Short story: ‘Letting Go’

I’ve been pondering short stories lately, as you do. Despite having a story in the A Hand of Knaves anthology that came out earlier this year, I still feel like short fiction isn’t my natural state. (My current novel WIP was intented to be a novella, and it’s … well, it’s longer than Guardian Angel and I’m still going.) But I think that might be because I’m out of practice — I used to do a lot of writing challenges, but I’ve fallen out of the habit.

The below — which I’ve decided to re-share because yay, Christmas — is an example of that. I wrote it in 2013 as part of a challenge to write out of my usual genre. The original is hosted at The Midnight Type, if you want to show them some love (although the site seems to be inactive now, sadly).


Letting Go

Michelle decorates the house in silence.

In previous years, her home had been filled with carols and laughter. Her family decked the halls to Deck the Halls, and the night was anything but silent. At fifteen, Ben was too cool to hang baubles, and he’d ceded the right to top the tree back to his father after ten years of hogging the privilege. But Michelle caught glimpses of childhood delight behind his surly exterior, and hid her smile behind her hand.

That was before she found the emails.

Now she strings the tinsel alone, performing the familiar ritual not out of celebration but because she’s fallen into a rut with steep sides — too steep to climb. There is no joy in it. She hangs out his stocking next to hers, over the mantelpiece. The pair hang limply.

The phone rings, piercing the silence like a scream. A glass bauble slips from her fingers, shatters on the empty tiles beneath the tree.

“Hello?”

Silence on the other end. Then a familiar voice speaks. “Michelle.”

“Darren.” Her voice is as sharp as the glass shards. Glittering crimson.

“How are you?”

She fishes the dustpan and brush from under the sink, cradling the phone against her shoulder. “Fine,” she says. It’s even sort of true. She is hollow, mercifully empty of emotion behind carefully constructed walls. “Why?”

“Well, it’s the first of December, and I thought…” He trails off.

He knows her. After twenty years of marriage, he ought to. The first of December is when the decorations go up. And she’s alone.

“I’m fine.” A white-hot spot of anger flares, burning away some of the numbness. She grits her teeth, suppresses the emotion. If she lets anger in, the rest will follow. When she speaks, her voice is cool. “The divorce papers arrived yesterday.”

“You don’t have to do anything with them right now. Wait till after the holidays.”

“I signed them already.” She sweeps red shards onto the dustpan.

“Oh.” He sighs. “Did you want some company?”

“No.” She frowns. Why is he pretending to care? He left her after Ben– She can’t even think the word. “Is there anything else? I’m busy.”

He’s quiet for so long she wonders if he hung up and she didn’t notice. Then he says, “Have you read the emails yet?”

This old argument. When will he stop blaming her for what happened? “I read them last year.”

“Read them again. Properly, this time.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Goodbye, Michelle.”

She hangs up and tips the glass in the bin. It patters down onto a shrivelled banana peel, an empty milk carton, Darren’s discarded stocking.

It has been almost a year since her fight with Ben about the emails. Electronic love letters between him and that girl. Brittany. Bad enough that her boy was fourteen. Worse that the girl was so far from the wrong side of the tracks that she couldn’t even see them. Her older sister had died of a drug overdose; her father was an alcoholic who spent all his time at the RSL, feeding his welfare cheque into the pokies.

Ben had stormed out of the house, hared off on his bike. The car hadn’t seen him in the dark.

The guilt claws at the walls around her emotions, tearing through them. Its talons are her grief, its wings her regret. She’s familiar with the beast. But before it can drag her down again, in a tangle of self-loathing and bourbon, a little mouse, curiosity, creeps in behind it.

The next afternoon, when the hangover recedes a little, she reads the emails.

***

The soup kitchen is bustling, the queue almost out the door. The first smell that invades her nose is of salty gravy, the next of unwashed bodies. She holds her breath and ducks inside.

“Hey, no cutting,” a bearded man mumbles, glaring at her from watery eyes.

“I’m not here to eat.” Her stomach churns at the thought. “I’m looking for someone.”

He smiles, gap-toothed. “Is it me?”

“No. Sorry.”

“Well, if you change your mind…” He winks, and she finds herself smiling back. Just a little.

“You might be able to help me. I’m looking for this girl.” She shows him the printout of the photo. It is pixelated, poor quality. Ben took it on his phone.

“Sure, I seen her. She’s up there.”

Michelle turns, squares her shoulders. Walks along the queue till she finds the girl.

“Excuse me.”

