Venison Episode 9: Strike

Strike.jpg

I stared into the shadow of the trees, trying to change what I saw. It just wasn’t possible. Out on the road, wan light penetrated the trees. The sky was cloudless and the air was still. Calm. A serenity that stood in sharp contrast to the anxious pounding of my heart. The four of us stood still, gaping at the scene unfolding around us. Dillon still lay on the ground, wheezing, but alive. We didn’t have the luxury of worrying about him, however, because in the gloom under the trees in front of us stood a chomp that couldn’t be real.

His black overcoat was weathered by months of living in the wild. His long dark hair hung in a greasy mess over his hunched shoulders. What kept me staring, however, was his eyes. Yellowed by disease and malnutrition, they stared right back at me. They held something that I couldn’t believe, something that simply could not be true. These eyes held rational thought. These were thinking eyes, betraying a thinking mind.

The thinking mind of what could only be described as a zombie.

We were still alive. The attack had yet to come. Either this was a game, or this chomp deserved more credit than even I had given him.

The light began to turn that cool shade of blue that only happened during sunset on a clear summer day before the world turned grey. It wasn’t dark yet, but it grew closer by the minute. We stood across the pavement patiently, unwilling to move lest we disturb the unspoken status quo.

It was the movement to either side of my peripheral vision that made me raise my gun. I could see that Mallory had raised hers at the same time, standing over Dillon protectively. Callum slowly backed away behind us for protection.

More chomps had joined the first, stepping out from behind the cover of the trees across the road. Many snarled loudly, others snapped their teeth and bobbed their heads like predators seeking a kill. All waited for something. A command from their leader was my guess. So, I turned my eyes back to his. Those hungry yellow eyes that hid so much.

Every part of me wanted to scream in terror and run away. I mustered the courage I didn’t feel and spoke in an even voice. “Go away.”

I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting, but I certainly wasn’t ready for the chomp’s response.

“No,” the chomp grunted with a raspy, guttural voice. So, they can talk now. I wasn’t sure how to follow that up. I really wasn’t expecting an answer, so I simply—

Boom.

I jumped a mile as the gunshot ripped through the quiet air just a few feet from me. I turned to see Mallory with her gun pointed into the air. She leveled it back at the chomp’s head as I watched.

“He said to leave,” she yelled to the chomp as his minions howled in some carnal mixture of anger, hunger, terror, and anticipation.

“No,” the chomp repeated with a calm demeanor the likes of which I had never seen in an infected. What happened to the violent, aggressive cannibals we had all experienced over the last few months?

Callum took few steps forward, peering at the creature. “Can’t you say anything else?”

“No,” the chomp said once more. Well, that was that, then.

I probably should’ve been more surprised to hear a zombie talk, but after what I’d been through in the last seventy-two hours, it would take a lot to truly stun me. We stood in silence once more, processing the scene. Maybe waiting to see if the chomp would speak any more, but he didn’t.

“Why are you following us?” I asked, unwilling to take the suspense anymore. The chomp simply looked at me and cocked his head. Somehow, the gesture felt incredibly sinister, and I found myself very much wishing to be in another place.

“What’s to stop me from shooting you right now?” Mallory said, jabbing her pistol toward the chomp. I wondered the same thing, why hadn’t she shot the dumb thing?

In response, the chomp raised his right hand slowly and the worst possible sound met my ears: snarls and tree limbs cracking behind us. This kind of behavior was unprecedented. How could these mindless creatures be this coordinated? The answer, of course, was simple. They weren’t nearly as mindless as we had all thought. But that didn’t line up with what I had seen and experienced. No, something was clearly different with this crop, and—

“Then what are you waiting for?” Callum said defiantly, breaking my train of thought. “What do you want? You’ve clearly beat us. What is the endgame here?”

I was a little surprised at my friend’s brash approach. He was asserting himself in a way I had never seen. I looked across the street at the lead zombie and watched as he seemed to internalize Callum’s questions.

By now it was getting noticeably darker. I had a tough time seeing the chomp’s face through the dimming light, but his eyes still shone with a wild hunger that chilled me despite the heat. I didn’t like the way the chomp scrutinized us. He studied us much the same way that a cat might study a mouse while planning the killing strike.

“No,” the chomp repeated again.

“Why does it keep saying that?” Callum turned toward me as if I had an answer.

“Maybe it’s just growling or something, but it sounds like no. Maybe it doesn’t know what it’s doing,” Mallory offered.

“I don’t know about that,” I said, looking around at the growing dusk around us. “This seems really organized for mindless chomp. I think there’s something more here.”

“I don’t, it’s just a quid. That’s what I’m going with, it’s just grunting but it sounds like words.”

“It was talking,” Callum said in a very matter-of-fact tone. “It knows we’re stuck. And it knows we can’t shoot it.”

