by RYAN DANIEL BUELL
artwork by MIKE SNYDER
Usually in life there’s some kind of pattern, a shape, something that makes it all make sense. Not here. There is no shape, no life. It’s a dead zone, see? I mean, I know it’s New York and all. I’m not stupid. I can see the Empire State Building. But it’s different. I’m different.
Then there’s all the liveys trying to steal your soul. They’re these massive black things, with really big overcoats covering them shoulder to foot, and there’s like a cloud of smoke surrounding them. One’s bad enough, but when they crowd around, it gets kinda frightening.
Not for me, I mean. Not anymore, anyway. Lately, I’m not scared of nothing. Can’t be. Not that I’m brave, that’s just how it has to be. Get scared and they get you. And then what? Well, they’re like vampires, man, psychic vampires that suck all the energy out of you.
“Take a look at the center of the city,” I say, pointing. “It’s all dark, know what I’m sayin’? Been like that since I got here. Not that there’s anything other than black or gray. It’s all like God forgot to turn on the colors.”
The kid’s scared, but he shakes his head. “I see red in the sky.”
He’s what? Sixteen? He tried to look tough until he realized he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Damn white boys always act tough, but very few of them live up to it. I try to be sensitive to my fellow human beings, but it’s not easy. Human beings. Those words go deeper these days, now that we have a common enemy. I’m a hero now, see? When I can, I save them from the liveys.
“Yeah, there’s some red,” I say.
I hate looking at the sky, but I do, I look. It has that reddish tint sometimes. No stars, though, only thunderclouds. Like I said, I’m not scared, but it’s spooky, know what I mean? I see faces up there, dead faces. And I’m not the only one. Malcolm, my main man, says he saw his wife and kids up there once. They were murdered before he came here. He doesn’t know by who. My guess is it was whoever’s behind all this, someone workin’ for the liveys,
As we look, a livey passes by. The white kid shivers.
“Calm down, son,” I tell him. “They can’t see you.”
He only arrived a few hours ago. Started out in shock, now he’s on the verge of tears, sitting there with his arms around his legs, close to sobbin’ and all that shit.
“How do you know?” he asks.
“They can only see you if their eyes are blue. If their eyes go blue, you run like a crazy moffo. Otherwise, calm down. Hear me?"
He sniffs and nods.
“What’s your name son?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. It’ll come to you. It takes a while.”
“How long did it take you to remember?”
Truth is it took days, maybe weeks. It’s that hard on you, see? But I don’t tell him that. “Ah, well, I’m a little different than most. I remembered fast, instantly. But that’s cool. Not everyone’s like me and Malcolm. That’s why we’re here, like guardian angels, a new family. My name’s Trevor by the way.”
He sits up and gives me a small smile. It was something at least.
And as long as he can move, it’s as good a time as any to take him to Malcolm. He’s better at explaining than I am anyway. We’re only a few blocks from his hideout, which is good because I’m not in the mood for walking long. Too many liveys are crawling around acting like they don’t have purpose, and I’ve had enough of them for now.
As we hoof it, the kid stares at the buildings. They’re all burning, shedding soot and glowing ash. They always do that. At first I thought they were on fire, but they’re not. They all just smoke like that and look old. It’s like a permanent war zone with alien enemies, see? Kind of like that movie, Independence Day.
That was the last movie I saw before I got here.
We get there fast enough and I call out, “Yo, Malcolm!”
Then I let out a few sneezes from the ash. “Got a new one. Still can’t remember nuthin’”
A familiar voice answers, “Nuthin’?”
Old as ever, he shuffles out from behind a smoky heap. Malcolm’s all ashy, looking as old as ever. His slight afro is so thick with soot I’m dying to grab his head and shake it clean.
He opens his mouth, showing a few black gaps where teeth used to be. “Guess we’ll call him Tommy. Sensible name for a little boy.”
“I ain’t no little boy,” the kid answers, showing some life. “I killed a man once.”
“Thought you couldn’t remember nuthin’,” I say, raising an eyebrow.
“I do now. Kinda. And I ain’t no little boy. I have a son, two years old. Elmer.”
“I’ll be damned,” says Malcolm. He sits and wipes caked dust from his dull eyes. “Kids havin’ kids.”
