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Middle Child Syndrome by Ray Printer Friendly

It was about the worst thing that could happen. Pretty much par for our family, though. We're trying to do the whole dramatic post-apocalyptic thing, of course--our family's all about the dramatic, why should the apocalypse be any different?

My mom's weeping in a corner, and my dad's standing stone-faced at the door, rifle held at the ready. My older sister, Mandy, is standing there behind Mom, waiting for the wailing to abate some before she offers comfort. Drake's up in his room, I guess, or maybe he snuck out--no telling with that one.

I'm playing Angry Birds on my phone, ignoring as much of the world as I can. Pretty much what I always do, really. Yeah, I'm one of those teenagers, the sulky ones who dress in black and act like life is so hard.

It's stupid, I admit it. But it was what came most natural to me when I had to pick out an identity. Or maybe it's just that that was one of the identities that hadn't been taken. Mandy was the good girl, and my older brother James was the funny guy, and my younger brother, Drake, was the bad boy.

I tried to figure out who I was, you know? I didn't want to be a label, I didn't want to be a stereotype. I didn't want to have to fit into a group. I just wanted to be me.

But life doesn't really work like that. You don't really get to be your own person, no matter how hard you try. You try to rebel, revolt, whatever. And one morning, you wake up, and that's who you are, is the kid with the attitude, always trying to go against the system.

Or something.

Like I said, my family's pretty much all about the drama. It's a house where people slam doors when they're mad, or people rush out of the room crying. On the other hand, it's a family of holiday-special Christmases and July evenings with hot dogs and ice cold lemonade and just having a great time under the stars.

It's almost like whoever made us just sat around watching TV all day and then that's how they decided we'd act. Which is probably exactly the case, only we're the people watching TV and deciding how to act.

I'm rambling and not making much sense, I know, but you got to cut me some slack.

Here's the deal, okay? We were still pretending life was normal, as best as we could, anyway. Mandy came back from college, and James moved back home, even though he was way too old for it. Drake stopped sneaking out as much. So some things changed.

At that point, Mom was just acting like it was an extended holiday, or something, right? She didn't want to admit why Pop only went out for a couple hours at a time during the day. She still said things like, "Is Dad back from work yet?" even though he hadn't gone to work in about two weeks. If he went outside at all, he went out and scavenged, just like pretty much everyone.

So we were sitting down to our Thanksgiving feast--fire-roasted Spam, because if your meat isn't dried out or canned these days, it's rotten. And Mom said, "Well, now, where is James?"

We all sort of looked around.

"He was in his room earlier," Drake said.

"That was like three hours ago," Mandy said, in that special big sister tone that makes you feel stupid no matter what.

Drake shrugged and forked a piece of Spam into his mouth.

"Chris, go get him please," my mom said. "Tell him we're all eating, he's holding up Thanksgiving."

"Yeah," Drake said, shoveling another piece of odd-colored meat into his mouth. Because obviously he was being held up.

Hell yes, it'd be me. I'm the default kid, that's what happens when you don't establish yourself, I guess. You end up being the kid who takes the trash out most often, you end up being the first name hollered out if there's a mess in the kitchen, you end up catching blame and doing errands, and you end up being the bitter, jaded teenager who dresses all up in black, even if that's who you didn't want to be.

I didn't even bother trying to argue. This was a small one, something that didn't matter. When they tell you to take the trash out, that's when you argue. Or when they tell you to answer the door. Anything that involves going outside, that's when you pitch a fit. I'll do my share, but I'm not going to do any more than my siblings, not these days. Not with outside being what it is.

I scooted back from the table and skulked out of the dining room. For all intents and purposes, I could have stopped skulking as soon as I was out of sight, but I wasn't really doing it for anyone who could see, I was doing it because it's generally what I felt like doing.

I trudged up the stairs and knocked on James' door. I heard a noise, movement, but he didn't answer.

