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Excerpt for The End by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

The End

Copyright © 2018 by M. Rose Flores

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com.

Printed in the USA

First Edition

April, 2018


Print ISBN: 978-1-948608-48-0


Warning: This book contains depictions of emetophobia, discussion of self-harm, suicide ideation, domestic violence, pregnancy, childbirth, and gore.

The End

M. Rose Flores

Table of Contents

Dedication

Acknowledgements

About the Author

For Stephen

Everything I could say, you already know.

One: Pay attention.

Now


Where did these zombies come from, and how did I not notice them until now? This isn’t the worst we’ve faced, true, but zombies in general are dangerous and six at a time is not a number anybody should be comfortable with.

“Mel!” I call to my sister, keeping my eyes on the approaching zombies. “How’s it coming?”

Melody is a little way up the road from me, elbow-deep in the engine of a rusty old pickup that she said would be an easy fix. She was so confident, in fact, that we packed all our stuff and the dog into the truck. That was two hours ago.

“Fine,” she mumbles. “Getting there.”

“Soon?”

“I don’t know—yeah, soon.Clang! “Why?”

“Like, in the next thirty seconds?”

“Cate, why?”

“We’ve got company.”

Mel growls and kicks the tire of the truck.

I yank the axe out of my belt loop just as three, four, eight, nine more come wandering out of the evergreens that surround the road.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Mel mutters. She whispers through the open window to the dog, “Chaz, down.”

Chaz settles on the front seat. A few of them may notice him if they get close enough, but they’ll always pick people given the option. He’ll be safe for now.

Safer than we are.

I swing my axe at the first one to approach, a clean hit to the back of the neck. The jaws continue to gnash after the body falls to the ground, but since that’s all that’s still moving, it’s not a threat anymore. The three fast approaching on my right and the one foot-dragger on the left, those are threats. I shove back the closest one, sending it sprawling, bury my axe into the second’s head, and work it free just in time to dodge the foot-dragger’s claws. The miss throws it off-balance and it falls to its exposed kneecaps. I split its skull before it has a chance to stand.

That’s one universally reliable factoid from zombie lore: head shot equals kill. The rest of it is a mixed bag of facts and fabrications.

By the time I dislodge my axe again, the one I shoved is in my face. I don’t even see another coming at me until it knocks the axe out of my hand.

“Damn it!” I fish my knife out of my jacket pocket and dispatch both of them. When I’m done, I bend down and pick up the axe.

I hear the thick squish of Mel’s little pocketknife penetrating rotten flesh and the subsequent dropping of one body, quickly followed by another, and the dull thud of her hammer and an exuberant ha! I turn to find her unscathed with three corpses at her feet. Go, Mel.

Before I can turn back around to assess my end, an especially rotten zombie takes my arm and pulls it toward its gaping maw. It bites down on the sleeve of my green canvas jacket, which I was wearing specifically for this reason. I let it think it has me while I split its skull. As the jaws go slack and the corpse collapses, I rub my forearm gingerly. Ouch. That’ll be a nasty bruise. But it serves me right for not paying attention. Again.

I turn to check on Mel just as a gigantic zombie in a leather jacket—and is that a motorcycle helmet?—lunges at her from behind, bowling her over like a house of cards. Her glasses go flying, and she hits the ground with an oomph, dropping her blade as the zombie chomps at her face uselessly through its helmet. Her knife skitters across the pavement and out of reach.

“Cate!”

I run toward them, vaulting myself over the hood of a car, losing my axe for the second time as I do. She’s pinned, and although the teeth are no threat inside that helmet, it’s only a matter of time before the claws rip through her hoodie. She’s trying to push it off, but it’s one of the biggest bodies I’ve ever seen, alive or dead. Just massive. I shove my hand into my pocket but find it empty. Where the hell is my knife? No time. I grab the first tool my hand lands on, a big-ass wrench, rip the giant’s helmet off, and swing for all I’m worth until its head is obliterated.

Mel retrieves her glasses and sits up, panting. That would have been a horrible way to go. She wipes her forehead with the back of her hand, shaking her head in relief. But her face changes and she points over my shoulder.

“Cate, behind you!”

Two more are right in front of me, so close they could reach out and touch me, which of course they do. One grabs my upper arm while the other closes in for a bite on the other side. I yank backward, shed my jacket, and stumble away from the two man-eaters but trip over the giant. Mel steps over me like an action heroine with her miniature .22 handgun drawn and ready. She puts them both down and helps me up. Four left.

We run around them in opposite directions, positioning ourselves behind them. I manage to kill one before the next has time to turn around. As soon as it does, I cave its face in with the wrench. When I turn to check on Mel, she’s already wiping her knife clean and stepping—somewhat delicately—over the last two corpses.

“Dude, what happened?” she asks.

I know she’s pissed; I had it coming. I don’t apologize, though. The words sit stubbornly in my throat.

“Sun was in my eyes,” I mumble. The excuse sounds even more flimsy out loud. “You said the truck would be an easy fix.” I don’t know why I resort to blame-shifting instead of just fessing up.

“Okay, how about next time you fix the car and I’ll try to get us killed?” she snaps. “And you’d better clean the brains off my wrench!”

I silently retrieve my axe from where it fell and my knife from the eye I left it in, and wipe the brainy blade, then the wrench, then my axe, on the clothes of various fallen zombies.

That’s something I didn’t expect: there’s very little blood in zombie killing if you’re doing it right. The movies would have you believe that there are buckets of the stuff just flying around every time you whack one. But the thing is—and it makes sense once you think about it—their hearts aren’t actually beating, and no beating heart means no pumping blood and therefore no bleeding. What ends up on the weapon and sometimes your clothing after you put a zombie down is a thick sludge made of gray matter and coagulated blood. It’s still disgusting, especially the odor, but at least it doesn’t splatter.

“I’m sorry, okay?” I slide my axe back into my belt loop.

