“Katie got herself eaten over the weekend,” she said without looking up, her fingers dancing across the surface of her smartphone. “Some drunk driver hit her car, and her boyfriend reanimated before she could get to the gun in her glove compartment. Honestly, what idiot keeps her gun that far out of reach?”
Her husband grimaced. “That’s too bad. She was so good with Henry.”
Miranda snorted. “If she couldn’t even pay enough attention to notice all those ‘armed is prepared’ ads, how could she have paid enough attention to notice what Henry needed?” The zombie safety awareness campaign had been inescapable—it seemed like every time she’d clicked a YouTube video or watched something on Hulu, she’d gotten an ad where that smirking guy from Saturday Night Live reminded everyone to keep a loaded gun within arm’s reach; you never knew when someone might die, reanimate as a zombie, and try to eat you. How had Katie missed the message?
“Anyway.” Miranda found another nanny agency’s website—and another wait list. “The funeral’s Thursday, and we’ll go, of course, but for now, we need a second nanny.”
A pause. She brought up the next dead-end website, silently willing Stephen not to say what she knew was coming next.
He did anyway. “But… He cleared his throat. “Petra is still coming today, isn’t she?”
“Yes. She is. But one isn’t enough. You know that.”
“We never had trouble with one. Nobody ever had trouble with one. That au pair who fell down the stairs in Houston was a freakish one-in-a-billion—”
“That’s easy for you to say. You weren’t following the news.” Another dead end. When everyone had two nannies, the agencies ran out fast. “The only reason those kids survived after she reanimated was because the oldest girl paid attention in firearms class. Henry won’t even be old enough for Mommy and Me marksmanship for another three months.”
“What are the odds that Petra will fall down the stairs and break her neck? And even if she does, our HOA has the best snipers in the county, maybe the state.”
“That’ll only help if she reanimates outside. The odds are slim, sure, but I’m not gambling with Henry’s life. We need someone else here who can handle a gun. And anyway, she’s not the only one who might die. What if today’s the day Mr. Shaw decides to kick it? Do you want Petra to be here alone if he’s shambling around the neighborhood trying to eat people?” She tapped the phone. Were there any nannies in the entire DC metro area? She was going to have to look in Baltimore at this rate.
“If you’re only looking for someone to be a kill switch, you don’t need a nanny. Hire
a security guard.”
“Security’s even harder to find than nannies.” Something in her inbox, thank God. She skimmed the email and let out her breath in a whoosh of relief. “Graziela can come back tomorrow.”
“He’ll be fine with just Petra today.”
“No, he won’t. I’m telecommuting.” She was already pulling up the number for the office.
“Miri, for God’s sake—”
“I don’t want to hear it. I have plenty of personal days saved up.” And unlike Katie, I always keep a loaded pistol at my hip, she added silently.
Stephen probably would have argued further, but at that point, Henry’s voice started babbling over the monitor, and Miranda ran upstairs to retrieve him. She cradled the phone against her ear while reaching into his crib, which still had its reinforced steel rails back from when he’d been young enough for them to worry about SIDS. By the time she came back downstairs, she’d already snagged the day off. No room for Stephen to argue, and while his goodbye kiss felt more cursory than usual, she knew she was doing the right thing for her son.
Petra arrived a few minutes after Stephen left, as usual, wearing layers of clothing around her skinny frame despite the April warmth—she’d once explained to Miranda that it was an old Eastern European habit to give them extra protection from teeth. Well, actually, she’d explained it to Henry in a big, overdramatic baby voice that was clearly directed at Miranda. “We always wore our clothes like this back home, didn’t we?” she’d said, eyes as wide as her smile. “We didn’t have snipers like some lucky little boys, did we?” Miranda didn’t know whether she did that because she was too diffident to address her employer directly or if it was just something they did in Slovakia or Slovenia or wherever, but it was one of the reasons she preferred to let Stephen handle Petra. Having someone talk to her indirectly in a baby voice made her want to tear out her hair.
When Petra came inside, Henry whimpered and clung to Miranda more tightly, his thumb creeping into the corner of his mouth. The separation anxiety was usually an odd mixture of annoyance and relief, but since he wasn’t keeping her from getting out the door this time, she could just enjoy cuddling him closer.
