THE WMEGA JANE
Text ©2003 Roger E. Moore (email@example.com)
Daria and associated characters are ©2003 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Synopsis: After a lethal pandemic kills almost everyone alive, Jane Lane inherits the earth—but only from dawn to dusk. Ghouls by the billions arise after sunset, and Daria Morgendorffer is one of them. A horror tale inspired by Richard Matheson’s classic novel of paranoia and vampirism, I Am Legend (later filmed as The Omega Man).
Author’s Notes: While chatting with Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty about angst fanfic in a topic on the Creative Writing forum of PPMB, I was reminded of a Daria plot idea I had once said I would never write. The plot quickly soaked up a few “never done before in Daria fanfic” ideas that were mentioned in yet another PPMB topic. Carried away by the moment, I wrote the story. It is derived from notes I made on the last chapter of a tale I began well over a year ago but never finished: “Bipolar II.” Several other stories have been developed from the remains of “Bipolar II,” including “April Is the Cruelest Month.” The seeds of the original work were planted by two talented Daria fanfic writers, Renfield and Galen Hardesty, in an exchange of PPMB messages concerning Daria Morgendorffer’s future. From that, the idea came to me for “Bipolar II,” about possible futures of Daria and Jane Lane, then this related story, the limitations of which are my own fault and no one else’s. Further commentary and encouragement from Renfield, NomadX, Galen, and THM greatly added to the original story’s development—and indirectly to this one—so my gratitude goes out to them all.
This tale was inspired by Richard Matheson’s classic horror novel, I Am Legend. The quotation from Edna St. Vincent Millay in Chapter One is from, “Dirge Without Music.” The Millay quote in Chapter Five is from, “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.” Other quotations are identified where they occur. Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting, was originally published as The Haunting of Hill House. And, yes, the ghoul with the green hair is the notorious Daria fan, Tananda, per her request.
This story is rated R. It contains strong graphic elements of horror, including violent and shocking scenes, and it is not recommended for anyone with a weak stomach. Halloween or any dark night would be the best time to read it.
Acknowledgments: The story makes extensive use of maps of the Morgendorffer home in Lawndale (and notes in an accompanying explanatory article, “My Take on the Morgendorffers’ Residence”), created by noted fanfic writer Steven Galloway and found on the Internet, among other excellent places, at:
The beta-readers who deserve applause for turning my attempts at writing into something worth reading are: Thea Zara, Crusading Saint, Ranger Thorne, Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty, Brandon League, angelinhel, Greystar, Steven Galloway, and Nick “Ranchoth” Gaston. Thank you, all!
And, please enjoy the story.
Ah, awful weight! Infinity
Pressed down upon the finite Me!
My anguished spirit, like a bird,
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without.
And so beneath the weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Renascence”
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
Death had not improved Daria Morgendorffer’s complexion in the eight months since she had died. Her eating habits since then hadn’t helped, either.
On the other hand, Jane Lane thought, looking over the body, Daria never did care much about her complexion or her eating habits. We change so little.
Jane crouched on the garage floor beside the emaciated body of the girl who had been her best and only friend in life. She balanced on the heels of her hiking boots. An Italian-made semiautomatic shotgun rested across her knees. She took a long drag on her cigarette, filling her lungs with poison and nicotine, then took the cigarette in her gloved fingers and exhaled the smoke through her nose. Brushing her long black bangs from her blue eyes, she scratched her head with her right thumb. Sweat ran down her forehead. It was overly warm inside the Morgendorffer house, but not intolerable.
Daria’s clothes looked worse every time Jane found her. A pity she didn’t like using aprons. Her green jacket was so filthy it was almost the same color as her filthy black skirt. Her yellow T-shirt was permanently stained brown in four different shades. All this in just seven days. Jane checked Daria’s feet. Her Doc Martens were similarly smeared but had otherwise held up well. No need to replace those for months, yet.
Jane put the cigarette in her mouth, wiped the sweat from her eyes, and pulled a high-intensity penlight from a pocket of her black-and-gray, urban-camouflage hunting jacket. She ran the bright beam over her friend’s face. Daria’s skin had its usual waxy, yellow-gray tint. No new abrasions or scratches marred her sallow looks. Her long hair was a thick, brown mat of dust, dirt, and spider webs, tangled to hell and gone in the week since Jane had last cleaned her up. Blank brown eyes were barely visible through her round, badly smudged lenses. How Daria had managed to retain her glasses in an undamaged state for this long was beyond Jane’s ability to imagine—but, she admitted, that was just like Daria.
The glasses are you. Jane had said this to her friend several years ago, when Daria toyed with the idea of getting contacts. They’re symbolic of the whole Daria thing: I wear glasses, and I’m not going to apologize for it.
She remembered the moment as she looked down at Daria’s corpse. The glasses thing had been so funny once.
She laid the penlight on Daria’s stomach and carefully removed her friend’s glasses. After examining them closely, she folded them and put them in a breast pocket of her hunting jacket. She took a closer look at Daria’s open eyes with the light, then gently closed the lids with her fingertips. Prying Daria’s mouth open with a leather-gloved hand, she noted the yellowed, recessed gums and gray teeth. Daria did not brush or floss after every meal, that much was clear. Jane used to wonder if Daria knew who her meals were, or who they had been, but the issue no longer interested her. She brushed a bit of meat from her dead friend’s gray lips. Cleaning up the red-brown streaks that ran down to her chin could wait a little longer.
Jane sighed, blowing smoke from the side of her mouth through her uncut hair. She was nineteen years old and literally owned the world. She was fairly sure she was the only living human within many hundreds of miles, if not the last one on the big blue marble itself. The battery-powered radios picked up only static on every band.
Given that, Jane knew she could do pretty much anything she wanted. The nicotine kept her mind alert more effectively than caffeine did, and smoking kept her busy, gave her something to do when nothing was left in the timeless future but her own death. Given the current state of human affairs, lung cancer had no downside. Plus, smoking prevented her from smelling certain odors, like Daria’s breath.
Jane stood up and stretched, holding the shotgun in a relaxed pose. Two lightweight, broad-beam flashlights were duct-taped to the sides of the barrel. She played the lights around the empty garage, curious as to what would have brought Daria out here. Daria’s body lay as if she had sunk down while walking across the garage from the house. She would have crashed about three hours earlier, when the sun came up. After a moment, Jane spotted an open box on a large stack of cardboard boxes on the opposite wall, and she walked over to peer inside it. Paperbacks—all literature and poetry. Figured. Why were they out here instead of in Daria’s room? Jane then remembered that these were the boxes Daria had planned to take to Raft College last fall, before the killer flu came.
Raising her left hand, she peered at the illuminated dial of her gold Rolex, taken from a glass case in a downtown jewelry store. It was 9:46 a.m. on Tuesday, April 24th, eight months after Daria’s move to Boston was delayed forever. Jane had planned to move there a few months later, to attend second-semester classes at a fine-arts college. It would have been nice to see Boston in the spring together.
Jane sighed. About ten and a half hours remained until sundown. She finished her cigarette and dropped it on the garage floor, stamping it out with her boot. Snapping off the gun lights, she slung the shotgun across her back and bent down, taking hold of Daria’s wrists. With great effort and care, she dragged Daria back into the dark house to the laundry room, where she laid her friend’s body on the linoleum floor by the washer and dryer. Jane turned on a battery-powered lantern on top of the dryer to give her light. The electricity, gas, and water utilities had shut down months ago, but she still got along.
Stripping off her leather gloves, Jane strode back through the smothering air in the house to the front foyer, where she’d left the Army-surplus duffle bag she had brought into the Morgendorffers’ house a few minutes earlier. The two machine pistols dangling from her belt banged into her loose black-leather pants. The guns would get in the way soon, so Jane unhooked them from their short bungee cords and set them by the door. She undid the duffle bag’s latch and emptied out the bag’s contents. Kneeling, she sorted out a small stack of folded sheets, household disinfectant sprays, and several packs of batteries. Setting those aside, she found the new green jacket, black skirt, yellow T-shirt, and other Daria-sized clothes from the remaining items she had picked up on her last shopping spree through the Cranberry Commons mall in downtown Lawndale.
She carried one of the folded sheets and a disinfectant spray over to Daria’s body, then stepped back to take a breath. She felt the need for another cigarette, but it could wait. Pulling a small bottle of antibacterial soap from a pocket of her hunting jacket, she washed her hands with it, then pulled on a pair of latex gloves taken from a nurses’ station at the abandoned Cedars of Lawndale Hospital. Bending down, she unfolded the sheet, moved Daria’s body on top of it, then set to work tugging off Daria’s ruined clothing. She finished in five minutes and threw the rags in a pile by the washer. The boots she sat on top of the washing machine. The socks went with the clothes.
This done, Jane inspected Daria’s naked corpse for damage. Daria was barely over five feet to begin with and bone-thin at present, and she didn’t weight more than eighty pounds. Still, she was clearly getting around after dark with no trouble. Her fingers, knuckles, and knees were scraped, dirty, and scratched, but the rest of her was passable, if soiled—no deep cuts, no broken bones, no missing parts. Her physical decay had been arrested with her death. Her skin didn’t bruise, either, which was a plus. Jane suspected that Daria felt little or no pain in her current state, but this begged a difficult question: if Daria’s nervous system wasn’t functioning as before, how was it possible for her to read? Further, how could she move without respiration or the circulation of blood? Did her undead metabolism not require oxygen, or did it take oxygen from what she consumed? How could she eat such vast quantities of dead flesh, yet remain so small? A thousand more questions begged for attention. Jane easily shrugged them off. She took the world for what it was now and didn’t question its quirks, unless they affected her bottom line of survival.
And keeping Daria around. There was always that, too.
Even with her sinuses full of smoke, Jane could tell that Daria reeked to high heaven. Wrinkling her nose, Jane walked back to the front door and picked up two one-gallon plastic jugs of distilled water, taking them back to the utility room. She took several towels, washcloths, a bottle of liquid soap, a hairbrush, and a bucket from a nearby bathroom, where Jane had weeks ago stockpiled them for just this purpose. Kneeling by Daria’s side, she made up a soapy mixture in the bucket, wet a washcloth in it, and began working on Daria’s left hand and arm. By the time she got to Daria’s upper arm, she was singing a Tracy Chapman song she remembered from her childhood in the late 1980s. It helped pass the time. Daria’s hair was always the hardest part, but with her head on a folded towel and a plastic tray for the washing and rinse water, it worked out.
