction.  “What just happened?”

            “Um...” Jorge said.  He had followed Karl.  Jill had seen him around and knew who he was, but had not met him yet.  She offered him her hand.


            Jorge smiled as he shook hands.  “I’m Jorge, nice to meet you.  You’ve kept that car in good condition.”

            Beakles clanked over to join them.  He still wore his armor, but had left his helmet on the passenger seat of her car.  “Hey,” he said with a nod. “I brought back your car.  There was a flock of corpses around it.  They followed us.”

            “Everyone OK?  No casualties?” Jill asked.

            “We dealt with them, but there might be more coming.”

            “It’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before,” Jorge added.

            Jill nodded.  “You have plans for my car?” she asked, facing Jorge.

            “With your permission, of course,” Jorge began.  “I want to change the fuel filters and see if it’ll run on grease or alcohol.  We melted down the other cars around here.  None of them were in decent condition anyway.”

            Jill smiled.  “It’s yours.  We can call it rent.”

            That started an elaborate technical conversation between Jorge and Karl. The two of them went to the car and began showing each other what they meant.  Jill started a conversation with Beakles about cleaning and what to expect if more of them showed up.  Later, she went back to work and had an ordinary day.

            The next morning, as dawn was just beginning, Jill woke to the sound of bugles. She lay in bed, listening and organizing her blurry thoughts of what to do.  A neighbor knocked on her door and she got out of bed and put on a makeshift nightgown she had acquired along with other homemade cloths.  Her neighbor was a woman about her own age who smiled with amusement at Jill’s unkemptness before informing her that there was an attack in progress.  Jill followed her to the museum, where the community had assembled.  Cal spotted her and asked her to volunteer as a loader. Someone handed her mesh armor, which she put on over her gown.  The Mayor firmly instructed all volunteers as he organized them into teams and herded them into position.  Cal had seen to it that Jill was on his team, along with a teenaged boy who she did not recognize.  Cal spotted while the boy worked the leavers.

            On the ground below, about a hundred walking dead had gathered.  Most wandered aimlessly, but a few were at the wall, pushing on it or beating it with sticks.  Jill heard the set of bars that blocked the archway being raised and the corpses began to wander toward the opening.  She then heard hoof beats and the cries of angry horses as eight cleaners rushed into view, applying their sabers where they could.  Four people from among the ballsa crews stepped forward with jugs of grease and dumped the contents over the wall’s edge. One man was puffing on something similar to a cigar made of leaves and scrap paper.  Once he had made it glow, he tossed it over the wall and fire spread quickly along the moat.  Burning corpses blundered away from the wall.

            Cal stood looking.  “Eight, six, curvehead.”  Distracted by the draw-load-shoot routine, Jill barely noticed the moat and looked up with surprise to see the blue-orange firelight that filled her view.  She pulled the trigger and the curvehead javelin flew.  Jill saw it travel through a corpse’s chest, separating its arms and shoulders from the rest of it before sticking in the ground like a fork in a pork chop.

            “Four, three, grease,” Cal insisted.

            “Uh”, the teenager responded, causing Cal to turn away from the fight he was watching.

            “Ready,” Cal ordered quietly before hustling away.  The boy worked the leavers while Jill drew the rope.  She was getting used to standing on the rear leaver with one foot while the ballsa was moving, which was a simple matter of holding on to the rear of the crossbow mechanism and going with it as it turned.  She carefully put a grease-pot behind the rope.  Cal ran back, a lit cigar hanging from his mouth and smoke billowing around his head.  He used it to light the greasy rag that had been stuffed into the pot’s only opening.

            “Shoot!” he ordered.

            Jill jumped slightly and pulled the trigger.  The trio watched with satisfaction as the pot slammed into the ground in front of a cluster of walking dead that were chasing a cleaner.  Glowing grease blobs and burning shrapnel showered the creatures, causing them to shuffle away in different directions as they burned.  The cleaner turned and charged, knocking burning corpses aside while applying wide saber strokes.  The cleaner’s horse reared up, with a few drops of fire on his armored chest, and cried out while striking with his hooves.  Cal was concentrating again.

