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       A Game of Firsts (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), p.1

           Carrie Ryan
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A Game of Firsts (The Forest of Hands and Teeth)

  Copyright © 2011 by Carrie Ryan


  “A Game of Firsts" was originally published in The First Time edited by Jessica Verday.

  No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.



  One night, my husband and I were driving home from dinner when we came upon a man stumbling down the middle of a street in our neighborhood. There was nothing particularly scary about him, he just appeared to be drunk but otherwise fine, so we carefully made our way around him and continued to our house a few blocks away.

  We joked about how the way he’d been staggering along made him look like a zombie and it wasn’t until we’d pulled into the driveway that one of us pointed out, “You know, that’s why we’d be screwed in an actual zombie apocalypse. Because we’d see the first zombie, just assume he was drunk, and by the time we figured it out, we’d be too late.”

  Which is exactly what happens to Julie and Danny in “A Game of Firsts.”

  This story originally appeared in the anthology, “The First Time,” which is a collection of short stories all written by 2009 Debutantes – authors whose young adult books debuted in 2009. Unsurprisingly, the theme was “firsts,” which I think can be especially poignant when facing the end of the world (or at least the end of the world as you’ve known it).

  • ♦ •

  WE COULD’VE LEFT THE city—there was probably still time after we saw the first one. The problem was, we didn’t realize it was the first one, not really. We’d been driving home after a late night out and there’d been this guy wandering down the middle of the road, stumbling like he was drunk.

  “How funny would it be if that dude was a zombie?” my brother Danny had said as we swerved around him, honking.

  We laughed.

  Once home, Danny nipped us each a shot of Tequila from our parents’ liquor cabinet. They were out of town for the weekend and we were taking advantage of it – breaking rules like staying out past curfew and watching loud movies late into the night. When we finally fell into our separate beds we left our alarm clocks untouched, intending to sleep late into Sunday morning.

  By then, of course, it was mayhem. Already there were accidents on both of the interstates out of town, the back roads clogged so thick that people just left their cars where they idled, hoping to make it farther on foot.

  Danny sat on the edge of the couch, his face pale as he rubbed a hand over his eyes. On TV, the newscasters became more desperate while in the distance we heard an unending stream of sirens.

  We knew it was only a matter of time before we heard something else. Moaning and shattering glass. Screaming and gunshots.

  “When are Mom and Dad supposed to be home?” It was probably the twentieth time I’d asked this question, but to give him credit my brother didn’t hesitate to give me the same answer: “Their flight was supposed to get in at ten.”

  By that time it was already noon, and the airport was shut down. We’d called both our parents’ cells a dozen times, leaving frantic messages when we were sent straight to voice mail. We stared at our phones and willed them to ring, but all we heard was the silence of desperation.

  “THE FIRST TIME I kissed a boy was behind the gymnasium during a football game and it took us thirty minutes of standing close before one of us had the courage to lean in,” I say.

  Danny pours more wine into my cup. When gathering supplies on that first night we’d brought up all the bottles from the basement as an afterthought because it seemed like a smart thing to do while the world was falling apart around us. Since then the number of bottles has dwindled and what’s left has been turned sour by the heat. But that doesn’t stop us drinking. It sits heavy and warm in my stomach, curling my tongue as I swallow until my skin starts to buzz.

  He laughs. “Who was it?”

  I feel my cheeks burn as I mumble my brother’s friend’s name. “Germaine.”

  Danny just laughs and laughs and laughs, and for a moment we forget there are other sounds to be worried about.

  ALL DURING THAT FIRST afternoon we argued while the television flickered the same gruesome images in a loop: highways stuffed with risen dead, fires burning unchecked, stores being looted, ambulances crashed to their sides with rear doors flapping open.

  They were everywhere. Already. Broken people coming back from the dead—a total and horrible impossibility. And yet true. I closed my eyes and thought about how a world can multiply so fast.

  By then it was too late to tempt the outside world. The roads were impossible and we were stuck in our neighborhood bordering the edge of the city. I thought we should head to the attic above the detached garage, but Danny thought we should stay in the house.

  “There are too many windows,” I pointed out. “Ground level, and there’s no way we can barricade them all.”

  He blew out a long and frustrated sigh. “But there’s air conditioning. It’s August, Julie. We’ll roast out in the garage.”

  From somewhere far away I heard a siren rising and falling. “We’ll have the cars,” I told him. “We can charge the phone off your truck battery.” What I didn’t say was in case Mom and Dad finally call us back, but he understood that anyway.

  After he eventually agreed, we started filling up anything that could hold water and shoved food into grocery bags, taking it all out to the garage. Around us the sound of sawing and hammering echoed through the neighborhood while other families loaded up massive SUVs. Last week these were the people I’d have turned to for help—we’d shared lemonade stands and yard sales, babysitting and bike pumps.

  They knew Mom and Dad were out of town, that Danny and I were left here alone. Our parents had given the neighbors strict instructions to watch out for wild parties or curfew breaks. A few of them glanced my way as I trundled boxes and bottles from the house to the garage. I wondered if they thought about inviting us over, taking us in.