Forty minutes later, Daria was as clean as Jane could get her. The sheet and washcloths were ruined, but the stores had plenty left. It took Jane long minutes more to brush all the debris and tangles from her friend’s wet hair and dry her off. That done, she knelt, got her arms under Daria’s shoulders and thighs—careful not to let the cool dead skin touch her face—and lifted the body. She raised a knee and braced herself, then carefully stood up with Daria cradled close to her chest. Daria felt strangely small, as if Jane held the body of a sleeping child in her arms. Jane tried not to think of her sister’s children, the little nieces and nephews that she had once diapered and put to bed just like this, what dreadful fate had been theirs when the plague came—and in the horrors after.
Mindful of doorframes and cabinets, she carried Daria from the laundry room into the kitchen and then to the living room, where she lowered the body and laid it on a long sofa. It was the same sofa from which Daria and Jane had watched the Morgendorffers’ big-screen television together, in a time so far in the past it seemed more dream than real. Jane then got the new clothes she’d picked up and brought them into the living room. Getting Daria dressed was time consuming and frustrating, as usual, as her limbs were not cooperative. The Doc Martens had to be rinsed and wiped off as well. Still, Jane was satisfied with the result when it was over. She hoped Daria would appreciate having clean underwear again. As if it mattered.
She straightened Daria’s legs and adjusted her posture, positioned her hands over her stomach, and put a soft pillow under her head. A towel went under her shoes to keep the couch dry. As a finishing touch, Jane cleaned Daria’s glasses with a cotton handkerchief from another of her many pockets, then put them back on her friend and straightened them, making sure they were high on her nose. She stepped back and inspected her work. Daria was good for another week.
I should clean her up more often, she thought. The stores have enough clothing to last her for years, and she doesn’t really have to wear the same outfit. I come by every day to check on her, but she gets so . . . foul, so awful looking so quickly, why not make the makeover twice a week?
Because cleaning her up is such a chore. I have so much else to do, too. Plus, she’s dead.
But she’s walking around at night, doing stuff. She can’t really be dead.
She doesn’t breathe or have a heartbeat. What do you call that?
But she reads, she keeps house, she acts like she’s alive.
Yes—but you know what she eats, right? You bring her meals, after all.
I know, but it’s Daria. She was . . . she’s still my best friend. I care about her.
Do you honestly care about her, or is it something else that makes you come back to her every day?
I don’t know what you mean. It’s Daria, damn it. What else am I supposed to do?
Why don’t you come over one night after dark and knock on her door for a visit?
Because she’s dead, and she might turn on me and try to kill me, just like—
“Time to stop thinking,” Jane said aloud. She emptied the wastewater down the kitchen sink and put away the things she could use for Daria’s next bath. The sheet, latex gloves, washcloths, and Daria’s old clothes were rolled into a wad that she left by the front door. She searched the house next, making sure the roof wasn’t leaking, the many flashlights she’d left for Daria were working and had extra batteries, and all the boards she’d nailed over the first-floor windows were intact.
The upstairs check went quickly. Nothing was disturbed. She peeked out of an unboarded second-floor window in Daria’s bedroom and looked down into the backyard. The garbage-bag pile below the window was steadily expanding. The left edge had reached the open patio. Several bags had burst, spilling leg bones and skulls on the overgrown lawn. Hot pepper oil kept animals out of it, not that animals liked the taste of the new dead all that much, and the insecticides were still working. Jane knew she’d soon have to clean up the mess to keep the rats away, but she put off thinking about it. She could handle the stench until tomorrow. At least Daria was eating well.
Daria obviously didn’t care about her own appearance, but she kept the house relatively clean—even the kitchen, which must have been difficult, considering. Jane remembered with perfect clarity the day late last August when she realized Daria might be getting up and walking around at night like all the other human corpses in existence were getting up and walking around. The corpses stopped walking after Jane shot them through the head with one of the weapons from her swiftly expanding arsenal. Gathering her courage and armed to the teeth, she had explored the Morgendorffer house at high noon on a stifling hot day. Daria sat on the living room sofa, dead—with a book in her lap and a flashlight at her side. She was not lying on her upstairs bed, where Jane had left her only friend after the nameless, flu-like plague had killed her.
Daria’s dead parents and sister, whom Jane had also put in their own beds, were missing. Their bloodstained mattresses had been stripped. By the kitchen sink were several long knives, a hand axe, and a garbage can with a large plastic liner. Draped over the lip of the garbage can was a scalp to which a yard-long hank of red hair clung. The hair was the same color as the long hair that once graced the head of Daria’s younger sister, Quinn.
Jane did not find the nerve to go into the kitchen again until February. When she did, she was careful to keep her head down and her gaze fixed on the floor, with a hand by her eyes to shield her vision.
Jane walked back into the living room, her search completed. It was almost noon. The need for another smoke preyed on her mind, and she felt for the cigarette pack in a pocket on her left jacket sleeve. She took one out and lit up with a red butane lighter from another pocket. She then set the new packs of batteries on the counter in the kitchen, where most of the spare flashlights and camping lanterns sat. After making sure Daria had enough plastic garbage bags to carry off the parts she didn’t eat, Jane went back to the garage and hauled in the open box of books Daria had likely been seeking. She put the box on the coffee table at Daria’s side, a present for when she arose at sundown. One of the books was a collection of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Jane picked it up and riffled the pages, stopping at random to read.
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
She shut the book and left it on top of the box, wishing she had not read that particular poem. She blew a jet of smoke across the living room. Since Daria didn’t breathe, she couldn’t smell the cigarettes. It was the perfect arrangement.
Time to get her dinner, Jane thought. I hope she likes take-out.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.
—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting
Jane pulled on her black leather gloves, loaded up her duffle bag, and unslung her shotgun. She checked the six-round magazine, made sure a round was chambered, then reattached her machine pistols to their bungee cords and clicked the safeties off. A check followed of her long hunting knife and spare ammo clips. She wished she had something to replace the lucky necklace that Trent had given her for her sixth birthday, but she had buried it with him. It had proven not so lucky after all. She picked up a black motorcycle helmet but didn’t strap it on; it interfered with her hearing and was too confining in general, so it went into the open duffle bag until there was an emergency.
She took a last walk through the dark first floor, peeking out several windows between the heavy boards she had nailed over them on the inside and outside. A couple of dogs looked on from across the street from the front of the house. They’d smelled her—or, more likely, her cigarettes—and were curious. Jane put in a pair of earplugs, then unlocked the front door and eased it open. The blinding sunlight made her squint. A fresh scent of grassy fields washed away the stale, foul odors in the house. The dogs watched Jane with interest, their ears up. Jane stepped outside, pulling the door shut behind her, and raised the shotgun. She aimed the barrel over the dogs’ heads, gritted her teeth, and squeezed the trigger.
The blast rang in her ears even through the earplugs. The two dogs jumped and fled as the gunshot echoed back and forth from the neighboring houses. Birds flew off in every direction. The way was clear.
Jane sighed with relief and took out the earplugs. She hated to kill a living thing, even a starving animal that might later try to tear out her throat. Shooting the dead, though, was what she did every single day.
She flung the wad of soiled laundry into the back of the large red pickup truck parked right outside the door, then hauled the duffle bag out and tossed it on the floor of the cab, on the passenger side. The duffle bag covered up a cardboard box of canned soups from the local Food Lord, assorted water bottles, a first-aid kit she took from the back of an ambulance, and a dozen CD cases for the truck’s stereo system. She shut and locked the door to Daria’s house, got into the driver’s seat of the pickup, buckled up, and drove off at 12:21 p.m. It was a beautiful spring day, with a light breeze stirring the tall grass and weeds up and down every uncut yard on Glen Oaks Lane. Dandelions rose from cracks in the sidewalks and streets. Several houses had bird nests in their gutters or windowsills. Lawndale was slipping back from civilization, moment by moment. Jane imagined that a thousand years after she died, Lawndale would be prairie or forest again.
Will Daria still walk the earth? Will she be the last of us all, the queen of the damned?
Jane crushed out her cigarette and headed west down Glen Oaks, flipping the visors down to keep the noon sun out of her eyes. She drove slowly, avoiding small piles of human bones in the road as she searched for anything unusual. At the intersection of Glen Oaks and King Stephen Street, she was turning right at the stop sign when she spotted one of the new dead at the end of a driveway.
She turned the truck around and backed up into the driveway, stopping fifteen feet short of the body. Turning off the ignition, she rolled the window down two inches and listened. Only the wind in the trees could be heard. She put in her earplugs, then got the biker helmet from the duffle bag and strapped it on. Shotgun in hand and machine pistols on her belt, she slowly opened the cab door. Jane did not trust the new dead, even in the daytime. She remembered Trent.
The naked body was that of an adult white male, powerful in appearance despite the physically wasted look all the new dead had. Jane suspected that the new dead were stronger than they seemed. She didn’t recognize the body, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Judging from the scars and bite marks on his arms and legs, he’d fought off many attacks by other walking dead. His bulging stomach hinted that he’d finished eating one of his attackers the night before. He looked strong enough to tear off the boards covering the windows of Daria’s home. That was too bad for him.
Jane made sure the shotgun’s safety was off. She walked around the body once, then took a stance fifteen feet away and raised her weapon. She aimed at the head, lying on its side in the tall grass. She did not shut her eyes when she pulled the trigger. She had to be sure.
The blast put a whine in her ears, but the recoil was mild. The naked body was suddenly, messily headless. A sickly mist hung in the air above the broad, gory splatter in the grass. Jane lowered the shotgun and stepped back, trying not to inhale the hovering particles of flesh. You’re a dead-dead, now, she thought at the corpse. She kicked aside the spent shotgun shell on the driveway and took off her helmet, then took out her earplugs. Double-dead, permanently dead, dead-dead. Better you than me—or Daria.
Slinging the shotgun, Jane lowered the tailgate of the truck and pulled out a ramp, setting the end on the driveway. Climbing the ramp, she picked up a large hand trolley in the truck’s cargo bed, then came down the ramp, hooked the front edge of the hand trolley under the midsection of the headless body, and hauled it into the rear of the truck. She dumped it beside the spare gasoline cans and oversized toolkit at the front of the bed. The routine ended with putting away the trolley and ramp and closing the tailgate. Take-out order number one for Daria, she thought, tossing her helmet to the floor of the passenger side. Do you want fries with that? She wiped her feet before she got back into the cab.
Jane figured each body lasted Daria about two days. How Daria could eat so much was beyond her, but that was how it went. Jane avoided leaving more than three dead-deads at the house, as they stank up the place too much when she visited later. The dead-deads decayed slowly, but their odor after a week could not be stomached. As far as Jane knew, scavenging local animals, even insects, were reluctant to eat one of the dead-deads—but another of the ravenous new dead, like the ghouls of legend, would do it in an instant. Cannibalism was clearly their thing.
