Summer Vacation Of The Living Dead
a gruesome little screwball comedy by Alex Reynard
Featuring the voice talents of:
ANTONIO BANDERAS (in Four Rooms) as Carlos Lopez
ELIZABETH PEÑA as Martina Lopez
PAUL GIAMATI as Mr. Goldwood
ANTONIO BANDERAS (in Shrek 2) as Javier
STEVE BUSCEMI as Jeff
DAVID BOWIE as Thanatos
Get out your picks and shovels, folks. I have a feeling you're really gonna 'dig' this one...
Thunder, lightning, wind and rain crashed down from an angry sky like wild, pagan gods fighting unrestrained against each other in a four-way duel to the death.
Tish Lopez considered it a good omen.
Her brother had always liked thunderstorms. In contrast, and unusually so, she'd always hated them. If she were to be honest, they'd quite frankly scared the shit out of her when she was little. Literally. She vividly remembered one night in particular when she was four. The earsplitting booms and heartstopping flashes of light had seemed centered directly above her house, right on top of her room. She'd clenched herself into a tiny ball of fur, quaking with primal terror. And suddenly, fear was replaced with disgust as she realized that the last blast of thunder had frightened her so badly she'd shit her pajamas.
Tish had cried hard enough to wake up the entire house. Mom and Dad came thudding down the hall in their slippers to console her. They'd then spent a good twenty minutes hugging her and assuring her they weren't angry at her, that everyone has accidents sometimes.
But what really calmed her down most was seeing Max standing there in the doorway through her film of tears. There was no trace of malicious glee in her brother's eyes. This was not something he'd even consider using as tease fodder. His expression was warm and understanding and told her, 'Hey, it's okay.'
Years later, Max still remembered that moment. And when another vicious storm had passed over their tall, creaking house, he had run unexpectedly into his sister's room and woke her up with a paw pressed over her mouth.
"Come with me," he said.
He led her downstairs, holding both her paws in his. She fought him all the way, trembling and jerking and pleading with him to let her go so she could run back up to her room and hide under the covers. But he would not let go of her paws.
Down to the kitchen the two coyote pups went. Max stood her in front of their immense kitchen window, the one that, even from the head of the table at dinner, you could clearly see all the way out to the old town cemetery through. It was an amazing view, and one Tish had always considered pretty. Max held her tight and told her to wait.
Then, like a miracle, like magic, as if Max had somehow orchestrated it all, a tree of lightning ripped apart the sky, illuminating the night like an electric shock of daylight and casting a second's worth of eerie glow on the whole town below.
Tish's jaw hung open.
"Now, wasn't that the coolest thing you've ever seen in your whole life?" Max whispered to his sister. Totally casual, as if he'd planned the whole thing. As if the lighting had been paid off in advance to put on a show.
And after that, Tish wasn't afraid of thunderstorms anymore.
Tish turned around, scowling the same deep-set, impenetrable scowl she'd had on all evening. She hated when her mother called her by her 'real' name. "*What*?" she snarled.
Martina was taken aback by the sheer anger in her daughter's gaze. She knew that Tish had been in a dark mood for quite a long time now, but this type of behavior was even more troubling than usual. "I- I'm sorry. It's just you've been standing there by yourself all this time, and people keep asking about you."
The little coyote lowered her head a bit, staring down at her nice new black shoes and her nice new black dress and her nice new black everything. "Tell 'em to mind their own damn business."
The elder canine felt a surge of fury flash across her muzzle. She stalked over to Teresa and grabbed her daughter's snout in her paw, forcing the girl to look up. "You...! What is wrong with you? Why are you acting like this? What has gotten into you?!"
Tish stared back at her mother. Her lower lip trembled the tiniest bit, a small crack in her otherwise perfectly solid facade. Her eyes said, with sadness, 'What a perfectly stupid question, Mom. You know exactly what's the matter with me'.
And she did, too. Martina suddenly knelt down and embraced her cub, feeling like the most thickheaded parent on the planet. "I'm sorry, baby. I'm sorry. I've been so worried and frantic over all the details, making sure everything's just right, making sure we have enough money... I keep forgetting. I keep losing myself in the details so I'll forget. Do you understand, baby?"
Martina sobbed once, and a tear fell on Tish's black shoulder, running down the synthetic fabric to her rusty grey fur. "I _will_ tell them to mind their own damn business. You're right. Even I can't know what you're feeling now, my sweetie. But it's *okay* to feel whatever you need to. Let it out any way you have to. If you want to stare out the window, you can stare all night and day." She smiled just a little and added, "Although it might be hard, learning to sleep standing up."
Tish gave no sign, but she smiled a little too.
Martina stood up again and patted her daughter's long, dark hair. The hairspray in it made it feel like tiny coils of plastic. "If you don't want to socialize, that's alright. I'll tell everyone to leave you alone."
Tish nodded. "Thanks, Mom."
"I love you, my little moon," the elegant, slender coyote said, almost silently.
Tish heard, and said nothing back, but her eyes let her mother know she was grateful. Then she turned back to the window, staring off again into the premature night of the storm.
Martina walked back out of the kitchen, and her footsteps were swallowed up by the rest of the sounds from the livingroom. A sea of low, somber chatter. Fabric rustling. Plastic forks scraping across tiny red plastic plates. The tick of the hall clock. Another set of footsteps approaching.
She did not turn to face the approaching one. She did not react when a spotted yellow paw softly cupped her arm.
"I'm sorry..." he said, in the bewildered voice of someone who has just woken up from a nice dream, only to realize they are lost in a strange land where nothing makes sense.
"Back off or I'll break your arm, Nick," Tish told her best friend.
Being her best friend, and understanding that when Tish wanted to be left alone, she Wanted To Be Left Alone, the spindly young cheetah took his paw off her with all due haste. "Sorry."
"I'm not mad at you," she said, eyes closed, nearly inaudible.
"I know," he said, as if it went without saying. "I'll bug off. The snacks your mom got aren't too bad. But this suit itches like a sonofabitch." He scratched overdramatically at his collar, hoping to at least get a little smile out of her.
Her glare, reflected in the dark window, went even more rigid.
Nick took the hint, smiled weakly, and bugged off.
Although when he was gone, Tish did allow herself a tiny smile. On a list of impossible things that could never happen, she would have thought seeing Nick in a suit would at least be in the top five.
She sighed, then went back to the important task of staring out the window.
It _was_ important. She didn't care if nobody else understood it. She had to stand here, in the kitchen, paws on the sill, staring out into the storm. She had to keep her focus. She had to keep staring, waiting for each successive lightning flash so she could see the spot.
She had to keep her anger. She had to guard it like a precious jewel. She could not allow herself to feel sadness, or fall into grief. No. She wouldn't let that happen, because those feelings were unnecessary.
The tinkling glasses and hushed, sincere/insincere whispers from the living room were getting on her nerves. When the hell would they all just leave so she could be alone?
Another lightning flash.
Her suspicions were confirmed.
She *thought* she'd seen movement out there in the graveyard. And indeed she had. The lightning had clearly shown, just long enough, two fursons in grey jumpsuits, smoothing out the dirt.
Smoothing out the dirt over her brother's new grave.
Her anger, all of it, was directed at them.
'It is gonna be such a fucking pain in the ass digging him back up again,' she thought to herself.
Later that night, after all the refreshments were gone and the last guests had left, saying something consoling to Mom or Dad on their way out, Tish had gotten sick of staring out the window and had abruptly decided to go up to her room instead.
So now here she was, lying on her back on her bed, ramrod straight, staring up at the shadows on the ceiling of the rain running down the window.
She thought about the funeral.
The Lopezes were not the wealthiest family in the world. And that smug bastard lawyer Dad had talked with had said there was no feasible grounds they could use to sue the engineer or the railroad corporation. So that left only one option to pay for Max's last big goodbye party; go downtown to the bank and empty the savings account. Like tipping a piggy bank upside down.
Coffin shopping was about the least fun afternoon activity Tish could remember. Admittedly, it was not as bad as the time she'd gotten the flu. But by a slim margin.
She'd wandered aimlessly around the funeral home showroom, looking at all the big, shiny new corpse-buckets.'Geeze, somebody is going to end up lying down forever in every one of these things,' she thought to herself. 'Well, not exactly _forever_,' she corrected. 'Hungry hungry earthworms, of course.'
When her mom and dad came back to check on her after talking to the funeral director about cost options, Mom had let out a thin, sharp shriek. Dad clutched at his wife's shoulders to keep her from falling over sideways and asked his daughter what in the hell she was doing.
Tish was lying perfectly still inside a small silver coffin that she thought looked like a refrigerator from the future. She hadn't even taken her shoes off.
"Get this one," she said flatly, without opening her eyes. "Max would've liked it best."
And they had gotten that very one.
The viewing was also not particularly pleasant. Standing around in the funeral home, her brother lying there in his Techno-Fridge, on display, like a new car model or a selection of deli meats. Relatives she barely knew kept coming up and saying how sorry they were, and what a brave girl she was, and how awful it was to lose someone so close. She refrained, with all the strength of her will, from telling each and every one of them to go blow a donkey. There was no way in H-E-double-hockey-sticks they could _possibly_ know what she was going through right now.
One of them handed her a funeral home pamphlet about dealing with the loss of a sibling. She glanced at it and saw that the title was written in simulated purple crayon. On the inside there were stick figure drawings which were obviously done by an adult attempting feebly to draw like a kid. Tish skimmed the text and found it to be an insult to her intelligence. She snuck downstairs to the men's bathroom and stuffed it in the urinal. There. Max would have laughed his ass off at that. She was dealing with her loss.
She went back upstairs and finally did what she'd been avoiding for more than an hour now. She went up to Max's coffin. The overpowering smell from all the flower bouquets nearly made her choke. Tish's tail hung limply between her legs as she put her paws on the edge of the big silver bullet and gazed into the unmoving face of her very best, *best* friend in the entire universe.
He just looked like some kind of big doll. It was like those pictures she'd seen of that famous wax museum with all the weird-looking celebrity mannequins in it. Whatever this thing was in the ridiculously expensive padded box, it was not her brother. It was not Max. It was not fart jokes and a ten-speed bike and crunching cereal and comic books and a cracked and taped old hockey stick and the porno mag under his sheets he didn't think she knew about.
She looked around cautiously, making sure no one was close enough to see her or overhear.
She reached up and touched the dead body's nose. She honked it, like in a cartoon. She poked Max's closed eyelid and it felt like cream cheese.
"Wow, you're really dead, aren't you," she said conversationally.
No answer, of course.
The consistency of the flesh was like room-temperature rubber. The kind they make fake sea creatures out of that you can throw at your friends and scare the piss out of them. The nose felt like a fat little cherry tomato.
Tish swallowed. She wasn't about to cry. Not now. Not ever.
"You stupid asshole," she said in a loving, tender whisper. "Why the fuck didn't you just run? Then it would be me lying here instead. Dumbass. My stupid fucking dumbass brother."
She couldn't help it. A single tear managed to escape.
Disgusted with herself, Tish went to go sit in the car.
And then, just a few hours ago, an eternity ago...
The actual funeral. The big send-off-a-roonie. Back to the funeral home, in her nice new black everything that had obviously not been designed by anyone who had ever actually been a twelve-year-old girl. Admittedly though, she didn't hate it entirely. It certainly did suit her mood this fine and muggy June morning.
Then she sat down in a big room full of flowers and people she mostly didn't know, in a tiny chair where, somewhere behind her, the oldest lady she'd ever seen played religious tunes on an electric organ that sounded surreally like video game music.
Then some guy in a suit got up in front of a plastic podium and read from the Bible a lot. Tish found herself thinking that Max would be bored out of his mind right now. He would be bored to a *second* death. Actually, if the guy kept this up, maybe he'd miraculously bore her brother back to life again. That'd be convenient.
After a dreamy, indeterminate length of time, during which she'd spaced out looking at the flower-print dress the lady in front of her was wearing, everyone got up and the usher guy made them file past the coffin. She desperately hid a grin as she imagined 'accidentally' knocking the coffin over and having Max flop out onto the floor like a giant lump of cookie dough. The screams would be delicious. And she'd get to find out once and for all if they really did send you off to your eternal slumber in a jacket and pants with no back in them.
