'Nurse Nora,' Julie says with a smile. 'Sounds like a kids' TV show.'
'Why a nurse?' I ask. 'Why not go for doctor?'
Nora scoffs. 'Oh, yeah, seven years of college? I doubt civilisation's even gonna last that long.'
'Yes it will,' Julie says. 'Don't talk like that. But there's nothing wrong with being a nurse. Nurses are sexy!'
Nora smiles and pulls idly at her thick black curls. She looks at me. 'Why a doctor, Pear? Is that your target?'
I shake my head emphatically. 'I've already seen enough blood and viscera for one lifetime, thanks.'
'I like writing,' I say like a confession. 'So . . . I guess I want to be a writer.'
Julie smiles. Nora tilts her head. 'Really? Do people still do that?'
'I mean, is there still like . . . a book industry?'
I shrug. 'Well . . . no. Not really. Good point, Nora.'
'Sorry, I was just . . .'
'No, I know, but you're right, it's dumb even for a fantasy. Colonel Rosso says only about thirty per cent of the world's cities are still functioning, so unless the zombies are learning how to read . . . not a great time to get into the literary arts. I'll probably just end up in Security.'
'Shut the fuck up, Perry,' Julie says, punching me in the shoulder. 'People still read.'
'Do they?' Nora asks.
'Well, I do. Who cares if there's an industry behind it? If everyone's too busy building things and shooting things to bother feeding their souls, screw them. Just write it on a notepad and give it to me. I'll read it.'
'A whole book for just one person,' Nora says, looking at me. 'Could that ever be worth it?'
Julie answers for me. 'At least his thoughts would get out of his head, right? At least someone would get to see them. I think it'd be beautiful. It'd be like owning a little piece of his brain.' She looks at me intently. 'Give me a piece of your brain, Perry. I want to taste it.'
'Oh my,' Nora laughs. 'Should I leave you two alone?'
I put my arm around Julie and smile the world-weary smile I've recently perfected. 'Oh my little girl,' I say and squeeze her. She frowns.
'What about you, Jules?' Nora says. 'What's your pipe dream?'
'I want to be a teacher.' She takes a deep breath. 'And a painter, and a singer, and a poet. And a pilot.
Nora smiles. I secretly roll my eyes. Nora passes the joint to Julie, who takes a small puff and offers it to me. I shake my head, knowing better. We all gaze out at the glittering water, three kids on the same log watching the same sunset, thinking very different thoughts while white gulls fill the air with mournful calls.
You're going to do those things, R murmurs down to Julie, and he and I swap places again. Julie looks up at me, the corpse in the clouds, floating over the ocean like a restless spirit. She gives me a radiant smile, and I know it's not really her, I know nothing I say here will ever escape the confines of my own skull, but I say it anyway. You're going to be tall and strong and brilliant, and you're going to live for ever. You're going to change the world.
'Thanks, R,' she says. 'You're so sweet. Do you think you'll be able to let me go when the time comes? Do you think you'll be able to say goodbye?'
I swallow hard. Will I really have to?
Julie shrugs, smiling innocently, and whispers, 'Shrug.'
In the morning the storm has passed. I am lying on my back in a bed next to Julie. A sharp beam of sunlight cuts through the dust in the air and makes a hot white pool on her huddled form. She is still wrapped tightly in the blankets. I get up and step out onto the front porch. The spring sun bleaches the neighbourhood white, and the only sound is rusty backyard swing sets creaking in the breeze. The dream's cold question echoes in my head. I don't want to face it, but I realise that very soon this will be over. I will return her to her daddy's porch by dark, and that will be it. The gate will boom shut, and I'll skulk away home. Will I be able to let her go? I've never asked a harder question. A month ago there was nothing on Earth I missed, enjoyed or longed for. I knew I could lose everything and not feel anything, and I rested easy in that knowledge. But I'm growing tired of easy things.
When I go back inside, Julie is sitting on the edge of the bed. She looks groggy, still half asleep. Her hair is a natural disaster, post-hurricane palm trees.
'Good morning,' I say.
