“You wanna do something fun?” Cara’s long blonde flat ironed until perfectly straight hair, whips around as she turns her head in my direction. A devious smile forms across her glossy pink lips, a shade that looks suspiciously familiar.
There once was a mean girl named Gwen…
“Shopping isn’t fun?” I ask, doing my best to prolong the inevitable. Cara’s idea of fun scares the hell out of me, but I already know I’ll go along with whatever diabolical plan she has her pretty little mind set on. That’s what ride or die besties do, right? She pauses long enough to take a quick selfie to post for her followers. Cara breezed into town the summer before our freshman year when her father took over the Southeastern Chemical Plant. She brought her hive, so to speak, a following one hundred thousand strong and growing, with her. Gant County had never seen anything like Cara Cartwright, and she knew it.
“Kev is hosting the Halloween party tonight, right?” Cara starts and a sense of dread washes over me. “Well, since we’re in charge of decorations, I was thinking we should go all out this year." Classic Cara, always trying to one-up her last idea. "We are totally gonna borrow a dead body from the mortuary. We’ll post on insta that the party will be funeral themed. Everyone will come dressed in black. It’s so macabre, don’t you think? It’ll be great!”
“Absolutely not. I am not touching a dead body. Ew, Cara.” I say hoping this is enough to sway her.
“Come on, It’s our senior year. This is the last Halloween party we’ll experience together at Gant High. Plus, we won’t have to touch the body. We’ll borrow a hearse and get some football players to do the heavy lifting.” Cara continues, undeterred.
“Nice, grand theft auto in addition to body snatching, really?” I ask, hoping she’ll realize how ridiculous this idea is.
“I said borrow, Gwen. It’s Friday night. The mortuary will be closed, and we’ll return the body and the hearse Saturday morning before anyone even knows either are missing. That creepy kid, what’s his name? His uncle owns the funeral home, and he works there sometimes. We’ll get the alarm codes from him.”
“Timothy,” I say, immediately wishing I could take it back.
“Who?” Cara asks, quickly pocketing the sunglasses she’d been trying on. Her klepto habit isn’t one born from necessity. She bypasses the register and heads toward the exit. Guess we’re done shopping.
“His name is Timothy. He’s in my AP Bio class, and he’s not creepy.” I answer, realizing I’ve just sealed his fate. How does she always get her way? Sometimes I think she can compel people like vampires.
“Sounds like someone has a crush on creepy Timmy?” Cara winks at the security guard on the way out, and he nearly falls over himself to hold the door for her. I swear, she could get away with murder in this town. We hop in my convertible Benz, a gift from an absentee father doing his best to compensate for love with money, which is illegally parked in front of the store, Cara having enlisted the security guard to keep an eye on it swearing we'd only be a sec. Cara is the exception to the rule. The laws of nature simply don’t apply. She floats through life, gravity be damned. Dawning her recently acquired sunglasses, she takes a pull from her e-cig, and we ride away leaving behind a Caribbean coconut scented vape cloud in our wake.
...Timothy was her childhood best friend…
"Listen, the hospital morgue is at capacity. We just need a place to store the bodies temporarily until we can sort this out. I'm asking as a favor, Bob." Holding the phone, I can't help but overhear the conversation between the coroner and my uncle who insists on using the speaker phone when he's working.
"Fine, but this is the last time I do the city any favors. Most people work for monetary compensation, and the city needs to find room in its budget for body storage. Expect an invoice next time." My uncle nods at me to end the call so he doesn't have to deglove.
"What was that about?" I ask more out of boredom than actual curiosity.
“Nothing for you to worry about T.” My uncle Bobby has called me T for as long as I can remember. “You know they’re shorthanded when the medical examiner volunteers to personally deliver three more bodies this afternoon. Apparently, they’ve had some sort of accident at the plant.” Uncle Bobby can carry on an entire conversation without looking up from his work even once. The dead people still bother me a little, but not him. He’s completely in his element, and I like watching him work. He treats the dead with more respect than most people have for the living.
“I haven’t seen anything on the news. Anybody we know?” I probe for more information. If anything happens at the plant, usually the whole town is buzzing about it. Small towns are like that, and almost everybody who lives in Gant County either works at the Southeastern Chemical Plant or is akin to someone who does. There just aren’t that many other options for gainful employment.
“They’re keeping the lid on this one, kid. Nine deceased so far, and no I.D.’s. Not a single missing person’s report has been filed. The only indication that the plant is involved is the fact that the John Does were found on land owned by S.E.C. wearing the plant issued coveralls.” I watch as he finishes cleaning the body, and carefully covers Mrs. Johnson’s corpse. Her services are being held next week. I know because I’m on schedule to work which means I’ll be handing out tissues to grieving old people, but I don’t mind. It’s nice to be a beacon of solace. “I’ve said too much already. Obviously, T, the police department is depending on our usual discretion. Now, go be a teenager for crying out loud.”
