nsync in black and white

Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

Thriller

written for Luxshine, MTYG 2015
with thanks to Sperrywink for the beta

“Did we eat all the popcorn?” Chris’s fingers found only unpopped kernels in the bottom of the bowl.

“Yep, all gone. You want another beer?”

Grumbling, Chris subsided into the couch next to Joey and accepted the beer which Joey, being a good boyfriend, had opened for him. There couldn’t be much more of this stupid film left, but movies should be accompanied by popcorn, and there was none in the bowl. Okay, he actually felt kinda full, but it was the principle of the thing.

“They’re not much of a threat,” Chris complained. He had no more popcorn to throw at the TV, but he could be rude about the movie. That was the true pleasure of watching them at home. “They move at, like, one mile an hour. A toddler could outrun them.”

“Only because these are old style zombies. Modern ones move faster. But the good guys like to run looking backwards over their shoulders,” Joey said, placidly. “That’s so they fall down and the zombies can catch them.”

Chris huffed. “The heroes in zombie movies are all morons, anyway. I mean, what’s the point running around with a baseball bat? That just means the zombie is, like, three feet away from you before you can take it out, plus, you have to hit it a bunch of times to do enough damage to make it stop. Screw the baseball bat, get me an axe. No, wait. Get me a flamethrower! Now, that’s drama! And,” he said, getting into his stride, “they’re all total wimps about beheading the zombies.”

“Eh,” said Joey. “That was his girlfriend, you know. Before she was zombified. And the other guy was his best friend.”

“Nah, you gotta be ruthless. The second that sucker starts talking about brains, take its head off. If they did that, they’d be out of trouble and heading for the coast in a stolen Jeep. But no, have to be squeamish and let the zombies win. I hate it when the heroes are morons.”

“So if I was a zombie, that’d be it?”

“Damn straight. You come shambling towards me with your entrails hanging out, it’s flamethrower time, baby! I mean, you wouldn’t want to live like that.” Chris sat back and drank his beer, satisfied that he had made his point.

“Okay. And if you get zombified, I promise I’ll do the same for you,” Joey said. “Now can we shut up and watch the rest of the movie?”

Chris thought quite seriously about arguing that it wasn’t worth it. If this one followed the pattern of the previous two—and it would—they were about due for a belated breakthrough in the art of anti-zombie warfare. But, Joey wanted to watch this crap, and Joey was going to be busy all next week, so Chris probably ought to be a good boyfriend and let him watch in peace.

He wriggled closer and let his head rest against Joey, and Joey’s heavy arm landed on Chris’s shoulders, and Chris grinned in the darkness. The second the credits started to roll, he would make Joey forget all about zombies.

“You know,” he said after a couple more minutes, and beside him, Joey sighed and thumbed the pause button. “The whole point of these movies is to be scary and gross and get people all excited. No, think about it, why do couples everywhere go to see horror movies and vampires and zombie stuff instead of, like, going to see romances?”

“Because guys are jerks who don’t watch chick flicks?”

“Because scary movies get people horny. The adrenaline starts flowing and then when the movie’s over, you have to do something with it and the best thing to do with it is sex.”

“You know the movie has to be over first,” Joey said, and restarted the dvd.

He had a point, Chris supposed.

*

Chris did not like Joey's Sunday rehearsals. Most weeks, they slept in on Sunday morning, had leisurely morning sex, rolled out of bed around lunchtime for a gigantic meal made of all the best things in life, and loafed all afternoon with the TV on. But the show was next week, so Joey was rehearsing today and after that, helping get the scenery set up at the theater, and then he was going back to his own place. Chris didn't begrudge the time Joey spent at the theater, he didn't. It was just a disruption to his life.

And he did not really mind sleeping alone. Joey didn't stay over every night, and Chris was okay with that, because he was more of a night owl than Joey, who actually had to get up every weekday and go to work, while Chris could set his own schedule. Which, okay, he made himself set the alarm five days a week so that he didn't waste half the day dozing, but he could skip shaving and work in his pajamas if he wanted, and mostly, he did want.

It was true that having Joey over meant Chris tended to get to bed earlier than when he was on his own, because when Joey looked at him—Joey had the sexiest eyes on the planet—Chris was always happy to take off his glasses, close his laptop and head upstairs. And since the rest of Joey lived up to the promise of his eyes... he usually fell asleep right off, after, and didn't lie in the dark worrying at his latest plot or fretting over his editor's comments. Yeah, Chris slept better with Joey's warm body beside him. Even in summer, when they had to throw off all the covers and just sleep under a sheet (because Chris’s air conditioning was crap and could not deal with the sultry heights of the Florida high season). Still, even when Chris had something on his mind, he didn't mind sleeping alone... he just preferred not to.

At any event there was no sense making a fuss about it. Joey only did two shows a year, it wasn’t a major imposition, and the shows were good. Well, the last one was good, Chris hadn’t seen any others. He and Joey had met at a Halloween party the weekend after last year’s autumn show, which Chris hadn’t even been aware of at the time. Chris wasn’t interested in musicals, but you had to go see your boyfriend when he was in a show, especially when he was playing the lead. And Joey was going to be awesome in this one. Little Shop of Horrors sounded way more Chris’s style than Kiss Me Kate, and Joey’d sung a couple of the songs to him, and he was going to kill it, he totally was.

So he gave Joey a big fat kiss goodbye and settled down to do some work. Checking the proofs was the most boring part of his job—not just his job, of his entire life, but it had to be done. It had to be done by Wednesday, in fact, because he was meeting his publisher on Wednesday. Checking the proofs would keep his mind focused so he didn’t have to think about that meeting.

*

Monday felt like normal. It was Joey’s final dress rehearsal tonight, but Chris never saw Joey Mondays. Hardly ever. Chris got back to work, promising himself a small reward after every chapter, coffee, a cookie, whatever. He made three trips to the little corner store on the next block, welcome breaks from the tedium, and he deserved chocolate, he seriously did. But, by the end of the day he was more than three quarters through the book, and righteously pleased with himself.

Chris wasn't good at the romantic shit, or the relationship stuff. He was a guy, and in Chris’s opinion, guys weren’t supposed to be good at those things. But he had put the date in his calendar back when Joey first told him about the show, and the reminder popped up on his laptop at noon on Tuesday, in good time for Chris to send a Break A Leg! text and earn himself some boyfriend points. He hoped. Joey didn’t need good luck, because Joey was born for this and he was going to be amazing. Chris was entirely confident of that, and he’d find out for sure Friday evening. Joey had said Fridays were usually the best night. Everybody would be at the top of their game, and not tired from a matinée like on Saturday night.

It was a pain, though, not having Joey here, especially tonight. Chris was kinda nervous about tomorrow. Lance had been cheerful, but Chris didn’t dare let himself count on this. He wanted it too much. One, that was all he should hope for. One. He forced himself to sit down with the synopses again to make sure he had not forgotten any detail of the three novels he had proposed. Maybe he was being a bit… maybe it was too—he wasn’t a beginner, he’d had two books published and another in the pipeline, but was it too much to expect his publisher to buy into an actual trilogy? Too soon? Should he just have pitched the first one and hoped they’d ask for the sequels?

Nothing he could do about it until tomorrow. Lance would help, he was sure. Lance was a gratifyingly enthusiastic agent, and a hell of a lot better than Chris at negotiating. Plus he was a great big romantic sap, which gave Chris many opportunities to mock, and Chris was exceptionally good at mockery.