The south end of King Stephen Street was clear. Jane turned left onto Howard Drive and headed in the direction of her old home, near the end on the right. She stopped twice, shooting and loading two more bodies, both adult males. Once long ago, she wondered why she saw so few females around, and no children at all. The horribly obvious answer came to her before long.
When she finished loading the third body, it was after 1:30 p.m. She was tired by that time, but there were seven hours to go until sundown. She still had to clear out the subdivision as she had done every day since last fall. It was unlikely she’d put a major dent in Lawndale’s new-dead population. She had many thousands left to kill, according to the last census, even if children were not counted. Strangely, it was getting harder to find the new dead of late. She knew she hadn’t destroyed that many of them. Were they eating each other faster than she’d previously guessed? What was up? She didn’t know. Maybe they were leaving town. She could only hope.
Jane eased on the brake and put the truck in neutral when she reached the pale yellow two-story house at 111 Howard Drive. For a moment, she put her arms on the top of the steering wheel and rested her head on them, looking out the passenger window at the home where she had grown up. Her parents had been somewhere in Europe when the murderous flu hit in mid-August. Her oldest sister had gone to Florida in search of her four children, who had run off again. Her oldest brother was a few hours away in Oakwood, fighting with his wife, and her middle sister had been somewhere in Central America. Jane had not heard from any of them since.
Trent, however, had lived at home with her. He got sick right at the start. She was with her twenty-four-year-old brother when he died, shivering in bed with a fever of over 109. She covered his forehead with ice cubes wrapped in a dishtowel, bathed his chest and arms with a wet cloth, and fed him liquid medication with an eyedropper. In the late afternoon of the second day of his illness, he inhaled deeply, gave a long sigh, and breathed no more. Jane tried mouth-to-mouth, she screamed to God for help, she did everything she could to bring him back, but he was gone. She covered him up and wept. Outside, fire and ambulance sirens cried in the air over Lawndale. Cars raced down Howard Drive as families fled the city or took loved ones to the overflowing medical centers. Jane was deaf and blind to it all.
Jane sat in her red pickup truck and remembered digging the hole for Trent in the backyard with a shovel she got from the gardening shed of a dead neighbor. She did not want her brother to be away from her, even in death. Jane dug the hole as deep as she could and laid him in it, wrapped in sheets she took from his bed. She cried over him, prayed for him, put his favorite guitar and his songwriting notebook in with him, and buried him. Afterward, she lay in the grass by his grave until the sun came up the next day. She then went to Daria’s, several blocks away. Everyone there was sick, too. One day later, she laid Daria and her family to rest and went back to her home.
Two nights after that, Jane aimlessly drove Trent’s car through a deserted Lawndale in the twilight, wondering why she of all people was still alive. Someone attacked her vehicle at an intersection. He wore rags and looked to be both terribly ill and insane. Jane quickly drove off, but she began encountering more people, all of them crazed, wandering the streets and attacking anything that moved or made noise. They all made for her car. She got back into her house after running over two attackers by accident, and she locked herself in her room and jammed furniture against the door when the dead came through the windows. They smashed everything while fighting each other and searching for her. Most of them left by dawn; the rest left on the following night.
Jane had watched the neighborhood from her second-floor windows and discovered the cyclic nature of the plague victims’ attacks: day, stop; night, go. She finally left her house two days later, half-starved, and drove a stolen car into the security gate of a gun shop after looting a Food Lord grocery. Her arsenal grew rapidly after that.
One week to the night after she buried Trent, Jane sat alone in the kitchen of her home. She had boarded over the windows of her home and mounted removable bars across the doors. The power was still on at the time. While carving random patterns on the kitchen table with a pocketknife, she heard someone outside at the back door. She turned on the back light and looked out the window—
Jane still blamed herself for not burying Trent deeply enough. She shot him until she was out of ammunition and not even she could recognize what was left of his body. At dawn, she burned Trent’s remains, left her parents’ home, and never went in it again.
Jane shook herself. “Okay, time to stop thinking again,” she said aloud. She put the truck in gear and drove off through the neighborhood. Maybe shooting a few dozen new dead would help her forget the past. It had never worked before, though.
Three hours later, Jane arrived back at the Morgendorffers’ home. She’d eaten lunch from a soup can, had her afternoon bathroom break, listened to two alternative-rock CDs, and was into her second pack of cigarettes. In the back of the pickup truck were the first three dead-deads she had found in the subdivision. Jane made a note to put more boxes of shotgun ammo in the truck before she went out next, to replace the twelve shells used on corpses that day. The previous year, she’d thrown the dead-deads into a nearby quarry and set them afire, but when winter came she got tired of that. Gasoline and lighter fluid were too valuable. It was easier to shoot the dead and leave them where they were, even if it drew more ghouls. She just shot the new ones that came by.
However, her recent body counts were down by two-thirds from the old days. Something was definitely happening, but she didn’t know what. She pushed the issue aside. It was time to stock Daria’s kitchen.
After ensuring that no dogs were about, she backed the truck up to Daria’s door, got out, dropped the tailgate, and began unloading. Counting rest breaks, it took a half-hour to toss out the dead-deads, drag them on blankets through the house so as not to stain the carpet, and stack them in the kitchen nook by the boarded-over, cemented-over sliding doors. They would last Daria for a week. Several months ago, Jane had the idea of putting a sprig of parsley on top of each body, and she had laughed in wild hysteria until she slapped her face repeatedly and cried.
Jane checked the house again, but nothing had changed. She stamped out her cigarette in the laundry room and kicked the butt into the garage. Daria lay on the couch as if napping. Jane sat on the edge of the sofa beside her, weary to the bone, and took off her left glove. She ran her fingers through Daria’s auburn hair and stroked the cool, yellow skin of her sunken cheek.
What a hell of a world, Jane thought. I have no one left to touch and hold but a dead person. I feel like I’m a monster, too, Daria. I’m sick to even think about it, but I love it when I hold you after your bath. I’m not gay, and I know for sure I’m not into doing it with the dead, but all I have left to touch in the world is you. No one else is left. I’m coming apart a little each day, losing my grip on sanity. Seeing you is all that keeps me from turning a gun on myself and calling it quits. I killed Trent. Can you believe that? I killed my own brother, the only one in the family who ever looked out for me. I’ve killed hundreds of the dead all over this town, but one of them was Trent. I’m sick to death of me, sick of what I’ve done, sick of living when everyone else is a corpse, sick of this damned planet full of ghouls. I’m nineteen, and my best friend is a brainy ghoul who reads poetry and eats the dead that I kill. I want to die, but I don’t dare, knowing that I might become like you, or something worse than you. I have to live because you’re still moving, Daria. You’re all that I have left. You’re all that I have.
Jane reached the end of her thoughts and realized she had been speaking aloud. She rarely did that around Daria. Perhaps she really was starting to go crazy. That would be great if it were true, she thought. Being sane is no fun at all.
Jane held Daria’s face cupped in her hand, then released it and sat looking at the floor for a time. Finally, she checked her watch, unzipped her hunting jacket, and pulled a thick envelope from an inner pocket. She gently laid it on Daria’s stomach under her cool hands. Jane’s handwritten diary for the past week would give Daria something to read that night, and she might find Jane’s latest sketches of interest. Jane knew the value of keeping busy in an empty world, and Daria likely did, too. She had no clue where Daria stored these messages, or if she read or kept them at all, but Jane kept writing because it gave her something to do.
“Know what I should do?” she said to Daria, holding one of her hands. “I should get a tape recorder. I can’t believe I never thought of that before. There’s an electronics store at Cranberry Commons. I’ll head over there and get a couple of tape recorders, before sundown, and I’ll make tapes for you to go with my diary stuff. That’s kind of artsy, don’t you think? I should do that.” Jane shook her head. “What I really should do, of course, is just stay here until you wake up and let you kill me, because I’m . . . I’m just so . . . okay, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Forget it. I’m going to get those tape recorders. If I find any new CDs for you to play in that boom box, I’ll get those, too. I hate tearing them out of those damned plastic holder things, but what the hell.”
Jane looked at the floor again. “Do you remember what you once told Mrs. Bennett in Economics about malls? You called them the ultimate repositories for human greed and debasement. That was so funny. God, that seems like so long ago. I can’t even believe that was us doing all that, you know, everything we did. It seems like it was someone else.” She sighed. “I should get you some Fuzzy Wuzzy Wee-Bits. I bet that would be just the thing to perk this place up. A little Wee-Bit zombie or something. No offense. A couple of fans would help, too. Hey, I was going to ask you, what did you do with all those doo-dads you won at the Mall of the Millennium in tenth grade? I kept forgetting to ask, and now it’s too . . . anyway, maybe I can find more of them for you. What the heck.”
Jane patted Daria’s thin hands. “Gotta go. Stay cool. Sorry, bad pun. See you tomorrow.” She stood up, pulled her glove back on, and headed for the front door. She’d have to step on it to get to the mall and find what she needed in the three hours left until sundown. Then came the drive back to Lawndale High School, her old alma mater, where she had barricaded the first floor of one of the secondary buildings. A large storeroom on the second floor at night was her new home. The school was Jane’s ultimate survival shelter. She had everything there, everything but a really good reason to live.
“Bye!” she called before she shut and locked the front door. She knew Daria could easily unlock the deadbolt (deadbolt, what a funny word, she thought), but Jane had taped handwritten warnings to the door not to do that, because of the other undead running around hungry at night. Daria had obeyed that injunction, except for one day last October when Jane found her friend facedown in the front yard. Jane realized later Daria was probably looking for something to eat. She dragged Daria inside and left a blistering note with her, ordering her to never leave the house again or else Jane would never come back. And Jane left a body for her in the kitchen. Daria stayed inside after that.
Jane unlimbered her shotgun and scanned the street. No dogs or other threats. Several hawks circled in the sky overhead. Perhaps they’d found something dead. She took out another cigarette and lit up, then took a look in the back of the truck before she got in and set out for the mall.
The wad of ruined clothes and other items was still in the back. Jane groaned and swore. She’d forgotten to throw it out earlier. Retrieving the wad, she walked down to the street with it, where she flung it into the front yard of the neighbor across the way. The wad came undone, and everything inside flew out. Jane was turning away when something odd caught her eye in the debris. She hesitated, then walked across the street and looked through the mess.
A piece of paper had fallen out of a pocket in Daria’s black skirt. Jane bumped it with her toe, then knelt down and picked it up. It was an index card, stained like the rest of the things Daria had on. It was folded in quarters. She unfolded it.
On the index card were five words, carefully printed in pencil in capital letters.
PLEASE KILL ME.
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.
