Circus of the dead, p.1
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       Circus of the Dead, p.1

           Seth Blackburn
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Circus of the Dead







  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2011 by Seth Blackburn

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

  When the truck—not really a truck, but a flat bed with rubber wheels pulled by four horses—came by, the town went to hell. There were two men, each seated in what had once been the cab of some delivery vehicle. The cabin had been cut away, leaving only the cab seat and a steering wheel, through which the horses’ reins were threaded. The driver, as such, was a bulbous man who’d said a farewell to his hair a good decade ago. He wore filthy denim overalls that he had unsnapped while driving, giving us all a good view of his broad chest, which was covered with a tobacco juice stained t-shirt. The dust had caught hold of the latest stains, those that were still moist and had made a sort of mud there on the threads of the shirt. He eyed the greeting party of no less than twenty men—three of whom were my father and two brothers, Abe and Christopher and each armed with shotguns—with what was clearly a straining hostility. It was as though on any consecutive moment he might spit the great wad of tobacco in his mouth onto the face of anyone before him armed or not. I didn’t doubt this as I looked on, for I noticed a tremendous holster on his right hip that held the largest revolver I’d ever seen, and I’d seen my fair share.

  It was his passenger however, that was meant to be viewed, since the driver seemed uncomfortable with his sudden attention and the man next to him was dressed in a filthy but not yet frayed tuxedo. On the upper arms of the coat were long red scarves, the kind I’d seen on occasion in the pages of the nudie books my brothers kept behind the barn. Scarves that covered the large round breasts of the women with their painted faces and teasing poses. And this man wore scarves like these on the arms of his faded tuxedo just as naturally as you please. I could tell by the snickering of the men in the crowd that this wasn’t going over well. Christopher turned toward me and said just loud enough for me to hear, “You better watch out Gabe, I think we got one of them boy lovers here.” He winked at me and stuck his tongue out in a lascivious manner. I ignored him and looked past the crowd to see what these men had come to our town for. Also, like most everyone else present, I wanted to know what rested under that large tarp on the bed of their truck.

  The fancy man stood up in the cab and looked over the crowd with watery eyes that seemed barely contained in their sockets, as if at any moment they’d lose their cohesion and slide down his cheeks like great, jellied tears. Fancy Man didn’t speak until he’d satisfied himself that he’d made contact with every face in the audience. I winced when he looked into my eyes and winked one of those watery globes. Perhaps Christopher was right and this was one of them boy lovers. He’d certainly come to the wrong town, for all the men and boys here were busy with the coital reparation of the world. Still, I felt better when he took his eyes off me.

  “People,” he said finally and his voice was that of a man used to addressing crowds. Maybe before the Scourge—and I’d heard it called many things, the Apocalypse, the Second Holocaust, the Rising, but here we’d called it the Scourge—this man had been a politician, one of those polished bureaucrats from Washington D.C. or even what had once been our own state capital, back when states still existed. “What is the name of this splendid little town?” There was some stirring in the crowd but no one spoke directly. “Surely you must have a name,” he said when no one answered.

  “We are a Christian town,” bellowed a voice from the back of the crowd. We all knew that voice and the crowd of uneasy men parted almost immediately to reveal the speaker. Reverend Joseph Marconi, or Reverend Joe when outside the church walls, was a tall man with the face of a boxer. His complexion, wind whipped by the countless journeys into the desert sands around us for meditations on prayer and true conversation with the Lord, was a fixed and ruddy red. His nose was flattened and pushed to the right so that it nearly lay against the surface of the cheek there. His eyes were brown, but not a typical brown, like my own. Reverend Joe’s brown eyes were like the brown of a log that rested upon a fire. From a quick look, it was simply a log, but tap it and a blaze of heat and embers would shoot forth. Let it never be said of Reverend Joe that he had a slow temper.

  “We are a Christian town,” he said once more approaching the strangers. “And as such we merely call ourselves that. The old names are gone and in the wake of God’s justifiable anger, we live in unnamed humility.”

