The worst part was the smell. Cinnamon gum helped a bit, but nothing, not even Lysol, could defeat the smell that had invaded along with the legions of the dead.
As zombie apocalypses went, Wheatfield's had been pretty tame. There'd been some shouting and pitchfork waving at first (and it was amazing how many pitchforks people had been able to find on such short notice) but then time had moved on, and waving pitchforks didn't get the chores done. There'd been bread to bake, and mail to deliver, and Christmas presents didn't buy themselves
All this was fine by Melvin-he was all for people getting along-but it did put a strain on the wallet. He now had twice as many relatives, and they all expected presents.
This had also been fine, until his late-aunt Milly had informed him that Wal-Mart gift cards were not considered thoughtful. Which was how he came to be in the mall on the day before Christmas, competing for gifts with the entire town, and the entire town's ancestors.
"I can't even remember what Aunt Milly liked," he said, trying to navigate through the crowd of corpses without touching any of them.
"I think she collected novelty salt and pepper shakers," said his wife, Janet. She held her out her purse and used it to shove at a particularly slow moving zombie. The zombie jumped-losing a bit of scalp in the process-and turned to glare at her over its shoulder.
"Oh! Sorry Mr. Henderson. Didn't see you there," she said. The zombie humphed and looked away.
"Salt and pepper shakers?" asked Melvin. "What would a zombie do with salt and pepper shakers? They don't eat, do they? Other than brains, I mean."
"You don't eat with novelty salt and pepper shakers," said Janet. "You put them on things. For decoration."
"Oh. I see," said Melvin. He didn't.
"They should be in a cooking store. I think there's one around the corner."
There was. There was also a line, though it was the kind of line Melvin usually associated with Disney roller coasters, not kitchen stores.
"You get a spot in line; I'll get the shakers," Janet said. Then she was off, whacking a trail with her purse through the crowd and into the center of the store.
Melvin hurried to the back of the line, getting there just in time to be sandwiched between an older zombie and a soccer mom complete with screaming soccer kids. Both were already too close for comfort, but the flailing of small cleated feet behind him left him with little choice but to cozy up to the zombie. He stuck another strip of cinnamon gum into his mouth and waited.
A movement out of the corner of his eye drew his attention, and he looked over to see that a small worm-thing had popped out from behind the zombie's ear. It wriggled happily at him, almost like it was waving hello.
It was the friendliest thing he'd seen all day. Melvin waved to it. The zombie saw him-how good were zombie's peripheral vision?--and gave an uncertain wave back.
"Umm, I'm sorry," it said. "Do I know you? I'm terrible with faces . . ."
"Oh, no. Um, I thought you were someone else."
"Oh. Alright, then." The zombie turned back to face the front of the line. The worm was gone.
Melvin sighed and turned his attention to the store window. Outside it, the American entrepreneurial spirit was in full swing. A kiosk had settled down in the middle of the walkway, its brightly colored sign announcing that it carried brain flavored ice cream, now available sugar free for the weight-conscious and diabetic dead. Beside it was a small t-shirt stand, with t-shirts for sale reading 'My dad went beyond the grave, and all he got me was this stupid t-shirt', and variations thereof. It had a disturbing number of customers. Melvin resigned himself to getting at least three of the shirts under the tree tomorrow
"I got it!" yelled a voice in his ear.
Melvin gave a startled jump, and turned to see Janet, who was holding a small box and beaming. Melvin looked at the box. It had a frolicking kitten on it. From its design, it was probably meant to be one of those pug-faced kittens that were ugly in a cute way. It had only gotten it half right.
"Are those the salt and pepper shakers?"
"Better! It's a ceramic kitten creamer."
Janet nodded. "I couldn't remember what kinds of shakers she already had, so I went with something completely different. I hope she doesn't already have one."
"I didn't see one when we were boxing up her stuff."
"Yeah, but that was . . . when? About a month after the funeral, I think, so five years-no, six. She died before Greg, and Greg died about the time Darren started second grade . . ." she trailed off, frowning.
"Don't worry-if I'd seen it, I'd remember." He would never have forgotten it. Not without therapy, at least.
"Oh. Good. So that leaves . . ." She pulled out a list and checked it. "Grandpa. We need something for Grandpa. He was always so hard to shop for. Maybe something blue. I think he used to like the color blue . . ."
Melvin relaxed, and let the words wash over him. Ahead of him, the worm reappeared with a wriggle. He smiled at it, and it wriggled a little faster in response.
It could be worse, he decided, looking at the bustle of people and corpses around him. It could be worse. Probably.