“Things are going to be a little different today,” Miranda said, and briefly outlined the situation. Petra made some sympathetic noises about Katie, but not many—apparently she also wasn’t sure what kind of idiot drove without a gun in arm’s reach. Either that or she couldn’t summon much grief for a girl who had only been there to shoot her in the head.
“At any rate, I don’t want to be in your way, and I can’t get anything done if I have to keep one eye on Henry the whole time,” Miranda concluded. “I’ll just be in the office upstairs. Keep the monitor with you, and I’ll be able to hear if you need me.”
If Petra was bothered by what lurked under “if you need me”—keep the monitor with you, and if you die I’ll be able to blow your brains out before you eat my baby—she didn’t show it. She was a professional, after all, and she probably understood Miranda’s concerns, having children and grandchildren of her own in Slovakivenia-wherever. She just nodded with an expression of almost exaggerated solicitousness, eyebrows furrowed and lower lip pooching out. “Sure, sure! Mommy won’t even know we’re here, will she, Henry?” Her voice was a coo, and Henry stopped squirming and batted tentatively at her face.
Miranda felt the usual pang as she passed him over. Still, no time for angst; she was telecommuting, not calling in sick, and her cost-benefit analysis on installing landmines around nursing homes wasn’t going to write itself, so she headed for the office.
She tried at first to keep the monitor’s volume cranked up so she could listen avidly for any disturbance, but it was hard to get any work done when every calculation had an undercurrent of Henry pounding away on Mozart’s Magic Piano or Take-Aim Teddy or of Petra reading him Runaway Bunny. She lowered the volume grumpily, unable to stop herself from mentally nitpicking the way Petra did the bunnies’ voices. It wouldn’t matter, probably—if Petra died, it would be an accident loud enough for her to hear even without a monitor—but dialing down her vigilance was an irritating reminder that Stephen had probably been right. Really, what were the odds that Petra would fall down the stairs today?
A siren whooped, intruding on her thoughts. Miranda’s head snapped up as she saw the ambulance swooping around the corner, Kevlar-armored EMTs leaning out the windows with machine guns ready. Mr. Shaw. Her hand went to the pistol at her hip as she pushed out of her chair and hurried down the stairs. “Petra? Are you—”
She trailed off. Petra was helping Henry into his shoes. The nanny flashed her a nervous little smile, turning back to Henry so quickly that Miranda barely saw her face. “Yes?”
“You’re—you’re not taking him outside, are you? There’s a zombie out there.”
“The EMTs are taking care of it, aren’t they, Henry? We’ll be fine. And even if something happens, the playground is fenced in, so you’ll be safe, won’t you?” Petra shot her a sidelong glance, clearly trying to gauge her reaction without actually making eye contact.
Miranda ground her teeth. It was true—their playground had keyed entry and sniper nests, everything that a parent could want. Still, the thought of her son playing outside while the paramedics gunned down a rampaging Mr. Shaw, even if it was in his house…
“It just seems like a shame to stay inside on such a beautiful day,” Petra said as Henry clambered out of her lap, still looking at him and using that stupid baby voice. “Did you know, Henry, that it’s supposed to rain for the rest of the week?”
“It doesn’t seem safe.”
Petra’s brow furrowed and the corner of her mouth pulled down into a frown that she almost immediately turned into another tiny smile. Her eyes darted from Henry to Miranda to somewhere just over Miranda’s shoulder. “Well, we’ve—we’ve done it before.”
“Last month when someone had a heart attack. I told your husband, and—” A burst of machine gun fire interrupted her, followed by the low, musical whoop of the all-clear. Petra’s shoulders dropped with relief—whether because Mr. Shaw was taken care of or because she was now free from the conversation, Miranda couldn’t say—and gave Henry another one of those goopy smiles. “See? Nothing to worry about, is there, Henry?”
“Wait. You told—” She made herself stop, briefly entertaining a vision of throttling Stephen and then sending his reanimated corpse after Petra. “Fine. Take him out. It’s fine.”
Miranda retreated to her office, cheeks burning. She tried to type a few more notes, but it was no good; her mind was a hot, twisted knot of irritation, and she found herself peering out the window instead.
Petra was right, as much as she hated to admit it. The playground was probably the safest place in the entire neighborhood. It always made Miranda a little sad, going there; she’d never had to worry about keyed entry or snipers when she’d been a little girl. She and her playmates knew how to handle a pistol, the neighborhood watch had their ears open, and that was all anyone needed. But that had been before the massacre in Portland, of course, and now every outdoor public area had turrets and digital keypads.
