A shimmer of heat hung over the line of bush. Cicadas trilled endlessly. A slow breeze blew the foulness in from the west.
“They’re out there, just behind the line of bush,” Danville grinned like the Cheshire Cat. “We got people to shoot.”
“They’re not people,” Pa glowered. “You don’t say that in front of my son. It’s his first time and I don’t want it messed up for him. It’s enough with the churches already. Those things have got worms in their heads and there’s nothing there anymore. Just the flesh. No humanity. You hear that Vince?”
“I read the pamphlets, Pa. Medulla oblongata, penetration of the left and right lobes, brain death, the whole damn lot.”
Pa spun, raised his hand. Vince flinched. “You don’t talk like that, you green brat. You got a lot of growing to do before your mouth is big enough.”
The vomity smell of sepsis and danger crowded the cabin. Vince gagged.
Outside, the bush rustled. Danville loaded a drum of shells in his USAS 12. Pa looked at the shotgun enviously.
“You shoot anywhere in this cabin but out the door and I’ll chuck you out myself. Without a weapon.”
Danville turned. His face was red and his shoulders were high. “And you take it easy now. You’ve been like this all morning and it’s making things difficult.”
Pa harrumphed, sat down on the bench and breathed. In. Out. In. Out. Calm returned but the stench stayed.
“How many do you reckon are out there?” Vince squinted through the window.
“I got a report of eight zombies in the sector this morning,” Danville answered. “They don’t move fast unless they know there’s something for them. Don’t hold your breath just yet, boy.”
“It smells like they’re all out there.”
Pa reached for his rifle. “Whatever’s out there, they know we’re in here. They’re hanging back. Let’s give them a reason to move.”
The three formed a semi-circle around the door.
“Vince, you be bait,” Pa said. “Don’t be chicken. Just do exactly what I say and you’ll be good.”
Vince stared at his father. “Bait?”
“We need them out of the bush. If they see you, they’ll come out.”
Danville patted Vince on the shoulder, an attempt to be reassuring. “I’m going to stand at your left with the shotgun. Your Pa will be at your right with the rifle. You grab this can of stones, take one step out when I open the door and rattle it like hell. After the first one comes out, he will call to the others. When they come out, you step back in, we pick off whatever we can, close the door and then see what’s left.”
Vince swallowed and nodded.
“Don’t worry. They work in groups. The first one will wait for the others,” Danville told the shaking boy. “The moment any of them move, we’re going to start shooting.”
“Zombie apocalypse.” Vince tried to laugh but what came out was a hollow croak.
“You can have a go later. For now, you do this and make me proud.” Pa handed Vince a pair of earmuffs. “Put them on or you’ll be deaf for months.”
Vince stood at the door, swaying slightly, trying to find the courage that was hiding deep, deep down. The door opened revealing a fear-fogged blur of fawn dirt and the green wall of the bush line. A hand gave him a firm shove. One step. Two steps. Fear nailed him to the spot. No going back now.
The stench slapped him in the face. He gagged again. He was glad he took his father’s advice and skipped breakfast. Look left. Look right. Look left again. No zombies. Safe to stand but good to watch, if only he could keep his eyes from spinning. Vince sucked his breath in deep, took control of his nerves, listened to his heart running wild and willed it to slow.
A hand patted his shoulder, urgently. Vince remembered to rattle the can, kept on rattling it.
The first one pulled itself out through the bushes, dragged itself through the thorns, tearing scraps of flesh from its arms shoulders and legs.
“That must hurt like hell,” Vince thought. Then he remembered he was facing a zombie.
It did not look like the gray-faced things on the AV feeds. It must have been about his age. He could almost imagine sitting down with it, talking, getting to know it, having a good time. Maybe it liked bikes or death metal. It wore some or other metal band t-shirt.
He noticed the seeping patches of open flesh where necrosis took hold of the zombies. The smell bore down on him like a freight train.
“Moving but brain dead,” he reminded himself. “Nothing there to talk to. Nothing there to like.”
He rattled the can a couple more times.
“Here, zombie,” he shouted. “Look over here, stupid. Come, come, come!”
He shook a pebble from the can and shied it at the creatures head. The zombie stopped looking around, fixed its dead, white eyes on him for a moment, threw back its head and… Vince couldn’t hear a thing, but knew it must be calling. In a moment four more of the things pulled through the thorns. One of them was a woman. She looked about the same age as his granny.
