Do Me a Favor in Return?
rom the top of some hill I didn't know the name of, the whole of Salem seemed to spread out before me. I thought I might puke.
The day before my senior year started up and this had been my first time out of the freaking house all summer without my dad in my back pocketâexcept for some late-night vigilante shenanigans that Dad didn't know aboutâand where does my buddy Phil decide to bring me? To look out at the town I hate and can't wait to get away from. Needless to say, he is not Casanova. On the plus side, he'd probably have been able to tell me who Casanova was. I think. I decided not to push my luck and ask him.
I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath. Jesus, I was acting like a grade-A bitch, even if it was only in my head. I opened my eyes and tried to see the town in a more positive way. Obviously Phil liked this, and I wanted to get in sync with him.
The Willamette River glittered in the sun, cutting Salem off from West Salem. The one surviving bridge was covered in trafficâthe other bridge had been blown up years ago in the first days after the dead came back. There was the downtown dominated by the capitol building and the Gold Man shining on top. The courthouse, a few churches, a big bank or two; all of it dotted with parks and clumps of trees.
I wanted to barf. The smell of old cigarettes didn't help much. Whoever owned this car before Phil had been a heavy smoker and we'd been unable to get rid of the stench. If Phil noticed my deep dislike of this little excursion, he didn't let on. But then Phil seemed not to catch too many social cues. It was simultaneously cute and infuriating.
“Why did you bring me out here?” I asked.
Phil turned slowly to look at me and blinked his eyes. A tic of his. He had brown hair that fell into his eyes, also brown. A sharp chin. Good lips and nose, too. I used to think he was plain-looking. When I caught myself thinking that, I blushed and mentally backed away from the thought the same way I might back away from a dog that might be dangerous. Again, he didn't seem to notice.
“I thought you'd like it,” he said. He shrugged. “I like it.”
Someone who hadn't been socialized by feral cats might ask what it was exactly that he liked about the town.
“How's the movie theater?” I asked.
“Good,” he said. “I like running the projector. It's old and needs to be constantly repaired just so it runs, but that's fun.” He smiled and I wondered again at ever thinking he was plain.
“That reminds me,” he said. “Have you been by the Bully Burger lately?” The Bully Burger is the local fast-food joint where we worked together before he left to work at the theater. I didn't work there anymore, either, but my departure was a little more complicated.
“Nope,” I said. “I haven't been back since I quit. What's up?”
“I was in there a few days ago,” he said. “I heard that someone had been in looking for you.”
“Oh, shit,” I said. “It wasn't Brandon, was it?” I asked. Brandon was a boy I had been falling for at the end of last school year. Before everything went to hell, that is.
“I don't think so. They would have said it was him, but they didn't seem to know this guy's name.”
“Did they say what he looked like?” I asked. “Who told you this, one of the Olsen twins?” The twins weren't really named Olsen, but they were for real named Mary-Kate and Ashley. No, seriously.
“No,” said Phil. “It was Chacho, and I didn't ask what the guy looked like.”
“Ah, how was Chacho?” I asked. He was the security guard at the Bully Burger, and the only cool adult I knew.
“He was okay, I guess,” said Phil with another shrug.
My mind raced for a while wondering who might have been looking for me. Listen, I had just turned seventeen, and you wouldn't know it to look at me, but there was a good chance that a number of unsavory characters might want to find me.
“Can I ask you something?” Phil asked.
“Well, you can ask.”
“What's up with you and Brandon?” he asked.
This threw me. I wasn't expecting Phil to really be aware of what was going on between me and Brandon.
“How do you mean?”
“You two seemed to be an item last year,” he said.
Was Phil a character in a Sweet Valley High novel? I let it slide. “And then you weren't, and now you act weird whenever his name comes up.”
I slid down in the front seat of the horrible old Ford Taurus Phil had bought over the summer, and the cracked leather upholstery creaked and made fart noises. I knew that I'd have to talk about all of this with Phil at some point. I was just lucky that he hadn't asked me before now.
