In which Johnny’s body is placed in the ground and decides shortly after not to stay there.
Betty Isen wasn’t at school on Monday, and neither was Billy Holster. Everyone was talking about what happened, and by noon the stories were wildly out of control. Billy had done it on purpose, the car had exploded, the police had arrested everyone and locked them all in jail. It was any wonder they’d skipped out on school.
Merton walked through the cafeteria at lunch, and it was the only thing anyone was talking about. He searched the tables for Beverly and stopped. A group of freshmen sat around a table, newsletters held in front of their faces. He snatched one up, ignoring the cry of the freshman, and turned it over. It was a crude newspaper, only two pages, filled entirely with news about Johnny Maxwell. Quotes from people who were there, a statement from the principal, even news from the hospital.
He found Beverly outside the cafeteria, a stack of newspapers next to her. She looked like she hadn’t slept all weekend.
“This is a bad idea,” he said. “Where’d you even get half this stuff?”
She shook her head. “I went to the hospital last night. Johnny’s mom was happy when I told her what I was doing.”
He sat down beside her. A group of students came up and asked for a copy, and she handed them one each.
“You didn’t mention Billy,” he said, skimming the passages.
“I didn’t want to.”
“How’s Johnny doing?”
“Really bad. They don’t know if he’ll make it.” She lowered her eyes. “Betty was there the whole time, I think.”
“Yeah. I’m not surprised.”
They sat in silence as she handed out more newsletters. A few football players had come up, but a few more stood back, shaking their heads.
“When did you even do this?” Merton asked.
She shrugged. “Miss Helim helped me. I got here at five with all these handwritten words and she showed me how the machines work.”
“I guess this isn’t the worse you could do with this.”
Every few minutes a student would take a newsletter. Everyone knew Johnny, even the lowest on the high school totem pole, and not a one knew how to react to his. Merton and Beverly sat a long time in silence, until the sound of the bell signaled them to return to their classes. Several of the cheerleaders stood solemnly together in the hall, and all the football players had their heads bowed. A few people had started decorating Johnny’s locker with flowers and cards telling him to get well. It was late afternoon, when the PA crackled, sending a shock of white noise through the student body, that the principal announced that Johnny Maxwell had passed.
Beverly left the final drafts of the next edition of Laemmle High Newsletter at school and rode her bike to the hospital. The halls were empty except for a few nurses, quietly doing paperwork or drinking coffee after a long shift. She walked to Johnny’s room and stopped a few feet away. Betty was sitting outside, head in her hands. Her usual blond curls hung limp around her shoulders, and her clothes were a few days old. She wasn’t sobbing, but Beverly could see tears running down her face like a silent river. Inside they could hear the doctor speaking in a low voice, and Johnny’s mother crying. Beverly paused at her side, and her hand reached out, squeezing her shoulder. Betty looked up at her with bright red eyes. There wasn’t anything to say that didn’t feel hollow or false, and so they stood there for a minute, trying to figure out what there was to say. Beverly let go as the door opened and stepped into the room.
There was a funeral. Most of the school was there. Marya went as well. She was no stranger to death. She stood among the black clad mass and watched. Miss Helim stood in the back, a black veil over her doe eyed face, a hand curled around Mr. Colburn. Neither of them cried. Principal Whale was there, hands folded in front of him, black suit looking well worn. Mr. Eckels was the world history teacher, hair white at the temple, hands shaking slightly, with a strange look on his face the whole time. The girl with the newsletters sobbed into her best friend, who held an arm around her. The cheerleaders gathered together like a Greek chorus, wailing as the body went into the ground. The boy who’d caused all this could barely hold it together. The rest of the school was in various stages of grief, some watching silently with glistening eyes, others sobbing gently. The boy’s parents stood in front of everyone, holding hands, saying nothing at all. Betty Isen was not there.
The casket rested in the dark soil. A handful of dirt was thrown over it. The boy was laid to rest.