Of course, the real reason, the *only* real reason, for thinking such things was simply that she knew Max would have found them funny. His sense of humor had always been broad and sophomoric, never cruel, but with a little twisted edge to it she loved so much. She wished she could just look over in the corner and see a little white coyote ghost hangin' out, smiling back at her, daring her to do it. The corner was, of course, empty. But if she'd seen him, even just a little 'thumbs up' floating there, she'd have done it for real. Consequences be damned.
There was nothing in the world worth more to her than seeing her brother laugh again. The big dum goofball...
The look on the funeral director's face had been priceless when she'd asked him oh-so-innocently where they sold the souvenirs.
Then she and Mom and Dad got back in the car (which had magically sprouted a little orange flag on top) and drove at about negative-fifty miles per hour to the cemetery. She asked her dad if they could just floor it and let everyone else eat their dust, and her father had said gently that that wouldn't have been very polite of them.
She sat back and smiled a little bit. Dad understood. Dad knew she had to keep acting like Little Miss Asshole or else she'd start crying again, and that was the last thing she wanted to do in front of a bunch of strangers.
"Oh look," he'd said brightly, "we're running a red light now. And no one can stop us! We're fugitives from justice!"
Her mother had chuckled weakly, but Tish came perilously close to giggling. He was trying, and that was cool. She was proud to say she had a cool dad.
So then they were at the gravesite. Just a square hole in the ground covered up by some moldy old boards. The preacher guy started talking again, so naturally Tish zoned out. She looked around, reading the headstones, and noticed for the first time that there was nothing but kids in this part of the cemetery. That made her a little sad. All these headstones. And underneath all of them was someone's son or daughter. Someone's brother. Someone's sister.
Then she noticed a small white sign off by the road, declaring this part of the cemetery the 'Garden Of Babes'. She managed a little smile again. 'Max will be disappointed,' she thought. 'He'll see that and think he's gonna get to lie next to hot chicks for all eternity.' That struck her so funny, and so true to her brother's nature, that she snorted out loud. Dad gave her an impressively casual 'knock it off' shoulder nudge, and she pretended to sneeze as a cover up.
Then they were lowering her brother's body into the ground. A whole bunch of cemetery guys in grey jumpsuits (one of them with a cigarette dangling from his lip, she noticed with righteous anger) lifted the big silver sucker up and let it down somewhat less than tenderly into the hole.
A few people tossed roses on top of the coffin as the workers began shovelling dirt onto it. Tish snuck closer and, hopefully without anyone seeing, flicked one of Max's superhero cards down into the grave. He would have much preferred that to some stupid ol' flower.
And then they drove home. And then everyone was invited to their house for a 'remembrance get-together': a slimy little euphemism, but you couldn't really call having a party after a kid's funeral a 'party'. Tish, of course, had snubbed everyone and gone to stare out the window.
And so it all led back to now; Tish lying on her bed as the thunder rattled the windows and the rain made shadows like little round black bugs skittering across the ceiling.
Max would have liked this weather.
Tish reached across to her dresser and picked up the little red plate she'd snatched when no one was looking. Staring out kitchen windows is hungry work, after all. She was glad for the little assortment of crackers and spreads and fruit chunks she'd been able to hoard. There was no way she could eat a whole dinner right now, but just this was perfect.
Someone knocked on her door, and she stopped herself in time before an irrational impulse made her hide the food. It wasn't like she'd stolen it or anything.
The door opened slowly, and a strong, square muzzle poked in through the crack. "Tish?"
"I'm in here, Daddy," she admitted. That was another thing she liked about Dad; he never called her Teresa. _Never_.
Her father ducked a little bit as he came in her room, as he always did. Usually he looked like a blacksmith, or a tough-as-nails police sergeant. Someone shaped by hard work into a body of fur-covered steel, but still poised and dignified enough to give off an air of effortless importance. Someone you _had_ to pay attention to. Now, in his snazzy black suit, he looked like the quintessential mafia hitman.
"You okay?" he asked. Meaning; 'Do you want to talk about anything or should I leave you alone?'
Tish wasn't sure herself. "I dunno."
Carlos Lopez came closer and sat down gingerly at the foot of his daughter's bed, always afraid he was going to make the whole thing snap like a twig one of these days. He reached out a catcher's-mitt paw and stroked her hair with his almost supernatural gentleness.
Neither of them said a word for a long time. Tish just sat there, crosslegged, staring down at her socks, feeling her dad's big paw caress her rigid, itchy hair. While she appreciated the gesture, she wished she'd been able to convince her mom not to use so much damn hairspray on her this morning.
Eventually, he gave her two small pats and stood up. "Whenever you want to talk, I'll always be here for you. Always, my darling. My girl. Always."
She loved his voice. Deep and gravelly, with that little bit of accent he'd never bothered to shake. He had a good dangerous-sounding voice. He could have done movie trailers. As it was, he'd talked himself out of traffic tickets on two separate occasions before; his soft, intimidating tone subtly hinting that he was not a man whose time should be wasted by something so trifling. Tish totally admired the balls that took.
And yet, when he wanted to sound caring and soft, he did so with equal ease. Like now.
She looked up to him, her green eyes catching the reflection of lightning from the window. "I don't know when I'll be ready. Or what I wanna say," she told him, as truthfully as she could. Omitting certain parts, for now.
He nodded. "That's okay. Take all the time you need. I'll be here."
He turned to leave, then stopped, his hand on the doorknob. "You know, your brother loved you more than anything else in the world."
She nodded, and smiled sadly. "Well, duh."
He chuckled. A low rumble, like falling rocks in the desert. "Of course you know. How stupid of me. Goodnight, my sweetheart."
The door clicked as it shut.
Tish gazed up at the ceiling again. She popped a grape in her mouth and wondered if her brilliant plan wasn't the most insane thing she'd ever come up with.
Despite the fact that there were only five days of school left until summer vacation, Tish's parents had insisted that she still had to go. She laid out a fairly solid case that not only was she much too traumatized to attend classes, but that nothing important ever happened during the last week anyway. Mom kissed her on the head and said cheerfully that if she didn't go, they'd lock her in the attic all summer with no food or water. Tish rolled her eyes and said allright. Mom was always teasing her like that.
So, Monday morning found her trudging up the steps of the local elementary school with a severely grumpy look on her face. Her black, stringy hair hung down in her eyes, making her look somewhat drowned. She hadn't slept well last night, but at least she had not dreamed.
She stomped along through the hall like a furry hurricane, but she couldn't manage to be too pissed off. After all, in just five more days, she'd never have to set foot in this den of stupidity ever again. She'd be off to middle school next September. Which, she knew, would probably be even worse.
Nick caught up to her when she turned a corner. "Hey, Tish," he said with a weak smile.
"Get bent," Tish growled.
"I just wanted you to know, I'm here if you wanna talk about stuff."
"Drop dead," she spat.
"He was my best friend too..."
"Fuck off," she snarled.
"You know, you're being a total bitch this morning," he said.
Her expression softened. "Thanks for coming yesterday."
"No problem." The lithe little cheetah didn't even bother addressing her other comments. Tish was just Tish. If you were brave enough to be her friend, you had to learn when she was serious and when she wasn't. When she wanted to be coaxed out of a bad mood and when she didn't. Nick thought that, after nearly eight years of being her and Max's best friend, he'd *almost* gotten the hang of it.
The pair entered the classroom and conversation stopped dead. Everyone stared at them, especially at Tish. It was a bizarre situation. Here was the spooky dark girl who hated everyone and who they all made fun of. But what had happened to her, had happened to her brother, made nearly all of them feel a little sorry for her too. The moment was made even more awkward by the fact that Tish was still wearing her rumpled, wrinkled black funeral dress, which she'd also slept in.
"Anyone says anything about my brother today and they get punched in the mouth," Tish stated with calm, inflexible firmness.
The other kids all looked somewhere else and started talking amongst themselves again, coming to a silent consensus that the best thing to do would be to just ignore her.
Before she took her seat, Nick gave her tail a tug. She looked up, a little annoyed, and saw his eyes. His deep brown eyes, giving her a perfect 'It's gonna be okay and I'll always be your friend' look.
She gave one back to him gratefully.
He nodded and sat down.
"Hey, Chainsaw!" someone shouted.
Nick turned around and soon he and his other friends were caught up in a heated conversation about the newest series of trading cards with pictures of little Japanese critters on them.
Nick's last name wasn't actually Chainsaw, but it might as well have been. In reality it was some fiendishly long and complicated eastern European name with way too many consonants and not nearly enough vowels. All anyone could seem to remember of it was that it started with a 'Cz' and ended with an 'owski'. At some point in second grade, one of his friends had looked at the little cheetah's nametag and, struggling with all his might, mispronounced it 'chainsaw'. The rest was history.
Everyone called him Chainsaw. Even Nick himself. Even the *teachers*.
He'd even found a way to make the nickname make some sort of sense. He said that if he were ever in a horror movie, being chased by some psycho wielding a chainsaw, he'd be the one to outrun him. And it was probably true. Some cheetahs were indeed fat and lazy. Nick, however, was about as perfect an archetype as you could imagine. Lean as an Olympic sprinter, slick as butter and with fur color to match. 95% of his life was spent in running shorts and sports jerseys.
Tish silently watched him talking animatedly with his other guy friends. Talking about dumb boy stuff, probably. But the image made her sad nonetheless. Before class, she and Max had always talked together. It didn't matter that they were different as night and day (which was why Mom and Dad called them, respectively, 'my little moon' and 'my little sun'), they were twins. They were a team. Forever. _Forever_, dammit.
But not now.
She forced herself to glance over at the empty desk beside her. There were still little pencil scribbles on the top surface. That band logo sticker was still mostly stuck to the side, despite Mr. Goldwood's attempts to scrape it off. She didn't even want to guess how much of her brother's stuff was still inside there. He'd probably left part of his lunch in there over the weekend and by Friday it'd stink like hell. She grinned thinly; Max's final, parting prank.
No. She mentally slapped herself. Not final. Not final _anything_. Because she would not accept his death. She simply would not allow herself to believe he was really gone. Not until she'd done everything possible to bring him back. To see his face one more time. And then they could be brother and sister again. The team reunited.
Her head snapped up. Class had started and she hadn't even realized it. Several people tried to hide giggles, but she heard them anyway. She'd be paying all of them a visit during recess.
"Miss Lopez. Eyes up front, please," Mr. Goldwood said testily.
She glared daggers at the bespectacled possum. "My brother's in the ground right now being eaten by bugs, so leave me the hell alone, okay?"
Normally, she never would have had the guts to say that, but today she thought she actually had a chance at getting away with it. She and her sixth grade teacher shared an adversarial relationship, but one with mutual respect. He put up with a whole lot of her weirdness that another teacher would have had her expelled over, and he also saw the potential in her dark and angry, but extremely creative and intelligent, mind.
He stared at her for a bit. They locked eyes. No one else in the classroom said a word.
Her eyes said, 'Come on, you know I'm not gonna be able to concentrate anyway. Give me a break.'
He sighed theatrically. "Fine, but you watch it, Miss Lopez. And I _am_ very sorry for what happened."
'Thank you,' she mouthed silently to him.
He went on with his lesson, and Tish went on with her remembering.
Last Tuesday hadn't been the hottest day their little southwestern town had ever faced, but it had been mean enough to force you to notice it. Tish had been lying spread-eagle on her bed, all the windows open, fan going full blast, tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth.
Max had popped in, cheerful as ever. "Wanna go bike over to the Frostee Freez?"
She turned her head to him. "Bike? In this weather? Are you _trying_ to give me heat stroke?"
Max was one of the few people in the world bold enough to not put up with Tish's melodramatics. (Mom, Dad, and the school principal were the others. And Grandma, of course. But Grandma was gone now too.) He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her off the bed like dragging a sandbag. "Come on, ya big crybaby. I'll pay. We'll get those big giant milkshakes the size of bowling balls."
She perked up a bit. Superman's weakness was Kryptonite. Tish's weakness was those bigass milkshakes. "Oh, allright."
"Cool, let's go!"
He ran off in his gangly way out of her room and down the stairs, and Tish wondered again why he'd apparently gotten all the energy when they were born.
Tish and Max were the rare case of twins who were nearly complete opposites in almost every way. While some twins looked alike, talked alike and shared the same activities, with Tish and Max, if one of them had claimed to have been adopted, the whole town would have gone 'Ohhhh, so THAT explains it!'
Tish was scrawny, to put it politely. She was a little gloomy skeleton, dressed always in black ever since she was seven. Her hair was black too, limp and uncombable, looking sometimes like a raven had passed out and melted on top of her skull.
