INTRODUCTIONS ARE THE BEST: Prudence, Alive & Dining

Wrote a short YA zombie piece 'cause my pop culture addicted mind misses zombies right now. Not really going anywhere with it, so thought I'd start a collab. Let's have some brains... I mean FUN.
Pretty please see author guidance for rules.

          “I think it’s too early for this. I’m really uncomfortable with this. I think we should go home.” I stared at my mom, waiting for her rebuttal, impatient to counter again. She just scanned the hand-painted plates in front of us and loaded another cracker with goat cheese and raspberry jam (as advertised, that is — too chewy, more like rubbery cheddar balls and crushed berries). Every clink of her utensils echoed. We were one of three groups in the restaurant. Two years ago, the seats would have been full. A lot of things would’ve been full two years ago. “Mom? Did you hear me?”

          “Yes. I heard you. I heard you just now, and in the car, and at the breakfast table, and last night. Like I said, it’s as safe as it’s going to be, so I think we should get used to it. You didn’t have to come.”

          “And take the alternative? Wait? What if I had to handle another break-in on my own? No thanks.” I looked to my older sister, Emma, for support, but she seemed absorbed with the detailing of a nearby wall. Staring was her new favorite pastime. Mom put her cracker down, wiped her face and hands on a linen napkin and stuck her neck out, trying to stare me down. Admittedly, she had become more intimidating recently. The arms crossed in front of her chest were no longer soft and splotchy but defined and evenly flushed, blood pumping more efficiently beneath the skin.

          “Prudence Oakley Myer,” she said. I cringed. “As usual, I promise that I will never let anything happen to you. I will not do as you so delicately suggested recently and ‘just admit I have no control over anything,’ because I do. This square of town is secure. Anyone with potentially infected friends or family wouldn’t bring them to a mall, anyway.” She leaned back into her bench, twiddling a straw between her fingers and checking the exits. “If something happens, we let the volunteers handle it and take their escape route.” 

          “Oh, screw their escape route. The map writer thought it would be a grand idea for everyone to exit down the F1 stairwell. I mean, really?” Mom laughed at this. Emma continued to wall-watch. I almost wanted to add, “Screw the volunteers,” since they were just a collection of boys sickly obsessed with fighting infected people, but I had said that enough. Plus, the boys were trigger-happy, and however guilty I felt for appreciating that, it kept the uninfected safe. Four times out of five, at least. But maybe they were right. What good does throwing a bunch of infected people into cells do? The vaccine isn’t off the ground yet and there’s no hope for a cure. They’ll all starve eventually. I wouldn’t even want to be cured, knowing I had killed people. “Anyway,” I continued, "our escape plan is solid.” RLH was our favorite initialism. Run Like Hell. We were pretty good runners. Mom nodded, eyes on the volunteers outside. I imagined even she was affected by the sick pride survivors built. Someone actually named it Survivor’s Pride, only a few months after we reclaimed the west side of the city. It made people treat the outbreaks like games. Remove themselves as much as possible from the situation. Count up executions. Mom made us count our witnessed losses every day and take ten minutes of silence to imagine what their lives had been like. She stopped once Emma stopped talking. I never understood why Mom thought it was a good idea to harp on everything before trying to sleep.

I realized I had been staring at a back wall as I thought, like Emma. A couple times, people on the street would stand like her, completely non-responsive. A volunteer would take the liberty of assuming they were infected and cajole or force them into Isolation. Of course, some snapped out of it when this happened. But many didn’t. I really wished Emma wouldn’t stare.

          “Hey, Emma.” 

          “Uh-huh?” she said, not looking at me.

          “Do you like the crackers?”

          “Mmm.”

          “Is that an ‘Mmmmazing!’ or an ‘Mmmeehh’?” She didn’t respond. Behind her, across a couple of booths, I added a new group to the restaurant inventory. They’d just entered and were scanning the room to pick a choice seat. Or section. The group was similar to ours: a mother, daughter, and — what? — a grandmother. I hadn’t seen an elderly person in months. What were their strategies? They must be amazing. Or maybe hermits. Would it be callous to compare notes after appetizers? I whispered to Emma, “Hey, check it out: an old woman.” Emma blinked, turned to me, followed my gaze. 

          “What?” Her mirroring of my reaction made me miss her even more. We had been pretty in sync, back when.

          “I know. How long since you’ve seen a —” The word escaped me for a moment, it’d been so long. “A senior?”

          “As long as you, I guess.” We hadn’t left each other’s sides since the first outbreaks.

          “I almost want to go shake her hand.”

          “Why don’t you?” Mom suggested. 

          “Because she’d probably be insulted, or maybe just sad. I bet every one of her friends is dead. Plus, they’re probably already uncomfortable here. I don’t want to startle them.”

