Thursday, November 24, 2011

Flash fiction: Alma Mater

[Just in time for Thanksgiving, a little story probably more suited to Halloween. Enjoy!]

Luna stands tall -- much taller than I thought -- and in the half-darkness, her gray eyes seem to glow with a light of their own. She walks languorously toward me, as though she has all the time in the world, with an artlessly seductive roll to her hips -- just the way Marilyn Monroe used to move.

I never saw Luna walk like that when she was alive.

She stops inches from my face, her eyes still locked on mine. When a living woman is this close, you can feel the radiation of her body heat, the regular puffs of her warm breath against your skin. Not Luna. No heat comes from her; she is like a stone given movement. I wonder briefly, with a spasm of misplaced hilarity, if this were what it must have been like for Pygmalion.

"Dr. Minassian," she says, in a soft, throaty voice. And as she speaks, I do catch a whiff of something unmistakable coming from her: the smell of butchery. Whatever she has done recently has tainted her breath with the reek of rotting carnage. And for the first time since Lewis and Guajardo broke into my office and tied me up, I feel a scream rising in my throat. I struggle to take long, controlled breaths, but she can see it in my eyes, and a smile that has nothing to do with amusement curls her mouth.

"You surprise me, Doctor," she says, that effortlessly seductive voice so different from the timid whisper I've heard from her in class. "You're a classical scholar. You read Ovid. Don't you know a metamorphosis when you see one?" And she leans her head back and -- I suppose it's meant to be a laugh, but it's a dark, guttural sound, nothing I've ever heard from a human throat before. Lewis and Guajardo join in, the first sounds I've heard them make.

"What -- what do you want, Luna?" I ask, trying to keep the squeak in my voice under control.

Luna lowers her eyes at me, that unamused smile still firmly in place. "Why, just what you'd expect," she purrs. "I want to tell you a story."

"You really think it's necessary to tie me up to tell me a story?"

"Naturally." With a flick of her wrist, Luna pulls out my office chair, seems to flow into it like water, demurely crosses a leg. "If there's one thing I've learned from your class, it's the importance of having a captive audience. Now... let's see..." She taps her chin.

"Once upon a time, there was a girl who wanted a college degree more than anything. She'd be the first in her family to make it past high school, and her mother warned her that there was no money for college. If she wanted to go that badly, she'd have to find a scholarship or work her way through school. After years of hard work and study, she managed to secure a scholarship that would pay her tuition, but nothing else. So for two years she took a full load and worked any job she could find. And then... then she ended up being roommates with Rosemary van Helmont."

Of course I know Rosemary. She's extremely active on campus and in her sorority, plays on the women's volleyball team, and volunteers for a number of charitable organizations, including the van Helmont Family Fund. Not only does she have remarkable personal charm, but her classwork is intelligent and perceptive. It's a true pleasure to have her in class.

"Rosemary had -- depth," Luna says now. "At first this girl thought her roommate was just another wealthy, spoiled brat with Pretty Person Syndrome. But Rosemary was far more than that. Like most of her family, she had a finely-tuned ability to socially manage people. She could get them to do what needed to be done. And what needed to be done most of all were the many papers in her Classical Literature class." She leaned back in the chair, and there it was again -- that effortless, newfound grace and poise. "After all, with so many other things on her plate, Rosemary certainly couldn't be expected to write them all herself. And so she hired her new roommate, a girl who, after all, needed the money, to... how should we say... 'research' her papers for her." The smile again. "They took the class together. Her roommate was the better writer. It only made sense."

I thought of all those perfectly-composed essays. "You're admitting you wrote Rosemary's papers? That you cheated for her?"

"You're missing the point. Rosemary just found a means to an end. Her roommate worked double duty, writing both Rosemary's papers and her own all through the semester. And if Rosemary was fortunate enough to have the looks and the poise that her roommate lacked, well, it was hardly her fault that those qualities helped bring her the grades she deserved, while her less-attractive roommate didn't quite receive the same benefits. You could hardly blame Rosemary for that, could you? It's not a crime to be pretty." She tosses her ash-blonde hair in a perfect parody of one of Rosemary's mannerisms.

"Of course, her roommate didn't feel that way -- not at all. Especially when the poor girl lost her scholarship thanks in part to the poor grade she received in your class."

"Oh, Luna, I'm truly sorry. I had no idea..."

Her smile slips. "You're interrupting." There is something almost feral in her eyes, and I fall silent.

