The Graveyard Tales
Chapter 32: Storytellers
Francis Tarny listened closely to the radio receiver in the communications room. The voice on the other end was weak, and he had to strain to make out the words. For hours he had been conversing with a woman named Sally, who was holed up in a radio station in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Francis had been going through his daily routine, checking all the channels, searching for any signs of humanity in The Graveyard.
Living, humanity, that is.
Sally choked back a sob as she told Francis about her family, her mother and father, her wonderful younger sister who had just started college a week before the Great Exhumation hit, and of her girlfriend, now dead 23 days and seven hours. She had died again 23 days, six hours and fifty-seven minutes ago.
"I guess what I remember best is the trips home I would take," said Sally, her voice filled with tears. "Mom would always send me home with food; leftovers from dinner, cookies, fruit. She always looked out for me, but never treated me like a child. That was her way. She had to grow up fast after grandpa died, and she always tried to foster that kind of maturity in us. Christ, I miss her so much."
The voice trailed off into broken sobbing, punctuated by short gasps for breath. Francis didn't say a word as he typed the conversation onto his computer taking a moment to ensure his digital recorder was still running.
"Are you sure they're gone? I've met some amazing people, Sally, survivors just like you," he said, adjusting the frequency so he could hear the woman more clearly.
Sally paused for a moment, as if considering this for the first time. "No, I'm not sure, but I can feel it, Francis, I just can. It happened months ago. I was making a supply run from the restaurant downstairs, and I felt this cold blow to my stomach, like someone threw a block of ice at it. I just knew."
"Feelings don't tell us everything, my friend," Francis replied. "Just last week I spoke to a young man who was sure his girlfriend was gone. Yesterday he contacted me to say she was alive and well, that she had been trapped by the undead when she made a run for food. You can't give up hope, no matter how bleak it seems. It's all we have left."
The woman said nothing, and Francis' fingers paused above the keyboard. Had he said something wrong? Not everyone wanted to hear the "it's always darkest before the dawn" bullshit, but others took some comfort in the old adage. For so many though, dawn seemed miles away, and they were always moving forward at a crawl.
"I don't know if I can hope anymore," she said. "It seems so pointless. I mean, why hope for the sun when we're all blind, you know what I mean? Maybe it's better to be realistic and just accept that we're all dead."
Francis slammed his fists down on the table, rattling the pens and papers strewn about. "Never say that!" he shouted. "Never give up! You're alive, and you owe it to your mother, your father, your dear sister and your beloved to stay that way. They would never want to see you succumb to despair and sadness."
A few quiet hiccups and a sob were the only response. Then, quietly, her hope trying to speak over the wail of despair, she said, "Thanks. It always helps to hear you get pissed. Reminds me of my friend Jake. Whenever I had a bad day and just wanted to be alone, he would grab me and remind me how many people had it worse, and that sulking never solved anything. Listen, I need to go. I need to check the perimeter and grab some shuteye."
"No problem, dear. Anytime you need to talk, just contact me. My recorder's always on, so if you don't catch me, just talk. I promise I'll respond."
"Okay, thanks Francis...." she trailed off, as if unsure what to say next, or if she should say it.
"Sally? Are you okay?"
Another pause, then a deep breath, one taken right before someone's about to drop a serious emotional bombshell. "I love you."
Now it was Francis' turn to stop talking. He had been in this position before, talking to other survivors. When you're all alone, it's easy to form a strong connection with someone, even if they're just a voice on a speaker. Sometimes it's the only way to hang on, to give yourself a reason to look out the window instead of jumping out it.
At the same time, it can be the stupidest thing to do, because while having that connection is great, love needs to be more than words over a 2,000-mile radio wave. While the hope such words inspire can be grand, the wait will plunge you into such depths of despair as you can't imagine.
Francis didn't want to give her a lifeline she might one day use to hang herself with, but she sounded so close to the edge, his denial could have the same effect.
"I love you too, Sally."
A grateful sigh echoed over the line. "Thank you, Francis. Good-bye, and sleep well."
Francis heard her break the connection, and he settled back in his well-worn and overused office chair. Was that the right thing to do? The last woman he'd told that two had blown her brains out after he told her a rescue operation to unite them was impossible. He was trapped just as she was, but in his case, it wasn't the undead that prevented him from leaving.
It was the endless miles of arctic landscape, as sure a death sentence if he were surrounded by a million undead.
Tarny was part of a five-person team sent to Antarctica to monitor melting glaciers from the effects of global warming. Hardly an ideal assignment for someone who had spent the last twenty years of his life studying environmental changes from humanity's presnece on the planet, but the pay was good, and should he make a significant discovery, it could advance his career more than any other study he had been a part of.
Several months after he said good-bye to his wife, he began to wonder if his old job monitoring impacts from condo developments on the surrounding wetlands was still open. Watching the ice melt was only a fraction more entertaining that watching freeze, after all.
But when the Great Exhumation happened, his drab and mind-numbingly dull assignment turned out to be his real lucky break.
You see, though the undead don't feel pain, fear or any of the other six million things we humans are subject to, there are a few laws even their rotted asses have to follow.
