Today’s soundtrack – Dance, Dance by Fall Out Boy
It’s the next in the line, guys, and it’s gonna be a good one. Don’t forget – comment on any of the Zombie Project short stories and be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of Warm Bodies, an eBook copy of Julie Hutchings’ Running Home and possible other prizes to come!
Carey Torgensen (or ‘The Torg’, as she’s more commonly known) is one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of virtually meeting. I don’t think there’s a single person who doesn’t like her. She’s like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (if you don’t like Peanut Butter Cups, you can leave right now, devil child.) Nawh, I’m just kidding – this is Carey’s story, and she’s nicer than I am, so you can stay. Just don’t navigate away from this post, capiche?
Carey has a sensible fear of spiders and smarmy men, so I’m sure you can tell she’s an alright gal. You can find her on Twitter, here, and on her blog, here. I – accidentally! – began this short story series at the same time as Carey was running an ace blog series called The Memory Project, so go and check that out on her blog because otherwise I’ll have to buy her flowers or something and Jesus, they’ll probably die on the way from England to her and do you really want that much death on your hands?
Without further ado (yes, it’s ‘ado’, as in ‘much ado’, not ‘adieu’ which would mean ‘further goodbye’ and makes no sense at all, really, does it?) I give you the 6th short in the Zombie Project chain. In Carey’s own words: ‘This story pushed me and challenged me more than ever, and dare I say it, it’s one of my favorites. It’s not a genre I write, but it was extremely fun. I tend to write YA romance and chick lit a la Bridget Jones. (could you tell?)’
The Manhattan Marauders
by Carey Torgesen
“What?!” Abby shot a fierce look at me.
“I broke a nail.” I examined my purple-hued fingernails and rolled my eyes. “Just before the dance, too. Fucking figures.”
“Please, like THAT is some major issue. I have real issues. Like what do I do about Zack?”
Zack my-dad-owns-a-car-dealership Evans, Mister Popularity himself. Abby’s been going on for weeks about whether or not it breaks some sort of teen protocol to ask him to the dance. It’s not as if five other amazing guys haven’t already asked her. She’s beautiful. Bright auburn curls, cute as a button freckle adorned nose. She’s like Miss Fucking Teen America. And she deserves way better than Zack I’ll-give-you-a-ride-if-you-give-me-a-ride-if-you-know-what-I-mean.
I picked up my backpack, unzipped it and shoved my books back into my locker. “You see, these are problems I don’t have. Because I have James.”
“Well, we can’t all have the perfect relationship like you guys. Some of us have yet to actually meet our Mr. Wonderful, so if you could focus on me just for a minute, I need your advice.”
Closing my locker, I turned around and looked confidently into Abby’s blue eyes. “Look, you want my advice? Here it is. Zack’s a douche. Forget him. But I know that’s not what you want to hear so I’ll give you more advice. If you like him, just go ask him. Worst that’s gonna happen is he says no. Which in my humble opinion, is not that bad. So, go and do it.”
My cell phone vibrated in my jean pocket and I slipped my hand in and grabbed it. James. I smiled. A text. ‘Meet me in front in ten. Love you.’
I quickly texted back ‘See you there, Jimmy Bear.’ When I looked back up, Abby was fixated on something across the quad. I followed her eyes to see what kept her so spellbound. A guy, about six feet tall, with wavy brown hair, and owning a body which could only be described as godlike, stood surrounded by no less than three members of the cheerleading squad. Zack.
I shook my head and rolled my eyes. This was ridiculous. If this was ever going to happen, it was clear it would have to be me to make it so. I linked my arm in Abby’s and forced her hand in mine.
“What are you doing? Where are you taking me?” Abby tried to rebel against my hold.
“Look, we’re just gonna pay someone a little visit.” With purpose, my body moved forward at a speedy clip, pulling and yanking Abby at every slight resistance she gave me. “Look,” I said, still advancing, “there’s no sense in trying to stop me. We both know I’m stronger and faster than you, so just stop fighting me and we’ll get there sooner and look less idiotic.” I gritted my teeth.
The tension between us lightened and I could tell, now that we were walking a bit more gracefully, she’d given in. I shoved my way between the three girls, forcefully pushing them out of the way. Their stares burned into us and I overheard their hushed mumbling.
“Bitch.” One of them said. They walked off, cackling as they gossiped. Fucking cheerleaders.
