Chapter 15

Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy

BY DAVID J. SCHOW

Eating 'em was more fun than blowing their gnarly green heads off. But why dicker when you could do both?

The fresher ones were blue. That was important if you wanted to avoid cramps, salmonella. Eat a green one and you'd be yodeling down the big porcelain megaphone in no time.

Wormboy used wire cutters to snip the nose off the last bullet in the foam block. He snugged the truncated cartridge into the cylinder of his short-barrel .44. When fired, the flattened slugs pancaked on impact and would disintegrate any geek's head into hash. The green guys weren't really zombies, because no voodoo had played a part. They were all geeks, all slow as syrup and stupid as hell, and Wormboy loved it that way. It meant he would not starve in this cowardly new world. He was eating; millions weren't.

Wormboy's burden was great.

It hung from his Butthole Surfers T-shirt. He had scavenged dozens of such shirts from a burned-out rock shop, all Extra Extra Large, all screaming about bands he had never heard of - Dayglo Abortions, Rudimentary Penii, Shower of Smegma, Fat & Fucked Up. Wormboy's big personal in-joke was one that championed a long-gone album titled Giving Head to the Living Dead.

The gravid flab of his teats distorted the logo, and his surplus flesh quivered and swam, shoving around his clothing as though some subcutaneous revolution was aboil. Pasty and pocked, his belly depended earthward, a vast sandbag held at bay by a wide weight lifter's belt, notched low. The faintest motion caused his hectares of skin to bobble like mercury.

Wormboy was more than fat. He was a crowd of fat people. A single mirror was insufficient to the task of containing his image.

The explosion buzzed the floor beneath his hitops. Vibrations slithered from one thick stratum of dermis to the next, bringing him the news.

The sound of a Bouncing Betty's boom-boom always worked like a Pavlovian dinner gong. It could smear a smile across his jowls and start his tummy to percolating. He snatched up binoculars and stampeded out into the graveyard.

Valley View Memorial Park was a classic cemetery, of a venerable lineage far preceding the ordinances that required flat monument stones to note the dearly departed. The granite and marble jutting from its acreage was the most ostentatious and artfully hewn this side of a Universal Studios monster movie boneyard. Stone-cold angels reached toward heaven. Stilted verse, deathlessly chiseled, eulogized the departees - vanity plates in a suburbia for the lifeless. It cloyed.

Most of the graves were unoccupied. They had prevailed without the fertilization of human decay and were now choked with loam and healthy green grass. The tenants had clawed out and waltzed off several seasons back.

A modest road formed a spiral ascent path up the hill and terminated in a cul-de-sac fronting Wormboy's current living quarters. Midway up, it was interrupted by a trench ten feet across. Wormboy had excavated this "moat" using the cemetery's scoop-loader, and seeded it with lengths of two-inch pipe sawn at angles to form funnel-knife style pungi sticks. Tripwires knotted gate struts to tombstones to booby traps, and three hundred antipersonnel mines lived in the earth. Every longitude and latitude of Valley View had been lovingly nurtured into a Gordian knot of killpower that Wormboy had christened his spiderweb.

The Bouncing Bettys had been a godsend. Anything that wandered in unbidden would get its legs blown off or become immovably gaffed in the moat.

Not long after the geeks woke up, shucked dirt, and ambled off with their yaps drooping open, Wormboy had claimed Valley View for his very own. He knew the dead tended to "home" toward places that had been important to them back when they weren't green. Ergo, never would they come trotting home to a graveyard.

Wormboy's previous hideout had been a National Guard armory. Too much traffic in walking dead weekend warriors, there. Blowing them into unwalking lasagna cost too much time and powder. After seven Land-Rover-loads of military rock and roll, Wormy's redecoration of Valley View was complete. The graveyard was one big mechanized ambush. The reception building and nondenomina-tional chapel were ideally suited to his needs... and breadth. Outfitting the prep room was more stainless steel than a French kitchen in Beverly Hills; where stiffs were once dressed for interment, Wormboy now dressed them out for din-din. There was even a refrigerated morgue locker. Independent generators chugged out wattage. His only real lament was that there never seemed to be enough videotapes to keep him jolly. On the nonfiction front he favored Julia Child.

The binocs were overpriced army jobs with an illuminated reticle. Wormboy thumbed up his bottle-bottom fish-eye specs, focused, and swept the base of the hill. Smoke was still rising from the breach point. Fewer geeks blundered in these days, but now and again he could still snag one.

That was peculiar. As far as Wormboy could reckon, geeks functioned on the level of pure motor response with a single directive - seek food - and legs that made their appetites mobile. Past year one the locals began to shun Valley View altogether, almost as though the geek grapevine had warned them the place was poison. Could be that Valley View's primo kill rate had made it the crucible of the first bona fide zombie superstition.

