by Mari Mitchell
read by Laura Best
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read by Jason Warden
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Vampires or zombies? What kind of monsters are we dealing with? That’s what the news programs used to ask. They don’t anymore, not since the President’s wife sank her teeth into his neck during a press conference.
Yasmin wonders if things might be better if they were zombies. It’d be easier to kill them if they just moaned, with no idea who they were before.
She sits at the kitchen table, her hand delicately tracing the etchings on the handle of her Glock 17. Next to it are ten long wooden stakes, each about three feet. She takes one, with the Glock in the other hand, and goes into the living room. Outside, she hears birds chirping eagerly to one another. It helps her pretend the world is calm and safe. It makes her want to go outside. Something lurches in her stomach, in her throat.
Everything’s dimmer now. She shuts the curtains, so it’s even darker. Then she sits on the couch, which is at the farthest point from the window. She doesn’t want to see outside. She can barely stand the sounds.
“Somebody help!” The shout comes from just outside the window. Yasmin jumps up. Her breathing shortens. She grips the stake tighter and winces from the resulting splinter. She can picture the bit of wood under her skin, struggling, trapped there. The woman outside screams again.
“Somebody help! Please! My little boy, I don’t know where he’s gone. I need to find him, before-” She can’t finish the sentence. Everyone knows the end, anyway.
Yasmin stands with legs like rubber bands. She stumbles to the window and flicks one plastic shade aside. She recognizes the woman. A neighbor. She does have a little boy, maybe eight. She had a daughter too, who was about to go off to college, but they caught her. She went outside one night, a couple of weeks ago. Yasmin knows because the screaming woke her up. The girl might be one of them now, or they might have dragged her off to eat her. Either way, she’s gone.
During the day, the only job the police have anymore is to find remains, almost always drained of blood, almost always missing limbs. If they can’t find your body they declare you an enemy of the state. Yasmin nods. It’s the easiest way to do things.
She was going to leave, two weeks ago. Pack everything up and go to her parents’ house in the city. She needed her Mommy and Daddy for the first time in years. Then the city was placed under martial law. Stay in the suburbs, she was told by the state, by her parents. Over the phone, her father, in tears, urged her not to leave the house. It would only get worse, but there was less food for them there. “Stay inside at night. If you have to go out, do it, but be back by sunset. Call everyone you know. Tell them, tell everyone you can, to stay inside. Maybe you can starve them out.”
She was sobbing more than him.
“Listen to me. Calm down and listen. You can’t trust anyone anymore. Don’t let anyone in, don’t help anyone after dark. No matter what they tell you. You’ll be safe as long as they can’t come in. I love you.”
A day or two later, the neighbor’s daughter went missing. Yasmin hasn’t been able to get a hold of her parents since.
Now the poor woman’s outside, looking for her other child, desperate not to lose the last of what she has. Yasmin frowns. Should she go out there? She should. The woman is defenseless. At least Yasmin could give her a stake. She isn’t safe out there. Any minute out there, they could come out from nowhere and descend on her. If they’re hungry enough, they might drink from her right there, and leave her corpse sprawled out in the middle of the road.
Any minute now.
No, it’s dark enough already. They could be out right now. The woman doesn’t even have a weapon.
It’s not right.
She keeps staring out the window. The neighbor notices her in her frenzy. “Please, I’m just trying to find my son. Have you seen him?”
Yasmin shakes her head. The woman puts her hand over her mouth. “I don’t know what to do. He’s just a baby. I looked all around the house. I thought he would listen when I said not to go outside.” She sobs deeply inward. “I don’t know…what to do.” Her face is raw and wet. “Please help me.”
Never leave the house. Never, ever leave the house. Yasmin opens the window and tosses out the stake. The trembling woman approaches it, picks it up, and studies it as if she’s never seen anything so strange.
“I don’t know how to use this. I’m not one of them, I swear.”
Yasmin shuts the window and closes the blinds again. The woman keeps shouting, begging for help. Her screams grow more and more frantic.
She keeps her eyes closed tight. Go back in your house. He’s gone. Just go back into your house.
She’s still right outside, studying the bushes in Yasmin’s yard, as if preparing to explore them. Go away. Get away from here. Yasmin’s still gripping the Glock. She wants the woman away from the house. This is hers.
