ZOMBIES ATE MY TRADING CARDS
"In the event of something happening to me
There is something I would like you all to see
It's just a photograph of someone that I knew
Have you seen my wife, Mister Jones?"
- The Bee Gees
Chapter One: Infection
In those eighty-five cataclysmic minutes, humanity's survival was held by a thread.
Untold devastation had laid waste to the city; streets had become splintered and skewed, bridges were warped into intricate shambles, and the buildings themselves had collapsed upon one another like stacks of colossal dominoes. Plumes of smoke, churned up from the calamity, joined with the purple soup of smog overhead and reduced the sun to a vague halo of light. This cast a strange twilight over the remains, as though something biblical were taking place in suburban Japan. Something that, decades later, folk would reflect upon as a suggestion of God's wrath. But now, in the wake of the attack, God was the last thing on people's minds.
The survivors crawled across a fallen billboard, which had once advertised an upcoming animé series based on a popular manga starring three child-like women wearing skirts that barely qualified as belts. Now their exaggerated expressions of glee had become cracked upon the asphalt, revealing the no-colour of cardboard that resembled brain matter in the unnatural twilight. The words BAD GIRL had been written in pink kanji across one girl's chest, where one of the last of the survivors had fallen and stopped moving altogether. It was as good a place as any to die.
Glimmering faintly overhead amidst the smog, a helicopter began making its tentative approach. It circled the mob of refugees, a spotlight finally capturing them and causing their shadows to become long and alien, reflecting the crisis they now fled. A voice came from a pair of legs that dangled over the chopper's landing skids, urging them all to gather in the park a few miles to the south-west. There they would be airlifted out of the danger zone, and taken to a nearby medical facility. Before he repeated the message, something shifted in the clouds behind the blur of the helicopter's blades, like an unsettling shadow passing behind a macabre stained glass window. All at once, the mob began to cry out for aid, and it was immediately clear that they had no intention of going south-west. They knew what was waiting for them there.
One of the rabble, a disheveled-looking businessman with crooked glasses, turned away from the helicopter and placed a hand to his mouth; the other hand shot outward from his body and hung in the air, his finger wagging back and forth as if to say 'nuh-uh, not good!' His screams were made insignificant by the cries of his fellow refugees. The veins in his neck stretched like fleshy strands of elastic as his glasses wavered on the edge of his nose, as though they were threatening to jump as a sign of protest to their deadly predicament. Again he shouted - those same five syllables. But his words were swallowed up whole by the bedlam; the mob around him continued to panic as if panicking itself were the only solution. Then, he took a deep breath, his glasses slipping back apprehensively, and in the midst of a petrified murmur resulting from a nearby explosion, he made himself heard.
And there he was, his coming announced by that familiar scraping sound as he dragged his enormous boots through the last vestiges of civilisation. It sounded like a doorbell running on old batteries, barely audible at first and then shrill as a whistle. As his right foot fell, he crushed the local elementary school that had once housed over five hundred children. Then the left foot came down, obliterating the park to the south-west along with half a dozen tenement buildings. Such monotonous destruction would have been terrifying enough, had it not been for that ghastly sound that escaped from his ever-gaping mouth - a static-infused recording of esoteric gibberish, played at such a volume that all semblance of structure was driven from the words and they became instead this ear-splitting buzz of noise. Whatever those words had once meant, they now represented only one thing: death.
It was like watching a tower sprout legs and then walk, oblivious, across the horizon, its clumsy footfalls leaving behind pits and canyons. But this was a person, or perhaps some kind of monster, with a mind of his own; his arms had a methodical swagger, and his jaw seemed to twitch thoughtfully with every new building he decimated. But it was his eyes that betrayed the evil at work - like dim, red fog-lights whose only purpose was to warn you of the danger that they themselves brought, leaving thick orange trails in the sky as though they could burn away the very fabric of space. Those eyes were now focused on the helicopter, which was powerless to do anything but hover upwards into the smog, hiding in the cloud cover while the survivors below lay isolated and obvious.
However, it was not the survivors he was coming for. With one impossibly long arm, he reached into the mess of smog and snatched the helicopter in its grasp, like a ruthless magician plucking a trembling rabbit from behind some gauze as if from nowhere. The voice of the legs came once more, a dreadful scream mixed with garbled orders from the pilot, and then the monster brought his jaw down upon them and feasted ravenously. The rotors made a gruesome, grinding noise as they came into contact with his lips, shredding themselves in the process. The front came off first - no doubt taking the pilot with it. The passenger had fallen from his precarious position, latching onto the skids with one arm and flailing pathetically with the other, those legs now dangling a little closer to the ground. The monster tilted its head back, the fuzzy recording still booming from its gullet, and swallowed the back-end of the chopper - passenger and all - like he was downing a shot of liquor.
The survivors let out a resigned sigh as he turned to face them, brown flecks of engine parts still clinging to his mouth. And they all spoke his name with terror.
