“Ugh, Jack is being quite the nightmare today. Poor kid, though,” said Christine.
“Poor kid?” replied Hellen. “I was helping Jessica find the right crayons for her drawing, but before she could make a choice Jack grabbed the whole bunch of them and flung them out the window. Not only that, but when I asked him to bring them back he launched the cello tape after them. Don’t you go poor kidding him.”
They looked over at the mats next to the wall, where the children were fast asleep after a messy and exhausting lunch. Jack was at the far end, curled up in a ball, his thumb in his mouth and a frown on his face. It reminded Christine of herself at that age. She’d gone through something very similar to what he was going through now.
“I think there’s something up at home,” she said, looking at Hellen again, who was now lifting her mug up to her lips. “When his mother picked him up yesterday afternoon, it wasn’t in the usual car. And the man driving it wasn’t Mr. Grayson.”
As she heard this, Hellen’s drink took a wrong turn and she began to have a coughing fit. She had managed to shut her mouth quite quickly, but a red dribble still managed to escape, sliding down her chin and splashing onto her white shirt.
“Shit, Hellen, you’re bleeding! Are you OK?!”
Hellen, who was still hacking and fighting to contain the contents of her mouth, both nodded and shook her head, confusing Christine and making her wonder very briefly whether her friend was having a stroke.
“Yes, no, what? Yes you are bleeding? Or yes you’re OK? No what?”
Eventually, Hellen gulped what was left in her mouth and was able to speak once again. “It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s not blood. I’m drinking elderberry kombucha. That’s where the red came from.”
“You’re drinking what?”
“Elderberry kombucha,” she repeated. Christine imagined her face must look like little Diego’s when he was trying to put together one of the larger puzzles, the ones with 50 pieces. After enough seconds of silence, Hellen graced her with an explanation. “Elderberries are a highly nutritious berry. They contain a ton of vitamin C and B6, as well as iron,” she recited, the way she always did when she spoke about the food she ate. Nothing was ever just a piece of fruit. “I’ve been drinking this for the last two years and haven’t had a cold, the flu or anything like that in all that time.”
Christine decided not to mention the two weeks Hellen had spent off sick the previous winter, nor the week she’d been ill the winter before that.
“What about that other thing, that… cucaracha thing?”
Hellen let out one of her well-practiced giggles of condescension. “You mean kombucha? It’s a fermented tea. It’s full of probiotics – great for the gut – and prevents arthritis and diabetes. My God, Chris, hadn’t you ever heard of any of this? What do you usually drink anyway?”
“Cola or tap water during the week. White wine at the weekend.”
Hellen’s eyes popped out in disbelief, as if her head were about to explode. Christine decided to test if it would.
“Diet Cola, actually. No sugars, barely any calories, great for staying awake when you need to.”
Hellen blinked emphatically several times, as if checking she was indeed awake and not in a dream. Time for the master stroke, thought Christine. She produced a bag of crisps from her lunch-box and proceeded to stuff her mouth with handfuls of the salt-and-vinegar snack, her gaze never leaving Hellen’s.
“Jesus, Chris,” said Hellen, wrinkling her nose, “how on Earth are you still alive?”
“What are you on about?” asked Christine. Or tried to, anyway. With the crisps still filling her cheeks, it sounded more like “Whargyu anabuff?” Tiny potato slivers, moist and gloopy, flew out of her mouth like flavoured confetti, leaving only a scent of vinegar behind.
“I’m talking about the poison you’re putting into your body. I didn’t say anything about that breast of roast chicken you wolfed down earlier on, but it did not look organic, free-range or from a local farm to me. I’m pretty sure the peas were the GMO kind, given that radioactive green they exuded, and there’s nothing wholesome about that artificial ketchup you drowned it all in, no matter how many smiling farmers they stick on the label. It’s like you’re trying to kill yourself in the most disgusting way possible.”
Christine decided to finish eating the crisps already in her mouth before replying, calmly licking off the flakes of vinegary salt from her greasy fingers.
“That’s all great, Hellen, but you and I both know I barely can find the time to put my terrible cooking skills to use at home, what with my commute and my mother. What do you expect?”
