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Hold On To This Lullaby

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Rosie pieces together the beginning of her life from other people's stories. She hears from Leah, who knew her the longest, about what a sweet-hearted and intelligent baby she was, thoughtful in a quiet way. She tells the story of how they met a lot, and Rosie never gets tired of it. One of the dead brought her to them alive, Leah says. His living self played a trick on him, laughing at his own dumb body from beyond the grave. The man, her father, kept moving for the sake of her even after he'd been dead for hours, never once making a move to hurt her. A good storyteller, Leah describes the white balloon trailing behind them to keep her smiling -- this will be important later, she teases.

The story gets rocky after that -- for the longest time this man who brought her to them like a small round baby angel just disappeared from the tale, never mentioned, and Rosie did not question this. He simply fell to the ground at that moment, leaving Leah and Denis -- after a painfully dramatic moment, a pause during which Rosie holds her breath longer every time -- to discover her in his baggage, her name drawn in felt marker on her belly.

Eventually she must discover that they shot the man, her father, who was no longer her father but a vicious snarling creature. By the time she's old enough to know this, she already suspects. He'd tricked himself for so long but there wasn't anything in his mind. The subject quickly returns to the balloon, yes. She was crying inconsolably, very uncharacteristically they'd later learn, and none of them minded because it had been so long since any of them had heard that sound. Only months after the Panic started in full, children had become a scarcity in this area at least, where the youngest survivor anybody knew was a 15-year-old track medalist. There'd been a pregnant woman whose baby never lived, who walked like a ghost afterwards and would mutter numb reassurances that it was just as well, in a world like this, and she didn't let herself weep until Rosie came to them, and never smiled until then either.

The crying that first day, though. It was such a pure sound it didn't even bother them at first, which seemed silly later -- that they didn't even check her diaper, or whether she was hungry. Like a newborn, her crying was taken as birth and relief, a hiccup and moan through her pacifier bringing Leah all the joy that laughter would. It was almost 15 minutes later when they saw that her view of that white balloon had been obscured. "Of course!" this is the part Leah would exclaim for effect. She soon calmed after that, and Leah wrapped her in a heavy blanket and held her until sunset.

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The camp had started with seven people -- meaning it wasn't a place, it was just the seven, pacing around themselves and trying to head north and northeast to Kakadu, a park or a fort somewhere, a place like that. They were planning on going to the ocean, at one point. It wasn't how you'd imagine from movies, where the dark abandoned wilderness places were the scariest to be, and more lights and crowds and highways were civilized. They wanted to be away from roads, where the reanimated had multiplied in their greatest concentration. They'd find other groups along the way, make friends, make alliances. The camp ended up being a place, not just a group -- or maybe it was them being absorbed into another group, one that seemed to have a stable sort of situation. They met people who carried the air of Grown-Ups, not falsely confident but making the best of the situation, and they got an idea to fortify where they were, near that downed food supply truck, a stone's throw from Alice Springs and underneath a satellite tower -- the tower mattered more than the satellite, the tower was where they could always have someone on watch, a safeguard before the braver of them set out looking for supplies to build a gate. They were 22 people by then. They'd start to grow more than shrink. They started being the place others were trying to Get To.

Rosie had to get by on water for a while, they don't see a way of getting formula unless they go back into the town, and no one quite wanted to ask that woman who'd been pregnant if she could still aid in that. Leah mashed up food for her that she seemed to like, though. Canned peas, canned carrots, that kind of thing, mashed up the way she remembered babies are supposed to have it, on account of their teeth.

The balloon lasted another three days before it started to lose its air. That's what happens when they don't pop or blow away -- one day enough of the helium leaks that they're just floating closer and closer to the ground, the gravity gets to them.

"Uh ba," Rosie said like a statement, waving her hand toward it.

"Yeah, I know," an older woman said.

Rosie blew a raspberry and tapped the ground with her pudgy fists. "Ba?" she said again.

When Leah was a kid, the way balloons did this always seemed sad to her. Most of her friends would release theirs before they got to that point, and she'd always done that on purpose -- imagine it flying over other towns, other continents, free and untethered in your eyes forever as it soars in an endless adventure. You could even imagine it coming back someday, against all logic and luck. Not becoming a sad and useless tangible object whose otherworldly magic had gone away, so you weren't even sad it ended up in the trash. But it seemed different now with Rosie here, and so many other things blown away for good. It seemed saving the balloon, whatever little piece was left of it, holding it forever, was better than letting it go.

