by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
(mirrors by http://s2b2.livejournal.com/305439.html)
By the time they reached the bridge, Aidan was regretting having been so greedy in the art supply store. He’d known he was going to pay for the sketchbooks, and had been considering what clothing he could survive the journey without even when he’d been piling them into his backpack, but when the pack of walkers latched on to their movement and he and Corey had to run for it, he swore he could feel the weight of each individual pencil slam against his back with every stride. He’d never been able to afford a big set of the good ones before, and it wasn’t like they were going to make any more of them. He really hoped he’d survive to take all one hundred and twenty colours out of their shiny black tin.
The bridge had always been interminable. Now it was literally nightmarish, a bad dream that had gripped him countless times: running down a narrow tunnel that offered no escape, hearing the walkers behind him shuffling and groaning but somehow still keeping close enough that he knew that any moment he’d feel the squelching grip, the seeping weight hurling him down to the ground, dull human incisors ripping into his shoulder…
“Hurry it up, Lennox, you pussy, Jesus,” Corey said, and Aidan thought, as he had so often in the last three days that the words had begun to run together, Youaresuchanasshole, and grimly pounded down the pavement.
They peeled off the bridge onto the pedestrian walkway. Trees hid their pursuers from sight. When they cleared the greenery a moment later, wails came from the bridge. Aidan couldn’t help but look. Some of the walkers were shoving against the railing, instinct propelling them towards their prey regardless of the empty space and deep river that separated them. Others, newer and fresher, maybe still retaining something like thought, continued along the bridge.
Corey slowed to a walk. “Dumbasses.”
Corey looked up at the limestone curves of the museum’s curatorial building. “Where the fuck are the doors?”
“This way,” Aidan said, his shoulders twitching with the need to be behind walls.
“What an ugly-ass building.”
Aidan had bitten his tongue a lot recently, but he couldn’t let that pass. “It’s an internationally recognized example of modern architecture. It represents how the glaciers shaped Canada’s natural features. The cantilevered storeys mirror the striations of the rock in the–”
“Okay, keep your pants on, dude.” Corey shot him a look that was equal parts amusement and pity. “I just don’t get what’s so wrong with, like, making walls strai–”
They rounded the bend of the path and collided with two walkers. Aidan stumbled back, reeling. Corey swore in surprise and had his blades out before Aidan remembered the machete in his hand.
The fight didn’t last long. Corey grinned, and wiped his blades and the smeared sleeve of his windbreaker on the once-expensive wool coat of one of the headless corpses.
“Four hundred and fifty-eight, four hundred and fifty-nine,” he said.
Aidan’s own count was three. The third had only been ten or eleven when she’d been infected. He had extra-special nightmares about that one.
He surveyed the plaza, his own still-clean weapon held out in front of him as if he might actually be able to protect himself. Nothing else moved on the wide stretch of beige stone.
“That’s the entrance,” he said, pointing to the domed bulge in the side of the farther building that housed the exhibits.
Corey glanced back the way they’d come. “Let’s get a move on.”
The glass doors were all locked. A few were cracked; the bottom part of one had been kicked in, and mended with foamcor and a vast amount of duct tape. Corey knelt on one knee, pulled out a utility knife, and began slicing at the tape.
“How are we going to put it back together again after we oh shit,” Aidan said, as bodies stumbled around the wall of the curatorial building.
Corey tore the foamcor away with a sound like cloth ripping, and began to put his boot through the jagged edges of the small hole underneath.
“Maybe I could get some fucking help here,” he said, and Aidan tore his gaze away from the advancing walkers and started kicking.
They threw their packs in, and then Aidan bent and crawled through the hole, wincing in anticipation of serrated glass against his belly and ribs, cuffs of his jacket wrapped around the heels of his hands to brush away the shards that littered the floor. Corey, broader than Aidan, squirmed through ungracefully, ripping the back of his coat.
Aidan looked around for something to block the hole: a bench, a garbage can, a dead plant, anything. The only thing nearby was a brochure rack, a layer of dust furring the glossy papers. Aidan grabbed the spindly piece of metal and laid it down crosswise in front of the hole in the glass, where it looked entirely inadequate to stop so much as a determined breeze.
“Where we going from here?” Corey asked, picking up a backpack in each hand.
The first of the walkers slammed against the glass, leaving a red-tinged smear.
“Upstairs,” Aidan said. The escalator was to their left, unmoving. That was where the lobby furniture had gone, Aidan realized, looking at the eight-foot-high barricade at the top of the escalator. Someone had stacked benches and cafeteria tables on their sides and backed them up with everything large and heavy they could get their hands on.
Cracked glass gave way around the hole they’d enlarged; a piece rang as it met the floor. Corey glanced at the doors. “We got another way up? Farther away from here?”
He’d have much preferred to go through the bright Grand Hall, but the idea of being tracked by the walkers outside as they made their way past the three-storey-high windows made him twitch. They’d have to take the back way. Aidan gestured towards the entrance to the special exhibitions galleries that gaped darkly ahead of them. “Down that hallway.”
“Great.” Corey tossed Aidan’s pack at him. Aidan put his arms out, instinctively defending rather than catching, and the pack dropped and fell over with a two-toned thud at his feet.
Muttering something Aidan didn’t hear, Corey drew his blades from the crossed sheaths on his backpack where he’d stowed them to crawl through the hole in the door.
“The doors to the galleries are on the right,” Aidan said, bending to wrap his arms around his pack, “so, you know. Keep to the left.”
The long, curved hallway swallowed them, dulling the sounds of the walkers hammering on the front windows, shutting out the expansive daylight of the museum’s entry hall. The middle part was the worst: doorways yawned open, night on gloom, and Aidan strained to distinguish any nearby shuffles or moans over the rush of blood in his ears. Then grey fingers of light from the windows at the other end of the corridor reached them, and they followed it out.
The walls of the museum were mostly glass here, too. Aidan looked down on the plaza they had recently crossed. More walkers were stumbling forward to join the others, attracted by their noise and urgency. Aidan wondered how smart a walker would have to be to connect a hole in the glass with the concept of crouching down and crawling through it. He swallowed past a dry throat.
Corey was looking the other way, up the escalator, up the accompanying staircase.
At the wall.
On the landing above them, between them and the gallery they had come to see, someone had built a barrier just as high as the first one, and wider, extending at either end to wrap part way around the glass panels and wooden railings that edged the balcony overlooking the lower floors. Display cases, wardrobes, filing cabinets, packing crates; it was taller than he could have reached with his fingertips, and without obvious footholds.
“It’s like a fortress,” he said, stomach sinking.
“Nah.” Corey pointed with the tip of a blade. “That was built to keep out zombies, not people.” He considered. “Unless it’s electrified. Or rigged to blow.”
Aidan actually felt himself do a double take. “That makes no sense.”
Corey shrugged. “Whatever. Let’s get on the other side of it before the undead fuckers catch up.”
They climbed the wide staircase. Corey slid his pack from his back to the floor. He leaned over and hooked his fingers together.
Aidan looked up at the wall of wood and metal, which was even more intimidating close up.
“Dude, c’mon,” Corey said.
Aidan drew a breath and put his foot into the cup of Corey’s hands. He nearly lost his balance when Corey hoisted him up, but he managed to steady himself on the lip of the barricade, and when Corey kept pushing, it wasn’t as difficult as he’d anticipated to slither up onto the horizontal surface. He righted himself and looked back, towards the bright windows, and wished he hadn’t. The polished concrete floor of the long Grand Hall, three storeys down, somehow looked a lot farther down from this perch than from behind the staircase’s waist-high safety barrier.
Corey handed him up their packs, and then turned and walked down the stairs.
“Wait, where are you–” Aidan said, and then Corey took a running start from the landing and launched himself up the wall. He caught its edge with his fingertips, kicked sideways to get one foot beside his hands, and hauled himself up.
“See, if this was to keep people out, there’d be broken glass and shit up here,” he said. He looked down the inside of the barricade, sat up, and disappeared. Aidan heard a few thumps.
“Way easier on this side,” Corey said, and his head poked back up over the edge. Aidan pushed the packs over to him, and looked down. The ends and corners of the boxes and furniture that formed the barrier were uneven on this end, eight vertical feet of irregularly spaced footholds between him and the floor.
Corey carried the packs down, one by one. Aidan lay on his stomach and let his legs dangle over the edge. He had a moment of lurching terror before the toe of one running shoe connected with something solid.
“Don’t worry, honey, I’ll catch you,” Corey said from below him.
Youaresuchanasshole, Aidan thought, and made his unsteady way to the floor.
The landing wasn’t a large space, and aside from back down the stairs, there was only one way they could go. Aidan looked down at his shoes. The Course of History glinted beneath his soles, a ripple of pale blue glass tiles leading into the darkened exhibit hall. Aidan recalled it from a grade school trip here, how it changed as it pulled visitors through thousands of years of Canadian history: a river, a forest path, a cobblestone street, a corduroy road, a plank sidewalk, a strip of black asphalt. They all jumbled together in his memory. He should, he realized, have grabbed a brochure.
A booming sound came from behind them, echoing down the long open space of the Grand Hall.
