I’ve started dreaming of Portland again.
Since Alex reappeared, resurrected but also changed, twisted, like a monster from one of the ghost stories we used to tell as kids, the past has been finding its way in. It bubbles up through the cracks when I’m not paying attention, and pulls at me with greedy fingers.
This is what they warned me about for all those years: the heavy weight in my chest, the nightmare-fragments that follow me even in waking life.
I warned you, Aunt Carol says in my head.
We told you, Rachel says.
You should have stayed. That’s Hana, reaching out across an expanse of time, through the murky-thick layers of memory, stretching a weightless hand to me as I am sinking.
About two dozen of us came north from New York City: Raven, Tack, Julian and me, and also Dani, Gordo, and Pike, plus fifteen or so others who are largely content to stay quiet and follow directions.
And Alex. But not my Alex: a stranger who never smiles, doesn’t laugh, and barely speaks.
The others, those who were using the warehouse outside White Plains as a homestead, scattered south or west. By now, the warehouse has no doubt been totally stripped and abandoned. It isn’t safe, not after Julian’s rescue. Julian Fineman is a symbol, and an important one. The zombies will hunt for him. They will want to string the symbol up, and make it bleed meaning, so that others will learn their lesson.
We have to be extra careful.
Hunter, Bram, Lu, and some of the other members of the old Rochester homestead are waiting for us just south of Poughkeepsie. It takes us nearly three days to cover the distance; we are forced to circumnavigate a half-dozen Valid cities.
Then, abruptly, we arrive: The woods simply run out at the edge of an enormous expanse of concrete, webbed with thick fissures, and still marked very faintly with the ghostly white outlines of parking spaces. Cars, rusted, picked clean of various parts—rubber tires, bits of metal—still sit in the lot. They look small and faintly ridiculous, like ancient toys left out by a child.
The old parking lot flows like gray water in all directions, running up at last against a vast structure of steel and glass: an old shopping mall. A sign in looping cursive script, streaked white with bird shit, reads EMPIRE STATE PLAZA MALL.
The reunion is joyful. Tack, Raven, and I break into a run. Bram and Hunter are running too, and we intercept them in the middle of the parking lot. I jump on Hunter, laughing, and he throws his arms around me and lifts me off my feet. Everyone is shouting and talking at once.
Hunter sets me down, finally, but I keep one arm locked around him, as though he might disappear. I reach out and wrap my other arm around Bram, who is shaking hands with Tack, and somehow we all end up piled together, jumping and shouting, our bodies interlaced, in the middle of the brilliant sunshine.
“Well, well, well.” We break apart, turn around, and see Lu sauntering toward us. Her eyebrows are raised. She has let her hair grow long, and brushed it forward, so it pools over her shoulders. “Look what the cat dragged in.”
It’s the first time I’ve felt truly happy in days.
The short months we have spent apart have changed both Hunter and Bram. Bram is, against all odds, heavier. Hunter has new wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, although his smile is as boyish as ever.
“How’s Sarah?” I say. “Is she here?”
“Sarah stayed in Maryland,” Hunter says. “The homestead is thirty strong, and she won’t have to migrate. The resistance is trying to get word to her sister.”
“What about Grandpa and the others?” I am breathless, and there is a tight feeling in my chest, as though I am still being squeezed.
Bram and Hunter exchange a small glance.
“Grandpa didn’t make it,” Hunter says shortly. “We buried him outside Baltimore.”
Raven looks away, spits on the pavement.
Bram adds quickly, “The others are fine.” He reaches out and places a finger on my procedural scar, the one he helped me fake to initiate me into the resistance. “Looking good,” he says, and winks.
We decide to camp for the night. There’s clean water a short distance from the old mall, and a wreckage of old houses and business offices that have yielded some usable supplies: a few cans of food still buried in the rubble; rusted tools; even a rifle, which Hunter found still cradled in a pair of upturned deer hooves, under a mound of collapsed plaster. And one member of our group, Henley, a short, quiet woman with a long coil of gray hair, is running a fever. This will give her time to rest.
By the end of the day, an argument breaks out about where to go.
“We could split up,” Raven says. She is squatting by the pit she has cleared for the fire, stoking the first, glowing splinters of flame with the charred end of a stick.
“The larger our group, the safer we are,” Tack argues. He has pulled off his fleece and is wearing only a T-shirt, so the ropy muscles of his arms are visible. The days have been warming slowly, and the woods have been coming to life. We can feel the spring coming, like an animal stirring lightly in its sleep, exhaling hot breath.
But it’s cold now, when the sun is low and the Wilds are swallowed by long purple shadows, when we are no longer moving. The nights are still wintry.
“Lena,” Raven barks out. I start. I’ve been staring at the beginnings of the fire, watching flame curl around the mass of pine needles, twigs, and brittle leaves. “Go check on the tents, okay? It’ll be dark soon.”
