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Over the summer, I wrote three fan fictions, a format that I seldom work in because the material is someone else's intellectual property. I respect their copyrights and wouldn't want to step on any toes. That being said, I cannot deny their influences on my work. There are so many worlds I have played in, and these fan fictions are humble homages to some of the dreamers who have influenced me and my work, both in fiction and music.
I originally intended these stories to be giveaways for our AFTER THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER kickstarter stretch goals, but we didn't make the 5K we were shooting for. I didn't want to bury the tales, they are far too personal to collect dust next to the monsters on my wall. I love to celebrate holidays, and since the end of December hosts merriment for many cultures, what better time than now to open Pandora's Box and let the misshapen, woeful ghosts out.
Maybe this can be a new wintertime tradition for all the good little creatures that read my work…
This first story is based on characters from George A. Romero's 1978 zombie masterpiece DAWN OF THE DEAD.
This film constantly reminds me of why it's important. It sadistically points its decayed finger at society, mocking consumerism, material wealth, class warfare, religion, and how mass media influences viewers. The film is so crucial to the way I view the world that a future essay is in order, maybe featured in a side project TRANSMUNDANE PRESS is secretly working on, code name CC, for all the eagle-eyes out there.
If you're not familiar with the flicker, take time to watch. You'll still understand the story without a screening, but the emotional impact might be muted. If you do know and love this movie, I hope I've added a worthy page to the film's events.
This is a love letter to Mr. Romero and his wonderful zombie films, especially the new, misunderstood ones.
Thank you, sir. Your voice has changed my life.
Stephen fought to keep his hands off the controls as the landing skids hovered above the orange and white helipad. Though logging countless flight hours, teaching his pregnant girlfriend how to fly the stolen WGON traffic chopper was his first stab at instruction.
The lessons had run smoothly. Fran, a former TV newsroom producer, proved a quick study and mastered taking off and flying, but she still struggled with landing. She refused to give up, and, despite a case of jitters unusual for the strong-willed woman, pushed for another shot before sunset.
Her natural talent didn't ease his frayed nerves. Anything could go wrong. The couple and two other survivors had claimed and fortified an indoor shopping center when the world fell apart. If the shipping trucks they'd used to blockade the entrances fell and the dead overran their sanctuary, the bird was their only means of escape. If they damaged the craft during lessons,…
Pushing the dark thoughts aside, Stephen focused on his student. The loud blades drowned out the cockpit's ambient sounds, but Stephen swore that he could hear her heart pounding. The fearless and independent woman he loved was sweating in spite of the chilly winter air.
"You got this, Francine," he said, placing a hand on her knee.
She adjusted, pulling her leg away.
Fran, brow furrowed, tightened her grip on the collective-pitch lever, her eyes aflame as she lowered the craft.
Christ, she's beautiful.
"OK," he said, "n-now easy. Easy."
Fran wasn't even with the ground, so he motioned with a brown-gloved hand. She tweaked the stick, over-correcting. Fear washed over her face, but she bit her lip and adjusted.
"Stabilize it," he said as she straightened out. "That's right."
The chopper rested a shade off the large, encircled H in the center of the pad—not bad for her second attempt.
"That's it. You got it."
She blinked her eyes, her accomplishment not yet sinking in.
Fran looked shocked. A tuff of blond hair poking from underneath her white beret bounced as she drew a sharp breath.
"I did it," she exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck.
All the flying lesson heebie-jeebies eased from Stephen's shoulders. He squeezed her tight. She smelled wonderful. Lavender and menthol, a fancy cream from the apothecary on the mall's bottom floor.
God, it feels good to hold her again.
"Did you feel that?" she asked.
He shook his head.
She pulled away and rubbed her hand against her tummy. "The baby just kicked."
"Looks like she's proud of you, too."
"You really think it's a girl?"
"I do. Besides, it's better to think of her as a person and not an it—there's plenty of its down there."
Fran's smile faded, and he realized that in all the exhilaration she'd lost reality, if just for the moment. Stephen couldn’t fault her. They had everything. Anything they could ever desire, no matter how frivolous, waited for them downstairs. With all your wishes are granted, when you have every material possession you could dream of, it's easy to ignore the horde of rotting, hungry creatures banging on the shatter-proof glass doors, demanding their slice of the American Dream—your still-human, still-living flesh.
Truth told, he'd also been caught up in the excitement.