Corey found a narrow spot where the barrier didn’t impede their view, and leaned over the bannister, craning to see the museum entrance. “That is not good,” he pronounced.
Aidan unclipped his flashlight from where he kept it in a mesh pocket on the outside of his backpack. “Let’s get further in so they don’t see us.”
Instead of a flashlight, Corey had a headlamp, keeping his hands free. He fitted it onto his forehead and switched it on. “This is going to be lots of little rooms and twists and turns and shit, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but there’s only one path, so if we clear as we go…”
“Got it.” Corey shouldered his pack.
It was almost like going into a Halloween haunted house, except that the cold quaver of fear in his belly was the real thing. Once they got around the first bend, there was no natural light at all. The path snaked and coiled, and the walls absorbed or threw back the scuff of their footsteps in odd ways. When the beam of Aidan’s flashlight caught the glass eyes of a furry shape crouched behind a paper-leafed diorama bush, he nearly jumped out of his skin.
But although the air was stuffy, it held no reek of bodies, either infected or rotting. Ahead of them was silence, and the walls quickly muffled any noise that might be coming from the Grand Hall. And the barriers at the tops of the stairs were high and solid, Aidan told himself. And there would be no reason for walkers to try to get past them anyway, now that he and Corey were no longer in view.
They moved past arctic and woodland and sea coast, cases displaying atlatls and darts, bone awls, fish-drying racks, baskets woven of strips of wood. That was all a little farther back in time than what Lacey wanted him to look for, but it didn’t mean Lacey wouldn’t want to know about it. The people who had made those things had had a lot longer to design technologies appropriate to their resources and environment than those who had come along a few hundred years ago.
Aidan stopped at a display on pit firing earthenware. He let his pack slide to the floor, and dug in it for a fresh notebook and his old pencil case. “Hang on, I want to get this.”
Corey looked down at the brightly painted flames. “Okay. I’m going to go on ahead. Scream like a little girl if you need help.”
Someday Aidan was going to come up with a searing retort that either shut Corey up or at least soared over his lumpen head and made Aidan feel better. Aidan sighed and rested his flashlight on the knee-high wooden wall that separated the miniaturized firing pit from the path. He knelt beside it and angled his sketchbook to catch the spillover of light. The uneven yellow areoles of the beam both washed out and obscured details. If only he could get closer–
Feeling like a marauder, he swung his feet over the wall and crouched on the imitation earth. Something gritted under his shoe, and he winced and hoped it was only dust.
Even quick sketches and a rough outline of the procedure absorbed him, and when the banging started he jolted up so violently that he sent the flashlight spinning into the brush that edged the longhouse five feet away. Then he froze, sweating, his heartbeat a bass drum in his ears.
Nothing came shambling out of the dark to eat him. After a time, it occurred to him that the banging was too rhythmic to be zombies flattening the staircase barrier to get at his brains, and also coming from the wrong direction.
He retrieved his flashlight and pulled his machete from the scabbard on his pack–just in case–and followed the path. It turned from tile river to cobblestone, and opened out into a high-ceilinged town square lined with museum cases. Corey was prying at the base of a plexiglass square with the handle of their cooking pot.
“What are you doing?” Aidan said.
“This fucker is too fucking sturdy,” Corey said. He banged the bottom of the pot against the glass in pique. It figured, Aidan thought, that Corey couldn’t even commit vandalism quietly.
“Check it out.” Corey pointed at a pair of square buckles resting on grey cloth beside a leather pouch and a lace collar. “Those are gold, dude.”
“Oh, come on,” Aidan said.
“Seriously, it says so on the plaque or whatever.”
“No, I mean–that’s–you–that’s not what we’re here for!”
“The fuck it’s not.”
“We’re here to inventory pre-industrial technology, not plunder the museum like a couple of, of Vikings.”
“So? You take what you want, I’ll take what I want.” Corey whacked the pot against the plexiglass again in emphasis.
They both jumped a foot in the air and wheeled towards the far doorway of the exhibit space.
For one crazy moment, Aidan thought that he was looking at a diorama lumberjack come to life. The plaid wool jacket, the flickering lantern, the axe held in one strong hand–he’d seen this illustration dozens of times on maple syrup tins and retro postcards.
“Arrêtez ça tout de suite,” the man said. “Qu’est-ce que vous croyez que vous êtes en train de faire?”
“Motherfuck,” said Corey, and lowered, but did not sheathe, the two blades he’d drawn.
“Uh,” said Aidan. “Um, nous, uh, viens en paix.”
Corey sorted. “Dude, you know they all speak English, right?”
“Great, then he’ll be able to understand me telling you to shut up,” Aidan said in exasperation. He spread his hands wide. “Uh, nous voulons pas beaucoup de trouble.”
“No trouble?” The man gestured with the axe. “Then that, not good. Ça, ce que vous faites, ça c’est du trouble.”
“Nous, uh, venons ici ne pour…prendre les choses. We’re not here to steal things.”
“So why? Pourquoi vous êtes ici?”
“Pour…” What was the word for ‘learn’? “Comme école, pour chercher la technologie de la paste. Sans électricité.” He had spent a lot of his high school French classes drawing Goldbergian impossibilities around the margins of his workbooks, but he’d scraped by at exam time by giving English words French spellings and hoping for the best.
The man’s lips twitched. “La pa– Ah. Le passé. The times ago.”
“Oui, right. Parce que les…” His cereal-box vocabulary failed him. He put his arms out in front of him and shambled a few steps.
“Les zombies,” Corey put in, surprising Aidan.
“Les malheureux,” the man said, a little sharply.
“Because of les malheureux et, um…”
“Shit doesn’t work like it used to,” Corey said.
“So nous pouvons faire la nourriture et, uh, fixer les maisons et…”
“So we can grow food after the canned crap runs out, and build water-powered mills and brick ovens and shit we need.”
The man let the axehead rest on the ground at his side. “You come at the museum to learn?” He smiled through his beard. “Un musée est un bon endroit pour apprendre.”
“Yeah, j’ai viens ici, uh, l’enfant. I came here when I was a kid.”
The lumberjack carried his axe across the town square to them. He put it down and held out the hand not holding the lantern. “Je m’appelle Thierry.”
They shook hands all around. Thierry’s hand was warm, his palm rough with calluses, and he didn’t do that macho over-squeeze thing either.
Aidan pointed back down the path. “I left my sketchbook…mon cahier et tous les choses, là.”
“D’accord. Is safe. This part is okay from les malheureux. Cet étage est sûr.” He frowned. “Not the lower there. Vous avez laissé les malheureux dedans. You break the glass, pourquoi?”
“Excusez-moi. Les malheureux nous, uh, chaser? Pursuer? Dans le pont. Beaucoup de malheureux. We kind of didn’t have time to figure out a better way in.”
“Don’t worry, dude,” Corey said. “I’ll take care of them for you.”
“Corey les faire mort,” Aidan explained. “Il est son job.”
“Also mine. We hunt,” Thierry corrected him. “Corey et moi. Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is right,” Corey said. “I’m starving.”
“Cette nuit nous dormer ici, okay?” Aidan said. He pointed to Corey’s pack. “Nous avons des, uh, sacs à dormer.”
“Not out in the middle of the room like this,” Corey said.
“Ou un autre salle. Also, nous avons un, uh, petit chose de cuisine. A camp stove. To cook on.” He picked up the discarded aluminum pot where Corey had dropped it, and made flickering finger gestures underneath it. “C’est okay de utilizer ici?”
Thierry considered. Then he tapped the cobblestone floor with the toe of one boot. “Here only, on stone. On n’a pas besoin d’un incendie en plus du reste.”
Aidan winced at the thought of the museum going up in flames. “Yeah, no kidding.” He put the pot on one of the benches. “Viens manger le dîner avec nous. Corey, I’m asking him to eat with us. Nous avons beaucoup de…”
“De shit on a shingle,” Corey said. “Ask him if he’s the only one here.”
“Est-ce que tu est solitaire ici?”
“Now.” Thierry looked down. “Others, they went out…months before. Ils étaient censés revenir, mais ils l’ont pas fait. Je sais pas ce qui leur est arrivé. Maybe dead. I do not know.”
“I’m sorry. Manger le dîner avec nous,” Aidan repeated awkwardly.
Thierry shrugged one-shouldered. “Eh. Is the same for all people now. Yes, thank you, j’accepte votre invitation. I also can bring things to eat. Je vais les chercher. I will be back.”
Aidan fetched his pack, and set up their camp, such as it was: the small candle lantern to spare their batteries, the Primus stove with its meager aura of heat, the now-dented pot crowded with three boil-in-the bag servings of what purported to be beef stroganoff, a bottle of water for each of them, the empty bottles and plastic bags and toilet paper of their sanitary arrangements tucked discreetly behind the widest display case. Corey stretched out on the ground with his pack as a pillow, blades sheathed but within reach, and closed his eyes.
Thierry returned, holding a bucket and his lantern in one hand, a plastic milk crate braced against his opposite hip. He seemed to have no problem carrying the weight, and swung his loads easily down onto a bench.
“Whatcha got there?” Corey asked.
“This, for the toilet,” Thierry said, and raised the bucket again. “Litière pour chat. And for people. Good for inside the house. Ça évite que ça pue.”
