“Apocalypse Now?” By Sydney Miller

“Trick or treat!”

I open the door to find kids swarming towards my house.

“Uh,” I begin, unsure of how to continue. They’re all little zombies, with some pretty awesome face-paint, and torn-up clothes with fake blood … great costumes, except for the fact that it’s July.

“Trick or treat!” they repeat, more insistently.

“Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything,” I say, “because it’s, um, it’s not Halloween.”

“TRICK. OR. TREAT.”

I look at all the little zombie kids. Their parents are nowhere in sight, and, well, the kids are kind of creepy. I make another excuse and shut the door.

A second later, the kids pound on the door again. I shut the deadbolt and run into my kitchen.

“Uh, Mom? Dad?” I call. I poke my head into their room – nothing.

I jog back into the kitchen and pick up the phone, calling my mother.

“This is Eliza Johnston, leave a message,” comes my mother’s voice after the first ring.

“Look, Mom, something weird is going on. Where are you? Where’s Dad?” I hang up and look outside. The zombie kids are still there, and, well, I’m starting to doubt that their “costumes” are actually costumes.

It’s not like I’m a “believer” – vampires and zombies are just things you read about in bad teen romance novels, right? But, hey, when a bunch of little kids show up without any adults in July, looking a lot like actual zombies, asking for candy … sometimes that’s enough to change someone’s mind.

It’s enough to change mine, anyway. I check that the deadbolt’s secure, then run to the kitchen and grab a rolling pin. I would get a knife, but the kids might actually be normal kids, playing a joke or something, and that would look really bad in the papers.

“Deranged Teen Stabs Children, Says She Thought They Were Zombies”

Yeah, that wouldn’t be good. I hold onto my rolling pin and shut all the windows and blinds in the house, then retreat into my basement. I can hear the zombie kids milling around outside, and they seem to be getting rowdier.

Suddenly, the phone rings, and I jump out of my skin. I may or may not have shrieked, too, but let’s focus on the other stuff.

“Hello?” I say desperately. Please be Mom or Dad, please be Mom or Dad, please don’t be creepy zombie children saying trick or treat and, hey, they never asked for candy, maybe Zombie Halloween is in July and they trick or treat for human flesh, and SHUT UP DON’T THINK ABOUT THAT.

“Hello, is this Eliza Johnston?” a woman’s voice asks.

Well, it’s not Mom or Dad, but at least it isn’t those creepy zombie kids.

“No, sorry, this is her daughter,” I tell the woman.

“Oh. Kennedy?” she asks, kind of scared. I sigh.

“That’s my sister. I’m Tara,” I say. Kennedy. Even though I despise her, maybe I could call her. She might know where Mom and Dad are. Maybe she organized the whole “Zombie Halloween” thing. It’s kinda like something she would do. She’s not what most high school guidance counselors call a “stable person.”

“Tara? Oh, Tara,” she says, her voice getting friendlier. “Listen, where’s your mom?”

“I dunno,” I say unhelpfully. I’d be nicer to the woman, but she’s annoying, and I have a zombie apocalypse – or something close to it – on my hands right now.

“Well, will you give her a message for me? I’ve tried her cell, but she’s not picking up.”

“Yeah, okay,” I say distractedly. The zombie kids are getting noisier by the second.

“I’m Krista McCone, and I’m the director at the Troubled Teens Home, a place for runaway teenagers,” she says. So Kennedy ran away. Big surprise. This doesn’t mean she isn’t the one who summoned the army of zombie kids, though. Maybe that’s what this call is about – Krista over at the Home found some zombie-raising materials, and she’s calling to tell my mom.

“Okay,” I say, waiting for her to get to the zombie-raising part.

“Well, Kennedy has been staying here for about a week –” My parents thought she was on a school field trip. I have to say, that’s kind of impressive, because my parents are like lie-sniffing dogs. Nothing gets past them. “– and recently, she took all her things and left.”

“But, there was some stuff she left behind, like this kit that says ‘Summoning Zombie Kids: A Do-It-Yourself Guide,’” she says. I’m literally salivating waiting for her to say it. I guess I just want a logical reason as to why there are ZOMBIE CHILDREN in the front yard.

Then I realize that maybe, just maybe, your messed-up older sister summoning the zombie children isn’t the most logical reason as to why there are zombie children anywhere.

“She’s not here,” I say.

“I realize that,” Krista McCone says. “We just needed you to know that we can no longer be sure that she is safe, and that we are starting to get worried.”

BUT DID SHE SUMMON ZOMBIE CHILDREN BEFORE SHE LEFT?

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll tell my mom. But why don’t you just call Kennedy?”

“She has a cell phone?” Krista asks, taken aback.

“Yeah, she has a cell phone,” I say (a little meanly … oops). “She’s a sixteen-year-old girl. Of course she has a cell phone.”

“But what’s the number?” Krista asks eagerly.

“Uh … I forget. I’ll find it and call you back,” I say – but only because I just heard a loud thump, followed by an agonizingly loud creeeaaak. I really need to get off the phone.

“Thank you,” Krista says.

“Mhm,” I say. “Gotta dash. Bye!” I hang up and grab my rolling pin, then run out the basement door. My heart thuds, and I’m afraid that when I turn the corner, I’ll run into a crowd of the zombie kids, and they’ll grab me and start munching on me … but there’s no one in my front yard.

At first, I think I had some sort of hallucination, but then I hear a sort of guttural yell, and I see that all twenty or so of the zombie kids are in my house.

