A Different Kind of Place

3,900 words

After the zombie outbreak in San Fontaine was put down, Zadie treated herself to a new hair color as a way to get away from constantly watching the news. At the Clip-n-Curl, a modest house turned into a salon tucked away behind the gray-and-green brick building of Zippy’s Pizza, the conversation took a turn for the oh-shit-really? when Carla loudly announced she would not allow anyone in her family to get The Vaccine.

“It’s full of mercury,” she said. “And all sorts of other chemicals.”

It was like someone tossed a stink bomb into the middle of the salon.

Not that the ladies, and occasionally Phillip, were averse to talking politics. The Clip-n-Curl might not be an overly functional barbershop with clipper buzz and Fox News blaring away on the flat screen, but the Clip-n-Curl hosted some of the more intense round tables in the town regarding the topics of the day.

But San Fontaine was just a few hundred miles down the interstate from Chester. Zadie wasn’t in the mood. She wanted to get away.

Abigail Jones, eighty years young and getting purple highlights in her ghost-white hair, looked up. Her eyes glinted with, Zadie wasn’t sure, anger or possibly disgust. Abby was eighty; she didn’t pull punches. She had a tattoo on her right bicep, a shield and something in Latin. Someone told Zadie it said, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Abigail Jones said what she thought and if you were on the other end of it …

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Abby said.

Carla, forty years old, frequent volunteer at the annual fish fry for the town beautification committee, member of the garden club, mother of three, returned the dagger stare. Zadie and the two stylists, Eva and Whitney, were just bystanders.

“The government’s in bed with those pharmaceutical companies. I mean, this company that makes the vaccine, did you ever hear of it before all this?”

Zadie knew the conversation that was incoming with all the certainty of an infantryman hearing the whistle of an incoming shell. Abby, a retired professor who had traveled the world, would explain there wasn’t any goddamn mercury in the vaccine. Carla would counter by talking about the model Onisha, who’s kid had some sort of palsy that appeared right after the vaccine was administered and now campaigned against it. Abby would ask if Carla wanted someone in her family to turn into a zombie. Carla would talk about that one kid who had been Turned after he’d been bitten just the day after getting the vaccine. Abby would talk about herd immunity.

So, Zadie, tired, nerves slightly ragged from a lack of sleep from staying up all night to watch CNN, politely interrupted. “It’s a public-private partnership.”

The two women turned to face her. “What?”

“The company, it was created by the government to pass the vaccine around, but the CDC found the vaccine.” She’d seen a report on MSNBC. Apparently, the company had then tripled the price of the vaccine. The CEO was living in a floating offshore cruise ship with a private security force.

No worries about a zombie wandering into his living room.

Carla didn’t take too kindly to the interruption or the correction. She doubled down. And suddenly, Zadie was in the middle of an exhausting verbal fight about whether the vaccine caused palsy. How was it, she wondered, that Carla was the one getting more and more upset at Zadie when it was Carla who just announced, out of the blue, her strong opinion?

Some folks didn’t see their opinion as opinion, but after they surrounded themselves with their beliefs, mistook them for common sense. And most folks didn’t want to argue like this, so they just quietly suffered through a tirade, like the two stylists were.

But speak up and suddenly you were such a bitch.

Zadie ended it by laughing, crossing her arms, and saying, “Well, when you’re trying to chow down on Rick like he’s a half-off steak from Gina’s Deli, I won’t give a shit because I got the jab.”

And that finally cut Carla down because she mumbled something about agreeing to disagree, paid up, and left.

Everyone pretended nothing had happened and moved conversation on to the new development on the edge of town. It was double gated, and rumor was that someone on the village council was going to move in.

The houses were gaudy monstrosities and way overpriced.

§

On Friday, Zadie got an email to go see the superintendent, over in the high school building. Shit. Someone had noticed her hair color and complained, she figured. So, she packed up at lunch and crossed the road to walk the four blocks to her destination, past the post office and dry cleaners, waving to a few folks who passed in minivans or pickups.

Zadie loved Chester. She hadn’t when she was in school there. Her mother, an immigrant from Trinidad, had met her father a few towns over. He’d left one night to go pick up a six pack of Coors and just keep riding on past the Spin Thru with the beer cave until he ended up somewhere in Montana a week later, leaving them all alone in a leaky trailer on the edge of town. One of their neighbors blew his convertible van up because he was cooking meth. The other raised chickens and rabbits.

Zadie’s mom worked like someone possessed. Zadie had wondered if it was some first-generation immigrant hoodoo. Everyone she’d ever met who had an immigrant parent said they were like that. She’d never appreciated it as a child, but as an adult now, Zadie wouldn’t have worked three jobs and every weekend. Couldn’t hardly imagine it. Let alone the sort of back-breaking cleaning that her mom did day-in and day-out. Izelda had been a force of nature.

