And the Next, and the Next — Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine’s first novel, Mechanique: a Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is forthcoming from Prime Books in 2011. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology Running with the Pack and in the magazines Strange Horizons, Futurismic, Clarkesworld, Journal of Mythic Arts, Fantasy Magazine, Escape Pod, and more. Her work can also be found in my anthology Federations and in my online magazine Lightspeed. In addition to writing fiction, Valentine is a columnist for Tor.com and Fantasy Magazine.

In Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s follow-up to his classic, genre-defining Night of the Living Dead, we see hordes of zombies converge upon a shopping mall, bust through the doors, and proceed to shamble aimlessly up and down its halls. We are told that they remember what was important to them in life and are moved to re-enact their routines in death, and so we are moved to reflect that these mindless dead are not so very different from our own consumerist neighbors who also seem to converge on the mall and wander its tacky displays for no better reason than a kind of grim atavistic inertia and lack of conscious thought.

As terrifying as it is to imagine being bitten by a zombie and transformed into a mindless shell of your former self, even more terrifying is the idea of having to pretend to be one of them, to enact a meaningless ritualized existence while fully conscious and never giving away that you are actually wide awake. Many stories have played with this theme, from its humorous treatment in Shaun of the Dead to its more serious treatment in the 2007 film Invasion to its positively grueling treatment in Adam-Troy Castro’s “Dead Like Me,” which appeared in the first The Living Dead anthology.

Maybe you feel like you’re surrounded by mindless drones and that you have to pretend to be something you’re not just to fit in. If so, the scenario presented in our next tale may feel eerily familiar.

AND THE NEXT, AND THE NEXT
by Genevieve Valentine

You know them by their milky eyes, but they’re easy to fool. If you survive the first crush of them, and can master the art of walking slowly and staring straight ahead, none of them in the packed train car will even look at you.

(Once you get their interest, it’s over. Someone in the car behind you tries to run for it near Prospect Avenue and gets swarmed. If you glance over, it will look like a glass box stuffed with maggots. Do not glance over; you must look straight ahead.)

You will do better to ignore the smell of rotting apples that’s seeping into the train car from all their open mouths hanging limp.

You need to get to open water—you’re trying to get to Coney Island, to get someplace where they haven’t devoured everything.

(You’re already too late.)

As you hit New Utrecht, two men run into the train car. They’re holding baseball bats, looking over their shoulders, smug and relieved to have escaped.

Every head turns, every milky eye in the train car fixes suddenly on them, and the slack mouths pull up into a hundred rictus grins.

The men turn and bolt. One of them gets caught in the closing doors, and as the train pulls away from the station his arm drops out of sight, and something tears.

That man is lucky.

The other man is trapped in the train car with them (with you). He gets two or three good swings in before they swarm him, and after a few seconds his screaming gets eaten up by a single, sucking, wet sound that you don’t want to think about.

(You must look straight ahead.)

All along the open-air platforms they gather, headed south, pressing themselves into the cars whenever the doors ding open. They step on in twos and threes, pulling children or parts of children, patiently grasping the little hands carrying the little arms that lead to empty shoulders.

They line the tracks all the way south, five deep, then eight, then ten, waiting for the train to stop so they can get on.

(They’re not fast, it turns out, but they’re patient, and there are more of them every minute.)

***

The boardwalk is packed shoulder-to-shoulder, all of them moving slowly and without direction, shambling onto the beach and back again. Some of them, the ones with dents in their skulls, walk in small circles with their heads cocked like birds.

(You are too late; any hope of finding others is gone. You walk slowly alongside all the others, out of the train and down the concrete path and up the ramp to the wooden walk. There is nothing else, now, that you can do.)

At first it’s hard to see much through the boardwalk crowd, but there is enough movement for you to slip forward by degrees. Your goal is Brighton Beach (anything where you can duck into a side street, get out of the sun), but when you reach the fencing you stop alongside the others and stare into Astroland.

The grown ones have all brought their children, hundreds of them waiting patiently in lines that snake back and forth beside the little rollercoaster shaped like a dragon, the little flying boats shaped like whales, the carousel.

The adults trudge up to the ride in pairs and deposit a child into an empty seat, one child at a time until the ride is full. Then the switch is thrown. (The park employees must not have been fast enough to get out; they pull their levers with the same clockwork motions you’ve always seen.) The little children with their milky eyes turn slowly with the engine-wheel, rising up and down. Every once in a while, one of them utters a sound through its slack mouth, bleating and wordless as a calf.

From time to time the ride stops, and they march up and lift a child—any child—out of the seat and wander to the next event. The carousel is crowded; the adults forget to leave, and they sway unsteadily as the horses lurch into motion.

Over at the rollercoaster, a child has come back without a head. A pair of parents picks the body up by the shoulders, carries it away.

(You must not run.)

When the crowd moves forward, it dissolves into the park, little wandering circuits. Now you can break away, you think. If you can get past the Wonder Wheel and back onto the street there has to be some apartment left empty where you can take refuge.

You walk carefully past the whales and the roller coaster, down the maw of the Wonder Wheel. The metal corrals are full, but the crowd is so quiet that you can hear the creaking carriages as the wheel stops and the doors open, and the line moves forward all at once, like a worm surging over the grass.