I turn and run away as fast as I can, dropping my rolling pin, before the zombie kids see me. Then I remember that I live in the suburbs, and the closest gas station is three miles away.

This is not good. I didn’t even bring my cell phone. What was I thinking?

Oh, right. I was thinking AAAAAHHHHHH ZOMBIE CHILDREN RUN RUN RUN DON’T LET THEM GET YOU RUN RUN RUN AAAAAAHHHHH.

Right now, I’m just thinking what now? I mean, it’s not like I can go back to my house. Even though the zombie kids aren’t chasing me, I still feel like someone’s watching me. It’s not so much a “hairs on the back of my neck standing up” thing as an “I really feel like there’s someone watching me where are they this is creepy this is really really creepy” thing.

I contemplate going to someone’s house for help, but it’s the Fourth of July weekend, and everyone seems to be on vacation except the old ladies who live on Monroe Street, and they probably won’t be much help.

I’m looking around, trying to see if there’s anyone around me, when I hear a noise. Someone steps on a stick, then mutters something. I strain my ears.

“Shut up,” someone says.

“You shut up,” comes the whiny voice of my sister. Wait. My sister?

“Kennedy!”

Kennedy peers out behind a bush to the left of me.

“Well, hey there, little sis,” she says nonchalantly, sauntering out onto the road. I walk up to meet her. “Whatcha doin’?”

My frustration from everything that’s happened bubbles out in passive-aggressive spurts.

“Oh, you know, not much, just running away from the zombie children you raised.”

Kennedy gasps.

“Tar,” she says, turning pale, “you – the LowZs came after you?”

I roll my eyes.

“No,” I say sarcastically, “I had a nice little tea party with them. Their crumpets are simply divine.”

“Tara,” Kennedy says, “you need to get to a safe house. My team and I will take care of this, but you need to get off the streets.”

“‘Your team’? ‘Take care of this’? Maybe you just shouldn’t have raised zombie children in the first place!” I scream hysterically. Kennedy quickly covers my mouth.

“Tara, you’ve got to trust me until we get this sorted out,” she says. I roll my eyes again. “Tara, I’m sorry, but this is for your own good.” Turning to her friends, she shouts: “Rainy! Sierra! Medium dosage!”

Someone shoves a blue handkerchief on my face. My mouth forms the word “what,” but before I can get it out, my eyes close and I hit the ground.

[][][]

I wake up in a musty basement. There’s an Asian girl with long black hair standing across the room, watching me. I sit up slowly, and she comes to my side. I scrutinize her face, but she looks human. Not that I’m the expert on what looks human and what doesn’t, but I’d prefer to assume she’s human. It makes my life a bit less stressful.

“You okay?” she asks.

“What – who – where – how – I -” I sputter pathetically, unable to form a coherent question.

The girl rolls her eyes.

“You want all of those answered, or just one?” she asks sarcastically. She sounds like one of those typical teenagers that parents are always writing to “Ask Amy” about. Dear Amy, my child is an insolent brat. She doesn’t respect her elders and is addicted to her gadgets. Please help.

“All of them?” I say weakly.

“Fine. What – some LowZs (Lowercase Zs, or younger zombies) got loose on the general population. Who: I’m Rainy, Sierra is upstairs, and your sister is patrolling. We’re certified zombie hunters. No one else really knows, because pretty much all the people in this neighborhood are on vacation. Where: the LowZs are mostly in your neighborhood. You’re in the next one over right now. River Heights. How: your sister and Sierra and I are still trying to find out. When: a couple hours ago.”

I try and process all of this.

“So Kennedy didn’t raise the zombies?” I ask. Rainy shakes her head vigorously.

“No, she didn’t. And I didn’t either, and neither did Sierra. We’re the good guys.”

“So why did you knock me out?” I ask, annoyed.

“So you’d get off the streets,” Rainy replies, not missing a beat. “We were certain the LowZs would try and chase you, and Ken saw that you weren’t getting off the road any time soon, so we resorted to chlorophyll.”

I consider all of the information I’ve been given so far.

“All right,” I say. “And … where are my parents?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Rainy says. “Take it up with Ha – take it up with your sister when she gets back from her patrol.”

“Can I go upstairs?” I ask. This basement smells like I always thought Gollum’s lair would smell like.

“Oh! Yeah, sure,” Rainy says, opening the door. “After you.”

I walk up to find a girl with short blonde hair sipping some orange juice from a wine glass.

“Sierra,” Rainy scolds. “It’s not even our house.”

“So?” Sierra asks, finishing off the juice. “They’ve got another jug. It doesn’t matter very much.”

We live in the middle of Colorado, but this girl sounds like she just got back from buying fifteen extraneous pairs of expensive shoes at a Nordstrom’s.

“When is Kennedy coming back?” I ask.

Sierra shrugs.

“Depends. She hasn’t been gone that long, but I know she wanted to come back so she could talk to you when you woke up,” Sierra says. I try to hear her words, but all I can think about it whether or not she’s had a debutante ball.

“There she is,” Rainy says suddenly, pointing to the door. Kennedy walks through it and heads straight to me.

“Tara,” she says. “Have Rainy and Sierra told you what’s happening?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Kennedy, where’s Mom and Dad?”

Kennedy frowns. “I don’t know. But I can’t worry about that now – we’ve almost figured out how to get rid of the LowZs. Sierra, Rainy, bedroom. Tara –”

“I want to help,” I protest, even though all I really want to do is curl into a ball and sleep for ten hours. But it seems the natural thing to do.