She groans. I try valiantly not to stare at her as she arches her back and stretches, adjusting her bra strap and letting out a little whimper. I can see every muscle and vertebra, and since she's already half naked I imagine her without skin. I know from grim experience that there is a beauty to her inner layers, too. Marvels of symmetry and craftsmanship sealed away inside her like the jewelled movements of a timepiece, fine works of art never meant to be seen.
'What are we doing for breakfast?' she mutters. 'I'm starving.'
I hesitate. 'Can probably . . . get to . . . Stadium . . . in hour. Going to . . . need gas . . . though. For Mercey.'
She rubs her eyes. She begins to pull her still-damp clothes back on. Once again I try not to stare. Her body wiggles and bounces in ways Dead flesh doesn't.
Her eyes suddenly flash alert. 'Shit. You know what? I need to call my dad.'
She picks up the corded phone, and I'm surprised to hear a dial tone. I guess her people would have made it a priority to keep the phone lines running. Anything digital or satellite-based probably died long ago, but the physical connections, cables running underground, those might endure a little longer.
Julie dials. She waits, tensed. Then relief floods her face. 'Dad! It's Julie.'
There is a loud burst of exclamations from the other end. Julie pulls the phone away from her ear and gives me a look that says, Here we go. 'Yeah, Dad, I'm okay, I'm okay. Alive and intact. Nora told you what happened, right?' More noise from the other end. 'Yeah, I knew you'd be looking, but you were way off. It was that small hive at Oran Airport. They put me in this room with all these dead people, like a food locker or something, but after a few days . . . I guess they just forgot about me. I walked right out, hot-wired a car and drove off. I'm on my way back now, I just stopped to call you.' A pause. She glances at me. 'No, um, don't send anyone, okay? I'm in the suburbs down south, I'm almost - ' She waits. 'I don't know, somewhere close to the freeway, but Dad - ' She freezes, and her face changes. 'What?' She takes a deep breath. 'Dad, why are you talking about Mom right now? No, why are you talking about her, this is nothing like that. I'm on my way back I just - Dad! Wait, will you listen to me? Don't send anyone, I'm coming home, okay? I have a car, I'm on my way, just - Dad!' There is silence from the earpiece. 'Dad?' Silence. She bites her lip and looks at the floor. She hangs up.
I raise my eyebrows, full of questions that I'm afraid to ask.
She massages her forehead and lets out a slow breath. 'Can you go find the gas by yourself, R? I need . . . to think for a minute.' She doesn't look at me as she speaks. Tentatively, I reach out and put a hand on her shoulder. She flinches, then softens, then suddenly turns and embraces me hard, burying her face in my shirt.
'I just need a minute,' she says, pulling away and recovering herself.
So I leave her there. I find an empty gas can in the garage and begin working my way around the block, looking for a vehicle with a full tank to drain. As I kneel beside a recently crashed Chevy Tahoe with the siphon tube gurgling in my hand, I hear the sound of an engine starting in the distance. I ignore it. I focus on the taste of gasoline, harsh and astringent in my mouth. When the can is full I walk back to the cul-de-sac, closing my eyes and letting the sun flood through my eyelids. Then I open them, and just stand there for a while, holding the red plastic can like a belated birthday gift. The Mercedes is gone.
Inside the house, on the dining-room table, I find a note. Something is written on it, letters I can't assemble into words, but next to it are two Polaroids. Both pictures are of Julie, taken by Julie, with the camera extended at arm's length and pointed at herself. In one of them, she is waving. The gesture looks limp, half-hearted. In the other one, she is holding that hand against her chest. Her face is stoic, but her eyes are damp.
Goodbye, R, the picture whispers to me. It's that time now. It's time to say it. Can you say it?
I hold the picture in front of me, staring at it. I rub my fingers on it, smearing its fresh emulsion into rainbow blurs. I consider taking it with me, but no. I'm not ready to make Julie a souvenir.
Say it, R. Just say it.
I set the picture back on the table, and leave the house. I don't say it.
