Five carries a notebook.
It is a constant that people rarely question any more. No matter the time of day or how little she might be wearing, somewhere on her person hides a little square filled with God-knows-what. Everyone who has spent much time with Five has seen her whip out the palm-sized, spiral bound thing and scribble a few lines before shoving it back into her waistband or backpack or sports bra.
It is, of course, highly suspicious at first, and people wonder about township security and narrow their eyes when she shamelessly begins jotting down notes. No one can quite remember when she started doing it, but it sends a small spike of unease into their hearts as they remember being hunted across the countryside by monsters.
That is until Janine stalks up to her on the training field with a stony face and orders her to come to the farmhouse for a conversation. They are gone for sometime, close to an hour, and the residents of Abel pointedly do not look at each other or bring it up. When they emerge, Five’s lips are pursed and she looks a little flushed, but Janine simply glares at the closest residents and says, “The notebook stays.”
The surrounding group (that certainly were not milling around for a sticky-beak) hurriedly look away and return to their work. There is a long pause while Janine surveys them, before she turns on her heel and marches away, dismissing the whole situation as a waste of valuable breathing time. Five runs a hand through the flyaway hairs escaping her braid as everyone in the vicinity looks at important things that are not her, and finally scarpers back to the track to throw herself into a jog. Her time around the track is quite a bit shorter than it had been an hour ago.
After that the notebook is simply a part of Five, no more incongruous than her headset or joggers. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to when she may feel the need to write. Sometimes she pulls it out mid-conversation, temporarily unable to talk while her hands are occupied. Other times she can be found sprawled on the grass near the potato crop, steadily filling line after line, completely unaware of the rest of the world. Every now and then the bed sheets rustle in the middle of the night and she can be heard groping for a pencil in the near-complete dark, hoping to find a blank sheet before she starts scribbling.
Everyone has a theory about the notebook. Jodie thinks it is full of plans for future runs, ideas and strategies for keeping herself and the others safe. Ed thinks she is writing fiction of a different place and a kinder time to stop herself going mad. Simon happily whispers to everyone that it is full of fantasies, escapist indulgences starring all the people she knows, but secretly he believes that she writes to remember. The people she lost, the life she used to lead. All the things that start to lose meaning as they fade into history.
The truth, as Five would readily have told anyone if they bothered to ask, is far less specific. She calls the notebook tucked against her spine her Little Book of Everything.
It began when she first came to Abel and could not speak a word. Janine brought pens and paper and had her write down what she needed to say. It was cumbersome, but it worked, and Five found that the more she wrote, the more she found to write. There was so much to be said, and she had not said anything in months. Often, however, she looked at what she had written and found it was too personal, or critical, or irrelevant, and realised that passing the message on would have caught her up in a conversation that she would immediately wish to escape, so she tucked the message away and remained silent. She discovered, to her surprise, that the simple act of writing it down alleviated something in her. The churn of stress and rage would calm just a fraction, and she could breath. She could think, more clearly than a moment before. Sometimes, when she wanted to reach forward to claw someone’s eyes out, she wrote it down, and found that she could forgive.
Carrying a wad of paper and a pen jammed into her shorts was a literal pain in the arse, so when she passed through a town on a supply run she ducked into an office supplies store and picked up a lime green notebook, small enough to store in the band of her bra.
Since then the Little Book of Everything has slowly filled with pages and pages of scribbles. What began as a mess of unspoken outbursts is now a varied and hectic compendium of her life.
It would look like a mishmash to most, but she knows the meaning of every page.
Somewhere in the middle is a set of exercises copied from Maxine’s lecture after Five’s knees and ankles started complaining. The stretches, balances and walks are accompanied by rough diagrams with arrows, and at the bottom of the page is a note that Maxine forced her to include:
Runners need to protect themselves too.
Somewhat further on is a page of quotations that Five will sometimes read back over and giggle to herself.
