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To Fight His Corner

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Sue cannot recall the last time she and Steve had a fight, but they have a tense, bitter argument over the clothes for Kieren's burial. Steve is utterly unreasonable (Sue just wants Kieren to be comfortable, Steve insists on formal and gloomy). After an hour, Sue stops talking, won't even look anymore as Steve lifts up options ("This'd be nice"), pulls items from the cupboard ("Hmm, clean and pressed; could work"). Eventually though, he stops, fists clenched, let's out a loud and surprising shout ("God dammit Sue!"), then grabs a stack of shirts from Kieren's chest of drawers and flings them across the bed (at her?). He storms down the stairs and slams out the door.

The shirts smell of Kieren. Sue lies down on the scattered pile, closes her eyes, breathes.

Later, Steve is home, he's been walking. They share a silent supper. Jem disappears upstairs while Sue washes up, then reappears with a pile of clothes, drops it all on the sofa. "There. Sorted." Glares, clomps away up the stairs (Later, Sue realizes she's wearing a pair of Kieren's boots; she wears them for years).

Denim jacket, jeans, worn plaid shirt with grey hood.

It's what Kieren was wearing Saturday last, day before he disappeared. Last time they saw him.

"Oh. Oh no," Sue breathes, just before shuddering sobs rip out of her, and luckily Steve is there. She can't grab hold of him tight enough.

*

Kieren's been gone twenty days when the dead rise from their graves.

There hasn't been time, for anything. Sue doesn't even believe he's dead most days, time passes dreamlike, she feels like she's waiting, waiting for it all to be different. Two times she's made Kieren breakfast before remembering. Another day she shouts his name when she needs the wooden bowl that's up too high for her to reach. He doesn't come.

It's Christmastime. Sue cannot even remove the box of decorations from the loft. Jem is stormy and cruel ("Not even a stocking? So you've nothing left for me?") and Sue doesn't even feel it, Jem's anger just passes through her like she's a ghost.

Steve walks, hours at a time rambles, hasn't spoken more than a few observations about the weather since the funeral.

The first night, (the night they all later refer to as The Rising), it's just a roulette wheel, who lives and who dies. In the morning, there is no sign that anything unusual has happened for several hours. They go about their mourning: breakfast, silence, Jem storming upstairs to her room and slamming the door. The first siren is round ten. Unusual, enough for Sue to note it, wonder where Geoff is off to so quickly. Crime is rare in Roarton; the constable speeding through the village unheard of.

A few minutes later, three strange police cars speed past, sirens blaring. Sue has never seen three police cars in Roarton before, can't even imagine where they've come from. She pulls on a cardigan, walks to the pavement to see what direction they are heading, but they are already gone. Ken Burton is at his window, several other neighbors have opened their doors or have stepped out, curious. This is why there are so many witnesses to what happens next.

Down the street, a lurching figure appears. It's obvious to Sue right off the top that something is not right: a twist to the head, stiff legs, filthy, dressed oddly, as if attending a formal dance. She's dragging something, and Sue is too far away, but then someone screams ("Oh god! Geoff!") and Sue looks closer and realizes the lurching woman is dragging their constable by the leg, and that he's very, very dead.

The fog lifts off of Sue in that moment, no more waiting, the adrenaline shot of danger sending her back into the house at a run, to the horrified shouts of her neighbors. That's how it begins.

*

They watch it unfold on television.

The initial reports are garbled, confused. No one in London understands what's happened any more than anyone in Roarton. It's about twenty-four hours after the first mangled bodies are found that someone notices something odd about a graveyard, and for the first time a reporter uses the word: zombie. Sue would laugh and change the channel if she hadn't seen what had happened to Geoff Shipley.

Sue, Steve, and Jem all watch together, long into the night, locked tight into the house. It's Jem who finally says what they are all thinking, looking at the shots of yawning graves, open coffins. She whispers it, and it sends shivers up Sue's spine.

"Kieren," she says.

*

They all imagine the army will be arriving any day now. Or that this will all be proved a hoax. Sue hasn't seen any other...creatures like the one who killed Geoff, but they are all over the television news reports and the internet. It's like watching a film.

No one goes out. Sue, Steve, and Jem hover around each other, colliding and separating like pinballs into their own regions of the house, trying to balance this unreal fear with the growing reality that Kieren's truly gone. It's all so surreal that they can't even discuss it. Steve stops talking at all, and Jem communicates by slamming doors and blasting music (that horrible noise Kieren gave her, most days). Sue cooks, cooks meal after meal, and no one really eats much.

