She was surrounded by the dead.
She’d lost control of everything and everyone.
Standing in the cold empty concrete fountain in the middle of the zombie-infested city, she held her knife steady, wishing they’d planned things out a bit better.
Every street that fed into their circle in the middle of the intersection had a wall of creatures approaching, in various states of decay and with various limbs missing.
Most of the buildings around them were on fire, smoke obscuring the helicopters she could hear flying wildly above.
She reached into her pocket and held the cookie. The cookie meant something. She wished she remembered what it was.
She looked at her companion, his face covered in soot and blood.
He was babbling about the Yellow Sign again. Not helping much.
Then the zombies overran their little concrete island. They weren’t even bothering to run anymore. They just shambled.
She took a step back and leaned against the statue in the middle of the fountain.
Why they’d backed themselves into a circle of concrete with no coverage and no guns was a mystery to her. She’d thought her companion had a plan.
Things back in her hometown had been so simple, so peaceful. The zombies were under control there.
But she couldn’t leave well enough alone. Mother was right all along.
And now the undead plague was loose.
And she was trapped in the middle of it.
The smell of rot was overwhelming as the slavering horde encroached.
The Yellow Sign had brought them there. Had it been leading them to their doom all along?
She was out of ideas.
She wondered if she even had it in her to protect her companion.
She would go down fighting, at the very least.
The sound of thousands of clamoring creatures moaning with hunger drowned out her thoughts.
She closed her eyes and held her weapon out in front of her…
The zombie girl tripped over the curb as she approached the decayed general store.
She groaned and caught herself before falling to the leaf-strewn sidewalk and continued forward, stumbling in the dark. Her wide red eyes took in the plastic red-and-green decorations adorning the decrepit Town Square storefronts.
The zombie girl had always loved Christmas.
But now she was hungry. So she knew what she had to do.
She pushed open the general store’s front door and almost tripped again as her feet bumped into a box full of green water bottles.
“Henrika, girl, watch your step!” Earl shouted from behind the register.
Henrika put up her hands. “Sorry, Mister Earl. I’m just a bit clumsy tonight.”
“That you are.” Earl huffed and set his red eyes back on his cobweb-covered book, gripped tight in his scabby, gray hands.
Henrika stepped around the bottles of green water and pulled her Thanksgiving shopping list out of her pocket. Mother’s handwriting was elegant, as always.
She picked up a rusty-handled dark-red plastic basket and walked toward the decomposed produce section and tried to muster up something to say to Earl as she passed him.
“Did you see that they decorated Town Square today? It’s really nice out there!”
“Ain’t that something.”
“Are you gonna put up decorations in your front windows?”
“Is it gonna make me more money if I do?”
“Um…I don’t know.”
“Then I don’t know, either! Bet your bottom dollar on a ‘No,’ though.”
“But it would be really cute!”
“Henrika, I already own the cutest general store in West Virginia. I don’t see how anything else could possibly make it any cuter.”
Henrika shrugged and kept walking. The store was pretty dead. Only a couple other zombies carrying baskets, reading labels on jars, and deciding what kind of rotten animal parts went best with what putrid spices.
Henrika tried to talk to everyone she ran into whenever she walked around the streets of Shrieking Falls or inside its stores. She liked her fellow zombies. She cared about their unlives. But tonight she just didn’t feel up to it. Even Earl’s normally endearing grumpiness just annoyed her.
For the past few weeks, ever since she turned sixteen, Henrika had withdrawn a bit. Reading old books, helping Mother with her projects, eating human flesh…The thrill was gone from all of it.
Even Christmas, her favorite holiday for as long as she could remember, was starting to seem like the same old, same old. Nobody put up much of a light show on their houses, preferring not to attract attention from the Living. The trinkets adorning the stores downtown were half-hearted, at best.
She started to dream of leaving her limiting hometown, with its decayed, rotting houses and garbage-strewn streets, and going beyond the mountains and seeing what her favorite holiday was like out there.
She’d seen pictures in magazines and heard tales from the town elders of beautiful red-and-green light displays. Things bolder and brighter than the tepid tinsel and plastic Santa displays in Town Square that were swallowed up by the near-total darkness at night that they lived in to remain hidden.
But Mother had always told her that the Living wouldn’t understand their flesh-devouring ways. They had to stay in the valley and only eat the farm humans that happily volunteered their flesh for them. This saddened her. She wished the people out there could be more understanding, but she was a good girl. She listened to Mother.
Henrika grabbed a jar of rotted fish eyes off the shelf and checked it off the list with her refillable red ink pen.
The general store’s front door creaked from behind her. She turned around to see a strange-looking, non-necrotic, non-decaying boy wander into the store.
