HADLEY SHIMMERHORN: AMERICAN ICON
Nobody inside Deke’s Valhalla Stop-n-Drop felt much like eating. They were watching the walking dead people on the flat-screen television over the counter.
Hadley Shimmerhorn, nineteen years old and pretty enough to dream, was staring at the Dukes of Hazard clock over the door, and quietly mouthing the words to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” She favored ‘Mountain’ as an audition piece because it demonstrated both her vocal range and her flare for drama.
Only twenty-five hours to go, she thought. Twenty-five hours until the producers of ‘America’s Favorite Reality Show’ would learn that Hadley Shimmerhorn had what it took to become the next American Icon.
The sound of snapping bones snatched Hadley back into three- dimensional reality. She glanced up at the television, and for the first time in her nineteen years, horror silenced the angry blackbird in her head.
Onscreen, a dead man was eating Katie Cleric.
Cleric was the perky hostess of Rise n’ Shine, Hadley’s favorite morning show. As the dead man rifled through Cleric’s entrails, the camera zoomed in on the expression of startled wonder that had flash-frozen itself onto her face. Hadley could see flecks of blood between Cleric’s perfect white teeth.
Cleric’s co-host, a lovable black weatherman type, uttered a gobbling croak, stumbled, and crashed through the wall- sized window behind the stage. Two- dozen deceased Midwesterners swarmed through the broken window, fell upon the lovable black weatherman and tore him limb from limb.
Holy crap, Hadley thought. It’s really happening.
Then the screen went black.
Emmet Pearson, the one-legged mailman, spoke first.
“What the fuck was that?”
Clovis Holyfield, the only female driver for National Cargo, grunted through a mouthful of tuna on rye.
“They were rabid.”
“Bullshit,” Emmet snapped. “They was terrorists.”
Clovis shook her head. “Those motherfuckers were crazier than a shithouse full of red monkeys.”
Joe Swanson, owner of Swanson Quality Used Cars and Trucks, reached over the counter and pinched Ruby Ling, the only waitress who’d bothered to show up for work.
“Hey, Pocahontas, any sign of my goddamn pancakes?”
Ruby Ling’s jaw dropped open. Then she burst into tears.
“Why you always gotta be such a dick, Swanson?” Clovis said.
“Oh great,” Swanson grumbled. “Black Butch Speaks.”
Swanson’s Chevy dealership sat on the other side of Route 45, directly across from the Stop-n-Drop. Every morning at seven-thirty sharp, he dodged rush- hour traffic to come over and hassle the staff. Deke had done a commercial for Swanson, back when he was “Deacon Simmons,” beloved Quarterback for the Chicago Bears.
“That asshole would crawl through Hell wearin’ gasoline panties for cheap hash browns,” Deke always said.
Friedrich Jackson raised his hand. “What’s happening on the other channels?”
Hadley was pretty sure that Friedrich liked her, even though he was black and she was mixed: half- black/ half- white.
Emmet fidgeted on his wooden leg and said, “Try C.N.N., dammit.”
Nestor Mendoza, the grill man and most senior employee at the Stop-n- Drop, reached for the remote. Hadley eased around the cash register and stood behind Friedrich.
“---in downtown Chicago. I’m standing on the roof of the Burger World across the street from the Rise and Shine television studios, where this tragedy seems to have begun. We don’t have much information, but this much is known: Katie Cleric and Ben Stoker, two of America’s most popular on- camera personalities are dead: devoured, apparently, on live television.”
“Oh, fer Christ’s sake,” Swanson grumbled.
“Saudi operatives,” Emmet the mailman said. “Goddamn A-rabs are takin’ terror to the next level.”
Clovis made barking noises.
Mendoza gestured, impatient. “Quiet, please.”
Hadley leaned forward and placed her hands lightly on Friedrich’s shoulders. She felt him shiver at the contact.