Max was slender too, but in a more wiry way. He was a tad gangly, with a big head, big tail and big paws. He was almost always in motion; riding his bike as fast as possible, riding his roller skates as fast as possible, gleefully engaging in the rough and tumble sports. He liked things loud and energetic, while Tish preferred things quiet and nuanced.
While Tish was brilliant (the 'brains of the operation', as he called her sometimes), Max was no dummy either. He was just so much like a goofy little puppy most of the time that people tended to overlook his low-key, sharp and perceptive side. Sometimes he came up with ideas out of the blue that were so clever, Tish was left speechless. Her brother was like a cunning tornado on wheels brandishing a hockey stick.
About the only things they really shared were their grey & tan streaked fur and their sparkling green eyes. That, and the fact that they loved each other more than anything else in all existence. They'd walk along together holding hands, completely unselfconsciously. The charmingly obnoxious grinder and the creepy, dangerous stormcloud. They made quite a bizarre pair.
Especially on those rare occasions when they'd be having a conversation and would suddenly stop speaking in words for a few moments. Then they'd continue on as if nothing had happened. Tish had read news articles about how twins sometimes shared a low-level telepathic link. Her reaction: 'Well, duh.'
So, because even more than milkshakes, she liked seeing her dum brother happy, Tish got up and went downstairs to get her bike.
Had her mind not been elsewhere, she might have realized that her jet black, faux-silk long pants (found at a thrift store for five bucks; they were her favorite pair) were not the best thing to wear when going out bike riding. Had her mind not been elsewhere, she would have taken a moment to change into a pair of shorts.
Had her mind not been elsewhere, Max might still be alive.
It was only about a dozen blocks to the Frostee Freeze, but Tish was about ready to collapse from exhaustion two thirds of the way there.
Their town was not exactly small in terms of area, it spread out like a calm fungus over the desert in a wide, thin oval, but it was small enough in population that just about everyone knew where just about everything was. Hardly anyone ever needed to ask for directions. They would have been given out happily though, because if you chose a random person to ask, you'd probably know them anyway.
It was a city spared from some of the more extreme weather that most of the rest of the state often had to deal with, but while still retaining the charm and peace of a quiet little desert town. They had all the amenities of any other suburban city, including a bustling downtown full of fun little shops, but you'd still see tumbleweeds rolling lazily about down the street every now and then, and some people grew cacti in their backyards that were taller than their houses. And on some nights, you could hear the coyotes howl from any point in town.
"Come *on*!!" Max grumbled back at her. He was trying to stay upbeat, but he was also mildly annoyed at his sister's lagging pace.
"I'm trying! I'm sorry, but I'm hot and sweaty and tired!" she called back. To make things worse, she hadn't had anything to drink since breakfast and all her black clothes were trapping heat energy like a magnet. Tish was dripping sweat all over her shirt. She was pumping her legs as hard as she could, but was still only able to force her bike along at a crawl.
Most of downtown was behind them now. All they had to do was get past the railroad tracks, past the barber shop, and they'd arrive at their destination. Milkshakes ahoy, Cap'n.
It was hot, but dirty grey clouds were hanging overhead. Possibly heralding rain.
A growing rumble to the west sparked Tish's notice. She glanced down the street and could see a train chugging along steadily towards the crossing. "Oh shit! Max, stop! There's a train!"
He laughed nonchalantly. "Look how far away it is! We can make it! Hurry up!" He put on an extra burst of speed and shot towards the tracks.
She knew he could make it, but she didn't know if there was enough time for her to do it alongside Max. The last thing she wanted was for them to be stuck on opposite sides of the train, waiting with annoyance for it to pass. "Dammit..." she grumbled. She stood up on the pedals and tried her best to speed up. It didn't help that the road sloped upward to meet the tracks.
Between the railroad ties were wooden planks, laid out so cars wouldn't snap their axles driving over exposed track. However, after decades of wear, the wood had shriveled treacherously. If you were in a car you'd just get bobbled around a bit. If you were on a bike however, it made for a truly ass-shattering experience. Your tail would hurt like hell after going over all those dips.
Max took the crossing easily, standing up on the pedals to absorb most of the shock in his arms and legs. "Woohoo!" he shouted, mostly to hear his voice vibrate.
The train was coming along faster than Tish had thought at first. She pushed herself harder, stomping down fiercely on the pedals. Looking ahead, she saw she had plenty of room to spare between her and the train. Grinning at her accomplishment, she sped out over the tracks.
And then, the worst bad luck of Tish Lopez's life all fell into her lap at once.
Her flapping pants leg got caught in the chain. The back wheel stopped with a sudden, vicious jerk that pulled her leg out straight and made her open her mouth to cry out silently in panic. The bike skidded. She lost her balance on the handlebars and the front wheel turned ninety degrees and wedged itself hard in a crack between metal and wood.
Tish went flying forward in a one hundred and eighty degree arc, still unable to scream, and smashed her nose directly into a solid metal railroad tie.
Max stopped his bike instantly as a sharp pain stabbed him right in the nose.
He turned around and saw Tish, saw her bike, saw the train coming closer by the second. The big silver engine let out a whistle scream that vibrated Max's skin from a half a block away.
He picked up his bike, turned around, and pedaled faster than he ever had in his entire life.
Tish was crying and in so much pain she couldn't think straight. Bright red circles of blood were dripping from her nostrils onto the gnarled, worn-down wooden planks. Her elbows hurt. One of her ankles felt like it wasn't even attached anymore.
She tried to get up, but her pants leg had been pulled up into the chain past the ankle. She pulled on it, hard, but the artificial fabric was nearly impossible to tear. She pulled anyway, tugging with all her strength and finally starting to scream and cry and wail and oh god the train was so close now it was making everything jitter and shake and rumble like the Wrath of God.
Like a superhero flying in to save the day, Max leapt straight off his bike and was suddenly at his sister's side. He looked down and saw there was no way in hell she was going to tear her pants leg, and her bike wheel looked equally immovable. He looked up; the train was so close now there seemed to be no hope at all.
"Max! Save me!!" Tish cried, tears and snot and blood streaming down her face.
And then, right when he needed it most, Max got one of his really, really good ideas.
Ignoring her shriek of shock, he bent down and unbuttoned her pants. Moving with all the speed and strength he'd honed over the years, in one single, impossible motion, he grabbed Tish by her waist and yanked her straight up out of her pants. He stood up, lifting her over his head like a strongman's barbell. The train was so loud, it had ceased to be making any perceptible sound at all.
His last thought was, 'This is why. This is why I love sports and running and playing outside so much. So I'd be strong enough to save Tish today.'
His last words were, "Nice undies."
Then he hurled his sister across the tracks with all the strength in his body. He had just enough time left to watch her land safely, if not elegantly, in the reeds by the side of the road.
Just enough time to know he'd saved her life. But not enough time to jump away and save his own.
A second later, the train picked up Max and hurled him even farther than he'd thrown Tish.
Tish looked up dizzily, just in time to watch helplessly as her brother went flying through the air and smashed wetly into a telephone pole. He broke in half like a rubber bag of chicken bones.
Tish screamed and screamed and screamed until her voice would work no more.
They didn't even have to tell her he was dead. That hideous crunch when he'd hit the pole, smacking into it sideways across his stomach, bending like a hamburger patty, then falling all the way back to earth and hitting the dirt with a splat... That had already told her everything.
That night at the hospital, she had not been able to make a single intelligible sound. The little coyote shrieked and cried and ranted and raved until the nurses were forced to strap her down in her bed. Still she thrashed and howled, like a demon had gotten inside of her. Her parents were honestly worried she'd gone permanently mad.
But then the next morning, she came downstairs and ate breakfast and was okay again. She had decided. It was because of her own stupid, stupid, stupid mistake that Max had gotten killed. He had saved her life. Her injuries didn't even hurt anymore. They glowed with a soft ache that only reminded her of her brother's heroism. It seemed impossible that he'd really done what he'd done.
But he had, and now that meant she had to save his life too. She had to find him and bring him back. Because without him, she did not want to live. She didn't even think she could.
And then, she got one of _her_ really, really good ideas.
Up in the attic. Grandma's journals.
The recess bell rung and everyone else got up from their seats. Everyone except Tish. She still sat motionless at her desk, head wrapped up in her arms, looking like a little black blob.
Mr. Goldwood came over and poked her shoulder gently. "Hey... You awake?"
She lifted up her head and her eyes were red as radishes. "Yeah. I just didn't want anyone else to see me crying," she admitted, and sniffled a bit. It was hard for her to show weakness, to let anyone peek under her mask, but she thought Mr. Goldwood deserved it for respecting her wishes earlier.
The possum patted her shoulder softly. "It's okay to cry, Tish. I remember when my uncle Darren died. I was even younger than you. I had bad dreams about the funeral for months."
"I haven't been dreaming anything since Max died," Tish said softly. It was true, and it actually scared her more than any nightmare. Usually her dreams were disorientingly detailed and storylike. Nightmares would at least seem normal compared to having her whole night be a total blank from midnight to morning.
Mr. Goldwood knelt down by her desk and looked into the small, sad young coyote's eyes. "Max was a great kid. I loved having him in class. He was funny and kind and you just couldn't help liking him. Even when he screwed up."
They both chuckled a little. Max was, admittedly, a bit of a klutz indoors. Like a duck in water, he only really attained grace outside in the open air.
"I'll miss him, Tish. I'm sure a lot of us, teachers and students, are all going to miss him. But I know no one's going to miss him more than you will. So, if you need to spend the rest of the week with your head on your desk, it's okay. And I'm sorry that I snapped at you earlier."
She nodded. A warm new line of tears came to her eyes and she stood up and hugged him. She'd never hugged him before. Usually they were at each other's throats. And yet, she'd always known that, secretly, they were friends. It just seemed more fun to be each other's nemeses. But it was also good to know that he really did like her and respect her.
Mr. Goldwood joined her embrace, patting her on the back and feeling little droplets of moisture touch his cheek. "There there, Tish. It's okay."
She nodded. "Thanks, Mr. Goldwood. I needed this."
"I know," he said as he stood up. "Now run along. I've got papers to grade," he said gently, making it clear that he really rather would have stayed here, comforting her.
She got the message. "Okay." She picked up her backpack and padded out of the classroom, shutting the door quietly behind her. She hurried off down the hall towards the playground.
But as soon as she stepped out of the doors into the sunshine, she saw Eddie Schwartzman waiting for her.
Tish cringed furiously with her entire body.
Despite being saddled with a name that would get most kids pummeled daily on the playground (or, more likely, as compensation for it), Eddie Schwartzman had become the single biggest asshole Tish had ever encountered. He was the perfect bully: a vain, preening, strutting young white mouse, squat and fat, but a lot of his weight was muscle. If the repulsive little rodent ever wanted to become a professional bad-guy wrestler when he grew up, he could probably name his own salary.
Eddie was a psychologist's nightmare. All those mewling, wimpy, touchy-feely 'experts' who said bullies were just troubled kids with low self-esteem had never met Eddie. His self-esteem was through the roof. He didn't beat up on other kids to make himself feel better about himself, he did it because he found it absolutely hilarious.
Worst of all, his parents were assholes too. Mommy and Daddy Schwartzman were well-to-do, and doted on their precious little hellspawn like he was royalty. Whatever Eddie wanted, Eddie got. And what Eddie usually wanted was to see how terrified of him he could make other kids his age.
And those he couldn't terrify, he found other ways of hurting. Eddie was smarter than anyone realized, and his great gift was in finding someone's worst, most secret weakness, then jabbing them in the heart with it until they bled. He hated Tish, but he'd hated Max more. Max was too damned carefree to be affected by Eddie's punches and insults. They bounced off him like he'd been wearing a bullyproof vest. And Tish was too rock solid to take any of his shit either. Obviously he couldn't beat her up, 'cause she was a girl, but he delighted in mocking her endlessly, wondering when that stony, spooky glare of hers would finally crack.
"What the hell do YOU want?" she spat at him as she came down the steps. After her quiet, touching moment with her teacher, an encounter with the King of Jerks was the last thing on Earth she wanted.
Eddie grinned at her. A slimy, malicious, sociopathic grin of utter delight. "I just wanted to tell you how sad I am your brother's dead," he said innocently.
He didn't fool her for a second. Tish walked right up and stood nose-to-nose with him. "Oh really," she deadpanned.
