My Interview with the Stratford College Gazette

Two days ago I did a feature interview for the Stratford College Gazette. With my scanner on the fritz the reporter, Dana Bell’Amore graciously sent me a copy and said I could copy/paste to my heart’s content. Thanks Dana, I had a blast. And now here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Tom Starita has dreams. Big dreams. Dreams involving late night television and podcasting in virtual reality. He’s done a lot so far in his thirty-eight years, a blog, a cartoon, a podcast, a commercial and some books, the second of which, “Growth and Change Are Highly Overrated” arrived two weeks ago. He took some time out of his busy vacation to chat on the phone and answer some questions.

Dana: First I just want to say thank you for doing this interview.

Tom: It’s not every day you can be guaranteed page 5 in the Stratford College Gazette newspaper.

Dana: So we’ll start with a softball, you grew up in Staten Island, NY, what brings you to Connecticut?

Tom: I was working with the reptiles at the Staten Island Zoo for the last two years and as we all know, Stratford is home to the region’s largest Meerkat exhibit. They were looking for a wrangler and I was looking to be wrangled.

Dana: So writing isn’t your primary source of income?

Tom: No, well not yet anyway. Right now my 9-5 is spent with the Meerkats, training them, socializing them, lots of wrangling. You know, the usual Meerkat stuff. It’s a trip.

Dana: What got you interested in Meerkats? Was it that show?

Tom: I mean yeah. Like everyone else I was a huge fan of the ABC show, “Step by Step” and loved Squiggly, their pet Meerkat.

Dana: Talk about your creative process. Do the Meerkats help?

Tom: Honestly no. All their ideas are hacky like, “you should write a story where a vampire becomes a zombie.” And then I have to explain how a vampire is already dead and you try explaining the mysterious vagaries of life and death to a Meerkat troop and see where that gets you.

Dana: So then where do your ideas come from? Where did Lucas James, the main character in your new book, “Growth and Change Are Highly Overrated” come from?

Tom: A couple of years ago I was in Jamaica on a solo vacation. A way to cleanse the pallet of life if you will. Halfway through my trip I met this group of South Africans who basically adopted me into their tribe. They were great but honestly I had no idea what they were talking about. Like literally, between my mediocre hearing and their accents the entire time we were together I had no clue what they were saying. But what I did get from them was this really cool intense vibe. Not like I don’t care, more like I don’t even care that I don’t care. And the entire group – four girls, two guys were like that. Our last night together we stayed up on the beach to watch the sun rise and one of the guys pulled me aside and started pouring his heart out. Like heart wrenching emotional stuff, the stuff you wouldn’t tell your best friend but again, I had no clue what he was saying. I could only infer this on body language, tears and a little vomit. And when he was done drying his eyes and wiping his mouth I felt two things. The first was emotionally I knew this guy. And second I wanted nothing to do with the conversation.

Dana: So he inspired you?

Tom: He inspired Ralph, the wannabe best friend of Lucas James.

Dana: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Tom: Well I’ll be 43, which is as scary an age there is out there, unless that number happens to be 44, which is at least a double number.

Dana: Double number?

Tom: Yeah, this is going to sound nuts but while writing the book, I devoted a whole chapter to luck and superstition and Lucas James taught me about double numbers and how they’re good.

Dana: I’m not following.

Tom: Well you know when writers talk about going where the characters lead them? I found out in the course of writing the book that Lucas James, while he says he isn’t superstitious has a major thing with numbers, and I learned his view on things.

Dana: Which carries over into the rest of the book.

Tom: Oh yeah, this isn’t some straightforward A-Z story. This book goes all over the place and there are plenty of times where chapters will be devoted to whatever is on the mind of Lucas James. He has ideas on everything and it was stuff that wouldn’t have made sense if I just shoehorned them into the plot. Like if suddenly he’s talking with, “His Apple Jack” and mentioned his thoughts on dieting or your girlfriend’s best guy friend or back in third grade his attempt to honor Rosa Parks or anything else for that matter.