After a week, the members of the Roarton shooting club (Tom and Donna Wilshell, Carl Peele, Bill Macy) start a community safety patrol, armed, walking from house to house to check in and see if anyone needs any food or help or supplies. Sue hasn't seen Bill since Kieren...left, not since the news about Rick. He appears at their door and asks if they need any food or supplies, doesn't even meet her eyes, doesn't offer so much as a how are ye? They may as well be strangers.

"We'll be out here, protectin' ye," Bill says as he turns away, and Sue remembers Janet's bulky sweaters, Rick's fear, and imagines punching Bill in the eye, hard (she could too, her brother taught her how), even as she hands Donna her shopping list.

*

The days drag on, no help comes. Weeks pass. Carl is found dead one day, after he doesn't return from his patrol. Wilshells go missing, no one ever finds them. There is an attack at the Landers house, whole family gone, right in the middle of the day. News passes from house to house, through cracked windows and gossip. Sue takes it in like fiction. Like that bizarre story that her son is dead.

One day, a large group of men, maybe fifteen strong, come knocking at doors. Sue watches from the window as they make their way down the street. Bill Macy. Recognizes a couple of older boys from Kieren's school days. Guns everywhere.

"No one's comin' to help us, we'll god damn help ourselves," Bill says, when Steve answers the door. "Startin' our own bloody army. Interested parties can step out now, or meet at the Legion, four o'clock."

Sue is just behind Steve, ready to slam the door with a "No, thank you," when she hears a voice holler out behind her.

"Coming! Wait! I'm in!" Jem (fourteen year old Jem, who still sometimes needs Steve to read her to sleep; Sue's heart stops), pushing past and barreling out the door towards Bill Macy, clomping along in Kieren's boots and one of his old army surplus coats.

There's some snickering in the group, and Bill looks her up and down and says, "You sure of that, young lady?"

"Fuckin' right, I'm sure. Ready to blow the heads off some bastard zombies, that's what I am," Jem says.

Bill gives the crowd a look, and the snickers quiet abruptly. "You got passion, which is a damn sight more than what most of these shitheads have to offer. You're in." Bill Macy throws his arm around Jem's shoulder (hasn't let me touch her in a year, Sue thinks). He leads her to the front of the mob and away, and both of her children are gone, stolen by this man.

Sue is too tired to even be angry.

*

It's confusing, most days, what she's even feeling. Is she mourning Kieren? Missing Jem (who almost lives at the Legion now)? Struggling to make sense of what's happening to Steve? Worrying over her own safety, grieving her neighbors and friends who are gone? It's too much, too much for one person to feel. Sue cooks, and cleans, and keeps the house tidy, and let's it all wash over her like the tidal wave that it is.

One day, Jem comes home in a rage, dressed like a soldier, her feet stomping her aggression into the floorboards.

"Jem, sweetheart, what is it?" Sue is in the sitting room with a book. She hasn't seen Jem in three days.

Jem stops and looks round at Sue, sounds decades older than fifteen when she says, "Just...don't, Mum. Don't." Stomps up the stairs.

Jem's friend Lisa comes by later.

"Jem? Nah. She's alright," Lisa says when Sue asks. "Just a bit shaken up. Her patrol went up to the cemetery for the first time, rotters left and right up there. Their home base, I suppose. Guess it was a sight."

Sue remembers the last time she was at the cemetery, the gaping hole in the earth, the finality of soil, and wonders what Jem has seen.

*

There's another attack on a house, the Palmers, down the way. They manage to capture the two who snuck in, and no one is seriously hurt, but still. Steve won't (can't?) react, he doesn't even respond when she tells him about it, so Sue goes out to the garden shed herself for tools to nail all the windows shut.

Sue's sorting through the bins, filling her pockets, when she hears a knocking sound, and then a low groan, and her heart crawls into her mouth. She peers out the door of the shed and there it is. One of them, across the garden. It's a girl (maybe even the same one that had dragged Geoff down the pavement so long ago now). She's vacant and dirty and terrifying, dark, rotted skin and putrid smell, and all Sue can think to do is grab the closest weapon she can get her hands on, Steve's old chainsaw, dusty and covered in cobwebs.

They hunt together Jem had reported, during her last stop home. Sue pulls the starter, and there's nothing, not even a shudder in the motor, not even the slightest hope of making the chain spin, and Sue thinks how another one of those things is probably out there, waiting for her, working with its partner to trap her, kill her. She can't get a breath, can't get her hands to work properly to hold onto the chainsaw, to keep it from falling. God, she's amazed to discover that she's not at all ready to die.

