Have you ever spent time with that One Friend who always has Problems? Every time you get together, this person is having some kind of crisis, and instead of hanging out and having fun, you’re drafted into fixing whatever it is that’s gone wrong for her. You’re holding her hand, patting her back, assuring her that everything is going to be okay, and the whole time you’re thinking, “Dear god, I gave up time I could have spent napping for this?”

For me, Maddie is that friend.

I like her, don’t get me wrong. Cool chick. But every time I sit down to spend time with her, this woman has Problems, and I have to fix them. Which isn’t really her fault – she didn’t ask to live in the zombie apocalypse, after all – but still. She’s exhausting. Even when I’m not writing about her she’s always there, in the back of my head, bugging me. How am I going to fix her shit? I promised her that things would work out, I’ve been telling her that for two years now, but she still doesn’t have her happy ending. Where is it? How is she getting there? Why am I washing dishes and taking history notes when her WORLD is FALLING APART?

Jesus, Maddie. Sit the hell down.

I needed to take a teensy break from Maddie and her goddamn Issues, is what I’m saying. I met someone new, who has problems but not zombie-level problems, and decided to spend a little bit of time with her instead. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two months. It was a nice break, and now that I’ve had it, I feel like I can go back to Maddie and deal with her Problems again. Sometimes that happens, you know? A little break, some fresh perspective, and things don’t seem as hopeless and terrible as they did before. I have a better idea of how to get Maddie where she needs to go, and I’m hoping we’ll get there before the end of the year. It’s been tough on her, too. She’s waited a long time.

Oh, the new friend?


Kiera McKinnley likes to be in control – in the office, the courtroom, and especially in the bedroom. Known to her conquests only as ‘Kay’, Kiera is exceedingly careful to keep her “real” life and her “night” life entirely separate – a precaution that is shattered when she returns home for Christmas to find her latest one-night stand drinking hot chocolate in front of her mother’s tree.

Let me talk a little bit about writing this book. Indulge me for a minute.

As I’ve confessed in the past, I am terrible at outlining. I start out with good intentions, but once I get going I veer off-course, start adding things in, taking things out, and there’s the inevitable moment when I hit a part in the outline where I’ve written nothing. I’ve shown you this before, but I’ll do it again, because really, it highlights how awful my outlines are.

Yeah. “Gap.” Super helpful, self, THANK YOU.

I started looking for a way to solve that little issue, and came across a very awesome book: Take Off Your Pants: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing. If I ever meet the author, Libbie Hawker, it will be embarrassing, and she’ll probably have to call security on me, because this book completely changed how I write. I would erect a church in her name, if that wouldn’t be weird and creepy and also a lot of work.

I couldn’t go back and apply her outlining technique to my current story, because god I’m already 2+ years into it, I’m sorry Maddie, it’s too late for you. But I was kicking around the idea of trying to write a novella, and using this technique seemed like the perfect way to give that a shot.

And that’s how I met Kiera.

I like Kiera a lot. Love her. She’s got most of her shit together, she knows what she wants and goes right on out to get it, and she’s not ashamed of her choices. I would have a beer with Kiera – right before she ditched me to take home some guy at the bar. But she does have one teensy problem: the guy she likes, really really likes, is a little out-of-bounds for her, and so she needs to decide which is more important – what other people think of her, or her own happiness.

I had fun helping her make that decision. Frankly, writing her story was the most fun I’ve had writing anything in years. I’m sure the very long, very detailed outline helped with that – when I sat down to write everything out, I’d already done most of the hard work, and so getting Kiera from A to B was 75% less stressful than any other story I’ve tried to write. And I think the result was a tight, quick, sexy book that I’m very proud of.

So if you want to check that out, it’s available on Amazon right now. Current price is 99 cents, but on December 1 it will go up, so grab it before then. It’s also enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, an experiment that I plan to analyze for any of the writers reading along, so if you have that then you can read it for free.

(I’m actually hoping to break down every part of this process, including marketing, for any would-be or current writers who read here, so if you have questions, something you’d like me to address, please go right ahead and ask.)

Anyway, check out Kiera’s story. And Maddie will be back next week, though she might not be terribly happy about it.

Chapter Forty-Four

Posted: September 6, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Maddie whirled at her sister’s cry, gun raised and prepared to fire.  To her relief, she saw that Jessie stood alone on the sidewalk, no sign of the undead around her.  Confused, Maddie ran back to her side, anxious to reassure her that she was safe and quiet her before she caused a problem.

     “Sssh,” Maddie hissed, grabbing Jessie’s arm.  “Stop it, they’ll hear you!”

     Instead of stopping, Jessie screamed again, and pointed down the street.  Maddie looked – and felt her stomach drop.

     Hannah and Caleb had fallen behind, slowed by Caleb’s injured knee and inability to walk alone.  They trudged forward, Caleb leaning so heavily on the older woman that every step was a stagger.  Both of their heads were down, watchful for any storm debris that may trip them up and further hinder their progress, trusting entirely in those who had gone ahead.

     And entirely unaware that they had amassed a following at their backs.

     Jessie’s screaming alerted them to their danger; Hannah looked over her shoulder and screamed herself, nearly dropping Caleb’s weight in the process.  She made a valiant attempt to increase their speed, putting a short distance between them and the shambling horror that drew ever closer, and would probably have succeeded in getting them to safety….had she not tripped over something unseen in the water, and gone down to her knees on the pavement.

     “No!” Jessie screamed.  She dropped her gun and started to run toward them, her hands out.  Before she’d gone more than a few steps, powerful arms grabbed her from behind and swept her back.

     “Shoot!” Vinnie yelled, spinning Jessie away.  “Shoot them, Madelyn!”

     Maddie needed no further encouragement.  Aiming as best she could, she fired off four shots in rapid succession, hoping to at least hold the others back and allow Hannah to regain her feet.  The first shot hit home; it punched into shoulder of the nearest undead, sending him stumbling backward for a precious few seconds.  The rest went wild, as her arm was pulled upward by the force of the gun; having never used one before, she made the mistake of shooting one-handed, and the power of the weapon was beyond what she had expected.

     Nonetheless, the reprieve afforded by the single shot was enough for Hannah to scramble forward and lurch to her feet.  She turned back, to reach for Caleb’s hand – and found the kid yanked from her grip, backward into the horde.

     This time, Maddie screamed.  Steadying her wrist with her free hand, she fired again, shots that stayed true but did nothing to stop the undead from falling on the prostrate figure before them.  She pulled the trigger repeatedly, even after the impotent click-click-click signaled that the clip was empty.  When Hannah reached her side, red-faced and sobbing, Maddie wrenched the shotgun from her hands and fired once more.

     Caleb cried out only once before they were wholly on him.  Then he disappeared from Maddie’s view, covered over by the creatures.  Screaming with rage, she fired on them, until the shotgun too had been emptied of ammo.  Beside her, Hannah continued to sob.

     Distracted by their quarry, the horde did not advance further; they clustered instead around Caleb’s fallen body, seemingly unaware of anything beyond their need to feed.  Behind her, something rumbled, and Vinnie shouted.  “This way!”

     Maddie turned away, nearly blinded by tears.  Reaching out, she hooked Hannah’s arm with her own and stumbled back toward the station house.  Vinnie had raised the metal bay door and stood waiting, one arm still wrapped around Jessie’s torso; he struggled to simultaneously hold the door open and keep Jessie from escaping his grasp and running back toward where Caleb had fallen.  “Get inside,” he instructed through gritted teeth.  Ducking her head, Maddie swept under the raised door and into the bay, followed quickly by Hannah, Vinnie and a kicking, screaming Jessie.  Her shoes had barely cleared the threshold when Vinnie slammed the door back down, leaving them all in darkness.

     “Here,” he said, shoving Jessie into Maddie’s arms.  “I’ll be back.”  Before she could respond he moved away, penlight in hand, to check that the building they’d entered was empty.

     Jessie fell against her, sobbing so hard that her whole body shook and her breath came in short, rasping gulps.  Maddie held her, smoothing her hair back from her face and murmuring soothing nonsense into the younger woman’s ear.  She clamped down on her own sadness; just as she refused to dwell on the reality of their circumstances, or what might become of them if they couldn’t escape the city, so too did she refuse to allow her grief to gain a foothold.  That way, she feared, lay madness.

     Gradually, Jessie’s crying abated, and she sagged in Maddie’s arms, exhausted.  Just when she thought she couldn’t hold her sister’s weight for much longer, Vinnie returned, grim-faced but unharmed.

     “No one’s here.”  Though his voice was measured, calm, Maddie knew he was disappointed; he’d convinced himself, with Hannah’s help, that someone would have stayed behind, and they hadn’t been wholly abandoned.  That might still be true – there were other places they could seek out for help – but the emptiness of this particular place was a bitter pill to swallow.

     “Now what?” she asked, unable to hide how hopeless she felt.  She squeezed her sister tight.  “We can’t go back out there.”

     “Not tonight,” Vinnie agreed.  “We’ll try again in the morning.”  He pointed toward the back of the ambulance bay, the penlight shining.  “There’s a loft upstairs.  We’ll wait up there.”

     Maddie helped her sister along, all but carrying Jessie across the bay and up the stairs.  Hannah followed silently behind, her head bowed.

     The loft was small but neat, meant to be a temporary resting place for the small crew who staffed the house.  Judging by the size of the bay below, Maddie guessed that it had only ever held one ambulance, maybe two; it was an auxiliary station, designed to service the neighborhood and not much else.  They might have better luck finding help at one of the city’s larger stations, where multiple crews were expected to be on duty and the doors were never closed.  For now, however, they were stuck here.

     The loft held no cots, but there were three couches arranged beneath the high window, old and worn but still comfortable.   A small kitchenette was tucked into the far corner; the drawers squealed when opened, but contained matches and candles, an enormous relief.  Maddie wasn’t sure she could have spent the rest of the night in complete darkness.  Once Vinnie had lit them, she pulled him into the corner, anxious to discuss what they should do.

     “We can’t stay here,” she whispered urgently.

     “Obviously,” he agreed, irritated.  “There’s no water or power, and we left everything behind.”

     That drew Maddie up short.  She’d of course known that they’d fled the house with nothing more than the weapons they could carry and whatever Vinnie already had in his bag, but hearing it brought the gravity of their situation home.  They had no food, no water, no emergency supplies – and no ammo beyond what she held in her pockets.  She pictured the giant duffel, stuffed with boxes of bullets and other guns, and groaned.

     “It’ll be okay.”  Vinnie pulled her into his arms, hugging her tightly.  His lips pressed against her hair, her face, and finally, her mouth.  “It’s okay.  I have a plan.  We-”

     “No!”

     Jessie’s shout prompted them to pull away from each other.  She rose from the couch and advanced on them, her face a mask of fury.

     “No more plans,” she said savagely.  “I’m done listening to you.”

     “Jessie.”  Maddie held out a placating hand.  “It wasn’t his fault.”

     “Yes it was,” Jessie insisted.  “It was!  I could have saved him, but he pulled me away!”

     Maddie shook her head.  “You dropped the gun.  He was trying to help you.”

     “Bullshit!” Jessie cried.  She began to cry again.  “And anyway, he dropped him.  He did it on purpose!  Caleb couldn’t run, and that’s why-  why-”  She bent at the waist, wracked once more with sobs.  “It was his fault.”

     Maddie glanced at Vinnie, who grimaced but said nothing.  She tried once more on his behalf.  “Jessie, he didn’t mean to hurt Caleb.  It was an accident.  You can’t really-”

     “You’re such an idiot.”  Maddie reeled back, shocked by the viciousness in her sister’s tone.  “You’ll follow him anywhere.  Stop thinking with your cunt.”

     Maddie slapped her.  “That’s enough,” she warned.

     Jessie cupped her reddening cheek and sneered.  Even in the dim light, Maddie saw the hatred in her sister’s eyes.  Chills raced through her.

