Excerpts for Dearly, Beloved
Habel / DEARLY, BELOVED
When I got to the top of the hill, the zombie caught me. I dropped my parasol and leather-bound digital diary in shock. He pulled me to his body from behind, imprisoned my tiny hands in his so I couldn't fight back, and parted his cold lips at the nape of my neck.
I squealed with delight, even as I drummed my boot heel on his shin. "Bram, let go!"
"Never," he growled against my skin following the kiss, his voice causing me to flush. Before I could protest further he actually picked me up, starting to spin. Laughing despite the ridiculousness of it, I kept my eyes open, watching the scenery fly by--especially the hilly area to the east that eventually rose into the city of New London, Nicaragua. The capital of New Victoria. The heart of all the world I'd ever known, now transformed, somehow shattered--half dead and half alive.
Dawn was just beginning to cup the earth in her pale hands. To the west, miles off, the mansions of the rich and titled lay mostly abandoned; only the odd light dared to advertise the presence of people. A few lights shone from the city, the shimmering of holographic building facades and electrified advertisements, but for the most part New London still slumbered on, dimmer than I ever remembered it being. There was only the red-tinted lantern on the top of my fallen electric gas-lamp parasol to light our way upon the low hump of earth that marked the location of the Elysian Fields, the underground housing complex my family called home. I might've chosen one of the colors meant to advertise the romantic availability of young ladies--pink for dating, etc.--but I wasn't romantically available.
I was spoken for by the zombie, and the leaders of feminine teenage trends had decided red should be the color for that. The color of sympathy for the dead. I normally didn't care about such things, but in this I was willing to be trendy.
Bram freed me, and I staggered away from him, eventually falling to the ground amidst my skirts. "That's the only way to make you be still sometimes."
"So . . . unfair," I panted as he limped over to join me. As he did, he glanced at the city himself. The view was spectacular, and the area landscaped to invite enjoyment of it, with circular pathways and benches crafted of the same marble used for the gated entrance located at the base of the hill. Although it was exposed, it was also isolated--and thus the perfect place to sneak away to every morning. "You're bigger than me."
"I enjoy the walk up here as much as being here, you know. When you run ahead--that's unfair. Besides . . ." He sat and fixed me with his cloudy blue eyes. "You think you'd know by now that when you run from me, every instinct I have wants to chase you."
As I caught my breath to reply, I found myself staring at him. Bram Griswold was two years dead and still so handsome and full of life, his ghost-white features expressive, his body tall and strong. The light atop my parasol didn't chase the shadows off his face fully, didn't highlight his brown hair, and I was reminded of the first time I'd seen him, cloaked and lit by streetlamps.
Then, I'd thought him a monster. Now, I loved him so much I didn't know what to do with myself.
"The zombies came from here," I reminded him. "We should probably walk yards and yards apart. If anyone was watching us, they could get nervous."
"I should be the one in front, if we're going that route." Picking up my digidiary, he handed it to me. "And I'd rather not think about that."
Chastened, accepting the book, I felt the warm April breeze stirring my black curls, playing with the hem of my long pink dress and the bit of red ribbon Chastity had cheekily tied to the hip holster for my pistol. The fact that my beau was dead didn't disgust me, didn't scare me. Not after all I'd seen. Everything was still so fresh, and I wasn't sure if this was ultimately a sign of madness or compassion.
I truly was my father's daughter.
"We're here, at any rate," I said. "Assume the position."
Laughing, Bram moved back. "I didn't die just so I could be your pillow, you know."
"Then why are you always the perfect temperature?"
