The Worst Day to Get Lucky
by the authors of the Summer of Zombie 2016 tour
After the third ping pong ball popped up with another number from the ticket, Jeff’s hands got sweaty and he crinkled the lottery slip between his thumb and fingers.
Hazel said, “Okay, that may be the best zombie movie, but what is the best zombie book?”
A fourth ping pong ball with a fourth matching number popped up. Jeff’s eyes darted back and forth between the screen and the ticket with the pink bars on the top and bottom. He bought two tickets a week every week since dropping out of high school. He had never matched one number ever. Jeff usually checked the winning numbers online later, but Hazel’s parents had cable, so he was watching a drawing live for the first time. A fifth number matched and he thought he was going to black out.
Matt said, “There are a million zombie books. Just take your pick.”
“How dare you?” Hazel asked and then laughed.
The multiplier was three. Jeff wanted to kick himself for not powering up to the multiplier. He could have tripled the winnings. The red ping pong balls danced around in their wind machine. They refused to dislodge into the chamber. The announcer made a joke about the final number being stubborn. Jeff wanted to scream at the TV.
Matt said, “Okay, fine. McKinney is great. I like Maberry’s stuff. Keene, of course.”
“You think they are better than Tufo’s series or Dying Days by Rosamillia?” Hazel asked.
“I like all of Tufo’s series. Dying Days is great. I love the new covers on those too,” Matt said. “I still like Bourne’s first book too. It was one of the first zombie books I ever read. Still love it.”
The red ball hopped up into the plastic chamber. It was turned so that the number wasn’t showing. Jeff couldn’t swallow.
“I like military based writers too,” Hazel said. “Chesser is good. I like Ferrell. Welmerink has a good series too.”
The announcer turned the ball and there it was. The number on the red ball was upside down, but it was a match. Jeff stared at his ticket as the announcer slowly turned the last number upside right.
“I’ve read Wallen’s I Zombie I, and Malafarina’s stuff, and Fleet’s books too,” Matt said. “I like all of it, but the best one? I don’t know. I like anything that’s different, I guess.”
“Have you read Ailes’ books?” Hazel asked.
“Which one?” Matt asked. “Derek Ailes’ or Mark Cusco Ailes. Doesn’t matter. I’ve read them both. All good stuff. James Wallen has some stuff out I like too.”
The announcer read off the numbers in numerical order making it easier for Jeff to follow right along on the ticket. Every number. He had matched every number.
Jeff felt a thrill of excitement and fear, but then anger crept in. He felt his face build red heat in his forehead and cheeks. They had invited him over to Hazel’s folks’ house. Hazel’s younger sister had just started up at State and her folks were taking her up for orientation. Hazel had suggested they watch TV, Matt had asked if it was time for the drawing. They were watching Jeff watch the drawing as they pretended to talk about zombie books. Jeff lowered the ticket in his fist as the announcer gave the disclaimer that numbers weren’t official until verified.
“Did you jerks do this on purpose?” Jeff asked.
“Rob E. Boley does fairy tale horror reimaginings. His zombie stuff is good, if you are looking for something different,” Hazel said. “Ann Riley’s Southern Zombies series is good. So is Southern Devils by Brent T. Abell.”
“I’ll have to check those out,” Matt said. “Which do you think is the best, Jeff?”
Matt knew Jeff liked Hazel. She was a couple years older than both of them. Even though she had graduated, she stayed in town and worked up in the offices of the same trucking company as Matt and Jeff. Now that they were all old enough to buy their own beer, Hazel was the only one between them saving for a future. They always made fun of Jeff and his tickets. Jeff looked for the cord that would explain the recording. It could have been a wireless thing. Hazel was smart enough to hook something like that up and Matt was mean enough to think it up.
“Did you record an old drawing and play it on me as a joke?” Jeff asked. “Are you recording my reaction now?”
Even as he said it, Jeff realized they weren’t with him when he bought the lottery ticket. They could have switched it when he wasn’t looking, he thought.
“What about Jay Wilburn’s books?” Hazel asked.
“Never heard of him,” Matt said.
Jeff stood up and turned around. He held out his ticket in his hand. “Tell me what you did? Stop screwing with me.”
They stared up at him. Matt sat on the couch. Hazel was on the floor with her back to the footrest of the recliner. They were faking surprise very well, Jeff thought.
“What are you talking about?” Hazel asked.
Something crashed against the side of the house outside the dining room window. It made a sharp crack against the glass and then slowly scraped down the side.
Hazel stood and turned around. She took a step in that direction.
“Stop,” Jeff said.
They both looked at him again.
“What is wrong with you?” Matt asked.
“All the numbers on my lottery ticket matched the drawing. I know you faked the recording, so admit it.”
Matt and Hazel exchanged a look.
A car alarm went off outside. Four gunshots popped off in the distance. The pattern was one, a pause, and then three more rapidly.
“You matched the numbers?” Hazel asked. “All of them?”
“Are you serious?” Matt said.
“You guys faked the broadcast just now, right? That’s why you invited me over to hang out.”
Matt took out his phone and scrolled. Hazel did the same.
“What were your numbers?” Hazel asked.
There was another crash in the street outside her parents’ house. Several voices shouted over the top of each other.
Jeff sighed and read them off. Both of them looked up at him. Matt held out his phone. “Those are the winning numbers, dude.”
“They are,” Hazel said.
“You faked that on your phones too,” Jeff said, shaking his head.
“Look it up yourself,” Hazel said.
Jeff pulled out his phone. He had the lottery sites saved. The numbers were verified. He dropped his phone on the floor with a thump and backed away a few steps. Jeff held onto the wall near the door leading into the kitchen.
“You won the lottery,” Matt said.
Jeff shook his head. “What do I do?”
“Take it all at once and get out of this crap town,” Matt said.
“No, take the yearly payments,” Hazel said. “Wait and get a financial advisor before you claim the money?”
“Wait? Are you high? I have to go into the city tomorrow,” Jeff said. “Do you guys want to take off work and give me a ride?”
Matt snorted and said, “That’s fifty miles one way. Even if you sprung for gas and lunch, some of us still have to work for a living, dude.”
