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21 Things You Don't Know About Jemima Walker

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1.] She doesn't have a middle name. Neither does Kieren. Their parents' excuse is, "well, how many Jemimas are you going to meet in a day?" but Jem just suspects laziness, really. And Kieren doesn't even think to warn her, so Jem shows up unsuspecting to her first day of school and Mrs Dyer has them draw their handprint and cut it out, so they can march along the wall with the alphabet and the beady-eyed cut-out numbers. Those handprints will collect achievement stickers all year, and Jem already knows hers will be the best, which is why she's completely thrown when Mrs Dyer takes her big black marker and says, "Okay, Jem, sweetie, what's your middle name?" and she freezes like a rabbit in floodlights. "Why didn't you tell me?" she wails to Kieren on the walk home, yanking on his tie and kicking at his shins. "It's too late to make something up! Now everybody thinks I'm weird!" "Nobody thinks you're weird, Jem," says Kieren placatingly, like he knows anything.

 

2.] When she's little, Jem's best friend in the world is a girl named Leyla Flynn. They aren't in the same House in school, which is disappointing, but Jem is in the same House as Lisa Lancaster, and Jem hates Lisa Lancaster because she says she's Leyla's best friend. They fight about it. A lot. By the time they get to Year 3, they're sick of it, and as they're sitting across from each other outside the headmistress's office sporting identical bruises, they realize simultaneously that Leyla Flynn isn't that great, so they dump her and become best friends with each other instead.

 

3.] Their next-door neighbors move away when Jem is seven, Kieren nine, and take their children with them, heartless to the protests of every party involved. Kieren wakes her up the morning after and says firmly, "We're going after them." He puts a jacket on her and they walk together across the grassy, morning-moist hills towards the train depot. Jem wakes up enough to realize this is weird: they never make this trek without their parents, but Kieren doesn't falter. "If we're going on a trip, don't we need suitcases?" she ventures when they get there. Kieren frowns, and makes her sit down on the bench in front of the "ROARTON" sign. He says, "When you go somewhere, you always take the important things," which is true. "That's you." And Jem accepts it. They stay that way, their eyes trained down the tracks, until the ticketmaster arrives, takes one look at them, and calls their parents, which ends that rescue mission right there. Afterwards, as they grow, it becomes a place that they go -- Kieren with his Discman, Jem with the Colt and a bottle of cider -- to sit on the bench and wait for a train.

 

4.] "Gone the face we loved so dear, silent the voice we loved to hear" was her choice. He doesn't know this when he tells them he hates it, and she tells him he can go fuck himself. If he wanted a say, he shouldn't have --

 

5.] The worst moment of Jem Walker's life is … actually, there are a lot of contenders. There's Henry Lonsdale and the starburst of the hole in his forehead. The Lambert farm bonfire, twenty-five rotters burning to a crisp inside a circle of HVF, and Milly from the TV repair shop comes screeching up the hill, flinging herself at them and wailing, "That's my daughter! You can't take her from me, that's my daughter!" kicking, spitting, until Bill Macy wrestles her to the ground, but it's too late and Jem remembers, suddenly, that those bodies used to be their neighbors, could be her brother. The Shop-n-Save, oh god, where Lisa …

 

6.] The fifth fact is a lie. The worst moment of Jem Walker's life is November 30, 2009. She's peeling up the cellophane from a microwavable vindaloo, and the phone rings.

 

7.] Five days before Christmas, that same year, Jem grabs a torch and a knife from the kitchen and goes running up the street. It's five in the morning and she can hear "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" playing from the 24-hour Shop-n-Save before she even crosses the bridge. She's forgotten her shoes, and the broken glass in the road slices her feet bloody long before she feels it. The graveyard spreads out unlit, a darkness that she cuts up in ribbons with the torchlight, until she sees it -- a hole, punched in the dirt beneath Kieren Walker's headstone, a concave space the only thing remaining where a body used to be. It settles inside of her like something buried, a single stunning I'll get to see him again and Jem's knees quake. Something moves, and she swings the light around with a scream. It's Leyla Flynn, bed-headed and wild-eyed, and she chokes, "my mother --" because they're five graves over from one that reads Helen Flynn, and it, too, is torn open. Jem nods at her and answers, "my brother." This is her sharpest memory of the night of the Rising.

