“Asian wire-fu flick or gaming?” Gabriel asked as he held up his latest bootleg DVD.
“Gabe, it's Friday night. We always game on Friday nights.” Nikki looked up over her Electronic Gaming magazine and feigned a disgusted look.
“I know, I just thought--”
“Gaming. Come on, Dawn84 will be online tonight.”
Gabriel's mouth twitched with a small smile.
“Gaming it is.”
“Well, maybe we could watch your movie later, Gabe. What language is it?”
Gabriel picked up his video game controller off the charger. He ran a hand through his messy brown hair and stared at the back of the DVD case.
“I hope it isn't dubbed,” said James as he also picked up his controller. James took his seat on the couch next to Nikki.
“I thought it was subtitled with Japanese audio but this DVD case is so Engrish I can't tell.” Gabriel frowned as he gave up and handed the case over to James.
“Where do you even find these? That cat is holding a katana, and most of the description--I can't even read this. I'm banishing this film to the 'Bad Movie Wednesday' shelf and don't want to watch it unless I'm drunk.” James threw the DVD back to Gabriel.
“I really can't argue. I found it used online, shipped slow-boat from China. Cost me $5 and now I can see why. I swear, the description made it sound so much cooler.”
“Does the cat with the katana do wire-fu? I'd watch that.” Nikki asked. As if summoned, a dusty white Siamese cat jumped on to her lap. As soon as she tried to pet the cat, it walked across her and laid down in James' lap. Nikki glared and the cat ignored her.
“You'll just have to wait until Wednesday, I guess. What game are we playing tonight?”
Nikki hopped up from the couch and rummaged through a stack of books, bags and empty soda cans. She pulled out a plastic bag and held out a plastic-wrapped game case.
“We just picked up two copies of 'Maple Falls: Zombie Outbreak 3,' at the store. James picked it up opening night.” She held out the case to Gabriel.
“Midnight, man. I waited outside for two hours. In the rain.” James added.
“I'll be your sniper. I'm seriously jealous. This game just came out.” Gabriel unwrapped the plastic. “It even smells new. You'd think by now that Maple Falls would be destroyed. I mean, come on, three zombie outbreaks? You just know the government would have nuked them all by now.”
“No way, don't you remember the ending in 2? The President was involved the whole time. I call the automatic pistol.” James unwrapped the other game case.
“I guess I'll drive.” Nikki smiled and turned on the TV and put both game discs in their consoles. On the screen a notification popped up and read: 'Dawn84 is is online and playing MAPLE FALLS: ZOMBIE OUTBREAK 3.”
“That brat! She's already playing.” Nikki threw popcorn at the TV screen.
“Man, I can't believe your girlfriend started without us. She's already level 5!” Gabriel said.
“She's not my girlfriend! And she's level 6. Besides--I bet she saved us all the good guns.”
“I can hear you, and yes, I did. Come pick me up and I'll share.” Dawn's voice sounded over the TV. Gabriel's ears turned red. He tried to cover them up by rushing to put on his headset.
“Where are you?” Nikki asked as she put on her headset and leaned against James on the couch. Gabriel scooted down the couch and gave them some space. He turned his attention to the two 42” flat screen LCD TVs as they hummed to life.
The dark living room flashed with the opening video that showcased the lonely town of Maple Falls struggling to rebuild. A lone zombie had survived and was shuffling down an empty hospital hallway.
“I knew it,” said James.
“They couldn't make a third game without zombies, duh. What were you expecting?”
“Boys, shut up! You're missing the intro.”
The zombie rounded the hallway and lunged at an unsuspecting nurse. Blood splattered the TV screens and the zombie apocalypse began anew...
“Gabe, were you even watching? Who are you texting?”
“Uh...” Gabriel looked up from his phone and stared at the TV screen.
“He's texting Dawn! She is totally your girlfriend.” James grinned and narrowly missed the headset that was flung at his head by Gabriel.
“Are those police lights?” Nikki asked as she set her controller down and walked to the curtained front window. She pushed aside the curtain and revealed distant lights flashing red and blue. A police cruiser was parked down the block.
“Oh, Gabe. You'd better turn yourself in. They've finally come to arrest you for your terrible taste in bootleg DVDs.”
