Archive for the ‘Chapters’ Category

Chapter Fourteen

Posted: December 8, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Vinnie was apoplectic.

     Perched on the arm of her sister’s sofa, Maddie watched him pace. He strode from one end of the living room to the other, muttering to himself, occasionally yanking a hand back through his hair so hard that she winced in sympathy.

     He hadn’t spoken since they’d discovered that Caleb, along with the car, had disappeared. He’d followed them up the stairs to Jessie’s apartment, eyes smoldering, unaffected by Jessie’s inane chatter. She hadn’t noticed the change in his demeanor, nor seemed to register the loss of their only way out of the city; she’d remembered on the way in that she had “Really, totally awesome danish” somewhere in the kitchen, and all of her inebriated energy had been focused on getting up the stairs and to her pastry stash. She’d squawked with indignation when Maddie had steered her immediately into the bedroom upon entry.

     “Quiet,” Maddie had hissed, closing the door quickly. “Shut up about the fucking danish for a minute.”

     “But I’m hungry!” Jessie had whined. She’d flopped onto the bed, full of drama. “I haven’t eaten all day!”

     “Then I guess you’re going to be pretty sick later.” Maddie had shaken her head, disgusted. Leave it to Jessie to down a gallon of alcohol on an empty stomach. Checking her watch, she’d reasoned they probably had half an hour before it caught up with her and Jessie passed out; car or no car, they weren’t going anywhere any time soon. Not if they wanted to avoid traveling in a cloud of tequila sickness. “Just stay here,” she’d told her sister, grabbing her by the ankles and hoisting the rest of her up on to the bed.

     She’d slipped into the bathroom, listening to Jessie’s continued whining with half an ear, and filled the rinse cup with water. When she came back out she’d seen that Jessie had wriggled herself into a seated position on the bed, reclined back on the pillows, and had nodded with satisfaction. “Drink this,” she’d ordered. “All of it. Try not to puke. I’ll be back in a minute.”

     That had been an hour ago. She’d peeked in on Jessie twice since then, finding her snoring loudly in the bed, and then returned to her place on the couch.

     She wanted to do something, say something, anything that would make him stop pacing and mumbling. She’d already suggested calling the police, to report the car as stolen; he’d glared at her for just a moment, hand going reflexively to the waist of his jeans, before he’d resumed ignoring her in favor of his temper tantrum. She’d thought of the gun, transferred to the glove box, and wondered if it was unregistered. She’d been so out of it that morning, she hadn’t even noticed how he’d explained his possession of it to the police. Maybe he’d distracted them from the topic. There’d been a lot of other things to talk about.

     Was that really this morning? She felt like she’d lived a week in the time since she’d woken up.

     Maybe turning on the television would snap him out of it. She’d waited, mostly because she wasn’t entirely sure where the remote was, but enough was enough. He might be content to talk to himself all night, but she wanted to know what the hell was going on.

     Wrinkling her nose, she started sifting through the clutter on Jessie’s coffee table. Old magazines, empty cigarette packs, something that looked suspiciously like a roach clip (I didn’t see that, I didn’t see that), candy bar wrappers, old tissues – Maddie wondered if her sister ever threw anything away. Not finding what she wanted in the detritus, she turned to the sofa, thinking maybe the remote had been stuffed behind one of the pillows or down in the cushions. That was where hers always ended up, after all.

     “Aha!” She blew couch crumbs off the buttons and turned, holding it up triumphantly. When Vinnie continued to ignore her, she shrugged and sat back down, turning on the television. She clicked away quickly from whatever trashy reality station Jessie had last watched and found the news. What she saw took her breath away.

     Jessie, or rather Roy, had been right. Chopper cameras showed the quarantine blockades, barricades erected in front of both bridges leading out of the city. Armed soldiers stood in front, positioned behind short wire fencing that had clearly been thrown up to keep the masses of people from rushing at them. The shot lingered over those crowded on the other side of the fence, desperation visible even on faces obscured by the ubiquitous cotton masks. The fence trembled with the force of their shaking; Maddie wondered how long it would hold up to the onslaught.

     The shot switched to a grainy on-the-ground camera, positioned on the civilian side of the fence; text at the bottom of the screen indicated it was amateur footage. “Return to your homes.” A uniformed man stood a few feet away, shouting at the crowd through a megaphone. “This is now military property; trespassers will be arrested. Return to your homes. You are under quarantine. Trespassers will be arrested. Return to you-”

     A rock sailed into view from off-camera, missing the man by a wide margin. The screams around the camera operator intensified, and the footage grew shakier as he was jostled by more people streaming toward the front of the fence. Another rock was lobbed, followed by a bottle. As the soldiers came forward, weapons drawn, the footage was quickly cut off and the scene returned to the newsroom.

     “Well, that was…” The anchorwoman cleared her throat nervously, clearly unsettled. “As we said, that was video taken just 20 minutes ago, at the Chesterfield Bridge, where a military blockade has come under attack. We have no word yet as to the status of that blockade. City officials have advised that a statement from the mayor will be released sometime in the next hour, and that citizens are reminded to stay in their homes and away from the quarantine barricades.”

     “For those of you just tuning in, a quarantine has been instituted for the city and surrounding areas, including Triton, Mayfield and Carrington. Additional areas may be quarantined upon assessment by the CDC and the Department of Health. Citizens inside the quarantined areas are advised that there will be no incoming or outgoing traffic for the duration of the quarantine, which at this time is unknown. The CDC is searching for a Z4N2 vaccine, which has thus far resulted in 150,000 hospitalizations in the city itself, and 100,000 deaths. Emergency medical facilities have been erected at Bayer Stadium, to handle overflow from local emergency rooms. Citizens are advised, in lieu of a vaccine, to procure a flu shot as soon as possible, wear masks in public and avoid being in crowded areas until further notice.”

     The anchorwoman paused, taking a shaky breath before she continued. “Officials don’t yet know how Z4N2 is spread, nor have they provided a timeline for the infection. However, it is known at this time that Z4N2-” Here she cut off, looking away from the camera incredulously. “Is that right?” she asked someone off-screen. “We have confirmation on that?” The answer came, unintelligible, and she closed her eyes. Maddie thought the woman was going to begin crying, live on television. When she opened them again, the fear on her face sent a shiver down Maddie’s spine. “It is known at this time,” the woman said, her voice unsteady, “That Z4N2 has a one hundred percent mortality rate.”

     She looked off to the side again and started to speak, but before she could the picture cut out and the network went to commercials. Maddie muted the volume and turned to look at Vinnie, who had finally stopped pacing.

     “Z4N2,” he said flatly. “That’s clever.”

     At that, Maddie exploded. “Will you stop?” she screamed. “Did you see those people? Those soldiers with their guns? People are dying. What’s wrong with you?”

     He stared at her, unmoved. “Do you know the last time the government quarantined a city?”

     “What?” She blinked, thrown off. “No.”

     “1919. Spanish Flu. They didn’t even quarantine for SARS. Or H1N1. Why do you think they’re doing it now?”

     “Uh, because this is dangerous? More dangerous than the others were?”

     He shook his head. “Sure. That’s why they’re keeping people in with guns.”

     She threw up her hands, beyond patience. “Fine. You’re right. They’re keeping people in because they’re going to eat each other.”

     “And infect each other,” he said. “You know that. What do you think killed your friends? Rabies?”

     Maddie glared at him. “Fuck you,” she said. Rising, she strode across the room, toward the little balcony off her sister’s kitchen. Yanking hard, forcing the seldom-used door open, she stepped outside and breathed deep. The fresh, cold air was a welcome relief. She sat gingerly in an old metal chair and leaned back, focusing on the night sky. She wished she could clear her mind of the images she’d just seen, the sight of all of those people clinging to the fence, begging to be let through. She wondered how many of them were still there, or had been arrested. Or shot. She didn’t know much about the military, but she suspected throwing things at them wasn’t handled lightly.

     She didn’t know how long she sat there before he came out, stepping quietly onto the deck. He leaned against the railing, not looking at her.

     “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I broke our deal. I shouldn’t have said that.”

     She shook her head. “It’s not about the deal.” She kept her eyes on the stars. “They’re dead. He’s dead.”

     “Jack?”

     “Yeah.” She thought for a moment. “I was there, you know. Right before he died. He wasn’t right. He wasn’t…himself.” She laughed suddenly, filled with bitterness. “Whoever that was. I thought I knew.”

     Reaching into his pocket, Vinnie pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “I found these, in the kitchen. Will she care?” When Maddie shrugged, he shook one out and lit it, taking a long drag. He stared at the glowing tip for a moment before asking, “Do you miss him?”

     Maddie was surprised by the question. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Yes. And no. We were together a long time. I loved him. But it wasn’t…I guess it wasn’t real. I have no idea how long he was sleeping with her.” She chewed her lip. “I miss who I thought he was.”

     “He was a dick,” Vinnie said.

     She sighed. “Yeah. I guess he was.” She rolled her head to the side, watching him smoke. She couldn’t see his face in the darkness, only the glow of the cigarette as it moved toward his mouth and then away. “If you’re right,” she said quietly, “And I mean big, big if. But if you’re right…”

     “Then he’s one too,” Vinnie finished for her.

     “Right.” She swallowed hard. “Bill, and Chrissy. They were my friends. But he was…everything. And I can’t-” She stopped suddenly, afraid she was going to cry. “I can’t think about that. I won’t.”

     He was silent. After a moment he took a last drag, then flicked the butt over the railing, down to the street below. Before going in he paused, turning his head slightly but still not looking at her.

     “You won’t have the luxury of not thinking about it forever.”

     Sitting alone in the dark, she shivered.

Chapter Thirteen

Posted: December 1, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Elbowing her way toward the bar, Maddie tried to think of a way to get her sister down, dressed and out of the building without making a huge scene. Judging by the way she was now grinding herself all over her tequila-dispenser, it wasn’t going to be an easy task.

     Easier than anything else you’ve dealt with today, she told herself. Drunk sister is nothing compared to crazed neighbor, or zombie-hunter chauffeur.

     Speaking of, she felt him at her back, pressing against her as they moved through the crowd. She could feel the weight of his hand on her hip; when they were jostled by a pair of dancers, it slipped under her shirt for a moment, searing her skin. She jumped, reaching back to move his hand; instead she found her own hand grabbed before she could touch him.

     “Hey, sweetheart!” The grabber tugged her forward and into his arms, twirling her away from Vinnie before she could speak. “You look like you like to dance.”

     Maddie forced a smile, not wanting a confrontation she didn’t feel capable of dealing with right now. “I’m here with someone!” she shouted.

     “I don’t see him,” the man said, friendly enough but with a slight edge to his tone. He slid her closer to him, wrapping both arms around her waist and jutting her up against his crotch.

     “He was right behind me,” Maddie said. She slid her hands up his arms and onto his chest, then pushed, trying to create space between them. He gripped her waist tighter, his pleasant smile contorting into a leer.

     “I’d like to see you from behind,” he said, leaning in to kiss her ear. She laughed before she could stop herself, startling him into drawing back. “You think that’s funny?” he asked.

     She shook her head. “No. Sorry. I really can’t dance, though. I have to find my date.”

     He opened his mouth to argue with her again, but before he could speak a large hand clamped down on his shoulder. Vinnie jerked him back, shoving him into the crowd.

