Title: "Where the Wild Zombies Graze"

Author: Shaitanah

Rating: R (violence, gore, disturbing imagery, crude humour)

Summary: Boy meets girl. Zombie Apocalypse happens, coming with a vampiric supplement.


Part 2

Tallulah was actually pretty damn beautiful, though not in a conventional sense. She had these pale freckles scattered all over her face and shoulders, which made her look rather foxy. Fair eyelashes made her eyes look a bit hazy; when she smiled, tiny dimples formed in the corners of her mouth.

In the few hours that Daisy worked her magic, I fixed myself a Bloody Mary (with actual donor blood that I found in the fridge) and slipped into my favourite arm-chair to watch some TV. The local channel was still working, but there was nothing on about the town's little zombie problem, so I figured we still had some time to prepare.

Steve went for a quick ride to check up on the undead scramble we had left and brought a ghoul head back as a souvenir. He called me out to the yard to play some ball. While we tossed it up and down, the head awoke and began preaching us Buddhist parables, so we took baseball bats to shut it up. They do that sometimes, severed ghoul heads. They talk. Just so you know in case you ever meet one. (They sing, too. One thing I'll never forget as long as I walk the earth is a severed ghoul head singing Hey Mickey back in 1982.)

After the game I climbed up to the attic to try and find anything that would help me pinpoint Abuelito's location. It was dark there but no dust or cobwebs; Abuelito liked to refer to himself as a very neat monster. I sat on the bed, feeling an influx of sadness for him, for the ghouls, myself, and everything.

"You have a nice house," Tallulah commented. I looked up to see her standing in the doorway. "Very Addams."

I snickered. That was courtesy of the previous owners, a gothic gang who desperately wanted to become vampires. They ended up moving to Romania.

Tallulah lowered herself on the bed next to me. Her hair was tied in a loose bun at the back of her head. She had showered off all the excessive blood; now its echo ghosted over her skin in the faintest candy-sweet aroma. A pair of faded jeans and a dark crimson female t-shirt, all from Daisy's boundless wardrobe, suited her well.

"Have you ever–?" She fumbled with a loose strand of her hair, trying to find proper words. "You know… made a ghoul?"

I took it that Daisy had filled her in on everything. Good.

"Everyone did." The admission made me feel a bit uncomfortable. "It's hard to find the right balance. Think of a glass full of liquid. You drink a quarter, the person lives. You drink one half, you get a vampire. You drink three quarters, there's a ghoul. The younger a vampire is, the more screw-ups he's bound to leave behind."

"That's so strange," Tallulah mused. "You guys drink blood and play baseball with talking dead heads!" Ah, so she had seen the game. Uhm. Yeah. "Yet family-wise, you're probably the most normal people I've ever met. And I've been to foster care a lot."

I failed to hold back a smile. No one could resist Daisy's charm.

"Aren't you afraid?"

"No," Tallulah said. Her response sounded rushed; I could detect insincerity in her voice, but also a trace of firm conviction. Perhaps she wanted to be unafraid. "I grew up on Buffy," she added with a perky smile.

Okay, so she and Steve had more in common than I thought!

I got up on my feet and continued my search for clues. Abuelito had a pretty impressive collection of hunting knives and rubber dildos, numerous books on Eastern philosophy and a huge shamanic drum hanging on the rakes beneath the ceiling, a stack of original Playboy issues from the fifties and several reels of World War II field chronicles. None of that would help me understand what he was playing at, though. That's the trouble with old and powerful vampires: you can bite your own head off trying, but you'll never find them unless they want you to.

Tallulah helped me rummage through the drawers. Having lived through most of this stuff's native periods, I couldn't help but wonder what it felt like to her to find herself amidst all these antiquities. Her gestures were laced with reserved curiosity like those of a person touching a dead man's possessions.

A cloud of dust rose over a barricade of boxes as Tallulah pulled out an old scrapbook chock-full of black-and-white photographs with frayed edges and illegible inscriptions at the backs. Tallulah coughed and waved her hand before her eyes, trying to dispel the dust cloud.

