FREE Fiction Friday by Rex Crossley (Pt 5)
Where Were You When the World Changed?
Part Five: Dammit Scott!
by Rex Crossley
Previously: Leaving his bunker for the first time one year after the zombie outbreak, Paul Layton discovered that the world had changed while he was away. Finding himself unexpectedly locked out of his shelter, Paul reconnected with Warren, the only man who might be able to help him re-enter his sanctuary. Arriving at an agreement to exchange water for his services; Paul, Warren and Warren’s brothers set out for Paul’s bunker but became trapped by a rampaging herd of deer overnight on the roof of an elementary school. The next morning, the school’s inhabitants welcomed the group inside for dinner and a very disturbing show. Wanna read Rex Crossley’s tale from the beginning? Part one, Part two, Part three, and Part four may be found right here in our Fiction section!
* * *
Paul’s protests fell on deaf ears. As the zombies closed in on the rope climbers, the applause, cheers and thunderous stomping of the children drowned him out anyway. Anne spared him the briefest of glances, a smirk on her face as she acknowledged his disapproval with the slightest nod.
He hit the fence one final time in frustration before turning his attention helplessly to the endangered men trapped on the other side of it.
Despite Christian’s efforts to dislodge him, Scott was two-thirds of the way up his rope already. Christian had only managed to reach the fourth knot on his own rope before the undead arrived, grasping at his shoes as he tried to climb higher. It was obvious who was going to win this race.
Christian growled in aggravation and fidgeted with the hem of his shirt sleeve. After a few sharp tugs, he came away with a small metallic object with feathered fins. It was a dart.
Lee guffawed behind Paul as Christian whipped it in Scott’s direction with practiced ease. The dart sank deeply into Scott’s neck just as he reached the top of his rope. It was an improbable shot, made with as much luck as skill–but it served its purpose. Instead of reaching for the rope to ring his bell, Scott’s hand went to his neck.
Confusion clouded Scott’s features as his fingers found the small projectile and pulled it free. He gazed at it stupidly as blood pumped out of the open wound, raining big red droplets on the ravenous horde below. He was still staring at the dart, completely unable to process how it had gotten there, as his strength failed and his body sagged. Less than a minute later, he fell.
“YES!” Christian laughed maniacally as Scott’s lifeless body crashed to the floor, “I WIN!” He shook his own rope savagely as he celebrated. “I WIN! I WIN! I MOTHER-FUCKING WIN, ASSHOLE!” Christian pointed down at Scott’s corpse and laughed again.
Anne’s voice cut through his laughter like a knife. “You have to ring your bell to win.”
Christian’s face lost all of its prior mirth as he looked up his rope at the bell, a seemingly impossible distance away. He was obviously already exhausted from his premature celebration but he reached for the next knot anyway, glaring angrily at Anne in the process. When he tried to heave himself up, he went nowhere. The zombies below had him firmly by the feet, pulling against his efforts.
Paul knew it would only be a matter of time. Christian was tired and his opponents were tireless. He hung his head and only listened as the zombies dragged him down and tore him apart. His defiant roars were silenced in moments, replaced by ravenous chewing and wet fleshy noises Paul had no desire to identify.
The spotlights were extinguished and most of the children filed past him, many of them mimicking the shambling stagger-step of the zombies, groaning as they pursued their giggling friends. A hand gripped his shoulder and Warren spoke softly near his ear. “We’ll be outside if you need us. Reeks in here.”
Tumblers rumbled loudly in the gymnasium and Paul looked up as a door to the far left of the stage opened up and bright sunlight streamed through it. A child’s silhouette, most likely Nicholas, stepped into it and blew a shrill whistle. The illuminated zombies looked up from their grisly feast and rose to their feet as the whistle tweeted again and again.
The child propped the door open and disappeared back outside, the whistle tweeting rhythmically like an apocalyptic Pied Piper. The zombies shambled after it, leaving Paul alone with the fresh corpses. He wondered how long it would be before they rose as well and his stomach turned dangerously.
