brains go great with aquavit

 

If Irina and James hadn't decided to request that all the guests at their commitment ceremony wear black, a lot of things might not have happened. Miss Pastels, the weird witch lady from the end of town, might not have shown up and made loud announcements about the inauspicious date the lovebirds had chosen. Marshall, the fireman Irina had dated for a split second two summers ago, might not have decided to crash the ceremony wearing nothing but a black thong. And Julian Rainville might not have gotten all dizzy from excitement, dehydration, and copious amounts of rum and had to go lie down for a minute.

Of these three events, the first two might seem direr. But that would only be to people who didn't know the major plot points of the story, like everybody except your Friendly Author, or to people who didn't understand the full significance of Julian's feeling faint, like everybody else who wasn't Poppy.

She'd approached Irina about the dress code, fiddling with the straps on her dress and saying, "Are you sure about this, Irina? I mean, black being bad luck and all..."

"I know, I know." Irina ran her fingers under her pink sash, regarding herself thoughtfully in the mirror. "But James wanted black, and he said that he wants all the photos to be great and everybody looks great in black, so, y'know -- it's a small thing to make him happy."

"Awww, that’s sweet," Poppy wrapped her arm around her friend and looked pointedly at her bosom.  "Small things make James happy?"

"Loser," Irina grinned. She pinched Poppy's ear and seemed about to say something, but then they had to go down because James was calling, and James, Dear Readers, was not to be ignored.

"All ready?" he asked as the other two came down the stairs. "The park is full of Decorah's best and brightest, and we only want to keep them waiting as long as we have to."

Irina shook her head, hopping down the last couple of steps to loop an arm around James. "Poppy," she said, "remind me why I moved to this provincial little Iowan town again?"

"The lutefisk?" Poppy suggested brightly.

"mmmm." Irina wrinkled her nose and kissed James. "Must be."

...

There were little pastries all over the food tables. The little pastries looked good, but Poppy wasn't quite sure what was in any of them. She'd taken one that she'd thought was apple, but when she'd bitten into it she'd gotten a mouthful of marmalade. Who the hell put marmalade in pastries anyway?

She picked up a little pouch and squished the business end hopefully as Julian slid up next to her, sipping on a rum-and-coke and staring around, glassy-eyed. "Great party, huh?" Julian asked, licking his lips. "Irina and James looked so good, like, really good, and everybody's been so cool, are you gonna eat that?"

Poppy gave the bundle one more considering prod, decided that she felt shrimp in it, and held it up to Julian. "Knock yourself out."

Julian popped the pastry in his mouth and continued surveying the crowd while Poppy investigated a spinachy item. As you can probably tell (if you've been to a lot of weddings and have been witness to this kind of thing), Julian had been drinking quite a lot and eating not so much, so even the shrimp pastry that Poppy had kindly given him didn't do a lot to clear his head. To be honest, I would never chance seafood at a buffet-type setting, but Julian is younger and more foolhardy than I, so the thought of food poisoning didn't even cross his mind.

"Man, Irina and James have a lotta good-lookin' friends," Julian observed, bumping his hip against Poppy and diverting her from trying to remember whether or not she liked sundried tomatoes.

"They sure do," Poppy mumbled. She was thinking that maybe it was a bad idea to have made that pact with Julian to come to the wedding stag, because where to Poppy this might mean 'let's have fun eating as much as we can and talking about people's outfits' to Julian it meant 'let's see if there are any dating prospects among the guests'.  And Julian was looking good, super-good, and he was much much better at that game than she was.

"Let's go find me a drink," she suggested. Julian looked happy and started motoring off in the direction of the bar, making little chicka-chicka-bow-bowm noises.

If this were a movie, there would be some sort of musical cue here -- something ominous, maybe, like a thundercrack or bell toll. But all there was, was Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend" playing from the deejay table, and Julian saw Robert for the first time, standing there all tall and delicious in black leather.

"Oh, heeeeeeeyyyy," Julian drawled, pulling up short and making Poppy slam on the brakes behind him. "Hey. I don't think we met. I'm Julian, I'm Irina and James's best friend."

Robert smiled. "Congratulations," he said. Poppy felt Julian wiggle with delight against her. In case my Dear Readers are getting the notion that Julian is a cheap floozy, it should be noted here that Robert's voice was of course deeply sexy and would make anybody's heart speed up. Julian (being perhaps a little bit of a cheap floozy) was affected as such, as Poppy might have conceded had she not been somewhat distracted by being disgruntled.

"We'll pass that on," she said nastily, grabbing Julian's shoulders and manhandling him on ahead.

"Byyyyyeeeee," Julian called backward. Poppy didn't feel very bad when Julian bumped into the lady who ran the pet store and got her vodka gimlet all over his shirt.

...

Ordinarily, a couple who has just committed to each other in some sort of legally binding manner embarks on a honeymoon, in order to celebrate their new tax breaks. However, Irina and James didn't do any such thing. James said it was because they were saving to go on a Mediterranean cruise later that year. Irina said it was because they were "too fucking broke." Then James said that Irina had an awfully big mouth, and Irina said something that I'm too delicate to repeat here, and then they retired to their bedroom to make up.

Left to her own devices, Poppy decided that it would be a good time to load the dishwasher.

I realize that this seems odd, but you have to understand something about Poppy -- she liked doing chores. Laundry, sweeping, even some gardening, and especially doing dishes with green apple dish soap. She didn't like doing these things because she secretly longed for domesticity, or anything; rather, in a house of four very vocal people, wiping toothpaste off the mirrors gave her some time alone to think. It was soothing.

Plus, the others didn't make her pay for the utilities or much of the food, since she did all the cleaning-up. It had been like that since college, when they'd first leased the house together, and it was only now that Irina and James had tied the knot that Poppy and Julian were thinking of moving out. They couldn't just yet, because they were biding the time until James landed Head Archivist at the college and started making more money, but that was okay. They all got along well, and in any case, Irina's and James's relationship was nothing new.

So Poppy was carefully putting coffee mugs in the dishwasher and daydreaming about what kind of apartment she'd end up getting when Julian came waltzing through the backdoor, rumpled and red-mouthed. "Hi hi," he drawled at Poppy, who shook her head indulgently.

"Have fun?" she asked. Julian careened over to the table and sat down, then got up and poured himself a glass of juice and sat down again.

"Loads," he grinned. "The Doctor -- that's Robert, Robert Caraway, the really hot guy we met? He's a doctor -- the Doctor came and took care of me when I was feeling sick from the heat."

"And the massive amounts of rum," Poppy added, smiling, but Julian wasn't listening.

"He got me to lie down, and he gave me Gatorade to drink, and made me wet my head," Julian said dreamily. "And then he kissed me."

"He kissed you?  Just like that?"

Julian nodded and rubbed his cheek like he was a fairytale heroine.  "Poppy," he said. "Poppy, he's amazing. He's so smart, and hot, and he makes a ton of money and wants to take me out clubbing and stuff --"

"That's nice-"

"-- and he has a massive package."

