Once upon a time, in a faraway state, a young Backstreet Boy lived in a stately mansion. Although he had been unlucky in love, the Backstreet Boy was charming, attractive, and musically-inclined.
But then, one autumn’s night, an old homeless woman came to the mansion and clamored to get in. Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the Backstreet Boy threatened to call the cops, but she continued to pound on his door, and when he refused to let her in, the old woman bit him on the arm.
The Backstreet Boy went to a doctor, but it was too late, for she could see that the bite was infected with what appeared to be a rare, flesh-eating bacteria that was spreading rapidly up his arm. As a last resort to save his life, she amputated the arm and put him on a powerful course of antibiotics to treat the infection. Ashamed of his disfigured body, the Backstreet Boy hid himself inside his mansion, with an iPhone as his only window to the outside world.
As the days passed, he fell into despair and lost all hope of finding love, for who could ever learn to love an amputee?
The sun rose on a tiny house tucked into the hillside, overlooking an idyllic suburb in central Tennessee. The front door opened, and out stepped a young woman, small in stature, wearing a blue dress she had sewn herself. Shorty, as she was called, was a decent seamstress, but she was no fashion designer. She would never make the cut on Project Runway – not that she knew what Project Runway was.
You see, Shorty didn’t have cable. She didn’t even have a radio. But she did have a song in her heart, and as she strolled down the hill toward town, she threw back her head and started to sing.
“Little town… it’s a quiet village. Every day… like the one before. Little town… full of little people, waking up to say…”
Shorty looked around expectantly, for at this point in her song, the fine citizens of Franklin usually started popping up to greet her with a friendly “Hi, y’all!” or “Mornin’, sunshine!” But on that particular morning, there was no one in sight.
Hm… that’s strange, she thought, but she shrugged and continued on her way to the public library, where she stopped just about every day. Shorty was an avid reader. Without cable or a radio to entertain her, books were her only way of escaping the small, sheltered world in which she’d been raised by her single father. There must be more than this provincial life, she sometimes thought, but even if there was, she would never leave her papa, not for anything. He was a bit eccentric, but he was a good man, and as he had gotten older, he’d come to depend on her more than ever. She was the one who bought their groceries and paid their bills, but on that day, there were no errands for her to run. Shorty was simply in search of a new book to read.
She skipped up the steps of the library and was surprised to find the door locked. That’s funny, she thought, frowning. As far as she knew, it wasn’t a holiday. The library was always open at this hour. With a sigh, she reached into her bag and pulled out the book she had brought to return. She started to drop it into the after hours book return slot, then hesitated. “Hello?” she called, squatting down to try to look through the slot. “Is there anyone in there?”
No one replied, but she could have sworn she heard someone scurrying around inside.
“Hello?” she shouted a little. “Please, could you let me in to the library? The door’s locked!”
“Are you infected?”
Shorty recognized the voice as the head librarian’s. “What? No, it’s me, Shorty! I’m just here to borrow a book!”
“We’re closed! Go away!”
“Aww, but I’m already finished with the one I borrowed yesterday. I couldn’t put it down! Do you have anything new?”
“No! Now get out of here, or I’ll shoot!”
Shorty gasped and jumped back when the barrel of a rifle suddenly poked through the slot. “I’m sorry!” she squeaked. “I’ll go now!” She turned and ran down the steps, her heart racing. That was strange, she thought, once she’d reached the safety of the sidewalk. Oh well… I guess I’ll just reread the book I already have! So she opened her book and started walking back the same way she’d come, oblivious to all the other strange things happening around her.
“Now… isn’t this amazing?” she sang, wandering past quarantine signs without seeing them. “It’s my favorite part because, you’ll see…”
She splashed through a suspicious puddle, not even noticing the reddish goo seeping through the sides of her shoes.
“Here’s… where Dick runs with Sally… but he won’t learn how to jump with Jane until page three…” she sang on, stepping over a corpse lying in the middle of the street without smelling it.
It wasn’t until she had reached the wooded area on the outskirts of town that she suddenly stopped and looked around, listening. Something was wrong. The birds weren’t singing. The woods were too quiet. She was struck by the ominous sound of silence.
Then she heard something. The crunch of dead leaves under shuffling feet. It made the hair on the back of her neck stand straight up. Something was coming.
Shorty turned toward the sound, just in time to see a man emerge from the trees. She instantly relaxed upon realizing it wasn’t a wild animal. “Oh, hello!” she greeted him, laughing a little. “You scared me for a second!”
The man’s only response was a low, guttural groan. As he staggered toward her, she realized he was walking strangely. He must be hurt! she thought, her heart going out to the poor man.
“Sir, are you okay? Do you need some help?” she asked.
The man moaned and reached for her, his fingers spread wide. She smiled and offered him her hand, but as she started to lace her fingers through his, he grabbed her arm and yanked so hard that she stumbled forward and nearly fell on her face.
“Hey!” she cried as she caught herself, looking up at him in confusion. She saw that his eyes were cloudy and completely void of expression, and she felt the first ripple of fear run through her. “Let go!” she squealed and wrenched her arm out of his grip. Then she ran.