"That's cute," she said, holding up a photo of Steve and me, both wearing windbreakers that I remembered to be red over lumberjack shirts. My hair whirled up wildly. A cigarette was dangling between Steve's lips. "James Dean?"

I coughed perplexedly. "What can I say? Rebel Without a Cause had just come out."

She flashed me a curious, apprehensive glance. "How old are you?"

"By passport? Or–?"

"Or."

I fought off a pang of unease. "One hundred and thirty."

Tallulah gave a soft whistle. "Wow. How on earth have you made it this far?"

I cleared my throat. True, I liked her better when she wasn't brandishing her knife at me and calling me a moron, but even regardless of that, she was quite skilled at stirring up murderous intent. I decided to change the subject.

"You're not from around here, right?"

"Just passing through."

"Where to?"

She hesitated. "Australia. Been there?" I nodded. It hadn't been so pretty then. "My grandparents lived here. They passed away and left me some stuff, so I came to pick it up."

"What's in Australia?"

"Kangaroos. And hopefully my father."

I squinted pensively. Whenever someone said the word, I got the mental image of Jude; after all, I had had him for a father for over a century. Today, though, since she had also mentioned foster care, I incidentally flashed back to my birth parents. I could barely remember their faces, but the feel of their presence was unexpectedly strong. I thought of Tallulah being passed on from one family to another; it might as well have been my fate as a newborn vampire if Jude and Daisy hadn't been so responsible.

My dismal train of thought was interrupted by Steve. He poked his head through the door and told us Jude wanted to talk. As Tallulah walked out of the attic, he took a whiff of air around her and muttered somewhat dejectedly:

"Nope. Still not Bella."

"Did he just sniff at me?" Tallulah asked, flabbergasted, as Steve headed down the stairs.

"Yeah…" I ran my fingers through my hair. At times Steve's fanaticism got wildly out of hand. "It's his way of saying hello."

When we entered the kitchen, Jude was sitting at the table, rolling a saltcellar around idly. I could read him well enough to detect a hint of anxiety, which was only natural, given the circumstances: he had known Abuelito nearly all his life, there was much history between them. Daisy, on the other hand, seemed more concerned with Tallulah's well-being. As soon as we showed up in the doorway, she placed a bowl of corn puffs on the table next to a saucer containing slices of pineapple and poured a large cup of cocoa. That was presumably all the food we had on the premises. (Contrary to popular opinion, we can eat human food. Personally I do it pretty often because the very process of consuming it helps ignore my natural hunger for blood.)

Tallulah halted on the doorstep. Her unusual confidence washed away, she had the look of a person that had only just begun realizing something important: she was alone in the house full of complete strangers who just happened to be vampires on top of all. I felt like making a joke, something like, "No worries, we're full," to clear the air, but nothing particularly witty came to mind. Tallulah sat down warily. Her gaze flickered from Jude to Daisy, then from me to Steve who came to stand near me. I found myself wishing someone would say something. Anything.

Tallulah took a corn puff sprinkled with vanilla-flavoured powder and popped it into her mouth. It crunched noisily as she began to chew. Daisy smiled.

"We were thinking," Jude said finally. "Connor." I turned my head at the sound of my name. "Why don't you take Tallulah to the station? It's going to get hot here."

He looked straight at her, and she looked back. Her fingers went rigid, her hand wrapped around the cocoa cup. Jude formed a gentle smile on his lips, trying not to flash the fangs. He didn't want to frighten her more. His concern was genuine.

"No problem," I said and glanced at Tallulah. Slowly, she nodded.

"Thank you."

Since Daisy would not let her out without feeding her even if the sky was falling, Tallulah resigned herself to her fate and began eating more dexterously. We set to discuss the situation and decided that after I had seen Tallulah off, I would go straight to the town and join Steve and Daisy in case they needed some back-up. In the meantime, Jude would be looking for Abuelito who would have no reason to hide once his zombie pets were flushed out.

Having finished her cocoa, Tallulah fixed us with a pointed glare. A new thought seemed to have crossed her mind; once again she reminded me of a diver in a basin full of sharks.

