1. Why They Call Me That
When you think about it, there’s no way Mark was really the first case. First one broadcast on American TV, sure, but not the first altogether.
On average, nearly 300,000 people die every day, and that stat is from before all this started, so even if you narrow down the beginning to a window of just five seconds, that’s about eighty-three “first” cases. Eighty-three stories like mine. Some of them have to be technically earlier, a lot of them are probably more interesting, and a few might even be dumber, but the faces on the front pages of the last newspapers ever printed were Mark’s and mine, so I guess we’re as good a place to start as any.
So here’s how the zombie apocalypse started for me.
It was during Boy Scout Troop 146’s annual spring break camping trip. I’d spent weeks begging Rory and Lis, the twins who acted as my official best friends and only real girl friends, to sign up all the girls they could for Venturers so we’d have a crew big enough to go along with the guys.
Now I wonder whose face would have been on those papers instead of mine if they hadn’t helped.
At the time, though, I was just glad to be there—so glad that I didn’t even mind being sidelined with them and their army of satellite friends, making a campfire brownie oven out of tinfoil while the boys set up the tents. I didn’t even mind the word I heard whispered behind me when I excused myself to say hi to Mark.
It’s okay. Really. In girl talk, “slut” translates roughly to “my crush’s crush,” which isn’t so bad, if you think about it. Besides, it was pretty common knowledge how many guys I’d gone all the way with.
Zero, if you’re wondering.
My romantic conquests up to that point had consisted of precisely two counts of catching and hanging onto a boyfriend for more than three consecutive weeks, and one of them didn’t really count.
Still, considering that this was a little over three years ago when I was only fifteen, even I had to admit that I wasn’t off to a terrible start, and the secret wasn’t in my frizzy hair or freckles or flat chest, that’s for sure.
It was something I’d started doing on a whim, almost by accident. One afternoon, I’d just decided that I was going to start listening to all the stupid, pointless shit the boys said.
Simple? Sort of. I found out pretty quickly that if you’re going to listen, you have to listen hard. Smiling and nodding doesn’t cut it. You have to listen until you know why a Needler is a noob weapon and where Boba Fett made his debut appearance (Hint: It’s not Episode V). Then listen harder. And then keep listening.
That’s not my real secret, though.
My real secret is that I liked it.
Not just the attention from the boys, not just the envy of the girls. I liked the things the boys taught me. In fact, to this day, I read comics when there’s no one around to impress. I still have my own proudly assembled Magic: The Gathering deck in the bottom of my bag, carefully sealed against weather damage and, after everything that’s happened, I still feel liberated by the harmlessness of a paintball’s sting, as long as I’m wearing my helmet.
I’ve got kind of a thing about helmets ever since Mark didn’t wear one.
I’d noticed Mark at Rory and Lis’s youth group two months earlier. Rory had noticed him back when they had been in the same daycare. Yes, I knew that. In my defense, that adds up to a lot of chances she’d had with him already, a lot of moments when she could have left the brownie oven or whatever she was doing and run to meet him at his mom’s approaching SUV instead of me. She was so pretty. It should have been easy for her.
Yeah, it’s not much of an excuse, but it’s all I’ve got.
“You have to see what I brought!” This was how Mark greeted me, in a hushed, breathless tone, with an over-the-shoulder goodbye to his parents. I remember how he brushed off his sister’s overenthusiastic parting hug and hurried off with me instead.
He steered us away from camp, behind a sumac thicket, in a way that told me it was something we’d have to get as much fun as possible out of before Kim, the troop leader, confiscated it.
I was right. He pulled something metallic out of his bag.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
It was. The nearly new paintball gun his older brother had sold him before leaving for college was almost unrecognizable. Mark had cut the barrel short and sanded it so smooth it almost looked like it had been molded that way. He had switched some parts with a gun we’d broken the week before, so it could hold a bigger CO2 cartridge, and the paint job looked like it had taken hours, smoky metallic silver with just the right amount of grime in the crevasses. I was almost afraid to touch it.
“How does it shoot?” I asked.
Mark grinned. I loved the way he grinned, the frictionless spread of his lips over his perfectly even teeth. He held the gun out like a ceremonial offering. “Ladies first.”
I’m not sure which I was more excited about, getting to fire that gorgeous weapon first, or getting to chalk up a few more points on the scoreboard between Rory and me I always pretended not to keep.
I didn’t accept right away, as badly as I wanted to. It would have been wrong not to voice the warning, though I knew we would both ignore it.
“Kim will kill us if she gets a look at this.”
We were allowed to play paintball during designated downtime, as long as no one fired at non-players, animals, property, cars, and so on, but modified guns were always iffy territory, and anything this realistic-looking was out of the question.
Mark grinned wider as he dug an older, unaltered gun out of his bag for himself.
“Gets a look at what?” said a voice over my left shoulder.
It made me gasp out loud and twist around to block Mark’s masterpiece from view, but it was only Norman, my real best friend. Our other best friend, Hector, stood to his right, smirking at me a little. I stepped back to show off the gun.
