Please Remain Calm: Excerpt
The little girl limps to our car.
Her right ankle is crushed, her foot bent outward. She drags it across the pavement slowly, coming to a stop at the passenger’s side. Her lips are dry as dust, pale, and cracked. Her milky-white irises surround pinprick pupils and her skin is lost of its color, save for the angry dark veins branching across the thinnest parts of it. A chunk of her honey-blond hair has been ripped away, scalp with it, an ugly black crust in its wake. She brings her hand to the window and bares her teeth and she’s missing three in front. A gap here, another there and there. I imagine baby teeth tucked safely under a pillow, waiting for change.
Sloane told me to stop for this, told me to stop so she could bring her own hand to the girl’s, palm against glass against palm.
The girl snarls at the impossible offering.
“Sloane,” I say.
“Wait,” she whispers.
She edges closer to the window and puts her face as near to it as she can get. The girl does the same, biting at nothing. My fingers curl around the steering wheel. We have to go. But I can’t go, not with the girl pawing at the glass because I don’t want to hear the sound it’ll make, the sticky friction of her dead skin against it when I press on the gas and inch us forward.
I glance at the dirty crowbar resting in the foot-well next to mine and wonder if I’m supposed to add this little girl to a list of people I’m afraid I’ll eventually lose count of. The dead girl clacks her teeth uselessly, straining her neck, oblivious to everything but her own hunger. I look to the woods on my side of the car, but there’s nothing moving in them, not yet.
The little girl screams, how the infected scream. I can hear it through the glass, a thin screech from her rusted-out insides. My stomach twists at the sound. I fucking hate that sound. At first, I think Sloane will get out of the car and finish this like she did her sister, Lily, but she doesn’t. She just stares at the girl like she’s looking for something that I don’t think can be there. Sloane’s clothes are a canvas painted with her sister’s blood. Her arms are scratched all to hell, God knows what from, and I know the parts of her I can’t see are covered in bruises, what Trace left her with before he shot himself in the head.
“We’ve got to go.” I stare at the crowbar between us. You’ve never truly felt the weight of something like that until you’ve destroyed someone with it. “We have to go to Rayford.”
Rayford is supposed to be safe. Survivors there.
It was supposed to be Lily, Sloane, and me in Rayford.
“Sloane,” I say.
She exhales, her lungs working like the lungs of the living are supposed to.
“Okay,” she says.
The girl screams again.
I take a twisting back road in Rayford’s general direction, keeping my eyes out for other survivors, but there are none. Just the wheels kicking up dirt in the rearview. Sloane’s dad’s car is one of those hybrid deals. It’ll get us farther on a half-tank of gas than my dad’s old Chevy ever would, but that doesn’t mean it can run on nothing, so my eyes constantly drift from the road to the needle as it makes that slow drop to the E. I don’t know what I’m going to do when it gets there, but the more immediate concern might be my bladder. I shift and an urgent, unpleasant prickling sensation follows. They don’t tell you what to do about that, what happens when it’s the end of the world, the dead come back to life, and you have to piss. Go in pairs, I guess, and hope the one that doesn’t die is you.
Sloane’s slumped against the seat belt like it’s the only thing holding her up. I told her to sleep, told her there’d be a point she’d have to take the wheel, but her eyes have stayed wide open. The car dips into a pothole and a groan escapes my lips. She turns to me, the question in her eyes, but it’s not coming out of her mouth.
“I have to piss,” I mutter.
It takes her a minute and for that minute, my face burns and it all seems too goddamn stupid to be embarrassed about, but it’s what I’m not saying that’s making it uncomfortable. I have to go to the bathroom and I don’t want to die and then come back with my dick out, so . . .
“Will you cover me?” I ask. She wraps her hand around the crowbar as a response but it’s not enough of one. I take my eyes off the road for a split second and she closes hers and it gets the better of me, just like that. I hit my hand against the wheel before I know what I’m doing and she flinches, but it was both of us running through Cortege. Both of us. She’s not the only one tired or hurting. “Sloane.”
