August of the Zombies
August of the Zombies is a part of the Zombie Problems collection.
It started out as a small zombie problem. Then four more zombies tagged along. Now there are too many to count! From the acclaimed illustrator of Flora & Ulysses comes the exciting conclusion to the Zombie Problems trilogy.
After facing an alligator attack and a paddle boat accident in search of the zombie stone, August comes out unscathed...but emptyhanded. At least Claudette is still by his side, along with a few more zombies. Of course, it isn't long before a few zombies becomes a horde, and August has so many questions: What is he supposed to do with all of these zombies? What is his Aunt Orchid hiding? Will his life ever be like Stella Starz (in her own life)? And most importantly, will he ever find the zombie stone and get everything back to normal?
An Excerpt fromAugust of the Zombies
The Ones Before
A ghostly band of morning mist hovered on the Continental River. From somewhere within the milky vapor advanced the sputter of a weary outboard motor. Soon a blurry shape emerged. And the shape appeared to be that of a garden shed roped to a listing pontoon: a houseboat . . . of sorts.
“Here comes Madame Marvell,” said August DuPont.
The boy had eyes of the palest gold, like late-summer marsh grass, unusually large and round and rendered even larger by large, round eyeglasses. Between those and his rather small mouth, he bore a distinct resemblance to a baby owl.
Swatting away some butterflies circling his head, the boy lifted a boatswain’s whistle to his lips and blew, closing and opening his fingers over the instrument’s holes to create a wavering warble. The dawn stillness should have resulted in the sound seeming piercing and conspicuous, but it was masked to some extent by the weak fog and the clamor of passing street sweepers.
The snail-paced vehicles edged along nearby Dolphin Street, their great circular brushes noisily swishing trash into their steel bellies: plastic cups and confetti and sequined masks and a million strings of colored beads--all the festive debris generated by two weeks of Carnival.
The whistle was loud enough, however, directed as it was across the water, to reach the approaching vessel, which shifted course slightly, clearly heading toward the high-pitched sound.
“Are you quite well enough to travel?” asked Belladonna Malveau. “It is not every day, after all, that a person gets walloped in the head by the paddle of a riverboat.”
“The paramedic came by first thing,” muttered August. “He said there’s no concussion, gave me the all-clear.”
Belladonna studied her cousin for a moment.
“Ah!” she said, as if in revelation. “That’s what’s missing: your beekeeper’s costume.”
“I lost the helmet in the river last night,” explained August. “Without it, the gloves seemed rather pointless.”
“Are you certain you are all right? You look, well, bluer than a day-old bruise.”
August threw the girl a dispirited glance.
“I’m doing fine, I guess,” he said dolefully, “considering I’m the person who ruined the Grand Parade, highlight of Croissant City’s world-famous Carnival, an event watched on television by millions of people.”
“Oh, quit being so hard on yourself,” said Belladonna consolingly. “It wasn’t your fault.”
She glanced discreetly at the gaggle of zombies nearby: a softly weeping showgirl, a small prince, and a well-dressed lady with only half a face. The bedraggled creatures swayed unsteadily on the boulders that formed the river’s embankment.
“Was it not your pirate zombie,” persisted Belladonna, “Jacques LeSalt, who truly caused the entire accident?”
“Your pirate zombie,” repeated August. “That, cousin, is precisely the problem. Let me ask you this. If the float had not collided with the fire hydrant, would the masts have collapsed, drenching everyone with bubble fluid and wrecking the TV presenters’ balcony, Yuko Yukiyama’s xylophone, and the entire sound system?”
“I guess not,” admitted Belladonna.
“And if celebrity cat Officer Claw had not flipped his lid and leaped, claws extended, onto the bald head of the driver, would the float have collided with the fire hydrant?”
“No,” said Belladonna more quietly.
“And if pirate zombie Jacques LeSalt had not been on the float, would he have mistaken foil-wrapped chocolate doubloons for his own treasure and lunged for them with a monstrous bellow, causing celebrity cat Officer Claw to flip his lid in the first place?”
Belladonna shook her head.
“And why was Jacques LeSalt on the float?”
Belladonna was silent.
“Because of me, Belladonna.” August gazed upon the lapping brown water with a bleak expression. “Because, like you said, he’s my zombie. Not that I can say why. I certainly didn’t set out to collect a bunch of undead groupies, who follow me everywhere.”
“Like ducklings,” observed Belladonna, “trail behind their mother.”
“If only they were ducklings! Ducklings don’t smell like moldy coffins. Ducklings don’t make people scream and panic, or cause havoc wherever they go. Ducklings don’t drool on your arm and offer you their eyeball.”
August looked down at the fourth undead member of this strange little riverside gathering, his great-great-aunt Claudette, who, blue-lipped and crooked, was drooling on her living relative’s arm and offering him her eyeball, as she often did.
