We’ll Always Have St. Margaret’s! by Lara Slabber

St. Margaret’s School for Girls, aged six to eighteen, had seen busier days. In fact, Tricks considered, it had seen entirely better days. From the spot that she and Eddie had staked out on the boarding house’s roof, she could make out much of the main campus. The hockey field was abandoned, the edges crawling over the surrounding stone pathways with thin green fingers. The pool in the distance had taken on a matching shade, the bottom no longer visible through the thickening algae. The red brick buildings themselves sported jagged shards where windows used to be. Not even the on-campus chapel had been spared. The largest of the stained-glass windows, with the image of the school’s namesake set in startling colors at its center, was missing a fist-sized chunk right where Saint Margaret’s heart would have been. Tricks curled her fingers into her palm and imagined herself putting a hand through the glass. Anything to distract from the corpses dotting the campus that still donned the pale blue dresses that defined the school’s uniform, though they were stained dark in places and faded from the relentless sunlight. None of them, Tricks realized with gritted teeth, would have passed the dress code—before.

Even in the Early Days, however, neither Tricks nor Eddie had much cared for St. Margaret’s rulebook. Of course, they hadn’t been known as Tricks or Eddie back then. Tricks had earned her name with the elaborate traps she had set for the Stumblers, getting them to fall down stairs she’d made slick with oil or “tricking” them into tripping wires tied to nets that made them easy pickings for their group of survivors. Her best friend, Eddie, though, had taken his name as soon as there weren’t parents or teachers or dress codes telling him that St. Margaret’s was a school for girls. During one of their many secret excursions up to the boarding house roof, he had confided in her that although he had always known that he wasn’t a girl, there was one thing that could be said for the Apocalypse: at least he didn’t have to worry about what his awful dad or frowning teachers thought anymore. Chances are, like Tricks’s own parents, they were long dead. And St. Margaret’s was Eddie’s now, as much as it had ever belonged to anyone outside their band of survivors.

Tricks and Eddie and the rest of St. Margaret’s survivors had taken up in the old boarding house when it became clear that their parents weren’t coming to pick them up anytime soon. It was a pretty safe place, all things considered, though their leader, Dot, would have given them an earful if she knew how often they snuck out onto the roof—which they only officially maintained access to in case they had to collect extra rainwater.

“What if you fell?” she would say. “Or what if you forgot to barricade the access door to the roof again when you left, and a Runner saw you? They aren’t like the Stumblers. They can climb just fine.”

But Tricks never forgot to lock the doors—Eddie, ever anxious, wouldn’t let her. And they would never have gone up there if there was a chance they would see one of the Runners, with their blank stares, clammy skin, and yellowed teeth. They were the worst kind of zombies, the fast ones. The ones that had made it possible for the Apocalypse to spread so quickly, to wipe out so much of the population. But they needed near constant brains to survive, and they were smart enough to keep moving in search of more food, so they had moved on from St. Margaret’s after the first few days of the outbreak. Gina, the only survivor in their group who hadn’t been a St. Margaret’s student in the Early Days, had told them the city was full of both kinds of undead. But in the boarding house, which was tucked away high on the slopes of Table Mountain, at least Tricks could try to forget. Together in the old school, with its barricaded doors, vegetable garden, rainwater tanks, and stores of supplies, they didn’t have to worry so much about the Runners or things like food and medicine and clean, running water.

“In the Early Days,” Tricks whispered up to Eddie on the top bunk that night after lights out, which they had barely made it back on time for thanks to Eddie insisting they check that the door to the roof was barricaded again after their outing, “I never thought I would be grateful for the city’s water shortage.”

Eddie didn’t say anything at first. But then Tricks heard the wooden ladder creak and felt the side of her mattress dip as Eddie climbed in beside her.

“Me neither,” Eddie said, right into Tricks’s ear, so as not to wake the others—though how they could sleep so easily with the constant groaning and shuffling of the Stumblers outside, Tricks didn’t know. “But if it weren’t for the shortage, St. Margaret’s wouldn’t have installed the water tank.”

“Yeah, duh,” Tricks said, rolling her eyes even though she knew Eddie wouldn’t be able to see her in the dark. “I don’t care about all that. I’m grateful that I got used to everyone in the school only washing every couple days. I can barely tell how badly you stink anymore.”

