CHAPTER 1. 

Tree House

The crosshairs of the scope center perfectly on the putrid face. Roger moves his head slightly to one side, peering out from his hiding place. He spies the zombie shambling along with no immediate purpose. He looks the zombie up and down, attempting to recognize who it had once been. The face is sunken and black from rot, and its right arm has fallen off, leaving only black strands of decaying tissue. The once white shirt the zombie wears is now melded with its dead skin. 

Roger sights the walker once more while sliding his trigger finger in place. He follows the target two more steps before lightly squeezing the trigger, careful not to jerk the weapon. He wants every shot to count, and this shot is true. The air rifle pellet sinks deep into the zombie’s face, just above where the nose once sat. The zombie swats at the remains of its face, as if shooing away a bothersome fly, then trips over its own two feet, falling face-first to the ground. Wheezing, the zombie regains its feet. Roger sights the zombie again, doing all he can to stifle the laughter building up inside.

“My turn.” The hushed voice sounds behind Roger. Brett Bellman, Roger’s next door neighbor and one year his junior, stands waiting impatiently for his turn with the air rifle.

“I don’t know who it is. I thought it might be Mr. Lieman from the Save Mart, but I can’t tell.” Roger stands, handing the air rifle to Brett. “Try to hit him in the eye. He only has one left.”

“Cool.” Brett finds his position on the floor of the tree house, scopes his target, while Roger sits back staring out at the dead neighborhood.  Brett waits for the zombie to turn around. The dried crusty clothes draping the decomposing body barely move as the zombie turns back towards the tall black oak. Brett waits. He doesn’t possess Roger’s patience, but he finds the resolve to lay off the trigger. The zombie stares blankly into the overgrown yard with its one grey eye and gaping mouth. Its blackened gums have long receded from the decaying teeth. Brett sees his opportunity, pulling the trigger. A split second later the grey eye pops, spilling from the rotting face. The zombie stumbles around with its arms outstretched, bumping into everything and moaning. It sounds mournful. Brett looks back at Roger, shaking his head in bewilderment, “I don’t think I’ve seen one without both eyes.”

Roger, looking down at the worn Iron Man comic in his hand, says, “I have. The second day of all this shit. Before I made it up here I saw the Andrews’ kid in his front yard. He was just sitting there with a toy truck in his lap. His head was down. I thought he was playing or something, so I ran across the street to get him. Then he looked up….”

Brett sits staring back at Roger, eyes wide. After a moment, Roger speaks, his voice shaky. “It looked like he had his face bit in half. Both of his eyes were gone and his nose was hanging, flopping around. He knew I was there and jumped up. He chased me for a moment but lost me and ran back towards his house. I stopped at my yard and looked back. He just sat back down near his toy truck and began patting the ground. I think he was looking for it. I think the soldiers got him. I hope it was fast because he didn’t deserve to be that way. He was just a kid.”

Brett looks back out at the world, hiding the tears welling in his eyes. “They probably did but the zombies keep coming. How long till one of us turns into one of them?”

 

 

***

 

11:26pm

 

A thunderous boom shakes the land violently. A second thunderclap strikes again, driving the deafening sound through every inch of the tree house. Roger and Brett huddle in one corner of the second story waiting for the next thunderclap. The night sky lights up, followed instantly by another boom. Roger tries counting between the lightning and the thunder, but can’t reach one. He remembers the trick from the movie Poltergeist.

Boom!

Crying and embarrassed, Brett rolls away from his best friend. He stares out a small opening in the side of the tree house trying to find any thought, memory or distraction to take him away from this place. The sky bursts white, revealing zombies stumbling about in his and the neighboring yards. His head slumps to the cool wooden floor, his thoughts turn to his X-box and the games he wishes he could still play. Periodically, his thoughts flash to his mother and the horrific way she died. Squeezing his eyes shut, he finds his X-box once again, logs in and begins a ferocious campaign to rid the world of scum terrorists. All is right in his world for the briefest of moments. 

The storm continues late into the evening, gaining intensity, but eventually passing. Roger sits watching distant lightning strikes with his legs dangling high above the ground from the tree house deck, wondering when Brett is going to stop feeling embarrassed for crying. Lord knows he’d cried plenty since the arrival of the zombies and military.

The sky performs another light show, flashing brilliantly. “Wow, that was a good one.” Brett, with his childhood exuberance, scoots quickly to the edge of the deck, joining Roger. Though he would never admit it, Roger enjoys Brett’s childish enthusiasm, not all the time, but at times it’s refreshing.

“There’s another good one. Probably over Millville,” Roger states, running his hands over his crusty blue jeans. Before the event he wouldn’t have given the state of his jeans a second thought but now it weighs heavy on his mind. His mother is no longer around to take care of such trivial needs, and in fact, there are no adults left in Redding to take care of them, or at least none he wishes to meet. The soldiers pretty much soured him on the world of grownups. Watching lightning strikes in the distance, he leans slightly against Brett.

“You cool?” Roger asks.

“Yeah, I’m cool. I just don’t like thunder when it’s that close. Scares the shit out of me.”

“Me too,” Roger says.

Roger’s thoughts drift back to a time before the event. He thinks of his mother, his father and neighbors on his block. For a moment he misses school, even though he wasn’t the best student. He longs for the sanctuary of his classroom with all its prison-like qualities. He joked on many occasions with his classmates, “We’re all doing time at Woodville Maximum Penitentiary.” He can still see the chalkboard filled with reading assignments and arithmetic problems. He misses the smell of chalk. Does chalk smell? He thinks. It must if I miss it. He remembers Shelly July, and the time she pushed him down on the soccer field, laughing at him along with half the school. She was such a bitch. The vision of her chest exploding outward in a cloud of blood and bone floods his mind. Shaking the memory, one thought remains: even she didn’t deserve that.

Another lighting strike dances through the clouds in the distance, followed shortly by a bellowing thunderclap. “You know we have to go past the Save Mart tomorrow.” Roger’s words are almost a question. He waits patiently for Brett’s reply.

“Yeah I know. I have to be extra careful and watch everything around me. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful this time.” Brett curls up with his well-used pillow covered with an almost unrecognizable Hulk pillowcase. The smell is approaching toxic but he’s used to it, and the pillow provides some level of comfort. He rests his head on the floor, pulling his pillow in close to his body. He drifts into the wonderful world of sleep where he can’t be harmed.