"You're not going to kill me for knowing what you are, are you?"

After a moment of wonder-filled silence we burst out laughing. Tallulah's lips tightened in suspicion.

"Get her out of here, Connor," Jude said, his voice breathless with laughter. "Poor girl thinks she's on the menu."

(And that was precisely the joke I had been pining for. Damn!)

* * *

Tallulah eased back into the passenger seat, having finally finished waving goodbye to my family. Naturally she wouldn't miss the opportunity to rib me.

"Now he is gorgeous," she mouthed, pointing surreptitiously at Jude. I flashed her a dirty look and pretended to concentrate on the road.

Soon this annoying creature would be out of my life for good. This day seemed very long; I just wanted it to be over with.

Seemingly for no reason I caught myself recollecting a conversation I had once had with Daisy. I had asked her if she remembered being human. She did not, not in detail at least. No wonder; she was older than Jude and it had been harder for her to kick the blood habit. The more you drank, the less human you felt.

I'm glad it turned out this way, she had said. If I had lived as a human, I would have turned out completely different. Not necessarily better or worse, just not the same. One thing I know for sure, though. I would have died before Jude was even born.

She didn't have to go on. A trace of bitterness in her voice spoke for itself. I wondered if she had somehow always known, perhaps subconsciously, that he would have been right for her.

"Connor."

I turned my head a little too abruptly. Having been completely lost in my ruminations, I failed to notice Tallulah's hand resting gently upon mine. Light disquietude emanated from her. I blinked in surprise. That was not something I would expect from her.

"Will you be all right?"

I blinked again. Despite me, my lips stretched in a wary smile of amazement. She was worried about me… us. A frail human child was brimming with concern for the safety of a bunch of ominous bloodsuckers who she had not so long before suspected of harbouring carnivorous desires towards her!

I snorted with laughter. Tallulah pursed her lips and hit me in the shoulder with a fist. Okay, maybe not so frail.

"It grew back," she said, not sounding surprised. "Your tooth."

I grinned. "Lucky me being a vampire, eh?"

Her unwavering gaze never flickered away from my face. I felt the faintest heat of embarrassment rising through me. Out of all the emotions she evoked, this was probably the most unexpected.

"We'll be fine," I assured her light-heartedly. "Sure thing."

She appeared to want to add something, but I saw her eyes widen in the mirror, and the next thing I knew she was screaming:

"Look out!"

My gaze darted back to the road. I slammed the brakes as hard as I could, almost pushing them into the floor. A man was standing on the road; I had almost run him down. On second thought, maybe I should have: it was a ghoul.

"Hi, guys!" it said. "What's up, guys?"

Tallulah looked to me as a specialist in all things ghoul, but even I was at a loss. It was not unheard of for a ghoul to speak (severed heads were a different matter, though), but I'd never heard them sound so clear and comprehensible as if they were alive. Ghouls decayed very quickly; all that rot was bound to impair the brain-to-mouth connection one way or another.

"Yes, of course, there is no need to talk back," the ghoul in front of our car sighed tragically. "I'm just a walking corpse after all." It leaned forth and tapped on the hood of the car absent-mindedly. "You know what's worse? I used to be a tax accountant! Nobody likes tax accountants and nobody certainly likes dead tax accountants any better."

I caught a glimpse of a few more figures moving in our rear. Tallulah shriveled up in her seat. She still had the knife on her; I noticed her clench its handle so hard that her knuckles whitened.

The ghoul rolled its eyes.

"Oh come on, guys, let's be reasonable! There's a dozen of us and just the two of you and as much as we respect Master Vampire over there, we're also just so terribly hungry. We figure you won't be using the girl, sir. So maybe we could… you know, come to an agreement?"

"Drive," Tallulah mouthed, her eyes fixed on the ghoul.

I complied. I stepped on the gas. The car darted forward, knocking the talking ghoul off its feet. Then I hit the reverse and attempted to turn around while boring into the other undead. The talking ghoul clung fast to the hood. Try as I might, I couldn't shake it off.

