Tom is leaving The Last Drop as it comes into sight ahead of me. Slung over his shoulder, a body wrapped in an old sheet and in his free hand, a bag, the bottom stained almost black. I reach out for it as I walk towards him and he pushes it into my hands. Bodies go in the ground. Heads go in the lake.
We walk in silence towards the old cemetery, an old patch of land we repurposed when we arrived. A white picket fence, someone’s morbid way of keeping the kids busy while the adults set up came, surrounds it. Not one of the mounds has had time to settle fully, though a few of them sport makeshift headstones, and many are sprouting flowers; wild flowers in lieu of funeral bouquets, grown from seeds thrown there by the same calloused hands holding the corpse a few feet away from me.
I hesitate by the freshest one. No flowers here yet, though someone, Olive perhaps, has stuck a small cross in the ground, a piece of yellow ribbon tied around it. I’m ready to mutter another apology but the words aren’t forming. Stupid kid. Poor kid. Good kid.
Tom stops a little further ahead of me and it’s only as I watch him drop the body into a recently dug grave that I think to ask who it was.
“Emma,” he grunts, picking up a spade and starting to shovel dirt over the corpse.
I crouch beside the open grave and weigh the bagged head in my hands. Emma. I couldn’t even remember seeing her in the bar, another shadowy figure left to rot behind a bottle of stolen liquor.
“Damn shame we never found that kid,” Tom says, throwing another spadeful of dirt into the grave.
I shrug. “Was it?”
Emma had a son. Or she did, once. He was about eleven. Climbed a high rise at the end of the safe zone and used the fire escape to get across to a building on the other side. Call it boyish enthusiasm, call it a childish disregard for safety, call it just plain stupid; whatever it was, we never saw him again. Teams went out looking for him, Marco and I even spent a night beyond the wall, swapping ghost stories and jumping at every sound, but we didn’t find a damn thing. But, contrary to whatever Tom says, I always figured that that was better than the alternative.
Of course, it broke Emma. She took to roaming the streets beyond the wall, using the same break in our defences to get out. Even when we worked out where the buildings met and moved the wall further back, away from the high rises, she kept heading out, slipping through the door when watches were changed, on nights when it was too dark to see more than a few feet in front of your face, or when someone just simply wasn’t paying enough attention.
If Emma ever saw her boy beyond the wall, she never said. She walked back in to the safe zone a week back covered in blood and bite marks, headed straight for the Last Drop, and didn’t say another word.
I straighten up as Tom throws the last few shovel loads of dirt over the corpse. He’s barely broken a sweat and I’m half done just from the walk over here. He holds out his hand for the head but I clutch it a little closer to me.
“I’m on my way to see Russell. I can leave it with him,”
Tom nods and, once again, we fall back into silence.
“You did right by that little girl,” Tom finally says, pulling a few seeds from his pocket and scattering them over the freshly turned earth. “What you taught her could keep her alive a little longer,”
I hesitate. I hold out my hand and Tom drops some seeds into it. My fingers clasp around them and I cast a glance around the graveyard. Flowers bloom everywhere, spots of colour in a grey landscape, well nourished, flourishing thanks to the rain we can’t ever seem to shake. Well, I reason, something has to. Something other than what’s waiting for us beyond the wall, anyway.
“Well, that was sort of the plan,” I toss the seeds onto Emma’s grave, with a sigh.
“Guessing the others don’t see it that way,”
“Beth certainly doesn’t,” I shrug and step back, giving a small snort of laughter. “It’s an illusion, all this,” I say, waving my hand in the direction of the town. “Clinging to this last bastion of civilisation. Thinking we can afford to let kids be kids,”
“You think we can’t?”
“Ask Emma,” The words come out with an edge more bitter than I intended. Tom raises an eyebrow at me and I shrug. “I ever tell you about the time I tried to leave?”
“Leave? Here?” Tom shakes his head. I’m not surprised. Not too many people know this story.