     “Vinnie,” she said, placing a hand on his arm. He shook her off, ignoring her in favor of glaring at her new friend, who was turning an alarming shade of red as the people around them turned to see what was happening.

     “Hey man,” the guy protested, “No need to be an ass. We were just dancing.”

     “You always grab the women you want to dance with?” Vinnie asked, taking a step forward. Maddie looked at his stance, the jut of his chin, and knew he was going to hit the other guy, no matter what he said. Rolling her eyes, she wedged herself between them and used her body weight to push Vinnie back, away from the guy and into the space that had opened in the crush.

     “Let it be,” she told him. He glared at her; for a moment she thought he’d shove her aside and go back, but to her relief he relaxed and let himself be pushed further away, until the guy disappeared into the swirl of people dancing.

     “Are you okay?” he asked.

     “Seriously?” She shook her head, annoyed. “He was handsy. I could have handled it.”

     “He grabbed you.”

     “And?” She rolled her eyes again. “I’m used to it. I would have kicked him, eventually. It always works.” She looked toward the bar, where all signs of her sister had disappeared. “I’m more worried about getting Jessie out of here. The guy she’s with might not be as easy to kick.” Turning back to him, she saw that he was scanning the crowd, no doubt looking to start his fight again. “It’s not a big deal. What’s your problem?”

     He touched her wrist carefully and she looked away, not wanting to admit that it was not happy about being grabbed, nor with all the pushing. She was half-hoping Jessie had some good painkillers hidden in her bathroom, as she suspected ibuprofen wasn’t going to cut it when she tried to sleep tonight.

     “You’re not so great at defending yourself,” he said.

     She glared, hating his condescending tone. “Drunks in bars are different from crazy neighbors,” she snapped, yanking her hand away from his. “Let’s just find my sister and get the hell out of here, okay?”

     He nodded, and they resumed their push toward the bar. As they neared she noted again that Jessie wasn’t up on the bar top, and for a second she feared that the other woman had slipped out with her inked-up friend while they’d been fighting the testosterone wars. A glance down the line of stools, however, relieved that concern.

     “Um.” Cringing, she stepped toward the guy whose lap her sister was poured into and tapped him on the shoulder. “Sorry!” she shouted at him, leaning in so he could hear her over the music. “I need to borrow your friend!”

     Jessie looked up with bleary eyes, lipstick smeared across her mouth; for a second she didn’t seem to recognize Maddie, then her face lit up. “Mads!” She threw an arm out, losing her balance and threatening to topple to the floor. “Roy! This is my sister!”

     Maddie eyed the guy up again. “Roy? As in ‘Roy’s’?”

     “That’s me!” the guy said jovially. “And you’re Maddie, as in, ‘my sister Maddie is a bitch’!”

     Maddie gritted her teeth and smiled. “That’s me,” she agreed. Reaching out, she grabbed her sister’s arm, squeezing tighter than necessary. Jessie’s grin faltered, and a little of the haze left her eyes. “We have to go, Jess.”

     Jessie shook her head, pouting. “I’m having fun! Roy was about to let me see the back room.”

     “I bet he was.”

     Maddie adjusted her grip and yanked, pulling Jessie off of the stool; the girl stumbled a little, catching herself against the bar. When she straightened up, all of the friendliness was gone from her face. “I don’t want to leave. Go home, Madelyn.”

     “Jessica.” Vinnie stepped forward, shouldering Maddie out of the way. “There’s an emergency. With your mom. You have to come.”

     Maddie watched as her sister leaned in and ran a hand down Vinnie’s arm, the smile she directed at him warm and seductive. “Are you here to take me home, Sergeant?” When Vinnie returned the smile and winked, Maddie looked away.

     “Hey, wait a minute!” Roy protested, trying to rise from his stool.

     “Easy there,” Vinnie told him, pushing the guy back down. Despite his size, in his state Roy was no match for the taller man’s strength; Vinnie’s easy grip kept him in his seat. “It’s a family thing. Okay?”

     “She drank all my tequila!” Roy complained.

     “Last I saw, you weren’t stopping her,” Maddie told him.

     “Well, yeah, but she said…” Roy trailed off, perhaps realizing he didn’t want to discuss what the tequila trade-off was supposed to be with the sister and large friend of his would-be conquest.

     Reaching into his pocket, Vinnie pulled out a handful of cash and threw it on the bar. “Buy another bottle,” he said. Before Roy could respond they were gone, pushing their way back through the crowd toward the door. Maddie found herself trailing behind while Vinnie hugged her sister to his side, guiding her carefully across the room. Jessie stumbled and giggled, gripping his shirt.

     As they stepped outside, Maddie realized belatedly that they hadn’t thought to grab the rest of her sister’s clothes. Shrugging out of her sweater, she held it out. “Put this on,” she ordered.

     Jessie laughed. “I’m fine. It’s not even cold out.”

     “Someone will see you,” Maddie hissed.

     “Who?” Jessie asked.

     Looking around, Maddie noticed what she hadn’t on their walk down – the blocks between the bar and Jessie’s building were completely deserted. The few shops were closed, which made sense given the hour, but so was the bodega on the corner, and those places never closed. Roy’s appeared to be the only place open, as far as Maddie could see. There weren’t even any taxis on the road here.

     “Where the hell is everybody?”

     “Quarantine,” Jessie slurred.

     “What?”

     “What quarantine?” Vinnie stopped, turning her so that she faced him. When she didn’t answer he shook her slightly, jarring her. “What do you mean?”

     “Uh.” Jessie reached up, holding her head for a moment. “You know. The quarantine. Nobody in, nobody out.”

     “Nobody in or out of what?” Maddie asked.

     “The city,” Jessie said. “It was on the radio or something. S’why Roy gave out drinks.”

     “But we were listening to the radio,” Maddie said. “To the traffic reports. They would have said something.”

     “Not if it happened after we turned it off,” Vinnie interjected. “You got tired of hearing it. We switched to CDs.”

     Maddie looked at him, horrified. “We got quarantined while we were listening to Springsteen?!”

     “Ew,” Jessie said, giggling. “Did you pick that? He sucks.”

     “Shut up!” Maddie threw the sweater at her sister. “Put that on! And shut up!” She grabbed Vinnie’s hand, digging her nails into his palm. “Why would they do this? We have to get home!”

     “Oh yeah.” Jessie looked up from buttoning the sweater, her brow furrowed in exaggerated concentration. “What’s the emergency? Is Mom okay?”

     “I lied,” Vinnie told her. “She’s fine. But she wants you home.”

     “Chrissy,” Maddie said. She realized she’d have to say it. “Chrissy died.”

     “Oh.” Jessie reached out, enveloping Maddie in an awkward, boozy hug. “I’m sorry. That sucks.”

     “Yeah.” Maddie gave a bitter laugh. “Yeah, it does.” She looked over her sister’s shoulder, holding Vinnie’s gaze. “Now we’re stuck here?”

     He shook his head. “I don’t know. If this is from Roy, we don’t even know if it’s true. We’ll check the TV.”

     “Hey, yeah!” Jessie released her sister and beamed. “Maybe Roy was wrong! You can check while I shower. Come on.”

     She hurried down the sidewalk, suddenly perfectly stable despite her heels. Maddie marveled at her ability to deal with being drunk so easily; she knew if she’d just downed a bottle of tequila, and whatever else Jessie’d had to drink, she’d be unconscious.

     “We should tell Caleb,” she said. “Maybe he’ll come up with u-”

     She stopped, nearly tripping in her surprise.

     “What? What’s wrong?” Vinnie held her arm, concerned, then followed her gaze. “Oh son of a bitch.”

     Maddie stared, shocked. Caleb was gone.

     And so was the car.

Chapter Twelve

Posted: November 17, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     It was dark by the time they reached Jessie’s apartment.

     Maddie threw her door open as soon as they stopped moving, anxious to get to her sister and get this trip over with. She hoped fervently that traffic outside of the city wouldn’t be as bad as it had been inside; they’d gotten caught up behind four accidents, the last one a pile-up so large she couldn’t even fathom how it happened. She was exhausted, she was starving, and her wrist hurt.

     Plus, she really, really had to pee.

     Leaping from the car, she took a few steps before she realized she had two more immediate problems: her ass was so sore she could barely hobble, and both of her legs were completely and utterly asleep.

     “AAHH!” Pin wheeling her arms, she tried to reach out to the car for balance, but had gone one step too far for that to work. Her body completed the lean anyway, and she was alarmed to note that she was going down.

     “For Christ’s sake.” Vinnie swept his arms around her, catching her up and spinning her away from the side of the car.

     Maddie ground her teeth, not wanting him to touch her but unable to move away. Everything below both knees was on fire, the pins-and-needles pain so intense she wanted to scream. She settled for digging her nails into Vinnie’s biceps as she leaned against him.

     “Stomp your feet,” he told her.

     “What?”

     “Stomp your feet, like you’re putting out a fire. It’ll help.”

     Feeling ridiculous, Maddie stomped, putting more of her weight against his chest to keep her balance. The first sharp rap of her foot sent a spike of agony all the way up her leg, so intense she thought she’d collapse again. The second, though, was better, and after a few more she was able to wiggle her toes without wanting to cry.

     “Told you,” Vinnie said, his mouth right by her ear. The warmth of his breath sent tingles across her scalp. She was suddenly conscious of the size of the muscles she was still gripping. Army, he’d said. Well. He certainly was…fit.

     “You were right,” she said, stepping back slightly so she could look up at him. His arm remained around her waist, keeping her from moving too far away.

     The corner of his mouth quirked up, the beginning of a smirk. “I usually am.”

     She caught his tone immediately, and just as quickly remembered that, muscles or not, he was a loon. Bristling, she pulled away; he released her easily, to her relief.

     “You should wait here,” she told him. “I’ll run up and get Jess.”

     He shook his head. “I promised your mom I’d take care of this.” He held up a hand when she started to protest. “I know what you think. And I know, if you go up there, you won’t come back out.”

     She sighed. “We can just wait, for the trains to go again. You don’t need to drive us.”

     “Yes, I do.” He put his hands in his pockets, a casual gesture at odds with the tension coming off him in waves. “I made a promise. And besides, you owe me. For this morning. Crazy or not, I saved your ass.”

     “Because you thought he was a zombie.”

     “Does it matter? You saw what he did. How he was. He would have hurt you. Probably worse.”

     Maddie knew that was true. Whatever had been wrong with Webber, he hadn’t torn down her door to borrow some sugar.

     Sighing again, she gave in. “Fine. Come up with me. But no conspiracy theories around Jessie,” she warned. “She’s…easily led. You leave her alone.”

     “Deal.”

     She waited while he gave instructions for Caleb to wait in the car and not touch his radio; as they walked toward the building she glanced back at the kid, huddled in the backseat.

     “You’re just gonna leave him with the keys and your car?” she asked. “He’s a stranger, remember?”

     He gave her a tight smile. “He won’t go anywhere. He believes me.”

     She grabbed his arm, stopping him.

     “I know I seem like a bitch,” she said. “But I’m not. I didn’t thank you, and I’m sorry for that. So thank you. For saving me.” She bit her lip, unsure how to continue. “Everything is so messed up. Everything. And I can’t- I can’t deal with your stuff. So I’m grateful. But you scare the shit out of me.”

