Light at Night and Blinded by Day

When I woke up, I had no idea what time it was. Come to think of it, I had no idea what time I went to sleep. Or what the time was at any point since I’d crossed over to the dead side. Strange how I hadn’t noticed until now. I frowned. Also strange how quickly such thoughts had become normal.

I shook my head and rolled out of bed. Dwelling on such things was not productive. Now I just had to…I stopped and looked around the room. Had to what? I had no toothbrush, no clothes to change into, no nothing. I didn’t even know where the bathroom was. Then again, I hadn’t had anything to eat since I’d arrived here, so I supposed it wasn’t much of a surprise that I hadn’t felt the urge. I also hadn’t felt hungry, which was more of a surprise. At least I now knew that I could sleep.

Shaking my head again—what else was I supposed to do?—I pushed the door open and stepped out into the hall.

“Evening!”

“Ah!” I jumped, then relaxed when I spotted Norene looking down at me from the middle of the staircase.

“You’re up early,” she observed.

“So are you,” I countered automatically. “Wait. Evening? Early? What?”

“Yeah, it’s only five. The sun’s not even properly down yet.”

“Down? As in, it’s five pm?”

“Yeah…”

“In what world is five in the evening considered early?”

“The dead side of town.” Norene shrugged. “Most everyone’s nocturnal. I thought you’d have noticed by now.”

“Wait, is that why we didn’t see anyone on the streets when we were walking here?”

“No, that’s because there aren’t a lot of people. We were walking at a perfectly reasonable hour.”

“Yeah. It was late afternoon or something like that, wasn’t it?”

“More like three in the morning.” Norene frowned. “Can’t you tell the difference between sunlight and moonlight? I’ve never heard of anyone like that, though I suppose it could be some weird eye condition.”

“Of course I can tell the difference between the sun and the moon!”

She shrugged. “Just asking.” An awkward silence fell between us before Norene spoke again. “Wait, did you actually ever look at the sky?”

“Should I have?”

“I bet I know what it is.” Norene nodded, as if confirming it for herself. “You’re a zombie now, so your eyes are a lot more sensitive to the light. The light at night now looks the same as it did during the day when you were human, so you just assumed it was daytime.”

“But I would have…” Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed day and night reversing. I had spent a good long while in a windowless cell with no way to tell the time. “I guess that makes sense? But if nighttime looks like daytime, what does daytime look like?”

“Oh, that’s easy. You know that whole thing about how vampires and zombies and such can’t walk under the sun? Well, it’s not so much can’t, as wouldn’t want to. The light’s too bright for your eyes to handle, and your skin actually decays faster when exposed to sunlight. Vampires get these horrible sunburns.” Norene shuddered. “Not pretty.”

“Right…”

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Could Be Worse than a Mild Case of Dust

I moved cautiously down the hall toward the second door that Norene had pointed out. Smells, clouds of dust—what other surprises would her house have? I wondered if she’d be offended if I changed my mind about living with her. There had to be someplace better around here, right? She’d said the other banshees lived in a nicer area. Of course, she’d also said she didn’t live there because there were too many rules, and if I was a banshee, no zombie neighbours would be number one.

I stopped in front of the closed door at the end of the hall. It would be better than the first room. It couldn’t be worse, anyway. I sighed. Or it could be worse, and I really didn’t want to think about what that would look like.

Well, standing here staring at the door wouldn’t get me anywhere. I took a deep breath while the air was still relatively clean, and pushed the door open. No cloud of dust: that was an improvement. The air in the room was stale, but that was easily fixed. The wall opposite the door had a bunch of slats nailed over a central section—covering a window or two, I would guess. A queen sized bed took up one corner, while a desk and chair occupied the other half of the room. It wasn’t a large space, but I didn’t need it to be.

I approached the desk first. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a table with some drawers underneath. Both it and the chair, which was equally simple and utilitarian, were covered in sheer plastic sheets to shield them from the dust. Clearly whoever had last occupied this room had cared enough to protect the furniture for the next occupant. Or they had intended to come back, not realising that the neighbourhood would be given over to the dead.

