I nestle the video camera on its makeshift tripod, carefully centering my daughter’s image. She tucks her hair behind her ear and gives a strained smile. She is sixteen, and that hair is long and golden–kissed light brown and straight; she has the gangly grace only teenagers have, that sleek gazelle form. She is wearing khaki shorts and a striped tank top, and the bite mark on her arm is already putrefying.
She has about an hour, we think. And I have about an hour on this camera, an obsolete Flip mini. I guess all cameras are obsolete now. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a device on which to play this. But she wants to do it. And right now, Becca gets anything she wants. Ice cream or a visit to the zoo, a stolen car or a cliff dive; for the next hour, Becca gets anything and everything she wants.
She crosses her legs and leans forward. Her hair falls over the wound, and she winces. “Does it hurt?” I ask. I’m not in the frame. This video is only her.
“A little. It’s not a sharp pain anymore. It’s a dull ache. Mom, when I’m ready, I’ll tell you, and you have to —”
“I know.” I have the camera in one hand and the gun in the other, and when my daughter turns, I need to put a bullet in her brain.
We are in an abandoned preschool. It was closed when the dead rose, so there’s no gore here; it’s eerie in its silence. There should be children here. There should be cacophony. Becca smiles. “Remember my old preschool?”
“I was just thinking about it. So much screaming all the time!”
“Well. So much screaming all the time everywhere now.”
“Oh, Becca. You know what I —”
“I know.” She looks down; when she looks back up, her eyes are bright. She addresses the camera. “So hi. My name is Becca Martin. I have been bitten by a damn zombie. My mom is going to be taping this because we don’t know if anyone has any data on what happens exactly and, like, mental changes… and also I just wanted to talk. I’m sixteen. I’m going to die in probably about an hour. Maybe less. And if anyone survives this, I guess I just want you to know that I existed.” She lifts a stack of wooden beads on the tangled wire maze and lets them clack down, clackclackclack. “Do I have to give the history of the outbreak or anything? Anyone who gets this is already going to know all that stuff, right?”
“Right. You don’t have to go into that.”
“Okay. So you already know that we have zombies now. This is day five. And everyone — like, every party I have ever been to, we were joking about zombie apocalypse survival plans, and I think all of those people who had plans? I think they’re all dead now. I think all the plans were good for if we knew it was coming, that we could see the news on Twitter and armor up and head for secure locations, but that’s not the way it happened. We weren’t all together and we didn’t have time to call each other, it was just happening. My parents and I were leaving the movie theater and Mom, that was a dumb last movie of my entire life —”
“It sucked. I’m sorry.” Some romantic comedy I’d already forgotten, with some famous blonde.
“And so my dad made a sound and I turned around and someone was biting him —” her hand flies to her mouth and she looks down again, hair covering her face.
“Sweetie — Becca, don’t. You don’t have to do this.”
She shook her head violently. “And Mom grabbed me and we ran, because Mom could tell right away that everything was really wrong.”
It had been the hardest thing I’d ever done, leaving Dan. But in the instant I’d been turning to see him, I’d seen others, other dead things on the street, other people going down, and something in me had quietly said this is it, and I knew I couldn’t save him. I knew he was already gone. And I had to help Becca.
“And we got home and secured the house and — I don’t want to talk about this part.”
“You don’t have to.”
She looks up, eyes huge. “I don’t want to die.”
“Oh. God. Becca.”
I pull her into my arms and she falls apart, huge gasping gulping sobs, and I fall apart along with her — I don’t have to be strong for her this time, not now. This is slow, this is so slow, this is agonizing, but I cannot kill my daughter, not when she is still my daughter. Even though the grey is creeping up to her shoulder, down to her wrist. Even though she has begun to reek.
She pulls back eventually, and in a wavering voice, she just talks. About summer camps and school, best friends and crushes. Becca is my only child. I was young when I had her, and so we have always been friends — parent and child first, but friends second. These are old stories with endings we all know, punch lines that we say in unison. She plays with the wooden beads as she talks, constant punctuation — clackclackclack. The room is dusk–dark with primary colors beaming out of the gloom. It’s quiet and wrong. Everything is wrong. Everything now will always be wrong.
Becca’s hand goes clackclackclack, and I stroke the gun every time; our new rhythm. A reminder.
She is trying too hard to be brave. She is shaking. Clackclackclackplink as one of her fingernails detaches.
She looks at her hand and looks at me. “Mommy,” she whispers.
“I know.” I take a deep, shuddery breath. “Do you want to keep talking?”
Her hands are shaking, and the clackclackclacks become more irregular. I am watching her and something is rending my heart, my guts. I struggle for breath, watching my beautiful shining daughter go grey, soften.
I was young when I had her. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t have many people around to help; I had to figure it all out on my own. I had a hard time getting her to latch on properly to breastfeed, so it was a huge victory when I finally did, when she finally did; I would prop myself against pillows and cradle her, her head in the crook of my elbow and her butt nestled in my hand, legs kicking idly, and she would look up at me with those big blue eyes as I learned how to be a mother to her. There were classes and her first library card and parks and swimming pools and she grew up; toy xylophones gave way to cell phones and we were going to go look at colleges this summer. A little early, but she couldn’t wait. She was so eager to go out into the world. She had so much she was going to do.
She stops talking. Clackclackclack.
She looks up. Her face is sagging oddly. She is not simply grey. There’s a mottling of yellow, green…
“Becca.” My hand tightens on the gun.
“Mommy.” Her voice cracks. “You should do it now.”
I carefully turn off the camera and set it aside without releasing the gun or taking my eyes off her. “Not yet, honey.”
“No. Mommy. It’s time.”
“But you’re still there!” It’s torn from me, almost, that plea, physically wrenched. It can’t be time yet. It’s only been an hour. It’s only been sixteen years. She is still here. My baby is still here. It can’t be time.
“Mommy,” she pleads, and the anguish in her voice matches mine. I can barely see her through my tears; when did that happen? My throat is sore from holding in the sob that’s rising, I can’t breathe; absurdly, my nose is running. “Mommy,” she says again, her voice softer. “…I’m hungry.”
Her eyes are still her eyes.
I set the gun down on a bookshelf, on top of Pat the Bunny.
“Mommy, no, you have to.”
I walk to my daughter. I kneel before her and I hold my breath, and I hold her hand. “Eat,” I whisper.
She sobs, but the last of Becca slips away with that sob, and I feed my daughter for the last time.
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