She woke up thinking of Becca. They'd been on the road; I-35, she thought, somewhere in Oklahoma. Eight or ten of them at that point, everyone armed to the teeth. That was back when they'd still had guns, still had bullets for the guns. But it hadn't mattered, not when thirty or forty of those monsters or zombies or infected or whatever – Outsiders – had come at them. Oh, you could kill them with bullets. You didn't even need a head shot, not like the movies. And they felt pain, too; she had nightmares for twenty goddamned years about the sounds those things made when in pain. But when they came at you like that, wave after wave, it didn't really matter what weapon you had in your hand. Jorge had found a flamethrower once, which he was very proud of. It just meant you had flaming zombies running at you, screaming their banshee wails.
No flamethrower that day on I-35. Just some guns, a couple machetes, and a Louisville Slugger. They'd climbed up on the roof of a tour bus and held them off long enough for the Outsiders to give up, snarling and spitting at them, finally retreating back into the scraggly woods along the highway. Bill had dragged Becca up, and she had hunched over her with bandages and tape, but it was too late. The Outsiders had bitten her throat, then her gut. She bled out there on top of that bus.
Becca had said something to her, just before her eyes went flat and stared up into nothing. A few words, whispered through chapped lips now slick with blood. She woke up seeing the image in her head, clear as day, but the words themselves were gone. Becca had called her something, though, something other than her own name, and the echo of it persisted even as the name itself stayed stubbornly away.
What had Becca called her?
Her mom had called her Jay, and her dad had insisted on calling her by her middle name, Roberta, which had been his mother's name. Her teachers had mostly called her Miss Peterson, because she'd gone first to private Catholic schools (though her family hadn't been Catholic, of course), and then to a magnet high school for the arts. Her friends had mostly called her Janae, but there'd been Jay-Jay and J-Rob and Pete and Petey, and for one semester in Dramatic Acting class, Countess Janae Roberta Rosencrantz IV.
Then the world ended.
She could remember her childhood so well, as though everything had happened yesterday. And she could remember most everything of the last forty years, since the wall was finished, the trench dug, the plain burned, and the Guards posted. Since then, they've been pretty safe. But that dark period in between, those twenty years or so, she remembers very little of that. Every so often a memory will come to mind, like a bubble of air struggling to the surface of a slimy puddle.
Sitting in the car, waiting for Markesha to come back out of the woods.
Someone knocking on the door of the cabin. Hiding under the bed until they leave.
Digging through a pantry, but the bugs have been at it all. Eating everything anyway.
A man chasing her. Realizing that he isn't one of them, he's just a man. Killing him.
When one of those memories dances through her mind, she tries to shove it right back down where it belongs. She won't think about those years. But shoving doesn't usually work.
When she was a kid, she'd had terrible nightmares. She'd run into her mom and dad's room, climb up into bed between the two of them. One night, they'd still been up, watching TV. Dad had carried her back to her own room, and she'd cried and cried. “You haven't even been asleep yet, Roberta,” he'd said, sitting on the edge of her bed. “Can't have a nightmare if you don't go to sleep.”
“But I keep thinking about the monster from the movie. When I try to go to sleep I think he's in the room with me.” She explained it to him so he would understand, and he nodded his head, smoothing down his mustache and beard like he did when he was thinking.
“But you know he's not in the room with you,” Dad said. She didn't know how to answer. Of course she knew the monster wasn't in the room. She knew the monster wasn't real at all. But that didn't seem to make any difference when the lights were off and she was in her bed. The streetlights and the garage light of Mr. Swinson across the street poked in through her mini-blinds and curtains, and there was a faint orange glow from the nightlight on her dresser. Just enough light to make all kinds of shadows, and she couldn't help herself. She imagined each one was a monster, just waiting for her to go to sleep so it could attack.
“I'm going to teach you a trick,” Dad said. “Whatever you do tonight, don't think about a purple monkey.”
“What?” She laughed, she couldn't help it.
“Don't you do it!” Dad said, face as stern and serious as ever. She looked for a twinkle in his eye or a twitch at the corner of his mouth, but there was nothing. “Don't you think about a purple monkey tonight, not even for a second.”
“But what does that have to do with anything?” She already felt pretty silly, because she'd imagined what a purple monkey would look like both times he said it. The first time, she'd imagined a chimp with a bright purple butt. Now she was thinking of one of those big silverback gorillas, with the silver a nice pretty lilac shade. She giggled again.
“I guess you'll just have to figure it out,” Dad said, voice all low and deep, just like Mufasa. He knew that she loved his Mufasa voice more than anything. He tucked her in tight and left the door open a crack when he left.
