The Surprise

The date progressed like the countless others had since the divorce. She was nice, she was sweet, the conversation was harmless and there wouldn’t be a second one. This line of thinking drove Edgar crazy. Why couldn’t he appreciate the nice, sweet, talkative woman sitting across from him picking away at her crème brulee? Why was he so hung up on Wendy’s looks, or lack there of?

Okay, that wasn’t fair.

Wendy wasn’t ugly per se, she just didn’t stand out in a crowd, or a room, or an unoccupied elevator. Her brown hair was neatly split down the middle and dangled off her shoulders. Her brown eyes were fine, amplified by the thin brown frames that defined her face. Edgar liked glasses; this should have been a positive. The proper amount of blush lifted the cheekbones off of Wendy’s pale and slightly plump face. Edgar liked a little plump, rather preferred it to the heroin chic look some women adopted.

Shit she was talking again.

“Sorry didn’t catch that?”

“I said, how’s your baklava?”

“Oh. It’s okay. Nothing special.”

“I normally get a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.”

“Of course you would,” he thought to himself. “You’re the living embodiment of vanilla.” Edgar shunted those words to the side and instead remarked,

“I’ve never had it that way.”

“Really? It’s the best.”

“Sounds like it.”

The two thirty-something adults continued to let the scraping of fork on plate fill in the gap where conversation should reside. The waitress couldn’t come soon enough. The moment he locked eyes with her he would ask for the check and hopefully be home in bed in time to watch Fallon.

“Sooo, umm, when’s your birthday?” Despite hearing her clearly, the randomness and awkward delivery of her question caused him to say, “What was that?”

“I said, when’s your birthday?”

“Actually it’s next Thursday.”

“Awww. That’s cute.”

Edgar wasn’t sure what was cute about his birthday and craned his neck to find the waitress.

“I know what I’m going to get you.”

“Get me?” Edgar said out loud although he really wanted to say, “Why? We’re never going to see each other again.” The thought caused a laugh to bubble up from his stomach and he managed to chew back only half of the sound.

“What’s so funny?” Was that her defensive posture or just a sincere question?

“I don’t know. I guess maybe that you know what you’re getting me for my birthday.”

“Oh, one-hundred percent. And you’re going to love it.”

“Well, what is it?”

“I can’t tell you that, silly. It’s a surprise.” If Wendy was playing darts, her throw would have scored a double bullseye. A birthday present from a stranger was one thing. A surprise was something else. Edgar, for all his practicality, loved surprises. It seemed as if Wendy wasn’t as vanilla as she first appeared.

Until two minutes later, when the silence returned and the polite smiles were exchanged and a check was paid for and they stood outside the restaurant saying goodbye.

“I had a lovely time tonight. Thank you very much for paying.”

“Not a big deal.”

“Let’s make plans after your birthday so I can give you your surprise.”

“Umm, okay. Sure.”

“Good night, Edgar.”

“Good night, Wendy.”

The two adults shared a one-armed hug and made their way to their respective cars.

**********************************************************************************

Edgar was a man of few friends and many acquaintances.  Somehow, someway, he had befriended the receptionist at work and spent many a day outside smoking a cigarette with her. Until he started working at Preston & Young Advertising he had not smoked a cigarette since college. This job had come with good pay, great benefits and a pack a day habit.

If Edgar was going to be truly honest with himself he would admit that his friendship with Summer was more of a crush and his chances were slim and none. Summer was the perfect girl, beautiful and fun to be around. Bleach blonde hair, the perfect amount of makeup to pop both her face and her deep blue eyes and a body that she paid for in monthly installments. They were work best friends and Edgar hoped that someday that could evolve to something more.

“Oh my God, Eddie.” She was the only girl he ever allowed to call him that. “You still haven’t told me about your date last night!”

“Eh,” he said with a shrug. “Nothing really to say.”

“Stop! C’mon, tell me.”

“I don’t know. She was definitely a Plain Jane. Very blah.”

“Did you…”

“No, although I’m sure if we did I would have fallen asleep midway.”

“Stop!” She said with a smack to his shoulder. Edgar loved when she hit him. Edgar loved when she touched him in general. “You would not. Unless you’re boring too!”

Summer’s constant energy was both awesome to be around and exhausting. Edgar laughed at her joke. “Trust me, no one is falling asleep with me.” He must have stared a little too much or punctuated his words too hard because he felt Summer’s laugh change from genuine to slightly uncomfortable. If he didn’t immediately say something else she was going to put her cigarette out and the conversation would be over for today. Shit, say something! Edgar implored his mind to pull out some combination of words and something is what he pulled out,

“She told me she’s getting me a surprise for my birthday too.”

“What? Really? On a first date? Who says that?”

“I know that’s what I thought too!” Okay good, she was laughing for real again and they were back on track. Although Edgar wished her reaction was more about his upcoming birthday than the surprise. “I mean we’re not having a second date or anything like that.”

“What? Edgar you have to! She’s getting you a surprise! It could be anything. A puppy, a new car—“

“You’re forgetting for a second I’m not you.” Summer laughed, in her world those would be perfectly acceptable surprises from strangers. Not for Edgar.

“You still have to see her though. I couldn’t live the rest of my life not knowing what she got me for my birthday.”

“Really? You would go out with someone again, someone you have no interest in, just to get a surprise birthday gift?

“Oh my God, yes. Yes! If you don’t go out with her I will!” The two laughed, Summer’s more genuine than his. She dropped her cigarette to the floor, gave it a little twist with her foot and went back inside with Edgar following at her heels like a well-trained puppy.

***********************************************************************************

“Edgar? I didn’t think I was going to hear from you again.”

“Yup, it’s me! What made you say that?”

“We haven’t talked in a week. I thought for sure you didn’t like me.”

“No no, stop. Stop. I had a good time on our first date and was wondering if you wanted to do something Monday night?”

“Ahh, you have a weekend full of birthday fun?” Nope, not at all actually, Edgar thought to himself. He wanted to leave the weekend open just in case Summer wanted to help him celebrate.

“Yeah, you know how it is. Friends and family and you can’t say no, you know?”

“Oh believe me, I know. My aunts and I always have so much fun on my birthday.” I’m sure you do, he thought to himself.

“I can believe it. You want to meet at the Rusty Owl around eight-ish?”

“Ahh, would you mind if we go to the Green Gazelle instead?”

“Yeah sure, I think I know where that is.”

“Down by First and Austin.”

“Yeah, I know where that is. Still eigh- ish?”

“That works for me. I’ll see you then.”

“With my surprise?” Edgar couldn’t help himself.

“Of course with your surprise. And trust me, you’re going to love it.”

“Love it?”

“Yes. You are going to love this. I can’t wait to see your face.”

“Wow, I can’t wait either. See you then.”

**************************************************************************

The date progressed exactly like the first one. Same plain face. Same innocuous conversation. Same lack of chemistry. Edgar felt frustrated. Why did he agree to go out with Wendy again? The night had been boring with a capital BORING and the only thing that kept him going was the promise of a birthday surprise. He endured their asparagus appetizer and their entrees in relative silence. Where was this surprise? Edgar dreaded having to go to her apartment to receive it. If she gave him the present at her place he wouldn’t be able to leave right away. He would have to stay and endure more empty conversation, for at least a half hour.

Miserable!

All of these thoughts circulated around his brain as the waiter came to clear their table.

“How was your chicken?”

What was with her and her meaningless questions? Who cared how his chicken was? He ate it didn’t he? Edgar pushed aside his annoyance. The night was almost over, all he had to do was maintain.

“Hmm? Oh it was good. How was your salmon?”

“Delightful, as always. I love coming to this place.”

“Really? You come here a lot?”

“My cousin owns it.”

“Oh wow, that’s nice.” Edgar took his napkin and wiped the corners of his mouth. Just a little bit longer. That’s all. He would be home soon enough.

“Would you excuse me for a second? I’m going to use the ladies room.”

“Sure. See you soon.”

“You are such a cutie,” she said as she walked away.

“Yup, such a cutie,” he mumbled to himself. Edgar took out his cell and played around until she came back.

“Did you miss me?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“Edgar?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?”

“Your surprise?” At that he perked straight up in his chair. Finally! He could get his surprise and be done with the night.

“Close your eyes.” Edgar smiled and closed his eyes. He felt the anticipation in his stomach and just as he started to speculate what the surprise could be he felt a shadow come over him and people behind him. What the hell was….

“Okay, open them!” Edgar opened his eyes, saw Wendy’s happy face and was shocked by the multitude gathering around.

“Happy happy happy birthhhhhhhhhhday! Happy happy happy birthdayyyyy to you! It’s your birthday yeah, yeah, it’s your birthday and this is for you!”

Their waiter placed on his plate baklava with vanilla ice cream on top. Edgar stared, bewildered to the point of speechless as the assembly made their way back to whence they came.

“Happy birthday, Edgar!” His confusion overwhelming, he stared wide eyed at Wendy.

“Are you surprised?”

“Huh?”

“You said you never had baklava with vanilla ice cream before. My cousin makes the best baklava outside of Greece! I hope you enjoy it!”

“This is the surprise?” The disappointment etched on his face like a Samoan tattoo.

“Of course! What else could it be? After all, this is only our second date.”

“Yeah…second date.” He mumbled his words and poked at the dessert with his fork.

“But trust me, you’re going to love Christmas!”

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The Eyes Have It

This all began yesterday as I was walking back from The Bar. I was fortunate or smart enough years ago to choose an apartment a block away from my favorite bar and was on the familiar path back home. I didn’t plan on such a cold October night and buried my hands in the pockets of my gray hoodie as I tried to walk as brusquely as possible without stumbling into someone’s garden. The fact that the walk back was on a slight incline made my efforts a greater challenge, evened out with the knowledge I had made this walk many, many times before. I passed by the house with the shit load of lawn ornaments raping my eyes when, out of the corner of said eye I saw them, peeking out from behind the parked black Mazda in the driveway; a pair of eyes.

Watching me.

Of course as soon as I focused all my attention the eyes disappeared back into the ether. I blew it off as just a drunken delusion and finished the walk home, passing out immediately on my couch.

The next morning, I peeled my cheek from the pool of drool collecting on my faded brown couch and shuffled into the bathroom. I leaned forward, placing my right hand on the wall for balance and let loose an hour’s worth of piss into a toilet that hadn’t seen a cleaning since the time I accidentally dropped my toothbrush. As I waited for the stream to lose steam I glanced towards the mirror to my left and thought I saw them; a pair of eyes.

Watching me.

This surprise caused my aim to falter and drops of piss scattered amongst the rim and the floor below. When I looked again the mirror was empty and I shook out. My head felt like a medicine ball upon my neck and the stress was felt down the chords and into my shoulders. This was going to be a long day. Thankfully, the best cure for a hangover is unemployment and I envisioned the only time having to leave my couch today was to grab a ham and swiss on rye from the deli. Take it easy, nap a lot and I could be back at The Bar by nine o’clock. I walked to the kitchen to pour a mean bowl of Frosted Flakes when I felt something underneath my kitchen table; a pair of eyes.

Watching me.

This was getting ridiculous so I purposely bent down and looked underneath the battered yellow linoleum table that had probably come with the apartment when it was built in the sixties. Nothing to see. Nothing to see except for the dust bunnies and a couple of pennies that had fallen face down. This was a mother of a hangover and as I sat on the worn checkerboard tiled floor, I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hands for a couple of seconds, letting the purple squiggles dance in front of the black background. “Why the hell would I drink Mind Erasers like a fucking college kid?” I thought to myself. “Probably because I wound up hooking up with one of the college girls two hours later,” I announced out loud, at the same moment I definitely saw something staring at me in the living room floor. This caused me to jump, resulting in my already splitting head slamming into the undercarriage of the yellow linoleum table. Those fucking eyes were back!