Marya remained. She was comfortable in graveyards, and so she stayed long after everyone else was gone, long after the diggers had finished their work, long after the moon rose into the sky. It was full and fat, and somewhere far away was a howl that made the hair on her neck rise. She knelt down beside the grave, digging her fingers into the new soil. After a minute, her head turned to Devon Fields, and a cloud of black bats burst into the sky.
It would be two weeks before Betty returned to school. She trudged into class, wearing all black, her hair clipped back with no effort, and her eyes still red. She ignored her friends in the hallway and talked to no one. During class, her pencil traced lazy lines in her notebook.
Beverly tried to think of something to say to her, but what could possibly make up for what happened? She focused instead on the newsletter. Miss Helim turned out to be very good with the equipment, and she would bring the drafts to her so she could watch her churn out pages. Maybe she’d been an engineer in the good old days, but mostly she played Susie Homemaker with Mr. Colburn.
Miss Helim was inspecting the filing cabinets as Beverly cleaned up the room.
“There’s no key for these,” she said, giving one an experimental tug. “I looked everywhere, but Principal Whale told me it’d gotten lost some years ago.”
“That’s okay, Miss Helim.” Beverly laid out the drafts for the next print. The football game next Friday would be a sad one with Johnny gone and Bill retired. “I appreciate you helping out anyway.”
“Well.” She smoothed down the bloom of her skirt. “I do what I can. You children are our future.”
Beverly rolled her eyes at the notion but tried not to let her see it.
“Is Mr. Dewitt helping you?”
“Merton’s not enthusiastic about this as I am.” She tapped her pen against the page. “I have this big section to fill.”
Ms. Helim leaned forward to see. “There’s that new girl, Miss Zalesk. I’m afraid she isn’t making friends. You could ask her about Europe.”
“Oh, yeah, the Commie girl. No wonder she’s having trouble meeting people.” At the beginning of the year, the new student had been the strangest and most interesting thing to happen to Whitby in a long time. Now she paled to the current tragedy. “Are you alright, Ms. H?”
Ms. Helim’s face always had a strangely passive quality to it, but it had gone completely blank. Her fingers curled around each other, and she stepped away.
“Difficult times for many people,” she said. Her voice was far away. “She is a stranger in a strange land.”
Ms. Helim shook her head and smiled. “I was only thinking. You could at least talk to her. I’m afraid I must go, Miss Jones. I trust you have everything under control?”
Beverly stared at her. “Yes, m’am.”
The door clicked behind her. Beverly stood up and went over to the filing cabinet, giving it a good shake. Something metallic jingled inside. She pulled on another. There couldn’t be a point to locking these. They were only filled with paper.
The door opened again, and Merton leaned in.
“You still here?” he asked.
“Where else would I be?” She sighed.
“What’re you working on?”
“Waiting on Friday’s game.” She waved a hand over her things. “I didn’t think this would be so much work. And I think I offended Miss Helim.”
“I didn’t know you could do that.”
He glanced around the room, which Beverly had been doing her darndest to clean up. The white sheets had been taken down, meaning dust choked the air, and the photos had been rearranged on the wall. She’d placed the newsletter about Johnny up there. All their supplies had been reorganized and put in labeled boxes so they no longer had to hunt for ink for paper or pens. There was a smaller closet on the side used for photos that Merton had lugged in all the equipment for.
“You’re coming to the football game, right?” she asked as she gathered up her books.
He looked at her. “Am I?”
“You promised you’d bring your camera. You don’t remember?”
She looked at him pitifully with her brown eyes. He shook his head.
“Why are we even having the game?” he said. “We’re gonna lose, it’s going to be disappointing, and we’re all gonna be sadder for it. They should just cancel it.”
“It’s important,” she said. “They’re doing a big memorial thing for Johnny. I need pictures.”
“I was thinking of going out to the fields…”
“You’re not gonna find any little green men,” she said. “Come on. I’m asking you a favor.”
He sighed. “Fine, I’ll be there. But it’s not gonna do any good.”
