by David Gould
Waking in the night, she hears something moving, dragging on the asphalt outside the car. She reaches for the knife. It glints like broken glass. She is nine years old. This is her life. Drops of dew or drizzle bead on the car window, black worlds rainbow-lit by streetlamps.
Her father sprawls in the front seat, muttering, gulping. There will be time to wake him. If there is danger, he will save her. He is Superman, with muscles like cables, nerves like cold steel. There is nothing he can’t handle. But he gets irritated. It is her job to calm him. He tells her that.
She checks that the doors are locked, as he has taught her. They are. Her father says that a Caddy Seville has doors heavy and solid enough to stop a bullet, almost. But the windows are cracked for ventilation, and one of them doesn’t shut properly anymore, so the undead would have a fingerhold in. She doesn’t want to die. Carefully, cautiously, she peeks out into the night.
They are close to civilization, so at least she can see. Her father feels safer in the country. One time, they spent two weeks in a mountain shack. That was hard. At night, there was nothing to do but go to bed — a light would have given them away. Plus, there wasn’t much propane. She stared into the too-dark, wondering what she couldn’t see. She likes towns like this one. No matter how late, the sky’s still pink from cars, normal life. It’s comforting, like before. Nothing can creep up on them.
A dog stops trotting down the road, balances on three legs to scratch. Tail between its legs, it cocks its head to look at her. She flashes the knife and bares her teeth. They can’t take in strays. Father says so. What can’t help, may kill you. And who knows if it’s infected? The mutt wanders off, teats flapping. A hamburger wrapper chases a Styrofoam cup under the warehouse light.
She smiles as it disappears. Zombies always go for the easy kill. If the dog got away, then they’re safe. There’s nothing out there. Resheathing the knife, she pulls her pink princess sleeping bag up over her head. She dreams of bodies crawling from the grave, and when she wakes again, it’s day. Light streams into the car, and it’s already hot. Her father rubs his unshaven chin and grins into the rearview mirror like a king without a crown. “Morning, sunshine. How’re we doing today?”
There is a shimmer in his eyes, and his smile looks real. It is one of his good days. He’s looking more like himself. The purple pouches beneath his eyes are nearly gone, as is most of the dye from his hair.
She nods and nibbles her fingertip where it hurts. It is red and swollen again. She has learned to take the pain, learned to hide it. He likes that. Times like these, you can’t complain about every little thing. It’s survival that counts. She shakes her hand to chase away the hurt. She feels sticky and peels her shirt back from the seat. A small puddle of drool dries on the cracked, black pleather. “Where are we, daddy?”
“Outside Albuquerque, I think.” He stares at the sad, littered street and moves his jacket to cover the pistol. “What’s left of it.”
She doesn’t know what to say, so says nothing. She cannot ask if they are safe. He takes it wrong, shouts, “Don’t you know I can protect you anywhere, anyhow?” Another question she’s learned not to ask. She doesn’t want to be another damn castrating woman, doesn’t want to be just like your goddamn mother. But there is a knot in her stomach.
She sees herself in the mirror. Her hair is lank and knotted. Dirty blonde they used to call it, though now it’s just dirty. She tries to remember when they last stayed in a hotel, or found a campsite with a shower. She can’t. Her panties itch, but she’s out of clean ones and already turned these twice.
Her father squeezes a shoulder between the seats to touch her hand. “You gotta stop biting that finger, kiddo. Your mom used to do that, pick at mosquito bites until they got infected. Shit, you gone right through the skin.”
He smacks her hand sympathetically. She winces but doesn’t explain. She finds the pain reassuring — it tells her she is alive. The dead don’t ache. How else would she know? She snaps, “I can’t help it! It hurts, and I have to scratch if it hurts, don’t I? It’s not my fault.”
“It’s your fault it’s infected. If you’d of left it alone, it would of got better. You got to let it alone, okay, pumpkin?” He twists back, stomps his foot. “I’ll buy you something for it, but Hell’s bells, you got to do your part, see?”
The car rumbles to life. He looks in the side mirror, his mouth suddenly white-lined. “Damn.”
He steps into the street, squats by the rear bumper. Smoke pours out the back. The car is burgundy, but as the color fades she likes to think that it is slowly changing to match the pink bumper. The one in the front is gone. She gives the sore on her finger a sudden, secret scrubbing.
He opens the door and sits in the driver’s seat. “Must be burning oil again. Or maybe it’s the coils? Shit, I don’t know if — ”
He leans into the steering wheel and pulls at the skin on his face. The shine is gone, the purple bags are back. She shivers. The thought of getting the car fixed again terrifies her. She doesn’t like strangers, doesn’t like not knowing who’s sick, who’s real, who’s not. She rests her fingertips on the knife.
The car clunks into gear. Her father jerks from the curb, jams the brakes at the stop sign, looks both ways and drives into the world.
• • •
Alone in the car, outside a stripmall, she gnaws at the fingernail. The finger is stiff, with a red line down the side. She knows biting will make it worse but cannot stop. The pain cuts across her nerves, softens her thoughts.