“---where hundreds of these terrorists have descended on Michigan Avenue, attacking innocent shoppers, pulling people out of cars--- Donnie, get a shot of the street.”
The camera operator panned down to Michigan Avenue.
“Holyyy shit,” Friedrich said. Then he flinched. “Sorry.”
Hadley smiled. “No problem.”
Chicago’s premiere shopping drag was choked with screaming tourists. They were being run down and slaughtered by people like the one that ate Katie Cleric. Some of the attackers moved with a stiff, jerky gait; they reminded Hadley of the time she’d gone to visit her Grandpa Roosevelt after his seventh stroke. She’d found him doing the Lindy Hop with twelve other stroke victims as part of a rehabilitation program called Swing Dancing for the Senior Spastic.
A lot of the people on Michigan Avenue moved like grandpa’s friends at the convalescent home. Many of them had been mutilated. Hadley saw one man with half a face fighting to drag a little old lady through a locked revolving door. When he couldn’t get her through the door, the half-faced man sat on the old lady’s chest and banged her head against the sidewalk until she stopped kicking.
But some of the attackers acted like normal people. The camera tracked one woman, a redhead wearing a black blazer and skirt with white sneakers. A smallish man wearing a pink suit ran toward the redhead with five stroke victims in hot pursuit. As Pink Suit passed the redhead, she stuck out her right foot and tripped him. The five strokers fell upon the pink- suited man. But as the redhead approached, the attackers pulled back. One of them was chewing the pink- suited man’s toupee.
The redhead dragged pink-suit into an abandoned taxi and slammed the door. The taxi began to rock violently on its wheels. One of pink suit’s hands clutched the steering wheel and jerked it hard to the right. A second later, a jet of blood splattered the front windshield.
The seven people in the Stop-n-Drop stared at the screen. Then Ruby Ling vomited all over the jukebox. Mendoza thumbed the channel scan button on the remote.
“---people being devoured in broad daylight---“
“---shit shit shitting shit!”
“---walking corpses, although at this time that has not
“Freeze it,” Hadley snapped.
“What’s happening?” Friedrich whispered.
Hadley stared at the television, her heart thumping a heavy backbeat through her veins.
Because she knew what was happening.
Just like she knew what was going to happen next.
Mendoza thumbed up the volume.
“If you’re just joining us: Terror in the Streets. America is under attack by what can only be described as a ravaging army of cannibal terrorists.”
“St. Theresa,” Emmet the mailman whispered.
“---reports are flooding in claiming that these cannibals are the recently dead, returned to life. But those reports are being dismissed by authorities.”
“Rabies,” Clovis snorted.
“Quiet, Butch,” Emmet snapped.
“---earlier today, the President was airlifted to an undisclosed location following an attack at a corporate fundraiser in Houston. He was unavailable for comment. I repeat: this nation is under attack by an army---”
As the people in the Stop-n- Drop began to shout, Hadley walked over to the big picture window that faced the empty highway and looked out over the flat suburban landscape.
To the north, Chicago beckoned like a waiting wanton, her famous skyline visible even from Valhalla, thirty- five miles to the south. Hadley’s eyes wandered over the landscaped greenery that extended into the horizon on every side: a verdant circle punctuated by little dots of white and gray, like the stone teeth of a gargoyle. She shuddered as the cold hand of irony made a fist around her heart.
I always knew this would happen.
Music burning in her head, Hadley spoke quietly.
“Everybody shut the fuck up.”
Five pairs of eyes swiveled toward her.
“Friedrich,” she said. “You and Oscar go get some boards, hammers and nails; we’ll need to cover the windows. Clovis, I’m gonna need the sat-telephone out of your rig.”
“What the hell for?” Clovis said.
Hadley kept her voice level. They didn’t know.
“The land lines are probably jammed already,” she said.
“Without a way to communicate we’re ass-slammed.”
Emmet and Clovis stared. Ruby Ling wiped her chin and belched softly. Friedrich stared at Hadley as if she’d just sprouted wings.