Henrika dropped her pen but managed to hang on to her basket.
He looked all around the store and had a friendly glint in his eyes that would have made Henrika blush if blood flowed through her system.
He stepped forward and tripped over the same box of bottles she had, falling to the ground.
“Would you watch your step?” Earl shouted.
The boy got up, shot Earl a look, shook his head, and walked forward.
Henrika squatted down and picked up her pen. She turned back to the jars on the aisle, pretending not to notice that he was walking right toward her.
“Hey…do you know where they keep the Thanksgiving-y stuff?”
Henrika turned to face him and tried to squeak a response.
She was gleefully lost in his bright hazel eyes. He smelled really strange—a grotesque mix of soap, fabric softener, and shampoo—but she just couldn’t peel her eyes away from his peepers. The face around them was pretty delicious, too.
“Hello? I’m…um…trying to find some bread and pumpkin pie mix and stuff.”
Henrika snapped out of it. “Oh, right. Of course. Yes. Over there, aisle five. They keep the Living foo—I mean, the fresh food over there. You should find what you need…there. Yeah.”
“Thanks.” He had a warm half-smile on his face…that faded a bit when he took a look in her basket. “What’s that you’ve got in there?”
“Uh, well, um, rotted fish eyes,” Henrika said. She pushed her long black hair out of her eyes and tucked it behind her ear.
Stupid! I should have said they were olives, or something.
She tried to stop herself from talking, but she found herself unable to control the words that followed. “Rotted fish eyes. They’re for, you know, Thanksgiving. They go with the roasted rat tails and mashed road kill.”
The boy winced. “You’re kidding, right?”
Henrika’s yellow teeth chattered. “Yes, of course! Kidding. Sorry. I was being silly, that’s all. Um…yeah.”
The boy’s demeanor shifted as he finally seemed to see her tattered clothing and ragged hair. Then his eyes moved to the shelf next to Henrika. He pulled a jar down. “Yep. These are fish eyes.” He put it back on the shelf. He looked up and down the aisle. “Man, all this food looks messed-up.”
Henrika could smell the disgust pouring off him. It was familiar. It was how the Living always reacted. Mother told her so. She didn’t want to believe that, but here it was.
Fine, as long as he didn’t get sick. She couldn’t stand that. Beyond how much it would hurt her feelings, the sight of someone throwing up had always knocked her for a loop and forced her to throw up in response. And puke was the grossest substance in the universe. Everything about it. Nothing in the zombie world came close.
So she tried to redirect the conversation.
“Yeah, weird food, right? I wasn’t really gonna eat these.” Henrika faked a laugh and pulled the jar out of her basket and back on the shelf.
The boy took a step back. “I’m just gonna go now. Aisle five, right?”
Henrika nodded quickly. “Right. That’s the place. Um. Good luck. Thanks.”
The boy flashed a very strained smile and turned away.
Boyd turned and rushed over to the fifth aisle, snatched the sought-after loaf of bread and can of pumpkin pie, paid the creepy-looking old guy behind the register, and carefully sidestepped the box of dark-green bottles as he rushed out the door toward his light-green Chevy.
It was normal for country folk to eat roadkill. He learned that much before moving to Shrieking Falls.
But who in their right mind ate rat tails and rotting fish eyes for Turkey Day? Sick.
These bumpkins were even stranger than his friends back in Upper St. Clair had guessed.
He took a look around Town Square and realized that the whole place looked abandoned. A lot of nearby towns they passed through had the feel of being dead or lost to time. Mining and manufacturing jobs had dried up years ago, obviously. Anyone who lived here probably commuted at least an hour away for work. Or got by on welfare. That was normal enough.
But with the grass and weeds growing through cracks in the sidewalks, dusty Christmas decorations dangling in front of filthy windows, and moldy wood wrapped around every building in the most prominent area of town…this place looked particularly bad.
He checked to make sure that the Christmas tree in the bed of his truck was still secure. There were a lot of potholes on the road into town. He worried it might have shaken loose along the way. Finding the ropes still secure, he climbed in, slammed the squeaky door, threw the truck into reverse, and then sped off to his parents’ cabin at the foot of Shrieking Falls’ largest mountain.
Man, I hate West Virginia.
Little did he know, Henrika was following close behind him on her rusty moped.
She’d actually dropped her basket in the middle of the aisle to race out the door and make sure he didn’t get out of her sight.
Earl shouted something at her as she ran by, but Henrika didn’t hear him. She also didn’t pay attention to those zombie hillbillies Mother had warned her about, the Packers, when they pulled into the store right as she left.