So perhaps Julian wasn't quite as much the fairytale heroine as Poppy thought. If any of you Dear Readers has spent an embarrassingly large amount of time lurking around in bookstores furtively thumbing through A.N. Roquelaure books like the Author has, you will probably disagree, but Poppy hadn't read those books and so didn't draw a parallel.

"That's nice," she said instead, then slapped Julian's nose with the dishtowel. "You're a slut."

Julian threw his arms out across the table and put his head down, smiling big at Poppy. "You loooooove me," he cooed, unmistakable fondness in his voice. Poppy couldn't protest in good conscience so instead she finished Julian's juice, gave him a smacking kiss on the head, and wondered when she'd stopped being the sassy-sexy best friend and become the good-hearted plain sister.

...

"So he's been seeing Robert for how long now?"

"Jeez, Irina -- since your wedding. Don't you remember when that was?" Poppy took the opportunity to stop by a tree, pressing her hands against her knees and panting heavily. She didn't mind running with Irina sometimes -- she liked running -- but Irina seemed to have lungs made of some sort of particularly annoying polymer that was impervious to fatigue.

Running lightly in place, Irina squinted. "Oh yeah," she said. "So, about three weeks, then. They screwing already?"

Poppy gave Irina a look and Irina laughed. "Of course they are, what was I thinking?" She trotted a circle around Poppy, who straightened and they set off again.

"Try asking him about it some time," Poppy huffed. "You'll get the full story. You'll get it with clothed reenactments and really crappy diagrams." Poppy shook her head as they coasted down a hill, heels hitting the dirt path hard. "On second thought, don't ask.  The Doctor's apparently a whirlwind of sexual excitement and kinkiness.  I bet he'd give you and James a run for your money."

"oooh, don't be so sure," Irina said coyly, then slowed to a walk at the bottom of the hill, wiping sweat from her forehead. When she talked again, his voice was slower and more serious. "Poppy -- Poppy, you don't think he's making Julian...I mean, Julian's good with this, right? He's happy?"

"Sure he's happy," Poppy assured him. "Doesn't shut up about the dear darling loaded hung-like-a-horse Doctor."

Irina nodded and waved hello to James as they turned into their gate, seeming content with this answer. For Poppy, though, a tiny little doubt had been planted; Irina's more emotional instincts were usually dead right.

"Maybe I should call Julian," she mused out loud to James when Irina had gone inside for a shower. James leaned on his elbows against the porch railing and looked thoughtful.

"Julian's been over at Robert's, what -- half a week, now?" James asked. "You might as well call. Even if he does get pissed at you for interrupting his sex." He grinned, then sobered up quickly. "But be polite, Poppy. Robert Caraway's a respected professional member of the community, and a big contributor to the college, and --"

"I know, I know. You don't want to step on any toes on your climb to the top." Poppy made a face at James, but she didn't feel any malice. James had a stressful job.

If this were a movie, Dear Reader, you would at this point be treated to cut-scenes accompanied by a voice-over from Poppy to show how each character earns his living. I can't quite recreate that in a text format, but I shall do my best:

JAMES worked at the Luther College archives as an Archive Research Assistant. Imagine him keeping a watchful eye on students as they don thin cotton gloves to handle artifacts of the Norwegian Lutheran Synod, or sitting at a long table in the archive basement painstakingly cleaning off dirty old manuscripts.

IRINA worked at Agora Arts, selling things like heartwood kazoos and Lucite choker necklaces to tourists, of whom there were many. She was the best salesperson there, perhaps because she could actually convince people that martini glasses with stems shaped like human torsos make the perfect gift for anybody.

JULIAN worked at the Oneota Community Co-Op, where he spent a lot of time perfecting recipes for things like Anasazi Chili and Black Bean Chipotle Puree sandwiches and rolling his eyes at customers who complained about the prices and called it a "communist grocery store."

POPPY had the best job of all, because she managed Bookends and Beans and loved every bit of it, from choosing the flavored coffee of the day to trading recommendations and discussing books with patrons to just sitting down on the leather sofa in front of the fireplace.

The Head Archivist position was one that James was thisclose to getting, so they were doing their best not to jeopardize that in any way. Which was generally easy enough, because James tended to make his own good press and all they had to do was not mess that up.

So Poppy was prepared to be polite when she phoned Robert later, at a time when she figured they'd be finishing up dinner. She said hello politely, asked for Julian politely, and was just a bit put off when Robert said "call back later" and hung up on her. Frowning, she hit redial and waited impatiently until Robert picked up again.

"I wanna talk to Julian," Poppy said, cutting off Robert's hello.

"Well, you can't," Robert told her.

"It's important. It's about his...his mom." It was kind of dirty to use the mom card, but nothing would get Julian to the phone faster.

"I'll let him know." Robert paused, then gave a low laugh that made Poppy's hackles rise. "He's not convenient to the phone right now."

Straining to listen, Poppy could swear he heard a breathy little moan in the background that sounded like Julian. "Was that him?" she asked, starting to get worried. "Was that--" she gripped the mouthpiece end of the phone and yelled into it. "Joo! JULIAN!"

Dial tone.

She slammed down the phone and James appeared as Poppy hurried into the hall to get her jacket and keys. "What the hell happened?" James asked. "Is Julian okay?"

"That jerk wouldn't let me talk to him," Poppy fumed. "I'm gonna go over there my own damn self --"

"Oh, Poppy," James started, and Poppy knew what he was going to say next. "Poppy, are you sure that's a good idea? I mean, maybe they were just fooling around -- Dr. Caraway's got the manners of a python, maybe you're overreacting a little bit --"

"You didn't hear it," Poppy snapped, yanking on her jacket. She'd just grabbed her keychain when the phone rang again; James raised an eyebrow.

"Maybe that's him," he said. "How about if I get on the other line this time and listen in?"

"Fine." Poppy figured he might as well -- James was one of those people who tended to believe things more if he was directly involved. She picked up the cordless and turned it on when James held the hallway phone to his ear. "Hello?"

"Poppy?"

A rush of relief suffused Poppy. She was kind of surprised to realize how much, but swallowed that quickly and said, "Yeah, hey Joo. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I --" there was a pause, and then Julian gasped, quickly. "I, uh...I'm fine, Joe. Poppy. Uh. mmmmmm."

Although you can't hear Julian yourselves, Dear Readers, I'm sure there's no doubt in your minds as to what's going on at the other end of the phone. And it's just as filthy as you're imagining it.

Dumbstruck, Poppy looked across the room for support. James was biting down on his lips, eyes scrunched shut, his shoulders shaking as Julian went on, voice uneven and hoarse. "I'll be...I'll be going away. With Rob -- with the Doctor, uhhh, I, um --" his breath caught and Poppy closed her eyes, feeling heat rise in her cheeks. "mmmm. Um, for a while. Okay?"