 

8.] When the HVF forms, Jem drops out of school and joins because she needs to find Kieren before the army does. But the HVF is made of people and they seep into her the way blood does. They tickle at her like laughter. She becomes stained with love for them, Leyla and Lisa and Gary and Dean and even Bill Macy, a little bit. They become, the way people do when you love them, the only music she can hear.

 

9.] The most-played song on Lisa's iTunes is Nickelback's "Burn it to the Ground." "I might have to end our friendship over this," Jem informs her, deeply horrified, and Lisa caps her bottle of black nail lacquer and blows on her fingertips. She says, "Yeah, whatever. You know, some of us are allowed to have tastes in music that isn't straight from 'This Year in Incomprehensible Death Metal'," and Jem says, "Blasphemy."

 

10.] When she's eleven, she tiptoes everywhere. Her parents think the problem's with her feet, and while they're making appointments, Jem learns how to walk without a sound. No one hears her coming. No one knows she's there unless she announces herself, and she prefers it that way. She doesn't have to worry about people looking at her. It's exhausting, this business of being seen, like she always needs to perform, and one day she comes home and finds a plastic case sitting at her place at the dinner table. Jem's Badass Mix arches across its surface in Kieren's graffiti-style calligraphy. She snatches it up before her parents can see the swear, hides it under her oversized jumper, and sprints up the stairs. When it loads in WMP, the first track is, weirdly, only eight seconds long. She hits play and Kieren's voice shouts out, crackling the speakers, "Hey, Jem, I just want you to see that it's okay to exist, okay! You are allowed to make noise!" and it segues into Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" without further fanfare.

 

11.] Kieren reminds her about it, drawn up bare-eyed beneath his duvet, and Jem expects to go weak with relief because it's really, really him and this is what she's wanted since Sandra Furness turned up at the Legion babbling "the graves -- they came out of the graves!" -- except fury blind-sides her, cracks her like someone'd blown a grenade inside her, and she screams and throws his untouched glass at his head.

 

12.] Three days after Jem gets a call from Nicholle at the filling station who says, "Yo, you got an '09er, right? Someone who died in '09, yeah, your bro, whatevs, I'm pretty sure I just saw him and a bunch of other zombies go up Bowland way," she cracks the seal on her dead brother's room. She does it slowly, holding her breath, one eye trained on the staircase. She's not sure what she's expecting -- the room to be as decomposed as Kieren, maybe, the bed sunken and foamy with mold, all his CDs cracked and crumbling, like bread left out. But it's not. It's unchanged. Pain cracks at her ribcage like recoil -- those are his paintbrushes, ends-up in a tin. The portrait he did at age six of their parents; Mum found it in a shed after Kieren got his acceptance to art school and framed it with the same solemnity they've framed all of Kieren's art, and now it sits on the shelf above the bed. Stepping inside, she sees the bed made, quilt smoothed down -- her brother hadn't made cleanliness a habit, so this had probably been something Mum did, after -- just, after. Everything in Jem feels like it's leaking suddenly, her chest fractured, heart and lungs impaled and pulped, and without meaning to, she sinks down onto the bed and pulls Kieren's pillow to her chest. Eyes watch her from all over the room -- faces in oil and charcoal and pencil, some she knows, some known to Kieren only. Rick Macy stares at her from beside the door, and she has a powerful urge to get up and turn the painting around, because she wants so badly to blame him, but the need to tip sideways and bury her face in the pillow overwhelms it. From this angle, she has a better view of Kieren's stool, his easel folded up beside it. Her own face peeks out from behind concert flyers and the scholarship letter -- her face as it had been at eleven, smile puffy with braces and framed with mousy brown hair. That Jem knew her brother loved her and had the mix CD to prove it. That Jem knew that Kieren at thirteen wouldn't kill himself. He would have thought of her, like he always did, and stopped. (Is that what she did wrong? In trying to show that she didn't need her family, did she not show just how much she … well, needed them? Did she do something to make Kieren think she didn't need him to stay here and love her? Did she do something? Or did she not do enough?) Outside, thunder rumbles -- a dry, far-off sound that, for a moment, reminds her so much of the guttural growl of a zombie that her hand darts for her sidearm. But it's just the weather, and Jem falls asleep like that, in her dead brother's fossilized room.