I stopped in front of Zack, still arm in arm with Abby.
Zack flashed us a smile. “Hey Addy. Abby. If it’s not my two favorite letters of the alphabet.”
I smiled a sickly sweet smile. “Oh, Zachary. That’s more than two letters. But whatever. Look, I was wondering if you have a date yet to tonight’s dance?”
Zack leaned back against a row of lockers and narrowed his eyes. One eyebrow raised as he asked, “Won’t James be a little pissed?”
“Not for me, smart one, for Abby.” I pushed Abby in front of me, and she just smiled, her red cheeks almost matching the shade of her hair.
Zack gave Abby the once over and then looked back at me. “Why isn’t she asking?”
“Same reason you’re talking to me still, because apparently with you two, I have to do all the work. Abby here likes you, and she wants you to go with her tonight. With us. We’ll double. Are you in, or out?”
Zack’s blue eyes ping ponged back and forth from me to Abby. He smiled. “I’d love to go with you, Abby. Pick you up at 7?”
Abby gave him a Cheshire grin. “Really? You’ll go with me? I mean, yeah, of course you can pick me up at 7.” Abby turned toward me and her eyes widened. She shook her head as if trying to tell me something in some sort of hidden language. She leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Do you have paper and something to write with?”
“Yeah, I do. So do you. Look in your damn binder!”
It was as if this whole Zack thing had taken her mind and replaced it with, well, replaced it with nothing. She was like a Zack zombie or something. Weird.
“Baby!” James was leaning on the passenger side of his small red Fiat, his arms crossed and his blonde hair gleaming in the Montana sunlight. He looked gorgeous. Just like he always had.
I hopped down the stairs, jumping off the second to last one, landing on one foot then practically skipping to where he stood. I dropped my backpack on the ground, rose on my tippy toes, and threw my arms around his neck. Our eyes locked and our lips touched. Every kiss was like a first kiss with James. The softness of his tongue against mine, the residual taste of Coca Cola in his mouth, the way our lips perfectly conformed to each other’s, it always sent me through the clouds. And this time was no different.
We’d been together nearly three out of the four years we’d spent in high school, and after finishing this year we’d made plans to get a place together. Get out of Podunk, Montana and get to the city. Maybe Chicago. Or Boston. Somewhere not here.
As we pulled away, I wiped some of the wetness from his lips, and winked. “Hey, you.”
“So, have you decided to ditch the school dance tonight and go to a movie or something? I think there’s an old Dawn of the Dead playing at the drive-in.” James wasn’t much for school anything. Not that he didn’t like school. After all, he was the captain of the football team. He loved Manhattan High as much as the next person. What he didn’t love was the moronic population that was most of Manhattan proper. And the drunktards and cowtippers that comprised most of the high school football team. That was one of the things that first drew us together in Mr. Sherman’s AP World History class in sophomore year.
The fact that he would rather just sit and watch an old B-class horror flick than associate with the student body at the Spring Fling dance made me that much happier I was with him. I just knew we would be one of those couples that would be high school sweethearts forever.
“Now, honey. You know I bought a very couture dress to wear for tonight. I simply must go to the ball!”
“Couture? You’ve been watching Project Runway again, haven’t you?”
“Whatever. I want to go. I like to dance. Especially slowly, with you.” I leaned up against him once again, and nuzzled his neck. “Besides, we have to go now. We’re doubling with Zack and Abby.”
James pushed me back and grabbed me by my shoulders. “We what?!”
“What? She’s been dying to ask him but couldn’t get the courage to, so I finally did. I figured it would be fun.” I looked up at him, giving my best sad puppy dog eyes impersonation.
James heaved a sigh. “Oh, all right. So when is this whole dance with destiny going to happen?”
“We’re meeting them here at 7:30 or so. So you need to pick me up at 7. And please dress up. Try and pretend you’re going to have fun with me.”
James slid his arm behind my waist and pulled me close. He whispered into my ear, “I never have to pretend that.” He tenderly nibbled at my neck, which of course sent shivers down my back. He had a way with me like no one ever had. I held him close and breathed in his scent, clean linen and aftershave.
As I walked downstairs, my dress, the color of Antigua water, swished against the bannister. My dad waited at the bottom of the stairs for me. It was like a scene out of every teen romance movie ever. It was cute though, how he worried. He always made me carry every emergency phone number possible. He continually supplied me with mace, a Swiss army knife, some minor first aid items, and of course, the small Ruger hidden in a holster under the billowy dress.
