Phoebe here, with another road report from Mr. Williams. I have to warn you--this is not a pleasant story, definitely not for the faint of heart. I'm still disturbed by it.
I can tell you that Tommy made it safely out of Scranton, but I'm not going to say just where he is, yet.
He thinks he's being followed.
Keep him in your thoughts, please, like I know you do. And again, his report is a very frightening one, so think twice about reading it.
The Road Journal of Tommy Williams
“We’re not in New Jersey anymore,” Jason said.
The funny thing was that I knew it even before he said it. It was weird, because northwestern New Jersey isn’t all that different from that northeast corner of Pennsylvania, but I knew we were in a different place. Something in the air, or maybe the highway signs were subtly different, or the composition of the asphalt beneath the tires of Jason’s car different that the roads we’d just left behind.
Or maybe we passed a big giant ‘Welcome to Pennsylvania’ sign and my conscious mind did not register it because I was so busy scanning the bare trees for villagers with pitchforks and torches.
I’d been warned about PA, you see.
Jason drove a bright yellow VW bus that he’d nicknamed the Hearse because he’d used it to smuggle at least five dead people out of the state.
“Scranton, PA may be the city most hostile to the undead in the entire northeast,” he told me. “And that’s saying something, really.”
Jason is nineteen. He’s from South Carolina but he goes to school at Princeton, where he wants to major in cultural anthropology. He refers to his trips into PA as ‘field work’.
“Pretty much everywhere is hostile to you guys, though. That school you have over in Connecticut is a rarity. You’ve got a decent db scene in New York, and I hear that there is an even bigger one in LA and in San Francisco. I think it’s because all the dead get chased out of all the other states.”
“Except New Jersey,” I said. “Netcong was good to me.”
“Yeah, ‘cept Jersey.”
We met at a party in Lodi (which I’m told stands for “Lots of Dead Individuals”), where I was staying with DeCayce and his family for a few days. A dead girl from Cleveland named Tanya introduced him to me as ‘the guy who saved my life.”
“I was a little late,” he said, looking self-conscious beneath the brim of his Nets hat. Tonya hugged him and was clearly totally in love with him. I found out later it was because he and a few of his friends have set up a sort of underground railroad for differently biotic people. He brings most of them to Lodi, but he told me that some he’s brought further. In fact, a few of his passengers are now staying at the Haunted House.”
“Scranton hates dead people, man,” he said. “And they are organized about it, too. I think there are some people there that do what I do, except the rides they give to dead folks end in Scranton. And they are definitely one way tickets. Stacey and Rick—you’ll meet them—are pretty sure there is some sort of group that meets weekly, and each week they’ve got a differently biotic person at the meeting. Not applying for membership, either.”
On the surface, it sounded ludicrous that a group could be destroying one of my people each week as a part of some weird ceremony—they’d probably have the whole state of PA swept clean of dead kids within a year if they were—but I knew in my still heart that things like that were happening all over the country, all the time. I saw more white vans on the Garden State Parkway than I’d ever seen before in life or death, and every time we passed one I’d wonder if it was filled with assault rifles and a flamethrower. I know many of you do not quite believe in what some blog trolls refer to as “The Tommy Williams White Van Conspiracy”, but maybe you should talk to Cooper Wilson at the Hunter Foundation for an eyewitness account.
My conversation with Jason would be halted every ten minutes or so for him to answer his cell phone, and every time a certain number came up he would answer the phone “Karen here.” First I wondered why he was giving the name of one of my best friends. It took me a few of these phone calls to figure out the code.
“Charon, as in Charon the ferryman of the dead?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, looking at me only through the reflection in the rearview. “You aren’t insulted, are you?”
“How could I be insulted by something so corny?”
(And if you are insulted in reading this I ask you to reconsider, because I won’t be apologizing and I don’t think Jason should either. Sometimes a sense of humor is all we have to cling to; there have been times where I have thought it is the only thing keeping us alive. I also won’t be apologizing for fishing two pennies out of the cup holder where Jason throws his spare coffee change and putting them on my eyes as we went into Pennsylvania, even though doing so really seemed to freak him out).