Aidan peered into the bucket. “That’s an excellent idea.”
“It’s a weird idea, but it beats going outside in minus-whateverthefuck,” Corey said.
Thierry reached into the milk crate and took out an institutional-sized can of peaches in syrup, followed by a can opener, a ladle, styrofoam bowls, plastic spoons, plastic cups, and a can of root beer.
“I hope you like the peaches. Malheureusement, il n’y a pas de bière, mais voici le dessert. Bon appétit.”
They had an odd three-way conversation over dinner, made up of two languages but not quite bilingual. The foil bags of noodles in vaguely meat-flavoured sauce prompted a string of reminiscences about real food. Thierry asked for a closer look at Corey’s blades, and they had a mostly mimed conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of various weaponry. Then Corey enthused for a long while about action movies that Aidan hadn’t seen and Thierry didn’t seem to recognize. No one brought up the plague, or what their lives had been before it.
Some time after they’d finished bowls of peaches, chased with root beer–long enough for the sugar rush to have subsided–Thierry stood up. “This is good, but need for sleep,” he suggested.
“Yeah.” Corey looked around the town square. “I still don’t like the idea of camping out here.”
“I know where.” Aidan picked up their lantern.
He wasn’t quite sure where it was, but there was only one direction to go in, and he led them through the battle of the Plains of Abraham, the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its rivals, the founding of the Six Nations Reserve, and the building of various railways and canals until they got to the Irish Great Famine.
“Ici. In here,” he said, and ducked into the dark alcove that had fascinated him on every museum visit he’d made.
The ceiling was just high enough for a tall visitor to clear it, panelled in rough planks. Timbers a foot square held up ranks of bunks on each side of the narrow aisle, one just off the floor, the one above it four feet high. Barrels, sacks, and boxes crowded the floor. The lantern hanging from a hook in the ceiling had once given off a flickering glow, and there had been a soundtrack playing of creaking wood, waves, the distant cries of gulls. The silence now, over a century and a half after the coffin ships had sailed, was even eerier.
Corey poked at the coarse blankets that lined the bunks. “Can we touch these, or are we going to get in trouble for that too?”
Aidan put a hand on a top bunk. “Est-ce qu’il est, um, vrai?”
Thierry cocked his head. “Vrai? True?”
“No, sont ils…for dormer, it’s okay?”
Thierry’s face cleared. “Ah, oui, pour dormir, yes, it is okay. Ce sont des reproductions. Le musée n’a pas beaucoup de couvertures de cette époque. Not much kept for this long from these people.”
“This’ll be good. Good call,” Corey said, smacking the blanket approvingly.
Aidan smothered a trickle of warm pride. He didn’t like Corey enough to want to feel gratification at his praise.
When they went back to the town square to get their packs and bedrolls, Thierry picked up his lantern. “Good night. À demain.”
“À demain,” Aidan said. He watched the sliding shadows beyond Thierry’s broad back as the other man’s light disappeared down the cobblestone hallway.
“He’s got to have some kind of fucking secret passageway or something,” Corey said. “He didn’t come over that pile of shit at the top of the stairs.”
“Don’t…” Aidan said. His voice trailed off.
“Follow him, or…stalk him or whatever.” Aidan felt his face grow hot. He wasn’t sure exactly what he meant, but Thierry hadn’t invited them to wherever in the vast building he was living, and the thought of Corey spying on him to figure out how he got there was obscurely troubling.
Corey rolled his eyes. “Fine, whatever, he can be your boyfriend.”
Asshole, Aidan reminded himself, as they gathered their gear and headed back to the bunks.
Aidan took one high platform and Corey the other. Aidan shucked everything but his T-shirt and underwear, and crawled into his sleeping bag. The blankets cushioned the wooden platform. There was even a lumpy pillow. He blew out the lantern, and fell asleep in minutes.
He couldn’t identify the noise that woke him. It yanked him out of a dream, cold sweat already starting, sleep-clumsy hand groping for his machete. He held himself up on one elbow and tried to breathe quietly. His heart boomed in his ears so loudly that he couldn’t hear Corey’s usual soft snores; he couldn’t even tell whether Corey was still in his bunk.
He stayed like that, straining to listen, until his arm began to tremble. Then a sliver of light flashed over the bunks. He blinked, wondering if he’d really seen it. Then it happened again, and stayed, swaying unevenly and getting brighter, until Corey, wearing his headlamp, came through the doorway.
Aidan sat up, warm with relief. “Where’d you go?” he whispered.
“To take a piss, where’d you think?” Corey swung himself up into his bunk. There was a metallic clank; he swore and shoved something out of the way. The light clicked off.
Aidan lay down again. He turned on his side and wriggled in his sleeping bag until his back was against the wall. The silence buzzed in his ears. It took him a long time to get back to sleep again.
The next morning, they were back in the town square finishing their breakfast (granola bars and instant coffee with enough powdered creamer to make it a slightly more palatable form of disgusting) when Thierry appeared. He had the milk crate again. His axe hung, head-up, from a sheath on his belt.
“Good morning. Bonjour. I hope you sleep well?”
“We ready to kill some zoms?” Corey said, stretching his arms above his head until his spine made a cracking noise.
Thierry’s lips thinned. He pulled bottles of water out of the crate. “Aidan, maybe please, you can make two of this water warm? Your little stove, il est assez puissant pour faire ça?”
“Oui, but…vous aimez le café? C’est ici.” He held up the jar of instant coffee. “There’s still some hot water in the pot.”
“No, thank you. This is for after. For the washing. Pour prendre un bain. C’est une job salissante.”
“Oui, no problem.”
“Thank you.” Thierry smiled slightly. “Maybe on peut se dire tu. Not vous.”
Aidan knew his French was terrible, but he’d thought he was being polite. “Is vous wrong?”
“Not wrong. Tu means we are friends.”
Aidan felt his face go warm. “Okay,” he said. “I mean oui. Good.”
Thierry smiled again, and then raised his voice. “Corey. We go?”
Corey loosened his blades in the twin sheaths he had strapped to his back. “Let’s do it.”
It was difficult to judge time in the dark and silence, alone. Aidan had planned to use the morning to walk the rest of the exhibit’s path and note things to come back to later for a closer look, but his attention was skittish and he kept thinking he saw movement or light where there could be none out of the corner of his eye. At one point his flashlight beam reflected off a sheet of plexiglass ahead of him, and panic shot through him like an electric shock before his brain kicked in and reminded him that walkers were not actually glowing balls of light.
When he gave up and went back to the town square to heat up the water, it was almost worse. He could hear nothing, cocooned here in the middle of a warren of small rooms and passages. Corey and Thierry could scream and he would never hear them. Not that he’d be of any use if he could. What if they were overpowered and never came back, and he was trapped here in the dark as the food and water and candles gradually ran out? What if they got bitten and hid it until the infection took hold and they turned on him and ripped his throat out? What if–
“Fuckin’ A,” came Corey’s voice excited voice from down the corridor. “Dude, you wouldn’t even believe it. Woo-hoo!” He emerged into the town square at a trot, pumping his fist in the air as though his favourite sports team had just won the playoffs or the cup or whatever they won that had gotten everybody all wound up back when life had been normal. “Four hundred and sixty to four hundred and sixty-five, motherfucker. And this dude”–he thrashed his arm in Thierry’s direction–“this dude can swing an axe, you know what I’m saying? It was awesome.”
Thierry said in a low voice, “It was not awesome.”
“Aw, give yourself credit, dude. What was that, eight of them? Nine?”
They were both spattered with wet red and duller, dryer rust, as though someone had dipped brushes in paint and flicked them from head to toe. Corey’s right sleeve was soaked with gore, and the left thigh of Thierry’s jeans had a thick, uneven smear of red the length of it, as though something bleeding had reached up and tried to drag him down.
Thierry pointed at the camp stove with a sticky hand. “Aidan, maybe, can you take the warm water into the bucket? And the, the box. And come. I want to not touch. Criss, je dois me laver, j’en peu plus de ces vêtements, pitié un bain, please.” His voice was flat. Aidan scrambled to gather everything up.
Thierry led them further into the exhibit and down a short corridor they hadn’t found before, to what turned out to be a small washroom. There were drain plugs in the milk crate, and new J-cloths, and a jar half-full of bubblegum-pink liquid soap. At Thierry’s instructions, Aidan filled the two sinks with sudsy warm water.
“All no clothes,” Thierry said, and began to undress.
There was no way a candle-fuelled lantern could make the room this warm, this quickly. Aidan yanked his gaze away from the firm shoulders emerging from beneath Thierry’s plaid shirt, the gold sheen of candlelight on the planes of his back. He was ridiculously aware of his own breathing, suddenly, how difficult it was to keep even, how loud it sounded. He pretended vast interest in the contents of the milk crate, and tried not to think about the lustre of water on skin.
They used up all the hot water, but there were more bottles in the milk crate. Thierry rinsed and filled the sinks with unheated water and insisted that they wash themselves down a second time. Corey complained bitterly, and probably wasn’t exaggerating his shivers, but he didn’t really argue. No one could prove that the infection was only spread by biting.
