Battalion B, Squad 24 trudged back into the Zone after a long day of slaughter on a breezy, pleasantly cool Syracuse September day.
“Good job out there today, Guys,” Billy said, looking down at his gore-coated shoes.
“What’re you gonna do now?” asked Greg.
“I dunno. Tom, you still have that bottle under your cot?”
Tom shook his head, “No man… a bunch of 15-year-olds stole it from me, but they looked like they had some fun with it.”
“Damn…” responded the other two men of the squad in unison.
Rose chuckled, looking at three adult men whose plans for the night had been ruined by the never-ending teenage urge to get wasted. “You boys take care of yourselves tonight.”
“I’ll see you guys later then. I’m gonna go see how my dad’s holding up,” Billy said, leaving his comrades reminiscing about a time when walking to the liquor store didn’t involve a trek with three other armed bodyguards.
He walked through the crowded halls of the terminal. He looked around at the sullen faces surrounding him. How are we going to survive the depression in this godforsaken wreck of a home? How are we supposed to fight with heart knowing that this is what we get to return to at the end of the day? Where the hell is the motivation?
“Hey Pop. How’re you doing?”
“All right, but I’m feeling really cooped up… ya know what I mean?”
“I wish I could just stay holed up in here all day.”
“Eh, without being able to do anything except wander and watch other people be depressed, it gets pretty old fast.”
“Yeah, but it’s better than the alternative.”
“I know. I just miss being able to toss a football with my son.”
“Want me to get us a football?”
“Is it worth risking your neck for one?”
“No, but it is worth risking my neck for my dad.”
The two remaining Nielsens talked about nothing important for the rest of the night until they both fell asleep. Billy dreamt of interceptions and sacks, while his father dreamt of his former wife.
The next day Billy went to huddle with his squad.
“What’s the order of the day there, Bill?” asked Tom.
“What do you think of a trip to Play it Again Sports?”
“What the hell are we going there for?” asked Greg.
Billy chuckled, “To get some morale going in this aptly named ‘Blue’ Zone.”
Greg looked confused, “What about the books? We’ve got plenty circulating the terminal.”
“Greg, would you rather head into battle with an English teacher or a football player?”
“Billy, I trust your leadership skills, but…”
“No Greg, I’m not testing your loyalty. What I mean is this: Books take us to a different world, distract us from the harsh reality, but if we grab some footballs, maybe some baseballs and gloves, we can do that and help ourselves stay in shape and get stronger.”
“OK, I guess you’ve got a point, but where are we going?”
“Play it Again Sports… it’s like a mile from here.”
“So, we’re walking a mile in Z infested territory for some balls?”
“Yeah… pretty much.”
Greg shrugged, “Okay,” he said. “Whatever you say.”
The squad headed out of the airport and into city where the smell of decay lingered constantly, an aromatic reminder of the hell that the world had become. Silence was a must this close to the Zone because Z’s, drawn by the constant human presence and audible prey, were always wandering near the airport, hoping for a feast.
Billy led his squad northwest, making sure he had his bearings.
“Whoa, Bill,” Tom stammered. “We’re heading straight for 81?”
“We have to. How else are we gonna get there?”
“Yeah, but Bill… 81… a Z haven.”
“So, we might get more practice than normal, Tom.”
“Either the NFL needs better helmets, or you’re frakkin’ nuts man.”
Billy looked at Tom and shrugged, pressing onward. The entire squad exchanged worried looks, but followed their fearless, or maybe just stupid, leader.
As they closed in on 81, the sounds of Z’s trapped inside of cars grew louder. The moans brought suppressed thoughts to the forefront of the minds of Squad 24.
Rose winced as each moan brought to the front of her mind the images of her husband’s blood soaking his shirt and the head of the Z that was ripping into his neck. This was the memory that motivated her to kill. Each moaning, rambling corpse that she disposed of was another step toward revenge that could never be achieved.
Tom nervously shuddered each time the moan reached his inner ear. Though everyone he held dear had survived or hadn’t been seen since the mass emigration from Syracuse, he had seen far too many strangers fall to the mindless predators that had destroyed his happy, preppy life so long ago.
Greg had suppressed the memories of Lisa so that he could continue to exist as a functional human, instead of the vodka-fueled wreck that he had seen his brother become. Instead he filled the void in his mind with an idealized image of his only remaining friend, a man who seemed to be able to block out everything, or at least able to focus any outside energy into swinging a crowbar. Greg tried to emulate everything Billy did and again blindly followed him despite reason telling him that a football wasn’t worth risking his life.
Billy thought only of his father. He thought only of the man who pushed on despite losing his wife in the initial panic. How his father still functioned without at least knowing the fate of his wife, Billy had no idea.
Standing underneath 81, the squad crouched low, hoping to keep out of the line of sight of any incoming undead. They listened intently trying to hear through the constant moans coming from directly above them. They advanced onward slowly, quietly.
Despite encountering three lone Z’s as they trekked through yards and parking lots, avoiding roads, the trip there was quiet. Tom smashed the glass door open with a table leg he had picked up at Lowe’s and the squad entered the store.
“Tom, grab a couple duffel bags. Then grab some bats… they’ll come in handy sometime,” commanded Billy. “Greg, take a bag and load it with as many footballs as you can fit. Rose, you’re on baseballs and gloves. Different sizes on the gloves.”
“Don’t forget some lefties,” added Tom.
