Molly smelled the zombie before she heard it.
At first she thought it was the smell of some dead animal that her shovel had unearthed as she dug. It made her squidge up her nose in disgust, but for a while she kept on digging.
The hole was looking better than any hole she’d ever dug before. By now it was twice as tall as she was and the walls were almost perfectly vertical. They formed a circle six feet in diameter. The dirt was solid and held together well, and when she looked up she could see roots sticking out of the sides like bony fingers and bits of hair.
She liked the digging. I helped her forget. Forget about the fire. Forget about school. Forget about everything.
She heard the zombie before she saw him.
He wheezed and moaned as he approached, and her first reaction was anger. Why would people not leave her alone? She went out of her way not to be in theirs. She had tramped back through these woods for twenty minutes before she picked this spot to dig.
She knew people didn’t like her. It was because of the fire, what the flames had done. The doctor said he could fix her face, but Pappy said that even if he had that kind of money he wouldn’t spend it on a kid that wasn’t even his. Momma didn’t like it when Pappy said that, but Momma was in prison after the fire, so she was with Pappy and that was that.
Pappy said she was a monster. “Like some freak out of some horror movie, ain’t she?” he’d told his friends one night when they were getting drunk and loud. Molly knew all about horror movies. She had watched them all the time when Momma was around. She had a big binder full of DVDs that had belonged to Momma and late at night after Pappy had gone to bed she would sit in her room and watch guts splatter and the blood spray until she couldn’t keep her eyes open any more.
She knew little kids weren’t supposed to watch those kinds of movies, but even when she was scared of the things on the screen it made her think of Momma, made her remember curling up on the couch and falling asleep in her arms.
The moaning got louder, and Molly started to worry. She took the rusty shovel she’d found in Pappy’s old tool shed and tossed it out over her head. Then she grabbed the knotted rope she’d tied to a tree, and pulled herself out. She was still climbing out of the hole, legs scrabbling against dirt, hands clenching the rope when she saw the zombie. It was only twenty feet away, but it was facing away from her, maybe staring after some squirrel that it had seen skittering through the leaves.
She knew it was a zombie right off. She’d seen enough of them in the movies to know what a zombie looked like; tattered clothes, rotting flesh, the low almost guttural moan that escaped its lips when it breathed out.
But this zombie was alone. In the movies zombies came in big packs that would surround the heroes and try to eat them. That’s what made them so dangerous. But one zombie alone…even she could deal with him.
She climbed out of the hole as quietly as possible, and picked up the shovel. It was too big for her, and the zombie was taller than she, but she thought she stood a decent chance of bashing in its skull if she got a good swing going. She adjusted her grip on the handle. The zombie still hadn’t moved, hadn’t noticed her standing there.
“Hey…you,” she called uncertainly
The thing turned, groaned, lurched toward her arms out. So this was a proper slow zombie then, and not one of the running ones. Momma always said that the fast ones weren’t really zombies, but Molly thought that it probably didn’t matter really as long as the person had been dead and now they were alive again. Staying out of its reach was easy enough. She could walk faster than the poor shambling thing, never mind running.
She raised the shovel for the killing blow as the dead man shambled toward her, but something gave her pause. He was wearing dirty blue jeans and a shirt for a band called the Insane Clown Pose. She’d seen some of Momma’s old friends with the same shirt. Momma didn’t like the band, which Molly never understood, because she thought Insane Clown Pose sounded like the name of a great scary movie.
She didn’t think she recognized the zombie, but it was hard to tell with its flesh all grey and rotting.
She kept her eyes on it, backing away slowly, leading it on toward the hole. When she reached the edge of the pit she skirted around the hole as close as she dared without falling in. The zombie lurched onward. If it was smart it would go around the pit and she’d have to lead it back around and knock it in with a branch or the handle of the shovel. But she didn’t have to worry. The zombie stumbled straight forward and fell down into the hole. It landed with a grunt and a raw snapping sound that wasn’t quite like anything she’d heard in the movies. She tiptoed back to the edge of the pit and looked in, worried that the zombie might have hit his head too hard and split his skull open, but when she looked down into the hole she saw that the zombie had only broken his arm. The bone was sticking out of the rotted flesh at an odd angle, but she’d seen worse before, and anyway everyone knew that zombies didn’t use their arms for much anyway.
She sat down cross-legged at the edge of the hole, and watched as the zombie scrabbled dumbly at the earthen sides of its prison. “You can’t get out you know,” she said. “And anyway if you did someone would shoot you.”