We sat on the grass as a New Victorian sometime-schoolgirl of middling social rank and a Punk miner, member of a tribe my people had long ago exiled to the southernmost reaches of our Territories, should never sit--Bram lying on his back, watching the sky slowly banish the stars, me on my stomach with my chin and my backlit digidiary propped up on his lifeless chest. Alone. It was horribly scandalous, naughty behavior--and to us, commonplace. We'd been in the thick of it during the Siege almost four months ago, the attack by hordes of mindless, ravenous, "evil" zombies upon the city. We'd spent months afterward holed up in the jungle on an archaic airship with a heteromortal crew of scientists and soldiers, returning to the city only when it seemed like the vaccine my father had created against the reanimating illness known as the Lazarus might work. Our courtship had taken place on secret army bases, aboard airships, and finally in Eden. Altogether, it had been a marvelous success. But now we were back in civilization, and we had to be more circumspect. At least according to Papa.
I pushed him out of my mind, even as I tried to do the fabulously stupid, petty, useless thing he wanted me to, using my fingertips to access my school-issued digital copy of Deportment and You: A Text for Young Ladies of Refinement.
"Oh, look. Handily enough, this chapter talks about Punk manners, or lack thereof," I said teasingly as the book loaded. "Want to do the end-of-chapter quiz with me? I'll try to find the least insulting questions."
"As if the answers won't also be insulting?" Bram said, his lips quirking. "I know how your people work. They're polite to your face, and get you the second your back is turned. No offense."
"None taken. You speak God's truth." I flicked through the pages. "Okay, then. How about courtship etiquette? That's extremely relevant to our interests."
"Is this chapter going to club me over the head with yet more ways I can't touch you or talk to you?"
"Skip that one, too."
I paged through and laughed, turning the digidiary around to show him a section about wedding etiquette. "Look. This part is seriously about forty pages long. This is curriculum at St. Cyprian's, a school that costs my father a small fortune every year. That he's insisting I try to keep up with, even though, you know, Apocalypse."
Bram tilted his head to the side, as if regarding a puzzle. "Forty pages about weddings? Don't you usually just go to a judge or a preacher for something like that?"
"Girls are supposed to obsess over them. Aunt Gene wanted me to."
"Is this a hint, Miss Dearly?" As he asked this question he drew a serpentine pattern on the small of my back with his fingers, just above my bustle, and I shivered a little. And not just because his hand was freezing.
"No!" I flushed and shut the digidiary, sitting up and hurling it halfway across the hill. As I did, I released a primal scream--well, as much as I could. I still looked and sounded immature, even though I was now seventeen. Bram laughed and pulled me back down, and my cheek found his shoulder. "I give up for another day. I tried, but studying how to be a lady is still too mind-blowingly stupid to focus on, given all that's going on in the world. Tell me a story?"
Bram thought for a moment, and then started in on a story he knew I'd like--about the big Punk cities I'd never even heard about before I met him. About how they were founded where the Punks had fought battles against the southern tribes to maintain the borders of their settlement area, and how they were populated by a mixture of Punks and mysterious southern tribesmen, peaceful accords having been reached after years of struggle. The actual stone and metal buildings, and how they were vastly superior to holograms in every way; the automaton shows; the Punk fashions. His voice was rough and low, a sound I adored. A sound I could lose myself in.
As he spoke, I watched the sky brighten. I wanted to see the rest of the remaining world--from the glacier-locked Wastelands of the far North to the deserts of the South. All of it. I couldn't drive, but that didn't stop me from occasionally imagining myself stealing the keys to Aunt Gene's electric horseless carriage and flooring it. I knew the world was changing, reacting to the revealed existence of the undead. Reacting to the fact that two weeks ago a few vaccinated people had been bitten during a riot and still contracted the Lazarus. Reacting with fear, with anger, with . . .
I stomped on that thought before my imagination could run with it. Since learning of the postvaccine infections, fear about what the living might do if they lost their feelings of security around the "civilized" dead had been threatening to consume me, and I was growing sick of it. It kept robbing me of sleep, forcing me to forge guesses about a future I couldn't possibly know. It was changing my father, too, making him both demanding and distant, taking him away from me again. It kept ruining moments like this. And it had no right to.
Bram finished his story. His lips found my brow, the sensation instantly identifiable due to the bit of thread that stitched his broken lower lip together. I loved his every scar. They would never heal, and he bore them all so patiently. "Have you heard a word I've said, little one?"