     “Why don’t you ask him,” Jessie said slowly, her voice raw.  “Ask him what happened when he drove me home.”

     “What?”  The sudden change in topic threw her off-balance.  Maddie looked from her sister to Vinnie, confused.  “When?”

     “The night of your wedding.”  Jessie turned her baleful gaze on Vinnie.  “He didn’t tell you, did he?  Ask him what happened.”

     Maddie shook her head again, at a loss.  She stared at her sister – at the grim satisfaction on her face, and the sly smile that twisted her mouth.  In the flickering light, she saw something she’d seen once before, on the face of another woman.  Triumph.  Then the implication hit her, a punch in the gut, and she gasped.

     “You’re lying,” she said angrily.  She turned to Vinnie.  “Tell me she’s lying,” she demanded.

     Vinnie met her gaze, his face blank.  She saw his jaw work, clenching tighter and tighter.  Then he looked away, saying nothing.

     “Oh my god,” she whispered.  She stepped back, away from him, one hand out as if to ward off a blow.  She looked at them both – Vinnie, his shoulders slumped, and her sister, that vicious grin still on her face.

     “I told you,” Jessie said.  She narrowed her eyes at Maddie.  “I told you I had dibs.”

     Unable to face them, Maddie fled down the loft stairs to the dark bay below, her sister’s laughter ringing in her ears.

Chapter Forty-Three

Posted: August 24, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Thrown, she thought, by the force of the blast, Maddie spun from her place at the foot of the stairs and fell to the pavement.  She landed hard on her hands and knees, an impact her still-healing wrist was none too happy about.  Freezing water splashed her face.  She drew breath to cry out – and found it cut off, as the heavy weight of falling debris settled over her back and neck.

This is it, she thought.  The realization was strangely peaceful.  She only wished she’d been able to see her mother one last time.

She closed her eyes and braced herself, waiting for the blast of heat from the explosion to scorch her skin, or another piece of debris to finish the job of crushing her.  Instead, she felt panicked breathing against the side of her face, quick puffs of air that whistled in her ear.  Not debris, she realized, shifting under the weight.  Vinnie.  He’d ripped her from the stairs and was now shielding her body.

“Vinnie,” she gasped.  “I can’t breathe.”

Vinnie didn’t move, except to tighten his grip on her.  When nothing fell, and no flames came to destroy them, she wriggled in his grip.  “We’re okay!  Let me go!”

Nothing.

She threw an elbow, hitting him in the stomach.  She doubted that it hurt – the man was like a damn rock – but it startled him into releasing her.  She sat back on her heels, wincing at the pain in her knees and scraped palms.  Collecting himself, Vinnie got to his feet, then offered her a hand up.

She started to thank him, but the words caught in her throat.  In the distance, the sky glowed fierce and red, cut through with pillars of roiling black smoke.  Maddie raised a hand, instinctively shielding her eyes from the glare, though in truth it was too far away to be necessary.

“What is it?” she asked, awed.

“Havers,” Vinnie said hoarsely.  “They blew up the bridge.”

More like the whole damn waterfront.  Maddie glanced at him, surprised by his tone – he sounded shocked, disbelieving, as though he’d expected better.  She couldn’t say that she’d expected such an action, but now that it had happened she thought it seemed about right.

A babble of voices began to fill the air, as houses Maddie had thought were abandoned began to disgorge their residents.  People emerged in a daze, pointing and staring at the fire that raged on the horizon.  Behind her and up the street, a woman caught her first glimpse of the blazing false dawn and screamed.

And screamed.

And screamed.

Maddie turned, a sense of tightness creeping down the length of her back.  The woman kept screaming, high and hysterical, and Maddie realized she did not sound afraid.

No.  She sounded hurt.

Vinnie grabbed her hand, squeezing so tightly she felt her knuckles grind.  The woman, still screaming, was stumbling down the sidewalk, waving her arms in a panicked flurry.  Two others ranged alongside her, grabbing and pulling until they stopped her in her tracks and hauled her down to the ground.  Her cries reached a pitch that made Maddie wince – and then stopped.

“Oh god.”  Maddie stared in sick fascination as the others remained hunched over the woman’s body, their actions mercifully blurred by distance and darkness.  She didn’t need to see, however, to know what they were doing.  “Oh dear god.”

“Maddie.”  Vinnie tugged on her hand.  “Inside.”

Maddie nodded, eager to comply, but nonetheless remained rooted in place.  She saw now, very clearly, that the living were not the only ones who had been drawn out by the sound of the explosion.  The undead were among them, a shambling addition to the gaping crowd.  Another fell on a man across the street, ripping into his arm before he could pull away, and the screaming began anew.

“Madelyn!” Vinnie shouted, hauling on her arm.  “Inside!  Now!”

A specter loomed out of the shadows in front of her, a walking ghost with a gaping mouth, and Maddie was finally galvanized into action.  She leapt up the stairs and threw herself against the door, jiggling the knob desperately.  It refused to turn, though her panicked mind couldn’t make sense of why.

“It’s locked, it’s locked, it’s locked,” Vinnie yelled at her, trying to push her away.  The keys jingled in his hand, a call back to sanity, and she moved aside, giving him room to unlock the door.  The dead woman at the foot of the stairs had been joined already by four others; their unified snarling seemed to echo in the foyer as Vinnie burst through the door, Maddie hot on his heels.

“Don’t shoot!” Maddie screamed as they entered.  “It’s us, don’t shoot!”

If the others heard her, they heard too late – a boom filled the house.  Vinnie dropped to the floor, the bullet blowing through the front door just above where he’d been standing.  Cursing, he kicked the door closed.  Maddie scrambled past him, going up and over the sofa that still blocked the foot of the stairs.

“Wait!”  Vinnie reached out, grabbing hold of her pant leg.  She wrenched herself free, kicking out at him when he tried to grab her again.  “Not that way, Madelyn!”

Maddie barreled upward, heedless of his warning.  Part of her understood why he objected – funnel or no funnel, upstairs they’d be trapped, with no easy exit.  The animal part of her brain rejected this notion, however; instinct pushed her up the stairs, seeking higher ground.

“I’m sorry!” Jessie shrieked when Maddie reached the landing.  She grabbed Maddie’s hand, helping her to squeeze through the small space left by the dresser barricade.  “Are you okay?  Did I shoot you?!”

“I’m fine,” Maddie assured her.  “We’re fine.”

“No thanks to you,” Vinnie growled.  He shoved them both aside and went down the hall, toward the master bedroom.  Maddie followed, shrugging her sister off when she tried to intervene.  In the bedroom, Vinnie headed immediately for the window, sweeping aside a lamp that blocked his way; it hit the wall with a crash, the lightbulb shattering.  From the doorway, Jessie shrieked again.

“Shut up,” Maddie warned her.  She moved to stand beside Vinnie; together, they ripped aside the curtains and peered down at the street.

“Oh.”  Reaching out, she grabbed Vinnie’s arm, digging her nails into his flesh to keep from screaming.  “Oh my god.”

The number of undead at the doorstep had already increased, and more were coming; they flowed out of the shadows, drawn by the noise and promise of meat.  Maddie thought of ants swarming over a crumb, leaving scent trails behind for the ones who came after.  Except these were not ants.  And their goal was not crumbs.

“We don’t have enough,” Vinnie said.

“Enough what?” she asked.

He looked at her solemnly.  “Bullets.”

Downstairs, glass broke.

Maddie jumped.  “Time to go,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.

“Go where?  We’re stuck here now!”

“No.”  Maddie shook her head, inspired.  “We’re not.”  She shoved him toward the door.  “Get the others into the back bedroom.”  When he started to protest, she shoved him again.  “Go!”

He went, hollering for Jessie.  Maddie turned to the bed, where Caleb cowered.  “Get up.”  She yanked the sheets down before he could respond and grabbed his arm.  “Can you walk?”

“Not much choice, is there?” the kid snapped.  He took a step and hissed, then shook himself.  “It’s not that bad.  I don’t know if I can run, though.”

Maddie hauled him out of the room, taking some of his weight.  “One way to find out.”

The others waited in the bedroom, huddled around the bed.  Once inside, Maddie slammed the door and locked it, another barrier between them and the monsters.  She didn’t expect it to hold for very long – but then, she didn’t expect to still be there when they broke through.

“Here,” she said, guiding Caleb over and into Jessie’s care.  She turned to Vinnie, who stared back at her; the dim light of the lantern made it impossible to read his expression.  “Well?” he asked.

Swiping a hand across her face – how odd it was, to be sweating, when so recently she’d been freezing to death – she crossed the room to the window.  “Help me,” she said, pulling up on the window sash.  Vinnie complied, moving to assist her in securing the window and removing the screen.  She leaned out into the night, fingers crossed that the assumption she’d made would prove correct.  “Yes!” she cried when she saw it.

“What?” Vinnie asked, trying to see around her.  “What is it?”

“The porch,” she said, turning back to the others.  “The roof over it, actually.”

After a moment, Vinnie grinned.  “Brilliant.”

“What?” Jessie demanded, slow to catch on.  “What about the roof?”

“It’s our way out,” Maddie explained.

“I’m not jumping off of the roof!”

“You won’t have to,” Vinnie cut in.  “I’ll go first, make sure the yard is clear.  It should be – they’re at the front door, they won’t go to the back.  Then I’ll help the rest of you down.  It’s not far,” he added quickly.  “Just a couple of feet, once you swing yourself down.  We can go out through the gate in the back.”

“And then where?” Hannah asked.

Maddie chewed her lip, thinking.  Where could they go?  The station house had been a bust; they couldn’t very well head there.

Vinnie surprised her by suggesting that very thing.  “They won’t still be there,” he insisted.  “The noise of the explosion will have drawn them away.”

“Who won’t be there?” Jessie demanded to know.  “And what the hell blew up?  What did you guys do?”

“Later,” Maddie told her.  “There’s no time.”  As if to punctuate her point, there was a loud crash from downstairs.  “You go,” she said to Vinnie.  “Hurry.”

He needed no more persuading.  Grunting with effort, he swung his leg up over the windowsill and climbed out.  She watched his progress as he crept across the porch roof; he slipped twice, just a little, and then he was gone, down over the edge and into the yard.

“The shingles are wet,” she said over her shoulder, warning the others.  “You’ll have to move slowly, or you’ll fall.”

“Great,” Jessie muttered.  She helped Caleb to sit on the edge of the bed, then brandished the shotgun she held.  “What about this?  How am I supposed to carry it out there and not break my neck?”

“Just hand it down to him before you jump down,” Maddie snapped.  “Or would you rather stay here and wait for them to find you?”

Jessie continued to grumble but Maddie ignored her, focusing instead on the yard.  After what felt like an eternity, Vinnie re-emerged from the shadows by the gate and trotted back toward the roof, waving a hand over his head.

“Okay,” Maddie said.  She closed her eyes for just a moment, then turned to the others.  “Hannah, you first.”

Maddie helped the older woman up and over the window ledge.  Her journey across the porch roof was agonizingly slow; Maddie held her breath, certain that the dead would begin pounding on the bedroom door at any moment.  Finally, Hannah dropped from sight, then re-appeared in the yard.

Thank god.  With shaking hands, she waved Jessie over to the window.  “Be careful,” she said quietly as the younger woman swung out onto the roof.  Jessie grunted, and moved away.

“You’re next,” she told Caleb as Jessie neared the edge of the roof.

“No.”

Maddie whirled on him, instantly angry.  “Do not do this to us again,” she growled.  “I will leave you here.”

Caleb put up a placating hand.  “It’s not that.  But you should go next.”  He gave her a small smile.  “Ladies first.”

Maddie rolled her eyes.  Fuck it.  If he wanted to play the chivalrous knight instead of taking his ass out the window, she wasn’t going to argue with him.  Instead, she took a deep breath, ducked her head, and headed out onto the roof.

Vinnie was wrong.  It’s very high.

