Short Story: Three Live Mice

Title: Three Live Mice

Length:  6015 words

Summary: Abe gets a shock when his new boyfriend Steve asks him to pick up some mice from the local feed store.

Setting: Stands alone; happens before the ‘For Your Own Safety’ stories.

Note: I used to work at a pet store (before the advent of frozen mice) and the vast majority of our mouse sales were not as pets. (A surprising number of fish weren’t sold as pets, either.)  In Australia, chucking cane toads (an introduced pest species taking over the country) in the freezer is far more humane than the other popular methods of killing them (cane toad cricket, cane toad road kill or cane toad splat). No, we can’t not kill the cane toads. Also, like Steve I am not tall or big – yes, there is a reason I write awesome short protagonists – and I have shimmied through a caravan window. I got paid $2 NZ to do it, too. Hindsight says I was drastically underpaid given the cost of a locksmith, even at the time.

Content warnings: Steve is a too-practical, desensitised, Australian country boy (well, raised as one) indifferent to the cruelty he wrecks on innocent mice, cane toads or other similar living creatures. This is the person who torched a zombie kangaroo on the main drag. Also, Abe is a bit of a douche. This will be important later.

Abe sighs and pulls out his mobile phone just as he reaches his car. He blinks in surprise when he sees that it isn’t work—most often some disgruntled owner or builder wanting last-minute changes approved by the council even though council regulations won’t allow said changes until hell freezes over. No: Steve. Steve, though, isn’t a phone-using guy—not in the traditional, old-school sense of actually making phone calls. He has one on his person just in case someone breaks their spine way out in the middle of nowhere and Greg and a patrol unit are needed on scene, but as near as Abe can tell Steve only uses his phone to run Port Carmila’s most popular Twitter account, Shit Breather Tourists Ask Me. Bill, apparently, is fine with Steve live-tweeting the worst of ignorant and hilarious tourist questions under the desk while he rings up purchases—or retweeting similar words of infamy from other long-suffering customer service locals. Text messages, though? Every other person Abe has ever dated sent pointless, random or lovey-dovey texts at least once if not several times a day; Steve doesn’t even forward jokes.

If he wants to pop around to see Abe, he knocks on Abe’s door without so much as an announcement or forewarning.

“Abe Browning speaking,” he says, forgetting for half a minute that he’s not at work. “Steve? Is something wrong?”

His brain supplies a comprehensive list: a zombie attack, anaphylaxis, a car cash, Steve shooting himself with his own handgun, Jack crashing Steve’s ute, some underwater mishap featuring Phil and a horde of angry merwomen, Debra wandering the streets of Port Carmila as the mindless, feral undead…

“Hey—what? No.” Steve sounds positively mystified. “I just wondered if you could do me a favour.”

“What?” Yes, it makes him a bad boyfriend, but this is Steve, who is more than capable of making the most ridiculous off-the-cuff suggestions in complete and utter seriousness. Who knows what Abe might be agreeing to? Bondage gear? Ice-cream? A collection of pamphlets for an extreme holiday in Queenstown? Five tins of purple paint and a birthday dare? Being attracted to him doesn’t mean Abe is going to be stupid about it: in the last four weeks Abe has learnt that it’s always better to know first what kind of absurdity Steve plans!

“It’s nothing weird, I promise. I just need you to pick up something for me on the way from town. I’ll pay you back.” Steve’s voice softens into a whisper that sounds more like a man trying to be sexy as opposed to actually succeeding. “I’ll even kiss you, too. As thanks. I’ll do a lot more than that, even.”

Abe bites back the urge to groan. He hopes Steve means kissing some venom-free location on Abe’s body, but he can’t help the suspicion that Steve in fact means to wrap Abe’s head in Glad Wrap. He supposes he should be relieved that Steve at least realises he shouldn’t suffocate himself with layers of clinging plastic, but that doesn’t make Steve’s plans very much the better! “You don’t have to,” he says, trying not to sigh. Abe would give his life to be able to kiss Steve, but he can’t, so why does Steve have to make it worse by not letting the issue drop? It’s bad enough that they’re dating at all! “What is it? Is it expensive? I’ve only got a fifty on me.”

