Darwin thought he might be more alive than other people. Not a whole lot, but ever increasingly, until finally, in a checkout line at Target, he was the last person left alive but his checker. Gabriella, her nametag said, and she was drifting off.
Good for her he was the sort of person who reads nametags. Good for them both.
“Gabriella!” he shouted, and she opened her eyes, blinking.
“Nobody calls me that except my mother,” she said.
He couldn’t decide whether that was good or bad. “It says on your nametag,” he said, pointing.
She took it off.
You forget you have it on, that you’re labeled like everything else in the store, as if the red outfit’s not enough. Team Member. That’s what they called you, expected you to call yourself. She used to like wearing red. She liked that her nametag said something nobody ever really called her anymore, like some other person was on the job. “My supervisor made the nametag. She can call me whatever she wants.” She said it like she might call the supervisor a thing or two, but she never would. Sweet child, her mother used to say. She scanned his items: Peppermint Patty. White socks. A Kindle, the cheapest. Seeds (flowers). He was a frail, pale little flower himself. Like a pot of grandma’s pansies.
“Is that your supervisor over there?” Darwin detected some vague sense of rank in the woman’s red garb, though the point was moot. Her hair swept up; everything else drooped. “She’s dead,” Darwin said, swiping his card, signing the screen with a plastic nub. Dotting the i felt particularly foolish, plastic kissing plastic, leaving a deep blue craggy dot. His illegible signature was approved and vanished, and he was thanked. Who did that? he wondered. It must be automatic. His credit was perfect. He paid everything off. Except for the student loan payments. They would never end.
Gaby (as everyone but Mom called her) squinted at Karin, her supervisor. The man was right. Still standing somehow on her tree-trunk legs, but dead as a mackerel. Gaby had never seen a mackerel to know one, but Mom had used the expression whenever something dead came up. Mom was her authority on death. She looked around. “Everybody’s dead.”
“That’s why I shouted at you. You were dropping off.”
She didn’t remember any shout. Barely audible in her family. One reason she never did. Shout. Whisper quiet was her motto. Her nickname was ironic. Her third grade teacher told her that. Like most of us, Gaby hadn’t changed much since third grade. “Off. You mean dead. Dropping dead.”
“Yeah, I guess. Everyone else did.”
“What’s going on?”
He was thoughtful. Darwin fell into thoughtful like some cats purr, just waiting for your touch. His favorite verb was mull. “I don’t know. It just seemed to happen gradually. You know? Everyone dying a little bit every day. It kind of crept up on me. Then I looked around . . .” He gestured at all the dead. Some had fallen facedown into their carts. Others were still reaching out for the bottom shelf. Most had dropped where they stood. Dropped phones were dropping calls everywhere. They were dead too. Personal devices without a person.
The store kept going. The AC roared. The music played. The ads, too. It was all automatic. The dead were told to expect more and pay less, then another song played. Gaby didn’t mind the songs, but the happy yappy woman who did the ads totally got on her nerves. Maybe it was mass hypnosis. The wrong chirp fracked all these people’s brains.
“Have you checked outside?” Gaby asked. She shut off the light showing she was open, stepped out of the stall. Normally, she could get in big trouble for that. Things obviously weren’t normal.
“I’m sure it’s the same out there. I was just over at Barnes & Noble, and the people weren’t much more alive than the dead writers on the wall. But we should have a look-see here first, don’t you think?”
Gaby figured the store was somehow her responsibility, now that everyone else was dead. That’s just how she was brought up. “I’ll do it,” she said, thinking maybe if she left this weird little dude and walked around the store, things might be different. He could be controlling her mind. She could be insane. This could be like the Rapture, and nobody was really dead. She could be a spy and not know it. Maybe she just killed all these people and not the chirpy PA bitch after all. She’d seen all those movies and more with her brothers. She didn’t know what movie this was, but anything was better than everybody dies. Just like that. For no reason.
Look-see. Who says look-see? That’s what she was doing up and down the aisles. Look. See: Dead. Dead. Dead. Housewares. Sporting Goods. Electronics. Women’s Apparel. Didn’t matter. Mick Jagger was singing “Wild Horses.” Still. You couldn’t stop him. Somewhere, was Mick dead now? Keith? She couldn’t remember whether they were still alive. There was a stroller parked in Family Shoes. Kid sitting in it seemed to be looking right at her. No. He was dead as a mackerel too. “Yeah. Let’s have a look-see the fuck out of this place.” She strode to the doors—not running—her mother’s voice hollering down the long hallway to the child inside, Gabriella! Don’t you dare run in this house! She burst out of that memory into daylight and stopped in her tracks.