 

13.] She does it again, years later, the night after that disastrous luncheon with her family. She goes with Gary to the brothel protest, where she lasts about twenty minutes before she begs off and goes home -- "not to my place?" he asks, and she swallows her nausea at the thought and says, "no, Gary," and he looks at her and says, "all right," with gentleness. By the time she makes it home, she's pumped up again on Roarton's disgust and her own simmering rage, and she bangs past her distressed-looking parents and goes up the stairs. Kieren, however, isn't in his room. She sits down to wait for him, hearing equal parts his I ripped people apart and Philip Wilson's they're not so different from us, until it fuses into a full statement: I ripped people apart, and I'm not so different from you. Kieren's bed is cool to the touch, and a corresponding chill goes through her as she realizes she wouldn't know if that meant he'd gotten out of it thirty seconds ago or if he hasn't been home all afternoon -- he can't warm a bed. She wakes, disoriented, forgetting the intervening years and suddenly feeling the way she had at sixteen, stripped raw with grief. Then she hears the soft click of the door downstairs and remembers exactly where she is. She darts a look at the clock -- 4:21 AM -- and flings herself off the bed and into the hall, high up on her tiptoes and completely silent, not even letting the buckles on her jacket make a sound. She gets the door to her own room shut in time, but not before she catches a glimpse of Kieren on the stairs. He's bare-skinned, bare-eyed, and Bill Macy always said that if they got close enough to you to see the whites of their eyes you were fucking corpse food, and Jem chokes, smelling burning flesh and the wet raw scent of Lisa Lancaster's pulped skull, and she cannot be silent about sicking up in her wastebasket. She holds onto the rim, watching the shadow of Kieren's feet stop outside her door.

 

14.] She and Gary Kendal have matching Gryffindor scarves. She dates him because he needs someone to love and protect and care for, and somewhere along the way, it got twisted in his thinking that if he beats someone else down, it lifts himself up. If someone else is bad, then he must be good. And Jem can do a number of things now that she couldn't before the Rising, but what she wants most is to get through a night without wetting the bed. She wants to feel safe, surrounded, like she had in the HVF. No one can blame her for that.

 

15.] It's her first school dance, and her first kiss too: Henry Lonsdale holds her face with the very tips of his fingers, like you do with butterflies and other precious things. They push their mouths blindly towards each other, and Jem trembles with the adrenaline of being seen, of being wanted. After, her hair still sprayed into place and her shoes dangling from her fingers by their straps, she walks until she's at the train depot and somehow she isn't surprised at all to find her brother on the bench, a shivering grey shape huddled by the empty tracks. Heedless of her dress, she hikes herself up with him, feeling so unsure of how she fits in her skin, a buzzing awareness of her own mouth. She sinks against his side until he sighs and uncurls and wraps his arms around her, saying, "what's the matter?" "I kissed Henry," she confesses, her heart lurching with the truth of it. Kieren's arms tighten. "Why?" he asks, curious, and she says, "Because I wanted to." "That was brave of you." "Really?" "Really. It can take a lot of courage to kiss someone, you know. I haven't." And Jem's never considered this: that she would get to do something Kieren hadn't done first.

