Blood Soaked and Contagious

Sample from Blood Soaked and Contagious, by James Crawford, published by Permuted Press in 2013.

Blood Soaked and Contagious

I just wanted to stand there, drinking in the afternoon sun. This section of Route 29 in Arlington is quiet this time of day. At least, it has been since a good-sized chunk of the population started croaking, coming back to life, eating their neighbors, and somehow forgetting to show up for their fulfilling IT and government contracting jobs every day.

They declared martial law during the start of the Emergency, but much of the enforcement slacked off around non-critical areas. The suburbs, for the most part, were classified as non-critical. Even so, in this neck of the woods, you’re more likely to see a stream of urban camo-painted vehicles, driven by various members of the Armed Forces, rather than morning commuters. When I was younger, we’d hang out on the way to school and beat the steaming poo out of one another while counting Volkswagens. These days, you shouldn’t play games like “Punch Buggy” with military Humvees, because there are more of them moving around than commuter cars. That game nowadays always devolves into a fistfight and a kid gets his nose broken. And I dislike screaming children.

However, once in a while, the kid is screaming because Mom and Dad are about to force them into a corner and bite their ears off. Like today. I heard the noises before I decided to stroll up to the burnt-out McDonalds to confirm what I suspected.

Yeah.

Dad, I guess, backed his son into a box of mostly melted Happy Meal toys and was doing his level best to eat the kid alive. Shit.

“Pops! Back off the youngster!”

The man, covered with gore, looked up and out across the wilted plastic seats in the remains of the dining room and smiled at me.

“Don’t you see, this is just a little family squabble—nothing to worry about. Fuck off, Chester.”

I had a hard time believing that, watching the little boy writhing underneath his hands.

“My name isn’t Chester, and I’m not going to let you munch on that kid.”

Dad wasn’t one to waste time. He stood up and hurled himself through the distance that separated us. I’ll admit that, in retrospect, he had one of the best Angry Zombie Growls I’ve heard. What he didn’t have was any clue about human body mechanics.

Faster. Meaner. Claws. But just as stupid.

Charging someone with your arms spread wide, foaming at the mouth, and at full speed is not smart and won’t prepare you for someone who charges back at you.

I ran straight at him, popped the Man Scythe out of the Kydex rig across my back, and snapped the blade out as I moved. To his credit, Dad did not flinch, stop, or do anything else that would have made my day more unfortunate. He just kept coming like a pasty-white, scrawny, undead linebacker.

I planted my leading foot, which checked my forward motion, and collapsed to one knee while pivoting. His arm went right over my head. I came back to my feet, following his motion so that we faced the same direction. He was still in range.

Swing, batter!

The Man Scythe is a compact, folding, melee weapon that is based on a single-handed scythe design. If you’re a martial arts fan, you’ve seen a kama before—its a folding kama, on steroids.

The frame is milled titanium, with a synthetic rubber grip for traction and shock absorption. The blade is three-quarters the length of the entire weapon, and it folds out into position with a flick of the wrist. A slot in the titanium forms a tongue that snaps into place under the blade, keeping it open for use and does a good bit to keep the blade from folding back in when you least want it.

I had this one made for me. No bullshit off-the-shelf models, as if anyone could mass-produce a thing of beauty like this. The blade is hand-forged, laminated steel, selectively hardened, with an appleseed edge profile, as sharp and strong as a samurai sword. Don’t ask me what it cost to have it made—I may never be able to erase that debt.

Dad’s head popped off his shoulders, and the body kept going,

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spraying blood in a beautiful arc as it fell forward. I didn’t even feel it when the scythe sheared his vertebrae. The blade is a testament to modern workmanship, executed by a Master of his craft.

The kid screamed—he was conscious enough to watch the show. Shit, again.

I figured that I’d cope with him as soon as I’d finished the necessary process. You have to open the skull to the air. You can either squish the brains around with your boot or hope for hungry animals of one kind or another to find it and consume it. In the light of day, with people milling about, animals are less likely, which means the first method is the one to use.

Boot.

The back of the scythe blade ends in a beveled spike. It was a thoughtful design decision on the part of the whackjob who came up with the idea. (That would be me. My self-deprecating sense of humor will be the death of me.) All you have to do is reverse your grip, spike forward, and give the decapitated head two or three love taps. By the time you’re finished, either the brain will be exposed, or you will have sufficiently damaged the brain and won’t have to stick your boot in.

The scythe came down with a positive sounding thunk, albeit a bit deeper than I had planned. I was about to put my foot on the cranium to pull the blade free when I heard the kid screaming “My daddy!” over and over again, right behind me.

I spun around, gave the child a complete dose of the “Hairy Eyeball,” and was very disappointed when he didn’t stop the noise.

“Kid! Shut the fuck up!” I bellowed at him, gesturing with both hands. “Your daddy was eating you!”

The little boy’s eyes bugged straight out of his head, the remaining color drained from his face, and he passed out. I marveled at my success and was about ready to pat myself on the back for properly establishing my dominance and pointing out his reality when I realized something.

I never put the scythe down. I’d been flailing around in front of the kid with it still in my hand, flinging his father’s head around in front of him like some kind of macabre magic wand. His short little life would be forever tainted by the image of a madman yelling while his own dad’s bloody noggin danced in front of his face.

There have been times when I knew what I’d just done was a one-way ticket to Hell. In that instance, I was sure I’d just earned a table in the chef’s kitchen in the club car to Hell.

“Aw,” I was very earnest, “I’m really sorry, kid. I didn’t mean to do that to you.”

But he was out. Passed clean out—little psyche gone completely AWOL. That really did not help the situation because I really wanted to confess myself to this little fellow and have him forgive me for terrorizing him. That was no way to die.