“You should be more worried about his porn collection--”
“Hey! If it wasn't for my superior taste in cinema, our apartment wouldn't even have 'Bad Movie Wednesdays,' at all. Be grateful.”
Nikki watched out the window.
“Seriously, though, what are the police doing?” Gabriel eyed his DVD case suspiciously.
“I'm not sure. It looks like they're going door to door. I can see two of them.”
“Ignore it, we have games to play!” James waved her back towards the couch. Nikki closed the curtains and walked back to the couch.
“Ok, Dawn84, team SH4D0W inbound. Lets go save Maple Falls.” James turned up the volume on his TV and Gabriel tried to match it. The boys would battle throughout the night for the loudest TV. Nikki passed a bowl of cheesy potato chips to Gabriel. He grabbed a handful in between shooting zombies. James one-handed his controller and finished his soda while Nikki drove their stolen ambulance through the devastated streets of Maple Falls in search of Dawn84.
“These streets are too empty. Must be a boss battle coming soon.”
“Your mom is a boss battle!”
“What? She doesn't even--”
A knock sounded at the front door.
Nikki paused the game. The knock sounded again.
"It's probably that police officer," Nikki said as she exchanged glances with James.
"We don't have to answer it, though, right? I mean, they don't have a warrant. It's not like they're going to break down the door." Gabriel paled visibly.
The knock came again, a little louder. James un-paused the game.
"If it's really important, they'll leave a note. It's a Friday night, they're probably just looking for a house party to bust or something. Come on, Dawn84's almost to level 7. We gotta catch up."
Nikki stood up and disappeared around the corner in to their cramped kitchen. She came back holding a six-pack of cheap beer and a wine cooler.
"Then we might as well make it a party," Nikki said as she flopped back on the couch. Three beers and one wine cooler later and James had passed out on the couch. Nikki leaned against him and fell asleep with her hand in a bowl of chips. Gabriel sent one last text message just as the sun was rising and shut off the TVs. 230 miles and one timezone away, Dawn checked her phone, smiled, and fell asleep.
“What time is it?” Nikki asked as she pushed herself up from the couch. She wiped drool away with the back of her hand. Gabriel sat at the crowded kitchen table with his laptop, clacking away at the keyboard. He checked his watch and blinked, then looked out the sliding glass kitchen door.
“About 2 o'clock. James just left to get us some breakfast.”
“What, you boys didn't want to cook?” Nikki stretched and yawned. Gabriel stopped typing for a moment to reach out and pet Jezabelle, who was curled up under a discarded magazine. Her white tail swished happily and knocked papers on to the floor.
“We tried. Don't go in to the kitchen.”
Nikki's nose wrinkled and her stomach growled at the same time. She hoped that James wouldn't take too long.
“Do you smell smoke?” Nikki asked as she sniffed the air.
“That's probably breakfast,” Gabriel said as he went back to typing.
Nikki sat up and walked to the window.
“No, it's not. Look.” She pulled the curtain aside. Black smoke billowed up from a house down the street. Red and orange flames raged unchecked.
“Where the heck are the firetrucks? Or the police?” Gabriel asked as he pointed towards the house. “It's just burning like crazy.”
“I'm going to call the fire department,” Nikki said as she rubbed her nose to keep from sneezing. Gabriel shook his head.
“That place is gonna blaze before the fire truck gets there. That sucks.” He settled back down at the kitchen table. Nikki lifted couch cushions as she tried to find her cellphone.
“Gabe, have you seen my phone?” She asked as she tore apart the whole couch and left the cushions on the floor.
“Nope.” He didn't look away from the computer screen. Nikki sighed and walked to the kitchen table. She spotted her cell sitting right next to Gabriel's laptop, stealthily hidden by a white cat tail. She ran her hand along Jezabelle's tail and then picked up her phone.
“I forgot to charge it last night, it's dead.”
“It's dead Jim,” Gabriel handed Nikki his phone. “Just don't read my text messages. I'll never hear the end of it from James.” She nodded and took the phone.
“Oh hey, can you Google the number for me? I don't want to just call 9-1-1.”
Gabriel nodded and opened a new tab on his browser. He rattled off the number. Nikki waited as the phone beeped twice and disconnected. She tried again.
