Home > Darklands (Deadtown #4)

Darklands (Deadtown #4)
Author: Nancy Holzner

1

IF THERE’S ONE THING I HATE, IT’S SPEAKING IN FRONT OF A group. That’s why my job is so perfect for me. No reports to give, no presentations to make. I go in, I kill the demons, and I get out. Simple.

So I wished somebody would explain to me what the hell I was doing sitting on a folding metal chair, facing a room of teenage zombies, their greenish faces attentive, as I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans and waited for my turn to speak. When Tina, the zombie who’d briefly been my apprentice a few months back, asked me to speak to her class for Career Night, the answer had been easy.

“No.”

“Why not?” she’d demanded, her bottom lip jutting out.

“You’re not my apprentice anymore. You quit, remember? What would be the point of me talking to your classmates about a career that none of them will ever pursue? It would be a huge waste of everyone’s time.”

“But you have to.”

I looked at her, trying to pick one of the several dozen reasons I didn’t have to, just to get started.

“We’ve been working on our career projects all year,” she said. “When I dropped out of school to sing backup for Monster Paul, I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ I mean, who thinks about some dumb school project on the road to fame? Then when I went back to classes, it was too late to start over with a new project. My portfolio, my poster, my final paper—it’s all about demon slaying. If you don’t come in and talk to my class, I’ll fail the whole project.”

I doubted that. What teacher would fail a student for being unable to cajole an adult into talking to the class? Yet Tina looked at me earnestly, her bloodred eyes wide. After Monster Paul’s band broke up, she hadn’t shown the slightest inclination to return to school until several encounters with my aunt, Mab, had changed her mind. Mab would be disappointed if Tina dropped out again. I could almost hear her now: “Surely, child, there must have been something you could have done to keep that young lady in school.”

So here I sat, sweaty palms and all, waiting for my turn to speak. It was a typical school classroom: dingy walls, tile floor, a blackboard in the front. A bulletin board held a display about Frankenstein, which the class was reading for English, while career-related posters were taped to the walls and even to the big window at the back of the room. Tina’s poster featured a hand-drawn depiction of a blonde zombie, dressed in black jeans and a pink jacket with sequins glued on, using a flaming sword to battle a skyscraper-sized demon. The ten students, all zombies, were squeezed into chair-desk combos, while their zombie teacher sat behind a big oak desk near the door.

Each speaker got ten minutes, including a few minutes for Q&A. Somehow I’d been appointed to go last. Lucky me. I tried to look like I was paying attention, although anxiety made it hard to focus on others’ words. Even in my leather jacket I was shivering. I didn’t know whether that was from nerves or from the fact that zombies don’t feel the cold, so they don’t bother to heat their buildings. Either way, I was giving new meaning to the phrase “cold sweat.” Again, lucky me.

The first three zombie speakers were all manual laborers: one worked in construction, the other two hauled around boxes in a warehouse. Because of their super strength, zombies are in demand for that kind of work, and it’s what most of the students in this classroom would eventually do for their jobs. All three speakers had brought props: a hard hat, a hand truck, pictures of a forklift. I, on the other hand, was completely propless, utterly bereft of the tools of my trade. I work with weapons, and the school board has a zero-tolerance policy on those. Tina had argued with me, but I’d be the one who had to explain to the Goon Squad why I’d shown up for Career Night armed to the teeth. No, thanks.

The current speaker—I didn’t catch his first name, but I thought his last name was Blegen—was the short-order cook at Munchies, a popular snack shop that serves every kind of junk food a zombie could ever dream of. And that’s a lot of junk food. Zombies are nonstop eating machines; Munchies’s menu is the size of a small city’s phone book. Blegen was discussing the challenges of his job.

“You know what’s hardest?” he was saying. “Onion rings. Mmm, that smell. There’s something about the combination of hot grease and onions…” He gazed skyward, his gray-green lips stretched taut in a grimacing smile, as though he were seeing a vision of onion rings at the pearly gates. “When I cook a batch of onion rings…man, it is just so easy to forget that I work in a restaurant and the food is for the customers. As soon as those rings come out of the deep fryer, I want to grab them by the handful and stuff the whole basket in my face.”

He could do it, too. Zombies didn’t feel heat, either. A little grease burn wouldn’t bother one at all.

The class sat riveted, devouring his words like…well, like onion rings. My nerves kicked up a notch. Damn it, this guy should’ve gone last. The Munchies cook was going to be an impossible act to follow.