She opens the curtains and window once more and points the gun outside. “Get away!” she shrieks. “Your son’s not here, go away!”
The woman stares at her, petrified, mouth agape. “I’m just looking. I’ll only be a minute.”
“I mean it!” She fires a warning shot over the woman’s shoulder. “The next one will be in your heart.”
“I told you I’m not one of them.” There are more wrinkles in her face than there were a moment before. Her hair is matted and her entire body trembles. “Please believe me. I don’t want to come in.”
“I said go away! Off my property!”
“I’m leaving.” The woman backs up, still clutching the stake. “Thank fucking God you don’t have kids. What the hell have you lost?” Far behind her, Yasmin sees moving shadows.
She shuts the window and blinds again. Food, she needs food. She goes into the kitchen and grabs some granola out of the tin. A few handfuls usually keep her going for the night. In the distance, there’s an ear-piercing scream. She grips the end of the kitchen counter. Then there’s the screeching of wheels, the pounding of running feet, the creak of the opening front door and its subsequent slam.
The front door opens. “Hello?” It’s Toby. She turns around. He has a belt across his torso, fitted with stakes. He runs over and grabs her.
“I missed you today,” she says, trying to put on a brave face for him.
“There were some people I wanted to check on today. I’m here for good, I promise.”
“Did you, I mean, did you see anything out there?”
“There were a few right outside. They were distracted by some woman, though.” His mouth twitches. No one wants to think about these things happening, let alone have to watch and walk away from it.
“Oh, God.” She buries her face in his chest. “I didn’t believe her.”
“You can’t believe anyone these days.”
“Are you really staying this time?”
He nods and grips her shoulders. “Yeah, I’m staying. Have you been eating? Keeping your strength up?”
“I’ve got granola.”
“Man, I’d kill for a burger right now. Do you still have any jerky?”
“Yeah, plenty. You can have some. It’s in the pantry.”
He goes over to it. “You know what I heard? I heard people have been growing vegetable gardens, trying to keep a steady food supply so they don’t have to leave their houses. They just tend them during the day.”
He always had a way of keeping her mind off the bad stuff, even before all this. She’s not sure what she would do without him, what she would have done if he’d been stuck in his apartment in the city like her parents. “Maybe we should do that,” she says.
He has a tepid expression. “I also heard that they come, at night, and destroy them. Pull them right out, roots and all. So these families, they have to just stand there and watch while their dignity get ripped from the soil.” He balls his hand into a fist and raises it to his shoulder. A brown stick of dried meat nestles between his grip. He takes an angry bite from it.
Yasmin holds her arms to her body. “Why would they do that?”
“Because they’re animals,” he says, his mouth full. “Fucking animals. They think it’s funny, or they don’t have anything better to do. I don’t know why they do it, but it’s just barbaric.”
She’s getting restless in here. They need a distraction. “Do you want to keep playing Monopoly? I’ve still got it set up.”
“Yeah, give me a minute. I haven’t eaten anything all day.”
Stay away from the windows. Just don’t look out there. Thinking it makes it all the more difficult to resist. Just a peek. If there’s anything out there, it won’t be different from any other night. If there’s not anything, she can pretend, just for a second, that things are normal.
The woman’s gone. Yasmin doesn’t strain her neck too much trying to look. Instead, she just looks at Toby’s car in the driveway. It’s familiar, constant.
“I missed you today,” she says.
“I missed you too,” he calls from the kitchen.
She’s still holding the Glock.
Toby’s car windows are painted black.
No, no they aren’t. It’s a trick of the light. She nearly laughs at herself for thinking it.
Her hand flicks the outside light on. It has a mind of its own sometimes.
Nothing bounces off the windows. They’ve been painted black in quick, thick, messy strokes.
You were supposed to be able to tell the difference.
“Sweetie?” She screams and turns around, shooting him in the shoulder. It goes through one of his stakes, and bits of wood go flying everywhere. He stumbles back and for more than a moment, she’s sure she made a mistake. But he doesn’t fall.