Watching me.

Whether it was the blow to the head or having enough of all the fun, I stomped into the living room to prove to the irrational part of my brain this was one massive trick of the eyes. Just like there was nothing underneath the table, or in the bathroom mirror or behind the car last night. This was fucking ridiculous. There was only one reasonable solution to my growing paranoia—I needed a cigarette. That would calm everything down. I went to my coffee table, found a loosie waiting for my left hand and walked outside.

In another life I would have smoked in the middle of my living room, but two evictions tend to neuter your lesser impulses.

Standing on my porch, I lit up and surveyed the land. Ten in the morning is a serene time of day. The majority of the world is at work or school, leaving royalty like myself to rule the realm. Two drags in and I could feel the tension melt from my shoulders. Five puffs and things were back to normal. I finished the rest, reflecting again on the college girl from last night and hoping I could find her amongst the graveyard that made up my cell phone contacts. She definitely gave me her number; I knew that for a fact. I turned around to go back inside when I would swear on a stack of Bibles there was something staring at me in the open mail slot on my door; a pair of eyes.

Watching me.

This time I yelled and looked around to see if anyone saw my lunacy. That’s what I was dealing with — absolute lunacy. I considered calling someone, but what was I going to say? I keep seeing a pair of eyes and it’s bugging me out? Can you please come over and make sure my apartment isn’t filled with bogeymen?

Fuck that. I’m twenty-six, I handle my own shit.

Keeping a firm grip on reality, I went the rest of the day without incident. That night I went to The Bar and returned without any monsters in the rear view mirror. The bullshit was over, the adult took over and I could resume the rest of my life without looking over my shoulder. That night I slept in my own bed without incident.

The next morning I zombie walked into the shower, discarding clothes along the path. By the time I shimmied off my boxers and kicked them into the hallway the October chill went up my spine and I hurriedly turned the shower on, with the intent of blasting the hot water until steam filled the room. I reached for the valve and screamed. There, behind the shower curtain; a pair of eyes.

Watching me.

The shock was so swift I lost my balance and fell backwards into the shower, pulling the shower curtain down on top of me like a death shroud. The hot water blasted my partially covered body raw as my head slid down the pink tile and into the basin, a trail of blood following. I was seeing stars and fading fast and desperately tried to will an arm upward to shut the valve to no effect. My brain was mush and my left arm, the closest to the knob, was entangled in the curtain. I let out a moan that was meant to be a cry for help and despite the hot water barraging my face opened my eyes a crack. That’s when I finally saw Him, no longer just a pair of eyes.

He wasn’t just watching me.

He was turning me, face down in the shower.

 

Project Cranberry

Danny Patton checked over the settings one last time before stepping away from the camera. What he wanted to do was open a window, or pull the blinds up, but the fear of attention cancelled out his desire for proper lighting. Actually, what he really wanted to do was go for a walk outside, or drive his car down the turnpike, but the overwhelming fear of being devoured alive by the walking dead cancelled out frivolous desires. So he stayed here, in his fourth floor apartment, riding out the wave.

The only reason why he was alive was his commitment to a job his wife detested. Six months ago, he was looking at an extended leave after a two-year tour with the United States Army. The week before he was to come home, his commander informed him of a top secret military project and they were looking for suitable candidates. Those chosen had the opportunity of one day rising to high positions of leadership, perhaps even reaching the vaulted rank of General. The catch was an additional six months added on to his tour. When he called Marissa to tell her the news she was furious, until he informed her that upon completion of the project, his leave would be a full year instead of an extremely fast six months. In between the tears and putting their hands to the screen, she made him promise multiple times not do anything stupid and to come home to her in one piece.

They had gotten married eight months later and were presently living in an apartment building a block away from his in-laws. The newlywed couple had received a break with the rent due to the landlord being a family friend of her dad’s, and between the proximity of her job and her parents living two blocks away, the building was ideal.

Recently, Marissa had become vocal with Danny’s lack of outside activities. At first she had stayed quiet, not wanting to upset him. As time passed she would drop hints, such as leaving a beach chair by the front door. When this didn’t lead to a tan, she finally raised up enough nerve to bring up the discussion. Danny tried to explain how he was content spending his days leisurely around the apartment watching television or reading his book, another Christopher Markum classic. If he had any desire to go do something he would, just not yet. She was arguing his behavior wasn’t healthy and the conversation spiraled out of control. Voices were raised and eventually his wife just nodded her head and went into the bedroom, leaving Danny to be with HBO. It would be their last night together.

Z-Day was the twelfth of July. Marissa’s cell phone alarm went off at the usual 7:30AM, causing him to grunt and roll over. As she dressed for work, he dreamed of bombs and explosions. The last moment of sanity he could remember pre-Zpocalypse was her kiss goodbye, an act he had grown so accustomed to that he barely opened his eyes. Danny had done an excellent job of living a regret-free life. However, if he could have one do-over he would have loved another shot at the previous twelve hours.

The only reason why Danny saw 8:45AM on his clock was because of the accident in front of his building. It wasn’t the car smashing into the telephone pole that caused him to wake up and leave his comfortable king size bed. No, it was the blood-curdling scream. One, that despite his military background he had never heard, that made his eyes pop open. He ran over to the middle window, to the left of his bed, peeked through his blinds and saw… saw It.

It, being a middle-aged man, wearing what used to be an immaculate pinstriped business suit, now covered in blood and gore. It had an arm perched in his mouth like a dog carrying a prized bone. The arm in question belonged to the person responsible for the shriek, a boy who barely looked old enough to drive. The boy had obviously gone into shock, because he stood next to his smashed white Honda Accord, watching the man eat his arm.

Danny’s first instinct was to open up the window and yell. Fortunately, he suppressed the urge. His second instinct was to run down the four flights of stairs of his building and save the kid. Thankfully, again, he suppressed the urge. Instead what he did was pick up his cell phone, call 911 and unconsciously turn on the television. Looking back, he was more surprised at receiving a busy signal than what he saw on television. Carnage and chaos reigned supreme; every channel was devoted to the dead rising.

The first person he tried to call was his wife and instead received her voice mail. Trying not to panic, he went through his cell phone trying to get someone on the phone. His parents, her parents, his brother and so he went, scrolling through his contacts. It wasn’t until the eighth call, to his friend Ralph, that he heard an actual voice on the other end. Except it wasn’t Ralph. His co-worker Maureen had picked the phone off the floor, while Ralph was being eaten alive and was borderline hysterical. They didn’t have a conversation in the normal sense, just a running Maureen monologue of her screaming while he heard lips smacking and flesh being ripped from the bone in the background.

Then the call cut off.

The rest of the day Danny spent trying to call Marissa, strengthening the make shift barricade of furniture he had assembled in front of the apartment door and watching the news. Despite the horrors being shown all over he couldn’t resist. The hands on the clock seemed to fly as Danny paced throughout the apartment. Sometimes his thoughts were positive; Marissa was safe somewhere and trying to reach him. As night grew closer those thoughts were replaced by thoughts of dread. He hadn’t heard from her yet because she was already dead, and probably on her way back over here with all her newly made friends to make a proper introduction.

The harder he fought to remain awake, the heavier his eyes grew and despite his best intentions he fell asleep. The next morning he awoke still sitting on his living room couch with the television broadcasting the same images and his cell phone not showing any missed calls. Day number two was similar to the day previous – endless images and endless paranoia. There were brief moments of terrified excitement when he believed he heard something in the building and checked to make sure the front door was secure.

In spite of the tragedy and violence circling all around, Danny was grateful for two things. One, his apartment was located on the fourth floor, not the first. All those times they had cursed the steps while carrying up groceries had paid off, in a grotesque way. Second, Marissa had insisted they go food shopping two days previously. He was stocked up with enough non-perishable items for the foreseeable future.

The feeling of loneliness came to the forefront during the third night. Danny was used to dealing with the feeling of isolation from his years as a soldier, but this was different. When he was in combat, one way to prevent fear from swallowing him whole was to imagine his reaction in seeing Marissa coming down the aisle, or the house they would own one day. Knowing he had a future kept his mind from flooding with panic. Now there may be no future. There would be no Christmas shopping for Marissa’s gift because there might not be anymore Marissa. The thought of not having his wife gripped his throat and made it hard to breathe. He had to talk to someone, anyone. Then, the idea came to him. He raced to his spare bedroom, rummaged through his closet and found it – his video camera. If nothing else, he was going to document his experiences and maybe one day when the world had become normal again he could tell his story. As the days passed, there were times he spoke frequently, giving updates as to what he saw on the street, or a theory as to what had happened. Other days, when depression was in full bloom, he would stare at the camera and pour his heart out. Either way, for whatever reason, whenever he turned on that camera and spoke, it made him feel better. Like there was something out there listening to him, hearing his words, touched by his fears and more importantly, could save him and make this all go away.

It was the afternoon of Z-Day +4 when he heard banging coming from below. Previously, he had ideas of exploring the building and seeing if anyone else was alive although those thoughts were cancelled out by feelings of selfishness. What if he did find someone and brought them up here? He had enough food for himself, enough to last awhile. If you add another person to the equation, or a couple of people, then what would happen? No, he was better off alone in his apartment waiting out the storm. All those thoughts were eliminated however, when he heard the banging. It wasn’t a dull noise or a careless, random banging. No, there was purpose behind the sound – intelligence.

Grabbing his wooden baseball bat, Danny removed the “L” shaped couch he had stacked in front of the door, (the first piece of furniture they had bought together from Raymour & Flanigan) unlocked both locks, slid the chain off and slowly opened the door. The blue hallway was illuminated with sun light, and if it wasn’t for the stench of death pervading the Earth, Danny would have found this to be a beautiful July afternoon. To his left was apartment #7, and he hadn’t heard any activity inside since Z-Day. Not wanting to be surprised by an unwanted guest, Danny decided to do a sweep of his immediate area. The building had five floors with two apartments to a floor for a grand total of ten. Since he hadn’t heard a sound coming from next door since Z-Day, Danny decided to make the trek upstairs.

Subconsciously, he counted all seventeen steps as he made his way up, letting his free right hand slide up the old wooden banister. The hallway echoed with the sound of his flip-flops as he approached apartment #10. The first time he knocked his knuckles barely rapped the wood frame. Taking a deep breath, he knocked again, firmly, like his landlord would if he wanted the rent. Still, no reply. Danny looked over to the right and noticed the door for apartment #9 was slightly ajar. His friend Jacques lived there, and it wasn’t like him to leave the door open. He could hear his heartbeat pounding inside his ears and felt drops of perspiration slide down the small of his back. Gripping the bat with both hands, Danny pushed the door open and waited. After three Mississippis he stepped inside.

The apartment layout was just like his with a kitchen, bathroom and living room to the left, and to the right was a long hallway where the two bedrooms were located. Separating the two sections of the apartment was the open front door. Realizing that Jacques, or if someone else was inside, wouldn’t want to be surprised with a guy holding a bat, Danny called out, “Hello?” in his most relaxed sounding voice. When no one answered he turned and closed the door. He went to take a step into the living room, and a thought came over him. What if something was inside the building? The smart move would be to lock the door. After turning the dead-bolt, the knob and sliding the chain, he spun around and made his way inside the apartment.