She pulled her bag over her shoulder and headed out the door. “I think it’ll lighten things up, you know? Everyone’s been so tense since–it’ll be nice to have something to look forward to.”
“A depressing season of football?”
“Just… something.” She glanced down the empty hallway. Johnny’s locker was still adorned with items, and the flowers had started to wilt, shedding petals onto the floor below. She wondered briefly how long it would remain there, before someone cleaned it all up. “This year’s turning into a horror show. We’ve got to find something to lighten the mood.”
“I don’t really see it getting better from here on out,” Merton said.
“Well you’re not much of an optimist.”
“You’re really going to use the second issue of your newsletter to talk about the most depressing football game?”
She gave a grim smile. “I don’t think anything’s going to beat issue one. This is the first real thing to happen in Whitby since the war ended.”
“You’re probably right about that, Bev.”
Marya did not pay much attention in her classes. Currently she was sitting in Language Arts, and they were learning about Shakespeare. Her eyes glazed over a the text. She could probably quote more of Hamlet than anyone in this class had ever read, including their teacher. She wasn’t paying much attention when a group project was announced, and the desks reshuffled. Marya didn’t blink as everyone passed over her and formed tight huddles with people they knew. A few chairs away from her, Betty didn’t move either, and her friends joined up together. Ms. Waller noticed the straggling pair and pointed them towards each other. They took two seats in the back, away from the chattering of their classmates. Betty dropped her books on the desk, flipped open her notebook, and stared straight down, saying nothing.
Marya was not what anyone might call a ‘people person’, but she felt inclined to say something. She leaned forward and, hesitantly, asked, “How are you feeling?”
“Peachy,” Betty muttered.
A long silence stretched between them. Marya glanced at their textbook and tried to decide what was more painful.
“I didn’t expect you to return so soon,” she said.
“Well,” Betty snapped, “it was so swell sitting at home with my drunk of a mother, but I couldn’t let my boyfriend dying get in the way of my education.”
A few students had glanced at them. Marya opened her textbook.
“Would you like to–”
“I don’t care.” Betty buried her face in her hands. “I can’t. I thought it’d be easier to be here than home, but I can’t deal with any of this. I’m sorry, Marya.”
“You don’t have to be sorry.”
Betty rubbed her face and looked at her with red eyes. “Everyone else thinks I do. My mom told me I was ‘too pretty to wear black’, and none of my friends say anything to me. Georgia even told me if I wasn’t there, Johnny probably wouldn’t have shown off. It hasn’t even been a month, and everyone treats me like a freak for mourning him.”
Marya hesitated but placed a hand over hers. Betty stared at it, dead-eyed.
“I’m not… unaccustomed to death,” Marya said. “I know the impact it has on people’s lives. I’ve seen it. Sometimes others cannot. Strong emotion makes them uncomfortable. Your mourning is a sign that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Is that why you wear all black?” Betty asked. “Someone you know died?”
She took her hand away. “Yes.”
The bell rang, shaking them from their conversation. The other students went quickly out the door. Marya lingered as she packed up her things.
“I’m having an awful day,” Betty said, “and my next class I only took because all my friends were in it. Would you like to go sit behind the football field instead?”
“Instead of going to class?”
Marya considered. Her next period was American History. Her righteously patriotic teacher had made the class somewhat uncomfortable for her.
“Sure,” she said.
The football field was a flurry of activity. The homecoming game was the next day, and the boys had been working themselves sore to make up for their lost teammates. Betty found a spot beneath the bleachers, a few good paces from the teens using the area to smoke.
“Me and Johnny used to sneak off,” she said, smoothing out her skirt. “He etched our names into one of the bleachers. Guess it doesn’t matter now.”
“Little things always do.” Marya peered through the openings in the bleachers at the padded boys ramming into plastic dummies. “I don’t have much experience with football.”
“It’s plenty fun.” Betty didn’t look, but the shouts could be heard from here. “Once Johnny made an interception and ran it the entire length of the field for a touchdown. I screamed so hard my throat went sore.”
“And the game tomorrow?”
