Jamie hated Andrew Murray. She didn’t feel that he had any redeeming qualities, unless you numbered an ability to wear extremely pointy man-shoes and an annoying chesty laugh as positive features. She hated the way his nostrils flared before he made a joke. She hated the way he talked about women. She also hated the way he talked about men, midgets, babies, and nuns.
To be fair, Andrew Murray also hated her. He found her politics appalling — well, he had, politics were not quite what they used to be. He thought her voice was too loud. He had once, memorably, called her a fat, ugly bitch, which was slightly unfair as only one of those things was true.
The only thing they had in common was Annette Quinton. Jamie’s best friend. Andrew’s fiance. What she saw in the other was a puzzle that mystified each of them.
“Well, this place is a dive,” Andrew said. He laughed. Chestily. It was not a promising beginning to the evening.
Jamie didn’t answer. The place was not really a dive. Only eight months earlier, this had been one of the snobbiest areas in the city. She’d applied for an apartment only a few minutes away and had been turned down for bad credit, the only thing her last boyfriend had ever got her for her birthday. Now, of course, it was less than it had been: weeds overgrowing the medians and windows broken out on some of the shops. There was nothing left in Gap except the racks.
Andrew slammed the door of Jamie’s old Escort and Jamie said, “Are you trying to break the door off?”
“Yes,” he said. “Right off.” He stepped around the back of the car in those ridiculous, long shoes of his — he had an identical pair in some exotic skin like rattlesnake or hamster, Jamie couldn’t decide which pair was worse — and retrieved the rifle from the trunk. He offered it to her but Jamie shook her head.
“Did you see the latest Now Boarding?” Andrew asked as he put the rifle in the crook of his arm. He had to know she hadn’t. It was one of those stupid sitcoms that people watched so that that they could tell people they’d watched it and those people would know that the person saying it was young, single, and wore long, pointed shoes and skinny Italian pants. “Diane was checking this dude’s bag because the x-ray picked up something that looked like a weapon, and Edgar was headed over with a cup of coffee and –”
“Murray. I don’t care,” Jamie said. “That show is for men with small members.”
“So you and your boyfriend used to watch it?” Andrew asked. This amused him so he laughed again.
Jamie didn’t want to warn him not to step in the puddle in the middle of the parking lot, but she did anyway. “Don’t step in that.”
Andrew stepped around the shallow puddle and checked the bottom of his shoes. They looked dry, but he scraped the soles against the asphalt, hard, anyway. “Why do you think she’s here again?” He stopped to look in the window of an American Eagle. It, too, had been vandalized, though mostly it was just the jeans that had been stolen.
“Her voicemail said that she could see the IKEA from her window.”
Andrew paused and turned in a full circle, squinting through the gray-green light of the evening. “And the IKEA would be . . . ?”
Jamie pointed to the building that had once been the IKEA. Now its identifiable color scheme had been painted over by dozens of enterprising graffiti artists, big blocks of color and patterns to symbolize different gangs. Large bubble letters said THE WHORES EAT US ALIVE.
Which was not quite a fair statement, as only one part of it was true.
Andrew raised his eyebrows; his nostrils flared but no joke followed. He turned to follow Jamie around the end of the shopping center. “Okay, so if she could call you and she was here, why couldn’t she get to us?”
They rounded the end of the shopping center, and Jamie said, simply, “Because it rained.”
The lot in front of them was flooded. Unlike the glossy shopping center behind them, it was pocked and uneven — an old gas station in the middle of the new development. There were tiny islands of asphalt surrounded by puddles. Some of them were shallow enough to see the pitted lot through, but others were deep enough that they could be any number of inches deep. Something smelled. But then again, now, something always smelled.
“She’s in there?” Andrew asked, with dismay. “Why wouldn’t she just run over to the shopping center as soon as it started to rain?”
Jamie turned to him. “It’s Annette, Andrew. I assume you know the girl by now, or you wouldn’t have asked her to marry you.”
