“Okay, class. Pop quiz.”
A collective groan issued from the room. How was Sandi supposed to remember the material she didn’t know she was supposed to study? Mr. Roberts issued the quizzes typed using the mechanical clanker on his desk. He defended his typewriter, saying that’s how they people used to write. Sandi believed it was a useless skill. Roberts handed her the crisp, cleanly typed quiz. No errors. Perfectionist.
Question One. How do you treat a scratch from a zombie?
Sandi hadn’t seen any real zombies for three years. Sanctuary didn’t have any zombies on display in their petting zoo. They weren’t allowed inside the city walls. Roberts didn’t put any pictures of zombies in the textbook that he wrote.
She looked around the classroom. Everyone else was furiously writing their answers. The classroom didn’t have any windows and the walls were concrete. The building was thought to be an old world insane asylum, designed to hold the most dangerous people society spewed out. Why the city cleared out a place like this, Sandi could only speculate. People go crazy in places like this. She skipped Question One and moved on.
Question Two. Zombies are not your friends. Describe the Three Step Method when encountering one in the wild.
Sandi had read through this chapter during lessons the day before. She scribbled as frantically as her classmates under Question Two. Step 1. Hide. Step 2. Run. Step 3. Fight. Fighting the zombie was the last resort, only to be done when the two other methods failed. That answer was sure to get some extra credit.
Question Three. How do you treat a zombie bite?
“Don’t be afraid, little flower.” That voice. Sandi heard it in her nightmares. She was kneeling on the sand by the ocean waves lapping up her feet. A woman laid in her arms with a mouth shaped gash in her neck. Dark blood spewed onto the sand like an organic fountain.
“No, mama,” said Sandi, “Don’t go.”
Mama smiled for the first time in many years. “I will always be with you.” She tore the bloody turquoise butterfly necklace from her neck and pressed it into her palms. “Never be afraid when you have this.” Mama went limp. Sandi placed her mama on the raft and pushed it into the sea, so that she wouldn't hurt anybody when she turned.
Sandi woke up in a daze. Roberts breathed down her neck and shook her like a rag doll. She was sweating.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Class is dismissed. Do you want to fill in any more blanks on your quiz before you leave?”
There were five questions on the test and she had only managed to fill in one answer. She grimaced at the space under Question Three and scribbled two words. You don’t. She handed the quiz in and scampered out of the classroom.
She went to the restroom to pull herself together at the sink. Sandi was a mess. She ran the cold water under her hands and wiped her face with them. She was sweating from her vision. She had tried to block her mama from her mind, but her consciousness always betrayed her. The dreams were getting more frequent. And it was always the same, the one with her mother. She held the turquoise butterfly pendant from the inside of her shirt gently as if the butterfly was real. For a minute she let the light radiate the bright blues and greens contained within. A sense of peace washed over her. The bathroom door opened.
Sandi immediately dashed into the stall and locked the door. They wouldn’t be able to see her feet, only a locked door.
“Did you see her faint today in Survival Class?” Patty and her gang of mean girls. Patty was always the one saying the hurtful things. Her entourage laughed as they fixed their hair in the mirrors.
Patty went on with her speech. “Put any stress on that girl at all and she goes limper than out of date celery.” The rest of them laughed. Sandi felt broken and weak in front of these girls daily, but today was different. Sandi unlocked the door to the stall and walked right by Patty, who was taken aback by Sandi’s newfound confidence.
“Look what the zombies brought in,” said Patty in her usual cruel way. Everyone wore the same uniform, green sweats and hoodies with a white shirt, but Patty made the uniform look like a fashion show. “Can’t even take a test without slipping into a coma.”
One of the mean girls mimicked Sandi fainting onto the floor which garnered laughter from the others. Sandi’s face reddened. The first time Patty bullied Sandi, she had cried. Patty never got in trouble. She was Leader’s daughter, so she could do whatever she wanted. Today, Sandi was not afraid. Patty’s words lit a fire in Sandi’s eyes and twisted her face into anger, breathing hot smoke trails like a raging bull.
