“Thanks, Angelkins. I was about to go down to the corner and get some fried chicken.”
I made a face. “That stuff’ll give you the runs.”
He snorted. “Like the burritos won’t?” But he pulled a plate out of the cabinet and snagged one of the frozen burritos.
“Yeah, well, I got some decent food too.” Glancing at my dad as I unloaded the bags, I pulled out a bag of apples. “You should eat some fruit after you eat that. You’ll feel better.”
He didn’t look up as he unwrapped the burrito and stuck the plate into the microwave. “I’d feel better if my daughter had told me she’d been in an accident.” He punched the start button, then turned to me, an odd expression of hurt shimmering in his face.
I sighed. Small towns and the gossip mill. Yeah, well, you were passed out on the couch when I made it home from the ER the other night, and I was relieved since I didn’t want to deal with questions about why I was covered in blood. I knew you’d either be an asshole or you’d pretend to be concerned and caring—depending on how drunk you were, and I didn’t want to deal with either reaction. The times that he was like this—almost normal and real—were so rare that they were damn near precious. And I’d learned to never count on them.
“I didn’t want to worry you,” I said instead. “I wasn’t hurt other than a little cut on my head. It wasn’t my fault, so I didn’t get in any trouble or anything.”
“You still coulda told me,” he mumbled, though there wasn’t much conviction behind it. It was as if he knew how unpredictable his reactions could be. Hell, I was sure he did know, though that made it tougher to deal with in a way. If he knew how much of an asshole he could be, why couldn’t he stop being one?
“Sorry,” I mumbled back. I busied myself with putting food away for a few minutes. “You going anywhere? I was gonna cook dinner tonight for the two of us.”
He gave me a doubtful look, and I had to grin. “Okay, I bought some stuff I can heat up,” I amended. “But it’s still better than that gas station chicken, right?”
“That’d be nice, Angel. Did you buy more beer?”
I ignored the twinge of uneasiness in my gut and pointed to the bag at the end of the counter. “Just a six-pack. I paid all the bills today, and I was running out of money.” That was a lie. I had a case in the trunk of my car, but I wasn’t going to bring the whole thing in. Things were cool right now. If he drank a six-pack it probably wouldn’t make much difference except to keep him mellow. But if I brought the case inside, he’d be drunk and vicious by the end of the night.
I’d learned how to dole it out to him. Sure, I was a shit daughter for giving him booze and enabling his alcoholism. If anyone wanted to call me out on it, they were welcome to spend a week with him and see what it was like.
He shuffled off to the living room with the six-pack while I finished putting things away. The instructions for the frozen lasagna said it would take thirty minutes to cook, so I stuck that in the oven and set about trying to clear out some of the dirty dishes in the sink. The dishwasher hadn’t worked in years, and the usual routine was that one of us would break down and hand wash dishes about the time we ran out of either clean plates or counter space.
A soapy glass slipped out of my hand to burst into a million pieces on the kitchen tile.
“You okay?” my dad shouted from the living room.
“Yeah,” I called back, crouching as I watched the larger pieces slowly spin to a stop in shallow pools of suds. A shudder swept over me, along with a memory from what had to be over ten years ago. I’d been carrying my plate from the kitchen to the table and had dropped it in this exact spot. The plate had broken into three perfect pieces, but the food—red beans and rice—had spattered all over the floor.
I couldn’t remember what happened next, but I didn’t really want or need to. The next piece of the memory was of me huddled in the corner by the refrigerator and bleeding from a cut on my arm, Dad wrestling a piece of the broken plate away from my mom, her screaming about me and how awful I was and her horrible life. . . .
My fingers brushed the scar on my tricep. After ten years I could barely feel it anymore. Taking a shaking breath, I began to gather up the larger pieces of glass. After dumping them into the trash bin I found the broom and swept up the rest of the glass, then went ahead and swept the whole kitchen. Yeah, Mom had been crazy, but at least the house hadn’t been a shithole when she was around.
Bending to pull the mop bucket out of the closet, I paused, staring at the slender triangle of glass sticking out of my lower shin. It wasn’t big—maybe an eight of an inch wide at the base, and about an inch of it was sticking out. I swallowed, then pulled it out, instantly unnerved to see that another half inch of it had been buried in my leg. But it still didn’t hurt. Or bleed. At least, not blood like I was used to. A thick and dark bead slowly welled up from the cut, as if forced there by gravity more than anything else.