Jane blinked and read the note again, as if doing so would magically clarify the message. She forgot everything else she was going to do that afternoon. She turned around and looked at the boarded-up Morgendorffer house, then looked down and read the note several more times. After a few minutes, she walked back to the truck and leaned against the driver’s door, staring at the paper for the longest time.
She finally roused herself from her stupor and dully checked the time. She had only two and three-quarter hours till sundown. Tucking the paper into an outer pocket of her hunting jacket, she got into her truck and drove away, barely conscious of what she was doing and with no idea of where she was going.
Daria Morgendorffer wanted to die? And Daria wanted her best and only friend Jane to kill her?
Her mind elsewhere, Jane drove to the high school, circled it, then picked up Stewart George Avenue and headed for the local mall. She slammed on the brakes once when a border collie ran across the road in front of her.
I almost killed a dog yesterday, Daria said to me a million years ago. She was lying on the bed in my room. Her mother had taken her out driving, and she’d almost whacked a stupid bulldog. Gonna work your way up to humans slowly? I asked her, being silly. Boy, isn’t that a riot—here I am, working my way down from killing humans, including my own brother. God, I am so funny sometimes. I’m a riot.
The mall came into view through the trees at the end of the avenue. “Why am I even going here?” Jane said aloud. “What am I doing here? What’s the point of it all? I was coming here to get Daria a present, and what the hell am I going to do now? I have nothing to live for as it is! The whole freaking world’s dead, and I’m going shopping for my dead friend! Why am I doing this? Am I crazy, or what?”
Jane drove around to the main entrance of the mall. The glass doors were smashed in, the deed done by Jane many weeks ago when she backed into the entrance with a tour bus she found sitting in the parking lot. She threw her cigarette out the window and slowed as she drove through the doorway, glass crunching loudly under the tires. Turning on the truck’s headlights to high beams, she headed down the broad, dimly lit aisle for the main concourse. Large rats scurried away from the light. She slowed, looking for bodies, then turned right by a dry fountain in the center of the intersection and moved on.
“I don’t even know what I’m looking for now,” Jane said, barely aware she was talking to herself. “I should go back to Daria’s and write her a note. No freaking way I’m going to kill her! Why does she . . . what right does she have to . . . why did she have to go and say that? What’s wrong with her? I’m the one who goes out shooting things! She gets to stay home and read all day! What’s the problem?”
She spotted the familiar Books by the Ton outlet store and parked beside it. She got out of the cab without her shotgun or helmet, machine pistols bumping against her thighs, and walked into the store. There, she grabbed books off the shelves in armloads and threw them in a heap in the cargo bed of the pickup. “There!” Jane yelled, going for another load. “Here are some books for you, Daria! History! Literature! Art! Science! Current Events! Politics! The whole freaking thing, everything! Now you have something to do, don’t you? Right?”
Jane threw three more loads into the truck, then got back in the cab. She drove next to the electronics store, looting it of tape recorders, ham radios, walkie-talkies, digital cameras, and everything else she could find. It all went into the back of the truck. Finally, she drove straight down the main concourse into the black halls of Cashman’s, stopping well inside the entrance. She remembered this time to take the shotgun. The truck’s high-beam headlights were more than adequate for her visual needs.
She stalked into the women’s department, ignoring the odor of decay that hovered in the air, then headed for the racks of clothes in Daria’s size. In the pants and blouses sections, she gathered up heaps of clothing at random and flung them into the truck bed on top of everything else. She moved quickly, in part because she knew she didn’t have much time left and in part because she was so angry at the world. Her head was full of Daria and dying and dead planets.
When the cargo bed was nearly full of stuff, she finally got back into the cab, shut the door, and inhaled deeply, her eyes closed. She sank forward and put her head against the steering wheel, her hands in her lap.
“Why do you want me to kill you, Daria?” she said in a soft voice. “I don’t want you to die. I know you aren’t alive, but I can’t go on without you. I can’t. I just can’t.”
She wiped her eyes and looked around. To her right in the truck’s headlights hung a sign that read: JUNIOR FIVE.
“Quinn and the Fashion Club used to shop there,” Jane said to herself. “Daria could probably wear some of that. She’s thin enough now, even as much as she eats. What a metabolism.” After a moment, she sniffed, got out of the truck, slung the shotgun on her back again, and walked to the Junior Five department.
The stench of rotting flesh was stronger now, but it was an old smell. Jane coughed and choked back an urge to vomit. She watched her feet, maneuvering through the aisles using the headlights of the truck that were aimed in her direction. Stopping at a few racks of dresses and pants, she pulled them off at random and took them back to the truck. One more bunch, and then she’d go to Daria’s, dump her stuff, and write a note in response before she went back to the high school for the night. She’d show Daria that she was being cared for. She wouldn’t let Daria do anything stupid.
Jane made her way toward the back of the department, where more tops and slacks were folded on shelves. She decided it was time for Daria to dump the green-orange-black ensemble that she’d clung to for so long. Even the dead had to change with the times.
The foul stink got worse. Jane unslung the shotgun and turned on its twin barrel lights, swinging it around to see if anything blocked her path. She got to the end of an aisle that formed a “T” intersection at a wall with another aisle, swung the shotgun right and saw nothing, then swung the weapon to the left.
A human skeleton lay scattered in pieces across the floor, surrounded by racks of size-two dresses for thin teenagers. The dresses on one side were splattered with a dark brown substance that had dried on them months ago.
Jane gasped in spite of herself. Steadying her nerve, she stepped in for a closer look. Among the remains were a black purse with a shoulder strap, a pair of stylish black shoes, and a blue dress encrusted with dried blood, entangled with the skeleton’s spinal column and ribs. The remains were much disturbed. Ghouls—the new dead in their up-and-moving nocturnal form—had obviously found the body and consumed it long ago.
Jane coughed and spit, feeling queasy. The smell was getting to her. She wished she’d lit up another smoke before walking back here, even with the danger of a fire. Crouching, she pulled the purse over by the strap and opened it. Inside was a blue wallet that flipped open in her hands.
An attractive Vietnamese teenager with long black hair looked at her with a bland gaze from the color photo on a driver’s license. The name on the license was Tiffany Blum-Deckler. It was one of Quinn Morgendorffer’s friends from the Fashion Club at Lawndale High—a slim, harmless girl who was not very bright and completely obsessed with her appearance and weight.
“Oh, no.” Jane felt a terrible sadness sink into her. “Oh, baby, please say this isn’t you.” She raised her shotgun to illuminate the area around her.
Under the rack of dresses was a dark-stained skull lying on its side, enmeshed in long strands of black hair that were cemented together by thick brown clots. The empty eye sockets looked upward, peering at the bloodstained dresses above it through the veil of its befouled hair. Through each temple of the skull was a large, broken hole. A few feet from the skull was a small black .38-caliber handgun.
Jane looked down at the .38. “Oh, Jesus, no,” she whispered, sick at heart. She guessed Tiffany had blown out her brains here during the flu pandemic, her family and friends in the Fashion Club already dead or dying.
After a moment, Jane reached for the gun with a gloved hand. Her fingers bumped against it, moving the weapon an inch farther away.
In the corner of her vision, she saw the skull slowly roll over and look at her with its hollow eyes.
Jane shrieked and fell backward, not even thinking to use the shotgun. She scrambled to her feet and ran.
An instant later, she hit something, or something hit her, square in the middle of her forehead with the force of a hammer blow. Stars and galaxies exploded in her vision. She staggered backward and fell. The world went out.
* * *
Jane stood in the Junior Five department of Cashman’s. All the ceiling lights were on, but it was silent all around. Tiffany Blum-Deckler stood before her, with her back to Jane. Tiffany wore a tight blue dress and was checking her appearance in a big mirror. Jane, though she looked over Tiffany’s right shoulder, could not see herself in the mirror’s reflection.
Tiffany was doing something with her hair. A huge hole had been blown through her head with a handgun, so that her white skull could be seen around the edges. She was trying to arrange her silky black hair to hide the damage.
She turned around to face Jane with a peaceful expression. “Do you like what I did?” she said in her California drawl. “It’s the latest fashion.” Her fingers curled around a thick lock of her hair, and she pulled it aside. Jane could see inside Tiffany’s head, which was as hollow as her dead skull.
Tiffany’s eyes fell out inside her head. Jane could see into her empty skull through the two black socket holes in her face. “I’ll always be beautiful,” she said, and she came toward Jane, her finger twisting that lock of hair. “I’ll never be sick. I’ll never be fat.” Her jaw fell off, and the skin melted from her face and ran down over her tight blue dress.
“Daria,” said Tiffany. Her skull fell off the top of her spine, but the rest of her blood-coated skeleton advanced on Jane. “Daria,” she said again with no mouth. “You’re late.”
* * *
Still screaming, Jane awoke in a half-darkness lit by her fallen shotgun’s lights and the distant pickup’s high beams. She lay on her back, head aching and thoughts spinning as she struggled to get her bearings and get up. A large floor mirror stood before her. She had run into the rounded edge of the mirror’s shining metal frame. She rolled on her side to get up on her elbow.
She looked into Tiffany’s hair-shrouded skull.
Screaming again, Jane ran, not even aware she was on her feet. She slammed into dress racks and shelving units, fleeing for the brilliant, blinding headlights of her truck.
A naked, two-legged male figure stepped in front of the headlights. Jane stopped screaming and slid to a stop only forty feet away. She could not see who it was through the glare, but she knew.
The two-legged figure grunted and charged.
Jane did not have her shotgun. She spun and tripped, her boots entangled in a fallen dress. Shrieking insanely, she grabbed for the machine pistols attached to her belt. One was stuck underneath her. The other came up in her right hand as the figure jumped at her. She fired and saw in the muzzle flashes that it was a ghoul and she had been unconscious for much too long.
The ghoul slammed Jane to the hardwood floor, crushing the wind from her lungs. It grabbed her face and forced her head back, opening its reeking mouth so it could tear out her throat with its teeth. She caught its own throat with her left hand to hold it back, but it was too strong and came steadily on. She got the pistol out from under it with her right hand, pulled up against the bungee cord, raised the pistol to the ghoul’s head beside her own, and squeezed the trigger with the gun muzzle pressed to its temple. The lightning blasts showered her face with dead flesh until the thirty-round magazine was empty and the ghoul fell across her, half its head missing.
Jane struggled wildly out from under the ghoul, shoving the body over on its back with a strength born of sheer panic. She knew she needed the Italian shotgun, but she also knew she had to get out of the mall instantly because the sun had fallen and millions of ghouls on her side of the Earth were wide awake and looking for something warm to eat, she was in the midst of them and they knew it, they knew exactly where she was thanks to the gunfire, and they were coming.