“Say no more,” Sliding off the empty exam table, I head upstairs. Seriously, who would I tell anyway? They won’t be able to keep this quiet for very long. I mean nine is a high body count for a bustling metropolis, much less a quiet rural town in Gant County. My pocket vibrates alerting me to a notification. Gwen? My heart beats a little faster as I read her unexpected message. Hi Timothy. In desperate need of a study buddy for next week’s exam. Can you meet for coffee later? I’m not sure what’s weirder: nine dead bodies in Gant County or a text from Gwendolyn McCready.
...Then tragedy struck...
I’m late, and as usual it’s all thanks to Cara. She has absolutely zero respect for anyone else’s time. Putting the car in park, I reach for my purse from the passenger side floor only to find its contents have been completely dumped. Cursing under my breath, I violently shove my things back inside one by one. I knew it. She took my favorite Pretty Please Pink lip gloss. What a total B. There’s no point in getting mad. She’ll convince me of how she rescued me from that oh so yesterday color, and I’ll let it slide like I always do. I’m ashamed to admit that I like the way I feel when I’m with her. Being Cara’s best friend comes with perks, and sadly validation from her has become my drug of choice. I’m not proud of who I’ve become, but it’s impossible to change course now.
Timothy is sitting in a booth by the window of my favorite coffee spot looking cool and aloof with his brown curly hair cut in sort of a classic throwback James Dean style. Cara wasn’t wrong, maybe I am crushing just a little, though I’d never admit that to her. He isn’t exactly in our social circle. The difference between me and Cara is that I honestly don’t think Cara is aware that she uses people. She has no idea how cruel she can be. It’s just in her nature. On the other hand, I am fully aware of what being used feels like and doing this to Timothy bothers me. There’s no vindication in knowing; It only makes me feel worse.
Timothy stands as I approach the booth, “I ordered for you.” He says as we both sit down. Grande flat white, with one pump white chocolate mocha, right?”
“You remembered?” I pluck the plastic stopper from the lid and sip the steaming latte. I had almost forgotten that Timothy worked here sophomore year. He shrugs off my question.
“I did not expect to hear from you,” Timothy pulls his biology book from his bag and lays it on the table. “A text from Miss Popularity. You could have your choice of study buddies. How’d I get so lucky?”
“Ouch!” I’d have to be an idiot to miss the backhand in that compliment. “The truth is, I don’t actually need a study partner, but I do need your help with something.” I feel so disgusting. I wish I were here to study like normal teenagers. I’m so tired of chasing Cara’s next viral post, but I trudge through anyway. My coffee is cold by the time I finish telling Timothy our plan.
“What the fuck, Gwen?” Timothy slams the book closed and shoves it in his bag. “I have better things to do than play one of yours and Cara’s twisted games. I should have known there was some ulterior motive.” He gets up to leave, but I grab his arm.
“No one is gonna get hurt.” I smile shyly, fully aware that I don’t have the same sway over people that Cara does.
“Is that what you think?” Timothy sits back down. “You really think that no one gets hurt from these stupid, mindless, fucking pranks. I thought you were smarter than that. That you were better than this.” No one except Cara has ever managed to make me feel this small. “Nine people didn’t die so Cara Cartwright could become the Halloween Queen.” With that final crushing blow to my ego, Timothy leaves. So lost in my own guilt I almost miss it. Did he say that nine people died?
Tossing my coffee in the trash on the way out, I run as fast as my super short corduroy mini skirt will allow. “Timothy, wait!” I call but he doesn’t even turn around. Can I blame him? He turns the corner where his bike is parked, giving me time to catch up. “Nine dead people?” I ask, breathless. “That’s like enough for a baseball team, right?”
“Look Gwen, forget I said anything.” Timothy secures his bag to the back of his bicycle, and stoops down to unlock the security tie.
I’ve never wanted to rewind the last four years of my life so badly. Timothy is actually a nice person, and if he hates me then I really have crossed over to the dark side. I stoop down so I can be at eye level with him and cover his hand with mine until he stops and looks at me. “You’re right, and I’m sorry for texting you out of blue just to ask you to do something that could get you in trouble,” This may be the first genuine conversation I’ve had in four years.
“You know, I lost more than both my parents the year Cara came to Gant County. I lost my best friend too.” Timothy shakes off my hand. “Don’t call me again,” he says, mounting his bike.
“She won’t stop!” I yell after him as he rides away. “Even if you don’t help, she’ll just find another way.” What have I done? I need to fix this.
