Featured Story • January 2014

design

 

Present

 

Nicole Kornher-Stace

 

for Julian

 

Now the infection hits the news and Gabriela’s mom babysits Jack while Gabriela and her dad go to Wal-Mart for supplies. When it isn’t the end of the world, her parents are very local-food, free-range, hundred-mile-diet types, but today the Wal-Mart’s the only place left open and even Gabriela’s mom makes that concession, though she won’t set foot inside herself. As Gabriela’s dad drives the four miles out of suburbia into town, Gabriela watches the boards go up in people’s windows, the padlocks go on doors, the cases of soup cans disappear inside. (Leaving, her dad had grabbed the reusable shopping bags, laughed a little derisive laugh at himself, said Fuck it, and left them in the hall.)

On the way back, the pickup bed and also her lap and footwell full of shopping bags—cans of chili and chickpeas, boxes of cereal, jars upon jars of peanut butter, diapers, multivitamins, cases of ramen, granola, half a dozen can openers—she has a brief panic that they’d get home and the infection would have reached their house already, she’d find her mom gone empty-eyed and gore-mouthed, find Jack lurching instead of toddling. But her dad pulls into the driveway and it’s just like when she was a kid, helping him with groceries every Saturday after cartoons, her mom coming out onto the doorstep to help relay stuff to the kitchen, like a fire brigade with pails of water to a burning house. Except now there’s Jack perched on her hip, there’s a kitchen knife stuck in her belt, and while they rush the bags inside they’re watching their neighbors over their shoulders, and their neighbors, rushing bags into their own houses, are watching Gabriela and her parents over theirs.

* * *

Now she wakes up, stretches, says good morning to Jack waking up beside her, and something kicks her in the gut: she remembers what day it is. It’s the first day of the future, and the sun comes through the cracks between the two-by-fours across her window, shines down on her futon and Jack’s racecar pajamas and the new huge red backpack resting against a bookcase. Her parents each have a backpack just like it upstairs. They packed them together last night. Each one is full of energy bars and Gatorade, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a pocketknife, pepper spray. Hers also has pull-up diapers and fruit snacks for Jack. Jack has a little backpack himself, and in it he has board books, Matchbox cars, more fruit snacks. Each bag except Jack’s has two full bottles of Advil and one of dirt-cheap vodka, in case the time comes and they can’t bring themselves to use the knives.

Gabriela’s got Jack on the potty and she’s already pulling on her yoga pants and sneakers for their morning walk before she remembers morning walks are not happening anymore. She’s trying to decide whether she wants to brave taking Jack four doors up the road for playgroup anyway when she hears something upstairs, something like footsteps, something not like footsteps. The not-footsteps approach the basement door, begin descending, slow, uncertain, like whoever it is remembers there being something down here, something worth coming down the stairs for, but couldn’t quite remember what it was or why they wanted it to start with. But since she had Jack and moved from her childhood bedroom down to the finished basement where there was room for his stuff, her parents never come downstairs that early in the morning, not when Jack might still be sleeping.

Mom? she says, uncertain.

Then another sound comes from midway up the stairs, a sound like maybe someone gargling mouthwash, only it sounds thicker than mouthwash, and it’s like they’re trying to talk through it, except that it keeps sloshing out when they try.

For about two seconds she deliberates, hand held out to the door. Then her flight instinct starts firing, that pressure in the small of her back starts shooting through to her navel, her legs start tensing, and the next thing she knows she’s got the backpack on one shoulder, Jack hoisted on the other, and she’s taking the back door sideways, awkward, and it’s hitting her in the ass on her way out, just like the saying says not to.

She’s forgotten Jack’s backpack, all his board books, Dr. Seuss and Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. She wonders how the hell she’s supposed to get him to sleep now.