She could hear the man crashing through the brush behind her, but he was much slower than she was. Just when she thought she had put a safe distance between them, she saw two more people step into her path. They had the same odd gait, the same dead eyes, though something in their blank faces seemed to brighten when they saw her and started coming toward her.
“Go away!” Shorty shouted at them, holding up her hands to keep them at bay. “Please, leave me alone!”
But, despite her pleas, they just kept coming. Frightened, she turned and ran in the opposite direction. She tore through the woods until she didn’t know which way was which anymore, and just when she began to worry that she was hopelessly lost, the thicket began to thin, and she saw the slopes of rooftops through the trees.
“Thank goodness!” she gasped to herself as she raced toward a row of houses, her short legs pumping hard, her lungs screaming in pain as she panted for air. She cut through the backyard of the closest house and banged on the back door. “Help me, please!” she cried. “Please, open up!” But there was no answer. She ran around the house, trying every door, but they were all locked. Desperate, she moved on to the next house.
Shorty ran from house to house, pounding on doors and pleading for help, but no one ever answered. Where is everyone? she wondered. Why won’t they open their doors for a poor, frightened girl who’s obviously in need? She trudged through an empty lot, wondering if she shouldn’t just turn around and try to cut through the woods again. Surely, those things would have moved on by now.
But no sooner had she thought it than she heard a blood-curdling moan through the trees. She turned to see a small herd of those same, shambling creatures coming after her. Shorty screamed and ran straight for the nearest house, a beautiful brick mansion. There was a tall, wooden fence around its backyard, but she somehow managed to scramble over it, scraping her knees and getting splinters in her hands in the process. Battered and bleeding, she limped through the backyard and stumbled onto the wooden deck, where there was a glass-fronted door.
She wrapped her knuckles against the glass. “Hello?” she called weakly. “Is anyone there? Hello?”
No one answered, but she thought she heard a pair of muffled voices.
“She must have come from the woods.”
“Keep quiet. Maybe she’ll go away.”
Shorty knocked again. “Is someone in there?”
“Not a word, AJ. Not one word.”
It was hard to see through the glass with the sunlight reflecting off its shiny surface, so Shorty pressed her face right up close to the door and cupped her hands around her eyes until she could see inside. To her surprise, she saw two men sitting in a small dining room, staring right at her.
“Oh, thank goodness!” She started to wave excitedly. “Please, y’all, I don’t mean to intrude, but I need your help! I’m bein’ chased, and I need somewhere to hide ‘til it’s safe to go out again. Could you open the door and let me in, please?
“Oh, Kevin, have a heart,” she heard one man say to the other. “Look at her – she’s smokin’ hot!” He rose from his chair and called out, “Of course, honey, you’re welcome here!” Then he came over and unlocked the door. As soon as he opened it, Shorty fell into his tattooed arms.
“Oh, thank you, thank you!” she gasped, hugging him tightly. “I was so scared!”
“I don’t blame you,” said the man, with a raspy chuckle. “There’s some scary shit happening out there.”
“She’s bleeding, AJ.” The other man stood up. He was tall, with black hair and sharp, green eyes that were staring at her with suspicion. “Were you bit?” He spat the question at her.
Shorty let go of the man called AJ and looked at the other in confusion. “Bit? Bit by what?”
“Bit by what?” he scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Where have you been? Haven’t you seen what’s out there?”
“You mean those strange people who were chasin’ me?” Shorty shook her head. “No, they didn’t bite me.”
“Then why are you bleeding?”
She looked down at the shredded skin on her palms and knees. “Oh! That’s just from climbin’ over y’all’s fence.”
“Let me see your hands.” The tall, dark-haired man reached out and roughly grabbed both of her wrists. He turned her hands palm up and inspected her splinters. “Okay,” he said finally. “I guess you’re telling the truth. You can stay, for now.”
“Oh, thank you!” sighed Shorty with relief. “Thank you very much!”
“You’ve obviously been through a lot,” said AJ, looking at her with sympathy. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.” He put his arm around Shorty and lead her into the kitchen. “I’m AJ, by the way,” he said, as he sat her down at the table.
“Everyone calls me Shorty,” she replied, offering him her hand. He hesitated, his lip curling in disgust, and she remembered that she was bleeding. Laughing, she withdrew her hand and said, “Sorry, I forgot!”
“That’s okay. Here, let me get some soapy water for you to soak those in. Would you like a soda or anything?”
“Sure, that would be great.”
“Kevin, could you grab her something out of the fridge?”
“Careful, AJ. Remember we have to ration our supplies,” the man called Kevin warned AJ in a low voice as he walked past, but he went to the refrigerator anyway and brought back a cold can of Coke.
“Thank you.” Shorty accepted it gratefully, cracked open the top, and took a sip. “Ahh,” she said, as she set the can down on the table. Just then, she heard a short bark. She looked up to see a little pug scamper into the room, its tail wagging. “Well, hello there, boy!” she exclaimed in delight, reaching down to scratch his head.
Kevin shook his head. “Nick’s not gonna like knowing some stranger’s sitting at his table, petting his dog.”
“Oh, chill out, Kevin,” muttered AJ. “Like Nick’ll even know. Guy never leaves his room.”