Touch the yarn and I’ll turn your ribcage backwards - Jodie
Do you ever get the urge to make out with a motorcycle? - Simon
SMELL THE MIGHTY GOLIATH SWEAT! - Jack
When I grow up I want to be a ferret - Molly
These seem to get progressively funnier as she forgets the context.
Towards the beginning there are scraps of paper caught in the binding where pages have been ripped out. She knows that it had been insanely optimistic to think she could sketch the faces of her family from memory before they faded forever, but she still feels a sickening stab of frustration and grief as she remembers her forth wobbly attempt to capture her sister’s smile before tearing the page out with a silent wail of rage. The torn scraps remind her that dwelling too much on the past is an abyss she may not return from.
A few pages beyond that, there is a list she returns to often, adding new entries but never gracing the page with a title.
- Francesca is going to make waffles
- I want to see the sunrise without clouds
- Molly needs new shoes
- It’s my turn next with the DS
- Abel needs all the runners it can get
- I might find the last Wheel of Time book
- Sam would be sad
- I promised I’d teach Ed to braid Molly’s hair
- I learned to sign “dickhead” and Simon hasn’t figured it out yet
- Sara needs someone to watch her back
- It’s not always this hard
- I make people happier
- I found a Hilltop Hoods CD
- Roses are pretty
It does not always feel like enough, and sometimes she has to close her eyes and concentrate to remember why any of them matter, but eventually something will sink in and she can move on with her day.
On the very back page is a cramped grid of writing that she is careful no one sees.
This too began without any real forethought, right before it became incredibly important.
At the end of a long run some months after joining Abel, Five’s fatigue starts to sap her concentration and she catches herself on a branch. It tears a mean-looking gash up the length of her calf, dripping blood into her sock. It is not especially deep, but any wound is a potential source of infection so she diligently marches herself to the infirmary. There Maxine gives her a frankly ridiculous number of stitches and a speech about using her God-given eyeballs or something. Five starts tuning her out round about the fifth stitch without anaesthetic.
When all is said and done and Five has not started coughing but is in serious danger of oozing onto the floor, Maxine tucks her into one of the back beds and hikes a curtain around her. She falls asleep within ten minutes, which would have been a personal record before the apocalypse but now seems indicative of just how well she can squeeze every drop of sensible thought out of her brain with exercise.
The lights are dimmed when she jerks awake hours later. Her heart is hammering with fear and adrenaline and she determinedly focuses on keeping her breathing as silent as possible. At first she cannot pinpoint what has her so on edge, but then the sound of padding footsteps makes its way across the floor beyond her curtain, clearly trying to go unheard. A soft clinking sound comes from the left and Five’s eyes narrow in rage as she remembers where the medical supplies are stashed. The three locks will take minutes to pick at least. With careful deliberation, Five tenses her body and slowly lifts herself into a sitting position.
Before she can make a move, however, Maxine’s slapping footsteps power in from the next room and she hisses, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
The lock pick tinkles to the floor and there is a frightened, scrambling sound. The intruder swears and whimpers and Five recognises the voice.
Thomas is a short, boisterous man. He has worked in the kitchens since before Five came to Abel, and must have a great deal of charisma if his regular crowd of laughing hangers-on is anything to go by. He has been rather less rambunctious lately, but she would hardly have pegged him as a criminal. Confused, Five stays ramrod straight, ready to burst through the curtains if Maxine needs protecting.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so sorry I just… God… I,” he stammers, voice high with anxiety.
“Mr Menzies, stop that and get away from the cabinet,” says Maxine in a very low, measured voice.
Thomas chokes on a sob, but the direction of his voice doesn’t change.
“Please, Maxine… please… you don’t understand…”
“You might be right,” says Maxine. “But I will if you explain to me.”
There is a pause where all that Five can hear is a soft chant of “I can’t. I can’t.”
Maxine’s voice makes its way over to Thomas, and she says in a gentle tone, “Come on, come into my office and we’ll talk about it.”