Dana: Sounds like you had a lot of fun writing that. Before I go to the next question I want to follow up on something you just said. You mentioned “My Apple Jack” the nickname Lucas James has for his ex-fiancée. Talk about that.

Tom: That’s one of those things where I knew people were going to notice it, then get annoyed by it, then get tired of it before coming all the way around to accepting it. The one thing you have to be when you’re writing a ridiculous book like this one is you have to be true to the main character, or you’re going to lose the entire story. Lucas James is secretly sentimental, well not so secret if you read the book but he doesn’t like to show he’s sentimental. Except when it comes to Jackie.

Dana: I’m running out of quarters for this pay phone so unfortunately we’re going to have to skip some questions. Tell me about your turn as Monsieur Thenadier in “Les Miserables.”

Tom: Well that was one of those random things I couldn’t pass on. Last summer I was getting coffee at the Grey Pigeon and in walks Guy LaFierre.

Dana: I heard he frequents the café a lot.

Tom: Well me being new to the area I had no idea. All I knew was the famous Director Guy LaFierre was three feet away from me and asked if I could pass him a Splenda.

Dana: So what happened next?

Tom: I did and casually said how much I loved his version of the play he directed in Haiti eight years ago. One thing led to another and I got the part.

Dana: Will there be more collaborating in the future?

Tom: I hope so. I would love to see what Guy could do with Lucas James.

Dana: Is your goal to bring this book to Broadway?

Tom: That would be awesome.

Dana: Who would you cast as Lucas James?

Tom: That’s the easiest question you’ve asked all day – Matthew McConaughey.

Dana: I can see that.

Tom: Yeah I think he would do him justice. So Matthew, if you’re reading this feel free to reach out.

Dana: Well that wraps things up. Anything you want to add?

Tom: I wish I could get laser hair surgery on my neck. I hate shaving my neck. And go buy my book, “Growth and Change Are Highly Overrated.”

BUY MY BOOK

It’s only 99 cents so seriously, you’re not risking much with the purchase.

Dana: I see it’s already gotten a couple of five star reviews on Amazon.

Tom: I don’t care about that, I just feel like a proud dad bringing Lucas James into the world. I want everyone to meet him.

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The Devil is in the Details

Mortimer P. Worthy stepped out of his modest size home, straightened his checkered tie and proceeded down the cement path towards his car. Eileen kept the new car, her Mazda, in the garage while Mortimer parked his five-year-old gray Corolla out front underneath a tall spruce tree. It was an unusually warm Wednesday in March, making his five-minute drive to work quite enjoyable. He lowered all four windows, turned on the classic rock station and drove down the block.

His job was going to be especially satisfying today. All five of his English classes had been reading Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and today was the day they would be held accountable. Mortimer preferred essay tests, something his students detested. Of course grading all one hundred and twenty five tests would be a pain, but it’s not like he was obligated to get them back to the students tomorrow.

Mortimer thought of Johnny Caralta, who was constantly breaking his chops, as he cruised down the street. In all his years teaching, Johnny was by far the worst kid of them all. He doubted Johnny ever picked up the book; all he ever did was flirt with Samantha O’Reilly or interrupt his discussions with some inane comment or noise. Well, today would be Johnny’s day of reckoning. If he didn’t pull an eighty five on this test he was off the baseball team.

One stop sign, one red light and then the usual parking spot in the back of the building, a routine Mortimer could do with his eyes closed. His thoughts continued to wander as he approached the red light. Softball season was almost here, he had to remember to put a try out notice in the morning announcements. The light turned green and Mortimer automatically began rolling out, failing to see Edward Dwayne Nassour and his red Pathfinder come flying down the road. Edward had once again overslept and was once again in a mad dash, hoping he could make it to work before Mr. Dishman realized he wasn’t at his desk.

