Death And Suffrage
by Dale Bailey
Dale Bailey is the author of the novels The Fallen, House of Bones, and Sleeping Policemen (with Jack Slay, Jr.). His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing Stories , and SCI FICTION . He has also written a non-fiction book, American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction . This story won the International Horror Guild Award, and was adapted into an episode of the television series Masters of Horror . Bailey has also twice been nominated for the Nebula Award.
In his collection, The Resurrection Man's Legacy , Bailey says that due to the real-world events that mirrored the events of this story, «Death and Suffrage» seems to confirm the dictum that the writer of fiction can no longer compete with the strangeness of contemporary reality. «It's also an example of how completely a writer's intentions can go awry. In keeping with the pun in the title, I intended this one to be short and light,» Bailey says. «But somewhere along the way it turned long and very dark indeed.»
It's funny how things happen, Burton used to tell me. The very moment you're engaged in some task of mind-numbing insignificance—cutting your toenails, maybe, or fishing in the sofa for the remote—the world is being refashioned around you. You stand before a mirror to brush your teeth, and halfway around the planet flood waters are on the rise. Every minute of every day, the world transforms itself in ways you can hardly imagine, and there you are, sitting in traffic or wondering what's for lunch or just staring blithely out a window. History happens while you're making other plans, Burton always says.
I guess I know that now. I guess we all know that.
Me, I was in a sixth-floor Chicago office suite working on my r'esum'e when it started. The usual chaos swirled around me—phones braying, people scurrying about, the televisions singing exit poll data over the din—but it all had a forced artificial quality. The campaign was over. Our numbers people had told us everything we needed to know: when the polls opened that morning, Stoddard was up seventeen points. So there I sat, dejected and soon to be unemployed, with my feet on a rented desk and my lap-top propped against my knees, mulling over synonyms for directed . As in directed a staff of fifteen . As in directed public relations for the Democratic National Committee . As in directed a national political campaign straight into the toilet .
Then CNN started emitting the little overture that means somewhere in the world history is happening, just like Burton always says.
I looked up as Lewis turned off the television.
«What'd you do that for?»
Lewis leaned over to shut my computer down. «I'll show you,» he said.
I followed him through the suite, past clumps of people huddled around televisions. Nobody looked my way. Nobody had looked me in the eye since Sunday. I tried to listen, but over the shocked buzz in the room I couldn't catch much more than snatches of unscripted anchor-speak. I didn't see Burton, and I supposed he was off drafting his concession speech. «No sense delaying the inevitable,» he had told me that morning.
«What gives?» I said to Lewis in the hall, but he only shook his head.
Lewis is a big man, fifty, with the drooping posture and hangdog expression of an adolescent. He stood in the elevator and watched the numbers cycle, rubbing idly at an acne scar. He had lots of them, a whole face pitted from what had to be among the worst teenage years in human history. I had never liked him much, and I liked him even less right then, but you couldn't help admiring the intelligence in his eyes. If Burton had been elected, Lewis would have served him well. Now he'd be looking for work instead.
The doors slid apart, and Lewis steered me through the lobby into a typical November morning in Chicago: a diamond-tipped wind boring in from the lake, a bruised sky spitting something that couldn't decide whether it wanted to be rain or snow. I grew up in Southern California—my grandparents raised me—and there's not much I hate more than Chicago weather; but that morning I stood there with my shirt-sleeves rolled to the elbow and my tie whipping over my shoulder, and I didn't feel a thing.
«My God,» I said, and for a moment, my mind just locked up. All I could think was that not two hours ago I had stood in this very spot watching Burton work the crowd, and then the world had still been sane. Afterwards, Burton had walked down the street to cast his ballot. When he stepped out of the booth, the press had been waiting. Burton charmed them, the consummate politician even in defeat. We could have done great things.
And even then the world had still been sane.
It took me a moment to sort it all out—the pedestrians shouldering by with wild eyes, the bell-hop standing dumbfounded before the hotel on the corner, his chin bobbing at half-mast. Three taxis had tangled up in the street, bleeding steam, and farther up the block loomed an overturned bus the size of a beached plesiosaur. Somewhere a woman was screaming atonally, over and over and over, with staccato hitches for breath. Sirens wailed in the distance. A t.v. crew was getting it all on tape, and for the first time since I blew Burton's chance to hold the highest office in the land, I stood in the presence of a journalist who wasn't shoving a mike in my face to ask me what had come over me.
I was too stunned even to enjoy it.
Instead, like Lewis beside me, I just stared across the street at the polling place. Dead people had gathered there, fifteen or twenty of them, and more arriving. Even then, there was never any question in my mind that they were dead. You could see it in the way they held their bodies, stiff as marionettes; in their shuffling gaits and the bright haunted glaze of their eyes. You could see it in the lacerations yawning open on the ropy coils of their guts, in their random nakedness, their haphazard clothes—hospital gowns and blood-stained blue jeans and immaculate suits fresh from unsealed caskets. You could see it in the dark patches of decay that blossomed on their flesh. You could just see that they were dead. It was every zombie movie you ever saw, and then some.
Gooseflesh erupted along my arms, and it had nothing to do with the wind off Lake Michigan.
«My God,» I said again, when I finally managed to unlock my brain. «What do they want?»
«They want to vote,» said Lewis.
The dead have been voting in Chicago elections since long before Richard J. Daley took office , one wag wrote in the next morning's Tribune, but yesterday's events bring a whole new meaning to the tradition .
The dead had voted, all right, and not just in Chicago. They had risen from hospital gurneys and autopsy slabs, from open coffins and embalming tables in every precinct in the nation, and they had cast their ballots largely without interference. Who was going to stop them? More than half the poll-workers had abandoned ship when the zombies started shambling through the doors, and even workers who stayed at their posts had usually permitted them to do as they pleased. The dead didn't threaten anyone—they didn't do much of anything you'd expect zombies to do, in fact. But most people found that inscrutable gaze unnerving. Better to let them cast their ballots than bear for long the knowing light in those strange eyes.
And when the ballots were counted, we learned something else as well: They voted for Burton. Every last one of them voted for Burton.
«It's your fault,» Lewis said at breakfast the next day.
Everyone else agreed with him, I could tell, the entire senior staff, harried and sleep-deprived. They studied their food as he ranted, or scrutinized the conference table or scribbled frantic notes in their day-planners. Anything to avoid looking me in the eye. Even Burton, alone at the head of the table, just munched on a bagel and stared at CNN, the muted screen aflicker with footage of zombies staggering along on their unfathomable errands. Toward dawn, as the final tallies rolled in from the western districts, they had started to gravitate toward cemeteries. No one yet knew why.
»My fault?» I said, but my indignation was manufactured. About five that morning, waking from nightmare in my darkened hotel room, I had arrived at the same conclusion as everyone else.
«The goddamn talk show,» Lewis said, as if that explained everything.
And maybe it did.
The goddamn talk show in question was none other than Crossfire and the Sunday before the polls opened I got caught in it. I had broken the first commandment of political life, a commandment I had flogged relentlessly for the last year. Stay on message, stick to the talking points.
Thou shalt not speak from the heart.
The occasion of this amateurish mistake was a six-year-old girl named Dana Maguire. Three days before I went on the air, a five-year-old boy gunned Dana down in her after-school program. The kid had found the pistol in his father's nightstand, and just as Dana's mother was coming in to pick her up, he tugged it from his insulated lunch sack and shot Dana in the neck. She died in her mother's arms while the five-year-old looked on in tears.
Just your typical day in America, except the first time I saw Dana's photo in the news, I felt something kick a hole in my chest. I can remember the moment to this day: October light slanting through hotel windows, the television on low while I talked to my grandmother in California. I don't have much in the way of family. There had been an uncle on my father's side, but he had drifted out of my life after my folks died, leaving my mother's parents to raise me. There's just the two of us since my grandfather passed on five years ago, and even in the heat of a campaign, I try to check on Gran every day. Mostly she rattles on about old folks in the home, a litany of names and ailments I can barely keep straight at the best of times. And that afternoon, half-watching some glib CNN hardbody do a stand-up in front of Little Tykes Academy, I lost the thread of her words altogether.
