It was the smell of the dead that Rodney hated the most.
It was thick and pungent, but also sickly sweet, like sugar poured over feces. Once that odor hit his nostrils, it seemed to linger there in a terrible sense memory, even long after the danger had past. There had been times after the dead rose when Rodney would snap awake at night, from nightmares of that odor alone.
Not that his current accommodations lent themselves well to sleeping. Rodney’s current address was Fort Buzzard, the somewhat eccentrically named tree-fort he’d built as a boy, deep in the Adelaide Forest of Upstate New York.
It was cramped. He’d constructed the makeshift shelter at the age of 11 with his neighbor and best friend, Sean Wendt, with what had then seemed like enormous sheets of plywood stolen from a nearby construction site. He couldn’t recall exactly how they’d come up with the name – perhaps it simply sounded less generic than Fort Eagle. He could remember many long (and quite fun) hours that he and Sean had spent constructing it 20 feet off the ground among the limbs of a great oak, supported by a spider web of 2 X 4’s and 2 X 8’s. They’d even sawed in a window, laid carpet across the floor (from the extra footage from Sean’s remodeled family room), and laid tarpaper across the roof to keep out moisture.
It was painful now to even think of Sean. When Rodney had last seen him, his jaw was hanging by a single tendon from his skull. He’d been emaciated, his skin a dull green-gray, and a massive section of his left pectoral had been eaten away. Nevertheless, Sean had been up and walking around. He’d been wandering shirtless by the corner by the Hilltown Post Office, with that same aimless, shuffling gait that they all had, ambling along like lost, seriously ill children. And Rodney knew that if Sean laid eyes on him, Sean would try to eat him.
Rodney woke that morning with aches in his neck and back. What had once seemed spacious and “cool” to two 11-year-olds was not ideal for a 21-year-old adult. He grabbed his trusty metal bat, which he’d nicknamed “Betty,” descended through the trapdoor at the fort’s center and negotiated the wooden ladder, down into the clearing. Then he spent about five minutes at the base of the tree, stretching and working out the kinks.
He looked up at his refuge. It was little more than a small shack perched in a tree. He and Sean’s delusions of grandeur had once led them to spray-paint a broad, bright red wingspan across its side.
He smiled a little at that. Even at 21, Rodney was still a kid at heart, a fact that had brought no small amount of friction between him and his parents. He’d still been living with them when the dead rose. He’d spent his days selling guitar lessons, smoking a little weed, and dealing with the gradually increasing pressure to move out and get a job. God, how he missed that guitar. And the weed.
He was vigilant about the dead this morning, but not paranoid. Fort Buzzard was roughly a mile from Hilltown. One of the curious characteristics of the dead was that they seemed to gravitate toward places where they had spent a great deal of time alive: churches, streets, schools and supermarkets. Rodney’s adversaries (and would-be predators) were situated almost exclusively within the town.
The really dangerous times for Rodney were the scavenging runs. The beings that had once been his friends and neighbors now formed a grotesque, moving pageant of stinking meat. Mrs. Bering was now a skeletal wraith of her former self, ambling along with gelatinous eyes that sagged in her skull like egg whites. Sam Peebles, the mailman, shuffled by with most of his guts missing. Marty Anderson, Rodney’s neighbor down the street, sat dejectedly on the corner with no arms. Permeating the town was the sporadic but omnipresent, discordant rhythm of low moans. And, as always, it was the smell of the dead that Rodney hated the most – the overwhelming aroma of spoiled beef with just a touch of gangrene.
The danger connected with scavenging runs was a necessary evil. When he arrived here a month ago, fleeing the slaughterhouse of Hilltown, he’d brought nothing. Fort Buzzard had been built by its young architects with no hidden cache of food or batteries. And so his desperate sprints through town were needed maybe twice a week, depending on how much he retrieved.
