Each night, the people with thoughts and ideas and life file into the abandoned tunnels of Casanoire's subway system. There is a routine to their filing and where they go within the system. Some areas are lively with youth, parents, grandparents, whereas other areas are void of joy with single people finding ways to disconnect from life. Their happiness is lost and is swallowed within the hoards of undead loved ones wondering topside the moment the sun dips below the horizon.
Bean, one of the single souls, asks the dank air around him, “Why does the sun repel them and were do the go during the day?”
“You've asked that question every night for the last three months,” says a bearded man sitting and leaning against a wall under a subway light reading a book. “This is a quiet area. Go to where your question will be answered by those who have tried to change these dark times.”
“I am alone. It is not acceptable for me to go where there is laughter.”
“Bah, if you are curious, then you have something left. Something in you that seeks human companionship. Go and leave me to my reading and my dark thoughts.”
Bean wanders further down the darkened tunnel. Many who wander the tunnels hold a light through the darker passages where the subway lights have burned out. Before him, he can see spots and specks of light. He looks down another tunnel after becoming tired of hearing the single people mumbling to themselves about the past or the snores of those who choose to sleep away the twelve dark hours of life below ground. He seeks absolute solitude.
He chooses to turn down a tunnel which doesn’t have specks of lights and the subway lights are so rare there is barely a glow to guide him. This lack of light and evidence of people reminds him of his life up top. He is always alone living in his parent’s house two blocks from the metro blue line. When the fog that changed people into zombies descended on Casanoire, he was sixteen. He still wonders why some people changed and others didn’t. Why was he spared and his entire family changed?
He stops when he hears a tune floating in the stale air. The music is followed by the sounds of voices. Darkness is before him and looking back all he sees is darkness from where he has entered the tunnel. He walks forward toward the sound. Recognizing the instrument that made the sound, he hesitates again. His mother did play piano every spare moment she had and the distinct sound of a piano being played bounced off the tunnel walls. Every day when he leaves the house to go to the tunnels, he walks by the piano. Bean has never been tempted to sit and tap the keys since the fog took his family away.
A faint glow beckons him on and when he turns a corner the sound of revelry and a golden warm light is in front of him. He thinks the man with the beard is right about his curiosity and walks toward the noise and glow. Before anyone can see him, he puts his back to the wall and slithers closer. He isn’t quite ready to be seen.
Before him are dazzling chandeliers hanging off poles, girls in beaded knee-length gowns, and food displayed on a table that he only remembers from his childhood. Since the zombie fog, he eats gray food for his morning and evening meal, which is served at state-run dispensaries.
Bean watches a girl in a pink and silver dress moves about the room with ease talking to everyone in turn. Off to the side and almost out of the light, a group of musicians plays. Bean can see the piano and a man in a tux who plays it. The other three musicians play saxophone, oboe, and a standing bass.
The melody draws a girl wearing long black gloves near the musicians, and she begins to sing. Her voice is echoing off the walls. The crowd stops their conversations and listen to her though she doesn’t sing words. She sings vowels sounds that punctuate the melody. People sway and drink out of cut crystal glasses.
“You should join us,” says a voice. Bean is startled and bangs his head on the wall behind him.
“I was only watching. I’ll leave now.” He starts to walk back down the dark tunnel.
The girl catches him in two steps and grabs his elbow. “No, really join us. There’s plenty and the fun has just begun.”
“I’m a single soul. I don’t have fun.” The laughter around her eyes makes him wish he wasn’t a loner.
“We were all once alone after the fog. Now, well, join us and see.”
She is the girl that moved within the crowd with ease. The way she invites him makes him feel it is ok that he isn’t in a tux or feel ashamed that he had been watching them.
“I’m Snowflake. What’s your name?” she asks as she hooks her arm around his and pulls him into the light.
“Bean,” he mumbles as his stomach growls when he catches a whiff of the food.
“Yes, it does smell lovely.” She smiles at him and he relaxes a bit. “Grass, Stick. Come, meet Bean.”
The girl finishes her song and the musicians begin a new tune. Two boys, who look like twins in their tuxes rush toward them.
“Bean. Is it?” Bean nods and Snowflake lets go of his arm and is grabbed around the waist at the same moment the boy extends his hand. Bean shakes it. “I’m Grass and this is Stick.”
