I had a disturbing conversation with my 7-year-old daughter.
“Dad, dad! I saw a zombie!”
I was in the kitchen making tea when my little girl came rushing in. She ran through the back door so fast she almost tripped up the step. I poured boiling water from the kettle into a mug, hardly looking up.
“Yeah, I did! Its face was all pale and messed up! It was gross, dad!”
I put the kettle back and picked up the milk. Sighed inwardly. I really had to be more careful about what I watched on TV in the evening. Rosie has a habit of sneaking downstairs in the night, and last week she caught me watching The Walking Dead, of all things. She’s had zombies on the brain ever since. I keep telling her they’re not real, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
“Sweetheart, what did we say about zombies?” I scooped the teabag out of the mug and dumped it in the bin. “You know if you keep talking about them, daddy’s going to get in trouble with mummy again.”
“Yeah, but I saw one.”
“I know, darling, but I already checked the back garden twice yesterday, and I can promise you it’s a zombie-free zone.”
“No, not in the back garden.”
“I didn’t see it in the back garden.”
I had the mug half raised to my lips, but now I put it down again. I turned to look at Rosie. Her hair was wind-swept and her little cheeks were red, as if she’d been running.
“Sweetheart.” I put on my best stern, dad’s-not-happy voice. “I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to be honest with me: Have you been playing along the path out back again?”
I didn’t really need to ask the question, because I already knew the answer. Rosie is allowed to play in the garden on her own, and sometimes – if she asks us permission first – we let her ride her bike along the path at the back of our house. The one that runs past all the neighbour’s back gardens. But that’s all we allow her to do. This area is pretty safe, but these days you can never be too careful. There was a burglary a couple of roads over a few months back, and last year someone was mugged on the high street. Several years ago, a few towns over, a little boy even went missing. That was quite a long way away from here, of course, but it made national news for a few days until the search fizzled out. And it made a lot of parents more cautious. Rosie’s getting older now, and she’s an adventurous girl, but still – you have to have boundaries. And on a few occasions lately, Rosie’s been crossing those boundaries. Riding her bike further than she should. Not coming in straight away when we call her. Sneaking out the back gate when she’s only meant to be playing in the garden.
As I watched Rosie now, I noticed her face growing redder. She looked away from me, down at the kitchen floor, and scuffed her feet.
“Dad, I only went a little way down,” she said. “I promise. I was chatting to Mr Henderson, because I saw him in his back garden. I said hello and made him jump!”
I sighed. So there it was: Mr Henderson was Rosie’s zombie. Yesterday it was the postman, and the day before that it was a different neighbour. I took a sip of tea and shook my head. Mr Henderson was, in fairness, a better candidate than the others. The guy lives on his own, and he looks about 100 years old. Moles all over his face. Skin like a deflated balloon. Whenever we’d chatted over the garden fence before, though, he’d always seemed nice enough. Just a bit lonely. I couldn’t have Rosie going round calling him a zombie.
“Listen to me, sweetheart. I know you didn’t go far or anything, but I don’t want you–”
“I came right back after too, dad!” Rosie interrupted. She was staring up at me now, blue eyes large and pleading. “I promise! And I even said no when Mr Henderson offered me an ice cream, because I know you don’t like me taking stuff from strangers!”
I opened my mouth to respond, then paused. “He offered you ice cream?”
“Yeah, but I said no! Mr Henderson really wanted me to come in and have one, but I told him I had to get home! And then I came straight back here to tell you I’d seen a zombie, and I…”
Rosie was babbling now, her voice whirring like a motor. But I’d stopped listening. My mind was still stuck on something she’d said a moment before.
Mr Henderson really wanted me to come in and have one.
I took another sip of tea and frowned. That wasn’t good. I didn’t mind the neighbours chatting to my little girl, but I didn’t like the thought of them inviting her in. Not without us there. Not even if they were just kind, lonely old men. I made up my mind to go round and visit Mr Henderson later, and to tell him that myself – kindly, of course, but firmly.
In the end, though, I didn’t get a chance. Because a few moments after I’d had the thought, Rosie said something else. Something that pushed everything else from my mind, and ended any idea I might have had about going over to Mr Henderson’s house. She said something that made me feel cold.
“Daddy, please don’t stop me playing in the garden. I promise I won’t sneak out again. I don’t want the zombie to get me.”
“Rosie, I’m not going to stop you playing in the garden. But you have to make me a couple of promises, too. First, promise me you’ll stop going round calling people zombies. Mr Henderson my be old, but he’s not one of the living dead.”
Rosie frowned. “I didn’t.”
“What do you mean, you didn’t? You just ran in here a moment ago calling him one.”
“No, I didn’t. Mr Henderson’s not a zombie. I saw the zombie in his house, but it wasn’t him.”
I frowned. I had the mug raised to my lips to take another sip of tea, but now I put it down again. “What do you mean, sweetheart? You saw someone else in his house?”
“Yeah, the zombie, dad! I could see it pressed against his little basement window while I was talking to him.”
Cold fingers ran up my spine. “What?”
“Yeah, it was really scary. Its face was all bashed up and bloody, and its mouth was open. Like it was screaming at me. But do you know what confused me most, dad?”
I tried to keep my voice steady. “What?”
“Well, I didn’t realise kids could be zombies, too. I thought it was only grownups. But I guess I must have have been wrong, cuz’ the one in Mr Henderson’s basement looked just like a little boy.”