When Larissa invited me to participate in a summer vacation–themed blog event, the first thing I thought was, “Cool! Zombies on the beach!” The zombies I write about in my Deadtown series aren’t your typical fresh-from-the-grave, hungry-for-brains variety. When Boston’s zombies woke up after the plague that killed two thousand people, they kept their intelligence and their personalities. They just looked a little different. And were a lot stronger. And couldn’t go out in sunlight. And were always hungry, though not for brains (well, not usually—just don’t bleed around one and you’ll be fine). You can learn more about Deadtown’s world, including the zombies, here.
My story “Sea Glass” came from playing around with the idea of zombies on the beach. It features Vicky Vaughn, a shapeshifter who kills other people’s demons for a living, and her teenage zombie sidekick Tina. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
A Deadtown Story
There’s a feeling that comes only on a perfect summer night, when the moon is almost full, the air is warm and soft, and you’re driving with open windows along a deserted highway. On this particular perfect summer night, I was headed south on Route 1, on my way back to Boston after a demon extermination in Saugus. The job had gone well. My 1964 E-type Jag was purring like a contented kitten. Even Tina, my teenage zombie apprentice, had quit chattering and sat quietly beside me. I felt like I owned the world.
Until a voice boomed out of the darkness, making me jump halfway out of my seat. “After 800 yards, take the exit right.”
I glared at Tina, who was playing with my GPS. “Turn that off,” I said.
Tina showed me her innocent face—a look she never quite manages to pull off, with her zombie-green skin and bloodshot eyes. “I think you should take the exit,” she said. “He sounds like he knows where he’s going.”
I stayed in the lane.
“Okay, okay,” she said, talking fast. “So I set the GPS thingy for Revere Beach. Can’t we drive past it? Just a little way? Please?”
There was something plaintive in her tone, something that made me think the detour meant more to her than a fun side trip. I glanced over. She’d quit trying to look innocent and now just looked hopeful—and a little sad, like she was used to hearing “No” and was ready to pretend she didn’t care.
What the heck. The kid didn’t get out of Deadtown very often—few zombies did—and I’d finished tonight’s job early. It was only two in the morning, and Tina didn’t have to be back at her group home until sunrise. We had time. I checked the rearview mirror, then swerved onto the exit ramp.
“Yes!” Tina shouted, her fist pumping the air.
As I drove through Revere, small houses and triple-decker apartment buildings crowding both sides of the silent, narrow streets, Mr. GPS told me where to turn. Tina was right—he did know where he was going. After a few blocks, the salt smell of the sea wafted in through the windows.
A left turn, and we were on Revere Beach Boulevard. On our right, the sand glowed in the moonlight. Beyond it, the dark Atlantic stretched eastward into the night.
I parked, and Tina reached for the door handle. I put a restraining hand on her arm. “This is not a scheduled stop on your permit. You know what that means, right?”
“Yeah, yeah. I could get in trouble if a cop comes along.”
More than just trouble. All zombies need a permit to leave the Deadtown section of Boston, and the permit has to list where they’re going and approximately how long they’ll be there. If there’s a problem with a zombie’s permit—missing, expired, wrong information—cops can call in the Removal Squad. And zombies that get removed don’t come back.
Tina gestured toward the empty beach. “Look at this place. It’s deserted. We’ll be fine.”
“Fifteen minutes, no more. And we stay together.”
Tina nodded and threw open the door. She turned sideways in her seat, legs outside the car, and leaned over to take off her sandals. A horrifying thought crossed my mind. “No skinny-dipping!”
“Please.” She twisted her head around to give me the full effect of her eye roll. “Um, no offense, Vicky, but why would I want to go skinny-dipping with you? It’s no fun without boys.” She got out of the car and dropped her sandals on the seat. “I just want to feel the sand under my toes.”
Actually, sand under the toes sounded like a good idea. I took off my shoes and left them in the Jag. I put the bag holding the tools of my trade—the weapons I use against demons—into the trunk and locked it. I left on my ankle sheath with its knife. By the time I got the damn thing unbuckled, our fifteen minutes would be half gone.
Tina was already on the beach. Arms flung out, she twirled like a little kid practicing for a ballet recital. She fell over in the sand, threw her head back, and laughed.
By the time I came over, she’d stood up and was brushing sand off her legs. “Wow, it is so amazing to be back.” She grinned. “My family used to come here like every weekend when I was a kid. Of course, then it was during the daytime. And crowded. Oh my God, it was so crowded. If we didn’t get here early it was hard to find a spot for everybody to lay out their towels.” She looked up and down the long beach. “Weird to see it empty.”
We walked to the water’s edge, the sand changing from warm and soft to cool and firm. A small wavelet came in, rushing over my feet and sending spikes of cold up my legs. Tina chased the water as it receded, splashing in to knee-depth. Zombies don’t feel temperature extremes, so the cold water didn’t bother her. After a few more waves, it didn’t feel so cold to me, either.
Tina came back and walked beside me. She was quiet, even pensive. Moonlight washed the beach, touching everything with silver. It softened the gray-green tint of Tina’s skin, so that she looked like almost a normal girl taking a nighttime stroll along the beach.
