Paulie limped painfully across the broad tidal flats of this barren windswept bay and struggled to recall his Granny’s comforting voice. The simple act of breathing the strong salty air hurt his badly injured ribs. The tide had pulled the weak little wavelets way, way out; miles out it seemed to him – and hanging there, motionless above the grumbling of the waters, loomed a huge ochre moon. Beneath its baleful radiance the sea was nothing more than a distant threadlike slice separating sand from sky.
The moonrise reminded Paulie of his grandmother. She always seemed so struck by it. When he was smaller his Granny was the only one who could handle his frequent tantrums. She could shut his raging angers down with just the power of her voice. It was like a spell she’d cast. Whenever he began to freak she’d wrestle him quickly out of sight to the floor, embracing him tightly to constrict the thrashing of his furious little limbs; a hand held over his mouth to muffle his enraged yells as she urgently whispered calmness in his ear.
She’d tell him tales of the men who walked on the dusty surface of the Moon and even played golf across the blue-grey mare – just imagine that! – and how the native Moonlings would replace the Earthlings moon buggy wheels with concrete blocks while they were distracted collecting their rocks.
As she spoke she’d feel his frenzy dissolve beneath the power of her lilting voice, her musical speech, until eventually he’d relax limply into her secure embrace. They’d remain quietly on the ground until the prowling corpses outside of the Commune fence, attracted by his howls, lost interest and wandered away.
But as little Paulie grew bigger – and became more unhinged – trying to subdue him became a different matter entirely.
I think of her a lot, y’know; my Gran. I always thought it was kinda funny; strange funny that is, her and her thing with the moon and all. Weird how only she could calm me down by just talking about it. No one else could ever do that. Not until Booker came along, anyway. Just thinking of Gran and Booker must have made me slow my pace a bit ’cause one of my executioners shoved me firmly, but gently, in the back.
“Keep moving, Paulie,” muttered Darren softly.
My Gran once said I was born unlucky ’cause no one cares for the afflicted in this new world. If you’ve got no skills you’ve got no value, she said. It’s not enough that you read every book in sight like you do, it’s everyone for the community, or out you go and fend for yourself. She was telling me straight I had no future ’cause I just wasn’t right in the head. And if a person’s disruptive like you are Paulie, well just forget it. True, I could get a bit tetchy sometimes, but I wasn’t as bad as she made me out to be. So once I’m gone they may let you stay, just maybe, but you’ll be on your own for sure, she finished, satisfied that she’d made her point.
My Gran was pretty well respected in the Commune, which was a fenced off grid of farmed streets down by the sea. She was my only living relative and when she eventually died I quickly became the outcast she said I would. First off the other kids were warned away from me by the adults, and then the adults warned me away from their kids. They stopped short of actually putting me outside of the fence, but maybe they should’ve, as they could barely put up with me inside of it. Y’know, not a single adult, not one of them, was willing to take care of me until Booker showed up.
Now, Booker’s really great. I don’t know where he came from – and he never said – but ever since he arrived I haven’t felt that awful emptiness that only Gran could fill. How he came across me like he did I’ll just never know. He just turned up out of the blue on a day when I was hungry and missing her really badly. I was sitting there in my secret hideout; a small empty house at the edge of the Commune, when in he breezes and plonks himself right down beside me on the sofa, no hello or anything like that; no introductions. The old couch springs squawked loudly under his sudden weight and I shot up in the air from the recoil. He seemed about two metres tall with a big toothy grin, bare muscular arms, a sharp blonde crewcut and a huge thick cigar stuck fast in the side of his gob. I’d never seen anyone like him. I just couldn’t stop staring.
Hot Wheels! He cried cheerfully when he saw what I was playing with. I love Hot Wheels! Lemme see ‘em, Paulie! And I felt at ease at once. Here, he said after he zoomed a car skilfully across the floor. Have some chocolate!
Well, we played and talked for hours, me and him, for days sometimes. He didn’t seem to bother with anyone else in the Commune even though he’d go out regularly, nor did he treat me like the retard everyone else said I was. We both laughed at the same stuff and everything he said was interesting and made sense. He made me feel good about myself, too – even when I did the sort of things that the adults didn’t like me doing. Do what you want to do, he said to me. Who cares what anybody else thinks? He must have been in the army or something before the Dead came along, before I was even born, ‘cause he seemed to know an awful lot about military type stuff.