By middle school, they’d moved to Chester. Izelda had saved enough to change location. Better school. Walkability. “Everyone there smiles,” she’d said. And all her cleaning clients spoke so highly of Chester.

And everyone did smile. But there was a certain distance, and Zadie had never been sure if it was the fact that she was brown-skinned, a child of a single parent who cleaned people’s toilets, or if it was just simply that she wasn’t someone who had been born in the town from day one.

But Zadie had missed Chester. Missed walking down to the grocery store with its limited selection and walking back with her grocery bags on each arm. Missed filling up a prescription on her way to the post office. Missed the half mile of antique stores along Main Street and the weary tourists driving out from the big city on the weekends to go hunting for something “real” and “authentic” to clutter-charm their million-dollar apartment’s entryway with.

So, she was back to teach third graders math, before their elders taught them that football was the way out of the small town, instead of an accounting degree, and reading before it became labeled “uncool.”

Standing outside what used to be the principal’s office, when she’d been half a foot shorter, made her feel just as intimidated as back then. When she nervously stepped inside, preparing for a chewing out about the change in her appearance, the superintendent didn’t even look at her hair but passed her a printed-out email.

“There was a complaint about the content of your lesson yesterday.” Holt was an older gentleman, silver in his hair, proud grandparent, and a patriarch of the community. He stood every day in the high school parking lot, watching kids drive out and cautioning them to watch out for the little kids biking and walking home. He’d been pleasantly surprised when Zadie had applied to come teach, something about needing a diversity hire. Zadie, knowing full well that Chester had once been a sundown town not that many generations ago, where brown or black-skinned folk were not welcomed, had just nodded.

“A complaint?”

“About the, uh, not-dead awareness.”

Oh. Zadie stiffened. She should have seen this coming. “The children are asking a lot of questions, Mr. Holt.”

“I’m sure they are,” he said patiently. Then he leaned forward, as if sharing a secret. “But, if they start asking you how babies are made, you’re not going to start telling them about the birds and the bees, are you? There are waivers and appropriate times. And this community prefers to teach … sensitive things … in their own home.”

“Well, sure,” Zadie said carefully, realizing her job could be on the line. “But I was sent this by the CDC. The US government is recommending that all children understand what happens if a zombie attacks. That they shouldn’t try to save their friend, but get to a safe place. To help cut down on reinfection and spread—”

Holt leaned back, his smile strained. “Look, this won’t fly with the folk in Chester. I talked to the parents; they’re mollified, so I got in there for you. But it needs to not happen again. Folk around here, they want to decide for themselves how to educate their children, and they have a right to do it in their own way without interference. You see what I’m saying?”

Zadie did, but still had one more play. “They’re terrified about San Fontaine.”

Holt nodded. “Well, that’s understandable. They shouldn’t even be allowed to watch such things. But San Fontaine, it’s not Chester. This is a different kind of place.”

§

A different kind of place.

That was echoed at the Wednesday night town hall, which was more packed than usual. The San Fontaine effect. Only a single video clip had come out of the town before quarantine by what looked like thousands of National Guard: an old man, face buried deep in some teenager’s chest while the kid writhed and screamed.

“We are not going to have an infestation,” the mayor said. “This is a different kind of place.”

Councilwoman Maggie Dobresh had been talking about a new grant from both the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation to help smaller towns build walls and fund an increase in police and volunteer armed patrols.

“This kind of money,” the mayor explained, “comes with strings attached. Remember when the state helped build the new road through Pine Street? After that, we had to change all the sidewalks to match federal regulations.”

That created a murmur of discontent. A lot of people in town hated the fucking sidewalks, with bump-outs that had damaged at least ten different vehicles when turning too tightly onto Elm. Zadie occasionally drove over them in her little Chevy sedan, swearing when the unexpected bump rattled the whole car.

“With a wall, we can check who comes in to town,” Maggie said.

“More likely shut us in if there’s an infection,” someone from the rows of citizenry muttered.

Someone stood up, hands in their blue jeans. “Look, San Fontaine is the kind of place where people from all over pass through. It’s not a surprise they had some kind of outbreak, of some kind. We are not San Fontaine.”

Everyone agreed, Chester wasn’t San Fontaine.

But Zadie saw a few sidewise glances. Well, shit, she thought. That’s how people were thinking infection spread. An odd, chilly feeling prickled her back, and she really wanted to not be here.

“If we create walls, it’s gonna kill the antique shops up and down Main Street,” one of the store owners said. “No tourist wants a stop and frisk on the edge of town before coming in for an ice cream and a browse. And the edge of town is all gas stations and fast food for truckers.”