God only knew what they were munching in the cities by now. As the legions of ambulatory expirees had swelled, their preferred food - live citizens - had gone underground. Survivors of what Wormboy called Zombie Apocalypse had gotten canny or gotten eaten. Geek society itself was like a gator pit; he'd seen them get pissed off and chomp hunks out of one another. Though their irradiated brains kept their limbs supple and greased with oxygenated blood, they were still dead... and dead people still rotted. Their structural integrity (not to mention their freshness) was less than a sure bet past the second or third Halloween. Most geeks Wormy spotted nowadays were minus a major limb. They digested, but did not seem to eliminate. Sometimes the older ones simply exploded. They clogged up with gas and decaying food until they hit critical mass, then kerblooey - steaming gobbets of brown crap all over the perimeter. It was enough to put you off your dinner.

Life was so weird. Wormboy felt like the only normal person left.

This movable feast, this walking smorgasbord, could last another year or two at max, and Wormboy knew it. His fortifications insured that he would be ready for whatever followed, when the world changed again. For now, it was a matchless chow-down, and grand sport.

The ATV groaned and squeaked its usual protests when he settled into its saddle. A rack welded to the chassis secured geek tools - pinch bar, fire ax, scattergun sheaths, and a Louisville Slugger with a lot of chips, nicks, and dried blood. The all-terrain bike's balloon tires did not burst. Wormboy kick-started and puttered down to meet his catch of the day.

Geeks could sniff human meat from a fair distance. Some had actually gotten around to elementary tool use. But their maze sense was zero-zero. They always tried to proceed in straight lines. Even for a nongeek it took a load of deductive logic just to pick a path toward Valley View's chapel without getting divorced from your vitals, and much more time than generally elapsed between Wormboy's feedings. Up on this hilltop, his security was assured.

He piloted the ATV down his special escape path, twisting and turning, pausing at several junctures to gingerly reconnect tripwires behind him. He dropped his folding metal army fording bridge over the moat and tootled across.

Some of the meat hung up in the heat flash of the explosion was still sizzling on the ground in charred clumps. Dragging itself doggedly up the slope was half a geek, still aimed at the chapel and the repast that was Wormboy. Everything from its navel down had been blown off.

Wormboy unracked the pinch bar. One end had been modified to take a ten-pound harpoon head of machined steel. A swath of newly muddied earth quickly became a trail of strewn organs resembling smashed fruit. The geek's brand-new prone carriage had permitted it to evade some of the Bouncing Betty trips. Wormboy frowned. His announcement was pointed - and piqued - enough to arrest the geek's uphill crawl.

"Welcome to hell, dork breath."

It humped around on its palms with all the grace of a beached haddock. Broken rib struts punched through at jigsaw angles and mangled innards swung from the mostly empty chest cavity like pendant jewels. One ear had been sheared off; the side of its head was caked in thick blood, dirt, and pulverized tissue that reminded Wormboy of a scoop of dog food. It sought Wormboy with bleary drunkard's eyes, virulently jaundiced and discharging gluey fluid like those of a sick animal.

It was wearing a besmirched Red Cross arm band.

A long, gray-green rope of intestine had paid out behind the geek. It gawped with dull hunger, then did an absurd little push-up in order to bite it. Teeth crunched through geek-gut and gelid black paste evacuated with a blatting fart noise. Sploot!

Disinclined toward autocannibalism, it tacked again on Wormboy. A kidney peeled loose from a last shred of muscle and rolled out to burst apart in the weeds. The stench was unique.

Impatient, Wormy shook his head. Stupid geeks. "C'mon, fuckface, come and get it." He waggled his mighty belly, then held out the rib roast of his forearm. "You want Cheez Whiz on it or what? C'mon. Chow time."

It seemed to catch the drift. Mouth champing and slavering, eyes straying off in two directions, it resumed its quest, leaving hanks and clots of itself behind all the way down.

It was too goddamned slow... and wasting too many choice bits.

Hefting the pinch bar, Wormboy hustled up the slope. He slammed one of his size thirteens thunderously down within biting range and let the geek fantasize for an instant about what a crawfull of Wormboy Platter would taste like. Greedy. Then he threw all his magnificent tonnage behind a downward thrust, spiking his prey between the shoulder blades and staking it to the ground with a moist crunch.

It thrashed and chewed air. Wormy waved bye-bye in its face. "Don't go 'way, now." He let the geek watch him pick his way back down to the ATV. He wanted it to see him returning with the ax. Sweat had broken freely; the exertion already had Wormboy huffing and aromatic, but he loved this part almost as much as swallowing that old-time home cookin'.

The ax hissed down overhand. A bilious rainbow of decomposing crap hocked from the neck stump while the blue head pinballed from one tombstone to the next. It thonked to rest against the left rear wheel of the ATV.

Wormboy lent the half torso a disappointed inspection. Pickings were lean; this geek had been on the hoof too long. Burger night again.

He looked behind him and sure enough, the lone head was fighting like hell to redirect itself. Hair hung in its eyes, the face was caved in around the flattened nose, the whole of it now oozing and studded with cockleburs... but by God it tipped over, embedded broken teeth into packed dirt, and tried to pull itself toward Wormy. It was that hungry.

Wormboy went down to meet it, humming. He secured the ax in its metal clip and drew the ball bat.

Busting a coconut was tougher. The geek's eyes stayed open. They never flinched when you hit them. On the second bash, curds of blood-dappled brain jumped out to meet the air.

It ceased moving then, except to crackle and collapse. The cheesy brain-stuff was the color of fishbellies.