The bad trouble I’m in right now started just last week when he began to explain to me how important stealth, and being stealthy, was in today’s dead world and I told him right back that I already knew all about that stuff. But do you really? He asked in a sort of sly way. No, you don’t. But I’ll show you some moves that might come in handy.
So starting that very night he taught me how to creep quietly through the Commune in the dark. Unseen, the pair of us avoided sleeping sentries and tea-drinking patrols; sneaking through streets and laneways and tiptoeing around crops without causing any damage. We even went into some houses and gazed down at sleepers in their beds. It was such a rush. I even saw Gary’s Ma’s boobs. I couldn’t even imagine what Gary’d say if he ever found that out. I’d be dead for sure ‘cause Gary was like that. Booker put his hand over my eyes and led me away; whispering that I was much too young to be looking at stuff like that, but I silently disagreed.
The next night we swapped some peoples stuff around, just as a prank, y’know, between houses; small stuff only, family photos and the like, and back in the hideout we laughed our heads off imagining what people would say in the morning when they’d find their neighbour’s pictures sitting right next to theirs on their sideboard.
But this got us noticed and I was the first in the Commune to be questioned closely by Darren and his brother Johnny, the main security men, but I just fobbed them off. I even made them smile by saying they were right eejits for accusing me of such stupidity.
Of course we should have taken this as a serious warning and quit, but instead it just made us bolder. So that very night we swapped a line of drying clothes from one back garden to the next and on the following night we replaced the Commune Chairman’s kitchen chairs with his garden furniture. What a blast. But when Booker suggested we swap some kids around; y’know, just tiny ones, I should have been smarter and refused. But he said not to worry ‘cause we wouldn’t be doing anyone any real harm. The truth is that I loved this mad idea and I was really gung-ho to go.
As we lifted our first little kid – Booker insisted on infants as they couldn’t rat us out later – he accidentally dropped it from the cot, and when its little head cracked on impact we both had to double over to stop our shocked laughter from escaping. Booker crammed a whole fist into his mouth just to stop his guffaws, but luckily no one copped us. I later heard that the brat’s death was described as a freak tragic accident. But even so, Darren still called on us the next day and asked me some hard questions about what I’d been up to the night before, like where I’d been and all that.
Again, we really should have stopped right there but we were enjoying ourselves too much, and when Booker decided it was time I learned some proper army interrogation tactics we went out and snatched some kids to practise on – one each – and took them back to the hideout for questioning. The really funny thing about this is they weren’t even old enough to talk, let alone answer questions! I mean really… So we just had a laugh at their kiddie antics until dawn and then we all fell asleep. And those kids are probably the reason the grown-ups arrived in organised force outside the hideout a few short hours later.
Booker was snoozing right next to me on the sofa when Bang! The front door burst right off its hinges, and he was up and gone from the room so fast I hardly even saw him move. He was amazing! Just poof! And gone. Just like that. But I suppose that’s army training for you.
The adults were angry when they grabbed hold of me but when they sussed the pair of little eyeless heads sitting comically on the mantelpiece well… they just went mad. I cowered in terror on the floor as solid blows, kicks and punches rained down on me from all sides. Gary was with them too, kicking me the hardest, his eyes shining with glee, and I wondered stupidly if he’d found out about me seeing his Ma’s boobies. Eventually I told them – I screamed at them – that it’d been Booker! That Booker’d done it all, not me, but they weren’t in the least bit interested. And just when I thought the beating would never end Darren and Johnny arrived and pulled me from the mob before I was murdered outright. A few insane parents screaming blue bloody murder had to be dragged off me by force. I mean, lighten up.
The Committee decides what to do with him, not you! Darren warned them all. Then he ordered some of the calmer adults to help restrain their neighbours. Back off, the lot of you! He demanded. It was touch and go for a few tense moments as it looked like Darren and Johnny might get a hammering too, but the crowd backed down like they’d been told. I noticed that Gary managed to grin and look disappointed all at the same time.
Well, everyone wanted me dead but no one on the Committee had the bottle to clip me personally. Booker once said they were nothing but a shower of bleedin’ leftie crusty hippies playing at being grown-ups, but still… y’know…
This damn boy was never right; the Chairman announced at the emergency noon gathering. But is anyone here actually willing to put him down for what he did? Several men stepped forward immediately but Darren pushed his way through them to the podium. I don’t want to do it, he said. But I’ll do it humanely and properly, which won’t happen if it’s left to some of the others here.
