An excerpt from my story "Frances," one of the stories from my thesis:
Alan Butler was always mean to my best friend Frances. Every day she'd have more bruises from him picking on her in the lunch line, in gym, at recess, everywhere, and the coward almost always waited for when I wasn't around. It made me so angry that I'd pick a fight with him at least once a week. But he had bigger friends, and the teachers were on his side because I was a troublemaker with a potty mouth.So every week I'd end up with bruises to match Frances', and we'd compare their size and color on the bus each Friday, my arm to her thigh on the sun-heated pleather bench seat. Somehow in the sunshine and the musty school-bus air, we'd find something to laugh about, and there we'd be, giggling like we were ten again and none of this mattered. I remember her gray, crinkled eyes glistening in the shadow of her hair. I remember silently promising to kill whoever hurt her.
So today, for the first time in my life, I'm going to get the drop on Alan Butler. James, Frances' dad, told me not to cause any problems or to make muchnoise while he's out foraging, but I've made up my mind, and today's the day. The rifle's barrel is getting heavy – I don't know how long I've been watching Butler through the sights – so I rest it on the windowsill and move the butt around until his big, fat head is back in the cross-hairs. Nobody's listening, but I whisper, "For Frances" anyway. I remember to put the butt snug against my shoulder like James showed me, take a deep breath, and squeeze the trigger gently, gently, and the rifle kicks back against me and I'm on my back on the dusty bell-tower floor in the First Community Church.
I heave myself back to a crouch, my ribs and tailbone and shoulder searing from the fall. Down below, the crowd of shambling monsters has changed little, but I look for the hole in the herd that will tell me I finally killed that asshole motherfucker. He had been on the corner of Main and Peach when I first spotted him around lunch. All afternoon, I sat in the tower, eating the leftover Vienna sausages from breakfast and watching him. He proved to be a tricky shot – perhaps there was something of the old Butler left in that rotted brainpan? – as he shuffled behind the light pole, the crashed bread truck in front of the café, and Mr. Johnson, who's at least six foot three. When I find the empty spot in the crowd of zombies, I slap the rifle to the floor. Butler’s still where he was, his big god-damned mouth still dribbling some poor sap’s blood and guts all over the sidewalk, still dead – still alive? still dead? – still staring, like they all do, into some unseen eternity. Next to him, Mr. Johnson hasn’t noticed that he’s missing an arm where I shot it clean through at the elbow.
"That god-damn son-of-a-bitch!" I curse a long string that would have gotten me detention had this been before, and I instantly feel bad for using them. In another life, my parents would have been disappointed to hear me say them or to find out I got detention again for using them. But hearing the cuss echo in the belly of the bronze bell behind me is comforting, a brassy validation of my anger. The words have always come to me when I'm white-hot and angry, when things are unjust or nonsensical. Frances told me once that I make the world happen with my words, that it doesn’t exist until I’ve yelled at it. She’d always sit by my side, completely quiet, when I got that way, even if it was her I was angry with. I don't know what to do when I feel nothing, it's only numbness and a soundless scream inside, when Frances is not beside me, when Frances walked off to march with the decaying throng weeks ago. I am wordless at night.
But now I'm in a noise-making mood. I mutter out the window some more. I feel it's my duty. The other people were quiet to the very end – that’s how the zombies got everyone without even a scream. They were just so busy trying to make sense of it that they didn’t have a chance to get scared. They crawled on scraped knees to the million nameless places people go to die, brows wrinkled, trying all the while to decide which promised apocalypse had befallen them. I know they were working it out in their dull little minds: Is this what the Second Coming looks like? Has society had gone too far in its search for scientific breakthroughs, had re-engineered one too many genetic codes? Or perhaps the Soviets or the Chinese have finally cashed in on their grudges.Oh, we were so sinful, so hasty, and so stingy with our democratic values, they thought, as their lives were pulled from their bones by dozens of snatching fingers.
So now it's my job to make noise, to scream, to yell, to fill up this silently shuffling town with words, even if James is right and it'll bring the zombies running to our tower, even if Frances doesn't know I shout for her. I'm not going to die like the others, quietly and alone. I shudder because that's exactly how Frances died. I must be strong, though. I'm not going to spend my time wondering what caused this. It's a waste of time. The end has been really too real to be predicted by any ancient tome or stupid analyst's report. No wormy woodcut or low-budget History Channel special could depict a catastrophe so vividly wild as the one outside the window.
I glance down, still muttering, to find the silencer- the one James told me I must always use - laying on the floorboards, and I'm back to shouting. "Fuck fuck fuck!" I was supposed to use it. I could have used it. I just wanted a better shot. I didn't see the zombies swarming, I reason. I don't hear them clawing or moaning or anything the movies say they do. Maybe everything's okay. Maybe I could take another shot at Alan, make it worth not using the silencer, but I know I'm in trouble with James already. He's a very particular man, the kind that likes things done his way and his way alone. One time he told Frances - and right on cue, I hear James' heavy footsteps on the ladder. At least I think they're James', hope they're just James' - yes, there's his key in the lock. I watch the trapdoor swing open, and he's in the room and angry.
"Oh, hi, James," I manage to get out before his hand comes crashing down and across my face and I'm spun to the floor.
"What did I tell you about shooting? About the silencer? They'll come running now. We'll have to escape again, and where are we going to go? Who's going to fall behind this time, Leah? You're fucking lucky I even made it here before they did."
I have slivers in my hands. The heat is rising on the left side of my face, and echoes of pain reverberate from bone to skin and back again. I speak, my lips half-numb now: "But they- they're not- I didn't see them come-"
He explodes at me. "Goddamn it, Leah! You want to fucking risk that? Get the ropes; we might have to rappel out of here. We'll see if I even take you with." He paces towards me, and I cringe again, but he only leans over me to peer out the window. He stands there a long while, fixed on the scene below, until he is satisfied that we won't be stormed, that we won't become like them.
He kneels and gently lifts my chin. My eyes meet his, and I see that they're watery. "I'm sorry, Leah. After Frances- after the monsters killed my Frances-" James stops and searches the floor for words. "You and Frances were all I had. And now that it's just you- it scares me, Leah. Those, thosethingscould come get you or me at any time. Weneedeach other, so I need you to be careful. You got that? I'm sorry."
I nod. I'm still dizzy from the blow and all of a sudden tired. His argument makes sense, though. We're stressed. Scavenging has been hard lately, our fellow townspeople hungry. I shouldn't have been making noise; we're not sure what sets them off yet. Maybe he just snapped. It's understandable.
I shift my weight until I can lie my head on James' shoulder, and he falls back on his butt to sit. We watch the tip-top of the sunset like this, gazing up and over the rooftops, trying to forget about what's under our town's eaves.
"You're a lot like her, you know," he whispers, and I try to smile. Nobody has ever told me this before. My mind searches for any similarities, but I'm loud, a troublemaker, and she's quiet and sweet; I'm stout, freckled, blond, and she's tall, oblong, with dark hair and gray eyes; I'm plain and she is - was - perfect, unique, my only- then James catches my eye and beams.