“What did you want to do? Like, in general I mean.”
This is the first thing either boy had said in about an hour and a half. Approximately forty-five minutes had been taken up sharing a cold can of beans in the Dulchet’s tree fort. Both the treehouse and the beans were free for the taking, now that Mr. and Mrs. Dulchet had passed away. Waylon and Matthew passed back and forth the can of beans between them in complete silence, in the kind quiet contemplation something as utilitarian as beans usually demands. Matthew had been the first to break the silence.
“What, when I grew up or something?” said Waylon.
Matthew nodded. Waylon was the older of the two, exotically adult at the age of seventeen, at least in comparison to Matthew. The two years of difference between them was a chasm of time, with so much potential for change. It didn’t really make a difference anymore, though. Matthew was just desperate for any conversation that didn’t revolve around the current situation they found themselves in, the situation that presumably, every single person on Earth also found themselves in. They couldn’t tell. The television had been reduced to a single channel, an emergency alert screen, telling them what they already knew. Life as they knew it was over. The television called it ‘civil unrest’, after the American government had told its people that the mute, ravenous citizens with decomposing flesh roaming the streets were actually pro-Communist dissenters. As a result, many Americans hugged them in direct defiance of public advice, believing it to be a hoax.
At any rate, it was the majority of what Waylon and Matthew had talked about for about six months. They didn’t have much else in common other than survival. Matthew played French horn and had never kissed a girl. Waylon’s father ran a real estate company and he always had money, and, remarkably, a rather impressive beard for a seventeen year-old. Trying not to die tied them together, and not much else.
Waylon thought about the question for a moment.
“Shit, I guess I just assumed I would work for my dad. I wasn’t really thinking about it too much. I wanted to do the whole back-packing crap for a year, just like… you know. Go somewhere where I can have a beer and I don’t need to drink it out of the back of the bleachers like some kind of ghoul,” he said.
“I guess you can do that now,” Matthew said.
“I do do that now, but it’s always warm, you know? It’s July, I should have a cold beer in one hand,” he said, splaying out his hand for effect, “and my other hand is halfway down Aislinn Parker’s underpants.”
“Gross, dude,” he said.
“What?” Waylon said, “She’s cute.”
“What if you mixed up your hands?”
Waylon smirked, and said, “Even better.”
The two boys allowed themselves the indulgence of a chuckle about that idea. Their laughs faded, and reality settled over the treehouse again.
It was after two, maybe three in the afternoon. This time of year, it was hard to tell, but it wasn’t the same sharp heat from a few hours ago, when they had climbed into the treehouse. A cool breeze rippled through the empty frame near the west wall, the hole meant to suggest a window. With all the money the Dulchets had, you’d think they could have sprung for an actual window, but they’d been old, and had built the treehouse in the 80s, when their own children were young. The effect, however, of the open air, was not ideal for relaxing, eating, or even talking. A faded opera of moans and that weird barking sound those things made punctuated the call of birds, blissfully ignorant. It was exhausting.
“God, I hate them,” Waylon sighed.
“Haha, yeah,” Matthew said, instantly regretting his own tone. He had noticed that over the last four months, after both of their families had made the unwise decision to walk, open-armed and smiling, into swarms of wailing undead, that he tended to be a little sycophantic with Waylon. Matthew was desperate to impress him, sometimes fabricating stories about girls, or about heroic fistfights over nothing. They had met while looting in a CVS. Oblivious to Matthew’s apparent misstep, Waylon said:
“What about you?”
“What did you want to be? When you ‘grew up’, or whatever,” Waylon explained.
“Oh, that,” Matthew said.
What Matthew really wanted was to become Waylon. Not take over his life completely, that would be weird. But he did want that kind of seemingly effortless life, the one where things seemed to just come to you; your birthright would be delivered as if in the mail, faithfully and constantly. He wanted a girlfriend, although he wasn’t really sure what to do after he got one. He wanted also the option to backpack around somewhere if only to fulfil a vapid desire to drink a cold beer somewhere without anyone getting mad at you. What he didn’t want was to become like his family, trashy and aimless, bound by a gambler’s fallacy in every aspect of their lives - their weights, their money, actual gambling - and spending his prime years desperately aching for things to fall into place.
“Lawyer? I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think about it much, either,” he said.
“God, don’t do that,” Waylon said, “My brother does that. That guy is a goddamn mess.”
“Oh! Yeah, I guess not.”
“Also, I mean, I guess I can’t really become a lawyer right now anyway,” Matthew said.
“No, no, think about it,” Waylon said, “You represent people who raided the pharmacy, who are getting sued by other people who wanted to raid the pharmacy but they showed up a few hours too late and now they’re mad.”
Matthew broke out laughing. He didn’t even notice how squeaky he sounded.
“Seriously! Think about it! ‘Wah, I wanted Tampax and laxatives,’ and then you’re like, objection, your honor! And the judge is like, eleven years old, so he’s like, ‘sustained!’ and then everyone just goes home,” Waylon continued.
