Zuzu is on Prague’s number 18 tram when the zombie sneezes on her.
Though he is a young fellow, Zuzu had done the polite thing by offering him her seat, however it is less out of kindness and more out of the desire to get as far away from his stench as possible. Zuzu even considers getting off the tram and waiting for the next one. The sickly sweet smell of rancid flesh from an untreated infection, gangrene maybe, or thawed out frostbite, capable of clearing out a space in a matter of seconds, comes off the zombie in waves. His bloodshot eyes empty, his collection of plastic bags dripping dark brown liquid in a sludge puddle, his flaky skin red and irritated. As Zuzu slides past him, trying not to make eye contact or breathe, that’s when he sneezes. A new smell, decaying breath, the yeast of old beer and vodka mixed with tube meat and bread, envelopes Zuzu as the hot spittle hits her face and mouth.
Gasping, along with the witnesses who back away from Zuzu as quickly as they were backing away from the zombie, look at her with one part sympathy, one part unadulterated disgust. Zuzu feels the same feelings of horror welling up inside her as she leans over and vomits onto the tram doors. A woman pushes the emergency stop button again and again and again until the tram driver stops and opens the doors. Zuzu stumbles off the tram, wiping at her mouth, wishing to vomit again to get the taste of zombie from her tongue and that spoiled meat smell from her nose.
Diseases flash through Zuzu’s head. Hepatitis, meningitis, cholera, diptheria, plague, flesh-eating bacteria, E.Coli. What was the consensus on AIDS? Zuzu can’t remember whether it’s transmitted through saliva. Brain disease, is cancer contagious? Zuzu’s heart pounds faster and faster as the names of viruses and bacteria march across her mind like pink elephants on parade. Zuzu faints, her head cracking on the cobblestones as the zombie’s infection enters her bloodstream.
Zuzu wakes up in the emergency room. Nobody speaks English, and her broken Czech is not enough to describe what happened. “Blood test!” She screams, over and over and over, until one of the nurses finds a doctor to come speak with the crazy, bleeding American woman. When the doctor introduces himself Zuzu weeps in gratitude. The tears are black and thick, wiggling with worms. The doctor backs away as Zuzu shrieks for help. The doctor returns in a hazard mask, Zuzu relays the sneeze ordeal, the doctor nods and takes a sample of her blood. He tries not to pay attention to the squiggling creatures falling from Zuzu’s eyes.
Quarantine rooms are stark and white. Zuzu’s violent tears stain the floors. She’s stopped screaming, the sedative works. She asks to call her family, but the nurse doesn’t speak English. Zuzu has a new doctor now, a cruel man whose face she cannot see through the thick mask. He draws vial after vial of blood. Waits and watches while she pees and poops into specimen jars. Shoves tongue depressors into her mouth to check her throat, from where the slimy creatures have started emerging. Zuzu begs to call her family, her local friends, anyone who can offer support. Her request is denied once, twice, a third time. She stops asking.
Weeks go by. Zuzu’s mother has started a campaign to find her daughter, lost in Prague. Has Zuzu gotten drunk and fallen in the Vltava like the American boy who died in Berlin? Has she been trafficked? Run away? Eloped? More weeks go by, everyone but Zuzu’s mother gives up hope they will ever see their Zuzu again. Zuzu’s mother has a dream about claws, huge, veined claws that have grasped her daughter and hold her captive underground. The dream recurs on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Every week the same dream, the same three days. Zuzu’s mother decides to go to Prague. She is convinced someone has kidnapped her daughter, holding her against her will in the austere underground cavern she walks in her sleep. Zuzu’s father could care less, he says nothing and lets her go, conducting his affairs in public upon her departure.
She arrives in Prague, jet-lagged but able to appreciate the gothic beauty of the cold place that has stolen her daughter. Zuzu’s mother purchases a week-long tram pass and starts riding each of the lines from start to finish, hoping she’ll get a mother’s intuition that will hint to the whereabouts of her eldest daughter.
Zuzu’s mother is on the number 18 tram when the zombie sneezes on her. It takes a few hours before the vomiting begins and the infection enters her bloodstream.
She is quarantined in the same subterranean facility that holds her daughter, among a dozen others in various end stages of the sickness. Every night she dreams of the claws, the grotesque, bulbous claws that hold her and her daughter in their unrelenting grasp. The night before she dies, Zuzu’s mother fights the claws, scraping and prying at them as her nails tear off in ragged swatches of blood and tissue. She looks up and sees the eyes of an ancient lady, wicked, glittering spider eyes that metamorphose into a fanged mouth. The mouth descends on Zuzu’s mother, gnashing, gnawing their way through her screaming body as it eats her alive. In her last moments, Zuzu’s mother sees her daughter’s face on that of the monster. A sweet voice welcomes her home.