Still. Even knowing there’d be someone in his corner wasn’t enough to quell the butterflies in his belly. Chris decided to feed them instead. At which point he discovered that he had run out of milk and cheese and—disaster!—bacon. And also bread. Right. Time for action. The store around the corner would be closed by now, so he’d have to walk a bit further. Damn, he missed his bike. That garage had better fix the carburettor soon.

Thank God for late-night supermarkets, Chris thought, browsing the aisles, and allowed himself to be tempted by the marked-down donuts. And the Nutella. And the peach pie. And—

It was Joey's ringtone, probably just in time to save Chris from death by sugar when he got home. Hastily, he shoved the chocolate muffins back on the shelf. "Hey, oh fabulous one! How's it going?"

It's good, it's good. Joey sounded more excited than tired. Not quite a sell-out tonight but there was a good house, and they definitely enjoyed the show. Of course, JC kept us there afterwards to go over the problems, he says just because we’re in performance already doesn’t mean we can’t improve. Half an hour of notes!

"So how come you aren't in bed asleep right now?"

Oh, you know how it is. Performance adrenaline. I watched three episodes of Castle when I got home and I’m still not ready to sleep. ’Sides, I am in bed. Thought I'd call for a little, you know. Stress relief.

Awkward, Chris thought. "Mmm. I'm in the evil Mart of Walls right now.”

Aww, man. At one thirty in the morning? I thought you’d be watching TV.

"Yeah, well, I didn't wanna starve to death," Chris retorted. “You know what, this place is creepy in the middle of the night. Everybody in here looks like they died and just didn't notice. There's two women who're definitely in their pajamas, and I think the old guy in the cereals aisle forgot to wear pants at all." He lowered his voice. "I may be the only person on the block with a functioning brain."

Be careful! That means you're tasty.

"What? Oh, right. Braaaains. I'm pretty sure I can outrun this lot."

Yeah, but can you outrun the security guard?

Chris snorted. "Have you ever seen a security guard you couldn't outrun?"

Okay, fair point. Joey sighed. Sounds like I'm going to have to finish my fantasies all by myself. Don't want the zombies to catch you off guard.

"Call me tomorrow night," Chris said, "and I promise I'll be home."

Should I call early to wake you? Otherwise you’ll be all out of synch and sleeping all day.

“Nah, I’ve got my alarm set for tomorrow. I have that meeting.”

Yeah, I remember. How are you feeling? Are you going to be a basket case when you get there?

“No, no. I’m good.” It was mostly true. “Although maybe you could call around ten, just to make sure I didn’t oversleep?” Chris was quite capable of rolling over and turning off his alarm without actually waking up. A backup could be useful.

Sure, I’ll do that. Wait a sec, I’ll put it on my calendar to call you. Okay, all done. Wait, isn’t your bike in the shop? How are you going to get there?

“No problem. The crosstown 434 bus goes right by Lance’s office.”

What time is the meeting?

“Midday.”

Right. Will ten o’clock be early enough? Did you check how long the bus takes?

“It’s fine. I get on the bus at five to eleven, ride for fifteen minutes then a three minute walk to Lance’s place, and he’ll probably have heart failure seeing me show up early. Do you like the orange juice with bits in or the smooth kind?”

The kind with bits. Okay. Well, um, break a leg tomorrow? Let me know how it goes.

“Call me after the show. I promise to be home.”

That’s my man.

*

Chris was more or less awake and brushing his teeth when Joey’s reminder call came, and out of the house in plenty of time to get the bus. He fidgeted at the bus stop and checked his watch three times, but the bus came on schedule—okay, a minute late—and he did his best to calm down.

Plenty of seats, oops, middle-aged woman staring, avoid, avoid! Middle-aged women on buses seemed to like giving Chris good advice, which he really did not need right now. Also, this one looked a bit out of it. Like she was maybe ill, or something. Feeling vaguely guilty, Chris decided he did not need to deal with gray-faced strangers, moved past her, and settled on the opposite side.

He noticed as he got off the bus that she was still there, slumped against the window, still (as far as he could tell) staring into space. Still none of his business, though.

Lance was full of smiles and mysterious chuckles, and refused to say why, but Chris was used to Lance being mysterious about business when he hadn’t got something definitive to say. Chris relaxed and let Lance run the meeting with Justin from the publisher’s office, and afterwards, full of joy and delicious and expensive lunch, very nearly skipped to the bus shelter across the street. It was a bit of a let-down to get back on the bus now that he was going to be rich, rich! but Chris was still trying to wrap his head around how well it had gone, and being brought down to earth could only help.

Surely that wasn’t the same woman slumped against the window?

Nah, couldn’t be.

Chris settled into his seat and pulled out his phone. No, Joey was at work. He’d save this to tell Joey later. He played Candy Crush until the bus reached his stop, and called in at the corner store for some fake champagne.

“They bought my trilogy!” It was the first time saying it out loud to another person—Chris had been saying it aloud in the solitude of his apartment all afternoon, but it was way more real saying it to Joey. “I’ll have the contract as soon as they finalize the dates, and the advances are amazing, and, fuck, it’s real, Joe. It’s real.”

Woo hoo! That is amazing! Chris, I’m so proud of you. Fantastic news!

“It really is. I can’t believe it was that easy. Of course, Lance was all, I got you the best deal, when we went back to his office after lunch and he poured the good bourbon for us to toast it. I mean, I guess he did, but I don’t even care, I just—they bought it, and I haven’t even written any of it yet! Fuck, I’m glad I finished the proofs yesterday. I don’t think I can do anything that boring right now.”

Joey chuckled. If I were there with you I’d be on my knees worshipping you, he said, meaningfully.

“Is that right? And exactly what would this worship look like?”

You’re the writer. You tell me. Tell me exactly what you want me to do.

*

Chris slept very well that night, woke up surprisingly early, and puttered about in the kitchen with a big grin on his face. He had a contract! Which meant, basically, that his publishers believed his books would sell. Sure, he told himself, the second one had been enough of a success that he’d given up his crappy job to write full-time, but he honestly had not expected the gamble to pay off this soon. If it hadn’t been for Joey encouraging him, he might not even have gone ahead, and that would’ve meant he’d still only be half way through Desperate Suns instead of ready to go, and he’d never have gotten the trilogy sold…

My life is perfect, he thought, coffee mug in hand. Except for not having Joey right here, right now, to make good on a few of last night’s promises.

Now, if Joey lived here permanently… no, not here, but somewhere?

Chris had not broached the matter of moving in together. While he was living in a tiny, crappy apartment and praying his advance would stretch until he sold the next book, it hadn’t seemed fair to ask Joey, with his regular salary and salesman’s commissions, to move into a run-down neighbourhood just for the sake of putting up with Chris’s eccentricities and providing regular sex. And he definitely wasn’t going to suggest moving in with Joey and freeloading.

But now… Now he could afford somewhere better. Now, he was going to be able to live in a nice place. They could get somewhere together that was way better than—maybe even buy a place together? A house, maybe. With a pool! Joey really wanted a pool. Would Joey agree to move in together if they could get a place with a pool?

Chris was going to have to give this some serious thought, and he contemplated what was increasingly looking like a great plan as he strolled along the block to get the newspaper. He did not need the newspaper. He ought to settle down with his laptop and a cup of coffee, and really work out how the new books were going to hang together, but… but walking to the corner store every day was a routine, and routine was a useful thing in the life of a full-time writer. With a contract! To write three books!

