The explosion rocked the entire camp. The ropes that held the tents in place grew taut as they fought to hold them steady as the ground shook. The bare light bulbs hanging from the mess tent’s middle beam flickered and rocked. In one synchronous motion, every soldier seated in the mess tent looked up. A pendulum of light and shadow swung back and forth across the tense and haggard faces that stared upwards. Sergeant Patterson's forehead wrinkled downward as he squeezed his eyes shut. Patterson knew what every soldier in the camp knew. It was time for another patrol. After every air strike, a foot patrol was to be immediately conducted by a single squad. This time, it was his squad’s scheduled turn. Patterson’s shoulders slumped and his insides began to feel like small, bony, hands were slowly twisting them around his spine. Leaning forward and burying his face in his hands, he sighed heavily. The table in front of him was the only thing that kept him from collapsing onto the floor.
Sergeant Patterson slowly rubbed his forehead, his right hand moved continually clockwise, and his left working the opposite direction. Suddenly, Patterson slammed the palms of his hands on the wooden table and pushed himself away from the table. The harsh grind of metal against wood as the chair slid across the floor snatched everyone’s attention away from the swaying lightbulbs. Angrily, he snatched his cardboard food tray from the table. The eyes of every soldier followed him as he headed for the exit flap of the tent. Upon exiting the mess tent, he immediately squinted as the setting sun’s amber rays met him. With a grunt, Patterson tossed his unfinished meal into the camouflaged trashcan. He reached into his right cargo pocket to retrieve his headgear. Putting it on as he ran towards Company C’s tent. With each footfall, the mask of anguish that Sgt. Patterson wore lost a wrinkle. Before he reached his company's tent, his face lost any sign of emotion.
When Sergeant Patterson stepped into the tent, he could see that Specialist Giles, PFC Wallace, Private Hernandez, and Corporal Logan were already dressed for the patrol. Patterson noticed that they had fear in their eyes, but he knew from experience that they were ready. None of them had been the same since they lost Staff Sergeant Bolton. Nothing could have been done to save him, nothing. It was an ambush. An ambush always has fatalities.
Silently, Sergeant Patterson walked past the soldiers that he was now in charge of. The men from the company’s other squads pretended that nothing was going on. They continued to read, play cards, or write letters; they refused to look up, fearing that Sergeant Patterson would need an extra man for the patrol. Patterson walked by them without even a glance. After reaching his bunk, he slowly began to dress for the patrol. Under his breath, he began to quickly recite the 23rd Psalm.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…”
As he prayed, he carefully placed the M203 grenade rounds in his ammunition vest.
“Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Next, he placed six M16A2 magazines in the pocket of the vest. He then loaded the last magazine into his rifle. Everyone in the tent jumped from the loud metallic clack as he chambered a round into his rifle.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
The memory of Staff Sergeant Bolton’s dying screams sprinted through the hallways of Patterson’s mind. The dread he suddenly felt awakened a legion of childhood fears that attempted to reduce him to weeping. Patterson blinked away the tears that began to pool at the corner of his eyes and began a second recitation of the prayer. Finally, he removed his cap, returned it to his cargo pocket, and placed his Kevlar helmet on his head. Using his free hand, he snapped the helmet’s olive green straps across his chin; Patterson remembered how the snugness of the helmet used to give him a sense of security. That was a long time ago.
“All right guys. Lay out your equipment for a Pre-Combat Inspection!” He barked.
“Shit Sarge, we already packed everything up!” whined Pvt. Hernandez.
When Patterson’s gaze fixed upon Hernandez, the tent seemed to drop several degrees.
“W-Well, S-Sergeant, wh-what I meant…”
“Say another word and we’ll be short one more man Hernandez.”
Without another word, everyone in the squad spread out their ponchos and laid out everything in their rucksacks for inspection.
After making sure that his men also had full canteens and an MRE, Patterson inspected their weapons to make sure they were cleaned and oiled. Quickly, the squad repacked their rucksacks and placed them on their backs. Everyone in the squad held onto the rucksack straps and made several short jumps up and down to settle its contents.
“Alright, let’s move out!” Patterson barked.
He took four quick strides and was already ahead of his squad and out of the tent. In his mind, he began a third recitation.
