Clipboard knew something was up as soon as the 18th Squad came trudging down the boulevard. They were moving too slowly. The 18th had been becoming one of the best: they were going out farther and returning with more kills than any other unit. They were cold, efficient, and ruthless—just like everyone else in Corpse Corps. They did not carry guns. They didn’t need to. Their ZEDs—zombie elimination devices—always came back covered in gore.
They were never very loud, but today, they were noticeably quieter. Parker, Uptown, and Vannawhite all piled through the checkpoint and reported their kills. They marched silently on through toward the baggage claim to stow their weapons. Holey came through last.
“How many’d you get, Holey?”
“Sixteen personally. I split a couple with Uptown. Give them to him.”
“That means your squad’s kills are up fourteen percent over September. You suppose Zack is moving back west?”
“Is it getting bad? What happened out there today?”
Holey held up his pointer, third, and ring fingers, dropped his ZED, and continued on toward the front door of the terminal.
“Oh, no, Holey. I’m sorry, man. It’s…” He flipped the pages of the clipboard up, “Krezner today.”
Holey kept walking, holding his three fingers in the air above his head.
Uptown spit on the parking garage floor. “Can you believe it?”
“Naw. Any Z that takes a chunk out of Holey would just spit it out again.”
“Yeah, but he’s taking the Walk. Didn’t you see him talking to Clipboard?”
“No way,” said Vannawhite, turning even more pale than normal. “I never saw him get bitten. Zack couldn’t get close enough to him to get a bite in. There’s no way.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence that Parker finally broke. “What are we going to do without him?”
“Jesus,” answered Uptown. “We’d better not get a rookie. The Boss was just getting good at this stuff. We’d better get some dinner before they run out again.”
Holey crossed the footbridge and came to the hospital unit. Back in the day, you could get a rock-hard, overpriced bagel here. Now you’d be lucky to get antibiotic for an oozing sore. Doctor Krezner looked up as he approached—members of Corpse Corps always got quick service after a mission. Holey flashed him the three-fingered W. Krezner’s jaw dropped.
“Holey. What happened?”
“Does it matter? I need clearance to do it.”
“Step into my office.”
“Aren’t you afraid I might turn on you?”
“Actually, no. You don’t have the signature puffiness around the eyes and your gross motor control seems fine. You’ve got hours. We’ve got hours.”
“Yeah. We do.” It wasn’t an office so much as stepping through a doorway into the food prep area of the former Au Bon Pain. “Jeez, doc. I hope you don’t charge as much as they used to for a beer in this joint.”
“Don’t worry about this. Your medial insurance…” he paused. “Oh forget it. This is no time for joking around. Where did it get you?”
“Doc, I just told you. It doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does, Holey. I’ve got to see the wound. Examine it. Approve your clearance for the Walk. You know Brooks won’t just let anyone go.”
“There’s no wound.”
“Then you’re not walking. Sorry, soldier. Back to your barracks. No early check out for you.”
“Doc. I can’t do it anymore.”
“Holey, the number on the board this morning was 1834. With you gone, it’s down one more. Your crew gets a rookie to replace you as leader. That rookie is some hotshot who wants a quick way out from sanitation. That endangers two of your crew and makes it dirtier around here at the same time. That makes my job harder to keep sick people from getting sicker. Forget it.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re back here and away from Zack. He’s in my head. I left one behind in the clear zone. I endangered my crew and I endangered future missions. I am a risk to the future success of my squad. I will not stand trial for treason. I just want to go. I’m tired. I quit. And I want to take Zack with me.”
“Holey. What happened?”
“It was a kid I knew. I’m going whether you clear me or not. Let’s do this the right way.”
Krezner asked, “Have you got your will in order?”
“Nope. Got no kin here. Just give my stuff to 18th Squad. They’ll know what to do with it.”
The doctor called for a police escort. Holey raised his right hand in the signature W and walked back to his bunk. He changed his shirt to his favorite, a non-regulation blue Patriots jersey and turned his back on everything left in his life. The word spread quickly. People gathered and lined the walkway to see the dead man walking, but they always remained a respectful distance back. Whether that was out of solemnity or the virus they thought he carried, Holey didn’t know. He was re-issued his Zed and the policeman fell in behind him with a hand on his holster. The crowds lined the driveway to the tollbooth. Except for the kids who squirmed with impatience, they remained silent and Holey stared straight ahead, turning only to nod to Uptown, Vannawhite, and Parker.