“That’s where the lottery office is,” Jeff said. “What if I give you a cut? A million each and we can all quit. We’ll leave here and never come back.”
“Don’t even joke,” Hazel said.
“We never have to work again,” Jeff said.
Another thump hit the dining room window and Hazel turned in that direction. Jeff’s eyes narrowed as he saw the flickering light from a fire outside dancing off her face. The window shattered and Hazel screamed. Matt jumped off the couch and Jeff ran forward to look past Hazel into the dining room.
The man crawling through jagged glass was burned down the left side of his body. The charred flesh broke to raw, pink muscle underneath. Blood ran over his teeth as he fell into the dining room.
Hazel took a step toward the dining room, but Matt grabbed her arm and stopped her.
Screams drifted through the open window from the darkness outside.
“He’s hurt,” Hazel said.
“Don’t go near him,” Matt said.
The man rose up from behind the dining room table and knocked over a chair. He pushed the table along the floor as he reached for them over the top of the table. One shard of glass was speared through his burned hand. All three of them backed up.
A woman with bones showing through her torn chest and side reached through the broken glass. Another man pushed her aside and tried to crawl through with a severed hand still clutched in his teeth.
“This is a joke,” Hazel said. “You guys set this up. There’s no such thing as …”
They backed away as Hazel couldn’t find the end of her sentence.
The glass above the sink in the kitchen shattered and more arms reached through there.
The three of them ran through the house toward the front door.
“This can’t be real, can it?” Jeff asked.
Matt opened the door. Three women drug a man out of the pile up of cars in the street. They tore him open before he hit the pavement and began pulling out organs and intestines as Matt, Hazel, and Jeff watched from the open door.
A house farther down the street was on fire.
“They are definitely eating that guy,” Jeff said. “This is all real.”
“What do we do?” Matt whispered.
“You guys have been watching and reading about zombies for years. Don’t you have a plan?” Jeff said.
“I didn’t think they were really coming,” Hazel said. “What are the odds?”
“Looks like we aren’t going to work tomorrow, but it has nothing to do with the lottery,” Matt said. “That sucks. I was a millionaire for about three seconds.”
“We can still go,” Jeff said.
“Are you out of your mind? We need to find somewhere to hide,” Hazel said.
“No,” Jeff said. “I’m serious. This might just be happening here or it may have just started. The lottery office opens in the morning a couple hours after daylight maybe. We can cash the ticket in. We can pull the money from the bank before everything ends. We can buy whatever we need before the economy collapses or we’ll be wealthy after this is all contained.”
“It’s a mistake,” Matt said.
“A stupid mistake.” Hazel shook her head.
Jeff held up the ticket. “The only mistake is not trying. Get me to the lottery office when it opens and we’ll split what we get three ways no matter what happens.”
Matt stared at the ticket and licked his lips. “Let’s get to my truck before we get trapped here.”
“No,” Hazel said. “We need to get supplies and weapons first.”
“Where? How?” Jeff asked.
There was a crash deeper in Hazel’s house.
Hazel jumped at the noise and said, “Let’s go to Lipp’s.”
She was talking about the sporting goods store on the edge of town. It had all the gear they’d need—food, fuel, weapons, and tools.
Jeff stuffed his ticket into the hip pocket of his jeans, next to his keys.
Inside the house, an electronic version of The Twilight Zone theme rang out. Someone was calling Jeff’s phone, which was still on the floor. He took a step in that direction, only to see the man with the severed hand in his mouth and the woman with the mangled chest stagger into the hall. Thick blood dripped from their wounds. The half burned man pushed past the other two and staggered for the door.
Jeff backpedaled and followed Matt and Hazel outside. Matt’s keys jangled in his hand. They ran to Matt’s truck, an old blue Nissan with a dented body and a white cap.
Matt slid behind the wheel. Jeff got stuck riding bitch in the middle. As always, the truck stank of sweat socks and fast food grease. Burger wrappers crinkled beneath their feet as they slammed the doors. Matt cranked the ignition. At the same time, a middle-aged blond woman slammed into the passenger-side window, which was down maybe an inch or two.
Blood dripped from a jagged wound on her left shoulder, contrasting with the white schoolgirl blouse she wore. Her long hair was pulled up into pigtails on either side of her face.
“Holy shit,” Hazel said. “That’s Rita.”
“No way,” Matt said.
Rita pressed her face against the window and snarled. Her fuck-me red lipstick smeared over the glass. She worked in the trucking company as the secretary to Mr. Connors, company president.
“That’s totally her,” Jeff said. “But what’s she wearing?”
“Um, looks like she’s into a little schoolgirl role play,” Hazel said.
“That’s fucking hot,” Matt said.
“Dude, she’s a goddamn zombie!” Jeff said.
“Still. Those pigtails.”
“Goddamn it, just go!” Hazel said, now cranking the window up.
Rita reached her fingers inside the window as the truck sped forward. She rode right along with them.
“Get her off us!” Matt yelled. “She’s going to break the glass.”
“I’m trying,” said Hazel, prying at Rita’s fingers. “She won’t budge.”
Jeff grabbed a burger wrapper from the floor. He reached over Hazel and smeared the residual grease all over Rita’s bloody fingers. His elbow grazed Hazel’s breasts. A weird tingle ran through him. A second later, the zombie schoolgirl tumbled off the truck onto the pavement.
Meanwhile, Matt navigated a stumbling obstacle course of mangled bodies and terrorized neighbors. Flames flickered over crashed cars and burning buildings. Explosions boomed across town. Gunfire rang out.
At one point, they passed Mr. Connors shambling through the streets. He wore a very academic-looking tweed coat and no pants or underwear.
The truck’s tires squealed as they halted outside Lipp’s Sporting Goods. Apparently, they weren’t the only ones who planned to loot the store. All the windows were shattered. Inside, a mob of zombies mauled on a buffet of panicked townspeople.
“Any other bright ideas?” Matt said.
“Across the street,” Hazel said. “Hurry, before they see us.”
Matt drove the truck into the shopping center across from Lipp’s. He backed up to the front doors and shook his head.
