"Wow," said Phil, "I was starting to wonder if anybody was still out there. Hey, can I get you anything? I know where there's some food..."
"Where were you?" Carlos said sternly.
"There's storage sheds in back, an' old Pete's place," said Phil. "I've been keeping time in an old trailer, out in the junkyard. They don't come back there much, though there's this crazy cop comes by sometimes."
Carlos waved to the Dodge on the lift. "The cop isn't going anywhere any more. Hold on... you said crazy. Don't you know what's going on?"
"I heard some stories," Phil said guardedly. "I didn't know what to think. Nobody did. Then a couple weeks ago, that Bug drove in, a woman with a guy who was busted up, and the cop came when Junior called for help. I hardly saw anything. I was busy trying to handle this crazy back order... Somebody wanted a transmission part for this completely obscure European model, the company that made it hasn't existed for, like, thirty years ago. Obviously, the owners should have been scrapped years ago, but Jonny told me, it's not our job to tell the customers what to do... Anyway, I heard the screams. I was in here, and Jon came out, jumped in that truck and told me to raise the lift and get in. So I did, only Jonny wouldn't let me in. Then I saw Art run out of the garage for the cop's car, and the cop came out and just shot him. So I just ran like hell..."
"Probably the best thing you could have done," Carlos said. "Hold on. Trouble." Down the path came five more shufflers.
"What are they?" Meg asked. "I mean, really."
"Your guess is good as any," Carlos said. "But if you're asking for a name, `kudlak' is good as any. It's a word from Yugoslavia for what we would call a vampire. That's where all this started, or at least the first place where the rest of the world heard about it. The Yugoslavs gave two stories, one on top of the other. First they said that there were `panics' in isolated areas where people still believed in kudlaks: Bodies were bein' dug up an' destroyed, just like in the movies, only it was getting' out of hand. Then they announced that this time- and who knows 'bout the other times?- dead bodies really were getting up, walking around, and attacking the living. Not that anybody believed 'em, until bodies started walking out of the morgues in Budapest."
He paced to the left, drawing a kudlak after him. "The first reports said they could be killed by a shot to the head. They were wrong, and anybody who knew anything about the brain should have known better. The human brain is kinda like that VW. The steering- what you'd call human intelligence- is up front. But plain old regular people survive major trauma there all the time." He struck the kudlak across the temple. It fell face down, and after a short time, started to rise. "That's 'cause the power- balance, heart beat, reflexes- is all in back. Most every animal that's ever lived has got by on hardly nothin' else, an' so can they." He drove the point of the hammer into the base of the skull. "Bottom line, you hit them just anywhere in the head, then sure, they fall down. Hit 'em in the hind brain or the spinal cord, an' then they stay down."
Meg shuddered involuntarily. She suddenly experienced the most vivid recollection of a moment that had seemed blacked out of her consciousness: Aiming the magnum at Greg, pulling the trigger, seeing the spurt of blood... from his temple.
The rest of the shufflers went straight for Carlos. Meg reached for her magnum, but Carlos only grinned and twirled the hammer. As the nearest stretched out, a voice Meg had never heard before called out in words she had never heard before either. The shuffler turned its head, to a man of at least 50 with a face that could only belong to an Indian. The Indian spoke again, quieter but still loud and no less firm, repeating one sentence or so over and over again. Meg could not guess what language the words were from, let alone what they meant. She might have taken some comfort in knowing that the handful of ethnologists who had heard a few meager snatches of the same tongue had been equally at a loss to comprehend or even classify it.
The point of Carlos's hammer caught the shuffler in the ear. It dropped immediately. The rest shuffled indecisively, first toward the Indian and then toward Carlos, while the Indian went through more languages, including a snatch of one she thought she recognized (in fact, correctly) as Navajo. "If you don't get the brain stem or the spine, the ear's the next best thing. There's little bones in there, and they work like teeny little gyroscopes. Take out even one ear, and balance is shot." He drove the point of the hammer into the back of the skull. "That's what happened to the one that was crawling around. He did better than most; usually, they don't even make it upright again."
The Indian had got to Spanish: "Su es muerte! Vaya con los muertos!" Then English: "You dead! You belong dead! Go to the dead!"
Meg stared, and Carlos gave her an understanding look. "You think this is crazy?" he said. "I'll tell you what's really crazy: I've seen it work." He cheerfully struck down the hindmost, jerking it back with the point in its brain like a shepherd hooking a sheep. Meg sprinted to the Indian's side as he drew the shufflers down the path.
"You! Hey you!" she said. "Over here! I'm talking to you!"
The shufflers came faster. The Indian gave her a venomous glare. "Quiet! No talk to dead!" Then he thrust something into her hand and ordered, "Hold this." She was surprised enough to comply. It was a lighter.
