When the car door opened and Blas’s nose was finally free of the overpowering vanilla, he almost wished it wasn’t. Fir trees, packed dirt, and wildlife. They were at Forsythe Summit Park. He panicked.
“Blas! Bad dog!” Stacy couldn’t believe this. Blas sat unmoving in the back seat of Ethan’s Tesla, whining. She was out of patience. “We’re going to leave you there, boy. Don’t think we won’t.” She turned to Ethan. “I’ve got this.”
She began to slowly walk away from the car, motioning for Ethan and Princess to follow. As the distance grew, Blas’s whining became strangled, desperate barks. Finally, he was there, miserable at Stacy’s side, and Ethan pressed the button for the door to close itself.
Blas considered it part of his solemn duty as Stacy’s zombie dog to make clear that he disapproved of her decision to return here. As they made the switchback ascent up the side of the mountain, he padded beside Princess to try to plead his case.
“Blas, stop that!” Stacy was getting embarrassed by the bizarre noises coming from her dog and the way he was pestering Princess, who kept her eyes forward and moved away from him whenever he approached. “He’s not usually like this.”
Ethan smirked, “Yes, I’ve met your dog before. So has Princess. This doesn’t by any chance have to do with where you’re taking me, does it?”
Stacy bit her lip and said nothing. She was acting like a prize maniac. What was her plan here, exactly? Was she going to tell him “just go forward until you find a pile of dead zombies?” What if he got caught in the same trap? No, she’d have to go with him, as much as Blas would hate it. Now they’d know to be extra careful.
When they made it to the top of Forsythe Summit, Ethan grinned at the splendid array of conifer trees that spread out beneath them. “It’s a beautiful view, Stacy. I love it.”
Stacy nodded dumbly, disinterested in his wisecracks. She plodded past the bench and directly for the edge of the cliff. Failing to prevent Stacy from reaching the top of Forsythe Summit, Blas sunk his teeth into her pant leg. Princess barked and Ethan stared, making no attempt to conceal his joy, wishing he’d brought popcorn as Stacy shook her leg and screamed at her dog. “Blas! Blas, I have had it with you!”
“Do you think maybe he doesn’t want you to jump off the cliff?”
“It’s not a fucking-” Stacy grabbed her snarling dog by his curly golden snout and pried his teeth apart. “It’s easy to climb down.”
“You realize a leap off this cliff is not included in the trail.” Ethan grinned.
“Yes, I do, thank you. Are you coming or not?”
“I’ll follow you to the end of the Earth,” said Ethan, only half-joking, as Stacy disappeared off the cliff and he hurried after. Blas barked at Princess, who whined and followed him down the shallow slope hidden on the mountain’s side.
They walked for another ten minutes. Nothing was here but pine needles. Stacy whispered to Blas to try and find the smell of the zombies, but he would lead them nowhere but back to the trail. “Have you ever looked up in a forest?” Ethan asked, “The canopy is gorgeous, and you get a sense for how small you really are. If these trees were people we wouldn’t come up to their knees.”
“That’s nice, Ethan,” Stacy was desperate for something, anything she could just happen to find to say, “Look, Ethan! Could this be evidence of intelligent zombies? Do you need to write an article about it, maybe?” Even that plan sounded stupid. Everything she did was stupid. Stacy was such a moron even her dog didn’t respect her. Ethan was getting so bored he was talking about trees and knees. Princess yawned.
Ethan looked down from the trees to see that Stacy was ready to shoot eye lasers at him. “Ethan,” she said, shaking her head. “What I am about to tell you, you must promise never to say to anyone else.”
“I will take it to my grave,” Ethan blurted, unthinking.
“I need you to take it to the newspaper.”
Ethan nodded, trying to parse what he had just been told. He must tell no one but he must tell everyone. He could work with that.
Sanjay Gobi and his malamute Cody saw a Tesla pass by with Ethan and Stacy. Good. He smiled to see that they were getting along. Now he could focus his efforts back on Julia. Julia was so smart that if she focused half the effort that Stacy did, she could lead the newspaper. She could lead any club she wanted. Nevertheless, Julia never offered more than token effort to anything outside her own mysterious goals.
Mr. Gobi, he had been called that name so much that he pretty much thought of himself by it, was not going to think about work anymore. He was on his way to his most important job, and it was time to get in the mode of thinking of himself as “Dad.”
