Zombyre, My Love by Traci Hall Chapter Two
Welcome to Wednesday at the Babes site! Today I am sharing chapter two of Zombyre, My Love – out on friday!! Starting tomorrow, we are going to give books away and have some fun, so come on back 🙂
Aussie straddled his bicycle, which was the same magenta as his hair. He’d walked his bike down Main with us, until the pavement stopped on the edge of town. “I can’t stay, Lo – I’ll be moved to work the Pit if the Toothless Wonder finds out I left my patients with Melanie. I’d give you my bike, but there ain’t no rush. The docs, they got your daddy on a breathin’ machine – just until you get there. I overheard your mama telling ‘em today was visitin’ day – that you’d be comin’, anyway.” His black boots scuffed the dirt and he looked away from me as if it hurt him to see my pain. “I figured you’d want to know.” My chest constricted. I could always count on him and Marla.
Marla tightened her grip on my arm, maybe guessing that I couldn’t speak. “We’ll be fine,” she said. “Go on now, before you get caught. We won’t let on you told, Aussie.”
Denial stuck in my throat like bread dough, making it tough to swallow. Aussie nodded and rode off, leaving us in a cloud of dust.
“C’mon,” Marla said, linking our elbows so that we were practically leaning on one another. I tried to listen as she talked, but I could barely see the road in front of me. Each step kicked up a small poof of reddish brown dirt that stuck to the tears on my cheeks.
Mama said the world weren’t always a big dust ball. Used to be trees that had green leaves and flowers, all kinds, that grew wild. Marla chattered on and on about how everything was gonna be okay. Who was she trying to convince? It weren’t no way gonna be okay. My daddy was dying. His head would be cut off like the other zombies to make sure they stayed dead, and then his parts would be burned in the Pit.
Flashes of memory ricocheted with each footstep. When I was a little girl he’d let me sit on his lap and he’d read out loud, doing all the voices of the Three Little Pigs. He was scariest as the wolf. I remembered how Mama would sit on the edge of my bed, watching us closely as he’d read. It weren’t ‘til I was older and Mama got the sickness too that I knew she’d been making sure his meds were working. She didn’t want him taking a bite of me, his own little pig.
One day she weren’t watching close enough, and he got her. Mama tried hard to make me see that he wasn’t to blame, that it was the disease what made him act so bad, but deep down in my heart I still hated him for biting her.
And now he was dying.
My belly tightened the closer we got to Cliffside. Half a mile of dirt road gradually turned into gravel. The shards of slate, rock and comet sounded like bones crunching beneath my sneakers and the black stumps of the old Copper Mountain forest on the left coulda been rotten monster teeth. Didn’t matter how many times I told myself, in a tone Mama would appreciate, that my fear of the place was childish and ridiculous. Still had to fight for each hot breath as we got closer.
“Lolita, are you listening to me?”
I nodded, even though I hadn’t heard a word.
It’s barely morning and full on daylight. The vamps had all been exterminated and the zombie sickness contained with the VSM. My world held nothing to fear – ‘cept I did anyway. Old habits die hard. We followed a sharp curve, and there it was. Cliffside.
I swallowed, my lips dry. Mile Post 42 might be a deserted, sun-blackened, comet-poisoned excuse of a town, but it wouldn’t even be that if it weren’t for Cliffside – the hospital backs into what’s left of the mountain base, growing like a tumor. Jagged spikes of broken mountain rise in varying vertical points, like blackened needles toward the sky. The Pit is behind the hospital, inside the mountain somewhere. Never seen it, never want to, but sometimes at night blue lights can be seen bursting from beyond the dark spikes like escaping fairies.
“Let’s go,” Marla said as she tugged on my arm.
Another memory surfaced, of Mama making me go with her and Daddy for his VSM treatments, before people could just pick their meds up at Rex’s Drug. The doctors, all wearing white masks, would come and grab Daddy by the arms, then walk him into the back. I’d cry, because I know I heard him screaming, and Mama would always yell at me for making a scene. She said it was just in my head and thank the heavens, she finally quit taking me.
My heart thudded behind my breastbone, the hair on the back of my neck tickled. I risked a look behind me and saw nobody on the road. Nobody in the dirt fields. Not a soul in the petrified stumps. We weren’t alone.
“Stop it,” Marla hissed, lightly punching my arm. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but you’re freakin’ me out.”
Me too. I shaded my eyes, drawn toward what was left of the dead trees. I thought I saw a shadow, but then I blinked and it was gone. Goose bumps prickled my skin. “You don’t see anybody?”
“Nobody to see, silly.”
The path ahead forked right for the hospital, left for the rehab facility. Halfway convinced I’d be better off making a run for it in the dead forest, I was relieved when Marla pulled me to a stop before I had to make a decision.
“Let’s clean you up a bit, sugar.” Marla faced me and smiled gently. “We don’t want those nasty doctors checkin’ you in.” She unraveled my braids, smoothing the tangles with her fingers. “Looks pretty – want me to leave it loose?”