“No,” Kennedy says firmly. “Rainy, Sierra and I are all trained for this. You aren’t. I don’t want you getting hurt, Tara.”

“Okay,” I say, relenting.

“Good,” Kennedy says, relieved that she doesn’t have to fight me. “You can go into the other bedroom and just chill there, okay?”

“Okay,” I say, though I doubt I’ll be able to “chill” while there’s, you know, a ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE going on.

“Okay,” Kennedy says. Sierra and Rainy head into the bedroom. Kennedy shows me to the guest room.

“This is really creepy,” I tell Kennedy.

“I know, Little T,” Kennedy says. “Little T” is her pet name for me, but she hasn’t called me that in eight years. I smile at her and she kisses me on the forehead gently.

“Thanks, Big K,” I say..

“Welcome, T-Bird,” she says as she walks out the door.

“Love you, K-Train,” I call out as she shuts the door.

I don’t think she heard me.

[][][]

            THUMP. I sit straight up in the bed, all traces of sleepiness from the past hour (or maybe two hours?) gone.

“Yeah, Tara, best time to nap, during a zombie apocalypse,” I mutter to myself. I hadn’t planned on it, but all that running had made me really tired.

“Tara!”

“Kennedy?”

“Where are you?”

“Spare bedroom!”

Kennedy arrives at the door moments later.

“Tara, we’ve got to go,” Kennedy says urgently.

“To where?” I ask.

“Just – no time,” Kennedy says. “Hurry!”

Kennedy runs out the door and I dash after her.

“But where – are – we – going?” I gasp. She doesn’t answer me, just runs to a culvert on a slope behind a house two doors down.

“KENNEDY!” I yell, but she just ignores me.

“Tara, please,” she says, desperation overtaking her voice. “Please.”

“But where are we going?” I ask her.

“Tara,” Kennedy says sensibly, “you don’t need to know. All you need to know is that you need to come with me right now.”

“Fine,” I say angrily. “But you better tell me when we get there.”

“Of course,” Kennedy says absentmindedly. “Of course.”

We reach the culvert, and Kennedy points to it. There’s no cover, so, theoretically, one could just waltz in.

But, of course, that’s insane, and one should never waltz into a CULVERT.

“C’mon,” Kennedy says, the urgency back in her voice.

“Kennedy,” I say, using my best Babysitter Voice™, “that’s a culvert.”

“Tara,” Kennedy says, “the LowZs are about to find us. When – not if, Tara, when – they find us, they will kill us. K-I-L-L, as in D-E-A-D, dead. Now get in the culvert.”

I sigh. “Fine.”

Kennedy grabs my arm and shoves me in roughly.

“Run,” she says, “run as far down as you can. I’m right behind you.”

Even though it smells like a million rats ate a bunch of nasty cheese, pooped it all out, then died (which probably did happen, seeing as I’m in a CULVERT), I run as fast as I can.

“Faster,” Kennedy urges me.

I’m not the fastest person, but Kennedy’s urgent voice somehow makes my legs move at three times the speed that they normally run at.

I reach the end of the culvert, but there’s nowhere else to go.

“Dead end,” I say breathlessly, turning around. Kennedy is nowhere in sight.

Suddenly, I hear a faint voice.

“Tara?”

“Hello?” I call nervously.

“Tara!” says the voice, overjoyed.

“Mom?” I ask incredulously.

“Tara, please, you’ve got to help, she’s got your dad in here too, we’re locked in – just open the hatch,” my mom calls to me.

I look down and see a small hatch, covered in rat poop.

“Okay,” I say, using my shoe to kick off the poop. I open the hatch to see my parents’ dirty faces staring up at me.

“Get a rope or something,” my dad calls up.

“Okay, I’ll go ge -”

Suddenly, someone shoves me from behind. I fall into the pit with my parents, and look up to see Kennedy standing above us.

“Kennedy! You’ve got to help!” I call. Kennedy laughs, and a feeling of dread takes over my body.

“Tara, sweetie, I am helping,” Kennedy says, smiling. “Mom, Dad, Krista, you’ve got some company! Isn’t that just great? Of course, it means that you’re going to die sooner rather than later, because we needed four people to give the original LowZs enough energy for us to extract the virus, because when they’re weak, so it the virus, and 1500 wasn’t working and all that, but at least you won’t have to smell all this any more, right?”

“Krista?” I say, confused. Krista McCone, the Troubled Teens Home director waves to me from the corner of the pit. It’s a sad and dejected wave, a wave devoid of hope. Sort of like my current situation. Hers too, I guess.

“Oh, you haven’t met?” Kennedy asks, positively beaming now. “Krista here is a zombie hunter. One of the most annoying – or, as she puts it, ‘successful.’ She was causing some serious bumps in my plan, so into the pit she went. Actually, she put up a pretty good fight, but then we broke her leg, as you can probably tell. And, well, Mom and Dad were bothering me, and so they’re in there too. I’d hoped you’d have the sense to butt out, but you are a little sister, after all.”

“What about Rainy and Sierra?” I say angrily. “Are you going to drop them down here too?”

Kennedy giggles like a three-year-old who ate all the leftover Halloween candy and her parents blamed the dog.

“‘Rainy and Sierra’ are code names, silly,” Kennedy says. “We only used my real name so you wouldn’t suspect anything. I usually use the name Ha -” Then Kennedy frowns. “Wait. Why am I even telling you this? Jeez, I promised myself I wouldn’t make all the stupid mistakes that the villains in movies make, like spilling out their whole plan for people to hear before they’ve even killed them.”