“Sweet,” Norman breathed reverently over it.
“Two on two battle?” Hector suggested nonchalantly to Mark. “You and Cassie, me and Norm, last team with a member standing wins lunch when we get back to civilization?”
Mark glanced at me for approval and then nodded. “Get your stuff. We’ll wait. Just be quiet about it.”
Norman brushed this off. “Nah, consider this your head start.”
He was running for the tents half a second later. Hector stayed long enough to shift a meaningful gaze between Mark and me, shooting me a wink before following.
When I flicked off the safety on the sawed-off gun and started deeper into the dry, California live oak forest with Mark already hovering protectively closer to me, I made a mental note to thank Hector with lunch eventually, no matter who won.
The game started quickly after Mark arrived. He didn’t even have time to drop his duffle in one of the boys’ tents. We just stashed it in that sumac bush for later before rushing to claim the high ground. None of us dressed specially, unless you count stripping to our undershirts to keep our uniform shirts clean. If we’d taken more time, I don’t know if Mark would have worn a helmet. I don’t even know if he’d brought one. I always imagine one stuffed forgotten in the bottom of his bag like mine.
We were perfectly positioned by the time Norman and Hector caught up with us, me in the fork of a tree, Mark camouflaged uncannily in the bush below me, both with a clear shot at the whole hillside sloping down in the direction of camp. The ground was carpeted with bone dry leaves for yards in every direction.
We could hear them coming a mile off.
The new toy in my hands was itching to be played with, but I waited for Norman to get bored with the opening moves, like always. He was a good shot, but he was never as interested in winning as he was in making sure every game culminated in the most epic bloodbath possible.
“Oh, Cassie!” he called in the universal melody of taunting, climbing up toward the high ground where he knew we’d be. “Come on, Mark. Come and get me. I’m not that scary.”
Mark was close enough that he probably could have shot Norman, but he waited too. The shot would be clearer once Norman took a few more steps to the left.
Somewhere off to the side, I caught the more subtle movement of Hector skirting the back of the hill.
Norman kicked a pile of dead leaves and, at the same moment, I squeezed the trigger and cocked the gun again as quickly as I could, my fingers tingling from testing its impressive power for the first time.
The splatter of green only struck Hector’s shoulder. I thought I was losing my touch for a moment. Then I decided to blame the shortened barrel instead. My timing, at least, was right on the money, and Norman whipped around in a full circle, trying to figure out where the shot had come from. He’d been listening too hard to himself.
He didn’t look up at me.
No one ever did.
The moment Norman’s back was fully turned, Mark burst out of his hiding place and fired two shots right between Norman’s shoulder blades.
Norman turned to look at him with an expression of exaggerated shock, staggered a few steps forward, and collapsed, moaning like a second grader acting out a Shakespearean death scene. Even though I could only see the back of his head, I could tell Mark was rolling his eyes. I’d made the mistake of stopping to watch Norman a few times, but I knew enough by then not to let the theatrics distract me from what Hector was up to.
He had frozen for a moment after I hit him, trying to decide whether or not to drop too. There had been some debate about that recently. The way we played, you’re dead when you lose three points. Head or center mass is three points all at once, limb shots are one point each, but we’d argued over what the shoulder counts as. Norman always asked where the fun was if you couldn’t even survive the most classic survivable shots. Hector maintained that it shouldn’t be a classic survivable shot in the first place because the carotid artery runs right through it, and that we were better than every stunt choreographer ever for knowing that.
The most recent compromise we’d reached when we shared the house rules with Mark was that it counted for two points, so after a moment’s indecision, Hector took cover behind the thickest nearby tree and angled his gun toward Mark’s oblivious back.
I could have let him pick Mark off, and I’d still have won. He would have had to abandon his cover to get a half decent shot at me, and I’d get a better shot at him first, but that kind of strategy doesn’t exactly scream, “trustworthy partner material,” so I felt my way back to my footholds instead and slid down the trunk, holding the sawed-off to my chest to avoid scratching the masterpiece paint job.
Hector fired once before I reached the ground and missed. While he was scrambling to get off another shot before Mark could turn to retaliate, he hardly noticed me sprinting around the other side of the tree. This time there was no arguing the lethality of my aim.
Mark threw his gun down with a cheer.
“What’cha got a taste for?” I asked Mark. “’Cause I’m thinking sushi.”
“I don’t think you qualify yet,” Norman said, moving for the first time out of his death sprawl.
“Hmm, the bet did say the team with a person left standing,” Hector agreed.
I caught on and smiled at Mark, grinned really, maybe not as smoothly as he would have himself, but just as slowly and broadly. I savored the ominous sound when I cocked the sawed-off once more.
Mark grinned back nervously, tried once to retrieve his own gun, realized he had tossed it too far out of reach, cursed under his breath, and bolted into the woods.
