Undead with benefits, p.1

Undead with Benefits, page 1

 

Undead with Benefits
 



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Undead with Benefits


  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollins Publishers

  ..................................................................

  Advance Reader’s e-proof

  courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

  This is an advance reader’s e-proof made from digital files of the uncorrected proofs. Readers are reminded that changes may be made prior to publication, including to the type, design, layout, or content, that are not reflected in this e-proof, and that this e-pub may not reflect the final edition. Any material to be quoted or excerpted in a review should be checked against the final published edition. Dates, prices, and manufacturing details are subject to change or cancellation without notice.

  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollins Publishers

  ..................................................................

  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollins Publishers

  ..................................................................

  Dedication

  [dedi tk]

  Contents

  Cover

  Disclaimer

  Title

  Dedication

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Amanda

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Cass

  Jake

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Also by Jeff Hart

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollins Publishers

  ..................................................................

  JAKE

  MY FIRST WEEK AS A ZOMBIE ENDED WHEN A DARK-haired psychic collapsed into my arms, blood curling out of her nose, her eyes wide and pleading with me. Behind us, a farmhouse where a horde of Iowan zombies were probably still snacking on recently massacred government agents. Around us, tall grass and the unconscious bodies of our friends, courtesy of some psychic mojo I couldn’t even begin to understand. In front of us, the future, the great unknown, and probably a lot of walking.

  “We need you to help us. To help me,” Cass said, all groggy. “Promise not to eat Tom. Promise, promise, promise . . .”

  “Okay, I promise.”

  After that, Cass passed out and I was alone. In the middle of nowhere.

  Well, Jake. What now?

  The Most Perfect Day of My Life began in a grain silo, just after sunrise, somewhere in western Illinois.

  I’m using the word life very loosely here, since I guess some people might argue that I’m not technically alive in the strictest sense. Sometimes my heart stops beating, my brain is reduced to animal functions, and my flesh rots. Most of the time, I’m totally normal, though. The living dead living it up.

  So let’s define life as the span beginning with my glorious birth, proceeding on through learning to poo alone and going to school and playing video games—all that uneventful, normal stuff culminating in my unfortunate contraction of a zombie STD. Since then I’ve teamed up with Amanda Blake (superhot, also a zombie) on a cross-country trip to find a cure for zombitis (not the technical term), which might be hidden away somewhere in Iowa. We’ve eaten some people, evaded government hit squads, had a few run-ins with other zombies of questionable sanity and friendliness, and met a teenage psychic who’d apparently been tracking us across the country. It’s been a crazy week. That’s life—it can feel lopsided sometimes, weighted toward the big moments. Anyway, I plan to keep doing it for a while, hopefully until my peaceful death from old age mourned by a grateful nation.

  Or, more likely, in the not-so-distant future with a bullet to the medulla oblongata. The most hilarious-sounding part of the brain to get shot in!

  But to burden this day—a Wednesday, maybe, it’s getting hard to keep track—with being the Most Perfect Day of My Life, well, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for improvement. I suppose that’s partly because I’ve never been a guy who thinks much about his future, and partly because there’s a good chance I might get killed pretty soon. Let’s just call it Jake Stephens’s Awesome Day, The Best So Far, With Strong Potential To Be The Best Ever, Or Definitely In The Top Five Because You Never Know. Jake Day, for short.

  Jake Day starts in a grain silo.

  Oh, also, I should point out that just because Jake Day begins with sex, it’s not all about sex. Jake Day is about feeling just a little closer to normal in that lull period between horrible things happening. Everyone should have a Jake Day. I think part of having a really amazing day, like Jake Day, is being able to take a breath and actually realize how good things are in the moment. Jake Day is all about that feeling of rightness with the world. If someone told me to go to my happy place—if I were, for instance, being tortured by a zombie warlord—it’s to Jake Day that I would retreat.

  Jake Day is about feelings and stuff.

  Feelings improved by the availability of sex, sure, but still. I’m talking about a higher state of emotional contentment here. And sex.

  I’d been trudging along carrying both Amanda (did I mention she’s my girlfriend?) and Cass (who was still passed out from the omega-level psychic bitchslap she’d delivered to Amanda), for what felt like hours—it was only forty-five minutes, but whatever—and the grain silo was the first structure with walls I’d come across. Also, when I say that I carried both girls, what I mean is that I’d carry Amanda a few yards, set her down, drag Cass a few yards, set her down, etc. At one point I might have tried tying them together with my shoelaces and pulling them through the fields like that, but apparently I’m not very good with knots and my feet kept slipping out of my sneakers.

  The silo wasn’t locked. I shoved Amanda’s limp body inside. Then I propped Cass in a sitting position next to the door.

  “You’ll be our lookout, okay?” I said, my voice sounding extra loud at night in all that empty farmland.

  Her head lolled to the side.

  Kind of a dick move, I guess. She could’ve been eaten by coyotes and I would’ve felt bad about that. But I figured that if anyone came looking to do silo stuff (what do people do in silos, anyway?), them panicking over Cass’s lifeless-looking body would give me some warning. I also worried that Amanda might wake up hungry, and wanted to keep some distance between the two girls.