"James, come on, dude, Mom's got her tits twisted that you're not there for the Thanksgiving feast."

There was another noise, like clothes moving around, hangers scraping on the bar. Probably stashing his porn mags in the back of the closet, or something. James was known as a guy who spent a lot of time with the ladies, and I knew that being stuck at home all the time was probably killing him. You don't like to think about your brother beating off, but it was James, and I think most of us knew that that was what he did pretty much any time he had a spare moment.

I decided to mess with him. I tried the door knob, but it wouldn't turn.

All our doors have locks, but they're weak-ass locks. Just a little hole in the outer door knob, and if you shove a toothpick or something in there and wiggle it around, it pops right open. We all know this, but we generally pretend that we respect each other's privacy.

I knew James would be pissed, but I'd just tell him that the door wasn't locked, and then he'd have to wonder if he overlooked locking his door while he jerked off with a house full of trapped family.

I like to fuck with my loved ones.

I unwound a little of the wire from my wristband and used it to pop the lock, and then, as quickly and as quietly as possible, opened the door and rushed in. I was thinking, at most, I'd catch my brother in a situation awkward enough to tease him about, or--more likely--I'd get to witness the look of shame as he hurried to clean up after himself.

Instead, I found him dead, in the closet, a rope around his neck.

I screamed as he tried to bite me.

I jumped back out into the hall and slammed the door behind me. In a matter of seconds, the rest of my family came running up the stairs.

"What is it?" my dad asked.

"James," I said. "Something happened to James."

As dysfunctional as my family is, we really love each other, deep down. Dad didn't hesitate at all, just clicked the safety off on his gun and burst through the door.

I almost wished he had hesitated though, so I could...I don't know, try to prepare him or something. On the other hand, how do you prepare a man to face something like that?

"Karen, you stay out there," he yelled to my mom, but she was already on her way through the door. Everyone was.

She screamed, and then screamed again. The first one was short and clipped--more surprise than anything. The second one was when the truth sank in, that her son was dead. And a zombie.

Mandy and I ushered Mom out of the room as she continued to sob and shout incoherent anguish.

Dad pointed his rifle at the zombie previously known as James, but it didn't look like he planned on using it. It looked like he was trying his damndest to convince himself that this was all a nightmare. Drake rushed out of the room and down the hall to his own room.

We took Mom downstairs and put her on the couch, and then just looked at each other, because what the hell else do you do in a situation like this?

"Who...who would have done that?" Mom asked.

Even in times of grief and horror, I find my mind defaulting, and I had to bite back a snide remark about David Carradine.

"Who would break in here and...and murder him?" And with that, she was back to sobbing uncontrollably.

I looked awkwardly over at my sister, wondering if maybe I was the only one perverted enough to know about auto-erotic asphyxiation (aside from James, I mean--he obviously knew about it). In the grand scheme of things, I guess it's not all that bad--just a different way to masturbate--but you have to admit that it's sort of weird.

Mandy was looking back with the same mixture of understanding and awkwardness. Neither one of us said anything, just continued to try to comfort Mom.

And waited for the gunshot that had to come.

It never did, though. After about twenty minutes, Dad came walking down the stairs. He didn't make eye contact with any of us. He had always prided himself on being a man. A real man. Which is probably why he was so disappointed in all of his sons--we were kind of pussies compared to him. Even Drake, who was the closest thing to a bad ass out of any of us, was soft by Dad's standards.

Dad was tough. Hard. He did what needed to be done. But he hadn't put down the zombie.

"Where's Drake?" Mom asked.

"I don't know," Dad said. "Still in his room, I guess."

"You left him up there alone?" she shrieked, and it left my ears ringing. She tried to run up the stairs, but my dad was still in the way.

"Don't worry, the door to James' bedroom is locked, it can't get out."

"But the killer! You left our baby up there with the killer!"

