I blinked myself awake to find Joel’s face peeking out at me through my bedroom doorway. I knew I’d dreamt about Lila again, but couldn’t pick the details out of the sludge of mental images roiling around in my sleep-deprived brain. I was grateful for that. “Hmm. What’s up?”
“It’s almost time for you to go to work. Did you forget to set an alarm?”
Shit. In all the chaos of last night, I’d completely forgotten about my shift this afternoon. “Crap, sorry. How much time do I have?”
“’Bout half an hour. I’ll get you something to eat before we go.”
I sighed and pulled myself out of bed to start rummaging around in my closet. Despite over a year at this job wearing the same thing day after day, I could never manage to keep track of my shoes. They always just seemed to disappear whenever I needed them.
“Hey, Joel where are—”
“Kitchen!” he yelled back.
It was a tired routine, but it worked. Joel was patient enough with my carelessness and I think he secretly enjoyed playing mother hen just as much as I did.
“Coffee?” I asked, walking down the hall to find Joel waiting at the end with a mug and bagel in hand.
“Figured you could use the pick-me-up.”
I was halfway through putting my tennis shoes on when I noticed the state of the living room. Couch neat, blankets gone, pillows propped up decoratively, not for any practical purpose. It was like Seb had never even been here.
“Yeah?” He popped his head back out from the fridge.
He scrunched his eyebrows together. “I thought he left last night.”
“He was still here when I went to bed.”
“But there’s no way he could have gone anywhere on his own,” Joel protested. “His stitches were ripped, he doesn’t even have a car—” He stopped short. “Please, god, tell me he didn’t steal our car.”
After a frenzied investigation of the apartment and the parking lot, we determined that absolutely nothing had been stolen. Which was a relief, but didn’t explain how Seb had managed to leave under his own power and without leaving a shred of evidence of ever having been here in the first place.
The mystery remained unsolved; there were no leads to follow, Joel wasn’t even interested in finding out what had happened to Seb after being reassured our belongings were safe and sound, and I was about to be late for work.
Working as a pharmaceutical technician was boring at the best times—it was downright hellish when you were otherwise preoccupied. I hadn’t taken the job out of love for the craft, either. Money had just been tight my senior year with Joel in medical school and all of the expenses we still had to pay off after Marisol passed away. It was easier to just get certified for a reliable vocation right out the gate, forego college, and grab something part-time that still offered decent pay.
We didn’t live a glamorous life by any means, but we’d never expected much. It was hard to aspire to greater things with the childhood Joel and I had. Joel becoming a doctor was by far the best we could hope for in our situation, and even then we’d never be rich with his student loans hanging over us in addition to all the debt we’d inherited.
I got a comment about the bruises on my neck from one of my coworkers, but they accepted my hastily crafted excuse about it being caused by a seatbelt. Once their curiosity had been sated, they went back to being mostly unaware of my existence.
I had to walk home after my shift since Joel had a date—a once in a lifetime occasion it seemed like these days—but I didn’t mind. The store was only about twenty minutes from our complex, the weather was nice for September, and I appreciated the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts for a little while. Even though it was just me and Joel at home, it could be a little stifling to share that kind of space as adults. And now with this whole Seb thing, and more importantly the situation with Dan, there was a lot that I just couldn’t talk about with Joel anymore.
I got home around nine-thirty. The lights were off in the apartment when I stepped inside, and I was relieved to find out that I wouldn’t be walking in on Joel and his date mid-coitus.
I didn’t feel like watching TV, and Joel probably had the laptop with him. But it was still a bit early to go back to bed, so I started playing an audiobook on my phone, setting it on the table while I walked into the kitchen to fix myself something quick to eat.
I had a heaping spoonful of macaroni hovering centimeters from my lips when I heard it.
“Joel?” I called out, hoping against my better judgment that it was just my brother and his date doing things I’d rather not envision out on the front porch.
The thumping stopped.
I quickly hit pause on the audiobook and slowly got up from the table, moving toward the tiny fireplace that didn’t even work to grab the one weapon available to me, a rusted iron poker that felt like it might snap in half between my fingers if I held it too tightly.
My breath came in labored pants as the door to Joel’s bedroom slowly creaked open. “Seb?” I whispered. Maybe he’d come back while Joel and I were out to raid our fridge and steal from the medicine cabinet.
The face that appeared in the hallway was familiar only in the gray pallor of rotting flesh, horribly reminiscent of how Dan had looked in the alleyway behind the bar.
