Authors: Juliette Harper
Tags: #apocalyptic, #Urban, #story, #short, #read, #Survival, #Paranormal, #zombie, #novella
Lucy stared at her. “Are you telling me you actually understood all that stuff? “
“No,” Vick admitted. “When I decided to leave the city and come here, I found the SUV, and started collecting supplies, including the books. The reading made me feel like I was trying to do something.”
“And here I thought all concert pianists had to go through apocalypse survival training," Lucy said sardonically.
"Very funny," Vick said. "You know how it was in those first days. You were either running for your life or spending hours cooped up alone going crazy. The books helped me focus on something."
"I remember," Lucy said. "So what are you planning on reading now that's so important?”
Vick hesitated for a second and then said, “Books on the paranormal.”
“Holy Mother of God,” Lucy snapped, throwing her hands up again. “Don't you think that going into a city filled with walking corpses is paranormal enough? What could you possibly think is going to help us in books full of ghosts and goblins?”
Now, do your speedy utmost, Meg, And beat them to the key-stone of the bridge; There, you may toss your tail at them, A running stream they dare not cross
“Well thanks, Vick,” Lucy said, plopping down on the sagging old sofa in the basement. “That cleared everything right up for me.”
“The dead won’t cross running water,” Vick said. "You've seen it, too."
“Of course I've seen it,” Lucy said, “I’m the one who goes out there and tests the water pump every week.”
“Those lines I just quoted are from a poem Robert Burns wrote in 1790 called ‘Tam o' Shanter,’" Vick said. "It’s about a man who rides as hard as he can to cross a bridge ahead of a witch chasing him. He knows he'll be safe if he gets across the bridge because witches can't cross running water.”
“A witch?” Lucy leaned her head back and groaned. “I'd say we have plenty of monsters to deal with already. We don't need any new ones.”
“I don't disagree with that,” Vick said, “but we have monsters that won’t cross water and a 223-year-old reference to the same idea.”
“But, Vick," Lucy said, her frustration getting the better of her. "Honestly? Witches?”
“All folklore contains elements of the truth,” Vick said. "That's a proven fact."
“Now you sound like a PBS documentary.”
Vick sighed. “Damn," she said mournfully. "I miss PBS.”
As she had intended, Lucy cracked up. She also got up and went to the gun cabinet in the corner to take out her shotgun. “You’re taking Mabel,” she said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
Vick accepted the gun and the bandolero of shells Lucy was holding out. “Show her a good time and don’t keep her out late,” Lucy said, and then she took hold of Vick’s shoulders. “If you are so much as five minutes late, I’m coming after you.”
She met Lucy’s gaze squarely. “I’ll be back, Lucy. I’m not going to get myself killed and leave you alone. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Damn straight you’re not,” Lucy said. “I have no intention of dealing with a three year old by myself.”
With mock gravity, Vick said, “Come to think of it, maybe dealing with the dead isn't so bad after all.”
Vick took a chance and sat in the rose garden. It wouldn’t take 5 minutes to walk to Symphony Hall. Maybe 5 more to climb the stairs to that office. Finding Julie there would be for the best, wouldn’t it?
She’d lied to Lucy, a fact that bothered her more than she’d thought possible. Vick hadn’t so much as blinked when she’d assured her friend this was an errand to retrieve books only.
In fact, Vick had promised she
go to Maurice’s office alone, but that was exactly what she intended to do — after she sat here long enough to screw up her courage.
Vick had no frame of reference to prepare herself to look at the body of her daughter after it had been lying dead for three years. The thought of it immobilized her, so she had come to the rose garden.
A lonely bird singing high in a branch over her head made Vick look up. In spite of herself, she smiled. She used to come here, to this very bench on fall mornings. She’d have a latte, maybe a sandwich, go over a score or read a book -- in a different life that was lived in a different world.
She never heard the city around her back then. Now her ears strained for any sound. She closed her eyes and felt the sun on her skin. It was absurd really. Absurd that she, of all people, survived.
Lost in her musings, Vick didn't hear him, until he was almost standing in front of her. When she opened her eyes and saw him there, she went very still. She could tell that he had been dead almost since the beginning. It was not an issue of being able to reach her gun, she could do that easily. She wanted to see what he would do.
“Hi,” she said, “you come here often?”
The man cocked his head to one side and listened to her, looking for all the world like a big mouldering dog. She tried again.
‘’Do you actually understand me? Because if you do, you’re gonna make us rethink an awful lot of assumptions.”
The dead man seemed to be sniffing the air, trying to figure out what she was, but he made no move to approach her.
“You’ve been out of action a long time, haven’t you, pal?” Vick asked conversationally. “Did you not read the instructions? You’re supposed to be trying to rip my brains out right about now.”
The corpse standing in front of her blinked, almost as if he was growing annoyed with the taunting. Vick noticed that one of his eyes was missing its lid.
“So how do you keep a contact in that eye, buddy?” she asked.
The man let out a low, rattling growl and bared his teeth. He had something caught on one of the canines and Vick categorically did not want to know what it was.
“Now you’re getting warmed up,” Vick said, slowly sliding her hand across her body to rest on the butt of the automatic snugged in the shoulder holster under her left arm. “You wanna play?”
At that the dead man lunged with far more speed than Vick was anticipating. She just managed to get the gun clear and shoot him when he was less than a foot in front of her. He fell to his knees, still staring at her, and that’s when the truly awful thing happened. His eyes cleared. The white film drew back like some eerie second lid and she saw complete comprehension, and something very like pleading in those brown depths.