Mel holds on to her last shred of anger, aggressively polishing her glasses with the hem of her shirt. Suddenly she’s on me, squeezing the life out of me with her skinny arms. “Just keep an eye out, okay?” She strokes my hair the way my mom used to. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you too.”

“Deal,” I say, breaking the hug gently. I scan the area while Mel tosses her tools into the bed of the truck. “Those shots will bring more in. We’d better get a move on.”

Mel nods and pockets her gun. When she says his name, Chaz sits back up, tail wagging. She slams the hood of the truck. “Let’s go. I think I just barely managed to fix this heap before they got here. Moment of truth…” She twists a couple of wires together and pumps her fist into the air as the truck rumbles to life. “Yes! Life!”

It’s the best sound I’ve heard in a week. Mel and I have been traveling on our bikes since we had to ditch our last ride. The engine overheated, and while we were waiting for it to cool, a massive horde of zombies came wandering out of the forest by the highway. It was either fight and possibly die to save the car or get out quietly, take what we could, and run. We ran.

We did find a car the next day; drove it about five miles before we came upon a fallen tree that blocked the whole road. That didn’t even count as having a ride.

But thankfully, Mel is handy with cars. Very handy. So when we find a working or workable car, we keep it as long as it’s advantageous, and for the rest of the time, we have our bikes. It does limit what kind of vehicle we can use, since it has to have room for us, a seventy-pound dog, two bikes, and two packs, but it’s well worth it to keep the bikes.

Mel hops into the driver’s side and squeezes the wheel.

“I’ll drive first.”

I nod and slide into the passenger seat.

Chaz curls up between us with his torn-up tennis ball.

We pull away from the two cars that the truck was parked between, and we’re about to drive off when I jump in panic.

“Wait!” I fumble with my seat belt and throw open the door.

“Cate!” Mel slams on the brakes as I jump out. “Catherine! What are you doing?”

I run toward the zombies we just killed and jerk my jacket out from under two bodies, ignoring the zombie I didn’t fully kill that snaps at my hand as I do.

Mel glances at me sideways as we begin to pull away again, but she doesn’t say anything about my outburst. Instead, she just sighs and asks, “Back to the coast?”

Our trip through Medford was a bust. I glance at the map, staring at the lines I’ve long since memorized. If we’re lucky, we can be back on the marked route in a couple of hours. But luck is not abundant these days.

We both get discouraged and even a little irritable when a detour turns out to be fruitless. But I have to admit that we’ve had some really successful ones. We found better weapons and a fishing pole plus tackle in Hood River, and in mid-December, we found a house outside Newport in which to ride out a truly hellish winter. The previous owner was just another walking corpse when we found him, but he must have been a conspiracy nut or something because the entire basement was filled floor to ceiling with shelves of canned food and survival gear that we’re still using today. There were also boots that happened to fit Mel’s giant feet, thick jeans for me, those silvery space blankets, and loads of extra socks, which believe me, we needed. We even scored a bike trailer for the dog. So although the detours seem like unnecessary distractions from our ultimate destination, they are necessary. Every one.

We drive west, leaving a pile of twice-dead bodies behind.

Two: If you haven’t prepared for the end of the world, you may want to start.

Then


The world ended just before I turned seventeen. Not in the abstract sense of some personal tragedy that brings your life to a jarring halt (although there was plenty of that) but in the real and immediate sense where a chunk of the population dies of a mysterious illness and then comes back from the dead to consume the flesh of the living.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, there were only a few vague news reports: an aggressive new strain of an old virus had reared its head in Arkansas. They gave it an abbreviation, P13, which didn’t mean anything to any of us. Just another media-hyped sickness scare. The rumor was that Patient Zero was a kid my age from Little Rock who’d been hospitalized after an unfortunate encounter with a seagull and subsequently developed other, unrelated symptoms while hospitalized. But aside from that one sliver of information—or possibly misinformation—the reports were staggeringly vague. Vaccines were being cooked up “as we speak,” the news anchors said, though again there were no details given.

When a case of P13 was confirmed in Manhattan, we got a little more: symptoms to watch for. The reporter rattled them off like she was listing game scores: “Severe flu-like symptoms accompanied by high fever, disorientation, and possible necrotic wounds. Anyone exhibiting these symptoms should be taken to the nearest emergency room for treatment. The elderly and children under four should stay indoors until the vaccine has been made available to the public.”

“What d’you think that means?” my stepdad, Andrew, asked as we ate our dinner around the TV. “Is that us, the peons, the little people?”

“Probably,” said Mel between fist-sized mouthfuls.

“I bet all the political elite were vaccinated eons ago. Figures.”

I air-fived Andrew. “That.”

“They probably planted the virus in that bird to begin with,” he continued.

“Oh dear God,” said Mel. “You two with the conspiracy theories!”

“Shh!” Mom swatted me on the leg. “Listen!”

“School citywide will be canceled until further notice—”

“School is canceled? Guess I don’t have to study for that final after all,” Mel quipped.

“Wait. Does that mean Homecoming is canceled?!” I wailed. “But my dress is perfect. It matches Sam’s hair!” I buried my face in my hands. At the time, I was more concerned about getting to Homecoming than about the possibility of contracting P13 (don’t judge me).

“Isn’t that like weeks away?” Mel asked. “It’ll probably be fine by that time.”

Even when the virus was officially upgraded to a pandemic and air travel was suspended indefinitely, I allowed myself to remain in my carefully constructed bubble of ignorance: I loitered downtown with my friends, went to the movies with my girlfriend, Samantha, and regarded the closure of our school as more of a vacation than a source of concern.

Two weeks after the initial report aired, the president declared a state of emergency. The next day he flew away on Air Force One and never came back. My mom and half the news channels insisted he must have died in some accident, because why else would our leader abandon us? Andrew and the other half said he was probably running away “because that’s what cowards do.”