Mortimer lazily turned to his left, his foot gently pressing down on the gas when he saw Edward coming right at him. There was nothing either man could do; the moment of impact was less than a second away. English tests and angry bosses were no longer a pressing concern as the cars collided at the intersection of Cortelyou and Lamoka. Witnesses later told police on the scene it was the loudest crash they had ever heard. Edward had been doing at least seventy and his truck had nearly sliced Mortimer’s car in half, before flipping over eight times and coming to a stop almost one hundred feet away.

There were no survivors, only remains.

Mortimer was pissed.

He was forty-four years old and was still in what he considered the prime of his life. He had been teaching English for eighteen years at two different schools and life had become quite monotonous. At his sister’s request, he started to write down the stories he told his nieces and nephews. She believed there was potential and was going to show her friend who had an in at a publishing company. Perhaps if things broke right he wouldn’t be dealing with the Johnny Caralta’s of the classroom when he was sixty. Maybe he could spend his years sitting on the back patio jotting down amusing stories and making a comfortable living.

Of course, none of the above mattered. Mortimer was dead and presently watching police keep the gawkers at bay while his mortal remains lay scattered on the pavement. He paced up and down the street when he had the sudden urge to find the person who did this and kill them…again. Mortimer stormed up the street and saw firefighters on the scene hosing down the fire which had erupted from the truck. He stood in front of the smashed windshield, looked in and screamed,

“Hey! Hey you! Come out here!”

He heard movement coming from inside the vehicle and a badly charred man crawled out from the wreckage. He looked like he had been left on the barbeque an hour too long.

“What do you want?” he replied somewhat hostile.

“What do I want? Are you kidding me? You killed us!”

“So? We’re both dead now, ain’t nothing we can do.”

“I at least want an explanation, maybe an apology.”

“Maybe if you were paying attention we wouldn’t be dead!”

“Me? Are you trying to blame this on…hey, where are you going?”

Edward Dwayne Nassour had started walking down the street, leaving a trail of charred remains, obviously not interested in furthering the conversation.

“Get back here! You owe me my life! I want my life back!” Edward didn’t care enough to turn around and said with a mix of sarcasm and indifference,

“Why don’t you make a deal with the Devil? Isn’t that what people do in situations like this?”

Mortimer began to say something, but stammered and nothing coherent came out of his mouth. Instead, he shot both middle fingers in the air and began gesturing wildly at the departing murderer.

“The Devil. Ha, very funny.” He said to himself. What am I supposed to do, call out for him and he’ll appear out of some ominous smoke?”

Quite the opposite, actually.

Mortimer shrieked and turned around to see the prince of darkness standing behind him. He was over eight feet tall, blood red, with the horns and tail and looking a little like Pierce Brosnan. The stereotypical appearance, save for the Armani suit he was wearing.

“Are you…are you the….”

Satan himself. Charmed to make your acquaintance. The Devil deeply bowed.

“You’re wearing a suit?”

I take on the appearance of whatever is in your mind’s eye and this is a much better looks than what I’m accustomed to. Thank you.

“You’re welcome?” His response was half questioning the reality of the situation and half embarrassed.

Now, I take it you didn’t call on me to have a polite conversation regarding my appearance, correct?

“That would be correct, yes. The reason why I called is because I was killed this morning by some asshole who didn’t even accept responsibility!”

There is nothing more offensive than rudeness, the Devil said with a tsk.

“Yes! Thank you. Anyway, the one thing he did do for me was suggest I contact you…“

In order to resume your life?

The two beings shared a laugh. “Wow, the Devil really is a decent guy,” Mortimer thought to himself.

I can’t exactly do that. There are rules, you know.

“Not to be rude, but if you can’t do that for me, what can you do?”

An ominous smile formed across the Devil’s genial face. With a flourish he exclaimed,

I can allow you to go back and make your life better than what it was.

“Better?”

Yes. You can go back and influence things so that way you’ll be infinitely more satisfied with the duration of your life.

“Hmmm,” Mortimer tapped the area on his face where a chin should be and pondered. “Influence how?”

I’ll explain everything in tedious detail if you’d like. I like to give my perspective clients all the necessary information.