“Well, I think this has gone far enough. I’m in charge here, and-”
“Hey!” He was shoved aside as a shorter man with sandy blonde curls came skidding into the kitchen, followed closely by an equally short man with curly, black hair. “See? I told ya there was a girl in the house!” said the light-haired man, poking the dark-haired one in the chest.
“Oh, hello!” said Shorty, smiling at the two men.
Kevin frowned. “What are the two of you doing down here? I thought we agreed not to leave Nick alone.”
The dark-haired man looked at the light-haired one. “Brian swore he heard a girl talking down here, so we thought we’d come and see for ourselves. Looks like he was right.”
“You should’ve known, Howie; I’m always right.” Brian crossed his arms over his chest and smiled smugly.
“I’m Shorty,” said Shorty, starting to offer her hand again before she remembered she was still bleeding. “Your friends here saved me from those scary things outside!”
“And that’s not a bite,” added AJ. “She got splinters climbing over Nick’s fence.”
“Oh,” said Brian. “Well, welcome, Shorty. We’re-”
But whatever they were, Shorty would never find out, for at that moment, one of the wooden floorboards creaked, and they all looked up to see a tall man standing in the doorway, his face twisted into an ugly scowl. “There’s a stranger here,” he said, in a flat voice.
“Nick, man, lemme explain,” said AJ. “This girl was outside, being chased by the-”
“Nick, I just want to say, I was against this from the start,” Kevin interrupted. “It was all AJ’s fault; I tried to stop him from letting her in, but would he listen to me? No!”
Nick stared at Shorty. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’m Shorty,” she said again, shrinking under his furious stare. “I… I was stuck outside, and-”
“You’re not welcome here,” growled Nick, as he shuffled slowly into the room.
Shorty slid lower in her seat. “I…. I… I’m sorry…” Looking up at him, she saw that one sleeve of his t-shirt hung limp and empty. He was missing an arm.
Unfortunately, Nick caught her looking and called her out on it. “What are you staring at?”
Embarrassed, Shorty shook her head. “N-nothin’!”
“So… you’ve come to stare at the amputee, have you?”
“Please! I meant no harm!” Shorty insisted. “I just needed a safe place to stay!”
“I’ll give you a place to stay!” With his one hand, he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out of her chair. She stumbled after him as he dragged her to the door.
“No, please!” Shorty begged.
“Nick, c’mon, man! You can’t kick her out!” AJ protested. “You know what’s out there? Let her stay. We could use some estrogen around here.”
Nick stopped, turned, and glared at AJ. “For your information, I was taking her to the guest house.”
“Oh.” AJ shrugged one shoulder. “Well, alright then.”
Nick opened the back door and showed Shorty out to the guest house behind his mansion. Decorated in warm shades of orange and brown, it had a comfortable living room, a cozy bedroom, and a full kitchen and bathroom. “I hope you like it here,” he said stiffly. “Make yourself at home. You can go wherever you like, here or in the main house, except the second floor.”
“What’s on the sec-?” she started to ask, but Nick didn’t let her finish.
“IT’S FORBIDDEN!” he snapped, and Shorty fell silent. “Now, if you need anything,” he added in a nicer tone, as he opened the door to leave, “my friends will take care of you.”
“Lunch!” they could hear AJ calling across the driveway. “Invite her to lunch!”
Nick cleared his throat. “You will join me for lunch,” he commanded. “That’s not a request!” Then he walked out and slammed the door, leaving Shorty to collapse onto the couch in tears, upset at having been yelled at by the big, scary, one-armed man.
“Dude, you shouldn’t have yelled at her like that,” AJ told Nick, as they walked back into the kitchen. “I mean, you’ve got a hot girl out in your guest house who doesn’t seem to have a clue who you are. She could be the one! The one who will finally love you for you!”
Nick shook his head. “No way. She’s a dream. She’s so beautiful, and I’m… well, look at me!” He waved his stump of an arm in the air.
The boys exchanged glances. “Oh Nicky, you just have to help her to see past that,” said Howie.
With a heavy sigh, Nick slumped down into a chair. “I don’t know how,” he admitted.
“You could be nicer, for one. That always works for me.” Howie winked.
“When she comes in for dinner, give her that famous Carter smirk,” AJ added. “Come on, show us the smirk.”
Reluctantly, Nick jerked the right side of his mouth upward in his trademark crooked smile.
“But don’t intimidate the poor girl,” Howie warned.
“Impress her with your wit,” Kevin suggested, to which Brian laughed and asked, “What wit?”
“But be gentle,” Howie advised.
“Shower her with compliments,” said Brian with a cheesy grin.
“But be sincere,” Howie amended.
“Make her say ‘ooh.’” AJ waggled his eyebrows.
Brian grinned. “Make her say ‘ahh.’”
“And above all,” said Kevin, and they all chorused in unison, “YOU MUST CONTROL YOUR TEMPER!”
Nick nodded. “I know, I know,” he agreed grudgingly. “And you’re right: if Shorty don’t know who I am, if she don’t know I’m a celebrity, then she could be perfect. Just do me one favor, alright, fellas? When she comes in, ain’t nobody mention my pedigree.”