"Sixty percent," I admitted, looking to the city again. "Sorry."
"No blame here. What do you need?"
"Nothing." I pushed my nose into his soft blue shirt, enjoying the pleasured sound he made in response. "Just wondering if I'm ever going to be allowed to leave this hill again."
"I think it's honorable that you're trying to do what your dad wants." Bram's cool hands moved about my waist, and before I knew it he'd drawn me up and seated me atop his chest so he could meet my eyes. I smiled despite myself, my fingers curling around his leather suspenders. I loved that he refused to dress like a New Victorian fop. "That biter kind of threw a wrench in the works. Once Dr. Dearly and the other researchers know more, we might be able to get back on track."
"I hope so." I glowered at my far-off book. "We were on the same page before the riot. The turn he's taken these last few weeks, insisting I stay close to the EF, focus on schoolwork--it's infuriating. And he hasn't been home in days. I could've walked to Morristown and back without his ever having known."
Bram reached up to play with my ringlets. I wasn't wearing a hat or gloves--more sins to stack up. "Chin up. It's because of him that the living and the dead even have the chance to try and co-exist. He's naturally going to feel responsible for every setback. There'll be more issues before all is said and done . . . more violence. I don't accept that, but at the same time, I know it's bound to happen. If we can just get more of the living vaccinated, educated, maybe things will calm down all around." He frowned. "Maybe the violence against the undead will stop."
Nodding, I thought of the high-functioning zombies still hounded in the streets, still in hiding. They had it far worse than we did. "That's why I hate being kept here. I want to be out in the city, helping them."
"Believe me, I'm with you on that. But the last thing the city needs is a bunch of undead vigilantes skulking about. Or pro-undead, in your case, seeing as I know you'd want to be at the head of the charge."
This idea appealed to me. "Explain exactly why we're not doing this, again?"
Bram chuckled, and leaned up to press his forehead to mine. "The sun's rising."
"Please don't tell me you're also a vampire. That would break my heart." It was a stupid joke--vampires weren't real--but I didn't want to go back.
"Nope, just a guy biting his thumb at all the New Victorian ‘don't touch the girl' rules. Darkness helps with that."
I sighed. "I know."
Bram moved me, stood, and offered his hand. I took it and let him pull me to my feet. We made our way across the breadth of the hill to fetch my digidiary, then started the trek back.
Arm in arm.
Coming home just wasn't the same anymore.
The Elysian Fields had been, at one time, a wonder of modern engineering. An underground neighborhood with multiple levels, each capped by a liquid crystal screen that mirrored conditions outside and surrounded by walls that projected virtual trees, clouds--everything designed to look as real as possible, with none of it real at all.
Given that it had served as a giant crucible of infection for the zombies that invaded New London, it hadn't fared very well. The fake sky was no more, the screen dark. Strings of electric lights now dangled from the streetlamp poles, the city's attempt to provide the few residents of the Elysian Fields enough light to live by until it was repaired. Half the grand Victorian houses were unoccupied. Only the most basic services had returned to the central commercial area--the grocery, the clinic. The hat shop was gone, the confectioner's boarded up like something out of a five-year-old's worst nightmare. Broadsides were pasted on every suitable surface: the elysian fields will resume full operations by fall 2196. the city of new london thanks you for your patience and support. Signs announced stops for the new trackless EF trolley service: a safe, dependable way to reach the surface and new london.
My Aunt Gene had once called the EF a "hole in the ground." It actually seemed like one now. Too bad she was still missing; she would've loved to rub that in.
And yet, I loved it more than ever. I loved my neighborhood of Violet Hill, even though the streets were now stained--with what, I didn't like to imagine--and many of the mansions beyond repair. I loved my brick house most of all, especially because it had managed to weather the undead storm so miraculously. Within its walls I'd kissed my mother for the last time, before the disease my father then knew so little about both took her away and cruelly brought her back. I'd watched my father die there, little knowing he was bound to carry on after his heart stopped. In that house, I'd been attacked by Averne's undead minions, and on the roof, I'd fought back and ended up in Bram's arms. Not that I was initially thrilled to find myself there.
