Excerpt Meg Highbury woke up the day after her twenty-first birthday to the smell of spoiled hamburger meat stinging her nose hairs and tickling her gag reflex. For a moment, Meg thought she was back in Dr. Schlechta's embalming room, with the bodies and the fluids and the dull instruments of death. She'd never forget the smell of that room – a medicinal rot, the choking smell of old meat sealed in hot plastic.
Sunlight streamed in through the Venetian blinds, lighting up her studio apartment like a movie set at midnight. Her corneas felt coated in super glue, and her mouth tasted like she'd spent the night licking chalkboards. Too much Merlot. Much too much Merlot. But a girl had a right to celebrate her twenty-first birthday in style, and Meg had spared no expense – at least where the alcohol was concerned.
Meg threw back the covers and swung her feet to the floor, trying to remember where she’d left the ibuprofen.
“What the…?” Just opposite her own bare feet, she saw a pair of scuffed black shoes that sent her scuttling back into bed.
Meg rubbed at her eyes and dared another look.
She blinked. Blinked again.
The thing was still there.
Meg clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle the scream building inside her chest. She couldn’t scream. If she screamed it might become real. People might come running. Doctors and scientists might be called. A zombie might be standing in her apartment.
What stood before her was unexplainable. She saw shreds of cloth that might once have been a pair of trousers. Bony, flesh-deprived hands. But its face, what was left of it anyway, sent a chill through her soul. Its eyes were long gone, but Meg felt herself drawn to those two gaping, rotting holes. The lips were gone, too, and left a gleaming, toothy, lipless grimace. The thing was like something from a movie, only this wasn't a movie set. Meg wasn't famous, and she wasn't the star in some B-movie remake.
It was an hallucination, of course. It had to be. The dead didn't walk around visiting random college students. Meg knew this as surely as she knew that the sun was the center of the universe.
Only the sun wasn't the center of the universe, Meg realized. The sun was the center of her universe, of the Milky Way, nothing more. The real center of the universe, as she understood it, was a sucking black hole in the middle of limitless space.
And the smell. Could hallucinations be olfactory was well as visual? Meg didn't know.
She took a deep breath through her mouth and tasted decaying flesh. Her stomach lurched. With all the energy she could muster, Meg swallowed back the bile threatening to spill out onto her comforter.
“Bad, bad hangover,” Meg said, her small, shaking voice flying solo in the empty apartment. “Has to be. Can't be real, right? It can't be.” Meg pulled the comforter over her knees, fisting the faded cloth in her hands. “I'm going to kill Tee. She knows I don't do acid.”
Because a bad acid trip was the only explanation for the figment of imagination standing vigil beside her bed. It was the only explanation for the persistent smell of rotting meat permeating her apartment.
She tried to remember her birthday celebration from the night before. She remembered the gift. Grateful to have somewhere else to rest her eyes, Meg glanced at the book balanced precariously on a small midden cluttering her nightstand. It rested among the pill and beer bottles, the used Kleenex and empty gum wrappers. She remembered meeting Tee and Emma at the cemetery. She didn’t remember whose idea it was, but she did remember fumbling her way through a cheesy séance, using the anonymous gift, the book, to try to talk to the dead. Most of all she remembered drinking Merlot. Lots of Merlot.
The corpse standing in her apartment stood motionless while Meg tried to recall the rest of the evening. The séance had been a bust. Tee had thought it was stupid and said so. Emma wanted to go to a party at Danny Kole's place, and of course, Meg wanted nothing to do with any party that Danny “The Scumbag” Kole was throwing. They’d had some kind of fight. Nothing major, just the usual girl spat over who had the better idea and what should they do with the evening. She remembered Tee and Emma humoring her and doing the séance, but only because it was her birthday and you didn’t say no to the birthday girl. But instead of making her feel young and carefree, the séance had made Meg feel foolish and childish, so she agreed to meet them at Danny’s party. She had no intention of going to the party later, but that was okay. The wine had gone to her head, and she only wanted to go home and pass out. She had waited until her friends left, then stood up to head back to her apartment.
That's when the fun began.
The memory came to her like a remembered dream. The dark shape moving out of the corn field. The smell. She had walked to the car in a haze of alcohol, and her companion had climbed into the passenger seat. She remembered a bony hand pulling at the seat belt and laughing hysterically, all the while thinking how great she felt and how silly she was, drinking legally for the first time. But that same bony hand was dangling not three feet from her now, and the alcohol in her bloodstream had watered down to almost nothing. And there it stood. The zombie