“We won’t, as long as you promise to stop talking in ebonics,” Brian replied.
Nick smirked. “Deal.” They shook on it, though Nick had to do so left-handed.
Just then, the doorknob jiggled. Five heads turned toward the back door, which creaked open slowly. Five pairs of lungs sighed in relief, as five pairs of eyes spotted Shorty’s head poking around the door.
“Hi, y’all!” said Shorty. “I was just wonderin’ when it would be time for lunch. I’m a little hungry.”
“You are? Hear that? She’s hungry!” said Howie, winking at Nick. “Let’s get lunch ready.”
“Remember what I said about rationing our food,” Kevin reminded the rest of the group. “Lunch should be small and simple: glass of water, crust of bread, and then-”
“Oh, Kevin, come on!” AJ interjected. “She’s our guest. We should make her feel welcome here. Right, Nick?”
Nick’s face reddened. “Uh… right.”
Shorty smiled at him uncertainly, as the others began to bustle around the kitchen, getting lunch ready. “Aren’t y’all gonna sing as you serve me?” she asked, sitting down at the table.
The five men froze in their tracks and gave each other worried glances. Had she finally figured out who they were?
“Uh… why would we do that?” Brian asked casually, forcing a chuckle.
Shorty smiled and shook her head. “Oh, it’s just somethin’ I like to do, myself. I always sing as I cook! Come to think of it, I sing during all my chores. Sometimes I even whistle while I work!”
“Oh! Well, that’s, uh… lovely. Just lovely! Right, Nick?”
“Uh… yeah!” Nick smiled at Shorty. “Lovely!”
”Nick here loves music, too,” AJ chimed in. “He’s got a pretty bitchin’ music room upstairs, with a keyboard, drums, guitar, soundboard, mixing software – you name it, he’s got it. Maybe he can show you after lunch?”
“Really?” Shorty’s eyes widened with interest. “I would love to see that! But I thought you said the second floor was forbidden.”
“Uh… well…” Nick squirmed, shooting daggers at AJ with his eyes. “Maybe I can show you that one room, a little later or something.”
Shorty beamed. “Why, I’d love that!”
“Lunch is served!” Brian, Howie, and Kevin came over to the table, carrying bowls of canned tomato soup and a plate of grilled cheese sandwiches.
“You forgot to cut the crusts off!” Nick whined. Without a word, Brian took his sandwich back to the counter to slice off the edges. Shorty watched Nick struggle to spoon soup into his mouth.
“Nick was right-handed,” Brian said shortly, as he set Nick’s plate down in front of him.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Shorty said softly. Nick scowled, obviously humiliated. He hadn’t been very nice to her, but she hated to see him having such a hard time. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “I’ve always preferred to drink my soup.” She set down her own spoon and picked up her soup bowl. Nick looked up at her, then down at his bowl, and did the same. “Cheers!” said Shorty, and they raised their bowls to one another.
Watching the two of them sip their soup, the rest of the Backstreet Boys smiled.
“Boy, what a weird mornin’ it’s been! I’m sure glad I found y’all!” Shorty exclaimed, in between bites of her sandwich.
“What were you doing out there alone, anyway?” Kevin wondered.
“I was just going to the library to return my book, but it was locked!”
The Boys looked at each other. “Don’t you know what’s going on?” AJ asked finally.
“What?” Shorty blinked, bewildered by the question.
“I mean, haven’t you been watching the news? Haven’t you seen the reports of the dead coming back to feed on the living?”
Shorty shook her head. “Oh, no. I don’t have cable. I don’t even have a radio.”
“Oh.” AJ looked around at the others again with amusement. “Well, that explains a lot.”
After lunch, Shorty excused herself to the bathroom. Nick gave her directions to the downstairs one, but after she’d finished using it, Shorty found herself curious about the forbidden upstairs. What was up there that Nick didn’t want her to see? She hesitated at the bottom of the staircase. She could still hear the guys talking in the kitchen, so she climbed slowly up the stairs, careful not to let the floorboards creak.
At the top of the staircase was a beautiful loft that led to what she presumed to be the bedrooms. Lining the walls were a collection of framed photos – at least, that was what she thought they were at first. But on closer inspection, she saw that they were albums – gold albums, platinum albums, diamond albums – each with a plaque commemorating their certification. All of them were by a group called the Backstreet Boys. Since she didn’t have cable or a radio, Shorty had never heard of them before.
She leaned closer to one of the album covers, which showed five guys dressed in white suits. To her surprise, she recognized them! They were the same five guys who were sitting downstairs! AJ, Brian, Kevin, Howie, and Nick!
Wow, she thought. They must be really talented, to have earned all of these!
She was so engrossed in looking at the albums that she didn’t hear the footsteps on the stairs. She jumped when she heard a low growl behind her and turned to see Nick standing there, glaring at her.
“Why did you come here?”
“I… I’m sorry!” she gasped.
His voice rose. “I warned you never to come here!”
“I didn’t mean any harm!” Shorty held up her hands as she slowly backed away.
“Get out!” Nick shouted. “GET OUT!”
Frightened, Shorty fled down the stairs and straight to the front door.
“Wh-Where are you going?!” AJ sputtered.