At first he thought it would be best to steal in under cover of darkness. But he found that, in the absence of electricity, the post-apocalyptic night was so black that he often could barely see 10 paces past his fort. If he’d gone into town under those circumstances, he might run flush into the embrace of one of those things. His raids needed to take place in daylight. So, while he could see them, if he didn’t hide carefully enough, they could see him too.
Rodney had his share of close calls. The closest had been his encounter with Jerry Billings, the cop. He’d been rounding the corner of Weaver Street with a knapsack full of canned beans when suddenly Jerry was right in front of him, thanks to poor luck. Jerry’s mottled skin had turned to various shades of blue and gray and black, and his belly was distended with the gasses from decomposition. His shrunken cheeks peeled under desperate, hard eyes that practically screamed with hunger.
Jerry’s arms came up instantly. His fingertips felt like moldy parchment on Rodney’s face. Rodney backpedaled at the last second, spilling his bounty of canned goods all over Weaver. Their clatter (and Rodney’s loud yelp) alerted two more dead faces near the old State Theater, and then his pursuers numbered three. Rodney darted from the scene empty handed, and he’d had an empty stomach that night.
He arched his back and stretched his arms wide in the middle of his little clearing. The sun felt good on his face. The past month had been such hell that he wished he could take his brief moments of relative happiness and freeze them in time. He wanted to look up into the morning sun and forget about the past four weeks: the first terrifying news broadcasts, the panic in the streets, seeing his father being bitten and turned, watching with amazed horror as his father attacked his mother.
Rattletattletat. His alarm system was triggered. It was precisely the same alarm system that he and Sean had devised as boys – tin cans, strung along the perimeter with fishing line, and then filled with pebbles. Something fairly large was moving in the brush just outside his clearing. Rodney scanned the high brush and noted no fewer than six figures moving single file – all in tan clothing.
A high, wild feeling of elation swept through Rodney at once. Single file? He hadn’t seen any of the dead walk like that. Tan uniforms? That could only mean the Army! Maybe the National Guard out of Albany or Troy! Rescue had come at last!
He dropped Betty and waved both arms ecstatically, whooping and hollering. “Alive! Alive here! Don’t shoot! I’m alive!” The figures froze momentarily and then seemed to be moving toward him. “Don’t shoot! I’m alive!”
The thing that tumbled through the bushes was an abomination. It had once been a boy about seven or eight years old. Decomposition had made its skin pale and swollen, with ugly patches of black around its face and neck. Its eyes had turned a milky, cataract white. Its entire upper lip had been torn away, exposing the upper row of teeth, making it into a gruesome parody of an over-plump chipmunk. Its tan garb was indeed that of a uniform, but not of the Army. This dead little slugger was once one of Milt Bierman’s Youth Scouts, Troop 611, which usually met on Friday nights at Hilltown’s First Baptist Church.
Draped from its left shoulder to its right hip was a cloth vestment sporting the various Youth Scout Activity Badges it had earned in its mercilessly short life. One brightly colored patch boasted “Public Safety” while another proclaimed “Woodcraft.” Some of the other patches were partially obscured by a dried stream of either blood or bile that had begun at the Youth Scout’s mouth.
It snarled. Rodney froze.
With an inelegant clatter, another Youth Scout stumbled forth from the bushes, tripping in the underbrush and landing face down. Rodney could see that it was missing an arm.
And another stumbled forth.
A total of five civic minded young zombies now shared the clearing with Rodney. But there was more.
With a crash, Milt Bierman himself blundered through with his Scoutmaster uniform and his enormous belly. His entrance, however, fared more poorly. The skin of his lower left leg had been entirely ripped away, widely exposing both bone and muscle. As Bierman staggered forward, a thin, broken-off tree stump got wedged between them, snaring him. He fell face-forward, as the second child had.
Old Milt had seen better days. His massive heft was now a veritable Mount Fuji of maggots squirming in eaten cavities throughout his back. His torn tan uniform was black and dark crimson with dried blood. He managed to get his head up. What remained of the skin on his face was now a pasty white; maggots rode his full cheeks and second chin.