Wormboy pulled free a mucilaginous fistfull and brandished it before the open, unseeing eyes. He squeezed hard. Glistening spirals unfurled between his fingers with a greasy macaroni noise.

"I win again."

He licked the gelid residue off his trigger finger and smacked his lips. By the time he got back to the torso with a garbage bag, the Red Cross arm band was smoldering. He batted it away. It caught in midair and flared, newborn fire gobbling up the swatch of cloth and the symbol emblazoned thereon, leaving Wormboy alone to scratch his head about what it might have meant.

Little Luke shot twin streamers of turbid venom into the urine specimen cup like a good Christian, providing. He did not mind being milked (not that he'd been asked); it was a necessary preamble to the ritual. He played his part and was provided for - a sterling exemplar of God's big blueprint. His needle fangs were translucent and fragile looking. Cloudy venom pooled in the cup.

Maintaining his grip just behind Little Luke's jaws, the Right Reverend Jerry thanked his Lord for this bounty, that the faithful might take communion and know His peace. He kissed Little Luke on the head and dropped all four feet of him back into the pet caddy. Little Luke's Love Gift had been generous today. Perhaps even serpents knew charity.

Jerry pondered charity, and so charitably ignored the fact that his eldest deacon was leaking. Deacon Moe stood in the vestibule, his pants soaked and dripping, weaving back and forth. He was not breathing, and his eyes saw only the specimen cup. The odor that had accompanied him into the tiny room was that of maggoty sausage. He was a creature of wretchedness, without a doubt... but was also proof to the Right Reverend Jerry that the myth had delivered at last, and skeptics be damned.

The dead had risen from their graves to be judged. If that was not a miraculous proof, what was? The regular viewers of Jerry's tricounty video ministry had been long satisfied by more pallid miracles - eased sprains, restored control of the lower tract, that sort of thing. Since this ukase had flown down from heaven, it would be foolish to shun its opportunities.

Jerry savored the moment the dead ones had walked. It had vindicated his lagging faith, dispelling in an instant the doubts that had haunted his soul for a lifetime. There wasa One True God, and there wasa Judgment Day, and there wasan Armageddon, and there was boundto be a Second Coming, and as long as the correct events came to pass, who cared if their order had been juggled a bit? The Lord had been known to work in mysterious ways before.

Once his suit had been blazing white, and pure. With faith, it would shine spotlessly again. Right now he did not mind the skunky miasma exuding from the pits of what, had once been a fifteen-hundred-dollar jacket. It helped blanket the riper and more provocative stench of Deacon Moe's presence. The congregation was on the move, and there was little time for dapper grooming in midhegira.

Jerry beckoned Deacon Moe forward to receive communion. From the way poor Moe shambled, this might be his last chance to drink of the Blood... since none of the faithful had meshed teeth lately on the Body, or any facsimile thereof.

He had visited an abandoned library, and books had told him what rattlesnake venom could do.

In human beings, it acts as a neurotoxin and nerve-impulse blocker, jamming the signals of the brain by preventing acetylcholine from jumping across nerve endings. The brain's instructions are never delivered. First comes facial paralysis, then loss of motor control. Heart and lungs shut down, and the victim drowns in his own backed-up fluids. Hemolytic, or blood-destroying, factors cause intense local pain. Jerry had tasted the venom he routinely fed his quartet of deacons. Nothing to worry about, as long as your stomach lining had no tiny holes in it. The bright yellow liquid was odorless, with a taste at first astringent, then sweetish. It numbed the lips. There was so much books could not know.

In walking dead human beings, Jerry discovered that the venom, administered orally, easily penetrated the cheesecloth of their internal pipework and headed straight for the motor centers of the brain, unblocking them, allowing Jerry to reach inside with light hypnosis to tinker. He could program his deacons not to eat him. More important, this imperative could then be passed among the faithful in the unspoken and mystical way that seemed reserved to only these special children of God.

A talent for mesmerization came effortlessly to a man who had devoted years to charming the camera's unblinking and all-seeing eye. Jerry preferred to consider his ability innate, a divine, God-granted sanction approved for the use he made of it. Don't eat the Reverend.

Deacon Moe's coated tongue moistened cracked and greenish lips, not in anticipation, but as a wholly preconditioned response. The demarcations of the urine specimen cup showed a level two ounces. Little Luke could be fully milked slightly more often than once per month, if Jerry's touch was gentle and coaxing. The cup was tilted to Deacon Moe's lips and the poison was glugged down in nomine Patris, et Filii...

"And God waved His hand," Jerry belted out.

"And when God did wave His hand, He cleansed the hearts of the wicked of evil. He scoured out the souls of the wolves, and set His born-agains to the task of reclaiming the earth in His name. The Scriptures were right all along - the meek inherited. Now the world grows green and fecund again. Now the faithful must seek strength from their most holy Maker. The damned Sodom and Gomorrah of New York and Los Angeles have fallen to ruin, their false temples pulled down to form the dust that makes the clay from which God molds the God-fearing Christian. Our God is a loving God, yet a wrathful God, and so he struck down those beyond redemption. He closed the book on secular humanism. His mighty Heel stamped out radical feminism. His good right Fist meted out rough justice to the homosexuals; his good left Fist likewise silenced the pagans of devilspawn rock and roll. And He did spread His arms wide to gather up the sins of this evil world, from sexual perversion to drug addiction to Satan worship. And you might say a memocame down from the desk of the Lord, and major infidel butt got kicked doubleplusgood!"