If Petra felt any of that sadness, she didn’t show it. She tipped a wave to one of the snipers—Ted? Todd?—and he waved back, calling down something that made her laugh and point at her handbag. She didn’t seem to have any trouble talking directly to him. Henry had already started toddling over to the swings.
It was almost suffocating, watching them outside while she was stuck at her desk. She found herself almost hoping Petra would keel over so Miranda could shoot her and play with Henry. At the very least, she could open the office window. As she did, the breeze carried her son’s giggling voice into the room, and the air conditioner kicked in with a low thrum.
Miranda snorted. She couldn’t help it. The air conditioner? On a day like today? No, Petra wasn’t going to waste money on utilities in her house. She made her way through each floor, opening every window she could find to let that sweet spring breeze carry in the laughter of her boy, the drone of the bees, the distant thwack of Mr. Harrington practicing with the crossbow he’d bought from the Amish market.
She went back to work in good spirits, plugging away on the cost-effectiveness of various perimeter defenses. Over the monitor, she heard Petra bring Henry back inside, put her handbag in the closet, and start making lunch. It was all background noise until she heard the thud of windows closing.
Oh, come on. “Petra, it’s a beautiful day, can you just—”
Petra screamed. It was a short sound, barely more than an “oh dear, I just saw a cockroach” squawk, but there was a bloody edge of raw panic underneath.
Miranda shot to her feet, sending the wheeled office chair rolling across the room. “Petra?”
“Fine, fine! It’s fine!”
Her voice was too high-pitched, too quick. Miranda did not sit down. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come down?”
“No, no, no! It’s fine, we’re fine, we’re fine.”
Six “fines” directed at her instead of Henry. Right. Miranda was out the office door and in the hallway. She could hear a series of heavy, rustling thumps near the front door—not the windows, something else. What was Petra doing?
“I’m just going to poke my head down for a minute, OK?” Miranda hurried down the stairs, moving as quickly as she could while trying not to be too obvious about it. An umbrella skittered past the foot of the stairs—Petra was throwing things out of the hall closet. Miranda reached the ground floor, turned the corner, and froze.
Petra was on her tiptoes, her arms reaching up to the closet’s top shelf. She was making thin, rapid little squeaking noises, like air escaping a balloon a second at a time. Her face was pale and blotchy, its flesh beginning to bloat and swell, and her eyes had a vacant, glazed look.
She was wheezing instead of moaning, but otherwise it was a textbook reanimation, and Miranda didn’t hesitate. She yanked her pistol out of the holster, fumbled her shaking thumb over the safety, and fired three times in rapid succession. She thought she’d aimed too low—her hands were trembling, and there was a big difference between a practice dummy and her reanimated nanny—but she must not have, because Petra immediately went down, spraying blood across the closet. At least it’ll be easier to clean off than the time Henry got into the Sharpies, Miranda thought crazily. The handbag clattered off the shelf, sending spare change and makeup and something that looked like a glue stick rolling across the floor.
Miranda’s ears were ringing badly, but she could still hear Henry crying—it had been louder than she’d ever guessed, firing without earplugs. She glanced around and saw him toddling into the foyer, big cartoon tears rolling down his chubby face.
Miranda took the last step down to the foyer, slipping a little in the blood as she did, her foot almost kicking Petra’s chipmunk-cheeked face. Why had no one ever talked about the swelling? She hadn’t heard of that aspect of reanimation before. “Henry, baby, it’s OK—”
Henry looked down, and his tears immediately stopped. He bent over with a curious little coo and reached into the puddle of blood, grabbing a roll of quarters in one hand and the glue stick in the other. “I play?” he said, looking up at her.
“No! Bad, Henry, bad!” Miranda scooped him up, forcing his arms down by his sides despite his shrieks so he couldn’t get his bloody hands into his mouth. If any of that blood made it into his mouth, or his eye, or if he had a little cut somewhere she didn’t know about…
Bleach wipes. Right, the bleach wipes were in the upstairs bathroom. Henry squirmed against her chest as she lugged him up the stairs, and she managed to bump the bathroom door open with her hip so she could keep her hands firmly clenched around his.