He smiled sweetly. "Yeah, I was looking forward to shoving his head in the toilet all weekend!!" He roared with laughter, right in her face, treating her to a miniature rain shower of spittle.
Tish glared at him, showing no response whatsoever.
His expression turned smug, cocky. 'What, nothing to say back?'
Tish sighed. "You didn't listen to a word of what I said this morning, did you?"
And before he had time to react, her clenched fish shot out quick as a bullet and plowed right into his mouth.
Eddie fell on the ground flailing and screaming and clawing at his muzzle. Blood went flying everywhere. Tish looked down at him, emotionless as a stone gargoyle. Other kids were running over to see the school bully, who all of them feared without exception, crying and rolling around like a baby.
Predictably, one of the recess monitors came over and roughly escorted Tish to the principal's office. Her eyes never left Eddie as she was dragged away. Her expression never changed either. She wasn't a bit sorry for what she'd done, and no one was going to make her feel any different, no matter what.
Of course, she was disciplined for her unladylike conduct. The principal roared at her that she was the most antisocial little troublemaker he'd ever met in all his years of school administration, and that she should give him one good reason not to hold her back a year for her unspeakable behavior.
Tish had merely stared at him without a trace of fear and repeated, word for word, what Eddie Schwartzman had said about her brother.
That had shut him up _real_ good.
For a moment, Mr. Monta§o just stuttered a bit. Then, rearranging his angry, intimidating appearance like putting a jigsaw puzzle back together, he shook his finger in her face and kept on scolding her, but with just enough of a humbled edge to it that Tish knew she'd won. He told her that that was still no excuse for hitting Mister Schwartzman (although she could tell he didn't actually mean that), and that he was well aware of her brother's untimely passing (also untrue: she could tell he'd momentarily forgotten up until she mentioned it), and so he was going to be lenient on her by calling her parents and sending her home for the rest of the day ('Gee, thanks. You could've suspended me the whole week, you jerk').
So, she had waited in the sticky, faux-leather chair in the outer office, listening to Mrs. Livonia typing away merrily, not a thought in her dear old head. Tish thought she disliked the secretary even more than the principal. The huge black panther who'd just been yelling at her was at least someone you could reason with on occasion. Someone whose intelligence she (sorta) respected. Mrs. Livonia was either so old or so heavily medicated that she simply floated blissfully through life, eternally grinning, as if her skull was as empty as an old jelly jar. She spoke to everyone who came in as if they were a kindergardener. Even Mr. Monta§o. Creepy.
Finally, Dad showed up. He didn't say a word to her, but the set of his jaw indicated that he was Not Pleased.
Tish got up and went with him without protest, but she also avoided his gaze.
They passed by Mr. Goldwood's class, still without speaking a word to each other, and Tish's teacher cast a sympathetic glance to her through the open door. She smiled back, appreciating the gesture.
While her family was a little on the 'lower middle class' side of the economic spectrum, they did at least have a nice car. All Tish knew for sure was that Dad had a friend in the used car business who owed him a *massive* favor from their college days. Something on the level of saving his life or taking the guy's midterms for him; that kinda massive. And so, Carlos Lopez ended up driving a sleek black European sedan that looked like it ate pedestrians for lunch. Honestly, the car looked evil. But stylishly evil. Like a charming serial killer. Tish loved it.
She hopped up into the cushy passenger seat and buckled up. Dad sat down beside her and put the key in the ignition. He kept his eyes straight ahead, never looking at her. He pulled out of the parking lot and began the long drive home.
"You're lucky I had the day off," he said quietly, but the smooth hardness in his voice suggested she was not actually lucky at all.
Tish gulped. "Yes, Daddy."
He was silent for a block or so, letting her simmer. The car's engine made no more noise than a purring cat. He stopped at a red light, then made a right turn. They were going down a quiet, residential side street now. No distractions.
"You hit someone today," he said. Not a question. A statement of fact.
"Yes, Daddy," Tish conceded meekly.
He paused, as if considering her answer. "Was it that Schwartzman boy?" he asked, as if he were only mildly curious.
"Yes, Daddy," she whimpered.
But then she frowned. _No_. He wasn't going to make her feel bad about this. "But Daddy!! He said he-"
Carlos reached across and silently, effortlessly, closed his huge hand over her muzzle.
Tish went silent, even if she really didn't have much choice in the matter.
Her father slowly released his gentle grip, then reached up and patted Tish on the head. "Good girl."
She was impossibly confused for a second, and then she realized. She didn't have to tell Daddy what Eddie had said, because Daddy already knew. He knew that his daughter never hit anyone unless they really, truly deserved it. Unless they were begging on their knees for it. And he knew *all* about Eddie Schwartzman.
He looked down at her, his eyes stern, but calmly so. "Would I be making a mistake if I let you off the hook on this one?"
She shook her head firmly, no.
He nodded. "Good. It's settled then. We'll tell Mama your ankle was hurting and you had to come home because of that. And if you get in any more trouble this week, you will be grounded for the entire summer," he added placidly.
"Okay," she said gratefully. She leaned over and rubbed her cheek on his soft, dark shirt.
He patted her on the head again. "How hard did you hit him?"
"Pretty hard," she said. "He was yelling a lot, and blood was coming out of his nose."
He smiled. "That's my girl," he said proudly, patting her leg.
Tish wagged her tail and grinned.
Four more days of school now, and Saturday night was a full moon. When Tish saw that in the paper the next morning, she just about pissed herself. How impossibly, ass-kickingly perfect!
The night before, after a quiet dinner, Tish had stolen upstairs to the attic. She was glad to be out of the dining room. Mom had believed Dad's cover story about her ankle (and it did still hurt, a little), but sitting there and eating, looking across the table all the time at Max's empty chair... Brrrrr. It had sent a sad chill down her spine. That, more than anything, that empty chair, made her seriously doubt she would ever see her brother again.
But no, she had to shake those thoughts right out of her head. Blast them out hard and mercilessly. Those were loser thoughts. Tish was fully invested in forcing herself to believe that her plan *must* work. She *knew* it was going to work. She knew it like she knew her ABCs. Even 'hope' was too weak a word to use. Hope implied that you had faith that things would work out right. Tish didn't need faith; she would _make_ everything work out. She set her brain into one single, rigid, immovable track: there was not one single acceptable outcome other than success. Failure would not even be acknowledged. Failure was a scientific impossibility, an unproven and weak hypothetical concept. Failure was as real as the fucking tooth fairy.
The young coyote kit scrambled up the rickety stairs to the drafty old attic, trying hard to remember that day five years ago when she had stumbled across the box of journals.
Like every other room in the tall, dark house up on the hill, the Lopez's attic was furnished in bare, naked grey wood and, to most people, gave off an air of foreboding. Not to Tish though, or to Max either. Even as toddlers, the house had not scared them. Not even with all its oddly constructed rooms (some too thin, some too wide), or all its bizarre little nooks and crannies (who knew what some of *those* were intended for). Tish viewed her house as a great big slobbery dog with black fur and yellow eyes. It would scare the pants off anyone else, but the two young coyotes had always known that it was there to protect them and keep them warm and safe.
Unlike the rest of the house though, the attic had a more... she searched for the right word... *unfinished* feel to it. Sometimes Tish did indeed feel a little tingle on the back of her neck when she came up here. Especially at night, when the black sky peeked in through the cracks in the boards.
Tish had never seen a spiderweb up here. Never. No spiders, no beetles, no bookworms, no flies, no mice. Not one. Not in all the years she'd lived here. It was as if some force was telling all the pesty little critters of the world that this was not a place they would find sanctuary.
Up here there were so many boxes it was a miracle the floor didn't just cave in someday and kill them all. Boxes of every size, shape, color and description imaginable. Most of them full of treasures, buried for years or even longer. Some of it was their stuff; Christmas decorations, dusty unread paperbacks, photo albums, old toys and whatnot. But most of it was Grandma's. Tish's dad had never gotten up the nerve to throw out his dear departed mother's possessions. Although Mom had nagged him to intermittently over the years.
There. Right in the corner. She remembered now. She'd come up here when she was seven, bored and hoping she might find something neat to rustle through. She had indeed found something 'neat'. A box way off in the corner, looking like all the others. It had somehow piqued her interest though. It had drawn her, like soft, haunting music.
She'd squatted down and opened up the box to find a whole lot of musty notebooks inside. Big ones with thick leather covers. They smelled funny. Inside every single one of them, every last page was engulfed in a swarm of her grandmother's scrawling, clawed handwriting.
Lists. Recipes. Instructions.
Grandma had always been weird. Everyone in the family knew that. She'd been born in Mexico and had lived there most of her life before the family moved. She had only spent three years in this house before she died. Tish and Max were just young pups when she passed, but they still remembered her vividly. A hearty laugh, a home-cooked meal and an abundance of presents (She'd spoiled the twins terribly and had loved every second of it). A plump, nearly round, old woman with an omnipresent smile and crafty eyes.
Her eyes had orange irises, Tish would swear to it. When you looked into them, you saw that they gleefully concealed worlds upon worlds of secrets. Some of them wondrous, some of them sinister, but all held safely within this quiet, unassuming old woman's head. Whatever those secrets were, there was now only one place they existed in this world: her journals.
Young Tish's eyes had skimmed shiveringly through those brittle pages, the wind whistling and swooping outside. Spells of love and spells of revenge. Most, in fact nearly all, were healing spells. For infections, for sicknesses, for broken bones. Some for ailments that were decidedly unnatural in character. But Tish needed no one to tell her that all these spells *worked*. Something about the strange, arcane words made the paper they were written on nearly thrum with energy.
It was on that day that Tish finally discovered the truth; that her smiling, generous, wise, roly-poly old grandma was a witch.
A white witch. A healer. A *bruja*. She'd learned that word from her Daddy one halloween; the Spanish word for 'witch'. He had given no sign he was talking about his own mother.
That was just about when Little Tish's creep-out-o-meter had reached its limit. She'd hastily boxed up all the old books and run ungracefully back down the stairs, believing she would never go back up to that spooky old attic ever again...
Now, a half-decade later, Tish eased herself down before the box of books once more. Sure, she'd been back up to the attic many times since then, but never any longer than she had to, and never with the intent she had now.
You see, there was something else she remembered from that long-ago day. It was one word, written in bold, solemn letters at the top of one of the last entries in the very last book at the bottom of the stack.
That word was RESURRECTION.
That word had given her nightmares when she was seven. She had not known what it meant back then, only that it felt *wrong*.
But now, that same long, scary word brought with it an entirely different emotion. One of relieved joy. This word was the foundation of her certainty, the only reason she had not given up and allowed herself to fall into grief over her beloved brother, who had been trapped under six feet of earth for over 24 hours now.
Tish opened the box and, to her astonishment, found that her younger self, in her haste, had replaced the old books in reverse order. The book she wanted was right there on top.
"Thanks, me," she whispered to her own ghost.
She flipped to a page at random.
The word gazed eagerly, patiently up at her again. As if it had known all along she would come back to it one day.
Tish drew in a deep breath. "I really hope I haven't gone completely batshit insane," she fretted.
She began to read.
Among the list of ingredients for Granny's Old-Fashioned Dead-Raisin' Potion (obviously, it wasn't really called that, but Tish was trying to use humor to keep her nerves steady), was a full moon. That seemed pretty standard for such things.
But then it went on to list all sorts of freaky stuff. Herbs she'd never heard of. The body of a small, dead animal. Certain clothing she would need to wear. Certain metals, certain minerals. And the most important component of all, it said, was seven drops of blood from a living relative of the deceased. All things considered, that would probably be the easiest item to procure.
So, Tish was forced to become an amateur science detective. The next day at school, she found out which common household items were made of pure copper, and that quartz was abundant and easily available at any place that sold gems and minerals. There wasn't actually any such place like that in town, but Mr. Goldwood said there was a bunch of quartz in the science lab, and if she really needed it as much as she claimed (although she absolutely would not tell him what for), he'd let her take home a small chunk of it free of charge. She had given him another big hug for that.
The spell also said she needed turquoise, silver and amethyst. Tish knew exactly where she could get those: her mom's jewelry drawer. She hated the thought of stealing from her parents more than just about anything she could think of. She'd rather lick the inside of a hot metal dumpster than betray them like that. But if she'd been able to ask her mom and dad which meant more to them, a few rings and a necklace or their son, she had no doubt as to what their answer would be.
