Alex (delirium), Page 2Lauren Oliver
I had trouble finding the old homestead. It took me almost a full day. I’d crossed over the river, into a part of the Wilds I didn’t know, and there were no landmarks to guide me. I knew I had to circle southeast, and I did, keeping the city’s perimeter in my sights. It was cold outside, but there was lots of sun, and ice ran off the branches. I had no jacket, but I didn’t even care.
I was free.
There should have been freedom fighters around, escaped prisoners from the Crypts. But the woods were silent and empty. Sometimes I saw a shape moving through the trees and turned around, only to see a deer bounding away, or a raccoon moving, hunched, through the undergrowth. I found out later that the Incidents in Portland were carried out by a tiny, well-trained group—only six people in total. Of them, four were caught, tried, and executed for terrorism.
I found the old homestead at last, long after it got dark, when I was using the moon to navigate and piling up branches as markers so I could be sure I wasn’t just turning in circles. I smelled smoke and followed it. I came out into the long alley, where Grandpa Jones and Caitlyn and Carr used to set up shop in their patched-up tents and makeshift houses, where the old trailers stood. It seemed like a lifetime ago I’d lain in bed with Lena and felt her breath tickling my chin and held her while she slept, felt her heart beating through her skin to mine.
It was a lifetime ago. Everything was different.
The homestead had been destroyed.
There’d been a fire. That much was obvious. The trees in the surrounding area were bare stumpy fingers, pointing blackly to the sky, as if accusing it of something. It looked like there’d been bombs, too, from the covering of metal and plastic and broken glass vomited across the grass. Only a few trailers were still intact. Their walls were black with smoke; whole walls had collapsed, so charred interiors were visible—lumpy forms that might have been beds, tables.
My old house, where I’d lain with Lena and listened to her breathe and willed the darkness to stay dark forever so we could be there, together, always — that was gone completely. Poof. Just some sheet metal and the concrete rubble of the foundation.
Maybe I should have known. Maybe I should have taken it as a sign.
But I didn’t.
There was a gun against my back before I knew it. I was strong again, but my reflexes were weak. I hadn’t even heard the guy coming.
“I’m a friend,” I said.
I pivoted slowly, hands up. A guy was standing there, crazy skinny and crazy tall, like a human grasshopper, with the squinty look of someone who needs glasses but can’t get them in the Wilds. His lips were chapped, and he kept licking them. His eyes flicked to the fake procedural scar on my neck.
“Look,” I said, and drew up my sleeve, where they’d tattooed my intake number at the Crypts.
He relaxed then, and lowered the gun. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought the others would be back by now. I was worried….” Then his eyes lit up, as if he had just registered what he said. “It worked,” he said. “It worked. The bombs…?”
“Went off,” I said.
“How many got out?”
I shook my head.
He licked his lips again. “I’m Rogers,” he said. “Come on. Sit. I got a fire going.”
He told me about what had happened while I’d been inside: a big sweep on the homesteads, extending from Portland all the way down to Boston and into New Hampshire. There’d been planes, bombs, the works, a big show of military might for the people in Zombieland who’d started to believe that the invalids were real, and out there, and growing.
“What happened to the homesteaders?” I asked. I was thinking of Lena. Of course. I was always thinking of Lena.
“Did they get out?”
“Not everyone.” Rogers was twitchy. Always moving, standing up and sitting down, tapping his foot. “A lot of them did, though. At least, that’s what I heard. They went south, started doing work for the R down there.”
We talked for hours, Rogers and me. Eventually, others came: prisoners who’d made it across the border into the Wilds, and two of the freedom fighters who’d launched the operation. As the darkness drew tighter they materialized through the trees, drawn to the campfire, appearing suddenly from the shadows, white-faced, as if stepping into this world from another. And there were, in a way.
Kyle, constant-wedgie-boy, never made it back. And then I felt bad, really bad.
I never even thanked him.