The automatic doors whooshed closed behind her, then parted again. Darwin stood beside her. She had this weird urge to take his hand. Not a car was moving. It’s not like you had to look inside each one to make sure after seeing that. Anybody stuck in this traffic jam would be screaming if they could, laying on the horn. Something. Six lanes of traffic up and down Broad Street for as far as you could see. Stopped dead. Dead inside. You could see them. The engines had all died too. No point going on, the drivers slumped, their hands slipped from the wheel—destination nowhere. It was quiet.
Darwin didn’t own a car. Couldn’t afford it. He’d come on the bus. He could see his return bus from here, dead at the top of the hill. There was a lovely woman’s voice that told you where you were. You could hear her still singing but not quite make out the words. It was automatic. GPS, digital recordings. That sort of thing used to interest Darwin. Not so much anymore now that everyone was dead.
The traffic lights kept going through their automatic cycles. Safety first. Sure as they stopped, some of these cars would start up again, and the city would be on the hook for a major lawsuit. Darwin found the clunk of their relays reassuring. Darwin had temped in the city’s Risk Management Department for a time, known among the workers as Trip and Fall. They were nice people.
“What did you mean, this crept up on you?” Gaby demanded.
She expressed the intensity of her feelings as quietly as ever—more quietly—whispering the last, most intense part. He found himself leaning closer to listen. She fixed him with her dark eyes. However close to death she may have been, she was fiercely alive now. In her quiet way. “It wasn’t that way for you?” he asked.
She looked around. A pair of 180s. “No. This shit just happened.”
“Then we have differing perspectives,” Darwin said, like that was definitely a good thing, like it cheered him up somehow, like between the two of them they had this dead thing totally surrounded.
“Did you do this?” she asked.
“Me? Are you kidding? No. Do you think someone did it?”
“How should I know? What about the dead people? What should we do?”
Darwin was surprisingly quick with his answer. “Leave them. It won’t be very pleasant around here in a few days. We can’t possibly bury them all. My name’s Darwin. What should I call you?” He stuck out his hand.
She knew his name. It came up on her screen when he swiped his card. Darwin Berang. What kind of name was Berang? Who names their kid Darwin? “Gabriella,” Gaby said. She took his hand.
“I thought only your mother called you that.”
“My mother’s dead.” As a mackerel. She let go of his hand.
“It’s a pretty name,” he said.
She wished she could say the same about his. Grandma took her to church. They pronounced it evil-lution. Even her biology teacher in high school got nervous when Darwin’s name came up, like maybe he was a registered sex offender. Once you tell people they’re nothing but animals, especially a sweaty class of 10th graders, anything might happen, right?
Even though everybody else was dead, they still had their needs, and it wasn’t like anyone was going to stop them, and they’d both missed lunch. They walked across the street to the Olive Garden, trying not to look through the windshields at the dead. The glare hurt their eyes. Having needs was what set them apart from the dead behind the windshields, piled up at the bus stop, scattered around the parking lots. At least there weren’t any in the street. You’d have to be crazy to walk across this street.
They cooked themselves a nice meal in the Olive Garden kitchen after they dragged all the dead into the walk-in. There weren’t that many—more employees than customers. It had been slow, mid-afternoon. The Specials didn’t look very interesting. All the breadsticks were burned, the pasta gummy. There was a nice fire in the grill. They cooked steaks even though neither one of them usually ate red meat. They didn’t see the harm in an occasional indulgence. They opened a bottle of Chianti. Neither one of them usually drank. Alcohol was contraindicated for someone taking Darwin’s prescribed medications. Fortunately, he hadn’t taken them in years, and not just because he couldn’t afford them. Gaby had no prescriptions but lived with Grandma, for whom anything fun was contraindicated. They clinked their glasses together, chewing and swallowing, and felt like they were in a TV ad.
“What if they turn into zombies?” Gaby asked.
“Why would they do that?” Darwin asked, like maybe she had a theory about the life cycle of the dead. Darwin always liked to learn new things. He knew nothing of zombies, and his vampires were out of date.
