Home > Zombies Vs. Unicorns(17)

Zombies Vs. Unicorns(17)
Author: Holly Black

The actress pointed them out. Alex was a little boy from Kenya. Melissa was a brown-haired girl with a slightly pushed-in face from Turkey. Ben was from Vietnam.

Lily was a tiny blonde from Ukraine, and Maxine was from Burundi. For such a diverse group of kids, there was a sameness about them, something in their expressions and the way they moved. They had to be between five and seven, but they acted much younger, like toddlers.

“They’ll be busy for a few minutes,” the actress said. “Let me show you your room. It’s just across the hall.”

My room—the guest room—was such a welcome sight that I almost cried. There was a four-poster bed covered in filmy white gauze. The rest of the furniture consisted of heavy perfectly refinished antiques. More important, there was a large television mounted on the fireplace mantle, and an en suite marble bathroom with a cavernous tub, and a towel warmer, and a little gold chair to sit on while you got ready for a hot bath.

“Do I give them their baths here?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. They can go a day without a bath. Bath times around here are kind of chaotic. Let them play for a day. It’s incredibly clean in there, anyway.”

“And when they have to … go to the potty?”

“Oh, they have one in there. You really don’t have to do anything. Just give them their meals at the right times. That’s it. Just don’t go into the play area, okay? And don’t take them out. They’re fine in there. I have to get going.”

It was that fast. She strode out of the room, with her bouncy little-kid walk, thigh bones jangling in the hip sockets. She took a tiny purse from the fainting couch and slapped on a pair of sunglasses, despite the grayness of the day. The actress needed no bag. Famous people didn’t lift or carry things. I could imagine it— everything waiting at the hotel. The dress. The makeup artist. The hairstylist. The famous actor would be there, and her every need would be provided for.

“You’ll be fine,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll see you around noon tomorrow. Oh, and here.”

She reached into her purse and pressed a folded stack of pound notes into my hand. A moment later she was out the door, and I heard the purr of a motor and the sound of crunching on the drive. When she was gone, the house creaked a bit, and then an unsteady quiet descended. I looked at the money in my hand. She had given me eight hundred pounds for a night’s work.

Again, you might be thinking that the flags should have gone up, that they must have been waving wildly. But what would you have done? A famous person comes along, asks you to do the easiest job in the world for one night, and hands you enough cash to fix all your problems. So, okay, the whole situation was a bit freaky. Fine.

But it wasn’t unpleasant or illegal or deeply, morally wrong. I was just an overpaid babysitter working for a famous, friendly nutcase.

When I went back to the playroom, the children couldn’t be bothered with me.

SpongeBob had somehow appeared on one of the televisions, and they clustered close underneath it to watch. There was plenty of room for everyone to see, but they were knotted together, and they had no concept of viewing distance. They planted themselves right under it and stared up, craning their necks.

I felt the heavy plastic of the gate. It was just taller than I was, made of something strong and flexible. I pushed on it, then leaned on it, then dropped all of my weight onto it. The gate could handle it easily.

It had always been said that the Lazarines did some weird things with their kids, that they kept them pure. They didn’t believe in medication of any kind, some sources said, not even vaccines. I hadn’t believed a lot of that stuff, but here were five kids in a pen, unable to be touched. I pressed my hand against the plastic mesh again. It was so fine that not even a little hand could get through. Clear enough to see through perfectly—dense enough to prevent real contact.

How could this even be happening? How could someone that rich and famous just leave their children with a stranger?

The second SpongeBob was over, the television shut itself off. This caught me by surprise, and I jumped. The kids didn’t flinch. They also didn’t move from their spot. They watched the screen even though it was off, at least for a good five minutes. The house settled again. And aside from a very slight, confused mumbling from the kids, there was no noise.

“All right,” I said. “You guys? I’m Sofie. Sofie.”

This got some interest, but just for a moment. The children turned and came toward me as a group.

