Authors: Daryl Banner
“How old am I?”
I remember that moment long ago in my house when he first told me how old he was. I was surprised and he was amused. “Twenty-two.”
“And I had a life, too?”
“Yes.” I’m really not ready to answer these questions. I need Helena to take over. I need Marigold to swoop in and perform her duties, but deep in my unbeating heart, I worry whether any of them still exist. I feel like the whole world’s gone on an all-expenses-paid vacation and we were left behind.
“Why don’t I remember any of it?”
“You will someday.” And with it, you’ll remember me. You’ll remember what we had … and you’ll wonder why I didn’t say anything when our eyes first met in this totally-lame-so-far Second Life of yours. “It’s called a Waking Dream and when you have it, you’ll remember everything.”
“That sounds scary.” He stares ahead without another word for a while, watching as we pass through the green and the shadow and the silence.
The world is entirely unrecognizable. When we break from the embrace of trees, a clearing of grass stretches to the horizon, punctuated here and there by gentle, round boulders pushing out of the earth, and a sturdy tree every now and then. We cross the green wavy expanse. I’m startled once or twice by a bug fluttering past my face.
In the distance I swear I can hear the tweeting of birds, the cawing of crows …
“Where are we going?”
“Garden,” I say and realize at once, but I have no idea which direction it is. I feel like an eternity has passed. I could be heading in the exact opposite direction for all I know. We could be walking for days.
“The sky’s still grey,” he says again, like I didn’t hear him the first time. “Think we should find some cover before it rains?”
“The sky is
grey. You need to get used to grey.” The sea of grass whispers whenever the wind blows, all the blades singing songs to me in a language that I figure only lost spirits can understand. It’s like I never left the Harvesting Grounds; the whispers have followed me somehow.
“Your hair is very pretty.”
I try not to answer, focused on the nothingness ahead of us and worrying over where we’re headed or who will help us, then finally give in and say, “Thanks.”
“Do you have a special guy in your life?”
Is he serious? I suddenly find myself laughing. The rush of breath from the grass in the wind sounds like ocean waves that carry my laughter through the fields, flittering and diffused into all the nature around us. “Depends,” I finally answer. Maybe I’m losing my mind.
“Depends on what?”
“Depends on whether or not he remembers,” I say with a tinge of humor in my voice.
He smiles into my arm, his eyes locked on my face; I can tell even while not looking. “Might be because you’re the only person I’ve met, but … a man would have to be out of his mind to forget a woman like you.”
“Out of his mind,” I agree, flippantly brushing off the compliment he’s trying to pay me. “Or dead.”
“Or dead,” he agrees, then laughs, finding that way too funny. John, smiling and laughing and flirting. This is not the John I knew. This is someone else entirely, someone, perhaps, who was locked up deep within John’s tough exterior, within his years upon years of defense mechanisms and suspicion and caution that he’d built up during his harsh and unforgiving First Life. I wonder if, in a way, I’m meeting the
John for the first time … a John whose inhibitions are gone, a John whose walls are beyond broken down; they’re nonexistent.
Time passes and we’re in the thick of a forest again—a forest bursting to life, full of leaves that tickle each other overhead and knobbed roots that break in and out of the forest floor, threatening to trip me as I walk. The patches of tall weeds and flowers that stand proudly in the path do not shy away as we approach. This world is so strange.
Then I hear giggles. For a second I think they’re John’s until I hear them once again and spin my head around, staring into the woods. Far away, a child’s giggles. Two children, I pick out. The sound of two children playing.
I hush John, then squint into the trees, though I see no sign of movement. The giggles are far away, evidence of them reaching me only in tiny bursts of sound that echo off the swaying, creaking branches. I wonder for a moment if I’m hallucinating. Then I hear them again.