Right, the Chairman agreed, banging a little hammer on the stand like a right feckin arse. Darren will do it then, okay? But not inside the Commune. Wait for tonight’s low tide and take him out beyond the sea wall. Let the waters take him away.
So here I am, being walked across the tidal flats in the moonlight, my arms wrapped around my throbbing, broken ribs, wondering if they’d bring me as far as the waterline to do me in. I was afraid to ask in case Darren decided we’d gone far enough already and then that’d be that, so I just plodded on, staying alive for as long as I could, gasping and spitting blood, my tongue scratched by broken teeth, my bare feet scraping over hard sand and through little seawater puddles.
I felt low. Like, really low, y’know? Knowing that in a few minutes I’d be dead and cold forever and ever, just like Gran. I just didn’t think I deserved this. I mean, it really should be Booker getting marched out here and… and not me. My legs were weak from the awful fear of it all. I could hardly stand up to walk. My whole body shook. I was sick to my stomach with dread.
As we got nearer to the water I saw shadows squirming clumsily all along the surf line. It was a heaped up army of floaters, bloaters and crawlers left high and dry by the tide, all piled one atop the other, flopping bonelessly about.
“Stop right there, Paulie,” said Darren quietly as soon as he copped them out there and Gary paused quickly right behind him. Yeah, that’s right; the same Gary whose heavy boots happily stove my ribs in earlier. Gary was just a smelly, skinny seventeen year old who, until Booker showed up, was the only person in the world who’d ever talk to me. Well, abuse me is a better word. With Gran gone, and long before Booker appeared, I needed to pretend I had at least one friend in the world and Gary was it. He scared me to death with his crude bullying but he was the only one who’d tolerate me, so I’d follow him around like a kicked dog despite the slaps and the punches. For all his viciousness he still didn’t like being outside the Commune in the dark. He was as scared as I was right now, but for different reasons. At least he’d get home alive. It wasn’t fair. The Committee, those grown up eejits, thought he might be a comfort to me or something – that is, prevent me from making any trouble on my final walk – and Darren unhappily agreed to this as Johnny had to stay behind to make sure no one followed us out here. I heard Darren say to Gary that a few still wanted me to croak in a way they thought more fitting.
“Right,” sighed Darren reluctantly. “We’ll have to do it here.”
I moaned with dread and began to cry. I looked longingly into the eye of the moon and then up at the free, free stars high above; my guts in my boots, craving some sort of comfort, a hug from Darren or something. I felt so alone. Would Granny be waiting up there for me? I really, really hoped so.
“Please Darren,” my voice hitched as I sobbed. “Don’t kill me. I’m only fourteen. Booker did it all, not me.”
“Booker,” he muttered, “your imaginary friend. He’s your excuse, isn’t he, Paulie? You’ve been Booker this and Booker that all day, well, Booker me hole. There is no Booker! He lives in your mind. He only exists as part of your madness. Now c’mon, on your knees. I promise this won’t hurt, which is probably more than you deserve.”
Darren was no killer but when I saw he was really going to go through with this I turned frantically to Gary. “Gary, don’t let him kill me Gary,” I babbled. “We’re pals, aren’t we? You know it was Booker that did it!” But Gary just gripped and un-gripped a large goalies hurley with twitchy fingers, his eyes darting from me to the floaters and back again. I could see his horror at what was going to see done to me, but there wasn’t a shred of pity there.
“It was Booker…” I whispered hopelessly as my jelly like legs finally gave way and I plopped heavily on the sand. But then, just as Darren placed the cold barrel of his handgun against my forehead I caught a whiff of cigar smoke in the air. I looked up and saw a large figure loom out of the darkness; out of nowhere, it seemed like. A gush of hope jolted through me and I jumped back to my feet.
“Booker!” I gasped.
Darren and Gary automatically looked around. I hadn’t heard his footfalls follow us across the flats but Booker could move like a shadow when he wanted to. He ignored Gary completely and twisted neatly under Darren’s gun arm, shouldering him hard in the chest. As Darren fell backwards Booker quickly snatched his gun away, neat as neat, grinning like a big idiot.
I cheered loudly when he shot Gary in the ankle and whooped when he plugged Darren in the guts. He held the automatic high above his head and pranced around like a demented boxer. What a bleedin’ mover! What a big show-off! Watching him strut his stuff like that was like watching the bleedin’ ballet – except with blood and stuff, y’know, and maiming. Booker was so funny. He just didn’t give a shite!