“Sponnn …” Little Ben was pointing at the television. “Sponnnnn … Baaaaaa …”

“Yes,” I said. “SpongeBob. You like SpongeBob.”

“Spooonnnn …”

“SpongeBob is done now.”

Ben turned to the television hopefully. “Spoonnnnn?”

“No more SpongeBob right now.”

Lily came over and reached up her arms, wordlessly requesting to be picked up, drooping against the plastic fencing. I put my hand against hers. Lily smiled and drooled a little.

They definitely looked happy. Not smart, but happy. Ben was aloof, sitting in the corner for most of the day, scowling and occasionally knocking over a pile of blocks. Melissa talked a lot, a low, endless, incomprehensible noise. She was also the bossiest, pushing the others around, making endless circuits with the toy shopping cart. Alex just stared into the depths of the toy oven. Melissa was somewhat sly. Lily was the most obviously dim-witted. She opened books and banged them on her own head.

At six o’clock the television turned itself on again. This time the show was the BBC news, which I assumed had to be a programming error—but the children raced over to watch. They seemed to like the news even more than they liked SpongeBob. They got particularly excited when war coverage was on. They were lulled by a long interview with an economist. At seven, the television switched itself off, and once again they stood there, watching the gray screen for five or so minutes before meandering off in different directions.

Seven o’clock was a mealtime. I retrieved five of the plastic containers.

“Who’s hungry?” I called.

This got a reaction. A chorus of excitement. Something to do. This felt so weird, just sticking the food into the hatch for these strange children, sending it on its colorful, musical way into their playland. But those were the instructions. Once again there was a cluster around the hatch, a struggle to reach for the containers.

They ate so quickly that I couldn’t even see what they had. Then they dropped the containers and went right back to playing.

At nine o’clock they watched a police drama.

Summer days in England were long, and it was around ten o’clock before the day passed into anything I could be certain was called night. The kids were still glued to the television, taking in the sight of an autopsy with quiet fascination. A surprising amount of light streamed in through the windows … maybe more than during the day. The moon was nearly full and provided an almost fluorescent glow over the flat landscape, bringing into sharp relief the black outlines of trees.

Click.

All the lights went out. I lurched, but in a moment realized that, like everything else, the lights were on a timer. The darkness didn’t bother the kids. I saw their little shadows moving from toy kitchen to jungle gym to television set. Someone threw a ball, hard, but no one caught it. It dribble, dribble, dribble, dribbled its way to rest next to what I thought was little Lily, who was still “reading.”

There was nothing to do now. Not even stare at them. I could go to my room in good conscience, turn on the TV, and eat. I took a quick trip down to the kitchen and got some of the food that the actress set aside for visitors. There was plenty of it too—good ham and bacon and sausages, all in fancy packaging. All the delicious meatiness that I had been denied for weeks. I decided to make the most disgusting decadent thing I could think of—a big grilled cheese and bacon sandwich, chips on the side. As the bacon was sputtering away in a pan, I took Lazarus Healing from the row of books and let it fall open. It looked like an official publication—boring and hard-core crazy in a looping print, with lots of pictures.

We understand that our sleep need only be temporary, that the time is coming when True Health can come through re-an. As such, it is crucial to keep the original body in optimal health. Western medicine and household chemicals disturb the body’s balance, making re-an more difficult; therefore, it is critical to eliminate all of these from the system… . Though the mech for True Health exists, it is not fully available yet. But the time is coming very soon when the rean period will start, and it’s important to prepare your mind for the transition, for your first eternal morning …

Which was bad enough. But then I got to the picture section in the middle and saw a picture of a dead girl on a surgical table, her abdomen sliced open. It looked like a normal autopsy, much like the one they had just seen in the show, except her smiling family members stood nearby.

