Kirkwood, Missouri, 4 June 2011, 0120 hours local; Countdown: 6 months, 26 days

Evan Torrelli screamed in horror as the zombie that had been his mother lunged at the SUV. He was torn from the world as his mind grappled with what he was seeing. His friends and his family staggered towards the trucks. They were worse than dead. They were defiled by whatever made them rise in decaying mockeries of the people he loved. Mateo and Jim said something to him, but the words just sounded like noise. Evan felt the SUV rock as the Marines stormed out into the street. He heard the pop-pop-pop sound of M16’s and the deeper sounds of the heavier rifles from the Zombie Strike shooters. Jim reached in and grabbed Evan out of the back of the SUV. Jim dragged Evan to the back of the truck while firing his revolver single-handed. In a moment of brief clarity, Evan wondered how Jim could fire the big .500 without breaking his wrist.

"Evan, get it together," Jim said, slightly shaking the teen.

"That was my mom," Evan murmured, his voice barely audible over the moans and the gunfire. Jim’s eyes went wide. He let out a string of curses. Evan looked up at Jim with pleading eyes. "Nothing feels right."

"Don’t worry, kid. We’ll get you through," Jim said, his voice tight, "Just stay here." Evan wasn’t sure how long he sat on the street, slowly rocking himself as the battle raged around him. It felt like somewhere between days and years. Familiar movement broke through his trance. Evan looked across the street. A crawling zombie was dragging its half-mangled body towards the group with a stubby arm. It was slow. It wasn’t drawing attention. Evan looked around. The Marines and the Zombie Strike team was busy fighting the forty or so walkers attacking from the front. No one was paying attention to the crawler. Evan stared as the crawler moved over the asphalt. Why wasn’t Jim paying attention to that crawler?

A Marine stepped back, right into the crawler’s grasp. The crawler launched at the Marine’s ankle. The Marine screamed as the zombie slammed into him. He toppled over, almost frozen by sudden panic. Evan snapped back into reality. All the horror turned into a burning rage. The need for violence overcame him. Evan leapt to his feet and sprinted to the Marine. Evan grabbed the Marine’s M16 and slammed the butt of the weapon on the zombie’s head. It moaned, so Evan hit it again. And again. And again. The head fractured and split open, but Evan didn’t stop. He kept hitting the zombie until the butt of the rifle was slamming into the asphalt. Evan felt two giant arms wrap around him. Jim snatched the M16 from his hands. Evan felt a sharp jab in his arm. He turned to see The Steve smiling and holding a hypodermic gun. Evan struggled, but then felt his body go slack. Everything went black.

When Evan regained consciousness, he was lying on a hotel bed. He sat up and regretted it instantly. His stomach lurched with the sudden movement. Carefully, he stepped into the bathroom. He barely had the lid of the toilet up before he emptied his stomach. Drained, Evan lay on the cool tile of the bathroom and cried. His mind cruelly replayed the last words of his father while showing him images of his mother as a zombie. Why couldn’t he have been faster? Why couldn’t he have saved them? Evan felt more than saw as someone stepped into the bathroom. He craned his head around to see Mateo Cortez leaned against the counter. Evan felt his face flush with embarrassment. Oh God, why did Mateo have to see him in this condition?

"That concoction of Steve’s really takes it out of you, doesn’t it?" Mateo asked. Evan tried to talk, but all that came out was some grunting. He couldn’t even get off the tile floor.

"Relax Evan. You’ll start feeling better in a few minutes," Mateo said crouching down next to the boy. Evan looked up at Mateo suspiciously. The Zombie Strike team leader let out a tired laugh. "I speak from experience. You’re not the first one who’s ended up on the bathroom floor after getting a shot of Steve’s sleepy-time juice." Evan could feel his strength returning as Mateo talked.

"When you’re ready, there’s some food in the other room," Mateo said, standing up, "We’ll talk while you eat." Evan tried to stand as Mateo walked out of the room. It took him a couple of tries before he could sit up. As Evan waited for his strength to return, anger and shame seeped into his mind. Slowly at first, his emotions began to boil as images of his family flashed in his mind. The potent mix drove the last of his weakness out of him.

