Dark Hunger


CHAPTER THREE



"I bet it was the minstrel greeting," the zombie said from behind me. "That would have sent me screaming over the edge, too."

I turned and looked at my friend Marc and at first didn't know what to say. I went through a dizzying mix of emotions whenever I saw him these days: relief and surprise and joy and fear and pity and exasperation and the simple gladness that after all he'd been through and seen and heard, he still wanted to be my friend.

Or he was too afraid of what might happen to him (he'd kill himself again?) if he left. But that didn't bear thinking about.

"You're one to talk." I shivered as my sister raced to her car, wrestled the balloons into the backseat, leaped into the driver's seat, started the engine with a roar, slammed it into reverse, and shot out of the driveway, then turned, popped it into drive, and howled down Summit Avenue, leaving a smoking tire trail behind her.

Naw. The Antichrist left like she always did: she carefully snapped on her seat belt, checked her rearview and blind spots as she started the car (took a while with the balloons), cautiously backed out of the driveway, paused to let a car a block away drive past, then pulled out, turned left, and headed for home via the speed limit.

"I'm telling you," he insisted. "That's what did it."

"Nuh-uh." My personal bet was the singing telegram. "And like your suggestion wasn't a thousand times worse?"

"What?" My friend Jessica waddled out the front door and stood on the porch, one hand on the small of her back as she stretched and fanned herself with Marc's Entertainment Weekly. "Ugh, it's so hot."

"It's really not," I pointed out, then sadly gazed down at my frosty blue toes.

"I'm sleeping out here tonight, it's so hot."

"It's not hot!" Easy, girl. Jessica was wrong, but she was also crazy. As a rule I tried not to fuck with crazy people. Unless I wanted to, or didn't like them, or was bored, or felt needy, or was looking for a rush, or was in pursuit of justice, or needed to kill time between sample sales. "It's December," I added, trying for calm. "It's the polar opposite of hot. Literally. Polar opposite."

Jess was a thousand months pregnant-at least, going by the size of her belly. Marc and I privately referred to her gestating fetus as the Belly That Ate the World, because we are catty and also love Daenerys on Game of Thrones. We talked about the Belly with furtive glee tempered with deep terror that she'd find out and make us die screaming. And also, show-Daenerys was almost as terrific as book-Daenerys. I was pretty sure. I was almost all the way through the first book. Okay, halfway through. The things are friggin' doorstops and I've got this queen-of-the-vampire thing going on; don't judge. Also it's quicker for me to just follow along in the graphic novel. Marc must never know about that.

And me liking Daenerys didn't mean anything, right? It wasn't some commentary on my own experience as a nobody who has run from responsibility my entire life only to find out I was suddenly the queen of a bunch of people, some who loved me and more who didn't, trying to bring change, hold my own, and fend off assassination attempts and also dying a few more times?

No. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a made-for-cable book series is just a made-for-cable book series.

"Laura finally had enough, huh? Too bad I missed the scene. Takes a while to get to the front door when you're..." She trailed off and gestured vaguely at her gut. "What did it? Dial-a-balloon-bouquet?"

"I think it was a combo. Hey, my choices were limited. Hallmark doesn't cover 'Sorry I killed your mom before she could kill me, and also, good luck with your new job!'"

"So you Said It with Flowers?"

"And strip-o-grams?" my zombie asked hopefully.

Argh. I've got to stop referring to him as my zombie. He has a name, dammit. Two names. Zombie Marc. Dammit! Marc Spangler. "Naw. The Antichrist is kind of a prude." A virgin prude, the worst kind. But still. The important thing to keep in mind...

"The important thing," I said, finishing my thought aloud, "is that she came over. We were talking, even if it was only for a minute. If I got her to do it once-"

"Aggravated her to do it once," Jessica said while Marc nodded so hard he almost fell off the porch.

"-I can get her here again. We will have a family Thanksgiving, dammit!"

"That reminds me," Jessica said. "I had turkey for lunch."

"That's fine." But I had a bad feeling her casual news meant I'd be hitting the grocery store again.

"All of the turkey."

Thought so. I didn't dare make eye contact with Marc. He had a hand up in front of his mouth and coughed. Since zombies didn't have to cough, I knew he was worried he'd crack up.

Jessica seemed to sense our restrained mirth, because her beautiful dark eyes got squinty and the beauty was replaced with suspicion. "Does anyone have a comment about my lunch?"

"Nuh-uh," I lied, wondering if getting terrified would be an overreaction.

"It's good that you're eating lots of protein," Dr. Marc Zombie added. In life he'd been an ER doc (though he always corrected me; apparently outside of TV they're called EWs, which is just hilarious: "Ew, I've cut the whole thing off by accident! Ew, I've gotta get to the EW!"), but in death he considered himself an able medic.

He wasn't movie-zombified. There was no shambling after us while moaning about his desire to partake of our delectable brains, he didn't stink and wasn't all gooky and covered with rotting slime, but he still didn't trust his new-and-unimproved reflexes. "You need at least sixty grams of protein a day. And that entire turkey was... uh..." His eyes rolled up and he thought about it. ". . . just over fifteen hundred grams of protein." Pause. "So you've definitely hit your protein intake for the..." Pause. ". . . the day."

