'Take up Space'
The sun rolled down the hill faster than usual. Candlelight lit TJ’s mom’s little dining room. The sounds of knives and forks scratching plates filled the silence.
“So how did you and TJ meet?” TJ’s mom asked, cutting through the awkward silence of this intimate little meal. The table consisted of her and her son and a strange, green-haired girl he’d brought in off the streets who smelt faintly of dried blood.
“We met at the mall actually,” the girl said, turning a wry smile up at TJ who was sweating into his food.
“I’m sorry, did you tell me your name? I get a little ditsy sometimes,” his mother said; something wasn’t quite right. Like she’d walked out of one dream and into another unannounced.
“Sunday,” she said.
“Well that’s a pretty name. TJ, don’t you think that’s a pretty name?”
“Err, yeah,” TJ said, looking up from his plate of macaroni and cheese to glance across the table.
“Do you live around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you before. I mean, I think I’d - I mean -”
“Ah no, I just got here. Err, my… dad travels a lot for work,” Sunday said, choosing her words surgically.
“Well I think the candles were a nice touch. We don’t get to use the dining room much these days; it’s just been the two of us for a while now.”
“Yeah, well, it was TJ’s idea; he said it would give the room some atmosphere, right?” Sunday said, watching TJ squirm.
“TJ and I aren’t used to entertaining. After his father left, we mostly kept to ourselves.”
“Mom,” TJ whined.
“That’s right, TJ hates me telling everyone our life story.” His mom smiled with a melancholy intake of breath. “Oh, you’re finished?”
“Yes, thank you. It was lovely.”
“What a polite girl,” TJ’s mom said as she collected the plate in front of Sunday, a warm smile on her face. “You’re welcome to stay in the guest bedroom across from me if you’re too tired to make it home.” She fluttered out of the room with the dirty plates.
“No, that’s OK. I think I’m just gonna bunk with TJ and fuck his brains out all night.”
TJ’s perfectly timed sip of milk sprayed down his shirt.
“That’s nice,” TJ’s mom said from the kitchen, clearly not having heard anything she’d said.
Sunday handed TJ a napkin and smiled trollishly. He snatched it from between her two fingers and began to dab his shirt.
“Do you think we should tell her?” he whispered.
“Why worry her? Nothing should happen tonight as long as we don’t light the house up like a Christmas tree. Or make too much noise. I thought the candlelight thing would be cute,” Sunday said, reclining in her dining chair.
“But she has to know.”
“She’ll find out.” She closed her eyes for a moment, putting her hands behind her head.
“Are we gonna die?” TJ said, a hint of anger in his hushed voice.
TJ’s mom barrelled into the room with some sort of lopsided cake and plonked it down in between the two of them, oblivious to the mounting tension she had just crudely carved in half.
The door to TJ’s bathroom opened like a sealed vault door, or an alien craft billowing steam. It had been closed for a good hour and a half. Sunday walked out barefoot wearing an old XXXL ‘Walking Dead’ T-shirt that went down to her knees. She rubbed her whole head with a towel as if she was trying to polish a lamp.
Her legs, clean, were surprisingly dainty-looking, covered with little cuts and plasters, but her skin looked soft and smooth. TJ stopped dead on his made up futon on the floor. She opened one eye underneath the towel and saw he was looking at her. She dropped the towel on the floor and crossed the room to the window.
“Thanks for the shirt.”
“Err, no problem.”
“Let me guess, you wanna know if the curtains match the drapes?” She smiled as she turned back towards TJ.
“Err, wut? No! I wasn’t!” TJ’s face turned a purply red colour and his tongue swelled up in his head.
She perched on the windowsill and looked out at the cool, quiet trees swaying in the dark. There were fires burning in the distance, muffled screams carried by the shiftless night. The smell of the smoke was sweet and homely to her. She sighed after taking in a lungful through the small crack in the window.
She cocked one of her legs up on the sill and TJ almost burst a blood vessel.
