Work Header

Walking Alive-Again

Work Text:

At this very moment, the Brewer Bean Brewery has been operational for five years, seven months, eighteen days, and thirty-four minutes. Their newest location, which opened to great fanfare and the shearing of a comically oversized piece of ribbon directly across from the home of the Piemaker's wares, opened three months, twenty-two days, and nine minutes ago.

One hour and forty-four minutes ago, their motto, Coffee So Strong It Raises The Dead, became an all too real predicament.

"I think I just started the zombie apocalypse," said Ned as he sprinted into The Pie Hole. No fanfare announced his statement, not even the gentle tinkle of the bells attached to the front door, which Emerson Cod had removed on account of it making his eardrums feel as if they were being pierced by very small needles. Chuck, Emerson, and Digby -- who had until that moment been enjoying a vigorous belly rub from Chuck -- stared at him in varying stages of bewilderment.

Emerson, whose levels of bewilderment routinely fell short of incomprehension ever since making the Piemaker's acquaintance, said, "I thought you didn't like the word zombie."

"I only dislike the word zombie in reference to the recently reanimated who are capable of cognizant thought," said Ned in a tumbling rush. "Cognizant thought and not eating my brains. Which one of them recently tried to do. Zombies," he moaned, collapsing into a chair and burying his face in his hands.

Chuck, who had devoured the complete works of renowned horror author Patrick Patricks at the age of eleven years, three weeks, and five days, had more pressing concerns. "It didn't actually bite you, did it?" she asked, rising from her seat.

"That did sound pretty groan-like," Emerson commented. Chuck whapped him on the arm. "Ow!"

"No, it didn't bite me," came the muffled reply. "But -- " He lifted his head from his hands and directed a plaintive look their way. "If I am the only person capable of raising the dead and we now have a flock of corpses taking wing, only not literally, more of a stumbling upward motion -- if all this is true then how else are they walking around except for me?"

"Well," said Chuck, attempting to maintain her pragmatism, "has there been an increase in people suddenly dropping dead to balance it out?"

Mutely, Ned shook his head 'no.'

Chuck smiled. "Then it isn't you. Emerson, pat him on the shoulder for me."

"I ain't patting nobody on no shoulder until we get this straightened out," he snapped, and shoved himself from his seat. Chuck's face fell; after a moment, Emerson glared, muttered under his breath, and gave Ned a slap on the shoulder.

In spite of himself, the Piemaker smiled -- "Thanks, Chuck." -- only for the same smile to be washed away by the tides of worry. "But -- okay, maybe I didn't touch them, but if they ate something I'd brought back to life, maybe it carried over to them? Maybe I gave them zombie Ebola. They came here looking for a slice of delicious dessert and left with a slice of brain craving."

"That makes no damn sense," said Emerson.

"Neither does me coming back to life," said Chuck, and spread her arms to let them finish for her: here I am.

"Yeah, but that's the type of lack of sense I got used to a long time ago," he muttered with a scowl.

In the interest of assisting Emerson in his wish for further sense, the facts were these: six weeks, three days, and nineteen minutes prior, the owner of Brewer Bean Brewery, Bobby Brewer, became the sole inheritor of his third cousin twice removed's estate. As his cousin was a staunch Buddhist with few attachments, his entire estate consisted of four glass tumblers, an ornamental plate depicting the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and a map to a small chest of buried treasure off the coast of Antarctica.

Bobby Brewer immediately chartered an exploration to the southernmost tip of the continent, where, covered in icicles and guarded by one particularly aggressive penguin, he found his reward: the last crop of coffee beans harvested from a long dead South American village.

The coffee was exquisite. It was everything Bobby Brewer had hoped for, and from the first sip, he knew: this must become the signature drink of Brewer Bean Brewery. The only problem was the quantity, as the chest contained only enough beans to brew nine and three-quarters of a cup. Immediately, he pocketed the final three beans and gave them to a team of the Brewery's best researchers, with the hopes that they would one day be able to clone this marvelous crop.

