The Haunter of the Park

Sean Lana ran toward the sunset, sure that it would be his last.  The strength in his long, lanky frame was ebbing fast, and the fiends drew closer with each stride, gibbering , moaning and snapping their splintered teeth.

He’d thought he was doing all right, working his way ever so slowly through the outskirts of the dead suburb.  Watching, listening, sniffing the air;  checking and checking and checking again.

For all that, they were suddenly there, at the other end of an alley he’d spent thirty minutes observing from cover.  A trio of thrashers spotted him and immediately began to howl and moan, sprinting toward him as a veritable river of undead filled the alley behind them.  Had he emptied his entire magazine into that onrushing tide of corruption, he would still have been overwhelmed in seconds.  There was no alternative: he turned and ran like hell.

He had hope in the first quarter mile; the thrashers looked like they had been around a day or two, and might be slowing down a bit, as they began the metamorphosis into the more lethargic second stage of the infection.  If he could gain enough ground, he could turn and fire a few rounds, take out a few of the pursuers, and then keep running.

After the first half-mile, that hope evaporated in the dawning realizations that the zombies weren’t as far gone as he had first thought, and he had less gas left in the tank after a day of foraging than he needed: He simply wasn’t going to outrun the things, and he barely had enough distance on them to turn and face his foes, let alone fire a shot, before they would overbear him. 

That stark reality found a can of adrenalin his glands had left on the shelf for real emergencies, and he managed to kick his pace up half a stride, but that wasn’t going to do it, even so.

His roughly westward course had taken him – and his reeking pursuers – into a small neighborhood park, and he set his jaw in grim determination.  The ground was pretty uneven; if he could avoid falling or blowing out an ankle or knee, he might do well enough – and the zombies poorly enough – to get him the distance he desperately needed.

There was an odd sound, like a very high whistle that lasted less than a millisecond.  In the corner of his eye floated the after-shadow of something his eye and mind had tried to capture, but was moving too fast.

From behind came a squelchy Pop!, and then two thuds, one big, one small.  Three more big thuds followed hard on the first two, and a few of the howls and moans of hungry anticipation turned to squalls of frustration and rage.

Sean chanced a quick glance back over his shoulder, and took even more hope from what he saw.

Something had decapitated the lead zombie: the two behind it, plus the one right behind them, all went down in a tangled pile over the headless critter.  The animate ones were now flailing at each other, each trying to be the first to regain its feet and return to the hunt.

Four more made it around or over the pile-up, but Sean had gained precious ground.  He was going to go back and kiss this particular stretch of terra firma if he lived through this cluster-fuck.  He slid the AK off his shoulder and hugged it to his chest.  He didn’t need to work the action to chamber a round – firearm safety was a little superfluous in this new world.

That odd sound, nearer now and louder, cut through the air to his left with a distinct Crack!, and he could have sworn he felt a small but powerful shockwave buffet his cheek.

Pop!  Thud, thud.

Sean gritted his teeth in fierce joy.

Whoever that motherfucker is, he thought as a new and much more pleasant realization arose, I’m gonna buy him half a cow’s worth of steaks!

Crack!  Pop, thud, thud…

Sean was counting now, but he needn’t have bothered.

Crack, crack!  Pop, pop, thud, thud, thud, thud…

As he skidded to a stop and whirled, he swore to himself in awe and admiration: a fucking .50 auto, for God’s sake!

The Keystone Cops had finally sorted themselves out and were once more slavering on his trail, joined by the last of the litter, perhaps another half-dozen.  He only had thirty yards or so on them, but that was enough.  He raised his rifle, took a breath and, as he let it in a slow, satisfied hiss… and began to take his own shots.

Nothing made it closer than eleven yards.  When the last of the un-dead was perma-dead, he swapped in a full magazine, and turned to scan the gloaming to the west, as the last, thin crescent of the sun slipped below the skyline, leaving only the sunset caroming off the westering clouds remained to illuminate the park.

With a start, Sean saw a sudden spark of lambent red in the murky swirl of shadows and mist at the tree-line directly across the park.

Sean squinted, and could just make out a dim, gnomish figure poised there at the edge of the woods, one foot up on a picnic table seat, leaning on its own upraised knee, as if it had merely paused in its evening constitutional to catch a smoke.

Though it was impossible to make out details, Sean nonetheless had the impression of a kind of tatterdemalion, with an odd little cap and a contraption over its shoulder that just might be longer than it was; the sniper rifle, Sean realized.  The spark had been the flare of the stranger’s cigarette as it – he – inhaled.

Now the spark rose, as the hand holding it was lifted in acknowledgement and farewell.  Sean’s throat grew tight with gratitude, and he lifted his hand in a reciprocal gesture.

With arm still raised, the gnomish haunter of the park turned and vanished into the dimness, the cherry glow of his ciggy slowly fading away.

Sean nodded.  Okay, he grunted inwardly, this one’s on you. But I get the next round.

Sean turned his gaze to a big oak nearby, a pretty generic park-type tree, but perfect for overnighting in zombie territory.  He did not relish the thought of sleeping in the crotch of a tree, not with the workout he’d had today, but the same fatigue made it a necessity – he couldn’t keep going on the ground tonight.

Tomorrow, as someone had once said, would be another day, and he’d deal with his stiff body if he managed to awake alive.

“Yeah,” he groused out loud, as he jumped for the lowest limb, “I’m definitely getting too old for this shit…”