“Err, I made up the bed. I’m fine here,” he said, motioning to his crude futon.
“OK,” she said dreamily, staring out the window.
“What’s happening?” He bit his bottom lip as he said it, not wanting to know.
He could see her blank expression reflected in the black window. “It’s a game.”
“I was brought here to play,” she said, her voice trailing off.
TJ furrowed his brow and got quiet. She looked over at him as he hung his head, trying to make sense of what she had said.
She sucked her bottom lip and sighed again. “They did it before, to my town. I was working in some fucking diner and then one day…”
“Please, I don’t understand.”
“This happened before, in Arkham; that’s where I’m from.”
“But, the TV, it said only one person survived,” TJ stuttered.
“The TV lied. Me, that guy you met before, and a few others: we’re all leftovers, survivors, but now we’re ’players.’” She turned her face back to the window, but didn’t look outside; she didn’t look at anything.
“How do I play - the game, I mean - how do you win?” TJ rose a little from his futon. A frustrated resolve boiled beneath the surface; he was sure there was a straight answer somewhere under that mess of green hair.
“You just have to survive.”
“What’s happening?” he asked again.
“In three days this place is going to be a ghost town. It’ll be wiped off the map, blamed on a nuclear plant leak or a fire or terrorists, whatever.”
“Three days? Why just three days?” TJ’s voice took on a frantic tremble.
“It’s how the game works. The zombies are just the first part; the second day is when it starts getting messy.”
“Messy? What the fuck does that mean?”
“If you win three games in succession you get to leave: a new identity, a new life, somewhere far away.” As she said it, she turned her head away as if she almost believed it. “The winner is the person that scores the most points. Points are allocated per zombie and recorded by a series of drone cameras flying overhead, as well as security cameras they’ve hacked throughout the town. There are no points for killing people, but on the second day, a backed contestant is worth double points.”
“Backed contestant? What does this all mean?”
“To be a contestant you have to have a backer. There are thousands of people watching: some just gawkers, stumbling onto the deep web; others are rich sickos who want to pay to control someone, someone like me. They take bets on who wins and they pay to keep you alive or watch you die.”
“Can we escape?”
“You can try.”
“What about phones? The Internet?”
“All cut off. Only they can access the net through their own satellite. That’s how they broadcast through the deep web.”
“What happens on the third day?”
“The third day, all bets are off. This town will burn.” She stood up, walked away from the window, wafting a sweet scent as she passed him, and climbed into TJ’s bed, which had never looked so neat.
“How did you survive?” TJ asked, still prone in his futon.
Her body was rigid and she spoke while still facing away from him. “I didn’t.”
“That’s six in all, I think. Not too shabby for a day’s work, innit? Not too shabby at all, Haji, me old mucka! Haha!” Pete the cockney Sikh business man chortled to himself as he hacked away clumsily at the neck of a prone woman who was very much zombified. She was missing a few ribs and most of the skin from her back. An arrow had lodged in the base of her neck.
He dislodged her head after a few happy, sloppy chops, with his shiny kukri, and a brisk tug. Tendrils of flesh and nerves and sinew trailed beneath the severed head. The arrow fell to the floor with a tiny tinkling sound as he sighed in relief. He held his trophy aloft in both hands and beamed at it mirthfully. He brushed the zombie’s long dark hair out of its face. “Lovely-fackin’-jubbly!”.
‘Haji’ narrowed his eyes, a sickly expression caught on his face, as he forced a severed head onto a clean-looking piece of store-bought wood. There were several splayed out on the ground; all had been sharpened into sharp pikes. The wood was a standard yellowy brown; the colour made the heads look surreal. Five in a row, like a tribe of cannibals had taken over a Home Depot. “Please call me ‘Dave.’”
“Oi, Haji! Catch!” Pete said as he threw the woman’s severed head at his young assistant.