Maddie crouched just beneath the window, suddenly unsure of this plan she’d concocted.  The expanse of shingles between her and the roof’s edge seemed to stretch for miles, glistening meanly in the moonlight.  One wrong move and she’d go careening down over the side, a fall that would surely break something.

You can do this, she told herself sternly.  Three people already have.  A thud from inside the house made her jump again.  Surely falling is better than the alternative.

With that in mind, she crept forward carefully, moving on her hands and knees so her shoes couldn’t betray her and slip.  At the edge she turned around and lay flat on her belly, maneuvering until her feet, then her calves were below the roof line.  Gathering her courage, she lowered herself the rest of the way down.  The action was smooth – until her palms slipped on the metal edge, and she thought she would fall.  Then Vinnie’s hands were on her, guiding and supporting, and she let go.

“Good job,” he whispered as he lowered her to the ground.  She leaned against him for a moment, catching her breath, and felt him press a kiss to her temple.  “The gate,” he said in her ear.  “Go.”

She ran, joining her sister and Hannah at the fence.  She thought for a moment that Caleb wouldn’t emerge – that he’d lied to her, again, and would stay behind to die.  Then his head and shoulders appeared in the open window, and she let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she muttered, dancing from one foot to the other.

“You didn’t race across yourself,” Jessie whispered, annoyed.

“Ssh,” Hannah admonished.  “Look, there he is.”

The kid had moved quickly across the width of the roof – faster than any of the others had moved – and now indeed, there he was, preparing to lower himself over the edge.  Maddie balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to run.  Caleb dropped.

And let out a horrific scream.

Distance and darkness made it impossible to tell for sure what had happened.  Perhaps his hands had slipped, as hers had, on the wet metal edge; perhaps he’d let go before Vinnie was ready to catch him.  Whatever the cause, he landed hard, and his injured knee collapsed out from beneath him.  He crumpled at Vinnie’s feet, clutching his leg and wailing.

“Oh Jesus.”  Hannah brought her gun up, the barrel trembling.  “They’ll hear him!”

Vinnie seemed to realize the same thing; moving quickly, he scooped Caleb up and hauled him bodily across the yard, ignoring the kid’s screams of pain as his knee jostled along.  Once at the gate, he handed the kid off to Hannah, who staggered under Caleb’s weight before finding her footing.  “Hush,” she told him sternly.  “Hush now.”

Caleb hushed, though not without obvious effort.  Maddie eyed him warily; it was a long trek back to the station house, and they couldn’t afford to coddle him and move carefully.  He was going to scream again, of that there was no doubt.  She just hoped he wouldn’t bring a horde down on top of them when he did it.

“Here.”  Vinnie reached down and ripped off a part of his shirt, then held out the piece of balled up fabric.  “Stick this in your mouth.”  He leaned close as he pressed it into Caleb’s hand.  “Hold on to it,” he said, his voice full of quiet menace.  “If you spit it out, I’ll shoot you myself.”

Wisely, Caleb said nothing, choosing instead to clamp the fabric between his teeth without argument.  When Hannah moved forward toward the gate, he moaned, but the sound was sufficiently muffled.

They moved as one, slipping through the gate and into the alley as quietly as possible.  The alley was much narrower than Maddie had anticipated; two people could walk side-by-side, but just barely.  Another funnel.  She gripped her handgun with sweat-slicked hands, praying fervently that there would be no reason to use it.  The way ahead, at least, appeared to be clear.

“Are you sure about this?” she whispered.  “We don’t even know if it’s safe.”

Vinnie shrugged.  “You have a better idea?”

She did not.  Nonetheless, her discomfort grew as they weaved their way back toward the station house, stopping half a dozen times to allow an undead straggler to pass.  She was so sure that the way would be blocked, that the horde would still be milling about before the entrance, that when it was finally in view and the sidewalk proved to be empty she had a hard time believing her eyes.

They were one block to safety when Jessie started to scream.

Chapter Forty-Two

Posted: August 9, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     The world fell away as Maddie raced down the street, until only two things remained sharply in focus: the peculiar slapping sound her sneakers made as she pounded across the water-soaked pavement, and a single thought, repeated in time to her steps.

     Don’t. Slap. Lead. Slap. Them. Slap. Back. Slap.

     She reached the corner, Vinnie by her side.  Instead of turning to cross the street and heading back toward the safety of the house, they both fled across the intersection, maintaining their straight-ahead course.  Why Vinnie did it, Maddie couldn’t guess.  For herself, all she could picture was her sister – her silly, stupid sister, who could carry a dead man with deliberate calm but still considered sneaking a smoke in the bathroom an act of defiance and daring.  Whatever her faults, Maddie knew she could never lead a horde of hungry undead back to her baby sister’s doorstep.  Not if she ever expected to look their mother in the eye again.

     As if hearing her thoughts, her phone buzzed again.  She glanced down, surprised to see that she still held it, clenched tightly in her fist.  Drop the stick, hold on to the phone.  That’s great.  The screen was lit, a beacon in the dark, showing the little bubble that indicated she’d received a text.  She brought it up automatically, an action born out of long habit, and scanned the words.

     Then read them again.

     She slowed to a trot, struggling to comprehend the message on her screen.  Vinnie pulled ahead of her, disappearing into the darkness, his progress away from her marked by a series of metal chuck sounds every few feet.  She was only vaguely aware of what he was doing.  Everything disappeared in the wake of the roar that filled her ears – her own heartbeat, pounding relentlessly.

     Don’t pass out.  Keep running.  Don’t pass out.

     “Hump!” Vinnie called back.

     Maddie’s head snapped up.  For a moment she thought she would pass out; white spots danced across her eyes, obscuring the shadows ahead of her.  It took a few seconds to realize she’d destroyed her fragile night vision by staring at her phone’s backlit screen.  She flipped the phone around, trying to use the meager display light to guide her way.

     She was almost on top of it before she saw it: a mailbox, tipped over in her path.  She leapt without thinking, one foot coming down on the center; she felt the metal buckle, the bong vibrating up to her hip.  Jump, she thought, and then she was down on the other side.  She chanced a glance back over her shoulder, but it was useless; if the horde still followed, she wasn’t able to see them.  Concentrating hard, she tried to listen for signs of their presence, pinpoint how far away they were.  All she could hear was the ragged rasp of her own breathing and the repeated chuck, chuck, chuck that signaled Vinnie’s failure to find an unlocked door among the storefronts they passed.

     Please, she prayed.  Her thighs burned; every breath felt like fire, searing her lungs.  Please, please, please.

     The tinkle of bells rang out ahead of her.  She was so bent on pleading for a break that she missed it when it came; it took her a few moments to realize that Vinnie had disappeared, and she was jogging along alone.

     “Maddie!”

     She turned back, disoriented and unsteady.  Her phone’s display had clicked off, leaving her blind.

     “Maddie, here!  Hurry!”

     She stumbled toward the sound of his voice.  A hand reached through the darkness and grabbed her arm, yanking her sideways before she could scream.  Vinnie crushed her against his side and pulled the door closed behind her, the bells on the handle jingling madly.

     “Get down,” he said.  She crouched by the door, bells in her hair, and gasped for breath.  There was a click, and the penlight in Vinnie’s hand switched on, sweeping over the small interior of the store.  Maddie saw metal and glass reflected in the light’s small beam; a row of portals along the back wall, like the windows of a ship, and another row of squat metal boxes in the center of the room.  The sight of the washing machines made her back itch; even while her thighs trembled and threatened to throw her back on her ass, she couldn’t help wishing for a tub full of sudsy water and a clean shirt.

     The light revealed a tipped over basket on top of one washer, half full of clothes that spilled over the edge and onto the floor, but no people.  They were alone.

     Vinnie continued to search, checking under the folding table along the far wall and behind the small register in the corner.  As the beam of the flashlight moved back and forth across the floor, Maddie felt fear leaving her, washing away in a wave of anger.  He’d brought the flashlight so they could search for a radio, or a walkie, something that would connect them to people who could help.  Instead he was using it to investigate discarded dryer sheets and lost quarters, determining the safety of a goddamn laundromat.

     When he’d made his way back to her, clicking the light off, she snapped.  “What the hell, man?” she hissed at him.

     He crouched beside her, peering through the front window.  “What?”

     “Seriously?”  She shoved his shoulder, felt him teeter beside her before he found his balance again.  “Now what the hell are we supposed to do?”

     “Wait,” he said.  She ground her teeth.  He must have sensed her frustration; when he spoke again, his tone was equally as angry.  “You’re the one who answered your fucking phone.”

     “You’re the one who thought it was a good idea to get closer to the z-” She tripped over the word, not able to get it out.  “-Things.  Creeping down the street like some idiot commando.  What the fuck were you doing?”

     The question seemed to take the wind out of his sails; she sensed rather than saw his body sag in defeat.  He sighed.  “I don’t know,” he admitted.

     She shook her head.  “We should have gone back.  Just turned around and gone right back.”

     “I know.”  He slid down to sit on the floor, resting his back against the wall.  “I just…I thought I saw something.”

     She considered the way he’d been watching the crowd, and the thought she’d had, that he’d seemed hypnotized.  She’d tried to see whatever he saw, but there hadn’t been time.  “What was it?” she asked, genuinely curious.

     “I’m not sure it was anything.”  When she waited, clearly not accepting that as a complete answer, he sighed again.  “There were no lights, right?”  She made a noise of agreement.  “Okay.  Nothing to draw them to that spot.  So what were they doing?”

     She closed her eyes, trying to conjure up what little she’d been able to see.  “They were just…there,” she said finally.  “Milling around.”

     “Right.  Milling.  How many, do you think?”

     She shrugged, forgetting that he couldn’t see her.  “I don’t know.  Twenty?”

     “I thought thirty,” he said.  “But sure, maybe twenty.  A lot, anyway.  Just moving in circles, walking into the wall or the door, I’m not sure which, it was too far away.  Waiting.”

     “For what?”

     “I don’t know!”  He slapped his knee, frustrated.  “I thought I could see it – that the answer was right there – but I couldn’t.  I don’t know.”

     Maddie eased herself down onto the floor beside him, moving slowly to keep the bells from tangling in her hair, or worse, tinkling again.  She took his hand, gripping it hard.  They sat that way, in the dark, until the cold had seeped through the seat of her jeans and spread, meeting with the chill that had worked its way up from her wet shoes and pants.

     Finally, Vinnie spoke again.  “It was your mom?”

     She swallowed hard.  “Yeah.”

     “What did she say?”

     Maddie tightened her other hand around her phone, afraid he would ask to see it.  “I couldn’t hear her,” she said, her mouth suddenly dry.  It’s not a lie.  Not really.  “Just a lot of static.”

     “Hmm.”  He squeezed her hand, a sympathetic gesture that amplified her guilt.  “I’m sorry.  Maybe she’ll call back.”

     Doubt it.  She moved away from him before she slipped up and said something out loud.  On her hands and knees, crawling, she felt her way through the dark, able to see well enough now that she avoided banging her head on a machine that loomed out of the blackness.

     “Where are you going?” Vinnie whispered, sounding alarmed.

     “I want one of those shirts,” she whispered back.  “In the basket.  Don’t worry.”

     He let her go, turning instead to look out the window again.  She scuttled around the row of machines, snagging a shirt off the floor on her way by, and then knelt on the far side, safely out of sight.  Numb fingers hit the button on her phone that brought the screen back to life, lighting up the text message that still waited.

     Sickk here. Not safe. Staay away.

     I should tell him.  She stared at the words, as appalled by the errors as by the message itself; her mother never sent anything without checking three times for perfection.  She could see Grace typing it out, her hands shaking, tears blurring her vision.  Sickk here.  Who?  Her father?  Grace herself?  Both of them?

     If you tell, you can’t go home.  Maddie hated that voice, the cringing cowardice in it, but couldn’t ignore the truth of its words.  He won’t take you.  And you have to go.  She’s your mom.

