Venison Episode 12: Through Fire

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Caramel irises caught the late morning sun. Flecks of honey danced against the golden rays in the big, pretty brown eyes just inches away from my own. The pupils remained static, no dilation or contraction. Unseeing. In the distance, I heard a scream. As Callum pulled me up off the ground, I realized it was my own voice, echoing somewhere beyond me. Brianna’s ruined body remained on the ground, jaw and neck chewed to the bone, blood pooling around her. Life draining as though a plug had been pulled, emptying the person from the frail body.

I had seen grisly sights, even my own family die before I fled, but never had I been so close. So unable to retreat. I had always imagined that I could be brave. In this moment, I wanted nothing more than to find somewhere to hide. I wasn’t made for fighting. I could be no one’s defender. I still wore a band-aid from the fight I lost with my own iPod. I could never—

“Gray!”

I felt light-headed. The world spun over my head, and gravity tugged at my ear. Through blurry vision, I could see my friends trying to hold me upright, mouths moving soundlessly. Sweat poured from my hair, drenching my face in salt. I pushed my friends away and reached for the side of the building—the only thing that wasn’t spinning. I leaned my shoulder against the cool brick wall and was sick.

“Gray! Are you alright?” Callum gripped my shoulder as the raging sea of the world around me settled.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. The sick warmed my wrist. I grimaced at the feeling, threatening to lose it again. “Yeah, just give me a second.”

“I don’t think we have a second,” Mallory said from somewhere behind Callum. As if to punctuate her claim, gunshots rang out nearby.

“Wh—What’s going on?” I managed, straightening myself slowly.

“I don’t know man, sounds like it’s hitting the fan.” Callum squared my shoulders. “You good? Can you run? Wait, you weren’t bit were you?”

I patted my chest and torso down, taking stock of myself. “No. No, I’m good. But… Brianna…”

“She’s gone, I know.” Callum’s face was grim. Determined. Far more than I felt.

“But…” I trailed off, watching as Mallory knelt down in front of Brianna.

“It shouldn’t have ended like this,” she said, reaching a hand out over the girl’s body. “I’m sorry. For everything. I shouldn’t have…” Her voice faltered. It’s amazing how petty some things seem in the face of tragedy. Matt placed a hand on Mallory’s shoulder, his own brow furrowed tightly.

Two more shots fired from the south. Screams followed. To our left, to the east, more shots. More screams. What in the world was going on?

“Em, we gotta go,” Matt said, lifting the girl up. “I know she didn’t deserve this, but there’s nothing we can do about that now. We gotta go.”

We ran around the corner of the restaurant and straight into the brick wall named Michael.

“Daryl said we’re holing up in The Rock. He wants you to send as many people here as you can.”

“Oh, great idea, next we’ll ring the bell and tell the quids that dinner’s served,” Mallory shot back. Adrenaline had a way of forcing grief to the back of the mind. “We need to see what’s going on.”

“Mike has a point,” Matt said. “We can get people here and figure out what’s happening. People need somewhere they know they can rally.”

More gunfire. A scream tore through the air that came from no human.

“What was that?” Cal asked with a shaky voice. The roar split the air again in response.

“Oh no.” Matt held his shotgun up, eyes darting left and right. “No, no, no.”

I’d never had a strong personality, but I knew how to fill in for a gap in leadership. I pulled everyone into a circle. We needed focus. “We’re going to need some firepower. You know where we need to go first: Mason’s. We’ll get as many people here as we can, but I don’t plan on dying a hero today. The Rock is, well, pretty much solid rock. Except for the doors, we can hold that thing as long as we want. I want to get back here and see if we can’t wait this thing out.”

I knew that somewhere out there was a chomp with vengeance on the mind, as crazy as that sounded. I didn’t want to be out in the open with him looking for us. And with those ungodly roars coming from a nearby neighborhood, I wanted to be inside somewhere. Safe. That didn’t make me a coward, it made me smart.

“I should probably stay with Daryl.” Michael took a step backward toward the restaurant.

I turned on him and summoned a sternness that surprised even myself. “You should probably help us. We need the firepower and we could use an extra set of hands. We’re going to arm that place to the teeth. So in essence, this is how you’re going to help Daryl.”