“Okay but before you do tell me the catch. I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies to know there’s always a catch with you.” The Devil laughed like a British man watching Monty Python.

I love how paranoid humanity has become. Always thinking someone is out to get them. The notion of tricking unsuspecting men and women into giving me their soul is a propaganda trick started by the opposite side. Here is the catch, as you say. In exchange for my gift, you agree that at the end of your life you’ll spend the remaining eternity with me.

The suggestion of eternity with Satan caused Mortimer to pause. Enough had been said and written of the devil being a purely evil creature. Did he want to be condemned to a lifetime with him?

“I don’t know. Eternity is a long time.”

Before you decide please allow me to finish. I will bring you back to any day you like. You will be a spirit, unseen by anyone, including your younger self. You will have one day, from the moment your younger self wakes up to the moment your younger self falls asleep to change your life.

Mortimer clapped his hands in excitement. “You’re saying I could go back a couple of hours and make myself late for work and miss the accident? That’s great!”

No, I’m not saying that at all. The Devil said with some irritation. Remember when I said I don’t have that kind of power? You’re dead; there is no coming back from death. I’m allowing you the opportunity to improve your life up to the moment of your untimely demise. To go back and offer a suggestion that will allow you a more prosperous life, with the perspective of the knowledge you have right now.

“So I could tell my younger self to buy stock in Google and Apple?” His voice rose like a little boy telling Santa Clause what he wanted for Christmas.

Now you’re getting it. Although I’m not sure if simply an influx in money would bring you happiness. You seem like a deeper man than that. Mortimer thought about it and slowly nodded.

“I guess you’re right.”

Don’t give up now dear friend. You were a teacher for almost twenty years. In a perfect world what would you rather have done?

“I like to tell stories.” Mortimer said, sounding more like George Costanza telling Jerry Seinfeld what kind of job he wanted.

Good, good! Now we’re getting somewhere.

“My sister was just saying how I should write them down and she would try to get me published!” His enthusiasm rose on every word.

What if you didn’t need your sister’s help? What if you went back twenty years and told yourself a guaranteed best selling story?

“I couldn’t think of a guaranteed best seller when I was alive. How would I think of one now that I’m dead?”

You’re not thinking big enough. You could tell yourself The Da Vinci Code and write it! You could take one of the thousands of James Patterson best sellers and slap your name on it. Do you see what I’m saying?

“You’re saying I could steal The Hunger Games?!”

Yes exactly! So, I suggest you go back to your mid to late twenties. You would still be young enough to use that imagination of yours while at the same time have enough life experience to write some quality material. Since you were a teacher all these years I’m assuming you took the summers off?

“That would be correct.”

Good. Then I say you go back to the summer of your twenty-seventh birthday. This also allows you to keep one year of teaching under your belt. We wouldn’t want to drastically change that.

“Yeah, despite the headaches I loved to teach.”

We’ll pick a rainy day so there are no distractions and you can significantly change your life for the better.

Mortimer paused. Something still wasn’t right. “I don’t know. This is too easy. I mean, you’re the Devil it’s your job to lie.” The Devil smiled and took a dramatic bow.

How can I be a liar if I’m telling you upfront I will own your soul? I’ll spell it out again for your benefit. Your life on Earth will be infinitely better. You will die in a car accident on this day regardless of what you change and when you die your soul will belong to me.

Mortimer felt uneasy and looked around. “Wait, shouldn’t God or an angel or something show up and give me another option?”

You called for me and God gave humans free will. It’s up to you to decide. Mortimer paced back and forth debating. Finally, he reached a decision,

“And this isn’t some kind of trick?” The Devil smiled the smile of a patient man.

Human beings are remarkable at deceiving themselves. They don’t need help from me. I spelled out the situation and at the end you will end up with me. I don’t know how I can be any more plain.

“Okay, I’m ready. Let’s do it.” He stuck out his hand and shook the Devil’s red claw.

