The moment Pudge drops those three quarters, we are dead. One quarter might have escaped the notice of the score of zombies who wander aimlessly through the abandoned hotel. But the sound of three quarters, one at a time, scraping through the slot, bouncing into the recesses of the vending machine like a Plinko board are like gunshots on a quiet suburban street.
Although I snatch at Pudge’s grimy fingers, he throws one shoulder into my gut and forces me back while he punches in the letters A9. A metal coil whirls, forcing a chocolate bar to commit suicide and plunge several shelves to the bottom of the machine with several cringeworthy kerthunks. Even the door screeches as his hand darts in to retrieve the treat.
Pudge’s fingers tremble as he fumbles with the candy bar’s sleeve. He has the look of a child who has discovered cotton candy for the first time. I would have killed him on the spot, except that he breaks the chocolate in half, and my mouth waters when I see the gooey tendril of caramel linking the two pieces.
“Angela?” he asks when he notices my homemade silencer pressing against his temple.
I lower the gun and take the piece of chocolate. My eyes roll back involuntarily as the sweetness melts in my mouth and coats my dry throat.
Neither of us has eaten for several days. In the machine, there is a rainbow array of stale chips, resilient pretzels, old chocolate, and concretized packs of chewing gum. The feast practically glows under the flickering lights. If we smash the glass, then we would have a smorgasbord of junk food.
Unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones looking for a buffet. Moaning and gurgling crescendos from shredded and decayed vocal chords just down the hall. I smell their putrefied flesh and moldy tatters of blood-stained clothing. A glance around a corner reveals both ends of the corridor are filled with the shuffling remnants of tourists in swimsuits, Hawaiian shirts, and fanny packs. We are pinned in by a vending machine and an ice maker, which had miraculously resurrected five minutes ago when the power surged to life unexpectedly.
Pudge finishes his half, licks his fingers, and stiffens when he hears the unmistakable noise of the undead. His eyes grow large and contrite as he looks up at me. He mouths an apology, but it is too late.
I almost shoot him again, but I hesitate. Mom made me swear that I would protect him when she sacrificed herself four months ago. It isn’t his fault he has the attention span of a hummingbird.
Just two bullets would spare us a worse fate. I often wish Mom had used her gun on us instead of handing it off to me and pushing us toward our bikes. Months of bone-chilling weather, weeks of gnawing hunger pains, and uncomfortably short hours of sleep while one of us scans the horizon have leeched optimism from my thoughts. Survival looks more like a game of Tetris with every narrow escape creating a gap between shapes that fills a screen at a hyperventilating pace.
I look up and away from Pudge, so he can’t see me cry. Above us, I notice the air duct, just large enough for one of us. Pudge might be able to escape, or he could hide there until the danger is past.
“Up there.” I cup my hands together and bend over. Pudge steps between my fingers and I hoist him up to the vent. The cover falls away and strikes the metallic side of the ice maker with another bang.
The moans intensify. They are so close, I gag on the stench of their mortified flesh and bones and force myself to breathe through my mouth. Their fingers scrape along the walls just outside the door, their white eyes unable to see the opening but their noses telling them that there is fresh meat nearby.
Pudge slides feet first into the shaft. He motions for me to follow, but I shake him off. I hand him the gun instead. He looks at it in confusion for half a beat before his eyes widen in recognition.
“Do it quick,” I say, just above a whisper. “Hurry.”
Pudge bites his bottom lip. His hands are trembling so bad, I am sure he will shoot me in the throat and leave me gasping for breath instead of nailing me between the eyes.
Then he does what I did four months ago. One moment the gun is pointed at me. The next minute he takes his finger off the trigger.
“Don’t be selfish.” My words sound eerily familiar, echoing my dead mother’s last request. “You have to do this.”
But the urgency quickly fades from my voice as despair anesthetizes my fear. Like me, he can’t murder someone he loves. I should be grateful, but I am so pissed off I barely feel the first claws as they tug at my shirt and pants. A half dozen rotting teeth pinch against exposed skin on my forearms and neck. A burning sensation flashes across my abdomen as shriveled fingers dig into me.
I throw elbows at shattered faces and aim kicks at exposed knees, but my attackers are beyond pain. They barely notice my thrashing limbs.
“Run, you son of a bitch,” I implore Pudge.
But he won’t run. He will wait there until the change is complete, until the room clears of zombies. He will return to the vending machine, repeat the same mistake, and die. With a final lunge, I kick the glass of the vending machine, and it shatters inward. At least Pudge will make less noise next time.
In response, an angry hornet stings my forehead, and blessed darkness floods in. I barely register the smoke spilling from the end of Pudge’s gun.
This flash fiction story originally appeared with The Arcanist on April 5, 2019