Eddie elbowed Tricks in the side, and Tricks retaliated by pushing Eddie straight out of the bed. The slam of skin on wood was enough to wake Dot. At seventeen, she was the oldest of the survivors, and she had quickly mastered that motherly tone of voice that Tricks remembered her own mother using whenever she got in trouble (which, with Eddie to tease and coerce into going along with her ideas, even then, had been often). Dot scolded them and put them on medical supply duty the next day. They both groaned, but she didn’t relent, ending the discussion by rolling over and going to sleep.

Tricks grumbled about how it was all Eddie’s fault, but when Eddie climbed back in beside her, she didn’t protest. She just moved over to make room and let Eddie take her hand. That’s how they woke up the next morning.

Supply duty wasn’t all bad. All the older kids took turns going out onto campus whenever the boarding house needed to restock any of their supplies and, at thirteen, Tricks and Eddie had just made the cut. It was more tedious than anything else, especially on that particular day when the rest of the survivors were playing in the volleyball tournament that Dot had planned. There were only twelve of them in all—not even as many as the small group of students that had elected to live in the boarding house in the Early Days—and they didn’t have a proper court or anything. But the rooms that acted as the boarding house were part of the oldest building in the school that also housed the library and some of the humanities classes, and they had managed to hang an old net someone had nicked from one of the tennis courts on a previous supply run across one of the courtyards to create a makeshift volleyball court. The courtyards were the only places they could safely be “outside,” since they’d barricaded the entire building so the Stumblers—and the Runners, when they had still been around—couldn’t get in.

Tricks and Eddie didn’t bother arguing with Dot about having to miss the first few games, even though she’d promised nobody would have to make a run that weekend because of the tournament.

“That was before we broke the rules,” Eddie pointed out when Tricks grumbled to him under her breath.

That may have been true, but Tricks still glared at Dot when she wasn’t looking as they all got ready for the day. Dot handed everyone a fresh pair of shorts and a light blue polo shirt that had been St. Margaret’s athletic uniform, and which had become their everyday staple. They each pulled them on without complaint, though the clothes remained as itchy and unflattering as when they had been forced to wear them for sports days. Considering the minimal water they had available, it was a good thing that so many of their deceased schoolmates had kept spare sets of sports clothes in their lockers so they had a stockpile of clothes to rotate through. But Tricks remembered a time when she had cared about what she looked like. She would go through her sisters’ closets and try on their things, play with their make-up in the mirror. She didn’t complain about it to Eddie, though. She knew he was just glad not to have to wear any of those familiar blue dresses anymore.

“Come along,” Dot said, waving for the pair to follow her as Gina, sixteen and the second oldest, took the whistle from her so she could referee the first game in Dot’s place.

Tricks groaned, but grabbed one of the field hockey sticks that they had duct taped steak knives to. The one that Eddie selected was an old broom, a cleaver replacing the bristles. They each also chose a large rucksack, empty except for two extra knives and small first aid kits (though there was nothing that could be done if either of them got bit), and then followed Dot to the one entrance other than the roof that they hadn’t entirely nailed shut. It was sealed with a series of large, removable wooden barricades and a length of chain that was looped through the double door’s handles, and it sported the biggest padlock they had been able to find a matching key for and remove from its abandoned locker.

The three of them all worked together to lift the wooden barricades, before Dot took the key out from under her clothes where it lived on a chain around her neck. The padlock popped open with a click as she twisted the key and, as always, Eddie took a deep, nervous breath as Dot pushed one of the doors ever so slightly open. She stuck her head out first to check the outdoor corridor with its narrow, concrete awning for Stumblers, but there weren’t any in sight. Just a couple of slumped over, deflated bodies that were well into the process of decomposing. The smell was acrid and sour, and Tricks saw Eddie wrinkle his nose.

“It’s fine,” Tricks said, pushing past Dot and barely glancing at the corpses.

“I’ll be right here to let you in again. Come straight back as soon as you have everything on this list,” Dot said, handing the paper to Eddie when he reached for it. Tricks just gripped her spear tighter, the way her knuckles strained against her skin betraying the fear that crawled up her spine and set the hairs on the back of her neck standing up. “Be careful.”

“Sure, sure,” Tricks said. She often complained to Eddie about Dot’s fussing, moaning about how she wasn’t their mom, but Eddie didn’t mind it as much. In the After Times, Dot was the closest thing they had.