Sue counts down from three, slams the door open and yells, loud as she can, brandishes the chainsaw like it's working, and the girl stops for a moment, long enough for Sue to run the ten feet to the door, slam it and lock it and barricade it behind her. (She thinks she hears a shuffling from the carport as well, but doesn't turn to see, just runs.)

Steve is there, catches her as she careens full speed into him, still screaming, still holding the useless chainsaw. He's got a two by four, peppered with huge nails (when did he make that?), held at the ready like a bat, deadly. As she falls into him and there's no undead creatures pounding down the door at her heels (where did they go? is a question for later), he lets his weapon fall and hugs Sue to him, so hard she can hardly breathe.

"Oh god, Sue, I'm so sorry, so sorry," he whispers into her hair, over and over, more words than he's said for months. He doesn't let her go for a long, long time.

Steve starts talking again, after that. They concoct a survival plan, in case of attack, Steve draws diagrams, they practice it like a drill. The two of them eat supper every night, and talk about the news, like old times. Kieren is never mentioned.

Sue requisitions a canister of gasoline from the HVF, and sleeps with the chainsaw at her bedside for the next two years.

*

(Bill Macy locks the two captured zombies in the exercise yard and a crowd of people stream down the block to watch him execute them both, point blank shots to the head, Jem tells her later. Sue hears the cheers from her window, loud even from several streets away, and thinks about Kieren.)

*

There's the one night they never talk about; never will, Sue imagines.

A loud, inhuman howling from the garden starts one late afternoon. The Walkers try their best to ignore it (could be a ploy to get them outside, could be a trap), but eventually Sue peers out from between the curtains, and sees one of the things, looks like an older one (the elderly, Sue realizes after Jem shows her a few pictures, these things are gray-haired and stooped more often than not, withered long before death). He's gripping his leg, which is mangled and stuck in a bear-trap, must be a new defense set up by the HVF, he's crawled this far and collapsed. The thing can't walk, is just howling and groaning. Sue feels a brief moment of sympathy, peeps out at it throughout the afternoon. It doesn't move much.

Steve looks out several times after supper. They try to watch television. The mournful howling goes on. Steve is tense and preoccupied.

"This can't go on," he mutters, standing suddenly and grabbing his coat. "Others will come."

"Steve," she says, but he doesn't turn back.

Steve grabs his board of nails and Sue hears the door slam, then the howling abruptly cease. Steve comes back in fifteen minutes later, dirty and silent, and goes straight into the shower without giving her even a glance. When Sue dares look out the window, there is no sign that the creature was ever there.

*

Somehow, years pass.

The first they hear of this new medication is from Shirley Wilson, shouting joyfully down the street from her open window to anyone willing to listen to her. The news reports start shortly after, praising the miracle drug, calling it the end of the war, the cure, the salvation of the human race. Sue tries not to hope.

HVF patrols slow; new, military types from out of the area are seen patrolling in the woods instead. Bill and Vicar Oddie shout to the village on the evil of this new policy of "captures" rather than the heroic kills they've been tallying on the wall of the Legion for years.

One night, Jem bursts into the house, hysterical, still in uniform and still holding her gun (she doesn't put it down all night). She lets Sue sit with her, even leans up against her and lets Sue brush her hand through her hair (grown so long now, she's so grown up, her little girl). What Sue can get out of her through her sobs is that Lisa is dead (Sue's heart plummets, oh god, not again, what a waste, and thank god it wasn't her), and four strangers had arrived to capture the two rotters who'd done her in.

(Jem and Lisa had been inseperable for the last few years, but Sue notices Jem cries the hardest, not when talking about Lisa's death, but when describing the creatures being carted out of the Stop 'n Shop. It's twenty years before Jem tells her why.)

Jem moves back in after that, full time, no more nights camped out on watch at the Legion. Sue works very hard not to tell her how happy she is to have her home, almost like a family again.

*

The phone call comes mid-morning, two months after Lisa Lancaster disappears. Sue's just finishing her tea.

A clinical, bureaucratic voice. "Is this Sue Walker, mother of Kieren Walker, deceased?"

Unexpected. Sue sits. "Yes?"

"Ms. Walker, I'm pleased to inform you that your son is eager to see you again."

The world goes still. The voice keeps talking, even after the phone receiver hits the floor.

*