Jason told me there was a sight he wanted me to see before he brought me over to Stacey and Rick’s apartment. What he wanted me to see was the towering, wrinkled face of Reverend Nathan Mathers, his five foot tall eyes still managing to look beady and empty as he peered down at us from a massive billboard, holding a copy of his wonderful book The Undead Scourge. For some reason, his greedy cold eyes made me think the title was actually The Uncle Scrooge. Maybe I’ve already been on the road too long.
“That was paid for by a local church group,” Jason told me as we drove by, “they raised part of the money by having bake sales and car washes that the parishioners’ kids did.”
We went past Mathers doing seventy, but his looming visage did not recede nearly quickly enough for me.
Rick and Stacy (who aren’t really Rick and Stacy, the same way Jason and Tanya have different names and the bright yellow bug that Jason-not-Jason drives might actually be a battered old pickup; the work they do being dangerous to themselves and the cargo they transport) are twenty-year old hippies, who speak with the same fervent conviction that I have seen Mathers (the actual six foot version) utilize, although you can see a light in their eyes that is absent even in the larger than life reproduction of Mathers. They don’t eat meat, they don’t wear leather, and they are involved in a number of environmental issues when they are not helping the dead escape to a better ‘life’ further east.
“We respect the sanctity of life and death,” Stacy tells me, her hand on my arm and her eyes scanning my face with an intensity I would find frightening if I were still alive and still fearful. “God created all things. Everything.”
“Yeah,” Rick said, his lips barely visible behind a thick brown beard that would probably let him run covert ops missions among the Amish, “the idea that you guys are some sort of demonic presence on the Earth is just crazy. I think the idea that anything other than God is responsible for creating you is even more blasphemous that what Mathers and those guys say. If God made the Earth and everything on it, and then someone says he didn’t make you and you are blasphemous, isn’t that blasphemy? I mean, what the heck.”
Rick was practically shaking with incredulity, but luckily I had Stacey’s steadying hand on my arm as she scanned my face, appreciating the sanctity of death.
“I could use some coffee,” Jason said, to try and lighten the mood, I guess.
“Man, that’s the most damaging drug of all,” Rick said. “The uptight drug, we call it.”
“You drink tea, though,” Stacey reminded him.
“Yeah,” Rick agreed.
I know my portrait of Rick and Stacey may seem a little unflattering, a little mocking. Don’t let it distract you from the fact that these people are literally the main reason why a number of us are still walking around. But they are real people, just like any of us, and for me to portray them as anything other than who they really are would be wrong.
Jason drove. I sat in the back with Stacey who was telling me all about her theory that we, the dead, were really some type of new human/plant hybrid while Rick cycled through the radio stations without cease. I think we were going south.
“Some plants, they die…as in actual death, roots dried up and all,” Stacey said. “And then they come back. With sunlight, or water. Or because someone is talking to them. Isn’t that amazing, the idea that you could bring someone back to life just by talking to them?”
“Pretty amazing,” I said. The car which may or may not have been a bright yellow bug was regardless cramped in the back seat. Stacey was wearing a peasant shirt and was not wearing a bra. I have a friend who has as many bracelets on her arm as Stacey had ribbons in her hair.
“Worms, if you cut them in half, each grow into a new worm. Energy can never be destroyed, only transformed. Maybe you have just found another way to transform your own energy instead of releasing it when you let go of your body. I see auras; that’s how come we can find the walkaways like we do. You all have this cool blue aura, like that new color of Gatorade or certain fabric softening agents.”
“Thanks,” I said. “What are ‘Walkaways’?”
She nodded vigorously. There were a couple feathers in the shrubbery of her hair that fluttered like tiny wings. “That’s what we call the dead on the lam. Not too many of you can actually run.”
“Oh,” I’d said. That one, at least, made some sense to me.
“I can’t tell who the bad people are versus the good ones. Jason and Ricky have such nice golden auras, really pretty. Most of the people in town have this sickly gray color. Like cigarette smoke or cancer. Ick.”
“I just think we are put here on earth to constantly renew ourselves, every day. Did you know that every seven years your body replaces all of its cells, one cell at a time? Living people, anyways. I don’t know if the dead actually do cell replacement. I’ve never studied the subatomics and molecular nature of the differently biotic before. I studied pre-law in school. Can you imagine me as a paralegal? Can you believe it?”
