/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

Blaze of Glory

W Ochse


Weston Ochse

Blaze of Glory

INTRODUCTION

IN THE BEGINNING CAME THE END

Once upon the time, there was Once Upon the End, a novella written by an author of little note but great ambition. The novella was published to moderate acclaim, created a small yet consistent buzz within a small community of horror fans and authors, and made a few people notice this author who wouldn’t normally notice him. As a bonus, because the editors were asking for extras, the author provided a screenplay based on the novella. One long night at a convention, an agent asked this author a question that he’d never been asked before-have you considered selling this as a screenplay? The author remembers taking a sip from a drink before shaking his head.

Once Upon the End as a movie?

He’d written the screenplay, but only as a sophomoric afterthought. For all he knew, he’d done it all wrong. Yet images and dialogues from the novella suddenly took shape in the silver screen of his mind. His sophomoric screenplay took life. Characters were cast. A soundtrack blared the end sequence to a cacophony of applause.

Looking around the busy party, the agent spotted someone more important than this green author and made to go. But before leaving, the agent leaned down and said something that would mold events for this author over the next five years- “You really should. There’s humanity in your screenplay that’s rare. Plus, it’s very visual. Remember when dealing with Hollywood, visual is good. Visual is always good.”

So this is my story of Once Upon the End, a novella that became a screenplay that reached heights I’d never imagined. I’ll detail my successes and mistakes. I’ll list those who showed interest as well as those who blew it off. This is everyone’s tale. Many have been there before me, many will come after me, but this is the story of my journey.

But remember, “Once Upon a Time stories” don’t always have and they lived happily everafter endings. This tale might be a tragic one. There are those of you who still hope to see your name in lights. There are those of you who look at the system with wide-hopeful eyes. For you this tale may be too scary.

But I urge you to follow my main character, Once Upon the End, as it travels from nothing to an agent, to directors, producers and their assistants, and to Wesley Snipes and forest fires and beyond. Experience the highs and lows, the vulgarity and the hilarity, the happiness and the loss of hope, as Once Upon the End was promised, passed, courted, and used like a two-for-one whore at a Shriner's convention.

Beware is all I say. Let it not be said that I didn’t warn you. Consider this the small print on the prescription bottle of your Hollywood ambition.

So poll your thoughts, interrogate your dreams and decide if you want to continue reading. And if in the end you decide to learn the true story of Once Upon the End travels along the Dantean road to movie production, then we are well met.

But first, allow me to introduce what was once Once Upon the End and is now Blaze of Glory. Before you are to know what happened to the screenplay, you have to experience the end of the world as my characters did…awash in death, destruction, marijuana smoke, crack-addled grannies, giant monsters and a garbage man with heroic ambitions.

So sit back.

Grab the popcorn.

Cue the soundtrack.

And enjoy.

Weston Ochse

June 2008

Mexican Border

"I dunno what the hell's in there, but it's weird and pissed off, whatever it is."

— The Thing, 1982, Directed by John Carpenter

CHAPTER 1

There are things that run through a person’s mind right before they murder someone. Crazy things. Insane things. Among the many thoughts that ran through Buckley Adamski’s mind were two that crouched like Chinese Lion Dogs intercepting and interrogating every intuition and postulate —

Why had God allowed this?

Was He doing anything to change it?

Maggot-shaped pixels on the screen of the old-fashioned floor model television coalesced into recognizable images as Buckley lurched to his feet. He'd been watching television for hours, staring at the devastation and willing it all to be fiction. He stepped back farther to better see the screen, wobbly from both the vodka and the bombardment of doom presented in Technicolor perfection by the network. Scenes of destruction flipped and flowed past computer-racked commercials and ads for shows that would never be seen. From toilet paper teddy bears to the Eiffel Tower crashing into the Paris skyline to the panic of ten-thousand Chinese rushing madly into the ocean, the scenes merged into one other until he could only believe that it was truly an End Time, perhaps even the end of the world.

Buckley fell back a step as a line of a hundred Russian tanks fired, then exploded. Airplanes slammed into the ground. Roads became collections of abandoned cars. And the more he watched, the fewer people he saw.

The gold alarm clock his father had been given for retirement for thirty years in the Public Works Department chimed the top of the hour. The screen blanked, then was replaced by a torso-shot of a blond-haired news announcer. He'd seen this look a dozen times and each time he wished it would change. Maybe if he watched the broadcast one more time it would be different.

"This morning at 8:00 AM, the President declared a national disaster and is, even as we speak, somewhere overhead in Air Force One while below him on this great planet Earth, chaos reigns supreme. Borders are being fortified. Commercial planes are grounded. Ships are being halted off the coasts. Even in Iowa, a thousand miles from danger, neighbors are shooting each other over the tall corn. From Afghanistan to Alabama the world is in a panic."

His mother's body began to quake on the couch. She'd been unconscious for about an hour, long enough for the transformation. Buckley knew what was about to happen and was powerless to stop it. He watched the television instead, praying for the man to grin and yell 'Gotcha!'

"The Governor had seemed poised to handle events until the press conference yesterday," the announcer continued. "When he spoke, his confident words carried the day, making people sit up and feel better. He’d had ideas. He’d said everything was going to be okay. He’d said the creatures could be defeated. Scientists had almost figured it all out, he’d said. Then he began to twitch and sing as if something was in his brain. All he’d said before could have been true. Everyone could have been safe. The human race might have actually made it."

Suddenly Buckley’s mother sat up. She coughed and gagged. "Help me," she begged. So, like the good boy he'd always been, he did as she begged by placing the cool barrel of the 9mm pistol against her temple and pulling the trigger. She fell back on the couch, better for it.

"But as the Governor sank into the longing strains of an old BB King song on national television,” the announcer continued, “a single creature pierced the slick cover of his pupil and a million households watched as the small maggot tasted the air and began its dance. And the song continued on as the Presidential hopeful sang The Thrill is Gone.”

The announcer sobbed once as he pulled his own pistol from where he'd had it hidden in his lap. His slightly embarrassed smile was followed by a loud report as his brain splattered the blue screen behind him. Then the television cut to commercial.

If Buckley wanted to see it again, he only had to wait an hour, because this was all that had been playing since yesterday, over and over and over.

CHAPTER 2

That’d been two days ago.

Two days of an Uber-Dantean Hell where everyone was a demon and everyone was damned. Buckley had run and killed- his flight or fight instinct working simultaneously within his spinning mind. Everyone he’d known, everyone he’d yet to meet, was a threat.

He tried not to kill. He really tried. Deep down, smothered in swathes of terror, Buckley’s humanity struggled with the necessities of his murders. Like the twenty-three year old private he’d once been in Lebanon, however, he understood as no suburban protestor ever could, that absolutely, positively, without a fucking doubt, everyone was a threat.

Everyone.

Like the shopkeeper who sold him his daily pack of menthols he’d found price-tagging the bodies of dead customers and placing them beside warm beer and hot dog relish.

Or the cat lady who lived next door, who he’d found feeding on a particularly large calico from her once prodigious collection of fifty-seven felines.

Or the crossing guard who was embattled with a herd of school children in an abattoir of pigtails, gnashing teeth, and freckled screams between two thin yellow lines that had once meant safety.

Buckley had known and loved them all. He was a Christian and had tried to live his life by the complicated precepts of a sometimes-confused God. He did not covet his neighbor’s wife, he did not lie, neither did he cheat or steal. Even when it hurt, Buckley had been known to turn the other cheek.

Now, however, as when he’d been in Lebanon just before the Barrack's Bombing that killed 299 Marines, Buckley understood that turning the other cheek was akin to allowing a bright-eyed, young Arab boy with an AK and no sense in the world to take pot shots at his convoy when they went out on their thrice weekly trip to the coast. And like the neighborhood paperboy who’d chased him for six blocks on a bicycle, the cards in the spokes a continuous clackity-clack warning of what could be, Buckley had tried to avoid the killing.

But just like in Lebanon, killing became necessary and Buckley had tired before the child. With resignation he’d spun, aimed and fired. When the empty bike tumbled past, he felt defeat in his victory. Buckley would have cried if he could, but he was too dried up inside.

The religious called it The Day of Doom. The environmentalists called it the inevitable effect of sunspots on the hole in the ozone layer created by greedy industrialists who’d never listened to their warnings. The conspiracy theorists called it a military experiment gone awry. The liberals called it a purposeful assault on humanity by the conservatives as if a roomful of right-wing extremists had cooked up the entire event after a round of eighteen holes at a whites-only golf club, followed by drive-by lynchings of the losing player’s caddies. The conservatives called it an attempt by California tree-huggers to hijack the news with tales to scare children at bedtime. Even the Trekkies were heard spouting “I come in peace” crap about terraforming or terracotta or whatever. When the Governor of North Carolina, presidential hopeful and the anointed savior of the Democratic Party, was eaten alive on national TV, people stopped caring who was responsible.

It was a fucking disaster, pure and simple.

And in the top floor of the Franklin Hotel where Buckley had managed to find brick and mortar safe harbor, he wallowed in the dregs of charcoal filtered salvation watching it all. As a citizen of Wilmington, he was a veteran of seven hurricanes, an earthquake and two tornadoes. He couldn’t help but wonder how FEMA would classify this. It wasn't as if no one believed, just that the event was too much. Maggies were one thing, but a sentient herd was another.

CHAPTER 3

"Close the fucking door!" Buckley shouted, rushing across the room.

Lashawna ignored him and pulled the door wide enough so that everyone got a view of Sally Struthers, her hair matted with blood, her face pock-marked by maggot holes and her skin undulating as the tiny beasts tasted the air.

"Open up and let me in or I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow the house in." Sally coughed, then gagged as a hundred maggies erupted from her throat and showered Lashawna in the face.

Both women screamed.

Buckley hit the door with his shoulder, slamming it shut. Lashawna screamed again as she raised her hands to bat the maggies from her face. But she hadn't the time. Buckley shoved the barrel of the shotgun into the girl's chest and pulled the trigger. Her eyes flew wide as her chest plastered the door behind her. She fell to the floor, a look of surprise still on her face. Buckley began to stomp on the maggies that had fallen to the ground. He had to get every one of them. To miss even one meant their deaths.

"What the fuck! What the fuck did you kill her for," Samuel screamed. "She was my girl, you son of a bitch. I'm gonna-"

“Do nothing,” Buckley said slapping the barrel of the shotgun across the boy's nose, knocking him to the floor. "Sissy, give me a hand. We need salt. A full bucket."

Sissy stared at the body of Lashawna, who’d been until just now, a vibrant dark-skinned girl whose only fault seemed to be a constant need to defy authority. The two of them had been friends, if only for a short while. Sissy had enjoyed the presence of someone her age. Lashawna's intelligence, masked by her inner-city facade, had shone and the girls spent most of their time talking.

"Sissy! Get the Goddamned salt. She's infected." Samuel pulled himself along the floor to Lashawna, but was sent reeling back by a shove of Buckley’s boot. "Are you deaf? Do you have a fucking death wish? She's infected."

Buckley had his back to the door to not only hold it shut, but to keep the others from making the same mistake Lashawna had made. If he went to get the salt, one of the others would open it for sure and then all their planning and defenses would be for not.

"Open up and let me in," cackled Sally in a man's voice from the hallway, "or I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow the house in."

"Not by the hair on our chinny chin chins," Grandma Riggs cried from her wheelchair in the center of the living room.

Sally Struthers started to scream, as if a small part of her mind remembered that she was human and realized the irrevocable damage that had been done to her body.

"Will somebody get me a fucking bucket of salt!"

"Here you go, Mr. Adamski," came a small, knee-high voice.

It was Little Rashad. Through the boy’s tears, Buckley saw fierce determination. As brave as the boy was trying to be, each of Sally's screams from the hall outside produced a flinch in the kid’s small thin frame.

Buckley grabbed the bucket and poured half of the contents on Lashawna’s face and the other half along her body. No more than five seconds passed before a tiny plume of smoke escaped from her nose.

“See? I fucking told you. Now, no more messing around. One more mistake like that could mean all of our deaths." It’d been too close.

"Fuck this. This shit is gonna stop," murmured Samuel, reacting to the helpless stares of his companions. The screaming from the other side of the stout wooden door had gone on for far too long and was making everyone a little weak in the knees. "Those things killed my girl, so I'm gonna kill them."

"I got yer back," a slim Italian kid added, gesturing aggressively with a set of matching pistols he jerked from the waist band of his nylon pants.

“You know what? I don’t care,” Buckley said. “You two wanna die, go ahead."

Bennie, until recently an upwardly-mobile crack salesman, gave in to the instincts that had kept him out of jail and invisible during a dozen drive-bys. He sagged against the wall, his courage smothered by Buckley’s logic. He was dead, but not yet. There seemed to be no consoling Samuel, however. Unless he was given something to keep him busy, he’d end up joining his dead girlfriend.

"Samuel," Buckley said to the other boy, "go check the windows. Gotta make sure we ain't being flanked."

"Damn, Adamski," came a gravel voice from behind him. "Them things aren’t gonna get in. We took care of the windows. Hell, my hands still hurt from all the hammering."

Buckley stared hard at the old man sitting on the edge of the couch. His name was Travis MacHenry and on a used car lot he was a god. But they weren’t on a used car lot. This was a war zone and here, sales acumen meant little to nothing. When they'd arrived, one of Buckley’s first moves was to remove all the interior doors except the one to the master bedroom and nail them over the windows. Although the doors were still wood and wouldn't last forever with the maggies constant gnawing, they'd at least delay the little bastards enough to provide the group a fighting chance. Buckley blinked slowly at the old man, a look he’d perfected on the streets. The blink said more than a thousand words.

You mean shit to me.

MacHenry read it right and dropped his eyes to the floor.

Buckley repeated himself. "Like I said, Samuel, get your fat ass down the hall and check on the windows."

Samuel looked longingly at Lashawna's body. They’d known each other since high school. He was the football player and she’d been the cheerleader. They’d been lovers. They’d been friends. Now, along with every other dream he’d held dear, she was gone. Buckley ordered him again. Finally, the boy lowered his head and ambled his three-hundred pounds down the hall, the barrel of his own Mossberg shotgun guiding the way.

With the exception of Grandma Riggs smoking the hell out of Bennie's crack in the middle of the living room and cackling at the antics of non-existent actors on the blank TV screen, the rest were silent, their eyes on Buckley, their ears attuned to the screams.

Their immediate problem was a simple one. Sally Struthers was infected. That wasn't her real name, but that's what everyone called her. A plump, saggy blonde, she’d been attempting to round up the children, trying in vain to save them. So far she’d only found one, Little Rashad, a lean ten-year-old who was now sitting with his back to the wall trying to act tough. Sally, who’d braved the streets way past the point of suicide, was now being digested by the maggies and all Buckley could do was wait for the screaming to end.

And in all honesty, that's all he intended to do.

There was just no way to fight them.

Within the decaying miles of his native state were a billion billion writhing forms in search of the living to promote their single-minded existence. No one really knew what they were. The smaller ones looked like maggots and during the first few days, when there were still newspapers and television, the term maggie became the popular name. Demons, aliens, maggots, miniature pink fucking elephants with an attitude, the name really didn't matter. What did matter was that there were different kinds, now. No longer were they just the common tiny white motes of wiggly nastiness.

There were the smokers-as long as a finger and smoky gray. Inching like slugs along the ground they were slow, but their slime was an acid that seemed able to eat through most anything, especially wood.

There were the swimmers- amphibious beasts that were all mouth and had depleted the fresh water fish supply along the Cape Fear within days and were best known to slide through the sewers, injecting themselves into unprotected asses.

Then there were the caddies- long and low-slung like their vehicular counterparts. According to the television, they didn't attack people. Their preferences were for glass and steel. They’d first been seen in Raleigh, back when there was a Raleigh. Their slow moving hulks left trails of digested planet in their passage. The few skyscrapers that had pierced the Wilmington skyline were now miserable masses of rubble. Buckley could only pray that the caddies would leave their poor building alone.

The creatures had originally surged forth from somewhere in the Smokey Mountains. The combined might of sixty thousand soldiers at Fort Bragg to include the elite Delta Force and two Special Forces groups had failed to even halt them. Like speed bumps, the Warriors of Democracy only slowed the massed enemy as battalion upon battalion became the snack food of creatures with no political preference.

It seemed as if nothing was able to stop their brand of evil. Nothing that is, except salt. That's why places like the Outer Banks and other islands off the coast had yet to be attacked. Salt acted upon the creatures like an acid and before the group had holed up in the bar, they’d collected quite a stash.

Buckley sighed as a song from Grandma Riggs interlaced with the screams from Sally outside.

"Two little girls dressed all in white,

Tried to get to heaven on the tail of a kite.

The kite string broke and down they fell,

They didn't get to heaven, but landed in hell."

Little Rashad and Bennie grinned broadly. Even Buckley cracked a smile. Gert, however, was fed up with everything and Grandma was the straw.

"Grandma, you better lighten up on that shit or it's gonna kill you," the fifty year old whore said. Ever friendly, her demeanor was undergoing a change as she realized her body wouldn't get her out of this one.

"Hell girl. Them damn maggies are gonna get me long before my brain rots away. I might as well enjoy my last few days.” Grandma sucked on her pipe. “Don’t you think?"

They’d picked up the old woman passed out in the front seat of an old Plymouth Valiant. Blind as a bat, she’d gone out looking to score some marijuana to ease the pain of her glaucoma. With her chocolate-chip cookie charm, it hadn’t taken her long to wheedle the ten grand worth of ice from Bennie who’d merely shrugged and said, 'Take it. No one to sell it to now, no how. Like money means anything anymore.'

Gert frowned, but beneath her ugly glare was the softness of the mother she’d never be, and Grandma Riggs was becoming the child she could never have. "Fine then. But if you puke all over yourself again, I ain't gonna clean it up." She stroked the old woman’s long hair. “You just be quiet now.”

Sally's screams crescendoed, as if her flesh were being ripped from her body. So went Buckley’s determination. The others were right. It was too much. Sally’s continuous shrieks were getting under everyone's skin. He could feel the tension in the air as everyone stared at him, waiting, begging for the command. Sally had been one of them and they couldn't let her die this way.

"Ahhhh, hell. Here we go.” Everyone shifted in anticipation. “Samuel, grab the emergency bucket from the kitchen. Bennie, hold the knob. When I say go, you open that motherfucking door, count to five and then slam it shut. Do you hear me boy?"

Bennie nodded fast and hard.

"Now, MacHenry, you shove Lashawna outside just as soon as we open it. Her body will make a buffer and give us a few seconds as the damnable things fry upon her salt."

MacHenry backed away.

Samuel seemed as if he was about to argue.

"Hey! You tough guys want the screaming to end, then don't get mushy on me. This fine young black woman is gone and there's nothing we can do about it. But if she stays here, she'll bloat up and explode with their eggs. I've seen it happen. I’ve seen respect for the dead kill people." He lowered his voice and placed a hand on Samuel's shoulder. "I'm sorry, son. This is hitting you hard, I know. But it has to be done the way I say it has to. Understand?"

Samuel returned the stare. The garbage man saw the cool fire of tempered anger. He recognized it for what it was. The boy wasn't mad at him, merely the world for what had happened.

Samuel nodded slowly. “I understand.”

"All right. And no ogling. You just concentrate on your counting, Bernie. You get to six and it could mean all of our deaths."

Bennie grinned like the way he’d probably done the first time he’d seen a friend gunned down after a drive-by.

Buckley grabbed one of Bennie's Nines. He propped the butt of the shotgun against his leg and held the pistol eye high, aiming down the barrel.

"All right, Samuel. When I say throw, you hurl the salt. You got that?"

Samuel nodded just as hard and just as fast as Bennie had.

Buckley waited for MacHenry to grab the dead girl under her arms and lift her up. They exchanged looks and everything was ready.

"Go!"

It was a horrific five seconds.

Sally, her face half eaten, her body a colander of maggie holes…Lashawna's body landing at Sally's feet…maggies, noticing Buckley and the fresh meat of the girl turning and moving…pistol firing, a hole appearing in the center of Sally’s forehead, her misery ending…a hundred maggies shifting from her legs in a wave of dedicated death, slithering for the door…shotgun opening with both barrels, salted grape-shot halting the first charge…Sally's eyes convulsing, staring a grotesque come-hither farce.

"Throw!”

A shower of salt hit the body. Putrid steam rose as the maggies melted in a runny gray slime.

"Now!"

And the door slammed shut.

Buckley spun and placed his back against the wall, breathing heavily. Sissy, a lithe blonde who had until recently been at NCCU studying to be a civil engineer, hurried to the door and poured a line of salt along the bottom edge. Buckley smiled through clenched teeth, his black skin shiny with sweat. "There,” he said tossing the shotgun back to Samuel who caught it clumsily. "Is everybody fucking happy, now?"

CHAPTER 4

Buckley stalked into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of vodka from one of the many cases stacked along one wall. He jerked out a chair and sat cowboy style. His hands began to shake as he spun the cap. Buckley concentrated on getting drunk, the image of Sally Struthers’ ravaged body chiseled upon his memory. No one should ever die like that. He drank long and deep.

"Mr. Adamski? Are you okay?"

Buckley opened one eye, the rush of alcohol scouring his system. He opened his mouth to speak, but decided the effort was too much. He nodded and worked his lips into what he hoped was a believable smile.

Little Rashad, wearing a shirt that read Wright Brother’s Band Camp, didn't return the smile. Instead, he bit his lip to keep it from trembling. His eyes swam with unreleased tears. "Sally? Is she dead, mister?"

Buckley left the bottle on the table and held out his arms, mentally kicking himself for not thinking of the kid. The woman had saved the boy and was probably the closest thing he’d had for a mother except the old whore, Gert, or Sissy, who’d probably never changed a diaper.

The boy ran into his arms and sobbed.

"Yeah, she's dead, kid."

"Did you shoot her?"

"Yeah."

"Thank you," the boy said, wiping at an eye. "Did they…did they get her?"

"Just barely, son," Buckley said, remembering his clear view of Sally’s gnashing teeth through the hole her cheek had once filled and Maggies dancing disco where her tongue had been. "She was just real scared is all." He eyed the bottle and squeezed the boy tighter. "Real scared."

The rattle of a lonely sob shook the boy’s chest. Buckley rubbed Little Rashad’s back with his large hands and then pulled him away from his shoulder, holding him at arm's length.