     He looked at her for a long while, dark eyes scanning her face.

     “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I shouldn’t have told you. I’m sorry I scared you.” He reached for her hand and she let him take it, surprised at herself. “Let’s just worry about getting you home, okay? We’ll talk about the rest later.”

     She considered, then nodded. “Later. Okay.”

     He was opening the door to the building when she stopped him again.

     “Shit. What time is it?”

     He glanced at his watch. “After 8. Why? Is she at work?”

     Maddie laughed. “You could say that.”

     “Why don’t you call her?”

     “She never pays her bill.” She tugged on his hand, heading back toward the car. “I know where she is. There’s a bar, down the street. Ray’s, or Roy’s, something like that.”

     “It’s a Monday night!” Vinnie said, sounding appalled.

     “You met my sister, didn’t you?”

     “I brought her back, after the wedding.”

     “And you’re surprised she’s at a bar at 8 on a Monday?”

     Vinnie nodded. “Good point. How far is this place?”

     “It should be right down the block. Jessie doesn’t drive when she’s drinking; she’s lucky if she can walk.”

     Vinnie nodded again and went to the car, motioning for Caleb to roll down the window. “She thinks we need to go down the street. We’ll be right back.”

     “Should I go with you?” Caleb asked. He seemed loathe to get out, Maddie thought; just having the window open was clearly making him nervous.

     “They won’t let you in, it’s a bar,” Vinnie told him. “Just wait here. We won’t be long.”

     “Okay. Just, uh, be careful.”

     Maddie gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. She still wasn’t thrilled with him, after the day they’d had together, but she felt bad that he was so irrationally frightened. Just a kid, she reminded herself. Everything is messed up for him too.

     “We’ll be fine.” Vinnie reached through the window and clapped him on the shoulder. “Roll it up, keep it locked. We’ll be back.”

     As they headed off down the street, Maddie hoped he was right, that they would be right back. She prayed that Jessie was still genially drunk, and hadn’t entered the horny or angry stages yet. Either one would be a pain in the ass to deal with.

     “So, what did you think?” she asked Vinnie.

     “What’s that?”

     “Of my sister,” she clarified. “At the wedding? I heard you were her date.”

     “Oh. Well, we didn’t talk much. She passed out in the car and slept most of the drive.” He glanced at her quickly, smirking again. “She looked nice, though.”

     Maddie snorted. “I was so worried about that dress. It didn’t matter, in the end.” She frowned. “Chrissy…”

     “I’m sorry,” Vinnie said quietly.

     She shook her head, angry at herself. “I keep forgetting. With everything else, I keep forgetting that she’s-” She stopped, not wanting to say it.

     “It happens,” Vinnie said. “You can’t process too much; your mind doesn’t let you. Prevents overload.”

     She looked at him, intrigued by his tone. “You learn that in your job? My mom said you were overseas.”

     He didn’t answer; instead, he pointed to a sign further down the street. “I think that says Roy’s,” he said. “Bit more than a block.”

     “That’s probably it then.” She drew a little away, put off by his colder tone. No war talk. Noted.

     He did, however, hold the door when they reached the bar, and gave her a small smile when she entered ahead of him. A smile that faded when they were fully inside, surveying their surroundings.

     Maddie had expected Roy’s to be a dark little place, a watering hole for local drunks like her sister. It was indeed dark, and surprisingly small, but she was pretty sure not everyone crammed into the place was a local. Loud music pulsed out of the speakers; a thick haze hung over the crowded dance floor. Maddie hadn’t smelled cigarettes in a long time. She held her breath, hoping like hell she didn’t start to cough from the smoke; she feared Vinnie would clock her and run.

     “Where’s your sister?” Vinnie shouted, his voice barely registering over the din.

     Maddie scanned the crowd, not seeing Jessie. She was about to muscle her way to the bathroom when the dancers parted, and she got a good look at the back of the room. She groaned.

     “Do you see her?” Vinnie grabbed her arm, pulling her close; his lips touched her ear, setting off tingles again. “Are you sure she’s here?”

     She nodded, miserable, and pointed. He followed her gaze, and as the crowd parted again, they both gaped. A woman stood astride the bar, teetering slightly in sky-high heeled boots. A heavily tattooed guy supported her, pouring liquor down her throat. Her skirt was hitched up, revealing pale skin above the tops of her stockings. Her shirt was off.

     “That,” Maddie shouted, “Is not good.”

     So much for the genial stage.

Chapter Eleven

Posted: November 10, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Three hours later, Maddie wondered if they’d have been better off walking to her sister’s place.

     Horns blared around them; angry drivers shouted at each other, as if cursing someone’s mother would make the traffic move faster. Vinnie sat rigid, gripping the wheel – he’d given up yelling the hour before, and now the car was filled with a charged silence. Maddie glanced at his white knuckles and clenched jaw, considered saying something reassuring, then thought better of it. She turned her attention back out the window, to the task she’d assigned herself when it became obvious the three of them weren’t going to pass the time chatting.

     She was counting masks.

     The news had said they weren’t required, but it seemed many people weren’t taking chances. She saw old women, children and men in power suits, all wearing cloth masks over their noses and mouths. A young mother strolled by, a carrier strapped to her back, the baby inside wearing a too-big mask that rode up over his eyes.

     So far she’d counted 200; as time had passed more and more faces in the crowd were obscured by the cloth. She wondered if they should get masks of their own, once they got to Jessie’s. If they got to Jessie’s. She was beginning to think they’d sit in this car until they started coughing.

     Feeling hot, she reached out to roll down her window.

     “Don’t open that!” Caleb lunged forward, grabbing her arm.

     “Don’t touch her,” Vinnie growled, not taking his eyes off the road.

     “Sorry.” He released her quickly, then leaned between the seats, his voice adamant. “Just, don’t open the window.” He looked past her, at the people cramming the sidewalks. It seemed she wasn’t the only one who’d been watching the masks.

     “I need the fresh air,” she argued. “Air gets in anyway, doesn’t it? Through the vents?” Getting no answer, she reached out again.

     “Madelyn.” Vinnie shook his head, just a little.

     Rolling her eyes, Maddie dropped her hand. Caleb flopped back in his seat, relief clear on his face. “This is stupid,” she told him, peering into the backseat. “It’s a car, not an air lock.”

     When neither man replied, she crossed her arms, irritated, and looked back out the window. She was counting again when Vinnie finally spoke.

     “He ate her.”

     She jerked her head around. “What?”

     “I heard the cops talking. They tried to be quiet, but I heard them. His daughter – he ate her.”

     Caleb leaned forward, fascinated. “What, like Dahmer?”

     Vinnie shook his head. “No. Like…” He glanced at Maddie, quickly, and she understood.

     “Oh,” she said softly. “Like that.”

     She stared down at her hands, an ache in her throat. She hadn’t thought about Chrissy yet; hadn’t allowed herself to, not since Vinnie had told her. She wanted to be home first. She didn’t want to cry, not in front of these strangers.

     When Vinnie’s hand reached out and grabbed hers, she looked up, surprised. He stared straight ahead, still not meeting her gaze, but his thumb stroked her fingers, gentler than she’d have imagined. She squeezed back, pathetically grateful.

     “He must have heard you knock,” he continued, looking at Caleb in the mirror. “That’s why he came out. The sound must have caught his attention.”

     “Don’t blame that on me,” Caleb said. “She was his neighbor. He must have been pissed, came for her next. A grudge or something.”

     “That’s not how it works.”

     Maddie tore her attention away from the warmth of his hand to focus on his words. “What does that mean?”

     Vinnie finally looked at her, his face tense and serious. “The photographer – Dave? Did he have a grudge?”

     Maddie shook her head. “That was different. His mind wasn’t right.”

     “He was dead.”

     “Yes. But we got him back, and that’s why he…he was confused…” She trailed off, uncertain and suddenly afraid.

     “He was dead.” Carefully, Vinnie removed his hand from her lap and placed it back on the wheel. “He was dead, and then he wasn’t, and then he ate your friend’s face. He bit people. He scratched. And now they’re all dead too.” His eye twitched. “Right?”

     “I don’t understand-”

     “Yes you do!” he shouted. “Watch the damn news! ‘Drug-fueled rampage, 6 people dead.’ ‘Woman shoots husband after he attacks and bites son.’ ‘Bodies missing at the county morgue.’ It’s all on the news.”

     “That’s always the news,” Maddie argued. “Somebody is always on drugs; somebody always gets shot. People die all the time.”

     “Not like this,” Vinnie said. “This is different.” He slammed his hand on the wheel, making her jump. “Why don’t you see it?”

     “You said…” Maddie chewed her lip, thinking. “You said you had to. Mr. Webber – you said you had to shoot him in the head.”

     Vinnie nodded. “It’s the only way. After they come back.”

     Caleb caught the snap. “You mean, like…zombies?”

     Maddie laughed automatically, mind skittering away from what she was hearing, but when Vinnie nodded again, her jaw dropped. “You can’t be serious.”

     “He was dead, Madelyn.” He was earnest, sincere, with no hint of the madness Maddie expected to see. “He died. You saw it. And then he came back.”

     “Oh my god.” Her stomach rolled. “Oh my god. You killed him. You killed both of them. Because you thought-” She turned to Caleb. “He’s insane!”

     “But – the news. I’ve seen it too.” Caleb hesitated. “That old guy – how did he tear down your door?”

     Maddie closed her eyes, picturing Webber, seeing his face as he’d advanced toward her, snarling. He hadn’t looked right, that much was true. He hadn’t looked right at all. The way he’d kept coming, what he’d done to his daughter – that wasn’t right either. But this…

     “No.” She shook her head firmly. When Vinnie reached for her hand again, she recoiled, pressing herself up against the passenger door. “No.” Her fingers scrambled, searching for the handle. She had to get out, get away from this car.

     The click of the door lock made her stomach drop.

     “Open the door,” she said, wishing her voice didn’t sound so unsteady. “Open it, or I’ll scream.”

     “You could do that,” Vinnie said, his voice so agreeable she felt like the crazy one. “I’d let you out, if you did. But Madelyn – are you sure you’d rather be out there than in here?”

     She looked out the window. It was rush hour now, and the sidewalks were jammed with people heading home. She’d never seen so many people out walking before; the loss of mass transit meant they were all dumped out here, pressed up together as they all tried to move. As she watched, she saw what he’d wanted her to see – people stumbling, and stopping, in the crush of the crowd. People coughing all over each other.

     When she met his eyes again, Vinnie smiled and patted her knee. She flinched at the touch. “I’ll get you home,” he assured her. “I’ll get you home, and then we’ll just…see.”

     She turned to Caleb, imploring, but he kept his eyes down and avoided her gaze. Should have left you behind, she thought savagely. He seemed to wither under her glare, to withdraw into himself until he looked years younger, like the kid that he was.

     Miserable, she pressed her face against the window, focusing on the feel of the cool glass against her cheek. She was trapped in this car, with a kid and a madman, no way to get home. She couldn’t expect the kid to help her. She couldn’t rely on her sister either, once they finally made it to her.

     Maddie realized she had no one to rely on but herself.

     I am so fucked.

Chapter Ten

Posted: November 3, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     The city police were far more efficient than the others Maddie had dealt with.