“What the hell is the Tragic Mulatto goin’ on about?” Swanson said.
“Mr. Swanson, you’d better go get your people and bring them over here,” Hadley said. “There’s way too many windows in your store. Your employees are sitting ducks.”
“Now wait one goddamn minute,” Swanson said. “What makes you think the police can’t handle this thing? They’ve probably got it under control already.”
“Gee, you think?” Hadley snapped.
“Yes, I think,” Swanson shot back. “Hell, this whole thing is probably some kind of publicity stunt. They said it started in a TV studio, for Christ’s sake. There’s no reason for us to fly off the handle here.”
The scream from the kitchen stopped the argument.
“What the hell---” Mendoza said. “Eduardo?”
Mendoza ran into the kitchen. “Eduardo, que paso?”
Hadley and the others went through the double doors.
The back door to the restaurant was wide open.
“Eduardo?” Mendoza said.
Eduardo screamed again: “Dios mio, ayuda me!”
“Parking lot,” Emmet hissed.
Outside, Eduardo Corona, one of the busboys, was fighting with two dead men. One of the strokers, a black man with his hair in cornrows and a butcher knife stuck in his throat, grabbed Eduardo from behind. The other corpse, ab bone- thin white man with a purple Mohawk, grabbed Eduardo’s right hand and crammed it into his mouth. Eduardo shrieked. Then the black stroker bit him on the back of the neck. Eduardo’s sneakers drummed on the cement like a man dancing on an electrified cattle grate, and his fingers came away in Mohawk’s mouth.
Ruby Ling screamed, “They’re killing him!”
But they were too late. As they watched, Mohawk darted in and bit off Eduardo’s nose. A second later, Butcher-knife tore the busboy’s throat out. Mendoza cursed and ran back into the Stop-n-Drop.
“My God,” Clovis said. “Look.”
The others turned.
Across the parking lot, a man was staring into the morning sun.
“Hey,” Swanson said. “Hey, that’s Pete Garrison!”
The sun-gazer’s head turned toward them.
“Jesus Lord in Heaven,” Emmet the mailman said.
The sun-gazer held out his arms and staggered toward the four humans.
“It’s ol’ Pete Garrison,” Swanson drawled. “He owns the Dippin’ Donuts over at the mall.”
Hadley stared. Garrison’s eyes gleamed with a thick, white glaze. His hair stuck up in wet, brown cowlicks all over his head. His lower jaw worked soundlessly, as if he were trying to chew something too big for his mouth. A tatty green bathrobe hung from Garrison’s shoulders. It flapped open on the right side, revealing a sagging belly and a nest of gray pubic hair. The left side was plastered to his body by a swath of dried blood that extended from his torso to his outer thigh.
“Hey, Pete,” Swanson said. “Time to make the donuts?”
Swanson laughed. Garrison lurched.
“Pete, it’s me, Joe Swanson.”
“He’s dead,” Hadley said.
“That man is not dead,” Swanson hissed. “He’s president of the PTA!”
Over by the dumpster, Eduardo’s prayers had faded to a litany of startled gasps between bites as the strokers tore at him.
“I don’t know, Joe,” Emmet said. “He looks pretty damn dead to me.”
“Next person uses the “D” word is gonna get knocked on his keester,” Swanson snarled. “In case you geniuses hadn’t noticed: He can’t be dead... because he’s walking around.”
“He’s walkin’ around butt naked,” Emmet mumbled.
Swanson scowled and turned as Garrison reached him.
“Listen, Pete,” he began. “Tell these idiots you’re as right as---“
Garrison grabbed Swanson, pulled him close and bit a hunk out of his right cheek. Swanson screamed and went down,his face spouting red.
“Jesus God!” he yelled.