“Seriously? This is where we’re gearing up?”
“It’ll have to do,” Hazel said.
They got out and ran to the front door of Wilson’s Craft Emporium.
The door to Wilson’s Craft Emporium was, of course, locked. Jeff turned the knob and jiggled it around. Pressing his face against the glass door, he saw the lights were still on, but nothing moved.
“So?” Matt asked. He tried to shove Jeff out of the way to look inside.
Hazel sighed and cleared her throat. “Is anybody home? We need to get off the streets, like five minutes ago.”
“I don’t see anybody,” Jeff said and backed away from the door.
Matt pushed himself in closer and stuck his nose against the filthy glass. Hazel tapped her foot on the sidewalk and cleared her throat again.
“Why the fuck do you keep doing that?” Matt huffed.
“Because you’re always in the way!” she spat back.
Matt stepped back from the door and bowed, “The door is yours, my majesty.”
Hazel gave him two big middle fingers and stepped up to the glass. Instead of the door, she peered inside the large front windows. Inside, she didn’t see anybody. A few racks had been toppled over on the floor, but she didn’t notice any blood or other signs of a struggle. She looked at the other two and like a striking snake, punched the glass display window. Her fist broke through the glass and large shards fell to the ground at their feet.
“What are you doing?” Jeff asked.
“Somebody has to save our skins and since this is a craft store, we might be able to pick up some stuff to use as weapons,” Hazel answered. She stopped for a moment and wondered if she’d be better off ditching Jeff and Matt. The two guys were scattered brained and she pictured them getting her killed. She pointed inside the store and stepped through the shattered window. Without another word, the others followed her inside.
The store was eerily silent. Jeff had been in the store before with his mom and usually some crappy elevator music played over the PA system. The songs were horrible instrumental versions lacking guitars and soul, but not hearing them now scared him. He looked down and saw some dress patterns strewn around the floor and a candy display lying on its side.
“Quick, look around and see if can find something to use as weapons. We’ve seen and read enough zombie shit that we should own this,” Hazel ordered and rushed off to the leather working section.
Matt sat on the floor and buried his face in his hands.
“What’s up?” Jeff asked.
“This is all so fucked up, man. My best friend wins the lottery on the same day Romero becomes a prophet of our demise.”
“That’s pretty deep for you,” Jeff replied. He tried to hide the laughter he felt swelling up within.
“Fuck you, I mean who is going to pay out the lottery cash? The world is burning.”
Jeff sat down next him. “Look, I’m going to hang on to the ticket. Once the government gets on this, they’ll fix everything and I can cash in.”
“Bull shit, the government never fixes shit in the zombie apocalypse. You’ve read the books!” Matt exclaimed.
Hazel screamed from the back of the store. Jeff and Matt sprang to their feet and headed toward her cries. On the way, Jeff reached into his pocket. When he pulled out his hand, the winning lottery ticket slipped out and slowly fell to the checkered tile floor.
Jeff hadn’t read the books as closely as Matt and Hazel had, but he knew that the chance of the government making any of this shit better was slim to none. His lottery ticket was fucked and he might as well accept it. He still felt like he had made a mistake dropping it. It was like throwing money away even if it was money he couldn’t get to.
Matt reached Hazel first and saw she was trying to move a shelf to put in front of a restroom door. He grabbed one end of it and pulled it across the door with her.
“Nice of you to finally show up.” Hazel said.
“Did you find weapons?” Matt asks Hazel.
“I found knitting needles.” Hazel exclaimed. She had to yell to be heard above the pounding on the door which was held by the shelf.
“What good is that going to do us?” Jeff asks.
“You’ve apparently never seen a knitting needle?” Hazel asks.
“Not that I remember.” Jeff said.
Hazel picked up one of the needles, which happened to be metal and one of the larger varieties. She tore the plastic off and removed the covers on the point before handing one to Jeff.
“I see your point.” Jeff said and clicked his tongue.
The intake vent near the bathroom kicked on stirring up the discarded plastic and other trash around the floor. Hazel turned and checked the shelf to be sure it was still over the door.
Matt kicked to get a piece of plastic loose from his shoe. Finally, he reached down to take it off by hand. He stood back up straight and stared at the trash in his hand. Matt looked up at Jeff with his head tilted and eyes narrowed. “The whole world seems to be coming apart.”
Jeff shook his head. “What’s gotten into you, dude?”
Matt shook his head and stuck his hands into his pockets. “We need to grab as many needles as possible. We’ll be close to the zombies, but I don’t see any other choice. Aim for the head or eye. Then, we have to find a safe place and stay off the street until morning.”
“I say we should head away from the city. There are fewer zombies in rural areas and that will be our best chance of surviving this shit storm.” Hazel said.
“I don’t know,” Matt said. “We might lead them along with us. Might be a good idea to stay holed up, if we can.”
Hazel pointed with one of the needles at the door jumping in its frame each time it was pounded. “Not too thrilled about our chances around here.”
Matt and Jeff nodded in agreement.
They gathered all the knitting needles they could find and started tearing the packaging off. Hazel passed them around to Matt and Jeff.
“And it’s James Wallace,” she said.
Matt looked up. “Who? What are you talking about?”
“The writers,” Hazel said. “You got the names mixed up. It was James Wallace and Jack Wallen … not James Wallen like you said.”
Matt stared at her a moment as he held the needles with one hand and checked his pockets with the other. “That really, really doesn’t seem that important right now.”
Hazel shrugged. “Just wanted to point out I remember details and notice things better than you do sometimes.”
Jeff still looked forlorn over his winning lottery ticket that was useless as hell now. He looked as though he might not be able to go on. This really was the worst day to get lucky in his book. Jeff gritted his teeth and scanned the floor where he had let the ticket drop like a leaf in the wind. The room was dark and he cut his eyes from side to side without spotting it.
“Snap out of it, dude.” Matt told him. “We have to get out of here in one piece and if you slow us down, I’ll leave your ass here.”