She slams the hatch shut.

“Kennedy, please,” Mom says desperately. “Why are you doing this?”

“‘Kennedy, please,’” Kennedy mimics. “Gee, Mom, I wonder why. Maybe it’s because you never took me seriously or gave me any control over my own life, ever. You told me when I’d take the driver’s ed test and signed me up for the session you wanted, even though I wanted to take it with Rachel.”

Her voice starts rising until she’s practically screaming.

“You didn’t let me go to the Homecoming game because it was ‘too dangerous’ even though it was all I could talk about for a month. And now I’m doing whatever I want, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Kennedy takes a deep breath.

“Kennedy, we were trying to protect you,” Mom says quietly, and I notice that her eyes are rimmed red with tears.

“Whatever. Anyway, my little zombie minions will be down here soon enough, never fear. You won’t have to smell this much longer.”

Then she leaves. Krista sighs and puts her head between her knees. My parents sit cross-legged on the floor, doing a yoga pose of some sort.

“Guys, let’s get out of here,” I say. Everyone looks at me, surprised. “Look – the hatch is just shut, not locked. We need to find a way to push it up and then one of us could maybe climb out, somehow.”

“There’s a lot of boxes in that corner,” Krista McCone says, pointing to the left. “I noticed when she first dumped us in, but I haven’t been able to go look at them.”

I walk over and open one up. They’re filled with syringes labelled Zombie Strain 1500.

“I think that Kennedy and her friends left them in here,” I say. Looking around, I notice that the pit we’re in is pretty spacious – I just couldn’t tell at first, because there’s no lighting. “Actually, I think this is where they made their first virus, or whatever they called it.”

“I can explain,” Krista McCone says, grimacing as she shifts her leg a little. “Zombies are created when a virus is injected. Most people who create this virus are known as Raisers, and a lot of them don’t understand the science they’re trying to perform. Their test subjects typically die after a few hours, maybe days, if the Raiser is particularly gifted. No Raiser has ever been able to create fully-fledged adult zombies. Your sister, however, seems to have almost perfected the formula – her zombies aren’t dying. But when I found her, she was using adults as her test subjects.”

“So?” my dad asks impatiently.

“So, the zombies that were sent out into the general population were children,” Krista says, and I shudder, remembering the zombie kids pounding on my door.

“What exactly does that mean?” my mom asks.

“It means that she’s got a discrepancy in her virus that makes human adults become children zombies when injected with it,” Krista explains. “Our spies reported seeing adult humans being injected, then unaging, then becoming her undead minions.”

“So it’s not perfect,” I say, a slight sense of relief spreading through me.

“No,” Krista says. “But if a couple of her zombies feed and become more energized, I think the strain inside them will be strong enough to create adult zombies.”

The relief leaves as quickly as people at a party do when that one guy randomly starts talking about his toe infection.

“So when the kid zombies start feasting on us …” I say slowly, not wanting to accept the inevitable.

“They’ll be so strong that when Kennedy takes out their DNA, the virus in it will be amplified, making her able to create fully-grown zombies,” Krista says, nodding grimly. “Which is why we need to escape.”

“I have a question, though,” Mom says. “How did she get all of the people to turn into zombies?”

We all look at one another until my father clears his throat uncomfortably.

“I hate to say this,” he says, “but when Eliza and I found Kennedy on the side of the road and we were questioning her, and she attacked us … when Eliza screamed, no one seemed to hear, and I know it’s the Fourth of July weekend, but …”

“Oh, no,” Krista says.

“Mom, are you okay?” I say anxiously.

“We’re fine, sweetie,” my mom says. “Kennedy just spooked us. She had a big knife but actually she just used chlorophyll on us.”

Suddenly, there’s a loud clang above us, and we all tense up. A rat scuttles over the hatch, its tiny feet slapping on the concrete floor.

“We need to get out of here,” Krista says.

I put the lid back on one of the boxes and shove a pile of them underneath the hatch, stacking them like a staircase. I start with five on the bottom, then four, then three, then two, then just the one, because the hatch isn’t really that far up.

“I’ll go first,” I say, “to test it.”

“Sweetie, I don’t want you to get hurt,” my mom says. “I’m going.”

“No, Mom,” I say firmly. “I’m lighter. It makes more sense for me to go.”

“Fine, but be careful,” Mom says.

“I promise,” I say. Then I turn and gingerly step up on one box, then another. Soon, I’ve made it to the top and pushed the hatch open, and then I’m free. A draft a wind blows over me, and I sort of expect to smell, I don’t know, freedom or fluffy clouds or something, but all I smell is that disgusting rat poop.

Suddenly, I hear a loud crash, and I look down to see all the boxes have tumbled down.

“We’ll rebuild it,” Krista calls up.

But as soon as my mother steps on the first box, the lid gives in, and her foot smashes some of the syringes.

She yelps in pain and hops away on her other foot.

“But I’ve been dieting,” she says unhappily.

“You’re very thin, Eliza,” Dad assures her.

“Yeah, Mom, I’m just really skinny, but I probably made the wood super weak or something,” I say. “I’m sorry. Are there any more boxes?”

“Yes, but I don’t see how that will help,” Krista says, “because if they break when your mother goes on them, then your father and I definitely won’t be able to get up.”