"Guys, let's talk this through like the responsible grown-ups that we are!" the ghoul nagged. "It's unfair to let all this delicious blood and meat go to waste."

One of the ghouls managed to climb up on the roof and was clawing at it energetically. Another one slammed its fist through the window, showering the backseat with shattered glass. I backed out abruptly again and drove over several zombie bodies, their bones crunching audibly beneath the wheels. Tallulah spun around and stabbed the hand that was reaching determinedly towards her.

I managed to shake them all off except the one on the hood. The car picked up, I crashed into a tree at full speed. The ghoul groaned. I pulled back and banged into the massive trunk again. Tallulah held her breath, the seatbelt stretched across her chest.

The ghoul was safely trapped between the tree and the bumper. I sprang out of the car, grabbed a fistful of its hair and made him look at me.

"The vampire who made you," I breathed. "Where is he?"

"Chomp-chomp," the ghoul giggled. I bashed its head against the trunk, exasperatedly.

"Where is he?"

Just then Tallulah cried out my name. More ghouls were creeping our way. I was getting a nasty impression that no more survivors remained in this town.

I drove off as fast as I could, leaving behind a hungry, wailing crowd. The car whooshed past the roadblock on the way to the railway station, but Tallulah had already figured we were not going there. As much as I hated to have her in the city under siege, the safest place for her was by our side.

"And he wonders why no one likes tax accountants," Tallulah murmured under her breath. She still looked shell-shocked, but if she was capable of joking, I knew she would be all right. Damn, I was beginning to like the girl.

I took the forest road and made a deliberate hook to make sure no one was following us. I tried to busy myself with random thoughts (how Jude would give me hell for the damaged car and how I might talk Daisy into cooking my favourite steak, medium-rare, once the battle was over). Tallulah remained quiet.

We passed by a car abandoned at the entrance to the town. The windows were smashed and the seats were covered in blood. Tallulah cringed visibly.

"Everyone," she whispered. "I'm the only one left, aren't I? And that's just because I was lucky enough to meet you."

Her words struck a chord within me. We did a bad job out of protecting the citizens. No job at all, to be honest. Then again, we were not supposed to protect anyone. It was important that we found Abuelito not because he doomed so many people, but because his escapades threatened the security of the family. Tallulah was looking at me like I was something of a hero, was supposed to end up being a hero, but I could not justify her expectations.

A blur of speed flickered right before me. I had no time to react. A ghoul (pretty old one judging by the stench and the strength) jumped up on the hood of the car in motion and punched a hole through the windshield. Its hand, caught in rapid decomposition, started fumbling about hectically. Tallulah slashed away at it aggressively with her knife.

I lost control of the car. It swerved to the roadside and skidded between the trees. I pulled Tallulah into my protective embrace before the car tumbled down the hillside. I hoped to hell it squished the zombie.

After the fall I felt a little dizzy. The crashing noise died down, and I allowed myself to look up. I was covered in shattered glass, but the few gashes inflicted by it had already begun to skin over. I was otherwise unharmed. Fortunately, so was Tallulah but for a faint bruising on her forehead.

We rolled out of the car. She was breathing deeply as if to ascertain she was still alive. I craned out my neck to eliminate the stiff feeling I had in it. A pair of legs sticking from under the deformed body of car twitched uncontrollably. Tallulah giggled frantically.

"Ding-dong, the Witch is dead," she gasped out.

It took me a moment to catch on the reference, and then I was laughing too. I rose, still snorting with laughter, and held my hand out to Tallulah. She very nearly grinned at me.

I pulled her knife out of the car and collected the rifle from the trunk. Now I was certain that if by any chance I survived the zombie Apocalypse, Jude would still do me in for the car that was now unquestionably beyond salvation.

"I was wondering," Tallulah said speculatively. "How do you guys not burst in flames in the sun?"

Ah. Another stupid question from the vampire lore. I had been on the lookout for that.

"It's out of fashion lately," I replied, assuming the next question should be about bats, garlic, or coffins.