You’ll see, it won’t be too bad. Besides, you’ll have an eternity to bask in your remarkable achievements.

#

For a second he lost his breath, which was strange considering he was dead. Mortimer instinctively closed his eyes, and when he opened them the world was pitch black. Panic set in as the idea that maybe the Devil isn’t the most truthful of characters popped into his brain. Relief washed over him as his eyes began growing accustomed to the dark and he realized where he was—the bedroom of the first house he bought with Eileen. His wife was a fussy sleeper, thus the dark curtains and the absence of any light whatsoever in the room.

Mortimer looked over at his alarm clock and saw that it was 6:20am. Eileen’s alarm wouldn’t be going off for another half hour, giving him plenty of time to formulate a plan. He came to an immediate conclusion; why waste any time? Be there the moment his younger self woke up and immediately give him the idea.

Dead Mortimer crept over to the left side of the bed and stared at his back for the first time in his life. The reality of the situation presented itself and Dead Mortimer laughed. His younger version wasn’t aware of him; he could jump on top of himself if he wanted to. He pulled the five-hundred count cream sheets back, climbed into bed and waited for his younger eyes to open. The excitement of the moment was building and he started jabbering out loud,

“You are going to be so happy when you wake up. The only thing you’ll have to do is grab a pen and start writing everything down. Hell, if you’re really lazy you can even tell Eileen. You’re going to write about a post apocalyptic world where kids…”

“BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP”

The sound startled Dead Mortimer so much he jumped backwards and fell out of bed. Fortunately, being dead precludes you from getting any bruises, broken bones or even being heard.

“What the hell was that?” Dead Mortimer thought to himself. He raced over to the window and saw the garbage truck outside, with a rather large man haphazardly depositing trash into the back of the vehicle. Behind him he heard another noise and turned to see his old self now awake.

“Good morning hun.”

“Hmmmmm.”

“You want coffee babe?”

“Hmmmm,” his wife mumbled in reply.

“No problem.” He, rather the living version of He, kissed his wife on her forehead and rose out of bed.

“Game on,” he thought to himself.

His younger self made his way down the hallway and to the kitchen to put on the coffee. Scratching his stomach, Alive Mortimer stretched and yawned. Dead Mortimer knew he couldn’t absorb a thought without coffee and decided to get the most out of the experience. He could walk down memory lane and come back in ten minutes when his young brain was eager for information.

The first place he went to was the downstairs rec room. The old gray La-Z-Boy! Eileen hated that chair and when they eventually moved would force him to put his precious chair to the curb, an act that nearly broke his heart. The chair was his dad’s, and his mother spent years trying to get rid of it as well. Finally, his dad gave in but instead of throwing it out, his dad gave it to him as a house-warming present. Neither of the Worthy women was pleased. But the year wasn’t 2014, it was 1997 and his chair was still his.

Dead Mortimer sat down, cranked the lever back and let out a gratified sigh. He ran his hands over the upholstery and stared at the various little stains that had come from spilling a drink or a little ice cream. Various thoughts of childhood came to him and would have still come to him if he hadn’t looked up at the clock.

1:00PM

ONE O’CLOCK?!!

How was that possible? It was 6:20am a minute ago! Apparently time didn’t behave the same for the dead as it did for the living. With a rush Mortimer bolted out of the chair and upstairs. How fortunate he was for looking up when he did, he thought with a shiver.

Dead Mortimer wandered around the house, looking for his living self. Where the hell did he go? He checked the calendar and saw an empty box where, Tuesday August 12 resided. Pressing his thumbs to his temples, Mortimer concentrated on what had happened that day. Where could he have gone? The minutes passed and the answer continued to elude him. How the hell was he supposed to remember a random Tuesday?

Mortimer checked the clock and saw it had jumped to 3:39. Time was slipping away and there was nothing he could do and he gave his soul away for nothing and…

There was a vibration underneath his feet.

