We Laugh When We Can, by August Williams
I don’t think Dad meant this to happen.
There are zombies everywhere. Mom keeps yelling when we say that; she says they’re not zombies, but what else should I call them? They’re bloody and they shuffle and they make weird hungry noises. Basically, zombies.
Eve keeps trying to hide under my bed. “Zombies don’t like these,” she says, waving my plastic dinosaur collection around. “Snarls will save us.”
I’m her big sister. I’m supposed to tell her yes, that’s right, your imaginary friends will keep you safe. She hugs Snarls and his little three-fingered hands rest on her wrist. “Okay,” I say, “yeah. Snarls will save us.” I help her set up the dinosaurs so there’s a wall of plastic spines marching around my bedskirt.
Eve grabs her Dora backpack and runs into the kitchen without hesitation. We used to wait until Mom really got mad to listen to her, but that was before the disease. Now we have emergency backpacks and we have to be ready to run.
When I see how empty Mom’s face is, I know it’s time. “We’ll get in the car,” I say, giving Eve a little push towards the front door.
“We can’t,” Mom says very slowly. Her huge belly looks extra heavy today, like it’s pulling on her spine. “We have to go to your dad’s work. Do you remember how to get there?”
Of course I do. We moved to stinky south Texas so Dad could walk to work. His office is so close I can see it across the grassland stream, but I didn’t see the night he died. Seven minutes to get across the big lawn. That didn’t stop the heart attack.
“Yeah, Mom,” I say because I need to be gentle. She’s close to nine months and she’s scared. So am I, but I can’t tell her that. “C’mon, Eve.”
“Why are we—where are we—can I take Snarls?” Eve always asks half-questions before she gets to her real one. “Can Snarls come with us?”
I glance at Mom. She’s opened the fridge and is staring at last week’s groceries with blurry eyes. “Yes,” I tell Eve, “Snarls can come with us, but I need you to run.” She nods and drops to a knee to make sure her laces are done.
“Okay,” she announces. “I’m tied up.”
I nudge our cat, Viata, back into the house with a shoe. She meows and latches her claws into the screen. “Sorry, Vee,” I tell her, “but they won’t eat you.”
Through the screen, I see Mom moving down the row of pictures of her and dad from their early years. She shakes with each frame she touches. I turn and run, feeling Viata watching us as we sprint through the stiff brown grass. Eve stumbles and starts crying. I grab her hand and smudge the fresh cut on her cheek. “You’re alright. C’mon, Eve.”
She tightens her grip around Snarls’s neck and nods. Blood is streaked under her right eye like warpaint. “’kay, Zoe.”
I can hear shuffling and hungry noises like a storm in the distance. Real thunder roars out of the dark clouds. Mom is making her way across the grassland towards us, her hair flowing behind her. The zombies rise over the hill, and I steer Eve straight towards the office buildings squatting beyond the stream.
As fast as we can, we splash across the stream. Then we really run. Snarls bounces along at Eve’s side, his tail clutched in her little white hand. My fuzzy hairs escape my ponytail and tickle my cheeks, but I can see the playground now. The office doors are too far, and they were always locked when Dad worked there. These zombies can’t climb, though. Their muscles rot away as they die from the inside.
I push Eve up the plastic steps to the first level and kneel down at her level.
“Remember ‘Get Away From Kids’?” I ask, trying to smile. “We have to play that again, okay? This time you can’t let any of the scary people touch you. Okay?” My voice shakes.
“Are the scary people zombies?” Eve rubs one eye with her free hand. She stares at me with the other, bright and certain.
“Yeah.” Dad left us without an explanation, so we made up our own stories. Anger knots in my chest. “They’re zombies. Don’t let the zombies touch you.”
“Okay,” Eve says, and waves grubby Snarls in my face. “Snarls will hit them.”
I look over her shoulder to where Mom is staggering up the hill, blowing her breath out of round cheeks. The bag she was carrying earlier is gone. “Mom!” I call as I stand and tug Eve onto the second level, then nudge her towards the top. “Up here!”
“Shit,” Mom says under her breath, peering past the playground at the office doors. “Did you try the doors? Are they open?”
I shake my head. I don’t want to say it, but the zombies are crossing the stream. “Too late,” I say and clamber up to the third level.
I settle Eve down with Snarls where two hard plastic walls make a corner, then run to the rails and hold my breath as Mom crosses the woodchips and heaves herself to safety just as the first zombies stagger into the play area.
It starts to rain. Fat drops smack my hand as I reach out to Mom and brace my size two shoes against the grating. Eve stands and runs to Mom, and the deCuria family stands together, all almost-four of us.
The zombies stagger across the woodchips, tossing handfuls in the air. They drop to all fours and crawl like spiders, sideways and angry. Their bloody hands smear the legs of the playground as they leap and snap their twisted jaws.
This is our castle, and we have to defend it.
I slip out from under Mom’s arm and take off my backpack. Inside I’ve put a few things we Girl Scouts know are good for an emergency, like energy bars, matches, a rope, some tools. Then something Dad gave me: a dirk from England, old but reliable. We didn’t cover weapons in Girl Scouts, but I watched a lot of YouTube.
With my hand closed around the hilt, I can smell Dad’s deodorant as he kisses the top of my head. There were tears in his words. “Someday you’ll have to fight for yourself, Zoekins. I trust you can do that for me?”