“Weird.” She handed the phone back to him. “It's not going through. It's not busy, there's just no connection.” Gabe shrugged and set the phone back on the table.
“I know I paid the bill, maybe they're having,” he put up his hands to indicate quotation marks, “'technical difficulties,' as usual. I hate prepaid, man.”
“Well, 'man,' that house is gonna burn down and I'm not going to just blame the phone company. Let me try 9-1-1, that number isn't allowed to stop working.” She took the phone back and dialed again. The phone screeched loudly in her ear and she nearly dropped it.
“Something is wrong with your phone, Gabe. I'll just charge mine and try to call in a bit.” She glared at the phone and set it down.
Nikki plugged her phone in to the wall charger and waited patiently for breakfast. She stared out the window at the house fire and wondered if James could see it from the road. A half hour passed and the smoke continued to rise without any sign of help.
“Gabe, did he say where he was going? He's been gone a while.”
Gabriel looked up from the computer screen and adjusted his thick glasses on the brim of his nose.
“He muttered something about 'tacos,' grabbed my wallet and left. I assumed he went to Baja.”
“Saturday, right. Thanks.” She frowned and checked her phone. It had charged enough to turn back on. Her phone vibrated from new text messages and one old voice mail. She ignored them and tried to dial 9-1-1 again. Her phone screamed in her ear and disconnected, just like Gabe's phone.
Nikki decided to check her text messages instead. A picture message from James came in. She opened it and couldn't tell exactly what she was looking at. It was a line of cars and trucks, taken from the driver's seat perspective, backed up around the street. In the distance it looked like someone was standing in the street, blocking the drive-thru window.
The accompanying text read: ''Cock-blocking my tacos. FML. Trying another place. <3 u” Nikki smiled. No one got between James and his 2 o'clock tacos. If Baja was out of the picture, he'd find someplace else. She just hoped he'd hurry, she was starving.
Thinking back to last night, Nikki checked the front door. There was no note from the police department. She blinked at the sudden sunlight and hissed, retreating in to the house. She heard the rattling engine of James' car as it smoked down the street. Her stomach growled in protest and she decided to open the front door for him. He carefully balanced three sodas in a drink carrier, two bags full of greasy Mexican food and a bag of caramel empanadas in his teeth. He gave her a muffled 'thank you' and stumbled in to the house. Gabriel tried to clear a spot on the kitchen table.
“We'll just eat in the living room,” Nikki said as she grabbed paper plates and napkins. James dispersed the bags and sodas and settled down to his usual space on the couch. Gabriel carried his laptop and sat down, reaching for a taco.
“Man, what took you so long? I'm hungry like a wolf.”
“Didn't you get my text? I sent it to you and the girls. Some bullshit, there was a tweaker or a drunk or something out in the drive-thru blocking the road. He was banging on people's hoods and wouldn't move. Blocked my entire route to Baja and I wasn't going to go inside. Didn't want to risk getting shanked.”
“What a way to die--killed in a parking lot of the best taco place in the world by a dirty tweaker.”
“I'd rather die saving Maple Falls. Shall we?” James held up his controller.
“Wait...” Gabriel stared at his laptop screen. “Check this out, first. And you might want to stop eating for a second. Kinda gross.” Like moths to a flame, James and Nikki drifted across the couch towards the promise of disturbing news. He flipped the laptop around.
“What are we looking at?” Nikki asked as her penciled-on eyebrows knitted together crookedly.
“My friend from the U.K. posted this. It's nearly 11pm over there, this is a picture of the London skyline. See those dark lines? That's smoke.”
“What's so gross about smoke? OH SHI--” James dropped his taco. Nikki covered her eyes.
“And those are people walking out of it.”
“Warn me next time you show me burnt crispy bodies.”
“Not bodies. People. Like, walking... burnt crispy people.”
Nikki and James exchanged looks and then, the three friends spoke in unison.
The power fluctuated in the house. Gabriel looked at his laptop screen.
“Now, it could just be for a movie, or a military training exercise...”
“Does Britain even have a military? Aside from U.N.I.T.? Like those men in the big goofy hats?” James asked as he recovered his taco from the floor, wiped it off and inspected it for cat hair.
“The British Armed Forces,” Nikki said over a mouthful of taco.
