|Posted by CornelleKeveen on April 16, 2012 at 3:05 PM|
Overriding the misgivings of her pregnant lover Gillian, Francesca braves the zombie-infested Texas hill country with Gillian at her side and a floorboard full of zombie-repelling spray canisters. Their goal: to spend a weekend with famed composer and director, Sidney Foster–who is also Gillian’s ex. Francesca, a lyric soprano, sees Sidney as her express ticket to the New York world of music. With, of course, her pianist Gillian. Although the notoriously manipulative Miss Foster might still see Gillian as an express ticket to the bedroom, Francesca is confident she can handle whatever comes.
But why did the master composer turn her isolated home into an absolute beacon for every hungry zombie around?
I drove out of Austin in the fading sunset translating the light to an ever-softer melody, with Gillian in the passenger seat beside me. Oscar, our new white and tan terrier mix, rested on the console between us. Until the zombie rising, Gillian and I had kept our relationship secret. But now, with half the world zombied or just dead, hiding our truth no longer seemed important.
Night fell all too fast. As we drove farther from civilization, my aged Kia did little to keep out the foreign symphony of sounds in that ominously darkening song. Locusts droned in harmony with my engine, accompanied by the crickets' frantic descant. A wolf’s lonely cry rose, and another answered. In the city, we only had coyotes to worry about. The zombie packs and the feral dog packs harried each other more than either hunted people.
Gillian sat pretzel-legged, with a reading light reflecting off her metallic NASA suit onto the music score nestled in her lap. Her fingers played in the splintery triangles of light, using the score as a keyboard. Mental practice, she called it. Like most pianists, she put in eight to ten hours of practice a day. That schedule would be impossible for me; the voice tired more quickly than the hands.
On her model, I'd learned to touch the marks on paper while mentally passing from note to note, controlling my breath and posture, hearing the sound I needed to produce, training that mental singer in my head. Thanks to Gillian's secret, I'd become Sidney Foster's favorite soprano.
A working composer, Sidney divided her time between Austin and New York, both teaching and composing. Gillian and I belonged to her ensemble here in Austin: Troupe at the Edge of Sound. Every fall, we performed a one-act opera. This year's would happen at Halloween. The odd scheduling cut deeply into rehearsal time, hence this impromptu weekend at Sidney's remote mansion.
We slowed at a railroad crossing. I caught movement in the empty field out Gillian’s window. So did Oscar, who barked wildly. Ragged bodies hunched like screwing dogs over some unfortunate creature. The rank odor of rot instantly filled the car, and their discomforting huff-huffs of pleasure as they ate made me want to pull a two-wheeled turn and race back home.
"Oscar, hush," Gillian said, never once looking up. "I can't concentrate."
"Zombies, six or seven of them, feeding already," I told her.
She glanced up briefly. "But it isn't full dark yet."
She was right; the sky was still purple at the edge. Experts had warned this might happen, but to see it firsthand terrified me.
Gillian shuddered. "One stuck her hand through the glass of my practice room door last night. I called campus security and they came to get her. Drive faster, Francesca. I can't die yet. I'm not done learning this opera. God, Sidney's going to have my head."
Every time Gillian said her name, I fought a twinge of jealousy. They'd been involved the year before I came to Texas, and compared to Sidney I looked like an ungainly cow. I had voice, but I had a singer's body to go with it. More than once I'd caught Sidney staring at Gillian with a wistful hunger on her face, but thus far, Gillian didn't seem to respond. I worried this weekend might change things.
Hoping to ease the tension, I teased her. "You need musical perfection before you die? Don't kill me yet; I can't play the Liszt B minor."
"Don't make fun. I haven't touched my actual part in the score since September, and tomorrow, the whole ensemble might be there."
Probably not. Although none of the troupe members had refused to show up tomorrow, only the two of us had committed to come. I smoothed a comforting hand over her thigh, pressing wrinkles out of the scent-masking, heat-masking suit. "The worst Sidney can do is yell. She has to appreciate all the juggling we did."