I begin walking back to the airport. I'm not sure what's waiting for me. Full-death? Quite possibly. After the commotion I caused, the Boneys might simply dispose of me like infectious waste. But I'm alone again. My world is small, my options are few. I don't know where else to go.
The journey of forty minutes by car will be a day-long trip on foot. As I walk, the wind seems to reverse direction, and yesterday's thunderheads creep back onto the horizon for an encore. They spiral over me, slowly shrinking the circle of blue sky like an immense camera aperture. I walk fast and stiff, almost marching.
I walk off the freeway at the next exit and climb into a triangle of landscaping between the road and the off ramp. I crash through the brush and duck into the little cluster of trees, a mini-forest of ten or twelve cedars arranged in a pleasing pattern for overstressed commuter ghosts.
I curl into a ball at the base of one of these trees, achieving some degree of shelter under its scrawny branches, and close my eyes. As lightning flickers on the horizon like flashbulbs and thunder rumbles in my bones, I drift into darkness.
I am with Julie on the 747. I realise it's a dream. A real dream, not just another rerun of Perry Kelvin's syndicated life. This is coming purely from me. The clarity has improved since the blurry sludge of my brain's first attempt back in the airport, but there's still an awkward, shaky quality to everything, like amateur video to Perry's slick feature films.
Julie and I sit cross-legged, facing each other, floating above the clouds on the plane's bright white wing. The wind ruffles our hair, but no more than a leisurely ride in a convertible.
'So you dream now?' Julie says.
I smile nervously. 'I guess I do.'
Julie doesn't smile. Her eyes are cold. 'Guess you had nothing to dream about till you got some girl problems. You're like a grade-school kid trying to keep a diary.'
Now we're on the ground, sitting on a sunny green suburban lawn. A morbidly obese couple barbecues human limbs in the background. I try to keep Julie in focus.
'I'm changing,' I tell her.
'I don't care,' she replies. 'I'm home now. I'm back in the real world, where you don't exist. Summer camp is over.'
A winged Mercedes rumbles past in the distant sky and vanishes in a muffled sonic boom.
'I'm gone,' she says, staring me hard in the eyes. 'It was fun, but it's over now. This is how things go.'
I shake my head, avoiding her gaze. 'I'm not ready.'
'What did you think was going to happen?'
'I don't know. I was just hoping for something. A miracle.'
'Miracles don't exist. There is cause and effect, dreams and reality, Living and Dead. Your hope is absurd. Your romanticism, embarrassing.'
I look at her uneasily.
'It's time for you to grow up. Julie has gone back to her position, and you will go back to your position, and that is the way it is. Always has been. Always will be.'
She grins, and her teeth are jagged yellow fangs. She kisses me, gnawing through my lips, biting out my teeth, gnashing up towards my brain and screaming like a dying child. I gag on my hot red blood.
My eyes flash open and I stand up, pushing dripping branches out of my face. It's still night. The rain is still pummelling the earth. I step out of the trees and climb up onto the overpass. I lean against the railing, looking out at the empty freeway and the dark horizon beyond it. One thought pounds in my head like a migraine of rage: You're wrong. You fucking monsters are wrong. About everything.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse a silhouette on the other side of the overpass. The dark form moves towards me with steady, lumbering steps. I hunch my muscles together, preparing for a fight. After wandering alone for too long, the unincorporated Dead will sometimes lose the ability to distinguish their own kind from the Living. And some are so far gone, so deep into this way of life, they just don't care either way. They will eat anyone, anything, anywhere, because they can't fathom any other way to interact. I imagine one of these creatures surprising Julie as she stops the Mercedes to get her bearings, wrapping filthy hands around her face and biting down on her slender neck, and as that image ferments in my head, I prepare to tear this thing in front of me to unrecognisable shreds. The primordial rage that fills me every time I think of someone harming her is frightening. The violence of killing and eating people feels like friendly teasing compared to this consuming bloodlust.
The towering shadow staggers closer. A flash of lightning illuminates its face, and I drop my arms to my sides.
I almost fail to recognise him at first. His face has been torn and clawed, and there are countless small chunks bitten out of his body.