Zadie decided to bounce out of the town hall while everyone was thinking about the loss of jobs and Iggy was standing up and saying that building walls around a town was something the damn Europeans did and that walls were a UN plot to make the heartland more like Sweden. Something to do with Agenda 21.

§

“I love this town,” she confessed to Wendy the next night, over a bottle of cheap red from the local Spin Thru. Not the one her father had driven past, but the Chester one. “But Jesus Christ: they voted down the wall. Carla was telling me she won’t vaccinate her kids against zombiesm, and Principal Jenners told me the vaccine rate was likely barely half.”

“Oh, honey.” Wendy refilled her glass, even though Zadie tried to wave her off. She had to drive two miles back into town and to her small apartment over the glass trinkets shop. “It’s only a few attacks. I know they’re scary, but we really shouldn’t change our towns and way of living just for that. It’s too expensive. Can we really afford to put up walls around every single town and city in the country over, what, a dozen incidents? The deficit is so high. Unemployment is up. It would wreck the economy, sweetie.”

“It’s a few outbreaks now, but what happens as it keeps doubling? It was one at first, then two, then four. In no time flat, that suddenly becomes attacks everywhere, all the time.” The human mind, Zadie thought, was ill-prepared for thinking logarithmically. Exponential growth always seemed to come out of nowhere. Doubling would keep happening for months, then in a week hit the steep growth curve and overnight …

Suddenly the night outside Wendy’s house looked menacing. The acres of mowed grass out in the country somehow a massive target.

“Well, I’m not worrying about it,” Wendy said.

Zadie stared at her old high school friend. “How?”

“If this is what God wants, it’ll happen.” Wendy drained her glass. “Not much I can do about it.”

“But we could build a wall,” Zadie said plaintively.

Wendy smiled, and leaned forward. “Even if they come, Bob has us covered.”

“How?”

“Guns. He has a lot of guns in the basement. And food. We’ll be fine. Besides, Bob doesn’t think there are such things as zombies. He has the guns in case, well, things just get generally chaotic. You never know.”

Zadie took another sip. She shouldn’t, but if she stayed on the county road, she’d skip the speed trap by the highway. She could have a third glass.

“Bob’s been watching this show, and they have a man on across from the CDC people, and he says there isn’t any such thing as zombies coming for us. It’s just special effects and the government throwing their authority around.”

“So, you think the government shut down ten small cities, doubled the National Guard, and faked around-the-clock coverage for every incident to convince us there were zombies so that they could better control us?” Zadie grabbed the wine bottle, somewhat in shock, for another pour.

“When you put it like that, it sounds crazy. But, sweetie, have you ever seen a zombie?”

Zadie had to concede that, other than on the TV and listening to CDC experts, she hadn’t.

“Well, if they try to force their way into Chester, it won’t be so easy, not like San Fontaine. This is a different kind of place.”

Zadie wanted to laugh. San Fontaine, with Las Rojas dealing drugs out of the suburbs so heavily? They had guns, too.

§

She was hit by another car on the way home. A white SUV that clipped her before she even realized what was happening. Her reflexes too slow, Zadie drove off the road in a confusing haze of cornfields spinning around her and asphalt slamming against the roof of her car until it skidded slowly to a stop.

This was it. This was the end. She’d be cited for driving over the limit. She shouldn’t have had that last glass. But Wendy had been talking craziness and the wine had helped Zadie keep her mouth shut.

Always holding it in.

Zadie staggered out onto the grass berm, staring at her upside-down car.

The SUV that hit her had skidded out and struck a tree. Smoke trickled from under the hood. Oh, God, she thought. I drove drunk and killed them.

A pickup slowed and pulled over. A tall and burly shape, familiar, jumped out.

“Zadie, that you?”

“Hey, Bobby.” She waved at him. A silly thing to do, but the entire scene felt ridiculous. “I was on my side, I swear. I had three glasses though. I think they’re hurt.”

Bobby. She hadn’t called him that since high school. And he’d barely talked to her since that one time under the bleachers after the homecoming game sophomore year. Her fault, she’d pushed him too far and he’d gone all shucks and shy and … limp. Could hardly look her in the eye since. Always found a reason to be missing whenever he knew Wendy and Zadie would be meeting up.

He put an arm around her. “You got a bad cut to your forehead, Zadie.” And he was getting a shirt out from under the seat. It smelled of grease and campfire when he wound it around her head.

He hadn’t been tall and large, a bear of a man, the last time she’d been this close to him. He’d been all ribs and elbows.

“I haven’t called anything in. Let’s check the SUV first, see what’s what. We might be able to buy you some time before we call Sheriff Peterson.”

They crossed the dark country road, the wind sifting through corn softly, to the line of trees near the ditch against a soybean field where the white SUV had fetched up. The license plate on the rear had a sticker that said SAN FONTAINE BUICK AND CHEVROLET.