* * *

Now she’s got Jack on her shoulders and going as slow as she can along the treeline back of town, staying off the roads, keeping a clear line of sight with the maples at her back. If any of them come up through the woods things’ll get interesting, but the town is by far the greater risk, and besides she’s faster than they are and she’s got Jack as a lookout. They’re playing a game called Who Can Be the Quietest. He wins automatically if he sees anyone and pulls her hair to tell her so.

She’d ventured up into town earlier, hugging the back walls of shopping plazas, looking to replenish her stores. She’d only left home two days ago, but Jack was tearing through his fruit snacks like a machine and there was no power in the universe that could get him to swallow so much as one lousy calorie of an energy bar. She’d come around behind the supermarket and found someone’s legs hanging out of a dumpster, and the puddle on the concrete strongly suggested the rest of that someone was elsewhere. The delivery door was ajar, streaked at shoulder height with what could have been fingerpaint. She opened the knife, got it in a fist at hip level, took two steps for the door, stopped, looked at Jack, looked around and found nowhere safe to put a wanderlusty three-year-old while she went off to get herself killed over fruit snacks. It did not escape her notice that if this were a movie, this would be the Door the Audience Is Telling the Bimbo Not to Go Through. Well, she’s not anybody’s goddamn bimbo. Sorry, kid, she murmured, and tousled his hair as best she could with her knife-hand. I promise I won’t let you starve.

He’s a good kid, her Jack. He didn’t throw a tantrum, hungry as he was. Sometimes she even thinks he understands the depth of shit they’re in, knows not to make it worse.

They moved on.

* * *

Now she’s walking beneath the maples and the sunshine and the summer-smell of grass and the roadkill-smell coming off the town, she’s walking and she’s humming softly to Jack to keep his mind off the sounds in the distance, she’s walking and she’s thinking about zombie movies again. Thinking how ridiculous it is that they’re made to be so fast. It doesn’t make any sense. She never could figure out why corpses were supposed to suddenly be faster or stronger than they were in life, like some kind of consolation prize for shambling around with your skin plopping off. She’s read something about how people only use ten percent of their brains while awake, and it’s got her wondering if maybe death—undeath—is supposed to be some kind of loophole that unlocks the other ninety, to let them do ridiculous things like outrun sprinters, chew through walls. She’s thinking about it being June, how infections spread faster in the heat, how dead things decompose faster too. She wonders which happens first.

It’s not just zombie movies. It’s horror stories in general. She remembers back when she first started reading them, huge doorstop anthologies of them that her dad would get at the thrift shop for a dime. She must’ve been ten or so. They scared her sleepless. One thing she got to noticing in them, though, was how if a story was written in present tense then the protagonist probably survived it, unless there was some kind of twist at the end, but if it was written in past tense then the guy was pretty much screwed.

She’s wondering what tense her story’s written in. Whether she dies in the dirt with someone’s face in her guts. Whether she rides off into the sunset. Whether she wakes up and it was all a dream.

She’s wondering where the fuck she’s supposed to go before she gets there.

* * *

Now she’s taken to calling him Jack the Snack, because she has to convince herself it’s funny or she’ll go stark raving batshit and there’s no coming back from that. The treeline ran out yesterday and she’s back among the buildings, old brick townhouses with delis on the corners. There are lots of broken windows on the ground floor, trashed and smeared. There’s no glass on the ground. She looks for movement in the windows and sees none. She’s so close to breaking down and screaming, hoping the good guys find her first.

The silence is oppressive. The noises are worse. For two days now she’s smelled fire but can’t find it, fire and a smell like rancid bacon frying. An oily smoke hangs in the air, like what comes out the back door of a diner in July. She’s wearing a hole in her shoe. She’s cut holes in the backpack, one for each of Jack’s legs, and it’s a nice hiking backpack so he’s pretty stable up there, the backpack strapped around her at chest and waist. His bare toes jostle at her ass with every step.

There are two things that keep her going.

One is Jack’s face pressed against the back of her neck. She can’t even complain about the way her shoulders cramp in place to carry him, the way she has to stop every half hour and convince him to pee pottyless, the weight of his heavy little butt on her back. The lack of it would weigh much more.