I break off, hurrying in the direction of the laughter. Children laughing. Could Megan be one of them? Could the twins, Robin or Rake, be among the gigglers? I stop several times to listen, judging whether I’m headed in the right direction or not, then break once again into a sprint through the thick, rustling trees. The giggles seem too young to be any of them—they sound like a child’s giggle, a toddler’s giggle, a baby’s laughter, even. I can’t tell, desperate as I am to reach the sound, wherever it may be.
Then quite suddenly I happen on a tiny clearing. Two little girls are there, both in blue and white dresses with knotted messes of brown hair, and they stare up at me the instant I appear, their laughter ceased.
“Hello,” I try, gentle as ever.
“Hi!” exclaims John, the happiest person on Earth.
The girls take one look at him, then issue a collective glass-shattering scream. The shrill sound of their voices tears through the woods and shatters every ounce of peace this world knows before they bolt.
“Nice work, John,” I say, annoyed.
“What’d I do?” he asks innocently … through a face that’s half falling off.
Desperately, I race after the girls. My wild hope is, they’re running back to their home, which I pray is where my friends are—or at least someone who can help us. The woods mask my every attempt at seeing where the girls have run off to, so I rely on following their screams.
Soon, the noise becomes too fragmented to trace, and it seems for a while like every tree in every direction is screaming at me. Logic begins to drive me more than sight or sense as I plunge head-on through the woods in one single direction.
I have to find the others. “Please, girls, please lead me to your home,” I plead under my breath, whispering. “Helena, Marigold, someone …”
Then the screaming is gone and we’re all alone once more. I haven’t relented though, and even while the roots of trees keep trying to make a grab at my feet, I push on and on, inspired by the existence of those two girls—who I’m quite sure were Living. John asks something and I ignore it, hurrying, driven mad in my pursuit.
Quite suddenly the forest gives away to an enormous pair of formidable metal doors. It’s astonishing that I didn’t see them coming, the inexplicably dense forest hiding them well. They are thrice as tall as us and the tall, thick steel walls to which they’re attached extend in either direction infinitely, vanishing into the foggy distance.
John seems as stupefied as I am. “What’s this?”
“I …” I realize I can’t answer him.
And then I don’t have to. A voice booms over our heads from the top of the metal doors: “STATE YOUR NAME.”
The voice seems to come from nowhere. It might be from a loudspeaker, but I see neither person nor speaker. Adjusting John in my arms, I stammer my name.
Annoyed, I shout, “Winter! And this is John! I’m looking … I’m looking for anyone who, um …” I don’t even know who I’m talking to or what to ask. “I need—”
“WINTER?” The voice in the loudspeaker turns amused. “IS THIS SOME KIND OF JOKE? TURN BACK OR WE SHOOT YOU DOWN.”
“Shoot me down?” Who the undead hell am I talking to? “What’ll that accomplish? We’re already dead.”
“BY THE POWER OF NEW TRENTON, TURN BACK OR WE WILL END YOUR EXISTENCE!”
A normal person would walk away. Clearly not being one, I awkwardly stumble to the metal doors, John still in my arms, and gracelessly kick it four times. “I have a
, mister so-called New Trenton!” I yell back, staring up at the—whoever, whatever. “I need Upkeep! If you’d be so kind, oh immortal mysterious moron, please fetch Marigold or Megan or the Chief or Helena or …”
My throat closes up, and the rest of my list of names dies on my self-important tongue. Instantly I’m thrown back into the traumatic memory of a great battle waged in a lush basin we once called Garden. Garden was supposed to be our salvation, but it turned into a place where many lives were lost … a place of fire and horror and death. Who did we lose that day? Which of my friends no longer exist? I have no way of telling, and my memory of it is an angry haze of pain and screams …
And John’s last breath as a Human.
Strange muffled sounds issue from the top of the door. I wait with every scrap of patience I have. John has no choice but to wait; judging from his merry expression, he couldn’t care less anyway. Between the two of us, we’ve waited for half an eternity; what’s just a little longer? The sounds we’re hearing become hushed protests, grunts of argument, then muffled discussion. In that order.