The hardest part of forgetting about the undead was remembering how close they were.
"Let's cut the engine," he said. "The ammo and canned goods we stocked today put extra pressure on the fuel."
"How much is left?"
Worry crossed Fran's face.
Where would they go anyway?
Only a third of a tank remained. No one had transmitted on the television or their wireless receiver for weeks. For all Stephen knew, they were the last people alive on earth.
She killed the motor.
Overhead, the blades slowed, ceasing their deafening whir.
Stephen heard their groans, a wretched concerto that filled the Pennsylvania afternoon, vocalizing their inexhaustible hunger. They didn't speak a language comprehensible to the living, but they all wanted the same thing—food.
Fran cleared her throat.
"We should be getting in," she said. "It'll be dark soon."
"Right behind you. I need some fresh air."
Fran frowned. "I'd hardly call their stink fresh, but I understand."
"You did good today. You got it now."
"Well, I have a great teacher."
She pecked his lips. Stephen leaned in for a deeper kiss, but Fran pulled away, hopped out of the cockpit, and headed for the ladder leading into the small office-turned-apartment the couple shared with Peter, a former SWAT member who had helped them secure the mall three weeks after civilization collapsed.
They were different people then, before the hedonistic lifestyle that the mall offered had drained out their souls.
Fran gave a small wave before descending the ladder.
Steve waved back.
A few weeks ago, he'd proposed marriage to her in the mall's Italian restaurant during the couple's first real date since the dead reanimated. They'd both dressed up, and Peter, playing chef and waiter, cooked veal parmesan and popped a bottle of their most expensive champagne. Laughter flowed as easily as the bubbly during the meal; however, when Fran saw the matching wedding bands, the mood soured.
"We can't, Stephen. Not now," she had said. "It wouldn't be real."
She didn't even try on the ring.
Her refusal had crushed Stephen and placed another pressure on their relationship. They'd been bickering more than ever, fighting over the television's white noise. There would never be another transmission, but at least Stephen could decide if it stayed on or not, the chaotic dancing ants the only thing left in the world a man could control.
Not that he wanted to control Fran.
She'd had enough of that from her Marine Corps ex-husband, George. Marrying between combat deployments, Vietnam had unsettled her once gentle high school sweetheart, and the honeymoon ended a few months following his honorable discharge. Wounded, he returned from battle to Philadelphia a hero but abusive, refusing to let her have friends or dress how she wanted. His evenings were spent in front of the kitchen radio, drinking beer and smoking unfiltered cigarettes while Fran tended to WGON, isolating herself in work.
Stephen, a casual friend who always admired her from afar, noticed the bruises, and after several prying attempts, she opened up to him. Fran never showed an inch of weakness or self-pity. After George beat her hard enough to break a rib, she left the soldier, never once turning to anyone for help. Her indomitable strength won Stephen's heart, and their conversations became more playful, intimate. A year before the dead walked, he finally swallowed his butterflies and invited her to a poker game at Roger's house.
She accepted, and he realized that he could fly without the helicopter.
Roger DiMarco, a member of Philadelphia's SWAT team, and Stephen went back to grade school at West Catholic. Always the class clown, Roger excelled at pulling Stephen into his mischievous hijinks, no matter how much hot water it meant. They were often in trouble, and the nuns would smack their knuckles with rulers hoping to knock the devil out of the boys. It didn't work, and the two stayed close after graduation.
Over drinks, Stephen confessed his attraction to Fran, and Roger became determined to play cupid, insisting that he bring her over for cards. When Stephen and Fran arrived at his house, Roger pushed them towards each other, playing Motown records and feeding them bottomless whiskey sours. By the time Stephen had lost count of how far he was up or down, Roger turned up the stereo and excused himself for a walk to the store for potato chips and more beer, making a point to let the blossoming couple know with a wink that he would be gone over an hour.
Stephen mustered the courage to ask for a dance during "I Second That Emotion" by Diana Ross and the Supremes. They were kissing by the song's end, leaving Roger's apartment together before he returned from the store.
Stephen cherished the magical memory.
Roger had gotten infected while moving the shipping trucks in front of the main entrances. Showing off as usual, Roger dropped his tool bag, and a few of those bastards took chunks out of his arm and leg. They were secure, but the bites were fatal. Even with everything that the second floor pharmacy offered—pain pills, antibiotics, morphine—they were unable to stop the turn and only slowed the infection. The afternoon before his death, Roger proclaimed that he wasn't coming back, that he would try not to become one of those things.
