Fiction: Send In The Clowns

The Infection cover-SmashwordsSend in the Clowns is story of a a father and daughter, trying to survive the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.  The story originally appeared in The Infection Anthology – 2011, Pantoum Press, and the stipulation of the stories was that a very small percentage of the infected would not change into a zombie, but would evolve, gaining some special abilities.

I liked this angle on the zombie genre, and am proud to have two stories in The Infection Anthology, featured along with other fine authors: Andrew Shortall, Bernark ORourke, Vincent Hughes, Gerard Gogardy, Marion Clarke and Twana Biram.

The story also appeared in Untrue Stories, Volume One – 2012, Pantoum Press, which is a collection of my previously published short stories.

Now, I’m reprinting it here, for the third time.  I hope you enjoy it and if you do, please share.

 

 

Send In the Clowns

Karina killed another clown in her room today. Her aim is improving.

“I did good, Daddy?”

“Yes, Pumpkin. You hit him right in the chest. Kablamo!” I bent down and kissed her forehead, looking into her innocent, seven year old eyes. “Get ready for bed. It will be dark soon. Oh, and don’t forget to reload the gun.”

She grabbed two 22 caliber shells from the box on her Little Mermaid dresser as I dragged the colorfully clad body out of her room and into the yard, stacking it as best I could with the rest: Dead Killer Clowns, Boogey-Men, Closet Creatures and a couple of Giant Under-The-Bed Crabs. These have become my yard decorations.

The cars on my street were abandoned and the houses boarded up, their yards overgrown and neglected. No signs of life. I looked down at the freshly killed clown. His grotesque smile was a gaping maw of dagger-sharp teeth over three inches long. His hands ended in talon-like claws. It’s getting worse, I thought.

At first, the clowns were just annoying, harmless Bozo sorts that might throw a cream pie but not much more. I hated the clown-laugh. That insane, never-ending chortle. And he wouldn’t leave, no matter how I asked or threatened. But then Karina saw a picture in an old horror movie magazine from a movie called Killer Clowns from Outer Space. Just a scary clown with sharp teeth, holding a bloody chainsaw. But it was enough, because the clowns changed after that.
The sound of gunfire startled me from my thoughts and sent me running back into the house. It was a Boogey-Man. She’d shot him right in the head, down with one bullet.

“Nice shot, Pumpkin! Reload the gun again, just in case.”

“It was a boogedy-man who got Mommy. I hate Boogedy-men!”

“We don’t talk about that, Karina. Remember, you must focus. Think about good things.” I said this for myself as much as for her. I buried my wife in a shallow grave in the back yard. At least, I buried what was left of her.

Boogey-Men smelled bad or I would have left the body here until morning. I grabbed the hobnailed boots and dragged it to the front yard. A nice breeze picked up and the sun began to sink on the horizon. It was beautiful, but I needed to go back and get the pieces of the Boogey-man’s head.

Inside, Karina ran up to me, arms outstretched. I picked her up and she wrapped her arms around my neck. I hadn’t stopped thinking about burying my wife. My wife, who was killed by some abomination that a child imagined into existence.

“Do you ‘member the SpongeBob parade, Daddy?”

She smiled. I remembered the SpongeBob Parade and everything else. The memory of how this started was seared into my brain. Karina had been bitten at school by a rabid kid. At the time, we thought it was just a kid out of control. “Not enough Ritalin,” we thought. We didn’t know any better. Karina got sick, but the news reports said: Stay indoors. Don’t go out, especially near hospitals. The National Guard were on the streets and there was rioting and gunfire. We thought she might die, but two days later, she was fine. Then the changes began. First, a dozen kittens miraculously appeared in her room. Then Dora the Explorer ran around the house, two-dimensional and trying to teach us Spanish. Then things got really weird.

The ‘SpongeBob Parade’, as she called it, probably saved our lives. Twenty SpongeBobs appeared carrying fiery spatulas. They attacked the living dead that had taken over our neighborhood. While we all defended our homes and attacked with whatever we had, the SpongeBobs slapped each of the zombies into crabby-patties and cooked them up on a grill. Like I said, really weird.

After this, even more grotesque things started appearing. Spiders the size of my head jumped out of cabinets. Bad dogs or wolves ripped up her dolls. Huge crabs appeared from under the beds, trying to snap toes off. I found snakes in the toilet and hairy monsters in the closets. And always, those damned clowns.

The T-Rex visited almost every night, stomping around outside the house and biting at the metal bars I had installed on the windows. How I regretted letting her watch ‘The Land of Lost’ on DVD.

We settled into our nightly routine, and after telling Karina a story about people being nice to each other and eating candy together and laughing, I put her to bed and picked up the shotgun. I sat in a wooden kitchen chair and waited. Nights sucked. There was no telling what she would dream about. How she managed to sleep was a mystery to me.