"Sure. Enjoy yourself. I'll see you when you get back." Poppy turned off the phone and thunked it a few times against her forehead before looking at James, who had hung up and was grinning wide at her. "Okay, so -- not exactly in trouble," Poppy smiled weakly.

James shook his head. "Not quite," he murmured, and held out his hand for Poppy's jacket.

... ... ...

So life went on in the manner to which it was accustomed, with every day passing much like the one before. Irina and James, slightly disappointed to find that being married really didn't change them at all, began to dabble in little things to make committed life more interesting.

Poppy, not being such a big fan of finding her friends having sex in the closet, spent a lot of time doing activities that required her to be out of the house. She volunteered to help at the museum, she learned how to carve nissae and posted the little wooden gnomes in every window, she took up canoeing, she went for walks. A lot of walks.

The good news was, she'd lost some weight and those cargo pants that had gotten uncomfortable were nice and loose again. The bad news was, she missed Julian.

In the four months Julian had been gone, things hadn't gone crazy or anything -- his checks for utilities and nominal rent had arrived like clockwork, neatly signed and postmarked from places like Las Vegas, Baltimore, San Antonio. He'd called Poppy once, early in the morning, and Poppy had been so sleepy she'd barely understood anything Julian was saying. Eventually, Julian had laughed, said, "love you, poodle," and hung up. That had been it.

As any Dear Readers who have had mutual friends who are dating each other will know -- despite all assurances to the contrary, it's very hard to hang out with said friends and not feel like that saddest of accessories, a Third Wheel. And that's just how Poppy was feeling.

Her assistant manager at the bookstore-cafe, Brian, sympathized. "That's just how I was feeling when my friends got together," he told Poppy as they filtered coffee into the percolators early one Thursday. "Suddenly they were always holding hands, and sharing little jokes, and I constantly felt like they couldn't wait for me to leave so they could get down to business."

"See, that's the problem," Poppy said glumly. "I live there. I can't leave."

Brian nodded, then shook his head. "Tough call, man," he said, patting Poppy's shoulder. "But you gotta make a choice, y'know? Either get used to being left out, or move out on your own."

"But James's money situation --"

"God will provide." Brian smiled, taking a deep happy breath when the aroma of fresh coffee wafted from the percolators. "And in the meantime, Irina will help."

The bell on the front door jingled and they turned, surprised; it usually took about half an hour for the customers to start coming in, and those were all regulars grabbing a cup on their way to work. But no, there was Miss Pastels, clutching her hateful furless dog and staring suspiciously at them.

"Good morning," Poppy said, a trifle belatedly. "Would you like some--"

"Shame, Poppy Kouklakis! For shame!" She wagged a scolding finger, thinning her eyes. "You're gonna bring down a Great Evil upon this town, and y'alls just better stay the hell away from me with your bad mojo, for damn sure!" The scary dog barked in accordance and Poppy blinked. Really, the whole thing would have been kind of alarming if Miss Pastels hadn't been dressed in an enormous quilted red tracksuit.

"I don't--" she began, but Brian neatly stepped in front of her, solicitously guiding Miss Pastels to table. "How 'bout a cup of coffee, ma'am?" he asked. "And a bowl of water for the little guy there?"

Miss Pastels seemed mollified by Brian's cosseting and consented to be served, still glaring at Poppy from the corners of her eyes. She skedaddled as soon as she could and didn't feel comfortable until she was safely between the "travel" and "cultural studies" shelves on the other side of the store, feeling like a wuss, but a relieved one.

...

Poppy went to bed early that night, tired out from an unusually busy day (a bunch of tourists from a Norwegian culture group in Rochester) and a busy evening (helping Brian put up a rose trellis and archway in his garden). Brian had come up with a brilliant suggestion over lemon meringue pie, musing that Poppy could probably rent the empty space upstairs of the shop, on the brick heritage house's second floor. It really was a good idea -- Poppy was sure that the owner would be amenable -- but the notion made her tired and stupidly depressed.

She had two fingers of whiskey before bed and fell asleep so quickly and hard that despite the flash thunderstorm that blew in and the celebratory bumping of Irina's and James's bed down the hall, it took Julian falling across her to wake her up.

"Poppy," Julian panted, grasping for Poppy's shoulders, and Poppy was wide, wide awake, Dear Readers, in less time than it takes me to tell.

"What the hell -- Joo?" she mumbled, sitting up and grabbing hold of Julian, who was wet through and shaking. "What's wrong? What're you doing here?"

"Poppy, Poppy, Poppy...." Sniffing loudly, Julian stared at her with big, panicked eyes while Poppy wiped rain from his face. "I just did the worst thing."

"What did you -- Jesus, is this blood?..." Poppy stared in horror at her dark fingertips, then at the matching stream from Julian's nose. Julian shook his head impatiently.

"Look, that's not important. Poppy, I --" He took a deep breath and said, all in a rush, "I killed the Doctor. Doctor Robert."

It took a second for that to hit. "You what?!?"

"That's not the bad part. Bastard deserved it for smacking the shit out've me. But Poppy, fuck -- I did something worse than that." Julian's voice climbed into a pitch closely resembling a wail. "I think I turned him into a zombie!!!"

Julian stared at her, anguished, and Poppy considered what had been said very carefully. The Doctor had hit Julian, and in retaliation, Julian had killed him and turned him into a zombie. Yes. That was pretty much the gist of it, she was sure.

"I'm having a nightmare," Poppy announced calmly. "I am now going to go back to sleep. Good night."

It wasn't a nightmare, of course. But just for a moment, she managed to convince herself.

...

"So this is him."

"Yeah."

"He doesn't look very dangerous."

"Yeah, that's probably 'cause he's dead, Poppy."

"Julian, don't give me lip right now, okay? I'm the one out here in the freezing rain at two in the goddamn morning helping you figure out what to do with the man you killed and zombified, so you could show me a little consideration."

"Sorry, Poppy, baby, you know I love you thank you so, so much." Julian's look of consternation seemed genuine enough, so Poppy patted his shoulder and turned back to Robert Caraway, whose stiff, unmoving body was crammed into the trunk of his own fully automatic power steering luxury vehicle.

"Well," she said slowly, "maybe burying him would help?"

"Maybe," Julian was skeptical. "He might claw his way out or something, though. Maybe we should throw him in a lake?"

"And have him dredged up like Laura Palmer? No, no thanks. Besides, having him rot in there would taint the watershed."

"Good point. Uhh...we could...plant him in the Carters' cornfield...."

"One of their dogs dies every couple of months. They're always digging in that cornfield." Poppy wiped rain from her eyes and hoped that the water dripping from her eyelashes was responsible for the twitch she thought she just saw Robert make. "You said you zombified him, right? Which, by the way, you owe me a full explanation about later, but -- you kill zombies by cutting off their heads, right?"

"No, Poppy -- no way." Julian held up his hands, taking a step back. "I am so not cutting off his head. That's just sick."

Poppy chose not to comment on that. "Okay," she said evenly. "There's only one thing we can do with him, then."

...

