Dec 29 2011 9:00am
For a New Year’s treat we’ve got a short story from Carrie Vaughn’s anthology of Kitty Norville tales, Kitty’s Greatest Hits. Tor.com wishes you a Happy upcoming New Year! May your parties be delightful and full of merry loved ones! Or at least some really fun new friends!
When Kitty decides to spend New Year’s Eve at a friend’s party rather than wallowing alone, she gets more than she bargained for. So does everyone else at the bash when a strange, vacant woman appears....
Kitty’s Zombie New Year
I’d refused to stay home alone on New Year’s Eve. I wasn’t going to be one of those angst-ridden losers stuck at home watching the ball drop in Times Square while sobbing into a pint of gourmet ice cream.
No, I was going to do it over at a friend’s, in the middle of a party.
Matt, a guy from the radio station where I was a DJ, was having a wild party in his cramped apartment. Lots of booze, lots of music, and the TV blaring the Times Square special from New York—being in Denver, we’d get to celebrate New Year’s a couple of times over. I wasn’t going to come to the party, but he’d talked me into it. I didn’t like crowds, which was why the late shift at the station suited me. But here I was, and it was just like I knew it would be: 10:00 p.m., the ball dropped, and everyone except me had somebody to kiss. I gripped a tumbler filled with untasted rum and Coke and glowered at the television, wondering which well-preserved celebrity guest hosts were vampires and which ones just had portraits in their attics that were looking particularly hideous.
It would happen all over again at midnight.
Sure enough, shortly after the festivities in New York City ended, the TV station announced it would rebroadcast everything at midnight.
An hour later, I’d decided to find Matt and tell him I was going home to wallow in ice cream after all, when a woman screamed. The room fell instantly quiet, and everyone looked toward the front door, from where the sound had blasted.
The door stood open, and one of the crowd stared over the threshold, to another woman who stood motionless. A new guest had arrived and knocked, I assumed. But she just stood there, not coming inside, and the screamer stared at her, one hand on the doorknob and the other hand covering her mouth. The scene turned rather eerie and surreal. The seconds ticked by, no one said or did anything.
Matt, his black hair in a ponytail, pushed through the crowd to the door. The motion seemed out of place, chaotic. Still, the woman on the other side stood frozen, unmoving. I felt a sinking feeling in my gut.
Matt turned around and called, “Kitty!”
Sinking feeling confirmed.
I made my own way to the door, shouldering around people. By the time I reached Matt, the woman who’d answered the door had edged away to take shelter in her boyfriend’s arms. Matt turned to me, dumbstruck.
The woman outside was of average height, though she slumped, her shoulders rolled forward as if she was too tired to hold herself up. Her head tilted to one side. She might have been a normal twenty-something, recent college grad, in worn jeans, an oversized blue T-shirt, and canvas sneakers. Her light hair was loose and stringy, like it hadn’t been washed in a couple of weeks.
I glanced at Matt.
“What’s wrong with her?” he said.
“What makes you think I know?”
“Because you know all about freaky shit.” Ah, yes. He was referring to my call-in radio show about the supernatural. That made me an expert, even when I didn’t know a thing.
“Do you know her?”
“No, I don’t.” He turned back to the room, to the dozens of faces staring back at him, round-eyed. “Hey, does anybody know who this is?”
The crowd collectively pressed back from the door, away from the strangeness.
“Maybe it’s drugs.” I called to her, “Hey.”
She didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t flinch. Her expression was slack, completely blank. She might have been asleep, except her eyes were open, staring straight ahead. They were dull, almost like a film covered them. Her mouth was open a little.
I waved my hand in front of her face, which seemed like a really clichéd thing to do. She didn’t respond. Her skin was terribly pale, clammy looking, and I couldn’t bring myself to touch her. I didn’t know what I would do if she felt cold and dead.
Matt said, “Geez, she’s like some kind of zombie.”
Oh, no. No way. But the word clicked. It was a place to start, at least.
Someone behind us said, “I thought zombies, like, attacked people and ate brains and stuff.”