A tall, skinny boy with curly red hair raised his hand. “What about pizza?” he asked. “Have you ever made a pizza and then eaten it before the server could take it to a table?”

“Every night.” An excited murmur ran around the room. “For some orders, like double sausage with green peppers and onions and extra cheese—that’s my favorite—I’ve learned to make two pizzas at a time. That way, the waitress has a chance to grab the second while I’m scarfing down the first.”

“Brilliant!” exclaimed the teacher. Mrs. McIntyre, a frizzy-haired zombie with wire-rimmed glasses, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She looked like she was considering a career change herself.

Blegen answered a few more questions, then passed out buy-one-get-one-free coupons to the class. “I tried to bring our Munchies super-deluxe chip-and-dip platter to share with you guys, but I got hungry on the way over.” The sigh of disappointment ran so deep that he handed out another round of coupons. Mrs. McIntyre got a couple extra.

The teacher clutched the coupons to her chest, then she looked at the clock and gasped. “Goodness, I’m afraid I let Mr. Blegen go over his allotted time by a few minutes,” she said. I glanced at the clock, above the bulletin board to my right. Only five minutes left. Good. I’d get this over with and then get out of here. I wanted to hear the end-of-day bell every bit as much as I did back when I was in high school. “I do apologize, Ms. Vaughn,” she went on. “Why don’t we skip Tina’s introduction and go straight into the details of…er, what is it that you do?”

“No fair!” Tina shouted before I could answer. She stood up. The rhinestones on her T-shirt, which outlined the Playboy bunny, sparkled under the classroom’s fluorescent lights. “Everybody else got to introduce the speaker they invited. I made notes and everything!” She waved a sheet of paper at her teacher.

“We’re running short on time now.” The note of strained patience in Mrs. McIntyre’s voice showed she’d had many dealings with Tina. “Sit down, please. You can hand in your notes to get credit for your introduction.”

“This sucks,” Tina muttered. But she plopped back into her seat.

And then it was my turn. I stood, not surprised that my knees felt a little shaky.

“Hi,” I said. My voice was shaky, too. I cleared my throat, paused, then cleared it a second time. “Hi,” I tried again. Better. “My name is Vicky Vaughn, and my job is a little different from the others you’ve been hearing about tonight. I’m Boston’s only professional demon exterminator.”

“Slayer!” Tina slapped both hands on her desk. “Slay-er. See, that’s why I wanted to introduce you. When you say ‘exterminator,’ it sounds like you kill bugs and stuff. That’s just gross. If you want to sound cool, you’ve got to call yourself a demon slayer.”

“Now, now,” Mrs. McIntyre interrupted. “Let Ms. Vaughn talk about her job in her own way.”

“Her own lame way.”

“Tina!”

Their back-and-forth had taken up another minute. Just three minutes left before school ended for the night. Almost there.

“So. What my job is…I exterminate—or ‘slay,’ if you prefer—other people’s personal demons. That’s what I do for a living. There are many kinds of personal demons, but for the most part I deal with three main types. There are dream-demons, called Drudes, which invade people’s dreams to cause nightmares. Drudes feed on fear; that’s why they like to scare people.” I twisted my mouth into a weak smile. “Fear, to a Drude, is kind of like onion rings to Mr. Blegen.”

That got a laugh. Maybe I wasn’t so bad at this.

“How do you kill a nightmare?” the red-haired boy asked.

“I don’t kill the nightmare; I kill the Drudes that cause it. Once the Drudes are gone, the nightmares go away.”

Tina bounced in her seat. “She’s got this awesome machine that gets her inside people’s dreams,” she said. “I followed her into a guy’s dreamscape once. It was freaky.”

Right. She’d followed me, blasted a dream-image of the client’s mother into oblivion, and then set his dreamscape on fire. “Freaky” didn’t begin to cover it. But now wasn’t the time to remind Tina of the havoc she’d caused. I still had two demons left to describe.

“The second kind of personal demon is called an Eidolon,” I said. “A guilt-demon.”

“So that kind feeds on guilt?” asked a girl in the second row.

“Exactly. When a person can’t resolve guilty feelings, an Eidolon may appear to make things worse. When you’ve got an Eidolon, it feels like a giant maggot gnawing at your guts.”

“Eww.” The girl wrinkled her nose. “Tina, I thought you said she didn’t kill bugs.”

Tina rolled her eyes and sank in her chair. She looked like she wanted my presentation to be over almost as much as I did.

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