He wasn't Yugi's favourite villain, but it sure was cool seeing him updated for the twenty-first century. Like many other kids his age, Yugi loved a good kaiju movie. He'd seen most of the recent ones on TV - Hondaman VS Spidorah, Zombyra Junior Defeats The Martians, even Zombyra VS King Kong. But it was one thing to see these films at home all by himself, and another to witness the panoramic havoc on the big screen along with all his friends. He could hear Tristan a few seats over, slurping intently at his milkshake as the cinematic carnage grew to apocalyptic proportions. Joey had been relatively quiet, aside from the occasional disapproving grunt - he was the fanboy of the group, and any slight deviation from the original material was guaranteed to invoke his frustration. Yugi knew they were in for a rough ride the moment Mecha-Hitler was shown to be created deep underground by German scientists, when everyone knew he was constructed by Space Nazis living on Jupiter. Joey had been grinding his teeth ever since, and that was only at the pre-credits sequence; Yugi was surprised he still had any molars left to gnash by this point.
From behind him came a voice, "I still can't see, mom! Who styles their hair that big, anyway?" Yugi blushed and shifted down in his chair. More often than not, Yugi was the one who would struggle to see the screen due to his less than impressive stature. This time, however, he was situated near the front and had no trouble making out each individual pore on the actors' faces, and every flaw in the massive CGI monstrosities. It had been Joey's treat to them - after all, getting to watch the twenty fifth Zombyra movie on the big screen was an important event in their lives. You couldn't just sit in the back row and squint up as the giant behemoths did battle a few hundred feet away. You had to be right there in the action. Whenever Mecha-Hitler took a step, the earth around them seemed to shake. Whenever an explosion caused debris to fly toward the screen, their immediate instincts were to duck. And whenever anything remotely romantic happened, Joey and Tristan would feign barfing into their popcorn buckets.
None of this seemed to impress Téa one bit. Then again, she hadn't been very enthusiastic about this outing from the moment they arrived. It had been raining, and Yugi hadn't expected her to show up at all. But when he'd gotten to the cinema with Joey and Tristan in tow, she'd been standing beneath the awning, umbrella stuffed hastily under her arm, shivering a little but otherwise as statuesque as ever. He remembered noticing the way raindrops met on the tip of her nose, and how she'd almost smiled upon spotting him. Then her expression wilted, and she proceeded to bite their heads off for showing up late. Yugi had started to ask why she didn't just wait inside, only to be swiftly silenced when he spotted the enormous queue trailing halfway down the street. "These crappy movies sure are popular, huh?" She had snarled.
Now she sat beside him, her focus rarely on the movie. Sometimes he'd happen to spot her nodding off, and he almost felt tempted to nudge her awake during the really exciting parts. But it usually didn't matter, as the movie's soundtrack would swell to such an extent that her head would snap forward and she'd be greeted by Zombyra's ghastly-yet-heroic visage, eliciting a strangely girlish squeal from her throat as she reached for Yugi's arm and clung on for dear life. His hormones buzzing away, Yugi jotted down a mental note to thank Joey later for making all this possible.
"C'mon!" Joey yawned as the hero of the long running movie series, the undead superhero Zombyra, finally made his triumphant entrance, accompanied by copious amounts of CGI. He leapt from building to building as though his legs were made of rubber, and his cape fluttered unnaturally eastwards while the smoke in the background billowed in a westerly direction. "It was much better when they did it with the suits! At least then it felt real!"
"Please be quiet!"
"Shaddap, will ya?"
"I paid good money to see this!"
"So did I!" Joey rebutted, rising from his seat and addressing the crowd of enthusiastic giant monster movie fans who, moments ago, had been experiencing sheer bliss upon witnessing a legend's return to the big screen after a decade's absence. "But what I didn't pay to see is a bunch o' computer generated cartoon characters runnin' around, pretending to fight each other! I paid to see Zombyra layin' a beating on Mecha-Hitler's mechanical extremist butt! Not this! What's with the sappy love story? What's with the lousy attempts at humour? And they killed Zombyra Junior in the first ten minutes! You never kill Zombyra Junior! Except for when they did it in The Death Of Zombyra Junior... But at least they had the decency to wait until the final reel before- Hey! What gives?! I'm just speakin' my mind here!"
Joey's moment of glory was abruptly cut short by a trio of stalwart ushers grabbing him by the arms and dragging him, quite literally kicking and screaming, down the aisle toward the exit. The crowds were cheering like madmen as Zombyra planted his gloved fist square into Mecha-Hitler's triangular jaw, sending shards of metal flying through the air as Joey found himself pelted by empty soda cups and the odd handful of popcorn. Yugi exchanged concerned glances with Téa, and with a groan they both gave chase. The last thing Yugi saw of Zombyra VS Mecha-Hitler before turning away from the screen altogether was a glimpse of the titular hero taking a moment to save some scantily clad teenage girls, thrusting them underneath either arm and launching himself skyward with his familiar battle cry: "ZOMBYANZAAAI!"