She shrugged like she was just making conversation. She didn’t like zombies. It was her brothers who were into zombies, who made her watch them on TV, then hid under her bed and reached up and grabbed her, making zombie noises in the middle of the night when Mom was at work, making her scream and giggle and wet her bed, and they had to change the sheets and wash and dry them before Mom got home. She never told.
She and Darwin were watching the TV in the restaurant, making the rounds of the channels to see what they could find out about the dead. Darwin had found the remote beside the hostess. It must all be automatic, the shows and the commercials: Two and a Half Men, Jeopardy, Rick Steve’s Europe. Alex Trebek wasn’t dead, but he was making Christmas jokes in April. Finally, they found a live broadcast. Dead guy sat on a sofa, his new book on a table in front of him, while a dead woman was supposed to interview him. They were slumped together like they were in a huddle over the next question. Darwin thought he’d seen the book in a stack at B&N. The weather was next. It was blue. Everybody LIVE! was dead at CNN too. Darwin handed the remote over to Gaby and turned on his Kindle. It welcomed him. He was registered automatically. He shopped for the dead guy’s book.
Gaby found a soccer stadium full of dead people and turned off the TV. There was music playing in the dining room, some classical music you’ve heard a million times she didn’t know the name of. Darwin probably knew. He looked like the type who knew things. They hadn’t found where to turn the music off, though they hadn’t looked too hard. She thought about looking again. She wished she knew the name of this piece. She’d never know now. The first time she remembered hearing it, she was watching old cartoons. Daffy Duck. She liked Daffy because he was black. He was in Italy. He had a boat. Venice. She always wanted to go there. Was it underwater yet? Was everybody dead in Venice? Or had they already left and were dead somewhere else? That would suck. “Too bad about the breadsticks,” she said. “I really like those. Do you have anyone?”
He hesitated. He knew what she meant. He just didn’t like to admit it. It was remarkable, really. No siblings, both parents dead for some years. Largely friendless since grad school, a serial temp worker who didn’t like to drink and couldn’t afford to eat out, he didn’t have to think long on the answer, or why it was so. He secretly never took any of the medications ever prescribed for him. He developed an interest in side effects early in life. He wondered if that’s why he hadn’t died—never properly socialized, he missed the moment when we were all supposed to let go. He glanced up from the Kindle. He’d just found New Releases in Literature. He supposed literature lived on no matter what—that’s what made it Literature. Something had to, besides Amazon saying it was. He pictured the New Releases like little fishes the trout hatchery dumped into the streams every year. They didn’t live on. They said catch and release, but sooner or later, somebody ate them. Darwin would. He loved trout. Cooked any way. Except raw. He didn’t like sushi. Another reason he didn’t have any friends. “No. No one,” he said.
Her eyes were bright. Was that her returning life or her approaching tears or both? He didn’t know. He looked away. Every time Darwin had ever encountered a crying woman, from his mother onward, it hadn’t turned out well. She didn’t want him getting involved. He wouldn’t know what to say, what to do. He would only make it worse. Sometimes, he used to look up from whatever he was doing as a kid into the glistening eyes of his parents and not know what to do. They didn’t either. They found help. Lots of it.
He found the dead man’s book, and though it didn’t look like his sort of thing—kind of weird and offbeat and twisted—he bought it anyway. Local author. Saw him on TV. Dead. He’d never seen a living author dead before. While he was in the Kindle Store, he downloaded all of Mrs. Gaskell for free, delivered automatically to his Kindle. That’s how he justified the expenditure, all the free content. It was cheaper than a new TV. “What about you?” he asked. “Do you have anyone?”
“Me neither.” Both brothers dead, Mom gone, father unknown. That left Grandma, and it was her time to go anyway, after all she’d been through. Gaby couldn’t feel too bad. The woman talked about Heaven her whole life long. Business must be booming there. Everybody seemed to be dead but her and Darwin. How weird was that?
Weirder? Nothing else was. Darwin was the first to notice. She thought he was just reading his Kindle, short stories he said. “Surreal,” he said. She wasn’t sure she remembered exactly what that meant, didn’t want to look stupid asking. Then he asked her, “Have you noticed the birds?” He shut off the Kindle, pointed out the window.