As she pored over a botany book in the school library on Wednesday, Tish was utterly delighted to find that most of the herbal items on her list were just a trip to the supermarket away. While the spell had given most of the herbs spooky, mystical names, most of the plants in question turned out to be fairly common, everyday stuff. That afternoon, she had extracted about half of her secret put-away money from her underwear drawer and biked on down to the local grocer's. The spice rack turned out to be a goldmine. There was fennel and saffron and basil right there (although the saffron cost a hell of a lot more than she expected). And fresh celery was abundant in the produce section. Though, as the cashier rung up all the stuff, Tish had to admit she never in a million years would have thought plain ol' celery would be a major component in zombie-juice.
A trip to the nearby drugstore knocked all her other green 'n leafy ingredients off the list. Many of them were discovered on the herbal supplement shelf. One was found in a hand lotion, another in cough syrup, and still another in a thoroughly unappetizing-sounding dark green 'power drink'. The only one that really gave her trouble was something called 'Leechbane'. Figuring there was no harm in asking, she sought out the jolly pharmacist and sweetly inquired if he'd ever heard of the stuff. To her joy, he had, and it turned out to be an active ingredient in, of all things, hemorrhoid creme. For his help, the pharmacist got a big, grateful hug as well. Startled but happy, he had thanked the normally quiet little coyote girl for her patronage.
In a plastic grocery bag hidden in her closet, Tish had accumulated almost everything she needed for her spell. Clothing wouldn't be an issue, since what the spell required was the sort of stuff she always wore anyway; black, black and more black. She didn't have a black veil, but she thought one of her mom's stockings would make an acceptable substitute. The jewelry she would snatch Saturday night. And the blood, of course, was always on tap. Quite frankly, she had been dumbfounded at how easy it had all been. None of the ingredients were dangerous or narcotic, nothing she'd have no hope of getting her paws on. And none of them were rare and exotic flora, growing only out of a goat's ass on a mountain in Brazil. She was honestly dumbfounded at how straightforward this business of raising the dead was turning out to be.
Friday came, and the day was more emotional than she was almost willing to admit. The last day of the school year, the last day of sixth grade, and the last day of elementary school all in one. Pretty heavy stuff.
Mr. Goldwood held a day-long party in a nearby park. There was lots of free food for everyone. Slightly cold pizza and slightly warm soda and cupcakes with most of the frosting stuck to the clingwrap. But it all tasted wonderful nonetheless. The kids all played games and ran around like idiots. There was a massive water balloon fight and Tish was actually quite impressed with how her teacher had scored a direct hit on the back of her head to get her to join in. She, of course, got him back with a line drive right to the seat of his pants. Nick had been the only one in the whole class nimble enough to avoid a single hit. That is, until Tish ambushed him an hour later and stuffed a pink one down his shorts.
Altogether, it was a bittersweet afternoon. This had been, Tish realized on the walk back to school (which seemed much, much longer than the walk to the park had been), the last real moment of her childhood. Her last chance to goof off like a little kid. Once summer was over, she'd be a middle-schooler. A Young Adult. And after her birthday in October, she'd be (appropriate gasp of horror) a _Teenager_.
But Max hadn't been there to share it with her, and he should have been. That water balloon fight would have been right up his alley. He would have dominated. He would have wiped out the entire class, her included. And he would have been laughing the whole time. That warm, deep, bellowing laugh of his. A guileless laugh of an eternal child.
She realized also that this October, if her plan didn't go through just right, she would be celebrating her birthday, THEIR birthday, alone for the very first time. That was almost too sad to think about. It added that much more determination to her already towering resolve to rescue her brother from the cold, cold ground.
On the bike ride home, she found her final ingredient. Since it had technically started being Summer a few weeks ago (although in a town like this, summer was pretty much March through October), her last spell component had started popping up all over the place like daffodils.
Tish found a nice, fresh, plump dead squirrel smack in the middle of Celebration Street. The poor little guy looked as though he hadn't been dead for more than a few hours or so. One of his eyes had popped completely out of his skull from the sheer force of the tire rolling over his stomach. And even stoic, unflappable Tish Lopez had to hold back a clench of nausea at the sight of the bright pink and blue entrails attached to the perfectly round black eyeball.
She'd been carrying an extra-large ziploc baggie in her backpack all day for just such an occasion. She whipped it out and flinchingly picked up the scuzzy grey squirrel by its tail, dropping it in the bag just as quick as she could. It came off the pavement with a sound like peeling duct tape, and it was a lot heavier than she'd imagined it would be.
Tish glanced all around, *praying* nobody had seen her do that. Like she really needed to give her schoolyard tormentors any more ammo than necessary. Of course, she'd probably never see most of those people again now. And that thought made her much sadder than she expected. She felt a bit of disappointment for not having tried harder to make friends while she had the chance. True, most of school had always treated her like dog crap, but there had to have been at least one other cub there besides Nick and Max she could have connected with. Someone she'd passed in the hall a dozen times and never noticed. Someone who might have made her six years there that much more bearable.
On the other hand though, never having to set eyes on Eddie Schwartzman again would be just glorious. He'd been carefully avoiding her all week, and she thought that was very intelligent of him. To hell with what Mr. Monta§o or even her dad had threatened. If that fat mouse bastard had said one more word about Max, she'd have reopened every single wound she'd given him Monday, and would probably have kept him from having any children later on in life with one swift kick, too.
With her precious dead cargo now tucked safely and secretly away in her backpack, Tish set off for home again, pedaling quietly through the calm neighborhoods as she thought.
Though not normally a spiritual person, she said a little prayer for the dead squirrel. She told him that she hoped he was happy up in heaven and that she was very, very grateful to him for helping her bring her brother back.
There was no answer of course, but she amused herself by trying to imagine her reaction if a little voice from her backpack had suddenly said, 'Yeah, whatever.'
Something had been nagging at Tish for almost two weeks now.
Ever since she'd come up with her brilliant/demented plan, a plan that would finally see completion this very night, some tiny little timid thought had been flitting around in the back corners of her brain. Too cowardly to just come right out and let her look at it. No, it had just sort of been hovering there, always beyond the edge of her grasp.
But now, as she sat down to a nutritious breakfast (composed of a bowl of Sugar Bonks, some leftover fish sticks and a glass of root beer), the thought had finally surrendered to her awareness. More than that, it leapt straight out at her like a tiger springing forth from the bush.
'I am going... to be messing around... with a ZOMBIE!!!' it said.
An actual zombie. The undead; the living dead; the walking dead. An Actual Fucking _Zombie_.
And what did zombies in movies do the second they got out of the ground? They buried their rotten teeth right in some hapless victim's skull and sucked their brains out for supper, that's what!!
That mental image struck Tish as forcefully as a lightning bolt. She shuddered in her chair so hard it looked as if some unseen force had shoved her. She was glad she was eating alone, otherwise both of her parents would have cast worried looks at her and asked her just what in the world was going on.
She saw herself later in the evening, standing over the body, mixing the potion, pouring it, chanting the words, hoping with all her heart... and then Max sitting bolt upright, eyes glowing with hellish light and ripping her to shreds in a matter of seconds.
She held her head in her paws and shook it angrily back and forth. No, no, no... Not Max. He was her brother. Her twin. He would never hurt her. The very thought of it was akin to pigs taking wing and Hades dipping below zero.
But... What if what she brought back to life wasn't Max at all? What if all she reanimated was a bag of blood and guts without a soul?
She was angry with herself for having overlooked such a monumental detail. She'd been so focused on the mechanics of her plan that she'd completely forgotten to ponder the repercussions.
But wasn't that, to some degree at least, forgivable? She wanted Max back so badly that it was almost an insult to him to even consider that he'd end up a mindless, hungry hunk of meat after the spell was cast.
No, she believed in their bond. Max would not disappoint her.
Just in case he did though, it would not be a bad idea to take out some insurance...
Tish scudded her bike to a stop in the sandy driveway, sending up a knee-high cloud of dust behind her. She'd come here so many afternoons before, she didn't even think twice about casually tossing her bike aside on the patchy brown lawn. Nick's house wasn't the prettiest in the whole town, but his parents did a good job of keeping the place homey and welcoming.
Tish trotted up the front steps and leaned on the doorbell. Her face was cast in a troubled frown. She still wasn't sure what she was going to say to Nick when she saw him, and figured she probably wouldn't until he finally asked why she'd come.
A moment later, footsteps approached and a vivacious blond cheetah appeared. "Oh, Tish! Come on in, Honey!" she greeted warmly as she held the screen door open. She was wearing an ocean-blue housedress that went wonderfully with her spotted, lemony fur. "I was just about to start vacuuming. Good thing you showed up when you did or I might not have heard you."
"Thanks, Mrs. Chainsaw," Tish said politely. Both of Nick's parents had assured her long ago that they didn't mind adopting their son's school nickname. His mother especially enjoyed it, just because it was so comically ill-fitting. C'mon; 'Bonnie Chainsaw'?
Tish kicked off her sandals into the little pile of footwear by the door. "Is Nick home?"
Bonnie nodded. "Mm hmm. He's out back, in the treehouse. Did you already eat breakfast? I have a few leftover waffles if you're hungry," she offered.
"That's okay, but thanks very much anyway." Tish smiled openly. Mrs. Chainsaw was one of the nicest fursons she knew. Eternally giving, never without a smile. The perfect cheer-up cheetah.
"Allright then." Mrs. Chainsaw looked for a moment like she was about to go back to her chores, then stopped abruptly and turned around. She kneeled in front of Tish, putting a paw on the young coyote's shoulder. "I haven't had the chance to tell you yet, but it's a terrible, terrible shame what happened to Max."
Tish looked down at the floor. "I know..." She appreciated Mrs. C's compassion, but it was starting to aggravate her how absolutely everybody she met had to give her a little speech like this. Couldn't she go fifteen minutes without someone reminding her that her brother was wormfood now?
The shapely cheetahfemme picked up on her young guest's emotion and cut the topic off quickly. "You haven't been by all week, and I didn't see you after the funeral, but I just had to say it. You know you're always welcome here, Tish. If you ever have a problem, our door is always open. Just like it was for Max."
Tish nodded. "Thanks." She gave Mrs. Chainsaw a brief, appreciative hug. "And yeah, I shoulda come by sooner. But I've got something really important to talk about with Nick today, so I guess I'll see you later."
Bonnie stood up. "Okay then, sugarpie. And I'll have the vacuum going, so you don't have to worry about me overhearing any of your secret meeting," she said with a motherly smirk.
Tish gave her a lopsided smile and scurried off through the kitchen to the side door, then on into the yard. Nick's mom could be just a tad patronizing at times, but her kindness more than made up for the occasional cutesy pet name or treating her like her age was still in single digits.
Tish looked up into the branches of the grand, graceful tree in the Chainsaws' backyard. A single foot and the tip of a yellow tail were draped over the edge of the treehouse's planks. She and Max had helped Nick and his dad build this little hideout many years ago, back when they didn't have to duck to get in through the door at the top. It wasn't much bigger inside than a piano crate, but it made for a nice place to sit and read comics. Or to hatch devious schemes in.
Nick tossed his 'graphic novel' aside when he heard someone coming up the wooden ladder. He poked his head out with an eager smile. "Max?"
His eyes met Tish's, and he realized his mistake with the abruptness of a car crash. His ears flattened back and his eyes filled with horror. "Oh my... Oh, Geeze. I'm sorry. Shit, that was dumb!"
He backed up to let Tish inside. She plopped down on the worn-out snatch of carpet beside him. "Hi, Nick."
Nick was obviously flustered and somewhat shaken by his gaffe. "Uh, Hi, Tish. Really, I'm sorry. I just thought for a second-"
Tish rolled her eyes and leaned over to hug him comfortingly. "Aw, shut up, Nick. It's okay. Don't be sorry. I've been doing stuff like that for a week now." She hadn't actually. No, Tish had been acutely aware at all times of the gaping hole in her life where Max had been torn out. But she did want Nick to feel better. She had realized she'd been treating him like a scratching post even more than usual these days.
Nick accepted the hug, a little bewildered by Tish's open niceness. She'd been a veritable walking cactus all week at school, always with her mind set imperturbably on some secret project she wouldn't tell him anything about. "Thanks. You, uh, haven't been over in a while. Not since..."
She nodded. "Since," she agreed. Both of them knowing exactly since what.
