The zombies had the stronghold surrounded. But what else was new?
Kicking my feet up on my desk, I clicked on my handheld recorder. “This is Commander Corinthia II—that’s ‘Cori’ to my friends, ‘Commander’ to the rest of you—with an update on our situation. It’s day…” I glanced at the walls of my concrete room. The hordes of tally marks looked like the desperate clawing of the undead. “…day unknown of The Z Siege. The Oasis is holding up fairly well.” What could zombies do to a concrete fortress in the middle of a desert? Arm themselves with cactus battering rams and charge?
“It’s my soldiers I’m worried about. Morale is low. Our ammunition is…” Spent. Tanks and bombs and guns, the entire abundance of the Oasis used to blow the brains out of the undead, and what did they do? Kept coming back for more. Maybe they gorged themselves on the brains of their fallen comrades. Maybe killing some was a feast for the rest.
“We’ve had it rough since the Night of Reflection.” I twisted the matted clump of hair that was once a braid at my neck. I’ve always needed a mirror to braid, but I’d surrendered that luxury the night we broke every reflective surface and gathered the shards to create a crude shrapnel weapon with the last of our explosives. We’d thrown the bombs out our windows, and they’d shattered on the desert floor, broken mirrors piercing dozens of undead bodies below.
It had been our final stand.
And still the zombies had remained.
“We’ve boarded up all exits and entrances. We’re living in the dark. No weapons, no…” Hope. Something in my spine yearned to curl into a fetal position, so I jumped to my feet, stretching it straight, and walked to my boarded-up window. As I did every few nights, I yanked the nails out with a hammer and removed the board to check on our enemy’s position.
A whiff of Eau de Decomposing Dead Dudes came in on a breeze, and I gagged into the recorder. “Sorry!” I coughed. “Sorry. The smell is a little intense. Like week-old roadkill had a baby with a trash compactor in the summer. Anyway, no change in enemy status. We’re still surrounded. So that’s that.”
I clicked off the recorder. Why did I bother? No one would ever listen to it. No help was coming. We were gonna die out here, either from the smell or from zombies breaking through our defenses and eating our brains, and that was that.
I went to replace the board and stopped. Inhaled deeply. It was happening again. Sometimes, beneath the nose-tickling delight of Eau de Decaying Dead Dudes, there was another scent. Like wet earth and fresh cut grass and cherry blossoms.
Like somewhere in this death-infested wasteland there was a real oasis.
My eyes watered—allergies, of course. Nothing more. But as the highest window of our concrete fortress, perhaps I’d leave it open tonight.
Just this once.
There was a zombie at the foot of my bed.
Sleep evacuated my body, and I instinctively grabbed the gun from under my pillow. The zombie mimicked the action, holding up a… can of Febreze?
Shhhht. Shhhht. Artificial clean cotton filled the air.
The zombie shrugged apologetically. “The smell gets to me sometimes.” It was female, dressed in the rags and wrappings that all the desert zombies wore, making them look more like mummies.
“A zombie that can’t stand its own stink? That’s new.” I cocked my gun. “What’s in your head, zombie? Do you have any brains left to blow out?”
“Are you going to shoot me, Commander Corinthia II? Without bullets?”
Drat. I lowered my empty gun.
The zombie moved closer. “Commander, you give your soldiers the order to shoot us on sight. Well, I have my orders, too. To deliver this.” She held out a hand mirror, unbroken and gleaming. “A gift from my commander.”
I hadn’t seen a mirror since the Night of Reflection. I reached for it reflexively, then snatched my hand back. “Tell your commander I have no use for his gift.”
She studied the clawing tally marks on my walls. “You call this place the Oasis because you think it keeps you safe in the desert. But we have another name for it.” The zombie began unwinding the wraps around her head. “We call it the Mirage.”
Great strips of fabric fell away, and the moonlight from my open window revealed her thick, dark hair and healthy brown skin.
I gaped at the zombie who wasn’t a zombie. “How—what—?”
She held out the mirror again. I accepted it with trembling fingers and stared at my reflection.
Ashen skin. Rotted teeth. Tufts of hair clinging to a desiccated scalp. I moaned, deep and guttural.
“Don’t you see?” There was urgency in her voice. “This place killed you. It kills everyone who lives in it and tricks them into believing they’re alive. You think you’re surrounded by death, but you’ve smelled something else, haven’t you?”
Wet earth. Fresh cut grass. Cherry blossoms. It was stronger than ever. “Something other than that Febreze?” I rasped.
She laughed and tossed the can out the window. “I won’t need it if you come with me. Leave this place, Cori. You’ll be alive again. My commander will make sure of it.” She offered warm, living hands to my cold, dead ones.
I took them.
We were halfway through the window, the aroma of spring overwhelming my senses, when I stopped. “My soldiers! We can’t leave them here.”
“We aren’t.” My not-zombie guide gestured below to the rows of living surrounding the Oasis—no, Mirage. “And no matter what they throw at us, we won’t leave. Commander’s orders.” She noticed my expression. “What’s in your head, zombie?”
I shook it, clearing my thoughts. “I want to meet this commander.” To thank him.
And to join his siege.