That thought made me smile. By the time I reached the front door and unlocked it, I was ready to stiff-upper-lip-it for another day, soldier on.
"Quiet," I turned and reminded Bram, putting a finger in front of my mouth. "When we pass through this door, we become well-behaved young people again. Whether we want to or not."
Bram hooked his index finger around mine and drew it away from my lips. Meanwhile he laid his other hand on the door, effectively trapping me, his eyes unapologetically focused on my face. "That presumes we were doing something wrong up there. Now, if you want me to do something worthy of blame, I can give it the old Punk try. Dr. Dearly might not like it, though."
Blushing at the idea, I covered for myself by finding the knob and opening the door, forcing him to stumble in after me. He laughed and tightened his hold on my hand, pulling me closer--but then we both saw something that made us go stock-still.
Dr. Beryl Chase was waiting for us in the foyer, in front of the huge sweeping staircase.
"Dr. Chase?" I said, my girlish voice surprisingly large in the empty hall. She turned to look at me, and at once appeared relieved--and yet, not. I figured I must look much the same.
"Oh, um . . ." Bram shut the door and locked it. "I promise, we weren't--"
"Miss Dearly, Bram . . ." Dr. Chase was still in her dressing gown, and she held something in her hands. It looked like a box of playing cards. She twirled it over and over, the motion fussy and unlike her. It pinged my suspicions, caught me and pulled me back from my embarrassment. "No. It's not that."
"Did I wake you when I got out of bed?" I let go of Bram's hand and hugged my digidiary and parasol to my chest. "I swear, we never go far. We just like to be alone." Dr. Chase and I had been sharing my bed ever since our return from Colombia. We'd tried to cram everyone we could inside the house--Dr. Chase and her zombified fellow engineer, Dr. Baldwin Samedi, the younger members of the former Company Z, and my father's top medical researchers.
"No. I know you've been getting up," she said. "As long as you come back quickly, I never worry or say anything. You're young. You deserve every moment you can find together." Dr. Chase looked at the cards, and slipped them into her pocket.
Something was wrong, and my thoughts went in one immediate direction. "Is it Papa?"
Dr. Chase smiled. It didn't reach her apple green eyes. "I was going to try to distract you while I got my thoughts together, but I might as well just say it."
Bram moved forward and grabbed a painted chair from its place by the stairs, carrying it over for Dr. Chase. He urged her to sit, and she did so gratefully. Behind him, a pair of Father Isley's cats trotted down the staircase. "What's the matter?"
I moved closer, my hands going cold. "What's wrong with Papa?"
"Nothing. But Dr. Salvez just called." Disheveled as she was, her reddish hair poufy and her skin free of makeup, the middle-aged Dr. Chase was still lovely--though at the moment very pale. She looked at her lap. "You know that during the riot that took place after Captain Wolfe's execution, several people were bitten by zombies. Two of those people died and reanimated, even though they were vaccinated."
I nodded. My neck felt stiff. I couldn't forget that night--especially the way the news had crushed my father. That was why I'd chosen to try and obey him until this latest storm cloud passed, even though I resented it with every fiber of my being. But as frustrated as I was, I was also growing increasingly worried about him.
"The biters they arrested are still in police custody." Her hands started to shake slightly, and my heart started to pound in sympathy. "Which is good. Because, as Dr. Salvez let me know . . . they have evidence that the problem isn't with the vaccine, or any living response to the vaccine."
I had no idea what to say to this. Because that left only one terrifying option--one I didn't want to contemplate. "Then what's the issue?" Bram asked. He sounded grim.
Dr. Chase gripped her robe to still her hands. "They've confirmed that one of the zombies is carrying a different strain of the Laz. Something new. Something the vaccine isn't designed to deal with."
And just like that, everything I'd dreaded seemed to be coming true. Bram swore. "We're back to square one, then," I whispered. "There'll be another Siege. They'll hunt down the dead."