Darren slumped on the sand, his arms clamped across his belly, and Gary squealed and rolled in a small pool, holding his shot leg up in the air. And me? I was jumping up and down with joy, clapping my hands like an excited little girl, splashing in the puddles, my heart buzzing with delight and relief. I was alive! Alive!
But feckin hell, all that sudden movement made my ribs explode again. I bent over in pain. Booker stopped his shenanigans when he saw this and came over. He turned me gently around to face the moonlight and his big face frowned as he examined my bruised and swollen eyes, my broken nose, my split lips and shattered teeth. Beyond him the soggy crawlers were already coming for us, attracted by the noise, slopping and slapping their legless way across the sands; rolling one over the other to get to our juicy bodies. Not a single one of them was on its feet – if any even had feet.
Booker got me to raise my blood stained tee and he gazed with concern at my black-and-blue ribcage. He shook his head sadly and ruffled my hair lightly. Then he bent and brushed the wet sand from my knees.
“I sort of ratted you out, Booker,” I admitted meekly, shamefaced.
He grunted in that low, growly voice of his. “Sure who could blame you? Just look at what they did. Anyone else woulda given up their mothers after a beating like that. I’m amazed you’re still alive.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“What? Look, don’t be. Forget it,” he said. “No harm done, eh? We’re okay now, you and me.” We smiled at each other and he said suddenly: “Anyway, hey,” cheerfully like, “which one of those two d’you think’ll die first, huh? The handsome one or the pimply one?”
I laughed as I thought about this. “Well, Darren of course,” I decided. “Gary’s only been shot in the foot.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Booker frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t suppose you still have your blade on you?”
“Nah. They took it.”
“Bastards! Stupid question anyway. Well look, you’d better take this thing so,” he said, handing me Darren’s automatic.
“Wow, Booker! Thanks.” Jeez, it was really heavy.
“Don’t you lose it,” he warned sternly, “and don’t get it wet.” He mussed my hair again and nodded towards the distant level crossing by the sea wall. “Must dash,” he said. “Gotta do number two’s. I’ll see you up at the coast road in a few minutes. I’ll leave you here to clean up this mess.”
I gazed at him with a stupid grin as he loped off into the gloom, back towards the tracks, and d’you know what? The mad eejit was actually wearing his shades – at night time, in the dark. Shades! I mean, how bleedin’ cool is that!
“You are the dog’s bollocks!” I yelled after him. I could hear the awe in my own voice. Then I coughed and it hurt. I spat more blood. I really needed doctoring but Booker would know what to do. He’ll fix me up. I glanced over my shoulder at the tideline, one arm held across my ribs, the other sagging under the weight of the gun. Water swollen corpses heaved and sluiced, joining and separating as they flowed on closer. They looked like several tons of dark, crawly jelly just glistening in the moonlight.
Booker said to clean up but I knew the Dead would do that for me, so I turned and set off after him.
“Wait, Paulie,” groaned Gary through gritted teeth, his fingers clasping and unclasping at handfuls of sand. His foot dangled off his raised up leg and in the bad light I saw it was attached only by his sock and some bloody strings. I gazed at it curiously in passing; I didn’t know bullets could do stuff like that.
“Don’t leave me,” he whined. “My foot…”
“Oh, for Jaysus sake Gary,” I snapped. “Anyone’d think you’d never been shot before.” I barked a laugh at my own joke and carried on.
“No, Paulie, wait! Help me!”
But I ignored him. As far as I was concerned he could rot. But still, but still…I sort of wondered if he had anything to say for himself, y’know, about all that bad stuff he’s been doing to me since Gran died, including what happened today. So I paused, one eye on the closing bloaters as I did.
“Why should I? You were gonna kill me.”
“No. No I wasn’t. Darren was. I was going to like…y’know, stop him!”
“You bleedin’ liar.” I snorted. “You were not. He put that gun to my head and you did nothing.”
“Well… y’know, you snatched it away before I could say anything.”
“Huh? That was Booker, you blind gobshite.”
“But…?” he seemed confused. “…but anyway, Paulie look, we’re pals, right…”
“We’re not pals,” I snapped. “I only said we were so you’d help me – and you didn’t. End of!”
“Please, they’ll be here any minute.” And he was right. They were much closer now, blobbing about, their moans drowning out the rumble of the waters. But here’s a funny thing; even now, out here on the sands, a small stupid part of me still wanted Gary to like me. I just kinda needed his approval or something – I dunno why. But at the same time another part of me had a score to settle and it was by far the stronger, so I stepped closer to him and raised the gun.