Next thing I know, she's saying, «Robert, Robert—« in this troubled voice, and me, I'm sitting on a hotel bed in Dayton, Ohio, weeping for a little girl I never heard of. Grief, shock, you name it—ten years in public life, nothing like that had ever happened to me before. But after that, I couldn't think of it in political terms. After that, Dana Maguire was personal.
Predictably, the whole thing came up on Crossfire . Joe Stern, Stoddard's campaign director and a man I've known for years, leaned into the camera and espoused the usual line—you know, the one about the constitutional right to bear arms, as if Jefferson had personally foreseen the rapid-fire semi-automatic with a sixteen-round clip. Coming from the mouth of Joe Stern, a smug fleshy ideologue who ought to have known better, this line enraged me.
Even so, I hardly recognized the voice that responded to him. I felt as though something else was speaking through me—as though a voice had possessed me, a speaker from that broken hole in the center of my chest.
What it said, that voice, was: «If Grant Burton is elected, he'll see that every handgun in the United States is melted into pig iron. He'll do everything in his power to save the Dana Maguires of this nation.»
Joe Stern puffed up like a toad. «This isn't about Dana Maguire—«
The voice interrupted him. «If there's any justice in the universe, Dana Maguire will rise up from her grave to haunt you,» the voice said. It said, «If it's not about Dana Maguire, then what on Earth is it about?»
Stoddard had new ads in saturation before the day was out: Burton's face, my words in voice-over. If Grant Burton is elected, he'll see that every handgun in the United States is melted into pig iron . By Monday afternoon, we had plummeted six points and Lewis wasn't speaking to me.
I couldn't seem to shut him up now, though.
He leaned across the table and jabbed a thick finger at me, overturning a styrofoam cup of coffee. I watched the black pool spread as he shouted. «We were up five points, we had it won before you opened your goddamn—«
Angela Dey, our chief pollster, interrupted him. «Look!» she said, pointing at the television.
Burton touched the volume button on the remote, but the image on the screen was clear enough: a cemetery in upstate New York, one of the new ones where the stones are set flush to the earth to make mowing easier. Three or four zombies had fallen to their knees by a fresh grave.
«Good God,» Dey whispered. «What are they doing?»
No one gave her an answer and I suppose she hadn't expected one. She could see as well as the rest of us what was happening. The dead were scrabbling at the earth with their bare hands.
A line from some old poem I had read in college—
—ahh, who's digging on my grave —
—lodged in my head, rattling around like angry candy, and for the first time I had a taste of the hysteria that would possess us all by the time this was done. Graves had opened, the dead walked the earth. All humanity trembled.
Ahh, who's digging on my grave?
Lewis flung himself back against his chair and glared at me balefully. «This is all your fault.»
«At least they voted for us,» I said.
Not that we swept into the White House at the head of a triumphal procession of zombies. Anything but, actually. The voting rights of the dead turned out to be a serious constitutional question, and Stoddard lodged a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Dead people had no say in the affairs of the living, he argued, and besides, none of them were legally registered anyway. Sensing defeat, the Democratic National Committee counter-sued, claiming that the sheer presence of the dead may have kept legitimate voters from the polls.
While the courts pondered these issues in silence, the world convulsed. Church attendance soared. The president impaneled experts and blue-ribbon commissions, the Senate held hearings. The CDC convened a task force to search for biological agents. At the UN, the Security Council debated a quarantine against the United States; the stock market lost fifteen percent on the news.
Meanwhile, the dead went unheeding about their business. They never spoke or otherwise attempted to communicate, yet you could sense an intelligence, inhuman and remote, behind their mass resurrection. They spent the next weeks opening fresh graves, releasing the recently buried from entombment. With bare hands, they clawed away the dirt; through sheer numbers, they battered apart the concrete vaults and sealed caskets. You would see them in the streets, stinking of formaldehyde and putrefaction, their hands torn and ragged, the rich earth of the grave impacted under their fingernails.
Their numbers swelled.
People died, but they didn't stay dead; the newly resurrected kept busy at their graves.
A week after the balloting, the Supreme Court handed down a decision overturning the election. Congress, meeting in emergency session, set a new date for the first week of January. If nothing else, the year 2000 debacle in Florida had taught us the virtue of speed.
Lewis came to my hotel room at dusk to tell me.
«We're in business,» he said.
When I didn't answer, he took a chair across from me. We stared over the fog-shrouded city in silence. Far out above the lake, threads of rain seamed the sky. Good news for the dead. The digging would go easier.
Lewis turned the bottle on the table so he could read the label. I knew what it was: Glenfiddich, a good single malt. I'd been sipping it from a hotel tumbler most of the afternoon.
«Why'nt you turn on some lights in here?» Lewis said.
«I'm fine in the dark.»
Lewis grunted. After a moment, he fetched the other glass. He wiped it out with his handkerchief and poured.
«So tell me.»
Lewis tilted his glass, grimaced. «January fourth. The president signed the bill twenty minutes ago. Protective cordons fifty yards from polling stations. Only the living can vote. Jesus. I can't believe I'm even saying that.» He cradled his long face in his hands. «So you in?»
«Does he want me?»
«What about you, Lewis? Do you want me?»
Lewis said nothing. We just sat there, breathing in the woodsy aroma of the scotch, watching night bleed into the sky.
«You screwed me at staff meeting the other day,» I said. «You hung me out to dry in front of everyone. It won't work if you keep cutting the ground out from under my feet.»
«Goddamnit, I was right . In ten seconds, you destroyed everything we've worked for. We had it won.»
«Oh come on, Lewis. If Crossfire never happened, it could have gone either way. Five points, that's nothing. We were barely outside the plus and minus, you know that.»
«Still. Why'd you have to say that?»
I thought about that strange sense I'd had at the time: another voice speaking through me. Mouthpiece of the dead.
«You ever think about that little girl, Lewis?»
He sighed. «Yeah. Yeah, I do.» He lifted his glass. «Look. If you're angling for some kind of apology—«
«I don't want an apology.»
«Good,» he said. Then, grudgingly: «We need you on this one, Rob. You know that.»
«January,» I said. «That gives us almost two months.»
«We're way up right now.»
«Stoddard will make a run. Wait and see.»
«Yeah.» Lewis touched his face. It was dark, but I could sense the gesture. He'd be fingering his acne scars, I'd spent enough time with him to know that. «I don't know, though,» he said. «I think the right might sit this one out. They think it's the fuckin' Rapture, who's got time for politics?»
He took the rest of his scotch in a gulp and stood. «Yeah. We'll see.»
I didn't move as he showed himself out, just watched his reflection in the big plate glass window. He opened the door and turned to look back, a tall man framed in light from the hall, his face lost in shadow.
«You all right?»
I drained my glass and swished the scotch around in my mouth. I'm having a little trouble sleeping these days, I wanted to say. I'm having these dreams.
But all I said was, «I'm fine, Lewis. I'm just fine.»
I wasn't, though, not really.
None of us were, I guess, but even now—maybe especially now—the thing I remember most about those first weeks is how little the resurrection of the dead altered our everyday lives. Isolated incidents made the news—I remember a serial killer being arrested as his victims heaved themselves bodily from their shallow backyard graves—but mostly people just carried on. After the initial shock, markets stabilized. Stores filled up with Thanksgiving turkeys; radio stations began counting the shopping days until Christmas.
Yet I think the hysteria must have been there all along, like a swift current just beneath the surface of a placid lake. An undertow, the kind of current that'll kill you if you're not careful. Most people looked okay, but scratch the surface and we were all going nuts in a thousand quiet ways.
Ahh, who's digging on my grave , and all that.
Me, I couldn't sleep. The stress of the campaign had been mounting steadily even before my meltdown on Crossfire , and in those closing days, with the polls in California—and all those lovely delegates—a hair too close to call, I'd been waking grainy-eyed and yawning every morning. I was feeling guilty, too. Three years ago, Gran broke her hip and landed in a Long Beach nursing home. And while I talked to her daily, I could never manage to steal a day or two to see her, despite all the time we spent campaigning in California.