“Yes,” she finally says.
I try not to think about how broken she sounds. No one left alive isn’t. She turns back to the window and I notice then, the handprints on the glass. I concentrate on keeping my eyes on the road, but every so often there’s movement, shadows in the trees. The voice on the radio said to avoid heavily populated areas on the way to Rayford. I thought the back roads would be clear, that there’d be less, if any of them, here.
But why wouldn’t they find themselves here.
“Look how fast they move,” Sloane says softly, like she doesn’t know this, like she hasn’t seen this up close for herself before.
I lick my lips. My mouth is parched as hell and don’t that beat all. When your throat is sandpaper, begging for water, but one sip of it might send your full-up bladder over the edge. I clench my teeth—another pothole—and end up groaning through them.
“Stop,” Sloane says, after I take a left onto a new road. The trees thin, making way for so much space: an out-of-the-way golf course. What was a golf course. The ratty, untended green makes me think of my mother and father, the last time I saw them both. What I did to them with a 6-iron. I push that thought down as far as I can.
“Stop,” Sloane says again because I won’t. There are infected in the distance, on the putting green. They’re oddly still like the sound of our car has captured their attention, but nothing’s inspired them to move—yet.
I don’t want to be the thing that does.
“You can see them coming,” she says. “If you see them, you have time to run.”
And what about her? Would she run?
When we were at the school, we left the safety of the building together to save a man. At least, that’s what I thought we were doing. It was a failed suicide mission for her. When Sloane realized her sister might still be alive, I saw something spark in her but Lily’s gone now, and so is it and I don’t know how to get it back. She thinks too much, is what I think about her. In her head all the time, even when we kissed, when I was touching her in places she’d never been touched before. I can see her stuck inside herself now, stuck back at her house, wrapped around her dead sister’s body.
She’s got to know she can’t stay there.
She’s got to know she’s here, with me.
“Stop,” Sloane whispers and I guess it’s okay because I’m not sure what I would’ve said. I stop the car. It’s wide open out here. Wide open. Those infected on the course, not moving, sniffing the air. I think. I wouldn’t want to be close enough to be able to tell. Sloane and I look at each other and this is all just wasting seconds. The longer we’re stopped, the greater the chance we’ll be seen. I get out of the car and she does the same, our doors creaking out into the world. I turn my back to her and unzip and at first, nothing happens, like I’m wound so tight I can’t even fucking go, but after a second—relief. A successful piss on the side of the road and we didn’t die. What a great time that was. I shake twice and zip up. Sloane’s still going, her side. I keep my eyes fixed on those silhouettes in the distance and all I can think is how could we lose the world to something so still?
But then one of them moves and I remember.
It doesn’t seem right for a dead thing to be so effortless. It turns itself in my direction. Man or woman, I don’t know—that’s how far gone it is.
Whatever it is, it knows we’re here to want.
“Sloane,” I say, as it edges forward, not at full speed yet. Another nearby infected notices, wants whatever is being served up too. “We—we gotta go—” I hear her fumble to pull her pants up and it doesn’t feel fast enough to me. The infected start to run. “Sloane—”
Her door slams shut and it’s too loud. I follow in after her. I turn key, push pedal, and drive. The infected chase us. They chase us until they can’t or maybe they’re still chasing us. Just because I don’t see them anymore doesn’t mean they stopped.
There’s no sign of gas anywhere, not that I’m looking for stations. I rub my eyes. I’m so fucking tired. Sloane’s head lolls uselessly against her window but she never did end up getting herself to sleep. Either way, she’s done and so am I. Stupid, both of us this spent at the same time.
We should have waited for him, should’ve seen if he’d make it back to us. He always knew what to do. I squint at the road. I know where we are, kind of. There’s a town ahead, name starts with—shit. It’s there and then gone and I feel like if I’m leading us now, if it’s me, I should know the stupid name of the stupid fucking town, but I can’t . . .