          “I think it would be nice to invite them to eat with us,” Mom suggested. “We could use some new friends.” 

I nodded to her and rose from my end of the table. I didn’t have time to think of what to say; they had seated themselves in the booth next to ours. People sometimes preferred to gather near others now, like unspoken allies, but most steered clear of anyone outside their group. In fact, a man from a group across the restaurant eyed me as I paused by the old woman. He looked curious, not scared. Not a lot of people looked scared anymore. Panic kind of died off.

          “Hello,” I said to the old woman. “My name is Prudence Myer, but my friends call… called me by my middle name, Oakley.” Silence from all three. “Or, actually, sometimes they teased me by shortening my name to ‘dence’.” I smiled and tried to force laughter, but any reminder of my friends depressed me. The old woman waited, maybe to hear my reason for interrupting. Her daughter looked surprised, but her pre-teen granddaughter was distracted, like Emma. “This may sound odd, but my family and I haven’t seen any seniors in months. I lost my grandparents in The First Year, and we’re all short on friends now.” I gestured to my family. “Would you like to eat with us?” The old woman kept looking at me, blinking, but didn’t respond.

          “Sweetheart,” her daughter interjected, “my mother is deaf. Let me…” she pulled on her mother’s shoulder to get her attention and signed what I had said. The old woman looked back at me, smiled broadly and nodded. She took my hand too, but not to shake it; she just held on. It was the first trusting gesture anyone had made to me in three weeks. (The last: a convenience store clerk let me buy a soda two cents short, after I promised to bring the two cents later. Amazing how some priorities never shift.) 

          “Great! I can pull a table next to our booth, or next to yours. So, what are your names?”

          “I’m Ellen Warner. This is my daughter, Ellie, and my mother’s name is Elenor.” 

          “Oh, that’s clever!” 

          “Warners like to keep family names, but since my mom was kind enough not to name me Elenor I thought I’d spare my daughter from my name, too. Maybe she’ll have a daughter and just name her El?” Ellen didn’t laugh — her voice was the kind of monotone that suggested she didn’t laugh anymore — but she grinned slightly.

          “I won’t have kids, Mom,” Ellie said. She wasn’t staring into the distance anymore but she wasn’t looking at any of us either. Her eyes were transfixed on her lap. At first I thought she was just depressed, but then I noticed her chest leap forward. She let out an almost inaudible grunt, followed by a gasp. My stomach sank. “Mom, I want to go home,” she said.

          “But we haven’t even eaten,” Ellen replied. A couple tears dropped from Ellie’s cheek. 

          “Mom, can we avoid that topic right now?” Ellen scanned Ellie’s body. It was shaking.

          “Ellie, are you okay?” The girl looked at me suspiciously, then through the glass next to her booth; the volunteers were still on the other side of it, pacing the mall walkways. 

          “I’m fine. I just need to use the restroom. Excuse me.” Ellie slid across her bench and nudged past me, striding toward the bathroom. 

          “Will you excuse me for a moment, too?” I asked. 

          “Sure, sure,” Ellen murmured, preoccupied with the flight of her daughter. I lurched back and stooped to Mom’s ear.

          “We need to go. Now.” Mom leaned around our booth and saw the girl was missing. She sat up. Emma followed by throwing my purse at me and scrambling across her bench. We ran for the door. I didn’t look back at the Warners. In a minute we had made it to the mall’s exit, but a volunteer slid in front of us.

          “What’s the hurry about?” His tone was forceful and entitled. Volunteers’ authority came from everyone’s mutual determination to survive, so they always expected an answer and always received one. People naturally understood you had to answer to someone, to keep order.

          “A girl named Ellie Warner is in the restaurant on the second floor, and she doesn’t seem to be feeling well.” His eyes lit up. I backpedalled. “I don’t think she’s infected, but you should check, just in case.”

          “Oh.” The boy looked disappointed. “Sure, I’ll get someone on it.” Any non-critical event left the volunteers bored and lazy. Sure, a lot of volunteers cared about their jobs; but many just wanted entertainment, not responsibility. Mom and I theorized the level of compassion that existed prior to the outbreaks would never return, even if we eradicated the infection.

          “I’m glad to know you’re going to check,” I told him sternly. Mom and Emma tried to run on then, but I waited for him to move upstairs. He didn’t get defensive, just bobbed his head as if to say, Yeah, yeah, yeah, and then shuffled up the steps. At the door, I looked back up to the second floor and listened for any chaos. Silence. If anything was wrong, no one knew yet. I ran after Emma and Mom. As I felt for the gun in my purse I regretted leaving the old woman for the first time since we fled. Welcoming people had become a rarity.

The End

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