The boy balks. “I told you I ain’t no kid! I look at least as old as Trevor.”
I shake a finger at him. “Listen here, Tommy. You watch your mouth to Malcolm. Show him respect. He knows everything about everything here, and he saves us from the liveys. You remember the liveys?”
He does. His body stiffens and it looks like he might cry again. I nod. “That’s right. The liveys. They don’t come near here ‘cause of Malcolm.”
Tommy’s eyes narrow. “Then why’s he hidin’ behind a pile of crap?”
I can tell the kid’s tone annoys Malcolm, but he hides it. “Because they’re out to get me. And if I go, no one else survives. Plus, I was thinking. I like to be alone when I think. So don’t be getting all smarty on me.”
In the distance, a ball of red light shoots into the sky. Malcolm and I look at each other.
“I’ll take care of Tommy,” he says. “You go get ‘em before the liveys do.”
I don’t like it, but I nod and head back out. Hero’s work is never done, but man, I hate walking alone in the city. It gets so quiet, aside from settling ash, you get to feeling like any second something’s going grab, bite or kill you.
There ain’t many of us humans, the most I’ve seen at a time was five or so. There are way more liveys. Malcolm was here before me. He says a lot of us tried to leave the city.
I dunno what happened to them.
I walk about thirty minutes before I find the newbie. She’s layin’ on the ground in the middle of the street, like she jumped out of a window or something. She’s still in the in-between stage. It’s like our brains are put on pause, then we come here, someone hits the play button and it all starts up again.
I kneel next to her, and look at her eyes. It’s always fun to watch what happens next.
All at once, she screams and holds out her hands like she’s falling. It takes maybe three seconds before she realizes she’s not, that she’s on the solid ground.
When she looks up at me and it dawns on me she’s Goddamn beautiful, perfect body and almond eyes. Everything here is black-and-white, but I bet those eyes are hazel. I know for sure she’s blonde.
“Chill, babe,” I say. “I’m Trevor. Try to relax, but it’s time to move. I gotta get you out of here before the liveys show.”
I take her hand and notice some black ooze seeping from her wrist. She snatches her hand back, crawls up against the nearest wall and shivers.
“Where am I?”
“Hey, it’s cool. You’re in New York City.”
She looks around. “New York? What the fuck happened to this place?” Arms wrapped around her knees, she rocks and screams, “Oh my God, mommy! I’m so sorry! I want my mom! Oh my God, I’m so sorry!”
They’re like this sometimes.
“Calm down, girl,” I say, but she’s not listening.
“I want to go home! I want to see my mom!”
She moans. She moans in tears and sobs, asking why over and over . Why this? Why that? Then it’s like someone gives her morphine and she shuts the fuck up. Thank fucking Jesus Christ. Malcolm says I have to try to be caring, but I kinda get impatient.
After that, I didn’t get anything out of her. She’s in shock, like Tommy, but hers is the quiet version, see? The only thing for it is to take her to a busy spot, where the liveys hang. It’s kinda like throwin’ her in the deep end, know what I mean? But it works.
I never go alone, but I do when I have to bring someone else. Once we’re there, I wait, watching her shiver as the liveys come and go.
On the wall behind her there’s a broken bit of mirror. While I’m waiting, I go look into it. It’s not every day you get to see what you look like here. My dirty face still looks tough. Good. I’m still built too, a bit, enough, anyway. I pat my curly black hair. It doesn’t grow here, so I don’t have to worry about getting an afro or anything.
“What are those things again?” she asks.
“Liveys. But don’t worry about these now. What we need to do, girl, is find your body before they give you the rosebud and bury you.”
It’s a lot to take in. She’s still confused. “The rosebud?”
Malcolm’s better at this. “How about we talk about that later? We only have so much time.”
She’s weaker than Tommy was, more tired. I’m not sure the shock treatment is working. “Can we go somewhere warm first?” she asks.
I nod. “Yeah, I think I can arrange that.”
I take her to a place I know, a house-house, know what I mean? I break in all the time. It’s got a warm room with lots of light, a real pleasure in a world of cold and dark. It might do her some good. The only problem is that there’s another room down the hall, just one, and I’m not too keen on it. If its door is open, I don’t like to stay. If its shut, I’m fine.