Mohawk spat out Eduardo’s knucklebones and stood up. At the same time, Mendoza flew out of the back door wearing his motorcycle jacket, clutching a meat cleaver in one hand and Deke’s semi- automatic street -sweeper in the other. As Garrison bent over to paw at Swanson, Mendoza reversed his grip on the assault weapon, swung it once around his head and caught Garrison across the forehead.
Momentum lifted Garrison off his feet. He hit the cement and lay still.
Mendoza spun as Mohawk and Butcher-knife reached for him, swung the meat cleaver and buried it in Butcher-knife’s chest. The black corpse staggered backward five steps and sat down on its rump. Meanwhile, Mohawk grabbed Mendoza by the hairnet.
“Help me, you assholes!” Mendoza snarled.
He bent forward and flipped Mohawk over his shoulder. The stroker hit the asphalt, twisted, grabbed Mendoza by the collar and dragged him down on top of him.
Mendoza dropped the shotgun.
Hadley moved without thinking.
She ran for the cleaver.
As the black corpse stood, Hadley grasped the handle of the meat cleaver and pulled. At the same time, she kicked out with her right foot and shoved Butcher-knife backward. The stroker stumbled and tripped over its own feet.
Mohawk was busily trying to bite Mendoza’s arm but having difficulty chewing through the thick leather of his motorcycle jacket. Hadley swung the meat cleaver over her head and split Mohawk’s Mohawk clean down the middle. The meat cleaver sank in up to the hilt: The skinny corpse shuddered and fell down.
Hadley was vaguely aware that Ruby Ling was screaming her name, but the music pounding through her veins muffled any other sound.
Ain’t no mountain high enough, she thought.
A million miles away, something exploded. Ruby Ling screamed again. Then Hadley was grabbed from behind. She whirled and looked into the face of Pete Garrison.
As Garrison clutched at her, the left side of his bathrobe fell away. Hadley gasped at the foot-long trench of gnawed meat that gaped up at her from Garrison’s torso.
Garrison opened his mouth.
“Eat this, shitbag.”
A second later, there was another explosion and Garrison’s face blew off. It flew over Hadley’s right shoulder, sailed across the parking lot like one of those
floppy Frisbees you could get for your Golden Retriever and stuck to the front window of the Payless shoe store.
Clovis was standing there, her brown hands clutching the dual pistol grips of the smoking shotgun. She spat on the asphalt. Then she kicked Garrison in the nuts.
“I’m a Krispy Krème girl m’self.”
“I love two things in this world,” Hadley said, later. “One of them is singing American R&B classics, preferably from the Motown catalog, circa 1964 to 1979.”
Hadley spoke slowly. She wanted to make sure they all understood what she was going to tell them next.
“The other thing I love---is zombie movies.”
“Zombies?” Emmet the mailman said.
Hadley nodded. “Romero was the first: the prophet of the post-modern Living Dead genre. But there’ve been many others. I’ve seen them all. Trust me, people, we have a very bad situation on our hands.”
They’d nailed up everything they could find over the front and side windows: three doors, two of the old wooden tables left over from before the last renovation, and the polished wood sides of the jukebox.
Mendoza was busily breaking down some wooden milk crates he’d scrounged out of the dumpster where they’d stashed Eduardo’s body.
“It’s not going to be enough, Oscar,” Hadley said.”
Mendoza looked at the front windows and nodded.
“I’m gonna find some more wood,” he said.
Swanson sat alone in one of the booths. He kept his face to the wall, a cold compress pressed to his torn right cheek. Seeing Pete Garrison shot had taken something out of the normally rambunctious used car salesman.
But Hadley was worried about that bite.
She'd seen enough to know what happened to the victims of a zombie bite. So far, the phenomenon had behaved exactly as Romero had predicted, save for one critical point: Garrison was the only corpse from the parking lot attack who’d shuffled along in classic movie zombie fashion. Hadley was pretty sure she could outrun any stroker that moved like the ones from the Romero films.
