by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
With the hard-packed snow melting off the graves and the fresh, loose soil that began to turn underneath, spring was prime time for a zombie rising. Winter was when the zombies were quiet, or as quiet as they ever were in the town of Middleton, New Jersey. Come spring and nearly every grave showed the telltale signs of movement and disturbance, signs that had alarmed Zoe in her early years as one of the town’s two resident zombie hunters. Since then she had come to recognize that while every grave in the cemetery had the potential to shift apart, revealing a thick-jawed, oozing flesh zombie, most would not. A small mercy, Zoe thought, because Middleton had been on the map since the early nineteenth century, which meant a history of a lot of dead people.
Daffodils poked around the fields of New Grace Cemetery like .32 caliber bullets through a windshield. Growing the daffodil patches was the pet project of Hans, the elderly myopic man who took care of the graveyard during the day, aided part-time by his daughter. Zoe saw the two of them sometimes, puttering around the graveyard watering the daffodils and sweeping the graves of dried petals and empty-necked wine bottles. Every three months Hans and his daughter took a rough cloth and a bucket of soapy water, and scrubbed the gravestones of dirt and bird shit. It made it easier for Zoe to read the names of the zombies she killed.
There were two major graveyards in Middleton. New Grace to the south and Mirvish Park to the west, tucked beside the roads that wound Ouroboros-like around the town, single-handedly damning whatever pitiful chances Middleton had for its tourist industry because outsiders could never find the right exit into town. If they did, if they went off the interstate and drove around through twisting honeysuckle roads for twenty minutes, past fields of wheat and corn, they would eventually pass Mirvish Park with its crumbling granite angels and the abandoned standing chapel with its beams blackened by the 1866 fire. Mirvish Park was old to its bones, literally. New Grace, on the other hand, had the orderly efficiency of a new class of dead. There were even vending machines by the flush toilet washrooms.
New Grace was Zoe’s beat. The other hunter, whoever he or she was, took care of Mirvish. Or at least Zoe assumed so because Zoe’s car was less than superb, so she didn’t touch Mirvish and her keeper Carmen had never suggested it was a problem. This was a good arrangement because it was already hard enough to keep the undead of New Grace in check and still hand in her history paper by second period. Spring-time meant more typos, and bits of flesh underneath Zoe’s fingernails that she had to scrub out in the school washrooms. No matter how much she picked and scrubbed, her nails were always dirty. Zombie guts, the gift that kept on giving.
New Grace was Hans’ empire during the day, when the sunlight filtered through motes of rain and the mist rolled through the ranks, giving everything that fresh earthy smell. It was Zoe’s empire at night, when Hans locked up the caretaker’s shack and drove off in his blue Prius.
Usually Zoe never saw Hans leave. Hans quit the graveyard at five p.m. There were days when Zoe arrived that early, but on a regular day — the definition of regular being no risings en mass, no zombie kings, no chemically altered rainwater that led to near apocalypse –, she came well after dark. Between ten and midnight was the favoured time for zombies to try and claw out of their graves, at least in Middleton. Carmen said that in New York City, the city that never slept, four a.m was prime time hunting.
As it was, the cool blue backlight on Zoe’s wristwatch said it was 9:15. She’d been hanging around New Grace for little more than an hour. She was in her preferred spot sitting on the comfortably flat gravestone of an Annie Winters, and she had her heavy duty flashlight turned on its side so that its bright beam fell over her lap where she was trying to read her biology textbook.
She was studying a diagram of an electron transport chain for Wednesday’s test when she heard the familiar sound: a groan, deep in a decayed throat, as a zombie clawed out of its grave. Zoe looked up sharply and saw that her target was on the north side of the graveyard, right at the apex of New Grace’s crucifix-shaped layout. There was a hand protruding from the grave, waving around wildly; the rest of the body would soon follow, and the groaning sound would only get louder and louder as it did.
Zoe set her biology textbook next to the flashlight, and then she was striding across the path to the eastern divide. The damp chill of a March night made the back of her neck prickle with goosebumps. She flexed her fingers in her leather gloves and pulled her machete out the duffel bag she had slung over her shoulder. It glinted in the shadowed moonlight. She reached the grave as the second hand appeared and dirt began shifting, falling piecemeal into the loosened pit.
Zoe waited, machete in her gloved hands, as the shoulders and head appeared above ground. The zombie was male, or had been male, and judging by the relatively preserved waxiness of its face, the person it had once been had died recently. A few months ago, if Zoe had to offer an educated guess. It smelled the way all zombies smelled, a sickly sweet perfume like a piece of fruit left out for far too long. The smell got into Zoe’s clothes and was even worse than the guts. Eau du Revenant, she thought, and the moment she got a clear view of the zombie’s head attached to its broad shoulders, she swung the machete.
The one quirk she liked about being a zombie hunter rather than say, a vampire hunter or a ghost hunter: zombies were made of dead flesh. Dead flesh couldn’t feel. This was extremely unhelpful in that pain didn’t slow down zombies; it was the physical recoil of a shot to the chest, not the wounds, that would stop a zombie in its tracks. Dead flesh, however, was useful in that zombies were unlikely to scream in pain. Rage and anger weren’t likely either. The primary drive behind a zombie was hunger, and this zombie, fresh out of the grave, was too young to have more than the beginnings of hunger. So it made no sound, just a trapped, jerky movement as Zoe hacked at its neck with her machete. A stronger person might have been capable of decapitation with one stroke, but Zoe was a seventeen-year-old girl and not actually Buffy, the Chosen One. She worked out and she had muscles, but she was only human.
Sometimes though, human was enough.
When she’d taken the head off the shoulders, her work was finished. Zoe went and grabbed a shovel from its hiding place behind Hans’ shack, and then she dug the bifurcated body back into the grave, throwing the recently disturbed dirt on and patting it flat. She checked her watch. 9:50. Not bad, she thought, hoisting her duffel bag and wrapping the dirtied machete with a giant plastic bag. She’d clean it at home.
On her way out of New Grace, she picked up her flashlight and biology textbook from Annie Winters’ grave. She’d already flunked her last test. She couldn’t afford to do it again; it wasn’t as if zombies was an excuse she could give to her teacher, as true as it might be.
Hunched over a computer in the school library during her spare period, Zoe tapped out a quick message to Carmen, letting her know what was happening. Typical night, she wrote. Only one kill. It's gonna get busier from here on out. At least New Grace isn't as big as Mirvish P. She liked to keep Carmen up to date, and it cheered her up when she got a quick response. Carmen as a keeper who lived in New York was responsible for overseeing at least a dozen zombie hunters in the New York-New Jersey area, but she always made time for even Zoe’s most mundane updates.
Good job, kiddo! Carmen’s email said. Do you need me to send you more ammo?
Zoe smiled and ducked her head. No, I'm good, she sent back. Bullets could slow a zombie and were useful in buying time in a panic, but only decapitation was a sure kill. That and fire, but Zoe didn’t like to play with fire. That was the province of the flashier hunters, the hunters who lived in the quiet patches of Arizona and had nothing to hide.
“Excuse me, can I have everyone’s attention?” Zoe looked up to see two girls standing by the circulation desk in full view of the entire school library. She recognized both of them vaguely in the way anyone would recognize popular, heavily active girls at a medium-sized all girls’ private school. The girl on the left was the head of the business club, a curvy brunette with a pair of tortoiseshell glasses. The girl on the right, tall and black-skinned with a mini afro, rocking her uniform skirt with a pair of not-strictly-standardized red stockings — Zoe knew her name and felt a bit sorry for her. As names to be saddled with, Princess was up there on the list, she felt.
“As you may know,” Princess said loudly, “it’s March and that means it’s time to elect the student government for next year. My name is Princess Bennett, and I’ll be running for the position of president with Martha Boswell as my vice-president.” She nodded to the girl beside her. “We’re Team Bennett-Boswell, and between us we have more than nine years of student council experience. I’ve been the treasurer at Houghton Academy since my sophomore year when I moved to this town, and Martha has been head of the last three dance committees. She’s the one responsible for the amazing Palm Nights dance we had last year, and I’m the one responsible for getting all the honour roll students free movie passes.”
Zoe started to tune them out. Dances and movie nights and being part of the student government were things other girls were interested in, and which she might have been interested in once upon a time, but that was before her only steady relationship was with a shovel for grave digging. She couldn’t even remember the last dance she’d attended — it’d been in middle school, probably, and her mother might have forced her into it to meet some boys. That was before her parents had gotten suspicious about her habits of disappearing at late night hours and she’d been forced to admit that she didn’t like boys at all, which as a diversionary tactic was quite successful. At least now her parents thought her absences were due to being a sex crazed depraved lesbian, and they worried for her reputation more than her pulse.
She could see Princess Bennett’s gaze rove around the library, as intent as a falcon about to scoop a fish out of running waters. Zoe didn’t like to be noticed so she hunched her shoulders and ducked lower beneath her computer terminal. When she looked again, she saw she had no such luck. Princess’ gaze was fixed right on her and Princess’ hands were curled on her hips.
Does she even know who I am? Zoe thought. Ugh, she thought when Princess started heading in her direction. She tried to calculate how long it’d take to pack her books and beat a hasty exit, but then Princess was upon her, all five foot ten inches and model-smooth complexion that made Zoe feel like a squat garden gnome staring up at Naomi Campbell.
“You’re Zoe Na, right?” Princess asked. “We have English together.”
“I think so,” Zoe said.
“We do,” Princess said. She gave Zoe another one of those burning looks, and then stuck a campaign card in the strap of Zoe’s backpack. “Vote Team Bennett-Boswell,” she said. “And good job last night at New Grace.”
No one could pinpoint exactly why Middleton was such a hot spot for zombie activity. It was New Jersey’s version of the Hellmouth, the epicentre of various conflating forces that made its rate of undead nearly as high as the entire rate of Manhattan, where zombies were rarely put down because they fit so well with the general populace at three a.m in the morning. Some said it was the Middleton water. Some said it was a curse placed on the land by the displaced. Some said that it was the way Middleton folk buried their dead. OREZ, the Organization for the Restful Elimination of Zombies, had sent in some of their best paranormal researchers to determine the source of Middleton’s unusually busy activity, but none of the tests had ever been conclusive.
Unexplained mystery aside, there had always been at least two zombie hunters stationed in Middleton. Three or four if it was a generation that looked promising, but two at the very least. Historically the Middleton zombie hunters had come from the Fielding family, a longstanding local dynasty of witches, hunters, and assorted estranged necromancers who occasionally liked to pop their head into town and make trouble, of which explained the Spider Panic of 1957. By the time Zoe’s family had moved into town, however, the once powerful Fieldings had dwindled to old Mr. Fielding, who could hunt zombies as deadly as anyone, provided his blood pressure didn’t jag and kill him. Which it eventually did, when Zoe was fifteen and a freshman at Houghton Academy.