“Bien,” Thierry said. Out of his peripheral vision, Aidan saw him lean down and pick up his stained shirt and jeans between thumb and forefinger. He hung them across the edge of the aluminum stall partition. “To dry,” he said. “For if we need again.”
Corey did the same. Then he picked his blades off the floor and wiped the sheaths down. “I gotta go get dressed. Can we get some coffee?”
“What? Yeah, no problem,” Aidan said, but Corey hadn’t waited for a reply.
Thierry came over to the milk crate and shook out a fresh pair of jeans. Aidan stared resolutely at the floor as denim was pulled over muscled thigh. A henley and a shawl-collared sweater followed it before he felt steady enough to look up.
Thierry lifted the milk crate. “I have more water. Please, a favour, the coffee you offered at morning, je l’accepterai volontiers maintenant…”
Aidan sighed and picked up the empty water bucket. “Sure.”
In the town square, he exchanged the Primus canister for a new one–their next to last–and wiped out his own dirty mug with a damp paper towel for Thierry to use. Thierry hunkered down by the stove and cupped his hands around the narrow gap between canister and pot.
“Uh, le, le damage de porte, tu as fixé?” Aidan asked. “Excusez-moi. We’re really sorry about that.”
“Oui. It is closed.” He shrugged. “Sometimes to live, one makes mistakes. C’est rien.”
He lapsed into silence again. Aidan blankly flipped through possible topics of conversation. “So, uh, what’s your count?”
Thierry’s fingers curled into fists and relaxed again. “I have no count,” he said curtly.
Aidan flushed, glad that Thierry was facing away from him.
After a moment, Thierry sighed. “I am sorry. I mean not to be rude. Je compte pas parce que…les malheureux, they were like us. Husbands and mothers and sisters and sons. Now–dead but also alive. Do they know? Je me demande s’ils souffrent. S’ils ont peur. S’ils comprennent ce qui leur est arrivé.” He shook his head. “C’est pas de leur faute.”
Aidan scraped a spot of dried coffee off the side of the mug. “Yeah. But si je été un malheureux, je veux, um, mourir. I’d want someone to end it. Quickly. As soon as possible. You know?”
“Yes.” Thierry rubbed his arms. “Je sais.”
The work went better that afternoon. Aidan located the waterwheel–the thing that Shauna had remembered being here that had started this whole expedition–still and silent beside the cut-away model of the grist mill it powered. He found a jacquard hand loom with a multicoloured coverlet still in progress, the system of threads and moving parts so unfamiliar and complex that drawing it became a purely technical exercise. There were forges and plows. There was a whole wall of bizarre-looking implements used to harvest and thresh wheat; the illustration of fresh loaves of bread being pulled out of a brick bake oven made his mouth fill with water. And there were the smaller things: candle moulds, iron stoves, pickle crocks, hand-cranked sock knitting machines, bed warmers made out of copper. Aidan had the disorienting sensation of being a twig in a flood, a speck in time, while around him rushed all the things that the people before him had used and the people after him would use, after the plastic all disintegrated and the power plants crumbled into concrete dust. It was a relief to go back the the town square and start heating up dinner.
Thierry was there, reading a book by the light of his lantern. When he saw Aidan, he stood up.
“I have brought–” He pointed to the bench, which held an extremely large can of chicken noodle soup. “If you want,” he added, with an awkwardness that surprised Aidan. “Je veux pas m’imposer…”
“No, that’s great! J’aime cette soupe. Merci beaucoup.”
Thierry sat back down and watched Aidan light the stove.
“Where is Corey?”
“Je sais pas. He was looking around earlier, when I was sketching. I think he liked the part about the wars.”
He was pretty sure he saw Thierry roll his eyes. “That, I am not surprised.”
“Did you work at the museum? Before?” Aidan asked tentatively.
“Yes. My part of, of knowing…le vingtième siècle, oui, but not the wars. The life, the people. Comment vivaient les gens ordinaires.”
“Oui, il est interess–oh, there he is.”
Thierry turned. “He is?’
Aidan looked up again from using the can opener. He could have sworn he had seen Corey, at the edge of the black corridor leading back to the beginning of the Course of History.
“Eh. A trick of the eyes? The light, the dark…ça joue des tours aux yeux.”
“Yeah…” Was Corey avoiding Thierry? Aidan had thought they’d been getting on. They probably had more in common with each other than Aidan had with Thierry…. He squelched that thought.
A few minutes later, Corey sauntered into the town square. “Hey, dude,” he said. “Did you know there used to be sabre-toothed cats in North America? They used to hunt, like, bison and shit.”
Maybe he’d been mistaken, Aidan thought, as Corey went on to detail the murderous inclinations of Canada’s prehistoric species. Or Corey had had a good reason to avoid coming into the town square. Or something.
They’d planned to be here for three full days, enough time for Aidan to produce an inventory and some useful sketches, not so long that they couldn’t carry the food and water they would need. The next day Aidan sketched the horse end of a horse-drawn wagon, and how arrowheads were attached to the shaft, and a demonstration of a cooper making planks of wood into a water-tight barrel. Then he walked the length of the exhibit again, checking for anything he’d missed. He ran into Corey in a little side room filled with military uniforms. Corey was bending over one of the pull-out drawers that a lot of the display cases had, filled with further samples from the collection and capped with plexiglass. This one was a shallow tray of ribbons and medals.
“We should totally do this,” Corey said. “Like a contest to see who does the most.”
“I don’t think it’s like Boy Scout badges,” Aidan said dubiously.
“No, dude, for killing zoms. Like, a hundred is the Cross of Zombie Death. Five hundred is The Order of Kicking Ass.”
“Does it come with plus one to Not Getting Eaten?” asked Aidan, before he could stop himself.
But Corey grinned. “You need to level up, dude.”
“I don’t think my class even gets to have those.” He shrugged uncomfortably, and shifted his sketchbook from one cold-stiff hand to another. “I’m freezing. I’m going to head back and make some coffee. You want any?”
“Nah, I’ll see you back there.”
Aidan left Corey pulling out another drawer, and made his way back to the town square.
He’d only been there a few minutes when Thierry appeared. Aidan wondered whether he was keeping an eye on them.
“Good weather for tomorrow, I think,” Thierry said. “Good for walking.”
“That’s great.” Aidan put his sketchbook on the bench and filled the pot with water.
“Aidan.” Thierry pointed at the sketchbook. “May I look?”
It was something he’d be handing over to Lacey when they got back to the depot. He’d made sure there was nothing in there that he couldn’t have shown to his grandmother if the need had arisen. No sketches of, say, shirtless, broad-shouldered men holding axes. “Sure. Uh, être mon ami.” Was that what he’d meant to say? Be my guest?
Thierry smiled. “Bien sûr. Thank you.”
Aidan fussed with the stove and tidied their little base camp as Thierry slowly paged through the sketchbook. It always felt weird, letting someone look at his stuff, and the sketchbook wasn’t really his best work, he’d been balancing it on his knee half the time and there hadn’t ever been enough light, and he hadn’t been keeping up with his practice the way he should have due to the whole end-of-the-world thing, and it wasn’t like he particularly had much talent, he just liked doing it, there were tons of people who’d started out better than he’d ever be, and–
“These are so wonderful,” Thierry said, not looking up. “So pretty and–eh, I do not mean pretty. But so many small parts. Si complexes et détaillées et précises. Like they are more real than real. Vraiment fascinant.”
“Lacey veux tous les, um, detailes. Tous les choses. Pour les faire encore. Il sont livres but, we have books but most of them don’t have enough close-ups of how things are actually put together.” Thierry nodded encouragingly, and Aidan found himself describing, in a stumbling English-French melange, North Gower Depot and the people there, how they’d transformed the elementary school into a communal residence and safe house, how there was an almost complete old grist mill in nearby Manotick that they thought they could get working again, and plenty of good agricultural land the suburbs hadn’t eaten. About the old hippies who had survived with their chickens and sheep, and the hipster back-to-the-landers who knew how to knit socks and make pickles and bake bread. About the Chief, and his idea that they could do more than salvage from what was gone and wait for the slow end.
Thierry closed the sketchbook and placed it with care on the bench beside him. “I am good to hear that. Sometimes…” His thumb smoothed the fake leather grain of the cover. “I have wondered why to do this. Why work so hard to live. Mais peut-être que c’est pas la fin du monde, après tout.”
“Yeah, il ya beaucoup de bons gens dans le depot. The people there are great. I was really lucky.”
Thierry looked at him. “But you are a good one.”
“Me?” Aidan wrapped their one dishtowel around the handle of the pot and poured steaming water into two mugs. “I’m lucky they haven’t kicked me out for being excessively useless.” He had meant it to be a joke, but it sounded pathetic as soon as he said it.
“Useless? I do not think you are.”
He refused to look up to see condescension in Thierry’s eyes. “No, seriously. I can’t do anything, I don’t know anything. All I can do is draw.”
“And that is useful. They sent you here to do that, no?”
“Okay, so one time it’s helpful. The rest of the time I just do this kind of stuff.” He flicked his hand in the direction of the pot, the lantern, the dwindling bag that held their packaged meals. “Anybody can do it.”