Behind the counter, Mr Bhuva had a huge white cotton pad stuck on his neck with band-aids. When Chris asked about it, the elderly store owner just shrugged.

“Some people get very angry,” he said.

“Fuck! Er, excuse me. But, were you stabbed?” Chris was outraged. Mr Bhuva was the sweetest guy on the block. To think that someone might—

“No, no! No, no, no, not at all, nothing like that. It’s just a scratch. Really, not important.”

“I hope you went to the hospital,” Chris said.

“Not necessary, not at all necessary. My wife washed it clean, you know, and put on the bandage. Everything is fine.”

“Well. Okay. But if they come in here again, you call the police, okay?”

Mr Bhuva shook his head gently and smiled. “People are so angry, these days. It will pass.”

Chris couldn’t think of anything useful to say to that, and he couldn’t very well offer to stand sentry or act as Mr Bhuva’s personal bodyguard, so he wished him well, paid for the paper and a packet of Skittles and went home to read the funnies.

As he exited the store, a middle-aged woman in a blue hat practically flattened him against the window. She was running like crazy, he’d never seen anyone that age move that fast, and from the glimpse he’d gotten of her face, she was really scared. Either a handbag snatcher or an abusive husband, Chris deduced, and looked down the street she’d come from, but couldn’t see anybody. He hung around for a few minutes, just in case. The man who’d frightened that woman was someone who needed to be stopped, in Chris’s opinion. But nobody seemed to be coming after her. There was a distant figure, two, three blocks away, but he definitely wasn’t chasing her, just shuffling along, and after a couple minutes Chris gave up and went home.

He read the paper. He ate the Skittles. He had coffee, two, three cups. He really needed to get to work. He had a contract, three books to deliver, he had dates and deadlines and everything.

He looked around. Fuck, this place was a mess. He needed to do something about that. Change the bedsheets, wash the dishes, put stuff away, vacuum everywhere.

The trouble was, Chris knew what his story was going to be. It was all there, in his head, awesome and glowing and perfect. Except for the titles, because titles always gave him trouble, and for now he was calling them Thriller, Killer and Splat! and he knew that there would be better titles eventually, after the agony of squeezing all the perfect, shining story down into actual words, after revisions and edits and more revisions, somewhere along the line there would be proper titles. There would be titles. Only he had to write the words first.

That was the terrifying part.

*

He couldn’t start writing on Friday morning. He had to catch two buses to get to the garage and reclaim his beloved motorbike. Shit, it was the snotty receptionist on the desk. She had him sit there and wait. The other receptionist, the sweet one, let him go out back and talk with the mechanics, but today there was nothing for him to do but gaze out the window, because the minute he sat down to play Candy Crush he remembered he’d left his phone on charge. Chris didn’t think much of the outdoors unless he was going through it at speed on his bike, so he was relieved when Andy came through and told him the bike was ready for him.

He went for a ride. Testing her out, he told himself, but lurking in his mind were the blank pages of Thriller waiting to be written. He’d do it. He knew what to do. He just had to let it all settle in his mind.

There were some cool houses out this way. Maybe some of them had pools? He was almost sure Joey’d be willing to get a place with him if it had a pool. Could they afford somewhere like this? He was going to have to start looking for a place. No, he should start writing. But Joey was important too! Chris was already fed up with spending his nights alone. Having Joey there every night would make it much easier to write. Probably.

He got to the theater early that evening, and found a prime spot to park his bike. The girl selling programs had been in the last show, he thought, at any rate she looked familiar, and he chatted with her for a few minutes before taking his program and heading into the bar for a Coke. The downside of riding the bike here. But he could have a beer when he got home.

Chris flicked through the Little Shop of Horrors program, stopping at the photo of Joey’s cheerful face to read the tongue-in-cheek biography. Then his eye was caught by an ad, a quarter page proclaiming that Kevin Richardson, Real Estate Agent, was eager for his business. It was a sign! Chris pulled out his phone and entered the details in his address book. He’d call first thing tomorrow.

The show was amazing! Joey was fantastic, but everyone up there on the stage was having a wonderful time. Chris was particularly entertained by The Dentist, who was perfectly balanced between hilarious and scary, and who also, as it happened, was incredibly good-looking in a way that set Chris’s pulse racing. The person singing the giant plant—Chris couldn’t decide if it was a guy or a gal, and the name in the program didn’t clarify—had a great voice, too, and the show was awesome. But Joey was the star of the show, most definitely, and Chris was incredibly proud of him. He whistled and stomped through the curtain calls, and his hands hurt by the time the house lights came up.

Joey had told him before now that the cast would only come out front when they’d taken off all their stage makeup and got back into normal clothes, and Chris remembered that the director had given them copious notes after the Tuesday show, so he was prepared to wait for as long as it took—he really wanted to see Joey. As it turned out, it wasn’t so very long before he spotted Joey emerging through a side door, but Joey was instantly surrounded by a whole bunch of people telling him how great he was, and it took quite a while for him to fight his way through to Chris.

“Hey,” Joey said. “Enjoy it?”

Chris nodded vigorously. “I knew you’d be good, but you were way better than I could’ve expected,” he said. “And it’s such a professional set-up. After the first five minutes I forgot I was watching amateurs.”

“That’s what we wanna hear,” Joey said. “It was a great audience tonight, too. Laughed in all the right places.”

“And screamed,” Chris added. “That Dentist song was awesome, only I am so damn glad I don’t have anything wrong with my teeth right now. Although if my dentist looked like that, I guess, anyway, um, listen, Joe—“

“Hey, Joey, you ready for pizza?” It was one of the girl trio. “We’re about to head out.”

“Oh… you know what,” Joey said, looking at Chris, “I don’t think I’m gonna make it after all. Haven’t seen my guy in a week.”

“Uh huh,” she said, knowingly. “I’ll tell the others you’re not coming. See you tomorrow!”

“You’re sure?” Chris said, as the trio girl made her way back towards the dressing rooms. “I mean, if it’s, like, part of the show, group tradition or something.…”

“Nah,” Joey said. “It’s semi-tradition, but it’s no big deal, because we have the cast party tomorrow after we break the set, and I can get pizza any time. Except not at midnight, which it will be by the time everyone gets their order, because it gives me heartburn. And I eat too much junk food during a show anyway.”

Chris did not believe in the concept of ‘too much junk food’, but he was too delighted that Joey was coming home with him to voice any objections. “I brought the bike,” he said. “You wanna ride or do you have your car?” Joey did have his car, but they negotiated a ride back to the theater in time for tomorrow’s matinée, and Chris handed him the spare helmet.

As he drove slowly out of the small parking lot, Chris noticed three shambling shapes lurching along the sidewalk. There was something really off about the way they were moving, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. He remarked on the oddness when they got home, but Joey hadn’t seen anything weird, and was way more interested in kissing Chris, and groping him out of his leathers, and urging him into his tidy bedroom and between those fresh sheets.

*

“Oh, yeah. This is the life,” Chris said, waking up to the scent of coffee, and Joey’s grin. “What time is it?”

“Just after ten.”

“Mmm. Okay. I guess I have to get the day started. After I finish my coffee, I mean. What time do you need to get to the theater? You have a matinée, right?”