Angela Gobi-Price was the last remnant of Mr. Gobi’s family. Belladonna Price passed away from an overdose of sleeping pills two years ago. She had borne the news of her daughter’s death bravely, but when Mr. Gobi insisted that Angela was still alive, that was too much. Mr. Gobi blamed himself for pushing poor Belladonna beyond what she was capable of handling, but now he absolutely could not give up on Angela. She was all he had.
Cody whined softly when Mr. Gobi left him in the car. They had gone through this routine hundreds of times, though, so that was the extent of his complaint. There could be no zombie dogs where he was going.
The most beautiful part of this whole nightmare was watching little Angie grow up. Mr. Gobi had always known she’d be a leader, even if he would not have imagined it like this. She found the place for them, and she never missed a meeting. She even brought friends sometimes, such as they were. Mr. Gobi climbed the switchback path up Forsythe Summit. He took a left and walked down the secret path to his darling daughter.
She was thoughtful enough to pick mostly clean, fresh friends when she brought them. The struggle they had with basic communication and cleanliness put Angela’s own troubles in perspective. The grease in her thick brown hair and the fact that she always wore the same hole-ridden sun dress would have driven him mad, but after what had happened to her, he saw that she was special. She rose above the setback and made a new life for herself, where she got the respect a Gobi deserved. And he still got to see her. She would appear in the clearing every week at the same time. She would lift her hands and say “Daddy,” and he would hold her close. Even the mold and the rot didn’t bother him anymore. This was still his daughter. During these meetings, no zombie dared touch him.
The clearing at the foot of Forsythe Summit away from the parking lot was empty. Angela was only late once, and she sent a “friend,” Mr. Gobi called them “friends,“ even though they acted a little more like her employees, to assure him in guttural, broken English “Angela on way. Thank you for patience.”
The panic settled in Mr. Gobi’s mind when he saw one of Angela’s friends shuffling forward from the gloom. He had tried to learn their names, the ones that knew their own names and could communicate with them. The filth on them helped a lot. This one looked like he had a short orange afro of mold. “Hello, Joe,” said Mr. Gobi. Joe made a gurgling sound and clacked his teeth together. Mr. Gobi saw that Joe had a black garbage bag. “What’s that you’ve got there, Joe?”
More gurgling and clacking. Joe placed the bag gently on the ground and jerked two arms to cross his chest in an X, making the best fists with his stiff hands that he could. He gave a stiff bow. Then he turned and left. Mr. Gobi’s dread built as he knelt to the bag. He looked inside and withdrew a skull. Beginning to panic again, he dumped everything out. A pile of bones, a bloody sundress, and a thick braid of Angela’s brown hair. Mr. Gobi grabbed the hair and clutched it to his chest. “Angela.” he choked. He saw something white sticking out from the bones, and grabbed a crumpled piece of paper. A dedicated zombie had worked very hard to write an intelligible note. All over the paper were scratched out messages and finally near the bottom, one was circled. Through his tears, Mr. Gobi struggled to parse the ragged block-script.
“SORRY. HUNTING ACCIDENT. VERY SORRY. WE SAD TOO. BEST FRIEND. BEST LEADER. U GOOD DAD.”
“Me good dad,” Mr. Gobi muttered to himself, letting out a mirthless chuckle that became a long, wailing sob. He glanced up into the woods, and saw a row of Angela’s friends. Silent, they watched him. What a special thing for a zombie, to have someone who loved them. “Take me,” he shouted. “I have nothing left to live for. Just eat me all at once. Don’t make me one of you.”
He saw Angela’s friends lift their arms. They waved toward him and began to groan. “What do you want?” he wondered, “What are you trying to say?” One friend in a heavy coat made a noise halfway between a growl and a choke, “Gu gu Gu gu Gu gu gu gu” and pointed to the side. Mr. Gobi looked and saw some zombies that he did not recognize. They advanced, and Mr. Gobi’s instinct for self-preservation returned. Note and braid in hand, he sprinted back up the path to the summit. He kept running all the way back to his car.
Cody leapt to tear up the braid, but he snatched it back before the malamute could get his jaws on it and threw it and the note in the glove compartment. Mr. Gobi glanced up at the mountain, as if a legion of zombies might be cascading down the switchback path to take him, but it wasn’t. He was safe with his dog in a locked car. Utterly secure in a world that no longer had anything to offer him.