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art by Melissa Mead

Everyone Gets Scared Sometimes

Ari Goelman has published about eighteen short stories, most recently in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and of course, Daily Science Fiction. Publishers Weekly has described his short fiction as “outstanding” and “lovingly constructed.” He lives in Vancouver, Canada, which is occasionally neither dark nor rainy.

She wakes up scared in the morning. She wakes up scared almost every morning. Still, it's a nice day. Summer. Blue sky.
She walks up the hill until she's downtown. It makes her feel better, having living people all around her.
She walks up and down the busiest streets she can find until she stops feeling so scared. Eventually she feels tired and sits on the sidewalk outside her favorite bakery. Every once in a while someone drops money in her lap.
Two men in suits walk past. One of them hands her a five-dollar bill. As the men are walking away she hears him say, "dead zone survivor."
Dead zone.
She wonders sometimes if it really happened. The zombies and her daddy and his axe. If it happened, it seems to her, the city would be different. There would be fewer cars on the streets. The traffic lights wouldn't work. Her favorite bakery wouldn't be there, not if all that stuff had happened.
She goes to the bakery every day. She likes the bread and she likes the big glass windows. They let her keep an eye on the outside, make sure that she doesn't get cornered. There's a back door and a front door and a stairway leading to the roof. Three exits is pretty good.
The woman at the bakery knows her and usually has some day-old bread waiting for her. Today it's her favorite kind--hard dark bread. She takes two loaves. One for now, one for later. You always keep half of your food for later. Her daddy taught her that.
She eats a few slices of the bread and drinks a glass of water, before going back out on the streets. She starts toward the park where she sleeps. It took even her daddy a while to realize it, but sleeping outside is the safest. You hear the zombies before they get to you.
Two big boys are sitting on a bench at her park. When they see her, they get up and walk over to her. They both have Z tattoos on their cheek. "Hey," the one with long hair says. She tries to walk around him, but his friend shifts his weight so he's right in front of her. They're a lot bigger than her. The zombies were usually bigger, too, but that was different. They were slower, and after a while you knew what they would do.
"You sure she's the one?" the short-haired one says. "She's, like, twelve."
The other big boy shakes his head. "Stunted growth because she was in the dead zone for so long. Alex tried her on and said she was all grown up where it counts."
"Alex is full of shit," the short-haired one says.
The long-haired one shrugs. "Whatever. She's a dead zone survivor. Look at how twitchy she is."
"Fuck this," his friend says. He turns and walks away.
The long-haired one steps closer to the girl. He's afraid. She knows the smell from when the zombies were everywhere. This is how everyone used to smell. She tries again to walk away from him, and he grabs her arm. She punches him hard in the chest with her other hand. If he was a zombie, his chest would have collapsed. He's not a zombie, though, so he just grunts and grabs her other arm.
He says some words that she doesn't understand. When she gets scared, she stops understanding words. Mrs. Chariandy, her social worker, says that's okay. That everyone gets scared sometimes.
"Let me go," she says. "Or I'll call my daddy."
The big boy says some more words and pulls her closer to him.
She tries to pry his fingers off her arm, but his fingers are too strong. They're not like zombie fingers. Zombie fingers are brittle as glass. You just have to be fast with zombies. Break their fingers before they can get their mouth on you.
The big boy is squeezing her arms so tight that her biceps hurt. Then he pushes his leg between her legs. So she does it. She calls her daddy.
Afterwards, she cries. It's hard to see her daddy like that. Face gone, skin grey. Fading back into nothing after he's done with the big boy. The police come. They take the big boy away in an ambulance even though he's dead. Real dead. Her daddy isn't a zombie. He doesn't turn people into zombies.
The police are nice to her even though they're scared, too. They help her wash the blood off her hands, and they let her ride in their car. They want her to put on the handcuffs, but she says no. Handcuffs make it too hard to fight zombies. She guesses they understand, because they don't keep asking.
She closes her eyes in the back of the car. They leave it somewhere safe, an underground garage with a good view of the entrance ramp and with two other exits in the back corners. If the zombies come, she'll have plenty of time to kick the doors out and get away.
After a while a policeman comes and gives her a bottle of water and a sandwich. He passes them through the window, which has been left down a few inches. They don't want to let her out of the car, she realizes, probably because they think she might turn into a zombie. She remembers that from before. People were always scared that other people were about to turn into a zombie. She's not sure why they bothered being scared, when it's so easy to tell by smelling. People start smelling like zombies at least an hour or two before they actually turn.
She drinks half the water and eats half the sandwich, saving the rest for later.
She sleeps. Wakes up and sleeps again. Eventually it's the next day. She can tell by the grey light filtering down from the garage's entrance ramp.
She hears footsteps coming towards the car--the first footsteps she's heard since the policeman brought her food. Mrs. Chariandy walks down the ramp towards the car. Mrs. Chariandy is a tall brown woman, just as tall as the policemen. Two policemen are walking next to Mrs. Chariandy, one on either side. They both have guns out, which makes the girl feel better. Guns are almost as good as axes at stopping zombies.
The one on the right is in the middle of saying something to Mrs. Chariandy. "…labs say the guy was clean. She just killed him like you'd kill a zombie. Head ripped right off his body, then smashed with her boot. Self defense or not, this is--"
"What do we expect?" Mrs. Chariandy is smiling at the girl, but her voice is angry when she interrupts the policeman. "I mean leaving survivors on the street?"
Mrs. Chariandy opens the car door. The policeman shifts uneasily, pointing his gun at the girl, but Mrs. Chariandy keeps smiling. Her hair is grey, and her face is wrinkled, but she smiles a lot, which the girl likes. Zombies can't smile. "Hello, dear," Mrs. Chariandy says.
"Hi," the girl says. She smiles to show that she is not a zombie, either. The policeman doesn't know much about zombies, she guesses, because he keeps pointing his gun at her. "I had to call my Daddy," she tells the social worker. "The big boy was being bad."
Mrs. Chariandy gives the girl her hand and helps her out of the car. "I know, dear," she says. Mrs. Chariandy doesn't stop smiling, but the girl can smell that she's scared. That's okay, she wants to tell her. Everyone gets scared sometimes.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, November 17th, 2011
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