I’m posting two chapters so closely together because I posted the first chapter so late. Normally, I anticipate about a week between each chapter.
So, if you’re keeping score, I should have a new chapter up next Saturday.
We ate Ted in the parking lot of an old Whole Foods. Number 21 even found some tortillas under some bushes near the dumpsters which was a major score. We each got three Tedtillas. Number 6 came up with that name. She was some kind of comedian in the old world. Got paid to tell jokes, of all things. That’s major weird to think about because she’s really not that funny. Maybe she was before. Who knows? Tedtilla wasn’t a bad joke. We all had a laugh about that.
After I ate my last Tedtilla, I got permission from Cutter to take some PT (private time). I didn’t mind the others in our group, but they stunk. Bad. If dog crap and an onion had a baby, the dump that baby took would smell better than every one of The Actuals, including me. Staying clean just isn’t practical when you spend your time looking for food and running from monsters.
I headed up the street and walked until I came to a row of shops. A cupcake place caught my eye. The smart part of my brain told me that there weren’t any cupcakes inside. There was just no way. But my tongue was watering just looking at that cupcake on the sign. The dumb part of my brain was saying, “Dude, it’s cupcakes. There’s probably something in there. A couple of crumbs, some old frosting, whatever. Do it!”
As dumb as that part of my brain was, it made a lot of sense most the time, so I went inside armed with Chewy, a baseball bat with about a dozen big nails hammered through it. A couple whacks with that thing chewed just about anything all to hell.
As per usual, the place had been destroyed. There was broken glass all over the floor. A bunch of chairs were twisted into knots like pretzels. Tables were broken into pieces. Blood and all kinds of mess were all over the walls. It was just in a sorry, sorry state.
The display cases were all empty. There wasn’t even a hint of a cupcake. I moved to the register and made my way to the back, still listening to the dumb voice in my head. “Go on,” it said. “There’s like a secret stash back there or something.”
I didn’t call out for anybody because I was afraid somebody or something was going to answer in an unpleasant mood. I was skinny as a board, a condition brought on by living in a world that provided fewer and fewer people to eat every day. I’d never say so out loud, but I lacked any real power behind my bat swings. My best weapon was surprise. I stepped through that little shop like I was sneaking up on a bad situation.
I pushed the door to the small kitchen open as slowly as I could. My nerves nearly shattered when I heard the hinges moan. I flattened my back against the door and tightened my grip on Chewy. Small rays of dust-filled light carved their way through the darkness and turned the pitch black space to gray. I could see shapes, the sharp corners of a countertop, mixing bowls scattered here and there, an industrial-sized oven, everything you would need to make and bake sweet, delicious cupcakes.
That voice in my head said, “Cup-friggin-cakes, dude! In the oven! Guarantee it! They were popped in before the monsters tore this place apart. The timer was set. Monsters ate the employees. Oven automatically shut down when the timer hit double zero. Simple cupcake math!”
That stupid voice made so much sense it was insane. Of course there were cupcakes in the oven. Never mind that they’d been in there for like years or decades, however long ago the world had ended. There were cup-friggin-cakes to be had, and I was going to have them. Stale, hard as a rock, moldy, I didn’t care. They were cupcakes.
I stretched inside the kitchen and reached out with Chewy for a bag of flower that was on the floor near the counter. After several awkward seconds, I was able to bring the bag in close enough to reach down and scoot it by hand and place it in front of the door to prop it open.
When I stood back up, I got a head rush. Three small Tedtillas didn’t do much to fill me up and curb my appetite. I’d be strong as an ox if I could just get to those cupcakes that I was sure were in the oven. Gathering my strength, I moved inside the kitchen on unsteady feet. Chewy had become heavier in my hands, and I kept re-establishing my grip. I was going crazy with thoughts of cupcakes dancing in my head.
