Ten minutes later, the storm has launched into its big opening movement, and we are getting soaked. The convertible was a poor choice for a day like this. Neither of us can figure out how to put the top up, so we drive in silence with heavy sheets of rain beating down on our heads. We don't complain, though. We try to stay positive.
'Do you know where you're going?' Julie asks after about twenty minutes. Her hair is matted flat on her face.
'Yes,' I say, looking down the road at the dark grey horizon.
'Are you sure? 'Cause I have no idea.'
'Very . . . sure.'
I prefer not to explain why I know the route between the airport and the city so well. Our hunting route. Yes, she knows what I am and what I do, but do I have to remind her? Can we just have a nice drive and forget certain things for a while? In the sunny fields of my imagination we are not a teenager and a walking corpse driving in a rainstorm. We are Frank and Ava cruising tree-lined country lanes while a scratchy vinyl orchestra swoons our soundtrack.
'Maybe we should stop and ask directions.'
I look at her. I look around at the crumbling districts surrounding us, nearly black in the evening gloom.
'Kidding,' she says, her eyes peeking out between plastered wet clumps of hair. She leans back in the seat and folds her arms behind her head. 'Let me know when you need a break. You kinda drive like an old lady.'
As the rain pools into standing water at our feet, I notice Julie shivering a little. It's a warm spring night, but she's saturated, and the cab of the old convertible is a cyclone of freeway wind. I take the next exit, and we ease down into a silent graveyard of suburban grid homes. Julie looks at me with questioning eyes. I can hear her teeth chattering.
I drive slowly past the houses, looking for a good place to stop for the night. Eventually I pull into a weedy cul-de-sac and park next to a rusted mini-van. I take Julie's hand and pull her towards the nearest house. The door is locked, but the dry-rotted wood gives way with a light kick. We step into the relative warmth of some long-dead family's cosy little nest. There are old Coleman lanterns placed throughout the house, and once Julie lights them they provide a flickering campsite glow that feels oddly comforting. She ambles around the kitchen and living room, looking at toys, dishes, stacks of old magazines. She picks up a stuffed koala bear and looks it in the eyes. 'Home sweet home,' she mumbles.
She reaches into her messenger bag, pulls out a Polaroid camera, points it at me and snaps a shot. The flash is shocking in this dark place. She grins at my startled expression and holds up the camera. 'Look familiar? I stole it from the skeletons' meeting room yesterday morning.' She hands me the developing photo. 'It's important to preserve memories, you know? Especially now, since the world is on its way out.' She puts the viewfinder to her eye and turns in a slow circle, taking in the whole room. 'Everything you see, you might be seeing for the last time.'
I wave the picture in my hand. A ghostly image begins to take shape. It's me, R, the corpse that thinks it's alive, staring back at me with those wide, pewter-grey eyes. Julie hands the camera to me.
'You should always be taking pictures, if not with a camera then with your mind. Memories you capture on purpose are always more vivid than the ones you pick up by accident.' She strikes a pose and grins. 'Cheese!'
I take her picture. When it rolls out of the camera she reaches for it, but I pull it away and hide it behind my back. I hand her mine. She rolls her eyes. She takes the photo and studies it, tilting her head. 'Your complexion looks a little better. The rain must have cleaned you up a bit.'
She lowers the photo and squints at me for a moment. 'Why are your eyes like that?'
I look at her warily. 'Like . . . what?'
'That weird grey. It's nothing like how corpse eyes look. Not clouded over or anything. Why are they like that?'
I give this some thought. 'Don't know. Happens at . . . conversion.'
She's looking at me so hard I start to squirm. 'It's creepy,' she says. 'Looks . . . supernatural, almost. Do they ever change colour? Like when you kill people or something?'
I try not to sigh. 'I think . . . you're thinking . . . of vampires.'
'Oh, right, right.' She chuckles and gives a rueful shake of her head. 'At least those aren't real yet. Too many monsters to keep track of these days.'
Before I can take offence, she looks up at me and smiles. 'Anyway . . . I like them. Your eyes. They're actually kinda pretty. Creepy . . . but pretty.'
It's probably the best compliment I've received in my entire Dead life. Ignoring my idiot stare, Julie wanders off into the house, humming to herself.
The storm is raging outside, with occasional thunderclaps. I'm grateful that our house happens to have all its windows intact. Most of the others' were smashed long ago by looters or feeders. I glimpse a few debrained corpses on our neighbours' green lawns, but I'd like to imagine our hosts got out alive. Made it to one of the Stadiums, maybe even some walled-off paradise in the mountains, angelic choirs singing behind pearl-studded titanium gates . . .
