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Banquet

Over the past four decades, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels and more than 350 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel The Thread that Binds the Bones won a Horror Writers Association Stoker Award, and her short story "Trophy Wives" won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award.

Nina does production work for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She teaches writing classes through Wordcrafters in Eugene and Fairfield County Writers' Studio. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina's publications, check out: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

Because I lived in a public garden, I spent most daylight hours hiding. The conifer section was the best place for that--thick-needled trees with branches down to the ground. I found one pretty far from the gravel paths, because people could smell that I was dead, and dogs could tell even sooner than people. There was a part of the garden reserved for people with their pets, but it was several acres away, so I didn't often have a problem with dogs--only if their owners let them off the leash. Then they came for me. They wanted to roll in me. They were always disappointed that I wasn't mushy and dead on the ground.
I had a favorite conical conifer that had room enough for me to hide under its drooping branches and peer out, watching for lost children or other alone humans who were small and powerless enough for me to snatch. It wasn't their brains I wanted to eat. It was their memories.
I was watching the path from my hiding tree, waiting for a straggler. A family walked by--mother, father, older sister, younger brother--the way my family used to be before my new boyfriend Cyril took me on my first and only date, and bit me.
Gloom shrouded my heart as I watched the family in the garden. The little brother was blond, like my little brother Tommy. Alive. Tommy didn't live long after I bit him. I struggled and struggled not to bite him, but he came into my room while I was dying of the zombie plague, came to stroke my hair. He came too close, and I couldn't stop myself.
He died and didn't rise again.
The daughter of the family was bored. "Not another tree, Mom," she said, shoulders hunched. "How long do we have to dawdle around this hellhole?"
"Christy, I've had enough of your whining," said the father. "If you don't like it, go back to the gift store and hang out until we're done looking around."
"Fine," the girl said, and turned to stalk away from the rest of the family.
As she strode off, I slipped from my hiding tree and followed. It was a weekday and there weren't many people in the garden. The girl was stomping on the gravel, anger steaming off of her. It smelled like sweet, tangy barbecue sauce. My stomach grumbled. Nothing was tastier than anger.
She was stomping so hard she tripped, and I darted out of the low evergreens and snatched her, covering her mouth with my hand before she could scream, and wrapping my other arm around her arms and waist. She was almost as big as I was, and even though I had the enhanced strength of the dead, I couldn't pick her up; I had to drag her a little, and I worried about the kind of prints that would leave, but I couldn't go back and rub them out until I was done with her.
She struggled and tried to kick me. I got her in a hidden place between several trees and gave her a nerve pinch that paralyzed her body. Still covering her mouth with my left hand, I laid her on the ground among fragrant pine needles and then dragged her under a tree, its branches spreading out in a green shield around us, hiding us from sun and sight. She stared up at me over my hand on her mouth, her nostrils flaring and her pupils wide.
"Settle down and I won't bite you," I whispered.
Her breathing got louder. She tried to bite my hand and I squeezed her jaw shut. "You don't want to do that," I whispered. "I'm a zombie. You don't want to catch what I have."
She tried to jerk away from me, but she couldn't move anything but her head after my Vulcan nerve pinch. I held her still until she stopped straining against me and just stared. Tears pooled in her eyes and ran silently from the outer corners toward her ears.
"I won't hurt you," I whispered. "I just need something from you. You won't miss it."
She blinked up at me, then closed her eyes.
"Stay quiet and I won't hurt you."
This was the trickiest part of the transaction. So many things could go wrong. A scream, a struggle, the wrong move from her. . .
I gripped her head and leaned down. "Don't move," I breathed in her face. I slid my hand from her mouth and placed my lips against hers, letting my saliva mingle with hers and hypnotize her into utter stillness. Tears still slid down the sides of her face.
I dove into the lush banquet of her memories. An argument that morning with her little brother about who got the last Twinkie. Sneering while watching a PBS show she secretly liked with her parents. The slow demolition by licking of a salted caramel ice cream cone, cool, sweet, and salty taste on a hot day.
A date with a boy who looked eerily like Cyril. I drank it in.
The knock on the door before she had finished putting up her hair. Her mother answering the door and telling the boy what a fine young man he was, and her father telling him to have her home before eleven or there would be trouble, making the girl shrivel with embarrassment just listening to them. Her headlong rush down the stairs to get the boy out of the house before the parents could say anything worse. Their walk, with hands linked, to the movie theater, and the tension as they watched the movie and his arm slid around her. Leaning toward him for a buttery kiss, the popcorn bucket falling from her lap.
All of that memory I sipped into me, smooth and tasty as a grilled cheese sandwich fresh from the frying pan. I could live off that memory for a couple of days before it faded.
Now I wanted her anger. Anger lasted longer. I searched her memories until I found the bright red vinegar glow of her anger on the pathway as her parents sent her away for her perfectly reasonable observations. Another spurt of anger at her father for waiting up for her when the boy brought her home, coming out and interrupting their farewell kiss. Yesss. Good.
Enough.
I licked inside her mouth for one last taste, then pushed myself up and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. So good.
I straightened her clothes and patted her cheeks. She had been lying with her eyes closed, but she looked up at me now. She opened her mouth. I put my hand back over it. "I'm going to slip away now," I whispered. "Don't scream. You'll be able to get up in a couple of minutes. You'll be fine." The zombie plague needed a bite to transmit it, saliva to bloodstream. A kiss was safe.
Her lips moved against my hand, and I lifted it away a little.
"Kiss me again," she whispered.
I shook my head and stood up, the memory of her good date with the boy in my stomach, something to compare to my disastrous date with Cyril. She could have another good date, but I couldn't. I would digest it and enjoy it until nothing was left of the memory, and her anger would keep me warm.
How could she want my taste in her mouth again? I knew I smelled like a corpse. I looked at her one more time, at her leaking eyes and swollen lips, and then I slipped away between trees to a different hiding place. I watched until she pushed out from under the tree, brushing pine needles off the back of her skirt. She shook her head and looked around, her fingers resting on her lips. She drew in a deep breath and let it out, then walked, stumbling a little, to the gravel path. She glanced around again. At last she headed toward the buildings that housed the restaurant, gift shop, and restrooms.
I let the needles close me into my safe place and lay down to immerse myself in stolen memories. I touched my lips, remembering the soft press of hers. A memory I had made for myself, not stolen.
There was no sustenance in that.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 15th, 2022


Author Comments

I wrote this story while conducting a weekend workshop through Wordcrafters in Eugene. Every April, I lead a science fiction, fantasy, and horror weekend where people write stories in 24 hours and then read them aloud to each other, and this is the story I came up with during our first Zoom SFFH Weekend (the instructor gets to write a story, too). I rolled dice to get elements of the story and then let my mind play with the elements.

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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