“Not for three hours,” Joey said. “I thought you could tell me what's going on with you, and then maybe I'll give you a blowjob and you can give me one and then we'll go get some brunch and you can drop me off at the theater after. How's that sound?"

"Sounds good." Aside from the part where he had to admit that he had written not one word of his Thriller novel and had been upgrading his procrastination skills to expert level. “Could we maybe skip straight to the blowjob part? I’m definitely awake now.”

Joey eyed him suspiciously, but hey, Joey wouldn’t appreciate hearing about the epic vacuuming or the brief expeditions to obtain sustenance from the corner store. “It’s boring talking about writing,” Chris said, firmly. “You’ll have to wait until I’ve written it, then you can read it for yourself. And there’s a long way to go—it’s not like I can write a novel in a week, even without a sexy boyfriend to distract me.” He parked the mostly-empty mug back on the bedside table, and leaned forward. “But since you haven’t been here all week, I must be overdue for some serious distraction.”

“Short memory,” Joey muttered, but he was grinning already, and swooping in for the kiss.

There was an old-fashioned diner not far from the theater, where they ate pancakes and bacon and eggs and Joey told Chris about some funny things that happened during the run so far, and talked about the other members of the cast and how great everyone was and how much fun they were all having and how it was gonna be real difficult to find a show that was going to live up to this one. “We’re doing The Music Man for our next show. I’m not sure if I should try out for the lead or be one of the quartet.”

“The lead. You have great stage presence,” Chris said without hesitation. Something through the window behind Joey’s shoulder caught his eye. “Hey, what’s going on over there?”

Across the street, a black van had pulled up and three figures encased in hazmat suits emerged from it and ran up to the front door of a nondescript house. Joey, whose back was to the window, made a big production out of turning around and of course, by the time he was looking the right way, there was nothing to see, only the anonymous black van at the side of the road. Joey turned back and looked questioningly at Chris.

“It looked like they were wearing protective gear,” Chris said. “That’s weird, right?”

Joey shook his head. “I guess. Whatever. Is there a news crew out there with cameras?” Chris shook his head. “Then it’s probably nothing. Look, I should go. I’ll walk from here.”

“Will I see you tomorrow?” Chris sounded a little needier than he’d meant to.

“I’m probably going to be sleeping off a hangover tomorrow,” Joey said with a grin. “Be a very late night tonight, we have to get everything cleared out of the theater, and then there’s the party—I’ll probably just wake up to shower and put out a clean shirt for Monday. You could come to my place Monday night, if you want?”

So they agreed on that, and Joey slapped a couple of bills down on the table and went out. As he passed by the black van, he waved back at Chris and shrugged his shoulders. Chris watched until Joey was out of sight around the corner, and picked up the check to see what was left to pay. A moment later, his eye was caught by movement across the road, and he was startled to see the three hazmatted figures bundling someone into the back of their van, then getting into it and roaring off in a hurry. A forlorn housewife was standing in front of the house, and after a few moments she trudged back indoors.

It wasn’t that weird, was it?

Nah.

Chris remembered something he had to do, pulled out his cellphone, dialed the number for Kevin Richardson, Real Estate Agent, and left a voice message asking for an appointment. About twenty minutes later, Kevin Richardson, Real Estate Agent, called him back.

There. Now he had something to think about instead of random incidents on the street that couldn’t possibly be important. He was going to go see the real estate guy on Monday, and the real estate guy was going to find the perfect house, and Chris would show it to Joey and Joey would be delighted and then they’d buy it and move in together. And that would be awesome.

Hell, it was worth a try.

Back in his tiny apartment, he opened up his laptop and checked his email. Read a couple of favourite blogs, and allowed himself to follow links until he ended up, inevitably, watching kittens on YouTube.

Okay. He powered up Scrivener and opened the synopsis for Thriller.

He really needed coffee before he tackled this. And probably chocolate.

So he headed along to the corner store and prowled around, trying to look like a man with a higher purpose than candy.

Mr Bhuva was not in his usual place behind the counter, but his teenage son was cleaning the glass front of one of the chilled cabinets—was that blood? Chris couldn’t be sure, and the guy, what was his name, Girish? wiped it clean before Chris could be certain that he’d seen a bloodied handprint. It had looked like a handprint. But of course it couldn’t have been a handprint. Or maybe it was food colouring, or there had been a ketchup explosion.

He selected the day’s candy bar and went to the counter. Girish arrived to take his money, and Chris enquired whether Mr Bhuva was okay.

“My father is fine,” Girish said, curtly.

“Oh, good. I was just—he had that scratch, on his neck, and I thought maybe—“

“My father is fine.”

“—it got infected, or something?”

“My father is fine. There is no problem at all.”

“Okay. Right. Er, tell him I said hi.”

There was a thump from the back of the store, and Girish tensed. “I will tell him. Was there something else?”

“No, no.” Chris was a little bit worried about the thumping, a slow, solid rhythm as though somebody were trying to get through the wall.

“Thank you for your custom. Goodbye.”

Chris was conscious of Girish’s eyes upon him as he made his way to the door. He was glad to be out. It was probably, he thought, the memory of figures in hazmat suits this morning that was getting under his skin. Was it possible there was some kind of infectious disease in the city that the authorities hadn’t told anyone about?

Nah. Chris liked conspiracy theories as much as the next guy, but it didn’t seem very likely.

Odd, though.

He got back to his flat, sat down at his computer and began to expand the synopsis.

*

The ideas that had fizzed in his head yesterday afternoon and evening were still there, just waiting for him to sit down and get them out through his fingers onto the screen, and Chris wrote until he realized he was hungry, at which point the words seemed to dry up. Okay, then.

He made himself a bacon sandwich and decided to go get the Sunday paper. It would be a break, and he had done enough to deserve one. Later, he could go back over what he’d written, polish it up a little, and that’d get him started again. Or he could make some more notes. The story was burgeoning nicely, and he should probably get the scenes in order.

Chris felt a strange reluctance to go back to the corner store, so, telling himself that he needed a walk, he set off in the opposite direction, towards the little plaza of local shops. It was a nice day, not too sticky, and in the sunshine he could look at yesterday’s worries and laugh. He sauntered, and thought about texting Joey to tell him to get out and enjoy some fresh air, but Joey was probably still hung over and asleep, and it wouldn’t be fair.

There were three high school age kids chasing pigeons in the square. Chris stared at them. They weren’t very good at it. He didn’t expect them to actually catch pigeons, but the way they were shuffling jerkily towards random birds, they didn’t have a hope. As he watched, one turned his head slowly towards Chris, slowly, as though it were ratcheting around. Then the other two were staring at him, their eyes like black holes under the shadow of their baseball caps. He hurried into the store for the paper, and was glad to have to get in line. Maybe the kids would be gone when he got out.

They were gone—no, they weren’t gone, they were sitting by the water fountain on the far side of the plaza. Chris tried not to look at them—didn’t want to catch anybody’s eye. But he saw, or thought he saw, something small and red on the ground in front of them, and holy crap did one of them have feathers in his mouth?

He got himself home and sat right down at his laptop. The words were flowing, he had to write.

*

Chris slept rather badly, but nonetheless felt better in the morning and less inclined to believe in bizarre events that must have perfectly rational explanations. He was glad to have the appointment with Kevin Richardson this afternoon, it would give him something else to think about.