            “Three, eight, curvehead.”  Jill and the aimer worked quickly and their javelin took the head off of one corpse before knocking a second in half.  “Nice shot!” Cal observed.  Jill giggled.  After having run from them for so long, she was electrified with the thrill of payback.  The battle continued as the sun climbed the sky and the day grew warm.  Jill and the crew kept right on shooting, as did the other ballsa crews.  By the time the moat had burned out, most of the corpses had been put down, either by the ballsas or the cleaners.  Soon, the only ones moving that she could see from her position were the top halves of corpses that dragged themselves along the ground, still desperate for living flesh.  A cleaner rode into view, dismounted and finished each one using a saber.  Jill realized that the horror she had felt since the first time she saw one of them had disappeared.  Sometime during the battle, it had burst like a soap bubble.  During the fight, those horrible things that had chased her for so long had seemed pathetic.  Mindless and slow.  The revelation reminded her of the last TV broadcast she had seen, before television stations had become a thing of the past.  A reporter had interviewed a police officer who had been fighting them.  He had described them with the statement, “They’re dead.  They’re all messed up.”

            Jill saw the cleaners withdraw and heard the archway being re-opened.  A pair of armor-clad people approached Cal’s crew and informed them that Mayor Randy had called an assembly and the trio went down the nearest ladder and back to the museum.  More suits of mesh armor were being handed out and the Mayor put together a large detail to go get the corpses and take them to Jorge’s people.  Jill volunteered, although the idea sickened her. It was not as bad as she had anticipated.  All volunteers wore armor and gloves, so nobody had to actually touch one of them, and the cleaners were always near and ready in case one was still moving.  The volunteers brought out a cart made from a flatbed trailer and the detail quickly piled the fallen enemies onto it.  Occasionally, another one of them would show up, attracted by the movement and live meat, but the cleaners easily dispatched each new arrival, so that it would become just another bit of cargo.

            As the flatbed cart made its final delivery to Jorge’s section, Jill followed the rest of the detail back inside while the cleaners had a quick huddle and then left on patrol in pairs and trios.  The refinery had begun to work and it made an impressive stench.  No one seemed to mind, however, and Jill saw some folks amusing each other by inhaling deeply and making faces or jokes, as if they were teenage boys smelling each other’s farts.  Jill began to feel as giggly as they were.

            Karl hurried up to her.  “I need you,” he blurted.

            Jill’s knee-jerk reaction was to think he wanted sex, but that would have been out of character for Karl.  She did not answer and simply stood looking confused.

            “Help me out?  Come with me?” Karl insisted.  Jill figured he had made her part of a plan and gone ahead with it before discussing it with her.  That would not be out of character for Karl.  Jill followed him back to the museum, where several people were gathered.  Mayor Randy was waiting on the steps, along with Guillo, who still wore his armor except for the helmet under his arm, and Marla, who held Alex.  The Mayor motioned her over.  He was smiling, but Jill was still nervous about what would happen next.  She strode up the stairs, ready to deal with it. 

            Mayor Randy put an arm around Jill and addressed the crowd, projecting his voice. “The newest member of our community has survived her first fight.  Jill...”  He lowered his voice.  “What’s your last name?” 

            “Haywood,” she whispered.

            He continued as before.  “Jill Haywood, as the elected representative of our community, it is my privilege to present you with your own sword.”  Guillo handed a long, straight sword sheathed in a leather scabbard attached to a belt to the Mayor, who presented it to Jill.  Guillo drew his own curved saber and Marla, Karl and Mayor Randy moved back, out of the way.  Guillo grinned and the twinkle in his eyes told Jill he was proud of her.  “May I instruct you?” he asked formally.  Jill nodded, grinning.

            “Hold the handle with both hands.”  Jill unsheathed the weapon and slung the belt over her shoulder like a purse. The handle was long enough to accommodate a two-handed grip and the long blade, although heavy, was balanced so she had no trouble maneuvering the weapon.

“Push into the swing with your top hand, but also pull the other way with your bottom hand. Like so.”  Guillo swung his saber and Jill could hear the deadly whisper of the blade cutting air.  She gave it a try, but the weapon moved uncontrollably fast and she nearly dropped it.

“Now, end one swing with another.”  Guillo swung his saber with skill, moving the blade in a figure eight pattern. Jill did as he instructed.  The weapon was easy to use once she moved it without trying to stop it after each swing.  The pushing and pulling motion made the weapon swing with frightening force.

“Swing it like you are cracking a whip,” Guillo instructed.  He swung his saber so that it pivoted on a point along the blade. Jill tried it, tentatively at first and then in combination with the pushing and pulling motion and the continuing swings.  The skillfully balanced weapon moved as though it were obeying her thoughts rather than her hands.

            “Well done!”  Guillo congratulated her.

            “See?  Mommy can fight and you’ll grow up safe,” Marla said to Alex from behind her in a baby-talk tone.  “Yes she can!” 

            “Put it on,” Guillo prompted quietly.  Jill put on the belt and sheathed the sword.  The sheath was attached to the belt in a way that hung the weapon at an angle, so it would not drag on the ground.  The crowd, who had been watching quietly, suddenly applauded and then cheered, making Jill blush. 

