The Graveyard Tales
Chapter 39: Are you listening?
Sally was dead.
Though he didn't have a body to prove it, Francis Tarny knew it, as certain as if he had seen her pass on with his own two eyes.
It had been more than a week since they last spoke. Francis, listening from a research station in the Arctic that been converted into a communications hub for the lost souls of the world following the Great Exhumation, heard Sally talk about the conversations she had had with other survivors. The young woman was trapped in the ruins of a radio station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, part of a news crew that had reported on all the happenings related to the walking dead. She was all that was left, and lately, it had been Francis' voice alone that was keeping her from making out with a shotgun.
All that had changed two weeks ago. She had talked to Francis excitedly about how she had made contact with others in the city. Plans were being made. These friends of hers apparently had working vehicles, weapons and other supplies. They were planning to escape the city, find an area less overrun with zombies, and make a new home for themselves. They wanted Sally to come with them.
Francis had tried to warn her, that these communiques were sometimes nothing more than a trap to lure in the hopeless. He had heard of a young man named Denver. He too had made contact with others, and were planning an escape of their own. He sounded to hopeful, so sure that everything was going to work out.
Later, Tarny had wept when he heard that the "survivors" Denver had spoken to had killed him and used his remains as zombie bait, tossing an arm or a leg to distract the ghouls whenever they got swarmed.
He had told all this to Sally, told her to be cautious, that it may be best for her to stay where she was. The young woman had thanked him for his kindness, but ensured Tarny that these people could be trusted. "I hear it in their voices, Francis, I can tell they want to help me."
With that she broke the connection, promising to contact him as soon as they left, to prove she was fine.
Ten days later, her voice had been silent. The others at the station, listeners just like him, rationalized that she may not be able to get a signal on the road, that whatever signal they were using may be too weak to reach out to him.
But Francis knew. She was gone, another of the dwindling voices of humanity in The Graveyard, silenced forever.
For some time he sat before the transmitter, doing nothing, though he could hear others speaking over the airwaves, talking to friends and other survivors, or seeking another voice to ease their troubled existences. Some were men, others women, and there were some children thrown into the mix. Some spoke English, while others conversed in Russian and German. A few spoke in Japanese, though that number seemed to be growing alarmingly small. Francis' hands never strayed near the transmitter. He didn't move a muscle. He saw no point.
It was around one in the morning, an hour usually reserved for sleep which found Ilsa Parmekos, one of the five occupants of the Arctic station, chatting with the refugees of the land once known as the United States. A kindhearted woman, she had been the one who suggested the team turn their equipment into a kind of worldwide hotline for the living. She spent every spare moment at her desk, reaching out to any and all who cared to listen. Sometimes, as she was doing tonight, she broadcasted on every frequency, offering advice for surviving in The Graveyard.
"Good evening, one and all. Or maybe it's good morning, or hell, I don't know what time it is, but it's your friend Isla, coming to you live from the top of the world with some more tips and tricks for outwitting the ghouls."
In her old life, Ilsa had always wanted to make a career as a radio host. Her peak had come in college, when she DJed every Friday night on the local station, spinning the best rock music she could get her hands on. In her new role, she decided to make a production out of her conversations with the world whenever she could, even playing some tunes off her computer's vast library.
"This latest survival tactic comes to us from Mike Reilly of Virginia. Mike's an author currently holed up in a shopping mall. Yeah, I know, not the best idea, but he tells me the place is secured, he's got plenty of weapons and food, and best of all, the clothing stores are untouched and zombie-free. It might be the end of the world, but he's never looked better," she said with a laugh.
"Anyhoo, Mike tells me that the undead will eat any kind of meat—human, dog, cat, even rats. It doesn't have to be alive, but if it's been dead more than a few hours, those ghouls won't bite. He says if you're headed outside, bring a few recently-killed critters along to use as a distraction. They won't work if the undead already see you, but if you stay out of sight and toss a few rat carcasses, it'll clear the way nicely. Just leave the kitties alone, OK? I don't mind a few less rodents, but I'm partial to cats. But does this work? Chime in and let me know. Any frequency works, so just holler and I'll hear. We need all the tricks we can get to stay alive. We'll take a break and play some classic Stones tunes, but I'll be back in a few."
She tapped a few keys and started her computer's music player, and settled back as the music began.
"Why do you do it?"
Ilsa turned to see Francis standing in the doorway. He looked tired and drained, and it was clear he hadn't visited the shower in a few days. She waved him inside and pointed to an empty seat. Francis sat down, staring at the console as if it were an alien device.