Specifically, the laws of nature.
In this case, the law of Even Zombies Freeze When The Mercury Drops to Fifty Below.
In most cases, the undead ventured into the water only when food was involved. While most of the ships were setting sail for somewhat warmer climes, a few clever souls twigged onto the idea that a land of ice and snow was perhaps a better idea than one populated by people that wanted to set up a blockade to trap them with the undead. But where these boats went, the zombies followed. In this case, however, the results were easily dealt with.
Though only a handful of zombies made it to this frozen paradise, those that did quickly turned into ice sculptures, the water in their cells and covering their bodies after the long trek under the sea freezing almost instantly. A quick chop with an ice ax and viola–problem solved.
The undead problem taken care of, this left Tarny and the team with the question of what to do with all their copious free time.
That was when they began to receive the transmissions.
The communications center in their arctic laboratory was among the finest in the world. From this rather tech-laden office, Tarny could connect with anyone on the planet, through a complex series of satellite connections that even the dead couldn't stop. Whether it was cellular, over the Web, or over the radio waves, they could talk to you. Hell, they even had an old Morse code device, just in case.
The first message came from a old man in Maine, a state which in the past had been lauded for its breathtaking natural landscape. Today, the held the dubious honor of being known as Ground Zero for the Great Exhumation. Word had it that every living thing had been devoured, so Tarny and the others were suspicious about the old man's claims.
Those suspicions were laid to rest when the old man said, deadpan, "Son, why the fuck would anyone lie about being from Maine? Nothing here to do but look at trees and drink."
The old man was just the beginning. As time passed, the air waves began to fill with the transmissions of other survivors, desperate for any human contact, even if it was limited to a disembodied voice. More could be found online. Amazing, that after every other vestige of human civilization had crumbled to dust, the Internet would be humanity's pyramids or coliseum, the achievement that outlasted all others.
They numbered in the tens of thousands, talking on chat rooms and through instand messaging services. Hundreds of Web sites had been started, givng the survivors a place to share their stories, to know that amidst all this chaos and death, they were not alone.
Most of the time, they talked about their experiences with the dead, how they came to be trapped wherever they were, and how best to survive. Some of the voices would be heard now and again for months, while others would unexpectedly go silent, never to be heard from again.
It didn't matter. There always more. But each time a story was cut off, Francis felt his species slipping closer and closer to extinction. And when they were gone, who would remember them? Certainly not the dead, unless they happened to recall the taste of human flesh.
It was Francis who decided that he and his colleagues had been trapped in that Arctic station for a reason. Here, they were sae from the undead. Their only real threats were hunger and the cold, and the supplies at the station were enough to last them for years to come. But the people out there were alone, trapped in enemy territory, and when they died, their stories, their exsitences, would fade away like a dream.
The stories had to be recorded.
The computer systems had hundreds of gigabytes of memeory, intended for storing research data, but it could easily be used for another purpose. Chat room conversations were copied and stored, and radio transmission were recorded and transcribed. Tarny and his team were very meticulous, making sure they got the full name, age, and address of the speaker, marking the day and time of the conversation. If the undead were ever wiped out The Graveyard reclaimed, Tarny and his comrades would deliver the texts to the survivor's families.
As Tarny copied the recording of his conversation with Sally, a figure entered the communications room. Ilsa Parmekos was a strikingly beautiful woman, incredibly intelligent, with kind heart that beat for the world. It had been Ilsa that had suggested they begin their undead teleconference. She had said the people out there needed some hope, a reason to see tomorrow.
How Ilsa found the strength to do that herself was anyone's guess.
"How did it go?" Ilsa asked, a trace of a European accent in her voice, one that only made her more attractive. She had a husband back in Russia, and she was convinced he would survive the Great Exhumation, no matter what. She never took off her wedding band, much to the chagrin of her male coworkers.
Francis shrugged as he collected the flash drive with the recording. "She's starting to settle in, getting the lay of the land," he said. "I think she'll be fine."
Ilsa laughed a bit. "Would she be doing as well if you hadn't told her you loved her?"
Francis tensed, and Ilsa sighed and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Frank, honey, you need to stop doing this. You're only giving them false hope when you tell them you love them. It distracts them from what they need to be focusing on."
Francis turned to her, anger in his eyes. "You're a fine one to be lecturing me," he snapped. "You've done the same thing more times then I can count."
Ilsa shook her head. "Not for a long time. Not after Henry."
Francis looked down, ashamed at bringing up the painful memory. Henry Gibbons had been an auto mechanic from Flint, Michigan who had holed himself in his shop after the dead overran the town. He had made contact with Ilsa three months ago and after some intense conversations during which Henry tearfully confessed to raping his ex-girlfriend and stealing from the church he volunteered at, told Ilsa he loved her with all his heart. Ilsa reciprocated, but when it became clear the dead weren't going anywhere and they could never be together, Henry had walked out the front door of his shop, into the zombies' waiting hands, preferring death to a life without the woman he loved.
"I don't tell them that anymore," Ilsa said. "It always ends the same way-they latch onto that love like a drowning sailor to a barrel. In the end, they always sink."