Dad looked at me, a little puzzled. Then there was a look of understanding, followed by that same ashamed look I had shared with my sister earlier. Nobody likes to admit they know about new and weird ways to jerk off, but the fact of the matter is, it was all in the news a couple years ago--movie stars can make anything famous, that's why they get hired to do commercials.

Somehow Mom had missed the too-much-information boat, though, and now Dad was looking at me like I was supposed to explain it. I shook my head.

"Chris-" he started.

"Sure thing, Dad, I'll go get him." I jumped over the banister behind him and hurried up the stairs before he could call me back down.

I knocked on Drake's door, and waited. No way was I busting in on him--Karma was too quick to bite me on the ass when I did things like that.

I knocked again, louder, and heard my mom yell something from downstairs, something about how she was going to lose another baby. Dammit.

I tried the door knob and found it locked. Great. I was just unwinding the wire from my wrist when the door opened.

"What?" Drake asked.

"He's fine," I called over my shoulder. I heard my mom say something like, "Thank Jesus." I heard a muffled groan from James' bedroom. I turned back to Drake. "You need to come downstairs."

"Cheah, right. No way--I can't deal with all that bullshit and you know it."

He smelled like weed and incense, and I wondered how Mom and Dad were able to convince themselves that he wasn't smoking out in his room all the time. It was another one of those things that we all knew, but never talked about--James had his masturbation, Drake had his drugs.

Mandy had her bulimia. We all pretended like we didn't hear her after every meal, going to her bathroom and gagging herself. I told her once that she was the loudest puker I had ever encountered in my life, and she looked shocked for a second and then she asked me what was I talking about.

"I go to the bathroom after every meal to floss and brush my teeth. You should probably leave the jokes to James."

I let it go. I don't know why I brought it up in the first place. We all have our secrets, we have our little livable lies, the things that help us get through the day. The things we all ignore, even though we probably shouldn't.

Dad has his mistress. He's not real smooth about it. Twice, he's left his email open on accident when he went to meet her. His email talking about how he's going to meet her. The second time he did it, I mentioned to him that he should probably sign out of his email if he's going to use the family computer in the den. Shortly after that, we all got laptops. There was a big sale on them, apparently, and it would have been stupid not to take advantage of it. He moved the old desktop out into the garage and made himself an office. Like I said--not subtle.

But when people don't want to see what you don't want to show them, you'd be amazed at how much can be ignored.

I hated my dad for a while, for that whole cheating on my mom thing. But then I realized she was banging the gardener's assistant.

That was the one frivolous thing my mom wanted, was a gardener. We don't have piles of money around, but my folks do pretty good. And she always wanted a fancy backyard.

The guy showed up for a few years, this old Mexican guy, and he'd dig all day and bury plants or whatever. Once a week, he'd come over for a few hours and make our yard look pretty, and we all kind of wondered if he was going to just drop over dead. That was before the zombie thing, so it was actually just concern for his well-being, not ours.

One day he showed up with his assistant. Marcos. Mid-twenties, this guy looked like he was ripped from the pages of some exotic magazine that tailored to women's needs.

Mandy spotted him and Mom coming out of a motel about four months after he started working. She came to me in tears, crying about how could Mom do this to us, to Dad, to the family.

That's when I told her Dad had been doing the same thing, and I had felt the same way about him. Mandy got mad at me for a while, because I hadn't told her, but I explained that I just didn't know what to do about it. One thing your parents never think to teach you growing up is what you're supposed to do when you find out they're having affairs.

Mandy forgave me, and then we had a shared secret. And who knows? Maybe Drake and James had discovered the same things, and maybe they had shared the information with each other. Or maybe they just didn't give a shit.

We all have our secrets, and none of us are as good at hiding them as we like to think. Had Mandy ever seen the scars on my wrists, the ones I cleverly hid under oversize watches or wristbands? Probably. But they were little, and old--back from eighth grade--so she probably figured that there was no reason to worry, no reason to ask. She probably never figured that the cuts on my wrists were just the beginning.