The zombie groaned its zombie groan and looked up at her with dead eyes.
“Not much good being one zombie is it?” she continued. “I mean, I’m only a little girl and you’re not much danger at all. You’re supposed to come in big hoards.”
She tossed a twig into the pit. “You like that word? ‘Hoards’? It means a big bunch of people or creatures. I saw it in one of mommy’s scary movies.”
By now the zombie had gone back to scratching feebly at the dirt surrounding it.
“What happened to your hoard?” Suzy asked. “Did they leave you? Were they taken away? My Momma was taken away after the big fire. Pappy says she’s in prison for cooking something, but that’s silly because Momma couldn’t cook to save her life.” The girl sighed and leaned back looking at the leaves rustling overhead. “Maybe you never had a hoard,” she said. “Maybe you’re the first. You know what that means? That means you’re unique, and unique means special. You’re the only zombie in the whole wide world and I found you.”
From far away she heard the sound of Pappy calling her name. “You stay here,” she said. “I have to go now, but I’ll come tomorrow and bring you something to eat.”
Pappy sent her to bed early that night, but she lay there awake for more than an hour thinking about zombie. She knew zombies didn’t get lonely, or worried or scared, but she thought that maybe her zombie did. Just a little. And it made her sad to think of him out there scraping against the dirt walls of the pit all by himself in the dark.
The next day, school took forever. Scotty Preston pushed her into some bushes and Laura Darcy and Stacy Stiles laughed and called her trailer trash. She waited until they couldn’t see her before she let herself cry.
When the bus pulled up on her road she almost tripped on the bottom step she was in such a hurry. But she didn’t go straight into the woods. Instead she swerved off the path to the left where old man Jenkins mobile home sat, half-buried in a pile of old trash bags. A colony of rats had infested the heap, burrowing tunnels through the thin plastic bags and rotting food like huge ants.
Molly liked the rats. Momma had sometimes watched movies where princesses in beautiful dresses had singing and talking rats for friends. Molly didn’t like these movies as much as the ones with the monsters and the zombies, but she liked idea of talking rats and sometimes when she was bored she would come down the lane and talk to the rats. The rats never talked back, though Molly couldn’t be sure if this was because they didn’t know how or simply didn’t want to talk to someone as scary looking as her.
Today, she merely waved and said “Hello rats!” as she passed the mound of trash. She marched right up onto the porch where Mr. Jenkin’s cat Captain Tinkles was lounging in the sun. Captain Tinkles probably wasn’t his real name, but Molly had never heard Mr. Jenkins call him much of anything other than “lazy cat” and saying “Captain Tinkles” made her laugh.
Captain Tinkles was sitting on the porch, watching the rat mound with a look of practiced disinterest. He barely turned his head when Molly walked up and said, “Hello Mr. Tinkles.” But when she wrapped her arms around him and tried to stuff him into her backpack the formerly lazy cat fought and clawed at her arms so much that eventually she gave up on using the bag and decided to carry him instead.
Captain Tinkles didn’t particularly like being carried, but Molly suspected that the rats didn’t particularly like being eaten and that had never stopped Captain Tinkles, so she didn’t see why it should stop her either. The cat scratched at her arms all the way back into the woods, but she kept a firm grip around his body. If she lost him now she’d be all afternoon chasing him down again, and there was a spelling test she needed to study for and Pappy wouldn’t like it if she came home too late.
The pit was just as she’d left it zombie and all. She’d been worried that he might get out somehow and get himself shot but he was still there not moving much just standing there and waving his arms a bit.
Molly called out, “Hi zombie, I brought you some food like I said.”
Captain Tinkles seemed to sense that something was very wrong indeed here and began to scratch and squirm more than ever. But Molly held on tight to the cat and held him out over the pit. The zombie turned its head up and gave a low groan and Molly dropped the cat into the hole.
Captain Tinkles put up a pretty good fight. He ran circles in the bottom of the hole for a while, and because the zombie was slow he couldn’t catch him at first. He tried a couple of times to climb up the side of the hole, but his paws couldn’t find purchase in the dirt wall and he sank back to the bottom both times. It wasn’t long after that the zombie caught him. Captain Tinkles rowled and thrashed in the zombie’s rotting arms. He swiped out with his claws and tore off half of the zombies nose, but the zombie didn’t much seem to mind. He tore into Captain Tinkles’ soft stomach with yellowed teeth and ripped out chunks of bloody fur. After a while Captain Tinkles stopped thrashing.