I shook my head. “That’s horror movie zombies. Not voodoo slave zombies.”
“So you do know what’s going on?” Matt said hopefully.
“Not yet. I think you should call 911.”
He winced and scrubbed his hand through his hair. “But if it’s a zombie, if she’s dead an ambulance isn’t—”
“Call an ambulance.” He nodded and grabbed his cell phone off the coffee table. “And I’m going to use your computer.”
I did what any self-respecting American in this day and age would do in such a situation: I searched the Internet for zombies.
I couldn’t say it was particularly useful. A frighteningly large number of the sites that came up belonged to survivalist groups planning for the great zombie infestation that would bring civilization collapsing around our ears. They helpfully informed a casual reader such as myself that the government was ill prepared to handle the magnitude of the disaster that would wreak itself upon the country when the horrible zombie-virus mutation swept through the population. We must be prepared to defend ourselves against the flesh-eating hordes bent on our destruction.
This was a movie synopsis, not data, and while fascinating, it wasn’t helpful.
A bunch of articles on voodoo and Haitian folklore seemed mildly more useful, but even those were contradictory: The true believers in magic argued with the hardened scientists, and even the scientists argued among themselves about whether the legends sprang from the use of certain drugs or from profound psychological disorders.
I’d seen enough wild stories play out in my time that I couldn’t discount any of these alternatives. These days, magic and science were converging on one another.
Someone was selling zombie powders on eBay. They even came with an instruction booklet. That might be fun to bid on just to say I’d done it. Even if I did, the instruction book that might have some insight on the problem wouldn’t get here in time.
Something most of the articles mentioned: Stories said that the taste of salt would revive a zombie. Revived them out of what, and into what, no one seemed to agree on. If they weren’t really dead but comatose, the person would be restored. If they were honest-to-God walking dead, they’d be released from servitude and make their way back to their graves.
I went to the kitchen and found a saltshaker.
If she really was a zombie, she couldn’t have just shown up here. She had come here for a specific reason, there had to be some connection. She was here to scare someone, which meant someone here had to know her. Nobody was volunteering any information.
Maybe she could tell me herself.
Finally, I had to touch her, in order to get the salt into her mouth. I put my hand on her shoulder. She swayed enough that I thought she might fall over, so I pulled away. A moment later, she steadied, remaining upright. I could probably push her forward, guide her, and make her walk like a puppet.
Swallowing back a lump of bile threatening to climb my throat, I held her chin, tipping her head back. Her skin was waxen, neither warm nor cold. Her muscles were limp, perfectly relaxed. Or dead. I tried not to think of it. She’d been drugged. That was the theory I was going for. Praying for, rather.
“What are you doing?” Matt said.
“Never mind. Did you call the ambulance?”
“They should be here any minute.”
I sprinkled a few shakes of salt into her mouth.
I had to tip her head forward and close her mouth for her because she couldn’t do it herself. And if she couldn’t do that, she surely couldn’t swallow. None of the information said she had to swallow the salt, just taste it. In cultures around the world salt had magical properties. It was a ward against evil, protection against fairies, a treasure as great as gold. It seemed so common and innocuous now. Hard to believe it could do anything besides liven up a basket of French fries.
Her eyes moved.
The film, the dullness went away, and her gaze focused. It flickered, as if searching or confused.
Fear tightened her features. Her shoulders bunched, and her fingers clenched into claws. She screamed.
She let out a wail of anguish, bone-leaching in its intensity. A couple of yelps of shock answered from within the apartment. Her face melted into an expression of despair, lips pulled back in a frown, eyes red and wincing. But she didn’t cry.
Reaching forward with those crooked fingers, she took a stumbling step forward. My heart racing, my nausea growing, I hurried out of her way. Another step followed, clumsy and unsure. She was like a toddler who’d just learned to walk. This was the slow, shuffling gait of a zombie in every B-grade horror movie I’d ever seen. The salt hadn’t cured her; it had just woken her up.
She stumbled forward, step by step, reaching. People scrambled out of her way.