“Gah!” Dave said as he fumbled the head like a slippery sex tape pitched from an over-zealous exhibitionist. He dropped it on the floor and allowed it to roll to the other end of the roof.
“Whoops! Off you pop getting another pike, that’s a good lad,” Pete shoed his salty young assistant. He wiped the gore from his hands with a wet wipe, getting in between his gaudy rings.
They’d set up on top of the town’s only gun store, the roof of which had a raised rim all around that made it perfect for sniping happy-go-lucky survivors attempting to find salvation. It had proved easy to defend against the living dead. It had been easy enough to convince the owner to allow them to use the roof as their personal camp site. He’d had a brother in the previous outbreak, and was under no illusions of the survival rate. Instead of hunkering down he had decided to give a desert eagle a happy ending. What a mess. It was all detailed in a handwritten note he’d left on the counter. Pete had taken a glance at it and said, “TL;DR,” scrawling it up for Dave to save for posterity.
The store was a standard mid-west gun store decked out in rich dark woods. Hunting rifles lined the walls, giving it a log cabin feel with some little tacky safari overtones: zebra print wall hangings. Piped-in African savannah sounds played over a little PA. It smelled like cigarettes, sweaty pits and mahogany, which is why they had decided to pitch tent on the roof, under the sickly stars: all that fresh air; all that time to kill.
“Aren’t we a little exposed here? What if they surround us?” Dave picked up the head with a disgusted look on his face. He lifted it by its long, matted, dark hair. He then sat it down on the raised lip of the roof. He walked over to the far corner where he’d been sharpening the pikes all morning with a small, flat ground-knife. He picked one of the pikes up and set it in place. The owner of the store had been an amateur gardener. There were several large pot planters on the roof and a dozen empty beer cans, cigarette butts and shell casings. “There’s no way off the roof except the way we came in.”
Dave, per Pete’s instruction, had ‘planted’ each head in a pot planter. In one of the rectangular planters, he had ‘planted’ three of the heads side by side. The sight was so unreal it hardly registered to Dave. They looked like puppets, or a ghastly display in a waxworks museum: the dull heads with their eyes rolled back, contemplating blackness.
“That’s why we have to keep werrry werry qwiet,” Pete said and smiled viciously. “If it makes you feel better, I set up a few of these little buggers at the entrances and a few other weak spots, just in case.” He tossed a heavy rectangular piece of metal at Dave who fumbled it, comically falling back into the display of heads. He regained his footing without knocking any over and looked down at the oddly shaped bit of metal. It was green and rectangular and ‘FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY’ was written on it in big bold letters. “They’re claymores, my son. Should fend off any little cunts takin’ a butchers, so don’t you worry, awright?” Dave gawped at what could be a live mine in his hand that some tit had just thrown at him like a frisbee. He swallowed, putting the mine down, carefully.
He then picked up the girl’s head and began to ‘plant’ it on another sharpened pike.
“Oi, Haji! Hurry your arse up and make me some fackin’ tea, would you? Fackin’ gaggin’ for a cuppa, mate.” Pete watched the burning town idly through a pair of expensive-looking binoculars.
Haj-Dave jerked his head away from the task at hand.
“Err, yeah! Coming right up, Mr. P,” he said, juggling the head and trying to remember which suitcase had the tea in it. He failed to notice that his hand was quite close to the severed head’s mouth. Out of some innate reflex, a deep hunger from the core of a dead brain, a nibbling was summoned. Just as Dave had the head in position, he felt a sharp nipping sensation on his good hand. He jerked it away and put it in his mouth to suck on the cut. “Ah, bloody splinters,” he said in an all-too-posh London accent.
“They’ll be the death of you, Haji, my son. Now chop chop with that cuppa, won’t you?” Pete gave a lascivious grin, as if schadenfreude had developed into a fetish. The moonlight beamed down on him and sparked off his binoculars as he continued to watch Rome burn, feeling regret for never having learned a musical instrument for such an occasion.