“Zombies or no zombies, I can’t stay here another minute!” Shorty cried, as she wrenched open the door.
“Oh no, wait, please!” Howie protested. “Please, wait!”
But Shorty was already out the door. She scurried down the front steps to the sidewalk and started running. She had only made it a few blocks when she heard the now-familiar moans. She stopped, frozen in her tracks, and watched helplessly as a horde of the undead began to emerge from behind bushes and parked cars and nearby houses. They were everywhere!
She tried to outrun them, but they just kept shambling towards her from all direction, slowly surrounding her. Just as they started to close in, someone broke through their ranks. “Nick!” Shorty gasped, as she watched him fight off the zombies, wielding a baseball bat with his one, wildly-swinging arm. He bashed zombie after zombie in the head, and as they fell at his feet, Shorty saw gaps appear in the circle. This was her chance to escape!
Dodging the undead, she started to run away, when she suddenly heard Nick scream. She turned in time to see one of the zombies sink its teeth into his unprotected left side. Shorty hesitated only a second before she decided she had to go back and help him. “Hold on, Nick, I’m comin’!” she shouted.
She grabbed the zombie that had bitten him by the neck with both hands and twisted until she felt its spine snap. As the zombie collapsed, she called out to Nick. “Come on!”
He could hardly run with his one hand holding onto his side, trying to staunch the flow of blood from the wound in his stomach, but Shorty kept urging him on, telling him to move faster. Finally, they made it back to his house, where the other guys were waiting. “Thank god!” said Kevin, as they burst into the kitchen. “Nick, are you hurt? What happened?”
“Oh god…” All the color drained from AJ’s face, as Nick’s hand fell to his side. “He’s been bitten.”
They lay Nick down on the kitchen table and pulled up his shirt to inspect the wound. “That’s a bite, alright,” said Kevin grimly. “You can see the teeth marks.”
“What do we do?!” Brian cried. “We can’t kill him!”
“Kill him?!” Shorty gasped. “Now why in tarnation would you wanna do that?!”
AJ rounded on her. “Haven’t you ever seen any zombie movies?”
“No, I… I don’t-”
“-Don’t have cable – yeah, yeah, we know.” AJ rolled his eyes. “Well, if you did, you’d know that when a zombie bites a person, that person dies and comes back to life as a zombie. That’s how they reproduce.”
“So Nick’s going to become one of them?!” Shorty cried. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Maybe not,” said Howie. “I mean, he survived the first bite.”
“Only after they amputated his fucking arm!” AJ snapped. “In case you haven’t noticed, Howie, this one’s on his stomach! We can’t very well cut that off, can we?”
“No, but maybe that first one gave him some kind of immunity,” Howie suggested hopefully. “We could at least wait and see before doing something drastic.”
“Howie’s right,” Kevin decided. “Let’s clean out the wound and disinfect it the best we can, then wait and see. If he turns, we’ll kill him then.”
“Oh god,” Nick moaned. “I don’t wanna die!”
“You’re not going to die,” Brian said fiercely, gripping his friend’s good shoulder. “We’re going to patch you up, and you’ll be good as new. Right, guys?”
“I’ll get some warm water to clean the wound with,” Shorty offered helpfully. She filled a bowl with warm, soapy water and found a washcloth in one of Nick’s kitchen drawers. She carried both over to the table and set them down, dipping the washcloth into the water. “Here, now,” she said soothingly, as she wrung out the cloth. “Just hold still…”
But as soon as she touched the cloth to Nick’s torso, he recoiled and twisted away, roaring in pain. “THAT HURTS!”
“If you’d hold still, it wouldn’t hurt as much!” replied Shorty.
“If you hadn’t have run away, this wouldn’t have happened!” Nick shot back.
“If you hadn’t frightened me, I wouldn’t have run away!” Shorty retorted.
“Well, you shouldn’t have been on the second floor!”
“Well, you should learn to control your temper!”
As Shorty’s voice rang out, Nick realized it was the same thing the guys had been telling him. He sighed in defeat.
Shorty seemed to relax some, too. “Now hold still,” she said, her voice returning to its usual sweet tone. “This might sting a little.” Nick winced as she wiped away the blood from his wound. “By the way,” she added, rinsing out the washcloth, “thank you. For savin’ my life.”
Nick took a shuddering breath, trying to block out the feeling of fiery pain radiating through his body. He barely managed to say, “You’re welcome.”
Once she’d finished disinfecting and dressing his wound, Shorty asked Nick, “Do you feel up to showin’ me your music room now? It might be a good distraction.”
“Sure… yeah, I guess so,” Nick said with a shrug. There was no point in trying to hide who he was from her now. Shorty reached out and took his shoulder, helping him to sit up slowly. Her fingers were a few inches from the end of his stump, but she didn’t seem to mind. That made him feel better.
He led her upstairs to the room containing all of his musical instruments and equipment. “Wow!” Shorty gasped in delight, as she looked around. “This is wonderful!”
“Do you play?” Nick asked, nodding toward the instruments.
She shook her head. “No, I just sing. Do you?”
He swallowed hard. “I used to. Drums… and guitar. But I can’t play the guitar one-handed, and as for the drums… well, let’s just say I’m no Rick Allen.”