“We can’t—why can’t we shoot it?” Mallory asked.

“Because that was our last shot.” Callum’s eyes dropped to the gun. Sure enough, the slide was locked back indicating there wasn’t a bullet in the chamber.

Mallory looked back and forth from the gun to me, her breath quickening in a panic. “Gray still has one.”

“He’s out, too. I counted.”

“Then why didn’t you say anything you little brat?” Mallory’s voice rose. We definitely didn’t need to start turning on each other.

“Hey, go easy on him Mallory, geez,” I said, stepping closer to her.

“Don’t defend him! He knew we didn’t have any bullets for the last few hours and he didn’t say anything! What’s wrong with your friend? It’s no wonder—”

“Stop right there before you say something you don’t mean,” I said, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Get off me, I don’t care what you think, we’re screwed.”

“She might have a point there.” Callum looked back toward the chomps across the road. I couldn’t see the ones in the trees behind us, but I could hear raspy breaths and movement among the leaves and branches.

“Okay, so what do we do?” I asked Callum. “This is the last level on hardcore mode. What do you do?”

“I don’t think this is the boss fight,” he said. “Not yet.”

“I was just—never mind. Any ideas?”

“Yeah, maybe we feed Callum to them and run,” Mallory chimed in, scowling at my friend.

“Easy, you.” I looked around at the descending darkness. Standing here arguing and pointing fingers certainly wasn’t going to get us anywhere. I racked my brain, but I couldn’t think of a way out. The sound of snarling and panting chomps began to intensify and I knew Mallory was right: we were screwed.

“What do you want?” I asked the lead chomp. Worth a shot, anyway. Could buy us some time. Time for what, I didn’t know. But it seemed right.

I watched the chomp carefully as he chewed on the question. After a moment, he raised a single hand and pointed with lazy fingers toward where Dillon was laying on the ground. So the zombies held grudges now. Dillon had shot more than a few of the things while we drove away.

“Him? You want Dillon?” I pointed down at where Dillon was gasping for air. The chomp’s head bobbed. A nod. I never really cared for Dillon, but I was ashamed to find myself actually considering giving him up. What was this world doing to me?

The chomp moved his hand a few degrees to the right. I followed the trembling finger and my eyes landed on Matt, who still seemed dazed but appeared to be shaking off the fog. Him too. He drove, killed a few of the chomps when he crashed the truck into him. Apparently this zombie just wanted revenge. That would mean—had he seen me take out a few of his buddies?

I met the chomp’s eyes as his hand drifted from Matt to point directly at me. My blood ran cold and my heart threatened to chew a hole in my chest. My legs turned to pudding as the reality set in: I had gotten on a zombie’s bad side, and now he wanted revenge. Not how I planned on spending my summer, that much was for sure.

There wasn’t time to think. At least, not about the past or what life could have been like if not for the stupid zombies. There had to be a way out of this. There was always a way out. A movement ahead caught my attention again—the chomp pointed up the road, his horrible eyes looking at Mallory now. So she and Cal were free to go. The rest of us were not. The message was clear enough. Clear and utterly terrifying.

I took a step back and realized I couldn’t feel my feet anymore. I barely caught myself before I fell. My head spun, the dim light around the edges of my vision grew ever dimmer and I found myself staring down an endless tunnel.

If had been more aware of myself, I might have noticed the churning of my stomach or the trembling of my hands, but my brain felt like it was in a blender. I guess it might as well have been.

A cracking behind me shook my consciousness back into my own faculty. A yell to my right.

Callum.

Panicked.

Dillon retched at my feet, curled in pain and holding hugging himself tightly.

Matt backing away from the tree line, hands raised, shaking his head as if he believed he would wake up from this nightmare at any moment.

Mallory pointing her gun from chomp to chomp, knowing she could do nothing. Praying for a bluff that might work.

My eyes darted from scene to scene as if viewing a series of vignettes in slow motion might make reality a lie. The snarling and growling and clattering of yellowed teeth was the coldest of truths. To my right, just a few feet away, I noticed something that gave me a glimmer of hope. A frail thread of a chance so fine I didn’t even want to think about it, lest the thread give way: Callum’s discarded walking stick.

It wasn’t much, but it was better than Mallory’s paperweight of a gun. With the sound of hungry chomps filling my ears, I dove for the stick on the ground. Two chomps followed me and I came up holding the stick with both hands by one end. The chomps stalked closer, hunger in their eyes. I swung the long staff at the chomp to my right with everything I had and struck her in the shoulder. This particular chomp was once a fairly petite young woman, and the impact toppled her easily, though it sent tremors through my arms to the shoulder. I shrieked and almost dropped the stick. As she crumpled to the ground, her arm fell back at an odd angle and an inhuman wail split the air.

