“Wanna go play?”
Cade stared across the table at his younger brother, who was just now finishing up breakfast. Alex stirred the last flecks of cereal around in his bowl. The milk was dyed a snotlike green but he didn’t seem to care. He was focused on fishing out the last few pieces.
“Didn’t you hear me?”
“I did. . . I was just thinking. Maybe we shouldn’t do it anymore.”
“Why not? It’s fun.”
“Fun doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Cade rolled his eyes. “It’s a game, Alex. It’s not like the Pope is planning on visiting.”
Alex sighed. It was fun. Sometimes, at least. “Fine,” he relented.
“Great!” smiled Cade. “Meet me out back when you’re done.”
“Sure thing,” said Alex. He watched his brother walk away. Cade stopped in front of the pantry for a second, then pulled out a case of soda. The cans rattled within. He hefted it up over his shoulder and then went out the back door.
Alex watched the door for a moment longer, then turned back to his breakfast.
Saturday morning dew clung to the grass and soaked through to Alex’s socks as he crossed the yard to the woodshed near the back fence. It sat in the shadow of a willow tree and though the rooftop shingles were curling up in places the building itself seemed otherwise in good condition. The door hung proper and straight and a heavy padlock curled around a clasp to seal it shut. Cade was leaning against the shed when Alex arrived, flinging the key about on a lanyard. It whizzed through the air and made beesounds.
“Finally,” said Cade. “Thought you’d gone to take a shit or something.”
“Frig off. I was just getting dressed.”
“Dressed to impress, right?” Then before Alex could respond and delay them any further, Cade turned and opened the lock. It fell to the grass. Then he pulled the door open and stepped inside. Alex followed him.
The shed seemed to radiate an oppressive gloom, the daylight somehow harsh when contrasted with the dark. Cade reached up and pulled a cord and a sole yellow bulb coated in some unknowable film lit the place as best it could. A heavy green tarp the colour of garbage bags covered one corner of the room. There was a short pile of wood from last winter here, from when they weren’t sure how long the power would be out for. Against the other wall were a collection of tools: axes, sledges, and the like. Alex turned to look at his options while Cade pulled back the tarp.
It always took a moment for it to react when the tarp came back, which made a certain twisted sense; surely the neurons weren’t firing the same way anymore. Then a gurgling groan came from the corner. A single eye revealed itself slowly. It rolled about in its socket, leaping between the two boys. There was the clanging of chains and a low pulling sound of flesh against wood. The zombie crawled out of the shadows, its arms and legs chained behind it. It moved forward on its breast, leaving a thin trail of sloughed skin where it passed. It never stopped pulling. The eye never stopped moving.
As it got closer, Alex was able to see the memories of their play. One eye hung loosely from its socket, dried and deflated. A shoot of bone erupted from its left shin. Ribs were visible underneath the loose tiedyed tank top the creature wore. They pointed out at strange, unsettling angles. Splintered teeth in the zombie’s mouth gave it a sharklike appearance. Cords in its neck strained to reach him. Against his best intentions, Alex recoiled.
Without warning, the sledge came down on the zombie’s back. There was a horrific sound of bones crunching like splintering drywall and a gout of blood erupted from inside the creature’s mouth, splashing out across the hardpacked soil floor. It began to soak into the earth.
Cade hefted the sledge in his hand, smiling at Alex. “What are you waiting for? Have at it!”
Alex turned and selected a pair of garden shears from the tool wall. The light caught them and they glimmered with a hungry fire. Behind him, he heard the wet thud of the sledge hitting the zombie again. He opened the shears and turned to join in.
It wasn’t something they had planned on doing, and neither of them knew fully what the consequences might be. Up until a month ago, zombies had only ever existed in movies. A minor outbreak of a mutated rabies virus from a military lab had changed that dynamic, but a swift response had limited the death toll to only a few dozen. The military sent out notices and set up hotlines so that the public could report any zombie sightings; under no circumstances were they to engage. Only if you were trapped, they emphasized, should you fight. Just like in the movies, the only way to kill one was by destroying the brain. It had been a PR disaster for the military, but the quick extermination of the zombies had settled the public’s nerves.
Commentators later credited the plan’s success to people’s willingness to help. The public had had enough sense to stay indoors and to call the authorities when a zombie was sighted.
The only exception to this had been Cade, who had awoken one day to the sound of somebody rummaging about in the woodshed. When he had gone out to investigate, he had found the zombie on its knees; perhaps looking for some animal that had run into the shed. Without stopping to think, Cade rushed into the shed, pulled a shovel from the wall, and hit the creature on the back of the head, poleaxing it. It slumped to the floor but was not dead. Cade considered killing it, but the high of the fight made his head swim. Another idea occurred to him. In a corner of the shed coated with dust he found the chains his dad used to secure the barbecue to the deck in the summer. He quickly wrapped them around the zombie’s limbs, then hammered them to the wall with large framing nails. Pleased with himself, he had rushed to find Alex.
That was a week ago. They had been out to the shed every day since, taking turns with the zombie. Their only rule was that they couldn’t destroy the brain, or else the game would be over.
They paused now for a quick break. They had opened two cans of soda and sipped at them greedily, the air in the shed hot and humid from their work. The metallic odour of blood bit their nostrils. Cade pulled another can out of the box and whipped it at the zombie. It bounced off the creature’s forehead, leaving a small dent, then rolled off into the woodpile.
Then the break was over. Whatever reluctance Alex might have felt that morning was gone now. His shears cut great sheaves of flesh from the zombie. Muscle barely clung to bone in places. Cade had switched to a cultivator, running it down the thing’s back like some hellish ploughman, carving deep red grooves into the monster. The zombie never stopped pulling at the chains. Never stopped reaching for its tormentors.
Eventually, they heard the sound of their mother calling them for lunch. Neither of their parents knew about the game, and neither son had any intent of telling. It was early in the spring and so it would be some time before either parent would need to go out to the shed. They still had time left to play.
“We should probably head in before she comes looking for us,” said Alex.
“Yeah,” said Cade. He placed the cultivator in a bucket of water that they used to soak the tools. His eyes now scanned the wall for something else he could use. “Cover for me for a few minutes, okay?”
“Sure thing,” said Alex. He went to leave, then stopped in the doorway. “Hey, Cade?”
“Yeah?” asked Cade. He paused, a short hatchet in his hand.
“This was fun,” smiled Alex. “Let’s do it again soon.”
“Same time tomorrow?”
Satisfied, Alex smiled and closed the shed door behind him. He whistled as he crossed the yard, the faint sounds of violence following in his wake.