Now he was cranking, impassioned, his pate agleam with righteous perspiration. His hands clasped Deacon Moe's shoulders. His breath misted the zombie's dead-ahead eyes. His conviction was utter. Moe salivated.

"And now the faithful walk the land, brother,'as a mighty army. God's legions grow by the day, by the hour, the minute, as we stand here and reaffirm our faith in His name. We are all children of God, and God is a loving Father who provides for His children, yes. Yes, we must make sacrifices. But though our bellies be empty today, our hearts are full up with God's goodness!" His voice was cracking now; it was always good to make it appear as though some passion was venting accidentally. "From that goodness you and I must draw the strength to persevere until tomorrow, when the Millenium shall come and no child of the Lord shall want. Peace is coming! Food is coming! Go forth unto the congregation, Deacon Moe, and spread this good news! Amen! Amen! Amen!"

Deacon Moe wheezed, his arid throat rasping out an acknowledgment that sounded like an asthmatic trying to say rruuaahthrough a jugfull of snot. Jerry spun him aboutface and impelled him through the curtain to disseminate the Word. He heard Moe's stomachload of accumulated venom slosh. Corrosion was running amok in there. Any second now, gravity might fill Deacon Moe's pants with his own zombified tripe.

Tonight they were billeted in an actual church. Most of the faithful loitered about the sanctuary. The deacons led them through Jerry's motions; the response quotient of the total group, twoscore and ten, was about as dependable as a trained but retarded lab rat. Less control, and Jerry would have starred at his own Last Supper months ago. Right now he saw his congregation only as vessels itching to be filled with the prose of the Lord. He tried to keep them fed as best he could manage.

He was most proud of the glorious day he had commenced his cross-country revival. He strode boldly into the murk of a Baton Rouge honky-tonk and let God say howdy-do to a nest of musicians calling themselves Slim Slick and His Slick Dicks. Marching right behind him were twenty hungry born-agains. That holy purge, that first big feed with which he had blessed his new congregation, would forever burn brightly in a special corner of his heart. Slim Slick, et al., had seen the light. Some of them had joined the marching ministry, those that had not been too chewed up to locomote.

Like Jesus to the temple, the Right Reverend Jerry came not to destroy, but to fulfill. To fill full.

He poked his snakestick into the hatch of the pet caddy. Nobody buzzed. Nobody could. Rattling tended to upset the faithful, so he had soaked the rattle of each of his four Little wine-makers until it rotted into silence. Little Matthew was disengaged from the tangle of his brothers. Eastern diamondbacks were rightly feared for their size and high venom delivery; full-contact bites were almost always fatal. Little Matt was five feet long, with large glands that would effortlessly yield a Love Gift that could convert six hundred sixty-six adults to the cause, and wasn't thata significant coincidence of mathematics? Jerry had to push the figures a smidgen, converting milligrams to grains to ounces. How a lethal dosage was administered was a big variable. But the final number summoned by his calculator was 666, repeating to infinity. That was how many sinners could swing low on three ounces of Little Matt's finest kind. To Jerry, that number was a perfect sign... and wasn't that what really counted in the Big Book? Perfection just tickled God green.

Deacon Curly had not come forth to receive communion. Perhaps he had wandered astray?

Back in the days before it had become synonymous with smut, the Right Reverend Jerry had enjoyed comedy. Upon his nameless deacons he had bestowed the names of famous funnymen. As the ramrods wore out or were retired, Jerry's list of names dwindled. Just now, the deacons in charge were Moe, Curly, W.C., and Fatty. Curly was running late. Tardiness was a sin.

Jerry felt secure that his flock would follow him even without the able assistance of his deacons. He represented the Big Guy, but his course work with Graham and Hummell pealed just as righteously. His tent-revival roots ran deep and wide, he had always trodden the upward path, and his congregation now burgeoned beneath his loving ministrations.

When he sermonized, the born-agains seemed to forget their earthly hungers. He could not pinpoint why, past his own Rock-solid certainty that the Word held the power to still the restless, and quiet gnawing bellies. There were other kinds of nourishment; these lost ones were spiritually starved as well. Jerry held dear a reverence for awareness and sheer faith, and fancied he saw both in the eyes of his congregation when he vociferated. He Witnessed this miracle in a most hallowed and traditional fashion, during a sermon, when he looked out upon the milling throng and just knew. The born-agains depended on him for the Word just as much as the deacons counted on him to deliver the holy imbibitions. Venom governed the deacons, but it had to be a new kind of faith that oversaw the members of the marching ministry. Had to be.

They needed saving. Jerry needed to save. Symbiosis, plain, ungarnished, and God-sanctioned as all get-out.

In a most everlasting way, they fed each other. Maybe it was not such a big whodunit, after all.