 

16.] She's pretty sure she kills someone before he does, too, but she's not going to exchange notes to check.

 

17.] During the Rising, her mother goes out to the cave a lot, "just to -- just in case." She takes the chainsaw, because she's not dumb, and every time Jem sees her go she feels the swing in her gut, fear and betrayal in equal measure. She thinks she knew. She thinks she knew that Rick had never kissed Kieren, because she followed them that day they snuck the White Lightning out of the house, the way any sixteen-year-old little sister would. It was in the way he touched him -- not at all like Henry Lonsdale holding her like she was something science didn't have a name for, but rough, his hands pulling at Kieren's neck and hauling him through the grey-brown forest litter towards the cave mouth. Rick Macy touched her brother like he was something he wanted to have, to bruise, to claim so no one else could -- but not like he was something he would risk. The two of them went through her family like a thrown fist, and, gutpunched, Jem picks up the Colt and follows her mother as she limps through the woods, hunting. So she's there, the first time Sue Walker takes out a zombie -- sees the look in her face as she registers how easy it was, ripping human limb asunder, the panic as she grabs the corpse and turns it over -- it's a woman, though, not Kier. Jem's gotten good at telling these things from a distance. "Mum, Mum," she calls, over and over again, touching her mother's shoulders and pushing her hair back. "Mum, it's okay, Mum, come on, there could be more -- we have to mark the cave it's unsafe come on, Mum," and they leave the body there, and half-way back, Sue suddenly says, "I think that was Marjorie Bennett," and, ten minutes later, calmer, "That's fine, then, I lent her our Upstairs Downstairs and she died without ever giving it back, you remember that?" and Jem says, "Yes, Mum."

 

18.] The day she comes home from patrol and sees Mum on the floor, holding her heart and telling her, "We got a call from Norfolk," with such breathless joy in her voice, dread courses through Jem like poison. She slams the door and shouts "NO!" and she does it again, and again, doesn't stop even on the day Mum and Dad sneak out before dawn. Kieren can't come back. Kieren can't come back to Roarton, where the people mount photographs of themselves with dead rotters like trophies. If he comes here, Bill Macy will know where to come when he gets trigger happy and Jem will have to shoot him. She will do it calmly, and that's what frightens her most: when the time comes, Jem Walker will not protect her town from black mouth and rot. She will choose Kieren. She always has.

 

19.] The brightest moments of her life are kept in a jar, hidden away so as not to wear them out. If there's a battery life for happy memories, she doesn't want to test it. They're there, though, when she needs to put her hand on something warm: the memory of her first concert, the Converse she wore with the music notes on the toes. Here's her and Leyla and Lisa, half-in, half-out of her tub, rinsing the dye out of her hair. "If it's as bright as it looks on the box, you're going to look like a right tart, mate," Lisa informs her seriously, and then they bust up laughing, ribs aching, tin foil in Jem's hair and their guns within arm's reach. Here's Kieren in the kitchen while she waits with her parents in the next room; an envelope tears, Mum exchanges a look with Dad over her head, and the next moment, Kieren bursts in, handing it over to them immediately like he'd only waited to read a single word: "Accepted! I did it, I'm in, they want me!" and the rest of it's lost as they surge around him, shouting and hugging, and Kieren in the days afterwards is Jem's favorite Kieren. Here's Henry Lonsdale and the first time he sees her after the kiss, wide-eyed and thunderstruck, and everyone, Jem thinks, deserves someone who looks at them like that. Here's waiting for Kieren outside the Legion, pulling at her school uniform until he appears. "Here, bro, you need to listen to this," and she hits Play as soon as he gets the earbud in place. They walk homeward together, Jem listening to the occasional bass feedback from her brother's earbuds until he concedes, "who are they?" and she gets to say, "the Skeletones! They're a PDS band, total grunge rock," and Kieren says in wonder, "We've got bands now?" and Jem looks at him and remembers all at once that this is what she missed, this is what she thought she'd never have again. She waits for the anger to overwhelm her (how dare he? how dare he take himself from them?) and instead all she feels is a bright bubble of relief, and she cups it to her heart for the rest of the way home. The worst moment in Jem's life, she thinks, wouldn't loom as much as it does if she didn't have all of these good memories to threaten.