  But we were mouths to feed and bodies to water. We all had to be selfish now.

  “THE FIRST TIME I snuck out it was totally Fiona’s fault,” I explain. We lie on our backs, sweat beading our foreheads even though it must be close to midnight. A few days ago Danny managed to saw his way through part of the roof in order to open up the garage attic to a bit of air. Overhead, stars litter the night.

  “Where’d you go?” his question comes out as a grunt, and I think about sliding my gaze his way, but I know what I’ll see: deeply bruised eyes, sunken cheeks, parched lips.

  “Leroy’s,” I tell him. “He was having some kind of secret sweet sixteen party, and Fiona claimed to have a special present for him.” At the term special present, I hold up my hands in air quotes. Danny laughs. It’s more like a wheeze but still I feel a sense of accomplishment.

  IT WAS DANNY WHO thought to snake the hose up through the vents under the eaves of the garage. He left the faucet on a slow drip so we could refill bottles and wash our hands.

  “How long will the water pressure last?” I asked him as he sat staring at the television, watching reports of road closings and neighborhood outbreaks t
hat seemed endless and unceasing. My father once used the garage as a shop and so it was already wired for cable and electricity; we’d just had to string a series of extension cords so we could maintain the illusion of contact with the outside world.

  Down the road a house alarm blazed. It had been going off for six hours and I kept hoping I’d get used to it, but every blare of the horn grated against my ears, increasing the pounding in my head.

  My brother lifted a shoulder. I don’t know why I felt like he should know the answers to my questions. He was only eleven months older than me. Irish Twins, my aunt always called us.

  Nuisance is the term my brother preferred. But still, it was nice to have someone to ask the hard questions. Even if he didn’t have the easy answers.

  “THE FIRST TIME I… you know—” I wave my hand in the air, suddenly completely incapable of using the word sex in my brother’s presence— “was at the lake.”

  “Oh, God, ew. I don’t want to hear this,” Danny protests, but I fling my elbow in the general direction of his shoulder and he shuts up.

  We’ve been playing this game of firsts for too long to give up now. Already it’s begun to carry an air of significance, as if we both know one of us might not make it out of here and the other will have to bear the burden of memory.

  “It was Micah,” I say, my mouth starting to twist into a grin because I know what his response will be.

  As if I’d choreographed it myself, Danny begins making choking sounds. “Ewwww! Why?”

  He can’t see my expression, the smoke from the burning city blocks out the moon and makes the air acrid and dry. “He was nice,” is all I manage to say.

  AT FIRST IT FELT like maybe we’d be okay. We lived in a gated community, and I guessed that maybe someone had barricaded the entrance at some point because during those first three days, we didn’t see any of the zombies.

  The neighborhood took on this sort of hesitant feel to it, almost as if we were all holding our breaths as one, waiting. The newsman flashed pictures of military bases, their razor wire fences clogged with writhing bodies. I tried to look beyond, wanting to see soldiers amassing rescue efforts, but it was impossible to see past the zombie hordes.

  “Maybe we’ll be okay,” Danny whispered that second night. We’d both been pretending to sleep for hours, but in reality neither one of us had slept since that first morning.

  I slid my hand over the blanket I’d spread across the plywood floor, finding wood to rap my knuckles against. “Maybe,” I whispered back, but I had this bizarre impulse to cross my fingers like we did when we were kids so our parents couldn’t catch us in a lie.

  “THE FIRST TIME I saw a naked woman it was Mackenzie from next door.” Danny’s grin is sly and obviously proud.

  “You peeping tom!” I chide, slapping at his shoulder, but not hard enough to matter.

  “What? She was home from college and you could tell she wanted people to see,” he explains. “She never closed her blinds—not once the entire summer. It got to be so regular, I’d sell tickets.”

  I choke on a swallow of water. “Oh my God, that’s how you could afford those new speakers? I always wondered.” His eyes twinkle with mischief as he grins and nods his head.

  I GUESS WE STARTED to take for granted the idea that we might be safe because we got used to sneaking back into the house for various things, like the toilet, or grabbing another pillow, or finding a marker to write “Alive Inside” on a sheet we draped over the garage roof.

  It was stupid to become so lackadaisical, but we were tired and headachy and bored. On the news they started sounding hopeful, and perhaps we let that hope sink in, filling us in a way food and wine hadn’t.

  When I slipped into the house on that fourth morning, I saw the glass scattered on the floor and my first thought was looters, not zombies. It wasn’t until the woman came shuddering into the kitchen that I fully understood.

  What she’d been doing in our house I have no idea—there was no one living there anymore, no scent of uninfected people to draw her in. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that my mind went blank. My hand clutching a long, heavy flashlight went limp, letting my only weapon crash to the ground.