     “Maddie,” Vinnie whisper-called from the other side of the room.

     “Coming,” she hissed back.  Her fingers hovered over the keypad, indecisive and afraid.

     You can’t go home.  If you tell.

     Hating herself, on the verge of tears, Maddie did the only thing she could do.

     She hit delete.

***

 

     Some time later – maybe an hour, maybe two – Vinnie tapped her arm.

     She jumped, her head jerking up off of his shoulder.  She’d only meant to close her eyes for a moment – he was so warm, and the rest of the room had grown steadily colder, such that she’d had to burrow closer to his side to keep the shivering under control.  Guilt had given way to exhaustion, and she’d drifted, not quite free of the shaking in her arms and legs but deep enough that the cold was an annoyance rather than a pain.  Now the pain was back, an icy ache that lanced through her limbs.

     “What?” she moaned, trying to settle back in against him.

     “Wake up,” Vinnie whispered, shaking her a little.  “We should go.”

     She made a noise of displeasure, loathe to move away from his body heat.  “S’cold,” she complained.

     “I know.”  He stretched, his back popping as he moved.  “That’s why we should go.  We can’t sleep here.”  He took her hand, pulling her up in spite of her protests.  She leaned against him heavily, waiting for feeling to return to her feet.  “It’ll be colder outside, but we have to move.”

     Her reluctance to comply told her that he was right; if they stayed here, in wet clothes and with no heat, it wouldn’t end well.  With a grimace of pain, she forced herself to move, stretching her back and legs and flexing her ankles.  Everything hurt; whether that was from sitting on the cold floor for hours, or running a mile for her life, she wasn’t entirely sure.  She knew she’d be lucky to hobble back to the house.

     “Are you sure they’re gone?” she asked, casting a doubtful look out the window.

     “I didn’t see them pass,” he said.  “They might still be back there.”

     “Between us and the house, you mean.”  She fought to keep the tremble out of her voice.

     “Could be.”  He shrugged.  “Or they could have moved along.  Gone back to the station.”  Sensing her fear, he pulled her close, planting a gentle kiss on her forehead.  “We don’t have to go back the exact way we came.  I can get us there.  Okay?”

     She thought it was decidedly not okay, but there wasn’t much else to be done.  They couldn’t stay in the laundromat forever.  Although…  “We could wait until morning,” she said hopefully.

     “If we sleep here, Madelyn, there won’t be a morning.”  He chafed her hands between his, a useless gesture given his own were nearly as frozen.  “It’s too cold.”

     She gave him a reluctant nod.  Holding her hand loosely in his, he opened the door.  She winced when the bells on the handle jingled again – We should have cut those damn things off – but nothing roared out of the darkness at the sound, and so they went out into the street.

     Vinnie was right – he could get them there, and they didn’t have to retrace their steps to do it.  The moon had risen high, breaking through the remaining clouds and providing them with just enough light to see that the way was clear.  Even so, he led her down and across side streets, weaving a path back to Shawn’s house that she knew she’d never be able to replicate.  She stopped trying to figure out where they were in relation to where they were going and merely followed, scanning anxiously for any signs of undead.  Mercifully, there were none.

     Finally, they emerged on the corner of their own block.  The sight of the front stoop filled her with such relief, she found the strength to run, not stopping until she had a hand on the iron railing.  Safe.  We’re safe.

     “See?” Vinnie asked, flashing her a grin.  “Didn’t I tell you?”

     “You did.”  Closing the distance between them, Maddie rose on her toes and pressed her lips to his in a firm, cold kiss.  “Let’s get inside.”

     She had one foot on the steps when the ground rolled beneath her feet, an ever-so-slight wave that left her dizzy and sick.

     “What-?”

     Before she could finish, the sky exploded.

Chapter Forty-One

Posted: July 27, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Late in the afternoon, while Maddie stood watch, the rain stopped.

     The end came abruptly, as though someone above had turned off a faucet.  One moment water streamed down the glass, obstructing her view, and the next she was staring at a damp, glistening post-storm street.  Weak sunlight pierced the dark clouds that remained overhead, glinting off bits of aluminum and other detritus that littered the road and sidewalks.

     “Hey!  It stopped raining!” Jessie shouted from the other side of the house.  She leaned over the kitchen sink and peered into the backyard.  “Think they’ll get the power up now?”

     Maddie shook her head at her sister’s naivety.  The idea that anyone cared about restoring the lights, at least in their neighborhood, was laughable.  She suspected things would remain dark for a very long time.

     “No.”  Vinnie leaned against the wall, Shawn’s bag at his feet.  “But it’s good that it’s stopped.  That’ll make things easier.”

     “What things?” Jessie asked.  She came to sit on the sofa, a confused look on her face.  “You said you’ve got a plan?  What is it now?”

     I hope it’s better than the last one.  Maddie frowned.  Four days, they’d been here now, and they were no closer to getting the hell out of Dodge.  Whatever it was, she hoped desperately that it involved leaving this house.

     As if reading her thoughts, Vinnie gave her a quick, grim smile.  “I’m going out,” he said.

     “You can’t be serious.”  Hannah raised her eyebrows, incredulous.  “Out where?”

     “Out there.”  He waved his hand at the front window.

     “To do what?” Jessie asked.  “Rain or no rain, the street is still flooded.  We can’t drive anywhere.”

     “True,” Vinnie agreed.  “But I can walk.  And hell,” he said, flashing the first genuine grin Maddie had seen since the night they’d been drunk, “I can swim.”

     “But where?” Jessie asked.  “There’s nobody out there.  We haven’t seen anybody.  Not even when that pole went down.”

     “There’s a station house,” Vinnie said.  “About a mile from here.  Maybe two.”

     “Why bother?” Maddie asked.  “They’re all gone.”

     “We think they left.  We don’t know.”  Vinnie wiped a hand down his face.  “Would they really all leave?”

     “My Joe wouldn’t,” Hannah said.  When they all turned to look at her, she blushed.  “He wasn’t a hero or anything.  But he wasn’t a coward either.  He would have stayed.  To help people.  He was a good man.”  She nodded at Vinnie.  “Like you.”

     Vinnie fidgeted, a flush creeping up his neck.  “Well….it can’t hurt to see.  Even if it’s empty, they’ll have a radio.  I can try to call for help.”

     Maddie chewed her lip.  “You don’t know what’s out there.  How bad it is.”

     He spread his hands.  “Staying here doesn’t do anything.  I thought….it doesn’t matter.  We can’t stay here.”

     He thought Shawn would help us.  Shawn, who had known ways around the city they could only begin to imagine.  All that knowledge, propped up now in the shed with the tangled Christmas lights and spider webs.  Fat lot of good it did him.

     “I’ll go with you,” she said suddenly.

     He looked at her, seeming to weigh what she’d said, then gave her an infinitesimal nod.

     “Me too.”  Jessie leaned forward, eager.  “I want to know.”

     Vinnie shook his head.  “No.  We’ll set things up here, as best we can, before we leave.  It won’t be long.”  He sounded so sure, Maddie almost believed that he knew what he was doing.

     Jessie disagreed.  “I’m not afraid,” she insisted.  “Two people having your back is better.”

     “More people means more worry,” Vinnie argued.  “You stay here and watch.”  He pointed at the ceiling.  “If something happens, that one will need you.”

     “Then leave Maddie here.  I’m better for this.  You know it.”

     “No,” Vinnie said again.  His expression was stone cold, as was his tone.  “I don’t want you.”

     Maddie winced at his choice of words.  Jessie visibly bristled, her hands balling into fists.  Before things could get worse, Hannah interceded.  “You said we’d ‘set things up’,” she said.  “What does that mean?”

     Vinnie got to his feet, pacing as he spoke.  “We should have done it already,” he said.  “Stupid.  I was stupid.”  His agitation set off sympathetic flutters in Maddie’s stomach.  “We’ll block off the back door, and the foot of the stairs.  Top of them too.  Take everything up; you don’t need to come down here, not while we’re gone.”  He swiped at his hair.  “A funnel.  You see?  If something comes in, it’ll have to go up, and there’s only one way.”

     Hannah’s face had gone white.  “If something comes in,” she echoed, her voice trembling.

     “If,” Vinnie stressed.  “It won’t.  They won’t.  But if.”

     He seemed to sense that he was frightening them; he stopped pacing and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath.  When he opened them again, Maddie saw the same hard look she’d seen before – the soldier’s look.  The agitation was gone, replaced by cold efficiency.  He’d been languishing here, with nothing to do; he wasn’t a man built for sitting and waiting.  Maddie guessed that Shawn’s death had shocked him out of the stupor he’d been in since they’d arrived.

     “Come on,” he said, his voice clipped.  “Let’s move.”

     They scattered.  As Maddie brushed past him he grabbed her elbow, stopping her.  “Are you sure about this?”

     Her gaze moved from his face to his hand, staring until he released his grip on her arm.  “No.”  She glanced out the kitchen window, noting that the light was already fading outside.  “Not at all.”  She set her chin.  “But I want to go home.”

     He nodded sharply.  “Fine.  Be ready.  We’ll go at dark.”

 

***

 

     They worked quickly, following Vinnie’s directions.  Using thumbtacks she’d found in a kitchen drawer, Maddie covered the rear glass door with a sheet, then moved the small table and chairs to stand in front of it, blocking off the entrance.  Vinnie slipped outside before she set the last chair, trudging across the flooded backyard to double-check the lock on the gate.  She watched, heart in her throat, when he paused on his way past the shed.  He raised a hand toward the knob on the shed’s door, hesitating, then let it drop.  She let out the breath she’d been holding with a sigh.

     With the back door as secure as it was going to get, they moved on.  A dresser was hauled out of the little girls’ room and positioned at the top of the stairs; the leather couch took its place at the foot, leaving long gouge marks in the already-scarred wood floor as it was dragged from its spot in the living room and shoved, with much huffing and swearing, into the foyer.  Maddie stood by the front door, waiting, while Vinnie gave final instructions to Jessie and Hannah.  Their faces were grim smears in the growing darkness.

     Finally, the time came.  Vinnie clambered over the sofa, dropping onto the seat with a sigh.  “Here,” he said, holding out his hand.  Maddie took the proffered gun without comment, stuffing it into the back of her jeans.  Her left rear pocket bulged with the spare magazine he’d given her; the right held her cell phone, half-charged and set to silent.  She gripped her iron rod in sweaty hands.  She knew it wasn’t the most useful weapon in the world, but the weight of it offered comfort in a way the cold, hard metal pressed against her back never could.

     They slipped out the front door in silence, locking it behind them.  The jingle of keys set Maddie’s fried nerves further on edge; she glanced around uneasily as they made their way down the front porch stairs, certain the quiet tinkle was as loud as a dinner bell.  The street was empty, as far as she could see – which wasn’t far.  She’d known it would be dark, but hadn’t considered how dark; it was eerie to be outside with no street lights, no headlights, and no glow in the windows of the houses they passed.

     Like everyone is already dead.  She shivered.

     “Let’s go,” Vinnie said quietly.

     Maddie followed him down the street, trying to move through the water on the sidewalk without splashing.  Within seconds her shoes and socks were soaked through; the cold bit deep, gnawing into her feet and up her calves.  A damp wind blew hair free of her ponytail and across her face.  She tugged the sleeves of her hoodie down, glad that Vinnie had suggested they dress warmly.  They each wore black sweatshirts they’d filched from Shawn’s closet, Maddie swimming in hers; the hem reached her knees.  Vinnie’s, by contrast, stretched uncomfortably across his shoulders and back, a size or two too small.  He’d insisted that it didn’t matter; a little discomfort was fine, so long as they didn’t stand out during their trek.  Maddie wondered now if it in even mattered – as far as she could tell, there was no one to see them.

     Yet.  She clenched her rod, eyes darting, trying to cover every direction at once.  No one yet.