I resisted the urge to vomit. “Stay back,” I said in what I hoped was a commanding tone, lifting the poker above my head and brandishing it threateningly toward the thing, which was still moving in my direction at a snail’s pace. I’d already taken one zombie out with very limited resources. I could manage this one.
Then another zombie rounded the corner just behind the first.
Without thinking twice about it, I dropped my only weapon and made a mad dash for the door. This plan probably would have worked, except for the fact that when I flung open the front door and stepped out onto the porch, I came face to face with another three zombies.
I sprinted back inside, slamming the door shut again, and darted for the only available hiding spot: the miniscule excuse for a closet that contained our water heater. I tore off my lab coat and tied the door handle to a pipe, hoping it would at least slow the zombies down while I tried to come up with a better plan for getting rid of them.
Who was I kidding?
I realized then that I wouldn’t be the only one in danger if my brother happened to come home and stumbled on the grisly scene playing out in our living room. I quickly scrolled through my phone for Joel’s number and prayed he’d pick up quickly.
I sucked in a terrified breath as the door rattled. “Joel, I—”
“Pemberly? What’s that noise? What’s going on?”
I could hear a girl’s voice in the background, and I hoped to god she wouldn’t convince Joel to hang up on me. “Look, where are you?”
“In the car. What’s wrong?”
Goddammit. “Don’t come home, okay? Go somewhere else, just don’t come back here, okay? Promise me you won’t.”
“Pemberly, what’s going—”
I hung up and shoved the phone back into my pocket, squeezing myself as far as I could behind the water heater and bracing myself for the inevitable invasion of the zombies. It wouldn’t be long before they knocked the door off its hinges entirely.
There was a loud bang from the other side of the door, and the handle stopped rattling. Then a brief pause in which I couldn’t hear anything at all, and after that—
“Peaches? Hey, Peaches, where the hell are you?”
“Seb?” There was no way. What the hell was he doing here? “I’m in the closet,” I said in a panicked voice, no time to further contemplate the unexpectedness of Seb’s arrival on top of everything else. I half-expected him to make an ill-timed joke about my sexual orientation, but another thud erased the thought from my mind.
“I could use a little help then,” he yelled. “We’re about to lose the front door here.”
I quickly ripped the jacket off of the handle and threw open the closet door to find Seb in all his glory, looking like he hadn’t suffered so much as a hangnail, let alone being ripped to shreds by giant monster just a few days before.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked, eyeing the front door—shaking with the force being applied by the zombies standing just on the other side of it—and swallowing down the panic slowly rising in my chest.
“Here.” Seb pushed the handle of a knife into my hand and I looked over to see him holding the fireplace poker I’d dropped before in his left hand.
“What I do with this?” I asked. Stabbing Dan hadn’t exactly worked, after all.
“Haven’t you ever seen a zombie movie?” he replied incredulously, and that’s when all hell broke loose.
The door burst inward, an explosion of wooden splinters peppering the floor and missing my feet by inches. I jumped back and put myself behind Seb. The ensuing wave of zombies latched onto him as their primary target, suddenly changing directions and moving slowly toward him like an unstoppable wall of death.
I looked down at the knife Seb had given me. I felt awkward and clumsy with the hilt clasped tightly in my fist, and I wished he’d given me a gun instead. Not that a gun would have helped much considering my inexperience with any type of weapon, but I would have felt a little bit safer.
As I gave the knife a bit of a flourish, trying to get a feel for the balance of the blade, it promptly slipped from my fingers and clattered onto the tile floor.
And every zombie’s head turned on its axis to face me as I bent down to retrieve it.
“Move!” Seb said, and I flung myself to the side just in time to watch as he took advantage of the distraction by driving the iron poker home in the back of one of the zombies’ skulls. I watched as the lot of them once again pivoted to face the new threat. It was almost comical, in a way, watching their heads move like a bunch of kittens trying to track something shiny. “Do something!” Seb yelled as they continued encroaching upon him. He was now defenseless, his previous weapon firmly lodged in the head of the zombie lying on the ground in front of me.
I scrambled up off the ground and grabbed it, pulling as hard as I could until the poker finally came free with a revolting squelch.
“Peaches, come on!”
At a loss for what to do, I threw the sharp implement wildly at the backs of the zombies, watching with my lip tucked between my teeth as it whizzed by every single one of them without causing so much as a scratch before embedding itself in the wall just inches from Seb’s face.
He stared at me in wide-eyed shock. “Seriously?”
With poorly-timed grace, Joel ran through the open doorway just in time to watch as Seb skewered another zombie, this time straight through the top of its head. He wiped the blood spatter from his face and wrenched the poker free, giving Joel a cocky smirk as he moved to flank the remaining zombies. “Just in time for the grand finale, huh?”