* * *

It's funny how quickly a town can become a dumpster if you turn all its inhabitants into zombies. Heaps of burning garbage greeted us with sulphureous smoke. A lonely alarm was whining plaintively in the distance. Night had fallen; whatever streetlights had survived the riots, now cast feeble lights on the depressing scenery.

I heard a commotion behind me and whirled around in a blink of an eye, the rifle at the ready. Steve held his hands up in warning.

"Whoa, it's me!"

I exhaled slowly and lowered the rifle. Pale moonbeams glided over Steve's face smeared with dirt. Body lotion had almost come off, and his natural tan was showing through the toner.

We exchanged the news quietly. Apparently the ghoul hunt had turned into a real slaughter-house. I watched Tallulah from the corner of my eye as Steve spilled me the gory details. She took a few steps back and wrapped her arms around her torso, rocking uneasily. Unhealthy earthy colour flooded her face.

"Don't stray," Steve bade her offhandedly. She nodded curtly and turned her back on us. Steve lowered his voice. "She's very brave," he told me.

Before I knew it, I was smiling like I could take credit for that. Steve grimaced. Something told me I wouldn't hear the end of it.

We took time to reload our weapons. Just as we were through, Daisy came into view, smiling a crooked smile.

"I think Jude found him," she announced, her facial expression gleeful and fierce at the same time. I was about to let out a long sign of relief when Daisy frowned and muttered quizzically: "What is she doing–?"

I whirled around in time to see Tallulah running towards the school building. I called out to her, but she ignored me. She launched herself into the doorway and vanished inside the dark corridor. I cursed under my breath and rushed after her.

I found her in one of the wrecked classrooms. She was squatting by an overturned teacher's desk and saying something in a gentle, soothing murmur, her hand held out invitingly. I noticed a couple of frightened children hiding behind the barricade. They were no older than second grade; still human judging by the birdlike beating of their hearts. I lingered hesitantly on the doorstep, unwilling to scare the children even more.

Finally one of them shifted closer to Tallulah and took her hand uncertainly. She curled her fingers protectively around his and her face lit up with a warm smile.

Both children crawled out of their hiding place. They cowered behind Tallulah when they saw me, but I gave them my most harmless smile and gestured for the whole party to follow me. Tallulah flashed me an odd glance that I deciphered as: I bet it hasn't even occurred to you. She would be right about that: it hadn't occurred to any of us to check if there was still any living creature in the town. We thought rather fatalistically that if anyone had survived, it would not last.

Halfway towards the exit the teachers began creeping out. They strode towards us on wobbly feet, the low guttural noises they made floating thickly in the air.

"Duck!" I heard Daisy yell. The next thing I knew, a burst of gun fire thundered overhead. The children screamed.

A stout bespectacled ghoul who looked like it might have been a math teacher once bellowed loudly and snatched one of the children. Tallulah bolted, dragging the other one along with her. The little boy was crying.

Almost all of them were already down. Tallulah had nearly reached the door when the dead math teacher skidded over the floor and latched onto the second child. Tallulah spun around and brought her knife down on him ferociously. It shrieked and collapsed on the floor and then finally let go – yet not before its jaws clenched fast around the boy's calf.

Horrified, Tallulah continued tugging the child after her. Steve was next to her in a blur of speed. His arms locked around her as he yanked her out of the school. The boy fell behind, looking helpless and confused. My gut clenched, but I knew it was too late for him.

Daisy fired. Tallulah screamed and struggled against Steve, but he held her firmly. It was only when all of us made it out safe that he allowed her to break free. She staggered a few steps away from him, her breathing ragged and forced, and fell on her knees. Tears splattered on her face. Sheer terror was written all over it. Petrified, I couldn't force myself to move.

For a heartbeat, I could see nothing but her, sitting on the ground and looking before herself with wide, swollen eyes.

Beside me, Daisy tensed and then darted off rapidly. She didn't have to say anything. Both Steve and I knew Jude was coming before he came into view: his ill-tempered bickering with Abuelito was hard to ignore.

