How the Day Runs Down by John Langan

John Langan is the author of several stories, including "Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers," which appeared in my anthology Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. That story, and all of his other fiction to date, was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  In December, these will be collected in Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, along with a previously-unpublished novella.  Other forthcoming work includes a story in Ellen Datlow’s anthology, Poe.

"How the Day Runs Down," which is original to this volume, resulted from Langan’s notion to write a monologue from the point of view of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, in which "our town" was infested with zombies. "I’m not sure what prompted me to combine those two things," Langan said. "There was a certain mordant humor in the juxtaposition of the Stage Manager’s homespun wisdom with zombie horror that appealed to me."

This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.


How the Day Runs Down
by John Langan

(The stage dark with the almost-blue light of the late, late night, when you’ve been up well past the third ranks of late-night talk shows, into the land of the infomercial, the late show movies whose soundtrack is out of sync with its characters’ mouths and which may break for commercial without regard for the action on the screen, the re-broadcast of the news you couldn’t bear to watch the first time. It is possible—just—to discern rows of smallish, rectangular shapes running across the stage, as well as the bulk of a more substantial, though irregular, shape to the rear. The sky is dark: no moon, no stars.

(When the STAGE MANAGER snaps on his flashlight—a large one whose bright beam he sweeps back and forth over the audience once, twice, three times—the effect of the sudden light, the twirl of shadows around the theater, is emphasized by brushes rushing over drums, which give the sound of leaves, and a rainstick, which conjures the image of bones clicking against one another more than it does rain.

(Having surveyed the audience to his apparent-satisfaction, the Stage Manager trains his light closer to home. This allows the audience to see the rows of tombstones that stretch the width of the stage, two deep in most places, three in a couple. Even from his quick inspection of them, it is clear that these are old tombstones, most of them chipped and worn almost smooth. The Stage Manager spares a moment for the gnarled shape behind the tombstones, a squat willow, before positioning the flashlight on the ground to his left, bottom down, so that its white light draws a cone in the air. He settles himself down beside it, his back leaning for and finding a tombstone, his legs gradually crossing in front of him.

(It has to be said, even with the light shining right beside him, the Stage Manager is not easy to see. A reasonable guess would locate him somewhere in his late forties, but estimates a decade to either side would not be unreasonable. His eyes are deep set, sheltered under heavy brows and the bill of the worn baseball cap on his head. His nose is thick and may have been broken in some distant confrontation; the shadows from the light spilling across his face make it difficult to decide if his broad upper lip sports a mustache; although his solid chin is clear of any hair. His ethnicity is uncertain; he could put in an appearance at most audience members’ family reunions as a cousin twice-removed and not look out of place. He is dressed warmly, for late fall, in a bomber jacket, flannel shirt, jeans, and heavy boots.)

Stage Manager: Zombies. As with most things in life, the reality, when compared to the high-tech, Hollywood-gloss of the movies, comes as something of a surprise. For one thing, there’s the smell, a stench that combines all the worst elements of raw sewage and rotted meat, together with the faint tang of formaldehyde. Folks used to think that last was from the funeral homes—whatever they’d used to pickle dear Aunt Myrtle—but as it turned out, this wasn’t the case. It’s just part of the smell they bring with them. Some people—scientists, doctors—have speculated that it’s the particular odor of whatever is causing the dead to rise up and stagger around; although I gather other scientists and doctors have disagreed with that theory. But you don’t have to understand the chemistry of it to know that it’s theirs.