Someone stretched the empty balloon over a wooden brick and drew a sort of face on it, a big enough toy that Rosie wouldn't try to swallow it or anything, and they'd make puppet shows with it that made her gurgle joyously and clap her hands.

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Rosie no longer had the map that led her father there; it was worn and blood-spattered apparently. But she was told it had the nearest places marked SAFE and here in New Alice was one of them, or close enough -- there were debates about checking out those other places, and the nearest turned out to be a wash, no dead but no survivors in sight either. What they couldn't make of the map is where Rosie had started from, though they tried. It would've been a nice thing to know.

She was never told this part, but some of the more paranoid members of the group would talk about how good it was she was quiet. Denis had wanted to leave for a while, wanted to keep moving and go by that map, and kept whispering how it would draw attention if she cried. Not just from the dead but any other psychos who might be out there along the way. He wanted Leah to go with him but not if she was gonna bring the baby along, tried to convince her Rosie would still be safe in New Alice with the others who weren't moving, even though this whole time he'd been crying about them not being safe. "There's more of them coming every day. What about when we can hit 'em all from a mile anymore?

"This one had a survivor," she argued. "We still get those too. Where are they supposed to go?"

"Great, we just gotta hope they're all dragging babies, that'll even it out."

Sometimes he seemed to circle and dance around this idea, that it might've been better if the girl had died with her family, that it would be better for her to die now. Even Wayne who'd been one of the Grown-Up types kept saying things like, "We're stuck with it now, that's all. We're stuck with it." Leah's hands shook and part of her wanted to put a knife to Denis' throat and tell him just to go. Just go if you don't wanna be with us. He was as dead weight to them as a baby, with a lot less potential of getting more useful. What'd he ever done but dream about maps? But she didn't want to be like that, because she'd known him for so long. He was from her hometown, went to school with her, was one of the original seven. He didn't leave for real until a few years later, taking three guns and a guy named Rob Bentley with him. Rosie grew up saying all good things about him. Leah would say he was out kicking ass and adventuring, and that sometime against all luck, he'd find his way back.

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The man who was Rosie's father had a grave, which was unusual. Not many people were hung up on the burying tradition -- most of them were so afraid, even for the genuinely sick, even for those who died of natural causes or non-Zed injuries, that somehow they would keep rising again. So almost all of the dead in that town were burned. They'd made a little monument to that man, though, and soon other people were leaving their photographs and things around it too, and then it was just a field of memories that always made Rosie tear up in a warm way to visit.

She didn't leave her objects there, though. She grew up with a collection of things, stored in a plastic bag of her own with a flower drawn on the side (more a daisy than a rose, Wayne told her once, but that was simpler to draw). Things that hadn't fallen out when the man who was her father presumably stumbled against some brush and ripped a hole in the side of his bag: A tattered sticker of a woman that had been pulled from the back of a car, one of those Our Family sets that were common before, to signify that she'd had a mother and this crudely drawn stick figure would be the closest to a picture of her. A set of Fisher-Price figures, or the mismatched remnants of several sets -- a medieval queen, an airplane pilot, a yellow-shirted boy and a dog with spotted ears. That black marker she got to keep too, long after the ink ran dry and the temporary tattoo her father gave her had been washed off her skin ages ago. A pastel pink dress with a flower bow attached, also.

It was the dress that confused people more than anything. Who did this packing, they had to wonder, and why did her dad think to hold onto such a thing, like she might go to a party. But they'd never met the girl's parents to ask them, they could not know how rational or sentimental they were, and it wasn't not fair to judge the dead. It was a pretty dress and one she never wore. Looking at it later, sometimes Rosie imagined they were saving it for after the military came, or after there was a cure, and everything was over and they were celebrating and needed her to look as clean and special as she could. One of those iconic magazine pictures symbolizing hope, which did become really popular after the "war" ended, but never involved her. She grew too big for it, before long.

She remembered a sense of her parents' faces for a while, at least she thought she did. One time she thought of her mom being blond like her, but that could've just been Leah, the blondest person who held her as a baby and never left her side. There was an image of darker hair maybe, and yellow flowers on a dress, that she couldn't remember anyone in the camp having. One time when she was five, she noticed a man named Jeff wore a digital watch stuck on a permanent 12:00. He'd carved the number into it. She told him she remembered a light flashing those numbers from a big picture box, while everything else was dark and someone rocked her to sleep, and he told her that was real, it sounded like the clocks on a cable TV.