“Twenty bucks or so—tell Alicia it’s me and she’ll give you a discount.”

Alicia? Abe doesn’t know the name, but he doesn’t know the vast majority of people Steve mentions. “Fine. Supermarket?”

“The feed store,” Steve says. “If you could pick me up say two … no, three live mice? Don’t worry about a cage or a container or anything; a cardboard shoe box will be fine. Alicia always has something. Thank you so much, Abe! Otherwise I’d have to drive out myself, and, well…”

For a moment Abe isn’t sure he heard correctly. “Mice?

“Mice.” Steve’s single word is followed by a loud crashing noise, a scream that doesn’t quite sound like Steve, another thud—and someone yelling something furious and incomprehensible in Japanese. “Arugh! Sorry, Abe, got to go. Thanks so much for picking up the mice!” Abe hears another crash right in his ear, as if Steve tossed the phone onto the nearest hard surface. “I’m fine, Chichi. He didn’t get me. Just chewed on my … shizuka? What am I, your student?”

Chewed on something? A zombie can’t have gotten inside the house, can it? Abe was assured when moving here that locked doors, bars over windows and regular patrols keep out zombies as much as they do unlawful breathers, but he always thought the assurances were more fearmongering than not: Abe has shared his house with his zombie cat, Muffin, for almost eighteen months, and he’s yet to see anything remotely resembling a zombie in the backyard. Sure, every so often he reads in the paper about a now-undead tourist or a rash of sheep killings, but the Port Carmila Zombie Patrol Squad seems to do its job in terms of keeping the undead away from residential houses.

Abe stares at his phone for a few more minutes, but all he hears are various crashing noises. None of it bodes well, but Steve doesn’t respond to his questions, so he ends the call and unlocks the car. Mice? There’s something he’s not getting, he’s sure. Steve doesn’t have any pets, and if he wants to start looking after mice, surely he’ll be more involved in the process of selecting them? What if Abe gets the wrong colour or the wrong sex? What if Steve ends up with hundreds of mice? Logically, that’s Steve’s problem, isn’t it?

He has no answer, so Abe turns the key in the ignition and heads down the main drag towards Port Carmila’s feed store, somewhere Abe has never been or imagined visiting. It sells feed for cattle, sheep and horses, he assumes. Mice, apparently. He pulls up into an empty park around the corner from the shop and debates ringing Steve to try and make sense out of this—except that Steve was quite specific in stating a request for live mice, sans a cage. How can he get any more exact? But why? He doesn’t have a cat, not that Abe can imagine Steve buying mice for a cat to play with—the Nakamura family doesn’t have any pets at all, something Abe considers a little odd. Sure, it might not the best idea to let pets outside at night, but cats shouldn’t be allowed to roam at all, so Abe doesn’t see any marked difference in keeping Muffin inside because of a stray zombie or because of protecting the native bird life … or, well, anything with a brain. Nor is it as though Steve’s family are about to adopt an undead pet!

Aside from a need to dine on brain tissue as opposed to Fancy Feast, Muffin is nothing more than a sweet, not-terribly-pretty black zombie cat, the kind so often destroyed and incinerated by shelters because people want a cute living pet, even though Muffin, as much part of the twenty percent as Steve’s neighbours, is no more like to maul a breather than any other living feline. Well, he does like to jig the catch on the laundry door, sneak into the lounge, sit on the floor and stare unblinkingly at Steve, perhaps in protest from his banning from the lounge and kitchen. The last thing Steve needs is to be licked by a zombie cat, but Muffin has never once tried to jump on Steve, and Steve himself seems far less bothered by this than he should be. Abe rushes Muffin from the lounge to keep Steve from fondling the zombie cat, not the other way around!

