“You want to know why I don’t believe in God?” Carter asked.
I swallowed the sigh, even though the question no longer bothered me like it had in the past. When Soldiers had a Historian in their midst, they felt an urge to debate religion. It wasn’t my fault other Historians wanted to thump Bibles or Korans or I Chings or whatever the hell they had handy when accompanying teams on clearing missions.
Still, I was their entertainer on this trip, a bard of sorts. I would have much rather played my role with my guitar, strapped across my back in its case, bumping against me with each step down the empty stretch of road. If not my guitar, then at least with a few jokes or stories from before the Fall.
But, I did have a policy of giving the Soldiers the entertainment they wanted. It was not my place to shove happy tunes down their throats if they wanted something else. I dreaded the conversation; I don’t know if divine beings watch or guide our every move, but my role as entertainer often requires me to play devil’s advocate.
Odd title for a role in a religious discussion.
“Let me guess,” Keeper said. “Would it have anything to do with the six billion zombies?” Keeper adjusted his AR-15 before turning his eyes back to Drayton’s dark and hollow windows. The city seemed alien, almost haunted in the autumn sunlight.
Carter laughed. “Well, those certainly shook my faith,” he said with a grin.
It was my turn to buy in. “Provide us with some sage wisdom then,” I said. “What evidence do you have that will unravel centuries of religious history and theology?”
“Cortisol,” said Carter.
That sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Maybe something from commercials only a few years earlier. Heater and Cooler shared a look and both groaned softly. I guessed Carter often rehearsed these arguments on his squad mates “Cortisol?” I asked, diving into his rhetoric.
“Yeah,” he said. “You know what that does?”
I shook my head and pushed a lock of long blonde hair behind my ear, hoping my smile was convincing. “No, what?”
“It’s a hormone that makes depressed people fat,” he said.
I laughed. “That’s all it does?”
Jergen, the team medic, sighed and shook his head. “No, Siren my dear, it does more than that. That’s a very gross oversimplification.”
“But it does do that, does it not?” Carter asked.
“Yes,” Jergen said, “among many other things, but—“
“But it makes depressed people fat,” Carter insisted. “What kind of loving God would do that?”
“You don’t see that as a source of motivation?” I asked after a moment’s hesitation. It was a suspicious argument and one I’d never heard before. But I was a Historian, and we were there when people needed opposition.
“Motivation?” Carter asked. The nine of us looked down Drayton’s main street. The roads were clearer than in other towns. A single car rested in the front window of a knitting supply shop several blocks nearer the town’s central square, but several others littered the parallel and slanted parking spaces next to the narrow sidewalks. The apocalyptic traffic of Drayton was much more orderly than I’d seen near D.C. or Raleigh. With luck, most of the city’s undead would be trapped in the same buildings in which they turned. The hospital would be as nightmarish as all others, but Drayton seemed quiet and stable already.
“Yeah,” I said. “I hear that and think if I want to stay happy, I’d better stay healthy and vice-versa. Seems like an idea to keep me motivated.”
“But what if you slip?” he asked. “what if you break up with your girl—“ Carter stopped, looked me over, frowned. I guessed he prepared this argument for a man. “Okay, say you break up with your guy then.”
I nodded, smiling. Maybe they weren’t always guys, but I didn’t want to complicate the poor man’s argument. “Okay,” I said. “I’ve just broken up with my boy-toy of six years.”
“Right,” Carter said. “Then you get depressed, and you gain thirty pounds because your body is cranking out cortisol. Then you can’t find a new guy, and the old one won’t take you back.”
“You have a cynical and shallow view of the world, don’t you?”
Keeper barked a laugh, but Carter kept his expression clear. “If being a realist makes me a cynic, so be it,” Carter said. “But I do know that ‘God’ put a hormone in my body that might leave me in a downward spiral I can’t get away from. ‘Aw, you’re a little sad,’ he’ll say. ‘Well cheer up champ, because I’m going to stack onto that and make you a fatty’.”
“Cosmic Catch-22?” I asked with a grin.
Carter sniffed. “I don’t know what that means, but I think you get it.”
We passed the wreckage of a flower shop. “Petal Power” it said in black iron letters that curled on the ends like the dead plants inside. A zombie stood on a row of dirt-filled pots in the front window, feebly slapping a hand against the glass as we passed. A woman, looking to be in her fifties, wearing a blood-stained sun dress that clung to her like creeping vines. Wide, dark spots covered her face like a leopard’s. She died when a zombie ripped away the right side of her throat, the skin dangling in a flap, a wilted petal like those on the petunias she tried to sell.
Her marketing strategy sucked.
Another Soldier, Ogre, knelt in front of Petal Power and drew a single thin arrow on the pavement with chalk from his pocket. Visible Zombie Here. We would clear streets first, then come back through the city for a building-by-building extermination. At least we knew to expect zombies in the buildings with arrows in the front. Cities like Drayton felt easier with their roads mostly cleared, but they took longer, requiring more time spent in individual homes and shops.
Thief stopped next to Ogre and looked at the wilted zombie pressed against the window. Thief was a Valkyrie, there to shoot any of us if we took a bite. We clung to the hope of a dignified death like drowning victims to a plank. Valkyries kept their distance from us, told not to form bonds with the Soldiers they may need to execute one day. Putting down friends was hard work, so they viewed the rest of the world with a startling neutrality.
I shuddered at the thought of a mission without a Valkyrie, though. If things soured, I didn’t want to be another two-year old zombie, slapping away at a storefront window in a dead city. A bullet to the brain seems an odd mercy, but definitely a preferable death to turning.
I understood why Thief and the other Valkyries acted so spaced-out around everyone else, but I did wish they would lighten up and laugh with the rest of us every now and again.
Ogre stood and walked back to us. Thief blinked at the tattered zombie before turning and jogging back towards the group, catching up with Ogre and falling into our loose ranks.
She was pretty in her own way—almost too tall, a little slim around the hips, long black hair. She walked with her shoulders hunched and looked at her feet a lot, like those nervous geeky kids we all knew in high school. She moved with a quirky charm. All the Valkyries had that certain mystique about them.
They were curiosities. I wanted to get to know at least one before I died.
I wished she would laugh. Or smile.
“Motivation,” Carter muttered, as though mulling the word through his thoughts.
I broke my thoughts and met his eyes with a smile. “What of it?” I asked. “Things are bad, but does that not inspire you to fix them?”
“I wish I had your view on life,” Carter said with a grin. “Me? I couldn’t care less. I’m just living out of habit now.”
We passed the crashed car—a white Buick LeSabre from the early 90s—and stepped into Drayton’s central square. Undead streamed between the buildings across the green, lurching towards us without constant rhythm or gait. Conversation died, replaced with the steady cadence of gunfire. Humans played the song so much more sweetly.
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