And despite all of these sights, it was the smell of the dead that Rodney hated the most.
The horrible truth of his predicament finally dawned on Rodney. If the dead habitually returned to places where they had spent time alive, why shouldn’t a Youth Scout Troop return to the woods for a single-file “hike?”
The child with missing arm screeched. Rodney’s paralysis finally broke, as the lipless boy darted forward and the others followed. Rodney was terrified by how quickly they scrambled after him. Were the younger dead somehow quicker and more agile than the adults?
He spun on his heels and bolted for the ladder that lead to the safety of Fort Buzzard. A single over-the-shoulder glance told him that the little ones were in fast pursuit, with the deranged chipmunk leading the pack. Milt Bierman remained pinned by the small trunk. He bellowed with frustration and hunger.
Rodney reached the ladder and began hauling himself up. Chippy moved just quickly enough to lay one small, rotting hand across Rodney’s left sneaker. The man was surprised at the animal strength of those bony little fingers. Rodney skittered up his tree in such sheer panic that he actually slipped on the top rung and nearly fell. But he caught the ladder with the inside of his arm. In catching himself, his heart pounding, he saw the Youth Scouts surrounding and crowding the base of his tree, their little heads craned upwards, their teeth clicking and clacking like macabre little machines.
He scrambled into his sanctuary. Never had mildew smelled so sweet; never had decade-old plywood felt so firm and reassuring. He only cursed himself for dropping Betty in his panic. He pulled the trapdoor up with a snap.
For hours he waited. The terrible tots never moved, or stopped screeching, at the base of his tree.
After a few more hours, he dared to peek out as they clamored below. The ring of dead little faces still shrieked up at him. Of the five, Chippy’s wails were the most shrill and aggressive. Thank God the damn things weren’t agile enough to climb.
Sunset, and they were still at it. The fading light made the eyes of the tots look black. Chippy hissed like a cobra.
As the night went on, a quite hungry Rodney drifted into a shifty, uneasy sleep.
The following morning, Rodney awoke to the same undead cacophony. The Youth Scouts still ringed his tree like rancid, chattering coyotes. As his stomach rumbled, he thought he felt about as hungry as the dead who had cornered him. He had to admit to himself the slowly dawning horror – the Youth Scouts would never leave him. This siege would last for as long as it would take to starve him or kill him from dehydration. If he were to survive, he’d somehow have to figure out some desperate measure to get past his adversaries.
He opened his trapdoor and peered down. And there was the rotting little chipmunk boy, screeching and chattering and staring right back up at him, like a forest critter from hell.
Rodney looked enviously at Betty the bat, lying only about 15 feet from the tree.
It was maybe 20 feet between Fort Buzzard and the ground.
He knew what he had to do.
Chippy hissed. From his high perch, Rodney could see that yet another of his Youth Scout Badges was in the shape of a fireman’s helmet. “Fire Safety,” it bragged. Another, taller Youth Scout jostled him aside momentarily and clawed at the lowest rung of the ladder. This one had half a blonde scalp peeled away, hanging from the right base of his skull like a thin bandana.
Steeling himself, his heart doing somersaults, Rodney dropped through the trapdoor to the ground below.
He dropped feet first, all 20 feet. He aimed his feet so that they would land directly on the scalped boy’s head and shoulders.
It was a solid connection. He landed squarely on top of the dead boy’s frame, crushing it with his adult weight and momentum. One foot broke its shoulder blade while another went right through its moldy, decomposing head.
A microsecond later, Rodney hit the ground. It felt like colliding with a concrete wall. A bright, searing pain shot up from Rodney’s knee as it struck the floor of the clearing. The wind was nearly knocked out of him. It felt as though every part of his body hurt at once.
The Youth Scouts fell upon him immediately. Rodney had rolled away from the base of the tree when he hit the ground, his legs closest to them. He screamed as he felt the junior cannibals’ mouths on him – two on each leg. Their teeth struggled to pierce the thick denim of his jeans, but they could not. A small, frantic hand clawed desperately at his right foot.