First the wolves came. I heard their howling and chewing at the door frame. Then the boogey-men showed up, screaming and rattling the bars on the windows. I heard heavy footsteps on the roof and wasn’t sure what was going on.

“Ho, ho, ho!” I heard the laugh come down the chimney. Really, Santa Claus?

From the sound of it, the wolves attacked Santa and the boogey-men molested him relentlessly. His ‘ho, ho hos’ changed to screams and whimpers and then mercifully, silence. The reindeer didn’t fare any better.

I stared at the TV, dark and unsettling in the room, lit by a single candle. Electricity had been off for months, but still I watched the TV. I held on to an expectation that the dead screen might come to life and provide some news, some hope that Karina and I were not the only ones left and that maybe things were turning around. I clung to a hope that maybe it would get back to normal.

The wolves and boogey-men disappeared after the dinosaur showed up. A song always played when the dinosaur came around.

Marshall, Will, and Holly, on a routine expedition…

I could tell it was going to be another long night. Karina slept, and eventually, so did I when exhaustion took over.

The next day brought sunshine and crispness in the air. October had always been one of my favorite months. The oppressively hot Texas summer finally gave way to cooler temperatures. The dinosaur was gone and I dared to hope this was going to be a good day.

We went out in the truck to look for supplies. I didn’t like taking Karina out, but I feared more for her safety if I left her at the house alone. As we started down the street, a pack of wolves appeared from behind the house and chased us. Damn you, Animal Channel, I cursed to myself.

After about a half-mile, the wolves gave up. Keeping to the back roads as much as I could, the drive was quiet except for the static on the radio as it scanned for a signal. About eight miles from home, it stopped on 104.3 FM. The display on the radio said KULT. This station wasn’t on when I checked yesterday. The signal was weak, but I could hear a man talking. Even through the poor reception, I listened to the fatigued voice:

“Go North. The undead move slower in colder climates and will freeze completely if the temperature stays below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Canada has quarantined everyone in the US but they can’t stop the masses seeking refuge and rushing the border. Reports indicate they are using flash-bang grenades and tear gas, so gas masks and heavy clothing are recommended. Alaska is also seeing an influx of refugees.

 

Reports from Hawaii indicate the main island is completely infected. Unconfirmed, but indications are that the UN has approved the US to use low-yield nuclear weapons to cleanse the island. God forgive us.”

The announcer continued on with reports of the situation in Dallas and Fort Worth. It’s worse than I thought, but at least the government and UN were still around. Karina looked absently out the window as we drove, seemingly unaffected. I pulled into the parking lot of Wal-Mart and stopped some distance from the other cars. They looked abandoned. Some were burned-out and had broken windows or flat tires. I left the engine running so I could listen to more of the broadcast.

“Recently, I was out roaming the desolation of our beautiful city and I went to Ridgmar Mall to do some shopping. Stay away from malls. Stay away from population centers, and do not set your car alarms. I cannot emphasize how aggressive The Infected become when they hear a siren or car alarm. They will come running for blocks and violently attack the source of the noise.”

That’s enough news. I turned the engine off and surveyed the area around the front of the store. Broken windows and trash covered the ground everywhere. It’d been badly looted but there may still be something of value inside: food, ammunition or batteries. When I didn’t see any people or Infected, just some cats, we grabbed the guns and flashlights. I had the Remington shotgun and Karina carried her Ruger Mark III 22 caliber pistol. Remembering the warning on the radio, I left the truck’s alarm off. We headed into the store.

Inside, it was quiet. The ravaged shelves made ominous corridors into the huge, unlit building. Karina clicked the safety off, carrying the pistol like I’d showed her; both hands on the grip and finger up on the side, not on the trigger unless she was ready to fire. She surveyed the front of the building and once satisfied that nothing was there, affixed her headlamp and turned it on. I clicked my light on as well and we moved slowly past the untouched racks of greeting cards and down the cosmetics aisle.

We worked our way to the sporting goods at the back of the store. They didn’t have guns, but it did sell ammunition and camping supplies. I hoped there might be something left. In the Camping department, Karina found some dehydrated food, lasagna and beef stroganoff in sealed packages. They didn’t look like real food and the previous looters must have overlooked them. These were meals ready to eat, just add hot water. This was a good find. She shoved all 11 of them into my backpack.

“I hate beef stroganoff, Daddy.”

“I’ll eat those. You can have the lasagna. Let’s check for ammo.”

We looked but there was nothing. Shelves, once loaded with ammunition, were bare. I checked behind the service desk in the Sporting Goods Department but found nothing there either. I checked the looted cash register and broken glass cabinet, but all the knives it had contained were now long gone. No different than the other stores we had visited over the last few months.

