I never would a’ met Death or the Gamblers or the GypCirc or known nothin’ bout the darkworld ‘cept Z got cursed. We never did figure out who did it—his ex, the one he’d just broke up with, had a weird streak, and her mom was definitely into some dark spark stuff, and he’d made a couple a’ enemies just by bein’ him, but we never really knew for sure and neither Death nor the Gamblers told me although I’m sure they knew. Z said more’n once that it weren’t important so I let it go pretty quick but I never stopped wantin’ to know. There was no one I could a’ asked anyway, not once it became unimportant. Suora never told her secrets although I’m sure she found out. The elves didn’t know I don’t think, and if they had known I doubt they would a’ told me, and Sebas and his vamps were so cagey about everything, and probably didn’t know anyway though I bet they could a’ found out eventually.The government was never an option, even just to report the curse, even after it was over, and I didn’t know any sparks I would a’ felt safe trustin’, and there was no one else who might a’ known or could a’ found out so I was stuck. As Z said, it was probably a good thing.
Course, when I say I knew nothin’ bout the darkworld I don’t mean strictly. We both knew a little—me and Z did. We grew up knowin’ a little like everyone else. Dad put the wards up with the chain on the door and carried a protect to work, and cause a’ where we lived we had bars on the windows and a permanent sunset curfew which we were always breakin’. But we didn’t really know. No real human really does, not even the ones who brag about going to vampire bars or darin’ each other up into the hills durin’ full moons which I don’t believe any a’ them ever did despite what they said. We followed the news, heard about the occasional z-demic or blood kill, but that ain’t knowin’. I realized pretty soon that even the burners and stakers don’t really know.
Z and I went to high school together, back when we still lived in the lightworld, mostly, and then college for two years before he got cursed. We had our first smoke together, and went to a blood bar together, but the vampires just sat around lookin’ pissed off and hungry, and it was pretty boring. They’re exclusive bastards but I guess they have to be, ‘specially since dark sparks been legalized for stakers.
Z and I went to the big college in our city, mostly cause it was cheap for city residents and we were both dirt poor. I wanted to start workin’ right away—I was never much for school—but my parents were pissed when I suggested it and Z wanted me to go with him, so I did.
Right after the first semester started our third year, Z died. There was a riot and he took a brick to the stomach and refused to go to the hospital, and a week later he was spittin’ up blood. Course I took him then, but it was already too late. The doc ragged on me pretty hard for that too, but Z told him to lay off, and that it was ok, it was his own fault. I felt bad as hell about it—bad as hell doesn’t even begin to describe how bad I felt—but he told me all night what he’d told the doc—it was ok, it weren’t my fault. In the morning he died. The funeral was the day after, ‘cause we were in the middle of a heat wave and gang scraps had used up all the cold storage, and on a whim I shoved his cell phone into his pocket and whispered to him to call me if he got the chance. When we were kids and we first figured out what death meant we used to promise we’d write if we could.
Two days after we buried him, he did call me.
“Hey, Tam,” he said. His voice was different, like the breath didn’t fit into it properly, but it was definitely his. Besides, he was the only one who ever called me Tam.
“What the hell?” I gasped. I heard a weird, rattling noise from the other end, then he said:
“I know. Messed up, isn’t it?”
“Ain’t yeh dead? Where are yeh?”
“Right where you left me,” and I could hear him laughin’ a little, a weird noise that sent shivers down my spine. “Something didn’t take, Tam. My body definitely shut down, but my soul won’t go.” There was a brief pause while I tried not to scream. “Tam?” Z said hesitantly. “Can you come dig me out? I need a cigarette.”
Z always was a heavy smoker.
I went and dug him out. We’d been so close for so long that I never even stopped to think if I should—only hesitation I had was how in the hell was I going to do it?
I stole a backhoe. Seemed easiest.
Course there weren’t no way I could drag his coffin out a’ that hole, but it didn’t actually matter cause I accidentally smashed the cover in while I was diggin’. Soon’s I heard wood splinterin’ I backed off and shut the digbit off, and then it really hit me—Z was undead. How the hell could that a’ happened? He weren’t a vampire, cause vampires smashed their way out a’ their own graves and besides I’d a’ noticed if he’d been bit. Werewolves ain’t undead, least, not in any ordinary way, and zombies—well. Yeh don’t have time to bury ‘em before they try to eat you. Only other option would a’ been a curse, but I didn’t think a’ that at the time. Curses ain’t very common, ‘specially ones that mess with Death. I hadn’t known why before, but after Z and me met him and talked to Sebas we figured it out pretty quick.
