Two teens connect in a city of the dead
I hate taking the bus, but I'm too tired to walk.
I climb up the steps into the dead quiet, no pun intended.
I don't want to look up, but I force myself to look because I'm too tired to stand. I need an empty seat.
Every seat is occupied by the dead.
Every seat but one.
When the zombie outbreak happened, it was nothing like what anyone thought it would be.
Either you got it, or you were immune. There was no avoiding contagion.
People died, some stayed dead but most came back to life.
Forget the popular culture zombies. They weren't malevolent. They didn't try to eat brains or hurt anyone. When they rose, they just went home to continue their lives.
Who could turn away their wife, son, or daughter when they returned?
It wasn't the same, but they were there.
They got up in the morning, they went to work. They didn't eat, or talk, or breathe. They keep going through the motions of things they used to do, like an afterimage of their former selves. The dead don't learn or grow, but they retain their previous functions. They keep going, living out their last day on repeat, like a broken record stuck in a track.
I wish they would stop.
I wish they'd go away.
I wish they'd come back.
After the outbreak, society almost crumbled.
Nowadays, there are a hundred dead to every one of the living.
It took everything we had to put it back together in the aftermath.
Till we figured out how to live together.
Yeah, I get the irony.
So, I ride the bus when I'm too tired to walk.
Halfway down the aisle there's a teenage boy. A live boy. He looks about my age or maybe a year or two older.
He's not dressed in bright colours or anything strange like that, but in this dead bus he glows. His skin is lightly tanned, his lips a healthy pink, his eyes alert and full of life.
I meet his eyes and he smiles at me. His smile lights him up from a glow to a blaze. So bright, it's like his whole body is a beacon drawing me towards him.
Before the outbreak, I wouldn't have had any contact with a strange boy on a bus. I wouldn't have smiled back, but human interaction has become so rare these days.
It's such a relief, a moment of simple human contact. I feel as though I've been holding my breath for weeks and suddenly, I can breathe again.
I walk towards him and slip into the seat beside him. My shoulder rubs slightly against his, sending a warm tingle down my arm. A year ago, I would have leaned away, but not now.
He turns towards me.
All around us the dead ride motionless. To block them out I turn towards him, let his face fill my vision. Leaving no room for the dead things to weigh on my mind.
It's a nice face, even by post-apocalyptic standards. His hair is brown and messy and looks teddy bear soft. There’s a smattering of freckles across his nose. Even seated he's taller, and he inclines his head towards me.
"I'm Jake," he reaches out his hand for a shake.
"Nice to meet you."
He doesn't give my hand back, and I don't ask for it. I look up into his chocolate brown eyes, lips curved into a smile.
Focus on his face. Don't look at the dead, don't think of the dead.
The bus halts at the next stop and a few dead get up, passing behind me.
A dead hand brushes my exposed neck, and I shudder.
Jake looks over my shoulder at the transitory dead and then hooks an arm around my waist and pulls me towards him, scooting back till his shoulders touch the window, away from the aisle and the shuffling bodies.
My breath hitches as I'm pressed up against him, my hands against his chest. I can feel his heart beating, warm beneath my palm.
His breath ruffles my hair. Warm breath, warm chest. Alive. So alive.
The contact disintegrates something within me.
This. This is what I’ve been missing all along.
His arms rest lightly on my back, as he murmurs, "Sorry, I… is this okay?"
"Yes," I reply, and lean my cheek on his chest, breathing him in; he smells like autumn. Colourful leaves, a cool fresh breeze and pumpkin spice. "Is this?"
"A-ha," his voice rumbles in his chest, vibrating through him and me.
We sit like that, in silence. Soaking up this unexpected moment. I keep an ear open, listening to the mechanized voice repeat the stops.
"Next stop Newport. Five minutes."
I lean back reluctantly. "That's my stop."
I don't want to stop touching him. I didn't have a boyfriend before the outbreak. You'd think I wouldn't know what I was missing, but you'd be wrong. I miss touch.
My mother doesn't hug me anymore.
My dad doesn't either. I think because he can't bring himself to touch my mom or Matt or Talia. As if he doesn't want to hurt their feelings, though I'm pretty sure they don't have feelings anymore.
"I'm three more stops," Jake says, and I can hear what he isn't saying.
This strange thing, this closeness in a world of detachment, he doesn't want to let it go. As though this is our last chance at normal.
Ha, normal. This isn't normal. Even for this world. I don't hug every boy I meet on the bus.
"Can I…" he hesitates, he doesn't know what he wants to ask for. But I do because I need it too. Another moment or another hour of feeling someone alive.
"Walk me home?" I ask before I can think about it.
"Yes," he lets out a relieved breath and smiles. Was he afraid I would say no?
Why didn't I say no?
There's no one here to judge us anymore. The dead don't care.
We reach my stop and get off. Jake keeps me pressed close to his side as we disembark. Away from the dead flesh. When we're on the street he takes my hand, then reconsiders and pulls me under his arm.
"That feels nice," I say because I want to reassure him it's okay.
We walk in silence for a bit, weaving past the lumbering dead. Now and then I see a live person or two rushing by, head down, shoulders scrunched up. I wonder what they make of us.