     One look at the destruction, and they’d readily accepted Vinnie’s claim of self-defense. They’d ventured next door, to Webber’s apartment, and there made the gruesome discovery of another body. Webber’s daughter, it seemed, had come to visit.

     Maddie sat numb through their initial questioning; numb when they came back, to ask about the woman they’d found. She hadn’t heard anything. She’d never met the daughter. She’d never known Webber to be anything but kind. “He was a nice guy.” Caleb’s confusion was now her own.

     Neither she nor Vinnie made mention of the photographer. Caleb – miserable, contrite, afraid of the cops – also said nothing.

     The bodies were cleared out so quickly that Maddie, had she been in her right mind, would have found the haste unseemly, perhaps a bit off. Part of her thought that; the rest was relieved. They could do nothing about the mess. She avoided looking at it, stared at the wall and, occasionally, Vinnie. She marveled at his calm, the way he handled the police. It came to her again that he was a cop, but he didn’t say so, and neither did they.

     Finally, the last officer prepared to leave. He ascertained that Maddie had somewhere to stay, until the door was fixed, and then he was gone. The squawking of his radio faded slowly; the call to other people, other scenes of danger.

     When he was gone, the three of them sat, eyeing each other. Maddie waited and waited for one of them to speak, but the silence between them stretched on.

     “Why are you here?” she finally asked, cringing immediately at her strident tone.

     Vinnie rose slowly, from his place at the table, and came to where she sat on the sofa. He glanced at Caleb briefly, then held her gaze.

     “Chrissy,” he said quietly. “Your mother asked me to come.”

     She closed her eyes.

     “I thought,” she said, speaking more to herself than to him, “I thought, since she hadn’t…since Jack…”

     Vinnie said nothing.

     “Who’s Chrissy?” Caleb asked.

     Maddie ignored him. She kept her eyes closed, picturing her friend. Chrissy at 12, teaching her how to apply eye shadow. Chrissy at 17, her hair blowing back, riding shot-gun in Maddie’s new car. Chrissy, laughing at Jessie’s dress.

     When she opened them again, her eyes were dry.

     “Why didn’t she call me? Why’d she send you?” She was suddenly angry at her mother, furious that she would send this stranger in her stead.

     “She asked me to bring you home,” Vinnie said. “You and your sister.”

     “I can get home myself,” Maddie argued. “I took the train in.”

     Vinnie shook his head. “The train isn’t running.”

     “What?” Maddie frowned. “The train always runs.”

     “The buses aren’t either.” Caleb sat forward. “I tried this morning. I had to take a cab here. Wasn’t cheap.” He blushed under their glares. “I was just saying.”

     Maddie gave him another nasty look before turning back to Vinnie. “The buses and trains – is there a strike?”

     Vinnie looked at her oddly, almost contemptuous, or so she thought. “Haven’t you been watching the news?” When she shook her head, he grabbed the remote. The TV came alive.

     “-cials say the best thing to do is stay home if you’re sick, drink plenty of fluids and see your doctor immediately if you have a fever. Wearing a mask in public places isn’t mandatory yet, but strongly recommended. The CDC and Public Health Department are making flu shots available for low or no cost.”

     The camera cut away from the reporter and footage of an emergency room filled the screen. People packed the chairs, stood against walls and slumped on the floor. Mothers held two and even three children in their laps.

     Everyone was coughing.

     Vinnie turned the TV back off.

     “What in the hell?” Maddie sat, dumbfounded. “What is it, like, H1N1? Some kind of flu?”

     “Nobody knows. Mass transit is down because everybody is sick.” He gestured toward Caleb. “You’re lucky you got a cab; those will go next.”

     “I don’t understand.” She rubbed her forehead, willing the pain to go away, or dull a bit at least. Her ears hurt. Her wrist hurt. She felt tired. “All those people…”

     “We have to leave,” Vinnie said. “Before we get sick.”

     Maddie nodded. The children. She couldn’t stop seeing the children, clinging to their mothers. Coughing.

     “Take me with you,” Caleb begged, his voice high with fear.

     “Why,” Vinnie asked coldly, “Would we do that?”

     “I have nowhere to go! Ask her, I told her. I can’t go back home! There’s nowhere else!”

     Realizing, perhaps, that he wasn’t going to get any sympathy from the stone-faced man, Caleb turned to Maddie.

     “Please,” he said desperately. “I’m sorry I screwed you. Please don’t leave me here. I don’t want to get sick.”

     Maddie looked from one to the other, weighing her options. The kid was a coward, but then, so was she. She hadn’t been hurt, Vinnie had seen to that, and if he hadn’t shown up, well, how long would it have taken for the other doors to give too? Would she have unlocked it for him, if she’d been “safe” and he wasn’t? She thought so, but couldn’t say for sure.

     I didn’t help Chrissy, when she needed it. I didn’t help Jack.

     “How old are you?” she asked him.

     “What?” He looked confused. “Uh, seventeen. Seventeen. Why?”

     “Where are your parents?”

     The kid looked away. “Gone. Long gone. Dave was my dad. He was….he was my dad.”

     She nodded. “Give me a few.”

     Going into the bedroom, she drew out a bag and threw some things in, enough to stay with her mom for a few days.

     “Madelyn.” Vinnie followed her in, watching her pack. “We can’t bring this guy.”

     “He’s just a kid,” Maddie said.

     “He’s an ass! He would have let you get hurt!”

     “He’s a kid,” she repeated, zipping the bag closed and slinging it over her shoulder. “He has no one else.”

     “He’s a stranger! You don’t know this guy, you can’t just-”

     “Why did you shoot him in the head?” she asked, catching him off-guard.

     “What? What do you mean?”

     “You’re a cop or something, right? I thought you were supposed to shoot for the knees or, like, an arm.”

     He laughed, sounding bitter. “I’m not a cop. I was in the Army.”

     “Oh. Oh yeah.” She remembered that now, that Grace had said he was back from a tour overseas. At the wedding, which seemed, in this moment, like a lifetime ago. “But still. You killed him. You didn’t…you didn’t have to do that.”

     He looked at her, and this time she saw it, saw it for sure: contempt. “You haven’t been watching the news.”

     “No!” she said, exasperated. “I already told you, no. What’s that got to do with it?”

     He seemed to think, to weigh his words before he said them, then finally shook his head. “We should go.”

     “Aren’t you going to answer my question?”

     He took her arm and steered her out of the room, toward the front door. Together, he and Caleb lifted aside the plywood that had been propped in the entrance, a makeshift barrier the cops had constructed until her landlord could replace what was broken. She wasn’t too worried about someone coming in; the building was safe.

     Or rather, it had been.

     As the kid headed off down the hall, Vinnie held her back. He waited until Caleb was out of range before bending down to murmur in her ear.

     “If you think about it,” he said, slowly, carefully, “If you really think, you’ll know why I had to. You’ll see that I had no choice.”

     Brow furrowed, Maddie stared at him. Is this guy insane?

     “Think about it,” he repeated. “Let’s go find Jessie.”

     Mulling it over, still somewhat wary, Maddie followed.

Chapter Nine

Posted: October 27, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Ten

     The alarms were going off.

     “Help him.  He’s dying, can’t you see that?  Help him!”

     No one moved.  No one helped.  The thing in the bed thrashed and screamed, spewing blood like a geyser over everyone nearby, and still no one moved.  They stood frozen, all of them, except Marion, of course.  She turned, eyes full of malice, and sneered.

     “Don’t worry,” she said.  “You’ll find a new husband.  I heard you can find anything on Craigslist.”

     Maddie woke with a start.

     For a moment she was disoriented, not sure where she was, or why it was so dark.  Was it morning?  Or night?  Then she remembered.  She’d shut all the shades, drawn all the curtains, pinned them closed to keep out the light.  Safe and quiet, here, in the shadowy bedroom.  No one to see her.  No one to accuse.

     She rolled over, wincing at the sudden stab of pain in her wrist.  She’d forgotten to splint it again, before falling asleep.  Keep doing that, the damn thing will never heal.

     The ER doctor had told her it was badly sprained but not, as she’d feared, broken.  This after he’d made her sit and explain how it happened; the newly forming bruises had precluded a lie about a fall.  “A friend,” she had said, voice dull with shock.  “I won’t be seeing him again.”

     He’d left her on the gurney, in the little curtained area they rather generously called a room, and that’s where she’d been when she heard.  Word traveled down, from doctor to intern to orderly, until it was finally whispered by a nurse, almost gleeful with horror. She told it to another, not knowing or caring about the shell-shocked woman on the other side of the cheap fabric, cradling her throbbing arm.

     No open casket for Jake Cooper, it seemed.  He’d clawed out his eyes at the end.

     Maddie could picture it, sitting now in the dark; she could see his once-handsome face, covered in blood.  She saw it all in her dreams.

     What was he thinking?  She asked herself this every night, before bed, and again every morning, when she remembered anew that he was gone.  What had he thought, when he’d screamed at her?  When he’d started to choke; when he turned on himself?  What had been his final thought, before he’d succeeded in snuffing out the light?  Pain?  Fear?

     Relief?

     He had such beautiful eyes.

     Shaking her head, she sat up, careful of her wrist now that she was awake.  She needed Advil, and coffee; she needed to find the splint, or the bandages at least.  Although why, she couldn’t really say.  She was only going to move from the bed to the couch, to sit in the quiet until she grew tired again.  The doctor had said to rest.  She was, perhaps, being too obedient on that score.

     She reached for her phone and sent a brief text to her mother, then climbed out of bed.  She wondered how long it would take, today, before Grace texted back.  Her mom was still furious that she’d come back to the city, taking the train when she’d realized she couldn’t drive.  Why go back to that empty apartment, Grace had wanted to know, why do that to herself when she could stay home?

     “That is my home,” Maddie had said.  “My life is there.”

     “What life, what life, what life without Jack?”

     How to explain that that was the point?  No life without Jack, not that she knew, but no life here either, in this old house, in this old bedroom, where she’d spent years waiting to be noticed, be seen.  Going back, it would hurt, oh yes, it would hurt; the emptiness, the regret, no anger now to fuel her.  But stay here, she’d feared, stay here and she would disappear.

     So she’d left, she’d gone home, and Grace was still angry but what of that?  She’d get over it.  If nothing else, Jessie was bound to do something stupid, and soon; too many things had happened to Maddie, too much attention had been directed her way.  Her sister would find a way to divert it back, and then Grace would have something else to worry about.

     The kitchen smelled like coffee; Maddie breathed deep and smiled, thankful that she’d at least remembered to set the timer on that.  And there was the splint, on the table where she’d left it.  She slipped it on, tightening the straps until it felt secure.

     She poured out a cup and took a delicious, scalding sip, swallowing the handful of pills.  A warmth spread through her chest; she felt her brain start to wake up.  Good, hot coffee, she decided, was better than sex.

     She was about to drink again when there was a knock at the door.

     Who could that be?  There was no one to visit.  Maybe her neighbor?  For a brief, paralyzing moment she thought it might be Marion, come for Jack’s things, to scream, to lay blame.  But no.  She would never come.  She never did for herself what she could pay to be done.

     Wary, Maddie peered through the peep hole, holding her breath.  On the other side stood a man, a stranger, looking down the hall, so all that she saw was his profile.  Strong jaw.  Short hair.  She sent him.  She did.