     The first intersection was the hardest to cross; the water came up past their ankles.  They ventured across as quickly and carefully as possible, aware there might be debris lurking under the surface, waiting to trip them up.  Maddie held her breath the whole way, feeling exposed and vulnerable.  Now she understood why he’d wanted to go at night; it was hard to see – she wished like hell they could use a flashlight – but that meant it was also harder to see them, even when they moved out in the open like this.

     A block down, she was forced to hand the rod over, as first Vinnie and then she climbed up and over a pile of debris that blocked their way.  The same happened a few blocks later.  The second time she slipped, losing her footing on a patch of water that had mixed with something oily.  Breath hissed through her teeth as she caught her knee on a garbage can, the metal clang echoing down the street.

     “Careful,” Vinnie chastised, catching her by the arm and hauling her up.

     “Sorry,” she groused, rubbing her knee.  “How much farther, do you think?”

     He shook his head.  “We’ll cut over up here,” he said.  “See what we can see.”

     They stopped at the corner, waiting and listening before wading across the street.  The cross street was just as quiet and empty as the one they’d left behind.  They traversed it quickly, staying tight against the buildings they passed; in no time they reached the next street, and turned.  Maddie’s eyes had adjusted to the dark by then, and she was able to make out a crowd of bodies several blocks in the distance.  She grabbed his arm.  “What’s that?” she whispered.

     They pressed up against the building side by side, watching.  The group ahead of them seemed to move as one, spilling from the sidewalk into the street and back again.  A low murmur reached their ears; Maddie cocked her head, listening hard.  Were they chanting?

     “Come on,” Vinnie said, his voice so low she barely heard him.  “That’s the station house.”  He moved away from the building, body hunched, and melted into the shadows of a parked car.

     “Vinnie,” she hissed.  The crowd formed and re-formed, little more than shifting shapes in the darkness.  Maddie wasn’t sure what they were doing, but she knew in her gut that it wasn’t good.

     Vinnie didn’t respond, merely waited.  Swallowing her fear, Maddie darted toward the car, crouching down beside him near the rear wheel.  “This is a bad idea,” she whispered, plucking at his sleeve.  “We should go back.”

     He didn’t listen.  Instead he moved forward, crouch-crawling awkwardly toward the car’s front bumper.  He waited a beat, then shuffled quickly until he was beside the next car in line, once again cloaked in shadow.

     Maddie ground her teeth.  Every nerve in her body screamed to retreat, to leave his dumb ass behind and book back to the house.  He could handle himself.  He’s stupid, she told herself.  Don’t be stupid too.

     While she was hesitating, debating what to do, he moved further away from her.  The distance was what decided things for her; the more it grew between them, the more afraid she became that she would find herself alone, armed only with her rod and a gun she was only 75% sure she could fire without hurting herself.  Stupid, she thought again.  This is so, so stupid.

     She shuffled after him.

     They were four cars down the line before he stopped, resting on his haunches.  He peered over the hood, seemingly mesmerized.  Maddie looked over his shoulder, straining to see whatever he saw.  She pressed herself against his back, leaning into him, certain that if she just tried harder, her vision would sharpen and she’d understand…

     The phone in her pocket buzzed.

     They both turned quickly, Maddie choking back a strangled cry.  The sudden swivel knocked her off balance; she fell against the side of the car, smacking her head on the door.  She reached out wildly, trying to grab the curb with her hand and stop her fall – and the metal rod dropped, clattering to the pavement.

     The phone buzzed again.

     She grappled at her pocket, bending a nail back as she yanked the phone free.  Vinnie was hissing at her, cursing up a storm, but she barely heard him.  Her eyes fixed on the glowing screen in her hand, and the little blue icon that told her she had an incoming call.

     Trembling, she brought the phone to her ear.

     “Hello?” she whispered.

     “Ma-ie?”  Her mother’s voice crackled over the line, filling her with a mix of relief and terror.   “-lo?  Mad-, -ere?”

     “Mom?”  Without thinking, she moved away from the car, instinctively seeking a better signal.  “Mom, I can’t hear you.”

     “Stay -ie.  -ith Vin-.  -ather is-, -afe here.  -lo?  Can you -e?”

     “Madelyn.”  Vinnie grabbed her arm, his hand a band of iron.

     She tried to shake him off, pressing the phone tighter to her ear.  “Mom?  Mommy?”

     “Madelyn!”  He hauled her to her feet, dragging her away from the car.  “Come on, come on, hang up, come on!”

     She stumbled as he pulled her away, crashing against him and sending them both reeling into the building wall.  As they spun around, untangling, she glanced over his shoulder – and felt her breath freeze in her throat.

     The crowd up ahead had stopped circling and weaving; whatever had caught their attention up there, it was forgotten.  Now the shapeless mass was moving toward them, covering ground quickly and chanting up a storm.

     No.  Not chanting.  That’s not chanting.  As they moved closer, she heard it for what it really was: growling.

     “Go!” Vinnie screamed in her face.  He shoved her out of his arms.  “Run!”

     She didn’t need to be told twice.  With a last terrified look at the horde of undead, Maddie ran.

Chapter Forty

Posted: July 19, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     When she returned to the bedroom, bag in hand, she found Vinnie in much the same condition he’d been in the night before: on the bed, shoulders slumped, staring at the wall. She sat gingerly, placing the bag between them, and waited for him to speak.

     “Thank you,” he said finally. He drew the bag against his side, cuddling it protectively. Maddie shuddered; she’d hated touching it, knowing where it had come from. She couldn’t quite believe she’d been able to get it off the body in the first place.

     The body. She frowned. I’m as bad as Jessie.

     “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know I said that already, but…” She trailed off, not sure what else she could say. She wanted desperately to help in some way, to take away the dark cloud that seemed to hover over him.

     He turned to her, the sadness on his face replaced by an earnest look. She took his hand, thinking he was going to talk about Shawn. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry. Last night…it’s my fault. I wasn’t thinking. It was stupid. I was stupid.”

     Maddie felt heat spread across her cheeks. “I-”

     He leaned closer, squeezing her hand as she tried to pull it away. “It was a mistake,” he said, as though reassuring her. “It won’t happen again.”

     Maddie sat frozen, rooted in humiliation. She dropped her eyes, unable to keep meeting his gaze. Two for two, she thought bitterly. At least he’s being honest, before I find him pants-down in a closet. He wasn’t saying anything she hadn’t thought herself; she’d known, the night before, that it was a terrible idea. That didn’t take the sting from this rejection. She again tried to pull her hand away, and he wound his fingers in hers, not seeming to notice that she’d gone numb and slack in his grip. He was still talking, no doubt trying to assure her that they were still friends, he still cared about her – whatever bullshit men like him fed to women like her after they were finished. Maddie wasn’t listening. His voice was lost to her ear, drowned out by her own recriminating thoughts.

     Please. She closed her eyes. Please stop talking.

     After a few moments, she realized that he had. She opened her eyes again and saw that he was looking at her, expectant. Had he asked her something? What did he expect her to say? Thank you for your candor, I’m sorry we fucked too? She wanted to disappear, to get up and walk out, but he was still – still – holding tight to her hand.

     “Madelyn?” He wrinkled his brow in concern. “Are you?”

     Maddie swallowed past the dryness in her throat. “Am I what?”

     “On something.”

     She blinked, confused. What did he think Jessie had been smoking? “No. It was just cigarettes. I didn’t have one.”

     “What?” Now he did release her hand, to rake his own through his hair. It had grown out some, she noticed, since the first day they’d met. The clean military cut was looking rather shaggy; combined with the dark stubble taking over his face, it made him look rough, hotter than ever. Don’t think like that. About that. He doesn’t want you.

     “What?” she echoed.

     He huffed, impatient with her. “Birth control, Madelyn. Are you on something?”

     She stared at him, dazed, until it hit her. Oh god. Frantically, she ran over their last encounter in her head, searching for the memory she knew must be there – the moment, the pause, the rip of the foil. Oh no. Oh no. Oh shit.

     He saw the answer on her face. “Damn,” he said, sounding impossibly tired. He looked away. “I didn’t know you were…you know. Planning.”

     “Planning what?” Maddie asked, distracted. She counted in her head, trying to figure out how bad things could be. I had it right before the wedding. It might be okay.

     “Children,” Vinnie said. “A family.”

     Something about his tone yanked Maddie out of her numbers game. “I wasn’t.” She plucked at her pants, uncomfortable. “Jack didn’t want any. Not with me, anyway.”

     Vinnie’s jaw worked as he clenched his teeth. “But you’re not on anything.”

     Is he jealous? Maddie shook her head, irritated and amazed. Jesus. “I was,” she explained. “The pill. But I didn’t bring them with me. I was a little distracted.” She blushed. “And I didn’t think I needed them.”

     “I never do that.” He turned back to her, earnest again. “I swear to god. I’ve never.”

     Maddie nodded. “Me either,” she offered, and was relieved when the corner of his mouth twitched in a small smile. His intensity was starting to unnerve her. “We might be all right,” she said. “But I really don’t know.”

     He swiped a hand through his hair again, making the mess of it worse. “Isn’t there something you can take?”

     “Sure.” Maddie crossed her arms, hugging herself. “If we could get to a pharmacy.”

     He glanced at the bedroom window, where rain continued to stream down the pane. “Right.”

     She felt him withdraw, put cold distance between them, and squeezed herself tighter. You knew he was bad news, she scolded herself. Hot tears filled her eyes, and she blinked them back furiously, refusing to shed any in front of him. This is what you get. She clenched her jaw. Everything is fine. And if it’s not…I can handle it myself. She pictured her mother’s face, if she turned up single and pregnant, and felt a knot of ice form in her gut. She’ll think it’s Jack’s. Everyone will.

     While she sat in silence, picturing the potential misery ahead of her, Vinnie hauled Shawn’s bag into his lap and began rifling through the contents. Without glancing at her, he tossed a small stick into her lap. “Here.”

     Reluctantly, Maddie released her arms and picked it up. “What’s this?”

     “A charger.” He dug back into the bag. “If it has juice, it might charge your phone. You need-”

     She was off the bed in a flash, diving for her bag. Her phone had died not long after the storm had started; without power, there’d been no way to re-charge it. There was no guarantee that calling out would work – it hadn’t, not the last time she’d tried – but at least, with a full battery, she could check.

     It took her a minute to work out how to connect everything together, but after cursing and tangling with the phone’s charger pieces, she got it hooked up. When the phone’s screen lit up, indicating it was working, she cheered. “How long does it take?” she asked, staring at the screen, willing the bar to fill.

     “I don’t know. A few hours.” Vinnie tossed the bag aside, setting the laptop he’d found on the mattress beside him. “Depends on the batteries.”

     Maddie nodded, watching him as he powered up the computer. “There’s no internet,” she pointed out.

     The look he gave her was withering. “I know that. But there might be something else on here. I want to know where he went.” He peered at the laptop screen. “Fifteen percent,” he said, speaking more to himself than to her. “Should be enough.”

     Curiosity got the better of her, and she drifted back over, settling again on the bed to see what he’d find. He clicked through folders, clearly searching for something, though what she couldn’t begin to imagine.

     Whatever it was, he didn’t find it. The computer made a quiet snapping sound as the battery died, and the display switched to black. “Dammit!” Vinnie slammed the laptop shut in frustration, tossing it to the floor with a thud. He flopped onto his back in defeat.

     Carefully, Maddie lay beside him, staring at the ceiling in the dim light. “His family,” she said. “You said he would go find his family.”

     Vinnie sighed. “Yeah. But he wouldn’t just head for the barricades. I wouldn’t.” He slammed his fist down on the mattress. “He knew another way out. He had to.”

     “Yeah, but…” Maddie hesitated, not wanting to hurt him, then forged on. “If he did…it didn’t work.”