But the black corpse with the butcher knife neckware had displayed only slightly less coordination than a normal human. And Hadley remembered the eerie speed with which the skinny corpse had attacked Mendoza.
It was so fast, she thought. Faster than Mendoza.
She’d heard the busboys telling stories about Mendoza’s boxing days back in Mexico. He’d even fought professionally before his right lung collapsed during an exhibition bout.
What if all the others are like them? Hadley thought.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” she said.
“Bullsheeeiit, ”Emmet drawled. “I got one good leg, little girl. You expect me to run all over creation from those freaks?”
Swanson stood and stalked toward the counter. ”He’s right. Why not wait here until the police show up?”
“We can’t call ‘em, man,” Clovis said. “Land lines are down, just like Songbird said. I can’t raise a goddamn thing on my wireless; and the sat-phone is clogged with so much traffic I can’t copy what anybody’s sayin.’”
“Riiight,” Swanson said. “Bet you’d like to keep us locked up in here. Right, Butch? That way, you can paw all over the Tragic Mulatto whenever you want.”
“What?“ Clovis said. “What the hell are you babblin’ about, Swanson?”
Swanson moved around the counter toward Clovis.
“Oh I’ve seen you,” he said. “Checking her out when you think no one’s looking. You’ve been hot for her box since she started working here.”
Hadley sensed something ugly crackle through the air.
“You guys---,” she began.
“Swanson,” Clovis interrupted. “That freak must have bitten you up your ass ‘cause that’s obviously where you keep your brains.”
Swanson’s eyes narrowed. A purple vein popped out in his right temple as he spoke through clenched teeth.
“You dirty--- black--- dyke”
Clovis stood up just as Mendoza stepped in between them.
“Bring it on, Condoleeza,” Swanson crowed. “I’ll show you what a real man can do!”
“Listen,” Friedrich cried pointing at the television. “Everybody, listen!”
“---confirmed reports that the bodies of the recently dead are returning to life only to attack the living. This phenomenon is being reported in cities all over the world, and where the dead walk, murder and cannibalism soon follow. C.B.N. News is warning everyone able to hear this broadcast: Stay inside.”
“Ahhh,” Swanson said.
“---secure all doors and windows; Find a safe place to hide with your loved ones: Do not answer the door for any reason. Some of the recently dead are masquerading as policeman, door-to-door salesmen and even Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some of these assassins are even able to pass as ordinary human beings. They are extremely dangerous. We have some disturbing footage to show you right now. We warn you: if any children are present these images could prove distasteful.“
“See?” Swanson said. “We’re supposed to stay where we are.”
“I have to agree, Had,” Friedrich said. “I don’t understand why you think we should leave.”
Hadley reached up and turned off the television.
“Hey!” Emmet squawked.
“Has everyone forgotten where we are?” Hadley said. “We’re right in the middle of Valhalla Illinois.”
“So?” Swanson said.
Hadley bit back the urge to stab him in the neck.
“Mr. Swanson, there are seventeen cemeteries within a two mile radius of where we’re standing.”
Emmet the mailman stood up as if someone had just goosed him with a cattle prod, and murmured, ““Where the Midwest Comes To Say Goodbye.””
“Everyone in this town either works at a cemetery or knows someone who does,” Hadley said. “Rte 45 runs past six funeral parlors, three hospitals, five retirement communities and nine different cemeteries.”
“Industry town,” Emmet moaned. “Two thousand families clustered around seventeen boneyards---“
Friedrich nodded. “I see your point.”
Then the front window exploded.
Deke Simmons and Mandy McCafferty staggered into the Stop-N-Drop.
When he was alive, Deke always called himself “one big black son-of-a-bitch,” but he also had a heart of gold. Six weeks earlier, Hadley had wandered into the Stop-n-Drop, needing to make a demo for American Icon but hard-up for extra cash. Deke had recognized her: a week earlier she’d sung the National Anthem at Deke Jr.’s Little League baseball game.
