About the Author
James Ponti was born in Italy, raised in Florida, and went to college in California. After receiving a degree in screenwriting from the USC Film School, he began a career writing and producing television shows for the likes of Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, PBS, Spike TV, History Channel, and Golf Channel. James loves writing, travel, and the Boston Red Sox. He lives with his family in Maitland, Florida.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Trick or Treat
I mean seriously.
So far this zombie had survived a lead pipe to the head, the total dislocation of his right arm, and a puncture in his stomach that now oozed yellow slime. Yet somehow none of it had slowed him down. He just kept coming right at me doing the wail and flail, which is what we call it when a zombie makes those creepy moaning noises and walks all stiff-legged and jerky. I kept my cool when he flashed the death stare with his milky white eyes. But when he reached out and I saw the chunks of dead flesh dangling from finger bones right in front of my face, I couldn’t help myself.
And how did my friends react? How do you think they reacted? They laughed hysterically.
“What?” I asked defensively as I took off my 3-D glasses and realized that I might have done more than flinch.
The zombie was still there, frozen in midsnarl on the giant television screen. Alex, who had just pressed the pause button on the remote, shook his head in total disbelief. “I’m sorry, but aren’t you the girl who just defeated Marek Blackwell in an epic battle at the top of the George Washington Bridge?” He pointed at the neon purple cast on my left arm. “Isn’t that how you broke your hand?”
“My point is that you’ve faced an actual Level 2 zombie,” he said. “How can you be frightened by this ridiculous movie?”
“I’m n-not . . . frightened,” I said with a stammer even though I was hoping to sound confident. “Why would you even say that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” answered Grayson. “Maybe because you went like this.” He held his hands in front of his face and cowered as he let out a shriek so ridiculous, I couldn’t help but laugh too.
“I guess scary movies scare me,” I conceded. “But I didn’t squeal. I just flinched.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Grayson replied.
The truth is I normally avoid scary movies no matter what. It’s like a rule for me. But this was no normal situation. Officially our team was dissolved, but we’d managed to petition for a hearing to review the case. For now we were suspended until our fate could be decided. It had been a couple of weeks, and our Omega team was so desperate for any sort of undead action, we were spending Halloween watching a zombie movie marathon in Natalie’s apartment. Mostly, we made fun of how fake and unbelievable the movies were. But Natalie’s family has a deluxe home theater that’s tricked out with a giant 3-D television and surround-sound speakers that make even the cheesiest horror movies seem realistic.
“If you’d like, we can watch some cartoons instead,” Alex joked. “Or does it scare you too much when the Road Runner gets the anvil to fall on the Coyote?”
“You are sooooo funny,” I replied, mustering all the sarcasm I could manage as I whacked him on the back of the head with a pillow.
That’s when Natalie came into the room with a massive bowl of candy. Like they did with everything else, her parents had gone overboard with the Halloween treats.
“Unless there are a couple of hundred kids in the building I don’t know about, there’s no way we’re going to give all of this out tonight,” she said as she set it on the table in front of us. “So help yourself to as much as you’d like.”
Alex gave the bowl the same look a lion gives a herd of zebras before he quickly began devouring his prey. Grayson, however, picked up a piece and examined its shiny orange wrapper before asking, “What kind of candy is this? I’ve never even seen it before.”
“Well, we just can’t have normal candy, can we?” Natalie replied with a phony British accent. “Mum and Dad had to special-order chocolate from England. You know, to impress the neighbors who, by the way, don’t have kids and won’t ever see it. It’s ridiculous.”
“It’s not ridiculous,” Alex mumbled as he tried to talk and chew at the same time. “It’s delicious!” He swallowed a bite and announced, “Best. Chocolate. Ever.”
“Glad you like it,” Natalie said as she settled into the cushy chair next to mine. “So what was that scream I heard when I was in the other room?”
“Grayson trying to be funny,” I answered. “And failing epically.”
“Not that scream,” she corrected. “The one before that.”
“That was Molly,” Grayson said. “Flinching . . . epically.”
“She was terrified of him,” Alex explained, pointing toward the zombie on the television.
Natalie rolled her eyes. “You can’t be serious.”
“It’s a scary movie!” I reminded them. “You’re supposed to get scared watching scary movies. It’s considered normal behavior.”
“Well, you’ve only got one more week to be normal,” she reminded me. “So get it out of your system.”
She didn’t need to say anything more than that. I knew exactly what she meant. Our review hearing was set for the following week, and when we presented our case to the panel of past Omegas, we’d have to be much better than normal. We were asking them to lift our suspension, and to do that, we’d need to convince them that we were essential in the fight against the undead. If they ruled against us, our team would most likely be disbanded.