Michael looked around as if checking to see if Daryl was listening. “Fine. But only because I think you kids haven’t gotten the respect you deserve. But you didn’t hear it from me.”

We set off, the four of us plus Michael, toward the south. It felt wrong to leave Brianna’s lifeless body in the grass, waiting for something to take her to the bones, but it couldn’t be helped. Gunshots and cries of terror wafted through the morning air and helped to set our pace.

Callum sidled up to me with a sheepish grin. “Dude, that was awesome.” His grin exploded into a toothy smile. “When did you become a commando?”

“Somebody had to step up,” I said, not giving him the satisfaction of looking at him. I felt his face drop slightly at my tone, so I allowed a smile to creep into my face. A snicker from beside me confirmed Cal got the message. “Look, man, just be careful out there today, alright?”

“You kidding me? I’m hiding under a table furthest from the door as soon as we get back.”

I smiled at his plan. He wasn’t joking. “Good answer.”

Mason’s house was just a couple blocks from The Rock, but we scanned the houses and yards thoroughly as we crept by, leaving nothing to chance. The only weapons we had were Matt’s shotgun and a revolver Michael had pulled from his belt. They stood on the ends of our line as we fanned out across the street.

We passed the second row of houses and heard a sound to our right, a few feet from Matt. We all froze. He racked the slide and brought his shotgun up to bear. We peered into the yard and house looking for movement. Another shuffling sound.

A screech and an explosion.

A gray cat darted out from behind a trash can and around the house. Matt fired his shotgun and the trash can exploded into a confetti of thick, black plastic. Callum chuckled but a scream cut him short. Another gunshot and Matt dropped to the ground.

I wheeled around to find a chomp on Michael’s back. Somehow, the thing was almost the same size as the large man. Michael waved his arms frantically trying to throw the chomp off, but the thing stayed tight. I couldn’t help but wince as blood started to ooze from Michael’s shoulders where the chomp dug his fingers in, holding on with everything it had.

Callum and Mallory backed away from Michael and stood behind me. As if there was something I could do. Michael lowered his arms for a split second, and the chomp bared yellow teeth and bit into the back of Michael’s neck.

“Michael!” I screamed. The zombie’s head snapped up to me. Michael dropped to his knees but the chomp held tight, staring at me with locked eyes as if it had just noticed a new treat. Its teeth chattered and bloody drool poured out of its mouth.

The chomp jumped off Michael’s back and bolted toward me. I jumped backward, ready to sprint when the chomp disappeared from the waist up. A cloud of red mist replaced it, with chunks of meat and bone falling to the ground around us.

“Michael freakin’ shot me,” Matt said from the ground. He dabbed his arm where a small amount of blood trickled from a scrape.

“I’m sorry.” Michael’s faltering voice came from behind me. “To you, Matt. To the rest of you. I’m…” He didn’t finish the sentence. He shook his head, tears rolling down his face and lifted his revolver to his temple and pulled the trigger.

“No!” Mallory screamed far too late. His heavy body slumped to the warm asphalt, eyes frozen open wide with terror. From somewhere behind me, I heard Callum retch.

“Matt, are you okay, man?” I proffered a hand to help him up.

“Yeah, he just grazed me. You should take that.” He nodded toward Michael’s magnum still clutched in the large man’s hands.

“Uh… yeah. You’re right.” I didn’t move. I couldn’t make my feet do much of anything.

“Here you go,” Matt stepped forward and pried the gun out of the hand of the dead man and thrust it toward me, handle first.

“Thanks.” I took it. It weighed more than I’d expected. In more ways than I’d expected. “Cal, are you—”

“Let’s just go.” With eyes forward, he walked past me. His resolve would fade if he faced it. I knew him well enough to know that. I could see it in his trembling hands and sweaty hair. He wasn’t made for this. Neither was I.

“Em, we gotta go.” Matt grabbed the back of her arm as more screams and gunfire erupted from the east. Closer than before. Too close.

We stopped at Mason’s driveway. He probably had booby traps and other terrors waiting. He lived for moments like this.

“Mason!” I called. “Hey man, it’s us. Are we clear?”

Silence.

“Hey, we just—”

“Follow the chalk,” Mason replied, his voice muffled.

