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The Strange Misadventures of Octavius Jones MAG
I knocked on the wrong door. It wasn't my fault – it was late and dark, and the apartment building was annoyingly built so that each floor was a replica of the others. And whoever heard of not counting the ground floor as a level?
Anyway, it turned out that I'd knocked on 3B instead of 4B, and no one answered. I wasn't that worried. I hadn't told my aunt I was coming, but it was only like ten, so she wouldn't be asleep yet. I'd wait outside, I decided, until she came home from wherever she was. I settled in the hallway, watching the shadows from the flickering overhead light play over the mustard wallpaper.
It was too quiet. I stood, craving the noise and company of a New York City night, and skittered down the steep stairs and out the door, carrying my duffel bag. I sat on the highest sandstone step with relief, breathing in the sticky June air and welcoming the harsh streetlight pooling on the sidewalk and the rainbows of Eighth Avenue to my left.
Then a pile of shadows on the lower step moved, and I realized it was a guy, maybe twenty-five, in a black sweatshirt.
“Oh, sorry,” I said lamely. “I didn't know anyone was out here.”
“It's fine,” he said. His voice was hoarse, and the first prickle of unease hit before he turned to face me.
His skin still had a tinge of the caramel it must have once had, but now it was ashen, with a smudging of gray around the eyes. Since the Outbreak two years before, that deep grayness had become a common sight, but I still started slightly at the sight of the zombie sitting four steps below me.
That's not politically correct. I heard Janie's prim voice in my head, an echo of our discussion a week ago. The correct term is Undead, or Viventes Mortuae. Not zombies. But the word that popped into my head when I saw him (it?) was definitely zombie, like in the kids' books I'd read when they were only characters. That was how they were originally referred to when the first cases were made public on TV. I remember standing in the living room with Mom and Janie, just twelve then, mothers and daughters united in shock. We stared at the screen and tried to make sense of the announcer's words. “This is Jennifer Hawkins, fifty-seven. Ms. Hawkins died Tuesday morning from a stroke, and today, here she is. Jennifer, any comments?”
The zombie boy's mouth twitched. “Sorry if I scared you.” He watched me with shadowed eyes.
“No, you didn't – I mean, I'm not scared … sorry,” I said, internally berating myself for having this stupid idea of coming outside. “It's just, I don't see many-” I broke off, brushing my boy cut out of my face.
“You can call me a zombie. I don't consider it derogatory.”
Honestly, he was pretty chill for a dead guy. And he wouldn't be here if he was one of the dangerous ones, I figured. They're sent to a locked government facility. They'd opened a ton of those, to use as holding places for the corpses that they collected right after death. It seemed to be random who stayed dead, who woke up calmly, or who woke up with an insatiable hunger for brains. The still-dead bodies got returned to the families with an apology, and the brain-eaters were locked away, but the others went about their normal non-lives, I guess. They weren't that uncommon a sight, but they did stick together, probably as a result of the living usually trying to avoid them. I know that they scared a lot of people, and right after the Outbreak many terrified apartment-dwellers called in complaints that their downstairs dead neighbor was going to eat them. So the government had the idea of zombies living together, if they wanted. In New York alone there were a number of Undead Housing Communes – or Zombie Projects, as I called them in an attempt to annoy Janie.
I realized with a start that he was holding a book. I leaned forward and recognized it. “I love Pete Hamill,” I exclaimed, forgetting to be nervous.
“He's pretty good.” He held up Forever. “Have you read it?”
“Yeah, it's great. What part are you on?”
“I've actually read it before. I'm …” his voice trailed off.
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “You know the plot? Guy lives forever in New York?”
“Yeah.” Something clicked in my brain. “Sounds familiar, I guess,”
“You have no idea.” He smiled – a small, sardonic smile, but a smile nonetheless. “Immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be.”
I frowned and slid down a step. “I-”
“I know, right? A zombie having an existential crisis. Kinda contradictory.” There was a darkness in his eyes that I didn't think had anything to do with being a zombie. It was the same darkness that had been in Mom's eyes for weeks after Dad's accident.
“Nah,” I said. “It makes sense. I wouldn't really want to live forever. Especially if my skin was, like, falling off.” I looked at him hurriedly. “Not that yours is. I mean, it will eventually … I'll shut up.” I turned away.
He gave a laugh in that hoarse voice. “What's your name?”
“Chloe,” I said, and then, before my brain could tell them not to, my lips blurted, “How did you die?”
He raised one dark eyebrow, making me instantly jealous. It really wasn't fair that a corpse could do that when I couldn't. “Not usually the question I get in return,” he said mildly. “Usually it goes ‘What's your name?' ‘Chloe. What's yours?'”
“Sorry.” I could feel my cheeks heating. We were quiet for a minute.
“Octavius. My name is Octavius Jones.” I stared stupidly, and he blew a rush of air through his nose – habit, I guess, since the dead don't have to breathe. “I'm dead, not nameless.”
“But … Octavius?”
If he'd still had running blood, he might have blushed. As it was, an embarrassed expression crept over his face. “My mom really liked weird names, I think because our last name is so boring.”