Within ten days and exactly twenty-two hours, they had succeeded. The drink rolled out to all its stores within another fifteen hours and thirty-one minutes.

The problems began three minutes and two seconds after the first customer drank his cup of coffee.

It is now three days, six hours, and two minutes later, and The Pie Hole has become the last refuge for the living. Where slices of fresh-baked pie once advertised their warmth and good taste from the windows, thick boards now only publicize the difficulty any zombie will have in entering the Piemaker's shop. Chuck's extensive reading in the ways of the undead has allowed the group of ragtag travelers to obtain all the weapons needed to fend off an attack, mostly consisting of guns, explosives, and the occasional bag of flour coupled with a brûlée torch.

"Flour is a known explosive," explained the Piemaker as he armed himself with handfuls of Pillsbury All-Purpose. "It's the first safety precaution you learn about, if you scatter enough flour into the air and you're not careful you can strike a match and bake a lot more than a pie."

"And you've been letting me walk around in your kitchen like it ain't a big deal?" demanded Emerson, incredulous -- but he, too, scooped up a handful of flour as he yanked back one of the wooden slats. As soon as he tossed it through, Chuck, wielding her brûlée torch with the practiced efficiency learned in moments of crisis, set it aflame and watched the bloom of fire engulf the zombies -- though unlike the others, she did not take much satisfaction in seeing the creatures shamble brightly into the night.

"Do you think that could have been me?" she asked, glumly.

"Of course that couldn't have been you," Ned was quick to reassure her, scooping up more flour to powder their enemies. "It may never be you, maybe if a person has already died and come back they're immune to any more dying and coming back. You may be immune, like Typhoid Mary, only with fewer diseases and even less of a desire to eat brains."

"You sure know how to talk to a lady," muttered Emerson under his breath. The latest cloud of flour exploded with a poof.

Chuck ignored him. "I don't mean I'm the Typhoid Mary of zombies, the Zombie Mary, or Zombie Chuck, I mean -- " Whoosh, went the fire. "I know very well that alive-again is not the same thing as undead. But maybe if I wasn't alive-again, maybe, I don't know, one of my aunts could have left a cup of coffee on my grave, and if it had spilled or -- "

She stopped. Her eyes grew wide with realization.

"Chuck?" asked Ned, as his own eyes grew wide in worry.

"What if my aunts are zombies?" she whispered, turning to Ned and Emerson. "They could have asked someone to get them takeout coffee. They could be shambling around Coeur d'Coeurs right now, or worse, they could be held hostage by zombies. I don't know how many shotgun shells Aunt Lily still has. They might have run out in minutes if there were too many of them. We have to -- "

"If you finish that sentence with 'find them,'" interjected Emerson pleasantly, "I'm gonna throw pyrotechnic flour on you."

Chuck did not finish that sentence, but the possibility haunted her as she continued to slaughter the hordes of the undead. Once the worst of the danger had passed, she, Emerson, and the Piemaker reboarded the window and went to reassure the citizens huddled in Ned's kitchen that they would not be eaten by zombies tonight. She remained deep in thought, helping Ned to bake the evening's triple berry, pear gruyere, and ginger pecan pies in silence. Ned noticed, but wasn't sure what he could say to reassure her. In the manual of life, no pages ever addressed the possibility of your girlfriend's only remaining relatives turning into zombies.

Chuck's manual of life, however, included worlds seen and unseen, grand adventures with no bounds but those of the imagination. She did not know what Ned could say to reassure her over the potential demise of her aunts, but she knew what she had to do.

She remembered, from her days as a little girl, the crumbling tourist guides she found buried deep within the shelves of her aunts' home. Like the squabbling party guests of a worldwide travel symposium, each told a different story of what the experienced traveler ought to bring on her voyage. Here and now, Chuck settled for three changes of clothes, a sturdy pair of walking shoes, a minimal portion of the cash still left in the register of The Pie Hole, and -- mining her own experience, which held no conflicts or squabbles of its own -- added a hefty baseball bat and a canister of wasp spray. "There's a hardware store on the way," she said as she hefted her bag to one shoulder. "We can stud the bat with some nails so it'll break their heads apart better."

