“Un chocolate chaud, si vous plait,” says the woman carefully in a very overdone Pepé le Pew accent. Then in Deep Southern US she says, “I wish I could remember more French; I haven’t taken it since high school. But I am tryin’; it adds to the experience.”
She is maybe 1.5 meters tall with a pale, round face and Shirley Temple curls, dyed a strange copper color, wearing bright clothing and carrying a Hello Kitty messenger bag. I don’t know if it is the childlike way she accessorizes or her size, but it is hard to tell her age. She is at least in her late 20s, maybe a bit older. It is only 6:45 and she is almost vibrating with excitement.
She chatters about the Biodome, fashion, and food in short excited sentences while I get her drink. Normally someone this perky might annoy me, but today I am happy to have her here. Everything is so quiet. I hate opening Second Cup on the weekend. Right under Le Reine Elizabeth and so close to the commuter train station, this place is a madhouse on weekdays at this time. But this early on a Saturday, and it’s dead.
Most of the businesses aren’t even open yet and won’t be for hours. The tunnels, normally so bright, are dark and shadowy. I wish we didn’t go for a cozy book shop atmosphere and instead had bright lights. My customer is a human strobe light, which helps.
She sits down at a table with her drink and starts writing in a notebook. I go back to the busy work of a barista: putting cookies in the oven and making a pitcher of iced coffee. I fill up the ice bin under the soda fountain and walk around the seating area, dusting and restocking.
The woman writes and chews on her pen in turn. I wonder what she is writing: a journal, a story, a list of things to do in the exotic city of Montréal? I think about asking, but she has such an intense look on her little Cabbage Patch Kid face that I don’t want to disturb her.
She leaves off to some grand adventure while I was getting a few bottles of flavored syrup from the back. Even though I hadn’t been talking to her, having another person here broke the tension. With her gone I feel alone and jumpy with an electric tingle to my skin. I also feel silly, because I am not alone. If I stick my head out the door, I can see the light from Tim Horton’s spilling onto the walkway. Amélie is working this morning; we came together.
When I was little, the underground scared me. We didn’t come here often, but when we did I would sometimes cry. My father said it was all perfectly safe and tried to distract me with all the people, shops, and the fun of being on a train. But that just made it worse somehow. I remember telling him that the only people who belong in the ground are the dead, and even they don’t like it. He laughed at that.
The other morning shift barista should have arrived thirty minutes ago. It ‘s not uncommon for people to be a little late after being out partying, but thirty minutes was excessive. I check the schedule. Kevin was supposed to be in. Grrr… freaky emo Kevin is not likely to make being underground more cheery. He is like a barely animated corpse himself.
A little after 7:00, Kevin sidles in. His clothes are rumpled and he is still wearing last night’s eyeliner. He stinks of smoke, cloves, and sweat. I guess he didn’t have time to shower. He leans against the wall drinking espresso for a few minutes, before acknowledging me or putting on an apron. With him finally ready to do what passes for work I get a latté and walk down to see Amélie.
Horton’s isn’t busy either, but they are doing better than us. An elderly couple sits reading the paper together and eating bagels. A young guy with headphones sips coffee, rocking to the music. Amélie is behind the counter, facing away from the door. My heart flutters.
I know, I know. It’s cheesy as hell. I just saw her two hours ago. She spent the night at my place. I spent the whole day with her yesterday. Yet I go all weak in the knees.
Her black hair, pulled back with a scrunchie, hangs almost to her waist. It is mostly straight, with the slightest hint of curl near the end. It would be wavy if she cut it, but I would be heartbroken. Her hair is so soft and smells faintly of apples. The smell lingers on my pillow for a day or two after she sleeps over at my dorm. I wish I could wake up with my face pressed against her hair every day, but she refuses to get an apartment with me. She doesn’t want to rock the boat with her parents. I understand; children learn to creep ‘ere they can learn to go. But I don’t like it. Amélie is just about perfect; to think that her own parents might judge her because of us makes me sad and angry. But her relationship with them is her business. I stay out of it.
“Amé,” I call. She turns towards me and smiles. She has the cutest smile; her canines are tiny and stick out a bit. I think it makes her look a little like a kitten. Her eyes are big and nearly black; her skin is naturally tan, even though she spends very little time outside.
“Matty, hi! You getting any business over there?” she asks in her rich Québec City accent. Hers is the sort of voice that sounds good speaking French; the little lady from earlier should learn how to ask for hot chocolate from Amélie.
“Not really, just a few people so far. Kevin can handle it for a few minutes,” I say.
“Good, I could use the company,” she says.
I order a bagel with cream cheese and sit down at the counter. We make small talk. I want to reach out and hold her hand, but she does not like public displays of affection, especially at work. She just doesn’t want to deal with the stigma. I try not to take it personally. But sometimes when I am feeling insecure, I wonder which part of me she is ashamed of: the lesbian, the Haitian, or the musician? My mother says you can’t mold other people like clay, you just have to take them the shape they are. Best to be happy with Amélie the way she is now, because I can’t push her to be anything she is not ready to be. Someday she will come out about who she is and start living her life a little louder, but today is not that day.