Once we climb in through the window, she feels the bed and sits on it. Maybe she just needs some rest.
“Who’s place is this?” she asks.
“It belongs to a little girl. She’s a livey, but she don’t mind us most of the time. As long as you’re good, she won’t send for the others.”
“You never told me what they are,” she says. She lies down, exhausted. At least she’s calmer.
I shrug. “They’re things that come after humans, like you and me. They’re afraid of us and if they catch us they kill us. See, what I’m sayin’?”
“No,” she says softly.
“What are you doing in my room?”
The grunting voice makes her jump. A small livey stands by the door, so grey you almost can’t see her, except for her eyes. They glow blue, so I know she can see us.
“Hey, home girl. This is my friend, uh..” I look back, hoping the blonde will say her name, but then I realize she doesn’t remember it yet. Malcolm’s not around, so I make one up myself. “Jessica. Jessica, meet Dorothy.”
“She’s a girl,” Dorothy barks.
“Yeah, I know.”
“You’re not supposed to be in here, anymore. My mommy says you’re in hell!”
I change the subject. “So, Dorothy, how’re the other liveys treating you?”
She stamps her feet. “They’re mean! They won’t give me candy. And yesterday, they took away all my toys because I told them to burn.”
I rub my hands. “Hmm… how about we do some tricks on them?”
Dorothy thought for a second, then jumped and yelled in a deep, scratchy voice. “Okay! Jessica, do you want to go and play in my sisters room?”
The blonde answers slowly. “Oh? You have a sister?”
“Yeah, she was murdered, but I still play in her room. Come on!”
Jessica looks like she’s ready to follow, so I say, “No, Jessica, you don’t want to go in there.”
I point out the door, down the broken down hallway toward the room. It’s almost completely dark, stormy like the center of the city. “See? You don’t want to go in dark spots.”
I don’t think she understands.
Dorothy beckons her. “Oh, he’s afraid to go in, but he can if he wants! Come on, Trevor, you can throw things around and scare them!”
Jessica peers at the door. “Why are you afraid to go in there? It looks fine…“
“I’m not afraid, I just…” I can’t explain it, but I have to stop her. “Hey, Dorothy, you wanna see me scare those liveys?”
“I sure do!” Dorothy says.
Jessica furrows here brow. “I thought you said they were dangerous.”
“Yeah, but not Dorothy, and not these.”
We walk from the hall into a brighter gray where two liveys sit on a dusty couch. They’re nasty creatures, animals, really.
Dorothy stands in front of them and booms: “Mommy, I want a cookie!”
Panicked, they try to answer. “Nu-cookie-nu-cookie-nuh-nuh, nuh-nuh-cookie”
“I want a cookie! I want one now or I’ll kill you bastards! You fuckers!”
All the liveys are afraid of Dorothy, especially these two. She’s small, loud and pure evil, and her tantrum is my cue to mess with them. It’s part of the deal so I can use the bedroom. I grab a little box oozing blackness and throw it across the couch. The liveys duck and scream.
After that, I pick up one dusty object after another and hurl it. Dorothy stands there like she’s doing it with her mind, her blue eyes piercing the dullness. Needless to say, she got her cookie, or what she calls a cookie. The liveys leave screaming.
While Dorothy rampages around eating whatever it is she wants, I take Jessica back to the bedroom to sit. She’s not like Tommy at all. She’s still not looking any more awake. I’m not sure what to do.
“Why can’t we visit that room?” she says drowsily.
“Like I said, you don’t want to stay in the dark spots. You never know if they’re gates or not.”
“Yeah, gates. Gates to the Rosebud.”
“What’s the Rosebud?”
Talking isn’t helping, but it’s all I’ve got. “I dunno. Death. That’s what Malcolm says. He’s the guy who rescued me before they could bury me, so now I do the same for others.”
A moment of silence makes me think she’s done with the questions, but I’m wrong.
“Where are we?”
“I told you! New York City. Where do you think we are?”
She ignores my question. “No, this house. How do you know about it?”
“How do I know about it?” I kind of pause. With everything else to think about, no one’s ever asked. I look out at the door at the end of the hall. I never did get to know Dorothy’s sister much. But what happened, happened. I don’t want anyone getting any wrong impressions. I’m a hero now. I save people now. I save them from the Rosebud.
