The cracked pavement rumbles under our truck's tyres. It abuses the old Ford's creaky suspension, making a quiet roar like stifled rage. I look at my dad. He looks older than I remember. Weaker. He grips the steering wheel hard. His knuckles are white.
'Dad?' I say.
'Where are we going to go?'
I watch him carefully. 'Are there still safe places?'
He hesitates, too long. 'Someplace safer.'
Behind us, in the valley where we used to swim and pick strawberries, eat pizza and go to movies, the valley where I was born and grew up and discovered everything that's now inside me, plumes of smoke rise. The gas station where I bought Coke Slushies is on fire. The windows of my grade school are shattered. The kids in the public swimming pool are not swimming.
'Dad?' I say.
'Is Mom coming back?'
My dad finally looks at me, but says nothing.
'As one of them?'
He looks back at the road. 'No.'
'But I thought she would. I thought everyone comes back now.'
'Perry,' my dad says, and the word seems to barely escape his throat. 'I fixed it. So she won't.'
The hard lines in his face fascinate and repel me. My voice cracks. 'Why, Dad?'
'Because she's gone. No one comes back. Not really. Do you understand that?'
The scrub brush and barren hills ahead start to blur in my vision. I try to focus on the windshield itself, the crushed bugs and tiny fractures. Those blur, too.
'Just remember her,' my dad says. 'As much as you can, for as long as you can. That's how she comes back. We make her live. Not some ridiculous curse.'
I watch his face, trying to read the truth in his squinted eyes. I've never heard him talk like this.
'Bodies are just meat,' he says. 'The part of her that matters most . . . we get to keep that.'
'Come here. Look at this.'
The wind makes a ripping sound through the shattered plate glass of the hospital we're salvaging. Julie steps to the window's edge with me and looks down.
'What's it doing?'
'I don't know.'
On the snow-dusted street below, a single zombie walks in a loose circle. It bumps into a car and stumbles, slowly backs up against a wall, turns, shuffles in another direction. It makes no sound and doesn't seem to be looking at anything. Julie and I watch it for a few minutes.
'I don't like this,' she says.
'It's . . . sad.'
'What's wrong with it?'
It stops in the middle of the street, swaying slightly. Its face displays absolutely nothing. Just skin stretched over a skull.
'I wonder how it feels,' she says.
'To be like them.'
I watch the zombie. It starts swaying a little harder, then it collapses. It lies there on its side, staring at the frozen pavement.
'What's it . . . ?' Julie starts, then stops. She looks at me with wide eyes, then back at the crumpled body. 'Did it just die?'
We wait in silence. The corpse doesn't move. I feel a wriggling sensation inside me, tiny things creeping down my spine.
'Let's go,' Julie says, and turns away. I follow her back into the building. We can't think of anything to say all the way home.
Breathe those useless breaths. Drop this piece of life you're holding to your lips. Where are you? How long have you been here? Stop now. You have to stop.
Squeeze shut your stinging eyes, and take another bite.