“Is that why you didn’t wear a costume?” Grayson asked me. “Because costumes scare you too?”
My lack of a costume had been a running joke all night long. When I arrived at the apartment, I was more than a little surprised to find the others had all dressed for the occasion. Grayson was decked out as a superhero; Alex wore a vampire’s cape and plastic fangs; and Natalie went full Bride of Frankenstein, with pancake makeup, a huge wig, and a tattered wedding dress. Meanwhile, I’d come dressed as . . . me.
“Nobody told me we were supposed to wear costumes,” I protested.
“It’s Halloween,” Grayson said. “We kind of figured it was obvious.”
(Dear World, when it comes to social situations, what’s obvious to you is totally not obvious to me.)
The funny thing is that I was going to wear a costume but decided it would be a big mistake. Since they’re all older than me, I assumed they’d outgrown Halloween costumes and that wearing one would make me look too young. I didn’t want to be the only one dressed up. So, instead, it turned out that I was the only one not dressed up. Arrgh.
It also didn’t help that unlike every previous October of my life, I wasn’t really in a Halloween mood. Normally, I spent weeks trying to figure out the perfect costume; but this year it just didn’t seem like the thing to do. I’d been in a funk ever since my battle with Marek atop the bridge. This had less to do with the fight and more to do with the fact that I’d been rescued by my mother. That would be the same mother whose funeral I’d attended two and a half years earlier. Once you’ve discovered that your mom is an actual zombie, dressing up like one doesn’t seem like fun.
I haven’t told anyone about my mother. I mean, really, what can I say? (“Hey, you know those zombies we’re always fighting? Turns out one’s my mom!”) It’s even worse at home. I feel so guilty when I’m around my father and sister, but there’s no way to tell them Mom’s a resident of Dead City when they have no idea what Dead City is. I’m pretty sure they would call a psychiatrist right around the part where I say, “You see, there are thousands of zombies living underneath New York City. . . .” So I had this huge dilemma, and there was no one I could talk to about it. The only person who could possibly understand would have been . . . my mom. After all, she had been an Omega when she was in school (a legendary one, in fact), and she would be able to help me figure this all out. But she disappeared within moments of saving my life.
I desperately wanted to go down into Dead City to look for her, but I couldn’t do that to my friends. I was the reason that our team had been suspended, and the three of them had staked their reputations to defend me. If I went underground without permission, it would ruin everything and our suspension would become permanent. So I just had to act like it never happened.
“I’ll look for a less scary movie,” Alex joked as he started to click through the channels. “Maybe one with rainbows and puppies.”
I was about to make a smart-alecky comment when something on the screen caught my eye.
“Wait a second,” I said. “Go back.”
“Back to the zombie movie?” he asked hopefully.
“No,” I replied. “Back to the news.”
He flipped back a couple of channels to a local newscast. A reporter with slicked-back hair, professor glasses, and way too much spray tan was sitting at a desk. Behind him was the picture of a man and the headline SUBWAY DEATH.
“I think I know that guy,” I said, pointing at the screen. “But I can’t remember where I’ve seen him.”
“That’s Action News reporter Brock Hampton,” she said, doing her best overly dramatic news reporter impression. “Remember? We eavesdropped on his newscast when we went to the crime scene on Roosevelt Island.”
I looked at the reporter for a moment and realized she was right. “Hey, that is him,” I said. “But that’s not who I was talking about. I was talking about the dead guy. I’ve seen him somewhere before too.”
According to the report, early that morning a man named Jacob Ellis had been found dead on a subway in Brooklyn, and the police were still trying to determine what had happened. There were two unusual details that made the story newsworthy. One was that his right arm was completely missing. The other was that he was handcuffed to his seat.
“Despite the handcuffs, the police say that Ellis was not an escaped prisoner and, in fact, had never been in trouble with the law,” Brock Hampton intoned. “Perhaps it was a Halloween prank gone wrong, or maybe just a case of someone being extremely . . . unlucky.”
“Unlucky?” Grayson asked. “I think if you’re dead and someone steals your arm, you’ve gone way beyond being unlucky.”
“That’s it,” I said as I grabbed the remote from Alex and froze the image on the screen. I studied the face for a moment. “Jacob Ellis was one of the Unlucky 13.”
“The unlucky what?” asked Alex.
“You remember the pictures I found in the Book of Secrets?” I asked.