Emerson stared. "Dead Girl, you frighten me."

"Better dead than undead," she said, practical.

"Chuck, I don't think this is the best idea," Ned tried again. "I know I said you might be immune, but if you're not, and -- "

"And what do you mean, we?" Emerson interrupted.

"I have to say this we concerns me, too," Ned concluded, scratching the back of his head and hunching up his shoulders in embarrassment. "I can only handle dead people if I'm the one that brought them back to life."

"So pretend you did," said Chuck, and grabbed Digby's leash from the counter. Undaunted by the undead, and knowing that walks waited for no man, woman, or zombie, Digby hefted himself to his feet and panted happily. "Pretend you were the one that started the zombie apocalypse. Then face them down like you could make them dead again anytime you wanted. Ned," she went on, quieter now, "they're my family. If there's anything worth going outside and facing down a bunch of zombies for, it's this. And I want you there with me."

She clasped her hands in front of herself, and pretended she was reaching to take the Piemaker's hand. "Please?"

A long moment passed before Ned smiled, only a little, and linked his hands together. He squeezed his fingers and whispered, "Okay."

Emerson looked at Ned, looked at Chuck, and raised his hand. "So do I have to go zombie aunt hunting, too?" he asked.

"No, you can stay here if you want," said Chuck.

"Oh, good," he said, and walked back into the kitchen without another word.

Five days, fifty-one minutes, and sixty-seven dead zombies later, Ned, Chuck, and Digby were settled on the side of the road halfway to Coeur d'Coeurs, a bright campfire sending sparks whirling into the sky. Chuck and Digby sat on one side; Ned took the other, where he fashioned tiny cases of dough and fruit filling to set across the flames for cooking. There were quite a lot of them. Ned, who had never read the debates of how to pack for travel, had brought along as many baking supplies as he could carry to ensure he would never have need to stop stress baking. Unsurprisingly, he found being out in the open among the undead was a very stressful experience.

Chuck, on the other hand, marveled at the night sky as she dug a hand through Digby's fur. Her studded bat lay next to her, drying out in the heat of the fire. "It's so clear out here without any cars," she murmured. "Ned, look."

"If I look up I think I may inadvertently spot a zombie and start screaming," he explained as he speared another unbaked campfire pie. "And that'll just attract more zombies, and pretty soon there won't be anything left of us but bones and ashes and a few smears of cherry filling."

Chuck perked up. "You brought cherries?"

Ned quirked a sheepish smile. "And apple and strawberry," he said. "I couldn't fit the plums though. Or the pears."

"Maybe we'll find some." Giving Digby one last pat, she crossed her legs and sat forward, grinning at Ned across the fire. "Or we'll barter for them. I could help you bake more campfire pie and we could trade them for necessities."

"Bartering for anything means finding people first." Ned rotated one of the pies, checking to see how golden the crust had become. "I mean, we could leave apple pie in the register of the next store we have to hit, but I think that might only be appreciated by roaches and mice."

"But I'm sure they'll be very thankful roaches and mice. It's either pies or zombie parts lately."

Ned looked up, first to Chuck, then to the glittering sky above them. Sparks from the fire swam up to mirror the light of the stars. "It is kind of peaceful without the cars," he said, softly. "I don't know if I'd call it relaxing, but..." His smile grew. "It's nice."

She returned his smile. "You think if I turned into a zombie, you could bring me back again?"

Ned choked.

"I'm serious," insisted Chuck. "What if it disrupts that dead-again-permanently part of the deal? Maybe we can cycle through it as much as we want."

"I think you might get tired of dying and re-dying," said Ned, weakly. "And zombie bites are painful."

