(originally published in Zombie Tales, Undead Press. 2012. If you would prefer to download this story for your e-reader of choice, please click here)
William Todd Rose
The dented metal door muffled the roar of the crowd, but Bruno Swaggart could tell the house was packed. Drunk on moonshine, the audience banged aluminum chairs against the floor and the dull clangs echoed through the gymnasium like misfiring pistons. The erratic rhythm punctuated a cacophony of cat calls, shrill whistles, and a hundred voices vying for dominance in a sea of chaos. Despite having weapons checked at the door, a few unruly spectators somehow managed to smuggle sidearms into the old school and the occasional gunshot rang out above the din... but there were always a few in every crowd. Most didn’t harbor any nefarious schemes – they were just good-old-boys who’d grown up embracing the concept that a party wasn’t a party unless there was some sort of gunplay involved.
At one point in his life, Bruno had thrived on the incomprehensible murmur of an expectant audience. It had stirred something within him, working him into a frenzy in the same way that drums excited a tribal dancer. Confidence had surged through his veins and he’d literally felt anything was possible: he could punch through a brick wall with his bare hands and dance so quickly that his opponent would register nothing more than a blur; he was Superman who’d overcome his aversion to Kryptonite, an unstoppable juggernaut, two hundred and ten pounds of unleashed fury. But The Plague had changed all of that. For the longest time, his greatest fight had been simply staying alive and there were even times when he’d considered taking a dive. A well paced bullet to end the suffering, a knife pulled across the wrists, a sleep free from the dreams which haunted him nightly: these had all seemed like viable options in a world that no longer made sense.
Yet somehow Bruno had found the strength to carry on. Now, with society struggling to emerge from the ashes of the old world like a crippled phoenix, he sat within the locker room of a burned out high school and harbored no illusions. The boisterous crowd on the other side of the door hadn’t paid dented cans of food and jugs of water to witness Bruno Swaggart participate in a sport he’d once loved: they had come to see him die.
With his gloves laced tightly around taped fists, he leaned forward on the narrow bench and stared at cinder block walls which had once been red. The paint had peeled and chipped, revealing large swaths of gray block beneath; flecks of crimson stuck in the pits and gouges marring the surface of the masonry and the contrast tricked Bruno’s mind into creating order from chaos. His imagination formed pictures from these splotches of gray and red, but never anything as picturesque as the sun setting on a pristine beach or an unspoiled forest with trees striving to touch the stars. No, the patterns he saw within the flaking paint always became faces. They stared back at him with eyes as cold and unfeeling as the rusted pipes overhead, skin cracking and festering with hints of bone peeking through flesh twisted and disfigured by decay; they sneered through ravaged lips, revealing shattered teeth speckled with blood. Teeth which wanted nothing more than to bite and gnaw at the flesh of the living…
From outside the locker room, Bruno heard the announcer’s voice call out above the din of the crowd. The words were muddled and indistinct from this distance, but he knew the spiel well enough to understand the gist of it. Yelling through a megaphone like some 1950s era cheerleader, the man would be stringing adjectives and adverbs into a rhythmic pitch designed to whip the already boisterous spectators into a fervor. They’d tasted blood by now, had reduced into primal beings that only wanted to take some sick glee in watching people die. Some of them pretended to pick favorites and held up cardboard signs with fighters' names scrawled in crayon. Others dropped pretense, openly shouting “Kill ‘em! Kill ‘em!” without ever drawing a judgmental gaze from those around them. Deep down inside, they were all just as callous and bloodthirsty as those they’d come to watch.
Almost time now.
Bruno hopped off the bench with a bounce. Taking several jabs at the air, he dropped into a slight crouch before hopping on the tips of his laced-up boots. Once he would have had a small crew with him: a coach, a trainer, a medic… but the world had changed. He had changed, the sport had changed, everything had changed; but, in all honesty, he simply didn’t give a damn anymore. Life was no longer about living but staying alive. The bloodshed, the stench of rotting meat filling empty shops and streets; the images burned forever into his mind and the nightmares they birthed, the echo of screams in corridors of memory: those things had hardened him. Whether he lived or died was of no consequence. Everyone had to go sooner or later; yet Bruno had no problem doing whatever it took to make sure his numbered days were as comfortable as possible.
Bowing his head, Bruno crossed himself, and whispered his version of a prayer: “Carpe diem.” He then slammed into the metal door so hard it struck the wall with a clang and slapped his head with his gloves as he moved through a hallway lined with lockers. Just outside of the gymnasium’s double doors, the tile was scorched as if someone had once built a campfire there and the walls were covered with graffiti, some straining for irony (School’s Out) while others were as terse and stoic as a news report: Salem is dead. Stay out.