I crossed the room to have a look at the bed. It was also covered in a plastic sheet. It was just a mattress, without sheets, blankets, or pillows, which was unfortunate. Maybe Norene would have some spares. On the other hand, I couldn’t actually recall feeling cold since I’d woken up in the cell with the werewolf, so maybe I wouldn’t need blankets.

“You like this one?”

I jumped, spinning around to see Norene standing in the doorway. “Don’t do that!”

“Sorry.” She shrugged. “Need help with anything?”

“Uh, yeah, actually. You don’t happen to have any spare sheets and pillows, do you?”

“Ah! Of course. Be right back!” And with that, she spun around and disappeared back down the hall.

Well, that answered that question. I sighed again, and tugged at one corner of the sheet. Living with Norene would certainly be interesting.

You Want Me to Go Away?

“So…you said something about a room I could use?”

“Oh, yeah!” Norene turned toward the stairs. “There are a couple. You can use whichever one you want. Or all of them!”

“Uh…I think I only need one. Don’t I?” I followed Norene as she started down the stairs. She seemed so cheerful all the time, I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or not.

“Well, I don’t know!” She grinned at me over her shoulder. “I really only use the one, but I didn’t think we’d need to use the kitchen either, so what do I know? You keep teaching me so many interesting things!”

“Right…” Just Norene being Norene, then. Whatever that meant.

“So, there’s this one.” Norene pointed to a door standing slightly ajar across from the staircase as she stepped into the hall of the middle floor. “Then there’s also the one at the end of the hall. Plus there’s that one—” She gestured at a closed door a little ways down from the first. “But you won’t want that one, it’s got a bunch of old furniture and stuff in it.”

I nodded. “I guess I’ll take a look around, if you want to…go do whatever it is you do, I guess?”

“Oh, I don’t do much,” Norene replied far too easily. “I’m happy hanging out here with you.”

“Right. Um, see…”

“Oh, wait, was that supposed to mean you want me to go away?”

I frowned. “No, nothing like that, I just—”

“It’s okay!” Norene smiled. Her smile was beginning to make me nervous. “It took ages for Liesel to teach me how to tell when people want me to go away. I just like talking to people, so sometimes I’m a little slow. And I’m doing it again. Okay, I’ll go away now!”

“Uh…” Norene disappeared back up the stairs. “Right. Thanks? I guess.” I nodded to myself. I mean, I would probably be a little odd too, if I’d grown up surrounded by dead people. Right? Right. Perhaps it was best not to think about it too much.

I marched up to the first door Norene had pointed out. May as well get this over with. I pushed tentatively at the door. When nothing screamed or jumped out at me or assaulted my nose with horrible smells, I shoved the door the rest of the way open—

—and coughed as a cloud of dust sprang up from the floor. I stepped hastily backwards, covering my mouth and nose with my sleeve. Well, that was great. Did Norene have a vacuum? I grimaced. Probably not. Option two then. And I could only hope it would be an improvement.

All the Neighbours Are Dead

I had to admit, the view from Norene’s window was impressive. The house she’d picked was the tallest in the area, allowing me to see, as she’d promised, all the way to the border fence. From this distance, the thick forest beyond was little more than a green smudge beyond the seemingly random clusters of buildings along the fence.

What impressed me the most, however, was the way the aerial view transformed the dirty streets and ramshackle houses of the neighbourhood into something almost charming. Yes, most of the roofs looked like they needed a good repair job, but looked on from above they seemed like something out of a fairy tale—as if, hidden in one of the humble hovels was a prince or princess waiting to be discovered.

“I knew you’d like it.” Norene sounded like a cat who’d snuck a choice bit of fish off the dinner table, and when I turned to look at her, I was half-surprised not to see her with whiskers and a tail.

“It is impressive,” I agreed. “I didn’t realise the fence was so far off.”

“Oh, it’s not so far.” Norene waved her hand dismissively, stepping forward to join me at the window. “It just looks that way because the houses are so close together.”

I didn’t bother to hide the skepticism in my voice. “If you say so.”

Norene pointed out the window in the direction of the fence. “See that house there? The one with all the windows boarded up?”

Half the houses in the neighbourhood had the windows boarded up. “The one with the pointy roof?”

