Chapter Twenty Five

Posted: April 6, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Vinnie’s stride was quick and wide, his boots echoing dully down the thinly-carpeted hallway. Maddie had to hustle to keep up with him. She wasn’t sure where they were going, where he planned to find supplies on a day like today; between the announcement and the exodus, she suspected every shop that sold anything resembling a weapon would be over-run within the hour. She remembered the pharmacy riot and shuddered. This will be worse.

     Lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t realize he’d stopped until she fetched up against his back. It was like crashing into a concrete wall – she bounced back with a grunt, and he didn’t even flinch.

     “What’s wrong?”

     He held up a finger to silence her. Head cocked, he stood before an apartment door, listening. Maddie hovered behind him, impatient and confused, until he frowned and moved away.

     “Somebody you know?” she asked as they headed down the first flight of stairs.

     He threw her a surprised look over his shoulder. “She let us use her phone.”

     Honeybunch.

     “There’s no one to call,” Maddie said. They paused at the landing, listening again, before heading down another flight. “Help is leaving,” she continued.

     “I don’t want her phone.”

     Maddie pictured the older woman: her kind face; her soft wave of gray hair; her low-heeled black string-shoes, clicking across the kitchen as she’d served them cookies. Like a storybook Grandma, Maddie remembered thinking, down to the slight quiver in her voice when she’d told Maddie she was a good girl for calling her mother.

     The way her palsied hand had shaken when she’d waved goodbye down the hall.

     They paused, listened, descended again.

     “You want to take her,” she said, ashamed of the surprise she felt. “When we go. If we go.”

     He shrugged. “She let us use her phone,” he repeated. Unspoken was the fact that she’d been the only one to do so.

     Funny, the things that determine your worth when the apocalypse comes.

     Finally they reached the lobby. Maddie headed for the front door, only to be jerked back by her hood.

     “What the hell?!” She batted his hands away.

     “Not out there.” Vinnie pointed at a door, tucked under the back of the stairs. “Downstairs.”

     “The basement?” Maddie furrowed her brow. “What’s in the basement?” She gasped. “Do you know a fence?!”

     He laughed, so long that she blushed. “Do you even know what a fence is?”

     “Yes!” Maddie defended. “I live here too. I’ve seen….well, heard things.”

     He chuckled again. “You’re an uptown girl,” he said, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “You don’t know anything.”

     She opened her mouth to argue further, but he walked away before she could start. “Come on,” he said, ignoring her angry glare.

     She considered refusing, then remembered why they were down here in the first place. Suddenly conscious of the big glass doors that led to the outside – doors anybody could open, or any thing – she hurried to follow.

     “Watch your step,” he warned as they started down. “It’s dark down there. The stairs are old. Don’t trip.”

     Maddie grabbed his hand. “What if someone’s down there?” she asked, aware that she was whispering. “What if…one of them…”

     “Could be.” He squeezed her hand. “You can wait here.”

     She glanced again at the glass doors, and shook her head. “No way. Just…stay close.”

     He nodded. “Promise.”

     Hand-in-hand, they stepped down into the darkness.

Feedback Friday

Posted: April 4, 2014 in Feedback Friday
Tags: ,

So there was some sex stuff the other week. I think most people knew it was coming, but if not, uh, sorry to surprise you? Hopefully you don’t read this at work or anything. In the future I think I’ll be tagging those posts with a NSFW tag, so you can make informed decisions and I don’t have to worry that somebody got reported to their manager for reading zombie porn.

I know some people liked that chapter, since they said so. If you’d like to preserve that enjoyment, I suggest you stop reading now, because I’m about to tell you what it was like to write it. It’s not nearly as hot as you’re hoping it will be.

Obstacle #1

Here’s what I want you to do: imagine you’re going to write a sexy letter to your significant other. Nothing too dirty, just something he/she can peek at during alone times and get a little het up by.

Now imagine your mom is going to read it. And one of your professors. And some of your classmates, for good measure, because when somebody asks for the link to your blog letter, you don’t stop to wonder if it’s appropriate to share it, you just hand that shit out. (What’s up, people! Hopefully you wait to read the sexy times chapter until after this semester is over, but if not, I look forward to avoiding eye contact with you for the next six weeks.)

You can’t NOT write the letter. You’ve made a deal; you’ve been writing a series of letters for months, and it’s TIME for this letter. There’s no way around it. You have to write it, and it has to be good. No copping out with euphemisms and fade-to-blacks – get in there, be fairly detailed, make it hot.

Did I mention your mom is going to read it? FOCUS. But also – your mom.

Obstacle #2

You’ve got some kids wandering free-range around your space. A lot of them. Not a classroom-full or anything, you’re not the damn Duggars up in here, but it’s enough. And they keep standing next to you. They’re not reading your letter, they’re just….there. Right there, up against your shoulder, talking about Minecraft and snack time and by the way, when are we going to Grammy’s? You know, that place where YOUR MOM lives.

That’s….well, that’s a mood killer. Common sense says you put your letter away, and you wait until no one under five feet tall is threatening to talk to you. To continue on in the face of the Goldfish Brigade would be fucking weird.

Obstacle #3

Okay, so you’re alone now, and you can kind of sort of block out all those extra people who are going to be reading your letter. Now we have to leave the letter conceit behind, because this is a fiction specific concern, and a problem for everyone who writes stories that involves sex scenes: the people who read it? They’re going to assume that you’re speaking from personal experience. And now you’re worrying, as you’re writing, oh my god. Someone is going to read this, and then the next time I see them, they’re going to give me that Look. The one that says they now know everything about my sex life, or at least they think they do. They’re going to think about it, you know damn well they are, and they’re gonna be like, “Oh wow, I had no idea she likes having sex on a stranger’s couch while her sister sleeps in the next room. What a ho!”

(For the record, I have no sister, and it’s been at least a week since I had sex on a stranger’s couch. AT LEAST.)

The truth is likely that nobody gives a shit, but that’s not what my brain was telling me while I was writing. In that moment, everybody cared, everybody knew me, and they were all waiting outside my front door to point and laugh when I walked to the mailbox.

Obstacle #4

There are no decent substitutes for the word ‘clit’. That really sucks.

The Moral

If there aren’t any more sex scenes for a while, I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m still recovering from the last one.

Chapter Twenty Four

Posted: March 30, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day 18

     They woke to the sound of sirens.

     When the first one zipped by, Maddie did little more than stir quietly; years of living in the city had inured her to the noise. The second siren pierced the thin veil of sleep, prompting her to open one reluctant eye. As a third, then a fourth, joined the shrieking chorus, she struggled to sit up.

     “It’s early,” Vinnie mumbled, pulling her back down to the floor. His arm snaked around her, pinning her down.

     “Get off,” she said, squirming to get out of his grasp. “Something’s wrong.”

     “Just a fire or something. Go back to sleep.”

     “I want to see. It sounds like a lot. Let me up- Oh!”

     She swallowed her words as the bedroom door opened and her sister stumbled into view. Jessie squinted into the dim living room.

     “What the fuck?” she whined, a hand pressed to her forehead. “Is the building on fire?” She shuffled closer; Maddie knew the exact moment her eyes adjusted to the gloom: the look of hazy confusion left her face, replaced with a sneer.

     “Well well,” Jessie said, pinning Maddie with a contemptuous glare. “Don’t you two look cozy.”

     Maddie blushed. “It’s not what it looks like,” she said.