The Indian took out a bow and an arrow. He thrust the arrow at her. "Light." The lighter was unfamiliar to her, a metal-shelled specimen from her grandfather's days. But it lit at the first try, and she touched the flame gingerly to a wad of rags around the arrow's tip. She had scarcely done that before the bowstring twanged and a shuffler went up like a water balloon filled with gasoline.
The burning shuffler froze in place, howling as it burned and finally collapsing. The last, already nearer, broke into a loping stride, straight for Meg. The Indian stepped right in front of her, shouting in the first language he had used, this time only a single phrase. The shuffler backed up a pace, and the Indian took back his lighter and waved it in its face. The lolling head went stiffly back and forth. Then the Indian stepped aside and dragged Med with him, just before the better part of the kudlak's head disappeared at the roar of the 12-gauge.
"You did no have to do that," the Indian said to Carlos, who crouched at the end of the path. "Make a lot of noise. Could bring more. Could hit us."
"Oi fired up, an' it was taller than you," Carlos said. He pointed to the other kudlak, still burning merrily. "'Sides, 'e didn't 'sactly go quietly, did he? Speakin' of..." Just down the road, three more shufflers had stopped, and two were turning around. Four more were approaching from the other direction. Then, from out of the bushes a few feet away, another rose. It had a large wound in its temple, from Meg's magnum. Carlos blew its head off with his remaining shell, and then retreated.
"What's your name?" Meg said to the Indian as they followed.
"Indian Joe?" She shook her head, trying to keep Mark Twain from her mind. "What's your last name?"
Two kudlaks had reached the path. Carlos unlimbered his 20-gauge and fired at the nearest kudlak, still more than 60 feet away. The range was a bit long for a shotgun, but the load was a slug that carried far enough to wing a cactus 200 feet away. Carlos fired another shot, and the other kudlak staggered and fell with a round in the chest. He pumped the gun for another shot, but the shuffler's path had put the damaged pump in the line of fire. "That's it," he said. "Time for the cavalry!" He pulled out a radio and said, "George, we're ready, but come in hot!"
From back at the turn-off, there was a whine of an engine, and a great cloud of dust. Carlos took a shot and felled the nearest shuffler between the pumps. Three more were headed down the path, while the one he had shot was getting to its feet. Another stood at the mouth of the path, looking back. Then the whine of the engine grew louder, and an amazing vehicular apparition rolled into view.
It was a boxy but streamlined van, painted in shades of yellow with a reddish-orange roof and trim. It looked like a VW Bus except for a grill that clearly indicated a front-engine vehicle, and bore the shape of a silver smiley face, and a clearly-modified roof gave it a humpbacked look vaguely like a buffalo Carlos winced as the van mowed down the hindmost shuffler. "You can't get parts by mail order no more," he said to nobody in particular.
Three young men instantly piled out of the camper van. The first, lanky, shirtless and armed with an aluminum bat, bounded out of the rear door, while the other two hustled out of the double doors in the side, one armed with a pick axe and another with a shovel. The pair teamed up to dispatch the kudlak getting to its feet, while their companion sprinted forward. One shuffler turned a hollow clong, just in time to catch the bat across knee cap. An upward swing caught it in the ear as it fell. The shirtless young man whooped and laughed, then swore in surprise more than concern when the last shuffler pivoted and came at him straight over its fellow. The shuffler on its feet tripped over the other as it started to rise from the ground. The young man simply stepped back and struck, again and again. Behind him, the team were struggling to dislodge the pick axe from the skull of the first zombie he had felled. Meanwhile the other shuffler at his feet was its way out from under the one he was vigorously beating and back to its hands and knees. Then the duo caught up, and one blow each finished the shuffler.
Two young woman emerged from the camper, one tall and athletic and the other short and leaning toward pudgy. The shuffler struck by the Thing was nearly at their feet, its back clearly broken: Its hands clawed the ground furiously and clutched for the a shapely leg, but the rest of its body hardly budged. The pudgy one struck it with a snow shovel, and then gripped the spur-shaped end of the handle to drive the edge straight downward into its neck. One final shuffler, having held back through the melee, turned around and started shuffling the other way. That was when a bearded, balding, grandfatherly man stepped out of the cab, and pulled a very long-handled shovel with a narrow, spade-like blade from a rack on the side of the roof extension The shuffler sped up as the older man followed, and it looked as if it would outpace its pursuer. Then the old man put on a little more speed, and suddenly thrust the shovel like a polearm. For a moment, the shuffler's feet scuffed in place. Then the man jerked back the shovel, and the shuffler dropped with its head nearly severed.
David N. Brown