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Not If, Only or Even, But Always

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There’s this song, right? And it’s old and kind of creepy but… Whatever I think about it a lot. And I think, even if it’s true, this is the way things are because of the way the world is… Then I’m okay with that. I was surviving before the world ended. Now I’m living. .

They write the letters one night, when Tallahassee is maudlin drunk and Columbus brave drunk and Wichita is just plain drunk, which she is enjoying because it never used to be this simple.

Little Rock, who lets Columbus call her Lil and pretends not to enjoy it - she never got to nicknames, have a group, an identity other than the one she was born with and then the one she was forced into - with a fake grimace, is fast asleep on the other hotel bed.

“She’s cute when she sleeps,” Columbus says, the ‘s’s all running together. He’s got his arm around Wichita’s shoulder, had put it there without any show of nonchalance. She likes it when they get drunk, if only because it takes adrenaline or alcohol or both for him to initiate anything. They don’t do it often because zombies and slow reactions are a short, bloody recipe for trouble, but tonight they are safe as they ever are, days since their last sighting and lots of floors up.

Wichita laughs, tries not to care about the snort. “You should tell her that.”

Columbus says, “No way. Nope. I’ll leave a note that she can open after my death, that’s the only way I’m even considering that one. I like all my limbs and etceteras.”

“Pussy,” Wichita accuses, even though a) it’s a horrible expression, b) damn right he should be scared and c) she also likes his limbs and etceteras.

Tallahassee focuses back into the conversation, leaning forward in his chair. You can actually see it happen. He says, “We could all be dead tomorrow. Never know. Write it down now, do it, here.” He rips a strip off the paper bag that his whisky is in and waves it at Columbus.

“What the fuck am I meant to write?” Columbus demands. “Dear Lil, sorry about dying, you are cute when you sleep? Seriously?”

“Nah, nah,” Tallahassee says, shaking his head earnestly. “You’ve gotta like, write a nice letter about all the things you couldn’t tell her. We all should. Could be dead tomorrow. Never know.” He lurches - now there’s a word she forgets she hates now - over to the desk. “Must be notepaper in here. Fancy place like this. Always has notepaper. Yeah.”

Columbus leans his head onto her shoulder and whispers, “I think I may have started something when I didn’t mean to start something,” still very loud and kind of serious.

“But can you finish it?” Wichita whispers back, grinning down at him. He presses a kiss to where her neck meets her shoulder, in the shivery place between the planes of muscles and collarbone, and then looks up. “Baby, you know I can,” he says, and then ruins it by letting out a giggle.

“Enough of that,” Tallahassee says, and a pad of paper comes flying at them. Columbus ducks.

 

 

I’m going to tell you this when I finish this letter, because we’re going to have our own room and you WILL need to know this. Don’t pause before you say my name when we make out. I like this one. I picked it. I like the way you say it. I like who I am. I like what it stands for. I like that I might only ever hear the four of us use it. So use it.


Wichita knows that Columbus wrote actual letters to everyone, probably filled with ums and ahs and sentences that start some place and finish some complete other place and references no one else will get. She doesn’t look on purpose, just catches a glimpse of a page filled with his scrawling excuse for handwriting when she goes to get some water from the bathroom. Okay, so, she wasn’t really that thirsty but whatever. She could have looked but she didn’t. They all put them in envelopes and then into one of the lockboxes in the trunk but she knows where the key is and how to reseal an envelope so it looks like it’s not been opened.

But she doesn’t. Doesn’t plan to, either.

Columbus is such a bad influence.

Wichita wrote a list for him, because the whole concept was stupid and passive and that’s just not her. Anyway, Columbus likes lists. She writes a list of all the things she’s going to tell Columbus, and the only reason she won’t is because she might run out of time. The secrets she wants to keep from him, well, she’s taking those to the grave and hopefully not beyond.