Tricks started marching off toward the old science building across the quad. Eddie made sure to wave goodbye as Dot shut the large wooden double doors again, before hurrying after her. Tricks put on a brave face, but dread churned in her belly and she made sure to stay close to Eddie as they crossed the short distance between the two buildings, even though she kept reminding herself that there were hardly any Stumblers around the school anymore and they hadn’t seen a Runner in months. Not with so little left to eat on the campus and the remaining brains tucked safely away in the boarding house. The Runners had moved into the city, and most of the Stumblers had just slumped onto the ground when enough time passed between meals, never to get up again, the bodies resuming the natural decomposition process. The ones that were left were slow and dumb, easy enough to stab through the head or run and hide from.

But even knowing all that, she remembered those first few days all too well, when she had been one of the only students who had managed to hide from the undead. Tricks and Eddie had hidden away together, and they still took turns holding each other through the nightmares of the Runners ripping through bodies on the other side of the trapdoor that was all that stood between the Runners and their little hiding place. There had been just enough room for two in the tiny old wine cubby set in the floor of the altar in the old Chapel. Dot and a band of survivors—a small group, but decidedly more than the twelve that remained—had found them and taken them to the boarding house in those early days, when each corner still held untold dangers. When their barricades and safety precautions still had flaws, and they hadn’t yet managed to reclaim the entire building. Back then, supply runs, though necessary, had been dangerous. But that hadn’t been true for months. They hadn’t had an incident in ages.

Tricks heard Eddie gulp as they reached the area of the quad where they could turn down another path toward the Chapel. She took his hand and pulled him along after her, hoping that if she could just hurry him past fast enough, he wouldn’t have enough time to relive those first few nights the way she was right at that moment. He squeezed her hand back tighter, and they sped into the science building as quickly as they could.

The science building was much newer than the boarding house, all stainless steel and white tile and large, cracked windows. Their slow, careful footsteps echoed and dust drifted through the air as they made their way deeper into the building. The supplies on their list were clearly labeled with which room Dot thought they were likely to be found in, and they headed straight for Mrs. Wallace’s Natural Science classroom. Tricks and Eddie walked past their old, shared desk near the back of the room on their way to the cabinets lining the wall furthest from the door. Tricks stood beside him, keeping watch, as Eddie crouched down and opened the first cabinet.

“Remember when we used to learn about, like, food chains and stuff?” Tricks asked, staring at the old projector and white board—which was still largely covered with a drawing of a plant cell labeled with Mrs. Wallace’s handwriting. “Guess we’d have to update those textbooks now, huh? If there was anyone left to update them.”

“Why would you say that?” Eddie asked, glancing nervously over his shoulder at the door in between pulling out bottles of chemicals with the correct labels on them and filling first his rucksack and then Tricks’s.

“Sorry,” Tricks said in a rare apology. “I didn’t mean to—”

But even as she was finishing the sentence, the distant sound of feet smacking against tile started echoing through the building. Feet that were much too fast to belong to a Stumbler.

Tricks’s heart pounded in her ears and her throat grew thick with panic as Eddie widened his eyes at her. They left their heavy rucksacks where they were—if it was, in fact, a Stumbler or another survivor coming to fetch them for some reason, then they could just come back for the supplies later. And, if the worst was true, then Dot would understand. She was the one who had drummed it into them to always, every time, no matter what, come home immediately if they had even the slightest, smallest suspicion that a Runner had wandered back up Table Mountain to the school…

They couldn’t leave the way they’d come, not when the footsteps were coming from that direction. Not when they didn’t have a hope in hell of outrunning a Runner if it intercepted them on the way to the front door.

So Tricks went and held open the emergency door at the back of the classroom that let out right beside the little Chapel. “Hurry,” Tricks breathed, so quietly that she wasn’t sure Eddie could hear her, as she waved frantically for him to come along. He understood, though, and rushed past her out the door. She followed and let it shut behind them, but not before she accidentally bumped into the nearest cabinet and sent the bottles inside falling over and smashing to pieces.

There was no doubt that if it were a Runner, it would have heard the chemicals crashing on the ground, but they didn’t wait to find out. Instead, they ran toward the nearby Chapel. Tricks had promised herself that she wouldn’t ever go back there. But that was when she was safe in the boarding house and could afford to be brave. The truth was, she would fold herself back into that tiny space, with Eddie right beside her, if she had to. There was no room for bravery with the Runners.