“Hey, Bobby, I mean, Bob …” Zadie started to say. “This might not be a good idea.”

Bob, because that’s what he’d preferred since graduation, shook his head. “We gotta see if they’re okay. I’m not going to be part of any hit-and-run type thing. I mean, even though you’re Chester, that isn’t the thing to do.”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying.” Zadie took a step back and pulled out her phone. Drunk or not, she wanted Sheriff Peterson here.

Bob pulled the driver’s side door open. “Everyone okay in here?”

The driver lunged out. Zadie screamed as the man bit down on Bob’s forearm so hard that blood briefly spurted and the bone cracked. Bob punched the man in the face and stepped back.

As he reversed, the woman from the passenger’s side crawled over the driver and shrieked as she struggled to get free of the seat belt. There was a hunger, no, an anger to her that froze Zadie to the spot.

Then her head exploded. Two shots.

Then the man likewise jerked in place.

Bob looked across at her, the gun in his hand still smoking. “Oh, god.”

“Please tell me you got the vaccine,” Zadie said, her voice shaking. “Bobby. Wendy was telling me you were talking about it all being fake news. Tell me you got the goddamn vaccine.”

He nodded, finally, no longer staring in shock at her. “I got it. I mean, I wasn’t sure, but I thought, just in case. You know?”

A small animal pushed through the tall grass around the SUV. It was barely the size of a dog, and until it latched onto her, Zadie didn’t even process that a baby could move that fast. A few tiny teeth dug deep into her ankle. “Fuck!”

She kicked at it, then freaked out. You can’t kick a baby! And like its parents, it didn’t look like a zombie. They must have just Turned. Like, right before they’d hit her. They still looked human. Pale, but human.

It turned for Bob.

Bob couldn’t do it. Couldn’t bring a gun to bear. Not after the shock of killing two humans. And for a lucid, brief second, Zadie wondered if the fact that they’d been trying for a kid so long made this too much for him.

The baby ripped his throat out. Nothing a vaccine could do about that.

Zadie ran for the still-running pick up, slammed it into reverse, turned, and headed for town. She picked up the phone and dialed nine, and then a one as she was still driving, then stopped.

Yeah, she was a partially-drunk, brown-skinned woman in someone else’s pickup truck roaring into town and calling the police.

No.

§

She was drowsy by Pine Street and rolled through the intersection’s four-way stop. The wine was too much. She was all but asleep at the wheel. The world seemed at a remove and she was just mulling over the week.

Carla. Fucking Carla. And it wasn’t just Carla and people like her refusing the vaccine. It was the people like Jason, who ran Town Health, of this world, too. He’d told her the other day that there was a concentrated lemon juice cleanse diet that changed the body’s acidity so that it dissolved zombie infection.

A fast acting, DNA-hijacking virus was going to surrender to fucking lemon juice?

And all those folks who’d refused the wall. If they were out there taking this seriously, patrols could have stopped that family of infected. But, no; no government was better than government intrusion.

And this was a different kind of place.

A place that had never really stopped being cool to her, even when they were all smiles.

God, she had loved it. She was going to miss it.

The lights, red and blue and flickering, made the inside of the pickup feel like a disco.

Herd immunity, Zadie thought. Not everyone who had the vaccine would resist the bite.

The pickup truck rolled to a stop on Main Street of its own accord, right near the Bean Express. Zadie felt hot, flushed, and her mouth felt so dry. She heard a far-off door slam.

An eternity later, Sheriff Peterson flashed an entire sun’s worth of light right down her pupils and into the back of Zadie’s brain. A distant part of her noticed his reaction as he realized she wasn’t Bob. And his hand went to his gun. And then he smiled. “Goddamn, it’s Zadie. Jesus, girl, what have you been drinking? You look like shit.”

She wondered why he was smiling.

Happy that he was going to help her out? Or happy that she was going to lose her job and end up having to leave.

A small part of her was sorry it would never get to answer this fundamental riddle about Chester. It fumed that she would never know if they just smiled to smile and stabbed her behind her back, or if they genuinely were just that insular. Wondered why it took five years for Wendy to invite her over to her house when Zadie moved back.

And all this pent-up anger, frustration, and rage bubbled up as Peterson leaned into the cab. “Let’s just put that in park, shall we?”

Because, fucking Peterson was Carla Peterson’s husband and something inside Zadie was screaming because it knew, it knew he smelled just right when she bit down on his forearm and heard the crunch.

She couldn’t speak, she was infected, she knew it as the last small bit of consciousness fled.

And this was all so avoidable.

But Chester was a different kind of place.

 

Originally published on Patreon, May 2017.

Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work.

His novels and over 50 stories have been translated into 18 different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author.

He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at www.TobiasBuckell.com.

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