It was the second round of flashlight tag. We’d been screeching up a storm of fake horror since the sun set. Beth was “it.” I ran far away from her and crouched behind a headstone at the edge of the cemetery grounds near the field. It was very dark, save for the light of the moon, and a streetlamp a nearby farmer had mounted in his yard. The light shone through the wooded area that lined the south side of the cemetery, the blue light splitting through the leaves like spectral stars. Beth called out, “I’m coming for you,” her flashlight beam bouncing in the distance, pointing nowhere near where I was hiding. I kept silent, peeking over the top of a tombstone. Beth called out again, “I’m coming for you, creep!” I screeched. It echoed. She stopped and circled her light around the graveyard, and then, for some inexplicable reason, she started running in the opposite direction of where I was hiding. She ran away from me, shouting, “I see you! I see you!” I stood to get a better look, wondering how she could be so mistaken. She pointed her light in the very wrong direction in which she was also running, and, to my astonishment, it caught a figure of what seemed to be a person. This person halted momentarily, then quickly dashed through an open area, and hid behind a tree near the Thompson Mausoleum. “Hey, I got you. I tagged you. Come out! You’re it now,” Beth demanded. A chill shot through me. We weren’t alone.
I stood up, waving my arms frantically, “Beth! Beth, I’m over here,” I shouted from far behind her. Beth stopped, frozen in place, turned and shined her light on me, then she shined it back to where the figure she’d tagged was crouching behind a tree. Beth screamed, then took off in a dead run back to where I was standing.
“There’s someone else here! There’s someone else here, Gillian,” she panted when she got to me. I threw my arm around her shoulder, and pulled my flashlight out of my back pocket. We both pointed our lights toward where Beth had been standing. “Who’s there? We’ve got a gun,” I shouted, deepening my voice, trying to sound tough, and older. Beth raised her eyebrows at me.
“Why’d you say that?” she asked.
“I don’t want them to think they can fuck with us,” I told her.
“Maybe it was an animal,” she said, continuing to scan the cemetery with her flashlight. Right then, something moved near her beam. She caught it with her light and followed it. It was definitely a person, dashing toward the mausoleum, and then, miraculously, the person opened the mausoleum door and disappeared inside. We both turned our flashlights off and crouched down. “What do we do?” Beth whispered.
“I don’t know. Maybe we should just leave. ” I felt totally terrified.
“Do you think it’s alive?” she asked.
I turned to get a look at her. “What are you talking about? Of course they’re alive. They were running, weren’t they?”
“No.” She looked at me like I was stupid. “I mean, what if it’s, like, a ghost?”
“A ghost wouldn’t show up in the light, would it? I mean, wouldn’t a ghost, like, be transparent?” Sometimes Beth didn’t think things through.
She shook her head, pondering. “What if it’s a zombie?”
I looked around the cemetery for any signs of the dead beginning to dig their way up through the dirt to herald what I suddenly believed to be the inevitable zombie apocalypse that, somewhere deep inside, I always knew was coming. “If it is a zombie,” I said, “we have to stop it. It just takes one, and then they bite someone, then they bite someone else, and then it’s all over.”
“Right,” Beth nodded solemnly.
“We’ve got to kill it,” I said, feeling a childish bravery take over.
“How are we going to kill it? What are you talking about?” Beth balked. “We’re not big enough to kill anyone.”
“Sure we are. There are two of us, and we have bats.”
“But they’re all the way over there.” She pointed to where we’d left the bats, next to the boom box, just a few yards away from the mausoleum.
“Let’s go get them. Just stay close to me,” I instructed. “And remember, you have to hit zombies in the head. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its head, because the infection is in the brain.”
“How do you know that?” Beth asked.
“I read a lot,” I told her, and tugged at her sleeve to move. We made our way stealthily through the cemetery, crouching and scurrying, then stopping to hide behind a tombstone every few feet and peeking around to make sure that who or whatever it was who went in hadn’t come back out of the mausoleum, though it was hard to tell for sure in the dark. We finally made it to our bats. Beth told me to take the aluminum bat and that she would take the wooden one since I was stronger and it would do more damage. We argued over whether that was logical. Since she was weaker, I thought she should have the more durable bat, for added protection. But finally, she had it her way, like she always did when we argued.
I gripped my bat with two hands, and told her to keep her flashlight off and only to turn it on when I gave the word. I crept up to the mausoleum, taking one careful step after another, Beth right behind me. There were only three mausoleums in the whole cemetery. There weren’t many wealthy families in the town. It was a lot for most people just to afford a headstone. This one was the nicest and the largest mausoleum of the few of them. It was about the size of a small storage shed, made of gray stone, and adorned with two lion’s heads flanking the top of the doorway, ringed by chiseled flora.
