“That thing was…” Denise shook her head. “We almost died.” The car’s smell was a mixture of dirt and sweat; they could all use a shower.
“We do that a lot,” laughed Ferrah. It was a sharp, shaky sound, too forced to be a real.
“I don’t know how long I can keep doing this.” Is that…? Yes, yes it is. Denise reached down to the car floor and retrieved a slip of gum, still in its wrapper too. She popped it in her mouth and closed her eyes: minty.
“Hey, don’t quite on me now,” said Rory. She turned to him and smiled. His fingers brushed the top of her wrist and she shivered, “coughing” into her shoulder to hide her blush. Alright. Maybe she could keep going after all.
“We’re almost out of gas,” sighed Ferrah, hitting the steering wheel with a loud clunk. Denise exhaled, savoring the scent of good breath.
“Shit,” spat Tina. Loose gravel rattled beneath the car. No one spoke.
Another wave of minty freshness swept over Denise’s tongue as her eyes widened. She turned to the eight-year-old; they all did.
“What?” asked Tina, adjusting one of her pigtails. Denise’s thumb twitched against the seat, the worn material bumpy and rough on her skin.
They all laughed, a genuine, happy sound that shattered the unease from before. Denise leaned into Rory for a second before pulling away. Even his sweat smelled good.
When the car died in a parking lot, they all rushed inside a nearby Chinese restaurant. Ferrah checked for zombies, Rory barricaded the doors, and when all this was done, everyone crouched behind the counter out of sight from the expansive windows covering the entire room. Denise picked a butter knife off the ground. It made a grating sound as she ground it against the floor. Was it possible to sharpen this on tiled floor?
“Okay,” said Ferrah, rummaging through drawers for a weapon. She grinned after producing a large fork with sharp tines. “Good news and bad news.” Denise swallowed. The minty flavor of her gum was fading.
“What’s the good news?” asked Rory. He balanced a plate in the palm of his hand – in the zombie world, any weapon was better than no weapon. No one could afford to be picky. Denise ran her finger over the blunted edge of the butter knife – not even a small scratch. One really couldn’t be picky in the zombie world.
“I lied – there is no good news but I thought it might cheer us up a bit just saying it.” Denise closed her eyes and inhaled. She could really go for some egg drop soup right now; it smelled like there might be some in the kitchen.
“Oh hell.” Rory rolled his eyes.
Ferrah stuck her tongue out at him and continued “We’re on the wrong side of the city.” Denise watched as Tina unwrapped a fortune cookie, the plastic crinkling.
“Uncle Bob’s on the opposite end.” There was a bitter taste in Denise’s mouth now.
“Wish I was. Here – I’ll show you.” Ferrah grabbed a pen off the counter, along with a one of those pads waitresses use to write down orders, and drew a miniature version of the city. We’re here.” She indicated a spot to the far left. “He’s here.” She pointed to a spot to the far right, jotting down a few street names and recognizable landmarks between the two points. Denise traced shapes in the cool tiles of the floor. Everything was so hard now; life used to be a heck of a whole lot simpler. “We’ll either have to go through or go around.”
“Through” said Denise the same time Tina said “around.”
Denise’s brows furrowed. She twirled a butter knife between her fingertips “It’s faster going through. Let me see the map.” Ferrah handed it to her; she’d almost forgotten what paper smelled like.
“But the zombies,” said Tina, hugging her torso, a portable napkin dispenser in her hand.
“I’m with Tina on this one,” added Ferrah. “We’re not running into another…mutated thing.” Denise shivered, rustling the paper and listening to it crinkle. Ferrah had a point.
“Here,” said Rory, digging in his pockets. “We’ll flip a coin.” He tossed the quarter to Denise. She set down the butter knife, caught it with both hands, and closed her eyes. “Heads is through. Tails – around.” She tossed it up. The coin landed in her slack mouth. She spit it out as everyone laughed, a sickening metallic flavor on her tongue.