I wonder if Mom has ever found my little box, the one that I hide in the back of my closet, not so much hidden-looking as carelessly tossed back. If she has, I wonder if she's ever thought of it as more than an art kit. A box containing a bunch of different kinds of blades, no reason for her to think anything weird, right? Not when it's recklessly tossed in the closet next to a box containing a bunch of paint brushes and another one containing pencils. Just stuff left over from when I went through my art phase.

Or maybe not. Maybe I'm not hiding my secrets nearly as well as I think, and maybe my whole family knows and just doesn't mention it, because we're way too polite for that.

"Come on, man," I told him. "Mom thinks somebody broke in and murdered James, she's freaking out."

"She thinks...oh, shit."

"Yeah. So if nothing else, you should come down to see the look on her face when someone explains it to her. Not to mention the fact that there's a zombie up here--probably not a good idea to hang out."

"What's it matter?" he asked, smirking. "He's tied up."

I wanted to hit him. The truth is, none of us are really all that close, sibling-wise. James was way older than everyone, and was in high school when Mandy and I were little kids. We looked up to him, I suppose, but we barely knew him.

Mandy and I were pretty close in age--she's three years older than me--but even as children, we didn't play together much. Same with Drake, even though he's only a couple years younger than me.

I don't know--I guess we were a pretty cold family, even before the zombie apocalypse. I always thought of us as pragmatic and down-to-earth, but maybe that wasn't the case. Maybe it was just all of us playing the parts rather than feeling like we were related.

But even if he was practically a stranger, James was dead, turned into a zombie. Pay a little respect, you know?

What kept me in check was the fact that I'd had to hold back my own inappropriate joke not too long ago. Maybe he was just on autopilot, not thinking about things, just letting his mouth run like it always did.

"Just hurry up," I told him.

I turned and headed back down the hall, wondering if he was going to come with me. I heard him mutter something about this being bullshit, and then he shut his door and followed.

I tried my best to ignore the noises as I walked by James' bedroom.

Mom was adamant about searching the house before we ate--she wanted to make sure the murderer wasn't still inside. So we all went together, room to room, searching for a killer we knew didn't exist because none of us wanted to explain the truth to her.

Drake had left his bedroom window open even though it was November, and cold as shit outside. His room still smelled a little like pot, but it always did--something he blamed on his incense.

"That must have been how he got out without us hearing him," Mom yelled. "While we were looking through the rest of the house, he must have run up here and climbed out the window!"

"Why wouldn't he just use the door?" I asked.

Dad and Mandy rolled their eyes.

"I don't understand the mind of a murderer, Chris! Why did he even break in to start with? He's just some sick-o, that's why! Drake, I don't want you to open your window anymore--it's too dangerous."

"Are you serious?"

"For all we know, that's how he got inside in the first place."

Drake sulked for a moment, and then went over to his computer. Through all of this, the internet still works pretty well, believe it or not. He typed something in and then turned his laptop to face us. Apparently, he had Google Imaged "auto-erotic asphyxiation." The entire screen was covered with all kinds of crazy shit.

"This is what killed James, Mom," Drake said. "It's some weird-ass way to jerk it. He screwed up and ended up killing himself. The only killer is hanging in the closet down the hall."

My mom stared at the monitor for several moments, and then she slapped him so hard that he almost dropped his computer. Drake just stood there looking stunned as Mom fled the room and ran down the stairs.

"We'll talk about this behavior later," Dad said, and followed her.

"You're such a dick," Mandy said to him. "Just because, why? Your window had to be closed? Because you wouldn't be able to smoke your stupid weed?"

"She was gonna find out sometime, anyway," he said. "Or was that gonna be another piece of bullshit we never talk about?"

"It could have been handled better, Drake," I told him. "I know you don't think of any of us as family, but we are. That's her son."