We made a quick pass through the grocery aisles but they were bare of anything edible. The frozen food section reeked of rotting meat. As we walked past the decomposing food, swarms of flies buzzed up in agitation. We were used to it and didn’t give it much notice. We encountered three Infected, but caught them off guard and I dispatched them quickly. Three shotgun blasts at point blank range took their heads right off. I could see they were pretty far gone, anyway. One had lost his arms to decay and the others barely seemed able to stand. Karina took the smiley-face button off one of the decapitated Infected’s blue vest and pinned it to her shirt while I reloaded and we made our way to the front of the store.

“What about there, Daddy?” Karina pointed to a sign on a door that read ‘Employees only’.

We might as well check. I turned the doorknob and pushed it open. No movement or noise inside, but the sick-sweet smell of decay hit me hard and I gagged and covered my mouth. The stench was much stronger than in the refrigerated foods department, concentrated by the close quarters. We entered the room which had some chairs and tables, a couple of vending machines and a wall of lockers. There were two dead bodies on the floor near the door. They didn’t move – always a good sign when you find dead bodies these days.

The vending machine seemed untouched and had packages of chips, candy bars and other junk food on its racks behind the glass, which I smashed unceremoniously.

“Oh cool! Paydays!” Karina dropped her gun and began shoving the food into her Hello Kitty backpack.

I went to the lockers and opened them. The first one had a two-finger bag of weed in it, hidden beneath a high school science book. The next few were empty. I kept checking and in one I found a new box of 12 gauge shotgun shells, tagged with a return receipt indicating it should be re-shelved. Jackpot! I grabbed the shells and flashed them to Karina who was gleefully loading up the candy bars.

I didn’t find anything of use in the other lockers and focused on the soft drink machine. I have no idea how to break into this thing but before I could try, I heard talking outside the room. Karina’s headlight turned on me and I raised my finger to my lips. I clicked my light off and so did she, and we huddled together in the back of the room. The complete darkness seemed to make it harder to tolerate the horrible smell of rot. Although it was hard to breathe, we didn’t move.

Listening, I could tell it was other survivors, maybe four of them. They were ransacking the store as we had, looking for supplies. I shhhh’ed Karina when she started to say something. Just because they were people didn’t mean they weren’t a threat. She remained quiet, eating something, probably a Payday.

The people rummaged around the store for about an hour and then it went quiet. We waited another hour and I clicked on my light. I was startled to see a statuesque blond woman, over seven feet tall and naked, standing in front of us. Karina gasped and I fired my shotgun almost instinctively, knocking the woman down. She didn’t move. My God, what have I done!

Checking the body, I realized it was plastic, a hole blown in its midsection from my shot. It was just a mannequin. No, it’s a giant Barbie doll with no clothes. We’d passed the toy aisles and I remember seeing Karina pick up a doll briefly. Shit.

I listened to see if the gunfire attracted any attention, but didn’t hear anything. Holding Karina’s hand, we left the fetid employee break room and moved towards the front of the store. I looked around and didn’t see anyone. I also didn’t see our truck. The other looters must have hotwired it. I cursed under my breath, but I couldn’t blame them; they didn’t even know we were here, not that it would have mattered.

I surveyed the other cars in the parking lot. None of them looked drivable. We were too far from home to walk. There were other buildings nearby, but there was no telling what lurked in them. Our best bet on making it through the night was to go back in the store.

We moved through the darkness to the very back, through the big double-doors next to Customer Service and into a storage area. Karina needed a bathroom, and I found a mop bucket she could use.

The storage area was pillaged as well, but we looked through the boxes anyway. We found toilet paper and paper towels. There was an unopened box of pine-scented cleaner and another of air freshener. I grabbed a gallon bottle of distilled water and took a drink before giving it to Karina. I was parched.

“Daddy, where does the ladder go?”

I shone my light over to join hers and scanned the metal ladder leading up to a hatch in the roof some twenty feet up.

“Nice find, Pumpkin. The roof may be a safe place.”

“I don’t like ladders.”

Just to be sure, I scanned the storage room again for any Infected. Then I took off my backpack and told Karina to wait for me by the ladder while I climbed up to check things out. The hatch at the top had a handle on the inside but it wasn’t locked. There could be someone up there.

Karina’s headlight was on me the whole way and I motioned for her to wait where she was.

“OK. Shoot for the head, Daddy.”

I pushed up on the hatch and it moved, but only a little. Something heavy was on it. I climbed up another step so I could get my shoulder under it and push with my legs. I strained and it opened a crack, enough so that I could see part of the roof. It looked clear. Then a hand came down in front of my face and I dropped the lid with a loud clang! I almost fell off the ladder but managed to keep my grip.

Above, I heard movement and groans. Infected. From the sound of it, there were two or more. The noise from dropping the hatch would have alerted any of them close by to our presence. I hurried down the ladder but before I got to the bottom, the hatch swung open and a silhouette of a man lurched into the hole. Karina fired and the body fell over, dangling down and stretching towards me. I was far enough away that he couldn’t reach me. I hung on with one hand and pointed my shotgun up and fired, taking the top of his head off. The force of the blast blew me off the ladder and I fell to the ground, winded and gasping for breath. Seconds later, blood, skull fragments and bits of brain splattered down. One landed in my mouth. It was sinewy and tasted of copper. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed to be moving. I gagged and spat it out. Shit. Shit. Shit.