The young cheetah leaned back against the wooden wall. He popped a cookie from his private stash into his mouth and offered Tish another one. She politely declined. (Her appetite was in shambles after her little realization this morning) "So, what's up? I'm not doing anything today. Did you wanna go somewhere? It is the first day of summer vacation after all."
She cocked an eyebrow. "No it's not. I always thought the first real day of vacation was the first Monday after school lets out."
He looked puzzled with cookie crumbs in his whiskers. "But yesterday was the last day of school, and we won't be back until September."
"Yes, but today's a Saturday. We woulda been off today anyway. Sunday too. On Monday, it'll be the first day we *would* have been in school otherwise, but aren't," she elucidated.
He made a small 'I'm impressed' noise. "Okay, yeah, you've got a point. So, where you wanna go? I got a little bit of money. We could go up to the dollar theater and see some big, dumb piece of crap where things blow up."
He sounded really eager, which only made telling him the truth even harder. Tish whimpered solemnly. "No, Nick. I didn't come over here for that. And I'm sorry, 'cuz I know we haven't done anything together in a while and I shouldn't be ignoring you like this."
"You're not," he assured softly, his eyes adding, 'It hasn't even been two weeks. I know this is still tough for you.'
She gave him a smile, thinking for the thousandth time that Nick was just about the best best friend she could ever hope for. It was like he saw right through her to a little sign taped to her brain, telling him just how she was feeling at any given moment. "If you say so, but I still wish I wasn't so busy. You see... there's this 'project' I've been working on this whole last week..."
"An end-of-year prank?" he asked eagerly, whiskers bouncing. "Kinda late for it, but we could still-"
"No, no! Nothing like that," she said flatly. She stared right into him with her glass-green eyes, forcing him to understand that this was Serious Business she was talking about here. "It's... Well, crap, I can't really tell you anything about it right now, only that it's mega-important, and... kinda dangerous."
He gulped. "How dangerous? Like, 'Maple Syrup Monday' dangerous?"
She scowled. "A billion times worse. There was no chance we might end up _dead_ over 'Maple Syrup Monday'."
He stared at her, disbelieving, suddenly chilled to the bone. "Tish, what the hell are you asking me to do?" he asked, unable to keep a small waver out of his voice.
She winced. "No, I'm sorry. *You're* not in any danger. Just me. And I don't need any help either. Well, maybe I could use some help, but I wouldn't accept any even if you put a bazooka up my butt. This is just something I _have_ to do. And Nick... all I want you to do is..." She deeply didn't want to have to tell him, but she knew better.
"What?" His voice was small and frightened, fearful for his best friend's safety.
She took a deep breath, and then let it all tumble out without thinking. "If something goes wrong and I get hurt, or if I don't ever come back home again... I want you to tell Mom and Dad that I knew what I was getting into and that I'm sorry. I want you to be my insurance policy, Nick."
Her words floated there in the still summer air, turning the afternoon sun frigid cold. The only sounds for an awkward and uncomfortable length of time were several lawn sprinklers and the twitter of birds.
Nick stared at Tish, a million and one questions helicoptering around inside his brain. What 'project' could possibly be so dangerous? What was worth risking her life over? What was he supposed to tell her parents if something really DID happen? And how could he live if *both* his best friends were suddenly gone forever?
In the end, the one question the young cheetah finally asked was, "Is it about Max?"
Tish slowly and determinedly nodded.
"Okay then," said Nick.
"Uh huh," He looked almost on the edge of tears. "Don't do anything stupid though, Tish. Don't go try to beat up the train conductor or something, like a revenge plot. Don't get hurt. I don't want you to get hurt."
She hated herself for doing this to him. She felt like a monster. She was making her best friend pretend he wasn't a second away from crying, worried about her and whatever crazy scheme she had cooked up. "Nick, I'm so sorry. I promise you, I wouldn't be doing this unless it was more important than, like, anything I've ever done before in my whole life. And I can't really tell you any specifics. But yes, it's about Max. It's something I have to do for Max."
"And you might get ki- hurt real bad?"
Another nod. "Yeah. I don't think I will, but just in case, I wanted you to know so you could let everyone else know."
"Is there anything else I can do? Like, some kinda signal I should watch for if you're in trouble?" he asked hopefully, not wanting to be left so in the dark about this.
She gave him a hard gaze. "No." It was a 'no' that meant not only that he shouldn't look for a signal, but that she would not dare call for help even if things did go wrong. If this was all a colossal mistake, she would accept responsibility for it alone.
Nick pulled himself into a little ball of fur, hugging his knees to his chest and laying his chin upon them. "So what... Um, how likely is it everything'll work out okay?" he asked softly.
"I think it's pretty high," she said sincerely, making sure he knew this wasn't some Quixotically hopeless suicide mission. "Probably, everything'll work out fine. And if it does, eveything's gonna be great. It'll be just like before again."
He had no idea what to make of that. There could be no 'like before'. Not ever. Max would always be absent from their lives. What reward was so great that Tish would take a risk so horrible she didn't even dare tell him about it?
But Tish was his best friend. And when a best friend asks for your help, you give it. That was obvious. That was just how things worked.
Nick suddenly reached out to hug her again. "Don't do anything stupid," he repeated.
"That kinda depends on what your definition of 'stupid' is," Tish said with a weak grin.
Nick grinned a little too. And they were able, ultimately, to turn them both into true smiles.
"I gotta go now. I got stuff to prepare for," Tish said sadly. "Tell your dad I said hi when he comes home."
"Okay." Nick watched her back out of the treehouse, *their* treehouse, and ease herself down the steps. How many times had the three of them climbed up here when they were little? Or even recently? Would this little haven ever hold the same magic ever again?
Nick looked down into his best friend's face as her paws touched the grass. "Good luck," he said bravely.
Tish gave him a calm, resigned smile in return. "Don't worry too much. I'll call you tomorrow morning if everything works out okay."
"Okay, Tish. I'll see you soon."
"Yeah, you will," she said, trying to sound reassuring. She only wished she could have made that a promise.
Saturday night. The eleventh hour. Full moon above, tombstone below.
She was barefoot, and she could feel the cool, damp cemetery grass between her toes.
The shovel's handle was rough and wooden in her grip.
Time to dig.
Her first thrust met with much less resistance than she'd imagined; the young coyote nearly lost her balance and toppled over. The earth was still fluffy and loose here. The grave had only been dug a short while ago, so the dirt hadn't had time yet to fully settle.
Tish grunted quietly as she tossed the first shovelful over her shoulder. 'One down, about a thousand or so to go...' she thought with annoyance.
There was only one place in town you could clearly see the whole breadth of the old cemetery from, and that was her own kitchen window. The Lopez's house and the boneyard were both slightly elevated, with several blocks of their small hometown resting below in a shallow valley. Dinner had been over with for hours. Tish hoped desperately that if Mom or Dad came downstairs for a midnight snack tonight they wouldn't sit down at the table to eat it. The sight of their daughter relentlessly digging up her brother's grave would not be something most parents would be happy to see.
Tish knew they probably wouldn't peek into her bedroom to check up on her during the night (she thought they'd stopped doing that sometime after she turned eight), but she'd thought this through as meticulously as possible and wasn't about to risk a thing. She had delved into realms of anal retention she didn't even know she had and came up with a surprisingly clever way to simulate her sleeping self.
An old inflatable bunny rabbit they'd gotten two Easters ago was just about the same size and shape of her own body. With a cheap wig she'd snagged from the local thrift store for a quarter, plus some bad lighting, it made a passable enough doppelganger. Especially given her habit of sleeping back-to-the-door, curled up in a protective fetal clench.
But that alone would not seal the deal. The capper was Tish's idea to tape-record herself Wednesday night as she slept. The following day after school, she had made a loop of the results which was playing at a realistic volume right this very second. She'd been a little embarrassed to realize that, occasionally, she would let out a snore like a horse. But if she was going for realism, she couldn't afford vanity.
*fwump*, another clump of dirt sailed past her. Her pile was starting to show.
She had no idea how long it would take to dig all the way down to Max's coffin. She'd figured eleven o clock was a good time to get started. Normally she would have been in bed for an hour by now, but she didn't feel the least bit tired. The sheer necessity of her late-nite excursion was keeping her wide awake and alert. Her ears were standing straight up, alert to the softest approaching footstep. Her adrenaline levels were well above normal.
Oddly enough, she hoped that the funeral guys had cut some corners and buried Max only four or five feet deep instead of six. It wasn't like it mattered anyway, apart from some superstitious reason she didn't understand. Why was six feet the standard depth for coffins anyway? And really, who would have ever checked up on such a thing? (Aside from her, of course.)
Her hole didn't have to be elegant, just deep enough for her to get the top half of the lid open. She centered most of her effort on the middle strip of the grassless patch in front of the headstone. One good thing she realized was that her brother's coffin wasn't a full-size adult one. That'd save her a lot of time on length.
Jeeze, she couldn't believe she was thinking stuff like this. She felt like Igor in the old black-and-white Frankenstein movie. "Yes Master, Yes Master. Must get brains!" she muttered diabolically to herself, and chortled.
Her hole was now deep enough to stand in.
She looked up from her work to read the headstone again, for probably the hundredth time:
Maximillian Ricardo Lopez
Beloved son and brother
"Prçncipe De La Risa"
'Maximillian', she thought with an annoyed sneer. Her brother had hated the last four syllables of his name as much as she hated being called Teresa. Maybe even more so. Tish wondered why the heck her parents had even told the gravestone guys to inscribe it like that.
Dad had come up with the last line, however. It meant 'Prince of Laughter'. And she thought Max probably *would* have liked that a lot. That, and having been buried in the 'Garden Of Babes'.
That joke didn't seem quite so funny anymore, not when she was standing right here in the middle of the place at midnight. She looked all around her. Dozens and dozens of little dead kids all around her. Some of them just babies. Their coffins musta been the size of breadboxes.
During the day, this part of the cemetery had had a peaceful, pastoral air to it. By moonlight, it just felt sad.
Tish was not creeped out though. Sure, she was surrounded on all sides by a hundred different kinds of death, but that thought didn't scare her. She remembered back when she was a little, little girl. One day she had asked Mommy what all those little stone nametags were in the big field she saw from the window. Mommy told her that that was where they put all the dead people, so they could have a nice, quiet place to sleep.
Ever since then, Tish had held onto that idea. Despite gory monster movies and bloody TV shoot-em-up shows, she'd never really been afraid of death. Curious about it, yes. Worried about her own, yes. But never frightened of death *itself*. A corpse wouldn't want to rise up and clamp their bony hand around her ankle if she went walking in a graveyard. Why would they? All these people hidden in the ground below her were just sleeping. Peacefully. Tish was sad for them, but not afraid of them. In fact, if the dead were aware of the people walking around above them, wouldn't they be glad to get some visitors every now and then?
Tish made small, thoughtful puppy-sounds as she dug. No, she wasn't afraid of death. She'd even mused once that she felt sorry for the Grim Reaper, if there even was such a furson. He was probably a nice guy. And it probably made him really sad when people would cry and scream and fight to get away from him. He was only doing his job, after all.
Her hole was now up past her knees. She was really having to work to toss the dirt up and back behind her. Sometimes it would fall down on her, feeling moist and smelling fresh and heady. Heck, she hoped her black dress wouldn't end up being brown by the time this was all over.
Any worms Tish saw, she carefully picked up and set aside outside the hole. She liked worms. They were cute. She liked how they would wriggle around her finger when she picked them up. She liked the tickly ickiness of their clear, gooey slime. And also, she liked the feeling she got when she encountered a small creature and chose to spare its life, rather than destroy it.
Max was like that too. One day at recess, he'd smacked another kid in the guts with his hockey stick when he caught him stomping on pillbugs. Max had always been disgusted with how most other boys his age derived sick glee from snuffing out the lives of tiny creatures. All the playground kids soon learned not to fry ants with a magnifying glass or squoosh sidewalk worms when Max was around.
Tish smiled fondly. She was so proud of her brother, in a lot of ways. Everyone's first impression of him was always that of an essentially nice but ultimately dumb and destructive average young boy. But he wasn't like that at all. Sure, he might step on your face if you were playing touch football with him. But deep inside, Max had been one of the kindest boys she had ever known. Mom and Dad had brought them both up right. Respect for all forms of life was a value to be prized above all else in the Lopez household.