After he passed, Parker said, “You know, I don’t even know why we call him Holey. Was he a priest or something?
Vannawhite answered. “It doesn’t really matter. He’s going to be impossible to replace.”
Uptown snorted. “I always just thought it was short for a-hole.” They both turned to stare at their squad mate, jaws dropped. “Well, whatever. Dibs on his knife.”
Holey knew the Walk was going to be a long one, but it didn’t really matter. He had all the time in the world. No more chores, no more ration lines, no more forays. He took the Boulevard bridge over 81 and turned south on Route 11. His feet guided him without conscious thought. South and west. Avoid the main routes. Avoid parked cars. Avoid confined areas. Avoid open areas. Move faster than Zack could. He picked off a couple of lone shamblers that crossed his path on Hiawatha Boulevard and took a long way around the mall, going down to Court Street to avoid both that and the Hiawatha 81 onramp that was too close to highway level for comfort. He crossed over 81 again as it coiled across the north side, looking over at it and thinking that it was still a zombie-choked parking lot. Someone would have to clear that out for a clear path to the south. Not his problem. But someone from the Blue Zone would come up with a plan, he knew.
South on Bear and over Onondaga Creek. Too bad they’ll never get around to cleaning that up. They had gotten so close. That and the lake. All the great plans, the same ones he had heard since he was a kid. There’s that same old politician’s promise: the lake will be swimmable again—but this time, only by people who want a chance meeting with Zack.
There was a big cluster of Z’s outside the Basilica. Were there survivors inside? There couldn’t be many. What, did they think Zack was going to respect the tradition of sanctuary? We ought to make contact. Or more correctly, someone from the Zone ought to make contact. Someone else’s problem. Not his. He used a strategy he wouldn’t have used with his squad: He walked faster than the ghouls could and turned left on Avery. He’d always avoided the West Side. Why hadn’t he noticed how beautiful the rolling hills on this side of town might have been? Nothing that a few bulldozers and a few years couldn’t fix now. A little old-school urban renewal.
As he turned onto Avery, he slowed down, knowing once he was out of Zack’s line of sight, he’d be safe from anything but a random stroller. He could fight them off in his sleep as long as they weren’t moaning and calling in their friends. He knew the Avery detour would add a couple of miles to the route. It didn’t matter. Eric wasn’t going anywhere. Holey knew a guy from the Zone who had lived on this stretch of Avery, but he wasn’t in the Corps and Holey wasn’t going back, so he’d never know that his house was a burned out husk. Maybe it was better that way.
Going past the zoo, Holey tried not to think about the animals. Those majestical creatures. Had they resisted? Had they triumphed? Had they understood? Would the fences hold Zack out? Would the fences hold the grey wolves in? Turn onto the ironically named Grand Avenue and start heading west again. Only a couple more miles and he’d be there. This distance was a lot easier to cover in a Rumbler. Walking was a drag.
He approached from the east. Fairmount Fair had been the original goal. The Wegmans, Target, and the Dicks Sporting Goods sat there like ripe plums, waiting to be plucked. More important than the food and weapons that had probably already been picked clean would be the clothes of Marshalls. Three teams had headed out every day for a week before the Grabbers would come in. Lots of people had a similar idea before the evacuation and the place was loaded with Z’s.
Assault, retreat, pick them off one by one. The strategy had worked well. The kill ratio was high, but the Corps had lost five in the process. None of them returned to Central to report back to Clipboard, but just began their Walk from there. Zack leaves the bitten alone. It’s weird. They must have killed hundreds before they turned. All they got for it was their picture on the Memorial Wall and their number subtracted from the total on the whiteboard. They hadn’t died in vain. They had made his job easier, just like he would for the people that came after him. Wasn’t that what it meant to be in the Corps?
Holey used his crowbar to jimmy the sliding glass door of the Target open. A red-shirted clerk with a missing eyeball shuffled toward him. “No thanks. I know what I need. I don’t need any extra help.” She wasn’t in good shape. In fact, she looked like she belonged at Wal-Mart.