Two is the perverse hope that she’ll come across someone she knew in high school, any of the girls who called her Slut or Skank or Maternity Leave when her belly started to round out, any of the boys who’d elbow each other and grin when she walked by, any of the teachers who assumed she was stupid because she’d made one bad call, never mind that she was pulling in the top five percent even through the first trimester when she’d puke til she was dizzy, sit and stare at the wall and wait to die. That weight on her arm again, that face at her shoulder. Bad call? Fuck them. She pictures each of them in turn, maybe pulped into warm jelly by infection, maybe uninfected, healthy, and being torn unceremoniously to bits.

It keeps her going, one foot in front of the other. It keeps her from thinking about her fate. About Jack’s. How slow he made her. What would happen when it came to it. Could she let them take him? Could she do it before they got the chance?

You’re going to get us killed, kid, she whispers, and he looks up at her uncomprehending, doesn’t even know what it means for the mosquitoes when she slaps them off his arms, not really, and he nods at her, all solemnity, fruit snacks on his breath.

* * *

Now she’s standing in a parking lot over a pair of corpses. No sign of infection on them. Seems that what’s done them in is that their throats and most of their abdominal cavities have been emptied out. Last night she wiped the clots off somebody’s aluminum baseball bat and now she’s holding it at the ready while she toes the larger corpse. The corpse doesn’t move. For the millionth time she wonders how it works, the zombie virus or whatever they’re calling it on the news now, if there’s any news left to call things anything on. She doesn’t understand why, when they attack you, there seems to be a magic threshold, on one side of which you get bitten and turn into one of them, on the other side of which you get bitten and die. She’s seen a number of them now wounded bad enough they should be dead, they should never have changed to begin with, just went down and stayed down, like these ones. It doesn’t even make sense in the movies, what chance does she have to logic it out here?

She doesn’t check its pockets. What good will anybody’s wallet do her now? There’s something clutched in the corpse’s hand, though, and when she squats down to get a closer look she sees it’s a rosary. She’s not sure why she takes it, but she does.

Then there’s the smaller corpse. It’s not much bigger than Jack. She can’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, before. Corpse, she has to use the word corpse, or she’ll start wondering what its name was, its favorite color, whether it wanted a puppy, whether it hated macaroni and cheese as much as Jack does.

She glances around. The place is dead empty. Sets Jack down on his feet, just beside her, where a parked car casts a piece of shade on the boiling blacktop. She wonders if the car belonged to the corpses. No key in sight. She starts up a little singsong as she goes to work on the smaller one’s shoe. Look at this doll, sweetie, someone got it all messy, you wouldn’t make a mess like that, it must have been some baby, they’re so messy, you’re a big boy now and you would never.

The other shoe’s on the other leg a couple of meters away. She waves the flies off, turns upon the bright green sock a calculating eye. Cold toes, she thinks inanely, and leaves it where it is. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Jack pulling at a stuffed penguin in the corpse’s hand. Somehow it’s lying in the clear of the worst of the blood. The corpse just won’t let go. Me, he shouts at it, annoyed. She bites her lip a second, then kneels and pries the corpse’s fist open. Wipes her fingers on her yoga pants and takes his free hand. They stand together, the three of them, looking down.

Say thank you, she whispers.

Thank you, he sings out, and plants a big kiss on the air.

That night, she barricades them in somebody’s cellar and reads Jack Goodnight Moon from memory, adding in a few extras (goodnight creepy stairs, goodnight dehydration headache, goodnight dead field mouse in the corner, goodnight racecar pajamas that are getting sort of nasty). She keeps adding extras until whatever’s happening in the distance stops, it’s unlike anything she’s ever heard or wants to hear again and she has to keep on talking so he doesn’t hear it too, babbling nonsense with her mouth right up to his ear, he’s always been so sensitive to others’ pain, she can’t so much as cut her nails in front of him or else down goes his little brow into little furrows and he’s grabbing her hand and kissing it and saying mommy ow, mommy ow.