“Homecoming.” She undid her pins and let her hair fall over her shoulder. “It’ll be a sorry season. I don’t know if I’ll be going to any of the games.”
“I’d like to I just don’t know… I don’t know what I’m going to feel.”
“I could go with you,” she said quietly. “I’ve never been. Then you’d have someone, and we could leave if you liked.”
Betty looked at her. Marya was glad she didn’t blush.
“That’d be swell, Marya,” she said. “I thought about going with my friends but–they don’t understand. I could go with you. I’d like that.”
“I–” She brushed her hair in front of her face and looked down. “I’d like it too.”
They sat beneath the bleachers until the final bell rang. Betty was looking a little cheerier as she waved goodbye to Marya, who stayed behind to retrieve her things. She passed the empty drama room and paused as she saw something flicker across the reflections in the mirrors. Glancing around, she pushed the door in. The room was lined in floor to ceiling mirrors. Against some walls racks of costumes had been pushed up, and a small bench was the only seating. The mirrors reflected only the furniture. Marya was certain she’d seen something, like a shadow maybe. Her eyes rarely played tricks.
She shut the door and turned away, discontent milling in her stomach. She wished she could speak with her father. There was something wrong happening.
Thunder cracked. The black dirt turned to mud. There were no lights in the trees tonight.
If you listened close, you might hear scraping beneath the earth.
Beverly stood in front of the stands, umbrella her only protection from the onslaught of rain. It’d started last night and hadn’t stopped, and the only reason the football game hadn’t been cancelled was because the boys had begged. The field was a slosh of mud, and the stands were covered in the collective umbrellas, students and parents sitting glumly as they watched their boys struggle through the onslaught. Merton stood just behind Beverly, fiddling with his camera.
“The rain’ll ruin it,” he said.
“I’ll hold your umbrella.” She tipped her own back. It had actually lightened up considerably, but the stadium lights struggled to break through the grey gloom, and lightning cracked in the distance.
“They should just cancel it,” he grumbled.
“Complaining doesn’t help.” She was trying to listen to the coaches, who’d huddled a few feet away from them.
“Nice of them to let us stand up here.”
“I’m gonna make press passes.” She saw a referee nod and the boys moved to line up. “Miss Helim said she’d laminate them for me.”
A cheer came up from the seats as the team got ready to hike. The Laemmle Wolverines looked like they were drowning in their bulky blue uniforms. The Halstaff Broncos were bigger though, meaner looking. The rain had taken the enthusiasm out. The Wolverines quarterback tossed a clean pass about twenty yards. The player who caught it was easily smacked into the ground. Merton took lazy pictures. Beverly was considering getting a tape recorder as the game trudged on. She certainly couldn’t carry a notepad in the rain. The boys thrashed and crashed and passed, but a chill was setting in. It seemed this game would be just like the start of the semester: joyless, depressing, and possibly cut short.
At half-time, Merton and Beverly took shelter beneath the stadium structure. Thunder shook the walls. Beverly swept back her wet hair and squeezed out her ponytail.
“It’s looking bad,” Merton said as he cleaned off the camera lens.
“They’re probably going to cancel it soon.” She felt the thunder reverberate in her ears. “You won’t have to be here anymore.”
He gave a shrug. “Not like I could’ve gone to Devon Fields anyway.”
She peered back through the gate. The referee was shaking his head, and people in the stadiums were getting up to leave. Another roll of thunder bounced through the stadium, but as it faded a new noise rose up. Beverly could barely hear it at first, but the bass of it curled in her chest. Her skin went ice cold and her hair rose up on her neck. Other people were noticing it too. The players looked, one by one. The coaches stopped arguing. Even the crowd, growing restless and tired, had stilled as the groan rose up like an air raid siren.
Lightning lit the dark night sky. The groaning filled the stadium. It rumbled like an ancient beast and buried itself in their bowels. It was the growl of a tiger hidden in a dense forest, or a wolf in a snow bank, or a bear among dark colored trees. Everyone was staring at the figure emerging from the stadium. It stumbled forward in a menacing shuffle. Its pace was slow but deliberate. It said: you can run as fast as you can as far as you can, but I will always be following.