"All right now. That's no way to be. I'm Irish you see? And we don't cry at funerals. We celebrate the person's life.” He shook Rashad gently. “It's called a wake son. Do you understand what I’m saying?"

The boy eyed him suspiciously. "You ain't Irish. You're black like me. And Polish too. Sally told me when I asked about your name."

Buckley grinned. "Sally was right on with her info, little man. I was the only Black Irish Pollack on the entire staff of the Wilmington Public Works Department." He leaned in close and spoke conspiratorially. "What good old Sally didn't know to tell you was that my Daddy's mother was pure Irish. She had red hair if you could imagine, flaming red hair that caught the eye of my grandpa right off. But don't tell no one because people are prejudice against Irish people. Don’t want someone being prejudiced against me, you know."

Little Rashad nodded solemnly, but his lips still quivered.

Buckley grabbed him by his shoulders. "My mother also liked poetry. Do you read poetry? Did your mommy and daddy read you poetry?"

The boy shook his head. At the mention of his mom and dad, a tear sprung in the corner of his eye and welled there.

Buckley ignored it and kept on talking. "Well my mom did, and not just any old poetry, either. She read the greats to me. Wordsworth. Whitman. Blake. Coleridge. Dylan Thomas. My two favorite poems were Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Did you ever hear Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night in school?"

The boy shook his head again. His lip had stopped quivering and his whole attention was on Buckley.

"Let me see if I can remember." It had been a while since he'd recited the poem. Somehow he was able to pry it loose from all the recent bad memories. Here you go-

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

"Say it with me, Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Little Rashad said the words.

"Know what they mean?"

The boy shook his head.

"It's easy boy. The trick with poems is that everything is symbolic. What someone says isn't always what they mean. Take light for example. The light is life. Rage means to fight. And night means death. So do not go gentle into that good night, means don't go towards death. Rage against it. Fight it. Fight the dying of the light."

The boy blinked and nodded slightly.

"Do you get it boy?"

"Rage," he whispered.

"Exactly that, boy. Rage against the dying of the light." Buckley took a swig from his bottle, returned it to the table, then held the boy back so he could look at his shirt. "So, it says here that you're in the band, huh?" Buckley felt his mouth slipping. The bottle was half empty and the dirge was upon him.

Little Rashad brightened up considerably. "Yessir."

"So whaddaya play?"

"The trumpet."

"Like Louis Armstrong trumpet or Chuck Mangione trumpet?"

The boy stared back in confusion.

"That's right. Old Chuck doesn't play the trumpet. He plays that big bell thing. And even if he did, you’re probably too young to remember them. Still, I bet you can play real good, can't ya?"

Little Rashad smiled, "Sure can, wanna hear?"

"Maybe later boy. Maybe later we can scare those damned Maggies away with your playing. Maybe we can scare them right back to where they came from. Right now, though, we got some business to attend to. You and me are part of a wake. So what you drinking?"

The lean boy stared at the bottle of vodka for a moment then searched around the kitchen crowded with boxes from the restaurant and bar below. He spied a case of root beer, walked over, pulled a can out and popped the tab.

Buckley nodded sagely. "Good choice. Nothing like a good beer to toast a wake."

Little Rashad sat down next to Buckley and drank half the can down before pausing. He burped long and loud, looked nervously towards the front door, then slid closer to Buckley.

CHAPTER 5

Stenciled beneath the words KINGMAN INDUSTRIES was a warning to never shut the door while inside. The little girl knew this meant that she couldn't get out once they shut the door, but she was too scared about everything else to concentrate on this one minor detail. Still, as her mother shoved her farther into the walk-in refrigerator, the little girl’s eyes strayed once again to the warning. Then she remembered where she was and what was going on. She didn't want to get out. The safest place for her was inside. Her mother and father had said so.

A scream wound around four gunshots. Glass crunched beneath something immense. Another shot. Illuminated only by the emergency light on the back wall, her mother glanced over her shoulder towards where her dad had to be.

"Hurry before it’s too late!" Her dad fired once more then shrieked.

Her mother stared at her wide-eyed for a moment, then slammed the door shut. "I love you Nikki. Be safe," came muffled through the door.

"No, mommy! No! Don't leave me." Nikki launched herself at the metal that separated them and beat against it with her tiny fists. "Mommy please don't leave me."

The unmistakable sound of her mother screaming silenced the girl, then the door shook as an immense weight shoved against it. Nikki ran back to the corner where they'd placed a box of food and bottles of water. She crouched and sobbed into her arm. Her mother had said to be quiet. She'd said not to make a sound. The door shook once again as if something was trying to get inside. Nikki covered her face and bawled into her hands.

CHAPTER 6

Buckley awoke to find his hangover murmuring the great Tibetan secrets of pain to his subconscious. Surrounded by darkness, he could tell he was still in the kitchen. He lifted his head from the table and wiped a line of drool from his cheek. Other than a few snores from the other room, everything was quiet. Then he paused, recognizing the significance of the darkness. They slept in shifts. There was always a guard with a battery operated lantern to check the integrity of the windows and the door. It was one of their only rules.

So where the hell was the guard?

His old knees ached as he stood. His right, a victim of a car accident, seemed to grate as loud as the chair legs upon the floor. Buckley’s elbow sent an empty bottle spinning across the table. Using his hands as eyes, he felt his way to the kitchen counter where he fumbled around until he found one of the flashlights. Snapping it on, he panned the beam across the kitchen and to the front door where all he saw was an empty chair and a shotgun leaning against it.

He rushed into the living room and took inventory. Sissy and Little Rashad were curled up on the couch in a dream-trembling clutch. Grandma Riggs was slumped in her armchair, the glass pipe pressed to her chest by liver-spotted hands. Bennie and Samuel were sprawled along the carpet like a couple of boys at a sleep over. MacHenry and Gert, however, were nowhere to be seen.

Buckley plodded down the hall and noticed light seeping from beneath the master bedroom door. As he approached he heard the sounds of heavy breathing and a long muffled squeal. He banged on the door with the flashlight.

"What's going on in there?"

"What do you think is going on in here," MacHenry said, after about ten seconds of hesitation.

"At a time like this?"

"Is there a better time?" Gert piped in.

Buckley scratched his head and shuffled his feet. "Well, no. Come on out when you're done, then."

"Okay. Just a sec. Almost finished."

The sounds of heavy breathing resumed, joined by the squeal of bedsprings. Buckley stared at the door for a second, then shook his head and headed back down the hall. He plopped down in the chair and laid the shotgun across his lap. He was pretty pissed at MacHenry for deserting his post, but really couldn't find the energy to get actively angry over it. Maybe the old man's morale would be improved with Gert's immoral contributions. Love was a hard thing to find. Even in small increments, it was worth more than anything else sometimes.

Buckley smiled. The old whore had finally found a way to help out. Good for her. He checked the salt beneath the door then felt himself nodding off. Maybe a few more hours of sleep would help him get rid of his hangover.

He couldn’t be sure of how long he’d been asleep, but it was Sissy's shriek that sent him to his feet and the shotgun clattering to the floor. She was sitting up, her finger pointing towards the door behind him. Her mouth gaped open in a frozen scream.

Buckley spun and jumped back as he noticed that several maggies had breached the line of salt below the lower edge of the door. There must have been a dozen of the little bastards sliding across the floor towards him. They only got a few inches, however, before Bennie emptied a canister of salt atop them causing them to writhe, smoke and dissolve.

"Holy Fuck, if that wasn't close," Buckley gasped.

"What the hell, old man. You falling asleep almost killed us."

Buckley could understand the anger. He stared ahead and took it like a man.

Never mind he wasn't supposed to be on shift.

Never mind it’d been MacHenry's job.

Buckley had messed up and deserved what was coming, and it seemed as if everyone was ready to let him know it. Maybe they were really mad at him, or maybe they just needed an outlet for their emotions. Whatever the case, he’d be their whipping boy if it meant that they’d keep their sanity. Buckley nodded and accepted everything that came his way for almost ten minutes. Everyone except Sissy and Little Rashad seemed to have something to say. It was better they were angry at him than to remain in constant fear. Their litany of complaints went on and on for an hour until the first crunching noise echoed through the deserted streets. Then it came again. The sound of a building being eaten boomed through the empty streets and slammed against the stout wood covering the windows.

The two things Buckley thought of was the caddies they'd talked about on the news and what they could do to this building if hungry enough. Another crunch could be heard from somewhere else in the city. That screwed it. The caddies had come to Wilmington. It hadn’t been enough that the people were dead. The creatures wanted the city too. Goddamned maggies wouldn’t stop until all evidence of humanity was erased from the planet. If there was one thing that was for sure, it was time to postpone the democratic process.

"Enough! I messed up. I'm human. But if you want to keep this up, you’ll have to wait. Right now, we got ourselves a problem. Soon. Very fucking soon, this city is gonna come down around our ears. Whoever is controlling these things has sent in the big guns and ten to one they ain't tourists.” Realizing he’d been shouting, he lowered his voice to normal. “I don’t know how much longer we can stay here. For all I know, this place is next. So, if it’s okay with the rest of you perfect individuals, we need to make ourselves a plan."

He looked from one to the other. They’d had their say and felt better for it. Now, it was back to the business of survival. Two faces were still missing, however.

"Where's MacHenry and Gert?" Sissy asked.

Blank stares all around.

"Fine," he sighed. "Samuel, you and Sissy go and inventory the salt. Bennie, you do the same with the ammunition. Little Rashad, can you grab all the empty bottles, buckets and jars and place them on the table in the kitchen? I have an idea about making us some special North Carolina Cocktails."

He turned to go.

"What about me?”

"Grandma, your eyes must be hurting. Why don't you take a few hits on the pipe and watch the door.”

"Don't you condescend to Grandma Riggs, boy. I marched with Martin Luther King. I fought the KKK. I’ve seen and done things that would scare even your badass self, King Kong garbage man. You can treat me like I’m old, but don’t make me out as crazy.” She sighed and stared at the bulge in her robe that hid forty ten-dollar bags, each holding a single rock that had been destined for resale on the street before the world came to an end. “Just the same, you're right. My eyes are hurting something fierce. I'll just do me a rock and watch for them maggies. It don't matter if I can't see, I can smell them. I can smell them real good."

Buckley stared at her a moment with a furrowed brow, then went down the hall to wake up the love birds.

CHAPTER 7

He knocked once, then opened the door to the master bedroom where MacHenry lay naked on the spread, his white flaccid body a perfect color match to the cheap sheets. The used car salesman was propped up against the headboard, smoking a cigar. Gert sat cross-legged beside him with the covers drawn around her in a diaphanous swirl, dismay creasing her worn face.

"What's up with him?" Buckley asked.

"He says he's gonna kill himself."

"What's she talking about, MacHenry?"

MacHenry smiled as he took another great puff from his cigar and launched three perfect smoke rings into the air. He sipped from a brandy snifter, paused and puffed again.

"Listen, I don't know what's going on here and, at this point, I don't really care,” Buckley said. “Get your clothes on. We're gonna have a meeting in the living room, most ricky-tick." He turned to go.

MacHenry’s response stopped him. "Nope."

Buckley spun around. "What'd you say?"

"I said nope. I thought I said it pretty clear."

Buckley's first instinct was to launch himself across the room at the smart-ass car salesmen, beat him within an inch of his life, then drag his naked ass down the hall and into the living room, but he forced himself to remain calm and invoked the old yarn about the carrot and the stick. Still, he gritted his teeth when he said, "Come on, MacHenry. We need you out there. The caddies are coming and no telling how much time we got left."

MacHenry shook his head and blew another smoke ring. "I told you, I ain't coming. At least not until I finish my cigar. Hell. This here is a Robusto. You ever smoked a Robusto, Adamski? This baby's leaves were rolled on the honey-brown legs of a Cuban Senorita.” He sniffed the length of the cigar. “I can almost smell her sweat. I can almost taste her. A man can't hurry a cigar like this. A cigar like this is meant to be savored. Anything else would be disrespectful."

"Listen, Lord MacHenry. I don't know where you think you are, but this ain't Cuba. Hell, as far as we know, Cuba is gone."

"One more reason to take my time. This may just be the last Robusto in existence."

Buckley eyed Gert, pleading for some assistance, but she merely shook her head. Her expression held little hope that Buckley would succeed.

"He's been like this for hours. Rambling on about this and that. He says he wants to die. But not like Lashawna or Sally or any of the others. He wants to do it in style."

"Listen MacHenry." Buckley caught himself and removed the edge to his voice. One of the complaints from the others was that he wasn't taking time to listen to their wants and needs. He was always ordering people around without a care or concern for their emotional well-being. They’d called him a micro-manager. They’d used the term type-A personality. Bennie, the drug dealer, had actually called him a fascist. Fine. If they wanted him to listen, then by the God of All Impatience, he'd fucking listen.

He began again, but softer this time. "Listen, MacHenry. As far as we know, this is the end of the world. We really need to pull together. We need you to help us."

"So what if it's the end of the world? Who the fuck cares? It was bound to happen sooner or later and seeming how it's sooner, now actually, I'm gonna go out with a bang. Not crying, not screaming, not begging. Hell no. With a fucking bang."

"Remember Elliot? He said This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper."

"What crack have you been smoking, Buckley?" MacHenry rolled his eyes towards Gert. "Of all the joints in all the world, I had to hole up with the only garbage man with a PHD in uselessness. Poetry."

"Those are some wise words."

"Fuck that!" MacHenry sneered.

"What?"

"I said Bang!"

"You don't know what-"

“B — A — N — G.”

“But-"

"Shut up. I ain't done. You wanted me to talk, so now I'm talking, so listen and listen good and none of your poetry shit. I, Travis James MacHenry, am gonna go out with a bang. In fact, as soon as I finish the better part of this cigar and this rather lazy cognac, I'm gonna get dressed, comb my hair, walk in the kitchen, pour fucking turpentine over my head, open the door and use the last of my Robusto to Flame On.”

He puffed on his cigar and eyed Buckley. “You ever read that Fantastic Four comic book when you was a kid, Adamski? You know with Johnny Storm, The Invisible Woman, The Thing, Ben Grimm, and that rubber band man, Reed Richards?"

Buckley glanced over at the nightstand and saw that the bottle of Hennessy was half empty. Yes, he’d read the comic when he was young. He liked Ben Grimm the best. The rest of the super heroes were just too white and too suburban. He nodded. “Yeah, I read them when I was a kid.”

"See Gert? See? I told you our Minister of Sanitation Defense, his right royal honorable highness General Buckley Adamski hisself was well read. So you know Johnny Storm then. You understand how them writers seemed to make him out as some selfish, bastard teenager like he was some kind of social retard, just an angry young man who was so lost in life that he couldn't find his way out of a paper bag with a knife. Sure he was the youngest of the four, but they made it seem as if it was his youth that made him hardly in control, always going off." MacHenry puffed at his cigar and waved his hand expansively. "I got my own ideas, though. He was a metaphor, see. He wasn't only Johnny Storm. Hell, he was James Dean. He was Marylyn Monroe. He was a freaking pro wrestler always diving from the top rope in a suicidal suplex. Live fast, die young, enjoy life, and fuck the world. He was the mach in machismo and lived life at Mach 10. He was Johnny fucking Storm, every second of every day going out in a blaze of glory. He was a metaphor, you see. He was you and me."

A scraping, like the sounds of a hundred teeth against wood came from the front door. Screams exploded from the living room as the men and women there dealt with the threat. Buckley wanted desperately to leave and see what was wrong, but he’d been told he was too much in charge. He fought down the urge to run and fix things. Fuck it. Let them see if they could handle it on their own. He squeezed his hand until his nails dug in his palm as MacHenry continued.

"You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am, Adamski. I’m Johnny Storm. No longer am I a washed up old has-been whose best days were when Toyota's motto was Oh What a Feeling. No longer will I wait to die like the rest of you chumps. I'm Johnny Fucking Storm who’s gonna go out in a blaze of glory. And you? Hell, man. You’re Ben Grimm. Always so grim, Ben Grimm. I'd always thought Ben Grimm was a brother, you know. The way he acted, the way other people treated him. He was both cool and downtrodden at the same time. The rest of them wore costumes. Hell, he was a costume. If that wasn't a metaphor for an outcast, then I don't know what was. I couldn't have been more surprised when that issue came out where he became human again and he was white like the rest of them. How about that, Adamski? You believe they made The Thing white? You remember that one, Adamski?"

Yes he did. In fact, he'd stopped reading the Fantastic Four then.

MacHenry finished his glass and fell back upon his pillow. "Now, Mr. Grimm. Get the hell out of here and let me finish my bottle. I have a short life ahead of me and a long life to relive."

Buckley sighed. Yesterday, he would have jerked the man out of the bed and shit-kicked sense into him until he capitulated and realized that his best chance at survival rested in his participation in his own defense. But today, within their newly formed pocket of democracy, Buckley intended on letting the old guy do whatever he wanted. After all, it was his decision. If he wanted to die, then it was one less body to be concerned with.

Buckley glanced down at Gert who stared fondly at her Johnny Storm. Poor woman. Years searching for love on the gritty streets and she’d finally found it in a crazed old used car salesman with a Marvel Comic’s death wish. If that wasn't the saddest thing he'd ever seen, he didn't know what was.

CHAPTER 8

The ex-garbage man closed the door softly, pausing in the hall. The scraping continued from the front door, but the screams had subsided. Bennie and Samuel spoke in confident tones, coming together to solve the problem, one gangbanger to another. Grandma was singing again and over the din, he could hear the well remembered strains-

Patty cake, Patty cake, baker's man.

Bake us a cake as fast as you can.

Mix it, and roll it, and mark it with a B,

Slap it on the door for Buckley and me!

For the hundredth time Buckley shook his head. Everything was so damn insane. He somehow thought the end of the world would be a little more orderly, a little less rife with the absurd. How he’d ended up in this redoubt with such a gaggle of-

Suddenly, an indescribable itch began at his side. Beginning as a pinprick, it evolved to a small tingling, then quickly progressed through the usual levels of pain until there was a second of intense searing agony and then a small pop. Scratching at the spot, he came away with a blood-soaked finger. Buckley Adamski stared in shock and felt around the hole again. His heart sank when he felt the small wriggling form. He pulled out his hand and glared at the innocent looking maggie that had exited his body, and with the surety of a lifetime knew that he was going to die.

He hurled the harbinger to the ground and squashed it beneath his heel, driving it into the cheap carpet with all of his two-hundred and twenty pounds. The fact that he was going to die a horrible death crept through him on sticky fingers, each touch a promise of the devastation to come, an assurance that he’d be the next one dancing the Sally Struthers’ death disco. It must have happened when he’d fallen asleep. They must’ve missed one in the rush to kill them all. Worst of all, he was paying for the sins of the others and it was so unfair. MacHenry should have been the one sitting in the chair. The irony wasn’t lost on Buckley. The man who wanted to die had escaped death.

Buckley wiped the blood on his pants and fought back the sob that’d bubbled up and lodged within his throat. He would have to tell the others. If he was any kind of man at all, he'd have to tell them, open the door and walk out into the hall.

They deserved to know.

He turned the corner and shuffled into the lantern-lit living room, head down. Bennie and Samuel stood with their hands on their hips, breathing heavily and staring happily at the door. Everything was coated with a light dusting of flour. The door was a mass of sticky white paste. Flour, salt, and water had been combined to make a cook's mortar to cover the wood and fill all the edges.

"Grandma gave us the idea. If one of those damned things manages to bite its way through the wood, then it'll get itself a killer surprise," Bennie said.

Grandma was sitting in her armchair, an empty crack-pipe wedged between her smile as she silently pantomimed the patty cake motion over and over. Little Rashad and Sissy were on the couch holding hands. It seemed as if everyone had come together and they were proud of themselves.

"You all did good," Buckley murmured.

"It was because of you, Mr. Adamski,” Samuel said. “We talked about it and we're real sorry the way we treated you. All you wanted to do was help us, we know that. You made one small mistake and we attacked you. The truth is that the way you pulled us together and taught us how to work as a team was what made the difference."

Buckley felt his eyes fill. He lowered his head. He was about to confess his death when the doors nailed to the windows began vibrating. The sounds of scraping and gnawing started in earnest as if they’d finally been discovered and every maggie in the city had descended upon their position. The vibrating increased dramatically until it seemed as if the entire building was shaking. Bennie shouted at the top of his lungs for it to stop. Samuel covered his ears and fell to his knees. Sissy and Rashad began to scream, while Grandma upped her dosage.

Buckley felt it.

The end was near.

This was it.

He walked into the kitchen, laid the shotgun atop the table and opened another bottle of vodka. He was dead anyway. Fuck it. Maybe MacHenry was right with his blaze of glory speech. No more Ben Grimm, it was Johnny Storm time. Flame on. As he spun the cap off the bottle, a clear precise note pierced the cacophony then traveled the treble scales until it found itself. The simple strains of the Rocky Theme from the old Sylvester Stallone movie took hold of the din, and before long, the vibrating stopped. The tune heard at millions of pep rallies, the soundtrack for an Italian-American boxing movie, the symphony for losers everywhere filled the air with its lofty notes. The scraping disappeared. All was silent except for the sound of a lone trumpet playing the ultimate underdog anthem.

Buckley stepped slowly into the living room to find Little Rashad standing in the midst of the adults who were still huddled on the floor in terror at the base of the boy’s feet. His eyes were closed, but not tight enough to dam the tears, just tight enough so his forehead rippled with the strange concentration known to all trumpet greats. Definitely Louis Armstrong, thought Buckley.

When the song faded to nothing, the boy lowered the trumpet and sagged. A small depressed circle remained centered upon his lips like a kissable halo and in the peaceful silence was slowly replaced by a smile.

“What just happened?” Bennie looked around.

Buckley stood staring at the boy. Like everyone else, he was stunned with the outcome. They’d been certain that this was it. Yet they were alive — alive because of a ten year old boy and his trumpet.

“Boy,” Buckley began, striding across the room and scooping him up and into his arms. “I don’t know what you just did, but you saved our sorry asses. Why didn’t you say you had magic in that horn?”

“I don’t know,” Rashad said meekly.

“No shit,” Bennie added. “Whatever you did was a miracle.”

“Wasn’t magic, just plain old music,” the boy murmured.

“Wasn’t nothing plain and old about it, child,” Grandma Riggs said. “And I know me a little about plain and old. Them notes you was playing were the most beautiful I’ve ever heard, more so ‘cause they chased away the boogeymen.”