I think that was when my bubble began to wear thin. With regular television programming suspended and school still closed, the days bled together. But when my friends’ parents and mine stopped allowing us to go out or to have each other over, time seemed to stretch and crawl. All my family did was watch the countless live reports from around the world: vigils that became protests that became riots; fires that swallowed whole neighborhoods. Police in SWAT gear advancing on civilians. Children crying in the streets. Our whole world had become a war zone, and the virus was winning.

But still I only thought of what I was losing, the sacrifices I was being forced to make. It wasn’t until Samantha got sick and I wasn’t even allowed to visit her in the hospital that I began to understand the severity of it all. We kept in touch via text message until she was discharged. But I couldn’t see her.

Sure you’re okay? I asked when she told me she was home again.

Surely sure.

Wasn’t THE sickness?

Nope. Just a flu. Hospital was a madhouse tho. Cops all over.

Think they’ll get it under control soon?

Hope so.

My parents kept saying that if Seattle went down, Spokane would be next. It wouldn’t be on national news; cities that size rarely are. Spokane would simply consume itself in riots and sickness, unnoticed by the rest of the country. So when Seattle’s riots bloomed rapidly outward, we made a run to the grocery store for essentials: batteries, food, candles, water, basic first-aid stuff. It felt surreal buying those things, like we were going camping or something. Because the truth was, with the exception of staying in most of the time, nothing major had changed for us yet.

A few days after the president disappeared, Manhattan was lost to riots and subsequently quarantined. They blew up the bridges and the tunnels. DC went down the same day, followed by Paris, London, Berlin, Mumbai, Tehran. Major cities around the world fell like dominoes into chaos and destruction.

I was glued to my phone, incessantly texting and scrolling social media, which was now my sole means of connection to the outside world. Between the kitten videos and selfies and memes, there was a video claiming to show aspects of the virus that mainstream media wouldn’t cover. It was shared and reshared by most of my friends, a montage of different scenes, each more unbelievable than the last. Dark, pixilated phone footage appeared to show someone being shot in the chest and standing back up. Next was a close-up image of a man on a couch, his irises totally drained of color. He chewed the air, his head turning back and forth. In the last and most chilling scene, a child, maybe three years old, lay in a hospital bed with what looked like a scratch on her forearm. She was showing the wound to the camera and pouting, typical kid stuff. Out of nowhere two people in hazmat suits came in. They grabbed the girl and carted her off, no explanation whatsoever. Her mother cried and screamed as the video ended. The words “WAKE UP” flashed across the screen.

What the hell had I just seen? I hit Share and went to find my mom.

“Mom.” I tapped her on the shoulder. “Mom.”

She was watching the news. She shushed and waved her hand to shoo me away.

“Mom. Mom. Mom?” Tap-tap. “Moooom.”

What, Catherine?” she finally snapped.

“Watch.” I shoved my phone in her face and pressed Play.

When it was over, she handed my phone back to me with a mumbled “interesting,” and unmuted the TV.

I sighed, watched it again, and shook my head. How could that not bug her, that the news we had all been binge-watching had not once mentioned this? I sought out Mel, who I found in her room surfing her phone. She’d get it.

“Mel.”

“Mm?”

“Watch this.”

She didn’t look up.

I snatched her phone—“Cate!”—and handed her mine, all queued up.

“Watch.”

She did, stone-faced, and handed me my phone when it was over, holding out her hand for her confiscated device.

“Seriously?” I asked, reluctantly handing it back.

But she was already back in Twitterland, scrolling away.

“That one guy, his eyes!” I persisted. “And the little girl? And there’s nothing on the news about it!”

“Wow, you’re right,” she said, studying the wall behind me. Then she shrugged. “Probably staged.” Right back to scrolling.

The video stayed with me for a while, the way powerfully disturbing things do, forcing its way into my thoughts constantly and without warning, making me shudder. I watched it at least ten more times over the next few days, trying and failing to make any sense of it. I figured it was drugs or something, not a virus, that was making these people so aggressive, so uninhibited, and so damn resilient. Had to be. Didn’t it? But what about the kid?

By October 29, the Spokane Police Department had tripled patrols. It wasn’t abnormal to see SPD squad cars driving slowly up our street each night. Always with the lights on. The sirens remained off except for a bwoop-woop every thirty seconds or so. We figured it was mostly a deterrent to would-be troublemakers. In hindsight, I think it was likely more of an attractant to would-be people-eaters. We understood that things had gotten bad; with twenty-four-hour news coverage and cop cars all over the place, how could we not? We just didn’t understand the nature of the problem.

We found out on Halloween.

There were only a few cases in town at first. We heard about friends-of-friends being taken to Sacred Heart Hospital and not coming out. On Halloween, the city went dark. The riots started that night.

My aunt and uncle were visiting with their son, Gary, and their foster son, Marco, for our annual Family Scare-a-Thon, during which we would watch the Halloween musts and eat candy that was meant for trick-or-treaters. We’d thought of not doing the Scare-a-Thon that year, with this mystery sickness so prevalent, but as I said, we did not understand the extent of it until that night. Apparently, not many people did. Trick-or-treaters walked about the neighborhood in packs.

Once we were all in our respective spots with several jumbo bowls of candy distributed, Andrew brought out the movies.

“What’ll it be, gang? Hocus Pocus, Friday the 13th, or Halloweeeeen?”

Hocus Pocus!” Mel and I shouted in unison. “Jinx!”

“Okay, so that’s two for Bette and the gang… And?”

Halloween,” Uncle Bill said.

Hocus Pocus!” Mom squealed.

“Not Halloween?” Andrew asked.

Friday the 13th.” Aunt Tess’s mouth twisted into an evil little smile. “I wanna see Jason Voorhees hacking up some kids. Good wholesome fun.”

“Jesus, Aunt Tess.”

“Catherine, language,” Mom scolded, whacking me on the arm with a Red Vine.

“How about Scary Movie?”

Mel threw a mini-pack of Skittles at Gary’s head.