“You broke my ribs today Gary, didn’t you? Kicking me. Huh? Gary? Didn’t you? Gary? Huh?”
Are you following me again Paulie? (Kick.) Are you? Huh, Paulie? Following me? (Punch.) Are you? Huh? Here, have another slap, you stupid little weasel.
His hands stopped mauling at the sand as he stared into the muzzle of the gun. I bet right now he was counting every kick and punch he’d ever given me. Poor bleedin’ Gary, he wanted so much to live. But I just smirked. He wasn’t so big and scary now, was he? I touched the gun lightly against his jaw.
“Do you really want my help?” I asked and he nodded rigidly. “Then tell me; are you sorry for being such a bollocks to me?”
He nodded frantically.
“You have to say it out loud for it to count, Gary.”
“Please Paulie,” he began to blub, looking stiffly from me to the approaching dead. “I’m sorry about all the stuff I ever done to you. Really I am. Look, I’m really hurt. You’ve killed Darren and you shot my foot right off. Why can’t we just call it quits, okay? Please! I’m not meant to die.”
I gazed at him quietly for a long moment. “Well, okay, then.” I said, kind of easy like. I lowered the gun, leaned over him a little and poked my finger into his eye – not very hard though, not as hard as Booker did to those two kids last night, but hard enough for my nail to pierce the gooey white bit a little. Gary screamed sharply and twisted away. I chuckled and wiped his squirty eye jelly on his pants leg.
“There,” I said happily. “Now we’re quits, okay? Right, let’s get you sorted out here.”
“Oh Paulie, thank you!” he cried through his pain, relieved. “I knew you’d help!” He held one hand to his eye and offered me the other to pull him up.
“Whoa there,” I laughed. “I can’t like, physically help you, Gary. I can’t lift you at all. You smashed my ribs, remember? I’m in bits. But listen, I’ll stay right here with you until those bloaters get here, alright? I’ll be, eh… a kinda comfort to you, y’know? And don’t you worry,” I said reassuringly, waggling the gun. “Before they get here I’ll be sure to kill you first.”
“What?” He wailed. “Paulie, that’s just not fair! You said you’d help! I…I can’t die. Listen…I think…I’m sure if I tried I could stand…”
“Naw,” I muttered. “Look! Your foot’s hanging right off. You’re a bleedin’ goner, pal.” I prodded his dangling foot. He howled and I laughed again. “Anyway, you’ll probably bleed out long before they even get close; which’d be good,” I added in a kindly way, sort of to myself. “‘Cause then I won’t feel so bad about having to club you to death with your hurley.”
“Club me?” he cried in horror.
“Yeah, it sounds like fun, huh?” I tucked the gun into my belt and hefted the curved length of the hurley. There’s no way my grinding ribs would let me swing it, but Gary needn’t know that. I was really just messing with his head before I scarpered.
“Oh, this is bad,” I said quietly, again sort of to myself. “It’s not very heavy, is it Gary? And look, we need to work fast. Those crawlers are nearly here and it’ll probably take me at least, oh…twenty good, solid smacks to finish you off with this. Hmmm…Yeah, so we’d better get started right away, okay? So come on; stick your head out there. I’m sure you won’t feel a thing after the third or fourth blow, probably…”
“No!” He recoiled. “Paulie…Don’t…”
“Oh, c’mon Gary,” I snapped impatiently. “Don’t be such a baby. It’ll be over real quick and besides, I need to get out of here too, y’know. Surely you don’t want me to get eaten as well, do you? Not when I can just walk away from here.”
“Paulie!” he cried frantically. “Stop messing!”
“I’m not messing,” I said, inspired. “And I’ll even tell you what, if it makes you feel any better, when I get home I’ll send your Ma up to heaven after you, okay? Just to keep you company. Would you like that?” I took note that the slippery Dead were homing in nicely on the sound of our voices.
“Me Ma?” said Gary in a voice that sent a little bit of doubt running through me. This threat to his Ma seemed to… I dunno. But for the first time tonight he was looking at me in his old Gary way, y’know, just like he would’ve done normally as he’d prepare me for a kicking.
“Listen Paulie,” he said in a low, dodgy voice. “That’s really not fair. You bleedin’ well leave my Ma out of this.”