She hadn’t noticed, but once he mentioned it, she saw they were everywhere, not like thousands or anything, like in Hitchcock, but plenty, like usual she guessed. There weren’t that many trees around here, and that made it look like more. Plenty of poles, lights, wires, and signs though. Birds looked fine. So did the squirrels. Something was making a noise in the trashcan where they’d thrown out the burnt breadsticks. She bet if she went outside and looked, there would be ants crawling around on the soda cups, or maybe with all the bodies around, they’d be crawling around on them.
She saw this movie once. Ants all over everything. Everybody. Except some beautiful redhead and a big sweaty guy who was into her, somewhere in South America. After seeing that movie, Gaby and her brothers smeared her Barbie—the one with the twisted leg from the flamethrower incident—with pancake syrup and buried it in an anthill. She screamed stuff, and they laughed and laughed. That was a good time. She missed her brothers. They were twins. They had a different father than she did, but that didn’t matter. They were angels to her.
A dog walked into the dining room—where Gaby and Darwin had the nice big booth in the corner—and looked at them peculiarly. He was a big beautiful Golden. Then they noticed his harness. He was a guide dog. So somewhere out there in the parking lot was a dead blind person who’d been headed for the Olive Garden when everybody died. Somebody must’ve driven them. No way they could’ve walked here safely from the bus. Darwin wouldn’t dream of crossing Broad Street, dog or no dog. Some guy texting on his phone, steering with his knees in three lanes of traffic with a burger hanging out of his mouth doesn’t care if you’re blind. He’s got his own navigational problems.
“Here boy,” Gaby said and offered the dog a hunk of her steak. Gaby liked dogs a lot, had never lived anywhere you could have one. Especially one like this. Big as a pony. Big as a pony was like dead as a mackerel, almost. Something Mom said. Gaby had seen ponies, though, even sat on one at a school fair when she was little. Her brothers were still alive then. Ty on one side of the pony, Jay on the other. This dog wasn’t that big, but he was big enough, and he looked like he’d just had his hair done at the beauty shop like Grandma used to. A real pretty boy. She adored him.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Darwin asked when she fed the dog, but it obviously was. The dog, whose name was Elvis, according to his collar, camped out beside them, having decided they were his next blind responsibility. The last humans. Gaby petted and hugged his big head and told Darwin she had always wanted a dog. Elvis wagged his big tail and smiled.
He enjoys the petting, but pays close attention to everything going on around them. You think it’s easy leading the blind? Harder still, people who think they can see. Elvis lets them finish their meal. He’s a good boy. But they should really think about leaving. To them, there’re just dead people everywhere. To others, they’re food. Carrion. Not to Elvis. He’s horrified at the idea. But he’s a good boy. Nobody knows better than a good boy that not everybody is. You can’t screw up leading a blind guy around. Eye-level with the meat counter or a dead squirrel in the road—not your concern. There’s no room for error. He misses the blind man, but he can’t worry about that now. He wonders if the woman will give him the bone. No begging. Elvis doesn’t beg. You know why. Good boy. Yes! The bone. Good boys get the bone.
More wine. Coffee. Cheesecake. A little bit of lemon liqueur. Brandy. Darwin and Gabriella didn’t get out much. They knew they should be moving on, but who knew when they might have the chance to go to a nice restaurant again? This one wasn’t so nice when you thought about what was in the walk-in. On the other hand, they didn’t want to face what was outside either. They returned to the bar, away from the windows, so they wouldn’t have to look at all the dead people in the parking lot, and Elvis followed them. What was that liqueur in the tall skinny bottle? Darwin remembered his mother used to like that. He didn’t usually talk about his family, meaning never, but Gabriella was a good listener. Lovely name. They’d talked so much about the dead, he hadn’t found out that much about her.
Finally, Elvis stands up and barks at them. A little yip. A gentle reminder. Can’t they hear what’s going on outside? Smell it? Even a good boy has his limits, and the bone’s already gone. Puppy bones lasted days.
They decided Elvis was right, skipped the Galliano, and went out in the parking lot. This time she did take his hand. Somehow, Darwin managed to end up with his arms wrapped around her, and her face buried in his chest, which kind of forced him to take in the scene, since the top of her head was under his chin. He tried not to throw up on her head. He liked the feel of her head under his chin, though. It steadied him. He didn’t have much experience in the comforting department, so he rubbed his chin on the top of her head sort of like she’d done when she hugged Elvis’s head. It seemed to work. Darwin felt proud.