     “Your pants are over there,” Jessie said, pointing across the room. “So’s his shirt.”

     Maddie glanced at the man lying bare-chested beside her and wondered when that had happened. Frowning, she realized she didn’t remember much after the condom debacle. Oh no. She felt the blood drain out of her face, leaving her cold and shaky.

     “You’ve still got your panties,” Vinnie muttered. She was startled to see that he was fully awake, smirking as he reached over to snap her waistband. “I helped you put them back on.”

     “Gross,” Jessie snapped.

     Maddie ignored her; she stared instead at Vinnie, willing him to answer the question she knew was in her eyes. After a moment he shook his head, just once, a slow back and forth that flooded her with relief. It must have shown on her face; the good humor fled his, and he turned away.

     “Don’t look so happy about it,” he grumbled. Before she could respond, he threw back the blankets and got to his feet. “Put your pants on,” he said, tossing them to her; the balled-up cotton whapped her in the chest, not hard, but it felt like a slap just the same.

     Maddie wanted to explain, but her tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth. She didn’t want to discuss it in front of her sister, or Caleb, who came tripping out of the bedroom just as she was wiggling into her pants.

     “What happened?” he asked. He clung to the doorframe, unsteady on his feet; from his grimace, Maddie knew the sirens were killing his head.

     The noise outside continued to swell; she pictured a cavalcade of cruisers out there, converging on the building, maybe this apartment. Summer, she thought, and shuddered. Surely Vinnie had been careful.

     Getting up with a groan – the floor had not been kind to her aching shoulders and back – she went to the window, flinching when the light flooded through the cracked blinds. Peering down at the street below, she gasped.

     “What is it?” Jessie asked. She came to stand just behind Maddie, looking over her shoulder. “Is it a fire? What-” She caught her breath. “What the hell?”

     Maddie stared, struck dumb. It seemed as though every cruiser in the city was flying down the street, lights flashing frantically; they took up both lanes, forcing oncoming traffic up onto the curbs as they struggled to get out of the way. A taxi failed to get over fast enough; a fire truck slammed into the front bumper, sent the cab spinning across the sidewalk and into a building, and kept going. No one stopped, or even slowed. Maddie eyed the cab’s mangled front end and waited for the driver to emerge.

     The door remained shut.

     “Where are they going?” Jessie breathed.

     Maddie shook her head. “I don’t know. But it can’t be good.”

     “They’re leaving.”

     Maddie turned, tearing her gaze from the window with difficulty. The scream of the sirens rose and fell, rose and fell, and she felt suddenly dizzy. The room spun, and she stumbled, lurching toward the couch. She reached out, hoping Vinnie would take her hand, catch her, but he was ignored her, his eyes glued to the TV. She collapsed down beside him, twisted, her face pressed against the back cushion.

     “Dick,” she muttered.

     “Sshh,” he hissed back.

     He turned the volume up higher, fighting the sound from outside. Maddie glanced at the screen and froze, her whole body going numb with fear. She read the chyron twice, then again, disbelieving.

     “Does that say-”

     “Yes. Shut up.”

     Maddie blinked, hard, hoping the words she was seeing would change, rearrange, become their true selves. But they remained. THE DEAD WALK, tidy script, plastered beneath a pair of news anchors who looked for all the world like they would rip off their mikes and run at any moment. The man sat rigid behind the desk, the papers clenched in his hands shaking ever-so-slightly; his face bore a frozen grin as he stared into the camera, not speaking, immobilized with panic. His co-anchor spoke at a rapid clip, her voice high and cracked.

     It had started at Bayer Stadium, she said, but Maddie knew that wasn’t true; Bayer was just where it had gone beyond their ability to explain it away. Hundreds had died, been piled up in the halls, and hundreds had come back, a groaning, rabid mass that had descended on the sick like they were a buffet. In a way, they had been – too ill to fight back, many near death already, most hadn’t been able to even leave their cots before they were fallen upon. Chopper footage showed a teeming crowd of people on Bayer field, snapping and snarling at each other like dogs.

     Police had barricaded the arena, hoping to contain it, but of course they weren’t able. The dead had flooded into the streets overnight, joined soon enough by hordes of others. People fled into the subways, only to find that those too were unsafe; trapped between two waves of undead, most didn’t make it back out. And still they tried; even as the newswoman warned against them, new footage came up, hundreds of people converging on stations, taking their chances. The clips had no sound, no doubt to protect viewers, but Maddie could easily imagine their panicked screams. She’d heard it before.

     “Local police are working to contain the situation.” The anchor’s calming voice had a brittle edge to it; she was reading her lines, but she clearly didn’t believe them. “The national guard has been mobilized. Stay in your homes.” She swallowed, her throat working. “The situation will be contained.”

     Maddie looked at the window, listened to the sirens and thought, Bullshit. Those cars outside weren’t rushing toward anything; they were running away. She tried to be angry, or disgusted at their cowardice, but found that she couldn’t. She wished she was in one of those cruisers instead, whizzing toward freedom. Surely they’d be let through the quarantine barricades. They were cops, after all.

     Vinnie muted the television and stared straight ahead; Maddie watched the vein in his temple pulse. She waited for him, for any of them, to speak, but the stunned silence stretched on.

     “Well,” she finally said. “Guess this is where you say ‘I told you so’.” When he still said nothing, she reached out, touching his arm gently. “Vinnie. What do we do?”

     He turned his head slowly, a look on his face she’d never seen before. Maddie’s scalp prickled. She took note of his eyes, the set of his jaw, and thought, G.I. Joe. He’d shed his civilian skin, had probably never been comfortable in it anyway. The man beside her now, his forearm like steel beneath her fingers, was a soldier.

     “Vinnie?” she asked.

     “Come with me,” he said, rising to his feet.

     “Where are we going?”

     He tossed Maddie her coat, then shrugged into his own. Pulling open a kitchen drawer, he retrieved the handgun, checking the clip before he stuffed it in his waistband. When he looked at Maddie again, his face was closed and cold.

     “We’re gonna need more guns.”

Chapter Twenty Three

Posted: March 23, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Maddie was sure this was the saddest drinking party she’d ever been a part of.

     She’d eaten slowly, and dawdled in the shower, hopeful that by the time she emerged the others would have consumed enough to have lost their melancholy edge. Unfortunately, it seemed that no amount of time was going to allow for that miracle. Sitting now on Vinnie’s sofa, acutely aware of the short distance between her own thigh and that of the smoldering man beside her, she groped desperately for a way to brighten the mood. Appealing to Caleb was out – he slumped in the armchair, fifth beer in hand, and glowered any time she turned her gaze in his direction. Vinnie seemed content to sit and drink in silence, unperturbed by the air of hostility that permeated the room.

     At least Jessie is enjoying herself.

     Maddie’s sister lay sprawled on the carpet, her head propped on a pile of blankets; the angle couldn’t have been comfortable for her neck, but it allowed her to drink straight from a vodka bottle without choking herself. Every few swigs she missed the mark, sending alcohol dribbling down her chin and chest, an error she found hysterically funny no matter how many times it happened. The manic laughter scraped the inside of Maddie’s skull, causing her to flinch each time it broke the silence. The others didn’t seem to mind; Maddie saw Caleb smile once or twice, a brief twitch of his lips that stopped the moment he realized she was looking at him again.

     When she caught his eye once more, he exploded. “Find something else to fucking look at!” he shouted, his voice thick and ugly.