“They threatened the safety of our community.” Anne’s voice. Behind him.
Paul turned to look at her. “You could have handled this differently.”
“How’s that? By kicking them out? Locking them up? We’ve tried all of that. It doesn’t work. Somehow it always comes back to bite us in the ass.” She exhaled. “Look. I wasn’t always the only adult here. There were others in the beginning. In fact, some of them were involved in the rope climb just now. I keep them around as reminders.”
“Reminders of what? That you’re crazy?”
“Reminders that once trust is broken, I have to be strong. I have to be able to do whatever I must to keep these kids safe. Trust is paramount. Without it, we can’t function.”
Paul shook his head. “You’re not doing the children any favors with this.” He waved a hand back at the corpses. “It’s barbaric.”
“It’s survival! I gave them a chance, they blew it on their own.”
“Scott didn’t do anything wrong and he still died.”
“He should have kept an eye on his opponent. That’s an important lesson to learn. Christian had already proven himself untrustworthy in the first place.”
“By protecting himself?”
“He was safe within these walls!”
“Safe? He died here because he couldn’t climb a rope! Once Scott was dead, you could have proclaimed Christian the winner and let him go.”
“Scott died because Christian broke the same rule that put him in this position in the first place! He knew exactly what he was doing! How could I have possibly let that go?”
“By being reasonable instead of just being a paranoid bitch.”
Anne stared at him, livid, her hands clenched fists at her sides. “We have rules here. Breaking them has consequences.”
“Yeah. Nice system you have here. If one of your children misbehaves do you have ropes for them to climb too?”
She opened her mouth to reply but Paul cut her off. “You know…don’t answer that. I really don’t want to know. This place is fucked up. If something were to happen to you these kids will probably be devoured by all the paranoiac bullshit you’ve been feeding them in less than a week.”
Anne laughed but there was no mirth in it. “You really take the cake, Paul. You’re so self-righteous. We’ve worked hard to survive here while you were all tucked away in your little bunker hiding from the monsters these kids have had to live with. Try living in the apocalypse for a while before you go off telling others who have been here how to do so.”
“Is sacrificing your humanity worth the end result? Tell me Anne…do you even remember what it was like to be human?”
Anne’s shoulders slumped and she sighed. “Apparently, there’s no reasoning with you, Paul. I just can’t get you to see things our way. Some of the kids were starting to take a shine to you and were really hoping you’d stay.”
“Unfortunately,” she raised two fingers and Paul felt something press into the small of his back before his world exploded, his muscles stiffening as wave after wave of excruciating electricity snapped and popped through his system. He smelled his own hair burning as he fell and barely heard Anne complete her sentence. “…if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
Then something cracked the back of his skull and he was out.
* * *
“…not gonna climb any damned rope, that’s for sure.” Alan’s voice was the first thing Paul heard as he came to. “I’d rather stand my ground and fight it out side by side with you.” The second thing he heard was the guttural rasp of zombies. Lots of zombies.
He groaned as he opened his eyes. His head was throbbing.
“There he is.” Warren leaned into his vision. It was very dark but Paul was still able to see the worry in his friend’s eyes. “Try not to move too much, sport. They clocked you good. We got the bleeding to stop but had no real way to dress the wound.”
Alan leaned forward beside his brother. “We heard you two going at it.” He whistled. “Damn, son. You gave her Hell.”
Beyond them, illuminated by flickering candlelight, Paul could just make out the black shapes of bars. They were in a cage. “Where are we? What happened?”
“When we checked on you after the shouting was over, they already had you down. There was a lot of blood. Scalp wounds are a bitch. They threatened to finish the job if we didn’t play nice. Long story short, we still didn’t play nice. Fuck them.”
“Fuck them!” Lee chimed in from off to the side.
“Turns out they had more of those tasers ready.” Warren sniffed. “Zapped the shit out of us.”
“I almost got hold of that bitch, too.” Alan slammed his forearm against the bars of their cage and the growling of the zombies intensified.