"Wow," Tristan gaped, his straw giving forth a pathetic gurgle as the milkshake at last ran dry. "This is pretty much the best movie ever made."
"Well, that was pretty much the worst movie ever made," Téa humphed, squinting blame-filled eyes at Joey. "I mean, come on. How are you supposed to write fanfics about that? I counted maybe one pairing in the whole thing."
"It's not fair!" They were seated in the lobby, watching as countless wide-eyed teens made their way to a specially arranged podium to one side of the ticket stalls. Tristan emerged about ten minutes after Joey had been escorted from the screening room, with the biggest grin on his face since he'd gotten Serenity's e-mail address, and now Joey was creating all kinds of drama. "How come Tristan got to see the ending and I didn't? Where's the justice here?!"
"Relax, Joey," said Tristan, wrapping an arm around his best friend's neck and squeezing it playfully. "I'm sure the ending'll be available online tomorrow morning anyway. You can just watch it for free then!"
"It ain't the same!" Joey barked, his hair now as ruffled as his demeanour. "Besides, I wanted to be one of the first people to see this movie. And they all ruined it for me!"
"You didn't even like the movie," Téa interjected. She and Yugi had been forced to do some real fast talking to prevent the theater's security from kicking Joey out onto the street and into the pouring rain. If he'd been forced to mope outside while the rest of them got to witness the big autograph signing that followed the movie's premiere, he probably would have shunned them all for at least a month. Joey was passionate about three things: Duel Monsters, food, and kaiju movies. Deprive him of any one of those and he had a tendency to go a little nuts. Tony Montana nuts. "You were complaining about it the whole time. Heck, I probably enjoyed it more than you did, Joey. And I hate those movies."
Joey just stared at her for a minute before answering. "It's the principle!" He finally managed to wrestle himself free of Tristan's grip, twisting the poor guy's arm behind his back in the process. "I am probably the number one Zombyra fan in this whole stinkin' town! Still, I can at least take comfort in the fact that I'll soon have the guy's autograph..."
"There he is!" Yugi called out, laughing excitedly as the man behind the Zombyra mask - Kitano Takahara - emerged from behind a wide section of red curtain which concealed the rear section of the lobby. He must have been almost sixty, his legs wiry and his balance not quite what it used to be as he managed to shamble his way down the steps leading to his specially reserved podium. Takahara hadn't played the undead superhero for over fifteen years, but he'd been in all the classic movies and several other kaiju flicks to boot. In Yugi's eyes - and doubtlessly the eyes of Joey, Tristan, and every other teenager in the room - this man was a living legend. There was no mistaking that trademark Zombyra hand gesture, as he offered it up to the crowd and received an awed gasp followed by the chatter of gushing fans. Even Yugi could feel himself being pulled in by the lure of an expensive autograph. "Wow! Kitano's really here... I can't believe it."
"Who is he, somebody's grandpa?" asked Téa.
"Whaddya mean, grandpa?!" Joey roared. He was literally inches from snapping loose from his tether and spiraling outwards into a never-ending abyss of irrational hatred. If he had a blog, he would have been ranting on it right now. "I can't believe the lack of respect here!"
"That's Zombyra you're talking about, Téa," Tristan helpfully corrected. "He was the original guy in the suit. He pretty much single-handedly created the character, and did all his own stunts."
"That's Zombyra?" Téa repeated, placing a hand on her hip and shooting a sarcastic glance at Yugi. "Funny. He looks a lot more realistic now than he did in that movie we just watched."
"Because that wasn't Zombyra! That was just some cheap digital effect!"
"Takahara-san could run circles around that Zombyra any day o' the week!" Joey continued to fume, a familiar vein throbbing in his neck. Usually its appearance was the mark of Seto Kaiba's egotistical boasting. It was rare for Joey to get truly angry about anything else. "And what's the deal with getting some American actor to play his alter-ego? I don't wanna see some big-chinned sissy boy running around, makin' kissy-face with a lame love interest. I wanna see action! Adventure! Weapons of mass destruction! These are the things I crave in a Zombyra flick!"
Exhausted by her argument with Joey, Téa turned to Yugi. He had been chuckling away at them, content to sit on the sidelines. She wasn't going to let that go on much longer. That little squirt was going to have to endure this with her. "Don't you think these movies can get a little unbelievable?"
"Huh?" Yugi blinked. "Um... I guess, I..."
"Unbelievable is right! Unbelievably awesome!" A visible shudder ran through their group as the voice cut into their conversation like a rusty knife. Rex Raptor, former high-class duelist turned washout, had made his way over to them accompanied by his partner in perpetual annoyance, Weevil Underwood. They were both clutching signed Zombyra DVDs, hugging them protectively as though they were Duel Monsters championship trophies, and they were grinning from ear-to-ear. "Hey dorks. Wasn't that just the best movie you've ever seen? Oh wait, I forgot, you guys only saw about half of it."