 

20.] On November 30, 2009, Irving Morris's partner for their French project gets sick and goes home early, bumping up everybody else's presentation times by one slot. It means Jem and Lisa have to present their project on a day they very much aren't prepared to, and she comes home still mad about it to find her father pacing tight, narrow circles around the kitchen table. Jem, who's managed to forget most of the day, remembers with a sudden, unpleasant falling plunge of her stomach. "He hasn't come home yet, has he?" and her father says, "do you have any idea where he might be?" and, with full knowledge that Kieren won't forgive her, she says, "have you checked the cave?" And Dad stills and looks at her with an expression she won't ever forget, a light-eyed hope, and he echoes, "Cave?" Five minutes later, he slams out the door with torch in hand, still pulling his arms through his jacket. For the next hour, Mum moves restlessly, starting a task but quitting when it takes her too far from the phone. Jem can't settle either, and her swimming stomach means her vindaloo is unappetizing the second she pulls the cellophane off.

Then --

Then -- and this she remembers in perfect clarity, like it's been fossilized and preserved under glass, marked with a plaque that reads 30/11/09 the evolutionary genesis of Jemima Walker, all previous incarnations now considered extinct -- then --

The phone rings.

Her mother, immediately: "Steve?" and "Oh, Steve, thank god."

And Jem -- Jem remembers the sweet bubbling hiccup of relief, because if her dad's calling it means Kieren's been found. She's right, he went to the cave.

But then Mum says "what?" with a note in her voice that's perilous, high-wire thin, and Jem's relief comes cascading down. "What are you -- I don't -- I can't understand you, Steve. The morgue? Why do you want me to come to the morgue, that's ridiculous, you need to be out finding Kieren, do you -- no -- NO," her voice shrills out, and Jem's fork slips numbly from her grip. "No, don't you dare lie to me, Stephen Walker. Don't you dare -- stop -- stop this and go find Kieren. Find our son, he's out there and he's -- STOP telling me I've got to come to the morgue, I won't -- I won't --"

Jem goes to the doorway -- high up on her tiptoes, silent -- and looks for her mother. Sue Walker is against the wall, her mouth caught open in a rictus, her eyes darting up to Jem's face and then clamping shut. She slides the rest of the way to the floor, the phone falling from her ear, and that's it -- the bottom of Jem's stomach drops away and the rope around her neck goes tight, and the girl named Jem Walker goes swinging out over empty space. The whole world telescopes down, becomes this moment and nothing more, this moment where her understanding of "Kieren has been found" changes to "Kieren has been found."

It's November 30, 2009, and Jem Walker becomes an only child.

 

21.] It comes with a sniffle, and a whimper. "Fuck it," and she scrubs at her face with the backs of her hands. "Make-up's fucked anyway." "Here," her brother says, soft, taking her hands away. "Let me. I've got a lot of practice, you know." And so she lets him reapply her eyeliner and sponge cover-up over the dark bruises under her eyes, as gently as if he's sketching her in charcoal, as gently as he had that night she whispered, I kissed Henry Lonsdale, because today she said, I killed him. She stares at the cement color of his eyes until he murmurs, "All done," and she says, "Thanks, Zom-babe." And there's the face. "Zom-babe?" he echoes, incredulous. She grins, "Don't like it?" "Ugh." And she stands. Her face feels tight from crying, and Kieren's hands are trembling now, and she thinks, if you're going somewhere, take what matters most. So Jem No-Middle-Name Walker takes her brother's hand and pulls him to his feet. "Come on," she says, and this moment is so fragile, so crystalline, and it's the very, very best. "Time to make noise."

 

 

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