The world rippled above the heat of the mid-day tarmac, and even the clouds had fled the sky for cooler climes. It was in these dog-days that even the living began to move like the walking dead — slumped, shuffling, and groaning through their duties. If he had been given the choice, this is exactly how Charles would have preferred to be spending his day. Instead, he was running as fast as his booted feet would take him over the tent-spotted fields outside the airport while trying not to drop his rifle.
He wasn’t the only one—another figure cut a swerving path thirty yards ahead of Chuck. He was moving far more deftly than Charles in shorts and an open Hawaiian shirt, and he only carried a small metal pistol which he used to clear people from his path with manic waves. Chuck didn’t expect the other man to stop running, so he saved his breath and didn’t yell. Instead, he focused on trying to plot which turns he could take to best outmaneuver his fleeing quarry; maps of tents and storage containers flashed through his head as he jumped over crates and discarded machinery. A crackle in his ear made him wince.
“Chuck … where are you?!” The voice whistled through the ear piece and died with a spit of static. Chuck pulled the microphone to his mouth and pressed the button on the side.
“He’s trying to get to the fence … Gonna cut him off … .” His words were clipped with his ragged breaths.
As he ran, Chuck pondered the absurdity of it all—the man had stolen a few bottles of narcotics and antibiotics from the med-center, and now he had to be caught. Chuck couldn’t help but think that this place made oblivion seem awful tempting; he could hardly blame the man.
He slipped back into military thinking as the fugitive slipped into a maze of containers that butted against the southern fences of Zyracuse. He slowed his run and gave his mind a moment to plan his approach. If he went charging into the containers, he would almost certainly lose his man—the winding passages and cul-de-sacs made capture nearly impossible. Chuck lifted his mic and called to the tower.
“This is Chuck. Can I get some eyes out here?” He squinted against the blasting rays of light from the bare sky and wiped the slick from his forehead before it stung his eyes any more. His breathing slowed, but his temperature continued to rise in the heavy Corpse Corps gear.
“Roger, Chuck. We have eyes on your target—he’s heading for the fence.” The voice on the other end of the radio went audibly nervous at the words. Summer was prime undead season; the heat really limbered-up animated dead flesh, and zombies didn’t faint from heat-stroke or dehydration.
Chuck cursed long and hard; he hated making decisions like this. He looked back and forth between the fences and the airport, and swore some more.
“Chuck … you copy?” The voice crackled back to life again.
“Yea … I copy.” Chuck grumbled into the speaker, “Tell Clipboard that I’m going over the fence to cut him off—I should only be a minute.” Before the voice at the other end of the mic could object, he dropped the speaker to his shoulder and started climbing one of the containers. When he reached the top, he groaned—the heat reflected from the top of the container like an Easy-Bake Oven, and he felt like a piece of toast slowly going black.
He ran toward the fence and swept his gaze back and forth, looking for movement. A stray crow hopped along shattered concrete, but other than that the area seemed clear. A few fallen buildings were being slowly overgrown by weeds and tall grasses long gone to seed.
A sudden flash of obnoxious color caught his attention, and he turned his head to catch the last flap of Hawaiian fabric disappear behind one of the old sheds.
Chuck reached the end of the row of containers and jumped—his tall frame clearing the top of the reinforced fence. He let his knees bend as he slammed into the ground, and he threw himself forward into a tight roll before stopping—his rifle raised and at the ready. He immediately scanned back and forth for movement, sniffed, and then listened carefully to the dead air for telltale groaning. The silence that greeted him meant that there were no walking dead, or they weren’t active at that moment. Zack had a bad habit of popping unexpected from nooks and crannies, and Chuck had seen enough men and women get torn to pieces that he was very cautious about where he poked his various appendages.
He moved low and quick—pressing his back against a crumbling stucco wall with a thick carpet of violet flowers. The petals reminded him of his daughter …
“Stop that right now,” he ordered himself. “Focus.”
He listened again, and then turned the corner—his finger tight around his trigger. The buildings were built in a grid, though several of them had fallen into ragged lines of stone amidst the flowers. He moved silent and slow, carefully choosing each step before setting his boot down. He though he heard movement ahead, the sound of breathing … the click of metal.