...the dead ran amuck...
I’m probably the only senior at Gant High who isn’t at Kevin’s infamous Halloween Party. According to Gwen’s Instagram, they are sticking with the funeral theme, and she looks good in her little black dress. Why do I torture myself like this? What’s wrong with me? I’m stalking her on social media when I could be with her right now. Maybe I should have just helped her? What’s the worst that could happen? Convicted criminals don’t get a full ride to Brown. They get their early acceptance revoked in exchange for an orange jumpsuit and jail time. Seven more months until I can leave Gant County in my rearview mirror forever. Forget it. It’s a stupid idea, and she isn’t worth it.
I try hard to convince myself but seeing her Instagram feed only makes me more curious about all the life I’m missing sitting here in my bedroom on a Friday night with my nose in my biology book. A photo strip of me and Gwen catches my eye. The black and white images of us making funny faces remind me of happier times, before my parents died, before her parents divorced, before Cara stole her from me, and the trajectory of both our lives was changed.
The buzz of my phone interrupts my sad little trip down memory lane. The message is from Gwen. I’m so sorry. Yeah right. You’re not the same girl I used to know. The message is followed by two more in quick succession. I tried to stop them. Please help.
I wait, hoping for another message. Nothing. This is not cute, Gwen. My computer displays Cara’s latest post on Instagram. It’s a video, and they are running, screaming. I replay the clip unsure of exactly what is happening. It’s blurry, and Cara’s never posted anything that isn’t expertly edited and laden with filters and photoshop. Then, I recognize the weird coo coo clock on the wall. That’s my Uncle’s Funeral home. They’re in the basement, but I don’t see Gwen.
I should call the cops. I dial 911, and a busy tone bounces back through the receiver. Grabbing my jacket, I run down the stairs two at a time. “Going out!” I call over my shoulder to Uncle Bobby who is already snoring in his recliner in front of the TV.
I check my phone again for another message from Gwen. Nothing. I type OMW, before grabbing my bike and pedaling as fast as I can into town. This better not be a prank. Wouldn’t it be just like Cara and Gwen to find a way to get back at me, embarrass me somehow for not helping them. Out of habit and completely forgetting that this is an emergency, I wave at Tom the butcher as I pass by his shop. His white apron is covered in blood. He’s working late for a Friday night. A car alarm is going off in the distance, and I steer to the sidewalk as an ambulance speeds by, sirens blaring. Out of nowhere, Barbara from the bookstore, lurches out at me, arms extended, sending me flying over an abandoned car parked half on the road, half on the sidewalk, doors ajar. “What the hell, Barb?” I stand up, checking myself for broken bones or bleeding. No major injuries. Everything appears to be intact. Barb is still walking toward me, arms extended, moaning a bit. That's when it hits me, Barb is a bonafide zombie. I process this new information just in time to sidestep her as she lunges again, literally chomping at the bit, until her dentures fall out.
...But all is made right in the end.
Slow zombies are hella scary. We used to argue about that, Timothy and I, but I know I’m right about that now. We made a pact in eighth grade that if there ever was a zombie apocalypse, we’d spend it together, no matter what. Neither of us knew what that summer would hold, and it’s probably the last happy memory I have of Timothy. We hid together during his parents’ funeral, right here where I’m hiding now, the cleaning closet. He’s the only person who will know where to find me, assuming he’s still human.
My phone is as dead as Cara is now, but if it weren’t I’d video the new Queen of Halloween and make one final post for her followers. She’d like that I think. I’d use a filter, of course even though Cara is still pretty, for a zombie.
“Gwen?” I hear Timothy approaching from the other side of my closed door followed by a rhythmic tap.
“Thank God, I wasn’t sure you’d come for me.” I say as I push the door open. “I’m sorry, Timothy. For everything I’m so sorry. I just couldn’t handle anymore sadness after everything that happened that year, but I never meant to hurt you.”
“Shut up, Gwen.” Timothy says angrily. His face is basked in the red glow from the emergency lights, and I brace myself for rejection from the one person I really care about. I deserve nothing less. “We made a pact, that in the event of a zombie apocalypse, we’d stick together.” Then a smile, one that I haven’t seen in a very long time, spreads across his lips. "I'm a man of my word."
“You remembered?” He shrugs off my question, just like he did earlier today in the coffee shop. Only this time, he cups the back of my neck with his right hand and leans in slowly. If this were an eighties movie, Take My Breath Away would start playing any second. A shrill cry interrupts our moment, and my pretend record skips, but Timothy quickly grabs a surgical tool from the exam table. He jams it into Cara’s beautiful zombie neck. Blood spurts from her mouth in true Tarantino fashion. Cue music, and we kiss. So fetch!