Another time she remembered the shape of the plastic chairs on an outside porch, like their tower but not, and a sound of somebody hammering, in the lazy way of making furniture and not the urgent way of making a barricade. She remembered these things so hard and so intensely that it built into a greater story in her mind; the echo of that memory became a memory itself. She was sure that was from her folks, as certain as the crumpled piece of latex that was once a balloon, and the lines of her stick figure Mother she would trace sometimes at night, by the light of the generator overhead.

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They marked the day she came to them, May 21st, as her birthday, because it seemed she should have a birthday. So Rosie was always about a half a year removed from the age she was supposed to be, but it felt exact enough. By the time she was three, there were nearly 50 of them in the camp, and all of them wanted in some way to be parents to her, letting her toddle after them and lighting up the first time she called their name. The next year, there was another child a year older than her, who arrived nestled within a group of siblings, almost feral and fierce in their protectiveness of each other. When Rosie was five, she was no longer the youngest anymore, and there were kids who didn't exist in the world before the Panic at all. She was still special in that way, the last to be born in the time before.

It was already the time before, less than a year in. Some couldn't stop talking about it -- what their job was in the other world, what kinds of foods they missed, all the names and talents of the people they'd lost -- and others shrugged off every mention of before with a glassy-eyed look on their face. Some people held their last names, like a talisman of that other life, others didn't. (Some like Ollers only went by their last names, which was something people used to do mostly in prison or the army.) Rosie was only ever Rosie, and everyone knew who she was.

She always wanted to know the most about it, how much was the same (the color of the sky, the sort of clothes people wore) and how much was different (the music on every radio station -- she doesn't even know about the radio until she's old enough to register news reports and soul-breaking pleas for help; how many people had pets and it wasn't just their one dog Shady sniffing out survivors and the bitten).

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When they write the histories after, they'll say this camp was one of the Blue Zones the government said they didn't abandon but effectively did. They'd fly supplies overhead now and then, to great joy and relief, but nobody was stopping the dead but them.

Rosie learned some close-up combat when she was seven, as soon as she was old enough not to hurt herself with a something that heavy or sharp. It's almost never that she'd seen one of them up close herself, but it could always happen, so any concerns about preserving "innocence" were moot when it could mean the difference between life and death. More than once they showed the kids a dead, really dead one, and the evidence of how it was killed -- always by attacking the head, which is unfortunately the hardest part to reach. But the most important thing they learned was RUN. Don't fight if you don't need to, if you see one coming, you just run away. You're faster than they are, they always said. Remember that and don't freeze up. Run, and watch where you're going so you don't trip, but if you trip keep running. There are things besides the head that can slow them down, but they don't feel hurt like living people do, and that could just make you cocky. Run.

And if you get bit, tell someone. The instructor's voice would hiccup when she told them that. She'd go on, "You may just think you're bit and you aren't. If you tell an adult, they'll look at you and see it's just a cut and some other blood. It's better you tell, to put your mind at ease." Some other kids might fall for that, but Rosie knew better. It took hours for people to change into vicious snarling creatures like not-her-father, but they always did, and they couldn't let that happen.

The grown-ups tried not to sound too hateful, and to remember the dead used to be like them, with friends and family and souls and brains, but they couldn't think of them like that anymore. "It's not like saying another kind of people aren't people," Leah said once. "These AREN'T. They don't feel pain, or fear, or any other desire but in their teeth. Do you understand?" The first part sounded good to Rosie sometimes.

She stayed up all night sometimes thinking about getting bit, clutching her stretched-out balloon on the wooden block whose silly face had worn away, and she thought of not telling anybody. She knew that made her a coward, probably, but she didn't care about that. It did make her sad to think about hurting somebody else, though. She thought about ways to trick her deadself into doing something like she'd always heard that man did. To keep moving for someone else's sake. She invented ways she would go into the wider world, one mindless foot stepping in front of the other, and return back to the camp with supplies during a dry spell, so nobody else would have to. She imagined doing all the work they needed when they were getting old and tired, and pacing outside like their dog Shady to defend them from others.

She would realize one day, much older, that she was really imagining ways of being fearless, without a head to tell her to stop, without a life worth hanging on to for herself. It sounded good sometimes, but she'd rather keep her soul and her brain and her friends.

