by Joan Frances Turner
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When I was fourteen there was a security breach near the intersection of Seventy-Third and Klein and my mother killed her first intruder, and her last. She was on the six-to-three shift and was supposed to pick me up straight from school, but as I waited the warning siren kicked to life. Louder and louder, that singular cadence distinguishing it from tornado and fire alarms: aieeeow-oooo, woooo-owwwww, low and moaning like an animal in pain. The intercom snapped on.
“Code Orange alert,” said a woman’s voice, prerecorded, urgent but serene. “Code Orange, located at—Klein—and—Seventy-Third—please lock all doors and windows and seek basement shelter until the all-clear sounds. If you are outside please seek the nearest safe house or other accessible building. It is a federal crime to deny shelter to any person seeking refuge from an environmental disturbance . . .”
There hadn’t been a Code Orange in years, and never with her on shift. If I could somehow get over there I could watch her toast their asses, maybe flick one with my own lighter—I was down the hall, out the doors, the sunset a lurid orange wash and the sirens making the air tremble and throb.
I was laughing as I ran. I’d never seen an honest-to-God living dead body in the flesh, the news was all “dramatic re-creations” and shitty CGI—I was gunning for the real thing and to see my mother do the deed. She’d get a raise, a promotion, if she faced it down—
I’m getting ahead of myself. You start to ramble, when there’s nothing left to talk to but the air.
Police cars, fire engines, Lepingville Civic Security vans blocked the streets, red. I saw her, framed perfectly by the gnarled, curving tree branches around me: my mother, an ambulatory burnt marshmallow in thick padded charcoal-gray fatigues, coppery hair twisted up at the back of her head, waddling down Seventy-Third calm as you please as she fitted another cartridge to her flamethrower.
There it was. All alone, arms dangling, perfectly quiet but with its long pearl-gray teeth bared and grimacing. A bloated, brackish, muddy mess, a first-grader’s art project shaped with careless palm-slaps into a too-angular skull, a smeared nubbin of a nose and horribly thin fingers; something about those fingers, the way each one was a perfect sticky twig of tacky clay not yet softened to full rot, made a horrible shiver rush up my back, my chest going hot and tight in disgust.
You can’t imagine the smell, an overpowering gaseous stink not of death but life. Nasty, fetid, wriggly life, bursting forth in horrible exuberance, fields of mold blooming on fabric and skin, grubs and bluebottles breeding, hatching, crawling from the crevices around eyes, nose, crotch, armpit, eating and being eaten from the inside out--kill it, Mom, kill that smell. Everyone else just watching. Like me.
It made a sound, looking at my mother. A low, full moan that bore an edge of surprise, a living human’s dismay and uncertainty turned to stretched-out toffee in that undead mouth. Make it stop, Mom; it’s not hungry, I can tell. It’s like it thinks it knows you, somehow, from somewhere.
She took off her mask. “Get out,” she said. “Go back through that fence and get out.”
Why was she talking to it? They didn’t understand us. They were beyond speech.
“You’re trespassing!” she shouted. “As a civic security official I am authorized to use all necessary force to address Class A environmental disturbances by Indiana Code Section 17, paragraph 8(d)—”
Oooooo, it went, and then ooooooosssss. Airy, hollow whistling, trying to make sounds a rotten tongue, lips, palate wouldn’t allow. Ooooosssssss.
My mother didn’t move. She raised the flamethrower and screamed, “Get out! Get out!”
It stumbled forward, slow as they all do, holding out its arms.
I don’t know what I was expecting to happen when it caught the flame. Maybe that it’d drop to the pavement like a proper corpse, or give a little pop like marshmallow char in a bonfire and collapse, instantly, into a sighing pile of ash. But instead it stood there with its puppet arms waving, each filthy rag of clothing a tattered fiery flag, and then its mouth opened around a long, hard scream of agony. It sounded human, a human being in unimaginable pain with nowhere to go, no way out. It couldn’t run, not like a panicked human on fire. Instead it rotated in a slow tottering circle. It sank to its knees, groaning and sobbing. And it rolled on the ground. And it bubbled, and cooked, and slowly died.
It was crying now, skin falling off in thick charred pieces. I ran from my hiding place because I couldn’t stand it anymore, she had to make all this stop happening—she shoved everyone else aside to get to me. "What are you doing here!” she shouted. “You’re at school, you’re in the shelter! Goddammit, can’t you stay out of trouble longer than five minutes at a time! What the hell are you doing here!”
