“No,” I whispered, as my throat tightened around the word, and my eyes widened to try and stop the sudden surge of tears. The box was empty, and that meant she was going to die.
“No!” I slammed the lid closed and clenched the banged up metal lunch box. My fingernails dug into the scratched but smiling animated cars on the front. I’d never wanted to throw something as much as I did then. Of course I couldn’t do that, not with the rows of glass bottles full of precious rotgut surrounding me.
“Something the matter, Zella?”
Something the matter? It was a stupid question, since something was always going wrong in these demon-accursed times. Accusations roiled in my gut like rotten food I needed to vomit out to make everything better.
Who can I trust? That was a better question.
My best bet was the man who’d worked for me as a server while I tended the bar. I turned that very person, and his usual calm and controlled nature was almost my undoing. My lip trembled as I opened the lid to show him the medicine was gone, and his gentle amber eyes widened.
“That’s not possible. We just got back from Shaky’s three days ago,” he said in disbelief, the deep timbre of his voice rumbling in his chest like thunder. He ran a hand over the dark molasses skin of his scalp, and his short, white hair. It was a concession we all made now that a single bathroom item cost more than five bottles of rotgut.
“It is possible if you consider the worst,” I choked on the words.
Something slammed against the doorway leading to the back alley and rattled some of the bottles on the wall closest to it. A crack like a bull whip echoed off the brick walls outside, followed by a screech that was anything but human. Then the same something scrabbled away, leaving the alley. It all happened in seconds, but such occurrences were commonplace and no longer fazed us.
However, it was a grim reminder neither of us needed: ghoul.
“Maybe someone got—”
“The wards and defenses are solid. It had to be someone here,” I interjected, and waved a hand toward the bar. He frowned as he turned a wary glance up the stairs, and his thin shoulders hunched over his lean, six foot frame. It had been years since anyone could eat for more than survival, which meant bulky guys like Cal had thinned out. His grey t-shirt and faded jeans were baggy, with his belt cinched down to new holes in the worn, brown leather.
“No one’s come into the group in over four years. Do you think it’s one of them?”
I scowled at the question more than him, and I’d swung from distraught to livid as the answer formed on my lips.
“There’s no other explanation.” I crossed my arms over my chest, shifted my weight to my right foot, and jutted out a bony hip that was visible between my black tank top and ripped blue jeans. Alcohol had dried on my clothing from when I brewed, and wafted from me as though I’d taken a dip in one of the stills.
“Gather everyone up in the bar,” I said, and my eyes hardened at his hesitation.
“Even the padre?”
With nothing left to say, Cal’s soft footfalls retreated. I never did understand how he did that; I tromped as loud as a horse on a wooden trestle bridge in my boots.
“Mommy?” The wobbly voice called down the stairs, and my heart clenched.
“Yeah, Haylie baby?” I asked, and moved so she could see me.
“Is everything okay?” Her voice was already wheezy, and she wavered on her tiny feet. “I don’t feel too good,” she said, and scratched at the hives on her arms. The light from the lamp mounted on the wall next to her glinted on the sheen of perspiration on her thin, sallow face. She had steel blue eyes like me, but when her hair was long it was like her father’s: curly and chocolate brown. God be damned, how I missed him. We’d lost him when the decimation tore across the land like a tornado and ripped our lives apart.
“Everything’s fine, baby. I know you don’t feel well, so why don’t you go lie down.” I did my best to keep the words soothing and unruffled, but what I wanted to do was break down and cradle her in my arms.
“Sing to me later?” she asked.
I smiled as best I could. “Of course, now go get some rest.” She turned and headed upstairs to the loft over the bar, and the smile dropped from my face like a weight. Before I followed Cal up the stairs, I grabbed a fixed blade karambit from the shelf next to me, and slid it into the back pocket of my jeans.
Time to get some answers.
As I expected, no one took the accusation well. What shocked me, though, was no one wanted to spend the rotgut to trade on more medicine.
“We’ve been talking about it,” Nick said, his tone and slate gray eyes harder than concrete, “and we think it’s time to stop her medication.”
My heart, which had sped up when the conversation began, stopped short as though I’d come to the edge of a cliff without warning.
“You know what will happen if we do that!” Cal exclaimed when I said nothing.
When the demons invaded the world, swarming over the earth like ants from a hill someone stepped on, everything turned to chaos. Millions died in the first wave, and once dead they rose as zombies to aid in the torment of the living. Some who died turned into zombies on steroids, or what we call ghouls. No one knew why a small percentage became ghouls, but most guessed it was something in their genes. As far as we knew it was an allergic reaction to the demonic aura pervading our world, and had all the symptoms of an anaphylactic response: hives, itching, feeling warm, nausea, dizziness, and a constriction of the airways. The difference was how the symptoms worsened over time instead of having a sudden onset.
“Yes, we do, but this has gone on long enough. The medicine isn’t working as well as it used to, and buying it is draining our resources,” Nick continued. The other four of our group shifted nervously behind him.
“Give the medicine back, Nick.” I was hoarse, and though my voice whispered through the room everyone tensed at my words.
The medicine, developed by backwater chemists, was like epinephrine. The downside was the medicine became ineffective after a few years. Those affected died a slow and painful death. Once they turned to ghouls they had to be exterminated by their families. Fire was the only way to kill a ghoul—even destroying the brain wouldn’t stop them.
“I don’t have it, and even if I did I wouldn’t give it to you,” he responded, and crossed arms over his chest. As Cal’s lean frame spoke of quiet, unyielding strength, Nick had always been more of a lanky wolf. His cheeks were gaunt with perpetual hunger, and his broad jaw clenched in stubborn opposition.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Like I give a shit. I don’t have it, and you’re not taking more rotgut to get it.”