The roar of the crowd hit him like a body blow as the gym’s doors were thrown open for him. It was as if the sound had pounced on the other side, waiting for the two old men to do their job. A woman in a bikini strutted in front of the metal cage that dominated the basketball court. The left side of her face was scarred, a zigzagging chasm carved into flesh, and the tops of her thighs had the shiny look of skin that had burned but never quite healed. Holding a sign above her head, she seemed impervious to the catcalls and whistles that followed her like a lovesick teen. She was a professional, this one. Probably one of the last left, in fact.
Bruno had made his entrance a little early, so he flexed his muscles, jogged in place, and halfheartedly punched at the air. The entire time his eyes scanned the room, taking everything in at a glance. It was a learned response not limited to this specific place and event: everywhere he went, the same precaution was taken. Every step. Every moment of what passed for his miserable little life. Constant vigilance and hyperawareness were the name of the game. And he planned to win for as long as he could.
The sumo wrestler, Bruno noticed, hadn’t lasted long. A couple of lanky guys were busy scrubbing his blood from the floor while a third speared chunks of flesh with a tool that had once picked litter from a park. What was left of the big guy was carried out on a covered stretcher, two extra men on each side to accommodate the weight. One massive arm had slipped from beneath the red-splotched sheet and its finger pointed at the ground, as though it were purposefully marking its path with the perforated trail of blood dripping from the meaty hand.
Where the hell did they find a sumo wrestler, anyway?
Bruno glanced to his right where a man with a ring of shoulder-length brown hair surrounding a bald dome was jostled by a crowd of people. Scribbling furiously in his spiral ring notebook, the man scratched out code that was as indecipherable to most as hieroglyphs; but the glint of intelligence in his dark eyes was enough to let people know he wasn’t fucking around. He knew each name, each bet, and could be counted on not to squelch. This earned him the closest thing to trust this world had to offer and his goons snatched outstretched cans of food from the hands of those around him. In return, they received a scrap of paper and a smile from the boss himself.
“Say, Smitty,” Bruno called among the controlled chaos of the crowd, “where’d they find a sumo?”
Smitty’s eyes flitted from the notebook just long enough to make contact. And then he was writing again, his pencil worn to a nub and scratching across the paper. “Dunno, champ. The fat fuck didn’t stand a chance, though. Put on a good show with the stompin’ and throwing sand and all. But when the bell rang, he was bleedin’ before it even had a chance to fade.”
Bruno sniffed once and rolled his head in circles, limbering his neck. “Better show from me.” he promised. “Main event, baby.”
“We’ll see about that. Ten to one against. Death’s the ultimate bad ass, friend. And a lot of folks think your number’s just about up.”
“Shit… un-fucking-defeated, boy.” The banter was a bad rendition of the roles they both played, lacking the warm tones of honest conversation. Still, Bruno felt a little silly. It was obvious to anyone with a working pair of eyes that he’d never lost a fight. He was, after all, still alive. “And planning to keep it that way, too. Bite free since ’23, mother fucker.”
The scarred beauty leaned her placard against a table and took up a silver hammer, which she struck back and forth between two of the cage’s bars. The jangling sound was optimistically called “the bell” and, just like that, it was go time.
Entering the cage through a door which was locked behind him, Bruno held his hands in the air, forming the shape of a V. There was no referee to have a quick word with, no meeting in the center of the ring before going to respective corners. The age of niceties had been left behind, its staunch tenacity toward decorum abandoned as if it were just another body littering the streets.
When a surge of excitement rippled through the audience and their cheers reached deafening levels, he knew his opponent was being escorted to the cage. Two biker types steered him toward the ring, each one clutching a long rod that ended with a loop of rope. One of these loops pinned his arms to his side and the other encircled his waist, acting as a rudder. In a real fight, he would have been a featherweight and pitting him against a man of Bruno’s stature almost unheard of. But it wasn’t exactly size that mattered in this match. With a black sack over his head, he thrashed and fought against his restraints so violently that the burly handlers moved in jilted staggers, constantly yelling back and forth as they made corrections to the trajectory.
The door on the other side of the ring had a square hole welded out of its center and this allowed the rods to bridge the gap between killing floor and safety as the padlock snapped shut. The thugs yanked him backward so hard that the entire cage shook and another man’s arm snaked through the bars, clutching the black sack as he waited for the agreed signal. In unison, they nodded and the ropes were released as if magically severed as the bag was snatched from his head.