Three days ago, they slept in till noon. It was the sunniest day they could remember. They re-pumped air back into their bike tires. It was still quiet during the day, but easier to forget why. They took a picnic to the lake, complete with a checkered blanket. Yasmin always wanted one of those checkered blankets.
After eating, they lay next to each other, stretching their feet so that the grass tickled their toes. He brought her face to his and they kissed for what seemed like hours. At first they weren’t sure if they wanted to make love out there, in case someone walked by, but then they decided they didn’t much care. So they did, tenderly, slowly, as if it were the last time. He was gentle, but profound in his movements, and she made sure to stroke every inch of him. She liked his skin. She liked her skin against his.
His skin. It wasn’t so pale before.
“You missed,” he says. “Maybe, what, five inches too high?” He makes a clicking sound with his tongue. “I meant to tell you to stick to stakes. They’re a little easier to aim with.” He takes off the belt and throws it behind him, onto the kitchen table with the rest of the stakes.
Way back in the beginning, before the electricity kept getting cut sporadically, this preacher came on TV. Yasmin never placed much stock in religion, but she watched him, transfixed by his angry, contorted face. He stood at a podium with an open Bible in front of him, and kept poking the pages hard with his finger.
“God has forsaken us. He has trapped us here, to be our own demise. But He has designed our end, not us. We must now watch as demons possess those we’ve trusted, as our children are devoured by our spouses, as our world’s leaders can only stand idly by.”
She thought he would say that they should let God have his way, but he lowered his voice and stared at the camera. “If we are to survive, we must accept that those who are affected are not simply afflicted with a sickness. They are no longer who they were before. Don’t trust them. Don’t listen to them. Humans are not the enemy. The Devil is.”
Don’t trust anyone. These are crazy times, when she starts believing Bible thumpers.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Toby,” she says. He laughs, but it’s not the mirthful laugh he always makes when she tells a good joke. She’s never heard such an awful sound before. Not from him, not from anyone. It gets into her bones and pulls them out of joint.
He’s on her in an instant. The back of her head hits the door, and as he jerks her around by her neck, she can feel her syrupy blood getting into her hair, hear the faint squish of it against the wood.
She wants to plead for her life, to beg for him to leave and never return, but it’s not just his teeth that are sharp. Every feature, from his eyes to his hair, has developed points. She brings her knee forward as hard as she can. He stumbles and lets go with a loud moan. At least that area is still tender.
“You silly bitch.” He sounds like an angry dog attempting speech. “I was going to save you, you know that? Make it so that we could really be together. But now you’ve gone and pissed me off.”
She doesn’t want to piss him off. She doesn’t want to please him. That kitchen table is all she has. As she runs to it, she looks at the back door.
She let him in. Last night, he knocked on the back door, which she always kept locked. She told him to come in, before asking him why he didn’t come through the unlocked front door. He said he was being chased and didn’t want to risk it. When she looked out the back, she saw them coming. She believed him. She slept in the next day, and he was already gone. He left a note about how he was going to find his car and try to track down some people. He’d be home before sunset.
He wasn’t home before sunset. Don’t trust anyone. But why can’t she trust Toby? There sure as hell isn’t anyone else around she can trust. She can’t be alone in this.
She makes it to the table just as he gets to his feet. He’s walking towards her slowly, like he’s mocking her. She picks up a stake and holds it like she saw Buffy do once. He laughs again.
“We could do this forever, you know. This back and forth. Or we could leave, and I could introduce you to some of my new friends. They’re not as bad as you think.”
“Out of my house.” Her voice shakes so much she’s afraid her words are indecipherable.
“It doesn’t work that way, sweetheart.”
Her wrist shakes. She could put it down. Let him have her. He’d kill her, or he’d make her like him. Either way, she wouldn’t be stuck. She wouldn’t be afraid. It’d be nice to be afraid of nothing.
“Just put it down. We’ll pretend this whole thing never happened.”
It’s like there’s glue on the wood. She can’t let go.
“Do it. Now.” His eyes are different. She can only see black. He looks like all the others, a pale and poor imitation of the man he used to be. Pretending to be Toby must be exhausting, especially if you’re pure evil.
Don’t let anyone in.
Don’t trust anyone.
They’re not your loved ones.
There’s a terrifying small growl from the back of his throat.