A soft swishing noise comes from Thomas as he slides to the floor. His voice is muffled, and Five imagines him tucking his head into his knees.
“I need it… please… I need to…”
“Is it painkillers?” asks Maxine, carefully not using the word ‘addiction’.
He must have shaken his head, because her next words are, “You’re sick?”
He lets out a harsh little giggle and his voice becomes even more strained. “No. I’m not… there’s nothing wrong with me. No matter what they said, I know I’m not sick. Or wrong. Or anything. I just need…”
He trails off and Five waits an interminable moment. Maxine says nothing, refusing to interrupt his flow of thought.
The word is quiet, and he waits a long moment before continuing.
“I was on Delatestryl. I managed to get a big stash on the way out of London. But it’s nearly gone. All of it… I can’t…”
“Hormone Replacement Therapy,” breathes Maxine. “You could have asked, Thomas.”
He breathes deep, not quite holding in a sob.
“I know, I know, it’s just… no one knows. About me. My family weren’t… and no one here even questions. I thought… even if you didn’t have the injections, there might be something.”
Maxine sighs, and there is a world of fatigue in the sound.
“I’m sorry, Thomas. There isn’t anything.”
The sound of Thomas’s breathing stops, and Five can almost see him curling in on himself.
“I’m sure,” said Maxine, and a note of self-reproof creeps into her voice. “The runners have stocked us up on antibiotics, painkillers, every medication I could think of, but I never even thought we might need… I’m so sorry.”
“It’s… okay,” he replies, and there is a definite tone of defeat in his words now. “It’s not your fault. I can… I’ll be okay. I know who I am. That doesn’t change. It won’t.”
His voice is getting softer, blanker, and Five presses a hand to her neck without thinking about it.
“I can tell the runners to get some,” says Maxine in a cajoling voice. “Now that I know, we can…”
“No one is dying because of this,” cuts in Thomas. “No one. What if they go looking and they get bitten? They can’t… the price is wrong… for this… I can’t… I won’t let that happen. Not for this. And anyway, they’ll know. It’s written on the box. Everyone will know.”
“They aren’t going to judge you,” tries Maxine.
“They will. Even when they say they don’t, they do. It’s not… safe, Max. You don’t get it.”
“Okay,” she says. “Okay, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” says Thomas in a dead tone, and Five can hear him get to his feet. “I’ll just go. I’ll go to bed. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure,” he says and his footsteps make their way to the far door, no longer trying to be quiet.
Maxine waits a long moment, then marches to the back bed and tugs the curtains across. By the time she gets there Five has already flipped her little book to the last page and is holding out a pen.
Some weeks later Maxine has talked to Sam about scheduling a few more pharmacy runs.
“Uh, sure,” he says. “I’m pretty sure Four is free over the next few days. And Seven.”
“Five already volunteered,” counters Maxine, and Sam frowns.
“You went behind my back?” he asks, sounding a little hurt.
“You were busy, and she’s keen,” she said, nonchalantly. “Besides, she’s only got a maintenance mission to one of the southern cameras. She can tack it on afterwards.”
“Maxine… you can’t… you know every extra minute out there is dangerous.”
“This is important, and the runners accept the risk.”
His frown deepens at that, but after speaking with Five and seeing her determination to help, he can hardly argue.
Five, meanwhile, has tried to memorise every name on Maxine’s clustered list of testosterone medications, certain that at least one of them must be available in the deserted pharmacy. With her lips pursed and her eyes narrow, she efficiently snips through the busted wire on south camera #14 and replaces it, before turning towards the nearest town.
The run is a bust. The chemist has been completely ransacked, along with the grocery and petrol station. Five clenches her fist, angry and feeling impotent in a way she hasn’t since she signed up as a runner.
Then she straightens and gives her cheeks a quick smack, reminding herself that in the apocalypse good things come to those who quit bitching and do something.
And that her feelings of helplessness are nothing compared to Thomas’s.