She remembered once, when they'd been biking to school one chilly September morning, Max had spotted something moving in a pile of leaves by the side of the road. They stopped, and it turned out to be a tiny brown bat, a nonev, who had broken his wing somehow. The unfortunate fellow had squeaked in fright when the two siblings approached, but Max had spoken low and soothing, seeming to hypnotize the little animal, and the bat had not squirmed when Max took off his shirt and wrapped him up in it.
That day, Max had biked halfway across town to the vet, telling Tish that nothing they could teach him in school that day could ever be more important than saving an animal's life.
When he'd finally gotten to class, hours later and twenty minutes before the lunch bell, Mrs. Halberd had chewed him out. And Max had chewed her out right back. He said she could punish him all she wanted, but he would _never_ feel sorry for what he'd done.
At lunch, Tish had asked him what had become of the bat.
Max had looked up from his milk carton and told her that the whole way to the vet's office, he had steeled himself to be told there was nothing they could do, that the little bat would have to be destroyed. He knew this, but he could not let himself stop pedaling.
Once he'd gotten there and told the doctor what had happened, the vet had taken the little cloth bundle from the shivering, shirtless boy and looked inside to see a tiny bright-eyed face looking back at him. He told Max that he had set small birds' broken wings before, but never a bat's. The young coyote looked up at him with aching sadness.
However, the vet continued, unable to resist the desperation in those eyes, he was willing to accept the challenge. Max had laughed out loud, hugged him like a python and thanked him about six million times.
Max got detention for three days for his tardiness and insubordination.
A month later, the vet called the family to his office and they all watched him open a small cardboard box in the parking lot outside. A tiny dark form flew out, circled them all twice, and flitted off into the wind, free and healthy.
Mom and Dad told Max that they could not possibly have been more proud of him, and Tish had heartily agreed.
Her shovel made a hard *clunk*.
"Holy shit! So soon?" she muttered.
Tish looked around, as if coming out of a daze, and was flabbergasted twice. First by how deep her excavation was, and second by how tall the dirt pile behind her had gotten. The full moon had very obviously shifted position in the sky since she'd last looked up. She'd been out here digging for nearly an hour.
Her muscles pulsed dully, but they had not yet reached the point of aching. Her accomplishment bewildered her. Apparently, she'd zoned out almost totally, half of her brain reminiscing and the other half tirelessly and mechanically shovelling soil over her shoulder. Tish tapped the shovel down again and got a dull, metallic *ping* in response.
The coyote girl got down on all fours and started pushing away as much dirt as she could from the face of the big Techno-Fridge. Not for the first time, she thanked fate for her parents' choice not to buy a grave liner. Those heavy cement vaults were just too fucking expensive, her Dad had grumbled in frustration once (when he thought she was out of earshot). Aside from keeping the body inside from decomposing for a few decades or so, they also tended to cut down on grave robberies. Tish couldn't imagine herself prying the lid off one of those big suckers.
As Tish sifted through the dirt, her paw brushed over something small and rectangular. It was the superhero card she'd thrown in the hole after the funeral. It wasn't in the best condition, considering, but you could still tell it was The Blue Flame on the front. Grinning at such a good omen, she pocketed it for later.
Silver metal finally flashed in the moonlight. Before long, Tish was staring down at an elongated reflection of herself. Just like one of those carnival fun house mirrors.
She paused, panting and more tired than she'd yet realized. Here it was. The result of all her hard work. One slightly-used, child-size coffin. Ingredients: one pillow, one cheap suit and one dead coyote.
Could she really open this thing up?
Did she actually think she had the cojones to look down into the rotting, flaking face of her beloved sibling and not lose her mind and start running around, screaming and puking?
Tish hesitated for nearly five minutes. Leaves fluttered in the trees, tickled by a cool night breeze. Scents of earth and desert air filled her nostrils. Her fingerclaws were gritty with soil and her palms had sprouted a small crop of blisters.
"Fuck it." Before she could stop herself, doubt herself, or even think about it a second longer, Tish slammed back the coffin lid.
The smell knocked her back on her ass. A fetid, gassy, rancid odor. Like the Devil taking a shit right up her nose. Tish winced hard and clamped her paws over her stinging muzzle.
She crept closer to see her brother again for the first time since two Tuesdays ago.
He looked better than she'd thought he would. He was still in pretty decent shape. Not all rotting and gross like movie zombies. He looked skinnier, sure. His eyes were a bit sunken-in. His stomach was round and firm, storing up the gasses of decomposition. He was still in his little black suit, looking like a dead midget lawyer. And his smile was gone too, of course.
But when she looked closer, she saw that some of the mortician's makeup and reconstruction had begun to peel and break down. There was a definite seam appearing on his left cheek. His shoulder hung at a weird angle. His chest looked funny, especially around his ribcage where he'd said hello to that telephone pole. Tish hadn't even thought about it until now; Max had been hit by a train and somehow, someone had gotten him looking fairly normal again. She had to admit, she admired the skill of whoever it had been.
Reaching out a trembling paw, the young coyote touched her silent brother's cheek. "Max..." The flesh was stiff and papery now. It felt like it would only take one small, hard push to cave his whole head in.
Tish shuddered, and then began to sob. Her brother didn't deserve this. He didn't deserve this! It wasn't fair, dammit!!
She held her face in her paws and her tears ran down her blisters, cooling and soothing them.
When she was finally able to pull herself back together again, Tish took in a deep breath and wiped her eyes off on her sleeve. She swore a bit when she got dirt in them, but she reminded herself that her work here wasn't even close to being done and there were only so many hours of darkness left. Time to get her furry little ass moving again.
She crawled up out of the hole and over to her bulging plastic sack of ingredients. She tumbled them all out onto the ground. Among them was her Grandma's last journal. She opened it to the spell she needed, and read carefully.
The literary world was full of stories of careless young dolts attempting something supernatural and not paying enough attention to the instructions. Grisly consequences invariably followed. Tish was not about to do anything that dumb. She scrutinized the journal entry with all her powers of concentration. She added everything in the correct order and waited the exact length of time specified between each component, timing it all with her stopwatch. She made a mental note to thank her mom for teaching her the fundamentals of cooking. She could make pretty good spaghetti and meatballs, and she hoped that also meant she'd make good zombie-juice.
The first task was to get the fire going under the cauldron. She didn't actually have a cauldron, but she thought Mom's biggest saucepan would suffice. Tish rigged up a can of Sterno and felt briefly like a Girl Scout. The spell called for a pot of purest water to be set to a boil. So, for the first time in her life, Tish had bought four two-dollar bottles of that pretentious 'mountain stream' stuff, which she had previously considered the most useless fake innovation in the history of furkind. Wonders never cease.
When the formerly-bottled water was at a nice rolling boil, it was time for the first ingredient to be added. Blushing despite the fact that no one was around to see her for miles, Tish got up, pulled down her panties, and managed to land a few teaspoons' worth of wee-wee in the pot. After wiping herself and sitting back down, Tish grumbled a bit, wondering what the hell mystical powers pee added to the stuff anyway.
Next came the minerals. Tish tossed in Mr. Goldwood's chunk of science-lab quartz, along with a pure copper 'healing bracelet' one of her weird aunts had given her for her birthday a bunch of years ago. She'd been just about to ask Dad if she knew where she could get some really old pennies when she remembered it. She'd packratted the bracelet away in the very back of one of her bureau drawers and was overjoyed to find it still there. She supposed an extremely late thank-you note was in order.
Feeling like a total asshole, Tish then lowered her mother's amethyst pendant, silver rings and turquoise necklace into the boiling brew. She'd filched them easily this afternoon, with her mother never suspecting a thing. She knew Mom would discover the stuff missing sooner or later, and she promised herself she'd admit to it right away. She would take her punishment without complaint, no matter what, and do anything at all she could think of to make amends. "I'm sorry, Mom," she said sorrowfully as she heard the necklace tinkle when it hit the bottom of the pot.
Now came the trickiest part. The spell called for very specific quantities of each herbal ingredient. One pinch of fennel between the thumb and forefinger. Six drops of Leechbane. Two dashes of Asmodellious. Since more than half of the ingredients were already ingredients in other things (cough syrup, hand lotion, etc.), she knew she'd have to wing it and just guess. She knew this might very well upset the whole mixture, but there was nothing she could do about it. Some of the stuff on the list was just impossible to find in their raw forms. At least, for a twelve-year-old kid in a small town they were. She felt like she was stepping into Not Following Instructions territory, and could only hope Grandma's spirit was watching over her tonight, steadying her hand and helping her make the right choices.
The mixture was now bubbling up over the sides of her makeshift cauldron. Somehow, it had turned a discomforting orange color, like a carrot smoothie, or liquid rust. It smelled exotic and vile, like some horrible poison that would drive a man mad before it finally putrefied his intestines. Tish was really, really glad she wasn't the one who'd have to drink this stuff.
She rested for a few moments, then got back to work. The full moon was almost perfectly overhead now, shining down into the grave like the all-seeing eye of a long-forgotten tribal god.
Tish eased back into the grave, seating herself on the closed bottom half of the coffin lid. With oven mitts, she pulled down her witches' brew and the book and set them in front of her. She pulled out the box cutter from her back pocket.
There were words she had to read as she poured the steaming mixture down her brother's throat. Old words. Forbidden words. Words Tish thought no living tongue could pronounce.
But when she looked down at the first word (a monstrous, seven-syllable nightmare), her mouth formed it almost without thinking. Similarly, the rest of the sentence flowed as naturally as reciting the alphabet. The words were slithering out of her mouth like willful snakes. Tish had no idea what the hell had come over her. She was reciting the spell without even having to look at the page now. Her voice had gone all funny, and she didn't think she'd be able to stop talking even if she wanted to. Swiftly, she sat up and held out the scorching hot pot over her brother's body; the heat of it so intense it cut through her oven mitts like they were made out of Kleenex.
The thick, viscous potion spilled like snot over the lip of the pot, down into Max's pried-open mouth. It slithered down his throat with a mind of its own.
Wild, unholy words spilled out of Tish's terrified throat. Words no living soul had whispered in decades, words that could drive weak minds mad simply from hearing them spoken aloud. Words that had unquestionably not been written by any resident of this mortal plane.
She had worried the zombie-juice would spill out over the sides of Max's muzzle, but instead, every single drop went straight down inside of him, as if eager to claim its new home. The orange ooze nestled deep within her brother's body, spreading itself out to all points within the small corpse. Going about its job.
Tish was now crying from the pain in her paws and the horrific words that came screaming unceasingly from her lips. When the very last of the weird elixir drooled out of the pot, Tish hurled it aside and snatched up the boxcutter. Without a second's hesitation, as if unseen hands were manipulating her own, she slashed open a wide, red 'X' in her left palm. Stiffly, she held it out before her over her brother's mouth. She watched as seven fat drops of her own crimson blood dripped down and into that black, dead throat.
Then, it was done.
Gibbering and sweating, Tish sprang up out of the hole as fast as she possibly could. She panted and shivered and twitched and felt somehow violated. Something had worked through her. Something had gotten inside her and helped her along on her little task. She felt sticky and used.
But now, thankfully, whatever-it-was was gone. She had control of her voice and her paws again. She looked down at her palms. They were puffy and red from the heat, and she knew she'd probably have that 'X' scar for the rest of her life. Wouldn't that be fun to explain to prospective boyfriends?
Tish looked back at the grave. She could not see into the coffin now, so she had no idea what was happening.
Then the ground began to slightly tremble.
Great energies were at work. Unknown forces were reaching into the beyond to retrieve the soul of a young boy and force it back into its former container. Tish began to worry that she might have made the worst mistake ever in the history of people making mistakes.
She cried out and rolled over, shielding her eyes, as an ungodly bright white light suddenly erupted out from the grave.
For the next hour or so, for miles around, the police phone lines were jammed with reports of some kind of silent explosion. Many blamed UFOs.
The light ended as abruptly as it had begun, shutting off just like a giant flashlight.
When Tish dared to look up again, blue-green afterimages swam all over her vision.
Smoke, or some kind of mist, was rising up out of the hole now. Burbling up and out like dry ice. Tish could feel the heat from it.
Just when she thought it was all over and was about to risk peeking over the edge to behold the results of her arcane experiment, Max's corpse suddenly shot straight up out of the grave into the night sky. Hurled by some unseen force as hard as if he'd been in the bowl of a catapult. Tish shrieked and stared up at the small dark form ascending up and up towards the moon and...
Oh shit, it was coming back down again.
The dead boy's body hit the ground with a sound like a laundry sack being dropped out of a small aircraft onto a freeway overpass. It made a shallow but noticeable indentation in the earth below it, just like in a cartoon.