But the resurrection of the dead marked a new era in my insomnia. Stumbling to bed late on election night, my mind blistered with images of zombies in the streets, I fell into a fevered dream. I found myself wandering through an abandoned city. Everything burned with the tenebrous significance of dreams—every brick and stone, the scraps of newsprint tumbling down high-rise canyons, the darkness pooling in the mouths of desolate subways. But the worst thing of all was the sound, the lone sound in all that sea of silence: the obscurely terrible cadence of a faraway clock, impossibly magnified, echoing down empty alleys and forsaken avenues.
The air rang with it, haunting me, drawing me on at last into a district where the buildings loomed over steep, close streets, admitting only a narrow wedge of sky. An open door beckoned, a black slot in a high, thin house. I pushed open the gate, climbed the broken stairs, paused in the threshold. A colossal grandfather clock towered within, its hands poised a minute short of midnight. Transfixed, I watched the heavy pendulum sweep through its arc, driving home the hour.
The massive hands stood upright.
The air shattered around me. The very stones shook as the clock began to toll. Clapping my hands over my ears, I turned to flee, but there was nowhere to go. In the yard, in the street—as far as I could see—the dead had gathered. They stood there while the clock stroked out the hours, staring up at me with those haunted eyes, and I knew suddenly and absolutely—the way you know things in dreams—that they had come for me at last, that they had always been coming for me, for all of us, if only we had known it.
I woke then, coldly afraid.
The first gray light of morning slit the drapes, but I had a premonition that no dawn was coming, or at least a very different dawn from any I had ever dared imagine.
Stoddard made his run with two weeks to go.
December fourteenth, we're 37,000 feet over the Midwest in a leased Boeing 737, and Angela Dey drops the new numbers on us.
«Gentleman,» she says, «we've hit a little turbulence.»
It was a turning point, I can see that now. At the time, though, none of us much appreciated her little joke.
The resurrection of the dead had shaken things up—it had put us on top for a month or so—but Stoddard had been clawing his way back for a couple of weeks, crucifying us in the farm belt on a couple of ag bills where Burton cast deciding votes, hammering us in the south on vouchers. We knew that, of course, but I don't think any of us had foreseen just how close things were becoming.
«We're up seven points in California,» Dey said. «The gay vote's keeping our heads above water, but the numbers are soft. Stoddard's got momentum.»
«Christ,» Lewis said, but Dey was already passing around another sheet.
«It gets worse,» she said. «Florida, we're up two points. A statistical dead heat. We've got the minorities, Stoddard has the seniors. Everything's riding on turnout.»
Libby Dixon, Burton's press secretary, cleared her throat. «We've got a pretty solid network among Hispanics—«
Dey shook her head. «Seniors win that one every time.»
«Hispanics never vote,» Lewis said. «We might as well wrap Florida up with a little bow and send it to Stoddard.»
Dey handed around another sheet. She'd orchestrated the moment for maximum impact, doling it out one sheet at a time like that. Lewis slumped in his seat, probing his scars as she worked her way through the list: Michigan, New York, Ohio, all three delegate rich, all three of them neck-and-neck races. Three almost physical blows, too, you could see them in the faces ranged around the table.
«What the hell's going on here?» Lewis muttered as Dey passed out another sheet, and then the news out of Texas rendered even him speechless. Stoddard had us by six points. I ran through a couple of Alamo analogies before deciding that discretion was the better part of wisdom. «I thought we were gaining there,» Lewis said.
Dey shrugged. I just read the numbers, I don't make them up.
«Things could be worse,» Libby Dixon said.
«Yeah, but Rob's not allowed to do Crossfire any more,» Lewis said, and a titter ran around the table. Lewis is good, I'll give him that. You could feel the tension ease.
«Suggestions?» Burton said.
Dey said, «I've got some focus group stuff on education. I was thinking maybe some ads clarifying our—«
«Hell with the ads,» someone else said, «we've gotta spend more time in Florida. We've got to engage Stoddard on his ground.»
«Maybe a series of town meetings?» Lewis said, and they went around like that for a while. I tried to listen, but Lewis's little icebreaker had reminded me of the dreams. I knew where I was—37,000 feet of dead air below me, winging my way toward a rally in Virginia—but inside my head I hadn't gone anywhere at all. Inside my head, I was stuck in the threshold of that dream house, staring out into the eyes of the dead.
The world had changed irrevocably, I thought abruptly.
That seems self-evident, I suppose, but at the time it had the quality of genuine revelation. The fact is, we had all—and I mean everyone by that, the entire culture, not just the campaign—we had all been pretending that nothing much had changed. Sure, we had UN debates and a CNN feed right out of a George Romero movie, but the implications of mass resurrection—the spiritual implications—had yet to bear down upon us. We were in denial. In that moment, with the plane rolling underneath me and someone—Tyler O'Neill I think it was, Libby Dixon's mousy assistant—droning on about going negative, I thought of something I'd heard a professor mention back at Northwestern: Copernicus formulated the heliocentric model of the solar system in the mid-1500s, but the Church didn't get around to punishing anyone for it until they threw Galileo in jail nearly a hundred years later. They spent the better part of a century trying to ignore the fact that the fundamental geography of the universe had been altered with a single stroke.
And so it had again.
The dead walked.
Three simple words, but everything else paled beside them—social security, campaign finance reform, education vouchers. Everything.
I wadded Dey's sheet into a noisy ball and flung it across the table. Tyler O'Neill stuttered and choked, and for a moment everyone just stared in silence at that wad of paper. You'd have thought I'd hurled a hand grenade, not a two-paragraph summary of voter idiocy in the Lone Star State.
Libby Dixon cleared her throat. «I hardly thin—«
«Shut up, Libby,» I said. «Listen to yourselves for Christ's sake. We got zombies in the street and you guys are worried about going negative?»
«The whole . . .» Dey flapped her hand. «. . . zombie thing, it's not even on the radar. My numbers—«
«People lie , Angela.»
Libby Dixon swallowed audibly.
«When it comes to death, sex, and money, everybody lies. A total stranger calls up on the telephone, and you expect some soccer mom to share her feelings about the fact that grandpa's rotten corpse is staggering around in the street?»
I had their attention all right.
For a minute the plane filled up with the muted roar of the engines. No human sound at all. And then Burton—Burton smiled.
«What are you thinking, Rob?»
«A great presidency is a marriage between a man and a moment,» I said. «You told me that. Remember?»
«This is your moment, sir. You have to stop running away from it.»
«What do you have in mind?» Lewis asked.
I answered the question, but I never even looked Lewis's way as I did it. I just held Grant Burton's gaze. It was like no one else was there at all, like it was just the two of us, and despite everything that's happened since, that's the closest I've ever come to making history.
«I want to find Dana Maguire,» I said.
I'd been in politics since my second year at Northwestern. It was nothing I ever intended—who goes off to college hoping to be a senate aide?—but I was idealistic, and I liked the things Grant Burton stood for, so I found myself working the phones that fall as an unpaid volunteer. One thing led to another—an internship on the Hill, a post-graduate job as a research assistant—and somehow I wound up inside the beltway.
I used to wonder how my life might have turned out had I chosen another path. My senior year at Northwestern, I went out with a girl named Gwen, a junior, freckled and streaky blonde, with the kind of sturdy good looks that fall a hair short of beauty. Partnered in some forgettable lab exercise, we found we had grown up within a half hour of one another. Simple geographic coincidence, two Californians stranded in the frozen north, sustained us throughout the winter and into the spring. But we drifted in the weeks after graduation, and the last I had heard of her was a Christmas card five or six years back. I remember opening it and watching a scrap of paper slip to the floor. Her address and phone number, back home in Laguna Beach, with a little note. Call me sometime , it said, but I never did.
So there it was.
I was thirty-two years old, I lived alone, I'd never held a relationship together longer than eight months. Gran was my closest friend, and I saw her three times a year if I was lucky. I went to my ten year class reunion in Evanston, and everybody there was in a different life-place than I was. They all had kids and homes and churches.
Me, I had my job. Twelve hour days, five days a week. Saturdays I spent three or four hours at the office catching up. Sundays I watched the talk shows and then it was time to start all over again. That had been my routine for nearly a decade, and in all those years I never bothered to ask myself how I came to be there. It never even struck me as the kind of thing a person ought to ask.
