Happy Birthday, Eric
Zombiepalooza has the pleasure of having a short story from J. Dean. J. Dean is author of the fantasy novel The Summoning of Clade Josso: The First Descent into the Vein, and other various stories, many of which are found on smashwords.com. He can be reached through http://enterthevein.blogspot.com
The door interrupted the silence with two heavy thuds, causing Aunt Sarah to jump from her living room chair. Eric looked up from the multicolored, interlocking columns and stretches of blocks that served for his protective fortress, keeping the mammoth one-eyed teddy bear from slaying the green army inhabitants within the plastic walls.
“They’re back!” He called, a joyous grin spreading the corners of his mouth.
Melissa set the Shakespere book aside, careful not to bump the kerosene lamp as she did so. “Calm down!” She scowled. “You knew they would be.”
The little brother bounded off the floor, oblivious to his sister’s dour words. He took his position by the descending flight of stairs that let to the below-ground garage entrance. Surfacing from the doorway was the face of Aunt Sarah, pale and thin, her black hair mangled and knotted, laced with strands of silver. Behind her came another face, smothered in a red beard, bearing two green eyes that still carried their polished sparkle.
“Hey-o, Eric!” Uncle Rollie called. He hefted a thick, brown box in his hand. The boy frowned, looking past his kinfolk, into the shadow of the foyer beyond.
“Where are mom and dad?” he asked with a falling tone. The smile melted into a concerned, open mouth under wide, frightened eyes.
“They had to take a different way back.” Uncle Rollie replied, following Aunt Sarah up. “We were separated at Pine Street. But they’re fine, okay? I just talked to your dad, and he and your mom will be back within the hour.”
That eased Eric’s mind-a little. He hated them being out there, without Uncle Rollie. Not that Dad was a wimp or anything: he could handle problems. But still, Mom and Dad out with Uncle Rollie made all of the unease go away. Uncle Rollie could handle anything. After all, it was his house that Eric and his parents ran to. Even when the first signs of trouble had started, there was no discussion, no listening to the news, no talking with the neighbors. Mom and Dad had made the announcement without a second thought: Pack what you need, son. We’re going to Aunt Sarah and Uncle Rollie’s house for a while.
They had arrived, and Uncle Rollie had welcomed them in with open arms-and with plenty of protection.
Aunt Sarah passed in front of the bay window, now covered with an array of two by fours that Uncle Rollie and Dad had put up, permitting little more than slits of morning sunrays through the cracks. She held a smile, but Eric couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. Her smile didn’t hold the… what was it? Strength! Yes- It didn’t hold the strength of Uncle Rollie’s. “Melissa,” she began with a weak voice, “would you brew up some coffee for us?”
Eric’s cousin-a spitting image of a younger Aunt Sarah, though without the tired, aged look of her mother-answered with a silent nod and a turn towards the kitchen.
“So,” Aunt Sarah said as Uncle Rollie set down the large box, “Have much trouble?”
“Not too much. We spent most of our time on Cherry and Monroe. Only saw about a dozen total. Even when Kate and Peter started off on Pine, I didn’t see too many of them up that way.”
“Did you get anything?”
“Some stuff. Found four packages of frozen chicken down at the Colvin’s residence.” He winked at Eric, “Hope you like it fried, buddy.”
“Sure do!” Eric grinned back.
“Nobody at their place, I take it?” Aunt Sarah asked.
Uncle Rollie pushed a thick hand through a bushy, ruddy cap of hair. “At the Colvin’s? No. Either they got out of here in a hurry, or… well, you know.”
Aunt Sarah looked away. “I can’t believe we haven’t seen anybody else.”
“What about those people from last week, Uncle Rollie?” Eric asked. “The four men with the guns like yours?”
The big man crouched in front of his nephew. “They weren’t good men, Eric. Not at all. That’s why your dad and I had to scare them off like that. They wanted to hurt us. Not everybody we meet is going to be good, Eric. Like we explained to you earlier, some of them are using this bad time to do bad things. You understand that, right?”
The youth gave an understanding bob of the head. “Good!” Uncle Rollie sprang up, “Which reminds me: you have a birthday today, right?”
