Two more zombies have joined the first. We watch them, fascinated by their incredibly slow, patient waltz. We wonder what they're doing and why they seem to congregate in that one spot. What's there? Did an animal die there or something? Do they even eat wild animal meat if they can't get human flesh?
"It's like they're having a meeting or something."
"Yeah, discussing the weather. 'Hey, Bill, how ya feeling today?' 'Same as always, Frank. A little stiff.'"
"They must draw each other by their movement and sound."
"I guess we're too far away for them to notice us then."
I nod and squint at their tiny figures. They seem to appear out of nowhere, then disappear again, as if melting into the ground. But it's just an illusion, a trick of the distance and the shimmering air burning off the concrete.
Another half hour passes and the group has grown to a half dozen. We decide to call them a herd, although I actually prefer flock.
I try to tell them apart, but I can't; they're all burned a rich dark brown and are little more than skeletons.
Then we get the first ping from Micah:
<< IN! TRYNG 2 FND CUS. SNDNG APP >>
Jake and I install the program on our Links and open it. A map of the surrounding area pops up on our screens.
"How come I'm only tracking me?" Jake asks. He tilts his screen so I can see.
I look over, then down at my own screen. There's only a single red blip, and when I tap it, my name's the only one to appear. "Me, too."
I'm in the middle of sending Micah a note when my Link pings. Micah's already realized the problem:
<< SML GLTCH. WRKNG ON IT. PTNCE >>
"Glitch, right. In other words, 'Don't bother me. I already know.'"
Jake nods. "One of the others must've noticed it, and said something to him."
"Too bad. I'd really like to see where they are."
He clears his throat. "I'm sure he's fine. Kelly, I mean."
I know who he means. Yeah, I'm worried about my boyfriend, but I'm also worried about the others. I don't reply to Jake's attempt at reassurance, though. There's no way he could know if they're safe or not. In fact, his words only make me worry more.
"I should've gone with him."
Jake picks up his pack and says, "Come on. Let's get out of the sun." He glances nervously at the zombies, even though they're too far away to see with any clarity. "I'm broiling out here, and I'm not even wearing my wetsuit."
He heads for the closest building in the opposite direction, an old fossil fueling station. Perched over the collapsing structure is a big plastic sign on a long pole. Its bottom corner is shattered. The plastic is bleached and faded, leaving only the hint of the red and yellow logo. The remaining letters spell out HELL.
We duck under the canopy built out over the fueling stands, but the shade provides little relief from the heat. The air feels just as stuffy and dry and stale. There's not even a hint of a breeze. Jake kicks aside some trash to get to the door.
I'm surprised that all the glass in the windows and doors is still intact, but then I remember how quickly the infection overran the island, and how quickly the military came in and evacuated it. There'd be no one left to loot and ransack, nothing but zombies, and the IUs wouldn't bother with glass unless they were trying to get through it to someone still alive.
The irony doesn't escape me that the living can be so much more barbaric than the Undead.
Jake pulls a rusted metal trashcan loose from a tangle of wires and other debris. It scrapes along the cement. Underneath is a nest of spiders and mice, which scamper in all directions after being so rudely evicted. We take a few minutes to stomp the bugs dead.
"It's a tumble weed," he exclaims, holding one up by a branch. He tosses it out onto the cement apron, but it just falls, settling onto its bottom.
"I think you need wind for it to actually tumble."
He smiles, then yanks on the door. "Locked. So much for—"
The glass explodes and Jake jumps back, yelping.
I kick the remaining shards loose and duck underneath the push bar inside.
"You could've warned me, you know!" he yells at my back.
"Sorry. Now we're even."
"For playing dirty in the dojang. For not saying anything about the zombie back in Manhattan. For being such an asshole to my boyfriend."
Anger flares on his face for a moment. But then something flickers over it and the tension drains away. He grumbles a few words under his breath and follows me in.
It's dusty and dark inside, a dull twilight that even the bright sunlight outside can't seem to break. The shelves are still fully stocked, but there's nothing worth taking. Everything's at least a dozen years past its expiration date or brittle or mouse-eaten. Even the liquor looks questionable—not that I'd want it, even if I were a drinker. Just the thought of consuming anything that's been sitting in zombieland for twelve years makes my stomach want to revolt.
We wander up and down the aisles, stopping to check out the old magazines. Yet another relic of the past. Everything's digital now. Gone are the days of printed material, forced by the demise of the old postal system.
The covers of the magazines on top are nearly completely faded away, just the ghosts of images barely visible. I slide one out from behind the others. The colors are still vivid, having been protected from the air and the light.
"Here you go." I toss it to Jake, who deftly snatches it out of the air.
"Playboy!" He drops it like it's contaminated.
I reach down and pick it up. "You know how much you could get for this back home?"
Soft porn magazines like this were banned nearly a decade ago. There are Streams where you can find pornographic images, but it's dangerous to do so. Getting caught labels you a sexual predator and can add years to your LSC. A lot of magazines like this one, as well as others that had absolutely nothing to do with porn, like Scientific American and Popular Science, were blamed for the moral corruption of our society, which in turn was blamed for causing the zombie outbreaks. Puritan logic.
"They're illegal," he says.
"Yeah duh. Since when did you become such a prude?"