“Gary, shut up. You know we don’t have that one, and it’s a stupid movie anyway. It’s not even scary.”

“Talk about not scary, Melody. Hocus Pocus? It has musical numbers. Are you twelve?”

I snorted.

“You’d think it would scare you more since you’re the only virgin in the room, Gary. Don’t light any candles tonight.”

Mom whacked me again.

“I am not a virgin,” he mumbled.

High five from Mel.

“One more for Hocus Pocus,” Marco muttered without looking up from his sketchbook. I don’t think he really cared what we watched, but antagonizing Gary, the antagonizer of all, never got old.

“All right, two for Halloween, four for Hocus Pocus, and one creeper for Friday the 13th.”

Aunt Tess scrunched up her face and hissed.

“So, I guess Bette has it.” He popped the DVD into the tray and squished himself into the recliner with Mom.

We were right in the middle of Bette Midler’s rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” when the power cut out. We sat in the silence for a minute, looking at one another, the sounds of Halloween parties or possibly growing riots carrying from downtown across the river to our house.

I texted Sam.

Your lights just go out?

No answer.

Andrew and Bill went out front to look around.

“Looks like the blackout is all over,” Bill said when they came back. “Pitch-black out there, streetlights and all.”

With no further information to go on, the parents agreed that Tess and family would stay the night. As soon as it was decided Gary catapulted off the couch.

“You said we would be home by ten,” he complained, “I’ve got a Halloween bash to hit up back in Coeur d’Alene. Brandon’s dad has a six-bedroom cabin on the lake.” He crossed his arms over his neon yellow “U Mad Bro?” T-shirt.

“I haven’t been allowed out in literally weeks and Gary has a party to go to?” I glared at my mom.

“I actually have a social life, Cate,” said Gary. “I have a girlfriend and a side chick. You don’t even have a boyfriend.”

“That is so not the point!” I shouted. I stomped out of the room, enraged and embarrassed.

They would probably think I was just being dramatic, which I was a little. But now was not the time to come out to my family. I didn’t know if there would ever be a time, really. I was starting to suspect not, but I knew damn well that this wasn’t it. I lurked in the doorway while Aunt Tess tried to reason with my jerk cousin. Hoping he would be stuck there too, not because I wanted him around—of course I didn’t—but because if I couldn’t go out, neither should he.

“Honey, people are really scared of this sickness. And with the blackout…” She put one fully inked arm around Bill’s waist. “You never know, it could be back home too. We’ll just stay here tonight. I’m sure the party was canceled anyway.”

“God, Mom, don’t you know anything?” He threw his hands in the air. “That’s the theme of the party! And who needs lights when there’s a bonfire? Do you have any idea how many slutty nurses you’re keeping me from?”

“What? Your girlfriends busy?”

“Shut it, Melody.” He put his phone to his ear. “Great,” he said, “Dylan’s not picking up. There goes my backup ride.” Under his breath, he added, “This wouldn’t be an issue if you’d got me the truck I wanted.”

“Too bad about that low-C average,” Marco interjected quietly.

“Shut up!” Gary shouted.

Aunt Tess rolled her eyes and ran a hand through her short, orchid-purple hair. Gary was so unlike his parents. Both Tess and Bill were quiet vegetarians who always dressed for comfort and donated to every conservation charity known to man. Gary ate steak three times a week and wore bejeweled jeans that would be too tight even for Mel.

“If you’re so desperate to go,” Marco said, “you can always hoof it. You should probably leave right now, though.”

“Who asked you, freak?” Gary sneered. He turned back to my aunt. “Mom, Mommy, come on, just gimme the keys. I’ll be back before sunrise. I promise.”

When it was clear that no amount of his begging would change their minds, I slunk back into the living room just as Gary flopped down on the couch. He proceeded to drain his phone’s battery by shining the flashlight in our eyes until, to everyone’s relief, he fell asleep.

Andrew pulled his phone out, suggesting we all do the same to try to figure out what was going on.

“Perfect,” he said under his breath when the phone’s screen lit up. “Battery’s about dead.”

Mom sighed as she picked up her phone off the coffee table. “You should have uploaded that battery thing Melody told you about.”

“Downloaded, Mom,” I corrected her.

“Well whatever.” She waved a hand dismissively. “The point is that if you had, your battery would be full like mi—” She stopped and clicked her tongue. “Nothing.”

I was never so grateful for a 52 percent charge in my life. I scrolled through my news feed once more, finding nothing new, and sent Sam another text: Power out still, turning my phone off. Come over if you can. I’ll wait up.

After ten more minutes with no reply, I powered my phone off, trying hard not to let my anxiety run away with me. Sam was fine. Of course she was. Even still, my heartbeat gave a familiar thump. I slowed my breathing, inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for eight, quietly trying to ground myself. She was fine, I repeated in my head. She was fine.

Everyone else’s phones died within an hour of the blackout, mostly due to their nonstop scrolling. They sat silent except for the occasional recitation of anything having to do with either the sickness or the blackout, motionless except for the constant flicking of thumbs, their faces illuminated by the glow of tiny screens.

But not Marco. He took one of the candles we’d bought only days before, sat at the dining room table, and flipped almost maniacally through a little brown notepad from his backpack, turning the same several pages back and forth, back and forth.

“You’re not going to check your phone?” I murmured as I scooted out the chair across from him to plant myself on. “Don’t you have any friends you’re worried about?”

Marco didn’t lift his gaze from the notebook. He just kept flipping the same pages back and forth. “Don’t have one,” he said. Flip, flip. He stopped for a second and added, “A phone, not a friend. I have a couple of those.” He resumed his three-page blitz.

“You don’t have a phone?” I asked as though it was the craziest thing I’d heard all day. Talk about a lack of perspective.

Marco smirked, a little condescendingly, and marked a place with his thumb. Then he looked up at me with only his eyes. “I don’t have one because I don’t want one. They breed dependence. They’re the most widely accepted drug of the twenty-first century. And they’re useless now, aren’t they?”