We talk for a while until Horton’s gets a few more customers. A few more customers makes Second Cup less gloomy. Around 11:00, Amélie comes in and works on homework until I get off at 12:15, 45 minutes later than I was scheduled.
We walk over to the food court in Place Ville Marie for lunch. I get a turkey sandwich and she gets some sort of Asian noodle bowl that smells of onions and ginger. I’m a picky eater, but she eats everything and loves trying new foods. She likes me to try new foods too, but thankfully she does not ask me to try this dish. It’s hard enough to eat my own lunch. I feel a bit nauseated and on edge. My skin feels tingly, alternating hot to cold, like the flu but not. It hope it is just nerves over the concert tonight; I don’t have time to get sick.
We head up to the surface, parting ways at the McGill campus. She goes to the library and I go to Schulich to practice. McGill has concerts all the time, but this is a big one for me. Until this year I have always played in orchestra or done little solo recitals, so being the only cello in a small group is hard. If I make a mistake, it sort of hangs in the air and everyone notices.
I practice my part alone for a little while until the other five musicians start to show up. When the director arrives, we run through the pieces a few times. The first time he yells and throws an eraser at us. The second time he walks out of the room for fifteen minutes. And the third time he says it is as good as we will get. I have worked with this director and others like him before; they get themselves way too worked up before the performance and are walking on a cloud once it is over. He is showering us with chalk dust now, but in a few hours he will be showering us with praise.
At 18:00 we go on stage and run though everything once before the doors open. Soon I hear people on the other side of the curtain. When it goes up I feel like I’m going to vomit. Amélie is sitting in the front row; she gives me thumbs up and a smile. I try to smile back, but probably grimace. The director’s hands go up, and I take a deep breath.
Once we are playing, the hard part is over. I can’t worry and play at the same time. The worry takes wing and flies into the rafters with the first notes. There is nothing to do but fall into the music. Maybe it is the acoustics, or that everyone tries so hard when people are watching, but we sound good; really good. This is better than any run though; the concert always is. Time goes by faster than it has all day. It feels like only a few minutes before we are standing up and taking our bows.
A small reception follows; a few snacks and punch. My mother is near the door when I walk in. She pulls me into a hug and tells me I did a great job. Amélie runs up, kissing me on the cheek, taking my hand in hers right there in front of everyone. Mama smiles and gives me a little wink. I’m on top the world. The concert was great. Amélie is behaving like a girlfriend in public. I guess it is true, the ladies do love musicians.
People don’t mingle long. The three of us gather up our stuff and head down to McGill station. Mama and Amélie are chatting with each other. I don’t have much to say; the post-concert high has worn off and all I want is to go to sleep.
The station isn’t busy. I lean against my cello case and watch my two favorite women talk. My eyes glaze over and I sort of zone out. My eyes are still open, but the fog of dreams falls over me, like it does sometimes right before I fall asleep. I can’t move, but I’m aware. I hear Mama and Amélie. I hear voices in my head; screaming, crying voices. They call out for anyone who can hear them. I reach for them, wanting to ease their pain.
I’m cold. The wall behind me feels like ice. Everything seems to be closing in, weighing me down. My hands slip off the cello case and it falls to the ground; my knees buckle right after, and I join it.
“Matty…,” says Amélie, turning to me and kneeling at my head, her warm hand on my forehead. “What happened, are you ok?” she asks.
I try to answer, but no sounds come out of my open mouth.
My mother joins Amélie, taking my hand in hers. “Matty, baby, Mathania…can you hear me?”
I can. I hear everything. I hear more than everything. I hear the voices of many people, close and getting closer. I feel them, freezing cold, scared, and confused. I am with Amélie and my mother on the platform, but I am someplace else too. Walking in darkness, searching for light and heat. I am hungry, very hungry. Amélie’s hands are burning hot, so are Mama’s. Deliciously hot while I’m freezing. I want to take their heat inside me. More than I have ever wanted anything before.
I begin to shake. I can’t help it; it is like every part of my body is cramping up… It hurts; cold shocks of pain rack me.
Mama’s eyes are wide, the whites showing all around. She is crying, gripping my hand hard. “No, Matty, no, no, no. Not you, no Matty. This can’t happen, no Matty, NO!”
I hear screams in my mind and with my ears too. The people on the platform are screaming and then running. At first I’m confused. Are they screaming because of me and my fit? I feel the cold coming closer. Amélie turns her head, and then her whole body towards the screams, and as she turns I see around her. I see what everyone is running from.
Out of the dark of the tunnel they come. They were once people, but now they are rotting, moldy creatures. They lurch towards us, towards all the warm bodies. I feel their need, their hunger. They want to touch life, to be alive. They want to take the warmth inside them and feed on the living. I feel hungry and cold too, I want what they want.
I find my voice and scream. I pull my hand from Mama and flinch away from Amélie. I was thinking of my loved ones as food, hot meat. I feel sick. I can’t allow myself to touch them. I sit up, scooting away from them and the monsters. But my mother grabs my arm with one hand, and turns my face towards hers with strong fingers. She forces me to look into her to wide eyes.