     “Jesus!” Jessie sat up, mopping off the liquor that had splashed across her face. “You made me spill!”

     “You’ve been bathing in it for the last hour,” the kid snapped. “You smell like a hobo.”

     “What is your problem?” Jessie whined. “Why are you yelling at me? She’s the one you’re pissed at.”

     “Thanks, Jess.”

     “Well he is!” Jessie struggled up onto her knees, swaying. “I didn’t do anything! Whatever I did, he made me.” She pointed an accusatory finger at Vinnie. “This is all your fault!”

     Vinnie remained impassive.

     “He didn’t do anything,” Maddie said quickly. “I did. It’s my fault, not his.”

     “Yeah, it is.” Caleb gripped the bottle in his hand so tightly, Maddie was surprised it didn’t shatter. “You did it. You killed her. You think if you keep staring at me, I’ll say it’s okay?”

     “She was already-”

     “I KNOW THAT.” Spittle flew from Caleb’s mouth as he screamed. “I know what she was! But you…but you…” The anger fled in a sudden rush, leaving him to sag again, crying. “You hit her so hard. She wasn’t even…I couldn’t even…” He trailed off into sobs.

     Maddie turned her face away.

     The awkward silence stretched on, broken only by Caleb’s quiet sniffling, until finally Vinnie stood.

     “You need to rest,” he told Caleb. “You haven’t slept.”

     The kid shook his head, suddenly frantic. “I can’t sleep in there. I can’t.”

     “I’ll go with you.” Jessie staggered to her feet, leaning for a moment against the chair before she found her balance and straightened. “I’m sick of this floor, anyway.” She placed a clumsy hand on his shoulder. “You won’t be alone in there. Okay?”

     Caleb hesitated, casting a fearful look at the bedroom door. Maddie realized in a flash that she’d never been in danger from him, no matter what he’d said – he was too afraid to cross that threshold.

     After a few minutes of consideration, with Jessie murmuring words of encouragement in his ear, he finally nodded. Waving away Vinnie’s offer of help, he lurched up, grabbing hold of Jessie’s arm when he rocked on his feet. “S’like being on a boat,” he slurred, the beer he’d had catching hold of him with sudden vengeance.

     “I’ve got you, sailor.” Jessie steered him toward the bedroom, smirking at his careful steps. “Maybe a little less booze next time, huh?”

     “You drank a gallon,” he mumbled.

     “I’m kind of a professional.” Maddie rolled her eyes at that. “It takes years to build up my kind of tolerance. The trick is-”

     Her words cut off as the door clicked shut. Vinnie turned, a grin on his face.

     “Alone at last.” His eyebrows wriggled.

     “Ugh. Don’t be an ass.” She gestured toward the door with her bottle. “You think he’ll be okay?”

     Vinnie shrugged. “The beer should help him sleep. I’ll check him in a few minutes.” His brow furrowed. “Your sister handled him well.”

     “Yeah. She’s used to dealing with drunks. Everybody she knows is one.” Maddie heard the bitter judgment in her voice and cringed. Don’t be a bitch, she chastised herself. She calmed him down. Doesn’t matter why. “Sorry,” she said aloud. “Guess I’m a mean drunk.”

     Vinnie stepped into the kitchen, re-emerging with two more beers. Handing one to her, he sat; she noticed that he came back to the sofa, though the armchair was now vacant. He sprawled, his legs spread wide, his knee resting against hers.

     “You don’t like her much, do you?”

     “What?”

     “Your sister.” He took a long pull of beer. “You don’t like her.”

     Maddie frowned. “It’s not that. She’s just…exhausting.” She waved a hand at the mostly-empty vodka bottle. “She seems fun at a party. Except, you know, every night is a party for her. And every morning. And every afternoon.”

     Vinnie stared at her, his eyes dark. “And when do you party?”

     “I have fun!” Maddie protested. “Not her kind of fun, but…” She threw her bottle cap at him, annoyed. “Somebody has to be the responsible one.”

     “Uh-huh. How’s that working out for you?”

     She glared at him. “Fuck you.”

     Confusion flashed across his face. “Madelyn-”

     “No, I get it. The party girl flounces around, showing everything off, and everyone loves her. Responsible Maddie, though, she can’t even keep her fiancé satisfied.”

     “That’s not what I meant-”

     “Whatever.” She drank deeply before slamming her bottle down on the end table. “You think it. She thinks it. Everybody does.” He opened his mouth to speak, and she surged to her feet. “I’ll go check on them. Hopefully she hasn’t puked on his face.”

     She stalked across the room, angry and embarrassed. Her hands shook as she turned the knob, easing the door open as quietly as possible; she slipped in through the narrow opening and moved to stand beside the bed.

     They were both asleep. Jessie lay on her back, her arm tucked protectively around the kid; he had curled onto his side beside her, his head resting on her chest. Maddie stared down at them, her fists clenched at her sides. People like you, she thought. People like you sleep so easily. She wondered, suddenly, how Holly was sleeping these days. She was another party girl, just like Jessie. No concern for anything, so long as it didn’t interfere with her ability to have a drink, flash a guy, fuck somebody’s husband. Had she found someone new to protect her, now that Jack was gone? Was she hiding, the way they were, watching the world fall apart one news clip at a time? Had she encountered one of the…things, seen what happened to the dead now, lay awake the way Maddie did, wondering if her lover had become the same?

     Her anger faded, her body softening as she watched the sleeping pair. He’s right. Being responsible hasn’t brought me anything. And what does it matter now? The dead don’t care. Summer’s slavering face rose up in her mind, and she shuddered. The dead don’t care at all.

     A new feeling took hold of her, a reckless resolve that made her stomach flutter. She left the room, closing the door quietly behind her, and went to stand before Vinnie. Her whole body trembled now, not in rage but fear – of what she was doing, and how he would react.

     “They’re asleep,” she said.

     “Good.” He stared up at her, wary. “Madelyn, I didn’t mean-”

     “I know.” She leaned forward, placing her hands on the back of the sofa, framing his face. Her head swam. “Kiss me.”

     He laughed. “What?”

     “Kiss me!” she demanded.

     He shifted, clearly uneasy. “You’re drunk.”

     “Maybe.” She tilted her head, the change in angle setting off a wave of dizziness; her knees were shaking. “Okay, definitely. So what?”

     “I don’t think we should-”

     She brought her mouth down on his, silencing his protest. For a moment he sat frozen, and she wondered if he was going to humiliate her by not responding. She was about to move away when he groaned; his hand came up to wrap in her hair, his tongue plunging into her mouth. Oh thank god. She moved her hands down to grip his shoulders, steadying herself against him.

     They were both gasping when she pulled away. He reached out, his eyes on hers, and fumbled with the knot at her waist; it took him a moment to pull it free, and then her pants were down, a pool of cotton fabric around her feet. Holding his gaze, she stepped out of them, grateful she’d chosen a decent pair of panties when she’d changed. The room was mostly dark, and he didn’t seem like the type to care about underwear, but still – worrying over a holey pair of drawers would have killed her mood.

     All thoughts of her wardrobe choices fled when he leaned forward, his hands on her hips, and kissed her stomach. She inhaled sharply, the feel of his lips setting off a tingle that surged downward; as his tongue dragged over toward her hip, she felt herself throb.

