A CURSE AMONG FRIENDS
by D.M. ANDERSON
arl brought two more Rum & Cokes and set them on the table. “Drink up, boys. Last call.”
Maynard lifted his watch close to his face, struggling to focus. “You’re kidding. That time already?” He looked around the bar. Other than he and Lucas, the place was dark and empty. Even the jukebox had gone to sleep for the night. “Seems like we just got here.”
“Time flies,” Lucas said before draining half of his last drink. He fished out his wallet, pulled out a twenty and held it out. “This cover the damage, Karl?”
“No!” Maynard pushed Lucas’ hand away. “I got this, man.”
“Forget it, dude. You don’t exactly have money falling out of your ass.”
“Yeah, and being a Marine has you living in a mansion in the West Hills.”
“Ladies, please,” Karl said, offering Lucas a yellow-toothed grin. “Don’t worry ‘bout it. Homecoming war heroes drink on the house.”
Lucas sheepishly shrugged. “I wouldn’t call myself a war hero.”
“Aw, and false modesty, too. How cute…just like your old man when he came back from Desert Storm.” The old bartender raised a bushy grey brow Maynard’s way. “And lucky for you, it’s Ladies Night, so I guess your money's no good either.”
As Lucas snickered, Maynard rolled his eyes. “Yeah, real funny, old man. The only lady who ever walks into this dive is your wife when her back needs shaving.”
Karl scowled. “Hey, for your information, I take her to PetSmart for that.”
The three erupted into laughter.
“Anyway, thanks Karl,” Lucas said. “I appreciate it.”
“Eh, drink up and get the hell outta here, you bums.” He shuffled back behind the bar with the empty glasses and commenced cleaning up for the night.
Maynard took a drink and stared across the table. “Good to have you back, man. Just like old times.”
“Almost,” Lucas replied.
“Yeah, almost. Last time we drank here you looked a Motorhead roadie.” Maynard looked his sharp-dressed friend up an down, admiring the uniform. He leaned forward and thumped a finger on the shining medal over his breast pocket. “The Marines must have put some hair on your chest, too. The last time we were here together you got shitfaced after two drinks. Now, you act like you‘ve been sipping tea all night. You left this town a loser and came back a badass.”
Lucas shook his head. “Aw, come on, I ain’t-”
“Dude, I read about the Battle of Pittsburgh…the slaughter, the casualties, being almost overrun by the undead. But even being outnumbered, you put the hurt on ‘em and came back alive. That’s the definition of a fuckin’ hero. I just wish I coulda been there with you.”
“No you don‘t-”
“Can I ask you something?” Despite all the run and Cokes, Maynard’s face turned serious.
“Were you scared? I mean, I was scared when a punk came into the store during my shift waving a gun. I thought I was gonna piss myself, but I just handed the cash over and it was done. But you…surrounded by zombies who wanted nothing more than to take a bite out of your ass…I can’t imagine what it was like.”
Lucas finished his drink and thoughtfully set the empty glass on the table. “Yeah, Maynard, I was scared. Scared shitless.” He shot a cautionary glance at Karl, still at work wiping down the bar, then leaned forward and whispered, “That’s what killed me.”
Maynard froze, eyes wide as he paused mid-drink. He pulled the glass from his mouth. “Dude, what the hell are you talking-”
“Hey, guys,” Karl interrupted. “I gotta go in back…change-out a few kegs an’ shit. Watch the place for me?”
“Sure, Karl,” Lucas replied as casually as he could. “Have at it.”
The old bartender nodded and disappeared into the back room.
Once confident they had the place to themselves, Lucas eyed his old friend intently. “I’ve known you my whole life, Maynard. I can trust you, right?”
Maynard nodded quickly, though obviously confused. “Course. You know you can.”
“Good, ‘cause this is just between you an’ me. If this got out they’d put a bullet in my brain.”
Maynard shook his head. “They? What they? What the hell are you-”
Lucas grabbed his friend by the wrists. “Please, Maynard. No one knows about this, not even my old man. You’re the only person I can trust.”
Maynard yanked his hands away and held them up. “Okay, man. Just stop trying to freak me out.”
“Of you?” Maynard chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Oh, please.”
“Good. You can’t be scared.” Lucas took one last look around the bar before shaking out of his pressed blue Marine jacket and rolling up a shirt sleeve. His forearm was wrapped in a thick gauze bandage.
Maynard’s jaw fell open. “What the…”
Lucas quickly unwrapped the bandage to reveal a deep three inch wound, tendons ripped, muscles torn, crusted blood lining the edges.
Maynard slapped a hand over his mouth and fought the urge to hurl.
“I got bit, Maynard,” Lucas said. “and I died right out their on the battlefield.”