They all leaned in to peer at George Washington’s face. She rubbed the coin between her thumb and other four fingers, skin sliding along the curves and grooves. Looks like they were going through the city.
“Let’s check the back for an exit,” suggested Denise. She crawled on her hands and knees after the rest of the group, everyone staying low behind the counter. Rory removed the block he’d placed on the back door and ever so slowly pushed it open. Denise held her breath as he leaned inside; he inhaled so fast he began coughing and closed the door again, eyes wide. The smell of egg drop soup strengthened.
“There’s a Chinese guy back there.” Denise’s stomach roared with a grumble, shattering the dramatic effect of Rory’s revelation.
She pinned the butter knife between her teeth as she adjusted her hair tie. The knife had something sweet and sticky on it like syrup, and she wasn’t sure if she should be grossed out or pleasantly surprised.
Rory continued: “He’s…alive.”
“What?” hissed Ferrah.
“Yeah, he’s back there making soup.” Denise removed the knife from her mouth, wiping the slobber off the center part. It was already cold.
“Then why the hell did you freak out?” She pushed past him and walked through the door. The amazing egg drop soup aroma returned with a vengeance.
“Wait!” Rory reached for her but he was too late. “Damn it.” He bolted through the door. Denise and Tina frowned at each other and followed the others over the threshold.
Denise froze at the sight of the man. Now she understood why Rory had hesitated. He was middle aged with a scruffy beard, standing over the stove. Dried blood splatters criss-crossed over his forehead, his clothes, and even his chin. With one hand he stirred the soup; the other stroked the frame of a picture hanging on the wall – the picture was of a smiling Asian family. There was dried blood on that as well. The ladle scraped against the pot as he stirred.
He murmured Chinese to himself like a faint a chanting. Not once did he look at Denise or the others. He wasn’t a full-fledged zombie but he might as well have been. Denise wondered how many people out there were like this – biologically human with a mind traumatized to the point of mental zombification. Would she be this way if she’d never found Ferrah? She licked her drying lips and tasted salt.
“C-c’mon,” whispered Tina. “Here’s the exit.”
“Excuse me,” said Rory to the Chinese man. There was no reaction. “Sir.”
Ferrah put a hand on Rory’s shoulder. “Leave him.”
“We can’t just – “
“Leave him,” there was a greater firmness in her voice, but Denise noted her eyes were tearing up.
Rory looked down and nodded. Denise reached out and touched his hand. It was soft and warm and she wanted to hold it but now wasn’t the time for those things.
“Alley’s clear,” called Tina from the back. Ferrah followed Tina out, Rory trailing behind. Denise glanced around the kitchen one last time as the door closed behind Rory; something was off…when she realized what it was, she froze.
The Chinese man had turned around. He was staring at her. Denise’s mouth opened and closed and opened again; he didn’t move, a large butcher knife rested in his hand. That’s what he’d been using to stir. Suddenly, the smell of egg drop soup wasn’t so appealing anymore.
A huge bang erupted from outside the door. They both jumped. Denise swiveled around, sprinting to the exit. She slammed against the door at full force. It didn’t move. She cried out and held her shoulder.
“Open the door!” she screamed, turning the knob and pounding the door.
“Denise! What’s wrong?”
“Just open it!”
“One of the air conditioner units fell. We can’t move it. We’re trying!” Bitter vomit threatened to erupt from her throat; she swallowed the bile back down. She was going to die in here. He was going to kill her.
“What’s going on?” yelled Rory.
“Zombies!” screamed Tina. Denise let out a sob, her hand releasing the cool metal of the door knob. It was hopeless.
“Just…just go,” said Denise.
“Go! I’ve got the map. I’ll meet you there.”
“Are you su—“
“Rory!” cried Tina.
“What’s happening?” Denise clutched the door frame.
There was more screaming, a struggle.
“Too many coming in. Have to move. We’ll meet you there! Tina, grab his other arm.”
