When she was six years old, Sunny Newsome watched a man die. She had just snatched five bucks from Ma’s straw purse and was hiding behind the pork barbecue truck when it happened. He dropped right there on the carnival midway in front of the World Famous Elephant Ears stall, and for a split second the world stopped. And then a crowd began to form around the dying man, and that crowd collectively stared while he sort of flopped around at their feet. Finally a woman stepped forward to help, but by then it was probably too late.
And this was Sunny’s first lesson in human behavior. People, for the most part, were terrible. People were horrible, selfish, slovenly things that seemed to serve no other purpose than to take up space and assume that they’re owed something because of it. Sunny decided that even though there was an infinite amount of evidence to the contrary, she must not be one of them. She spent the next eleven years feeding the fantasy that she was a princess from a peaceful and highly evolved far away galaxy that was left behind on Earth, and her real family-who had only left her here to protect her in the first place-would return for her someday. Each time a nasty lady demanded to speak to the manager because her kid was out of ride tokens or a smelly guy with a beer gut called her a bitch for ignoring him when he shouted Nice ass, sexy as she carried bags of trash to the Dumpster, Sunny closed her eyes tight and willed her real parents to come down from space and rescue her.
But that was before, of course. That was when it was harmless to let the mind wander. Now daydreaming is dangerous. Daydreaming splits focus, and focusing on anything besides survival can lead to mistakes. And mistakes lead to trouble.
Something jolts Sunny awake. Amber beams from the lamp posts splash across the floor, and she’s hopelessly tangled in the thin blue sheet. The clock says 12:23 am, but it feels much later. Sunny frees herself from the bed and feels around the couch cushions for the Old 97s hoodie she'd tossed there before falling asleep. It’s safe to go out now.
Sunny steps out of the trailer and into a chilly, damp night. They’ve been at the tail end of an Indian summer for a few days, but it seems that autumn is finally, thankfully setting in. Sunny breathes in the night; rotting garbage and sweat and leaves and Marlboro smoke.
“Hey, Elk,” she says into the air.
“Hey, kid. Come up.”
Sunny climbs the short ladder to the trailer’s roof and finds him in his usual late night spot, sitting cross-legged and carving a slash mark into the worn paint. He looks tired, but his dark eyes are perpetually tired. Sunny has loved Elk for as long as she could remember. Everyone does. Did. Too many years ago to count, Elk was nothing but a lost soul who had traveled up and down the East coast with a guitar before joining them one summer afternoon in Buffalo, New York. He’d wandered onto the grounds as they were loading in, asked to see the “the man in charge,” and that night Pop made him the new foreman. He was the best damn foreman they had ever had. That’s what Pop always said. He had a careless grace and a fierce work ethic, a pairing which made him easy to work with and easier to confide in. Once when she was ten, Sunny announced to anyone that would listen that Elk was her boyfriend.
"I can’t be your boyfriend, Sunny. I love you too much."
That’s what he said.
Now that Sunny’s grown up, she knows his secrets. She knows that his real name is Elwood Milton, and that he never graduated from high school. She knows that he loved Katherine Aniwayna more than anyone else in the whole world, and he didn’t leave his trailer for nine whole days after he lost her to the Locals. She knows that he’s killed twice; once by accident, once out of anger, both a very long time ago. She knows that she’s the only person left here that he trusts, and the feeling is mutual.
Elk stares into the night, and Sunny swipes a cigarette from his pack before he can object. Sunny is a nomad. She is carnival folk, just as Ma and Pop had been before her, but these ghostly remnants of rides and game stalls are all that’s left of home now. It’s been 147 days, and Sunny still hasn’t gotten used to staying in place for this long. She knows that Elk hasn’t either. They have counted the days by the check marks he has carved up here.
“Your Pop’d have my head if he knew I let you smoke.” There’s a new sadness in his voice. He still feels responsible for what happened to Pop, too.
“I’m a grown-up,” Sunny whispers.
But some days Sunny wishes it wasn’t true. Some days she wishes that she was a kid again, and she didn’t have to make big decisions or worry about living through another day. Some days she cries in secret because she should have seen it coming. The truth is that they all should have seen it coming. After all, it didn’t happen all at once. The change happened gradually. First came the political shift, and with that came fearlessness. With the fearlessness came the poisonous speeches and hurtful words, and when those became ineffective they were replaced by guns and bombs and actual poison until the whole country was burned to ruins.
It was April when they pulled into this town. They came because the town wanted them. The town officials signed a contract. It was a Tuesday evening, and the roustabout crew was halfway through load-in when Barry Secord, the jointy they’d picked up outside of Witchita, noticed the Locals. Six of them, all wearing vacant expressions and semi-automatic rifles, lined up against the fence along the back end. They didn’t move, but they watched, and the watching made Barry uneasy. Finally Pop went to take care of it. Sunny sat on the steps outside the office, drinking a Coke with the rum that she’d stolen from Ma’s cabinet, and watched her father walk straight into gunfire. Then the world went dark.
And now the Locals are everywhere. They come in droves during the day, surrounding the fairground fences with their vacant eyes and AR-15s. They never strike-at least they haven’t yet-but they watch, and they stare, and sometimes they yell. They yell terrible things in booming voices that echo across the lot. For Sunny, the yelling is the worst.
“I was thinking,” Sunny says.
“I thought I smelled burning brain.”
“Maybe we should try again. If we take just one of the vans-”
“I know that you’re-”
“I said no.” Elk’s jaw tenses. Sunny knows that he’s thinking about that day in June.
They never fully understood that the world wasn't theirs any longer until Katherine and Ma tried to step outside the front end gates. Until that day, all they were certain of was that the temporary shelter-in-place order was statewide. And they’d been to towns with no cell phone service before, so losing it then wasn’t any cause for alarm. They knew by then how dangerous the Locals were. But they were desperately low on supplies, and Katherine, beautiful young fair-haired Katherine, had a way about her. She thought that the Locals would surely understand. She thought that there must be some spark of decency left inside them. She thought she could reason with them if she just appealed to their humanity.
“You can’t go,” Elk had pleaded.
“You’re not the boss of me,” Katherine had replied through the brilliantly beautiful smile that melted his heart and filled Sunny with pangs of jealousy.
“I love you so very much,” Elk said.
“Everything will be fine. You’ll see,” Katherine said.
Katherine was wrong.
And Ma...Ma was just collateral damage.
Then they understood that they wouldn’t be leaving this place. Not without a fight. And they were desperately unprepared and ill-equipped for a fight like this.
There is a low whistling sound somewhere in the distance. Every muscle in Sunny’s body tenses. Elk grabs her arm and pulls her upwards in one swift motion. He puts a finger to Sunny’s lips and pulls a silver pistol from his back pocket. Sunny wills herself to stay completely still as the whistling sound comes closer. She looks at Elk, sure that her eyes are going to burst from the sockets. His entire face is full of a fear that Sunny has never seen in him.
“They can’t see us they can’t see us it’s not real it’s not real,” Sunny screams over and over inside her head.
But it is real.
A Local-male, maybe mid-20s-stares up at them. His eyes are lifeless, but there is a ghastly grin on his pale lips. He is holding the hand of a young, beautiful, fair-haired girl who used to have a brilliantly beautiful smile before she walked away and became one of Them.
“Hey, babe,” says the Local in a raspy, flat voice. “Lookie here. Goddamn Liberal Zombies out after dark. Two of ‘em. You ever shot two Liberal Zombies together?”
“No, babe,” says Katherine. “But I sure would like to.”