Clara and I don’t talk for a long time. She’s rubbing her neck, where her bite is. She’s lucky or unlucky enough that it can still be seen. There are very few people whose bite marks actually exist. Those who survived the attacks long enough to become infected usually didn’t have enough of their limbs to have bite marks. Plus, the disease was rarely spread through bites anyway. That’s just a myth. Anyone who came into contact with the contaminated fluids of a zombie got sick. Blood, spit, vomit, anything. If it was infected, and you were exposed to it, you were done.
Clara is one of the few who have a specific scar from the infection. The zombie that tried to maul her shoulder was shot almost immediately. It was still too late though. Clara was dead within the hour and undead within the next.
At least, that’s what she’s told me. I wasn’t there myself. I did pretty okay, for the end of the world. The city had hastily created walled communities and I managed to get into one before the disease had spread to far. Clara didn’t. She was a zombie for six months before the authorities found her. They took her to a hospital, along with others, and used them as research. She was there for eight months before they found a cure.
It’s not elegant, and it doesn’t work a third of the time, but it stopped the apocalypse. The plague is no longer spreading. People say by next autumn, we’ll have a vaccination. The medicine is injected twice a week. I’m not a doctor, I don’t know the details. All I know is that it hurts. Clara usually doesn’t like anyone around when she takes it, but I saw her do it once. She didn’t scream, when they gave her the shot. She was used to it by now. When they injected her, she hissed. Her eyes dilated, got dark. Then she squeezed her eyes shut, and bared her teeth. She looked over to me, “It’s a little like acid.” She tried to laugh. I was silent, watching her fingers twist in and out of a fist. Her nails were long, and they made faint scratching noises against her jacket.
When they were done, they handed her a tupperware full of a cadaver’s fingers. As a snack, before the medicine fully kicked in. She had the decency to wait until I was gone before eating them. I had the decency to think of an excuse to go. She was hungry then, I could tell. Less human. More in tune to the presence of meat.
Of course, it could be worse. Sometimes the medicine doesn’t work. Sometimes it’ll even kill the person taking it. Clara made it out of the chaos with little more damage than a lost tooth, but the injections are leaving mottled red scars along her arm. But she’s human again, more or less. She’s lost the rage, the need to kill, but her hunger still lingers, here and there.
“Did you actually kill that man’s brother?” I ask quietly. I wonder if I’ve overstepped some boundary by asking. We’ve never really talked about the time she was dead and alive and hungry. She’ll make jokes about it, sometimes, and I’ll laugh, but that’s it.
Clara shrugs tiredly. Her voice is hoarse when she answers. “Maybe. They would’ve been in the same part of the city as me. I don’t know. I’ve killed a lot of peoples’ brothers.”
We walk in silence for a moment. “He’s guilty too, you know.” I point it out quietly. “How many of you do you think he killed not to end up like his brother?”
“Are you going to hold the fact that he defended himself from a pack of bloodthirsty undead against him?”
“Is he going to hold the fact that you couldn’t control your hunger against you?”
Clara sighs. I think again how messy the world is now. Half of us have killed one another. The zombies because they were sick. The humans because they fought back. Nobody knew we could find a cure. Nobody thought that there were still people inside the dead. It presented a problem when the cure became widespread. The zombies were killers. So were most humans. Did we try them all as murderers? In the end, it was simpler to just let everyone be.
We’ve reached a park. There’s a small playground, and a pale-brown line of graffitied benches along a path. Clara crosses the street to get to it. I can see her car, small and black, on the other side of it. I think she’s going to walk to the car, but after a few strides she stops, and turns. She opens her mouth, then closes it, then sighs quietly. “You know that group that’s been in the news lately? That zombie gang?”
I hesitate. “You mean, the Necroca?” Of course I did. Those people were the actual monsters. They were zombies. Full-fledged. But not because they had no choice. They rejected the cure, and lived as criminals. Eating whatever flesh they could find.
“I want to join them.”
I think I hear her wrong. She can’t mean that. “Why?”
Clara looks down. She shuffles her feet. Black shoes on grey concrete. She grimaces, then blurts out, “Because the cure doesn’t work, okay?”
Something cold wraps itself around my gut.
Clara starts pacing. Walking around me as I stand frozen. She's rambling now. “I mean, it does work, but not enough. I’m still angry, still hungry. The difference is now I realise what I’m doing. If I try, I can stop myself. But it hurts. Oh god, it hurts. The cure hurts like h---, and it does barely anything. It just doesn’t seem worth it. I’m legally obligated to take it, or they’ll lock me up and use me as research again. The things they did there..." She trails off. "They tried starving us once, as an experiment. The man next to me? He ate off his own hand. He was screaming as he chewed. But he couldn't stop, he was so hungry." She turns to me. “And I’m so hungry. I can’t take it sometimes. I miss eating.”
“But, you were eating people, Clara. People.” My voice is quiet next to hers. I can’t move. I don’t know whether I’m furious with her, or afraid of her, or so, so, incredibly sorry for her.
She squeezes her eyes shut. Her mouth is long and tight, and shaking. “I know, I know. It’s a mess. I’m a mess.”
“There’s this group I’ve heard of. They’re like the Necroca, only they don’t stay in the city. They live in deserted areas, and they hunt animals. Not humans.”
“How does that work? I thought the whole point was that you could only eat humans.”
She shrugs. “Meat is meat. Human is better, but as long as it’s raw. As long as it’s alive when we start. The killing of it, it gets rid of the anger.”
I stare at her. She’s small and dark on the sidewalk. The drizzling rain has flattened her choppy hair. I beg her, “Don’t, please. They’re working on a better cure. Everyday, there’s news. They’re saying we might get a vaccination soon.”
She laughs grimly. “How’s a vaccination going to help me?”
“They’re learning about the disease, Clara. Please? Not yet.”
Clara’s fingers tear at the sleeves of her coat, worrying away at the material. She turns to me, ferocious and sad. “You do realize what you’re saying, right? You’re asking me to continue to let myself be injected with that- that poison, to fight myself to let it work, and be hated by everyone around me as an award.” Her words grow louder, and they make me shrink back. I look down at my shoes.
My voice is quiet when I tell her. “I don’t hate you.”
Clara stares at me. Her shoulders slowly lower from their defensive hunch. She shakes her head. “No, you don’t. But you’re scared of me. I know you are.”
“Not yet.” I beg. “I’m not saying don’t do it. But not yet. Once you stop going for your injections, you’re a criminal. I can’t have you over for lunch. And it’s quite possible you’ll have me for lunch.”
Clara looks up at the concrete colored sky. She stares at it, silently. Then she sighs. “All right. Not yet. But soon. Unless there’s some major breakthrough with the cure. Otherwise, I’m leaving in three months.”
She strides over to me, and I flinch as she grabs my chin. Her hands are small, and cold as death. She runs one finger over the bruise on my face, my prize for trying to fight the restaurant manager. I hiss as she does it. It hurts. Clara makes a face. “It’s purpling already. You look awful. Maybe people will think you're the zombie, now.”
“Oh, bite me.”
She laughs, quietly. “Not today.”
I realize suddenly, how hungry I still am. I ask, “Hey, you want to go get some ice cream?”
“You just had a milkshake.”
“And as you recall, I wasn’t able to finish it. I’m craving something sweet.”
Clara’s eyebrows furrow together. She grins. “Me too, actually.” More than flesh, at the moment.”
“Well, then,” I say, “let’s go.”