“Get up, Daddy! There’s more.” Karina came over to help me up. I leaned on the shotgun and managed to get to my feet, still spitting. I reloaded the shotgun and snapped it closed just as a body crashed to the floor, landing with a wet slap. It quickly reached out for Karina, but before I could react, a boogey-man jumped out of the darkness and grabbed its head, twisting it backwards. The undead writhed around, struggling with its attacker. This is new. I fired, once at the boogey-man and once at the Infected. Both fell silent.

I grabbed the water jug and took a big gulp, trying to get the taste of the zombie flesh out of my mouth. I spat the water on the ground and checked the open hatch but I didn’t see any movement. I took Karina aside.

“Honey, what were you thinking when the zombie jumped out of the hatch?”

”I don’t know.”

“Think. It’s important. He fell out of the hatch and hit the ground. He was in the light and was reaching for you. What did you think at that moment?”

“I thought he looked like a boogedy-man. He had a black hood.”

It’s true, the zombie did have a black hoodie. This is exactly how the boogey-men dressed as well. Interesting.

“See that jug of water we were drinking?”

Karina nodded.

“Think about that. Think about it really hard.”

Her face grew pensive and she drew in a breath and held it, clenching her eyes shut. After about twenty seconds, she exhaled and said, “It just doesn’t work like that.”

“It’s all right, honey.”

We’d tried this before. The control she had over her powers was involuntary. I smiled at her and went back up the ladder to survey the roof. I didn’t see any movement, but there was a large air-conditioning unit on the roof and I couldn’t see what was on the other side. I motioned for Karina to follow me up and I carefully walked around the roof unit, leaving as much room as I could.

On the other side, I saw three dome tents and some folding chairs. As I moved closer, a large, black dog rushed out of a tent and charged me. The dog reached the end of her rope and jerked abruptly to a stop before I could get my gun up to fire. She looked like a German Shepherd mix of some kind, about sixty pounds. Her brown eyes fixed on me, wagging her tail, not barking or growling.

I moved toward her. She continued to wag her tail. When I bent down to scratch her behind the ears, she gave me a friendly sniff and licked my face. I checked the tags and she had had all her shots. The name on the tag read MUNCH. Her tail stopped wagging and she broodingly pulled away from me as I looked around the roof-camp. It had a stove and several boxes of canned food and bottled water, some opened and some not. I scanned the roof’s boundaries and noticed two rifles near the edge. It looked like there were at least three boxes of ammunition there as well. Someone had made a last stand here. They lost.

Karina climbed out of the hatch and peered around. I waved her over and then moved in to take a closer look at the tents. I found the body of a woman inside one. It looked like she had been dead for about a week. She didn’t move. A brown stain on the back of the tent made me look back at the body. Then I noticed the top of her head had been blown off. I took the .45 caliber pistol from her clenched hand. The other two tents were clear except for sleeping bags, clothing, and some other supplies.

Karina fawned over the dog, petting her and nuzzling her fur as Munch licked Karina’s face. I hadn’t seen my little girl this happy in months.

After getting our packs and dropping the bodies off the roof, we settled in to have a meal. When the power went out at the house, I had been cooking on the propane grill in the back yard, so cooking on the two-burner camp stove was nothing new. We heated up some pork and beans and opened a package of saltine crackers. Karina fed the dog. As night set in, I closed the hatch and put some empty cans on top of it so that if it were to open, it would make noise and alert us.

Karina and Munch were inseparable. They adored each other. I was grateful. Munch would be a good protector. As I moved around the camp, Munch always watched me, always at Karina’s side, always suspicious.

As I put Karina to bed in one of the tents, I wondered what the night would bring. What would she dream of? Munch slept at the entry to the tent, always watching. Her eyes never left me. I went to my sleeping bag on the hatch to get out of sight from the dog. I was tired, my head hurt and I fell into a restless sleep. I dreamt of my wife, crawling out of her grave and shuffling into the house to make dinner.

I awoke to barking and leapt from the sleeping bag, clicking off the shotgun’s safety. A killer clown closed in on the tents and Munch circled him, head low, her throat rumbling with a fierce growl. The clown approached the tents and I fired. The buckshot ripped out his throat. The clown fell and gurgled as blood gushed from his neck. I walked over and smashed its head with the butt of my gun. No need to waste ammo.