For another thing, when it comes to zombies, no one anticipated how persistent the damned things would be. You shoot them in the chest, they keep on coming. You shoot them in the leg—hell, you blow their leg clean off with your shotgun at point-blank range, they fall on their side, flop around for a minute or two, then figure out how to get themselves on their front so they can pull themselves forward with their hands, while they push with their remaining leg. And all the time, the leg you shot off is twitching like mad, as if, if it had a few more nerve cells at its disposal, it would find a way to continue after you itself. There is shooting in the head—it’s true, that works, destroy enough brain matter and they drop—but do you have any idea what it’s like to try to hit a moving target, even a slow-moving one, in the head at any kind of distance? Especially if you aren’t using a state of the art sniper rifle, but the snub-nosed thirty-eight you bought ten years ago when the house next door was burglarized and haven’t given a thought to since—and the face you’re aiming at belongs to your pastor, who just last Saturday was exhorting the members of your diminished congregation not to lose hope, the Lord was testing you.

(From high over the Stage Manager’s head, a spotlight snaps on, illuminating OWEN TREZZA standing in the center aisle about three-quarters of the way to the stage. He’s facing the back of the theater. At a guess, he’s in his mid thirties, his brown hair standing out in odd directions the way it does when you’ve slept on it and not washed it for several days running, his glasses duct-taped on the right side, his cheeks and chin full of stubble going to beard. The denim jacket he’s wearing is stained with dirt, grass, and what it would be nice to think of as oil, as are his jeans. The green sweatshirt under his jacket is, if not clean, at least not marred by any obvious discolorations; although whatever logo it boasted has flaked away to a few scattered flecks of white. In his outstretched right hand, he holds a revolver with an abbreviated barrel that wavers noticeably as he points it at something outside the spotlight’s reach.)

Owen: Oh, Jesus. Oh, sweet Jesus. Stop. Stop right there! Pastor Parks? Please—don’t come any closer. Pastor? It’s Owen, Owen Trezza. Please—can you please stay where you are? I don’t want to –you really need to stay there. We just have to make sure—Jesus. Please. Owen Trezza—I attend the ten o’clock service. With my wife, Kathy. We sit on the left side of the church—our left, a couple pews from the front. Pastor Parks? Can you please stop? I know you’re probably in shock, but—please, if you don’t stop, I’m going to have to shoot. It’s Owen. My wife’s expecting our first child. She has red hair. Will you stop? Will you just stop? Goddamnit, Pastor, I will shoot! I don’t want to, but you’re giving me no choice. Please! I don’t want to have to pull this trigger, but if you don’t stay where you are, I’ll have to. Don’t make me do this. For Christ’s sake, won’t you stop? I have a child on the way. I don’t want to have to shoot you.

(From outside the range of the spotlight, the sound of inexpensive loafers dragging across the carpet.)

Owen: Pastor Parks—Michael—Michael Parks, this is your final warning. Stop right there. Stop. Right. There.

(The shoes continue their scrape over the carpet. From the rear of the theater, a terrible odor rolls forward, like the cloud that hangs around the carcass of a deer two days dead and burst open on a hot summer afternoon. Owen’s hand is shaking badly. He grabs his right wrist with his left hand, which steadies it enough for him to pull the trigger. The gun cracks like an especially loud firecracker and jerks up and away. Owen brings it back to aim.)

Owen: Okay—that was a warning shot. Now please stay where you are.

(The rough noise of the steps is joined by the outline of a figure at the edge of the spotlight’s glow. Owen shoots a second time; again, the gun cracks and leaps back. He swings it around and pulls the trigger four times, straining to keep the pistol pointed ahead. Now the air is heavy with the sharp smell of gunsmoke. Hands at its sides, back stiff, swaying like a metronome as it walks, the figure advances into the light. It is a man perhaps ten years Owen’s senior, dressed in a pair of khaki slacks and a black short-sleeved shirt whose round white collar is crusted with dried blood. Except for a spot over his collar, which is open in a dull, ragged wound the color of old liver, his skin is gray. Although it is difficult to see his face well, it is slack, his mouth hanging open, his eyes vacant. The hammer clacks as Owen attempts to fire his empty gun.)

Owen: Come on, Pastor Parks. I’m sorry I called you Michael. Come on—I know you can hear me. Stop. Please. Stop. Will you stop? Will you just stop? For the love of Christ, will you just fucking STOP!