She sat on the floor with Henry pinioned between her knees and pried his fingers from the quarters and the glue stick, ignoring his screams of protest at being parted from these fabulous treasures. “I know, baby, I know,” she cooed, wiping his hands down with the bleach wipes before releasing him with a kiss. He hurled himself at her, reaching for the quarters and the glue stick as though they were the greatest toys ever invented. She pulled them up out of reach—they were still covered in blood—and as the glue stick crossed her field of vision, she saw the text on it for the first time.
It wasn’t a glue stick. It was an EpiPen.
Miranda stared at it, feeling her stomach go hard and heavy, the breeze from the windows that Petra refused to open ruffling through her hair. Her ears were still ringing, but if they hadn’t been, she imagined she’d have been able to hear the bees buzzing.
Petra’s face hadn’t bloated up because of some little-known aspect of the reanimation process. Petra hadn’t been dead yet.
You need to call your lawyer, that same crazy part of her brain yammered. Maryland just passed Defend the Living laws, you’ll be fine if you can just show you honestly and reasonably believed she had reanimated . . .
A thump sounded from the foyer. Another thump, and a moan.
Miranda’s breath stopped. She had aimed too low.
Her hand went to her cell phone, and she had started to punch in 911 before she stopped herself. No. No, she couldn’t call the police before she had the chance to talk to her lawyer. They’d see a zombie with a gunshot wound to the chest, and what would they do? They’d arrest her, that was what. And it wouldn’t be quiet, either; this was the sort of thing that would draw a media circus. They’d have to move just to avoid looking the neighbors in the face. And if (God forbid) she was found guilty and thrown in prison, what then? They wouldn’t be able to move anywhere with a decent school district, not on Stephen’s salary alone, and private schools would drop Henry’s application in the paper shredder the moment they saw her name. What kind of life would that be?
No. She wasn’t going to let Henry’s future be ruined because Katie had been too stupid to keep a handgun in reach. If Petra had a headshot to go along with her chest wound, the “I thought she was a zombie” defense would be a lot more plausible, and she could deflect at least some of the scrutiny.
She closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe. She could do this. She’d put in plenty of hours at the shooting range—it was time to make those hours pay off by protecting her boy.
She scooped Henry up and carried him to the nursery. “Mama will be right back, baby,” she crooned before stepping out and locking the steel reinforced door behind her. She took another deep breath and removed the gun from its holster; then she scurried along the hall and partway down the stairs, trying to keep her footfalls as quiet as possible on the hardwood floor, and craned her head over the banister to look.
Petra was hobbling back and forth in the doorway to the dining room. One of her shuffling feet bumped against Take-Aim Teddy, and he lit up bright green. “A is for ammo!” he chirped. “Always keep your ammo nearby!”
Petra lurched downward, grabbed the bear with one hand, and ripped his head off with her teeth, spilling hypoallergenic stuffing across her chin. Miranda winced. Take-Aim Teddy had been a gift from her mother.
No time to worry about that, though. Petra was distracted. Miranda darted the rest of the way down the stairs and took aim. Her hands were shaking again. Breathe, breathe . . .
She pulled the trigger. A puff of plaster exploded from the wall about a foot from Petra’s head. Petra turned toward her, the teddy bear dangling from her mouth like a mouse from a cat’s.
Dammit. Hold the gun still. She pulled the trigger again, but holding the gun perfectly still was a lot easier when a bloody-chested zombie wasn’t glowering at her, and the shot went wild again. Petra growled and started shuffling closer.
Miranda screamed and fired again. Again. Her heart was pounding so hard that she was sure it was making her entire body shake to its rhythm. A bullet zinged past Petra’s cheek, but didn’t embed itself in her skull. Petra was getting closer. Closer…
Miranda’s nerve broke, and she turned and fled for the stairs. She was almost there when her feet skidded in the blood and sent her to the floor. The gun went flying from her fingers.
She crawled toward it, and as she did, she pictured Katie scrambling toward the gun in her glove compartment. It wasn’t fair. Katie had been stupid, but Miranda had been so careful, she’d done everything right, she didn’t deserve this . . .
Petra’s fingers closed on Miranda’s ankle.
Miranda closed her eyes. I knew Petra would reanimate today. I just knew it.
And then, as the nanny’s teeth sank into her leg, I hope Stephen remembers to hire a kill switch for Graziela tomorrow.
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