     She started to back away, quietly, so he wouldn’t hear her through the door.  Best just to wait; he’d leave on his own.  Cowardly, yes, but she couldn’t do this today.

     Then he turned, to knock again, and she saw – he wasn’t a man at all.  A boy, eighteen at most, with a ring in his lip and one in his brow.  He looked nervous, unsure.

     Probably lost.  Wrong apartment.  That’s all.

     She opened the door.

     He paused in mid-knock, surprised.  “Uh.”  He shifted, dropping his arm.  “Miss Striker?  Are you, um, are you?  Madelyn Striker?”

     Well fuck.

     Forcing a smile, she nodded.  He stuck out his hand and she shook it, caught off-guard.

     “Caleb,” he said.  “Caleb Greene.”

     “Mr. Greene.”  She withdrew her hand and they stood, both staring, he expectant, she confused.  “I’m sorry,” she said finally.  “Do I know you?”

     He blushed.  “Oh.  Uh, yes.  I work for Dave.”

     She shook her head.  “Dave?”  Who the hell is Dave?

     “Yeah, uh, Dave?  The wedding?  Your, uh…”  He swallowed, hard, his throat working.  “Your photographer?”

     “Oh.  Oh!”  She stepped back, gesturing.  “Please.  Come in.”

     He walked past her, jittery.  “Nice, uh…”  He looked around at the stark apartment.  “Nice place.”

     “Thank you.”  She closed the door and watched him pace, mildly uncomfortable and still confused. Why was he here?  Did he, too, want to blame her, want some kind of reckoning?  I didn’t hit him, she wanted to say.  I didn’t do that.  That wasn’t my fault.  Instead, she said carefully, “Would you like some coffee?”

     “What?  Oh, uh, no.  No thanks.”  He fished in his pocket and pulled something out, thrusting it at her.  “Here.  I wanted to give you this.  It’s a check.  Your refund.”

     She took it, but reluctantly.  She imagined the envelope was crawling with germs, contaminated with whatever had made the photographer ill.  Grimacing, she dropped it on the table.

     “You could have mailed this,” she told him.

     “I know.  I know.  It’s just-” He stopped, and ran a hand through his hair.  “I wanted to see you.  To ask you.  What happened?”

     She was at a loss.  What could she say?  This boy was hurting, he thought she had answers, but what could she give him?

     “He was ill,” she said slowly, watching his face.  “I’m sure you know that.  He was sick, he was coughing, and then he collapsed.”  She paused for a breath; he stared at her, waiting, hungry for more.  She forged on.  “We did CPR.  And when he came back, when he woke up, he was…”  Mad.  Insane.  Flash of Jack, raving in bed.  “He went crazy.”

     The kid turned away, shaking his head.  “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, half to himself.  “He was a nice guy.  He wouldn’t hurt anybody.  Why would he do that?”

     “He was ill,” she said again, gently.  “He’d stopped breathing.  Maybe he panicked, or…I don’t know.  Brain damage, maybe.”

     “Brain damage.” He stood still, lost in thought.  “Brain damage.  Maybe.”  He looked at her.  “They closed it all up, you know.  Won’t let me in.”

     Lost, again.  “Closed what up?”

     “The shop, you know, the studio.  First.  Now the apartment.  Sealed it all off, for testing or something.”

     “Who?  Who sealed it off?”  She thought of the cop, what he’d said about drugs.

     The kid shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Guys in weird suits.  They didn’t say who they were, just I had to get out.  They sealed the door with tape.”

     Maddie frowned, thinking.  Guys in weird suits, doing tests.  That didn’t sound like a drug raid.  No, that sounded more like…like…

     She took a step back, horrified.  “Are you sick?” she demanded.  Anger surged through her.  “You come here, and you’re sick?”

     “No!”  He held up his hands, pleading with her.  “I’m not, I swear that I’m not!  I haven’t felt anything!  I haven’t felt sick!”

     She backed up even further, putting the table between them.  They stared, neither moving, not saying a word.  She’d left her cell in the bedroom, but then, who would she call?  9-1-1?  Yes, operator?  There’s a man here, and he might have a cold.  Stupid.  Should wish for a bat, so she could make him leave.

     The thump at the door startled them both, loud as it was in their shared silence.  She put a hand to her chest; she could feel her heart pounding.  “Paper,” she said.  Her wrist throbbed.

     “Late for the paper, isn’t it?” he asked.

     She cocked her head, considering.

     The door thumped again.

     Narrowing her eyes, she went to the peep hole again.  Looking out, she saw that it was Mr. Webber.

     “It’s just my neighbor,” she said.  “Poor man.  He’s been-”

     Her hand stilled on the doorknob, which she’d been starting to turn.

     “He’s been what?”

     She held up a finger, gesturing for quiet, and stared harder into the hall.  As she watched Webber shuffled forward, his head hung low, and bumped against the door.

     “He’s been sick,” she whispered.

     “WHAT?!”

     Maddie winced at his yell and hissed – “Shut up!” – but too late.  Webber lifted his head, at the noise through the door, and she gasped.

     He sees me. She knew that wasn’t true, one couldn’t see in a peep hole, and yet.  His eyes held hers.  She saw the scratches around them, and down his cheeks.  Blood caked his chin, drenched the front of his shirt.

     His mouth hung open.  His front teeth were gone.

     Keeping her voice low, she asked, “Do you have a cell phone?”

     “No.”  The kid sounded terrified.  “Why?  Do you?”

     She nodded.  “In the bedroom.  On the table.  Get it.”  He didn’t move.  “Now!”

     Webber lunged for the door.

     The kid turned and ran, as the door shook in its frame.  Maddie quickly thumbed the bolt and stepped back.  How long will it hold?  Cheap piece of shit door; thin enough to hear through, surely thin enough to break.  He was clawing at it, hurling his weight against it; the wood shuddered and groaned.

     “Did you find it?” she screamed.  “It’s on the table!”

     No answer, and no, that lock wasn’t holding.  She saw splinters fly.  Lock or no lock, he was coming.  He was coming in.

     Stumbling, panting with fear, she backed up toward the bedroom, keeping her eyes on the door.  She’d call herself, once she’d locked that door too, and maybe the bathroom.  He couldn’t get through three doors, surely, not before the cops came.  She just had to-

     She stopped at the feeling of wood against her back.

     Maddie turned, disbelieving.  The bedroom door was shut.  She rattled the knob.

     Locked.

     “Oh you motherfucker!”  She pounded her fist against the door, her own door, and kicked with her feet.  “Open up!  Let me in!  Let me in!  LET ME IN!”

     Cracking sounds behind her.  The top hinge blew loose; more splinters flew.

     Panic gripped her throat; she couldn’t catch her breath.  She looked around wildly, searching for something, anything heavy, but there was nothing.  Not even a vase.  It had all gone in the dumpster.  She had throw pillows, useless!  The TV was heavy, but she’d never lift it, not with one hand.

     Maybe in the kitchen.  She couldn’t go in, couldn’t move toward the door.

     “Let me in,” she whispered.

     The lock gave with a loud CRACK, and the door flew in, collapsing under the weight of the man who fell with it.  He writhed a moment, stunned, before climbing to his feet.

     She backed into a corner, cradling her splinted wrist.  He came toward her, snarling, his face twisted and feral.  He reached out a hand; blood dripped from his fingers.

     Maddie closed her eyes.

     A sudden roar filled the room; she jerked back in surprise, slamming her head against the wall.  Stars danced behind her closed lids.  There was a thump, the sound of something falling, heavy, at her feet.

     She cowered, waiting.

     “Madelyn?”

     Her eyes flew open.  A man stood before her, face full of concern.  Gun in his hand.  Oh.  He’s a cop.  Of course.  Of course he is.

     He came toward her, taking her arm, pulling her away from the body on the floor.  Not a trophy, this time.  Most of Webber’s head was gone.

     “Are you okay?”

     She looked at him, ears ringing.  There was blood on her face; he pulled up his shirt and wiped it away.  “Vinnie,” she said.  She fell into his arms.  “You saved me.”

     Kiss him, she thought.  The pain in her head was like a live thing, squeezing her eyes in angry fists.  The world grayed at the edges.  Kiss him.  That’s what you do, when the hero saves you.

     Instead, she looked down, and vomited onto his shoes.

Chapter Eight

Posted: October 20, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Six

     “God I hate hospitals.”

     The older woman beside her gave her an odd look, and Maddie realized she’d spoken aloud.

     “Nobody enjoys them, dear,” the woman said, reaching across to punch the number for her floor. As the elevator lurched beneath their feet Maddie felt her stomach roll and reached out a hand to steady herself. “Are you all right?”

     Maddie smiled tightly. “I hate elevators too.” They never failed to make her sick, and that was the last thing she needed right now. Should have taken the stairs.

     She almost hadn’t come, despite her promise to her mother, but Grace had called bright and early to tell her that Holly was working and wouldn’t be in to visit Jack until the evening. “Marion wants to see you,” she’d assured Maddie. “She wants you there. Please don’t disappoint her, Madelyn. Not today.”

     The elevator came to a stop and more people piled in. One of them was coughing vigorously into a handkerchief; Maddie grimaced and moved closer to the wall. She’d spent half the night listening to her neighbor hack away through the bedroom wall, hoping like hell that their air systems weren’t connected. She couldn’t afford to get sick; she was due back at work in a few days, after her “honeymoon”, and she had no more time banked. She could have canceled her vacation time and gone back early – probably should have, given how she’d chosen to spend her week – but who wanted to deal with explaining that?

     Oh no, I didn’t get married; the groom decided to fuck the maid of honor and the photographer tried to eat half the wedding party. How was your weekend?

     Another stop; Maddie stepped out gratefully. Taking a deep breath, she headed for what she assumed was the visitor’s desk, positioned as it was beside the glass door that led to ICU.

     The man behind the desk was reading; he barely glanced up as she approached. “Name?” he asked before she could open her mouth.

     “Um. My name?”

     He rolled his eyes. “The patient’s.”

     “Oh. Jack.” He waited, and she blushed. “Jack Cooper.”

     “And your name?”

     “Madelyn Striker.”

     He flipped some pages in a binder, made a note and handed her a badge. “2 hours and then you have to leave. Wash your hands at the sink outside the room first.”

     “Thanks.” Clipping the badge to her purse, she turned to go, then turned back. “Uh, which room?”

     “526.” He pointed off to her left. “Go all the way down and turn, rooms are on the left.”

     She glanced through the glass walls behind him. “I thought he was in intensive care.”

     “He was; now he’s not.” He shrugged and picked up his book. “Don’t forget to wash your hands.”

     Dismissed, Maddie set off down the hall, chewing her lip. Jack was out of ICU; did that mean he was doing better? Or worse? Her mother hadn’t mentioned the move. She’d braced herself to see him with tubes and wires, but now she didn’t know what to expect.

     526. She hesitated at the door, which was partially open; she could hear someone talking, a low murmur that would pause, as if waiting for a response, then continue. She only heard the one voice; whatever state he was in, Jack evidently wasn’t talking back.

     Just what you always wanted, Marion – the chance to talk and talk and talk, and no one to argue back.

