by Mike Sweeney
“We got the name like this,” said the Old Sounder, holding up two rusted machetes and clanging them together. “Every time you entered a burned out house or abandoned building, you’d make some noise right off the bat. The Things aren’t smart enough to stay quiet. You step in, do some banging and if you don’t hear that God-awful shufflin’, you know you’re okay.”
Eddie always wondered about that. Sounders? Huh.
The Old Sounder told him that story that first night as Eddie lay feverish and twitching by the fire. His antibiotics saved Eddie’s life, keeping the stump of what had been Eddie’s left arm from turning gangrenous. Without them and the Old Sounder, Eddie was sure he’d be dead now, baked to death in that wretched dumpster.
Eddie still didn’t know how the old man found him. But that was part of the legend: the Old Sounder, Scourge of the Things, Last Hero of the West.
The next night, the old man told Eddie he thought his real name was Ben, but he didn’t like to use it anymore. Then he spent three hours telling Eddie the story of his life, or at least the story of a life before the world ended. The Old Sounder spoke the whole time in the third person, telling Eddie about a man who sold insurance for a living and had four daughters and a wife named Beth and three brothers that he grew up with in Iowa. He told Eddie all about that man and his family: who drowned young and tragically, who married well, who served in Vietnam, who was disowned by Papa, who had the sweetest laugh, who gave the best Christmas presents, and, Eddie’s personal favorite, who crapped themselves that one time in church.
As Eddie sat listening to the Old Sounder, he forgot about the Things for a while. That was the other gift the Sounders gave to one another: stories. Money and gold might be worthless now — well, they could serve as toilet paper and slingshot projectiles, respectively — but a good tale was more valuable than ever.
Eddie knew on this, their last night together, it was his turn. He surveyed the Old Sounder, a mass of denim, leather, and flannel hulking over the fire, and wondered what to say. Behind the old man, the last glint of sunlight disappeared over the Sierra Madres leaving the sky a dark blue bruise.
“Don’t take too long thinkin’ about it, kid, I’m pretty old,” chuckled the man-who-used-to-be-Ben.
How old? Eddie wondered. Fifty? Sixty? Eddie thought the man-who-used-to-be-Ben might now be the oldest person on the planet.
“Okay,” Eddie began hesitantly, still not entirely sure what he was going to say. He surprised himself with what came out next.
“There was this girl, Kerri. Kerri with an ‘i’.”
The Old Sounder nodded as he lit his pipe. Eddie still didn’t know exactly what he smoked in it. It wasn’t the tobacco Eddie’s grandfather smoked after dinner on Thanksgiving; it wasn’t the marijuana Eddie and his friends used to smoke under the bleachers Friday nights in high school.
“So,” Eddie tried to start again, “there was this girl, Kerri. She and I were… friends.
“And… uh… back east there was this drive-in, outside of Baltimore. ‘Benji’s’ it was called. Like the dog in those old kids’ movies. And it was, I think, the last drive-in on the East Coast before it all ended.
“And Kerri… she had this thing where… she was a bit of an exhibitionist.”
Eddie stopped to check the Old Sounder, to see if maybe this wasn’t the story he wanted to hear. But the old man just sat transfixed on the fire, the pipe resting in one corner of his mouth.
“So, Kerri and I were dating and she had this thing where she wanted me to take her to this drive-in and… and the funny thing is my friends and I always went to that drive-in when we were in high school. And we were seventeen-, eighteen-year-old guys and not a one of us knew how to even talk to a girl, let alone…”
Eddie realized he was blushing but something made him want to keep going. The Old Sounder sat staring into the fire, not moving. Eddie could swear the old man was smiling, if just a little.
“So, this was when I was twenty-three and Kerri was about twenty-two, and the idea that she wanted me to take her to the drive-in… well, it felt like making up for lost time, all those nights my friends and I spent at the drive-in just throwing the football around or knocking on people’s car windows and running away… all the dumb stuff guys do when they’re wishing they were someplace with a girl and not each other.
“And the whole week before I was supposed to take Kerri, she was texting me.”
“What?” the Old Sounder said.
“Texting,” Eddie repeated. “It was a bit like email but you used your phone for it.”
“Oh,” the Old Sounder said and returned his gaze to the fire.
“So, uh, she’s texting me what she’s going to do to me and what she’s going to wear. She had this idea that she should wear a bikini under her clothes so if a cop or anyone caught us she could pull it up quick and just say she was hanging out in the back seat with me wearing her bikini.”
Eddie laughed at this and the Old Sounder laughed with him.
“These are the things that make sense to you when you’re young and want to get laid at the drive-in,” Eddie went on and to his delight the Old Sounder kept chuckling.
“Anyway, she’s texting me all week about these different bikinis she’s trying on and it’s to where I can barely keep focused at work. Friday night finally rolls around and I pick her up outside her job. There was no one around and she was wearing this big baggy sweater over her jeans and she pulls it up to flash me the red bikini top she’s wearing underneath.
“She had the nicest breasts.”
Eddie stopped checking the Old Sounder. He was telling the tale for himself now.
“We get in the car and we head out to Benji’s and the whole ride she’s playing with my hair and kissing my ear and whispering how hard she’s going to whatever me and I’m just about to burst and we pull up to the drive-in and I pay the guy and…”
Eddie sat for a moment till he was sure his voice wouldn’t crack when he spoke again.
“And there’s kids all over the place. Kids playing whiffle ball in the back by the swings, kids riding on their fathers’ shoulders, kids sitting with their parents in lawn chairs in back of their family minivan, kids eating popcorn and cotton candy.