(PASTOR MICHAEL PARKS—or, the zombie formerly known by that name—does not respond to Owen’s latest command any more than he has those preceding it. Owen’s hands drop. A look passes over his face—the momentary stun of someone recognizing his imminent mortality—only to be chased off by a surge of denial. He starts to speak.

(Whatever he was about to say, whether plea or threat or defiance, is drowned out by a BOOM that staggers the ears. Simultaneously, the back of Pastor Parks’s head blows out in a spray of stale blood and congealed brains and splinters of bone that spatters those sitting to either side of the aisle. The minister drops to the floor.

(The Stage Manager has risen to his feet. In his right hand, he holds out a long-barreled pistol trailing a wisp of smoke. For what is probably not more than five seconds, he keeps the gun trained on the Pastor’s unmoving body, then raises the revolver and returns it to a shoulder holster under his left arm. Owen Trezza continues staring at the corpse as the spotlight snaps off. The Stage Manager resumes his seat.)

Stage Manager: No, there are some marksmen and –women about, that’s for sure, but it’s equally sure they’re in the minority. Most folks have to rely on other methods. A few would-be he-men have tried to play Conan the Barbarian, rushed the zombies with a hatchet in one hand, a butcher knife in the other. One particularly inspired specimen, a heavyset guy named Gary Floss, rip-started the chainsaw he’d bought to take down the line of pines in front of his house. (This was a mistake: then everyone saw what lousy shape Gary kept his house in.) The problem is, that hatchet you have in your right hand isn’t a weapon; it’s a tool you’ve used splitting wood for the fireplace, and while it’s probably sharp enough for another winter’s worth of logs, it’s not going to separate someone’s head from their shoulders with a single blow from your mighty arm. The same thing’s true for the knife sweating up your left hand: it’s cutlery, and if you recall the effort it takes to slice a roast with it—a roast that is not trying to find its way inside your skull with its persistent fingers—you might want to reconsider your chances of removing limbs with ease. Even if you have a razor-sharp ax and an honest-to-God machete, these things are actually rather difficult to use well. The movies—again—aside, no one picks up this kind of weapon and is instantly skilled with it; you need training. In the meantime, you’re likely to leave your hatchet lodged in a collar bone, the pride of your assorted knives protruding above a hip.

As for Gary Floss and his chainsaw—you want to be careful swinging one of those around. A man could take off an arm.

(To the right and left of the theater, the snarl of a chainsaw starting. It revs once, twice, a third time, changes pitch as it catches on something. It blends with a man’s voice shrieking—then silence.)

Stage Manager: What works is fire. Zombies move away from fire faster than they move towards a fresh kill. The problem is, they’re not especially flammable—no more than you or I are—so you have to find a way to make the fire stick. For a time, this meant Billy Joe Royale’s homemade napalm. A lingering sense of civic responsibility precludes me from disclosing the formula for Billy Joe’s incendiary weapon, which he modified from suggestions in—was it The Anarchist’s Cookbook? or an old issue of Soldier of Fortune? or something he’d watched on the Discovery Channel, back before it stopped broadcasting? (It’s the damnedest thing: do you know, the History Channel’s still on the air? Just about every other channel’s gone blue. Once in a while, one of the stations out of the City will manage a broadcast; the last was a week and a half ago, when the ABC affiliate showed a truncated news report that didn’t tell anyone much they hadn’t already heard or guessed, and a re-run of an episode of General Hospital from sometime in the late nineties. But wherever the History Channel is located, someone programmed in twenty-four hours’ worth of old World War II documentaries that have been playing on continuous loop ever since. You go from D-Day to Pear Harbor to Anzo, all of it in black and white, interrupted by colorful ads for restaurant chains that haven’t served a meal in a month, cars that no one’s seen on the road for as long, movies that never made it to the theater. Truth to tell, I think the folks who bother to waste their generator’s power on the TV do so more for the commercials than any nostalgia for a supposed Greatest Generation. These days, a Big Mac seems an almost fabulous extravagance, a Cadillac opulent decadence, a new movie an impossible indulgence.)