She ran back to Tiffany’s body. “I’m sorry!” she shouted to the skull, snatching up the shotgun. Even with her ears ringing, she heard more ghouls coming. “I’m sorry!” she shouted, even louder, and ran for the truck. She thought she heard many feet, naked feet thumping and pounding the hardwood floor in every direction. She did not think there could be so many ghouls in the mall. It sounded like a mob of them.
She got to the driver’s door of the pickup and grabbed the handle with her left hand, jerking the door open. She jumped inside, shotgun going in first in her right hand.
Enormously strong hands grabbed her left boot and tried to pull her out of the cab. She spun, aimed the shotgun blindly, and fired. The blast lit up the cab (the screaming in her ears went on forever) and a naked man with his left arm and shoulder blown off fell back from the door. The window of the truck was blown out as well. Another face appeared and reached for her through the missing window. She shot his face into a spray of red oatmeal (completely deaf, nothing but screaming in her ears) and grabbed the door by the armrest and slammed it shut.
She let go of the shotgun to turn the keys in the ignition. She always left the keys in the ignition and was infinitely glad now that she did. Someone rammed into the window on the passenger side, pounding on the glass with both fists. The engine roared to life and Jane threw the truck into reverse. The pickup’s tires howled on the hardwood, and the truck lurched backward, swinging around inside the night-black foyer of Cashman’s. The sun was down, and Hell’s finest were coming out of every store aisle and office and stairwell in search of dinner.
And Jane Lane was the only hot meal on the planet.
Jane spun the truck to get the front aimed at Cashman’s entrance. A hand came in the side window and grabbed her by the hair, almost tearing her scalp away. The pain was beyond imagining. She floored the gas and the truck skidded around, still moving backward, smashing through display cases and clothing racks. The hand on her hair slipped off, but another hand caught the ledge of the window. Jane let go of the steering wheel and grabbed for the machine pistol on her left side.
The pickup struck something that didn’t give and came to an instant stop, snapping her head back and then throwing her forward into the steering wheel. There hadn’t been time to buckle in first, and she’d disconnected the airbag weeks ago. Dazed, she pushed herself back in her seat, aimed the machine pistol out the window on her left without thinking, and squeezed the trigger. Something tried to grab her even through the hail of lead she put into it, but she finally blew its hands off and it staggered back to regroup. Jane dropped the pistol, magazine empty, flipped the truck into drive, and floored it.
The tires squealed and smoked. She was right on the edge of passing out, and it took all she had to grip the steering wheel and keep her focus. The truck roared out of Cashman’s and slammed into two ghouls coming in the entrance. One was thrown to the left, the other went under the truck and made it bounce as it shot down the main concourse.
And in the truck’s high-beam headlights, she saw them. Ahead of her and on all sides around her were ghouls and more ghouls and even more ghouls, ghouls everywhere, more than Jane had dared dream existed. They were in the hundreds, the thousands. She knew now they had been hiding from her in the cavern-like mall, in the places she never went. She’d caught only the stupid ones in the daytime, and there weren’t many stupid ones left. Now she was the stupid one.
Most of the ghouls got out of her way, but a dozen did not move quickly enough, and she ran over them without stopping. A ghoul came out of a store on her side, and the impact with the truck threw him over the hood and into the back. She hit the brakes to turn left down the side corridor to get out of the mall, sliding and knocking down an old cell-phone kiosk before the truck took off again.
Something thumped against the back of the cab. She glanced in the rear-view mirror but saw nothing. It’s back there, she thought. Gunning the engine, she headed for the way out down the short side corridor. Another ghoul snatched at her through the shattered side window but missed and fell away. She heard something moving in the bed of the truck behind her. The shotgun fell against the far door, out of reach.
Jane braced herself against the steering wheel and slammed the brakes to the floor. Everything in the cab flew to the front. Something crashed into the back window of the pickup. It sounded like the ghoul fell out of the truck bed, but she couldn’t be sure. She gunned the engine again, and the truck shot out the smashed glass doors of Cranberry Commons, into a moonlit parking lot. The hulks of a hundred abandoned cars lay scattered before her. She looked in the rear-view mirror but saw nothing behind her. Cool air blew in from her broken window, clearing her fogged mind.
Jane circled the lot and managed to retrieve the shotgun, laying it on the seat beside her. She then ejected the magazines for her machine pistols and reloaded both, driving with her knees. Tomorrow, she’d have to get a new truck, if she lived that long. She shivered violently, then guided the truck out of the parking lot and onto the main road, heading for the high-school garage and safety. Nothing would stop her.
Daria, Tiffany had said. You’re late.
Jane flinched, then hit the brakes again. She was at an unlit crossroads. Would Daria do something to herself if she wanted badly enough to die? Would she do it tonight?
If Jane went straight ahead, she’d reach the high school in two minutes. If she turned right and went south, she’d be at Daria’s in five minutes. She checked her watch. It was almost ten p.m. Sundown was an hour and a half ago.
She swore and turned south, gunning the engine as she raced down the boulevard into the depths of the night.
He had heard the midnight bells
jangling: if you permit
this evil, what is the good
of the good of your life?
—Stanley Kunitz, “Around Pastor Bonhoeffer”
Ghouls attacked her truck at a curve before the intersection of Shelley Boulevard and Bradbury, flinging themselves at the vehicle as it roared by. One got an arm through the side window and caught the front of her hunting jacket, but she swerved and passed inches from a signpost that tore the ghoul away. Its severed hand fell like a fat spider into Jane’s lap. She struck at it in terror, knocking it to the cab floor by the brake. Ghouls arose from tall grass and dropped out of trees and crawled out of broken windows all around her. Stopping was impossible. She stamped on the hand and kept driving.
At Shelley and Wyndham Way, Jane remembered too late that a light pole had fallen across the road a week earlier. She had not bothered to move it, being occupied with other things. The truck hit the pole and jumped, the front right wheel landing on a luckless ghoul and smearing it for yards across the asphalt. Bouncing, the pickup spun out clockwise on screaming tires, flinging Jane sideways into her door, then came to a halt facing the way it had come. Engine running, the truck started forward again, but Jane whipped the wheel to the right and floored it. The truck spun around in the direction of the intersection with Glen Oaks. The air stank of burning rubber.
A female ghoul with greenish hair leaped on the hood of the truck and grabbed a windshield wiper. It reached for the missing side window with its other hand, baring its rotting teeth at her through the pane. Jane turned right at the intersection with Glen Oaks at over forty miles an hour. The pickup came up on its left wheels and almost rolled. The ghoul’s lower half slipped off the side of the hood, but it hung on. Jane flattened the gas pedal as she headed down Glen Oaks, hitting two ghouls that tried to jump the truck from the front.
When she reached sixty halfway down the street, she slammed on the brakes again. The windshield wiper snapped. The green-haired ghoul fell off and went under the left front tire. Skidding, the truck flattened a mailbox, then jumped the curb and fishtailed through the tall grass of a half-dozen lawns as Jane fought for control. Accelerating again, she ran down a lone ghoul on the street, spun the truck around, and roared back up Glen Oaks toward Daria’s.
Approaching the Morgendorffers’
house, she drove off the street again, crossing three overgrown yards before
she hit the brakes and skidded to a stop in the middle of Daria’s yard. Her
broken-out left window faced the house. Jane looked up—and was startled to see
a bright white light shining through the boards over the first-floor living
room on the left side. Her voice failed for a moment, but she took a deep
breath and shouted, “Daria!”
After a moment, the bright light at the boarded-over window went out.
A quick look around showed no ghouls in Jane’s immediate vicinity, but she knew she had only a few seconds left before the first ones reached her. She shouted, “Daria!” again at the top of her lungs. Risking one more look around, she picked up her shotgun, opened the cab door, and stood up on the ledge, one foot still down on the brake. “Daria!” she cried over the door. “Can you hear—”
Something came out of the clothing in the bed of the truck, behind Jane. She heard it and tried to turn around, but she lost her balance and grabbed for the door.
The ghoul from the mall grabbed her left arm with superhuman strength and jerked her out of the truck. Clutching the shotgun, Jane fell sideways, pulling the ghoul over the edge of the cargo bed to land together in the long, flattened grass. Still in drive, the truck began rolling away into the neighbor’s yard, picking up speed as it went. Jane saw it go and knew she was finished. The keys to Daria’s house were inside it.
She came up with the shotgun, but the ghoul leaped on her and bit into the right sleeve of her thick jacket, painfully catching her forearm. The shotgun was knocked out of her reach. Jane then grabbed the machine pistol on her left side, raised it, and pulled the trigger repeatedly. Nothing happened. The gun was jammed. Panicked, she kicked and punched with the pistol butt in a futile effort to stun the creature and escape.
Pinning Jane beneath it, the ghoul ripped out the fabric from her jacket sleeve and bit down at her face. She blocked with her right hand, but the ghoul’s teeth sank into her thick glove. Shrieking, Jane pounded on the ghoul’s head with the useless machine pistol, then dropped the gun and grabbed the hilt of the eighteen-inch Bowie knife on her left side. She jerked the blade from its sheath and stabbed the ghoul hard in the side, sinking the blade between its ribs up to the crosspiece. The knife wound had no visible effect except to increase the ghoul’s rage.
Jane howled in agony, her right hand trapped between the ghoul’s jaws. The other ghouls would arrive in seconds and tear her to pieces. They would eat her alive, thrashing and screaming, and dying would take far too long. The ghoul’s glistening orbs pressed down inches from her face.
Her left hand grabbed the hilt of Bowie knife. She yanked it free, jammed the point into the ghoul’s cheek, and slashed outward through its jaw muscles. The ghoul’s mouth fell open, but it held her down until she drove the blade up through the roof of its mouth with all her strength. It convulsed in shuddering spasms and released her.
A charging ghoul was almost on her. She lunged to her left, came up with the shotgun, and rolled on her stomach, half under the dying ghoul. Ignoring the pain in her right hand, she pulled the trigger, blasting away the ghoul’s abdomen and lower spine. It fell in halves on the lawn ten feet away from her. She fired again and again at oncoming ghouls until the magazine was empty.
Jane got up. Her pickup truck was still moving but overwhelmed by a mob of ghouls six houses east on Glen Oaks. The creatures obviously were attracted to light and sound—but some of them had not been fooled. A scattered herd of them came on in the moonlight from all sides. Jane ran to the door of Daria’s house and hammered on it, screaming Daria’s name. She turned, saw that she was out of time, and grabbed her machine pistols. She ejected the jammed magazine on the left machine pistol and had enough time to reload it when the first ghouls reached her.