Still no sign of Deacon Curly in the sanctuary. Jerry motioned Deacon Fatty inside. Fatty's eye had popped out to hang from the stalk again. Jerry tucked it in and brushed the bugs from this deacon's shoulders, then reknotted the arm band which had drooped to the zombie's elbow. Each member of the new congregation wore a Red Cross - it seemed an appropriate symbol for the New Dawn, and Jerry needed a handy way to take quick head counts while on the march.

The sudden, flat boomof an explosion not far away made Jerry's heart slam on brakes. Deacon Fatty stood unimpressed, awaiting his communion, insects swimming in his free-flowing drool.

Orthodoxies had spent too long fucking up the world, so Wormboy had obliterated all of them with a snap of his knockwurst fingers. Enough was enough. Idiots fumbled about, living their lives by accident, begging nonexistent gods for unavailable mercies, trusting in supernatural beings and nebulous powers of good and evil that predetermined what breakfast cereal they ate. If there was any evil now, its name was either Starvation or Stupidity - two big items that could make you instant history. True Believers spent their lives preparing to die. Wormboy preferred fighting to live.

His survival ethics might become the first writ of a new doctrine. Another system would rise in time. Nobody ever really learned a goddamned thing.

He preferred heavy-caliber projectile peace of mind. Cordite calm. He had named his M60 Zombo and it was swell. One round made raspberry slush. Vaporize the head and the leftovers could not eat you or infect you with the geek germ.

And spraying on Pam kept them from sticking to the cookery.

Wormboy dumped his dishes in the steel tub sink and relaxed on his Valley View sofa. A basso toilet belch eased him into sleep, and he dreamed about the first person he had ever eaten.

Duke Mallett had dubbed him Wormboy because of his obesity and spotty complexion. Which, quoth Duke, indicated that 15th Street Junior High's resident wimp, blimp, pussywhip, and pariah sucked up three squares chock full 'o night crawlers each day, with squiggly snacks between. "Yo, Wormy - wotcha got in your locker? More WORMS, huh?" That was always good for a chorus of guffaws from Duke and 15th Street's other future convicts.

Duke smoked Camels. His squeeze, Stacy, had awesome boobs and a lot of pimples around her mouth. She used bubble-gum-flavored lipstick. Two weeks prior to becoming a high school freshman, Dukey wrapped a boosted Gran Torino around a utility pole at ninety. He, Stacy, and a pair of their joyriding accomplices were barbecued by sputtering wires and burning Hi-Test. Paramedics piled what parts they could salvage onto a single stretcher, holding their noses.

Tompkins Mortuary also provided local ambulance service, and when Wormboy caught wind he raced there, to grieve. Old Man Tompkins admired the fat kid's backbone in requesting to view the remains of his classmates. "I have to be sure!" Wormy blurted melodramatically, having rehearsed. Tompkins was of the mind that youngsters could never be exposed to death too soon, and so consented to give Wormboy a peek at the carbonized component mess filling Drawer Eight.

Wormboy thought Tompkins smelled like the biology lab at shark-dissecting time. While the old man averted his gaze with a sharp draw of untainted air, Wormboy sucked wind, fascinated. The flash-fried garbage staining the tray and blocking the drains was Duke. Harmless now. The sheer joy of this moment could not hold, so Wormboy quickly swiped a small sample. When Tompkins turned to look, he sheepishly claimed to have seen enough. He lied.

Later, alone, he wallowed.

The piece he had purloined turned out to be one of Duke's fricasseed eyeballs. It had heat-shrunken, wrinkled in a raisin pattern, deflated on one side, and petrified on the other... but without a doubt it was one of Dukey's baby blues. The eye that had directed so much hatred at Wormboy was now in his very hand, subtracted of blaze and swagger and no more threatening than a squashed seed grape.

It gave under the pressure of his fingers, like stale cheese. He sniffed. It was sour, rather akin to the smell of an eggshell in the trash, with no insides.

Wormboy popped it between his lips and bit down before his brain could say no. He got a crisp bacon crunch. His mental RPMs redlined as flavor billowed across his tongue and filled his meaty squirrel cheeks.

His mom would not have approved. This was... well, this was the sort of thing that was... just not done.

It was... a rush of liberation. It was the ultimate expression of revenge, of power wielded over Duke the dick-nosed shitheel. It was the nearest thing to sex Wormboy would ever experience. It was damned close to religious.

Once Wormboy was old enough, he began to work part-time for Old Man Tompkins after school. By then his future was cast, and his extra weight gain attracted no new notice.

At the National Guard armory he had tucked in quite a few Type-A boxed combat meals. The gel-packed mystery meat he pried from olive-drab tins was more disgusting than anything he had ever sliced off down at the morgue.

BONE appetit!

Wormboy's wet dream was just sneaking up on the gooshy part when another explosion jerked him back to reality and put his trusty .44 in his grasp quicker than a samurai's katana. It was getting to be a busy Monday.

His mountainous gut fluttered. Brritt. Lunch was still in there fighting. But what the binoculars revealed nudged his need for a bromo right out of his mind.

Two dozen geeks, maybe more, were lurching toward the front gates of Valley View. Wormboy's jaw unhinged. That did not stop his mouth from watering at the sight.