I looked down and sure enough, there were lines drawn on the driveway in chalk. We walked single file, making sure to step only on the chalk lines, where possible. Mason was crazy. We didn’t want to take any chances.

We reached the garage without managing to kill ourselves, which I considered an accomplishment. Everyone else looked to me as if I was the only one who could talk to Mason.

“Hey Mason, we’re trying to get everyone to The Rock—”

“Terrible idea.” I couldn’t tell where his voice came from.

“Well, we were thinking we could hold it if we just had some—”

“I know what you’re here for. Take what you need, kid.”

“Uh… Okay.” The group fanned out in the garage, looking for anything useful. Callum grabbed a shovel because he’s played too many video games. I decided I’d look around for some extra ammo for Michael’s revolver. I looked the gun over for an indication of what it’d take—

“It’s a forty-four magnum.” Mason’s voice came out of nowhere. Where was he? “I don’t have any of that. That’s Mike’s, right? They get ‘im?”

I looked around but still had no idea where to talk. “Yeah. Just a couple blocks from here. Man, if you could help us, that would be awesome.”

Silence.

Finally, the sound of metal on concrete pierced the air. Cal jumped to the side as the floor underneath him rolled away.

A storm shelter. Of course. Mason’s head popped out of the hole in the ground, hair unkempt, beard scraggly.

“Someone’ll have to help me get Dillon,” he declared and disappeared again. Matt jumped down after him without hesitation. A few moments later, the three of them emerged, Dillon suspended between the shoulders of the other two. Even I had to admit, it was good to see him awake and upright.

Mason met my eyes. “Gray, there’s a couple shotties in the back. And some shells. Grab those.  Everyone else, in the truck. Matt, we’ll lay Dillon down in the bed.”

I crammed the revolver into my pocket, though I felt pretty sure the weight of the thing would pull my pants down, and opened the door into the backyard. I tripped over the threshold on my way through and stumbled face first into the wall like an idiot. Only something felt off about the wall. In fact, the wall pushed back. I leaped back and looked into the jaundice face of a chomp, mouth frothy and teeth grinding.

The wiry creature sprang toward me as I stepped back into the garage. Behind the grasping arms, I noticed two more chomps running toward me from behind the firing wall.

“Guys, we have a problem here,” I said over my shoulder, unwilling to take my eyes off the chompers closing in on me. I backed away, deeper into the garage, toward Cal’s voice.

“Yeah, I’d say,” Callum echoed. Helpful.

“Don’t just talk about it, do something!”

“Well, what did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know, maybe—oof—” I bumped into something softer. I wheeled around to find Callum’s back. What on earth was he looking at, there were three chomps right…

He was looking at another half dozen. Between him and Mason’s truck. In fact, half the chomps were growling and beating at the truck in a rage. Mallory sat inside as far from any windows as she could, screaming her lungs out. She didn’t have a gun.

The guns. I was supposed to get the shotguns from the backyard. I looked back to the chomps in front me. They stood with heads cocked at the new people in the garage, and their fellow nightmares in the driveway.

“Mason, any ideas?” I spared a glance behind me. Mason and Matt stood between the chomps and Dillon, whom they had just laid on the ground.

“Yeah, Matt and I blow these things to pieces while you and Cal get to the truck and get those quids away from Mallory.”

“About that… we have a problem over here too.”

He turned to survey the situation and cursed when he saw the other chomps.

Bang!

Everything happened so fast.

Matt fired again, the chomps darting toward him and Mason. The commotion spurred the chomps near me into action. Cal and I had only one option: run.

We dashed over to the rest of our friends, looking for anything to use. Matt and Mason fired round after round at the chomps, meat and blood bursting into the air like crimson fireworks.

“Cal, take this!” Mason tossed his own shotgun to Callum. He juggled the weapon but managed to secure it. “Cover me!”

I looked around for a weapon and remembered the gun weighing down my own pants. Of course. I pulled the heavy pistol out and tried to aim at the nearest chomp, but I couldn’t keep my hand still. No good.

Mason darted around the chomps and through the back door. Matt finished off the last chomp by the truck and went to help Mallory.

Three zombies remained. Two in front of me, one in front of Callum. I heard the click of Cal’s trigger, but no report. Empty. So three chomps for me.