“Fuck off, Patty.” Sandi turned around and walked away. She assumed Patty said something back to her, but Sandi didn’t hear it. For the first time since she arrived three years ago, she felt powerful!
Sandi walked out the front doors of the renamed Institute for Girls and half jogged to the edge of the city where the steel walls rose high above her head. She climbed the ladder to the top near the gate where an enormous sign in painted block letters designated this area as the Riverdale Safe Zone. Sandi heard the rustling of trees guarding the pathway into the woods, the faint flow of the rushing river, the cool breeze through her hair. She longed to get away from the city, maybe find a cabin somewhere remote and away from the rules that guided her life. She wished Mama was there to comfort her. Looking at the Wasteland from this perspective, it didn't look so bad, beautiful even.
“Get down from the wall, young lady!” Sandi rolled her eyes at the formidable figure of Constable Alan. He had battle scars across his face and wore a black cap and a bullet proof vest with a pistol on his belt. He was powerfully built with a black beard that meant business. Two other officers were with him, both as stone faced as the constable.
“You know the rules, Sandi,” Alan went on, “It’s not safe to be on the walls.”
Sandi knew better than to go against a direct order from the constable. He was the head of security for Riverdale and an important figure in town. He was respected and nobody messed with him.
Sandi took one last look at the natural land outside the walls and shimmied down the ladder to the ground. The two other officers took her roughly by the shoulders.
“Cuff her!” said the constable.
“For what?” Sandi cried, struggling against the officers trying to handcuff her. She winced as the rusty wall jammed her in the face. “I did nothing wrong!”
“Orders. From Leader herself.”
With her hands tied behind her back, Constable Alan led her back through town and putting on a show as if he’d apprehended a dangerous bandit in the Wasteland.
“Does that make you feel big?” Sandi said, “Arresting kids?”
Constable Alan ignored her and marched officially through the city all the way to the fence to Leader’s mansion, where he was let in by security. Another officer escorted them into the mansion to the spacious office where Leader’s severe face hunched over some paperwork. She had a cold demeanor to match her bony knuckles, short, graying hair, and clean politician’s suit. Leader motioned for the security detail to exit, leaving us alone. Sandi went from powerful to powerless in less than twenty minutes.
“I understand you had a scuffle with my daughter today.” Leader glared at her disparagingly. Sandi thought laser beams might shoot out of her eyes.
“Like you would care,” Sandi muttered at the floor.
“Look at me when you talk to me, young lady.”
Sandi looked straight through her glassy eyes hard. Eyes were the window to the soul, so Mama said. Leader’s eyes betrayed her love of power and ordering others about, protecting only the chosen few.
Sandi rose her voice to a near scream. “Look you would care.”
Leader nodded and shuffled some files on her desk. “Sandi Harlow. Sixteen. Came to the Riverdale Safe Zone three years ago after the death of her…”
“My mother,” Sandi said it through clenched teeth. “You can say it if you want.”
“After the death of her mother.”
“Does that make you uncomfortable, fearless leader?”
Leader called Constable Alan in and ordered him to take off the handcuffs.
“I wouldn’t advise that, Madam,” Alan said, “She’s a security risk.”
“She’s a child. Remove the cuffs.” Reluctantly, Alan unshackled Sandi. Sandi rubbed her wrists, but she was shocked she didn’t move.
“I want to show you something,” said Leader. “Thank you, Constable, that will be all, for now.”
Alan saluted and left the mansion to his other duties. Sandi and Leader stood across from each other in the brightly lit office.
“Come,” Leader said, “I want to show you something very few in our community have ever seen.”
Leader took her to the lowest level of the mansion via a spiral staircase where a locked door blocked their path.
“You must tell no one of this,” Leader’s face turned dark. “This is my secret.”
Sandi nodded and promised. Whatever was behind those doors was something big, bigger than all the zombies in the Wasteland. She braced herself for the walk ahead. Leader unlocked the door and in they went, locking themselves inside.
The passageway was dimly lit. The faint ceiling lights hardly lit the floor. Sandi had to follow the shadow in front of her to stay on the path. At the end of the hallway, Leader stopped and motioned to a door to their right.