We had to move. There would be retribution for what we’d done. There would be air strikes, or attacks from the ground. Rogers told me the Wilds weren’t safe anymore, not like they used to be.
We agreed to catch a few hours of sleep and then take off. I suggested south. That’s where everyone had gone—that’s where Lena, if she had survived, would be. I had no idea where. But I would find her.
We were a small, sad group: a bunch of skinny, dirty convicts, a handful of trained fighters, a woman who’d been on the mental ward and wandered off soon after she joined us. We lost two people, actually. One guy, Greg, had been on Ward Six since he was fifteen years old and had been caught by the police distributing dangerous materials: poster for a free underground concert. He must have been forty by then, skinny as a rail and insect-eyed, with hair growing all the way down his back.
He wanted to know when the guards would come by to bring us food and water. He wanted to know when we were allowed to bathe, and when we could sleep, and when the lights would come on. In the morning, when I woke up, he was already gone. He must have gone back to the Crypts. He’d gotten used to it there.
Rogers shook us all awake before dawn. We’d made camp in one of the remaining trailers. It was decently sheltered from the wind, even though it was missing one of its walls. For a moment, waking up with a layer of frost crusting the blanket and my clothes, with the smell of the campfire stinging the back of my throat and the birds just starting to sing—I thought I was dreaming.
I’d thought I would never see the sky again. Anything, anything is possible, if you can just see the sky.
The attack came sooner than we were expecting.
It was just after noon when we heard them. I knew right away they were untrained—they were making way too much noise.
“You”—Rogers pointed at me—“up there.” He jerked his head toward a small embankment; at the top were the ruins of a house. “Everyone, split. Spread out. Just let ‘em pass.” But he shoved a gun in my hand, one of the few we had.
It had been a long time since I’d held a gun. I hoped I’d remember how to shoot.
The leaves crunched under my shoes as I jogged up the hill. It was a clear day, cold, and my breath burned in my lungs. The old house had the rotten smell of an unwashed sock. I pushed open the door and crouched in the dark, leaving the door cracked open an inch so I could keep watch.
“What the hell are you doing?”
The voice made me spin around and nearly topple over. The man was filthy. His hair was long, wild, and reached below his shoulders.
“It’s all right,” I started to say, trying to calm him down. But he cut me off.
“Get out.” He grabbed my shirt. His fingernails were long and sharp, and he stunk. “Get out. Do you hear me? This is my place. Get out.”
He was getting louder and louder. And the zombies were close—would be on top of us any second.
“You don’t understand,” I tried again. “You’re in danger. We all are.”
But now he was wailing. All his words ran together into a single not. “Getoutgetoutgetout.”
I shoved him down and tried to get a hand over his mouth, but it was too late. There were voices from outside, the crackle-crackle of feet through the dry leaves. While my attention was distracted, he bit down on my hand, hard.
“Getoutgetoutgetout!” He started up his screaming as soon as I drew my hand back. “Getoutgetoutget—“
He was cut silent
only by the first volley of bullets.
I’d rolled off him just in time. I threw myself flat on the ground and covered my head. Soft wood and plaster rained down on me as they emptied twenty rounds into the walls. Then there were other shots, this time farther off.
Our group had broken cover.
The door squeaked open. A band of sunlight grew around me. I stayed still, on my stomach, hardly breathing, listening.
“This one’s dead.” The floorboards creaked; something skittered in the corner.
“How about the other one?”
“He’s not moving.”
Holding my breath, willing my muscles not to move, not to twitch even. If my heart was still beating, I couldn’t feel it. Time was slowing down, stretching into long, syrupy seconds.
I’d killed only once in my life, when I was ten years old, just before I moved to Portland. Old Man Hicks, we called him. Sixty years old, the oldest person I knew in the Wilds by far, crippled by arthritis, bedridden, cataracts, full-body pain, day in and day out. He begged us to do it.
When the horse ain’t no good, you’re doing the horse a favor. Put me down, he used to say. For the love of God, put me down.
