It’s not every day I get asked to prom by a dead boy. Especially not Cal Flenders, the embarrassingly-frequent star of my wet dreams. So when it happens, just as I’m coming out of the boy’s locker room, fresh from swim practice, I have no idea what to say.
“Come on. Don’t leave me hanging.” Cal leans against my locker, grin as easy in death as it ever was when he was alive. “Even if the answer is no, you have to say something.”
The hall around us is empty, and my pulse hammers in my throat. For once in my life, I’d be grateful for one of the ‘popular’ kids to come along and knock me into the lockers, call me a freak, cause a distraction. But it’s late Friday afternoon, graduation is three weeks away, and we’re alone.
“I don’t know.” My cheeks feel hot and the idea of blushing leaves me even more flustered.
I want to say yes. Of course I want to say yes. It’s Cal fucking Flenders. He looks almost the same as when he was alive--perfect blond hair, captain-of-the-basketball-team smile. Only now his eyes are a color I don’t have a name for, like fluorescent lights reflecting off the pool before anyone has disturbed the surface.
Two days after everyone came back from spring break, a pick-up truck going twenty miles over the speed limit t-boned Cal’s car. Kids at our school have died before—drug overdose, suicide, a chance accident like Cal’s. But no one has ever come back before.“I didn’t even know you liked boys,” I say.
It sounds so pathetic coming out of my mouth I want to crawl into my locker and disappear.
“I like everyone.” Cal shrugs.
And there’s that grin again. The one that always got the crowd going with two minutes to the buzzer and the game tied. The ‘Don’t worry, I got this,’ smile. I used to dream about that smile. But now that Cal is offering it to me and me alone, it feels like the first time I jumped off the high dive board. Except it’s also like realizing only after I’ve jumped that there’s no pool under me.
“Would the school even let us?” I risk a glance at him.
Does school has an official policy on living/undead relationships? As far as I know, it’s never come up.
Without meaning to, I hold my breath, waiting for Cal’s basketball friends to leap out and throw pig’s blood on me like in Carrie. Because this all has to be some cruel joke, right? Boys like Cal don’t go out with boys like me.
The corner of Cal’s smile quivers. My stomach flip-flops like I really am caught between the high board and the pool. Cal looks nervous. He really is asking me to prom, and he really does want me to go with him.
“So?” Cal holds out his hand, not like a handshake but like he might just lift ,my hand to his lips and kiss my knuckles like a prince in a fairy tale movie if I put my palm in his. “How about it?”
“Yes.” The word is breathless and even though my body has sliced through the water and I’m coming up from a perfect dive with the crowd cheering, I’m still sure I’ve fucked up somehow.
But Cal takes my hand, and the world doesn’t end. His skin feels cold, reminding me he’s dead, but that’s the worst thing that happens. He squeezes my fingers then leans to kiss my cheek, sweet and chaste.
“Great. I’ll pick you up at seven, or earlier if your parents want to take pictures.”
Despite days of badgering from Kiri and Natalie, I refused to tell them who I was bringing to prom. I spot both with Soo and Gord and, Sid, as soon as we enter the gym, which no longer looks like the gym. Props to the prom committee for the fantastic job decorating.
Even though we’ve all been best friends practically forever, nerves flutter in my stomach as Soo waves us over. I brace for the worst, but none of them so much as bats an eye at beautiful, dead Cal by my side. Soo elbows me and gives me a thumbs up. And just like that, Cal is one of us, accepted by the pack and conversation resumes its flow as much as it can over the pounding music.
“You look like you need this.” Soo presses a cup of bright red punch into my hand. Gord tips in a shot from the flask Soo gave him for his birthday, engraved with a dirty limerick in place of a monogram.
As threatened for weeks, Soo’s dress is a nightmare. She trolled bargain basement warehouses and consignment shops to find just the right thing. It looks like a sequin factory vomited on a cage full of canaries, and Gord is equally outrageous in a powder blue tuxedo, paired with a paisley tie and cummerbund.