“Can we get out of the car?” I asked. “Get some fresh air?”
“Is this some sort of stall tactic?” he asked.
“Only sort of,” I said. “Mostly I want some fresh air.” The stale cigarette smell really was getting to me.
Rather than answer, Phil opened his door and climbed out. I did the same, but as I got out, I grabbed my bag and started rummaging through it.
“What are you looking for?” he asked as he squinted in at me through the windshield.
“My gun,” I said. Technically, it's a revolver.
“Are you planning to shoot me?” he asked. It took me a second to realize he'd made a joke. They were pretty rare coming from him.
“Ha,” I deadpanned. “I just don't want any uninvited guests.” I grabbed the pistol and stood, tucking it into my waistband.
He looked around us. We'd parked at the end of a dead-end street. There were a few houses on either side of the street, all of them surrounded by chain-link fencing, and a few trees.
“I don't think there are gonna be any zombies around here,” he said.
“Yeah, well,” I said, “the last time I thought I'd have a zombie-free evening with a group of friends, I had to deal with a whole army of the damned things.” At Brandon's end-of-the-school-year party a couple months ago, we'd been attacked by the zombie equivalent of the Golden Horde. That was one of the reasons I'd stopped seeing him. But just one reason.
Phil sat on the bumper of the car and I did the same. I waited for him to ask me again, but I realized he wasn't going to. He seemed happy just to look out over that city I wanted to get out of so badly. I considered not talking, not bringing it up again, but I worried what the consequences of that might be. I couldn't figure out how Phil was doing such a number on my head, but I thought it might have been sorcery.
I noticed that he was sort of gesturing in the air with his hands, another tic. Little movements like he was conducting a symphony or something. I thought about his hands and what they'd feel like on my skin, then put that thought away where it had come from.
“As preface to this whole story,” I said, and I kept my eyes forward, definitely not looking at him, “I just want to say that I don't do it anymore.”
“Ominous,” Phil said. “Do what?”
“I used to sell drugs,” I said. “For, like, the last year that I worked at the Bully, I was selling Vitamin Z out of the drive-through window.”
I waited for a response, but Phil stayed silent. I weighed his particular silence and it didn't feel judge-y. Believe me, as a girl raised in the American school system, I know judgmental. I decided I'd be able to go on.
“I never tried it myself,” I said, “until I did. Just once.” I glanced at Phil and he nodded slowly. “Brandon was with me. And Sherri.” Sherri had been my best friend since birth, and she'd worked at the Bully Burger with Phil and me. “While we were high, we got separated from Sherri. The next time I saw her, she was a zombie.
“The whole episode freaked my shit something fierce. I decided to stop selling, and I definitely decided I'd never do Z again.”
“But Brandon,” Phil said.
“But Brandon,” I agreed. “He kept on going with it. He had some at his end-of-year shindig last year and wanted me to smoke it with him. That was right before the zombies made their grand entrance.”
Phil nodded. He'd been there for that part. Not as a guest of the party. He'd just shown up in case there was trouble of the undead variety.
“And he'd smoked it once or twice before that night, too.”
“Why?” Phil asked.
“He said it made him forget himself,” I said. “Not just his troubles, but himself. He liked that, I guess.”
Phil cocked his head and looked at me.
“No,” he said. “Why did you sell Vitamin Z?”
“Oh, right.” Of course he was asking about me. I'd been trying to focus on Brandon because that made things easier. I felt a little ember of resentment start to glow in my chest. My fallback position whenever I'm put on the spot is to get angry and let my inner bitch off her leash, but I knew that wasn't fair to Phil. He deserved some answers. I took a deep breath and did my best to grind out that fire.
“I needed it to fund my plan,” I said.
My plan to get the hell out of Salem, to move to New York Cityâif the Army ever reclaims it from the zombiesâattend Columbia University, and find a cure for the zombie plague. Phil knows all about it.