“But I like your Ma,” I said lightly, though not with the same ease I felt a moment ago. “Whenever I see her she makes me feel sort of… funny, y’know, in my tummy.”
“Touch my Ma and I’ll kill you,” he said, very calm like.
“Oh, yeah?” I snorted a laugh. “How? Just look at you! You’re a feckin cripple.”
“Right!” he snapped, sorta to himself, like he’d just decided something. “That’s it! I’m getting up right now. I’m getting up and I’m going home. D’you hear what I’m saying, you stupid retard? I’ve had just enough of your shite.”
I took another step away as he rolled awkwardly to his knees. Had he forgotten the gun? This didn’t make sense. His mangled foot swung loosely around as he made a awkwardly shuffled on the sand. Then he actually managed to heave himself upright and stand, hopping about on his good foot. I backed away further. I wasn’t sure about this at all.
“What are you doing?” I asked. This wasn’t fun anymore. He wasn’t meant to be standing. He was meant to be at my feet and scared, under my control. Lucky for me I didn’t tell him about his Ma’s boobies. This standing up thing was bad enough.
“To hell with you, Paulie.” he grunted. “I don’t need you or your help. I’ll get myself home. Now, gimme that hurley or…”
I shot him in the mouth, but Jaysus! My eyes…my ears…I’d never fired a gun before and now I was deaf and blind. When my senses came back Gary was lying on the sand near Darren; still alive, mind you, crying and moaning – but alive.
“Aw, for fecks sake!” I muttered angrily, staring at the gun; wondering how it could have made me miss. I mean really, look; the bullet only grazed his idiot face. I picked up the hurley and, ignoring my swollen ribs, threw it at him in disgust. Happily though the bullet did some damage. In the pale light I could see a loosened ear slide glistening down his cheek to plop gently on the sand. I shook my head. Honestly, feckin Gary.
Then I noticed that Darren seemed to be alive as well. I was sure he was dead. He was looking up at me with hooded eyes and I didn’t like his expression much. I could see he was judging me, the prick. It was the kind of look I got when I was caught peeping through windows and stuff.
“What are you bleedin’ staring at?” I snapped.
“At an evil little maggot,” he snorted weakly, spitting blood at me. He shouldn’t have done that. I mean, I’m the one with the gun here, right? Or had he forgotten, like Gary seemed to?
“I’ll bet you miss your Granny,” he rasped. “Don’t you Paulie? Yeah? Well, your Gran didn’t even like you. Did you know that?”
I’m not thick. I knew what his game was. He needed me to shoot him before the Dead got him. Well, I laughed. I mean; fat chance of that happening after him saying things like that about Gran.
“You’re full of shite Darren, my Gran loved me.” I knew he was a feckin liar, my Granny loved me. She’d often tell me as I screamed at her to let me out of her cupboard – but that was before I got too big to be wrestled into it in the first place.
“She didn’t love you.” Darren argued in a feebly, amused voice. “You gave her the willies with your blank stares and your spooky imaginary friends. And your dead pets, of course.” He snickered painfully. “She couldn’t stand you, Paulie. She’d’ve drowned you in a sack except you were all that was left of her daughter.”
“Oh yeah? She once asked the Committee to pop you, did you know that? She was frightened for the other kids and what you might do to them when she was gone. D’you think you weren’t been watched? She told us all about the little animals and the wire coat hangers.”
“Okay, Darren,” I snorted. “Here’s what’s gonna happen. For lying about my Gran I’m gonna make sure that later on tonight Booker’ll wear your kids face for a mask.” I could tell I’d scored a point with that one. “He might even let little Amy live, Booker might. And he’ll leave her eyes alone so she can see her dead Daddy coming for her. He’ll…”
Darren growled and lunged at me. I screamed and accidentally pulled the trigger. The shot tore a chunk from his neck and he flopped around for a bit, gasping and choking. Then I screamed again. I’d been so stupidly tormenting Darren that I’d forgotten all about the Dead! I scrambled madly backwards as they swarmed over his twitching body like mating eels.
“Ha!” I yelled at him as I stumbled away. “Ha! Don’t you worry, Darren,” I shouted into the snarling melee. “It’ll be over real quick, which is more than you deserve, you lying dick.”