She mentally crosses the town off her internal map and resolves to try again.
It takes two more less-than-above-board trips to strike gold. The last is almost a disaster, as a small pack of zoms turn out to be locked in the back room of the chemist.
Five jerks back with all the grace of a gazelle on ice skates, fumbling for her machete. A shambler tramps over to her and leans forward with grasping hands. Its skin reeks of old rot. Groping behind her, Five’s fingers come into contact with a folder full of heavy files and she swings it like the world’s most boringly written brick. A crunching sound fills the pharmacy and the zombie crumples with a right-angled dent in its skull.
“The exit to your right is clear,” says Sam, his voice just this side of frantic. “Get out of there, Five.”
Five scowls and picks up a chair, battering the next zombie to come close.
“Five, can you hear me? You have a way out!” implores Sam.
The muscles in her neck bunch with tension. She pretends not to hear him.
“Five? Five! Do you copy? Five, what are you doing?”
She finally manages to free the machete from its straps on her back and lops the head off the nearest zombie. The last three press forward into her space and she hacks away, trying not to give into wild panic. One of them gets a hand bunched into her sleeve and yanks her forward, throwing off her swing, but as she falls forward she manages to force the blade between them and it goes straight through its neck and up into the brain. Gasping for breath, she wrenches herself backwards as hands grasp at her backpack, pulling the blade with her and frantically beheading the zombie to her left. The final attacker nearly has its teeth in her leg when she manages to force the blade through its eye.
The sudden silence is off-putting. Nausea claws at her stomach and she breaths in short, sharp bursts, clinging hard to the handle of her blade. When she gathers enough strength to wrench it back out of the zombie skull, she drags herself away from the fallen bodies and crawls backwards until she hits a wall. Distantly she can hear Sam shouting worriedly in her ear, so she shakily taps the All Okay signal on her headset.
“Jesus. Fuck. Okay, yeah,” he says, forcing himself to calm. “That is not okay. Not even a bit. Why didn’t you run?”
She shrugs helplessly, knowing the cameras will pick it up, and he groans in irritation.
“Fine, but you’re explaining when you get back.”
Heartbeat finally beginning to relax, Five slowly picks herself up and tentatively makes her way to the big storage area out the back. Without zombies taking up all the space it looks a lot bigger, and she takes a moment to cringe at the prospect of searching through all this without the electronic database. This is, however, not her first drug-wrangling rodeo, and she finds what she needs within five minutes, stuffing her backpack full of innocuous white boxes. Once she has a handy stash, she takes a peek round for any antibiotics or birth control that hadn’t yet been taken, and tosses those in the bag too.
Sam breathes a sigh of relief when she steps back into the open air.
“Christ, yes. Good. You’re clear for the next two miles, just keep an eye out for any hidden crawlers.”
Five lets her lips curl into a half smirk and makes her way back into Abel.
When Maxine sees the boxes she bares her teeth in victory, visibly restraining herself from punching the air. With a few rushed signs, Five asks how she will go about giving them to Thomas.
“I’ll say I added it to the list of ongoing medical supplies. No one looks too closely at those,” says Maxine with a dismissive wave of her hand.
Five smiles wearily and turns to go.
“You know we can’t tell him what you did. Not without saying why,” adds Maxine.
Five faces her again, tossing out a casual salute.
This is better, she signs, and Maxine nods with a smile.
Sam is somewhat less pleased. He rails at her about being sensible on missions, and she signs belligerently that she knew what she was doing, and the mission was worth it.
“I need to trust that you’ll listen to my instructions!” he implores.
Sometimes my judgement is just as important, shoots back Five.
“I know, but there were better ways of handling that, and I didn’t even know why you weren’t listening!”
Five pauses at that, taking in the stress lines around his eyes and suddenly feeling very small. Her shoulders hunch forward a little and she bites her cheek.
I’m sorry, she says.
Sam runs a hand through his terminally untidy hair and sighs.