The garage door was opening! In two minutes, (or a couple of seconds to Dead Mortimer) Alive Mortimer would be walking up the stairs. He ran to the door to greet himself like a puppy awaiting his master. The moment that door opened he would start talking and wouldn’t stop until the idea stuck.

His younger entered and in a Herculean effort was carrying twenty-eight bags of groceries to avoid a second trip. Typical Mortimer, he thought to himself. He followed his younger self, struggling to make his way to the kitchen while talking the entire time.

“Mortimer, listen to me right now. Imagine a post apocalyptic world where kids were forced to fight kids due to a corrupt government. There’s a main character named Katniss, okay I really don’t like that name we can change it to something better but that’s not the point. The point is she’s the hero and we follow her and a boy who’s in love with her who was a baker. No, his father was a baker, he just enjoys eating bread named Peeta.” Mortimer laughed. “That’s the first time I got the joke. Pita bread. That’s actually kind of funny. He’s with her and there’s a romance and she shoots an arrow into a force field and you’re going to make millions!”

Dead Mortimer watched as Alive Mortimer paused in front of the cabinet while holding a box of Frosted Flakes. A smile came over his living self. The seed was planted, now all he had to do was write it. Alive Mortimer put the box down and ran to the office next to their bedroom, with Dead Mortimer firmly on his heels. He turned the computer on and stood there antsy, his left foot tapping the ground. Their computer wasn’t the newest brand, or the fastest. Booting up would take a couple of minutes.

Just enough to go grab a snack from the fridge.

Dead Mortimer watched his other him leave the room. He rationalized the move by saying, “Okay, no big deal. Just going to grab a drink, maybe a bite to eat. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes, the computer will be ready and we can do this.” Mortimer stared at his crappy computer as it ran through the various processes and programs needed to start. For a second, Mortimer wondered if his living self was going to get distracted, but that fear was alleviated upon seeing himself walk in with a glass of iced tea in his hand. He watched himself climb into the computer chair, set his glass down and open up Microsoft WORD. Dead Mortimer could hear the chimes of the cash register ringing over and over inside his head. He was going to be rich, successful and best of all, never deal with annoying kids who wouldn’t do their homework! His younger self put his fingers to the keyboard and was ready to start typing away when he suddenly stopped. Dead Mortimer barely heard what his younger self said,

“Mets game.”

Shit.

The New York Mets were playing a day game today in St. Louis. This was the first year they were good since 1989 and his younger self was not going to miss any game for any reason. That meant there would be no writing for the next couple of hours. His younger him made his way downstairs, sat down on his favorite chair and turned the television on. It was only the top of the fourth, meaning at least another two hours. Resigned to the situation, Dead Mortimer sat down on the couch and watched along.

An hour later the game was over and both Mortimers were in a bad mood. Alive Mortimer was pissed because they lost 5-2 and played like garbage. Dead Mortimer was pissed because time was ticking away. Mortimer remembered how he was after a loss; writing would be the last thing he wanted to do. How the hell was he going to get himself over to the computer? He needed another idea, and fast. He needed magic. He needed….

Dead Mortimer raced over to himself, sitting there angry on the La Z Boy.

“What if you had the ability to change the results of the game? What if you could do magic? What if you were the chosen one, sent to defend everyone from the most evil wizard on the planet? What if your name was Harry Potter?”

The familiar smile washed over his face and this time, instead of casually walking to the office room, Alive Mortimer jogged upstairs. This was money. The killing kids idea would be nothing but headaches, but this one was money. Plus, it could be for kids. Merchandising, movie rights, this was it. Alive Mortimer sat down on the computer chair leaned back and cracked his knuckles. Dead Mortimer walked into the room to watch his life change forever when the phone rang.

Thankfully he was never a phone person, so the conversation would only last a couple of minutes—tops. In fact, the only person who could keep him on the phone was his friend Mike because they would talk nothing but Mets.

“Oh no,” he thought to himself. “The Mets just lost, that means….”

“Hey Mike, yeah I watched. We gave that game away.”

“No no no! This conversation could last an hour!” Dead Mortimer thought to himself. He sat back, resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do but wait.

