This isn't right. Somewhere in my mind, I know that. But I don't care, because I'm with her.
Maison smiles when her arrow hits close to the target I've set up on a tree ten feet away. "I'll get it," she says, and I smile as I watch her blonde hair sway in the slight breeze.
The streets are silent and bare. Clouds stretch over the expanse of the vast sky, thick and dark gray. There's no one around. It's finally just the two of us.
She wanted to learn how to shoot a crossbow so I told her I would teach her. Her aim is shaky and she struggles to keep the bow stead. But she's eager and determined, and always asking me questions. It's like the seven-year-old Maison is still here but trapped in the body of a twelve-year-old. I'd thought maybe with her memory gone she'd be different, but I was wrong.
I'm glad I'm wrong.
Maybe if I weren't so distracted by being here with Maison I would have noticed how the school was empty. There was no Lois to keep me away from my sister, Marlena and Jim were nowhere to be found, and Holden wasn't there when I woke up. Maybe if I weren't so happy and carefree right now, I'd notice that something was wrong.
"It's stuck in this trunk pretty tight, Emmy!" Maison calls, wriggling the arrow and trying to work it free.
You'll get it! I want to say, but instead I smile and nod. All I can do is smile and nod. I can't move my feet or my body. I'm frozen in place, but for some reason I don't think it's odd.
I should, but I don't.
She starts to whisper.
It's an old rhyme, something I recognize from our childhood, a bedtime saying, I think. But I can't put my finger on it. But then I start to repeat it with her in my head.
I recognize it now.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take
She says it over and over and over. I've gone silent now, listening to her. Wondering. It seems odd for her to pray when I'm teaching her to shoot. It's not even bedtime.
But then she stops trying to work the arrow free. She stands there, rigid and silent, her back still turned to me. The breeze halts and everything goes still, and it's like the sun has gone because the sky darkens like everything is devoid of color.
She repeats the prayer.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take
She turns to me and chants it again, but she's not whispering anymore.
Stop it, I want to say. But I can't speak. I still can't move.
She's walking toward me.
"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep."
Maison stops. Her voice isn't the same anymore. It lacks her curiosity and enthusiasm, and now holds emptiness in her toneless chant.
Fog seeps from between the buildings and swirls around us. It slithers and dances and grows thicker until I can no longer make out her body that was once just a few feet from mine.
Her voice echoes around me. It reverberates off the buildings and sounds far away but also like she's whispering it directly into my ear.
"If I shall die before I wake…"
The fog parts, and I can see her face again. But it's not Maison anymore. This face is gaunt and hollow, the veins black like ink, sticking through her skin. Her eyes, cloudy and sightless, her skin no longer tan but almost a translucent gray.
The ground shifts below my feet. The asphalt cracks and splits apart until dirt spews from the fractures. Gray hands reach from out of the dirt and claw at the pavement, scratching and pulling. Bodies materialize and lift themselves up, like they've arrived from the depths of hell.
One, two, four bodies. They stand in a circle around Maison, groaning and hissing. The fog continues to churn around me, hiding and then revealing each and every face.
The air gets sucked from my lungs.
Addy stumbles toward Maison, and then Marlena and Jim, and…Holden. Tears fill my eyes. They shamble and moan, reach for her with outstretched arms, their rotted teeth bared and dripping with blood.
And Maison is crying.
"What do I do, Emmy? I don't know how to keep them away!"
I'm rooted to the spot, helpless and forced to watch this terrifying scene unfold before my eyes.
"Why did you do this to me, Emmy?" She sniffs, and the bodies are nearer, her broken voice, so young and fragile. "I thought you loved me."
I do! I want to shout and cry and beg for the monsters to leave her alone.
"You promised me you would never leave me."
They descend on her.
Tears and growls and blood, so much blood, but I can't do anything. They bore into her fragile body and rip and carve their teeth into her skin. But I can still see her face. She's not crying or screaming…she's smiling.
Arms grab me from behind and nails dig into my skin. I can move again, no longer paralyzed. The monsters that wear my friends' faces limp toward me. The fog whirls and parts as they amble through it.
I can't escape them.
They surround me.
Addy, Marlena, Jim, and Holden. They stare at me with blank eyes. Except for his. His are filled with unadulterated hatred, and then there's a pang in my heart and I feel tears fall down my cheeks. My reflection shows in each set of eyes, and I no longer look like myself.
I look like one of them.
I look like a monster.
The fog shifts.
She's standing there, inches from my face. A monster now, no longer the sister I knew. Gone. Dead.
Her mouth opens, whispers, but it's everywhere and inside my head at once.
"I pray the Lord my soul to take."
I gasp awake. Panting, sweating, my cheeks are wet.
It was just a nightmare. A horrible, terrible nightmare, and I realize it's the first I've had since I left Portland.
