Pranthi’s life is about taking pictures, so it is a good thing she can make a living at it. Her world is put at risk when her shot of a man turning zombie becomes national news. It isn’t the news which is the problem, it’s that the zombies don’t stop. Her lens can’t help her in this new world.
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Pranthi shuffled slightly faster than the horde of zombies following her. They were gaining on her. Time to do something before they caught up. She turned and snapped a couple of pictures. The zombie walkers were a decent crop this year. One of the men had a hole through his chest. Pranthi could see another shambling zombie behind him. She took some more pictures, working hard to stay ahead of the mob, but finally gave up.
The horde lurched past her, ignoring her and her camera just as the organizers asked them every year.
“How about lunch?” a zombie near the back mumbled past ketchup, wax and cheap fake teeth. There was one every year. Pranthi shook her head and shot a few more of the stragglers. The ones at the back didn’t have the make-up that would win them a cash prize, but they had the best zombie walk. Most of the crowd were too eager to get to the finish and tuck into the free donuts and coffee to shamble properly. Even in still shots the shamblers’ slumped postures looked good. If someone combined make-up and acting effort, it would make for some brilliant photos.
She’d photographed at least five zombie walks now. At first they were a fringe thing, but in the past couple of years they’d become big business. Tens of thousands of dollars and mountains of tins of food were raised by these walks. The organizers handed out cards and brochures offering to set up any kind of event desired. Pranthi’s photographs were icing on the cake, as more than enough people bought pictures of themselves as the living dead to compensate for the fee she charged for the day. A few more shots from the back and Pranthi headed through the crowd to a coffee shop at the side of the street.
The leg braces she wore over her skinny jeans kept people at arm’s length. She didn’t mind. Talking was the last thing on her mind. What she wanted came in a tall cup with foam and a sprinkle of cinnamon on top. She snapped some pictures while waiting in line. A couple of walkers clearly thought the quality of the free coffee was suspect. The barista was a good sport and gave her a wide grin even as she didn’t look right at the camera.
“Hi, Pranthi,” Pat said as she pushed the coffee across the counter. Her name tag read ‘Tina’. Pat didn’t like people knowing her name. Everyone had their hang-ups. The only concession Pranthi made to her legs was to let Pat carry the coffee to a table for her. She sat in the corner and rubbed her thighs through the gaps in the steel. The braces let her walk, but they hurt like hell.
The latte revived her and the ache receded enough for her to pull out her tablet and load the pictures from her cameras. She had a hard time remembering all the fussing she had to do last year to check her shots. She put out offerings regularly, in thanks, for whoever mated Wi-Fi with cameras and made her life easier.
They weren’t bad, not her best work, but good enough for the organizers. They wanted zombie shots for their publicity work, not art shots. They paid enough to keep Pranthi in lattes and that was all that mattered.
“Hey, there.” A young woman sat down across from Pranthi and dropped a bag with a clunk on the floor. “You were shooting zombies,” she smiled and sipped at her drink. To Pranthi’s amazement, she didn’t immediately try to crane her neck to see what was on the tablet. Too many people thought what she had on the tablet was public property. She looked closer at the woman. Blood red stains on her fingers suggested she’d worked on at least one zombie’s make-up. The bag probably held more gear to repair whatever damage the walk did before the judges chose their favourite.
“That would be me,” Pranthi waved at the cameras. The other woman laughed and Pranthi’s stomach filled with butterflies. Conversations made her nervous.
The woman’s eyes were the blue of the Indian Ocean, not the mud of her own. Pranthi never knew how to talk to people, especially not beautiful people who should be ignoring her, not smiling like they were old friends. Instead of talking she flipped over the tablet and watched the woman scroll through the pictures. Technically, it was a breach of her agreement with the organizers, but what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. It wasn’t as if Pranthi was going sell photos to this woman.
“This one is brilliant,” the woman held up a shot Pranthi knew the organizers would hate because they couldn’t sell it to the zombies. It showed a blurred face in the foreground with a zombie in the mid-ground with a hand outstretched. The camera angle made it look like the hand was on the first person’s shoulder. The background faded to a riot of colour. Because this blue-eyed woman liked it, Pranthi loved it too. The woman flipped through a few other shots before she snorted and showed Pranthi the shot of the man with the hole through him.
“This one,” the woman made a face and Pranthi laughed. “I designed and built that for him. It took weeks to get the programming right. Anyone can tape two tablets and sync the cameras. I set it up so occasionally blood spurts across the wound. How does he thank me? He asks me to make up his new girlfriend so they can enter the pairs contest.”
“And you did?” Pranthi asked.
“Yeah, I did.” The woman sipped at her drink and went back to aimlessly flipping through pictures, but now she barely looked at them. “Couldn’t make them more like zombies without killing them.”
“Some people are hard to refuse,” Pranthi said to break the silence. It was that or ask for her tablet back.
“Spoken like the voice of experience.”
“Yeah, except with me it is family,” Pranthi sipped her latte and tried to stop her tongue. Not bloody likely. “I live on my own so it is harder for them to try to find me a husband.”
