She was short and plump with long blonde hair held back in an off-center scrunchy. Her ponytail jutted to the right. The gasmask completely covered her face and made her voice sound electric.
“Who the hell are you?”
She adjusted the bag of groceries in her left hand while keeping her gun pointed at them. Felix held up his hands. Gretel kept hers on her hips.
“I’m Felix. This is Gretel.”
“Are you zombies?”
“Do we look like fucking zombies?” asked Gretel.
“Don’t know. Not really sure what zombies look like. Hadn’t seen any until today.”
“Then why did you ask?”
The blonde shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“We’re not zombies,” Felix said. “We’re just a couple of people trying to find a way out of this city.”
The blonde chuckled. Or maybe she rasped. The mask made it hard to tell. “There is no way out of this city.”
“See?” Gretel asked Felix.
“She doesn’t know that,” he said. “You don’t, do you?”
“I know it,” said the blonde.
“You’ve seen the wall? Or the pit? Or the whatever the hell it is that keeps us trapped in here?”
“No, I haven’t, but I know there’s no way out of here.” The blonde sighed, and her synthetic voice crackled. “Because I wouldn’t be here if there was.”
“There’s a way out,” said Felix. “We saw it.”
The blonde lowered her gun. “You’ve seen it?”
“Not in person,” he said. “We saw it on TV.”
She laughed or rasped again. “Terrific. First people I’ve seen in ages, and you’re nuts.”
“He’s nuts,” said Gretel. “I’m just looking for the wall.”
The blonde tucked her gun in her belt. Felix moved toward her, but she whipped out the weapon and aimed it at his head.
“Not so fast there, Sport. Keep your distance.”
“But we’re not zombies,” he said.
“I still don’t know if that’s true.”
“Zombies don’t talk,” said Gretel.
“I only have your word for that. I haven’t met many zombies, and if you were one, you’d probably lie about it rather than take a bullet.”
“How can we convince you?”
The blonde didn’t reply.
“Is that your thing then?” Felix asked. “Some kind of plague thing?”
She wiped her plastic lenses. “What the hell kind of question is that? Where the hell have you been?”
“Robots.” Gretel slipped off her backpack, rifled around for a granola bar. “He’s been running from robots. Me, I’m giant ants.” She leaned against an old Studebaker, unwrapped her snack and took a bite. “The cat is zombies. That’s what we think anyway.”
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” said Felix. “But if you give us a chance—”
“Okay. Explain then.”
She listened to their theory. Her face was impossible to read, and she only stood there with her arms crossed. She’d nod every now and then.
“We really don’t know why it’s happening,” finished Felix. “Or how we got here. Hell, we only remember our first names, and we can’t even be sure of that in the end.”
The blonde said, “Okay. Come with me then.”
“That’s it? You believe us?” he asked.
“Sure. Why not? All I know is that I’ve wandered through this city for years without seeing a soul, then a bunch of zombies show up out of nowhere, followed by you two. That’s not something that makes a whole hell of a lot of sense, and your story is as good as anything I can come up with.”
She put her hand on her head, gazed into the red sky.
“And now that you’ve mentioned it, I can’t remember my last name either. Funny how I never noticed that before.”
Some zombies several blocks down moaned and shambled blindly. They turned their heads back-and-forth in that peculiar way they did sometimes, scanning the area for prey via their odd senses.
“I have a place set up about a mile down the road. We should be safe there. Follow me. But don’t get too close, or I’ll shoot you in the face and get on with my day.” She waved. “My name’s Bree by the way.”
They walked without talking. The number of zombies increased after finding Bree.
“How dangerous are these things?” she asked.
“They’re stupid,” replied Felix. “And less dangerous than robots.”
“Easier than ants,” said Gretel.
But she put her hand on her holstered pistol as the number of walking dead increased.
He tightened his grip on his baseball bat. “Though this is more than I’ve ever seen before.”
There were fifty or sixty zombies now, and every new street they passed, every alley, a few more appeared. They seemed different. Not smarter, but fresher, more alert. They were still slow, but as their numbers grew, they wouldn’t need speed.
“It’s not supposed to work like this,” said Felix.
“Someone upstairs didn’t get the memo then.” Gretel drew her gun.
The cat meowed. Felix tucked its head into the duffel bag and zipped it up.
“It’s okay. Nothing to panic about.”
The change in the pattern worried him.
Bree led them to an old brick tenement. “This is it. Home sweet home. It isn’t much, but it keeps the worms out. Should be able to handle a few dead people.”
“Worms?” asked Gretel. “I thought you said you were dealing with a plague.”
The many keys on Bree’s ring jangled as she sorted through them. “Worms bring the plague. Or the plague brought the worms. Not sure which, but doesn’t make a difference in the end.”
Several of the closer mobs of zombies shuffled vaguely in their direction. The nearest mob was having some trouble navigating around several parked cars, but they were figuring it out.