She relaxed and smiled. Marc and I relaxed and smiled. I knew he'd been rejecting finishing his sentence with: for the week, the month, the decade, the century. He had made the wise choice, and lived to not live another day.

Besides, all anyone had to do was look at Jessica and know all was well. She was brooming with health! No, that was wrong. Blooming, that was the cliche I was groping for. I'd gotten mixed up because when she wasn't pregnant, Jess was normally the shape and weight of a broomstick. Her collarbones were so sharp you worried you'd cut yourself if you fell on her. We'd known each other since our training bra days and she'd always been super slender and annoyingly pretty. Lovely brown eyes, with smooth dark skin that glinted with reddish undertones, which meant the jerk could wear shades like fuchsia and orange, lipsticks that would make me look a) like a bitchy circus clown, b) embalmed, and/or c) an embalmed bitchy circus clown.

She'd been (and still was) rich, too, but I did not envy her that. Not if it meant enduring what she had: a father who wanted to bang her, and a mother who didn't much care what he did as long as he paid the bills. Jess was the richest person in Minnesota (not the richest woman, not the richest African American-the richest mammal) and I didn't envy her that, either.

Content that we hadn't been ready to snigger over her turkey intake, Jessica did that hands-on-the-small-of-her-back stretch thing again, then asked (I think rhetorically), "What do you get for the Antichrist who has nothing?"

"A family," I replied at once. I'd been thinking about it a lot. Laura and I had several things in common. Dead fathers, ghastly white complexions that tended toward dryness in winter, shitty tempers, an inability to rock coral lipstick, inappropriately judging people, powers we feared and didn't understand, a tendency to sunburn on cloudy days, and fractured families. "We'll show her she's not alone. That just because her mom-who she only met a couple of years ago anyway-is dead, that doesn't mean she's alone. She's got me! Us, I mean."

Now Marc and Jessica were trading glances.

"What? It's true. Just because I killed her mom doesn't mean we can't be there for each other. One of her moms," I corrected. The (late) devil was Laura's mom (who had looked weirdly like Lena Olin); but my stepmother, the Ant, was the one who had been impregnated (by my dad) and carried the baby to term. Her body, I mean, because Lena Olin possessed the Ant for the pregnancy and birth. I know. It's complicated bordering on idiotic. "Both her moms are dead, but only one by my hand. That's something. Right?"

(. . .)

I sighed. "I knew you'd say that."

"We didn't," Marc began, but I rushed to cut him off.

"Like I said, all that stuff's bad, but that doesn't mean we can't be a family again. Or for the first time."

"Bets, I love you, but I'm pretty sure that's exactly what it means."

I was too polite to argue with her. Also, I worried she was dead-on. Plus, she was smarter than me, so I'd lose the debate, unless she got tired or hungry and left before blitzing my half-assed argument. So I let it drop, and thought how nice it was to see Jess and Marc conspiring about anything, even if it was their mutual belief that I was off my rocker.

Not long ago (maybe two weeks?) Jessica had been all Keep back, vile creature of the lamented undead! I couldn't blame her, as glad as I was to have Marc back. The prejudice against zombies ran deep, and there were no support groups for the living impaired. It took Marc days to convince her he wasn't going to lurk around waiting for the chance to chomp on her baby's brains. And before she could make it clear that, nothing personal, but I won't have you help me deliver; glad you're back but keep the hell away from me once my water breaks, Marc was the one who told her that though he remembered everything about being a doctor, he didn't trust his new-and-unimproved hand-eye coordination.

"That's why I was practicing surgery on Betsy's dead cat!" he had explained, beaming, and added, "Oh, shit. Sorry. That was disgusting. Right?"

Yep.

He might talk about disgusting things, and sometimes do them, but Marc himself wasn't at all disgusting. Like I said, he didn't shamble and he didn't stink. He was a little quieter, a bit more thoughtful. Sometimes when he paused before starting a complicated task, you could almost feel him willing his zombified neurons to fire, and when they did, he'd go about whatever it was-doing a crossword, making a playlist, rereading an anatomy text, building me more shelves in my closet (love the mansion, but the woeful lack of closet space was a real problema)-with a calm care that was reassuring. He wasn't the same man, no. But I didn't think he was a worse man... just different.

Sometimes his lively green eyes would cloud over and, again, you could almost hear him thinking, C'mon, c'mon, you know how to do this, remember how to do this, but other than that his appearance was unchanged. He was still lanky and cute, with brutally short black hair, a sharp, aquiline nose, and pale skin-because he hated outdoor activities and thrived under blaring hospital fluorescents, not because he had a hankering for braaaaains.

In fact, when I looked at my friends these days I was struck by how different they were now: Jessica, eating for seventeen, Marc, cutting up dead things to keep his brain limber. Both had undergone incredible changes only because they were my friends.

Whether it was for the better or not so much, I didn't know and couldn't know. But please, God, let it not be what I fear: let me not be a curse to those I love.

And while you're at it, God, let my sister forgive me and give us our happily ever after. We deserve one, dammit.

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