He interpreted: We are studied in the old ways, and acolytes of what's to come. A fine home for a promising young lawyer. For all that had transpired outside this building in the great unraveling, the pure industry of this place still persisted. Insisting on itself. He felt it in his skin even though the people were gone and all the soft stuff was dead. Moldering lumps shot out tendrils in the common-area fridges, and the vicinities of the dry water-coolers were devoid of shit-shooting idlers, but the ferns and yuccas were still green because they were plastic, the awards and citations remained secure on the walls, and the portraits of the bigwigs preserved one afternoon's calculated poses. These things remained.
He heard three shots from the other end of the floor, in familiar staccato - Gary shooting open a door. Fort Wonton warned them repeatedly about brutalizing, vandalizing, or even extending the odd negative vibe toward the properties whenever possible, for obvious reasons. For convenience's sake, Buffalo printed up No-No Cards - laminated instruction squares that the sweepers were supposed to keep on their persons at all times. The broken window with the red circle and diagonal line across it was at the top of the deck. Gary couldn't restrain himself, however, future tenants and the grand design be damned. Why use the doorknob when you could light it up? "They can fix it when they move in," Gary said, as the smoke cleared from the C-4 he'd used to vaporize the door of an Italian restaurant's walk-in freezer. His crazy grin. As if cleaning up after semiautomatic fire were the same as touching up dings in the plaster where the previous tenants had hung their black-and-white landscapes. Gary dematerialized the half-closed curtains of department-store dressing rooms, converted expensive Japanese room dividers into twisting confetti, and woe to bathroom stalls with sticky hinges.
"Coulda been one of them in there trying to remember how to take a piss," Gary explained.
"Never heard of such a case," Kaitlyn said.
"This is New York City, man."
Kaitlyn rationed him to one unnecessary act of carnage per floor and Gary made the appropriate adjustments, even applying timeworn principles of suspense to when he attacked his targets. They never knew when he'd strike next. He had just made his selection for the fifteenth floor.
Mark Spitz got in gear. Gary was close and he wanted to look busy in order to head off any wisecracks about his work ethic. He turned from the window and briefly caught an edge of last night's dream - he was in the country, undulating farmland, perhaps at Happy Acres - before it squirmed away. He shook it off. He kicked in the door to Human Resources, thought "Maybe I'll come back and ask for a job when this is all over," and saw his error.
The door was not the issue. After all this time in the Zone, he knew the right place to slam these keypad doors so that they popped open, presto. The mistake lay in succumbing to the prevailing delusions. Giving in to that pandemic of pheenie optimism that was inescapable nowadays and made it hard to breathe, a contagion in its own right. They were on him in an instant.
They had been there since the beginning, the four of them. Perhaps one had been attacked down on the pavement by "some nut," that colorful metropolitan euphemism, and was sent home after getting a few stitches at the local underfunded ER - Do you have your insurance card handy? - before they understood the nature of the disaster. Then she turned feral and one lucky coworker made it out in time, locked the door, and left her cubicle-mates to fend for themselves. Some variation on that story. No one came back to help because they were overcome by their own situations.
He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore. Two of them had lost their high heels at some point during the long years of bumping around the room looking for an exit. One of them wore the same brand of panties his last two girlfriends had favored, with the distinctive frilled red edges. They were grimed and torn. He couldn't help but notice the thong, current demands on his attention aside. He'd made a host of necessary recalibrations but the old self made noises from time to time. Then that new self stepped in. He had to put them down.
Excerpted from Zone One by Colson Whitehead. Copyright © 2011 by Colson Whitehead. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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