The electrified gate covered with concertina wire loomed in front of the squad. It’s constant electric hum assured Patterson that it was still functioning. Inside the guard shack, the gate guard flipped a switch and the gate began to slowly slide to the right. When it had reached the width of about four feet, the gate stopped. The guard would only allow for the width of one person at a time. Patterson stared at the area outside of their perimeter. The sun had already gone down and all he could make out in the darkness were the skeletons of the burned out buildings. Patterson’s stomach felt like it was folding in on itself. In his thoughts, he attempted to begin a fourth recitation, but the overpowering fear that he felt, began to taint his thoughts. The only outward sign of his fear was the constant twitching of the skin just below his right eye.
Patterson turned around and looked into the eyes of his men and spoke in a low monotone voice.
“Remember, from here on out, it’s gonna be hand signals.”
As if to bring his point home, Sergeant Patterson turned back around to face the gate and made a motion with his arm like he was making an overhand pitch with a baseball; he then walked through the gate’s opening. The squad members knew this meant for them to follow him out of the gate. One by one they went out of the gate and into the waiting darkness.
The acrid smell of burning flesh was overpowering. Patterson fought the urge to breathe from his mouth; he knew that if he did, the sickeningly sweet taste wouldn’t go away for days. Quickly, Patterson looked over his shoulder to make sure everyone was behind him. A squad leader leading a patrol wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but he refused to deal with the guilt that would result if anything should happen to his men. He could hear the mousy squeak of the gate as it began to slowly slide back into place. The heavy clank of the lock securing the gate made Patterson’s knees weak. As they moved away from the camp, everyone in the squad made sure to keep their backs to the lights from the base camp so their eyes could adjust to the darkness before they used their night vision goggles. After about two minutes however, a pale brightness began to creep across the ground; Patterson looked up at the sky and saw that the cratered face of the moon had begun to peek from the blanket of darkness that covered the heavens. He thanked God that they would get light from the full moon. That meant they wouldn’t have to use their goggles, he hated the way they painted everything with a puke green hue. Besides that, the goggles removed the ability of depth perception from the eyes. If they had to run, he didn’t want anything to get in the way.
As they began their movement, Patterson looked back again, just to make sure Wallace was covering their rear. Wallace had their squad’s biggest weapon, the M60 machine gun. Should anything come up behind them, 7.62 mm rounds would make short work of them. Even though, the them in question were the walking dead.
The walking dead. Patterson could remember when all those zombie flicks seemed like so much bullshit. As a teenager, it was just an excuse to get his girl to hold on to him in the dark. Sergeant Patterson still found it hard to fully grasp the situation when he thought about how he ended up leading this squad. When his battalion was placed on alert back in Savannah, he thought it was all just an overreaction to average shit; some protestors rioting, that’s all. He didn’t watch the news much, but he knew that ever since Chem-Focus opened up that lab in Atlanta, there were always protestors. Nobody wanted that damn chemical lab in the city. But there were no votes, nobody asked, they just up and built that frigging lab. That lab, with their fucking secrecy and electric coded doors. There were never any questions asked, not until their little accident, not until it was too late.
No one is sure about what happened. One morning there was an explosion at Chem-Lab, within a few hours, everyone in a ten-mile radius was either running from the recently departed or was already dead. Grady Hospital, the biggest hospital in the Atlanta area was the worst; everyone in the morgue woke up with a taste for the living. The country lost some of its best doctors in training that day.
When the 1st and the 18th Infantry Battalion had arrived, downtown Atlanta was already in flames. There was rioting all right, but not the kind he thought it was. The rioting started after Atlanta was quarantined and the Georgia National Guard blockaded every way in or out. With guns in front and the flesh-eating dead in the rear, the public chose to take their chances against the guns. When the fleeing Atlantans charged the National Guard, no one thought about the deadly domino effect that would occur. The Guard fired on the civilians; some died, while others made it through. The ones that died came back almost immediately and attacked the already weakened Guard and made it outside of the blockade. The dead and the living carried the chemical infection into the areas of Georgia outside of Atlanta. Georgians were glued to their televisions to find out what was happening. The scientists on television said that if something weren’t done, the infection would spread out geometrically; first Georgia, next Florida, then Alabama, until the entire country carried the virus.
After the break in the National Guard’s blockade, the Air Force began to bomb the areas outside of the blockade to remove the threat of spreading contagion. The bombs didn’t care who was or wasn’t infected. The flames consumed them all. Every outlying county was scorched.
