PECAN PIE ON DOOMSDAY
by HARRY MARKS
is leg tapped the metal briefcase under the table. Still there. The midday sun bled across the table and washed the diner in a sandy haze, the other patrons unnamed subjects in an old photograph. Nat King Cole crooned on the tinny radio behind the counter. He squinted and sipped his nickel of coffee. Lukewarm. The man, his thick horn-rimmed glasses settled at the tip of his nose, swirled the tan liquid with his spoon. After several rotations, he'd switch direction and a small splash would jump out onto the saucer below. He glanced at his watch. Three twenty-five. He nudged the case again. Still there.
"Waitin' for somebody, hun?" The waitress freshened his cup. Her brown curls hardly moved as she bounced around the diner, locked in place with an atmosphere of hairspray. Stacks of plates balanced precariously up the length of her arm.
"Something like that," he said.
"Don't get a lot of your kind in here these days."
He looked up. "My kind?"
"Scientists. Lotsa soldiers and the like, but hardly a white coat's been in here in weeks."
Because most of them were already dead.
"What kind of pie do you have today?" he asked.
"Oh, we've got key lime, rhubarb, and my personal favorite, pecan. The pecan is the house specialty." She pronounced the end of the word like "on." No one around here talked that way. She must've heard it on a fancy radio program, one more way to help her pretend her life was more than slinging weak coffee and scrambled eggs to captains and colonels.
"I'll take a slice then," said the man.
He looked back at his cup. The waitress disappeared into the kitchen and he tipped his watch again. Three thirty. Light reflected off the chrome bumpers outside like blowtorch flames in the desert heat. He observed his fellow diners and imagined which car belonged to each person. The family of four finishing their meals were no doubt going to clamber into the green Woody at the end of the row. Their golden retriever hung its head out the back window in unspoken agony, its bright pink tongue a glistening beacon amid the rusty flatland.
The two men in uniforms, their adornments denoting the bald one as a lieutenant, the graying man a captain, belonged to the jeep parked near the door. Preferred parking for preferred customers. They slurped the last diluted drops from their Coke glasses, picked off a pinch of french fries each, and dropped a dollar on the table as whatever story the lieutenant had been telling came to an uproarious end, their booming laughs following them out to their car and taking attentions with them.
Their jeep was quickly replaced by another. Four soldiers hopped out armed with rifles and took positions at the front and back doors. A personnel carrier screeched across the parking lot, distracting the retriever from the oppressive heat. Soldiers clad in helmets and flak jackets bobbed like bottles in the back until the vehicle halted behind the row of cars. They emerged and surrounded the building in silence.
The waitress, too busy to notice the mini Army base forming outside the diner, slid the plate of pecan pie beside the man's coffee cup and sped off to refill a nearby table's water glasses.
Three thirty-two. "Here we go."
He forked off the tip of the pie and wrapped his lips around it with a quiet, satisfying moan.
The last vehicle to arrive was another jeep, or what looked like the shell of a jeep. No doors, no roof, barely more than four tires and a steering wheel. The man didn't recognize the driver, but he knew the passenger well. Everyone on the base did.
"General Harrison," said the man.
"Billy," said the general. He and the seat sighed together as he slid into the booth.
The man grimaced. "What brings you here on such a beautiful day? I would've thought you'd be doing damage control back at the base."
"I am, but the damage isn't at the base."
General Harrison's hair had turned all but white, save for his mustache, which still held onto whiskers of hope that there was a shred of youth left in a man who'd been through two world wars and had seen his entire platoon wiped out in a German ambush during the first.
He'd entered the diner wearing a confidence earned through 30 years of close calls, but Billy saw his hands were shaking. The General tucked them under the table.
"Just hand it over," said the General. "No one has to get hurt. No one even has to know you took it. I'll make sure this stays off the books. As far as I'm concerned, you made a bad call, felt sorry, and gave it back. That's it."
"And you'll let me walk out of here? No handcuffs? No bullet in the head to tie up loose ends?" Billy took another bite of pie.
The waitress came by and asked the general if he wanted to see a menu. He asked for a slice of whatever his friend was having.
"A bullet in the head? You've been reading too many comic books, Billy. No one's going to kill you. We just want to make sure what you took goes back where it belongs."
"I'm taking it to where it belongs. The public should know what's going on here."
"That's not up to you to decide. You had one job and that was to analyze--"
"You mean weaponize!" Billy slammed his fist on the table. His coffee cup clinked with the saucer and the other diners turned toward the clatter.
"Funny," said the general, "mom used to say I was the one with the temper, but I always thought you had the demon inside you. Surprised you didn't follow me into the Army to exorcise it."