Up on the boulevard, a car slowed. Police. The car crawled along for a minute, then it returned to normal speed and continued down the street.
Who was I kidding? Tina would never be a normal girl. Normal meant you could stop at the beach without worrying about cops “removing” you. “We’d better start back,” I said.
“Hey, did you see that?” Tina ran ahead a few steps to where something lay in the sand. She picked it up and came back to me, holding out her open hand. An object like a flat stone, round and slightly bigger than a quarter, lay on her palm.
“It’s sea glass,” she said. “I could’ve sworn it just, like, flew out of the water and landed on the beach.”
I picked it up. The glass was smooth and frosted, its edges round. Moonlight tinged its deep cobalt blue with silver, a light that almost seemed to emanate from the glass itself.
“Me and my little sister used to collect this stuff,” Tina said, as I gave the piece back to her. “We’d build sandcastles and decorate them with it. I remember the first piece I ever found— it was red. I was really little then, like maybe four. I ran to my mom and said, ‘Look, Mommy, a ruby!’ But she explained it was just trash. Probably a piece of an empty bottle some rich person threw overboard from their fancy yacht.”
She clutched the glass and looked out to sea. “I didn’t care. That made it even more special. It was like . . .” She frowned, trying to find the right words. “Okay, so it was trash. But the sea washed it and tumbled it and polished it—made it beautiful. And then the sea offered it up as treasure.”
She held the glass between two fingers. It really did seem to glow.
“Pretty,” I said. “Collecting it must have been fun.”
She nodded. “I had a treasure chest. Just a cheap plastic miniature pirate’s chest, like maybe this big.” She shaped a small rectangle with her fingers.
“I filled it with shells and sea glass. I had so many colors, like pieces of a rainbow. I kept the chest under my bed, and sometimes I’d take it out and pour all my sea glass onto the rug. I pretended I was a mermaid princess deciding which jewels to wear.” Tina looked at the glass again. Her face darkened, like a cloud covering the moon. She closed her fist.
“Stupid, huh?” she said in a hard voice. “I bet my mom threw out that old chest ages ago.” She turned toward the ocean and drew back her arm.
Before Tina could hurl the piece of glass into the sea, a tentacle shot from the water. Thick as a fire hose and covered with green scales, it coiled itself around her waist and hoisted her into the air. The moment her feet left the ground, something thwacked into the sand where she’d been standing. Tina screamed as the tentacle hauled her over the water. Then a splash cut her off.
“Tina!” I scanned the waves. There was no sign of her. Beside me, a trident stood upright in the sand, still quivering from the force of its landing. Tridents are the weapon of choice for merfolk. As far as I knew, merfolk had abandoned the New England coast decades ago. But judging by the evil-looking weapon impaling the beach, they were back. The trident jerked upward, then landed flat on the sand. It slid toward the ocean. A cord looped through its handle drew it toward the water.
Merfolk don’t have tentacles, so something else had grabbed Tina. But the trident showed that the merfolk were after her, too. Like it or not, they’d help me find her. The trident bumped over the sand, picking up speed. I threw myself on top of it, avoiding the barbed tines. Holding tight, I rode the trident into the sea.
The shock of cold water stole my breath. Salt stung my eyes. I held my head up and gulped in as much air as I could—half of it was water—before I was completely submerged.
Underwater, the trident moved faster. I squinted, trying to see through the murk, and drew the knife from my ankle sheath. Whatever was pulling this trident, I doubted it would be happy to see me.
She wasn’t. The mermaid opened her mouth, revealing long, needle-sharp teeth, and roared. She grabbed the trident’s shaft and yanked, swiping at me with her claws. I kicked away. She missed me, but I managed to slash her webbed hand with my knife. Inky blood billowed from the cut.
She roared again, kelp-like hair floating around her scaly face. Real mermaids look more like the Creature from the Black Lagoon than the Disney variety, and this one was an especially nasty-looking specimen. She opened her mouth wide, unhinging her jaw, and sped at me. At the last moment, I dived and rolled, stabbing up at her with my knife, but she was too fast. Water was her element, but it made me clumsy and slow. And I needed air. Now.
In the dark water, it was impossible to know which way was up. I thrashed around, my lungs feeling like they’d burst. Harsh mermaid laughter gurgled. No need for her to fight me. In a minute or two I’d drown. My fingers brushed sand and rock—the sea bottom. Now I knew where up was, and air. I planted my feet and pushed upward. A hand closed around my ankle, tugging me back down. I kicked. The mermaid wouldn’t let go. My knife slashed at her hand, but she grabbed my other leg. My body screamed for oxygen. Shift, it urged. A fish. Gills. Energy built, and my legs began to fuse into a tail.
No! I put the brakes on the shift, forcing my body to keep its human form. I couldn’t change now, not this close to a full moon. If I did, the animal brain would take over. I’d forget about Tina. I’d swim out to sea. When I shifted back, miles from shore, I’d drown—if I didn’t end up speared by this mermaid’s trident.