That was when OREZ sent Carmen in to select a new Middleton zombie hunter. Carmen had gone to the local schools under the guise of a sociologist writing a paper, and she had observed the teenagers in class, during gym, and at their extracurriculars until she compiled a list of the best candidates. Teenagers were OREZ’s preferred candidates; they were young enough that they could be guided by the organization’s paternal hand. Older hunters tended to talk back, and to settle down and have families, which complicated matters and divided their loyalties. Zombie hunters past the age of twenty-five that weren’t attached to a dedicated dynasty like the Fieldings were often forcibly retired.
So Carmen had submitted a list, and OREZ had gone through the list and picked Zoe. Zoe didn’t understand why, as at that time there’d been plenty of students smarter, stronger, and more determined than she was. Zoe was short and stocky, and she liked video games and eating ice cream at the Dip and Chip on Saturdays while reading comics. She was sidekick material, not a hero. But OREZ had picked her in whatever wisdom they could claim, and she’d put up token resistance before Carmen had smiled at her, rested her hand on Zoe’s shoulder, and said, You’ve always wanted to change the world. Well, this is how.
I meant like a doctor, Zoe had replied. It’s a bit different.
The one club that Zoe made time for in her schedule was the Houghton Gamers Club. She was its vice-president, though since the club had a total membership of four, this wasn’t an accomplishment she was going to put on her college applications. The Gamers Club met in the AV room every Tuesday after school when Zoe brought her PS3, Katherine brought her XBox, and they plugged them into the TVs and pulled up their chairs. Shooters were their games of choice, and they were currently in the middle of a Halo tournament with their own point system set up. Zoe was trailing Reshmi by twenty points and that was just not acceptable because Reshmi screamed at dust bunnies while Zoe actually handled firearms on a regular basis. But in Halo, Reshmi was a stone cold killer, and Zoe shrieked in frustration when Reshmi put another bullet in her head.
“Sorry,” Reshmi said cheerfully. Zoe made a mournful sound in her throat. Reshmi patted her on the arm and then looked at the clock. “It’s late. I better go home,” she said. Katherine and Li Su nodded in turn, and Zoe slowly climbed out of her chair and helped the others clean up. She unwound the cables of her PS3 and slid them into her bag.
“Good game, guys. See you next week!” Katherine said, bounding out the door. Li Su and Reshmi followed. Zoe was the last one out, stopping by her locker to fetch her textbooks.
At five p.m, there were only a handful of cars left in the parking lot. Zoe’s beat-up Corolla with its numerous dents and scratches was immediately recognizable, and she dumped her backpack and PS3 in the trunk after she unlocked it. She was just about to slide into the driver’s seat when she heard a zombie rattle. What, here? she thought in disbelief. Five was too early for most zombie risings, and Houghton Academy was nowhere near any of the town’s graveyards.
But unless her eyes were lying to her, that was a zombie ambling down the empty rows of the parking lot. No, not only was it a zombie, it was her math teacher, Mr. Peters, with his comb-over and his red and brown plaid tie. Zoe had seen him just that morning, very much alive. She gaped for a minute, and a minute was all it took for the Mr. Peters zombie to notice her and start lurching her way.
Zoe didn’t carry all of her hunting equipment to school, but she did have her machete for emergencies. She grabbed it from its hiding place underneath the passenger seat and scrambled out of her car. Mr. Peters was only one row away now, and his mouth was slack-jawed and hungry. I don’t understand this at all, Zoe thought. Did he die in between third period and now? Did the mediocrity of his students finally kill him?
She spared a thought about discovery. They were in a very public place and it was still light outside. But a quick glance around the parking lot and up at the school’s windows told Zoe that no one was watching, and so she held her machete with both of her hands and braced for impact. Mr. Peters stopped ambling and started running the last few steps, sprinting right towards Zoe and the promise of brains.
She felt his teeth upon her, and she started hacking.
Flesh and breath and blood. Zoe’s blood, because zombie bodies were completely dry inside. Mr. Peters sank his teeth into her forearm and Zoe cried out as he pierced skin. She shoved at him, but everybody said that Mr. Peters had his own box of donuts in the teachers’ lounge, and his weight toppled both of them to the pavement. Zoe slashed with her machete, ripping off a part of his jaw, the bone crumbling like it was years old and not a matter of a few hours’ worth of death. Mr. Peters held on with his teeth, so Zoe angled her machete for his throat.
She got his head off easily enough after a few tries, but zombies being without brain function meant they didn’t need their heads either, and so Mr. Peters’ decapitated body continued holding her down, clawing at her. Zoe slashed and more bits fell off, but still the remaining pieces were insistent. This is so disgusting, she thought, until finally she had a torso and a pair of legs that kept on trying to slam itself against her, successfully.
Then there was a voice above her saying “duck” and there was heat and flame. Zoe watched the torso burst into fire, and that gave her the opportunity to wriggle free. She rolled out from underneath the zombie body, and jumped to her feet in time to see Princess Bennett blast the rest of the torso into ash with a flamethrower.
Speaking of the flashy types, Zoe thought. But her heart was pounding and her hairline was drenched in sweat. She took a steadying breath, followed by another, as Princess finished the job. It shouldn’t have been like this, she thought. Mr. Peters had been much stronger than your garden variety zombie. When Princess had roasted Mr. Peters to satisfaction, she turned around, cocked a hip, and said, “You can offer your thanks right about now.”
“Thanks,” Zoe muttered. “Where’d you get the flamethrower?”
“A birthday gift from Carmen,” Princess said.
“Really?” Zoe asked. “Her gift to me was a pair of thick socks.” An imminently useful gift, as hanging around in graveyards during the rainy season tended to get her feet wet, but still. Socks versus flamethrower was a battle doomed to loss even from the beginning.
“It’s a matter of knowing what to ask for,” Princess said snobbishly. “I mean, I moved to this podunk town from Chicago because OREZ told me to. I might as well get to play with new toys. You’re lucky I was around late because of the campaign,” she added.
“I could’ve handled it on my own,” Zoe said. “You just did it faster. It doesn’t mean you get bragging rights, not when you used a flamethrower.”
Princess narrowed her eyes. “I see you’re one of the conservative types. Machetes are fine, but if you’re going to use one, try to find a machete that doesn’t look like you got it out of a farmer’s shack. I can hook you up with a decent Filipino bolo knife if you want.”
“I’ll pass,” Zoe said coldly.
“Hey, no need to get angry,” Princess said, following Zoe to her car. “I’m just trying to be useful. You’re a young hunter and I’m from an old hunting family. We’re cousins to the Fieldings. That’s why OREZ sent me here.”
Zoe yanked open the door with more force than was necessary. “You’ve been here since sophomore year. You’ve never tried to introduce yourself to me until now.”
“Neither have you,” Princess pointed out, and Zoe made a face that she hoped Princess couldn’t see. “I’m not offended. It’s normal for hunters to want to work alone. You’ve got New Grace and I do Mirvish. We don’t need to have our paths cross, except in cases like this.” She waved the nozzle of her flamethrower around. Zoe really wished she would put the thing down. “Mr. Peters was alive just a few hours ago. I saw him in the hallways.”
“That is strange,” Zoe admitted. She got into her car and tried to close the door, but Princess leaned forward and made it impossible.
“He’s not the only case I’ve seen recently,” Princess continued. “Ms. George, the one who runs the gas station on Leland Street? Same thing. I saw her alive when I went to pump gas, and then a few hours later I saw her zombified and trying to attack two children outside the community centre. What do you think about that?”
Princess interrupted her, carrying on her merry way. Zoe clenched her jaw in frustration. “I think what’s happening is that someone is murdering these people and turning them into zombies. I know what you’re going to say, that it’s impossible to force zombificiation, but I’ve seen a case in Chicago before where it’s not. If you’re a very powerful witch, there are ways to do it. I haven’t noticed any powerful witches in Middleton, and why should there be since the Fieldings left? The town is as boring as dust. So it must be a newcomer trying to stir up some havoc.”
“Will you let me talk?” Zoe snapped.
“I did ask for your opinion,” Princess said. “How about this: you invite me over for dinner. I live alone and I can barely boil an egg, so I’m in need of a good meal. Then we can talk.”
“You are seriously one bossy chick,” Zoe said. “What makes you think I want you anywhere near my home? My parents don’t know about the whole zombie hunter business. I’d like to keep it that way, thanks.”
“I did save your life,” Princess said. She patted her flamethrower lovingly. “Though I suppose we could duel for it. I’ve fought for stranger things than dinner.”
“You brought a… friend home for dinner?” Zoe’s mother asked as she sliced the cucumber neatly to make oisaengchae. The tone of her voice made it evident just what she thought of Zoe’s friend. Zoe tried to smile and pass the gochujang sauce when it was asked for. “Well, I’m glad,” her mother said at last, tipping over the bottle and seasoning the shredded cucumber. “I was beginning to think you had no friends at school.”
“I have friends,” Zoe said. “The gamers club came over last month. Remember Li Su? You said that she had very nice hair.”
Her mother stared blankly at her. “Never mind,” Zoe said. This was why she couldn’t tell her parents about her profession; if they could barely handle the idea of her hunting imaginary monsters, then she didn’t want to imagine their reaction if she told them about the real ones. “I hope it’s okay though, bringing Princess home. If we don’t have enough to feed five, I could always tell her to come back another time.” Her voice rose in hope.
“Please,” her mother scoffed. “With the way your brother eats, we can feed an entire navy. What kind of name is Princess though? Very odd. But she has nice legs and what a beautiful complexion,” she said critically. “She must take better care of her skin than you do, Kyung-soon.”
“I can’t help it if it my genetics aren’t as good,” Zoe said, consciously rubbing the new zit on her forehead while her mother frowned and frowned. “Here, let me help you with the fish.” She reached over to the stove and lifted the pan.
While she started setting the dishes on the table, Zoe kept an eye on Princess in the living room with Zoe’s father and her little brother Grant. Grant was watching TV and failing to do his homework. Zoe’s father and Princess were settled into a comfortable chat. “I plan to apply to a couple of business schools on the east coast,” Princess was saying, her legs tucked up underneath her as she sat lotus-style. “Not Harvard per se. I’ve had family members go to the Harvard Business School and from what I hear, it’s more reputation than substance. I wouldn’t mind Columbia. Provided that I get in, of course.” Zoe turned her face away, setting the maeuntang fish soup on the table, trying not to gag too loudly. Were her parents actually falling for the overachiever schtick?