“Kiss my ass, man. If you were in my place, you’d feel the same way. All my life I’ve waited to finally be in a position that would allow me to never have to worry about money again, then we have a zombie invasion. This is bullshit.” Jeff said. “I’m doomed to be stuck in this town until I die … one way or the other.”
“Boys, boys.” Hazel held up her hands with the deadly needles clasped in them. “If you both don’t snap out of it and shut up, I will be leaving Wilson’s Craft Emporium alone. You both should be worried about not being ripped to shreds. You should be more concerned about finding food and water rather than a useless ticket to a dead dream. We’re on our own. No one is coming to help us and until we get out of this place, find food, water and shelter, we are risking death every second. So, get your shit together, or, stay here with no future.”
“You are correct, my majesty.” Matt said.
Hazel flipped Matt the middle finger, again. The needle sticking out the side of her fist made it look more threatening than before.
Hazel wondered what she did in a previous life to get stuck in the eighth circle of Hell with one jackass who was crying over a busted lottery ticket, and one that was, well, basically clueless.
As they made their way back to the door they had entered through, Hazel grabbed scissors, paracord, and other sharp tools she saw. She said a silent prayer of thanks to whichever god might be listening for the bottled water cooler at the end of the cash register aisle. Looking around, she didn’t see any zombies close to the front door, so she thought they might be able to get out and avoid potential problems.
“Guys, grab some bottled water. We’ll need it.” Hazel told them in a stage whisper.
As Jeff reached for the water, he saw a shadow pass over the area where they stood.
“What the fuck was that?” Jeff asked looking up and around for a light source.
“We need to get the hell out of here now.” Matt told them.
“What is that?” Hazel asked.
Soon, the shadow covered the whole front window of the store.
“It’s aliens, ain’t it?” Jeff muttered. “That’s their mother ship outside. I saw Independence Day. I recognize that kind of shadow.”
Then they heard the whir of an engine and the whooping sound of rotors.
“No, you idiot. That’s a helicopter.” Hazel announced. “It’s probably either a police or army helicopter. That might be our only ticket out of here. Come on. Head for that front door… now!”
With that, the trio raced for the door. Hazel was in the lead with Jeff close behind and Matt bringing up the rear. On their way through the store, Matt saw a rack of impulse items at the front counter. He grabbed a hand full of small halogen mini-flashlights from the display. He impulsively checked his pocket to be sure it was still there. It was the lottery ticket – Jeff’s lottery ticket. Matt had recalled the first few numbers, so he was almost certain it was the winning ticket. He had picked it up off his shoe when the vent had blown the trash around the floor. This was his first real chance to look at it without Jeff noticing. He tucked it back deep into his pocket.
Maybe they would never be able to claim it, but maybe they would. And he intended to make it through this either way, so what did he have to lose? He sincerely doubted his buddy Jeff would be smart enough survive for very long so he might as well hang onto it. He and Hazel could split the winnings. That is, maybe he would split the winnings with her, or maybe not. He just had to make it until morning. He had to outlive the undead.
Soon they were back out on the street. They looked up and saw not one, but three black helicopters slowly working their way through the sky just above the buildings.
“Hey. Hey! Down here.” Jeff shouted as he ran into the street waving his arms frantically.
“No Jeff. Don’t.” Hazel shouted.
Not taking time to think, Matt ran into the street and grabbed his friend around the waist and pulled him away just a millisecond before a blinding hail of bullets ripped through the spot in the street where Jeff had stood. The blacktop erupted in an explosion of flying debris. The three ran around the corner of the building into a darkened, shadowed alley.
“What the hell?” Jeff said, “They tried to kill me! What the hell did I do to them?”
“No, Jeff, you moron. They’re shooting zombies. They probably thought we were some of those living dead things,” Hazel said. But she suspected differently.
They peeked around the corner and saw dozens of the lurching corpses cut down by the rain of gunfire. One creature stood momentarily as if being suspended by puppet strings its body twitching and jerking under a hail of bullets looking as if it was doing some sort of macabre death dance. Within seconds, its body was torn to pieces.
Another had been torn in half, separating its lower body from its torso. It crawled along the street, dragging its severed spinal column and intestines behind it for a few short seconds until another series of shots tore the rest of it to bits.
“Aim for the head.” Jeff shouted, “You’re wasting bullets. Don’t you know anything?”
“Shut up, Jeff. We don’t want them to know we’re in here or they’ll blow us away too.” Matt said.
Up ahead they saw a group of about twenty men in military-style riot gear walking in a line down the street in their direction. They held strange looking weapons in their hands which looked like long nozzles and there were tanks of something strapped to their backs. A moment later long plumes of fire shot out the front of the nozzles and began engulfing everything in their path. A young woman with a baby was trying to flee from a crowd of zombies and within seconds both were pyres of burning, melting flesh.
“Oh my, God. Flame throwers.” Hazel shouted as she realized her assumption was right. “They’re burning up everyone they encounter. They don’t care if they’re zombies or not… they’re… they’re killing… everyone.”
“We’d better get the hell out of here and pronto.” Matt shouted, turning to head deeper into the dark alley.
Then they heard a deep, guttural growl… make that several deep guttural growls coming from the darkness behind them.
Opaque eyes reflected in the wan light like large, star-lit pearls.
“Shit, now what?” Jeff stuttered.
From out of the shadows stepped three German Shepherds. Their glossy fur stood on end. Muzzles rippled. Sharp teeth bared. One beside the other, they pawed and raked the ground, but did not advance forward though they seemed to be trying.
Hazel was the first to notice the collars around each dog’s neck, and a taut leather strap leading out behind them, ending somewhere engulfed in the shadow.
“Halt. Don’t move.”
“See! I told you!” Jeff exclaimed, pointing as a figure stepped from the darkness, holding the leash of each snarling dog. “Aliens!”
The man-sized figure wore a military-issue MOPP suit: goggled fully-enclosed head gear with breathing apparatus, nylon over-garment, gloves and rubber overboots. No futuristic laser pistol pointed at Jeff, Hazel and Matt, just a M4 Carbine assault rifle. On the figures right upper arm: an American flag patch. On the right vest pocket: a name tape. Middleton.