All of them stared at him. Ten hungry eyes. Ten tearing hands. Five sets of teeth carrying the worms’ eggs and infestation. Count the bits. Twenty five. Vince’s hand slowly, reflexively continued to shake the can. He wondered what he was supposed to do now?
A strong hand gripped the back of his shirt, yanked him back into the cabin. He ended up on his butt on the floor, looking up at Pa and Danville in the doorway. Slow motion. Repeat action. Gun smoke left. Gun smoke right. Misty clouds of sulfur smell. Door closing.
His father was on his knees in front of Vince, his mouth moving. A frown. Something wrong? A hand reached out, pulled the earmuffs from Vince’s head, tugging at his ears.
“Good one!” his father laughed.
“Here, zombie. Come, come, come!” Danville’s eyes scrunched closed and he shook his head as he laughed. “Boy, you’re a natural. You sounded like you were calling a dog. Where’d you learn that trick with the stone? School must be rougher than I remembered.”
The laughter gave way to silence as the three breathed and enjoyed the moment.
“How many?” his father asked.
“I count four on the ground. Head shots,” Danville said, peering out the window. “There were five. Hold on. Let’s listen a bit.”
The three stopped talking. All Vince could hear was the pounding of his heart.
“Five is there,” Pa said and pointed to the south-west corner of the hut where there was a bumping, dragging sound on the wood boards of the cabin porch.
Danville picked up the shotgun and positioned himself at the door. Pa stood behind Danville and gently eased the door open. Danville peaked through the crack, tensed, slammed the door open with his shoulder and banged away.
“Five down,” he said, and gave his bright Cheshire Cat grin again.
“Let’s go mop up, but make it quick,” Pa said. “There’ll be more out there, somewhere. They’ll wait a bit before they take a chance, but that doesn’t mean we have to take chances as well.”
The three stepped out the door.
“Watch for movement. Stay out of arms reach. Check for worms.” Danville said.
They walked round the carcasses.
“Vince, come look here,” Danville called.
It was the granny zombie. The back of her skull was an open book. Greying porridge spilled out onto the dust. A pink finger writhed in the mess.
“Worm.” Danville handed Vince the USAS. “Do the honors.”
Vince looked at his father, saw the nod then saw his father’s eyes move enviously to the shotgun in his hands.
“Move back a bit,” Danville told him. “Careful of the spatter.”
Vince stepped back, sighted and pulled the trigger. The dizziness returned. Vince looked up and saw his father smiling at him. A warm feeling of joy filled his stomach and chest. Zombie butterflies. Mission accomplished.
Check the rest of the heads for worms, Danville told him. You know how to do it now.
On the porch of the cabin, Danville pointed to the fifth carcass.
“You got him in the shoulder. You need to be a bit more careful with your aim, pal.”
Vince saw Pa blush and looked away.
“That’s all, folks,” Danville said. Let’s get the truck and get out of here.
“Shouldn’t we clean up the bodies or something?” Vince eyed the remnants and hoped not.
“Don’t worry,” his Pa said. “Someone else will scrape them up. Let’s go.”
They swerved twice to avoid the walking dead on the drive along the bush track.
“Last thing I can afford now is a shattered windscreen or a dent.” Pa’s precious truck was second only in value to Vince, though the boy sometimes wondered about that.
“Bullets are cheaper,” said Danville and laughed till the tears came.
On the double lane tar road, they passed two trucks carrying refrigerated containers marked Z-World Hunting Enterprises, ‘Z-Ultimate Target for Z-Happy Hunter’. Three cartoon faces with savage eyes and broken-tooth grins beamed down at them.
“That lot should be thawed by sunset for the night hunts. I want to do one of those sometime,” Danville said.
“We need to stop at the office,” Pa told them. “We booked six. We got five. They’ll give us a credit for the next time round.”
As they passed through the fortified gates to the office and hotel parking lot, Vince stared off into the distance, to the rows of refrigerated containers. Small figures in clumsy body armor waddled along the dusty corridors between the stacks, under the eyes of watchtowers. They looked just as clumsy as the zombies they kept in waiting for the hunt.
Pa pulled the handbrake and leaned over to follow his gaze.
Plenty for everyone, Vince. You did good today. Maybe we can arrange a hunt next year, for your birthday.
Vince’s chest swelled in the bright light of his father’s rare praise. For the first time, he felt alive.