Apparently yes. “I think it’s wonderful that you’re so ambitious,” Zoe’s father said in his slow, halting English. “I like Middleton. I have a good job at the hospital. But I hope Zoe and Grant, when they grow up, will go and see the world. I want to take them to my homeland, Korea, but they don’t want to go.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to go, it’s that it’s never a good time, Dad,” Zoe said.
“Korea is so beautiful,” Princess said.
“You’ve been there?” Zoe’s father asked curiously.
“I went on an Asian tour with my mother a few years ago,” Princess said, gesturing with an elegant wrist. Zoe caught sight of her nails, painted eggplant purple and smoother than any hunter’s nails had a right to be. “She has the same idea as you do, Mr. Na. A true education is knowing the world beyond yourself.”
Someone get me a sledgehammer and a blow to my head, Zoe thought. “Dinner’s ready!” she said loudly, and Grant leaped up with the speed of a fourteen-year-old boy’s stomach. Princess and Zoe’s father followed at a more sedate pace, and when they passed Zoe, Zoe’s father gave her a look as if to say, I approve of your new girlfriend. Zoe couldn’t think of a way to disabuse them of this horrifying notion without putting even more horrifying notions into their heads. So she sat down at the table and tried to keep as silent as possible. It wasn’t hard, not when Princess was obnoxiously guiding the conversation like she was the hostess and the Nas her guests.
“I need to talk to you. Upstairs,” Zoe said the moment dinner was over and her mother began clearing the dishes. Her mother pursed her lips while Grant waggled his eyebrows. Zoe felt a blush form on her cheeks. Not like that! she thought, but the words were already out and she had no choice but to lead Princess up the stairs to her bedroom.
She didn’t want to know what the oh-so-cultured and worldly Princess thought of Zoe’s bedroom. There were Trigun and Neon Genesis Evangelion posters on the wall, and her mini TV was stacked with games and empty bottles of soda. Princess sat down on Zoe’s blue checkered bedspread, which Zoe appreciated because it meant Princess wasn’t hovering all over her space. “You have a nice family,” Princess commented. “I think it’s cool that your dad is a cardiac surgeon. He seems to want you to follow in his footsteps.”
“My older brother is already in med school,” Zoe said. “Sure, my dad would like two doctors in the family but he’s given up hope for me. I don’t know how you manage to balance hunting with school and student council.”
“It’s not hard,” Princess said dismissively. “And I’m not going to be a hunter for all my life. I need to start preparing for when I retire and have to look at other options.”
Zoe knew she was right, but the idea of retirement seemed so far off. Twenty-five was light ages away from seventeen. Run the numbers in the opposite direction, and it was the same difference between seventeen and nine, which was huge. That Princess acted otherwise was probably a side effect of being from a hunting family. Zoe had met a few dynasty hunters when she went to New York to visit Carmen. They tended to have a different mindset from hunters picked out of lists. “I don’t expect to live past twenty anyway,” Zoe said lightly. “So college isn’t too much a worry for me.”
“With your machete? Nineteen might be too much to ask for.”
“Urk,” Zoe said, biting down on her tongue. “Okay, fine, whatever. Let’s talk about the murderer who’s turning victims into zombies. Not that I’m saying you’re right about that, because I’ve never heard of such a thing. But I do think something is suspicious about it and we should investigate.”
“I don’t have time to investigate with you,” Princess said. “I have the campaign to prepare for and speeches to write. But we can exchange emails and let each other know if anything else turns up.”
“That’s what I was thinking too,” Zoe said. “I have… things to do as well.”
“Like Halo,” Princess said. When Zoe looked at her warily, she smirked. “I walk past the AV room on Tuesdays. I see the four of you geek girls in there. I think it’s cute.” She opened her backpack, tore a strip of paper out of her notebook, and scribbled on it. “This is my email address. If it’s urgent, say so in the subject line. I get a lot of emails and yours might got unnoticed otherwise.”
Gym class was Zoe’s favourite because it was the one class she could ace without studying. It was no longer a required credit and she saw several of her more academically minded friends drop it in exchange for a language course, but she figured it was better for her own interests that she spent forty-five minutes a day running and throwing balls. It wasn’t as if Spanish was ever going to help her kill zombies unless OREZ sent her to a Spanish-speaking locale, which was unlikely considering how much she was needed in Middleton. So, gym. Zoe liked the effortless satisfaction of gym class. Until today.
“Ms. Patel is sick today, girls, so we’re going to have her class join us,” Mr. Hessler announced after he blew the whistle around his neck. “All right, now get back to your stretching! When we’re ready, we’re going to head outdoors where the weather is nice and play some soccer!”
“I wonder if it’s anything like Mr. Peters,” Katherine said as she pushed down on Zoe’s back to help her stretch. “How long do you think he’s going to be gone for? The substitute sucks.”
“No idea,” Zoe said, grunting.
“Check out Princess Bennett,” Katherine said, and Zoe looked up to see Princess among the group of girls heading their way from Ms. Patel’s partition of the gym. “Are you going to vote for her in the elections?”
“She’s so full of it,” Zoe said. “She’s like the ultimate Mean Girl. Have you seen the car she drives? Who the hell drives a Rolls-Royce to school?”
“So she’s rich. She did get us the free movie passes when she was treasurer,” Katherine mused. “Well, I guess not you, Zoe. You’re not an honours student, sorry. But I bet you could be if you tried.” With that cheerful thought, she left Zoe to her own devices as Mr. Hessler blew his whistle again and told them to start making their way to the outdoor soccer pitch. Zoe stopped to readjust her shoelaces, putting her at the back of the pack. She stiffened when Princess slowed her pace to join her.
“I found something you might want to know about,” Princess announced. Zoe quickly straightened because wow, Princess’ hand was close to her ass and that was not what Zoe wanted to think about right now. “Two days ago when I was hunting, I found another zombie who I’m pretty sure was alive just a few hours ago. He dropped a notebook in his jacket. There’s some bizarre writing inside, and an address.”
“His address?” Zoe asked.
“Could be, but I doubt it. Unless you write your own address over and over again obsessively, followed by the words ‘The joy of eternal life’,” Princess stated matter-of-factly. “It looks like he was part of a cult.”
Zoe laughed. “A cult in Middleton.”
“You’d be surprised,” Princess said. “This town already has weird, unexplainable zombie vibes. At this point I could believe anything of it.”
“Why didn’t you email me about it then?” Zoe asked, quickening her pace when she saw the other girls had begun to pick teams and Mr. Hessler was shouting for them. “I thought we were going to do all our talking by email.”
“I was getting around to it,” Princess said, jogging alongside her. “It’s not my fault I’m busy.”
“Yes, I’m sorry being winning a high school election is more important than a zombie mutation wreaking across town,” Zoe said and grinned when Princess shot her an irritated look; so there was a way to make Miss Royalty tick. On the grassy, weed-choked field, Zoe went over to Katherine’s team immediately, and after gazing around for a second to judge the numbers, Princess joined the other team. Mr. Hessler nodded in approval and then blew his whistle for the third time, drop-kicking a soccer ball into the middle of the fray.
Princess leaped for the ball and was soon running down the field, handling it neatly between her feet. She was so fast that none of the other girls could catch her, and while normally Zoe was not competitive during gym class games — that beat the purpose of effortless enjoyment –, this time she thought, Oh no the fuck you don’t, and ran after Princess.
Princess saw her coming and feinted left, but she wasn’t convincing enough to trick Zoe, so Zoe moved left and stole the ball from her. She swiveled around and started running for the opposite goalpost. She could hear Princess behind her, so she pumped her legs even faster. She passed to Katherine, who passed back a few moments later, and Zoe was right at the goalpost when Princess knocked her to the ground and stole the ball.
Mr. Hessler went crazy on his whistle. “No roughhousing allowed! Miss Bennett, this is your first warning!” He came over and snatched the ball from them. “We’ll restart the kickoff right here,” he said, while Princess crossed her arms over her chest and shot Zoe a simmering look of anger. Zoe picked herself up from the grass and brushed the small blades off her stained palms.
Princess readied herself at the kickoff, and it said a lot about how much the other girls were scared of her that none of them objected, not even Coco who actually played on the school’s soccer team. Zoe must have looked pretty determined too, because her own team let her step up without a word. What do I look for when I pick hunters? Carmen had once said. There’s a whole set of criteria. It’s not about the individual traits; it’s about how they come together to form a single person. I look for physical strength, mental acuity, independence, a fair amount of ruthlessness. Oh, and being competitive doesn’t hurt either. When they’re threatened, hunters have to want to win.
Zoe got the ball in the kickoff with a lurch and a leap, and once she was off, she wasn’t about to give it up to anyone, especially not a fancy globe-trotting dynasty hunter who thought she was all that and then some. She passed to Katherine, who passed to Miranda, but then Miranda tripped and Princess stole the ball from her. “Over here, over here!” Zoe could hear Coco call from her left side, and Zoe tried to block Coco when she saw Princess rear back and kick the ball as hard as she could. The ball came acing towards them, tight and heavy, and one moment Zoe was trying to cover Coco and the next, the ball was slamming into her head and knocking her out.
She said it was an accident, said Carmen’s email. She was trying to pass the ball to the other girl, and you were in the way. She didn't mean to give you a concussion. She feels awful about it, trust me.
I figured it was an accident. Otherwise that'd be pretty intense, even for her, Zoe typed back. But would it kill her to say that in person? She's been avoiding me all week.
Princess has a lot of pride, Carmen said in an immediate response. All the Bennett-Fieldings do. It's a family trait and it drives me just as mad as it does you. But they're very good hunters, the best in the country, really. She's been trained to be singularly spectacular since she was a little girl. I think she doesn’t appreciate having a rival.
Zoe had a lot of trouble believing that. Dynasty hunters had no rivals, especially not otherwise unremarkable small town girls who’d only been hunting two years. Zoe was good at what she did, but when she’d been eight years old, she’d been playing with dolls and Lego, not learning to operate an machine gun or how to track prey under camouflage. If that was how Princess had been brought up, she had nothing to fear. Besides, there was something more than a little ridiculous about the pride of being Middleton’s best zombie hunter. It was Middleton, for crying out loud. Sometimes errant cows wandered onto the streets.