Andrew had no answer to this. Annette was intelligent, neurotic, and completely bereft of common sense. She collected packaged pastries — Andrew’s apartment still held several hundred Twinkies, Snowballs, Ho-Hos, Ding Dongs, moon pies, and Little Debbie snack cakes that she’d acquired over the years. Some had held up better than others. The durability of a Honey Bun had to be seen to be believed. Anyway, Annette had a small but honed skill set that didn’t extend to survival in this new world.
They stood on the sidewalk for a moment, each attempting to devise a plot to get across the lot. Andrew crouched and looked at the standing water closest to him. “Maybe it hasn’t been long enough.”
Jamie made an irritated noise and scouted about for something to dip into the water. She considered breaking a branch off one of the trees in the grassy area beside them, but she didn’t recognize all the leaves that were growing up through the bushes and around the tree branches, so she didn’t want to risk it. Instead, she sighed and removed her belt.
“Oh, don’t do that,” Andrew said, when he saw that she meant to dip the end in the puddle.
“I can always get another one at Gap,” Jamie said, sarcastically.
Andrew shook his head. “I meant your pants might fall down and I’d have to see things I really didn’t want to.”
Jamie said, “I should just push you in and then I’d know. I could use your body as a bridge.”
Andrew was too distracted to hear her threat, however. He was looking, pensive, at the glass front of the convenience store. “If she’s in there, why is she not waving or something?”
Jamie could think of several reasons, some harmless and some the opposite of harmless, but she kept them all to herself. She crouched next to Andrew and dipped the end of her belt into the water. The tip of the belt parted the pollen that floated on the surface. Jamie counted three and then lifted it back out again. They peered in to look at the result. Andrew said, “Gilded” at the same time that Jamie said, “Skunked.” This made Jamie thought that Andrew watched too many of those commercials that had piano music, soft focus, and drug names plastered in the corner. Andrew thought that Jamie read too many left-wing periodicals.
Regardless, both names meant the same thing: A thin layer of slime clung to the end of the belt, and in the nearly transparent gel, small green and yellow parasites milled and spun, working their way into the leather of the belt.
Andrew looked back to the parking lot, at the thirty feet of puddles, full of barely visible parasitic swimmers. Jamie thought he was probably thinking that he didn’t really love Annette that much, was too young to die, and that he’d ruin his shoes. Which was an unfair statement as only one bit of it was true.
“The car,” Jamie said, finally.
Andrew, after a pause, said, “I’d rather have Annette. You can keep the car. Also, you can have her sugar collection and weekend visitation rights. I can be reasonable.”
“I’m always stunned at how funny you think you are,” Jamie said. “I meant we could get in the car and drive it to the store. We’d have to go up over the bank and we’d have to both get out on the same side, but we could drive through all this if we’re slow and don’t splash. You’d have to mind that you don’t get wet.”
“Me?” Andrew looked at Jamie and made a little pincer motion with his fingers. “How about you?”
Jamie had to admit that both options were not pleasant. As they went back for the Escort, she felt a faint prickle of irritation at the rest of the world, for the news with its images of tidy, dry cities — albeit it far more empty ones — out on the west coast. Bright, upbeat reporters told the world that the economy was picking back up after the epidemic and that the leader singer of Shimmer had just begun a new clothing line that was expected to be a hit. Then they’d cut to a commercial for a four piece chicken meal with fries — feed your family fast! While here on the east coast they were being forced to travel with guns and check puddles with sticks.
It was Jamie who drove the Escort through the lot. Although the threat to Andrew was more immediate, she just didn’t trust him to be able to control the speed with those pointy shoes on the pedals. And in the end, it was uneventful. A slow, creeping progress across the lot, and then parking in the shade of the awning, front tire scrubbed against the sidewalk.
