By four-thirty, the mall had plenty of very early Christmas shoppers. The decorations were going up everywhere. Emily once remarked, “Whatever happened to Thanksgiving?” but the others did not respond.
For the most part, Emily spent the time trying hard not to spend any money. She stopped at one kiosk in the hall that had mostly funky T-shirts but one section of decorative swords that hung behind the counter. The glass counter in front of the swords was full of wicked looking knives. Emily, still in her ROTC uniform, realized she left her knife home.
“I assume they are all fake.” Emily pointed at the swords. “For decoration. You know, fall apart if you ever try to use it.” The man raised a bushy white eyebrow. “You know, like to defend your home or something.”
The man nodded and smiled a little beneath the facial hair as if he understood. “No, they are all real, and very sharp. That is why we keep them behind the counter and out of reach.” He eyed her to judge his customer before he pulled down a straight sword that was as long as Emily’s arm. He pulled it slowly from its sheath to let her get a good look at the gleaming metal. “You can use these, though I can’t imagine what you might use them for these days.”
“May I?” Emily reached for it. The man hesitated and looked at her closely before he nodded. She pulled it all the way out from its leather covering, slowly. She lifted it. It was heavy and for all she knew it felt real enough.
“I would not try to swing it,” the old man said. Emily nodded and looked once around. The mall before Thanksgiving already felt too crowded, but she did not need to swing the sword. She just wanted to feel it and get a sense of what it was like to hold such a weapon. It was sharp. Somehow, Emily felt she could use it, and with some instruction might even be good with it, but she wondered where and when she might need such a thing. Besides, it was not the kind of weapon she could sew into a trench coat like Lisa’s twin knives. She put it back.
“Guaranteed,” the man said as he hung it back on his center wall.
Jessica and Maria came out of the dress shop and grabbed Emily by the arms.
“You need to give it a rest and think about other things,” Maria said.
“You’re a girl,” Jessica reminded her, and Emily responded by running a hand through her hair, which was still short but not as short as it had been. She thought she might not get it cut again until after Christmas break.
The sun went down by six-thirty and the three found themselves in the food court in search of something edible. Maria and Jessica talked about a dress they found while Emily focused on her classic iced tea, burger and fries. They had a fun afternoon turned into evening, but Emily was just thinking they ought to be getting back when they heard a commotion down the hall. People were shouting and running, and soon enough, there were screams.
Emily ran against the stream of fleeing and panicked customers. She rudely pushed her way through the crowd. Jessica and Maria did their best to keep up, but they had to duck into a storefront to keep from being trampled. Emily smelled what it was by the time she reached the kiosk with the knives. The old man just sat there calmly watching everything, unfazed even when Emily leapt over the counter to grab that sword. He said nothing as she ran toward the exit.
Three zombies, two men and a woman were leaving the mall, clutching something in their rotting hands. Emily managed to tackle the last by the ankle from behind, but lost the grip on her sword in the process. She rolled and grabbed it, expecting the thing to be on her. She was only mildly surprised when it got back up and headed again for the door. Still, she was close enough. One swipe took off the head. The body spun. She stabbed, and then shot back five feet when the electrical discharge from the pacemaker shot straight up the handle of the sword.
Emily crawled back to the now unmoving corpse and saw a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses in the zombie’s hand. The sunglasses remained uncrushed, though she supposed the retailer would have a hard time selling that pair.
Maria arrived and Emily turned to her. “Is my hair all frizzed and sticking out?” To Maria’s dumb look, she added, “I got electrocuted by the artificial heart.”
“No,” Maria shook her head. She did not exactly follow what Emily was saying. “We need to look at this. Maybe we can do some good.” She helped Emily to her feet.
There were bodies out in front of the sunglasses store. One woman had her neck broken. A toddler was unrecognizable. Emily imagined one of the zombies held it by the legs and smashed its face into the tile floor, repeatedly. The toddler’s head was all but severed from the body. One man had a broken arm. One had a broken leg and cried like a baby. Emily could help them. Inside the sunglasses store, the clerk had nearly all of her ribs cracked or broken. Maria did what she could.
While Emily yelled at some gawkers to fetch some blankets to cover the men against shock, Jessica came running up from the door. “I saw them get into the back of a van.” When Emily looked confused, Jessica explained. “While you were doing your super girl imitation, I followed the others to the door, just to look. There was a van parked outside by the curb. The other two dead people crawled into the back and it took off. Here,” she held up a sliver of paper. “I wrote down the license plate.”
“I’m impressed.” Emily praised her. “Save the plate number for Lisa when she gets here and go tell mister broken leg over there to shut up, but be nice.”
A moment later, the blankets arrived along with someone who surprised Emily. It was the bushy headed man with the great white whiskers. Emily smiled because the man had a bit of a Santa Claus look, though without the fat. She was going to say, “Thank you,” but the man spoke first.
“You can’t leave a weapon sticking out of that poor stiff with no one to watch it. God rest the man’s soul, but what is to prevent your sword from being stolen?” The old man yelled at her in a strong voice, heedless of the spectators. “And you must always clean your weapon right away. I admire your wanting to help these people, but always clean your weapon first.” He did so on one of the blankets. “Hasn’t that military of yours taught you anything?” He turned to stomp off as Emily squinted from the sting of her scolding.
The man stopped and turned around. “One hundred dollars,” he said.
Emily reached into her pocket and found $7.96 change out of the twenty from her burger and fries. She looked up, but felt a thump in her shoulder. It was Jessica’s purse. There were several hundred-dollar bills inside. She held one out, and the man took it. He handed her the sword in its sheath. She was surprised. She did not know he had the metal trimmed leather sheath with him and did not see him return the sword to it.
“This sheath has a loop so you can wear the sword on your belt if you want,” the man said, and showed her. “I almost imagined you for the ninja sword. It is all the rage these days, but this straight sword suits you better and it is stronger and better overall quality. Learn to keep it sharp and always clean it first.” He shook his finger at her. “Henry Schultz.” The man gave his name.
“Emily Hudson,” Emily answered in kind and watched as the man walked off. She noticed that it was a rather quick pace for such an old man.