“Useless for now, you mean,” I guessed.

He just smirked again in reply. How aggravating.

It was going to be cramped with all four of them staying with us; I’d have to move into Mel’s room to make space for my aunt’s family to sleep in mine. While I unloaded some of my stuff into her room, Mel and I expressed our mutual dread at the thought of sharing our one bathroom between eight people, especially when Gary called up the stairs that he would need an hour in the morning to “do the do.”

“I’ll tell him where he can stick his do,” I mumbled as I spread out some blankets on Mel’s floor.

“Relax, Cate,” Andrew said, sticking his head into the room. “It’s just for now.”

Isn’t it strange how you can sit and watch something unfold on the news, a bombing or a standoff or something, and you know it’s real, but you’re somehow removed from it? I think that’s how it was for us. Probably for a lot of people. Everyone knew something was changing; for days before the lights went out, we’d watched entire cities consumed by chaos on TV. But from the comfort of our home, surrounded by food and family, things didn’t seem so bad. We continued to munch Halloween candy and told some spooky stories by candlelight. We effectively stuck our fingers in our ears, pretending nothing had changed. Trying to pretend.

Two hours after the power went out, our incredibly old neighbor, Mrs. Minkin, came knocking at the back door. It wasn’t uncommon for her to come over through the back; Andrew had even installed a gate in the fence between our properties. She’d been coming around for years to babysit my sister and me, and even after we were old enough not to need a sitter, she would come over at random times to borrow this or that or to have a cup of this bitter dandelion tea that Mom kept around just for her.

She was wearing a thin pink old-lady nightdress and no sweater. Her arm was badly injured and bleeding profusely. My sister put her pre-degree nursing skills to work while Mrs. Minkin told us what happened.

“I was going to bed,” she said in her thick Russian accent, “when a trick-or-treater came to my door. I thought he was a straggler, maybe. He did not knock. But I happened to see him in my front window. He was a young boy, teenager. He wore a penguin costume… When I opened the door, he came after me! I hit him wit’ my cane and run out the back door. But before I am outside, he bit me.” She held out her forearm, now bandaged. “So odd… He never spoke.”

She’d shut him inside her house. She had no idea why he hadn’t just opened the door and run after her, and we were too busy with her to think much of it. We told her to stay with us that night, bringing the total number of occupants to nine. Mel shoved a grumbling Gary off the couch, and we made Mrs. Minkin a bed there. She was feverish and complaining of stomach pain by the time everyone went to bed, but Mel assured us she didn’t need help. It was most likely the stress, she said, that was making her sick. I said good night and told Mel to wake me if she needed me.

Marco caught me on my way up the stairs. He had the little brown leather-bound notebook he’d been reading earlier.

“She was bit,” he said.

“Yeah,” I whispered back. “People are going nuts.”

“People aren’t the problem,” he said, glancing back at Mrs. Minkin. Then he moved in so close I could feel his breath on my face. It smelled like cigarettes and spearmint. He looked me dead in the eye and asked me, “You know what’s happening, don’t you?”

The way he asked sounded like I ought to know, but I didn’t. I had no idea what he was talking about. “No,” I whispered. “What—”

Marco suddenly backed away from me, his expression going from expectant to guarded and even a little hostile. I turned around to see Gary sauntering toward us. He yanked on Marco’s long black hair and put an arm around his shoulders.

“What’re you doing now, creep?” Gary goaded before turning his attention to me. “Don’t encourage him, cousin. He’s, you know—” He raised his eyebrows and mouthed crazy not-so-subtly.

Marco kept his eyes on me, his mouth set in a flat line.

“Something big is going down. You know I’m right.” He hefted Gary’s arm off himself, pulled his mane into a ponytail, and went outside.

Gary watched him go with a look like he smelled something awful and then turned back to me, a derisive grin plastered across his face. “Something big is going down,” he mocked in what I assumed was supposed to be Marco’s voice. “Foster kids, am I right? I dunno why my parents insist on taking in these degenerates.” He rolled his eyes and stomped upstairs to my room.

I shuffled up after a minute to crash on Mel’s bed, but not before checking my phone once more. No reply. I lay there, staring at the ceiling for a while, Marco’s words playing over and over again like a chant in my head until I eventually fell into a fitful half sleep.

You know I’m right.

You know I’m right.

You know I’m right.

Three: It’s probably zombies.

Then


In my dream, I was wading in a river. I could feel the current pulling gently at my legs as I made my way across. Sam held my hand, smiled her dazzling sparkly smile, and we went deeper. Our knees went under—she smiled. Our hips—the smile grew. But when the water reached our shoulders, she screamed. I tried to backtrack, to pull Sam back with me, but the current intensified and her hand slipped out of mine. Before I could even call her name, she was lost under the white rapids and I was alone.

Mel woke me up at half-past midnight.

“Cate.”

“Mmnh.”

“Cate. It’s Mrs. Minkin. Come on.”

Mrs. Minkin was lying on the couch, groaning. Her wound was infected. The veins around it had gone black, the blackness spreading all the way up her arm under the sleeve of her powder-pink nightie. Her fever had continued to rise all night; it had been 107 last time Mel checked.

“The news mentioned something about the black wounds, didn’t it?” I asked.

“So?”

“So do you think this is, you know…the illness?”

“I’ve never seen an infection like this,” Mel whispered, dabbing Mrs. Minkin’s forehead with a damp towel. “None of my classes have even touched on it. But it doesn’t matter. If her fever doesn’t go down pronto, it could damage her brain.”

Mrs. Minkin muttered to her dead husband between these horrible wet hacking coughs that hadn’t been there before. She went between speaking English and Russian until she wasn’t speaking any language anymore, just murmuring softly and scrunching her face in pain. All the while, the blackness was spreading.

She died just after one in the morning. I dialed 911.