“Way to go little man.” Samuel slid over and ruffled Rashad’s hair. Then he turned his attention to the hallway. “Oh hell. Now that’s what I call a pig in a blanket.”

Everyone except Grandma Riggs, who was sniffing at the air like a coon hound, followed Samuel’s gaze to where MacHenry stood with a blanket wrapped around his large naked middle. Gert peeked over his shoulder.

“What was all that racket?” she asked.

“You been having sex?” Grandma Riggs craned her neck as she sought a scent in the air. “Someone been having sex? I smell sex.”

Bennie perked up.

“Giving away freebies? When you’re done old man, let me have a go. I’ll show her the difference between a used car and a new car, that’s for damn sure.”

Sissy punched Bennie in the arm. Buckley sat Rashad on the couch.

“Listen here, boy. There’ll be none of that,” he said low and easy.

“But she’s a whore, man. That’s what she-”

Buckley’s fist slammed into Bennie’s nose sending him to the floor. Buckley loomed over the young man who was now cradling his face and whimpering.

“There’ll be none of that, now. There’s only us here and we need to depend on each other. Attitudes like that can get us killed. What Gert did or does is her business and not ours. Fuck, boy. You were a crack dealer and you got the gall to call her a whore? To push yourself on her? If I wasn’t the humanitarian I am, I’d kick you just to see you bleed some more.”

“Hold on now,” MacHenry said, cinching up his blanket. “Don’t hurt the kid, Adamski. He doesn’t know any better.”

Buckley stood there attempting to control his rage. It wasn’t all because of the boy’s remark- no. It was also for his own impending death. He needed to tell them soon. He needed to leave. A traitorous thought crucified his good intention. If he’d never gotten these people together, if he’d refused to help and done things his own way, then maybe he'd have actually survived.

Dead cat in the highway, dead bird in the tree,

Dead rat in the gutter, and little old dead me.

Dead sun up in heaven, dead stream at my feet,

Dead calm all around me, earth full of dead meat.

Everyone turned and stared at Grandma Riggs as she sucked on her glass pipe, grinning wickedly.

“Well, that about sums it up,” MacHenry said. “Dead sun up in heaven, earth full of dead meat. Come on, Gert. Let’s get cleaned up.”

They went down the hallway, the used car salesman’s white ass visible through a rent in the blanket. The sound of the door slamming made everyone jump a little.

Buckley backed up and grabbed a towel from the back of a chair. He threw it at Sissy and pointed to Bennie who held his nose gingerly. “Clean him up, girl. He’ll be all right.”

She immediately moved to help the fallen boy. With Samuel’s assistance, she got Bennie to his feet and down the hall to the bathroom.

Buckley wiped the sweat from his eyes and inhaled the staleness of the room. There were too many people in too small a space. The place smelled like a locker room tinged with the sweet toxicity of crack smoke. He turned to leave but paused as Grandma Riggs spoke.

“I smell you, Mr. Adamski. I smell you right fine.”

"What do you mean, Grandma?"

"You know good and well what I mean."

Buckley sighed. Yeah, he did. “I smell me too, Grandma. I best be finding a way to get clean.”

“That sounds like a grand idea. Maybe Little Rashad here can help you. Go help our Garbage Can Dictator, Rashad. Mr. Adamski’s got hisself a boogeyman problem.”

CHAPTER 9

She'd heard nothing but her own breathing for hours.

The noise had gone on outside for so long, even when it had died out, she thought she heard things from time to time. Screams. Cries. She’d even thought she’d heard her name once or twice, but a tiny part of her that commanded with her mother’s voice told her they were phantoms, that they weren’t real.

Finally she screwed around her courage and crawled to the door. It was a tortuous journey, across hard cold things she wasn’t familiar with, her imagination filling in the possibilities where her knowledge ended. At the very edge of terror, she finally embraced the metal door and placed her ear against it.

Her mother and father were out there somewhere. Scenarios ran through her mind where they led the white worms on a merry chase, always one step ahead, always safe. Her mother laughed. Her father skipped fearlessly down the street. An image of him feinting left and running right, like he’d done with Uncle Brian during the football game after Thanksgiving last year made her grin, the expression scaring away webs of fear.

But as soon as it lit her face, a frown crept in and replaced it. Her daddy wasn’t going to be playing any more football. Uncle Brian wasn’t going to be coming down from Pennsylvania anymore. There’d be no reason for Thanksgiving dinner, because there’d be no more family.

She suddenly wished she wasn’t alone. She wanted to be with someone, anyone. Her breathing filled the silence. She listened to it for a time and wondered if maybe she wasn’t alone. What if the sound she heard wasn’t her breathing, but someone inside the freezer with her?

The very idea made her hold her breath as terror once again engulfed her.

CHAPTER 10

Fifteen minutes after he punched the banger in the nose, Buckley found himself staring at the bottle in front of him. Unopened, it promised the redemption of forgetfulness. The clear liquid cajoled him, its promises of better times stretching through the glass. He felt like Alice — Drink Me all but written upon the vodka.

Rashad sat next to him sucking on a root beer, both of the boy’s large black eyes fixed upon him.

“What made you think to blow the horn?”

“I dunno. It just felt like the right thing to do, I guess.”

“Why that song?”

“What?”

“Why did you choose that song to play? Why not another one? You do know some other songs, right?”

The boy nodded.

“So why Rocky?”

“I dunno.”

“Is it your favorite?”

“No.”

Buckley was stumped. He knew there was something important going on. One of the ideas that’d been pinballing through in his mind was that if there was a God, maybe this wasn’t how he wanted the world to end. Either this was a modern day flood, a nastier way to cleanse the earth and start over, or this had nothing to do with God. Buckley chose to believe in the idea of intelligent design, opting for a supreme being over the Trekkie idea of alien forces, prime directives and intergalactic federations-as if the maggies were an earthly infestation of tribbles. And because of his belief, the single thing he kept wondering about was whether or not God would allow the devil to get the upper hand, for surely this was a thing of devilish doing.

All of a sudden an itch prickled his forearm, followed by tingling, burrowing, a searing pain and then a pop. A maggie squeezed free and began to wiggle, dancing in the air, reminding him of the governor singing The Thrill is Gone. Buckley quickly pinched the beastie with his thumb and forefinger to hold it in place and hid his hand in his lap. He glanced over to Rashad who was staring into space, maybe remembering his parents, maybe trying not to. Buckley glanced at the doorway. No one there, either.

Jesus fucking Maggie fuck!

All Buckley needed was for the others to see him sitting there with a maggie in his hand like he was some sort of maggot wrangler, then he wouldn’t have a choice. They’d shove him out the door with a shotgun up his ass as sure as Grandma had a crack addiction.

He felt a twinge of pain as the maggie in his hand tried to bore through the tough skin of his palm. Slowly, so as not to make a noise or any sudden moves, he reached under the table with his other hand and pulled the maggie out. He grimaced, the corners of his mouth dipping to his jaw-line as he felt it come free like a night crawler reluctantly leaving the sanctity of the cool dark earth that was his skin.

Rashad stared at him, his eyes wide with concern. What was it Grandma Riggs had said? Little Rashad can help you.

Buckley stood, trudged over to the counter and grabbed an empty glass jar. Blocking the view of anyone who suddenly came into the room with his back, he dropped the maggie inside and watched as the creature tried to slide through the container, microscopic teeth no match for glass. He brought the jar to eye level. This was the closest he’d ever been to one-ever dared be.

Just as he thought, they were eyeless. Unlike a worm, however, which seemed to absorb food, both ends of this little creature had mouths, small oval orifices with tiny teeth disappearing within the creatures’ interior. Buckley imagined that if it needed to, the maggie could use it’s feeding as propulsion, like a tiny jet, shooting through the soft tissue of a human.

He shuddered, thinking of how many others there were cruising within his body as yet undetected. As if in response, he itched. His left hand immediately shot to the spot, but it was a false alarm-a real itch.

Buckley smiled grimly. Yep. He was totally fucked. He grabbed the jar and took it to the table. He set it down in front of Little Rashad whose eyes opened wide, then wider as he realized what had been placed before him. The boy stared hard at the creature. He seemed to be trying to decide whether to run or to smash it or to play with it. But genetics took over, and as all boys do after encountering a strange looking insect, he smiled, rested his chin on his folded arms on the table and watched it through the glass.

“Is it one of them?” Rashad couldn’t keep the wonder from his voice.

“Yep.”

“Where’d it come from?”

Buckley merely stared. He didn’t want to lie to the boy.

Little Rashad turned and examined Buckley with one cocked eye. “You? You got them inside you crawling around and messing you up? Are you going to end up like Sally?” His voice broke slightly at the last.

“Me? Hell no. You see, we have a secret weapon now and we can beat these things.”

“A secret weapon?”

“Hell yes, boy. You and your horn. I’m figuring if you can drive the maggies away from this place, you might be able to drive them from a person’s body too. Kind of like a musical surgery.”

“But I don’t know how to-”

“Hush about that. That’s why I’m here to help. I figure with my brains and good looks and your skill at the horn, we can maybe even save the world.”

Buckley felt more than a little guilty pouring it on thick intentionally. If the boy was to lose faith in him and tell the others, then Buckley was as good as dead. But there was hope now and as long as there was even an inkling of it, he needed to gain the boy’s trust.

He felt a throbbing at his temple, then a pop, followed a spark of pain. A maggie fell to the table. He and the boy stared at it for a second, then grimly went about the task of catching it.

CHAPTER 11

“I don’t want to die.”

“Me neither, boy. And I don’t intend on letting anything happen to you. Look at me. If it comes down to choosing who will live or die and the choice is me or you, I promise that you’ll live. So help me now. Where’s that horn of yours?”

“Right here.”

“Okay,” Buckley said, pinching the Maggie in two then sprinkling salt on the pieces. “Here’s the way I see it. That song you played scared them away. I seriously doubt they’re afraid of Rocky seeing how he’s not only fictional, but an actor of some questionable skill as well. So it must be one of the notes. I read somewhere that every piece of glass has a frequency that can shatter it. There used to be these commercials of a woman opera singer who would shatter a glass with her voice. Are you with me?”

Little Rashad nodded, but his eyes gave away confusion. His mouth was pressed into a firm line though as determination attempted to focus his young mind on the task at hand.

“What I’m saying, boy, is that it’s not the song that scared them. It’s one of the notes. So it seems plain to me that all we need to do is figure out which note is the right one then we’re home free. Are you with me now?”

Little Rashad wiped his nose and reached under the table. He opened up the box, pulled out a beat-up brass trumpet, put the mouthpiece in place, cleared the spit valve on the floor and began to play scales.

Buckley had a few ideas himself. Not only would he cauterize his wounds with salt, but he’d drink salt water until he puked. If he could somehow manage to raise the level of sodium in his body, he might even make it out of this alive. This was one case when ingesting too much salt might actually save him.

After only about thirty seconds there was a reaction with the maggie in the jar as it suddenly ceased its attempt to devour the glass and instead, began to race along the bottom trying desperately to escape. As Little Rashad continued up the scales, however, the nasty little beast eventually slowed then resumed its impossible feast.

“Wait a minute. You had it. You were going too fast, though. Let’s do this. Try a note then wait. Then try another one, then wait. See what I’m getting at?”

Little Rashad nodded and began again.

Suddenly, a gut-wrenching scream came from the other side of the apartment, followed by a gurgle of blood-bubbling death the likes Buckley had only heard at a Sergio Argento double-feature. Buckley grabbed the shotgun, rumbled through the living room and down the hall to the bathroom. Instead of a long drawn out scream, the whine of pain came in steam engine gasps. Skidding to a stop, Buckley took in the gory scene.

Samuel straightening up, a knife clenched in his hand dripping blood…Sissy standing beside him in the cramped quarters of the bathroom with an empty bucket in her own trembling hands…Bennie dead in the tub, his throat cut, salt upon his body, a thin trail of smoke drifting up from his open mouth, glassy eyes staring back at a past that fucked him over and a future that would never be.

“Holy Christ! What the hell did you two do to him?”

Samuel stared through Buckley, past him, to a place where murder was common and easy. “Bennie had the maggies in him. Had to kill him before he killed us. Wasn’t a thing I could’ve done for him. That's all there was. That’s all there was.” The large black youth pulled a towel down from the bar above the toilet and began to wipe the blood from his blade. “Wasn’t a Goddamn thing else to do.”

Sissy began to shake. She opened her mouth several times to speak, but nothing happened. Whatever she had to say, her brain was on the other side of it.

“Easy girl. Tell me what went wrong.” Buckley slid beside her. He removed the empty bucket from her trembling grip, placed it on the ground and grasped her hands which disappeared in his own immense right hand like twin white doves in an eclipse. Her skin was alabaster pale.

“I’ll tell you what the fuck happened,” Samuel said. “Boy sat down so we could stop the bleeding that you caused when you broke his nose, then he started shaking and twitching like he needed a fix three days ago.”

Buckley stared at the body. The only place to sit was either on the edge of the old fashioned tub or the toilet.

“Then he sticks his tongue out at us, only it ain’t his tongue but this muthafuckin’ green-skinned maggie what decided to pop its head out at us and wave. Jesus is a one-armed dictator, but I had to go Nazi on his ass, you know? You understand? I had to."

"I understand."

Sissy moaned beside him. Buckley leaned the shotgun against the wall and placed his other arm around her.

At the mention of the green-skin, Buckley finally understood. Bennie had been killed by a swimmer-those nasty things that crept through the pipes only to inject themselves up an unsuspecting ass. He’d seen them at work once, and it hadn’t been pretty.

“Was he sitting on the-”

“Yeah,” Samuel replied, “But it wasn’t like he was using it or nothing. He was just sitting.”

“And there was no salt in the water.”

“Guess not.”

“Damn,” sighed Buckley.

The bucket of salt in the bathroom had only one purpose. When someone used the toilet, they were to add salt to the water so the next person wouldn’t have an uninvited guest. The plan was golden. The only problem was that someone had forgotten to add the salt and this wasn’t one of those things an I’m sorry could fix. It wasn’t as if a guy left the toilet seat up so a young lady got her ass wet on the rim. This was about death, and someone made the gangbanger be that way by forgetting.

“But Sissy sure jumped in with the salt. I held the bastard down as he was jerking like he O-Deed. I tried to cut the damn thing out of him, but never did find it. Hid in his chest somewhere. Might still be there for all I know.”

Buckley glanced at the girl, ready to deliver a what the fuck were you thinking, but stopped as he saw that the fear in her eyes had been married to a deep and lonely shame. If he had to guess who’d forgotten the salt, he’d place his money on Sissy. By the way she stared at Bennie’s dead body, he’d also place his money on the fact she’d never do it again. What was condemnation in a city of the dead, anyway? They all knew they were gonna die. All that remained to make life interesting was the knowledge of when and where.

Buckley squeezed her shoulder tightly as he shook her. “You done good, Sissy. Hear me girl? I said you done good. Things happen and there's little we can ever do about it. Now, go on out and fill up the bucket again, I need to figure out exactly how we’re gonna get rid of this body with ten thousand hungry maggies hanging around outside like Mormons at an all night exorcism.”

She stared for a few more seconds, then pried herself free from Buckley’s steely grip. She grabbed the bucket and stalked away, a new hardness to the set of her jaw.

CHAPTER 12

What if they never came back?

That thought had been repeating in her mind like an incantation of evil. She begged for it to stop. She'd even screamed aloud, but somehow her internal voice boomed over everything, drowning out reason and hope.

What if they never came back?

What if they never came back?

Step on a crack. Break your mother's back.

On and on like a jump rope song for the damned.

She hurled herself to the ground before the door, seeking a space beneath the door. "Mommy? Daddy?" She sobbed. "I'm ready now, Mommy. Come and get me. Please, Mommy. Don't leave me alone."

She listened for an answer but heard only her heart as it played the backbeat to the words she didn't want to hear.

What if they never came back?

What if they never came back?

Step on a crack. Break your mother's back.

Step on a crack. Break your daddy's back.

Run little girl. They ain't never coming back.

CHAPTER 13

Within minutes of Sissy returning with a full bucket from the kitchen, they’d packed Bennie’s every orifice with salt as if it were stuffing and he was the world's first gangbanger-shaped Thanksgiving Turkey. No sooner had they finished, then they wrapped him up in the black shower curtain. With the help of a roll of duct tape, Samuel sealed the package in three broad stripes of silver.

“That should hold him for a bit.” Buckley croaked, holding back the pain. Still, his voice betrayed him drawing the stares of both Sissy and Samuel. Three times during the operation, maggies had bored through his skin. Once on the thigh, once in his left armpit and once under his left breast. Each time, he’d bit his lip, the pain mounting. And each time, he’d successfully managed to corral the damn things before the others noticed, all the while holding them as they tried to eat through his hand. Only by shaking them like caught flies was he able to stun them and keep them from bleeding him to death.

Still, he’d kept up the front and the others were none the wiser. He told Samuel to keep an eye on the body. Very aware of the danger the maggies in his hand posed to the rest of the people, Buckley hurried back into the kitchen looking for Little Rashad. For all he knew, the kid had done what a thousand scientists had been unable to do and figured out a way to save the world. Even now Little Rashad plugged scales with his trumpet in the kitchen. Maybe. Just maybe.

As Buckley passed through the living room, he glanced at Grandma Riggs. The long finger of her left hand shot out and pinned him from where she sat as she spoke in her sing-song crack rhyme,

“Icka bicka soda cracker, icka bicka boo, icka bicka soda cracker, out goes YOU.”

“What?”

“Icka bicka soda cracker, out goes you!”

He glared at her for several long moments as she cackled more of the icka bicka nonsense. But was it? Her Patty Cake rhyme had saved them. She'd foretold the death of Lashawna and Sally. He remembered other rhymes, some meaningless and some that, in retrospect, could mean something. Did she have a gift? Or was it just coincidence? Or crack? Whatever was going on, she'd pegged him. But how? She was just a blind woman with a drug habit. What made her so special? But as he thought about it, he glimpsed a possible answer. If a person lost one of their senses, it was known that the others would improve to compensate for the loss. She'd smelled his infection just like she'd smelled the sex on MacHenry and Gert. Damn.

"Icka bicka soda cracker, out goes you."

Was it true? Could he possibly be next?

As if to answer him, he felt another piercing point of pain upon his right knee cap. Buckley shook his leg violently until the Maggie fell to the floor. There he stomped on it, squishing it to the floor with his heavy-soled boots.

Yeah. He was next, all right. Fucked he was. Fucked real good.

"Excuse me."

Buckley turned to find Samuel and Sissy lugging the wrapped body from the bathroom.

"We couldn't wait," Sissy murmured.

They dropped the long parcel by the front door.

"That should hold him a bit."

Buckley couldn't help but admire how far Samuel had come. He placed his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Let’s hope so, son."

But Samuel shrugged away.

"What's wrong, Samuel?"

"Fuck that. It’s only a matter of time before we all die."

"I don’t know about that. I mean-"

"What? Like we’ll survive? Like we're gonna get out of this like there's some sitcom solution?"

"We could. Why the fuck not?"

Grandma Riggs crowed from the living room. "No. No. No. No. No. No." The word sounding like doom.

Everyone turned and watched as Grandma Riggs raised her boney arm to point a skeletal finger at Buckley. After a moment of panic, he turned to Samuel and Sissy, a grin squeezing through his shame as he tried to redirect their attention. "So what’s for lunch? Are you hungry, Samuel?"

But Grandma Riggs wouldn't be ignored. “Icka bicka soda cracker, icka bicka boo, icka bicka soda cracker, out goes YOU.”

Feeling like a child, he ignored her as best he could and sought to propel Samuel into the kitchen.

"Icka bicka soda cracker, out goes you."

Jerking his elbow away, Samuel frowned, glancing back and forth from Grandma Riggs to Buckley. "What’s she talking about now?"

"I dunno."

"You know exactly what I’m talking about, Mister King of Garbage Lies. You know exactly what I mean Mister Maggie Man."

"What?"

As if in slow motion, Buckley watched as Sissy leapt away from him, stumbling, then sprawling to the floor in the hallway. Samuel lunged for the shotgun leaning against the door jam, latching onto it microseconds before Buckley. Samuel brought the gun level as time resumed.

"She’s talking about you, isn’t she?" Samuel growled.

"Me?"

"Yes you. You’re Icka Bicka Soda Crackered, aren’t you?"

"I am not Icka Bicka Soda Crackered."

"You were telling us we weren’t fucked and here you are Icka Bicka Soda Crackered. How the fuck could you?"

"What the hell are you two talking about?" growled MacHenry stomping out of the bedroom.

"They got him. The maggies got Adamski."

“Icka bicka soda cracker, icka bicka boo, icka bicka soda cracker, out goes YOU.”

Buckley stomped in frustration. It wasn't fair. After all he’d done it was going to end this way. There had to be a way. There had to be a chance. He thought of a dozen things to say, but all he could do was scream at the top of his lings, "I am not Icka Bicka Soda Crackered."

The apartment fell silent as everyone stared at Buckley. Even the trumpet playing had stopped.

In a quiet voice, just loud enough for the others to hear, Buckley repeated the words he only wished were true. "I am not Icka Bicka Soda Crackered."

Little Rashad ran into the room carrying the glass jar. Smoke rose from the open top. A gray sludge coated the bottom. Unlike the others in the room, his smile was broad and wide.

"I got it, Mr. Adamski. I killed your Maggie. I figured it all out for you."

God was fucking with him. That’s what it was. This was one great game of let’s fuck with Buckley. He rolled his eyes and hung his head.

"Aren't you happy, Mr. Adamski? I found the secret. Aren't you happy?"

"Sure kid." He closed his eyes as Samuel cocked the shotgun. "I'm fucking thrilled."

CHAPTER 14

Buckley sat on Bennie’s shower-curtain-encased body, back against the door, hands on his knees, bound with packing twine. A semi-circle of salt had been poured around him blocking him off from the rest of the house. When they’d come for him, he'd gone down without a fight. He shouldn't have deceived them like he had. He'd put them all in danger.

"Reversal of fortune. Ain't that a bitch." MacHenry sat on a foot stool, smoking a cigar, pointing the shotgun at Buckley. He laughed softly, then took a long toke of the Havana.

"Bound to happen sooner or later," Buckley shrugged.

"I suppose."

"What happened to flame on?"

