So, will you tell me? Will you tell me I was right when all of this shit comes crashing down? Because I’ll have you know, while you’re sitting in your plush little chair, flipping through the channels so blissfully ignorant of the chaos going on in the real world around you, you won’t even be a main course for the Shamblers. You’ll be a snack, at best.
Today is August 15th, and it marks Day 1 of my rigorous training regimen. Newly single and newly graduated, I find myself with a good deal of free time on my hands. I step into the Henderson Park Rec Center dressed to the nines, brushing an errant red hair off of a powder blue dress shirt, barely sweating underneath a blazer that does exactly that.
“Hey faggot, what’s the occasion? You didn’t get the memo?”
His spiky brown hair poking out over a white headband, the man smirks as he chides me for my sense of style. Hey, if it’s all coming to an end soon anyway, why shouldn’t I look my best? You can always be underdressed, but very rarely can you ever be overdressed, that’s what I always say.
Nonetheless, on my first day of physical involvement in the king’s sport of dodgeball, I suppose he might have a point, just this once. I walk around the perimeter of the gymnasium, drawing stares, watching everyone else in their Under Armour and their workout shorts (save for the occasional ironic hipster, planning on playing decked in Daisy Dukes and a retro t-shirt, to say nothing of their work-in-progress Snidely Whiplash mustache) and realize I didn’t bring anything else. It’s alright, this will have to do.
You see, rather than beginning with conventional martial arts, I’ve decided to start my training here, honing my accuracy playing dodgeball. I think I remember being somewhat decent at it in grade school, picking off my foes with head shots at will, so when the time comes to man up and fight, I can at least fend off the Shamblers with some well-placed head shots while I prepare my various other defenses.
If it seems like I’m avoiding the elephant in the room, you’re probably right. Visions of the Shamblers, they come to me as I sleep, in the most vivid dreams you could imagine. Because they’re on my mind all the time while I’m asleep, I’m afforded the luxury of not having to be distracted by thinking about them in my waking state.
You’ve gotta understand, the more people find themselves thinking about the Shamblers, the less prepared they become. They get so consumed with the thought of their impending fate, they tend to forget that they can be beaten. It’s simply a matter of who will be best equipped for the job. It starts on a minute scale; a rustling in the bushes, neighborhood pets mysteriously disappearing, and before you know it, the need to repopulate the planet is staring you right in the face.
I’ve already said too much. Back to the task at hand.
I palm one of those iconic Voit balls in the hopes of practicing a bit with somebody before the game; my big debut. It’s much smaller than I remember those balls being, so I bounce it a bit, its hollow sound just one of a thousand echoing off of the walls; giant, looming walls with faux-inspirational murals stretching from floor to ceiling, showcasing the 80s’ favorite superstars of sports, Andre Agassi serving up a ball, Magic Johnson sweating buckets.
“HEY! Wanna toss that…”
I get startled at the voice and wing the ball hard in the direction of the source, sending it flying wildly towards her midsection as she barely catches it in her frail, pale white hands. The momentum of the ball throws her upper body forward, a mess of bright red hair flying through the air and down over a pair of boxy, black-framed glasses.
“Well, a little. Been kind of on edge lately. Sorry?”
I suck. She thinks it’s funny.
“No need to apologize. First-day jitters are the norm around here. You won’t be the first to come in wildly unprepared. Although considering your…uh, choice of attire, that might be an understatement. Hope you’re able to move okay in that stuff. I’m Heather, by the way.”
She flashes a quick smile, revealing a row of pearly whites in between a pair of dimples embedded deep in her freckled cheeks. Before I get a chance to reciprocate, this girl who couldn’t possibly be taller than five foot whizzes the ball at me, and it flies straight through my hands, smacking Mr. Agassi right in the crotch. This girl means business.
File under: potential mate.
As I fumble for the ball, knocking it further from me with each unsuccessful attempt at grabbing it, she strikes up a conversation.
“So, what brings you down here anyway? Did you just get out of a job interview and hear there were some nerds playing dodgeball in L.A.?”
“Eh. I…could use the exercise. Found it online, and it sounded fun. Haven’t played in years.”
“Yeah, I could tell.”
I bring my arm back as far as I can, hell-bent on impressing Heather with an amazing throw. I hope she’s ready. Pitching my arm forward so hard I hear a small pop in my shoulder, I’m a bit surprised not to see the ball flying towards her head, the look in her eyes a palpable combination of shock at my amazing throwing talents and fear at the projectile flying in her direction. No, none of that. Instead, I hear the ball bounce to a piddling stop behind my feet, having slipped out of my hand at the apex of my throw.
I block out the smattering of giggles that follows and ignore that warm feeling in my face, blood rushing to my ears and cheeks. I palm the ball again. Take two.
“It’s okay Steve…I’ll go ahead and pretend that one didn’t happen,” she says to me in the kind of patronizing voice that, if coming from anybody else, would infuriate me. The adorable giggle she’s trying so hard to stifle evens things out.
