Half a dozen years had passed since that first summer in Alna, and almost nothing had changed. The town was still full of young people crashing junk cars, dirty diapers littering the parking lots. There were x-ed–out smiley faces spray-painted over street signs, on the soaped-up windows of empty storefronts, all over the boarded-up Dairy Queen long since blackened by fire and warped by rain. And the zombies, of course, still inhabited Alna’s shadowy, empty hilltop downtown. They slumped on the curb nodding, or else they rifled through dumpsters for things to fix or sell. I often saw them speed-walking up and down the slopes of Main Street with toasters or TV sets under their arms, ghost faces smeared with Alna’s dirt, leaving a trail of garbage in their wake. If they ever left Alna, cleaned up, shipped out, the magic of the place would vanish. Monday, Wednesday, Friday—I figured three times a week was a sane frequency—I visited that bus-depot restroom, my ten-dollar bill at the ready.

Nobody ever asked me any questions. The zombie in charge just handed me my little nugget, my little jewel, kept his face hidden under the hood of his raggedy sweatshirt, sweat dripping off his chin and plinking down onto the dirty bathroom tiles. There was no logic to what was kept in stock on a given day. Each time I got home and tried what they’d given me, it was always the right stuff. It was always a revelation. Never once did those zombies steer me wrong.

Clark never got that about the zombies—their supernatural wonder. He was too concerned with his own intelligence to see the bigger picture. He thought that the drugs we bought in the bus-depot restroom were intended to expand his mind, as though some door could be unlocked up there and he would greet his own genius—some glowing alien in glasses and sneakers, spinning planet Earth on its finger. Clark was an idiot. We saw each other once or twice each summer. I’d take him out to eat in Pittville to thank him for his help with the house, and I’d listen to him gripe about how hard the winter had been, the state of affairs at the college, budget cuts, local government, the health of his dog. He quoted Shakespeare too often. And that’s just life was a common phrase he used to sound deep and wary—a perfect example of his laziness. Still, I didn’t hate him. A few times we even tried to recapture whatever odd coincidence of lonesomeness and availability we’d found together that first summer in Alna, but inevitably one of our body parts would fail us—sometimes his, sometimes mine. It was always humbling when that happened. Time was passing, I was getting old, “middle-aged,” my sister called it. The truth was undeniable: I’d be dead soon. I considered this every morning I walked home from the bus-depot bathroom, a little foil-wrapped turd of drugs stuffed in with the lint and pennies in the pocket of my pleated khaki shorts.