     Maddie flinched at the uncharitable thought. Now is not the time to be a bitch, she told herself. Steeling her nerves, she knocked softly and stepped in.

     “Marion?” she called softly. The woman sitting beside the bed turned to face her. As she took in the sight of her once-future-mother-in-law and her former fiancé, Maddie reeled back in shock.

     Jack looked terrible, which was unsurprising. His white face seemed to blend right into the white bedding and white gown; there was no color anywhere, not even in his hair – the formerly shiny blonde curls were now a dull, ashy gray. A multitude of wires led to machines that appeared to be tracking his heart rate, breathing and other vitals she couldn’t identify. She’d anticipated worse, a breathing tube or something, so his appearance wasn’t too shocking.

     But his mother…Oh Marion.

     Maddie couldn’t recall ever seeing Jack’s mother with anything other than carefully styled hair, a full face of make-up and impeccable clothes. This was a woman who advised getting out of bed an hour before one’s husband, brushing one’s teeth, curling one’s hair and putting on foundation and lip gloss, then getting back in. “A man should always wake up to the best version of his wife,” she’d told Maddie. In the years before he died, John Cooper had never seen his wife’s real face.

     That woman was nowhere near this room; the haggard creature clutching Jack’s hand looked like she should be in a hospital herself. Maddie wasn’t sure how much weight Marion had lost in the week since she’d seen her, but it was surely in the double digits. The curls her son had inherited hung limp and greasy; the bags under her eyes were so dark she looked as though she’d been punched. And her clothes.

     “Are you wearing scrubs?!” Maddie immediately regretted the question and braced for impact, but Marion merely glanced down at her outfit with obvious disinterest and looked back up, her expression weary.

     “He threw up on me a few days ago and I didn’t want to go all the way home to change. A nurse gave me these. Is that what they are – scrubs?”

     Maddie crossed the room slowly, stopping at the foot of Jack’s bed. “A few days ago? Marion, have you been home at all? How long have you been here?”

     Marion shrugged. “I don’t know, four days? Five? I called your mother. She said you’d come.”

     Maddie thought back to all the missed calls on her cell and winced. She’d been wallowing, and Marion had been here.

     “Isn’t there anyone who can give you a break?” she asked gently.

     “Who? I’m all he has now.” Maddie started to speak, but the other woman cut her off. “Don’t even mention that girl’s name. She’s been here; I won’t leave her alone with him.” She looked at Maddie with steel in her eyes. “She’s an idiot.”

     Maddie considered, then nodded. She placed a hand on Jack’s foot and asked, “How is he?”

     “Better.” Marion smiled slightly. “They moved him out of ICU a little while ago. He’s stable, and he was talking a bit this morning.” The smile vanished. “Nothing that made much sense, but the doctors say it’s a start.”

     “Good. That’s good.” She gave the foot a squeeze before letting her hand fall away. “Listen, why don’t you go downstairs and get something to eat? I can sit with him.”

     “I’m not hungry,” the older woman said immediately.

     “When’s the last time you ate?” Maddie demanded.

     Marion bit her lip, clearly trying to remember, then gave Maddie a sheepish look. “It’s been…awhile.” She glanced back at her son. “He might wake up. If I’m not here-”

     “I will be,” Maddie cut in. “I’ll tell him.” She saw the uncertainty in Marion’s eyes. “I won’t upset him, Marion. I promise.”

     Slowly, Marion released her son’s hand and rose. She waited until Maddie was seated in the chair before she spoke again.

     “You know I’m not happy about what he did, don’t you?”

     Maddie looked at her for a long time before nodding. “Yeah. I do.”

     “Good.” She leaned down, her voice urgent. “He’s a good boy, Madelyn. We both know that. This – thing – whatever he was doing, it’s done now. You two will fix this. You’ll see.” Straightening, she reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind Maddie’s ear. “That girl is just some slut. You’re his wife.”

     Maddie resisted the instinctive urge to defend her former best friend. She reminded herself that she wasn’t expected to stick up for Holly, now or ever again. Instead she gave Marion a small smile and waved toward the door. “Go. We’ll be fine.”

     With one last uncertain look at Jack’s face, she went, and the two of them were alone.

     Sighing, Maddie sat back and turned her gaze out the window. She listened to the quiet, rhythmic beep of the heart monitor, coupled with Jack’s slow snoring, and thought about what Marion had said.

     Would they fix things? Did she even want to? She’d spent the last week alternating between never wanting to see Jack again and hoping she did so she could slap his face, scream at him, force him to see the pain he’d caused her. Forgiveness hadn’t entered her mind. He’d fucked her best friend, on their wedding day. She doubted that had been the first time. She hated him for what he’d done, for how he’d made her feel.

     Being here now, though…her anger was still there, but it has been pushed back, crowded out by concern and fear. He was doing better, but that didn’t mean he was fine. Things could change again. Bill. She shied away from the thought, but it persisted. He could die.

     She closed her eyes against the tears that were suddenly ready to spill. She’d been with this man for six years, had known him even longer. A week ago she’d been looking forward to their life together, to growing old at his side. If he died it was all gone, irrevocably. If he survived…well. Maybe Marion was right. Maybe-

     A sound from the bed interrupted her thoughts. Her eyes flew open; she saw that his were open as well, wide and full of fear.

     “Jack?” She leaned forward and tried to take his hand; he shook her off, agitated, fingers clutching convulsively at the sheets as he looked wildly around the room.

     “Where is she?” His voice sounded hoarse, a pitiful shadow of the one she knew so well.

     “It’s okay. She’ll be right back.”

     His eyes continued to scan, unfocused and frantic. His legs moved beneath the blankets, as though he meant to get up. “Where is she? Where is she?”

     The beep of the monitor became louder, faster. She tried again to touch him, and again he shrank away.

     “She went to get something to eat. She’ll be back in a minute, it’ll be okay.”

     “No.” He shook his head back and forth against the pillow, grimacing.

     “She had to, Jack, she’s been sitting here for days. She-”

     His hand whipped out and grasped her wrist, hard. He brought his gaze to her face, and she shuddered. He wasn’t looking at her; he was looking through her. He doesn’t recognize me.

     “Not my mother,” he said, his tone urgent. “Not her. Holly. Where is she?”

     Despair washed over her in a wave. Please don’t do this to me. “Jack, I-”

     “Where is she?!” He was yelling now, or as close as he could come to it, and his grip on her wrist tightened.

     “Please, Jack, you’re hurting me.” He squeezed again, and she cried out.

     “I need Holly. Where is she? She should be here.” He resumed scanning the room. “Holly? Holly! HOLLY!”

     The pain in her arm was becoming unbearable. As the monitor beeped faster and faster, louder and louder, and Jack’s voice rose to a rasping unhinged scream, she started to sob.

     Blinded by tears, she reached out with her free hand and groped wildly at the blankets, searching. Jack began to let loose a wordless keening; thrashing, he yanked on her wrist and pulled her out of the chair. Dimly she realized she was screaming his name, but her focus remained on the bed. It has to be here.

     She felt something in her wrist snap. In the same moment, she found what she was looking for. She pressed the “call” button.

     The door flew open. A nurse entered, took one look at the scene before her and turned back. “Code Gray!” she yelled into the hallway. “Bring benzo! Code Gray!”

     The room flooded with people, among them two of the largest men Maddie had ever seen. They moved to either side of the bed and applied their weight to Jack’s shoulders; a third man worked to get him to release Maddie’s wrist. Someone fiddled with Jack’s IV and said, “He should calm down in a few seconds, honey, hold on.”

     But he didn’t. They fiddled again, and he continued to thrash; his screams died away but his mouth remained a frozen O as he struggled against the men holding him down. The one working to free Maddie muttered “Fuck this”, reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a needle. Thumbing off the protective tip, he brought it up and back down in a quick motion, sinking it deep into Jack’s forearm.

     Jack let go.

     Cradling her wrist, still sobbing, Maddie moved to the foot of the bed and back, until she felt the thump of the wall behind her. She watched as Jack reached over and snapped the needle off in his arm. He began to shake, so violently that the bed shook with him.

     “What did you give him?” the nurse demanded, reaching out to grip Jack’s feet before he could flop his legs, along with the rest of him, out and on to the floor.

     “Nothing! It was just a spare!” The man stood frozen. “There was nothing in it, I swear!”

     “What the hell is going on?!”

     They all turned. Marion stood in the doorway, a cup of cafeteria coffee clutched in her hand. She started in horror at her son, writhing on the bed where she’d left him sleeping peacefully, then looked at Maddie. “What did you do?”

     There’s the woman I know. “I didn’t-”

     “Get out!” The other woman’s face was twisted with fury. The cup dropped from her hand unnoticed, coffee splattering. She turned back toward her son, and her face crumpled. “Oh Jack!” she wailed.

     Maddie stood for a moment, watching the woman who was to be her mother-in-law weep helplessly before the man who would have been her husband, and felt that she was seeing her life go up in smoke. She knew, with a certainty she couldn’t explain, that she would never see either of them again.

     She was nearly to the door when a roar behind her stopped her in her tracks.

     “MADELYN!”

     Don’t turn around. Keep going. Don’t turn around!

     Her body disobeyed her mind. She turned.

     He was sitting up in the bed; the men to either side had fallen back, terror clear on their faces. His eyes were blue fires in his pale face, burning into hers. His lips peeled back into a ghastly grin, twisting his face until it was unrecognizable.

     That’s not Jack, she thought, and he seemed to hear it. The grin grew impossibly wider; she saw, with a sick roll of her stomach, as the corners of his mouth split under the pressure and blood began to trickle down his chin. Oh please, please God, that’s not Jack.

     He held her gaze for a long moment, smiling that grisly, bloody smile. Then he spoke, slowly, carefully, in a voice she’d never heard before and would remember all her life.

     “I. Never. Loved. You.”

     She stumbled back, and as she did he collapsed. His body shook, feet drumming the end of the bed so hard the whole thing lurched and rocked. There was a guttural scream; more blood began to pulse out of his mouth. He started to choke.

     His tongue. He just bit off his fucking tongue.

     Her last glimpse was of Marion, on her knees in a puddle of coffee, tearing her hair as she screamed.

     Maddie turned and ran.

Chapter Seven

Posted: October 13, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Five

     The apartment was a mess.

     After the first disastrous bender, which had resulted in a hangover so painful she’d spent eight hours on the cold bathroom floor, Maddie had realized her mistake: drinking on an empty stomach. With the fridge emptied of all perishables in preparation for their honeymoon, her options were limited – sustain herself on old pop-tarts, or pop down to the corner mini-mart.

     She chose the mini-mart, stocking up on canned spaghetti and beer before retreating back into her cave. The spaghetti she ate cold, spooning it directly out of the can while sobbing over shitty Lifetime movies. Her mother called; she ignored. Chrissy’s mother called; she listened, making sympathetic noises, trying hard to disguise that she was drunk for nearly every conversation.

     Jack did not call.

     When she was drinking, she found his silence awful, a testament to how little he cared for her. She downed beer after beer, looking to soothe the constant ache in her stomach, and tormented herself with thoughts of where he was, who he was with, what he was doing. She called his cell, going to voicemail each time, and left messages. In some, she screamed obscenities. In others, she wept.