She couldn’t help being intrigued by the way this boy talked to her. He didn’t seem at all like the bald-headed flesh-farm humans who were always friendly and cheerful and weren’t at all bothered by the eating habits of their fellow zombies in town.
Something about this boy—the way he talked, the way he smelled, the way he looked—was just…different. Alien.
She had to know everything about him. What made him tick. What made him laugh. What was under his skin.
No, no, best not to think that way. He was clearly not a flesh-farm human. He was Living. Mother had told her to be careful if she ever met one of those, since they passed through town every now and then. It would probably be best to just turn around and leave him be.
She knew that.
And she kept going, her black hair rustling all over and around her face, her moped’s tiny corroded engine sputtering as she increased her speed. She looked at the Christmas tree in the bed of his truck and imagined herself decorating it side by side with him.
She was caught off guard when the truck began swerving back and forth across the road. The brake lights on it illuminated and it screeched, coming to an abrupt halt on the right side of the road, just missing a ditch.
Henrika stopped just in time to keep out of sight as the boy jumped out the driver’s-side door and emitted a bloodcurdling scream.
“Get away, get away, get away!” he screamed at the Chevy as he backpedaled toward the forest. His face was pale. The hazel in his eyes had nearly vanished, swallowed by his ever-growing pupils.
And then she heard it. Then Henrika understood.
Screeching laughter spewed out of the truck’s cabin and filled the night air. Only one zombie in all of West Virginia owned a cackle like that. And Henrika would know. She’d heard it nearly every day.
How did Mother get into the boy’s truck? And why?
Henrika watched in horror as Mother slithered out of the Chevy and inched toward the boy—her boy—with her yellow teeth bared and ragged fingers outstretched. She opened her mouth impossibly wide.
Omigosh, omigosh! Mother’s about to feed on non-farm flesh! That’s against the Code!
“Run!” Henrika screamed.
The boy glanced over. Mother’s eyes followed, blood-red and wide as dinner plates.
“Henrika? What are you doing?” she snarled. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the grocery store? Where are the fish—?”
“Don’t look at her eyes—just run!” Henrika pleaded, remounting her moped.
With that, the boy obeyed and bolted into the thicket. Mother sneered and followed. Henrika revved her little engine and raced into the brush behind him.
She rode her moped into the woods until she reached an impenetrable wall of trees, then jumped off and wound her way through, racing as fast as her undead legs could carry her, heedless of the pine branches that thrashed her face.
She eventually found her boy in a clearing, Mother gripping his throat and holding him up high, bringing her mouth to his neck.
She spun around, lowered the boy to the ground, and narrowed her red eyes. “Darling, run along. This isn’t something that concerns you!”
“Don’t hurt him, please!”
“What’s wrong with you people?” the boy choked out.
Mother dropped the boy, but maintained eye contact with Henrika. “Darling, please trust your mother and run along. I always told you there were things you wouldn’t understand. That I’d have to explain someday.”
“You can’t eat the Living! You know that!”
Mother sighed. “Darling, I know this seems…”
Before Mother could finish her phrase, her eyes narrowed again. She turned around to find that he had fallen unconscious, slumping forward out of Mother’s grip and revealing a clear syringe protruding from his left buttock.
“The Juice?” Henrika shrieked. “You used the Juice?”
Mother could have devoured this beautiful boy the moment she got him in her grip; why waste a dose of the memory-melter? Hadn’t she said there were only two left after that skirmish with the Packer boys last month? Maybe she wasn’t lying; maybe there was something else going on.
But I can’t take that chance, Henrika thought.
She leaped forward, grabbed the syringe, yanked, and threw the soiled Juice needle at Mother. The syringe pierced her lower leg, depositing the remaining poison, knocking Mother out immediately.
Henrika hoisted the limp boy over her shoulder and carried him back to her ride. She seated him behind her on her moped, pulled his arms around her waist as she struggled to keep him upright, and held him tightly to her. She navigated the vehicle with her other hand. It wasn’t ideal. But it would work until he woke up as she sputtered off to her cave hideaway. She had a small stash of the Juice antidote stockpiled there. She would have to hurry, though. In less than an hour, this boy’s memory would be wiped clean permanently.
He’d forget our awkward encounter, too. Maybe that would be a good thing!
Henrika wanted nothing to do with the zombie existence. She was tired of having no friends her age, since everyone else in the Falls was zombified as an adult. She wanted a normal job and a normal school and some new clothes (ones without any blood stains, please and thank you!).
But most of all, Henrika wanted to leave this Godforsaken town with all of its green water and roadkill cuisine. She wanted to go where the people and the animals wouldn’t fall apart in a rotted heap without regular feedings at the flesh farm on Dew Drop Drive.