The Right Reverend Jerry unshielded his eyes and stared at the sinner on the hilltop as smoking wads of Deacon Fatty rained down on the faithful. He'd been in front. Something fist-sized and mulchy smacked Jerry's shoulder and blessed it with a smear of yellow. He shook detritus from his shoe and thought of Ezekiel 18:4. Boy, he was getting mad.

The soul that sinneth - it shall die!

Deacon Moe and Deacon Fatty had bitten the big one and bounced up to meet Jesus. The closer the congregation staggered to the churchyard, the better they could smell the sinner... and his fatted calves. The hour of deliverance - and dinner - so long promised by Jerry seemed at hand.

Jerry felt something skin past his ear at two hundred per. Behind him, another of the born-agains came un-glued, skull and eyes and brains all cartwheeling off on different trajectories. Jerry stepped blind and his heel skidded through something moist and slick; his feet took to the air and his rump introduced itself to the pavement and much, much more of Deacon Fatty. More colors soaked into his coat of many.

The Right Reverend Jerry involuntarily took his Lord's name in vain.

At the next flat crack of gunshot one more of the faithful burst into a pirouette of flying parts. Chunks and stringers splattered the others, who had the Christian grace not to take offense.

Jerry scrambled in the puddle of muck, his trousers slimed and adherent, his undies coldly bunched. Just as wetly, another born-again ate a bullet and changed tense from present to past. Jerry caught most in the bazoo.

It was high time for him to bull in and start doing God's work.

Wormboy cut loose a throat-rawing war whoop - no melodrama, just joy at what was heading his way. The guy bringing up the rear did not twitch and lumber the way geeks usually did, so Wormy checked him out through the scope of the high-power Remington. He saw a dude in a stained suit smearing macerated suet out of his eyes and hopping around in place with Donald Duck fury.

He wore a Red Cross arm band, as did the others. End of story. Next case.

Wormy zeroed a fresh geek in his crosshairs, squeezed off, and watched the head screw inside out in a pizza-colored blast of flavor. With a balletic economy of motion for someone his size, he ejected the last of the spent brass and left the Remington open-bolted while he unracked his M60. Zombo was hot for mayhem. Zombo was itching to pop off and hose the stragglers. Wormy draped a stretch belt of high-velocity armor piercers over one sloping hillock of shoulder. The sleek row of shell casings obscured the Dirty Rotten Imbeciles logo on his T-shirt.

Dusting was done. Now it was casserole time. Zombo lived. Zombo ruled.

The next skirmish line of Bouncing Bettys erupted. They were halfway to the moat. The stuff pattering down from the sky sure looked like manna.

Jerry let 'em have it in his stump-thumper's bray, full bore: "Onward, onward! Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth!" Isaiah 45:22 was always a corker for rousing the rabble.

By now each and every born-again had scented the plump demon on the hilltop. He was bulk and girth and mass and calories and salvation. Valley View's iron portals were smashed down and within seconds, a holy wave of living-dead arms, legs and innards were airborne and graying out the sunlight.

"Onward!" Jerry frothed his passion to scalding and dealt his nearest disciple a fatherly shove in the direction of the enemy. The sinner. The monster. " Onward!"

The flat of Jerry's palm met all the resistance of stale oatmeal. A fresh cow patty had more tensile strength and left less mess. He ripped his hand free with a yelp and gooey webs followed it backward.

The born-again gawped hollowly at the tunnel where its left tit used to be, then stumped off, sniffing fresh Wormboy meat.

The explosions became deafening, slamming one into the next, thunderclaps that mocked God. In the interstices, Jerry heard a low, vicious chuddering - not a heavenly sound, but an evil noise unto the Lord that was making the faithful go to pieces faster than frogs with cherry bombs inside.

He tried to snap off the maggot-ridden brown jelly caking his hand and accidentally boffed Deacon Moe in the face. The zombie's nose tore halfway off and dangled. Moe felt no pain. He had obediently brought the pet caddy, whose occupants writhed and waxed wroth.

Zombo hammered out another gunpowder benediction, and Jerry flung himself down to kiss God's good earth. Hot tracers ate pavement and jump-stitched through Deacon Moe in a jagged line. The pet carryall took two big hits and fell apart. Moe did likewise. His ventilated carcass did a juice dump, and the Right Reverend Jerry found himself awash in gallons of zombie puree plus four extremely aggravated rattlesnakes.

He never found out who was the first to betray him. The first bite pegged him right on the balls, and he howled.

Deacon Moe, his work on this world finished, keeled over with a splat. It was like watching a hot cherry pie hit a concrete sidewalk.

Wormboy rubbed his eyes. Zombo had missed. It wasn't just the salt sting of sweat that had spoiled his aim. His vision was bollixed. The oily drops standing out on his pate were ice cold.

It was probably someone's something he ate.

Zombo grew too heavy, too frying-pan hot to hold. Zombo's beak kept dipping, pissing away good ammo to spang off the metal spikes crowding the moat. Wormboy gritted his teeth, clamped his clammy trigger finger down hard, and seesawed the muzzle upward with a bowel-clenching grunt. He felt himself herniate below his weight lifter's belt. Zombo spoke. Geeks blocked tracers, caught fire, and sprang apart at the seams. Those in front were buffaloed into the moat by those behind. They seated permanently onto the pungi pipes with spongy noises of penetration, to wriggle and gush bloodpus and reach im-potently toward Wormboy.