Still she can’t keep talking all night, he needs the sleep and her throat’s so very dry. The second she stops he hears it, points toward the wall, toward outside, and asks.

Don’t they sound silly? she says. Just some people being silly, making silly sounds. Let’s snuggle.

And they do.

Once he’s asleep, she pulls out the rosary. It smells of blood and cedar and perfume. Her parents are lapsed Catholic, she’s only been into a church once and that was for a rummage sale, and she has no idea how to use the thing, feels like a jackass for even framing the notion in those terms, but she finds herself counting the beads of it, one by one, keeping her thumb over the one she’s just counted, just how she’s teaching Jack to do, so he doesn’t count the same thing twice.

As she touches each bead, she’s whispering under her breath. It’s stupid, she knows it’s stupid, it obviously didn’t save the woman in the parking lot with the footprints tracking through her guts four feet to either side, but it keeps unspooling out of her, she’s blubbering and she can’t make it stop. Hail Mary. Hail anybody. I could really use some help here. He’s only three and he’s run out of pull-ups and I wanted to know what he’d grow up to be. I don’t know where my parents are. I think they might be … sick. I ran so I could save him. So I could save him from them. I’m running out of water. I don’t know where I’m going. Is there anywhere I can go that’s better? What will happen to us? I can’t kill him don’t make me kill him but if it comes to it let him … let him go in his sleep, just get him the fuck out of here, they can have me, just get him out, let him find a safe place, don’t make him do this. I’m seventeen, I wanted to be a marine biologist, I have a baseball bat and a fucking flashlight and I can’t do this, how can I do this, every time I close my eyes I see them pulling him away from me and he’s shrieking mommy, all done, mommy, mommy, help, and what am I supposed to do and I can’t, I can’t, I fucking can’t

* * *

Now they’ve hit the farmland outside town, out where she took Jack apple picking last fall, and this time of year the strawberries are fruiting, acres of them, and she can’t smell the fires from here, just the hay and the sun and the strawberries and it strikes her for a dizzy moment that the listing world has righted. She steps over the few scraggly rows on the end and sets Jack down in the middle of a clump of berries and they’re huge, pristine, untouched, and swollen on the sun. She’s found a pistol with three rounds in it and it’s jammed down in her waistband and the aluminum bat doesn’t leave her swinging hand. She keeps watch. Jack is picking berries and cramming them in with both hands and the juice is running down his chin and then she’s down in the rows with him, one eye scanning, one hand picking. She only allows herself a moment. She needs to be alert, not drunk on summer and a bellyful of sugar after days of crumbs. Jack, seeing this, pauses in his cramming to offer up two berries, one in each fist, both bruised with clumsy picking. Eat mommy! he says, red around the mouth and reaching out to her, and her breath hitches in her throat, and she knows that if she were in a movie this’d be Foreshadowing, or the Calm Before the Storm, but then she starts laughing and laughing because she doesn’t know what else to do with herself except start screaming and she can’t do that, she has to make him believe it’s a game or he’s going to lose it and then they’re done. Anyway it’s almost funny. For the first time all week, he looks just like everybody else.

* * *

Now it’s raining, a light sweet twilit summer rain, and she’s holed up in the farm stand, and Jack’s sleeping on her lap, his hair sticky with strawberry juice, and that’s where they find her.

She doesn’t know where they came from, how they knew she was there, what they’re even doing out so far on the county route, a good ten miles from town, only that she wakes and hears a noise outside, a sort of whistling sigh, which first she takes for wind, except there isn’t any. Then she hears something dragging on the gravel of the parking lot, something heavy. And then the doorknob starts to slowly turn, turn and release, turn and release, like it’s being fumbled with a slippery hand.

She’d locked it, she knows she’d locked it. Maybe the lock was faulty, maybe Jack had unlocked it when she wasn’t looking (though when the hell was she not looking?), it doesn’t matter. She folds him to her chest and darts in low toward the doorknob, reaches out against all her instinct to flee, tries to turn the lock, but it won’t turn, not while the doorknob’s turning too.