     He had no response to that. In the silence that followed, Maddie closed her eyes, once again wishing that she could sleep. After a few minutes, she felt his weight move against her; his arm slid around her shoulders, and she found herself pulled up against his side. Part of her wanted to move away from him – but he was so warm. Instead she let herself melt against him, listening to the sound of his breathing.

     She was beginning to drift off when he shifted again. She pressed a hand to his chest, stilling him. “You can stay,” she said quietly. “If you want to.”

     “Hannah needs to rest too,” he said. “And I thought you’d want to sleep alone.”

     “Why?”

     He cleared his throat. “You keep leaving. Once I’m asleep.”

     She pulled away and rose up, leaning on her elbow so she could see his face. “That bothers you?”

     “No.” He withdrew his arm and swung his feet off the bed, turning his back on her. “Why would it?”

     “Vinnie.” She reached for him, but he shrugged her off.

     “It’s fine. I’ll be downstairs.”

     He was gone before she could say anything else. Growling in frustration, she punched the pillow beside her, then wrapped her arms around it, seeking comfort. It was a pitiful substitute. She wanted desperately for him to come back, to hold her until she fell asleep and make her feel safe, and wasn’t sure who she hated more in that moment – him, or herself.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Posted: July 12, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Maddie fell back against the pillows with a sigh. Sore muscles cried out in relief as she sank into the mattress; she twisted and stretched, nearly purring as the tension in her shoulders released. Her body hummed with a mix of exhaustion and pleasure, the kind of satisfying ache that comes after a day – or night – of hard work.

     The bed shifted. She clenched her eyes shut, aware that he had rolled over beside her. Don’t talk, she thought. Please just let me lie here. Don’t talk yet.

     No such luck. “Madelyn.”

     She turned her face away, striving to ignore him.

     “Madelyn.”

     Heaving another sigh, she opened her eyes.

     Caleb stared back at her, his face hard. “Get the hell out of my bed.”

     “Don’t be a jerk,” Jessie admonished. Her tone was indulgent, a mother scolding a favorite child. “We were up all night. Someone has to make sure you don’t get eaten, you know.”

     “She’s pulling on my blankets,” Caleb whined.

     “Boo-fucking-hoo.” Maddie rolled her eyes and sat up, giving the comforter a petulant yank as she did.

     She had, indeed, been up all night. Jessie had resisted getting back out of bed – until, that is, she’d realized that Maddie was asking for help. From her. Her utter glee at the prospect had nearly sent Maddie back to her own bedroom in a snit, but she’d resisted the urge, swallowed her pride and coaxed the insufferable younger woman down the stairs, where the guns waited.

     It didn’t take long for Maddie to realize that Jessie had been doing far more than flirting shamelessly during her time spent with Vinnie. The information she’d managed to absorb was dizzying – caliber, gauge, sight versus scope, how to load without looking and brace for a shot. The last was strictly theoretical, for now; they couldn’t afford to practice firing.

     Even more surprising was the patient and careful way Jessie explained everything. Maddie had expected to feel stupid from the outset, and she had, but that wasn’t Jessie’s fault; she didn’t sneer, or insult, or even tease. When she’d dozed off briefly, just before dawn, Maddie found herself staring at her sister’s face, contemplating the new side that she’d seen.

     “She’s smart.” Hannah’s voice had startled her; the older woman had remained out of the way, standing watch by the window throughout the long lessons.

     “Yes,” Maddie had agreed. “She is.” She’d been ashamed of how surprised she sounded, and tried to distract herself from it. “You don’t want to learn?”

     Hannah had shaken her head. “My husband taught me once, a long time ago. Handgun. Shotgun, too, but mostly handgun. He was a cop.” She shifted on her feet, the curtain rustling gently with her movement. “I hated it. Haven’t touched one since he died.”

     “You might have to,” Maddie had pointed out.

     “Maybe,” the other woman had conceded. “But not tonight.”

     Soon, though. The night had been quiet, without a single person – dead or otherwise – out on the street. But it wasn’t a peaceful quiet; Maddie felt that in her gut. It felt more like a pause. She was afraid of what was coming when things started moving again. It’ll be soon.

     The clink of glass on wood brought Maddie back to the room. Jessie fussed over Caleb, setting a glass of water and bowl of dry cereal on the nightstand before she adjusted his blanket and felt his forehead. Maddie watched as her sister’s hand lingered on Caleb’s face. The kid gazed up at her, eyes wide and adoring, and smiled. She’d never seen him smile like that before – or at all, really, since the unfortunate day they’d met – but she knew a lovesick grin when she saw one.

     One by one, the hairs on the back of her neck prickled.

     Jessie bustled away, heading into the master bathroom. Maddie rose to her feet and followed, full of concern and outrage, intent on delivering a lecture that would no doubt shatter their fragile peace. Before she could speak, however, she stopped on the threshold, knocked back by the smell of the tiny room.

     “Urgh,” she complained, waving a hand in front of her face. “Have you- have you been smoking in here?!”

     Jessie, at least, had the good grace to look ashamed. “It’s not like I can go outside,” she defended. She gestured to the bathroom’s small window, which sat above the tub. “I open the window every time.”

     “Clearly that’s helping.” Maddie moved into the room, grimacing, and shut the door behind her. The weak morning light barely penetrated the gloom, hampered as it was by the tiny entry point and the haze of stale smoke that hung in the air. “Where did you even get cigarettes?”

     “I brought them with me.” She pulled a pack from within the counter’s mass of clutter and shook a cigarette out, glaring defiantly as she brought it to her lips. “I wish I’d remembered to grab the vodka too. There was some left.”

     “Oh yeah, that’d be great,” Maddie muttered. “God forbid you go without vodka.”

     “Well I don’t have any,” Jessie snapped, “So I am going without. The guy didn’t even have any beer in his fridge.”

     The guy. Maddie shook her head at her sister’s callousness. Only Jessie could haul a man’s body out to his shed, then smoke in his bathroom and bitch about his lack of beer.

     Because fucking in his guest bed with the guy who shot him is so much better.

     She skittered away from that thought. Moving across the room, she sat on the edge of the tub, straightened her back and crossed her legs, assuming the lecture position she’d seen her mother take so many times in the past. Jessie obviously recognized it too; she sighed, flicked the lighter, and took a deep drag before dropping onto the closed lid of the toilet.

     “Usually I’m hanging over this, not sitting on it, when Mom starts in with her shit.” Maddie stared back, stone-faced, and Jessie sighed again. “Fine. What is it?”

     “What are you doing?” Maddie demanded, not aware of how angry she was until she was launched.

     “Look, I’m sorry about the smoking,” Jessie said, rolling her eyes. “But it’s not like the guy can complain about it now.”

     “That’s gross,” Maddie said, “And not what I mean. What are you doing with Caleb? You know he’s 17, right?”

     “Oh my god, is he?” Jessie put a hand to her chest, a look of mocking surprise on her face. “I had no idea!”

     “Cut the shit, Jess.” Maddie leaned forward, deadly serious. “He’s got a thing for you. And you’re sharing a bed.”

     “Now you’re being gross,” Jessie snapped. Dragging the seashell-shaped soap dish across the counter, she tapped ash into the well before jabbing her cigarette in Maddie’s direction. “He’s just a kid.”

     “That’s what I’m saying!”

     “Do you really think that little of me?” She shook her head. “I know how old the kid is. If he’s got a thing, it’s just a little crush. He hasn’t said a word.”

     Maddie wasn’t so sure. “I saw the way he was looking at you.”

     “It’s just looking,” Jessie argued. “Lots of guys look. Even 17 year old guys. He hasn’t done anything.” She inhaled. Exhaled. Blew smoke at the ceiling. “He has nightmares,” she said quietly. She met Maddie’s gaze steadily. “About Summer.”

     Maddie flinched. “That wasn’t my fault,” she protested weakly. “I didn’t-”

     “I know that,” Jessie interrupted. “And he does too.” She paused. “Most of the time.”

     Maddie glanced at the closed door, as if she could see the kid through the wood, ascertain that he was right where she’d left him. Of course he is. He hasn’t been up for days. She’d avoided seeing him at all since they’d taken up in the house, content with the knowledge that he was stuck in bed, unable or unwilling to creep down the hall on his wrecked knee and find her. She was sorry that she’d hurt him so badly – but not sorry that she didn’t have to be afraid that he’d come for her, full of misplaced grief and anger over the death of his friend. She hadn’t forgotten the threat he’d made, even if the others had.

     “He wakes up and cries,” Jessie continued. “He feels better that he’s not alone. Surely you can understand that.” Maddie heard the implication in her tone and looked away, blushing. “Anyway, he’s harmless.”

     I’m not so sure about that. She kept the thought to herself and merely nodded. “Okay.” She shifted in her seat, loosening her back and uncrossing her legs. “I’m sorry,” she offered.

     “Okay.”

     They sat in silence for a few minutes, Jessie smoking one cigarette down to the butt before lighting another. She offered the pack to Maddie, who shook her head. It would just make her jumpy and shaky, especially in her current state of exhaustion. She knew she should drag herself out of this room and lay down for a bit – her shift at the window would come up again in a few hours – but the thought of getting into bed beside Vinnie made her stomach ache with nerves.

     When Jessie finally spoke, her voice was soft. “What are you doing?”

     The question was so genuine, so full of concern, that Maddie was surprised into answering honestly. “I have no idea.” The admission took the last bit of energy out of her; she dropped her head into her hands and stared blindly at the floor, hardly aware when she began to babble.

     “I’m supposed to be married,” she said plaintively. “This isn’t- I’m supposed to be married. And now everyone is dead. They’re dead, but they’re not dead, and he’s…shooting people. But they’re not people, right? They’re not people, not anymore. But they are.” She looked up at her sister, vision blurred with unshed tears. “That woman had a baby, Jess. A baby.”

     Jessie nodded. “Yeah. She did.”

     “And this guy, his friend, Shawn – what if he wasn’t…you know. What if he wasn’t?”

     “He was,” Jessie said firmly. “You saw him.”

     “He could have been hurt,” Maddie argued. “He could have been confused.”

     “No.” Jessie shook her head. “No.”

     Maddie dropped her head back down and sighed. “No.” She tracked her eyes across the pattern on the tile floor, seeing and not seeing the points and swirls that moved in and out of shadow. “I’m terrified,” she admitted quietly. “And he’s…not. He’s not, and that makes me feel better. A little.”

     The silence stretched between them again, broken only by the scratch of the lighter as Jessie lit another cigarette. She’d smoked it halfway down before she spoke again. “He’s not harmless.”

     “What?” Maddie jerked her head up, surprised by the venom in her sister’s voice. “What do you mean?”

     “He’s killed people.”

     “Well, so have I,” Maddie defended. “That’s not fair, to hold that against him.” Even if I do, just a little.

     Jessie shook her head. “That’s not what I mean.” She shifted, clearly uncomfortable, avoiding Maddie’s gaze when she continued. “Even before. Overseas, you know.”

     Maddie frowned. “That’s different.”

     “Maybe.” Jessie paused, seeming to weigh her words carefully. “Do you know why he got out?”

     “No. He hasn’t talked about it.”

     Jessie chewed her lip. “Mom tried to ask, before the wedding. His mom wouldn’t say. Which means he’s got problems.”

     “Well, war is hard.” Maddie wrung her hands, feeling more like her mother with every moment. She disliked the turn the conversation had taken. “Lots of vets have problems.”

     “Doesn’t mean they have to be your problems.” Jessie shrugged. “Besides, he’s not your type anyway.”

     Maddie opened her mouth, prepared to ask exactly what her type was, certain she’d find the answer equal parts accurate and infuriating. Before she could speak, the bathroom door swung open. A hulking figure loomed in the doorway. For a moment, fear turned her throat and chest to ice, stealing her breath and the feeling from her fingers. Then the figure stepped forward, and she saw that it was Vinnie.