"Was," he said, and closed his laptop.

"You incredible bastard," Mandy yelled.

"Mandy, not now," I said. "He doesn't give a shit, anyway. We'll let Dad handle it."

I took her by the shoulder and led her out of the room. Mom was in the corner, weeping. Dad was at the door with his gun. Mandy went over to comfort Mom, and I sat down at the table and fired Angry Birds up on my phone.

"We need to eat," Mom says, after her crying jag has abated some. "It's Thanksgiving, and we still have things to be thankful for, even in this mess. We still need to eat."

"I don't know if anyone's still hungry," Mandy tells her.

"Nonsense. This is a tragedy, but this whole thing has been a tragedy since it started, and we must continue on."

Little dramatic, like I said, but I guess I can cut her a break, considering.

So she ushers us all into the dining room and we sit down at the table decorated with a fancy white table cloth and a plastic cornucopia, and candles that were never meant to be burned. Instead of turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, we sit down to our canned meat and canned vegetables--oh, wait, there is cranberry sauce--and bottled water, and with one more worry.

Mealtimes are always weird, because you end up looking at your crap selection of food, and you hate it, and you try to be thankful that you have anything to eat and you try not to think about how pretty soon, you won't.

We were pampered, you know? Us as a society, I think, and especially us as a family. We're used to drive-thru food service, or delivery. It's a hardship if you have to go to the grocery store. We don't know shit about growing vegetables, or killing an animal for food.

The scary thing is, it's truly down to the survival of the fittest, now. My family managed to live this long because we haven't had to face any hardships, really.

For sure not before the zombies had taken over the world. And now that they had? It really hasn't been that different yet. No going outside, so new supplies. We had a basement filled with shit from Costco. We screwed boards over the windows of the house, barred the doors with furniture. And waited.

Drake has been sneaking out, I'm pretty sure of it--some girl down the street he used to see. But the rest of us just sit around the house, waiting.

For what?

I don't know, really. For whatever happens next. For salvation. For starvation. For whatever makes us take the next step, because we sure as hell aren't going to take it without being pushed. For James to tumble down the stairs, butt-ass naked? I wouldn't have thought so, but I guess, because that's what happens.

We all jump from the table and rush to the foot of the stairs. First instincts are a bitch--he still feels like family. Mom reaches to help him up, and he bites off two of her fingers.

She shrieks and jumps back, blood spraying against the wall as she moves. Dad shoves James back, and points the gun at him. At it.

It's no longer my brother, this blood-covered monster. There is no recognition, only hunger. The straps that held him earlier are still hanging from him in strands--apparently he chewed through them. I don't know how he got out, though--zombies aren't supposed to be able to open doors. They can push through them, and occasionally they can pull one open, but they don't understand the complex mechanics of things like doorknobs.

And then I glance up the stairs and see Drake. He bleeding profusely, bite marks on his arms, on his chest. His right cheek has been mostly torn off.

I fight back puke, and grab a strand of James' binding. I wrap it around his neck and yank it between the rods of the banister, pulling his head back against the railing. He snaps at Dad and Mandy. The binding isn't all that strong, and it won't hold him for long, but it shouldn't have to--it only has to hold long enough for Dad to blow his brains out.

But Dad's just standing there. He stares at James for a while, and then up the stairs at Drake. Drake opens his mouth to speak, and blood dumps out and runs down his chin. He starts crying.

"I just wanted to say I was sorry. For making fun of him. He was loose." He sobs and more blood run downs from his mouth. "I pushed him down the stairs. I d...didn't mean t-"

And then he falls to the floor. Mandy tries to go to him, but the zombie chomps at her as she tries to pass, scaring her back.

"Dad," I tell him, "You know what you have to do."

"I can't, Chris. I know I have to, but I just...I can't."

"Come hold him, then. Come hold him, and I'll do it."

"It's my son, Chris."