Elvis never knew there were so many bad dogs in the world. The buzzards started it, of course, but now the dogs—you know the sort—are showing up and getting into it with the buzzards and each other. Fighting over . . . You don’t need to know what they’re fighting over. Disgusting. What’s next? Coyotes? Elvis and the blind man used to live in Tucson. He was afraid to go out of the house after dark. He sits beside the man and woman and waits. This is their call.
Darwin’s nice, Gaby decided in his arms, which helped her get it together. Gaby was not one to freak out for long. She grew up with zombies under her bed. They had to figure out how they were going to leave the dead and soon, since more and more dogs and buzzards kept showing up. They needed to find some wide, open spaces without dead people—besides the parking lots that stretched for miles in either direction—but how to get there? Even if they could start a car, they couldn’t navigate around all the rest of them. They could walk, but it would be awfully far. They were still holding on to each other as they raced through all the possibilities.
Darwin suggested bikes, and Gaby liked the idea and gave him a big hug.
They went back into the Target to pick out some bikes. Turns out they’d both had their bikes stolen just when they were getting past their sore knees and butt troubles and had started to enjoy them. They wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. The stolen part. Dead people don’t steal. They were trying to look on the bright side. Listing advantages. They were both pretty drunk.
Gaby pointed out the security cameras, all automatic, and they posed and waved and decided they were looters now—something else they had in common, besides being drunk and totally surrounded by dead people. They thought that was pretty funny, and they were both laughing by the time they picked out some extremely nice bikes from Target.
They also got some of those padded pants and gloves and baskets and panniers and food and sleeping bags and a tent and it went on and on. It was fun. They hadn’t shopped much with another person, never thought of it as recreation. Gaby saw that all the time at Target. Couples showing up and just wandering up and down seeing if they felt like buying something, like they were strolling around the park. Sometimes, they brought the thing back still in the box, but they’d still had the afternoon shopping together, like a date, and sometimes another when they made the return. That’s basically what she and Darwin were doing. She shed the red outfit and got something nice. It was easier than you might think to ignore the dead.
Gaby laughed out loud in Tents when Mick Jagger started singing “Wild Horses” again, and she had to explain why to Darwin so he wouldn’t think she was laughing at him working up a sweat trying to put the tent on the front of his bike with bungies, and he laughed too.
Then he gave her this look like she was Barbie, and he wanted to haul her out of an anthill. Not to lick the syrup off her body—that’s where her mind went—but to straighten out her twisted leg and make her forget about the ants. Gaby had soaked the Barbie’s hair in Red Hots and vodka, and the ants ate it down to the plastic. Gaby’s hair sort of looked like that, short red frizz, latest fashion mistake. Darwin didn’t even seem to mind that.
They had both seen this movie.
Gaby used to sit between her twin brothers on the sofa and watch any movie that was on, and when she didn’t understand it, they would both explain it to her, but they always told her two totally different things. They thought that was funny, and if she was them, older and two of them, she would’ve done the same thing. When she got older, they explained things they knew she understood fine just for fun, trying to outdo each other’s craziness. Ty told her Helen Keller could really see and was faking it. Jay told her Captain Kirk was insane, and the Starship Enterprise never went anywhere. She missed her brothers, though Gaby felt like there was only one way to tell this story: last man, last woman.
Darwin watched movies all day when he worked at the video store between his second degree and his third. He had a terrible crush on one of the women who worked the same shift, and she always picked out what they watched. Mostly foreign. He wasn’t sure what a lot of them meant. He would forget to read the subtitles, stealing glances at her, or he’d have to wait on a customer, but there was lots of sex in all of them. He was about to ask her to do something sometime when they weren’t working, when someone figured out he lied on his application and fired him. There was this one movie. Last man, last woman. A second guy showed up who hadn’t lied on his application.
Darwin kissed Gabriella before the other guy had a chance to show up.
Gaby was surprised how good a kisser he was. So was Darwin.
Elvis watches the automatic doors. Anything can set them off. A rabid coyote. Snakes. Bats. Squirrels. Smells. Dreams.
Elvis followed them inside, of course. Gaby decided to take his harness off, let him decide what he wanted to do. She thought his harness was another version of her red shirt and nametag, an understandable mistake. He sat still while she took it off, but it made absolutely no difference in his behavior. Good dog goes deep.