     “Hey!” Jessie jumped up, dropping her cigarette into the makeshift ashtray and flashing a huge, phony smile in Vinnie’s direction. “We were just, uh-” She glanced at Maddie quickly. “Just finishing up.” He glanced around the small room, his gaze falling and lingering on the stuffed soap dish. Jessie hung her head. “Sorry. Maddie already yelled at me.”

     His eyes sought Maddie’s through the gloom. He stared at her for a moment, his face drawn and sad, before speaking. “Where’s Shawn?”

     Maddie got to her feet, wary and concerned. “Out back. I told you last night.” She looked at him closely. “Are you okay?”

     “No.” He turned to leave. “I want his bag.”

     “I have it.” He turned back, eyebrows raised in surprise. “I took it,” she explained. “Before we…I have it. It’s downstairs.” She went to his side, placing a gentle hand on his arm. “I’ll get it for you.”

     He didn’t soften under her touch. Nor did he pull away; he waited until she dropped her hand on her own before turning away again and leaving the room. Maddie followed at a distance, watching him shuffle listlessly down the hall.

     “Problems,” Jessie said darkly behind her.

     “Shut up,” Maddie hissed. She glanced back at Caleb, who remained in the bed, half-eaten bowl of cereal in his lap. He glared at her hatefully – until Jessie drew close, and then all signs of anger drained from his face. She watched him for another moment, then closed the bedroom door.

     Problems, she thought as she headed down the stairs in search of Shawn’s bag. Oh yeah. Big. Fucking. Problems.

I don’t remember how old I was when I snuck a peek at my first romance novel.  I don’t remember the title, or the name of the author.  I don’t remember much of anything about the plot.

I do, however, remember the details of the first sex scene I ever read.

The hero character was royalty of some sort – they usually were, in the older novels – and the heroine was not.  The hero character was sexually experienced, and the heroine was not.  The hero character wanted to have sex – and the heroine did not.

So he drugged her.

Okay, that’s not quite true.  He thought about drugging her; he set things up so he could slip her something, something that would cause her pain – pain only an orgasm could relieve.  At the last minute, he backed off on it.  But one of his guards slipped it to her anyway, and gosh darnit, he had no choice but to help her out.  She resisted, at first – until he threatened to let his guards in and have them take care of her in his stead.  Then she gave in, and there was sex.

I haven’t thought about that scene in many years.  Recently it came back to me, and I started musing, not just about the scene, but about the woman who wrote it.  (It was most likely a woman; romance authors usually are.)  What was she thinking when she put that down on paper?  Did she think it was hot?  Was she constrained by the “rape is love” trope that was so huge in that era’s romance novels?  Was she proud of it?  Or did she cringe?

If I tilt my head and squint a little, I can almost see a way that scene could be considered empowering.  The heroine doesn’t want to have sex – not because she doesn’t have the desire, but because her society tells her that she’s wrong and dirty if she does.  The drug takes away her consent – as does that threat of gang-rape by the guards – but it also gives her star billing in the sex scene that follows.  The focus is not on the hero and his pleasure; his sole purpose is to help her, which means bring her to orgasm.  Multiple times.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s a fucked up scene.  But I can also see how it was written.

Straightening up, she barely had time to register his arrival when he was on her.  The wall scraped her back as he pushed her against it, his hands in her hair.  She gave a muffled “Oh!” when his lips met hers; his tongue slipped in her mouth, hot and desperate with adrenaline and fear.  When he finally pulled away, she gasped.

When I was younger, a man shoved me up against a wall like that.  I was 18; he was decades older, basically a stranger, someone I sold coffee to once or twice a week.  He’d made my politeness into something other than it was, a delusion that came to its head in the back parking lot of a gas station.  There were complicating factors, things that affected the events that followed, but the upshot is that I testified in court and he went to jail.  Back to jail.  Where, for all I know, he still is.

My husband has tried to grab me like that – one of those passionate, “I have must have you now” embraces.  I don’t melt; I don’t go weak in the knees with lust.  I freeze, like a cornered animal, and wait for him to stop touching me.  That kind of thing is the exact opposite of “hot” for me.  He hasn’t done it in a long time, and I’m grateful.  I hate it.

So why the hell did I write it?

We could come up with a lot of reasons that sound good.  Maybe I was “reclaiming” the experience.  Maybe I thought it fit the characters.  Maybe I set aside my own personal bias against that kind of interaction and acknowledged that it’s something other people like.  All of those could be true.  But I know what I think.

I think I wrote it without thinking about it at all.

When I write, I’m fascinated by the things that are revealed to me as I go along.  If I get into the right groove, I learn things about the characters, their environment, the plot, whatever, that I didn’t know until I started.  It’s interesting, the things that come out when I let myself just go.

I also learn exactly what I’ve internalized, just by virtue of living in the society I live in and having the experiences that I’ve had.

I try to fight these things, on a conscious level; hence why Marion is obsessed with brides wearing white and Maddie pushes back against it, or why she and her mother have that conversation about “fault” when it comes to infidelity.  But sometimes they slip by me, and I don’t even notice until I go back and read my work over again.  Vinnie’s kind of grabby, isn’t he?  Always yanking Maddie out of the way, steering her where he wants her to go.  I noticed that, after I wrote it, and made a conscious decision to have her assert herself when it happens.  But I didn’t realize it was there, while I was writing.  Just like I didn’t realize that I was slut-shaming Maddie’s sister – an addict whose choices are judged equally, regardless of whether she makes them deliberately or while under the influence, when her ability to truly choose anything is pretty compromised.  I noticed that, too, far later than I should have.  It’s out there now, and all I can do is try to work against it moving forward.

I consider myself a feminist.  And it bothers me that I have these issues pop up, that I have these notions and ideas that I so strongly disagree with, just lurking under the surface, waiting to rear their ugly heads.  In the normal course of things, I’d go back and re-write, tweak things so they were erased from the plot, but that’s not how this works.  So instead I try to recognize them, fix the problem as best I can, and thank god that I’m finding these things before the whole book is finished.  Because who wants to be “that” author?  The one whose work encourages women to fall in love with an abuser, whose book says that rape is okay or stalking is normal or a woman’s refusal is only good for as long as it takes for a man to convince her otherwise, however he may do it.  I sure as hell don’t.

People think that writing romance is easy.  I have a whole post coming about why I disagree, from a technical stand-point.  But I’ve also found it difficult on a personal level.  Writing about sex, love and relationships shines a light on the dark shit you’ve swallowed, and confronting that is a hard, scary thing.  I find myself not only grappling with what I learn about myself, but with the responsibility I feel toward the people who are going to read what I write.  I’ve had the enormous pleasure of getting to know many other romance writers over the last two years, and I’ve found that they all feel that sense of responsibility; many of them wonder if they’re writing in a way that doesn’t alienate or harm the women who read their work.

I worry about the not-quite-woman who takes a peek, and finds a heroine being jacked up against a wall for a first kiss.  And my pen feels very, very heavy.

On Loss, and Other Things

Posted: April 4, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

Two years ago, when I realized that my 30th birthday was approaching and I hadn’t yet done any of the things I wanted to do with my life (other than have children), I panicked just a little bit. I made the decision to do two things that were at the top of my list: go back to college, and finally publish a book. I’ve done really, really well at one of those things. The other…

I enjoy school. I’ve loved all of the classes I’ve taken over the last two years, even the ones I was required to take for my degree. I’m set to graduate in December with a nearly perfect GPA, job experience, a portfolio full of work and a pile of recommendation letters for absolutely anything I choose to do next. It’s been awesome, and I’m not for one minute sorry that I did it, even though an associate’s degree in creative writing isn’t exactly one of those “practical” degrees we’re all supposed to be out there getting. No regrets.

Well, one.

See, the point of the degree, when I enrolled, was to improve my writing skills and make connections in the local writing community. Done, and done! I was also supposed to simultaneously use those improved skills to keep churning out chapters for the novel I’ve been posting here, which I’ve…kind of done. With gaps. Increasingly large, painfully disappointing gaps. I have this one area in my life where I feel very accomplished and fantastic, and this other area where I feel like I’ve not only dropped the balls, they’ve shattered all over the floor and I have no idea how to pick them up and glue them back together. And the unfortunate thing is that the area where I’m succeeding was supposed to be the temporary fun part, and this other area was supposed to be the part I would build on for the future. Somehow, in the last two years, things got all twisted around and upside down, and I lost sight of what I set out to do.

A few weeks ago I had another one of those panic moments. I was deep into the process of looking at four-year schools to transfer to, with the intention of getting a BA in Creative Writing instead of the AA. And then maybe an MA. So I could teach writing! Because I do that, a bit, in my current job, and it’s really rewarding and fun and I love it dearly.

And then my husband said, “That’s wonderful! But, uh, when will you write?”

Oh. Oh yes, that.

The last two years have taught me that I can’t attend school full-time, properly parent my children, maintain my sanity and my marriage AND give my writing the time and attention it needs and deserves. I can’t. And if I were to pursue this teaching thing, that would be another four years, minimum, of being stretched incredibly thin and feeling like a failure somewhere and still not, you know, doing that thing I really really really want to do, which is finish and publish a fucking book.

I like teaching. But I like writing a whole hell of a lot more.

So that’s where I was, a few weeks ago, leaning toward just finishing the AA and getting back to the thing I really love to do. And then two things happened.

Someone I like and respect gave me some advice that pushed me a little further toward the writing side of things.

And someone I liked and respected, whom I’d known for almost a decade and considered a sort of private role model, passed away. And when she did, nearly everyone said, along with the grief and the heartache, “Oh no. She was so close to doing the thing she really wanted to do, and would have been so good at. What a terrible shame.”

I don’t want to talk about her too much; some stories are simply not mine to tell. My sadness is nothing compared to that felt by those who were closer friends, or her family. But she inspired me, when she started to pursue that dream. She inspired me when she kept trying to reach it, even when she was fighting the illness that would eventually end her life. She was an incredible, kind, compassionate person, and she would have been awesome at what she wanted to do. I will miss her.

So those two things happened, on top of some other things, and the end result was a massive reality check. I looked around at the path I was barreling down and realized, holy shit. This is so, so far from where I set out to be. And it’s not really, in the end, what I want. Maybe someday! But not right now.

The point is this: I have been working. I have an outline for the rest of this book – which I don’t think is cheating, serial-wise, but if it is we’ll just toss a flag on the field and keep running. (I don’t actually watch sports, so just go with that for me.) I’ll be starting the next chapter very soon. My goal is to have the whole thing done by the end of the summer. From there, I will figure out a timeline for the next book.

Yes. The next book. There’s at least one more in this universe. I have the outlines for two other, entirely unrelated manuscripts as well, that are more in the vein of mainstream paranormal romances. I think you’ll like them. I hope you will.

Hang tight with me, my loves. Shit is being straightened out. The path isn’t entirely clear for me yet, but I’m getting there. I forgot, for a little while, what it was I wanted to do. But I’ve remembered now.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Posted: January 19, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , , ,

     They argued, very briefly, over the right course of action.  The merit of waiting until after dark, when they’d be less likely to be seen hauling around a dead body, was weighed against the risk that the moldering corpse on the doorstep would draw others’ attention.  In the end, it was Vinnie who spurred them to act immediately; none of them wanted him to come back downstairs and feel compelled to participate in the removal of his friend.  He’d done enough already.

     Once things were decided, Jessie smoothly took charge, a shift Maddie was only too happy to allow.  She’d slept through the aftermath of the Summer debacle; Jessie, on the other hand, had worked beside Vinnie to clean up that mess, making her uniquely, albeit grotesquely, suited to the task at hand.

     “Run upstairs and find sheets,” Jessie told Hannah.  “A lot of them.  There’s a closet in the master bathroom.”  She cocked her head, listening to Caleb’s continued screaming from the bedroom upstairs.  “And shut him up.”

     Hannah rushed off, taking the stairs two at a time.  “Grab my shoes!” Maddie called after her.  She didn’t relish the thought of going outside barefoot under the best of times, and it certainly wasn’t appropriate now.