I reached the oven, wiped the sweat from my upper lip, and opened the thick door. The dim light didn’t allow for any visibility past the first three or four inches into the oven. I squinted and tried to will myself to see inside the dark pit, but my will couldn’t beat back the blackness. I huffed out a couple of nervous breaths and quickly reached my hand to the back of the oven. I frantically waved my arm around in order to quickly cover the interior terrain of the industrial appliance. Nothing.
I yanked my arm out and punched the door after pushing it shut. Not one lousy cupcake.
My heart jumped when the small amount of light disappeared and the door to the kitchen clicked shut. I twirled around and managed to lose my grip on Chewy. A startled breath filled my lungs as the wooden bat bounced on the ceramic floor.
I spoke for the first time. “Hello?”
Clearing my throat. “Is anyone there?”
Still no response.
“I’m with The Actuals,” I said, as if that mattered.
Just as I was about to let myself believe that the weight of the door had simply outdueled the bag of flour and slammed shut, I heard a crash over my head and then felt the sensation of a fine powder raining down on me. The bag struck me on the shoulder as I breathed in a cloud of flour and coughed. Unless the bag of flour had thrown itself at me, there was definitely something or someone in the room with me.
“I am number 17! Mess with me and the rest of The Actuals will hunt you down!”
A metal mixing bowl flew across the room, and I dropped to a knee. Chewy was back in my hands before another mixing bowl was hurled in my direction.
“What do you want?” I asked.
I blindly smacked the counter in front of me with Chewy. “I’m serious! Do not touch me!”
A grunt. Not a person.
“Ok…” I said slinking back into the darkness to the area past the oven. “So it’s going to be like that.”
I found myself in a small narrow hallway.
A series of chatters, like a rattle snake shaking its tail.
A false step sent me stumbling as I backed into a mop and bucket. I barely kept my feet.
More eerie chattering.
My elbow crashed into a doorknob. A numbing sting soared down to my fingertips. I shook my hand and cried, “I just wanted a cupcake!”
The door behind me opened, and I felt a hand grip the back of my collar and jerk me into a room. I heard the door shut as soon as I cleared the jamb. The dull light from outside poured through a tiny window, and I could make out a toilet and sink.
The hand that had pulled me inside the small room pushed me to the back wall. I turned with Chewy at the ready.
I saw a girl aiming a loaded crossbow at my chest. “Who are you?”
“Are you Sunshine Carter?”
I was too stunned to answer her. I stared at her face trying to place it. How did she know me?
“Answer me. Are you Sunshine Carter?”
She was pretty. At least I think she was. It was hard for me to tell. Hanging out with the Actuals as long as I had made just about everything ugly. I may have thought she was pretty just because I wasn’t surrounded by the other Actuals. “What if I am?”
“Then I won’t shoot this arrow through your eye.”
I snickered. “Well, then hell yeah, I’m Sunshine Carter. Who wants to know?”
She hesitated. “Prove it.”
“Prove what? That I’m Sunshine Carter? How the hell am I supposed to do that? I don’t exactly carry ID with me.”
A thud came at the door, but the girl didn’t react at all.
“Look, I’m Sunshine Carter. I swear. I’m from Fullerton… I mean… you know? When people used to be from places, that’s where I was from. My mom’s name was Carol…:
Another thud, louder.
I was rattled even though she wasn’t. “My pop’s was Carl. They were Carol and Carl Carter. They used to say that got married because they realized their names put together was a tongue twister. Nobody could say it three times fast. It’s like the lamest thing ever.”
“I don’t know your parents’ names. They didn’t tell me that.”
Another thud followed by the sound of the door cracking.
“C’mon! This isn’t a really good time for twenty questions.” I motioned with my head toward the window. “Whatever is out there is going to be in here soon. I say we crawl out that window. You can go first.”
“I just crawled in that window to get away from something worse than what’s behind that door.”
I muttered a swear word or two.
“Brush back your hair,” she said.
“Your bangs. Brush them back so I can see your forehead.”
