Since it’s romance week (great, now we have a whole week of Valentine’s Day – grr) I thought I’d post a romantic story for ya’ll. Of course, this is romance my way.
The story below – Zombie Love Song – first appeared in the anthology Hell Hath No Fury. It also happens to be the first piece of writing I ever made money on. Enjoy!
Zombie Love Song
I ran onto the porch and slammed the door; luckily, it was wood, not a flimsy screen. Still, it wouldn’t hold for long, not against what I was running from. I started to drag a wicker loveseat in front of the door, but stopped halfway. Not only did the door open out, the mutes could easily vault over the loveseat and grab me. Their prey.
I flopped down on the cracked plastic cushions and released a cloud of all the dust that ever was. I hacked and sputtered until I could breathe and my vision cleared, only to come face to face with one of the monsters I was trying to evade. I shrieked as I fired my crossbow and dove behind the loveseat in one smooth movement, just barely covering my head as the remains of the creature splattered cold and wet across my back and neck.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of smell; mutes had a rank odor about them that made a trash pit seem like a lovely place to lay your head, and the stench only intensified once they were dead. Cautiously, I lowered my arms and looked around, and then I noticed the splooge that covered me was orange. Pumpkin orange.
Feeling like the village idiot, I stood and confronted my victim. I had just killed a jack o’ lantern and was now covered in a sticky, squashy mess. As I retrieved the bolt from the ruined vegetable I took in the rest of the porch, decked out with paper skeletons and strings of bat-shaped lights. The irony of a zombie apocalypse occurring the weekend before Halloween was not lost on me.
Of course, we didn’t call them zombies. Not in public where a Guardian could hear us, not indoors when our residence might be bugged, but we all thought it. The government called them mutations; we called them mutes. They were the result of too many people and not enough work. Instead of creating jobs, the government would offer to pay all your expenses if you signed the necessary paperwork to let them experiment on you. Then, instead of toiling away like the rest of us, you spent your days doing—Well, I don’t know what. I’ve never not worked.
But all the experiments had to do was exist, and take whatever drugs or gasses or tests the government foisted upon them. Sometimes, the drugs were good, and idiots became intelligent while bald men grew hair. Some lost hair, like my mom’s friend Lupi did. She had a beard, but after taking government drugs, it fell out. Then her skin turned purple, but a very nice shade.
When the drugs were bad, you got mutes. They didn’t talk, or think, or do anything but eat. They didn’t care if their prey was alive or dead or rotting, they just wanted something to snack on. Every so often, we’d find one gnawing on a chipmunk or pigeon at the edge of the city, then the Guardians would come and collect the poor sap. Not that it mattered, since the mutes were technically dead.
I admit, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that one. Near as I can understand, the drug kills your body, but due to some mind-body disconnect your body doesn’t know it’s dead. I never knew that my body needed to know if it was alive or not, but I guess so. Who am I to argue with government scientists?
This wave of mutes came at the tail end of the best weekend of my life. I met him Friday night at The Club, the local dive where kids who had just turned legal hung out until they found the nice places. I’d been sitting near the back with my usual crew when he walked in, wearing a plain black hoodie that he somehow made sexy. I’d never seen him before, but I knew the two he was with and I made a beeline towards the threesome.
“I’m Jesse,” he said before I could ask either of our mutual friends. “Wanna get out of here?”
I sure did. I can’t even tell you what we did that night other than we were together, talking about everything and nothing. Around midnight we ended up lying on the hood of his car, wrapped in a blanket while we watched the night sky. We spent Saturday and Sunday nights the same way; somehow the warmth of Jesse’s arms kept me from caring about my cold, aching joints.
Monday morning rolled around, the gray rain in stark contrast to the beautiful sun we’d enjoyed all weekend. I mentioned that these were the worst days for me, since the constant drizzle would keep my herd of siblings inside and driving me nuts, when Jesse said he would call into work. His mom and sister would be out all day, and we’d be able to curl up on the couch and drink cocoa.
“Won’t you be punished?” I asked. Missing work was a serious offense in the New Republic, with punishments ranging from reduced wages to public humiliation. A few weeks ago, someone I work with left early without getting the proper form signed. The next day he was flogged in the town square until his back was shredded and dripping red.