Thinning red hair stuck out in tufts, almost as if he’d just stumbled out of bed, and his yellowed teeth gnashed at the air. He almost looked normal, but it was the little things that gave his condition away. The lack of contraction in his dilated pupils. The creepy stillness of expression that, even to this day, shivered Bruno’s spine with chill bumps. The flesh had that particular look the world had come to know so well, both pasty and waxen at the same time with shadows adding depth to sunken cheeks. A silver band dangled from one nipple and blood from the gunshot wound still matted the curly hair on his chest. The bastard couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes dead, which meant he would still be fast and cagey... but how the organizers found such fresh corpses was one of the many things Bruno didn’t question.
Even if he’d had the inclination to form such questions, he didn’t have the time. Before the rods had even completely withdrew, the thing sprinted across the ring. Its outstretched arms reached toward Bruno with fingers curled into talon-like hooks and the explosive cheer from the crowd was pushed to the periphery. With his concentration focused and the audience no more than muted background noise, Bruno darted in with his gloves held before his face.
The first jab smacked into the thing’s jaw with a flat smack and the force spun the creature around as if the floor had just slipped beneath its feet. Not quite falling, it sprang forward before centrifugal force had even finished its business. But Bruno was ready for that as well. A roundhouse on the side of the thing’s face knocked it off course and its body tumbled across the floor.
This was it. The moment. Only when facing death did Bruno feel most alive. His heart thumped adrenaline through a body that felt as tough and efficient as an old world machine: keenly aware of every muscle, every twitch or spasm, with his feet shuffling their intricate dance and beads of sweet just beginning to cool his brow.
There were no rounds in this fight, no brief respites from combat where he could catch his breath and spit blood into a bucket. The dead were relentless in their single minded pursuit, oblivious to pain or fatigue; they kept coming at their prey time and time again, wearing them down with persistence until superior muscle tone no longer held sway. Only one could remain: kill or be killed, after all, was the law of this post-apocalyptic jungle. Besides, the audience had paid for a show and his share of the prize would make him rich.
In this graveyard of a world, aluminum was the new gold. A single can of pork and beans would net him a good time with any of the Food Whores down by the tracks. Ten tins of sardines would pay his monthly protection to Boss Nash. And there would still be plenty left over. In a land where the dead scoured the ruins for the slightest signs of the living, this was what passed for a playboy lifestyle. And it suited Bruno just fine.
The zombie was on its feet again, scrambling toward him before it had even completely stood. Lacking that spark of life, eyes that were as dusty and emotionless as marbles stared unblinkingly at the intended target. Anxious to keep the initiative in his favor, Bruno moved in like a striking snake. So close to the damn thing that he caught whiffs of its recently voided bowels, he realized his mistake. The zombie had been moving a little more quickly than he realized and he’d overcompensated, ending up close enough that the thing’s fingernails raked across Bruno’s vinyl gloves.
An uppercut to the face only succeeded in piercing the thing’s top lip with a broken tooth A flurry of jabs cracked ribs like twigs, yet the zombie remained unfazed. With its fingers now entangled in the laces, it yanked the glove toward its face. Teeth ripped through the outer shell and tore strands of white stuffing from the hole, which the zombie then released with a shake of the head.
All of Bruno’s skills and training deserted him. The grace was gone from his savage dance and he’d regressed to nothing more than a street fighter. His blows were uncoordinated and sloppy, thrown from his weak arm with no real planning or strategy, and bounced ineffectually off the zombie’s head as it ripped more stuffing from the glove.
The roar of the crowd was thrown back into sharp focus: yells and stomping, glass bottles of moonshine shattering against the walls, some indecipherable chant rising and falling like a wave in the turbulent ocean of noise. Bruno’s throat felt raw and tight as his own scream added to the din and he’d begun kicking with quick thrusts of his legs in hopes of clipping the creature at the knees. The thing had eaten so far into the glove that Bruno felt its chin scissoring over the thin layer of batting, pulling away the only barrier between those teeth and the soft flesh within.
The thing’s hands were totally ensnared in the boxing glove’s laces, making it next to impossible to pull away. They flopped like fish that had been thrown into a cat’s cradle, pulling and stretching until the glove no longer fit as snugly as it once had.
The hundreds of feet stamping against the bleachers had picked up a rhythm now: two quick stomps followed by a single hand clap. For one insane second, Bruno actually expected the crowd to launch into the chorus of We Will Rock You; but then other thoughts pinged through his mind like ricocheting bullets, obliterating one another before they had a chance to fully form. Instead of reason there were only flash bursts of emotion: fear, intense sadness, a nameless longing for something he would never know … but mostly remorse. Like a dirty fighter, regret hits you when you’re not looking. It lurks in the darkness, awaiting its time to pounce before fading back into the shadows. Sensing weakness, the regret didn’t strike and run this time. It stood its ground and shredded the remaining strands of self respect as thoroughly as the zombie did his glove.