“Chuck … what the hell are you doing?! You’d better…” The sudden crackle of static and an angry voice roared from his radio. Chuck immediately reached up and turned the knob down to silence the offending technology, wincing. He didn’t move after that, even holding his breath to regain his damaged stealth. He heard nothing around him.
He placed a single boot forward and shifted his weight. Only then did he notice the shadow on the ground in front of him … someone holding something over his head. Someone above him.
Chuck whirled and lifted his weapon—firing a single round at the figure atop the roof before the broken cinder block crashed to pieces against his head, and everything went black.
* * *
Chuck slowly regained consciousness, and the first thing he noticed was that he wasn’t as hot anymore. His head was searing with pain, but he forced himself to open his eyes and gauge the situation.
He was inside one of the decayed buildings—the stone was cleaner on the inside, but there was little else to see. This place had been stripped ages ago, and now only debris and dust covered the floor, spotted with graceful growths of purple flowers. The door was rotted but intact, and it close enough that his boots could touch it. Moonlight shone through a small boarded window above his head. Chuck tried to move his arms, and only then did his entire situation become clear.
A piece of rebar was exposed in the thick wall, and someone had linked a loop of handcuff over the rusted metal. The other end of the handcuffs were latched tight around Chuck’s wrist, twisting his flesh until blood wept in thin rivulets from his skin. Chuck tried to focus, but it was difficult through the waves of agony that rolled over him from his head wound. He lifted his other hand and felt the black crust that covered his face; some time had passed since the accident, he realized.
He reached for his radio, knowing that it would be gone.The keys to the cuffs were also missing. He was surprised that he still had his spare sidearm, tucked into his boot. Mr. Hawaii must have missed it when he left him here for dead. Chuck didn’t bother wondering why he had failed to kill him then.
“Damn,” he muttered. The words set his head ringing again. He began to itch the crust from his face when a sudden chill jumped electrically down his spine.
Blood. He was covered in blood.
He listened to the night still very closely, but heard nothing. He breathed slow, and began to plan.
He had six bullets in his revolver—not enough to break the cuffs, and not enough to chip away the concrete. He frowned as he concentrated and tried to solve his dilemma. The steel rebar wasn’t budging, and each creak or groan of movement made Chuck’s stomach twist nervously.
Then he went cold. His skin prickled.
It was only a scrape. The sound of something soft being dragged lightly across something rough. A grating whisper. The sound of flesh on concrete.
Chuck froze more still than he had ever been in his life. His insides raged and frothed, but still he didn’t move, didn’t breathe. It was out there, and he knew it. He calmed the storm in his head and took a painfully slow breath of air. It was the sound of a single zombie. One Z. He clutched the revolver in his hand—he could kill a Z if it came for him. Chuck let this thought calm him like a meditative mantra. There was only one snag in his plan.
“What if it’s not alone?” The sound of gunfire would certainly spoil the hiding place he had been so graciously provided, but it wasn’t as if he had a choice in the matter.
The scraping sound grew louder, and Chuck kept his steady breathing. The sound was punctuated by the tell-tale irregular thumps of staggering footsteps. Through the wider cracks in the door, he could see the silhouette of the undead, and as the clouds passed away from the moon, Chuck suddenly felt his heart sink.
The moonlight gleamed silver off a rotted and torn military uniform. What gave Chuck pause was not the fatigues themselves, but rather the rusted green dome of steel that sat square on the zombie’s head.
“A helmet,” he groaned internally. The only way to drop Zack was to shoot for the head, and now his target area was even smaller. This was not his day. The zombie was shuffling toward his shack, despite Chuck’s best efforts to stay silent.
The thing groaned, and Chuck felt like he would vomit right there. The sound turned his insides cold slop. He didn’t know why the thing was coming, but it was. The moonlight flashed in its white milk-filmed eyes and Chuck knew that it was coming for him. It was time to act.
The ghoul raised its arms and howled a grated howl as it threw itself at the door. Chuck slammed both feet into the base of the flimsy wood portal—jarring it shut against the weak pounding of the zombie. The stink of the thing filled the shack, and Chuck wretched and spit as he lifted his revolver and tried to take aim.
The monster was an impossible target; it moved back and forth, clawing at the door and making a shot to the head impossible. Chuck’s vision still swam from his concussion, and he didn’t trust his aim enough to waste one of his six precious bullets. He tried not to think about how he should save at least one for himself.