“Yeah, that one. A family of zombies live there, two kids and their mother.”

“Is one of the kids a girl called Meredith?” I asked, thinking of the zombie girl who’d attacked Sarai.

“I think so.” Norene wrinkled her nose. “I’m not always very good with names. Have you met her?”

“Yeah, she was…” What was the term Sarai had used? “…brain crazy.”

Norene nodded. “It happens faster with kids. That’s one thing that’s nice about being a zombie, anyway.”

“What is?”

“You don’t have to worry about brain crazy zombies going after you. Since the one kind of brain they won’t eat is zombie brain.” Norene really could make anything into an advantage.

“I guess so.”

“Really, it is. I had a cousin once who was killed by a brain crazy zombie. When they found him his head was all smashed open and there was blood and bits of bone scattered all down the street.”

I grimaced. “Too much detail.”

“Sorry.” Norene shrugged, not looking sorry at all. “Oh, and see that house just across the way?”

It was a small house with ivy climbing all the way to the roof. A couple of the windows on the upper floors looked like they still had glass in them. “Mm-hm.”

“That’s where Liesel used to hang about. Before, when she could manifest all the time. She said she liked the paintings in the basement, but the door was always locked so I couldn’t ever get a look.”

“Advantages of being a ghost, I guess,” I replied, trying my hand at Norene’s perspective.

“Exactly!”

Neighbourhood for the Short-Lived Dead

Well, on the plus side, the kitchen did contain a sink, an oven and stove, a refrigerator and freezer, plenty of counter space, a very rusty toaster, and even a dishwasher. Aside from that, I could see why Norene had been reluctant to show me the space. Every surface was coated in what could have been an inch of rust and grime. The sink looked like some child’s science experiment left in a dusty corner and forgotten for some number of years. Judging by the state of the toaster, I had to wonder if the refrigerator or oven would even open. It might have been quite a nice kitchen about a decade ago, but now it—

I sneezed.

“I did warn you,” Norene said by way of apology.

“That you did,” I agreed, swiping at my nose. I didn’t usually have trouble with dust, but I was allergic to some varieties of mold. “I think—” I sneezed again. “I think I’ll have a closer look at the kitchen later.”

“You’re not getting sick, are you?” Norene asked, leading the way back to the entryway. “Because if you do, you’re stuck with it.”

I frowned. “Stuck with it?”

“Well, because you’re dead, you’re body doesn’t fight off disease anymore. You’ll have some of the symptoms, they’ll just never go away. Do you want to see the view from the top floor now?”

“Huh. Uh, sure.” Norene started up the stairs, and I followed. “I guess that makes a sort of sense. Good things it’s just allergies, then.”

Norene continued up the stairs with quick confidence, but I made much slower progress. The stairway was narrow and dark, and every time I took I step I had to wonder if the wood would hold my weight; given the house’s general disrepair, it didn’t seem unreasonable to be concerned about the structural integrity of the stairs.

“Are you coming?” Norene called from the top of the first flight while I was still only halfway up.

“Yeah, yeah.” I paused, squinting to see the next step. “Is there really no one on the dead side who can do maintenance and repairs?”

Norene shrugged. “Sure, there are some. But no one who’d come to this part of town.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it’s mostly short-lived dead that stay in this neighbourhood.” She smiled. “Short-lived dead. That’s funny.”

I reached the landing, and Norene started up the second flight of stairs. “Go on.”

“And it’s really only living types, like banshees, and some of the longer-lived dead that are bothered with keeping things nice.”

“Wait, so then why don’t you live near the other banshees?”

She just shrugged again. “Too many rules. And I’m bad at following rules.”

“So you live out here by yourself.”

“Not anymore!” Norene ascended the last couple steps. “And here we are. Come look!”

What’s the Kitchen For?

Norene led the way into the house, holding the door open for me. By instinct, I went to take my shoes off in the entryway, then paused when I realised Norene had already continued on, feet still shod. Taking a second look around, I reconsidered my automatic action; the place was, to put it bluntly, filthy.

