That old devil moon peered over my shoulder as I leaned back against my bird, reading a naughty rag in the milky glow. I picked up smoking from the boys in England, got a tattoo visiting some old Red-light district down in Singapore and worked on not being a square.
Andy became Andrew Callahan, and I landed behind the controls of that sweet Grace, my Wildcat P-40. We bonded over whiskey sours and sweet serenades by Ella and Doris. Dean and Frankie drifted over her wings and I dozed lightly, careful not to line my cheek with marks from her rivets. The Staff Sergeant often came in and chided me soundly for staying in there with her. She didn't want to be alone, I told him. He smirked and told me to get my ass to bed.
I did just that one night and hardly put out the light in the shared bathroom when I heard sirens. Air-strike sirens. I rushed out in a towel to a flurry of activity: America's boys, all in various stages of undress and disorientation fluttered around, hollering like it was Blitzkrieg outside. Far as I knew, it could've been.
I dove onto my bunk and tore my uniform from the locker, throwing it on like automatic. We became an assembly line, handing out M1s and everybody shouting orders 'til the Staff Sergeant came in and made the orders for us.
“Gentlemen! We are under fire, and it is unknown what side they are on. I want each and every one of you to arm yourself and take them out as quickly and cleanly as possible, do you understand?”
A unanimous shout of “Yes sir!” answered him and he saluted smartly and disappeared.
Plastic Man, my bunkmate, named for his kooky way of sitting in Mess Hall, shouldered up to me.
“You think we're gonna die?” His Creole accent shined through clearly in his fright. His doe-dark eyes were wide and then the lights went out, leaving me looking into those big googly things like he was my girl and we were parked. I rolled back from him.
A volley of shots erupted outside the high windows of the barracks and every one of us hit the floor, doing that slow crawl along the baseboards, one after another, like a big ol snake to reach the screen door that stood open in the wake of the Staff Sergeant's visit.
The sharp crack of anti-aircraft artillery. We thought better of going Out There, where it wasn't safe, but for all we knew, this whole roof would come down on our heads. I cursed and grabbed the doorsill, pulling to my feet, the whole squadron following my example.
The shots were dying down, and overheard was a criss-crossed network of planes, the stiff spotlights illuminating that broken cross on the underwing.
Flares stunned the wounded sky into semi-light long enough to see the big-creeping black zeppelin maneuvering into position.
“What are they doing with a frikin' zeppelin?”
His surprise was justified. The last zeppelin was supposed to be straight-up dismantled back five-six years ago, yet here it was, silent except for the little propellers.
“Shoot it down!” The shouts echoed throughout the camp, and I glanced skyward. It was fishy—this big, slow thing overhead and how in nine hells did it pass under radar?
The Embargo. No. “No,” I said, under my breath then ran towards the line where shells were being loaded again. The twin barrels wheeled around to face the cloud-obscuring damn thing and then, it was all over.
The massive quake of explosion shook the sky, the ground, and took out half the boys around me. I scrambled under a Jeep, backwards, like a rabbit. Dazed, I watched the landscape change from past taps to bed to a field of fire. The hydrogen in the big blimp ignited, and rained fire as the screeching-deflating balloon came crashing to the ground.
Plastic Man scurried past me, and I reached out, calling to him, but he couldn't hear. Half his face was gone. I blinked in momentary confusion, and then I saw them.
They were men. Were. Whatever era they'd been human was now over before that shuffling gait like a broken-legged dog wasn't right. Wasn't normal, as far as I could see. They fell out on the field like cockroaches, some dressed in tatters, uniforms aflame from the big attack just moments before.
They spread out, shoulders lopsided, arms dangling and attacked our boys, the ones left over. Snarling and tearing. I heard it all. I clutched my helmet and said a little prayer before grabbing my M1 to join in the fight.
The dead lay scattered and torn, leaving me looking for signs of life in faces I'd grown to care for. I called for Skip and Plastic Man and feared making any more sound. The strange soldiers dropped off by the Nazis were ambling up the hill, towards the barracks—and me.
I fell back behind a line of trucks discarded by the blast; some on their sides. A dirty boy dropped in next to me, and I caught my breath. It was Skip.
“Where are the others?” I shouted over the hellish din.
“Dead, sir,” he said, nursing his wounded arm. In the dark, I couldn't see what'd happened to it. Or him.
“What in the hell are those things?” I asked, and faced Skip, his eyes big as an owl's in the fires of the wreckage.
“Zombies, sir,” he answered solemnly. I frowned. “Zombies?”
Skip pulled a worn comic book from his back pocket, replete with poorly-inked images of walking corpses, arms outstretched, their eyes red and calling for brains in a vicious bestial snarl.
“Those are funnies, Skip,” I snapped back, but I compared the images with the real-life scene set before us, and they weren't a damn bit funny.
“Keep it,” Skip said, “And shoot them square between the eyes. You gotta destroy the brain.”
He rose slowly, and I caught a full view of his face: sallow and lined, his eyes bloodshot as hell. The injured arm he was cradling flashed into stark-reality as he put the pistol to his head.
“Better step back,” he said in a strange voice as he looked down at me. “Don't wanna get any on ya.”
“What are you doing?!” I jumped up to stop him from putting standard-issue ammunition in his skull, but he pulled the trigger. My ascent turned sideways and I twisted out of the fallout-range of his splattered brains, crawling in the grass like big maggots, seeking something else to cling to.
I glanced at the comic book he gave me, the face of a zombie printed in pink and gray leering at me from the cover. It'd become a survival manual.