The Trenches

writing assignment for class, to copy the 'voice' of Michael Herr's Vietnam War reporting

The day shift left early, and gave us looks like escaping pigs taking pity on those still trapped in the abbatoir. Michaelson, scrawny kid barely 19 years old, watched them go with something like hatred in his eyes, and spat at the door as it closed behind them. Sarge woulda busted him for that, usually, but we were all strung like piano wire and needed outlet, any outlet. The whole place was sweaty palms and clenching fists, everyone was on too much caffeine and not enough sleep. Hell, even I had trouble keeping my hand steady on the coffee cup, and I'd been through this before. Plenty of us had. But no-one ever gets used to it.

Back in '03 I'd served at another station with Jackson, a brick shithouse of a man with a smile like knives. I barely remembered the place now, but I remembered the screams when it all came crashing down in the end. Those of us who'd survived had been shipped off, Jackson and me ended up here. He could crush watermelons in one hand, but he flinched at the rattle of a door handle. Everyone's got scars. For me it's the quiet, the sleepy hours. Some perversion of the brain's made it so I can't think straight except when all hell's breaking loose around me. The man in charge, Sarge (he fucking loved that rhyme, the bastard) was working a couple of poor first-time kids down by the barricades. Shoring 'em up with whatever they could find - duct-tape, aluminium tubes from the stores, old cardboard boxes. It wouldn't hold, it never did, but it bought you a bit of time. Usually. 

Some kids walk away from their station heads held high, a fat bonus in their pocket, come home with smiles and move on to better things in better places. Usually they're the kiss-ups, the handsome boys and pretty girls that looks good on posters and showing off the place on inspection day. Usually they get the day-shift. I knew the Willow (named for a tree in some book, nobody ever told me the story) kept a box-cutter in his pocket and fantasized about giving one of those kids a scar or two. He never did it while I was there but I heard stories later. I heard stories about everyone.

Outside our well-lit perimeter it was nothing but blackness. The lights at the station were so bright you couldn't see more than a few feet beyond where they ended. You never saw them coming until they were up close. The Willow freaked out because he thought he spotted one coming by the back way. Sarge had to hold him down while we got the box-cutter off him. Of course there was nothing out there, but we had to reinforce the back door with plywood while he watched just to calm him down. Quietly I was glad of it, it was something to do, distract myself, and... well you never knew if one WOULD think to come that way. And soon as one comes through, they all do.

It was five hours before we saw the first one. Fuck, it started earlier every time. Used to be you'd have the whole night, but now they crept out of the dark by midnight and you barely had time to get ready. It was pacing the perimeter, scraping at the doors and windows with one limb, testing for an opening. Alone they look kinda fine, sometimes even cute. But you learn quickly to always keep a length of metal between you and them. Sarge was trying to teach the new kids how to shield themselves against the first waves, cocky little pricks were just eyeballing him. We were all those cocky little pricks once; so sure, so fucking disaffected; sheep. 

The lone scout had friends now. Well, I say friends, once it gets to more than a dozen they start fighting for the best positions for the stampede. We could see their eyes glitter in the phosphorescent light outside, sometimes we'd hear them calling to each other. Mostly males for now, but the females would come around, probably in a couple of hours. Jackson was fidgeting with his ring. I knew he'd gotten married at some point, but I never met her. Never would. And he didn't talk much about anything except hunting. The crowd outside had swelled to four or five dozen now. Everyone was eyeing the clock, except the Willow who'd snuck off to the bathroom to hit a joint. Another thing Sarge wouldn't bust us for tonight. The new kids were off in the corner lounging and joking. An hour to go became ten minutes and I never knew what happened to the time in between, and it didn't matter. The five dozen outside had become the Horde - every way you looked there was nothing but Them. Waiting. Scenting the air. Hungry.

Sarge dragged the kids behind the barricade, cussed them out, then sighed, and readjusted the extra three layers of protection he had under his uniform. Then he grabbed the PA system and climbed the metal counter.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we here at Wal-Mart are pleased at your excitement for this event. In a few minutes the doors will o--"

Then the hinges gave out, the glass shattered, and Black Friday began.