I continued to back slowly away, listening to the sound of old teeth pulling at meat. The Dead were moaning, yes, but all those sweet, sweet whimpers were Darren’s. As I smiled I noticed a lone, skinny corpse lurching upright towards solid ground. But it wasn’t a corpse at all, was it? No, it was Gary, going home to see his Mammy. He leaned heavily on the hurley, his loose foot bouncing and dragging across the hard, rippled sand. Sometimes he even walked on the stump. A breakaway clutch of bloaters followed him several metres behind and I followed too, breathing shallow little breaths and hugging my burning ribcage. I was really interested to see how far he’d get before getting dragged down. I was sure I could stay well clear of the creeping pack.
“They’re catching you, Gary,” I catcalled hoarsely. “You’d better lift both of them legs now!” But he blanked me out and stared straight ahead, eyes fixed on the level crossing. Maybe that bullet loosened something in his brain, I dunno, but he really didn’t seem to hear me. Then I nearly shit myself when a pair of arms grabbed my shoulders from behind. I yelped and struggled free of their awful grip, swinging the gun around wildly.
“Whoa, whoa,” laughed Booker, playfully ducking and covering his head until I pointed the gun away.
“Booker!” I yelled; really, really angry. “You utter bollocks! I nearly crapped myself!” I should have known he’d get up to his old tricks. He got bored awful easy. “I coulda shot you! I thought you were up at the road.”
“I was,” he said. “But you were late, so I came back down to see if you were okay. Don’t be mad, Paulie. Huh? I’m sorry. Okay? C’mon, let’s have a bit of a laugh, how about it? And a little bet. Just to cheer you up.”
“What sort of bet?” I asked sulkily, already feeling my annoyance slip away just having him here.
“Well, how about this,” he suggested. “How far d’you reckon Gary’ll get before they drag him down?” This perked me up a lot; both of us wondering the same thing at the same time.
“Well, I dunno,” I said, gasping a bit but interested, as we fell into a slow, unsteady step together. “I reckon…I reckon he’ll get up to the level crossing anyway. Maybe even the road.”
“The road?” laughed Booker. “Not a chance. Are you serious? Look at him, he’s practically bled white.” But Gary floundered gamely on and I reeled after him, bent and winded, Booker guarding my side and the crawlers following along.
It seemed to take us forever but we eventually made it to the solid ground at the level crossing. I rested my aching body against the barrier and it was only then that I noticed that Booker wasn’t there. I looked around and saw Gary, face down just a few metres back. The Dead were almost on him and there was Booker, that big eejit, stood right over him and doing nothing about it.
“D’you still think he’ll make it to the road?” he asked casually. “He’s not even up to the tracks yet and already he’s slacking. I think you’re about to lose this one, Paulie.”
Now, a bet is a bet but I hate losing, even to Booker, so I gripped my sides harder and stumbled back past them both. I put the gun against the head of the nearest corpse and shut my eyes. The report was deafening and the automatic jumped in my hand. I rested the barrel against the head of the next one and fired again but really, there were too many to keep this up.
They were just about to crowd around so I helped him struggle to his feet…well, foot. Foot and stump; his shot foot had broken off and lay discarded somewhere out on the beach. Anyway, helping him was probably against the rules of the bet, I know, but I just wanted to spite Booker for scaring me so badly. Once we got as far as the road the bloaters, floaters and crawlers were welcome to his miserable carcass.
Gary had an arm around my neck and sweat poured down my face as we struggled along, the Dead tickling our heels. Booker was no help at all. We were crossing the tracks when clutching hands found my ankles and I was so weak they brought me heavily down. Gary managed to lumber numbly on; leaning on the hurley.
Without thinking I rolled on my back, raised the gun and fired wildly at the enemy, blinding myself in the process. I kept kicking violently at the grasping arms until my sight returned. Then I wished it hadn’t. Booker lay motionless at my feet, his grip on my legs relaxing; a bullet hole punched clean through his shades. I cried out in grief and loss.
“Booker! You stupid…” Didn’t I tell him not to do that? Didn’t I? Wet Dead poured over Booker’s body and he was quickly buried beneath a flood of grunting, slurping corpses. I stood in horror as a murderous rage filled me. Gary. It was Gary’s fault that Booker was dead and all that mattered now was making him pay.
I staggered drunkenly after him and caught him at the edge of the road. I wasn’t afraid of him any more. But I was being very careful here. I wasn’t sharing him with anything, so I raised the gun and sighted on a pair of faster crawlers that were almost on him and I shot them both point blank, eyes closed again.