MacHenry flipped open his silver Zippo lighter and stared into the flame for a moment. When it got too hot for him to hold, he turned it off and rubbed the metal against his leg to dissipate the heat. "Flame on won't work anymore."

"What do you mean?"

"Would you believe I fell in love?"

"What'd you do that for?"

"I don't know."

"Your timing’s pretty pathetic."

"Isn’t it though? Who would have thought I would have found someone like Gert at the end of the world?"

"She was there all along, you know."

MacHenry’s eyes brightened. "That’s what she said. Said, I wouldn’t have given her the time of day, else-wise."

"She’s probably right."

"I suppose."

"It’s the choices we make."

Buckley groaned audibly as a maggie popped free under his pants leg. The way he was hogtied, he couldn't get up. So like an upended crab, he shook his legs, until finally it slid free. When it hit the floor, he toed the nasty little beast into the salt where it smoked to nothingness. MacHenry watched it play out non-plussed, then spoke as if nothing had happened. "I wanted to be a lawyer, but I drank my way out of school. Became a car salesman. Same thing in a way."

"I wanted to be a soldier."

"So why didn’t you?"

"They didn’t like my heart. Said it murmured."

"Murmured." MacHenry giggled. "Like it had something to say."

Gert stuck her head out the kitchen door. "Dinner will be ready in a moment, hon. We’re having Vienna Sausages, peas and peaches in heavy syrup."

"Oh Yum." MacHenry licked his lips in mock sincerity.

"No, it’s good. You’ll see." She turned to Buckley for the first time, her face struggling to hold an emotion. She whispered. "Anything special for you, Mr. Adamski?"

"Extra salt, please."

Gert grinned sadly. "Coming right up. Especially on the peaches."

Buckley mimicked MacHenry’s earlier expression. "Double yum."

Both men stared at each other as Gert returned to the kitchen. Suddenly Sissy's laughter brightened the world, she said something, and both women laughed. The only other sound in the apartment was Grandma snoring in the corner of the room. MacHenry leaned closer to Buckley. He laid the shotgun across his knees, the barrels pointed down the hall. "Where were you when it all started?"

Scenes of violence and devastation explode from the floor model console television. Atop the television is a gold alarm clock. Behind the television is a plain, white wall. An old woman lies on the couch. Buckley sits in a chair beside her, holding her hand. He looks up and watches as words flash on the television screen — INVASION OR INFECTION.

"With my mother. She’d been sick for a long time."

"Did she die easy?"

Buckley’s mother reaches out to kiss him with the mouth that had kissed him every morning for school for eighteen years. She purses lips that had taught him the words of love, as he grew up fatherless and angry on the streets of Wilmington. She leans forward, her eyes wild with death as maggies erupt from her skin and cascade to the carpet around her like rice at a zombie wedding. Buckley struggles, screams in panic, then pushes his only mother to the ground. He barely hesitates as he shoots her in the head. Blam. Blam. Blam.

"No. She died hard."

CHAPTER 15

"Dinner’s ready."

Gert brought a plate of food which she placed on the floor at MacHenry’s feet. She handed him a fork. When he took it, they exchanged a brief but warm smile, then she spun on her heel and headed back into the kitchen. A towel hanging over her shoulder and her hair up in a scrunch seemed perfect casting for middle-aged housewife. No one would ever have known that she'd plied her trade on the corner of Main and Sixth. And no one needed to know. She'd remade herself. The world where she'd been a whore no longer existed. For all intents and purposes she was a middle-aged housewife. At least, if given the chance, it seemed the most practical conclusion to the relationship she had with MacHenry. She returned with a glass of water and a Ziploc bag filled with salt. She laid these beside the plate, offered Buckley a sad soulful smile, then once again left the room.

MacHenry pulled out a pocket knife and snapped it open. He moved the blade to the twine securing Buckley's hands. "On your honor?"

Buckley nodded, then added "I ain’t going nowhere."

Once he sliced through a few strands of the twine, MacHenry stood and waited for Buckley to untie the rest. When he finished, Buckley glanced up, rubbing the patterns dug into his wrists.

"We'd appreciate it if you didn't move out of the circle."

Buckley nodded. "Don't worry; I'll stay here with the dead."

"Sounds pitiful."

"Didn't mean it that way. Or maybe I did. I don't know. But don't worry about me. I'm not gonna put you folks in any more danger."

"On your honor?"

"On my honor."

MacHenry nodded to himself as if he'd satisfied some interior concern, then turned and shambled into the kitchen. As he passed Gert setting food on the large table, he let his hand drift across her ass, then linger on her hip. He leaned over, whispered something in her ear that made her blush and giggle, then took a seat. He cast one look back at Buckley, then began to heap his plate with the canned cuisine.

Buckley grasped the fork and his plate. He pushed the peaches around, but the heavy syrup stuck to them like motor oil. The Vienna sausages looked like baby's fingers. And the peas, well, he'd never liked peas. He should be hungry. A part of him understood that he needed energy, but he couldn't bring himself to be hungry. Perhaps the prospect of death was too much for him.

Finally he picked up the bag full of salt. With the plate balanced in his knees, he began to sprinkle the salt atop the food. A crazy thought pinged in his brain. If he ate enough salt, he could kill the maggies in his body. The sprinkle turned to a thin pour, then finally an avalanche as he let the entire contents of the bag cover his food. He tossed the empty bag aside and stared at the white-capped plate.

Fuck it. It was only salt. He scooped up a forkful of food and shoved it into his mouth. As he began to chew, his gag reflex tripped and it was all he could do to keep from retching. When he finally swallowed, he took a sip of water. Then he took another bite of food. By his fourth bite he'd learned the trick to keeping down the salt. By the sixth bite, his bile had risen so that it was all he tasted. Each mouthful was a battle to keep down, and he barely survived the meal.

CHAPTER 16

Dinner had been over for an hour and things were relatively quiet. In fact, a passerby, if there were to be a passerby in the fortified penthouse apartment of the Franklin Hotel, would think nothing more of the gathered group lounging around the living room, other than they seemed at peace and at home with one another. Sissy and Little Rashad knelt on the floor playing a card game called Tonk. Samuel, Gert and MacHenry sat on the couch staring restfully at the peeling paint on the far wall. Grandma Riggs smoked crack. And Buckley, well Buckley was the only one out of place. Separated from the others, he sat on a body bag, his back leaning against the front door of the apartment, a white-encrusted black man as stone-still as a mannequin in a Christmas display. His skin and hair and clothes had been covered by a thick layer of salt. Occasionally he'd blink, the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes dislodging some of the crystals. But other than that, he held very still. He was doing everything he could think of to fight his infection. And he'd do anything more. There was one thing that was a perfect truth and that was that Buckley Adamski, one time garbage man, part time hero, didn't want to die. And to the credit of the others, they didn't want him to die either.

"So I had this idea during dinner, you know. Something, that I think, might let us live."

All eyes went to Sissy, even Buckley's. As timid as a mouse, she rarely spoke, so rarely that her voice always sounded a little strange to Buckley. Then he noticed that the others had shifted their gaze and were staring at him. Buckley felt immediately uncomfortable, and for once understood how the babysitter felt when the Adams' children looked at her in that horrifying book by Mendal Johnson. If he had to bet, this was the end. Sometime during dinner they'd decided to push him out the door with the dead gangbanger as part of some whacked out plan to save them, and they were using cute little Sissy, the Stepford Barbie twin to Marsha Brady, to break the bad news.

"Did you hear me, Mr. Adamski? I had this idea."

"I heard you."

"Are you ready?"

How could I be ready? Are you ready to be hit by a car in the crosswalk? Are you ready to be crushed by a falling piano? Are you ready for maggies to infect you because one of the people who were supposed to be watching the door was fucking in the next room, smoking stogies and talking about flame-ons and hard-ons and sweaty Cuban thighs. Could anyone be ready? Fuck it. “I’m ready.”

"Okay," she began, offering an embarrassed smile to the others. "Bear with me a moment, will you? What kills maggies?"

Buckley wasn’t expecting a game show. “Things That Kill Maggies” for a Hundred, Alex. Was this some sort of test? He looked around the room. The others nodded, indicating that he should ask. But he didn't want to. He’d much rather have a bottle of vodka and a pistol. Perhaps on or near the bottom of the bottle he'd find the courage for what they wanted of him, because now he was scared. The way they all looked at him was unnerving.

"Come on. I know you know this,” Sissy insisted. “What kills maggies?"

Buckley shrugged, the motion sending handfuls of salt cascading down his shoulders.

Sissy shook her head and smiled. "Salt, silly. Salt kills maggies.”

Buckley glanced around the room. The others were still grinning stupidly at him, as if he'd come in first place at a Krishna Death Lottery. He didn't get it. What was going on? What was she talking about? Of course salt kills maggies. Why else was he wearing this year’s Armani salt attire? "Okay. I don’t get it."

Finally MacHenry jumped in. "Adamski, you can be fucking dense sometimes. Where’s the most salt on the planet?"

Buckley shrugged again. The others were creeping him out. “I give up. The world’s largest salt lick?”

Sissy laughed and shook her head. "In the ocean of course. The most salt is in the ocean and it covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface." And with that, Sissy sat back, low-fived Little Rashad, and grinned like she’d just invented Pythagorean’s Theorem.

All eyes once again turned to him. What was this? What did they expect of him? Then his jaw dropped as hope shivered through his body. Why hadn't he thought of that? Oh my God!

"In the ocean. Of course," he repeated in monotone.

Samuel nodded. "I think he's getting it."

"I was the same way," MacHenry said. "How the hell did we miss that?"

"The eight hundred pound gorilla," Gert said.

"Two-thirds of the earth’s surface," Samuel said.

"More than that," Sissy offered, "hope."

"Yeah. Hope." For the first time since his infection, Buckley felt it. Deep down in his heart where butterflies hung upside-down from electrified power lines, he felt the algebraic possibility of life. There was an equation, there was a solution, he just needed to figure the variable. If he could somehow manage that, he might actually live.

"So how are we gonna get there through all them maggies?" Samuel looked at the shotgun in his hands and frowned. "We don't have enough firepower to even get outside our own door."

"Oh come on. It shouldn't be too hard. It's only a few miles."

"Gert's right," MacHenry said, reaching out and touching her hand. "It's only a few miles. A few miles through a few million maggies, and oh, let's not forget the caddies."

Maggies the size of Cadillacs, Buckley reminded himself. "Yeah, I remember." He remembered too well. Every end of the world saga, every George Romero picture, every Night of the Comet or Triffid or Lepus B-movie he'd ever seen on late night television had served as a syllabus for survival.

Running down the street, his side ripping with the pain of exertion, only panic fueling his spent muscles. Sounds of his heavy panting and screams in the distance. A rusty bicycle chain squeals directly behind him. Exhaustion. He slows as his legs reach the catastrophic limits of middle age, traitors to games of football, tag, Marco Polo and keep away that had been their genesis. He curses aloud over his shoulder at the thirteen year old boy on the bike with paperboy saddlebags. In panic, Buckley turns back, almost stumbling to the ground, but somehow manages to keep running. To his left a man does a maggie dance as a wave of the creatures consume him. To his right, half a block away, a horse drawn cart stands out of place. Suddenly, a great worm the size of a small semi, curls around the corner of a building and snaps the horse up and away. Gasping for air, Buckley grudgingly slows. He turns and fires his pistol three times. An empty bicycle tumbles past him.

But he needs to decide. Will he allow the tiny beasts to devour him as he waits to die in this top floor apartment, or will be try and do something to survive. The salt had slowed their gestation, but he couldn't keep it up. His stomach was a miasma of gut-wrenching agony. Man had never been meant to digest so much salt. As it was he felt as if he'd drunk a good portion of the Atlantic, but this was just the beginning. He would get worse and with it the pain. He had a small window of chance and if he didn't take it, he might never be able to.

And he did have an idea. "It might work, you know?"

"What might work?"

"Remember when I mentioned earlier that I had an idea about making some North Carolina Cocktails. Now I think we can add a twist."

"Yummee. Love the twist," giggled Grandma Riggs.

"No Granny. Think Molotov, not Martini." He grinned quickly. "Now if we can get someone to run across the street and get us some supplies, we’d be perfect. Any volunteers?"

"You want us to go outside?" Gert asked.

"We’re gonna have to sooner or later. I mean, we’re going through salt like a fast food franchise. It's the only thing we got going for us, and the longer we stay here without finding a way to replenish our stores, the harder it's going to be to leave."

MacHenry stood and stalked across the room. He paused in front of the picture of The Screamer for a moment, then turned. "How do we know we can trust you?"

Buckley shrugged. "I’ve been drinking and eating extra salt. I think I’ve slowed down the process."

"What's to keep you from going crazy?"

"I don't know, Gert. I mean, maybe maggies affect people differently. Maybe I'll never go crazy. Maybe this is crazy. Maybe my entire idea is crazy, I just don’t know."

"Okay. I trust you, but we all have to agree." MacHenry turned to the rest of the group. "This is still a democracy, grant you a small one, but a democracy none-the-less. So what say everyone?"

Little Rashad stood before he spoke. "I trust Mr. Adamski."

"I trust him too," Sissy said softly.

Even Gert agreed, but worry clouded her gaze.

But Samuel was another matter. He stepped forward and sneered. "You killed my girl because she was infected. I feel like I should kill you the same. It'd be fair. No one would even have the right to stop me." He took another step forward. "You know that you deserve to die, don't you?"

Buckley held the boy's gaze for a moment then nodded solemnly.

Samuel shook his head. "By all rights I could kill you and it'd be no different than what you did to Lashawna. She deserved better. You didn’t know her, but she was special. More than that, she was my girl. But I think you’re our best chance. I think you’ll make the difference between living and dying. And fuck if I like it." Samuel's sneer fell into a frown as he whispered, "Fuck you Buckley Adamski. Count me in, too."

After a moment, MacHenry turned to the old woman. "How about you Grandma?"

Grinning wickedly, Grandma Riggs quoted Thomas. "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

MacHenry rolled his eyes. "She’s loaded. Smoked too much of that shit."

"No, she ain't," Little Rashad squeaked. “I mean, yes she is, but she means yes too. Her vote is for Mr. Adamski."

Gert shook her head as if to try and rattle the words into place. "I don't get it."

"She says don’t die easy," the boy explained. "She means we should keep Mr. Adamski around."

Everyone stared first at Grandma Riggs who smiled and bobbed her head to some private rhythm, then at Little Rashad, clearly unable to come to terms with how the boy was able to translate the old woman's apparently insane rants. Finally MacHenry broke the silence. "Well, there we go. Buckley, you have a reprieve. As long as you help us, we’ll let you live. Fuck up once and we kill you. Can you live with that?"

Buckley shrugged. "Even better, I can die with it."

MacHenry stepped back and held out his hand. "Then the floor’s yours again."

"Right." Buckley got to his feet, the salt sheeting off him and pooling at his feet as if he'd just popped free from an hour glass. "In that case, who’s coming with me?"

Everyone found a spot to stare into, but no one spoke up. Even Grandma was silent.

"Come on. What have you got to lose? Come with me and you have a chance. Stay here you're dead."

"How do you know that?" Gert stood, her hands on her hips. "Maybe Samuel’s right, Mr. Adamski. Maybe the only threat to us surviving is you. You're the only one infected. Maybe we should do with you what we did with that girl, or even that dead boy you've been sitting on."

MacHenry reached out to grab her, but she jerked away. "No! I won't shut up. Maybe these things will go away. Maybe they'll move on. Look around you. We've managed to fortify this place so that even the flies can't get in. I've lived in North Carolina for forty years and never once had a place without flies." Her face red, a tear coursed down her cheek.

"And maybe they won't go away," Buckley countered. "Maybe they're moving through the streets, searching everywhere for food. Maybe they're hungry, starving even. Maybe, just maybe," he said licking his lips and making sure everyone was looking at him, "we're the only food left in the entire city and every maggie within twenty miles is heading in our direction."

"You don't know that." Her fear made her ugly.

"Just like you don't know that you'll remain safe in here. Sure it looks good now, but what will you do when you run out of food or water, which, eventually, will happen. What then?"

"We'll make that decision when we come to it,” Gert held fast.

"By then you may not be able to." He lowered his voice. "Listen Gert. I'm dying here. There's little chance I'm going to recover, and even less chance I'll make it all the way to the ocean, but I'm willing to help everyone if I can. Sure it would be easier to let Samuel kill me or have me walk out into the hall to be with Sally. Sometimes when the salt in my gut is trying to claw back up, and the maggies are snap-crackle-popping out of my skin I wished I was dead. But what I'm talking about is a chance to live. You do want to live, don't you?"

"Of course I want to live," she scoffed. "Don't treat me like a child."

"How much of a chance are you going to have to live when I'm dead, Grandma begins screaming from the pain when she runs out of crack, and one of you gets hurt, or worse, infected? Right now we're as strong as we're going to get. Every second after this one we're getting weaker."

"But I don't want-" She never finished, instead she covered her face, her hands hiding the sobs that racked her shoulders.

Buckley stepped across the line of salt and placed a hand on her shoulder. "I know, Gert. You shouldn't have to lose him. Listen, I'll go alone. I think I can make it. It's only just down the street, anyway."

MacHenry slid next to Gert and put his arms around her. She threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in the crux of his shoulder. Buckley backed away and allowed them what privacy they could get.

"I'm going with you," Samuel said.

"What?"

"You heard me. I'm going too. You can't do this alone. For these folks to survive, you're going to need me."

"Okay." Buckley nodded, happy that he wasn't going by himself. "Just so you stay in front where I can cover you."

"I don't think so. You stay in front. I don't want you going crazy on me."

"Fine, but I get the shotgun.”

"No problem," Samuel grinned, as he held up both of Bennie's 9mm pistols. "I get these muthas."

CHAPTER 17

There was a time when Sissy had wanted to be a school teacher. Her mother, her father, even her grandmother had told her that she'd be great with kids. So it was her lot growing up she'd been just a little more responsible than everyone else. When the other girls went to dances, she'd stayed home reading. When classmates called her for the rare sleepover-invite, she'd always declined, remembering how her mother ascribed association with the other girls as a 'slippery slope to dangerous waters,' as if the girls were crocodiles and she were the wayward lamb limping naively along the shore.

Her life had already been mapped out for her. Four years at Converse College, the all girls' institution in Spartanburg, South Carolina and her mother's Alma Matter. After that it was on to graduate school at Vassar, then on to a fellowship at Biltmore Academy for Girls located west of Ashville in the Smokey Mountains. All Sissy Buchanan had to do was show up, be polite, smile nicely and her future was secured. Sure she'd never been on a date with a boy, and sure she'd never gone to the movie theater, but that was a small price to pay for such a perfect future.

At least that was the pill she'd been forced to swallow for eighteen years.

Live for tomorrow.

Don't do anything you'd regret.

Set the example.

Be responsible.

Everything she'd ever done had been in preparation for the life that had been planned for her. And she hated her mother for it. Sissy had spent the best years of her life coddled in the promises of a bright future only to discover that the world had no future. There was no Converse College. Vassar was an abattoir of post-graduates baking in the noonday sun. Nowhere were children preparing for private school hurriedly gulping orange juice and toast before they hopped in their daddy's Mercedes. Instead they were… she breathed deeply as she tried to block the image…. instead they were all dead.

Where did that leave her? She blushed at the thought. Instead of dwelling on what she'd never have, she voiced the other thing that had been haunting her.

"It feels weird."

"Everything feels weird, honey," Gert said. She'd just put a clean sweater around the old woman's shoulders. No sooner had she returned to her place on the couch, than Grandma Riggs had lit up a rock, the sound of the smoking like a piece of gravel in a vacuum cleaner.

"No, what I mean is, we used to trust Mr. Adamski and now he’s…he’s-"

"Dead," Grandma Riggs finished.

"The walking dead," Gert added. "Like a zombie."

"It must be scary to know you’re gonna die like that."

"I don’t know, maybe it's comforting."

What an odd thing to say. Sissy turned and looked at Gert to see if she was kidding, but the woman was as straight-faced as could be. "What do you mean?"

"That's what we want, isn't it? To know? Death isn't so bad, I guess. What makes it so scary is that we don't know when it's going to happen. We don't like surprises."

"And now he knows."

"And he isn't scared."

"I still feel bad for him."

"Are you scared girl?" Grandma Riggs stared blindly at her through blackened opaque frames, the result unnerving.

"Isn’t everyone?" she murmured.

"I haven’t been afraid of death for years."

"But the drugs…" Gert began before she decided she'd said too much.

Grandma Riggs held up her pipe and beamed. "This shit? This is for the pain, and the fun."

Sissy blushed and looked away.

Gert smiled, crossed her arms and stared at the wall. "If I knew I was gonna die," she said, "I think I’d be selfish. Maybe get a box of chocolates, some music, maybe MacHenry and me…"

"Poor girl," Grandma Riggs whispered.

Gert's mouth opened as if to ask what the old woman meant, but Sissy spoke first.

"I don’t know what I’d do. I mean, I know I may die, but I don’t want to."

"Then don’t," Gert snapped.

"If only it were that easy. All the Maggies out there, I just don’t think we'll make it."

"There's always a chance? Don't lose hope."

"It’s true," Grandma Riggs smirked, stroking her pipe. "Jesus designs the playing field and makes all the rules, but we’re the ones who play the game. He doesn’t. We make our own future."

MacHenry ambled into the room. He tilted his head towards the bedroom. "Uh…Gert? Wanna come take a look at this?"

Gert's face reddened.

Sissy's did as well and she giggled nervously.

"Please tell me you don’t have any chocolates," Gert said.

"Uh…No. Was I supposed to have some?"

Gert got to her feet and leaned into him. She kissed him deeply, a hand gripping his collar. "No, silly. I hate chocolates." She flashed a grin at Sissy and Grandma Riggs over his shoulder.

"Then why did you ask?"

Gert laughed. "You can be so dense sometimes, Travis MacHenry."

"I-" He looked from one woman to the other trying to figure out what was going on. After half a minute he smiled weakly and grabbed her hand. "Come on then. Let me show you this."

She hesitated a moment, and in her best Arnold Swartzenegger quipped, "I’ll be back," then allowed herself to be dragged down the hall.

Sissy followed the pair with her eyes. She was happy for Gert, but a little jealous too. She'd never feel what Gert was feeling, neither emotionally nor physically. Sissy had lost her chance when Bennie had been killed. Not that she'd have done anything, but she'd noticed the way he'd looked at her. At first it had made her nervous, but then she'd found herself wondering.