“It’s another soldier, you dimwit,” Matt said stepping forward, raising his hands, eyes on the dogs then the soldier. “We’re not zombies. Don’t shoot.”
The assault rifle didn’t lower. The soldier, Middleton, gave the leashes a little slack, and Matt jumped back as the German Shepherds snapped at him but only advanced the few inches their leash had been let out.
“If you’re not now. You will be,” Middleton said, his voice muffled and hollow coming from the mask. “This entire town has been infected by a deadly mutagen.”
“What? From where? There’re no chemical labs or secret scientific facilities in this town,” Hazel said, not giving a damn, stepping forward, her right fist balled. Knitting needles jut from between her fingers like long, shiny claws. Her other hand detached something she’d recently fastened to her belt loop. “How’d this all start?”
“White Palace,” Middleton started.
“I knew that hamburger joint was toxic,” Matt said, looking at Jeff. “I heard that Rosamilia fellow who writes Dying Days liked to eat there.”
“No, the meth lab in the neighborhood behind White Palace,” Middleton finished. “They cooked up a combo of something they shouldn’t have.”
“Don’t matter. We’re not infected. We’re fine. You need to get us out of here,” Hazel demanded.
Everyone cocked a head as the strong, steady Whooosh of the flamethrowers could be heard out on the street. Agonized wailing of both the living and unliving filled the air.
“Orders are to, er, euthanize anyone we come in contact with,” the soldier said, a hint of regret in his mask-muffled voice. One-handed, he leveled his M4 at his side, index finger starting to curl around the gun’s trigger.
Matt suddenly dug a hand into his pants pocket and came up with the crumpled lottery ticket. “Hey, hey. I got a winning lottery ticket worth several million.”
“What the hey, dude?” Jeff yelled.
Middleton hesitated, goggled eyes on the waving lottery ticket.
Hazel leapt forward, her left hand from her belt loop revealing a can of pepper spray. She dowsed the dogs in the face. They yelped and recoiled. The slack on the leashes caught the soldier off balance. The M4 harmlessly fired into the air before Hazel slapped it aside with the back of her knitting-needle ensconced hand. She punched upward. The three long, aluminum needles pierced the soldier’s mask just under his chin, glancing off bone, finding the soft matter, until her knuckles butt against his lower jaw, and the inside top of his skull let the barbs travel no further.
Pulling her hand back, one of the needles stayed wedged in the soldier’s skull as he collapsed. She cursed as the sharp-edged, button-like needle head ripped from between her fingers. She dropped the other knitting utensils and the pepper spray as she curled, pulling her hand to her midsection.
Matt stood, mouth agape, at Hazel’s carnage. The soldier’s body shook in its death throes, then went still. The sprayed dogs ran yelping and bawling into the night.
“Give me my lottery ticket, dude!” Jeff pushed Matt, trying to snatch the ticket from his friend’s hand. He seemed indifferent to what had just happened.
With slack fingers, Matt let Jeff have the ticket.
Still holding her wounded hand to her belly, Hazel picked up the dropped M4 assault rifle. “This may come in handy.”
“You were trying to steal my ticket for yourself,” Jeff said.
“This…. This is too crazy,” Matt stammered, starting to back up, hands cupping his face. “This shit is too crazy. If this is contained here from an outbreak at some meth lab, we can still cash in the ticket, if we can just get out of town alive. Can you believe it? You’re lucky I picked it back up.”
Jeff shook his head. “My ticket, jerk. You wouldn’t have told me you had it, if that soldier hadn’t shown up.”
Matt stepped out into the opening between the two buildings.
“Wait!” Hazel cried as a red glow grew from the street-end of the buildings.
Matt turned on his heels, hands still to his face. His eyes reflected the increasing bright red glow for a heartbeat instant.
Hazel and Jeff screamed as Matt was enveloped in a gout of liquid flame.
Hazel and Jeff stood mouths agape for a second watching Matt go up in flames. Then, their senses kicked in and they turned to take off running through the gap between buildings. Hazel, being the sharpest of the two, bent and picked up the soldier’s M4 and was just steps behind Jeff. They felt the fiery heat searing behind them as the soldiers fired their flame throwers up the alley at whatever might be lurking.
Hazel put her hand out and pushed Jeff, trying to get him to run faster. But Jeff being a klutz, fell flat on his face. He barely had time to put his hands out in front of himself to break his fall before his forehead banged off the concrete. Hazel stopped, turned, and raised the M4 she carried. She looked down at Jeff and thought she could easily run and leave him there. But she knew her conscience wouldn’t let her do that.
“Get up you, idiot!” She yelled at him.
He stammered something and tried to get up, but the hit he took to his head had blurred his vision and made it hard to think. Hazel took a quick look down the street and saw the men with flame throwers were now being backed up by more men – these new ones had rifles. She raised the M4 she had in her hand and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. She thought back to the zombie books she had read and remembered something about a safety and the need to charge the weapon.
She tilted the gun sideways and flipped the switch on the side to single shot; she then pulled back on a small handle on the side. She hoped to God that was all she needed to do and raised the rifle to pull the trigger again. One round left the muzzle and traveled across the parking lot. A set of sparks let her know she had hit a car. She took a second to check on Jeff and saw that he was almost on his feet.
“Hurry up, moron, or I am leaving you here!” She yelled at him.
She pulled the trigger again and this time was rewarded with one of the men with the flame thrower falling to the ground. She felt her throat tighten. She tried to tell herself she was shooting at the people that just killed Matt, but it was still the first person she had ever killed. This was not what she expected to do when she left work and invited the guys over. They should have been drunk and surfing Netflix at this point. They should have been millionaires. The first person she had ever killed? Did that mean there would be a second, a third, or more before the night was over?
One bullet at time was frustrating. She looked at the switch she had flicked earlier and pushed it forward again. This time she looked down the barrel and used the sights to aim at the guys with guns who were now firing back at her. She pulled the trigger and three rounds flew from the barrel this time. The men firing at her stopped and took cover behind whatever they could. She looked back and grabbed Jeff by his arm. They took off running with the M4 bumping into her with every step.
