Casimir shambled down the sidewalk, drunk from a long evening spent in a warm bar. He whistled a formless tune that would have annoyed any bystanders had the streets not been deserted. A breeze cooled his face and made a cluster of red and yellow leaves swirl in the gutter, their autumn colors just visible in the pale blue moonlight.
The call from Jane had come that afternoon. It was over, she had said. I've found someone, she had said. What's his name, he had asked. His name is John, she had said.
What a stupid name, Casimir thought. John. Common. Uninteresting. A bland name. More of a placeholder than anything. Casimir, now that's a name. Strong. Unique. He grasped at a few words floating in a bath of alcohol in his mind. Some smart-sounding ones rose to the top in self-assured buoyancy.
"Impeccable," he said aloud to the night, and then hiccuped.
After running out of tissues to staunch his tears, Casmir had made a few calls to his coworkers at Dicky's Elite Sandwiches. He would've liked to go out with his friends, but he didn't have any in Constantinople, so he called the losers at Dicky's.
Losers or not, they could divine his attitude towards them and they all were very busy that night.
Casimir had moved to Constantinople not a month before so that he and Jane could end the long-distance part of their relationship, only to find out that Jane had developed a very short-distance relationship with her personal trainer.
Casimir tripped over a homeless man sleeping in a doorway.
"I'm terribly sorry," Casimir said. "But my girlfriend has just broken up with me."
"Mpphh," the homeless guy replied.
This Constantinople wasn't on the other side of the world; it had never formed the capital of the Byzantine Empire; the Ottoman Turks had never captured and renamed it. Constantinople, as Casimir knew it, was a blister of skyscrapers and suburban sprawl interrupting the endless corn and soybean fields of central Illinois, a couple of hundred miles south of its more famous cousin Chicago. Regardless of where he was now, what mattered was why he had come. He had uprooted his life for Jane. He had abandoned one quarter of a biology degree and the sixth in a string of steady jobs.
Constantinople. What a stupid town.
He planned to call her tomorrow to end it properly. He didn't want her to remember him as a pathetic squeak and a dial-tone. She'd cheated on him. He wanted to go out with a bang, too. A thousand deliciously insulting scripts swirled through his head, none of them having quite the heart-breaking zing that he wanted.
Casimir heard someone take a breath behind him. He stopped and turned around. The world kept spinning for a moment even after he'd stopped. He didn't see anything but a few cars parked along Samson Street and the piercing neon glow of the word "DINNER" at the end of the block.
Wait. That sign usually said "DINER." He squinted. There usually weren't two glowing neon signs, either. The neon words danced around each other. Neon signs didn't usually do the cha-cha. Casimir realized, simultaneously, that the sign still said "DINER," that he was intensely drunk, and that all of the hair on his body stood at attention. After glancing around for a minute more, he shrugged and kept walking.
Jane. What a pretty name. Maybe he could write a chart-topping song about her. Then he'd be famous and she'd be sorry.
After a moment, he heard the breathing again. It sounded louder and closer. Casimir spun on his heels again and still didn't see anything. Maybe I had too much to drink, he thought.
"That can't be it," he said.
Casimir wanted to be careful. His parents, in the few minutes per day that they were both home and awake, had instilled in him a deep fear of the city. They had been so committed, in fact, that they had raised him two hours out of Chicago and commuted every day. He noticed that he stood at the mouth of a dark alley, the one next to the drugstore. He stared into it, and he felt it stare back. A shiver ran through his body. Casimir, of course, knew what was down that alley: a dumpster and some rats. He walked past it twice a day on his way to the bus line that took him to the Constantinople Museum of Natural History, where he made sandwiches at Elite Sandwiches in the basement cafeteria. Tonight, from a combination of his parents' admonishments and the full moon, his imagination filled it with axe-murderer werewolves slaking their thirst with jugs of PCP and the chill blood of displaced suburbanites.
Now the wind swirled around him, a chill creeping into his bones.
He'd often seen that alley at night, on his way home after the night shift on Friday. Normally the bright moonlight would make the alley as bright as day. Tonight the alley consumed the light. He checked to see if the mooon was still up there. It was, full as ever. He could hear the werewolves drain their jugs and sharpen their axes - probably on the bones of the people that they'd already killed.
Casimir was so paralyzed with fear that he didn't react to the rotten, battered face that emerged out of the darkness of the alley until it was nearly upon him. He recoiled from the twisted figure and its stench, a putrid odor that made him gasp for air.
His hands were outstretched, grabbing for Casimir. The man's fingers closed on the lapels of Casimir's sweater but he had already started to jump backwards. To his horror, several of the man's fingers snapped off and fell to the ground. A gurgle emerged from the man's throat and a wet moan leaked out with it.
A goddamned zombie, Casimir thought. His mother always told him that he spent too much time watching movies and reading the "junk books," as she used to call them on the rare days that she got home before he was in bed. He felt a brief surge of vindication and excitement that washed away his fear. This has to be a zombie! Finally! This was going to be awesome! He wondered where his shotgun was; the big, long, loud one that barked at the undead to fuck-off with every zombie-killing blast.
"Mmmphh!" mumbled a voice to Casimir's right. The homeless guy that Casimir had tripped over earlier lurched towards them. He appeared to be fumbling with something inside his leather jacket. As he drew closer, man won the struggle with his coat and produced a sawn-off double-barreled shotgun, something Casimir had only seen in movies often in conjunction with the zombies. Now this was more like it!
The man with the gun barreled straight into Casimir, knocking him sideways and away from the zombie. The man pointed his shotgun at the zombie's head and pulled both triggers.
Casimir had never heard a gun off this close, let alone the double blast from a sawed-off shotgun. In moments of trauma, time slows down and observers take note of the tiniest details.
"Holy shit, I think I saw an eardrum!" Casimir shouted, slightly deafened, watching the bloody, chunky spray silhouetted against the light of the streetlamp. The headless torso swayed for a moment before crumpling like a wadded up paper napkin caught outside in a tsunami.
The man swayed for a moment, then focused his bloodshot eyes on Casimir. He didn't look friendly.
"Don't shoot me," Casimir said, "I'm not a zombie."
The man quickly loaded two more shells into the shotgun and snapped it shut, pointing it directly at Casimir's face. Casimir smelled the burnt tang of gunpowder as the residual smoke went up his nostrils.
"Don't move," the man commanded.
"I won't," Casimir said and, fueled by alcoholic courage, he turned and bolted. He expected to get shot in the back. He'd never been shot before so he didn't know how it would feel. He guessed that it would probably hurt but was drunk enough not to care. He made two bounding steps before he was taken down.
Not by a shotgun blast.
By another zombie that had also emerged from the darkness of the alley, the same zombie that the man was trying to aim at.
Casimir threw up his arms and tried to stop, sending him barrelling face-first at the zombie. The zombie bit into his right hand but the force of Casimir's fall pulled his hand out of the zombie's mouth. The zombie's teeth tore along at Casimir's flesh, and his flesh pulled out several teeth. A spasm of pain ripped through his hand as he continued to fall backwards towards the pavement. He felt a dull thud somewhere behind him. Another shotgun blast, sounding miles away, disintegrated the zombie's head. Then blackness enveloped him.