Home > Zombies Vs. Unicorns(8)

Zombies Vs. Unicorns(8)
Author: Holly Black

Iza grits her teeth, thinking about the way he stood in his office, long finger crooked through the chapped old rubber of the mask strap, telling her she was old enough to know better than to take such risks. She imagines herself stalking across that wide wooden floor and snatching it from his hands.

But of course she didn’t, couldn’t, and never would do such a thing.

Iza lets her fingers trail off the dock and brush the tips of the waves that glide under the warped old wood. “I’m technically still on my father’s property,” she tells Beihito. But the day is hot, the sun at a harsh angle, and she doesn’t put much force behind her words. She watches as three flying fish leap out of the water, and she holds her breath, counting until the last splashes down again. Bulladóe, she thinks, and closes her eyes, trying to remember what it felt like to fly.

“Your father worries about the pirates,” Beihito tells Iza. “They’ve been coming closer, making threats. He wants you to be safe.”

Iza smiles just a little. Her father has barely spoken to her in a month; she hears his words only through others. Iza wonders if she should make it a game: How long can she go without speaking to him?

Beihito’s knees crack a little as he bends over, setting a machete on the dock next to Iza. She opens her eyes and stares at the way the sun sparks off the edge of the blade. “At least until your father’s men kill the pirates,” Beihito says.

“Permití.”

Iza makes him stand here, a sigh building in him as he waits for her to promise.

Beihito has many other things to do, and while he loves Iza like un yiu muhé, having no children of his own that survived the Return, she’s old enough now that his day no longer includes watching her like a tired old babysitter.

Iza nods her head, deciding that it’s not lying if she doesn’t say the words.

3. BEFORE

She always heard when the pirate ships passed by the island at night. She could feel them in her bones, a shiver soft and sweet along her skin. The moans of the mudo slithered into her dreams, a tinge at the edge of her memory.

She woke up one night and stared into the darkness, the spin of the ceiling fan cutting the air. “Here,” the whispers called. She slipped out of bed and shuffled through the dew-damp grass to the edge of the cliffs.

It used to be that she could never see the pirate ships, only hear them as they slid through the darkness, the mudo lashed to their hulls. But ever since her father closed the port, they’d been inching closer, circling like tribons, teasing and toying, ready to bump the island in a warning, with their masts cutting the air like fins.

Iza wrapped her arms around her body as if she were holding who she was safe inside. Below her the waves crashed and crashed and crashed against the limestone, cutting away at her island.

In the distance, under the haze of the moon, the hulk of the pirate ship drifted by like a ghost in a skirt, tarps and sheets draped over the edge of the railings and covering the hull. Shapes huddled and strained beneath the tarps, sharp edges raking against the graceful arc of fabric that rippled in the breeze.

The corner of the tarp at the bow lifted, and Iza saw the bend of a bare knee, the curve of a shoulder. But it was the gaping mouths and desperate faces that she couldn’t bear, the sound of the moans cutting over the waves and bounding against the cliffs. The mudo strained against the boat, reaching—always reaching and needing.

The tarp fluttered back into place, hiding the bodies lashed to the hull, concealing them until the pirates bore down on their prey. Iza saw dark shapes gathered on the deck of the ship, crowding at the railing. They watched her as they glided by in the night, and Iza wondered what was worse—the mudo, or the moon gleaming off the teeth of the pirates.

4. NOW

Iza is lying on her back on the dock, letting the sun burn her body, when the hand wraps around her ankle. She is at the edge of sleep and she’s slow to react. Her fingers fumble as she grabs for the handle of the machete Beihito left, and by the time she pulls her foot away and scrambles to her knees, the man’s already halfway out of the water.

Iza knows that a mudo could never be coordinated enough to climb onto the dock. Still her first thought is to strike at his head, to slice the blade through his spinal column.

“Wait,” the man gasps as her muscles tense.