  Fancy Man and Reverend Joe studied one another as the reverend approached and a tension moved like a dust storm around us. I even saw, with little surprise, the driver slip a beefy hand over that tremendous holster of his.

  “Indeed,” Fancy Man finally said and broke those watery eyes away. “People of a Christian town. We have come to invite you to a gala event. A once in a lifetime opportunity! Two miles to the north, in the barren sand we’ve brought you delights for the eyes and taste buds.”

  With that, he leapt from the cab and landed as majestically on his feet as any cat I’d ever seen. The crowd stepped back as though it were a single living organism, all except Reverend Joe who stood where he stood. Fancy Man went to the rear of the truck and untied a knot in the rope, which held the tarp and with the slick movement of a magician, tore it away. What stood there was not awe-inspiring and yet a murmur went through the gathering. A large board, painted by no great artist showed pictures of lions and elephants, dancing girls and a man on a tightrope and in bold red letters: COME VISIT THE CIRCUS! Fancy Man counted on this tiny awe to insinuate himself upon the crowd. He went, his movements as watery as his eyes.

  “Wild animals!” he said to one man. “Daring acts of courage!” he said to another, fixing each face with a wild expression that only further dramatized his poached egg eyes. Fancy Man seemed pulled toward the back of the crowd, as that’s where the fearful lingered. He passed over my father and two brothers but stopped before me. On instinct and respect—for we were taught to only look upon adults with respect and only meet their eyes if we felt the nobility to do so—I looked to his feet. The shoes were obviously from the same set as the tuxedo but were in far worse shape. The toes had been scuffed to the point where they were devoid of color and in that mix, the red sand had painted them. There was little black on those shoes left at all. Fancy Man placed a curled index finger under my chin and raised my face so that I was looking up at those wet eyes. “Dancing girls,” he said solicitously. “Ripe for a young man.”

  In the moment that followed, he realized his mistake, for in our unnamed Christian town, there were certain ideas that had been re-imagined, for lack of a better term. Reverend Joe, like any clan leader realized that strength only comes from numbers and he took to the role of spiritual leader of his people with relish. He had decreed that once our needs were met, our other job, the way to honor the Lord, was to bring more people into the world to worship Him. Devout Repopulation, Reverend Joe called it. Our little town must set about repopulating the world. The allure of sex to a culture fully trained in its utilization was nothing but a waste. Perhaps the idea of oral copulation, for no one had ever put my penis in their mouth, might hold a significant temptation, but that was far and away too promiscuous to state openly. But I had underestimated Fancy Man and now I thought him nearly a wizard for the way he quickly turned the tide of a losing battle.

  “Or a Dead,” he said softly and my full countenance was s
uddenly engrossed. “That’s right!” he bellowed and turned back to the crowd at large. “See an actual living Dead! The very creatures that caused the Apocalypse upon living flesh!” And the tiny awe inspired by the sign instantly grew to a grave frenzy.

  Our nameless little Christian town had become a town divided and all it had taken were some outsiders with a sign and a promise. Of course, it was no small promise that rolled off the lips of Fancy Man.

  Afternoon rolled ever so slowly toward evening on that day and we all completed our chores with tension in our shoulders and eagerness in our bellies. Most of us were quiet, though my brother Christopher was talkative, albeit in a quieter tone than was his usual.

  “So what do you think?”

  We were cleaning out the horse stalls at the southern end of town. This was my least favorite duty. Unlike being assigned to build a new home, this was never-ending. There was no moment of completion for the next morning there would be new piles of horse shit to shovel out and sweet grass to be replaced with fresh hay. The smell of road apples, urine and Christopher were too much olfactory offense and I had pulled my t-shirt over my nose as I worked. I slid the shirt down as I answered.

  “Think about what?”

  “Oh, come on. We’re all thinking about it, right? The circus. What do you think about the circus?”

  “I’m not really thinking about it at all.” A lie, but one that I hoped might shorten the conversation so I could return the t-shirt to its former location. Christopher, of course, would not let things lie.