"I don't have no bleeding morality!" Abuelito was grumbling. "I'm a vampire, for fuck's sake! And if you stop for one stinking moment and look in the mirror, you will realize that so are you!"

"I've never denied that," Jude protested hotly. "But unlike some, I know that this little thing called 'adaptability' comes in handy."

"Why should I adapt to the world when I can have the world adapt to me?"

"You call turning the entire town into a bunch of rotting zombies adapting? We'll have to move again because of you!"

"Oh you ungrateful, whiny brat! I made you–!"

Jude stopped walking and let go of the handles of Abuelito's wheelchair. His eyes narrowed in anger.

"The fuck you made me!" he growled. "You watched that ratty bitch of yours have her way with me. You never had the guts to turn anyone yourself. Zombies are easy, eh, Francisco? No responsibility! You just bite'em and leave'em to rot."

Jude very seldom used Abuelito's name. The way it slipped out of his mouth made us acutely aware of the gravity of their falling out. Moreover, I had never heard Jude mention his maker before. He was prone to keeping all the details of his life before me to himself, out of habit rather than mistrust, and I never pressured him to talk. I knew from Daisy that he had been turned against his will. She also hinted once that he had paid his maker in full. I never knew of Abuelito's involvement though.

"What happened to you?" Abuelito huffed. "You used to be such good company. Now you're just one of them rubbish hypocrites!"

I stopped listening then. The last thing I wanted right now was to be let in on their dark secrets (besides, Steve would be sure to fill me in later). I rubbed my neck wearily and turned away from the scene that my father and grandfather were making and caught Tallulah's eye. Her face was unreadable, her lips pursed in a thin, hard line. Perhaps she was finally seeing us the way lots of people before her had seen us: as monsters from a horror story sprung to life. I remembered her laughing and shooting snide remarks at me and holding the photo of me emulating James Dean and inspecting my house and family with innocent curiosity – and thought that we might as well have destroyed that, burnt it viciously out of her if only because we didn't know any better. This was our way. For the first time in my long life, I wished it were not.

The girl turned around and ran off. I wanted to go after her, though I had not the slightest idea what I could say to her, but Daisy's hand upon my shoulder made me reconsider.

"Don't," she said quietly.

And I stayed.

* * *

I knocked on the door of Abuelito's room in the attic and came in without waiting for him to answer. He was sitting by the window, looking out at the sun rolling lazily over the deep blue sky. Light fell upon his face in soft, gauzy layers, smoothing out all his wrinkles.

"I brought you a snack." I handed him a packet of freshly defrosted donor blood. He despised convenience foods, but it was the best he was going to get in the nearest future; Jude had made it crystal clear.

Abuelito snorted grouchily but accepted the offering without objections. I stood beside him and watched him juggle the packet in his hands. Cool wind ruffled my hair playfully.

"It's not that bad if you give it a try," I said amiably. "Living side by side with humans. Sometimes they will surprise you."

"I've never lived by anyone's stupid rules," Abuelito said implacably. "And I bloody don't intend to start now. He says he don't wanna move. Well, tough, 'cause that's what a vampire is. A hunter. A vagabond killer who comes and goes as he pleases and takes what he wants without regrets. What you kids do nowadays is a sick joke."

In spite of the gravity of his reproofs, I couldn't hold back a smile. It sounded too much like a generic grumpy old man rambling about the younger generation's disreputable lifestyle.

I knew I would not be able to change his mind. I thought about my own sentiments, the condescending amusement I had always felt towards humans. Even though I envied Abuelito his absence of moral compass, I never wanted humanity to perish completely nor to remain as cattle to sate our hunger whenever we needed them to.

"Regardless of what he says," Abuelito muttered, "I ain't a coward."

I patted his shoulder wearily. I knew that. But if I had to take sides, he knew whose side I would take. Courage had nothing to do with it.

After our conversation I headed to my room. As I passed my parents' bedroom, I saw Daisy packing. I knew Jude had already pulled some strings and the town was being cleaned up even now, but it was an epidemic site now; we could not stay here even if we wanted to. The knowledge of that, although imminent, still upset me.