“Anyways, does Britain even do that? What's the picture caption say?” James asked.
“My friend didn't leave a caption, it was just an automatic upload from his smart phone... Wait, here's another one.” He opened the image full-screen and turned it back around to show them. It was taken outside of a movie theater, with a dozen of the burned people walking towards the camera. Fire and smoke obscured the background.
“It could be Photoshop'd or some publicity stunt. Nothing to stop me from eating my tacos.”
“I dunno, can we check the news first?” Gabriel asked.
“What, like on actual television? We don't have cable, just Netflix.” James said as he looked towards the television sheepishly.
“Where do you usually get your news?”
Nikki looked at James.
“The same place everyone does—Facebook.”
“OK well... let me try and see what I can find. Ut oh.”
“What?” Nikki and James echoed.
The power flickered again and finally went out. Gabriel's laptop gave a beep indicating it was switching to battery power.
“The internet is down.”
“Well, now what?” James asked, still clutching his game controller hopefully.
“I can't believe you guys don't have cable—”
“Neither do you. It's not like it's ever been a problem before. I've always just downloaded my TV series or movies. I've never needed to download the news before.”
“We've never had to question a zombie invasion before, either.”
They sat on the couch and stared at a blank television screen. Somewhere in the apartment, Jezabelle was clawing at the carpet.
“Let's walk down to the gas station, maybe they've heard something from the truckers this morning.” James suggested, setting down his remote control.
“Do you work tonight?” Gabriel asked.
“Yeah, but I don't want to wait to find out. Let's just get some answers so we can get back to--”
A loud noise rocked the apartment to its foundation. Nikki nearly jumped out of her seat.
“What the heck..?” James stood up from the couch and went to the window followed closely by Nikki and Gabriel. Outside, another house had gone up in flames.
“It must've been their propane tank or something,” Gabriel said as he pressed a finger against the glass to point out the house.
“What the heck is going on? Where are all the fire trucks and police?” Nikki shook her head as she stared out the window.
“I don't know, but that fire is going to spread. And it's... heading this way.” James frowned as the flames rose in to the air and the wind whipped the smoke and flames towards their direction. They stared out the window as another house began to smoke. Across the street, their creepy neighbor burst out the front doors in his bright yellow shorts. He waved his arms and was yelling but they couldn't hear him through the glass.
“Ugh, it's Mr. Creeper. James? Don't make me talk to him, he always gives me that look...”
“Alright, fine. He looks pretty concerned, anyways. Maybe his TV is still working.” James opened the door and looked over his shoulder. “C'mon, Gabe, you're my wingman.” Gabriel shrugged and followed him out and across the street. Mr. Creeper was struggling to catch his breath once they approached him. Sweat poured down his balding head and furry stomach. He coughed and wiped his nose with one meaty fist.
“You... damn kids,” he wheezed.
“Get off my lawn,” Gabriel whispered behind James.
“Listen, just before my TV shut off, there was an emergency broadcast,” Mr. Creeper rubbed his forehead and wiped it off on his too-short-shorts.
“From an actual government, right? This isn't another one of your alien stories--”
“No! You have to believe me. Zombies! I saw them, and they're headed our way.”
“Sounds legit.” James crossed his arms over his chest. “So you were watching the news and then there was this broadcast, and you ran outside in a panic?”
“Didn't you hear that explosion? I thought the gov't might be starting to bomb the place, so I wanted to check and see if the zombies were here yet.”
“Right. And did the TV broadcast mention anything about how or where these zombies were appearing?”
“Did they look like burnt crispy people?” Gabriel asked with a slightly high-pitched voice.
Mr. Creeper wrung his hands together. He swallowed and looked to either side of the street before he spoke.
“They said not to drink the water, that someone—or something—had compromised the water supplies worldwide. Coordinated attack, they said.”
“We'll be fine, we only drink Mt. Dew.” Gabriel said.
“Something?” James asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I thought they were zombies?”
“Alien zombies that want to take over our world and steal our men.”
James and Gabriel took a slow step backwards.
“Alien zombies. Right, well—we uh, need to get back and pack. Thanks for the warning.”
They didn't give Mr. Creeper a chance to respond. He huffed and continued to run barefoot down the street.
“I have to warn the others!” He yelled as he waddled off.