That’s all a bit off-topic, though. We were talking about Billy Joe and his bathtub napalm. By the time he perfected the mixture, the situation here had slid down the firepole from not-too-bad to disastrous, all within the matter of a couple of days. Where we are—

Son of a gun. I never told you the name of this place, did I? I apologize. It’s—the zombies have become so much the center of existence that they’re the default topic of conversation, what we have now instead of the weather. This is the town of Goodhope Crossing, specifically, the municipal cemetery out behind the Dutch Reformed Church. Where I’m sitting is the oldest part of the place; the newer graves are…

(The Stage Manager points out at the audience.)

Stage Manager: Relax, relax. While there’s nowhere that’s completely safe anymore, the cemetery’s no worse a danger than anyplace else. For the better part of—I reckon it must be going on four decades, local regulations have decreed that every body must be buried in a properly-sealed coffin, and that coffin must be buried within a vault. To prevent contamination of groundwater and the like. The zombies have demonstrated their ability to claw their way out of all sorts of coffins time and again, but I have yet to hear of any of them escaping a vault. Rumors to the contrary, they’re not any stronger than you or me; in fact, as a rule, they tend to be weaker. And the longer they go without feeding, the weaker they become. Muscle decay, you know. Hunger doesn’t exactly kill them—it more slows them down to the point they’re basically motionless. Dormant, you might say. So the chances are good that anyone who might’ve been squirming around down there in the dirt has long since run out of gas. Granted, not that I’m in any rush to make absolutely sure.

It is true, those who passed on before the requirement for a vault were able to make their way to the surface. A lot of them weren’t exactly in the best of shape to begin with, though, and the ordeal of breaking out of their coffins and fighting up through six feet of earth—the soil in these parts is dense, thick with clay and studded with rocks—it didn’t do anything to help their condition, that’s for sure. Some of the very old ones didn’t arrive in one piece, and there were some who either couldn’t complete the trip or weren’t coherent enough even to start it.

(Stage right, a stage light pops on, throwing a dim yellow glow over one of the tombstones and JENNIFER and JACKSON HOWLAND, her standing behind the headstone, him seated on the ground in front of and to its right. They are sister and brother, what their parents’ friends secretly call Catholic or Irish twins: Jennifer is ten months her brother’s senior, which currently translates to seventeen to his sixteen. They are siblings as much in their build—tall yet heavy—as they are in their angular faces, their brown eyes, their curly brown hair. Both are dressed in orange hunting caps and orange hunting vests over white cable-knit sweaters, jeans, and construction boots. Jennifer props a shotgun against her right hip and snaps a piece of bubblegum. Jackson has placed his shotgun on the ground behind him; chin on his fists, he stares at the ground.)

Jennifer: I still say you’re sitting too close.

Jackson: It’s fine, Jenn.

Jennifer: Yeah, well, see how fine it is when I have to shoot you in the head to keep you from making me your Happy Meal.

(Jackson sighs extravagantly, pushes himself backwards, over and behind his gun.)

Jackson: There. Is that better?

Jennifer: As long as the person whose grave you’re sitting on now doesn’t decide your ass would make a tasty treat.

(Jackson glares at her and climbs to his feet.)

Jennifer: Aren’t you forgetting something?

(She nods at the shotgun lying on the ground. Jackson thrusts his hands in the pockets of his vest.)

Jackson: I’m sure there’ll be plenty of time for me to arm myself if anything shows up.

Jennifer: Don’t be so sure. Christine Compton said her family was attacked by a pair of eaters who ran like track stars.

Jackson: Uh-huh.

Jennifer: Why would she make that up?

Jackson: She—did Mr. Compton kill them?

Jennifer: It was Mrs. Compton, actually. Christine’s dad can’t shoot worth shit.

Jackson: Regardless—they’re both dead, these sprinting zombies. Again. So we don’t have to worry about them.

