Strangely, I felt no pain. Stars exploded before my eyes, and all went black.
I should’ve known better. I’d heard the stories, but dismissed them as fancy. Urban legend. I’d taken the garbage out, then for a walk with the dog. Together we enjoyed the quiet of a birthing night. Muffin sniffed around a pole while I admired the pink sky. I never got many of those moments; the ones of solitude, that was. My home was a frantic hub, three teenage girls and an angry wife. I escaped as often as I could, even if it meant something as simple as watching Muffin piss atop a neighbor’s lawn.
The lab reared her head, nose attacking the air, hackles raised. She backed her ass against me, a deep growl caught in her throat. I scanned the lawns expecting to see another animal, a raccoon, maybe; worst still, a skunk. I saw nothing. Only a white car humming down the street. “Easy girl,” I cooed, her snout swinging in confusion.
That’s all I remembered.
I woke in the black. Shirtless. Legs folded under me. Shoeless, too. Dog leash still in hand. My body jostled about. I threw my hands out, struck metal. A trunk. Fuck, it was all true then.
My back ached. I thought of all the good work performed by my chiropractor now gone to shit. And my head, well that ached like a motherfucker as well; my fingers traced the egg protruding under my hair. I inhaled the stale air of my confinement, felt the sweat dance along my balls.
I waited. I thought. I thought hard. The stories…one had to abide by certain rules. I fumbled with Muffin’s leash, passing it hand to hand. It finally came to me. Rule one. You don’t talk about Shambler Club. Rule two. You most definitely don’t talk about Shambler Club.
How many rules were there?
The jostling stopped. All grew still. My senses screamed. But I kept remembering.
Rule three. If someone gets bit, you’re next in line.
Only two bodies to a fight. One fight at a time.
I should’ve been thinking of my kids, but doing so would only dull any edge I might hope to have. I realized I needed to be ready. I needed to fight.
No shirts, no shoes.
I heard a key click in the lock.
The trunk lid rose.
Fights go as long as they need. If this is your first night at Shambler Club, you have to fight. Because it will be your last if you don’t.
Artificial light blinded me. A crowd’s roar filled my ears.
I pulled myself up. Slowly at first, eyes gradually adjusting to the spotlights set above my head. I willed the soreness from my body. No, not really; it didn’t work. Wincing, I flipped a leg out from the bowel of the trunk. Then another. I saw a cracked sticker upon a faded bumper: HONK IF YOU’RE HAPPY
I saw them, four deep. Maybe five. Man. Woman. Even child. They cheered wildly; money exchanged hands. I wondered how much was wagered in my favor. I wondered how many even cared. Sand filled the gaps between my toes; it sure as hell felt better than the bottom of the trunk.
“Suburbanite dad, are you ready?”
The announcement echoed from the speakers set up around the pit. And it was a pit, filled with a loose sand that claimed the tops of my feet; pitted railroad ties stacked three high, serving as some rudimentary border. Barbed wire, strung from aluminum poles driven every ten feet or so into the ground accompanied them. Warehouse, arena or otherwise, the arrangement was impressive. No one was getting into the pit. More importantly, no one was getting out.
“I said, suburbanite dad, are you ready?”
Unsure, I raised my hand. Outside the pit, the savages went wild. The cheers, the heckling, resonated inside my head making that egg feel watermelon sized. No doubt about it now, that urban legend was all too real. I thought of a dark place, any I might have. Recollections of bedtime lullabies for my daughters weren’t helping me now. I needed to get pissed off: thoughts of my brother-in-law who disrupted every goddamn thing I ever had planned; my wife, who always left the recycling bin full for me to dump on stormy nights; a life filled with frustration…
Bring it on.
At the far end of the pit sat a trailer; its aluminum door began to rise. I couldn’t see it emerge at first, hidden as it was in the gloom. But by inches it revealed itself; stained jeans hanging from an emaciated waist, grey-pasty fingers clacking along its sides. The Shambler saw me. Correct that – smelled me, the way dear Muffin used to inhale the fragrance of the hydrants in town. Locked onto whatever scent I gave off (the shit smell of fear, maybe?), the Shambler lurched from the trailer, gaining uncanny speed across the makeshift sand bed.
The crowd rocked with delirium. I’m sure they sensed an easy kill. My first impulse? I ran away, looking every bit like Costello in those old flicks I used to watch with dad. But this was my ass on the line, and I didn’t give a flying fuck exactly how manly I appeared.
It didn’t think strategy; it didn’t craft a plan. The Shambler knew only hunger, and it saw meat dead ahead. Oddly, I found myself laughing as I ran for my life. If I’d believed the Shambler Club a thing of legend, then surely Shamblers themselves were the rainbows ringing my hairy ass. Pallid faced, milky eyed, it came after me.