Billy stood watch at the door while the other three did as he had told. He didn’t mean to take on the role of controlling tyrant, but knew they’d be safer if he was at the front line allowing his shouts to alert them.
“Hey Bill, check this out!”
“What Tom?” Billy asked, turning to see what was so important.
When he saw what they were calling him for he couldn’t help but laugh. There, in the middle of the store, was a bin of jerseys marked in a handwritten scrawl, “Clearance! Nielsen Jersey’s $11!!!!!”
“Alright, grab a duffel bag of them too.”
With duffel bags of baseballs, gloves, footballs, and old jerseys the squad was set to leave when Tom asked, “What about basketball?”
“If you want basketballs, load a bag with some.”
“Let’s grab this hoop dude,” Tom insisted, gesturing to an adjustable height, driveway basketball hoop. “If we dump the water out of the base of it, it’ll be light enough to carry back with us.”
“All right,” Billy looked around outside for any immediate danger. “Greg, load another bag with a few basketballs.”
Once they had collected their spoils and situated them so that they could carry everything with some comfort, Billy and Rose, the two largest of the squad, hoisted the hoop onto their shoulders while Greg and Tom carried the mass of duffel bags and six bats between them.
A Z shuffled along, drawn by the sounds of his fellow undead from their belted automotive prisons that held them tightly beneath nylon restraints. Suddenly he heard another sound, the sound of clinking metal, which was followed by a voice saying, “Damn it, Greg, you’ve gotta keep those bats quiet.” He turned his head and saw humans shuffling along and let out a moan of his own that was nearly indistinguishable from the chorus of undead radiating from 81.
“Did you guys hear that?” Greg whispered.
“Hear what?” asked Billy.
“It sounded like moaning.”
“Dude, they’ve been moaning the entire time,” Tom interjected.
“No, this moan sounded like it was coming from that way,” Greg said pointing off to the right.
“The boy might have a point here,” Rose said, feeling like she was the only one not contributing to the conversation.
“Greg, just keep a lookout and if you see anything, let us know.”
“All right Bill.”
Greg kept his eyes peeled scanning the terrain for anything that could possibly be menacing.
The Z stumbled along, his clumsy feet catching on every rock or bump in the terrain slowing his progress. He was locked in on his living prey, but even their slow pace was easily double his. Instinct drove him onward. The change enhanced his senses, but destroyed the one thing that humans had evolved throughout their history: reason.
“Greg, come on!”
“Sorry Billy. It’s just that I know there’s one out there!”
“Then let’s keep going before it knows that we’re out here.”
Greg shuffled along behind Billy and Rose, feeling slightly dejected. He knew he had heard distinct moaning coming from behind them. He stopped to look around every few steps.
“Greg, knock it the hell off! We’ve gotta get going!” yelled Tom who was growing frustrated.
“And go pick up that bag you dropped!”
Greg turned around and saw a bag that he had dropped a few yards ago. “I’ll be right with you guys. I’ll catch up!” He ran back to pick up the bag when he heard the moan again. He looked around, rising to his tiptoes in a meerkat manner. He saw the body slowly slumping in his direction. It was still far enough that it wouldn’t be a threat. “I knew it,” he whispered to himself.
He set down the duffel bags that he was still carrying and two of the bats, prepared to christen the third. He gripped the bat with both hands raised it above his head and charged with a battle cry that caught the attention of his squad mates.
“Aw now, what the hell is this?”
“Tom, go help him out. If he draws any more in he’ll need you.”
Greg’s heart was racing as he charged toward the Z. This one’s mine… all mine, he thought. He swung the bat and heard the clear crack of aluminum against skull.
“Nice swing dude!”
Tom looked down at the Z and nudged it with his foot. “You charged at this thing like a damned fool, Greg. What would you have done if there was another one stumbling around here?”
Greg stooped down to get a closer look at the corpse. “I didn’t even think of that. Hey Tom, isn’t your last name Krieger?”
Greg hid the Z’s name tag in his pocket, “Nothing. I just think it’s a cool name. Ya know, not too common. It’s almost exotic.”
“You’re frakking weird, Greg. Come on we’ve gotta get back to the Zone with this load.”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
They gathered up Greg’s duffel bags and bats and jogged ahead to catch up with Billy and Rose.
“What took you guys so long?”
Greg lifted a bat above his head. “Just cleaning house.”
As they drew closer to the front gate, people looked out at them in shock.
“What the hell is that?” called Clipboard.
“Just open the damned gate so Rose and I can set this thing down.”
The mere sight of a basketball hoop sent kids into a frenzy. Squad 24 entered the zone hearing small voices calling, “Mommy can I play?”
“Well, Clipboard, where do you want this stuff?” asked Billy.
“Leave it here. I’ll figure it out and let you know. Did you really go out just for this?”
“Look at those kids’ faces. Imagine how excited they’ll be once this thing’s up and ready for them to play.”
“Well, I guess you’re right, but you’re still nuts.”
Billy laughed. “Tom, toss me a football.”
“That’s better than you tossing it, Bill.”
The NFL bust chuckled as he caught the ball and headed out into the airfield, looking for his dad. “Hey, pop!” he called as he let a perfect spiral drop straight into is dad’s hands.
“If you could’ve thrown that accurately a few years ago, we would’ve been able to afford to get the hell out of here.”
“Yeah and if you had half the speed of a defensive tackle, we could’ve gotten out of here too, Dad.”