Louie whines as I wipe the tears from my cheeks and sit up, burying my face in my hands. He digs his head under my arms and licks my chin. My body shakes and shudders as I struggle to regain control of myself, but it's hard because it's the most vivid nightmare I've ever experienced.
The nightmare keeps replaying in my head, and it forces me to watch my sister get torn apart by my friends. It won't leave, I can't make it go away and it won't stop!
Louie jumps away, ears flat and head lowered. My knuckles throb from where I hit the wall, but I'm glad. The pain distracts me.
Holden shifts on his cot, and for a second I'm afraid I woke him up. But I can still hear his breathing, slow and calming in the darkness. I listen to it and let it soothe me. But the darkness of the room begins to feel suffocating. I have to get away, get some fresh air. Maybe hit something again.
My boots, jacket, that's all I grab. Louie tries to follow me out but I make him stay. I tell him I'll be back.
There's no way to tell what time it is. The moon lies hidden behind clouds and I don't have a watch. The only clock in the building hangs frozen at 3:17. I wonder if the batteries died in the morning or afternoon.
Nobody's awake. It's just me wandering the silent and chilly halls. I peek inside of classrooms but it's too dark to see anyone. The door to Maison's room lies ajar, and I suddenly remember how she always insisted on sleeping with her door open when we were little. That way she wouldn't be trapped inside with the monsters. It pangs me to think that she probably doesn't even remember that anymore but yet she still does it. Old habits, whether consciously or subconsciously made, die hard, I guess.
The foyer is empty when I reach it. It takes me a few minutes to find the oil lamp in the dark, but soon it's lit and I can see properly again. The light casts shadows across the room, and I remember how when I was young I use to always think a person's malevolent side hid in the shadows. My cousin Mitchell once told me, "Never stare into the shadows or you'll succumb to the darkness and your heart will become full of malice."
It was a load of crap, but my six-year-old self sure believed him. I was ten when I learned he was just messing with me. He lived in Utah when the virus hit. I wonder if he's still alive.
Two large trophy cases rest against one of the walls. The faded wooden frames and cracked, grimy glass make the cases look like they're about to fall apart. I wipe away some grime and peer inside. Lots of trophies and plaques, medals and pictures, all covered in a heavy layer of dust and cobwebs. Are any of those students still alive?
And then I'm thinking about fleshers and screechers and kids and people dying and returning from the dead and then I'm remembering the nightmare and…and…I have to hit something.
Outside is freezing and cold, and Jim was right. It snowed again. But that's fine, because the snow is exactly what I need. Can't make a snowman without snow after all.
The snowman I make is rather crude looking. The body is uneven and a general mess, but it will be destroyed soon, so what's the point? I grab a metal bat I left outside earlier today, after I found Bear curled up with Maison. If I had been back in Portland I would have left camp and sought out fleshers to slay, but here that is not an option. I found the bat in an athletic closet near the wrestling room. Then I spent the next hour batting snowballs. Whoever said anger management doesn't work is a liar.
I bring the bat up into position. The snowman's stone eyes stare back at me. Visions from my nightmare consume me. I start to swing.
Crunching snow and heavy breathing reach my ears, and I lower my bat and look around. A faint silhouette appears closer and closer until I can make out the panicked face of my sister. She runs right by me and to the doors leading inside our building, but she pauses, her hands on the door handles. She lets go and hugs herself, reaches for the handles again, but then withdraws. I stand there, paralyzed like I was in my dream. It's her sob that releases me from my stupor, and then I'm in action.
The bat plops into the snow as I toss it aside and make my way toward my fearful sister. I make sure to make plenty of noise so I don't startle her but she barely acknowledges my presence. I'm not even sure she knows it's me. I clear my throat. "Maison?"
She starts and turns to face me, eyes wide. Her face looks pale and she flinches away as I take another step toward her. "Stay away," she says.
"I just…you look troubled. Is something wrong?" I try not to feel hurt.
"I need Lois, she'll help me." She clears her throat and wipes her eyes.
I purse my lips and wrap my arms around myself in a lame attempt to feel comforted. It doesn't work. "Then why don't you go inside and see her?"
Maison hesitates again, reaching and then stepping back, grabbing and then releasing. She glances at me and looks me up and down, biting her lip as she does. My heartbeat quickens. I know that look on her face, it's the same look she would make when we were little and she couldn't decide to tell me a secret or not.
I'm about to speak but then she opens her mouth and breaks into a sob. "I don't want to infect anyone," she cries.
My eyes widen and it feels like I got kicked in the chest.
"Maison, what do you mean?"
She shakes her head.
"I can help you," I insist, and then quieter, "you can trust me."
A sob wracks through her body and shakes her tiny shoulders. I would grab her in a hug if I knew that wasn't such a terrible idea. But all I can do is stand there and watch as she struggles to regain control of herself. Sometimes she glances at me, and each time she does I can see an internal war raging within her green eyes.