“Eh. Can, maybe. But not always does.” Aidan heard the wryness in his voice. “Maman me disait, personne n’aime faire le ménage, mais tout le monde veut qu’il soit fait. To feed people, to make things clean, all the days, that is hard work.”
“I can’t even fight.”
“Fight?” Thierry sighed. “To fight is also work. It also is unpleasant. Aidan, this–” He waited until Aidan looked at him, then tapped the axehead hanging at his belt. “We need this now. Now only. I hope, I hope not for always. For after, we need different. People who can make things. Les artistes, aussi.”
In a final spasm of self-loathing, Aidan said, “I’m scared all the time.”
“Me also,” Thierry said.
Aidan stared at him.
Thierry shrugged. “I dream. It is bad.”
Aidan was trying to think of something comforting but not stupid to say when Corey clattered in, breaking the mood, and he lost the chance.
That night, as Aidan was squirming into his sleeping bag, Corey said, “You like him.”
Aidan flinched. “What?”
Corey held his headlamp under his chin, making his face into a skull of planes and shadow, and said as if they were in fifth grade, “You liiiiiike him.”
“Uh, he’s okay, I guess,” Aidan said, suddenly aware of all the empty, dark space around them, how isolated they were.
“Dude, it’s okay. One of my best friends in my frat was totally gay and nobody gave a shit. I mean, not one of my best friends, but…”
“Um okay thanks good night,” Aidan said in a rush, and pulled the pillow over his head so he didn’t have to hear the rest of the sentence.
It was weird, he thought the next morning as he wrapped a tea towel around the stove and nested their mugs into the tin pot for travel, how short a time it took to get attached to a place. Not even three days, and it felt like he was leaving someplace familiar and secure.
Thanks to Thierry’s contributions, they hadn’t eaten as much as he’d planned for while they were here, but it was always good to carry extra supplies in case they had to hole up somewhere hiding from walkers. Aidan took everything out of his backpack, rerolled his dirty T-shirts as small as they would go, pressed the extra air out of all plastic bags, tetrised everything into place twice–and then, thinking of the walk over the bridge getting here and the distance back, reluctantly took five new sketchbooks out of the pack and stacked them neatly on the end of one of the benches.
“Those you do not want?” Thierry asked, sitting against the bottom of one of the display cases, out of Aidan’s way.
“Trop lourd,” Aidan said. “I took too many. I knew that right away, but… Mais peut-être nous venir encore.”
Thierry’s face brightened. “You will come back?”
“Maybe.” Aidan felt himself go red. “Pour plus de art, ou, you know, some reason.”
“I would like that.”
He pulled the drawstring on the main backpack compartment tight. “Tout le monde est, um, bienvenue at North Gower Depot. Tu peux venir avec nous. Si tu veux.”
“Oui, I have thought of doing that. But,” he said as Aidan looked up hopefully, “here I have work to do. Only I am here now. Je suis tout seul ici maintenant, et il n’y a personne d’autre pour garder le musée pour l’avenir.”
“Tu as assez de nourriture et tout les nécessités?” He had no idea how long Thierry had lived on cans of cafeteria soup and prepackaged cookies, but his supplies had to run out sometime.
“Yes, for now. One person does not eat so much.”
Aidan swept his flashlight over the space, looking for anything left behind, rolled under a bench or into a dark corner. He seemed to have gotten everything. His eye snagged on the sketchbooks, and he shifted the pack experimentally.
No, he told himself firmly. He’d kept two and the pencils, and that was more than he’d had before.
“I’m just going to check the bunks,” he said, and Thierry nodded.
When he got to where they’d slept, Corey was heaving his own backpack onto his back. He never packed properly, just shoved things in whichever way, and his pack was unwieldy and full of lumps.
“Ready to go?” Corey asked, staggering a little.
“I just want to check I didn’t forget anything.” Aidan stepped a few rungs up the ladder, and shone his light over the top blanket. There was a lump under one far corner, and he crawled up to investigate it.
“Okay, well, I’m fine. Meet you at the square,” Corey said.
The lump turned out to be only a corner of the lower blanket turned under itself. Aidan climbed back down. He might as well check for Corey too, he thought; Corey scattered his stuff everywhere.
Corey hadn’t even made the bed–or spread the blankets back out, at least. Everything was a rucked-up lump against the wall.
Aidan sighed. It doesn’t matter, leave it, he thought, even as he clambered up the ladder to set it right. It did matter, or at least to him, and, he was sure, to Thierry.
Corey had left something behind, balled up under the blankets. More than just one thing. A waffle henley, a fairly nasty pair of socks, two T-shirts.
More than he could have left behind accidentally.
Aidan thought about Corey lurching as the weight of his full pack settled on his shoulders.
When he entered the square again, Corey and Thierry were shaking hands. “Yeah, good meeting you,” Corey said, and smacked Thierry companionably on the shoulder as if his conscience were entirely clear. He turned and saw Aidan. “Yo, let’s get a move on. I want to make good time today.” He headed down the corridor that led to the staircase.
Aidan heaved his pack up onto his shoulders. A hand steadied him. “Aidan? Is something wrong?”
Aidan wet his lips, and chickened out. “I…have to talk to Corey,” he said, and followed him.
Corey was hauling his pack up onto the barrier. Aidan arrived just in time to hear the clink of metal on metal as the pack hit the top.
“Corey,” he said.
Corey turned around, pulling his legs up onto the wall. “Yeah?”
Aidan’s heart was pounding. He felt light-headed. He thought of the times Corey had saved him from walkers, of what it would be like to spend the return journey with a Corey who was pissed off at him and maybe wouldn’t care what happened to him.
He took a grating breath. “Just put them back, okay?”
“Qu’est-ce qu’il a fait?” asked Thierry behind him.
Corey rolled his eyes. “Jesus, do not start with me.”
“That’s not what we’re here for,” Aidan said desperately.
“Look.” Corey stabbed a finger at Aidan. “Barter is not an efficient economic system,” he said, sounding suddenly like the economics major Aidan knew he’d been, before the end of the world had happened and he’d turned himself into whatever he told himself he was now. “All the rest of you can have your kumbaya hippie paradise for now, fine, whatever. But once this zombie shit is over and we’re back to normal, people are going to want a workable monetary system, which means gold, just like it did throughout all the fucking history you’re so in love with, and those of us with the actual fucking gold are going to come out on top because we bothered to look at the real world.”
“You can’t just take whatever you want!”
“Well, I think I can. If life was fair, we wouldn’t fucking be here, would we?”
“You may not!” Thierry said sharply, advancing to the base of the wall. “These things are not here for you. You have no right.”
Corey pulled one of his blades from its sheath. It glinted in the light of Thierry’s lantern. “I got my right, right here. You going to fight me for it?”
Thierry’s knuckles whitened on the head of his axe.
Then, slowly, he let his hand fall.
“I will not fight you,” he said with contempt. “Life has more worth than things. Even those things. Even your life. But you steal from us all. C’est notre patrimoine et nos connaissances que tu appauvris. You make the future poor. Rien n’a de valeur pour toi.”
“Whatever.” Corey slid across the top of the wall, pulling his pack with him. They heard the pack land on the stairs, and then Corey himself drop. There was a thud, and a burst of swearing. Aidan leaned over the railing to see Corey descend the stairs, limping.
“I’m sorry,” Aidan said miserably.
Thierry looked as though he had bitten into something bitter. “It is not your fault,” he said. “Come, I will help you go.”
Aidan wouldn’t have gotten over the wall without Thierry’s help. They caught up to Corey as he was bending down to apply a blade to the duct-tape-and-foamcor patch in the door, now twice as thick as it had been when they arrived.
Thierry said something Aidan didn’t catch under his breath. “Arrêtez, I can unlock.” Corey stepped back, out of his reach, as Thierry surveyed the sandstone plaza outside. A few walkers were at the far end of the driveway, but the area was otherwise clear. Thierry unlocked the door, and Corey walked through it without looking at him.
“Thank you,” Aidan said, flushing with shame.
Thierry gave him a tight smile and a nod, and Aidan pulled his blade out of the sheath on his backpack, and jogged out the door.
Corey was waiting at the edge of the shade before the overhang ended and the open plaza began. Both blades were out.
“You better keep up with me,” he said, “because I have no problem taking that sketchbook off your pussy corpse, got it?” He stepped into the sunlight.
Aidan’s shoulder blades twitched as they crossed the plaza. It was both too open and too crowded, too many levels and steps and planters and flowerbeds gone to high weeds. They reached the remains of the walkers Corey had killed on their journey in, now dried puddles of gore on the ground, and started around the corner of the curatorial building. Below and to their right was the loop of the Trans Canada Trail, which coiled up from the waterfront to join the path they were on, and–
“It’s okay, they haven’t seen us,” Corey said, and then they completed the curve of the building and saw three more walkers ahead of them on the trail. One gave a guttural wail, and the ones below looked up.
“Run, we can make–no, shit, they’re going to intercept us.” Corey about-faced. “Back the other way. We’ll go around by the road.” He pushed past Aidan and retraced their steps, still favouring one leg.