“I can’t remember,” I tell her. “Once some livelys caught me and tried to fry me. I must’ve gotten away, ‘cause I’m still here, still visiting.”
Something about Jessica’s look disturbs me. She has a lot of sadness in her face, like guilt, like she knows something I don’t. I don’t like it.
“How long have you been here?” Another question. I don’t even know. I don’t keep track. I don’t even try.
I sigh. “A long time, girl.”
At last, she falls asleep. Eventually, I do, too.
Guilgee! Guil-gee! Gui-tey!
I wake from the same dream I always have, my head spinning. It’s black all around. When I try to catch my breath, I see it, my worst nightmare – a livey wizard. It must be one of Dorothy’s liveys. She pushed them too far last night. Now they want me out.
The wizard holds up its stick. It burns and I groan in pain.
“Yo-gill, heave, whore, ebb err..Dee mon.”
“Jessica!” I scream. She stirs, sits up and stares in wonder at the monster attacking us.
It moves around the room. His eyes don’t glow, but he’s looking for us, I can tell. He can’t find us. He’s blind. They’re all blind, usually, but the stick is like fire. To be safe, I hide behind the bed.
Just in time. He’s not alone. There are two more, three altogether, all wizards. Man, I could deal with one, maybe. How do I survive three?
And it’s even worse. As the others enter, I see something I’ve never seen before. Blue eyes on a livey wizard. One of them can see us. Man, we’re doomed.
“Jessica, get down!” I shout. I grab and pull her. We lay on the ground in silence, hoping it won’t come after us. When I hear its footsteps closing in, I know I’m gonna to die.
It peers at us, bright blue eyes shining. Then it makes noises, talks in that horrible language of theirs: “Go in, peece, mhiey chil dh.”
It takes out a bottle of water, the stuff Malcolm says is deadly, that comes from the evil living in the Rosebud. I know lurch halfway under the bed, but Jessica doesn’t understand. She doesn’t move. When he sprinkles it , I see the drops trickle on her face.
I know it’s killed her. I’ve never seen it until now, but I know it’s killed her.
We rarely see colors here, but not too rarely to forget what they are. Where the poison water hit, there’s color, just a little, on her cheek and shoulder. Some hit her eye, too, and now she has one green, the other gray. It’s the most messed up thing I’ve ever seen.
“Hello?” she says, looking around. There’s more energy to her voice.
She yanks me out from under the bed and looks at me, confused.
And then she tries to talk to the liveys. “Wait!” she says.
I bolt up, grab her hand and pull her into the hallway, but we’re cornered. Another wizard is sprinkling poison along the exit, while a second waits at the end of the hall. When he moves toward us with his stick, I have no choice but to run into the darkness of the other room.
Shivering, I let go of Jessica and enter alone. I already thought I was going to die, but the feeling gets worse. The room is wet, cold, and sticky, like everything’s covered in mud. Nothing here is visible except two blue eyes piercing the dark. The livey wizard has followed me in.
I fall to the ground and feel for the murky wall behind me. The eyes approach. I let out a scream. Looking back toward the door I see another livey blocking the way.
Beneath the blue eyes, a red rose appears, cradled in the wizard’s clammy hands. “It is yours if you ask, my child,” it says.
This is it, then. No way out. It’s the Rosebud. It’s death. I scream again and again. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. I’m not afraid, man, but I sure as hell cower.
But I’m wrong, it’s not the end. For some reason, the wizard looks at his partner by the door. When he steps away, I rush out. Outside, Jessica, looking sad, is sitting next to the third wizard.
There’s no time to ask what’s wrong with her. I grab her hand and head out. It’s not easy, she resists, but she’s too weak to keep me from saving her.
When we’re far enough away to stop, I look at her. “Damn girl, you’re lucky! That was a livey wizard, know what I’m sayin’? You got its poison all over you and you’re still alive.”
“Why were you so afraid, Trevor?” she whispers.
“They’re liveys!” I shout.
“It doesn’t make sense. You aren’t making sense.”
I shake my head. “Yes I am! You’re the one being all crazy and shit, sitting right next to one. What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know they’re trying to kill you?”