A single poke with the crowbar took her down. “I’ll be committing armed robbery today in addition to extermination. I’m sorry about that.” He didn’t know why he always apologized to the ghouls he eliminated. They didn’t know any better, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. He went back to housewares, dispatching a couple of moaners en route, and then picked up a bag of rubber gloves. Then he cut over to hardware and to his surprise, he managed to find two cans of lighter fluid. As he went past the cash registers, something shiny caught his eye. He picked up four packs of Pokemon cards and said to a cashier trying to grab him from across the conveyer belt, “Please put these on my tab.” He stopped by the restaurant. There were a few kernels of eight-month old popcorn left. They tasted as good as they did the day they were popped.
Avoiding the parked cars on Genesee, he climbed the hill toward the intersection at Onondaga Road. He knew what he’d find there. How do you miss a cherry red 2007 Mustang GT smack dab in the middle of the intersection? If the streets weren’t ghoul-infested parking lots, he could have that thing up to 80 in about seven seconds. But he wasn’t there for the car. It was the kid. How on earth did that kid end up under the front right tire of that car? His body may have been mangled, but Holey congratulated him on his good taste. Holey could see the spot where he had been bitten. The blood had come through the jersey he was wearing and turned the middle of the thirty-seven from white to brownish-red.
“Hey, Snake. How’s it going? You aren’t looking so hot.”
The boy formerly known as Eric let out a growl that sounded like it had come from the pit of his bowels after three helpings of chili. It smelled as bad as it sounded.
“Be quiet, my friend. I’m just here for a visit. I don’t want to start some sort of zombie party. You know why I’m here, right?”
Eric started to twist and pull to free himself from the front tire. His blank, white eyes screamed hatred and a desire for living flesh. Holey stepped backward in spite of himself and nearly vomited as Eric pulled himself out from under the weight of that 4.6 liter V-8. Both his feet and lower legs were nearly flat. He dragged himself along the ground with his forearms. His moan was not the sound an eight-year old should ever make.
“Dude, I never had any idea when I started calling you Snake that this would be the reason.” It was kind of funny in a terribly sad sort of way. “You know there’s no point in delaying this.” Holey seemed to be trying to convince himself more than to console Eric. Eric didn’t seem to mind. He’d become the ultimate Snake, more poisonous than a viper, with no desire greater than to sink his teeth into Holey’s Achilles tendon.
Holey sidestepped and raised his ZED. He whispered, “I’m…so…sorry” and as gently as he could, put his little friend out of both of their miseries.
Amazing. The Mustang had no bodies inside it. It even had some gas left. Whoever had hit Eric must have bolted. It must have been just during the Panic, when there was still some conscience remaining over injuring young kids. It wasn’t possible to tell how long it had been since he’d been bitten, though. Holey hoped it was before the accident. Snake had slithered a long way from his home. Holey opened the package and pulled on the gloves. It’d be 24 hours before the Solanum would inactivate and he couldn’t afford to wait. Eric’s friends would be showing up soon.
His ZED opened the front window quickly. Power windows indeed. He unlocked the door and swung it open. He yanked up on the emergency brake and shifted the car into neutral. The he strapped Eric into the driver’s seat, slid the seat forward, and tilted the wheel down. He closed Eric’s eyes, took off his gloves, and tossed them on the passenger seat. Next to them, he tossed the cards. He wouldn’t have known if there would good ones in there or not. “Sorry, man. They’re all I could find. I hope they’re good.”
He waited until he heard them coming. One mile an hour. They shuffled past the Wegmans and interminably up Genesee.
He then doused the car in lighter fluid, reached across to release the emergency brake, and with one hand on the roof and the other on the brake, pushed. As the car started to accelerate, he flicked his Bic.
It wasn’t quite the funeral for a Scandinavian king Holey had hoped for. Still, Eric picked up enough speed to fan the flames and light the remaining gas in the tank on fire. It wasn’t as good as Holey had wanted, but Holey had wanted one of those Hollywood explosions that never really happen in real life. Instead, he watched with satisfaction as the car rolled over four-five-six Z’s before coming to a stop just past the McDonald’s. It would do. It would have to.
“Dude. If your mom ever finds out you crashed a stolen Mustang in Fairmount, you’re dead. You know that, right? I’ll see you around. I’m really, really sorry it had to end like this.”
Holey started heading north on 173 away from the Z’s oozing around the Mustang and up the hill. North and east. Back toward home.