“Drummer of Def Leppard. Lost his arm in a car accident and learned how to drum one-handed.” He looked over at her. “You probably don’t even know who Def Leppard is.”
She shrugged and shook her head. “No. I don’t even have-”
“-A radio, I know. They’re a rock band.”
“Oh. Well, I’m sure you could be like Rick… whatever his name was. You just need to practice!” said Shorty with an encouraging smile.
“Really? You think so?”
“Practice makes perfect!” she chirped.
So Nick sat down at his drumset. He picked up a drumstick in one hand and started tapping out a rhythm on the snare drum. Gradually, he added in a bass drum beat, pumping the foot pedal to make the mallet drive into the drum. He used his other foot to hit the hi-hat, crashing the cymbals together.
Shorty clapped. “See? That sounds great!”
Nick grinned and kept going. As she listened to him play, a melody popped into Shorty’s mind, and she began to sing softly. “There’s something cute… and almost sweet… but he’s been mean since he became an amputee! And now he’s nice… and so unsure… I wonder why I didn’t see it there before.”
Nick heard Shorty’s singing, and the sweet sound made his heart beat faster than his drums. He couldn’t help but follow her lead and express his own feelings through song. “She glanced this way… made my heart thump… and when we touched, she didn’t shudder at my stump! No, it can’t be. I’ll just ignore. But then, she’s never looked at me that way before.”
“New… and a bit alarming!” Shorty sang out, as she leaned against the doorframe. “Who’d have ever thought I’d see his charm? Not… that he’s like Prince Charming. Well, he’s close, except for that he only has one arm!”
Watching them from the hallway, the other four Backstreet Boys couldn’t help but join in the singing.
“Well, who’d have thought?” sang Howie.
“Well, bless my soul,” Brian chimed in.
“Well, who’d have known?” Kevin crooned.
“Well, holy shit,” ad-libbed AJ.
“And who’d have guessed they’d come together on their own?”
“No fucking way!”
“We’ll wait and see,” they harmonized together, “a few hours more. There may be something there that wasn’t there before.”
“Well, perhaps there’s something there that wasn’t there before,” chorused Kevin.
“There may be something there that wasn’t there before,” decrescendoed Howie, as Nick’s drumming slowed to a stop.
“Yay!” Shorty clapped enthusiastically, turning to grin at the guys. “That was real good, y’all!”
“Thanks!” they said in unison.
Nick stood up slowly, wincing from the pain his wound was causing him. “Are you okay, Nick?” asked Kevin, when he saw Nick clutching his side.
“Yeah… just a little woozy. I think I’m gonna go lie down for awhile.”
“Good idea,” said Kevin.
Nick looked at Shorty. “Will you walk me to my room?”
“Well, sure!” She slid her arm around his waist, and he slung his around her shoulders. Together, they walked down the hall to the master bedroom, where Shorty turned down Nick’s sheets and helped him into bed. “Want me to sit with you ‘til you fall asleep?” she offered.
“Nah, you don’t have to do that. Just turn on the TV, would you?”
Shorty pressed the power button on the large plasma TV that was mounted on the wall. The screen popped to life, showing people running and screaming through a city street. “The footage you’re seeing was shot earlier today in Nashville,” said a news anchor, “where the virus has already claimed the lives of an estimated five thousand people… who then reanimated and began ravaging the city, as seen here. Viewers in the affected areas are being asked to stay inside their homes and lock all doors and windows until the crisis has passed.”
“Oh my goodness!” gasped Shorty, putting her hand over her heart. “Nashville… that’s near here!”
“Well, yeah. We’re in the affected area – obviously,” said Nick, looking down at his bandaged side.
Shorty frowned as she watched the TV. “What channel is this?”
“Oh no!” cried Shorty. “CNN – isn’t that the Cable News Network?”
“I don’t have cable! I don’t even have a radio!”
“Yeah, I know.”
“No, you don’t understand!” Shorty wrung her hands worriedly. “My papa’s at home all by himself, and he won’t have any way of seein’ this! I’ve gotta warn him!”
“Wait!” cried Nick, when Shorty scrambled up off the bed. “Where are you going? You can’t go home now! You heard the guy on the news; you need to stay indoors!”
“But I’ve gotta check on Papa!”
“There’s another way.” Nick rolled over, wincing, and reached for a flat, rectangular object on his bedside table. “Here,” he said, handing it to Shorty. “You can use this to get a hold of him.”
Shorty held up the strange object. She could see her own face reflected on its shiny, black surface. Maybe it’s a magic mirror that will show me anything I wish to see! she thought excitedly. In a loud, clear voice, she said, “I’d like to see my father, please.” But the mirror stayed black and blank. She looked up at Nick in confusion. “Why isn’t it working?”
“Sorry, voice commands only work for numbers I’ve already programmed into it. I don’t have your dad’s number.”
“His phone number?” Nick raised his eyebrows. “Don’t tell me you don’t have a phone either!”
Shorty laughed. “Well, of course we have a phone! Golly, I didn’t even think of that! How silly of me! Do you have a phone? Maybe I could just call him!”
Nick stared at her. “Uh… yeah. You’re holding it,” he said slowly.