I did not want Jesse flogged, not for me or anything.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, flashing me that smile that had won me over from the moment we met. “I get a few sick days.”
“Won’t your pay get docked?”
“S’alright,” he replied. Still I tried to talk him out of it; I didn’t like the idea of him losing money, or possibly his job, but he hushed me. “Listen, I’ll be fine. I’ve never used a sick day before. I’m not a habitual offender.”
A smile spread across my face. Jesse was using his first sick day ever just to hang out with me, and I don’t think anything could have made me happier. “Well, just this once,” I replied.
We left his car in the community lot. Vehicles weren’t allowed near the residences, not since the bombings orchestrated by the rebellion a few years back. They hadn’t happened near here, but we all bore the brunt of the rebels’ punishments, the least of which was that no personal vehicles were allowed within two miles of a residence. Since I normally walk everywhere (a personal vehicle is something my family just can’t afford) the two mile trek didn’t bother me, but the drizzle steadily increased to a cold rain. By the time we reached Jesse’s house my fingers were numb and my teeth chattered away in my skull.
“You look like a drowned rat,” observed Jesse’s sister after a quick introduction.
“Manners, pest,” Jesse said as he playfully swatted her shoulder and their mother apologized. Then they left, sister for school, and mom for work.
“Where does your mom work? In one of the factories?” I asked. Most of the working mothers did factory work since the government aligned the shifts to mirror those of the school. The mill even had a daycare for those with small children.
“Nah, an office,” he replied. “C’mon, I’ll get you something dry to wear.”
And so we trekked soggy footprints across the carpet as Jesse led me to his room. I noticed that his residence was nice, far larger and in better shape than mine. I lived near the border, and while the walls were sound and the roof didn’t leak that was about all we got. We had a separate kitchen and bathroom, and everything else was crammed into one large room with no closets or windows. Add the constant noise from the neighbors, and you have a recipe for madness.
Jesse’s place, on the other hand, had what appeared to be several bedrooms (An actual room just for sleeping! What luxury!) and the hallway was carpeted. Carpet! He led me to a tiny, well-organized room, which I surmised was his by the black hoodie tossed across the bed. He rummaged around in his closet for a minute, then held out a flannel shirt and sweats.
“I’m okay,” I said as I waved them away. Wearing Jesse’s clothes was a bit too intimate.
“Hey.” He put his hand on the nape of my neck; despite the cold rain his skin was warm and dry. “You’re shivering. Just put them on, okay?” I nodded, and he pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Do you want to take a shower to warm up first?”
At first, I thought he was kidding. I was already cold and wet, thus negating my need for a shower…unless they had reliable hot water. Huh. Hot water. Separate bedrooms. With closets. Carpeting.
“You have hot water?” I asked, and he nodded. “Are you rich or something?” I demanded. Not that I have anything against rich people. They just tended to work for the government and be total scumbags.
“Or something,” Jesse replied. “We get this place ‘cause of my old man’s job. He works for the electric company, so he rigged up a hot water heater.”
Electric company. I could accept that explanation, for now, just like I accepted those dry clothes. Jesse grabbed another set of sweats and left to change in the bathroom, instructing me to hang my sodden clothes over the door and meet him in the kitchen. When I did, I found him waist deep in cabinet.
“About that cocoa,” he said, his voice echoing in the depths of the cabinet. “The cupboard seems to be bare.” He held up a cocoa tin and turned it upside down to prove its emptiness. His head was still behind the door, so he couldn’t see the huge grin on my face. The empty cabinets and lack of cocoa proved he was like me, just a regular citizen trying to scrape by, not a rich boy slumming at The Club.
“But I did find some tea,” he declared as he emerged from the pantry holding the box aloft like a trophy. “You look good in my clothes,” he said as he caught sight of me. The waist on the pants was so large the drawstring bunched it up like a paper bag, and the shirt came to my knees.
“I look like an elephant,” I corrected. Jesse shook his head as he folded me into his arms.
“Only I get to see you like this,” he murmured, “which means that this outfit is my favorite.” Then he kissed me, soft and sweet and I was so not cold anymore. When we parted he held me a bit away from him, his brown eyes searching my face with such intensity it made me uncomfortable.
“Tea?” I asked lightly.