Brown eyes turn to her. There is no flash of recognition. Ben never introduced them. “Yes?”

“I’m Ben Rigby’s mother.”

Now there’s recognition. Also anger and grief. Brittany swallows the feelings, but Michelle can see they are old companions. As they are Michelle’s.

“What do you want?” Brittany says, eyes narrowed.

“To see you. I…” Michelle hesitates, looking the girl over. She’s the same age as Ben would have been, still a teenager, but she looks older. Her hands are calloused from work; her bare arms bear faint green and yellow bruises, like bracelets.

“What?” The girl stares back, examining Michelle just as Michelle examines her. “If you came here to yell at me, you can piss off.”

“I didn’t. Actually, I’m planning Christmas dinner, and I wanted to invite you.”

Brittany’s mouth falls open. Then her expression hardens. “I ain’t interested in being your charity case.”

“It’s not about charity. I know you and Ben … cared for each other.” Brittany’s cheeks redden and she lifts her chin. Michelle looks down at her shoes, conspicuously expensive next to Brittany’s scuffed slip-ons. “I’ve spent the last year blaming you for taking him away from me, as much as I blamed myself for driving him away. And, well, Christmas is the season for forgiveness.”

“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Brittany says.

“No.” Michelle looks up, meets her gaze. “But I need to give it. If you’ll let me. I need to let go.”

The girl gnaws her lip, thinks for several moments. “I reckon Ben would want me to,” she murmurs. “Sure, I’ll come.”

Michelle feels something then that she hasn’t felt for almost a year. A tiny piece of joy. She gives the girl a piece of paper with the details written on it. Brittany folds it, slides it inside her purse next to a battered photo. Ben smiles back at Michelle from the image, reminding her of Darren when they’d first met. She can’t help but smile back.

She pulls her phone out of her pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone else I need to invite.”

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Short story: ‘Crimson’

I don’t often post short stories on here, but here’s one I wrote for The Midnight Type a few months ago, for Valentine’s Day. I don’t think it ever got shared there, and I figured Friday the Thirteenth was a suitable occasion to share it here. Because nothing says romance like Friday the Thirteenth, right?

Crimson

The sound of laughter chased Charlie into the girls’ bathroom, audible even over the thump-thump thump-thump of the pop tune blaring in the school hall.

The tiled room was empty. She skidded to a halt in front of the scuffed sink, teetering on unfamiliar heels. She’d spent six months saving for those heels, had been so proud of herself when she left her house after dinner, her parents waving goodbye with relieved smiles.

Charlie wasn’t proud anymore.

She turned the tap on with a savage twist and splashed cold water onto burning cheeks. When she looked in the mirror, droplets of water glittered like the tears aching in the back of her eyes would if she let them fall.

Her cheeks were the same crimson as her dress.

Voices approached the bathroom door. Biting her lip, Charlie ducked into a cubicle just as the outer door swung open.

“Someone left a tap on,” a voice said in tones of great disgust. Monica. “Honestly, people are so stupid. Don’t they know about the drought? What will the cows drink if we waste all the water?”

“Honestly,” another voice parroted. Monica’s offsider, Fiona.

Clicking heels—sounding much more stable than Charlie’s had—made their way over to the sink. The tap was turned off, and then there was the sound of a zip. A purse being opened.

Biting back a sigh, Charlie eased herself down onto the closed lid of the toilet and leaned her hot face on the cool wall of the cubicle, nose against the graffiti scribbles. If Monica was doing her makeup, it could take a while.

“Guess what I heard?” Fiona said, voice quivering with barely contained excitement.

“Uhh?” An open-mouthed reply.

Definitely doing her makeup. Charlie rolled her eyes, distracted for a moment by her contempt for the popular girls.

The popular girls she’d hoped she might join tonight. She swallowed hard past the lump in her throat. Her hands began twisting in the hem of her skirt, as though they had a mind of their own. Wringing the fabric like it was someone’s throat.

“Tyler invited Charlie to the dance.”

Twisting hands froze, tangled in fabric.

Charlie held her breath, clearly hearing a plastic compact snick closed.

“I heard. But you know why, right?” Monica’s voice also quivered, hers with glee. “So he could show her up in front of all his mates.”

“No way!”

“Uh huh. I heard them chanting ‘Charlotte the Harlot, dressed in scarlet’ just before I came in here. Why else would he ask her out, anyway?”

“Why else?” Fiona agreed.