The girl operating the wheel has green eyes, bright and clear, and you’re so surprised that you stop in your tracks. You startle her (bad sign, the last thing you need is to draw their notice), and when she looks at you she sucks in a breath like she’s about to call out to you, but remembers herself and flips the switch instead. As the wheel lurches into motion, a chorus of half-hearted groans floats down from the cars.

You wait in line, snaking closer, and when you’re at the center of the line and the car swings into place you step aside and let the ones behind you haul themselves into the carriage, their slack jaws swinging back and forth as the wheel carries them away.

“How many of us are left?” she asks under her breath. Her legs are trembling; you wonder how long she’s been trapped here, pulling the lever back and forth. It’s taken you since yesterday to get this far; has she been trapped here all that time?

“I don’t know how many,” you say.

(It’s a mercy not to tell her the truth about what the city looks like now; what good would it do her to know that it’s too late?)

“Help me,” she says. Her eyes are bright and fixed on you, and the panic is starting to set in. You know what she’s feeling; you had this same desperate hope, just for a moment, when the two men ran into the train car. You almost stood up.

(Once you get their attention it’s all over).

You can’t help her; they would notice if the wheel didn’t stop.

“I’m sorry,” you say, and walk slowly between the cars, threading your way into the departing riders and out the wheel on the other side.

“No,” she says softly, and then louder, more shrilly, “Help me! You have to help me! Fuck you, come back!” but by then they’ve noticed her.

You sit in the nearest photo booth, safe behind the flimsy curtain, until all the sounds have stopped.

***

You sit there for a long time, looking down at the edge of the curtain, watching them pass slowly back and forth.

You don’t know where you can go. You can’t swim very far. You’ll need a boat, you think.

(You can’t drive a boat. You can barely swim. You sit in the booth a long time. You do not admit you are stranded. How can you?)

Outside the booth, through the little spaces between the bumper cars, you can see that the streets are crawling with them. There’s no escape there. You have to keep going the way that you came.

In the arcade, three children are playing basketball. The balls fly away from the tips of their fingers in a waltz beat, one-two-three, and they scoop up the next without looking; their blind white eyes never move from the basket.

Amid the sound of the bumper cars, you walk out up the ramp, under a banner printed in bright block letters: Deno’s Wonder Wheel: Open This Year, and the Next, and the Next, and the Next, and the Next…

At the top of the ramp you risk a look behind you; the girl is still standing at the Wonder Wheel. Now she’s milky-eyed, one hand on the lever, the other hanging slack at her side. The top of her head has been opened like a soft-boiled egg.

You turn away too fast; you have to steady yourself before you keep walking out and up to the boardwalk.

(Don’t glance over. You must look straight ahead.)

***

On the boardwalk, the adults are absently feeding the children, their little mouths mechanically chewing. It looks like funnel cake, but you know better by now what they eat, and you don’t investigate.

The sun is blazing. The whole place is starting to smell like a fish market.

Out on the beach it’s easier to walk the way you should; the sand sucks at your feet, forces you to be slow and careful.

Some of them are walking out into the water. They walk straight out until the water’s too deep to stand in, and when the current takes them they give in, float with arms and legs loose.

(You remember, suddenly, the summer you were ten years old and the kid a few doors down from you drowned in the pool in his backyard. For the rest of the summer none of the neighborhood kids were allowed to go out of sight of their parents, which ruined everything your friends had planned all year.

They moaned all summer about how boring it was to have to stay so close to the house. You agreed.

You were tired all that summer, because whenever you closed your eyes at night you imagined that kid in the moment before he fell into the water, when he had just begun to lean forward, when it wasn’t too late for someone to pull him back and save him.)

You walk towards the surf, picking your way over the ones on the beach. Where they have laid out flat in the sand, white eyes turned to the sun, there’s the rancid smell of eggs gone bad.

You wonder how long you can last this way, sneaking amongst them. Will you have to go back on the train, make it through the city, head south on the highway walking one mile an hour? How far will you have to go before you reach someplace where this hasn’t happened?

(You will never find that place. There are more of them every minute.)

By now there’s a web of them across the water, floating akimbo. In some places they’re locked together tight as puzzle pieces. If you were brave enough, you could walk across them.

Behind you, someone has figured out how to start the Cyclone. There’s the crank of cars on the way up the rails, a collective off-key moan as they plummet. On the stretch of boardwalk behind you, some of them turn to look at the sound, lose interest when they recognize what it is.

They seem sad to see that it’s nothing exciting. It’s strange to watch them looking disappointed; you don’t know what will happen to them when there are no real people left.

(You have already given up hope. They will win. They are patient.)

***

When you step into the ocean, the water is already cool on your ankles. By nightfall it will be cold. You don’t know how far you can swim in cold water.

(Not far enough.)

You take another step. The water soaks into your shoes, your pants. The next step is more difficult than the last one.

Behind you, they are coming, sloshing dutifully into the water the way they remember doing. They will not make way for you to turn around. You cannot go back now.

You think about the moment before the child falls into the pool.

(You must look straight ahead.)

© 2010 Genevieve Valentine