"You still have time, you know."

"What?"

"I said you still have time." Grandma Riggs reached out and placed her hand on Sissy's lap, gave her knee a squeeze and let go.

Sissy sighed. "It doesn’t matter."

"Oh. It matters all right." The old woman cackled. "The stories I could tell you. The stories I shouldn't tell you. My god in heaven, the things I've done in the name of love would make a Bishop blush."

"But they're just stories."

"So that's it."

Sissy remained silent.

"You're afraid you'll never become a woman."

"Something like that." The words came no louder than a breath.

"I told you that you still have time, and you do. So stop worrying about things you have no control over."

Sissy tried to fathom what the women meant by you still have time. Surely she wasn't supposed to take that to mean that she could learn the secrets of womanhood by one of the men left in the apartment. The thought made her queasy. She shuddered. How horrible that would be, to-she refused to finish the thought. Instead she picked up the magazine that Gert had been thumbing through and concentrated on what the Prettiest Women in Hollywood were wearing.

CHAPTER 18

He sounded like Darth Vader.

Bad-assed, motherfucking Darth Vader, ruler of the universe and master of The Force.

Biggest, blackest, baddest motherfucker on the planet, breathing like a telephone stalker.

Buckley had always thought the breathing sounded evil and cool. As kids he and his honchos had gone around the neighborhood harassing everyone too slow to get away, copying the awful sound. Darth Vader Breathing. "Luke. I'm your father." More breathing.

So fucking cool. Darth Vader was the hero of his neighborhood. The big, black, galactic pimp telling what for to the white kid with magic, crushing the throats of those who would bring him down, and destroying planets filled with uppity white governments, and sickly-looking white sisters with cinnamon bun hairdos. The folks in his neighborhood especially liked Empire Strikes Back, when Indiana Jones turned stone-cold, carbon pizza slice.

Buckley wished he was there now; somewhere on one of those three-mooned planets sucking down an alien drink through a crazy straw in a funky bar with three-titted bitches instead of here. Anywhere but here. Anywhere but the end of the world in search of a way to escape to a place they've never even heard of.

Buckley breathed.

He sounded like Darth Vader covered in cellophane wrapped in duct tape.

He sounded scared.

He sounded desperate.

He sounded anything but cool.

Now resting against the side of the hotel, he and Samuel had been lowered by sheets, dropping the last few feet, catching themselves before they broke something. Looking out at the devastation on the streets before them, it was a wonder they'd survived. Nowhere was there sign of humanity. Cars had been ripped inside out. Homes had been gnawed upon, the insides scattered about the road until what was left was indecipherable, multi-colored, post-consumer confetti for the dead. The higher floors winked at him from broken windows. Broad swathes of brick and wood had been chewed away.

Cocking his head, the strangest thing of all was that the only thing he was able to hear was his own Darth Vader breathing. The honk and growl of traffic had disappeared. The buzz of the electric grid was gone. Even the birds had fled. Only the occasional thump of a building falling in upon itself broke the silence.

Still he searched, his eyes scanning, his ears desperate to pick up a sound. Where were the herds of maggies everyone talked about? Where were the caddies they'd heard earlier? He ducked and examined the sky. Where were the flyers? The more he looked, the less likely these things seemed to be. He saw nothing other than debris. The whole thing seemed so anticlimactic. The coast couldn't be more clear. Not only wasn't there any maggie sign, but there wasn't any sign of anything.

Signaling Samuel, Buckley dashed across the street only stopping when he crashed his back against the brick wall of the Ben Franklin Store. Hugging it with his shoulder, he peered through the broken front into the dim interior. He knew that some of the things he needed were within the shadowy depths of the department store, and some were half a block away in the dark grotto that had once been the Piggly Wiggly.

Buckley waved his hand. Samuel sprinted diagonally towards the grocery store. Hunched over because of the bindings, he looked like a shrink-wrapped Quasimodo.

They'd created an armor of sorts. Nothing that would protect them from arrows or lances or bullets, but something good enough to protect them from maggies, which was what counted. They'd stripped off their clothes, rolled in salt, then been wrapped from tip of the head to the end of the tow in cellophane. Nine or ten layers of the see-through material used for keeping leftovers fresh felt like hard leather to the touch, and played hell on mobility. Around all of this were several strips of duct tape wrapped in horizontal circles to reinforce the cellophane. Although the material stretched a little, neither the elbows nor the knees had full range of motion.

To protect his eyes and still allow him to see they'd cut holes in the layered material, placed aviator shades atop them, then affixed the glasses in place with a single layer of cellophane. Breathing through a tea strainer half filled with salt, the final touches were work gloves over his hands and boots over his feet.

Buckley didn't feel like Darth Vader anymore. He felt like a fool. He kept reminding himself that in these last days of the world fashion no longer mattered. And every time he did, he shook his head at the sadness of it all. He'd always wanted a tux. He bet he'd have looked great in one. Now he'd never get the chance.

He stepped into the shadows of the Ben Franklin store. Three banks of cash registers stood on the left. On the right were carts resting in ranks. The store went back about a hundred feet. He couldn't make out the back wall. Racks of clothes clogged most of the right side of the store. Some had fallen, some remained upright. Between the clothes on the right and the rows of seven-foot shelves arranged on the left was a scene of pure carnage. The bodies of one-time shoppers lay among the destruction of gift baskets, new shoes, school supplies and cheap cologne. Arms and legs intertwined with upended racks and shelves that seemed to have been crushed by a great weight.

Caddies! As surely as earthworms had never grown longer than a foot, the interior of the store had been devastated by a Cadillac-sized maggie eager to feed. This was his first maggie-sign, and to be honest, he felt better seeing it. He was beginning to think he'd made the whole thing up.

Buckley lowered his shotgun and let it lead him inside. Not that the weapon could do anything to the monsters, but he felt better having it. He stepped gingerly, careful not to fall. Over broken glass, a set of Christmas lights wrapped around a rotting ankle and a big yellow truck like the one he'd played with in the front yard when he was a kid and before they invented drive-by shootings. He had to twist and step wide to avoid a pile of gumballs stuck in a pile of stomach sludge. After about a dozen feet, he spied the toy section.

Buckley began to head that way when he came to the first complete body. He glanced down and shuddered. The chest and face had exploded outwards, flaps of skin and shards of bone jutted upwards, as if something had been inside and had insisted on coming out. The eyes were gone leaving dark wet holes.

But no maggies.

No maggies anywhere.

Where were they? He couldn't help but feel that they might be anywhere. Under a toy? Behind a shelf? Perhaps they'd all gone to the ceiling? He jerked his head around and ducked as he examined the ceiling for any sign that maggies lurked above the thin waffled tile. He had to keep his cool. Now wasn't the time to lose it. He breathed Darth Vader confidence until he felt badass again.

Finally, he found what he was looking for. Picking up several cloth duffel bags, he carried them to the toy section. It took him awhile to sort through the debris, but he eventually unearthed the things he'd come looking for — Super Soakers, of every shape, size and caliber. H2O Commando. Super Soaker 2. Revenge of the Super Soaker. Maxi Soaker. Mega Giga Soaker. Godzilla Soaker. He grabbed all he could, filled the bags to their limit, then zipped them shut.

If Buckley planned right, these toys that had once been the scourge of adult manners would be the weapon that would allow those in his keeping to survive. The irony didn’t escape him. Of all the trillions and trillions of dollars that America had spent on weapons research and the defense budget, toys were what society fell back on when it collapsed. Was that a statement about the dedication of society to its own well-being, or a statement on the construction and utility of the modern toy?

A muffled crash came from behind him. Buckley spun and leveled his shotgun, searching for a target. Was this it? Were the maggies preparing to attack? He realized that he'd been holding his breath and breathed small Darth Vaders.

Peering through the shadows, he couldn't see anything moving. He took several steps to his left to get a better view. Still nothing.

"Anyone there?"

Nothing.

"If you're there, let me know and I won't shoot."

Nothing.

"Hey motherfucker! Get your ass out from behind there or I'll blow your fucking nuts off!"

Five minutes of nothing and he straightened. Whatever had made the noise wasn't there now. If they were maggies, they would have attacked. Leaving the bags where he'd dropped them, he crabbed his way across the store, his senses on hyper-alert. When he reached the area where the noise had spawned, he searched carefully.

Debris and more debris, some of it broken to the point of being indescribable. But there lying on top of the pile was a rotting arm. Atop the shelf above it laid a body, the arm missing, looking all the world like gravity had tugged at the rotting limb until the arm fell free.

Buckley grabbed the duffle bags and returned to the sidewalk.

Samuel met him five minutes later with a hundred pounds of salt. "Everything go okay?"

"Of course," Buckley snapped. "And you?"

"No probs."

They headed back to the Franklin Hotel at a more leisurely pace than they'd come. It seemed as if the danger was over, at least the danger they could see.

CHAPTER 19

Buckley was the last inside. Sissy and Gert held the boards to the window, while MacHenry hammered them back in place. Little Rashad held a plate full of nails which MacHenry dipped into. Already Samuel was struggling out of his cellophane armor, looking like a piece of sausage pushing free of its casing. Buckley pulled off his mask, and couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear.

“What’s so funny?” Gert asked.

Buckley told her and got a giggle in return.

Then she added, “I was thinking more like it was something Richard Simmons would make you wear to lose weight. You know, those neoprene sweat suits?”

Buckley shook his head. “Richard Simmons is evil.”

“Don’t you mean Gene Simmons?” Samuel asked.

Little Rashad turned to Buckley. “Who’s that?”

“Who’s that?” Buckley began ripping the cellophane from around his chest. “Gene Simmons is a member of the band Kiss. You know, Detroit Rock City? Beth?”

Both Little Rashad and Samuel shook their heads, blank stares clear evidence that they had no idea what Buckley was talking about.

“If it ain’t Snoop Dog or Dr. Dre then he don’t listen to it.” MacHenry finished hammering the board in place, and took one of the bags from the floor. He peered inside, looked back at Buckley, then shook his head. “I’m not even going to ask what you got these for. Anyway, Kiss ain’t his type of music. He only listens to-”

“Don’t make this into a black-white thing,” Samuel warned.

“I’m not. It’s a rock and roll versus rap thing.”

Sissy spoke up. “Ever listen to Kid Rock? He does this Southern Rock-Rap fusion that’s pretty cool.”

“Isn’t he from Detroit too?” Gert asked.

“Kiss isn’t from Detroit, they just sing about it,” Buckley pointed out.

“Eminem is from Detroit and he’s a white rapper,” Sissy added.

“What does that have to do with anything? Are we taking a survey of musical birthplaces?” MacHenry snatched up as many bags he could carry and headed to the hallway. “What the hell were we talking about?” he mumbled as he left the room.

Gert rolled her eyes. She and Sissy had begun to apply the cook’s mortar to the edges of the boards. They worked with military efficiency. “Richard Simmons. We were talking about Richard Simmons.”

“Yeah. Richard Simmons.” MacHenry re-entered and grabbed the bags of salt. “You know,” he said looking pointedly at Samuel, “the gay guy.”

Samuel mouthed the words the gay guy and rolled his eyes.

“Hey!” MacHenry shrugged, trying to keep his cool. “I didn’t make him gay, he just is. Stepping to the oldies with the fat chicks is about as gay as they come.”

Samuel raised his eyebrows. “So Richard Simmons is gay, but Gene Simmons isn’t gay. This band Kiss isn’t gay?”

The question stopped MacHenry in his tracks. “Hell no! I mean yes! I mean-”

“So they just dress up in platform shoes and wear make-up, but that’s not gay?” Samuel asked not letting up.

Buckley wondered how Samuel knew about what they wore when he’d pretended he didn’t even know who they were. The kid was pulling MacHenry’ chain. Bigtime.

“Hell no!” MacHenry turned to Samuel. By the way he held the bags of salt, he could just as easily throw them as carry them. “What are you trying to do? Start a fight?”

Samuel grinned broadly. “Nope. No fight. I’m just fucking with you.”

“Just fucking with…” MacHenry glowered and stomped towards the kitchen.

When he left the room, everyone’s attention switched to Samuel.

“What?” he shrugged. “It was a slow pitch across the plate. I had to hit it out of the park.” He pulled the rest of the cellophane off and began wiping the sweat from his skin with a towel. “Some people just beg to be fucked with.”

Buckley finished stripping as well. “And you’ve been put on the planet to do it.”

“Why not?” Samuel asked, passing the older man a towel. “There’s no television. No radio. Not even any Kiss, Eminem, Snoop Dog or Kid Rock. We’re back to caveman times.”

“So you think the cavemen fucked with each other as much as we do?”

“Hell yes! After a long day of trying to invent the wheel and chasing pterodactyls, what else would they do?”

Buckley stared at Samuel and had nothing more to say. It was the pterodactyl comment that did it. Or was it the gay Kiss comment? Whatever it was, he was happy to dwell on the evilness of Richard Simmons or the homosexuality inherent in choosing to wear makeup as a rock star rather than dwelling on the grayish-red sludge that now covered his body. If he thought on it, he’d remember that he was infected and would most surely die. If he thought about it, he’d realize that the gray sludge was none other than the result of maggies coming into contact with the layer of salt that had surrounded him beneath the cellophane armor. If he thought on it, he’d recognize that the red tinge was from his own blood, seeping from exit wounds as the maggies escaped his body. So with studied persistence, he decided not to think on it, instead remembering the energy and vitality of Richard Simmons who’d once been the King of Infomercials and the salvation of fat chicks worldwide.

Back when there’d been infomercials.

Back when there’d been fat chicks.

CHAPTER 20

Thirty minutes later, Buckley had changed back into his clothes and once again stood in his little circle of salt by the door. The difference was that this time it was by choice. The sludge he’d wiped away had more than scared him. It had energized him. Time was as much an enemy as the maggies. If he was going to be any help saving these people he’d gathered together, he’d need to switch things into high gear.

He'd explained to MacHenry and the others his idea about the super soakers. Even now he and Gert were busy in the kitchen widening the holes the water fired through so they wouldn't get clogged with the salt crystals.

Meanwhile Samuel and Sissy were filling every container they could find with lighter fluid and salt water. Samuel had only managed to find about a dozen pints of the fuel in the Piggly Wiggly, but what they had was being put to good use. Buckley wished they had more, but there was nothing they could do about it. As it stood, even with the loaded water pistols and the Smokey Mountain Cocktails, they might not make it.

Then again, he reminded himself that he hadn't seen even one maggie on their recent excursion. A small silent part of him hoped that it was all over. Another larger part of him scolded him for even thinking such a thing.

Buckley's attention was drawn to Little Rashad who sat at the feet of Grandma Riggs. As she rocked in her chair staring at the blank television screen, he cleaned his trumpet. The boy's actions reminded Buckley of a soldier going out to war. Just as a soldier would lay out the pieces of his rifle — barrel, butt stock, magazine, firing pin, carriage assembly- Little Rashad had laid out the pieces of his trumpet. With wrinkled brow and pressed-together lips, the boy wiped each piece, then lay it down careful.

So much like a little soldier it was scary.

Truth be told, he was a soldier. His weapon, that trumpet and the notes he'd learned to play, were as deadly to the maggies as anything they had. In fact, if there was one weapon that could be said to be their weapon of last resort, it was the boy and his trumpet.

Thermo-nuclear Trumpet Player.

Buckley liked the sound of that. He was sure the boy would too. When it was all over, he'd share his private thoughts with the kid, if they lived.

Buckley looked at MacHenry again, now almost finished rigging the super soakers. He hadn't believed in the idea at first. Once they'd gathered together after the supply run, Samuel had made a beeline to the bags. While Buckley explained his salt-water propellant concept to MacHenry, Samuel had pulled one of the super soakers out of one of the bags. The high school jock had leveled the orange and green rifle at his hip and pretended to shoot down a line of people, ala gangster-style, sub-vocalizing the brraaaaap of the real life weapon.

MacHenry still didn't understand. "It's just a toy," he'd argued.

And grandma, in all of her magic wisdom had said the perfect thing that Buckley still remembered. "What better to kill things that aren’t supposed to exist than a toy gun that shoots water?"

To that MacHenry had no answer.

CHAPTER 21

An hour later they were ready to go.

They'd planned and prepared. But like green soldiers before a battle, none of them are sure how they'd act. Buckley could see it in their faces- their inability to look at each other, their shifting of feet, sweaty palms, and rapid breathing. But they were as ready as they could be. Now all of them wore the cellophane armor, a thin layer of salt like Kevlar between their skin and the plastic.

After inspecting each one of them, Buckley was finally ready for them to leave. With one last look behind him, he gave the command to leave.

Samuel kicked the door open revealing a hallway filled with the bodies of Bennie, Lashawna and Sally. Flesh stripped from the bones. Organs all but gone. All that was recognizable of Sally Struthers was her blonde hair.

Samuel and MacHenry left the apartment first, spraying liquid death from their Super Soaker water guns. The few maggies still clinging to walls in search of food sizzled as the water struck them.

Next in line came Buckley with Grandma Riggs taped into a kitchen chair that’d been roped to his back. With head down and his hands holding the ropes of the chair, he searched for any sign of the deadly creatures along the ground.

Close on his heels, Little Rashad held his trumpet to his lips, playing for all of his worth. The theme to Rocky filled the hall and stairwell, camouflaging the nervous screams of MacHenry and Samuel who were firing at every movement, flash of light and shadow.

Sissy and Gert exited last, covering the retreat with their own pair of Super Soakers. Their eyes were wide as they saw maggies in every nook and cranny. Sissy bit back a scream as she slipped on Sally Struthers’ hair. Gert kept glancing to the front, as worried for her man as she was for herself.

And as they began down the stairs, one voice rose above even the trumpet as Grandma Riggs began to sing.

Little Bunny Foo Foo,

Hopping through the forest,

Scooping up the field mice,

And bopping them on the head.

Halfway down the stairs, Samuel and MacHenry ran out of water. But they were prepared for that. Letting go their Super Soakers which fell to the length of the straps, they then pulled two more from their backs. Less than a second passed before their path was once again blessed with salt water.

Little Bunny Foo Foo,

Hopping through the forest,

Scooping up the field mice,

And bopping them on the head.

Just as they exited the building, the great pulsating maw of a caddie reached from around a corner and sheared off the upper half of Samuel. Blood fountained once from his upright legs then lost interest. What remained of the boy fell to the ground.

MacHenry halted in pure shock and stared first at the boy who'd so recently fucked with him, and then into the maw of the slaverous caddie. Pieces of Samuel dripped onto him, the suddenness of the death temporarily stunning him.

Finally Buckley broke the spell. "Caddie!"

MacHenry came to his senses in time to scream. Gert fired her super soaker catching the creature behind the head, causing it to jerk away as wide lines of smoke marked the damage. Buckley somehow managed to both hang onto Grandma Riggs and jerk MacHenry away. After a few seconds, MacHenry gathered himself and fired his own super soaker, his salt-infused water adding to the damage.

And down came the good fairy,

and she says…

Little Bunny Foo Foo,

I don't want to see you,

Scooping up the field mice,

And bopping them on the head.

Grandma's singing stalled as Buckley stumbled. He managed to catch himself, but not before he sent Grandma Riggs glasses flying and her carefully coifed blue hair sliding to the side, her wig unveiling itself.

"Run!" He screamed.

Momentarily stunned by the attack, the caddie backed away. But the pain enraged it, and before long it propelled itself towards them, lumbering nearly as fast as they could run.

The group sprinted past Samuel and into the streets. Sissy, who'd lit a Carolina cocktail, hurled it at the creature as she passed, catching it full in the side. The cocktail exploded on impact, meat from the caddie showering them like an abattoir hail.

Sissy pumped her arm once in victory, then hurried to catch up with the group.

CHAPTER 22

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,

Mutilated monkey meat, Chopped-up dirty birdies' feet.

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,

And me without a spoon.

Over and over Grandma Riggs sang the grotesque children’s verse as Buckley carried her through the rubble-strewn streets at a dead run. For almost an hour, with Grandma Riggs sitting in her chair facing backwards, she’d alternated between singing, cackling and begging for just a little more crack.

Her arms had been too brittle and weak for her to be able to hold onto him, so they’d duct taped her to a chair which they'd then affixed to his back with lengths of rope. Even now as he ran, however, the rope around his chest and waist sawed back and forth. He was certain that the skin beneath the rope was gone, leaving a set of long bleeding wounds.

They were headed for the ocean. They’d been only a few miles away from the shore and the idea had hit them that if the Maggies had such trouble with salt, the ocean would be like acid. Hope was kindled as they all realized that fully two-thirds of the planet was safe for humanity. Perhaps even islands were habitable. Hurricanes, once seen as the bane of the North Carolina Coast and the Outer Banks, suddenly took on Old Testament connotations promising to cleanse the earth of evil. Had the great flood been for this very purpose? Had the Maggies been here before?

Buckley turned for a second, pausing to catch his breath and work out the knot in his side. He watched as Gert leaned back like a center fielder and hurled a North Carolina Cocktail at the last caddie still on their trail. The glass bottle containing salt and lighter fluid arched high into the air, then fell, striking the Cadillac-sized maggie on its back and exploding as the burning rag ignited the gasoline, immediately causing an eruption of blood and flesh and maggie guts.

Mark another one for the human team.

MacHenry, winded but grinning from ear to ear, ran up, grabbed Buckley’s elbow and helped propel him along. Even overloaded as he was with cloth bags filled with Carolina Cocktails, he was less burdened than Buckley.

“Thanks man,” Buckley wheezed. “She’s heavy and I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“Giddyup! Move it horsy! Giddyup!” came the commands from his back. Grandma's heels dug into his back as she tried to urge him forward with her kicks.

Buckley rolled his eyes.

“None of us are.” Then MacHenry's smile fell. "Fucked up what happened to Samuel."

"I didn't think you cared," Buckley said, not really meaning it. "The way he fucked with you."

"That wasn't a big deal. He was just scared is all. It was his way to bleed off stress. Me, I got to have sex, so who am I to complain."

"It could just have easily have been you," Buckley said.

"Don't I know it." MacHenry shook his head. "I don't know what to say about that."

“Really? I thought you'd be disappointed you aren’t dead yet? I mean this ain’t exactly going out in style. This isn't jumping off the top rope.”