I was a dad; hell, the very suburbanite dad I was introduced as. I knew nothing of the rules of the pit, nothing about fighting the undead. My feet churned clumsily through the sand. I stumbled, fell. Gashed my palm on barbed wire as I reached out going down. The crowd was right there, in my face, screaming bloody terror in support of their wagers, separated only by the barb and a healthy fear of the Shambler.
The Shambler, well, it was right in my face, stalking me down with uncanny speed for something that, scientifically, shouldn’t have been able to move; shouldn’t have even existed. It straddled me, so cold, feeling so rubbery. From its mouth wafted the rank scent of flesh worked over by the sun. Its teeth, those gnashing, crooked teeth, worried me most.
It lunged for my neck, but I’d been hiding my face behind my hands and somehow pushed its chin away. There I lay, in the pit, in the sand, my entire existence narrowed down to a hellish moment in some undisclosed location; undisclosed to me, at least. My mind went back to rules one and two: you never, ever talk about Shambler Club.
Because you can’t.
The Shambler’s jaws snapped: open, shut, open, shut, but still I shoved its chin aside. Sideways, it glared at me, those dead pupils seeing something of this realm I simply could not. The crowd chanted. My mind began to drift. I thought of Brianna, my oldest. Interested boys were already lining up outside my door; she kept her iPhone concealed from me all the time.
My strength ebbed; the jaws drew closer.
Madison, my middle girl. She aspired to be a baker. Her cupcakes had packed unwanted pounds around my midsection.
Snap, snap, those yellowed teeth.
Then there was Bailey. My little Bailey. She’d always be my baby. All my girls would be, of course, but her especially. She still wanted my goodnight kiss upon her forehead at night, still hugged me like I was Santa Claus every day before leaving the house for work.
In long strands, the saliva spilled from the Shambler’s lips, mere inches from taking my life.
I thought of the endless grief my wife gave me when buying a book from Amazon while her purses formed an endless caravan outside our closet. I thought of the many times she extinguished the bedroom light without ever giving me a second glance, let alone saying goodnight.
The Shambler’s chin halted. Began moving away.
I thought of her many criticisms, the way she mocked me for my lack of grace under pressure.
Slowly, its head tilted upward.
Yes, I needed to bring myself to a dark place.
My hand, it continued to bleed from the wound; rivulets crisscrossed my forearm, my elbow. But I wouldn’t stop pushing back against the Shambler, would not stop –
I still held tight to Muffin’s leash.
With my free hand, I reached out, tossing the leash round the Shambler’s neck. It swung up, over and around. I shifted my bodyweight beneath the Shambler; the sand served as my ally. I clutched the dangling leash and, hands now crossed under its chin, flipped atop the undead thing. Summoning all the strength I could muster from my middle-aged core, I reared back on the leash.
I pulled and didn’t stop. It might’ve been due in part to the rage I felt over mowing the lawn time after time without appreciation; maybe it was the simple desire to keep giving my Bailey those goodnight kisses. Either way, I pulled on that fucking leash, screamed above the crowd as the nylon tore further through the wound on my palm. The Shambler shuddered as its head gradually separated from its shoulders.
I pulled. The crowd cheered me on (some still heckled as well). I thought of Muffin, not knowing where she was, and thanked her for the blessing that was her leash. Rage spewed from my mouth; with a hefty tug, the nylon cord cleaved dead flesh and its brittle spinal cord. Its head plopped atop the sand.
My hand throbbed like hell, but it was better than the alternative. I fist pumped the air, playing to my supporters’ adulation. As I turned to leave the pit, I realized there was nowhere for me to go.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the suburbanite dad scores the upset victory!”
The ring announcer’s voice was nowhere, yet everywhere. I spun round and round in the sand, recalling the days I spent playing on the beach as a boy. But this was no beach.
“Can he do it again?”
And I am no longer a boy.
“I said, can he do it again?”
The car that delivered me into the pit didn’t offer further protection. And it’s not like I expected to find the keys inside. Even if they were, I’m wasn’t about to lock myself in and hide. What would’ve been the point? Of the many stories I’d heard, Shambler Club still remained a champion short worth remembering.
As the trailer door clanked open again, the crowd grew hush. I stood. I waited. I saw toenails, perfectly manicured, brushed with a blue stolen from summer’s sky. Skin so tan, so fresh – so unlike the thing rotting down at my feet. Shapely legs sprouting from designer shorts…my eyes continued their upward journey. I knew every inch of that dead flesh, of course. What I didn’t know was how they’d managed to turn my wife so fast.
I thought of all her sideways glances, tightened my grip on Muffin’s leash and charged.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2015 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.