The ringing in Charlie’s ears drowned out the rest of the girls’ conversation. Her mind dragged her back to the scene, still raw and bleeding in her memory. Tyler’s friends turning on her when she entered, looking for him across the crowded room. She’d thought he might defend her. He looked uncomfortable.

Surely he would defend her.

But he didn’t, and she’d fled—and if he hadn’t intended to set her up, wouldn’t he have defended her?

Wouldn’t he have picked her up at her house, met her parents, rather than suggesting she meet him at the school?

The slapping, slithering sound of leather on leather was louder than the ringing in her ears. Because it was in her mind. Goosebumps prickled along her arms: her blood had turned to ice, freezing her from the inside out.

“Let me deal with them for you.” A deep baritone. She’d heard it before.

“No,” she replied in a whisper, not knowing—or caring—whether Monica and Fiona were still in the bathroom. She stared down at her hands. They still clutched the crimson fabric. It wound around her white knuckles as though she might fall if she let go. Fall forever. “You can’t.”

“No, you can’t,” the voice replied, soft with concern. The sort of concern she’d wished for from Tyler, only minutes before. Then the voice hardened. “But I can.”

“What will you do?”

“What is necessary.” Her hands unclenched, smoothing the crumpled fabric mechanically. “Sleep now.”

And she did. As she always did.

***

When Charlie came back to herself, she was walking home, striding confidently in those hated new heels. Her hair reeked of smoke—not cigarette smoke but the heavy, greasy smoke of a house fire.

She slipped back into her body like a hand into a glove still warm from another’s use. Her steps stumbled, ankle twisting, and she caught herself on a light pole.

Her hands, splayed against the cool metal, were wound around with crimson. Not fabric, this time.

“What have you done?” she gasped.

“What was necessary,” the baritone voice replied with satisfaction. “I love you. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Charlie began to weep.


So, whassup? I’m glad you asked…

I know I haven’t posted a huge amount lately. What with work being busy–that last-minute “HALP I NEED TO GET THIS DONE BEFORE THE END OF THE YEAR!” rush–as well as various non-work edits that needed finishing, I haven’t had much time for blogging.

Here’s a brief rundown on the things that have been happening lately.

PitchWars

pitchwars

If you read this post, you’d know I entered Lucid Dreaming into PitchWars, one of the festive season pitching contests. I didn’t get chosen as a mentee, obviously, or you’d have heard me yelling all around the globe, without the aid of technology.

What I did get, once again, was some fantastic feedback. The mentors didn’t have to, and frankly I’m not sure how they found the time given some of them had close to 100 entries, but three of the four I pitched to gave me personalised feedback. They were also very encouraging, and said things like “I have every confidence I will see your words in the bookstore some day in the not so distant future.” Aww. Also, squee!

And Dannie, one of the mentors I pitched to, also gave me an honourable mention on her blog:

Most creative use of technology in mentor stalking: Cassandra Page

I stalk like a BOSS.

Anyway, following some edits to my manuscript, I then entered it in…

PitchMAS

PitchmasLogoPitchMAS is a bi-annual three-day pitchfest and workshop, held in July and December. It has two phases. The first is where 75 pitches are selected to be posted to the blog, where they can be requested by agents and acquisition editors for various presses.

My pitch for Lucid Dreaming was selected to go on the blog, and, as you can see, I got some interest. I got even more from the Twitter pitches. I’m not going into details because a lady doesn’t, er, pitch and tell, but if you want to know badly enough, the information is out there the Twitterverse. You just need to stalk like a BOSS too.

Santa Clash

Santa ClashThe premise of Santa Clash was that a bunch of writers would produce Christmas-themed short stories. They didn’t have to continue on from one another like the Zombie Project did. No, this time the catch was much more diabolical. Each writer was challenged to write in a genre they didn’t usually delve into. I was given “adult”. Those of you who know me will realise how HARD THIS WAS FOR ME!

My short story, Letting Go, went up yesterday. I’ve had two people tell me they cried when they read it, so, you know. There’s that.

Meanwhile, over at Aussie Owned and Read

Today my December post went up over at Aussie Owned and Read. It’s called Stop, Revive, Survive, after the NSW road safety message. Don’t drive when tired this Christmas, mkay? Or write, actually.

Also, the post has some of my holiday snaps on it. Ok, one holiday snap. It’s a pretty one, though. Promise.

Isla 3

Finally, edits complete, last weekend I was able to get started on the third book in Isla’s trilogy. I only started yesterday but I’m pleased to say drafting is JUST like falling off a bike. You skin your knees, and maybe your teeth are kinda wobbly afterwards (or is that just me?), but you don’t actually forget how to ride.