James and Gabriel waited until they were back inside the house before they started to laugh.
“What did he say? What's so funny?” Nikki asked as she closed the front door.
“Mr. Creeper is nuts. I'm sure the power will be back on any minute.” James laughed so hard he had to wipe tears from his eyes.
“Wait... what, what is he doing? Is he having a seizure?” Nikki pointed back out the window at Mr. Creeper, who had just fallen down on the pavement.
“He's probably having a heart attack from running outside,” Gabriel said with a laugh.
“No, I'm serious. We can't just leave him like that...” Nikki opened the front door followed by James and Gabriel. Mr. Creeper was face-down thrashing on the pavement. He jerked his back so hard they heard a 'crack' sound as they approached. His body went limp on the ground. James knelt down a few feet away and Nikki reached for his neck to check for a pulse.
“What are you doing?” Gabriel asked, standing just behind James.
“Checking for a pulse?” Nikki said as she stared at Mr. Creeper's sweaty neck. “I'm not really sure how, I mean--you just press, right?”
“Get back!” James grabbed Nikki's wrist before she touched their neighbor's skin. Mr. Creeper's body shook and contorted, pulling him in to a fetal position without a sound. His pale skin began to flake and turn an ashen-gray. They all stepped backwards as his skin began to peel away and crumble. His back split open like an overly-ripe fruit and spilled watery-puss on to the asphalt. The liquid boiled and slid across the hot ground towards them.
“Gross!” Nikki squeaked and scrambled backwards. James and Gabriel couldn't stop staring.
“Don't let it touch your shoes, man,” Gabriel said as he took a step back as well. Mr. Creeper began to move again, stretching one arm out at a time and digging his fingernails in to the hot ground. He pulled himself forward with a long moan. His head snapped to the side and his eyes rolled back in to place. They had changed from their normal watery-blue to pale gray.
“Damn you... kids.” Mr. Creeper mouthed around a swollen tongue. He began to stand up. James grabbed Nikki's hand and Gabriel stepped in front of them. Mr. Creeper pulled himself back up but his head flopped unnaturally to the side. The smell of rotting milk filled the air. He took a shambling step towards them--and they ran.
“Screw this! Back to the house!” James yelled as he pulled Nikki along with him. She soon outran him, leaving Gabriel trailing behind. They ran back across the street and burst through the front door of their apartment. Gabriel slammed the door behind them.
“I'm going to hurl,” Nikki said as she tried to catch her breath. James pressed his face against the window and pulled back the curtain.
“Is he following us?” Gabriel asked, heading to the kitchen. He grabbed his laptop off the kitchen table and stuffed it in his laptop bag.
“No, he's just standing there, staring. No, wait.” James closed the curtain a little more. Down the road, a scrawny Chihuahua was walking down the pavement. Once it spotted Mr. Creeper it began to bark and growl. The sound caused Mr. Creeper's neck to roll to the side. He began walking towards the dog, a slow but steady pace.
“It's Miss Molly's dog, that annoying yappy one. I think it knows Mr. Creeper,” James said.
“It's Mr. Smith. He's a zombie now, we might as well stop making fun of him.” Nikki stood beside James and watched.
“You're no fun. Speaking of no fun...” James watched as the Chihuahua walked towards Mr. Smith and stopped barking. Mr. Smith reached out and pet the dog slowly on the head.
“See? He's harmless--”
Mr. Smith grabbed the dog by the neck. The dog began to snarl and bite at Mr. Smith's hands. The man didn't seem to notice as the dog drew blood with its needle-like teeth.
“Is Mr. Cre--I mean, Mr. Smith's blood green?” Nikki asked as a pale green liquid splashed on the dog. Mr. Smith shook the dog hard enough to break it's neck and then raised it to his mouth. His gray eyes stared across the road to the apartment window. He looked directly at James as his teeth tore in to the dog's throat.
“OK, can we be done now? Our neighbor just looked at me while he ate a dog. I'm done with today. I'm going back to bed.” James moved away from the window. Nikki closed the blinds and let James slump to the couch. In the kitchen, Gabriel was wrapping up his power cord and mouse.
“What are you doing Gabe?” Nikki asked, trying not to look over her shoulder to check on Mr. Smith.