A few minutes, but what I'm certain as an eternity passes before I hear her voice again. She says, "I haven't been feeling right all day. Not horrible, just different, a`nd then I woke up a little bit ago and went to use the latrines and that's when I saw that…that…"
"What?" I whisper.
"That I was bleeding! I'm infected and I'm gonna turn into one of Them and I'm scared! What do I do? Are they gonna kill me?"
"Wait, you're…bleeding? And you noticed it when you went to the bathroom?"
"Yeah," she gasps.
Oh. Oh. I almost laugh in relief.
"Why are you smiling? This isn't funny!" she squeaks.
I wipe the smile from my face and compose myself. She's right, though, this isn't funny. The momentary fear I felt vanishes and now I'm all business. It's evident Lois has told Maison nothing about puberty and what to expect. But…maybe I can. Maybe she'll let me help her.
"I'm sorry, Maison," I say. "It's not funny. I'm just relieved."
She wipes her eyes again. "Why? Am I not gonna die?"
"No. No, you'll be fine. Just…has Lois told you anything about periods?"
"Okay, well, if you'll let me, I can tell you about it."
She glances at the doors and opens her mouth, probably to reject me and find Lois instead, but then she snaps her mouth shut.
"There's no sense in waking Lois up when I'm here."
A minute passes but finally she nods. My heart leaps in my chest. This is it, now I can start to build her trust. What was that Holden told me earlier, one step at a time for accomplishing goals? Baby steps. Yeah, I can manage that.
"Great." I smile. "Well, we're going to need some things from the supply room, so let's head over there."
"You're sure I'm not dying?" she says as we begin treading through the snow. She keeps a distance from me, but I try not to let it dishearten me. I'd probably do same, if I were in her shoes.
"I'm about 500% sure you're not going to die."
She smiles a little. "Okay."
Maison gives me a flashlight to use so I can maneuver through the supply room without knocking boxes over. Marlena said I could find any hygiene product I needed in this room.
"So, I'll have a period for the rest of my life now? That doesn't really sound fun." She cringed a little when I told her what a period was and its purpose, and of course, she also asked lots of questions.
"Not forever. Most women stop having them in their fifties. But everyone is different. And sometimes it can take a while after you get your first period before your cycle becomes regular."
"Is yours regular?"
"No," I reply. "I'm often too malnourished and stressed, and that can prevent periods."
"How do you know all of this?"
"My mom," I whisper.
Maison is quiet for a few moments, and then says, "Is she dead?"
It feels like someone has laid a ton of bricks on my chest. How can I talk about our mom when Maison doesn't even remember her?
"My mom's dead too," she breathes, handing me a roll of toilet paper. I hadn't realized I was crying. "Lois doesn't tell me about her, though. She said I was too young when she died for me to remember her." She shrugs like it's no big deal.
It takes an immense amount of self-control for me not to explain everything to Maison, because it is a big deal. Our mom is buried in the graveyard outside these walls. Marlena thought I would like to know in case I wanted to visit her grave. But I haven't gone out there. I'm not sure I can.
I grab a box of pads from a bin labeled "feminine hygiene." There are tampons too, but I decide she won't need those. "Here, you'll need these," I say, wiping away my tears.
She reads the back of the box and makes a face. "I don't think this period business sounds all that great."
That makes me laugh. "No, it isn't."
We stand in silence for a while, listening to the sounds of the night. This feels normal almost, doing something most sisters do. If the virus never hit I imagine we'd be in her room talking, because she would have came to me instead going to Mom. And I'd be doing what I did tonight, explaining to her what a period is and that it's not as fun or cool as the girls in my sixth grade class said it would be. The anticipation of growing up and becoming a woman once excited me. Addy and I would talk about the day we'd finally get our periods all the time. She got hers first, and a month later I did. We decided after the second time it wasn't all that great.
God, I miss Addy.
"Well, I should probably go back to bed," Maison says.
"Wait," I say. "I wanted to apologize to you."
She tilts her head. "For what?"
"Scaring you. When I first got here. I wasn't trying to. I just…thought you were someone I knew. And I got excited and then confused when I realized it wasn't her." Not the Maison I knew, anyway.
"Oh," she says, scuffing the ground with her foot.
"Are you still scared of me?"
She studies me for a moment and then says, "No."
"I'm glad." I grin at her and this time she smiles with me.
One step at a time.
"You should get back in bed. It's important to get plenty of sleep when you're on your period."
She sighs and gives the box of pads another look. "Okie dokie. And um…thank you."
It's not much later when I crawl into bed, a small flicker of hope burning bright inside me.
Chapter's Soundtracks: Zombie Train by Two Steps From Hell and Just Friends by James Newton Howard