Stick extends his hand. “Let’s get you a drink and some grub. You look like you’ve had too much of that gray gruel.”
Bean drinks whiskey for the first time. He chews every morsel of food slowly enjoying the tastes and texture of food not ground into a paste. Most every one of the crowd takes a moment to say hi to him and their names float by him. He listens to conversations and even cracks a smile at a few jokes. Just when he thinks the evening couldn’t get any better, the girl who had sung walks up to him.
“Hi, I’m Pineneedle. Snowflake told me you're Bean. I saw you watching me sing. Did you like it?” Bean nods and watches her take off the black gloves. “I wish I could come up with words to sing. A song will call to me and I must sing with it.”
“It was lovely.” And as much as he was captured by her vocalizations, he is now entranced by her laughing black eyes. He is a full foot taller than her, but her presence seems to fill the entire lit space.
The moment is broken when Stick stands on a chair and announces,“It’s time!”
“Time for what?” Bean leans toward Pineneedle and asks.
“Time to go up top.” She takes his hand and Bean curls his fingers around her hand. It is the first time he has felt the warmth of skin against skin since his mother kissed his cheek to say good night on the evening when the fog rolled over Casanoire. His head blocks out all other sensations and he can almost feel their molecules colliding.
He snaps out of the sensation when the group starts to ascend the stairs.“The sun is not up.”
“Hush, Bean,” Snowflakes says as she and Grass pass him. “The musicians are leading. The music will protect us.”
After the Zombie Fog, those who were infected leave their houses on their morning routines and never return. Bean waited in his house for two weeks not knowing where his parents had gone. During the first two days, he enjoys his freedom of having the house to himself. He plays hooky from school not knowing that it had been shut down. The thrill of playing AfferentBoxY consumes his days. When he finally decides to turn on the TV, he is inundated with warning messages about how to live now that the zombie apocalypse has actually occurred. That night before dusk a van rides through the streets announcing that all citizen of Casanoire should head to the subway tunnels where they will be safe from the zombies.
While these thoughts about the first days of living without parents and discovery of the horrors of zombies replay through his mind, Bean clasps Pineneedle’s hand tighter and pulls her closer to the musicians. He wants to make sure that he is well within the protection of the music. The group is ascending the last set of stairs before they will be on the street.
“The first time I adventured out after dark,” says Pineneedle, “I saw my zombie brother, Dirt. He was sitting with a zombie dog. They were eating something so bloody that I couldn’t tell what it was.” She draws in a quick breath.
Bean brushes away a tear from Pineneedle’s cheek and then keeps pushing forward to get directly behind the band. “Then, why leave the tunnels. Why? And, and, how did they discover that music protected people?”
“Grass was the first. There were only five of us then and one was the Oboe player, Maize, who followed Grass. Maize was so nervous he couldn’t stop playing. That’s how they discovered that live music repels zombies.”
“What about recorded music? You probably tried that, right?”
They stepped out onto the street and Bean saw first hand how music pushes the zombies away from them. “It works! But, Pineneedle, why leave the subway tunnels?”
“First of all, we did try recorded music and it works but not as well. They don’t go as far away from the sound as with musicians playing. And, Bean, we leave because look up.”
The group has stopped at a park, which is next to the subway stop. Bean looks up and sees stars like he had never seen before. It was dark all around him. The city lights haven’t been turned on in years.
“Yeah, It’s cool to see the stars,” said Stick. “But the real reason we leave the tunnels--”
Grass is now standing next to Bean. "We don’t have a reason, Stick. It’s not to see the stars; it’s not to kill zombies like we did in the first few weeks, it’s not to find a way out of Casanoire, and it’s not to discover where the zombies go during the day.”
“We leave the tunnels because living in the tunnels is boring,” finishes Snowflake.
“But,” says Bean feeling confused. “You live in the tunnels? You don’t leave in the daylight?”
Pineneedle smiles at him. “Why would we? To stand in lines for gray paste? Spend our days doing what? Civilization is dead.”
“Let’s go, guys. We’re going to find Bean more suitable clothes,” says Snowflake.
“And a bike shop,” says a boy Bean hadn’t met yet.
The group organized themselves with an instrument at each corner. Stick pulls out a harmonica and begins to play and leads the group. Bean still curious about the hows and whys marches on thinking there might be answers in wandering the streets.