The car doors are locked. Let no one in. She has learned this. A man’s Caddy is his fortress. The gun is on the front seat, under the blue jacket. She is safe, or at least safe enough. But her father is out there, unarmed. How will he protect himself? And how will she know if he has been infected? The disease took her mother almost instantly. One evening her parents were drinking and shouting and normal. The next morning, it was just her and her father, rolling across the wasted hills of what used to be New York State in the green Ford. This is the future, he’d said. This is how we survive in the after-days. They’d sold that car in Rochester. That was four cars ago and the tail end of winter. Now it is summer, and they have the Caddy. It was weeks before he told her the truth about her mother. By then she had pieced together much of it for herself. She was very clever. Everyone had said so, back when she went to school.
She’s bitten the nail down to the quick, where the real pain begins, when her father races out with a thin white plastic bag. There is red writing on it and some of the color has rubbed onto his shirt, making it blotchy like his face. She leans over the front seat and pulls up the lock. He slides in, happy and laughing, hair in his eyes. “I think they knew — knew something — ”
Someone in a colored apron stares at them from under the Roadrunner Cash, Mega Millions sign. Sunlight reflects off the glass and she can’t tell if it is a man or a woman, zombie or whole. She also can’t tell if they’re on the phone. The police stopped them once — before. She won’t forget that in a hurry. Candy bars and Slim Jims slide from his sleeves as he turns the key to start the car. For a long, sickening moment, nothing happens. “Shit... shit, shit...”
He smacks the duct-taped steering wheel and tries again. This time the motor catches and he tears out backwards, skidding into the lot. They rocket into the street and the car crunches as it bottoms out then flies on. He throws a silver candy bar into the back seat. “That’s for you! Man, I think they knew — they could tell — something — ”
His laughter sounds like dogs’ barking and makes her skin crawl. The cold candy bar wrapper smells of frankfurters and neon slushie flavorings. Her voice cracks. “Please, Daddy...”
Nets of wires tangle in the streetlamps, dangling, looking like dead trees.
Slim-Jims and cans fall from his clothes. There is grey in his beard, and the scar on his neck is red and livid. “Yeah, I gotta... We — ” He wipes his eyes, nods. “You’ll see! We’ll be fine, kiddo. I promise.”
A bunch of men in dirty green sweatshirts rake a lawn. The men glare as she rides past. Zombies for sure. On the radio, a man sings “Call Home.” Houses flash past, white and brick. Not one is her home.
A mile or two later, he eases up, and they pull into a school parking lot. The air is hot and dry. Her sweat evaporates. He breaks out the juice, milk, and Wonderbread, hands her a packet of white donuts. The car door is open wide, his blue jacket covering their protection on the seat.
“We could stay there,” he says, nodding at the Foreclosure sign across the street, a pale lawn dying around it. “It’d be just like that fishing cabin — remember the fun we had in the mountains?”
“Daddy, why don’t they talk about it on the radio — the infection?”
He looks away. “Nobody wants to hear about it. They don’t care.”
Down the street, an old man hammering a stake wipes his forehead and smiles at them. She doesn’t want to know what he is pinning down. Nobody cares. They’re all zombies. Zombies are supposed to stay dead.
• • •
When she wakes that afternoon, the air is fresh with the smell of pine trees and mountains. A single traffic light dangles above the intersection, flashing yellow from one side, red from the other. Her father turns in his seat. “You dozed off.”
He sounds almost accusing, like she has let him down somehow. “Sorry — I — ”
“No big deal. Not like I need company or anything. A man can be alone.”
She bites her lip. Her eyes ache, like a migraine at the back. “Daddy, how can you tell who’s infected? In the movies they all look — ”
Her father eases off the gas. “Movies? Where did you see movies?”
“In the house.” She turns away as he continues to stare. “When you watched. I saw too.”
They swerve from the edge of the road, and he picks up speed again. “You sneaky little monkey.” He shakes his head. “You were supposed to be asleep.”
“I hid.” She smiles and pats the pink princess sleeping bag.
“That’s not the right kind of thing for a kid your age... Well, never mind.” He licks his lips. They are chapped and twitchy. “It’s like this, see, there’s — all of them, really, so many — just running through life scared and unthinking — the anger takes them. Like a dog on a rat. It shakes them, see, shreds them alive, and that’s how you can tell –and the world, you know, it’s hard, it’s scary and — ”
“Daddy! The car!”
He slams his foot down and they skid to a halt inches from the thick steel fender of an eighteen-wheeler. “Thanks — thanks.”
The engine shudders and dies. “I saw that. I did. I really did.”
She believes him. He looks at her in the mirror. His face is white. He is sweating. “So long as we’re okay, right, princess?”
And one side of the car explodes, showering her with glass.
• • •
They stay with people, friends, her daddy says, but there is a lot of shouting for what she remembered of friends. She paces the bedroom. It’s not hers, the posters on the wall, the black paintball splashes. Words slip under the door. The woman is shouting: “What you’re doing to her... And her mother is worried sick... Oh, and we should just not tell her?...”
The girl gnaws at the bandage on her finger, and pain tingles down to her knees. She’d bathed and the woman had lanced her cuts, bandaged them with this strange clear ointment like Mother used to.