Joey is the last to join us, chronically late—pun intended. Everyone looks happy, even Kiri, who I’ve always suspected has a thing for Gord, even though Gord and Soo have been together forever.
Between the punch and Gord’s flask, the edge of anxiety wears off the world, softening everything. We made it through five years of high school. We’re survivors. And to the survivors go the spoils: tonight, we dance.
Holding Cal’s hand, I push my way to the center of the crowd. I don't care who sees the living boy and the dead boy together. We don’t stop our feet to sip from Gord’s flask as we spin past him or to sing the wrong words to songs the DJ plays. We dance like idiots, laughing at stupid things that are funny only to us.
But as the night winds down, the fluttery, unsettled feeling returns. The dance floor is nearly deserted except for a few couples swaying to Stairway to Heaven. Gord moves in an exaggerated slow circle with his head lying on Cal’s shoulder. Natalie and Sid lean close, having already broken up and gotten back together twice tonight alone. Kiri is dancing with Philip Nickels, and Joey must be off refreshing his buzz.
Soo’s canary dress shows signs of wilting, but she’s grinning, holding one last sticky cup of punch.
“I guess this is it,” I say, stomach plunging as the words leave my mouth.
“What do you mean?” Soo doesn’t take her eyes off the dance floor. “There’s still Nova Scotia. You are coming, right?”
Soo turns to face me. Multi-colored lights cycle across her sequins and spark into my eyes. I squint and pretend it’s only that, not absurd gratitude and too much spiked punch making me tear up. What did I expect, that my best friend would abandon me just because I came to prom with a dead boy?
“I thought maybe…. Because of Cal—”
“Oh, god.” Soo laughs and punches my arm. “You are so old fashioned. Dead, living, it’s all good. Bring Cal. We’re leaving first thing tomorrow. We’ve been planning this trip all year. If you back out now, I’ll kill you.”
My stomach does its flip-flop trick again, but this time, it’s a good thing. Every time I think about life without high school, the part that always breaks me is the idea ofSoo and Gord and Kiri not being there anymore. Joey, Sid, and Natalie, well, they’re another thing, but Soo, Gord, and Kiri, they’re my family. We've seen each other pretty much every day for the past five years. We know everything about each other. But none of us have decided for sure what we're doing after high school, and for the past couple of months I’ve been afraid I might lose them.
I grin at Soo, and raise my empty cup in a toast.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Not even for the end of the world?” Soo says.
I punch her shoulder in return. “Not even then.”
It’s the last stretch before we reach Soo’s family’s cabin. Soo and Gord are asleep in the backseat propped against each other. The high school sweetheart gig is usually bullshit, like Natalie and Sid who tell everyone they’re “engaged to be engaged”. Gord and Soo aren't like that. They're happy just being what they are, which is what makes me think that's what they’ll always be: Gord and Soo forever in ridiculous glittery prom dresses and powder blue tuxedos. Unchanging. They have to be. I’m counting on it.
I glance at Cal. He doesn’t look quite so dead in this light. I wonder what he’s thinking. We didn't spend much time together in the weeks leading up to prom - too much to do with final exams and championship swim meets - but in the last forty-eight hours, I’ve discovered dead boyfriends can be awfully quiet a lot of the time. He doesn’t breathe, I've spent a lot of time watching to be sure, but he still talks. He smells faintly like lemons not decay. He didn’t eat before prom, and I think he only sipped from Gord's flask to be polite, not because it would get him drunk. So I have no idea if he’ll ever share my craving for burgers after a really hard swim, or want to go to the shitty local neighborhood bar that's our rite of passage the moment we come of age. As for kissing? My stomach's been in knots, wanting it and dreading it ever since our last dance.
Those are the little things. There are big things I wonder about, too. Like the accident. I never asked him about it. I’m extra careful driving cause I don’t want him to remember anything ugly, not on a day like today.
The biggest questions though, the ones I'm trying not to think about though are why did Cal choose me? And how long can this possibly last?