  She lunged at me, her movements like someone trapped underwater, slow and sluggish. Her mouth twisted open, dried lips cracking and splitting almost down to her chin. Her shirt was ripped half from her body, a black lace bra showing through the tears, and I remember thinking, “I tried that on at Victoria’s Secret last week,” and for some reason that’s the thought that hit me hardest.

  Only a week ago life had been so normal. I’d stood in the dressing room staring at my body, worried about whether the bra made my boobs look big enough to attract a guy’s attention. I’d fingered the lacy edges, wondering if they would chafe and itch.

  Those had been my only worries then. And now this.

  I screamed and ran, forgetting everything: to close the door behind me, to grab the keys from the lock, to pick up the flashlight. Terror made everything hazy. I tore across the driveway toward the garage and Danny must have heard me because he looked down from the entrance to the attic, his face a perfect O of surprise.

  He flipped the stairs down from the ceiling and I lunged up them. When he pushed past me, I was screaming for him to come back. He’d remembered, though. While I panicked, he knew what to do. He dashed to the keypad by the garage door and mashed the button, even standing there while the door rumbled down to make sure it closed and nothing got in the way of the sensor to send it bounding back up.

  Just as the grinding gear of the opener shuddered silent, we heard the pounding. The woman had followed me out of the house, and now she was at the garage moaning for us, trying to scratch her way in.

  Danny stood there, his shoulders shaking, and I wanted to climb down the ladder to him, I really did, but I couldn’t force my fingers to unclench from the railing.

  He was crying. We both were. We’d thought there was a chance, but now they’d found us and suddenly the possibility of surviving seemed that much farther away.

  “SHE WAS MY FIRST dead body,” I say, legs tucked against my chest and chin on my knees. I’m rocking slowly, not caring about the oppressive heat or the rain that trickles in through the hole in the roof. The woman’s been banging at the garage door all afternoon, and I can’t stand the sound anymore. I keep trying to get Danny to talk, but he just paces around the tiny space, his hands in continuous motion.

  We’d seen them on TV, but that was different. They were anonymous then.

  “Mrs. Neimeyer.” I’ve been trying to say her name all day, forcing myself to remember that she’s not an “it.” She lived two doors down. She had an annoyingly loud laugh, and on holidays she’d sit out on the back patio with her husband and a cooler of beer and she’d laugh and laugh and laugh and we’d roll our eyes and say, “There she goes again.”

  Danny stops his pacing, shoving his fingers through his hair and wincing. We’re both sweaty and greasy. “I never realized she had such a nice body.”

  He seems horrified by what he’s just said and the expression on his face is so priceless that I can’t help but giggle.

  He lets a smile ripple along his lips as his cheeks blaze red. “It’s true.”

  I nod. “And I almost bought that same bra last week.” I toss a pillow at him and he dodges out of the way, muttering, “TMI, Jules.”

  THE FIRST FEW TIMES we heard the choppers overhead we fought our way through the hole in the roof to try to wave them down. Even though we’d draped a white sheet across the roof to indicate there were survivors inside, we never saw any indication the pilots noticed us or cared. Eventually we gave up and let them drone past, the beat of their rotors causing the entire garage to vibrate softly. More neighbors joined Mrs. Neimeyer beating at the doors and walls. The moaning became as constant as the buzz of cicadas and nothing we did could keep the sound of it from grating on us. It was a hot summer, the sun burning bright in the morning an
d giving way to vicious storms in the afternoon. One of them knocked out the cable for good and we’d had nothing to distract us except for what we could call up on our phones.

  Even those were useless. No matter how many times we tried to reach our parents or 911 or even friends from school we got nothing—just voice mail after voice mail after voice mail. A few times we talked about getting in the car and taking our chances out on the roads but then we’re remember the images from the news: highways choked with empty cars, all of them crawling with the risen dead.

  “We’re safer here,” Danny said and I swallowed the words, for how long?

  On the seventh day, the power blew, and a few hours later Danny looked over at me. “I’m out of juice.” He held up his phone. “Where are the keys to the truck so I can charge it up?”

  That’s when I remembered the day in the kitchen. Dropping the flashlight, leaving the door open, forgetting the key ring still lodged in the lock.

  My body became still, my lungs squeezing out any air I’d ever breathed.

  I didn’t have to say it. Danny knew from my expression. He reached over to the phone in my hand and slid the power switch to off. “We’ll check it at noon and midnight. For a few minutes, just to look for news and see if Mom and Dad called.”

  Numbly, I nodded. Outside the zombies still came, stumbling into the cul-de-sac as if drawn by our sign: Alive Inside. Might as well have been an advertisement for a 24/7 diner. Not that the zombies could read.

  “I CHEATED ON MY math final last year,” Danny admits.

  I’m stunned into silence. My brother’s always been the one with better grades and it never occurred to me he’d come by them any way other than honestly. “Why?”

  He’s sitting under the hole in the roof, letting a fine mist of rain dance on his shoulders. “I wasn’t spending enough time studying.” He stares at his hands. “I was worrying about the SATs and where to apply for college and…” he trails off.

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