5. BEFORE

“Why don’t we call them zombies?” Iza asked Beihito one day. It wasn’t long after her father had taken over the island and hired Beihito to run the plantation and keep an eye on his only child.

“It’s not respectful,” Beihito said. They were standing near the edge of Curaçao’s limestone cliffs, watching a giant iguana try unsuccessfully to hide itself in a kadushi cactus.

Iza kept tugging against the straps of her sundress where they left grooves in the baby fat on her shoulders. She’d outgrown almost everything shortly after arriving on the island and was tired of the way the tight clothes made her feel big and ungainly.

“But it’s what they are,” Iza whined. She was just getting used to the idea of her father’s power. Just starting to understand that something about her father made her different. She tossed a strawberry at the iguana, seeing if she could temp him down.

Beihito pointed to the animal and said, “Yuana.” Iza waved her hand in the air, brushing the word away.

“What does ‘mudo’ mean, anyway?” She pronounced it like “mud,” thinking of the way the ground looked after the snow thawed at her old home. She wanted to see how far she could push Beihito. She threw another strawberry.

“Mudo,” Beihito corrected her, saying it “mood-o,” no tinge of anger in his voice.

“It means ‘mute.’”

Iza rolled her eyes. “I know that,” she said, her hand on her hip. She hated being talked down to. She hadn’t been a child since the months-ago day when she’d turned seven and seen her first dead man rise and walk. “But they’re not mute, duh.

They still moan.”

Beihito stared at her, perhaps with pity or maybe with impatience. “It also means ‘speechless’—those who have lost their voice. They have nothing to say. They’ve lost who they are.”

“They’re dead,” Iza grumbled. “They’re nothing.” She picked up a stick and walked closer to the iguana. She reached out to poke at it but Beihito closed his hot dry hand over her arm, stopping her.

She stared at the spot where he touched her—his dark wrinkled skin against her own. Rage seared inside her that he would stop her from what she wanted to do. A rage that she knew her father would act upon if she told him.

“There are things in this world greater than you or me,” Beihito said then, and she wondered if there was something in the mudo that she couldn’t see. Something about them that he understood and she didn’t.

There was a crack then, and a loud hiss. The old man twisted Iza behind his back, standing between her and the kadushi. The branch holding the massive iguana cracked, and the iguana leapt into the air, thick tail swinging. It scrabbled on the edge of the cliff, its claws raking against the limestone until it finally found purchase. The cactus branch bounded down into the waves below.

Beihito had protected her. Iza wondered then if he would always protect her. Her cheeks blazed, her entire body a feverish red burn welling with shame. She turned and stalked back to the plantation house without thanking him. She vowed then that she would learn to be more like her father. He never thanked anyone.

6. NOW

Iza lunges forward and holds the sharp edge of the machete to the young man’s throat just as he throws a knee over the edge of the dock. He freezes. They both pant and stare at each other. Time still hasn’t caught up to Iza, and she feels sleepdrugged and slow. She notices things about the man she shouldn’t—how water streaks down his face like tears, breaking over high cheekbones. How his eyes are a bright green that doesn’t seem to match the darkness of his skin.

His nostrils flare with each breath, puffs of air skimming over Iza’s knuckles. His arms tremble with the effort of holding himself on the edge of the dock, half out of the water. He looks young, not still in his teens like Iza, but near to her in age.

“Please,” he says. “Please, I promise I won’t do anything. Please.” He turns his head slightly as if glancing back to the open waves behind him. Iza doesn’t let her gaze on him waver.

“Who are you?” she asks. Her voice shakes a little too much as the adrenaline from being startled works its way through her system. She clenches her teeth, knowing that her father’s voice would never shake like hers. “Are you one of my father’s men?” She’s fairly certain she doesn’t recognize him, and she’s also quite sure that if he worked on the landhuizen, she’d have seen him. She knows for sure that if she’d seen him before, she’d remember.

