One hundred and thirty one.
Bodies go in the ground. Heads go in the river. No one shows up for the first half but most people will turn out for the second. Especially when our numbers are running so low that even one face missing from the crowd is painfully noticeable.
Especially when it’s someone like Marco.
English Rob joins us for the walk down to the river. We pass The Last Drop. Tom and his five patrons are gathered outside the back door, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Tom nods in my direction. His right hand is wrapped around his gun. Can’t be long till he’ll have to use it again. The jukebox plays on.
The burial, it’s as simple as it sounds. The body is already gone, laid to rest in a tiny cemetery, the other side of The Last Drop. There’s no ceremony in that, no pomp. I guess someone somewhere along the line realised that this disease, whatever it is, it’s all to do with your head. Sure, the body suffers, sure I’m standing here breaking a sweat in the middle of fucking November, sure the festering wound on my arm stinks to high heaven, but it’s in my head that the real fight is going on.
You lose yourself in the infection, like part of your brain goes missing. All that you’re left with is the need to feed, to tear flesh from bone and to wash it all down with blood. And even before that, right after you’ve been bitten, when you start to lose all motivation, when you just stop caring, bit by bit you stop being you. The last thing you do, if you’re strong enough, as I hope I will be, is to raise one of Elise’s guns to your head and end it, before it’s too late, before you’re too far gone. Before you’re not you anymore. That’s why the head gets the real goodbye. Because it’s the last part of you to give in.
We assemble along the shoreline, a huddled mass of grief. Sandwiched between Beth and English Rob, I lean forward and see Kate standing a few feet away. Her hand is gripping Kim’s shoulder, like she’s trying to stop her from running away, but there’s curiosity all over the kid’s face. She wouldn’t run. Kate gives me a look, one that clearly says she doesn’t think Kim should be here, but she’s wrong. It’s good for the kid to see how we do things. Good for her to learn. Gives her something to focus on. What Kate forgets is that Kim’s mom died the moment she was bitten. Kim’s had plenty of time to come to terms with it. And if she’s here, now, watching and learning, she’s used the time wisely. It’s sad, sure, but it’s the way things are now. But I don’t say any of that. I just shrug and step back into the safety of my friends.
Russell stands in front of us, a black box in his hands. We used to have a carpenter living with us. Her name was Alice. She got bit a few months back and spent her last week making these boxes. One for each of us. They’re beautifully made, lined with colourful scraps of material that belie both the blackness of the wood and the tragedy inside. Lightweight, they’re designed to float, even with their sad cargo aboard. Russell keeps them stacked up in a spare room in his house. I look around me. He can’t have many left in there now.
A girl walks up to Russell and she’s trying in vain to keep it to together. Olive, her name is. Damn near inseparable, her and Marco. I drop my gaze to the floor. I can’t look at her. I can’t look at anyone. He waited for me. It’s my fault he’s dead.
I don’t need to look up to know how it’s going to play out. I can tell from the strangled sob that reaches my ears when Olive has taken the box from Russell. I can almost hear her running her hands over the wood, scratching her nails against the grain. Russell fumbles with the lock, the tell tale creak as the top swings open and Olive gets one last look at her friend. Then comes a gentle sliding sound, as Olive places a bundle of letters into the box, the final farewells for Marco. I wrote one. So did English Rob. You never ask anyone else what they wrote in their message, but for the record, mine just said ‘sorry’, one hundred and fifty one times. Exactly how many hours I will have outlived him. Exactly how many hours I have no right to have. He waited to save a dead girl. That’s the sort of person Marco was.
Beth’s fingers wrap around my arm and give it a gentle squeeze. Time to raise my head. Time to face what I’ve done. The box lid is closed and the snap of the brass locks sounds like gunshots, the only other sound the rushing of the river. Here, at the fastest flowing point, is where we say goodbye.
Russell steps back into the crowd and Olive is alone. She’s shaking now, tears running down her face. I’m crying too, the tears cold against my burning skin. Looking to my right, English Rob is barely holding on. I’m about to slip an arm through his when Russell gives the signal. He raises his right arm, reaching to the sky and, across the shore, we all follow suit. Palms forward, fingers splayed, we wait as Olive begins the walk to the river’s edge. She wades in. I see Russell twitch slightly. She’s going further in than she needs to. A few hands waver as we watch her, but no one rushes forward, not just yet. When she finally stops, almost hip deep in the strong current, some can’t hide their sigh of relief. We’ve lost a few good folks this way. But Olive stays strong, swaying only slightly against the rush of water. She turns slightly and pushes the box away from her. The current catches it and, in silence, we watch it being borne away down the river. As one, in a single, fluid movement, we lower our hands to our hearts. My fingers tighten around the material over my heart and I grip it tightly. It is only when Marco’s box is completely out of sight that we drop our hands and Olive emerges from the river.
The ritual is complete.
Some turn to leave straight away but Russell, walking over to Olive and wrapping a towel around her, calls for attention. People freeze. People stare. This isn’t how things are done. We’ve said our goodbyes. Now we go home and continue to prepare for our own demise.
“Meeting in one hour,” Russell says. “All the scavengers and record keepers. Gene, you and yours, too,” He turns his attentions back to Olive, but the look on her face says it all and it’s a look echoed by the rest of the town. She takes a step away from him. Russell sighs. “One hour, people,”
We disperse and all I can think is that one hour sounds like an awful lot when you’ve only got one hundred and thirty of them left.