I took a good look at his visible wounds and sighed. He wouldn’t make it. Emergency medicine didn’t exist for people who carry the virus. Ninety percent of the time, if a carrier is wounded, they wouldn’t live long enough for an ambulance to arrive. The blood draws zombies from all around.

“Fuck me!” I stormed away from the little prone form on the concrete and proceeded to dash the head against the curb. Destroy the brain and get the damnable thing off the spike of my tool. That was about all the satisfaction I would be getting out of this.

Some moist minutes later, I cleaned off the blade with my shirttail and was just about ready to fold it down, stow it, and move on. Then I heard the little boy stir and start crying. It went way beyond pitiful and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to leave him there to fend for himself. Tears get me every time and I know it.

It was Hard Lesson Time, and there was nothing I could do about it. I got down on my knees beside him and tried to keep a wary eye on our surroundings.

“Uh. Hey. Your dad was eating you because you’re infected with the virus that makes zombies. You’re hurt really bad.” I realized that saying all of this was pointless, but I couldn’t just let him die alone without someone. I kept talking to him.

“Kid. Do you have any family or anyone?”

He just shook his head at me.

“Nobody? No family? No nothing?”

Same shake of the head, tears flying left and right.

There was a chance that I could flag down a Humvee in a little bit and hand him off to the military if he lived long enough. It was an option. They’d take him to the local processing station and put him in the next convoy of infected people that they send to the Pens in Tennessee. They might even patch him up some.

The Pens had been set up to handle situations like these. A child who is orphaned with no family or means of support, the elderly, and anyone who cannot reasonably be expected to contribute to what remains of America’s economic infrastructure were sent to the Pens. It was not a great solution, but it was better than nothing.

He’d live for a while in one of the heavily guarded tent cities that had been slapped together out there. Maybe, but not if the convoy was overrun or the Pens invaded. Then he would go back to being chow, only to join the ranks a little while later.

My choices were not fabulous. Toss the kid at a Humvee, leading to his likely death. Leave the kid to fend for himself—infected and about to die.

The choices looked like: die; die; live for a little bit, terrified, hungry, no medical care, and probably die.

I should have just let his father do the dirty work, but for the fact that it would meant the boy would’ve died the most horrible way imaginable. Maybe I didn’t do anything good for the kid after all.

We just held our places, staring at each other. Weepy Kid and Zombie-cide Man.

“Kid, how old are you?”

“I’m seven years old.” He whispered, starting to wheeze a little bit. Not good.

“Okay.” At that age, he really wouldn’t get the complexity of the choice that I wanted to lay down in front of him. There was no doubt in my mind that choosing whether to die now or die later would be too much for any child to really grasp. But I had to give it a try, because I couldn’t choose.

“Kid. I need you to think about something. I know you’re really upset now, but you have to think about what I’m going to ask you. Can you do that?”

“Huh?”

Great. Just great.

“Do you want bad things to happen to you today, or do you want bad things to happen to you tomorrow or the next day?”

He looked at me with the glazed eyes of the utterly bereft. Tears had dried on his cheeks, and snot had trickled down his face. If it hadn’t been for the expensively tasteful clothes, he could have been any tragic victim from any Third World country you could name. He was the sort of child that gets plastered all over “Adopt Timmy from War-Torn Belize” advertisements.

“Bad things have already happened today,” he whispered. “I don’t want tomorrow to be bad, too.”

I nodded at him. This reduced the options I was considering by one. Don’t hand him to the military. Fuck. I was wasting time.

“Do you want bad things that happen fast and are over, or do you want bad things that might take a while before they stop?”

“Fast bad things.” He didn’t even pause before he answered. Bam. Clarity.

I couldn’t leave him to fend for himself, be hunted, and then eaten. I also couldn’t take him with me, because he’d just be a juicy worm on the fishing pole. They’d find him and me. Worse, the kid could infect me somehow.

I nodded at him again, and took a deep breath.

The boy said, “You killed my dad. Are you going to kill me, too?”

The breath rattled out of me, and I had trouble taking in another one. I don’t know how this little boy knew, but he’d figured it out. Sure, I could just do it and never answer his question, but I knew that it would eat at me, strain my resolve, and give me more reason to hate myself for the things I had to do to survive.

“Yes.” I said it.

“Why?”

“Because if I don’t, things worse than your father will find you really soon. They’ll eat you, just like he wanted to, and then you’ll become just like them. You will go out and eat people.” The words tumbled out of me in one breath.

“Oh,” he replied in that small voice children use when something makes sense. “I don’t want to eat people. It’s bad and it hurts them.”

His eyes started to glass over.

“You’re right,” I said, looking into his fading eyes. They were a really warm brown. “Eating people does hurt them. I’m proud of you that you don’t want to hurt people like that.”

I still don’t believe it, but he actually smiled. It was a good smile. I bet there were little kids like him who went to the guillotine, being brave like that.

“Hey,” I said, “do you see that cloud over there? The one that looks like a duck.”

He turned away from me and looked up. It was the last conscious thing he ever did. Between the beats of my heart, this innocent little boy went rigid, relaxed, rattled deep in his tiny chest, and gave up the ghost. I’d waited too long.

Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.

I’m sorry. I’d hoped to do better for you than talk you to death, kid.

It is always the same story, a decent sort of person who didn’t deserve to have their life tragically cut short. There was only one thing left to do: destroy the brain and then move on.

When it was done, I cleaned off the scythe, folded the blade back into the handle, and snapped it back into the rig. I wasn’t seeing very clearly or breathing very easily. My face was wet.

All I could do was walk away from it. By the time I made it back to my place, my face was dry again.

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