The feed shop is a shed, open and drafty, resembling a warehouse more than it does a shop, with rows of sacks on pallets smelling of dried grass and grain. Abe passes wormers, tack for horses, a shelf of intriguing medicinal products, and a section by the register clearly devoted to non-livestock animals stocking pet toys, dry dog food, rabbit cages and a glass tank filled with shavings and a tangle of quite-adorable black-and-white mice.

“Mice?” The sales assistant wears a company polo shirt and a set of fake cat ears over her textured dark hair. “We’re having a rush on them, lately.”

A rush on mice?

“Three, please,” Abe says. “Steve Nakamura sent me.”

“Oh, sure.” She shrugs, pulls a pre-punched cardboard shoe box out from under the bench and heads over towards the tank. Abe expects her to ask just what he wants mice for or if he has the proper equipment to care for them—well, Abe would have asked that sort of thing, if he worked in a pet store and some stranger came in buying animals. People just shouldn’t be able to buy living or undead things without any guarantee they are going to be looked after! Unless she thinks he is buying them to feed to a snake? Abe shudders, quite horrified at the thought. These are pet mice, living creatures. It’s not right to go and buy them just to feed them to something else—at least Muffin eats the brain tissue of creatures already killed for breather consumption!

He’s aware that it’s a shade hypocritical to be a vampire and shudder at the thought of killing someone for his supper, but it’s not as though he needs to take a life to feed. He pays good money for blood donations, which means he never runs out of blood and breathers make an extra income out donating—which helps the hospitals, too. There’s no need for a vampire to be as uncivilised as films and books make out. He doesn’t even need to subsist on pig blood to be ethical about it!

She pulls the lid off the tank and reaches in with her right hand.

“Um, wait. Don’t I get to choose which ones?”

She blinks. “Choose?”

“That little one, with the cute black ears … and that nearly black one, in the corner. And that one with the white head. I guess they’re all female or something?”

“Most people really don’t care,” she says, but she scoops up the requested mice and lowers them, gently, into the box. “Are you actually buying them as pets?”

“Uh … yes?” That has to be it, surely. What other reason does Steve have to be buying mice?

She gives Abe a confused look as she hands him the box, but she doesn’t ask any more questions. “Eighteen dollars, thanks. Say hi to Steve for me?”

Abe pays her and leaves, cradling the box against his chest as he listens to the scratching of claws over cardboard. The noise they make moving around is surprisingly loud for such tiny little creatures, and he wonders about their safety as he secures the box in the passenger-side footwell between the front edge of the seat and Abe’s briefcase. He hears little squeaks not quite drowned out by the motor, and although the sour-musk scent is surprisingly strong and makes him ponder deodorising the hatchback, they really are cute little things—and there’s something oddly compelling in the sense of such tiny, pulsing, living hearts. How can something so small and frail be so gloriously alive? It’s a shame Muffin can’t be trusted to leave them uneaten while Abe is at work, because he feels tempted to get a couple of mice himself. Steve, if he hasn’t decided to adopt a pet diamond python—and while Abe can’t see Debra caring about such an addition to the household, he’s almost certain Chichi will—let him play with them, though, and that’s good enough.

He pulls up to the Nakamura house, as always in want of a lick of paint and a good mowing. Steve sits slouched on the front porch, his arms folded: he does a good impression of disgruntled as he stares at the saltbush lining the front fence. Abe can’t help a grin as he parks out the front, but it doesn’t come without a stab of pain. Steve looks adorable from all angles as far as Abe is concerned, but he looks most adorable when pissed off, perhaps in part because Steve is cheerful so much of the time: his scowl renders his lips pursed, lush and kissable, and just thinking about Steve as someone who should be kissed is enough to start the thoughts Steve doesn’t think important.