“All dispatchers are busy,” said a computer-generated recording. “Please stay on the line.”

I tried twice more, just in case, with the same results. But we couldn’t just leave her on the couch, so we woke our parents. After some head scratching, Andrew woke Uncle Bill, and they carried Mrs. Minkin’s body out to the backyard.

“If there’s no one coming,” Andrew said as they set her in the far corner, “this is the most sanitary option.”

We covered her with an old red-and-white checkered tablecloth from the tool shed. After Mom said a few kind words about Mrs. Minkin, everyone but Mel and me went inside, agreeing to figure out what to do in the morning.

“Remember when she got that cat?” Mel whispered. “The hairless one?”

I shuddered. “No?” I did not recall ever seeing one of those things in person, though they’d always given me the heebie-jeebies.

“I guess you wouldn’t remember. You were maybe three or four. She got this hairless cat and named it Dave. Anyway, Mom brought us over the day after Mrs. Minkin got Dave. You took one look at that cat and wailed like your head was on fire. That was when Mrs. Minkin started coming to our place to babysit.”

I smirked. “Well, now my fear of hairless cats makes sense.” My face fell. “She was a good lady.”

Mel sniffled and hugged me close. “Let’s go to bed, Cate. It’ll be better tomorrow.” Mel stopped halfway across the yard. “Doesn’t look like anyone is in there.”

“He’s in there.” Marco’s voice from the back porch startled us. “And you can’t leave her like that.” The glowing red ember of his cigarette moved up and down as he took a drag.

“We know that, Marco,” Mel snapped. She didn’t much care for Marco. She said he was too quiet not to be up to something. Called him sinister on more than one occasion. “We tried the police three times. The line’s busy. We’ll try again in the morning.”

He jumped off the porch and walked into the moonlight. “She’ll be up before morning.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mel yelled. “Mrs. Minkin is dead! I checked her pulse myself, twice!”

“I know,” he said. “You know I’m right, don’t you?”

He was looking at me now.

“Right about what?” Mel demanded.

I suddenly became very interested in my own shoes.

“Look,” Mel sighed, “I’m exhausted, and our neighbor’s dead body is under that tablecloth. I don’t have time for—” She was interrupted by a soft gurgling sound.

It was coming from under the tablecloth.

Then the tablecloth moved.

“Mrs. Minkin!” Mel cried, running to her. She threw the tablecloth aside and knelt down beside our neighbor. “I’m so sorry, I thought you were… Well, it doesn’t matter. Mrs. Minkin?” She stopped. Checked Mrs. Minkin’s pulse. Dropped her hand. “Cate, come here.”

Marco took my hand. “Don’t.”

I pulled my arm away and crept toward them. Mrs. Minkin’s eyes were closed, and her breathing, raspy and watery, almost didn’t sound like breathing. Go figure.

“There’s no pulse,” Mel whispered to me. Then more loudly, “Mrs. Minkin? Mrs. Minkin, can you hear me?”

Mrs. Minkin’s eyes fluttered open. The whites were bloodshot, and the once-brown irises were milky white; pupils too. She moved her head from side to side, opening and closing her mouth just like the man in the viral video.

“Water,” Mel said, “she needs water.”

We both ran back toward the house.

Mrs. Minkin sat up.

“Try not to move, Mrs. Minkin,” Mel said.

“We’ll be right back with some water,” I reassured her.

“She doesn’t need water,” Marco growled. “You really don’t get it?”

Mrs. Minkin stood up slowly, awkwardly, like a newborn calf.

“Mrs. Minkin?” Mel called.

She stumbled across the yard with her arms outstretched, a feral growl tearing out of her throat. She slashed at Mel’s face with her obscenely long fingernails. She continued to struggle; they both went down. Mrs. Minkin was gnashing her teeth at Mel, who was crying out in confusion and panic.

“Cate, do something!” she yelled. “Mrs. Minkin, what are you doing? We’re trying to help you!”

“Move!” Marco called from behind us. He shoved me aside and kicked Mrs. Minkin hard in the ribs, eliciting a loud crack and knocking her off Mel.

Mel scrambled to her feet. “Are you out of your mind?! She’s eighty-four years old!”

Marco ran into our tool shed and came out a second later with a screwdriver.

“What are you doing? Cate, what is he doing?”

But Marco didn’t even look back at us. Mrs. Minkin was standing again, seemingly unfazed by a kick that had to have broken some ribs.

Marco staggered his footing, assuming a loose fighting stance just as she charged him. She swiped at his face; he dodged. She tried again; he jumped back. She kept coming for him, swiping and lunging. He side-kicked her square in the chest, and all she did was get back up.

“Do you understand yet?” he growled. He ducked under Mrs. Minkin’s arm, took her by the hair, and buried the screwdriver handle-deep into her right eye. She fell to the ground in a heap. This time, she stayed down.

Mel was in some sort of shock, sputtering half words and pointing at Marco, Mrs. Minkin, and Marco again. Marco paid her no mind as he pulled the screwdriver out of Mrs. Minkin’s head and wiped it off on the grass, unnervingly stoic until he suddenly doubled over and wretched onto the grass. But a second later he stood, wiped his mouth on his arm like nothing, and went into the shed again. He returned with another screwdriver and a hammer.

He handed Mel the hammer and me the screwdriver. “You’ll need these.” Then he grabbed his backpack off the porch and started toward Mrs. Minkin’s house. He looked over his shoulder when he reached the gate.

“You coming?”

“Coming where?” Mel cried. “With you? Not a chance! You killed our neighbor!”

“That wasn’t your neighbor anymore,” he said. “Now come on. There’s at least one more next door.”

I hardly gave it a thought.

“Cate, where are you going?” Mel called after me.

I ignored her. Marco obviously knew something, though how he knew anything was still not clear.

Four: It’s never that easy.