Four years ago, during Burton's re-election campaign for the Senate, Lewis said a funny thing to me. We're sitting in a hotel bar, drinking Miller Lite and eating peanuts, when he turns to me and says, «You got anyone, Rob?»
«You know, a girlfriend, a fianc'ee, somebody you care about.»
Gwen flickered at the edge of my consciousness, but that was all. A flicker, nothing more.
I said, «No.»
«That's good,» Lewis said.
It was just the kind of thing he always said, sarcastic, a little mean-hearted. Usually I let it pass, but that night I had just enough alcohol zipping through my veins to call him on it.
«What's that supposed to mean?»
Lewis turned to look at me.
«I was going to say, you have someone you really care about—somebody you want to spend your life with—you might want to walk away from all this.»
«This job doesn't leave enough room for relationships.»
He finished his beer and pushed the bottle away, his gaze steady and clear. In the dim light his scars were invisible, and I saw him then as he could have been in a better world. For maybe a moment, Lewis was one step short of handsome.
And then the moment broke.
«Good night,» he said, and turned away.
A few months after that—not long before Burton won his second six-year Senate term—Libby Dixon told me Lewis was getting a divorce. I suppose he must have known the marriage was coming apart around him.
But at the time nothing like that even occurred to me.
After Lewis left, I just sat at the bar running those words over in my mind. This job doesn't leave enough room for relationships , he had said, and I knew he had intended it as a warning. But what I felt instead was a bottomless sense of relief. I was perfectly content to be alone.
Burton was doing an event in St. Louis when the nursing home called to say that Gran had fallen again. Eighty-one-year-old bones are fragile, and the last time I had been out there—just after the convention—Gran's case manager had privately informed me that another fall would probably do it.
«Do what?» I had asked.
The case manager looked away. She shuffled papers on her desk while her meaning bore in on me: another fall would kill her.
I suppose I must have known this at some level, but to hear it articulated so baldly shook me. From the time I was four, Gran had been the single stable institution in my life. I had been visiting in Long Beach, half a continent from home, when my family—my parents and sister—died in the car crash. It took the state police back in Pennsylvania nearly a day to track me down. I still remember the moment: Gran's mask-like expression as she hung up the phone, her hands cold against my face as she knelt before me.
She made no sound as she wept. Tears spilled down her cheeks, leaving muddy tracks in her make-up, but she made no sound at all. «I love you, Robert,» she said. She said, «You must be strong.»
That's my first true memory.
Of my parents, my sister, I remember nothing at all. I have a snapshot of them at a beach somewhere, maybe six months before I was born: my father lean and smoking, my mother smiling, her abdomen just beginning to swell. In the picture, Alice—she would have been four then—stands just in front of them, a happy blonde child cradling a plastic shovel. When I was a kid I used to stare at that photo, wondering how you can miss people you never even knew. I did though, an almost physical ache way down inside me, the kind of phantom pain amputees must feel.
A ghost of that old pain squeezed my heart as the case manager told me about Gran's fall. «We got lucky,» she said. «She's going to be in a wheelchair a month or two, but she's going to be okay.»
Afterwards, I talked to Gran herself, her voice thin and querulous, addled with pain killers. «Robert,» she said, «I want you to come out here. I want to see you.»
«I want to see you, too,» I said, «but I can't get away right now. As soon as the election's over—«
«I'm an old woman,» she told me crossly. «I may not be here after the election.»
I managed a laugh at that, but the laugh sounded hollow even in my own ears. The words had started a grim little movie unreeling in my head—a snippet of Gran's cold body staggering to its feet, that somehow inhuman tomb light shining out from behind its eyes. I suppose most of us must have imagined something like that during those weeks, but it unnerved me all the same. It reminded me too much of the dreams. It felt like I was there again, gazing out into the faces of the implacable dead, that enormous clock banging out the hours.
«Robert—« Gran was saying, and I could hear the Demerol singing in her voice. «Are you there, Ro—«
And for no reason at all, I said:
«Did my parents have a clock, Gran?»
«A grandfather clock.»
She was silent so long I thought maybe she had hung up.
«That was your uncle's clock,» she said finally, her voice thick and distant.
«Don,» she said. «On your father's side.»
«What happened to the clock?»
«Robert, I want you to come out he—«
»What happened to the clock, Gran? »
«Well, how would I know?» she said. «He couldn't keep it, could he? I suppose he must have sold it.»
«What do you mean?»
But she didn't answer.
I listened to the swell and fall of Demerol sleep for a moment, and then the voice of the case manager filled my ear. «She's drifted off. If you want, I can call back later—«
I looked up as a shadow fell across me. Lewis stood in the doorway.
«No, that's okay. I'll call her in the morning.»
I hung up the phone and stared over the desk at him. He had a strange expression on his face.
«What?» I said.
«It's Dana Maguire.»
«What about her?»
«They've found her.»
Eight hours later, I touched down at Logan under a cloudy midnight sky. We had hired a private security firm to find her, and one of their agents—an expressionless man with the build of an ex-athlete—met me at the gate.
«You hook up with the ad people all right?» I asked in the car, and from the way he answered, a monosyllabic «Fine,» you could tell what he thought of ad people.
«The crew's in place?»
«They're already rigging the lights.»
«How'd you find her?»
He glanced at me, streetlight shadow rippling across his face like water. «Dead people ain't got much imagination. Soon's we get the fresh ones in the ground, they're out there digging.» He laughed humorlessly. «You'd think people'd stop burying 'em.»
«It's the ritual, I guess.»
«Maybe.» He paused. Then: «Finding her, we put some guys on the cemeteries and kept our eyes open, that's all.»
«Why'd it take so long?»
For a moment there was no sound in the car but the hum of tires on pavement and somewhere far away a siren railing against the night. The agent rolled down his window and spat emphatically into the slipstream. «City the size of Boston,» he said, «it has a lot of fucking cemeteries.»
The cemetery in question turned out to be everything I could have hoped for: remote and unkempt, with weathered gothic tombstones right off a Hollywood back lot. And wouldn't it be comforting to think so, I remember thinking as I got out of the car—the ring of lights atop the hill nothing more than stage dressing, the old world as it had been always. But it wasn't, of course, and the ragged figures digging at the grave weren't actors, either. You could smell them for one, the stomach-wrenching stench of decay. A light rain had begun to fall, too, and it had the feel of a genuine Boston drizzle, cold and steady toward the bleak fag end of December.
Andy, the director, turned when he heard me.
«Any trouble?» I asked.
«No. They don't care much what we're about, long as we don't interfere.»
Andy pointed. «There she is, see?»
«Yeah, I see her.»
She was on her knees in the grass, still wearing the dress she had been buried in. She dug with single-minded intensity, her arms caked with mud to the elbow, her face empty of anything remotely human. I stood and stared at her for a while, trying to decide what it was I was feeling.
«You all right?» Andy said.
«I said, are you all right? For a second there, I thought you were crying.»
«No,» I said. «I'm fine. It's the rain, that's all.»
So I stood there and half-listened while he filled me in. He had several cameras running, multiple filters and angles, he was playing with the lights. He told me all this and none of it meant anything at all to me. None of it mattered as long as I got the footage I wanted. Until then, there was nothing for me here.
He must have been thinking along the same lines, for when I turned to go, he called after me: «Say, Rob, you needn't have come out tonight, you know.»
I looked back at him, the rain pasting my hair against my forehead and running down into my eyes. I shivered. «I know,» I said. A moment later, I added: «I just—I wanted to see her somehow.»
But Andy had already turned away.
I still remember the campaign ad, my own private nightmare dressed up in cinematic finery. Andy and I cobbled it together on Christmas Eve, and just after midnight in a darkened Boston studio, we cracked open a bottle of bourbon in celebration and sat back to view the final cut. I felt a wave of nausea roll over me as the first images flickered across the monitor. Andy had shot the whole thing from distorted angles in grainy black and white, the film just a hair overexposed to sharpen the contrast. Sixty seconds of derivative expressionism, some media critic dismissed it, but even he conceded it possessed a certain power.
You've seen it, too, I suppose. Who hasn't?