“I guess I’ll go and get something to help you guys out,” I say, “like a rope or something.” I shut the hatch on top of them. “So she won’t realize I’m gone,” I assure them.

“Hurry,” my mother says.

“Don’t worry,” I say, even though your eldest daughter feeding you to an army of little zombies is DEFINITELY cause to worry.

“Okay,” my mother says, sounding just as skeptical as I feel.

“I’ll be back,” I promise, heading down the culvert, back to where I’d come from. I don’t run into Kennedy or her zombie minions, which is good, because I don’t stand a chance against either of them.

I reach the opening of the culvert and peek out. Sierra and Rainy – or whatever their real names are – are standing guard in front. I duck back inside, my heart racing.

“How much longer do we have to stay here?” Rainy complains. “It’s annoying.”

“Just wait,” Sierra says placatingly, examining her cuticles. “It’s almost time for the sacrifice, all right?”

“Fine,” Rainy says. “Whatever. I’m hungry.”

“Is anything about your life good at the moment?” Sierra asks sarcastically.

“Yeah,” Rainy says. “I’m about to throw you to a bunch of zombies.”

Sierra sighs patronizingly and shakes her head like teachers do all the time. It’s the patented You’re so obnoxious but I can’t physically hurt you so I’ll just throw disapproving looks your way look.

“Guys,” Kennedy says, walking up to them from the opposite direction, “everything’s ready. The four LowZs we picked out will be here in a half hour, because whenever I tell them to do something ‘right now,’ they finish it thirty minutes later But hopefully they’ll be faster when we extract the new strain. Anyway, I sent the rest of them to an empty house on Fillmore Avenue. Now, let’s move.”

The three of them start walking – toward the culvert where I’m sitting. My heart races, and I sprint back down the corridor, no real plan in mind except “don’t get caught.”

The plan stops working as soon as I reach the hatch where my parents and Krista are hidden – the dead end.

“Tara?” my mother calls up. “Do you have the -”

“Shh!” I hiss. “Whatever you do, don’t speak,” I tell them forcefully, my mind working as fast as my heart was beating.

I hear voices – Kennedy and her buddies are headed this way, and there’s no way for me to escape.

Kennedy turns the corner and sees me.

“Well, well, well,” she says, in that self-important voice all villains seem to naturally have. “Trying to escape, little sis? A bit too late for that, I’m afraid.”

“Kennedy,” I say, shaking my head and laughing, even though she can probably see that I’m shaking from head to foot. “If I’d wanted to escape, I wouldn’t be waiting here for you, would I?”

“I don’t know,” Kennedy says, but I can see the seeds of doubt being planted in her mind. “But why aren’t you in there?” she says slowly, gesturing vaguely to the hatch.

“Because,” I say, my heart pounding even faster, “it stinks in there. More than out here, that is. Plus I kinda don’t want to be fed to zombies, y’know?”

“Right,” Kennedy says, shrugging. “Well, too bad for you, you’re going to be fed to zombies anyway.”

“Nah,” I say shaking my head. “I’ll help you feed these guys to zombies, and find another victim, but I just don’t feel like getting eaten today.”

Kennedy chews her lip and turns to Sierra and Rainy.

“Don’t trust her,” Sierra advises.

“Oh, whatever,” Kennedy says. “I’ll go with her and get a new victim, but if she tries to escape or slows us down, she’ll get sent right back here. And if we don’t find another victim in the half hour, I’ll bring her back anyway. I mean, if she wants to turn against our parents, who am I to object? It’s not like I’m them, just forcing things on her with no attention to her actual wants.”

“That is obnoxious of them,” I chime in, my legs shaking like a slinky.

“Yes, but you won’t be here to deal with the LowZs if you’re chaperoning your little sister,” Sierra points out, “and they only answer to you.”

“Then Rainy can take her,” Kennedy says. “But if you two aren’t back in a half hour, I’m sacrificing Sierra.”

“What?” Sierra says, turning to face Kennedy.

“The zombies are getting hungry,” Kennedy says reasonably. “Now go. And Tara?”

I look into Kennedy’s eyes, and she stares back into mine.

“Yeah, Kennedy?”

“Behave,” she says forcefully. Then she turns and walks down the culvert, Sierra right behind her.

“Well then, who’s our next victim?” Rainy asks.

[][][]

Twenty minutes later, we’ve got a scrawny ten-year-old boy tied up in his living room chair, his video game still beeping and whizzing. His parents don’t seem to be home, and my guess is that Kennedy shanghaied them and he didn’t notice.

“Who are you?” the boy demands. “State your rank and your position,” he says, trembling from head to foot.

“Call me Rainy,” Rainy tells him. “My rank is bad guy, and my position is ‘person who’s got you tied up.’”

“Code name Verity,” I say, wishing I had a pair of sunglasses to look even more espionage-y. “You’ll never know my ranking,” I inform the boy. “What you will know is this – you’re about to be a sacrifice, and there’s no way to escape it.”

Rainy raises her eyebrow. I shrug.

“What’s your name, kid?” Rainy asks.

The boy squints up at us.

“Code name Vader,” he says. “Darth Vader.”

Rainy and I roll our eyes in unison.

“C’mon, kid, just tell us your name,” Rainy says.

“You better watch out,” “Vader” warns. “My Stormtroopers are fully armed, and they’re on their way here now!”

“Yeah, and so’s Santa,” I say. “Let’s go, Dork Vader.”