Jack starts to stir, to knuckle at his sleepy eyes. Still half-asleep, he’s going through his wake-up routine, and any minute he’ll be peering up into her face, saying boo, mommy! Play?

A low moan rises in her throat. She chokes it back, astonished: she’d sounded just like them. Even as she’s ducking and running behind the counter for a chair to wedge beneath the doorknob, some part of her brain is flying out ahead of her, wondering why it is they make such a despairing sound, such a mournful, and what fucking right have they to mourn.

She’s got the chair under the doorknob and she’s backing, backing. But there are long shadows dragging across all the windows, not only the ones near the door, and now there’s something pressed up against the nearest one, something like a stomped windfall plum the size of her face, and from somewhere else she hears the sound of breaking glass, and every drop of blood she owns freezes in that instant into shards.

Awake now, Jack looks up at her and he’s got the wide-eyed quivery look he gets at the doctor’s office, like if he stays as still and watchful as he can, the nurse with the needle won’t know that he’s there, and that look scares her even worse than she already is, terrorizes her into moving. She has to get him out. Has to. Failing that, she has to buy enough time to draw the gun and kiss him goodbye and tell him to close his eyes and count to three like she used to do when she had a present for him because if it comes to it, the best present her useless love can give him is an easy death, but in the end, when it does come down to it, can she even give him that?

Well, now or never. She’s got him sitting on the counter, facing him into a corner toward a poster of apple varieties so he can’t see what’s happening at the doors and windows, and she’s sliding the safety off down by her hip where he can’t see that either. For a second she almost loses her resolve, almost plants one in her temple so she doesn’t have to see him die, but leaving him to get eaten even as he clings to her corpse crying wake up mommy, that’s the one thing she won’t ever do. Give mommy a hug, she tells him, biggest hug you got, and her voice breaks to shit but she can’t do much about it, and he flings out his arms and buries his face in her neck and she holds his head there with her off hand while she slips the gun up between them, against his tiny chest, his hammering hummingbird heart, she doesn’t even have to aim he’s so small, anywhere will do. I love you, sweetie, she whispers into his hair. I’m so fucking sorry.

And suddenly she knows she won’t do it. Maybe she knew all along she wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Can’t. She slings him up off the counter, back onto her arm.

They’re at the front door. They’re at the back door. They’re at the side door where the tractors unload the crates of melons in the summer, pumpkins in the fall. But it’s at the front window where they’ve broken through, and she doesn’t know if they smell her through the gap or what but they’re starting to cluster there, and even as she watches more windfalls appear at the glass, more leave the back wall windows.

Close your eyes, baby, she says, and lunges for the back door.

* * *

Now she’s running, running harder than she’s ever run. The evening’s still warm, the sunlight slowly bleeding out, and they’re still chasing her but they’re not quite closing, she’s too fast.

For now. She’s leaking pretty badly from a long gash down one arm, one cheek is clawed across, her trigger finger broke when one of them grabbed her gun and tore it free, taking the discharged bullet in the eye like a kiss. But what’s really got her attention is the place on the front of her shoulder where a plug of flesh has been subtracted. She can’t remember what happened there, but the wound is bone-deep and when she stops to dare a look at it, a tiny yellow thing falls tinkling to the road. She picks it up and sobs aloud. A tooth.

How much time does she have? Not enough. Not near enough. She has to get Jack somewhere safe, get far away from him, because they didn’t get him, she didn’t let them get him, she put her arms, her head, her back between their teeth and him, but when she turns she’ll smell the meat on him, and she can’t bear to think on that too long. Suddenly, horribly, she knows that when she runs, he won’t stay put, he’ll follow. That when she turns wrong, turns sick, and comes for him, he won’t run, not from her, he’ll probably think she’s nibbling at his face for tickles before the teeth sink in.

