The winner of our Zombie Flesh Eaters competition, Disconnect by L.R. Bonehill. Illustrated by Nick Gucker.
Emily looked up from the glowing screen of her phone just in time to register the dark shape coming towards her. One foot stretched out into the grime-spattered street as the van grumbled past, its rusted wheels edging dangerously close to the kerb. Another inch and the tyres would have grazed her black plimsoll. Another two and she would have heard the crunch and crack of bones.
She stepped back, heart thrumming wildly in her chest ,the smells of the street market intensified. The sickly-sweet tang of mouldering waste mingled with the citrus-smack of ripe fruit and the stench of fish laid out on melting ice. Emily wrinkled her nose behind the face mask.
The word ‘mouth’ was scrawled across the muslin in the same black kohl that underscored her eyes. Yukio had told her it accentuated their allure and made her look dark and mysterious. Smoky, he’d said in another text before posting a snapshot of her to his social feed. Emily said he was full of shit, but wore it anyway, applying it with a smile each morning.
Exhaust fumes rose from the back of the van as it bumped down the street, its squat bulk swaying on the cobbles. The rear doors ajar, the handles laced together with rope. A long tube of scaffolding poked out the gap like a dislodged antenna. It edged further out as the van rumbled on, clanking and jarring against the doors. Further still as the van turned sharply into an alley just ahead. Far enough for the steel tube to smack down against the cobblestones and bounce and clatter behind the van, scoring a trail in its wake.
Emily walked on, head down, before pulling up short at the sound of a muffled yelp, followed by a dull thud from the alley. She turned her head to see the rear wheels of the van rise slightly as they bumped over an obstacle in the street. The length of scaffolding jittered out still more and eventually clattered to the ground and rolled to the gutter.
Rolled away from the little girl lying on the cobbles. The little girl, bent and twisted. The little girl, broken.
Emily ran, instinct urging her forward. She knocked her hip on the corner of a stall where noodles boiled in pans slick with a patina of grease and frying meat, sizzled and charred.
The alley walls seemed to narrow, hemming in around her, forming a focal point of the girl as everything else faded to a blur at the edges of her vision. As she reached the slumped figure she stopped and took a step back. The gut instinct that had propelled her forward left in an instant like something wrenched violently from her stomach, and rendered her cold and empty with a chill that numbed her.
She was distantly aware of the van door opening and footsteps edging towards her.
Ice prickled her skin as she looked down on the girl. She couldn’t have been more than six or seven, dark hair pulled away from her face and tied with ribbon, small hands reaching out, fingers flexing.
There was a smear of oil on her face mask and the unmistakable pattern of a radiator grille, neat lines etched across the muslin like too many rows of teeth.
Emily leant down, hand outstretched, stopping shy of those small, trembling fingers.
She didn’t want to touch the girl, not at all. The thought chilled her further.
The only warmth was in her hands. The phone: warm and safe and comforting. She held it out and framed the girl in a neat composition. There was a white flash in the alley as she took a photograph.
She looked up to see the van driver approaching, lifting his phone in acknowledgment. It fitted the contours of his hand seamlessly. He gave a nod of his head before her phone chimed with the jaunty sound of a friend request.
She looked him up and down. Loose-limbed and lithe, thick veins and taut muscles, close-cropped hair that she could imagine bristling beneath her palm. Fingers sculpted for the piano, but with the grime of manual labour beneath the nails.
“Like,” she thumbed.
She held the photograph out to him. He appraised it indifferently, looked down at the girl and did the same. A rush of wind scattered litter from the gutter as they stared in mutual silence.
He retrieved the length of scaffolding and held it like a spear, grinding it into the cobblestones as he bent down to the girl. He dipped a finger in the ring of blood that crowned her head. Poked her twisted leg with the end of the scaffolding and revealed the white glisten of fractured bone.
Smiled a perfect smile for his new friend Emily as she took another photograph.
The girl whimpered, breath hitching in her fragile chest. Emily could see the shape of her lips moving beneath the face mask, but the words were too faint to hear. She leaned closer, head tilted.
She heard it then: a low, forlorn whisper. “Help,” the girl said, “friend?”
Emily looked back at silhouettes passing by the mouth of the alley. Someone would claim the child, she reasoned, its mother would come sooner or later. She stepped away, shutting out the animal-like whimper that came from the girl. Snapped another photograph and studied the image of the broken child.
It felt easier that way; detached, filtered, unreal. She imagined herself on a screen somewhere in blurred and shaky motion, someone filming her, filming the child. Unreal, both of them. Shadows of ghosts and nothing more.
She pinched, panned, flicked as the van driver sauntered away, the scaffolding slung across his shoulder.
“Friend?” she heard the girl say again from another world.
Emily shuddered. She jabbed ‘dislike’ and moved on, head down, fingers tapping at the screen.
WRITTEN BY L.R. BONEHILL
ILLUSTRATED BY NICK GUCKER