"Yeah!" Weevil sneered, lowering his spectacles and offering Téa a lecherous waggle of his eyebrows. "It seems some of you don't know how to follow the proper rules of etiquette! Isn't that right, Joey Wheeler?"
"You're a fine one to talk about rule-breaking!" said Téa. Now it was her turn to have her feathers ruffled. She couldn't stand those two brats - they always managed to get in the way, no matter how hard she and the others tried to avoid coming into contact with them. It was almost as if their fates were intertwined, and they were destined to keep stumbling over these two snickering speed bumps on their path to discovering the truth of the Pharaoh's past. She immediately flushed, her cheeks sprouting fields of rosy freckles - thinking about the Pharaoh tended to inspire that reaction in her. Unfortunately, Weevil took it to be a response to his flirtations, and he winked as coyly as he could in her direction. "Get lost, you couple of knuckle-knobs!"
Rex and Weevil laughed in unison. Just when had these guys started hanging out, anyway? They had seemed like bitter rivals when the Duelist Kingdom tournament began; now they were inseparable. Something must have happened between them to form such an ugly yet unbreakable bond of faux friendship. "You might want to control your girlfriend, Yugi!" Rex scoffed. "Otherwise security might have to escort her outside too!"
"She's not my...!" Yugi began, his heart fluttering frantically as though someone had jabbed him in the most sensitive of places with a sharp pencil. He felt as if he should turn around and ignore them, lest Téa spot how agitated he'd become at this accusation, but he didn't want to encourage Rex and Weevil's taunting. Luckily, Joey came to his rescue.
"You! How did you afford those autographs?! They're like a hundred bucks a signature!"
"Pfft," snorted Weevil, wiping his index finger along his upper lip in an uncouth manner. "What's a hundred bucks? In case you forgot, we're professional duelists."
"Professional pests is more like it!"
"And besides," Weevil continued, ignoring Téa's gibe and instead passing it off with a feigned come-hither look, "we don't care how much it costs. Once we auction off these signed DVDs on the internet, we'll be rolling in cash!"
"You guys got your movies autographed just so you could make some easy money by selling 'em?" Joey asked, breathless and affronted. "What kinda fan does that?"
"Get with the program, Wheeler," said Rex. "Most of these kids are gonna do it. Besides, at least we're not ruining it for everyone else."
"Makes a change," Tristan commented. "Now, did you guys just come over here to mess with us, or did you actually want something?"
Raptor and Underwood both exchanged wicked glances, their eyes glinting deviously, and then they turned back to face their rivals. For an instant, the lenses in Weevil's glasses were glazed over, and he looked downright possessed. Then it was gone, and he was back to being his ordinary moronic self again. "We just thought you might like some free trading cards."
"Trading cards?" Yugi span around, as if compelled by those familiar words.
"Free?!" Joey beamed, all traces of animosity having vanished from his dopey visage.
"Might like...?!" Tristan chimed in. Probably just to belong.
Téa simply rolled her eyes, making a conscious effort to display her frustration to Yugi. "Ugh. Boys."
From their pockets, the two terrors produced four immaculate trading cards, kept safe within their glossy protective sleeves. Each of them was identical, although one of them seemed to sparkle with an extra special brilliance - as though the artist had gone to great pains to make this particular card just a little more snazzy than the others. Four copies of Zombyra The Dark. His unmistakably skeletal costume seemed more harrowing and gothic than ever, and it was clear to see that the cards had been produced to coincide with the release of the new movie. Yugi, Joey, and Tristan recognised the slight differences in costume design immediately - while Téa, oblivious to such things, merely thought it looked as repulsive as all the other zombie cards in the game. The three boys were now practically drooling at Rex and Weevil's feet. "So... Beautiful...!"
"Yeah, they were giving these out at the signing," Rex explained. "Because we got so many autographs, we managed to gather quite the hoard."
"And you're just going to give them away?" Téa grunted. "Like you guys were ever that generous."
"Does this look like a dinosaur to you?" asked Rex, jamming the card in Téa's face. "Why the heck would I want this guy in my deck?"
"Yeah! And I've never heard of any zombie insects before, have you?"
"Okay, okay," said Téa. "But why don't you just sell them on the internet? Where's the profit in giving them to us?"
Once again, Rex and Weevil locked eyes. "We just saw you looking all dejected over here, so we decided to take pity on you."
"We don't need your pity!" Téa insisted, a stamped foot acting as punctuation.
"I do!" Joey clamoured, snatching one of the cards from Weevil's bony fingers. He then began lightly stroking the card, as though it were a living creature. Not an unheard of gesture on Joey's part, but still a rather odd sight. "Mmm, delicious pity. How I've missed you."