“Tea it is,” he said, and in no time we were snuggled on the family couch with a ratty old afghan and two steaming mugs of tea. The well-worn furnishings reinforced Jesse’s claim of not being rich, and I let myself relax against him. While he fought with the ancient Picture Vision in his quest for a gladiator movie, I burrowed further under the blanket, feeling so warm and content I was asleep before Jesse found good reception.
When I woke in the unfamiliar room I stiffened, only my eyes darting about. All children were taught that the government could take you at any time, for any reason, and if you should find yourself in such a situation the best defense was cooperation. Then I saw our empty mugs, and remembered that I was in Jesse’s house. I didn’t fight the yawn as I stretched, trying to work out the crick in my neck. My hair was still damp from the rain, and I remembered Jesse’s offer of a shower. A hot shower.
I got up from the couch and learned that Jesse wasn’t in the kitchen, so I padded down the hallway to his room. He wasn’t there, either. I also noticed that my clothes were gone, along with Jesse’s jeans and hoodie. Figuring that he was called into work, I headed toward the bathroom, the promise of a steaming shower calling my name.
Imagine my surprise when I found Jesse lounging in a tub of bubbles.
“You are rich!” I shrieked. I tried to storm out but in an instant Jesse leapt from the tub and blocked the bathroom door, dripping water and bubbles everywhere.
“Sit and let me talk to you,” he said. I tried to glare at him over my shoulder, but those brown eyes got me again. I sat on the toilet and Jesse crouched before me, his soapy hands taking mine. “Ask me whatever you want to know.”
“Are you rich?” I asked.
“No,” he replied with a small laugh.
“Then explain this house, these bedrooms, all this hot water!” I demanded, my hands gesturing wildly at the tub. “If you aren’t rich, you must be a-” I stopped, because what he was – what he had to be – was too awful to accuse anyone of.
“Go ahead,” he said softly. “Say it.”
“Guardian,” I finished. “You’re a Guardian.”
“Yeah.” That was all he said, one word to explain how he was a government flunky, how it was his job to round up the undesirables, experiments gone astray, little kids out after dark. A Guardian.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, snatching my hands away. “And what did you do with my clothes?”
“I put them in the dryer,” he explained.
“A special Guardian dryer?” I snapped.
“No. A regular dryer. My dad really works for the electric company.” He rose up on his knees so his face was level with mine, and tried to nudge my chin towards him. I refused to budge, so he wiggled between the toilet and the wall. “Mina, don’t be like this. I didn’t tell you because I wanted you to get to know the real me, not just assume I’m one of those assholes.”
“You are one of those assholes,” I pointed out.
“No, I’m not.” He tried to tilt my chin towards him again; this time, I let him. “There’s lots of Guardians. I patrol schools, keep the pervs and mutes away. I’m not allowed to round anybody up. I don’t hurt anyone. Seriously.” He smoothed back my hair, and got suds in my ear. “A lot of Guardians are jerks, that’s true. I only became one for my family.”
“After my mom had my sister, she wasn’t doing too good. We couldn’t afford medical care unless we got on a government plan. My dad was too old, so I signed up.”
That was true; the government offered not only great pay, but medical benefits. You got to see real doctors, not half-baked witch doctors selling snake oil. “How much longer do you have to serve?”
“As long as I want,” he replied. “Someday, I’ll quit.”
“Someday?” He nodded. I could work with someday. “How do I know you mean it?”
“What if I tell you something that almost no one knows? That I’ve never told anyone?”
“Guardian secrets?” I teased.
“Better!” he insisted, grinning at me.
“I’ll be the judge of that.” He put his hands on my shoulders and gazed very intently into my eyes. I would have bought the serious act if he hadn’t laughed a bit.
“My middle name,” he began. “It’s James.”
I laughed so hard I couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe, so hard I knocked my forehead into his. “Jesse James? A Guardian named Jesse James?”
“Later, I’ll show you my cowboy getup,” he said, reminding me that he was naked, wet, and most likely cold. I reached for a towel, but he stayed my hand. “Oh, no,” he admonished, pulling me to my feet. “You’re getting in this tub with me.”
When I woke again it was due to a rumbling noise, like a train or garbage truck. I figured that Jesse had left the Picture Vision on, but hey, since his dad worked for the electric company I bet they got all sorts of free usage.