The funny thing was that I could, and in some ways I wished that she had become one. Jason told me as we crossed the border (after asking me would I please take the pennies off of my eyes) that Pennsylvania was one of the first states to pass legislation concerning the differently biotic (although in their laws the term used is “undead”). The law they passed actually made it illegal to “give occupancy” to an undead person, which meant that she and Rick had broken the law just letting me into their apartment, and it was probably a more serious crime than the one they were committing with their little horticultural experiments.
“They did it because there was a farmer in Bethlehem who was letting two dead people stay in his barn in exchange for free labor. His neighbors complained and lo and behold there was a fire of mysterious origin in the barn. Luckily the zombies weren’t in it at the time; they were inside the farmers’ house tiling his bathroom or something like that. I don’t even think I’m supposed to have you in my car.”
It was strange hearing the story from Jason, as it was one I had heard directly from one of the zombies who’d stayed on the farm, although in his version he and his friend (who never made it out of Pennsylvania) were scaring crows out of the fields. It was weird—so much of our history is an oral history, and hearing the tale retold by a traditionally biotic person gave me an odd little thrill of validation—if not vindication.
Somehow during the conversation with Stacey, we had drifted of Rte. 80 and onto some twisting and hilly back roads, roads more likely to be lined with brush and cattle fences than street lights.
“You are going to wish you’d taken the long way,” Rick said to me over his shoulder, “this isn’t pretty.”
Jason took a sharp left onto a “road” that was really just a set of tire ruts in a hard packed grassy field. He drove about a third of a mile in and stopped within about fifty feet of a metal pole set in a hillock of dirt as if hurled there by an angry deity. The dirt of the hillock, as well as the grass immediately around the hillock, was packed down hard, as though trodden frequently by many feet.
There was a blackish lump, about the size of a small suitcase, at the base of the pole. When I opened the door the smell of gasoline on the air was strong enough to hit even my less than sensitive nose, not the scent one would expect in the middle of an open field.
I looked back at my three living companions.
“I’m stayin’ here, man,” Rick said. Stacey, who was crying silently, squeezed his shoulder and followed me out of the car.
Jason reached the pole first. The suitcase was the charred remains of one of my people, just a lump of charred ash and bone. The pole, which in more human settings would have had a basketball net attached, was streaked with greasy soot.
“They chain them here,” Jason was saying, looking down at the poor thing that used to be a person, the pile listing to the side. “They chain them and douse them and light them up. End of story.”
He looked at Stacey for the answer, but Stacey had knelt in close to the remains and I realized that she was saying a prayer. “Poor thing,” she said, “poor little girl.”
She stood, and beckoned me to the other side of the hillock. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw on the other side. I wasn’t really prepared for seeing the charred body, even though Jason told me that’s what we were going to do, but the trench on the other side of the hillock…I could not even guess as to how many bodies burned into ash it had taken to fill that trench, a trench that was long and wide and filled with a crumbling black substance that looked like charcoal until you realized that the dots of white, some as big as my palm, were bone fragments. I didn’t even know there were that many dead people living.
I thought I felt the wind then, looking down into that trench. At that mass grave.
Some people, the people who might be scared of us but not scared enough to want to burn us like monsters, say that we are ghosts wearing human flesh. Looking at the trench I could feel the ghosts of my people;they were tugging at my sleeves and whispering in my ear and urging me to do what I had taken this trip to do.
I don’t know how long I stood there. Eventually Jason said that we shouldn’t hang around.
I stopped at the burning post again on the way to the car, and when I got down on one knee I blinked; I thought I was hallucinating because I thought I saw a flash of light in the center of the burned remains. I looked again and saw that what had flashed was a tiny lump of metal glinting in the sunlight. I pried the lump, a flat melted disc of gold no bigger than my thumbnail, with fingertips that came away black with soot. The disc came free of its charred prison with a brittle snap.
A locket, I thought. This was once a locket, given to her by someone, a relative or a boyfriend perhaps, someone still living who had no idea that the little girl who they’d given it to would spend her last moments on this earth chained and aflame, ringed by a throng of blank-faced men.
I put the disc in my pocket and wiped my fingers on the sides of my jeans. Jason started the car and Rick, without turning around, said that they needed to get me out of Scranton.