Billy leaned forward. "If I've learned anything from you, it's that the military doesn't exorcise demons. It hones them."
Whispers surrounded them. The family whose green Woody sat only 30 feet away pointed at the soldiers in the lot and murmured to one another. The mother shoved her children's crayons in her purse. The father slapped a few dollars on the table and pinned them with his empty glass and helped his son and daughter to their feet. He reached the door and pushed. It didn't move. He pushed again. The soldier outside the door turned around and shouted for the man to turn around and remain inside the diner.
General Harrison caught the father's attention. "Sir? Sir, please take your seat. We won't be too much longer. I promise. Everything's fine."
"What's going on here? Why can't we leave?" he asked.
"Just a minor military matter we're handling. You'll be free to go in a few minutes. Please, have a seat. Charlene, can you get these nice people a slice of pie on me?"
They sat, the parents' eyes not once leaving the general's. The children looked up at their father in search of reassurance. Other diners looked around and murmured to one another, one loudly proclaiming they should all get free pie for waiting. The general ignored them. He turned back to his brother.
"It's right there, isn't it?" he asked, nodding down.
Billy had tucked the case between his legs. He squeezed it hard enough to feel secure. "Obviously. I wouldn't be toting my lunch in a lead-lined metal briefcase."
"Why'd you do it? I got you the best job in the world in your field. Unlimited funding, whatever you wanted, and you betrayed me--you betrayed your country. For what?"
Billy chuckled and scraped the last bits of pie crust from his plate with the side of his fork. "Morals? Ethics? People deserve to know what we're doing. It's criminal. And don't go patting your back on this swell job you got me. I can't exactly put it on a resumé."
"Morals are lies we tell ourselves to avoid the truth, Billy. This country cannot stand on morals alone. We face threats every day. An army cannot survive an attack simply on morals. They stand in the way of progress." The general spoke through gritted teeth, a barrier to prevent his voice from reaching the other tables, which were now humming with fear.
Billy, still laughing, drank down the last of his coffee, which had gone cold. His watch read 3:40.
"This isn't some joke, Bill! This is--" The general realized he'd been shouting and leaned forward and hissed, "this is literally life and death. You left the facility carrying pure death."
"Not from what my research tells me. What I'm carrying is life. Well, it's some kind of life. You already know what I've found. You have all of our findings delivered to your desk every morning so you know what can be turned into a weapon and what can't, right? I'm telling you right now..." Billy's eyes narrowed and his voice sunk into a deep pit. "I won't let you turn this into a weapon."
"That's not a choice you get to make, Billy."
"William," he said.
"William. For years, I've told you to call me William and yet you refuse. 'Billy.' Yeugh. It's for little kids. But that's what I still am to you. Your little brother, still too young and...what are the kids saying these days? Cool? I'm not cool enough."
General Harrison shot straight up. "Is that what this is about? I wouldn't let you tag along with me and my friends when we were kids? Grow up, Bill--William."
"No. This is about your hubris, your unwillingness to listen to reason--to science! I told you this...thing we created was a virus. It needed to be destroyed, but all you said was, 'This will keep America safe.' It won't, Marcus. What we've done will destroy everything."
"Am I? Do you have any idea what we pulled from that wreckage? Metals unidentifiable on the periodic table. Those creatures should've died in the crash and yet they're sitting in a cell two miles underground being poked and stabbed and examined as though they had died.
"I have to admit, I was thrilled when you wanted us to analyze their genetic makeup. Creating balms and salves for the battlefield? Those would keep our soldiers safe. The cellular structures of the visitors are continuously optimizing themselves. For all we know, they're thousands of years old."
Marcus looked around the diner to find the other tables either staring at them outright or subtly turning an ear to better hear William's voice, which grew louder, like every piece of confidential information had been buried down deeper than the last, unable to be heard unless each one was shouted across the table.
"You're scaring them, William. Stop it right now," said Marcus.
"Spare me. You're not worried about them. You're worried about your little secret in the Tank. We've yet to decipher their language, but I'm pretty sure the sounds I hear every day are screams. Screams of pain, of longing for home. You know what my greatest fear is, Marcus?"
The General said nothing. He looked out at his troops who stood prepared to eradicate a greasy spoon and everyone inside with the wave of his hand.
"That we're exactly what they worried we would be," said William. "Hostile. Unwilling to listen. A world so afraid of not being on top that it will imprison, torture, and kill any threat, perceived or otherwise."