I raised my pistol again, trying to steady it with my other hand. The chomps studied the two of us, eyes seeing more than I had ever given them credit for. A roar split the air. Close. Just a couple blocks away. Something big. The creature from the school? That would be my luck.

The first chomp dove.

I fired and her head sheared down the middle. Her momentum almost carried her into me. I stepped back and nearly tripped on Dillon, laying flat on the ground, pale as the concrete of the driveway.

Another chomp closed in, I fired again but missed over his shoulder. The wall behind him burst into splinters. He reached for me, cracked fingernails clawing at the air. I pulled the trigger once more and his hand disappeared in a geyser of crimson. I braved a kick to his chest to get some distance and as the zombie stumbled backward, I pulled the trigger, turning his chest into a cavern of rotten meat and bone.

The third chomp bared his yellow teeth at me. His torso disintegrated, replaced in my vision by Mason standing behind him with a SPAS aimed right where the zombie used to be.

“No!” Matt yelled and ran from the truck. I followed his gaze to the ground and found the chomp I had shot in the head gnawing on Dillon’s face. How had she survived?

Matt’s boot caved in the side of her head with a swift kick, knocking her to the side.

“No, c’mon man, no.” Dillon didn’t move. Eyes frozen open. Staring. Mason fired his shotgun and finished off the rest of the chomp’s head for good measure.

“Matt, come on, we gotta go,” Mallory said from the truck.

“I’m not leaving him.”

“You don’t have a choice, kid, come on.” Mason pulled on Matt’s shoulder and the younger man shirked his hand, giving all his attention to his best friend. A throaty roar sounded once more nearby by, followed by an eerie calm. “We gotta go, don’t think I won’t leave you.”

Mason turned back to the truck and Matt cried out, slamming his fist down on the pavement. I heard a bone crack. Wiry tendons threatened to chew their way out of Matt’s neck from his jaw clenched too tight. It was difficult for me to watch. I had never cared for Dillon, and only recently had considered Matt a friend. But to watch the anguish in Matt’s face as the bond between these best of friends was shattered by the disease that claimed this world, I found myself nearly broken.

“Matt, c’mon,” I said, my voice soft, as welcoming as I could make it.

He stood without a word or a glance and stalked toward the truck, jaw still set. He climbed into the front seat next to Mallory and ignored her attempts to console him. Callum already sat in the back, waving at me to join them.

Mason threw all the guns in the bed and turned to me. “I’ll drop you kids off at The Rock an’ then make a few rounds to see who I can pick up.” More distant screams and gunfire. “It sounds like a gee-dee war zone out there.” He was right. I didn’t know there were this many left in Stroud. And how many chomps must there be if they can terrorize a whole town? Where was their leader?

“Be careful, man,” I said as I reached for the door.

“That’s not exactly in my job description. You know—” a woman screamed a block to the south, cutting Mason off. Another deep roar ripped through the air from the same direction. The woman screamed again until her voice ended in a haunting gurgle.

The sound of large, heavy breaths penetrated the air, sending a chill down my spine. Mason cursed. He tossed the truck keys through the driver’s side window to Matt. “Take everyone back to The Rock. I’ll try an’ meet you there in a few.”

He reached into the bed of the truck and pulled out a propane tank he’d rigged up with straps. A hose led from the top back down into the bed of the truck. He threw the tank on his back and reached back into the bed.

With a grunt, he hefted the muffler and exhaust pipe he’d been banging on all week over the edge of the bed. The hose from the propane tank fed into the muffler. A valve had been recently welded between the muffler and the pipe, and nylon straps had been tied around the length of the tube.

“What the heck is that?” I asked.

“I dunno know what to call it,” he said with a grin, “but it’s going to be a lot of fun to shoot.” He reached over his shoulder and twisted the valve on the top of the tank. A small hiss pierced the air. “Go,” he said. “Now.”

I wasted no time jumping into the back next to Callum. Behind us, I heard Mason cursing up a storm as he walked across the street. I felt warmth on the side of my face through the open window as Mason fired whatever it was he had rigged up. Amber light bathed the street and a massive fireball tore into the nearest house.

Matt floored it, leaving a whooping Mason in the dust.