When we got to the door, we could see very clearly that the lock had been broken. The chain hung loose off the metal handle, which I took hold of and, after taking a deep breath, pulled open. I jumped into the doorway, like I was in an action movie, my bat raised over my head, and shouted, “Now!” Beth turned on her flashlight and shined it past me into the small stone room.
“Ahhhhh!” I heard someone shriek. The light illuminated the inside of the mausoleum, and I saw her. She held her hands over her head and cowered down on the far wall. I swung my bat in front of myself twice, hollering, “Get back! Get back!” But she wasn’t moving, except to cover her head with her hands. “Get up! Get up and put your hands up!” I demanded. But she just continued to cover her head and assumed a fetal position on the floor against the wall.
“Who are you?” Beth shouted at her, her voice trembling with fear. I was shaking too, and didn’t know what to do. She seemed to be a skinny, very human woman. She was wearing hot pink cutoff shorts, and had dirty, stringy blond hair. That was all I could really tell, because of the way she was curled up. There were a couple of open scratches and some small sores on her legs and arms, and because of that, she did look like she might be a zombie, but the way she was cowering had me seriously questioning that possibility.
“Don’t hurt me. Please. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Get up!” I told her again. “Stand up so I can see you, and put your hands up, too.” I was proud of how authoritative I sounded.
“Okay, okay. Just don’t hurt me.” She uncurled herself and put her hands up, then clumsily came to a standing position. She didn’t look like the undead necessarily, but then, it wasn’t completely a sure thing, because she looked closer to dead than any living person I’d ever seen.
She was very thin, and her skin had a pale, grayish hue to it that did not allay my morbid fears. Her makeup was all smeared and fucked up. Her blue eyeshadow was smudged weirdly, and her bright red lipstick was smeared along her lips so that it jutted off to the side of her face. I couldn’t tell her age. She could have been thirty, forty, or fifty. I had no idea. She wore an old T-shirt with a silhouette of a bird on it that said “Birdie’s Gonna Fly,” and, like I said before, cutoff hot pink shorts and white sneakers. She squinted in the glare of Beth’s light, which was aimed directly at her face. “What do you want from me? Just take it. Take whatever you want,” she pleaded.
Beth and I looked to each other for an answer. We didn’t have any answer. Beth pointed her flashlight around the cold cement room. There was a stone bench attached to the wall that was covered in a collection of stained blankets and pillows. A large box sat across from the makeshift bed, obviously being used as a table. On top of it was a half-eaten Snickers bar, several candles, a mirror and razor, a glass pipe, a lighter, a pack of cigarettes, an open can of Mountain Dew, and some potato chips. On the floor was a tattered backpack, a pile of clothes, a box of incense, and a half-full bottle of vodka. The place looked like a weird nest. From above us, embedded in the wall, a stained-glass Virgin Mary looked down on us, and lining the wall were plaques with the names of the people whose bodies rested, I supposed, inside the walls of the mausoleum.
She bent forward, as the light was no longer in her eyes, and got a better look at us. “Hey, wait a minute. You’re just some kids.” She started to put her hands down.
“Watch it!” I shouted, raising my bat higher, trying to seem menacing. “Keep them up!” She put them back up, but seemed less intimidated.
“You little girls?” she asked. “Two little girlies?”
“Are you alive?” Beth asked, shining her flashlight back in the woman’s face.
“Am I alive? What the hell kinda question is that? Course I’m alive. Aw, did I scare y’all?”
“We ain’t scared,” I told her. “You’re the one that oughta be scared.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t whack me, honey. I ain’t done nothing to you. Here. I got something for you.” She slowly crouched down and reached toward her bag with one of her shaking, skinny hands. “Here, let’s be friends.” She squatted lower and fished around her backpack. “Here, I got a peace offering.” She reached into a pocket of the bag with one hand, keeping the other one in the air, and pulled out a Hershey’s bar. She held it up to us. “Here you go. You girlies want a candy bar?”
“No thank you,” Beth responded instinctually.
“Shh!” I snapped at her, giving her an exasperated look. That was no way to talk to a hostage.
“Sorry, gosh,” Beth muttered.
“Maybe I got something else you’d like.” Now both of her hands were down and she was just rummaging around her backpack. “Hey now. You’ll let a poor little lady have a cigarette, won’t you?” she asked, feigning being very pitiful, tilting her head up at me.
“I guess,” I said, feeling I was losing my grip on the situation.