Now


I’m standing in my backyard. It’s night. Mrs. Minkin’s light is on next door. Leaves crunch under my feet as I walk toward her house. I know what I’ll find inside, know I shouldn’t be going over there unarmed. I can see what’s happening, but I can’t control it. Mrs. Minkin appears in the window, only it isn’t her. It’s dead Mrs. Minkin, the pale, white-eyed zombie woman.

The light goes off. When it comes on again, she’s gone. I tiptoe closer. Why don’t I have a weapon?

The light goes off and on again. But there’s no sign of Mrs. Minkin. Off, on, off, on, off, on. Suddenly, zombie Minkin is right in front of me. She takes a long, slow swipe at my arm. I can’t dodge; I can hardly move at all. The air is viscous, the consistency of molasses. It travels down my throat, cutting off my vocal cords. The light continues to flicker. Off, on, off, on, off, on…

I don’t open my eyes right away after the dream ends. Through my closed lids, it looks like the flickering light has followed me from my nightmare into the real world. At first, I assume it’s just the foliage moving overhead, letting sunlight through every so often. But when I blink away the blur of sleep and see a bunch of seagulls circling like vultures, and one particularly brave bird picking at my arm where dream-Minkin scratched me, I jump up and start waving my knife like a madman.

“Get the hell out of here!” I shout, probably a little too loudly, considering our rather exposed state, but sometimes, I can’t help myself. “Go on, go! God!”

The birds scatter instantly, squawking their displeasure.

Mel wakes up, yawning, just in time to see me waving my arms at thin air.

“Cate?” she croaks, slipping her glasses on.

I plop down on the ground and rub the raw spot on my arm. “Seagulls.”

We watch them watching us.

“What do you think made them like this?” Mel asks as we pack up our meager belongings.

“Hell if I know.”

“I mean they’ve always been scavengers, right? They’ll eat anything.”

“Right, but I don’t think people were ever on that list.”

“I read somewhere once that they could unhinge their jaws to choke down larger prey.” She shrugs into her backpack. “I guess it’s lucky they aren’t bigger.”

As we mount our bikes (that truck only lasted a day), I glance up at the several watermelon-sized predators still lurking around us. Were they always that menacing? Maybe I never noticed because they were still basically below me on the food chain.

I shudder.

“They’re plenty big.”

“Maybe they turned man-eater to survive. Do you think? It seems like only some of them do it, though.”

“It’s a theory. I just wish we only had one man-eating subspecies to worry about. Hey, wait a sec.” I look around, dismount my bike, reach into my backpack, and pull out two toothbrushes that have both seen better days and a very-nearly-empty toothpaste tube. I grin and make my eyebrows do a little dance. “We’ve got time today.”

“Oh, sweet!” Mel launches off her bike and snatches her brush out of my hand.

We have to cut open the end of the toothpaste tube in order to get any out.

“That’s it for the toothpaste,” Mel says as she hands it to me.

“We’ll find more.” We always find more. Either oral hygiene is not high on the priority list of most survivors, or there simply aren’t that many living people around anymore.

We’re both lifting our toothbrushes to our mouths when we hear the telltale cracking of a zombie stumbling over the forest floor toward us. Chaz growls, slinking behind my bike and me, and lets out a little “boof.”

“What a chicken,” I chuckle, handing Mel my toothbrush and taking out my knife.

“Shut up. He’s plenty brave.” She puts on her baby voice and scratches his ears while I take care of the zombie, which was so old when it died that it had no teeth left. “You just pick your battles, don’t you, baby?” She coos. Then she stands up. “Are you done with that thing yet?”

I flip a chunk of zombie gunk off my knife and onto her shirt.

Caaaate!” she whines, brushing it off frantically. In retaliation, she throws my toothbrush, overhand, more at me than to me. I fumble, catching it barely a foot from the ground.

“Overhand?” I narrow my eyes. “Wow.”

“Serves you right. Zombie brains on my only—literally my only shirt?”

We brush slowly, savoring the minty goodness. It’s weird the way things change when your life is all about surviving. It used to take me half an hour just to roll out of bed. Now I’m lucky if I have five whole minutes to get up, pack up, and brush my teeth or wash my face. Never both. But on the rare morning when we wake up and don’t find a hungry zombie headed our way, we get to partake in a fraction of the hygiene practices we used to take for granted. Otherwise, we usually forget to do it at all. Priorities shift, I guess.

“Well, goodbye, old friend,” says Mel, dropping her toothbrush back into the bag. “I miss brushing my teeth twice a day.”

“Same,” I answer. “I’ll take him first.”

Mel hitches the dog’s trailer up to my bike.

“You know what else I miss?” says Mel as we turn out onto the highway.

“Deodorant?”

“I miss my bed,” she continues as if she didn’t hear me. “Also my fuzzy pajamas… What is that?” She squeezes her bike’s brake. “Is that a backpack?”

“Looks like it.”

“See anybody around?”

“Nope.”

We pull up next to the fat blue backpack. I unzip it and begin to rifle through the contents. Nothing good, just a little water, a nude magazine, and a LOT of ammo for a shotgun, which we don’t have.

Chaz growls behind me.

“Cate,” Mel says.

“Mm?”

Behind me, there’s the click-click of a shotgun being loaded.

“Hands up,” a gravelly voice calls from across the road. “Nice an’ slow.”

Damn it.

We do as instructed, both turning around. A bearded older man, surprisingly muscular for his age, stands across the road holding a shotgun pointed directly at us.

“Kick over your weapons,” he says, “then drop your bags and go. Do it or I’ll fill you and your mutt with lead.”

Mel drops her hammer. My axe is in my belt loop, but all I can do is stand there. I can’t reach for it, can’t think about anything but the gun pointed at us.

He’s standing still, favoring one leg. There’s a tear in his jeans that’s soaked with blood.

“You’re hurt, right?” Mel calls, holding her hands up. “I’m a nurse. I can help you.”

“No shit,” he says. “You wanna help me, do you?”

