The dead groaned loudly, their fists batting the hospital windows. A deadly prion similar to mad cow disease infested their bodies, but no cure loomed in sight. Serket set her back to the windows, eyes on her computer, charting her evening rounds. In another week, she’d retire. Her home was a townhouse at the Gables, windows secure with bars. Her sister had invited her to her house near the beach, where the dead didn’t bother people. There, Serket could lay low until the doctors found a cure, and if not, then at least she was with family.
For now, Serket had to stay alive. Seven more days …
Serket stood up. As she did so, tingling and a sharp pain knifed through her ankles. She’d worked a four-day stretch on the floors, doing respiratory therapy treatments, and long stretches wrought havoc with her feet. She looked forward to her drive home, even if it necessitated quieting zombies along the way.
An hour later, as she headed toward the time clock, her boss Frank materialized from his office, his face beet red. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.
“Home. My shift’s over.” Serket met his gaze, braced for an argument.
“I can’t let anyone go home,” Frank told her. “I need you for sentry duty.”
Shit! Sentry duty meant four hours of standing post, something not easily done on numb feet. “I can’t. I’m not feeling well. I’ll get you a doctor’s note, okay?”
“Not okay. If you’re sick, don’t come in,” Frank said between clenched teeth. “Since you’re here, take some aspirin and move it. Kristin and another had mishaps on the way here.”
Serket heaved a sigh. “Mishap” was Frank-speak for becoming dinner for the dead. After shooting her boss a scathing look, Serket hobbled to her locker. She swapped her lab coat for a balaclava and donned her gun belt.
Sentry duty took place in the open-air courtyard facing the hospital entrance, several rooms away from the respiratory therapy offices. According to Frank, sentries had to walk the grounds keeping their eyes out for dead visitors. After catching two sentries sitting on the benches playing with their phones, as he put it, he ordered the benches removed.
“Bastard!” Serket whispered. “Didn’t it ever cross your pea brain that they’re worried something happened to their kids?”
Outside, Serket scanned the garden, shining her light. So far, no visitors. She hobbled over to an immense ceramic planter. The rim of the container was wide enough to allow her to sit, and she could watch out for dead visitors in relative comfort. The damaged nerves in her feet had taught her about watching. She had to watch that her shoes and socks weren’t too tight. Watch out for loose mats and sharp objects on the floor. Watch when she wriggled through tight spaces to get to her equipment, lest a loss of balance threatens a back-breaking spill.
Uh, oh. Movement by a crab apple tree, along with the stink of flyblown meat mixed with incense.
Incense? That’s different. Serket’s light washed over the roses and bushes, and to her left, a figure wearing tattered rags. Half of its face looked as if gnawed by rats. She raised her sidearm, barrel trained toward the walker.“Take that, Ank-Soo!” she shouted, and explosive gunfire sheared off the figure’s head. Another figure materialized from the shadows. Ditto silence by gunfire. By the time Serket’s watch ended, she’d lost count of the number of zombies she’d quieted. It was too late to drive home tonight. Instead, she headed to the fourth floor, used by people who needed to sleep overnight. It wasn’t the first time she’d slept on a cot.
At the fourth floor, Frank stood by the elevator, glaring at Serket with eyes of quicksilver. “Why are you here?” he demanded.
“I came up here to sleep.” Serket smiled, but her voice edged with anger. “After all, people do go to bed.”
Asshole, she thought, then collapsed on her cot. In the moments before she drifted to sleep, the musty, spicy smell haunted her. Where had she smelled that before?
When Serket was ten, she rushed into the pavilion facing Atlantic City’s ocean, intent on playing Skeeball. Instead, a poster beckoned: See Ank-Soo, a Live 1000-year-old woman. Behind the sign stood a dais enclosed with black velvet curtains.
Inside, the people ahead of her formed a C-shaped ring around an ornate bathtub. Later on, she’d learned that the tub was a sarcophagus. Further ahead, she made out jet black hair and a shriveled face. The aroma of incense and dampness crawled down her throat like smoke, making her cough. Ank-Soo had on a sequined vest, but nothing else. Serket walked up to the tub. Not a live woman after all, but a dried dead body. Gleaming bone peeped between the tears in her skin. Serket stood frozen, gazing toward the exit, but the room was oh, so crowded. The grownups around her laughed and chatted as if they were at a party. Seconds later, the decayed woman turned her head and raised her right arm, extending her hand. She pointed a bony finger at Serket.