Why the fuck is Abe dating a man he can kill? Why the fuck is Abe dating someone he can’t fully have? Why the fuck isn’t Abe man enough to look Steve in the eye and tell him that this can’t work?

Because Steve sits up and grins as Abe gets out of the car, and there’s so much vibrant life in his smile as he bounds down the front steps and across the too-long front lawn it doesn’t matter that Abe wants him for purely selfish reasons. All he wants is Steve’s body pressed against Abe’s, Steve’s laugh, Steve’s absurd suggestions, Steve’s reflections on everything under the sun—and if he can only have part of that, does it matter at all, as long as he has some of it?

“Did you get them? That thing up there kept me awake all last night, and the parentals were shit scared it was going get down into the house and bite me in my sleep. As fucking if I were going to sleep through it getting into my room, seriously.” Steve leaps over the rusting wire gate dividing the fence into two and gives Abe a light, playful punch to the shoulder before taking the box from Abe’s hands. “Chichi kicked me out because he was afraid of me being bitten—I know, right? I’d ring Mum and complain except she’s down at Limeburner’s Creek and she’d kick my arse for whining about inconsequential shit when there’s a fucking feral horde. Which is true. But, man, I was wearing welding gloves and shin guards from that time Chichi tried to play cricket. I was safe!”

What? Abe stares at him, beset by a sudden sinking feeling that does nothing for his lunch. “Um. What are you talking about?” Welding gloves? A feral cat? While Akihiko Nakamura is the more reserved—Abe would say normal—member of the Nakamura family, he can’t imagine even Akihiko kicking Steve out over a feral cat, nor Debra worrying all night about a bite from said feral cat. They don’t seem to care that Steve is dating a vampire, after all! Anything short of basejumping isn’t going to have Debra losing sleep … which leaves only one other option, as near as Abe can figure.

“Oh. Sorry. Didn’t I say?” Steve shrugs as if it’s no big deal. “There’s a zombie possum up in the roof.”

Confirmation, Abe thinks, doesn’t make the situation even remotely better. “There’s a what…?”

“A zombie possum up in the roof.” Steve bounds back over the gate, apparently not caring that he’s jumping with the box of mice in hand; Abe winces as he imagines little mouse bodies smacking into the lid. “Oi! Chichi! Nezumi!”

A zombie possum. A feral zombie possum, presumably: far more dangerous than a staring zombie cat Abe tries his hardest to keep away from Steve despite Muffin and Steve’s attempts to commune. A zombie possum that loves to snack on breather brains—and will bite a man who is deathly allergic to zombies.

“And you’re complaining because the sensible people of this world—those that aren’t you—don’t want you bitten or scratched by a zombie? Are you fucking serious? A zombie possum in the roof, Steve? And you want to go near it?”

Yes, Steve’s courage is one of the many things Abe adores about Steve, but who else will be trying to catch a zombie with welding gloves and complaining because everyone else thinks that a terrible idea?

“They’re really common,” Steve says, as if Abe asked a question about the existence of zombie possums. “If you were a starving zombie in the bush, wouldn’t you go after anything living? But since zombies are slow and missing limbs, sometimes the possums get away, and when they die, well. Zombie possum. Wait until you see a zombie roo or a feral dog. They’re fucking badarse, man.”

The casual approach to imparting this information is more chilling than the information itself: Abe always thought zombie animals, like spiders and rabbits and possums, far less common than the pamphlets from Port Carmila’s Tourist Information Centre lead one to believe. He hasn’t seen any, after all, and aside from one zombie mouse found lurking in the Council mail room, he hasn’t heard of any. Of course, the only reason the zombie possum is at all noteworthy is Steve: how much hurt can a possum do to someone before they kicked or punched it away, anyway? It’s not as though most breathers here aren’t carriers. Claws and teeth might draw blood, but they’re not going to kill someone … as far as Abe knows about possums, anyway. He can’t remember any of the possums dwelling in half the roofs in Melbourne actually killing people, so why should a zombie possum be that much different?

