The corpse was dead. It was dead for real. It was not the purple intestines hanging from its stomach cavity or the missing left eye that assured me of this. Nor was it the maggots writhing under its skin or the stomach churning stench of rotting flesh. No, the only thing that gave me comfort, that the dead man would not reach for me and moan for his brethren, was the perfectly round mark of a bullet entry wound in the middle of his forehead.
“Jane! Stare at it too long and maybe it will get up and try to eat you,” a harsh, gravelly voice yells from behind. “Is that what you want?”
“No, Sir,” I say.
“Then get to work!”
I drive my stainless steel drag hook into the corpse’s soft flesh and jerk, catching hold of the clavicle. You learn in short order not to rely on flesh and tissue alone. Only the recently dead have the tension required to stay together; more decomposed bodies tend to fall apart when you start to pull on them. I drag the corpse across the field to Lewis, where he's using a pitchfork to heave the dead into a burn pile.
“Hey Jane! Over here. Gimme a hand with this one,” Emily calls.
I start toward the teenage girl. There are a dozen of us out in the field on clean-up duty today. That’s what you get for being “useless.” In my previous life I had been a public relations mouthpiece for one of the big defense contractors. Before everything had fallen apart I would spin even the worst of public disasters to look like they had been not only intentional but also critical to national security. I had been held in high esteem for my ability to save the hides of the powerful and I had been well compensated. But that was a different time and my silver tongue hasn’t gotten me out of clean-up crew yet.
Lewis had been a lawyer. Sam had been an HR director. Tom had been a Senior VP of something. Chris, John and Carson were accountants and MBAs. We had all been someone important, but now none of that mattered. We had no real skills so we were relegated to the dirty work. Somehow we had managed to survive the initial outbreak, mostly because we had a knack for reading personalities and hedging our bets with the right people. But once the rules were defined and some semblance of society was regained we found that social status had been reshuffled and we were no longer at the top. There was no place in this new world of death and survival for legalese and buzzwords.
At the top are the real leaders, those that are honestly capable of inspiring followership and creating innovative solutions to terrifying problems. The next tier is made up of what had been the blue collar workforce: welders, electricians, mechanics, plumbers, farmers, and anyone else with a useful trade that could actually produce something. Below the doers is the soldier class, those that can wield a weapon or fire a gun. Technically, eventually, all of us fell into that class but some are better at it than others; some did it for survival, while others thrive as warriors. And then at the bottom are those without skills and those without bloodlust. We, who had once run the world, are now the grunts.
“Big one,” I say to Emily and hook onto a bloated shoulder.
“Fresh, too,” she grimaces.
A body is heaviest right after death. First death, that is. After a corpse has bled out, its organs putrefied, and its water weight lost, there is little left to a body. Obvious as it is, this is something I had never considered prior to being assigned to the clean-up crew.
Together we haul the corpse, making small talk and avoiding thinking about who the man had been.
“Have you decided who you are going to apprentice with?” I ask.
“Ma wants me to go with Carolyn Thomas.”
“She does beautiful work. Lewis has one of her sweaters. It’s rare to find that these days.”
“Yea . . .”
“But you don’t want to work with her?”
“It’s nothing against Carolyn. She’s great. I’m just no good with needles. I can barely sew my own buttons back on; much less make real clothes for people.”
“Emily, don’t worry about it. That’s why it’s called an apprenticeship. She’s going to teach you what you need to know, not the other way around.”
“Yea . . .”
“So what do you want to do?”
The girl sighs. “I always thought I would be a writer. But . . .”
“Hey someday we will need writers again. We will get this mess cleaned up and we will have newspapers and books and all that stuff.”
“We will. Look at how far we have come in just two years. Most of us were still running from the dead, fighting to survive. Now we are part of a community again.”
“In the mean time, go talk to Keith.”
“Olsen? The engineer?”
“It will be technical writing but he’s been looking for someone to help him with his notes and writing up repair and maintenance instructions. You’ll get plenty of hands on mechanical experience but he also spends quite a bit of time designing improvements. A little creativity will go a long way working with him.”
“Huh, I hadn’t really thought about doing something like that.”
My next thought is interrupted by an echoing gunshot on the edge of the field.
“All right kiddies, that’s our cue to GTFO. Lewis, torch off that pile. The rest of you get back behind the fence,” the clean-up boss yells.
Emily and I finish dragging the corpse to the now blazing fire and quickly but carefully make our way back to the safety of the fence, leaving the gunners to drop the approaching herd of cadavers. Job security for the clean-up crew.
“Emily, whatever you do, make sure you learn a skill that won’t earn you a permanent spot on the clean-up crew.”
Continue with Delirium Jane: Part II