“You mean the ones you weren’t supposed to look at or do anything about, but you did anyway, and it led to all of us getting suspended?” asked Natalie. “You mean those pictures?” (She was joking, but there was no denying that she was right.)
“Okay, stupid question,” I said. “But those pictures were of the men who were killed in the subway tunnel explosion back in 1896. In Dead City they’re known as the Unlucky 13. That guy was one of them. He was one of the very first zombies.”
Suddenly, Alex was interested. “Are you sure?”
I looked right into the dead man’s eyes on the TV screen. “Positive.”
“He’s been alive for over a hundred and ten years and he just dies on the subway and gets his arm stolen,” Grayson said. “There’s got to be a story behind that.”
Unlike the movie monsters we’d been watching all night, we’d finally caught a glimpse of a real zombie story. Suspended or not, we began to look at the situation like an Omega team.
“Do you think it’s like when the three guys pretended to be dead on Roosevelt Island?” Alex asked. “Do you think maybe he’s just faking being dead to get back into the morgue?”
“I would,” said Grayson. “But his body was discovered in Brooklyn. He’s dead dead.”
That’s the part that didn’t make any sense to me. There’s no way the undead can survive off Manhattan and away from the Manhattan schist, so why was he in Brooklyn? That’s when it hit me. “Maybe that’s what killed him.”
“Yeah,” Alex said, putting it together with me. “Maybe he was on the subway and couldn’t get off before it left Manhattan.”
Alex, Grayson, and I all said it at the same time: “Because somebody handcuffed him to his seat.”
After a few weeks on the sidelines, we’d possibly made a major Dead City discovery. Needless to say, we were a little excited. There may have been high fives and fist bumps.
“That’s really something,” Alex said as he opened another piece of candy and popped it in his mouth.
Grayson nodded and asked, “But why would someone steal his arm?”
“Stop it,” Natalie said, interrupting. “I’ve seen you guys like this. You’ve got undead on the brain and you want to figure out what really happened.”
“Of course we do,” Grayson said.
“When you think about it,” added Alex, “it’s the perfect way to kill a zombie.”
“No, when you think about it, it’s the perfect way to ruin our review hearing,” she countered. “We have been told to avoid any and all Omega activity, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
“What about Molly? She killed Marek Blackwell on the bridge. And she killed his brother Cornelius in the locker room after her fencing tournament,” protested Alex. “That’s all Omega activity.”
“No,” Natalie corrected. “She defended herself and saved her life. It was an extraordinary circumstance.”
“Don’t you think this is one too?” Grayson asked. “One of the original zombies getting murdered on a subway train sounds pretty extraordinary.”
Natalie was having trouble controlling her frustration, so I came to her rescue. “She’s right,” I said, interrupting. “I’m just as curious as you guys, but we can’t jeopardize our hearing.”
“But . . . ,” Alex said, starting to argue. Both he and Grayson wanted to disagree with us, but in their hearts they knew we were right.
“What about next week?” Grayson asked. “After the review hearing?”
Natalie smiled. “If we get reinstated, we’re all over it. But until then, we’ve got to act like we’ve never even heard the word ‘undead.’ We have to prove that we can follow orders.”
We slumped back into our seats and tried to get our minds off the situation. We flipped channels for a while and even went back to watching the zombie marathon. But after a glimpse of an actual undead story, a phony one only seemed that much less realistic. This time it didn’t even make me flinch. Finally, Natalie had a suggestion.
“Why don’t we go watch the Procession of the Ghouls?”
“Really?” Grayson said, a trace of excitement in his voice. “I thought you had to stay here to give out candy.”
“We haven’t had any trick-or-treaters for a while, so I think we’re done for the night,” answered Natalie.
“The Procession of the Ghouls would be fun,” Alex said in his best Dracula voice. “But all the costumes might scare Molly.” He added a silly vampire laugh.
“I think I can handle it,” I assured them. “Let’s go.”
The Procession of the Ghouls is an annual tradition on the Upper West Side, not far from Natalie’s apartment building. It features some of the most elaborate costumes you’ve ever seen and takes place in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where the huge pipe organ plays scary music.
As we walked down Amsterdam Avenue toward the cathedral, I couldn’t help but think that on Halloween, at least, New York looked like an aboveground version of Dead City. There were scary-looking characters everywhere. Add to this the light mist in the air and the occasional howl of the wind rushing between the buildings, and it began to feel a little eerie. Still, after the flinching incident, there was no way I was going to let on that any of this spooked me.
Luckily, Grayson and Alex got too distracted to pay much attentio...
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