There’s a reason they call it “the Chase.” The whole boy/girl thing, I mean. It’s the most suitable term I’ve heard for it. It feels like a chase. Sometimes you’re chasing, sometimes you’re being chased, and sometimes you can’t tell which, but it doesn’t matter because both sides put you in that same slow-motion zone where all the really sharp memories come from, the ones that remind you why you bother sitting through the boring parts of life.
That’s the zone I was in that day, sprinting through the trees after Mark. The Chase. No waiting, no plan, no idea what I would do if I caught him, or if I didn’t.
Norman and Hector only tried half-heartedly to keep up with me. I could still hear their breathless chanting, “Fin-ish him! Fin-ish him!” when I cornered Mark against a poison oak covered hillside, but I couldn’t see them anymore.
“Fin-ish him! Fin-ish him!”
Even in the absence of the proper safety equipment, even with the sawed-off’s extra pressure and the added closeness allowed by the shortened barrel, I’m sure it was a freak thing that happened.
One moment, Mark was trying to feint his way around me, jerking one way and then running the other, his eyes sparkling with focus. The next, he was crumpled, motionless, at my feet, a trickle of dark red cutting its way through the neon green splatter my shot had left on his temple.
As near as I can tell, it was somewhere between those two moments that the rules changed, not just for Mark and me, but for the whole world.
“Mark?” I asked this in a forced, cheerful tone. It’s a silly old habit, trying not to sound too worried too fast, but it’s a hard one to break. Even now, I approach the freshly dead as if they might be trying to make a fool of me, though I could sense the difference the very first time. This was nothing like Norman’s scene-stealing game forfeits.
Like a good little Boy Scout groupie, I knelt beside him and grabbed his wrist, feeling along the thumb side of the tendon with my first and second fingers. For all the jokes about the living dead the troop had made on first aid day, when we had learned how to take each other’s pulses through considerable trial and error, we had eventually gotten the hang of it. I knew exactly where that little beat of pressure was missing from.
“Mark!” I stopped trying to hide my panic, hoping that someone would somehow call a stop to this horrible exercise before I had to figure out what to do next.
I couldn’t remember whether CPR had ever restarted a heart that had stopped due to brain damage, but I couldn’t think what harm it could do either, so I leaned over and started feeling for the right spot on his chest.
I know from later experience that the stillness after the fatal shot must only have been about thirty seconds. That first time, it felt almost like the forever it should have been.
I had barely begun to throw my weight forward and count “one” when the hand I had just grabbed reached out and grabbed me back.
Mark sat bolt upright, spilling me off of him.
He was still dead; there was no question about that. I could see it in his eyes. When they locked on mine, they had that flat, thoughtless, inanimate quality I’d seen once before. When my first dog’s terminal cancer had finally gotten too bad to live with, I’d been allowed to hold her paw while she was put down. After that, I never forgot what death looks like. When it comes to eyes, there’s no mistaking it.
But then again, he was moving. Whatever was left of Mark had a vice grip on my left elbow, and his fingers were stretching toward my throat.
I leaned forward to meet him, clasping his hand to the soft, sensitive side of my neck, kissing his hungrily half-open mouth, moved to blissful tears by the awesome power of this love that had overcome death itself, and-
Oh, wait. No, I didn’t. That’s what I would have done two years earlier. Maybe.
See, one of the many side effects of keeping best friends like Norman and Hector, sharing their books and movies and games, is that I don’t actually think of corpses as sexy. I certainly don’t think of them as safe.
So here’s what I really did:
I grabbed the beautiful sawed-off with my free hand, turned it around, and slammed the butt of it repeatedly into the already dripping bruise on the side of Mark’s forehead. I didn’t stop at the weird, inhuman throat scream he gave. I didn’t stop when the plastic shattered. I didn’t stop when Norman caught up and choked out some shocked gibberish from somewhere behind me. I didn’t stop until I had the gooey pieces of what had been Mark’s cerebellum in my hands.
Since Norman’s the one who gave me that instinct, I count that as the first time his friendship saved my life.
Oh, and it was also the first time, or at least one of the first eighty-three times, that the dead returned to attack the living.
I guess that’s a pretty big first, too.
By F.J.R. Titchenell
The world is Cassie Fremont’s playground. Her face is on the cover of every newspaper. She has no homework, no curfew, and no credit limit, and she spends her days traveling the country with her friends, including a boy who would do the chicken dance with death to make her smile. Life is just about perfect—except that those newspaper headlines are about her bludgeoning her crush to death with a paintball gun, she has to fight ravenous walking corpses every time she steps outside, and one of her friends is still missing, trapped somewhere in the distant, practically impassable wreckage of Manhattan.
Still, Cassie’s an optimist, more prone to hysterical laughter than hysterical tears, and she’d rather fight a corpse than be one. She’ll never leave a friend stranded when she can simply take her road trip to impossible new places, even if getting there means admitting to that boy that she might love him as more than her personal jester. Skillfully blending effective horror with unexpected humor, this diary-style novel is a fast-paced and heartwarming read.