'Hey,' he grunts. The rain streaks down his face and pools in his wounds. 'Let's . . . get out of . . . rain.' He walks past my leaky trees and climbs down the slope to the freeway below. I follow him to the dry space under the overpass. We huddle there in the dirt, surrounded by old beer cans and syringes.
'What . . . doing . . . he . . . out . . . out here?' I ask him, fighting for the words. I've been silent less than a day and I'm already rusty.
'Take . . . guess,' M says, pointing at his wounds. 'Boneys. Drove me out.'
M grunts. 'Fuck . . . it.' He kicks a sun-faded beer can. 'But guess . . . what?' Something like a smile illuminates his mangled face. 'Some . . . came with me.'
He points down the freeway, and I see about nine other figures moving slowly towards us.
I look at M, confused. 'Came . . . with? Why?'
He shrugs. 'Things . . . crazy . . . back home. Routines . . . shook.' He jabs a finger at me. 'You.'
'You and . . . her. Something . . . in air. Movement.'
The nine zombies stop under the overpass and stand there, looking at us blankly.
'Hi,' I say.
They sway and groan a little. One of them nods.
'Where's . . . girl?' M asks me.
'Her name is Julie.' This comes off my tongue fluidly, like a swish of warm camomile.
'Ju . . . lie,' M repeats with some effort. 'Okay. Where's . . . she?'
'Left. Went home.'
M studies my face. He drops a hand onto my shoulder. 'You . . . okay?'
I close my eyes and take a slow breath. 'No.' I look out at the freeway, towards the city, and something blooms in my head. First a feeling, then a thought, then a choice. 'I'm going after her.'
Six syllables. I have broken my record again.
'To . . . Stadium?'
'To . . . save her.'
'From . . . what?'
'Ev . . . rything.'
M just looks at me for a long time. Among the Dead, a piercing look can last several minutes. I wonder if he can possibly have any idea what I'm talking about, when I'm not even sure I do. Just a gut feeling. The soft pink zygote of a plan.
He gazes up at the sky, and a faraway look comes into his eyes. 'Had . . . dream . . . last night. Real dream. Memories.'
I stare at him.
'Remembered . . . when young. Summer. Cocoa . . . Puffs. A girl.' His eyes refocus on me. 'What . . . is it like?'
'You've . . . felt. Do you know . . . what it is?'
'What are . . . talking about?'
'My dream,' he says, his face full of wonder like a child's at a telescope. 'Those things . . . love?'
A tingle runs up my spine. What is happening? To what distant reaches of space is our planet hurtling? M is dreaming, reclaiming memories, asking astonishing questions. I am breaking my syllable records every day. Nine unknown Dead are with us under this overpass, miles from the airport and the hissing commands of the skeletons, standing here awaiting . . . something.
A fresh canvas is unfurling in front of us. What do we paint on it? What's the first hue to splash on this blank field of grey?
'I'll . . . go with,' M says. 'Help you . . . get in. Save her.' He turns to the waiting Dead. 'Help us?' he asks, not raising his voice above its easy rumble. 'Help save . . . girl? Save . . .' He closes his eyes and concentrates. 'Ju . . . lie?'
The Dead quicken at the sound of the name, fingers twitching and eyes darting. M looks pleased. 'Help find . . . something lost?' he asks in a voice more solid than I've ever heard from his tattered throat. 'Help . . . exhume?'
The zombies look at M. They look at me. They look at each other. One of them shrugs. Another nods. 'Help,' one of them groans, and they all wheeze in agreement.
I find a grin spreading across my face. I don't know what I'm doing, how I'm doing it, or what will happen when it's done, but at the very bottom of this rising siege-ladder, I at least know I'm going to see Julie again. I know I'm not going to say goodbye. And if these staggering refugees want to help, if they think they see something bigger here than a boy chasing a girl, then they can help, and we'll see what happens when we say Yes while this rigor mortis world screams No.
We start lumbering north on the southbound freeway, and the thunder drifts away towards the mountains as if it's scared of us.
Here we are on the road. We must be going somewhere.