Rhymes with Dead

Aeryn Rudel

Wyld FLASH June 11th 2021

“Knees, if you please, Brandon,” Rosie said, pitching her voice low to keep it from echoing in the cavernous space of the empty shopping mall.

Rosie’s towering headhunter apprentice backed away from the shambler and whispered, “Shit. Sorry.” With two human targets nearby, the shambler remained motionless on the dust-coated tile while it oriented on the closest warm body. It was a typical Category One infected—a walking corpse clad in the rotted gray tatters of a business suit.

The shambler finally locked onto Brandon and lurched in his direction. Brandon took his sixteen-pound sledgehammer in a two-handed grip and waited, as he’d been instructed. At 6’6” and two-hundred-and-fifty pounds, the former Marine’s size and strength were assets in the plague sectors, especially when it came to busting down doors or busting in shambler skulls.

The shambler made a grab at Brandon. He jerked back out of range and swung his hammer. The sledge smashed into the shambler’s knee, crushing the joint, and it went down face-first.

“Follow up,” Rosie said. She had her own, smaller sledgehammer in hand in case her apprentice got into trouble. He’d only been a headhunter for a few months.

Brandon leapt atop his quarry and slammed a knee into its back, pinning it to the ground. He yanked a scratch awl from his belt and placed the point of the carpenter’s tool at the base of the shambler’s skull. A sharp blow with his open palm on the awl’s handle punched six inches of tool steel through bone and gray matter with an audible pop. The shambler jerked then lay still. The awl had destroyed the cerebellum, the only part of its brain the creature still used.

Brandon yanked his awl free, wiped it on his pant leg, and returned it to his belt. He picked up his hammer and shuffled, head down, to where Rosie stood near the ruins of a Lady Foot Locker, her eyebrows raised disapprovingly. “Now, what did you forget?” 

“I know. I fucked that up,” Brandon said. “It won’t happen again.”

She shook her head. At 5’8”, she was not short, but Brandon towered over her. She felt like a mouse scolding a grizzly bear. “Nice try. Recite.”

He sighed and put his hands on his hips. “Off their feet, they’re dead meat.”

“Right,” she said. “And why is that?”

“Come on, Rosie; I said it won’t happen again.”

“Brandon, out here, one fuck-up and you’re dead. Now tell me why.”

“Face to the floor, they bite no more.”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “And why do you use the awl instead that cool Rambo knife on your belt?”

“Skulls are bone, not Styrofoam.” He repeated another of her little mantras droningly, but he’d remembered it, and that was the point.

She poked a finger into his chest. “A big macho he-man like you needs to remember it’s brains, not muscle that keeps you alive in the plague sectors.”

“Fine. Okay. I get it,” he said, then glanced around. “Place looks clean to me. Can we call it a day?”

She smiled, letting him change the subject and letting him off the hook. Their contract had them doing recon on three locations for the Army in Plague Sector Six, what used to be the city of Modesto, California. It was now a walled-off wasteland given over to weeds and the dead.

“Yeah, it does look pretty clean,” Rosie said. Vintage Faire mall, the final site on their scouting contract, was in decent shape despite six years of complete neglect. If they were looters, they could have a field day. Of course, the soldiers on the other side of the wall searched you thoroughly, and any contraband they found carried a ten-year mandatory prison sentence. Too much risk for dusty sneakers and heart-shaped jewelry from Zales.

Rosie pulled out her map and a black marker. She found the mall, circled it, and wrote 2/1 near the site. Two infected, both Category Ones. “Thought we’d find at least one more shambler in here.”

Brandon shrugged. “I’m not complaining. Two is enough to kick us into bonus pay.” He grimaced and shook his right hand.

“Hey,” Rosie said. “What’s wrong with your hand?”

“I, uh, scratched it with the awl when I deactivated that shambler.”

Rosie took a step back. “Let me see. Now.”

“Wait, it’s not–“

Rosie pulled her pistol. She didn’t point it. Not yet. Her stomach churned. “Show me.”

Brandon swallowed and the muscles on his jaw worked. For a second she thought he might go for his own gun. Then he relaxed, pulled off the glove, and showed her. The half-circle of teeth marks on Brandon’s meaty palm were already red and puffy.

“Fuck,” Rosie said, sorrow joining her fear. She’d been training Brandon for months and he’d become more than an apprentice to her.

“The one we bagged in the parking lot,” Brandon said. “Fucker got me while I was trying to pull out my awl.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Rosie said. She hadn’t seen it happen, and that added guilt to the ugly cocktail of emotions swirling in her brain.

“I didn’t think it bit through the glove. Didn’t want to look until I had to,” he said, eyes on the floor. “Maybe the docs on the other side can do something.”

“They can’t,” Rosie said, her voice shaking. “They’ll search you. They’ll find the bite, and then . . .”

“Yeah, I know.” Brandon sat down on the floor and smiled sadly up at her. He looked so young. “You got a rhyme for this one, Rosie?”

She pointed her pistol and thumbed off the safety. “Of course I do.”

Brandon closed his eyes.

Tears streamed down Rosie’s face, and her finger curled around the trigger. “Get bit, and that’s it.”

Author Bio: Aeryn Rudel’s short fiction has appeared in The ArcanistOn Spec, and Pseudopod, among others. He writes at www.rejectomancy.com

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