Irina and James were very happy to see Julian at the breakfast table in the morning, and even happier to find his vanilla waffles on the menu, because they were of accord that Julian's vanilla waffles were the best any of them had ever tasted. Poppy very carefully kept her face neutral while she portioned out strips of bacon and Julian nonchalantly drank coffee and told the other two about his time away.

"It was great for a while," he said. "We went traveling, and the Doctor was so cool and smart and sexy --"

"And rich," said Irina, to whom these things mattered a great deal (not because Irina was shallow, but because she had a good head for finances and a keen taste for expensive clothes). Julian nodded, smiling.

"And rich, totally filthy doctor-rich. And he made love like a wild man."

James shook powdered sugar on his waffles, not looking up. "Hit like one, too?" His voice was level, but they all knew James enough to recognize the barely-covered anger there. Irina frowned at him, but didn't say anything.

Flushing, Julian worried at his split lip for a bit before saying, "yeah. Yeah, well -- he started getting all possessive-like, mental crazy possessive. First I thought it was kind of cool, because, y'know...I figured he must really love me, if he got so jealous and stuff."

"Oh, Julian, honey." Irina patted his hand, leaving little sticky syrup marks along Julian's knuckles. "You're so dumb when it comes to love."

They all snorted a little at that and it broke the heavy mood; Julian grinned and started folding his bacon up, eating it with his fingers. "No fucking kidding," he said. "Anyhow, he started getting crazy, swung at me one too many times one night, and so I stole his car and here I am, back safe and sound at home."

"You stole his car?" James asked, wiping his mouth.

"Uh...yeah, well, kind of...technically, he, uh, gave it to me, so it's not like, he'd, uh--"

Man, Julian was shit at lying. "Compensation for the bloody nose, eh, Joo?" Poppy said loudly, grinning fit to burst. Julian stared at her for a second, then grinned too.

When Poppy was standing at the sink after breakfast, filling it with apple-y smelling suds, Julian leaned in close and murmured, "thanks, hon. Poppy," and his nose pressed neatly behind Poppy's ear.

...

"So, what happened." Julian kicked the porch swing off, glaring moodily out at the empty doghouse that sat in the corner of the yard while Poppy pulled her feet up on the swing, tucking them neat under Julian's thighs. "What happened is he like, lost his mind and turned into jealousy overload, complete with flying fists of rage."

Poppy shook her head. "You're so Sleeping With the Enemy, man."

"Shut up. Anyhow, we were in his apartment in Chicago and I had about enough of his mood swings and stuff, wanted to come home for a bit, see all of you guys and he flipped right the hell out. Started cussing me out and punched me in the face -- he'd roughed me up a bit before, but I dunno, that was different -- this time he was mad, really mad, Poppy. I've never seen anybody get that mad." Julian shuddered and Poppy pressed her toes upward as a comforting gesture.

"But yeah -- he freaked me out, and after he kicked me a couple of times and I was down on the floor, he went over to the blinds and started ripping the cords down. I managed to get up while he was doing that and there was this stupid sculpture on the table next to me, this stupid fuckass super-expensive sculpture that he loved and I just grabbed it up, and he was turning around and I hit him in the head with it, Poppy, just fucking smashed that thing down on him, and there was all this blood and some of it got in my mouth, and all over my sneakers, and, fuck...."

"C'mere, c'mere." Poppy leaned over and hauled Julian to her, swinging one leg down so she could fit Julian against her shoulder. "It's okay, he was gonna hurt you, you were right to hit him. So, about this...about this...zombie...thing --"

Julian scowled, thumping the back of his skull against Poppy's collarbone. "Yeah, right," he said, bad-tempered voice again. "Well -- remember that summer I spent working for Miss Pastels, when she needed her whole yard cleared?"

"Oh, you're not for real," Poppy groaned. "You are not for fucking real!"

Julian nodded glumly. "Oh, yeah. Once I got the yard done she taught me all kinds of weird magic shit, and I was just like, hey, I'm getting paid to learn how to make amulets out of chicken wing bones, what the hell, y'know? So when I -- after I -- after what happened with Robert, he was lying there all dead and stuff and I got scared and remembered this zombie ritual she showed me. Except, she had a bunch of stuff that I didn't, chicken feathers and magic zombie powder, and so I think I fucked it up somehow."

"But you're sure he's a zombie," Poppy said.

"Yeah. I wrapped his head up so he wouldn't bleed anymore, and I was cleaning all the blood off the floor and he sat up and kind of groaned, and I swear I nearly shit myself, man. And then he lay down and stopped moving again, but I figured I couldn't take any chances so I tied him up with the blind cords, shoved him in the trunk and drove here."

"You got some balls, kiddo."

Sighing, Julian sprawled more comfortably onto Poppy. "Tell me about it. Robert's CD changer's in his trunk, and I had to go in there to take the damn Berlioz out of the stereo."

Poppy smiled into Julian's hair. "Poor baby."

...

It was three days later when Irina came in for dinner looking puzzled and said, "Hey, remember when that raccoon was living in the doghouse? I think we've got rats or something in the cellar, now. There's all these scratching and bumping noises coming from down there."

Poppy could feel Julian's panicked gaze swing over to her and concentrated on James's lasagna. "I'll check it tomorrow," she said casually, pushing the garlic bread over to Irina. "Probably just a woodchuck or something."

It wasn't a woodchuck, or rats, as I'm sure you've all guessed. And perhaps, Dear Readers, you could have come up with better solutions for dealing with an undead ex-boyfriend than shutting his zombiefied ass in the cellar, but Poppy and Julian figured that if the dear dead Doctor was starved for brains, he would just shut down. Being generally peace-loving, gentle people, they opted for this indirect method rather than anything more quick and violent.

But, as we all know -- that's not the way to stop a zombie.

"We'll go get him tonight," Julian whispered to Poppy.

"And do what with him?"

"I'll think of something."

...

Julian proved to run his mouth off without results, because he really hadn't thought of anything by the time that he and Poppy, armed with a gardening hoe and a baseball bat, opened up the cellar late that night.

But that didn't matter in the long run, Dear Readers -- because he was not in it, the hungry dead Doctor.

...

They found him eventually at the Carters' place, mouth attached to the throat of one of Shelly Carter's dumber border collies. The dog was limp in Robert's arms and fell heavily to the ground in a weak spatter of blood when Poppy swung her bat across Robert's shoulders; Julian sidestepped it and hit Robert neatly once more behind the neck. Growling, Robert stopped reaching for the dog's head and swayed slightly, making no move at all. Poppy and Julian stared at him, weapons at the ready.

"He doesn't look like he's going to move," Julian said unsurely, after a while. Poppy frowned.

"Robert?" she said. The zombie looked dully at her, and Poppy wet her lips. "Uh...time to go home, Robert. Back to the cellar."

Poppy took a few steps, backward, in the direction of the car; Robert shuffled docilely forward. "You're fucking shitting me," Julian breathed, lowering his hoe.

"I guess he's okay now that he's eaten," Poppy ventured. "Poor doggie."