Stephen couldn't watch his best friend die. As an eye-patched scientist on TV suggested they nuke big cities to cut the dead's numbers, Roger died.
Peter waited until Roger reanimated before shooting him.
They buried him by the water fountain, among the plastic ferns and umbrella palms.
Stephen finished securing the helicopter and patted the side of the craft. She'd made him a fortune as a traffic reporter before saving his life when he stole it to escape Philly. While fleeing, parts of town were already dark. The last lights in the skyscrapers winked off as they headed west.
Shadows stretched, the setting sun promised a cold night ahead. Temperature didn't matter to the dead. They only cared about their next meal.
How many now gathered outside the mall?
Stephen wandered to the edge overlooking the northern parking lot. Below, thousands of shambling fiends shuffled aimlessly between the few remaining abandoned cars. With outstretched arms and vacant stares, they clogged the main entrances.
Dressed in the moment of their deaths, the creatures came from all walks of life. One pushed a shopping cart, as if anxious to make the big sale in time. A softball player wore his catcher's mitt, ready for a foul ball that would never come. Still trying to score in death, the disco swinger in his leisure suite followed a nurse in white scrubs. A nun, indistinguishable from the ones he'd given so much grief to in youth, ready to even the score with her black gums and rotting teeth.
The creatures didn't notice him.
It didn’t matter if anyone was inside. They were after the place, even though they had no use for anything in the stores.
Really, they didn't need to eat, either. They were dead, what did they need food for?
But that didn't stop them.
They just kept piling against the entrances, banging and clawing, pushing and groaning.
"It's ours," Stephen growled. "We took it. It's ours."
Fran rested plates in front of Stephen and Peter before taking a spot at the table and taking a sip of chardonnay from a crystal wineglass. Stephen raised a bourbon filled tumbler and toasted Peter and Fran.
"This looks wonderful," Stephen said as he cut into a rare filet. Before taking over the mall, strip steaks were a celebratory treat. Thanks to the Brown Derby on the second floor, they ate them several times a week. Fran's versatile cooking skills kept their meals interesting, but, honestly, steak wasn't special anymore. Not wanting a fight, Stephen kept silent and poked at his vegetables, hating how normal his isolation among the trio had become.
"Woman, you do amazing things with macaroni," Peter said. "Grandma would have called it sinful."
Fran giggled, covering her mouth.
"We still have a lot of meat," she said, "but the frozen veggies are wearing thin."
Stephen swallowed a mouthful of sautéed squash. "Time to start a garden. There's plenty of potting soil and seeds in the department store. Peter and I can build plots on the promenades upstairs."
"I'm game for a new project." Peter sipped his bourbon. "Been feeling lazy the past few days. Something like this might just wake me up."
The music stopped, and he rose to switch albums on the record player. Flipping through the LPs, nothing struck his fancy. He tired of the usual songs, the soundtrack to the end of the world. In the days before the radio transmissions ceased, frantic voices offering no solutions or hope had replaced music. The final messages ended without proper conclusion or fanfare. They were debating if the reanimated bodies were cannibalistic or not when it all stopped, as if they never existed in the first place.
Maybe the world before was nothing more than a dream.
"I'm going to grab some more records," Stephen said.
"Your dinner will get cold," Fran said.
"It's fine. I'll heat it up in the microwave."
Fran's glare betrayed her silence. Stephen couldn't look at her as he took off into the mall.
The fountain in the heart of the mall churned but did not calm his emptiness. The elevator clock rang eight-thirty, its echoing chimes cut through the whimsical piped music broadcasting within the deserted shopping center.
Stephen sat on a bench across from Roger's final resting place, sipping twelve-year-old scotch from a silver flask. The liquor burned his throat, but at least it let him feel something.
"You had no choice, didn't you?" he asked the grave. "You fought it and still returned as one of them."
He glanced over at the record store wedged between the gun shop and arcade, but he'd lost the will to search through their extensive collection. Besides, it would all still be there the following morning.
And the morning after that…
He took another swill.