     Glancing up at her briefly, as if seeking reassurance, he hooked his thumbs into the waistband of her panties and yanked, baring her to his mouth. He kissed and licked, gently at first, then with increasing urgency; one hand grabbed her calf and lifted, urging her to place a foot on the sofa, giving him better access. She gripped his hair in her fists, her head falling back as she gave herself over to what he was doing. He slipped a finger inside her, and she stiffened, embarrassed at how quickly and easily she’d become ready for him. She didn’t have long to feel self-conscious, however; as he moved his hand he growled, a low rumble of pleasure she’d never heard before, and she let herself simply enjoy.

     “Vinnie,” she whimpered. She could feel an orgasm building as he plunged deeper inside her, first the one finger, then adding another, his tongue tracing frantic circles over her clit. She yanked on his hair, not wanting to finish. “Please. I need…I need…” Her breath hitched in her throat.

     He pulled himself away at the last moment, falling back against the sofa. She tore at his jeans, clumsy in her eagerness, until he pushed her hands away and undid them himself. Gripping her hips tightly, he pulled her down, spreading her wide over his lap. She was about to lower when reason penetrated the fog.

     “Wait!” She levered herself back up. “Do you…having anything?”

     “What?” He looked up at her with dazed eyes. “Like, herpes?”

     “No! A condom.”

     “Oh. Oh. Shit.” He groaned with frustration. “I think so. In the bathroom, maybe. I’ll go look.” Before she could move he lifted her, shifting her to the side so he could climb out from beneath her. “Stay here,” he ordered.

     “Where else would I go?” she mumbled. The sudden move from his lap had set off another wave of dizziness; she held her head, willing the feeling to go away, or at least hold off for a few more minutes.

     She watched him stumble toward the bathroom, hitching his pants up as he went; his steps weren’t much steadier than Caleb’s had been, and she realized he’d had more to drink than she’d thought. So have I. She tried to count the empties they’d left on the table, a task made more difficult by the darkness of the room and the fact that her vision kept doubling. That’s not good. She closed her eyes, which only made the dizziness worse – the sensation that she was spinning made her stomach roll.

     You’ll regret this tomorrow, a little voice said.

     So? It’s time I had fun.

     You won’t like yourself. Or him.

     I don’t like him much now.

     Then why are you going to sleep with him?

     The thought brought her up short. She’d lied to herself, and she knew it: she did like Vinnie, as much as she didn’t want to. But sleeping with him, especially this way, wasn’t going to make things between them any easier. She wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye after, which might be a problem given how much time they now spent together.

     He’s getting a condom, you dumbass!

     Her booze-soaked brain searched for a way to get out of this easily, without setting him off or making him hate her. She was still thinking when he emerged from the bathroom, a packet of foil raised triumphantly.

     “Found one!” He tripped his way toward the couch, collapsing beside her in a heap. “Now, where were we?” He reached for her, leering – until he saw her face. Drawing back, he searched her eyes for a moment, then sighed. “Killed the mood, huh?”

     She blinked at him. “What?”

     “I knew it was taking too long. Stupid box was buried under the toilet paper. Stupid!” He glared at the rubber, still gripped in his hand, then tucked it into his pocket. “Chicks always turn off if it takes too long,” he told her, the conspiratorial tone of his voice making her giggle.

     “They do,” she allowed. “Besides…” She chewed her lip. “I think we’re both too drunk to be doing this.”

     “Probably!” He threw an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close; she snuggled against him, resting comfortably against his side. “We’ll try again tomorrow,” he said confidently.

     “We’ll see.”

     He tilted her chin up, kissing her gently before staring deep into her eyes. “Madelyn?”

     “Yeah?”

     “We will try again.”

     She heard the dark promise in his voice, and shivered.

Chapter Twenty Two

Posted: March 16, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     It felt like hours before she heard the others return. Maddie perched on the side of the bed, hands clasped tightly in her lap, her eyes fixed on the door. Every few minutes she could feel her attention drifting toward the other side of the room – the stains on the wall and carpet all but called her name. She resisted the repeated urge to look, conjuring up instead images of another door, that one locked against her rather than in her favor. She gritted her teeth and seethed.

     She didn’t really believe she was in danger; if Caleb had intended to kill her, she figured he’d have done it while she was still asleep. He was posturing, as teenaged boys were wont to do. Still, she hated him for scaring her, and for the dislike that had rolled off of him in waves.

     Without me, he’d have been left behind. Ungrateful ass.

     Her eyes started to wander again, and she snapped them back. Don’t think about it, she ordered. Don’t think about her. Her hands twitched, feeling a ghost of the bat against her palms.

     There was a thump on the other side of the door, followed by loud, brittle laughter. Maddie groaned. She knew that laugh – years of hearing it echoing down the hallway and through thin bedroom walls had taught her to gauge in an instant how pleasant the next few hours were going to be.

     Wherever Vinnie and her sister had gone, alcohol had clearly been on the menu.

     More high-pitched giggling drifted through the door, along with the low murmur of what sounded like an argument. She was about to get up and see what was happening when there was a quiet knock.

     “It’s me,” Vinnie called.

     Maddie thumbed the lock and let him in, glaring at Caleb over his shoulder. The kid stared back defiantly, a beer clenched in his fist. No sign of Jessie, though clattering in the kitchen was a good indication of what she was up to.

     “You’re letting him drink?” Maddie asked. When Vinnie raised an eyebrow in response, she blushed. “He’s not…he’s too young,” she said, feeling instantly lame.

     Vinnie pushed the door shut. “You want to report me for corrupting a minor?”

     “Ha ha. Very funny.”

     “His friend zombie’d out in front of him. I think he deserves a few drinks.”

     His tone was gentle, but Maddie still looked away, feeling like she’d been slapped. She found herself staring at the spot she’d tried so hard to avoid, her stomach churning again at the sight of the stained floor. I didn’t do anything wrong. No matter how many times she repeated it to herself, it failed to make her feel any better.

     “Where did you take her?” she finally asked. Part of her cringed, both dreading and wanting to hear.

     He waited a few moments before answering. “You, ah…you don’t need to know.”

     She pulled her attention away from the rug. “Did you do it alone?”

     “No.” He glanced at the door. “Your sister helped me.”

     “Ah.” Maddie paused. “And now she’s drunk.”

     He sat down heavily, his expression sad. “I shouldn’t have made her. She cried a lot. But the body was too heavy for me to move it alone. The kid couldn’t do it.” He stared off into space, seeming not to notice when she sat beside him. “She shouldn’t have been heavy. She was small. I’ve moved bigger guys, guys weighted down with gear. I should have been able to do it alone.” He shrugged. “But I couldn’t, so I made her help. And now she’s drunk.”

     Maddie took his hand, gently stroking across the back of it. “I’m surprised she made it this long,” she said, keeping her tone light. “Where did you go?”

     “Mini mart, couple streets over. I had to give the guy a twenty to lift the gate and let us in. There’s been looting.”

     “Where are the cops?”

     He shot her a surprised look, then laughed. “You’ve missed a lot, Sleeping Beauty.”

     “So tell me.”

     He seemed about to, then shook his head. “It can wait.” Getting to his feet, he pulled her up too; before she could react she found herself wrapped in a hug. “I’m glad you’re awake,” he whispered. The now-familiar chill raced down her spine, and she hugged him back.

     After a few moments he pulled away; she let her arms drop to her sides, feeling suddenly awkward. I wonder how much beer there is, she thought. She hoped the answer was “a lot”; if she was going to deal with her drunk sister and drunk Caleb, she needed something to take the edge off.