     Sober, she was relieved that he hadn’t come home. She hadn’t showered since her mother’s house; she knew she must reek of stale sweat, hops and fake tomato sauce. She slept on the sofa, unable to face their bed despite the clean sheets; her nest was surrounded by used tissues and empty bottles.

     She was broken. Having him see that would have been the ultimate humiliation.

     Now, though, she knew the time for wallowing was done. Something told her this period of squalid indulgence had to end; she had to get up. Clean up.

     Besides, she was out of beer.

     Hauling herself off the sofa, she started clearing off the coffee table. Her head began to pound; she felt a sick sweat seep through her t-shirt, as her body protested all of the stupid moving around that was going on in lieu of alcohol consumption. She experienced a new pity for her sister, who had gone through the binge-purge cycle with her drinking so many times there could be a wing at the downtown rehab clinic named after her. Her current state paled in comparison to Jessie’s years-long love affair with vodka, but still. It sucked.

     She was debating laying back down when her mother called again.

     She hesitated, hand hovering over the phone. A few days had not been enough time to let go of the anger and hurt Grace had caused with her “advice”. On the other hand, if she didn’t talk to the woman soon she might find a SWAT team outside her door.

     Or worse yet, Grace herself.

     Maddie answered on the fifth ring.

     “Mom, I’m not in the mood-”

     “Madelyn! Oh thank god, I’ve been calling you for days!”

     “Yes, I know. I haven’t felt like talking.”

     “Yes, yes, I did catch on to that. And I would have left you alone dear, but…Marion called.”

     She felt her fist clench around the phone and forced herself to relax. “I don’t want to see Jack, Mom. Not yet.”

     There was a long pause on the other end; in the silence Maddie felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. “Mom?”

     “She didn’t call about Jack. It…oh Madelyn, I’m so sorry, but she called to tell me about Bill. He…he’s dead.”

     “What?!” Maddie struggled to make sense of her mother’s words. “Mom, that’s- what happened?”

     “We’re not sure yet. Marion said he went to the hospital, those scratches on his leg were infected, and before anybody knew what was happening he was sick enough for ICU. They tried antibiotics but I guess it was too far gone. He died this morning. Sepsis.”

     Maddie sat down heavily on the couch, her mind whirling. She’d known Bill since they were kids. It wasn’t possible that he was dead. His scratch hadn’t been that bad; they’d said he didn’t even need stitches, not like-

     The trickle of fear at the top of her spine turned into a waterfall. “Mommy, what about Chrissy? Bill had a scratch, but she…” The image of her friend’s face, torn and bleeding, filled her head. Her stomach turned. “I haven’t talked to her mom today. What about Chrissy?”

     “She’s still in the ICU, honey.” Another pause. “And so is Jack.”

     She was surprised. “I thought he would have gone home already.” Home to Holly. Home to his new life.

     “He was supposed to, but he’s very sick. Marion said it looks like he has the same infection. He’s been in the hospital the whole time, so they’re treating him, but they don’t know what it is. Whatever that photographer had, they haven’t figured it out yet.”

     This is what happens when you hire off of Craigslist. Marion’s words echoed in her head, and she had to fight the urge to laugh hysterically. If something happens to Jack, she’ll blame me forever.

     “Madelyn?” The worry in her mother’s voice snapped her back to the conversation.

     “I’m here.”

     “Well you should be here. I know what he did, sweetheart, and believe me, I hate him for it. You don’t think so, but I do. But you should see him. If anything happens…”

     “Yeah.” Maddie swallowed hard. “Yeah, I know.”

     “I can go with you,” her mother offered. “Or Jessie-”

     “No!” The last person she wanted with her for this was her sister. Her mother wasn’t right for it, either. In another life it would have been Holly she wanted with her; part of her still did.

     She’s probably already there.

     She clenched her jaw. She’d have to do this alone, and hope that all she had to deal with was Marion. If she had to see Holly weeping all over her former fiancé, they might have a new patient in the ICU.

     “I can do this,” she assured her mom, hoping her voice sounded surer than she felt. “Just call Marion and tell her I’ll be there in the morning, okay? It’s too late now to make visiting hours.”

     “Okay. Do you want to come spend the night here?”

     “No. No, it’s fine. I’m fine.” She heard her mother sigh and felt the instant slap of guilt. “But I’ll come over after I see him, okay?”

     “Good. I’ll see you tomorrow then. I love you, Madelyn.”

     “Love you too, Mom.”

     She hit End and sat back, staring blankly into space. Bill was gone, dead of an infection no one could identify. Jack and Chrissy were sick. What about Blake? She tried to remember if he’d been hurt. Pressing a hand to her head, she cursed herself for consigning the last few days to oblivion; her mind wasn’t working the way it should be.

     She lifted the phone to call Grace back, then let it drop undialed. She’d ask tomorrow; she couldn’t deal with any more right now.

     The tears came suddenly, sliding down her cheeks unchecked. She clutched a throw pillow to her chest and sobbed – for everything she’d lost, and everything she still stood to lose. For Bill, and Chrissy. For Jack. Even for Marion, who was wretched but still Jack’s mother, worried out of her mind.

     She even shed some tears for Holly. Not many, but some.

     Finally exhausted, she hauled herself into the bedroom, making sure to set her alarm before climbing gratefully into bed. As she pulled the covers up over her head and prayed for sleep, she realized that staying on the couch had afforded her a different kind of peace, separate from not smelling Jack’s cologne still embedded deep into the quilt.

     In the bed, she could hear her neighbor coughing through the wall.

Chapter Six

Posted: October 6, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Two

     Getting rid of all signs of Jack proved harder than she’d hoped.

     Maddie quickly found that when you share a life with someone, the vast majority of your belongings are jointly acquired or have some kind of memory attached; she was surprised to realize that very little in the apartment was solely “hers”. Even the damn towels had been housewarming gifts from his mother.

     She cranked up some music and started with the bed. Singing loudly, she felt the sadness start to fade, replaced with the same intense rage she’d experienced in the choir closet. She ripped the sheets off, tugging at a stubborn corner until she heard the elastic rip; undaunted, she kept pulling, until the whole thing tore and the bedding was reduced to two sad halves. She stuffed them in a garbage bag and considered the pillow cases; after a moment she removed her own, added them to the bag, then grabbed both of Jack’s pillows and shoved them in too.

     The comforter slowed her down. It was old, a worn quilt she’d inherited from her grandmother; she couldn’t toss it, but she knew from experience that she couldn’t wash it in the machines downstairs either – it wouldn’t fit. She resolved to spray it with something, to cover Jack’s scent until she could get to the laundromat.

     The bed taken care of, she turned her attention to the rest of the room. A framed photo went in the bag; so did Jack’s deodorant, cologne and comb, swept off the dresser and into the trash. She grabbed handfuls of clothes off the floor, shoving them in until the bag bulged and she had to shake out a new one to continue.

     “I told you I’d throw it out,” she muttered. “Never could find the fucking hamper.”

     Throwing open the closet, she yanked shirts off of hangers. Out went the polo he’d worn on their first date; the dress shirts she’d bought for his new job; the souvenir t-shirt from their 5-year anniversary cruise. She filled the second bag, and then a third. She threw away boxers, and socks. She cut all the laces, laughing, and threw away his shoes.

     Sweating now, she wrestled the bags out the door and into the hallway. She was so intent on checking for her keys and getting things situated for the haul down to the dumpster, she didn’t notice at first that she had an audience.

     “Um…Madelyn?”

     She jumped and turned, letting out a relieved laugh when she realized it was her neighbor. The laughter died when she saw the look he was giving her and her mountain of garbage.

     “Spring cleaning,” she offered, giving him a weak smile.

     “It’s October.” The old man furrowed his brow. “Shouldn’t you be on your honeymoon?”

     She felt her face grow hot and looked away. An uncomfortable silence stretched between them, made all the more mortifying when she realized her vision was wavering; she grit her teeth, determined not to cry in front of anyone, least of all a neighbor she barely knew.

     He finally cleared his throat. “Well, ah, I must have had the date wrong. Jack, uh…he asked me to get your papers, so…I’ll bring today’s over later.”

     She nodded, still not raising her eyes. When he turned away she sighed with relief and bent back to her task, gathering the bags as best she could and shuffling down the hall.

     “Hey!”

     She stopped again, closing her eyes. Please, she begged silently. Please just go inside.

     Fighting to keep the impatience out of her voice, she turned back toward him. “Yes?”

     “Do you want some help?” He fidgeted, clearly ill at ease but desperate to fix it. “You can’t take all those down by yourself. You’ll fall and bust your head.”

     She winced against the quick flash of blood that his words evoked. Forcing herself to smile, she shook her head. “I’m fine. Really.” She didn’t want him to touch the bags; this was her job. Her catharsis.

     He reached out, ignoring her refusal, and tried to grab one anyway. Before she could shove herself between his hand and his target, he stopped; his face screwed up, his eyes disappearing as everything between his forehead and his chin squinched tight.

     What in the-

     “ACHOO!”

     The sneeze startled her into dropping her bags. She watched his face screw up for another, and let out a burst of laughter.

     “ACHOO!”

     He wiped a sleeve across his face and smiled. “My wife always laughed when I sneezed,” he said, chuckling a little himself. “She said I made the same face as when I-”

     “Don’t!” Maddie shrieked, holding up a hand.

     He grinned broadly and gave her a wink, which only made her laugh harder. He watched her for a moment, looking pleased, then patted her arm. “That’s better. Pretty girls like you should smile, not cry.”

     It was her turn to wipe her face; despite what he’d said, a few tears had escaped, though they were tears of release, not sadness.

     “You’re a dirty old man,” she teased.

     He started to reply, then stopped again. She giggled, waiting for the face.

     Instead, he coughed.

     Maddie recoiled, her amusement instantly replaced with terror. It wasn’t a harsh cough, or a long one; nonetheless, she backed away, stumbling over the bags in her haste to put distance between them.

     “Sorry,” he said. “Little cold, I guess.” He looked at her face and stepped forward, concerned. “Are you okay?”

     She nodded quickly. She knew she was being ridiculous; people coughed all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Drugs, she told herself. They said it was drugs.

     Not all that comforted by the reminder, she took another step back. “I can’t get sick,” she said, hoping her voice sounded less frantic than she felt. “You should go rest. I’ve got these.”

     He stood for a moment, clearly baffled by her sudden change in mood, before shrugging. “Suit yourself, dear. You know where I am if you change your mind.”

     She was already halfway down the hall, dragging the bags behind her, aware that she was being rude and insane but unable to stop herself. By the time she’d registered what he’d said and turned to offer a thanks, he was gone, his door swinging shut behind him.

     She bit her lip, fear giving way to embarrassment. She considered knocking, apologizing, accepting his help. The fear wasn’t gone as far as all that, though; she stood frozen in the hall, unable to make herself walk toward the door.

     Drugs. Mr. Webber doesn’t do drugs!

     Does he?

     Sighing, she heaved her bags up and trudged away.

**

     She managed not to fall down the stairs.

     In the end she hauled 12 bags down to the dumpster; by the time night fell she was sweaty, exhausted and furious again. Her anger grew as more stuff moved off the shelves and into the garbage, as more and more of her home, her life, disappeared. On her last trip down she stood at the landing and hurled the bag down the steps, then kicked it the rest of the way out the door. When she tossed it into the dumpster and slammed the lid down, she imagined it was Jack’s body she was throwing away.