“Ducklings,” continued August, “don’t get you blamed for things you didn’t do and make everyone hate you.”
“I don’t think everyone hates--”
“Margot Morgan Jordan called me a loser. Then a monster! The girl who plays TV’s beloved Stella Starz hates me.”
“Well, I’m sure--”
“This has to stop, Belladonna. I must retrieve the Zombie Stone. The thing, you see, is a Go-Between, a bridge between two worlds. It is the only thing that can force the zombies to return to the land of the dead, where they belong. It is the only thing that can set me free from”--August’s eyes drifted to Claudette’s pasty, adoring face--“all this undeadness.”
“And you’re sure the map can help, the one the undertaker found in Pepperville?”
August studied the newspaper in his hands, a copy of the Croissant City Crier.
“According to Octavia Motts,” he said, “the librarian at the Pepperville Public Library, there’s a mighty good chance it reveals the hiding place of Jacques LeSalt’s famous treasure. We know that’s where Professor Leech was headed with the zombie he stole. And the Zombie Stone. If I can figure out their route, maybe I can intercept them.”
“They have a healthy head start,” observed Belladonna. “Must you go to Pepperville first? Can’t you make out the map in the paper’s photograph of Mr. Goodnight?”
“It’s too small,” explained August. “And blurry. You can’t make out the details or read the place-names. I need to examine the original.”
“We’re headed home tomorrow,” said Belladonna. “Beauregard has some engagement in Pepperville, and Mama won’t permit me to remain here alone. You could come with us in the limousine; you’d arrive around the same time as you would if you left now in that.” She nodded at the approaching houseboat.
“I don’t think so,” said August. “Aunt Orchid has been asking some awkward questions about Madame Marvell, who for personal reasons chooses to remain incognito. Besides, do you really think your mother and brother would welcome all of us”--he jerked his head toward the zombies--“into the family vehicle?”
“Hmm,” grunted Belladonna. “You have a point.” She glanced at her cousin with good-natured, far-apart eyes of dark translucent brown, like breakfast tea.
Eyes that reminded August of a recent observation.
“The family portrait,” he said. “The one in the Funeral Street music room.”
Belladonna’s expression changed, became more guarded.
“What about it?”
“I thought your father died when you were babies. You and Beauregard are six or seven years old in that painting. And your eyes are cornflower blue.”
“They are? How odd.” But the girl had turned toward the river, and her voice was prickly.
“Belladonna, are those children you and Beauregard?”
Belladonna’s jaw stiffened.
Then August watched some sense of resignation pass over his cousin. Her face relaxed. Her eyelids drooped. So did her shoulders.
She turned to August.
She shook her head.
“Then who . . . ?”
“The Ones Before,” said Belladonna quietly.
August was suddenly transported to the gloom of the Chamber of Jewels on that hot summer day when he and Orchid Malveau first met. He saw a woman staring at nothing, her veiled face stricken with the bleakest grief.
He remembered her words.
“The Peruvian flu was a democratic disease,” his aunt had said, “claiming the lives of rich and poor alike. Men. Women. Children too.”
It was suddenly so obvious.
“She lost her husband,” said August, “and her children.”
“Twins. Like us. The Ones Before.”
“You once said that you’d been--what was the word you used . . . ‘recruited’?--recruited to be perfect Malveaus. You made it sound like you’d been hired to fill a vacancy. Is that really how you feel? Like a replacement?”
Belladonna studied her bracelet for a moment. It was a handsome piece, fashioned from pasta--rotelle, to be precise--lacquered rich blood-red.
“I had a peacock,” she said, as if it were no more unusual than owning a parakeet. “Some folks don’t believe they make the most affectionate pets. But when Mama was busy being all bereft and Beauregard was busy being, well, Beauregard, Salvador was always there . . . for me. I loved him for that, even though he was an appalling biter. We’d sit by the river and share dewberries. Salvador was just crazy for dewberries. He was my friend. And then he died.”
“I’m sorry,” said August.
“Afterward,” continued Belladonna, “all the places Salvador used to be felt so empty. I hated that emptiness. All I wanted was to have my Salvador back. ‘Bring him back!’ I would sob, over and over. ‘Please, Mama!’ She couldn’t, of course. But one day she brought home the fuzziest little black peachick. She told me he needed a mother to love him and that I needed a peacock to love. I was shocked at first. ‘You can’t just replace Salvador!’ I yelled. I was frightened, I think, that if I loved the new bird, somehow it would make my feelings for Salvador less real, you know? It would make his life seem less valuable.”
“And you believe,” suggested August, “that you and Beauregard are Aunt Orchid’s fuzzy peachicks?”
“I think we were twins that needed a mother to love them, and after the Peruvian flu, she was a mother who needed twins to love. She was well intentioned, I believe. But something has gone wrong. She cannot stop herself from wanting the thing she lost, so she has tried to turn us into that thing.”