Another series of howls made Chuck’s panic stir even more. It was like setting off a beacon—if one started groaning, the others would follow. Chuck felt in that instance that there was a malign intelligence to these monsters, regardless of what he had been told.
His mind raced through a million possibilities as the door began to splinter. Slime-coated, putrid flesh digits clawed at his boot toes, but the majority of the wood held. The muscles in his legs began to ache. With a sudden growl, Chuck acted.
He craned his head to his shoulder and bit down hard on the thick fabric of his uniform coat. The nylon taste mixed with his own blood in an artificial sanguine rag that made him gag, but he held tight. Chuck lifted the pistol, pressed the barrel to his handcuffed wrist, and closed his eyes.
Five shots in a quick clustered burst. A Scream echoed around the insides of the shack while outside an undead soldier growled for flesh and blood. The cries echoed farther than the shots, and the walking dead heard and answered with grated moans.
The door wouldn’t hold forever. Chuck screamed as he flexed the ruins of his wrist back and forth to further splinter the shattered bone. The muscles and tendons flopped wet and red in the moonlight, and the clustered bundle of nerves that lit fire along his arm and into his brain swung agonizingly in the darkness from their cradle. With a wet crackle and the sickening tear of flesh, Chuck slammed back against the wall, his arms pouring blood from the ragged wound. His hand dangled from the cuffs, and at that moment, the door broke into pieces. The zombie came bursting into the room.
Chuck kicked as hard as his legs could, screaming to maintain his tenuous grip on consciousness. A curtain of black threatened to closer over his visions at any moment. He feet pressed the wood hard against the zombie’s torso, and the creature was pushed back a few feet. Chuck used that few seconds to lift himself to his feet and push his head and shoulders through the small window. He wriggled his frame through, clawing at the stucco and purple flowers as he tried to get his middle clear. He felt clawing on his legs and sickening pressure on his steel-toed boots. Kicking frantically, he fell through the window, stealing the meal literally from the zombies hands. He screamed as the tangled mess of flesh at the end of his right hand ground into gravel and dirt.
He staggered to his feet and looked through the window. The helmeted zombie held his hand — his good right hand in a pair of green-fleshed claws. Yellow teeth ripped his hand to pieces and crushed the marrow from the bones. Chuck’s breath was ragged, and his pain turned to white-hot fury. He could put his anger into words, and the groan of nearby zombies made it more prudent at that moment to run.
Chuck ran. He staggered and fell several times, but eventually he pressed his face to the cool fence. He didn’t even mind the heat. Beyond the haze of his pain-clouded vision, flashlights bobbed up and down as figures ran toward where he slumped in the gathering pool of his own blood.
The lights of Zyracuse never looked so wonderful.
* * *
That night he slept in the med center, his arm wrapped in thick bandages where his hand had once been. Luckily the man in the Hawaiian shirt hadn’t nabbed all the morphine; a steady drip into his I.V. pushed back the edge of his agony. As hey lay in his stupor, Chuck felt himself slipping into a memory filled with green grass, an ocean breeze and a sea of purple flowers.
His daughter’s hands flashed quickly, but Chuck understood. He laughed and tickled the small girl.
“Again?” he signed back at her, his big hands far more clumsy than hers.
She pouted in the way that made him melt. He kissed her blond hair and pushed the loose strands from her face. She nodded and smiled.
“I love you,” he said with his hands. She repeated the same gestures in response as the ocean crashed loudly behind her with a roar she would never hear.
Chuck plucked a purple flower from the grass and tucked into his daughter’s hair, “OK,” he mouthed, and opened the book in his lap. He scanned the words carefully for a moment before translating them to sign for the eager audience.
“He sat down on a large mushroom, and now there was a quiver in his voice. ‘Smee,’ he said huskily, ‘that crocodile would have had me before this, but by a lucky chance it swallowed a clock which goes tick tick.”
Her hands flew to cover her eyes, and he laughed more. He shaped words with his fingers, “The crocodile so loved the taste of the Captain that it hounded him from that day forward.” They laughed and hugged and lay in the sunshine that whole, perfect day.
The whir of the generators powering-up washed away the memory like a fog over Neverland. As Chuck watched the dripping clear narcotic, he prayed that the undead hadn’t been as taken with his flesh as the crocodile had been with the Captain.