I climbed out a’ the digbit and walked to the edge a’ the hole. I didn’t know what two days under meant if yeh weren’t a vampire or a zombie, so maybe he couldn’t get out by himself. I hesitated once, right on the edge a’ that yawnin’ grave—I didn’t know but what it was going to be pretty nasty—then I crouched on the edge and looked down.
Z was sittin’ on the broke-up lid of his coffin, lookin’ up—watchin’ for me. He didn’t look too bad, considerin’ he’d been dead for two days. He smiled a little, kind a’ sad, when he saw me.
“Can yeh climb up?” I asked, “or do I need to come down and lift?”
He laughed a little, but it sounded wrong—not wrong like, comin’ from somethin’ dead, although it sounded that too, but wrong like someone laughin’ who’s tryin’ not to cry. Hearin’ an undead try not to cry is about the worst thing to be heard.
“Same Tam,” he smiled, “even when I’m dead. I half expected you not to come.”
“When’ve I ever said I’d do somethin’ and not done it?” I retorted, a little irritated.
“I know,” he said, in that mocking way he had, “you’re Tam first and a human being second, if at all. You needn’t come down here to get me—I think if you’ll just reach a hand down I can climb out.”
I reached, and he climbed, and in another minute we were both standin’ on the edge a’ the hole, starin’ down.
“Well,” he said softly, after a minute or two a’ silence had gone by, “so much for that,” and turned away. I glanced at him sideways. Now he was closer I could see the first signs a’ decay—the makeup was gone, though, which was one good thing. I thought it was hideous, but everyone at the funeral had been sayin’ what a good job the undertaker did so I figured it weren’t wise to make a row. I thought it just made him look deader.
“What happened?” I asked suddenly. I hadn’t meant to, cause I thought it might be—I dunno—sensitive, but hell, how could I not?
“Didn’t I tell you over the phone I didn’t know?” Z replied.
“I didn’t mean that way,” I replied, and then I stopped, and wished I hadn’t said nothin’ at all.
“What did you mean?” Z asked softly.
“I didn’t mean nothin’,” I muttered. “Forget I asked.”
“You mean, when did I wake up and realize it hadn’t worked?” Z asked, as though I hadn’t just told him to forget it. I used to hate it when he did that. But he always used to say, “You’ve got to ask questions, Tam. You’ve got to wonder about things. And you know you can ask me anything.” Then he’d sort a’ smile, and add, “You know I can tell when you’re deliberately not asking me something, and I always get it out of you in the end so you might as well.”
So I just said, “Yeah,” and waited.
“I never woke up,” Z said after a minute. He paused, and his fingers sort a’ twitched and he smiled a half-smile. He always looked that way when he wanted a cigarette. I pulled out my pack and handed him one.
“I was never asleep,” he said, and lit it. Smoke, spiderweb gray in the dim light, drifted round his face. “There was a second—one second—like blinking, you know, when everything went black, and then the doctor was—doing things, and the nurses gathered around, and then someone said, ‘We lost him,’ and they took out all the needles and pulled a sheet over my face, and I realized that I’d just died.”
“But yeh hadn’t,” I said. His eyes got sort a’ curious, and he said, “Yes, I had.”
“Yeh hadn’t,” I repeated, startin’ to get hot. “Yeh could a’ sat up, yeh could a’ said somethin’—hell, why didn’t you? I was standin’ right there. Hell, Ar—”
“Don’t!” he said. “Don’t, Tam. Don’t call me by my real name.”
“All right, if yeh don’t want me to,” I answered him finally. “What’ll I call you then? I’ve gotta call you somethin’.”
Z stared at the little orange light glowin’ between his fingers.
“Call me Zombie,” he said. “I’m not one, I know, but it—it used to be a sort of catch-all term for the undead, so it—fits.”
“No. Hell no. I don’t care what it used to mean, I refuse.”