Jennifer: There could be others. You never know.

Jackson: I’ll take my chances. (Pauses.) Besides, it’s not as if we need to be here in the first place.

Jennifer: Oh?

Jackson: Don’t you think, if Great-Grandma Rose were going to return, she would have already? I mean, it’s been like, what? ten days? two weeks? since the last ones dug themselves out. And it took them a while to do that.

Jennifer: Right, which means there could be others who’ll need even longer.

Jackson: Do you really believe that?

Jennifer: Look—it’s what Dad wants, okay?

Jackson: And we all know he’s the poster-child for mental health these days.

Jennifer: What do you expect? After what happened to Mom and Lisa—

Jackson: What he says happened.

Jennifer: Not this shit again.

Jackson: All I’m saying is, the three of them were in the car—in a Hummer, for Christ’s sake. They had guns. How does that situation turn against you? That’s an honest question. I’d love to know how you go from that to—

Jennifer: Just shut up.

Jackson: Whatever.

(The siblings look away from one another. Jackson wanders the graves to the right, almost off-stage, then slowly turns and walks back to their great-grandmother’s grave. While he does, Jennifer checks her gun, aims it at the ground in front of the tombstone, and returns it to its perch on her hip. Jackson steps over his shotgun and squats beside the grave.)

Jackson: Did Dad even know her?

Jennifer: His grandmother? I don’t think so. Didn’t she die before he was born? Like, years before, when Grandpa Jack was a kid?

Jackson: I guess. I don’t remember. Dad and I never talked about that kind of stuff—family history.

Jennifer: I’m pretty sure he never met her.

Jackson: Great.

(Another pause.)

Jennifer: You want to know what I keep thinking about?

Jackson: Do I have a choice?

Jennifer: Hey, fuck you. If that’s the way you’re going to be, fuck you.

Jackson: I’m sorry. Sorry, geez.

Jennifer: Forget it.

Jackson: Seriously. Come on. I’m sorry.

Jennifer: I was going to say that, for like the last week, I haven’t been able to get that Thanksgiving we went to Grandpa Jack’s out of my head. That cranberry sauce Dad made—

Jackson: Oh yeah, yeah! Man, that was awful. What was it he put in it…

Jennifer: Jalapeño peppers.

Jackson: Yes! Yes! Remember, Grandpa started coughing so hard—

Jennifer: His teeth shot out onto Mom’s plate!

Jackson: Yeah…(He wipes his eyes.) Hey. (He stands, stares down at the grave.) Is that—what is that?

Jennifer: What?

Jackson: (Pointing.) There. In the middle. See how the ground’s…

(Jennifer positions her gun, setting the stock against her shoulder, lowering the barrel, and steps around the headstone.)

Jennifer: Show me.

(Jackson kneels, brings his right hand to within an inch of the ground.)

Jennifer: Not so close.

Jackson: You see it, right?

(Jennifer nods. Jackson rises and steps back onto his gun, almost tripping over it.)

Jennifer: You might want to cover your ears.

(Jennifer fires five times into the earth. Jackson slaps his hands to either side of his head as dirt jumps up from the grave. The noise of the shotgun is considerable, a roar that chases its echoes around the inside of the theater. There’s a fair amount of gunsmoke, too, so that when Jennifer steps back and raises her gun, Jackson coughs and waves his arms to clear the air.)

Jackson: Holy shit.

Jennifer: No sense in doing a half-assed job.

Jackson: Was it her?

Jennifer: I think so. Something was right at the surface.

Jackson: Let’s hope it wasn’t a woodchuck.

Jennifer: Do you see any woodchuck guts?

Jackson: I don’t see much of anything. (He stoops, retrieves his shotgun.) Does this mean we can go home?

Jennifer: We should probably wait a couple more minutes, just to be sure.

Jackson: Wonderful.

(The two of them stare down at the grave. The stage light pops off.)

[End of Excerpt]