Elvis only wears the harness when they go out somewhere. He doesn’t wear it at home with the blind man. It’s too heavy, and it rubs on his shoulder, but he doesn’t complain, because he knows it’s necessary. He can see. The man can’t. The man’s dead, and these people see, so he doesn’t need the harness anymore. He gets that. He’s not stupid. That doesn’t mean these people don’t need guidance. Elvis wonders how he ended up with the last people. Must be because he’s a good boy.
When he was a puppy, there were lots of other dogs who weren’t good enough. Some didn’t even care about being good. Even when a blind man was hanging on to them.
You had to be even better if he let go, because he might need to find you.
Had to be best of all if he wasn’t there and was counting on you to be good anyway. To wait. No matter what.
Dead means gone, never coming back.
Good is forever, now that the blind man is gone.
Darwin and Gaby decided to spend the night in the display tent where they’d made love. They’d never done anything like that before—screw a total stranger in a display tent in the Target. It was one of the big ones, two rooms. It was fun, and they weren’t total strangers. They had just shared a profound traumatic experience together. There was a syndrome or something wasn’t there? Neither one of them could remember the name. Didn’t matter now. They were both pretty happy about it.
They were too tired and drunk, and it was getting too late anyway, to leave the dead today, but they planned to get a fresh start in the morning. Their bikes were loaded up with stuff. Darwin even had a trailer hitched up to his. They both were all serious and solemn about it out of respect for the dead, but secretly, they both thought it sounded fun to ride into the country and camp. Being in scouts had been like the bikes for both of them—cut short before they got to do the fun stuff. Darwin’s parents took him out on a matter of principle. He wasn’t sure which one. They had lots. Gaby’s mom quit taking her anywhere. After Ty and Jay died. Both understood their folks’ reasons at the time, but they weren’t their reasons.
Gaby took Elvis out front, and he crapped in the bushes. He looked at her like she should pick it up, but she thought she could let it slide under the circumstances. There was howling out there. Gaby noticed Elvis didn’t waste any time getting back inside.
She removed Karin the manager’s keys from around her neck and locked the front doors. She shut off most of the lights, but Karin didn’t have the key to turn off the PA . Maybe it was always going. Maybe even janitorial had to listen to it. They needed stuff that fit their lifestyle too. Gaby always thought she would like being a janitor, buffing the big empty store.
She told Elvis he could come sleep with them in the tent. There were two rooms. He followed her back to Sporting Goods but preferred to sleep outside at the crossroads of the aisles. She gave him a big bowl of dog food, the best they had, and a big dish of bottled water. What a day, she thought.
Inside the tent, Darwin had set up a camp table with a battery lantern, and he’d found pillows and pillowcases and chocolate bars and air freshener. She was touched. They made love some more. This time it was way better, and they fell asleep.
Darwin couldn’t sleep. Busy brains. Too much going on since everyone died. Everything’s changed. Too much to process. He decided to read. He turned on the light and started reading his Kindle. He wanted to finish the first story in the dead guy’s book, then he figured he’d switch over to Mrs. Gaskell.
Gabriella, as he lovingly called her, slumbered peacefully beside him, purring like a kitten. He could’ve gone to another cashier, and he never would’ve known her. He would be alone now. He couldn’t imagine he could’ve awakened just anybody, felt compelled to shout out her name. Gabriella was special. How could he be so lucky? What had he done to deserve this? He couldn’t think about it too much. He had a tendency to do that. One of his degrees is in philosophy.
He began to worry. The first story went on and on. He paged ahead. It never seemed to stop. He skipped to the next story, and there it was, so the first one had to end sometime. He tried to page back from the second story to where he’d been in the first, so he could see how much was left, but he finally gave up and went back to where he was and kept reading.
Maybe it would get better.
Anything to take his mind off the dead people. He wondered if you could smell them yet. The tent smelled like a new car. He thought of all the cars on Broad Street. Maybe he should’ve chosen a different air freshener. His student loan payments were automatic. He didn’t want to think about it.
In the story, someone named Norwood wants to die because everyone lives forever, and he’s tired of it, so he joins a Suicide Club where everyone wants to die, and they talk about it a lot in a way Darwin doesn’t find particularly interesting, but even when they try to kill themselves, they come back to life like everyone else, so Norwood decides to go back to school to study paleontology because that’s old dead things, and he talks a lot about that, what it all means, and about dinosaurs; then he meets a woman named Lucinda studying paleontology for pretty much the same reasons, and they talk a lot and make out a little, but all the dinosaurs are coming back to life too, so the creature they dig up devours them, and there they are, alive inside this big dinosaur headed for London to kill all the people who can’t die. To be alive inside a dinosaur forges a special bond between Norwood and Lucinda . . .