He shrugs. "They catch you with one of these…"
"Yeah, yeah. They take another year or two or ten away from you. What does it matter anymore? They always find ways to add years. I don't remember you being so worried about it when we came here. What do you think they'd do if they caught us? Do you think they'd just chuckle and say, 'Nice try. Don't do it again, kiddies.'?"
He sighs, then picks the magazine up off the floor. "Real paper," he mutters, rubbing it between his fingers. "Snow."
The cover shows a tall, buxom, waif of a woman with skin as white as a two-week old zombie. Her lips are the brightest red I've ever seen. She's standing in a simulated pine forest, strategically placed snow-laden boughs covering her private parts. Barely.
I reach over and flip it open to the centerfold and read. "Miss March: Tatiana Lovinescu. God, what a name. Sounds like Titty Loving. 'This all-natural Romanian beauty boasts a bounteous—'"
Jake pulls the magazine away. He gives me an embarrassed smirk before shoving it into his pack.
"You really are a prude, aren't you. I'll bet you're still a virgin."
His face goes crimson, but he doesn't answer. Instead, he turns and heads for the exit. "It's too hot in here."
I chuckle as I follow him out. Just as we reach the door, there's a thump from somewhere deep inside the store. We both stop.
He turns. Did you hea—"
I lift my Link and thumb the screen to wake it. The app Micah sent comes to life, but it still only shows my little red blip and nothing else. Jake does the same with his, but gets the same result. Micah better get the tracker working soon or else it won't matter.
"What do you think it was?" he whispers.
I wait a moment, then swivel on my toes and head back to check out the noise.
I gesture for him to be quiet.
The store is arranged in four separate aisles running front to back. I make a full circuit of the inside, taking an indirect route to the back, but nothing seems amiss, not until I reach the end of the furthest aisle and see a bunch of cans lying on the floor. Cans that weren't there before.
I try to blink away my panic. My blood is roaring through my head, sounding like a freight train. A zombie could be moaning right behind me and I wouldn't be able to hear it.
I look up into the mirror in the corner of the ceiling. From where I'm standing I can see nearly all the aisles. I slowly creep forward until I reach the fallen cans. Nothing moves.
I pick one up. The label slips off and whirls to the floor. It's all faded and half eaten away by mice and bugs. It's got to be stew or beans or dog food. Rust discolors it and it smells of mouse urine.
Reggie's voice speaks in my head. "Of course it smells like urine here," he'd once joked, after Kelly complained once too often to Micah about the sorry state of the basement bathroom in his house. "That's because you're in here. Get it? You're in here?"
Several more cans litter the top shelf, their labels similarly peeled or eaten away. Boxes of some other foodstuff sit nearby, holes chewed into their corners. Cream of wheat. They're completely empty. When I touch one, the shelf rocks and two more cans roll to the floor.
"I'm fine," I shout, straightening up. "It's cool. Just some cans that fell off a loose shelf back here. Probably mice." I toss the can I'm holding onto the floor and head toward the front door again.
The entire episode has set me on edge, though. I walk back, keeping my body rigid and my eyes trained straight ahead of me, even though I want to turn around and look behind. Even though it feels like I'm being watched. I don't want to appear frightened; I'm not sure which of the two Jakes will appear if I do, the overconfident one or his scared helpless twin.
The few steps it takes to reach him feel like miles, and my scalp tingles and my blood pounds and I'm sure I'd jump out of my skin if just one more can of dog food happened to fall off the shelf. Thankfully, it doesn't.
When we get back outside, I breathe a sigh of relief. He checks the time. "They should be back soon."
"What's your rush?" I ask, but I'm eager to see Kelly again, despite the way we'd left each other.
Jake reaches down and sweeps the broken glass off the step and sits down. "Might as well stay here in the shade before heading back over."
I pull out my Link. "I'm just going to ping the guys and see what they're up to. You should check on those zoms."
But he doesn't. He sits there watching me. From where he's sitting, looking up, I know he's got an unobstructed view. I'm wearing nothing else on top but my bikini top.
Despite his confession earlier—or maybe because of it—I pretend not to notice. Let him stare. It's nice being noticed for once.
Don't be like that.
It should be Kelly sitting there, not Jake.
It's not his fault.
My Link pings at me as I'm thinking these things, startling me. I jump and almost drop it.
"It's Kel," I say, and relief and guilt both wash over me at the same time.
"He coming back?"
"What are you going to do when he does?"
"What do you mean?"
He fiddles with his own Link. "It's just past one. We don't have to leave for another hour and a half or so."
I type in a reply as I consider the question.
"I don't know. I hadn't really thought about it. I guess I was so wrapped up in seeing if we could actually come here that I never thought about what we'd do once we did."
But then I do think of something.
"Maybe we could find an old bookstore. You know how long it's been since I held a real book in my hands?"
"Books?" He shakes his head. "More contraband."
I finish my text and send it:
<< HURRY BCK. MISS U. SORRY >>
My Link pings almost immediately. It's Kelly again. I open the file, expecting a text message, but instead it's a photo. Seeing it, I nearly burst into tears. It's a picture of the surprise he was talking about.
I turn my back on Jake so he can't see me crying.
I turn just as he stumbles to his feet. His face is ash white.
"What's the mat—"
He grabs my arm and spins me.
My face grows numb and I drop my Link in shock. Not thirty feet away are at least a dozen Infected Undead. They lurch forward, heading straight for us.
And the spookiest thing about it is that they're making almost no noise at all.
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