“Worst part of zombieland?”
Columbus laughed shortly. “You mean, other than the fact that I shot Bill Murray?”
Tallahassee smiled bitterly, and they all knew that he was going to say one of two things; either he was going complain about the Twinkies again, or he was going to state the bleeding fucking obvious. What was the worst part about Zombieland? Everything. Christ, they were surrounded by corpses. If the things hadn’t been walking around, there would’ve been mountains of bodies piled high into the hideously blue sky sky. Like skyscrapers of flesh and teeth and muscle and eyes; pieces of loved ones and children and innocent old people, turned to lumps of human meat.
If only that had’ve been the case– if only the fucking things had been immobile. Then their lives might’ve been easier.
Tallahassee took a pull of his beer, and sighed quietly. They all looked at him expectantly, waiting for the inevitable speech about how he needed a godamn Twinkie. It was expected, and anticipated. Their sanity relied on his insane optimism and warped priorities; he was a walking, talking, shooting comedy show, and they loved him for it.
“That’s easy,” he said quietly, “losing my partner is the worst part.”
Everyone paused, and looked at each other, shocked at finding seriousness where they had expected humour. There was a swell of emotion in Tallahassee’s voice, one that sounded far too fragile for his rough hillbilly personality. No one quite knew how to proceed.
“Oh, you,” Columbus said eventually, bowing to his usual need to fill silences, “You had a girlfriend?”
Tallahassee shook his head slowly, and had a drink of his beer again.
Everyone’s eyes widened. Columbus opened his mouth to say something, anything, in reply to that, but he couldn’t think of one single word. Little Rock and Wichita exchanged a surprised look, but they appeared less traumatised than Columbus felt. He’d always known that most people– women especially– were more mature than him, and knew how to handle delicate situations better than he could. Which was why he desperately looked over at Wichita, silently begging her to speak. She met his stare with raised eyebrows.
“Didn’t know you were gay,” Wichita said, somehow managing to make the statement sound gentle.
Tallahassee smiled sadly. Columbus blinked; he’d never seen that expression on his face before. It was weirdly disquieting.
“Neither did I, for a long time,” Tallahassee murmured, his eyes dazed, focussing on something very far away, “I was married, before I met him. Had a wife, two kids… don’t even know if my little girls are still alive.”
They all sat in stunned silence.
Death, loss, mourning– it was all a standard part of zombieland but, somehow, it’d seemed that Tallahassee was apart from that. Somehow, it’d seemed that he was above it, better than the rest of them. Columbus had genuinely never imagined that Tallahassee had a horror story at his back; he’d preferred to think of him as a lone ranger, a person of untouchable violence and obscure world views, whose only concerns revolved around Twinkies and ammunition.
Having been proven wrong, he reached out, and patted Tallahassee on the shoulder twice. A masculine gesture that wasn’t likely to dent Talahassee's pride. In the face of this newest revelation, Columbus wondered if Tallahassee had ever been the kind of guy who did hugs.
He doubted it.
“What was his name?” Little Rock asked, her voice lighter than everyone else’s, “Your boyfriend, what was his name?”
Tallahassee looked down at his hands, tapping his thumb against the beer bottle. He shifted uncomfortably where he was sprawled, looking as if he were considering whether or not to answer.
“…Rustin Cohle.” The name rolled off his tongue gently, tenderly. He smiled, looking more upset than Columbus had ever seen him. “But everybody just called him Rust.”
“That’s a funny name,” Little Rock said flippantly, with an easy smile.
Tallahassee grinned, and laughed. “Yeah, guess so.”
“How’d you meet him?” Columbus asked, finally finding his voice. His words were stilted and awkward, but thankfully that was how he generally spoke, so no one noticed.
“On the job.”
“What did you used to do?” Wichita asked, curiosity colouring her tone. Columbus knew how she felt; he was afraid of asking Tallahassee too many questions, but he wanted to know this story. He wanted to know what lay behind Tallahassee’s violently upbeat personality.
“I was a cop.”
They all exclaimed, stunned; “What?” Little Rock demanded, as Wichita said, “You’re kidding!”
“I wouldn’t have called that,” Columbus added, feeling almost irritated that his understanding of one of three people he knew on the entire planet was now so redundant.
“Mm. I was, uh,” Tallahassee rubbed at his forehead, sighed heavily, “homicide police. Nasty stuff. Tell you what, the shit humans can do? That scares me way fuckin’ more than any zombie. The last case I ever took still gives me nightmares.”
Columbus and the sisters nodded in unison, considering that. Columbus didn’t exactly feel the need to disagree; people had always terrified him about the same amount as zombies– but, then again, almost everything had. They all picked up their monopoly money, returning their attention to the game, assuming Tallahassee’s moment of personal vulnerability was over, and that he would go back to his usual shitty self.
But Tallahassee didn’t move, didn’t pick up his money. Columbus looked at him, frowning uncomfortably; he wasn’t sure whether he liked this sudden shift in personality. He’d almost gotten used to the whole crazy-hillbilly thing, and the security of having someone strong to rely on was a very valuable thing in zombieland. Tallahassee was their leader, their fucking trailblazing warrior; this was a warzone, and they needed him to be strong. They all needed to be strong.
“…Tallahassee?” Little Rock asked quietly. “You wanna play the game?”
Tallahassee kept staring into the distance.
“Rust had a mind like no one else,” he whispered, suddenly, “He was so fuckin’ smart… Ran rings around me, most days.”
Columbus swallowed. He fidgeted, the monopoly money dry and flaky against his sweaty palms.
“I’m sorry,” he said, wondering whether that was the right thing to say. Was there ever a right way to express sympathy towards someone whose partner had been swept away in a tide of undead world domination?
“Ain’t no one that should be sorry but me. Everythin’ was my fault, right from the beginning.” Tallahassee replied flatly. He blinked, his face becoming animated and alert again; there were tears sparkling in his eyes, and he swiped at them as he stood.
“Better go get some fuckin’ popcorn if we’re gonna be tellin’ stories all night,” he muttered as he walked away.
Marty leaned against the sink while the popcorn hummed and snapped in the microwave. He heard phantom gunshots. He saw the sculpted edge of a face, turned half-into the light, and the sway of brown hair. He reached his fingers out, as if he could touch him again; his lips parted, as if he could kiss him again.
His hand slammed down against the bench. He bowed his head, slouching his shoulders forward, curling in on himself as he started to cry. He held the sobs in, pressing a hand against his mouth. He'd been doing so well; he hadn't thought of Rust for weeks. He'd killed zombies, smashed things, screamed into the night, and drank himself unconscious, turning entirely into Tallahassee and leaving himself behind in ashes– and it had been fine, because he hadn't seen that beautiful face painted behind his eyelids, smiling in a rare moment of unrestrained adoration.
"Christ, Marty," Rust had whispered that day, as they lay in bed, "I love you, motherfucker."
Marty's breath hitched. He thought of his children. Of Maggie.
He wondered if any of them were still alive.