“We’re a team, Five. Just… try to remember that, yeah?”
She nods, trying to show the sincerity on her face, and the tension leaks out of him.
“C’mon. Let’s go get dinner, before you decide to take down every zombie in England on your own.”
Five gives a helpless shake of the head and follows him to the kitchens. Sitting in the pit of her stomach is a small ball of guilt, but she is used to never feeling truly at ease so she trots forward with a tight expression.
Five doesn’t speak to Thomas or Maxine in the week following her stunt at the pharmacy. It strains something in her to leave well enough alone, but she purses her lips and reminds herself that discarding all common sense to crash-tackle a pack of zombies does not buy her a ticket to someone else’s life.
She is not, however, left completely in the dark. Stepping into the mess hall with Jodie and Simon after a particularly disgusting run through a stagnant creek, she hears a jovial voice booming Katy Perry lyrics from the kitchens.
“You! Make! Me! Feel-like-I’m-livin’-a…”
“Christ, not again,” groans Simon.
“The way you turn me on!”
“Yeah,” says Sam, sidling up to them from his perch near the door. His smirk is thoroughly amused and he has a soft bounce in his shoulders. Apparently the merry, off-key singing is infectious.
“He’s been going for twenty minutes. I think he only knows three Katy Perry songs but they seem to be enough.”
“Ha!” says Jodie. “Maybe he’ll break out the Gaga next.”
“Anything to avoid hearing Last Friday Night again. Would you believe he knows all the words? I didn’t think anyone knew all the words!”
The song finishes and there are a few anticipatory seconds of silence, then the voice launches into a gleeful rendition of Part of Me. Sam smacks a hand to his face.
“Oh my God, SHUT UP!” yells an exasperated man sitting near the kitchens. The singing does not falter, but a moment later the door bursts open and Thomas strides out wearing thick gloves and a hairnet.
“BUT YOU’RE NOT GONNA BREAK MY SO-O-O-OUL!” he bellows, surprising the seated diners into incredulous laughter. “THIS IS THE PAAART OF ME THAT YOU’RE NEVER GONNA EVER TAKE AWAY FROM ME!”
He thrusts his hips into a pose, flipping off the disgruntled diner who by now is muffling his choked laughter with his hands, and strides back into the kitchen.
“Well, damn,” chuckles Simon. “Those are some serious moves. ‘Bout time he got back on his feet.”
“Yeah,” agrees Jodie. “Did any of you find out why he was so down?”
Five shrugs and Simon shakes his head with a frown. Sam gives a rueful smile and just says “Apocalypse.”
The next verse booms out from the kitchen and Five feels her face slipping into a wide, satisfied grin. She carefully controls it, looking at the ground and forcing her cheeks to relax until there is only the hint of a smile, but the others don’t seem to have noticed.
“Well, here’s hoping the food survived his good mood,” says Jodie, and trudges forward to pick up a tray. Simon follows close behind, scratching at the mud on his neck. Five is about to step forward when a hand closes around her wrist and her heart jumps into her throat. She whips it away on instinct but it’s only Sam, looking at her with a faintly puzzled expression.
“Sorry,” he says, and she shrugs, waiting.
Sam searches her face for a few seconds that make Five feel very exposed, then lowers his voice.
“What did you do?”
Five frowns in confusion, so he clarifies.
“With Thomas. What did you do?”
Her eyebrows shoot up, but she carefully settles her face into a nonplussed expression. His gaze doesn’t waver, and she determinedly keeps eye contact.
“That wasn’t your happy-for-them smile,” he says, keeping his voice very quiet. “That’s your mission-accomplished smile. That’s the one you hide.”
Five blinks in shock and her expression wavers. Sam continues to watch her, head cocked to the side, and it takes her a moment to school herself enough to give a dismissive shrug. He remains silent, letting the moment stretch.