Before she could shoot him again, the man fell at her feet, the fingers of his left hand coming to rest on top of her boot. Vick sat there immobile, her chest heaving as cold, leaden blood thudded through her veins. Had she imagined the clarity she had seen in those ruined eyes?
As she looked down at the shrunken form in the dirty, tattered jacket, she saw something sticking out of his pocket. Reaching down, she extracted a black notebook held together by an elastic band. Inside, a stub of a pencil was stuck in the spine.
With a growing sense of dread, she flipped through the pages. At first there were just meandering smudges, clumsy worms that crossed over the lines with impunity, straying into the margins and screaming off the edges.
On the next page, however, she was startled to see something that might well have been a letter. Was it an “m?” She kept turning pages and the ice in her veins began to freeze into horrible, solid realization.
My . . .
. . .
My name . . .
My name i . . . .
My name s . . .
My name is . . .
S . . . A. . . M
And there it was. Complete on the final page in the handwriting of a clumsy child. “My name is Sam.”
Vick didn’t know how long she’d been sitting there numbly staring at the page when she detected a hint of movement at her feet. Had she imagined that the hand resting on her shoe twitched? No. There it was again.
She put the notebook down, carefully eased her foot back, and edged off the bench. Rapidly scanning the area, she saw an abandoned food truck about 50 yards away. She sprinted the distance, drawing her gun before she threw open the door, which was hanging slightly ajar. The truck was empty. Vick hurriedly stepped inside, closed the door behind her, and threw the latch.
She moved forward to the cabin, which was facing the bench where she’d been sitting. She squatted down between the captain’s chairs to reduce her visibility and looked at her watch.
It was late afternoon. Symphony Hall was out of the question now, but she could make it to the library before dark and find some secure place to spend the night. Lucy would be out of her mind with worry, but Vick had to see what she thought was about to happen.
Resting back on her heels, she unzipped her gear bag and felt around until she found a small pair of binoculars. Training them on the crumpled figure in front of the bench, she waited. Through the lenses she could still see the man’s hand jerking, but now there were tremors in his legs as well. He looked for all the world like someone had attached jumper cables to his nerves and was sending jolts of electricity through his muscles.
“Jump start a dead man. Now there’s a nice
homage,” she thought sardonically.
Fifteen minutes passed, and Vick shifted restlessly to keep her feet from falling asleep. She could see the corpse’s movements were becoming more pronounced, but she still gasped when he suddenly sat upright at the waist.
The man was looking more or less in her direction, and through the binoculars Vick could plainly see the bullet hole between his eyes. Her bullet hole. As she watched, the bullet slowly worked its way out of the wound and fell into the man’s lap. Then, the mottled gray skin reformed into a single smooth mass.
The man raised one hand and scratched between his eyes as if the new skin that was forming itched. Hell, maybe it did. God knows watching it was making her skin crawl. With his hand still on his forehead, the thing shook his head twice, lumbered to his feet, and then stopped. He’d noticed the notebook lying open on the bench. There was a little breeze, and the pages were blowing back and forth.
Very deliberately he bent down and picked it up, closed the cover, and to Vick’s great discomfort, snugged the elastic band in place. As if that hadn’t been altogether too “normal,” he then rather nonchalantly dropped the book in the breast pocket of his tattered suit and smoothed the lapel.
“Son of a bitch,” Vick muttered under her breath.
Although the man’s movements were still disjointed and out of sync, they had clear purpose. He was “better” than he had been when she shot him. More coordinated. He looked around, chose a direction, and walked off, dragging one foot slightly, but otherwise unfazed by having been deader than usual for an hour or so.
As he disappeared around a bend in the path, Vick realized she’d been holding her breath. Her heart was pounding in her chest and she was sweating. She had to get settled down somewhere so she could think.
The library was just two blocks away. Vick eased out of the truck and skirted the tree line, judging how far she’d gone from the familiar roofs of buildings across the street. When she was opposite the library, she drew her gun again, ran full out across the street, and ducked behind a pillar.
She knew she was overreacting. There was no one in the street. The asphalt had sprouted a thick layer of grass, and a bush of some kind was pushing up under a mailbox on the corner. It didn’t take the earth long to reclaim its own. Still, Vick was more terrified than she’d been since that first night when this very street had been filled with a groaning herd of the newly dead.
Vick had taken books from the library before she left the city. Anticipating that she might return one day, she had barred all the doors to the building, leaving a hinge pin in the one open entrance. It was still there.
She slipped the pin free, put the tiny piece of metal in her pocket, stepped inside, and quickly secured the door handles with a large piece of rebar she’d left behind for future use.
The large open space was cool, musty, and totally empty. Not one mark, not even the track of a mouse disturbed the dust on the floor. No one — and apparently no thing — had been in here since Vick originally secured the building.
While it was still light, she made her way to the storage room where she knew the old card catalog cabinets were stored. Using a small flashlight, she found the references she wanted. All on the fourth floor. That was good. The higher up off the street, the better.
The grand staircase took her to the second floor, and from there she used the stairwell. It was an old building and there were windows that filtered light into the shafts. When she eased the door open on the fourth floor, she immediately flattened against the wall and made a full circuit of the floor. Empty.
But it was only after she wedged collapsible titanium batons from her bag into the handles of all the stairwell doors that her breathing began to return to normal. She sank down on a couch in a corner reading area, opened her canteen, and took a long, slow drink of water. What in the holy hell had she just witnessed?