The Middleton Central Library was one of Zoe’s preferred hangouts on a Saturday afternoon. Saturdays were her mother’s cleaning days at home, and if Zoe wanted to escape getting wrangled into ridding the bathtubs of mildew, the library was the perfect hideout. She had a paper to write on the causes of the civil war, but she was only half paying attention to the books that were spread around her computer station. The other half of her attention was on her browser where she had opened a recent email from Princess bearing the address Princess had found in the zombie’s notebook. There was no hello or goodbye in the email or anything by way of friendliness. Just the address, sent by one firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zoe plugged the address into Google Maps and watched as it showed a small road leading out of town, near Mirvish Park. That was mostly farmland, if Zoe could recall correctly, and the loneliness of the one marker suggested that it was a farm of some sort, isolated from all the other homesteads along that route. I might as well check it out tonight, Zoe thought. If I leave it to later, something else might occur and then I’ll never get this stupid paper done.
So that night, after two platefuls of her mother’s bibimbap, Zoe drove out to Mirvish Park and 42 Longfellow Road, which turned out to be a farm precisely as she’d expected. Her night beams cut over the fields of white wheat before she parked her car at the end of Longfellow Road and turned off all the lights. She could hear thrumming crickets, which made her think of summer rather than spring, though the persistent cold that rested damp on her jacket reminded her that it was very much still spring. The ground was wet and slippery underneath her boots as she walked up the road to the farmhouse with her duffel bag over her shoulder and her cell phone in her pocket. The path was badly marked and in disrepair. There were gaping holes and roots where she could easily trip and twist her ankle; Zoe had to pick around them with her eyes trained keen to the ground.
The house was dark and quiet. Zoe walked up to the windows and looked inside, but the curtains were drawn over most of them, and the few cracks in the fabric she could use to her advantage, she saw only shadowy furniture and clocks on the wall. She circled the house twice and tested the locks; none of the doors would budge. Then she turned left and began walking towards the barn on the other side of the field. A tractor sat beside it, broken and skeletal, its pieces littered here and there. There was someone sitting on it though, sharpening her knives, and that someone was Princess.
“I thought you’d come,” she said by way of greeting. Saturday meant she had changed out of their school uniform and was wearing a red leather jacket with a truly slutty halter top underneath.
“Were you waiting for me?” Zoe asked quietly. Now that she was close enough, she could see a sliver of light from underneath the thick barn doors, could make out muffled noises inside. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself just yet, so she kept her voice low. “Or are you just warming your ass on that seat?”
“I was thinking about what to do,” Princess retorted. “Whether to storm the barn and risk it, or to wait out here and have them come to me.”
“Who’s them?” Zoe wanted to know.
“A cult, like I said before,” Princess said smugly. “The Brothers and Sisters of Eternal Life. I’ve been listening to them for the last hour, and god, it’s the most boring shit imaginable. But their leader claims that by playing with the boundaries between humanhood and zombiehood, they’ll be able to live forever. Really, I think she’s just witching them into zombies to create her own little army. It’s such brainwashing.” She shifted her position on the tractor seat and Zoe watched her gorgeous brown legs flash in the darkness. “Hey, maybe you can take a peek and tell me who the leader is. She looks familiar but I haven’t been living in Middleton long enough to recognize that many townies.”
Zoe slid up to the crack in the door and put her eye against it. Princess was pretty much right; there were about eight or nine people standing in a scattered circle around a grey-haired woman in a white sweater. She was talking and they were listening avidly with the sort of fervently hypnotic expression that could mean nothing good. There was a table set behind her with all the requisite zombie magic materials: goblet, knife, dead root. There was also two boxes of pepperoni pizza, but Zoe assumed that was more for refreshment and less about the zombification ritual.
“That’s Mrs. Tallboys,” Zoe said when she returned to Princess. “She owns the wedding boutique on Main Street. She helped design my sister-in-law’s dress.”
“You don’t sound surprised,” Princess said.
Zoe shrugged. “If Mr. Peters can attack me in the school parking lot, I think I’ve lost any ability to be surprised for the next hundred years.” She thought about it. “Plus there’s something creepy about people who make a career out of weddings. I don’t know why. It just is.” She opened her bag and pulled out her double-barreled shotgun. “I can’t stay here for long so let’s just run in and flush them out. We’ll let the people go, but we’ll take in Tallboys to OREZ.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Princess said, jumping down from the tractor. Zoe saw now that she had a shotgun of her own, a modified Winchester Model 1912. “On the count of three. One… two…” Zoe positioned herself by the barn doors and waited, but Princess stopped the countdown. “By the way,” she said, “I’m sorry about your head. I really didn’t mean to hit you with the ball.”
“Yeah, all right,” Zoe said. “Let’s do our apologies after we stop the zombie cult, hmm?”
Princess’ teeth were blindingly white in the dark when she smiled. “Three!” she yelled, and both of them kicked open the barn doors and flooded inside with their guns. “Meeting’s over, go home!” Princess said, and Zoe fired a few warning shots at the walls, which made people start scrambling. Princess pointed her Model 12 at Mrs. Tallboys. “Except you. Stay where you are, lady. You’ve got some answering to do.”
Mrs. Tallboys raised her eyebrows silently and behind her, appearing out of nowhere, was the biggest man Zoe had ever seen, and consequently the biggest zombie she had ever seen. She immediately opened fire at its kneecaps, her first strategy being to destroy its mobility, but she couldn’t hear bones cracking; the zombie started advancing on her and Princess, undeterred. “Steel, not bone,” Mrs. Tallboys said, almost conversationally as if they were meeting at the grocery store. “I’ve been playing with a few experiments, as you can tell.”
“Shit,” Zoe said, and reloaded her shotgun shells. She fired at the zombie’s head and saw his face ruined with the impact, flesh marred and twisted, but then it was on her and she had dropped her gun — it needed too much reloading — and pulled out her machete. The zombie was so close that she could smell its grave dirt breath, and she could also hear Princess’ voice, shouting at her — or at Mrs. Tallboys, Zoe couldn’t quite tell. Her pulse sped up exponentially as she faced the gigantic zombie, and her throat was dry as she launched herself at its neck.
Zombie hunting was rarely, if ever, an elegant practice. What Carmen had told Zoe on her very first day of training was simply this: The zombie is probably going to be bigger than you, stronger than you, maybe even faster than you. So you do whatever you have to do to take it down. You’re a butcher, not a ninja.
So Zoe used all her strength and cut, and cut, and cut. She could hear Princess still, could pinpoint the moment Princess leaped onto the zombie’s back and started cutting from the other side. The zombie lurched and tried to throw Princess off, but Zoe yanked at it with an arm wet with blood. She did her best to hold it down on its knees while Princess pulled her knife through the meat of its neck. Its tendons bulged and then started to collapse, releasing a nasty odour. Zoe heard the instant Princess’ knife hit its reinforced steel bones. “Damn it!” Princess said. “It’s no use!” She dropped her hold of the zombie at the same time as Zoe. Together they ran out of the barn.
“The tractor!” Princess ordered. She scurried on top of the tractor seat and pulled out something else that had been hidden, an elongated barrel that she hoisted over her shoulder.
“What is that?” Zoe shouted, but there was a manic glint to Princess’ eyes as she turned around and sprinted back inside, her red leather jacket torn and dangling from her elbows. Zoe followed her, her own arm throbbing with pain. The zombie was still inside the barn, though Mrs. Tallboys was gone. The zombie lifted its mostly severed head when it saw them again, and then Princess was saying “eat this, you piece of shit!” and holy fuck, that was a grenade launcher.
“You are actually insane,” Zoe told her later that night as they were digging a grave for the remaining bits of exploded zombie. “Like, the men in the white coats are coming for you fast. Don’t tell me that was a gift from Carmen.”
“What, the insanity?” Princess said. “No, that came long before I met Carmen.” She jammed her shovel into the ground and scooped out a mound of dirt, tossing it over her shoulder. “The launcher belongs to my father, technically. But I took it from his collection when I moved to Middleton. I hope he never notices.”
“I can’t even imagine what type of punishment he would give you,” Zoe said, watching Princess dig the grave. She was bandaging the wound on her arm, using the first aid kit that was a permanent fixture of her car’s glove compartment. “Somehow grounding you or taking away your car privileges just doesn’t seem enough.”
“It did good though, didn’t it?” Princess said. “That’s what matters in the end. You kill those bastards any way that you know how.”
“Yeah,” Zoe said. “There is that. Thanks.” She tore off the end of the bandage strip and pinned it in place. She could see the smear of her blood soaking the gauze underneath, but the pain was not so bad now as it’d been before, thanks also to the handful of pills that she kept in her glove apartment. She might have to see a doctor about the cut, she thought, but that was standard practice for hunters; zombies could carry diseases worse than tetanus. Her father’s connections at the hospital made it easy to slip through the clinic unnoticed, and one of the doctors often on duty there was a member of OREZ. “What are we going to do about Mrs. Tallboys?” Zoe finally asked. It felt strange on the tongue to use the pronoun ‘we’ but if Tallboys’ steel-boned zombie creation was any indication, this was not a solo endeavor.
“We could try to take her head on again,” Princess said. “But to be honest, I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. We’ve ruined our element of surprise. Who knows what she could prepare for us?”
Zoe nodded. “Need a hand with the digging?”
“I’m fine,” Princess said. “You’re the wounded one. You should get some rest.”
“I’m not that wounded,” Zoe argued for pride’s sake.
“This is me trying to be chivalric. Don’t ruin the moment,” Princess said. Her shoulders were luminously bare now that she had taken off her ruined jacket and tossed the designer threads aside with the casual contempt of the very wealthy. Zoe was tempted to ask if she was cold now, but the leftover adrenaline was probably answer enough. She could still taste the dried sweat on her upper lip. Princess cleared her throat. “I do have an Amaryllis Box though, also nicked from my father,” she said, and Zoe was impressed in spite of herself. Amaryllis Boxes were rare artifacts, capable of trapping a soul inside with the right price, and that right price was blood. Get enough of anyone’s blood and you could seal them inside the box against their will.
“That would work,” she said slowly. “From what Carmen tells me, we would need quite a bit of blood. At least a vial full. The one question I would ask then is, if we manage to get a vial full of Mrs. Tallboys’ blood, wouldn’t it just be easier to take her in? Both situations would involve us pretty much pinning her down and leaving her helpless.”
“It’s a question of how much time we want,” Princess replied. “If we had a syringe, like the kind you use to take blood at the doctor’s, we would only need to pin her down for a few seconds. Otherwise we’d have to keep her pinned down, and that might be the problem, especially if she has more tank zombies working for her.” She examined the grave she’d dug. “That seems about big enough.”
Zoe dragged over the garbage bag full of zombie parts and kicked it inside. “Down you go,” she said, enjoying the sight of the bag sinking into the scattered dirt. “If we have an Amaryllis Box, it’s a shame not to use it,” Zoe continued. “We know where Mrs. Tallboys works and I bet we could easily find out where she lives. Personally I prefer her house, because it might be sort of hard to steal her blood in a public place. I remember she has assistants.”
