Bread Crumbs and Thigh Bones

 

“I need your help.” The woman kept her eyes lowered, kneading her work-roughened hands in apparent distress. 

“How many?” I asked. Short and impersonal, that was the way my clients liked it.

“Two. A boy and a girl.” She looked up at me as she spoke, and the bright blue of her eyes surprised me. 

“They still hanging around your place?” I fingered the crossbow slung casually over my shoulder. I wasn’t the best shot, but it played into my clients’ expectations. In my business, appearance was everything. 

Well, appearance and not dying.

She nodded. “But, their father….”

She didn’t have to say more. It was always the mothers who came to me. I don’t know if it was a protective instinct toward their remaining family members or some inherent ability to do what needed to be done. “Here’s what you do,” I said. “They’re not all the way gone yet, are they?” She shook her head. “Good. Take a loaf of bread and make a trail of bread crumbs into the heart of the forest. Make sure they’re following you. When you think you’re deep enough, backtrack around them and go home. They won’t be able to find their way back, and they’ll find me instead. Got it?”

She frowned. “How will they find you? How do you know they won’t come straight back home?”

     I gave her my best hunter glare. “I live close by there, and I lure them in. Just make sure you go deep enough, and it’ll work like a charm.”

She bit her lip and nodded. “How much?”

I named my fee. She closed her eyes. “Or you can always take care of them yourself,” I said. I was sick of people who objected to paying for hazardous work.

“No.” She worked her pouch loose from her waist and carefully counted the coins into my palm. “You’ll make it quick?”

“They won’t feel a thing,” I lied. I made the money disappear and walked away without a backward glance. 


By the time the children found my shack, they were pretty far gone. Shuffling gait, vacant eyes, skin tinged the color of old milk. They still had rounded cheeks, though, fat fingers and bright blue eyes like their mother. 

I’d hung bloody cuts of meat along the front eaves and spread entrails along the path to the front door. Stacks of thigh bones with rotting meat on either side of the door completed the trap. Flies swarmed over the free meal, and I had to wrap a kerchief around my face to handle the rancid smell. The little zombies lurched hand in hand along the path, stuffing the innards into their mouths as if they were starving. It wouldn’t help, of course; endless amounts of raw meat couldn’t stop their craving. But the blood scent called to them just as effectively as an entire village of juicy brains.

They ate through the lures I’d set for them, drawing closer to the door. I opened the hatch to the oven, the blast of heat blowing in my face. I wore my tough leather gloves, my face swathed in fabric so only my eyes showed. Better safe than sorry.

The doorknob turned, the door swung toward me, and the boy stepped through the opening. I shot him through the chest with my crossbow and took advantage of his temporary weakness to grab him by the shoulder, shoving him into the oven against the far wall. He made a horrible shriek just as the girl halted in the doorway. She looked at me, eyes growing wide, and ran out of the house faster than any zombie I’d ever seen. 

I slammed the oven door shut and bolted it. Then I grabbed my crossbow from where I’d dropped it and ran outside. My plan had gone a little awry, that was all. Nothing to worry about.

My shaking hands told a different story. The girl was nearing the edge of the woods, her scared face peering back over her shoulder at me. That was her downfall. She tripped over a large tree branch and fell headlong to the ground, giving a small cry.

I caught up and aimed my crossbow. I’d shoot her a few times with my drug-tipped arrows, then scoop her up and throw her into the fire with her brother. She rolled onto her back as I was about to release the arrow, her face screwed up and tears pouring from her eyes.

It was the tears that stopped me. I’d never known a zombie child to cry.

“What have you done to my brother?” she said, fixing me with her blue eyes. Her sobbing made her words almost indistinguishable. “Where is Hansel?”

I almost dropped the crossbow in my shock. Zombies couldn’t talk, period. They didn’t have enough brain power left for that. 

I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I was damned well going to find out. “Stop your crying.” It came out terse, but it had been a long time since I’d had anything to do with a human child. “Tell me your name.”

The tears kept coming in spite of my command. “Gr—gr—Gretel.” She began to slowly shimmy backwards toward the woods.

“Stay where you are.” I waved the crossbow and she froze. “You’re going to answer my questions, and if you tell the truth, then I won’t hurt you. Got it?” She nodded, digging her fingers into the rocky ground. 

Oh God. Had I just murdered an innocent little boy by mistake? I glared at her to keep myself in control. “Your brother. Was he sick?”

The girl nodded. Relief coursed through me. 

“But you’re not?”

She shook her head and looked down. “I tried,” she said softly.

I was surprised all over again. “What do you mean, you tried?”

“Tried to catch it,” she said at last. “I wanted to stay with Hansel.” Her little face hardened. “Mum said it was unnatural, but it’s not. It’s not! Brothers and sisters should stay together.”

Could it be that she was immune to the contagion? My mind spun at the possibilities. “Get up then. Come into the house. I need to check you over and make sure you’re as healthy as you say.”

I made her strip off her clothes and take a lukewarm bath, not letting her out of my line of sight. With the filth washed away, I looked for any signs of illness. She was a thin little thing, malnourished and with some nasty welts fading on her back, but I didn’t see any warning signs. “How long was your brother sick?” I asked.

Another shrug. “A few months. I took care of him.” At my disbelieving look, she added, “I couldn’t leave him alone. And he never attacked me like he did other people.” 

I let out my breath. She was not only immune, but also unappetizing? It didn’t matter whether she was a freak of nature or a sign of better things to come. This child had serious potential.  
       
“Where’s Hansel?” she asked. “Please tell me.”

“He’s dead.” No point in lying. “He was as good as dead soon as he got sick. You’re lucky he didn’t kill everyone in your village.” Her lower lip trembled, but at least she didn’t start bawling again. I handed her an old shift, so large she was swimming in fabric. “Now I’ve got myself a problem. How old are you?”

“Eleven.”

“Old enough to understand then. Your mum paid me to kill you.” She folded her arms and huddled in on herself, but she didn’t look surprised. “But I don’t kill human children. Only the sick ones. The zombies. Better for me to take care of them than someone who used to know them, see?”

She nodded, shuffling her feet. What could I say to her that would convince her to stay with me? She could make a real difference in the fight.

I began pacing. “Now I can take you back to your mum, but I doubt she’ll be happy to see you, and I won’t be happy to see her. This wasn’t the job we agreed upon when she hired me, and I don’t take kindly to surprises. You follow me?”

Another nod.

“So I’m thinking I’ll train you to help me. We’d move on soon. Not so many zombies in these parts right about now, but I’ve heard reports of them down south a piece. We kill enough of them, we might have a chance of keeping down the population. But I can’t have you causing problems, so if you’re not willing, or if you have any stupid ideas of revenge because I had the guts to do what needed to be done, I’ll take you home.” I stopped my pacing and looked her directly in the eye. “So which will it be?”

She straightened and lifted her chin. “I won’t go back.” With those welts on her back, I didn’t blame her. “But I won’t forget either. That you killed my brother.”

I made a harsh cough of a laugh. “I don’t expect you to forget, kid. The rage will make you a better hunter. But I’m not the bad guy here – it’s the contagion we’ve got to fight.”

“I know.” Her lips pinched into a narrow line and she looked old. Old and already tired. “I’ll learn.”

Yeah, she’d learn, and maybe one night she’d put a knife in my back. But with my help, she’d be the best zombie hunter in the business.

It was worth the risk.