Frank Chesterfield was tired. His back was killing him from a hard day’s work and the only thing in the world that he really wanted was a hot shower, but that of course was out of the question. He hadn’t seen so much as a sponge in a week and wasn’t expecting anything more relaxing than a dusting of delousing powder any time in the near future. He was tired of it all, but then again everybody was.
He and his men had been on a Zack sweep all day and had had their work cut out for them. It was the middle of winter and it was cold. Real cold; not just regular cold, but snot-freezing, lung-burning, shrivel your balls to raisins, make you want to curl up and die cold. Even so, today had been a good day. Apparently Z’s didn’t like the weather either.
Chesterfield and his team had found fifty-seven ghouls during their sweep. All of them were frozen solid. On days like this being on patrol with the Corps meant that you were more of a glorified lumberjack than a soldier on the front lines. Fear is a powerful and demoralizing enemy, but monotony and boredom are worse. Even so, they had done their work well and were ahead of schedule. They had cleared their allotted area and were about to link up with the other four squads and catch a lift back home.
Home. Chesterfield spat at the thought.
Home was where you felt safe. Home was four walls and a little patch of grass you could call your own. Home was gone.
He looked at the others and saw that they knew it as well.
Danni Meehan hadn’t been quite right since the first time she and Chesterfield had met. She was a bit too squirrelly, even for a post-Panic basket case, but something about going out with the Corps day in, day out seemed to hold her together. Higher-ups had tried to can her twice, but Chesterfield wouldn’t hear of it.
Even the Danton brothers were feeling the strain. When they had joined up it had seemed impossible to get the pair down; the products of the playstation generation. It was all a game to them and the coolest one they had ever played, until the cold, and the sleepless nights and squalid conditions back at Central really sank in.
Chesterfield stopped abruptly in front of the faded and collapsing façade of an old grocery store; not one of the big super stores, but an old fashioned mom and pop joint.
He paused for a moment and chewed at his lip, “Let’s check this out.”
Charlie Danton stopped in his tracks and planted his axe in the snow, “Are you kidding me? The resource retrieval guys already hit this place a dozen times last fall.”
“It’s tapped out,” his brother Mike added.
Chesterfield sighed, “We’re an hour ahead as is. Do you boys really want to catch an early ride back and get stuck on housekeeping detail?”
The brothers considered this for a moment and answered in unison, “Hell no.”
“Come on then. Maybe we’ll find something. A can of soup could go a long way.”
The sliding double doors had been knocked off their arms and many of the tall windows up front had been smashed in. Several inches of muck and leaves had washed in through the main doors and a hole in the east wall and then hardened in the winter cold. Most of the aisles were in disarray. The shelves had been knocked over like dominoes by overzealous looters.
An inert body lay a few feet within the threshold, behind a stack of blue plastic baskets. Its arms and legs were splayed out in odd directions and a generous amount of blood was frozen and scattered about like tiny rubies. The eyes were open and hard and staring up at nothing. It was wearing an apron and a name tag was still pinned to the tattered button down shirt it wore.
Charlie Danton bent down to read it, “Would you look at this?! This Zack’s named Zach!”
Mike gave a sharp laugh and swung his axe over his head. He brought it down and bit into the blue tinged flesh with a loud crack. He wrenched it free and chopped through the ghoul’s spinal column with the next blow. The remaining bits of skin in sinew bent and splintered but did not break.
Chesterfield motioned them to move on and walked past the lines of empty registers into the produce section. The fruits and vegetables had all gone rancid in their bins and been left to rot into a gray sludge that froze into neat cubes and slick puddles on the floor. Several rats scurried out of the nest they has made for themselves in one of the deli cases and retreated into a back room. They split up to search the fallen shelves.
Chesterfield was about to call it off when he saw something promising in one of the cooler cases along the back wall. He didn’t call anyone. He didn’t want to get their hopes up and this was too good to be true. The door was rusted shut so he smashed the large glass panel and pushed aside the broken shelves that obscured his view.
There, partially buried in mud and snow, was a rack of PBR. Chesterfield ripped open the cardboard and found that remarkably only five cans had burst and the metal on the other 25 looked to be without defect. He picked up one of the ice cold cans and pulled back the tab.
A slight foam appeared at the top. Chesterfield put his nose to it and smelled it for a solid minute before taking the smallest sip…Ambrosia. He called the rest over and revealed his find. Mike found them milk crates to sit on and Chesterfield passed out the first round. They pulled the tabs and took their fist sips, drinking in silence.
After a while Charlie spoke, “I don’t get it. How the hell did these last?”
Chesterfield lowered his can, “They must have stayed cool enough in the case and winter helped them along after that. You ever throw a six pack in the snow when you run out of room in the fridge?”
“Yeah, I guess, but this has got to be way up there on the all time greatest long shots.”
“Its more unlikely that anybody would be left to drink them,” said Mike grimly.
Meehan, who had been staring at the deli’s chalkboard special, answered them both in barely more than a whisper, “Don’t question it. Don’t analyze it. Just drink it.”
The boys looked at their feet and the group went back to drinking in an uncomfortable silence that was punctuated only by the crack and hiss of another beer being opened. No one said a word until Charlie slapped one of his empty cans against his forehead, crushing it into a perfect disc, and held it up proudly with a brainless grin on his face.
His brother roared with laughter and fell off his makeshift stool, Chesterfield joined in not long after, and even Meehan choked on her beer. They all began to laugh uncontrollably, first at Charlie’s antics, but then at each other. It hadn’t been long before they were all tired, aching and begging each other to stop.
Mike followed his brother’s example and crushed one of his own empties.
Chesterfield sobered up and said seriously, “That trick used to be something, now any idiot can do it.”
Meehan stuck her hands in her pockets, leaned back against the frosted glass of one of the freezer cases and closed her eyes, “Yeah. The aluminum used to be thicker when we were young. Some dumbass at a party would try it and end up with a big red ring on his forehead.”
“It’s been a long time since I heard the word ‘party’ or had a good laugh. I forgot what it felt like,” he said, rearranging a lump of rotting leaves with his foot.
Charlie smashed another can.
Chesterfield went on, “We haven’t lost anybody in weeks, but I can’t help noticing that the mood around Central is worse than ever. I guess the adrenaline has finally worn off.”
Meehan tucked a strand of hair back into her hat, “People are finally starting to realize that things aren’t just going away. They’re realizing that this is life now. This is home.”
Chesterfield finished his last beer and waited for Meehan to do the same. The Dantons had a game of rock, paper, scissors for the last one. Mike won; rock, rock, paper. He drank it as the squad returned to the road and tossed it into a shopping cart tipped on its side by the express checkout lane. He rested his axe on his shoulder and followed the others out into the deserted parking lot.
Chesterfield hung back and bent down to examine a dull glint from under the bagging station and found a can of peas that had been forgotten there. He tugged it out of the stiff grip of the frozen muck and brushed the dirt off its label. Today had been a good day and as he walked out into the dim winter sun he couldn’t help but smile.
Things couldn’t be farther from alright but they were beginning to look like one step closer to okay.