Table of Contents
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 2010 by Hilary Hall.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Turner, Joan Frances.
eISBN : 978-1-101-44290-6
1. Zombies—Fiction. 2. Gangs—Fiction. 3. Communicable diseases—Fiction. I. Title.
To my mother, Marianne, who first said the
magic words, “If you want to be a writer, quit
talking about it and start writing,” and then
said, “Do I think you can? I know you can.”
And meant every word. And in loving
memory of my grandparents John and Laura.
To my agent, Michelle Brower, and my editor, Michelle Vega, whose advice, advocacy and inspiration helped make this a far better book. To everyone at The Berkley Publishing Group, Wendy Sherman Associates and Folio Literary Management for all their hard work on my behalf. To Nick Mamatas, who read parts of an early draft and offered very insightful suggestions.
To the owners and management of the Town Theatre in Highland, Indiana, where I scribbled the first page of notes that eventually became this book. To the staff and volunteers at Deep River County Park in Hobart, Indiana, the Taltree Arborteum in Valparaiso and Marquette Park Beach in Gary, where all the knottiest plot points got wrestled into submission. To Roxann McGlumphy, Ann Larimer and Betsy Hanes Perry for encouragement, support and friendship above and beyond the call of duty. To Mary S. for love, fidelity, first draft read-throughs and every good thing. And to my mother, for everything and then some.
My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.
In the accident that killed me I rocketed from the backseat straight through the windshield—no seat belt, yeah, I know—and the pavement sheared my arm to nothing below the shoulder. Not torn off, but dangling by thin, precious little bits of skin and bone and ligament. I had a closed casket, I’m sure of it, because they never wired the arm or glued it or any other pretty undertaker trick. I managed to crawl back out of the ground without its help anyway, and of course after nine perfectly uneventful years of fighting and dancing and hunting and getting by
with the left arm, the right finally shuffles its coil right on the banks of the Great River County Park’s not-so-Great River, smack in the middle of a meat run. Joe, my boy, my backup, was not sympathetic in the least.
“You’re shaking,” he muttered, as he led the gang along the riverbank, through the clearing that used to be the park playground. “Your arm’s shaking, look. Is the big mean pointy-headed deer that scary?”
Mags snickered, waddling past the rusty remains of the jungle gym. Ben and Sam were right behind her, sniffing and sniffing for living meat; fat gas-bloated Billy pirouetted in their footsteps, and Linc brought up the rear with Florian, our oldest and dustiest. I gave Joe a shove.
“Shut it,” I warned him, “or I’ll set Teresa on you.” I’d have to find her first, to do that: Our big chief and cheese never seems to show up for hunts anymore. Maybe she’s sleeping in. Never mind that Florian, who’s got a couple of centuries on her, still hauls his ass without complaining. “Now she’s one mean pointy-headed thing I know you’re too hoo-yellow to fight—”
Then a phantom dog got its teeth deep into my right shoulder, shaking and shaking, and a tremor shot down to my knees and back up again. The tremor became a whip crack and something snapped painlessly in my shoulder, and my poor useless deadweight arm broke off for good, wet purplish skin sliding off in sheets as it hit the underbrush with a squish and a thud.
The deer we’d had in our sights, foolish thing too stupid to pick up the stench of death (ours and his), rocketed up and bounded away faster than any undead could chase it. Ben broke into the same slow, sarcastic applause I remembered from when I was alive, when someone dropped a full lunch tray in the middle of the cafeteria. An oak tree bowed under Billy’s back as he leaned against it grunting and growling with laughter; Florian’s dry, ancient mouth twitched, Sam and Ben snickered, Mags giggled from deep in what was left of her throat and Joe threw an arm around me, sprays of maggots shooting from the rips in his leather jacket like little grub-worm confetti.
“Congratulations!” he grunted around the smashed half of his jaw, eyes glinting with a mocking pride. “Nine years of hauling around that useless turd of an arm, and you finally drop it in the dirt where it belongs—she’s a genuine rotter now, how about it? Three cheers for little baby Jessica!”