Madeline, the caption read, seen here with her mother and sisters after she went to sleep in June. Her internal organs are being lovingly removed and stored for reuse before the embalming process. As mech goes forward, this step will be skipped, and the body will go right from sleep to True Health …

“Wow,” I said, flipping through some more pages. “The tabloids don’t even know how crazy you are.”

I took my two (I figured if I was going to the trouble of making all that bacon, I might as well use it) sandwiches, and some chips, and a roll of cookies, and two sodas back to my room. Up here on the hill, in this warm house, everything finally seemed good. It made all the difference to have a decent (a relative term) dinner, and a television, and a soft bed with a weighty duvet. I switched on the television and lost myself instantly. I’d been so starved for some mindless entertainment.

At two o’clock I found that I was still awake, still eating, still watching television, and hungry for another round of snacks. Since I was up, it made sense to go and check on the kids again. They were still up. In fact, they were all pressed against the plastic gate now, straining against it, their little faces urgent and sad.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, coming over.

But they couldn’t say. They spoke only in wide, sad eyes and outstretched arms.

All the loneliness and misery that I had felt the last few weeks came to the surface.

A motherly instinct stirred in me. These were just little children awake in the middle of the night, their mother gone, trapped in a strange playpen. No one had put them in pajamas and tucked them in. They didn’t know what to do. They were tired and confused. They pressed their hands deep into the mesh, reaching for me… .

Funny how this all fell apart, how all the shit came down simply because I was following one of my nobler instincts. All the times in my life when I’d done things for all the wrong reasons and walked away unpunished? I guess it was just time to pay.

So, yeah. Screw it, I thought. These kids need a hug, a tuck into bed, some kind of reassuring presence.

I strode over to the corner, where the gate was attached to the wall. It was like riot fencing, this huge webbing. All of this to keep in five tiny children. Seeing what I was doing, they gathered close in the corner, urgently waiting for me to open the gate.

“It’s okay, you guys,” I said. “It’s okay. Just … back up. Okay?”

But the children didn’t understand “back up.” They shook the gate, making it impossible for me to get it open. They pulled on the heavy plastic, shaking the catch. I looked around for a remote control for the television, but there was none.

But there was the conveyer belt. I hit the switch. “The Farmer in the Dell” started up, and the colorful lights glowed brightly. Surprised, the children trundled over. Left alone for a moment, I was able to work at the catch again. It was designed to hold tight, and it took all of my strength to release it. But it finally gave way, and the gate slid easily back on its track. I pushed it open wide enough to make a doorway-size opening for myself. The kids were still clustered by the conveyer belt, which had stopped playing and glowing, their hands still inside the hatch, reaching around for containers that obviously weren’t there.

“Hey!” I called.

Turning. Shuffling. Pushing each other out of the way.

They were just a few feet away from me when some instinct deep in my brain told me that I had made a mistake. I wasn’t sure what the mistake was, but the fact that one had been made was obvious. They were so eager, so needy, with their little arms and adorable little faces, and their skin … so ashen in the moonlight. They all looked gray.

Melissa reached me first, pushing aside little Ben and Lily and knocking them down. She got to me, grabbed me around the thigh in a strangely urgent hug, and pressed her face into my pajama bottoms. By this point Alex had gotten to me as well, and had me by the arm.

“It’s okay, guys,” I said.

And then Alex opened his mouth and clamped down just above my left wrist, digging his little teeth right in, tearing at my flesh and immediately drawing blood.

“No! No! No!” The universal word had no effect. I tried to shake loose, tried to push Alex’s head back, but nothing would detach him. In the next moment I felt Melissa make a similar attempt on my leg. I jerked my knee up hard, knocking Melissa off. She fell onto a pile of plastic toy pans.

Alex was sinking his teeth in harder. No amount of prying, pushing, or shaking would get rid of him. So the next reaction was just as automatic. I swung out with my right fist and punched little Alex in the face. I hit him with enough force to dislodge him and send him flying backward. He landed against the mesh and slid down, then put his little hands over his face and started to cry, loud screaming sobs.

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