“Turn it off,” I mumbled against Jesse’s neck. He murmured that there was nothing to turn off, then the very walls shook. Jesse’s eyes snapped open and he leaned over me and yanked up the window shade.
“We’ve gotta get outta here,” he said as he pulled me out of bed. He disappeared through the bedroom door but quickly returned with an armload of our clothes, still warm from the dryer.
“What’s going on?” I asked. I deliberately didn’t look toward the window; usually, when someone told you to get going in the New Republic you got gone first, and asked questions later. If you lived, that is.
“Just get dressed,” Jesse mumbled as he laced up his left boot. He grabbed for the other, but I grabbed his arm. Finally he looked at me. “I’ll talk, but we need to leave. Serious.”
I nodded as I perched on the edge of his bed and pulled my shirt over my head. He finished dressing and plunged into his closet, rummaging around until he located two flak jackets and a duffle bag.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
He didn’t answer me. Something exploded and the residence shook again, and bits of plaster fell from the ceiling. Jesse pushed me to the floor and lay on top of me, shielding me from the debris. When the rumbling ended he rolled to his feet, taking me with him as he broke into a run.
“There’s a pack of mutes headed this way,” he panted. “The rumbling is from Guardians attacking them.” I’d seen those attacks in the past; lots of explosions and flying body parts.
“Where are we going?” Jesse threw open a door and we ran down a dark staircase.
“There’s a tunnel that’ll take you to the other side of the City,” he said when we reached the dirt floor. “You shoot?”
“Arrows,” I replied. Everyone in the New Republic shot something, or you’d starve and get robbed. Jesse opened a tall metal cabinet and grabbed a crossbow, then thrust it and a satchel of bolts at me. He started throwing items into each bag duffel bag; rations, bagged water, wool socks…
“Wouldn’t one bag be easier to carry?” I asked.
“I have to get to base,” he replied, refusing to look at me. I didn’t say anything, but then I didn’t need too; my silence told him how I felt. He was leaving me.
When the bag was packed and he shoved it at me. I didn’t take it so he let it fall to the ground and folded me into his arms.
“Mina,” he murmured against my neck. “Mina, Mina, Mina, I have to get to base. Otherwise, they’ll call me a deserter.”
“I know,” I said. My throat burned, my voice was ragged, but I would not cry. Not now.
“The tunnel lets out by the market,” he said. “We’ll put down these creeps and I’ll come get you. Wait for me by the square.”
“You’ll come?” I asked.
I did what Jesse asked and followed the tunnel, but when I emerged I didn’t see the market or the square. The commercial district was overrun with mutes, but not the occasional harmless lurkers near the boundary. No, these were angry, dangerous creatures. They must have ransacked all the food stalls in the market, and moved on to still-living snacks. Half-eaten squirrels, birds – was that a horse? – were scattered across the cobbled surface.
The carnage was amazing. Complete. I had been to the market yesterday and it was full of people, full of life. Now, it was still full of people, but they were all dead.
My eyes couldn’t look away, and they swept over the familiar stalls. There was the soup man; just yesterday, Jesse had bought a weak, flavorless broth from him. His soup was horrible, but he was a nice man, told lots of stories about the war, always careful to paint the New Republic as the rightful victors. I think I could see his gnawed off leg poking out from beside the tureens.
The mutes noticed me and I was jolted out of my reverie. I didn’t have time to arm the crossbow, so I threw a rock, then a clod of dirt. Well, this just told the rest where their next meal was, and more mutes than I thought existed came at me. The government claimed that they only experimented on ten, maybe twelve at a time, so if they all mutated they could easily control them. There had to be at least twenty dead bodies dragging themselves toward me now, and was that-
The soup man!
He was one of the mutes!
Cold, clammy sweat broke out across my neck and chest as I ran. I’d heard the rumor, that the government had a new drug that made the mutations not only likely, but contagious. The prevailing gossip was that they could use it as biological warfare: infect one member of the rebellion, and he infects the rest, then sit back and wait for them to eat each other. It was brilliant. Diabolical.
It was chasing after me.
That morning at the market was a week ago. Since then I’d learned how the non-experiments were becoming mutes: fluid exchange. This bit of information was gleaned from two separate yet equally horrifying incidents.
