Thank you for choosing dead people’s express—please watch your step as you depart the departed

Changing the End
by Dru Pagliassotti ©2007

Hawk looked around the subway car at all the mutilated and rotting faces of the people he'd killed over the years, and he didn't doubt for a moment that he'd just stepped on the last train he was ever going to ride.

"Hawk..." A skeletal hand reached for his leg. Hawk's nose wrinkled as he recognized the ring that had been worn by his old neighbor, Battista. He'd killed Battista thirty-seven years ago. His first. He'd still been a boy then, but Battista hadn't been very careful. The old pedophile hadn't expected a naked eleven-year-old to pose any threat.

The legal system had never even considered punishing Hawk, and the mandatory psychiatric counseling had helped him lay a stable mental foundation for his later career choice.

Breaking the dead molester's fingers and watching him recoil in shock was easier than he'd expected. Hawk raised an eyebrow, wiping his hand on his slacks and surveying the seats full of bodies. Animated corpses stared back at him, their faces twisted with hate.

The subway car jolted into motion. Hawk grabbed the back of the seat and Battista flinched. The pedophile wasn't any braver dead than he'd been alive.

Hawk had always enjoyed horror movies, but these weren't the ruthlessly unstoppable undead he'd been taught to expect.

He glanced out the windows and saw nothing but darkness. Of course.

"Seems to me I know this plot," he said, regaining his footing and shrugging off his dinner jacket. "So, guys, what happened? Did my heart finally go? Talk about your lousy timing. I was really looking forward to ending Lent with veal parmesan and a good bottle of wine."

Low hisses and murmurs arose from the dead. Hawk heard his name cursed through rotting lips and broken teeth, heard his fate proclaimed on breath that whistled through perforated lungs and slashed windpipes.

Bullets wouldn't kill the dead. He understood that, as he loosened the Glock in its shoulder holster, but then again, a few well-placed shots to the knees might slow the undead down a bit. Sometimes, in the movies, zombies died when their heads exploded, but considering the state of some of the heads around them, Hawk was guessing that brains didn't count as vital organs here.

Still, he was glad he'd gotten to the afterlife with his gun intact. He'd feel naked without it. It seemed like a pretty unusual thing to be allowed to take with him, but none of this was exactly St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

"You're doomed, Hawk," said the corpse of Ed Mallen, sounding sepulcharally satisfied. Mallen always had been a smug sonuvabitch, for a low-life pill-pusher. "There's no escape now."

"Who wants to escape? I mean, I suppose you all think you're going to gangbang me and haul me off to hell in pieces, don't you?" Hawk leaned over the seat on his left and put his first bullet into the kneecap of serial rapist Sami Aman. The rotten bone blew apart, nearly taking the dead man's leg off. Aman squealed. "But I wouldn't get cocky about it, Ed. I killed you once already, and from where I'm standing, none of you look any smarter or tougher now than you did when I first put you down."

Mallen snarled and lunged out of his seat. Hawk tsked to himself. Definitely no smarter. The zombie had to close seven feet before he'd be able to get his bony hands around Hawk's neck. Hawk calmly aimed at Mallen's hip and squeezed the trigger.

Dessicated bone crumbled around the site of impact and Mallen dropped, shrieking with rage. He lifted himself on his hands, to drag himself forward. Hawk took careful aim, doing his best to compensate for the car's rattling, and blew a shoulder away.

Mallen dropped and squirmed, trying to work himself into a position to move again.

The rest of the dead gazed at the groaning, twitching pusher with dismay.

"Fourteen more bullets, another clip on my belt, and then we go hand-to-hand. From the way you guys are falling apart, I don't think I'll even break a sweat." Hawk looked around, a little puzzled. "Guess you've got some kind of magic keeping you together, but if God yanked you from the grave to punish me, He sure coulda patched you up a little better beforehand."

"We are the wrath of God!" The once-thunderous voice was raspy now, but Hawk would remember the self-styled "Reverend" Skeats' vocal cadences anywhere. Skeats had been a slippery one, although Hawk had finally collected enough evidence to feel comfortable pulling the trigger.

Now the murderous preacher was standing unsteadily in the rocking car, one bony finger pointing accusingly at his executioner. The rest of the dead were stirring.

"We are here to avenge ourselves upon you, the false avenger! We are here by God's good grace to destroy you."

Hawk aimed at Skeats, then lowered the gun. Too much distance, too skeletal a target, too much jolting in the car.

"Come and get me, then." He turned and put a bullet into the kneecap of the corpse across from the car door.

After that it was nothing but butchery, methodical and disgusting. Hawk's face twisted with disgust as the dead threw themselves at him without any sense of close-combat tactics. He aimed at legs and hips, leaping up to the seats when the fallen began pulling at his dress shoes and trouser legs. With his back pressed against the cold windows, he fired until he was out of bullets, then threw the clip away and yanked a new one off his shiny leather belt. Corpses tried to pull him off the chairs and down into the blanket of groaning flesh that now covered the car floor. He kicked and twisted. Loose flesh tore from rotten bones and time-weakened sinews snapped, sending limbs flopping.