“Z?” he suggested. “Will that do?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Z. Yeah, that’ll do I guess. Hell,” I said again, less wildly, and dropped my head into my hands. It was so bloody weird. And yet havin’ him back, even undead, was less weird than havin’ him be gone. Guess I was a little in shock.
“Yeah,” Z said softly.
“Why not?” I asked, too sudden. He looked at me with the question on his face instead a’ in his mouth. “Why can’t I call you by name?”
He sighed, and dragged on his cig. “Listen, Tam,” he said, soft as the wind. There was a sadness in his eyes, too, that almost broke my heart without me knowin’ why. “It’s not like I’m suddenly alive again, and you can’t treat me like I am. You’ve got to remember all the time that I’m still dead.”
“That’s a sick thing to have to remember,” I muttered. “Yeh were only gone two days and it hurt so much I thought it’d kill me.”
“I know,” Z answered gently, “and I’m sorry, but it’s true.”
I got out a cig for me and lit it.
“All right,” I said sourly. “Fine. Whatever. Have it your way, Ari—Z. Yeh ain’t alive. So what are we s’posed to do now?”
Z flicked his asher away and stood up, brushin’ dust off himself with his unnatural pale hands.
“I guess I have to find someone to fix it,” he said with a quiet little half-smile, like a cat. He caught my expression and added, “Trust me, Tam, this is something that must be fixed. You can’t just have me back.”
I chose to ignore that.
“Hella bad job it’ll be,” I growled, standin’ up too. “Where’re we going to start?”
“I don’t think you should come with me.”
“Try to stop me.”
“It’ll probably get pretty rough.”
I shot him a withering glare. I was always the tough one and he knew it.
“Fine,” he sighed, and lit another asher. “It’ll be hard with you still in school, though.”
“I ain’t going to stay in school now,” I said.
“Of course you’re going to stay in school,” Z replied. “I’ll make it my dying wish if I have to—at any rate, you won’t be a drop-out because of me.”
“I only went cause a’ you,” I reminded him, “and I can’t help you when I’ve gotta go to classes and read all the time, and I ain’t not going to help you so don’t even try to suggest it—again.”
“Fine,” Z said again, and sat a minute in silence. “You can take this semester off instead of the summer semester, I guess, but you’ve got to promise me that when this is all over you’ll go back and finish.”
Seemed like a lot to ask, ‘specially since I’d just dug him out a’ the ground, but he had that look in his eye that said I weren’t gettin’ around it, so I promised. It didn’t occur to me then what exactly this bein’ over meant.
“And now we’re back where we were,” I added. “Where’re we going to start?”
“An excellent question,” Z replied. “I have no idea.”
“Me neither,” I said, “but it don’t matter much right now cause it’s almost dawn—too late to go lookin’ for anyone that could help. We’ll have to hide you for the day and I’ll go do school stuff, and maybe by tonight one a’ us will have an idea.”
Z looked up and east, and saw the sun startin’ to rise. He didn’t say anything, just watched it for a minute, and I wondered what it was like lyin’ underground for two days, seein’ nothin’ but black. It was too easy to imagine. I wanted to hit someone.
“All right,” he said finally. “Any ideas where I should hide?”
“Lots a’ abandoned buildings a couple blocks east,” I replied. “You remember them, right by the Caves. Their nightuard got elfed and they ain’t really replaced him yet—guy who does it now just drives around every couple hours. C’mon, we can make it in before day shift if we hurry a little.”
We got in ’n time, and I left Z holed up in a third floor office with my cigarettes while I took care a’ school stuff. I went and talked to the placer first, and told him I needed some time off, just a semester, and he said, “Yes, of course. We were so sorry to hear about your friend,” and promised to arrange it all for me. I went back to my dorm room—used to be me and Z’s dorm room, but his mother had already moved all his stuff out—and packed up my own stuff and moved it into storage. Fortunately I was never much for stuff, so it didn’t take too long. Then I called my parents, which was the worst part, told them I was takin’ some time off and not to expect to see or hear from me for a little while, and they were nowhere near as understanding as the placer was, but they couldn’t do much about it ‘cept lecture me which they’d been doing for years and I mostly just didn’t listen. By that time it was almost dark, dark enough, anyway, so I went back to the office building, dodgin’ the nightguard, and found Z pretty much right where I’d left him, smokin’ and lookin’ out the window with a thoughtful look on his face. It was all almost surprisingly easy.