Moonlight danced on the surface above me. My lungs burned. I was so close. A noise boomed through the water—a single note from some kind of horn. The mermaid released my ankle and sped off in the direction of the sound. I kicked toward the moonlight. Emerging into the warm night, I gasped. Again and again, I drew in deep lungfuls of air. Myoxygen-depleted cells buzzed with gratitude.
That call had summoned the mermaid. But where had she gone? And where was Tina? I wasn’t worried that Tina would drown. Zombies no longer breathe the way they did when they were human, so she could last better underwater than I could. But I wasn’t going to abandon her to the ocean. A path of bubbles marked the mermaid’s trail. Swimming, I followed them. Ahead, with a splash, Tina shot from the water. The tentacle still gripped her. She shook her head to clear the water from her face.
She turned in the direction of my voice. “Vicky?” The tentacle yanked her downward and she disappeared again.
I took a deep breath and dived. From ahead came the sound of a voice, low and rumbling.
“Land creature,” it said, “the tide jewel is mine.”
Tide jewel—the piece of glass Tina found was a tide jewel? I’d read old stories about how sea dragons used such jewels to control the tides, but those were just myths. We know better now. The Earth’s rotation, the gravitational pull of the moon—that’s what makes the tides rise and fall. Everyone knows that.
Everyone except for the sea dragon clutching Tina.
The dragon resembled a giant seahorse, its hide shining with brilliant shades of red and blue and green. Its eyes glowed yellow. Tentacles, including the one that clutched Tina, streamed from its sides.
The dragon wasn’t hurting Tina; he was talking to her. As I swam closer, I could see they were surrounded by merfolk—dozens of them, all heavily armed. Every fishy eye watched Tina. No one noticed me.
The sea dragon continued. “These merfolk tried to steal the jewel. They want to flood your city and claim it as their own. I threw it from the sea to prevent them. No one steals from my hoard and lives.” His fury shook the ocean floor. “The jewel was on the land when you found it. You are not a thief; I will not harm you. Instead, land creature, I ask that you return my jewel of your own free will.”
A merman swam forward. Barnacles clung to his beard. “Give the jewel to me,” he said, “and I’ll allow you to live. Anything else, and my people will tear you to pieces.”
Some choice: Destroy the city or end up as fish food. Zombies were tough, but I doubted Tina could withstand an assault from an entire merfolk army.
Tina looked from the dragon to the merman and back again. I needed more air. As quickly as I could, I went to the surface and filled my lungs.
In the five seconds I was gone, the merfolk attacked. The sea dragon tried to lift Tina above the water, but dozens of tridents sank into his tentacle. The merfolk pulled Tina down, then moved in like a swarm of underwater bees.
Blood washed toward me through the water. I looked at the puny knife in my hand. There was only one thing I could do. I focused on the blood. On tearing into soft, sweet flesh. On moving through the water like a silent, deadly shadow. Then energy blasted out. Water frothed before me, and all I knew was hunger.
When I came back to myself, I lay on my side on the beach. I spat out sand and sat up.
“Hey,” said a voice, “I thought you said no skinny-dipping.”
A bundle of clothes appeared in front of my face. I took them. Tina stood in front of me, pointedly looking the other way.
“Thanks,” I rasped, spitting out more sand.
“So, like, now I know why you always keep a change of clothes in your car.”
“Yup.” I pulled on the sweatpants and t-shirt. When I was decent, Tina turned around.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She nodded, staring at me as if I’d grown a second head. I was used to that. It was the typical reaction when a non-shapeshifter witnessed a shift. Even zombies weren’t immune to the shock.
But Tina wasn’t shocked. “You were awesome,” she said admiringly. “You turned into this Great White Shark, like, even bigger than the one from Jaws. You tore into those merpeople, and they swam away so fast they must be halfway to Florida or someplace by now. That sea dragon guy put me back on the beach, but then he must have followed you. ’Cause later he lifted this giant shark out of the water and set it right here. Then there was, like, an explosion.”
“Whatever. And the shark turned into you.”
At least I didn’t wake up drowning. I looked over the water; the sky was starting to lighten in the east. I stood slowly, letting my body get used to the idea that it had legs now, not fins. “We’d better get you home.”
Tina nodded, and we made our way up the beach.
“So you gave the dragon the tide jewel?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It was his. I bet he’s got a real treasure chest, not like that stupid one I had.” She reached into her pocket. “So I don’t know what he expects me to do with this.”
Tina handed me an object. It was a pearl—the biggest one I’d ever seen. Perfectly round, it shimmered with iridescence.
“The sea dragon gave you that?”
“Like I’d try stealing from that dude.”
I gave Tina back her pearl. As she took it, I thought about how she’d described sea glass. The sea swallows things and roughs them up. But sometimes it yields treasure.
We got into the car. “So what are you going to do with your pearl?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you what I won’t do. I’m done playing mermaid.” The zombie wrinkled her nose. “Those things are butt ugly.”
I laughed and pulled away from the curb. The first rays of a new morning glimmered on the water as we headed back to town.
For more information about Nancy Holzner and her books, check out her website at
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