"Where have you been all my life...?" Tristan rasped in what might have been his bedroom voice, had he ever been given cause to use it, as he removed the card from Rex's hand and gazed over it lovingly. "Oh, je t'aime!"
Yugi was hesitant. He could see the grins on Rex and Weevil's faces, and knew that all too often it usually spelled trouble - normally the life-threatening variety. Part of him wanted to believe that the boys could change. After all, he had known such change first-hand. The spirit of his Millennium Puzzle - the one they had come to know as the Pharaoh - had experienced such magnificent change, turning from the chaos and confusion of his former self and choosing instead to be an intimate entity, exploring the depths of friendship and kindness with Yugi as his companion. Not that he would ever think of comparing Rex Raptor or Weevil Underwood to the Pharaoh, but the capacity for change must have been in them also. If he were to discourage that, he would have been just as bad as them. So rather than refuse their offer, he reached out and grasped the glistening card - the one that shone brighter than all the others - and plucked it from Rex's outstretched arm. "Thank you."
"You're quite welcome," Rex spoke, his tone one of deadly seriousness. He lowered his eyes and grinned, a single tooth poking over his lip and biting down lightly. Then he laughed - a cruel, joyless thing - and not a second later, Weevil joined him. Without stopping to explain themselves, they stuffed their pockets full once more and walked away, departing the cinema in favour of the bleak obscurity of nighttime Domino. "Smell you later, dorks!"
"You guys really shouldn't have taken them," Téa spoke up at last.
"Why not, Téa?" Yugi asked, honestly. "Do you think it was some sort of trick?"
"No," Téa sighed, her hand reaching up and touching her brow. "I don't. I think they just wanted to rub it in our faces."
Comprehension dawned on Yugi, rising from his gut to his throat and sitting there like an uncomfortable child, twitching away until somebody would pay attention. These days, it was so rare that Rex and Weevil could actually gloat about something related to Duel Monsters. Just to know that the King of Games, Yugi Moto, was walking around with a card he technically shouldn't have, simply because they chose to give it to him. To them, that was a triumph of sorts. An empty victory, but a victory nonetheless. Yugi half-smiled to himself.
At least it was a step in the right direction.
The rainfall had eased off, and now all that remained were the telltale signs of moonlit puddles which Joey went out of his way to jump into, hoping to cover the other three in dirty pavement water. He seemed to aim for Téa more than either Yugi or Tristan, sometimes joking under his breath that Yugi would especially like to see her drenched. This might have put a dampener on Yugi's spirits, but he was still having a good time. Just being with his friends caused him to rejoice silently; he'd sworn a long time ago that he would never take his friends for granted, and every day he made sure this would be the case. Whenever Joey was behaving like an ass, or Tristan was gushing over some random girl, or Téa started snapping at them both for acting like that, Yugi would remind himself how much they meant to him, that they were always going to be his friends. Nothing could take that away or destroy it, even if they became inexorably separated from one another. He knew that to be a fact, perhaps more than anyone else did. After all, he was the living vessel for a deceased Egyptian Pharaoh. If he could sustain a friendship with such a person - if even death itself could not overcome that kind of devotion - then he knew in his heart that their time together was eternal. Thus he would cherish it, as he would anything that held such subtle strength.
Téa's voice interrupted his musings on friendship, and he barely reacted in time to duck as Joey's feet skimmed the surface of a puddle and sent thick, oily water shooting in his direction. "I had a good time, Yugi."
"You did?" Yugi asked, shielding his face with his arm and laughing. He glanced over at Téa - her eyes were curved upwards, and for the first time that night he noticed she was wearing fake lashes, long and vibrant as they were. He peered through the darkness and thought he perceived slight traces of make-up on her peachy skin. And then he noticed the lipstick. It took him a while to realise he was gawking at her, mouth hanging open, and he quickly turned away. Téa never wore make-up. Especially just to go see some dumb monster movie with the guys. It wasn't like her at all. So why...? "I mean, me too. I really enjoyed the movie. What we saw of it, I mean."
"The movie was okay," Téa agreed, though Yugi knew she was lying through her teeth. They passed under a streetlight, and Yugi couldn't help but notice the skirt she was wearing. It was longer than usual - he'd grown accustomed to her Domino High uniform, which required her to wear something so short it had made his nose bleed for a good half an hour the first time he'd met her - and it struck him that he'd never seen her wearing it before. In fact, he'd never seen her wearing those ear-rings before, either. His palms began to sweat, and his whole body felt as though some unseen tormentor was passing a faint electrical current through it. Here he was, looking like a somewhat scruffy Japanese youth with a penchant for leather, and there she was looking like a woman. He wasn't sure he could handle it. "I'm just glad we're getting to spend some time having fun. It sure beats being stranded on an island somewhere, fighting for our survival while the fate of the world hangs in the balance."
