John Langan has published several stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, two of which–”On Skua Island” and “Mr. Gaunt”–were nominated for the International Horror Guild Award. A collection of his short work, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, is forthcoming from Prime Books. Langan’s reviews and essays have appeared in Dead Reckonings, Erebos, Extrapolation, Fantasy Commentator, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, The Lovecraft Annual, Lovecraft Studies, and Science Fiction Studies. An adjunct instructor at SUNY New Paltz, he is in the process of completing his dissertation on H.P. Lovecraft.
“Episode Seven” is reinvention of a story Langan wrote in his early twenties. This current version was influenced by another story in this volume: “The End of the World As We Know It” by Dale Bailey. “Dale’s story is a great revision of the classic, mid-century post-apocalypse story,” Langan says. “I admired what he’d achieved, but I also felt a bit of rivalry, a desire to show that not everyone would roll over and go gently into that good night.”
This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.
Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack
in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers
by John Langan
“There’s a whole lot of hate left on this world, Spiderman.”
– Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection
“Come On Down, Make the Stand.”
– The Alarm, The Stand
“He was not assaulted by a roving pack of feral dogs.”
– Dale Bailey, “The End of the World As We Know It”
AFTER three days and nights on the run—
—during which they slept in thirty-, sixty-, and ninety-minute snatches, in the backs of large cars and SUVs, in a hotel lobby, in a sporting goods store at one end of a mall—
—they managed to pull ahead of the Pack—
—who had been too close from the start and drawn closer than that, despite Wayne’s traps, all of which were clever and a few ingenious and the least of which thinned the Pack by two or three; until Wayne succeeded in luring them onto the walkway between the foodcourt and the mall’s front entrance, where he detonated something that not only dropped the floor out from beneath the Pack, but brought the roof down, too, raining shards of glass like so many economy-sized guillotines—Jackie had wanted to stay and finish the survivors, but Wayne had declared it was still too dangerous and hauled her out the door—
—cross the Bridge—
—too congested with cars for them to take the Jeep Cherokee Wayne had navigated up the surprisingly empty stretch of Route 9 between the mall and the Mid-Hudson Bridge, which had made them debate the pros and cons of continuing north along this side of the Hudson until they reached the next bridge, which might be clear or might not (for once, Wayne couldn’t make up his mind), until Jackie insisted they might as well cross here as cross anywhere: there would be plenty of cars on the other side, and if they didn’t do something, they were going to squander their lead and face the Pack on their terms (which, aside from that first, terrible introduction, they’d succeeded in avoiding)—so they abandoned the Jeep, shouldered the backpacks, heavy as ever (so much for having rested), and (the Bridge shifting underfoot in the wind that hummed through its cables like a choir warming up) wound their way through a labyrinth of vehicles jammed, it seemed, into every possible configuration, their interiors choked with the oversized, thick-stemmed purple flowers Jackie and Wayne had found inside the vast majority of vehicles they’d encountered thus far, wound around steering wheels, gearshifts, and pedals (the windows talced with violet pollen), which made operating the cars a problem they had neither tools or time to solve—there was a pickup whose cab was empty, but it was boxed against the railing by a trio of smaller cars, as if they’d brought it to bay there—
—set up camp on the other shore—
—on a ledge overlooking the spot where the Bridge slotted into the steep hills on the western shore of the Hudson—Wayne had noticed the shelf of rock as they followed the road up and to the right, past another cluster of cars full of purple flowers, pointing it out to Jackie—when they reached a place where the ledge was accessible from the road, up a steep path blocked by a gate Wayne was certain he could open, he had steered them towards it (even though Jackie’s legs trembled at the prospect of more and harder climbing), urging her on, murmuring encouragements, praise, until they had gained the top of the path and Wayne had sprung the lock on the gate, let them through, and snapped the lock closed again behind them—Jackie had followed him as he picked his way across the rocks littering the shelf; no more than fifteen feet at its widest, she guesstimated; the Bridge returning to view, and then Wayne had held up his hand as if he were some kind of native guide signaling the rest of the safari and said that this would do—
—and were preparing an ambush—
—Wayne starting back along the ledge almost as soon as they’d shucked their backpacks, taking with him only the bulky black canvas bag that Jackie thought of sometimes as his bag of tricks and sometimes as his utility belt, and one of the pistols, leaving the other guns with her: the rifle whose name she couldn’t remember but which Wayne had been very excited to find in the sporting goods store, and the two remaining pistols, one of which had come from Wayne’s father’s safe, the other from an empty police cruiser—“You don’t have to cover me,” he’d said, “but pay attention,” and she had, sitting with her bag propped against the backpacks, the rifle resting against the dome of her belly, as Wayne retraced their route down the hill to the Bridge and then out onto it, to set up some trap that had occurred to him, maybe two if there were time, till he was lost to view, obscured by the lean of the hill opposite her.