“We should probably get inside,” said Felix.
Bree mumbled to herself as she unlocked the door. She turned on them with her gun in her hand.
“Now don’t get any ideas. Just give me your weapons and get inside.”
Felix was happy to get rid of his gun. He never liked the damned thing. He was more reluctant to give up his bat, but he put himself in Bree’s position. He wouldn’t have been terribly comfortable inviting two armed strangers into his home. She tucked his weapon into her belt and nodded to the bat clutched in his hand.
“You can just put that down.”
He dropped his bat. It clattered down the stairs, and the zombies moaned. Both women gave him an annoyed glance.
“I’m not giving up my gun,” said Gretel. “Go ahead and shoot me if you want to.”
Bree said, “You sure seem determined to die.”
“After a while, I just stopped giving a shit.” Gretel walked past Bree and entered the tenement. Felix was left standing there, feeling stupid.
“We’ll never get anywhere if we don’t trust each other,” he said.
Bree put her gun away. “How the hell are you still alive?”
They went inside. She shut and locked the door. They then went downstairs into a basement, which she locked shut and barred.
He took stock of the room, lit by a few dim hanging bulbs. Canned goods lined the shelves. A folding card table and one folding chair sat in the middle of the room. And nothing else. Not a TV. Not a magazine. Just concrete walls.
Bree turned on an air purifier. It hummed to life. There wasn’t anything special about it. It wasn’t even a top-of-the-line model.
She sat in her chair and put her gun on the table. “You can’t eat my Spaghetti-Os. Don’t ask.”
Upon closer inspection, Felix noticed the cans were evenly divided between string beans and creamed corn. There were three cans of Spaghetti-Os on the bottom shelf.
“You must really like string beans,” said Felix.
“No, I don’t like them. I used to not mind them, but eating two cans a day didn’t help anything. String beans and creamed corn keep the worms at bay.”
“And the Spaghetti-Os?” asked Gretel.
“I’m saving them for a special occasion.”
“This can’t be all you eat.”
“I have some cookies upstairs, but I don’t bring them down here. No place for cookies.”
Gretel said nothing. Her look said more than enough. He knew he was crazy, and he was placing better than even odds that Gretel was too. But their crazy was more of the kind brought on by years of solitude and cat-and-mouse games with evil robots and giant ants.
Bree was different. She was a straight up kook. It puzzled him, given the circumstances, that he could decide that, but the other choice was too weird.
“You’ll need to eat two cans of beans, a can of corn,” she said. “Otherwise, the worms will smell you.”
“There aren’t any worms today,” he replied. “Today, it’s zombies.”
Bree listened as he explained what little they knew. Her face hidden behind the mask, he couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but she did nod every now and then.
“You’re saying tomorrow, the worms will come back?” asked Bree.
“Or robots,” he said. “I think that’s the pattern right now. Ants, zombies, robots. It seems to stick to a schedule. We aren’t sure where your worms will fit in that yet.”
Bree said nothing. He wished she would take off the mask. It made talking to her hard. Her body language, slumped shoulders, folded arms, remained equally inscrutable.
“Believe it or don’t,” said Gretel, “but it’s true.”
“Yeah, okay. But I’m still going to need you to eat these beans and corn. Just in case.”
Felix grabbed a couple of cans off the shelf.
“We don’t have to do that,” said Gretel.
“Can’t hurt to be safe, can it?” he said.
Bree handed him a can opener and a spoon. He didn’t ask if he could heat them up. He didn’t see a hotplate anywhere in the basement. There was only one chair in the basement, occupied by Bree, so he leaned over the table, shoveling mouthfuls of room temperature creamed corn.
“It’s not so bad. You really don’t even have to chew.” He swallowed and wiped his mouth on his forearm.
“I am not eating those damn beans,” said Gretel. “I fucking hate green beans.”
“Did you remember that?” he asked.
“It’s not a memory. It’s just a fact.”
She stormed upstairs, unbarred the door, and exited, slamming the door behind her. Bree quickly put the bar back in place.
“Your friend has an attitude problem.”
“Tell me about it.” He almost added that she wasn’t his friend, but, aside from the cat, she was the closest thing. “She’ll come around. If there’s one thing she does, it’s survive.”
He took another swallow. He didn’t know if he hated creamed corn. He wasn’t crazy about it. It didn’t make any difference. He put the can to his lips and chugged it down before he could think about it. Except halfway through he did start thinking about it, and he was pretty sure he was going to throw up. Somehow, he didn’t.
He slammed the empty can down on the table with a grimace. “But that’s all any of us really know how to do, right?”
Bree, her thoughts impenetrable, made them abundantly clear.
“You’re a weird guy, Felix.”
Coming from her, it wasn’t a damning appraisal. She wasn’t the person to rely on what was normal. He wasn’t so sure he was either.
Belching, he opened a can of string beans.