     When Hannah returned, arms full of sheets, Jessie continued.  “We’ll need to wrap him,” she explained.  “That’s what we did with Summer.  He’ll be heavy, and…gross.”  She shuddered.  “Using the sheets will keep us clean, and make it easier to move him.”

     “Move him where?” Maddie asked.

     Jessie chewed the inside of her cheek, thinking.  “There’s probably an alley behind the garden.”  She shook her head.  “Who knows what’s out there, though.  And getting him down the street and around will take too long.”

     “We could drag him through the house,” Hannah suggested.  “Take him out through the gate.”

     Jessie nodded.  “Through the house is good,” she agreed.  “But I don’t want to open the gate.”

     They stood in silence for a moment, lost in thought.

     “There’s a shed,” Maddie finally offered.  She felt terrible suggesting it – a rundown garden shed was no place to bury a person – but there seemed to be no other options.  It’s better than Summer got, she told herself.

     Jessie smiled, clearly pleased.  “Good!  Safe, and private.”  She nodded, decided.  “Okay.  Let’s go.”

     They surveyed the street carefully first, checking to be sure that no one had appeared in the time it had taken for them to get a plan together.  Maddie was surprised when they saw nothing; if there were people holed up in the houses around them, they apparently weren’t the type to venture out and investigate gun shots.  On the other hand, no dead had been drawn by the sound of the shots either.  That was good.  Hopefully they could get this job done before any stumbled down the road and decided they’d found a dinner buffet.

     The task was far worse than Maddie had imagined.  Rain continued to pour down, soaking them the moment they stepped onto the porch; the sheets sagged and flopped around their knees when they tried to shake them out, and water ran into their eyes.  They struggled with the wet blankets, and then with the dead body, which proved much heavier than any of them had anticipated.

     They tried lifting him by the feet, intending to shift him onto the sheets they’d placed on the pavement, bottom half first, then the top.  A good plan, had they not forgotten one thing: his prosthetic leg.  Jessie grabbed it and tugged, grunting with effort, and the whole thing flew off in her hands; she stumbled backwards into the porch stairs and landed hard on her side, cursing.  Maddie felt a crazed laugh bubble in her throat and clamped down on it quickly.

     “Fuck!”  Jessie got back on her feet, wincing, and threw the leg down on the sheet.  “Let’s roll him.”

They did, working together and using his clothes as the leverage they needed to get him up and over.  Maddie averted her eyes from the back of his head, grateful that the rain had already washed away much of the blood but disinclined nonetheless to get a good look at the damage Vinnie’s little gun had caused.  She thought again of Summer, and struggled to keep her stomach under control.  Don’t puke, she told herself sternly.  Just breathe.

     Jessie started to wrap the sheet around him.

     “Wait!”

     She looked up, annoyed.  “What?”

     Maddie reached down and grabbed the pack on Shawn’s back, a rough canvas bag that had seen better days.  “We should take this.”  When Jessie rolled her eyes and moved to cover him again, Maddie warded her off.  “Vinnie might want it,” she said.

     Wiping streaming water from her face, Maddie bent down and worked to move the bag’s straps down Shawn’s arms.  Jessie helped, tugging his arms around so Maddie could get the bag off.

     “Happy?” she asked, huffing.

     Maddie nodded.  She ran up the stairs and dropped the bag in the foyer, wincing at the heavy clunk it made when it hit the floor.  Hope that wasn’t breakable.

     She never knew how long it took them to get him up the stairs and inside, through the house, and back into the garden.  It felt like hours.  Before long, the muscles in her shoulders were screaming in pain; her thighs shook with each step and her ears rang, filled with the hum of over-exertion.  The others, she saw, weren’t doing much better – Hannah’s face was beet red by the time they were done, and Jessie’s eyes held a wild, faraway look, like she’d checked out of what they were doing some time ago and didn’t know how to come back.  The ground in the garden was soft and wet, sucking at their shoes as they trudged from the back door to the shed, slowing them down and miring the whole enterprise in thick, black mud.  When the wind picked up, wrenching the shed door from Maddie’s hand and sending it slamming into the metal side of the shed with a loud bang, she sobbed.  She wanted to be done.

     Finally, it was.  They wrestled him into an empty spot in the shed and left him there, propped against a box labeled “X-Mas Lites” and a snow shovel with a broken handle.  The sheet covering Shawn’s face had fallen down in the process, revealing one glassy eye that seemed to stare at Maddie as she moved around him; whispering an apology, she flipped the corner back over and backed out quickly, slamming the shed door behind her.

     Re-entering the house, Maddie felt the intense urge to change out of her clothes.  They were wet and dirty, which certainly contributed to her sense of discomfort.  But more than that, she was acutely aware that she was wearing one of Shawn’s t-shirts, swiped from his drawer when she’d run out of clean clothes.  The feel of the damp cotton as it clung to her back made her skin crawl.

     Hannah must have sensed her unease.  “Go get changed,” she said kindly.  “Both of you.  I’ll go up when you’re done.”

     Smiling gratefully, Maddie grabbed a lantern from the kitchen table and headed up the stairs, not bothering to wait for her sister.  She felt foolish for needing the light – she’d grown used to moving through the house in the dark over the last few days, and it wasn’t quite evening outside yet anyway – but she couldn’t bring herself to go upstairs without it.  The air inside seemed heavier than it had earlier, as if the house knew that its owner was gone.  She’d thought it had seemed sad when they’d first arrived.  Now it felt darkly depressed.

     She hesitated outside the bedroom door, even debated knocking, for politeness’ sake.  She didn’t want to bother Vinnie, nor answer any questions he might have about what they’d been doing – their trip through the house had not been silent, and she could only imagine what he’d been picturing, sitting up here alone in the dark.

     “Vinnie?” she called softly as she entered.

     She lifted the lantern, regretting that she’d grabbed one of the crappy blue lights instead of a regular one; it did little to dispel the deep shadows in the bedroom.  She saw the shape of him, perched on the edge of the bed, seemingly staring at the wall in front of him.  As far as she could tell, he still wore his wet clothes.

     “Just give me a minute,” she said.  She changed quickly, draping her jeans over the bedpost to dry; the shirt she threw in the corner, not caring when it would be suitable to wear as she had no intention of putting it on again, ever.  She slipped into the first clean clothes she could find, sweatpants and a sweater, a combination that looked ridiculous but was at least warm and dry.  She cast surreptitious glances in Vinnie’s direction, but his gaze remained fixed on the wall.

     Once she was dressed, she went to him, not sure what to do but unable to leave him sitting there in his still-wet clothes.  The light from the lantern gave his face a cold, bruised appearance; his eyes were dark holes.  Swallowing hard, she reached out to touch him.

     “Vinnie,” she said.  “You need to change.”

     When he grabbed her, she jumped; his fingers were icy and damp, digging into her forearm.  Slowly, he leaned forward, tilting toward her until his forehead rested on her chest.  He moved deliberately, giving her time to shift away, but she remained still, allowing him to pillow his face against her.  He did not melt, or sigh; it occurred to her, as he sat there stiff and awkward, that he was unused to seeking out or receiving comfort.  Her heart flooded with sympathy.

     “Ssshh,” she whispered.  Carefully, she ran the fingers of her loose hand through his hair, stroking his head until she felt his grip on her other arm relax.  “I’m sorry,” she told him quietly.  “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”

     After a few minutes, she felt him let go; he sagged against her as the tension drained away from his body.  She let him rest for a moment longer, then coaxed him into sitting up straight so she could tug at the hem of his wet shirt.  “Come on,” she encouraged.  “Let’s get you dry.”

     He complied wordlessly, lifting his arms as she pulled the shirt over his head and then standing so she could undo his belt.  She remembered when he’d helped her the same way, after Summer had died, and the memory imbued her with renewed tenderness.  This is worse, she thought sadly.  Seeing Vinnie like this, limp and defeated, made her ache.

     She moved to find him new clothes, and he grabbed her again, gentler this time but still insistent.  His hands shook as they fumbled at the buttons of her sweater; one went spiraling off into the darkness, popped from its thread when he gave a frustrated tug.  She covered his hands with her own, trying to stop him.

     “This isn’t a good idea,” she said.

     He lifted his face to hers.  Even in the poor light of the lantern, she could see the shiny track of tears that coursed down his left cheek.

     “Please,” he said hoarsely.  His fingers clenched at her shirt.  “Please.”

     Maddie hesitated, but only for a moment.  She knew she was right – this was no doubt a terrible idea, especially after she’d spent days distancing herself for the sake of her own heart.  But the need in his voice ignited her own.  They both needed to forget, if only for a little while.

     Taking a deep breath, she undid her sweater.

     His lips, like his hands, were cold on her skin; she shivered when he kissed her chest.  His tongue, on the other hand, was warm; he dragged it across her breasts, tracing the line of each cup of her bra, leaving behind a trail of heat that raced straight through her body.  When he pulled the fabric down, to lap at her nipples, she clutched his hair and moaned.

     Moving slowly, he kissed his way down the length of her torso, stopping in places to lick and nip.  His fingers danced around her waist, stroking the soft, sensitive skin of her belly.  He started to drag her pants down from around her hips, and she stopped him again.  She ached at the thought of having his mouth on her – god knew she’d thought about it enough since the last time – but it didn’t seem entirely fair.  Instead, she pushed against his chest until he fell back onto the bed, and dropped to her knees.

     He tried valiantly to control her movements, tangling his fingers into her hair and pushing her down, but she refused to be rushed; each time she felt pressure on the back of her head she paused, waiting until he released her before accepting more of him into her mouth.  He groaned in frustration and thrashed on the bed.  She waited until he was still, then raked her nails down the inside of his thighs.  He pulsed against her tongue, and she did it again.

     “Harder,” he gasped.

     She complied, and was rewarded with a deep, satisfied moan.  She stroked her fingers along the same path that she’d scratched, hoping she hadn’t left marks on his skin.  Like the others.

     The reminder brought her up short.  She sat back, releasing him abruptly, and swiped the back of her hand across her mouth.  Vinnie didn’t notice the change in her demeanor; that, or he pretended not to.  He sat up swiftly, cupped her face in his hands and leaned down, kissing her hard.  Her mouth opened automatically under his.  When his tongue swept across hers, she wondered if he could taste himself, a thought that made her clit throb.

     He gripped her shoulders and pulled her to feet.  Her pants were gone before she could blink, tossed across the room, and then he helped her onto his lap.  She balanced her knees on either side of him while his hand slipped down between them, finding her wet and more than ready.  His fingers plunged inside her, and she gasped.

     “Madelyn,” he moaned, burrowing his face between her breasts.  “Oh baby…oh god…Madelyn.”

     She grasped his shoulders and arched her back, urging him deeper.  She saw herself as if from a distance: naked from the waist down, torn sweater hanging open, breasts exposed and trussed high by the bra she still wore.  For just a moment she was embarrassed to be here again, preparing to fuck this man when she wasn’t sure they even liked each other all that much.

     Then his hands were on her hips, guiding her down onto him, and she forgot about everything but the way he felt inside of her.  He gripped her firmly and nipped at her neck.  “Ride,” he growled in her ear.

     Obeying that order, she found, required no thought at all.

 

 

     She waited again until he’d fallen asleep, then dressed in the dark.  It occurred to her, as she searched for her sweats, that they’d slept together twice now, and both times she’d been the one to slip away after, like someone escaping a bad one-night stand.  After the fight they’d had about him being uncaring, she felt hypocritical and guilty – though not guilty enough to get back in the bed.

     Instead, she crept from the bedroom as quietly as possible, shut the door behind her, and headed back downstairs.  She’d come to a decision as she lay in the dark, waiting for Vinnie’s breathing to deepen and slow.  She hoped that her sister was still in the mood to lead for a little while longer.

     It was time for Maddie to learn everything she could about the guns.