All Fall Down

stopIt happened just as the two o’clock classes were letting out, and once it got started, it went very fast.

The student union building was the exact wrong backdrop—shiny and new, fully-renovated, with a cafeteria-style dining area on each level and a combination pool-hall-and-video-arcade in the basement. From the pool hall, cutting through the building at a slant, was a long corridor of painted tile, stainless steel, and linoleum.

My name is Anne Elizabeth Mercer and I’ve done a terrible thing.

I don’t mean that in the raw, remorseful way, like I’ve done a terrible thing and I apologize for it. I mean, my name is Anne and I’ve done a terrible thing, but I can’t really be sorry, because I’m also still alive.

First, there are the basic facts:

The only good work-study jobs are the ones in the coffee shop or the library. Everyone wants those ones. After that is maintenance and grounds, and last of all, food service. Mine was in food service. I scraped the grill and cleaned the fryers. I came home smelling toxic and edible, covered in a slick layer of grease that clung to me like frosting. I don’t think I have to worry about that anymore.

The kitchens are in the basement of the student union, near the pool hall. We are not technically allowed to use the service elevator, but the boys from marketing and resort management go to the pool hall on weeknights to get drunk and belligerent, and experience has taught me not to walk past them. On nights when I’d get off work late, I always took the elevator, clanking up to the main level of the student union. I’ve never been one for slavish adherence to rules.

Next, there is what happened:

The lunch shift had just ended. I was on my way to biology class with my hair scraped back in a food-service-approved ponytail and my white cotton smock jammed down in the bottom of my book bag. I was in the company of the other food service kids, not talking, but migrating to class with them like we were all part of the same herd.

“Needle day again,” said Rob, rolling his eyes. He was stocky, with dark stubble and battered glasses, and did things like rolling his eyes and coming up with awkward slang in order to hide the fact that he was deathly afraid of needles.

One of the dishwashers threw back his head and groaned. “Already?”

Jenny Durham nodded. “The new supplementary course came in yesterday. Didn’t you see? The flier was taped up on the board this morning.”

I just fiddled with my hair. The heat and oil from the fryers made my ponytail unpleasantly limp. We’d been getting updated vaccinations every other week for almost two months now, and it was hard to keep track of what randomly-assigned letter we were on.

Even now, clusters of students moved toward us through the crowd with the ubiquitous health-center Snoopy bandaids pasted on their arms. They chattered and giggled in manic bursts. Laughter rang through the corridor from a dozen places at once.

Rob scowled at the floor. “Sounds like pretty much everyone on the whole damn campus is having a better day than I am.”

Somewhere in the crowd, too far ahead to make out the source, a girl screamed suddenly. It was a high, thin scream, too shrill and wavering to be a joke. No one was playing. There was nothing fun about it.

“What was that?” said Jenny, craning to see over the heads of the people in front of us. “Maybe someone fell, or cut themselves or something.”

Rob snorted. “Or maybe someone’s just acting like a huge attention whore. Jeez, what’s her problem?”

It was obvious which her he was talking about. The girl was making her way toward us with her sporty nylon backpack and her Snoopy bandaid, but her eyes were strange. Her lips were scraped back from her teeth in a wide, wretched smile. She pushed through the crowd until she was almost past us.

Then she wheeled around and sank her teeth into Jenny Durham’s neck.

For one long, spiraling moment, there was nothing in the world but paralysis. It was like a vacuum in my head. The world—pure white, like the sound had been turned off. Then the icy rush of panic smacked me in the face and Jenny shrieked and tried to pull away, but the girl was strong, holding her close and gnawing at her throat.

The blood was warm on my neck, splashing onto the floor like spilled ketchup, a red so red it looked fake. A confetti Christmas massacre all over everything, and it wasn’t all Jenny’s—not even close.

Around us, the crowd had come savagely, wildly alive, full of PacSun and Abercrombie monsters, all biting, giggling, grinning.

One more breathless second and then the adrenaline hit, and around me the bitten ones were screaming like pigs.

Bodies pressed against me as they squirmed and thrashed, no way to know who was only trying to leave and who was desperate to find a piece of exposed flesh, to bite.

Rob was next to me in the crush of bodies, and then he wasn’t. One of the dishwashers grabbed my arm as he was dragged back, eyes fixed desperately on my face. I didn’t reach for him. I didn’t try to stop it.

I held my bag in front of me like a riot shield, slamming forward through the crowd. Just ahead, where I knew it would be, an alcove and the unmarked door that hid the elevator. I squeezed into the alcove and jammed my key into the knob.

Impossible to know who was safe, to sort out who was smiling from who wasn’t. A girl reached for me, bleeding from the shoulder, eyes showing white all the way around the irises. I ducked into the elevator and slammed the door in her face.

When I pushed the button, the car rose and over the clanking, the screams rose with me. They floated up the shaft, muted and echoing but unmistakable. And then, with a cold certainty, I realized that not all the sounds were coming from below. Some of it was above me.

I didn’t think long or hard.

I reached out and yanked the emergency stop.