“They could be zombie cult member assistants,” Princess said, her arm muscles unbearably sleek as she filled in the grave. Sleek for someone so arrogant, Zoe reminded herself; the goal was to respect Princess’ skill and leave it at that. “In which case we wouldn’t have to worry at all.”
“There are huge windows in the shop, trust me,” Zoe said. “Unless you want all of downtown Middleton to see our business, her house is better.”
“I trust you,” Princess said, and Zoe nearly choked on her own spit. She might have summoned a reply to that unexpected statement, but Princess was already walking back towards her car, tall and shimmying under the waxing moonlight, her afro lending at least another two inches to her height. Zoe rubbed her eyes and looked at her watch. 2 a.m. If she drove fast, she could still make it to a shift at New Grace and check if there was any activity there. She didn’t want to; what she wanted was to slump into bed, hug her pillow, and sleep for decades. But the day zombies obeyed the whims of zombie hunters was the day it stopped being a hunt, and so Zoe dragged herself to her car and watched Princess pull out in front of her, flicking her Rolls-Royce’s headlights in goodbye. Zoe flicked her own, two staccato beats. Then she put her foot to the gas pedal and drove.
On Wednesday, Zoe’s inbox contained a large attachment of .jpegs. She blinked as she clicked over the file Princess had sent her, accompanied with a brief message that said 'I thought you might like these!' Inside the file were a collection of seven photos of Princess modelling bridal gowns at Mrs. Tallboys’ wedding boutique, and Zoe wondered what she was supposed to like about them: the creaminess of the white against Princess’ dark skin, the slimness of the dress’ corsets, the one picture where Princess was sultrily showing off a lacy garter? She quickly minimized the photos, embarrassed to be looking at them on a public computer.
What are these for? she emailed back.
Princess texted her later that night when Zoe was in her room playing Dragon Age. Zoe didn’t even remember giving her her phone number — that must have been courtesy of Carmen. research, obvs. i checked out the shop and didn't find much. madame monster was there, but so were her (not zombie cult member) assistants, so she couldn't do anything to me. i pretended i was young, nervous bride. it was a riot. : D
Zoe’s thumbs beat a quick reply. just get the amarylis box ready.
it's amaryllis. two ls, Princess texted.
“Oh my god,” Zoe mouthed to herself before shoving her cell phone under her pillow.
Their plan was to act quickly before Mrs. Tallboys could gather her defenses. Saturday had been their farmhouse raid, Wednesday was Princess’ little venture into the wedding boutique — which, in Zoe’s opinion, was not a great idea but it seemed Princess couldn’t resist showing off a little and taunting her enemies –, and Friday night was when they agreed to break into Mrs. Tallboys’ house on Rue Evergreen Street and bind her to the Amaryllis Box. They were supposed to meet up in front of the Central Library, and Zoe showed up ten minutes ahead of time with her duffel bag and her rattiest pair of old, hand-altered sneakers. She’d just bought new shoes, with wedge heels even, but there was no use getting them dirty on a job. And if anyone asked why she’d had the sudden desire for new shoes, or a trendy new blouse, as if she had someone to impress… well, it was none of their damn business.
Zoe sat on the limestone library steps with her duffel bag on her knees, and she waited. Times like these, she wished she was a smoker because no one would question a smoker loitering around outside the library. Instead, people gave her looks as they walked by, and Mrs. Harding, one of the librarians, came out and said, “Are you waiting for your mother?” Mrs. Harding and Zoe’s mother were gardening buddies, so Zoe smiled at her weakly and made her excuses.
Fifteen minutes past six and Princess still hadn’t shown up. Zoe sent her a quick text message, but there was no response. Probably trying to wrangle some new toy for us, she thought. Zombie hunters were known for their patience, as half their job was sitting around in graveyards looking out for suspicious activity, so Zoe could make herself wait. Twenty minutes past six, she was still waiting. Thirty minutes past six and she was playing with an unraveling thread on her wool jacket. Forty minutes past six and she called Princess. The ringing went on and on, and then she was sent to voice mail.
I think something’s wrong, Zoe thought with a sudden chill. Her hands were steady as she found Carmen on her contact list, but her voice was less so when Carmen picked up. “Hi,” she said. “It’s, um, Zoe. I was wondering if you’d heard from Princess. We were supposed to meet up for a job and I haven’t been able to reach her. She’s not here.”
“Hi Zoe,” Carmen said calmly. “I heard from Princess this morning but not since. Do you think anything has happened to her?”
“Could be,” Zoe said. She licked her cracked lips. “We were going after a–” She lowered her voice even further “–a Mrs. Tallboys, a local witch who’s been changing people into zombies. It sounds weird, I know, but I swear it’s true.”
“No, I’ve seen it before,” Carmen replied. “You don’t need to convince me that magic can be bizarre. Princess sent me the information earlier and I did some research on your Mrs. Tallboys. Or rather, Daisy Tallboys, a former zombie hunter from Baltimore.”
“She used to be a–?” Zoe didn’t even finish that sentence. “That makes it so much worse. Why would a zombie hunter start messing with zombie magic?”
“Resentment probably,” Carmen said. “Daisy Tallboys, according to the record, was rather uncooperative when OREZ forcibly retired her at age twenty-five. That and she was already showing signs of rebellion and discontent, along with a, and I quote, ‘an obsession with the concept of everlasting life.'”
“That sounds like Mrs. Tallboys,” Zoe said. She pulled her bag up with one hand and started striding quickstep down the stairs, holding her cell phone in place with the other. She fumbled for her car keys in her jeans’ pockets. “Listen, if Princess hasn’t shown up, then I’m thinking that Mrs. Tallboys somehow got her hands on her. I’m heading over to her house right now. I’ll keep you updated.”
“Be careful,” Carmen said, her voice softening over the line, slipping into her native accent. “I’d hate to lose you, love.”
There are a lot of things I’d hate to lose, Zoe thought grimly as she drove out of the library parking lot and towards Rue Evergreen Street, on the west end of Middleton near the elementary school. When Zoe had been little, she used to ride the bouncy school bus that would pick her up in front of her house every weekday morning and take her to Mrs. Tallboys’ part of town. She knew the roads, washed down with a hint of childhood nostalgia that seemed out of place as she worried her bottom lip until she tasted the acidity of her own blood. It’s fine, she told herself. Princess is a better hunter than you are — she can get out of anything. And then the other thought, stitched underneath it all: it was so much less complicated when I didn’t know who the other hunter was, didn’t have to care.
She wasn’t sure she even liked Princess, who was too opinionated and snobby and put a bad taste to the big city/small town girl stereotype. And yet, Zoe thought furiously as she ran a red light, I’m only responsible for killing dead people. I’ve never had to see anyone living die. She wasn’t going to break that record with Princess. Princess was supposed to be… she was supposed to be their fucking student government president. It was Zoe’s civic duty to save her.
She was muddled so deep into her head zone that she almost didn’t hear her ring tone, and when she did, she jerked forcibly, nearly crashing her car into the other lane. It took her two tries to reach for her phone. Her voice was rushed when she snarled “what?” without even checking caller I.D.
“Hey, yeah, I think we’re going to have to reschedule,” Princess said, and Zoe thought, I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you over and over again, and then I’m going to throw out your Prada. “There’s been a bit of a campaign emergency, and Martha can’t spare me tonight.”
“You’re joking,” Zoe said flatly. “I’ve been waiting for almost an hour!”
“I feel bad about it,” Princess said. “Honest, I do. But if I don’t finish fixing this mixup with Martha, I’m going to be out of running for the presidency. We can always push back Mrs. Tallboys for tomorrow. I can’t push back my campaign. You wouldn’t believe how stressed I am right now, Zoe baby. Cut me some slack.”
“Don’t call me Zoe baby,” Zoe said, and she hung up. Her knuckles were white where they clutched the steering wheel and she had to pull out of traffic and into a plaza parking lot; she didn’t trust herself on the road for any longer. Once she turned off the engine and rolled down the windows, she took a breath to calm her nerves. When it didn’t work, she pressed her forehead to the wheel, feeling its cool ridges. She stayed there for a long time, thinking, Just goes to show, you can’t trust anyone but yourself.
“Carmen told me you were really worried,” Princess said, cornering Zoe at her locker before first period. “I– I didn’t think you would react like that. I didn’t think at all. I’m sorry.” Her contriteness sounded genuine, but then again, Zoe had heard her deliver rousing speeches during assemblies that sounded genuine too.
“You were the one who said we shouldn’t give Mrs. Tallboys too much time to regroup,” Zoe said, taking out her glossy math textbook with the rhombuses on the cover. She peeked inside her paper bag lunch too, to see what her mother had prepared for her. Leftover galbijjim, nice.
“I know,” Princess said, dragging the vowels out, syrup-like. “But I really couldn’t have anticipated what happened with the campaign. Administrative mistake, ugh, they’re the worst. Martha was about to panic and I swear she was going to stab herself with a protractor. It was awful.” She looked at Zoe and quickly changed her opinion. “But not as awful as making you wait. I’m a flake. I’m sorry.”
Zoe didn’t acknowledge her apology. She’d had an entire weekend to formulate a cutting response for Princess for putting her club activities over the safety of Middleton and her fellow hunters, but none of it seemed important anymore. “Let’s go tomorrow night,” she said instead, coolly and succinctly so that every word was clear. “Get it done with as soon as possible. Then we can go back to our individual routes. Hunters aren’t meant to work together.”
“They’re really not,” Princess said, but she had a strange look in her eye, almost as if she wanted to say something more. The school bell didn’t let her. “See you in English class,” Princess said, stepping aside, her skirt fluttering over her stockinged legs. Zoe didn’t watch her go.
In English class, Zoe found that Princess had switched seats with Katherine to sit beside her. Princess opened her pencil case regally and took out her pencils as if it was a pre-game show and she was its entertainment. “Are you actually stalking me?” Zoe said, leaning over. Princess smelled like satsuma body wash with a hint of zombie guts, and for a moment Zoe felt stabbed with the dangerous fondness of not being the only girl at school who knew what zombie guts smelled like. She wanted to ask Princess what kind of makeup she used to hide bruises, if there was any special detergent she used in her laundry, how she managed to keep her nail polish so smooth — girl talk and trade talk. But then Princess smiled at her and Zoe felt cold again, betrayed. Princess didn’t need her company anyway. Immediately three girls in their vicinity were trying to get her attention, and Princess gave it to them indulgently, chatting about her campaign and her latest trip to Chicago.