I was pretty sure I was the only seventeen-year-old that routinely carried a concealed weapon. That was the deal when you had an army sergeant for a father. Most of the time, he worked from home, as he wasn’t actually on active duty. Mostly he just ran small local operations, sometimes handled minor SWAT type details, and on occasion he’d drive down to the army base at Whitehill.
However, in the recent months, he’d been frequenting the base more often. Doing some sort of top secret training. Working with some pretty high ranking officials. Something about 358. Doing exactly what, he would never tell. Whenever I’d ask, he’d make some offhand comment like “Oh honey, you don’t want to know.” And for the most part, he was right. I just wanted to finish up my senior year and get the hell out of here.
But tonight, he seemed extra worried. His hair, salt and pepper, was disheveled, and his smile was hiding something behind it. Something he was trying hard as hell to not let me see. His eyes looked weary, with dark circles underneath, and the wrinkles around his eyes looked deeper than usual. Ever since Mom’s death last year, it was hard to know whether his appearance was work related or due to his continual standoff with most of his emotions.
“Addison Rigley Taylor. You look stunning. Aqua looks amazing on you.” He offered his hand to me. As I neared the last stair, I placed my hand in his and he walked with me to the living room, twirling me twice on the way.
As I reached the sunken space, I saw James sitting on the sofa, with a Coke in his hand. He looked handsome as usual in a black suit with an aqua tie, the same color as my dress. I had picked it out for him so we’d match. Figured we needed to class up the dance a bit.
James rose up to meet me, and my dad walked me over to him. “Wow. I’m going to have the hottest girl there.” His lips curled up in a smile and his eyes traced the shape of my body from head to toe. I blushed.
From behind me, my father cleared his throat. James shot a look from him to me and grinned. “I mean, um, you look beautiful, Addy.”
“Thanks. You look great too.” I grinned.
“Okay, James, have her home no later than twelve please. Stay in the school gym. Do not go anywhere after or before. Straight to the dance. Straight home. There are things going on around us, and I don’t want you two getting mixed up in any of it. Got it?”
Exchanging glances, we replied in unison, “Got it.”
My dad pulled me aside. “And you remember all the things I’ve told you. In case anything should happen. You know what you need to do.” His gray eyes studied my every move as if trying to monitor my thoughts.
“I know, Dad. First call you. Then strikes to the throat or nose. If it’s a guy, to the groin. Swiss Army knife to the eye. Kick the knee to bust out the knee cap. Punch in the sternum. And if all else fails, shoot. I know. Nothing’s gonna happen. It’s a school dance, not the zombie apocalypse.”
The color in his face suddenly drained. His eyes widened.
“Dad, you okay?”
He shook his head, as if snapping out of a day dream. “I’m fine, kiddo. Just go and have fun. And be careful. Promise?”
He kissed my cheek, and hugged me tightly. “I already lost your mom, I don’t want to lose you too.” The words were soft and heartfelt.
“You won’t, Daddy. I love you.”
He pulled away and swept some loose tendrils from my up-do out of my face.
“I love you, too.”
Manhattan High School: Home of the Marauders. What the hell was a marauder anyway? As we entered the school gym, the music pumped through the large sound system, vibrating through my body, my nerves tickling from the resonance. James held my hand as we walked through throngs of people, gyrating and moving to the beat.
I scanned the room for any sign of Zack and Abby. They had to be here. It was already past eight.
“I’m gonna go get us a drink. What do you want?” James asked.
“I’ll take a Long Island Iced Tea.”
“Cool. You want me to grab some pot and crank while I’m over there?”
“Oh, James, my boy, those things are illegal.” I winked. “I’ll take a Diet Coke.”
“You got it, sweetheart.”
As James went off to hunt us down some beverages, I walked around, skirting the main dance area, my head bouncing to the music. I saw no sign of Abby or Zack. But I did manage to run into a few of Zack’s buddies. Dateless. Of course.
I just observed the budding bromance for a bit before throwing myself into the den of duncehood. But I could only take so much fist pumping, high fiving, ogling of girls, and manly grunting before I decided I needed to get in and get the hell out.