The vision explodes into a red mist as I come back to reality. “Watch out!” I yell as I lower the blade with both hands, right across the knuckles of one zombie who worked out a lot before he was brain-dead. He screams and his fingertips fall between the holes in the grating.
Eve stands beside me, posing like a tiny martial arts master. She’s just an orange belt, but her form is good. I fill my lungs with proud older sister breath and we ready ourselves.
A wet smack and a cry of triumph sound behind us. We whirl around to see Snarls, face-up, embedded in the soft skull of a zombie. The prone form blocks the only entrance to our tower. Mom lets go of Snarls’s legs and stares at us crazily. “Give ‘em hell, girls,” she says.
A siren screams above the noise of the zombies. A flat white truck comes flying up the hill, taking a big bite of the woodchips when its front tires come down. It mows down a few zombies and scatters the rest. Sniff, Dad’s best friend, sticks his bald head out the window. “Lizzie! Ladies! Get in!”
“You first,” Mom says and picks me up by my armpits. I dangle over the railing and find my footing on the top of the truck, slide my dirk through my belt loop, then turn to take Eve from Mom. When we are all in the truck bed, Sniff floors it straight across the playground and skids sideways to a stop near the office doors.
He gets out first and unlocks the doors with the card around his neck. Mom takes his hand and steps out of the truck, one arm across her belly. She kisses Sniff’s cheek. “Thank you.”
I hand Eve to Sniff and climb down using the wheel. I’m the last to slip through the slow bulletproof glass doors, and I look back to see grotesque creatures that used to be people, still dressed in their midweek suits and dresses, gawking at us. The rubber seals pinch together.
I turn around. Mom and Eve and Sniff are three dark shapes far down the white hall. I follow slowly, turning in lazy circles to look at the framed, somber pictures on the wall. Last time I was here, I hadn’t yet gone through my growth spurt and the plaques were lost on me.
A familiar half-smile below serious eyes catches my gaze and squeezes my heart. Dad. I tiptoe towards the picture, a framed photograph of my very young father and a very young Sniff and some other men and women I don’t recognize, gathered around President Kennedy. I know it’s him because Dad helped me put together a report on him in fourth grade.
Below is a silver square with sharp engraved words: Barber, Valerie, deCuria, Koch, and Finch with President Kennedy after the deCuria tests. Implementation spanned February 1962 to October 1963.
I don’t get it. But something tugs at the strings in the back of my head, something Dad said: “They didn’t even give him a month.”
October 1963. Dad stopped working with the president right before he died. I dig my nails into my palms. There were so many secrets in our house, so many—what did Mom call them?—euphemisms. I heard her bite the word at him once, in a whisper. “We live in euphemisms, Tarquin. And maybe you can’t cure this.” It was very soft, but I turned and ran back to bed, and my teeth hurt.
The deCurian plague.
I don’t think Dad meant this to happen.
I run after the others, daring myself not to think. My shoes glide on the polished floor. The bluish lights flicker like ghost fingers. Far behind me, zombie hands curl against the glass.
Sniff’s voice hangs in the air ahead of me. “She’s his hope, Lizzie.”
“He left me without hope.” Mom’s words are so cold that I freeze. “Liv meant nothing to him. He loved his work. He lived for his work. Just about wined and dined and had a nice fuck with his work.”
“Lizzie!” Sniff snaps, and I find my legs again and burst into the room. Mom hunches with her legs straining, holding her stomach. Her eyes are sharper than my dirk. On the floor below her is a pile of water. Eve is sitting down and hugging her knees. Sniff pleads with his palms upward. “He loved you more than his own life—and God knows more than his work! Don’t you remember? The shots? Those weren’t flu shots. They were stolen. Vaccinations. Against the plague.”
Mom stiffens. “What.”
I remember vaccinations. In health class, we learned they were like samples of being sick, so you never got sick for real. The seriousness hits me. We can’t become zombies.
“You have to go, Lizzie.” Sniff takes a step closer to her. “The baby—little Liv—she’s the first immune from birth. She’s his hope for a world without deCurian. He died for those vaccinations. They found out he stole them. It wasn’t—wasn’t a heart attack.”
Mom’s nostrils move, but nothing else. Then her face ripples like a sea and she falls over. Sniff catches her and my legs carry me to put my shoulder to her hip.
“You have to get her to the safehouse, Zoe.” Sniff’s face is inches from mine. “He named you for this. He told me…” His face strains as he tries to catch a memory. “He told me he trusted you to fight for yourself.”
Mom cries out and her fingers dance around her belly. I smell Dad’s deodorant and I nod at Sniff. “Count on it.”
He takes Mom’s weight and leads her to a grey office chair. I go to Eve and sit down beside her, pulling her down so her head rests in my lap. “Evie?”
“Will we—can I—did you see Dad?”
“Yes,” I say. My dirk is heavy in my belt loop.
“Is Mom gonna die?”
“No.” I lift Eve up and stand with her. “Dad and I won’t let her.”
All that stands between my family and safety is a bunch of slow and grumpy zombies. All I need to do is fight my way through. Most girls would get sick and become zombies themselves. But I won’t.
I pull my dirk from its makeshift sheath and squeeze it until the grip bites my skin.
Dad meant this to happen.
Inspired by the following prompt from The Amazing Story Generator: As an incurable plague rages across the globe, a single mother of three discovers who really killed JFK.
(Illustration thanks to weesen)
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The draft of this story has been posted solely for the purpose of critique and feedback, which may be used later in editing. This should not be considered a publication of a final work.