Eric’s eyes widened in realization, looking at Uncle Rollie, then Aunt Sarah, then the carboard box which stood about as tall as he was. “Is that for me?” He gasped.
Before Uncle Rollie could answer, Eric flew to the box, pushing his fingers through the gaps, giving the top flap a furious tug. Uncle Rollie approached to help, flashing a Swiss Army knife that sliced through brown cardboard and the red, white, and blue decal featuring the torn logo of a department store. The outer layer came off, revealing white styrofoam that gave way in the form of irregular shards as a result of Eric’s demanding pulls and rips.
The child’s face brightened at the sight of the naked present: long, dark, with a beautiful blue that coated the barrel of steel, merging with a deep red wood in the stock. Elegant and sleek, it gleamed in the orange glow of the lamps: a masterful work of craftsmanship.
Eric picked it up, careful to keep the end pointed down, as Dad and Uncle Rollie had cautioned him many a time, “Is it really for me, Uncle Rollie?” He asked in awe.
The older man nodded. “Happy Birthday, Eric.”
The child gave his uncle a sheepish grin, then walked over and wrapped a free arm around the big man’s thigh. “Thanks, Uncle Rollie.”
“You’re welcome, kiddo.” Rollie patted his head, then turned toward his wife. What little remained of Sarah’s smile disappeared into a look that barely kept back the tears.
Eric took hold of the weapon once more with both hands, throwing a glance at the stairs leading to the upper floor of the house. “Can I try it out, Uncle Rollie? Please?”
“There’s a box of .22 longs under the towels in the closet. You know how to load it?”
A depressed thumb released a small black box from the underside. Eric caught the magazine before it escaped, holding it up with confident accomplishment. “Just like yours, Uncle Rollie.”
“Yes,” Rollie murmured with a satisfied nod, “Just like mine.”
A clatter of excited steps boomed up the stairs. Rollie moved to the front bay window, peering through a spot between two of the boards that permitted a glimpse of the front yard and the street beyond. In the glare of the morning sun, four figures shambled down the street, their clothes and skin drooping and ripped from their bodies.
“When I was his age,” Rollie began in a soft, somber tone, “Our dad bought me a model airplane for my birthday. Greatest gift I’d had, until Peter broke it.” He added with a chuckle.
A thin, bony hand touched his shoulder. “Are they really alright, Roland? Or did you just tell Eric that to make him feel better.”
He turned to face Sarah, “No. They’re alright, really. Peter’s got a whole satchel full of shells with him. If I don’t hear from them by afternoon, I’ll go back out.”
“I don’t like you doing that.” She muttered, “For that matter, I’d rather you went with them.”
“I know. I said as much to Peter. But he and Kate wanted to make sure that Eric got his present. Don’t worry; they’re smart. They know how to avoid infection.”
“And what about the Raiders?” Sarah shot back, “Raiders aren’t slow and stupid! Those four who showed up: If you and Peter hadn’t come-“
“They’ll be fine, okay?” Rollie placed both hands on her shoulders. “Peter’s got the other walkie-talkie, both have fresh batteries, and both have a good range.” He pressed his lips to her fatigued forehead. “Now, would you go get me some coffee, hon?”
She closed her eyes, bowing her head against his shoulder. “Sure.” She whispered. “Eggs as well?”
“Sounds good. Sunny side up.”
Aunt Sarah returned to the Kitchen. Rollie watched her go, then returned his attention to the gap of light filtering through the window. One of the shambling figures had stopped, turning toward the house. Rollie could see more detail: dark attire-looked like a police or security outfit-with a gadget-filled belt around the waist. A black, bloodied gouge occupied the right forearm, while the left hung to the side in a lifeless droop. The face sported deep, crimson smears on the mouth and nose, while the top of the tilted head sported lifeless eyes, devoid of pupils.
A sharp crack could be heard through the house. Outside, a faint cloud of red billowed from the forehead of the figure, which in turn collapsed to the sidewalk in a truly lifeless heap.
“Happy birthday, Eric.” Uncle Rollie whispered.