My TMP editor will be pleased to know I’ve only bled on the manuscript a little bit so far. I will try and clean it up before I send it to her. I promise.

PS. Don’t forget to enter my blogaversary giveaway if you haven’t already. 🙂


The Pit: A Vampiric Vignette

I originally posted this story over at Aussie Owned and Read two weeks ago, for Halloween. For those that missed it, here it is again. Because vampires aren’t nice guys.

It is dark in this pit, beloved, but never again will even a moonless, starless night seem gloomy to me, because I have seen the black depths of your heart. Wretched one, you make this subterranean crypt seem splendid by comparison.

I am staked, prostrate on a cold brick floor. If there was light to see, I would be staring, open-eyed, at the vaulted ceiling of my prison. Instead, I see nothing except the little motes of dancing light the mind conjures to entertain itself when there is nothing to perceive, no other sensory input. My eyes are dry—but the word does not conjure the true horror of dryness. Vast Arabian deserts have nothing on the aridity of my eyeballs. The cold air of this place has leached even the tiniest drop of moisture from their surfaces. If I were to blink now, after all these nights, my eyelids would be as sandpaper on their tender surfaces. And yet, there is little I want to do more.

Of course, it is impossible. The tiniest movement—even blinking—is denied me. I certainly cannot brush away the spider that has formed a web between the fingers of one splayed hand.

Night and day are differentiated only by periods of wakefulness and the sleep of death. I miss the sight of the moon: my celestial companion these many decades, since you forever denied me the sun. I have lived under the moon’s light far longer than I basked under the sun’s, and I fear I had perhaps begun to take her companionship for granted. Until now. I pine for her. Does she notice my absence?

My mind is active, my body unresponsive, and so my thoughts are entertained by my hatred of you. Black hearted-demon, darling, father.

I do not know how long it has been since you came to my home, dangerously unstable, speaking against your brother, twitching with the beast under your skin. And yet you were poisonously persuasive, demanding I turn against him, claiming he had offended you. You said he had spoken foul lies—and yet I know that you were guilty of some of the crimes of which he accused you. So wherein lay the truth?

Disturbed by the glint in your eye, I prevaricated, insisting that your own father, bright architect of our bloodline, judge the matter of guilt or innocence. Wroth, you lofted your scythe, you pretentious and insane Reaper of death. You cut me down, wretched one—you, whom I once most trusted among the creatures that walk the night. What a foolish child I am.

And then once I had been felled, you took your sharpened wood, the limb of a tree, and drove it through my breast. The wound you inflicted healed, but the stake remains.

I think now, as I lie here in the clinging darkness, comforted by the scuttling of rats too afraid to feed on my dead flesh, that stakes are not unlike modern sports cars. Or guns. A compensation for your withered manhood, shrivelled and impotent. And I am your violated child, once so innocent to the madness, the evil that dwelled within you, but now shattered and desolate.

I hunger for revenge against you, father. I hunger for the time when I could dwell, safe in my cocoon of gentle candlelight, giving my dreams form on the canvas. These hands that rest lifeless now on the concrete slab, home to arachnids, used to create miracles that dazzled our kind.

And I hunger for blood.

You have come to me twice, scampering burned-out husk of a man, beloved father, and I have tasted the thick blood from your wrist. I feel the chain that winds around my soul grow tighter, weighing more than the thick links of steel with which you ensure my entrapment. Bound to you.

Yet I would rather see my last sunrise than be shackled to you with false love. And there will come a time when I will be free to stalk the night once more.

When I am free, I will feast on your heart.


Scary stories, and a giveaway

nightmare-in-aus

As you may be aware, over at Aussie Owned and Read (AOR) we’re hosting a bloghop called A Nightmare in Aus. Despite the name it’s open internationally, and you can win a bucketload of prices, both at AOR and at many of the participating blogs. There are books, Amazon vouchers, books, writing critiques, and more books!

To enter the AOR giveaway, click here. And to see which blogs are in the blog hop, or to enter your own, click here!

Also at AOR you’ll find a short story — well, more of a snapshot in the unlife of a vampire — that I wrote. Go. Read it. Say nice things. :p

And here is another of my stories, which is less vignette-y and more … well, read it and see.

Happy Halloween!

The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

Word spread faster than dawn light in the little village of Dewdale.

“The ewe had a two-headed lamb! And the old oak by the river was struck by lightening and burned to the ground last night. It’s an omen.”

“Nothing good’ll come of it.”