Jeff held his head as they ran. If she hadn’t been holding his arm, he would have run into the wall. He sounded sleepy when he spoke. “I don’t think knitting needles are going win this fight for us.”
“I really wish I had BT or Mike Talbot with me instead of this sniveling idiot,” she muttered to herself.
Feet, covered in cheap sneakers and combat knock-offs, pounded the pavement as the angry tattoo of gunfire rattled the darkening sky. The memory of his best friend roasting alive sent a wave of bile crash-landing into Matt’s soft palate.
There was no time to stop and hurl. He opened his mouth and let the sour soup slop from his mouth to splash down onto his neck and chest. The smell of vomit was immediately exacerbated by the panoramic stench of death.
Hazel shouted something that wound up lost in the beating rush of helicopters overhead. The second she realized her cohort in crime was lost in some fear-induced reverie, she grabbed him by the shirt and shouted, “Snap out of it, dip shit!”
Matt screamed until his voice cracked and sputtered. His life had gone to hell long ago…but this was special, this was a shit storm reserved for all the books he’d read and those he’d wished he’d written. In that moment, he felt himself a coward from the tips of his toes to the top of his head.
Hazel pulled Matt to a stop and slapped him hard. “Get the fuck ahold of yourself, Matt. We have to find the truck and get the…”
The street surrounding them erupted. Heavy caliber gunfire ripped the pavement to shreds.
Hazel turned in three hundred and sixty degrees, her eyes doing their best to cut through the fog of war. “Where’s the goddamn truck?” She covered her head with her arms and did another turn. “I can’t find the truck!”
Matt turned to Hazel, his eyes bugging and his jaw working up and down like the ventriloquist controlling his mouth was in the middle of a grand mal seizure.
Another slap to the face from Hazel’s leathered palm.
“The truck is parked in front of Lipp’s,” Matt finally managed to speak.
The redneck duo turned to face the direction of the sporting goods store. Between them and their destination was a full-on militarized zone. Soldiers, helicopters, flame throwers…zombies.
Hazel glanced downward to see Matt’s hands in front of his belly, working at some invisible puzzle. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Resident Evil,” Matt murmured.
“Jesus God-forsaken Christ,” Hazel growled. “It’s the som’ bitchin’ apocalypse and I get stuck with Rain Man. Maybe you could join me in the here and fucking now so we can survive this nightmare.”
“It’s just like the game,” Matt said, confidence growing. “Patterns evolving. Predictable behavior from predictable creatures. Watch.” Matt pointed to a trio of soldiers fighting back a small horde of zombies. “The men attack for four counts and retreat for six. Attack for four, retreat for six. The zombies don’t relent, but are taken down systematically. One. Two. Three. It’s like clockwork.”
Matt continued watching what, to the naked eye, looked like chaos. To a seasoned video gamer—thanks to too many long stints of unemployment—what he saw before him was little more than a game. “I can get us there.”
“How?” Hazel asked without taking her eyes off the carnage.
“I know the pattern. I’ve solved the puzzle.”
Hazel turned Matt to face her. “Look here, fuckwit, this isn’t a videogame…it’s reality. We go anywhere near that bullshit, we’re dead. I realize all of this looks like a paradise for preppers and doom and gloomers…but that’s not me. I wanna live. My life may be a pile of fly-infested dog turds, but it’s my life and I want to see it through to the end. I especially don’t want some government-issued crone snuffing me out before I get to see the fucking Game of Thrones finale.”
The shift in Matt’s voice was subtle—a certain confidence weaved its way between the words and syllables. This was altogether foreign to Hazel. She was used to calling the shots, being the one in charge. “All you have to do is follow me. I promise you I can lead us to the truck.”
While Matt timed the various hurdles between them and the truck, the school girl zombie returned. The Peter Pan collar on her blouse had torn and was hanging by a veritable thread.
As was her right eye. The jelly-filled orb dangled at her cheek by a rubber cord of optic nerves. As she shambled toward them, her pigtails waved to and fro. One mary jane shoe was missing and the white sock covering her shoeless foot was soaked in blood. Without thinking, Hazel raised the rifle in her hand and pulled off a single shot. The bullet covered the space between shooter and target in a blink, and winked a third eye into the forehead of the cosplay zombie. The undead woman dropped into a dirty sexy heap.
“Ready?” Matt asked.
“For what?” Hazel questioned nervously.
“Matt, what in the hell are you doing?” Hazel demanded.
“I don’t like this one fucking bit.”
“One. Run!” Matt shouted and took off. His furious pace caught Hazle by surprise. With little hesitation, she sprinted off, following Matt’s path as closely as she could. Somehow Matt managed to duck and dodge them in and out of every possible disaster imaginable. Bullets, soldiers, blazing fires, toppling buildings, and zombies…always zombies.
When they finally managed to reach the truck, they hopped in, slammed the doors, and locked themselves inside.
Matt glanced out through the soiled window and titled his head. “Shit,” he whispered.
“What now?” Hazel sighed in desperation.
When Matt answered, his voice was distant. “I swear I’d read that very scene in a book. I just can’t remember which one.” He looked around the entire block and realized everything—down to the look of the zombies—was far too familiar. “I know this.”
Matt placed the palm of his hands to the window and closed his eyes, willing his memory to fold in upon itself to solve the apocalyptic riddle at hand.
“Middletown?” Jeff asked.
Gunshots rang off of cinderblock. The whoosh of flame and bursts of light not too far away from the truck turned Jeff’s inside’s to water. He could smell the sick on his shirt and he couldn’t get the smell of cooked flesh out of his nostrils – the stench of cooked Matt! He held the side of the truck to brace himself through the waves of nausea fueled by the violence of the night, the odor of death, and what might be a concussion. The zombies were close enough that he could hear the clicks and growls from their abused throats.
“What?” Hazel asked between popping off rounds. She was back to single shots judging from the reports that attacked Jeff’s ears over and over.
“This run to the truck.” Jeff looked down at his shoes and gave slow blinks. Something that looked like jelly was stuck to the side of one sneaker. He didn’t want to know what it was. “It reminds me of the stories in that anthology you let me borrow. The same town overrun again and again. Each author told it a different way. Most didn’t end well.”
