Terribly hungover today. Zombies have taken my brain. Zero word count.
I’m clutching the laptop against my leg, closed but warm, the fan still running, when I find the key. It’s under a flowerpot by the front door. I’m about a mile from home, too far to risk running, and all I can hear are screams and howls from the main road behind me.
This is the seventh dark house I’ve tried.
It’s empty. It feels empty. I check anyway, ranging through the small house from room to room, but see nothing until I return to the hall and look more closely, my eyes adjusting to the gloom. There’s a prosecco bottle smashed onto the floor, still wet. The blood's wet too.
I think: someone lost their mind yesterday.
Nonetheless, the house is secure, locked tight. It’s all wood and leather, wool and paper. No television, no wifi, no way to check the news. It smells sweetly of multivitamins and urine, like rotting old age.
There’s a den, a windowless room with armchairs and shelves. I seal myself in and check the word count on my laptop: 1,030 today.
I’m running out of time.
I close the laptop, no words written, and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. There’s something out there, a noise I can hear through the walls of the den. It echoes, scratches, but I can’t trace its source.
I need to finish this manuscript before it’s too late.
No. Right now I need a weapon. The house backs onto patio, onto grass, onto river. This is not a safe place.
I hear a click followed quickly by a slam. It sounds suspiciously like the front door, which I thought I had locked behind me. That cannot be a good thing. Footsteps follow.
There’s nothing in here but books and my laptop, and there’s no way I’m wielding the latter at a zombie. If I can’t even write, what’s the point?
I decide to hide. I’m good at hiding.
The door opens. I screech a little. Just a little. Hardly at all really.
Fine. I scream.
‘Not a zombie, don’t worry. Saw you come in here. Needed a break.’
She’s about my height, slim, long blonde hair, wearing five-inch heels so caked in mud that even by the light of her electric lantern I can’t tell what colour they used to be. Oh, and she’s holding an oar, a sculling blade in her hands. I recognise from the paintwork that it belongs to Falcon Rowing Club, a few doors down.
‘Are you a rower too?’ I ask. As if that’s relevant. I’m babbling. She’s hardly going to have just come off the water in that outfit.
‘Sorry. It’s just, I’m a bit jumpy, and you’re holding a blade, so, you know.’
She looks at me as though I’ve lost the plot.
‘It’s an oar, not a sword. I’m not going to cut you.’
She makes it sound like this is a rare exception, like she cuts people on a regular basis. I think I might have been more comfortable if she had been a zombie.
She kicks off her shoes, leaving mud on the wooden floor. I get out from behind the sofa, trying not to look too sheepish.
‘What’s the laptop for?’ she asks, understandably confused as to why I’m holding it in preference to a weapon.
‘I’m a writer,’ I say. ‘I have this story I need to finish.’
‘That’s your priority right now? You know what’s happening out there, right? I just watched about fifty people go feral back on Donnington Bridge.’
‘Me too.’ It didn’t change anything. I had to finish this story, even if it was literally the last thing I did.
‘You know they’re in the water? Fuckers tried to pull me in.’
I eye the blood on the end of the oar blade, which she drops to the ground. She obviously managed to hold them back. She throws herself into one of the leather armchairs and gives me a frank, assessing look. I watch her sizing me up, clearly checking out whether I’m going to be an asset or a hindrance to her. Honestly, I’m betting the latter.
‘Whadda you write?’ she asks.
This question always embarrasses me. It’s where I lose people, where my acquaintances’ eyes glaze over as they file me in the ‘not a proper author’ box.
‘Paranormal romance, mostly,’ I say. ‘Some pseudo-historical fiction. Fantasy, you know.’
‘Yeah. Vampires, zombies.’
She laughs bitterly.
‘Fantasy,’ she says. ‘Right.’
If any of us get out of this alive, someone’s probably going to need to reclassify that genre.
There’s that noise again: a scratching, ticklish sound. I thought it had just been the blonde making her way into the house, but with the door to the den open, it’s obvious now that the noise is coming from the back.
‘You hear that?’ she asks me as she hops out of the chair, agile and liquid. I guess that she wants to investigate, but I’d really rather barricade myself in the room than go looking for trouble.
‘It’s probably just a rat, or something. Or a cat,’ I say, remembering the bowls I’d seen in the kitchen. ‘There’s a cat that lives here.’
‘Cat flap?’ she says.
She’s already on her way to the back door. I follow only after she calls for me. Yes, I know, but my cowardice has served me well tonight, so why fight it?
‘Cat flap,’ she says, a statement this time. There’s a scrabbling sound from the other side of the Perspex. Something wants in.
She stands next to the door with a kitchen knife in her hand and nods at me.
I don’t understand.
She makes some cryptic hand gestures.
I still don’t understand.
‘Kneel down and tell me what you see,’ she whispers, irritation hissing through the words.
I really don’t want this job. She glares at me. I screw up my face and do as I’m told.
I have to press my cheek to the terracotta tiles so I can get a clear view through the hatch window, and as soon as my face hits the floor, something darts through. I scream and jump back. The blonde strikes with no hesitation.
We both look down at the hand, impaled and writhing on the floor, the knife wedged firmly into the grouting.
‘Not a cat,’ she says.
The hand is modelling pink nail varnish, embellished with little diamanté appliqués. Blood is coated around the jewels, all over the hand in fact. It looks overdressed for an evening chasing brains on the towpath.
‘Holy shit,’ the blonde mutters. ‘It’s Christine.’
She crouches down next to me and peers through the cat flap, her expression indecipherable. In contrast, the face on the other side of the plastic is very decipherable: contorted and vitriolic, mascara and blood running into the desperate creases around its eyes.
‘You know her?’
She nods. ‘A friend. Well, sort of. Let’s just say that zombieism isn’t the end I’d have chosen for her, but I’ll take it.’
I decide I definitely don’t want to be friends with the blonde. Or enemies. I’d like to be a brief acquaintance who parts company with her in the very near future.
We both stand, hands on hips, looking down at the hand as it writhes around the knife pinning it to the floor. Blood is gradually pooling beneath it, and the flesh is starting to look... off.
‘So,’ I ask in my bravest, not-freaked-out voice, ‘what now?’
She shrugs. ‘Can’t be long till dawn. I vote we wait and see what happens.’
‘They’re zombies, not vampires. She’s not going to explode in a puff of smoke. Vampires aren’t real,’ I laugh.
She doesn’t look at me, her gaze fixed on the wriggling fingers. Her silence makes me nervous.
‘Right?’ I ask.
‘Get some sleep,’ she says.
I return to the den, wrap myself in a blanket and stare at the door until morning.
What the hell is Writer vs Zombies??
Josie posts instalments of WvZ on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter daily while she's writing. This blog post summarises the latest few instalments. Follow Josie on social media to catch the posts as they go live.
The score represents her progress against her word-count target: if she makes the target then the writer gets a point, if she doesn't then the zombies get a point. The world is based on Josie's Solis Invicti series.