The clip snapped in and he started firing again.

By the time the corpses were well and truly defeated, sullenly twitching and struggling in their attempts to reach him from collapsed heaps on the floor, Hawk was filthy with spattered, rotten meat. He spat and wiped his face on his shirt cuff, then jammed the empty gun back into its holster. Satan probably wasn't waiting for him with a fresh clip in hell. Maybe he should have kept one bullet back for the Adversary. Not that he figured it would do much good, but he'd get a certain satisfaction out of plugging the Father of All Evil, even if it didn't make any a difference in the end. He'd certainly spent enough years plugging Satan's lackeys on Earth.

Hawk grabbed the hand rail to steady himself and walked along the seats to the front of the car. The door was closed, and although he cupped his hands over the glass panel, he couldn't see anything beyond it. Another car holding another damned soul? Or the driver's seat?

"Hey!" He banged his palm on the glass, then changed his mind and pulled out his gun. Automatic check -- no new bullets had materialized. Too bad. He pounded on the glass with its butt. "Hey, you! I want to talk to management!"

No answer, but he hadn't really expected one. He'd read plenty of "mass transit systems to hell" stories over the years, and none of them ever ended well for the passenger.

It crossed his mind that this afterlife might be a product of his own imagination, but if that was true, Hawk didn't know what to do about it. Except maybe feel a little disappointed that his subconscious hadn't been more creative.

At least it had left him his gun.

He turned, half-expecting to see the corpses reassembling. but they looked just as badly damaged as before.

Hawk gave the glass one or two more blows for good measure, then dropped to the floor. A couple of firm yanks failed to break off any convenient bars or subway seats, so he braced himself and began crushing zombie hands with his heels, wishing he'd worn combat boots instead of dress shoes. But he'd been heading out to dinner, not a brawl.

The work was slow and distasteful. As a professional avenger, Hawk preferred fast, efficient kills. This slow, intimate destruction of flesh and bone revolted him, but he wasn't about to spend eternity in a subway car filled with enemies capable of hurting him.

Not only was it disgusting, but it felt like a waste of effort. Killing these parasites once should have been enough. Hawk didn't want to piss off the Big Man, but this was a pretty annoying afterlife, all things considered. If he was going to be stuck here for all eternity, it was going to be even more boring than the clouds and harps he'd been taught to expect in Catholic elementary school.

The zombies moaned and cursed and snapped uselessly at his legs with their teeth. Hawk walked up and down the car until he was certain they weren't pulling themselves back together and weren't going to be able to attack him if he dozed off later. Did people sleep in the afterlife? He picked up his jacket, used his handkerchief to clean the worst splatters off his shirt and slacks, and sat down on one of the plastic seats.

The dead were still hissing imprecations. He ignored them. If they became too obnoxious, he could always silence them later. On the other hand, he imagined there might come a time when the conversation of dead criminals would be preferable to the endless clatter of a subway.

Some time later he heard a shriek and started, looking around the car until he realized that it was the sound of the subway train braking, not a new attacker. The car shuddered to a halt.

His stomach twisted. He stood, pulling on his dinner jacket.

Maybe he'd get a chance to plead his case. He'd trotted out his "just war against crime" defense and his "God operates through human agency" argument plenty of times in confession. His sophistry hadn't convinced Father Neuemier, so Hawk didn't hold out a lot of hope for Judgment Day. Still, he thought, kicking away a mangled hand that was starting to grope its way over to his shoe, at least he'd made the world a little safer for humanity, one dead criminal at a time.

Funny how his dead hadn't been more dangerous. In all the stories he'd read, the vengeful dead had torn their killer to shreds. And humans were never supposed to win fights against zombies.

The door slid open, revealing emptiness.

Hawk hesitated. This was all wrong. It violated everything he knew about religion and everything he knew about horror.

"You know," he said at last, looking up at the darkness beyond the door, "either you put me in here to be punished, or to punish them. Either way, it doesn't seem to have made much difference to us. I guess these guys aren't too happy about being torn apart, and I can't say I'm getting much of a kick out of fighting them, but I don't think any of us is feeling penitent yet. Maybe if you give us a little more time together, that'd change."

Then he sighed, and the dead sighed, and the subway doors sighed as they slid shut once more.

Eyes rolled in rotting skulls to watch him. Torn sinews began to knit.

"Sorry, guys," Hawk said, checking his gun to see if God was going to send him any new bullets. "I just don't feel ready to step off this car until I'm damn sure I'm at the right destination."

The train jolted into motion, and he wondered if he was going to regret taking the circuit around again.

He kind of hoped so. He half expected that might be the point.

x x x

My paisanno Dru makes a fine debut with this tale of transit terror. Did you find yourself rooting for Hawk as the train made its trek? I did . . . and that’s one of the things that made me choose this story. Did I do good? Comments to our BBS, please. - GM

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