Finally, a changed voice rips from the speaker-that-we-cannot-see: “ENTRANCE GRANTED.”
The enormous metal gates slowly pull apart, the squeaks and groans of wheels and gears protesting the act. It brings me to wonder whether these gates have ever before opened at all.
When they’ve finally parted, a heavily-armored lady is standing there. For a moment, I’m struck by the sight, an involuntary gasp and a name surging into me:
But when the dust kicked up by the gates opening at last dissipates, I realize it is not the deceased Judge of Trenton standing before me: it’s my Undead teenage friend Headless Ann, which is a bit deceiving of a name as she isn’t headless at all.
“Ann?” I’m overcome with surprise. She looks so transformed. Even her hair is done differently, tossed and tied off to the right, the left side buzzed to the scalp.
Ann returns much the same surprise as I imagine is on my own face. She takes a few cautious steps toward me as if I might detonate. And I might.
“Winter?” she returns finally, her eyes wide as a child’s. “Is that … Is that really you?”
“Um, I hope so.”
“I thought … Everyone thought …”
“I’ve just been in the Whispers,” I say. “And when John rose out of the ground I … I found Trenton and it was … it looked completely abandoned, and—”
“John,” she repeats, her eyes finding his as if just now realizing he’s there. A small and nearly nonexistent sigh escapes her lips. “Oh. Oh, wow.”
“Yes, right, it’s amazing,” I agree hurriedly, annoyed, “but as you see, he
needs the Refinery. Like, now.”
“But you …” Her eyes find mine again, baffled. “You looked … You looked turned to stone. You wouldn’t move. You wouldn’t talk to anyone. You were … Winter, you were petrified.” The fear in Ann’s eyes won’t relent, bothering me all the more. “None of us thought you were coming back. None of us thought you or John would—”
,” I assure her, though I realize carrying one’s broken Undead lover who’s lost all memory does not a fine person make. “I was waiting for John to Rise. Just John and I.” I can’t stand the way she’s looking at me. “Listen, he really needs the Refinery. His arms don’t quite work, his left foot drags and, well …” I indicate his face with a nonchalant shrug.
“Um …” Ann shuffles uncertainly, peering over at two men I hadn’t noticed until now, also dressed up in as much armor as her. They must’ve been the polite morons I spoke to through the gate. “Winter, there’s no Refinery anymore. Things are … Things are very different now. As you can see, we’ve relocated. I’d figure by now that you’d, um … that you’d recognize where we are.”
I look around. The giant colorless steel walls extend in either direction. Within its walls, I see enormous, horrible warehouses and rusty, boxy buildings with wide windows or no windows at all spaced far apart from each other, making way for large barren cement courtyards. Peppered around the buildings are wooden houses that have no business in this vast industrial graveyard of a city. I see a tall tower in the distance that reminds me of a water tower, another that looks like a rice silo, and …
My lips begin to part. Something is piecing together in my mind and I dare not say it—and then quite suddenly I do dare to say it: “N-Necropolis.”
“New Trenton,” Ann corrects me quickly. “That’s what we call it now.”
“Is this … Is this a sick joke?” I say, my eyes scanning the horizon of sharp, unkind buildings … the factories that only breathe smoke and death … the chimneys of nightmares and torture spires that stab the sky like giant knives. “Why in all the undead world would we—??”
“It’s been our home for so many years now, Winter. It had lots of burn damage for some reason, but it’s fixed up now. You should’ve seen everyone we dug up from the pits and the graves, Winter. Do you have
idea how many Undead the Deathless Queen buried here?”
“The Deathless Queen, my
, you mean,” I say quite acidly, narrowing my eyes.
“Oh.” Ann squeezes her face with shame. “Sorry. Crap. I didn’t think about that. I still can’t believe you’re related to her. She’s really your real mother? Like—your real, actual, First Life mother?”