My second day on the run, I met up with a few of my friends from The Club, and a pack of mutes not long after. One of us, Chelsea, was bitten while we made our escape. She turned that night, but not before she bit Jamie and Dave. I managed to kill Dave, but the mutes who were once my friends ran off into the night.
I was on my own for the next few days, until I took up with three uninfected humans. I didn’t bother to learn their names, just like they didn’t care about mine. Then the mutes came, and while no one got bit a mute did bleed into an open wound on a man’s arm. He changed a while later, then he ripped the head off the nearest person. I think she was his daughter.
So for the past couple days I’d kept to myself; being alone was better than everyone dying around me. I tried countless times to make it to the residences, to see if my family was alive…or not. Each time, I’d been thwarted by the roving mutes.
But not this time. I hadn’t made it all the way to my residence, but I was in the nicer part of town where Jesse lived. I hoped to make it to his house, or maybe to the office where his mother worked. He would help me find my family. He would help me keep them safe.
No. He was not dead. He said he would come for me, and he will. If I believed anything else, I had to believe that.
So I scraped off the pumpkin goo and opened the front door of the residence. It was nice, nicer than Jesse’s, even. Man, these people were into Halloween! After the war, the government made most holidays off-limits, citing reasons ranging from heresy to a way for rebels to exchange messages. Yeah, because if I was leading a rebellion I would send coded messages via the Tooth Fairy.
The fairy’s loss was the goblin’s gain, and Halloween was now a month long event, eclipsing the grandeur that was once reserved for Christmas. There were parties, decorations, and weeklong candyfests that replaced trick or treating; even Guardians handed out candy. It was stamped with government propaganda, but hey, the chocolate tasted just the same. I was rifling through the homeowner’s stash when a cold hand grabbed my shoulder.
I swung hard and knocked the mute back on its ass. I hadn’t even heard it approach, so blinded I was by the chocolate. A conspiracy flashed across my mind, that the government had put drugs in the Halloween candy that made everyone into mutes, but then three more appeared. Had I left the front door open? Where were they coming from? I screamed, falling to the ground as I fought. I grabbed handfuls of cold, slimy flesh and ripped it from their bones, I stabbed at them with a bolt, but still they came. The last thing I remember was the thunk of my head on the hard floor.
At first, I thought I was dead and floating on a cloud. I heard heavenly music wafting on the breeze, but then the station cut to the announcer and I realized I was sprawled across a dog bed, and the clock radio had gone off.
I also realized why I thought I was dead: I wasn’t in any pain. I remembered the mutes gnawing at my feet and knees, the hands pulling at my hair… I shuddered at the memory of the mutes’ cold, clammy flesh roaming over mine. I couldn’t understand why they’d left, but if I had learned anything it was to not question the few bits of good fortune I’d come across since I’d been separated from Jesse.
Jesse… I hoped he was still alive. He had to be alive, he just had to be.
I went into the master bathroom and turned on the shower; the water was icy cold but I didn’t care. The mirror over the sink had been shattered, but I knew I must look like death warmed over. By the time I got under the spray it had warmed to tepid, and I just stood there for a moment as the water forced its way into my matted hair. At least the pressure was good.
Once I had rinsed off the dried pumpkin and bits of mute I wrapped myself in the cleanest towel I could find and made my way back to the master bedroom, and found clothes for both a man and a woman. She and I were the same size, but we did not have similar taste. The drawers were full of brightly colored fabrics, sexy tops and skintight pants, the kind of clothing that got you picked up by a Guardian if you weren’t careful. I wondered who this woman was, and if she still lived. Or, if she was undead.
I pulled on a pair of leather pants and a tank top, the only two black articles of clothing to be found. The absent homeowner – who I assumed was either a stripper or call girl – didn’t own any non-high heeled shoes, so I retraced my steps back to the kitchen for my boots. They had come through the influx of mutes fairly unscathed, so I shoved my sockless feet in them. As I laced up the second I was hit with a pang of hunger so strong I nearly doubled over.