Matthew wiped tears from his eyes. He was no longer laughing, per say, but hiccupping and gasping for air. He grasped weakly in front of him.
Waylon hurled the empty can of beans outside of the window, hitting one of the larger, hulking undead in the eye. It was incensed and impotent in its rage.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have done that,” Waylon said.
Matthew took a deep breath, still recovering from laughter.
“Oh,” he said, “Who even cares anymore.”
They had both, at one point or another, remarked on the general uselessness of trying during a time like this. The odds were stacked and sometimes it seemed wiser to succumb. Maybe those people who had walked into the sea of the dead had the right idea - get it over with, submit to the bloodshed, rather than waiting, waiting, waiting. The push against the seeming inevitability of being bitten, consumed, it neared the province of idiocy. There were just so very many of them. Maybe there was no shame in being outnumbered.
There is, however, a feeling inside nearly everyone, a feeling that tells them that they are exceptional, special, worthy of praise. Nearly everyone (with a few, healthy exceptions) walks around with the same thought, that there is a small spark of the divine inside them, a pearl of singular authenticity that other people simply do not possess. This is no accident. Why, if you didn’t believe this, would you make serious efforts to save your own life when it was threatened? Why would you submit to diets, or opinion, or washing your own hair? The drive to live is rooted in the idea - whether false or universal is up to debate - that one is special. Matthew had thought about this frequently since meeting Waylon, although he would also make special efforts to save Waylon, perhaps even at the risk of his own life. If one of them was going to survive, Matthew thought, it should be him. Despite his intense envy about Waylon’s life, looks, and money (a thing that didn’t really matter anymore), the reason for this was simple: his own specialness (which he questioned, sometimes) was meaningless without Waylon. A tree falling in the forest. He couldn’t bear it.
An hour passed, in silence. Both of them had become skilled at allowing a certain amount of time to pass without saying anything at all, if not because time had lost a lot of its meaning but at least because the knowing you weren’t alone was enough to suffocate the anxiety that drives small talk.
“I guess we’re staying here,” Waylon said suddenly, piercing the silence.
“Oh,” Matthew said, “Yeah, I mean. Unless you wanted to…”
“Jesus, no. God. I can’t stand doing that again. I want like, one day, you know? Just a single day where I don’t have to sit in a tree, or eat something out of a can, or look at one of those things and then shoot it, ‘cause, I don’t know. God, do you remember last week?”
Matthew did remember last week. Waylon had been forced to shoot the rotting, lumbering body of Mr. Ogilvie, his chemistry teacher. They had gotten along well, before.
“I hate knowing they were people, you know?” he continued, “I don’t get to feel like it’s good versus evil, me and you against everyone else. It’s just you and me, versus something really shitty that happened to everyone we used to know.”
He paused for a second and slapped the floor of the treehouse, startling Matthew.
“Do you want a beer?” Waylon said, his face slightly manic.
“A hot beer,” Matthew said, “Mmm.”
“No, no, I do. Sorry. I was just being a dick,” Matthew said.
“No, I’m sorry.”
Matthew gave him a thumbs-up, which was part of their private language. This gesture meant, ‘whatever you just did, which was weird or angry or scary or mean, is okay, because I get it, because I also feel bad’. This simple transaction always calmed the other one down. Waylon handed Matthew his beer which was, as promised, a little hot.
“Oh, damn. Did you remember the pillows?” Waylon said.
Matthew scrambled onto the other side of the treehouse and zipped open the duffel bag he carried everywhere. The two ‘pillows’, lumpy bags of cotton chosen for their extreme portability and vague resemblance to real pillows, were there. He held one up, and they both sighed in relief.
“I don’t want to have to do the pretzel again,” Waylon said, sipping his beer.
‘The pretzel’ was an uncomfortable sleeping position they adopted about two months ago, where they both used the other one’s calves as an ersatz pillow. It was deeply uncomfortable and totally unsustainable, as they would both wake up with their necks craned onto whatever surface they’d fallen asleep on. After the incident where they broke into Carol Burrough’s house and tried to sleep on her improbably large waterbed, and had to spend a good four hours fighting off undead intruders, they opted for safer places to lay their heads for the night, which were almost always incredibly disagreeable for sleeping. The Dulchet’s treehouse was no exception.
They sipped in silence, tossing their empty beer cans out the window into the now-swelling crowd of the undead. They could not climb ladders, but the boys had folded up the roped steps just in case, for insurance. Every so often, one of them would say something. Once or twice, it was about ‘now’, the terrifying sadness that would, as far as they could surmise, would last until their deaths, whenever that would be. That day, though, until they fell asleep, they talked about things that didn’t matter much at all, even before.
They both laid down at about ten, while the sun set. Waylon fell asleep in the corner, curled into himself like a large shrimp, while Matthew stared out the squared out space in the west end of the treehouse, thinking about nothing until he, too, fell asleep.