I hesitated and then did as she requested.
She leaned in and studied my tattoo. Lowering her weapon, she said, “You’re him.”
I relaxed as much as I could with God knows what banging on the door.
She threw a fist into my nose.
“What the hell did you do that for?” I asked trying to stem the flow of blood.
“Because I know what you just ate, you disgusting pig!”
I tilted my head back. “You knew Ted?”
“Then why are you so mad?”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me? You just broke my nose!”
“I broke your nose because you’re a filthy cannibal!”
Another thud and the wood door splintered.
“Ok, it’s like cute and junk that you got some weird thing against cannibals, but we need to come up with some plan on how to get out of here.”
She rolled her eyes and whistled. The banging immediately stopped.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“Weird thing against cannibals? You are sick!”
I inched closer to the door. “Did it go away?”
“They have to have made a mistake. You cannot be the one I was supposed to find.”
She put her hand on the doorknob.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting out of this room! It’s way too small, and you smell putrid.” She pulled the door open.
“But the thing… It’s out there.”
She ignored me and exited the bathroom. I stood motionless waiting for her to be attacked by whatever was out there. Several seconds passed and there was no loud crashing noise or her screaming for her life. I focused my attention on Chewy and stared at the nails to draw courage from my trusty weapon’s iron teeth. After collecting enough nerve, I stepped into the small hallway.
“Hey! Girl! Where are you?”
I took a step and stopped when I heard the chattering. It was just behind me.
“It’s behind you,” the girl said standing near the kitchen door.
I nodded and said with a bone dry mouth, “Yeah, I kind of figured.”
She opened the door to exit the kitchen.
“Wait,” I said still afraid to move.
She groaned. “What for?”
“Aren’t you going to call this thing off?”
“Call it off? What makes you think I can do that?”
“Before when you whistled…”
“Okay, what if I can call it off? Why would I want to? You’re a disgusting cannibal.”
“Look, I don’t know what your problem is with cannibals…”
“The fact that you don’t know what my problem is concerns me even more.”
I felt a hot breath on the top of my head.
“O-o-okay, I’m sorry. It’s just what we do, you know. It’s like just food or whatever.”
She groaned again only louder. “No, it’s not like just food or whatever.” She turned to leave.
“Wait! Wait!” I felt my knees start to buckle. “You said somebody sent you here to find me. Right? You said that.”
“So, so, so, you can’t just let this… whatever it is eat me. You’re supposed to find me.”
She didn’t answer right away. I could barely make out her face in the dim light, but I could tell she was mulling over my point. “You’re puny.”
“I’m bigger than you.”
“You don’t seem that smart.”
“I can figure stuff out with enough time.”
“And you eat people.”
“Yeah, we’ve covered that. What’s your point?”
“My point is I just don’t see your value.”
I felt the thing behind me moving in closer.
“I-I-I have value. I mean I’m with The Actuals. They don’t just take anybody.”
She sighed. “Still… I was sent to find you, and they’ve never been wrong before.”
“Right-right… they’ve never been wrong before.”
“Shut up.” She smirked and then let out a whistle.
I felt the thing behind me step back.
“I’d hurry if I were you,” she said. “The whistle only keeps them away for a couple of minutes. I have no idea why.”
I took her advice and scrambled through the short hallway like my ass was on fire. I could hear her giggling at me as I pushed past her and fell into the back of the display case.
“You’re about as pathetic as I’ve ever seen,” she said.
I was too out of breath to argue with her.
“There’s a woman in your group?” she asked.
“There’s a couple.”
“This one’s name is Rook.”
I nodded. “Rook the Reader. What about her?”
“She carries a comic book around?”
I nodded again.
“I need it.”
I turned to her. “What?”
“I need the comic book.”
I stood up straight and stretched my back. “Why in the hell do you want her stupid comic book?”
“I have no idea. I was sent to find you because you have access to the comic book. Once it’s in my hands, I’m supposed to bring you and the comic book back with me.”