He stepped into the light. No one moved. No one breathed. The rain pounded against a hundred stunned faces.
Lightning cracked, and someone shrieked, “Johnny!”
It was, possibly. After two weeks of rot and with black dirt caking his skin and nails and clothes. His normally thick brush of hair was matted against his green, molting skin. One eye had gone blank, and the other stared with an inky black pupil.
People started screaming. Everyone on the field ran. The stadium was a stampede of people all in a sudden panic. A coach grabbed Beverly’s arm, but she shoved him off. He didn’t wait. Beside her, Merton leaned forward and snapped a picture. People were pushing them back, but she surged through the crowd. Her feet sunk into the wet ground as she started to run. Johnny was here. Johnny was alive. Johnny was stepping forward, arms raised, teeth bared. Johnny was only a few feet away, and the sky opened up. Lightning struck.
Stars exploded in Beverly’s eyes. For a moment all she could see was the brilliant white form of the dead teen king, and then she tipped forward and hit the ground.
Beverly came to on a cot. Her vision blurred as she tried to sit up, and a gentle hand pushed her back down. Above her, ambulance lights flickered blue and red.
“Oh wow,” Merton said somewhere close to her. His camera flashed, making her dizzy again. “So much for boring.”
The rain was now beating against the building, but the ambulance sat below the overhang leading into the school gym. She saw through the open doors the crowds of people being checked by paramedics and being interviewed by police. Serious looking men in military suits were talking to no one. A paramedic helped her up, deemed she was in no danger, and let her go. When she stood, her legs nearly gave out beneath her, and Merton let her lean on him. There were more ambulances lining the school. A girl had been trampled and carried to the hospital, and a man had a heart attack. A distance away, cloaked in the sheen of rain, a white closed off tent had been set up. Lights lit the inside, and they could see the silhouettes of the doctors and one ragged teenage boy.
“That was Johnny,” Beverly said as she shakily hooked her arm in his. “Right?”
Merton snapped another picture. “I guess that depends on how much of Johnny is left. He’s a zombie, Bev.”
“No. That’s made up.”
“Undead. A ghoul. A brain sucker.”
She slapped his arm weakly. “What happened?”
“Dunno. You were running like mad, then bam! I thought it struck you for a minute.”
The dazzling display danced in her vision. She could still see the cracks of white light. “It was a few feet away.”
“It hit Johnny straight on. He smoked.”
“We-ell, that’s when these fellas showed up.” He gestured to the military men. “And Sean Mason’s dad and Lola Kensey’s mom and I think half the town.”
“Sean Mason’s dad is a doctor, I get that, but Lola Kensey’s parents are nuclear physicists I thought.”
He shrugged. “He went with them fine after he stopped being on fire. No one’s said a word.”
She imagined the rows of experts looking at Johnny. The town was full of them. Half would show up on duty trying to determine how Johnny had crawled out of the grave and the other half would show up out of curiosity.
“Johnny’s a zombie,” she repeated. “Lord.”
“He wasn’t–He didn’t hurt anyone, did he?”
“No one knows.” He nodded to the scores of people that were mingling around, people who clearly had heard the news and showed up late. A table had been set up with coffee and cookies. “No one’s been reported missing, I think. They sent Carol Rogers’ and Falon Blue’s dads with some military guys to the cemetery. I think they’re worried about other people.”
She imagined the rows and rows of dead, waiting deep below. She shivered. Merton poured her a cup of coffee and she held it in her shaking hands. The lightning hadn’t harmed her, but her heart was still pounding. Johnny was alive. Johnny was undead.
“Do you think they’ll take away his headstone?” she asked.
He looked at her. “You’re loopy.”
She wanted to argue, but she couldn’t fight the evidence. “Yeah. How long to get those pictures developed?”
“I can do them tomorrow.”
“The undead in Whitby.” She sucked in a breath. “How long do you think they’ll hold him?”