Meanwhile, he was on a roll with Thriller. Although he had a feeling he was going to have to make his hero a woman. It’d feed into the themes of vulnerability and misperception that he was noticing in the work, and he hadn’t gotten far enough that there’d be a lot of rewriting, not yet. He spent much of the morning playing around with the idea, rewriting scenes to see if they worked, and trying to get a clear mental picture of who Diz really was.

So off he went on his bike to the real estate agent’s office, and was greeted by an unexpectedly familiar face.

“Fuck me!” he said, astonished. Kevin Richardson raised mildly surprised eyebrows. “No, I mean—you’re the Dentist!” Chris said.

Kevin Richardson grinned. “You saw the show!”

“I did! Friday night. It was great. You were really good, or maybe I mean, really evil? That song was brilliant.”

“It was a great role,” the real estate agent said. “Haven’t had that much fun in I don’t know how long. How did you get to hear about our show?”

“Oh, I’m—I’m with, uh, I’m with Joey. Fatone.” Chris hoped all of Joey’s cast members knew about him. He didn’t think Joey would have kept quiet about being in a relationship with a guy, but if he’d just outed his boyfriend by mistake he could be in real trouble.

“You’re Chris! You’re a writer, isn’t that right? I have one of your books. Joey was quite evangelical about it when it came out.”

“Oh. Wow. Cool.” Chris didn’t quite know what to do now. “Uh, thanks for reading, I guess.”

“I haven’t actually read it yet,” Kevin said, apologetically. “It’s next up on my reading pile. If I’d known I’d be meeting the author I’d have read it sooner.”

“Don’t worry about it. I don’t really know how to deal with people who’ve read my stuff. I mean, it’s great, but I—you know.” Ack. Presumably Kevin Richardson did not know, although why should Chris assume that someone who was a Real Estate Agent in everyday life was not also writing novels in his spare time? Maybe he had a secret identity and wrote a best-seller every year, maybe—

“So. When we spoke at the weekend you said you were on the lookout for a house; did you have anything particular in mind? Is there a listing you saw that you were interested in?”

So Chris had to explain that he wanted to find a great house for himself and Joey, that it had to have a pool, but that otherwise he was pretty much open to suggestions. “And, um, please don’t mention this to him,” he said. “It’s not something we talked about yet, I’m kinda hoping to surprise him.”

“Okay,” Kevin said, sounding dubious. “So, let me run off some details for you and you can take a look and let me know which ones you might be interested in seeing. Do you know how much you want to spend on a house? Have you got financing in place? I could help with that, if you need me to.”

“Er.” Chris had to admit that he hadn’t a very clear idea of the budget, because he didn’t know what Joey earned, and he explained about the advance and how his own income was settled for the next five years, and Kevin made some notes and said he would make a few educated guesses and see what he could come up with.

Apparently there wasn’t a lot of precedent for people house hunting without knowing what they could afford to spend, but Kevin seemed like a good guy and Chris was fairly confident he could trust him to help with the search. And not tell Joey. When they’d found a great place, with a pool, then he could take Joey to see it and they could figure out if it was the right place for them. Together. If Joey wanted to. The pool would help. Chris left the office clutching a fistful of papers and feeling quite optimistic.

Across the street was an ambulance, and two men in green uniforms were trundling a gurney on which lay a zipped black bag. As they moved to open the rear doors, the body bag moved holy crap holy crap it moved!

Chris revved up his bike and shot away like a bat out of hell. He was half-way home before he remembered he was going to stay over at Joey’s apartment tonight, and turned around.

His heart was still beating in double time when he arrived at Joey’s place and stashed the motorbike. Should he tell Joey? Joey would probably tell him he must have imagined it, and maybe Joey was right. Because it couldn’t have happened. He pressed the intercom, and was buzzed inside.

“Door’s open,” Joey called when he knocked, and Chris went through. Joey was already changed out of his suit and loafing in front of the TV. Onscreen were uniformed police on a very familiar street, wasn’t that the corner store where—but Joey flicked carelessly on to the next channel and waved for Chris to come share the couch.

“Could you change—“ Chris began, but Joey pulled him in for a very thorough kiss, and when eventually they separated and Chris grabbed the remote, he couldn’t find whatever channel the item had been on. “Did you see, I thought I saw, wasn’t that—no, never mind.” It was an ordinary street, there were identical streets all across America, and corner stores too. Joey would think he was losing his mind.

“Hungry?”

Joey had made spaghetti, and Joey’s meat sauce was the food of the gods. Joey’s mother, whom Chris practically worshipped, had taught him serious kitchen skills. They ate, and were content.

“I dunno if I should ask, but how’s the writing going?”

“It’s good. I’m on a roll,” Chris said, eagerly. “I had this great idea, turning Diz into a woman—did I tell you about Diz? He—she, I mean, is the one who finds the first Stone and gets sucked into the whole investigation and I figured out that the peril is gonna be heightened by making her a woman, only I have to make sure I don’t go too far and make her tiny and fragile because she’s gonna have some tough stuff to get through. But not, like, Lara Croft either. Competent, you know? Anyway. Yeah. I’ve gotten a lot down, you’d be impressed. I’m impressed, honestly. I mean, it’s kind of intimidating, having a whole trilogy to write. I know I already wrote the synopsis, but that was just, like, bones. Now I have to put on flesh and skin and eyelashes.” He was beginning to worry himself again.

“You know you can do it. You already wrote three books.”

“Yeah, but, that was three different stories. Three stories of a hundred thousand words each is way easier than one story that’s three hundred thousand.”

Joey whistled. “Man, that sounds like a lot of words!”

Chris nodded. “It’s kind of a big deal.”

“But you’re working on it. That’s good. That’s great. Like you said, nobody writes a whole novel in a week. You’ve gotten started, that’s what counts.”

“Yeah, but only—“ because I don’t want to think about what might be happening outside, Chris thought, guiltily.

“Hey,” Joey said. “None of that. You can do it.”

Chris snuggled closer, and Joey’s arm was comfortable around his shoulders. Joey was being a good boyfriend, a great boyfriend, and while he was here with Joey, it was easy to believe that everything was fine. Joey thought Chris was doubting his ability to write. And maybe he had been, but that wasn’t the problem now. His story was fine. He was writing, it was good, it was absorbing, he was putting everything into it. It was the world outside that was scary.

“D’you wanna come back to my place tomorrow?” Chris said. “My cooking’s not up to yours, but at least you won’t have to fix your own dinner.”

“That’s the thing. I have to be away for a couple of days,” Joey said. “Tomorrow and Wednesday night, I’ll be back Thursday. Somebody in the Miami office quit, so they’re sending us all out on some extra calls.”

“Okay,” Chris said.

“I’ll come over Thursday night.”

“Cool.” Damn. Damn. But it would give him a chance to look through those listings, Chris realized, and felt better.

*

He stocked up with candy while he was still in Joey’s neighbourhood, rode the bike home, and spent all of Tuesday holed up in his apartment and either looking at the house listings or working on Thriller. He was going to have to do something about that title. Maybe something involving being dizzy? Diz as a name seemed to have stuck in his head, and she was really coming to life now. He’d let the ideas knock around in his brain for a while.

There were three houses he thought might work, so he called Kevin to set up viewings.

*

Kevin called back on Wednesday morning with a couple of appointments. The first was for Thursday evening; Chris decided he could figure out some excuse to tell Joey so that he could go see it alone. If it looked like the right place, that’d be the time to set in motion his plan of asking Joey to move in with him.

