Shadows danced in the light of smoldering fires. A sooty girl stood up from behind a heap of cinderblocks and tiptoed to a patch of dandelions growing amid the rubble. She skimmed the palm of one hand across the flowers; in the other she held a photograph:
miss Mommy and miss Daddy and miss Billy and miss the beach with the sand hot like barbeque coals and even miss mean kids laughed HA HA at Billy’s sandcastle teasing it looks like melted ice cream Mommy said oh ignore them but Billy always gets mad and wants to fight and Daddy said boys will be boys and
There was the clatter of teeth. The girl crouched; her eyes scanned the horizon. The bricks behind her began to topple. She started forward, but a hand reached out and grabbed her ankle. An infected woman squirmed, freeing her crushed body from the rubble. Her mouth snapped inches from the girl’s calf. The girl screamed and struggled, dropping the photograph.
There was a clip-clopping sound. A black horse leapt through the smoke. Its rider was a knight in dull and dented armor. He wielded a wooden lance affixed with a metallic blade, which he drove into the infected woman’s cadaverous mouth. The woman became still, releasing her grip from the girl’s ankle.
Another horse and knight vaulted forward. The knight pleaded, “Hurry. A horde’s comin’, Lancer — too many — ”
“ — I know, Jay — Christ, I know.”
Lancer dismounted and knelt down to pick up the girl. He passed her to Jay, who placed her in front of him on his steed.
Lancer espied the photograph. He smiled, looking at its depiction of a family posing by a lopsided sandcastle, and then placed it in the pommel bag on his horse’s saddle.
The knights rode forth, steering their horses through the wreckage. Infected men and women staggered toward the galloping horses, but were left in their wake.
The riders rounded a corner surrounded by firebombed shops. The girl recalled being at a similar corner days before:
the army will drop bombs Daddy said and Mommy said crying we got to leave the city we’ll be A-OK at Grandma’s and catch fish and grow veggies in the garden and hide in trees but we couldn’t drive no more cause sick people’s bloody bodies stopping traffic biting at cars and tires twisted twitching bodies biting at people running from cars always biting
why always biting
At an intersection leading to a causeway an undraped mannequin was sprawled out, its body covered with bite marks. The girl looked at the bricks and twisted metal that seemed to line a pathway. She looked forward — the sky was blue ahead — and there were spires bearing blustering golden-and-crimson flags.
A castle was on the horizon.
“Old-en Middy-Evil Days!” the girl exclaimed.
Mommy and Daddy surrounded and Daddy shouted RUN to the castle kids you’ll be safe disappearing under sick biting people STOP SCREAMING STOP SCREAMING Billy grabbed Daddy’s axe off ground Billy was so fast always so angry swinging Daddy’s axe like his baseball bat in Little League shouting RUN for the castle I’ll catch up I’ll hold them off RUN for the castle I was scared but ran could see castle not far
got chased got lost hide with fuzzy mice and creepy spiders all live together scared under big pile of rocks
At the castle, bowmen emerged from behind crenellations, waving in broad arcs. The castle was surrounded by a makeshift cinderblock wall, with murder holes that revealed the glitter of chain-mailed guards. There was a gap in the wall, just wide enough for a horse, blocked by a pickup truck. Someone shouted ‘Clear!’ and the pickup rolled forward. The riders trotted their steeds onto the green lining the front of the castle gate. Two boys ran over and took the reins of the horses. A young woman reached up toward the girl and helped her dismount.
Three guards stood by the gateway passage. They bumped fists with the knights, and opened the gate. Floodlights lit the passageway and from down the hall came the hum of generators. Midway down the passage was a room with a sign that read “RESERVATIONS ONLY” and Lancer, with the girl behind him, entered, as Jay continued down the hall.
A woman with punkish spiked hair sat at a table by an open window overlooking a courtyard. She was juggling tennis balls and (without dropping a ball) asked, “What up, Lance-man? Hey, brought back a friend — any others?”
Lancer removed his helmet and dreadlocks billowed out. “Just one this time, Abby.”
“What’s your name, dear?” Abby asked the girl.
“Cool, reminds me of Australia — shrimp on the bar-bee, mate — you know… Shoot, I’d always wanted to go there,” Abby replied.
Sydney pointed at a painting near the window and asked Lance, “Do you still joost like in the picture? We came here on my brother’s birthday and you joosted.”
Lancer smiled at Abby and turned to Sydney, “Sorry, no more jousts. We can’t be pretend knights anymore.”
Lancer looked out the window at a sturdily-built middle-aged woman thrusting a wooden sword at the duct-tape X in the middle of a punching bag.
“Hey, Myra, know where Phil’s new page is?”
“He’s probably with the other greenhorns knee-deep in shit in the stables, hon. Want me to go see?”
“Yeah, and bring him up if you find him. Thanks.”
A few minutes passed and Myra entered the room followed by a wiry preteen boy wearing chainmail over a boiled leather tunic. He handed Myra his axe as Sydney rushed towards him.
Outside, the snapping riposte of flags heralded the winds of evening.
The most recent stories of James Zahardis have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Deimos eZine, 365 Tomorrows, and Thrills, Kills ‘n’ Chaos. James holds a PhD in Chemistry and enjoys writing fiction, fishing, and birdwatching in his spare time.