Munch gave the body a sniff and walked back to Karina’s tent. She settled at the tent’s flap, and watched me with cautious interest. I grabbed the body by the feet, clawed toes sticking out of oversized red shoes and dragged it to the edge of the roof, dropping it over the side. I looked into the darkness beyond. From the elevated vantage point, I saw only one light. A fire in the distance, maybe three blocks away. The blaze came from a residential street and I suspected it burned at a house. I wondered if the looters that took my truck celebrated by setting it on fire.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully. That morning, we opened a tin of peaches and had some crackers. I made coffee and it tasted good. Karina fed Munch more of the dried dog food. I wondered how long ago the roof-campers took refuge here. The large amount of supplies they had amassed would indicate it was before the power went out and the looting began, before everything turned to complete shit.

Thinking back, the early reports of Human Rabies were sketchy. That’s what they called it at first, Human Rabies. I guess because the people who caught it would bite others, spreading the disease. Some believed it to be spread my mosquitoes as well. Stores immediately sold out of insect repellent. People dressed in heavy pants and long sleeve shirts, stinking of Deet. Imagine, the middle of the sizzling hot summer in Texas, yet everyone wore heavy coats and parkas to keep from getting bitten by a mosquito.

Then the reports on TV got paranoid and crazy: Stay indoors! Stay away from hospitals and schools! Schools closed. Most companies suspended operations, so no one went to work. There were reports of huge crowds of rabid people rioting in the streets and being shot down indiscriminately by the police and National Guard. This was all on the local news. It pre-empted regular shows and became the only programming on TV.

The national news was no different. They called it The Infection and reported a vaccine in development. Though only in the early stages, the tests sounded promising. Then, the TV stations went off the air. When the electricity and gas went out, the rabid people weren’t the only ones rioting in the streets. Everyone was looting, trying to get supplies to dig in or move on. The police disappeared and the National Guard moved to the city perimeters and then elsewhere. Neighbors packed up their cars and left. They didn’t know where they were going, they were just going. We stayed.

That was then. This is now.

Later that evening, I had a revelation. I don’t know why I didn’t realize it sooner. We had been fighting off the random monsters as they appeared throughout the day, and Karina was in bed and asleep. A boogey man caught me by surprise. As I crawled into a tent with my gun at my side, he attacked me. He was right there, in my face and I didn’t have time to react. All I could do was close my eyes as he raised his claw-like hands to my throat. Then… nothing. Oh, I heard him screeching and I smelled his stench, like locker room sweat and burning tires, but I didn’t feel him. I didn’t feel his claws close on my throat. I didn’t feel my windpipe crushed and ripped out. I opened my eyes, and he was still there, flailing viciously at me but not causing any harm.

When I backed out of the tent, he followed, scratching and snarling at me the whole way. Bemused, I raised my gun and smashed him in the face with the butt. His head snapped back and he stopped snarling as he staggered backwards. I closed the gap and smashed him again in the head. He fell to the ground and I brought the gun butt down one more time and crushed his skull. He fell silent and stopped moving. It took me a moment to realize I was laughing.

I recalled playing a first-person-shooter video game. It had a cheat code that allowed the player to be in ‘god mode’. In ‘god mode’, the player could not be hurt. Bullets and explosions would hit him, but he couldn’t be damaged, yet he could kill everything around him. This confrontation with the boogey man felt just like the game’s ‘god-mode’.

Karina dreamt these things up, but they were not solid. The monsters weren’t real. They were more than hallucinations to be sure; you can’t smell or touch a hallucination. They seemed real in every way, but they couldn’t affect me. They couldn’t hurt me, yet I could affect them. It was all in the mind.

Something was nagging at the back of my mind. If these things were just projected figments of Karina’s imagination, then how had they killed my wife? The answer was almost instantaneous. They hadn’t. They couldn’t. How did she die then?

I forced myself to think about that day. Karina had run to me, crying. She still held the shotgun. We went into the kitchen where her mother lay on the ground, a dead boogey man on top of her. Karina had shot the boogey man twice at close range as he attacked her mother. The recoil of the gun knocked her to the ground and she ached for days. I realized with a dawning horror and sadness that when Karina shot the boogey man, who didn’t really exist, and she actually hit her mother. Karina had killed her mother with the shotgun. I accepted this unfortunate reality with a different kind of grief and a new knowledge of Karina’s powers.

I gasped and my mind raced, thinking about my wife’s mutilated body and the way I buried her. I understood then, a shotgun blast at close range completely decimates a person. I sobbed at this realization.

I stayed in the tent the rest of the night. When the T-Rex came stomping around the roof, I ignored it and drifted off to sleep, listening to the Land of the Lost theme song. I slept better than I had in months, but I still dreamed of my wife, crawling out of the grave. She would get in bed with me, bloody, emaciated and stinking of decay, and made love to me. I grieved even in my sleep.

Karina woke me the next morning and asked, “Can we go for a walk, Daddy?”

I gestured to the flat surface around us. “You have the whole roof to explore.”

“Shouldn’t we go home?”