She will rise from her grave to haunt you , the opening title card reads, and the image holds in utter silence for maybe half a second too long. Long enough to be unsettling, Andy said, and you could imagine distracted viewers all across the heartland perking up, wondering what the hell was wrong with the sound.
The words dissolve into an image of hands, bloodless and pale, gouging at moist black earth. The hands of a child, battered and raw and smeared with the filth and corruption of the grave, digging, digging. There's something remorseless about them, something relentless and terrible. They could dig forever, and they might, you can see that. And now, gradually, you awaken to sound: rain hissing from a midnight sky, the steady slither of wet earth underhand, and something else, a sound so perfectly lacking that it's almost palpable in its absence, the unearthly silence of the dead. Freeze frame on a tableau out of Goya or Bosch: seven or eight zombies, half-dressed and rotting, laboring tirelessly over a fresh grave.
Fade to black, another slug line, another slow dissolve.
Dana Maguire came back .
The words melt into a long shot of the child, on her knees in the poison muck of the grave. Her dress clings to her thighs, and it's a dress someone has taken some care about—white and lacy, the kind of dress you'd bury your little girl in if you had to do it—and it's ruined. All the care and heartache that went into that dress, utterly ruined. Torn and fouled and sopping. Rain slicks her blonde hair black against her skull. And as the camera glides in upon Dana Maguire's face, half-shadowed and filling three-quarters of the screen, you can glimpse the wound at her throat, flushed clean and pale. Dark roses of rot bloom along the high ridge of her cheekbone. Her eyes burn with the cold hard light of vistas you never want to see, not even in your dreams.
The image holds for an instant, a mute imperative, and then, mercifully, fades. Words appear and deliquesce on an ebon screen, three phrases, one by one:
The dead have spoken.
Now it's your turn.
Burton for president.
Andy touched a button. A reel caught and reversed itself. The screen went gray, and I realized I had forgotten to breathe. I sipped at my drink.
The whiskey burned in my throat, it made me feel alive.
«What do you think?» Andy said.
«I don't know. I don't know what to think.»
Grinning, he ejected the tape and tossed it in my lap. «Merry Christmas,» he said, raising his glass. «To our savior born.»
And so we drank again.
Dizzy with exhaustion, I made my way back to my hotel and slept for eleven hours straight. I woke around noon on Christmas day. An hour later, I was on a plane.
By the time I caught up to the campaign in Richmond, Lewis was in a rage, pale and apoplectic, his acne scars flaring an angry red. «You seen these?» he said, thrusting a sheaf of papers at me.
I glanced through them quickly—more bad news from Angela Dey, Burton slipping further in the polls—and then I set them aside. «Maybe this'll help,» I said, holding up the tape Andy and I had cobbled together.
We watched it together, all of us, Lewis and I, the entire senior staff, Burton himself, his face grim as the first images flickered across the screen. Even now, viewing it for the second time, I could feel its impact. And I could see it in the faces of the others as well—Dey's jaw dropping open, Lewis snorting in disbelief. As the screen froze on the penultimate image—Dana Maguire's decay-ravaged face—Libby Dixon turned away.
«There's no way we can run that,» she said.
«We've got—« I began, but Dey interrupted me.
«She's right, Rob. It's not a campaign ad, it's a horror movie.» She turned to Burton, drumming his fingers quietly at the head of the table. «You put this out there, you'll drop ten points, I guarantee it.»
«Lewis?» Burton asked.
Lewis pondered the issue for a moment, rubbing his pitted cheek with one crooked finger. «I agree,» he said finally. «The ad's a frigging nightmare. It's not the answer.»
«The ad's revolting,» Libby said. «The media will eat us alive for politicizing the kid's death.»
«We ought to be politicizing it,» I said. «We ought to make it mean something.»
«You run that ad, Rob,» Lewis said, «every redneck in America is going to remember you threatening to take away their guns. You want to make that mistake twice?»
«Is it a mistake? For Christ's sake, the dead are walking, Lewis. The old rules don't apply.» I turned to Libby. «What's Stoddard say, Libby, can you tell me that?»
«He hasn't touched it since election day.»
«Exactly. He hasn't said a thing, not about Dana Maguire, not about the dead people staggering around in the street. Ever since the FEC overturned the election, he's been dodging the issue—«
«Because it's political suicide,» Dey said. «He's been dodging it because it's the right thing to do.»
«Bullshit,» I snapped. «It's not the right thing to do. It's pandering and it's cowardice—it's moral cowardice—and if we do it we deserve to lose.»
You could hear everything in the long silence that ensued—cars passing in the street, a local staffer talking on the phone in the next room, the faint tattoo of Burton's fingers against the formica table top. I studied him for a moment, and once again I had that sense of something else speaking through me, as though I were merely a conduit for another voice.
«What do you think about guns, sir?» I asked. «What do you really think?»
Burton didn't answer for a long moment. When he did, I think he surprised everyone at the table. «The death rate by handguns in this country is triple that for every other industrialized nation on the planet,» he said. «They ought to be melted into pig iron, just like Rob said. Let's go with the ad.»
«Sir—« Dey was standing.
«I've made up my mind,» Burton said. He picked up the sheaf of papers at his elbow and shuffled through them. «We're down in Texas and California, we're slipping in Michigan and Ohio.» He tossed the papers down in disgust. «Stoddard looks good in the south, Angela. What do we got to lose?»
We couldn't have timed it better.
The new ad went into national saturation on December 30th, in the shadow of a strange new year. I was watching a bowl game in my hotel room the first time I saw it on the air. It chilled me all over, as though I'd never seen it before. Afterwards, the room filled with the sound of the ball game, but now it all seemed hollow. The cheers of the fans rang with a labored gaiety, the crack of pads had the crisp sharpness of movie sound effects. A barb of loneliness pierced me. I would have called someone, but I had no one to call.
Snapping off the television, I pocketed my key-card.
Downstairs, the same football game was playing, but at least there was liquor and a ring of conversation in the air. A few media folks from Burton's entourage clustered around the bar, but I begged off when they invited me to join them. I sat at a table in the corner instead, staring blindly at the television and drinking scotch without any hurry, but without any effort to keep track either. I don't know how much I drank that night, but I was a little unsteady when I stood to go.
I had a bad moment on the way back to my room. When the elevator doors slid apart, I found I couldn't remember my room number. I couldn't say for sure I had even chosen the right floor. The hotel corridor stretched away before me, bland and anonymous, a hallway of locked doors behind which only strangers slept. The endless weary grind of the campaign swept over me, and suddenly I was sick of it all—the long midnight flights and the hotel laundries, the relentless blur of cities and smiling faces. I wanted more than anything else in the world to go home. Not my cramped apartment in the District either.
Home. Wherever that was.
Independent of my brain, my fingers had found my key-card. I tugged it from my pocket and studied it grimly. I had chosen the right floor after all.
Still in my clothes, I collapsed across my bed and fell asleep. I don't remember any dreams, but sometime in the long cold hour before dawn, the phone yanked me awake. «Turn on CNN,» Lewis said. I listened to him breathe as I fumbled for the remote and cycled through the channels.
I punched up the volume.
»—unsubstantiated reports out of China concerning newly awakened dead in remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau—«
I was awake now, fully awake. My head pounded. I had to work up some spit before I could speak.
«Anyone got anything solid?» I asked.
«I'm working with a guy in State for confirmation. So far we got nothing but rumor.»
«If it's true—«
«If it's true,» Lewis said, «you're gonna look like a fucking genius.»
Our numbers were soft in the morning, but things were looking up by mid-afternoon. The Chinese weren't talking and no one yet had footage of the Tibetan dead—but rumors were trickling in from around the globe. Unconfirmed reports from UN Peacekeepers in Kosovo told of women and children clawing their way free from previously unknown mass graves.
By New Year's Day, rumors gave way to established fact. The television flickered with grainy images from Groznyy and Addis Ababa. The dead were arising in scattered locales around the world. And here at home, the polls were shifting. Burton's crowds grew larger and more enthusiastic at every rally, and as our jet winged down through the night towards Pittsburgh, I watched Stoddard answering questions about the crisis on a satellite feed from C-SPAN. He looked gray and tired, his long face brimming with uncertainty. He was too late, we owned the issue now, and watching him, I could see he knew it, too. He was going through the motions, that's all.