Meanwhile, he had run out of milk.

Okay, so things had been a little weird at the corner store last time. No reason to be stupid about it, Chris told himself, and headed along the block anyway.

The place looked unusually messy, there were papers scattered on the sidewalk and some fruit had rolled out of the display. Maybe Mr Bhuva was still sick, Chris concluded. Mr Bhuva always kept the place neat. He checked the register, but there was nobody behind the counter, and from further inside the store he could hear someone arguing. Cautiously, Chris sneaked a glance around the tinned goods. It was Girish and his mother, and he caught odd phrases. Can’t let anyone see, and, but he’s your father, and, keep him locked in back. Poor Mr B. This did not sound good.

He picked up a carton of milk and some cookies, but there was someone standing immobile in front of the stack of newspapers, a man in a pink T-shirt who took no notice at all of Chris’s approach.

“Excuse me,” he said, and reached towards the papers. The man turned jerkily towards him, and, crap, his T-shirt was all red and sticky at the front, and his face was weirdly gray, and his eyes, his eyes were milky and strange in their deep purple sockets. The gray stranger opened his mouth as if to speak, but only labored breath sounds came out, and Chris was so unnerved he leapt backwards and practically ran around the next aisle, slapped a ten dollar bill down on the counter and got himself back to his apartment in short order.

He felt somewhat ashamed of himself when his heart stopped hammering. He should have done something. Like what? Like… like made sure Mrs Bhuva and Girish were okay. Maybe he should go back.

He was not going back.

But he could call. He looked up the store’s phone number online. “C’mon, answer,” he muttered as it rang.

Slightly to his surprise, somebody picked up. “Er, it’s Chris Kirkpatrick,” he said. “I was just in the store, I left ten dollars, wanted to make sure you got it.”

Oh, yes, my son said he had seen you leave money. That is fine, thank you.

“Mrs Bhuva, I was just wondering, is everything okay?”

Perfectly fine. Everything is fine here. Why do you ask?

“There was a guy, he looked like, he looked like he might be ill,” Chris began.

Oh, yes, how nice of you to call. Everything is fine. We have called for an ambulance. The gentleman is very sick, but the ambulance is here and they will take good care of him.

“Oh, right. That’s good. I hope he’s okay.”

Everything will be fine.

So that was that.

*

After a really bad night, Chris found it hard to settle back to his work. He kept yawning, and industrial waste grade coffee did not seem to be helping.

What did help, he found, was scouring his entire apartment until he found the hockey stick he’d had in high school, back when his dreams included the possibility of NHL stardom as well as being a published author and dating Gwen Stefani. One out of three (so far) wasn’t bad. The hockey stick looked like it might be a serviceable weapon. He swung it a few times, and it whizzed satisfyingly through the air. Not that there was room to swing a hockey stick in this apartment, he wanted a house to live in, to share with Joey. Preferably on the far side of town.

At this entirely appropriate moment, Kevin Richardson called to ask Chris if he’d mind changing this evening’s viewing to late Saturday afternoon. The owner had something come up, he has to stay home tonight. Still, I think it’ll be better to look at the place in daylight. You’ll get a better picture of the pool that way. I know a pool is important to you.

“Saturday’s fine.” He’d still have to make an excuse to Joey, but at least he wouldn’t have to leave the apartment today. Chris was well defended, everything that could be locked was locked, and he had no intention of opening the door to anyone except his boyfriend tonight.

Please, he prayed to himself, let this house be perfect. I really wanna move.

He got his head down after that and was making good progress on the revised and revitalized Diz story. Breaks for coffee were still allowable, and settling back at his keyboard with fresh brew he noticed he had email. It was from Lance, asking if Chris would mind coming over to the office to sign some stuff.

I’m in New York right now, with Justin, and we’ve agreed on the publishing schedule. I’ve emailed you the details, I don’t think there’s anything in there that’s a problem, though of course you should double check. So it just needs your signature. I’m flying back Saturday morning, can you come over around three?

Chris was somewhat surprised that Lance was not planning on staying in the Big Apple for the weekend, particularly with the lure of Justin as an incentive. He had noticed those two eyeing each other over his celebratory lunch, and if he had been able to stop smiling and think of a smartass remark or two he would have done his best to make them blush. Heh. Anyway, Saturday afternoon would fit quite nicely with his plans to view the house with the pool, and going to Lance’s place would give him cover with Joey. Chris fired off a quick email, and got back to his story. He could get in a couple of hours of work and then start fixing dinner.

He was peeling potatoes and had Blitzkrieg Bop playing at top volume when the phone rang. He got to it just before the voicemail kicked in, and shuffled over to mute the computer so he could hear Joey’s voice.

I’m really sorry… There was a prolonged and ghastly gurgling.

“Geez, Joe, what happened to you?”

Not sure, think I got the virus of doom. Joey’s voice was unusually fragile. I gotta wimp out, Chris, I’m sorry. I’m—another phlegmy episode. Chris waited it out, grimacing. I’m gonna go to bed and die.

“Whisky and honey,” Chris recommended. “Do you want me to come over and, I dunno, make chicken soup or something?”

Nah. I’m just gonna crash. I’ll call you. Saturday.

“Yeah. You sound like you should be in bed.”

Well, fuck. Or, no fucking for you tonight, Kirkpatrick, a more accurate assessment of the situation. Chris looked disconsolately at the pile of potatoes. No point doing the rest, he’d never eat that much mashed potato on his own. Maybe he should get pizza delivered—no! No, he should not. He hadn’t actually seen the pizza delivery guy being—being—looking sick, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

He should fry his share of the chicken, like he planned. Instead, he fried all the chicken, telling himself he deserved compensation for having no warm, comforting boyfriend to snuggle with. He ate it without pleasure and watched TV on his own, surfing the news channels with the comforter tucked around him like a fortress, and fell asleep on the couch so that he woke up at four the next morning feeling like death. But not actually dead, so he dragged himself to his bed and didn’t wake up again until noon.

*

Damn, he should not have eaten all the chicken yesterday. There was nothing in the house to eat, because breakfast used up the last slices of bread and the eggs, and nobody could make a meal out of an onion and three chocolate chip cookies. It was impossible to settle back to his novel, because lurking in his mind was the prospect of having to go back to the corner store and buy some supplies. Why had he spent so much time writing? He could have gone to Walmart days ago and bought enough for a siege!

By four thirty, he knew he had to go now. Wait much longer and it would be dark, and screw that. He summoned all his determination and went downstairs for the bike. No way was he walking anywhere.

There didn’t seem to be any zom—any weirdos in the supermarket today, which was downright unnatural, he told himself darkly. The relentless fluorescent lights were comforting, and he paced along the aisles with determination, careful to buy no more than would fit into his backpack. Couldn’t take a carrier bag on the bike.

He saw them as he was leaving. On the verge, under the trees, a group of four, five? There was something lying on the grass between them, something lying very still, and they seemed to be pulling stuff from it. Out of it. Long wet pink tubes that dripped red.

He would have earned a bunch of speeding tickets on the way home had there been any police around. He stashed the bike and padlocked it with trembling fingers, pelted up the stairs and barricaded himself inside. Three minutes later, the supplies were all in the refrigerator or on the shelves of his tiny kitchen, and Chris had clarified the next scene in his head and was eager to get it all down.