During the battalion’s briefing, they were told about the failure of the National Guard and the devastation that resulted. The Battalion’s chain of command told the arriving soldiers to contain the infected population and succeed where the Guard had failed. They were told by the Lieutenant Colonel that unknown chemicals were causing madness and delirium among the citizens and to help strengthen the blockade. The Sergeant Major told everyone that the infection was contagious, so if any citizens came within fifty feet, they were to be shot on sight. However, nothing that they were told prepared them for what they happened upon arriving.
Patterson shook himself from his thoughts, reminiscing could get them all killed. He and Bolton had been best friends, but Patterson was in no hurry to see him again. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of white in a shattered window of the first floor of one of the burned out buildings. Patterson quickly held up his hand to stop the patrol. Signaling for his men to get down, he quickly made a motion that looked as if he were patting an invisible child on the head. The squad immediately crouched down. Patterson stared at the window where he thought that he saw something. The twitch under his eye began to feel as if a moth was beating their wings against the side of his face. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes passed before Patterson decided that it was safe to continue the patrol. As he stood, tiny pinpricks ran up and down his legs as payment for his being so cautious. When the patrol resumed, Patterson took another quick glance at the building before looking straight ahead. As they walked past, no one noticed the skeletal faces that peered at them through another window.
The steady putt-putt of the camp’s generators began to grow faint as their patrol took them further into the remains of downtown Decatur. Sergeant Patterson tried not to look at the courthouse off to his right. The initial bombings devastated the right half of the building. The remains of the courthouse resembled a scorched skull that sported a knowing, leering grin. Ignoring the building couldn’t change where the squad’s route led. As the squad came closer to the indoor parking lot, Patterson could feel his blood turn to ice. Upon his company’s arrival into Atlanta, this was the area that let him know that the world that he once knew, no longer existed. Against his will, memories began to flood his mind.
-“Hey Patterson, I saw a woman run into the parking lot.” Whispered Bolton.
-“I thought you said that all the healthy people had been rounded up.”
-“They were man, at least that’s what Hernandez told me.” Patterson whispered in return.
-“Well shit. Hernandez. Wallace. Come with me.”
Patterson could remember hearing a gurgled yell. It sounded like someone was trying to holler with a mouth full of water. That’s when he saw Hernandez running out of the parking deck flailing his arms and screaming at the top of his lungs. Hernandez’s M16 fell from his shoulder strap and clattered on the pavement. A single shot exploded from the barrel. Wallace was screaming too, however there was no fear in it; it was filled with rage. He was struggling to pull Staff Sergeant Bolton out of the deck by his LBE straps and fire one-handed with his M60 machine gun. Even for a man six foot three and two hundred eighty pounds, Wallace was having a hard time. Patterson could remember the hollow, chime-like clatter of the 7.62 shells on the pavement as he ran to the deck, the flashes from the gun throwing up silhouettes of an unknown number of people. He could remember the moans and shrieks that echoed from the inside of the parking deck. When Patterson made it to Wallace’s side, he could see that Bolton’s face now resembled raw hamburger, his nose was hanging on by a very thin piece of skin and had flopped to the right. The jaw had been unhinged and hung open; his tongue had been ripped away. A rapidly growing circle of crimson was on the front of his BDU shirt. Patterson’s training forced him to look away from Bolton and see who had done this to his best friend. The sight that filled his line of vision told him that he must have died back in Savannah and that this was Hell. There were at least forty of them, people from all walks of life; there was a nurse, a businessman still clutching his briefcase, even a uniformed policeman. Their bodies were already in the advanced stages of decay, the tendons and muscles from their bodies glistened when the machine gun fired. The eyes in the hollow faces seemed to look everywhere, but nowhere. Although it was obvious from their deliberate steps that they knew exactly where they were going. The stench their bodies carried caused Patterson’s stomach to clench like an angry fist. They smelled like garbage that had been sitting out in a blistering summer sun.
What kind of fucking disease does this? Patterson thought as he stared wide-eyed at the horror unfolding in front of him.
The 7.62 rounds from the M60 ripped holes in the approaching bodies causing chunks of gray flesh to fly everywhere. The policeman’s uniform and chest was in tatters, but him and the rest continued to advance. Arms were blown from their joints only to continuing moving on their own. Intestines began to roll from the abdomen of some, causing them to trip and fall. The ones behind them immediately stepped on their fallen cohorts. The wet squelching that came from the fallen’s crushed skulls was too much for Patterson to take in.