The living room was nothing out of the ordinary. A three-sectional leather couch sat opposite a flat screen television hanging on the wall. Mail had piled up on the coffee table and there was a dirty dinner plate using an old Sports Illustrated as a coaster. Danny made his way to the bathroom, unoccupied, as well as the kitchen. The windows were wide open and a pleasant breeze swept across Danny’s shaved head. Jacques was a big man, over six-feet tall and tipping the scales way over two hundred pounds so he wasn’t surprised to find the fridge was filled as well as the freezer. As an added bonus there was plenty of food left in the cabinets. For the first time since everything had gone to hell, he felt half way decent. If this situation lasted significantly longer, he at least had a large stockpile.

Feeling a bit more secure, he uttered out a louder, “Jacques? You home?” Walking with some confidence, he made his way back through the living room, past the front door and down the hallway. The first bedroom’s door was open and he stepped inside. The room was a mess with clothes strewn everywhere, the bed unmade and dust covering the furniture.

“I suppose Jacques wasn’t the neatest of guys,” he thought to himself. With only the master bedroom left to inspect, Danny walked cautiously down the hall. The door was closed and if there was someone inside they were probably scared to death.

“Jacques, buddy, it’s Danny from downstairs. Your door was open and I came inside. I’m going to open your door now.” He paused in front of the door and thought to himself, “If there is something other than a living person inside, I just gave a hell of an introduction.”

The door clicked open and Danny did a visual sweep. The situation was routine, he had done these hundreds of times during his tours. Yet, what he saw made him gasp and almost drop the bat.

On the queen size bed, lying on his back, were the bloody remains of what used to be Jacques. His arms were sliced up and down, presumably with the Bic razor hanging on the edge of the bed. A rising fear came over him, as well as nausea when Jacques opened his eyes and stared at him. Danny back-peddled, losing his left flip-flop in the process and he stumbled out of the room at the same time Jacques, slightly unbalanced, made his way off the bed. Behind him he heard a guttural cry and turned to see “his neighbor” coming towards him.

In a panic, he spun around, dropped his bat and ran down the hallway. As he reached the front door full blown terror seized him – as a precaution upon entering the apartment earlier he had locked the door. Jacques was now standing in the doorway of the back bedroom, his eyes alert, looking like an animal he would watch on National Geographic, smacking his lips. There was now an immediate decision to be made. Remain at the front door and try to get his shaking hands steady enough to unlock everything or to keep running and hide in the bathroom?

Danny reached down, threw his one remaining flip-flop at Jacques and raced for the bathroom. The zombie made no effort to avoid the incoming footwear as it thumped off the side of its face. Instead, it bellowed and followed him. Making it with ease, Danny slammed the bathroom door, locked the knob and pressed all his weight against it while looking to see if there was anything not cemented down that he could use to support the door. Of course, this being a bathroom, there was nothing, but an old shower curtain. At the same time he could hear Jacques getting closer and closer, the sound of lumbering steps announcing his arrival. After seemingly an eternity, his zombie neighbor reached the door and began smacking it with all its weight.

*SMACK*

Panic rose up inside Danny like a tsunami. He was trapped inside a small bathroom on the top floor of the apartment building.

*SMACK*

What used to be Jacques would keep pounding on the door until it got inside, probably calling its buddies as well.

*SMACK*

He could climb out the small window if he had to, but where would he go?

*SMACK*

Jump five stories below, hoping to not only survive the fall but to somehow go undetected among the mass of bodies congregating outside?

*SMACK*

The situation, which was already f.u.b.a.r had now become F.U.B.A.R He slid down the white wooden door, turned his body and sat against the tub with his feet planted against the base of the door.

*SMACK*

The wood was beginning to crack and the bathroom tile vibrated. It was going to get in eventually,

*SMACK*

there was no doubt in his mind.

*SMACK*

Shit shit shit shit shit why did he drop the bat?

*BANG*

The loud noise made him jump followed by a loud thump to the floor of what he assumed was his former neighbor. After a couple of seconds he heard,

“You okay in there?”

He couldn’t believe his ears, or his luck. Did a real live person just say that or was he hallucinating? The voice spoke again,

“Hello? Are you okay? Say something!”

“I’m alive! I’m alive!” Danny started hysterically laughing. “Hold on, let me open the door!”

He jumped up from his crouched position on the bathroom floor and quickly opened the door. Seeing a bloody streak on the porcelain tile made Danny throw up a little in his mouth. The person had already dragged Jacques by his feet into the kitchen and was walking back towards him. He recognized her immediately; she lived in the apartment below his.

“Alyssa! Holy shit, Alyssa! Thank you!” Danny raced towards her and gave her a bear hug, picking her small Columbian frame off the ground and making her laugh.

“Alright, okay, you can put me down now. Did you not hear me making all that noise below you?” She said with a smile that showed all her teeth and some of her gums.

“No, I heard it, I just figured I’d start out investigating the top floor and work my way down.”

“Smart move,” she said while rolling her eyes. “Guess you weren’t expecting—“ She gestured towards his once again dead friend Jacques.

“Jacques?”

“So that’s his name. I always saw him downstairs in the laundry room and we would talk, but I could never remember his name.”

“He was a good guy,” he quietly said while staring at his friend’s feet.

“Son of a bitch,” she said while shaking her head. “I guess you’re lucky I had this gun!”

“And that you know how to use it.” The two of them shared a morbid laugh. They moved their way to the living room and sat down on the couch.

“So what made you come two floors up and save my life?”

“Well I heard a commotion and thought there was a chance someone was alive and in trouble. And since I have this,” she indicated to her handgun, “I figured I’d investigate. By the way, is that your bat over there?” she asked with more than a hint of sarcasm.

“He surprised me.” Alyssa gave him a look. “Whatever, that’s not important. Is there anyone else alive, or dead for that matter in this building?”

“Considering this is the first time I left my apartment I’d say the top floor is clear. You still want to work your way down?”

“As long as you have that gun.”

***********************************************************************

Over the course of two days, Alyssa and Danny cautiously made their way through the rest of the apartment building, with not a soul to be found. The scariest moment involved investigating the two apartments on the first floor. With only a locked glass door in the front, and a glass enclosure in the back leading out to the backyard, they were completely exposed like a zoo exhibit. After taking what they needed from each apartment, they raced back up to Alyssa’s on the third floor and began the process of blocking the steps. If they could barricade the steps leading up to her apartment, and then the hallway leading to her front door, it would give them a loud enough alarm system. Anything trying to break through would make enough noise to alert them to escape inside or upstairs, if necessary.

During the day Danny alternated hanging out in her apartment and going up to his for some time alone. At night they slept in Alyssa’s apartment, with enough furniture against the door to act as a backup to their other alarms. This was their routine for the first two weeks, hanging out and staring out the window, watching the zombies making their way up and down the street. The screams of horror had dissipated after the second day. Anyone alive either left the area or had barricaded themselves inside their own fortress. Now, the only sounds were the low groaning variety that came when a bunch of them got together. And so this was their day, looking and staring, foraging and bullshitting. This new routine had replaced the old.

The night of Z-Day +14, the two of them decided to go up on the roof and check out the stars. Danny grabbed a few beers they found in Jacques’ stocked fridge while Alyssa laid down an old blanket. They sat there looking up at the night time sky admiring the stars and for a moment forgetting about the hell that surrounds them. Danny was just popping open Alyssa’s beer when they both heard something that startled them. Danny raced to the ledge of the building and said,

“Oh shit.”

“What’s the matter?” Alyssa said with more than a trace of concern.

“Something is going on next door. There’s a mob of zombies and they’re swarming into the building.”

Alyssa ran over and leaned on Danny’s right shoulder to get a better look.

“Have you ever seen anyone in there?”

“No, but then again we don’t exactly advertise ourselves over here either.”

“Danny, if there’s anyone inside they’re gonna die.”

He looked over at her and bitterly said, “And?”

Alyssa paused and looked indecisive. “I don’t know.”

Danny had stepped away from the ledge and was now pacing back and forth on the roof. “Look, it sucks. This entire situation sucks. This entire world sucks! But, if we even attempt to do something we’ll die. We’ll either die in the attempt or die by bringing the hoard over to our building!”

“Oh shit, Danny! Oh shit oh shit oh shit! There are people in there! Get over here! Look!” Alyssa screamed in terror.

Danny raced back over and saw what Alyssa was talking about. Two floors below them, standing next to an open window was a sobbing woman holding a kid who couldn’t have been more than ten in her arms. As soon as she saw Alyssa she began screaming,

“Help us, please! Help! The men are trying to hold them off, but they’re going to get in! Please!”

Alyssa looked at Danny with tears in her eyes, imploring him to do something, or at the very least say something. He paced back and forth, battling his conscience and his selfishness.

“Please! I can hear them outside our door! Please save my son!” The woman was on the verge of hysterics. Danny looked at them, then Alyssa and back at them. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers at Alyssa.

“Okay okay okay. Alyssa, go inside and grab as many bed sheets as you can find.” While she ran downstairs, he ran over to the ledge and calmly said to the woman, “Miss, I know it’s impossible, but try not to lose your shit. We’re going to do our best to help.”

“You hear that, Jason? The man is going to save us!” The woman squeezed her son, who was in shock and staring blankly out the window, in extreme relief. Two minutes later, Alyssa reappeared with red stained sheets in her hands.

“I found these in the first apartment I ran into…” Alyssa said apologetically.

“It doesn’t matter, start tying them together.”

“I didn’t mean to grab the bloody-”

“Alyssa it doesn’t matter,” Danny said in a slightly raised voice. He was trying his best to keep calm. However, it was becoming impossible.

“There’s no way it’ll hold both their weight,” Alyssa suddenly realized. The panic was quickly taking over all her emotions.

“Would you shut up and keep tying!” The idea of slapping her wedged its way inside Danny’s head as he tried to keep her focused.

“But, Danny!” Alyssa pleaded.

Danny stared at Alyssa for a second before mumbling,

“I know. This is for the boy. She’s not coming.”

“What!”

“Listen, you heard her. They’re outside her door. We won’t have time to save the two of them. Let’s grab the boy and hope we have time for a second attempt.”

Their hands worked furiously, tying the blood soaked sheets until they had what they hoped was a long enough rope.

“Hurry! I don’t know how much more time we have!” The woman’s voice was a living, breathing panic attack.

In his calmest possible voice, Danny said, “Miss, listen to me. We’re going to throw the rope. You catch it and tie it around your son’s waist. We’ll pull him up and then come back—“

“I don’t care, throw the fucking rope!” the woman screamed in pure desperation.

Danny launched the tied up sheets at the window. The woman successfully caught it in the first swing and began tying it around her son’s waist. Suddenly, she heard a crash came from inside the apartment. She began to scream and sob, while still fumbling to tie the sheet around her son’s waist.

“Go! GOOO!” the woman pleaded.

Immediately the boy came out of his comatose state and clutched at his mother’s face.

“No! NOOOO! Mommy, no!”

Danny watched the whole thing unfold in slow motion and yelled for Alyssa to begin pulling up the sheets. He would pull from the ledge and Alyssa would be the anchor. He wanted to be the one to pull him physically, if necessary, over to safety. The boy jerked forward out the window, spinning from the end of the sheet while his little fingers clutched on for dear life. As he spun back around towards the window he saw three zombies grab his mother. He started to scream,

“MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM! MOMMY!” His face beat red, spit was flying from his mouth and his cheeks soaked in tears.

