Thursday, October 30, 2008

Happy Halloween!

What? You thought it was over? This was my first zombie story. It's a narrative without dialog, partly because I'm not good at dialog (something I've been practicing with an eye toward improvement) and partly because I really find Suzie unlikeable.

I was intrigued by the description of a popular cult movie as "three interlocking tales of mayhem" and I couldn't resist something in a similar vein. So if this is the first and Eddie's Tale is the second, that must mean a third is on the way. Expect it by Christmas. Bonus points if you can name the movie!

There's a good chance I'll re-work this piece, shortening it and adding dialog, but that will have to wait for some spare time.

Zombie Café

Suzy was a petite blond with shoulder-length hair, high cheek bones and an upturned nose. Her eyes sparkled and she was in the habit of lightly touching people as she talked. People assumed she was a cheerleader because she was always so perky. She flashed a winning smile. It was perfect camouflage for the shark within. Suzy was full time student, part time barista, and an opportunistic thief. Some people are only pretty on the outside.

She worked in Rachel's Café, where big painted letters spelled out the shop's name in the front window. Each letter included a little scene with lots of flowers, castles, unicorns, and other hippy trash. It was very artsy-fartsy and about as far as possible from the big, sterile corporate coffee house down the street. Mismatched furniture made it look like an second rate antique shop. She hated the job for its snobby customers and equally snobby staff. The manager was overly 'friendly' and probably related to an octopus. It seemed he had that many hands. College sucked. The job sucked. The only relief was that Rachel's sold the best damn coffee in town and Suzy loved it. The odd cuppa taken at break time was sheer joy. She looked forward to putting college behind her and getting out into the world with a real job, one where she could get her hands on some real money. A career in banking or politics might feed her avarice.

Invariably polite and attentive, Suzy short changed customers whenever possible. Guys were the easiest because their attention was riveted on her face or her boobs. She lifted a little cash from the till once in a while, but she was smart enough to avoid doing it regularly. Shoplifting supplemented her wardrobe. She knew which stores had security and which would avoid prosecution.

She wasn't above stealing cash from a co-worker's purse left unattended in the break room, and once she found a bag of amphetamines. Suzy hid the drugs in a hollow behind a loose tile in the ladies room. She thought of it as her safe. Double-sided adhesive tape held the tile in place and a dab of toothpaste covered the cracked grout. It was perfect.

She used people, belittling them privately with sarcastic nicknames. Friends, acquaintances, co-workers, professors – all of them were merely stepping stones. For instance, Pretty Boy, a grad student and her soon-to-be-discarded boyfriend, wrote most of her term papers. Guys were so easy to manipulate after she'd slept with them a few times. She had no old friends or long-term boyfriends because people discovered that despite her cheery, warm demeanor, she was inwardly cold and ruthless.

Her customers were the easiest to categorize. The middle-aged bikers on breathtakingly expensive Harleys were the Mild Bunch. Mr. Friendly was smooth and talkative, with perfect hair, teeth, and clothes. He talked loudly on a cellphone and never failed to mention his BMW. The dorky cyclist was Eddy Jerkx, who once had the audacity to steal the tip jar when her back was turned. He was a thief, but a stupid one, which only earned him contempt from Suzy. He did it in front of three other customers and not one of them said a word. Fussy Woman was one of the three. She always ordered a double skinny latte – no foam – and she had a fit if there was a bubble atop the drink. She didn't tip, either. The pretentious bitch staked out a four-top near the window, spreading books, papers, and the inevitable laptop across it. She stayed most of the morning, frowning at the computer and furiously pounding on the keys.

Businessmen either ignored her or offered her a 'position' in their firms. Tips varied according to their illusions about getting into her pants. They were the real reason she worked at Rachel's. Suzy carefully observed their hands for wedding rings. More importantly, she noted when they chatted her up and the wedding bands disappeared. They offered to 'interview' her over drinks. So predictable. The guys were easy marks, but again, she didn't get greedy. A diamond cuff link here, a Rolex there, and just recently an expensive necklace and earrings when a fool took her to his home while wifey was out of town. All the jewelry was tucked away with the amphetamines in the ladies room safe.

Suzy lived in a small apartment within walking distance of campus. It was an old house that had been divided into student apartments. The elderly owners lived on the first floor. Suzy's place was on the third floor, up creaking wooden stairs past Cartman and Bob, two gay guys who spent their off hours smoking pot, playing video games, and listening to an endless succession of rock tunes. Cartman was big, fat, and obnoxious just like his cartoon namesake, but Bob was sweet.

She was an indifferent housekeeper, a slob, in fact. Dirty dishes were heaped in the sink. The trash can overflowed and a waist-high pile of laundry in the closet threatened to avalanche onto the floor. Pretty Boy hated her apartment, partly due to the mess and partly because Cartman liked to chat him up.