Now, there is only what’s going through my head:

Safe is a death metal record on pause. Safe is when the wind stops, when the hurricane is directly over your house. Safe is not dependable or permanent and if I move, if I slide an inch in either direction, I know what I’ll find.

Any second now, I’ll pick a destination. I won’t have a choice. There’s nothing for me here, in the space between floors. I could have reached for the flailing dishwasher. I closed a door in a bleeding girl’s face. I’ve always known this about myself, but never so truly or so clearly. Outside, the screams are terrible, and I am capable of terrible things.

For now, though, I wait. I watch my hand. It floats over the emergency switch, aching to move, to touch the button that starts the world again.

Photo by Thom Watson

29 thoughts on “All Fall Down

  1. Woah! Scary! I love the writing & word choice, especially the second-to-last paragraph. Really interesting voice here.

    I’m not much of a zombie connoisseur (?), so maybe this is just me, but I’m not sure I understand the connection between the vaccines and the zombies.

    Anyway, great stuff.

  2. I loved it, feeds my zombie love and vaccination fear! I especially love this line:
    Safe is a death metal record on pause.

  3. Thanks!

    I’m not sure I understand the connection between the vaccines and the zombies

    I’m just frolicking in my preexisting zombie-world, which probably (definitely?) falls under the heading of being self-indulgent. I published a short story in Strange Horizons a while ago, and ever since then, I keep wandering back to the world, trying it out on different characters. I think I’m secretly hoping that one day I’ll find the right character to support a novel.

  4. Awesomely well-done, creepy and concise. Terrible things and smiling killers and Abercrombie monsters (actually, I think I’ve encountered some of those in real life…) Very cool.

  5. Oh, that makes sense now! I’ll have to look for that story. I hope you find the right character to support a novel too. May I put my vote in for Anne Elizabeth Mercer? I liked her. But then, I like anti-heroes excessively. πŸ™‚

  6. But then, I like anti-heroes excessively

    So. Do I.

    And I promise, there’s really nothing sociopathic about me in real life, but I love characters who have that weird, critical detachment! The original short is still up and looking back, I have to say that the main character is a special does of anti-hero. (Possibly to the point of not-a-hero)

  7. I love that icon with all my deeply-cultivated zombie-love! And yes, the Abercrombie monsters are very real–they just haven’t bitten anyone yet. To the best of my knowledge.

  8. I’ve been following this community for a bit but I haven’t really read too much (been busy and neglecting most things on this site) but for some reason my eyes skimmed it as I was scrolling past and I just had to stop.

    So glad I did.

    Now I’m going to have to go back and read your groups entries finally. I’m excited to do so.

    This was fantastic!

  9. Love this, especially how Anne is so unapologetic. Makes this story more startlingly human. And smiley zombies=uber-creepy. (But I like uber-creepy. ^^)

  10. For one long, spiraling moment…
    What a horrifically beautiful phrase.

    Abercrombie monsters. Perfect. And yet she is monstrous herself. We all are, some are prettied up more than others.

    What an immensely scary, thought-provoking little frisson this produced.

  11. A confetti Christmas massacre

    ❀

    I enjoy this creepy zombie works of yours. This one in particular is great metaphorically.

  12. Someday, I’m going to bust out a zombie novel! It will happen because I’m beginning to suspect that it’s unavoidable.

  13. I’ve found that I can’t even write about zombies without immediately veering into the territory of morality and human nature and all these tricky uncomfortable things. Zombies are a seriously philosophical subject!

  14. I’m too wordy too πŸ™‚ One thing I really appreciate about Merry Fates is that each story is a chance to try a different way of writing. I like to think I pretty much always sound like myself, but myself in a variety of styles.

  15. I’m glad it caught your eye! (The photo can’t have hurt! I’m so in love with it–it amuses me and makes me deeply uneasy all at the same time.)

  16. how Anne is so unapologetic. Makes this story more startlingly human

    I always think that the people who’d be best equipped for survival in the event of a zombiepocalypse would trend toward the more sociopathic.

  17. Whoa. This hit me right between the eyes! I liked the way Anne reacted to her reaction–it felt real, and troubling. Especially enjoyed the shivery bits about “safe.” I agree with previous reviewers, I vote for Anne to get her own story!

  18. Calling this “lovely” doesn’t seem to fit, but it’s a satisfying story. Crafted. πŸ˜€ (*facepalm* of course it is…)

    Which is to say, good job, as usual!

  19. Thanks–and I actually call *lots* of ugly things lovely, when I think really mean weird or scary or fascinating!

  20. Loved the short story…
    The character is real awesome. And the choice of words even better. Specially the last two paragraphs. And the line ‘Safe is death metal record on pause.’

    I didn’t really get the connection between vaccines and zombies, unless the vaccines had ‘Turn-To-Zombie’ liquid filled in them. But then, I don’t love zombies.

    Oh, and it was really creepy. Really really good type creepy.

    Keep posting…

  21. I’m glad you liked it!

    As far as vaccines go, I have a minor zombie obsession and wound up using a premise from some other zombie stories I wrote, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I’m not convinced it was such a good idea after all–kind of like shouting the punchline to a joke when you didn’t bother with the set-up πŸ™‚

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