Tapping one of the running backs on the shoulder, I shimmied my way into the group. “Hey, guys, have you seen Zack and Abby?” I yelled to be heard over the music.
“Zack Evans? Abby Baylor? Have you seen them?”
One of the guys, I think they called him Fitz, nodded emphatically. I waited. No response. Obviously these guys needed coaching in more things than football. Like social etiquette for one.
I responded slowly, enunciating each syllable so as not to be confusing. “Where. Are. They?”
“Ohhhh,” he seemed to understand the slow cadence of my question. I shook my head in annoyance. “They went out to the field. I think they were gonna hook up.”
“Oh good God.” I obviously needed to save Abby from herself. Last thing she needed was to get pregnant or some STD from “The Mack Attack” Zack. I needed to find her. Quick.
I gave a thumbs up and ducked out of the huddled guys and went to try and find James. There he was. Standing in the back by the drinking fountains, holding two drinks in his hand. His blond hair falling in his eyes, his legs crossed as he stood lazily against the wall. He mouthed the words to the song that played, It’s The End Of The World As We Know It. He’s so damn adorable.
“Hey. Put down the drinks, we gotta go find Abby.”
James took a swig. “I just got them! Do you know how long I had to wait in that stupid line?”
“I’m sorry, but we gotta go. We need to get Abby. Hell if I’m going to let her become some MTV reality star reject.”
“Whaaa?” James was cute even when he was confused. Plucking each plastic cup from his hands, I put them down on a nearby table and took James’ hand.
We hurried to the field, taking a look at the bleachers, underneath them and in all directions trying to find any trace of them.
“They probably left.”
I placed my hand on James’ chest. “Shhh. Do you hear that?”
“Do I hear what?”
A low rumbling from somewhere in the distance penetrated the silence. And from what I could tell, it was getting closer.
A steady thump, thump, thump. Like…helicopters? But what would helicopters be doing in Manhattan, Montana at—I looked at my watch—9:30 pm? The beat of the blades came closer and grew louder.
Then, from the far corner of the field, a high pitched scream pierced the night.
I knew that voice anywhere. Except I’d never heard her quite like that.
I squinted and saw her face, white as alabaster, as she ran toward us, her arms flailing about. The closer and closer she came, the more I could make out. Her hair was a mess, and her dress had been torn, and there was…blood?
“That fucking bastard.” My face flushed and every muscle tensed. I knew Zack was no good, but I never in a million years thought he was capable of hurting someone like this. Especially Abby. I never would have asked him out for her had I known. She had to know that. Would she ever forgive me?
She ran straight toward me, clutching at my dress. Her hands were cold, and now that I could get a good look, blood was…everywhere. And something else I couldn’t make out.
Her teeth clenched as she sputtered out, “Zzzz..zzzz…zzz..zombies.”
I belted out a laugh. “Are you fucking kidding me? Is this some kind of sick joke? I was worried, Abby! What the hell?”
But she just shook her head violently, clinging to me, her nails digging into my neck now. “Addy, this is not a fucking joke. Zack…he’s…he’s dead. I watched them. They ate him, Addy. They fucking ate him.”
As soon as the words came out of her mouth, a shadow came from under the bleachers just thirty feet from us. Then another. And another.
I shot a terrified look at James. His eyes grew large and I’d never seen him so pale.
“Fuck,” he said. His arm shot out in front of Abby and I, a protective instinct.
We backtracked, one step at a time, slowly, but meaningfully. Our heads snapping right to left, left to right, taking stock of our surroundings as best we could. Still the choppers blades beat on.
Step one, call Dad. I fumbled for my purse, impatiently messing with the zipper, my fingers slipping from a combination of the goop that was all over Abby and the fear manifesting first in a cold sweat. Finally defeating the zipper, I pulled out my phone and dialed.
“Hello? Addison? What’s wrong?”
He knew it immediately. I never called him. I’d never needed to.
I sobbed into the phone. “Daddy. Something’s wrong. Something’s happening. Help me.”
“Where are you?”
Silence was my only response.
“Dammit, Addison, where are you?”
“I…I’m in the football field. Daddy, you won’t believe this when I tell you…Zack’s dead. Abby said…well, she said…”
“What?” My mouth gaped.
“The zombies are there, aren’t they?”
“What? You KNEW? You knew and you didn’t tell me?”
“Okay, honey, you’re gonna have to trust me on this. Remember all the protocols? Remember what I taught you?”