“What the hell are you talking about? This IS going out in style. I’ve always loved those suicide rides like the Charge of the Light Brigade; how against all odds, with death a certainty they rode as a unit into the face of the enemy for God, country and comrades. Into the Valley of death and all that shit.” He turned to glance behind him, ensuring Gert was in stride. “Oh yeah,” he grinned broadly, leaning over to kiss the woman who’d become his truest love. “I definitely feel like Johnny Storm right now. How about you? You feeling heroic? You feeling like Ben Grimm?”

“I don’t think he ever felt heroic, you know?”

“No?”

“I think he was just tired of it all; of all the violence and death.”

“Well, maybe not, but you sure kick ass like he did and are just as strong.”

“Strength is relative.”

As if to prove MacHenry’ point, over the cacophony of crumbling buildings and screaming friends, Buckley heard Grandma Riggs ordering a pizza with pineapple and anchovies on an imaginary cell phone, reminding him that he was an Atlas, doomed to carry the fate of the world upon his shoulders, or at the very least, a crack-addled grandma.

Their portable soundtrack provided the maniacal background music to their flight as Grandma Riggs sang over and over -

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,

Mutilated monkey meat, Chopped-up dirty birdies' feet.

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,

And me without a spoon.

Ten blocks later, it was plain that they wouldn’t be able to run all the way. It was just too far. Twice, Buckley had stumbled struggling to hold both him and his passenger upright. MacHenry and Gert were both limping as legs more used to other, more supine, activities suddenly found themselves pounding vertical.

They had to stop.

CHAPTER 23

Five minutes later they came to a secluded corner. They'd left the caddies far behind. Only the occasional crunch reminded them that the beasts still existed, and during the intervening silence one could be lulled into the belief that the world hadn't ended. Looking around at the burned out hulks of cars, shattered windows and the debris-strewn streets, Buckley could almost convince himself that they'd just survived another hurricane. Such meteorological confluences were so common in Wilmington that nary a year went by without some sort of storm that ripped away roofs, blew out windows and created devastation of Irwin Allen proportions.

"Let's stop here." Buckley sagged to a curb and leaned back so the feet of the chair rested evenly on the sidewalk. He was beat. Too tired even to loosen his load, he sagged, his lids barely open, his breathing lost in an avalanche of gasps.

MacHenry and Gert bent at the waist, holding each other and gasping.

Sissy knelt where she stopped, her head down, shoulders shaking with small sobs.

Little Rashad stared into the night, wide-eyed.

MacHenry stood and looked back the way they'd come. "One by one. Just like in the movies."

Gert joined him. "First Lashawna, then Bennie, and now Samuel."

"Don’t forget Sally," Little Rashad added.

MacHenry reached over and ruffled the boy’s head. "That’s right. And good old Sally, too." MacHenry stared behind him a moment longer, then turned towards Sissy, Grandma and Buckley. "And then there were six."

Gert frowned. "Morbid."

"That’s me. Morbid MacHenry."

The old whore leaned into the used car salesman and they held each other in the middle of the empty street. A breeze stirred the detritus, swirling papers like they were leaves on a cool fall day in a place where hope still existed and love had a future. They closed their eyes. Gert's face pressed against MacHenry's chest. His chin rested on her head.

Minutes passed until Little Rashad broke the silence. "Where'd everybody go?"

"Eaten, most likely," MacHenry said without opening his eyes.

"Or worse," Gert said, her eyes flashing momentarily to Buckley.

"What could possibly be more worse than being eaten?" MacHenry asked.

"I'm not the one you should-"

Sissy shot straight up and chopped the air with both hands. She screamed, her voice cracking as it journeyed the unknown roads of anger and despair. "Shut up! Just shut up, will you?" Sissy slammed her hands to her head and leaned back against a light pole. Her arms wrapped her body as she fought to control the shaking. "How can you joke about this?" she sobbed.

Buckley roused himself from his half slumber, witnessing the girl's breakdown.

MacHenry seemed as if he was going to say something, but decided against it.

Grandma Riggs stirred. Buckley felt her movement on his back as if it were his own. The old woman held out her arms for Sissy. "Come here, baby."

Seeing this grandmotherly motion, Sissy stumbled into the old woman's embrace, shaking her head, tears flinging. Buckley groaned with the added weight, but said nothing. He tried to look back and see, but his neck wouldn't twist that far.

"Easy girl. Easy now. We talked about this."

"I know, but…"

"But what, baby."

"I don’t wanna die."

Grandma Riggs laughed low. "That decision’s been taken out of your hands. Jesus up and changed everything and didn’t think to ask our opinions. I told you, it’s up to us."

"But it’s so unfair."

"I suppose it is. I suppose it is. But, then now your challenge is to die right."

Sissy lifted her head from Grandma Riggs’ shoulder and stared with incomprehension into the old woman’s face. She searched the old eyes for awhile, then shook her head. "But I thought you said-"

"I know." Grandma Riggs petted Sissy's hair, smoothing the tangles with her crooked arthritic fingers. I know. Hell, I don’t even know why you’re listening to this crack-addled old broad."

"But-"

"But what?" She shook the girl and pushed her at arm’s length. "You want the secret? You want the knowledge of the pharaohs? You want to know what every man, woman and child has begged to know since time first started its infernal ticking? Okay, then try this on for size. You're gonna die. That's it. There's nothing you or I can do about it. So deal with it girl. Plan on dying, so if you live it’ll be a surprise."

Sissy stared as if struck.

Buckley closed his eyes, afraid to move.

MacHenry was the first to speak. "She’s right. Plan the way you’re gonna die. You don’t want to die afraid…" He glanced at Gert who was staring over his shoulder into the past. "Hell, we got enough time to prepare, you know? It shouldn't come as much of a surprise."

Grandma Riggs nodded. "Ask Mr. Adamski. He knows."

When Buckley didn't say anything, the old woman spoke for him, her old voice lending authority to the words. "Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Sissy lowered her head to the old woman's shoulder as she listened.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Gert began to cry as the poem continued, her soft keen enough to break Buckley's heart. Yet the old woman's gravel voice held them in thrall as the poem moved towards its climax

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The silence that followed was filled with everyone's thoughts of mortality. Buckley wondered how Dylan Thomas could have said things so perfectly. What had occurred in his life that he'd understood the hopelessness and need to fight the unfightable so well? Certainly not the end of the world, but something so personally devastating that a slim white man dipped in Welsh beer and kidney pudding could say it better than anyone else left alive.

"So there’s no chance," Sissy whispered.

Not even a wisp of a hope, thought Buckley.

He watched as MacHenry and Gert shook their heads in silent acknowledgment of the truth.

"Exactly. So concern yourself with death now, not with life."

"But-"

"But nothing. See? This is quite an opportunity. You get to decide how you’re gonna die. Sometimes that's more important than anything else."

"You’re not making this up?"

Grandma Riggs lifted her head and looked to where MacHenry stood. Their eyes met. "Mr. MacHenry, tell Sissy your philosophy."

"Mine?" MacHenry looked to Buckley who shook his head.

"Yours," Grandma replied.

"Flame on," he grinned.

"What?" Sissy's forehead crinkled.

"Flame on. Live fast. Die on my own terms. Johnny Storm." He shrugged. "It’s a comic book thing."

"Mr. Adamski? What do you say to Sissy?" Grandma prodded.

"Do not go gently. Flame on. It’s all the same thing," he said.

"Gertrude?"

"Flame on, honey. Flame on."

"What about me?" Little Rashad asked, stepping forward with his trumpet in his hands.

Grandma Riggs appraised him with blind eyes. "What about you?"

"Am I gonna die too?"

Grandma Riggs grinned. "Probably. Maybe. You scared?"

"Not as much as I used to be."

"There you go. Maybe you can talk to Sissy," Grandma Riggs said.

Little Rashad examined the young blonde woman with surprisingly old eyes. Dropping his trumpet to dangle at the end of a rope tied around his neck, he offered Sissy his hand. "Mr. Adamski taught me about ‘awakes.’ He said it was important to celebrate the life, not the death."

"It’s a wake, son."

The boy frowned and glared at Buckley. "That’s what I said." To Sissy he added, "You tell me what you liked about Samuel and I’ll tell you what I liked about Sally."

Sissy stared at the boy, then wiped the tears from her eyes. She managed a weak smile and allowed the boy to lead her to the curb a ways down, where they both sat.

From this distance, Buckley couldn't hear more than their muffled words, but it was clear that the boy had made some kind of connection with the young woman. "You aren’t as crazy as you seem," he murmured to Grandma Riggs.

"Yes I am."

"I bet you were a great teacher."

"I was the best."

"You still are."

With his neck craned, Buckley waited for a reply, but there wasn't any. Instead, he heard the cackle of laughter and the sound of a lighter followed by the harsh whisper of a crack pipe.

CHAPTER 24

They'd been walking for twenty minutes with Sissy now in the lead. After Little Rashad had spoken with her, she'd stood away from the group for awhile. When she'd returned, a flinty hardness inhabited her eyes, determination in her gaze.

Buckley trudged slightly hunched as he carried Grandma Riggs. Maggies had begun to pop along his lower back, escaping the salt-laced cellophane to fall sizzling to the ground. He'd tried to stop to fix the rent in the cellophane, but Grandma Riggs wouldn't let him. 'Let it be,' she'd said, so he'd trudged on.

Little Rashad followed with one hand grasping one of the chair legs, oblivious to Buckley's leavings. The boy was so exhausted, all he could do was allow himself to be led without care for reason nor destination, his eyes on a far away horizon.

Last came MacHenry and Gert, whispering softly to each other and laughing at some private joke or another. They seemed more like teenage lovers than doomed souls. Then again, teenagers were doomed souls.

The streets hadn't gotten any better. Once busy thoroughfares had become parking lots. Car doors had been left open. Bodies lay exploded where they’d fallen. They'd passed a Volvo with an open back door. Buckley didn't want to remember the blue and white plastic rattle that angled out from the pile of sludge in the baby seat. Volvos were supposed to be the safest car. Even at the end of the world a family deserved the expectation of safety. Yet even as he thought it, he realized how horribly manic it was to think that way, a part of him coming unhinged-or maybe too much secondhand crack smoke.

Caddies roamed like rare cattle munching on buildings as if they were tufts of wheat grass. The original maggies, the small name-sakes, were thankfully few. They depended upon human hosts it seemed and the one thing lacking in Wilmington these days were humans. Shops stood empty, windows shattered at intervals making the facade of a wealthy street seem more like a good-natured hooker with a broken-toothed grin.

At Seventh Street, a school bus had plowed into a fire hydrant, long gone dry. Schoolbooks and backpacks colored the street like sprinkled confetti. Here and there bones and hair, mingled with mud that had most probably pooled when the hydrant had first geysered free. Pooled, because of the gaping hole that had been torn in the road, by what, Buckley could only imagine. Filled to the top with red muddy water, the breeze stirred the surface like a lake. Miniature whitecaps formed, revealing skeletal hands and the occasional fleshy skull in the troughs of the waves. On the ground surrounding this earthy cauldron, red and black skirts flittered along on greedy winds like tumbleweeds. Buckley stared at a particular skeletal hand poking free of the water and couldn't help but sense that if the hand's owner were merely drowning, he could pull him or her to safety.

Everyone had stopped and stared at the scene knowing that the children had died, their remnants so unsentimentally strewn seemed disrespectful. Gert had moved to pick up one of the skirts as it drifted by, but MacHenry pulled her back. When they finally moved away, they were a more somber pair, the idea of a busload of children dying so horribly coating their conscience with hot slimy details.

With heads slung low, the group continued on another ten minutes, before they found a space devoid of death. Sissy paused and looked around. "I think we should stop here, huh?"

Buckley nodded. "Good idea."

Sissy, Gert and MacHenry took the opportunity to check their Super Soakers. MacHenry worked the mechanisms, while Gert pulled out some bags of salt. Here and there water had puddled from the run-off from Seventh Street, but out of respect for the dead, they left these alone. Instead they checked the radiators of the cars, draining them into the rifles. As they worked, all of them kept an eye on the buildings.

Little Rashad, Buckley and Grandma Riggs, who was fast asleep, plopped down in the shadow of a store front. A sign in the window read — PAULINE’S PULLED PORK. As Buckley finally divested himself of Grandma's chair, setting it none too gently on the ground and untying the ropes, he made smacking sounds with his lips. "Mmmm. Mmmm. I could do with some Barbecue. What about you, kid?"

"I could eat a whole pig," Little Rashad said.

"I’m with ya. What do you think the odds are that we can get us some pulled pork sandwiches, potato salad and a cold soda?"

MacHenry crossed the street and sat heavily beside Buckley. He glanced at the storefront, then shook his head. "Dream on, Adamski. Your days of pulled pork and ribs are over."

"Now that would be a reason not to go on living."

"It can't all be that bad," MacHenry said.

"It's not." Buckley smiled wistfully. "I'm just talking because I'm too tired to do anything else."

MacHenry glanced at Grandma sleeping in her chair. "Old Lady's heavy, isn't she," he said.

MacHenry nodded. "Anyone would be heavy after all the running we did. This back wasn't meant for transporting people. Hell, sometimes I do well just to get out of bed."

"How's the infection?"

"Not as bad as I thought it would be. I'm wondering if maybe the maggies have a set lifespan, because frankly, I should be dead by now."

"Set lifespan? You getting science fiction on me?"

"Kind of. Yeah, I suppose I am. Follow me if you will." Earlier Buckley had refused to believe that maggies had evolved from anything other than pure evil. But the more he saw, the more logic dictated something else. No matter how he hated Star Trek logic, he found himself embracing the possibility. "What if this is some sort of invasion, or even better, terraforming? What's the first thing someone would want to get rid of if they were going to take over the planet?"

"Reality Television?"

"Seriously." Buckley pointed at himself, MacHenry and the others. "Us. People. They'd want to get rid of all the people." Buckley chuckled. "That reality television comment was funny, by the way."

"Thanks," MacHenry deadpanned.

"The small ones came first almost wiping out the population. Hell, as far as we know, we're all that's left. With the exception of you guys, we haven't seen anyone else."

"Then came the caddies." MacHenry nodded slowly to himself. "Those things are here to eat the buildings. And if I take your theory to its natural conclusion, then the caddies are here to cleanse the earth of all structures."

"Removing the evidence of our existence so that someone else can build."

"Or someTHING else."

"Yeah."

"Damn. That's fucked up."

Buckley plucked a maggie from his neck and pressed it into the sidewalk with his hand. "Makes you wonder who it is that's making it all fucked up."

"You don't believe in fate? Or that God did this?"

"What'd we ever do to God to make it this bad?" Buckley jerked his thumb at Little Rashad. "What did he ever do to God? No way. This isn't about God. It's about something else, something else entirely."

"What about fate?"

"Bull shit. Fate's nothing more than a four letter word created by people who don't know how to use their brain." Making a face like a spastic child, "I tripped and fell down. It's fate. I didn't win the ball game. It's fate. I didn't get that scholarship. It's-"

"Lemme guess," MacHenry interrupted. "Fate."

Buckley rolled his eyes and nodded.

"I've always thought that fate was the invention of underachievers," MacHenry said. "I didn't succeed. It must have been fate, because it couldn't have had anything to do with the fact that I wasn't smart enough, strong enough or good enough."

Buckley held out his hand for a low five, which MacHenry accepted. "On that topic, you and I are in one hundred percent agreement, brother."

They were silent for a few moments, watching Sissy and Gert handle the water. The two had a system. Sissy would approach the car, and pop the hood, keeping her super soaker trained on the interior. Then Gert would unscrew both the radiator cap on top and the drain plug beneath. The green-colored water would be caught in a short bucket that fit neatly between the radiator and the street.

"So what you're saying," MacHenry said, "Is that this is some sort of War of the World's event. Instead of tripods, we have maggies, is that it?"

"I suppose that's one way to put it." Buckley stood up and adjusted the cellophane from where it had fallen away. "But then I'm just a garbage man. What the fuck do I know?"

"And I'm a used car salesman."

"To think that we're the brain trust that's supposed to figure out this mess."

"If that's the case," MacHenry said, getting to his feet. "Then we are most surely fucked."

CHAPTER 25

"I've been thinking, Mr. Adamski."

Both MacHenry and Buckley turned to where the kid stood.

"What about the freezers?"

"Freezers?" MacHenry repeated.

"Yeah. How long does it take for them to cool off? I wonder if some of the restaurants still have food in them."

"Like this one," Buckley said in an almost reverent whisper. "Just think, kegs of BBQ sauce and freshly thawed racks of ribs. We could have a BBQ. Sure would do a lot for our morale."

"Are you kidding? We're only taking a break, not a sabbatical." Looking up and down the street, then at the afternoon sky, MacHenry added, "A caddie could come along any minute, and between you and me, I don't want to be out here come nightfall.

"Yeah. I know. I was just dreaming is all."

"So we're not going to check the freezer?" Little Rashad asked.

Buckley shook his head. "Probably rotten by now."

"Probably?" MacHenry scoffed. "Does the pope wear bunny slippers?"

"You know, I liked you better when you cared for fuck. Love and living has made you cynical," Buckley said.

"We have a problem you boys are forgetting," Gert said crossing the street to where the men stood.

"What's that, dear?"

"We didn’t pack any food," she said with arms crossed.

Buckley and MacHenry stared at each other, then cursed simultaneously.

"Freudian," Buckley murmured. "Like our subconscious knew we didn’t plan on living."

"Suddenly I'm real hungry," MacHenry said.

"A side effect of staying alive is hunger."

"I can live with that kind of side effect as long as I get a sandwich."

Buckley stared hard at the window of the BBQ joint. "Freud might know what's inside our heads but he can't make a sandwich."

MacHenry caught Gert's wave out of the corner of his eye. He raised his eyebrows, looked from Buckley to Gert, then seemed to make a decision. "We’re gonna be here for a few minutes, right?"

Buckley laughed. "You're asking me? I think so."

"Good." MacHenry hurried across the street to join Gert.

Buckley's jaw dropped. "Now?"

MacHenry turned and glared at Buckley as if the man had been smoking some of Grandma Riggs’ crack. "What? We're supposed to do it later?"

Buckley tried to make his mouth form a word, any word, finally he gave up as all it could manage was an exasperated Puh-lease!

MacHenry snatched Gert into his arms, whispered in her ear and kissed her along the length of her neck. She twirled his hair in her fingers as she hugged him close. After a moment, they grabbed some freshly-filled Super Soakers and entered the building nearest them.

Buckley sighed.

Little Rashad pointed to the doorway the pair had just gone through. "Where are they going? They getting some food? They getting something to eat?"

Buckley glared at the doorway, then at Little Rashad. Sissy walked across the street about the time he answered the boy's question. "You want to know where they're going? They're going to have sex. Hot, passionate and amazingly inappropriate S — E — X!"

Sissy gaped. "What? You didn't just tell-"

Little Rashad’s face reddened.

Buckley shrugged dramatically. "What?"

"What?" Sissy repeated. "Isn't he a little young?"

"At this point what does it matter? If they didn't want him to know, they shouldn't have been cavorting like a couple of frenzied, fucking rabbits."

Sissy looked at Buckley much like his mother used to when he'd done something wrong and he just didn't realize it. Then she sighed, and moved over to Grandma Riggs where she wiped drool from the side of the woman's face.

"I see Twinkies," Little Rashad said.

Buckley's stomach jerked and his eyes shot wide. "No you don’t."

"Yes I do."

"I’d kill for a Twinkie."

"It's right there," pointed Little Rashad. "I don't think you'll have to kill anybody."

Buckley followed the kid's arm and saw the golden, finger-long snack cake and decided right there and now that if Gert and MacHenry could have crazy, end-of-the-world, monkey sex, then he could at least have a Twinkie. He snatched one of the Super Soakers from the sidewalk, checked to make sure it had been freshly reloaded, then cocked it until there was enough pressure to fire. Grabbing a flashlight from his waist, he turned it on. With flashlight in hand and the rifle cocked on a hip, he turned to Little Rashad. "I'm going Twinkie hunting. Who's with me?"

Sissy rolled her eyes, but Little Rashad brightened and jumped at the chance for sugary sweets. He handed Sissy his trumpet, grabbed a Super Soaker of his own, pumped it like he saw Buckley, then fell in beside the older man.

"I'm with you, Mr. Adamski."

"Good boy. Cover my back and I'll catch you a Twinkie."

Without waiting for an answer, Buckley strode into Pauline's Place. Most of the tables were still standing. Only one body littered the floor, but flesh and maggies were long gone. Whoever had been the unlucky soul, he'd been picked clean and rendered skeletal. A pinball game with the words DEATH RACE 2000 and a garish depiction of David Carradine mowing down an old lady with a shopping cart squatted near the door. Beside the long counter that separated the serving area from the cooking area stood a tall rack of plastic encased confections. It was to this rack they strode. When they arrived, both Buckley and Little Rashad stopped and stared. There wasn't just one Twinkie, there were dozens- a virtual Twinkie Eldorado. Buckley grinned from ear to ear.

Each of them ripped one open, stuffing the golden cakes into their mouths, the white filling squishing free. Buckley grabbed two more, and shoved them one after the other, until his face was chipmunk full.

When he finally swallowed, he shook his head and smiled. "Let's get these out of here. I bet the others will want some."

They began stacking Twinkies into their arms and were about halfway done, when a sound intruded upon their gluttony.

"Did you hear that?" Little Rashad asked.

Muffled pounding from deep inside the restaurant.

"There it was again."

Buckley heard it this time. He dropped his cache of Twinkies and snatched his Super Soaker from where it leaned against the counter. "Who goes there?"

Little Rashad had paused in mid-bite. A half-eaten Twinkie poked from his mouth as he stared at Buckley. Several seconds passed as Buckley scanned the back of the store. Seeing nothing, he lowered the weapon.

"What was it?" Little Rashad asked, from around the edges of the confection.

"Dunno. Thought I heard something." Staring at the pile of half-crushed Twinkies on the floor, Buckley sighed and bent down to retrieve them. "Give me a hand. I can't pick up all of-"

The sound of pounding erupted from the back.

Buckley whirled to the sound, his rifle leveled.

Little Rashad gulped the remains of the Twinkie and fumbled with his own rifle. By the fear etched on his face, it was clear that he'd never meant to trade his safety for a golden sponge cake with creamy filling.

"This time I know I heard something," Buckley said. "What about you? Did you hear something?"

Little Rashad nodded rapidly.