She’s always told her sister everything, which maybe wasn’t the best plan. So there isn’t a list for her, just one page of writing made small and tight by anger. Little Rock gets a story, and it’s not a nice one. It’s one she should have been told a long time ago, but there are some things even someone as tough as Wichita has become can’t take. She doesn’t think her sister will be angry, just disappointed. The truth about one’s parents is always of the ugly kind, but it’s still the kind that sets you free.

Writing these things down feels like a promise to herself, a reminder that she doesn’t have to keep everything locked down and hidden away. It’s just as selfish as it is altruistic. She’s still a person who is okay with that.

 

I love running.


“I’ve totally collected enough points for a 1 up,” Columbus says, finishing off a zee with a well timed blow between the eyes with an outdoor lamp - which does get him bonuses for accuracy and unusual weapon choice. There’s a thump from the next aisle over and they both wheel round, back to back and blunt items raised.

Wichita tries to peer through a gap in the shelves and says, “A what?”

There is another thump and Tallahassee yells, “Just me! Lets roll.”

“I don’t know how you survived this long,” Columbus says as they sprint for the door. “You’re basically pop culturally tone deaf. I bet you didn’t even have a plan for any kind of apocalypse.”

Wichita glares at him. Little Rock guns the engine and they all fall into the car - after the Back Seat Check, Lighting Version, of course. With a laugh Little Rock presses down the button on the stopwatch. “Five minutes and twenty two seconds. Not bad. Zee count?”

“Three,” Wichita and Columbus say together.

“Four,” Tallahassee corrects, and then adds, “N’aw” directing it at the two of them, still in a pile on the back seat from jumping in while carrying a bunch of camping gear.

Columbus makes a humming noise which means he’s replaying something, redoing his calculations, resetting whatever strange thing inside of him that runs on linear mental paths. “So that’s one for you, one each for me and Wichita and a half each for us too, because the first one was a joint effort. And I still say that I must have collected enough points to get one knocked off my Nearly Died total.” He turns to Wichita. “A 1 up. Like in Mario.”

Wichita frowns at him. “Like in Mario?” she asks.

“It’s a game, no, that’s underselling it, it’s a franchise, it’s a whole universe, it’s… There’s a plumber, okay, and he has to -”

“I ran track,” Wichita breaks in. She keeps her voice low, even though the two in the front are distracted by driving and math. “At high school; I ran track. And then after I kept running because I loved it. And I took Lil with me a lot and so, we were just faster than most other people, to begin with. I still love it, you just go and go until nothing matters any more.”

Columbus’s hand twitches and she takes pity on him, links their fingers. He says, “So that’s where you go.”

Wichita thinks that this may be the best smile she’s got for something on her list, even though it seemed to be one of the least interesting. “You can come with me sometime,” she offers. “Maybe it will help with your Nearly Died and Had To Be Rescued By A Kickass Lady total.”

“That’s not what it’s called,” Columbus objects. His numbers are still the worst even though she has to admit he can hold his own. Sometimes it seems like a fucking miracle that he made it to that mall, but some days she thinks he would have been safer in his bubble of neatly ordered subsistence. Well, maybe two items on the list in one day will be good for her karma, or her soul, or just good. “You’ve been pretty awesome at saving my life too,” Wichita admits. They smile at each other until Lil starts miming gagging in the rear view mirror.

 

 

I realised how easy it was to lie at ten. I immediately told my sister.


She means to tell him the very first item she wrote down. That Columbus and Tallahassee had been their fifth successful con. After one unsuccessful one. After a couple of near misses themselves. She’s always put her baby girl first. Nothing and no one was ever going to make her feel bad about that. It’s not that she wished harm on those other people, but ultimately they aren’t important. They aren’t hers. But then that all gets lost in a rush of yelling and falling over logs to get to where there are now four fallen zombies and one small - still so small - girl holding a revolver.

Wichita rushes over, hugs her as tight as she can, feels no shake in her sister’s body, no tremor of fear or revulsion, nothing.