I toss the ball to her, underhand, putting my plans to woo her with my hyper-manly ways on the backburner. Let’s just make “Not humiliate ourselves” priority numero uno, shall we? She looks a bit confused as she catches the ball in one hand.
“Hope you don’t throw like that when it comes to the game.”
A shrill whistle reverberates through the gym, and apparently, game time is upon us. A good-looking twentysomething ties his blonde hair back into a ponytail and steps up onto one of the wooden benches adjacent to the throwback murals.
“Alright kids, thanks for braving the traffic and coming out! I’m Frank, I’m heading up this shindig. If you haven’t paid your dues yet for the season, just find me at the end of the night and we’ll figure something out. I figured this would have gone without saying, but this is intense physical activity. You might not wanna come in your Sunday best.”
More giggles. Fucking dick. As he continues on, he points out various players.
“Alright, Ben’s team will face Jenna’s team on the left side, and Randy’s team will take on Heather’s on the right. Everyone got it? Then let’s throw some balls!”
The whistle makes its second appearance of the night, and before I can even ask whose team I’ll end up playing on tonight, the group has broken up and is tying a volleyball net down the center of the gym to divide the games up. Heather taps me on the shoulder and I feel a bit emasculated at the immediate butterflies her touch gives me.
“Hey Steve, wanna be on my team? You seem like a natural fit for the Blue Balls.”
I manage to stammer a bit before giving up on words and nodding weakly in her direction. I follow her to the side of the gym we’ll be playing on. She huddles everyone in a circle and barks out orders in a voice that should not be coming from a frame as dainty as hers.
“Alright guys, all we have to remember is to throw together, yeah? We’ve been doing good so far, that’s the only thing we’re lagging on. So keep that in mind, if we get more than three balls, I’ll count us down, and we need to throw at the same time, got it? Let’s bring it in!”
A hive mind bedecked in cut-up band tees and short shorts, the group brings their hands into the middle of the circle.
“1, 2, 3, Blue Balls!”
Maybe I should’ve done a bit of research on how grown-ups play this. I might be a bit out of my element here. Note to self: Find an audiobook on the rules and regulations of dodgeball.
Six blue balls are lined up along the center line, perpendicular to the black net, dividing our teams. The opposing team, consisting of kids that look to be barely out of their teens, looks to be out for blood. The rest of my team is backing up against the wall, so I follow suit. An older fellow, balding gray hair distracting from his NBA-style goggles, nudges me.
I assume I’ll understand later. The whistle blows once again, and the older gentleman, amongst many other teammates, runs towards the center of the court, scooping up a ball and immediately holding it behind his back. Even players without balls are holding hands behind their backs, gripping imaginary balls. From the looks of it, we’ve got possession of four of the six. Heather shouts out, just like she said she would.
“3, 2, 1, throw!”
And just like that, a storm of rubber descends on the other team, striking three members and bouncing off, the fourth being caught by a a mustachioed, headbanded wonder. Ah. The guy that called me a faggot.
Naturally, he goes right for me, and I stumble to my right just in time to avoid death by dodgeball. Smacking loudly against the wall, a cold rush sweeps over my body as I realize just how much that would have hurt. I crawl towards the ball and, an act of pure desperation, chuck it as hard as I can before I’ve even stood up straight.
The game pauses for a second after my new nemesis is grounded by my throw, a shockingly accurate shot right to his nose. I wish I had a chance to stop myself from letting out a loud guffaw, and now I’m THAT guy. A pudgy, pale-faced blonde kid, presumably Randy, points a finger at me.
“Hey, you’re out now, dick!” he shouts across the dividing line. Ah, well. I’ll get in on the next game. I mean, when the Shamblers have overrun Los Angeles, I won’t have to worry about getting disqualified from anything or hurting anybody’s feelings.
Also, fuck that guy.
I turn and jog towards the brick wall, and before I can turn around to watch from the sidelines, I’m propelled towards the wall, courtesy of a ball to the back of the head. It takes a second for the pain to register, but soon enough, it’s there, a pulsing, throbbing wave emanating from my nose outwards. Something drips down to my upper lip, and my powder blue dress shirt is now dotted with red.
“Apologize next time, dickwad!”
Heather chastises him, and it relieves the pain, just for a microsecond.
“Don’t be an asshole, Josh, he’s new, alright?”
“It’s okay, Heather, I’m cool. I’ll just, uh…go get cleaned up and be right back.”
I wander through the blue double doors, the night air cooling my bloodied face with a breeze. Hunching over to a low water fountain, I recoil a bit at the filthiness of the porcelain before splashing water onto my wound. I can barely make out a groan behind me. I try to make small talk.
“You took one to the face too, eh?”
I have just enough time to turn around before a Shambler grabs hold of my arm and sinks its decayed teeth into my flesh.
I hate it when I’m right.