Tonight would be just the three of us, so we could work through my two arias. Sidney was less than pleased with my interpretation of the music thus far.
Hands moving over the score again, Gillian spoke softly. "You're about to meet Sidney on her own turf. She's on her best behavior at school. There's a side to her—watch out!"
I swerved to avoid the figure stumbling across the road. The ragtag woman lurched toward the car, but I'd already snatched my foot off the brake and jabbed the gas pedal.
Gillian turned to look behind us. "One of her breasts was flapping, did you see? This is why I hate being out at night. In case you wondered, I won't be able to sleep a wink unless you're in touching distance."
"I wouldn't sleep anywhere else." Funny, I'd been worried that I'd be the one without a bed partner.
Gillian's hand smoothed down my arm, raising goose bumps under the crinkly NASA suit. She added, "Thanks. I lean on you too much."
Gillian wore her emotions wrapped around her like an antique shawl, fragile and delicate. Now that she was pregnant, as part of the Repopulate Earth project, she seemed even more vulnerable. In music, she found solace and peace, and pure, unadulterated feeling. But during our last few rehearsals, Sidney had reduced her to tears with little effort.
In retrospect, Sidney's ill-hidden glee gave me a good clue as to what we were up against this weekend. It also made me wonder about my part in Repopulate Earth. Once Gillian's child turned a year old, I was to take a turn—or not, depending on my career. I knew several excellent singers who'd lost their voices during pregnancy. And also depending on whether Gillian was then emotionally strong enough to handle my pregnant-lady hormone swings, assuming I'd have them.
I caught her hand and pressed it briefly to my cheek. "I'll tell you when you lean too much. Okay?"
"Perfect. Now I'm going to try to work through the rest of this piece."
My cue to shut the hell up. Chances were good we'd see more zombies, so I concentrated on my driving. The closer we drew to the house, the tighter my nerves wound. For Gillian's sake, I had to keep control of things.
Sidney—there was no one like her. She stood like a sorceress, molding the world by her will. How such a short, gamine woman wielded so much power, I still didn't know.
Night closed in as we pulled into the long, narrow driveway. Sidney out here alone was relatively safe, so long as she didn't use the oven or the clothes dryer or—heaven forbid—a heater. But three of us gathering in an old, unprotected house would radiate enough life signs to pose a greater risk. Zombies seemed to sense us through smell and as heat sources. If we all stayed tomorrow night, we'd draw them like moths to a flame.
Austin had been one of the hardest-hit cities in Texas. The papers blamed the city's fatefully timed experiment allowing everyone free use of the public transportation system. Contact with any body fluid could transmit the disease. Infected sweat on a bus seat was more than adequate exposure.
I parked in front of the house. Come daylight, I'd move my little Kia wherever Sidney wanted it. For now, the goal was to get safely indoors. We both reached around to gather our things from the back, sounding like women rustling around in paper bags with the invaluable suits. The thin, silver material masked both scent and heat.
"Want your helmet?"
I hated the helmets. "No, Sidney should be waiting for us. We won't be outside for long."
"I'm carrying Oscar so nothing happens to him," Gillian said.
"I know you love him, but he'll only make you that much more vulnerable. Put him on the leash."
Gillian gave a harsh sigh. "How many dogs have we lost? Four at last count, I believe."
"Without them, we'd be the dead ones, sweetie, and they have a good life with us. Better than getting gassed at the pound."
"Until they get eaten, sure. You can't rationalize the torture these poor creatures endure at the end. I can still hear them ripping sweet, little Charlie apart."
Me too. I hid my flinch and sighed. "Okay, look. I don't want to be here either, but we didn't have a valid excuse not to show up. With thirty-six hours of intensive work, we might actually be able to perform this opera without looking like idiots."
This was my chance, my big break. Being naked for my big aria should garner me some sort of attention. Even my zaftig body had its charms. In my fantasies, agents and critics rushed to the performance in droves.
"You won't leave me alone with her," she said, more a statement than a question. She tucked Oscar under her arm, protectively. So much for on the leash.
"Pinkie swear," I promised.
"Then, let's do this."