There was a celebratory hum in the air as the plane settled to the tarmac. Burton spoke for a few minutes at the airport, and then the Secret Service people tightened the bubble, moving us en masse toward the motorcade. Just before he ducked into the limo, Burton dismissed his entourage. His hand closed about my shoulder. «You're with me,» he said.
He was silent as the limo slid away into the night, but as the downtown towers loomed up before us he turned to look at me. «I wanted to thank you,» he said.
He held up his hand. «I wouldn't have had the courage to run that ad, not without you pushing me. I've wondered about that, you know. It was like you knew something, like you knew the story was getting ready to break again.»
I could sense the question behind his words—Did you know, Rob? Did you? —but I didn't have any answers. Just that impression of a voice speaking through me from beyond, from somewhere else, and that didn't make any sense, or none that I was able to share.
«When I first got started in this business,» Burton was saying, «there was a local pol back in Chicago, kind of a mentor. He told me once you could tell what kind of man you were dealing with by the people he chose to surround himself with. When I think about that, I feel good, Rob.» He sighed. «The world's gone crazy, that's for sure, but with people like you on our side, I think we'll be all right. I just wanted to tell you that.»
«Thank you, sir.»
He nodded. I could feel him studying me as I gazed out the window, but suddenly I could find nothing to say. I just sat there and watched the city slide by, the past welling up inside me. Unpleasant truths lurked like rocks just beneath the visible surface. I could sense them somehow.
«You all right, Rob?»
«Just thinking,» I said. «Being in Pittsburgh, it brings back memories.»
«I thought you grew up in California.»
«I did. I was born here, though. I lived here until my parents died.»
«How old were you?»
«Four. I was four years old.»
We were at the hotel by then. As the motorcade swung across two empty lanes into the driveway, Gran's words—
—that was your uncle's clock, he couldn't keep it —
—sounded in my head. The limo eased to the curb. Doors slammed. Agents slid past outside, putting a protective cordon around the car. The door opened, and cold January air swept in. Burton was gathering his things.
He paused, looking back.
«Tomorrow morning, could I have some time alone?»
He frowned. «I don't know, Rob, the schedule's pretty tight—«
«No, sir. I mean—I mean a few hours off.»
«There's a couple of things I'd like to look into. My parents and all that. Just an hour or two if you can spare me.»
He held my gaze a moment longer.
Then: «That's fine, Rob.» He reached out and squeezed my shoulder. «Just be at the airport by two.»
That night I dreamed of a place that wasn't quite Dana Maguire's daycare. It looked like a daycare—half a dozen squealing kids, big plastic toys, an indestructible grade of carpet—but certain details didn't fit: the massive grandfather clock, my uncle's clock, standing in one corner; my parents, dancing to big band music that seemed to emanate from nowhere.
I was trying to puzzle this through when I saw the kid clutching the lunch sack. There was an odd expression on his face, a haunted heartbroken expression, and too late I understood what was about to happen. I was trying to move, to scream, anything, as he dragged the pistol out of the bag. But my lips were sealed, I couldn't speak. Glancing down, I saw that I was rooted to the floor. Literally rooted . My bare feet had grown these long knotted tendrils. The carpet was twisted and raveled where they had driven themselves into the floor.
My parents whirled about in an athletic fox-trot, their faces manic with laughter. The music was building to an awful crescendo, percussives bleeding seamlessly together, the snap of the snare drums, the terrible booming tones of the clock, the quick sharp report of the gun.
I saw the girl go over backwards, her hands clawing at her throat as she convulsed. Blood drenched me, a spurting arterial fountain—I could feel it hot against my skin—and in the same moment this five-year-old kid turned to stare at me. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and this kid—this child really, and that's all I could seem to think—
—he's just a child he's only a child —
—he had my face.
I woke then, stifling a scream. Silence gripped the room and the corridor beyond it, and beyond that the city. I felt as if the world itself were drowning, sunk fathoms deep in the fine and private silence of the grave.
I stood, brushing the curtains aside. An anonymous grid of lights burned beyond the glass, an alien hieroglyph pulsing with enigmatic significance. Staring out at it, I was seized by an impression of how fragile everything is, how thin the barrier that separates us from the abyss. I shrank from the window, terrified by a sense that the world was far larger—and immeasurably stranger—than the world I'd known before, a sense of vast and formless energies churning out there in the dark.
I spent the next morning in the Carnegie Library in Oakland, reeling through back issues of the Post-Gazette . It didn't take long to dig up the article about the accident—I knew the date well enough—but I wasn't quite prepared for what I found there. Gran had always been reticent about the wreck—about everything to do with my life in Pittsburgh, actually—but I'd never really paused to give that much thought. She'd lost her family, too, after all—a grand-daughter, a son-in-law, her only child—and even as a kid, I could see why she might not want to talk about it.
The headline flickering on the microfilm reader rocked me, though. Two die in fiery collision , it read, and before I could properly formulate the question in my mind—
—there were three of them —
—I was scanning the paragraphs below. Disconnected phrases seemed to hover above the cramped columns—bridge abutment, high speed, alcohol-related—and halfway through the article, the following words leapt out at me:
Friends speculate that the accident may have been the product of a suicide pact. The couple were said to be grief-stricken following the death of their daughter, Alice, nine, in a bizarre shooting accident three weeks ago.
I stood, abruptly nauseated, afraid to read any further. A docent approached—
«Sir, are you all—«
—but I thrust her away.
Outside, traffic lumbered by, stirring the slush on Forbes Avenue. I sat on a bench and fought the nausea for a long time, cradling my face in my hands while I waited for it to pass. A storm was drifting in, and when I felt better I lifted my face to the sky, anxious for the icy burn of snow against my cheeks. Somewhere in the city, Grant Burton was speaking. Somewhere, reanimated corpses scrabbled at frozen graves.
The world lurched on.
I stood, belting my coat. I had a plane to catch.
I held myself together for two days, during our final campaign swing through the Midwest on January 3 and the election that followed, but I think I had already arrived at a decision. Most of the senior staff sensed it, as well, I think. They congratulated me on persuading Burton to run the ad, but they didn't come to me for advice much in those final hours. I seemed set-apart somehow, isolated, contagious.
Lewis clapped me on the back as we watched the returns roll in. «Jesus, Rob,» he said, «you're supposed to be happy right now.»
«Are you, Lewis?»
I looked up at him, his tall figure slumped, his face a fiery map of scars.
«What did you give up to get us here?» I asked, but he didn't answer. I hadn't expected him to.
The election unfolded without a hitch. Leaving off their work in the graveyards, the dead gathered about the polling stations, but even they seemed to sense that the rules had changed this time around. They made no attempt to cast their ballots. They just stood behind the cordons the National Guard had set up, still and silent, regarding the proceedings with flat remorseless eyes. Voters scurried past them with bowed heads, their faces pinched against the stench of decay. On Nightline , Ted Koppel noted that the balloting had drawn the highest turnout in American history, something like ninety-three percent.
«Any idea why so many voters came out today?» he asked the panel.
«Maybe they were afraid not to,» Cokie Roberts replied, and I felt an answering chord vibrate within me. Trust Cokie to get it right.
Stoddard conceded soon after the polls closed in the west. It was obvious by then. In his victory speech, Burton talked about a mandate for change. «The people have spoken,» he said, and they had, but I couldn't help wondering what might be speaking through them, and what it might be trying to say. Some commentators speculated that it was over now. The dead would return to the graves, the world would be the old world we had known.
But that's not the way it happened.
On January 5, the dead were digging once again, their numbers always swelling. CNN was carrying the story when I handed Burton my resignation. He read it slowly and then he lifted his gaze to my face.
«I can't accept this, Rob,» he said. «We need you now. The hard work's just getting underway.»
«I'm sorry, sir. I haven't any choice.»
«Surely we can work something out.»
«I wish we could.»
We went through several iterations of this exchange before he nodded. «We'll miss you,» he said. «You'll always have a place here, whenever you're ready to get back in the game.»
I was at the door when he called to me again.
«Is there anything I can do to help, Rob?»
«No, sir,» I said. «I have to take care of this myself.»