Shrieking, Rodney kicked both of his legs as hard as he could. He scrambled to his feet after the zombies were shaken from his legs, and bolted for Betty.
The Youth Scouts were fast on his heels. Rodney scooped up Betty mid-stride, and spun fluidly around in a savage, hearty swing.
Home run. It knocked the dead boy’s head clean off. It flew from his short shoulders with a loud tha-WACK and sailed off into the woods. Rodney dispatched a second boy with a hard, overhead, downward diagonal stroke, breaking its neck. It collapsed at his feet, its mouth still working and clacking, but immobilized.
Rodney swung at a third, then lost Betty yet again. He’d been aiming for the dead boy’s head, hoping for another home run, but his blow landed low, beneath the little zombie’s outstretched arms and flush into its ribcage. There it got stuck – wedged with a wet SPLAT between two ribs near the sternum. Bone twisted and splintered as Rodney struggled to free the bat; he thought he could see its tip press against the dead boy’s static black heart. Rodney gave a great heave and the boy fell back, but Betty was pulled out of his hands and went with him.
Chippy went for his ankles from behind. Bony hands grasped him under the cuffs of his heavy jeans.
Rodney did a cartoonish high-kick dance to free himself. Bat-Boy got to his feet, with Betty still protruding awkwardly from his ribs. Rodney kicked Chippy right in his devilish little woodland creature face, flipping him onto his back.
Bat-Boy was upon him again. But Rodney easily held him at bay by grasping the handle of the bat. Then, as Chippy regained his footing, Rodney swung Bat-Boy in a wide circle so that the two boys collided. Betty finally wrenched free.
The boys were on their feet again instantly. Yes, for some reason, they really were spryer than the adults, Rodney decided.
In the heat of the battle, Rodney’s brain flashed a new strategy for him to even the playing field a little. He swung low. Betty landed perfectly on the zombie’s right kneecap, splitting it with an audible POP! He fell over like a nine-pin. Then Rodney backpedaled, with Chippy in pursuit. Now he could face the boys one at a time.
Another perfect blow. Chippy’s head collapsed like a month-old Halloween pumpkin, his skull imploding softly. The little zombie’s legs buckled, and he finally went down like a small sack of potatoes.
Bat-Boy still crawled toward him, eager for meat. Rodney took his time lining up a perfect shot, then swung away. And again, he hit a home run. The zombie’s head detached on impact, and sailed over the tall bushes lining the clearing.
The last Youth Scout still moving was the one whose neck he’d broken. Eyes wild, the little zombie still clack-clack-clacked his jaw. Rodney brained him too.
Breathing heavily, Rodney paused. Behind him, the ensnared Milt Bierman still bellowed like a wounded bear. Rodney imagined that the dead man was bemoaning the loss of his Youth Scout Troop. Rodney slowly crossed the clearing to the maggot-Mount Fuji, where he and Betty finally put the Scoutmaster out of his misery.
Silence, at long last, settled into Rodney’s clearing. His sanctuary was safe. His route back to town was resecured. His companion, Betty felt firm and secure in his hand.
He rested his eyes on the broad amateurishly rendered red wingspan – the emblem of Fort Buzzard.
Rodney thrust Betty in the air and let loose a scream that was as primal as that of any caveman. Then he slowly raised his hand in a solemn salute.
Eric Robert Nolan graduated from Mary Washington College in 1994 with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. He spent several years a news reporter and editorial writer for the Culpeper Star Exponent in Culpeper, Virginia. His work has also appeared on the front pages of numerous newspapers in Virginia, including The Free Lance – Star and The Daily Progress. Eric entered the field of philanthropy in 1996, as a grant writer for nonprofit healthcare organizations. Eric’s poetry has been featured by Every Day Poets, Dead Beats Literary Blog, Dagda Publishing, The International War Veterans’ Poetry Archive, Dead Snakes and elsewhere.