"Yeah." Her smile turned wistful. "But at least I could snuggle with you a little."

Ned hesitated. "You could," he said at last, before he turned back to the fire. "That'd be nice. As long as you didn't try to eat my brains while we were snuggling."

She grinned, impish. "I promise I will never try to eat your brains if I become a zombie."

He chuckled. "That may be one of the most romantic things you've ever said to me," he said. "I promise I won't eat your brains, either."

Their pact affirmed over firelight, pie, and true love, they settled down to sleep. For a long time, Chuck watched the stars, remembering how they looked aboard the cruise ship the night she had died. It was as if she could see far beyond life, into death and undeath and back again, returning to the small fire by her side and the sparks dancing in the air.

They awoke the next morning to the sound of Digby barking. For the first two seconds, Ned groaned, struggling to find a way to quiet his dog through the haze of sleep. For the next two, he struggled not to panic as he remembered where they were, what they were doing, and -- most importantly -- what could possibly have drawn Digby's loud and guard-like attention.

Chuck, a light sleeper since her death, awoke much faster and determined the source of the threat much sooner. The person moving in the distance was too coordinated to be a zombie, and too well-armed to steal all of their weapons. It was not a threat at all, she saw, but --

"Olive!" she cried.

"Chuck?" Olive Snook lowered the shotgun she had pilfered from the ammunition store three blocks away. She broke into a beaming grin. "Digby! Ned!"

"Shotgun pointed at my head I'm not a zombie I swear," said Ned, raising both hands to shield himself from the end of the gun. Then: "Olive?" And: "Oof," as, in a moment of passion fueled by the end of the world, Olive, forgetting the Piemaker's dislike of being touched, dropped her shotgun and threw her arms around him.

"You're okay!" she squeaked. Awkwardly, Ned tried to loosen her grip, failed, and gave her a pat on the back instead. "I was so worried about you. Well, in between being worried about me and Randy."

"Is Randy okay?" asked Chuck.

The passion dissipated, leaving the warmth of faint embarrassment behind. Olive let go of Ned. "He's defending the Intrepid Cow," she said, and, hoping to disguise her fluster with a liberal dose of equality, turned to hug Chuck as well. "I went out to get more food."

"Well, we have pie," offered Ned. "I could get you one."

"Ooh. Sure!" As she let go of Chuck, Olive paused for a moment to consider the offer. "Wait, pie?"

"It's campfire pie," said Chuck. "Apple, cherry, and strawberry. We didn't bring full-fledged pie. We didn't have room for it with the exploding flour and the baseball bat."

"You're welcome to take enough for you and Randy if you want," Ned added. "I'd, uh, offer some of the flour, too, but I think the gun explodes better."

"Yeah, it's pretty handy," said Olive happily. "I already took out five zombies on the way over here. Randy's working on a recipe for exploding macaroni and cheese, too. It's probably going to be ready in a couple of days, but it means we can't actually eat any of the macaroni and cheese."

She settled in next to the embers of the fire, accepting the remaining pies Chuck passed to her. "So what brings you all the way out here?" she asked them as Digby circled closer in the hope of a dropped strawberry.

"We're trying to find my aunts," said Chuck. She cast a glance toward Ned. "I haven't heard from them since everything started."

Olive's eyes went round. "Do you think they drank the coffee?" she asked in hushed tones, as if inquiring after a friend who had run off with an unsavory circus performer.

Digby cocked his head. So did the Piemaker. "You know about the coffee?"

"Who doesn't know about the coffee?" said Olive, with the relish of great gossip retold. "Bobby Brewer drank some of it on camera four days ago to prove how safe it was. They took him out after he bit the cameraman and five bystanders."

Ned winced. "Poor guy."

"Poor guy who's made it impossible to walk down the street without fearing for your brains," Chuck reminded him. To Olive, she added, "Aunt Vivian doesn't drink coffee. Aunt Lily only likes it if it's spiked, and Brewer Bean Brewery didn't pre-spike any of its drinks." She gnawed her lip. "I'm more worried the zombies broke in and bit them."