“Well, no, but I can. And I will. Just let us take enough food to live for a day. The rest is yours.”

“You tryn’a pull a fast one on old Roy, ain’tcha?”

“We just want to go in peace,” I reiterate. “Please, let her help you and we’ll be on our way.”

He lowers his gun an inch. I can see the wheels turning in his bald head.

“All right. Tell you what. I got a gun, and you ain’t. So you’re gonna fix me anyway, and I’m still gonna take your shit.”

“Let us take our weapons,” I plead. “We can’t survive without those. If you take our weapons and our food, you may as well kill us yourself!”

Roy snorts and spits on the street.

“I just might once you fix me up. Now you—” He points the gun at Mel. “—get your skinny ass over here. And best not talk back if you want a shot at livin’ through today.”

Something moves in the trees behind him.

“Hurry up now, no bullshit, or I’ll shoot the dog first. Can’t believe I found me a medic! Of all the dumb luck.” He starts to laugh as Mel crosses the street.

His laughter is abruptly cut off and replaced with a sick gargling sound as a zombie lunges out of the trees and clamps its jaws onto his throat. He tries to scream, but it comes out as garbled choking as his vocal cords and esophagus are torn out and swallowed. He clutches at what used to be his throat, his eyes bulging in terror. Blood soaks his dirty shirt, and soon he isn’t making any sound at all. He falls to the ground twitching, and the zombie goes down with him, making quick and gruesome work of eating its kill.

Without a word, Mel and I put our weapons and backpacks back on and run for the bikes. Chaz hops into his trailer quietly, and we jam out of there. We ride a long time before either one of us speaks.

“Did you ever think—” Mel pants as we pedal. “—that a zombie would save us?”

Five: You don’t have to be brave. Just be quiet.

Then


“You said earlier that I should know what’s happening,” I whispered as I caught up to Marco. No idea why I was whispering after all the commotion.

“You should,” he replied, vaulting over the four-foot gate instead of just opening it. Show-off. “It’s all over the place. It’s in movies, on TV, and in books. It’s basically pop culture now. Aren’t you afraid your sister is going to go snitch to your dad?”

If he could do it, I sure as hell could. I took a little run at it, planted my hands, lifted off, and fell flat on my ass on the other side.

“He’s not really my dad,” I said, dusting myself off and half jogging to keep up with his freakishly long strides. “My dad left before I was born.”

“So are you afraid Melody is going to snitch to her dad?”

“No,” I whisper. “She’s not like that. Sister code.”

We stopped outside Mrs. Minkin’s back door. Marco put a finger to his mouth and tried the handle. The door swung open without a sound. In fact, as we tiptoed inside I noticed the depth of the silence. Marco held the screwdriver in front of himself like a weapon, rounding the corner from the kitchen to the hallway.

“Marco, what are we doing here?” I asked.

“Shh!” He turned to me with a fierce glare that was so unlike his demeanor a second before that it jarred me. “Do you want to find it, or do you want it to find you?”

“Find what?” I asked, lower volume. “And what happened back there?” In fact, the more I questioned the situation, the more I wondered if I should really be alone in a house with Marco, who I hardly knew and who had broken into my neighbor’s house like it was nothing. The same neighbor he had just killed.

There was a quiet gurgling sound in the living room. A boy about my age wearing a penguin costume came around the corner. He staggered like he was drunk, which in my mind explained the biting. The boy slashed the air with his penguin flippers and lunged at Marco. What happened next took no more than five seconds: Marco shoved the kid against the wall, pinning him with his forearm, and stabbed him through the eye. The boy slid down the wall and slumped over.

My jaw went slack, and I was once again acutely aware of being alone with a boy who, in addition to his other acts of mischief, had just killed two people.

Two that I knew of.

I backed away silently toward the door, which we had left ajar.

“Where are you going?” Marco asked.

I didn’t speak. I just turned and ran for all I was worth. But Marco was much faster than me. He grabbed my arm to stop me and yanked me around to face him.

“Let go of me!” I shrieked.

“Cate, you gotta calm down,” he said, holding me in place. His other hand still held the screwdriver and was that the eye on it?!

I used to entertain the idea, and I think most people do, that in a situation like this I might be the type to retain some of my cool. Maybe stare bravely in the face of danger and maybe, possibly, even have something witty or badass to say. It turned out I was not that type.

“Please don’t hurt me!” I begged. My legs went limp with fear, and I very nearly peed myself. “Please!”

“Hurt you?” He let go of my arm. “Cate, why would I hurt you?”

“You just… Mrs. Minkin, and…and that boy…”

“You’re not one of them,” he said. “You’re not a threat. Now come on, please. We need as many supplies as we can find, and you know this place better than I do. Look—” He put the screwdriver into his backpack and held up his empty hands. “—now you really have nothing to worry about.”

But I couldn’t make myself move. I was not a threat, but an eighty-five-year-old with a bum knee and a kid in a penguin costume were?

Marco didn’t seem to notice my shock. Or if he did, he didn’t care. “You knew this lady pretty well, right?” He walked into one of the bedrooms. “Does she have any weapons? Tools, maybe? Firearms are all right too, though not ideal.” He looked at me expectantly.

“Yeah I know her,” I said, “or I knew her. But I haven’t been inside her house since I was a—oh no.”

Marco turned around impatiently.

“What now?”

“Her cat.”

“Cat’s name Dave?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

He dug through bedside table drawers and moved quickly to the closet.

“I heard you and your sister in the yard. There’s also a big flat stone in the flowerbed by the fence with a cartoon cat and R.I.P. Dave painted on it. So I’m guessing Dave is dead.”

I followed him from one bedroom to the next.

“All right, Sherlock… Well, now that I know you are capable of explaining things,” I called as he brushed past me and walked down the hall, “mind explaining what you’re doing, and why you killed my neighbor and that kid?”

Marco looked back over his shoulder like I was the world’s biggest idiot. “You still don’t get it.”


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