I ran. I ran home and threw up and then sat in the basement, on the cots we had set up in case of tornadoes or what had just happened, and that’s where my mother found me. She didn’t yell at me, we had the leftover baked beans for dinner and went straight to sleep. The next day she just lay there, quiet, staring at the wall next to her bed. And the day after that. And the day after that.
My aunt Kate said later my mother hadn’t been right in the head since my father died, that even before that she’d been strange. Off. But all I’ll say is that after that evening something inside her seemed to bend and twist like that thing’s rotten twiggy fingers, tearing in two without making a sound. She never cried. She wasn’t the type. She went to work. She came home. She asked me about school, asked me about my music, cooked the pancake dinner we ate every Friday she was off-shift. No more lying around in bed. There was no time, and she liked to keep busy.
And then one winter morning a year later, when I was fifteen, I woke up and she was gone. No note.
She used to go out sometimes at night, long after dark; all she’d ever say was she was taking a walk. Walking for hours, sometimes not coming home until dawn. Always, no matter what, she came back.
They found her LCS jacket, a half-mile outside the town gates, her badge and ID in one pocket. The jacket’s too big, but it’s warm. I like to imagine it’s what got me through this past winter.
The truth is that she’s not forgiven, my mother, for what she did. I have the power of forgiveness in me and it’s all I have left; I wave it inside me like a July sparkler, letting its little line of fiery floating light mark out the saved, the damned, those forever left behind. She’s not forgiven. That dead thing isn’t forgiven, ever, for spreading its filthy contagion of crying, pain, despair—
No. I forgive it, because it hurt so much. Just like I have to forgive my aunt, for getting so sick. Everyone got so sick, and died—human, zombie, everyone. Everywhere. I’m one of the only ones left.
Last spring, a year after my mother disappeared, it started. A plague. A famine. Everyone got sick, a disease no doctor could diagnose. It made people hungry—no. It made them ravenous, insane with hunger and the more they ate, the more the disease ate at them, turning them to great gobbling mouths crammed with anything, anything they could chew or swallow. They killed their pets, children, each other. For food. Everything they’d feared the intruders, the real flesh-eaters, might do to us—
But the undead too. Even them. They got sick too.
But not me. I don’t know why. I hid and kept hiding until the sickness burned itself out, hit a peak and a slope and finally the living, the undead, couldn’t eat anymore, didn’t want to. After all that, they starved to death. The disease binged on them, gorged itself sick, and then it purged. And they all died.
No. Not everyone.
Some who got this sickness, they survived, and became something else. They look human, some of them used to be, but they’re not anymore. They don’t rot, they don’t decay and no matter if you stab, shoot, starve, freeze them, drown them, torch them, they can’t die. They heal right before your eyes, and it’s the last thing you see before they kill you. Fast-moving, fast-talking, fast-thinking as humans. Strong as zombies. And no matter what, they can never, ever die. The intruders are dead, but they’ve left a new generation behind. So many of them. So few of us.
There were only four of us in Lepingville who stayed human, who never got sick, and I’m the only one who got through last winter. And it was a mild winter, this year.
I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve got no idea what I’m supposed to do now, and there’s nobody to tell me. One foot in front of the other, my mother always said. Step forward, keep going. Somewhere. You’ll figure it out. You’ve got no choice.
I think somehow, my mother sensed this was coming, the way animals sniff out impending earthquakes and flee. She was going to take me with her, but it was too dangerous and she knew someone would take me in, they have to because it’s a felony otherwise, and once the sickness ceased she’d find me and we’d figure out, together, what to do next. I couldn’t die, we had to find each other. I didn’t kill myself. I didn’t starve. I didn’t freeze or get sick or butchered for my flesh, I didn’t ever mean to do what I—I stayed here. I have a right to be proud of that. I stayed.
That’s what they tell you, when you’re little. Right? If you’re lost, stay right where you are. Somebody will find you. It’s inevitable. Someone. Somewhere.
I’m still waiting.
Guest post created for September Zombies event by Joan Frances Turner, author of Dust and soon to be released Frail
© 2011. All rights reserved.
Book Excerpt: first chapter PDF
by Joan Frances Turner
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BE on the lookout...
by Joan Frances Turner
Release date: October 4, 2011
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