Buckley switched the flashlight back on. Holding it over the barrel of the Super Soaker, he panned it across the back of the store. The light illuminated a wall locker, a walk-in freezer and a back door. The light danced back and forth between these three things as Buckley edged slowly forward.

"Who’s there?" he called again.

Creeping only an inch at a time, he arrived at the door to the outside first. Checking it, he discovered that the deadbolt was set from the inside. Nothing could get in that way unless he opened the door, something he didn't plan on doing. He placed his ear to the wood as he panned his light back to where the boy stood at the front of the store. Buckley raised his voice, packing as much authority into it as he could. "Come on, if you’re here, let us know. We’re not going to hurt you."

Nothing.

After several seconds he moved on. Next in line was the walk-in freezer. Checking the door, he saw that the latch was engaged, promising that whatever was inside, if something was inside, was locked inside. He placed his ear against the cool metal of the freezer door, listening for any whisper of noise, any indication that something was inside.

"Olly Olly Oxen Free," Buckley screamed as he grinned at Little Rashad. "Come out, come out, wherever you are."

Five seconds passed. Just as he was about to pull away, Buckley jerked back as pounding from the other side of the door erupted. He spun, slipping and twisting as he went down in a pile of broken plates and crashing silverware. A brace of pans clattered to the floor with a deafening chorus of rings and clangs. Buckley spun reflexively and fired a burst of water at the metal freezer door. The water dribbled harmlessly to the floor.

Over his shoulder Buckley whispered, "Get Sissy in here."

"I’m here. What’s going on?"

Buckley swung the light to the doorway and illuminated Sissy. She'd come a long way this journey. No longer was she the wilting wallflower. She'd become something else, something more mature. She was GI Barbie, with kung fu grip and ready for combat, crouched in the doorway, sighting along the length of her Super Soaker.

"Find some Maggies?"

Buckley swung the beam back to the freezer door. "I don’t know what I found."

"There’s something in there," Little Rashad whispered. "And it knocks."

Sissy stood straight and began to walk into the room. She lowered her rifle. "Then there's no problem."

Buckley eyed the door. "How do you know?"

"Maggies don’t knock."

Buckley blinked twice, then stood slowly. "Very true."

"Well?" Sissy asked. "Are we going to open it?"

Buckley watched as a Maggie popped free of his trigger finger and fell to the floor. He stomped it. "Yeah. You better cover me just in case, though."

Sissy sauntered over to the island where the dishes had been stacked and took up position. On her knees, she rested the barrel of the Super Soaker across the metal surface, aiming directly at the door. She snapped her flashlight on and set it on the counter beside her, illuminating the latch. "You open the door, Mr. Adamski, and I’ll squirt whatever’s inside. If it’s human, they won’t mind a little salt water. If it's something worse, well, let's hope they have the same aversion to salt as the maggies."

Not sure if he liked the new Sissy, Buckley stepped back to the door. He gripped the latch, careful to leave Sissy a line of fire. He took several deep breaths.

"On my count of three," Sissy said. "Ready?"

Buckley nodded as sweat and a pair of maggies dripped from his forehead. Ignoring them, he remembered the last time they opened a door with someone knocking on the other side.

"One."

Buckley, Samuel and Bennie prepare to open the door. MacHenry holds dead Lashawna. Sally Struthers’ screams can be heard from the other side.

"Two."

Bennie opens the door revealing Sally Struthers, her face a colander of maggie holes. Blood and skin drip from her body as she’s consumed and crazed.

"Three."

Buckley flung open the door and pinned himself to the wall behind it. A tiny creature stood in the doorway, illuminated by Sissy's light. It screamed. Blonde hair and blue eyes, she couldn't have been more than seven years old.

Aiming like a sniper, Sissy squirted salt water directly into the girl’s face. The screaming stopped as the little girl began to gasp for air.

There was no sizzle.

CHAPTER 26

While the little girl named Nikki Oliveri introduced herself to the group, Buckley drank from a gallon jug of salt water. Although his gut was filled to bursting, he had to raise the sodium level of his blood. The maggies were coming fast and furious now. The last thing he needed was to end up like Sally Struthers, his recent memory of her death reminding him of how bad it could get. And thankfully, no one paid attention to him. Instead, all eyes were on the new addition to the group who sat on the curb with Little Rashad beside her, pleased to pass her Twinkies and a warm can of soda. The boy couldn't help but grin from ear to ear.

Finally the girl came up for air. "I didn’t think I’d be able to eat again. Everything was rotting and…"

Sissy knelt behind the girl and laid her weapon on the ground. "There, there. It’s all going to be good now. I won’t let you die, honey."

Buckley stared at Sissy in wonderment.

Gert and MacHenry exchanged a private look.

Grandma Riggs hummed an aimless tune to herself.

They all heard the sound of a caddie feeding on a building several blocks away, but couldn't take their eyes of Sissy.

"That’s what my Mommy always said," Nikki whispered.

"She kept her promise, didn’t she?"

"I guess so. I just…I just…"

"Miss them. I know," Little Rashad said. "Me too."

Nikki stared at the boy.

"My Dad died when I was five. A car accident. My Mom died couple of days ago. No big deal."

A building collapsed somewhere on the next block. Buckley took one more swig of water, then put it away. It would have to do.

MacHenry spoke first. "Thing’s getting closer. We should get a move on."

"Give me a hand with Grandma," Buckley said to MacHenry.

"And then there was Sally," Little Rashad continued. "I need to tell you about Sally sometime."

"Was she someone special?" Nikki asked.

"Oh yeah."

"We need to get going," Gert said nervously.

Sissy patted Nikki and Little Rashad on their backs. "Come on kids. Get your stuff together."

MacHenry and Sissy finished laying the duct tape and tying the ropes that affixed Grandma Riggs to her chair.

When Buckley tried to stand, he groaned.

"You know? Either she’s heavier or I’m weaker."

"Stop talking like I’m not here," Grandma Riggs said.

They got into formation. MacHenry and Gert took point. Little Rashad held Nikki’s hand, and the pair walked in front of Buckley, still struggling with Grandma Riggs on his back. Sissy brought up the rear, occasionally turning and scanning the street along the length of her rifle. After fifteen feet or so Grandma Riggs kicked Buckley in the back with a heel. "And I ain’t heavier."

Buckley chuckled. "I know Grandma. I know."

CHAPTER 27

Night fell hard on the heels of a caddie going up in flame. Since then, they'd been alternately running and walking, the ocean seeming never to get closer. In the distance, under a cloudless Milky Way sky, they could see several immense caddies grazing on a row of condos.

Other than panting and the occasional curse, Grandma Riggs voice was the only thing they heard.

The old gander's weeping,

the old gander's weeping.

The old gander's weeping,

because his wife is dead.

She died in the mill pond,

she died in the mill pond.

She died in the mill pond,

from standing on her head.

Gert was limping badly. Every time MacHenry tried to help her, she shrugged him off. They fell back to the rear as they argued, trading places with Sissy who took up position in front of the group.

After a few minutes, MacHenry jogged up to Buckley. He grabbed one of Grandma Riggs’ chair legs and lifted it to help Buckley with the load.

"How long do you think?"

"Dunno," Buckley said.

"Mind if we stop for a bit?"

"Don't think so. We need to keep going."

Go tell Aunt Rhody,

go tell Aunt Rhody.

Go tell Aunt Rhody,

the old gray goose is dead.

MacHenry glanced up at Grandma Riggs in irritation, and was confronted by her blind stare. He stopped and let Buckley continue on, the old woman staring and singing. MacHenry couldn't help but believe the song was about him.

Nikki and Little Rashad trudged past him.

"We’re not going to make it," Nikki said.

"Yes we are. Sally told me that even when it seems as if there’s no hope, it’s really there, only invisible."

Nikki shook her head. "There ain’t no such thing as invisible."

"That’s what I told her. And do you know what she said?"

"No. What?"

"She said that a month ago there was no such thing as Maggies." Little Rashad nodded wisely. He adjusted his grip on his trumpet.

Nikki wrinkled her forehead. "What does that prove?"

"Proves things can be invisible."

Half a mile later, they turned onto Highway 74 to Wrightsville Beach. This was the main drag and would take them past Lees Cut to Harbor Island and then to Wrightsville Beach where their optimism rested in the exquisite form of the Atlantic Ocean. But where their trek had been fairly easy going in the city, 74 was packed with wrecked and abandoned cars.

They finally halted near a billboard where a pickup truck had crashed through a smiling skull holding out a cigarette on skeletal arms. The billboard read- CIGARETTES: THE NUMBER ONE KILLER IN AMERICA.

Just as Buckley laughed, Gert stumbled and fell. She grimaced as she tried to stand. MacHenry moved to help her. She grinned miserably as she labored to her feet, then fell again.

"I can’t go any farther," she sobbed. "Something’s wrong. My feet feel funny."

"Oh, Babe," MacHenry said. "You’ve gotta get up. We’re almost there. Hell, you can smell the ocean."

Gert closed her eyes. "I just want to sleep. I want to rest."

"It's almost over, baby." MacHenry whispered, smoothing her hair. "It's almost over.

Little Rashad and Nikki stood closest to the pair.

"He's right," Little Rashad said. "I can smell it, too."

"Reminds me of summer," Nikki said.

Buckley found a curb and squatted. The chair Grandma Riggs was taped to rode so high on his back he was forced to lean a little before the legs met the pavement. When they did he slumped, grateful for the slack and removal of the weight.

"We’ll rest a minute here. Kid, get Grandma some water and then help her with the lighter. I think she needs some more crack. Eyes gotta be hurting her by now."

"Don’t be trying to get me loaded, Mr. Adamski. No matter what you do, I can promise that I do not fornicate on a first date."

Nikki stared in shock.

Sissy, Buckley and MacHenry grinned. Gert shook her head. Little Rashad was so embarrassed a blush crept up his neck.

"So don’t be getting your hopes up," she added.

"I bet you were something in your day, Grandma." To Little Rashad he whispered, "Scratch the crack, Kid. I think she’s had enough. Just give her some water."

"And don’t you be worrying about my eyes. I can see better than I ever. You should attend to Mr. MacHenry. He's about to be thunder whipped."

Buckley frowned as he tried to decipher that last bit.

MacHenry massaged Gert’s shoulders where she lay. He spoke to her both softly and urgently. She shook her head in response, her shoulder's shaking as she sobbed.

Little Rashad arrived with a bota bag of water, which Buckley passed to Grandma Riggs. "How are your lips, kid? I think we’re gonna be needing them pretty soon."

"Okay, I guess."

"Better massage them or pucker them or do whatever you do. When it's time to blow, we're going to need you ready."

Suddenly the sound of laughter interrupted. Buckley and the boy turned to the sounds of Sissy and Nikki giggling by the side of the road, their heads together like school girls.

"She seems nice."

"She doesn’t know much," Little Rashad said.

"Guess you need to show her the ropes."

"I guess I can do that." He turned to look at Buckley. "But…"

"Naw. We ain’t playing with buts. All of us are concentrating on you kids making it. You’re the future."

"Just me and her? Ain’t much of a future," Little Rashad frowned.

"Hey! Your future’s as good-"

Buckley had intended on saying something more, but choked as a Maggie popped through the skin of his esophagus and into his throat. He coughed it into his hand and threw it angrily to the ground where it curled and slithered in the night air. Buckley stomped it dead, smearing it along the ground. Not satisfied, he spat on it for good measure.

Grandma Riggs offered her crack pipe. "Want some of this, boy? It takes away the pain."

Buckley shook his head. "So does a.357 Magnum."

CHAPTER 28

MacHenry rolled a wheel he'd found beside a nearby wreck over to where Gert had fallen. With his help, she managed to sit on the edge of the rubber.

"Jesus, but my feet hurt," she whimpered. "Help me with my boots, baby."

Gert began to unloosen the knots on the work boots, as MacHenry knelt in front of her. He watched as each lace came free, apprehension carving his frown.

From the other side of the street Buckley whispered, "Get ready, Grandma. We’re leaving here in a few minutes."

Another Maggie popped free from Buckley’s scalp. He snatched the nasty thing and flicked it into the open window of a VW Bug. They were coming one right after the other now. It was only a matter of time before he went crazy. He had to watch himself. He'd come along to help everyone. Becoming a liability would ruin it all.

Sissy approached. Glancing at the maggie residue on the sidewalk beside him, she shook her head. "How long?" she asked.

"Any second now," Buckley murmured. He sniffed deeply. "I can smell it, salvation. We're almost there, but it might as well be a million miles away."

"What you most need is sometimes the most dangerous thing of all."

Buckley ignored the remark. "What I'd give just to bathe in the ocean. Like to see how the maggies deal with that."

"I saw this show once," Sissy began, her eyes focusing on a maggie that popped and fell from his nose. "It seemed like so long ago, like it was someone else's memory." She paused and gazed towards Gert and MacHenry. "In the show, there were dozens of beluga whales trapped in the arctic ice after a quick winter creep. Taking turns, they’d swim to the surface to breathe. Their continuous motion was all that kept the water from freezing around them. They could go without food for a few months, but they had to breathe. They always had to breathe."

"So all they had to do was wait for the ice to melt," Buckley said, describing the obvious solution. "How long did they have to keep doing it?"

Sissy held up her hand and shook her head as sadness crept into her eyes. "Except they had a problem. It could have been just like you said. They could have just taken turns and risen to the surface, their body's feeding upon their own stores of fat to survive. But that didn't happen. There was a polar bear crouched outside the hole, you see, and it swiped one of its massive claws at each whale as it surfaced to breathe."

Buckley blanched. "Jesus."

"This went on day after day after day, the water pink with beluga blood. When one finally weakened enough to be caught, the beast would feed. Then it would rest for awhile, allowing the beluga a false sense of hope. Before long, it would return to making the pink water again."

"The pink water," Buckley repeated.

"Yeah."

"They had nowhere else to go. They were doomed from the minute the ice creeped over them, they just didn't know it."

"And you know?" Sissy said. "I feel like a beluga whale and I don’t want to die that way."

"Beluga. That’s where they get caviar from, right?"

Sissy nodded. "The real expensive kind. They were very rare."

"Like you, girl. You’re as rare as they come."

Sissy glared first at Buckley, then at the ground. "I'm nothing special."

"I remember when I first met you," Buckley chuckled. "You’ve changed."

"I’m done changing. Now, I’m just tired. I want to rest. I want to get to the ocean so we can escape."

"Even if it is just a false sense of hope?"

"Even if," Sissy said. "I guess it's the beluga in all of us."

Buckley put a hand on her shoulder. "Maybe it won’t come to that."

Now it was Sissy's turn to laugh. "It always comes to that. What was it you mentioned earlier? It’s survival of the fittest and we’re no longer the fittest."

Buckley shook his head in wonder. "I can’t get over how much you’ve grown. Your father would be proud of you. I'm definitely proud of you. If I had a daughter, I’d wish she was just like you."

For the first time during the entire conversation, Sissy made eye contact with Buckley. A mix of joy and sadness painted her features as she battled with the inevitability of death and the contentment of sudden acceptance as a mature person. Then she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. The action surprised both of them.

Buckley wiped at it, then turned to Gert and MacHenry. "Come on you two, time to get a move on."

"Just give us a few," MacHenry yelled back. "The girl’s feet here are hurting and she needs a little-Holy Mother of God!"

MacHenry, who’d been squatting down in order to help Gert unlace her boots, fell backwards as he struggled to escape the pool of blood that spilled free. There was no question why her feet were hurting her for in the expanding pool of blood were at least twenty of the nasty little creatures wriggling like mobile rice.

Gert screamed, her voice shattering octaves as it rose in both pitch and volume. MacHenry recovered from his fear quickly and tore off his flannel shirt, leaving only a white T-shirt beneath. His baritone NO NO NO underscored her soprano as he wiped viciously at the wounds.

Little Rashad stared hard at the scene. His small eyes wide with yet another death.

Sissy sat on the far curb, shielding Nikki from the sight.

"Here we go, Grandma. Hang on." Buckley lurched to his feet. Grasping Little Rashad’s hand, he tugged him over to where Sissy had gone to comfort Nikki. They all stared at the ground, trying hard to ignore the screams from the couple in the middle of the street. There was nothing they could do other than giving the couple their intimacy.

"Think good thoughts, boy," Buckley said, scruffing the boy's head. "Think good thoughts."

The screams and shouts of NO faded after a few more moments. Ignoring the possibility of infection, MacHenry embraced Gert, holding her head to his chest. He stroked her cheek as he murmured solemn promises to her.

"Got that horn ready, kid?" Buckley asked.

"Always." Little Rashad pulled it from where it hung on the rope. He reflexively cleared the spit from the spit valve.

Nikki stared wide eyed. "What’s he gonna do?"

"Just watch," Sissy replied. "It’s magic."

"What do you think you’re gonna play?" Nikki asked.

"Rocky."

Buckley nodded as if he'd known all along. "You like that song, huh?"

"Nobody thought Rocky had a chance."

"Man fought a good fight with that other guy," Sissy said.

"I saw that on TV," Nikki said. "What was his name?"

"Apollo Creed," Little Rashad said.

"Yeah. Apollo Creed," Buckley murmured. "Carl Weather's played him in the movie. Saw him in Action Jackson, too."

"Wasn't he in Star Wars?" Sissy asked.

"No. That was the other black guy," Buckley grinned. "Billy Dee Williams. You know, that fight between Apollo Creed and Rocky was probably the best fight anyone had ever seen. From the opening bell to the end, I was on the edge of my seat."

"In the end, didn't Rocky lose?" Nikki asked.

Buckley, Sissy and Little Rashad glared at the young girl, whose impertinent need to be accurate had shattered the morale they were trying to construct.

"He did," Little Rashad said. "But he kicked the other guy's ass in the sequel."

CHAPTER 29

From far off, a bellowing sound creased the silence. There’d been no sounds of traffic or airplanes for several days now, and that total lack of background noise accentuated the new sound, gathering it up and propelling it forward as if the world had never heard the sound before. Like a fog horn, the sound surrounded them, direction and distance unknown.

Nikki stood and searched the night sky. "What was that?"

Little Rashad joined her, but stared towards where they knew the ocean to be, instead. "A boat maybe?"

"Like a ship. One of those big ships with swimming pools?" Nikki asked.

Sissy turned to Buckley. "They could be checking to see if anyone’s alive. Wouldn’t that be nice?"

Grandma Riggs began singing the strains to The Love Boat.

Love Boat, soon will be making another run.

The Love Boat, promises something for everyone.

"Are we really talking of a they?" Buckley said more to himself than anyone else. "Like there are other’s alive?"

"I think so," Sissy nodded.

"My God," Buckley said, wiping a maggie clear of his brow.

The sound of a fog horn split the air again.

"You know? It does sound like a cruise ship," Buckley said.

At those words, Little Rashad and Nikki high fived, then turned and threw their arms around Sissy. Sissy grinned silly happiness at Buckley and Grandma Riggs. MacHenry approached, and Sissy turned to him as well, but when she saw his face, her smile faltered, then dropped completely.

MacHenry gazed sorrowfully with red, bleary eyes at the happy group.

"How’s Gert?" Buckley asked, stepping forward.

"I salted her wounds." The words came out as a sigh.

"Like in the bible," Grandma Riggs said. "Lot’s wife transformed into a pillar of salt when she turned to look upon the angel’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah."

"If she was salt, we wouldn’t have this problem."

Buckley nodded towards the ocean. "Salt does seems to be the answer."

"Doctor told me to lay off," MacHenry deadpanned. "Said it would kill me."

Gert limped up behind MacHenry, thankful to have his shoulders to hang her arms and take her weight. She caressed MacHenry’s cheek. To Buckley she said, "Can we get a move on?" She tried to smile and almost managed it.

"Maybe we’re not the only ones still alive," Buckley said. "Are you okay, girl?"

"Don’t matter," she said through gritted teeth. "Just untie Grandma from that silly old chair. We’re changing plans and I’m driving."

Little Rashad perked up. "Driving?"

"What?" Sissy looked from Buckley to Gert to MacHenry.

"Yep. I've decided, we're-"

"Come on, Baby. We can-"

Gert pushed away from MacHenry, almost falling. She found her balance by holding out both of her arms. "Stop it. We both know it’s something I have to do, Travis. If we’re going to make it, we have to move faster."

"I won’t let you die," MacHenry whispered hoarsely.

"What can you do?"

MacHenry opened his mouth as if to speak, but couldn't find the words. Frustration and emasculation loosed silent tears. "I… nothing."

"Listen honey, Gert said softly. "If that’s a boat, it won’t wait forever."

MacHenry stepped towards her, but halted as she stumbled away from him. The determination in her eyes was no match for his desperation.

"In fact," she added, pointing to the boy, "Why don’t you pick out a ride for us, Rashad?"

"Anyone I want?"

"Anyone you want," Gert said.

The boy’s face brightened. He grasped Nikki’s hand and began wading through the morass of abandoned vehicles.

"Preferably one with the keys still inside," Gert added.

Little Rashad’s gaze danced across the cool lines of fast cars. He paused to stare longingly at a silver Trans Am- beautiful and fast, it would do little for the small group.

Buckley held out his flask of salt water. "You could drink salt water. It helps.

Gert ignored him. "Maybe a pick-up truck, Rashad."

"Salt water slows them down," Buckley said, raising his voice.

But Gert still ignored him, her gaze following Rashad and Nikki as they searched for a vehicle.

A maggie shot from the palm of Buckley. He held it out to her, close enough so that she had to watch. Pulling salt from his pocket, he dribbled some on the nasty beast. The maggie puffed smoke and turned to sludge.

"Nice trick," she said.

"Maybe you can live longer. Hell, maybe the people on the ship have a cure," Buckley said.

"That’s bullshit and you know it."

"But I-"

Gert lunged towards him and grabbed him by his shirt. "Don’t you do it!" Without the make-up of her profession and the hope to survive, her face looked twenty years older.

"What?"

"Don't give me hope," she snarled, like a cornered animal. "I can live with death. What I can’t live with is hope! I can’t die with it. I don't want it."

Grandma Riggs kicked Buckley in the small of his back. "Let her be. It’s her choice."

How could he leave her be? Buckley's whole reason for being was to motivate the group and get them to safety. Now to have one of their own infected and giving up hope, Buckley felt the failure on a personal level.

Sissy interrupted his thoughts. "Mr. MacHenry. Where are your clothes?"