"Oh, honey." Olive patted Chuck's shoulder. "Don't worry about that! Your aunts have a lot of guns."

"But I still need to see them," she insisted, lifting her chin. "So we're walking there."

"Emerson didn't want to come," said Ned. "He's back at The Pie Hole defending the last people we could find. He likes his zombies on the other side of a big wall and a lot of bricks, which I don't blame him for since that's where I tend to like them too."

Olive brightened. "You have a stronghold?"

"I wouldn't call it that." Ned grimaced a little. "It's just -- "

"I could help Emerson turn it into a stronghold." Olive sighed, enjoying her newly discovered daydream. "I haven't seen him in forever. Maybe once the mister perfects his exploding mac and cheese we'll go that way."

Chuck smiled. "I'm sure Emerson would like the company," she said. "And I know he'd like a stronghold, too."

"But what if I want to un-stronghold-ify it afterward?" Ned protested. "Zombies aren't forever. Eventually we're going to need to use flour and pasta for things other than explosions."

"Sure, but there's a lot of coffee out there, buddy," said Olive. Patting the butt of her shotgun, "Until you get people to stop drinking their morning joe, me and Old Smokey gotta stay in business."

As Olive and Chuck continued to talk, Ned remained silent, and not only from disbelief over Olive's chosen name for her gun. Zombies might not be forever, but caffeine addiction could survive more hardships than exploding foodstuffs. This could be the future -- or at least an exceedingly long present. Never before had he wished so badly to retreat behind a big wall and a lot of bricks: somewhere that would be safe not only from zombies, but from a world filled with demands and adventures he did not want to face.

He only wished that big wall was not The Pie Hole's, which he had created with the intention of distributing pies instead of artillery. The thought of his bakery never again being a bakery distressed him even more.

Before they parted ways, Chuck helped Olive tie a bundle of campfire pies to the stock of her shotgun. Olive, in turn, shared the beginnings of Randy's recipe. "Maybe you can figure out how to make the paprika extra-spicy," she said as she gave both of them another hug. "Good luck. See you at The Pie Hole in a couple weeks?"

Ned forced a smile. "Yeah," he said. "We'll, um, see you then."

Olive, already thinking of ways to fortify her old place of employment, did not see the twitch of the Piemaker's eye.

The gate that surrounded the home of Aunts Lily and Vivian had been twisted on itself like knotted string. Dead bodies littered the yard; none were the aunts themselves, and none responded when Ned gave them an uncertain poke in the center of the forehead. The undead, then, not the newly dead.

"I don't see them anywhere," said Chuck anxiously as she dashed for the front door, her nail-studded bat at the ready. "Aunt Lily? Aunt Vivian!"

"Maybe that means they weren't turned into zombies." Ned raced after her. In one hand, he clutched a small bag of flour; in the other, he held the brûlée torch. "If they were zombies, they wouldn't have gotten very far."

"Or maybe it means -- " At the top of the porch stairs, Chuck readied, aimed, and swung at the door with her bat. Loosened by age and surprisingly free of any locks -- a fact that worried Chuck all the more -- it burst open like an overripe peach. "That they're inside, already dead and waiting to turn undead at any second. Aunt Lily! Aunt Vivian!"

No sound greeted them, not even the distant moans of the shambling dead. After a moment, Digby sat down to whine. Casting about, Ned found a broomstick not far away; he grabbed it and used it to scratch the spot on Digby's shoulders that he always seemed to like.

"You know how a lot of times, people talk about a fate worse than death?" Chuck asked at last, in a very small voice. "This is it. Right here. Death's not that bad, it's disappearing that's bad. It's not knowing."

There was nothing in reach he could use to comfort Chuck, and so deprived, Ned settled on the far more inferior words. "I'm sorry, Chuck," he whispered.

"Are you sure you didn't see them in the yard?"

"I'm sure."