"I know. I know it's hard, but we have to do it. This isn't James anymore. I mean, look what he did to Drake."

I don't mention that Drake will probably need to be put down in a matter of minutes, too. You know, that whole "getting bit" thing.

He's thinking about it, and he's about to pass me the gun, and that's when Mom steps around the corner and bites a chunk out of Mandy's neck.

I hadn't even noticed her shrieks of fear turn to the groaning of a zombie, but I should have. I realize in that moment that I can hear the same kind of groans from the top of the stairs. Mandy clamps a hand over her neck and takes a step away from Mom. She gets too close to James and he takes a chunk out of her arm. She screams again and crumples to the floor at the foot of the stairs.

I release the zombie and yank the gun from Dad's hands. He's still just standing there. They always say things on TV like, "he's in shock," but I've never seen it in real life. If I had, I wouldn't have tried to negotiate with Dad--I would have had Mandy come over and hold James while I took the gun away.

But I didn't. I was pampered, ignorant. And now Mandy's gone, too--just a matter of time. I get the gun away from Dad and mange to splatter James' brains before he can get untangled from the bannister.

Drake takes a step, and I guess zombies aren't so great at stairs, because he comes tumbling down, crashing into the corpse of James. I fire at close range into the back of his skull as he tries to get up.

Mom's attacking Dad, and he's barely struggling with her. I see he's already been bitten several times. He has this look on his face, like he can't believe this is happening, like he's trying to wake up from a terrible dream.

I aim the gun at Mom, and just as I squeeze the trigger, they both wobble. Half of Dad's head explodes into spray and chunks, and Mom loses interest in him immediately.

"Oh my God, Chris, what did you do?" Mandy screams at me. "You killed Daddy!"

How many bullets does this thing have? I don't even know--guns have never been my thing, and even though Dad showed us how to load and clean them, I forget how many this one holds. Hell, I don't even know what it's called. One more, please one more.

I aim at Mom as she staggers to me, and I pull the trigger again as she reaches for me. Her remaining fingers are disintegrated along with most of her head.

My ears are ringing, but even with that, the house seems strangely silent. Mandy's weeping on the floor by my feet, repeating the question: what did you do, Chris, what did you do?

I think about Dad, how he never thought any of his sons were tough enough. How he always told us that a man has responsibilities and if he's not able to do them, he's not a man at all.

I think about how my name has always been the one called out when my mom was agitated about something: spilled Kool Aid, broken window, whatever. "What happened here, Chris?" or "What did you do, Chris?" I think about how I've bitched about it for as long as I can remember, about how it wasn't fair. I think about how it was the same with chores, how it always ended up being on me, when something shitty needed to be done. I think about how I hate being the default kid, the one who has to do everything.

I check to make sure there's at least one more round in the chamber, as quietly as I'm able to. Mandy doesn't notice, just continues to cry into her hands.

I think about how we were always the closest, and I think about how one time I read her diary and I got so mad because she wrote that she felt sorry for me because I was such a sweet kid but everyone thought I was so weird. I want to tell her I love her, but I don't want her to look up. There will be time to tell her after it's done.

There will be time to tell them all.

I think about last Thanksgiving, when we all gathered around the table, and James ripped off the turkey legs and made them dance, and it was so stupid and so hilarious, and Mom peed her pants a little because she had had too much wine and laughed too hard, and that was the worst thing that happened that day.

"Everyone's dead," Mandy weeps into her hands, "What are we gonna do now?"

I look at her wounds, and I say, "It will be okay," and then I pull the trigger.

Posted under Short Stories on 12/27/10

Entered By Devon From Unknown
2010-12-29 19:32:31

I've said it before with regard to 'Eat Me,' and I'll say it again now: you are a master of the zombie short story (not to take anything away from all of your other-themed shorts). They always work wonderfully both as stories specifically about zombies, but also as stories generally about people having to deal with desperate situations (which just happen to be zombies).

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