The Zombie Project: FirebreakPosted: September 10, 2013
I’ve mentioned The Zombie Project before. It’s a project masterminded by the gorgeous Chynna-Blue: she herded a bunch of writers together and got them to agree to a series of short stories all set in the same world. The only rule was that each story had to contain an element of the one before. And this Sunday just past, it was my turn.
My story is #11 in the sequence. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading the entire series. But if you are too time poor for that (I get it, believe me!), I’d recommend you at least read two, as my short below continues on from them. The two are “Thinking Big” by Julie Hutchings and “The Light” by Jolene Haley.
Then you can read mine, “Firebreak”, here or by scrolling down.
Warning: contains zombies, swearing and gross stuff. Also American spelling, since it’s set in small town America.
Someone had killed her zombie.
Ruth Ann realized something was wrong as soon as she entered the back of Blue’s diner. The stench of rotting vegetable matter and tattered flesh hung in the air like offcuts on a compost heap. The zombie stink had been barely noticeable when she’d gone out; now it was so heavy in the air she could taste it.
The broom closet door hung ajar. Someone had tried to shove the dismembered limbs back in and slam the door—but several decaying fingers were jammed in the gap, ragged fingernails blackened and broken.
She opened the door, braced for an attack, and saw the zombie’s corpse. The stink hit her with a noisome fist. She swallowed bile.
The zombie had been decapitated, dismembered.
Trembling, Ruth Ann nudged the hand inside with the toe of her shoe. One of the fingernails fell off, plopping to the linoleum: a jagged accusation.
Someone knew her secret. She was poisoning the townsfolk with zombie toxins: a death that left their corpses inanimate, as a corpse rightly should be, not shambling around as this one had. Mr. Carter, the government agent who’d contracted her in exchange for her own survival, had given her another week to “take care” of the small town of Haley. No survivors.
But someone knew.
I don’t want to die.
She’d have to move more quickly.
There were so few of them left, Ruth Ann thought as she welcomed her dinner guests. Only a dozen—plus Ruth Ann—out of a population of over three hundred. Some had fled when the virus came. The rest, the stubborn ones who hadn’t wanted to leave their homes…well, they’d died.
Earlier that day Ruth Ann had crisscrossed Haley on foot, spreading the word that she was cooking up a batch of chili and wanted everyone to come along. The walk was harrowing, not because Haley was big but because Ruth Ann kept jumping at shadows. Every time she spoke to someone, she expected they’d thrust an accusatory finger at her and thunder, “WHAT HAVE YOU GOT IN YOUR CLOSET, RUTH ANN?” Her guilt was an invisible shroud that covered her, head to toe.
But no one could see it except her. With each cheerful acceptance of her invitation, her smile felt more brittle.
When she was sure everyone knew about dinner, and that they’d come—desperate for one last chance at community before the Lord took them all, she supposed—she’d returned to Blue’s to prepare the feast.
Ruth Ann’s sister, Penny, had disappeared—she hadn’t been seen since the day before. Ruth Ann was pretty sure she’d run away with her friend Mason, fleeing north toward rumors of sanctuary. She’d seen them whispering together yesterday, had thought about asking them—but had then decided it was for the best if they left.
She hadn’t served the contaminated food to Penny. She’d hoped Mr. Carter would take both of them in at the end, but had been too afraid to ask until her work was done. Until she’d earned the ticket into the uncontaminated compound that he’d promised her.
But Penny running away made things easier.
“It’s not exactly a Sunday roast, is it?” Father David said, smiling to take the sting from his words as Ruth Ann brought a steaming pot of chili to the table. She’d shoved the smaller tables together and covered them with checkered cloths to give the illusion of a big dining table. A wilting sprig of rosemary served as a centerpiece, its scent overwhelmed by the chili; Ruth Ann had gone heavy on the garlic and chili powder to compensate for the lack of fresh onions and jalapenos. And for other things.
“No sir,” Ruth Ann said. “All we’ve got left is mince. And packet food.”