“It’s not that hard! Look at my lunch: a couple of handfuls of fresh, crunchy kale, some diced tomato – a greenish-orange one, mind you, not one of those bright red ones that look like they’ve been grown inside a nuclear plant –, some chopped avocado, onion slices pickled in French vinegar, chia seeds, extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground peppercorns and Himalayan salt. All organic and non-GMO, of course. And locally sourced.”
“What, the French vinegar and Himalayan salt are local?”
Hellen rolled her eyes. “OK, most of it, whatever. The point is, one day you’re going to regret putting all that rubbish into your body.”
Christine shrugged her shoulders in the most indifferent way possible, emphasising her display of emotion by ramming another fistful of crisps into her mouth. Despite her sermon a minute earlier, Hellen chuckled at her friend’s reaction. Soon they were both giggling uncontrollably, trying to keep their volume to a minimum to avoid waking the children up. Not that it mattered much, though, for ten seconds later they were all woken up by the sound of a fist punching through the classroom door like it was made of wet cardboard.
The teachers both jumped out of their seats simultaneously, while some of the children, who had also jerked awake in unison, were starting to moan and sob. While Hellen turned to calm the toddlers down, Christine stared at the hand sticking out through the new hole in the door. The skin on it was the colour of cement, mottled with dark splashes, but it flexed and writhed around as if made of ordinary flesh. Only three of the fingers on it seemed to have nails, the other two being covered in a jet black crust of inky blood, some of it still liquid enough to smear the sides of the hole in the door. As it had first punched through it, splinters had flown into the room and spread over the floor. One of them, at least an inch and a half long, had stabbed into the sickly skin just above one of the knuckles, but the owner didn’t seem to notice or care.
After groping around blindly for several seconds, the hand disappeared back through the hole, only to reappear through a new one it made a few inches to the right of the first one. As it did, Christine heard a distant voice come in through door, as if from someone standing behind the aggressor.
“Not now, Craig. I’m busy.” Punch. This second voice seemed to come from the owner of the hand.
“Larry, listen to me, will you? Larry!”
“What, what, what?!” Can’t you see I’m occupied trying to get through this door?”
“I know you are. That’s what I want to talk to you about.”
“What about it?”
“Have you tried the handle?”
“Have I–. You know, Craig, I actually haven’t. It’s seems like everyone usually locks themselves in when we arrive, so I’ve just gotten used to punching through doors without checking.”
“I know, pal, I’m the same. But I just tried a door back there and it was unlocked. Give this one a go.”
With terror filling her to the core, Christine saw the handle turn and the door swing open. Two figures stepped into the room, both at least six feet tall. They looked like they might have been in their mid twenties, but any semblance of life have been drained from their skin until it was a dull, overcast grey, with darker blotches as those on the punching hand. Their clothes had also gone the same way, their original colours long gone, bespattered with what Christine wanted to believe were strawberry stains.
“Do I feel silly now,” chuckled the first one as he casually extracted the splinter from his finger. Tossing it over his shoulder, his eyes locked on Christine and a wolfish grin appeared on his face. He licked his cracked, icy blue lips and began to shuffle his way towards her, his feet dragging while he shoved desks and chairs aside carelessly, his pale eyes never losing sight of her. Once there was a clear path between them, his shuffle became a rushed stumble and Christine, who was paralysed by the utter horror of the situation, was unable to move away in time.
The creature reached her and grabbed her by the shoulders, his remaining fingernails digging into her skin. The pain woke her up from her trance, but it was too late. She was in the hands of this monster, whose iron grip threatened to pull her arms out of her sockets. He opened his lopsided jaw, letting out a putrid smell from his slimy mouth. However, before he could take a bite, his companion stopped him.
“Larry, no!” he shouted, pulling him back from her.
His hands slipped away, but she could still feel the pressure on her shoulders. That was going to leave a bruise if she somehow managed not to get eaten by the pair of zombies.
“What the hell, man?” said Larry. “Can’t a zombie eat in peace?”
“Not her you can’t.”
“What? Why not?”