Rainy and I push him onto the sled we found in his closet, tie him to it, and start pulling him out the door. Before we leave, though, I grab a knife from his kitchen and stick it in the waistband of my jeans.

“You can’t do this!” the kid shrieks. He’s putting up a good game face, but I can tell he’s terrified. I feel bad for the poor guy.

Once we reach the culvert, Rainy realizes that the sled won’t fit in there (it’s one of those mega-sleds that a whole family plus their dog can sit on), so she has to untie Vader’s bonds. She takes the rope and ties it around his wrists instead.

“Don’t try and run, or me and ‘Verity’ here will cut you a new one,” Rainy informs him.

The poor kid can’t even come up with a dorky rebuttal. He just nods shakily.

Rainy takes a few steps in, but Vader hasn’t moved, and I’m stuck behind him. Rainy, however, doesn’t notice this. She keeps walking down the tunnel.

I push Vader aside and pull out the knife I stole from his kitchen, cutting him completely free.

“Listen, kid,” I say, sticking the knife back in my waistband. “You’ve got to trust me. My name’s Tara. I’m going to help you. Tell me your name.”

“Connor,” the kid says, though I can see that he still doesn’t trust me.

“Okay, Connor,” I say. “We’re going to find a safe house for you to stay in. Then I’m going to go rescue my parents, and we’ll all live happily ever after, but only if you do what I say. You hear?”

“Yeah,” Connor says, swallowing.

“Good. Now come on, let’s go find a house.”

[][][]

Ten minutes later, I’ve found an empty house two blocks down. There were empty houses closer to the culvert – in fact, all the houses were empty, supporting Krista’s theory that Kennedy is using all the adults in the neighborhood for her experiment – but I didn’t want to risk going to a house too close and having one of Kennedy’s gang hear or see us.

I kick in the window in the basement, and Connor crawls in, then I follow him.

The basement of this house is pretty nice – plush carpeting, leather couches, big screen TV. I push Connor into a room down the hall with a bunch of exercise equipment and tell him to stay.

He nods and sits down on the treadmill.

“When will you be back?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I admit. “Just stay here, okay? And don’t move. I promise I’ll be back, no matter what. But that might not be for a while.”

“Okay,” Connor says. “Should we call the police?”

“Well,” I say, “the thing is, we’re sort of dealing with zombies, and I don’t really think that the police would take us that seriously. And even if they did, they probably wouldn’t be much help.”

“That makes sense,” Connor says.

“Okay,” I say, heading back into the TV room so I can climb out the window. “Stay safe,” I call back, checking my watch. It’s only been twenty minutes since Kennedy sent me off, so I still have a little time.

“Okay,” comes his weak little voice.

[][][]

As I sneak back to the culvert, I can hear Kennedy screaming at someone. I have sudden flashbacks to the time my parents told her she couldn’t go to Homecoming.

WHAT? HOW COULD YOU LET BOTH OF THEM ESCAPE?” she bellows.

She’s standing in front of the culvert, Sierra behind her, Rainy in front of her.

“I don’t know,” Rainy says desperately. “I think your kid sister -”

“EXACTLY,” Kennedy screams. “YES, OF COURSE, MY KID SISTER CAN OUTSMART YOU – or can she?” Kennedy asks, her voice dropping to quiet-but-deadly level. “So, turns out little Tara is smarter than all of us, is that it?”

Rainy opens her mouth, then closes it.

“Go FIND HER,” Kennedy screams. “Sierra, go with her, so my ‘kid sister’ doesn’t outsmart her again.”

“Maybe you should go find her yourself, if she’s so smart,” Rainy mutters.

Kennedy grabs her arm, and Rainy lets out a gasp of pain.

“Yes, maybe I should, but see here, Rainy, I don’t want my kid sister to SNEAK IN HERE AND FREE EVERYONE like I KNOW she will.”

“Okay, okay,” Rainy says. “I’m sorry.”

“You should be,” Kennedy says. “But maybe you’re right,” she concedes. “Also, maybe the fact that if my sister gets away with any more shenanigans, you’ll be the next sacrifice will – ah – inspire you to work better.”

“Yes,” Rainy says. “I swear.”

“Fine,” Kennedy says. “Sierra and I will go find my brat sister and that little boy, and you’ll guard the place.”

“Yes,” Rainy says. “Yes, I will.”

Kennedy rolls her eyes and heads off down the street, Sierra close behind her. Thankfully, they’re going in the opposite direction of the house Connor’s in.

Rainy sits down in front of the culvert opening and buries her face in her hands. She starts crying noisily.

I feel some pity for her, but she was going to feed me and that poor kid to zombies, so the pity is kind of cancelled out.

Rainy’s still crying, so I decide to sneak past her now – and then I realize I don’t have a rope or anything to pull my parents and Krista McCone out with.

The sled is still sitting in the mouth of the culvert, so I guess I could cut the rope off there, but then Rainy would definitely notice me.

What I really need is a distraction.

I sneak back to the house Rainy and Sierra and Kennedy and I were camping in, which is only two doors down, and poke around in the garage for something I could use. Then I come across some fireworks stuffed in a box full of batteries.

I never thought I’d be grateful for ill-placed (illegal) fireworks, but at this point, I’ll take anything. I grab the fireworks, swipe some matches from the kitchen, and head out.

I go into the backyard and fence-hop two more doors down. The backyard is more like a desert than anything, so I feel no remorse about setting the fireworks off here.

I check that the knife from Connor’s kitchen is still in my waistband and take a deep breath. I put all the fireworks in a clump on the ground.