She'd laid there for hours, going back and forth between trying to keep her mind blank, and failing completely. Don't think about a purple monkey, she would remember Dad saying, and then she saw nothing but purple monkeys in her head. So she would struggle to wipe the image from her mind, trying to think of anything else – the way she was going to turn her dad's old shed into a playhouse; cupcakes; fight scenes from her favorite movies. Then she just started counting. And then she'd remember, don't think about a purple monkey, and there one would be, dancing, singing, jumping up and down. Mocking her.
And in the morning she realized she hadn't thought of the monster once.
The memories of the dark years, of the years spent running from one hidey-hole to the next, of never having enough to eat, they just kept coming to mind, like those damned purple monkeys. She could say to herself, don't think about that, just don't think about that at all, but it didn't seem to do any good.
What had they called her back then? Bill and Jorge and Becca and Jackie and Big Eddie, what had they called her? She thought and thought and thought, but all she could remember was Becca dying, blood on her lips, gasping for breath. And she didn't want to think about that, not a bit.
Today they called her Miss Janae. All the old-timers were Miss This or Mister That. The kids, if they thought she couldn't hear them, would call her old Miss Janae. She just about always heard them, though. They weren't the sharpest tools in the barn.
There'd been about ten years not too long ago when she was waking up real early, like 4 o'clock in the morning early. But anymore she felt like she could just sleep the whole morning away. Of course, they'd moved the chickens off the rooftop of Eighteen, on the other side of the city, two years ago, when Eighteen's roof had started to fall apart. Now de Silva and the chickens were on the roof of Three right next door.
The roosters crowed. “Frickin' chickens,” Janae grumbled, wishing she had a pillow to stuff over her head. She'd had a pillow once, but it had rotted a long time ago, and what else were they going to make pillows from? There were always arrows to fletch and mattresses to fill, so no more pillows.
She got out of bed (feeling old), got dressed (more patches than clothes), brushed her teeth (no toothpaste, just water and sand). She made the bed (more holes than blanket), she put on shoes (feeling stiff). Breakfast was old cold corn...porridge...gloop. But it was food, and it filled her belly, so she ate it (feeling grateful). She stuck her finger in the little tin of chicken fat that Peter had brought her and smeared a tiny dab over her lips and the rough spots on her elbows (because she was worth it, ha ha).
And it was time for the day to begin.
While everyone was still eating their breakfast and getting ready for the day, Janae walked up to the roof. Just one flight of stairs, she was barely out of breath by the time she made it to the top. There wasn't a day that went by that Janae didn't walk up to the roof at least once.
Two was one of the taller buildings in the city at six stories. Only Seven and Eight were taller, two medium-sized office buildings two streets over. Thankfully they were near to the wall, so they didn't impede her view.
The city. That's what everyone called it, but it was just ten square blocks. It wasn't even half of what had been downtown, Janae thought; she no longer remembered exactly how big the place had been before they tore most of it down and built the wall. Lawrence, Kansas had never been a huge city to begin with. Like a lot of Midwestern towns, it sprawled out, taking up as much room as it wanted. There were still some standing buildings outside the wall, beyond the charred plain – she could see two up on the hill, what had once been the University of Kansas. Pretty green these days, all covered with vines and ivy and who knew what else. It wouldn't be long now.
Janae found herself continually surprised at how quickly the old world had fallen apart. She could still remember the way things had looked when they'd first built the wall. The dead, empty buildings all around. Vacant streets. Cars abandoned everywhere. Now most of the buildings had fallen, either in whole or in part. The streets were only visible as straighter lanes of grass and weeds, overrun by saplings; she thought in another generation, they would only stand out for being relatively flat, where the streets had been flat. The cars had been stripped by Hunters long ago. Here and there was a grassy hillock that had once been a Toyota, a Hyundai, a Ford.
They had left one car intact inside the wall, for no real reason aside from sentimentality. A little sedan. She could just make out the twinkle of it on the other side of the city, in an empty lot that had once held a nice bookstore. They'd burned the bookstore down twenty years ago during a breach. Now you couldn't even tell anything had ever stood there. The car itself was in poor shape. Rust had eaten away at most of the body, the seats had rotted out, and the engineers had finally stripped out the engine, the transmission, and everything else useful. Now it was a metal frame sitting on bare rims, the ghost of a car. It made her shiver to think of it.
“Old Miss...” The voice trailed off behind her. Janae turned to see Steve, waiting at the door. He hadn't quite managed to wipe the smirk off his face – or maybe he hadn't bothered to try at all. He was pretty much the definition of a little shit. “Um, Miss Janae,” he tried again. “We're all waiting for you downstairs.” Now Steve made a face at her that said: you're losing your mind, old woman. Won't be long before they'll have to move you in with the other senile and broken old-timers down by the clinic, and young kids will take care of you, grumbling under their breaths about the resources wasted on heaps of bones that haven't figured out they're dead yet...
It was a lot to fit into one face, but Steve managed.