The turn-off comes sooner than I expect. I jerk the wheel and the car leaves the paved surface for the long gravel drive. The tires jounce in potholes, bringing Soo and Gord awake. Trees close in on either side, whip thin, their leaves still pale green even though it’s late May.
“Park up there.” Soo points to a gravel area in front of a basketball hoop with no net.
I help Cal and Gord unload groceries while Soo unlocks the door and turns on the water and electricity. Kiri pulls in behind us a moment later, then it’s a flurry of choosing rooms and unpacking supplies.
The cottage is perfect—kitchen, sitting room, bathroom, three bedrooms, a back deck, and a dock jutting into the lake. I step outside and breathe deep. The air really does smell better here, and the silence is the kind we never get in the city. Wind creaking in the treetops, distant voices carried across the flat surface of the lake.
I’m filled with the desire to stop time right here and spend the rest of my life looking at the intensely green trees, imagining deer with wide, liquid eyes looking back at me. No decisions about the future, no possibility of anything going wrong. Just peace and silence.
The porch door slides open behind me. Cal puts his arms around my waist and leans his chin on my shoulder. I’m afraid to speak. I will myself not to move so this moment lasts, his body pressed against mine, making me shiver slightly as we stare out at the lake. Me breathing, him not.
I let myself relax. Cal isn’t going to slip away from me or vanish in a puff of smoke. He lifts his head from my shoulder. I feel him tense. No, he’s gone rigid, a thing of cold clay. I twist around to see his face. He’s staring at the trees to the right of the dock, their protective semi-circle around the lake.
“What is it?” My voice comes out ragged, even though I wasn’t intending to whisper.
He reminds me of an animal, scenting prey. I can’t turn all the way around as his body pins mine against the rail. I don’t think he even realizes he’s doing it, his dead weight holding me in place. My ribs squeeze tight. There’s a flicker of movement in the trees, a shadow slipping between the trunks. A person? Someone watching us? There are other cabins here, Soo has neighbors. One of them could be taking a walk in the woods. But the back of my neck is cold in a way that has nothing to do with Cal behind me.
The woods feel haunted, the silence no longer comforting. Panic claws at me, and I can’t even say why. I scan the trees, but whatever I thought I saw is gone.
Cal shakes his head. “Nothing,” he says. “I thought I heard something, but it’s nothing.”
When he steps back, I turn all the way around to look at him. His eyes are that halogen-on-water color, unearthly. Despite his words, he’s still looking past me, at the lake and the trees, and the back of my neck is still prickling. Dancing with him last night, I could almost forget he was dead, but not now.
People die and they stay dead. Cal came back, and I never questioned why, because he asked me to prom, and smiled his winning smile, and I wanted to not be alone so badly that I dared not ask any questions. I think that’s also why Soo, Gord, and Kiri didn’t stage a dead boy intervention. They wanted me to find love.
Soo slides the door open and pokes her head outside. “We’re going swimming before dinner. Wanna come?”
“We’ll get changed.” Cal’s grin is easy. My pulse thumps once, but just like that, the tension is gone. Birds flicker between the trees, but nothing else. Like a bubble popping, voices carry over the lake again and a breeze ripples the surface. Everything is fine.
In the room we’re sharing with Kiri and Joey, Joey’s things are already piled on the top bunk. Kiri is settled on the bottom bunk, which leaves me and Cal the narrow bed pushed against the opposite wall.
My pulse hammers all over again, seeing just how small the bed is, and my mouth goes dry. Kiri gathers her things as we enter and flashes me a brief smile as she slips out the door. Then I’m alone with and Cal.
“I’ll close my eyes if you want,” Cal says, and I realize the tips of my ears are bright red just thinking about getting changed in front of him.
I’m on the swim team for fuck’s sake. I’ve been naked in front of plenty of guys. But this is Cal Flenders. This is different.
“You don’t have to,” I say, wishing he would, hoping he doesn’t.