Ninety minutes later, Mortimer hung up the phone. It was now 5:45pm. Eileen would be home in forty-five minutes. The good news was he had remained in the chair in front of his computer. All he had to do was get himself to write the idea down and frame out the general outline. Once he did that, he could always come back to the story tomorrow or the next day. Just start typing!

Alive Mortimer pulled himself in towards the desk and paused. Dead Mortimer took that as his cue to once again give the idea.

“Wizards, magic, Harry Potter. Annoying relatives. Boarding school for magical people. Lord Voldemort.”

The smile returned to his younger self and he typed out, “The” when the phone rang again. Dead Mortimer slammed his fist down on the desk and swore repeatedly. Who could this be? Dead Mortimer listened to half the conversation.

“Hey, honey what’s up?…No I don’t mind…I don’t want you going alone…Not a problem I’ll pick you up at the bus stop and we’ll go together…Love you too.”

Immediately Mortimer remembered, his wife’s co-worker’s mother had died and the funeral services were that night. Out of all the nights! Mortimer watched as his younger self walked out of the room and into the shower. Not to downplay a tragedy but this could be good; the best ideas came in the shower. His younger self turned on the hot water and just as he was going into the shower stopped to turn on WFAN.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

How the hell was he going to get through to his thick skull if he was going to listen to sports talk radio? He could feel his own thoughts, they were a mixture of trivial sports and the nature of death. No matter how many times he tried to talk, there would be no getting through and he resigned to waiting until the wake was over.

#

After the wake they went out for drinks with some of his wife’s other co-workers. Time was slipping through his hands and there was nothing he could do to keep a thought implanted inside his head. Finally, they said their goodbyes and were in the car.

It was go time.

He let his wife talk about the night and the wake. After all, he had to be a good husband. Mortimer patiently waited until there was a proper lull and when his wife seemed to be all talked out said,

“Listen to me very carefully. A young wizard named Harry Potter. His parents are killed by an evil wizard. He has friends who have red hair and weird sexual chemistry. His uncle is a werewolf. I want you to speak this out loud and tell Eileen so you won’t forget.” Mortimer watched as a glimmer appeared in his younger version’s eye.

“I know this is going to be random but can I tell you something?”

“Sure what’s up?”

“A weird idea just came to me about a boy who is a wizard and there’s a bad guy who murders his parents and I think this could be something big.” His wife stared at him without saying a word. “Well, what do you think?”

“This is weird but I think it’s been done already.”

“What?” both Mortimers replied in synch.

“Yeah I was talking with Maggie the other day and she’s reading a book that you just described. I think it’s called Henry Cotter or something like that.”

“Damn it!” Dead Mortimer exclaimed, and then said again when he realized they were home. The three of them made their way upstairs while Dead Mortimer decided to go back to The Hunger Games.

“Okay this isn’t a big deal. Let’s focus on Katniss, or maybe we’ll call her Janice. She’s a tough teenage girl and…”

“I’m going to take a shower. You want to join me?”

“Yeah? You sure?

“Do I have to ask you twice?”

Dead Mortimer hadn’t counted on that.

No matter, there would still be time. He would just now have to wait for the shower to be over. Dead Mortimer listened for the shower to shut off and watched as his satisfied self and blushing bride walked down the hallway and into the bedroom. The happily married couple settled into bed and Eileen put her head down on his chest.

This was it, Dead Mortimer’s last chance. He could whisper the plot and have Mortimer tell his wife. That way the idea would be in both their heads and guaranteed to be written down at some point.

“Tell me something,” his wonderful wife exclaimed. Oh, he could kiss her right now. This was the perfect moment. He would his younger self the story of The Hunger Games, who would repeat verbatim to his wife. She would love it and he would be so excited by her enthusiasm he would start writing tomorrow. Mortimer leaned in and spoke while his younger self repeated.

“Well I had an idea for a children’s story, but it wouldn’t just be for kids. It’s set in the future.”