            The Mayor spoke up.  “Take a day off!  Have fun,” he urged in a casual and inviting tone.  Karl patted her on the shoulder and smiled.  Between winning a battle against them and learning to use the sword, Jill was euphoric.  A feeling of bravado welled up inside her, making her feel as carried away as if she had been drinking too much of Guillo’s beer.  She went to Guillo, following a crazy whim.

            “I do want to have fun,” she told him.  She lowered her voice to a whisper.  “Come back to my place?”  She caressed his armored chest seductively.

            Guillo let loose with a belly laugh.  “Oh, yeah!  Now that’s what I like to hear,” he exclaimed.  Jill heard Karl and Marla snicker behind her and good-natured woo’s and cat calls drifted from the crowd.  The Mayor motioned for order.  The smile he favored Jill and Guillo with let them know they were dismissed.

            “Mommy’s taking a day off, so I get to take care of you,” Marla told Alex.

            The two of them were late to the next morning’s assembly, after having spent the rest of the day and the following night together.  The other cleaners gave Guillo a good-natured hard time as he joined them and Jill was greeted with knowing smiles as she joined Marla’s crew.  Over the next few weeks, Jill alternated between helping Marla and volunteering to help pick and preserve food.  It was two or three weeks before the car she had donated was parked at assembly one morning.  Jorge and Mayor Randy announced that it would be given to Karl, to be used by volunteers.  Jorge had modified it so that it would run on grease. Alcohol, too, but grease would be easier to spare.  He had also added a trailer hitch and replaced the front bumper with an arrangement of his own invention, so that it could absorb impact.  Karl assembled a troop of volunteers and they planned to attach a cart to the hitch and use it to transport water.  The community’s water supply normally consisted of what rain they could collect, augmented by water carried back from nearby streams.  The car meant that they could haul all the water they needed.  Jill was glad she had donated it. 

            Summer slowly became autumn and the community finished harvesting.  Most of the time, things were quiet.  Every so often, some walking dead would show up and be dealt with.  Jill began to adopt the community’s attitude toward those skirmishes.  People actually looked forward to the corpses showing up, an event which would have been a disaster for anyone else Jill had been around.  The community used them as a resource and the fighting was gratifying.

            One cool and overcast day, work was interrupted in the afternoon by the sound of engines outside the wall.  People dropped what they were doing and went up the ladders and the ramp to see what was happening.  Outside the wall, a convoy of four military vehicles had arrived.  Two were hummers, each with a gun on top, one was a half-track and the fourth was a tank.  An actual tank, with rocket launchers and a cannon.  The vehicles were packed beyond capacity with people, who carried rifles of all kinds including assault weapons.  Nervous tension spread through the spectators on the wall as they realized that there were four cleaners with the convoy, who were obviously being treated as prisoners.

            Karl rode out as everyone watched, holding a stick with a single square of white cloth.  Jill knew him well enough to figure out what was happening.  Karl would want to negotiate.  He was always in favor of welcoming the living into the community and Jill knew he would be drooling over any equipment they would be willing to donate.  She could picture him telling Mayor Randy that those folks had no reason to harm other living people and every reason to join the community.  Jill was not so optimistic.  She had met scavengers before and they could be more dangerous than the walking dead, as they often saw strangers as a resource to be exploited and nothing more.

            As Karl approached, he announced something Jill could not hear.  People poured out of the vehicles and aimed their weapons.  Not a good sign.  Jill noticed that only one of the larger guns mounted on the vehicles was manned and wondered how much ammunition those people actually had.  The spectators moved as volunteers took positions on the wall.  As always, ballsa crews had been selected at morning assembly and they were loading the ballsas with iron balls and aiming them. Many people slowly left the wall. Jill did not have ballsa duty that day, but she stayed.  She wished she had not left her sword at home.  The weapon might be of little use, considering her situation, but it would have made her feel better to be wearing it. 

            Outside, a big man who walked with a swagger had attracted Karl’s attention. The two of them spoke for a long time. Jill watched along with the remaining spectators who stood between ballsa positions, careful not to get in the way.  After some discussion, the swaggering man seemed to be throwing a fit.  He kept turning around and shouting to his people and Jill could hear that they were making lots of unfriendly noise.  Karl walked his horse away from them and signaled with his stick, which still had a white cloth dangling limp and powerless from its tip. Jill knew the signal and the sight of it made her belly clench.  He was motioning for the ballsas to shoot a specific target and pointed to the tank. Two ballsas sang out and their crews reloaded.  From a distance, the people on the wall were unable to see any damage to the machine, but the crunching impact of the solid iron balls could certainly be heard.  The reaction from the convoy was immediate.  The swaggering man ducked and seemed to be swearing.  Convoy members moved nervously, some kneeling or crouching and other spreading out.  Karl’s body language looked smug and Jill figured he had made his point.  He signaled the ballsa crews to cease shooting.