It was best not to run unless you had to; walkers were attracted to motion and sound. They hugged the side of the curatorial building until they reached the street. Corey paused for a moment. He must have thought the coast was clear, because he headed out onto the sidewalk, and that was when two walkers appeared from behind a parked van and saw them.
One screamed in excitement or triumph. They both picked up speed, shambling towards Corey and Aidan.
“Fine, bitches, come and get it,” Corey said, and flexed his knees, blades poised in front of him. Aidan backed up to where he wouldn’t be in the way, trying to watch everywhere at once, the plaza, the street, the empty path behind them.
He missed the instant Corey stumbled. Maybe Corey put weight the wrong way on his sore ankle, or maybe his pack was too heavy and overbalanced him. But when Aidan turned back to the fight, Corey was sinking, almost in slow motion, catching himself on one knee, tipping sideways, dropping onto his back under two putrid, flailing bodies.
Aidan froze in place, not believing what he was seeing. Corey wasn’t–Corey couldn’t–
Do something, his brain chided him, do it, do it now, and after what seemed a painfully stretched moment, he was moving forwards, jaw clenched, bringing his machete up and then down again on the shoulder of the topmost of the walkers. It jerked. He slid his blade out of half-decayed flesh and hit it again, and again, arms weak with terror, and on the third blow managed to hit its neck with some force. The walker was an older one, bone already showing through its flesh; its head smacked wetly onto the pavement, and it collapsed into a clotted puddle.
The walker on Corey jolted. A blade came through its back, thick with blood. Then another sheared off its head, and it slid to the side and hit the sidewalk before it began to dissolve.
Corey dropped one of his blades and clapped his free hand over the side of his wrist. “Oh, shit,” he said. “Oh, fuck. Oh, shit.”
He looked up at Aidan, and his eyes were wide and frightened. He was so covered in gore that it should have been impossible to see, but it wasn’t, because human blood was bright in a way that walker blood wasn’t: crimson blood, Corey’s blood, seeping between his fingers. He held his arm up as if in supplication.
“Let me see it,” Aidan said, which was useless because everything was now, and Corey peeled his other hand away so that Aidan could see the absence of flesh, the ragged edges of the bite that the walker had taken out of Corey’s wrist.
Corey sucked air in through clenched teeth. “Okay,” he said, “okay, oh fuck oh god oh shit.”
A moan came from the plaza, which was no longer empty.
“Okay.” Corey struggled out of the straps of his backpack and pushed himself up. “Okay, okay fine, fine. Let’s do this!” he shouted. “Fuck this shit, I am not turning into one of those undead fuckers, do you hear me?” He swept the plaza with his glare. “Come and fucking get me!”
Aidan flinched. There was movement at the end of the path they’d come up on, in the plaza, across the road. “Corey–”
“You want me?” Corey bellowed. He pointed a blade at the walkers down the path. “Yeah, over here. I will take you down! Four hundred and sixty-six, motherfuckers! Come on!”
Aidan’s heart started to pound. There seemed to be motion on all sides, walkers drawn by the noise, coming closer. Corey wasn’t going to be able to fight them all. He was going to get eaten, and Aidan with him, torn apart in agony…
There was one other slim, improbable option. Escape the walkers, get back to the main museum building, somehow get inside, get up past the wall at the top of the stairs, find Thierry and throw himself on his mercy.
Thierry probably wanted nothing more to do with him.
Aidan stood immobilized on trembling legs as Corey screamed challenge at the things that were going to kill him. Move. Move. Do it now or it’ll be too late.
Any chance was better than standing here watching death lumber towards him.
Aidan let his arms drop to his sides and hung his head down, as if it were too heavy for a rotting neck, and began to shuffle in the direction of the museum. Sweat trickled down his sides. There were two walkers on the sidewalk; he didn’t look at them, as if avoiding eye contact were magically protective. A walker was coming towards him; he shifted his ragged course to put it on the opposite side of a concrete planter. He bit his lip to keep from whimpering. It was all he could do not to break and run. The plaza here was a maze of curving gardens, and he couldn’t see past them all. If it took him out of the line of sight of any walkers, maybe that was a good thing, but if he got trapped face-to-face with one, he’d have no choice but a fight he probably would lose.
“Four hundred and sixty-eight! Yeah, you want this?” he heard Corey yell.
Then it was just open space between him and the museum door. He felt too hot and too cold at once, and his vision was dark at the edges. He staggered across the space and whipped around to rest his back against the glass of the door, panting.
Corey started screaming. There were no words this time.
A walker appeared on the driveway. It looked towards Aidan. It saw him.
Aidan shivered out of the straps of his backpack and let it fall to the ground. His palms were so slick with sweat he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep a grip on his machete. His spare hand felt behind him to the duct tape on the door, picked futilely at a sticky edge.
He was going to die here, his throat torn out when he was half an inch away from sanctuary.
The walker picked up speed. Corey stopped screaming.
Aidan knocked the wooden handle of his machete against the glass. What was S-O-S? Three of something, then three of something else. He couldn’t remember. He banged three times. The sound echoed off concrete and sandstone. A pause. Another three. Thierry might realize it was a person, not random walkers. If he heard it. If he cared. Another three.
The walker was fairly new, and young. Hipster beard stiff with dried blood. T-shirt from a National Gallery exhibit by an artist Aidan didn’t know. Aidan’s blade caught it in the throat. It kept coming, pressing towards him, and Aidan’s shaking arms couldn’t keep it at a distance. Aidan kicked out at its knee, and the force threw it a few feet from him, granted him a few more seconds.
Bang-bang-bang. More walkers appeared from behind the planters.
The machete handle was greasy with more than sweat now. Aidan wiped his hands on the thighs of his pants and sawed the walker’s head off. He was pretty sure he was crying, but doing something about it seemed an insurmountable effort. Bang-bang-bang.
Two walkers came at him at once. He hesitated too long over which to take first, and didn’t get his blade on either of them, and then there was fetid breath against his jawline and he was falling backwards.
The world jerked and spun and hit him hard. He lost his grip on his blade, and it went skittering over the polished concrete floor–
Thierry slammed the door shut behind them. Enraged walkers smeared themselves over the glass.
Aidan flung himself farther from the door in a gangly crab-like crawl, out of control of his limbs, out of control of everything, his breathing high and panicked, his face sticky with tears and snot and walker blood. Thierry stood over him. The head of his axe was red and glossy and dripping.
“Did they bite?” Thierry asked.
Aidan shook his head frantically.
“I will see,” Thierry said. He knelt and impersonally pressed his hands over Aidan’s head, down his neck, along his arms. “Ça va, t’es pas mordu. We should move more inside, viens, ça les agace de nous voir ici.”
Aidan needed his help standing. His limbs felt attached to him only peripherally, thin and nerveless as if they were made out of plasticine. He let Thierry lead him away from the windows and through a door, and then they were in silent darkness, Thierry’s lantern a small sanctuary of light around them.
“I have to sit down,” Aidan gasped, and Thierry let him slide down the wall to puddle on the floor.
“Did Corey leave you?” he asked, and there was a grim note in his voice.
“No! No, he got bitten. He went kind of crazy. They got him. They got him. He’s dead.” He took a huge gulp of air. “Corey’s dead.”
“I am glad I was not so far away. If upstairs– Si j’avais été a l’étage, je ne t’aurais pas entendu.”
“I couldn’t fight them, I couldn’t, I could only run, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m so useless, I’m so sorry–”
Thierry took off his plaid jacket. He nudged Aidan’s upper back away from the wall, and settled the jacket around Aidan’s shoulders. Then he sat down beside Aidan.
“Tu es en état de choc,” he said. “Quiet now, and be warm.”
Aidan didn’t know how long they sat there, feeling Thierry warm against his side. Long enough that he stopped shivering, long enough for him to come back to his body.
“Okay?” Thierry said, when Aidan uncurled and exhaled. “Allez, viens, let us go a place more comfortable.”
He led Aidan down the corridor and through a door and down some stairs. The walls and the doorways they passed were white and utilitarian; staff areas, Aidan guessed. There was a long corridor, and then they were going up again in a windowed stairwell, all the way to the top. They were in the curatorial wing now, he saw, looking across the plaza to the domes and striations of the exhibit building they’d just been in.
Corey had died just below them.
Aidan shivered, and pulled Thierry’s coat closer around him. They entered another darkened corridor. Thierry pushed open a door halfway down the hall, flooding the corridor with sunlight, and ushered Aidan inside.
It had been someone’s spacious office, now made over into a little cabin, drenched in sun and scrupulously tidy. Sleeping bag against one wall, desk opposite, a fake wood-grain bookshelf stacked with clothing and other supplies. Thierry opened a bottle of water and poured a little into a basin on the desk.
“Wash your face,” he said, “and you feel better, même si l’eau est froide.”
He was right. Aidan slid out of Thierry’s jacket and then out of his own, and wiped his clean, wet face on the sleeve of his hoodie.
“I lost my backpack,” he said, only now realizing it. His machete, too.
“I will get, soon. Les malheureux ne sont pas intéressés par ce genre de chose.” Thierry hung their jackets on the hook on the back of the door. “Lie here, and rest.”