  “We’ll be right inside,” I told Cass, even though she was knocked out.

  Before I’d been expelled (I assume) from Ronald Reagan High School for eating my classmates, my buddy Adam had tried convincing me to join the Agriculture Club. You’d visit a farm and milk cows for a gym credit. I didn’t sign up because I didn’t believe the New Jersey school system had the right to free labor from students, forcing us to pick cabbage for The Man, and also because I’m lazy. My buddy Adam did sign up, though, as part of some scheme to start growing his own pot in a shadowy patch of earth behind an abandoned barn. I think that was bullshit and he was just overcompensating for preferring horseback riding to rope climbing, but I ate him before the first harvest came in, so I’ll never know for sure.

  Anyway, point is, I’d never been inside a grain silo before. It was sort of like being in a hollowe
d-out rocket. The floor was covered in a layer of what looked like corn kernels that were ankle-deep at the room’s sunken center. Stacked against the walls were piles of burlap sacks and assorted pointy farming things. I pulled Amanda toward the center of the room and collapsed with her smack in the middle of all those kernels. I let out a groan of relief. The kernels were surprisingly supportive and comfortable against my sore body. I felt a little like the Scrooge McDuck of popcorn.

  Overhead, metal beams crisscrossed at ten-foot intervals, leading up to an opening in the ceiling. I watched the night sky slowly lighten and listened to Amanda’s steady breathing. Maybe I slept a little, although I was still pretty keyed up from everything that’d happened back at the farmhouse. The Necrotic Control Division had tracked us down and captured Amanda, with the help of an enslaved and feral version of her zombie ex-boyfriend Chazz. He got killed (boohoo), along with a whole bunch of NCD peeps, when a mob of bloodthirsty Iowan zombies led by a tomahawk-wielding nut job named Red Bear crashed the party. I guess at some point during the whole massacre thing Cass decided to quit the NCD and throw her lot in with us, which seemed to me like a real risky maneuver, but then I’m not exactly the person to be questioning other people’s bad decisions. Anyway, she promised to get us into Iowa, so I promised not to eat her friend Tom.

  Big night.

  I was a little worried that whatever superpsionic hex Cass inflicted on Amanda to keep her from attacking Tom might’ve turned her into a vegetable. But not really. I’d only just met her hours ago, but I didn’t think Cass would do that. Even if her and Amanda had sorta gotten off on the wrong foot.

  The sky was a bruised shade of purple when Amanda finally moaned and opened her eyes. The kernels shifted around us. At first there was a flash of panic on her face, but then she saw me and a shaky smile took shape.

  “I’m alive,” she observed.

  “You are.”

  “We made it.” She paused. “We did make it, right? Where are we?”

  “A silo. What do you remember?”

  She sifted a hand through the grains pensively. That hand ended up on my shoulder.

  “I remember charging that guy. I—I was going to eat him. Then, um, I don’t really know how to explain it. It was like when you turn off a TV and there’s that one little dot left in the middle. That was me. My whole world was that little dot and then . . . blip. Gone.”

  “Huh,” I replied. “Sounds kinda awesome, actually. Trippy.”

  “I thought I’d been shot in the head, Jake.”

  “Nah. The psychic girl did some kind of telepathic limit-break thing and knocked everyone out,” I explained. “Probably didn’t work on me because my brain’s so huge.”

  Amanda stared at me, her eyes wide and watery, and I realized maybe she wasn’t quite ready for joking around. I brushed some hair out of her face because it seemed like a thing to do, to show her that her beautiful head and soft hair were still totally intact.

  “We made it,” I said. “We’re fine.”

  Amanda grabbed my hand and entwined her fingers with mine. She was quiet for a moment. Outside, birds were starting to chirp.

  “So, you said you loved me back there,” she said, eventually. “And I’m realizing now I never said it back.”

  “Yeah,” I replied. “It’s, uh, no big thing. Just baring my soul and shit, that’s all.”

  Amanda smirked at me and squeezed my hand. “I do, though. Love you back.”

  “Okay, cool.”

  “Cool,” she repeated, deadpan. “Here I was feeling guilty and you say cool to me.”

  “Awesome?”

  She stared at me.

  “Stupendous?”

  “Just shut up already,” she said, and rolled toward me through the grain.

  And that’s where it happened, with a million pieces of unpopped popcorn as silent witnesses. The way I remember it, actually, some of the kernels did explode into fluffy popcorn blossoms, born from the heat of our lovemaking. Or not. But it was still different from all the sex I’d had before, serious and intense, each of us locked in on the other’s eyes. There was this hey-we-almost-just-died desperation to it, like we might never get another chance, so we better make the most of this grain silo.

  Let Jake Day commence!

  Afterward, we walked outside, and Cass was still knocked out right where I left her. Amanda glanced at her, but didn’t say anything. She was distracted by the horses. There were two of them, grazing right in front of the silo. In the dawn light, I realized they were a boy and a girl, or a mare and a steed or whatever. The mare was a tawny blonde and the steed dark brown. They didn’t seem afraid of us at all.