“Talent like yours might brighten up this dump, Songbird,” Deke had said. And he'd offered her the cashier’s job on the spot.
Someone had smashed Deke’s face back into the cavity once occupied by his skull. Now he looked like an ebony Cabbage Patch Doll. His head shook back and forth, one eye bulging from his head like a man trying to pass the world’s biggest kidney stone.
Mandy McCafferty also worked the early shift. She shuffled behind Deke, a big black frying pan dangling loosely in her right hand. Hadley saw several glittering yellow objects clinging to the gore clotted along the edge of the pan.
Those are Deke’s gold teeth, she thought.
She’d heard the gossip about Deke and Mandy, had caught them loitering around Deke’s Roadwinder Winnebago, parked out back, more than once.
Someone had torn big hunks out of Mandy’s throat and the side of her neck. The top half of her yellow t-shirt was stiff with blood. From the waist down, Mandy was naked.
Emmet the mailman turned and clunked toward the front door. Mandy spun and hurled the frying pan across the counter. The flying skillet struck the back of Emmet’s skull and sent him sprawling. Mandy whined and lurched toward Emmet’s body.
Deke headed straight for Hadley.
“Deke?” Hadley said. “Deke?”
Then Mendoza jumped on Deke’s back.
Deke spun, his coal black arms beating at Mendoza’s face. Then Mendoza jammed a screwdriver into his ear. With a howl, Deke lifted the fry cook over his head and hurled him through the side window. Mendoza crashed through the glass and lay unmoving on the sidewalk.
Deke turned, Mendoza’s screwdriver dangling from his mutilated right ear. The yellow handle bounced against his cheek.
“Holy jumping shit,” Friedrich said.
Deke swiped at the screwdriver and howled like a dying rottweiler forced to listen to Britney Spears’s cover of Doctor Feelgood.
Over in the corner, Swanson and Ruby Ling were making out against the jukebox. At least, it looked like they were making out. Swanson’s face was buried in the crook between Ruby Ling’s neck and shoulder, while Ruby Ling’s hands clutched at the back of Swanson’s head. Swanson pulled away, blood streaming down his chin, and Ruby Ling fell, gushing red violets, to the floor.
“Son of a bitch went over and never told anybody!” Hadley screamed.
“Finger---lickin’---goooood,” Swanson groaned.
Clovis shot Mandy in the face, blasted her back through the broken window. Then Swanson tackled Friedrich.
“Help me!” Friedrich screamed.
Deke lunged at Hadley, forced her to retreat. Hadley aimed a half-hearted swipe at the ex-NFL star’s hand and dodged around him.
Swanson was dragging the struggling Friedrich toward the restroom. Hadley ran toward them, knowing she was too late: Swanson was one of them.
One of the quick ones.
“Clovis!” she screamed.
Clovis was behind the counter rifling through the drawers and shelves. “Where the hell did Deke keep the goddamned ammo?” she screamed.
Swanson punched his hand through Friedrich’s chest, ripped out something red and stuffed it into his mouth. Hadley swung the meat cleaver up, intending to sever Swanson’s head from his shoulders. But Swanson whirled and backhanded her across the face. Hadley flew across a nearby table, bounced off the vinyl seat of a nearby booth and slid out of sight. The meat cleaver landed a few feet away.
Two more strokers staggered in through the front window. At the same time, the kitchen door banged open and Eduardo stumbled, noseless and extinct, into the truck stop.
Clovis jumped onto the counter. Eduardo climbed up after her.
“Shit,” Clovis hissed.
At the last moment, she turned and dove, reached out and grasped the blade of the big overhead ceiling fan. Eduardo grabbed Clovis’s leg and bit down on one of her engineer’s boots. Clovis kicked him in the face with the other foot, freed herself. She used the momentum to swing herself up and hooked her legs over the nearest fan blade. She hugged the ceiling fan, spinning lazy circles above outstretched zombie hands.