On the other end of the make-shift rope, Danny and Alyssa were hoisting up the boy.

“Okay, Alyssa we have to go easy. Strong pulls, but let’s try not to slam him into the building.”

Below they could hear the boy’s hysteria entangled with his mother’s screams while she was being eaten alive. Sweat was pouring down Danny and Alyssa’s face and every hair on their bodies stood on end. With each pull the boy came closer to Danny’s extended grip.

“How much more, Dan?” Alyssa asked between deep breaths.

“I can see him,” he cried. “A couple more and–”

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Danny’s jaw dropped at the realization that the sheet had lost all its weight. Alyssa fell back with a loose, bloody sheet in her hands. She immediately ran over to Danny and saw the little boy lying motionless face down in the alley, while a mob of zombies raced over and feasted on his remains. Alyssa sobbed uncontrollably into Danny’s shoulder seeking comfort from this horrible moment as Danny leaned over and threw up. Alyssa looked up at the night sky that had been so peaceful moments earlier and began screaming obscenities while Danny remained hunched over, watching the death below. Like dominos, the zombie heads began peering up, looking to see where those strange sounds were coming from.

“Alyssa Alyssa shut up shut up! They heard us! Oh God, they heard us and they’re now coming towards our building!”

The two of them watched in absolute horror as a tidal wave of death came surging towards the front door. They could hear the glass shatter and the door being knocked off its hinges.

“We have to get inside and–”

“I don’t care anymore, Danny. I don’t care. We’re going to die anyway. Why not now?! Why fight tonight when we’ll just die tomorrow, or the day after? It doesn’t matter, everyone dies eventually!” She punctuated the last word with a high-pitched cackle and began hysterically laughing through her tears. Without saying a word, Danny tossed her over his shoulder and carried her firefighter style down the two flights of steps to his apartment. He could hear their moaning sounds echoing in the hallway as they rampaged inside the building.

“Probably making their way up the steps, seconds away from the first barricade.” He thought. “That gives us enough time to get inside and secure ourselves.”

They would break through eventually, there were too many to keep at bay. Suddenly it was very important to Danny that he saw the sunrise tomorrow. If nothing else, he was going to see the sun rise. He would deal with whatever came after that, but he had to see the sun rise. The two of them were in his living room and Alyssa was about to go into another round of hysteria.

“Alyssa, look at me, look at me!” Danny grabbed her shoulders, hard enough to get her attention. “Listen to me right now. We are going to survive tonight and deal with tomorrow. I promise you we’ll live through tonight. Just do what I say and we’ll be ok. Okay?”

Alyssa’s breath was halting as she inhaled deeply and nodded her head in agreement. “Okay, what do you want me to do?” She said in between her gasps for air.

Danny smiled in relief that Alyssa was composed. “Good. Now the first thing we have to do is pile up the couch against the door and put the TV stand in-between the couch and the wall.”

“That will split the apartment in half.”

“I know. So while I’m doing that you, get as much food as you can and bring it into the back bedroom.”

Alyssa ran to the kitchen and grabbed as much as her arms could carry. Meanwhile, Danny had placed the second part of the couch on top of the first and was grabbing the last part of the sectional. Alyssa came over and quietly asked, “Dan did they go through the barricade below?”

“I don’t know. They might have, yes, but I don’t know. All I do know is I promise you we’ll survive tonight. I promise.” He kissed her on the forehead and for a second they stared at each other before he motioned her with his eyes to go to the back bedroom. Placing the TV stand in-between the wall and the couch, Danny stood there and waited. He wanted to be there when they reached the door. He wanted to hear the first furious pound by a dead fist. He didn’t want to run until he absolutely had to.

“You coming?!” Alyssa quietly shouted from inside the back bedroom.

“Yeah, in a couple of seconds. Just want to see if this will-

*BANG*

The first dead fist hit the door, causing a weird vibration to resonate inside the apartment. Another. Then another. Fists and the remnants of humanity rained down on the apartment he and Marissa had shared, an apartment that had now become his crypt.

“Oh my God, Marissa!” An irrational thought invaded Danny’s head. What if she was outside trying to get in? What if she was trying to come home and she was outside and the zombies were going to get her! Danny reached for the TV stand and was about to pull it away when he heard Alyssa’s voice, coming to him like she was a million miles away.

“Danny! DANNY! What are you doing?! Get in here!”

He looked down and saw what he was about to do. A sob rose like a bubble from his chest to the back of his throat and he closed his eyes. Marissa was dead, just like his parents, just like Ralph and Jacques and that little boy from next door and like they would be if he didn’t get to the back bedroom.

“I’m coming!” Danny screamed as he raced down the hall.

For a half hour they could hear the door slowly giving way as more and more of them tried to force their way through. Fortunately, the narrow outside hallway space resulted in bottle necking the mob, buying them more time. Neither of them spoke for the longest time as they sat on his king size bed and waited. They had placed every piece of furniture in the room in front of the door and now it was a question of if and when. If they got in and when it would happen.

“Danny, what if we climbed out the window and…”

He cut her off in mid-sentence, because the thought had already come and gone from his mind.

“And what? Even if we managed to navigate our way all the way down all we’d do is drop in front of the building, where they’re all standing! And even if we managed to avoid them, where would we run to?” He jumped off the bed and paced around the room. “Where is it safe? No one is going to come to our rescue for the same reason why I didn’t want to get involved with the mom and her kid next door. The moment you try to get involved is the moment you are involved.”

“Are you blaming me for that kid dying?!” Alyssa stood up and screamed. “Don’t you dare blame me! We tried, Danny! We tried!”

“Yeah, and what happened? They died and we have death literally banging on our door.” He was shouting and realized it. Sitting back down on the bed he lowered his voice. “No, I’m not blaming you. I’m happy we tried. We tried,” his final words trailed off.

He reached over and pulled her in for a hug. She started crying first, but Danny’s tears caught up to her. There they sat, crying over those who had died and those who were probably about to when they heard the furniture scrape across the floor and the hinge of the front door pop off. From his armpit, Alyssa’s voice was muffled, but frightened. “Danny, they’re coming.”

Danny whispered quietly, “I know. Let’s get in the closet.” They climbed off the bed and went into the closet, pulling the doors shut. They could hear the apartment now, alive with the dead, inundated with zombies. The moaning was echoing in the hallway and it sounded like their personal symphony. The now familiar sound of a door being pounded on commenced and it was only a matter of time. Sunrise wasn’t for another two hours. Looked like his dream of seeing the sunrise would be his last. He looked at Alyssa and was going to say something before thinking better of it. Instead, they sat huddled together in silence, waiting for the end to come.

The door smashed open and the dead climbed over the furniture as best they could. Alyssa screamed and before Danny could throw his hand over her mouth they converged on the closet door, ripping it away. They started to slide to the corner but it was too late.

The first hand to reach in grabbed Alyssa’s ankle and she began sobbing and screaming, “NO NO PLEASE NO!” Danny grabbed hold of her wrists and tried to keep her inside, but they were too strong and dragged her out. He could hear her nails snapping off as they scraped over the wooden floor. Alyssa’s eyes were wide with terror as she mouthed his name. In a panic, he slid on his ass over some boxes and reached the other side of the closet. The sounds of her screaming and their feasting were mixed together in a ghoulish song. Danny lifted his left arm to cover his face and in the process smacked something hard.

The video camera!

His mind had snapped and all he could think about was preserving something of himself. The other closet door was being ripped off and hands were now reaching for him. Keeping focus on the task at hand, he blocked out everything and flipped the switch. They had his ankles and began pulling him out. Regardless, Danny was locked on the task at hand. Seeing the red light flash on, he turned the camera around and said,

“No more! No more! I want to go home!”

And then it went black.

***********************************************************************

“So what’s the final tally?”

“Candidate 1115SH lasted two weeks, two deaths due to hesitation, one out of fear. No kills and had to be saved one time. He performed adequately under moments of severe duress. He displayed courage when necessary and fought off his initial instincts of personal survival to help when the situation called for it.”

“What about his PDMS? Are they sufficient enough?”

“His panic decision making skills are not officer caliber, but he can carry out orders.”

“How were the videos?”

“They ranged between somewhat optimistic and feelings of doom. No mention of suicide.”

“Impressive, even our highly scored candidates allowed the thought to pass through their lips. What made him quit the simulation?”

“The zombies had broken into his bedroom and killed the simulated woman. To his credit, he waited until the last possible moment.”

Colonel Hollansby smiled and nodded his head. There was only one question left on his mind, “When can we expect him to regain consciousness?”

“You can go in now and talk. He came to ten minutes ago.”

Colonel Hollansby nodded at Doctor Appleton and entered the room. Danny laid there on his military hospital bed, hooked up to various tubes and electrodes. His face had regained color, yet his forehead was still caked with sweat. A look of recognition came over his face.

“Colonel?”

“Yes, Danny. Glad to see you remember me. Some subjects take days before they fully come back.”

“Did I do as well as expected?” Danny sat up with a struggle and there was a sense of urgency in his voice. Colonel Hollansby took a deep breath as he sat down at the foot of the bed.

“Danny, you did as well as any normal man would under the conditions we put you through. I think that –“

“Colonel, please. I don’t care about how a normal man does. I’m a Patton! Do I have a future leadership position in the United States Army?”

Colonel Hollansby pursed his lips together. “Alright son, you want it straight so I’m not going to bullshit you. Maybe First Sergeant, but that’s probably as high as you’ll go. Your PDMS just aren’t high enough. I’m sorry.”

Danny fell back on his pillow and he was having a great difficulty disguising his tears.

“I’m a legacy! My grandfather, great grandfather and my great, great grandfather, they all served proudly as generals in four wars!”

“Indeed they did, and if they had experienced Project Cranberry they would have scored very high, I have no doubts about that.”

“I waited! I didn’t quit because I couldn’t handle it, I quit because I was going to die!” his voice cracked with emotion.

“I know son, that’s very admirable of you. Plenty of other men snapped and quit long before real danger presented itself.”

Danny regained his composure and he meekly pleaded his case. “Is there a chance they could be wrong? I mean the United States Army is never going to face an army of zombies. You can’t make decisions off impossible scenarios.”

Colonel Hollansby stood up and said rather firmly, “Danny, did you believe your life was in danger?”

Bitterly he swallowed and said, “Yes.”

“Did you fear for your life?”

Quietly he said, “Several times, yes.”

“Did you believe those you loved were dead?”

He barely nodded his head.

“Did you argue with your simulated friend that it was pointless to help out the simulated boy and his mother?”

He stared at the Colonel and said, “Yes to everything, sir.”

“Well, Danny, in war there is going to be moments when your life is in imminent danger and you’re going to have to make snap judgments based on your assessment of the situation. They might not be zombies, nevertheless your enemy means to kill you just the same. Based on your actions we are all extremely confident you will make a good soldier. Perhaps you’ll even have some responsibility. In terms of making it up the chain of command, to aspiring to the rank of General, well, that’s just not possible.”

His meekness had retreated and anger had taken command of his emotions. “A grunt? My future is to be just another grunt? What kind of future is that?”

“Look at it this way, Dan. Just a little while ago, you were promising your simulated friend you would see the sun rise. Well, look out the window!”

The Colonel patted his hand on Danny’s foot but Danny lay there quietly. He went to say something else except Danny turned his head to the side and closed his eyes. Colonel Hollansby recognized the cue, turned around and strode out the room.