Am I sick? I had never experience such a gut churning feeling in my life. This must be what it’s like to have a knife in your belly, I thought as I finished up with my boots and launched myself toward the pantry. There were crackers, canned fruit and beans, protein rations. All of it could be found in any cabinet in any residence, and none of it appealed to me. I grabbed a protein ration and tore the wrapper with my teeth, then gobbled it down in an instant. The bar, which was supposed to be chocolate, was like wet sawdust as it glopped down my throat, and it didn’t so much as dent my hunger. Next I ate a fruit cup, then another; as I reached for the third I saw a can of chicken soup.
I popped the lid and drank the broth straight from the can, and I was greeted by what I’d all but given up on finding: flavor. It was salty, and sweet, and…meaty. There was no more soup in the pantry, or any other meat products, but now I knew what would quiet my stomach. Meat.
The fridge was sparse, holding mainly condiments and beverages. I grabbed the lone hunk of cheese and shoved it into my mouth; it did nothing for my now raging appetite. I was furious at whoever lived here, furious that she wouldn’t have a decent steak or chicken wing anywhere in this forsaken hovel and I screamed. The sound of my voice was terrifying and loud, but I didn’t care if Guardians or the gods themselves heard me. I was hungry.
I stomped back to the mudroom and spied a camouflage jacket on the hook, along with a fancy carbon bow. I instinctively reached for the bow, checking to see that the quiver was full in case the mutes returned, when it occurred to me. If whoever lived here was a hunter, that might mean a deep freeze filled to bursting with raw bloody meat.
There was no basement, and since I’d already ransacked the whole of the first floor any freezer would have to be in the shed. I walked in, only to bellow in the empty space. Nothing, the shed held nothing. It was emptier than the useless fridge.
My hunger was now rapidly turning to fury. I left the shed and grabbed the bow from where I’d left it; I was going to have to shoot a squirrel or a rabbit or maybe even a horse to get the meat I so desperately needed. As I slipped the quiver onto my back I saw the shed reflected in the window, only I didn’t recognize it at first. The reflected image seemed so much larger…
I turned back to the shed and yes, it was bigger. A quick walk around the perimeter revealed no additional entrances or windows, which meant one thing: a hidden room.
Every resident of the New Republic, from honest and law abiding to those of us frequenting the black market, had a hidden room. They’d become the norm, if anything about our life could be considered normal. The law abiding among us used the secret chambers to hide our valuables, items that were worthless to sell but priceless to the owner; anything of value had been pawned a long, long time ago. My mother kept a yellowed photograph of her grandparents in our hidden room, along with a bracelet strung with wooden beads. She also kept a stash of food for those days when rations were scarce.
I reentered the shed and went to the back wall, carefully running my fingers across it as I looked for the telltale signs of a false panel. My hands shook with hunger, and only through great force of will did I keep from screaming. Or drooling on myself. Whoever lived here were hunters, and anything you caught needed to be registered at the official butcher, where your kill was cleaned and portioned out. If you were lucky, you’d get to keep a quarter of the meat. A hunter could use a hidden room for unsanctioned weapons, extra gear…or to stash a big kill.
Meat meat meat… There had to be meat here. There had to be. If I got into this room and there was nothing but a few dusty boots I didn’t know what I would do. Freak out. Destroy the shed, the whole house. The whole city. Meat…
Finally, I felt the latch click and I shoved my way into the back room. It was pitch black, and it took agonizingly long for my eyes to adjust to the dim interior. I felt around for a light switch, a candle, anything. I found a half dead flashlight and turned the beam against the back walls. No freezer here, no cooler there. Then something poked me in the back. I whipped around and the yellow beam caught a cloven hoof. Hardly believing my eyes I turned the beam upward, illuminating a twelve-point buck.
A deer. These hunters were hiding a deer.
It was fresh, maybe only hung up a day or two before. Not that it mattered. I threw myself onto the deer, using brute force to pull it to the ground. It was already gutted and I plunged into it, not caring that it was raw and wild and possible diseased. It was meat. It was delicious.
I soon learned that even my ravening appetite had an end, after I ate myself into a food coma. I lay next to the mangled remains of my dinner, drowsing in and out of sleep while I rubbed my bloated belly. This was the best day of my life. The hunger had been so strong, overriding the rest of me, and now that it was gone I felt peaceful. Like a glass-topped lake. Like a dust mote on the wind. Like…
Footsteps! Someone was coming to take my deer! I can’t let them have it! I’ll kill them! No one, no one, was taking my deer.