Joel swooned—eyes rolling back, hand lifted up to his forehead, the works—and hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. I rushed over to his side, letting the knife fall to the ground again as I took his face between my hands to check on him.
“He’s fine,” Seb informed me in between heaving breaths. “We’ve got bigger problems right now.”
Two of the zombies had indeed split off from the others and were headed straight for us. I picked up the knife and got back to my feet, holding the weapon out in front of me with both hands and pretending not to notice as it trembled between my fingers.
“Aim for the eyes,” Seb suggested. “It’s a little easier.” I watched as he took down another zombie, leaving just four between the both of us.
I nodded, eyes glued to the lumbering corpse just feet from me. I reminded myself that I’d already done this once before. Stabbing a zombie in the eye couldn’t be harder than setting it on fire.
It was slightly more difficult than I’d thought.
I struggled to wedge the blade into the zombie’s eye socket, trying to ignore the viscous bodily fluids oozing from the facial wounds I’d managed to inflict before finally succeeding in my efforts to kill the thing.
I hadn’t come away unscathed either; the zombie had dug claw-like fingernails into my arms, leaving long bloody furrows from elbow to wrist.
And in the time it’d taken me to down just one zombie, Seb had taken care of the other three and was standing over Joel panting.
“Where the hell is your sword?” I asked, a little out of breath myself.
Seb scowled. “Someone didn’t stash it in the car when we left the bar that night, and it got swiped.”
“You were bleeding to death!” I protested. “What was I supposed to do?”
“We don’t have time for this,” Seb muttered, pushing past me to get through the door and peeking outside. “There’s bound to be more coming.”
“More?” I sank to the ground to check on my brother. He seemed okay, but I was worried he might have hit his head when he collapsed.
“Yeah. This was just the warm-up. We don’t want to be here when the main attraction decides to show.” Seb walked back over to me and crouched next to Joel, slapping him full across the face before I could even voice a protest.
“Jesus!” Joel shot upright, looking around himself frantically, only relaxing when he met my eyes. “What the hell happened? What is he doing here?”
“Calm down,” I said gingerly. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to transition Joel back into the land of the living after he’d been knocked out. “He’s here to help. We’re fine now.”
“You passed out like a right damsel in distress,” Seb said scathingly, “and left me and Peaches here to deal with the clean-up. Shame your purported martial arts skills were useless in a real fight.” Seb stood up and carefully took the knife from my right hand, heading deeper into the apartment. I watched as he cautiously opened each of the four doors branching off from the hallway and looked inside, presumably to make sure that we were actually in the clear and wouldn’t be ambushed yet again in the next five minutes.
Joel was still looking around in bewilderment at the ruins of our apartment, the floor littered with corpses and the debris left from the destruction of the front door. The longer he stayed confused, the better; the minute he figured out where the hell he was and what was going on, he’d start getting confrontational.
When Seb stalked back over to us, his expression had taken on a considerable amount of venom, and I found myself shrinking back from him.
“This is all your fault,” he spat, pointing directly at me.
“You think it’s a coincidence that you go after your little friend Dan, and then a whole flock of zombies show up a few days later at your front door?” Seb asked, hands on hips in a posture that should have made him look ridiculous but instead seemed to only enhance the aura of intimidation emanating from him. “Because I don’t think there’s any shred of doubt that this is directly tied to you. And god forbid I ever go to this much trouble to keep an eye on a civilian ever again.”
“You were watching us?” Joel said angrily, trying to push me off of him so he could stand up.
“You?” Seb replied flatly. “Not so much. I was trying to keep your sister here from getting herself killed. For the second time.”
“It’s a long story, Joel,” I said quickly. “I promise I—”
“We don’t have time for this,” Seb said again, a strangled noise of frustration tumbling from his lips as he stomped over to me and grabbed my arm. “We have to go now.”
“What?” I said, reflexively yanking my arm out of his grip. “We’re not leaving, and we’re definitely not going anywhere with you.” I looked to Joel for support, but he wasn’t looking at me, his eyes focused intently on Seb instead.
“I don’t think you understand the situation you’re in right now,” Seb said in quiet voice, staring me down without giving an inch. “You do not have a choice here. More are coming, and they are not going to stop until they get what they want.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Which is what makes all this even riskier. I don’t know anything about their motives or why you pissed them off so much.”
“But you think this is something to do with the man from before?”
“Letuch? Undoubtedly. Zombies don’t act on their own. Someone has to direct them. Give them orders.”