The next night, it was Princess who showed at their meeting place early, and she raised her eyebrows when Zoe walked up, as if she expected congratulations. When Zoe didn’t reply, Princess looked annoyed, but she reached into her long dangling side bag, which contained her shotgun and her knives, and she showed Zoe the Amaryllis Box. Zoe took an interest in this part of the exchange, and when Princess let her hold the box, she gripped it gently with her fingers. It felt so light, so delicate, and so old. The Amaryllis Boxes had been cut in the late 1700s by the famous witch Amaryllis Lacroix, who some said had been the original zombie hunter, the mother of what would eventually come to be OREZ and its worldwide sister organizations. The box was cherry wood and sliced through with curlicue designs that culminated in a little flower on top. Where its heart would be, there was an opening where the blood was supposed to go. Zoe peeked inside the opening and saw the dried stains, evidence the box had been used before.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I wish I had something like it.”
“You could always put in an application to OREZ,” Princess said. “They keep a steady stash of goodies that they lend out to hunters who need it.”
“I know that,” Zoe said. “But it’s not the same to borrow it. Having it passed down your family… there’s a sense of history and inheritance there that I’m never going to have, unless we’re talking about my mother’s namul recipes.”
“Your mother’s cooking is delicious,” Princess said. “In my family, none of us know how to cook. We can shoot a bumblebee from ten yards away, but when it comes to dinner, it’s macaroni and ramen every day of the week when our cooks are on vacation.” She tucked the Amaryllis Box back into her bag gingerly. “Don’t ever tell anyone I said that though. Speaking ill of the Bennetts will get me disowned.”
Zoe felt her mouth shift in what was almost a smile, but then she set her focus on what they were about to do and the almost smile disappeared. The drive to Mrs. Tallboys’ house was quiet; they both took Zoe’s car because Princess’ was too flashy. Princess shifted uncomfortably on the frayed cushion of the passenger seat, with the wires poking her thighs, and she had to kick the uncooperative door a few times when they arrived and she was supposed to get out. “Your car is a piece of junk,” she said, and Zoe shrugged. Obviously.
Mrs. Tallboys’ house was a lookalike model of every other house on Rue Evergreen, having been built during the construction boom when the desire for suburban living was greater than the desire for creativity. Hers had a singular elm tree on the front lawn and tangled bushes that looked like they were badly in need of a trim. There was a wreath on her front door that smelled like old cinnamon, and a handful of Christmas lights hanging pitifully from the eaves. Zoe could see a light on in the upstairs window. The light flickered off almost immediately. “We’ve been seen,” she said. “There are probably wards.”
“Fantastic,” Princess said. “I couldn’t bring along any of my big toys this time. This isn’t the middle of nowhere; neighbours are going to notice. But I did bring this.” She opened her palm where there was a long skeleton key. “This’ll get us inside.”
“Stop talking and just do it,” Zoe said.
“You really are mad, aren’t you?” Princess smirked, and then she slotted the skeleton key inside the keyhole, twisted it twice, and flung the door open. The front hall had barely any light, but they could hear footsteps shuffling quickly upstairs. “She’s trying to get out. You take the back door. I’ll handle the front.”
Zoe spurred into action. The worn soles of her sneakers hit the tiled floor as she sprinted to the back door, just in time to run into Mrs. Tallboys on the stairs. Zoe leaped at her, but Mrs. Tallboys ducked. She was fast, faster than any woman past the age of fifty ought to be, but she was once a hunter herself and if Carmen was to believed, a good one at that. Zoe hit the stairs on her elbows, bruising badly, but she didn’t give it any thought. She lurched to her feet and navigated the awkward angle to tackle Mrs. Tallboys again, and the two of them tumbled down the stairs and wrestled on the carpet, Zoe jamming her elbow into Mrs. Tallboys’ throat, knocking her breath out.
Mrs. Tallboys gasped and clawed at Zoe’s face. One of her nails caught Zoe from eye to cheek, and when she reared her head back, Mrs. Tallboys bucked up against her. She threw Zoe to the wall where Zoe slammed into a series of framed photos. She lunged back, but Mrs. Tallboys was already running towards the front door. “She’s heading your way!” Zoe bellowed, grabbing the bag she’d dropped in the tussle and readying her shotgun. She heard Mrs. Tallboys’ yell when she ran into Princess. There was the sound of glass shattering, following an ear-bending gunshot.
Zoe made for their direction but she was hurrying so much that when a lump appeared in the shag carpeting, she didn’t see it. Her foot tripped over it, there was the sound of another gunshot, and Zoe fell hard, her chin crunching against the floor, knocking out a part of a tooth. She raced to get up but when she was on her hands and knees, her head lifted, she realized that she was no longer in Mrs. Tallboys’ house.
A spell, she thought, and gazed at the four glass walls of the human-sized tank surrounding her. Water was pouring from a nozzle on the sealed lid, pouring at an alarmingly fast rate. It was like one of those magician water tanks Zoe had read about during her school project on Houdini. And I’m definitely not Houdini, she thought, starting to panic. She banged her hands against the walls but they were thick glass and did not budge. She kicked at them, yelled, hurled obscenities, shouted for Princess. Nothing. The water was up to her waist now, and she curled her toes within her sneakers hard, but the glass stayed tauntingly intact. This isn’t real, Zoe thought. This can’t be real. Carmen had told her about a spell like this before, used by the witches of Old Massachusetts. Transport spells were tricky to set up when an illusion spell would do. Zoe yanked her head up to look at the spray of cold water. I’m not actually here, calm down, girl, calm down.
It didn’t make much difference. The tank filled up to her shoulders and still she kept on kicking, kept on using her sneakers to ram the walls. Everything hurt; her feet, her jaw, her hands. Drowning hurts, she thought, a childish fear. The water rushed past Zoe’s chin, up to her nose and into her mouth. She choked and tried to swim upwards, but there wasn’t enough room in the claustrophobic tank. The water filled her eyes, and then her hairline. She shouted. It came out as a bubbly gurgle. The burning pain she expected settled in as as her lungs searched for air to no success, and the process of asphyxiation began. She felt her heart slow down to nothing, and then more nothing. She heard, dimly, the sound of someone screaming, but she was dead, so it couldn’t have been her.
She woke with her wrists chained to a radiator, and her first instinct was absolute joy. It was an illusion, Zoe thought. I’m not dead! She checked herself quickly and saw that she was completely dry, still dressed in her shirt, jeans, and sneakers, though the small weapons she had tucked in her pockets and against her spine had been confiscated. It was a bad situation to be in, but life was reason enough to smile for now. Staring ahead, she saw that a folding table had been set up on the other side of the basement, with a goblet, knife, and dead root.
“Ugggh,” said Princess, coming to. Zoe looked at her right away. Princess was chained to the radiator to her right, almost out of sight thanks to a tilted partition. From what Zoe could see of her, it didn’t look good. Princess had feverishly red gashes along both arms and her left leg stuck out at an awkward angle. It was probably broken. “Zoe?” Princess called out hoarsely. “Are you here?”
“I’m here,” Zoe said, and Princess craned her head.
“Thank fuck,” Princess replied. “You okay?”
“Better than you. I got trapped in an illusion spell. It was probably rigged up along a carpet line. I was stupid.” Zoe pulled against the handcuffs, which were attached to the radiator by a thick steel chain. They didn’t give, but they did leave another ring of bruises along Zoe’s wrists. “I thought I drowned,” she confessed. “I was in a tank.”
“I got hit with an illusion spell too,” Princess said, rustling with her own chains. “It wasn’t drowning though.”
“What was it?” Zoe brought her leg up as close to her eyes as she could and examined her sneakers. Relief washed through her when she saw that they hadn’t been tampered with.
“Wild animals tearing me apart,” Princess said.
Zoe dropped her foot. “Jesus.”
“I’ve had more photogenic days, that’s for sure,” Princess said. “And there was another one of Tallboys’ mega zombies that I had to fight off before the illusion spell. All in all, you got to take the easy way out.”
“It’s not a competition,” Zoe pointed out, but to hear Princess’ casual condescension was more comforting than she would admit, a sign of normalcy even in abnormal circumstances. And being tied up in the basement of a zombie hunter turned mad witch was pretty abnormal, even Zoe had to admit. She flicked her gaze back at the folding table and said, “She’s going to turn us into zombies, you know. She’s got everything set out for a grand ‘ol party.”
“I can’t see what you’re looking at, so I’ll just take your word for it,” Princess said, twisting around and hissing softly with pain. “I don’t have any weapons on me. My knives and derringers are gone. What about you?”
“None,” Zoe lied. Who knew if Mrs. Tallboys was watching them right now? She did not look at her sneakers, just to be safe, and instead pretended to examine a scrape on her elbow.
“And the Amaryllis Box is gone too,” Princess said. “My father’s going to kill me.”
“I think he’ll have to get in line for the opportunity,” Mrs. Tallboys spoke. She appeared at the doorway to the basement, carrying a tray of disturbing medical implements that looked like what Zoe’s father might use at the hospital, if Zoe’s father were a complete sadist. “Good morning, girls. You were out for much longer than I expected. Heavy sleepers, both of you. It must exasperate your mothers.”
“My mother’s dead,” Princess said. “You can’t hurt me with that.”
“Not with that,” Mrs. Tallboys agreed. She walked over to the table and began arranging it to her liking. “I knew your mother though. She was in Baltimore once, and we did a job together. She was so young and so beautiful.” Mrs. Tallboys picked up a scalpel and examined it critically. “You look very much like her. You have the same weakness for short, heavyset partners even.”
“Hey,” Zoe said. “That’s not fat, it’s muscle.”
Mrs. Tallboys chuckled. There was no warmth in the sound. “And you,” she said to Zoe. “You might want to have a talk with little Princess here one day. Did you know she made it out of the house? After she killed my Richard, the door was open and she was halfway down the lawn even on her broken leg when she heard you. The moment she heard you cry out, she turned and went back. It was so heartwarming. And pointless, since my spell was waiting for her right on the porch. When this is over, I could have a zombie romance on my hands, imagine that.”
“Heartwarming presumes you have a heart,” Princess said coldly. “I’ll kill myself before I ever let you turn me into a zombie. I’ll kill Zoe too,” she added, and Zoe felt her heart skip a beat at that. We are so messed up, she thought.
“What do you want?” Zoe asked. “All of these cults and experiments and kidnappings — what are you doing all of this for? Eternal life?” She spat on the ground. “Zombies don’t have eternal life. You of all people should know that. To be a zombie is to be just a hunk of flesh, a package of nerves without a mind.”