—Jacqueline Marie DiSalvo: twenty years old; five foot six, tall as her (most likely dead) father; she didn’t know how many pounds anymore, since stepping on scales hadn’t been at the top of her list of priorities for some time, now; her hair dark brown, long enough not to look short; her eyes brown, as well; her features carefully proportioned, (once, her [dead] father had described them to her as prim, which she hadn’t been sure how to take); her skin less tanned than she would have expected, considering all the time they’d spent outdoors this past month: much of it at night, true, and there had been almost a solid week of rain in the middle of it, but still; wearing an extra-large men’s white cotton t-shirt, gray sweatpants, white cotton athletic socks, and knock-off Birkenstocks that were comfortable but growing too tight: again, shoe shopping not a priority when you were running (or waddling, in her case) for your life—five weeks ago, she had been thirty-five days less pregnant, six and a half instead of nearly eight months “along” (her [most likely dead] doctor’s favorite euphemism for pregnancy, as if carrying a child were an exotic vacation): a difference that meant, practically speaking, a smaller stomach, smaller breasts, smaller everything; smaller her, who didn’t tire quite so quickly; who didn’t feel so out of breath all the time; who didn’t sleep well but better than lately, when comfort had taken the last train out; who didn’t need to stop to pee all the time, while Wayne stood guard, his gun out, his eyes sweeping whatever landscape they were in for the inevitable (re)appearance of the Pack—
—sat waiting for Wayne—
—Wayne Anthony Miller: twenty years old, two days younger than Jackie, in fact: she born on the third of July, he the fifth; six foot three; maybe one hundred and seventy pounds, not yet grown out of adolescent gangliness (his [most likely dead] mother’s term, which he’d overheard her use at a New Year’s party and which he’d confessed to Jackie left him feeling betrayed in some fundamental way); his hands and feet large, hung from long, skinny arms and legs that attached to a long, skinny torso; his hair grown long, a light brown that had been blond until his teens, framing a broad, square face with a small nose, narrow eyes, and generous mouth; he was wearing the same pair of jeans that had seen him through the last month, and which were little worse for wear (what an ad campaign: “Levi’s: We’ll Get You Through the End of Civilization: Rated Number One in Post-Apocalyptic Scenarios”), with a red plaid shirt open over a gray t-shirt emblazoned with Batman’s black bat emblem, and Doc Marten’s—five weeks ago, he had been working at the Barnes and Noble just south of the Bridge on the other side of the river and spending more of each paycheck than he should have at the comic book store in the plaza, there; his Associates Degree in Liberal Arts from Dutchess County Community College completed the previous semester; his future, which revolved around dreams of writing one of the Batman titles, still, as he liked to put it, a work-in-progress (this back when the future had extended further forward than the next twelve hours, and been somewhat more complex, yet also somewhat simpler, than trying to locate food and defensible shelter).
The sun was hot—
—roasting was a better word for it; although there was a substantial breeze blowing up from the river—Jackie supposed that the exposed rock around her, a grayish, sharp stuff that she should have been able to name but whose identity apparently lay in that part of her memory marked, “No Longer Useful,” amplified the heat, which wasn’t completely oppressive (soon, it would be, she would be panting like a dog with it, most likely feel the urge to strip down to her underwear, but for the moment it radiated through her pleasantly).