“You. You are the goddess,” she said. Her voice sounded as if sand had lodged in her windpipe.
Screaming, Serket pushed through the crowd and bolted from the dais. Laughter echoed behind her, but that seemed so unimportant. What mattered was that a dead body had come to life. On the way out of the pavilion, she darted into a restroom. She locked the door, gasping for breath.
Thumping rattled the knob. “Serket,” a woman’s gravel-chewing voice intoned. “It’s time.”
The fist thumped harder, splintering the wood.
Serket ’s eyes snapped open. The knocking persisted, not in a bathroom stall but at the door to her makeshift room at the hospital. The voice faded, replaced by knocking and a panicked cry. “Serket, wake up!”
Damn what a nightmare. Serket rubbed her forehead. She opened the door and found her coworker Kristin standing outside, clad in her work scrubs.
“I’m sorry for waking you.” Kristin blushed. “I heard you screaming. You look like you saw a ghost.”
“I got mandated into sentry duty,” Serket told her. “Frank said you’d had a mishap.”
“What the…?” Kristin shook her head. “I came in late because there were roadblocks, that’s all. Frank gave me a lot of grief about it, so I agreed to do sentry duty this morning. That shut him up. Are you okay?”
Serket nodded, then told her about the nightmare. “Something like that happened when I was ten, but my mom drove me home when she realized how scared I was. The garden smelled like incense last night, and I got to thinking about Ank-Soo. I even called the zombies Ank-Soo.”
Kristin shrugged, then sighed. “This whole place is a nightmare. Steer clear of Frank, Serket. People notice that he’s putting you on sentry duty more and more. It’s not right.”
“Agreed, since I have a doctor’s note in my file that says I can’t work overtime.” Serket shrugged. “I guess with the zombie outbreak, doctor’s notes don’t count. It’s okay. In six more days, I’m out of here.”
“Let me tell you something.” Kristin drew in a sharp breath. “If I were you, I’d go home and stop showing up for work. Your Social Security and pension are guaranteed. The only money you lose is for the last three days and your vacation hours. Better than losing your life!”
“What?” Serket started, then sat on her bed, eyes on Kristin. “Anyone can die when they go outside if they’re not careful.”
“Sending someone outside to fight when they can hardly walk is brutal. He may as well have signed your death warrant.”
“It’s not like he singled me out. He does that to you and Joe, too.” Serket contemplated the last days’ assignment sheets, tracking times she and Kristin had done sentry duty. She regarded Kristin’s features. Gray-streaked hair and fine wrinkles around the chin. “He doesn’t like older workers, does he?”
“You’ve got that right. I overheard him screaming about the budget, and how it was wrong having to pay out millions of dollars in pensions when the hospital needed the money for security.”
Serket ’s brown eyes widened. “But these are vested pensions.”
Kristin shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Management is too cheap to hire regular officers, so they make the staff buy guns and do the job. I guess they target older workers, hoping the zombies get them and save them money.”
“Well, thankfully, the zombies move slower than me, and …” Serket clapped her head, then understanding dawned. “Frank was furious when I showed up last night. I never got any thanks. Was he mad because I came back alive?”
Kristin nodded. “That’s why I’m telling you to go home and not come back. Joe and I are only 60, so we can’t get Social Security. We have to stay, but you have the option of leaving.”
Serket got up and peered out the window, Kristin beside her. The zombies paraded the streets by the hospital in single file. “Damn.” She lowered her head. “I carry two guns, but I’m getting nowhere this morning.”
“It looks bad.” Kristin nodded with agreement. “Where’s your car?”
“In the garage across the street.”
“Hm. If you go out through the back entrance, you can head through the alley to get to your garage. If you can walk home, you can get around the roadblocks. Things might still get weird, but doable.”
“Not doable.” Serket frowned. “I live too far to walk, so I need my car.”