Darwin couldn’t take it anymore. He wasn’t sure whether it was Norwood or Lucinda or the dinosaur, but he was getting seriously annoyed by the story. He wanted to give it a chance, but this really wasn’t his kind of thing. He switched to Mrs. Gaskell. Wives and Daughters. He’d watched an adaptation on Masterpiece Theatre back when his television worked and rather liked it. It opened charmingly:
To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl, who had been swallowed by a dinosaur on its way to London to kill . . .
That’s not right, Darwin thought. Scanned by volunteers, it said at the beginning. He paid nothing, so he had no right to complain, but still. If you were going to do something, you should do it right, not tamper with a classic. There was a comfort in a story like that. You knew who it was about—this girl—who she was going to fall in love with and marry and her friends and so forth. One young man would be more interesting than the others if you bothered to look closely enough at him. This could take a while. She was still a kid, and she’ll have friends and so on, some not entirely trustworthy. Parents, all of that. There were no dinosaurs. Not living, anyway. London hadn’t even been bombed yet. All the dinosaurs were still dead. Another one of Darwin’s degrees is in literature.
Darwin switched back to the dead author’s story. Or, rather, the other dead author’s. Norwood is lying in the arms of his fellow paleontologist inside the dinosaur. They’re discussing the future of their relationship. The dinosaur ate London while Darwin was with Mrs. Gaskell—then shit out the whole lot except for Lucinda and Norwood—and now they’re on their way to Tokyo, telling each other why they want to die and sorting out what sort of impact this might have on their burgeoning romance. They can’t decide which is more important—death or each other—without a thought of Tokyo.
The Kindle slipped from Darwin’s hands, and he fell fast asleep.
After a time, the Kindle shut itself off. It’s automatic. Don’t worry. It saved his place.
Gaby is dreaming about her brothers. They both have holes in their heads, from temple to temple, neat little cylindrical passageways. They show her. You can line up their heads and see through to the other side. They aren’t anything like the real holes, through their real heads, Ty on one side, Jay on the other in the backseat of the car. Their skulls shattered and rained down on her. Jay’s. The shot came from his side. No glass. The windows were rolled down. The AC wasn’t working. Mom hadn’t had a chance to take it in to the mechanic.
“What are you doing in Target?” Jay asks her.
They’re in Electronics. All the televisions are showing the same thing, as usual. This time it’s real actors playing characters from an old cartoon show Gaby never watched. Mom probably did—she would watch anything when she got home from work—but Mom never went to movies. She never had time. But here she is in Electronics in her white doctor jacket she used to let Gaby play with and the stethoscope she didn’t. Not after the Barbie incidents.
Mom asks her, “What are you doing in Target, Gabriella?”
Gaby’s not sure what she means by that, what she’s asking exactly. “Are you dead?” she asks her mother. After Ty and Jay died, Mom went into a mental hospital. Maybe crazy people didn’t die. Mom blamed herself. You couldn’t get her not to blame herself. She’d always done everything. If it wasn’t her fault, then whose fault was it? This dream Mom seems to have gotten over it. She must be dead.
“Everyone’s dead, Darlin’, which is why you and your new boyfriend need to leave.”
“He’s not my boyfriend, Mom. We just met.”
“It’s okay either way, but it’s time to go. There’s nothing for you here.”
Gaby wakes up. The chirpy PA woman hasn’t given it up. She wants to make your life better, not just today, but every day. For a moment, Gaby thinks maybe everyone’s come back to life, and she’s not sure how she feels about that, but then she’s sure. She doesn’t want to go back to when everyone was alive, but dying like Darwin said. Mom would say let sleeping dogs lie, even though they never had a dog, and sleeping isn’t dead.
Elvis is panting at the entrance to the tent. It’s a new day. Her new boyfriend’s lying beside her. “Wake up, Darlin’,” she says, sounding just like her mother.
Darwin opens his eyes. “Gabriella,” he whispers.
They unzip the tent fly. Mick’s singing “Wild Horses” again.