“Forever? He’s a zombie. That’s all of modern science down the drain.”
She stared back at the white tent. People moved inside, but one shape remained still.
“He’s still Johnny,” she said uncertainly.
“Yeah, well.” He lifted up his camera. “I guess we’ll find out.”
It took until Sunday for the rain to clear. The white tent moved Friday night, and no amount of rumor hadn’t spread about where Johnny was. Supposedly he’d been taken to a secret ward in the hospital, or the military men had taken him down into an underground bunker, or brought to some zombie farm where they take all the scientific mistakes. Beverly suspected from the military vans parked outside Johnny’s door that he’d returned home. She took her bike over to his house and knocked gently on the door. She was greeted by Mrs. Maxwell, a woman of girth who shared Johnny’s blond hair, though hers had started to grey. Her eyes were bright red.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Maxwell,” Beverly said. “I wanted to see if maybe–”
A grin broke over the woman’s face. “Of course, of course! He’s back! Can you believe it? Taken from us in his prime and now he’s back!”
Beverly followed the woman in the old home. The faded yellow wallpaper was decorated with pictures, some that had been taken down and rehung, leaving a shadow an inch to their left. Johnny’s dad was in the living room with a few other adults, all in official dress, many in uniform. They looked at her with steely gazes.
“Johnny’s friend has come to visit,” Mrs. Maxwell said nervously. “Would it be alright?”
Mr. Maxwell nodded slowly. “We think the boy is fine, if only a little decomposed. No chances of radiation. Doubtful to give a bite.”
“I thought the soil sample was clean,” Heather Weeks’ mom started to say, “but I found this…”
Beverly was ushered out by Mrs. Maxwell. She cursed in her head. This was juicy shop talk, but there was no way she’d be allowed to listen in. She went up the stairs, and Mrs. Maxwell opened the door for her. Johnny was sitting on his bed with a newsletter in his lap. His skin was still green, and his eyes still mismatched. He’d washed, but his hair had lost its natural sheen. He didn’t smell, except like Johnny. Beverly had been expecting a stench of rot or formaldehyde or whatever dead people smelled like.
“Hi, Johnny,” she said. Mrs. Maxwell left the door cracked. “I wasn’t sure if they let you go or not.”
He smiled at her. Her heart began to beat faster. Even undead his smile left her dizzy.
“I was reading the newsletter you did,” he said. “Very heartwarming. I nearly cried.”
A thousand questions formed on her tongue. The talk of radiation and biting had left her somewhat wary, and she didn’t know how he felt, what it was like to be dead, if he wanted to answer any questions right now. She still had the image of him in her mind, of him shuffling towards her, arms outstretched, mouth full of teeth, but here was in front of her, smiling, a little strange but still handsome, and he’d read her newsletter.
“You died,” she blurted out and covered her mouth. Her cheeks burned bright red.
“I noticed.” He set the paper aside. “Everyone made a big fuss too. Makes a fella feel loved.”
“The doctors, did they–do you think you’re alright?”
“Not sure.” He held up his arm. Discolored skin made him a patchwork. “They’re not sure if I’ll keep rotting. I feel fine. My heart doesn’t beat and my lungs don’t work, but here I am.”
“Do you remember anything?”
His face twisted up in concentration. “Not really. I remember being hit by the car. That was painful. But eventually, I don’t know. It felt like I was sleeping. Even after I–I woke up, it feels like a dream.” He looked at her. “You were running towards me.”
Her face couldn’t get any redder. “I–I–I wanted to see, I guess. Up close.”
“And then there was a big flash, and a lot of pain.”
He nodded. “After that it was like I’d woke up. I thought I was back in the hospital.”
She tried to think of what to say. There was no alive again card, no celebratory cake for cheating death.
“Are they going to let you go back to school?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Mom’s happy to have me home and dad’s been sitting with all those scientists. No one knows what to do. I’m not dangerous, they said. I didn’t think I was but everyone was acting like I was going to attack.”