For Steve, though, it is different.

“You know that wasn’t what I was asking!” Abe sighs, opens the gate and heads up the path like an ordinary person who doesn’t jump gates, bushes and fences for the sheer joy of it. “Common? How common? I’ve never seen any.”

Steve snickers, jumps up on the porch and rings the doorbell, a sick stuttering noise that in no way resembles an actual doorbell. “Abe? Mate, you’re a fucking vampire. Why would a zombie be skulking around your joint? They can sense your lack of viable brain tissue, man—yours and Muffin’s. Not mention the fact that you live two doors down from old Sian MacGillycuddy—you know she’s the neighbourhood patroller, right? No zombie’s going to cross her garden and live to tell about it.”

It’s all he can do to stare at Steve—stare, without yelling, swearing or waving his hands. “How common?”

The look on Steve’s face is answer enough. “It’s not that big a deal.” He hits the doorbell again. A dim thump sounds from inside. “Say. If one of the mice makes it through without turning feral or getting too mushed up—do you reckon Muffin will like a friend? It’s not as though he can eat a zombie mouse, and Chichi will have a cow before letting me keep it.”

He knows that Steve is the lord and master of the non sequitur, but even so… “Wait—what? Zombie mouse?”

Something in Steve’s chin-wobbling expression—not tears, no, but poorly-suppressed mirth—suggests that Abe has the wrong end of the stick, and he doesn’t like the feeling.

“Steve?”

Steve draws a breath and appears to be trying very hard to not roll on the lawn in laughter; his hands shake as he leans against the wall, and he can’t quite wipe the grin off his face. “Abe. Man. You know the mice are to trap the possum, right? Live bait? We have a trap, so we stick the mice in the trap and the possum goes after the mice. Voilà, no more possum in the roof. Much easier than doing what Chichi’s trying to do now—pulling the suitcases off the rafters.”

Abe can only stand there, frozen in horror, and think of those adorable little black and white mice. Brains on legs. Beady eyes and twitching noses, now rendered innocent bait for an undead creature who will kill them at worst and turn them into fellow zombie creatures at best, most likely a mindless, slavering creature rendered insane by hunger…

Inside the house, Akihiko yells something incomprehensible and possibly not in English.

“It’s under the sink!” Steve rolls his eyes as he hollers. “I’ll get it for you if you let me in!”

Akihiko’s two-syllable word holds a world of emphasis: “Iie!

“You don’t need to translate that,” Abe says, just as a louder crash sounds—he suspects broken glass. Akihiko says something that is definitely not English and absolutely a swear word. Abe considers for a moment, because he doesn’t want to give Steve ideas, but the question is worth asking. “Why are you not just … well, entering anyway?”

“He took,” Steve says with gritted teeth, “my fucking keys. And locked all the windows—even the laundry window. I can just wriggle through the bars, you know? I once saved these people in a caravan from calling a locksmith by shimmying in through their window.” He angles his head and purses his lips. “I hope he broke the toilet roll holder and not the toilet. I’ll fucking kill him if he broke the toilet.”

For some reason, it’s not difficult to imagine Steve wriggling through a caravan window. Abe supposes he should be glad Steve didn’t ring a locksmith.

“So when you have the mice and the possum in the trap…?”

“You can do the cane toad deal and chuck them in the freezer.” Steve opens the lid and peers in the mouse box. “Aw. You picked some cute ones, Abe. Anyway, they won’t die, but they can’t do anything while frozen solid. Or you can drench them in kerosene and set them alight. It’s less fun—no zombie cricket—but it saves on freezer space. And the ice-cream smelling like zombie.” He pitches his voice louder. “Chichi! Abe wa nezumi o kaimashita!

Abe doesn’t even think about it: he just reaches forwards and snatches the box straight out of Steve’s hands, spurred on by the far-too-clear mental image of Steve whacking a frozen zombie mouse with a cricket bat.