I sit in the living room listening to the rain fall while Julie putters around the house. After a while she comes back with an armful of dry clothes and dumps them on the love seat. She holds up a pair of jeans about ten sizes too big. 'What do you think?' she says, wrapping the waist around her entire body. 'Do these make me look fat?' She drops them and digs around in the pile, pulls out a mass of cloth that appears to be a dress. 'I can use this for a tent if we get lost in the woods tomorrow. God, these folks must have made a fancy feast for some lucky zombie.'
I shake my head, making a gag face.
'What, you don't eat fat people?'
'Fat . . . not alive. Waste product. Need . . . meat.'
She laughs. 'Oh, so you're an audiophile and a food snob! Jesus.' She tosses the clothes aside and lets out a deep breath. 'Well, all right. I'm exhausted. The bed in there isn't too rotten. I'm going to sleep.'
I lie back on the cramped love seat, settling in for a long night alone with my thoughts. But Julie doesn't leave. Standing there in the bedroom doorway, she looks at me for a long minute. I've seen this look before, and I brace myself for whatever's coming.
'R . . .' she says. 'Do you . . . have to eat people?'
I sigh inside, so exhausted by these ugly questions, but when did a monster ever deserve its privacy?
'Or you'll die?'
'But you didn't eat me.'
'You rescued me. Like three times.'
I nod slowly.
'And you haven't eaten anyone since then, right?'
I frown in concentration, thinking back. She's right. Not counting the few bites of leftover brains here and there, I've been gastronomically celibate since the day I met her.
A peculiar little half-smile twitches on her face. 'You're kind of . . . changing, aren't you?'
As usual, I am speechless.
'Well, goodnight,' she says, and shuts the bedroom door.
I lie there on the love seat, gazing up at the water-stained cottage-cheese ceiling.
'What's going on with you?' M asks me over a cup of mouldy coffee in the airport Starbucks. 'Are you okay?'
'Yeah, I'm okay. Just changing.'
'How can you change? If we all start from the same blank slate, what makes you diverge?'
'Maybe we're not blank. Maybe the debris of our old lives still shapes us.'
'But we don't remember those lives. We can't read our diaries.'
'It doesn't matter. We are where we are, however we got here. What matters is where we go next.'
'But can we choose that?'
'I don't know.'
'We're Dead. Can we really choose anything?'
'Maybe. If we want to bad enough.'
The rain drumming on the roof. The creak of weary timbers. The prickle of the old cushions through the holes in my shirt. I'm busy searching my post-death memory for the last time I went this long without food when I notice Julie standing in the doorway again. Her arms are folded on her chest and her hip is pressed against the door frame. Her foot taps an anxious rhythm on the floor.
'What?' I ask.
'Well . . .' she says. 'I was just thinking. The bed's a king-size. So I guess, if you wanted to . . . I wouldn't care if you joined me in there.' I raise my eyebrows a little. Her face reddens. 'Look, all I'm saying - all I'm saying - is I don't mind giving you a side of the bed. These rooms are kinda spooky, you know? I don't want the ghost of Mrs Sprat crushing me in my sleep. And considering I haven't showered in over a week, you really don't smell much worse than I do - maybe we'll cancel each other out.' She shrugs one shoulder, whatever, and disappears into the bedroom.
I wait a few minutes. Then, with great uncertainty, I get up and follow her in. She is already in the bed, curled into the foetal position with the blankets pulled tight around her. I slowly ease myself onto the far opposite edge. The blankets are all on her side, but I certainly don't need to stay warm. I am perpetually room-temperature.
Despite the pile of luxurious down comforters wrapped around her, Julie is still shivering. 'These clothes are . . .' she mutters, and sits up in bed. 'Fuck.' She glances over at me. 'I'm going to lay my clothes out to dry. Just . . . relax, okay?' With her back to me, she wriggles out of her wet jeans and peels her shirt over her head. The skin of her back is blue-white from the cold. Almost the same hue as mine. In her polka-dot bra and plaid panties, she gets out of bed and drapes her clothes over the dresser, then quickly crawls back under the covers and curls up. 'Goodnight,' she says.
I lie back on my folded arms, staring up at the ceiling. We are both on the very edges of the mattress, about four feet of space between us. I get the feeling that it's not just my ghoulish nature that makes her so wary. Living or Dead, virile or impotent, I still appear to be a man, and maybe she thinks I'll act the same as any other man would, lying so close to a beautiful woman. Maybe she thinks I'll try to take things from her. That I'll slither over and try to consume her. But then why am I even in this bed? Is it a test? For me, or for her? What strange hopes are compelling her to take this chance?