“You were–” She tried to think of a diplomatic word. “–intimidating. You weren’t saying words, and you were making this awful noise.”
“I remember seeing all the lights and the people.” He rubbed his face. “I wasn’t thinking straight. I was trying to get home and I heard all the noise and I–I don’t know. I’m not like that now.”
“No, you’re not.” He was certainly dead, and the eyes were a little unnerving, but underneath it all was Johnny.
“Even if I do go back I can’t play anymore.” He looked sadly at his own leg. “I guess I didn’t have time to heal all the way when I died.”
“I’m going to do another newsletter,” she said, “and I–”
Feet pounded on the floor outside, and the door slammed open. Betty stopped in her tracks. She didn’t even see Beverly, who had jumped out of the way. Her sneakers were caked in mud and her hair and clothes were hastily arranged. Johnny jumped up from the bed. They stared at each other. Betty’s eyes crawled over his decaying state. He stepped forward, and she flinched.
“I heard–” Her breath was ragged. “I saw–Johnny, you–”
He held up his hands. “I’m fine. I’m alive. I’m just a little… different than before.”
“Look at you.” Her voice went up a pitch. “How did this even happen?”
“No one knows. Betty–”
“I missed you so much. I missed you so much. But you–But Johnny, you’re a corpse.”
“And at the game, oh Johnny.” She looked at him in his mismatched eyes. Tears were brimming in her own baby blues. “I just don’t know.”
“Betty, I know. It’s all a little strange.”
He reached for her. She took a step back.
“Taking your cousin to the dance is a little strange. Johnny, you’re the living dead! I can’t–I just can’t!”
She exited as speedily as she’d come. Far away they heard the front door slam. Beverly gently–and with some hesitation–placed a hand on his shoulder.
“It’ll take some getting used to,” she said. “For everyone. Except maybe your mom.”
He lowered his eyes. “Thanks, Beverly.”
“I was going to put out another paper.” She held up her little notebook. “Is there anything you’d like to say?”
“Um, not really.”
She nodded. “I bet when everyone hears that you’re still Johnny, things’ll be just fine. You’ll probably get lots of visitors too. I could, um, come back. If you wanted.”
“Sure, Bev. That’d be swell.”
There wasn’t much to say after that. Beverly headed back downstairs. Mrs. Maxwell was nowhere to be seen, and she crouched down in the stairs, listening to the experts talk in hushed voices. She could make out some words, but without the full puzzle organized she was left with a lot of pieces, and she headed back down. Not knowing what to do or where to go, she biked over to Merton’s house, where his mom greeted her. There were very few single parent homes in Whitby, but Ms. Dewitt had been a communications officer during World War II and had brought only her son when she was invited to work here. She was sweet faced and wore glasses as well, kept on a chain which was no end of embarrassment for Merton. She let Beverly in and poured her a glass of lemonade as Merton came downstairs.
“What’s going on with Johnny boy?” Merton asked.
She shrugged. “He’s himself, I think. I mean, he’s still…”
“Looking pretty bad.” She glanced back, making sure his mom had gone into the living room. “Betty was there.”
His eyes widened. “What’d she say?”
“She was confused.” She swirled her spoon in her lemonade, watching the sugar dissolve. “I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does. It’s not every day the dead come back to life.”
He gave her a look. “You’re still goofy for him.”
“I–” Her face went bright red and she pulled her hands over her face. “He’s still Johnny. Maybe he wasn’t that night, but somehow that lightning bolt put his head back in order. Is that bad?”
He shook his head. “I guess not. It is weird, though.”
“I can’t help it!” She gave a dramatic sigh and flopped down. “Some big dumb part of my brain is in love with him, and he doesn’t even have a heartbeat anymore. What’s wrong with me?”
Merton patted the top of her head. “You’re human, Bev.”
“Ugh.” She looked up at him. “What do you think’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know. If he’s already home, maybe–maybe he’ll get left alone. You know, let him live out his unlife.”
“It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?” she said. “If it all turned out okay?”