"Shelly's got six others," Julian said absently, peering at Robert. "This is so weird. You suppose we gotta keep him fed so he doesn't go crazy?"

"I guess. Jeez, what do I look like, the Zombie Care and Control Department? Let's just get him back home before he decides to snack on one of us."

"I don't think he will." Julian put his hoe down and stepped up to Robert while Poppy had nervous fidgets behind him. Tilting his head, Julian exposed a long stretch of throat to the zombie, who regarded him mildly. "Go on," Julian said, silk-voiced. Poppy had the sudden uncomfortable feeling that she was seeing much more of their relationship dynamic than he wanted to, especially when Julian licked his lips and inquired, "Okay, maybe you want to eat my brains, huh?" in that same seductive tone.

"He wouldn't find any," Poppy said tartly, hauling Julian back. He was right, though, the little tramp. Robert was looking completely uninterested and in fact kind of sedate; he shuffled quietly behind them back to the car, then shuffled down into the cellar without protest when they got home and unloaded him from the backseat.

"We should find a way to stop him," Julian said when they went inside, taking off their shoes and jackets. "He can't be eating people's pets."

"We -- no, you, you should go talk to Miss Pastels. Tell her you screwed up and need her to help you put him down." Poppy lowered her voice as they went up the stairs. "She has to help, it's her fault you even knew how to zombify him!"

"She'll never help me, Poppy!" Julian pulled on the hood of Poppy's sweater until she stopped and turned around to face him. "She'll be pissed that I used her magic and she'll put a curse on me or something! That woman's crazy!"

"Well, we can't just follow him around every night making sure he doesn't eat Muffin and Patches!" Poppy hissed. "And why's he acting like a stupid vampire, anyway? I thought zombies only ate brains!"

"Technically, yes," James said. "But this sounds like a special case."

Poppy threw up her hands, vindicated. "Thank you. God!"

She was halfway to her room before she realized.

...

They had cheesecake in the fridge, but Irina insisted that since they'd woken her up at such an unholy hour for such an unholy reason, she was entitled to the full helping (robbing us all, Dear Readers, of the full Golden Girls-esque experience, but no matter). Poppy found a pail of Whippy-Dip ice cream and made cones for the rest of them; they sat at the kitchen table for a bit, gloomily eating while coffee perked.

"So," Irina said, licking her fork, "Robert's a big dead dog-eating zombie."

"Yes," Julian said miserably and bit his cone.

James put his down. "Hmmmm," he said. "You didn't do the ritual properly, that's probably why he acts more like some sort of generic undead creature than an actual zombie. Otherwise he'd want brains, and you'd be controlling him."

"Maybe Julian can control him!" Poppy said, excited at the thought. But James shook his head and Irina nodded in agreement, picking up James's cone. "Why not?" Poppy asked, disappointed.

"Julian's not a voudoun priest, only a proper bokor has that kind of power," Irina explained helpfully around a tongueful of espresso flake.

"Oh, right, of course," Julian said, staring at her. "Don't tell me you know about this stuff too?" Irina just flashed an enigmatic smile at him and continued eating ice-cream.

"I don't want to destroy him just yet," James decided. "We might still be able to turn him back, since Julian didn't use zombie powder or a zombie cucumber. Robert might not even have been fully dead when Julian ensorcelled him."

"Does everybody know this kooky magic shit but me?" Poppy asked, staring haplessly from one to the other. James waved an impatient hand.

"Oh, you do too, idiot," he said. "It's you weaving all the harmony magic into our laundry and dishes and stuff, so shut up about not knowing anything. We have to figure out what to do about our zombie. I think we should take turns patrolling him at night, so he can go out and hunt gophers and rats and not Mandy's kittens down the street."

"Sounds good." Irina patted her chest and let out a modest burp. "You gonna check the books for reversal rituals?"

"Yup." James got up and fixed them all cups of coffee before sitting back down. "I'll ask Miss Pastels if I have to, but I'd rather we solved this our own selves."

"Sure," Julian said numbly, beginning to look as though somebody had handed him the keys to a candy shop. "Sure. Guys, I totally appreciate all this, you have no idea."

Irina drained her coffee cup and stood up, hugging Julian. "You're welcome," she said. "What're friends for, if not to help with a little zombie infestation?"

James watched Irina say goodnight and head upstairs, adoration in his green eyes. "I so love that woman," he said admiringly. Poppy spluttered in her coffee.

... ... ...

 

And here, my Dear Readers, is where I give you a little bit of expository transition, because I have only so much space and desire to write about James, IRINA, Poppy and Julian performing nightly zombie-duty. Suffice it to say that this went on for a week and a half, during which the chipmunk population around Decorah decreased by a couple dozen and the skunk population by one (due to an unfortunate occasion which resulted in IRINA getting soundly sprayed and then subjected to repeated scouring in tomato juice).

The boys decided that despite this, it was a good idea to actually take Robert out instead of just throwing animals down to him; by the time they walked him out to feed and walked him back, Robert was docile and submitted peacefully to being locked up until the next feeding time. Apart from a need to round him away from Nick's collies (whom he seemed to have gotten quite the taste for), Robert wasn't a very demanding chore.

Of course, since you are all Very Smart Readers and have been exposed to quite a number of detective shows in your time, you are doubtless thinking, "But, Robert Caraway was an important and respected member of the community! James said so! Surely somebody is bound to notice that he's missing?"

Quite right. Robert had, indeed, overshot his booked vacation and -- his signature on paychecks being much missed at his office -- this disappearance was reported to the police. And that was why, when Poppy got home from Bookends & Beans one evening, he found Detective Christopher Kirkpatrick waiting for him on the front porch.

Detective Kirkpatrick lifted his nose and upper lip at Poppy and regarded him through squinched-up eyes. He reminded Poppy of a particularly near-sighted beaver. "You're not Julian Timberlake," he finally said.

"No, I'm not," Poppy admitted. "He should be home soon, though. Would you like to come in?"

"Yes. Yes, I would."

Poppy could swear that Detective Kirkpatrick was staring at his ass as he opened the door, but that was just silly.

...

"So -- how well did you know Doctor Caraway?" Detective Kirkpatrick asked, once they were inside and having coffee and bars. "This is great coffee, by the way. Is it chicory? I miss chicory coffee, my assistant only drinks that fancy French Roast stuff, like you get at Starbucks? I grew up on chicory, though. Can't beat that, it's gentle on the ol' stomach lining and all."

"Uh, it's, uh, a Copenhagen blend. Low acidity and mild body," Poppy rattled off automatically, a little disoriented. "And, I didn't know the Doctor well at all. I met him a couple of times, at IRINA and James's wedding and I think once at the Fareway."

"What was he buying?"

"Olives, I think. I don't really remember, it was a while ago."

"Interesting," Detective Kirkpatrick said, scribbling something in his notebook. "I find that very significant."

"Really?"