     As if reading her thoughts, Vinnie grinned. “Let’s get you something to eat,” he said. “You can’t drink on an empty stomach.”

     “Are you hoping to get me drunk?” Maddie teased.

     The look he gave her left her feeling as exposed as she had in the kitchen earlier. She remembered what Caleb had told her.

     “You don’t have to look at me like that,” she blurted, crossing her arms.

     “Like what?”

     “Like you want to see me naked.” She took a step back. “You had your show already, when I was sleeping.”

     He stared at her, dumbfounded, until realization dawned. “I checked you for scratches,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I didn’t look at anything. Unconscious chicks aren’t really my thing.” When she had no response, he huffed, impatient. “I was making sure you weren’t hurt. Are you really going to be pissed about it?”

     She chewed her lip. “I guess not.”

     He stepped into the space she’s created between them, leaning down until his mouth was inches from hers. “The next time I see you naked,” he said, his voice a low growl, “It’ll be because you invited me to. Okay?”

     Swallowing hard, she nodded.

     “Good.” Pulling away, he opened the door. “Now…let’s eat.”

Chapter Twenty One

Posted: March 9, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Everything hurt.

     Maddie lay very still, blinking into the semi-darkness. The overhead light was off; a small lamp on the bedside table threw most of the room into shadow. She was surprised to note that it was still night – she could spy a sliver of moon through the partially open curtains.

     The space beside her in the bed was empty.

     Groaning, she sat up, the ache in her head a dull throb compared to the screaming agony of her arms and shoulders. She felt like she had when she was younger, immobilized after a weekend spent helping her father chop, lift and store firewood. They’d had no real need for the wood, but he was the type who’d rather spend the day doing good, honest work than be shut up inside, listening to the bickering between his wife and younger daughter. Maddie had worked alongside him for just the same reason, the labor a welcome trade for his companionable silence.

     Now, though, there was no sense of accomplishment to accompany the pain; no pride in a difficult task done well. Every movement reminded her of what she’d done, and who she’d done it to. And why.

     Unable to resist the pull, her eyes jumped to the other side of the room. Summer was gone – all that remained was a dark stain on the carpet. The bat had been cleaned and replaced on the hooks; everything that had been jostled out of place in the struggle had been carefully put back. Someone had also wiped down the walls, though a pale pink streak remained on the paint above the dresser. Her stomach rolled when she saw it.

     “Vinnie,” she croaked. Her throat was raw, dry as dust. “Vinnie!” she called again, a bit louder. When no one came, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, taking a steadying breath before she stood. Her knees felt weak, her thighs a little trembly, but she thought she’d be okay to walk.

     The living room, too, was dark; the television flickered, images Maddie thought were from the barricades filling the screen, though with the volume muted it was hard to tell if it was new or old footage. Her scalp prickling, Maddie looked around.

     No one was there.

     Her immediate thought was that they had left her; they’d waited until she was asleep and then fled. The fear was irrational – her sister and that coward Caleb might have ditched her, but she doubted that Vinnie would have agreed to such a thing, not when he had Grace to deal with in the somewhat hazy future. Besides, she told herself, You haven’t been asleep for that long. Maybe they’re out dealing with the…clean up.

     That was an even less pleasant thought; she shied away from it.

     Swallowing hard, she noticed again how dry her mouth was and shuffled toward the kitchenette. She fixed herself a glass of ice water, chugged, then made another, squinting against the freeze that spread up through her forehead. A third glass finally loosened her throat, washing away the taste of sleep and death.

     Leaning back against the counter, Maddie stared into the shadows of the living room; her mind circled back to what the others could be doing. They’d moved Summer’s body, that much was clear. But where? How did one dispose of a dead body without getting caught?

     Fear spiked in her belly. Maybe they had been caught. She saw it clearly: the three of them, wrestling the sheet-wrapped corpse down the building’s stairs, right into the arms of the cops, who’d no doubt been called due to all the screaming. They’d been arrested; jailed. She was alone now.

     Stop it. She rolled her eyes, exasperated with her ability to worst-case-scenario everything. Her mother had always said she had an active imagination. Grace hadn’t known the half of it.

     Never imagined this, though. Never imagined anything like this.

     Despite what she’d seen – what she’d done – Maddie had difficulty accepting this new reality. Zombies…it seemed so impossibly ridiculous. The rational part of her continued to conjure explanations, though her ability to believe them was now wholly compromised; if she found ways to excuse Summer’s behavior, sane ways that left aside the issue of the walking, snarling dead, then she had to acknowledge that she was a murderer. She’d beaten a woman to death, for no reason other than fear. That, too, was an unacceptable scenario.

     The pain in her head increased. She resisted the urge to stumble back to the bed, to hide under the blankets and pretend, for a little while longer, that it was okay. Wherever they were, they’d be back soon, she thought, and she couldn’t stand the idea of them looking at her. Judging her.

     She was so focused on her thoughts, the sound of the toilet flushing startled her into dropping the glass. Water splashed across the kitchen floor, ice cubes rattling over the linoleum and sliding under the fridge. The glass, shatter-proof, thudded hollowly at her feet.

     Caleb emerged from the bathroom. Catching sight of her, he cringed, shying away like a skittish dog. Maddie felt her fists clench, and forced herself to relax.

     “I didn’t know you were up,” Caleb said. He refused to meet her eyes, talking instead to a space just around her knees. “Vinnie wasn’t sure how long it would be.”

     “Where is he?” she asked. “Where’s my sister?”

     “They went out.”

     “With….with Summer?”

     He looked at her then, a quick piercing glance. “No,” he said. “They took care of that this morning.”

     It took a moment for his words to sink in. “This morning? What…” She took a step toward him. “How long have I been asleep?”

     He seemed to hesitate. “Two days.”

     Maddie reeled back, shaking her head. “That’s not true.”

     Caleb shrugged. “You can ask them. They’ll be back soon.”

     Two days. How was that possible? She’d thought for sure it had been only a few hours. No one slept that long, unless they were sick. Or…

     Panicked, she yanked her shirt up, searching her torso for marks. Caleb watched her dispassionately as she spun around, checking the backs of her legs, the soles of her feet.

     “He already checked you,” he finally said.

     “What? What?” She looked at him, chest heaving.

     “Vinnie,” he said. “He already checked you. Yesterday, when we couldn’t wake you. You’re clean.”

     “Oh.” She sagged against the counter, weak with relief. She felt foolish, a feeling that intensified when she realized she was standing there, being glared at by a 17-year-old, wearing nothing but a borrowed t-shirt and her underwear.

     “Uh…” She fidgeted, tugging the hem of the shirt down. “I should probably get dressed.” When the kid didn’t respond, she snapped. “Could you turn around, please?”

     He complied, smirking. “Don’t see why it matters. You already flashed me.”

     “Ugh.” Forgetting her jelly legs, Maddie dashed for the bedroom, not processing what else he’d said until she was at the door. “Wait.” She spun around. “He checked me?”

     Caleb glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah. Why?”

     Maddie had a vision of Vinnie running his hands over her sleeping body, lifting her shirt, turning her over to make sure no area was missed in his inspection. She shuddered. She was sorry for how she’d treated him, given he’d turned out to be right, and she certainly couldn’t deny the way her body reacted to him. But still…she hated the idea of him touching her while she was unconscious.

     “We’ll have to talk about that,” she muttered. “Why couldn’t Jessie do it?”

