Every time the boy died, Xan felt nothing.
Boy. Olyvyr Gravine had hardly been a boy at twenty-seven years old. Yet despite his six-one frame and the extra pounds concentrated at his midsection, the scruff of facial hair, something about him always seemed immature to Xan. His eyes had all the brightness of a first grader at recess; his hands moved with uninhibited enthusiasm when he spoke and his foot tapped on the floor in time with his words. He squirmed when he sat and fidgeted when he stood. When he gave his name during the filmed interrogation, he spelled it with emphasis on the unusual letters. O-L-Y-V-Y-R. Like it mattered. Then he sat back and beamed at the detectives, pleased that he wasn’t some common, garden-variety Oliver that they could meet on any street corner.
Xan had taught two Olivers in his decade as a junior high school English teacher. One had been a sober black kid who nailed every assignment and the extra credit as well. He’d gone on to graduate from the local high school as its salutatorian and then went off to college. The second Oliver was a redheaded rapscallion who frequently interrupted Xan’s lessons and then clapped his hand over his mouth in apology. Impulsive but harmless, he had gotten a job at the Brain Freeze a few years later and always bellowed, “MR. SPENCER!” in pure glee whenever Xan and Katie came in for milkshakes and fries.
We could get two milkshakes if you want your own.
No, Daddy! I like to share!
They hadn’t made it to the other side of the contagion. Xan read the lists compulsively, and neither of his Olivers appeared. None of his students were on those pages. Either dead or roaming hell, all one thousand plus of them that had once taken notes and whispered to friends, passed their homework to the front and fled out the door at the bell. The good ones, the bad ones, the smart ones, the dumb ones, the sweet and the sharp, the timid and blustering, all gone. Olyvyr had destroyed them for no reason that made sense to anyone above the age of six.
Yes, Olyvyr Gravine was young. A boy’s soul trapped in a man’s body, and it betrayed itself in his doughy form with the childish restlessness, the inability to listen to a detective’s question all the way through before leaping in to answer. Xan had watched the interview many times now, and different aspects of it caught his attention at each viewing. The big smile on Olyvyr’s face when he was offered a soda. The little boy giggles when he described how well his genetically modified parasites had worked. The open hurt when he listed the petty grievances he had collected in twenty-seven years. The pride in his brilliance; the mocking of everyone else’s lack of it.
The television in the hospital’s empty waiting room was playing it, so Xan found himself watching it yet again. It was the first anniversary of Olyvyr’s execution. The program was on mute, words flickering in block print along the bottom of the screen. The boy-man’s twitches and squirming were all the more evident without the sound to distract. He could not stay still. He could not stay still. When the sound was on, the chair beneath him was constantly squeaking.
He was nothing if not engaging, even with the sound off. He wanted the detectives to understand. Cuffed hands flying, body leaning forward, eyes wide and sincere, that they understood was clearly very important to him. They nodded and laughed and gave consoling looks to encourage him. Inside that little room with gray walls, they were just guys kicking back for a nice chat with their pal Olyvyr. Outside, their wives and children and siblings and parents were dead because of him. Xan couldn’t have played buddy-buddy in that room. He would have smashed Olyvyr’s head into that table until it cracked like an egg under his hands. For Katie. For College Oliver and Brain Freeze Oliver, for Colette and Xan and seven billion others. He wasn’t a violent person, but he wouldn’t have been able to control himself.
On the screen, the overgrown boy was accepting his soda. The detective had popped the top for him. Picking it up awkwardly, Olyvyr drank as his foot tapped silently on the leg of the table. It was the part of the interview where he was asked why. Psychologists had had a field day with diagnosing him off his answer. Antisocial personality disorder. Narcissistic personality disorder. Borderline personality disorder. Schizotypal personality disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Bipolar affective disorder. Of the grab bag of psychological dysfunctions, he was a hoarder. He also had an IQ over 180, information that he dropped with the same emphasis with which he had spelled his name. One-eighty-two. He was the clapper that rang the bell curve and shook everyone else off.
