Image of Sarah Bodnar

Sarah Bodnar

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Sadie’s skeleton is jumpy in its flesh—itching to shift, twitch, tick. She’s been motionless for hours, hands curled stiffly by her head in a parody of sleep as she stares at the door. This room, vacant for years, is a snow globe of dust.

The Cortes family are masters of staying silent, but over the years Sadie’s grown rusty with her reliance on sleep-aid medication, and each forced-quiet breath is worse than torture. She thinks of her bedroom, where the medicine rests on the nightstand like a godly nectar, and wants to kick herself for running into this room instead.

At this hour the mansion is infested, generations of decaying Corteses shuffling their nightly surveillance. Her throbbing ears twitch with every creak that webs through the mansion’s old wood.

Shick... shick... shick...

Her breath freezes as the pool of light beneath the door is ruptured by two long shadows—raggedy, dragging. The feet, worn to bone, step with hollow rattles.

She stares blankly as the walker drags itself past, dizzy with dissociation as she balances on the squeaky mattress, muscles tense enough to shatter.

Normally Sadie is comatose by moonrise. Today, stupidly, she’d gotten distracted and let night tap her shoulder, terror filling her at the premiere squeak of the basement stair. She’d scurried into the nearest bedroom, sunlight receding like low tide from her ankles. She can still see her smeared footprints in the floor’s thin fuzz of dust.

There was no time to shotgun sleep-aid, and now she’s a prisoner of her own body until dawn.

Frazzled mind stirring itself into soup, her thoughts crawl back to the first time she’d been awake for walking hours—what had been the last time, until today.

Sadie was nine years old when her parents finally let her have a sleepover. The walkers weren’t as active back then, and Sadie itched to show her only friend the trapdoors and hidden passageways of the old Victorian mansion. The only thing that would’ve made it better was if she’d been allowed to show off the family catacombs beneath the basement.

That night she awoke with a loud pound quaking the floor under her ear. Her eyes stayed closed as a squelching sound followed, like the gutting of a pumpkin on Halloween. The sounds were so vivid they must’ve been in the same room, hairs on the back of her neck rising. Floorboards groaned beneath the thin fabric of her sleeping bag.

Her heart galloped. She had the urge to whisper: Do you hear that Leslie? I think that’s one of my family’s walkers... I’ve never seen them before—have you seen yours? Do they still wear their funeral clothes? Do they shush you with a wink, like Santa Claus?

But something kept her from doing it. The walker didn’t walk with the jingle of jolly boots, but with staggering, and scraping. At times the air simmered into a silence so motionless it was like the world was encased in gelatin.

The open door spilled light onto her torso, but its warmth disappeared with a sudden chill as a shadow filled the space. Unable to resist, she peeped one eye open, squinting through her lashes.

A figure hulked in the doorway like Frankenstein. Features erased in black shadow, she could only make out the silhouette of its hands’ puckered skin and the torn legs of its slacks. Its head was misshapen like it wore a matted wig, swiveling mechanically on its neck until it snagged sight of its friend and limped forward, floor complaining underfoot.

Shick... shick... shick...

Sadie’s eye followed it to where a walker was hunched over Leslie’s sleeping bag.
It held what Sadie’s bewildered mind reasoned to be an alien basketball, half-deflated and dripping some sort of liquidy goo down a rickety tail. Sadie’s nose caught wafts of decay and iron as the walker slowly rotated the object, cataloguing it.

More and more shadows shuffled into the room, congealing around Leslie’s sleeping bag, and with each one Sadie’s heart got more and more off-sync. Her pulses ran into each other—but it was stupid to be scared! The walkers were Corteses; they’d stayed in the world of the living to protect the family.

But knowing that didn’t stop the fear pumping through her veins. Breath tottered as the swarm soundlessly broke up to inspect the room, but Sadie forcibly mellowed it, closing her eyes and attempting to tug sleep over her head like a blanket. It was a meditation all Corteses were taught.

Eventually, it worked.

She woke the next morning to smells of bacon, eggs, and iron. Eyes blinking open, she again found two figures lumbering over Leslie. Her parents, clad in bathrobes and slippers, had dark eye bags as pronounced as coffee rings. Sadie shifted to see, but could only register a large puddle of maroon before her mother rushed forward to put an iron grip on her head. Sadie’s eyes still drifted in their sockets.

Her mind could make no sense of the shining mountain of viscera before her mother slapped her, voice taut and trembling as a violin string. Head spinning as her mother lectured, Sadie’s eyes dazedly recognized the silhouette of the alien basketball a few feet away. Her mind unplugged from her brain as she stared at it.

Leslie’s blue eyes were open wide. The skin had been pushed around, like bony fingers had tried to search under it. The spinal column was limp and bizarre.

“I thought they protected us.”

“They do.” Her mother brushed strands of hair behind her ear, fingers clumsy. “They protect us from intruders. But... when we move, they can’t recognize us as Corteses—or, friends of Corteses. I...” her voice caved in, “I don’t think Leslie was ever taught how to sleep still, Sadie-cakes.”

The words ring in her skull. Sadie’s bulging eyes lock on the door as another decrepit Cortes ekes past. Dust falls around her like ash. That childhood incident was the start of her sleeping aid addiction; the reason she didn’t want to come home, even for her parents’ funeral. But fate had pinned her like a pair of forceps; house rule dictates that a living Cortes must be present in the house at all times. And Sadie is the only one left.

The dining room clock’s chime echoes through the halls, hailing three hours until sunrise. Older Corteses who didn’t die with memory of the clock shick towards it like ants to sugar. Sadie allows herself one trembling sigh, ribs barely fluttering—

The mattress lets out a tiny creak.

Fast footsteps appear out of nowhere—it must be young, very young to be that quick—but not outside the door; behind the bedframe.

Sadie’s heart plummets to her stomach. The hidden passageways.

There are thumps behind the bedframe like something’s fallen, rattling the bedposts.

Sadie’s leg muscles twitch and tighten, mind frayed into a nebulous mess of sparking wires. She tries to do her meditation, breaths stuttering, but her heart punches so violently it must be visible through her skin.

The nightside table swings into the wall with a crash. Something crawls through the dog-sized door. It rustles alongside her bed, hidden by the edge.

Floorboards creak as it rises, and Sadie is face to face with the grey, drooping visage of her father.

He stands silently, eyes scanning the room. A maggot wiggles out of one tear duct, crossing his nose, burrowing into the other. Sadie recognizes the suit from the funeral, now rumpled and soaked with catacomb dirt.

Dust motes and tears torture her eyes, but she can’t blink—it wouldn’t escape the hawk-eyes of such a young walker.

In the halls arises a symphony of shick... shick... shick, echoing and growing. One pair of thundering footsteps outpaces the rest—a set of thumps behind the bedframe—rustling and scraping—

Her mother’s corpse unfolds stiffly beside her father’s, leaning backwards unnaturally like her spine is broken. Eyes vacant, still as a wax figure, she scans.

Tears like molten lava pool in Sadie’s eyes, dribbling. She can hardly see, everything blurring into a horrific oil painting of familiar shadows. And more are coming.

Sadie never makes the decision to blink—her body does. And it is the last thing her body decides to do.


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