Steve stares at him for a moment, as if too surprised to speak, but then he shakes his head, smiling like a teacher amused at the natural chaos caused by kindergarten kids, Clag, paint and macaroni. “Oh, Abe. C’mon, man. Hand over the mice.”

“You can catch it some other way, can’t you?” Abe steps back towards the edge of the porch. “Shoot it? You’ve got fifteen guns in your hallway! One of them must work on a zombie possum?”

Yes, a zombie dwelling in the roof of his boyfriend’s house is potentially fatal for said boyfriend, but the mice have such cute little ears. Why should they have to die just to catch a zombie? No, he’ll take them home, and he’ll find a way to keep Muffin away from them, somehow. He can buy a tank. Put up with the smell. Name them Peter, Ray and Egon.

Steve still looks far too amused—so amused, Abe realises in horror, that this is most likely going to become a story told to Jack, Phil, Johanna and Izzy around a table at the Shotgun. The kind of story that makes hunters laugh uproariously at non-hunters before downing shots of vodka—or brain-and-formaldehyde cocktails—and laughing some more…

“Dude. You know fuck all about firearms, don’t you? Sure, let’s shoot something hiding behind a stack of old suitcases inside the fucking house—the only thing we’re going to fuck up are the tiles or the rafters or the ceiling.” Steve shrugs and shakes his head. “If it were smaller we’d suck it up with the vacuum cleaner like we do with mice and spiders, but no. We need to get it to come out. Before bed would be nice.” He frowns and looks at Abe, his expression softening into a rather unaccustomed seriousness. “I forget you’re a city boy—I didn’t think this would bother you. It’s just—well, Alicia trades in mice pretty much for this. What, do we leave the poor thing to wander the countryside and infect other animals and people?”

It shouldn’t have to take the deaths of innocent creatures to bring about that end, Abe thinks. How did Steve get to be so cavalier about this sort of thing? He copes with the dangerous the way other people cope with watching a good movie … but he also thinks it appropriate to chase down a zombie possum himself, so perhaps the two go hand in hand. Steve shouldn’t be sleeping in a house haunted by an undead creature, though, so Abe nods and reaches out to hand over the box, albeit while trying to ignore the scratching sounds made by the mice as they move. In a way it is kind of flattering that Steve assumes Abe tough, even though there is no basis in reality to allow anyone to make that kind of assumption.

“So—”

The front door slams open: Steve’s father steps out onto the porch, his hair tousled and covered in dust, his brown dress slacks crumpled and dirt-streaked. Given that Akihiko Nakamura is another fellow bookish sort, his appearance is startling—as is his folded arms, his scowl and the emphatic string of syllables directed at his son. His voice isn’t loud, but it lacks nothing in enthusiasm and reminds Abe just why this man is, in fact, a high-school teacher.

Of course, lecturing at Steve is something like lecturing a chicken in terms of actual effect. He stands there for a moment, eyebrows raised, and then jerks a thumb at Abe: “Chichi! Eigo o hanashite kudasai!

Akihiko blinks and rubs his palms down his trousers. He looks embarrassed in a way Abe finds endearing—mostly because he doesn’t think Steve capable of such an emotion. “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, don’t be,” Abe says. “He deserves the telling off. Please, by all means, go right ahead.”

“Some boyfriend you are.” Steve rolls his eyes—Abe knows Steve well enough by now to know he’s not even remotely offended—just as Akihiko grins.

Abe likes Steve’s father because his grin is mild and he doesn’t say much; Steve and Steve’s mother in the same room together is quite a frightening prospect without a third smiling, too-vibrant person added to the roster. Someone like Debra—or Steve—needs someone ordinary and even mild-mannered around. It is the sole reason, Abe is sure, that Akihiko is so apparently fine with his allergic son dating a vampire, despite the continual risk Abe offers to Steve’s life. He might not trust Steve to care, but he does seem to trust that Abe will worry about the things Steve blithely ignores … and it’s always nice to look across the lounge room or the porch and see someone who understands both what it means to be dating Steve and what it means to not be a zombie-hunting Nakamura.