  “You’re full of what you’re shoveling.”

  “Okay, fine. So I’m thinking about it.” Of course I was. Other than a few survivors, nothing exciting had passed our way for many years and the Fancy Man and his promotion was like the promise of a thrilling storm on the outskirts of our little nameless Christian town.

  “Are you going?” It was a profound question because Papa had made it quite clear that we were not to leave town for the circus or for any other reason. Our father had seen his own parents torn to shreds by the living corpse of a little girl, a neighbor of theirs, and I suspected he’d never gotten beyond it. Who could? Imagine a little girl you protected from bullies because you were several grades her senior, who, in the span of one night, sinks her teeth into the tender and vulnerable throats of your sleeping mother and father. You stumble upon her in mid-meal and she turns, eyes bluish white, mouth a bloody mess, rags of flesh that had so recently been alive and in place. A terrible purplish wound that looks more than a little infected on her naked, undeveloped chest. She hisses at you, because words now escape her. She hisses and a spittle of blood and skin cross the space between you. Even though the air in the stables was stifling hot, I shuddered.

  “Abe says he’s thinking about it,” which was Christopher’s way of telling me that he had decided to defy our father’s wishes, though he didn’t want to come out and say it for fear of a tattling little brother. His fear was unfounded, however. No matter how many pranks and jokes I’d found myself the butt of by my two older brothers, I’d never once tattled on them. It seemed a lowly retribution. Instead, I would wait until age became me and my muscles were of equal value to their own. Then I would plant them the way a proper man should when provoked.

  “I think it will be interesting to see how many people steal away after the sun sets,” I said and eyed him. As I said, I wouldn’t tattle, but one should always keep your opponent wondering. I slipped the collar of my shirt once more over my nose and continued my clean up of the stall.

  As the day progressed, unrest was evident in the very air we were breathing. The sky was as clear as any cloudless temperate day in the desert, but that did not assuage one from believing a storm was in the air. For now however, the storm was manmade, and that making was of fear.

  Reverend Joe called for an emergency meeting in the town chapel. The chapel in question was one of the few buildings the first surviving settlers didn’t need to build from scratch, though plenty of repairs (and then later alterations as the town’s population grew) had been wished for and then completed. From its pulpit, Reverend Joe blasted like a fiery furnace, all hellfire and damnation, which I always assumed had been easy for him, since hellfire and damnation had pretty much walked the earth for the last two decades.

  Papa, Abe, Christopher and I stood at the back of the church to allow room for the women and elderly to sit in a bit more comfort, but just a bit as the hard pews were comfortless. It seemed that was the way things should be; you could not be relaxed when communing with God. That might be a grander sin than many a broken commandment combined. Still, we waited for what seemed like a significant while, as the shadows that drew across the seated grew long.

  Finally, Reverend Joe, his face appearing redder than usual, took his position behind the pulpit. And it truly was his position, for as long as I’d been alive, I’d never seen another member of our town stand there. Reverend Joe looked out over his people, for we were his people, there had been no doubt of that, at least until the Fancy Man and his spit-stained chauffer had arrived. It was then, for the first time since the founding of our town of survivors, that Reverend Joe’s ownership over his flock had been threatened. Not at gunpoint, nor through any overeager citizen with aspirations of power or grandeur but rather through a simple, if not macabre, curiosity. Most survivors over the age of twenty had seen a living corpse and for a great portion of that number, once was enough. There were many among us however, who had never seen what had toppled the governments of the world with their mindless rage and hunger.

  I had never before laid eyes on a dead human creature who desired, singularly so, the flesh of the living. Do I sound awful to have had the want of seeing with my own eyes? Twice the town bell had rung deep within the night and all able men raced with shotguns, shovels or other makeshift weapons to the town square, ready to battle the undead. On both occasions it was merely a survivor, exhausted and drained from thirst and hunger—that is what had given them the shuffling demeanor so easily mistaken for a shambling corpse—and on both occasions I went back to bed mildly disappointed. Now, a mere two miles outside town an actual zombie, one of millions that had nearly made the whole of mankind extinct, awaited viewing by excited eyes. Waited for me, Fancy Man had promised with all the delight of the Devil striking a bargain for my soul.