This used to be a common sight. Used to, past tense.
"Where do you live?" I ask to chip away at the silence.
The street is full of bodies but quiet as a graveyard.
"In North Harrow." It used to be a quiet suburb. It was always quiet. Now it's worse.
"Are…?" I don't know if I should ask. I don't know the etiquette for asking about his family .
"No. Yes. They're all dead."
"My Dad is living, but…" I trail off because I can't talk about the state he's in.
"It's okay," he says. It's not but there is nothing to do about it.
I don't know if he has it better than me or worse. If not for Dad I could get away from here, but I can't desert my dad. He won't leave my mom and I can't let him stay in that house alone.
The problem with the dead is that they still take up space in the world.
Space that should have been reserved for the living.
If Mom had just died, the way death used to be, Dad would have been devastated but maybe he’d move on after a few years. But how can he move on with his dead wife lying motionless beside him every night? Her cold hands and breathless corpse still lying beside him in the dark.
When we get to my house, I step out of Jake's embrace reluctantly. Already feeling his absence.
"I need to check on them. Wait here."
He nods and sits down on the steps, an island of warmth and life in this barren wasteland.
As I enter, Dad is sitting on the couch in the living room, holding our family photo from three years back. In the picture Mom is hanging on his back laughing, her chestnut hair catching the sun. A fifteen-year-old Matt and ten-year-old Talia wrestle in a tickle fight on the grass. In the picture I'm eating ice cream and looking at them with my typical thirteen-year-old eye roll, my expression saying clearly, Who are these weirdos?
I miss them now. I miss our family.
In our living room, Mom sits in the teal chaise-longue beside Dad, staring at the blank TV screen as tears roll down Dad's face.
I hear her voice inside my head, "Have you eaten? There's food on the stove."
Even though she's dead, my mother still talks to me. I don't think a lot of the dead can do that. I don't know for sure. I don't have anyone to talk to about it. My sister Talia can't, but she shoves memories at me. Vibrant flashes of moments we'd shared. It doesn't happen often and it rattles me to the core when it does, but it is what it is. Matt can't even do that.
But Mom talks. In coherent sentences in my mind. Asking about school or telling me to brush my hair. It's her voice, the one I remember from before but flat, emotionless. It makes it worse somehow.
How can I miss her so much when she's right there?
And she still cooks for me and dad.
My stomach clenches. Eat? I don't want to eat.
"It's okay, I'm not hungry."
I wait for a moment but neither of them moves or even turns around.
I return to the front door and when I open it, I can't see him.
Disappointment rocks me like a punch in the gut.
This was too weird. Even for this weird life. He came to his senses and left.
But then I step forward and see him leaning against the side of the house, as though he started to leave and changed his mind.
"Hey," I say, and he straightens up and smiles such a beautiful smile that I fall in love with him a little bit, or maybe not yet, but I know that I could.
"Do you want to come in? My parents are in the living room," and the thought strikes me that maybe we shouldn't still call it that, living room. The dead and alive room perhaps?
Jake nods and wraps his large warm hand around mine, sending warmth coursing through my whole body.
Walking around the house I let us in the kitchen door. I'm hoping not to see anyone, but Matt is in the kitchen. Standing with the fridge open and staring in. He doesn't eat anymore but his teenage mind still goes through the motions from when he used to devour everything in sight.
The fridge is beeping in protest. I push past him and gently scold, "Close the door, you're letting all the cold out."
He closes it and turns towards us, a slight frown creasing his brow as he looks at Jake. They are more or less the same height. My brother stopped growing at seventeen when he died. If he hadn't, he'd probably be Dad's height or taller by now. I wonder what reaction he would have had to me bringing a boy home if he'd been alive.
Now he just looks confused. He'll probably forget it in a minute.
"Come on," I pull Jake around Matt and out of the kitchen, not looking at his face. I don't want to see his reaction, because he must want to leave and I don't want him to go. If I don't see his expression, I don't have to acknowledge it. I can just pretend.
This time we make it down the hall and into my room without meeting anyone else.
I'm grateful I no longer share a room with Talia. Before the outbreak, she'd got Dad to convert the spare room for her. That's where she hangs out now.
I missed her at first. Now I miss her a lot more, but I'm relieved I have this space to myself.
I put down my bag in the corner, lock the door and turn on my music. Only then do I turn to look at Jake.
He's standing there with his hands in his pockets, looking lost.
Oh god, I kidnapped a boy; I think, and try not to laugh. These days, laughing makes me want to cry.
Before I lose my nerve, I walk up to him, hesitantly, then thread my arms around his waist. Without intending to, one of my hands brushes bare skin, creeping under his t-shirt, and he comes back to life, completely.
His breath hitches, he looks down at me, and every reservation I have falls away.
"Nat.." his voice is low, choked with emotion and then he threads his hands into my hair and pulls me to him, already backing towards my bed.
My mind blanks. Maybe we should have set some ground rules, maybe I should have asked how old he is or his last name.
Too late now. I don't care anymore.
He sits down on the edge of the bed and leans back, pulling me to his chest.
I close my eyes and let my hands, my lips and mind get drunk on the life pouring off of him.