“Do it. Now.”
I hung up the phone, tossing it on the ground. This was it. This was what he had prepared me for. I shot a look at James. Then at Abby, who was useless, crumpled on the ground.
The shadows were no longer faceless. Sallow skin, yellow corroded teeth, and thin gaunt figures surrounded us. There was nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide.
The nearer they came, the more acrid the stench of the air around us became. I resisted the urge to vomit.
“Okay, assholes. Which one of you wants to die first?” I yelled.
“Uh, love, I hate to be a critic at a time like this, but they’re already dead,” James said.
“Everyone’s a joker, now, huh?” I said.
Considering all my options, I had to figure out my best plan of attack. I didn’t think mace was going to work too well here. And a Swiss Army knife probably wouldn’t do much considering these things were already dead. But they seemed pretty frail. After all, their skin barely hung on, so the muscles and ligaments couldn’t be doing much to hold their bones together. So first, I figured I’d go for the nose or throat tactic.
“Go for the throat. Punch them hard. Or in the nose. As hard as you can!” I called out to James as he began to battle his first of the undead.
A small zombie, probably once a young girl, came for me. I had to shove away any resemblance she bore to a human and remember she was already dead, thus I was putting her out of her undead misery. As hard as I could, I shot out my leg, my heel made contact with her esophagus, and her head just tumbled off. Her body went limp and from her neck oozed a lime green goop.
“I’ll never eat Lime Jell-O again.” I wiped my brow, looked up, and saw another coming for me. This time, a larger male.
Figuring it worked pretty well last time, I tried the same thing. Pushing my heel with all my strength into the zombie, I was shocked when it grabbed my foot, then pulled. I fell to the ground, my nails digging into the dirt as it pulled me toward it. I kicked and screamed. I would not let this thing take me down. Remembering the Ruger, I tugged at my dress, pulling it out from underneath, where the holster had held it against my thigh.
I cocked it and aimed for the middle if its forehead. I pulled the trigger. “You want to eat something? Eat this, you son of a bitch.” The gun fired and my body jerked back from the recoil.
The bullet hit the zombie square in the head, which exploded like an overripe watermelon. Masses of brain splattered all around, liquefying on contact with all surfaces. Once again, I tasted bile as I held back vomit.
I looked up to see another zombie coming for me. I shot two rounds into the head. Again, the sound of a waterfall, followed by the falling of chunks.
I got up and looked around, noticing that while I’d been so busy killing zombies, I had no idea what was happening to James and Abby.
A few feet away, I recognized a body, but it wasn’t the skin of the zombie. This skin still had the pink of a rose and red tendrils of hair peeked out from shredded flesh.
“Oh no. Abby!” I ran to her figure, no longer the shape of a human. Only the remains of what was once a beautiful girl. My heart sunk. I wanted to cry, but fear and survival had kicked in, and right now all I felt was numb.
Then, a plummeting feeling hit me. “James.” It only occurred to me right now, I’d not heard him for a few minutes.
My eyes searched the grounds. And it was then I heard it. The unmistakable sound of swallowing. And lips smacking. My stomach wretched. I stood up, following the sounds.
Slowly, I made my way to the metal bleachers, a pair of black shoes stuck out from the bottom row. James’ shoes.
I shook my head and screamed, “NO, NO, NO! You mother fucker, NO!”
And there, bent beneath the bleachers, I could barely make out the shape of a zombie, and my former boyfriend’s head, skull clean open, brains cascading from its mouth.
With cold calculation, I got as close as I could, I aimed, and I fired three shots into the zombie’s head.
I looked over the football field, the decimated bodies strewn before me. A tear rolled down my cheek. But I couldn’t let despair in. I’d use it. I swallowed my emotions and clenched my jaw. With my arm, I wiped my face, a mix of blood and gore, and replaced my gun in the holster under my billowing dress.
The chopper’s spotlights beamed over the football field, like some warped Friday Night Lights.
I knew now what I was meant to do. Addison Rigley Taylor. Zombie hunter.
If you loved this, make sure to check back in next Sunday for the next link in our grizzly chain, by my cousin (because it runs in the family, dontya know) Ruth Shedwick! Not only that, but ‘Running
Home’, by one of our amazing writers, Julie Hutchings, is being published by Books of the Dead Press soon – get on Goodreads and add that bad boy here.