Zombo demanded a virgin belt of slugs.

Wormboy's appetite had churned into a world-class acid bath of indigestion. This night would belong to Maalox.

It took no time for the air to clog with the tang of blackened geek beef. One whiff was all it took to make Wormboy ralph long and strenuously into the moat. Steaming puke pasted a geek who lay skewered through the back, facing the sky, mouth agape. It spasmed and twisted on the barbs, trying to lap up as much fresh hot barf as it could collect.

Zombo tagged out. Wormboy unholstered his .44 and sent a pancaking round into Barf-eater's brain pan. Its limbs stiffened straight as the hydrostatic pressure blew its head apart into watermelon glop. Then it came undone altogether, collapsing into a pool of diarrhetic putresence that bubbled and flowed amidst the pipework.

Now everything looked like vomit. Wormy's ravaged stomach said heave-ho to that, too, and constricted to expel what was no longer vomitable. This time he got blood, shooting up like soda pop to fizz from both nostrils. He spat and gagged, crashing to his knees. His free hand vanished into the fat cushion of his stomach, totally inadequate to the task of clutching it.

The Right Reverend Jerry saw the sinner genuflect. God was still in Jerry's corner, whacking away, world without end, hallelujah, amen.

Jerry's left eye was smeared down his cheek like a lanced condom. Little Paul's fang had put it out. Must have offended him. Jerry seized Little Paul and dashed his snaky brains out against the nearest headstone. Then he began his trek up the hill, through the valley of death, toting the limp, dead snake as a scourge. Consorting with serpents had won him a double share of bites, and he knew the value of immunization. He stung all over and was wobbly on his feet... but so far, he was still chugging.

This must be hell, he thought dazedly when he saw most of his congregation sliced, diced, and garnishing Valley View's real estate. Tendrils of smoke curled heavenward from the craters gouged rudely in the soil. Dismembered limbs hung, spasming. A few born-agains had stampeded over the fallen and made it all the way to the moat.

Jerry could feel his heart thudding, pushing God knew how much snakebite nectar through his veins. He could feel the power working inside him. Blood began to drip freely from his gums, slathering his lips. His left hand snapped shut into a spastic claw and stayed that way. His good eye tried to blink and could not; it was frozen open. The horizon tilted wildly. Down below, his muscles surrendered and shit and piss came express delivery.

As he neared his children, he wanted to raise his voice in the name of the Lord and tell them the famine was ended, to hoot and holler about the feast at last. He lost all sensation in his legs instead. He tumbled into the violence-rent earth of the graveyard and began to drag himself forward with his functioning hand, the one still vised around the remains of Little Paul.

He wanted to shout, but his body had gotten real stupid real fast. What came out, in glurts of blood-flecked foam, was He ham niss ed begud!

Just the sound of that voice made Wormboy want to blow his ballast all over again.

Jerry clawed onward until he reached the lip of the pit. The born-agains congregated around him. His eye globbed on his face, his body jittering as the megadose of poison grabbed hold, he nevertheless raised his snake and prepared to declaim.

Wormboy dragged his magnum into the firing line and blew the evangelist's mushmouthed head clean off before the mouth could pollute the air with anything further.

"That's better," he ulped, gorge pistoning.

Then he vomited again anyway and blacked out.

* * *

Weirder things have happened, his brain insisted right before he came to. None of it had been a dream.

One eye was shut against the dark of dirt and his nose was squashed sideways. Over the topography of regurgitated lunch in front of his face, he watched.

He imagined the Keystone Kops chowing down on a headless corpse. Meat strips were ripped and gulped without the benefit of mastication, each glistening shred sliding down gullets like a snake crawling into a wet, red hole. One geek was busily chomping a russet ditch into a Jerry drumstick with the foot still attached. Others played tug-o-war with slick spaghetti tubes of intestine or wolfed double facefuls of the thinner, linguini strands of tendon and ligaments - all marinated in that special, extra-chunky maroon secret sauce.

Wormboy's own tummy grumbled jealously. It was way past dinnertime. The remaining geeks would not leave, not with Wormboy uneaten. He'd have to crop 'em right now, unless he wanted to try mopping up in total darkness and maybe waiting until sunup to dine.

He saw one of the geeks in the moat squirm free of a pungi pipe. Its flesh no longer meshed strongly enough for the barbs to hold it. It spent two seconds wobbling on its feet, then did a header onto three more spikes. Ripe plugs of rotten tissue bounced upward and acid bile burbled forth.

Wormboy rolled toward Zombo, rising like a wrecked semi righting itself. His brain rollercoastered; his vision strained to focus; what the fuck had been wrong with lunch? He was no more graceful than a geek, himself, now. He put out one catcher's-mitt hand to steady his balance against a massive headstone memorializing somebody named Eugene Roach, Loving Father. Mr. Roach had himself lurched off to consume other folks' children a long time ago.

What happened, happened fast.