Taking a shaking breath, I dropped the glass into the trash can, then pressed my fingers to my neck, seeking a pulse.
I don’t have one! I began to mentally wail just as I felt a low throb. Going completely still, I kept my fingers pressed to my neck as I silently counted. One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. . . .
The vein throbbed beneath my fingers. Two seconds later it throbbed again. I dropped my hand as unease tightened my gut. Okay, so a heartbeat every two seconds. I wasn’t the greatest at math, but even I could figure out that meant my pulse rate was about thirty—and I’d been around the medical types long enough to know that thirty beats per minute wasn’t considered terribly healthy. Yet I wasn’t dizzy or light-headed. I was simply . . . hungry.
My mood did backflips while I pulled the mop and bucket out of the closet. I knew I should be more freaked out, but weirdly it all made sense considering everything else I’d experienced. I’d bled totally normally when the van wrecked, but I was well-fed on brains at the time.
Was I really alive at all? Or was I more alive when I was full on brains, and less when I wasn’t?
Scowling, I swiped the mop across the floor. What difference did it make anyway? I was still moving, and that was what ultimately mattered.
Right. Being kinda dead is nothing to worry about at all, I thought.
I turned my attention to the sinkful of nasty dishes and did my best to put questions about how alive I was or wasn’t out of my head. By the time the lasagna was done the floor was clean, the dishes were washed and put away, and I’d managed to replace my worry over my degree of alive-ness with a healthy distaste for how dirty the kitchen had been.
This is the cleanest this place has been in years, I thought with a grimace as I pulled the food out of the oven. Had my dad and I simply given up? Yeah, that’s exactly what we did. It didn’t happen immediately, but after Mom was gone somehow we came to a point where we accepted that there was no point in trying to keep things clean or make things right. I know I had.
But now my situation wasn’t complete shit. Or rather, it was shit in different ways. I ate brains, but at least now I knew I wasn’t crazy. Not after seeing the other zombie. I knew what I was—well, I was about 98% sure—even if I had no fucking idea how I’d ended up that way.
However, right now I wasn’t craving brains as much as a damn clue. How the fuck did this happen to me? Shit, maybe I did overdose, and then . . . what? Maybe Zeke the Zombie could fill me in. I’d told him to come to the morgue, but what if he came by while I was out on this leave? Would he come back? I wasn’t all that eager to share brains with him, but I was also getting desperate for some information, some sort of framework I could put this whole crazy scenario into.
Surely he’d come back. He needed brains.
And so do I. Yeah, I’m a brain eater. A zombie. That’s still shit. That’s not normal. I was never going to be normal again. Why the hell was I trying so hard?
I practically sang for joy when I got the call at six A.M. to pick up a body.
I’d never been so eager to get back to work in my entire life. And, strangely, it wasn’t only because I was completely out of brains. Yeah that was a huge part of it, especially since I was feeling more and more dead—the sky looked grey, even though it was cloudless, and I’d turned the radio off because it sounded like a bunch of tuneless jangling. Plus, I was obscenely hungry. But for the first time I actually felt as if I was “one of the gang” where I worked. Maybe it had something to do with the type of job it was. Maybe we felt closer to each other because no one else could possibly understand what it was like to be around death all the time.
I snorted. Look at me, trying to be all philosophical and shit. Maybe I simply liked my job because the money was good, the people were cool, and it wasn’t in a convenience store. Either way, I was damn glad to be back at it.
As I neared the address, I let out a low whistle. This was no ordinary body pickup. The street was lined with sheriff’s cars and a bunch of unmarked cars, as well as two crime scene vans. An ambulance was departing in the opposite direction as I neared the address, but it didn’t seem to be in any hurry.
This is a crime scene, I realized with an absurd little thrill. A real one, not simply some guy who dropped dead in his living room. It must be a murder!
Okay, it wasn’t as if I wanted someone to get knocked off. I wasn’t that much of a sicko. But I totally loved all those forensic cop shows, and this would be my first chance to really see the whole crime scene investigation thing up close, not merely watching a bored tech snapping some pics and taking a few measurements.
The ambulance had left a convenient opening in the row of cars, and I quickly pulled the van in before anyone else could claim it. Climbing out of the van, I saw that Derrel hadn’t been so fortunate and was walking up to the house from practically the other end of the block.
“Lucky bitch,” he said with a good-natured grumble, nodding to my primo parking spot.