My swimmer’s body suddenly doesn’t seem like enough. I turn so I don’t have to see whether he’s looking, changing quickly. Cal is still in his jeans when I turn back around, but his shirt is off, and his zipper undone. It’s obvious he isn’t wearing underwear. A thought flashes through my mind that maybe I should run outside and drown myself right now, rather than suffer the embarrassment of my inevitable boner.
Do dead boys get boners? Or are they safe from being mortified. Oh, God, pun intended.
I’m rooted to the spot. Cal’s half smile slides into something that takes my pulse beyond racing to a full on heart-attack waiting to happen. He keeps his placid gaze on me as he skins his jeans. It’s sexual but also natural, like sexy is something Cal is, not something he does. His dick is soft, looking…I want to say adorable, within a wreath of darker blond pubes. When he turns to get his swimsuit, I see the jagged scar--pale violet against his flesh--where a piece of his windshield ended up inside him. My hand flies to cover my mouth, but I’m still turned on and confused and thinking about running to the lake and drowning myself all over again.
“Don’t worry, I take it as a compliment.” Cal’s voice snaps me back to reality.
He’s facing me again, and pointedly looking at the crotch of my trunks. I try to hide my erection, even though it’s too late, but Cal is already sliding past me toward the door. He squeezes my cock through the fabric and flashes that crowd-pleasing grin as he steps into the hall. A bolt of lightning launches from my groin to the top of my skull. I don’t have to worry about drowning myself because I’m already both dead and wired, and happier than I’ve ever been.
As soon as the blood to stops rushing in my ears and other regions, I follow Cal outside. The others are already gathered on the dock, and I can’t resist showing off. Water is my element. I execute a perfect shallow dive, skimming under the surface and barely making a splash. Cal sits with his legs dangling into the water.
“That was pretty good,” he says. “But I bet I can hold my breath longer.”
Emboldened by the memory of his fingers on my cock, I grab his legs. “Okay. Let’s see you try.” I yank him into the water.
Cal comes up laughing. He flails for a moment before catching edge of the dock.
“I have a confession,” he says. “I never learned how to swim.”
Something about the idea of the dead boy drowning strikes me as wildly and inappropriately funny. Laughing, I swallow water, and end up coughing and clinging to the dock next to Cal. Water drips into my eyes and our fingers leave damp patches on the wood.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ll teach you.”
I’m not as bold as he is, but I let my finger brush his chest underneath the water as I back away. My breathing is under control again, and I tread in place, watching him. He reaches for me, and I dodge.
“Catch me if you can,” I say. “Best way to learn.”
He lunges again, clumsy, and I play keep away with my body. He doesn’t stray far from the dock, doggy-paddling in little circles, and something about it - his helplessness, his vulnerability - makes me want to be caught more than I’ve ever wanted anything.
He grabs my shoulders and dunks me. I let him, because he’s Cal Flenders, and he’s the most beautiful boy, dead or alive, I’ve ever known. I open my eyes on a dim, green world. Silver bubbles the color of Cal’s eyes trail from my open mouth. Soo, Gord, Kiri, and Natalie are playing an awkward game of chicken. I watch their flashing legs for a moment before tilting my head back to take in the fractured sun and sky seen through the water. I was wrong before: This is the best moment to stop time.
The marshmallow at the end of Kiri’s stick flares, sugary-blue, before dropping into the fire.
“Oops.” Kiri giggles.
Joey belches, reaching for another beer. “Anybody know any good ghost stories?” He takes a long swallow, then looks at Cal. “Sorry. No offense.” Joey’s bloodshot eyes aren’t entirely focused; after a moment, he snickers.
Should I leap to Cal’s defense? The thought is half-formed, muzzy with alcohol and Joey’s weed. It would be the chivalrous thing to do.
“So what’s it like?” Sid asks. “Being dead.”