"You know nothing, Billy. You're locked in your little lab with your test tubes and samples and you're shielded from the actual horrors out there. I've seen them. Watched my platoon annihilated, nearly lost my arm in a grenade attack. I saw men slaughter their own children to spare them from being helped by American forces. Monsters exist, William, and I've put a bullet in a lot of 'em. Now I have a chance to use them to save the lives that matter. Your heart bleeds for a race of creatures that may have been scouting our planet to destroy it while I'm fighting for the people who live here. Now give me the case and let's be done with it."
Three fifty-five. Beads of sweat trickled from William's temples down his cheeks. The color in his face evaporated, leaving behind a sallow visage with eyes at the bottom of darkened craters. The skin on his lips cracked, the translucent stucco-like shreds dried out and brittle.
"You keep checking your watch. What are you waiting for?" said Marcus, his patience whittled away to reveal the core of annoyance he'd tried to hide from his brother for so many years.
William's so brilliant. William can go to any college he chooses. William is going to change the world. But Marcus had changed the world. Marcus had fought to protect his country and he'd come home a hero. They held a parade in his hometown and he got to ride on a float and look down on his brother, the genius, smiling and cheering on the side as unknowing as everyone else around him of the nightmares he'd faced and the ones that waited for him when he closed his eyes. William hadn't earned the right to decide what was fair and right.
"It's time," said William.
"Time for what?"
"It's time I gave you the case. I'm done fighting."
William pushed the metal briefcase with his foot across to his brother, who scooped it up and cleared a place for it on the table. He popped the locks, which sprung open with a loud click. The lid relaxed and the seam opened. Marcus lifted it. The inside was lined with thick gray foam. A long cylindrical shape had been carved in it to hold a single vial from the lab.
"What the hell is this?" Marcus asked.
William's hands shook. He gripped the table with the force of someone worried about floating away.
"Thirty-five minutes. That's how long it takes for symptoms to appear once a person is exposed to the virus. That's what you wanted, right, General? You didn't want us to heal our own troops." William found it harder to speak. His brother looked on in equal parts terror and intrigue. "You wanted us...to render the enemy...incapable of harming them in the first place. To destroy the tissue as quickly as possible. The problem was...the virus rejuvenated and reanimated the dead cells. After half an hour...the body was gone...overtaken by necrotized tissue. It spread too quickly to contain. It...didn't take long to reach...the brain...and then..."
The father at the other table fell to the floor in a seizure. His wife dropped down to help him and in turn fell to her side right beside him. The daughter, no older than five, began to cry. Her older brother wrapped his arms around her and wept as well.
"It's too late."
"William, what have you done?"
"The coffee. I poured the whole thing into the percolator."
Marcus looked at Billy's cup, then back at his brother. His mouth hung ajar and he grew paler with each moment like the color had escaped through his parted lips.
"You...they were innocent...what happened to protecting the people?"
William chuckled and clutched his side. "You wanted a weapon, General Harrison. Well...here you go. And now...the whole world will know...what you've created. How you lied to me...and tortured innocent creatures...to further your own warmongering agenda. How the military...isn't interested in maintaining peace...but...but..."
William fell over and screamed. His brother rushed next to him and picked him up.
"We can fix this, Billy. Come with me back to the base and we can make a cure."
"No cure...get the kids out of here...they shouldn't be here...when we all turn..."
Marcus took the boy and the girl by their hands and pulled them to the door. They obeyed, sobbing and reaching for their parents collapsed beside the table. Others began toppling from their chairs, curled into the fetal position, rocking and moaning as the virus coursed through them and replaced their personae, their memories, their essences with a base urge to hunt those unlike them. He unlocked the door and passed the children to the sentry outside and ordered him to get them back to the base immediately.
As he turned back into the diner, his brother, a grotesque shell of who he used to be stood before him. His eyes were white canvases waiting for new corneas to be painted on. His mouth hung open and the sound that came out was devoid of humanity. It was the retching click of a voice box trying to remember what it used to sound like. Those who hadn't turned yet sat perfectly still. General Harrison locked the door and faced his brother. The faint harmonies of a doo-wop group hung in the air. The waitress retreated into the kitchen.
William stood before him in a body no longer his. He lurched forward. The general slid the snap back on his holster and withdrew his pistol. He aimed its barrel at his brother's chest, shaking so hard even a second-hand underneath wasn't enough to steady it.
"Stop, Billy. Please," he pleaded.
Another step. The sliver of his brother left inside waned, a flame at the end of its wick.
"Dammit, Billy. Enough! You've made your point. Don't make me do this." He shoved the gun forward, his intimidation tactic in vain.