“I’m guessing the idea of a husband doesn’t thrill you.” Her words came out dry and bitter as she slid the tablet back to Pranthi.
“I’m already married to my camera.”
The woman put her hand on Pranthi’s and warmth travelled up her arm. Touch was scarier than conversation. She froze, but the woman didn’t notice.
“Ironic that the modern idea of zombies has nothing to do with science.”
“There are zombies in science?”
“Sure,” to Pranthi’s relief she leaned back again, freeing Pranthi’s arm. “A fungus takes over one species of ant and forces it to climb high in the foliage where a certain species of bird eats it and spreads the spores through the forest. A parasite takes over a beetle and makes it go to where the eggs in the beetle are more likely to hatch. Nature is cruel.”
“Nasty, for sure,” Pranthi said.
“Stay. Look at your pictures, and by the time you get them handed in, it will be all over.”
“What?” Pranthi pulled her hand away. “What did you do?” A different heat filled her as she imagined bombs or guns or other horrors shown on the news nightly.
The woman laughed and sipped her drink.
“Nothing so final as you’re imagining from the look on your face,” she shrugged and looked away, but not before a tear rolled down her cheek. “I worked so hard for him, and he runs after that bimbo. Biology. Nothing I can do about that. So I gave him a parting gift. Let him experience what being a zombie might feel like.”
“How can you make him feel like the undead?”
“No,” the woman frowned and drank the last of her coffee. “Not undead. Like an ant who will seek the heights and the sun to be consumed. It won’t last.”
Pranthi’s phone rang, breaking the moment.
“What the heck are you doing?” Kevin, the lead organizer, yelled at Pranthi over the phone. “I need you here to shoot the winners.”
“My legs got tired,” Pranthi said, “I stopped to give them a break.”
“Yeah, you have my sympathy, but your contract says you’ll shoot the winners and we’ll be choosing them in just a few minutes. Where are you? I’ll come get you.”
“I’m at a coffee shop about halfway through the route.” Pranthi slugged back the last of her latte. “I’ll wait for you outside.”
“If you must go,” the woman leaned over and kissed Pranthi on the lips. “Just go ahead and forget me.” She crushed her empty cup and stuffed it in her bag before walking out of the coffee shop.
The brief kiss emptied Pranthi’s mind and she had no idea how long she would have sat there with her fingers on her lips if her cell phone hadn’t rung again. “I’m out front,” Kevin said. “Where are you?”
Pranthi swept her tablet into her bag and gave the table a quick glance for loose gear. She hobbled out to the street where Kevin’s black Prius blocked traffic. The honking behind him didn’t make him move until she’d crawled into the car and closed the door.
“You’ll be able to do the rest of the day?” he asked as she buckled her seatbelt. The switch from angry yelling on the phone to concern made her head spin.
“Sure,” Pranthi said, “sorry to be a trouble.”
“No trouble,” Kevin said, “but you know business is business.”
“I have shots of everyone on the walk,” Pranthi said. “If not individual, at least in groups.”
“We may get a stationary booth set up next year for people to get staged shots,” Kevin pulled into the field where zombies milled about eating donuts instead of brains. “Then you can concentrate on those art shots you keep trying to sell us.”
Pranthi climbed out of the car and checked her gear. The last thing she needed was Kevin returning anything to her apartment. Nice enough the couple of times a year she worked for him, but she didn’t need any friends. They got in the way.
Kevin ran to the podium where Amelia, his business partner, waited with a handful of envelopes.
“Okay, then,” Kevin said into the PA system, “let’s get to the part you’ve been waiting so patiently for.” He pulled the list from his pocket as screaming started off to the side. Pranthi lifted her camera automatically and got a picture of a growing crowd of zombies running toward her.
“Calm down,” Kevin said, “the sooner we have quiet, the sooner I can hand out money.”
The noise grew louder as the people ran past the stage and past Pranthi. She framed a shot of the hole-right-through-him zombie lurching after people, red dripping from his mouth a brighter color than the stains on his shirt. A blonde zombie lay on the ground behind him with more of that brighter red on her throat and chest.
Red shifted into blood in Pranthi’s mind as the spurts from the blonde’s neck stopped. By the time she framed the man in her viewfinder, he’d caught a slower member of the fleeing crowd and was gnawing on her neck. Blood flowed and her shrill cries faded until she stopped trying to push the man away. He dropped her to the ground and shuffled on.
Pranthi increased the shutter speed to compensate for her shaking hands. No one stood between Pranthi and the man who had now killed two people, and even with him doing a top notch zombie walk now, he still moved faster than Pranthi’s exhausted legs could. Since she wasn’t going to be able to outrun him, she kept shooting pictures as he got closer. Something to distract her from her imminent death.
Blood dripped from his mouth and his eyes had a strange white film on them. Arms and legs moved spastically, as if he were fighting against himself as he walked. His tongue hung out as he got close enough for her to switch to her wide angle lens. That’s when Kevin hit the man from behind with a mic stand. The zombie fell to the ground, twitched once and then lay still.
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