“What, this?!” Shorty looked down at the object in her hand. “This is a phone? Well, where’s the receiver? And I don’t see a dial.”
“It’s an iPhone! It doesn’t have a dial! Good god, what century are you living in?”
Shorty frowned. “Are you makin’ fun of me?”
Nick sighed. “Sorry. Here, lemme have the phone back. You give me your dad’s number, and I’ll dial. ‘Kay?”
“Alrighty.” Shorty recited the telephone number, and Nick punched it in.
“There. It’s ringing,” he said, handing it back to her.
Shorty held the strangely-shaped phone up to her ear. She couldn’t imagine how she’d be able to hear anything without a receiver, so she was surprised when she heard her father’s voice answer loud and clear. “Hello?”
“Papa, it’s me, Shorty!”
“Shorty!” Her papa coughed into the phone. “Thank goodness! Where are ya? I’ve been waitin’ hours for ya!” He sounded hoarse, and he kept wheezing, like it was costing him every bit of his breath just to keep talking.
“I’m still in town, Papa. I’m stayin’ with some fine young gentlemen until it’s safe to come home. Are you alright? You don’t sound too good.”
“Oh, I’m fine, just fine… just comin’ down with a cold or somethin’. Boy, you wouldn’t believe what happened here earlier, though. Some strange feller came stumblin’ up to the door – musta been drunk or somethin’ – and when I tried to shoo him away, he hauled off and bit me, right on the shoulder! Can you believe that?”
Shorty’s heart sunk. “Papa! Oh no!”
“Eh, I’m alright.” She heard him coughing again. “Barely broke the skin. Odd, though. I tried to call the cops, but no one answered. So I went inside and waited for the guy to go away, which he did after awhile. Just wandered off.”
“Papa, lock the door. Don’t let anyone else in. I’m comin’ home right now,” said Shorty. She wasn’t sure how to hang up the phone, so she just handed it back to Nick. “My papa’s been bit!” she told him tearfully. “He’s sick! He may be dying! And he’s all alone!”
Nick shook his head. “You can’t go to him. It’s too dangerous.”
“I have to!” Shorty insisted.
Nick sighed. “Then… take this with you.” He held out the iPhone. “So you’ll have a way to get a hold of me if you need me. All the guys’ numbers are stored in my contacts.”
Shorty smiled sadly. “Thank you for understanding how much he needs me,” she whispered. Then, slipping the phone into her pocket, she walked out.
Nick watched her leave with a heavy heart, somehow knowing it would be the last time he ever saw her.
Not long after Shorty had left, Kevin sauntered in to Nick’s room. “Well, Nick, aside from us being in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, everything seems to be going just swimmingly with this Shorty girl, eh? I knew you had it in you.”
Nick looked longingly out the window. “I let her go,” he whispered.
“You… what?! How could you do that??”
Nick shook his head. “I had to.”
“Because…” Nick looked over at Kevin and offered him a sad smile. “I love her.”
Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped over in bed.
“Nick!” cried Kevin, rushing forward. He shook Nick’s shoulder, but there was no response. Nick was breathing, but unconscious, his forehead burning with fever. “GUYS!” Kevin bellowed. “Get up here! Something’s wrong with Nick!”
AJ, Howie, and Brian raced up the stairs. “He did WHAT?!” they shouted in unison, when Kevin had told them what had happened.
Kevin sighed. “Yes… I’m afraid it’s true.”
“Shorty’s gone?” Brian cried in dismay.
“But he was so close to banging her,” sighed AJ, shaking his head with regret.
Howie smiled sadly. “After all this time… Nicky finally found love.”
Kevin looked over at Nick, lying unconscious on the bed. “And now it’s too late.”
AJ added the one thing they were all thinking, but couldn’t stomach saying: “And Shorty’s surely zombie meat by now.”
But for having such short legs, Shorty was surprisingly fast. She had sprinted the whole way home, managing to outrun the zombies that lurked in the woods. Perhaps it was because she didn’t spend her days sitting around watching cable or listening to the radio that she was in such good shape. In any case, she didn’t slow down until she saw the small house on the hillside. “Papa!” she called, clutching at the stitch in her side as she climbed the steps to the front porch. “Papa, I’m home!” Finding the front door locked, she lifted the doormat to retrieve the spare key. She unlocked the door and let herself in, locking it quickly behind her. “Papa?” she called again.
The only response was a low, guttural groan. Shorty followed the sound into her father’s bedroom… and gasped at what she found there. Her father was pacing back and forth across the room, his shuffling feet scuffing the floorboards. But he wasn’t her papa anymore. When he turned his head toward her, she didn’t even recognize his eyes. They were foggy and blank, with no life left inside them. Her father was dead. Yet his body was still moving… staggering toward her… its arms reaching out… its jaws opening wide… a hungry moan escaping its throat.
Shorty’s eyes filled with tears, and for a few seconds, she stood still, as if her feet were frozen to the floor, too shocked to move. But when her father’s fingers threatened to close around her throat, she knew she couldn’t stay there any longer. Letting out a cry of anguish, she shoved him away with all her strength, then turned on her heel and ran from the house.