"So you'd rather watch them drown?" Francis asked.
"No, I want them stay alive!" Ilsa shouted. Frank jumped back, surprised at the sudden show of anger from the same woman who named the penguins that wandered near the station.
"I want them to live, Frank, but they need a real reason, one they can see and touch. A love affair with someone who could be dead tomorrow, that's not good enough. How many times have we seen this happen? There needs to be a better way. "
Neither said a word for a moment, and the silence stretched on until Frank finally spoke.
"When they tell me they love me, they're at the end of their rope," Frank said, determined to prove himself. "I tell them no, and they're done. Good as dead."
Ilsa thought for a moment, considering what best to say. The two had formed a strong friendship, and she valued it above all else, save her marriage. "If you had a terminal disease, and only a short time left to live, would you rather the doctor avoid telling you the truth?"
"This nothing like that, and you know that," Francis said. "These people don't have a disease."
Ilsa laughed again. "Unfortunately, they do, Frank. It's called being alive."
Tarney walked towards the computer lab. His next task was to transcribe the conversation with Sally, to record it on the multiple servers. In the past, the team had been more lackadaisical about how often they saved their conversations, and when one of the servers crashed a month ago, hundreds of hours of recordings had been lost.
Frank plugged his recorder in and began downloading. As he did, he thought back to what Ilsa had said, how the people out there were better off knowing the truth, that feeding them false hope and lies was not the answer.
But what was the alternative? It was as Frank said-when the professed their love, they were at their limit. Limits of sadness, despair and depression. Sally sounded like she was a strong person, and her reports of barricades and food runs only reinforced this. But Frank had been doing this long enough to recognize the signs. Sally often gave her reports in a flat monotone. It was a sign she was trying to cover up her own fear, by sounding as unemotional as possible. And the more she talked like a voicemail message, the more afraid Tarney knew she was.
"Hey, Frank!" a voice shouted.
Tarney jumped at the sound, then turned around ready to belt whoever had said it. His hand lowered when he saw the speaker.
Jason Mitchell had been born with a gift for computers. There wasn't a system built he couldn't master, and the others joked he must have circuit boards instead of a circulatory system.
Unfortunately Jason also had a drunk for a father, one who resented his son's gift while his own achievements topped out at making shift manager at the local Wal-Mart. One day, while administering Jaosn's regular beating dear old dad went for the high score and threw him down a flight of stairs. His spine was shattered, and Jason had been confined to a wheelchair ever since. Ironic, that someone with no legs would survive in a world where so many bipeds were killed on a regular basis. Jason said it was the one time God had looked his way.
As a result, the others took it easy on the young man, allowing him his pranks and practical jokes. That didn't mean they liked it.
"Damn it Jason, why do you keep doing that?" Frank growled.
Jason laughed and wheeled his chair up to Tarney. "I'll stop doing it when you stop jumping," he said. "It's the moaning and shuffling sounds you really should be listening for. I'm doing you a favor, keeping you on your toes."
Frank turned back to his computer. "Thanks heaps, kid. Now isn't there a motherboard that needs your attention?"
Jason shrugged, either not getting the hint or ignoring it altogether. "Nope, everything's jake."
Frank looked up. "Everything's what?"
Jason smiled as if Frank were a kid not getting the lesson, which in this case he was. "1920's slang, old man. It means everything's fine."
"Right, got it. So why are you here?"
"Just thought I'd see how things were going in Zombieville. Who you been talking to?"
Frank tapped a few keys, calling up the computer's dictation software. It was capable of transcribing anything spoken to it through the microphone, including a recorded conversation. Frank was fast with a keyboard, but not quite fast enough to keep pace with a conversation.
Lines of text began appearing on the screen, and Jason put on his glasses to get a better look. "Oh, Sally again, huh? Looks like she's doing all right."
"Yeah, she's hanging in there," Frank said.
"It's been what, two months? Think that's a new record for our stalwart corpse correspondents."
"Yep," said Frank, hoping to bring the conversation to an end and give Jason an excuse to bug someone else before he saw the end of the recording.
No such luck. As the last of the text scrolled across the screen, Jason's mouth broke into a wide smile and he began to laugh. "Oh no, man, say it ain't so! You used the L word-again!"
Frank turned to the young computer expert, ready to send that wheelchair crashing down the hall.
"Yeah, I did, so fucking what? They need this! It's all that keeps them going! Who the fuck are you to judge! All you do is sit at your damn screen and fuck around with the programs! You don't talk to them, you don't know their sorrow, their suffering! I do! You don't know anything!"
Jason took all this in with an expression of bored disinterest on his face, not fazed in the slightest by Frank's outburst or the emotions that fueled it. "Okay fine, I don't talk to them. Point taken, oh great savior of the lost souls. No, don't hit me, let me finish," said Jason, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "But even if I did, I would never tell them that I loved them or any of that shit. And do you know why?"
Frank beckoned Jason to continue, to angry to speak.
"These people don't need love, or compassion, or a shoulder to cry on. That's just emotional nonsense bullshit, and it won't save them from the zombies. They need a world where the dead aren't walking around trying to eat them. Anything else is just a cheap substitute."