Paul’s head throbbed as he whipped it in the direction of the sound.
“Relax. They’re locked up in other cages.” Warren sneered their way.
“How many?” Paul rested his head back down, wincing as it connected with the metal floor of the cage.
“Not sure, really. Too dark to tell. A lot more than the six we saw this afternoon.”
“Yeah. Shit is right.” Alan leaned back against the bars.
“Not much we can do about it locked up in here regardless.” Warren tapped the bars. “Best we can do for now is rest up and be ready for an opportunity to present itself. We play it smart, unlike our predecessors, and we still might make it out of here alive.”
Paul couldn’t rest, though. His mind raced as the others settled in and slumbered around him. Biting back nausea, Paul hauled himself up to a sitting position. All he could think about were the children and how their sense of right and wrong was being corrupted by Anne’s punishment games. He kept coming back to how they cheered while Christian was being eaten alive. He wondered how loudly they would be cheering as he met his fate.
The room’s candle eventually sputtered and went out, leaving Paul alone with his thoughts…and the shuffling and moaning of the zombies restlessly exploring their confines. It wasn’t long, though, before sunlight began to brighten the room through glass block windows set high in the walls. Soon after that he could make out the other cells.
There were three of them, each holding eight or so zombies. Christian and Scott were in the mix. Paul stared at them as they endlessly circled their cage, each just another cog in the machine that existed solely to tear the old world down. He could see no positive outcome. After a year safely hidden away from the apocalypse, he was no better off than those forced to live through it.
No. That wasn’t quite right. Paul wasn’t ready to give up on fellow humans like Anne was. He could sense the hope still buried inside the children as well. They had been so eager to welcome him in.
Scott met Paul’s gaze briefly during his circuit. All vestige of the excited recognition he’d seen in his eyes previously was gone. Snuffed out needlessly by that psychopath as though she had stuck that dart in his neck herself.
Paul made a silent promise to himself to do anything in his power to show those poor kids that it didn’t have to go that way. That there were other, more humane options available to resolve conflicts with.
As though on cue, one of the room’s doors opened, admitting Nicholas and Lynne. Lynne was carrying a large plastic bowl and a squat pitcher. Nicholas carried his pistol. It was the first time Paul had seen him with it drawn. Paul nudged Warren with his boot as the youngsters approached. Warren woke the others.
Lynne refused to meet Paul’s gaze as she placed her offerings on the ground near a small opening in the cage. Nicholas was doing his best to watch all of them at once.
When Lynne stood and turned to leave, Paul broke the silence. “We’re not bad guys.”
Lynne froze and Nicholas raised his gun, pointing it at Paul. “Shut up.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong. We followed your rules and still ended up in a cage.”
Nicholas stepped forward, aiming his pistol between the bars at Paul’s chest. “I said. Shut. Up.”
Paul looked into the boy’s eyes and knew there was no swaying him. He raised his hands. “Sorry.”
The boy nodded and withdrew his weapon. “Eat up. You’re gonna need your strength.”
Alan huffed. “I ain’t climbing no rope.”
Nicholas smiled. “Nope. No ropes for you.” He turned and led Lynne back the way they’d come. Paul hoped that Lynne would look back, just to see if his words affected her at all. She didn’t.
Left alone once again, the men divided up the venison and water the children had brought them. The meat was cold and the water was brackish but it was palatable.
Alan broke the silence, lending voice to what was on all of their minds. “No ropes. Fuck does that mean?”
Warren shook his head, speaking through his food. “Anne was royally pissed. Probably cooked up something special for our man here.” He shook his haunch of meat in Paul’s direction. “Something particularly nasty.”
“Sorry I got you guys into this mess.” Paul turned his venison over in his hand then tossed it back into the bowl without taking a bite.
Lee snatched up the discarded morsel, smiling at Paul and waving the apology off. Alan shook his head. “Nah. Bitch is crazy. She would have found some other reason to lock us up if you hadn’t set her off.”