“Look at what she’s been eating!” They both looked down at the remains of Christine’s lunch, where a mix of congealed chicken and dry ketchup were topped by a sprinkle of soggy crisps. “It’s disgusting,” continued the one she guessed must be Craig, “she’s drowned everything in that chemical bomb they call ketchup. And look at those crisps. They look anything but natural. Heck, I bet you the chicken wasn’t even fed with non-GMO seeds.”
“I’ll be honest with you, Craig. I don’t really care about that stuff.” He looked back up at Christine, whose sliver of hope disappeared before the hungry expression on his hideous face. He moved to grab her once again, but Craig pulled him back for the second time.
“No! I’m telling you, you’ll be poisoning yourself!”
Larry grunted in frustration. “Fine, whatever, you win!” He pushed her out of the way and approached the children behind here.
“Are you trying to kill us, Larry?!”
“I… what? Me? How?”
“Were you about to eat those children?”
“Yeah. Is there a problem?”
“Is there– Of course there’s a problem, you idiot!”
“Woah, woah, no need to go around insulting. You didn’t hear me insulting you.”
Craig took a deep breath, letting out a slow stream of fetid air. “You’re right, Larry. That was uncalled for and I apologise. It’s just this whole hunting for survival thing can be quite stressful sometimes and we also need to check what exactly it is that we’re eating if possible and I just noticed this patch of dry skin next to my elbow and–”
“Hey, hey, it’s OK, Craig, don’t worry. I get it. We’re under a lot of pressure here and everyone’s usually screaming and shouting at us wherever we go. And we’re hungry, always hungry, which doesn’t really help. It’s only natural that we lash out once in a while. We’re both calm once again, so don’t worry about it. I accept your apology.”
“Not a problem. Now,” he said, turning back again to the toddlers, “why can’t I tear these children apart with my teeth? Is it their diet again? I don’t think we can tell what they’ve been eating – actually, that one has a baby carrot stuck in his hair, we’ll leave him out if you don’t think it’s organic.”
“No, no, it’s not about their feed, it’s about their age. They’re too young. We can’t go around eating cubs or they’ll never grow into adults. Before we know it, their population will be decimated.”
“Decimated. Their numbers will be reduced drastically and, if we aren’t careful, irreparably.”
“Huh. I’d never thought about it that way.”
“Neither had I until last year, when my eyes were opened to reality. Since then, I’ve always – ooooh, is that kombucha?” His white, lidless eyes had fallen on the bright drink in Hellen’s mug, still on the desk she’d been eating at. He picked it up in his gnarled fingers, swirled it around and put it under the slits where his nose used to be. The shaggy remains of his eyebrows rose in delight and he pressed the mug against his snowy lips. As he drank, a trickle of the sanguine liquid escaped through a puncture on his sagging cheek, making Christine feel ill.
“Who’s the crazy one now, Craig? Look at you, drinking that insipid, lifeless thing. What’s wrong with a good swig of warm blood as it bubbles out of a freshly torn carotid?”
“Nuh-uh,” interjected Craig, still savouring the drink. He swallowed it and held the mug out to Larry. “Try it. It’s alive too, you know? There’s live bacteria in it, great for the gut.”
Christine couldn’t help but roll her eyes. As if one lecture on traditional Spanish drinks wasn’t enough for one day.
Larry took the mug and peeked into it, one of his deathly eyes closed as he stared into at the beverage. “I don’t see anything alive in here.”
“You can’t see them, they’re too small. But they’re there. Trust me. I’ve read – ooooh, look at that, hand-kneaded rye bread. You can tell it’s hand-kneaded because of the shape here, see?”
Larry, who Christine was pretty sure couldn’t see, nodded his head and took a slurp of the drink. “This is quite good, actually.”
“Told you. Whoever’s been eating this stuff is a clean eater. Closest thing to organic, GMO-free we’re likely to find. If only we could tell who–”
Christine, surprised that he’d stopped talking, followed Craig’s gaze. He was leering at Hellen. Specifically, at the stains of kombucha on her crisp, white shirt.
The two monsters looked at each other.