I thought about this. I didn’t like being in the middle of the city. We didn’t see many infected in the neighborhood we lived in since it was a small subdivision on the outskirts of Fort Worth. Our small town of Justin didn’t have a lot of stores and businesses. Our current location meant we could attract mobs of Infected. We’d be trapped. The roof could be defended if there were enough people, with enough ammunition and supplies. I also knew the weather would turn colder soon, and the sleeping bags and tents weren’t enough to keep us warm. Staying here would be a mistake.

Looking at the fire escape that went down the back of the building, I said to Karina, “I think a walk is an excellent idea.”

I didn’t feel good; I wasn’t hungry, so I didn’t eat. But Karina had no problem eating her breakfast. When she had finished, we went to check out the fire escape. It was one of those types that stopped twelve feet from the ground so it couldn’t be reached by anyone that was down, but would drop automatically if there was enough weight on the platform. We gathered up our guns and ammo. I thought about putting some of the boxes of canned food on the platform to keep it from going back up, but decided we could just come back up through the hatch from the inside again, if needed.

I lead the way, Munch and Karina close behind. Walking past a burned-out big rig, we rounded the corner and came to the store’s garden center. Someone had broken the lock on the gate and it stood open. The potted plants within had all wilted from lack of water. The lined up lawn mowers looked untouched; no surprise that the looters had left them. A couple of bicycles and a green, two-seater go-cart sat next to the lawn mowers. Karina ran straight to the go-cart.

“Cool!” she exclaimed as she climbed into the seat and grabbed the steering wheel, twisting it back and forth like she was navigating some twisty road. Munch settled into the seat next to her.

I looked it over and it seemed to be in good shape. It had a roll bar but was set pretty low to the ground and probably wouldn’t overturn. The small, 2 cycle engine at full throttle on level ground could probably go around twenty miles an hour. The tag on it read $698. Today, the special price is free.

We siphoned gas from one of the derelict cars in the parking lot and filled the small tank. It held about a gallon. I attached a plastic storage container to the back and dropped our packs in it. The shotgun fitted nicely between the seats, pointed forward and held in place in the groove next to the steering column. “It’s time for a test drive,” I told my daughter.

Karina climbed in the driver’s seat and I pulled the starter. The engine turned over on the first try. The go-cart idled roughly at first but, as it warmed up, the engine stopped skipping. I hadn’t realized how loud a small two-cycle engine sounded.

“Give it a little gas. Just a little!” I yelled over the sound of the small engine.

The cart lurched forward and stopped as Karina shifted from the gas to the brake petal. Munch looked at her and whimpered. Then she pulled out and did two small laps in the parking lot, the dog chasing her. She took the second lap pretty fast, and I saw I had gauged the speed wrong, she was getting close to thirty mph. She pulled up next to me, laughing. I showed her how to kill the throttle and the engine stopped. She was still laughing gleefully.

The dog growled and then I heard the distant moans coming across the parking lot from a mob of undead. I counted eight, moving at a fast, stumbling walk. I suppose they heard the go-cart. In the distance, I saw more of them closing in on us. A lot more.

I evaluated the situation. We didn’t have time to get around to the front of the store and make it up to the roof. We could face off with the zombies, but there were just too many of them. I could jam myself into the go kart with Karina, but it would be a tight fit. Evaluation complete. I pulled the starter and fired the engine up again.

“OK,” I instructed Katrina, “Remember, zombies don’t dodge, so avoid them if you can, but if you have to hit one, hit him fast and straight on. If we get separated, meet me by the burned-out big rig we saw out back. Got it?”

“Daddy, get in!” Karina motioned to the cramped seat next to her. Time was burning, so I climbed in to the seat and left my legs sticking out over the front of the go-cart. Karina gunned it before I was situated, but that meant we avoided the first of the Infected closing in. Munch chased after us, barking wildly as if saying, “Go! Go! Go!”

I put my finger on the trigger of the shotgun, still lodged in-between the seats and pointing forward. I blew a hole in an Infected as he ran straight at us and then the cart plowed into him, knocking him off his feet and spinning him over us as we sped by.

I instructed Karina to drive out of the parking lot and down the street where I had seen the fire the previous night. We cruised past burned out cars and homes with neglected yards, overgrown with weeds. Looking behind, I saw the mob of Infected had filled the street, pursuing us in a stumbling run. Karina was intent on the road ahead. Andy Granatelli personified. The other Infected trailed in behind and I saw there were over a hundred, all chasing us.

We blew through intersections, vacant of traffic. As we entered the third block, I saw a wooden tower. At the top, a man waved us to the right. Karina followed his direction and pulled into the driveway of an abandoned-looking home and through a huge, wooden gate that opened for us. I glimpsed a massive, chain-fed gun, sitting on a tripod outside the gate. We pulled into the back yard and stopped. We had nowhere else to go. Some thirty or so people watched us, most carrying guns, rifles or clubs of various design.

“Incoming! Arm the gates!” someone shouted.