“Guys? Guys, what’s…” they were already gone. Denise kicked the door and turned around. The Chinese man stood in front of her…the zombie human…the psychopath…the guy with a knife…the…the…
Zombies were gone. For now. Ferrah laid Rory on a bench as Tina watched the store front windows. They were in a mall now, in a store that smelled like feet.
“He’s not waking up,” panted Ferrah. One of the zombies had thrown him against the sidewalk and he’d hit his head on the curb. Tina listened to the rustling of Ferrah’s clothing as she fretted over Rory’s unconscious body. She clenched her fist. Denise was still back there. How could they have left her behind?
“We have to go back for her,” said Tina. She tasted blood on her teeth; she’d bitten her lip when they’d ran.
Tina’s mouth tightened. She swiped her tongue over her cracking lips. “You’re abandoning her just like that.”
“We can’t go back, Tina.”
“How about the thousands of walking dead we had to get rid of just to get here?”
“She’s going to die.” Tina’s voice cracked at the end. She didn’t want to lose Denise.
“Denise is going to be…she has a map.”
Tina swiped away a tear trickling down her cheek. She looked at Ferrah, crouched over Rory, touching a piece of cloth to his bleeding forehead.
There was a crash in the back. Tina’s head whipped to the open doorway in the corner of the room. An arm missing its hand poked out from the darkness. No. How could they forget to check this place for
Were everywhere. Ferrah was sick of them. She grabbed Rory, threw him into the passenger seat, and ran around to the driver’s side – the keys were still in the ignition. First they left Denise behind and now Tina was gone too, lost somewhere in the mall when they were running from a fresh onslaught of the undead. Tina wiped the sweat on her upper lip. The salty smell lingered in the air as she threw the car into drive. It was time to find her friends.
She maneuvered around the parking lot till she was in front of the mall entrance; she floored it through the glass doors, horn blaring. The windshield cracked but stayed in-tact. She hadn’t prepared herself for the impact or the sound of shattering glass being louder than the horn itself.
This was the surest way to attract zombies but it was the quickest way to get to Tina too. Ferrah swerved around benches, potted plants, and fallen debris. Tina, Tina, Tina. Where was she? Ferrah rolled her window down. The air tasted stale.
“Tina!” she screamed, over and over again. Her hands gripped the wheel so tight it hurt. “Tina!”
Several minutes passed before Ferrah heard a reply. She looked up to see the eight-year-old dangling from a cable hanging from the ceiling a few feet above the car. A crowd of zombies gathered beneath her, reaching for the child with broken arms and mangled jaws.
Ferrah’s eyes narrowed; she rolled her window back up. The car zoomed through the mall’s slick tiles into the heart of the horde, zombies slamming into the car with devastating thuds. She opened the sun roof and Tina let go of the cable, falling onto the top of the car. Ferrah didn’t wait for her to get all the way in.
“Hold on!” she shouted, tires screeching as she threw the car into reverse. Soon the car had pulled out through the mall’s entrance and they were headed for the Chinese restaurant. “What the hell were you doing up there?”
“Th-they chased me to the second story,” breathed Tina. “The cable connected to the other side of the mall so I thought if I kept climbing…”
“You’re insane,” muttered Ferrah.
“But that’s why you love me, isn’t it?” said Tina, allowing a sheepish grin to break through her terrified expression.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” smirked Ferrah. She glanced in the rearview mirror and rolled her eyes. “Let’s just hope Denise is okay.”
They didn’t stop till they reached the restaurant, and even then, Ferrah didn’t let her foot off the gas pedal till they’d crashed through the windows into the Chinese man pinning Denise against the wall. Then Ferrah backed up and hit him again and again until she was sure he’d been taken care of. Her breath came out in rattling shakes that were unfamiliar even to her. Denise rushed into the backseat.
Ferrah drove. She drove through hordes and dead bodies and infected people begging for help; she did not stop till they reached Uncle Bob’s farm.
No one spoke.
It was dead silent.