Sandi looked through the door’s window into a cold, empty cell. There was no furniture to be seen and only a lone figure standing motionlessly. The figure groaned uncontrollably in its guttural language. The man was bald and scarred, eyes empty like a tomb. His ribcage hung out of his torso like a coat hanger. The man’s shirt rotted off his body long ago leaving his dirty and ripped jeans and boots he died in. Sandi recognized it immediately from her time outside the city. A zombie.
“That’s my everything, Clint,” said Leader. “My husband.”
“But that’s a zombie. That’s not him anymore.”
“He’s not a monster. He is sick.”
Roberts taught the kids that zombies weren’t people anymore and that the only way to stay safe was to put them down. Sandi wanted to believe there was a cure. The more time she spent looking at the decomposing yet walking corpse, the less she believed the zombie, Clint, could be cured.
“Do you think he’s in there?” asked Sandi.
“Of course,” Leader replied, “He has to be.”
Clint opened and closed his mouth listlessly staring at Sandi. He shuffled towards them with some interest. He was losing his attention as if he figured out he can’t get to them on the other side of the glass. Sandi felt sorry for him as she did for all the zombies. She wished not for the first time that she could have disposed of her mama properly when she had the chance. Mama was out there somewhere, drifting in her zombie husk. Someday, she would find her again.
“We are all that’s left of law and order,” said Leader. “The chaos outside the walls is being eliminated slowly, but they are so many and we are so few. We must be strong together. But the strong are threatened from within, and they must be eliminated.”
Before Sandi knew what was going on, she was on the other side of the door. A punch to the solar plexus knocked the wind out of her onto the hard floor of the cell. The door slammed behind her. Sandi pulled herself together and looked through the cell door window, but all she saw was a sea of black.
“It’s feeding time,” said Leader’s distorted voice over the intercom.
A growl ensued behind her. Sandi’s petrified form glued itself to the wall. Clint dragged himself closer and faster than she had seen any zombie. He was almost running. The hungrier they are, the more eager they get. He had been hungry for a long time as if Leader was purposely denying him until this exact moment.
Sandi clasped her hands around the turquoise butterfly and allowed her mama’s presence to engulf her like a guardian angel. Clint’s dead hands clasped her around the shoulders, the putrid flesh rotting from his bones sent Sandi into a dizzy trance. This was it. Now or never.
As night fell, Leader checked on the rebel child’s file one last time before burning it. After tonight, Sandi Harlow would cease to exist. She didn’t want to play nice with the others. Instead, she chose to antagonize them. It was a telling sign of the suspected rebellion within the city. Leader took no chances. It was best to remove the threat before it could grow further.
A knock on the office door brought Constable Alan in. He was loyal, a true patriot, and one of the few in this city who Leader could trust.
“Will you keep this between us?” said Leader.
They walked together to the dungeon beneath the mansion’s foundation where Leader’s beloved Clint was no doubt feasting on the naïve girl who thought she stood a chance. Through the darkness they walked until they reached the end of the hallway where the little girl lay in a bloody mess. Leader unlatched the door, and they stepped in.
Clint laid on the cell floor with his tongue lolling out, the back of his skull bashed in. Sandi laid in the corner of the cell. Blood from the zombie caked all over her. In her open palm was a little butterfly. The sharp metal wings were bent as if she used them as makeshift knuckles. She was breathing slightly but still alive. No bites or scratches were visible.
Alan gasped audibly. Leader fell to Clint’s side and held his now deformed head in her hands. The love of her life was gone. She rocked him like a new puppy and cried.
“You know what to do, Alan.”
Alan nodded. He took out his pistol and cocked it. Leader’s back was turned, hunched over, mourning over her husband. His hyperventilating hands shook as he lifted to the gun towards the child. He closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. When he opened his eyes again, Leader’s figure crumpled with her twice dead lover in her arms. A stream of blood spilled from the back of her head.
He cradled the girl in his arms and carried her from the cell. He shut the door behind them and took her away from the house of death.