“Packing. We can't stay here.” Gabriel went to the fridge and opened it.
“Why not? Can't we just barricade the windows?” Nikki asked as she walked towards the kitchen.
“Only if you want to cook like our neighbors,” Gabriel said as he pointed out the back window. The house fire had spread and was only two houses away.
“How did I not notice that?” Nikki asked as the smell of smoke overwhelmed her.
“I'm going to guess because we were too busy with the zombie across the street. You might want to start packing.”
“James, James, get up,” Nikki spun on her foot and ran to the couch. James eyes were glossy. He shook his head and avoided looking out the window. He stood shakily from the couch.
“Go get your backpack, the one with the water bottle built in.” Nikki motioned down the hall. James nodded and began walking towards their shared bedroom.
“You have a camel pack? Cool. I didn't know you two hiked,” Gabriel said as he stared in the fridge.
“Gabe, when have you ever seen us go outside? It's not for hiking, it's for standing in line for hours at a time at video game conventions, or opening movie night. We don't want to lose our place. Hiking. Do you even know us anymore?” Nikki glanced down the hall. “What should I be packing?”
Gabriel grabbed a few bottles and random items out of the fridge.
“Whatever you don't want to burn.”
Nikki swallowed and nodded.
“Let me try that again: whatever you don't want to burn, or have eaten by zombies.”
“That's not helping.”
“I'm taking my laptop, and some food. And if I can find them, James has some of my comic books. Although we might want some weapons, too.”
James returned from the bedroom with his backpack over his shoulders and an armful of supplies. He threw them down on the couch: a baseball bat, a replica metal sword, two paintball guns, a flashlight, a pair of leather gauntlets from last year's Renaissance Faire, handful of ninja throwing stars, a box of LEGOS, and some CDs.
“Is that my copy of..? I've been looking all over for that.” James asked.
“It's a terrible CD. I hid it from you last summer. Now we're using it to fight zombies.”
“At least it was good for something.”
“Oh, and this.” James reached to his side and threw down an orange and white plastic Nintendo gun.
“Is that a Duck Hunt gun? Seriously?” Gabriel asked. James looked at it and shrugged.
“I was in a hurry. I thought, Nikki has whacked me with it before, and that thing hurt, but I see your point.”
“Let me get my dice bag, those 4-sided dies double as caltrops...”
“Good idea, Nik--”
A thud sounded at the front door. It wasn't loud enough to be called a 'knock,' but it still pulled everyone's attention to the front of the house. The smell of smoke grew stronger.
“Hey James, I think it's for you.” Gabriel said with raised eyebrows. James picked up the baseball bat from the couch and took a step towards the door. He used it to pull the curtain to the side. Outside, head flopped on one shoulder and a dead Chihuahua under one arm, stood Mr. Creeper.
He stood outside the door, shifted from one foot to the other, and knocked again.
“Pizza.” Mr. Creeper announced, as if to improve his chances.
James checked to make sure the door was locked. That sudden sound of the rattling doorknob made Mr. Creeper move around to stand in front of the window.
“Does the chihuahua make it a 'Mexican' pizza?” Gabriel asked. Mr. Creeper began to pound on the glass.
“I don't care if it's a freaking pizza made out of gold and bullets, we need to get out of here!” James stepped back from the window and threw the baseball bat on the couch. He ran to the hall closet and pulled out his duffel bag. Nikki helped him load all their random weapons and supplies in to the bag, while Gabriel started to throw food in to plastic grocery bags.
“James, where'd you park the car when you got back from breakfast?” Gabriel asked as he threw Ramen Noodles and a bottle of Ketchup from the fridge in to a bag.
James blinked and looked back towards the door. Gabriel nodded.
“There's that car out back that's always unlocked, we could try that one.” They packed in silence that was interrupted only by the loud pounding of Mr. Creeper. The glass finally made a cracking sound. James hefted his duffel bag, Nikki took his backpack off his shoulders and Gabriel took his laptop bag and sacks of food. They rushed for the sliding glass door in the kitchen just as the glass window in the living room broke.
“So, where are we headed?” Nikki asked as they rushed across the back yard. Gabriel answered without hesitation.
“We're going to Montana. To rescue Dawn.”
“Just checking. Run.”