Joel was still staring at Seb like we were speaking in tongues. “Okay, enough of this. I want an explanation. Right now.”
“What part of ‘no time’ don’t you two get?” Seb demanded, throwing up his hands in frustration. When it became clear that neither of us were planning on budging, he let out a sigh and sat down on the waist-high shelf that stood untouched next to what was left of our front door. “Your idiot sister here,” he began, directing his spiel at Joel now, “is the reason I was injured back at Karma.”
I opened my mouth to dispute that point, but closed it when Joel squeezed my wrist and glanced at me in warning. “How so?” he asked.
“She cooked up some half-baked plan to get revenge on the guy who murdered her friend. The details aren’t that important.” He glanced over at me as he said this, and I flinched from the force of his glare. “What is important, is that in doing so she managed to attract the attention of someone who really doesn’t like humans. And now, for whatever reason, he’s out for her blood. Which is why we need to skedaddle. Sitting here, answering stupid questions so you can satisfy your curiosity? Not exactly high on my list of priorities right now.”
I was seething now. Could he be any more of a giant dick?
“Her blood,” Joel repeated. “This dude’s after Pem specifically?”
The hard lines in Seb’s face softened as he realized what Joel was insinuating.
“No,” I said abruptly, barging into their conversation before it could proceed any further. Seb had already given Joel too many ideas already. “I have a job, we have responsibilities, I can’t just go gallivanting off with—”
“Your job doesn’t matter,” Joel cut in. He was looking at me now, but the expression on his face made me wish he wasn’t. “It’s a drop in the bucket. It always has been. You know as well as I do that it costs more than you bring in on a good week to even keep you around.”
I’d always known that was the case at the back of my mind, but having Joel actually say the words out loud was worse than a slap to the face. I turned away from him, blinking furiously to keep tears from springing to my eyes. Seb was suddenly in my space then, one hand cupping my cheek as he forced me to meet his eyes.
“You care about your brother, don’t you?” he asked softly.
I nodded, the movement feeling like it took far more effort than should have been required for such a simple action.
“Pemberly, please,” Joel was saying.
“You think this will keep him safe?” I asked. My gaze felt like it was tethered to Seb’s. I couldn’t have turned my head if I wanted to. “If I leave?”
“It’s the best thing for both of you,” Seb replied, still staring deeply into my eyes with his own piercing blue gaze.
“Okay,” I whispered, unable to look away.
When Seb’s hand fell from my face as he turned back toward my brother, it was like all the air suddenly rushed out of my body, leaving me feeling deflated and empty. It wasn’t the aching emptiness I’d felt after Lila’s death, or even the anxious hollow feeling I’d had after killing Dan, but something altogether more visceral and difficult to define.
I took a moment to collect myself before turning around to face the two men, not wanting Joel to see how much his words had wounded me. I knew deep down that he was just trying to say what I needed to hear in order to make me leave, but now that it had been said, it wasn’t something either of us could take back.
“You should leave, too,” Seb continued, the tone of his voice more businesslike now that he was speaking to Joel. “Stay with a friend for a few weeks if you can; don’t come back here. Wait until you hear from us, okay?”
Joel nodded, and I could see him turning toward me out of the corner of my eye. “Pemberly?” he said quietly. “Pem, come on.”
“I need a minute,” I said, pushing past him to practically sprint to the safety of my bedroom. Slamming the door shut, I dove onto my bed, squeezing my pillow tightly between my fingers until it became physically painful.
A few minutes passed, and I heard my door slowly creak open.
“Go away, Joel,” I grumbled.
“Guess again,” Seb replied, closing the door with a loud click. I could barely hear his footsteps on the carpet, but I could tell he had wandered over to my desk when he began rifling through the stacks of paper that covered every available inch of space. “Hmm,” he said with an audible note of criticism. “I see you’ve certainly done your research on zombies. Pity you missed the part where you’re supposed to stab them in the brain.”
“I figured that was made up,” I replied, unable to help myself. “Because it’s in so many bad movies.”
“Fiction often gets closer to the truth than you’d think,” he said. The end of my bed dipped alarmingly as he sat down on the flimsy mattress. “So here’s the thing,” he said hesitantly. “I’m not great at playing nice. But I am trying to help you. You and your brother. I don’t want either of you to get hurt if I can prevent it.”
“I know,” I said with a sigh, rolling over onto my back to look at him.
He was wearing a placating smile that, combined with his angelic features, made him irresistible. “So you’ll come with me?”
“Just for a little while?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Just for a little while.”