I spent a week in Pittsburgh, walking the precipitous streets of neighborhoods I remembered only in my dreams. I passed a morning hunting up the house where my parents had lived, and one bright, cold afternoon I drove out 76 and pulled my rental to the side of the interstate, a hundred yards short of the bridge where they died. Eighteen wheelers thundered past, throwing up glittering arcs of spray, and the smell of the highway enveloped me, diesel and iron. It was pretty much what I had expected, a slab of faceless concrete, nothing more.
We leave no mark.
Evenings, I took solitary meals in diners and talked to Gran on the telephone—tranquil gossip about the old folks in the home mostly, empty of anything real. Afterwards, I drank Iron City and watched cable movies until I got drunk enough to sleep. I ignored the news as best I could, but I couldn't help catching glimpses as I buzzed through the channels. All around the world, the dead were walking.
They walked in my dreams, as well, stirring memories better left forgotten. Mornings, I woke with a sense of dread, thinking of Galileo, thinking of the Church. I had urged Burton to engage this brave new world, yet the thought of embracing such a fundamental transformation of my own history—of following through on the article in the Post-Gazette , the portents within my dreams—paralyzed me utterly. I suppose it was by then a matter mostly of verifying my own fears and suspicions—suppose I already knew, at some level, what I had yet to confirm. But the lingering possibility of doubt was precious, safe, and I clung to it for a few days longer, unwilling to surrender.
Finally, I could put it off no longer.
I drove down to the Old Public Safety Building on Grant Street. Upstairs, a grizzled receptionist brought out the file I requested. It was all there in untutored bureaucratic prose. There was a sheaf of official photos, too, glossy black and white prints. I didn't want to look at them, but I did anyway. I felt it was something I ought to do.
A little while later, someone touched my shoulder. It was the receptionist, her broad face creased with concern. Her spectacles swung at the end of a little silver chain as she bent over me. «You all right?» she asked.
«Yes, ma'am, I'm fine.»
I stood, closing the file, and thanked her for her time.
I left Pittsburgh the next day, shedding the cold as the plane nosed above a lid of cloud. From LAX, I caught the 405 South to Long Beach. I drove with the window down, grateful for the warmth upon my arm, the spike of palm fronds against the sky. The slipstream carried the scent of a world blossoming and fresh, a future yet unmade, a landscape less scarred by history than the blighted industrial streets I'd left behind.
Yet even here the past lingered. It was the past that had brought me here, after all.
The nursing home was a sprawl of landscaped grounds and low-slung stucco buildings, faintly Spanish in design. I found Gran in a garden overlooking the Pacific, and I paused, studying her, before she noticed me in the doorway. She held a paperback in her lap, but she had left off reading to stare out across the water. A salt-laden breeze lifted her gray hair in wisps, and for a moment, looking at her, her eyes clear in her distinctly boned face, I could find my way back to the woman I had known as a boy.
But the years intervened, the way they always do. In the end, I couldn't help noticing her wasted body, or the glittering geometry of the wheelchair that enclosed her. Her injured leg jutted before her.
I must have sighed, for she looked up, adjusting the angle of the chair. «Robert!»
I sat by her, on a concrete bench. The morning overcast was breaking, and the sun struck sparks from the wave-tops.
«I'd have thought you were too busy to visit,» she said, «now that your man has won the election.»
«I'm not so busy these days. I don't work for him anymore.»
«What do you mean—«
«I mean I quit my job.»
»Why? » she said.
«I spent some time in Pittsburgh. I've been looking into things.»
«Looking into things? Whatever on Earth is there to look into , Robert?» She smoothed the afghan covering her thighs, her fingers trembling.
I laid my hand across them, but she pulled away. «Gran, we need to talk.»
«Talk?» She laughed, a bark of forced gaiety. «We talk every day.»
«Look at me,» I said, and after a long moment, she did. I could see the fear in her eyes, then. I wondered how long it had been there, and why I'd never noticed it before. «We need to talk about the past.»
«The past is dead, Robert.»
Now it was my turn to laugh. «Nothing's dead, Gran. Turn on the television sometime. Nothing stays dead anymore. Nothing .»
«I don't want to talk about that.»
«Then what do you want to talk about?» I waved an arm at the building behind us, the ammonia-scented corridors and the endless numbered rooms inhabited by faded old people, already ghosts of the dead they would become. «You want to talk about Cora in 203 and the way her son never visits her or Jerry in 147 whose emphysema has been giving him trouble or all the—«
«All the what?» she snapped, suddenly fierce.
«All the fucking minutia we always talk about!»
«I won't have you speak to me like that! I raised you, I made you what you are today!»
«I know,» I said. And then, more quietly, I said it again. «I know.»
Her hands twisted in her lap. «The doctors told me you'd forget, it happens that way sometimes with trauma. You were so young . It seemed best somehow to just . . . let it go.»
«But you lied.»
«I didn't choose any of this,» she said. «After it happened, your parents sent you out to me. Just for a little while, they said. They needed time to think things through.»
She fell silent, squinting at the surf foaming on the rocks below. The sun bore down upon us, a heartbreaking disk of white in the faraway sky.
«I never thought they'd do what they did,» she said, «and then it was too late. After that . . . how could I tell you?» She clenched my hand. «You seemed okay, Robert. You seemed like you were fine.»
I stood, pulling away. «How could you know?»
I turned at the door. She'd wheeled the chair around to face me. Her leg thrust toward me in its cast, like the prow of a ship. She was in tears. «Why, Robert? Why couldn't you just leave everything alone?»
«I don't know,» I said, but even then I was thinking of Lewis, that habit he has of probing at his face where the acne left it pitted—as if someday he'll find his flesh smooth and handsome once again, and it's through his hands he'll know it. I guess that's it, you know: we've all been wounded, every one of us.
And we just can't keep our hands off the scars.
I drifted for the next day or two, living out of hotel rooms and haunting the places I'd known growing up. They'd changed like everything changes, the world always hurrying us along, but I didn't know what else to do, where else to go. I couldn't leave Long Beach, not till I made things up with Gran, but something held me back.
I felt ill at ease, restless. And then, as I fished through my wallet in a bar one afternoon, I saw a tiny slip of paper eddy to the floor. I knew what it was, of course, but I picked it up anyway. My fingers shook as I opened it up and stared at the message written there, Call me sometime , with the address and phone number printed neatly below.
I made it to Laguna Beach in fifty minutes. The address was a mile or so east of the water, a manicured duplex on a corner lot. She had moved no doubt—five years had passed—and if she hadn't moved she had married at the very least. But I left my car at the curb and walked up the sidewalk all the same. I could hear the bell through an open window, footsteps approaching, soft music lilting from the back of the house. Then the door opened and she was there, wiping her hands on a towel.
«Gwen,» I said.
She didn't smile, but she didn't close the door either.
It was a start.
The house was small, but light, with wide windows in the kitchen overlooking a lush back lawn. A breeze slipped past the screens, infusing the kitchen with the scent of fresh-cut grass and the faraway smell of ocean.
«This isn't a bad time, is it?» I asked.
«Well, it's unexpected to say the least,» she told me, lifting one eyebrow doubtfully, and in the gesture I caught a glimpse of the girl I'd known at Northwestern, rueful and wry and always faintly amused.
As she made coffee, I studied her, still freckled and faintly gamine, but not unchanged. Her eyes had a wary light in them, and fresh lines caged her thin upper lip. When she sat across from me at the table, toying with her coffee cup, I noticed a faint pale circle around her finger where a ring might have been.
Maybe I looked older too, for Gwen glanced up at me from beneath a fringe of streaky blonde bangs, her mouth arcing in a crooked smile. «You look younger on television,» she said, and it was enough to get us started.
Gwen knew a fair bit of my story—my role in Burton's presidential campaign had bought me that much notoriety at least—and hers had a familiar ring to it. Law school at UCLA, five or six years billing hours in one of the big LA firms before the cutthroat culture got to her and she threw it over for a job with the ACLU, trading long days and a handsome wage for still longer ones and almost no wage at all. Her marriage had come apart around the same time. «Not out of any real animosity,» she said. «More like a mutual lack of interest.»
«And now? Are you seeing anyone?»
The question came out with a weight I hadn't intended.