"In any case, the girl had learned something important from Rosemary: you have to find a means to an end. Perhaps her college dreams had been crushed, but it didn't mean she was just going to curl up and die." The smile is back, openly sarcastic now. "So she went back to doing what she did best. She did research.

"And what better place to do it than at a college library? You'd be amazed at the things you can find in the stacks. The girl combed the entire Dewey decimal section on the origins of witchcraft and sorcery. She ended up finding information she'd never imagined was available... less Greek and Roman, more... Haitian."

I stare at Luna.

"You see, Dr. M, the real key to creating life beyond death," Luna says conversationally, "is the trick of making sure that the bokor and the zombie are one and the same. That way you continue to maintain full control over your own actions. Past that it's a simple matter of creating the proper mixture of tetrodotoxin, a touch of datura... a bit of hair... and a surprising amount of blood..." She leans forward confidentially, and again I catch the unmistakable scent of rotting meat. "All that remains is to put the coup de poudre into an open wound. The girl had just enough time and strength to finish the ritual before death took her.

"Rosemary was the girl's roommate, so of course she was first to find the body. That was by design. You should have heard her sobs." Luna's feral eyes seem to soften. "She was sincerely sorry for what she'd done." Then she locks onto me again. "But it didn't matter in the end." The smile is back. Slowly, deliberately, Luna's tongue protrudes from her mouth and she licks her full lips with pleasure. That smell of carnage begins to make a lot more sense.

"Next," she says, "was Rosemary's boyfriend, Preston MacNaughton. He was an accident, but a happy one." She pauses. "Who would have thought that a jock like Preston would have a decent analytical mind? He had all sorts of good ideas. More to the point, he had all sorts of friends on the football team." She favors Lewis and Guajardo with an approving glance. "It was laughably easy to get them involved. With their assistance, it was even easier to gather the next half dozen."

"Luna," I say softly, "think about this for a minute. You can't get what you want by killing people. Getting your revenge on Rosemary -- "

But Luna slowly shakes her head. "My dear Doctor," she says, "I don't have to get revenge on Rosemary. I am Rosemary. And Preston. And all the others. Their knowledge is mine now. They're part of me."

"What are you saying?"

She sighs. "You don't know the first thing about sympathetic magic, do you? Haven't you ever read The Golden Bough?"

"I -- I can't..."

"The chapter on 'Eating the God' is particularly significant. That which we take into ourselves becomes part of us. Or, if you like, we are who we eat." Luna reaches for my collar, pulls me toward her. She's surprisingly strong for her size. Her stone-cold forehead touches mine. "People are so small-minded," she whispers, her tainted breath making my gorge rise. "They think zombies are stupid, that they're mindless killing and eating machines. They couldn't be more wrong. But you'll understand that soon enough."

I can no longer maintain any pretense of calm. "What do you want from me?" I cry out.

"Just what I've always wanted. Information, knowledge, wisdom. That's why college was so important to me. When you took it away from me, I had no choice but to take a different path to the goal." Her smile is ghoulish, and this close to her I can see the pinkish-gray flecks stuck between her strong white teeth. "And now, my dear Doctor, I think it's about time you made your contribution to the cause."

She pulls away, and it is only now that I see she has taken the fire axe from the emergency box in the hall. With a strange combination of grace and strength -- Rosemary's grace, I think, and Preston's strength -- Luna raises the weapon above my head and brings it down hard --

-- and the next thing I know, she is saying, "Welcome, Dr. Minassian. Everyone, I think you already know Dr. Minassian from the Classics Department?" And I sense Rosemary van Helmont and Preston MacNaughton, and Kurt Almazan, and Jessie Regner, and several other students whom I don't know yet, but who I sense will become very, very familiar to me soon. Their thoughts fit seamlessly into mine, and my thoughts are theirs. I recognize the irony in the idea even as it comes to mind, but the best possible word to describe the environment in which I now find myself is -- collegial.

We laugh, and Luna asks, "So, Doctor, any preference about who should join us next?" And I know immediately who it should be: Professor Lapine, the theoretical mathematician. One of the most brilliant mathematical minds of our generation, frequently published, a true asset to the college. It's about time I -- we -- stopped thinking of her as a rival.

Luna approves of the choice. Mathematics has always been her weakest subject, after all. She hefts the fire axe over her shoulder and, in the company of her two undead assistants, we set off across the twilit campus quad toward the mathematics building, where Professor Lapine tends to work late.

It's going to be a marvelous night for all of us.

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