     Her mother called. And called again. And then again. She couldn’t bring herself to answer; every time she tried she thought about Grace’s statement about needs and muted the phone. After 10 missed calls she sent a perfunctory text, assuring Grace she was alive, and shut it off.

     She settled into her stripped-down living room, poured a large glass of wine and sat back, staring at the only photograph she’d decided to keep: Jack, Holly, Chrissy and herself, taken the night of the engagement party. Looking at it now, she wondered if they were sleeping together when it was taken, Jack and his whore. She wondered how she could have ever believed that a man like him would choose a woman like her over someone like Holly. Fresh-faced, confident, with a perfect smile and perfect hair – of course Jack had fallen for her. She fit into his world far better than Maddie ever had, or ever would.

     “Never should have chosen such pretty friends,” she told her photo-self. “The ugly friend never gets the prince. Not really.”

     She remembered that Chrissy wasn’t a “pretty friend” anymore, not with half her face gone, and gulped the contents of her glass. Selfish. Selfish bitch. No wonder you’re alone.

     She poured another glass and closed her eyes. She tried to remember when she and Jack had been happy, to bring up an image of him like the one she’d conjured effortlessly the day before, when she’d been naïve and in love, waiting to get married. All she could picture was the choir room, and his face as he’d lied to her. Six years of memories, crowded out now by a glint of beads and a limp condom.

     She emptied the second glass and poured another.

     The alcohol was working now; a comfortable numbness spread through her body, and her hand felt impossibly heavy as she lifted the glass to drink more. Drunk and alone. Pathetic.

     She stared dully at the wall. Images moved slowly across the bare plaster, fading in and out of focus: Jessie in her tight dress, tottering across the room; Marion’s furious face; poor Mr. Baum and his cursed cremons. Disaster! The handsome stranger, his dark eyes on her; the feel of his hand on her arm. He’d touched her, hadn’t he? What was his name? He saved us all, she thought dreamily. Her nipples tingled.

     Startled, she sat up, spilling wine down her arm. The room spun. Fumbling, she tried to set the wine down; her hand felt disconnected from the rest of her. There was a tinkle of glass and she blinked, watching as the red liquid spread slowly across the table.

     Blood everywhere. She fell back. That’ll be a bitch to clean up.

     She closed her eyes again, and finally passed out.

Chapter Five

Posted: September 29, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     At her mother’s insistence, Maddie spent what should have been her wedding night alone in her childhood bedroom.

     She’d tried to argue. After Jack and Chrissy had been hauled off to the hospital and Holly had fled the scene, slapped face burning, the police had descended; three hours of questioning later, Grace had snatched Maddie’s keys and hustled her into the family car, ignoring her protests.

     “It’s a three hour drive back to the city,” Grace had pointed out. “You’re exhausted, upset and in no shape to drive.”

     “Jessie is going back,” Maddie had whined.

     “Jessie has someone else driving her. You think I’d let her drive herself anywhere today?”

     She’d started to pout, until she’d noticed that, despite Grace’s even tone, her hands were shaking. The woman had kept it together during the interminable interviews, the arrival of the coroner’s van and removal of the photographer’s body, and the curious questions from the guests who’d stuck around to find out what had happened. Maddie had feared that any further pushing would send her mother straight off the edge and into a breakdown.

     The officers who’d arrived to assess the scene hadn’t been thrilled with what they’d found, and they’d treated the remaining witnesses like criminals until it had been determined, to Grace’s immense relief, that Vinnie had acted in self-defense. When asked what could possibly have caused the photographer to act the way he had after being resuscitated, they’d put forward what Maddie was calling The Drug Theory. It was what she’d obsessed over during the drive to her parents’ house, and what she was obsessing over now, slumped in her old desk chair, letting her mother’s desperate chatter fade like white noise into the background.

     Officer Drugs had claimed that LSD or something like it was to blame. “There was a case down in Miami last year,” he’d explained. “Just like this one. Guy ate another guy’s face.”

     “Are you serious?” Maddie had been appalled.

     The officer had shrugged. “They only ever found weed in him, but lots of people still think it was some kind of super drug. Who knows what they have on the street these days, you know?”

     “Yeah, but…” Maddie had trailed off, uncertain. “He didn’t seem high.”

     “You said yourself that he seemed sicker than he’d said he was, right?” At Maddie’s nod, the officer had clapped his hands. “See? Drugs. Probably worked on him different, ‘cause he had a cold, and fu- messed him up. Guarantee they’ll find something when they do tests.” He’d finally stopped and looked at Maddie, sudden compassion on his face. “You couldn’t have known he was high. People walk around high all the time and nobody notices.”

     Maddie considered again how reassuring that was – anybody could be walking around, strung out on whatever the photographer had been on, waiting to eat a stranger’s face. She shuddered, wanting to move away from that thought before she became a paranoid mess, and forced herself to pay attention to her mother.

     “Everything is clean,” Grace was saying. “I just washed the sheets, you know, I wash them every week, and the pillows are brand new.”

     “You wash the sheets every week?” Maddie stared at her mother in disbelief. “I haven’t slept here in months, Mom.”

     “Oh, well, I know. I know that. But sheets get dusty, you know. You should always have fresh sheets.”

     “Oh….kay.”

     “Why don’t you take a nice bath, and I’ll get some sweats for you to wear? You should change. You don’t want- you shouldn’t sleep in those clothes. You should change.”

     Maddie didn’t want to take a bath, or change. She wanted to crawl into bed – her own bed, preferably, but this one would do – crawl in, cocoon, and cry herself to sleep. Maybe, when she woke up, she would recognize her life again.

     “Mom-”

     “There are clean towels, and some soap, and I think there’s a hair brush. There should be, I can get you one, I’ll grab mine while you’re in. And a drink! I’ll make tea. Something gentle, so you can slee-”

     “Mom!”

     Grace flinched, and Maddie realized that she’d yelled a little too loudly. She was instantly ashamed. She’s trying, she chastised herself. None of this is her fault.

     “I think I’ll just take a shower,” she said, her tone gentler.

     Grace nodded. “I’ll make the tea.” She turned to go, then hesitated, hand on the door jam. When she brought her gaze up to meet Maddie’s, there were tears in her eyes.

     “Mommy.” Maddie went to her, allowing herself to be wrapped in a hug so tight she feared her ribs might crack.

     “I’m so glad it wasn’t you.” Grace pulled back to look at Maddie’s face, brushing a strand of hair away from her daughter’s cheek. “That’s terrible, I know. It’s terrible. But I just- the CPR. I’m glad it wasn’t you.”

     Maddie looked away, not able to bear the terrible sadness and shame in her mother’s eyes. She merely nodded, staring at the floor, until Grace finally released her and left her alone.

     Once she was gone Maddie headed into the bathroom and stripped, keeping her eyes carefully away from the mirror over the sink. She didn’t want to see what she looked like; she wanted to hold on to the image of herself from that morning, the beautiful bride who’d existed for a single short hour, for just a few more minutes.

     Eyes closed, she stepped under the hot spray of the shower, turning the knob until she thought the temperature might scald her skin. As she reached for the soap, she felt something loosen in her chest and throat, a pressure that had built up over the course of the day and was at last being released.

     She worked the lather through her hair and lifted her face, allowing the water to wash over her, cleansing away the last traces of Mrs. Jack Cooper.

     Alone at last, she finally, finally allowed herself to cry.

****

     The next morning, over breakfast, she fought with her mother.

     “Daddy picked up your car,” Grace said, setting a cup of coffee and plate full of food on the table. Maddie looked at the food with revulsion, her stomach queasy and unsettled after a long night of little sleep; she pushed it away in favor of the coffee, ignoring Grace’s glare of disapproval.

     She took a moment to relish a hot sip of caffeine before speaking. “I should leave after breakfast,” she said. “I have a lot to do.”

     “Really?” Grace raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”

     “Washing sheets,” Maddie snapped.

     Grace rolled her eyes. “You should stay here for a few days. I don’t want you all alone in that apartment.”

     “I want to be alone.” Maddie reached out and grabbed the toast off her plate, shredding the crust into crumbs as she talked. “I need to think.”

     “You can think here.”

     “I want to sleep in my own bed, Mom. I want to get drunk, and cry, and throw away his shit. I can’t do that here.”

     Grace pursed her lips. “The hospital is here.”

     “I know.” Maddie sighed. “I talked to Chrissy’s mom last night, and she can’t have visitors for a few days; they need to protect her from infection.” She swallowed hard, picturing her friend’s mangled face. She pushed the image away before her stomach could revolt. “I’ll drive back down to see her when she’s ready.”

     “And Jack?”

     Maddie jerked her head up, surprised. “What about Jack?”

     Grace shifted under her daughter’s angry gaze. “He’s hurt too. You should see him.”

     “Please.” Maddie laughed. “He’s fine; nothing like what happened to Chrissy.” She attacked another piece of toast. “Besides, he probably already has company.”

     “I’m sure Marion would let you-”

     “I’m sure Marion would not,” Maddie said. “And you know I didn’t mean her.”

     “She’s your friend,” Grace ventured.

     “She is not!” Maddie exploded. “What is your problem? You did this yesterday, and it’s pissing me off. He fucked her. At our wedding. Stop defending them!”

     “I’m not defending anyone,” Grace insisted. “I’m just saying, people make mistakes, Madelyn.”

     “It wasn’t a mistake,” Maddie said, her voice bitter. “They’re in love. Holly said.”

     “No, you told me that she loves him. That doesn’t mean he feels the same way.” Grace hesitated, then continued. “Sometimes men, you know, they become vulnerable. They have a need, and girls like Holly-”

     “They have a need?” Maddie gaped, unable to believe what she was hearing. “Seriously? So this is my fault? I didn’t meet his needs?”

     “That’s not what I said!” Grace slammed her hand down on the table, causing Maddie to jump. “You don’t listen, Madelyn. You hear what you want to hear.”

     Maddie pushed her chair back, disgusted. “I don’t need this, Mom.” Heading into the kitchen, she rifled through the clutter on the counter before finding and grabbing her keys. “I’m going home. I’ll call you.”

     She stomped toward the door, seething and on the verge of angry tears. Her mother called out behind her, begging her to stop, to not make the trip home angry, but she kept on. She made sure to slam the door good and hard on her way out.

     Once in the car she paused, key in the ignition, and lean forward to rest her forehead on the steering wheel. The tears came again, hot as they spilled down her face, and she didn’t fight them.

     I gave him everything, she thought desperately. He was all I needed. What else did he want?

     She wasn’t going to find the answer while bawling in her parents’ driveway. Taking deep breaths, she waited for the wave of grief to ebb, then wiped her face and turned the key. With luck, she thought she’d be home before the next wave hit.

     As she reversed down the driveway she glanced up, and saw her mom, standing at the front door. Grace raised her hand, waving, a gesture Maddie refused to return.

     Driving away, Maddie had the sudden, inexplicable feeling that she should go back. She fought the urge to turn around, run inside and hug her mother tight, to promise that she’d stay.

     Stupid. I’ll call her later.

     Shaking off the odd feeling, she sighed, turned up the radio and started the long, lonely drive back to the city.