Water drips from his chin onto her wrist and twines down her arm. “I was on a ship,” he says. “I saw the lights on the island as we sailed by last night. I ran away. I jumped.” He swallows, his throat pushing against the blade. Iza can hear the desperation in his voice, but that’s nothing new. The entire world is desperate.

“They were pirates,” he says. “You can’t let them find me. They were going to infect me and lash me to the boat with the others.” He pauses, licks his tongue over his lips. Iza can almost taste the salt.

“Please,” he whispers.

7. BEFORE

When Iza was young she had nightmares that the mudo were coming for her.

She’d see the teeth of the woman who’d once been her babysitter and the hunger of the used-to-be gardeners. But more than anything she’d hear them, their pleading need for her. Iza always felt a deep ache at the moans and a desire to do anything to quench it.

Her father’s men, the homber mata, were good at their tasks and always killed any mudo that washed ashore. There’d been small outbreaks on the island over the years, tales of lihémorto sprinting across the sticky dry desert inland, but they were always contained eventually.

Except for once. Except for the one who somehow got into the landhuizen. No one ever explained to Iza what happened—not even Beihito—and eventually she stopped begging for information when she saw the shadows in his eyes every time she brought it up.

All Iza knew was that the homber mata killed the mudo, but it was her father himself who killed her mother. She never saw her mother Return, and once, a few days after her death, she overheard one of the maids whisper to another that her mother had never actually been infected.

Sometimes Iza believes the rumor that her mother was never bitten. Sometimes she wants to slit their throats for saying such a thing.

Her father added three more layers of fences to the land sides of the landhuizen and replaced the wide staircase to the floating dock at the base of the cliffs with a narrow ladder the mudo could never climb. For months after the uprising Iza was terrified of the water and imagined them coming for her, their fingers curling from the surface, their flesh prickled and gray.

She missed the taste of salt on her skin, the way it made her feel tight and itchy when she dried in the burning sun. She even missed the sting of fire coral. Her father ordered his men to dig a pool for her, but it wasn’t the same.

8. NOW

“Please,” the man whispers again. The muscles cording around his arms flex and shake. Dozens of tiny white lines fleck across his chest like cracks in glass.

Iza’s father has instilled in her the need for discipline and order; every day of her life has been about rules and restrictions. “It’s how we’ll survive this,” her father always says. “It’s the only way.”

She can sometimes remember the man he used to be before the Return, but only barely. He used to mow the lawn on summer Saturday afternoons, and on Sundays in the fall he would crack open a can of beer and eat chips and salsa as he watched football games. He used to always let her drink the first sip if she’d fetch it for him from the refrigerator, and she can still remember the sharp sting of metallic carbonation, the crisp clack of the can snapping open.

All Iza has to do is push the blade against the man’s throat just a little more and it will either cut him or he’ll be forced to let go of the dock and fall back into the water.

Her father would never have hesitated. She can hear his voice in her head screaming at her to kill this man, that he’s dangerous and she’s stupid to even consider letting him live.

But Iza thinks of the romance novels she loves and the pirates splashed across their covers. She thinks of all the times she stood at the edge of the cliffs and wanted someone to whisk out of the sea and rescue her.

Swallowing, Iza pulls the knife away from his throat and scoots down the dock a little, giving him room to climb the rest of the way up. He crouches on his hands and knees, his back arching as he draws in long deep breaths.

“Thank you,” he says softly.

Iza shakes her head and stands. “Don’t,” she says, still holding the machete out in front of her. “The homber mata will kill you if they find you.”

He looks up at her, deep green eyes in a sea of darkness. Something pulls inside Iza, making her want to help him. To know him and believe that things can be different from how they are. The flutter of desire and hope inside her aches so hard that she presses a hand to her chest to quench it.

“But there are caves,” she says, waving the machete toward the limestone walls.

“Hidden tunnels that will take you up beyond the landhuizen. You might have a chance that way.” She says it quickly, rushing to get the words out.

His eyebrows twitch, just barely. “Thank you,” he says again.

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