First time he saw someone get pinned by a group of them was in the early days, must have been, because he was still trying to get out of his neighborhood. An invisible barrier surrounded his zip code, each opportunity for escape was undermined by his certainty that things were about to go back to normal, that this savage new reality could not hold. He was wending to the strip mall half a mile from his house - civilization's nearest representative consisted of the 24-7 gas-and-cigarette vendor, the famously grim pizza-and-sub place, and a moribund dry cleaner, that reliable exacerbator of stains. Mark Spitz had spent the night up in the arms of an oak, the first of many tree-limb slumber parties to come. It occurred to him that if anyone was equipped for this "new situation," it was Mr. Provenzano and the reputed arsenal he had stashed in the basement of the pizza shop. The basement weapons stash was a sturdy and beloved topic of speculation among mayhem-adoring kids and insinuating grown-ups alike, fed by rumors of mob-induction ceremonies and a robust lore centered around the meat grinder.
Mark Spitz didn't know if the pizza shop was accessible, but it was a better prospect than the silenced lanes of New Grove, the subdivision his parents had moved to thirty years before, their wedding gifts sitting in the foyer when they returned from their honeymoon. He waited for daylight and beat his numb legs and arms to get the blood into them. Then he cut through the clutch backyards, the hardwired shortcuts from his kid days, and crept and scrambled around the half-finished mini-mansion on Claremont trying to get the lay of the street before making a break for the main road. The construction company had lost liquidity the year before and his parents complained about the eyesore as if under contractual obligation. The plastic sheets rippling where there should have been walls, the great mounds of orange dirt that seeped out in defeat after every rain. It was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, his parents fussed. They spread sickness.
The old man came jogging down the asphalt. A gray cardigan flapped over his bare chest, and green plaid pants cut off a comical length above his slippers, which were secured to his feet with black electrical tape. Six of the devils congregated on the lawn of a mock Tudor halfway down the street, and they turned at the sound of him. The old man ran faster, veering to arc around them, but he didn't make it. Dark aviator glasses covered his eyes and he had a wireless rig stuck in his ear, into which he narrated his progress. Was the old man actually talking to someone? The phones were dead, all the stalwart and dependable networks had ceased to be, but maybe the authorities were fixing things out there, Mark Spitz remembered thinking, the government was getting control. Authority laying on hands. Two of them got the old man down and then all of them were on him like ants who received a chemical telegram about a lollipop on the sidewalk. There was no way the old man could get up. It was quick. They each grabbed a limb or convenient point of purchase while he screamed. They began to eat him, and his screaming brought more of them teetering down the street. All over the world this was happening: a group of them hears food at the same time and they twist their bodies in unison, that dumb choreography. A cord of blood zipped up out of their huddle, hanging - that's how he always recalled it, that's what he saw as he ducked down behind the cinder blocks and watched. A length of red string pinned briefly to the air, until the wind knocked it away. They didn't fight over the old man. They each got a piece. Of course there couldn't have been anyone at the other end of the call because the phones never came back on. The old man had been barking into the void.
Let them pin you and you were dead. Let them pin you and there was no way to stop them from ripping off whatever pitiful armor you'd wrapped yourself in, stuck your hopes to. They'd get you. He had wafted through damp summer afternoons at Long Beach, amid the chewy scent of fried clams. Cartoon lobster on the thin plastic bib, the stupefying melody of the predatory ice-cream truck. (Yes, time slowed down to give those competing factions in him room to rumble, the dark and the light.) They'd wrestle Mark Spitz out of his fatigues the way he'd pried meat out of claws, tails, shells. They were a legion of teeth and fingers. He grabbed Human Resources' wispy hair and yanked its head out of its advance toward his nose. He didn't have a free hand to grab his knife, but he pinpointed the place in its skull where he would have stuck it. He looked after his pistol. It lay near his waist. The Marge was on its knees, creeping down his arm to the gap between the mesh sleeve and glove. The light was such that he saw his face reflected in Human Resources' milky eyes, fixed in that mindless void. Then he felt the fourth skel grab his leg and he lost himself.
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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