Three weeks later, Bean is still with the group and each night they have a new adventure out among the zombies of Casanoire. He hasn’t been back to his house or back down to the tunnel where the old man sits reading. During the second week, when he sees a particularly gruesome sight of five zombies gnawing on bloody bits and recognizes one bit as a human foot, he thinks about telling the old man about his new life. He wants to play the man a song he has learned on the ukulele he found in an alley and explain how each night ended with Pineneedle asleep in his arms.
Bean learns how the group acquires its food by bargaining with farmers who have started a black market on the edge of town. There is a new world that has developed since the five years he spent going from his house to the tunnels. The world that coexists with the zombies but hidden to the state and its method of dealing with the apocalypse. Tonight, he is particularly struck by how easy he has switched from one way of life to the next and wonders if anywhere in the world there is a ‘back-to-normal’ with schools and industry.
Pineneedle bounds up to him and kisses him quickly. “We’ve finished it and just in time. It’s so lovely!”
“The cake, silly.”
Cornhusk stands on the piano bench. “Tonight is a momentous occasion,” The crowd hollers and claps. “Tonight we celebrate Snowflake’s birthday. Grass, Stick, please present our gift to the lady of the evening.”
Grass and Stick walk in balancing a three-tiered cake decorated with pansies made of icing. There are dozens of candles, but they aren’t lit.
Snowflake squeals and gushes, “It’s so lovely. How did you ever, oh thank you, thank you.”
Grass and Stick set it on the table.
“Light the candles and tells us what you want to do tonight,” says Grass.
Stick lights one end of a foot long piece of thin wood and hands it to her. “Your wish is our command.”
The band plays a dramatic song as she lights the candles and when she is finished they stop.
Tears are running down her face. Grass goes to her side and puts his arm around her waist. She wipes away the tears. “I wish to see my house; I wish to see my bedroom.”
“You know that’s not a good idea, right,” says Stick looking concerned.
“Yeah, but that’s my wish.”
“Alright. After we eat cake, we will go to Dooley Street.” Grass hugs and kisses her.
Snowflake blows out a candle for each piece of cake she cuts which was the custom in Casanoire.
“Dooley street is the street my house is on. I went there every day after spending the night in the tunnel. Why is it bad to go there?" Bean asks Pineneedle while savoring the first bit of cake.
“Grass believes and I guess I do too that one should leave the past in the past. Snowflake hasn’t been back since two days after the fog when she met Grass in the tunnel. Didn’t it make you sad every time you entered your house void of a family?”
“No, I just shut out all thoughts of my parents once I knew that most of the world was zombies. I just existed until I wandered down this tunnel. Now, I’m living.”
“For five years you thought of nothing.”
“Yeah, I guess it is how I dealt with it.”
“Perhaps we shouldn’t go with them tonight.”
“Why? It isn’t near your neighborhood, is it?” Bean sets down the plate and looks into Pineneedle’s eyes.
“No.” Before she could explain further, Stick gathers up the group to leave.
Once they are in the neighborhood, someone yells, “Speech from the birthday girl.” And several others yelled, “Speech, Speech.”
Grass puts Snowflake up on his shoulders. The band quiets though they continue to play softly and a few zombies gather closer than Bean likes.
“Thank you for this lovely evening. Behind me is my house. Isn’t it lovely? It has been in my dreams lately and I feel like if I don’t wonder through it one last time.” She sniffled. “I will-- it will haunt me. Thank you again.” Grass pulls her off his shoulders and Snowflake, Grass, and the Oboe player walk toward the house.
Bean watches one particular Zombie lumber toward him. Staring at the gray face and bulging left eye, there is something familiar he recognizes in the face.
When Stick says, “Band, a little louder, I think our zombie friends are getting too close,” Bean strums his ukulele and chokes back a cry.
“What’s wrong Bean?” asks Pineneedle.
“That’s my mom,” he says in an almost inaudible whisper.
His mom moves closer despite the music.
Bean stops his strumming. “What is it, mom?”
"It said piano. I swear I heard it say piano,” the boy nearest to his mom says.
The Bass player moves his standing bass, which has a wheel attached to the bottom, toward it and plucks a riff. Bean watches his mom back away and then she moves toward his house.
“Bean. She’s going,” says Pineneedle.
Bean sobs, “Piano, she said piano. She played piano though not when I was home because I was playing it. I was a prodigy. I didn’t even look at it after the fog.”