Natalie shoots him a look, which he ignores. Sid likes to push buttons. When I told him I was gay, he didn’t miss a beat before asking, “Top or bottom?” Weird as it sounds, that’s the thing I like about Sid. He actively tries to piss people off while everyone else is either busy worrying about getting people to like them, or talking about them behind their backs. All things considered, Sid is harmless. All bark, no bite. In our junior year, he tracked down the kid who carved the word faggot into my locker and punched him in the face right in front of the principal. Instead of apologizing, he let them suspend him for a week until the kid finally apologized and faced a three-month suspension for hate speech.
Even so, I can’t help tensing at Sid’s question. Asking Cal these questions chips away at my daydream, as if it might be a scab and there’s a nightmare underneath.
Natalie presses her lips into a thin line. Over dinner, she and Sid fought about whether shellfish feel pain, putting them on the verge of breaking up yet again. Sid’s question opens whatever wound is festering between them and Natalie rises, stalking toward the house. After a moment, Soo follows, stuck playing peacekeeper because it’s her house. Sid stays put, but Gord follows Soo inside.
“I don’t know,” Cal says.
“How can you not know?” There’s a gleam in Sid’s eyes, the one he gets when he’s looking to start trouble, maybe taking his annoyance at Natalie out elsewhere. He’s smoking one of his Indonesian clove cigarettes, which he thinks makes him cooler than the kids who smoke Camels. I briefly consider a dramatic gesture, plucking the cigarette from his mouth and crushing it underfoot. Would that make me look heroic?
“What it’s like to be alive?” Cal shoots back, but there’s no venom in his tone.
Sid opens his mouth, and closes it again, his pot-fogged mind temporarily blown.
“I’m going for a walk.” Kiri steps over Sid. Branches crack underfoot.
“Fuck it,” Sid says after a moment, following Kiri. Joey doesn’t say anything, but wanders after them.
At least I don’t have to worry about Kiri being alone in the woods, or Sid trying anything just to piss off Natalie, or stoner Joey tripping over a branch and breaking his neck. All I have to worry about is Cal. Cal and me. Alone.
I tip my head back, looking at the stars. They’re so much brighter here, not like the bruised-orange sky in the city that blocks out everything.
I’m afraid to look at Cal. I can’t stop thinking about his hand on me in our room, and the brief flickering touches underwater. What if I find expectation in those eyes of his that are the same color as the stars? I’ve kissed exactly two boys in my lifetime. Even worse, what if I don’t see any expectation at all?
“Sorry about Sid,” I say as a distraction.
I sneak a glance at Cal. He’s watching the fire, almost like he’s forgotten I’m there. The glow reflects off his skin. His eyes aren’t starlight after all; they’re the same color as the flames.
“Want to see something neat?” he asks.
The skin at the base of my spine prickles. There’s too much silence in the woods. I should be able to hear Joey, Sid, and Kiri, but there isn’t even any wind. Before I can answer, Cal plunges his hand into the flames.
“Shit! What are you doing?”
He pulls his hand out, fingers still burning. I whip off my jacket and smother the flames.
Cal frowns. “It didn’t hurt.” I’m afraid he’ll stalk off like Natalie. My stomach flops; maybe that last beer wasn’t such a good idea. What if I puke all over his shoes?
Cal unwraps the jacket, and hands it back, tone softening. “I hope you didn’t ruin it just for me.”
It smells smoky, but otherwise the jacket looks fine. I shrug it back on, but the chill is already under my skin. Something about Cal treating death like a party trick pisses me off. I want to yell at him, but at the same time, it’s his death; he can do what he wants with it.
But I can’t help thinking of Cal on the basketball court, his I-got-this grin, like nothing could ever go wrong. It’s the same for all the sun-bright jocks and cheerleaders, and even the stoners and losers and freaks like me and Kiri and Soo and Joey and Gord, all of us believing we’ll live forever. Really, though everything is so goddamned fragile. We’re getting ready to go out into the real world, and it isn’t safe out there.
“Do you remember the crash?” The words are out before I can stop them.
Cal reaches for a long stick lying between his feet, and puts one end in the flames, twirling it.