“Can you, please, get your shit together, Jeff, and start the truck?” Hazel said between gritted teeth.
Would he ever stop smelling the burned flesh?
Jeff opened the driver’s door and felt around the steering column. He raked out burger wrappers from the floor into the parking lot. Sticky, black sand caked painfully under his fingernails. He clawed out an ice scrapper onto the asphalt with a clatter. He scattered some leaking double AA batteries. But he did not find the keys.
He turned around as Hazel’s weapon locked up. She pulled at the works and turned it sideways. “I think that means empty.”
Jeff swallowed on the taste of acid. “I think Matt still has the keys.”
“Damn it. I’m out,” Hazel said. She pitched the weapon into the bed of the truck and pulled out what she had left of the knitting needles. “We need to open a hole and get as far from here as possible.”
Jeff felt his pockets for his needles and found himself looking for people he recognized. A number of people were in pajamas or various states of undress. There were more than a couple soldiers joining the horde closing in on Matt’s truck and the parking lot across from Lipp’s. None of them still carried weapons unless you counted teeth and nails. Jeff saw a cop that looked familiar. The half of his face that remained looked familiar anyway. He had let Jeff off with a warning once. It was a shame to lose one of the good ones especially with all this going on.
Jeff’s breath caught as he saw one crisp zombie staggering along with the rest of the crowd. The blackened flesh peeled away to bone with each step. It was the eyes. Jeff recognized Matt’s eyes. Matt reached with his left arm as his right arm dangled at his side with several bites out of it. They hadn’t cooked him long enough to get to his brain. He apparently hadn’t died before he was bitten either.
Hazel pointed with one of the needles. “Okay, through here. Just keep moving. We need to get away from the soldiers too. After this, I don’t know.”
“Hold on. I think I can get the keys. Just keep them off of me.”
“What are you talking about?”
Jeff charged at Matt. He stabbed one through the temple on his left and it went down. A one-armed man in heart boxers on Jeff’s right clawed at him. He jammed a needle through the dead man’s cheek and the zombie staggered. It did not fall though.
Jeff centered on Matt. As his friend opened his mouth, charred chunks of flesh fell away from the skull. The tendons snapped and the jaw unhinged, showing endless teeth and throat.
Jeff heaved, but managed to keep down whatever was left in his stomach. “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better friend. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to save us all from this dead end town and life.”
He jammed the needle through Matt’s forehead. The bone plates of the skull came apart and his fist drove through the spongy remains of his friend’s brain. The grey matter was crisp and browned around the outside, but then crumbled apart with the rest of the head. Matt folded to his back in the parking lot and flesh separated from bone and burnt clothing.
Jeff threw-up again in the midst of the mess, but started digging through the folds of what he thought were Matt’s jeans. He pulled out more of the knitting needles that Matt had been carrying.
Hazel stabbed a needle into the ear of a woman opening her mouth at Jeff’s back and then shoved her off of him. The zombie cop bared his teeth to give Jeff another warning. Hazel took him down too. “Hurry up, dude.”
“I’m doing the best I can here.” Jeff pulled apart two nasty flaps of denim and found Matt’s jangling keys.
As he came up and turned around, Hazel yanked the needle out of the cheek of the zombie in boxers. She then buried it into the skull, dropping the creature for good. “We need to go. I’m out of needles now.”
Jeff handed her the ones he had taken off of Matt and they ran for the truck. They both crawled through the open driver’s side and slammed the door. Dead hands already beat against the metal and glass.
Jeff turned the key and the engine whined, making him think he had flooded it. It rolled over and he closed his eyes over tears of joy. There was another whoosh of flame and light behind the truck. As his eyes opened, he couldn’t tell how close, but he saw the shadows of the dead cast across the dash. He shifted and roared out of the parking lot without looking back.
“They probably have Main blocked,” Hazel said.
“The zombies or the soldiers?”
“Does it matter?”
He swerved around a fiery wreck with bodies still moving and fighting to wrestle free of the metal. “Which way then?”
“We can try the service road behind the trucking company or the logging road near the trailer park past that,” Hazel said. “They can’t have everything blocked yet.”
Jeff turned at the next intersection and drove toward work.
“This is the turn up here,” Hazel said.
“Yeah, I know where we work.”
“Not the parking lot. Take the access road before the fence.” Hazel waved one hand frantically. “See if we can get out of town before the military locks down this road too.”
Jeff made the turn. Tires squealed until they hit a sandy patch of washout on the curve and the backend of the truck slid almost hitting the chain link. Jeff gained traction and raced through the darkness past the loading docks of the distribution center he hoped to never see again.
“That was pretty bad ass, no?” Jeff glanced at Hazel.
She rolled her eyes. “No.”
Lights burst of blurring out the dark trunks of the pine trees along the access road. There was a click and hum as a PA system engaged. Jeff slowed and prepared to make a tight turn to escape as he waited for a voice to tell him to stop or pull over.
Instead, gunfire sparked off the road and peppered the grill of the truck. The front glass cracked around several holes and then exploded in around them.
Jeff turned hard and crashed through a section of fence. The truck bounded down the slope and then across the parking lot. As gunfire continued, he made a squealing turn to put the building between him and the shooters. They raced past several of the rigs backed up to the docks without the trailers attached.
“Not much of a warning,” Jeff said.
When Hazel didn’t answer, Jeff looked over and saw her tear open the sleeve of her shirt. She was bleeding.
“Oh, God, Hazel, how bad is it?”
“It’s not great. It hurts to move my arm. Hurts like hell.”
Steam blew out from under the hood of Matt’s truck and something in the engine started to sledge hammer. It shook the vehicle with each impact.
“This truck isn’t going to make it.”
Hazel said, “Go inside and grabbed the keys to one of the rigs.”
Jeff shook his head. “Which one?”
“All of them. Just get the keys and get back. You’ll have to drive. It hurts to move. The keys are on the board in my office, Jeff. You know where.”