Daisy must have sensed me watching. She cast me a swift smile that could have fooled me but for the bitter downturn of her mouth that followed straight away. She was sad to leave. Of course. And she was also more enraged by Abuelito's actions than she was willing to show. Daisy had had a lot of trouble coming off warm blood; she knew more about addiction than anyone of us. She thought that if she could go through with it, then the stupid old man certainly could too.

"Maybe we could settle in the countryside," I mused, my voice soft and dreamy. "Get a big country house. Something of a Kent farm type, you know. With a big barn and all."

"That would be wonderful," said Daisy. I couldn't make out from her tone if she really thought so. When she looked at me again, something flickered in her pale green eyes. "How are you holding up?"

I blinked. "Me? Fine. Why?"

"I know what you're thinking. Why bother? Why observe the code if nothing good ever comes out of it?"

I frowned. I had been thinking something like that but she needn't have worried: my doubts would never have influenced my commitment to Jude's code of vampiric behaviour. The loss of the one person who seemed to have no trouble accepting me as I was – peppery, sharp-toothed, and immortal – would not prompt me to go on a killing spree.

"We are not doing it for them, Connor," Daisy went on. "We're doing it for us."

I nodded and pecked her on the forehead. We had started over so many times. We could try again.

* * *

There was something incomprehensibly nostalgic about the extinct town. The silence that filled it up was in the end so profuse that each sound, down to that of my own footsteps, seemed deafening. When every heartbeat save for our own died down, it appeared to be absurdly easy to pick out the distant drumming that betrayed traces of life on the outskirts. Very soon the disaster site would be swarming with all kinds of special services summoned by Jude's authoritative friends to attest the consequences of the epidemic. We had to leave before they arrived. They would have it all covered; it would be as if we had never set foot in this town. It was safer this way; yet the anticipation of another vanishing act filled me with sharp sorrow.

I stood in the empty street, facing the main square. The fountain in the middle of it had become clogged up the night before and was spitting up a single groaning jet. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind racing scraps of paper litter down the street.

"Connor."

A quiet voice startled me. I turned around. She was standing a few metres behind me, a cacophony of colour – black jeans and a carmine jacket over a faded yellow top. Her loose pony-tail streamed fluidly down her shoulder. She carried a heavy bagpack whose shoulder-straps cut into her lean shoulders sharply.

"I thought you might have already left," she confessed.

I forced an awkward smile. "So did I."

"What will you do?"

"We haven't decided yet." I looked downward, the asphalt beneath me still stained with blood and dirt. "What about you?"

A smile flickered on her lips, deepening the dimples I was so fond of.

"So what now?" she queried. "Are we supposed to have a steamy emotive vampire-human love affair?"

I burst out laughing. "Nah."

She grinned and came closer, indecision still painfully obvious in every step she took. It would take a long time for her to trust me, and we had no time to give each other. There was something else I wanted her to have though. I dug my hand into my pocket and handed her my little souvenir. I had made it earlier without much hope. It was my tooth, the one she had knocked out on our first meeting. I had mounted it and suspended it on a black leather cord as a little familiar.

"Gross!" she exclaimed, choking with laughter as I slipped it into her open palm. "But it's quite fitting, I should say. My personal trophy." She put it on and thanked me with an earnest smile.

"Good luck, Tallulah," I said wryly.

She nodded. "You too, fangface."

I watched the distance between us grow as she walked up the road and thought that maybe she would be okay. It was such a perfect movie moment that I found myself waiting for My Heart Will Go On to start playing. Strangely, it didn't.

When I came back to the manor, Jude was locking up the front door. Daisy was struggling to keep Abuelito's wheelchair on the move and Abuelito in turn was doing his best to jam the wheels and otherwise hinder her. Steve put on the sunglasses to protect his sensitive eyes from the waning sun and scowled theatrically, slipping back into his usual mode of behaviour. I tapped him on the shoulder cheerfully.

"Chill out, Steve. You look so… chagrined!"

I ducked to avoid a retaliating blow and cast a parting glance at the house. Wherever we were going, I hoped to hell there would be no zombies.