Finally, after a few loaded seconds, Five rolls her eyes and signs, You think too much, then turns on her heel and makes her way over to the dinner trays. The sound of murmured conversation and laughter is still overshadowed by booming song. A group to her left push their trays away and join in on the chorus, smacking their fists on the table so that the beat echoes through the hall. She hears Sam following behind, but doesn’t turn, and he does not bring it up again.
There is something liberating in seeing Thomas so free, without the weight that had built across his shoulders over the long months. So much of Five’s job is about ensuring survival. She collects food and ammo and information. She distracts the monsters and fires on enemies, running until her bones ache to ensure that the township meets the next sunrise in one piece. She buys a few more seconds for people who no longer see a future.
But just this once, she ran for the sake of something other than time. Her sweat and fear and desperation bought something real for a good person, and now a room fills with ridiculous song and cackling laughter.
It makes her think about all the things her people have left behind. Non-essentials that survivors tell themselves they do not miss, things that aren’t important, aren’t a priority. You’re alive, and most of the world isn’t. Suck it up and appreciate breathing. You’re better off than most.
But it’s not enough, and it never will be. The people of Abel are confined to a tiny little township cut off from everything that used to make their hearts sing. They rely on management to supply them with what they need, and can never leave to chase the things that once made their lives feel real.
But she can.
She turns to the final page of the notebook and draws up a grid.
Oh, yeah. She can do this.
The thing about being mute is that it’s freakishly easy to blend into the background. Five doesn’t often engage with people who aren’t close friends, so the rest of the township seems to forget that she’s there. They talk and they joke and they cry and they whisper, and through all of this Five observes. She remains quiet, and listens, and sometimes catches hints of where the gaping holes within their souls are hidden.
When she pinpoints something important, she jots it down in the back of her book and continues on with her day, and when her runs take her beyond the woods she keeps a wary eye out.
There is often no rhyme or reason to the items on her list. No one will say why something is important for fear of never being able to stop, but their expression as they speak, or their twitching hands, or too-high chuckle, or any number of little hints give away just how essential it is.
So she finds a book of James Joyce for Francesca.
She digs up some bougainvillea seedlings for Gerald.
She finds three sets of ballroom dance shoes and hopes one of them will be the right size for Sandra.
In one dank little shop she is nearly bitten as she desperately gathers all the supplies to maintain the violin stuffed in her backpack.
Sam catches onto her game very quickly. She warns him now when she’s about to do something insane, and they have an agreement that she can take a slight detour outside of mission parameters as long as she books it the second he tells her to. He can see the things she picks up, and often spots them in the township afterwards, accompanied by contented smiles and relaxed shoulders.
Feeling awed and a little excited, he asks if there’s anything he can do to help, so she writes him a list of things to keep an eye out for. Working together they manage to lift the spirit of Abel out of the dust, and every small victory makes Five feel a little more real, a little less lost.
After watching some of the older residents turn away from any jobs requiring them to read, Sam has an epiphany and sends Five to raid an old optometrist. Her bag is stuffed with old lenses in envelopes when she returns, and within days at least twenty adults and five kids have found something to fit their eyes. Two residents are spotted crying as they blink at their hands, and old Isaac has not left the little library in a day and a half, but no one says anything. No one needs to.
Sam never says who is responsible when asked. He thinks all his runners are wonderful, and Five does not want the town to know she listens. He does however keep a very close eye on her, and whenever she whips out the little book and flips to the last page, he feels a warm surge of affection and admiration.
There are hundreds of ideas about what is in Five’s notebook, and most do not come close to the truth. Sam knows that the words written in there do not matter. What does matter is what the book does.
It is a tool, and a sanctuary, and a therapist. It is a lifeline to other people. It is an album of her good memories, and a void she can throw her poison into. It is her gift to the people she protects. If one were to read through it, they would see Five stripped bare, the very best and worst of who she is.
Sam can guess, but he will never ask to see it. Not even for the chance to see the silent woman free of all pretence.
He does not need to.
He already knows.