She wanted to taste Thanksgiving and Christmas outside Shrieking Falls. To see all the exotic places that were only pictures in old magazines to her. To ride the T to a Boston Red Sox game. To drive along the California coast in a red convertible with the top down and her black hair flapping in the wind. To rent a tiny apartment in Manhattan, collecting friends and memories by the minute. To taste new foods, learn new languages and adopt new habits. Henrika wanted an accent.
But no. Here she was, once again racing toward her only spot of solace, a glorified hole at the foot of a mountain.
“What’s…going…on?” the boy whispered, lifting his head slightly.
As Henrika opened her mouth to answer, several explosions went off in the distance.
Henrika shot a glance behind her and saw a column of smoke rising into the sky. Right in the center of town.
The blast barely registered on the boy, nor did the second one that followed close after. “What…? Someone say something?”
She screeched the moped to a halt and spun in a half-circle. She looked back to see another thick cloud rising up in the dark sky back in the direction of town.
The first blast appeared to be in the area of the flesh farm, but the second one was closer to Town Square. Henrika could hear scattered screams in the distance.
They were farm human screams. She’d always felt sympathy for the farm folk, especially her food source, Justin. He was the closest thing she had to a friend her age. So she hated the thought of them suffering. She wanted to help.
She started to move back in the direction of town, then realized she couldn’t risk passing by Mother with her boy. Too risky. It was possible there wasn’t enough Juice in the needle to knock Mother out for long.
Henrika looked back in the direction of her cave, where the boy would be safe and where she could get him the antidote, and back in the direction of town.
She fidgeted and her mind raced.
Then inspiration struck her.
She spun her moped back around and raced to her cave. She took her ride off the road and bolted through the nearly invisible entrance to her mountainside hideout.
She laid the boy down inside and pulled the short cord on her overhead light bulb.
He stirred. She saw him look over at her tiny, Charlie Brown-esque plastic Christmas tree in the corner of her hideout. He then looked up at her and smiled deliriously. “Oh…hi…you like fish eyes…Hahaha…”
“Yes, I do. Now hush.” Henrika raced to her hidden nook in the side of the cave and pulled out the Juice antidote. She returned with it, tapped a vein in his arm, and shot him up with it.
“Hey!” He yanked his arm back woozily after she pulled the needle out.
“Hush, you big baby.”
Henrika looked back at the entrance of her cave and then at him.
“Sorry to do this, champ. But I’ll be right back and can’t have you leaving.”
The boy looked up at her, slightly more alert, as she waved her arms in a bizarre pattern and her red irises disappeared and turned to a brilliant white light. He was instantly taken by the Sleep spell and went under.
That should hold him for at least an hour.
Henrika turned off the light, raced back to her moped, saddled up, and headed into town.
After she rounded the first curve at a dangerously fast speed, she couldn’t help but wonder. What if he wakes up before I get back? What will he think of me? What will he think of the cave?
And then the clincher. What if he finds the History Book?
* * * *
Which, of course, was exactly what happened. Henrika had never been too skilled at the Sleep spell.
Fourteen minutes after being sent into a trance, Boyd clawed back to reality and found himself cloaked in total darkness.
“Hello?” Boyd said, quietly, and then cleared his throat. “Is anybody there?”
Hearing nothing but an echo, Boyd repeated the question, louder this time. But again, only the echo answered his call. He wondered if he was trapped in some kind of dumpster. It smelled horrible. A mixture of rotting meat, spices, and decaying paper.
Slowly, carefully, the boy struggled to his feet and began to navigate his way through the blackness. He waved his arms in front of his face in search of some kind of light source or way out. He needed to find the girl with the red (glowing?) eyes.
His echo shouted back, then he tripped over a stack of something and he held his hands up—expecting to fall forward—but instead made contact with a hard surface directly in front of him. It was rock, probably limestone, which his father had said that these West Virginia hills were made from.
Okay, I’m not in a dumpster. Just a smelly dark cavern.
Inching his way along the stone wall, Boyd fumbled his way through the darkness.
“Is anybody there?”
His echo remained the only response. Frustration nearly overtaking his fear, Boyd was about to freak out when he felt the tiny chain of a hanging light bulb brush against his face.
Forcing his breathing to slow, Boyd reached up to the chain, gripped, and pulled.
As his eyes adjusted to the glow from the sixty-watt bulb dangling loosely above, he saw that the stack he had knocked over was a collection of magazines. Better Homes and Gardens, Real Simple, Time, National Geographic, and Gourmet. They were all ragged-looking and well-read. A quick glimpse at their covers revealed that they were from the early to mid-nineties.