“Sometimes. I remember the sounds--tires screeching, glass shattering. I didn’t feel it when the windshield went in.” He touches his side where the scar arcs up under his clothes. “Dying’s easier to forget than you’d think.”
Then I’m kissing Cal. Or he’s kissing me. I’m not sure how it happens, but it is happening.
His lips are warm, but only from the proximity of the fire. His tongue feels cold. He slides a hand under my shirt, the hand from the fire with its skin ashen. I try not to think of burning flesh touching my goosepimpled skin. I fumble at his fly before I have time to think about what the hell I’m doing. Cal doesn’t have a heartbeat, no blood-flow. Which means…
The lake catches the sound, whipping it along the shore. I reel away from Cal, panting, as the cabin door bangs open.
“What was that?” Soo comes off the porch, Gord behind her.
There’s a loud crash. Branches snap. Joey, with Kiri right behind him, tripping on the loose, stony shore bordering the woods as they run toward the cabin. The left side of Joey’s face is slick with blood, black in the moonlight.
“Sid. It fucking got Sid!”
Joey crashes into me and I catch him. He swings a bloody palm, thrashing, and it’s a moment before he recognizes me, us, the light and the safety of the cabin.
Kiri’s eyes are wide, her breathing shallow. “We have. To get. Inside.” She sips air in little gulps.
“What happened? Where’s Sid?” Natalie steps off the porch.
Another crack, another tree snapping. Soo’s expression goes shocked-wide. I see it a moment after she does, but my brain refuses to make sense of it. A human shape swaying on the line where dirt meets the stony shore. One, then two. Then more shadows than I can count trickling out of the woods.
“Inside.” Soo’s voice is hoarse; she grabs my hand and pulls.
“What about Sid?” Natalie says.
I push her ahead of me and she only resists for a moment, Joey stumbling up the stairs behind me. Gord locks the door, and Soo drags an end table across it.
“What’s going on?” Natalie’s voice is on the edge of breaking.
Joey’s left ear is entirely gone. His shirt is covered with blood to the waist.
“The woods,” Joey says, “are full of motherfucking zombies.”
Everybody tries to talk at once.
“We have to get to a hospital,” Kiri says.
“We have to get Sid,” Natalie says.
“Help me move the couch in front of the door,” Gord says.
“What the fuck is he still doing here?” Joey points at Cal.
I drop my end of the couch. “What the fuck are you doing here, Joey?” I snap back. My hands shake, curled into fists at my side with all the adrenaline. “You’re the one who’s bit.”
“Everyone calm down.” Soo steps between us, pale, shadows around her eyes.
“No one is going anywhere.” Soo pushes Joey into a chair. “Someone get me a towel.”
Dazed, Natalie hands Soo a dishtowel. Soo bundles it against Joey’s head and makes him put his hands on top of it, keeping pressure on the wound.
“Can’t you go talk to them or something?” Gord turns a desperate gaze on Cal. The panic edging his voice is the only thing that keeps me from hitting him.
I edge closer to Cal, take his hand. His fingers are limp and cold in mine, and he barely seems to register my touch. I think of him on the porch a lifetime ago, the weight of his body against mine. He looked so inhuman. A dead thing like the zombies in the woods. Could he have called them? The moment the thought crosses my mind, I shut it down. This is Cal Flenders, the boy of my dreams.
“That’s stupid,” I say, finding my voice somewhere. “Cal isn’t like them, at all.”
Cal looks genuinely surprised, like he didn’t expect anyone to stand up for him. After a moment, he returns the pressure of my fingers on his, and it’s the best feeling in the world.
“We’re all in this together,” I say, calmer than I feel. “We’ll figure it out somehow.”
There’s a loud thump from behind me. We all turn at once as a hand hits the window in the door. The glass holds, but the door shivers. Other hands beat the plate glass window beside the door. A blur of faces, indistinct in the dark. I’m glad I can’t see them clearly. I don’t want to know if those dead eyes are the same color as Cal’s, or see if their mouths are red with Joey and Sid’s blood.