            The swaggering man stood and berated Karl.  He swung his arms furiously as he shouted and Jill could hear that his comments were punctuated with derisive laughter from his followers.  Karl struggled to control his horse.  The swaggerer suddenly strode away and climbed the tank while giving orders.  Karl turned hastily and galloped away, toward the wall.  To Jill’s horror, she saw the tank’s cannon swivel in her direction as it tilted. 

            “Shit!  Down!” Jill shouted as she dropped onto the hard, cold surface of the stone wall.  Shots rang out, forcing her to look forward.  The sound came from the machine gun on top of the convoy’s half-track as the gunner mowed Karl down.  Karl screamed as a red cloud erupted from both him and his horse and then his body fell and rolled to a stop along with that of the animal.  Jill began to cry quietly.  The convoy members fired on the cleaners next, taking them down quickly.  Ballsas twanged and iron balls flew.  The gunner who had attacked Karl flew backwards and the convoy’s vehicles were punctured, with the exception of the tank.

            “Pots!  Burn them down!” cried the grief-stricken voice of a spotter to Jill’s left.  The ballsa crews responded immediately and lit grease-pots streaked toward the enemy.  The convoy answered with a crackling wave of gunfire.  The Ballsa crews ducked as best they could without ceasing to fire and the spectators were on their bellies.  Firing from below, the convoy members either sent bullets bouncing off the wall’s edge or into the air overhead.  People on top of the wall were protected, but the bullets would come down inside.  The image of bullets falling through Marla’s roof and into the nursery where Alex was spending the day crept into Jill’s mind as she lay feeling helpless. 

            The ballsa crews kept shooting lit grease-pots.  The convoy became a mess of fire and screams.  Their tank had not fired any of its weapons and they must have been out of ammunition.  However, the machine had survived, although it was decorated with drops of burning grease. It was moving toward the wall, fast. It clanked over the moat and drove up, its cannon facing to its left.  The machine impacted the wall and tore a rat hole with a deep crunch of breaking stone.  To Jill’s right, she could see the top of the wall sinking.  The spectators on top of the effected portion of wall did not dare to get up.  A nearby ballsa crew fought to keep their weapon from sliding into the helpless people and eventually steered it over the inside edge.  Jill slithered inward to get a better view.  The wall had held together, for the most part, but had ripped open over the tank in chunks that were not entirely detached.  The end result was that the stone blocks had sunk and cracked, trapping the machine under their weight.  The tank’s treads clawed at the ground in an attempt to move, first forward and then backward.

            People on top of the wall began throwing unlit grease-pots onto the tank and then someone dropped a cigar.  The machine was instantly covered in fire.  Inside the wall, men and women with swords waited and watched.  Ballsas twanged and Jill turned to look. Outside the wall, the scattered survivors of the convoy were being attacked by walking dead that had once been their comrades.  Jill also saw that the cleaners were up and walking.  One of them was trying to bite a survivor without having removed his helmet. Another survivor was swinging a rifle butt like a club as three corpses attacked him.  Jill saw that Karl’s body had gone.  Occasionally, a ballsa would shoot a ball and a convoy survivor would go down.  Suddenly, the moat was lit.  Soon, the convoy members were gone, either having fallen in battle or run away.

Mayor Randy showed up, took a look at the tank and called for volunteers.  The fire slowly burned out and Jill joined a work detail on top of the wall, which was pulling out blocks one at a time.  The volunteers were organized and Jill was reminded of what Guillo had told her about having taken apart the wall to widen it.  Volunteers on top were removing and dropping the blocks and, every so often, someone would call a stop and volunteers on the ground would take the blocks and check them to see which ones were still usable.  Soon, the remains of the wall were low enough that people on the ground could take it apart.  When the volunteers had completed their work, there was a gap in the wall where the tank sat, scorched and inert.  Two volunteers in mesh armor approached it.  They were armed with weapons that Jill knew were kept near the gate. People called them hallbirds and they consisted of an axe-head on a six foot or so length of pipe.  One volunteer waited while the other pried open a hatch in front of the tank’s turret.  One of the occupants raised his head.  Anyone looking could see by his vacant eyes and red complexion that he was dead.  One by one, three dead men crawled out of the hatch and stood on top of the tank.  By the look of them, they seemed to have died in the heat when the tank’s exterior had been bathed in fire.  A hallbird swung and one corpse lost a foot, so that it flopped off of the tank.  A second swing removed its head and it stopped moving.  The other two rushed off of the tank and landed nearby, only to be put down.  Ballsas twanged from above as more corpses outside wandered toward the gap in the wall.