She didn’t seem hungry. That look of utter pain and sadness remained locked on her features. She looked as if her heart had been torn out and smashed into pieces.
Her gaze searched wildly, desperately.
I ran in front of her, blocking her path. “Hey—can you hear me?” I waved my arms, trying to catch her attention. She didn’t seem to notice, but she shifted, angling around me. So I tried again. “Who are you? Can you tell me your name? How did this happen?”
Her gaze had focused on something behind me. When I got in front of her, she looked right through me and kept going like I wasn’t there. I turned to find what had caught her attention.
A man and woman sat wedged together in a secondhand armchair, looking like a Mack truck was about to run them down. The zombie woman shuffled toward them. Now that I was out of the way, she reached toward them, arms rigid and trembling. She moaned—she might have been trying to speak, but she couldn’t shape her mouth right. She was like an infant who desperately wanted something but didn’t have the words to say it. She was an infant in the body of an adult.
And what she wanted was the man in the chair.
A few steps away, her moaning turned into a wail. The woman in the chair screamed and fell over the arm to get away. The man wasn’t that nimble, or he was frozen in place.
The zombie wobbled on her next step, then fell to her knees, but that didn’t stop her reaching. She was close enough to grab his feet. Those clawlike hands clenched on his ankles, and she tried to pull herself forward, dragging herself on the carpet, still moaning.
The man shrieked and kicked at her, yanking his legs away and trying to curl up in the chair.
“Stop it!” I screamed at him, rushing forward to put myself between them.
She was sprawled on the floor now, crying gut-wrenching sobs. I held her shoulders and pulled her back from the chair, laying her on her back. Her arms still reached, but the rest of her body had become limp, out of her control.
“Matt, get a pillow and a blanket.” He ran to the bedroom to get them. That was all I could think—try to make her comfortable. When were those paramedics going to get here?
I looked at the guy in the chair. Like the rest of the people at the party, he was twenty-something. Thin and generically cute, he had shaggy dark hair, a preppy button-up shirt, and gray trousers. I wouldn’t have picked him out of the crowd.
“Who are you?” I said.
He even had a preppy name to go with the ensemble. I glanced at the woman who was with him. Huddled behind the armchair, she was starting to peer out. She had dyed black hair, a tiny nose stud, and a tight dress. More like the kind of crowd Matt hung out with. I wouldn’t have put her and Carson together. Maybe they both thought they were slumming.
“Do you know her?” I asked him, nodding at the zombie woman on the floor.
He shook his head quickly, pressing himself even farther back in the chair. He was sweating. Carson was about to lose it.
Matt returned and helped me fit the pillow under her head and spread the blanket over her. He, too, was beginning to see her as someone who was sick—not a monster.
“You’re lying,” I said. “She obviously knows you. Who is she?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!”
“Matt, who is this guy?”
Matt glanced at him. “Just met him tonight. He’s Trish’s new boyfriend.”
“Trish?” I said to the woman behind the armchair.
“I—I don’t know. At least, I’m not sure. I never met her, but I think . . . I think she’s his ex-girlfriend. Beth, I think. But Carson, you told me she moved away—”
Carson, staring at the woman on the floor, looked like he was about to have a screaming fit. He was still shaking his head.
I was ready to throttle him. I wanted an explanation. Maybe he really didn’t know. But if he was lying . . . “Carson!”
He flinched at my shout.
Sirens sounded down the street, coming closer. The paramedics. I hoped they could help her, but the sick feeling in my stomach hadn’t gone away.
“I’ll meet them on the street,” Matt said, running out.
“Beth,” I said to the woman. I caught her hands, managed to pull them down so they were resting on her chest. I murmured at her, and she quieted. Her skin color hadn’t gotten any better. She didn’t feel cold as death, but she felt cool. The salt hadn’t sent her back to any grave, and it hadn’t revived her. I wasn’t sure she could be revived.
A moment later, a couple of uniformed paramedics carrying equipment entered, followed by Matt. The living room should have felt crowded, but apparently as soon as the door cleared, most of the guests had fled. God, what a way to kill a party.