To his embarrassment, Aidan fell asleep on Thierry’s bed. When he woke a few hours later, he felt as though a century had passed. Towards the end of the afternoon, Thierry went out and came back carrying Aidan’s things. For dinner, Aidan assembled his stove and boiled a bag of chicken tetrazzini—conserving his food rations seemed pointless now–though he could barely stomach more than a few mouthfuls, and let Thierry eat most of it.
When it got dark, he laid out his sleeping bag an arm’s-length from Thierry’s. He woke himself with a jolt sometime in the night, trying to swing his arms within the confines of his sleeping bag, and when he opened his eyes, he saw that Thierry had left one precious candle burning in his lantern on the table, gilding the little room with safety and comfort.
The following day, he could hardly stand up. He felt as though he’d been beaten with sandbags, though the only bruise he could actually find was a minor mottling of purple on his right hip and thigh where he’d fallen after Thierry had pulled him through the front doors and had to let him go to push the walkers back outside. After breakfast, he dug his private sketchbook out of his backpack and spent most of the day with his back against the wall and his sketchbook on his knees, drawing. The work itself was terrible, nothing but doodles really, but he felt better, more grounded, with a pencil in his hand. Thierry wrote in a notebook of his own, or read. They didn’t talk much.
The day after that, after they’d rinsed out their breakfast dishes, Aidan said, “Thierry, could we go see–je veux voir où Corey–it was near the street, beside some windows–”
“Oui,” Thierry said, without asking any questions, and lit his lantern.
They only needed it for the corridors. The stairwell was bright with the day, although it was not yet in direct sunlight. If Aidan unfocused his eyes, the movement in the plaza could have been that of a normal, long-ago morning, workers lingering for a few minutes of hot coffee and October sunshine before they headed indoors.
“Près de la rue…” Thierry muttered to himself when they reached the first floor, and led Aidan down another dark corridor and then into an office. Aside from the silent computer, it looked as if someone had left it ten minutes ago, papers spilling out of file folders stacked on the desk, a woman’s black pumps neatly paired beside the coatrack. The band of windows, just low enough for Aidan to see out, ran the length of the room.
Aidan looked out over the planters and the empty road, and then, bracing himself, allowed his gaze to follow the curve of the building to the spot where he had last seen Corey.
It wasn’t far. There was Corey’s backpack, beside stained sandstone and some scraps of clothing. The virus did strange things to flesh and bone, but Corey had been ill for such a short time–but there were no grisly remains, just dark streaks on the ground.
Aidan put his hand against the cold glass. I’m sorry you died that way, he thought, inadequately.
He felt he should say more, feel more, though honestly what he felt was resignation more than anything else. Corey’s hadn’t been the first violent death he’d seen.
Thank you for saving my life those times, he added.
He stood for another minute, and then, beginning to feel stupid, he sighed and let his hand drop.
Thierry was standing quietly by the door. “I am sorry,” he said.
“Thanks,” Aidan said.
“I will get his bag, when it is quiet and safe. There is a door near.”
Dirty clothes and stolen gold, that was what Corey had left behind him, Aidan thought bleakly, and they went back up to Thierry’s room in silence.
After lunch, Thierry said, “I would like if you come for me to show you something. If you are well.”
“Oui, bien sûr.”
Thierry lit his lantern. Aidan followed him back to the stairwell and down to the second floor. Thierry opened a door and preceded Aidan inside, his lantern making a small circle of light in a wide darkness. Aidan could feel the size of the room even in the stale, unmoving air.
Ranks of shelves receded from them into shadow. Some were stacked with boxes; on others, single objects lay wrapped in tissue paper shrouds. Many of the bottom shelves held drawered cabinets. Each shelf was labelled with a computer-generated number, but as they passed, Aidan saw that each also had a piece of paper lying on it, headed with the shelf number, with a list in French and some English, and a date, and the initials TL in precise block letters.
“C’est ton travail? This is what you’ve been working on?” Of course Thierry had not spent months alone in his little room doing nothing and waiting for walkers or random idiots to kick in his front door.
“Yes,” Thierry said absently, watching the upcoming shelves. “All was on, eh, le catalogue d’artefacts, mais lorsque la fin est venue–pfft. Information gone.”
“Wow. Tu fais une liste de tous les choses? By hand?” There must be tens of thousands of things in this room alone.
Thierry sent him a quick grin over his shoulder. “I have time.” They came to an intersecting corridor, and he crossed it and slowed. He looked at one of his pages of notes, then the next. Then he stopped and handed Aidan the lantern. He took a small box from a high shelf. “Let us go to that hallway for space.”
In the side corridor they sat on the floor, the lantern at Aidan’s knee. Thierry opened the box and unwrapped something from folds of white tissue paper.
“I think this is a thing you could like,” he said, and handed a little leather-bound volume to Aidan.
It was no longer or wider than his hand, the size that could fit in a jacket pocket. The hinge was at the top rather than the side. Aidan flipped it open. No name, but a date: 1820.
The sketches were in pencil and ink, small studies and landscapes both: a pitcher and loaf of bread, a log cabin in a stump-scattered clearing, an entire page of awkwardly jointed hands–Aidan felt immediate kinship with the anonymous artist–a horse pulling a wagon, men cutting down a gargantuan pine tree, a chicken with a ribbon around its neck. Whatever had caught the artist’s eye, Aidan guessed. And, occasionally, a scene entirely out of place, maybe drawn from memory: rolling hills quilted together with low stone walls, an inn with Tudor-style half-timbers on its upper storeys. Reminders of what had been left, how different it was from where the artist was now.
Eighteen-twenty, Aidan thought. As if he were somehow looking both ways through a telescope, he was suddenly struck with a sense of both distance and connection. Long years ago, someone he would never know had looked around at the world and dug a pencil out of their pocket to record it; someone else’s thumb had worn down this spot on the black leather finish, a soft and dull oval where his own now rested.
Aidan handed the sketchbook back to Thierry with great care. “Merci,” he said, though it wasn’t a big enough word.
Thierry wrapped the small book up again in paper. “They too were in a new world,” he said. “Il doit avoir été si étrange pour eux.”
Aidan followed Thierry as he replaced the box on its shelf. Then Thierry regained the lantern from him. “Another thing,” he said, and led Aidan to the end of the shelves, out into the corridor again, and in through a different door.
The shelves here were of an entirely different scale, large open cubes of industrial metal forming blocks, making the room into a miniature city. At intervals there were staircases leading up to the second level, ten feet above their heads. Aidan could see stacks of things up there, thickets of chair legs, fortresses of wooden crates with the names of soaps or soft drinks painted on their sides. But the real wonders of the room were down near the floor.
Horse-drawn carriages and wagons and plows. Millstones almost as wide as Aidan was tall. Printing presses, iceboxes, looms, commercial-sized butter churns, cast-iron stoves. Everything that Aidan had been drawing and listing, but in multiples, in adaptations, in evolutionary variations.
Thierry held the lantern high, and Aidan swivelled his head wildly as they walked down the aisles, trying to see everything, torn between wanting a glimpse of what was next and wanting to stop to see each item in detail.
“Can I bring my sketchbook down here?” he asked.
“Of course. C’est pour ça que je t’ai amené ici. It is why we come here.”
Aidan stopped, and looked at the weathered wood of some agricultural apparatus he couldn’t even identify, and took a breath. “Is this a secret? I mean, if I–si je faire des dessins et, um, les peuples à North Gower veux voir les choses actuels…” He didn’t look at Thierry in case Thierry said no. “Would you let other people come and see? If they promised to be decent about it, just to learn?”
“…Oui,” Thierry said. He was looking away into the darkness. “En fait…I have thought, these past days.” The lantern swung as he switched it from hand to hand and back again. “Before, no things leave the museum. Now is different. Maybe some things can go, when we have many. If the things are needed. To make a copy, to learn how to use.”
“You would let us do that?”
“Not–not like Corey.” Thierry grimaced. “I did not wish him dead. But gold is a bad reason. People are a good reason.”
“That would be amazing.” To be able to disassemble things, sketch each individual piece, watch something in action… “Magnifique. Très, très bon.”
Thierry smiled wryly. “The long, long loan. Un conservateur détesterait ça.”
“Nous essayons de faire bon avec les choses. If Lacey or the Chief tells everyone to be careful with it, they will, for sure.”
Thierry looked up into the metal rafters and sighed. “Why do we keep, if not for this? Mais ça c’est contraire à ma nature. It, what is that saying, goes against the wheat?”
“What? Oh, against the grain.”
“Ha. Like that. Some things are hard to tell in words. Hard in pictures also, even as good as yours. Maybe best if they see it with their eyes.”
Aidan dared to put his hand on Thierry’s arm, just a touch, and then withdrew it. “Il est… It will make a difference. It will matter. I’m sorry, I don’t know how to say it, je sais pas comment le dit en français.”
“I understand,” Thierry said.
It had been another bright morning, but by evening clouds were moving in. After dinner, Thierry set the lantern under the desk, greying the room. Aidan, trying to get the cross-hatching exact on the secret sketch he’d been making of Thierry writing in his own notebook, looked up. Thierry stood at the window. “See,” he said, and Aidan came to look.