She produced a lighter from the bag and stood, then slowly reached for the pack of cigarettes on the makeshift table. “Thanks, honey. That’s mighty kind of you.” She took out a cigarette and lit it. “Let’s get a little light on this subject. Whatdya say?” She proceeded to light the many candles on the “table,” then she sat on her “bed” and puffed her cigarette, regarding us with curiosity. Beth and I looked to each other in confusion. I slowly let the bat down, but kept it in my grip, resting it on my shoulder, just in case. Beth turned off her flashlight and rested her bat with its tip on the ground.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Are you living in here?”
“Who are you?” she retorted.
“I’m Beth. This is Gillian,” Beth told her politely. I rolled my eyes. What had gotten into her?
“I’m Tanya. Nice to meet you.” She held out her hand to shake and, to my horror, Beth shook it. Beth had the weirdest look on her face. She had kept letting a smile bloom, then trying to fix it back to a poker face, but it was obvious she was bursting with giddy excitement. “What are you two doing out here so late?” Tanya asked.
“This is where we hang out,” Beth said.
“What are you doing here, inside this . . . place?” I asked, my tone not at all friendly. It bothered me that Beth was acting so immediately taken by this strange woman.
She shrugged, took another drag of her cigarette, and ashed it on the floor. “Seems like as good a place as any,” she said. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m being rude. You want one?” She held the pack of cigarettes out to us.
“We are not old enough,” I told her insistently.
“Well, I’m not calling the police. Are you?” Tanya smiled up at Beth and winked. To my dismay, Beth giggled.
“Go ahead,” Tanya pressed. Beth laid her bat down, walked over to her and took a cigarette out of the pack.
“I’ll try it, Gillian. I always wanted to.” Beth was acting like this was some cool high school party we’d been privileged enough to gain access to. She sat down next to Tanya and put the cigarette in her mouth. Tanya lit it for her. She inhaled, suppressed a cough, and let it out as coolly as possible. “Mmm,” she said, holding herself like she was much older, her shoulders back, her legs crossed. “It tastes like peppermints.” She let the cigarette dangle from her fingers and looked around the tomb. “Cool setup you have here,” she told Tanya.
“Thanks.” Tanya looked me up and down. “Now, I woulda guessed that she was the do-goody,” she motioned to Beth, “and you was the bad influence. But I guess looks can be deceiving.” Beth laughed at that, too.
“She’s brave,” she told Tanya, “but she don’t like to get in trouble.”
“That right?” Tanya asked. “You sure do look like you’d be the one to instigate.”
I knew what she meant. I looked like a tomboy, and I dressed weird. I wore almost all black. I dressed like a cartoon character back then; basically the same outfit every day. I always wore a black baseball cap over my short black hair. Dad wouldn’t let me cut it as short as I wanted, so I had it cut in a bob, just above my chin. He let me dye it, though, and it was jet black, and so was my T-shirt, and so were my high-top sneakers, but my shorts were almost always blue jeans, and went no shorter than just above my knee. Beth, on the other hand, looked like a regular girl. She was blond and pretty, and wore whatever: jeans and cute shorts and blouses and girl’s T-shirts, and even dresses. She wore makeup when she could get away with it, and kept her hair neatly combed or in a cute little ponytail on top of her head. Of the two of us, she definitely looked like she would be the one less likely to get into trouble.
“Do you want to try it? It’s nice.” Beth held the cigarette up to me, a weirdly excited look in her eyes.
“Whatever,” I said, and took the cigarette nonchalantly. I sucked on it. It stung like hell. I sputtered and those two giggled at me. I handed it back to Beth, patting at my chest. “That’s horrible,” I coughed out. It made me immediately dizzy and nauseated. To this day I cannot stand the taste of menthols. I paced around the small cement enclosure. “Do you . . . live here?” I asked again.
Tanya sniffed hard and wiped her nose with her arm. “For now.” She looked up at me, and pinched up her face. “I’m not gonna lie. I’m in hiding. My husband,” she said, flicking her cigarette again, “he’s been beating me bad, and I gotta hide out from him right now. You understand?”
“Oh gosh,” Beth looked very sad and worried for her. “Beating you?”
“Yeah, he’s a jealous motherfucker.” She talked loud and fast when she talked about this. “He says, ‘Tanya, what you doin’ with those guys down at the bar?’ And I ain’t doin’ nothin’ with no one. Just go have a drink with my girlfriends. What can I do if other men talk to us? But he thinks I’m always getting with every guy in town. And when I come home, he knocks me around. I couldn’t take it no more. I took off. That’ll show him. I decided to hole up here for a while, till I can work out a plan.”
“Oh god. I’m so sorry.” Beth shook her head and took another drag of her own cigarette, but I think it was a fake drag. I don’t think she was inhaling anymore, because she wasn’t even coughing.