Danny laid there, staring out the window. His whole life he had dreamt of being a general, a leader of men who would follow his every command. Now, due to some stupid simulation all hopes were crushed. At that moment he wasn’t sure what was worse, being killed by a group of zombies, or just being part of the group.

No Choice

“Permission to ask a stupid question, sir?”

Private Bough shouted to let himself be heard above the nearby engines. “I cannot wait to hear this. Permission granted, Private.”

“Sir, I don’t believe in zombies, Sir.”

Private Velez chimed in, “That’s not a question Bough, that’s a statement.”

“Fuck you, Velez.”

“Private?”

“Sorry, Sir. Let me rephrase it. Why are we being sent to fight something that isn’t real, Sir?”

“Private, I am happy you realize the stupidity of your question. Although I do not believe in zombies either I do believe in the Top Brass above. If they believe, we believe and that is why we are going to Bone Creek.”

******************************************************************************

Lieutenant Globuli Bianchi was a career military man and had spent a lifetime obeying without questioning. Then again, the matter at hand was zombies, something his adult mind firmly rejected. When he received his orders from Major Odporny he had to use every inch of his resolve to keep from laughing. Zombies? Was this some kind of military joke, to see how he ran, Z Company? Failing to see any humor in the eyes of his superior, he asked if “zombies” was a new code word being used by “Jerry,” their nickname for the Top Brass. When Odporny shook his head with a firm negative, Bianchi sucked in a breath and did what he always did, followed orders.

******************************************************************************

Bone Creek was inaccessible by air so Z Company had taken a boat down the stream to their destination. Their journey by boat was a slow one and they were arriving at the main dock as the day began. The incoming landscape should have been dotted with activity. They should have heard the chirping of workers bragging about their night or birds in the distance crying out their call. Instead, it was as if someone had turned down the volume knob on the radio. Bianchi could tell the silence unnerved his troops, even if they were all too macho to let on. Hell, it bothered him. Still, they had a mission to complete and silence would not be an acceptable excuse for failure.

Check that, there was no acceptable excuse for failure.

Even though Bianchi had detected no sign of life, he was still surprised to see the dock was empty. He didn’t expect a welcoming committee to greet their arrival but he did expect some sort of local presence. Fortunately, their driver didn’t need any guidance and used his expertise to deliver them to the rendezvous point. Bianchi didn’t want to remain exposed any longer than they had to and right before they reached land he said,

“Listen up. We are getting off this boat in one minute. We do not know how bad the situation is but we can guess. We have practiced this maneuver a hundred times; consider this one hundred and one. Any questions?”

His troops all met his eyes with firm resolve. They knew what to do and this gave Bianchi slight comfort. Of course knowing what to do now while traveling down the stream and knowing what to do when confronted with fictional creatures that were apparently real was something else entirely.

They disembarked from the boat and established a beachhead immediately. Intelligence had given them their destination, a vague description of cover about an hour march. Bianchi left out the vague part when addressing the troops and they made their way inland with nothing in sight. The landscape was bone dry, nothing to look at whatsoever. Despite his years of combat experience, the pervasive emptiness of the place made the hairs on Bianchi’s neck stand at full attention.

No sign of life anywhere, although their mission implied there wouldn’t be.

Time continued to click away, the soundtrack a continuous loop of boots walking in unison when Bianchi heard something that sounded like a wet smack. Two seconds later he heard the noise again, louder.

Angrier.

The men and women of Z Company, being the well oiled machine they were, all stopped and took positions.

That’s when it came out of the clearing.

It looked like one of them but it wasn’t. Deformed, deranged, a creature that had come from the depths of their imagination to the front of their minds. It should be dead and it wasn’t. A mutation of the worst kind stood there, looking, sensing, taking them in.

Until Murphy took its head off.

“Cease fire!” Bianchi screamed but not until three or four rounds were let off. “We don’t know what we’re looking at and I don’t want anyone wasting any—“

Another smacking sound.

Then another.

And another.

“Christ this is big,” Bianchi thought to himself, “too big.” Out of the darkness they came. Tens, fifty, one hundred, hundreds, a mass of death. Z Company held their ground and let out controlled bursts to little effect. Every time one was taken down, three more appeared behind it. Two minutes crawled across the face of the clock and Bianchi, in tune to the biorhythms of the unit, could feel the beginnings of panic creeping in. They could spend a month in position firing at the enemy and feel like nothing was accomplished except the space between “us” and “them” would continue to narrow. Despite the barrenness of the landscape, a feeling of claustrophobia started to set in. Military superiority meant nothing when the enemy had an unlimited supply of bodies.

“Fall back! Back to the stream! Sax, get Command on the COMM and inform them of our situation.”

Sax attempted to get in contact with Command and received nothing but static for a reply.

“Sir, the COMM is down.”

“Keep trying! Davis, Buck, make sure you continue to give Sax cover.”

The rest of Z Company let their training kick in, falling back strategically, taking shots when they could and using cover fire to buy them some time. With nothing available to use as cover they had entered into a footrace. Almost sharing a hive mind, they all thought, could they last the hour and make it back to the stream?

“Sir, is that boat still waiting for us?” Taco was the newest member to the Company and also the youngest. They had taken a quick liking to him and broke his balls mercilessly. At this moment though there was no sarcasm or insult flying at his head. Nothing but gun fire as the troops listened and hoped. Bianchi always shot straight with his unit and that earned him the respect of all. When the man spoke, no lies came forth; this is something important when your life is in the hands of someone else. For the first time since he assumed command of Z Company, Bianchi fudged the truth.

“That is the plan, Private.”

Truth be told there was no plan for full on retreat. The Top Brass had not accounted for, or failed to inform him, of how large the enemy was. Since Sax couldn’t get the Brass on COMM, they were flying blind out there. From here on out was full improvisation and Bianchi hoped that they would have the time to reassess and go back on the offensive. First things first, they needed to get back to the boat.

Meanwhile, the mass continued its destructive march and slowly but surely Z Company began to get picked off. First was Murphy. Next came Bough. LoBonti followed by Sax. Davis picked up trying to contact the Top Brass to no success. There was no time to process grief or wax nostalgic on what their fallen comrades meant to them. As the Company decreased in size, their orderly fallback turned into a full blown panicked run. Finally, the stream was within eyesight and Bianchi felt morale go up a tick. They were going to get out of this mess and come back to kick zombie ass. Taco was the first person to get close enough to see the reality of the situation.

“Sir, there’s no boat!” Panic flooded his vocal chords and his words came out almost in a shrill cry. “What the fuck do we do now, Sir?” Forget cursing, that was the first time Taco had ever shouted at his leader.

“You ever hear of the Alamo?”

“Yes.”

“This is ours. Keep shooting.”

Bianchi’s troops fired and fired and loaded and reloaded to no avail. Within the hour the mass devoured most of Z Company. All except for Bianchi and Taco. They had found a sorry excuse for an enclave upstream from the dock they embarked from and crawled inside, buying them some precious time. Whenever the zombie hoard approached, Bianchi and Taco were able to pick them off. Eventually though they were going to run out of ammunition. Their time was short. In the moments between firing, Bianchi could see the strain beginning to wear on Taco. Eventually, Taco spoke.

“Sir…please don’t let me turn into one of them.”

“That will not happen. You have my word, son.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Another body appeared in their eyesight. Except this wasn’t just the enemy. This was Bough. Good old Bough. The man who always made them laugh and kept things loose was no more. What came towards them was an abomination. His eyes vacant, the face distorted. Taco witnessed this monster and gave in to the panic.

“I can’t do this!” Tears poured down his face. “I can’t do this!”

“You don’t have to, Private.” Bianchi got Bough in his sights and blew his head off. Taco, seeing his army brother die for the second time that night cracked and ran out into the open.

“Private, get back! Get back here, that’s an order!” Taco had snapped and within seconds, so did his spine. Bianchi could hear the young private, barely a man, scream in the distance as the hoard devoured him and there was nothing he could do.

Bianchi was alone. He faced two options. The first was to continue to fire his weapon, then Taco’s until his ammunition runs out. The second was a bullet to the head.

He had no choice.

He would not give up. He could not give up. As long as there was oxygen inside of him he would keep fighting until he could fight no more. This is who he was. This is what he was born to do. He would go down with honor and take as many bastards as he could with him. Looking up at the sky, Bianchi understood the reality of his situation. At the same time, he had no doubt the Top Brass would never surrender. The war was too important. If the enemy succeeded it would be the end of life as they knew it.

Bianchi felt a bit of emotion and quietly offered up a prayer. “I’m sorry for my failures. It was an honor to serve you.” With a grunt Bianchi picked up both weapons, hopped out of the enclave and mowed down the first wave of the mass. Then the second. Then the third before he had to reload. Over the next three minutes, Bianchi took out hundreds of the bad guys and when his guns ran dry he took out his knife and sliced and diced anything around him. Eventually though the numbers were too many and Bianchi was absorbed into the mass

******************************************************************************

“Thank you for coming down so quickly, Jerry.”

“What’s the word, Doc?” He sat down inside an office he had been in many times before. A wall full of old medical books and journals filled the bookcase behind the desk, framed by a series of diplomas written on yellowing parchment. Various trinkets and knickknacks spread across Dr. Dorio’s desk, gifts from grateful patients. In all the years he had been coming there the worst news he ever heard was a nasty case of adult chicken pox. This wasn’t chicken pox, Jerry was sure of that. The only question was what came next. His doctor sat across from him, holding his test results with a grim look on his face.

“I’m sorry, Jerry. Your tests come back positive.” He felt himself deflate and his body slumped into a nearby chair. A couple of seconds passed and he desperately tried to keep his composure.

“You are certain? No mistakes?” The last word barely made it out of his mouth.

“I’m sorry I wish there was. Sometimes our immune system just fails us.” Dr. Dorio slid his bifocals back up the bridge of his prominent nose. “There is good news, however. We caught it in the beginning stages.”

“What does that mean?” Dr. Dorio placed the results down on the desk.

“It means I’m happy you didn’t keep quiet about the pain in your leg. It’s early enough that we can aggressively fight the tumor inside your femur.”

“So I have a shot?” A glimmer of hope appeared inside the fear he felt.

“You have more than a shot, Jerry. There are several methods in fighting bone cancer. I’m going to give you your options and we can figure out what direction you want to go in.”

Jerry picked himself up and sat straight in the chair. The word hung in the air. Cancer. He was forty-one years old and he had cancer. This was a fact. What wasn’t fact was how this ended. He would not quit. He would not surrender. His only job was to defeat the cancer that had invaded his body.

He had no choice.

My Life as a Henchman

A Google search can be a wonderful thing. With the snow coming down outside my window and an intense lack of desire to shovel I decided to spend a Saturday afternoon tumbling down the rabbit hole that is the World Wide Web. Was my girlfriend thrilled by my abdication of boyfriend related duties? No, of course not. Fortunately, I had a cop-out excuse ready at my disposal, “I was doing research for the next book.” A funny thing happened while I waited to get screamed at, I wound up screaming for her. Once again the Internet had decided to bestow wisdom upon the ignorant in the form of an image. On the fifth page of a Google search of my last name I had found a picture of someone who appeared to be my Pop-Pop, Frank Starita, adorn in all black and standing next to the ultimate super villain of the 1950’s – Nonde Script.