Eduardo fell off the end of the counter and hit the floor. Hadley heard bones snap. Eduardo got up anyway, his head hanging from his neck at an obscene angle.
“We gotta get to my truck!” Clovis screamed.
Swanson finished whatever he’d snatched out of Friedrich’s chest. He turned and glared at Hadley.
“Low---low---prices,” he moaned.
“Oh crap,” Hadley yelped.
Swanson got to his feet.
“Move your ass, girl!” Clovis yelled.
But Hadley was wedged between the booth and the table post. Her right leg was
bent backward at an awkward angle, her foot pinned beneath her in a kind of
Having decided to abandon his pursuit of the spinning Clovis, Eduardo dragged himself toward Hadley, his broken leg trailing dejectedly behind him.
Hadley’s every move wedged her more tightly between the seat and the post. The other zombies, sensing easier prey, shuffled toward her. Swanson grabbed Hadley’s right foot and pulled. Hadley cried out as her legs were pulled apart.
Then Swanson was grabbed from behind and hauled to his feet. Hadley was pulled forward even more, her foot gripped in Swanson’s hand, until her back leg straightened out and she was able to slide out from beneath the table.
Deke had Swanson in a chokehold. Swanson fought with a maniac’s intensity, biting Deke’s forearm, dragging long red runnels into the skin of Deke’s neck and face with his fingernails. But Deke held on. He grabbed Swanson by the scruff of the neck, reared back with him and slammed his face into the table-
Bam Bam Bam Bam Bam
-until Swanson stopped fighting and slid off the table.
Over near the jukebox, Ruby Ling sat up and giggled.
Hadley got to her feet, chest heaving. Her hands were shaking and she realized she was dancing around the edges of shock.
"Ain't no valley low enough," she muttered, and pulled her shit together.
Deke turned and glared at the other zombies. They stopped and regarded Deke with the air of conscientious students. And Hadley understood: Somehow, Deke had become one of the quick ones.
Hadley edged forward, her fingers reaching for the screwdriver sticking out of Deke’s ear. Deke backed away.
“Nnooo,” he moaned. “Helllpssss meee.”
"Oh," Hadley said, her eyes filling up. "Okay."
Clovis climbed down off of the ceiling fan.
“Hadley,” she hissed. “I hear more of ‘em comin’! We gotta move."
“Moooorrree,” Deke said. “Lotsss--- more.”
“We have to go, Deke,” Hadley said, barely able to speak now. "I'm sorry."
Deke nodded slowly. Then he opened his mouth. Hadley tensed, ready to bolt.
Over by the front door, Emmet the mailman got to his feet, the back of his head leaking, and turned toward Clovis. Deke lifted a hand. Emmet whined, and stood still. Deke turned back.
““If you need me,”” she began. ““Call me. No---no matter where you are. No matter how far---““
More and more strokers were stumbling into the truck stop. But Deke held them. Hadley lifted her voice and sent the song out over the heads of her audience until her voice echoed up and down rte 45.
When she was done, Deke nodded. “Sonnngbirrrrd.”
There were nearly fifty dead people moaning behind him.
“Hadley,” Clovis hissed.
Deke faced the strokers who blocked the front window. The corpses shuffled and parted. Hadley and Clovis walked quickly through a gauntlet of the shuffling dead.
Hadley climbed up into the cab of Clovis’s eighteen-wheeler. Behind her, Deke stood in the window shaking his head, the yellow screwdriver bouncing against his shoulder.
In the northern distance, black towers of smoke rose into the afternoon sky: Chicago was burning.
“Three million dreams,” Hadley whispered.
Clovis frowned. “What?”
“Nothing,” Hadley replied. “Better head south.”
Clovis nodded. “Long as you keep singin.’”
They thundered out onto the highway.
As they passed, a few of the dead paused. But a terrible hunger tugged most of them toward the burning city to the north. They walked on.
But some of them cocked their heads to mark the passing of a newborn star.