The siblings had been playing together in the yard, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine – the weather was supposed to turn rainy again the next week – when their father called to them. He was sitting with their mother together on the deck, and he had his serious-face on.
They both came immediately, knowing from his expression that this was important.
When both of them were seated, Nina on the third chair, Jeff cross-legged on the floor at her feet, their parents turned to them. "Kids," began their mother. "We have something to tell you."
Jeff could swear, even years later, that he somehow knew what they were going to say before they said it. For a seven-year-old, he was very perceptive – or maybe it was just a feeling in the air, or the way Nina had stiffened above him, possibly sensing it as well. Time seemed to slow down.
"We've been having some problems, and we need some space," said their mother; she appeared reluctant, uncertain, but her words were confusing and for a moment, Jeff was stuck trying to decipher them –
And then Nina exploded furiously, "What does that mean? What do you mean, 'need more space?' What kind of explanation is that?"
Their father's next words hung heavy on the still air. "I'm going to move out for a few months."
Jeff couldn't believe what he was hearing – his mind couldn't even begin to process the words. He couldn't reconcile reality with what he had just heard.
"No." Nina's voice was hard, but desperate at the same time. "No, you're not. It isn't true. Right? You're just . . . No." But no one had time to say a word, because she had started to cry – sobbing brokenly, because they all knew it wasn't a joke . . .
And Jeff jumped up, jumped up from the ground, and screamed at the top of his lungs, and then he ran, ran as fast as his legs could carry him, ran away from this situation and this life and everything, ran as though trying to outpace the truth . . .
He heard footsteps behind him. "No!" he screamed. "Go away!" He didn't want them to chase him, didn't want them to comfort him, because it was their fault he was running in the first place. He would run away, he would go live with a friend, he would live on the streets and Nina could come with him, it didn't matter, as long as he didn't have to live with them.
"Jeff." The voice behind him didn't belong to either of their parents – it was Nina's, and he turned around, because he would only turn for her. Her face was red, her eyes wet, but she held out her arms and he ran into them.
"I don't want them – don't want them to—" and then he dissolved into sobs of his own, crying harder than ever before in his life, because their universe was collapsing around them and there was nothing they could do about it.
And Nina wrapped her arms tightly around him, her shoulders shaking and he knew that she was crying, too, and she whispered, "I know. I know. But it'll be okay. It'll all be okay."
They were coming for him – staggering, moaning, with their mouths gaping and misshapen, pupils dilated to the point where he could no longer see their irises, the irises he should have known – they were his family, they wore the faces of his parents and sister, but nothing inside of them was human anymore, they were only empty shells – empty shells that hungered for his flesh –
Jeff jerked upright, sweating and shivering. It was dark and the house was quiet, devoid of any sound. No hungry moans, no gasps, no screams. Just a dream. But he could still hear them, echoing in his ears, those empty eyes branded in his head –
Shuddering, he climbed out of bed and opened the door. He couldn't be alone right now – couldn't – but his father had told him after the third night that they were just dreams, not real, and not to wake him up anymore –
His eyes fell on the room across the hall. Nina's door was shut, no light seeping from under the crack. She was obviously asleep, but . . .
He reached for the handle. It turned – the door was unlocked – and he crept inside.
"Nina?" His voice sounded small and scared, but that was what he was. The lump of his sister under the blankets didn't move, and he felt a sudden jolt of irrational fear. "Nina!" He shook her.
She stirred sleepily and turned over to face him, blinking and rubbing at her eyes. Her face looked just like it had in the dream for a moment, blank, just as it had been when she was chasing him, and he flinched involuntarily. But now there was recognition in her eyes. "Jeff?" His name was twisted, distorted by the retainer she had to wear to bed. "What are you – it's the middle of the night!"
"I had a nightmare," he confessed, moving closer to her bed.
"Oh." Her face relaxed, and she sat up. "Want to talk about it?" She patted the space next to her on the bed and flicked on her reading lamp.
He settled himself into the space next to her, and she put an arm around him. "You all turned into zombies," he muttered. "You and Mom and Dad, and you tried to eat me."
"Oh, Jeff." She hugged him. Normally, he wouldn't have let her, but now it felt good. Comforting. "It wasn't real. Just a dream. We're all still human. We're all safe."
"I know." But it had all seemed so real –
"Besides," added Nina as an afterthought, "check out this retainer." She bared her teeth, and the bands of silver were obvious even in the dim light. "Even if I were a zombie, I literally wouldn't be capable of biting you." It was obviously supposed to be funny, but he could barely manage a weak smile and a shrug.
She seemed to understand. "All right," she said. "Do you want to sleep in here with me tonight? You can have the bed, and if you don't mind that the alarm will go off at six – and I promise I won't turn into a zombie."
He nodded. He didn't feel like being alone.
Standing up, his sister grabbed one of the pillows from her bed and tossed it onto the floor. There were extra blankets in the back of her closet, and she knelt, arranging a sort of nest for herself on the floor. "One second," she said, standing again. "Be right back." Without any further explanation, she left the room.
When she returned, she was carrying Tuft – Jeff's favorite stuffed dog, which he'd had since he was a baby. Wordlessly, she held the stuffed animal out to him, and he took it gratefully.