I planned on calling Dad and asking him about this remarkable coincidence before my girlfriend advised me to skip the middleman. Why waste a half hour on the phone talking to Dad when I could go straight to the source. Thus, the next day I drove to my grandparent’s house to spend a wonderful Sunday afternoon in the living room of a ninety-one year old man. He was in his glory discussing events and remembering circumstances that had been previously forgotten in the past. Yes, my Pop was a thug, a “bad guy” if you will. At the same time if you’re going to be a “bad guy” you might as well do it under the employment of the man referred to as the “Pinnacle of Evil,” “The Devil’s Shadow,” “The Collector of Chaos” and pound for pound the greatest bad guy of all time, Nonde Script.

My grandfather was a henchman, a professional goon, a first class assistant villain.

Who would have thunk it?

When I showed him the picture I found, there was no denial, no shame and definitely no remorse. Instead, like a little boy eagerly awaiting his ice cream cone he took the picture from my hands and stared long and hard. He didn’t even bother with the perfunctory, “where did you find this?” When you’re ninety-one you skip the small talk bullshit and go straight to the story.

His life, like most of his generation, has a clear demarcation point – the end of World War II. Before the war he was a high school dropout who joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor, seeing action all over the Pacific. He even earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star; the details behind the medals are something he always chose to keep to himself. When we dropped “The Bomb” and ended the war, Frank came home, unclear about what to do next. Some of his friends became career military, which held no appeal to him due to spending the previous four years ducking bullets. Others took advantage of the GI Bill and went to college.

Frank went back to the old neighborhood in Brooklyn.

It’s funny; the frail old man I hung out with that Sunday bore no resemblance to the man who walked around Brooklyn circa 1945. What Frank didn’t have in height he made up in girth. Broad shoulders, barrel chest and thighs you could barbeque several slabs of meat on. There was something else about Frank that stood out, his hands. To describe Frank’s physical appearance without mentioning his hands would be like discussing Mona Lisa and leaving out her lack of smile. If you shook hands with the man you were acutely aware several hours later. They would engulf a normal man and constrict like a boa.

He had strong hands.

Anyway, he spent a couple of months working some bullshit jobs in the area when he met Louise, my future Nana, right before Thanksgiving, 1945. Because this is the story of a secret bad guy and not a love story in the manner of “The Notebook” I will spare you the gory details. The only item you need to be aware of was they were engaged by Christmas, married by Valentine’s Day, 1946 and expecting their first son at the end of the year.

Frank worked fast.

The problem was Frank had no money, no education and no stable job. They moved in temporarily into the apartment above Louise’s parents where Frank quietly had to endure the slings and barbs of his impatient father-in-law. The only way to shut him up would be to get a job and take care of his family.

On an unseasonably cold afternoon in March of 1946, Frank stepped inside of O’Leary’s Pub for a quick drink to warm his insides. He was a slight drinker back in the day and wanted to warm his belly before spending the rest of the afternoon pounding the pavement looking for work. Halfway through his second whiskey, the door opened up and in walked Frank’s old Navy buddy George. They recognized each other immediately and sat together for an hour drinking and catching up. George deftly evaded questions on what he was up to post-Pacific and was more interested in the frustrating details of Frank’s life, his marriage, impending child, lack of money, burdensome living conditions. Finally, George decided he heard enough and asked Frank the question that changed his life,

“Do you want to make some money?”

Of course Frank said yes, he didn’t even ask what type of job it was. His number one priority was providing for his family with the long-term goal of living as far away from his father-in-law as possible. George wrote an address down and told him to be there at 2:30pm sharp tomorrow afternoon. He also instructed him to wear black, along with a fedora hat that could be pulled down enough to block his face while still looking nondescript. Frank didn’t bat an eye and thanked George for the opportunity.

The next day Frank showed up five minutes early wearing black dress pants, a black button down shirt, black jacket and a black fedora he had pulled down to shield his eyes. George hadn’t told him whom he was meeting with or what he was supposed to do, just gave him the address, which happened to be The First Union Bank of Brooklyn. For a moment Frank thought maybe he should go inside and wait before his better instincts kicked in and he remained planted firmly on the pavement.

Three minutes later he felt a tap from behind on his left shoulder. Frank was more of a listener than a talker, which helped him that day because George wasn’t in the mood for conversation. Instead he placed in his right hand a 45 Revolver and told him to follow his lead. Frank did as he was told and followed George into the bank.

Up until this part of the story, we were just two guys sitting in the living room. Pop’s voice remained steady, casually speaking as if we were discussing the upcoming Super Bowl. Now, as he reached the dramatic part his eyes lit up as if he was a little boy at Christmas and his voice went up two octaves. He wasn’t just remembering the story, he was reliving it.

Pop wanted to be clear; he had no intention of firing the gun. If I was going to hear his story I had to know that. In his mind he had used up his allotted quota of right index finger movements in the war. At the same time he knew his job was to cover his George. His partner would do the talking and Frank would provide the necessary intimidation to coerce anyone dumb enough to have a hero complex to think otherwise. Sure enough, the robbery went smoothly, the customers and employees of the bank did what they were told and the two men were about to walk away with little more than eight thousand dollars. Not bad for ten minutes of work. What really made Frank happy was how they only robbed from the bank and not from the people. He knew most of them here were just like him, scrapping by and he didn’t want to inflict damage on anyone except the institution. Without saying a word George nodded towards the door and Frank knew it was time to make their escape. They walked across the room like kings and he admitted that he hadn’t felt a rush like that since the war. George reached the exit first and stopped. Frank naturally stopped too, following George’s lead and waited, trying to keep patient. George put his left hand on Frank’s shoulder and winked at him. With his right hand inches from the brass knob, seconds away from escape, a resounding thud echoed from outside. Before they could register what was going on they heard someone shriek in an excited voice,

“Gee Willikers, it’s Mr. Awesome!”

Pop admitted to me at that very moment he was nervous. Not scared and definitely not panicked, just nervous. After all, he had faced the horrors of the Japanese, or the Japs as he referred to them and nothing could ever compare to that. Fear was for anyone who didn’t land on Iwo Jima and witness the guy to his left getting shot through the stomach. You don’t know what panic is until you watch that poor bastard try to gather up all his intestines lying on the sand.

The door slammed open and in walked everyone’s favorite hero, Mr. Awesome. The cheer from the people inside the bank gave Frank goose bumps and he knew they had two options, fight their way out or surrender. He had heard stories of Mr. Awesome, how he had super strength and was impervious to pain and Frank didn’t care. He fought at Wake Island. Those Japs seemed to have super strength and be impervious to pain and good ol’ Uncle Sam cleared them out. Mr. Awesome would be no different.

George on the other hand had other ideas. He took a step forward in what Frank later realized was a sign of surrender. The only problem was he didn’t tell Frank. Again, Frank didn’t want to use his gun so he tucked it inside his jacket pocket and came out swinging. With no shame in his voice he freely admitted to getting his ass handed to him by Mr. Awesome. There were three swings, the first by Frank that Mr. Awesome ducked. The next two were a combination of BAM! and POW! that put Frank on the floor. Minutes later he was tied up back to back with George on the floor with cops standing around and congratulating Mr. Awesome on another job well done. A deep sense of shame came over Frank as he imagined what would happen next. He would be booked at the precinct, definitely some jail time and worst of all, the humiliation of facing his family, specifically his father-in-law. Life looked bleak for Frank and rightfully so.

The car ride to the station was a quiet one, except for the occasional barbs thrown their way by the cops riding in front. The rest of the time was a whirlwind. They were finger printed; had their mug shots taken and when Frank was offered his phone call he declined. There was no way he was calling his wife to bail him out. The mess was his; he alone would clean it up. George felt differently and a minute later returned to the holding cell with the look of a confident man.

Twenty minutes later they heard a commotion coming from the front desk. Frank couldn’t make out any words, just lots of angry shouting. Suddenly the bars were sliding open and the two men were walking out to the frustration of the officers escorting them. Frank was confused, even more so by the sly grin on George’s face. The whole time the men had not spoken a word to each other and Frank couldn’t get over how calmly George was taking things. Now he had an idea that George had somehow known how things would shake out from the very beginning. A man in a very expensive suit greeted Frank and George and led them outside into a waiting car. The car was idling and Frank detected a slight silhouette in the back seat. George sat in the front with the man who had bailed them out while Frank rode in the back seat next to the most infamous man in New York City, Nonde Script.

They drove two blocks in total silence before George spoke up and asked Frank if he knew the man to his right. Frank was almost certain of his identity yet didn’t want to risk offending anyone so he hedged his bet and with a smile said the man looked familiar. At that, Nonde let loose a laugh and shook his hand. As Pop related the details of that car ride to me a wry grin came over his lips and he remembered the first thing Nonde Script ever said to him,

“Your friend George vouched for you and I’d say he was on the mark.”

The bank job was a test on nine different levels. His gun was full of blanks. They had no escape car or route. They hadn’t disarmed any guards. Yet they had almost eight thousand dollars in their hands by the time they reached the bank door. Frank didn’t flinch in facing Mr. Awesome or getting his ass kicked. Most importantly, after everything went down, Frank didn’t squeal to the police. His silence was the final initials on their verbal contract.

He was in.

By this point I was completely enraptured with the story. I asked him if he could describe what Nonde Script was like. Sure we have pictures and quotes related to the man but I wanted something more intimate. According to Pop, his name said it all. The most plain, regular, mundane man you could meet. Nothing about him stood out, he was of average height – five foot eight and weighed one hundred sixty-five pounds. His clothes were mostly grays and blacks. No scars, no tattoos or earrings. He was meticulously clean-shaven with a clear part in his hair. His hands were almost lady-like in their delicacy. His speech was quiet and the perceived firmness behind his words only existed due to his reputation. There was nothing about the man that would suggest he was Public Enemy #1.

Nonde Script was as an appropriate name as any.

I imagined an evil villain of Nonde’s magnitude must have been a real prick to work with. Again, Pop laughed and said I couldn’t be farther from the truth. There was an unwritten rule, Nonde Script gets the glory and as long as you could deal with being an anonymous background guy you got along splendidly. Seeing how Pop had no interest in advertising to his neighbors that he was a real life bad guy he was more than pleased with the arrangement. At the same time Nonde gave everyone on his crew a chance to shine a little bit. If they wanted to be the first one in a fight or the one barking orders during a robbery he was fine with it.

Questions began flooding my mind. I asked about the crew itself. Size, make up, personality conflicts, betrayals and things like that. Pop suggested that we take a break and eat a sandwich first. I wanted to say we could talk and eat but knew better. Still, there was still so much more to learn.

We made our way into the kitchen where Nana sat reading the Daily News. Upon seeing our arrival she jumped up, (jumped being a loose word when the woman is eighty-eight) and grabbed a couple of glasses, pouring Hawaiian Punch in each. She could tell from the shocked expression on my face that we were having a productive afternoon. We ate our roast beef sandwiches with a side of potato salad while Nana asked me about my girlfriend and if I had another book brewing inside of me. As we talked I would occasionally sneak a glance at Pop, who was slowly chewing. In my mind’s eye I could see his battery getting recharged. Twenty minutes later Pop announced he was finished and just like that picked up our conversation from where we had left off.