Soon, the tank had been hitched to Jill’s former car and was being towed away, with volunteers pushing from behind.  The tank and the handful of bodies that lay inside the wall or the gap were taken to Jorge’s section and the volunteers began to replace wall blocks.  The car returned, pulling a trailer loaded with blocks to replace the ones that were no longer intact.  Jill was impressed by how quickly the wall was re-assembled.  Eventually, the remaining cleaners returned from patrolling and were briefed on what had happened.  It was decided that the next day would be spent cleaning up the mess and salvaging the convoy’s equipment, and then a lot of exhausted people went home early.

The next morning, more corpses had arrived and an alarming number of them were poking around the abandoned vehicles.  The cleaners took care of them with backup from the ballsa crews, as usual.  Jill joined a large detail of people retrieving bodies, rifles and so on.  The two hummers and the half-track were towed inside the gate, one by one.  Although the half-track was an especially tight fit, Jorge’s people soon had all three vehicles.  In the early afternoon, word went around that there would be an assembly at the rendering plant. 

When Jill arrived, most of the community had gathered just outside the wooden fence that separated the rendering plant from the rest of the community.  The familiar, flatbed cart had been parked just outside the fence.  Jorge and Mayor Randy stood and conferred.  Stragglers arrived to join the rest of the community as they formed a hushed crowd, waiting to be addressed. 

The Mayor turned toward the crowd and the look on his face made Jill nervous.  She had seen that wild-eyed, broken look before in her travels, it was the nervous, intense look of someone about to do something crazy.  She braced herself as he began to speak.

“Neighbors, we are gathered here today in loving memory of five of our own, who died bravely.”  His voice sounded strained, but determined.  “We did what had to be done with their mortal remains.  The hard reality is that those five people are gone and what remains is not human, not our own.  We all know that the disposal of remains has nothing to do with how we feel about the five living people who died for us!  The way to honor them is to survive, to continue the way of life that they died for!  And we should be grateful.  We lost only five and if it were not for all of you, your hard work and cooperation, we would not be able to protect ourselves.  All of us have to take risks and today, for five of us, the risk was too great.  We take these risks so that we may live like human beings, not like animal scavengers!  We will remember these five brave people as those who prefer death to dishonor!”

Mayor Randy turned away to compose himself and then nodded to Jorge, who took a step forward while holding a bugle.  He spoke nervously.  “Our community has been dealt a savage blow, for we have lost our Librarian.”  He paused.  “I would like to say a few words.  I’m not a smart man like our Mayor.  I’m just a simple metalworker.  We all know what Karl did for our community.  When I was found, I was no less a scavenger than the enemy who attacked us today, but the Librarian took me in.  He melted me down and made something useful out of me.  Simple as I am, if he ever doubted my worth, he never let on.  In his straightforward way, he put me to work on his ideas.  Today, it was the duty of my crew to cremate him.  He had always told me that, when his time came, I was to do with his remains what we do with anyone else’s.  No exceptions.  Each and every one of us knew Karl.  He was not a fighter, but a gentle soul, a daydreamer who made one of his dreams come true.  Today he died for that dream.  When you work at the forge, you risk being burned.  Our Librarian knew the simple truth, that without being willing to take that risk, you cannot build anything.  He went out today and took that risk without fear, knowing what could happen.  Our community was forged in the fire of Karl’s mind, using the steel in each of our own souls.  Now, that fire has gone out but his living masterpiece stands all around us.  I say that together, we can light a new fire and, together, we can build a new future.  As we do this, Karl’s legacy lives on!”  The crowd cheered.  The Mayor motioned for order and nodded to Jorge again.  After a moment, he raised the bugle to his lips and played taps. The silent crowd listened to the lonely sound of a single bugle.

            That night, a wake was held at the museum.  Before the assembly at the rendering plant, Mayor Randy had organized volunteers and the collection of food.  Jill had too much beer and the wake became a blur.  There was no assembly the next day, but the Mayor did hold one the day after, at which he asked for volunteers to be trained as cleaners.  Jill volunteered and was accepted.  Life went on through the winter and by spring, Jill had been assigned a horse from the community’s growing herd and had been measured for a suit of armor.  She shaved her head and spent her days patrolling.  One day, she found a frightened young woman who had been hiding in a storm cellar, but had come out to search for food.  After some coaxing, Jill was able to bring her home.



back to main page