“Kerri and I just look around and we know there’s no way in hell we’re fucking in the middle of all these families and it was just… it just made you laugh. A whole week of building up to it and her texting me about the thong bikini she’s going to wear and then, bam, it’s a Munchkin convention at the drive-in.
“I mean, I guess, it always was even back in high school, but I didn’t think of it like that back then.”
Eddie’s voice trailed off, but both he and the Old Sounder knew the story wasn’t finished. Eddie smiled and started again.
“It turns out they show movies at the drive-in too.
“It was a triple-feature, one of those bizarre combinations you only get at the drive-in. The first movie was just ending. It was one of those Pixar flicks, Cars. Then next it was a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I honestly forget which at this point. Finally, the late show was Vampire Circus, which was my favorite horror movie as a kid, probably because the station out of Philly forgot to cut the nudity out the first time they aired it.
“We walked around a bit before the pirate movie started and it was like everyone was giving Kerri and me the eye, the one that wants to know when you’re going to have your own kids.
“When you go places on a Friday or Saturday night as a teen — whether it’s the mall or the movies or wherever — you and your buddies are the outsiders. But when you start getting into your twenties and you show up at the same places with a girl — a woman — it’s like you’re becoming part of the inside, of the community.
“There was this one moment where I went off to the men’s room. Kerri and I had been splitting a cotton candy — the blue kind, I remember, because she insisted it tasted better than the pink kind, even though I told her it was all the same, just different dye.
“My hands were all sticky and my Mustang was brand new. I didn’t want to get the steering wheel or the shifter sticky when we went back to the car. I know, I was ready to fuck all over the leather seats but now I’m freaking out about my sticky cotton-candy hands.
“So I come back from the men’s room and Kerri’s there with her friend Ella’s little girl. She was maybe three or four and just a little blob of pink: pink jacket, pink pajamas, pink socks, big clunky pink sneakers that lit up on the soles when she walked.
“And Kerri lifts the little girl up and hands her to Ella and then she turns and watches me walk towards her. Just as I get there, Kerri reaches up and brushes a little piece of blue cotton candy out of my stubble. Then she slipped her arm in mine and we walked back to the car. I remember looking up and seeing all the stars, the ones you used to not be able to see in the city. And I had this moment where I could see it all: me and Kerri and the rest of our lives with the three little girls we were going to have and how we’d come back with them and our minivan and our lawn chairs and they’d have sneakers that lit up when they ran too.
“And it scared the shit out of me. I was content and happy and it filled me with absolute terror.
“God help me, I was relieved when they showed up.”
Eddie didn’t look to the Old Sounder for a reaction. He didn’t look at the fire or up at the sky.
“When they first started creeping out of the woods, I thought it was a stunt. Like the drive-in was having a Romero triple-feature in two weeks and they wanted everyone to know about it.
“I think that one guy thought the same thing. He was standing outside his SUV smoking a cigarette. He just had that look: his wife wouldn’t let him smoke in the car, so he’s standing out in the cold smoking fast because he needs to.
“And three of the Things lumbered up behind him and it was like he was playing along, like he was in a spook house at Halloween, the kind that is really lame but where the dad fakes being scared so his kids will laugh.
“That’s just what he was doing: making a fake scared face when they grabbed him. He had a second to get pissed off before one of them bit right into his shoulder. Then he was screaming and so were his wife and kids in the back of the Blazer. And there weren’t three of the Things anymore, but somehow there were sixty of them.
“Kerri had sent me back to the concession stand just as the pirate movie was starting. I told her I didn’t want her eating in the Mustang. But she said what she always said when she wanted to get her way: she told me I could fuck her in the ass later. It was like a running joke with us. ‘Honey, you can buttfuck me if we can have Chinese instead of pizza,’ or ‘Baby, if we can watch the Sandra Bullock movie instead of Saw, I’ll totally let you buttfuck me tonight, maybe twice.’ It always worked even though she never let me. I think I just liked hearing her say it.
“And that’s why I wasn’t in the car when they came for her. That’s probably why I’m alive today.”
Eddie coughed something like a hoarse, hollow laugh.
“Alive because of false promises of buttfucking. That’s me.
“I started running as soon as I saw them bite into that first guy. Dropped the popcorn and took off straight for the Mustang. There were four of them around it when I got there and I could see Kerri banging on the windshield looking for me. Her eyes found me just as one broke through the passenger window.
“I know she saw me as I turned and ran away.”
Eddie didn’t try to stop his voice from cracking now. He just wanted to finish.
“I don’t know that I could’ve saved her. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have. There were no weapons and we didn’t even know what we were dealing with those first few days.”
“But I didn’t try. And what bothers me, even now, is it’s not that I was scared… I mean, I was. But I wasn’t scared of the Things. I think it was I was more scared of saving her.”
Eddie expected to sob, but nothing came. The only sound was the warm desert wind blowing through the cool night, stoking the brush, and the soft crackle of the fire.
After a few minutes, the Old Sounder’s boots creaked as he stood and crossed to Eddie. The old man put a hand on Eddie’s shoulder. He stood like that for a few minutes, then stamped out his pipe and set his bedroll down for the night.
In the morning, the Old Sounder was gone. Standing there shivering in the cold desert dawn, Eddie felt more alone than he had in some time. He supposed he’d get used to the loneliness again soon enough.
Eddie turned his back to the sunrise and decided to keep heading west. Once, a long time ago, he promised himself he’d see the Pacific before he died.
MIKE SWEENEY lives in Central New Jersey where he writes constantly but never quite enough.