“That’s what OREZ tells you,” Mrs. Tallboys agreed. She turned around and fixed Zoe with an icewater stare; her eyes were very pale. “But if you are a hunter long enough, my dear, you’ll see that zombies have more potential than we give them credit for. Their rawness can be… harnessed. If you have a nuclear warhead in your disposal, why disarm it just because you don’t have a use for it right now? It’ll come in handy one day.” She wiped her hands on her apron. “Now, if you’ll please.” She went over to Princess and unlocked her handcuffs. Princess kicked up at once, but Mrs. Tallboys put her foot on Princess’ broken bone and pressed down. Princess made a sound that rose all the hairs on Zoe’s arms.
“That’s a good girl,” Mrs. Tallboys soothed. She reached into her apron and took out a syringe. Princess struggled, but Mrs. Tallboys’ foot on her leg was unbearable, and she couldn’t stop the syringe from squeezing its sedative into her. Zoe saw Princess’ limbs go weak, saw her collapse onto the floor like the snapped stem of a dandelion.
The partition is in the way, Zoe thought. I need a clear shot. Just one clear shot. Her breath was quickening in her throat, but she waited for Mrs. Tallboys to appear on the other side of the partition, dragging Princess behind her. Mrs. Tallboys shoved Princess onto a chair by the folding table. She turned her back to Zoe, as if Zoe didn’t exist.
— and Zoe raised her right sneaker, squeezed her toes as hard as she could, and shot Mrs. Tallboys in the back.
(“The zombie is probably going to be bigger than you, stronger than you, maybe even faster than you,” Carmen had said. “So you do whatever you have to do to take it down.” She’d paused. “Having guns inside your gadgets doesn’t hurt either.”)
Mrs. Tallboys wasn’t dead, so afterwards they called 911. After Zoe had shot off her chains, used the empty syringe to get a vial of Mrs. Tallboys’ blood, and then managed to carry Princess on her back out of the house and to her car, she’d called from her cell phone and reported hearing gunshot sounds on Rue Evergreen. She watched from a secluded, hidden part of the street as the ambulance came and took a weakened Mrs. Tallboys away; she made sure Mrs. Tallboys didn’t escape. Princess leaned beside her weakly, still groggy from the sedative, but not groggy enough to keep from saying, “Where was the trigger inside your sneaker? I can’t figure it out.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Zoe said. “Let’s get ourselves to the hospital too.” The closest general hospital was the one where Zoe’s dad worked, but Zoe didn’t want to risk that, so she drove them across Middleton to a smaller hospital instead, where the doctors made a cast for Princess’ leg and examined Zoe’s broken tooth and various scrapes. The fake I.Ds Carmen had long ago provided for them kept most questions at bay. A few hours later, they emerged from the hospital, Princess on her crutches, Zoe with her multiple bandages. Princess looked alert again, and she had a rueful smile on her face.
“I saw you with the syringe,” she said. “You’re thinking Mrs. Tallboys still has the Amaryllis Box somewhere in her house.”
“I don’t see why she would destroy something so precious,” Zoe said. “And we still need to bring her in to OREZ.” She looked at Princess. “We can do it tomorrow, if you want. Or I can do it alone. Mrs. Tallboys probably won’t be moving from her hospital bed any time soon.”
“No, let’s do it tonight,” Princess said. “Together.”
The skeleton key worked its magic twice, and being sneaky teenage girls worked its magic on circumventing the crime scene tape as Zoe and Princess slid inside the empty, darkened house on Rue Evergreen. Zoe let Princess search the main floor while she searched upstairs and the basement. She found the Amaryllis Box in a beechwood dresser in Mrs. Tallboys’ bedroom, hidden in a back lining alongside a handful of wrinkle-edged photos. Zoe examined them and saw a woman who looked like Princess standing beside a younger-looking Daisy Tallboys, the two of them with their arms around each other, grinning. Zoe put the photos back inside the dresser, feeling heavy for reasons she couldn’t name. She took the box.
Princess carried the bloody syringe with her, and when she and Zoe reconvened in the trashed living room, she pushed its contents inside the box’s opening. “Did it work?” Zoe asked anxiously, but her question was answered soon enough when the box turned cold and then shook with a sound like a sigh. It was airy light before; it became as heavy as river stone. “Ah,” Zoe said, and rattled the box against her ear. “Hello Mrs. Tallboys. Good to see you again.” The box rattled back, vibrating angrily.
Princess waved one of her crutches. “Now we deliver her to OREZ. I just got a text from Carmen. She says she’ll meet us in Jersey City. She gave me the address of a motel. We’re supposed to be there in a few hours.”
“Midnight road trip it is then,” Zoe said brightly. “Just let me make up an excuse for my parents.”
It turned out she needn’t have worried. Her parents were so impressed with Princess that they didn’t put up any resistance when Zoe told them she was going to stay over at Princess’ for the night. “I know you don’t need to worry about condoms because you’re both girls,” her mother said, “but be safe anyway. Use whatever you need to. I don’t know much about that lesbian stuff.” All the while Zoe made faces at the phone and tried to explain that it was not like that, except everybody from zombie witches to her parents seemed to think she and Princess were boning, so she gave up.
“We’re taking my car,” Princess said in a tone that brooked no argument. “I’m not spending any more time in that Salvation Army bin on wheels you drive.” She tossed the keys at Zoe, who nearly dropped them.
“What are you giving me the keys for?” Zoe asked.
“I’ve got a broken leg. You think I can drive?” Princess tossed her head. “This isn’t an invitation to use my car whenever you want, by the way. After this trip, you’re never touching it again.”
“Tch,” Zoe said, but she was happy enough to get into the comfortable leather seats of Princess’ Rolls-Royce and feel the engine come alive underneath her fingers. Princess punched in the coordinates on her GPS, and then tossed the Amaryllis Box onto the backseat beside her crutches where it continued to fuss around. However, after a while the sound became ordinary and Zoe forgot it entirely as she took Route 1 towards Jersey City. It was in the late hours of the night, and on the lonelier portions of the road there was no other vehicles to be found. Their headlights cleaned a path through forested darkness, and with the backdrop of Natalie Cole on the sound system crooning This will be an everlasting love, Zoe felt overcome with an unfamiliar sense of peace.
Princess was quiet in the car. Zoe had thought her asleep, but an hour on the freeway she stirred and said, “I work with other people all the time on student council. But I’ve never worked with another hunter before. It’s new to me.”
“Me too,” Zoe said.
“It’s a bother most of the time. Having to arrange schedules and coordinate styles and make sure you’re not stepping on each other’s egos,” Princess said, and Zoe’s arms went cork board stiff. “But sometimes it’s not,” Princess continued, and the smile she gave Zoe was too smooth and not smooth enough.
“You do a good job taking care of Mirvish Park. I appreciate that,” was all Zoe could think of to say. She wasn’t sure if it was the right response, but Princess nodded and slipped back into her languid nap.
They were nearing Elizabeth and Zoe could see the horizon fill up with the shapes of gas stations and warehouses when she got the itch that led her to say, “Are you ever scared of dying?” She could see the sun chasing the sky into brightness behind them, clouds shot through with poppy red. “Because sometimes I am. Sometimes I think that if a zombie gets the better of me, I’ll die in a graveyard and my parents will never know what really happened to me, and it’ll be an unsolved mystery. That’s all I will be.” She said the last part quickly, choking it out of her mouth.
Princess opened her eyes. “I’ve almost died ten times,” she said. “We Bennett-Fieldings aren’t afraid to put our kids in the path of danger. Since I was five, I’ve been stabbed, shot, chased by bees, bitten with toxic chemicals, you name it. And yes, I’m always afraid,” she said. “It also makes me want to be in charge of everything. School for now, maybe a business later, and one day I’m going to run OREZ. Count on it.”
“So your obsessive megalomania is a result of–”
“Yeah, don’t psychoanalyze me, Zoe baby,” Princess said. “Better therapists than you have tried.”
“At least you put your powers to good and not evil,” Zoe said, switching lanes when she spotted the exit. “I can only imagine what a villain you would be.”
“I bet I could seduce you to the dark side,” Princess said confidently, and Zoe tried to hide her shiver.
Carmen was waiting for them in a Motel 6 right as they entered Jersey City. She was leaning against the side of her oversized pick-up truck and reading a romance novel when she saw them pull in. Her grin was bigger than most people’s faces, and the moment Zoe was freed from Princess’ car, Carmen pulled her into a hug. She used her other hand to grab Princess and tug her in as well, crutches and all. Carmen’s arms were large enough to hold entire universes of affection. “My girls,” she said. “I am so, so proud of you.” And Zoe pushed her face into the fold of Carmen’s embrace and smiled.
Spring moved slowly into summer, and zombie activity increased steadily until their peak time in April. April was the worst month for putting down zombies because it was a mixture of rain and loose soil; at least in winter, the prickly weather was a trade off with a lighter zombie hunting schedule. Not so much in the height of spring, and so Zoe was relieved when April shifted into May, and then May into June. The one thing she could say about those three months’ work, though, was that at least the activity was par for course. No cult leaders, no Mrs. Tallboys to make things messy. Just straight up graveyard kills, the kind she knew how to handle, the kind she was good at.
She returned to her late-night haunt at New Grace Cemetery, creeping into the graveyard after Hans and his daughter left for the evening. The daffodils were more plentiful than ever; she was prone to accidentally trampling them when fighting zombies, and she always felt bad about that because she knew how much Hans cared about his flowers. So a part of her New Grace routine turned to gardening as well, or at least what one could charitably call being on her knees trying to hide the evidence of her struggle. Dead daffodils began to appear in her backpack as she pulled them from the ground and took them home.
Day-to-day hunting was a solitary business, and during the months between delivering Mrs. Tallboys to Carmen and finishing their end of year exams, Zoe only ever saw Princess during school. Well, once on the street when Princess was buying a new top, and they stopped and chatted for a while, and Princess made Zoe go with her into the store and give her opinion on all thirty tops that she tried on. And that was probably when Zoe knew that she was in trouble, because if you could patiently talk about the difference between this blue top with the crisscross straps and this blue top with the reverse crisscross straps, and listen to Princess dissect the difference — that said something about your mental state re: that person.
But it didn’t matter, Zoe thought, because she had New Grace and Princess had Mirvish, and also Princess had the student government elections, which were in April, and which she swept up easily. Zoe didn’t even blink when the votes were counted and the announcement made over the intercom: that Princess Bennett was the incoming student president and Martha Boswell her vice-president. It appeared that whatever administrative mistake that’d kept her from showing up that one time wasn’t a big deal after all, or that Princess had steamrolled it beneath her pointy shoes, as it were. The time Zoe had run into her on the street, Princess’s leg had been healed, the cast had come off, and she’d been wearing wildly sharp purple stilettos. Zoe had sort of stared at them for a beat too long. “I keep my monster slaying sneakers in my bag at all times, and my school shoes too,” Princess had said. “But these, these are all for me.”