"Yeah, balance," Yugi echoed. There was not an inch of him that hadn't turned bright pink. He was so grateful that the moonlight was monochromatic. "I, um... I would never want to be stranded on an island with you. I mean, ah...!"
"You're quite the charmer, Yugi Moto," she groaned in response. "I gotta admit, I feel kinda silly. When you invited me out tonight, I thought it was just going to be you and me."
"But I suppose it makes sense. We do everything as a team, right?" Téa smiled weakly at him, holding up her right hand. It was a gesture intended to evoke memories of their pact - the first time they'd ever encountered evil, taking on the form of a jaded and corrupt Seto Kaiba, when Téa had drawn the friendship symbol on their hands. Yet now, the pride she typically associated it with was nowhere to be seen. Her voice kept trailing off as she spoke, as if struggling to find its way from her lips. "As long as we stay friends, nothing can go wrong. That's how it's meant to be. For the rest of our lives. Whether we like it or not."
"Téa, what's the matter?" he asked. He could see her eyes were brimming, and he wasn't entirely certain what he had said or done to upset her. He couldn't just stand by and watch her cry - not when she looked that beautiful. "Listen, I... I didn't invite you. This whole outing was Joey's idea. I know you don't like these sorts of movies, and if it was up to me I wouldn't have insisted you tag along. I figured you would have been bored to tears..."
"Yugi..." Now she was crying. Silently, with a kind of grace. Bad choice of words, Yugi scolded himself. "The only reason I came tonight was because you asked me to. That letter you wrote, I thought..."
"What letter-" Yugi began to ask, only to find himself pelted with murky water. The guilty look on Joey's face, coupled with his dripping shoes, told the whole story. "Joey!"
"Nyaha!" Joey chuckled, hiding behind Tristan. "You guys are so cute together. Please, carry on - don't mind me!"
Yugi stared blankly at him, his soaked vest now clinging to his chest and pinching ever so slightly. He was going to shrug it off, shake his head and think to himself: It's just Joey acting like a moron, business as usual. Then he would laugh, allow the conversation to move on, choose to avoid any altercations or emotional drama. Joey was his friend, and no amount of idiocy on his part would jeopardise that fact. He would smile at Téa, she would smile back, and things would progress as if they were normal. And then the next day, things would begin anew. No mention of Téa's near breakdown, or Joey's insensitivity. Yugi just wanted to move on.
Téa, however, had other plans. Storming past Yugi - literally shoving the little guy out of the way in the process - she stood in front of Tristan, Joey safely hidden behind him. Her fury was unmistakable. Her hands were bunched into fists, and her eyes, which had previously looked dazzling, now shot burning daggers at the hapless Wheeler. Only a handful of men had incited Téa's wrath and survived to tell of it. Whether Joey would follow suit remained to be seen. "You! You wrote that letter, didn't you?"
"I don't know what you're talkin' about," Joey smiled innocently, sticking a nonchalant finger in his ear and digging around as if searching for remorse. "What letter? I don't know nothing about no letter. Maybe Tristan knows somethin', or..."
"No, it was you," Téa accused, her voice as cold as the night air. "You've been taunting me about this for weeks, ever since I... You just couldn't let it be, could you?"
"Téa?" said Yugi, taking a step forward. She held up a finger, and he immediately recoiled. He was concerned, but not to the point of stepping into the danger zone that currently encircling Téa. He was brave, not but maybe not quite that brave.
"All that stuff about wanting to be alone with me? The next step in our...?" Téa gasped after every syllable, her stomach lurching painfully as she tried to hold back her sorrow. She started encircling Tristan, stalking Joey as she did so. Joey, on the opposite side, hunched down and began moving in the opposite direction to avoid her hate-filled gaze. "You're garbage, Joey! How would you like it I did something like this to you?"
"Maybe I'd see the funny side?" Joey suggested, his hands pressed up against Tristan's chest as Téa attempted to flank them, pulling him to one side so she couldn't get at him. "That's your problem, Téa, you ain't got no sense of humour. Me, I'd be laughing if someone pulled a prank on me like this."
"No sense of humour?" she replied. "You trick me into coming to see a crappy movie, but I figure it'll be okay because at least I'll get to spend some time with Yugi. You know, on my own? Like it used to be, before..." She shook her head. At this point the tears were coming thick and fast, rushing to evacuate her head as it was instead filled with a powerful rage. "But no, I have to spend the entire night putting up with your... Putting up with you! I bet you've been enjoying every minute of this. Well, congratulations, Joey! You made me look like an idiot! Good job!"
She reached for him, trying to grab him by the scruff of the neck, but Joey swung Tristan around and instead her hand connected with his face, lightly scratching it in the process. "Yow!"
"Sorry, Tristan!" Téa muttered.
"You guys wanna leave me out of this?" begged Tristan, attempting to remain neutral whilst being used for Joey's protection. "I don't even know what happened, but it seems to me like you might wanna work this stuff out when you're both feeling a little less... crazy."