Tish sat frozen, her paws over her muzzle, nearly in tears. Did this mean the potion was a failure? That something had rejected Max's application for a second chance at life?
Then it moved.
Tish forced back a squeak of sheer fright as the body flinched. Its limbs flailed about a bit, then it seemed to get the hang of things. Like a newborn calf taking his first steps. The corpse lifted itself up by its arms, then slowly, achingly, sat up. After two wobbly failed attempts, the scraggly form managed to stand.
Tish's eyes were so wide she could have served hors o'doeuvres off of them.
The corpse looked very unsteady, like most of its inner workings had been crushed to goo by the fall. It grunted. It made another sound, like it was trying to take a shit.
Illuminated by the moonlight, Tish could see the dead thing's form begin to solidify again. Her ears picked up muffled crunching, squishing sounds as the creature she had conjured somehow healed itself internally.
Once it was back to a relatively normal state, the corpse stood there, stonelike, for quite some time.
Tish was equally motionless, if not more. Her heartbeat sounded like a set of tom-toms to her.
Then, as if coming to the end of a long, profound thought, the newborn zombie spoke. "Okay, what the fuck just happened to me?"
Tish's jaw trembled. Tears clouded her vision. That voice... It was _his_. It was not mindless, or evil, it was *him*!
Bracing herself against the possibility of being chased down and unwillingly donating her brains for a midnight snack, Tish let down her paws and said, softly, "...Max?"
The zombie turned.
She stiffened in fright.
"Tish? What're you doing here?"
"Yeah... What's going on?"
She leaped up and ran to him. Tears poured down her cheeks, her heart pounded triumphantly, her smile eclipsed the moon and her greatest hopes were fulfilled.
She stopped in front of him.
He looked confused, and rather shabby, but still as she remembered him. His skin was peeling in a few places. He was standing at an awkward angle, as if he hadn't been able to completely rearrange himself. One of his eyes was slightly puffy and the iris had gone a thin, milky blue. And he smelled terrible.
She hugged him anyway.
Laughing, crying, sputtering nonsense, Tish Lopez hugged her beloved brother. His ribs poked her and his stench hurt her nose, but she could not have cared less. And when she felt his arms wrap gently around her too, every last bit of tension saved up over nearly two weeks' worth of scheming and planning disappeared in an instant.
His voice, gravelly and unsteady, but still tender, whispered in her ear. "How?"
"Shut up, Max," she said with tears in her eyes. "I wanna hug you some more."
He shrugged, and chuckled. "Okay, sis."
Tish murred in delight. She gave him an extra big squeeze. He was squishier than before, but it hardly mattered.
She took a step back and looked up into his questioning gaze. Still the same eyes. Nothing dulled or demonic. Just the same old Max. Though he'd definitely be needing lots more deodorant now.
"Does it hurt?" she asked sympathetically.
He wiggled a bit, giving his newly reanimated body a once-over. "Naw, not really. Feels weird though. Like I'm operating a me-shaped bunch of skin and sticks."
Her ears drooped. "I'm sorry..."
He grinned. "Don't be! I'm all together, aren't I?"
She nodded, smiling. "Uh huh. Do you remember anything? Like, after it happened? A big bright light or heaven or devils or anything?"
Max thought a bit, racking his moldy mind for any new memories. "Nope. There was the train, and I said 'Nice undies', then I saw you were safe, and then I was happy. Then it was just like a long, dark dream. Actually, I think I might remember a voice, but I don't know what it said and I'm not even sure it was real."
"Okay. I was kinda hoping you could tell me what it's like. Y'know, afterwards."
He shrugged. "Sorry, no messages from Satan." A goofy grin. "Come on, like I woulda ended up anywhere else."
They both giggled.
"You don't wanna eat my brain, do you?" Tish asked cautiously, but while still grinning.
Max stroked his chinfur thoughtfully. "Can't say that I do. Your pancreas maybe. Or a nice duodenum. With a side of fries and a Coke, perhaps."
Tish flat-out burst into laughter. She stepped up to hug him again. "Max, I'm just so freakin' glad to see you again, I'd totally let you eat my brains if you wanted to!"
"Aw, thanks," he said, and nuzzled her ear. "How long was I, you know...?"
"Takin' a dirt nap?"
"About two weeks."
Max let out a relieved breath (realizing as he did that he didn't think it was actually necessary anymore). "Cool. I was worried it was, like, a year or something. Do Mom 'n Dad know anything about this?" he asked, knowing the answer already.
Tish shook her head. "I don't even know how we're gonna tell them. Mom'll probably faint. Dad... Well, he might-"
Out of nowhere, Max cut her off with a blunt, throaty grunt. He suddenly got a wild, frightened look on his face and he pushed his sister away hard. His eyes bulged. He looked like he was in terrible pain.
"Max! What is it?!" Tish cried. "What hurts? Are you freaking out, or changing?" A horrid thought hit her out of nowhere. "Is something telling you to hurt me?"
He shook his head strenuously, then inadvertently answered her. He staggered, his mouth opened, and out came the most disgusting belch either of them had ever experienced.
It went on for at least a minute. It was so loud and so rank, it actually made the air vibrate, like a heat mirage. All the decomposing gasses that had built up in Max's stomach and intestines since his death were all expelled at once. He could actually feel his belly shrink. The smell was unspeakable. Tish dry-heaved into her hands and thought that the initial whiff from his coffin smelled like daisies in comparison.
When it was over, Max fell suddenly to his knees and vomited spectacularly. A thin clear-green liquid with a repulsive chemical-stench poured out of his mouth and nose like he was doing an impersonation of a fire hydrant. Embalming fluid. Some of it was even spraying from his eye sockets. His body was ridding itself of as much of the noxious substance as it could.
When he was finished, Max stared disorientedly down at the hissing, steaming pool he'd produced. He looked like a man who'd just escaped being hit by a subway train by a matter of inches.
Tish was frozen, silent, wondering if anything else was about to come out of him.
Then Max started coughing. Horrible, gummy hacking sounds came from deep in his throat. Tish finally ran over to help him. He sounded like he was choking on something. She slapped him hard on the back, and a copper bracelet shot out of his mouth. Tish jumped back. Max gagged a bit more and brought up another half-gallon or so of mucus and assorted stomach contents, along with a chunk of quartz and his mother's jewelry.
Tish grinned in astonishment. "Oh *cool*!!" She reached into the puddle of corpse puke and fished out one of the rings. Max's residual stomach acid had actually polished the silver up quite nicely. "Sweet! Mom won't hafta ground me after all!"
"What the *FUCK*?!?" Max belched breathlessly.
"Um, never mind," Tish said sheepishly.
"You never did tell me how you... you ... *zombified* me."
"I'll get to that," she promised. "You okay now?"
Max wiped his mouth off on his jacket sleeve. "Uh-huh. Pretty sure."
She took his arm and helped him to his feet, then bent down and handed him the extra shovel she'd brought along. "Okay, now help me dig. We gotta fill in your grave before someone thinks vandals were at it and it ends up on the news."
"Whatever," said Max. He stuck his tongue out and grimaced, hacking a few times. "You didn't happen to bring any mouthwash with you by any chance, huh?"
She shrugged. "No, but I did find this." She reached into her pocket and handed him the superhero card. "I threw it on top of your coffin at the funeral."
He took the little cardboard square with a smirk. "Better than flowers," he quipped. "And at least I've got doubles of this guy. Though I do have one more question before we start digging."
"What?" she asked.
"Why the hell are you wearing Mom's pantyhose on your head?"
Almost a thousand miles away, in a seedy south-of-the-border tavern, a dark, heavily muscled man in a trenchcoat was beating the living shit out of six different people at once.
Patrons screamed and spilled their beer as chairs went flying through the air over their heads. Playing cards rained down like snowflakes. A cheekbone crunched. Four fingers shattered. The dark man rendered one of his assailants unconscious with a whiskey bottle.
Another one came at him from the left, and the dark man easily sidestepped, sending his attacker facefirst into a wooden table. The dark man grabbed him by the neck and smashed his face into the well-stained wall a few more times for good measure.
A sudden impact of glass on skull. Beer and blood and broken bottle shards matting his jet-black hair, the dark man turned and plowed his fist into the cowardly bastard who had snuck up on him from behind.
With a drunken primal scream, the fourth antagonist aimed a sweaty fist at the dark man's nose. He caught it easily in his clawed hand and broke the stunned man's arm with a simple twist.
He turned just in time to block a table leg that was a half-second away from permanently deafening him. He kicked out like a battering ram and damn near obliterated the fifth man's ribs. A wail of unholy pain and a thump on the floor soon followed.
Silence now, but for the clink of broken glass and the terrified whimpers of the remaining customers who hadn't already bolted for the exits.
Beneath the brow of his wide leather hat, the dark man stared down his last opponent.
The sixth man's hands shook visibly. His eyes skittered back and forth across the shambles of the bar, desperately searching for a weapon or a plan of escape.
Somewhere, a woman screamed.
Both men ignored it.
And suddenly, the dark man stiffened, as if shot by a silent gun. The sixth man dared to hope he'd had a heart attack.
The dark man's eyes peeled open obscenely; his pupils had shrunk to slivers. His mouth hung open, soundless. His ears were tall and erect, listening to something no one else could hear.
Everyone who could, watched. The six-and-a-half-foot-tall stranger in the bloodstained leather coat and hat twitched and shook and jittered as if receiving the holy spirit.
And then, just as suddenly, he snapped out of it. He shook his head as if clearing away cobwebs, and was back to his normal self again.
He strode towards the sixth man and stood before him, scowling.
The sixth man cowered.
"Something has come up," the dark man said. His voice was musky and grim. Swarthy. "I must go now."
The sixth man looked up hopefully. Was he to be spared?
Quicker than lightning, the dark man reached out and grabbed his adversary's shirt, lifting him straight up off the ground with as little effort as plucking a rose.
The sixth man pissed his pants.
"When they wake up," the dark man said, uncaring of his prey's shameful loss of control, "you will tell your friends that it is not polite to grab young se§oritas' asses and make disgusting, filthy comments like a pack of wild savages. You need to learn some manners. Behave like gentlemen."
The sixth man grinned, promising to do just that.
The sixth man nodded eagerly and silently.
"Good boy." With that, the dark man threw him across the room into the huge assemblage of alcoholic beverages behind the bar. The crash was ear-splittingly loud. Glass and liquor flew everywhere. The dark man's foe slumped to the floor in a heap, having dislocated both shoulders, broken one finger and twisted an ankle in the impact.
The dark man sneered in disgust. "Hijo de puta..." he spat.
He walked over to the young female feline who had been the cause of it all. He leaned down and took her fragile hand, helping her to her feet. She was quaking with fright.
The dark man lifted her paw to his lips and kissed it tenderly. "I apologize if your evening has been spoiled. I am deeply sorry for those foul, degenerate bastards' behavior. They do not deserve even to lick the used toilet paper of a beautiful young woman such as yourself. I beg your forgiveness."
"Uh, sure," she said timidly.
He cast a dashing smile at her, and turned away.
Just before leaving, he paused at the door. Without even having to look at him, the dark man addressed the bartender. "Sorry for the inconvenience. Next time, make more of an effort to keep the primitive, unwashed swine outside." The dark man reached deeply into one of his numerous pockets and came up with a tiny, smudged and sticky copper coin. He flipped it disgustedly towards the bartender and it landed precisely in the center of the stricken man's forehead. A perfect bullseye. "Restitution. Keep the change."
Then the dark man ran off into the night. Running not from fear of capture or persecution, but from knowledge of a new purpose. He ran with long, bounding strides, taking lengthy stretches of the desert night in single steps. As if he weighed no more than his clothes.
His trenchcoat fluttered open, and the dark man took to the sky. Dust billowed as he left the earth like a phantom. His leathery wings cast an enormous black shadow on the land below.
The dark man flew all night without stopping to rest or eat. He flew until his pain-wracked wings could not stand a single flap more. When he could no longer fly, he ran. When he could no longer run, he walked. He never stopped.
He was being called. He had been given a message. There was something he must do, in a land far away. Something he must kill. The dark man could not allow himself to waste a single second more. He had to run. Onward, relentlessly onward...
Meanwhile, in a trainyard somewhere in the heartland, something stirred.
Something metal made a scraping sound, as if yawning.
Something large began coming to life.
END OF BOOK ONE