I don’t have a foot fetish, Zoe thought. This would be an incredibly awkward time to develop one.
Really though, it wasn’t as if life was all that different. If anything, Princess waltzing onto the scene and introducing herself as Middleton’s second hunter had been the blip in Zoe’s existence. Now life had gone back to what Zoe expected it to be: routine and vaguely stinking of dead flesh. If there was another type of life to be had, Zoe didn’t know of it. She didn’t like thinking about graduation and change. Her parents would expect her to go off to college, and she was already dreading the mess that would be her attempting to explain to them why she couldn’t leave Middleton. It wasn’t as if she wanted to be a disappointment to her family. It was just, well… zombies.
She came in second in the Halo tournament at the end of March. She got a haircut in April. She read two new books in May. She did some babysitting for the neighbours in June once school was out, and her mother looked at her from over the fence and said, cheerily, “I’m glad to see you have a job. Taking some responsibility like your big brother!” Her older brother came home from college in May and they played baseball in their backyard, and he joked, “You’re not as clumsy as I thought you were. What are all these scrapes you get from gym class about?” She looked up into his face, openly affectionate and clueless.
There was no use being angry at things that weren’t anyone’s fault. Zoe had gone through the indignant phase of being a hunter years ago when she first started, the phase where she sulked about sacrifices and never being properly understood. Honestly, it’d been exhausting. She wasn’t eager to go through it again.
It was a cloudy, humid night, and Zoe could only see a fingernail sliver of the moon as she sat on Annie Winters’ grave and played Professor Layton on her DS. She would have brought her mp3 player too but earphones were a no-no for a hunter; she could name an entire encyclopedia of stories Carmen had told her about hunters who got maimed or killed because they hadn’t heard the zombie moan in time. So instead she turned the volume low as she moved the stylus smoothly across the screen, rocking the heels of her feet against the round, eroded edges of the tombstone.
She heard someone approach. She kept her expression blank when she saw that someone was Princess, sliding past the locks on New Grace’s gates and cutting through the graves towards Zoe. She was dressed like she had just gone hunting, or was about to go hunting. Tank top, jean shorts, sneakers, red silk stockings. It was four a.m and Zoe was expecting one of the graves to throw up a zombie tonight, except it was taking its time, apparently. Four a.m mean Princess was probably coming back from hunting though. She was probably heading back to her apartment from Mirvish, a path that Zoe knew led her past New Grace if not for the shortcut Princess generally took on Holland Street.
“Geek,” Princess said when she saw the DS in Zoe’s hands. Zoe turned it off and shoved it into her bag.
“Hey,” she said casually. This was the first time she’d talked to Princess in two weeks, and the last time had been right before their English exam when Zoe asked to borrow a pen. Never mind that Zoe’s mother always made sure she carried at least three working pens to every exam. Details like that weren’t important, and besides — Princess used those ridiculously fancy fountain pens that had likely boosted Zoe’s compositions by one letter grade by its magical presence alone. The pen of Madame President, Zoe thought. “How was hunting?” she added when Princess didn’t immediately answer.
“Nothing worth mentioning,” Princess shrugged. “You done here for the night?”
“Not yet,” Zoe said. “There’s signs from that grave over there that it’s going to spew up a zombie tonight, but it hasn’t happened yet.” She pointed to her left, at the boxy tombstone of one Mr. Thomas McGee. “Why are you asking anyway? Do you have plans for us? Is there a new Mrs. Tallboys in town?”
“I was thinking more like we grab a milkshake at Georgie’s,” Princess said. “There’s such a thing as free time, you know. What are you, some sort of overachiever?”
Zoe snorted. Then she said, “I’m lactose-intolerant.”
“Oh,” Princess said. “A slushie then.”
Pressure started gathering at the base of Zoe’s collarbone, a fluttering pressure that she didn’t want to think about too deeply. “Go on home,” she told Princess. “It’s four in the morning for god’s sake. Get some sleep. Humans shouldn’t even be out at this hour of the night.” She herself felt fully awake, thanks to three cups of coffee, but there was a hint to Princess’ expression that made her slow down and feel dread. She might have called that hint uncertainty, save for the fact that uncertainty was as alien to Princess as grass on Mars. Whatever it was, Zoe felt it was in her best interests to pull out the sprout now and stop it before it could grow.
That unnameable expression compressed Princess’ lips and pulled the skin tight around her eyes. It was like she had an especially difficult zombie she was trying to decide how to take down, a mega zombie that she was doing her best to assess. Go for the bullets or try her luck with the blade first? Flamethrower or grenade? She was right up at Zoe’s side now, leaning her long gazelle body against Annie Winters’ name. Zoe could smell the summer sweat on her arms, could feel the gentle tickle of her afro. And then Princess turned her head so that her face was alongside Zoe’s. Zoe attempted to move back for the sake of personal space, but Princess followed her lead and murmured, “I’m going to kiss you now. I hope you aren’t too surprised.”
I’m pretty surprised, Zoe thought, but she wasn’t stupid enough to let an opportunity like this pass her by. She wound her hands around Princess’ neck and pulled her in for a deeper, wetter kiss, letting the taste of Princess’ raspberry lip gloss slide over her mouth before it was chased away by the taste of Princess’ tongue. Zoe must have made a sound, because she heard an embarrassingly eager gasp that didn’t come from Princess. She waited for Princess to mock her for it, but Princess just shuddered and dug her fingernails into Zoe’s thighs. “Been wanting to do that for a while,” she said, and Zoe went hot like every light in the cemetery had turned on her.
Princess dragged her mouth over Zoe’s neck, over the peek of her collarbone when she tugged at her t-shirt. Then her deft hands were sliding underneath the t-shirt and up to Zoe’s bra, playing with the clasp until it came apart. Zoe watched in a sort of a daze as her bra fell out from her shirt, and then Princess was smiling widely as she cupped Zoe’s breasts. Zoe’s nipples were hard, and she trembled as Princess thumbed them with her callouses, at the same time leaning in and whispering nonsense into Zoe’s ear. Zoe drew a ragged breath, and her spine stiffened as Princess squeezed her breasts together. Then Princess licked from Zoe’s earlobe to the corner of her mouth, and Zoe went soft in her hands.
She looked ridiculous, she knew. She had her head tilted back, barely managing her balance on poor Annie Winters’ gravestone as she writhed against Princess’ touch. Her shirt was rucked up to expose her belly, including the long pear-shaped scar that ran through her navel. She was panting and her face felt red, and when she looked at Princess, her eyes were unfocused. This was not the image of a hardened zombie hunter, and yet, and yet she didn’t care. She kissed after Princess’ mouth, forcing it back on her own, and she swallowed the sound that Princess finally did make, halfway between a laugh and a groan.
“You’re not wearing those shooter shoes, are you?” Princess asked when they finally broke apart. “Because they better not accidentally shoot me in the vagina.”
“You’re going to let me near your vagina?” Zoe asked, trying for sultry and mostly coming off as pleased.
In answer, Princess removed one of her hands from Zoe’s chest and popped open the button at the top of Zoe’s jeans. Zoe’s eyes went wide, and then half-lidded as Princess fiddled with the zipper, yanking it with more clumsiness than skill. But then her hand was against Zoe’s crotch, and Zoe bucked up towards her. “You’re so wet,” Princess marveled, fingers chasing the edge of Zoe’s cotton underwear, and Zoe buried her face in Princess’ shoulder, embarrassed. She didn’t move away though; if anything she spread her legs wider and lifted up, letting Princess pull down the first part of her jeans, peeling them over her thighs. Her underwear followed her jeans. This was the part where Zoe realized that they were in public, technically, and she glanced up quickly with a sense of panic. But the gates to New Grace were locked, it was an overcast night, and no one was within earshot. Even the residential road that wound up to the cemetery was choked with silence, streetlights a distant hum.
Princess got to her knees on the dirt, leaned in, and her tongue slowly spread Zoe’s folds. Zoe sputtered and tried to clench her thighs together out of reflex — no one had ever licked her down there — but Princess’s hands guided Zoe’s thighs open again, and her mouth dragged a luscious wet kiss against Zoe, opening her up even further.
Then it was just a matter of tongue, mouth, slickness, and rhythm. Or not just. Anything but just. Princess ate Zoe out like it was an honour that Zoe should properly appreciate, and Zoe chewed her bottom lip and cursed and came, on the tip of Princess’ tongue, her clit throbbing as she spasmed. She tried to speak, but Princess lapped at her during her orgasm as lazily as a cat, coaxing her through the fierce pleasure. What came out of Zoe’s mouth sounded more like a squeak.
Princess smiled at her and then licked her lips. “Fuck,” Zoe said, helpless, and she grabbed for Princess and reversed their positions, pushing Princess against the gravestone even though her own legs felt too shaky to stand. She lacked finesse and also experience, but Princess didn’t seem to mind when Zoe pushed her hand into her shorts and circled her with a finger. She squeezed her eyes shut when Zoe pushed into her, but Zoe said, “Look at me” and Princess did. Her eyes were two dark circles, like solar eclipses, and Zoe added another finger, thrusting into Princess the way she liked to do it at home, against her mattress when looking at porn. But Princess was more gorgeous than any of the bouncing women Zoe had ever seen in her porn, and it was like she was hyped up past sensitive; she reacted to every touch, every kiss, every hint of breath like Zoe was breaking her apart.
Afterwards they leaned against each other, struggling for breath, and Zoe was smiling stupidly into Princess’ hair. “Graveyard sex. It’s like a rite of passage for our kind,” she said, and Princess chuckled.
“Never had it like this before,” she said, dragging her fingers up and down Zoe’s sweaty stomach. “Come on. Let’s go back to my place. I have a big bed. I’ll push you down on it and do things to you that you can’t even imagine.”
“I don’t know,” Zoe said. “I have a pretty decent imagination.”
“I’m an elected official,” Princess replied breezily. “My ability for corruption is unmatched.” She kissed Zoe again as if to prove her point, but it could hardly count as corruption when Zoe was all too willing to kiss back. They probably would have stayed like that, making out for as long as they could, but for the sound that shook from their left as a zombie pushed its head out of its grave, tasting new air.
“I’ll handle this one,” Princess said against Zoe’s reddened lips. “Let the experts show you how it’s done.”
“Dream on,” Zoe murmured, never one to take a challenge lying down, or in this case pressed against a slab of old stone by a disturbingly attractive rival. Princess smirked as she leaped away and towards the zombie, running for it as she drew the knives from her discreet shoulder holster. Zoe watched her go for a second before shaking her head. “Showoff,” she said, and then she picked up her machete and gave chase.