She hesitated. «No one special.» She lifted the eyebrow once again. «A habit I picked up as a litigator. Risk aversion.»
By this time, the sky beyond the windows had softened into twilight and our coffee had grown cold. As shadows lengthened in the little kitchen, I caught Gwen glancing at the clock.
She had plans.
I stood. «I should go.»
She took my hand at the door, a simple handshake, that's all, but I felt something pass between us, an old connection close with a kind of electric spark. Maybe it wasn't there at all, maybe I only wanted to feel it—Gwen certainly seemed willing to let me walk out of her life once again—but a kind of desperation seized me.
Call it nostalgia or loneliness. Call it whatever you want. But suddenly the image of her wry glance from beneath the slant of hair leaped into mind.
I wanted to see her again.
«Listen,» I said, «I know this is kind of out of the blue, but you wouldn't be free for dinner would you?»
She paused a moment. The shadow of the door had fallen across her face. She laughed uncertainly, and when she spoke, her voice was husky and uncertain. «I don't know, Rob. That was a long time ago. Like I said, I'm a little risk aversive these days.»
«Right. Well, then, listen—it was really great seeing you.»
I nodded and started across the lawn. I had the door of the rental open when she spoke again.
«What the hell,» she said. «Let me make a call. It's only dinner, right?»
I went back to Washington for the inauguration.
Lewis and I stood together as we waited for the ceremony to begin, looking out at the dead. They had been on the move for days, legions of them, gathering on the Mall as far as the eye could see. A cluster of the living, maybe a couple hundred strong, had been herded onto the lawn before the bandstand—a token crowd of warm bodies for the television cameras—but I couldn't help thinking that Burton's true constituency waited beyond the cordons, still and silent and unutterably patient, the melting pot made flesh: folk of every color, race, creed, and age, in every stage of decay that would allow them to stand upright. Dana Maguire might be out there somewhere. She probably was.
The smell was palpable.
Privately, Lewis had told me that the dead had begun gathering elsewhere in the world, as well. Our satellites had confirmed it. In Cuba and North Korea, in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the dead were on the move, implacable and slow, their purposes unknown and maybe unknowable.
«We need you, Rob,» he had said. «Worse than ever.»
«I'm not ready yet,» I replied.
He had turned to me then, his long pitted face sagging. «What happened to you?» he asked.
And so I told him.
It was the first time I had spoken of it aloud, and I felt a burden sliding from my shoulders as the words slipped out. I told him all of it: Gran's evasions and my reaction to Dana Maguire that day on CNN and the sense I'd had on Crossfire that something else, something vast and remote and impersonal, was speaking through me, calling them back from the grave. I told him about the police report, too, how the memories had come crashing back upon me as I sat at the scarred table, staring into a file nearly three decades old.
«It was a party,» I said. «My uncle was throwing a party and Mom and Dad's babysitter had canceled at the last minute, so Don told them just to bring us along. He lived alone, you know. He didn't have kids and he never thought about kids in the house.»
«So the gun wasn't locked up?»
«No. It was late. It must have been close to midnight by then. People were getting drunk and the music was loud and Alice didn't seem to want much to do with me. I was in my uncle's bedroom, just fooling around the way kids do, and the gun was in the drawer of his nightstand.»
I paused, memory surging through me, and suddenly I was there again, a child in my uncle's upstairs bedroom. Music thumped downstairs, jazzy big band music. I knew the grown-ups would be dancing and my dad would be nuzzling Mom's neck, and that night when he kissed me good night, I'd be able to smell him, the exotic aromas of bourbon and tobacco, shot through with the faint floral essence of Mom's perfume. Then my eyes fell upon the gun in the drawer. The light from the hall summoned unsuspected depths from the blued barrel.
I picked it up, heavy and cold.
All I wanted to do was show Alice. I just wanted to show her. I never meant to hurt anyone. I never meant to hurt Alice.
I said it to Lewis—«I never meant to hurt her»—and he looked away, unable to meet my eyes.
I remember carrying the gun downstairs to the foyer, Mom and Dad dancing beyond the frame of the doorway, Alice standing there watching. «I remember everything,» I said to Lewis. «Everything but pulling the trigger. I remember the music screeching to a halt, somebody dragging the needle across the record, my mother screaming. I remember Alice lying on the floor and the blood and the weight of the gun in my hand. But the weird thing is, the thing I remember best is the way I felt at that moment.»
«The way you felt,» Lewis said.
«Yeah. A bullet had smashed the face of the clock, this big grandfather clock my uncle had in the foyer. It was chiming over and over, as though the bullet had wrecked the mechanism. That's what I remember most. The clock. I was afraid my uncle was going to be mad about the clock.»
Lewis did something odd then. Reaching out, he clasped my shoulder—the first time he'd ever touched me, really touched me, I mean—and I realized how strange it was that this man, this scarred, bitter man, had somehow become the only friend I have. I realized something else, too: how rarely I'd known the touch of another human hand, how much I hungered for it.
«You were a kid, Rob.»
«I know. It's not my fault.»
«It's no reason for you to leave, not now, not when we need you. Burton would have you back in a minute. He owes this election to you, he knows that. Come back.»
«Not yet,» I said, «I'm not ready.»
But now, staring out across the upturned faces of the dead as a cold January wind whipped across the Mall, I felt the lure and pull of the old life, sure as gravity. The game, Burton had called it, and it was a game, politics, the biggest Monopoly set in the world and I loved it and for the first time I understood why I loved it. For the first time I understood something else, too: why I had waited years to ring Gwen's doorbell, why even then it had taken an active effort of will not to turn away. It was the same reason: Because it was a game, a game with clear winners and losers, with rules as complex and arcane as a cotillion, and most of all because it partook so little of the messy turmoil of real life. The stakes seemed high, but they weren't. It was ritual, that's all—movement without action, a dance of spin and strategy designed to preserve the status quo. I fell in love with politics because it was safe. You get so involved in pushing your token around the board that you forget the ideals that brought you to the table in the first place. You forget to speak from the heart. Someday maybe, for the right reasons, I'd come back. But not yet.
I must have said it aloud for Lewis suddenly looked over at me. «What?» he asked.
I just shook my head and gazed out over the handful of living people, stirring as the ceremony got underway. The dead waited beyond them, rank upon rank of them with the earth of the grave under their nails and that cold shining in their eyes.
And then I did turn to Lewis. «What do you think they want?» I asked.
Lewis sighed. «Justice, I suppose,» he said.
«And when they have it?»
«Maybe they'll rest.»
A year has passed, and those words—justice, I suppose —still haunt me. I returned to D.C. in the fall, just as the leaves began turning along the Potomac. Gwen came with me, and sometimes, as I lie wakeful in the shelter of her warmth, my mind turns to the past.
It was Gran that brought me back. The cast had come off in February, and one afternoon in March, Gwen and I stopped by, surprised to see her on her feet. She looked frail, but her eyes glinted with determination as she toiled along the corridors behind her walker.
«Let's sit down and rest,» I said when she got winded, but she merely shook her head and kept moving.
«Bones knit, Rob,» she told me. «Wounds heal, if you let them.»
Those words haunt me, too.
By the time she died in August, she'd moved from the walker to a cane. Another month, her case manager told me with admiration, and she might have relinquished even that. We buried her in the plot where we laid my grandfather to rest, but I never went back after the interment. I know what I would find.
The dead do not sleep.
They shamble in silence through the cities of our world, their bodies slack and stinking of the grave, their eyes coldly ablaze. Baghdad fell in September, vanquished by battalions of revolutionaries, rallying behind a vanguard of the dead. State teems with similar rumors, and CNN is on the story. Unrest in Pyongyang, turmoil in Belgrade.
In some views, Burton's has been the most successful administration in history. All around the world, our enemies are falling. Yet more and more these days, I catch the president staring uneasily into the streets of Washington, aswarm with zombies. «Our conscience,» he's taken to calling them, but I'm not sure I agree. They demand nothing of us, after all. They seek no end we can perceive or understand. Perhaps they are nothing more than what we make of them, or what they enable us to make of ourselves. And so we go on, mere lodgers in a world of unpeopled graves, subject ever to the remorseless scrutiny of the dead.