Quivering with sudden rage, Evan picked himself off the bathroom floor. He stormed into the front room of the hotel suite. Mateo was doing something on his PDA. Evan’s eyes narrowed as he took three steps and threw a punch at Mateo’s head. Mateo easily sidestepped the clumsy blow. Before Evan could take another swing, Mateo had the teen in a wrist lock. The most painful part wasn’t the lock, or even that he missed, but the look of sad understanding on Mateo’s face. Evan screamed in helpless rage. Evan collapsed into a chair when Mateo released the hold. Before Evan could even think about standing up, Mateo thrust a plate of food into his hands.

"Eat," Mateo ordered, "Between last night and Steve’s drugs you’re on the ragged edge. Food will help." Evan didn’t want to believe him, but the smell of bacon and eggs awakened a ravenous hunger. It was all Evan could do not to shove everything in his mouth at once. As he ate, the rage washed out of him.

"Is there anyone left?" Evan asked.

"No," Mateo answered. The smallest glimmer of hope was extinguished with an almost crushing brutality. "We matched up your family. Their remains are being shipped out to your family’s farm. Your uncle wants you to come home right now." There was an undercurrent in Mateo’s voice. Evan couldn’t figure out the peculiar look in Mateo’s eyes.

"What?" Evan finally asked as he finished off the last of the eggs.

"To be honest, I can use you here if you’re willing," Mateo said.

"What?" Evan asked, nearly dropping the plate in shock.

"Evan, those men you stumbled across? They’re responsible for all of this, and it’s much worse than just the outbreak in Kirkwood," Mateo said. He turned on the television. The image was of St. Louis’s skyline. A thick cloud of black smoke hid many of the buildings. He could barely make out the Arch. Next was a video from a helicopter of thousands of zombies cramming the streets around the Old Courthouse. As the camera panned across downtown St. Louis, it looked like the entire city’s population was now zombies. Another video started of Marines holding off a zombie horde while people boarded one of the gambling steamships.

"They’re responsible for all of this?" Evan asked, unable to tear his eyes from the television.

"Yes. We don’t know why, but we intend to find out," Mateo said, "If you’re willing, I want you to help us hunt them down."

"That’s crazy," Evan said, his mind trying desperately to make sense of everything, "I’m just a kid. I don’t even have a driver’s license yet! I just saw my mom as a zombie last night, and now you want me to go fight the guys who did that to her. It sounds like a bad kid’s movie!"

"Evan, you proved yourself to the team last night. I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think you could do this. Truth is, for this kind of operation, I need all of the shooters I can get. The Marines and the Army are too busy to give me anyone. I’ve seen you do amazing things with a shotgun. I’ve seen you stand and fight when others would’ve just run away in terror. At the end of the day, it’s your call." Mateo looked at the PDA in his armor’s bracer.

"We’re leaving in an hour," Mateo said. "You’ll need to be downstairs in thirty minutes to armor up. If you don’t think you can handle it, the front desk clerk has a packet to get you back to your uncle’s." Mateo walked over to the door and stopped. He turned back to Evan. "In all honesty, you should go back to your uncle. This is going to be beyond dangerous."

"So why offer to bring me along?" Evan asked.

"I told you, I need all of the help I can get," Mateo answered as he stepped out of the door. Evan filled a glass with water and took a long drink. His parents would have told him to get over to his uncle’s just as fast as he could. Evan knew he needed to get someplace safe and just grieve for his family. Why was he hesitating? Some of it was that one of his heroes asked for his help. That was hard to turn down. As he thought about it, the real reason emerged. Mateo and Zombie Strike were going after the people that turned his family into zombies. His sadness and shame changed into a burning desire for vengeance. Evan finished the water and slammed the glass down. He didn’t even notice as the glass shattered in his hand.

Evan stormed out of the room to find Mateo.

Zombie Strike Part 8 Chapter 82