It’s everything I’ve been afraid of since the beginning, since Cal asked me to prom, since final exams, since the last year of high school began. It’s the end of the world, just not the way I expected it to be.
I stare at the zombies throwing themselves at the plate glass. I can’t help thinking of moths, bumping up against the light outside the door. It doesn’t matter how many throw their little bodies at it, or how delicate that glass is, the bulb doesn’t break.
“I think we’re safe.”
“How the hell do you know?” Natalie’s eyes are red, her voice tight. Despite everything, she and Sid did love each other in their own way.
I don’t have a good answer for her. Instead, I put my arm around her shoulder. She stiffens, then slumps against me. She’s not quite crying, her body tense and still, exhaustion warring with nerves.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, pressing my lips against her hair.
Natalie nods, but doesn’t answer.
“I’m tired,” Joey says.
He slumps and Soo catches him before he slides off the chair, lowering him gently to the ground.
“I think he’s going into shock.”
“We need to call an ambulance,” Gord says, but doesn’t move.
“No ambulance.” Joey’s voice is thick, words slurred but audible. “Those things, out there, they’d kill anyone before they could get here.”
His head rolls to one side, eyes fluttering as if in dreams. He catches Soo’s hand and she gasps in surprise. He grips it so hard I can see her bones and his both, right through the skin. I take a step forward and so does Gord. Soo’s eyes are wide, but she waves us back.
Joey’s lips move. Soo bends close and a shout freezes in my throat. What if Joey bites her ear off the way his ear was bitten? I wait for the crunch of flesh, but it doesn’t come. Soo straightens, and if possible, she looks paler than before.
“What is it?” Gord asks.
“He.” Soo stops, swallows. Her voice is thick. “He said if anything happens, if he starts to turn, we should kill him.”
Soo’s eyes are bright, but she isn’t crying. Not yet. Cal untangles his fingers from my hand and touches Natalie’s shoulder. She draws in a sharp breath, but she doesn’t pull away when Cal helps her to a chair. He kneels in front of her, takes her fingers lightly in his and says something too low for me to hear. She nods.
Soo tilts her head toward the kitchen. It’s a moment before I understand. My legs are shaking, the space between the couch and the knife drawer suddenly vast. I choose the biggest kitchen knife. I kneel beside Soo, and put the knife on the floor between us, so either of us could reach it, hoping neither of us have to.
Cal kneels beside me, close but not touching. Joey’s chest continues to rise and fall, shallow breaths, but his eyes remain closed, his lids bruised.
“I’ll do it, if it comes to that,” Cal says in a soft voice.
I don’t have to ask him what he means, and I swallow around a sudden ache in my throat, wondering whether I should be frightened or grateful.
“What did you say to Natalie?” I ask.
Cal’s attention is still on Joey. He reminds me of a cat, watching for when the mouse stirs. Behind us, the zombies continue to bump softly against the glass.
“I told her dying’s not so bad.”
There’s a wistfulness to Cal’s voice when he says it that makes me wonder if he’s lying. Is he remembering his own death? But being torn apart in the woods by zombies is nothing like a car crash. But if the result is the same, does it matter how you go?
“Why did you come back?” My voice is barely a whisper. I didn’t mean to say it out loud, and I wish I could take it back as Cal turns to face me.
His eyes are unfathomable, endless and silver. “I don’t know,” Cal says after several infinitely long seconds. “You spend your whole life moving toward this point where you think the world will make sense, but…” Cal shrugs. “Things don't make anymore sense from the other side."
Cal lapses into silence for a moment. He turns, looking at the zombies outside the window, except his gaze is unfocused in a way that makes me think he's really seeing something else. Maybe the padded, satin lining of the coffin his parents buried him in, or headlights bearing down on him out of the dark and refusing to stop.