"What, you mean the DJ act? It helps people feel a little more normal," she said.
"Or helps delude them into thinking that everything's fine and they can just chill out with a beer and get lost in the music?"
Ilsa blinked, surprised by the comment. "I suppose you could phrase it like that, but my way sounds better. And less like a soulless prick."
Tarny's eyes roamed the transmitter. "We should destroy it all, just smash it up and scatter the pieces over the ice."
"That's a plan, except what would we do with the oodles of free time we'd have? Oh, and people are kinda counting on us to be here."
Tarny looked at her as if she suddenly started speaking Greek. "To do what? Waste their time with survival tips that'll keep them alive for six minutes instead of four? Or maybe play music from bands that have either been torn to pieces by the undead or are one of them? Just what the fuck do we do that matters so goddamn much?"
"Where is this coming from?" she asked.
Francis shook his head, trying to dismiss his own anger. "I just….when we started doing this, it seemed like we had this grand plan in place, like what we were doing was making a difference to the people still alive out there. But how many are really left? Seems like every time we find someone new, we lose someone else. And all we can do is talk to them, lie to them that it'll be OK, and if we're lucky, hear them scream when the zombies finally get them."
Ilsa gestured to her window that looked out upon the arctic wasteland. A blizzard had started, creating a total whiteout that revealed nothing of the landscape beyond. "You want to head out there? Maybe be a little more proactive? Become a badass zombie killer?"
Tarny laughed at the thought. "When all this started, and the government told us they couldn't airlift us back home, on account of the millions of walking corpses they were busy fighting. Everyone else was so worried about getting back to their families, their friends. Do you know what I was thinking?"
"I was thinking how lucky we were, because even though I had a wife and three kids back home, plus who knows how many family and friends, all I wanted was to stay in this frozen little hole in the ground, the only place we were 100 percent safe. And lo and behold, wish granted. I'm such a fucking coward."
"Coward? All this was your idea," Ilsa said, waving her hand at the transmitters.
"Some idea. It's the safe plan, the one with no risk. There's all kinds of machinery lying around. Helicopter parts, sections of boats. Between all us eggheads, we could cobble something together. Instead I suggest the safe plan. I am a coward, Ilsa. The only people with an ounce of bravery are the people out there."
"Yes! Just like her!" Tarny screamed, jumping to his feet. "She faced every day when she could just as easily have blown her fucking brains out! She got so scared, but every time she moved forward, she kept living! And all I could do is talk, while she left to find a group of people that for all I know fed to those fucking things!"
Francis collapsed to the floor, sobbing brokenly. "All I could do was talk," he whispered.
Ilsa took Francis' hand in her own. "Maybe we're doing nothing," she said, more to herself than her friend. "I don't bother trying to remember their names. Christ knows the odds of them being alive tomorrow are slim at best. So why do we do this? It'd be easier if we just trashed all this shit and worked on making ourselves as comfortable as we can until the food runs out."
She reached over to the receiver and turned it on. Immediately a torrent of voices burst forth, conversations between survivors or lone humans searching for companionship in the midst of a nation of suffering. Francis winced as if struck.
"But the truth is, they're nowhere near as brave as us," she said. "Every day we speak to dozens, maybe hundreds of people. And lucky us, we're usually there when they die, and we get to lie to them and tell them it's going to be OK. Them? All they have to do is talk to us."
She lifted Francis' chin until their eyes met. She kissed him lightly on the cheek. "How can someone willing to face that living hell ever consider themselves a coward?"
That night Tarny sat at his station, listening to the voices on the other side. There were many, some asking questions, others asking for help, deluding themselves into thinking the police or military were still out there. He even heard one promising safety and security in the city of Boulder, Colorado, but he quickly dismissed it. He had heard it all before.
He was about to shut the system down when a voice cut through the chatter. It was tense, and it was obvious the caller was afraid. They were asking for help dealing with a recent surge of the undead around their hideout, a small convenience store, but the others were either ignoring this person, or more concerned with their own problems.
Francis began to reach for the transmitter, then stopped. What was the point? What could he offer? A bit of advice about something he had never experienced? A few comforting words that would do nothing to keep this person alive?
Just then the voice chimed in, as if to answer Tarny's question for him. "Please, are you listening? I know I'm not getting out of this alive. I just want to hear a human voice before I go."
Before he knew what his hand was doing, Francis found himself pressing on the transmit button. "This is Francis Tarny, transmitting from research station World's End. I'm here. I'm listening."