Kirkwood, Missouri, 3 June 2011, 2300 hours local; Countdown: 6 months, 27 days
Evan Torrelli waited in the shadow of a large tree. The fifteen-year-old’s shotgun was tucked in the crook of his arm. His dad would skin him alive if he knew Evan was toting the coach gun around on his bike. Evan hoped his dad would understand. The email said Evan would be safe waiting in the park, but Evan needed the extra reassurance. He’d seen too much in the last two days.
Evan didn’t much care for living so close to St. Louis. He was a farm boy, and he liked the wide open spaces. The city felt confined, almost to the point of claustrophobic. Evan understood Dad couldn’t run the farm anymore after his heart attack. They needed to go where the family could make a living. Teaching at a small Christian school wasn’t much, but the family was making it. Evan did his best to adjust.
Evans looked up into the night sky as he heard what sounded like a crop duster coming in close. He could barely see the darkened shape in the night sky. It looked like a sleeker version of the Osprey tilt-rotor helicopter Evans had seen at an airshow. A bullet shaped body with two huge props at the end of the straight wings. The sound of the props roared as they rotated up. The tilt-rotor came down in the park’s open area. Red light spilled out of the back of the plane as a ramp came down. Ten dark-clad figures and what looked like a big dog tromped down the ramp. Almost before all of them were off, the tilt-rotor levitated back into the sky. As soon as it was above the trees, the props came back down, and it shot off into the night sky.
"Easy with that scattergun, son," a voice whispered in Evan’s ear. Evan froze in surprise. He didn’t even notice one of the figures slipping around him. A strong hand snatched the coach gun from under his arm. Evan turned around. The man was a foot taller than Evan, maybe six foot even. The man looked exactly like Evans imagined a spec ops soldier would look like. The soldier’s own weapon was slung as he unloaded Evan’s shotgun.
"Took a chance coming out here with a shotgun," the man said with a low baritone voice, "What would you have done if you’d come across those guys you told us about?"
"Run like hell and only shoot if I didn’t have a choice," Evan answered. The soldier smiled, his ivory teeth distorting the black streaks across his face.
"Good answer kid," the soldier said. He handed the shotgun and shells back to Evan before motioning to the others. Evan’s eyes went wide as he recognized a few of the faces. Evan had been a huge fan of Zombie Strike! Well, at least until his mom couldn’t take the sight of undead anymore and banned it. The events of the last year didn’t help Evan’s pleading to watch the reruns. Still, he recognized three of the people. Quentin McLintock, Steve "The Steve" Mountain, and Mateo Cortez were all champions of the reality show. Evan swallowed and tried to keep cool. He wanted to impress his heroes. He didn’t recognize the others, but they looked a lot like the soldier who took away his shotgun. Except for the guy with the cowboy hat. Then his eyes locked on the face of the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. His mind froze in shock. Any chance of keeping his cool was shot as he stared at the girl for a long moment.
"Eyes back in the head kid," the soldier said, slapping Evan in the back of the head.
"Sorry," Evan said, sheepishly. He could feel his ears burning with embarrassment. He didn’t feel any better when the others laughed. All except the girl. She just gave him a polite smile.
"Evan, I’m Mateo Cortez," one of his heroes said, and outstretched his hand. Evan snatched it greedily. Mateo wasn’t flashy or had some gimmick. He was the everyman of Zombie Strike!, and Evan was a fan.
"I know," Evan blurted, and then stopped. Cool, he needed to play this cool. Especially with that girl watching him. He tried not to look back over at her.
"Good. Are the vehicles parked where they were supposed to be?" Mateo asked.
"Yes sir," Evan answered, "Right outside the park." Evan pointed to where the three vans were parked.
"Good, you’re riding with me," Mateo said, "Jim, you’re driving. Chief, get the others divvied up." The soldier nodded. Mateo led Evan away from the group. The guy in the cowboy hat followed closely behind him.
"Did you actually see a zombie?" Mateo asked in a low voice. It took Evan a moment to realize the question was directed at him.
"Yes sir. There were a bunch of them," Evan answered, remembering back to two nights ago.
"Can you remember how many you saw?" Mateo asked. Evan concentrated hard. He stumbled onto the guys in black raising zombies. He wasn’t trying to count the zombies. He was trying to run away. He settled down and framed the last image in his head.
"Ten or fifteen or so," Evan finally answered.
"You sure?" Mateo asked. Mateo’s eyes bored into Evan’s. The boy swallowed hard and steeled himself.
"Yes sir," Evan said, squeezing every ounce of confidence into his voice.
"Well, hell kid, you might just be useful," the cowboy said, his light words filled with twang.
"Stow it Jim," Mateo ordered. "Evan, I’m going to need you to take us back to exactly where you saw the men." Evan nodded, trying to keep his fear from showing on his face. If Mateo saw past Evan’s façade, he didn’t say anything.
Mateo, Jim, and Evan climbed into the first van. Evan clung tightly to the seat at the cowboy sped through the streets following Evan’s instructions. Evan closed his eyes and waited for the van to roll over as Jim took a turn at nearly fifty miles an hour. The ride was mercifully short. In less than ten minutes, the van pulled up to the Christian school where his parents taught.
The cowboy unslung his big rifle as he stepped out of the van. Mateo unslung his M4 carbine. Evan loaded his shotgun. The cowboy looked over at the noise of the shotgun clicking closed and smiled. Evan led them around the converted church and through a small playground enclosed by a chain link fence. Maybe a hundred yards beyond the chain link fence was an old graveyard. Some of the older students snuck out to hang out amongst the gravestones. Evan liked to come out there at night. It was the only place that felt open enough and quiet enough to remind him of nights on the farm. Evan froze. They were back. In the moonlight, Evan could clearly see the four black-clad figures and the over twenty zombies. The undead were standing as if statues made of decaying flesh. They weren’t even moaning. The four figures were darting about the graveyard. It looked like they were searching for something.
"We have contact," Mateo whispered into his mike. He had his M4 up and trained at the figures in the graveyard. "Four minions, maybe two dozen zombies." Evan’s eyebrow quirked upward. Minions? Minions of who? Mateo listened for a moment and then made a hand motion to Jim. The big cowboy moved maybe thirty yards to the right before crouching down and aiming his big rifle. Evan was about to ask Mateo what to do. He stopped when his eyes caught movement behind the three of them. He turned back around, his shotgun coming to his shoulder. His shoulders tensed, like they did right before that hog had come out of the bush on his last hunting trip. It was something in the playground. Evans took a step closer, and something leapt into the air. Its screech broke the night’s silence. Evan pulled both triggers.