The air crackled with tension and I curled my fingers, ready to grab the karambit.
“If you let my daughter die, I won’t brew for you or anyone else,” I countered, throwing down the biggest threat I had in my arsenal besides the knife.
“We can always join another group, or find another brewer,” Nick spat. He clenched his hands, prepared to take me down if I so much as twitched the wrong way.
I couldn’t help the manic laughter that burbled out of me. “What, you’d join Shaky and his lot of med heads? Or maybe you’ll swear to the priesthood?” I mocked, gesturing toward the priest. The man’s short-cropped hair was pumpkin orange, and his green eyes were the shade of spring grass. He wore traditional Catholic garb, an angelic expression on his freckled face, and he was the nicest person you’d ever hate. He was too good to be real, even for a priest.
I resented his presence as surely as I resented his God, but we needed him. He put the wards in place that helped keep us safe, and we were one of the few lucky establishments to warrant a full-time priest on site. Rotgut was major currency.
“Plus,” I added, “the few brewers around wouldn’t know proper brewing procedure if it jumped on a table and danced naked in front of them.”
Nick shook his head. “We’re not doing it.”
“Why?” I begged, needing to understand. “What has changed so much that you need to let my daughter die? You’re like an uncle to her—you’ve read her bedtime stories and helped take care of her.” I was pleading now, willing him to reconsider.
A shadow passed over his features, and he drew back like I’d struck him. He wavered on his feet, along with his resolve.
“Now Zella, don’t you think your daughter has suffered enough?” The priest’s soothing voice rolled over the group like a fog bank. Nick’s face clouded with a scowl, and he was steady on his feet again.
“This doesn’t involve you, Father Cormac.” My words were scathing, but his unperturbed smile never wavered.
“You always were too willful for your own good,” he said, his words like poisoned honey. He lifted his right hand, palm facing him, and closed it in a tight fist. The double front doors we thought were barred and warded slammed open. Zombies, with a smattering of ghouls, flooded through the doorway like a tsunami.
The people standing behind Nick were the first taken down, their screams wet with their own blood as the undead tore into their bodies, and ate them hand over fist. Nick had just enough time to grab one of the chairs from a nearby table and bash it over the head of the nearest zombie.
Cal dashed over to the bar, grabbed two machetes, then rushed over to hand one to Nick. The two of them waded through the walking bags of rotted flesh, cutting them down with ruthless efficiency.
I wasn’t an offensive fighter, but I could keep myself alive until someone more capable came along. All my value came from the ability to brew a mean batch of rotgut. As the guys handled the minions, I scanned the room for Father Cormac, but he’d disappeared.
Once they’d managed to shred or beat back the monsters, I helped them bar the doors once more.
“Demon bastard must have taken down the wards on the front door months ago, after the other priest was killed,” Nick said, out of breath and leaning against the door. The undead were still trying to get in.
“But how? I thought the wards repelled demons, too?” Cal panted. They were both covered in rotten guts from head to toe, and the smell was almost unbearable.
“I had the other priest remove them before I fed him to my horde,” the priest said from the doorway next to the long, dark wooden bar.
Nick’s and Cal’s eyes widened, and I turned in a slow circle on the spot, holding out hope the worst wasn’t still happening.
“Then I made sure the ghouls and zombies attacked anywhere but the front door, to perpetuate the illusion you were safe.”
“Mommy,” Haylie choked out.
Father Cormac, or rather the demon, had my daughter’s collar in the grip of one hand, and her medicine in the other.
“It was so easy getting these pathetic animals to obey me, and it took almost no effort to convince one of them to swipe the medicine. I could have done this years ago, but watching you all scurry to eke out a living in this wasteland is the only amusement I have.” The demon cackled, his eyes glowing like jewels as his face contorted into something ghastly. His bones elongated and contorted, his teeth turned to translucent needles, his tongue lengthened and forked, and his back burst from his black robes and hunched in on itself.
“All good things must come to an end, though, and this game has played itself out,” he lamented in a mocking tone, then dropped the vials from his fingers, which had grown spindly–like spider legs, the nails long and deadly. When the vials clinked to the floor he ground them beneath his boot heel.
“No!” I screamed my fury at the demon. As I ran toward him I pulled the karambit from my back pocket and lunged at his midsection, where his belly bulged like a bloated corpse.
The demon shrieked with glee, and yanked my daughter to shield him from the blow. The knife plunged into her body just below her sternum, and her eyes widened. I froze, the shock washing over me like an icy tide.
“Ah, delicious misery,” the demon hissed, and pushed her body into mine. He laughed, the sound echoing in my skull, and then vanished.
I collapsed and turned Haylie over in my lap, tears streaming down my face.
“Mommy,” she whispered, “sing to me, please?”
My smile was half-hearted, and I reached down to stroke her face, though I couldn’t see it through the tears. The pounding of the ghouls and zombies on the door, as well as the shouts from Nick and Cal faded in the background. I could smell nothing but the sweet scent that was hers alone, like lilies and spring water.
“Of course, baby,” I said, my voice hoarse from unshed tears. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” I sang until she stopped breathing and her skin turned gray. Her eyes changed to burning red, like the fires of hell, and her teeth sharpened.
The doors finally gave way behind me to the panicked shouts of Cal and Nick, but nothing turned my gaze from Haylie’s. A feral awareness flooded her face, and she growled at me, like a rabid dog.
“I love you,” I said, my voice soft, right before she lunged for my throat. The pain was sharp, and would have drawn a gasp from my lips if I’d been capable. Haylie pulled back, teeth and mouth red with blood as she chewed my trachea. My vision wavered at the edges, and it was a race to see if I died first from blood loss or lack of oxygen. Everything faded, and as I slipped away I hoped we’d all be together soon.
I love you, baby.