The door to the waiting room opened and pulled Xan’s attention away from the screen. Tension gathered in his shoulders to join all of the knots already there. A nurse looked around at the empty seats, eyes skimming over Xan in disinterest. Then she grimaced at the face on the television and closed the door. Xan relaxed a little. Lucca had gone into surgery not that long ago. It was too early to come seeking Xan and Colette for anything, unless he had been put under and promptly expired.
Katie was born perfect. Lucca was not. But they were fixable defects, as the pediatric team had rushed to say upon diagnosis. His heart was a mess of stenosis and displacements and hypertrophy and a hole, but total repair was possible. Perioperative mortality was very low. Most of these kids sailed through their open-heart surgeries and came out the other side to lead normal lives with good cardiac function. Some even became athletes. Almost all of them needed further repair as adults on the pulmonary valve. Not as big a deal as it sounds.
Clap on the back. Your boy is going to be okay.
But what if he isn’t?
Shake of the hand. You’ll be tossing around the old pigskin with him before you know it.
I don’t care about football. I just want him to live.
They had had to wait a little longer for the surgery, because the lone cardiac surgeon had to do a circuit between the settlements. Before Olyvyr Gravine spawned his contagion, Xan would have put the baby in his carrier, filled the tank with gas, and driven to any hospital in the United States. That was no longer an option. He hadn’t been outside of Newgreen in over two years. It was hundreds of miles of hell between Newgreen and Meatfarm, and another long stretch of hell from Meatfarm to Fueltown. The states had ceased to exist. The world had ceased to exist. And the reason was on the television screen, enjoying another draught of his soda and asking for a second when he set it down.
That must have been so hard. The words on the screen belonged to a detective, who was nodding sympathetically to Olyvyr Gravine’s first grievances. Detective Alan Bishop’s wife had been home with their two-year-old twin boys when it happened.
The door opened again and Xan looked up. It was Colette, who had gone down to the cafeteria. She sat down beside him and passed over a plate of salad and fruit. They didn’t speak. When your baby son was in surgery, there was nothing to say. Just to breathe felt like a jinx to Xan, like he was taking away something that his son needed. Colette noticed the interview and made the same face that the nurse had. But she didn’t change the channel to something more pleasant. If she relaxed, if she laughed, if she forgot for even a second where they were and why, Lucca might die.
With an IQ of one-eighty-two, Olyvyr had voiced his first word at four months old, according to family myth, and was speaking in whole sentences before he turned one. By two, he was reading kindergarten-level books. No one had taught him to read. He had taught himself. He picked up the basics of mathematics not long after that. His fourth birthday found him reading classics that high school students would groan to see on the syllabus. He remembered everything he read and heard, and collected a host of odd interests for the preschool set: science and geography, world events and computers.
His mother was proud and bragged even to complete strangers in the street. His father was jealous and hid in the garage to build model cars. His pediatrician was astonished and recommended testing. It bore out what was obvious: Olyvyr Gravine was a profoundly gifted child.
And he knew it. Some gifted kids resented how their cleverness singled them out. Olyvyr reveled in his specialness, and resented those who couldn’t keep up. That was everyone in his kindergarten class, including a frustrated teacher who just wanted her twenty charges to color their butterflies for Parent-Teacher Night and not engage in a long argument about why the activity was stupid. In his interview, the adult Olyvyr laughed at the memory. He’d won the argument in the end by threatening to cut the dumb bitch open with his blue plastic scissors to make a butterfly out of her skin. She sent him to the principal’s office as a classroom of shocked five-year-olds gasped. His mother had also laughed about the incident, he recalled. Boys will be boys, and just as amazing as Olyvyr’s atmospheric intelligence was Lily Gravine’s blindness that anything could be wrong with her son. She was convinced that he was going to cure cancer, and in preemptive gratitude for the boons his genius would grant humanity, she indulged his every whim.