"No." Dr. Chase sounded as if she wanted to will her denial into existence. "No. The biter with the new strain is still isolated. He can't infect anyone else. The two who contracted that strain lost their faculties upon awakening. They tried to attack the people attending them, and they were shot in the head. So far, it's contained."
"No, it's not that easy," I said. "The whole reason we came up here, all of us--the zombies, everybody--is because we thought it would be safe. That because they were vaccinated, the living felt safe enough to let the nonviolent dead survive!" I looked at Bram. "Should we leave? Get away from the city?"
"No," he assured me, though his eyes were serious. "Not right now. Not without knowing more."
"But we have to do some--"
"What do you expect us to do?" The rebuff was delivered so sharply that I flinched and Bram blinked. Realizing from my look how she must have sounded, Dr. Chase covered her face with her hands. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."
"It's all right," I tried.
"No, it's not. I just keep thinking about having to run--we thought it was just protestors clashing at the riot, but think about it. A zombie with a new strain of the Laz was standing not fifty feet away from us! What little footage they've shown of him on the news is murky, and the researchers who've been allowed to take samples from him say he seems perfectly ordinary, but I've heard he was like a demon. That he was everything we've worked so hard to prove that sane zombies aren't. And he could have gotten any one of us!" She took a breath and held it for a second, attempting to calm herself. It didn't work; she babbled on. "And I still have to wake Baldwin up and tell him. He sleeps so soundly, it always terrifies me to wake him up . . ."
When I heard Dr. Samedi's name, I understood. Although their relationship existed in a state of limbo, Chase and Samedi had history. I wasn't the only person with beloved dead people in her life; I wasn't the only person who was scared. She was right. I had to stay focused.
But so did she.
I moved to sit on the floor, at her knee, so I could look up at her and hopefully keep her attention. "Are we the only people who know?"
"No. Dr. Salvez said the press has been alerted. We can't keep secrets any longer. It would hurt us more in the long run."
Great. I set my things aside. "Then what are we going to do, Dr. Chase?"
She didn't respond right away. When she did, her voice was still halting, but ultimately controlled. "All we can do is work through it. Dr. Salvez said the vaccine still seems to be effective against the original strain." She looked uneasily at me. "We can't meditate on the two people who were infected. We have to try to think, instead, of the thousands of people out there who are safe because of your father's work."
"But we don't know if they're safe," I said. "That's the thing. There haven't been any large-scale zombie attacks. We don't really know if the vaccine works--they had to rush it out so quickly. And if the living don't feel safe . . ." I trailed off. I didn't want to think about it.
"But there are thousands of families out there with dead relatives, Nora," Bram said. "And I haven't heard of a single casual infection, so that's promising. Dr. Chase is right. We need to try and keep things like that in mind."
"What if there are others, though?" Dr. Chase asked. "Other strains? Other zombies with this new strain, wandering around?" Her questions seemed to ring out like gongs. Neither Bram nor I answered.
I couldn't think of any answers. I didn't want to.
"Let's not worry about that now," Bram reiterated. "Let's deal with what we do know. Let me get the boys together--you worry about Doc Sam."
I rose. "Are you leaving, then?"
"For the ships, yeah." The ships, the NVS Erika and the NVS Christine, were where the majority of Company Z's doctors still worked--either on zombie-related research or on caring medically for the undead. "Once this news gets around, the city is going to explode. We'll need manpower there. I'd take you with me, but . . ."
"Papa," I said, irritated. He was on the Erika.
Bram nodded. "And in case something goes wrong, we'll need people here at the house to execute DHE. I'll leave Chas and Ren behind, too."
"I know." The Dearly House Exit was his new contingency plan. Still, I was disappointed--and worried. "Go."
Bram touched my chin, then ran up the stairs to fetch the boys. I helped Dr. Chase up and saw her into the kitchen, where I put on the kettle for tea. She sagged against the wall, and I knew that even in this small thing, I was doing my bit.
Still, after everything I'd done in December, it wasn't the same.