They made me do it. So I would know that I could. So I would know I was ready.
“Yup.” The man stopped above me. Toed me with one of his boots, right between the ribs. Then squatted. I felt his fingers on my collar, searching for my neck, for my pulse.
“Looks pretty dead to me, alr—“
I rolled over, hooked an arm around his neck, and pulled him down on top of me as the second guy brought his gun up and let two bullets loose. He had good aim. The guy I was using like a shield got hit twice in the chest. For a split second, the shooter hesitated, realizing what he’d done, realizing he’d just emptied a round into his partner’s chest, and in that second I rolled the body off me, aimed, and pulled the trigger. It didn’t take more than a single shot.
Like riding a bike, I thought, and had a sudden image of Lena on her bike, skidding down onto the beach, legs out, laughing, while her tires shuddered on the sand. I stood up and searched the men for guns, IDs, money.
People do terrible things, sometimes, for the best reasons.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
We were lying on the blanket in the backyard of 37 Brooks, like we always did that summer. Lena was on her side, cheek resting on her hand, hair loose. Beautiful.
“The worst thing I’ve ever done…” I pretended to think about it. Then I grabbed her by the waist and rolled her on top of me as she shrieked and begged me to stop tickling. “It’s what I’m thinking of doing right now.”
She laughed and pushed herself off me. “I’m serious,”
she said. She kept one hand on my chest. She was wearing a tank top, and I could see one of her bra straps—pale seashell-colored pink. I reached out and ran a finger along her collarbones, my favorite place: like the silhouette of tiny wings.
“You have to answer,” she said. And I almost did. I almost told her then. I wanted her to tell me it was okay, that she still loved me, that she would never leave. But then she leaned down and kissed me and her hair tickled my chest, and when she drew back her eyes were bright and honey-colored. “I want to know all your deep, dark secrets.”
“All of them? You sure?”
“You were in my dream last night.”
Her eyes were smiling. “Good dream?”
“Come here,” I said. “I’ll show you.” I rolled her down onto the blanket and moved on top of her.
“You’re cheating,” she said, but she laughed. Her hair was fanned out across the blanket. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“I don’t have to,” I said, and kissed her. “I’m an angel.”
I’m a liar.
I was lying even then. She deserved an angel, and I wanted to be hers.
When I was in the Crypts, I’d often sat awake and made a list of things she should know, things I would tell her if I ever found her again—like about killing Old Man Hicks when I was ten, how I was shaking so hard Flick had to hold my wrists steady. All the information I passed on when I was in Portland, coded messages and signals—information used I-don’t-know-how for I-don’t-know-what.
Lies I told and had to tell. Times I said I wasn’t scared and I was.
And now, these last sins: two regulators, dead.
And one more for the road.
Because when the fight was over, and I came down from the house to take stock of the damage, I saw someone familiar: Roman, the guard from the Crypts, lying in the leaves with a handle sticking out of his chest, his shirt clotted with blood. But alive. His breath was a liquid gargle in his throat.
“Help me,” he said, choking on the words. His eyes were rolling up to the sky, wild, like a horse’s. And I remembered Old Man Hicks saying, When the horse ain’t no good, you’re doing the horse a favor.
So I did. Help him. He was dying anyway, slowly. I put a bullet through his head, so it would go quick.
I’m sorry, Lena.
We lost three of our group in the fight that day, but the rest of us moved on. We went slowly, zigzagging. Any time we heard rumors of a populated homestead, we scouted for it.
Rogers liked the company, the information, the opportunity to communicate with other freedom fighters, restock our weapons, trade for better provisions. I only cared about one thing. Each time we got close to a camp, I got my hopes up all over again. Maybe this one… maybe this time… maybe she’d be there. But the farther we got from Portland, the more I worried. I had no way of finding Lena. No way of knowing whether she was alive, even.
By the time we made it to Connecticut, spring was coming. The woods were shaking off the freeze. The ice on the rivers opened up. There were plants poking up everywhere. We had good luck. The weather held, we got lucky with a few rabbits and geese. There was food enough.