"Yeah, Téa!" Joey called out. "Like Tristan said - quit acting so crazy!"
"That's not what I..."
"I hate you, Joey Wheeler!" Téa screamed - a low, hellish sound that didn't seem like it should have been able to come from such a young, pretty girl. She then launched herself at them both, slamming into Tristan and causing the back of his head to strike Joey square in the nose. Joey's vision was momentarily obliterated by white light, and he stumbled backwards, landing on his butt in the middle of a puddle of water. There he sat, whining incoherently as he clutched at his face and asked nobody in particular if his nose was bleeding. The image of him sitting there, backside drenched as he pawed at his face, was enough to completely rid Téa of any hostility and drive her to fits of laughter. "Haha! Ha...!"
"Ish not funny!" Joey insisted, despite the fact that Tristan and Yugi had now accompanied her revelry. He scrambled to his feet, nearly falling over backwards in the process, and glared at them all. "Quit laughin', awright? I'm serious!" Then, his mouth twitching away, he too found it impossible not to chuckle at himself. His pants were so damp they were hanging down around his waist, his underpants poking over the horizon of his belt. He took a few steps back, pointed at Téa, and wheezed as he held back the giggles that threatened to seize him: "Okay, Gardner, you're goin' down!"
"Come and get me, then!" she beckoned, her words barely breaking through the peals of laughter emanating from their group and doubtlessly waking several sleeping families. Never one to back down from a challenge, Joey rushed forward and kicked at a nearby puddle, his shoe skimming the surface and flying right off his foot. Téa clapped her hands together as she watched the shoe fly in completely the wrong direction, landing in the shadows of a nearby back-alley. The resulting squelch suggested it landed against something soft. "Nice shot, Wheeler. If only you dueled as well as you aimed, maybe you'd actually win a few-"
The moan took them all by surprise. Téa in particular, since it originated directly behind her. It wasn't so much a sound as it was a feeling, like something in the air around them had shifted. It was as if they'd been standing around in the darkness, and all of a sudden somebody had switched on a light. As if they'd been exposed to something not of this world. Like they weren't supposed to be able to hear the moan, but they could hear it nonetheless. Whatever these sensations meant - and they had to mean something, or else they'd all just momentarily gone insane - they didn't stop Téa from turning around and confronting whatever had made such an unearthly and unsettling noise.
There in the alley, she beheld a man. Or at least, the shape of a man. His left leg was twisted at a strange angle, like he'd paused in mid-step and wasn't sure in which direction he was supposed to be traveling. His arms hung limply by his side, the way a teenager might stand if they were feeling severely put out. Something about the shape of his head struck Téa as being unnatural - like it seemed to be just a little too small to belong to the body it was apparently attached to. He appeared to be dressed in rags, and for one grisly moment Téa was afraid they'd woken a homeless person and now he was going to drunkenly attack them, his violence no doubt as awkward and pathetic as his stature. Instead, he just stood there, regarding them with only a tilt of his misshapen head. Téa wanted to turn away and leave, mumble something apologetic and just vamoose. But her legs wouldn't allow her to budge. She was transfixed by this unappealing, gangly gentleman who apparently had nothing better to do than stand around and watch things with mild disinterest.
"Excuse me...?" Yugi piped up, as the others merely looked aghast in unison. "We're sorry if we were making too much noise, we're just passing through."
The moan came again, and this time Téa cried out in response. She expected the man to lurch forward at this, to leap onto her with unnatural force and begin his assault. No doubt he was dangerous, they could each sense this. But how could someone so frail, and incapable of coherent speech, be a threat? As she was thinking this, the shape raised its arm aloft, and held out a familiar object. Joey's shoe. She gasped, realising that its wild trajectory must have caused it to hit him instead. But was he just offering the shoe back to them, or was he demanding an apology? And why the heck was he so damn quiet? Before she could respond, the man began shuffling toward her. She'd never seen anybody move in such a manner, feet never actually leaving the ground but actually making considerable progress. It was as though he was afraid that his foot might snap off if he removed it from the sidewalk. Téa stared, paralysed in fear and anticipation. She wanted the moon to break through the clouds at just the right moment and expose his face, show her something altogether alien. Perhaps he didn't even have a face - maybe he just had a mass of contorted skin, with only faint traces of eye sockets that had long since disintegrated. This was what she wanted - her own personal monster movie experience. No CGI required.
He reached her now, the shoe mere inches from her own hand. She could no more recognise his face from this distance than she could when he was twenty feet away, but at least she could tell she wasn't imagining him now. The sense of danger hadn't disappeared; it felt like she was adrift at sea, surrounded by underwater shadows that occasionally surfaced to reveal innumerable rows of hungry teeth. She squinted at the man, hoping he would do something to show a genuine intent to hurt her. His apathy frightened her more than anything - there was no desire in his actions, just this banal series of motions. It was as though someone had constructed a robot made entirely from assorted human pieces, and tossed it aside fearing somebody might look upon it and understand that the mere concept was an abomination. But here the abomination stood, and she found herself directly in its path.