I nodded. My long hair is my one vanity. My eyes are a boring hazel, placed above my average nose, which hover over pale lips. My brows, blonde, are practically invisible, as are my eyelashes. Not albino white, but blonde just the same. I cut my own bangs so I can see, which makes Marla crazy, and plait the rest into two braids. Easy. “We should’ve changed out of our uniforms.” My pulse accelerated as I thought of Daddy hooked up to a machine. Did he know I loved him?
“Honey, it don’t matter.”
“Yes,” I argued, turning away from the hospital, childishly thinking that if I couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist. “It does too matter. This is the last time my daddy will see me, and I don’t want him giving me his breakfast order.” Tears burned past the lump in my chest. “He always liked his eggs p, p, poached,” I cried. Sobbed. Snotting and boo hooing like a little kid.
After about five minutes of that noise, Marla untied her apron and handed it over. “Calm yourself, now, and wipe your face. For the love of your daddy, don’t go in there cryin’. You wanna scare him?”
To death? Too late. “I can’t go inside.” My lower lip jutted forward.
Marla’s shoulders hiked up, as if she’d haul me in that hospital herself. “Don’t even think about actin’ out, Lo. You are eighteen,”
“Tomorrow!” I dabbed at my eyes with her apron strings.
“And you need to be as strong as I know you are.”
Her eyes stared into mine, lending me her strength, and I knew I’d be going in.
“You done cryin’?”
“Yeah.” I sniffed once, then twice just to make sure. “Whatchya want me to do with this?” I handed her back the wet apron.
Marla sighed, shook the apron out with a sharp flick of her wrists and then tied it back around her waist. Inside out, so the tears didn’t show. “You are so washin’ this when we get back to your place.”
If we’d been visiting Mama, we would’ve gone left, to the rehab. We turned right. The front doors of the hospital were painted black and the glass windows were covered with wire mesh to keep the creepers out.
No vamps or zombies could get through once Cliffside went into lockdown. Can’t get out, either. Rumor has it I used to put up a bit of a fuss during the drills, at least ‘til Mama threatened to throw my books into the Pit. Then I learned to breathe through the fear.
Once a year Sheriff Jim leads a practice drill and everybody in town has a job to do, depending on what quadrant you live in. I’m in the southern quad. When the alarm peals so loud I want to rip my own ears off, I’ve got to grab water jugs and pile them in Rex’s bull wagon. Lucky SOB gets to harness Lucky and drive the cart full of town supplies up to the hospital, while the rest of us suckers have to hoof it.
Last big comet blast was five years ago, and the hot, hot sky been mostly clear ever since. Arthur built a telescope thingamajigger and he stares all night at the stars. He invited me and Aussie once – I never felt so small. Anyway, he says there ain’t nothing stopping another comet – or alien invasion, if he’s had too much to drink. Used to be we had a government who’d fire missiles or something to smash the comet stuff before it could smash us. Nowadays we just got the alarm bells and the shelter in Cliffside. The doctors are the bosses of everybody, whether they want the chore or not.
“Girl, if you walk any slower it’ll be tomorrow.” Marla tilted her head, her face wrinkled with worry. “Maybe this is too much?”
I stopped outside the hospital doors, my body tense. “I can do it.” Shiny black doors with metal knobs. It took all my guts to clasp the handle, twist and pull. The longer it took me to get inside, the longer my daddy would be on the breathing machine. He was already dead. I was dragging out Mama’s agony as well as my own.
I grasped the knob. Pulled. It didn’t budge. “It’s locked.”
Marla scooted me out of the way. “Push, darlin’. Come on.” The knob twisted beneath her hand and she led the way through the doors. The large, cool foyer of the hospital was surprisingly empty. Two long benches lined each wall and solar powered bulbs lit the inside as bright as day, only not as hot. Another blessing, if you can call it that, is that the stone cliffs keep the heat, and smell of the Pit, out.
I looked to the empty sign-in desk, the hair on the back of my neck rising in alarm. The same sense I’d had outside of being watched came over me, and I twirled around. Nobody was there. “Where’s the receptionist?”
“Don’t know. Lunch, maybe? Come on.”
Marla headed toward a dark corridor, certainty in each bob of her red curls. Me, I was not feeling the rush. “Maybe we’re not supposed to be here. How do you know where to go?”
“Parker. I was so mad after he bit me that I almost let him die alone. I mean, I was already infected! What, he was going to double infect me? It took months for that bite to heal. I could’ve lost my arm. Stupid jerk didn’t ask to get sick, though. In the end, I couldn’t leave him.”
“I remember that, Marla. You scared me, you got so skinny. Almost as skinny as Aussie.”
I felt something pass to my right – it was slight, a mere brushing of fabric to skin, but I didn’t see anybody. I stifled a squeal, determined to keep my imagination under control. There was no such thing as the boogey man. Vampires had all been exterminated. Zombies – an unfortunate worry, but they were all medicated or dead. Ghosts? It would be too cruel.