“What I’d give for a plate of fresh roast beef,” Father David sighed, taking the pot from her. Bobby retrieved the ladle and slopped the chili into the Father’s bowl and then his own. “Not meat you need to curry or spice so you can’t taste how old it is.”
Ruth Ann clenched her jaw, nodded.
“On the bright side,” Bobby said, sniffing appreciatively, “Ruth Ann makes a mean chili.” JC, Bobby’s drinking buddy, wasn’t there. He’d succumbed to the fever days earlier. Bobby’s face still showed the traces of the heavy drinking he’d done after the funeral.
“Thanks,” Ruth Ann said, swallowing nerves that tasted like acid. “Would anyone like a drink?”
“What kind?” Wade rasped. The town alcoholic, he’d never pass up free liquor.
“Well, I sure ain’t serving you water. I got some whiskey. On the house.”
Laughter. Money hadn’t been worth spit for almost a month. And Blue’s owners were dead, the bank manager too probably—who would care if she gave away the last of the stock? Ruth Ann went behind the counter and sloshed brown liquid into glass tumblers, hoping no one would notice how her hands shook. Then she carried the trays back to the table. “It’s bottom-shelf whiskey,” she apologised as she handed out the drinks.
“That’ll be just fine,” Wade said, cupping his glass in his hands like it was precious. Ruth Ann used to feel that way about coffee, until the waters were contaminated with corpses. Would they have fresh coffee in the compound?
“May I say Grace?” Father David asked as Ruth Ann sat. She nodded and he bowed his head. “Oh Lord, we thank You for the bounty we are about to receive, here at the end of days. Please have mercy on those of Your flock who are left on this Earth, and let our final passage into Your arms be one of grace. Amen.”
“Amen,” everyone murmured.
“A toast.” Father David held his glass high. “To Haley’s Last Supper. And to Ruth Ann, for providing it.”
Ruth Ann’s fingers tightened on the greasy tumbler. Did he know? But, although their eyes were afraid, the others were laughing. And so was Father David, expression untroubled as he patted Ruth Ann on the hand.
Her guests downed their drinks, some of them coughing as the liquor burned down their throats like napalm. Rick, a sheep farmer who clung to his land despite the lack of livestock, gasped. “You weren’t kiddin’, Ruth Ann. That’s rough as guts.”
She dimpled a smile at him, leaned forward so her cleavage caught his eye, distracting him from the alcohol’s sour aftertaste. “When the supply trucks come through, I promise I’ll get you the sweetest whiskey. And a roast for the Father.”
“Get a doctor out here too,” grumbled Betty, a woman in her eighties who was as weathered—and tough—as old rocks. She slurped at the chili. “If we had a doctor, maybe that damn fever wouldn’t have taken the whole damn town.” Her husband nodded emphatically but didn’t speak, too busy eating.
Father David looked crestfallen at the profanity, but Betty ignored him.
“Sure thing.” Ruth Ann sat back in her chair as the others ate, talking about what other luxuries they’d order from the imaginary supply truck. Fresh bread. Cheese. Peanuts. Chocolate. She nibbled at a dry tortilla chip, pretending to sip her whiskey. None of them noticed she didn’t touch the meat, or the way she carefully wiped her lips after each touch of the glass. None of them noticed the level of whiskey in her glass didn’t change.
The zombie had already been crudely dismembered, and its flesh hung loose on the bone. Still, grinding the meat and drawing enough of the juices to spike the whiskey bottle had taken her all afternoon.
The sickness struck suddenly. Before, when she’d shown restraint in how much of the zombie’s flesh she’d served a customer, it had taken days for the fever to hit. She’d never had to see the consequences of her actions. But now, the cramps were swift and brutal. First one, then another of her guests—her neighbors—clutched their stomachs, eyes widening. Father David stared at Ruth Ann, clutching his belly with clawed hands, a dawning awareness in his eyes.
“Poison?” he gasped. The veins on his throat stood out like snakes.
Of a sort. “Heartburn from the chili, most like.” Ruth Ann jumped up, knocking her chair over. It clattered to the floor. “I have some antacid out back. Be right back.”