Buckley spun and saw the middle-aged, former used car salesman standing behind Old Gert with a sloppy smile on his face and pale blue boxers around his private parts. No clothes meant no salt, translating to a quick death, if not corrected.

"MacHenry, what the hell are you doing?" Buckley asked.

Gert let go of Buckley and staggered to her lover. She placed both hands on his chest. "Baby? What are you doing? You can’t do this."

MacHenry smiled and grasped her hand in his own. "I’m doing what I wanted to do all along. I’m gonna go out like the brightest and the best of them. I'm going to go out in a blaze of glory"

"Oh honey."

"I’m not gonna leave you, baby. Just think of me as your Johnny Storm."

"No. Not Johnny Storm."

"Oh yeah," MacHenry said, looking at Buckley. "And it's time to flame on."

CHAPTER 30

The old gander's weeping,

The old gander's weeping,

The old gander's weeping,

Because his wife is dead.

An old primer gray pickup truck with a black roll bar, dualies and fifty inch tires rumbled down Highway 74, swinging from one lane to the other as it wove through the parking lot of once mobile cars. Cars and trucks littered the highway as if they’d been cast aside by children who’d been called away to dinner. Grandma Riggs was strapped to the roll bar, still facing backwards, cackling with each dip and bump. Little Rashad and Nikki held onto a length of rope tied both around their waists and to the bar facing backward, as well. Buckley and Sissy sat facing forward, wind whipping their hair, sweeping away each maggie in a maelstrom of afterbirth wind as it was born. In the cab, MacHenry sat behind the wheel, driving while Gert kissed and murmured a lifetime of I Love Yous into his ear.

The truck skidded sideways causing Buckley and Sissy to grab hold, wrapping their arms around the roll bar. In their path were a pair of caddies, grazing along the asphalt and concrete of the roadway like immense Pac-Men-like caterpillars escaped from the game. One rose up, spying their approach. The other continued chewing, unimpressed.

MacHenry spun the wheel, shot into the median, the off road tires gripping, sliding and slipping across the slick grass and clay. The treads bit down, grasping desperately at the loose soil, the stress on the frame threatening to flip the truck into a gymnastic nightmare. Just when Buckley thought they’d most assuredly crash, the wheels caught, the truck straightened and shot out from the median into the westbound lanes.

Everyone couldn't help but stare at the great length of the Caddie, this one easily a hundred feet long. Smaller, strange, creatures suckled between the jointed scales, perhaps offspring, perhaps parasites. The body rippled like a caterpillar as it moved incrementally. A smooth slimy trough was left in its wake where there had once been road.

The sound of the fog horn drew their attention back to their destination. Closer now, they let up a cheer as a clear, thin, blue line striped the horizon. The ocean! Buckley's heart leaped. That he'd survived this most improbable trip was nothing less than miraculous.

They passed Lee's Cut and crossed the bridge over the channel and merged onto Highway 76. From there on, it was a straight shot across Harbor Island to the outer island of Wrightsville Beach.

But halfway across Harbor Island, the truck began to slow. Their break-neck speed had been reduced to walking speed, the truck swerving and dodging mounds of crashed cars and trucks, and the occasional mountain of bubbling Maggies, the effect of the salt air on the monsters’ surfaces demonstrably nasty.

Buckley leaned forward and pounded on the window. "MacHenry. Get a move on, man. We're almost there."

But there was no response. Neither did the truck speed up, nor did MacHenry offer any reason for the delay.

Buckley pounded the top of the cab. "MacHenry. What's wrong, buddy?"

Instead of answering, the truck pulled to a halt. MacHenry turned off the engine, and slumped across the wheel.

Buckley jumped down from the bed of the pick-up and tried to yank open the door. Locked. The passenger door was locked too. Cursing, he climbed back into the cab and tried the sliding rear window. It moved easily. Sticking his head partially inside Buckley began, "Is everything-" but stopped when he saw what filled the front windshield.

Up ahead grazed one of the largest Caddies they'd ever seen, chewing through a Home Depot. The creature seemed to expand with every crunch. A tantalizing fifty feet behind it lay the ocean along with the sand of Wrightsville Beach, empty and inviting, the promise of life instead of mere tans.

He'd thought MacHenry dead, but that was far from the truth. The man's sobs filled the cab, his shoulder's shaking, tears falling onto the upturned face of Gert, laying in his lap. Her eyes stared sightlessly heavenward. Where she'd been ugly when mad, she was most beautiful in death, the stresses of life, the fear of living and the self-loathing of a lifetime, swept away on angel's wings leaving her as innocent and pure as the day she was born. Maggies surged from her ear and trailed down across her shoulders and onto MacHenry's leg, where even as Buckley watched, they burrowed in the man's naked flesh.

Keeping an eye on the caddie, Buckley put a hand on MacHenry's shoulder. "MacHenry, you need to get out of the cab, man."

MacHenry raised his head from the steering wheel and gazed upon the face of his girl. He gently brushed maggies from her gossamer cheek. He sobbed once more as he stroked her skin.

"She’s dead, my friend."

Instead of replying, MacHenry began to bang his head against the wheel. With each impact the horn sounded its ugly BLAT.

"MacHenry, come on," Buckley said, staring worriedly at the caddie. If they drew its attention, no telling how fast it could be upon them. For a creature that size, they were no more than a cocktail weenie. "MacHenry. You're gonna get us killed if you don't stop."

MacHenry sat up straight. He wiped the tears away from his eyes and met Buckley’s gaze in the rearview mirror. "Get out."

"MacHenry?"

"Untie Grandma Riggs, take the kids, and you and Sissy get out of the fucking truck."

"MacHenry, I-"

"Dammit, Adamski! Don’t you ever listen? I said get out of the fucking truck. I probably don’t have long to live and don’t have time to fuck around. Look at that big motherfucker. Do you really want to have this conversation now?"

Reluctantly, Buckley began to untie Grandma Riggs as Sissy ushered the children out the back. MacHenry kept his eyes locked on Buckley in the mirror.

"And just so you know, Adamski. I’m mad as hell that you’re alive and my Gert isn’t."

Buckley bit his lip, knowing that the man was speaking from a chasm of pain. If he wanted to be mad, then let him. Frankly, Buckley couldn't explain why he still lived.

"You need to make sure they make it," MacHenry said.

Buckley nodded as he unwound the last rope. Sissy climbed into the back of the truck and helped the old woman down.

"I’m serious. They have to make it, don't you see? Otherwise, this trip was for nothing. Me and Old Gert could have fucked ourselves to oblivion instead of that forced march you put us on. We would have been happy to die in each other's arms. Love instead of fear surrounding us as we breathed our last breath."

Several seconds ticked past. A Maggie slid from Buckley’s forehead, but he ignored it. Instead, he turned to gaze back into MacHenry's eyes, who nodded slowly in return. The man smiled once, but there was no love in the gesture, more the recognition of an enemy right before battle.

"But it was you who roused us, Adamski. It was you who made us care about the others. And I thank you and hate you for that."

The man had something to say, some great weight to unload from his soul. He'd lost the love of his life. Buckley couldn't help but empathize. Slowly, he extended his hand through the back window if nothing more than to touch the man's shoulder in a friendly gesture.

"Get the fuck away! I’m not touching you!"

"What?" Buckley was stunned by the man's rage.

"Oh, I'm not afraid of dying, if that's what you think. It ain’t the dying I care about, it’s the selfishness. You would have hidden it from us if you could."

Buckley dropped his hands to his sides and lowered his head. So that was it.

"You tried to hide the truth from us. You did to us what you wouldn't let any of us get away with. Lashawna, Bennie, Sally, all of them deserved a chance, but you never gave it to them. Instead, you played judge, jury and executioner. And when it came time to do the same to yourself, what did you do?"

I acted like a coward, Buckley thought to himself.

"You acted like a coward," MacHenry said, as if he could read Buckley's mind. "Remember what you said back at the BBQ joint? You said that maybe this was a phased invasion of some sort, that maybe the maggies weren't around anymore because they were unnecessary. How long did you think about that?" MacHenry held up his hand. "Don't tell me. Because if you say that you'd thought of that back in the hotel, then I'm going to climb out of this truck and kill your cowardly ass. Had you given yourself the same fate as Lashawna and left us alone, then maybe my Gert would have lived."

"I…" What could he say? MacHenry was right. Buckley hung his head and took it.

"Look at you. Just like your comic book hero, The Thing. You’re willing to take everything and anything. You are the foundation." MacHenry shook his head violently. "And somehow…some-fucking-how you managed to hold us together and condemn us at the same time."

"MacHenry, I’m sorry."

"Stuff it. I don’t care about your feelings. I’m not going to give you the benefit of forgiveness. So, get out of the fucking truck. I’m gonna do what you should have done in the first place. It’s called sacrifice and it's the ultimate demonstration of love."

MacHenry turned the ignition and revved the engine.

Buckley climbed off the back of the truck and stood with the others. The truck lurched forward then stopped. MacHenry rolled down the driver's side window and stuck out his head. "You know, this has always been about love, not survival, Buckley Adamski. I think it’s kind of funny you never understood that."

Buckley stared back as MacHenry put the truck back in gear and shot forward. They all knew his goal. Shouting at the top of his lungs and honking the horn like a mad-man, MacHenry drove towards the Caddie.

Buckley turned to Little Rashad. "Come on, Kid. Let’s make MacHenry’s Charge of the Light Brigade worthwhile.

They angled off to the right. It would take them longer to get to the ocean, but their path would keep them safely away from the immense creature.

CHAPTER 31

About halfway to the caddie, Travis MacHenry halted the truck in the middle of a field. He got out, holding his and Gert's backpacks. One-by-one he pulled out the remaining Carolina Cocktails, seven in all. Then without ceremony, he emptied the contents atop his head and tossed the empty containers into the open cab. Seeing this, the others couldn't help but stop and stare. As horrible as it might become, he'd been their friend and ally and deserved their attention.

Buckley stood with his hands in his pockets, head down, remembering back in that hotel room when Travis had first talked about his desire to flame on.

"I, Travis James MacHenry, am gonna go out with a bang. In fact, as soon as I finish the better part of this cigar and this rather lazy cognac, I'm gonna get dressed, comb my hair, walk in the kitchen, pour fucking turpentine over my head, open the door and use the last of my Robusto to Flame On.”

So many thoughts were going through Buckley's mind. He'd only wanted to help everyone, but was unable to shake the truth of his own cowardice. In the end, it seemed as if Travis had been the bravest of them all.

"You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am, Adamski. I’m Johnny Storm. No longer am I a washed up old has-been whose best days were when Toyota's motto was Oh What a Feeling. No longer will I wait to die like the rest of you chumps. I'm Johnny Fucking Storm who’s gonna go out in a blaze of glory."

Sissy held Grandma Riggs by a hand and her shoulder, the old woman managing to support most of her own weight.

"He was a good man, Mr. Adamski."

Buckley glanced into her eyes and saw how clear they’d become.

"Don’t blame him for not going gently," she added.

"I wasn’t going to, I…"

"It’s okay, boy. Be happy for him. He was allowed to find love before he died."

Buckley's heart broke a bit as an impossible gulf opened in his chest revealing that which he most feared. "What about me? What about me, Grandma Riggs? Where’s my love? Why can’t I go gently?"

The brightness left her blue eyes as they once again glazed over with the whiteness of the disease.

"Don’t I get any love?" Buckley asked.

Grandma Riggs's only reply was on odd grin. Then she cackled crazily and pointed to Little Rashad.

Little Boy Blue,

come blow your horn.

The sheep's in the meadow,

the cow's in the corn.

Little Rashad solemnly raised his horn and began to blow the opening notes of Rocky.

"Oh my Gosh!" Nikki pointed across the field.

All eyes followed her finger and watched as the Caddie rose up and up and up as it finally noticed the pickup truck speeding towards it. The inside of the pickup truck cab was an inferno of fire. Standing at least ten stories, the creature roared, its jaw lowered towards the threat, ten-foot teeth, glimmering in the first rays of dawn.

Even on fire, MacHenry managed to turn the wheel and angle the vehicle for the open maw. At the last moment, instead of fleeing as it should, the creature dipped its head to the ground and scooped up the speeding truck. In one anti-climactic crunch, it was gone. A small puff of smoke escaped the creature’s closed mouth.

Buckley stared in awe. MacHenry had indeed gone out in a blaze of glory, but the gesture was as useless as a fly swatting a cow. He gulped. How sad was that? What a fucking waste.

Lazily, the creature began to turn back towards the Home Depot. But it stopped as it noticed them standing across the road. Shifting away from the building, it headed their way, its movement creating the deafening sound of a mobile earthquake.

Sissy screamed. "Run!"

Little Rashad stopped playing and grabbed Nikki’s hand, jerking the awestruck girl towards the ocean. Buckley tossed the old woman over his shoulder in a Fireman’s Carry and took off after the kid who was already far in front.

Sissy ran past him, turning to urge him to move faster. "Hurry!"

Buckley followed as best he could, limping and staggering around mounds of over-turned earth, cars, trucks, the residue of fallen buildings, and several billboards.

Little Rashad and Nikki made the beach first.

"The pier," Buckley yelled. "Get on the pier." He couldn't see the creature behind him, but knew it was there. No way could he ignore the sound of a dozen freight trains bearing down on him, such was the sound, ominous with promises of devastation and destruction.

Little Rashad and Nikki spied the entrance to the pier jutting several hundred feet into the water and sprinted for it. The finger of wood drew Buckley's eye to the ocean, and what he saw there was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. A huge, red, white, and blue Carnival Cruise Liner rode the waves just offshore. A foghorn split the air again. He heard the cheers of a thousand people aboard ship.

Buckley couldn't help but grin. "Almost there, Grandma."

He lurched across a three-way intersection, leaped a curb and hit the sand of Wrightsville Beach running. But the sand wasn't as firm as the street. Buckley found it almost impossible to run in. Although he tried, he didn't get a dozen steps before his feet sank. Then he stumbled and fell, sending Grandma flying.

"Sissy. Help us," Buckley screamed.

Buckley tried to stand, but his leg gave way.

"Sissy!" He wailed. Grasping palmfuls of sand, Buckley pulled himself across to where Grandma lay sprawled. "Grandma, are you okay? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry."

She didn’t respond. Kneeling beside her, he turned her over and found her unconscious. What had he done? With the creature so close, they'd-

Buckley spun to see where the creature was. Only a hundred feet away, the great beast was about to cross the road when it raised itself up and roared jet-engine loud. The light of a new morning illuminated the caddie's maw, revealing a thousand teeth and misshapen parasites waiting to be fed.

But the creature's roar was interrupted by a cough. A puff of smoke exited the great maw. Then the caddie exploded causing the front half of the creature to evaporate in a fireball of blood and guts and Detroit metal.

Buckley whooped. "Grandma, did you see that?" He turned and shook her shoulder. "Must have been the gas tank."

But still she didn't stir.

Sissy fell breathlessly to her knees beside Buckley. "Did you see that? He did it. He saved us."

"Sure did." He shook his head, grinning despite his worry over Grandma Riggs. "MacHenry actually did it. Out in a blaze of glory."

Then the pieces of the creature started raining down upon them. Large and small pieces of smoking bloody Maggie flesh, hit left and right and atop everyone. A piece the size of a water bed fell next to Buckley pinning his leg to the sand.

"Ewww," Sissy almost wretched, as her clothes were covered with vile innards. "Disgusting."

Buckley fell atop Grandma Riggs to protect her. Flinching at each impact, he couldn’t help but laugh madly as the heaven's rained monster guts. Even with his leg wedged beneath a ton of caddie flesh, the destruction of the beast was absolutely biblical.

Finally, the one-of-a-kind rainstorm subsided.

Sissy looked at the weight on his leg and shook her head. "We're gonna need some help for this," she said, as she got to her feet and ran to where the kids stood watching on the boardwalk.

Buckley turned to the old woman. "Grandma?"

She groaned.

"Grandma? You all right?"

"Except for your fat ass on top of me, I think so."

Grinning like a madman, now, Buckley rolled off of her, but was still unable to stand. Using his shoulders as leverage, Grandma Riggs got to her feet.

"I thought I’d lost you," Buckley said.

"I’m pretty hard to get rid of."

Buckley laughed sharply. "Definitely." Then he turned serious. "I want you to know that I’m sorry. I couldn't hold on."

She shrugged. "Nothing to be sorry about, my boy. It couldn't be helped. You did everything right." She cupped his cheek in her withered palm and gazed fondly upon him. "You had love," she murmured.

"What?"

"You asked earlier where your love was. You were loved by all of us. You were loved best, Mr. Adamski."

He leaned into her hand and whispered. "Sometimes I just wanted to give up. Sometimes I thought everyone hated me. I-"

"I know. But you got us here. You invented a future for us."

"But I was a coward."

"No you weren't. Would a coward try and save us all? Would a coward do what you did?" Grandma Riggs cackled. "You are the bravest man I've ever known, Mr. Buckley Adamski."

Before he could respond, Little Rashad, Nikki and Sissy arrived at a run.

"Looks like they're sending a launch," Sissy said.

"I've never been on a ship before," Nikki exclaimed.

They all looked to the ocean. A long boat was speeding to the shore from the cruise liner. Buckley counted six men on boat and room for twice that many. Salvation!

Sissy grabbed the children. "Give me a hand. We need to get this off Mr. Adamski."

As they leaned down, grasping at the wet bloody edges of caddie flesh, a sound shattered the dawn. They didn't need to look to know what it was. The freight train rattle of its onrushing passage told them everything they needed to know.

"Hurry!" Sissy screamed. "We have to get this off of him!"

As the children and the girl tried desperately to move the ton of meat from his leg, Buckley turned to see a caddie, previously hidden behind the Home Depot store, hurtling across the ground towards them. Fast and angry, as if it took the demise of its fellow creature personally

"Fuck me."

"Come on kids. Get it off," Sissy commanded.

"I can't get a grip," Nikki cried.

Tears poured down Little Rashad’s face. "I can't move it. I'm trying, but it won't even budge."

Looking into their eyes, Buckley finally knew what MacHenry had felt. Such a great responsibility lay before him, such a great opportunity. Instead of fear, a conviction overwhelmed him. He knew what he had to do.

"Stop it." Reaching out, he snatched Sissy's arms. "Run. Get to the boat. I’ll hold it off."

"You can't. You've come all this way."

Buckley shook his head. "And I got you here which is all I wanted to do. Now hurry. Run!"

"But Mr. Adamski," Little Rashad shouted. "We can't leave you."

"Sure you can, kid. They won't let me on the boat, anyway. Now grab Grandma Riggs and run like the devil himself is after you."

"I haven’t run since Truman ran," Grandma Riggs snapped.

Buckley kissed her on the cheek and watched as the four took off towards the boardwalk and the pier. He reached to where his Super Soaker still dangled at his hip. Holding it up high, he sighted towards the approaching caddie.

Chapter 32

When the caddie reached the beach, Buckley screamed at the top of his lungs and fired. The arch of liquid sizzled off the side of the creature, leaving a ragged smoking scar. Still, it came. Buckley squeezed the trigger once again, this time the arch was shorter and died quickly. Nothing happened on his next squeeze. His last weapon was empty.

He sat straighter. He would not go gently into that good night. No way. Not after all this.

Still, as the creature approached, he couldn't help but fall back as he stared up and up at its gargantuan size. Buckley's arms came up reflexively protecting his face as the caddie hovered above him.

Then the great maw opened, and fell towards him.

But a clear bright note pierced the morning air, and like an impervious shield, halted the descent of the creature. The caddie hovered above him, spear-sized teeth filling a cavernous mouth.

Little Rashad had returned to Buckley's side, his horn pointed straight up into the maw of the monster. Buckley jerked at his leg, but it was still trapped.

"Boy. Get away!"

Little Rashad shook his head and continued playing until the note died. Taking a great breath, he renewed the note before the creature had a chance to react. And still the monster hovered transfixed above them.

"Don't do this, boy. Save yourself."

Again the boy shook his head, but this time he tapped his fingers depressing the valves. Buckley looked at them, then understood.

"You're showing me the secret note, aren't you?"

Little Rashad nodded and played the chorus of the Rocky theme song, the music filled with that note.

"Show me again."

The boy took another great breath, and returned to the single note that would keep Buckley alive.

Buckley nodded. "Yeah. I think I got it."

Little Rashad glanced wide-eyed at Buckley, who nodded again and held out his hand. As the boy’s note died this time, the caddie still transfixed by the sound, he passed his horn to Buckley.

Buckley snatched the horn to his lips, adjusted his fingers and blew. Not as clear and bright as the boy's, but it was the same note and had the same effect. The monster held back.

"I love you, Mr. Adamski."

Buckley looked at the boy who'd they'd all called Little Rashad because he was so small. But he was far from little now. He'd come back for Buckley. The boy had given Buckley a weapon to help him defend himself at the expense of the boy's own safety. It'd taken Buckley a lifetime to get that brave. If he'd had a son, he'd have wanted it to be Rashad.

Taking a breath, Buckley blew once more, trying to sustain the note, watching as the boy ran back to the pier and towards the launch that had landed and was even now boarding Grandma Riggs.

Buckley's note sputtered and died.

The caddie shook itself from its paralysis. Its maw began to descend.

Buckley blew again, but was an octave too low. Tightening his lips, he blew harder, this time finding the right note. The caddie stopped a mere ten feet from his head, once again transfixed by the note. The rattle of air going through the monster rippled the space above Buckley's head. They were at a stand-off. As long as Buckley could blow the note, he was safe.

In the distance, Buckley heard the sound of the outboard motor rev as the boat began to turn towards the cruise ship. He turned as far as he could to make sure the boat was indeed leaving.

The great red orb of the sun had risen from the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean. The cruise liner was outlined by the sunrise like some angelic vessel. Just as he'd hoped, Little Rashad, Nikki, Sissy and Grandma Riggs motored towards it in a launch. Beneath the sound of the motor, Buckley could hear the sound of Grandma Riggs singing.

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,

Mutilated monkey meat, Chopped-up dirty birdies' feet.

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,

And me without a spoon.

Buckley returned his attention to the beast before him. He let his note die.

"I love you too, kid." He grinned, his mission complete. The words of his favorite poem flowed through his soul.

Do not go gently into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Or as MacHenry would say, Flame On!

With the last ounce of his strength, Buckley stuck his fist into the air, his middle finger pointing straight down the monster's gullet.

"I hope you fucking choke!"

Then the mouth snapped shut around him.