Marla didn’t pause – making her way past a dozen closed doors, as if slowing down would make it impossible to carry on to the end. “Labs,” she said with a jerk of her thumb. “Used to be a lot more doctors around, but all their brains didn’t stop them from gettin’ the virus and dying. Maybe this new doc will get things cooking again. If we’d turned left there, that’s the wing the docs live in. Okee doke. Here we are. Terminal Z. For zombie. Whoever designed this ward had a sick sense of humor.”
Marla pushed at a swinging door and my throat dried as I walked into a room as cold as a Tennessee night. The temperature was freezing, but the real chill came from the rows of beds – hundreds of ‘em. Lined up like lettuce heads in the food shacks.
Rubbing my arms, I stepped closer to Marla. The hiss and pump of breathing machines echoed off the high stone ceiling and painted cliff walls. The paint gave the illusion of civility in what was a meat locker for corpses.
I gagged at the thought and Marla patted my back before giving me a little shove.
I couldn’t look at the zombies in the beds – their dead lungs and rotting flesh. Why? Why weren’t they allowed to die? What purpose did they serve, lying in wait?
A doctor in a stiff white lab coat noticed us and a look of alarm immediately settled on his round face. “Hello? This is a restricted area! You can’t be here unless you’re family.” He trotted toward us, his clipboard clutched to his chest.
My instinctive reaction was to take his clipboard and hit him over the head. My terror of doctors goes back to some childhood trauma I can’t place, but that every doc since has had to pay for. “I’m Lolita Howard,” I said, not sure if I should hold out my hand to shake. Mama never covered manners on how to greet the doctor who would pull the plug on your daddy.
Why hadn’t they found a cure?
I rubbed at my throat as he checked his list, his expression easing into one of fake empathy as he found my daddy’s name on his sheet of paper. “Ah yes. Bed 78. Time to terminate.”
My cheeks burned. “His name is Mark – he’s not just a bed number. Is my mama here?”
The fake empathy in the doctor’s round eyes turned hard. “Your ‘mama’ had to be sedated and she’s been taken back to her room next door. Let’s make this quick, shall we? We need the bed for another patient.”
I hated him. The tag on his coat lapel read Dr. Lindsey and I made a promise to self to get even with the cold-hearted doctor. Maybe a little salt in his coffee?
Me and Marla followed him between the rows of beds and I couldn’t help but see the people mourning at their loved one’s sides. I didn’t want to see it, mind, but I had to. It broke my heart. They had to be seeing their future selves as they caressed the bruised flesh of the people they cared for most. Is that what made my mama break down? Knowing that one day, if the doctors didn’t find a cure, this would be her, laying here and waiting to be beheaded and burned at the Pit?
A sharp pain lanced through my head. It would be Aussie, it would be Marla, it would be Daisy. Fate had seemingly picked me to get it last, maybe to care for the others? Marla and Aussie didn’t have no other family. When it was their time, I’d have to be the one to hold their decaying hands. Who would hold mine? I stumbled over a kneeling woman’s foot.
“Seventy-six, seventy-seven. Here we are, bed number seventy-eight. This one lasted quite a while. Longer than any of the others – and he’s from the first batch.” The doctor’s eyes seemed especially cruel as he refused to say my daddy’s name. “I’ll be over there – just give me a wave when you’re done.” I stared at him, out of habit looking for signs of the sickness in the color of his healthy pink skin. Some people are just jerks for no reason at all.
“Never mind that butthead,” Marla said, her hand at the center of my back as she turned toward my daddy. “Hello Mark.”
I turned too, unable to avoid facing my daddy and the emotions at war in my heart. Love. Guilt. Anger. Deep sad. The pump next to the bed – no bigger than a cot, really – made it look like he was breathing. His chest rose and fell, but when I looked into his dark, pain filled eyes I saw death. “Hi Daddy.”
His flesh was dead. Had been dying for fifteen years. Mama explained it to me once, that the zombie virus attacks cells, traveling through the bloodstream like liquid killers. The VSM stops the bad guys from killing the body. With constant treatments the infected have been able to maintain a level of humanity. After most everybody dying during the Ten Year War, half dead looked darn good, I guess.
I offered up a wobbly smile, seeing the plea for release in his dark orbs. “How’s tricks?”
He tried to smile, stretching his lips as best he could – I saw it was extra hard, being as his teeth was gone. “Im-tarred-honey-love-you-see-to-yer-mama-be-good-so-proud.” He’d timed the long sentence to come out on an exhale of the oxygen pump.
My eyes filled with tears, and I reached down to kiss his forehead. The flakes of dried skin peeled like thin paper and I was careful to not actually let my lips touch. The whisper of the pump as it drew in air seemed sinister. That nasty ol’ doctor was right.
No matter how much it hurt to say good-bye, it was time. “I love you Daddy.”
He blinked once, smiled, and then closed his eyes. In a daze, I lifted my hand toward Dr. Lindsey so he would come and put Daddy to rest.
I don’t remember standing, or leaving the room. I knew Marla was on one side of me, and somebody else took the other. My head was a fog of confusion. Death – life. Half life. What was the point? About everybody I knew was sick, taking meds, or worried about getting sick and having to take more meds.
Maybe we all should have died.