He grins back.

“Stop it, both of you. Chichi. Abe got us the mice. Can we go up now and set the trap?”

Akihiko’s eyes widen in the expression of a man watching his words make no impact before a child runs across the road and into an oncoming car, but he addresses Abe. “Thank you for doing that for us.”

“Not a problem.” Abe nods and tries not to think of those poor little mice. “Do you want me to take Steve away now, so you don’t have to put up with him complaining on your front porch?” Not to mention the fact that Abe has no wish to be around when those mice and the possum met their frozen or smouldering end—in fact, worrying about scaling a cliff face seems like a much more enjoyable prospect, especially if it is followed by a nice evening picnic in the bush.

Akihiko’s relief is almost palpable as Abe hands him the shoebox of mice. “Arigatou—thank you.”

It’s not until Akihiko takes the box, glances once at Steve and retreats back into the house—the lock clicking behind him—that Abe notes the strange, absurd, unnatural sound that surrounds him: silence.

Steve slides into a sitting position on the porch and stares at the saltbush, his hands threaded together. He has oddly long fingers and hands for a man so otherwise lacking in stature. Piano fingers. It suits him, though: Steve’s attractiveness doesn’t lie in classical proportions as much as it lies in a broad smile and more personality than one skin should contain.

“Rock climbing? I thought you might like that.”

Steve doesn’t even so much as turn his head. He just sits there, his lips pressed together, not even the ghost of motion set to mar the fall of his hair or green T-shirt. It’s not until the silence lingers past the point of ridiculousness that Abe understands Steve’s quiet is a thing of fury—strange in a man who gives voice to everything else flickering through his mind.

Shit.

“What else were you going to do?” There’s a defensive edge to Abe’s words he suspects isn’t going to go down well, but what else can he say? Surely Steve realises just how ridiculously unnecessary it is for him to risk his life in an entanglement with a zombie possum? Does he want to go to the ED for a third time? The second time was bad enough! “Sit here and drive you and him crazy just because he’s looking after you? Won’t it be better to go and do something fun?”

Steve laughs, but it’s a brittle, edged noise that contains nothing of his usual good humour. “Right! Sure. I’m a registered zombie hunter who has been volunteering with the PCZPS since I was fifteen. Chichi? He can barely hit a huntsman with a fly swatter. I’m not the one that should be worried about the zombie.” He stands and brushes himself off. “I’m going to Johanna’s. Maybe you can stick around and make sure Chichi doesn’t fall through the ceiling.”

Abe almost yells, sick of Steve’s stubbornness; only the knowledge that Steve is going to pay no attention to the volume keeps him silent. Doesn’t he get it? Skills and experience don’t matter; Steve’s life does. It’s bad enough that he’s still going out with his friends, even if Steve’s hunting expertise turned out to mean more time spent behind the wheel of his ute than behind the barrel of a gun—a fact Abe knows for sure he hasn’t mentioned to his immunologist. Why does he need to risk his life by tangling with a possum? Doesn’t he know how lucky he is to have a family that cares so much for him?

“Your dad isn’t that useless.”

Steve frowns and stops by the driver’s side door of his rusting Toyota ute. “No. He’s not.” He opens the door, sits on the bench seat and starts unlacing his boots, a pair of sturdy leather combat boots well-worn and well-polished. He yanks off his socks—rainbow-striped, and either he found a specialist retailer online or they’re ladies’ socks—before he reaches into the cab and pulls out a pair of black wedge sandals. “And neither are you, but I’m not, either.”

He thought Steve joked about the drag queen persona.

“Um?”

Steve sighs and either mistakenly or deliberately misinterprets Abe’s question. “Why can’t I do something I’ve been doing all my life?”