Two months ago, she changed the channel when she saw preachers. She helped her neighbors when they couldn’t find her kids. Two months ago, her neighbors weren’t losing kids.
“Fuck this.” His teeth are sharp. If she had more time to think, she would remember going to the zoo when she was five, and being frightened by a yawning lion. For weeks, whenever she closed her eyes, she would see it, unhinging its massive jaws and baring teeth so sharp it could bite clean through her arm.
Toby bites her arm.
She cries out, and with her free hand, stabs him in the shoulder and pulls the stake out again. It falls to the ground with a dull clank. Blood gushes out of him, and from the corner of her eye, she sees him grin. He thrusts it to her face, so fast that she doesn’t have a chance to move out of the way before he forces the gaping wound into her mouth. She shoves him and spits, but a few lone drops slide gleefully down her throat. They taste sour, like they’ve rotted.
“It’s too late, you know,” he says. “That’s all it takes, just that little bit.”
Tiny dark spots appear in her vision. She struggles to stand. He’s laughing. It’s the laugh more than anything else that makes her sick to her stomach. She leans on the table. He holds her, still laughing, and what she hates is that she can’t push him away. She wishes he would just kill her, just sink his teeth into her jugular and be done with it, but he’s almost gentle, almost tender. After a few moments of breathing, her voice finally crawls up through her windpipe.
He doesn’t respond, but smooths her hair behind her ear. She wants to vomit, but all she can do is shake. The stake on the ground is covered with his blood, slowly darkening as it dries. She wants it. When she thinks about it hard enough, she can feel her hands wrapping around it. She knows she can’t get out of his grip by struggling against him, but the stake is on the floor. She needs to be on the floor. Her knees feel stronger, but she pretends they’ve given out again, and makes it to the ground. When her hands hit the floor, she feels relief for the first time in what seems like an eternity.
“Just give it a few minutes. It’ll all be over then. You can already start to feel it happening, can’t you?”
She keeps her head low and lets her eyes wander towards it. He doesn’t notice. If it’s already happening, if she’s already turning into him, then she should be like him. Fast. It’s within arm’s length, if she stretches. One movement.
She gives herself that one movement, and throws her arm out, and it works. The stake is in her hand. He tries to grab her, but she rolls herself into a ball, so that his grip only brushes her ass.
“Nice try. Very nice, in fact.”
She knows he’s about the pounce on her. It’s the only logical step. She rolls over, the tip of the stake pointed up, the butt against her chest. She won’t miss this time.
She doesn’t. Then, the monster strips away. That demonic thing that has Toby’s face dissolves in a burst of rage and absolute fury. She never imagined he could look so angry.
Then, she sees Toby. Toby from a few days ago, when it was still him. Apologetic, pleading for her forgiveness, maybe even for his life. He tries to speak, but there’s no time. He freezes up. His skin turns from a pale white to a murky gray. The blood around his wound turns to ash, and he falls on top of her, completely dead weight.
She’s never thrown anything off her so quickly, but she can still feel his lifeless hand against her thigh. She remembers holding it. There’s a scream in the far distance. She sees a bit of blood on the ground and wonders if it’s hers or his. Oh, God, she can already smell it.
Don’t trust anyone. The only one you can trust is yourself.
She can’t be like him. The stake is still good, still sharp. She holds it again, but this time, it doesn’t give her the comfort it did before. She’s frightened of it, almost as frightened as she was of him.
She wasn’t lonely before, because she still had Toby. Now, not even the neighbor down the street will help her.
It really is still sharp. She holds it up, pointed directly at her heart. Part of her wishes that when it pierced Toby, the other end would force its way into her as well. But that didn’t happen. No use dwelling on the past. One more thrust, just one more. It’s not like there’s anything left.
But there is a bit left. On the floor, slowly drying. It’ll go to waste.
She can’t figure out if she’s actually turning, or if it’s all in her head. It’s probably all in her head.
One thrust. Easier this time. No one to stop her. She’s the only one left.
Her arm, with a mind of its own now, puts it back on the floor, pushes it all the way to the fridge. The rest of her convulses with shame. As the tears come, she throws herself onto the ground, and begins lapping the blood eagerly off the tile.