He looked around and found that most of the cavern walls were covered with clipped-out photos from these magazines. Mostly families sharing turkey dinners and opening presents, but also beaches, baseball stadiums, and national parks.
The next thing to catch his eye was a nook in the far corner of the room. He saw a ragged-looking book in there with strange engravings on the cover. He felt drawn to it, a memory of something called a “Yellow Sign” bubbling up from his subconscious.
Whatever was going on, he knew that book had answers. He crossed the room, snatched it from its hole in the wall, and stared at it. It smelled awful. Dirt and dust and mold ate away at its pulpy edges.
The spine cracked like an M-80 as he opened the musty book. His eyes widened as he began reading.
But Henrika’s eyes were wider.
She cruised into Town Square and saw the scattered debris from the second explosion. The entrance to Dew Drop Drive was blocked by overturned cars and chunks of buildings, so there was no way for her to get to the flesh farm and help there. She no longer heard any screams coming from that direction. She didn’t know if that was good or bad.
She feared the worst for Justin, her flesh-farm boy, before she saw one of the Packer boys running around, slapping himself on his flame-engulfed crotch. His two brothers were swatting him with blankets to put the fire out.
As her eyes adjusted to the searing wall of flame, she saw that the general store was completely engulfed in flame.
I was just in there, she thought. So was my Living boy. We could’ve been…
But her thought was interrupted by a scream to her left, which was getting louder and louder.
She turned and saw the Constable on fire, running wildly through the street. He was wearing some kind of fluffy red outfit that looked very wrong on him.
She grabbed his burning form and threw him to the ground, rolling him around like a burrito as she pulled her jacket off and slapped him with it until the flames were extinguished.
His rotted skin was burned pretty badly all over. Henrika realized that she’d never seen what happened to undead skin when it got burned.
She shook this thought off and made eye contact with the still-moaning Constable, who was wearing what she now clearly saw was a red-and-white Santa Claus suit, though it was mostly charred and black now. He must have been doing some charity work for the zombie elders around town. The ones who remembered Christmas in the Living world loved seeing him dressed up as Santa.
“Henrika, girl. Thank you. You saved my l—Well, you helped me.” He sat up and started rubbing his hands together. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine, but what’s going on here?”
The Constable winced. “I’m guessing you haven’t seen your mom tonight.”
“No, I have! Why? Is she connected to this?”
The Constable got to his feet, and Henrika got up with him. “I’m afraid so, girl. I don’t have time to explain now, but things seem to have gotten a bit out of hand.”
Henrika looked around at the burning buildings and automobiles and screaming undead people. Then back at the Constable. “You don’t say?”
He coughed into his hand. “Ayuh, I do. Have you seen my Deputy?”
Henrika looked around. “Sorry, don’t see him and didn’t see him. Maybe he went back to the flesh farm, to help his people?”
“Yeah, they stick together,” he muttered. “Can you wait here for just a minute? I got some business to attend to.”
“Well, yes, but—Please, what happened here? Who did this? How’s my mother involved?”
The Constable pulled a rust-flecked gun out of his thick black Santa belt. “I don’t have all the answers yet, but I aim to. Now wait here a moment, I’ll be right back.”
Henrika looked around, fairly sure that this was not a safe place to sit and wait. She checked her watch. It had been twenty minutes since she’d put her boy under. She didn’t think she had time to waste.
And if Mother was involved in this, she really didn’t want to be there if Mother returned to the scene of the crime.
She’d been able to help one fellow zombie here, but it looked like there was really nothing more she could do for her townspeople. She saw no way to get to the flesh farm to help the humans there.
Here in Town Square, the damage was done and most of the residents, decayed and otherwise, were now just standing in the street, staring dumbly at the burning buildings.
She couldn’t go home. Father had left years ago. Mother was a threat to her now.
How did things fall apart so quickly?
She needed to get her boy and get him out of town. Riding on her moped, with his lovely arms wrapped around her, headed for the California coastline.
As soon as she got herself and her boy to safety, everything would be fine. He would understand. She really really hoped her spell on him wouldn’t wear off early. If he woke up and started snooping around her cave…things could get real hard to explain real fast.
She mounted her rickety but reliable moped and kicked it into gear. Heading back to her hideaway, she flew past the burning buildings and feasting flames, tinsel and plastic displays of Santa and his reindeer blackening and melting on either side of her.
Henrika winced as she felt the familiar tingling numbness in the pit of her stomach. She knew what it meant. She needed to feed. Soon.
And fish eyeballs weren’t gonna satisfy this particular craving.