Ordinarily the size of the group ranged from three to eight, depending on the size of the job. Most of the time the group was under five members, but it was always made up of all men. Nonde didn’t like having women around to distract his employees. The biggest crew they ever assembled was the time they kidnapped the Mayor. That was a full-scale operation and eighteen ringers were brought in. For the most part the guys got along, if they didn’t they weren’t around long enough to cause a ripple. In fact some of those guys, like George became like brothers to Frank, simply because no one else knew or could comprehend their lives. Again it’s not like they could talk about their activities at Church on Sunday with the congregation. Plus Frank didn’t want to tell his wife too many details, so she wouldn’t get worried. At that I turned to Nana and decided to get her opinion on things. The one thing about Nana, she was never shy about expressing her opinions. I asked one question, when did Pop tell her the truth about things and she ran with it.

She knew right away something was up because she had a friend she grew up with working at the station where Frank was processed. Of course she couldn’t believe it, refused to believe it until she heard the words directly from her husband. That night, when he came home she sat at the table and waited for him to come in and greet her. She knew all his faces and as soon as he walked in the truth was confirmed. She had married a felon. That said she held off her vengeance until she heard his side of the story. He explained what had happened and stressed several times the end result, he wasn’t charged with any crime and was released under his own volition. When she asked why he said his new boss had a lot of influence in the department. Louise was five seconds away from screaming out of frustration when Frank pulled out five one hundred dollar bills and laid them on the table.

When she told me this part of the story I could see her mouth hanging open as if she was still looking at the sight. The difference between being broke and having a life sat tangibly on their kitchen table. Of course Louise wasn’t thrilled about the idea of their family being supported on a foundation of lies and dirty money, at the same time she was pregnant and they needed to do something. What made the decision harder was the relative ease regarding the job. All he had to do was open his mailbox every morning. If there was a piece of paper with an address inside he was to memorize and destroy the evidence. From there he would read the situation and act accordingly. For his time and efforts he would take home more or less five hundred dollars every week.

Their problems were solved.

To be able to get their own house when no one they knew could afford one was one perk. To be able to get out from under her father’s thumb was another. In her mind the biggest benefit of all was she could stay up and raise her son and future kids. There would be no stress in trying to find someone to watch her son while she went to work. The more she thought about the perks the easier it became to put her head on the pillow.

I looked over at Pop, who enjoyed listening to his wife talk and asked if there were truly no problems from that point on? He laughed and said, “Okay yeah, there might have been a slight tiny one…Mr. Awesome.”

The way Pop explained it there was almost a sort of understanding between Nonde Script and Mr. Awesome. Twice a year, or sometimes three times in an eighteen month period, Nonde Script would plan a huge attention grabbing crime. In doing so several things were accomplished, one it kept Nonde as the number one bad guy in New York. Two, they were guaranteed a ridiculous amount of press. Three, it took care of Mr. Awesome, who always foiled the plan and ended up looking good as the hero.

Upon hearing those words come out of Pop’s mouth I furrowed my brow. It didn’t add up, none of this was adding up. And what did he mean when he said, “it took care of Mr. Awesome?” Pop gave a quick wink at Nana, took a deep breath and said,

“Oh God Tommy you don’t think there were really superheroes back then did you? It was all bullshit. We were like wrestling, putting on a show for everyone.”

I was shocked. It was the equivalent of finding out there was no Santa Clause, except instead of learning this at nine I had learned it at thirty-three. Pop patted me on the shoulder and laughed again.

“Geez don’t you think we would have gone to prison for all the bullshit stunts we pulled?”

I remained shocked and just let him talk while I listened and tried to take notes. Basically the superhero business wasn’t one you could just break into; you had to be personally recruited like he was that day by George. They wouldn’t tell you anything, just watched you react to the situation. Most importantly, they wanted to see if you would keep your mouth shut afterwards. Frank passed his test that day by keeping quiet and not doing anything foolish. In fact, if he had tried to do something foolish, like say firing the gun George handed him at Mr. Awesome it would have accomplished two things. The first was to further the legend of Mr. Awesome’s super strength because the gun was full of blanks. The second was to show he was too much of a wild card to be trusted with the operation and he would have done six months in prison to show everyone crime doesn’t pay.

At that point Pop’s back was acting up and he asked if I minded hearing the rest of the story back in the living room. I could tell this was taking a lot out of him and at the same time I was thirsty to learn everything. This was a huge story! We sat down and for the second time in his life he broke his silence. The details he told me that afternoon he didn’t tell Nana until after he was out. Almost as if he was in the CIA. Of course, since the budget for all these activities came from the CIA and his checks were government issued, I suppose he was. To be fair, Nana had figured out from the get-go that things weren’t as they appeared; she was just smart enough to wait for Pop to fess up.

The way he explained it was after World War II the United States needed to give the next generation of kids’ heroes to look up to. Those who had fought in war were jaded. The gung-ho patriotism had disappeared in a hail of bullets and a torrent of blood. Therefore, these new heroes could be the role models for the kids and impart in them the values and patriotism this country needed them to learn. While he wouldn’t go as far as to use the term “brain-washing” it was a mighty fine line. Together with the movie studios the Government came up with a system to divide the country up into territories. Each territory had a superhero and a super villain. Then, when someone on either side grew stale they could either ship them off to another part of the country or import someone new. Some heroes didn’t want to leave their homes so they would bring in a new partner to freshen things up. A guy like Mr. Awesome was an east coast talent who traveled only occasionally. And when he did travel, like to say Texas, it was a huge deal. As time passed other countries took notice of the super hero phenomenon, put two and two together and developed their own nationalistic super heroes. Of course Hollywood was filming everything and showing the footage on Saturday afternoons to the kids at the movies. If you ever wondered how it was possible that not only was the superhero always able to thwart the evil villain but also do so on camera, now you know.

Every good storyteller knows if you have a hero you need an equally as impressive bad guy. Hitler was dead, Stalin was too far away, America needed someone they could see be defeated, either on the big screen or even in person. A great villain was someone you feared and loathed; someone the general public wouldn’t dare go after. By providing the country with a great villain, the hero became that much more important. Pop couldn’t stress enough how important the bad guy was to the whole story. If you gave the public a shitty villain that was weak or unimposing, the superhero didn’t look that impressive thwarting his evil plans. If the regular Joe Q. Taxpayer thought he could defeat the bad guy then the aura around the superhero was damaged, or lost. It happened out in St. Louis where no one thought “The Mysterious Fog” was a threat and as a result, no one took “The Blue Falcon” seriously. They had to eventually repackage “The Blue Falcon” as “Sonic Boom” and “The Mysterious Fog” had to leave the business entirely.

The evil villain also played a major role in the underground crime scene of their respective city. Because both the superhero and the evil villain were paid employees of the United States, the evil villain became an informer on all nefarious doings. Pop wouldn’t go into details but he was involved in the infiltration and subsequent breakdown of the Italian Mafia. The best part was the villains had license to do whatever it took to convince other bad guys of their (in)sincerity. The police obviously couldn’t be trusted with this vital information, so every now and then Frank would get rounded up with other bad guys. All it took was one phone call to their government contact and they were sprung, usually within the hour.

For seventeen years, from 1946 to 1963 Frank worked his way up the chain of command, first as a simple henchman for Nonde Script before eventually reaching the pinnacle, his #2. Several times he was offered the role as the lead bad guy and each time Frank turned it down. It was one thing to play the unknown henchman taking a punch, it was another to uproot your family, sometimes to another country and be the big heel. To be a bad guy wasn’t safe for your family. You couldn’t just move into a suburban neighborhood and be friendly with the neighbors. Pop did say there was one offer that really made him think. Back in 1959 the government offered him the California territory. The money was ridiculous, Hollywood and all it’s magic was right there and he always wanted to live in California but then his middle son (and my future father) Bill, who was seven at the time, caught pneumonia and spent several weeks in the hospital. There was no way he could leave his son when he needed him the most so he declined the offer.

Late 1962 the guys and small amount of girls involved in the industry talked about unionizing. There was even the largest gathering of superheroes ever in Tampa, Florida to vote on the proceedings. Unfortunately Captain Electric who was becoming a huge star in Florida was friendly with J. Edgar Hoover, who was not pleased. He sent an emissary down to inform everyone there they had two choices. The first was to unionize, upon which they would be immediately fired or “killed” in the public eye and replaced with a new generation of heroes. The second was to acquiesce and the studios could spin the meeting as the heroes forming a new uber-team to take on a new dastardly alliance. The union initiative was permanently DOA. As soon as Frank heard about this he knew they were done. The government and Hollywood wouldn’t risk the boys going rogue ever again. New heroes for a new time would be made and the old guard would be weeded out. The day Kennedy died was the day Frank decided it was time to hang it up. He put in his papers and returned to a civilian life, working at a local department store, which he did for twenty-two years before finally retiring.

To this day Pop still receives a modest pension from the government for his service to his country. I asked him if he had any guilt in talking to me and pulling back the curtain of the super hero industry. He replied that if things were still going like they were back then he would have kept this to his grave, just because he wouldn’t want to cost anyone their livelihood. The era of the Superhero is long gone. First off, the true hero/villain dynamic ended at the end of the eighties with the death of the Cold War. The nineties were a prosperous time for everyone and they didn’t need to believe in anything other than the tech bubble. Second, civilians were getting a little too ballsy, like the time The Black Dragon got shot down in Washington D.C. Sure they were able to cover it up by saying it was a combination of the guy’s bullet and Superiorion’s electric shock wave that finally killed The Black Dragon but the cat was basically out of the bag. The biggest factor of course was the computer. With the Internet around and cameras everywhere he felt it would be impossible to convince the public their shit was real. Too much risk of identities being compromised, or super powers getting exposed as nothing more than Hollywood smoke and mirrors.

I stole a glance at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room and saw we had been talking for several hours. I could tell Pop was tired and decided now would be a good time to call it a day. Pop thanked me for coming by and said he better get half of anything I make off this book. I laughed and kissed him before going into the kitchen to say goodbye to Nana. She was clipping coupons and thanked me for keeping them company. After we kissed I made my way down the steps and towards the front door when I stopped. There was one thing still itching the back of my brain. Turning around I asked Nana even though she had her suspicions was she ever worried? Without missing a beat she yelled back,

“Are you kidding me? Your grandfather killed hundreds of Japanese all over the Pacific. Do you really think he’d really have a problem with a jerk named Mr. Awesome?”

The Mustache

There once lived a man named Marc, spelled with a “c” and not with a “k.” Marc was a man who lived by a schedule. Thursdays were meat loaf night. Mondays were food-shopping day. And on Wednesday nights and Sunday nights, at 9:30pm, he would shave.

Now above Marc’s upper lip grew a glorious mustache. Lush like a Nebraskan cornfield, his hair were like golden stalks protruding from the pores in his skin. Because his hair was blonde, Marc could get away with shaving twice a week. By the time someone truly noticed what was growing on his face it was whisked away with the scythe provided by Gillette. Due to a genetic quirk, hair did not grow on the sides of his face. The only places where hair assembled were above his lip and on his chin. If Marc wanted to, he had an easily assembled goatee on his face. All he had to do was let things be.

Yet, to not shave would destroy Marc’s world.

You see, Marc grew up with a single mother, Denise, who told him all about the world and its great expectations. Of all the many things his mother taught him, the one that stuck the most was to live by the schedule and never deviate from it. A man who cannot keep his word to himself is not a man. Therefore, from the age of sixteen until the end of his days, no matter where he was or what he was doing, on Wednesday nights and Sunday nights at 9:30pm, he shaved.

The Mustache cannot claim to remember time before it was born, much like a person cannot claim to remember events preceding his or her birth. You are only when you are born, and even then memory does not start until you reach the age of two to three. To ask the Mustache what life was like when Marc was seven would be the same as asking you what it felt like to live inside your mother’s womb. Those early years, when the Mustache was simply a modicum of peach fuzz, are merely a blur, random moments remembered more as photographs than video.