Other people were not so blind, and that was Olyvyr’s first grievance with the world. The kids in his class didn’t want to play with him, or share the same table with him at lunch. They hated how he always knew the answer, and how he laughed when they got it wrong. They picked fights with him on the playground, fights which Olyvyr usually won, and hated him even more for winning. They tattled when he read books covertly during naptime, and filled up their mouths with water at the fountain to spit it on him.
They didn’t know how much better he was than they were. Oh, they knew he was smarter, that his depths showed up their shallowness, but he was better and they didn’t recognize it. They were too stupid to be his friends. If they had been smarter, they would have looked up to him as a leader. His mother battled with the teacher about coming up with a special curriculum just for him, and then with the principal to skip him ahead a few grades. The principal resisted, feeling that Olyvyr was academically brilliant but socially inept, and the problems would only intensify in a higher grade. He wasted away the whole year in that kindergarten class, and when his birthday rolled around at the beginning of June, his mother planned a party for his whole grade and only three kids came. It was supposed to be a grand bash with a bouncy house and a magician, a designer cake and goody bags chockfull of candy and little toys. Stuff for stupid kids. Stuff that would make Olyvyr worshipped as was his due. To have a guest count of three humiliated him, and he never forgot it.
“Poor baby,” Colette mumbled in utter loathing as she read the screen. Then she took a book out of the donation box at random and opened it as she ate her fruit. Katie had inherited much more of Colette than she had of Xan, but her hazel eyes had been his. Lucca was a half-and-half mix, Xan’s coloring but Colette’s chin, her hands but his long toes.
Sometimes it was hard for Xan to look at Colette when he had been thinking too much of Katie. That happened a lot in the gardens when there was nothing else to think about. There was no school for him to teach, no crowd of busy heads to wrangle. There were no more syllabi or due-on-Friday, no more bells or I-can’t-talk-when-you’re-talking scolds. Appreciation of literature was secondary to a full stomach, and the hundred thousand residents of the Newgreen settlement had to earn their meat and power, medicine and clothes.
They earned those things by pumping crops from the mounds of soil on the city’s streets and rooftops, packing the excess into truck convoys, and sending it through hell to Meatfarm. Meatfarm took their share and sent the rest back into hell and on to Fueltown, and it went on to Factory and the Power Rangers depots and the Collection Agency, and all around the circuit until everything was gone or zombies overtook it.
He had dirt packed under his nails for the first time since childhood mud pies, and his skin that burned all through his boyhood years had burned and burned in the gardens until it gave up and tanned. Xan was sorry at times to live in Newgreen. What beef and pork came from Meatfarm didn’t last the time between convoys, leaving them to salad and fruit, and occasional chicken. Newgreen did have those for livestock. He’d never liked to eat the fatty skin before.
He liked it now. He craved it. In the short time that he had been a zombie, he had craved another kind of meat.
No. He wouldn’t think about that. He stared at the television resolutely, his stomach churning and a prickle of water appearing under his tongue. He swallowed it and pushed a forkful of salad into his mouth, chewed it into a glop and forced it down his throat. Colette dropped the book into the box and plucked out another one.