Bruno’s hand wiggled like a loose tooth in a socket as he struggled to free himself. He felt the silken lining sliding over his hand and cool air rush in through the gnawed hole. The zombie plunged its face again; with the protection of the glove no longer an issue, it could see the pink flesh of fingers and the sight seemed to throw the thing into a frenzy. It’s hand writhed in the tangle of laces, pushing and pulling, demanding to be freed. Nothing mattered but the feast and the audience ate up every second of it as their voices rose into a thunderous din.
Just as the undead bastard sank its face into the hole, Bruno’s hand plopped free, leaving the abomination to snap at empty air. Still operating on pure survival instinct, he immediately launched into a flurry of punches. His taped knuckles slammed into the creature’s face so hard that a fracture-like pain flared in his middle finger. Again and again, jackrabbit fast, ignoring the shock of sudden impact: Bruno was a single-fisted juggernaut whose wild eyes told a story as old as the dinosaurs. Here was life and death splayed out for all to see. Here was the endless struggle for dominance in an uncaring world. It was the type of moment where you could be wholly and completely reborn… or die.
Bruno skirted backward, extending his reach as the zombie lunged, and struck with his gloved hand. His frenzy had been tamed now and each hit was more solid than the last. The zombie’s nose broke with a sharp crack and the jagged bone forced its way through the skin in a bloodless explosion of meat. Teeth plinked like porcelain against the polished, wood floor and Bruno continued his barrage.
The zombie lunged again but the sweat-drenched prizefighter was ready. He spun away just before the collision, his unfettered hand clutching the thing’s hair as his body swung around and crashed into the back of the creature. With momentum working to his advantage, Bruno drove the monster forward and the thing’s head crashed into the unforgiving bars of the cage. Bashed repeatedly against the steel, the creature’s forehead took on a dented look, as if bone were caving in just below the surface. And yet Bruno continued his assault long after the thing’s limbs had gone limp. He knew it was true dead, as they called it in the business, but found himself powerless to stop It was as his body were a killing machine that, once revved up, had to be given time to power down.
By the time he allowed the thing’s body to crumple to the floor, the doors to the cage had been unlocked. The crowd was going wild with applause and the scarred bikini model carried a large bowl of canned goods as if it were an offering to the gods. The bowl was mostly symbolic. The food within it would definitely be included in his prize, but the true wealth of the purse was so great that the woman would have been crushed beneath it.
He hadn’t needed Smitty to tell him the odds. He knew fully well going into it that no one really expected him to live. So a few private bets placed on the side had netted him a fortune of food. He would eat for weeks without considering rationing and would have his pick of the higher class food whores instead of settling for diseased guttersnipes. His life was about to get very, very good.
Bruno held his hands aloft and bounced across the floor as he played to the crowd. There were more than a handful of boos scattered among the applause, but you always had that. The only thing that mattered was Bruno would be eating well and they would not.
Pausing to wink at the ring girl, Bruno noticed his hand and felt as though he’d taken a sucker punch to the groin. Bile stung the back of his throat and his breath caught on the bitter flood of acid, becoming nothing more than a sharp gasp with no follow up. His heart was a runway locomotive and the blood surging through his veins felt cold. He stared at the back of his bare hand as the broad smile melted from his face drained of color.
A flashback memory of landing that first punch after freeing himself from the glove: there’d been a flash of pain, what he’d suspected to be a hairline fracture. But, no. There it was, this jagged little break in the skin, nothing more than a scrape really. In another world, in another time, it would have meant nothing; but in the wastelands there was no word for inconsequential. Even something as small as this flap of bloodstained skin carried grave consequences. In the trade, it was known as fighter’s bite and not to be taken lightly. Regardless of whether you’d been chewed on like a soup bone or just nicked your knuckle while landing a punch, the results were the same.
Bruno would never live to enjoy his food. He’d never fuck again. In his profession, death was a career path. And he thought he’d been ready for it. He really did. He’d always sworn that he’d never be one of those assholes: the ones who tried to hide a wound, who went about their business in an exaggerated manner, almost as if they were calling attention to the fact that everything was normal. But when faced with infection, priorities changed without debate.
Lifting his tattered glove as if it were the severed head of an enemy, Bruno turned in a slow circle and played the part of victorious champion. Wriggling his hand into its confines, he forced a smile. His fighter’s bite was now hidden, but how long did he have left? 15 minutes? Half an hour? Even less if anyone noticed that his sweat continued streaming long after he should have cooled down. Either way, he’d be dead before the fires in the burning barrels gutted out.
But those were his moments, damn it, and he planned on savoring every one he could. And who knew? Once that last breath had rattled his soul free and his muscles twitched with the semblance of life, maybe Boss Nash would allow him to continue his career.