I climbed out of the uncomfortable go-cart and Karina killed the engine. A large man with a beard and an AR10 rifle grabbed my arm, pulling me up. “It’s killin’ time! Get to the roof where it’s safer.” Men were all moving to the perimeter, standing on boxes to fire over the fence. Munch ran in, tail wagging as the gate closed.

As Karina and I climbed up the ladder on the back of the house, I heard the automatic gunfire outside. From the vantage point I had on the roof, I saw the man at the chain gun, firing into the mob of Infected as they closed in. The huge bullets blew holes in the Infected. Arms and legs blew off, knocking down the attackers at the front of the tightly formed crowd. The bullets passed through the first wave and hit the zombies behind, taking down one after the other. The chain-gun dealt out devastating damage, but these were zombies. A hole the size of a grapefruit in the chest of a zombie wasn’t enough to stop it, it just slowed it down.

When the mob advanced into the driveway, the men sporting AR10’s with scopes started sniping heads, the rotten skulls popped like gory piñatas spilling blood, bone and brain, putting the creatures down for good. I watched their economy of motion and ammunition as men behind the shooters methodically loaded a gun, handed it to a man on the fence, then took the spent gun to reload it. It was like clockwork, and they made short work of the Infected.

Then the T-Rex showed up, accompanied by its theme song.

Marshall, Will and Holly, on a routine expedition…

“What the hell?!” There were gasps from all the men as the dinosaur stomped up the street and the remaining undead turned and charged it.

As the men changed their aim to the T-Rex, I yelled, “Don’t shoot the dinosaur! It’s not real. Trust me.” Puzzled faces turned to me and then back to the behemoth that now snapped at the undead who clamored around it.

The T-Rex had distracted the undead. The men opened fire again, sniping the Infected. The dinosaur snapped ineffectively at them and I watched as the last of the Infected fell in a heap, its head blown off by a well-placed shot. The T-Rex turned its attention to the chain-gun and roared.

“It’s not real!” I repeated. The behemoth stomped up and brought its massive jaws down on the man arming the gun. He fired, unloading over 50 bullets into the T-rex at short range and the creature buckled over backwards and collapsed, dead. Waste of ammo, I thought.

I tried to explain to the women and children on the roof that the dinosaur was an imaginary manifestation. I appealed to the men on the ground, and when a man walked up and kicked the bloody head of the dead creature, it thumped. “Feels real to me,” he said.

“It’s not. Dinosaurs don’t exist anymore,” I said.

“Yeah? Zombies aren’t supposed to exist, either. World’s gone crazy, man.”

“Wait till you see the Killer Clowns,” I mumbled as I climbed down the ladder.

A burly, bearded man stood forward from the rest of the men. “You brought hell and high water to our doorstep, stranger.” He squinted at me, looking me up and down. “You look pretty fit, though. You must have some fight in you or you wouldn’t still be here.” He said, extending his hand. “I’m Lee.”

“Michael. My name is Michael,” I stammered, taking his hand and shaking it. “The girl is my daughter, Karina.”

“Look at the dog! The dog don’t like him,” yelled one of the men. He then leveled his gun at me.

Karina came down the ladder and ran over to Munch, petting her back and scratching behind her ears. Two little boys joined her, and Munch savored the attention and petting, but she didn’t stop staring at me.

“Dog likes the girl. Dog likes my boys. Why don’t the dog like you, Michael?”

“He’s bit!” A woman yelled from the roof.

“I’m not bit!” I protested.

“Dogs can tell when someone’s got the virus. If you ain’t bit, then prove it. Strip.” Several more guns lowered to point in my direction.

“Take the girl inside. Get her something to eat. We’re going to inspect Michael,” Lee said.

“It’s all right, Honey. Go in the house. I’ll be fine,” I assured Karina, trying to keep the waver out of my voice.

After Karina, the kids and women went into the house, I pulled the pistol out of my pants with two fingers and dropped it on the ground. I took off my shirt, shoes and pants.

“Socks. Get ‘em off.”

I complied, now standing in my less-than-clean underwear in front of sixteen men, all eyeing me curiously. I went through the process of raising my arms and turning around slowly twice so everyone could see.

“No bites,” Lee said. “But the dog don’t like you, and that’s for sure. Why is that?”

I thought about the zombie brain fragment that fell in my mouth, squirming. I thought about the coppery, rancid taste that stayed with me, even now. I thought about how my dreams had changed right after the encounter with the rooftop Infected and the pounding headaches that had begun to come and go.

“I don’t know. Just not a dog person, I guess.” I’ve always had a good poker face and I hope it held up now. The stakes had never been higher.

“Get Ed! Get Undead Ed! That will show us for sure!”

They brought out Ed, a zombie who had his arms blown off. They kept him in check with three ropes tied around his neck, men pulling them tight at diametric angles to keep him from moving too close to anyone. Lee shoved me toward Undead Ed and I looked into his bloody eyes, dripping yellow pus. Lee jammed his hand behind my neck and pushed me closer to the stinking undead. Ed didn’t move. He just looked at me, then at Lee behind me. The zombie licked his cracked lips with a blackened tongue and lunged past me to get at Lee. The ropes pulled taunt and yanked him back.