From that disastrous kindergarten year, Olyvyr was skipped ahead to second grade and had an even more disastrous year. He couldn’t beat up these kids quite so handily and he spent every recess on the bench for talking out of turn in class. For math, he was allowed to go to the third grade and sit in on their lessons. He wasn’t challenged there either. While they floundered with times tables and basic division, he was whipping through algebra workbooks. He should have been placed in the sixth grade, he whined to the detectives. Actually, he should have been in college. But his father left the model cars in the garage just long enough to argue against any more academic advancement. Tim Gravine said that Olyvyr wasn’t ready, which was true, but it was also true that he didn’t want his son to shine. He enrolled Olyvyr in sports, where the boy encountered an area of life in which he was not instantly its master. No, he was just average, and it goaded him to stand by invisibly as other boys were applauded for their speed and strength. Highly belligerent and critical, he was the antithesis of a team player. Coaches loathed his attitude, his poor sportsmanship, his whining and crying and badgering. His tantrums grew so extreme on the field that his father was embarrassed and retreated again to the garage. The adult Olyvyr being interviewed didn’t bring up his tantrums, but his peewee baseball coach had survived the contagion and was currently living in Factory. Twenty years after having him on the team, the man remembered bratty little Olyvyr Gravine with crystal clarity and was more than happy to disparage him to anyone who would listen.
The door to the waiting room opened. A man and woman came in and took seats. Then the man noticed the face on the screen. Swiftly standing, he crossed the room and snapped off the television set. Then he reconsidered and looked at Xan. “Uh . . . sorry, man. Okay with you if that’s not on?”
“It’s okay,” Xan said. He knew it by heart.
“Anything but that,” the man mumbled, and went back to his chair.
Katie hadn’t been gifted at sports, but what she lacked in talent, she made up for with enthusiasm. When she was three, Xan had taken her to swimming lessons. She was the first off the ledge and into the pool where he was waiting. The college-age instructor had said to her, “You’re brave!” as the other children mewled nervously at their parents, floaties on their chubby arms bright in the summer sunshine. Xan loved that memory of her joyous leap, pigtails flying, her knees tucked up and eyes scrunched shut as she soared through the air to splash down right in front of him. She had not been a fearless child by any stretch, but she held a rock-solid belief that if Xan was there, nothing bad could happen to her.
Until she was eight, that was true.
Whenever he remembered that he hadn’t wanted her at first, he cringed. He had been furious when Colette said that she was pregnant, and that she couldn’t bear to get an abortion. The two of them weren’t even officially dating. Each had a full plate of responsibilities at work, friends and half a dozen different hobbies to keep up with in their free time, so arranging a date to get together took nimble maneuvering on their cell phone schedules. But every now and then in their very busy lives, they would look at each other across the lunchroom or during yet another asinine staff meeting and connect. Then everything fell off their respective schedules as he went to her house or she came to his, and the connection was lightning between them. They ground themselves to dust in bed and went their separate ways until the next time. Something about the staff meetings always set them off, the tediousness, the self-important speeches, the boredom and creeping clock, and afterwards they ignited.
She hadn’t known the antibiotics she was on to clear up an infection would reduce the effectiveness of her birth control pills, and quite a different connection had happened. She wasn’t asking for anything from him, marriage or money or even congratulations. He could be involved or not, as little or as much as he wanted, and that was that.
He retreated. This had just been for fun all along, and suddenly it wasn’t fun at all. He picked up another half dozen hobbies and groused at his friends about how he’d been stripped of all control in this decision. Her family was thrilled; his was nonexistent. He showed up at the birth nine months later, ridden with anxiety and resentful, and wasn’t overcome with anything resembling love when the doctor handed him the baby. It was just a baby, red-faced and squalling like every baby on the face of the planet. Colette and Katie went home the next day, and a whole week passed before he figured that he should visit.
“Babies aren’t very interesting,” he confessed guiltily after watching Katie while Colette took a shower and a nap.
He expected indignant maternal protestations, or dewy stories about how watching a baby eat, sleep, and poop was the most fascinating activity on the planet. Colette shrugged wearily and said, “They get interesting later. You just have to wait this part out.”