“What’s it an omen of?”

“Ask old Mer. He’ll know.”

“Yes. Talk to Mer.”

“He’ll know.”

Before the sun was halfway up the sky, most of the village had gathered before the porch of old Mer’s run-down hut. Mothers clutched babes tight to their breasts, and several of the men held scythes and pitchforks in white-fingered grips. Old Mer, perched on his carved chair, scratched his bristled chin with dirty fingernails and squinted at the group. He hunched forward so that his failing sight could see the farthest of his supplicants. He didn’t let his satisfaction show on his face, which was grim.

“It’s a dark omen,” he murmured. The group strained to listen. “An omen,” he paused, “of death.”

The crowd gasped, the sound sibilant. There was a murmur, but old Mer stilled it with a glance.

“What can we do?” one member of the crowd asked, made bold by the fact that he knew this was what the old man wanted to hear.

“The Gods are angry. There must be a sacrifice, or there will be bloody death before the moon is full.”

The mothers held their babies tighter; the men scowled. Old Mer leaned back and stretched his spindly legs out to catch the sun. “Someone appropriate will pass through the village before then.” He knew this to be true; the traders came back from the capital at this time of year, and Dewdale wasn’t far from the trade road.

The crowd was satisfied with this, and dispersed rapidly enough to home and field.

A child was posted near the road to keep watch.

*

The man and woman didn’t suspect a thing. Coming into the village to seek shelter from an oncoming storm, they found the people of Dewdale were eager to accommodate them. The couple were grateful, for the woman would soon bear a child and found it hard to walk far; walking in the rain would be worse.

“Shall it be the man or the woman?”

“The man.”

“No, the woman. She and the child will be a double sacrifice. The Gods will be happy then.”

“The man will cause trouble.”

“You’re right. Maybe it should be both.”

*

Warm broth was brought from the kitchen of the village midwife. The rich meaty taste disguised the herbs she had added. Both husband and wife were sound asleep within moments of finishing their meal, the man’s head hitting the table with a thud, the woman’s slipped more gently to rest on her arms.

They didn’t wake when the villagers carried them to the green and tied them like rag dolls, to the hastily erected pyres.

They did wake, briefly, when the flames began to eat their bodies.

*

“Three of the goats were found, necks broken, near the creek.”

“It’s an omen!”

“What’s it an omen of?”

“Old Mer will know.”

Old Mer did know. Again the child was sent to the road to watch. Traders were plentiful at this time of year.

*

The woman who was welcomed that night was dressed in rags, and the village was grateful that it was a hag rather than a respectable couple who would go to the Gods this night, to prevent the bloodshed. The midwife watched eagerly as the woman sniffed at the broth, took a sip – and frowned as she placed the cup back down on the table.

“Sorry, lass. I can’t drink this.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m allergic to some of the spices in it.” She squinted at the midwife. “But then, I’ve never met a soul who didn’t have a reaction to carronroot.”

The midwife, fearing for herself under the hard stare, cried out. The villagers who’d been waiting for her to call them came charging through the door. They hardly blinked when they saw the hag still conscious, grabbing her by the arms as she struggled to be free.

The screaming would be irritating, but better than the bloodshed old Mer predicted.

The hag’s cries rang out across the village as she was carried to the pyre. Old Mer frowned. He gestured with the burning torch, signalling another villager forward to help.

“Come forward, angry spirits of the murdered,” the hag shrieked. “Come forward, and have your revenge on the one who condemned you to death!”

The third man covered the hag’s mouth with his hand and glared at her. She tried to bite him and, although she had lost her teeth decades before, the slick feeling of her gums on his palm made him pull back his hand with a grimace.

“They will come,” she hissed, her voice penetrating. “The ghosts are angry. There must be a sacrifice, or there will be bloody death before the night is out.”

The villager frowned. The words were familiar. “What manner of sacrifice?”

“The ghosts demand a life. The life of the man who condemned them. They say, should the sacrifice be made, there will be no more omens of death.”

The men who held the hag from the ground carefully put her on her feet and turned to Mer.

The rest of the crowd also turned.

The old man tried to fend them off with the torch, but there were more of them than he could stop.

As the old man burned, the villagers thought they could se a crowd of ghostly figures standing close to the fire, smiling. Or maybe it was just smoke.

When they turned to the old woman for confirmation, she was gone.


The Zombie Project: Firebreak

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.

The Zombie Project

FIREBREAK

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?

“The sickness—”

“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.

“The government?”

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.

“Oh, Christ.”

“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.