Finally, I got a break. We were camping for a few days in the old husk of a shopping center, all blown-out windows and low cement buildings with faded signs for HARDWARE and DELI SANDWICHES and PRINCESS NAILS, a place that kind of reminded me of the gallery, and we came across a trader who was going in the opposite direction, heading north to Canada. He camped with us for the night, and in the evening he unrolled a thick mohair blanket and spread out all his wares, whatever he had for sale: coffee, tobacco and rolling papers, tweezers, antibiotics, sewing needles and pins, a few pairs of glasses.
(Even though none of the glasses in the trader’s collection were the right fit, Rogers traded a knife for a pair anyway. They were better than nothing.)
Then I saw it: buried in a tangle of miscellaneous jewelry, crap no one would use except for scrap metal, was a small turquoise ring on a silver chain. I recognized it immediately. I’d seen her wear it a hundred times. I’d removed it so I could kiss her neck, her collarbones. I’d helped her fasten the little clasp, and she’d laughed because my fingers were so clumsy.
I reached for it slowly, like it was alive—like it might leap away from my fingers.
“Where did you get this?” I asked him, trying to keep my voice steady. The turquoise felt warm in my hand, as if it still carried a little bit of her heat in the stone.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” He was good at what he did: fast talker, a guy who knew how to survive. “Sterling and turquoise. Probably sell for a decent amount on the other side. Forty, fifty bucks if you need some quick cash. What are you giving for it?”
“I’m not buying,” I said, though I wanted to. “I just want to know where you got it.”
“I didn’t steal it,” he said.
“Where?” I said again.
“A girl gave it to me,” he said, and I stopped breathing.
“What did she look like?” Big eyes, like maple syrup. Soft brown hair. Perfect.
“Black hair,” he said. No. Wrong. “Probably early twenties. Had a funny name—Bird. No, Raven. She was from up this wa
y, actually. Came south last year with a whole crew.” He lowered his voice and winked. “Traded the necklace and a good knife, just for a Test. You know what I mean.”
But I’d stopped listening. I didn’t care about the girl, Raven, or whatever her name was—I knew she might have taken it off Lena. I knew this might mean that Lena was dead. But it could mean that she had made it, joined up with a group of homesteaders, made it south. Maybe Lena had traded with the girl, Raven, for something she needed.
It was my only hope.
“Where was she?” I stood up. It was dark already, but I couldn’t wait. It was my first—my only—clue about where Lena might be.
“Big warehouse just outside of White Plains,” he said.
“There was a whole big group of ’em. Two or three dozen.”
He frowned. “You sure you don’t want to buy it?”
I was still holding on to the necklace. “I’m sure,” I said. I put it down carefully; I didn’t want to leave it behind, but I had nothing but the gun Rogers had given me and a knife I’d taken off one of the regulators, plus a few IDs. Nothing I could trade.
Rogers figured we’d made it ten miles west to Bristol, Connecticut; that meant, roughly figuring, New York City was another one hundred miles and White Plains thirty less than that. I could do thirty miles a day if the terrain was good and I didn’t make camp for more than a few hours each night.
I had to try. I had no idea whether Raven was on the move and whether Lena, if she was with them, would soon be moving too. I’d been asking, praying, for a way to find her, for a sign that she was still alive—and a sign had come.
That’s the thing about faith. It works.
Rogers gave me a pack with a flashlight, a tarp for bedding down, and as much food as he could spare, even though he said it was craziness starting out right away, in the dark, all alone. And he was right. It was craziness. Amor deliria nervosa. The deadliest of all the deadly things.
Sometimes I think maybe they were right all along, the people on the other side in Zombieland. Maybe it would be better if we didn’t love. If we didn’t lose, either. If we didn’t get our hearts stomped on, shattered; if we didn’t have to patch and repatch until we’re like Frankenstein monsters, all sewn together and bound up by who knows what.