“I’ll get out first,” Andrew said. “I’d rather not get another look at your ass.” He climbed cautiously out onto the sidewalk, stepping well clear of the car. Jamie followed. Andrew cautiously called Annette’s name and Jamie found herself oddly and irritatingly touched. He used a different voice when he thought Annette might hear; one that seemed less prone to chesty laughs.
Jamie and Andrew went into the convenience store at nearly the same time — there was a bit of a fight to see who would go in first, and neither won — but Jamie was the first one to discover the arm.
It was deeply tanned and wearing a sweat-stained t-shirt sleeve. Presumably the rest of the body still had the rest of the shirt. It was also the source of much of the smell.
“Andrew,” Jamie said. “Something has been eating here.”
Andrew pointed the rifle at the arm as if he thought it might be a threat. “Man?”
Jamie’s expression was withering. Of course it was a man. All the mutilated corpses were men. The parasites in standing water killed men immediately. And then, dead or alive, men made good meals for the Skunkers.
“Something else has been eating,” Andrew said then, in an entirely different voice. His rifle was pointed down toward the aisle, where boxes of Ho-hos and Zebra Cakes and Strawberry Rolls were torn open. He poked one of the wrappers with one of his long toed shoes. “Annette?” he said.
Jamie thought, suddenly, that it was probably better to not call Annette’s name.
But it was too late, because there she was. She stood in the front doorway they’d just entered by. Her arms and face were battered. Where the skin on her arm was torn, pus dribbled out, bubbling with green and gold swimmers. Her eyes were full of it. She was eyeing Andrew with hunger and Jamie with calculation.
Annette had been Jamie’s best friend for more than a decade, but Jamie didn’t hesitate. “Shoot her, Andrew.”
“I can’t,” Andrew said. They backed up together, shoulder to shoulder, toward the counter.
Jamie snapped, “You pussy.”
“No really,” said Andrew. He tapped the trigger. “I can’t. It’s stuck.”
And Annette advanced toward them still, slow, lazy. She’d made a meal off whatever was attached to the sweat-stained arm and was still metabolizing it. For a Skunker, she still looked good — she must have turned into one not too long ago. Unlike men, who died instantly and painfully at the touch of contaminated water, women underwent a slightly longer — but no less painful — process when they were infected. Then, they had only two missions: eat. And: infect. Depending on what your gender was. The only positive was that the Skunkers were not cunning.
Jamie reached over and undid the safety on the rifle. Andrew made a face — his nostrils flared, but Jamie could forgive him for that at this point — and pulled off a shot. It neatly took out a standing display rack of Frito-Lay products. Annette didn’t flinch. Pus dripped from her arm onto the floor. Green and gold particles scattered from the drop, wiggling to find water before they died.
Andrew said, “Jamie, watch–”
Jamie froze. The counter behind them was covered with open bottles and glasses of water. Her eyes swept the store and she realized that every surface was covered with open bottles of water. It took her a long moment to realize that it was a booby-trap waiting to happen.
Jamie turned to look at her best friend, just as Annette threw a bottle of water in Jamie’s face. Green and gold burrowed into the fabric of Jamie’s shirt. It was that moment when you smash your leg on the coffee table and realize that in two minutes it’s going to hurt, a lot.
Andrew looked from Jamie to Annette, and he laughed his chesty laugh that Jamie now saw was the one he used when he didn’t really find things funny.
“This is fantastic. Now we’re all going to die. She always did like you better than me,” he said, and he aimed the rifle.
Which was slightly unfair, as only one of the statements was true.
1) I am aware this is two days late. If I tell you that this week was the release week for LINGER and so I was hiding in a hotel room with no doorknob in Nags Head with my family and thus had no internet, would you believe me?
2) This is unremittingly zombie and bleak. I am not certain what brought this on, as I am not a zombie sort of person. It is also very long. And no kissing. What’s up with that?
3) I wanted to try 3rd person again.
Image courtesy Jenny_Downing.