The youngest one wore its hair in a style popularized by a sitcom that took as its subject three roommates of seemingly immiscible temperaments and their attempts to make their fortune in this contusing city. A crotchety super and a flamboyant neighbor rounded out the ensemble, and it was still appointment television, a top-ten show, at the time of the disaster. The hairdo was called a Marge, after Margaret Halstead, the charmingly klutzy actress who'd trademarked it in the old days of red carpets and flirty tête-à-têtes on late-night chat shows. She hadn't done anything for Mark Spitz - too skinny - but the legions of young ladies who fled their stunted towns and municipalities to reinvent themselves in the Big City recognized something in her flailings, and fetishized this piece of her. They had been reeled in by the old lie of making a name for oneself in the city; now they had to figure out how to survive. Hunt-and-gather rent money, forage ramen. In this week's written-up clubs and small-plate eateries, loose flocks of Marges were invariably underfoot, sipping cinnamon-rimmed novelty cocktails and laughing too eagerly.
The Marge nabbed Mark Spitz first, snatching his left bicep and taking it in its teeth. It never looked at his face, ferocious on the mesh of his fatigues and aware exclusively of the meat it knew was underneath. He'd forgotten how much it hurt when a skel tried to get a good chomp going; it had been some time since one had gotten this close. The Marge couldn't penetrate the intricate blend of plastic fibers - only an idiot cast aspersions on the new miracle fabric, born of plague-era necessity - but each rabid sally sent him howling. The rest of Omega would be here soon, tromping down the halls. He heard the sound of teeth splintering. The sweepers were supposed to stay together, the Lieutenant was firm about that, to prevent this very situation. But the last few grids had been so quiet, they hadn't stuck to orders.
The Marge was occupied for the moment - it took time for their diminished perceptions to catch on to the futility of the enterprise - so he directed his attention to the skel charging from two o'clock.
The bushy eyebrows, the whisper of a mustache - it was hard to avoid recognizing in this one his sixth-grade English teacher, Miss Alcott, who had diagrammed sentences in a soupy Bronx accent and fancied old-style torpedo bras. She smelled of jasmine when she passed his desk, plucking vocab quizzes. He'd always had a soft spot for Miss Alcott.
This one was probably the first infected. Everything below its eyes was a dark, gory muzzle, the telltale smear produced when a face burrowed deep into live flesh. Just another day at the office when she gets bit by some New York whacko while loading up on spring mix at the corner deli's Salad Lounge. Full of plague but unaware. That night the shivers came, and the legendary bad dreams everyone had heard about and prayed against - the harbingers, the nightmares that were the subconscious rummaging through a lifetime for some kind of answer to or escape from this trap. With those early strains, you might last a whole day without flipping. She returns to her cubicle the next day because she hadn't taken a sick day in years. Then transformation.
It happened every so often that he recognized something in these monsters, they looked like someone he had known or loved. Eighth-grade lab partner or lanky cashier at the mini-mart, college girlfriend spring semester junior year. Uncle. He lost time as his brain buzzed on itself. He had learned to get on with the business at hand, but on occasion Mark Spitz fixed on eyes or a mouth that belonged to someone lost, actively seeking concordance. He hadn't decided if conjuring an acquaintance or loved one into these creatures was an advantage or not. A "successful adaptation," as the Lieutenant put it. When Mark Spitz thought about it - when they were bivouacked at night in some rich fuck's loft or up to their chins in their sleeping bags on the floor of a Wall Street conference room - perhaps these recognitions ennobled his mission: He was performing an act of mercy. These things might have been people he knew, not-quites and almost-could-be's, they were somebody's family and they deserved release from their blood sentence. He was an angel of death ushering these things on their stalled journey from this sphere. Not a mere exterminator eliminating pests. He shot Miss Alcott in the face, converting resemblance to red mist, and then all the air was wrung from his chest and he was on the carpet.
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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