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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book excerpt: DOMINO FALLS (2/19) (sequel to DEVIL'S WAKE)


 Our young protagonists, including Kendra and Terry, are on a dangerous road trip in a school bus after Freak Day, when an infection causing rabies-like symptoms in humans swept the nation...and perhaps the world.  They are on their way to a settlement called Domino Falls, where they hope to find safety and shelter.  On the way, a man wearing a birthday hat has waved them down on the road.  Kendra waits in the bus while her friends investigate his home.
Since Freak Day, nothing is as it seems.
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                       ***** 
The wait outside seemed interminable.  The Christmas music changed to the Chipmunks singing about hula hoops, one of  Kendra's favorites when she was young.  The high-pitched revelry made her eyes sting with tears.   She and her mother and father had sucked helium from balloons and sung along to that song every year.  The sudden memory was so vivid that her knees went weak and the sky seemed to dim. 
After what seemed like forever, Ursulina and Dean came back out, trailed by the portly stranger.  Only the stranger was smiling.  He proudly held out a cake cutter he might have retrieved from the kitchen.
"Clear," Ursulina said.  "No one in the house.  Looks like the family's out back.  We saw them through the window."
"Kids?" Sonia said, anxious.
Ursulina nodded. 
"Just like I told you," the stranger said, and waved them all along the side of the house.  "Come on around.  They're waiting."
The little man bounced ahead of them to a back yard gate that lay open, waiting, walking light on the balls of his feet.  Happy happy, joy joy.  Could it be contagious? 
They followed him around to the back.   First they passed a play set that looked almost new:  swings and a small slide.  Next to that, a tree house with both wood-slat ladders nailed into a bare-limbed apricot tree, and a knotted rope that looked an inch and a half thick, now swaying in the breeze.   All of it looked like it might have been constructed since Freak Day.
Past the tree, Kendra finally saw the stranger's family.  Three of them sat at a large red cedar picnic table had been draped with a gaily-colored table cloth; two small girls  and a woman with frizzy yellow hair.  "One...two...three..." the girls were saying in piping unison, and dissolving into giggles.  "One...two...three..."
The others didn't see their approach because their backs were to them, all of them wearing identical birthday hats, oblivious to the world around them.  A small evergreen beside the table was strung with tinsel and candy canes, and topped with a silver star.   The table was piled with gaudily wrapped boxes and what looked like mailing tubes.
How had this family created an oasis when everything else was gone?  The girls were laughing and eating cake with their fingers, not waiting for their father to cut it. 
Kendra was close enough to Terry to hear him draw a startled breath.  "I don't know if I want to laugh or cry," he whispered to her.  Kendra wanted to do both.  Her hand sought his, their fingers twining together.  Everything seemed...so normal.   As if the devastation that had touched the rest of the world hadn't quite penetrated here.  
But not quite.  What was it?  Suddenly,  Kendra knew, and felt a chill:  Why were they celebrating outside the house?  The December air was cold, and only the father was wearing a jacket.  The others were barely dressed, practically in rags.   What the--
The sudden sound of Hipshot's urgent barking  made Kendra jump, startled.  The dog had followed them after all, standing between them and the picnic table.   
"I knew it..." Ursulina said, taking a step back.  If not for the tremor in her voice, she'd have sounded triumphant. 
Now that she was only twenty feet from the table, Kendra was close enough to see the cords wound around the family's feet. 
Dean swung his rifle up.  "What the hell is going on?"
"Just a party," the little man said, and when he turned, he seemed too bright, too happy.  Why hadn't they seen it?  "Every day, we have a party.  Can't wait for Christmas."
Their kids and the mother turned toward them, their private party disturbed.  Their eyes were reddish, their faces threaded with tiny vines, like rogue veins, growing where no veins should grow.  All three tried to lunge to their feet, but they were held in place by cables fastened to their waists.  They hissed and thrashed, but the girls made laughing sounds. 