As it turns out, it’s a lot easier to leave the dead than you might suppose. Elvis running alongside discourages the occasional dog inclined to give chase. They stop and have a meal at the last Applebee’s on Broad Street near the mostly empty office park out past the car dealers. It isn’t far beyond that before they find their pick of a dozen huge houses, each sitting on its own 10-acre lot. Most with only a couple of dead people inside. They can pitch a tent in the yard if they want or just live in one of these big houses.
They pick one of the smaller ones with a beautiful enameled wood stove in the family room and bury the owners near the gazebo in a spot with a nice view.
There are even horses at a lot of these places. Tame ones. They set them free when they go biking around the neighborhood in the afternoon, picking up a bottle of wine or bag of coffee beans, a jar of marinated artichoke hearts, chocolate bars. The trailer on Darwin’s bike comes in handy. There’s also a little lake with a dock and boats, and they like to drift around under the stars that are burning a lot brighter these days now that the power’s gone out. Not to worry. All these big places have big generators and big vehicles to siphon gas out of for as long as Darwin and Gaby are likely to live.
Unless they live forever, which doesn’t sound like such a bad idea to either one of them at the moment. They tell each other their life stories. There’s never been much demand before, so they’re fresh to the task and hold nothing back. Why should they?
“Mom was working in the Emergency Room and forgot to sign something and stopped off with us kids in the back and ran inside. That’s when some totally random guy, who had nothing to do with us or Mom, tried to shoot someone going into the hospital, and the bullet killed my brothers, and Mom was never the same. Me neither.”
Darwin holds her, kisses her wet cheeks, and they’re glad to be alive. He’s learned a lot, now that everyone’s dead, about relating to others. He tells her the names of all the drugs he’s been given and about all the different Darwins they could make him be, but what his problem was went by several names, depending on which specialist you were listening to, none of them you would want to name your kid. He was a great disappointment to his parents. He liked to learn things, though. He was good at it. Still is. He’s never found much use for the things he’s learned before, except their own enjoyment. Now he narrates them to Gabriella, who likes to hear about them while the cicadas sing and the frogs croak.
Darwin tells Gabriella about the Suicide Club story he still can’t get to the end of while they’re sitting on their new porch watching the horses they set free wander around in the woods, looking like they’re not quite sure what to do with themselves. Moscow, Los Angeles, Rio have all fallen before the dinosaur’s murderous rampage. All the content on the Kindle has been infected with dinosaurs. He’s afraid it’s a virus.
“Suicide Club?” Gaby says. “Definitely not interested. Dinosaurs are okay. Maybe we can find a copy of Jurassic Park?”
“I’ll keep an eye out.”
“I was just noticing our wild horses aren’t very wild.”
“Give them time,” Darwin says. “They’ll get there someday. Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc?”
“You choose,” she says. “Why don’t you just skip to the next story?”
“It’s about zombies.”
Gaby laughs. “You definitely don’t want to go there.”
It’s not really about zombies. He just wanted to hear her laugh. Darwin loves the sound of Gabriella’s laughter. It makes him laugh too. “I certainly don’t.” They go with the Pinot. “I think we may already have a copy of Jurassic Park somewhere. Elvis and I found quite a haul at the big Georgian.”
“They’re all big.”
“The really big one. Elvis loved that place, racing around the tile foyer.”
“I can imagine—you and that dog.”
Elvis sweeps his big tail back and forth across the porch at the sound of their laughter, the mention of his name. He lies at their feet. Life is good. He hears the howling out there, way off in the distance. He just doesn’t let it bother him. It took him a while, he’ll admit, to loosen up, to just have a little fun. But then, it was like a miracle. He was with the man when he found the thing. He wasn’t even sure the man liked him all that much up till then, not like the woman. But it was just the two of them in a big wide field where horses used to graze. They had the whole world to themselves, and he threw it. Elvis had never had so much fun in his whole life. Frisbee. Who knew? Now they have fun every day.
There’s a quiet contentment that pervades the evening, a slight chill in the air, as the moon rises in the sky, and the horses nicker in the moonlight, thinking about things horses think about.
Darwin thinks soon it will be time for a fire in the wood stove. There’s a lovely enamel scene on the side. It’s a snow-covered village on the other side of the world with reindeer instead of horses, and there’s a dog who looks a little like Elvis, but all the people are inside, safe and warm.
© 2013 by Dennis Danvers.