Before Mother got ill and they had to leave.
But Daddy can do anything, she tells herself. He would know if there were any danger, would know if these people were infected. He has his gun at least and can defend himself, but what about her? What if they come creeping into the room and she is asleep? “Look, it’s not like I had a choice,” he’s saying in the other room. “We were fine, we were doing fine — then this jerk comes — out of the blue — ”
She knows how he looks when he gets worked up like this, arms flapping, voice high and insistent. His face gets blotchy. He’ll have spittle on his lips. Life is so goddamn unfair sometimes. “Insurance,” he says, “like that’d make anything better! I mean, for Chrissakes, how’m I gonna get the money from his company if I don’t even have an address, which is when I thought of you guys, living right here, not fifty miles away and — ”
“But Les, listen, we’re kind of busy — ” Her father’s friend sounds both apologetic and trapped.
“You can’t stay.” The mother’s voice is as cold as when she’d combed shampoo through the girl’s hair not once but twice, tugging hard at the knots, making her cry. “We’d be working on our marriage now if some people didn’t think more of their cousins than their wives. The kids are staying with friends so we can have time and space to talk and yet some people open the damned door to every Tom, Dick, and Harry.”
“Come on, Sue — he’s my cousin.”
“I know, and that’s why he’s here, but, Tony, we got to talk, we got to talk... We got to make time, remember? That’s what she said. Why do we pay all that money if you won’t even –”
“And I want to talk, honey — I know, there’s stuff on both sides, but Hell — ”
“Just a few days.” Her father’s almost pleading. She hates to hear him weak, nearly begging these people, these... things. “I don’t even have a car now that guy totaled the Seville — ”
“And we ain’t gonna have a marriage if Tony don’t step up and start paying attention!”
“You heard him, honey — just a few days. We can talk.”
The voices beat against her throat. Unable to breathe, she opens the window, leans against the screen. Next door, the radio sings a song of love, careless love. The neighbors sit outside eating. Young kids — a girl her age, nearly, with brown hair down her back and glasses, a boy without a shirt, his chest bright in the dark — chase each other screaming. Nearby, someone’s cooking meat on coals. She hopes it isn’t human, hopes they are still safe, hopes the contagion hasn’t reached here. She wishes she could be sure. Anger frightens her. Rage brings infection or comes with it. Then even normal people go... wrong.
Far away and over the treetops, a red light flashes. What does it mean? Danger, beware, this zone unsafe? After a time, she crawls into bed. Everything is strange. Even her sleeping bag, clean for the first time since they left ‘home’, smells like fabric softener and dryer sheets. Everything stinks of strangers. Everything but the big knife, so she cuddles it against her chest. That at least smells real, the sheath like clean sweat. This is how we survive in the after-days. This is our life now.
She is sleeping lightly, dreaming of bullrushes and Queen Anne’s Lace towering over the car, when her father stumbles into the room then walks back out. She hears the bathroom door close, and downstairs the anger starts up again. “I will not lower my damned voice,” says the wife. “How in Sam Hill is he going to pay us back? And what about that poor child? I just about jumped out of my skin when she started in on those zombie things... Made my flesh crawl.”
Her father’s running water in the bathroom across the hall. Everything is so strange away from the comfort of the car. “And they smelled! He should be ashamed, the way he treats that poor little thing... Why should I be quiet — you think I care he hears? Let him! It’d do him some good to know what people think!”
Alone, surrounded by shouting, the knife seems cold — and inadequate. She tiptoes to her father’s bed and curls under his blue jacket. “And if it were our little girl — would you want no one to say nothing? Would you? Because I think the child’s mother has a right to know!”
The stairs creak. Someone’s coming. Her father is too far to hear, and anyway, there isn’t time, not now. Searching under the jacket, she finds it. The grip is rough, the barrel cool and comforting as a popsicle. “Her mother waiting, sick to death.”
Sick to death. Silently, she tugs it free, thumbs the safety down using both hands. She can hear the woman getting closer, the sound muffled by thick cream carpet, voice strident, full of rage. It can only mean one thing. “That poor child had a yeast infection like I never seen. And the state of her underwear!”
Anger creeps on padded feet, snuffles at the door. “Oh, and you’re sure he knows what he’s doing because from here I don’t — ”
It tries the knob. She won’t let it in. She has to stop this. Sometimes steps must be taken. “Honey, honey, are you there? Open up, please?”
A minute later, it is done. Her hand is numb, her wrist sore like it’d been slammed in a car door. She knew it would be like that, remembered the kick, the roar... But she hadn’t counted on the screaming, the way the woman’s eyes pleaded as she vomited blood, hadn’t thought the man would scrabble like a leaky crab trying to claw his way through the stairs. Eyes shut, she’d done her duty, despite the pain shooting up her finger like a red-hot nail. Zombies. You were supposed to stay dead.
The undead never go easy. She knows this. She’s seen the movies. But what to make of her father, her tough hero, standing in the bathroom door, windmilling naked with tears in his eyes as he repeats: “Jesus, sweet fucking Jesus...”
Copyright © 2011 by David Gould