"Yes indeed. There are other important indicators that point toward --" he stopped short and smiled at Poppy. "But that's police talk, you're not interested in that, wouldn't make any sense to a civilian. Sometimes I forget not everybody speaks the lingo, y'know?"

"Er, yeah." Poppy stared at the notepad, where the detective had written something that looked like

olives
vermouth
gin

and thought that perhaps Detective Kirkpatrick was what his mother used to call "touched in the head." "Um, Detective Kirkpatrick --" he began.

"Chris, please, call me Chris. Only my lieutenant calls me 'detective.' Well, and my ex-wife, but that was purely for sexual reasons. Dear girl had kind of a thing for Columbo, y'know, wanted me to wear the trench coat and all, which was all fine and good but I drew the line at the eye thing because that's where I draw the line." Poppy's eyes widened in horror as Chris leered and winked exaggeratedly at him, but was fortunately distracted by Julian coming inside with somebody else.

"-- and that was pretty much the last time I saw him. I sure hope nothing bad's happened, Detective. I did love him so."

Poppy mentally cursed Julian's community theatre experience for the high, affected tone to his voice and practically sprang from his chair to pour two more cups of coffee. "Ah, little Hannah's here!" Chris exclaimed. "Sit down, son, and have some of this fantastic chicory coffee and an oat square."

The other detective looked pained and stopped writing in his notebook. "This is Timberlake, Chris," he said. "The doctor's boyfriend?"

"Right, right. So, Julian, level with me --" Chris put on a chummy tone, "-- did you and the mister have an argument over who had to sleep in the wet spot and you bumped him off?" A moment of horrible, awkward silence followed before Julian broke it.

"Jesus!" he bleated. "No! Why would you even say that? That's horrible!"

"Do you have any evidence?" Poppy asked. Julian elbowed him hard in the ribs.

"Ha-hah!" Chris chortled, picking up another oat square. "Gotcha good there, didn't I? No, we don't have any suspects, at this point we don't even know if foul play was involved, so you're not in any trouble. His place in Chicago seemed okay, nothing broken or missing, and the only thing we couldn't account for was his car, which I noticed out front looking nice and clean and well taken-care of. For all we know, the doctor might just have headed off to the Upper Iowa River for a nice little fishing trip, y'know?"

"Sir," Hannah said pleadingly. "Those are the case specifics. Maybe we shouldn't be sharing them."

Chris smiled indulgently at Hannah. "Sure, sure." He rolled his eyes and held one hand up to shield his mouth, whispering loudly, "Junior Detective Dorough is a little bit on the stick-up-the-corn-chute side, pardon my French."

"Yeah," Poppy managed. Julian's face was slowly turning red.

Detective Kirkpatrick stood up reluctantly, collecting a couple of oat squares into a napkin. "Well, thanks for the chicory and everything, Mister Fatone." He smiled brightly, sweeping his gaze up and down Poppy's body in a very obvious manner, and stuck out one slightly crumby hand for Poppy to shake before marching out the back door.

"We'll be in touch," Detective Dorough assured them. "Thanks for your time." He snatched up Chris's forgotten spiral notebook from the kitchen table and dashed after him, leaving Poppy and Julian possessors of the field, non-chicory coffee and all.

...

"You'd better be careful," James said when they told him about the police investigation. "This Kirkpatrick guy sounds like kind of a moron, but you never know. It could be a Very Clever Act. What with him checking out Poppy, and all."

"Hey!" Poppy shouted. "I am a very fine piece of ass, thank you! " James ignored him and went on talking.

"Julian, you better make sure you've got your whole 'I just wanted to see my friends again so he lent me his car' story straight, or they're gonna get suspicious. I think I'm right on the verge of discovering something about revivifying Robert, so if we can just keep the cops off our backs for the next two days we should be set. Think you guys can handle that?"

"We're not incompetent, James," Julian huffed. "I'm sure between us we can all keep our mouths shut. It won't be a problem."

The back door opened and slammed shut, and IRINA came skidding in, covered in dirt and holding a hockey stick.

"Guys," he panted," we've got a problem."

...

The cellar door was thumping when they got there, boards and the stick IRINA'd shoved between the outside handles shaking threateningly. They could hear roars coming from inside, harsh angry ones that sounded like Robert's throat was tearing to make that noise.

"What the hell's wrong with him?" James demanded. IRINA shook loose dirt from his hair, looking frazzled.

"We were out by the McLeans' -- they've had a huge rabbit problem in their gardens this year, I figured Robert could help out -- and he attacked me. Not really strongly," he hurried to add, over the others' exclamations of concern. "Like, he just sort of shambled up and grabbed my head, but he did it from behind me and knocked me over into the dirt and I had to kick him off and hit him a few times with my hockey stick. He didn't start getting really mad until we got home and I locked him in there."

James hugged IRINA briefly, scowling at the cellar doors. "Dammit," he said. "I thought we'd have more time for this."

"He's turning into a proper zombie, isn't he?" Julian asked, panic rising in his voice. "We won't be able to turn him back? We'll have to cut off his head?"

"If we wait too long, yes. But I think I can probably have the revivifying powder done by tomorrow night, if I make a few substitutions and call in a few favours." James's distinctly displeased tone seemed a little more deeply motivated than Poppy could figure out; IRINA, on the other hand, had gone stiff and stonefaced. He handed his hockey stick to Julian and went into the house without another word.

You're probably wondering, Dear Readers, what's up with IRINA's sudden hissyfit. Well, that's easily signified with the use of a diagram:

I didn't say it was a good diagram.

So, yes -- James had to go make use of Nick's extensive collection of fresh and dried herb materials, and IRINA didn't like this fraternization one bit. Nick Carter had been IRINA's boyfriend in their second year of college and they had been fine up until it turned out Nick thought IRINA wasn't serious enough about Life in Decorah, as evidenced by IRINA's refusal to become Lutheran and his staunch non-interest in Norwegian history. They broke up in a big shower of fireworks, Nick calling IRINA a "godless city-rat" in front of the funnel-cake tent at the Winneshiek County Fair and IRINA repaying the favour by "returning" Nick's copy of Logo Design That Works and his entire term's Milton notes -- after plunging them in the deep fryer at Marty's.

It hadn't taken Nick long to start dating James, who was Decorah born and bred and who'd taken Norwegian lessons and knew how to make lefse and was just the kind of boy Nick would take home to mom. This went well until Nick learned that James had absolutely no desire to be involved in the welfare of the Carter family farm; at that point, Nick unceremoniously dumped James and swore to become celibate.

The celibacy didn't last, but by the time Nick found love with somebody else, IRINA and James had hooked up. Nick was an off-boundary subject for them because he and James had made up at one summer's Sine Nomine Vocal Faculty Recital, and he and IRINA still snarled at each other on the street.

Poppy, who had transferred in after the big Nick/IRINA breakup, had no idea why IRINA was so pissed off. Julian did, though, and loped off into the house, leaving Poppy the hockey stick. "Maybe we should quiet him down a little?" Poppy asked tentatively, glancing at James. "He's making an awful racket down there."

