Shambler Club

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

Fuckers.

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.

No.

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.

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Not Quite Indian Summer

Tag, you’re it!”

“Ow, my mother said no one’s supposed to touch me there!” April rubbed her chest, frowning at Ben.

“Big deal. It’s not like you have boobs or anything.”

Before she could tell him she did so have boobs, Ben ran off, calling her ‘flatso’. He disappeared behind the Mowry’s house.

Probably hiding in their shed, April thought.

“Come on April, you have to start looking for us,” her friend Melody shouted, zipping past her, going across the street into her own backyard.

She smiled, momentarily forgetting the throbbing pain behind her left nipple. “Okay, I’m gonna count to ten!”

Her mother bought her a training bra just last night, right after dinner. It was a special mommy-daughter shopping night at Kohls. They got frozen yogurt afterwards. April wondered if the flimsy thing would have cushioned the blow. It was in her drawer now, waiting for school on Monday.

By the time she reached ten, everyone was gone. She didn’t have to find all five of them. All it took was one. There was no way she was going to make Melody it. That left Ben, Seth and Sean.

Just thirty seconds ago, they were standing around, wondering what to do. All of their parents had taken their iPods and game systems away, forcing them outside. It was a hot September Saturday, still summer according to the calendar. But, the kids all knew summer was long gone. The morning the bell rang to start the new school year, summer had been obliterated, left to memories of sleeping in, swimming and staying up late, watching TV.

Seth was suggesting they get their bikes and head over to the field to see if the Mr. Softee truck was around when Ben hit her in the chest, igniting a game of tag.

April sniffed the air. It still smelled like summer.

She thought she saw Seth’s Converse underneath Mr. Coleman’s pickup. Sean was most likely hiding behind his above ground pool. Either that or his father’s pigeon coop. The little shack stunk to high heaven. No way was she going in there looking for him.

It had to be Ben. Her dad liked to say ‘Payback’s a bitch’ a lot, especially when he watched sports. Her older cousin Tony told her what it meant last summer – that and a whole lot of other dirty phrases, most of them describing when a man put his thing down there in a woman.

“Ready or not, here I come!” April shouted. She made a beeline for the Mowry house. Mr. and Mrs. Mowry were at work now, but they never minded the kids using their yard for games. Sometimes old people could be cool. Most times, not.

The white and green aluminum shed sat in a corner of the yard, underneath a skinny elm tree. The door was partway open.

“Got you,” she whispered.

It was hot in the shed. She’d been inside it plenty of times. If you hid in there, you had to keep the door open a crack to breathe. Otherwise, you’d choke on gas and oil fumes, boiling in the tight space.

April threw the door open and lunged.

Ben was sitting on a big bag of potting soil. He squinted against the harsh shaft of light. “No fair,” he protested.

April’s teeth sunk into the flesh of his soft, exposed throat. She worked at the chewy bits of tendon while blood sluiced down her throat, spattering the pretty pink top she’d gotten at Kohls last night.

Ben’s body went into spasms. He gurgled, his arms flapping at April’s sides. She pulled away, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

While Ben struggled for breath, April pulled up her shirt, revealing two tiny mounds, no bigger than the rounded tops of cupcakes. Her chest was smeared with blood.

“I told you I have boobs now,” she said, giggling.

He slipped off the bag of soil with a wet plop.

“Ben’s it now!” April yelled.

Melody, Sean and Seth bounded into the yard, lured by her call.

“Oh man,” Sean said, pulling up short. Seth bumped into him. “Watch where you’re walking!”

“You’re in my way!” Seth blurted.

“Will you two stop it,” Melody barked.

Sean spun around, slapping Seth hard. As his friend tottered, he closed the gap between them, clamping down on his cheek and tearing his head back, spitting a chunk of flesh on the grass.

Seth covered the wound with his hand.

“You asstard!”

He dove headfirst into Sean, knocking the wind from him. They landed on the ground, a tangle of flailing limbs. Flecks of blood splattered everywhere like a sprinkler as they clawed the flesh from one another’s bones.

“Dog pile!” April screamed. She and Melody joined the melee. They were a dervish of gnashing teeth and scratching nails. Bones broke. Arteries ruptured. Seth ate Melody’s lower lip. April and Melody tore Sean’s stomach open, heads diving into his bowels like two dogs at a dish of fresh Alpo.

They felt something smash into their backs.

April yelped as Ben pulled a fistful of hair from her head. Bloody skin clung to the ragged ends.

“You’re it again!” he gurgled.

The children laughed, trailing Seth’s intestines all around the yard, wrapping it around the trunk of a cherry tree. Seth let out a series of wet guffaws, jaws snapping at their heels as they danced around him.

The Mowry’s verdant lawn soaked up the crimson manna until the sounds of urgent adult voices cut the revelry, urging the children home.

They slunk out of the yard, gathering the bits of themselves that had been scattered about.

“After dinner, you wanna come over and see my training bra?” April asked Melody, her tongue poking out of a hole in her cheek.

“Yeah,” Melody said, holding her lips in her hands. “See you later!”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said. April could see his windpipe working. “I shouldn’t have hit you in the boob.”

April rolled her remaining eye. “Whatever.”

~ Hunter Shea

© Copyright 2015 Hunter Shea. All Rights Reserved.