“It’s a bit dusty here, because I don’t spend much time in this part of the house,” Norene explained. I couldn’t tell whether it was in response to my cursory inspection, or just because it occurred to her, and decided remaining silent was probably the better option. “I like the top floor better, because you can see all the way past the border fence if it isn’t raining or something.”

I nodded along. “How many floors are there, then?”

“This one, then two above it.” She grinned. “My room’s at the top. There are a couple bedrooms on the middle floor I’ve not looked in since I moved here, so you can use one of those if you like.”

I suppressed a sigh. If this was a part of the house Norene didn’t spend much time in, I dreaded to see the state of rooms she’d not been in since moving.

“Want to come up and see the view?” she suggested, already stepping toward a hallway I presumed led to stairs.

“Actually, while we’re down here, why don’t you show me the kitchen? I assume it’s on the ground floor.”

Norene looked surprised. “The kitchen? What for?”

I frowned. “So I can see what sort of space I’ll have for cooking.”

“Well…” For the first time since I’d met her, Norene looked uncertain. “I don’t really cook—not many here on the dead side do, since everything comes through the Distribution Office anyway, so I don’t think anything really works.”

That made no sense. “Why would they build a house with a kitchen if nobody uses them?”

“Because they used to, I guess.” Norene shrugged. “The houses here were mostly built before the city was divided, so it was probably built by living side people, and if they all cook, then…”

“Right. Well, I’ll have to do something about that.” I put my hands on my hips. “Show me to the kitchen—I may as well get a look at what I’ll have to work with.”

“Are you sure? They’d probably let you use the kitchens in the Distribution Office if you asked. That seems easier than trying to fix up the kitchen here.”

I snorted. “That’s ridiculous. If we’re to grow anything in the garden, we’ll have to have a kitchen nearby to use. It’s just silly to go out to the Distribution Office every time you’re hungry.”

“Alright, I guess. I’m not sure how you’d get everything to work, though. But if you say we have to if we’re to grow things in the garden…”

I nodded vigorously. I’d already seen how Norene went about doing things she wanted to do, and having her help me bully people into getting the things we’d need would be invaluable. “Definitely. Show me the kitchen!”

What to Do With a Garden

If for some reason I had thought Norene would live somewhere at least close to my standards for decent living accommodations (which, of course, I had), I was very much wrong. The corner house she identified didn’t have the immediate pungent odour that had assaulted my nose when I’d got within breathing distance of the draugr’s house, but it didn’t appear to be much of an improvement.

“Um…why haven’t you done anything with the garden?” I asked, attempting to at least be polite in the face of Norene’s bright smile. It was the least offensive thing I could think to comment on. A complete disregard of care for the garden was at least on a slightly different level than the same disregard for the actual living quarters. And there was no doubt that the ‘garden’ hadn’t seen any sort of care in a long time. The only vaguely green things in sight were mostly brown and wilted; it looked more like a compost heap than a garden.

“What am I supposed to do with a garden?” Norene prodded at a clump of dead leaves with the toe of her boot. “I’ve never gotten anyone to explain how they get things so brightly coloured on the living side.”

“Well, you could grow lots of things.” This was at least a subject I knew something about. “Flowers, if you were after lots of colour. But they’d only bloom part of the year. I prefer edible plants myself—it makes cooking and shopping so much easier when I know exactly where at least some of my ingredients are coming from and don’t have to worry about pesticides and things.”

“You grow your own food? I like the sound of that. We get everything imported from the living side, you know. Since most people here are dead and don’t eat or eat some human body parts.”

I grimaced at the imagery of Norene’s last sentence, and decided to focus on the first half of what she said. “Well, I don’t grow all my own food, obviously. It’s important to have a varied diet. But I like having things that grow well in the environment in my garden.” I paused. “I did, anyway.”

“Where are gardens in apartments?” Norene asked, taking another of the unexpected changes in topic that I had started to grow accustomed to from her.

“There aren’t, really. I have—had—” I winced at the slip, but Norene didn’t seem to notice, “a few herbs in a window box. For the larger things, I rented some space in a community garden.”

“Huh.” Norene stepped forward and linked arms with me, dragging me towards the front door. “I’m glad you’re my friend. You know lots of interesting things. Do you think we could grow things like you did in the garden here?”