There were eight kids under the age of eight in Building Two, though little Dean was still breastfeeding, so he went to the gardens with Jenny. The other seven came to her apartment every day, arriving one by one, bringing warm smiles and sticky hands. It wasn't too long before Janae forgot that she was old. This was just like when she used to babysit, for her soccer coach Denise's three kids, for the neighbor's twins, for Markesha's stupid cousin. If she just closed her eyes, she could imagine that they'd order a pizza soon, and maybe download a couple movies...
(Don't think about a purple monkey.)
She remembered that she was one of about eight people alive who'd ever eaten a pizza, who'd ever seen a movie. And wasn't that a frickin' depressing thought.
Janae made her way back downstairs after Steve – down was always harder than up, stupid-ass old knees – and back to her apartment. Six kids, not seven. And Janae knew exactly who was missing.
She made her way down the hall and looked down the twisting stairwell. The light coming from the window behind her only made it down a few floors; it was just shadows below that. Monsters could be hiding anywhere.
At first she'd caught herself calling out the girl's name half the time, but Janae could still learn a few new tricks. She stomped her foot down hard on the landing, bang bang bang. And it wasn't long before little Sarah came running up the stairs, face split by a huge grin. Her hair was starting to get too long; the soft brown curls were nearly at her chin. It would be time for a haircut, soon.
Sarah threw her arms around Janae's knees. “Where's your dolly?” Janae asked. Sarah tilted her head back, not a question in her eyes, not a hint of anything than pleasure at hugging some bony old woman. “Dolly?” Janae asked again, holding out her hands. She'd teach the kid sign language, but if the library in this place had ever had a book on sign language, it wasn't there anymore. Sarah just took Janae's hand, a smile still loitering on her face.
Janae and Sarah walked back to the apartment, and now the whole class was assembled. Sarah ran over and joined the others on the raggedly kinda-circle of carpet on the floor. Legs folded, hands in laps, mouths shut. They really were the best kids.
“Good morning, everyone,” Janae said, sitting down in her rocking chair.
“Good morning, Miss Janae!”
“Do we want to listen to a story? Cinderella? Frankenstein? The Avengers?”
“No!” they shouted in unison, all except Sarah, who just stuck her fingers in her mouth.
“Do we want to practice our alphabet?”
“Noooo!” Louder this time. They knew where this was headed. And now it would be a game, drawing it out, making them more and more anxious.
“Do we want to clean Two from top to bottom?” Janae had to fight to keep a straight face. Maybe that was why her dad had always tugged on his beard.
“Nooooooo!” They were laughing so hard they could barely sit up straight. Sarah looked as happy as a clam, all tucked in the middle of the cluster of kids. Even though she didn't know what was going on, she was just so happy at being included. Janae thought that maybe if there were one good thing about this day and age, it was this. When there weren't many people left, there just wasn't any point in excluding anyone.
“Do we want to dig a new latrine out back?”
A chorus of gags. “No, Miss Janae, you know what we want to do!” Steve shouted. This would be her last year with Steve; next year he'd start having school at the library in the morning, and real chores in the afternoon. Truth be told, Janae wouldn't miss him all that much.
“Well, if you're gonna act like that,” she said, “maybe we'll just clean.”
Everyone glared at Steve. He stared down at his feet.
“Or,” she went on, “do we want to make moonshine?”
There was one long pause as the kids sucked in air, and Janae was struck by how happy she was. That day that Dad had called from work and told them to turn on the news, and they'd just stood there for hours, hands over mouths, watching CNN; that day that Dad never came home; that day Mom left to go pick up Rachelle from college; that day that Mom and Rachelle never came home; that day that Janae locked all the doors and drew all the curtains and sat cross-legged in the middle of her parents' bed, cell phone in one hand, home phone in the other, all night long...
Janae never thought she'd be happy ever again, not after that day.
“YES!” the kids screamed. Sarah bounced up and down on her heels, making some unintelligible sound herself, just as loud.
“Jeez, kids, you're gonna blow my ears out,” Janae said, sticking a finger in her ear, making a face. The kids laughed uproariously. Without movies and TV and internet, they thought just about everything was funny. “Well, let's go downstairs and get the buckets of corn.”
They all jumped up, tromping to the door. Four-year-old Dolores hugged Janae's knees just like Sarah had. “I love you, Miss Janae,” she lisped.
“I wub you, Mith Janae,” Steve mimicked at the door, rolling his eyes. The boys laughed. Janae made a mental note to talk to Steve's father the next time she saw him. Dolores and Sarah took her hand, and they slowly made their way down to the lobby.
I love you, Miss Janae. She heard that plenty these days. But what had Becca said, lying in the dirt, blood dribbling from her mouth? She'd said something, Janae could see it, but the words themselves... They were gone, like so much else. Janae was just sure of one thing.
Becca hadn't called her Janae.