Trembling, she reached out to take the shoe. She knew that if she hadn't done so, they would have remained in this position until her heart - which was thumping furiously in her chest - collapsed from sheer terror. "I'm sorry. My friend, he... He was trying to hit me. Not you. We didn't mean to..."
And then, the monster attacked.
At first she was consumed by relief. For this was what she had been anticipating - the indifference it had shown up until this point had been most disquieting. At least now she could attempt to physically defend herself. The man reached out and grabbed her by the arms, his leathery fingers biting into the bare skin on her shoulders. She could hear him breathing loudly against her - but strangely, she could not feel it. Struggling, she let out a loud cry for help, and proceeded to draw her knee up to meet his crotch. The strong muscles in her legs grew taut as she connected, the soft crunch eliciting a strange grin from her previously helpless expression. The man, however, did not even hesitate. There was no pained reaction, nor was there any sort of reaction at all. Instead she just felt him moving closer and closer, his arms reached around as if attempting to give her a friendly hug. Their faces were inches apart, and for an absurd moment Téa thought to herself: This is the closest I've ever come to kissing someone.
Tristan's fist exploded against the man's face, knocking him to one side and forcing Téa from his clutches. She felt herself falling backwards, the feeling completely gone from her legs, only for Yugi and Joey to rush up and catch her. Staring vacantly up at them, she smiled to herself and wondered why she'd even been upset at either of them in the first place. No doubt she would remember tomorrow and become riled up all over again, but right now she was just glad to be rescued from that shambling, man-shaped creature by two of her closest friends - and Yugi. How she loved to be rescued by Yugi. One of these days, she was going to have to return the favour.
"Thank you," she uttered blearily, grabbing Joey's arm and pulling herself back into a standing position. Joey nodded at her, unsure of how to react. He didn't know if she would bite his head off, or if she'd plant a kiss on his cheek. Either way, he wasn't about to encourage it. "What was that...?"
"Who knows," Tristan replied, turning around. "The important thing is, you're okay, and whoever..."
Without warning, the shape returned. It rose from the ground almost like an inflatable bop bag, popping back up barely fazed by Tristan's punch. It wrapped its arms around Tristan from behind, leaning over his shoulder and driving its head down into his neck. Yugi, Joey, and Téa all watched in horror as Tristan howled in pain. An instant later the shape removed itself, and Tristan fell to his knees. At that moment, the moon did indeed reveal itself in the sky overhead, and they were all able to see the man's face in grotesque detail. Téa now knew why his head seemed oddly shaped, and it was a sight that would haunt her for weeks to come. Part of it wasn't even there. His skull had been caved in, perhaps as a result of some accident or maybe during a previous attack, but whatever the reason half of his face was completely missing. Téa felt the bile rise in her throat, and she turned away in time to be spared the sight of Joey launching himself at the disfigured assailant, his bare foot connecting with his throat and sending him flying into a nearby pile of trash.
"Tristan!" Yugi called out, hunching down and shouldering his friend's weight. "Are you okay? Come on, let's get out of..."
He cut himself off in mid-sentence, now horrified by what he was feeling underneath Tristan's shoulder. A damp patch on his shirt - but Yugi knew for a fact that Tristan hadn't been splashed, despite Joey's perpetual attempts to ensure otherwise. Besides, this patch was warm and fresh. He was bleeding. Yugi pulled away and looked at Tristan's arm, following the scarlet path as it led all the way up to his neck. There were hasty tooth marks all over it - the flesh had been frantically tugged away by those blunt instruments, as if he'd been set upon by a clumsy vampire. Yugi's skin turned white - one of many different shades it had switched between that night - and he hoisted his friend over his back, doing his best to keep himself upright.
"Don't worry, Tristan," he insisted, more for himself than anything else. He'd never seen anybody wounded quite so severely - Domino was a peaceful place when it wasn't busy being the epicentre of the world's destruction, and something like this was simply unheard of. But he had to keep his friend's mind at ease too. In the corner of his eye, he spotted Joey tending to Téa as they each came to their senses and fled the scene. If that faceless man got to his feet again, Yugi didn't want to be around when it happened. "You're going to be okay. You're going to be okay. You're going to be okay!"
"Why did he bite me, man...?" Tristan babbled, his eyelids drooping one after the other. "What kinda person... does... that...?"
Tristan faded from consciousness as the moon passed once more into shadow. And as they ran from the alleyway with as much speed as they could muster, the faceless ghoul rose once more and stood amidst the garbage, watching them go. It let out one final moan, like the air escaping from a balloon, and retreated slowly back into the darkness from whence it emerged.
It wouldn't be seen again for days.
END OF CHAPTER ONE