Less than a minute later we fishtailed into the gravel parking lot behind The Rock. I hopped out first and went to the bed of the truck to grab some of the guns. Mallory ran toward The Rock, eyes locked straight ahead. None of us wanted to look at Brianna’s body still lying in the dirt about ten yards away.

I tossed a shotgun to Callum and Matt slung a rifle over his shoulder. His jaw was set in steel, but his red eyes betrayed his inner anguish. I knew the feeling. I had almost lost Callum once already this week. I looked at his pudgy face as he scrutinized the gun. Video games were one thing, but this was real now. I made myself a promise to keep him alive if only to make sure and mend our relationship.

Mallory screamed from around the front of the restaurant. The three of us ran in unison toward the building, weapons ready to unleash fire. We pulled up short under the awning as Mallory helped Daryl through the glass doors, cane missing. Bodyguards nowhere to be found.

The glass window in front of us shattered and massive chomp jumped out teeth bared. He pulled up short and swiveled his head to the left and the right. To us and then to Mallory and Daryl. Back again. He growled and dove for Mallory, leaving us no shot. We’d be just as likely to kill one of them as the chomp. Clever beast.

Mallory reached into Daryl’s jacket and pulled a pistol on the chomp as he closed. The three of us jumped out of the way, getting out of the crossfire. Mallory squeezed the trigger three times point blank. Three shots found homes in the meat of the chomp. His momentum carried him forward and Mallory had to drag Daryl backward out of the way.

“How many more?” Matt yelled, trying to peer into the dark building through the shattered window.

Mallory hefted Daryl up, shoulder under his arm. “Too many. Go!”

Matt rushed forward to help cover for Mallory and Daryl while Callum and I turned to the truck. A shrill scream caught my ears—I turned to find more chomps crawling through the window, skin bleeding from the jagged edges of the broken glass. I ran into something firm, a pungent odor assaulting my nose. I reeled back and looked into the haggard face of the chomp I feared most. The apparent leader of the monsters.

His shoulder blossomed into a red mist from Matt’s gun. I scooted away as the chomp bellowed at Matt and another bullet zipped by his head, his long black hair billowing around his face the only indication of the errant shot. He stole one more zealous look at me before darting around the building away from Matt’s assault.

The five of us burst into the daylight and found our truck surrounded by chomps. The monsters kept pouring out of the building, the parking lot was filling up. The only place to go was across the street. So, we ran. Daryl groaned over the stress holding his bum leg with one hand, face stitched into a sour grimace, uncharacteristically speechless.

Mallory panted heavily, face red and hair drenched with sweat. I bit the inside of my cheek and cursed myself inwardly before swallowing my pride and offering to help Daryl for her. Daryl wore shame in his eyes, the rawness of needing to rely on someone so young. Someone he held so much power over. I decided to be the better man.

I hefted the frail old man—much frailer than I’d imagined—and trotted across the street. Matt and Callum already waited there, hands on their hips. Matt was telling Callum where we could run, what our options might be. The stress of it all filled my ears with static, the blood coursing through my body at the speed of light, filling my heart with adrenaline. I thought it might pop.

I eased Daryl onto Cal’s shoulder, despite my friend’s scowl, and turned to ask if Mallory was alright. She wasn’t there.

I looked back across the street to find her walking toward the chomps, gun raised, ready to shoot. The pack of chomps eyed her hungrily, up to at least a dozen. I couldn’t imagine what her stupid plan was, so I rushed across the street to stop her from doing something dumb. Then I saw it.

The gun wasn’t pointed toward the chomps. She aimed at two barrels resting next to the building—the last two barrels of gasoline in Stroud, probably. Right next to them stood the leader. The chomp that had made it his life—afterlife—goal to end me and my friends.

We were close. Twelve feet away. Maybe fifteen. Too close.

“Mallory no!” I shouted, but it was too late. My voice drowned in the gunshot. Brick splintered next to the chomp’s head, above the barrel. Too high. I reached for Mallory, but I was just out of arm’s reach.

The second shot rang true. The barrel blossomed into a fiery rose against the blue summer sky. My legs left the ground as the blistering heat wave smashed into me. My vision filled with hot orange and yellow and white as I flew through the air.

It was an oddly comforting feeling, knowing that this was how I would die.