William Todd Rose
(originally published in Zombie Tales, Undead Press, 2012)
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 notebo
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