And not to think about… other stuff.

*

Chris would very, very much have liked a reassuring hug and a promise that there was a simple explanation for the things he had been seeing. But his call went to Joey’s voicemail, so Joey was still sick.

Lance was sensible. Lance would… okay, he’d probably laugh when he heard Chris’s story, but if there was something weird going on, Lance would know, because he always knew what was going on. He’d even known more about what was going on with the Dolphins than Chris did. Lance would be able to clear this up.

Feeling just a little bit silly, and also reassured, Chris tethered his hockey stick to the bike, checked that he had the address for the house visit in his pocket—no sense coming back here after seeing Lance—and set off. He scanned warily for zo—for people acting weirdly, and noticed the corner store’s shutters were closed. There was mess scattered all across the sidewalk outside, and a figure in a pink T-shirt sitting amidst the chaos eating… something.

He had to find a house.

Even though it was Saturday, Chris expected to see Lance’s assistant Lisa at her desk as usual when he pushed open the door, but there was nobody around when he called out a hello. It looked like she might have left in a hurry last night: the desk phone was off the hook, the receiver lying in the middle of the desk, and Lisa’s chair was overturned. Chris righted it and replaced the handset, shrugged, and headed up the stairs to Lance’s office floor. Lance lived above the office, right at the top of the building, so going to work on a Saturday wasn’t as much of an imposition as it might have been.

Something was wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. The place was wrecked, papers everywhere, pictures hanging drunkenly, the trashcan spilling out over the carpet, and Lance’s precious shelf of photos and sailing trophies swept clean. Fuck! A burglar? Had Lance’s place been turned over while he was in New York?

Chris edged forward to see whether the desk drawers had been violated, and yelped in dismay as he saw a foot, Lance’s foot, and then Lance’s legs, and oh fuck oh fuck all of Lance, lying prone with his left cheek resting in a scarlet pool and his favourite trophy, the one that looked like a silver sail, embedded in his back. There was a dark stain on his blue suit coat. Shaking, Chris scrabbled for his phone. It was too late to help Lance but at least he could call—

Chris screamed. On the floor, Lance’s head turned impossibly towards him. His eyes opened, and they were pale, glazed, dead eyes, but they were staring at Chris. And his body cranked upwards, bending his spine as no living spine could bend and—

Chris was out of there and down the stairs without his feet even seeming to touch the steps. He leaped onto the bike and tore out of the parking lot and on, straight on, anywhere but here.

Eventually, there was a lake. He stopped the bike, trembling, and groped for his phone. He’d keep trying until Joey answered. He should call the police, too, and—he couldn’t find his phone.

He’d dropped it in Lance’s office. When zombie Lance had started moving.

So that was that.

He stood there numbly for a while, wondering what the hell to do now. I want Joey, he thought, and the desire for Joey’s warm, comforting presence and his laugh and his common sense became overwhelming, so Chris got back on his bike and set off at a sedate pace the way he had come. He bore left before he got anywhere near Lance’s neighbourhood and went straight to Joey’s apartment building, but although he leaned on the button for ages, Joey didn’t buzz him in, and there was nobody going in or out so no chance of being let through.

Chris really wanted Joey.

But twenty minutes outside Joey’s apartment convinced him that Joey was still sick in there, and maybe he should let Joey sleep. Telling him about Lance right now would just make him feel worse. Joey had met Lance a couple times and liked him. Chris shouldn’t tell Joey what happened, not while Joey was too sick to get out of bed.

Eventually it occurred to him to wonder what time it was. To Chris’s amazement, it was a quarter to five. “Don’t know why I’m surprised,” he muttered to himself. “Could be any time.” It occurred to him that he was supposed to be somewhere at five o’clock, and after a bit of thought he remembered where. The paper with the address on was still in his pocket—why couldn’t he have lost that, instead of the phone? He had no enthusiasm for viewing a house right now, but, he supposed, he had to be somewhere, and he wasn’t ready to go back to his apartment, and it would be rude not to let Kevin Richardson know he wasn’t going to turn up. So he started the bike up again and made his way towards the house with the pool. Maybe it’d be perfect. And he could come back and try Joey’s buzzer again later.

He found a driveway with a little sign at the end, so he knew it was the right number, but he couldn’t see the house at all, the driveway led off into the trees. He drove slowly along and began to relax, just a little bit. As his shoulders retreated from his ears, Chris found he was thinking how nice it would be to live somewhere with trees instead of concrete. Somewhere that was right across the city from his current apartment and from Lance’s place. Although he was beginning to think about moving to a whole other state. Like California. Or Hawaii.

The house at the end of the driveway was beautiful, and most likely way over his price range. There was a car, but otherwise no sign of Kevin Richardson. Chris hesitated, and checked his watch. He was ten minutes overdue, but nobody worth his commission would have left already, and besides, car. So he knocked on the front door. Nobody answered.

It was a little bit odd that the real estate agent wouldn’t be onto him at once, eager to sell him something, but in the total horrific wrongness of the rest of his day it didn’t really count. Chris should go around back. Still, and feeling just a bit silly, he untied the hockey stick from the bike and took it with him, swinging it casually as if to say, hockey stick? Me? Oh, this old thing.

There was a glint of movement. “Hi! Sorry I’m late,” he called, and advanced more quickly. Ah, there was the pool, and what a beauty! Joey would love it. Kevin was standing over the far side wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap, and Chris waved cheerfully, then stopped dead. Under the brim of his cap, Kevin’s eyes were dark, unfathomable holes.

Behind him, something shuffled. Chris’s heart sank like concrete in a swimming pool and he turned, very slowly, and yes. Zombies. Lots of them. More were appearing from the trees and from inside the house, surrounding the pool. Cutting off his retreat.

For the first time in his life, Chris wished he owned a gun.

The zombies were shambling towards him. He couldn’t see a gap big enough to run through. No escape, no way out. There was the one in the pink T-shirt with the blood on it. Over there, that was—or had been—Mr Bhuva, and his wife and son, their faces ashen and blank. And—no. No, no, no!

Joey was moving jerkily forward. His eyes were milky, his face gray and bloody, one cheek ripped open and dangling, and there was blood all over his belly and a trailing mass of glistening intestines. Not Joey, not Joey!

Flamethrower time, Chris remembered saying, you come shambling towards me with your entrails hanging out, it’s flamethrower time, but he’d been wrong, because he couldn’t imagine even hitting Joey with the hockey stick, or, or a poolside chair, he’d never have been able to shoot him or toast him with a flamethrower, not even like this. Not his precious Joey. Oh, Joey.

The zombies advanced in eerie silence. Chris clutched his stick and tried not to shake apart. He could probably take one or two of them before they got to him.

There was a tremendous blast of noise, and the zombies stopped moving. Then, and this was possibly even more terrifying, they all moved in exact unison towards him, four deliberate paces, and… then backwards? Then forwards again, four steps, then back, and Chris’s petrified brain managed to process the sounds coming from the house, and it was Michael Jackson, it was Thriller, and the zombies… were doing the Thriller dance?

What. The. Fuck???

He stared. Most of them were glassy-eyed (though not milky eyed, a part of him noticed) but there in the crowd, Lance—gah! Lance with a severed and bloody cock sticking out of his trousers, geez, that was gross!—Lance was grinning as he went through the steps, his teeth white and clean against their scarlet surround, and Chris began to think his thundering heartbeat might get to keep thumping after all.