"I don't remember waking up, just like I don't remember being dead, not really. I just remember this burning thought in my head that wouldn't let go: more time. I need more time." Cal's fingers flex, clenching and unclenching like he's still trying to pull himself out of the grave. "I didn’t want it to end. It couldn't end, not like that. There was more I wanted to do. Ask a boy out. Dance with a boy. Kiss him. I knew there had to be someone special out there who would make me feel the way people feel in sappy love songs. My first thought when I dug myself free was find that boy.”
Cal looks at back me. My face is burning. My heart is burning.
Silence for a moment. The sound of Joey’s breath, steady, but louder than it should be. Gord perches on the arm of the couch that’s still only halfway to blocking the front door.
“So what do we do now?” Gord asks.
I know what I want to do but no one here can marry me to Cal.
Cal Flenders, captain of the basketball team, star of my wet dreams, has just said the most romantic thing to me that anyone has ever said in my life. But the zombie apocaly is still happening outside, and I can't melt into a puddle on the floor right now as much as I want to. I glance around the room. My friends all look the way I feel, wrung out, frightened, uncertain.
“I guess we wait,” Soo says.
Kiri sits on the opposite side of the couch from Gord.
“We have plenty of food, at least,” she says.
“Well, this is a shitty way to start the summer.” Gord slides to sit on the couch proper, kicking his feet up to land on the coffee table with a thump.
The sound is a jolt I feel deep between my ribs. A hollow sound. It breaks something free, a knot of tension I’ve been holding onto even since before the zombies showed up. I can’t help it, I start to giggle. My blood is still fizzing from Cal's words and the adrenaline and everything else. The giggle turns into a laugh, and soon I’m doubled over, gasping for breath, my eyes tearing. Everyone is staring at me, and it only makes me laugh harder.
My muscles are aching, my throat raw with the sound by the time I’m finally able to get myself under control. I wipe my eyes, still grinning even thought it makes my cheeks ache. Soo looks at me like I’ve lost it, and maybe I have.
“Sorry. I couldn’t…. I was just thinking about what you wrote in my yearbook, Soo.”
Soo continues to stare, then comprehension lights her eyes like a spark drifting from the fire into the sky.
“REM,” I say.
Soo’s grin spreads across her face. “Actually, I was thinking of the Great Big Sea version.”
Everyone else is still staring at us. I stand, shaky, but maybe now it’s from the laughter more than the fear. There’s a wire tower of CDs next to the stereo system. I run my fingers along the jewel cases.
“Ha!” I pull out the case and wave it triumphantly before slipping the CD in the player and skipping to the right track.
“Shall we?” I hold my hand out to Soo.
She hesitates a moment, then carefully pries her hand from Joey’s. I don’t even care that her fingers are tacky with blood. We cross our arms one over the other, and spin the way we used to when we were kids. The room turns into a dizzy blur, but we refuse to fall down, gripping tight against the centrifugal force that wants to spin us away from each other.
In this moment, here, now, even though there are zombies outside the window and after this summer everything is going to change, I know without a doubt it’s going to be fine.
Soo sings along, keeping time even as the song speeds up. I’ve never known the proper lyrics, so I make up my own.
“Light bulbs, airplanes, gummy worms and zombies!”
Kiri, Gord, and Natalie all watch us. Cal watches me and only me. Even though my palms are sweating, I keep hold of Soo’s hands and we continue spinning, belting out whatever words we feel like, falling out of time as Alan Doyle’s voice rushes on, faster than any voice has the right to.
It’s like the high dive board. It’s like high school ending, and the rest of our lives opening up into unknown territory. Maybe Soo and Gord won’t always be Soo and Gord, and maybe they will. Maybe we’ll all be eaten by zombies before sunrise. Maybe Cal will keep me safe and maybe I’ll keep him intact. Maybe. Maybe.
But all that comes later. This is now.
Softly, I hear Kiri join us, singing along. Joey’s fingers twitch, tapping out the rhythm on the floor. He’s not dying just yet.
It’s the infinite now, before the world ends, or doesn’t. And when it comes to the chorus, we all belt it out together, as loud as we can: It’s the end of the world, and we feel fine.
This story originally appeared in The Kissing Booth and Other Stories.