"Okay." She closed the door, lay down in her makeshift bed. "Good night, Jeff."
"Night, Nina," he mumbled, hugging Tuft closely to his chest. The fear from the dream was beginning to fade from his mind, and he was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
He slept soundly and dreamlessly until morning.
Even the sound of his math textbook hitting the wall did not help Jeff's frustration as much as he had hoped when he'd thrown it. Of course, all that could happen now was that he'd damaged it in some way, and would now have to pay for it . . .
Worry suddenly flooding him, he ran to the corner and picked up the book where it lay, inspecting it carefully. Minimal damage, thank goodness – just a bent corner and one folded page, and those could have been done before.
With the worry subsided, his anger had still not faded. He almost threw the book at the wall again, but he realized that he had just been lucky the first time and did not want to risk owing the school seventy dollars for a broken math book (seriously, why did the things cost so much in the first place? It's not like anyone would actually want to buy one). So he settled for letting out a loud noise – part grunt, part groan, part strangled scream.
"Hey!" His door banged open, and Nina stood in the doorway. "Do you mind? Some of us are trying to do homework over here!"
She looked awful – eyes rimmed in red from being rubbed so often, her hair tangled and sticking up, and her shirt wrinkled. He hadn't even seen her in the last hour – she'd come into the house and gone straight to her room, claiming she had a huge assignment due tomorrow.
"Sorry," he mumbled, staring ashamedly at the math textbook, still wanting to give it a good kick. "It's this stupid algebra – it doesn't make sense."
"What are you doing?" Her voice softened, and she crossed his room to sit next to him and peer at his assignment page. She rubbed her eyes again and blinked hard. "Polynomials?"
"Yeah," he growled.
"I hated those at first, too," she said sympathetically, using the hair tie around her wrist to pull her hair into a ponytail. "But they make a lot of sense once you get the trick. What are you doing – FOIL or factoring?"
"Factoring." He jabbed his pencil into the paper. "I understood FOIL, but I'm totally lost as far as factoring is concerned."
"Maybe I can help." She stood up, retrieved his textbook, and sat back down beside him, reading the top of his paper. "Page 384?" She opened the book and started flipping pages. "329 . . . 356 . . . 392 . . . there we are. 384. So, factoring. First, you have to make a list of the common factors . . ." Picking up his pencil, she started to write.
"But don't you have your own homework?" asked Jeff.
She waved a hand dismissively. "I can take a fifteen-minute break. Okay, the factors of six are one, six, two, and three . . ."
Half an hour later, his homework was done and Nina was hurrying back to her room and her own assignment. "Nina," called Jeff as she pulled open the door. "Thanks."
"No problem." She paused to smile at him. "Anything for my little brother."
Jeff knew something was wrong when his sister's car pulled into the driveway, but she didn't get out.
He was alone in the house – their mother had warned them that she wouldn't be back until later that night – and had been listening for the sound of Nina coming home. His ears perked up when he heard her car, but when minutes passed and no one came in, he was starting to get worried.
He peeked out the window. Her car was there in the driveway, and she was sitting in the driver's seat, staring ahead. He couldn't see her that well, but – what was she doing? Something had to be wrong.
He opened the door and walked barefoot across the gravel path – ouch, ouch, ouch – to the driveway. He tried the car door, but it was locked.
When he rapped on the window, she gave a start of surprise and pressed a button. He heard the door unlock, and then pulled it open.
She was still sitting there, staring straight ahead. She hadn't even taken off her seat belt yet. "Hi," she said dully, not even turning to look at him as he got in.
There were dried tear tracks on her face, but she wasn't crying. Her eyes just looked dead.
"Nina, what's wrong?" asked Jeff, leaning over and unbuckling her seat belt for her. She looked surprised when it slithered off of her, as though she hadn't even realized that it was there. "What happened?"
"Nothing," she said. Her voice cracked; she took a shaky breath. "Nothing important, anyway."
"Nina, I know something's wrong. I won't tell anyone."
Her voice wavered when she spoke. "Nothing, really. Just . . . Ron. Broke up with me. Nothing important. You know. The usual. High school relationships don't last, anyway."
Ron. Her boyfriend. Jeff hadn't minded him – liked him, even. And it was true that most high school relationships didn't last, but . . .
No one could hurt his sister like that and get away with it.
"Come on, Nina." He reached over and patted her shoulder awkwardly; he'd never been any good at comforting. "It'll be okay."
She sniffed, and a tear started making its way down her cheek. "Course," she murmured, her voice quiet and raspy. "Right." Her neck muscles clenched, and she opened the door. "I'm just – If you don't mind, I just want to go to my room and talk on the phone for a bit. Is that okay?"
"Of course." Jeff opened his own door and grabbed his sister's backpack from the backseat, carrying it for her into the house. As soon as she was safely in her room, he crossed to the dining room table and grabbed his phone. She'd left the family Ron's number, in case for some reason they would need to reach her when she was with him and her own phone was off, so Jeff had it. And now, it was a good thing he did.
He selected the contact and pressed send.
After two rings, someone picked up. "Hello?" came Ron's voice. Arrogant. Irritating. Cruel.
"You are really lucky I don't know how to shoot a gun."