I’m far enough away from the culvert that I’ll have enough time to make it away, but close enough that Rainy will have to come check it out. My only problem will be if Kennedy and Sierra are in this area and head toward me.

Based on the luck I’ve been having today, I’m guessing they will be.

I get ready to sprint, then strike a match and throw it on the fireworks. I fence-hop back to the yard of the house we originally camped in before the first one goes off.

I feel like I left my breath back with the fireworks. I must be acting like that fish I had when I was a kid, Nemo (Pixar was very influential on me).

One time I was cleaning Nemo’s tank and I put him in a cup, except I forgot to put water in the cup, because I was five years old. Anyway, Nemo was gaping his little clownfish mouth, but he couldn’t seem to catch his breath.

But that’s not a very good simile to think about, because Nemo ended up dying.

I shake my head and look at the culvert, which I can see pretty well from this backyard. Rainy is squinting at the fireworks.

“Kennedy?” she calls out. “Want me to go check that out?”

There’s no answer, which means Kennedy’s pretty far away. Rainy sighs and starts jogging toward the noise.

I suppress a shout of joy and hop over the fence, sneaking towards the culvert, looking both ways to make sure that Rainy’s gone.

I cut the rope off the sled, then dash down the tunnel to the hatch where my parents and Krista McCone are.

“Ta -” my mother starts, but I shush her. I’m not taking any chances.

I pull the hatch off and toss the rope down, tying it around the hatch, which is heavy and metal and probably had a better chance up helping an adult climb up than I do. My mother grabs it first, hauling herself up. Then Krista grabs it and clambers up with surprising agility for someone with a broken leg. Last to come up is my father. It takes all three of us plus the hatch to pull him out, but we manage it.

Feeling much better about my chances now that I have three adults by my side, I head toward the mouth of the tunnel, running so that Rainy doesn’t come back and find us.

Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, it’s not going to be much help, having the adults with me. I mean, they got captured before I did.

Either way, I’m glad I’m not alone.

“Where are those three girls?” Krista asks briskly. “I need to get to a phone, and then I can call for backup.”

“We’ve got to go pick up someone first, but then there’ll be a phone,” I tell Krista, heading down the path to the house where I left Connor.

“Have there been any signs of the LowZs?” Krista asks.

I frown. “No,” I say. “Is that bad?”

“I don’t know yet,” Krista says. “But we need backup ASAP.”

“We’re almost there,” I say, picking up the pace. We’re a block from the house where I left Connor, and my heart is thumping like crazy.

“How many of these – these zombie kids are there?” my father asks tentatively.

Krista sighs. “There were about ten. Then your daughter and her gang raised about a hundred from each of those original ten. Not all of them are loose, but they will be, soon.”

“There’s a thousand of them?” my mother asks in a small voice.

“We’re here!” I interrupt, running to the back of the house and climbing in the window I’d broken in earlier.

“Where are we?” Krista asks.

“Connor!” I shout. “It’s Tara! I brought backup!”

I peek into the room with the treadmill. Thankfully, he’s still sitting there.

When he sees me, he jumps up and hugs me.

“Thank you for coming back,” he whispers.

“I’m going to find a phone,” Krista says authoritatively, limping upstairs with only a slight grimace every time she puts her weight on her leg.

I bring Connor out into the living room.

“Sit down,” I tell him, pointing to the couch.

“Did you kill that other girl?” he asks.

Both my parents gasp at the same time.

“No,” I say. “But we’re going to take care of her, okay? You’ll be alright.”

“Okay,” Connor says.

“Backup is on the way,” Krista calls from upstairs. “Just sit tight. The helicopter will be here in ten.”

“Okay,” I call back. “Hear that, Connor? A helicopter,” I say. He grins.

We sit on the leather couch, resting. I think about how much running I’ve done in the past hour alone, and the thought makes me want to sleep for a whole day.

But there’s more work to be done. The helicopter arrives in the basketball court about a block away from the house, and we dash down to meet it.

But when we get there, the “helicopter” looks more like some kind of Star Wars ship rather than a helicopter. I mean, it takes up the whole basketball court. When we go inside, there’s a main room, a cockpit up front and room marked Battle Room to the right, and one marked Brig to the left.

Connor starts asking the pilot about how all the guns work, while my parents just stand around looking uncomfortable.

Krista invites me into the Battle Room to strategize, and I meet a bunch of other people whose titles are longer than their names.

“We estimate a thousand LowZs,” Krista says to an old guy with no hair (though he does have very large eyebrows). “Three Raisers.”

“There were only twenty or so when they invaded my house,” I interject, sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair.

“They were being hidden,” Krista tells me. “Raisers don’t normally send out their entire force at the beginning.”

“We’ve got enough power to take out a hundred thousand LowZs,” a middle-aged woman with auburn hair says. Professor Lieutenant General Doctor Something-or-the-other.

“We’re planning an aerial attack, killing the LowZs and knocking out the Raisers so they can stand trial,” Krista says. “Any objections?”

“Why are we killing the LowZs?” I ask. “I mean, aren’t they people?”

“The virus corrupts their systems so much that we can’t do anything about it, and it’s dangerous to keep them alive because the virus stays alive with them. But when they die, so does the virus. It’s safer this way, because it actually saves more lives than it harms. If we could save the people, we would, but we’ll be saving more people by destroying the virus,” Krista explains swiftly.

“Okay,” I say, leaning back in my chair.

“Any other objections?” Krista asks.