     “I don’t think she would have enjoyed it as much,” Caleb snorted. Before she could respond to that, the humor left his face; he glared at her again, eyes cold and hard. “I voted to kill you.”

     She recoiled. “I- I’m sorry about-”

     “No you’re not.” He took a step toward her, his expression blank. “You know what she was. We both do. But still.” He stepped forward again. “I voted to kill you.”

     Heart pounding, Maddie slammed the door in his face.

All writing problems are psychological problems. –Erica Jong

About a month ago, my dog started acting strange. She does this sometimes; despite her breed’s fierce reputation she’s a sensitive little soul, and she goes through periods of what I can only describe as melancholy. She doesn’t really want to eat, she doesn’t want to play much, she doesn’t want to put in the effort to walk outside or across the house or do anything other than lie in her crate all the time. In the deepest throes of these ‘episodes’, my husband and I must resort to hauling her bodily from her nest, carrying her out to do her business and spend time with the people who love her. She manages to fake it for maybe an hour before she is demanding to be let back into her crate, where she will sleep. And sleep. And sleep.

In the time before and after these episodes, which last several weeks and try everyone’s patience, she becomes moody and snappish, a notable departure from her usual behavior. She’s generally a very happy-go-lucky kind of dog. She’s lived with us for three years, and every time this happens, my husband and I question each other, exasperated. “What’s wrong with her? Why is she acting like this? She was fine just yesterday!”

Physically, she is perfectly healthy. There’s no rhyme or reason to her behavior.

At least, I thought there wasn’t.

About a month ago, I started grinding my teeth in my sleep. I would go to bed with a headache, and wake up with one. I started taking over-the-counter painkillers every day, just to keep the agony in my eyes and jaw at bay. It didn’t work; it isn’t working. I’ve either had or been on the verge of a migraine for so long I don’t quite remember what it feels like to not be in pain.

This isn’t anything new to me. It happens twice a year, when the last remnants of my depression and PTSD decide to come out and play. The period between September and October is difficult, for reasons I’ve never been able to discern, but the period from January to mid-March is worse. I suffer from nightmares; dreams from which I wake sobbing, or screaming, or soaked in sweat. I lack the energy to do even the most basic tasks. I don’t want to go anywhere, or be around any people, not even those I love and live with. I can’t stand to be touched. I eat rarely, and only because I have to.

This is, believe it or not, an improvement. My condition was much worse 4, 5 years ago. I’ve been medicated and therapied and support grouped, to no avail.

And then I got my dog.

I didn’t get her for the purpose of helping me – I’m simply a sucker for a sad faced animal in need of help. When I adopted her, she was on the kill list at a city shelter, slated for euthanasia in a few hours’ time. After a sour experience with a prior rescue dog, I’d decided I had very strict criteria for the next dog we’d adopt: male, a puppy I could train from the beginning, small enough that I could pick it up when it was full-grown. What I got was a one-year-old female pit bull, with saggy teats and lost puppies of her own and a white stripe on her forehead that is, I swear, the softest spot on the planet for rubbing a finger or a nose. She loved kids and hated cats, a hatred that has transformed into intense fear after the smallest of our feline litter thoroughly kicked her ass. I can pick her up, but it’s not a pleasant endeavor. Her size, however, doesn’t keep her from believing with all her heart that she’s a lap dog.

After she moved in, I stopped thinking about the best way to commit suicide.

There’s some debate as to whether dogs are capable of empathy or sympathy. Scientific debate, anyway. I think most people who actually own dogs would argue that their dog is absolutely aware when they’re having a difficult time, and that the dog goes out of its way to offer comfort.

My dog, it seems, has developed sympathetic depression.

It’s pretty brilliant, actually. When I’m dealing with her and her stubborn refusal to get up and go pee at least once today, for god’s sake, I’m not listening to the voices in my head. The voices that natter at me about all the things I’ve fucked up, all the ways every terrible thing is entirely my fault, all the ways I’m inadequate and stupid and should go eat worms and die – those voices have to shut the fuck up for a little bit, we are carrying an armful of 60-pound dog down the hallway here and do not have time for your bullshit. When she’s bummed out and not willing to do anything except sit in my lap and groan sadly, I get to rub her ears and her head for hours on end, and we all know the benefits involved in petting an animal.

The one thing she can’t do is fix the block that happens when I’m in the throes of one of my ‘episodes’. There are so many other thoughts running through my mind, most of them unpleasant, that they tend to out-shout the story related ones. I’m trying to push through it, but it feels like an exhausting physical task, rather than a merely mental one. Digging ditches, at this point, might be less demanding.

I’m working on it. I’m hopeful that the next chapter will be ready for Sunday but honestly, right now, I can’t make any guarantees. I’ll do my best, and that’s all I can say. If it doesn’t come off, you can kindly direct any hate mail to my sofa, where I’ll no doubt be moping with my BFF.

There are worse ways I could be spending my time.

Delay

Posted: February 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

That about sums it up. A thousand apologies; further explanations will come soon.

Chapter Twenty

Posted: January 26, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     She remembered the roar that had filled her apartment when Vinnie had shot Mr. Webber, and the pops from the pharmacy; she knew, even in her inexperience, that gun shots were anything but quiet. Eyes scrunched tight, Maddie braced herself for a loud bang.

     She was rewarded with an impotent click.

     Her eyes flew open. The gun remained in her hand, cold and silent. On the bed, Summer struggled to her feet and took a step, seemingly unaware in her mindless state that walking across a mattress wasn’t quite the same as traversing the floor. Her foot tangled in the sheets and she went down again, slavering with rage.

     “You have to cock it!” Jessie screamed from the doorway. “Cock it!”

     Maddie fumbled at the back on the gun, searching for the lever she thought should be there. She’d seen westerns, she had, she knew how to cock a gun. But to her dismay, there was no lever. The gun slipped in her hands, slick with sweat, and she moaned in frustration.

     “It’s a slide!” Vinnie made to release Caleb, to come and help. As soon as the grip around his body loosened the kid redoubled his efforts to reach Maddie, screaming incoherently, not even aware of what his friend in the bed had become. Vinnie hauled the kid back again. “Slide it! Slide it to cock it!”

     “I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS.” Maddie heard herself sobbing, her breath coming out in panicked gasps. Her fingers slipped over the body of the gun, not able to get a grip and slide anything, never mind that there wasn’t anything to slide. What the hell is he talking about?

     Summer lurched down the length of the bed, reaching the end and tumbling over onto the floor, arms outstretched. There was a crack as she hit the carpet; when she rose again, Maddie saw that her left arm dangled at an impossible angle, the bone poking through near the elbow. Summer paid it no mind – she shuffled forward, toward Maddie, eyes empty and wild.

     Maddie moved backward, still clutching the useless gun. She pulled the trigger again, twice more, each time hearing only the quiet click of nothing.

     “The safety!” Vinnie sounded suddenly furious, though whether it was with her or himself she didn’t know. “The safety’s on! Push the button!”

     Oh, fuck this. Fed up with buttons and slides and levers that weren’t there, Maddie brought her hand back and hurled the gun at Summer. It hit the girl in the cheek, just below her right eye; blood poured down her face. It was a blow that would have given anyone pause, but she kept coming.