“Okay.”

“It’s about this girl who is forced to fight other kids to the death and—“

Eileen jumped off his chest and looked down at her husband.

“Are you kidding me? Kids fighting to the death? What kind of story is this?”

Dead Mortimer was pale in the face. Or as pale as a dead face could be. His wife was ruining everything.

“Well that’s not the whole story, it’s got a lot of political elements too.”

“Let me get this straight. You want to write a children’s story about kids murdering kids AND there’s politics involved too?”

Dead Mortimer knew he was losing the fight and decided to change gears. But to what? What else was there? Potter was out, Katniss was out. What was left? Dead Mortimer snapped his fingers, The Da Vinci Code.

“Maybe you’re right about this kids but how about this. What if Jesus wasn’t really God? What if He was married to Mary Magdalene and…”

You would have thought Mortimer stabbed his wife in the chest with a dull blade from the ferocity of her reaction.

“Stop! Stop right now! You’re going to write something that tears down your religion? You would prostitute your faith for a book? And what if you did get that published and people took it as fact? You could affect the faith of thousands, or millions!”

Young Mortimer looked horrified and agreed with his wife.

“I don’t know why I said that. I guess the wake kind of shook me up. You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I know you’re looking for that million dollar idea. Don’t worry babe I believe in you. One day you’re going to write a great book!” Young Mortimer leaned in and kissed his wife while Dead Mortimer stood up on the bed and shouted,

“No! No I won’t if you keep rejecting my ideas! Why did I marry you? Oh my God I’m dead and I’m going to lose my soul!”

“What do you say, Mort? We’ve both had a long day. You want to turn over and pass out?”

“Sounds good. Give me one more kiss first.”

Mortimer and Eileen kissed and turned over while Dead Mortimer remained standing in shock. He couldn’t think of anything else and the clock was running out. If he didn’t plant an idea before Alive Mortimer fell asleep, he was literally doomed. Panic flooded his systems like ice water in the Titanic and he began shouting out premises,

“A REIMAGINED BATMAN BUT GRITTIER!”

“TEENAGE GIRL FALLS IN LOVE WITH VAMPIRES AND NOTHING HAPPENS!”

“ZOMBIES!”

He heard himself snoring and knew it was over.

#

Here’s where you’ll be staying for the rest of eternity. As you can see there are no amenities, no comforts to be found. You’ll be sleeping on this jagged rock while bugs of various kinds crawl over you and eat you alive. The Devil stood over him, pointing at the bugs crawling on the ground.

“And this will go on for…” The words barely escaped the grimace on his face.

Eternity. After ten thousand years we’ll switch it up a bit. Wouldn’t want you to get bored of the same horrible punishment over and over, if you get my drift.

Mortimer P. Worthy stood there and gazed around. In frustration he shouted out,

“Why are there two rocks?”

Well we like to maximize space here in hell so you have a roommate. Say hello to, umm what’s your name again?

Another soul walked in, leaving a trail of cockroaches and spiders in his wake. He said with tremendous indifference,

“Edward Dwayne Nassour.”

Mortimer P. Worthy’s jaw dropped and he stared at his new roommate.

“You! Not only did you kill me, but you convinced me to sell my soul! And now I have to live with you forever?”

The Devil laughed and said,

Oh that’s right, I forgot. You guys know each other. How funny is that? Morty, you didn’t even hear the best part. Hey Eddie, what’s the name of your son?

“Johnny.”

“And what’s his last name?”

“Well, his horrible mother changed it when she got remarried.”

“To what?”

“Caralta.”

Mortimer’s face flushed with anger.

“So what I’m hearing is that the father of the worst kid I ever taught is responsible for my death, eternal damnation and my roommate forever.” He ran over and punched Edward right in the face. Edward spat out a tooth and responded with a left cross of his own. The two men stood there screaming, beating the hell out of each other. The demon looked on in amusement, smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

Come now, Mortimer, what are you mad about? All great authors know the devil is in the details.

 

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.