Mid-terms were coming up and she had to study. There was no way around that. Pretty Boy couldn't do it for her. She still had to show up and take the tests, so stealing the speeders had been fortuitous. She could take a few from the stash at work and use them to cram. Mid-term week passed in a blur of work, study, and a few hours of blissful sleep.

Then one morning everything changed. She missed most of it, crashed out in her apartment after mid-terms. Suzy woke up to uncharacteristic silence. No pounding music from downstairs. No faint hints of pot smoke. Just quiet. It was shattered by Cartman's high, wailing scream from the second floor. It choked off abruptly, replaced by grunting and gurgling. Then the stairs creaked as someone began climbing toward her room.

Without thinking, Suzy hid under the pile of clothes in the closet, hardly daring to breathe and hoping that the clothes didn't move from her trembling. Her door banged open and someone wandered around the apartment, knocking over a lamp. The crash almost made her jump and there was a strong temptation to run. Footsteps approached the closet and stopped. She didn't breathe until they wandered off, finally clumping downstairs. Hours later, she crept to the window as screams rose from the street. Suzy watched in horror as zombies caught...and ate...a middle-aged woman. They bit off chunks of flesh while the woman still screamed.

She stayed in her room without making a sound, only turning on a radio for news. And that news was universally bad as hordes of the walking dead overran the town. The water and electricity went off on the third day. She was terrified at night and doled out the rest of the speed. Bursts of gunfire added to her anxiety. Her only thought was to stay alert, stay awake, and stay alive. When her body simply had to sleep, she crawled under the reeking pile of laundry. After days without a shower, the smell just didn't bother her anymore.

The food ran out after five days. Just after dawn, Suzy crept down the stair and thought about raiding Cartman and Bob's apartment, but the appalling stench kept her from going inside. The door hung open and flies covered the walls.

On the street, she moved like a rat from one hiding place to another. She scurried only a few yards at a time, her senses alert and twitching from fear and the after-effects of the amphetamines. Doorways, trash cans, and hedges all provided concealment. Suzy saw a few zombies far down one cross street. She waited until none were facing her direction and ran across the intersection. The landscaping in a neatly tended front yard offered a safe hide while she watched her back trail. None of the zombies had seen her.

Suzy had a plan. She'd thought about it while in her apartment. She'd take a car and get out of town. There were plenty of them just sitting on the street with their doors open and keys still in the ignition. The owners had been eaten...or worse. But first she needed to recover the diamond necklace, earrings, and other jewelry at Rachel's Café. It was highly unlikely that the original owners would make any complaints at this point, and besides, she'd need it to make a fresh start. Driving a car to the café would attract unwanted attention, so she crept along on foot.

The businesses she passed probably had plenty of cash in the tills, but without a working government to back it, paper money simply became legal tinder, good for starting campfires but not much else. There was one jewelry store along her route, but it was locked up tight with security screens in place. She passed a gun shop too, and looked inside hoping to find a shotgun, but the store had been picked clean. No guns, no ammunition, not even a bow and arrow remained.

At the café, one plate glass window was smashed and some of the flowery letters were gone. The front door was shattered too, and one hinge was broken. Suzy quietly stepped past it and carefully looked for more shambling zombies. The shop was empty. She walked to the ladies room quickly and popped the tile loose. Stuffing the pills and the jewelry into her bag, she started back toward the door, and stopped abruptly when she saw another person silhouetted in the light from the street. A one-armed walking corpse was in the shop.

Fussy Woman stood at the counter, looking up at the menu and waving her remaining arm. She moaned. Suzy edged behind the counter, hoping to keep it between them. Fussy Woman spotted her, moaned even louder, and waggled her arm more frantically. In desperation, Suzy filled a cup with cold, slimy coffee from the urn. Chunks of mold floated to the surface. It was disgusting. She put it on the countertop, careful to stay out of the zombie's reach.

After staring at it for a long moment and grunting twice, Fussy Woman picked up the cup and wandered off. She sat at a window table, looking intently at the blank screen of a broken laptop while stabbing clumsy fingers at the keys.

Suzy couldn't leave. Zombies streamed down the street, heading toward the café. One by one they walked in the doorway.

Mr. Friendly lurched inside as far as the counter where he stood like a post. His lips were gone, leaving a parody of a ghastly smile on his face. Bits of rotting flesh stuck to his perfect teeth. He smelled of decay and Armani. She gave him a cup too, but he didn't move away until the corpse behind him started pushing. He lifted the cup to his mouth and poured most of the coffee down over his shirt. It formed a puddle on the floor. Mr. Friendly shuffled to rejoin the line.

As each reeking corpse arrived at the counter, Suzy poured another cup of coffee and quickly set it down on the counter, stepping back to stay out of reach. The café was filling up. She glanced toward the street and that's when it hit her. The broken window left just part of the store name. Now it spelled out “hel's Café. She was Hell's own barista, wondering in mounting horror what would happen when the coffee ran out.

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