“Oh honey, it’s awful,” Tanya went on. “Last month, I told him I was pregnant with his baby. And the old fool didn’t believe it was his, so he . . .” She paused and looked at Beth for signs of emotion. Beth was listening, entranced, and apparently growing very concerned. “He done beat it outa me. Beat that unborn baby, dead, he sure did.” She was talking a mile a minute. “Beat the damned thing right outa me.” She made a punching motion toward her stomach and doubled over. “I lost that baby, and that’s when I took off. I need . . . I need help, girls.”
I stood over them, also stunned from her story, my mouth actually hanging open. “He killed your baby?” I whispered in astonishment.
“Jesus!” Beth let out. “Do you want us to call the police? Gillian!” Beth tugged on my shirt. “We can call the police for her.”
“No police!” Tanya hollered, loudly. We stared at her silently, startled by her response. She placed her hand on Beth’s shoulder. “You just can’t. Okay?”
“Why not?” Beth asked shyly. “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”
“No. No. See . . .” She seemed to be searching for words. “The truth is, all the police, well . . . they’re his buddies. They’ll just believe his side, and they’ll tell him where I am. You can’t call the police. That ain’t what I need. I need to keep hiding. No one can know I’m here, you understand?” She was very intense about this point. We both nodded in agreement.
“Okay,” I agreed.
“It’s gotta be a secret. A lot of people know my boyfriend, and if anyone finds out—”
“I thought you said it was your husband,” I interrupted.
“What?” She shook her head. “Same difference. Oh god. This all gets me so upset and confused, talkin’ about this.” Beth patted Tanya on the back. Her cigarette was burned down. She followed Tanya’s lead and dropped it on the floor and stepped on it. “I need a drink.” Tanya said. She stood and picked up the vodka bottle, poured a bunch of it into the open can of Mountain Dew, then took a big swig. “Ahhh.” She smacked her lips, happily. “That’s better.” She held out the can of vodka Mountain Dew. “You want some?”
Beth and I looked at each other in shock. I felt terrified the way children do when they don’t know they’re terrified. Beth’s expression was stunned too, but excitement quickly began dancing in her eyes, and I could almost hear her thinking, Come on, Gillian. Do you want to do it? Let’s do it. Let’s drink that vodka Mountain Dew. Our parents had always told us never to take candy from strangers. They obviously had not thought about how much more enticing the offer of our first taste of cigarettes and liquor might be.
I shook my head. “I’m not old enough,” I told Tanya.
“Is that right?” Tanya said, taking another swig of her “cocktail.”
“It’s late,” I told Beth. “Your mom’s going to come looking for us if we don’t go back soon.”
“You two live nearby?” Tanya asked.
“Just down the road,” Beth told her. I elbowed her. I began to think maybe Beth’s parents had never told her anything about talking to strangers.
Tanya raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh yeah? Down this road?”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” Beth nodded.
“How’d you two like to make five dollars?”
“For what?” I asked.
Tanya came and sat down next to Beth. “I ain’t had hot food in days. I’m so hungry, girls. If you could find any way to bring me any kind of hot food later tonight, or even tomorrow, I’d pay you for it. Five dollars. Easy as pie.” She took out another cigarette and lit it. “If you come back later tonight, we could have ourselves a little party. Whatdya say? A secret slumber party, just us girls?”
I shook my head again. “I don’t know if we can do that.”
“But . . . maybe,” Beth said eagerly. “We could try, maybe, couldn’t we, Gillian?”
“It sure would mean the world to me. I’ve been out here all alone with no company, and all.”
I picked up Beth’s bat and grabbed her by the elbow. “Let’s go, before we get in trouble.”
“She’s right,” Tanya said. “Don’t want your parents coming out here looking for y’all.”
Beth stood and looked at Tanya intently. “We’ll help you,” she said. “I promise.” A sort of chill gripped me when she said that.
“You’re a real sweetheart,” Tanya told her.
I waved goodbye to Tanya. She waved back. We pushed open the mausoleum door and stepped out into the dark country night.
Born and raised in a rural farm town in Southern Illinois, Brooklyn-based writer Chavisa Woods is the author of three books of fiction: THINGS TO DO WHEN YOU’RE GOTH IN THE COUNTRY; THE ALBINO ALBUM (Seven Stories Press, 2013); and LOVE DOES NOT MAKE ME GENTLE OR KIND (Fly by Night Press, 2009.) Woods received the 2014 Cobalt Prize for fiction and was a finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for fiction. She has appeared as a featured author at The Whitney Museum of American Art, City Lights Bookstore, Town Hall Seattle, The Brecht Forum, The Cervantes Institute, and St. Mark’s Poetry Project.