Jeff laid down on the brakes and opened the door. He left the truck hammering as he ran up the ramp to one of the doors. He thumbed in the code and the lock turned green. After about seven steps through the darkened storage area, the alarm started blared. Jeff gritted his teeth and kept running. He pulled at the door to Hazel’s office to find it locked.
After looking around, he saw shapes coming at him in the darkness. One wore a Red Sox hat. The other had coke bottle glasses. Jeff shouted over the alarm. “Hey, Sam … Fred? Are you guys just getting here? How’d you not set off the alarm?”
He saw teeth, blood, and scars. The alarm drowned out their growls.
Jeff took up a stool and smashed it through the window of Hazel’s office. He reached through and opened the door. The board over her desk had about twenty sets of keys and several empty hooks. Some of the guys were out on long distance runs – the lucky stiffs. The keys were numbered to the trucks, but he just grabbed up a handful of sets, letting others drop to the floor.
He rushed for the door. Zombie Sam made a grab for Jeff. Jeff dropped more keys, but kept running. Sam never lost his cap off his bloody head.
Through the alarm, Jeff heard the horn to Matt’s truck honking. If zombie Sam and Fred were here, there might be others outside after her and she was already hurt. He tried to run faster.
He slid to a halt out on the concrete of the dock. Flame throwers enveloped the truck. Other soldiers turned and fired out into the parking lot at more zombies lumbering down the hill through the break in the fence.
Sam and Fred stumbled out after Jeff. Jeff ran to the left past some of the parked rigs. Flame blasted out behind him, engulfing Sam and Fred.
Someone grabbed Jeff and he dropped the rest of the keys as he reached for one of the needles. Hazel stepped out of the shadow of a doorway and dropped to her knees. She shuffled through the keys on the concrete. Her sleeve was torn away completely and tied off around the wound on her arm.
“How’d you get away from the truck?”
She held up a set of keys. “That one. You need to drive. I can’t shift with one hand.”
As they ran for the large, yellow rig, Jeff said, “I’m over on hours. We’re going to get fined once the logbook is checked.”
The truck roared to life and Jeff steered them away from the action with the soldiers and the zombies. He circled behind the building and drove toward one of the gates.
Hazel said, “The logging road may be our only chance.”
“I don’t think so. We’ll bottom out in the ruts and get stuck. This thing isn’t designed for off road, you know.”
“The military has the other road blocked.”
Jeff crashed through the gate and drove up onto the service road. He shifted and built up speed as he drove into the light.
“What are you doing, Jeff?”
Bullets rang off the metal and punched holes high on the windshield. The truck jarred as he smashed cars out of his path in the road. He hit the stands for the floodlights and they went dark. The gunfire continued, but he kept driving.
“Are you okay?” Jeff asked.
“Just the one bullet hole so far. Where are we going?”
“Away. Just away.”
“How much fuel do we have?”
Hazel sighed and closed her eyes. “Just keep driving until we can’t and then we’ll figure out something else. More trees and less people is the best plan for now, I think.”
As she slept, the sun began to rise. The buildings started to thin out, but then grew thick again. He left the highway and drove through the downtown area. Jeff spotted the building that looked like a big cube of glass. He saw the lottery symbol on the sign and pulled into the nearly empty parking lot.
As the truck rumbled on fumes, Hazel still slept. Jeff took the ticket out of his pocket and walked up to the front doors. They were locked. He checked his watch and then banged on the glass.
Hazel called from the open door of the truck. “What are you doing? Get back in here.”
He saw movement inside.
“Jeff, they’re coming.”
“I know. I can see.” He banged on the glass some more. “Come on. Open up. I’m a winner.”
“No, the dead. They’re here in the city – in the parking lot.”
Jeff turned to see a spread of battered and bloody bodies crossing the parking lot slowly. They surrounded the rig. Hazel stabbed one through the eye with a needle, using her good arm, and then slammed the door. The dead left the truck and honed in on Jeff. Hazel blasted the horn and he saw her waving at him.
He turned toward the door and pounded as the person inside approached. “Hurry up. I need to get in. I need to claim my ticket and keep from getting eaten.”
He could hear the growls behind him as the person inside slammed into the glass. The lottery employee smeared the glass with blood as she tried to bite through the door at Jeff. He kept pulling the handle. “Open the door. I’m a winner.”
The rig shifted and pulled away from the crowd of zombies leaving the parking lot. Jeff watched Hazel go. He continued to pull the handle. “I guess she could shift one-handed after all. I’m a millionaire. I won. I deserve this money. Just open the door.”
The dead closed off every avenue of escape and reached for Jeff. He faced the zombie inside the lottery office and slid down the glass to his knees. “This ticket tore my friends apart. I have to have the money. It’s mine. I need it.”
Cold fingers closed on his back and pulled at his shirt.
The horn blared again and the rig drove up onto the grass. The wheels crushed the zombies behind him and nearly pinned Jeff between the passenger’s side and the building. He fought the door to the truck open and climbed back in. Hazel groaned as she shifted and they pulled away from the building before Jeff closed his door.
“That was stupid,” she whispered. “Drive until you see trees – not into the damn city. How hard is that?”
Jeff stuffed the ticket back in his pocket. “It’s still good for a year. Maybe this will all blow over.”
“I’m not sure I see you making it a year. Make yourself useful and shift for me.”
Jeff reached over and shifted gears as Hazel drove.
“Do you want me to drive again?”
“I made that mistake once. Now we’re back in a zombie infested city and almost out of gas. I need to try to get us out of here while I still can. Shift!”
Jeff obeyed. “Maybe our luck will hold out.”
Hazel cut her eyes at him. “Don’t talk to me for a while. Shift!”
He did. They crossed an overpass and saw smoke rising in the distance over the traffic jam that had formed across every lane. Hazel turned her eyes forward as they raced along the surface street. “Shift!”
Trees … They needed to get away from buildings and population. She watched the cinderblock buildings roll by as the dead grabbed the living and ate them on the sidewalks on both sides. If she could see the green of leaves and pine needles before they ran out of gas, they might have a chance. Green would mean freedom. With any luck, they could still make it to green and leave death behind them … with any luck.