Slowly, the anger ebbed. He visited every week and then twice a week, bringing over something for dinner and taking out the trash. As promised, Colette never asked him for anything. It was he who noticed the rummage-sale baby clothes and hand-me-down stroller, the second notice on Colette’s electric bill when he brought in the mail. One day, it hit him like a hammer blow. It wasn’t hormones. Or maybe it was. Katie didn’t really feel like his child, but she was and why was he treating her like a poor relation? She was just as good as any other baby girl he’d encountered, and actually she was quite a bit better. She was cute and squashy and had a placid temperament, and sometimes it was more fun to hang out with Colette and Katie in the evening than it was to hit the bar after another soccer game and listen to Jenner and Koby go on and on about the chicks they’d banged and the chicks they were banging and the chicks they would like to bang. That had gotten old even before Katie came along, but that was what they had always done together, so Xan had continued to do it for no other reason than familiarity. He pared down his activities and in embarrassment offered Colette a check one day. She said he didn’t have to give it, but he wanted to. His daughter, their daughter, should have everything.
He just didn’t know how to be a parent. Xan’s own father was months shy of sixty years old by the time Xan was born, and a heart attack not long after that reduced him to a shadow in the home. Xan’s mother had tried to get pregnant for twelve years before having Xan at forty-five. And for all that money she dished out on reproductive assistance drugs and care, all the effort she’d expended on seeing those two blue lines on the pee stick, she had gotten less and less interested in her son as he grew up. She had done it for a baby, and he didn’t stay that way for long. He didn’t have sordid stories of abuse to relate to a therapist, just benign neglect. Then she died when Xan was in fifth grade, fell asleep behind the wheel coming back from a girls’ night with her friends and propelled herself into a tree. All Xan had after that was his old man, his very old man that people mistook for his grandfather, and his dad didn’t have the energy to do much more than ferry himself to doctor appointments and swallow pills, let alone attend Parent-Teacher Nights or host birthday parties. Again, it was benign neglect. Xan had food and shelter and clothing. There were presents under the tree, all of it ordered online and set up by the once-a-week maid. His father didn’t drink or beat him or hate him. He meant well, but he didn’t have much to give emotionally or physically. Then he died of a second heart attack when Xan was eighteen. So when it came to his own child, he was making this up as he went along.
And slowly, Katie got interesting. She was funny and sweet and smart. Not brilliant, but there was a good little brain chugging away in there. She had a quality that Xan prized far more than sky-high intelligence, and that was kindness. Even as a two-year-old, she would break her cookies and crackers into clumsy halves. One for her and one for Daddy. After she learned how to swim, she paddled about the whole pool to rescue ladybugs bobbing helplessly on the surface of the water. Her first grade teacher adored her, and as the small tasks of picking up the milk cartons, wiping down the boards, and changing the date on the calendar rotated between students, Katie held a permanent position as Classroom Friend. She had had a graceful soul.
God had needed to filter a little less intelligence and a little more kindness into Olyvyr Gravine. But He hadn’t. Another prickle of water appeared under Xan’s tongue. He had dim, very dim memories after his infection. He wanted them to stay dim. For three days he had been a resident of hell, and then someone had shot him with the antidote. He’d come back to himself and been driven to Newgreen with a handful of others. Impossibly, Colette was there. He had literally screamed when he ran into her a week later, and they had fallen into each other’s arms and not let go since. Most people had no one. To have one familiar face among a sea of strangers was priceless. On rare occasions, someone recognized a name of a friend or family member on the updated lists from other settlements. That was the only time a regular person was allowed a trip through hell on a truck convoy. Those were restricted to specialized medical teams and commerce.
Was it commerce when there was no exchange of money? The closest they had was tokens. Everyone was just trying to survive.
Xan and Colette had never shared a home until now. It was only an apartment, but they were lucky, so lucky to have a working, private bathroom. That wasn’t something that Xan had ever appreciated before, and some settlements didn’t have that luxury. Running water was a miracle. Clean water was a miracle, too. And the moat that encircled Newgreen was holy. Zombies wouldn’t cross over bodies of water. He had been one of them once, but he didn’t remember the reason for that aversion. He was just glad afterwards that it existed. Many of the settlements had moats, or were strategically positioned between rivers. Meatfarm had neither, but was so out of the way that zombies rarely wandered in that direction. Still, the community was heavily guarded at its periphery, with several lines of barbed wire fences, land mines seeded in the earth, and attack dogs. The scent of blood drew zombies like a magnet, and Meatfarm was a slaughterhouse.