The hip-hip-hoorays rained down and I booted his ass, or tried to, while he laughed and stumbled in a mocking little circle. My right shoulder still jerked and twitched. “I’ve been a
rotter since I climbed out of the ground—I’ve heard the stories Billy used to tell about you, ant farm!”
He just laughed harder, looping arms around my waist from behind and whirling me until those poor maggots were light-headed. “Ant farm?” He grinned. “That the best you can do? And you know Billy’s a gassed-up liar—”
“I told her you cried yourself to sleep every morning after you tunneled up, wailing for your mommmmmm-meeee.” Billy smirked, rubbing his swollen blackened hands together eagerly anticipating a fight. “Weeping and wailing like a worthless little ’maldie full of embalmer’s juice—”
“Yeah?” Joe just grinned wider. His brain radio, the waves of telepathic sound that help us talk around rotted throats and tongues, veered into a hard fast electric-guitar screech that could have been real anger, could have just been the need to fight. “We’ll see who’s spitting up formaldehyde by the time I—”
He grabbed me hard enough to snap bones, hauling me straight off my feet. I shrieked, groped behind me for his neck and throttled until I heard rattling teeth, felt blowflies and carrion beetles turn to mush and juice beneath my fingers. He wrenched my hand away and threw me in the damp riverbank dirt, trying to straddle me, but my legs are stronger and a few kicks sent him sprawling on a layer cake of dead leaves. The gang surrounded us to watch, the eagerness for good bone-breaking fun stronger than any flesh-hunger—all except Linc, who hung back drawn and worried. Linc’s a sweetheart, he is, but however book smart he was alive he’s got no clue about anything that matters. I turned to give him a little don’t-worry glance, and that distracted second was all Joe needed to flip me over and force-feed me a heaping mouthful of dirt.
“Y’fuggr!” I coughed and spat, horse-kicking as Joe tugged at my elbow like a sailor hauling anchor. “N’my
“What’s that?” Joe laughed, a groaning guttural sound that would make a human crap bricks, and yanked harder. That dog-bite tremor was happening again, up and down my left side this time, and he was too excited to care. “Didn’t catch that—”
He tugged more and I kicked more, and he pulled so hard that I felt vibrations through my arm socket and something close to panic. “Nuh!
I finally found my legs again, rolling onto my back and getting a foot so hard in his chest I heard something snap and deflate. He gasped in pain, growled and pulled back, ready to kick something loose inside me. The whole gang roared with glee.
“All right.” Linc stumbled over, gave Joe a shove. “That’s enough.”
Not the whole gang, then. Joe was on his feet again, looming over small skinny Linc like the biker bully he’d been while he was alive. “Says who, baby boy? You? Let’s hear it.” Silence. “Well? Let’s hear it!”
“Easy there,” murmured Florian, holding up a flesh-stripped hand, but with Teresa away or asleep we had no Fearless Leader, no rules to stop us. Not that she cared much either. Linc stood his ground, glaring. Joe let out a wet, congested hiss from deep in his throat, the warning of a worse beating than he’d ever given me or anyone else, and as he crouched ready to spring on Linc, I touched his shoulder.
“Joe.” I used my low growling voice, the one he liked. “Stop.”
We could all hear it in our heads, Joe’s brain radio cycling down from hard screeching electric guitar to a soothing acoustic strum; right off, when I touched him, his fists started uncurling. That’s what Linc just doesn’t get, never will, about Joe and me. Linc glanced at my remaining arm, making sure it was still attached, then buckled to Joe’s and my seniority and turned away. His own brain radio never changes: a lonely one-handed piano, each
a teardrop of notes splashing down. Awkward and silent now, a group blind date turned bad, we left my arm lying at the riverbank and wandered deeper into the trees.
We hadn’t gone two hundred yards when Linc let out a sudden excited arpeggio, still hollow and lonely, and we all caught the scent:
Linc stood waiting, silently challenging Joe not to let him go chase it. An indifferent little
on Joe’s guitar strings, hunger beating back rage, and the tension broke; Linc turned and vanished after that good meat smell. We stood there, shaking, waiting.