She stopped about ten feet away from me, putting her weight on her good leg and glaring at me with eyes that were still sky blue underneath their death-white film. We stared at each other for a long time. Neither one of us was in any hurry.
"I been watching you," she said. Her voice was badly slurred, with a whistling inflection where the air escaped through the hole in her cheek.
I let my jacket hang open enough to give her a good look at my shoulder holster. Technically, I shouldn't have had a gun at all, what with me being on administrative leave and everything. But somehow, nobody had ever gotten around to actually collecting my firearm. There was a real problem with shoddy paperwork at the station these days, but I was too busy not being a cop anymore to care. "You can watch all you like. Not much to see, though."
"I been watching you," she said again. I started to wonder if maybe she didn't have some head trauma after all. You saw a few of those, too, wandering around Vineyard Street. People with brains that were damaged, but not damaged enough to let them rest in peace. Some of them had wound up that way from whatever it was that had killed them; others had tried to end it all and wound up doing just enough damage to fuck themselves up too badly to finish the job. A few had gotten on the wrong side of panicky civilians, people who had seen one too many zombie movies and decided to be the Thin Gray Line between humanity and the zombie hordes. Nobody was sure whether it counted as murder, so the cops had been locking them up on charges of corpse mutilation and illegal use of firearms within city limits.
“You got someplace to be.” Her words shook me out of any suggestion that she wasn't all there. “You don't walk like the rest of us, you walk like someone going somewhere.” She stared at me. I stared back, not giving anything away. That was the nice thing about being a zombie. It gave you one hell of a poker face. “Where you got to go?”
I'd been wrong, I realized. She wasn't one of the crazy ones at all. She was one of the desperate ones. There was no way of telling how long she'd been here, but it had definitely been since the day she died. With that kind of damage, her options would have dried up quicker than most. She was looking for a way out, and I'd been elected as her knight in shining armor.
“Sorry,” I said. I didn't want to hurt her, but one of the things you learn when you're low in the water is that you can't take passengers. “No guests, no visitors. I'd let you come, but I'd get kicked out too and then we'd both be down here again.” Her face fell, what was left of it, but I could tell she understood. Somehow, that made me feel even more like shit.
“Then why you come by here?” she asked. Her voice wasn't quite angry, but it was definitely upset. “I seen you, like I said. Every day, you walk up Vineyard Street. Then a while later, you walk back down. Why you come by here if you got someplace else to go?”
I gave a little shrug. “Because if I didn't walk by here, maybe I'd wind up here.” She nodded slowly at that. “What's your name?” I asked her. I didn't know if I'd ever see her again, but I didn't want to forget her.
There was a pause. I wondered how long it had been since someone had asked her. “Sara,” she said at last. She looked like she was about to start crying. I didn't think either one of us wanted to see that.
“Nice to meet you, Sara,” I replied. After that, we both turned and walked away. What else was there to say?
* * * * *
The question stuck with me for the rest of my walk down Vineyard Street. It hung with me as I crossed over to Franklin, and walked the last three blocks to a tenement on Franklin that was only about two steps up from condemned itself. It wasn't until I went down into the basement, and slumped down onto my cot in the utility room next to the boiler that I really let myself think about it. Why did I go anywhere near Vineyard Street?
I lit another cigarette and drew in the smoke. My ex-wife always said smoking was going to kill me, but it had never gotten the chance. If I still slept, I'd have had to worry about smoking in bed, but I didn't do that anymore. I didn't eat, I didn't sleep, I didn't breathe. I didn't have any needs anymore. That was the worst part about being dead. Not that you weren't needed, but that you didn't need. Everything was optional as a zombie.
That was why I walked along Vineyard Street every night. Because it reminded me of what I would be like if I didn't find something to keep myself going. That was why I kept talking to my old buddies on the force; it wasn't for them, it was for me. It was something to make me stir my dead bones off this cot, out of this room, and into the world. Because it wasn't as though the world was going to come knocking at my door.
It was right about then that someone knocked on my door. Yeah, I hated cheap irony too.
I shambled to my feet and shuffled over to the door. I figured it was maybe Paulie, my landlord. Well, I called him my landlord but he didn't charge me rent, and I couldn't pay anyway. Paulie was an ex-cop friend of mine who'd tried his hand at real estate after he retired, and had bought this building with plans to fix it up nice. He'd never had much luck with that bit, but he kept it clean and he didn't screw his tenants. And he had a spare room for an old pal who had saved his life once or twice, even if that old pal was a zombie. Paulie was good people...but even he didn't come down here just to talk. He must have heard from someone who was asking for my help.
“Yeah, hang on, Paulie,” I said, sliding the chain off the door. “I'm not as young as I used to be--”
I opened the door. It was my ex-wife.