She knew nowhere else to go but Nick’s, so over the hill and through the woods she went, back to the beautiful, brick mansion. By the time she reached the front porch, a rather sizable mob of the undead had amassed behind her. “Nick!” she panted, pounding on the front door. “Nick, please open up! It’s me, Shorty!”
The door opened, and Shorty rushed inside. “Oh, thank you!” she sighed when she saw Howie, hugging him with relief. “But where’s Nick? I thought he would have been waiting for me.”
Howie shook his head, and Shorty saw that his eyes looked very sad. “I’m sorry, Shorty. Nick’s taken a turn for the worse. He’s upstairs, unconscious.”
“Oh, no!” Shorty gasped. She flew up the stairs to Nick’s bedside. “Nick!” she cried, taking his hand in hers. His skin felt feverish, and his face was flushed and sweaty. His eyes had been closed, but slowly, they fluttered open.
“Shorty?” he whispered, blinking up at her as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “You came back?” With his shaking hand, he reached up to touch her face, as if to make sure she was really there. “You… you came back.”
Shorty smiled and pressed his palm to her cheek. “Of course I came back. I couldn’t let…” She trailed off, looking down into his bleary, bloodshot eyes. “Oh, this is all my fault! If only I hadn’t left the first time!”
Nick was breathing shallowly, seeming to struggle for every breath. “Maybe… it’s better… this way.”
“Don’t talk like that!” Shorty shook her head. “You’ll be all right! We’re together now. Everything’s going to be fine. You’ll see.” But although her words were hopeful, her voice shook as she said them. She knew, deep down, that their time together was running short.
Nick coughed, his chest heaving with the effort it cost him. “At… at least… I got to see you… one last time.” Then he closed his eyes. His head fell back onto his pillow, and his hand slid away from Shorty’s face, flopping limply to his side.
Shorty gasped and clapped her hand across her mouth, shaking her head in disbelief. “No… please,” she begged. “Please… please don’t leave me. I love you!” She buried her face in Nick’s chest, sobbing. He had stopped breathing, but she could still hear his fluttering heartbeat. Suddenly, she knew just what to do to save him. “Sing!” she said out loud, lifting her head hopefully.
Howie, AJ, Kevin, and Brian all stared at her. “Sing?” they repeated.
“We need to sing him back to life!” she cried. “Let the music heal his soul!”
The guys exchanged dubious glances, but, desperate to save Nick, they were willing to go with it. “What should we sing?” Howie asked.
Kevin smiled. “I know just the song.” And without hesitation, he opened his mouth and began to sing, “I never thought that I would lose my mind… that I could control this. Never thought that I’d be left behind… that I was stronger than you.”
The other guys smiled knowingly at him, and Howie joined in, “Nick, if only I knew what I’ve done… you know, so why don’t you tell me?”
“And I,” rasped AJ.
“I would bring down the moon and the sun,” Howie continued, “to show… how much I care.”
Together, they stood around Nick’s bed and sang, “Don’t wanna lose… you now… Nickay, I know we can win this. Don’t wanna lose…. you now… no, no… or ever again.”
Then Brian took over. “I’ve got this feeling… you’re not gonna stay. It’s burning within me.” He closed his eyes as he sang with passion, placing his hand over his heart. “The fear of losing… of slipping away… it just keeps getting closer.”
“Nickay,” added AJ unnecessarily.
Kevin joined Brian, and the two sang in harmony, “Whatever reason to leave that I’ve had, my place… is always beside you… and I… wish that I didn’t need you so bad. Your face… just won’t go away.”
“Don’t wanna lose… you now,” they all chorused again. “Nickay… I know we can win this. Don’t wanna lose… you now… no, no… or ever again. Don’t wanna lose… you now.”
As their four voices faded, AJ stepped forward to serenade Nick by himself. “I never thought that I would lose my mind… that I could control this, yes. Never thought that I’d be… left behind… that I was stronger than you, ohh!”
“Don’t wanna lose to loneliness,” the others sang, as AJ’s mournful voice rang out above theirs. “Nick, I know we can win. Don’t wanna lose to emptiness. Oh no… never again. Don’t wanna lose you now…”
They repeated the chorus several times as they awaited some sign of life from Nick, but when there was nothing, they were finally forced to stop singing. “Don’t wanna lose you now…” AJ trailed off, a solitary tear trickling down his cheek.
Shorty burst into tears. “That was beautiful!” she cried and threw herself on top of Nick again. She lay her head on his chest, but she heard nothing this time. No heartbeat. No breath. Nick was gone. But she stayed where she was, sobbing, until she suddenly felt his body move beneath her. She scrambled up, startled, as Nick sat up slowly.
“Shorty…” said Kevin, but Shorty ignored him. She was transfixed, staring into Nick’s eyes as they flickered open. She saw then that Nick was not the same. He had been transformed.
But it was too late.
Before she could react, Nick reached out and grabbed her by the hair, wrenching her head toward him. His teeth gnashed against Shorty’s skull, as he gnawed off her face. Her screams were silenced when he chewed through her neck, severing her trachea.
The remaining four Backstreet Boys ran from the house, leaving the two zombie lovers to roam the earth in search of human flesh, hungrily ever after.