I stopped myself from asking “You have a mom?” just in time, but I think he saw the surprise on my face. Luckily, he didn't seem offended. “More people than you'd think are surprised by that. If we're not alive, we don't have a life and all that.”
“You don't have a life,” I said. “Not exactly.” I looked at him sideways to gauge his reaction. I thought he wouldn't take offense after not minding all the other stupid questions I'd asked. Then again, if he was offended, he might eat my brain.
But he didn't lunge for my skull; he shrugged. “I guess not.”
“I'm sorry about all the stupid questions,” I said. “I've never really talked with a zombie before.”
“Most people haven't. They tend to avoid us.” He said it mildly, but there was an undercurrent I couldn't place.
“You seem pretty calm about the whole, um, dead thing.”
He clasped his hands behind his dark curls and leaned back. “Yep. I am one chill eternally dead guy, sitting on a stoop in the middle of Chelsea.”
“Yeah, um … why are you here? No offense.”
“I could ask you the same question,” he said mildly. He tilted his head toward the apartment building. “My mom lives there. I was visiting for dinner. We don't really need to eat, but we decay faster without nutrients.” I nodded, taken aback by the matter-of-fact tone of his voice. “And I decided to sit here for a while. I also don't need to sleep, but – I don't know – I didn't feel like going home.”
“I know the feeling.” All of my remaining awkwardness and fear disappeared at his last words. “I tried to crash at my aunt's tonight instead of my mom's, because my mom'll rub it in my face. But my aunt's not home yet.”
“She'll rub what in your face?”
I sighed, tracing the stone grains of the step with one finger. “I got kicked out of my apartment. I was sharing with a friend, but she moved to Bed Stuy with her boyfriend and I couldn't pay the rent on my own. But I didn't want to borrow from my mom. So now she's going to go all righteous and ‘I told you so.'” I took a breath. “Sorry.”
“Pouring out all my problems. You must think I'm an idiot.”
“Hey. I told you about my existential crisis.” He gave a half-smile, and I mirrored it. We sat in silence.
A gay couple, one wearing a rainbow tie-dyed T-shirt and the other red skinny jeans, walked past with clasped hands. I absentmindedly watched them enter the bar. The street wasn't quiet, not with the throngs of people on the nearby avenue, but it was oddly still, the only others two police officers chatting in front of the precinct down the block.
“It was cancer,” Octavius Jones the zombie said suddenly. “Leukemia. Which is ironic, because I spent so many years of my life worrying that I wouldn't have enough time, and now I'm worrying that I'll have too much.”
What the hell could I say to that? Two years before, no one had to worry about living while all their friends and family died, living until the flesh rotted off their body and even their teeth crumbled. No one had to worry about waking up a ravenous murderer, ready to devour friend or foe. No one had to worry that their dad would wake up after being hit by a car and try to eat them, or not wake up at all.
Which is worse?
“To be, or not to be?” I asked quietly. The combination of existentialism and reading Pete Hamill told me he'd probably understand what I meant – that I was asking if he was pondering the same question that Hamlet does.
“What if you can't choose?” he asked, but he wasn't looking at me. He was staring out at the street. “What then? You're screwed?”
I shook my head. “I don't think so.”
“What do you think, then?”
My mind flashed to the story I'd told nine-year-old Janie to help her sleep after Dad's accident. It was this ongoing novel about a girl who dies, wakes up, and lives forever. This was still years before the Outbreak, and I didn't call her a zombie, but it was similar enough. She gets to see the world change but also has to watch all her friends die. I called it “The Strange Misadventures of Alexa Denton-James.” It had failed at making Janie feel better.
With Alexa in my head, I turned to him. “I think that you need a lot of friends,” I said.
He looked at me for a long moment with that one eyebrow raised. Then his mouth quirked up, still slightly sadly. But all he said was, “You should tell your mom about the rent thing. I don't think she'll gloat as much as you think.”
A group of teenage girls passed, unknowing or uncaring that there was a zombie on the stoop. “Hmm,” I said.
He stood, finally, fluidly. He didn't stretch – a body that doesn't cramp doesn't need un-stiffening. He slipped Forever into the black string bag at his feet and slung it over one shoulder. “I gotta go. It was nice to meet you.”
The zombie turned and walked down the block. It was now or never if I was going to ask; when was the next time I'd get to hang out with a zombie? I wavered for a moment.
“Octavius!” He turned.
“Can I ask you a kind of personal question?”
He didn't look surprised. “I don't remember what it was like to die,” he said. “I remember closing my eyes, when I was alive, and then I remember waking up as a zombie.”
I blinked. “That-that wasn't what I was going to ask, but you don't?”
Surprise did creep onto his ashy face then. “No, I don't. You weren't going to ask that? It's what everyone wants to know. It was one of the first things even my family asked.”
“No, I shouldn't have assumed. What's your question?”
I studied his gray-gold face. “Are you glad you came back?” I asked quietly.
He looked at me, still standing there, bag slung over his shoulder. “I'm not sure,” he said finally. “I'll let you know.”
I half-smiled. “You're a pretty chill zombie,” I said. “Thanks for not eating me.”
He grinned, a flash of white in his dusky gray skin, and disappeared into the bar at the end of the block.