“Why? Why are they trying to kill me?”
“What do you mean, why? They just are!”
“Who says so, Trevor?”
“I do!” I say, but that’s not enough for her. “And Malcolm! And whatever Malcolm says is what happens, see? He knows everything. I’ll take you too him. You just ask him all your questions, but hurry it up, so we can save you from the rosebud.”
As we move along, I realize I’m so angry I could hit her. “Don’t tell nobody I was screamin’. I was just doing that to scare them off, okay?”
If she opens her mouth again, I swear I will hit her. But she doesn’t, she stays so quiet, after a while, I keep turning around just to make sure she’s still with me.
“Askin’ why the liveys are dangerous, like I’m stupid or somethin’,” I mutter. “I’ve been here years. I know what I’m talkin’ about and she comes up in here actin’ like SHE knows everything.”
When we get there, the hideout seems lonely.
“Yo, Malcolm! Come out! I ain’t no Livey!” I call. “Look what I brung! It’s Jessica, and she got hit by the wizard poison.”
“Say what?” says Malcolm. He appears from behind the ash piles, looking a bit shaky himself. “Let me see her. Bring her over.”
Jessica stumbles toward him and looks into his dull gray eyes.
“I’ll be damned,” he says. “She’s still alive, and fine. She’s got colors on her too.”
“Do you think it’s the rosebud?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “No, it ain’t the rosebud. They haven’t buried her yet. But they will.”
She stands there looking around, at the world, at the sky, at us, then asks, “When will I be buried?”
Malcolm grimaces. “Oh, real soon, darlin’, real soon. They bury you so you can’t disturb them, see? They don’t like us runnin’ around because they can’t see us. So they try to catch us and they us you into that dark storm over yonder and bury us so you can’t ever get out. Lord only knows what happens after that.”
I’m glad Malcolm’s here to explain. “See?” I say. “That’s why we gotta stop them before they put the rosebud on you.”
He points. “Up! Up! Here comes some more!”
High in the air, a weird shadow surrounded by a red glow moves across the sky. There’s an explosion, but it’s all in shadow. The bodies that drop are tinted red.
Malcolm whistles. “Whoo! That ain’t gonna be pretty when they wake up. Trevor, you’ve got to be the one to take care of Jessica. I’ll see how many of these new ones I can get to before they’re taken.”
I’m tired. I don’t trust the girl, but I don’t have a choice. “Alright, brotha, peace out.”
“Understand now, Jessica? They’re goin’ to take you away real soon. They always do.”
But she’s still not with the program. “How do you know?” she asks dully. She still doesn’t seem away. She looks more like she’s in some kind of daze.
I want to get angry, but I force myself to shrug. “Because that’s what Malcolm says. Now, we have to find out where they’re going to lay your rosebud.”
She turns her head in all directions and I get that feeling again, like she knows something I don’t. Probably means nothin’. A lot of newbies look around like that, like they’re retarded or somethin’. I’m just tired. That must be it.
“I know where it is,” she says. Then she walks off.
Shit. I’m a hero, right? So, of course I follow. Silent block after silent block, I dog her like an idiot, until I notice how close we’re getting to the dark spot, the center of the storm.
“Hold up,” I say. “I told you about that darkness. Malcolm told you, too. You don’t want to go there.”
“It’s not dark to me,” she says.
How could it be dark to me and not to her? I thought she was whack Not dark, right. And it wasn’t like a room when you turn off the lights, this dark was so thick it already made my lungs hurt. Another block and I got the chills. But that’s wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was the breathin’. Yeah, that’s right, it’s like the darkness breathes, slow and even, like a vent. In and out, in and out.
I said the city’s still and quiet, but not the center. The closer you get, the bigger and deeper the breathin’ gets. I hate to go there. I used to, when I was first poking around, but I don’t no more.
Well, except this time.
I’m thinking of dragging her back, when I recognize a building across the street. It’s the pizza shop I hung out at as a kid. My uncle owned the place. He used to give me free slices after school. That stopped quick when I asked him for money. Then he gave me a few good whacks, calling me a beggar and worse. But I showed him who was boss. I broke in and emptied the damn register. My uncle thought he’d caught me at it, too. Figured he’d hit me again, harder, teach me a lesson. But I had my friends there to give him a beat down.