"Whatever," James growled. "It's not like we're expecting visitors or something. Look, I've got stuff to do -- you take care of this." He stomped off and Poppy heard his car start up and drive off a little while later. The cellar door bumped again, loudly, and Poppy gave it a blank stare.

As it so happened, either zombies got tired and had to rest after a lot of activity, or they really liked Poppy's renditions of songs from Little Shop of Horrors.

...

The following morning was, as you can imagine, an uncomfortable one for our four heroes. James was firmly in the bad books and utterly resentful of IRINA for it; Julian was worrying himself into an annoyingly nervous tizzy over the police involvement, IRINA was cold and unbearably snippy, and Poppy was headachy and cranky from the overwrought emotions around him -- not to mention, tired of the whole affair.

So when James muttered, "I have to go finish up with that powder," and hurried off, and when IRINA sniffed, "I'd better find some vermin to feed our pet zombie," and swanned off, and Julian just sat there and frowned into his coffee cup, Poppy'd had about enough.

"What're you doing here, man? It's the weekend!" Brian paused in counting out the float into the till as Poppy slammed around behind the counter. "Did you switch shifts with Mandy?"

"No," Poppy said. "Just felt like coming in today."

Brian grinned in sympathy and kept sorting change into the till tray, probably assuming (and rightly so) that dynamics at home were strained. Poppy tied an apron on and wordlessly went to work the cafe counter.

...

The fridge was cleaned out, the counters spotless, and every single slice of banana bread perfectly arranged in the display basket by mid-morning when Detective Kirkpatrick turned up at Bookends and Beans, smirking at Poppy in an insinuating manner and smelling strangely of Lemon Pledge.

"Hey there, Mister Fatone," he said. "Police discount on a cafe latte with whipped cream and a shot of Irish Cream?"

"We're not licensed," Poppy said shortly. "You can have it straight."

"Sure, sure, whatever's kosher, you're the boss here." Chris leaned over the counter while Poppy steamed the milk, watching every motion in a most irritating way and smiling to himself like he'd convinced Poppy to come up and see his etchings. When Poppy finished the drink and put it on the counter, Chris nodded towards the fireside sofa. "Come have a sit-down with me," he invited. "Doesn't look like the place is too busy, and I think I can afford to take a few minutes to enjoy this fabulous coffee even with me being as busy as I am and all, y'know."

Sighing, Poppy wiped his hands on his apron and came around to sit with the detective, slumping disconsolately.

"So this is your place, huh?" Chris craned his neck around, eyes wide. "Nice, nice. Must do a lot of business, what with all the people around here, the tourists and students and stuff, and this kind of store's really popular now, right? Like on that show, that -- what was it? There was a redhead--that Ellen show, right? There was a store like this in it, with the books and the coffee --"

"Detective Kirkpatrick," Poppy interrupted. It was either that or pick up the book of Ansel Adams photos on the table and bludgeon the man to death with it. "Have there been any leads on the case?"

Chris shifted, irritated, and his coat gave off that whiff of lemon again. "Well, see now," he began, "I don't really want to get into that too much, what with the investigation being an official police matter and all...."

For fucksake. Poppy closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again and smiled slowly at the detective, shifting a bit closer on the leather sofa. "Oh, I won't tell anybody," he murmured. "I mean, I probably won't understand anything you say, hardly, not knowing the lingo, but...."

Chris regarded him levelly and one eyebrow went up. "That's a nice one," he said wryly. "With the killer smile and all. I didn't fall off the back of the rookie wagon yesterday, y'know."

Poppy blinked at the tone of Chris's voice, even and kind of way more attractive than his previous nattering. "Okay, look," he said, abandoning the vamp act, "just level with me, huh? Julian's a nervous wreck and he's driving all of us batshit."

There was a pause, and Chris calmly sipped his coffee. "We found something," he said finally. "Hannah located some cords from the blinds back in the Chicago apartment." Poppy's heart did a somersault and jump-juddered rapidly along as Chris, dammit, took another thoughtful sip of his drink and added, "We got a search warrant and found them in his car, parked outside your house, and we found traces of blood from both Doctor Caraway and Mister Timberlake on the cords --"

Poppy stood up, head ringing. "I think I'd better go home," he said faintly. Chris put down his cup and stood as well, his eyes hard and canny. Poppy could hardly believe this was the same funny short guy who flirted with him over the cinnamon roll display.

"I think that's a good idea," he said. "I'll give you a ride."

...

There was a police car in front of the house when Chris drove up. Poppy practically bolted out and up the porch steps, bursting into the house and yelling for Julian. No answer. Julian's jacket and keys were still hung up, so he couldn't have gone out, but he wasn't in the house.

He nearly collided with Detective Kirkpatrick on the way back out. "Timberlake not here?" Chris asked, drawing his gun. "I'm not getting a response from Hannah, either."

Poppy pushed past him and ran out into the yard. "Julian!" he called. "JULIAN!"

There was a rattle near the front fence, then scraping and a definite, "Poppy?" Coming from -- coming from the doghouse.

"Jup?" Poppy bounded over to the doghouse, seeing Julian's sneakers flop out of it. He helped unfold his strangely awkward friend from the small construct, wondering why Julian was making it so difficult until he was out and standing there panting with his wrists cuffed behind his back.

"The -- he came -- the detective, he found the cords and he came and arrested me, and then Robert --"

"What about Robert?" Chris trotted up abruptly, gun still held at the ready. Julian ignored him and started heading towards the cellar.

"He broke out!" he yelled. "The detective just put the cuffs on me and Robert broke through and knocked him over and I ran and hid in the doghouse, and Jesus I hope he's okay...."

They skidded up beside Detective Dorough's unconscious but otherwise unharmed body and Julian slammed himself into Poppy in relief, rubbing his head against Poppy before Chris yanked him away, holstering his weapon. "You're still under arrest," he said grimly. "Where do you think Doctor Caraway would have gone?"

"Look, you don't understand!" Julian said desperately. "He's not alive any more!"

"You murdered him?"

"No! No -- well, maybe, but in self-defense! And anyway, he's attacking other people now, because he's a zombie and unless James can turn him back then he's gonna be a proper zombie and he'll want brains to eat and we'll have to cut off his head!" Julian wailed.

Chris went stock-still, staring at Julian. Then he turned to Poppy. "He's got some kind of craziness in the brain, right?"

"Sadly, no."

The detective was about to say something else when they heard, "what the hell? --" and IRINA jogged up, sweaty and obviously having just arrived back from a run. He gJamesd around at the irate cop, the cuffs on Julian's wrists, the prone Hannah and finally alighted on the splintered cellar doors, eyes flying wide in horror.

"Oh, shit!" IRINA gasped. "I was so pissed at James this morning I forgot to bar the doors again after I tossed Robert his squirrels! Oh, Julian, baby -- I'm so sorry!"

"s'okay, C, but we gotta find him now. Where could he have gone??"