Frustration crinkled Kristin’s eyes. “Then take your car, but you’ll have the roadblocks.”
“That’s okay. I agree with you about the back alley. That way I won’t have to take any stairs. Thanks for the heads up.”
After Kristin left, Serket donned her gun belt, then headed to the café for coffee and a bagel, and her morning medicines. She went to her locker, praying that Frank wouldn’t be near the respiratory therapy offices. He wasn’t. She put on her jacket, leaving it open to give her access to her guns. After retrieving her purse, she took the rear elevator to the ground floor.
Serket crept out through the exit facing the alley. The area reeked of something dead about to explode in the gases of its own decay. People riding bikes once used this alley, but the narrowing path didn’t accommodate cars. Along the way, she shot down two shambling zombies.
The path continued thinning out until it was barely wide enough for her to pass. Ahead, she could make out her garage. Almost there, but not quite. A pile of leaves blocked her passage.
Shit! Serket did some mental calculations, trying to figure out a way to get around those leaves. After a moment of consideration, she decided that the leaves would break her fall if she had one. Then she eyeballed the skeletal hand poking out from under the leaves. Heart thudding in her chest, she stepped closer to the leaf pile. A mummified dead woman with dark hair and leathery skin lay blocking the exit, her arms and legs straddled across the path. Up close and personal, the leaves only covered her torso. Although they’d met 55 years ago, Serket would recognize this demon anywhere. Ank-Soo had come for another visit.
Screams lodged in Serket’s throat, but she stifled them, lest she disturb a being better off dead. God help me if I stumble. I’ve got to find a way out of here without waking her.
On numb feet, Serket took slow, tenuous steps, hand braced against the brick wall. She focused her eyes toward the garage, intent on getting to safety, ignoring the voice that whispered that security was only an illusion with a zombie apocalypse in progress. One foot went over the other as she chose each step without disturbing Ank-Soo.
Serket lurched and landed on her knees. She’d seen the hand, tried to sidestep it, but lost her balance. Stinging flashed through both knees, but worse, the hand moved. In the next instant, Ank-Soo stood, pitted eyes bearing into hers.
“Your work has destroyed your feelings so you are already dead,” Ank-Soo said in her scratchy voice. “It is time I brought you home.”
Serket struggled to her feet, reaching for her gun. “Go to hell.”
With that, she fired, and though her bullet left a hole in Ank-Soo’s neck, she remained standing. She grabbed Serket by the arms and yanked her forward.
Screams tore from Serket’s throat. She forgot about Frank’s plans to dispose of his older workers. She forgot about her foot pain and need to watch. She forgot about everything except fighting for her life. Despite her thrashing, Ank-Soo was dragging her by the shoulders out of the alley, but not to the garage. Serket didn’t want to contemplate where the destination would be. Hands gripping her gun, she managed to wriggle sideways. She pistol-whipped her assailant, smashing ribs, hip bones, and at last her arms. Breaking free, she ran, loping awkward steps, but fast enough to get away from Ank-Soo.
Her car beckoned from the middle row, a Honda Civic that promised her ride home. Thankfully, the zombies thinned out, and the ones that remained didn’t approach her car. A half-hour later, she pulled up to her townhouse. Once inside her home, she tried to shed her jacket, but the skeletal hands remained wrapped around her shoulders.
“Damn it!” she cried.
Retrieving pliers from her drawer, Serket pried each hand off her shoulder, one finger at a time. She dumped the remains into the trash, then dropped the bag into the incinerator. She then balled up her jacket; another gift for the incinerator. Damned if she’d wear anything that monster touched. Afterward, she sat in her tub for an hour, washing away the stink and grime, but nothing would obliterate the memories. Bruises the size of dishes had erupted on her shoulders and legs. Every muscle in her body throbbed, but she’d made it home.
After she finished, she donned a nightgown. Perhaps she’d watch TV or take a nap. In her bedroom, the familiar stink of rotting tomatoes and incense overwhelmed her. Ank-Soo had left a parting gift.
On her bed lay a cotton draw sheet. Someone—or something—had etched Ank-Soo’s image in blood on the sheet.