Long time ago. I’m a hero now. Plus, he deserved it. You don’t call your nephew a beggar.
I look at Jessica trying to figure out how to get her to turn around. The cold shape of the pizza place looms behind her. I have to look at it again and again, to make sure it’s not about to come alive.
“You like questions, so here’s one. What makes you think you know where your body is?”.
She points at nothing. “Because I’m following the light. Can’t you see it?”
I shake my head. “There ain’t no light in here. It’s all black.”
Fuck this. I ball my hand into a fist. “Don’t you be telling me what is and isn’t! I will knock your head back, you hear me? You’re all crazed up because of the poison water.”
She doesn’t speak anymore. Good. She insults me again I will lose my temper. The bitch is lucky I’m following her at all.
We reach a really ugly building. It’s so ugly it’s hard to tell it was a church. The liveys love to hang in churches. Figures. It’s like irony or somethin’.
We enter a cemetery in the back where a bunch of liveys huddle around an open grave. Jessica looks at the body lying in the coffin. Son of a bitch, it’s her.
“How’d you know?” I say. “No one’s ever found their body before.”
“I thought you did this all the time,” she says.
I grumble. “Well, yeah. But I mean…I have to find it for them.”
But she doesn’t care about me. She’s looking at her at her wrists, then back at the body. “I wish I could take it all back mommy. I’m sorry.”
She sobs, moving closer, but I stop. I’m not stupid. I’m not about to walk right up to liveys after what happened in Dorothy’s house.
They look as ugly and animal as ever, but Jessica doesn’t seem to mind. She stares at one in particular. It’s arms were crossed at the waist.
In its hands was the rosebud.
When the livey wizard showed one to me, I was too afraid to really look. Not now. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, full of life and color. It made me ache to see my own again. I don’t have it in me to stop what comes next.
“Mommy, I’m so sorry,” Jessica says to the livey. She holds out her wrists, but the wounds are gone. The livey steps to the open coffin and places the rosebud on the body.
The moment she does, Jessica vanishes. Her body glows with color. Her long, blonde hair shines. Her cheeks blush red. And then her body vanishes, too.
I watch them bury her, then slowly walk back out of the storm. I don’t know what to think. know.
Another guy is sitting at Malcolm’s, looking scared. But I don’t care. I cry out, “Dammit, Malcolm, do I have to tell you every time? I’m not a livey! Quit hiding!”
He slips out. “Yeah, I knew. Just doin’ something.”
“Malcolm, I saw the Rosebud. I saw it.”
Eyes wide, he shushes me. Then he pulls me behind his pile of garbage, out of the new guy’s sight.
“It wasn’t terrible, Malcolm, it was good. I was happy. I want to find my own body. I need to find it. We need to find it, Malcolm.” I break into hysterical sobs.
Panicked, he shakes me, trying to get me calm. “Trevor, that’s what they want you to think. It’s a trick. They’re playing you. They make death look all pretty, to tempt us, ‘cause that’s how desperate they are to be rid of us. We have to hang on. Jessica was weak. I could tell the second she opened her mouth. I knew what’d happen, but I wanted you to see it for yourself. It was a test, right? And you passed, brother, you passed. You’re stronger now. Almost, as strong as me, Trevor.”
I suck back a sob and look into his dull eyes. “Really?”
“Yeah, really. You and me, brother, you and me. Everyone around us falls, but not you and me. Nope. We’ve been here a long, long time. They try, but we’re too tough. We’re heroes.”
“Yeah…yeah,” I said. Heroes.
Malcolm pats me on the back, then leads me back out. “This here’s Greg. He was the only one who came down here from that plane. The rest disappeared. Feel like some work?”
“Sure,” I say.
I look at Greg. He’s older than me, maybe in his thirties. He looks really tough, built too. If he didn’t seem as scared as a lost baby, he’d be really mean-looking.
“We’d better hurry up and find your body before they lay the rosebud on it,” I say.
“What’s the Rosebud?” he asks.
“It’s something the liveys put on your body to take away your soul,” Malcolm says. “You definitely don’t want that.”
I nod. “Yeah, anything’s better than the Rosebud.”
END - RDB