—the better part of two hours; what had he been doing out there?—
—waving to her as he walked off the Bridge; she waved back—
—long enough to pick up some rope—
—digging it out of his backpack, a hefty coil that looked like something a mountain climber might use and that he had been happy to find in a hardware store two weeks ago, which Jackie hadn’t understood, since the rope looked pretty heavy and she didn’t see the point in either of them taking on any more weight than was absolutely necessary—already, Wayne was carrying more than his fair share to compensate for her; she didn’t want him exhausting himself because of an inability to pass on everything that might prove useful someday—she hadn’t said anything out loud, though, and the addition of the rope seemed to have made no significant difference to him—
—and return to the Bridge—
—where he strung the rope across the road, running it back and forth and back and forth between a pair of the Bridge’s support cables, weaving a kind of improvised web that Jackie thought would slow down the weakest members of the Pack for about half a second, and that the leader and its (hers? his?) companions would be through in no time at all.
When he was done with his final trap—
—which didn’t look any more impressive once it was finished than it had when Jackie had realized what it was; although there was more of it than she had expected, a dozen, maybe fifteen strands that Wayne had layered according to a design she couldn’t discern, so that some strands ran a foot or more behind the others—she hadn’t exactly dozed while he’d constructed it: she’d kept her eyes open throughout the process, but her mind had wandered, as it had so often in the last day and a half, to the baby, which had gone from what she referred to as its daily calisthenics to complete stillness, not moving at all that she could feel (and, at this stage, she could feel a lot) for roughly thirty-six hours, now, which might have been entirely normal for all she knew: there was a rather dramatic lack of obstetricians in these parts (ha ha) and while Wayne knew a surprising amount about all sorts of things, his expertise tended towards the ultraviolent and not so much the whole miracle-of-life end of the spectrum—the best he could do was hear her concerns, shrug, and tell her not to worry about it, advice she’d already given herself and that was growing impossible to follow—she could feel panic gathering inside her, coalescing into a storm that would wash her away in a torrent of tears and screaming, because the child inside her was dead, she was carrying a dead baby—all right, to be honest, her mind hadn’t wandered so much as gone directly to her anxiety and watched it growing—the point was, she wasn’t sure if Wayne had rigged his web with any of the explosives (proper and improvised) that stuffed his bag of tricks, or if he had other plans for his oversized Cat’s Cradle—
—he came back—
—and a good thing, too, because the sun had dipped behind the hill to her back, and though the sky overhead was still blue, it was that darker blue that would spend the next couple of hours shading steadily darker, into that indigo that a month of looking up at the night sky had shown her was the actual color against which the stars shone, and while the Pack had more than proved their ability to appear at any time of day, there was no doubting they preferred to move after the sun was down, and although Jackie had trained with the pistols, had opened up on one of the Pack at terrifyingly close range (it had scampered off, unhurt), she’d had a single lesson with the rifle (whose name was on the tip of her mind) with it unloaded, and had no faith in her ability to get off more than a single shot, if that, which was not saying anything about her ability to kill or even hit her target, so when Wayne tied the final knot in his rope barrier and started up the road, relief suffused her—
—and built a fire—
—using wood he collected from the trees along the path up to the ledge, a heavy armload that he arranged into a larger fire than she would have thought wise, an almost inexplicable lapse of Wayne’s part—unless he wanted to be visible; if so, it was a new strategy for him: his previous traps had depended on misdirection, on leading the Pack into thinking the two of them were someplace they were safely away from, which had become increasingly difficult as the Pack adapted to Wayne’s tactics—frankly, Jackie had been shocked that the mall trap had succeeded as well as it had, because it had been so obvious, as obvious as any of his early efforts, so much so that the Pack must have assumed (if you could apply such a word to them; though they evidently had some process of cognition) it couldn’t possibly be a set-up, and so had walked right into the middle of it—strictly speaking, there was no need for a fire, not yet, heat poured up from the ledge and would do so well into the night, while the Bridge’s lights, a row of flame-shaped bulbs tracing the arc of each of the suspension cables, had blinked on as the daylight ebbed (one of those intermittent events that indexed the random status of what she already was referring to herself as the Old World’s machineries), their bright glow traversing the spectrum from blue to red and back down to blue again, their light sufficient for Jackie to read her battered copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting if she wanted to (she didn’t; she felt vaguely guilty about it, but she was too tired [and—tell the truth—afraid of what the book might tell her about the baby’s stillness])—when you came right down to it, the fire was a beacon and a goad, Wayne’s way of thumbing his nose at whatever members of the Pack might have survived the mall and guiding them across the Bridge—as she reclined against her backpack and accepted the peanut butter bagel Wayne passed her, Jackie thought, This really is it, our last stand; after four weeks, we’re making our stand.