The one time Rosie saw one that was dead and not really-dead, it had knocked Leah onto the ground in the field of memories, and she was kicking and crawling frantically by herself. And even though everyone had told her to RUN, Leah was right now yelling at her to run -- and she knew they meant the other direction, she knew they meant run to the tower and run for help and run somewhere safe -- she found herself running forward toward it and sticking a knife through its foot, pinning it to the ground beneath, and when it tried to turn and snarl at her, it tripped and fell on its side, and Leah got herself free and hacked at its head finally, with the closest heavy thing she had to her, which was the wood brick with the balloon-face stretched over it. "God damn it," Leah kept saying afterwards, crying and holding her until sunset.

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She learned something even more important than all that, though, the same year, and she remembered it better that the Running stuff. She and the other kids learned numbers and letters. She already knew how to sing the alphabet, but she knew how to write it now too. Tammy, a woman with tight frizzed-up hair and smudged glasses, who said she used to wear contacts -- those were small glasses you put inside your eyes -- she almost cried when they found the sheets and sheets of paper in their newest batch of supplies.

"You don't know what this means," she said clinging to the reams of them. She had a purse full of crumpled old notes and letters that she'd filled every inch of with pen and pencil marks, and had only showed them to Rosie before. After a lot of argument she let them set some of those stacks aside for kindling, but she made them all promise to keep the rest for her, to divide up among everybody and to teach the kids how to read. A lot of the adults started writing diaries then. They started writing books all about themselves. Rosie wanted to write one too, but just now she had three sheets filled front and back with letters. A to Zed, like the dead. (Some people would cross out the whole last line of Z's or tear it off the page when they were done, like a superstition. Benjamin, who was one of the kids, would spit twice in their direction and make a cross mark with his hands, like his grandma used to.)

The first thing Rosie put in her book was the stick-figure Mother from the car. She wrote a story about her, and her father tricking himself, and Leah and Tammy and Denis having adventures outside New Alice and Jeff carving numbers in his watch and the blinking 12 and the porch chairs and Shady and the balloon. She had so much to write, before she even got to the knife through the foot, that she ran out of room and had to ask for more paper.

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There are 3 zeds attacking. Sue's gun has 7 bullets. How many bullets will she have left, if it takes her 2 shots to defeat each zed? This was a tough problem and made Rosie chew on a strand of her hair.

It didn't help she was distracted, because they gave her pink dress away to another baby that was born, named Janelle. It made her heart twist, like losing one of the only pieces of her childhood, something that meant something even though she wasn't quite sure what. But she was 12 years old, and 12 is enough not to have spite toward a baby as small as Janelle, and to know it's mean and childish to make a fuss about it.

It was baby Janelle who did end up wearing it when the military came, even though it wasn't so clean and special by then, 'cause she'd been wearing it a lot.

They say the war ended two weeks after she turned thirteen, exactly. (But not exact, because her birthday was never her birthday, it was May 21st when her father tricked himself into keeping her safe and her stick-figure mother with her yellow dress was gone.) Some countries said it ended sooner, others still feel it's not over without science making a "cure," nothing to help the afflicted or vaccinate the living. So that doesn't feel like an end, some people mutter, when the whole thing could start again from just one bite, another outbreak in some city. But the living have outnumbered the undead again for quite a long time, and the latter numbers diminish every day, shot down or frozen in the colder parts of the world or finally starved of living bodies and unable to keep moving for their own sakes. Plus they know so much more now, the radio says, and with that knowledge and vigilance it could never happen as badly again; they could never be overtaken by surprise by people who only seemed "sick" at first, only seemed like fluke incidents until they were too many to control.

It was all very big for Rosie to think about, so she went back to her bag of keepsakes. She wonders what she'll save of the people she knew and grew up with here, as some of them leave and go to other continents, now that it's safe -- some like Tammy had already gone seeking temporarily-separated relatives, some left to "take back" their country months earlier, others planted themselves more firmly and said they never want to leave New Alice. For the kids who were leaving, Rosie wants to divide up her old toys, the queen and the pilot she never played with anymore, her old blanket. All she needed to save was her large stack of paper, on which she still pieced together her stories and everyone else's.

She didn't leave for real until a few years later, walking one foot in front of the other with her soul and brains, behind Leah who'd known her the longest. She would do many things, she would see the world, she would remain as thoughtful and sweet-hearted, but the first thing she would do is find a bag of balloons in one of those big, old party stores that had not been torn down or reopened yet. She found a set of exactly 180, which was close to the number in New Alice then, and gave one to every person there, to use in whatever way kept them moving. And then she would be gone, flying over other continents, free and untethered in their eyes forever.