I braced myself for him to be horrified. Or at least mildly grossed out. What I wasn't prepared for was him taking it in stride.
“I'm not surprised you don't want to see him anymore,” he said. “Especially after something as scary as Sherri dying, maybe because of you guys taking Vitamin Z.”
I took a deep breath.
“That's it?” I asked him. “Nothing about me selling it?” Why the hell was I pushing it? He'd let me off the hook, I should stop picking the scab.
“You stopped selling it after that, right?” he asked. “After you figured out it was bad mojo?” I nodded that this was true. He shrugged. “You want me to judge you for doing something dumb? I don't do that. I've done too many dumb things myself to start judging people.”
“Are you Christian?” I blurted out. It was such a good explanation as to why he wouldn't want to judge me. It would also explain why, after months of going out on zombie patrol, he hadn't made one attempt at kissing me. Or even copping a feel. I'd briefly considered that he might be gay, but my sexuality-detecting equipment wasn't picking up any fabulous signals.
He looked confused. “No, I'm not. Would it matter if I was?”
“No,” I lied. As much as I like to be open-minded, churchy-Joes rub me the wrong way. It was something I needed to work on, okay? “I'm just trying to figure you out.”
“My aunt says that that way leads to madness.” He said it without a smileâsmiles from him are rareâbut he didn't seem sad about it, either.
“Your aunt seems to have you pegged,” I said.
A grin played across his lips.
Man, I needed to get a grip. I stood up and checked that the pistol was still firmly in place.
“Let's go for a walk.”
“Where?” Phil asked.
I pointed past the end of the street. Where the pavement ended, a small foot trail led down into some trees.
“Maybe we can get a better look at this beautiful city of yours,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “Let me get my bat out of the trunk.”
I thought about that for a moment. His bat is of the ordinary baseball varietyâwood and about yea longâexcept that it had nails pounded through it and it was more than likely covered in the gore of a hundred undead. It occurred to me I'd never seen it in full light. I didn't think I wanted this to be my first time.
“Why don't you leave it?” I asked. “If we run into trouble, I have this.” I lifted up my shirt to show him the pistol, and exposed a good portion of my belly, too. Not that he seemed to notice.
“Okay,” he said, barely glancing at me. “You want to go down first, or me?”
“Let me,” I said. Maybe I'd at least find a zombie who found my body appealing.
I started picking my way down the path, which was steeper than it had appeared from up on the street. A few times my feet tried to get out from under me, but I never actually fell on my ass. So, points to me, I guess.
Once we got down about six feet or so, the ground flattened out a little and I became less worried about falling off the hill. Then I noticed that the trees were a lot thicker and closer than they'd appeared from up above, and I started worrying about new stuff, i.e., shufflers deciding I looked like a tasty snack.
Phil skidded the last foot or so and he grabbed me to stop himself from falling. His hand snaked around my waist and he left it there for a second after he got himself righted. My heart started to thud in my chest and all thoughts of the undead went right out of my head. I felt like the heroine in a Regency novel that featured monsters, as dumb as that sounds.
“Sorry,” Phil said.
“No problem.” I looked out at the city. Being a few yards closer to it didn't make it any prettier. So much for my brilliant ideas.
“Let's go down here,” Phil said as he started walking. “I think there are some big rocks we can sit on.” He paused and grinned at me. “The better to enjoy the incredible view.”
“More jokes,” I said. “You're like a junior Dane Cook.”
“I hope I'm less douchey.”
I didn't answer that and just followed him. We found the rocks pretty easily. Big, flat stones that jutted out of the dirt. They were probably part of the mountain we were crawling all over. It felt good to sit in the sun with a boy I was starting to like. I warned myself that this was only the second time I'd been through this, and the first timeâwith Brandonâhadn't turned out well. It wasn't that I didn't trust Phil; it was that I didn't trust myself.