Raven has built the fire in a shallow gully that must once have been a stream, where it will be somewhat sheltered from the wind. She has avoided setting up camp too close to the mall and its haunted spaces; it looms above the tree line, all twisted black metal and empty eyes, like an alien space ship run aground.
Up the embankment a dozen yards, Julian is helping set up the tents. He has his back to me. He, too, is wearing only a T-shirt. Just three days in the Wilds have already changed him. His hair is tangled, and a leaf is caught just behind his left ear. He looks skinnier, although he has not had time to lose weight. This is just the effect of being here, in the open, with salvaged, too-big clothing, surrounded by savage wilderness, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of our survival.
He is securing a rope to a tree, yanking it taut. Our tents are old and have been torn and patched repeatedly. They don’t stand on their own. They must be propped up and strung between trees and coaxed to life, like sails in the wind.
Gordo is hovering next to Julian, watching approvingly.
“Do you need any help?” I pause a few feet away.
Julian and Gordo turn around.
“Lena!” Julian’s face lights up, then immediately falls again as he realizes I don’t intend to come closer. I brought him here, with me, to this strange new place, and now I have nothing to give him.
“We’re okay,” Gordo says. His hair is bright red, and even though he’s no older than Tack, he has a beard that grows to the middle of his chest. “Just finishing up.”
Julian straightens up and wipes his palms on the back of his jeans. He hesitates, then comes down the embankment toward me, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. “It’s cold,” he says when he’s a few feet away. “You should go down to the fire.”
“I’m all right,” I say, but I put my hands into the arms of my wind breaker. The cold is inside me. Sitting next to the fire won’t help. “The tents look good.”
“Thanks. I think I’m getting the hang of it.” His smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
Three days: three days of strained conversation and silence. I know he is wondering what has changed, and whether it can be changed back. I know I’m hurting him. There are questions he is forcing himself not to ask, and things he is struggling not to say.
He is giving me time. He is patient, and gentle.
“You look pretty in this light,” he says.
“You must be going blind.” I intend it as a joke, but my voice sounds harsh in the thin air.
Julian shakes his head, frowning, and looks away. The leaf, a vivid yellow, is still tangled in his hair, behind his ear. In that moment, I’m desperate to reach out, to remove it, and run my fingers through his hair and laugh with him about it. This is the Wilds, I’ll say. Did you ever imagine? And he’ll lace his fingers through mine and squeeze. He’ll say, What would I do without you?
But I can’t bring myself to move. “You have a leaf in your hair.”
“A what?” Julian looks startled, as though I’ve recalled him from a dream.
“A leaf. In your hair.”
Julian runs a hand impatiently through his hair. “Lena, I—”
The sound of a rifle shot makes us both jump. Birds start out of the trees behind Julian, temporarily darkening the sky all at once, before dispersing into individual shapes. Someone says, “Damn.”
Dani and Alex emerge from the trees beyond the tents. Both of them have rifles slung across their shoulders.
Gordo straightens up.
“Deer?” he asks. The light is nearly all gone. Alex’s hair looks almost black.
“Too big for a deer,” Dani says. She is a large woman, broad across the shoulders with a wide, flat forehead and almond-eyes. She reminds me of Miyako, who died before we went south last winter. We burned her on a frigid day, just before the first snow.
“Bear?” Gordo asks.
“Might have been,” Dani replies shortly. Dani is harder-edged than Miyako was: She has let the Wilds whittle her down, carve her to steel.
“Did you hit it?” I ask, too eager, though I already know the answer. But I am willing Alex to look at me, to speak to me.
“Might have just clipped it,” Dani says. “Hard to tell. Not enough to stop it, though.”
Alex says nothing, doesn’t register my presence, even. He keeps walking, threading his way through the tents, past Julian and me, close enough that I imagine I can smell him—the old smell of grass and sun-dried wood, a Portland smell that makes me want to cry out, and bury my face in his chest, and inhale.
Then he is heading down the embankment as Raven’s voice floats up to us: “Dinner’s on. Eat up or miss out.”
“Come on.” Julian grazes my elbow with his fingertips. Gentle, patient.
My feet turn me, and move me down the embankment, toward the fire, which is now burning hot and strong; toward the boy who becomes shadow standing next to it, blotted out by the smoke. That is what Alex is now: a shadow-boy, an illusion.
For three days he has not spoken to me or looked at me at all.
Want to know my deep, dark secret? In Sunday school, I used to cheat on the quizzes.
I could never get into The Book of Shhh, not even as a kid. The only section of the book that interested me at all was Legends and Grievances, which is full of folktales about the world before the cure. My favorite story, the Story of Solomon, goes like this:
Once upon a time, during the days of sickness, two women and an infant went before the king. Each woman claimed that the infant was hers. Both refused to give the child to the other woman and pleaded their cases passionately, each claiming that she would die of grief if the baby were not returned solely to her possession.