Wichita stopped caring about the deaths of the living dead a while ago, but still… “Do you remember when I worked out that you could trick the scales at the old fashioned candy story down the street, and I ran all the way home to tell you?” she asks. Summer and free sweets and her sister smiling at her like she was a rockstar, it’s all she wants to remember right now.

Little Rock frowns at her. “Sure?”

Columbus looks over from where he’s standing with Tallahassee on a bench, keeping a lookout over the area, his own gun raised towards the trees at the edge of the picnic clearing. Wichita doesn’t know when that started, the way she’s always aware of him, where he is. He says, “That’s terrible, the owner could probably never balance his books again, and he would start distrusting all the staff, and who steals from a sweet shop where everyone wears those hats. Everyone wore those hats, right? And stripy aprons? I don’t care so much if they didn’t have the aprons.”

Tallahassee gives Wichita a look that very clearly says, “Why won’t you let me leave him on the side of the road."

 


I was four when I found out that Santa wasn’t real. I was relieved.


There’s something nagging at her today, the way Columbus keeps looking at her like he’s about to start a sentence and then… not. She gets him alone in the sun lounge. They are zombie killers gone south for the winter like birds, to a solar powered eco retreat that they’d stumbled across and set up - luxurious - camp in.

“Do you ever wonder if we would have got on as kids?” he asks. She’s about to tell him that probably, she was a weird kid too, hadn’t liked the idea of some dude in her room without her express permission, but then he carries on, “Or in high school? Or like…” The pause and the look he gives her are kinda shifty. “Like at all? If it wasn’t for this?”

She punches him in the arm. “You read my letter, you complete fucker, after you gave us that whole speech about the sanctity of privacy, what the fuck?”

“Firstly, ow, secondly, no, I didn’t,” Columbus says, and rubs his arm. He mostly just looks hurt but you just don’t know. He’s been learning to lie from some of the best.

She says, “Okay, fine. Then why did you ask that?” And there’s the lie, all over his face as he stutters, “No, no reason.”

Wichita considers tipping him off his chair, it wouldn’t be hard, he’s lighter than seems plausible or right. But she decides that the classier option would just be to leave, and so she does, without looking back.

An hour later, Columbus finds her by the pool where she’s been doing something that very much isn’t sulking. He has the lockbox.

"I didn't read your letter, but you should read the last paragraph of mine," he says, passing her the box and the key. All the letters are still in there, and they look untouched, but you just never know. She takes the one with her name on out, all spiky lines, and unfolds it. She skims through to the end, trying not to take too much of it in. It’s hard. Words keep jumping out at her - hair, parents, clowns, knife - and she just wants context. But then she’s at the last paragraph, anyway.

I really don't think a girl like you would have even looked at me before. It's just not how that world worked. So, yeah, when you're all out of options, that skinny shut-in with issues starts to look pretty good, right? But. You know. Whatever. I got so lucky, because this is all I need, really. It wasn't the hair tucking, in the end. It was the girl. The only girl for me, even if it wasn't... If she wasn't... There's this song-

Wichita has to stop reading. She grabs Columbus by the collar and kisses his stupid, stupid face. He makes a shocked noise into her mouth but one arm goes round her waist and one hand into her hair, as usual, and following the noise is a slide of tongue. It's an unthinkingly certain kiss.

She says, "I have a list of things to tell you. And one of them is, I know you think you're the guy that I'd say, not even if you were the last guy in the world. But the thing is, even if you aren't, I'd want to pick you. Maybe we wouldn’t have looked twice at each other but if I had, I would have seen all of these things that make you… Look. This world or any other. I'd choose you."

This is probably the time to say I love you, but there's only so far she can go in a day. But then, that’s not the end of the world. She laughs at herself a little, and then some more, because there are bad puns and then there’s thinking things like while living in a zombie apocalypse. Columbus looks confused and also a little bit like he might cry, so she decides to make things better and easier for both of them, and drags him into the pool, still laughing.