I listen to her breathing slow as she falls asleep. After a few hours, with her fear safely tucked away in dreams, she rolls over, removing most of the gap between us. She's facing me now. Her faint breath tickles my ear. If she were to wake up right now, would she scream? Could I ever make her understand how safe she really is? I won't deny that this proximity ignites more urges in me than the instinct to kill and eat. But although these new urges are there, some of them startling in their intensity, all I really want to do is lie next to her. In this moment, the most I'd ever hope for would be for her to lay her head on my chest, let out a warm, contented breath, and sleep.
Now here is an oddity. A question for the zombie philosophers. What does it mean that my past is a fog but my present is brilliant, bursting with sound and colour? Since I became Dead I've recorded new memories with the fidelity of an old cassette deck, faint and muffled and ultimately forgettable. But I can recall every hour of the last few days in vivid detail, and the thought of losing a single one horrifies me. Where am I getting this focus? This clarity? I can trace a solid line from the moment I met Julie all the way to now, lying next to her in this sepulchral bedroom, and despite the millions of past moments I've lost or tossed away like highway trash, I know with a lockjawed certainty I'll remember this one for the rest of my life.
Sometime in the pre-dawn, as I lie there on my back with no real need to rest, a dream flickers on like a film reel behind my eyes. Except it's not a dream, it's a vision, far too crisp and bright for my lifeless brain to have rendered. Usually these second-hand memories are preceded by the taste of blood and neurons, but not tonight. Tonight I close my eyes and it just happens, a surprise midnight showing.
We open on a dinner scene. A long metal table laid out with a minimalist spread. Bowl of rice. Bowl of beans. Rectangle of flax bread.
'Thank you, Lord, for this food,' says the man at the head of the table, hands folded in front of him but eyes wide open. 'Bless it to our bodies. Amen.'
Julie nudges the boy sitting next to her. He squeezes her thigh under the table. The boy is Perry Kelvin. I'm in Perry's mind again. His brain is gone, his life evaporated and inhaled . . . yet he's still here. Is this a chemical flashback? A trace of his brain still dissolving somewhere in my body? Or is it actually him? Still holding on somewhere, somehow, somewhy?
'So, Perry,' Julie's dad says to him - to me. 'Julie tells me you're working for Agriculture now.'
I swallow my rice. 'Yes, sir, General Grigio, I'm a - '
'This isn't the mess hall, Perry, this is dinner. Mr Grigio will be fine.'
'Okay. Yes, sir.'
There are four chairs at the table. Julie's father sits at the head, and she and I sit next to each other on his right. The chair at the other end of the table is empty. What Julie tells me about her mother is this: 'She left when I was twelve.' And though I've gently probed, she has never offered me more, not even while we're lying naked in my twin bed, exhausted and happy and as vulnerable as any two people can be.
'I'm a planter right now,' I tell her father, 'but I think I'm on track for a promotion. I'm shooting for harvest supervisor.'
'I see,' he says, nodding thoughtfully. 'That isn't a bad job . . . but I wonder why you don't join your father in Construction. I'm sure he could use more young men working on that all-important corridor.'
'He's asked me to, but ah . . . I don't know, I just don't think Construction is the place for me right now. I like working with plants.'
'Plants,' he repeats.
'I just think in times like these there's something meaningful about growing things. The soil's so depleted it's hard to get much out of it, but it's pretty satisfying when you finally do see some green coming through that grey crust.'
Mr Grigio stops chewing, blank-faced. Julie looks uneasy. 'Remember that little shrub we had in our living room back east?' she says. 'The one that looked like a skinny little tree?'
'Yes . . .' her dad says. 'What about it?'
'You loved that thing. Don't act like you don't get gardening.'
'That was your mother's plant.'
'But you're the one who loved it.' She turns to me. 'So Dad used to be quite the interior designer, believe it or not; he had our old house decked out like an IKEA showroom, all this modern glass and metal stuff, which my mom couldn't stand - she wanted everything earthy and natural, all hemp fibre and sustainable hardwoods . . .'
Mr Grigio's face looks tight. Julie either doesn't notice or doesn't care.
'. . . so to fight back, she buys this lush, bright green shrub, puts it in a huge wicker pot, and sticks it right in the middle of Dad's perfect white-and-silver living room.'
'It wasn't my living room, Julie,' he interjects. 'As I recall we took a vote on every piece of furniture, and you always sided with me.'
'I was like eight, Dad, I probably liked pretending I lived in a spaceship. Anyway, Mom buys this plant and they argue about it for a week - Dad says it's "incongruous", Mom says either the plant stays or she goes - ' She hesitates momentarily. Her father's face gets tighter. 'That, um, that went on for a while,' she resumes, 'but then Mom being Mom, she got obsessed with something else and quit watering the plant. So when it started dying, guess who adopted the poor thing?'