“Gary, you bastard,” I hissed. “You made me kill Booker.” I stumbled feebly against him and we both hit the tarmac. I came over all weak all of a sudden and the gun slipped away from my hand. I fallen on top of Gary and I was reaching for his face, but before I could get my fingers to his one good eye I was suddenly lifted upwards bodily from behind. I could feel my ribs grind together as I was dragged screaming across the road.
“Granny!” I howled. “Granny! Don’t let them eat me!”
“Shut it, kid,” grunted a rough voice. “Just quit your bleedin’ kicking, willya? It’s okay. You’re safe! We’ve got you!” I was lowered gently and carefully to the hard tarmac, my sides and chest a blaze of agony. I stared up in terror as a pair of strange faces looming over me. Across the road two other strangers were pulling Gary clear of the crawlers and calmly clubbing all undead stragglers. I couldn’t see Bookers body from where I lay.
“Please,” I blurted. “Don’t take me back to the Commune.”
“Commune? We don’t know any commune. We were passing and heard shots and we saw you protecting your friend over there; shooting those corpses off him. Very coolly done. Very ballsey, kid.”
“Yeah,” agreed the other. “Pretty hard core, all right. Your friend’ll live to sing your praises too, by the looks of things.”
Now, that wasn’t good. That wasn’t very good at all, so I had to think fast. “I did try to save him,” I lied desperately. “But look at what they did to his foot.”
“Oh, my god, Bill,” whispered one. “He’s right. Look at that poor sods leg? Aww, shite! Well…eh…look here kid, I know he’s your pal and all, but… well…you know what has to be done, don’t you?” I couldn’t believe they just went and took my word for it, so I nodded sadly. “Yeah, of course I know. But let me do it, willya? I’m the one that let him down. I mean, I know he’d prefer it if I finished him off.”
They gazed down at me in silent approval. “Best not, kid. I mean, Jesus Christ, just look at the state you’re in. You’ve been through the wars. No, you just sit tight and let us take care of your friend.”
“Yeah,” said Bill. “Just leave it all to me, little brother. He won’t even see me coming. I’m very quick and quiet. He won’t feel a thing, I promise.” He took a short handled axe from his belt and strolled over to where Gary lay panting on his back, utterly relieved to be rescued. To my endless delight Gary glanced up just as Bill swung his weapon down hard. Gary screamed and dodged and the blade crunched deep into his shoulder. I smiled. I couldn’t help it.
“Don’t!” Gary shrieked as Bill panicked and clumsily tore the axe head free to swing it down again. Gary dodged once more, the axe smacking meatily into the side of his ugly face. My new friend Bill was really crap at this killing stuff. Gary bawled again and covered the top of his head with his hands as Bills next stroke successfully split his stupid skull. Protective fingers shot off in all directions and pattered softly along the roadside. This was so great, but watching Bill stand on Gary’s face to wrench his axe blade free just finished me. Even better, if that was possible, was the top of Gary’s skull coming away with the blade. I curled foetally in a ball to hide my laughter. I so wished Booker could’ve seen this.
“For Jaysus sake, Bill,” snarled Bills pal. “You clumsy feckin imbecile, just look at what you’ve done? You’re after traumatising this poor kid.” One of the other strangers, maybe even Bill himself; I daren’t uncurl to see, put a comforting hand on my quaking, shaking shoulders.
“There now lad,” he said awkwardly. “There, there now.”
They treated me like glass as they lifted me gently into their Land Rover. I’d never been in a car before. Not a moving one, anyway. It was brilliant. There were loads of little lights on the dash. Once they’d patched me up a bit and made me comfortable in the back they even gave me the furry dice to hold.
“Ever been to school, kiddo?” asked Bill cheerfully as we drove through the remains of south Dublin. I could tell he was feeling very bad about Gary but I just shook my head no. “Well, you’ll be going to class as soon as you’re all in one piece again. We’ve got about fifteen other kids on the base so you’re bound to make a few new friends.”
Fifteen kids? Wow! I gazed through the front windscreen and thought about this brilliant piece of news. Just as I was wondering what fifteen eyeless little heads would look like all lined along a mantelpiece I saw a tall, muscular figure standing calmly in the middle of the road ahead, clearly lit by the main beams. No one else seemed to notice him though and we just zoomed by.
I twisted around in my seat as best I could and grinned with delight. I mean, just look at him back there: walking calmly after us, waving at me and blowing cigar smoke through his nose. I shook my head admiringly as I wiggled my fingers back at him. I mean, the mad eejit still had his shades on – and it was still the bleedin’ night time!