Wormboy had to pitch his full weight against the tombstone just to keep from keeling over. When he leaned, there came a sound like hair being levered out by the roots. His eyes bugged and before he could arrest his own momentum, the headstone hinged back, disengaging from Valley View's overnourished turf. Arms windmilling, Wormy fell on top of it. His mind registered a flashbulb image of the tripwire, twanging taut to do its job.

The mine went off with an eardrum-compressing clap of bogus thunder. Two hundred pounds of granite and marble took to the air right behind nearly four hundred pounds of Wormboy, who was catapulted over the moat and right into the middle of the feeding frenzy on the far side.

It was the first time in his life he had ever done a complete somersault.

With movie slo-mo surreality, he watched his hunky magnum pal drop away from him like a bomb from a zeppelin. It landed with the trigger guard snugged around one of the moat's deadly metal speartips. The firmly impaled Deacon W.C. was leering down the bore when it went bang. Everything above the Adam's apple rained down to the west as goulash and flip chips.

Wormboy heard the shot but did not witness it. Right now his overriding concern was impact.

A geek turned and saw him, raising its arms as if in supplication, or a pathetic attempt to catch the UFO that isolated it in the center of a house-sized, ever-growing shadow.

Eugene Roach's overpriced monument stone veered into the moat. The mushy zombie watched it right up until the second it hit. The fallout was so thick you could eat it with a fondue fork.

Wormboy clamped shut his eyes, screamed, and bellied in headfirst. Bones snapped when he landed. Only the yellows of the geek's eyes were visible at the end. It liquefied with a pooshand became a wet stain at the bottom of the furrow dug by Wormboy's touchdown.

All heads turned.

His brain was like a board room choked with yelling stockbrokers. The first report informed him that aerial acrobatics did not agree with his physique. The second enumerated fractures, shutdown, concussion, an eardrum that had popped with the explosive decompression of a pimento being vacuumed from an olive, the equitable distribution of slag-hot agony to every outback and tributary of his vast body... and the dead taste of moist dirt.

The third was a surprise news flash: He had not been gourmandized down to nerve peels and half a dozen red corpuscles. Yet.

He filed a formal request to roll back his eyelids and it took about an hour to go through channels.

He saw stars, but they were in the postmidnight sky above him. He lay on his back, legs straight, arms out in a plane shape. What a funny.

Eight pairs of reanimated dead eyes appraised him.

They've got me, dead bang, he thought. For more than a year they've whiffed me and gotten smithereened... and now I've jolly well been served up to them airfreight, gunless, laid out flat on my flab. Maybe they waited just so I could savor the sensual cornucopia of being devoured alive firsthand. Dr. Moreau time, kids. Time for Uncle Wormy to check out for keeps.

He tried to wiggle numb fingers at them. "Yo, dudes." It was all he could think of to do.

The zombies surrounding him - three up, three down, one at his feet, and one at his head - rustled as though stirred by a soft breeze. They communed.

The skull of the Right Reverend Jerry had been perched on his chest. He could barely see it up there. The blood-dyed and tooth-scored fragments had been leaned together into a fragile sort of card ossuary. He could see that his bullet had gone in through Jerry's left eyebrow. Good shot.

His insides convulsed and he issued a weak cough. The skull clattered apart like an inadequately glued clay pot.

More commotion, among the zombies.

The Right Reverend Jerry had been gnawed down to a jackstraw clutter of bones; the bones had been cracked, their marrow greedily drained. All through the feast, there he had been, mere feet distant, representing bigger portions for everybody. He had gone unmolested for hours. Instead of tucking in, they had gathered round and waited for him to wake up. They had flipped him over, touched him without biting. They had pieced together Jerry's headbone and seen it blown apart by a cough. They had Witnessed, all right.

He considered the soda-cracker fragments of skull and felt the same rush of revelation he had experienced with Duke Mallett's eyeball. So fitting, now, to savor that crunchy stone-ground goodness.

The eyes that sought him did not judge. They did not see a grotesquely obese man who snarfed up worms and eyeballs and never bathed. The watchers did not snicker in a Duke Mallett drawl, or reject him, or find him lacking in any social particular. They had waited for him to revive. Patiently, on purpose, they had waited. For him.

They had never sought to eat of his lard or drink of his cholesterol. The Right Reverend Jerry had taught them that there were hungers other than physical.

One of his legs felt busted, but with effort he found himself capable of hiking up onto both elbows. The zombies shuffled dutifully back to make room for him to rise, and when he did not, they helped him, wrestling him erect like dogfaces hoisting the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima. He realized that if he cared to order them to march into one of Valley View's crematory ovens according to height, they'd gladly comply.

He had, at last, gained the devoted approval of a peer group.

And any second now, some asshole would try to whore up this resurrection for posterity in a big, bad, black book... and get it all wrong. He decided that anybody who tried would have a quick but meaningful confab with Zombo.

I win again. He had thought this many times before, in reference to those he once dubbed geeks. Warmth flooded him. Hewas not a geek... therefore theywere not.

What he finally spake unto them was something like: "Aww... shit, you guys, I guess we oughta go hustle up some potluck, huh?"

He began by passing out the puzzle pieces of the Right Reverend Jerry's skull. As one, they all took and ate without breathing.

And they saw that it was good.

***

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