“Never heard of it.” I stiffened when I heard a noise from the kitchen. “Shouldn’t we get out of here?”
She pointed to the pane glass window at the front of the store. “Can’t.”
My heart pumped a little faster when I saw three skinless dead dudes staring back at me. Their lipless mouths were mindlessly opening and closing as they peered inside the shop with milky eyes. “I hate the skinner dead,” I said.
She snarled her lip. “Seriously?”
“Don’t you think that’s a tad hypocritical?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You both eat people.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! There’s a major difference. We like kill people. You know, humanely and junk. And then we cook the meat and organs for a proper meal.”
“A proper meal? Really?”
“Those things out there eat people alive. Tear their skin off. Munch their victims’ guts while their still kicking around.”
She shook her head. “Not seeing the difference, cannibal.”
One of the skinner dead slapped his hand against the glass.
“Okay,” I said, “whatever. What is it we’re supposed to do now? Fight through those things? I’m going to need a minute to gather my energy.”
“We’ll wait it out,” she said. “There are only a dozen or so of them out there. They’re not that great at figuring out how to open doors. Your group will draw their attention away soon enough.”
Another noise came from the kitchen.
“I think you’re forgetting about our other friend.”
She shook her head in disgust and opened the door. After letting out two short whistles, a baboon jumped out of the kitchen and into her arms. It bared its teeth at me. “Meet Mike.”
“A monkey? That’s what had me pissing my pants?”
“I can’t imagine it takes much to make you piss yourself.”
“Hey!” I said sticking my finger in her face.
Mike growled and snapped his jaws at me.
I quickly pulled back.
“He’ll rip your eyes out you do that again.”
I snickered. “You train your monkey to rip someone’s eyes out, and I’m the bad guy.”
“I didn’t train Mike to do anything. He’s his own monkey.”
“By the way, Mike is the dumbest name I’ve ever heard for a monkey.”
She smiled. “Thanks for your feedback, Sunshine.”
I groaned. I should have known better than to make fun of the monkey’s name. “What is it I’m supposed to call you?” I asked as I took a seat on the floor and leaned against the display case. A door to a small storage space at the bottom of the case dropped open and a Tupperware container fell out. I stared at it in disbelief. There was something inside. “Holy crap.”
The girl looked down. “What?”
I chocked back a tear. “A cupcake.” I could make it out through the slightly transparent top of the container. “Chocolate.”
Mike jumped from the girl’s arms and picked up the container. He looked at me with a sizeable grin.
“Put that down,” I demanded.
He slowly backed away on two feet never losing his grin.
“Tell him to put that down,” I said to the girl.
“I told you, he’s his own monkey. Besides that cupcake’s about a million years old.”
Mike gave out a hoot to taunt me and then bolted for the kitchen.
I motioned to stand, but fell back when I felt another head rush coming on.
The girl snorted out a laugh and said, “Milly.”
Woozy-headed, I asked, “What?”
“My name is Milly.”
I leaned back and took a deep breath. “Your monkey sucks, Milly.”
She walked to the other end of the display case and sat down. “He may suck, but he just saved you from throwing your guts up from eating that damn thing.”
“You don’t understand. I love cup-friggin-cakes.”
I looked at her. “You get it back from him, and I’ll split it with you.”
“Ewww. How about I don’t.”
“But it’s a cupcake.”
“As old as a fossil. You get me that comic book, and I’ll get you a cupcake. A fresh one. Right out of the oven.”
I furrowed my brow as I tried to absorb what she’d just said. “You’ve lost your mind. There’s no such thing as a fresh cupcake.”
“In New Buffalo there is.”
I waited for her to crack up and tell me she was kidding, but she never did. Finally I said, “Milly, I’m going to get you that comic book, and if it doesn’t lead me to a fresh cupcake, I’m going to eat you and your monkey Mike.”