August considered this.
“Is your new peacock just like Salvador?”
“Why no. Matisse is most certainly his own peacock. Such a drama queen. Hates dewberries.”
“And did you come to love him?”
“Didn’t want to. I missed the biting. But the love just sort of bubbled up; I had to put it somewhere.”
August reached out and touched Belladonna’s bracelet. It appeared so bright against the black of her dress.
“Perhaps,” he suggested, “you should try being your own peacock.”
“Hmm,” said Belladonna resentfully as Madame Marvell approached and cut the engine. “That sounds annoyingly wise.”
The houseboat bumped gently against the rocks of the embankment. At close quarters, it was apparent that the craft was in a much-diminished state. It looked as if it had been attacked by a giant alligator and subsequently tossed around in the violent wake of a mighty riverboat. Which, of course, it had.
A chunk of its platform was missing, and of necessity, the engine was positioned off-center. Of the eight rusted oil drums that had formed the pontoon, only six remained, and the resulting loss of buoyancy left the rear corner of the deck (which had listed at the best of times) trailing in the water. The roof had lost many of its shingles. The ropes securing the shed to the pallet were frayed. Nailed to the houseboat’s wall, a battered, broken sign read “Madame Marvell, Ball Gazing, Magic--”
“I’ve seen boats made of folded newspaper,” observed Belladonna, “that looked more watertight than that thing.”
The girl known as Madame Marvell shot the young Malveau a scowl as she helped four shaky-legged zombies board.
“She’s quite seaworthy,” snapped the wild-haired girl defensively.
“I certainly hope,” retorted Belladonna, “you’re not headed out to sea.” She raised her eyebrows at August as he leaped from the embankment to the swaying deck, accompanied by his butterflies.
“Just the swamp,” the boy reassured her, “and its quiet waterways like glass.”
Belladonna nodded with a concerned frown and raised her palm in farewell.
“Bon voyage, August,” she muttered to herself as water suddenly roiled around the outboard motor and the houseboat lurched toward the expanse of the Continental River.
As she watched the crippled craft--visibly tilted, low in the water--return to the mist, Belladonna was reminded of a wounded duck. And at that very moment, as if the universe had read her thoughts, the air was filled with the nasal honking of waterfowl in flight.
What Belladonna Malveau saw when she looked up caused her brow to crease with puzzlement. The skies above were darkening with birds, hundreds--no, thousands--of them, forming great speeding triangles.
And the great triangles of birds were all speeding in the same direction.
Away from the sea.
Away from the Sea
“Have you ever known a March morning to be so warm, Mr. LaPoste?”
Hydrangea DuPont handed the local mailman a glass beaded with condensation and a lace-trimmed handkerchief.
“That I have not, Miz Hydrangea,” said the man, mopping his brow with the handkerchief and taking a large gulp from the glass. When he tasted the cold beverage, his itchy-looking pink nose wrinkled a little.
“It’s on the tart side, Mr. LaPoste, I know,” said Hydrangea apologetically. “Sugar, I regret to say, is a luxury beyond our budget here at Locust Hole. Now that the last of DuPont’s Peppy Pepper Sauce has finally been sold, I fear we must survive on ever-dwindling resources.”
“Your presence, Miz Hydrangea,” LaPoste assured the lady, “is sweetener enough. The lemonade is mighty fine!” As if to prove the point, he glugged down the remaining liquid, smacked his lips, and offered up an enormous smile of very large, very white teeth.
Hydrangea was--as many were--reminded of a rabbit, an unusually peppy, gregarious rabbit.
“It’s the least I can do,” she said, gazing up from beneath lowered eyelashes, “for all your help with August’s pepper plants.”
She turned and lifted the netting that shrouded the ramshackle porch, just enough to peek through. Dawn mist from the nearby canal still lingered in the front yard and on the dirt lane beyond. The geometric paths of the old Italian garden were still visible, but the flower beds they encircled were planted not with boxwood and azaleas but with a hundred uniform seedlings.
“You have a green thumb, Mr. LaPoste,” observed Hydrangea. “After just a few days in your care, the plants look positively optimistic! Why, I believe I see some tiny peppers hiding beneath the leaves. I may be mistaken; it’s hard to see from up here. Could it be so, Mr. LaPoste?”
“Indeed it is, Miz Hydrangea,” said the mailman, pulling his uniform over his sweat-stained undershirt and brushing dirt from his knobby knees. “It appears we have new fruit.”
“Oh, my nephew August will be thrilled, Mr. LaPoste. He has been working so hard to revive the DuPont pepper farm. You know, the child single-handedly collected seeds from the withered plants that clung to life out back. He propagated them in fertile soil dug from the riverbank and planted them after the frosts had passed, for you know how peppers love mild weather.