Another step. Marcus smelled the rot emanating from his brother's gaping maw. His lips quivered like his hands and a tear tumbled down his cheek. This wasn't his brother anymore. This stumbling corpse, its eyes blank like a great white shark's and its flesh dying as the sun set, was not the little brother who chased after him in the backyard. This wasn't the young man who'd welcomed him home from the war with a hearty hug. He was the enemy. A mindless killing machine with the sole purpose of consuming that which it had lost.
General Harrison's hands stilled. The gun, no longer quaking aimlessly, was now trained on Billy's heart. More bodies rose from the floor, their eyes also white and the same animalistic rasp coming from their throats. An army of dead come to life. Billy's head twitched. He moved in closer, no longer in staggered steps, but more swiftly.
His brother choked back the sob in his throat and pulled the trigger. Again. And again. Billy jerked back as each bullet ripped through his body. The black holes in his chest smoked, but no blood poured out. He stood, waiting for more. The others moved in toward the general. The children's mother stumbled over a chair and clawed ahead as she crawled to her inevitable feast. General Harrison pointed his pistol at Billy's head and fired again. Wisps of smoke wafted from between his eyes and he dropped like a child's doll tossed aside.
"The head," whispered Marcus.
He shot the closest corpse to him in the head, an old man who'd been in the corner sipping his coffee and reading the paper, and watched him slink to the floor. He fired again at the father of the children outside. A click. Empty. He scrambled to load his shooter, the bullets too small and slick to handle with sweaty hands. A glass shattered from across the room and a young woman in cat eye glasses looked on with her mouth and eyes as wide as they could stretch as the bodies once concerned with the sumptuousness of General Harrison's flesh began their unsteady march toward her.
She screamed. It's rawness startled the general and he dropped the bullet, which clinked a few times on the diner floor before rolling away, but it wasn't enough to distract them from their new food source. She scooted to the back of her booth and tucked her knees under her chin, but she would never get small enough to go unnoticed. She saw the mother's hands first, with their long, claw-like nails as they dug into the seat cushion and hoisted the rest of her decaying body. Her gums had turned black and her teeth a faded yellow, the veins in her arms like road lines on a map. The roads grew closer. The girl screamed again and kicked the slithering corpse in the face. If it had been bothered, it didn't show. Its nails left holes in the seat and pulled up bits of white stuffing as it inched toward its meal. The girl shivered, her heart beating a path out of her chest. She slammed her eyes shut. There were too many. They came from all directions. Over tables, under them, from above and below. She prayed that whatever happened next happened quickly.
She opened her eyes. Drops of red on her glasses obscured her view. There were more on her dress. A lot more. Half of the mother's skull had been blown off. She lay at the girl's feet with her fingers still lodged in the seat cushion, centimeters away from her shoe. They all turned toward the door, where the general stood with his gun still aimed at the booth ready to take down another monster. Bodies contorted and groaned as they shifted to approach the general.
But he didn't see the little boy. The little boy whose father had let him take a sip of his coffee after begging to try it for days. The little boy who made no sound when he turned, or if he did, went unheard amid the chaos. The little boy who buried his small, razor-like teeth in the general's leg, which sent him screaming to the floor. The general kicked him off and took aim. The boy gurgled and hissed like a broken radiator. The general's eyes stung from the tears. His whole arm convulsed. His finger refused to cooperate as the echo of a childhood lost stared blankly at its handiwork. He crawled to the window and banged his fist on the glass and gave the signal to his troops to get him out.
"Restrain the boy and take him, too. Be careful. Avoid his mouth," he yelled as they burst through the door and extracted the two of them and loaded them into the back of the truck. "Get me to the infirmary and see that the boy makes it to the lab. We need to find a way to cure this thing."
The wound burned and he felt its effects within minutes. His lungs heaved as though someone had poured a pitcher of molasses into each one. His head throbbed. The last thing he remembered was the nurse standing over him as she checked his pulse, the gurney zooming down the hall under the bright white lights. Her hair was the color of the beach he and Billy used to visit as boys. They'd build sand castles and chase each other along the shoreline until their mother called them back to their towels for a picnic lunch. He remembered the sunshine on his face, the salty sting of the ocean breeze along his goosefleshed skin, and he tried so hard back then to commit that moment to memory. To have it on-hand when he first joined the Army, when boot camp got too tough, whenever he faced the front lines. He welcomed that moment as the nurse's sandy locks carried him back to the beach, away from the sterile chrome and glass of the infirmary's emergency ward.
He bit her first.
Harry Marks lives in New Jersey with his wife and son and is the host of the literary podcast “COVERED with Harry C. Marks”, which can be found on iTunes and at hologramradio.org/covered. Harry can also be found on Twitter at @hcmarks and @COVERED_fm.
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