He couldn’t quite get his legs to move, but his eyes returned to Joey, and Joey’s mouth twitched, and Joey broke into a totally Joey grin, and somehow everything was all right. Relief flooded through Chris like Niagara, because Joey was okay, Joey was alive, Joey was—Joey was—“You fucker!” Chris yelled. “You total—augh!” Joey had done this! He didn’t know how, but this was Joey’s doing, and Chris was totally going to kill him, Chris had been so fucking scared, he was going to—

Joey stepped forward and pulled Chris into a hug, and even with the dangling entrails, ew, Joey was definitely still Joey. Chris hung on tight and felt Joey’s belly quake with laughter, the fucker, but he didn’t care because Joey was okay, Joey was here, and everything was going to be fine.

The song ended and Joey’s arms loosened. “One, two, three,” Joey shouted, and “Happy Birthday!” came back in a deafening shout from the zombie horde.

*

Inside the house—which turned out to be Kevin Richardson’s home—and fortified by beer and pizza, sauce-sticky sausages and finger food (actually shaped like fingers) dipped in ‘brains’, Chris interrogated Joey on how the hell he had managed to set up such a terrifying scenario.

“What you have to remember,” Kevin said, overhearing, “is that you’re dealing with a bunch of actors.”

“There are enough people in the theater group who don’t work regular office hours that they could set up where I knew you’d be,” Joey explained. “I knew you’d have trouble getting started on your book. I know how easily you get distracted. I thought if you had something else you didn’t want to think about, it’d help.”

“Huh,” Chris said, unwillingly impressed. “It worked. But I’m still going to kill you in the morning,” he added, because he wasn’t going to forgive Joey that easily. Since he’d already admitted to Joey that he would never have been able to hurt him, even if he really was zombified, he didn’t think Joey would be very concerned.

Joey, of course, laughed. “It was you gave me the idea,” he said. “That phone call, when you said everyone in the supermarket was a zombie. It just came to me, the whole thing. I emailed everybody I could think of next morning, and we brainstormed the details during the show every night that week. Plus I got Lance and the Bhuvas from the corner shop involved. They thought it was great. Of course, it really helped when you went to Kevin, gave us the perfect set-up for the party.”

“He wasn’t supposed to tell you!” Chris protested.

“I told him when I got your call,” Kevin said. “I was at the theater, just getting into makeup. Already knew about the zombie plan.”

“You’re gonna have to explain why you thought it was a good idea to go house-hunting without me,” Joey said, and Chris winced. “But Kev has some actual prospects we can go see next week. Together.”

That conversation could probably wait until they were somewhere private, Chris thought, but it sounded like it would go well. “But how did you do everything? The people in hazmat suits, that was you?”

“The theater group has a lot of very creative people to help with costumes and props and stuff.” That was JC, the guy in the pink T-shirt, the one who’d directed Little Shop of Horrors. “It’s easy to turn a white van into an ambulance, particularly if you only need to dress one side of it.”

“And our techs faked up a news report last Sunday. It was on the DVD player, so when you arrived I gave you a second to catch something and then switched the input,” Joey said. “I’ll have to show you the whole thing. They did quite a long piece, but I had to keep it brief so you weren’t sure if you’d really seen it.”

“Fucker,” Chris muttered. He was stunned at the amount of work Joey and his friends had put in.

“Everyone got really into it,” Kevin said. “We practised the dance on Thursday. Everyone keeps Thursday night free because we mostly have rehearsals then.”

His wife, brandishing a platter of something visceral, paused at their group to say, “We all loved it. We had so much fun working out our zombie looks.”

“And Carola!” Joey said, triumphantly hauling a middle-aged woman out of the throng. She was as gray-faced as everybody else, and looked faintly familiar, although Chris didn’t remember ever meeting a Carola. “Our secret weapon! Carola’s our makeup genius,” Joey said. “I called her first thing Wednesday to see if she could figure out zombie makeup that everyone could do.”

“Do you remember me?” Carola said, smiling at him. “From the bus?”

“Oh, my God!” said Chris.

“That was sort of an experiment,” she explained. “I don’t work Wednesdays, so I tried out some effects I thought would work, and Joey said you’d be on the bus. Luckily I live along that line. So I just sat there, then spent a couple of hours in the mall, and he let me know which bus to ride home on. And it’s the perfect time of year for zombies, all the Hallowe’en stuff is out. I could only get a couple of sets of sclera contacts, though, they’re quite expensive. And not everybody can deal with them.”

“Those were the things that made their eyes all pale?” Chris asked.

“That’s right. Your friend Lance got a pair, because we knew that’d be a close up, and JC used a pair in the store, and we cleaned them up for Joey to use today.”

“They’re really uncomfortable to wear,” JC said. “But it was worth it.” He grinned wickedly. “Wish I’d had a camera!”

“Camera?” That was Lance, arriving with Justin in tow, Justin who’d obviously flown down from New York along with Lance, and who was sporting livid scars and fetchingly ripped pants. “Man, I wish I could have had it filmed! I almost pissed myself laughing when you’d gone.”

“You are an evil, evil person,” Chris said. “It’s a good thing you’re my agent not somebody else’s. The way you moved, that was what really made me believe in all this. When I saw your head turning around to the back, fuck, I was—how the hell did you even do that?”

Lance grinned. “Put my clothes on back to front,” he said.

“Genius,” Joey said, happily. “Everybody put some great work into it.”

“But,” Chris said, for something had just occurred to him, “how did you know where I was going to be? Did you have actors all over the city in case I happened by?”

“I tracked your phone,” Joey said, and Chris gaped at the perfect simplicity of it all. “Called to tell people when to be ready. The entrail eaters had to book it to get to Wal-Mart before you left, I was expecting you to stay a bit closer to home.”

“Speaking of phones,” Lance said, “you dropped this at my place,” and he handed over Chris’s phone.

“Yeah, and that had me really worried,” Joey said. “If you didn’t turn up here, I had no way of reminding you, and it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise party without you.”

“I can see that,” said Chris.

“I expect everybody has something to tell you about how they were involved,” Joey said. “Come on, you need to meet everyone.”

Three hours and several beers later, Chris muted the music and climbed on to the nearest table. As the crowd began to notice him and quiet down, he gazed around at the throng of partygoing zombies with a feeling of pride. They’d done all this, done it specially for him, and it was incredible. “I just wanna say,” he began, “that this has been a totally crazy week. Ten days, whatever. I don’t even know how to thank you all, but you were amazing. And, uh, nobody ever,” fuck, he was choking up, “nobody ever did something like this for me before, and I. Uh. I love it. Thank you, all of you.” He pulled himself together. “This is the best birthday party ever!

* * *

 

The playlist:

Joey, singing Suddenly Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObRkZchM9PE

Also Grow for Me https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EL4R5V8QcxQ (audio only)

The Dentist song from Little Shop Of Horrors (alas, without Kevin Richardson): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_K7inol1Gw


Mass zombie dance to Thriller: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=848mvstoLdA

Inspirations:

Shaun of the Dead (if you've seen it, you will surely have recognised the influence!)
and
Castle - there is an episode (possibly a double episode) in which Beckett and the guys and Castle’s mother and daughter put on a ‘mystery’ for him to watch while he is out of action due to an injury. He’s terrified, but he loves it.

 

 

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