For much the same reasons Abe can’t eat or sleep. Abe got over that. Steve is just going to have to get used to the fact that he can’t do everything anymore—hell, he can do so many things that make Abe envious just to think about, so what does it matter if he can’t hunt down a few zombies? He still has his job, his family, his friends, his breath and—against Abe’s better judgement—his boyfriend. He can do the sports he loves. He has everything in the world but the zombie hunt, a proper relationship with Abe—and the people in Sydney perturbed by a carrier.

Steve’s set, strangely still face, though, suggests that he’s not in any mood to hear that kind of logic. He stands up, his jeans falling to land just above the bottom of the wedges, but he doesn’t sway as he slams shut the ute door. Abe would have fallen flat on his face, he’s sure, but Steve just looks as comfortable in heels as he is in boots or runners.

He’s not sure what to say, not at all, so nobody is more surprised than Abe when the words tangle themselves out of his mouth: “Do you want to drive up to—oh, Lake’s Entrance or somewhere, and hit up a few shoe stores?”

Steve turns his head and frowns. “Are you sassing me?”

It’s somehow relieving to realise that Steve isn’t quite as self-confident as he appears, although it might also be a measure of his unhappiness: ordinarily Abe would have expected Steve to grin, nod and bound over to the car without even as much as second-guessing Abe’s intent. “Um. No? I just … well, black is kind of boring, isn’t it? I thought you’d wear something more colourful.” He waves a hand toward Steve’s hair, currently sporting magenta tips just starting to fade out. If Steve doesn’t plan on spending that evening with a jar of Manic Panic, Abe will eat his briefcase. “I bet we could find something.”

The fact that Steve hesitates is enough to make Abe’s stomach knot, but he nods. “Johanna gave me these.”

Abe doesn’t know if that is a conversation he would have given his soul to overhear—or if he should be thoroughly glad he’s ignorant of it all. He feels a little weird about it, though: he’s both gay and Steve’s boyfriend, so shouldn’t he be a safe person to talk to about shoes? Then again, Abe’s choices in shoes tend to dress shoes, loafers and sometimes runners, so perhaps even a butch lesbian is a better conversational partner. Maybe, too, this is Steve’s way of talking about it, given that Steve doesn’t tend to sit around and simmer in angst before doing anything—and the man who can decide to make out with a gay vampire can also decide, with the same amount of ease, to wear a pair of high heels.

“Training shoes?”

Steve does smile, then. “Yeah, actually.”

“Come on,” Abe says. Abe will never want to try on ladies’ shoes in an ordinary shoe shop, but Steve won’t care about petty things like that, and if there’s anything good about being a vampire it’s the ability to watch people’s eyes glance away from his face. “I mean, I don’t know anything about shoes, but I can hold them while you try things on. And glare at the sales people and annoying customers. If we go now we can get there before the shops close.”

Steve opens the door and pulls his denim messenger bag out of the ute. “Well, it’s not like I’m getting in or Lisa’s going to hand over the spare keys, so I might as well. The zombie’s only going to chew on him a little—I’ll text Mum and let her know Chichi’s going to try and burn a zombie on his own.” He nods, and if he doesn’t quite seem his usual exuberant self, at least his smile appears more natural. “She’ll give him hell over that.”

He heads down the drive towards Abe’s hatchback; Abe follows.

Maybe, given time and patience, Steve will come to accept the few things he now can’t do. Maybe he’ll accept it as easily as he accepts his sexuality and whatever expression of gender that drives him to wear ladies’ socks and shoes. Maybe he’ll realise that Chichi and Abe say what they say out of love. Maybe he’ll come to value his own life in the way he not only should but deserves.

Abe crosses his fingers behind his back and hopes, in the meantime, shoes are enough of a distraction from zombies … and mice.

Translation notes:

shizuka – quiet/silence

nezumi – mouse

iie – no

Abe wa nezumi o kaimashita – Abe bought the mice

eigo o hanashite kudasai – please speak in English

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