Warren nodded. “She started grilling us from the start, looking for something to use against us. This was her plan all along.” He swallowed and raised a finger. “Speaking of plans, we’ve got to come up with something ourselves.”
They all looked at him. Even Lee stopped eating. Paul stopped halfway through raising the pitcher for a drink. “Please tell me you’ve got something.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking.” Warren stroked his beard as he spoke. Paul always thought of this as his conspiratory mode back when they had discussed building the bunkers. “Once they drag us out into whatever Hell they’ve prepared, be on the lookout for something I might be able to use to pick locks with. I can make do with pretty much anything: a loose piece of the chain link fence, a hairpin, even the underwire from a zombie’s bra will do.”
“Whatever. Point is, if you all can keep the zombies and the eyes of the crowd off of me, I can unlock any restraints they put us in as well as the door to the outside.”
Alan nodded as Warren spoke. “He can, too, He practiced like crazy before shit went down.”
“Once we make it out, there are dozens of places out there to climb up on the roof. Then we can use the pistols we stashed up there to fight our way out of here.”
“You mean shoot the kids?” Paul was aghast.
Warren shrugged. “Only if we have to. My guess is the kids will scatter once the tables turn.”
Paul thought of how the kids only tried to run when he first encountered them after leaving his bunker. Warren had a point. “Yeah, you may be right there. They only attacked us when they had us at a disadvantage.”
“Pricks.” The door opened as Lee chimed in and Nicholas entered the room. This time his gun was holstered,
“Okay guys. Miss Anne says we can do this one of two ways. When your cage door opens you can walk out into the gymnasium, find a glow-in-the dark “X” to stand on and wait patiently for further instructions. Or you can ignore all that, get tased again and wind up in restraints. Trust me, restraints would be very, very bad.”
The men frowned at each other and Warren motioned them to stand down. “We’ll behave.” The others slowly nodded their agreement.
“Good. You all play by her rules, you might make it out of here.”
Paul leaned into the bars. “C’mon, Nicholas. You know that’s not true. No matter what we do, she won’t be satisfied until she has us in one of those other cages.” He motioned to include all of the zombie cages.
“Dude, just don’t make her mad again. Play ball, that’s your best chance.”
“I’ll bite my tongue if you promise to keep an eye out for foul play on her end.”
Nicholas’ eyes darted around and it looked as though there was something he wanted to say but he finally just nodded and exited the way he came, leaving the door to the gym open behind him.
The gymnasium was dark but the four captives watched the open doorway as if it was the lifeboat to their sinking ship. Soon the spotlights were turned on, illuminating the bleachers just out of view and they heard the excited murmurs of the children as they filed in.
“Show time.” No one looked at Warren when he spoke.
The murmuring grew louder as the kids grew restless. It wasn’t long before they took up the same rhythmic stomping and clapping they’d employed the day before. It was much less endearing on this side of the fence.
There was an electric buzzing noise and the lock on their cage’s door disengaged. Paul swung it open, exciting the zombies in the other cages. They remembered. He shuddered and led the others out into the gym.
His heart sank as he watched the children playing around as though all was right in the world. Thanks to Anne, this was all they knew.
The men found their marks just inside the fence, spread out over the length of the gym. Warren took the spot closest to the exit door with Allan then Lee beside him. Paul took the mark farthest away from him, hoping to draw Anne’s attention so Warren could steal the time he needed to execute his escape plan. He looked at his friends, took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
The lights on the bleachers dimmed until the gymnasium was dark again and a spotlight snapped on, illuminating Anne through the fence protecting her stage. The children broke out in thunderous applause. Anne smiled at them.
She looked directly at Paul through the darkness, letting the applause play for a minute before raising her arms to silence it. Her face became dramatically grim. “Once again we find our way of life threatened by outsiders. Despite the fact that our methods have kept us safe for the last year, these men have come in, as our invited guests, and presumed to tell us how to live.”
Overhead lights shone down on the four men. There were gasps and murmurs from the bleachers as though the children had no idea they were the targets of Anne’s diatribe. Paul wanted desperately to say something but knew he would be playing right into Anne’s hands, so he bit his tongue. Hard.