The other chomp found a new boldness in his counterpart’s anguish, and doubled down on me, gnashing his rotting teeth. He was big, bigger than me by at least a few inches. Even in his emaciated state, he probably had forty pounds on me. Great.

I hefted the stick and swung at the approaching monster with a grunt, aiming for his head. He threw his left arm up to deflect the blow, and the hard cedar met his forearm with a sickening crack. His arm folded in an unnatural way as the wood shattered his malnourished bones. With a howl, he reached for me with his right hand, but I darted backwards in time to miss his grasp. With another swing, I caught the chomp in the knee with the branch, destroying the tendons and cartilage in the joint. His left leg bent sideways and momentum sent him sprawling toward me. In his tumble, he managed to grab one of my legs and trip me off balance.

A curse escaped my mouth as I hit the ground with a teeth rattling impact and the stick dropped from my hands. I kicked at the chomp and tried to scoot away backwards. Another growl met my ears—the female chomp stalked toward me, left arm dangling lifelessly by her side. I glanced down at my only weapon as she stepped over the long staff bearing down on me. She reached for me with her one good hand and I kicked at it vigorously. I felt the horrible feeling of fingers snapping under the sole of my boot as the hard rubber met brittle bone. She wailed and dove at me, mouth wide, hair covering her wild eyes.

I leveled another kick with my boot, this time to her face. My heel caught her in the jaw, violently snapping her mouth shut. Blood and shattered teeth splattered on my chest and neck from the force of the impact. Her head snapped back at a severe angle and she tumbled to the side, falling lifeless beside me.

I wiped the blood from my neck with my sleeve, anxious to have the gore removed. At my feet, the male chomp still tried to crawl toward me with his one good arm. I gave him two strong kicks to the side of the head and he went still—either dead or unconscious, I wasn’t sure which.

I grabbed my stick and turned toward the rest of my group, hoping to see them standing on a heap of dead zombies like some sort of cinematic poster. I was sorely disappointed.

Callum turned in circles trying to back away in all directions at once and failing entirely. Three chomps closed in on him, surrounding him. Mallory’s bluff seemed to be working, at least for the moment. The lead chomp across the street hadn’t engaged us yet; that may have been our saving grace.

I hoisted my stick on my shoulder and made for Callum, he seemed to be in the most danger. I didn’t know if I could stop three of the things, but I had to try. I attacked the closest chomp, a short, bald guy with his back turned to me, cracking the hard wood against the back of his skull. Knives of pain sliced up my hands into my arms from the impact but the damage was done—the chomp fell face forward with a dented head, body twitching in the brown grass. When I brought my eyes up to the next chomp, I heard the last sound I expected: shrieking tires on asphalt.

I looked down the road—headlights bounced around the corner as a seventies model pickup drifted into view, going faster than I ever expected a truck like that to be capable of. I grabbed Callum and pushed him into a ditch just off the shoulder. A few shots rang out from the truck followed by a man screaming something indiscernible. He was about thirty yards away when I realized he was yelling for us to get out of the way. Matt and Mallory jumped into the ditch next to Callum and I grabbed Dillon, who howled in pain as I struggled to pick him up enough to move him. I felt bad for tugging him so carelessly, but we had to move.

I dove into the ditch right on top of him just before the truck skidded through the crowd of chomps where we had been standing, sideswiping those Mallory had been holding at bay. In a movement far more fluid than I had expected, Mason brought the truck to a stop, opened the door and slid out of the driver’s seat with a shotgun raised to his shoulder. He fired a round into the closest chomp and turned to find us in the ditch without a second glance at the exploding chest of the unfortunate zombie.

“What are you waiting for,” he yelled. “Get in!” He turned his attention above the ditch, and fired two more shots in quick succession. The man could rack a slide with surprising speed. Before I heard the sound of infected bodies hitting the ground, I helped Callum and Mallory up. Matt grabbed Dillon and pulled him toward the truck. It seemed like Matt was getting back to himself, his face set in a grim determination instead of looking bewildered. Dillon had passed out, whether from pain or lack of oxygen, I wasn’t sure.

By the time I rounded the bed of the truck, Callum was in the middle seat, his lap belt already fastened tightly. After the last truck experience, I couldn’t blame him. Mallory jumped in next to him and scooted in tightly, leaving just enough room to squeeze in. Matt and Mason got Dillon into the bed of the truck, and Matt hopped in and sat on a wheel well, holding his hands out for Mason’s shotgun. Mason raised an eyebrow, looking at Matt for just a few seconds before handing him the weapon. I guess he could tell that Matt was still coming back to us, upstairs.