“Yeah, just kill the Raisers,” says a younger-looking woman with blonde hair that goes on forever. I immediately nickname her Rapunzel. “They’re annoying, and they make our jobs a hundred times worse. Literally.”

“Excuse me,” I say to Rapunzel, “but you’re talking about my sister, and she deserves a trial.”

Rapunzel rolls her eyes. “Whatever, Pippi,” she says. For the first time today, I remember I’m wearing my hair in two braids. I glare at Rapunzel and sit down next to Krista.

“All in favor of trial?” Krista asks. Eyebrows Dude and two women who look like identical twins raise their hands along with Krista. “No trial?”

Rapunzel and the Professor Lieutenant General Doctor raise their hands.

“Okay,” Krista says. “Trial. And here we are, in shooting range,” she says, checking the navigation system that’s built into the wall.

“All systems are go,” a voice over the intercom informs us. “Fire when ready.”

The identical twins walk into the main room. I hear sounds of gunfire, but since there’s no window in this room, I have no idea what’s happening. I sit there, listening to the gunfire and wondering if we should spend more time trying to save the people who had been turned into zombies. But then I remember the zombie children attacking my house, and how hard my heart was pounding. The less zombie children in the world, the better. Besides, it would put the world at risk just to possibly save a few people who perhaps couldn’t even be saved at all, and is that fair to the world?

I honestly don’t think that it would be my place to decide, but if I had to, I’d say that it wouldn’t. Either way, the decision was already being put in effect.

After a little while, the intercom speaks again.

“All clear. All LowZs have been terminated.” Rapunzel sighs and leaves the room. I let out a deep breath and stand up. My legs have begun to feel sore from all the running, and if I was tired before, it’s nothing compared to right now. I could probably lay down on the floor and just sleep.

“We can take it from here,” Krista says to me.

“Is that all?” I ask, rubbing my eyes. “I mean, is the crisis over? Are all the – is everyone gone?”

“The LowZs, yes, but the Raisers were apprehended by the ground team,” Krista says. “They’re being transported to the brig.”

“Oh,” I say. I don’t really know how to feel. On one hand, I’m glad that my sister isn’t, well, dead, but on the other hand, I really don’t know if I’m glad because I want her to be punished or because I want to forgive her.

“We’ve decided on their punishment,” Krista assures me. “They will be sentenced to life in a maximum-security jail, where we’ll continue to monitor them and question them about the sciences they used.”

I nod slowly and stand up. I’m glad that this adventure is over – not just because the threat is gone, but because it caused so much stress and pain. It was like running the mile in P.E., then having an end-of-year exam in math. Then being chased by zombie children for another mile.

“Listen, Tara – you’re very resourceful. We could use someone like you on our team,” Krista tells me.

“So you want to recruit me for your zombie-fighting army?” I ask. Krista nods. “Well, thanks, but I don’t really think ‘Professional Zombie Hunter’ is the career path I’d like to take. At least, not right now.” I’d keep talking and tell her how worn out this one zombie-hunting excursion has made me, and how it’s almost too much excitement, but as I mentioned before, I am incredibly exhausted.

“Understandable,” Krista says. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing. But nevertheless, at least take my card.” She hands me a card that says Krista McCone, Zombie Hunter/Exterminator (208) 901 0795.

“Thanks,” I say, taking it and shoving it in my pocket. “Can you just fly Connor home before you drop us off?” I run through all the people I need to take care of things with in my head – Connor, my parents and Kennedy. Then I can finally go home and be done with all this.

“Of course,” Krista says. “We’ll take him to tell the pilot where he lives, then get you and your parents’ home.”

She exits the room and I follow her. Kennedy and Sierra and Rainy are all handcuffed and being marched to the Brig, which I guess is the jail. Kennedy glares at me.

“You’re the worst sister ever,” she says. “You always ruined everything. This is just the icing on the disgusting cake of my life. My one chance to finally do something on my own, something that wouldn’t be overshadowed by your stupid science fair awards and perfect grades. If I never see you again, it’ll be too soon.” She glares at my parents. “Happy? Now that I’m out of the picture, you can finally admit that she’s your favorite.”

So that’s how she feels. I’m too tired to really care – but I do appreciate the irony of the zombie-raising sister telling me how I’m a bad sister. But at least now I know how to feel about her being locked up – and that feeling is relief, because Kennedy and her entourage have caused me way too much trouble.

“What should I have done, huh?” I ask, my relief giving way to the anger that blossomed from her hateful words. “Just sit back and let you turn people into zombies? This isn’t the Thriller music video, sis.”

I want so badly to be able to make this all go away, but I guess that the next best thing would be too never see Kennedy again, which is what’s going to happen. At least I don’t have to sit through her graduation any more. Those things are boring enough when they’re your own, but when it’s someone else’s? Forget it. Might as well bring some paint to watch dry while you’re there. Oh, and you could also request that all radio stations play nothing but commercials and Justin Bieber while you’re at it – make it a party!

“I hate you so much,” Kennedy hisses at me, drawing my mind back to reality as she and her friends are pulled away, towards the brig.

“Love you too, K-Train,” I call after her, smiling wearily.

[][][]

“Hey, Tara,” my friend Bethany says, leaning by my locker. “First day of school. I’m dying.” We both laugh. “How was your summer, though?”

I shrug. “Pretty uneventful,” I say, shutting my locker and reaching into my pocket, touching the card that I’ve carried around with me since I got it.

 

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