  Reverend Joe looked out for a long and purposeful while. At first I thought he might be attempting to gather his thoughts, for this wasn’t a usual Sunday sermon practiced well in advance. After a few minutes however, I realized what it was that the churchman was doing. Reverend Joe was making eye contact with each member, sitting or standing, who attended this urgent meeting of religious and civic obligation. When his dark eyes rested on my own, I felt myself want to wince, to shy away, but I held my gaze. Once already that day I had allowed myself to be turned by a look and when Fancy Man put his finger under my chin, I decided it would be the last time in a long while something as intangible as a stare would shake my foundations. Eventually Reverend Joe moved on from me. Had he lingered a little longer on my own eyes than he had on others? Was it possible he could take my temperature in that fashion, see the desire I had growing within me like the serpent’s temptation of Eve? Part of me thought no, Reverend Joe was merely a man, and all men were mortal and limited. Yet, another part, perhaps the same black hole within my curiosity also nestled a nearly palpable guilt and that was what the man from the pulpit had read. In any case, Reverend Joe did not single me out. In all likelihood, he had seen the same guilty stare returned by a great many eyes that late afternoon.

  “My good people.” The voice stern, resolute and in some measure, a little different than usual, resonated in the nearly still air—I say nearly still because in the beams of light that entered through the window I could see billions of dancing dust fibers—with his very typical bass. Sometimes, in the hard wooden pews, one could feel the echo of Reverend Joe’s voice vibrate through the seat. “Today a darkness has come u
pon our peaceful little town. A darkness not at all unlike that of the Scourge that has left us what we are. For God does not take the measure of an evil, for in His glorious eyes, evil is singularly encompassing. And so, whether that evil be a ghoul, eyes dead and wild, hungering for your very flesh or merely the temptation of breaking rank and familiarizing yourself with dark men and women who are so unwholesome that they need nestle themselves miles outside of town, God makes no division; evil is still evil.”

  Reverend Joe had not taken a breath since starting his litany and here he drew a long inhale of air into his lungs. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d heard the preacher sound more dramatic, and yes, more desperate.

  “Look into your hearts,” he began again. “Look deeply and tell yourself you are not feeling temptation. That would be a lie. A lie to yourself in the very House of God. And who among us has not felt temptation? Was not Jesus tempted in the desert by the lion? Now, we, his good survivors are tempted once more after the harrowing of the Scourge.” Here, Reverend Joe pounded the wooden frame of the pulpit with a balled fist that I believed on more than one occasion had struck flesh and bone with the same ferocity. All of us, man and woman, jumped at the boom made by said fist and when that same hand extended and pointed, we all of us leaned back. Let it never be said of Reverend Joe that he did not know how to make a point. “You may feel temptation in your hearts but that is the Devil calling, the serpent offering you but one taste of the apple. If you were to bite, you would lose your soul and I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of God’s punishment for such sin. Look around you. Remember your lives before and the terrible ways we lost those we loved. You will bring the Scourge upon us again.”

  Reverend Joe hung his head then, as though he were a man battling some deep sickness and suddenly went slack with the effort. I wondered how much of this was for show, as our good reverend was not above theatrics when the need presented itself, but when he looked up once more, he seemed a weaker man than I had ever seen him. His red face had gone ashen and it seemed his outstretched arms, palms flat against the surface of the pulpit might be the only thing holding him upright. Reverend Joe had always looked, at least to me, like a man perpetually in his mid-forties, a time when a man learned to either walk more upright against the face of mortality, or bow his spine in subservience to the same. Now he looked much older, regardless of the shock-black hair and I would have sworn there were deep wrinkles around his eyes and mouth that had not been there mere minutes before.

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