Still gawking at the gaping hole in his best friend’s arm, Maynard struggled to speak. “But…but…how can…how are you-”
“How am I here?” Lucas replied, finishing the sentence. “All that shit you read on the Internet or see on TV is wrong.”
Slowly gathering himself, Maynard croaked, “I don’t get it. Why aren’t you running around chowing down on everyone you see?”
“I thought the same thing myself when I woke up. I was on the battlefield and the fight was already over. Griggs and Cole and a bunch of other guys in my unit were mopping up, popping bullets into the few zombies left still crawling or twitching. I knew I was bitten, but didn’t feel any of the hunger like those poor bastards we put down. And I asked myself the same question you have right now: Why didn’t my own guys try to put a cap in my ass?
“I didn’t know why until a few days later, when we were trying to secure an area and found a nest of zombies in the basement of a townhouse. They came roaring out, hands clawing and ravenous. A few of the new guys in the unit ran away screaming, and that’s when the urge hit.”
“The urge to go after guys in my own unit and eat them.”
Lucas paused to make sure Karl was still busy replacing the beer kegs. “You know the old cliché that an angry dog can sense fear? That’s what it is. The news you’ve been reading has it all wrong. It isn’t living flesh that drives us into a frenzy…it’s the actual smell of fear. Fear gives off a scent that makes us as ravenous and insatiable as a family driving past a KFC. This whole zombie war would never have happened without the stink fear fueling the fire.”
Maynard sat in stunned silence for several seconds before asking, “Did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Eat any guys from your own unit? Guys you once fought next to?”
Before Lucas could answer, the front door flew open, startling them both. They whipped around to see a man, donned in a ski cap and windbreaker, storm into the bar brandishing a sawed-off shotgun.
“Alright, motherfuckers!” he roared, eyes darting wildly. “On the floor! I‘m only here for the money. Do what I say an' you‘ll live through this!”
“Oh, shit!” Maynard cried.
Lucas felt a familiar rumble in his gut.
At that moment, Karl emerged from the storage room clutching a few bottles of Jim Beam. He caught a brief glimpse of the shotgun barrel, just as the startled intruder instinctively aimed it his way and fired. Dropping the bottles, Karl's eyes grew huge as the shot exploded from his back, splattering blood on the wall behind him. He managed a last helpless gaze at Maynard and Lucas before dropping to the floor.
“Jesus Christ!” Maynard screeched in horror.
Karl’s killer made his way behind the bar to the cash register, obviously nervous as he kept his gun aimed at the two of them. “You two just sit tight an‘ we‘ll all get outta this! I didn’t mean to kill the old man!”
“You’re scared,” Lucas said, licking his lips and smiling.
“Shut the fuck up!” the man squealed, grabbing bills from the register and stuffing them in his pockets. “You’re gonna be scared when I blow your fuckin’ head off!”
“I’m not talking to you.” Lucas nodded at Maynard, who was wide-eyed with fear. “I’m talking to my friend, here.”
Lucas lunged across the table, grabbing Maynard’s head in both hands and burying his teeth into his neck. Maynard screamed in agony as Lucas ripped away a chunk of flesh. Blood sprayed from the open wound like a geyser. Maynard dropped to the floor, hands flailing wildly in a vain effort to stem the outpour.
“Holy shit!” the intruder gasped in horror, backing away from the register. “You’re one of them!” Forgetting his task, the intruder scurried from behind the bar and bolted out the front door.
Lucas sighed and slowly stood, taking a sad look at his surroundings. He regarded Karl’s bloody body. The old man had kept vigil behind this bar through three wars and four presidents. He didn’t deserve such an unceremonious fate.
He grabbed a nearby bar towel and draped it over Karl’s face.
A few seconds later, Maynard got to his feet and massaged the fatal wound given to him by his best friend. “Dude, you took a chunk outta me!”
“Sorry, man. You were afraid. I could smell it. I couldn’t help myself.”
Maynard was incredulous. “So now I’m one of the undead? Thanks a lot!” He stopped to sniff the air like a dog catching a whiff of bacon. “What now?”
Lucas patted his friend on the shoulder and smiled. “How ‘bout we go after the guy who just killed Karl. He couldn’t be more than a few blocks away and I know that fucker is tasty-scared .”
“Sounds good,” Maynard said, licking a string of drool off his lips. “’Cause I‘m hungry.”
D.M. Anderson has had two young adult novels published by Echelon Press: Killer Cows & Shaken. He also has a third book, With the Wicked, a collection of dark adult tales, due to be published in 2014. In addition, his short stories have appeared (or soon will appear) in 69 Flavors of Paranoia, Night Terrors, Trembles, Perpetual Motion Machine, Infernal Ink, Encounters and an upcoming StrangeHouse Books anthology.
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