Laura knew he was different the moment she found him with an old woman in an ATM booth. The woman had flung down her silver clasp purse when he grabbed her, and a few crisp fifties lay on a tangle of receipts, keys, and cottonswabs. But what caught Laura’s attention was the way he ate the old woman: slow and savoring, like she was an artichoke. He’d pluck off a finger and suck the flesh off the bone, then tear out the forearm and scoop at the softer places. The old woman had passed out, but she was still alive. The zombie made his careful way ever inward toward her warm heart.
The smell of death old and new made Laura gag, but she pulled the door closed to lock herself in with them. Through his remaining rags of flesh, she saw an effeminate bone structure. In life, he would have been the pretty kind of handsome, Laura thought. His shirt flapped off his shoulders as he moved, and she caught a glimpse of an embroidered nametag: Paul.
“Hey, Paul,” she said, tapping him on the shoulder. He paid no attention. “Paul, I’d taste better.” Laura was tired of following the security advisories and prolonging the inevitable. Ever since her parents and her sister, Kathy, had been killed, she’d thought the best thing would be to get it over with. And she wanted Paul to do it. The zombies who ate her family while she hid in the closet sprayed organs everywhere; Paul didn’t waste. Laura wanted to be appreciated that way.
She watched him chew the old woman’s fingerbone, making a sound like someone biting into a lollipop. She waited while he ate her belly in large, relishing bites, then licked each vertebra clean. He turned toward Laura next, and she spread her hands and closed her eyes.
His shuffling footsteps approached, but she didn’t feel any teeth or the firm grip she had so admired. There was a light slam as he walked past her and into the glass door she had shut. She snapped her eyes open and went to him. “Honey, you have to open that door.” He slammed into the glass again. What was left of his nose smashed flat against his face.
Laura grabbed his arm and spun him back towards her. “Don’t you want to eat me?” she said. He lurched backwards into the wall, the back of his skull collapsing like a rotten fruit. Inexplicable rejection tore through her guts, and she tightened her grip on his arm. “Come with me,” she whispered. Laura opened the door and pulled him out onto the street.
The streets were dirty, bloodstained, and empty of the living. The people who had been out before the advisory, or who had tried to run when zombies got into their houses, were gone now except for carcasses chewed over by small groups of the undead. Most of the zombies had wandered off in search of fresher meat, and the few who passed didn’t seem interested in Laura. She pressed close to Paul and led him toward where she lived. He walked arm in arm with her, as if they were on a date to the bowling alley.
On the way to Laura’s house, they came upon a woman with a broken leg, trying to drag herself under a bush. Her curly hair lay flat against her sweat-streaked forehead, and her breath burst loud and hollow from her lungs. Paul perked up at her fear. He let go of Laura and surged toward the woman. He took her in his arms and began eating her gently, leg first.
“What are you doing just standing there?” the woman screamed as she struggled to get away from Paul. “Hit him! Get him off me!”
Laura pulled a thick branch off the bush and stepped in close, feeling jealous at the sight of his fingers pressing into the other woman’s thigh. Laura hit the woman hard over the head, watching her eyes roll back, her accusing expression dissolving. “I’m wishing I was you,” Laura said.
Paul tore off a kneecap and handed it to her. “Is that what’s going on?” Laura said. “You think I’m one of you?” She knelt beside him. Other than the constant lump in her throat, she felt nothing at the sight of blood. “I’m not like you. Look at me.” Laura tried to put her hand in his mouth. He ignored her and continued with the woman on the pavement.
“What is the matter with you?” Laura screamed. “What is the matter with me?” Paul stopped eating. The small bit of an eye he had left seemed to flicker with some remnant of humanity. She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook. “What about me? Why won’t you eat me?” His neckbones crackled against each other from the force, and that last piece of eye fell out. He groaned. Laura looked at the eye on the pavement, and then into his empty face. She touched his exposed cheekbone. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
She pulled him to his feet and he followed her, stumbling with his new blindness. It was just a block to the house where her family had died. She unlocked the front door and led him inside, fastening all the bolts and bars behind her. Laura shivered, reliving a piece of the fear she’d felt that last day. If she closed her eyes, she could still smell her sister’s shampoo, the fixative her mother used on paintings, the starch on her father’s suits. And their blood.
Paul stepped toward her, gripping her arms. She relaxed against him, waiting for relief, but he let go without doing anything more. Laura’s stomach twisted again. “You can’t keep ignoring me,” she said.
The basement door was strong. She pushed Paul ahead of her into the darkness and locked them in. He would get hungry eventually.