“And now you know how the rats felt when you ate them,” Molly said.
That night she ate microwaved pizza in her bed and watched an old movie about birds that killed people and took over the world. It was in black and white and the gore wasn’t as good and nasty as it was in a lot of movies, but she watched it all the way through. Pappy was out tonight and there was no one to yell at her to turn off the lights and go to bed.
When the movie was over she got out a piece of paper and wrote down what had happened in the movie. Then, she wrote about the zombie in the hole because she thought that might be interesting too. When she was done she put the letter in an envelope and put Momma’s prison address on it.
Pappy had said the Momma didn’t have movies in the prison where she was, so Molly always wrote down the things she saw in movies and sent them to Momma so she wouldn’t miss out.
The next day she was on her hands and knees looking under the soda machines at school for enough quarters to buy a stamp with when someone kicked her hard in the backside and sent her sprawling forward so her face hit the ground hard. Her lip split open and started to bleed and hot tears welled up in her eyes. She tried to get up and fight back, but he pushed her back down and ran away laughing.
In the bathroom she held a wad of paper towels against her lip until the bleeding slowed. She didn’t like it in the bathroom. There were too many mirrors.
She remembered what she looked like before the fire, and every time she looked into a mirror the monster that stared back at her frightened her more than any of the movie monsters she’d ever seen with Momma.
“That’s not who I am,” she would tell herself, but she saw the way that people didn’t want to look at her, even nice people, and she wasn’t so sure. Maybe Scotty and the rest of the kids were right to be mean to her. On TV the good people were always beautiful. Only evil people were ugly.
When she got home Pappy was drunk. He was waving a piece of paper around and yelling and cursing a lot. He seemed sort of mad at her, but he was crying too, and between the blubbering and slurred words he was hard to understand so she took the paper he was waving around and read it.
It was about Momma, and there were a lot of words.
Molly got tripped up on “exs-angui-nation” which she looked up and found out meant “bled to death”, but others like “suspected suicide” she understood just fine.
Molly didn’t cry. She wanted to, but she didn’t. She though of the face in the mirror. She couldn’t imagine that face crying. Monsters didn’t cry.
Momma was dead, and monsters didn’t cry, and there was a zombie in a pit she had dug in the forest.
Monsters. Didn’t. Cry.
What did monsters do?
It was harder than she expected to get Pappy to come out to the pit. He was planted on his bed in the dark, sprawled out like a bag of blubbering lard.
“You need to come with me,” she said. And when he didn’t reply she said again, louder, “I need your help.”
Pappy mumbled something that sounded like, “Go to your room.”
She paused for a moment trying to think what she could say that would budge him out of his drunken stupor, finally settling for, “There’s a man. He fell in a hole in the woods and he can’t get out. He’s hurt real bad.”
All of this was more or less the truth. Momma had always warned her not to tell lies except to the police if you had to.
Pappy still seemed unlikely to move, so Molly played her trump card. “I thought about calling the law to help, only-”
Pappy swore and rolled off of the bed, planting his huge feet in a pair of camo crocs. “Were’s this feller at you say?”
She led him back into the woods. She was worried it would be hard to push him into the hole with her zombie. Then she thought of her dead Momma and the face and the mirror and all the mean things Pappy had said about her.
It wasn’t hard at all.
She waited until the screams died out and then walked back to the house. She walked to Mr. Jenkins trailer and knocked on the door. She said, “Mr. Jenkins I think my dad is hurt.”
When she pushed him into the hole his neck snapped. But it didn’t kill him. Not before the zombies could bite him.
Now the hole was getting crowded. She went to Pappy’s old shed and got a ladder. The sun was starting to go down by the time she dragged it back out and let it down into the hole. She waited to make sure the three groaning zombies were smart enough to climb out then she ran back toward the house as fast as she could.
She dumped a whole can of gas onto Mr. Jenkins trash pile and set it alight. The flames burned hot and hard and for a moment she thought of the fire that had burned her face.
Now the firemen would come and find the fire.
Then the zombies would come and find the firemen.
She went back into Pappy’s house, turned on the television, and put in Night of the Living Dead. It was in black and white, and she didn’t like it as much other zombie movies, but it was one of Momma’s favourites.
A little later she heard screams and the crack of gunshots coming from down the drive. She turned up the volume and kept watching. But before the movie was over her eyes grew heavy and she fell into sleep.
And as she dreamed the world filled up with monsters.