The sun was setting behind the exhibit building, stippled clouds of orange and pink reflecting down onto the verdigris copper domes. When the shadow of the building swallowed the sun, it left the sky in bands of colour, fire, gold, cornflower, indigo, up to the inky vault of the sky where constellations were appearing that Aidan had never seen when all the world’s lights had been on.
When all the colour had gone out of the sky except for a thin line of cobalt in the west, Aidan let out a breath. He noticed abruptly that Thierry’s arm was pressed against his, a companionable heat as they both leaned against the desk and watched through the windows.
Then Thierry moved, and Aidan shifted, embarrassed, as if he’d been caught looking too intently.
But Thierry’s hand came to rest lightly, warmly, between Aidan’s shoulder blades, an unspoken question that could be turned away in this moment, made into something they could both pretend was a casual gesture if Aidan wished.
He looked up at Thierry, and Thierry turned his head and looked back at him. Aidan leaned his weight against the desk, and pressed his hand against the small of Thierry’s back. Thierry smiled.
“Je veux…” Aidan said, and faltered.
“Oui, moi aussi, je veux,” Thierry said. He leaned in, his hand still a point of heat on Aidan’s back, and they were kissing, Thierry was kissing him, a little tentative, and then surer, his mouth opening Aidan’s, his spare hand lifting up to cup the side of Aidan’s neck, long fingers rubbing small circles at the base of Aidan’s skull. He kissed deeply and unhurriedly, as if he were savouring something he’d been anticipating, as if they had all the time in history.
Aidan thought about putting his hands in Thierry’s shoulder-length, half-curling hair. Then he did it. Thierry made a little sound of contentment, and pulled back from the kiss. His breath was warm on Aidan’s jaw. Aidan closed the gap separating them again, guiding Thierry’s mouth down to his with a gentle tug of his hair, and Thierry murmured something that was lost between them.
The next time they paused, Thierry put his arms around Aidan and, pulling and nudging, brought him around so he was standing in front of the desk. He drew Aidan in between his knees. His thighs brushed Aidan’s. Aidan could feel the tension in the space between their bodies as though Thierry were iron and he were a magnet.
He slid a hand under one edge of Thierry’s jacket and around his side. Through layers of sweater and shirt and henley, he fancied he could feel his body heat. Thierry worked fingers under Aidan’s pullover and put his large, warm hand on the small of Aidan’s back. Aidan let that pressure coax him closer. Thierry’s other hand tugged open the buttons on Aidan’s flannel shirt, a line of persuasive touch. He spread his hand over Aidan’s heart, nothing but a worn T-shirt between skin and skin. Aidan shivered and leaned in.
Thierry’s lips curved on Aidan’s. His hands circled. Dizzy, Aidan put his own hands out and down for balance, met Thierry’s denimed thighs. Thierry gave a little jolt, his muscles tensing under Aidan’s hold.
Aidan pulled back from the kiss, because he wanted all his attention for this. He trailed one hand along the inside plane of Thierry’s jeans. Thierry’s hands stilled. Aidan heard him swallow.
Aidan cupped the front of Thierry’s pants, curving his hand to fit around his erection. Thierry’s hips jerked and pressed into Aidan’s grip. Then he shuddered and pulled Aidan in, closing his thighs around him. Sparks shot up Aidan’s spine.
They were both breathing hard when Thierry released him. “What–qu’est-ce que tu aimes faire?” Thierry asked. “I will do–if you like it–”
“I want to do this,” Aidan said, and slid out of Thierry’s loose embrace to his knees. The lantern, under the desk, made a pool of light on the floor. He leaned forward and lifted the lantern and placed it behind him, where it gilded Thierry’s face and edged his body in gold.
He cautiously unzipped Thierry’s jeans and pushed them down. Then he stretched up on his knees and took Thierry’s erection into his mouth.
Thierry inhaled sharply. Aidan took all of him, used his lips, his tongue, his hands, did all the things he knew and imagined felt good, relishing the way Thierry’s hardness and heat filled his mouth. Above him, Thierry groaned and whispered words Aidan didn’t know. Aidan would have been glad to have Thierry’s hands in his hair, but Thierry clamped his hands around the edges of the desk as if to anchor himself and let Aidan do what he liked with no direction at all.
Aidan would have been glad to have Thierry finish in his mouth, too, but after a time Thierry reached down and put his hand on Aidan’s cheek. “Attends, arrêtes,” he said breathlessly.
Aidan gave Thierry one last, long stroke, and stood up.
“That is good but…je veux te toucher, je veux te tenir.” Thierry looked down at Aidan’s own obvious arousal. “Yes?”
“Oui,” Aidan said, and couldn’t hold back a whimper as Thierry took hold of him through his jeans.
“Assis,” Thierry said decisively, and let Aidan go. He took a step, looked down, and then bent and peeled off briefs, longjohns, and jeans in one dense tangle. The hem of his henley brushed the curve where firm buttock met thigh. Aidan thought of putting his lips there, and blushed so hard his heartbeat boomed.
“You also,” Thierry said. His finger and thumb rested on the button of Aidan’s fly. Aidan nodded. Thierry popped the button, unzipped, pared Aidan out of his layers. Aidan shut his eyes as the cool air slid over his exposed flesh, imagining Thierry looking at his pale butt and skinny legs. Then Thierry’s hand wrapped around his cock, and Aidan heard his own unsteady cry before he even realized he’d made a noise. Shaking, he pressed his forehead against the soft fuzz of Thierry’s sweater.
“Maintenant, assis, now,” Thierry said. He took Aidan by the hand and led him over to where their bedrolls were laid on the floor. He sat, and tugged Aidan down in front of him, coaxing him, moving his legs, until they sat face to face, cock to cock, legs curved around one another. Then he closed his hand around Aidan again. Aidan fumbled his hand between them and took hold of Thierry’s erection. Thierry encircled Aidan’s shoulders with his free arm and pulled him in, kissed him deeply. Hands moved, hips moved, suddenly urgent. Thierry stuttered half-words in Aidan’s ear, pulled him even closer, and cried out once, twice, as wet heat flooded over Aidan’s hand. Aidan buried his face in Thierry’s shoulder and came, pleasure sparking out to his fingertips and toes, followed by a second wave of warmth and lassitude. Thierry let out a long sigh and sagged against Aidan, who in turn sagged against him, and they propped each other up as their breathing returned to normal.
It was the chill that made them move at last. Thierry leaned over to rummage in the bookshelf, and brought out some paper napkins for them to clean up with. He got up to retrieve his wad of clothes from the other side of the room, bringing Aidan’s as well, and as they disentangled their layers of trousers, he laughed suddenly.
“So many days waiting,” he said, “and so impatient at the end.” He shook his head. “Next time, I will–” His hands paused. “I mean–I do not assume–”
“Next time can we take them all off?” Aidan asked recklessly.
“Yes, I think so,” Thierry said, with a glance that heated Aidan more thoroughly than his three layers of clothing.
Aidan was pleasantly exhausted, but it was still early evening. He made tea from Thierry’s supply, and they sipped it as they watched the moon, just past the full, rise over the river and wash the plaza and the buildings beyond with white.
“I think perhaps,” Thierry said, as though continuing a different conversation, “it is time for le conservateur too to leave the museum. For a little time. Si les artefacts vont…”
“Tu viens à la depot?” Aidan said, hope bubbling up in him.
“Pour quelque temps. You cannot go on the way alone, it is not safe.”
Aidan had been trying not to think about the return journey. “That would be amazing. There’s lots of space. Everybody would be really glad to have you stay.” He heard his own enthusiasm, and flushed.
“Peut-être nous quittons…”
Not tomorrow, Aidan thought.
“…après-demain? One or two days. So I accustom more to it.”
Aidan thought of the exhibit hall, and the storage rooms full of history, and then of some of the other things they could do, alone with each other for a few more days.
“I can carry your books,” Thierry said.
“So you do not leave them.”
“Ils ne sont pas trop lourds?”
“Ils sont pas trop lourds.”
“Seriously? That would be great,” Aidan said. “The depot, l’école a beaucoup de papier, but it’s cheap, it’s from when it was a school, c’est pas bon for le dessin, I mean if you want the art to last…” He thought of Thierry’s pieces of paper in the storage rooms below, words and numbers recording information that had been lost, describing what could not be seen. “Hey, you know what? Pour les choses qui va de le musée, the things we take out, I could make drawings of them, really detailed ones, from multiple angles, and you could put them on the shelves where they were. So people could see what was there. Les dessins pour le future.”
“Ah, oui.” Thierry half-smiled. “Oui. C’est vraiment une bonne idée.”
“Excellent.” Aidan yawned.
Thierry’s body pressed against his side. “You are tired?”
Aidan looked sideways up at Thierry. “Not even a little bit.”
“Bien,” Thierry said, and leaned down and pressed his lips underneath Aidan’s ear.
Much later, Thierry propped himself up on his elbow to blow out the lantern. The light in the room turned from gold to silver moonlight. Thierry slid back down into the warm envelope of their zipped-together sleeping bags, and Aidan draped an arm over his chest.
“Peut-être trois ou quatre jours,” Thierry said softly.
“Mmm. At least four days,” Aidan mumbled, thinking of all the time before them, and slid into sleep.