     Maddie’s retreat was halted as she backed up against something hard. The dresser. Turning quickly, she scanned the top, searching for anything she could use to fend the girl off. Her eyes skipped over the few small items clustered neatly toward the front; over the framed photo of Vinnie in uniform, surrounded by other similarly dressed men; over the box of useless bullets he’d pulled out when he’d retrieved the gun. They landed on a set of hooks, screwed into the wall just above the dresser top, cradling what was clearly a prized possession.

     Batter up.

     When she whirled back around, bat in hand, Summer was closer than she’d expected. Screaming with fear, she swung out; the bat connected with Summer’s shoulder, knocking the girl back a few steps. Maddie swung again, hitting her mark this time – the thud of the wood as it rapped against Summer’s skull was sick and satisfying.

     She never knew, after, how many times she hit the girl. After the first blow she left herself, went to a quiet place where there was no screaming; no one snapped and snarled like a rabid dog with only half a head; her ears weren’t filled with the sound of her own sobbing laughter as her arms moved up and down, up and down, hoeing a row of horror she’d remember clearly only in her dreams.

     When she came back, the room was still. She perched on the end of the bed, bat still in hand, the blonde wood streaked and stained with blood. Staring at it, she wondered how much was on the rest of her. Her face felt sticky and hot.

     There was whispering behind her, and the sound of running water in the other room. Caleb said something, a plea she couldn’t quite hear, before Vinnie ordered him out.

     You’re next, she thought, hands tightening on the bat. She liked the feel of it in her grip, the heft it had. Fool me once, kiddo.

     But she found that all of her energy was gone; whatever reserves she’d been able to access to deal with Summer were empty. Her anger at Caleb was a weak thing, tired – she couldn’t muster up more.

     “Madelyn?” A hand fell on her shoulder and she flinched, half-raising the bat. “It’s all right. You’re fine now.”

     Vinnie sat beside her, his weight shifting the mattress, and she found herself leaning against him. The warmth of his body set off a sudden round of shivering; the bat trembled in her hands.

     “Let me have that,” he said gently, reaching out.

     She tried to release her grip. “I can’t,” she said, surprised to hear her voice sound so hoarse.

     “That’s okay.” Moving carefully, he loosened her fingers from around the handle. When it was free, he set it aside and took her hand. “I’m going to clean you up. Okay?”

     She nodded, grateful, but when he brought the washcloth forward she recoiled. Seeing the look on her face, he quickly reassured her. “It’s clean.” After a moment of hesitation he tried again, and this time she allowed him to wipe her hands, then her face. She believed him that it was clean; nonetheless, her skin crawled. As he dabbed at her cheeks, she bit her lip to keep from screaming.

     “She should have a bath,” Jessie said, hovering still in the doorway. “It’s all over her.”

     “Later,” Vinnie said.

     “But….Vinnie, her hair.”

     “I said later,” he snapped. “She’s in shock.”

     “But-”

     “Go check on Caleb,” he said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

     When she was gone, he knelt before Maddie. Her eyes drifted over his shoulder, to where Summer lay sprawled on the carpet; someone had thrown a sheet over her, white cotton blooming with red patches.

     Seeing the direction of her gaze, he gripped her chin, bringing her attention back to his face. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, voice soft and stern. “I’ll take care of it.” He waited for her to nod before continuing. “You need to lie down now. Okay? I’ll help you walk.”

     Maddie shook her head. “The bed,” she said.

     Vinnie raised an eyebrow. “You sure?”

     “Yes.” She fought the urge to collapse back, to writhe across the mattress the way Summer had, until her head was on the pillow. Wasn’t Summer, though. Not Summer at all. Squinting, she forced herself to focus. “I hate the floor.”

     “You can sleep on the couch,” he said.

     “No. The bed.”

     “Okay.” He sighed. “I have to change the sheets first. You want to go to the bathroom?”

     She shook her head again. It was a long walk to the bathroom; she wasn’t sure she’d make it. Why am I so tired? She thought she’d done something, something exhausting, but couldn’t remember. Her head swam.

     She blinked and he was standing in front of her, arms full of clean linens. Taking her hand, he tugged her to her feet. “Sit here,” he told her. He led her to the chair, one he’d dragged in from the living room; doing as she was told, she found herself staring out the bedroom door. She watched, detached, as Caleb sobbed on the sofa, Jessie standing over him. Useless. She glared at her sister, angry for reasons she couldn’t explain. She felt her nails biting into her palms.

     Vinnie worked quickly, stripping the bed and tossing everything on top of Summer’s body. He had the new sheets on the bed before she knew it. Helping her again to stand, he brought her to the bed.

     “You….” He hesitated, shifting uncomfortably. “You should change your clothes.”

     She looked down at herself. He was right; her blouse was destroyed, and her pants not much better. Numb, she plucked feebly at the buttons of her shirt, not able to make her fingers work.

     “You want me to get your sister?”

     “I can do it.”

     “I don’t think you can.” He frowned, thinking, then moved to shut the door. “We’ll do this fast. I won’t….I won’t look.”

     She stared at him. “Look at what?”

     “Never mind.”

     She let her hands fall away as he undid her buttons, first on her shirt and then on her jeans. The air in the room was cold; she felt her skin dimple as he pulled her top off, tossing it aside. Despite his promise his eyes fell to her breasts, then skittered away.

     “You’re blushing,” she said. She sat down so he could work her pants down and off her legs.

     “You’re cold,” he said. “Here.” He held a t-shirt out. “Raise your arms.”

     She did. He tugged the shirt down over her head, then helped ease her back onto the pillows. She sighed, relieved beyond measure to finally be lying down. Drawing the covers up, she burrowed.

     “I’ll come back soon,” he said.

     “Can you…” She peeked out from beneath the blankets. “Can you sit? For a minute?”

     “Uh…sure.” Climbing in awkwardly, he half-sat, half-lay beside her. After a moment he reached out, stroking her hair. Recalling what Jessie had said about her needing a shower, she wondered what his hands would look like after; before she could dwell on it the thought floated away, and she drifted, down, into sleep.

     Just before she was gone, she shifted. “Vinnie?” she asked, her voice soft and dreamy.

     “Yes?”

     She frowned. “I really hate baseball.”

Chapter Nineteen

Posted: January 19, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day 15

     Maddie lay in the dark, listening to her sister’s gentle snoring, and wondered what the hell they were going to do.
They’d been stuck in Vinnie’s apartment for four days. Four days of nonstop news on the television, endless sniping with her sister and repeated, failed attempts to find a way out of the godforsaken city and get home.

     Four days of waiting for the girl, Summer, to recover. Or die.

     Maddie had been hopeful that she was going to get better. On the first day Summer had been talkative, laughing and joking with Caleb; she’d even eaten some of the soup Vinnie had insisted would help her. On the second Maddie had sat with her, rubbing her back and making sympathetic noises while the girl cried, explaining again what had happened down in the tunnels. She wanted them to find Dirk; would not lay back and sleep until Maddie had promised that they would try.

     That had been the last time she’d spoken to anyone.

     Now it was two days later and the girl slept on, unable to be roused. Caleb insisted she was resting, rejecting all other explanations for her deep, disturbing slumber. Maddie and Vinnie had had a dozen arguments over whether she could be hauled down to the car and taken to the hospital; with each passing hour Maddie had grown angrier and angrier with his reticence to do anything beyond stand around, waiting to see what would happen.