“What’s the next town? What’s it called?” She doesn’t answer. “We’re going to run out of gas soon. We need to get some. We need to stop and resupply and sleep and—Jesus, Sloane. Just say something, would you? What’s the name of the goddamn town—”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.”
“I’ve never been out of Cortege.”
“My dad . . .” She doesn’t finish.
Her dad. We left him at her house. He’d been mostly consumed by Lily long before we arrived, all his guts dried to the carpet, gluing him there. His teeth were clean, never bit into anything and we just—we walked away. I realize now, how fast that happened, how it felt so unreal but it was real. All of this is real. And her dad is still on the carpet, gnashing his teeth.
“Fairfield,” I say, the name suddenly reappearing from the nowhere it went. “It’s kind of small but it’s nice. It’s, uh . . . they got a lot of nice houses.” Nice, nice, nice. Look at me. She’s finally truly free of the man who beat the shit out of her on a regular basis and I’m trying to sell her on what’s left. Not for the first time, either. “We’ll find something on its outskirts. Get sleep, get gas in the morning.”
“There’s a gas can in the trunk.”
“Got gas in it?”
She shrugs. The sign for Fairfield comes up, what’s left of the sign for Fairfield, anyway. FAIR is there—but the FIELD is long gone, torn off. The wood of it is all broken and splintered, interrupting the cartoonish landscape someone painted behind the town’s name. There’s a blackened, burnt-out husk of an SUV in the ditch, completely flipped over, like a warning for what’s around the bend in the road. The town itself is just beyond that curve and I don’t know what’s waiting for us. I could guess, but even when you think you know . . .
I stop the car and stare at the sign and the longer I stare at it, how wrong it is, the more I panic. The kind of panic it’s too hard to work around. The kind that gets you killed. I don’t know how I’ll get myself out from under it until Sloane opens her door and leaves the car, leaves me just like that. I pull the keys out of the ignition and go after her and every single noise I make doing it startles me into the here and now. The door opening, the rattle of my seat belt recoiling, my feet on the road.
“We need to be in the car,” I say. The sun’s getting low in the sky.
“You can’t check the gas can in the trunk, in the car,” she says.
She makes me feel stupid that I didn’t think of it, that I let that reality slip away just as soon as I knew it existed. But I’m tired. I am so tired. Sloane opens the trunk and I find the gas can next to a woolly blanket that smells of oil and I put all my hope into it being heavy with exactly what we need, but it’s empty. Fuck.
I squeeze my eyes shut, and my eyes like being shut and for a second, I’m gone, I’m asleep on my feet. No one calls me back. The faint pull of gravity jolts me awake. I blink hard and push the blanket aside and find an emergency flare and a flashlight. I turn the flashlight on and it works. Good. At the very back of the trunk there’s clear plastic tubing and I relax just a little because at least we can siphon with it.
Sloane’s wandered over to the SUV. She circles it slowly. She reaches her hand out and tentatively touches its frame, like it might still be hot.
“Not going to find gas in there,” I tell her.
“There’s a body.” Her voice is scratchy. She clears her throat and rubs her forehead and I see how tired I feel in how she looks. There’s something so weary in the way she holds herself, slouched like one of those Cortege Elementary School kids I’d see walking home from school, carrying backpacks bigger than they were.
“Let’s just find a place to sleep,” I say.
“If the town is overrun, we’ll have to . . .”
She trails off. Any other person I’d think the words she’s not saying are keep going. I want them to be the words she’s not saying. I wait for her to come back to me but she doesn’t, so I walk over to her, to where the body is. It’s wedged under the flipped SUV’s roof, burned alive. Head mostly gone. The parts of it that haven’t been ravaged are slowly disappearing back into the earth. There’s an arm reaching across the dirt, a hand, and the few fingers left on it are pointing nowhere. Keep going.