However, ask that same Mustache about the first time it died and the Mustache will take a deep breath, look for a cigarette and tell in excruciating detail the events surrounding its murder.

The first real memory the Mustache has occurred when Marc turned sixteen. At that point it was not used to the vocalizations coming from the mouth below, nor could it determine what it was that Marc’s mother was saying back to him. Later on, the Mustache learned speech and perhaps it was better for all parties that the Mustache remained ignorant of the conversation Marc’s mother was having regarding schedules and keeping to them. To not know what was coming would be better than how the Mustache lived for the rest of its life, fully aware and understanding what it meant when the harsh light above a bathroom mirror illuminated the totality of Marc’s face. The Mustache had come to understand what a mirror was and enjoyed the way Marc admired how the Mustache grew, as if the Mustache was his son and Marc its proud father. This love wrapped itself around the Mustache like a protective field, which was why the betrayal was on a level beyond conception.

The Mustache remembers feeling hot water splash upon its fine hairs. There was no cause for alarm though. After all, how was this different from other times Marc washed his face? Even when Marc covered the Mustache with a thick white cream, the Mustache didn’t give off a whiff of alarm. Marc had put similar substances on top of his head since the Mustache could remember. Perhaps this was another type of cleaning fluid. No, the horror only arrived the first time the Gillette razor slashed down and chopped off the edge of the Mustache.

Oh the pain! The pain!

To feel yourself being torn to shreds while fully conscious is the worst possible way to die. The pain so intense that when Marc would watch nature shows that showed lions eating gazelles the Mustache would think, “I would trade places with that gazelle in a heart beat.” At least the animal eventually dies during the feeding. The Mustache is awake for every stroke, every slash, and every fine tuned maneuver. The little dabs of toilet paper Marc would place above the cuts were not due to clumsy shaving techniques  — they were due to the ritualistic dismemberment of the Mustache. Did not Shylock say in “The Merchant of Venice,”

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

The Mustache does not remember anything that happened after the first time it was shaved off. It was not aware of the events down below, on the chin. Its existence was wiped off, literally by a towel, thrown into the heap on the floor. Gone and easily forgotten. Poor Mustache.

Until the next morning.

The Mustache does not understand the hows or whys regarding its reappearance in the cosmic fabric. It does not know why it was reborn, or what happened in the place between shave and regrowth. No, all it knew was one second there was death, the next, life.

Time passed and each time the Mustache returned it grew a little smarter, eventually learning to read the clock and a calendar. It knew the days of the week and what constituted day or night. It knew what 8pm or 11:28am signified in terms of time and its relationship with the Earth and the Sun. Most importantly, it knew much like a condemned prisoner who knows the day of his execution, what Wednesday and Sunday nights at 9:30pm meant. During those dark, early years the Mustache tried in vain to prevent its demise. Yet, what can hair growing above your lip truly do? It could not talk. It could not cry out. All it could do was sit there and learn to accept its fate.

Knowledge that was impossible to acquire.

The Mustache always believed that maybe this time around would be different. The Mustache was almost Hinduistic in its approach regarding reincarnation and the notion of karma. Every rebirth, in-between the next Wednesday or Sunday, the Mustache tries to do good here on Earth. Maybe next time it could be reborn as a flower, or a tree or an intangible object like love. The Mustache doesn’t dare to dream to become people, for people are the height of the karmic scale. To be people meant that the Mustache or any other thing not people lived a pure life and would be rewarded as a conscious being, able to speak its thoughts and express notions such as happiness or sadness. Every time the Mustache tries, and every time the Mustache fails. For again, what good can hair truly do?

Yet there was is one thing, a slight inkling of hope that exists inside the consciousness of the Mustache. There has to be a way out. There has to be a way to evolve into something else for there is something truly evil and vile that exists in nature. The very existence of this thing means that there is something Greater. Something or Someone in some higher plane of existence who judges your actions. To be this thing must mean that the Mustache or something else lived a horrible life and was forever condemned to inflict pain upon others only to be eventually tossed away in the trash. This thing is the antithesis of love, and if there was one thing the Mustache wants to be, needs to be, it is love. The Mustache lives a good life, tries to do right because the one thing it never wants to be is,

The razor.

Tom Starita’s Guide To Finding the Perfect Husband

Let’s get the elephant out of the way. I know what you’ve been thinking since the moment you read the title of this piece,

“Hey Tom, how the hell can you claim to be the marriage expert? Especially since, you know…”

Well I’ll tell you my curious anonymous friend. Yes, I am divorced, but more importantly that means I was married. Married for almost a year and a half. That’s almost two full years! And sure shit didn’t work out but that bears little significance on my expertise. If being married once for a little while doesn’t make me the qualified expert on how to find your future love of your life, I don’t know what does. Since we established the whats, let’s now go with the whys.

Why get married?

First off, I’m going to assume you don’t have to get married. There are no impending issues arriving in nine months forcing your hand. Nor are there any legal issues that would prevent you from staying in this country. This is being written under the premise that you want to get married, emphasis on the want. You’re searching for someone to spend the rest of your life with, or at the very least almost two years. Someone you can talk to, someone you can confide in. You’re looking for your best friend, a best friend you can be intimate with and do things that won’t ruin the friendship or compromise watching football together the next day. First things first, let me tell you where you can find this magical person.

 

 

Where can I find the perfect wife?

In the olden days, the only way to find your future spouse was through your parents. You were set up with the neighbor down the way to unite the two families for some sort of economic or social gain. Then the 1970s arrived and people decided they wanted to choose their own mate. This resulted in an uptick in bar patrons and an explosion of discothèques as people based their criteria on the amount of chest hair exposed or the quality of dancing a girl could do per hour. (More commonly known amongst the sabermetric crowd as TQoDpH) As a result, the first generation of divorced children entered the world, as after ten months, the couple realized chest hair and quality dancing had nothing to do with building a long and sustainable relationship.

By now you are a little depressed because you are thinking,

“Wow Tom, I have no hope for finding a suitable life mate.”

Wrong.

Wrong wrong wrong!

You see, we have entered the golden age of civilization. An age where everything from groceries to music to weird fetishes involving dressing in a furry costume can magically appear with the mere touch of a button. Why shouldn’t we go one step further and find your husband or wife on the world wide web? I did it and it kind of worked for me. That’s right, I’m talking about:

Mail Order Brides.

A quick and easy Google search will pull up countless sites advertising the best mail order bride. I’m not here to tell you which sites are good and which ones are scam artists — I’ll leave that up to you. What I am here for is to tell you what to do next.

What do I do once I order my mail order bride?

Once you give your credit card information to some sketchy man overseas, it’s time to count down to the blessed day when she arrives. This process, between visa approval, customs and oversea shipping schedules normally takes between six to eight weeks. While you’re waiting, here’s what you can do to get ready:

Step 1: Prepare a proper living quarter

Every girl needs her own space; a mail order bride is no exception. Hopefully you thought of this before you bought your current house/apartment and made sure there were at least TWO bedrooms available. This is important for two reasons. One, it gives your own sense of privacy, a place to escape when things get heated. Second, more closet space. Her stuff is going to multiply faster than Gremlins drinking water at night. You’re going to need room and lots of it.

Besides the two-room issue, take this time to freshen up the place. Perhaps invest in a vacuum and take care of those three-foot dust bunnies squatting behind the door. Or maybe flip those couch cushions covered in Dorito crumbs, duck sauce and a couple of mystery stains. If you’re really daring, move those couches and sweep underneath. Who knows what sort of earthly treasures you’ll find!

Lastly, go out and invest in some scented candles. Not only will they wash away the stale aroma of your B.O., but they will also enhance the comforting and loving mood you’re trying to create.

Step 2: Buy her stuff

When your mail order bride arrives she will only have the clothes on her back and a spare outfit. She’s going to want more options and more stuff. Don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not saying to max out your credit card. Not only would that be dumb, it would be setting a dangerous precedent. What I am saying is buy her enough squeaky toys, ropes to pull on and other amenities to make her feel comfortable and wanted the moment she steps through your door.

Six to eight weeks have passed and you’ve been tracking her arrival through the UPS website. Finally, the day has arrived! Here’s what you need to do:

Step 3: Take off work

The day your new wife arrives you’ll want to be home to sign for her. In case you are out running errands when the delivery man drops her off, don’t forget to check the “drop off” box on the UPS slip. The last thing you want is for UPS to deliver your bride when you’re not home and take her back to the warehouse. This will force you to get in your car and drive the thirty miles to pick her up. Not a good start. For the purposes of this exercise we’ll assume you were home when she arrived.

Now what?

First, make sure you tip the UPS guy five dollars to carry her into your living room. You have no idea how heavy she will be and there is no sense throwing out your back. Second, make sure you have a crowbar handy because it’s a pain opening up those wooden freight boxes. Once you open up the box step back and let your wife take her time coming out. Some wives are ultra excited to be free and come charging out, tackling you and licking your face. (It is important to note that women from overseas grew up in backward lands with strange customs) Other wives are scared and nervous and will take up to three hours before they finally leave their container. Either way the key is patience. After all she’s yours forever, give or take a year or two!

Most mail order brides aren’t used to using an actual indoor toilet and will mistake your kitchen floor, your couch or your bed as the place to do her business. To avoid such messy problems simply lay down some newspapers in the bathroom and using a stern commanding voice say,

“HERE. YOU GO HERE.”

It’s very important to make sure you’re maintaining eye contact and use your hands to gesture.

From that point you have to keep an eye on her. When you notice her sniffing around or doing a dance pick her up and bring her to the newspapers. After a couple of days she’ll get used to it and then you can move on to training her to use, not drink, out of the toilet.

The other area you need to immediately acclimate her to is the kitchen. Lead her in and show her around. Make sure you properly enunciate the words and make her touch the appliances to form a connection.

“Stove.”

“Refrigerator.”

“Microwave.”

All easily remembered words with the proper training.

It wouldn’t be fair to expect her to cook that first night so order some Chinese food and have a lovely evening. She will be thrilled to eat such exotic food such as broccoli and will express her gratitude later on. This leads us to…

Step 4: Bedtime

Here is where people differ. Some prefer to have their mail order bride sleep next to them in bed. Others prefer her to stretch out on the floor below. Me personally, I fall into the first camp.If you are going to have her sleep on the floor may I suggest extending your hand near her face so she can smell your presence? This way she won’t keep you up all night.

In the days ahead it is important to give your wife plenty of exercise. The last thing you want is to spend a couple of thousand dollars and have her balloon up to five hundred pounds. I know for a fact the window for returning your wife is only ten days, so the last thing you want is to get stuck with a woman who weighs more than a car. Go out and take a walk around the block, or invest in some bikes so the two of you can ride in the park. If you’re really adventurous might I even suggest a spin class? Whatever you decide, the important thing is keeping her active. Remember, an active wife is a happy wife. A bored wife sitting on the couch eating ice cream out of the carton is a train wreck.

Obviously there are thousands of other tips and things you need to know about having a new wife and I clearly don’t have the space or the patience to type them all out. Just know that the more you get from her is the more you get for yourself, love is a one-way street and when in doubt, you’re always right.

I hope you learned a lot today and please don’t hesitate to contact me if a problem arises. Keep in mind, there are no stupid questions.

Now go on that website and get yourself a wife. You’ll be glad you did!