Maybe he could invite Fran to a few laps at the rink. Even this far into the pregnancy, she loved skating and glided over the ice. He, on the other hand, skidded on the blades like one of the awkward corpses outside, falling on his ass while she elegantly circled. No matter how often they went, he couldn't catch the hang of it. Never mocking, she'd offer a mitten and help him up. He loathed the embarrassment but loved her company. The last time they were on the ice, they shot up mannequins with weapons and ammunition from the gun shop. His aim had improved, but target practice wasn't as fun as skating.
They hadn't gone the past few weeks. Really, they hadn't done much of anything together. They shared a bed, but he woke up and fell asleep alone.
How can you be so close to someone and yet so far?
He splashed scotch over Roger's grave and drank.
"I love her, man. But I'm losing her." Tears welled, and he brushed them away. "I wish you could tell me what I should do, offer some of your shitty advice. You always had the answers. I would have never taken the chopper if you hadn't insisted, and now we have everything."
Except for what we need.
"Attention, shoppers," the canned female voice announced over the music. "Are our deals getting you hot? Cool off with a double helping of pistachio gelato at Scoops, Monroeville Mall's premier confectioner and ice cream parlor."
Peter was right.
There is no more room in Hell.
Buzzing from the liquor, Stephen returned to their apartment after ten and found Peter washing dishes, his large stature dwarfing the kitchen area they had constructed while transforming the office into a living room.
"You get us some new tunes, flyboy?"
"Sorry," said Stephen. "I got sidetracked and spent some time with Roger."
Peter's attention never left the sink.
"I miss him, too, man. Why don't we get that garden started early tomorrow?"
He'd met Peter after he and Fran stole the helicopter from WGON and flew to a police dock on the Delaware River in order to rendezvous with Roger. A group of cops also running had killed everyone at the dock and were loading up a skiff to head upriver in search of a deserted island. They would have killed the couple, too, but Roger, in uniform, arrived with Peter and evened the odds.
At first, Stephen didn't know what to make of the newcomer and worried about how the extra weight would affect their fuel. Fran took to him almost instantly. At a refueling station past Johnstown, Stephen and Peter butted heads after Stephen nearly shot him while aiming at a decaying redneck. A simple mistake, but the friction lingered until the group started taking over the mall. Now Stephen considered Peter one of his best friends. The two had even robbed the mall's bank together—not that anyone else cared.
Stephen poured bourbon into a tumbler and sat at the dinner table. Peter, drying his hands, joined him and followed suit. They clinked glasses.
"She's almost due," Peter said.
"Can you handle it?"
"I know what to do. Doesn't mean I've ever done the procedure before."
"Will she live through it?"
Peter took a long pull from his glass. "I don't know, flyboy."
Imagining a life without Fran was impossible. The chopper, the apartment, the entire fucking mall—everything he'd worked for and accomplished had been for her. She gave his world meaning, and their current rocky situation frightened him more than the hungry mobs surrounding their citadel.
If she died during childbirth—Christ, the thought—how long would they have before she attacked them?
Would he even be able to raise a baby alone?
"Don't think about it too much," Peter said. "We still have time. We'll deal when it happens."
After drinks, Stephen stopped in the doorway of the room he shared with Fran. Wrapped up in a blue comforter, Fran's chest rose and fell with her soft snoring. An ashtray and Baby and Child Care, a softcover from the bookstore beside the bank, rested on his side of the bed. He moved them to the nightstand and dimmed the lamp, kissing her forehead before he returned to the living room.
Peter, sitting in front of the shortwave radio, cleaned a revolver.
"How long has it been since you've checked?" Stephen asked, motioning to the television.
"Man, you know nothing's coming on that thing."
Stephen flipped the power button, and the screen brightened with salt and pepper anarchy.
Temples throbbing from the alcohol wearing off, he sat on the comfortable red sofa and watched the static.
"Get some rest, flyboy. We got a lot of work tomorrow."
Stretching out, his eyes closed. A few hours till dawn.
Tomorrow I'll talk to Fran, make things right.
Things have to be better than today.
The shortwave radio crackled.
Thanks for reading, lovers. I do not any of the images or characters from the film and mean no disrespect to whoever does. This story is meant for entertainment purposes only and is dedicated to Mr. George A. Romero and the cast of DAWN OF THE DEAD, especially Mr. David Emge.
Remember, this story is just the first of three ghosts who will visit you this Christmas. Do you dare stay awake and be haunted?
Want to read more zombie fiction that I wrote? CLICK HERE to check out my current novel-in-progress, BROTHERS IN SOLITUDE.