She has to think. She can’t. The change is coming on her, the infection nosing through her veins toward her heart, her brain, wherever it is it sinks its roots. She’s dizzy. Clammy. Her ears are ringing. She’s never been so hungry in her life. Her vision’s dimming but her sense of smell is paring to a point and she can read Jack in layers of scent: strawberries, piss-stained racecar jammies, milk-fed flesh, and fear. There’s something else there, though, something bittersweet and pungent, with a scorch against her swollen tongue like salt. He loves her. He trusts her. It oozes from his pores. She smells him and she spits and spits until her mouth stops watering.

Her mind’s starting to drop down its curtains now, but in one last burst of clarity she sees it like a movie: her and Jack, stumbling down the embankment into the flowering orchard, fleeing the open road, and she knows what happens next. The only chance he has.

She hasn’t figured out how the infection works. Maybe nobody ever will. But she’s thinking of the corpses lying dead in the parking lot, the not-quite-corpses on her tail, and her brain feels like a soaked sponge in her head, her thoughts go soggy before they quite connect, but she’s stumbling down the embankment into the flowering orchard, she’s fleeing the open road, she’s pushing through the trees to the shed she knows is there from when she took Jack apple-picking a lifetime ago. She’d had to stop and change his diaper and a sunburned woman had directed her down to the shed among the trees. Hope you got wipes, the woman told her, but at least it’s a little privacy. Key’s above the door.

Key’s there now too. She fumbles the padlock, her fingers are so cold. Fights it open. Sets Jack down so she can unfold the knife. Cuts into the back of her hand with the bladepoint, spells FIND. Spells JACK. He watches her wide-eyed, far too scared to cry.

Be brave for mommy, she tells him, kneeling down, her voice slurring to paste. Okay?

Okay, he whispers, and afterward it’s all she can do to push him inside and lock the door between them and slip the key where she won’t drop it—under her tongue, like a coin—but first she lifts his little arm up to her mouth and bites down hard.

Then she’s running back up toward the road, toward them, like the idiot in the movie who Dies That Someone Else Might Live, waving her arms and yelling. Once she’s got their attention she takes off down the road, away from him, away from them, and, herd that they are, they follow.

They chase her for a quarter mile before the infection takes her over. It slows her to their speed and they fall in step around her, she disappears among them, like a droplet entering the sea.

* * *

Now she’s got something carved into her hand but she can’t read it. There’s something in her mouth so she spits it out. There’s blood on her lips, though, and more blood off back somewhere behind her, she can smell it on the wind, and that’s something she can understand.

The thing on the door of the little building is mysterious to her, so she takes it in one hand and pulls until it breaks. The door falls open and there’s one like her on the floor, like her only smaller, curled up in a ball and gnawing on a brick. She knows that hunger, knows it deep. The virus has imprinted it upon her every cell. Somewhere even deeper she knows the thing that pulls itself to sitting, blinks up at her with eyes like soft-boiled eggs, and smiles. Boo, mommy! it gurgles around the bolus of its tongue. Mommy play?

She can’t carry it anymore, her arm is ruined, but the fires of the town are distant, the others are so near, so strong, and it’s been days since it—since he—got down and really walked.

 

Illustration by Paula Friedlander.

Illustration by Paula Friedlander.


 
 
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NikkinJVNicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with one husband, three ferrets, one Changeling (pictured at right with the author), and many many books. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Clockwork Phoenix 4, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, Apex, and Fantasy Magazine. Her poem “The Changeling Always Wins” placed 2nd in the 2010 short form Rhysling Award, and her short fiction has been longlisted for the British Fantasy Awards and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the author of Desideria, Demon Lovers and Other Difficulties, and The Winter Triptych. Her latest novel, Archivist Wasp, is forthcoming from Big Mouth House, Small Beer Press’s YA imprint. She can be found online at www.nicolekornherstace.com.

About “Present,” she writes: “This story is a love letter to my kid. It also happens to be a zombie story.”

 

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