-“J-Jesus protect us.”
-“Sergeant, they just keep coming!”
-“Run soldier!” yelled Patterson.
-“What about Sergeant Bolton?”
-“Leave him, leave him, he’s already dead! Leave him dammit!”
Patterson began to pull on Wallace’s arm and run at the same time. As they ran back to the others, he could hear crunching sounds behind them. He refused to look back but knew they were eating Bolton. Patterson fought the urge to turn around and fire on them as they dined on his friend. By the time they reached the rest of the platoon, a HUMMVEE had arrived with a .50 caliber machine gun. The infected citizens were reduced to pieces by the oversized rounds. The body parts continued to jump and wiggle until they were set ablaze and reduced to ashes.
Sergeant Patterson violently shook his head as if this would remove the memories from his mind. As the squad approached a bend in the road, they could all hear murmuring, as if there were a town meeting in the square. Immediately, Patterson broke into a cold sweat. He quickly held up his hand to stop the squad. The murmuring was getting closer. Patterson gave up using hand signals.
“Turn around, turn around now!” rasped Patterson.
All of them turned around and began to run back in the direction of the camp.
“Radio ahead and tell them we need help out here!”
“I’ve been trying, I’m not getting an answer!” shouted Specialist Giles.
Giles’ shouting caused the murmuring to turn into groans and wails.
“Why did you raise your voice you stupid bastard!” yelled Wallace.
“Save your breath for running!” roared Patterson.
Hernandez began to whimper as they ran. It came out sounding more like a hurt puppy than a grown man. As they made it down the hill, Patterson noticed that the soft putt-putt sounds of the generator were silent. But, he did hear automatic gunfire and yells.
“Shit, Shit.” Spat Giles between puffs as they ran.
Hernandez tripped and fell face first into the pavement. His Kevlar helmet flew off his head and landed with a hollow thump. As he lay sprawled on the ground, three of Decatur’s former citizens ran from one of the burned out buildings and attacked him. Hernandez’s screams forced Patterson to stop and turn around. Before Patterson could say anything, Wallace and Giles ran to assist Hernandez. Hernandez’s screams became shrieks as an overweight balding man began gnawing on the back of his right leg. Two others were attempting to pull his arms off. A woman, with the left side of her face covered by blond hair matted by dried blood, became frustrated when his arm didn’t disconnect and began to bite off his fingers instead. Hernadez’s eyes began to roll backward in his head and his left leg, the only part of his body not being assaulted, began to spasm. Wallace yelled wildly and fired at the bodies with his machine gun; a stray bullet hit Hernandez in the middle of his forehead and fragments of bone and brain flew outward and mingled with the flying particles of the already dead. While Giles and Wallace fired at the zombies, others began to come from the surrounding buildings. Corporal Logan stared at the approaching crowd and his eyes blinked rapidly as if a switch in his head had been flipped off.
Running towards Giles and Wallace, Logan began striking the creatures that were to the left and right of him with the butt of his rifle. Though his rifle became covered with the congealed blood of the reanimated corpses, he maintained a tight grip on his rifle and began to fire at the approaching horde making sure to aim for their heads. Past experience had shown the squad that headshots kept them down. The circle around Giles, Wallace, and Logan began to grow smaller. They knew their time was running short. Logan reached into his vest and pulled out one of his grenades. Using his tongue, he lifted the ring of the pin closer to his mouth and with his teeth he pulled the pin and held tightly to the grenade; that way if he should fall, he wouldn’t go down alone. Looking quickly at Logan and the grenade, Wallace and Giles nodded once in silent agreement, placed their backs against Logan’s and continued firing. Logan’s lower right canine and three other teeth were loosened from his pulling the pin, but he didn’t notice the pain or the blood that trickled from his lower lip.
Amid all the chaos, Patterson looked over his shoulder towards the camp. He knew that they already had their hands full and they wouldn’t, they couldn’t, be of any help. His mind began to feel like a spring in a music box that was being turned too far to the right. He began to laugh hysterically.
And thought to himself, "If this is Hell, where the fuck would I go if I don’t make it out of this?"
Still laughing, with that thought in his mind, Sergeant Patterson fired an M203 grenade round into the approaching crowd. Quickly, he flipped the switch that placed his rifle on automatic, aimed, and then ran at them, holding back the trigger of his M16.