So for this Thursday before the last weekend for those of us in the U.S. to get our taxes done (or file for an extension), how about a little zombie apocalypse fiction?
This week’s free story is PATIENT Z, my take on how the whole thing might begin.
Published by Thunder Valley Press
Copyright 2011 by Annie Reed
Cover art copyright 2009 by Ivan Bliznetsov at iStockphoto.com
The Mayans got it wrong. So did George Romero.
The world didn’t end in 2012. It didn’t end in 2013 either. The beginning of the end started on a quiet summer night in September of 2014 in an unremarkable corner of suburbia miles away from the nearest shopping mall. If Madge had known what she was about to set in motion, she would have gone dumpster diving in someone else’s trash, but when you’re homeless, a glass bottle looks like nothing more than recyclable cash, not a plague waiting to happen.
The little stoppered bottle was stuck in the corner of a trash bag in the tenth recycle bin Madge raided that night. Every other week, city workers picked up recycles along with regular garbage. Most people put their garbage and recycles out the night before, either too lazy or too busy to do it in the morning. Madge used to be too busy, too. Not anymore. These days, Madge had all the time in the world to rummage through recycle bins like she was making a late night trip to the bank , only instead of withdrawing cash, Madge lifted aluminum cans and glass other people threw away.
Madge had her neighborhoods memorized. She knew which houses recycled and which ones didn’t. She knew the every other week collection schedule better than most of the residents. Raiding the bins was her full-time nocturnal occupation. While turning in her finds didn’t net her a lot of money, she made enough to keep herself in beer and the occasional bottle of cheap wine, neither of which the soup kitchens provided along with their free meals and the obligatory heaping helping of save your soul for dessert.
She found the stoppered bottle in front of a two-story house surrounded by a six-foot chain link fence. The dirty yellow recycle bin sat next to the garbage can at the base of the gated driveway. A padlock made sure nobody messed with the gate, and the yard was guarded by a thick-necked Rottweiler. Most things except garbage were locked up these days, but not too many people had dogs anymore. At least not dogs they let outside at night.
The dog growled when Madge rolled her shopping cart close to the driveway. After she got close enough for the dog to catch her scent over the pungent odor of her cartful of recycles, the dog’s growl turned into a needy whine.
Madge had made friends with the dog weeks ago by feeding it scraps through the fence. Turns out the dog just wanted a friend.
“Some guard dog you are,” Madge muttered. “I’d have fired you, that’s what I would have done.”
Fired him, like Madge’s last boss fired her for not doing her job. She didn’t blame him. She’d been drinking a lot back then, back when Eli had left her and taken the kid and told her to get her damn act together as he’d walked out the door. What a joke. Nobody’s act was together anymore. All everybody did was keep their heads down and survive the best way they could.
The dog was just like she’d been. Stuck in an unsuitable job and an unsuitable life. On the nights when Madge’s brain wasn’t too pickled to string more than a couple of thoughts together, she wondered why the people who hid behind a locked gate and the security system the little blue sign in their flowerbeds warned about never realized that their guard dog was lonely.
“Give me a minute,” she said to the dog. “I got something real tasty in my pocket just for you.”
She’d fished rib bones out of somebody’s trash a couple of blocks over. It was a good find on the nights she knew she’d encounter the occasional dog. Or coyote. The summer had been hot, the land baked dry beneath clear, rainless skies. The coyotes had nothing left to hunt in the foothills and were hungry enough to come down into the suburbs and scavenge in the garbage like Madge did. The threat of coyotes kept other trash thieves out of the neighborhoods on Madge’s route.
Madge wasn’t scared of coyotes. That was the good thing about hitting rock bottom. She didn’t have much left to be frightened of.
The people in this big house never recycled beer cans, but they went through soda like it was going out of style. The trash bags in their recycle bin were always full of cans already flattened. Why people just gave away shit like this when they could make money taking it to the recyclers themselves, Madge didn’t know. She picked up tonight’s bag to put in her cart, and that’s when she noticed the glass bottle at the bottom.
Glass and aluminum had to be separated, those were the rules. She’d forgotten before, and the guy at the recycle center had yelled at her. She’d wanted to yell back, but she didn’t dare. She didn’t want to get blackballed from the only place within walking distance that bought what Madge had to sell.
The glass bottle was an odd, antique looking little thing no bigger than Madge’s hand. It had a plastic-covered glass stopper, but the bottle wasn’t the kind of carved crystal that expensive perfume came in.
The last time someone had given Madge expensive perfume, she’d been in high school. She’d helped a boy she liked pass calculus. In return, she’d hoped he’d take her out on a date. Madge had never been beautiful, more what men called a sturdy, handsome woman, if that, but her hair had still been blonde and long and gently curled back then, and she’d worn just enough makeup to hide her insecurities but not enough that her mom would make her wash it off.
Instead of a date, the boy had given Madge a bottle of perfume. She’d smiled and thanked him, and he’d let her give him an awkward hug. Later that night she’d thrown the bottle away unopened.
The bottle she’d fished out of the trash was smooth. Something dark and flakey clung to the insides. In the artificial light from the corner streetlight, Madge couldn’t tell what color the stuff was. Could have been brown or purple or even dark red. Like blood.
Madge laughed at herself. Eli had liked horror movies. End of the world stuff. Madge used to ask him if he was preparing himself for the inevitable. He told her not to tempt fate.
Tempt fate. What a joke. The end of the world for Madge was in a can of beer. A glass of scotch. A snifter of brandy, or a bottle of wine.
Still, it would be a hell of a cosmic joke if Madge caught something contagious from old, dried blood after years of living on the streets. She covered her hands with the plastic from the garbage bag before she pulled the stopper out of the bottle. She’d seen the recyclers refuse glass with just a little bit of label on it, so she worked the clear plastic off the base of the stopper and dropped the plastic on the ground.
The Rottweiler yipped at her.
“Hold your horses,” she said. The dog yipped again. Madge made a shushing motion with her hand, and the little bottle slipped right out of her plastic-wrapped grasp.
It could have been a trick of the light, but Madge thought she saw a little puff of dust come out of the open end of the bottle when it hit the street.
(read the rest of the story here)