'I wasn't going to have a dead shrub as our living room's centrepiece. Someone had to take care of it.'
'You watered it every day, Dad. You gave it plant food and pruned it.'
'Yes, Julie, that's how you keep a plant alive.'
'Why can't you admit you loved the stupid plant, Dad?' She regards him with a mixture of amazement and frustration. 'I don't get it, what is so wrong with that?'
'Because it's absurd,' he snaps, and the mood of the room suddenly shifts. 'You can water and prune a plant but you cannot "love" a plant.'
Julie opens her mouth to speak, then shuts it.
'It's a meaningless decoration. It sits there consuming time and resources, and then one day it decides to die, no matter how much you watered it. It's absurd to attach an emotion to something so pointless and brief.'
There are a few long seconds of silence. Julie breaks away from her father's stare and pokes at her rice. 'Anyway,' she mumbles, 'my point was, Perry . . . that Dad used to be a gardener. So you should share gardening stories.'
'I'm interested in a lot more than gardening,' I say, racing to change the subject.
'Oh?' Mr Grigio says.
'Yeah, ah . . . motorcycles? I salvaged a BMW R 1200 R a while ago and I've been working on bulletproofing it, getting it combat-ready just in case.'
'You have mechanical experience, then. That's good. We have a shortage of mechanics in the Armoury right now.'
Julie rolls her eyes and shovels beans into her mouth.
'I'm also spending a lot of time on my marksmanship. I've been requesting extra assignments from school and I've gotten pretty good with the M40.'
'Hey, Perry,' Julie says, 'why don't you tell Dad about your other plans? Like how you've always wanted to - '
I step on her foot. She glares at me.
'Always wanted to what?' her father asks.
'I don't - I'm not really . . .' I take a drink of water. 'I'm not really sure yet, sir, to be honest. I'm not sure what I want to do with my life. But I'm sure I'll have it figured out by the time I start high school.'
What were you going to say? R wonders aloud, interrupting the scene again, and I feel a lurch as we swap places. Perry glances up at him - at me - frowning.
'Come on, corpse, not now. This is the first time I met Julie's father and it's not going well. I need to focus.'
'It's going fine,' Julie tells Perry. 'This is my dad these days, I warned you about him.'
'You better pay attention,' Perry says to me. 'You might have to meet him someday, too, and you're going to have a much harder time winning his approval than I did.'
Julie runs a hand through Perry's hair. 'Aw, babe, don't talk about the present. It makes me feel left out.'
He sighs. 'Yeah, okay. These were better times anyway. I turned into a real neutron star when I grew up.'
I'm sorry I killed you, Perry. It's not that I wanted to, it's just -
'Forget it, corpse, I understand. Seems by that point I wanted out anyway.'
'I bet I'll always miss you when I think back to these days,' Julie says wistfully. 'You were pretty cool before Dad got his claws into you.'
'Take care of her, will you?' Perry whispers up to me. 'She's been through some hard stuff. Keep her safe.'
Mr Grigio clears his throat. 'I would start planning now if I were you, Perry. With your skill set, you should really consider Security training. Green shoots coming through the dirt are all well and good but we don't strictly need all these fruits and vegetables. You can live on nothing but Carbtein for almost a year before cell fatigue is even measurable. The most important thing is keeping us all alive.'
Julie tugs on Perry's arm. 'Come on, do we have to sit through this again?'
'Nah,' Perry says. 'This isn't worth reliving. Let's go somewhere nice.'
We're on a beach. Not a real beach, carved over the millennia by the master craft of the ocean - those are all underwater now. We're on the young shore of a recently flooded city port. Small patches of sand appear between broken slabs of sidewalk. Barnacled street lamps rise out of the surf, a few of them still flickering on in the evening gloom, casting circles of orange light on the waves.
'Okay, guys,' Julie says, throwing a stick into the water. 'Quiz time. What do you want to do with your life?'
'Oh, hi, Mr Grigio,' I mutter, sitting next to Julie on a driftwood log that was once a telephone pole.
She ignores me. 'Nora, you go first. And I don't mean what do you think you will end up doing, I mean what do you want to do.'
Nora is sitting in the sand in front of the log, playing with some pebbles and pinching a smouldering joint between her middle finger and the stub of her ring finger, missing past the first knuckle. Her eyes are earth brown; her skin is creamy coffee. 'Maybe nursing?' she says. 'Healing people, saving lives . . . maybe working on a cure? I could get into that.'