“Looks like you and Ed are friends. Not good company to be in, Michael. Not good at all,” Lee remarked to the murmurs of assent around us.

I looked at Lee, imploring for sympathy. I couldn’t find any words.

“Come over here. Sit down.” Lee pointed to a picnic table. The others kept a distance but I could tell they were watching me. I sat down and noticed a red dot dance across my arm and settle on my chest. Someone had a laser sight.

“Did you know you had the bug?” Lee asked. He was calm, even sad.

“I thought maybe it didn’t affect me. Or maybe I would survive it, like Karina. She was bit, but still made it. It gave her… powers.”

“You mean the dinosaur?” Lee asked.“

That’s some power,” someone else whispered.

“It’s more than the dinosaur. But it’s all imaginary stuff. They aren’t real and can’t hurt you.”

“So you said. Quite a distraction though.” Lee laughed.

We talked for about an hour. I told him about Katrina’s abilities and how we managed the hardships as the economy collapsed and the military withdrew. The first winter, it was tough when the gas and electricity went out. I told him how my wife died. I cried.

Lee had a sympathetic ear and didn’t rush me. He had his stories to tell, too. He was a long-haul truck driver who came down from Michigan to get his sister and their family living in this house. The whole neighborhood had banded together and they’d been holding out, but their supplies had dwindled to a critical low. They had begun stocking up since Lee arrived: food, clothing, gasoline. They were almost ready, Lee said. It was all interesting; just talking and listening to another adult seemed incredible, but my mind grew fuzzy and I found it hard to concentrate. My head pounded as I tried to take it all in.

Lee said, “So here’s how it will go. You are going to say goodbye to your little girl. You are going to go out to get supplies, you will say. Then you leave and never come back. Or, I can shoot you in the head and save you the horror of becoming like Undead Ed. It’s your choice.”

Some choice, I thought. I knew I was infected and would change soon; I had come to terms with this. What Lee said made sense, even to my confused mind. But above everything else, I had to know something.

“What about Karina?” I croaked.

“We’ll take care of her and the dog, too. We’ve got a good tribe here. We’re preparing trucks and buses and will be leaving soon, going north; Canada, where it’s cold. It’s safer from the Infected there. But you, there’s not much I can do to help you. I can spare the little girl seeing her daddy turn into a monster. I can do that for her, and for you.” The sympathy in Lee’s eyes was evident. “I’m a father too, Michael. I can tell you are a good man who loves his daughter. I know I wouldn’t want my kids to see me like one of those things. What about you?”

I nodded. “But why would you help us?”

“Karina is one more survivor. We need all the numbers we can get, and based on what you’ve told me, she might even be the key to turning this whole thing around. I don’t know how yet, but it seems possible.”

Once I composed myself, I followed Lee into the house where Karina was sitting on the floor playing Chutes and Ladders with the two boys. She was happy. She didn’t come to me, so I went over and picked her up. She hugged me but kept looking down at the game.

“This is Jim and this is Cody. They are my friends! And that is Cody’s mommy. Her name is Linda. Can we stay here? I like it better than our house.”

“If you want to stay here, you can. But you have to promise me that you’ll be good. Remember the things I taught you. Listen to the adults, ok?”

“I will. It’s my turn! Put me down, Daddy.”

I held her just a little longer but finally lowered her to the floor. I crouched down next to her and said, “I’m going out. I love you, always and forever.” I kissed her head.

“I love you always and forever, too! Shoot for the head, Daddy.” She didn’t look up from the game.

I stood and my head pounded. Lee put his hand on my shoulder. “Good man.”

We walked out the front door together. As it closed behind us, I said, “Do it.”

Lee led me behind the house across the street. There were several graves there, some freshly dug. I looked straight ahead and Lee walked behind me, speaking. His voice strained.

“You don’t know me, but I am trying to do the right thing. I’m trying to do what’s right for everybody. I respect you and will take care of Karina. She’s got a chance with us, a real chance.”

Tears ran down my cheeks, dripping yellow pus onto my shirt. “What will you tell her?”

There was no pause before Lee responded. “I’ll tell her that her father fought valiantly against overwhelming odds. After an incredible fight, he succumbed to forces no man could withstand. I will tell her that you died bravely. And when I tell her this, I will be telling the truth.” He paused and let out a ragged sigh. “Do you believe in heaven, Michael?”

I shook my head, “No.”

“I think you are wrong and if you are, I’m sure you are going there. Your wife would be there, too. You would be together again. You fought hard. It’s time to rest.”

I liked this thought and smiled. Then I heard a click and everything went white and faded to stars.

I rested.

~~~~~

I hope you enjoyed the story.  If you did, please share.

ML

 

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