"This is all complete bullshit!" Chris shouted suddenly. "You expect me to believe that doctor Caraway was turned into a freakin' zombie, and you people have been keeping him in your cellar?!?"

"Nick's," IRINA said. Chris whipped to look at him.

"Excuse me?"

"Nick's!" IRINA said again, more excitedly. "One of his bitches had a litter last night, Robert would totally want to eat them!"

"Why would he --" Poppy began, but Julian was already nodding eagerly, and of course, Dear Readers, you must know that any objection Poppy has to that leap of logic must be overridden by your Faithful Author, seeing as there does need to be an ending that ties everything together -- and in a zombie story there is already some inherent suspension of disbelief.

"James is over there finishing up the powder," Julian said, mouth dropping open. "Fuck, we better haul ass!"

Chris bristled. "Hey, look -- I'm the goddamn policeman here, and one of you is still under arrest, and furthermore I don't believe this cock-and-bull story about any zombie --"

Julian rounded impatiently on him. "You can arrest me after, Chris. Just come the hell with us and you'll see, you'll see what Robert's turned into and I swear if it's not true I'll come down to the station without a fucking peep, okay?"

Chris looked angry when he got into the car and undid Julian's cuffs, but he didn't say anything.

...

The backroad to the Carter farm never seemed longer and more abominably bumpy than it did on that ride, everybody in the car tense and worried. IRINA had tried calling James on his cell phone, but it was turned off and no amount of IRINA hollering "turn on your goddamn PHONE!!" into the mouthpiece could change that.

When the shed where the dogs lived appeared around the corner, Poppy gunned the car, barely throwing it into park before they all poured out. "JAMES!" IRINA bawled. "Where the hell ARE you?"

There was a resounding crash from the greenhouse and they all took off running, Detective Kirkpatrick too, slamming the door open and pelting in -- and just in time, it would seem, because Robert was chasing James around a table. The zombie shot out a hand and grabbed James around the neck, jerking him back sharply; James made an "urrk!" noise and flew backwards against the Doctor.

"Get off him!" IRINA yelled, furious. He snatched up a gardening stake and bolted over, beating Robert about the head with it. Poppy armed himself with a rake and applied it vigorously to Robert's kidneys until the zombie groaned and dropped James, who dragged himself up, coughing.

"Subdue him!" he rasped, making his way over to a table that was covered in dessicated plants and strange ground-up concoctions. "I'm nearly done with the powder, I just need to mix it and perform an invocation --!"

"Gotcha," Julian said, and turned to Chris. "Give me a hand with this hose, wouldja?" Chris nodded, wide-eyed, and the two of them managed to wrap Robert into the hose, pulling it tight at either end and getting IRINA and Poppy to help throw their weight into holding the Doctor.

James scrabbled around, hastily stirring components together in a big wooden bowl before hurrying out to stand in front of Robert. "Hold him tight," he cautioned the others. "This might be rough." Taking a deep breath, James grabbed a fistful of powder and flung it at Robert, shouting "CHAMAUX KI BESOIN KONYEN PWALL COURI DEYE OU NA DESERT!!"

Robert paused in his struggles, then roared even louder and strained forward, trying to get to James, slowly dragging the four men holding him inexorably forward. James put the bowl down and grabbed double handfuls of the powder, casting first one and then the other at the zombie, who threw his arms into the air, let out one last almighty bellow, and then toppled facefirst onto the ground in a cloud of potting soil and ground herbs.

"That," Poppy said, "was some fucked up motherfucking shit right there."

IRINA vaulted over Robert's body to wrap James in his arms, kissing him about the face. "Thank God everybody's okay!" he declared. "James, honey, what the hell was that you yelled at him?"

"Uh, something I found on the internet," James said dazedly, staring down at the Doctor. "It means, 'you will be chased across the desert by sex-starved camels'." He saw the others staring at him and shrugged, spreading his hands. "Hey, I'm not a voodoo priest either. I figured I'd have to rely more on intent than ritual."

"Well, it worked, whatever the hell you did," Poppy said, prodding Robert in the ribs with the toe of his shoe. Chris pushed past him and dropped to his knees beside Robert, closely followed by Julian. "If this man is dead," Chris told them, "you all have some serious explaining to do, most of which will probably implicate you further."

He was cut off by Robert, who groaned loudly and started to struggle within the confines of the hose. "Jesus, you're alive!" Julian gaped, then hurried to help Robert get out of the coils of rubber. He patted Robert all over the head and back, dusting dirt off his tattered clothes. "Are you okay? Is anything broken? Do you remember being a zombie?"

"A what?" Robert furrowed his brow at Julian, then stared around at everybody else. "Where the hell am I? I don't remember anything."

"How nice for you," Poppy said frigidly. He hadn't forgotten Julian's blood on his fingers in the middle of the night.

Julian seemed to, though, since he still had his hands splayed all over Robert's back and arm and was inspecting him for injury. "That's good," he said hopefully. "I mean, it's good that you don't remember anything, none of what happened in your apartment --"

"No," Robert said, "I don't remember being a zombie. I remember that." He scowled as Julian stood up, frowning. "You hit me with my Reg Butler original, you little slut."

"Oh," Julian said, and kicked Robert in the nose.

... ... ...

As you can doubtless presume, Dear Readers, Julian didn't go to jail for killing and zombifying Robert, since the Doctor in question was alive and well (once he got his broken nose set and the gash on his head sewn up) and decided that it would be wisest not to press charges. James and IRINA made up in fine style and really did book that Mediterranean cruise they wanted, because James was finally promoted to Head Archivist as he deserved.

"It kind of sucks that you guys have to leave," IRINA said as Poppy and Julian carried boxes out to Brian's flatbed. "I mean, all I know of Decorah has been living with you!"

"Except for when you lived on-res at the college," Julian reminded him.

"And those four months you lived with Marshall when you and James were Exploring New Options," Poppy added. IRINA rolled his eyes. "You know what I mean," he said.

And they really did. It felt strange when they drove away, both of them sitting up front in the cab with Brian and waving to IRINA and James until they couldn't see the front porch anymore. "You guys'll get used to it," Brian told them kindly, and turned on the radio. The whole process really seemed quite anti-climactic; moving was a big deal in the scheme of things, but after all of the excitement of keeping and hunting a zombie, pretty much anything seems small and unimpressive in comparison.

"It's not like we live far," Julian said in a small voice, poking Poppy's shoulder. Poppy heaved a sigh and rubbed his eyes.

"I know," he said heavily. "And they really should be on their own, what with being married and all." He grinned and shoved against Julian. "'Sides, we got each other, right?"

"Yeah. Yeah!" Julian sat up straighter. "And we got that whole big second floor to ourselves, and it'll be tons of fun." He slung an arm around Poppy's shoulders and jostled him affectionately. "We'll get used to it in no time. But you'll still do the dishes, right?"

"We'll see."

Julian sighed in contentment, then hummed to the song on the radio a little bit, then leaned in and gave Poppy a soft kiss to the side of his mouth.

Poppy supposed it was a start.