Mason jumped in the cab and threw it in first, popping the clutch and peeling out on the old road. Matt wasted no time in firing a few rounds into the chomps now running for the truck. I glanced across the street to find the lead chomp staring at me. My skin chilled as our eyes met, his stoic posture unmoving as the tree trunks that surrounded him. Everything else faded away as I watched him stare at us. At me. The ice in his eyes numbed my senses and I felt a fear I had never experienced before.

Then we turned the corner and he disappeared from view. I released the breath I didn’t know I was holding. I would be having nightmares about this moment for a long time. In fact—

“Gray! What’s going on?” Mallory was looking at me, eyes wide.

“Huh? Sorry, what?” I twisted my body back around and met her fierce gaze.

“I said, are you hurt?”

“No, I think I’m fine.” My voice sounded thin in my own ears as the truck rumbled on. “Cal, are you okay?”

“Yeah man, I’m good,” he said, staring straight ahead. And then we started passing houses. It was hard for me to reconcile the nightmare we had just experienced with the proximity to town. It should have been miles away—worlds away. But in less than two minutes, we were back in the neighborhoods of Stroud, Oklahoma and the relative safety that provided.

Mason careened through the narrow neighborhood roads and I hoped and prayed nobody would be out walking at this time of night. We passed through the small streets and skidded to a stop outside Mason’s house without issue. Daryl and his lackey, Michael, were waiting for us. Daryl leaned on his cane with his brow furrowed in a scrutinizing expression.

“What happened?” Daryl asked as we all poured out of the truck.

“Be careful!” Mason yelled as Matt tried to lift Dillon.

“Help me then!” Matt held Dillon under the arms and dragged him toward the back of the truck. Mason swore and lowered the tailgate with a loud crash.

“Hey, kid.” It took me a few beats to realize Mason was talking to me. “C’mon. Grab that eight foot table over there. We need to keep him flat. Don’t just stand there, move!”

I nodded to Callum and he followed me to the white collapsible table in the garage. It wasn’t particularly heavy, but it was easier to move with two. We brought it to the end of the tailgate waited for instruction.

“I asked a question,” Daryl growled, limping closer, his cane knocking on the pavement.

“It’s not a gurney, but it’ll have to do.” Mason continued to ignore Daryl, reaching for Dillon’s feet.” C’mon Matt, we gotta lay him out on here. Em, you go and get some hot water running. Rags are in the drawer by the sink.”

Cal and I held the table steady so they could place an unconscious Dillon on the surface.

“Okay, that’s fine, why don’t you kids let Matt and me handle this, k?” Without another word, I was pushed aside by Mason, Callum by Matt, and they carried Dillon into the house.

“Somebody answer me,” Daryl demanded. “Gray, tell me what happened.”

“We got ambushed.” Daryl’s face contorted as I spoke. “Yeah, tell me about it. But it happened. We didn’t get the gas. We had to hike the whole way back until Mason picked us up. That probably saved us.”

“He heard the gunshot—”

“Ah, that makes sense. It’s a good thing he did, too.”

“You need to stop interrupting—”

“You boys go ahead to Matt’s house,” Mallory said as she jogged into the garage. “There’s nothing more you can do here.”

“What is with you kids?” Daryl stammered.

“Look, we’ll discuss it in the morning. We’ve had a day. We all need some rest, and Dillon’s hurt pretty good. Mason says he’ll be alright, but could get dicey. I guess his time in Afghanistan paid off.” Leaving it at that, she turned and went back into the house.

I didn’t give Daryl a chance to corner us again, I grabbed Callum and we headed off toward Matt’s house. Daryl must’ve sensed our resolve, because he didn’t bother saying anything else.

“That was kind of a rush though, right?” Callum broke the silence after a block or two.

“You have a problem, man,” I said, shooting him a look. Just like Callum to not understand the gravity of the situation. “You do realize we almost died, right?”

“Yeah…” He trailed off and hung his head low. “But, well, we made it out alright.”

“No, Callum, we didn’t. Matt is still stunned. Dillon could freakin’ die. This is real life. Not everyone makes it out alright.” I let out a sharp breath. It felt good to breathe. “It’s time to grow up, man. It’s just like—”

“Don’t go there,” Callum cut me off with a cracking voice. He opened his mouth to speak again, but snapped it shut and looked away. The rest of the walk to the house passed in silence, our shoes crunching on the gravelly street the only sound.

We didn’t speak as we went inside and went our separate ways. I threw myself onto the pull-out mattress, temper still running hot. Between my frustration with Cal and the adrenaline from the day, my blood was running hot and my heart showed no signs of slowing. I tossed and turned for what seemed like an hour before I remembered something that gave me the slightest smile: Mallory had managed to charge my iPod.

I went to the kitchen and grabbed my old pal, cracked screen and all, and popped my headphones in. I scrolled until I found my favorite song by The Lumineers and fired it up as I settled back into the wiry mattress. The drums kicked in and I felt my frustration wane.

I was asleep before the first chorus.