“Warren. Allen. Lee. Paul.” She let the crowd taste each of their names as she spoke them. “You have been found guilty of dissonance. Your words and actions have disturbed the harmony of our community and left scars on impressionable young minds. Still, we believe in second chances here.”
Someone was moving around in the darkness, just out of sight.
“As long as you prove your good intentions by playing our game by the rules, you will walk out of here free men. We have a very special group challenge for you. You’ll be working as a team to fend off your opponents in a game we call Zombie Dodgeball.”
The main lights came up, revealing four red kickballs in the middle of the gymnasium – one in front of each of the men. Lee chuckled and Warren muttered something Paul couldn’t make out.
Anne watched them for a moment before continuing. “There will be a few modifications to standard dodgeball rules considering the condition of your opponents. First, head shots are legal. They won’t mind.” She smiled. “Second, since they’ll keep getting back up, there’ll be a ten-minute timer in effect.” A small scoreboard to the right of the stage lit up and ten minutes appeared on the clock. “Finally, to keep you from just killing your opponents straight away, you must score fifty solid dodgeball hits on them in the allotted time to win. Failure to comply will result in stiff penalties.”
There it is. Paul shook his head but kept quiet.
“The clock and the contest begin when the first zombie crosses the threshold into the gym. Good luck.”
Paul looked from his ball to the doorway and dried his palms on his pantlegs. A familiar buzzing came from the other room, followed by the screech of one of the cage doors opening. The zombies shuffled forward and the children broke into applause when the first one came into view. It was Christian. That meant Scott was in this group also since they shared a cage. Bitch was messin’ with him.
Still, Paul waited for the timer to start before running forward to grab his ball. He wasn’t about to play this game in chains.
There were seven zombies total and since they were closest to Lee, they swarmed straight for him as a group. Lee had to scramble back hurriedly after snatching his ball to stay ahead of the pack. Two balls zinged in from the left, catching Christian on the shoulder and the cheek, making him stagger into the other zombies. Christian went down, bringing three others with him in a heap. Two points appeared on the scoreboard.
Paul threw his ball at the next zombie in file, hitting it on the pelvis. It didn’t go down but he had its full attention. Both that zombie and the one behind it broke free of the pack and came his way. Three points.
Lee threw and hit Scott in the shins, tripping him up as well. He went down, cracking his skull hard enough on the wood floor to make Paul wince. Four points.
With only two zombies standing, it was easy for the men to retrieve their balls for a second throw. They concentrated on keeping the pile down, racking up another four points with nine minutes still on the clock.
Stretching in to scoop his ball away from Scott, Paul began to think they might actually have a chance. Then he heard the buzz and screech of another cage door opening in the next room. He looked quickly at the doorway, then up at Anne who was watching him with a savage intensity.
Distracted, he didn’t notice Scott lean toward him until it was too late. Paul howled as Scott bit deeply into the flesh of his left hand.
Unable to shake him loose, Paul jabbed two fingers of his free hand through Scott’s cheek and pulled down as hard as he could. He heard dodgeballs connecting with targets all around him as his friends kept other zombies at bay.
Eventually he applied enough pressure to dislocate Scott’s jaw and free his hand. Kicking his feet, Paul scooted himself away from the doorway where the new group of zombies was entering, not stopping until his back hit the fence.
Blood soaked his shirt where he cradled his injured hand. It stung like a sonofabitch but the last thing he wanted was to give Anne the pleasure of seeing him suffer.
His knees wobbled as he stood but he made it back to his feet. Zombies were all over the place now and he didn’t see any of the balls anywhere. Seven minutes and sixteen points graced the scoreboard. He couldn’t see how they were going to pull this off against these new odds but he had to try something.
Squeezing his hand tightly under his arm to staunch the bleeding, Paul re-entered the fray, growling. “Dammit Scott!”
Coming Soon: Part 6
The harrowing conclusion of Rex Crossley’s:
Where Were You When the World Changed?