Her back to the door, Jane raised both weapons and opened fire, swinging her arms left and right to shower the ghouls with 9mm armor-piercing ammunition. Spent shells rained around her. A dozen ghouls and more fell, but more came on, reaching for her with blood-encrusted fingers. One took four hits in the chest but came in to grab her right-hand weapon. She aimed at its face and emptied the magazine. The brainless ghoul fell into her, knocking her into the door and down to the sidewalk among the smoking brass cartridges. Her left machine pistol fired wildly into the dead until it too was empty.
Jane Lane struggled and screamed and kicked, but it was over. A ghoul with one eye shot out grabbed her throat and bent down to tear the skin off her face with its teeth.
The front door of the Morgendorffers’ house opened. Jane saw it in the corner of her eye through a haze of terror. A small, long-haired, bone-thin figure in a skirt and glasses came out of the house in a blur, its right arm holding something. Too late, Jane saw the axe in Daria Morgendorffer’s hand, the same axe Daria had used to chop her family and everyone else into manageable pieces before she ate them. Daria windmilled her right arm as she came, the axe swinging up and over in a flash. Jane couldn’t get the scream out of her throat fast enough.
The axe dived into the back of the ghoul’s head, bursting its skull and showering Jane with its rotting contents. Daria jerked the axe out and turned as another ghoul reached for her. The axe whipped around, taking the ghoul’s right arm off at the elbow, then whirled again in a horizontal arc. The top of the ghoul’s skull flew off, spilling its contents as the creature fell. A third ghoul bent down to grab Jane, but Daria chopped down and broke its spine below the neck. The ghoul fell writhing at Jane’s side.
Daria grabbed Jane by her jacket, pulling her with incredible power out from underneath the dead ghoul. Jane scrambled to her feet and half-ran while being half-dragged toward the door. Daria threw Jane into the house, then lashed down and split a charging ghoul’s skull down to its shoulders. She whirled and buried the axe in the face of a fifth ghoul, jerked it out, and ran into the house before either ghoul hit the ground.
Jane fell to the floor beside the stairway leading up to the second floor. She started to get up, meaning to run upstairs to escape further attacks, but Daria ran in and slammed the door behind her, snapping the deadbolt and locking the knob in moments. Startled, Jane stayed on the floor, staring at her friend—her dead friend, she remembered, her dead friend who ate dead humans at night. Daria ignored her; she snatched up a table set against the wall by the door, dumping the empty vase on top to the floor. She then jammed the table on its side between the front door and the bottom step of the stairway, preventing the door from opening if the locks gave way. This done, she put her back against the door, braced her legs against the carpet, and waited, staring into space.
Something thumped against the door, then pounding and crashing could be heard and felt from the outside. Jane crawled back from the door, expecting at any moment it would be smashed open, but after a few moments, the pounding ceased. The sounds that Jane heard a few seconds later were those of ghouls noisily feeding.
Jane’s gaze went to Daria, visible in the faint light from a camping lantern on the living room’s coffee table. Jane took in the hollow cheeks and bony limbs, the way her clothing hung loosely from her emaciated frame, her unblinking eyes, the unnatural steadiness of her posture—and her failure to breathe. Daria’s hair and clothing were completely covered with brain matter, dark fluids, and shreds of flesh from the ghouls she had fought. Jane, every bit as gore-soaked as Daria, looked down at the splattered axe in Daria’s right hand, promptly forgetting about the ghouls and her injuries. She remembered instead why she had not wanted to come here after dark, and wondered with an increasing degree of panic why she had done so anyway.
Losing interest in events outside, Daria stood away from the front door, her feet between the overturned table legs. She raised the axe and inspected it through her filthy eyeglasses, then glanced at Jane.
“Wait,” said Jane in a high, soft voice. She put up her injured right hand to ward off an attack. She had no weapons left, but anything would be useless against someone who could fight like Daria. Jane could not mesh the image she had of Daria now with that of Daria earlier, cradled in her arms like a child. She wondered if there were two of them in the house, one unconscious and one murderous.
Finished with her inspection, Daria put the axe to her lips and licked it with her dark gray tongue. She licked the blade off on one side, then the other, then began working over the whole axe head and shaft. She was very thorough. In a minute, the axe was spotless. Daria licked off her hands next, picking up every bit of matter on them, and then picked things out of her hair and off her clothes and swallowed them.
Jane watched with enormous eyes, the white visible all around.
Daria looked again at Jane, lowered the axe, and walked over to her. Jane shrank back against the floor, hands raised. She curled up to make herself very small and whispered “no” and “please don’t” over and over. Daria set the axe by Jane’s feet, then knelt down and inspected Jane with steady eyes. No trace of emotion entered her face. She reached down and pulled something out of Jane’s hair and put it in her mouth, chewing and swallowing.
“Daria,” Jane whispered, “please don’t hurt me. Please. I won’t hurt you. I would never do that. Please don’t—don’t hurt me.”
Daria continued to pick things off Jane for a few moments more, then reached up and took Jane’s face in her cold, grimy hands. Breathless with terror, Jane realized she’d wet her pants when fighting the ghouls outside, and she had the urge to do it again. She prayed, though she knew God had stopped listening to prayers ages ago.
Daria stared closely into Jane’s face, and—
Can you hear me? said Daria’s unmistakable voice in Jane’s mind.
“Wh-what?” said Jane.
You can hear me, then. Daria kept Jane’s face still, her eyes locked on Jane’s.
“Yes,” Jane gasped. “Yes, I can!”
Interesting, said Daria inside Jane’s head. I had not suspected this was possible until today. I thought I was dreaming all those times before, when you were washing me off. I thought I could hear you thinking and singing. Were you singing to me today, when you bathed me?
Jane was confused for a moment, then remembered and nodded rapidly.
Was it a Tracy Chapman song, that one about riding in her boyfriend’s car? Yes, that was it. “Fast Car.” You were singing it to me. I knew it.
“You . . . you’re reading my mind? You were reading my mind when I was—”
I think so. Every time you touched me in the daytime, I could hear what you were thinking. It didn’t come through very clearly until today. Were you wearing gloves the other times when you touched me, but not today?
“Yes! Yes, latex gloves, or leather gloves if I wasn’t washing you off, so that I wouldn’t catch—oh! I don’t mean that—”
You didn’t want to catch a disease from me, because I don’t wash after I eat. That makes sense. That’s a smart thing to do.
You did the right thing. I can tell you are very frightened of me, Jane, but I will not hurt you. I know you.
“I won’t hurt you, either! I swear I would never hurt you! You know that!”
Jane, please be a little less afraid of me. I am a monster, you are right about that, but I can’t do anything about it. I would not hurt you, though—not ever.
Jane swallowed. “Okay,” she said weakly. “I’m sorry. I’ve not had a very good day.” She struggled against sudden tears. “I’ve not had a very good day in a long time.”
Daria held Jane’s head as Jane closed her eyes and thought about everything that had happened to her since dawn. Tears ran down her face in twin streams.
You have had a terrible time. I am sorry to hear about Tiffany. That is a strange situation. I don’t know what to think about it. I knew Trent was dead, though. You’ve written to me about that before. I did not realize how strongly you felt about Trent’s death, though I should have. I had a crush on Trent once, I remember.
“He liked you. He always did.”
I know. He didn’t love me, but that’s okay. I’m still sorry he’s gone. Daria’s voice hesitated. My emotions are very . . . low, almost dead in a way. I’m not making a joke. I am sorry that Trent is dead, and I feel bad about it in a certain way, but I don’t feel the pain of it like you do. Don’t be offended, please. I think it’s because of my condition. I think clearly enough, but I don’t react to things like I once did. I don’t feel angry or sad, and I’m certainly not happy. All my feelings are . . . muffled, barely there. I can’t do anything about it.
The tears had stopped. “Okay,” Jane said. “Okay.”
I read your diary when I awoke. It means a lot that you leave something for me to do during the night. Your stories told me a lot about what’s happened to the world. I wonder about that constantly. It’s beyond my understanding.
Jane finally caught her breath. She was unnerved, but recovering. “I’m glad you like what I write. I’ll never be a good writer like you were—are, I mean, sorry. I’ll keep writing anyway.” She carefully reached up and put a hand against Daria’s—only to touch, not to pull the cold, gory hands away from her. Her only hope of survival for the night, she knew, was to show no threat and to treat Daria as much as possible like the friend she had once been—and might still be.
You are my friend, said Daria. That never changed. You are safe here.
So Daria was reading her thoughts. Hiding anything from her would be impossible. Jane accepted that as best she could.
Why did you come here tonight and risk death?
Jane swallowed. “I was afraid you would hurt yourself,” she said. “I read your note. It frightened me. I couldn’t take it if anything happened to you.”
For a few seconds, Daria did not respond. You were at the mall? she finally said.
“Yes. I can’t go there anymore. The ghouls are all over it. I found some things for you. They’re in the truck, if the ghouls leave anything left of it by tomorrow morning.”
Did you bring me a Fuzzy Wuzzy Wee-Bit?
“What? A what?”
Forget it. It was a joke. The doo-dads you asked about, the ones I won long ago, are in my closet in a shoe box.
Jane forced herself to smile, but she was still frightened.
Jane, I am going to let go of you, so we won’t be able to converse like this for a while. Let’s clean ourselves up, and we can talk again in an hour—after I finish eating in the kitchen. You should not go in there yet. You interrupted my meal.
Jane nodded quickly. “Okay.”
Daria let go of her and got up from the floor. Jane reached up and wiped her cheeks.
“Daria?” said Jane as Daria was leaving. Daria turned. Jane opened her mouth to say something, then burst into tears. She laid her head on the floor and cried for several minutes, shaking all over. At last, she raised her head. “If you want to kill me,” she said through her sobs, “it’s okay. You can kill me.”
Daria stared at her solemnly, then walked back. She reached down and touched Jane on the cheek.
I would never do that.
Daria then straightened and went into the kitchen.
After a minute, Jane wiped her eyes, got up, and walked up the stairs, stepping over the table barring the door. She did not touch the axe Daria had left on the floor beside her. Once at the top of the steps, she stopped, unsure of where to go. She finally went to the bathroom that Daria and Quinn had once shared, so tired she could barely walk straight.
From the bathroom closet, she pulled out one of several dozen one-gallon bottles of distilled water she had stored there during a period of impulsive stockpiling. She didn’t touch the stockpile if she could avoid it, always bringing in extra water and the like when it was needed. “Doesn’t matter now,” Jane mumbled. Stripping off her clothes, she tossed them in a corner of the bathroom. She decided to wash them later and hang them up to dry. If she tried to escape the next morning, she could—
Jane shook off the thought. She would not try to escape from Daria. There was nowhere to go but the high school, anyway. And, with a little shock, she realized that she trusted Daria. It’s the first stage of madness, she thought, but if that was true, she accepted it. She and I are too much alike. We always were. If she did kill me, at least I would die with a friend—but I don’t think she will. She half regretted that.