The paramedics came straight toward Beth. I got out of the way. They immediately knelt by her, checked her pulse, shined a light in her eyes. I breathed a little easier. Finally, someone was doing something useful.
“What happened?” one of them asked.
How did I explain this? She’s a zombie. That wasn’t going to work, because I didn’t think she was one anymore. She was a zombie didn’t sound any better.
“She was going to leave,” Carson said, suddenly, softly. Responding to the authority of the uniform, maybe. He stared at her, unable to look away. He spoke as if in a trance. “I didn’t want her to go. She asked me to come with her, to Seattle—but I didn’t want to do that, either. I wanted her to stay with me. So I . . . this stuff, this powder. It would make her do anything I wanted. I used it. But it . . . changed her. She wasn’t the same. She—was like that. Dead almost. I left her, but she followed. She kept following me—”
“Call it poisoning,” said one paramedic to the other.
“Where did you get this powder?” I said.
“Some guy on the Internet.”
I wanted to kill him. Wanted to put my hands around his throat and kill him.
“Kitty,” Matt said. I took a breath. Calmed down.
“Any idea what was in this powder?” one of the paramedics said, sounding like he was repressing as much anger as I was.
Carson shook his head.
“Try tetrodotoxin,” I said. “Induces a death-like coma. Also causes brain damage. Irreparable brain damage.”
Grimacing, the paramedic said, “We won’t be able to check that until we get her to the hospital. I don’t see any ID on her. I’m going to call in the cops, see if they’ve had a missing persons report on her. And to see what they want to do with him.”
Carson flinched at his glare.
Trish backed away. “If I tried to break up with you—would you have done that to me, too?” Her mouth twisted with unspoken accusations. Then, she fled.
Carson thought he’d make his own zombie slave girlfriend, then somehow wasn’t satisfied at the results. She probably wasn’t real good in bed. He’d probably done it, too—had sex with Beth’s brain-damaged, comatose body. The cops couldn’t get here fast enough, in my opinion.
“There’s two parts to it,” I said. “The powder creates the zombie. But then there’s the spell to bind her to you, to bind the slave to the master. Some kind of object with meaning, a receptacle for the soul. You have it. That’s why she followed you. That’s why she wouldn’t stay away.” The salt hadn’t broken that bond. She’d regained her will—but the damage was too great for her to do anything with it. She knew enough to recognize him and what he’d done to her, but could only cry out helplessly.
He reached into his pocket, pulled something out. He opened his fist to reveal what.
A diamond engagement ring lay in his palm.
Beth reacted, arcing her back, flailing, moaning. The paramedics freaked, pinned her arms, jabbed her with a hypodermic. She settled again, whimpering softly.
I took the ring from Carson. He glared at me, the first time he’d really looked at me. I didn’t see remorse in his eyes. Only fear. Like Victor Frankenstein, he’d created a monster and all he could do when confronted with it was cringe in terror.
“Matt, you have a string or a shoelace or something?”
He came back with a bootlace fresh out of the package. I put the ring on it, knotted it, and slipped it over Beth’s head. “Can you make sure this stays with her?” I asked the paramedics. They nodded.
This was half science, half magic. If the ring really did hold Beth’s soul, maybe it would help. If it didn’t help—well, at least Carson wouldn’t have it anymore.
The cops came and took statements from all of us, including the paramedics, then took Carson away. The paramedics took Beth away; the ambulance siren howled down the street, away.
Finally, when Matt and I were alone among the remains of his disaster of a party, I started crying. “How could he do that? How could he even think it? She was probably this wonderful, beautiful, independent woman, and he destroyed—”
Matt had poured two glasses of champagne. He handed me one.
“Happy New Year, Kitty.” He pointed at the clock on the microwave. 12:03 a.m.
Crap. I missed it. I started crying harder.
Matt, my friend, hugged me. So once again, I didn’t get a New Year’s kiss. This year, I didn’t mind.
Kitty’s Greatest Hits © Carrie Vaughn 2011