Chuck lowered the bat, letting the nails scratch at the floor as she crossed the room, slow and stiff as a zombie herself. "Maybe there's a note," she said, helplessly. "Can we look for a note?"

There was no note. The three of them searched high and low, going through each room in the hope of one scrap of paper that would alert them to the fate of Chuck's aunts. It wasn't until they had circled all the way back to the kitchen that Ned spotted the book.

In spite of himself, he smiled a little. "Hey, I remember that. I used to read Patrick Patricks when I was a kid."

Chuck's own smile was just as unwilling, and watery with approaching tears. She picked it up. "Me, too," she said. "This one was my favorite. You know how it starts out like a shipwreck survival story, and then changes at the last minute?"

"Yeah," said Ned, as he watched Chuck open the book and begin to page through its contents. "Except it turns out the island's safer because zombies can't swim."

Chuck froze.

"Zombies can't swim," she said in a daze, and all at once, she shoved the book under her arm and turned back to Ned. "I know where they are."

And with that, she dashed for the front door.

The seventeenth page of Patrick Patricks' fifth novel, Deadwreck on Desert Island, began, The water is no place for a corpse. Chuck understood the sentiment: water could make a dead body disappear very fast as the currents pulled it apart, even if that dead body could still move through the power of dangerous coffee beans. Her killer had dumped her overboard for a reason.

As the road turned to sand beneath their feet, she wondered if the water was any place for an alive-again woman, either. She wanted to clutch Ned's hand once she could hear the tumble of the waves. Her restlessness wasn't born of fear, but she found herself pausing anyway, waiting to see if it would pass.

Ned went on a few more steps before he noticed her hesitation. He turned back. "You okay?" he asked her.

Chuck smiled, a little sorrowful. "Yeah. You know the last time I heard the ocean was when I was getting strangled to death?"

Ned's face shifted, the ends of his eyebrows peaking high with worry. "Oh. Right. I didn't -- um, if you want to stay there I can go ahead and -- are you sure they're here anyway?"

"Positive." She took off her shoes and planted one bare foot firmly in the sand, then the next foot right beside it. A seagull spun by overhead. Digby, excited to see another living thing that had not recently been reanimated, took off after it in a flurry of barks.

"Digby -- !" Ned gave chase. Chuck, after making sure there was enough distance between them to allow for mistaken stumbles or falls, followed behind.

Further down the beach lay a crumpled shape that, for a moment, Chuck thought to be another dead body. She continued to think it until Digby drew to a halt alongside and began to root through it. Since the second or third day of their journey, he'd taken to avoiding the corpses after a stern talking-to from his humans. This, though, was anything but, and it glinted in the sunlight as he dug his paws inside.

"Oh," whispered Chuck when she saw what it was. Two life-sized mermaid tails, cast aside like selkie skins, lay beneath Digby's inquisitive nose. She looked out across the water. Ned fell back beside her, shading his eyes and squinting to try and see what she could see.

Eventually, she glanced up at Ned with another sad smile. "Guess we could build a raft," she said.

Ned bit his lip. Chuck, prepared for his indecision, had already begun to turn back to the costumes, ready to gather them in her arms and add them to the bag. When the Piemaker said at last, "We could," she stopped mid-movement.

"I mean," Ned went on as she straightened up, "you're right. They're family. And, and not knowing is terrible, and so is spending the rest of an exceedingly long present in a fortress that's supposed to be a pie shop. I've been good at fortressing, but I'm better at being with you, and..." He smiled, tentative. "I can be good at going on a crazy adventure on a raft, too. If you want."

Chuck drew in a breath. Swiftly, she bent down to rummage through the bag. One of the costumes of the Darling Mermaid Darlings had a piece of plastic attached to it; pulling it free and unfolding it, she pressed it over Ned's lips and kissed him as hard as she could.

The water was no place for a corpse, but it was the perfect place for love, and for setting out into a changed and exciting world in search of the yet-to-be-known.