She ran to the kitchen and, taking a deep breath, locked the door behind her.
They took a long time to die, screaming and cursing her name. Ruth Ann hid in the kitchen until the agonized sounds ceased, covering her ears to block out their cries. Rocking in a corner of the kitchen where she’d prepared their last meal. The decaying stench of zombie flesh was noticeable despite the air freshener she’d used to try and hide it; it sent rotten tendrils up her nose and made her gag. Tears stained her cheeks, but she ignored them.
I don’t want to die.
Silence finally settled like gravedust. It took her another half hour to muster the courage to walk back out to the diner.
The air stank—not the putrid vegetable smell of her zombie, but of human waste. Shit and piss stained pants and skirts already dirty from lack of washing.
When the diner’s door slammed open, Ruth Ann very nearly voided herself too.
Mason stood in the doorway, framed by the setting sun. His hair was disheveled, his eyes wide. A filthy axe hung from his hand, forgotten as he stared at the corpses. And at Ruth Ann, standing behind the counter.
“You killed them,” Mason said. The light in his wrist glowed orange, like hers. Like the ones in the corpses’ wrists. How long would it be before they went out?
“Yeah.” His voice was flat. “Where’d you get the zombie? There ain’t been any around Haley. We were safe.”
“Not for long.” She inched toward the shotgun under the counter. “They were comin’. Where’s Penny?”
“Dead.” His words were a punch to the gut. Ruth Ann gasped. “She got bit.”
Her eyes were drawn to the axe like metal filings to a lodestone. The gore crusted across the blade was fresh. The world swam around her; she clutched the counter with both hands to steady herself. “You killed her?”
“Your zombie killed her,” Mason growled. And he lunged across the room, leaping over Betty’s still twitching corpse. She grabbed for the shotgun as Mason’s haymaker struck her jaw, hard; she flew back into the empty cake rack, knocking her head against it.
When her vision cleared, Mason was standing over her, axe raised, knuckles of the other hand ragged and bleeding. His eyes were mad—not angry, crazed. Small rust-colored specks covered his cheek like blackheads. The shotgun was behind him, out of reach.
“Why?” He narrowed his eyes at her.
“They offered me a way out.” Ruth Ann’s mouth tasted of copper. She ran her tongue across her teeth. Loose. The inside of her lip bled where her teeth had bit into it.
She nodded. The axe that filled her vision trembled, about to fall, to behead her the way it had her zombie. She glanced around, frantic, for some weapon. All she could see were rat droppings.
“For the love of God, Ruth Ann, why?” Mason’s voice broke on the last word.
“They’re buildin’ a firebreak.” Tears stung her eyes. “The zombies don’t travel far, and if there are no people to infect it stops them spreadin’. He said it would save America. What’s left of it, anyway.”
“So you poisoned them with fuckin’ zombie bits?”
“He said they ran out of everything else,” she whispered. “Used it up. All the chemical weapons and poisons. Gone.”
A moan on the other side of the bar, like a ghost rising from the grave. The sound of folks stirring, fingers scrabbling against dirty tiles.
Ruth Ann, behind the counter, couldn’t see what was happening on the other side, but the sight of Mason’s face, bleached pale, told her.
The rotting vegetable stink oozing across the room confirmed it.
“I think you fucked up, Ruthey,” Mason said. He snatched up the shotgun in his free hand and darted toward the kitchen. She leapt to her feet, tried to follow—and he slammed the door in her face, locking it.
“Let me in!” she screeched, pounding on the solid timber. “I don’t want to die!”
“Neither did they!” Mason screamed back.
Ruth Ann turned. The people she’d slain were shuffling to their feet, bodies contorting as foaming green liquid spewed from their mouths. Father David was closest to her. He growled, a low, crazed sound, like a rabid dog. His eyes were glassy, and a red LED glittered in his wrist.
She’d given them too much. A quick transformation instead of a slow death.
“I don’t want to die,” Ruth Ann whispered as they closed in around her.