They made it to the Chapel, and Tricks didn’t hear anyone following them. She and Eddie waited right by one of the windows that afforded them a clear line of sight to the science building to be sure. There was no need to panic—no need to hide—unless there really was a Runner hunting them. Likely, it was just Dot, coming to check on them. Or coming to tell them they could leave the supplies and join the tournament after all. They were just being overly careful. Tricks started to relax, though Eddie still clutched her arm, right as the handle on the back door of the science building tilted downward.

Then it blew open so fast that it slammed against the red brick outer wall and, like a glitch, a Runner appeared in the gap between the science building and the Chapel.

“Run!” Tricks said, louder than she meant to. But fear had caused St. Margaret’s survivors who were even older and more seasoned than Tricks or Eddie to make mistakes. The Runner’s face twisted toward the window where the pair of them were standing, like it knew they were there. Like it had heard Tricks’s cry.

They sprinted as quickly as they could toward the altar where the little wine cellar could protect them, Tricks accidentally dropping her makeshift spear in her panic. But the Runner didn’t come in behind them, as she’d expected. It came in through the side door, and only Tricks had been fast enough to reach the altar. She turned, frantic, to look for Eddie. He was behind her, still nearer the window, the Runner between him and safety.

Eddie immediately changed course, no matter how futile it might be. He hurried toward a nearby windowsill, and the illusion of escape that it provided. Tricks lifted the trapdoor, as though she would be able to live with herself if she climbed in alone. As though there was still a chance that Eddie would be able to reach her in time.

The Runner’s eyes narrowed onto Eddie, who slipped as he tried to climb out of the smashed chapel window, a shard of glass left in the frame slicing into his thigh. Blood, red as St. Margaret’s robe, ran down his skin and pooled along the top of his sock as he attempted to get to his feet, but his shoes kept slipping on the bloody stone as his leg gave out from under him. The Runner snarled, its head twisting erratically from side to side, before it bounded toward Eddie, falling to all fours to build up speed.

Without letting herself think, Tricks slammed right into it, throwing it off course with so much force that its half-exposed skull cracked against one of the Chapel’s heavy wooden pews. The Runner reached for her, but she didn’t hesitate before slamming the edge of the large, golden communion goblet that she had snatched up off the altar into its head again and again and again—whatever made up its brains splattering across her face and clothes. Eddie tried to put his arms around her and pull her off the dead Runner, but she threw him off and scuttled away across the floor, holding her hands out to ward Eddie off.

“Get away from me!” Tricks yelled, desperate to keep him away. Eddie’s face fell as his gaze found the burning skin of her hand. A small red crescent crossed Tricks’s palm there—the Runner somehow having managed to bite her as she bashed its head in.

But Eddie didn’t stay away. Instead, he reached for his broom with the cleaver on the end where he had left it beside the windowsill. His brow furrowed and he met her eyes right before he raised it, gleaming, over his head. He brought it down in one decisive swing, and it lopped Tricks’s arm right off at the bicep.

She cried out, reaching for the bloody end of the residual limb. Eddie ripped the plush, embroidered runner off the chapel’s altar, and tied it around Tricks’s remaining bicep as tightly as he could manage, before bunching the excess against the wound. Even with the injury tied off like that, the fabric soon turned red and heavy with blood as the seconds passed. Her vision swam, but finally, miraculously, she let it sink in that she hadn’t turned. Tricks didn’t believe in God anymore after all they had seen, but she could appreciate whatever twisted force was left in the universe that had possessed Eddie to act so quickly.

Tricks could barely stand, could barely walk, and she knew that Eddie had to be in pain from his own scuffle with the chapel window, but they managed to support each other so that they were just able to shuffle out into the quad.

The door to the boarding house flew open and Dot appeared, calling over her shoulder for the others. As soon as she saw Dot’s face, Tricks let her legs give out and she crumpled on the stone ground. Eddie crouched beside her, calling her name, but she barely heard him or felt his hand on her cheek as someone—Gina?—tied something more tightly around her residual limb to try to stop the bleeding.

A few days following the attack, Tricks woke up in the bed beside Eddie’s in the infirmary, alive against all odds. Bandages covered the end of her amputated arm and Eddie’s injured knees, but he climbed out of his bed to lay in bed beside her, as he always did in their dorm room. He took her hand and, only then, was she finally able to cry.

Lara Slabber is in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Rosemont College. They are originally from Cape Town, South Africa, but now live in Pennsylvania with their partner and two naughty cats.