"One...two...three..."  they said in unison, twins even now. 
The girls might have been pretty once, but no more.  Their round cheeks and matted blonde hair were ghoulish.  Kendra stood behind Terry, who had pulled out his Browning 9mm.   Sometimes, freaks could talk!  After the way she'd lost Grandpa Joe, Kendra didn't think she could ever forget it, but those girls had fooled her.  What if one of them had been too close? 
             Everyone who'd brought a gun had it trained on someone.  Terry's was on the stranger. 
"What do you want from us?" Terry said, raising his voice to be heard over Hipshot's ferocious growling and barking.  "Why'd you bring us back here?"
"The girls were born on Christmas Day," he said.  Now Kendra could hear his pain, grief, shock.  "We've always celebrated all month, so they wouldn't feel cheated.   Can you help me give them their present?   I know it's what they want."
Terry backed up a step, and Kendra gladly backed up with him.  Piranha cursed, and they formed an instinctive half-circle to protect themselves, ready to fire and flee.  His family was straining at the end of their ropes now, mouths stretched wide, yearning, fingers questing.
"What present?" Terry said, his voice unsteady.  "Man, you're crazy.  You can't help them.  Let us make sure you're not bit, and you can come with us.  Leave them here."
The man shook his head, insistent.  "I need you to help me give them their present," he said, and his voice broke.  "I can't do it.  Can't you see?  Look at them!  Listen to my girls laughing!  They sound exactly the same.  I want to, but...I can't."
Those might have been his sanest words yet, Kendra realized.  Her throat swelled with grief for a family she'd never known. 
"Let's get the hell out of here," Sonia said, tugging on Piranha.
But Piranha didn't move.  He was staring at Terry.  And Ursulina.  For the first time Kendra could remember, they didn't have a plan.  They didn't know what to do. 
"She's right," Kendra said.  "Let's go.  We shouldn't have stopped."
Terry shook his head, taking another step back.  "I'm sorry," he told the pleading man.  "We can't help you."  
But Kendra's eyes were drawn to Ursulina, who was gazing at the kids with curled lips and dead eyes.  Then Ursulina looked toward Dean, and their eyes locked with a spark of communication.  A pair of barely perceptible nods between them in an unspoken tongue that only they seemed to know. 
Ursulina, after all, had fought in a war when the barracks where they'd found her fell to an army of freaks.  And Dean's war had followed him to his dreams; the war he'd fought at home. 
"I can do it," Dean said. 
Ursalina nodded.  "Yeah.   We can do this." 
Dean looked at Darius, who shook his head.  All jokes were far from Darius's face.  "Not me, bro," Darius said.  "I'm going back to my bike."
"Go on," Dean said, nodding.  "You and the others wait for us."
"Sir?" Terry gently to the man.  "Step around front with us, please. You don't want to be here right now."
Kendra dared to hope that if she made it back to the bus fast enough and covered her ears, she could pretend she'd never seen the bizarre Christmas scene in the back yard.  But she never had the chance.
The stranger didn't come toward Terry.  Instead, he rushed to the picnic table, toward his wife and children, his arms wide to embrace them.  All Kendra saw was the ecstatic grin on his face.  "I'm sorry, Melissa," he said.  "I'm sorry, Caitlin and Cathy.  Merry Christmas, angels.  Happy birthday!"
For an instant, Kendra thought they were only trying to hug him too; they were all wrapped in an iron embrace, a tangle of frantic limbs. 
But Kendra closed her eyes when she saw their teeth. 
By the time the gunshots finally came from Ursulina and Dean, she had been praying for the sound of death.

© Copyright 2013 by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due     
DOMINO FALLS (Atria) is the sequel to DEVIL'S WAKE (2012).  This zombie series is appropriate for adults and YA readers age 14 and older.  For a daily newsletter from the zombiesphere, "The Devil's Wake Survivors' Daily," follow @ZombiesFreak on Twitter.  You can also join the Devil's Wake Series page on Facebook. 
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1 comment:

Angela Jackson-Brown said...

The pacing of this story is amazing. I literally felt myself holding my breath as I read each word. I will be using Devil's Wake and Domino Falls in my next creative writing class. My students, who love zombie stories, need to see how it is done by the masters. Thank you for your talent and your perseverance.