Lots of things drew zombies. Blood. Movement. Sound. That was a dim memory of Xan’s, seeing a vehicle passing him and shambling after it. Motion was life. Life was meat. Meat was good.
The other couple in the waiting room discussed in low tones that it was going to be a while before they had any news, and then they left for the cafeteria. Xan turned the television back on. The sound of Olyvyr’s resentful voice came with it. “-said no. They always said no. They’d pant after every dumb jock in the school, shake their asses and drop their panties, but not for me. They just saw a kid. They’d wear those slutty little skirts and low tops, make me want them and then say no. Stupid. They were stupid and thought they were smart. I thought they should know how stupid they were.”
He sat back in his squeaking chair with a sulky look at the high school girls who had spurned him, and Xan recalled beautiful Melody Branger in his sophomore year. He’d gathered up his courage and asked her out in the passing period one day, only to have her scoff at him and walk away to giggle about it with her friends. Xan went home to lick his wounds, and tried again later on with another girl. It hadn’t occurred to him to take a gun to school to avenge himself, or to design a crippling disease to use as a weapon that would get back at all women, and all men who were taking attention away from glorious him. He wasn’t a sociopath with a one-eighty-two IQ.
He had lost Katie to this man, and he might lose Lucca. Birth defects had risen in the last two years, although the evidence was anecdotal. No one knew if it was due in some way to Olyvyr Gravine’s gift to the world, yet what other cause could there be?
On the screen, the detectives nodded and nodded like bobblehead dolls to keep the guy going. Poor Olyvyr, denied friends in elementary school and girls in high school, consumed by his mother’s adulation and his father’s rejection. Poor Olyvyr, who wasn’t any more popular in the college classes he audited at night, and who was never chosen for an article in Incredible Kids magazine. Xan used to keep copies of that in his classroom for students who finished a test early and had nothing else to do. He didn’t know anything about how the editorial staff of Incredible Kids had selected their featured subjects, but none of those youthful physicists and artists and musicians had ever come across as quite so full of themselves as Olyvyr. They didn’t drop their IQ into conversation every chance they got, and all of them were doing something with their intellectual gifts. Olyvyr had a science lab in the guest bedroom at home, but he hadn’t accomplished anything worthy of an article about it. Chemicals and equipment, all of that cost more money than his family had, and his father took a perverse pleasure in giving him sports-related paraphernalia as gifts and sabotaging his scientific work. Turning on lights over experiments that had to be kept in darkness. Turning off timers that Olyvyr had set for a reason. Filling up his Christmas stocking with season tickets to basketball. Cast aside over and over again for a son that existed only in his father’s imagination, Olyvyr felt the sting keenly.
“Xan, please mute it,” Colette whispered as Olyvyr tapped and squeaked and continued his barrage of silly grievances to the fathers of children that he had killed. They weren’t silly to him. They were deadly insults.
Xan turned off the sound and read. So then I decided to get back.
Out there somewhere, if she wasn’t dead, Katie was roaming. His baby girl. If the antidote wasn’t given within days of the infection, the alterations to the brain became permanent. It had been two years. Whether she was dead or a zombie, she was gone.
There hadn’t been enough time to make the antidote for everyone. Olyvyr had made a stock of it, imagining that he was going to load it into tranquilizer darts and shoot only beautiful women to keep in a haven with him. One man. Two hundred women. Paradise. Frantic efforts by those who hadn’t been infected created more of the antidote. It was by chance that Xan had been shot and cured.
It took me ten years, said the words on the screen.
That’s a long time, Olyvyr, exclaimed an impressed detective. I couldn’t have put ten years into a science project!