     After much yelling, he’d finally consented to canvassing his neighbors for a working phone. Most doors remained closed, no matter how much they knocked; when they finally found a friendly face, an older woman who called Vinnie “Honeybunch” and offered them cookies, the effort proved to be a waste of time – ten calls to 9-1-1 ended in nothing more than a ringing line. A quick call to Maddie’s mother had at least been picked up by the machine; she’d left a short message, assuring Grace that they were fine and trying to find a way home, before Vinnie had dragged her back to the apartment.

     The news report that evening had offered an explanation for their failure: 911 was no longer operational. Nor were the emergency rooms at any of the city’s four hospitals; it seemed mandatory vaccinations for personnel had not had the desired effect, and most of the doctors and nurses were either laid up at home or lying on cots at Bayer Stadium.

     Help, Maddie had realized, was not coming.

     A particularly loud snooork from her sister roused Maddie from her thoughts. Sighing, she gave Jessie a shove before rolling over herself, wishing for the hundredth time that she had ear plugs. Although she had to admit, it wasn’t just the snoring that kept her awake at night; even if she could stop worrying long enough to sleep, the floor of Vinnie’s living room wasn’t exactly the most comfortable place to be camping out. Vinnie had magnanimously offered the use of the sofa, but both women had refused, Maddie because he was already displaced from his bed, Jessie simply to keep her sister from sharing sleeping space with him.

     Forget it, she told herself. You can worry about all of this crap in the morning. Sleep.

     For a few minutes, it seemed like she would be successful. She was just starting to drift off when she heard a creak in the bedroom.

     There was no reason to pay it any mind. Vinnie’s building was old, and anyway, Caleb got up multiple times a night to fuss over Summer, rearranging the bedding and wiping her face with fresh cloths, as though such simple measures would bring her back to him. Maddie had already grown used to ignoring his middle-of-the-night puttering around.

     Nonetheless, she was jerked back into alertness by the sound. After a moment she realized her body was rigid, her ears straining as she held her breath.

     Creak.

     She sat up, aware as she did so that Vinnie was already throwing his blankets off and rising to his feet. He was a mere shadow in the dark room, moving toward the bedroom door before she could get up.

     “Vinnie!” she whispered, not wanting to wake her sister. He stopped, a disembodied voice coming out of the darkness.

     “Stay there,” he ordered. “I’ll check.”

     “Yeah right.” Stumbling, she made her way to his side, tripping over Jessie’s feet in the process. He caught her arm as she fell into him.

     “It’s probably nothing,” he told her. For the first time since she’d met him, she thought she detected uncertainty in his tone.

     “We’ll just peek,” she said.

     Moving slowly, Vinnie eased the door open.

     As she’d expected, Caleb was hovering. He perched on Summer’s side of the bed, a damp cloth in his hand; from the look of her cheeks, he’d been scrubbing them for some time. He muttered to himself, his speech low and rapid.

     Maddie took a cautious step into the room. “Caleb?” The kid jerked, his shoulders twitching, but didn’t stop wiping. “Caleb. What are you doing?”

     Vinnie nudged past her, pushing her closer to the bed. Maddie’s gaze fell to Summer’s face, and she froze. The girl’s expression was utterly blank; her mouth hung open, jaw slack. Aside from the chaffed redness of her cheeks, her face lacked all color.

     “Oh no.”

     “She’s fine.” Caleb nodded at his own words. “She just needs to cool off. She’s so hot. Feel her forehead.” Maddie shrank back, not wanting to lay a hand on the girl, but he continued as though she’d complied. “See? It’s just a fever. I need to cool her off.”

     “Caleb.” Vinnie stood at his side, his eyes lingering on Summer’s face for only a moment before he turned away. “She’s gone.”

     “No!” Caleb shook his head, frantically redoubling his efforts with the cloth. “It’s just a fever. She’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

     “You need to move away from her,” Vinnie said, putting his hand on the kid’s shoulder. Caleb shrugged him off. “Come on, Caleb. You know you can’t sit here.”

     “Leave him alone,” Maddie said. She heard the tremble in her voice and swallowed. She hadn’t known the girl very well, had barely spoken to her since they’d met, but her eyes still stung with unshed tears. “She was his friend. Leave him be.”

     Vinnie gave her a withering look before reaching toward the girl. Caleb grabbed his wrist before he could touch her. Rather than argue, Vinnie spoke gently. “I just want to check her fever. Okay?”

     The kid hesitated, then nodded, releasing his grip. Maddie watched as Vinnie stroked the girl’s forehead, brushing the hair away from her face before trailing his fingers down, over her cheeks and along her jaw. His fingers paused for a few moments; he closed his eyes, brow furrowed, and then shook his head.

     “She’s gone,” he said again. “Move away from her.”

     Not waiting for an answer, he strode to his dresser and yanked open a drawer. When he turned back toward them, he had the gun in his hand.

     “NO!”

     Maddie wasn’t sure which one of them screamed louder, but it was Caleb who leapt up and hurled himself onto Vinnie, grappling for the gun. Both men shouted and shoved; though Vinnie had several inches and fifty pounds on the kid, Caleb proved to be stronger than he looked – he wasn’t able to wrestle the gun away, but he did manage to use his body to prevent Vinnie from raising his arm to take aim. In their struggle they moved across the room, crowding Maddie closer to the bed. Recoiling – she’d never touched a dead body and certainly wasn’t going to change that now – Maddie skirted the mattress, stopping at the foot to shout at them.

     “Stop it! Somebody is going to get hurt!”

     Jessie appeared in the doorway, hair knotted and tangled from sleep. She blinked in the light. “What’s going on?”

     Her arrival startled Vinnie, who looked at her with distraction for just a second. It was all Caleb needed – with a primal scream, he brought his fist back and then down, slamming it into Vinnie’s wrist. The gun flew, landing on the carpet near Maddie’s feet.

     Caleb pressed his advantage, lowering his head to ram the other man’s chest; Vinnie hit the wall behind him with a solid thud. He groaned. “Pick it up,” he gasped at Maddie. Wincing, he wrapped his arms around Caleb, preventing the kid from moving away to strike him again. “Pick it up!”

     Maddie took a step back, shaking her head. Just seeing the gun unattended on the floor terrified her; she’d never held one, and besides, she wasn’t going to do what he wanted her to. There was no way she could shoot Summer, no matter that the girl was already dead.

     “I can’t,” she told him.

     “Pick it up!” he screamed back.

     “I can’t!” She looked around frantically, searching for an escape. “I can’t! I can’t shoot her, I can’t, I can-”

     The words died on her lips.

     The dead girl in the bed was moving.

     Summer’s hands rose and fell, flopping onto the bed. She writhed, seemingly unable to extricate herself from the blankets; her body thrashed wildly from one side of the bed to the other. She grunted frantically, animal sounds that sounded horribly familiar. She sounded like…like…

     Oh my god. Oh holy shit.

     Visions of the photographer filling her head, Maddie dove for the gun. Caleb continued to kick and scream, begging her not to hurt Summer; his cries mixed with Vinnie’s shouts and the increasingly loud snarling, a cacophony of confusion and terror.

     With shaking hands, Maddie raised the gun. It was lighter than she’d expected, the grip pebbled against her palms. Her aim wavered as her arms trembled. I can’t do this. Maybe he was wrong; maybe she wasn’t dead. I can’t do this!

     The thing in the bed freed itself; rising to her knees, she looked Maddie full in the face, lips pulled back to bare her teeth. A roar, bigger than she’d have thought possible for such a small person, filled the room.

     “SHOOT HER!”

     Closing her eyes, Maddie pulled the trigger.