  My stomach growled.

  Amanda looked at me. “Hungry?”

  I nodded, still watching the horses. “How does that expression go? I’m so hungry I could . . . ?”

  So, we ate them. I guess if Cass had woken up right at that moment she would’ve been pretty freaked, what with the two of us all covered in horse guts, the flesh around our mouths that congealed gray it turns when we eat. Maybe it was because we’d just seen each other naked, but Amanda wasn’t even all self-conscious like she gets sometimes while devouring living flesh. Except for all the anguished whinnying, it was a pretty beautiful moment.

  JAKE DAY!

  We started walking later that morning. The miles of wide-open farmland didn’t seem as intimidating in daylight as they had the night before. It was slow going, mostly because I was carrying Cass over my shoulder. Amanda didn’t offer to take a turn, not that I really expected her to.

  Eventually, we found a creek and decided to try following it toward civilization.

  “This is how the pioneers did it,” I told Amanda. “They found water and it led them to Thanksgiving.”

  “Uh-huh,” Amanda replied. She nodded toward Cass. “Should we try dunking her?”

  “Come on, Amanda. Don’t be mean.”

  “I don’t mean, like, waterboarding her. Maybe if we splash her face she’ll wake up and do some actual walking.”

  I set Cass down at the edge of the creek and gently splashed some water on her face. She didn’t move. Some of the dried blood around her nose and mouth floated away in crusty little islands. I looked at Amanda and shrugged.

  “Maybe we should wash up too,” I suggested. “We look like we just escaped from a Rob Zombie movie.”

  Amanda looked down at herself. Both of us were pretty covered in gore, some darkened and stiff from the night before, and some fresh from the horses.

  “Yikes,” she said. “You’ve got a point.”

  We washed up as best we could in the creek. It would’ve gone better if we’d actually had soap, but at least we managed to downgrade from total blood-soaked horror show to mildly filthy teens with suspiciously stained clothes. The sun was out and the creek water was surprisingly warm and refreshing. Something in me unclenched at that point. Even though I knew it wasn’t logically true, it felt like we were finally out of danger. Amanda must have felt the same because soon we were splashing each other and laughing like dumb little kids.

  We didn’t even notice the fisherman approaching until he was just twenty yards away.

  “Good morning!” he shouted, causing both me and Amanda to jump.

  He was a middle-aged guy in a floppy khaki hat and those big rubber wading boots.

  “Rough night?” he asked us, smiling. He’d noticed Cass passed out on the bank and must’ve figured we were just coming off a night of farmland partying. But then he noticed the pinkish tint to the water flowing toward him, took a closer look at our appearance, and his face fell. “Uh,” he added, suddenly nervous.

  “Real rough night,” Amanda replied, grinning and stepping toward him. “You wouldn’t believe it.”

  The fisherman took a step back. “I suppose I wouldn’t.”

  “Say, mister,” I began, a folksy twang in my voice, because we were in the Midwest now. “You wouldn’t happen to know which way the road is, would ya?


  The fisherman pointed with his rod in the direction we’d been headed.

  Amanda turned to me. “You were right. Such a good pioneer.”

  I grinned at her, then stepped out of the creek and picked up Cass. “Much obliged,” I said to the fisherman, and started toward the road. He hopped onto the creek’s opposite bank as we passed, not wanting to be near us. Amanda lingered a few steps behind me, staring him down.

  “You should forget you saw us,” Amanda told the fisherman, her voice so sweet you could almost ignore the menacing, unspoken or else.

  About a mile farther on, we started hearing car noises from the highway. The creek eventually burbled its way into a little park and picnic area—wooden tables, a swing set, a point overlooking where the creek fed into a larger river. It was the kind of place teenagers of the ’50s drove out to for secret groping sessions. Only a beat-up maroon sedan was parked there now. It probably belonged to the fisherman.

  Amanda opened the unlocked driver-side door, reached her hand behind the sun visor, and came away with a set of keys.

  “Lucky break,” she said. “Probably karma for not eating that guy.”

  “Karma shmarma,” I replied, setting Cass on the ground so I could stretch out my arms. “This is the Midwest! Where people trust their neighbors enough to leave their keys in the car. Where strangers politely greet innocent if blood-covered zombies while out for a midmorning fishing trip. I love the Midwest!”

  Amanda went to the back of the car and opened the trunk. Inside was a picnic basket, which she immediately tossed aside, and a blanket, which she spread out across the trunk’s grease-stained floor.

  “Not bad,” she said. “Plenty of legroom.”

  “Um, why can’t we just use the backseat?” I asked, my mind wandering back to our glorious encounter at the silo.

  Amanda narrowed her eyes at me. “Not for us. For her.”

  I looked at Cass, pale and slumped against the side of the car.

  “You want to put her in the trunk.”

  “Yes.”

  “That seems mean.”

  Amanda checked her reasons off on her fingers. “We’re fugitives and she looks dead. We kind of kidnapped her. She’ll be safer locked in there if one of us suddenly needs to eat.”

 
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