“Always thought it was kinda stupid when Russell suggested it. I was fine with setting up camp, picking up a few strays, but to make it permanent? Try to set up home?” My fingers tighten around the neck of the bag. I stare down at it. I’d almost forgotten I was carrying it. “Sitting ducks, that’s how I saw it,”
Tom says nothing, falling back on his silence like it can shield him from the truth. But there’s no hiding from it, from the mob that’s amassing outside our wall, from the inescapable fact that I had been right and now they had to run. I wish to God I’d been wrong.
“Why did you stay?” He finally stirs, staring down at me. His eyes are green. You never see that in the shadows of the bar. I wonder how many people know that about him.
“Beth,” Saying it out loud feels strange and the word rolls around on my tongue for a moment before I can spit it out. If I wasn’t too drained to cry, this is probably the part where I would. “She wanted this, this game, this make believe. And by that point, well...” I shrug. “I wasn’t going anywhere without her,”
It always came back to Beth. Everything I did and would do, from
the day we met until the end. She’d had time to gloat, to tell me we’d made the
right decision that night we’d screamed at each other in the rain until I’d
backed down and she’d won. We’d been safe enough for long enough for her to
have earned that right. But she hadn’t. Not once. Not when I’d moved my things
to the apartment down the street, because I was convinced the more of us that
holed up together, the more likely the infected would find us. Not when we came
back time and time again from forays beyond the wall, without so much as a
scratch. Not even when she came to see me in my cold new home and we lay there,
tangled up in someone else’s sheets, safe and together. And so I wasn’t going
to gloat now, wasn’t going to parade my impending doom in front of the one
person who had already lived it before, the night I wanted to leave and I’d
thrown everything I had in my arsenal at her. The moment I’d crossed the wall
with my arm bandaged, with a gun borrowed from Elise tucked into the back of my
jeans had already been burned into both of our brains, long before it happened.
But Beth was so sure it wouldn’t happen, was so desperate to believe that it
I stayed. I never mentioned leaving again. Neither of us did. Even though, sometimes, it felt like it was just going to force its way out of my mouth. She couldn’t take another night like that, like the night we’d screamed at each other in the rain.
“I couldn’t do it to her, Tom,” I turn away and look back at the town, honing in on where Beth, and now Kim, are staying. “I promised her I’d stay. That I’d try,”
He nods, slowly. I wonder how much he knew about me and Beth. I mean, everyone knew. It wasn’t that sort of a secret. But for all my talk of survival, of keeping us all alive, did he ever realise I only did it for the sake of one person? Every time we lost another, I saw her give in a little more. Saw her start to see things as I did, start to see that, one day, she could be the one holed up in a cave with the last of her team slowing turning in front of her. Those were the days I fought even harder, eventually they were the days I went out alone. Oh God, does she think...
I spin round. “Do you think she blames herself? For this?”
I don’t have to indicate the festering wound on my arm. Tom already knows what I’m talking about. And his reply is as direct as I’d knew it would be. Because that’s why I go to him, why I talk to him when so few others do. Because the truths, whatever they were, hit me a long time ago and, sometimes, I just need someone else willing to say them out loud. “I reckon she does,”
My smile is sad, a half twitch of the lips. “Another affair to set in order, I guess,”
Tom gives a grunt and looks back down at the grave. “Take whatever you need,”
We’re done here. As I turn to go, I find a couple of seeds left in my hand, stuck to the sweaty palm. I dust them off onto Marco’s grave as I pass. Stupid kid. Poor kid. Good kid.
It was Tom’s idea, the flowers. Though he wouldn’t say it out loud and I’m not sure who figured it out first, when they started sprouting on the graves he’d dug, we all caught on eventually. I think of the list of people I’m worried about, the ones I’ll miss the most, the ones I hope, more than ever with each passing moment, that won’t become a home for Tom’s flowers. That won’t end up like Marco, who probably would have made it on the list, after the night we spent camped out looking for Emma’s son. And the big man with the scarred face, taking in the bitten, with a pocket full of seeds, he’s definitely there. Definitely.