“Matty, listen to me. Listen. I am so sorry, but you have to stop this,” Mama says.
“What?” I say.
“I’m sorry baby, but you are the only one who can make them go back to sleep. I don’t know why they’re awake. I don’t know how to stop them. But you do; you have to know,” she said, her voice shaking.
“I don’t understand. Mama. What are they? I don’t know what to do,” I say, sounding like a frightened child. I just want Mama to hold me and make the bad dream go away. I want Papa. All of a sudden I miss him so much. If he was here, he could fix this. But he has been gone many years.
“You do know; it is inside you. I should have told you, I should have told you. I’m so sorry.”
I can’t deal with this. I don’t know what she is talking about. She must be in shock or something. She’s just freaking out. I have to get her out of here. I stand up, grasping Mama’s wrist, ready to run and pull her away. Then I see Amélie hasn’t left.
She has pushed herself against the wall, frozen in fear. A soft, wheezing scream comes from her; her eyes are fixed on the shambling, rotting people. The ones who still have eyes are staring at her. They are coming. They want her as much as I do. Thoughts of Amélie rush to the front of my mind, unbidden. Her soft lips on mine. Her smooth skin under my callused fingers, her hot breath on my neck, the taste of her flesh. And then I want more from her; I want to taste her blood. I want to sink my teeth into her. I imagine how alive she must taste.
And then I understand.
These creatures are hungry not for flesh, it is life they crave. They’re not evil; they don’t want to hurt anyone. They are beyond such emotions as greed, anger, or sadism. They are confused; feeling the warmth of the living and remembering their own lives. They want to feel the warmth again and feel hot blood inside them; they want their cold, rotten hearts to beat. Like a ghastly sunflower they move towards the light. In this case, the light is Amélie. It is my fault. They feel my need for her; they remember the heat of desire.
They are getting closer. I can’t run; I can’t leave Amélie.
I let go of Mama’s hand and I stand in front of Amélie, careful not to touch her.
I look at these poor people. Even as they want to eat my girlfriend, I know they aren’t monsters. They are scared people who should be resting. Who should be free of need and hunger forever. I think of the stories my father and grandmother used to tell me. A bokor has done this. A person has used magic, a power that until today I had thought was a folktale, to rip these poor souls from their sleep. He has sent them back into the world of the living, where they have no business being. Why would anyone do this? What is the purpose of this dark magic?
I’m angry. My anger warms me. I’m not as cold, not so hungry. I feel protective over them. I want their pain to stop. They shouldn’t be cold or hungry anymore. I don’t want them to be scared. I know they think feeding on life will end their pain, but it won’t . They can touch life, they can remember life, but no matter how much blood or flesh they eat, they can never be alive. As long as they are walking around they will never stop yearning or hurting. They can never be satiated.
I want to hurt the sick son of a bitch who did this to them. Right now I need to help them sleep and protect the woman I love.
Instead of thinking about the feel and taste of Amélie, I think about my emotions when I am around her. The calm of waking up to the apple scent of her hair. The butterflies in my stomach when she smiles at me. The joy I feel at the musical sound of her laughter.
The zombies stop walking, looking at me. They feel my calm, my joy. My emotions feed them more than flesh ever could, but I know I can’t do this for long. They need to sleep, but I don’t know how to make that happen.
I feel a hand on my shoulder and my mother whispers in my ear, “Sing to them, Matty. They are tired. Sing them to sleep.”
I do. I start to hum “Dodo titit” softly because it is the first thing that comes to mind. I realize given the circumstance, a song about being eaten is in poor taste, but it’s too late to change songs now. Anyway the morbid little lullaby always calmed me as a child.
I sing the words, mama sings with me.
Dodo, ti titit manman’l
Dodo, ti titit papa’l
Si li pa dodo, krab la va manjé’l
Si li pa dodo, krab la va manjé’l
Just like at the concert, I melt into the music until singing this song is the only thing that matters. All of their focus is now on me. It’s strange, sensing myself through them. As I sing, the zombies fall to the ground one by one, gruesome abandoned dolls instead of people. I no longer feel them in my mind.
I turn away from them to Amélie. She’s no longer frozen in terror, but eyes shine with tears and her face is strained with fear. She hugs me and whispers, “I love you, Matty.” All the missing warmth from my blood returns with those words, which she has never said to me before.
The emergency responders arrive. In the panic some people were hurt but nothing life-threatening. The police herd everyone out, crisscrossing yellow tape over the entrance. Mama leads me and Amélie away before anyone can ask us what happened. We get a cab back to Saint-Michel with Mama.
Mama makes us tea with calming herbs. When I ask her to explain what happened, all she says is “Tomorrow, tomorrow; it is too much for tonight, you need to rest”. Honestly I am not sure I even want to know what happened, so I don’t argue.
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer and homesteader living in Atlanta, GA. She has a rather unspecific set of not very useful skills, a plethora of hobbies, and too many pets. When not writing, she achieves a small income as a background actor and petty thief. You can follow her adventures at kittysarkozy.com. If you have time to kill and don’t mind watching movies frame by frame, you might be able to see her in the upcoming movies “Ant Man”, “Vacation” and “5th Wave”.