Picking up the jug of water, she got a bar of disinfectant soap and a washcloth, and then went into the nonworking shower to wash off. She shivered in delayed reaction to the night’s events, then scrubbed her skin all over when she thought of how many disease-carrying microbes she’d been exposed to since she woke up—and when she thought of Daria’s cold, corpse-splattered hands pressed to her cheeks.
For I am every dead thing
In whom love wrought new alchemy.
—John Donne, “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day”
An hour later, Jane and Daria met again in the living room. The battery-powered camping lantern softly illuminated the area. Lacking anything clean to wear, Jane wore a blue bed sheet wrapped around her like a toga, and Daria wore the same in white. Jane refrained from making the usual toga-party jokes. It was warm in the house from the daytime. She knew it would get intolerably hot before long without air conditioning. Must get lots of little fans tomorrow, she thought.
Daria lay on her back on the long sofa, her head resting on a pillow. Her hair was still wet from the sponge bath she’d given herself in the garage. She still smelled faintly of death. Jane sat on the other end of the sofa with Daria’s cool feet resting on her warm thigh. Daria’s telepathy worked through any level of direct touch, through any bodily parts except their hair. Their experimentation fascinated them and continued for some time before they settled down on the couch. As they talked, Jane played with Daria’s toes. They looked normal enough, except for their pale yellow color and bony appearance.
“So, how come we’re not dead?” Jane asked. “You know what I mean.”
I’ve thought about that for a long time, Daria said. Her deadpan voice rolled clearly inside Jane’s head, as if her words came out exactly between Jane’s ears. I think it began with you. I don’t know how you came out to be immune to that super-flu. You were sick a week before it came, I remember. You were laid up in bed with a fever, right after you got those exotic bird feathers for that hanging decoration you were making.
“I remember that,” said Jane absently. “I kept putting the feathers in my mouth to hold them while I was working.”
Ah, then a virus or bacteria from the birds could have been transferred from the feathers into your own system, and you got sick. Your body then developed a peculiar immune-system response that knocked out the super-flu later. I’m only guessing, but it could be that you inoculated yourself by accident. If that’s what happened, you survived because you have a bad habit of putting things in your mouth.
Jane meditated on this. It made sense, though her grasp of the details of biology was shaky at best. She picked up her cigarette from the bowl-turned-ashtray on the coffee table and took a long drag on it.
You’re supposed to make a rude comment about putting things in either your mouth or mine.
“What?” Jane looked at her cigarette. “Oh, sorry. Missed my cue.”
We both have bad timing. I sure do. I’m sorry about licking the axe when you came in. Old habit.
Jane frowned, tapping her cigarette on the bowl. “Old habit? What old habit?”
Picked up from my non-pizza dining habits. When I get hungry, I can’t help myself. I have to eat right away.
“Oh. Um, are you by any chance, uh—”
No, I’ve got a while yet. Don’t worry. Eating like I have, by the way, is how I think I kept my brain going when no one else did. At least, that’s the impression I get from your memories. No one else has any intelligence except me, among those who caught the super-flu and . . . changed. Yes, you’re right, died. I should call it what it is.
Jane exhaled another long drag. “I’m sorry. When things come to mind, I can’t sort them out before you get to them.”
I’m not offended. I actually like knowing what you really think.
“I see. And is what I really think any different from what I say?”
Not by much. You’ve been more honest with me than anyone else ever was. I trust you, but I trust you even more because I can see inside you.
“So you can see everything I ever thought about you and Tom and all that, right?” May as well face the only issue that ever divided us, her stealing my boyfriend. Doesn’t matter now. Too long ago, all forgiven. Feels like it happened to someone else, anyway.
I can see what you thought, if you think of it, said Daria. I am sorry for the pain I caused you, but that was in another life. We are too far beyond that now.
Jane nodded, lost in thought. An old, embarrassing memory unexpectedly surfaced.
That’s an interesting thing to do with a zucchini, said Daria. You’re—no, you’re not joking. Your sister Penny did that?
Jane fought off an urge to shove Daria’s feet off her lap. “Yes. I walked in on her in the bathroom when I was about five. I had no idea what she was doing. I wonder sometimes if she had any idea what she was doing.” She sighed. “I wish I knew where she was. I guess it’s better that I don’t.”
I’m sort of glad you can’t see into me like this. It must be driving you crazy for me to do it. And I can tell that it is. Sorry. Daria pulled her feet back and broke contact.
Jane looked over. After a moment, she reached out, took one of Daria’s cool feet in her hand and moved it back onto her leg. “Come on, keep talking to me,” said Jane, not looking at Daria’s face. “I’ll get used to not having any secrets left. I haven’t had anyone to talk to for months.”
Same here. That’s why I wrote that note to you, asking you to kill me. Ghouls get lonely, too. Being cooped up in here and eating dead things got to me after a while. You can tear up the note, by the way. It’s out of date.
“I wouldn’t do anything to you, anyway. With our luck, we’d just be reincarnated and go through high school again.”
I remember that joke from before. I don’t remember when you first said it, but I remember it.
“I don’t remember either. I’m not being very creative.” Jane bit her lip. “I really am sorry I told you to stay in here like this. I didn’t know what it was like for you.”
More than anything, I just wanted to see you.
Jane swallowed and looked away. “I was terrified of you. I saw you only in the daytime, and I cared about you, but I was still afraid. I still am.”
I understand. I don’t blame you. Monsters should stay out of sight.
“I’m the bloody monster, not you,” said Jane bitterly. “I killed—”
And I killed, too. We’ve both killed, but we killed bad things. Trent wasn’t Trent anymore when he came back. You know that. When he was alive, you did everything you could for him. The world changed us and changed around us, and we’ve had to deal with it to survive. If we hadn’t killed, if we hadn’t protected ourselves—and each other—we would not be here sharing this time together. The bad things would be here instead.
Perhaps they are, Jane thought before she could stop herself. “You’re not a monster,” she said quickly. “You’re not a bad thing, no matter what I think.”
I am what I am, if you’ll pardon my Popeye philosophy. I changed. I am different now. You are, too, but only in a human way, not in a monstrous way like me.
“Ha,” said Jane. “I am too more different than you are. You’re not going to win this one.”
I wish we were having this conversation over pizza.
“I don’t think . . . never mind.” Jane swallowed and felt her face burn. She crushed out her smoke. “Sorry.”
You don’t think you could stomach my choice of toppings. Go ahead and say it. Trust me, you can’t say anything now that will rub me wrong. You’re simply telling me the truth. You can’t imagine how refreshing this is for me. Everyone has lied to me in little ways or big all my life. Finally, I have someone who can’t lie to me, someone who won’t lie to me, and even though I’m dead or worse, I appreciate it. Say anything you want, think anything you want. I’m not going to eat you.
Jane shivered. “Please don’t say that.”
I apologize. A pause. I am grateful for all that you did for me. I can’t believe you went through so much trouble just for me. It must have been quite a chore all this time. Yes, I see that it was.
“It was okay. It kept me going.”
You told me that I was the only reason you had left to live.
Jane nodded slowly. “Everyone else is gone. It’s no fun being alone. I used to think it would be wonderful to live somewhere far away, so people couldn’t bother me, but now that I’ve done it, I miss people very much.”
So do I. I really hate meeting them in the way that I am.
“Shh,” said Jane. Her hands began to massage Daria’s foot. “Can you feel that?”
Yes. I feel the pressure. It feels . . . okay, I guess. Comforting, sort of. I can’t tell temperature, and nothing really hurts or causes pain. My pain sensors must be shorted out. I wonder if that has something to do with why I can’t feel emotions now, or can’t feel them very well.
“It feels . . . well, you know what I’m going to say.”
It does feel good to be touched, I agree. Even after death, it feels good.
“I wanted to ask you,” said Jane, changing the subject. “You said earlier that . . . you said eating made you smarter, something like that.”
What happened was, you fed me right from the start. You didn’t mean to do it, and I’m sure it never occurred to you to do that, but you did. I believe now that it saved me from going mad from hunger, turning into one of those things out there. I’ve always had something to eat. First— Daria waved an arm toward the upstairs —and later, you shot all the ghouls near the house. I used to go out and pick up the bodies at night and bring them in. I never had to go far, and I never went hungry.
“I knew you were doing that.” Jane shivered and felt the need for another cigarette. She stopped rubbing Daria’s foot and laid her hand over it, warming it. “Then when I found you outside that time, last October, I got so upset when I brought you back in . . . I knew you’d go out and do it again, so I just started leaving the bodies in the house, so you never had to go out. I couldn’t have stood it if you . . . if anything had happened to you. I almost thought you were trying to get yourself killed by those other creatures.”
I got caught outside because I was careless about the exact time of sunrise. You didn’t have to worry about me taking care of myself against the others, though. Because I always had enough to eat, I was always better off than they were. I move and think faster than they, and I use tools and weapons when they don’t. Best of all, I kept my intelligence. My memories stayed intact. I think the others lost any chance for that because they go hungry so often. Most of them probably don’t eat for days and days. I think it destroys their minds.
Jane grimaced. The subject was causing her stomach to turn over. She was glad she hadn’t eaten anything in a while, despite her hunger. She tried not to think of Daria chopping her family into pieces, or how she swept through the ghouls outside with the axe. It didn’t seem possible.
Jane, listen to me for a moment. I know this is grossing you out, but listen. You don’t understand what the hunger is like. When I get hungry, I have to eat immediately. I have no control over myself, or barely any. I suppose I have a little. I didn’t eat you when I brought you in, right? And I was starving when I did it. Well, not too starving, as I was already in the middle of—
“Okay, I know, I know.” Jane leaned forward and picked up her cigarette pack, pulling another out. She thought it would settle her stomach and ease her nerves. “Wait.”
You have to hear me out.
“Fine, fine. Just a second.” Jane lit up and took a long pull, holding it in her lungs for as long as she could before breathing it out through her nose. “Okay. Go ahead.”
As long as I’m able to eat when I need to, I’m fine. You kept my mind from deteriorating into nothing, like the rest of the world out there. You and I are probably the only people left on the face of the earth who can read a book. You escaped it by accident. I escaped it only because of you.
Jane sat and said nothing, holding her cigarette.
I was never able to say to anyone in my whole life that I loved them. Now that I’m like this, I just— Daria paused and got up on one elbow, reaching for the coffee table by the couch. She caught hold of a paperback book and lay down again, flipping through the pages. It was the poetry book by Millay. Thank you for bringing this in. I was looking for this exact book. Here it is. It’s the last part of one of her sonnets.
“Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
“Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
“Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
“I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
“I only know that summer sang in me
“A little while, that in me sings no more.”
Daria stared at the page, then lay the book flat on her breast. Summer does not sing in me now. I am dead inside, but not because my heart doesn’t beat and my lungs don’t work and I can’t feel heat or cold. I’m dead inside because I can’t feel joy or pain, sorrow or anger, none of it. I’m dead as a nail. The closest thing to love I feel now, the last bit of it that I have left in me, is what I feel for you—a kind of relief at seeing you and knowing you’re helping me. If I were alive, Jane, I would tell you that I love you. I’m not alive, but I still want to say it. Thank you for caring about me, knowing what I’ve become, how low I’ve fallen. I don’t even know why you bother, but I’m grateful. If I were capable of loving, I would love you.
Jane continued to look away. She held her cigarette to one side, blinking. Finally, she put the cigarette in the bowl she was using for an ashtray and covered her face with her hands. “Why did you say that?” she said as her voice broke. Daria watched silently as Jane cried.
“Look at us!” Jane finally said aloud, her voice rising. “God, look at us! Why did this happen? I blow people’s heads off, I shoot them, and it’s like my job! I don’t even care about it anymore! Those monsters try to kill me every chance they get, and God damn it, why did this happen? Why you and me? What did we ever do to deserve this?”
Jane wept. They said nothing more for several minutes.
Daria finally sat up, her head down, and put a cool hand on Jane’s thigh. You need to sleep, she said. Go upstairs to my old room. I don’t go up there anymore except to throw garbage out the window into the backyard. Sleep in my bed. It’s safe.
An unwanted memory came back to Jane in full force. “I can’t,” she said. “That was where I put you when you died, when—”
My bed is the only place that I can put you, Daria said. I will stay down here in case anyone breaks in, and you wouldn’t want to be down here when I eat again. And the other beds upstairs aren’t . . . clean. Please don’t make me elaborate.
“I get the message.” Jane still hid her face. Her stomach growled. “I left some canned food upstairs for myself a few weeks ago. I should break into it.” She wiped her face and asked in a low, choked voice, “Are you getting hungry, too?”
A little. Best for you to go quickly. Daria took her hand away and got up from the sofa. She walked into the kitchen and stood there in her toga, doing nothing. When Jane put out her cigarette and left the living room, Daria walked quickly to the large, sheet-wrapped object on the floor by the sink, then knelt beside it and began to uncover it with trembling hands.
* * *
Jane awoke with a start. It was pitch black in Daria’s bedroom. Someone was standing next to her bed, she was sure of it, but it was impossible to see who it was. She held her breath and listened. There was no sound at all.
It was Daria, then.
Jane had thought this might happen. Her rush of fear lessened. She reached up and rubbed her forehead with a sigh. Her heart thumped against her chest and she was breathing more quickly than usual, but she was already calming down. Daria would not try to kill her, but Jane still felt vulnerable. She wore only a set of red satin pajamas that once belonged to Daria’s mother. Daria’s pillow still smelled of the old Daria that Jane once knew. Jane had slept very soundly on it.
Jane sniffed. A light floral scent was in the air. Perfume? Is Daria wearing perfume? Why? Maybe she thinks she smells bad. She wants something from me.
Jane cleared her throat. “What time is it?” she whispered.
After a moment, she felt a cold fingertip touch her right shoulder. Just before one o’clock. I’m sorry if I woke you. I’ll go.
Jane forced a laugh. “You know, in the old days, I’d be awake right now, painting something. Now I sleep all night and stay awake all day. What a screwed-up life.”
It is, yes. The fingertip remained on her shoulder. The smell of perfume was stronger now. Jane knew the scent had probably been Quinn’s. It barely masked a faint, sickly odor of rotting meat.
“Is anything wrong, Daria?”
No answer came. It was still pitch black all around. She looked in Daria’s direction but saw nothing. But Daria can see me, she thought.
Yes, said Daria. It came with the rest of the transformation. I can see in the dark. Heat vision, I think. I need regular light only for reading or cleaning up.
“You can see in the . . . oh.” She didn’t have a flashlight with her when I found her in the garage—and it was completely dark in there. And I bet she reads when she eats, too. “What can you see of me?”
I see your whole body, even under the blanket. You shine with heat all over. You’re a light in the shape of a human being. The heat from you reflects from everything in the room, even me, and lights it up as if you were the sun.
“Really?” said Jane. “Wow. I saw a movie once about using infrared light in artwork. Is that what it is, what you can see?”
Yes, short-wave infrared light is really just heat. My eyes must have changed with everything else. I don’t know why. Evolution gone wild.
“Is something wrong?”
“Daria? What’s the matter?”
And then Jane knew. She came fully awake.
It’s not what you think, said Daria quickly. It’s not.
Jane carefully reached up with her right hand. She found Daria’s thin arm and felt upward. Her fingers brushed against the cold skin of a dead woman’s breast. Daria was not wearing anything on her shoulder, either. Oh, Jane thought. Oh, no.
“Daria,” said Jane slowly.
I’ll leave, said Daria, but she did not go.
Jane’s hand rested on Daria’s shoulder, feeling every bone beneath it. Neither said anything for a time.
It’s not what you think, said Daria again. I just thought . . . you’ve already seen me like this, many times, and I thought it wouldn’t . . . it really isn’t what you think.
“Is it?” said Jane softly. She was positive now she was going mad.
No. It’s not . . . it’s nothing bad, I think. I don’t know. I’ll go if you want me to.
Jane said nothing. She waited.
I feel life in you, so much life, said Daria at last. Her thoughts rushed out. When I touched you downstairs that first time, it was like I was brought to life. I saw your thoughts and memories. I remembered what you remembered, felt what you felt. I began to live again. You’re a fire in the darkness, and I am cold and alone. Everything inside me is dead. I’m dead and I’m lonely. I never knew how alone I was until tonight. I have nothing without you, nothing at all. If you weren’t here now, if you left me, I would go outside and let the others have me and get it over with.
“Don’t say that.”
I’m dead without you.
Jane’s lips parted. “And you want to live.”
Yes, I do. I want to live.
“And I take it that . . . this is just a guess on my part . . . you want me to move in with you.”
Yes, yes, I do, please. I’ll defend you at night, and you can hunt on your own in the daytime when it’s safe. No one will hurt you. You could get your truck back or one of the cars around here and move everything out of the school tomorrow and come live here with me. We can be together. I won’t be alone anymore. I know it’s selfish, but I want this very much. I won’t be cold. I won’t be dead, not dead inside. I can’t stand it, Jane, going on like this. I’ll do anything for you. Please . . . please think about it.
Don’t be afraid of me, please. I’ll go away if you ask, but please—
“No. No. Listen. I don’t know where this is heading, and I’m about to freak out. No—” She gripped Daria’s shoulder to keep her from going “—stay with me. I won’t lie to you. I think I know what it is you’re asking of me, and I hope I know what it is that you’re not asking for. It had better not be the second thing, but the first thing—I need time to think about it, okay? I have to work it out in my head for a minute.”
Daria made no reply.
“I held you when you died, Daria. Do you remember that? Do you see that memory inside me? I held on to you in this very bed because I didn’t want you to die, but you died in my arms anyway. The fever took you away from me. You were burning up all over, you were raving and shivering just like Trent. When you died, all the heat in your body left you, but I held onto you and tried to warm you up until you were cold, Daria. I held you all night until you were as cold as the grave. Do you remember that?”
“You know what it is you’re asking me to do? I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning at dawn, next to you, and you’ll be as cold and dead as you were then.”
No answer. Daria started to go, but Jane held her back. The pressure from her hand was gentle but firm. Daria could have left if she had tried harder.
“I won’t ever let you be alone, Daria,” said Jane. “I held you all night when you died. I won’t let you be alone again, ever.” She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and shivered. “Go put something on, okay? A nightgown, pajamas, nightshirt, anything, then come back. Hurry.”
I only want to touch you, said Daria. That’s all. Nothing else, I swear. Just for a little while.
“Go put something on and come back.” Jane shivered again. “Then get in bed with me. Go, Daria.”
Daria turned away, breaking contact. Soft footsteps padded across the room. A closet door opened and shut. Fabric rustled.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t freaking believe it. I’ve finally gone around the bend. Even Daria’s saner than I am. She wants to live, but I just want to die. She wants to touch me so she can feel alive again, but I only hope that someday I will die, truly die, and I won’t come back like her or the others. I want to die the old way. I want to forget everything that ever happened to me and never come back. I can hold her and try to warm her, because if I do that, maybe one day I can die forever. I can do it.
The soft footsteps came back.
Jane flipped back the light blanket, scooting back toward the wall. “Come on,” she whispered.
The narrow bed creaked. Someone sat next to Jane, then put her legs under the blanket and lay on her back.
“Roll over on your side,” Jane whispered. “We don’t have much room.” Daria did so, facing away from her. Jane lay on her side, facing the same direction, and made sure Daria had half the pillow. Thick hair that smelled of perfume and rot tickled Jane’s nose. She gently brushed it away.
She heard a hand reach back and feel around for her.
“Okay,” Jane whispered. She needs to touch me so she isn’t alone. Jane moved closer, trying to keep her distance, then gave up. Gently, she put her arms around the dead woman in bed with her, pressing against the small body like two nested spoons. It was strange how well they fit together. Freezing hands seized Jane’s warm ones and pressed one to an icy face. The other hand was moved inside the neckline of an oversized nightshirt and pressed over a heart that no longer beat.
Jane tried hard not to think of the night she held Daria when she died. This is different. She needs me. Maybe I can warm her back to life. I have to try. She shook her head, trying not to inhale the strands of Daria’s hair against her face, or their odor.
I promise to wash more carefully next time, Daria said. I’m not used to doing it at home. I’ll use scented shampoo. I know I don’t smell very good.
“Forget it. I’ll live. Little joke there. Daria, listen, if you get hungry—”
I’ll leave immediately. Don’t worry about it, please. I won’t hurt you. I just want to be here with you. Please. A long pause followed. Good night, Jane.
You can’t sleep, can you? Jane thought. She was too tired to speak, but she felt strangely comfortable. Unless that’s what you do when the sun comes up. Won’t you get bored lying awake all night?
I don’t mind, Daria said. I’m okay. I like this.
Daria’s hands and body seemed less cold, though Jane knew it was only because the blanket trapped living body heat that was warming Daria’s corpse—simple physics, nothing more.
I’m dead tired, Jane thought, not even aware of the pun. Good night, Daria.
The last human alive on Earth drifted into sleep. Wrapped in her arms, her only friend felt a heart beating against her back, and it roared like a fire in the darkness.