“Sure.” Merton shrugged. “It’d be nice if it worked that way for anyone.”
It rarely did though.
Marya turned over the newsletter she’d been handed in front of the school. A dark image of Johnny as he entered the stadium took up half the page. Beneath it were a series of quotes detailing that Johnny had not in fact gone cannibal nor was he interested in shambling about. She saw Betty, who was still wearing black.
“I wasn’t sure if it was real,” she said.
Betty looked at the paper and bit her lip. “It’s real. I saw Johnny yesterday. He’s back from the dead.”
Marya turned the paper over. More images from the aftermath of the game. “Is that a common occurrence here?”
Betty stared at her.
“I was only joking,” she murmured.
Betty slammed her locker shut and started towards first period. “It feels like all my fault. I wished for this. I would’ve done anything to bring him back, but now it’s–it’s gone all wrong. I thought I might feel better today, but it’s shocking, isn’t it? I saw him die, and now he’s not. I should stop mourning him, but we put him in the ground. I saw his gravestone. Can you imagine what it’s like to see someone who died up and walking around like it’s nothing?”
Marya said nothing.
“It’d be easier if he’d stayed dead.” She stopped and held her hand to her mouth. “Oh, that was horrible. I’m a horrible person.”
“I don’t think there’s a lot of etiquette in this situation,” Marya said.
“But you saw him on the field, making that noise.” She shivered. “It looked like him, but it didn’t. He looked so, I don’t know… hungry maybe. He was reaching for that Jones girl.”
Marya did remember. It’d been hard to see in the rain in the dark, but the thing that had stepped forward in the stadium hadn’t looked like Johnny. She’d seen things like that before. Dark things that shuffled out of the ground. Soulless things.
A girl was standing nervously outside the classroom and perked up when she saw Betty approach. Her huge coke bottle glasses covered most of her small, pointed face, and mess of curly brown hair had been tamed into a ponytail. Her green sweater was ancient, with hemmed holes leaving discolored patches. Her arms clutched heavy science textbooks.
“Hello, Shelley,” Betty said without enthusiasm.
“Betty,” she returned and glanced at Marya. “I was wondering how you’re doing.”
Betty’s eyes narrowed, but she offered a smile. “Not well, Shelley, but thanks.”
“I heard the news.” She held up her own newsletter. “Makes me wish I went to football games. Ha.”
“It’s all very exciting,” Betty said. “I’ve got class.”
“Yes, well, I was only wondering if you’d seen him. In person I mean. Perhaps they know what caused it.”
“I did,” she snapped, “and if he knew he didn’t tell me.”
“So he’s functioning? I’d be amazed–”
“Shelley, I’m going to class, and I’m not going to talk about Johnny, and I’m not interested in how he’s back or even why he’s back, because frankly it doesn’t matter. He was a corpse and now he’s not and that’s all I know.”
Shelley shrunk back as Betty pushed past her. Marya followed close behind. They took their seats in the back. Every whispered conversation was about Johnny, every murmur carried on the back of the school newspaper, and everyone once in a while someone would glance in their direction.
Betty opened her notebook with the determination of someone trying to pretend everything was alright. “That Shelley Rathbone is the worst. I’ve beat her every year at the science fair and she only pretends to be friends when she wants something.”
“I think you’ll be getting that question a lot today,” Marya said as the teacher marched in. The muttering died down.
Betty ducked her head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m done talking about Johnny.”
No one else was. Throughout the day Marya heard every possible rumor about the undead boy. Radiation, black magic, freak storm. His body count depended on who you spoke with. People added reports of other undead figures seen walking the cemetery. When Betty refused to respond to any questions, all answers seemed to be coming from the only other person who’d seen him. Beverly Jones assured everyone that Johnny had eaten no one, and the experts were still searching for a cause to his condition. She even suggested that he’d be returning to school, which raised an entirely different set of questions. Some believed Johnny had earned himself a permanent vacation. Others suggested his place might be back in the ground.
As the tension built in the days following his return and rumors grew wildly out of control, Johnny decided for himself.