I dragged my deer to the far corner and covered it with a tarp, then I crept out of the secret room. The bow and quiver lay where I’d dropped them during my search, and the arrows were scattered across the concrete floor. I scooped them up as best I could, but my fingers felt rubbery. I stopped to examine them, wondering if I’d hurt myself while I was tearing into the deer, when I heard it again.
It was unmistakable: the slow, dragging, scratching gait of a mute. I skulked along the inside of the shed, listening to it as it clattered around the front porch. Then I heard the door; it had gone inside the house. A moment later, I followed.
Logically, I should have just moved on. This wasn’t my house, let the mute destroy it. But there was my deer, my succulent, delicious deer, and I was not giving up a find like that. No, I was getting rid of this mute.
It wasn’t hard to find, clattering away in the kitchen. I’d already eaten all the food, which must have angered it. It was throwing the empty containers around, ripping shelves from the wall in its search. Then I noticed its jacket; it was brown leather, government issue, just like Jesse’s. It better not be Jesse’s. That’s it, I’m taking this thing out.
Slowly, I raised the bow and drew back the string, aiming for the base of its skull, but my rubber fingers slipped when I released the arrow. It hit next to the mute’s head, and the thing turned to face me. I leapt out of the room and hid behind the loveseat while I fumbled for another arrow. The mute was yelling garbled, nonsense words, my hands were shaking violently, and then I dropped the quiver. No time to pick them up, so I raised the bow like a bat and waited by the door. As soon as I saw its arm, I swung.
The mute knew my name? How did it know my name? I stared at the greenish hand, then the leather-clad arm, up to Jesse’s face. He looked horrible, a sickly grayish green, hollows under his eyes and cheekbones, and there was a nasty gash covered by a flap of loose flesh near his temple.
No. Jesse was a mute. A mindless, unfeeling mute. Mute’s don’t love, don’t talk, don’t… well, they don’t anything, except destroy. And now my Jesse was destroyed. He said he was fine, that he was so glad he found me… Wait, he’s speaking!
“How can you talk?” I asked hesitantly. “I mean, you shouldn’t be able to.”
“I know,” he said. “The government must have done something to the mutes that attacked us. Except when I’m hungry, I fell pretty much the same.” He shook his head and ran a grayish hand through his matted hair. “When I get hungry, the whole world falls away. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, where I am…I just need to eat. I can’t hardly think when I’m hungry.”
Hungry… I absently rubbed my belly as I thought about my deer. “But the rest of the time, you’re okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Aren’t you?”
“What?” I looked down at myself, figuring all the deer blood had him worried, when I saw a strip of skin between my tank top and leather pants. It was greenish, like a corpse. I touched my belly and my flesh was cold, lifeless. Just like me.
“No,” I whispered. I searched for a reflective surface, and looked at my dead self in the porch window. It was hard to make out, but there was a yellowish cast over my eyes. That, coupled with the gray skin and insatiable appetite meant only one thing. I was a mute. I was dead, but didn’t even get to lay down and rest. The government had screwed me yet again.
“It’s not so bad,” Jesse said as he wrapped his arms around my waist. His presence was comforting, but no longer carried the warmth I missed. I’d never be warm again. “We’re pretty strong now, and I don’t think we can get sick. And we have each other.”
Each other. Huh. I’d been struggling to find Jesse, and now here he was in the cold and rotting flesh and I was turning away.
“Ever since I was bitten, all I wanted was to find my way back to you,” he murmured, echoing my thoughts. “Mina, what’s done is done. Let’s just do what we’ve always done in the New Republic, and make the best of what’s left.”
I twisted around in his arms and looked into his hazy, yellow-tinged eyes; I’d miss his soulful brown gaze, but I could deal with yellow. “I guess as long as we’re together, we’ll be okay,” I murmured.
Jesse grinned, and somehow his dead flesh and sallow corneas didn’t seem so bad. “That’s my girl,” he said, then he kissed me. I would have to get used to his cold lips. “Do you have anything to eat?”
I thought of my deer. Our deer. I was a pretty good hunter, and we were close to the woods. With any luck we could bag a deer a week, maybe more. We were gonna be just fine. “Oh, do I ever.”