I am young. I am a teenage boy aflame with health, strong and virile and pounding with energy. But I get older. Every second ages me. My cells spread themselves thinner, stiffening, cooling, darkening. I am fifteen, but each death around me adds a decade. Each atrocity, each tragedy, each small moment of sadness. Soon I will be ancient.
Here I am, Perry Kelvin in the Stadium. I hear birds in the walls. The bovine moans of pigeons, the musical chirps of starlings. I look up and breathe deep. The air is so much cleaner lately, even here. I wonder if this is what the world smelled like when it was new, centuries before smokestacks. It frustrates and fascinates me that we'll never know for sure, that despite the best efforts of historians and scientists and poets, there are some things we'll just never know. What the first song sounded like. How it felt to see the first photograph. Who kissed the first kiss, and if it was any good.
I smile and wave at my little admirer as he and his dozen foster-siblings cross the street in a line, hand in hand. 'Hey . . . buddy,' I call to him. I can never remember his name.
'We're going to the gardens!'
Julie Grigio grins at me, leading their line like a mother swan. In a city of thousands I run into her almost every day, sometimes near the schools where it seems probable, sometimes in the outermost corners of the Stadium where the odds are slim. Is she stalking me or am I stalking her? Either way, I feel a pulse of stress hormones shoot through me every time I see her, rushing to my palms to make them sweat and to my face to make it pimply. Last time we met, she took me up on the roof. We listened to music for hours, and when the sun went down, I'm pretty sure we almost kissed.
'Want to come with us, Perry?' she says. 'It's a field trip!'
'Oh fun . . . a field trip to where I just spent eight hours working.'
'Hey, there aren't a lot of options in this place.'
'So I've noticed.'
She waves for me to come over and I immediately comply, while trying my best to look reluctant. 'Don't they ever get to go outside?' I wonder, watching the kids march in clumsy lockstep.
'Mrs Grau would say we are outside.'
'I mean outside. Trees, rivers, etc.'
'Not till they're twelve.'
'Yeah . . .'
We walk in silence except for the burble of child-speak behind us. The Stadium walls loom protectively like the parents these kids will never know. My excitement at seeing Julie darkens under a sudden cloud of melancholy.
'How do you stand it here,' I say, barely a question.
Julie frowns at me. 'We get to go out. Twice a month.'
'I know, but . . .'
She waits. 'What, Perry?'
'Do you ever wonder if it's even worth it?' I gesture vaguely at the walls. 'All this?'
Her expression sharpens.
'I mean, are we really that much better off in here?'
'Perry,' she snaps with unexpected vehemence. 'Don't you start talking like that, don't you fucking start.'
She notices the abrupt silence behind us and cringes. 'Sorry,' she says to the kids in a confidential whisper. 'Bad words.'
'Fuck!' my little friend yells, and the whole line explodes with laughter.
Julie rolls her eyes. 'Great.'
'You shut your mouth. I meant what I said to you. That's evil talk.'
I look at her uncertainly.
'We get to go outside twice a month. More if we're on salvage. And we get to stay alive.' She sounds like she's reciting a Bible verse. An old proverb. As if sensing her own lack of conviction she glances at me, then snaps her eyes forward. Her voice goes quiet. 'No more evil talk if you want to come on our field trip.'
'You haven't been here long enough. You grew up in a safe place. You don't understand the dangers.'
Dark feelings flood my belly at this, but I manage to hold my tongue. I don't know the pain she's speaking from, but I know it's deep. It makes her hard and yet so terribly soft. It's her thorns and it's her hand reaching out from the thicket.
'Sorry,' I say again and fumble for that hand, nudging it out of her jeans pocket. It's warm. My cold fingers wrap around hers, and my mind conjures an unwelcome image of tentacles. I blink it away. 'No more evil talk.'
The kids gaze at me eagerly, huge eyes, spotless cheeks. I wonder what they are and what they mean and what's going to happen to them.
'I think I have a girlfriend.'
My dad lowers his clipboard, adjusts his hard hat. A smile creeps into the deep creases of his face. 'Really.'
'I think so.'
He nods. 'I've met her. She's - hey! Doug!' He leans over the edge of the bulwark and yells at a worker carrying a steel pylon. 'That's forty-gauge, Doug, we're using fifty for the arterial sections.' He looks back at me. 'She's cute. Watch out though; seems like a firecracker.'
'I like firecrackers.'
My dad smiles. His eyes drift. 'Me too, kid.'
His walkie-talkie crackles and he pulls it out, starts giving instructions. I look out at the ugly concrete vista under construction. We are standing on the terminating end of a wall, fifteen feet high, currently a few blocks long. Another wall runs parallel to it, making Main Street into an enclosed corridor that cuts through the heart of the city. Workers swarm below, laying concrete pour-forms, erecting framework.
'Do you think it's stupid?'
'To fall in love.'
He pauses, then puts his walkie away. 'What do you mean, Pear.'
'Like . . . now. The way things are now. I mean, everything's so uncertain . . . is it stupid to waste time on stuff like that in a world like this? When everything might fall apart any minute?'
My dad looks at me for a long time. 'When I met your mom,' he says, 'I asked myself that. And all we had going on back then was a few wars and recessions.' His walkie starts crackling again. He ignores it. 'I got nineteen years with your mom. But do you think I would've turned down the idea if I'd known I'd only get one year? Or one month?' He surveys the construction, shaking his head slowly. 'There's no benchmark for how life's "supposed" to happen, Perry. There is no ideal world for you to wait around for. The world is always just what it is now, and it's up to you how you respond to it.'
I look into the dark window holes of ruined office buildings. I imagine the skeletons of their occupants still sitting at their desks, working towards quotas they will never meet.
'What if you'd only gotten a week with her?'
'Perry . . .' my dad says, slightly amazed. 'The world isn't ending tomorrow, buddy. Okay? We're working on fixing it. Look.' He points at the work crews below. 'We're building roads. We're going to connect to the other stadiums and hideouts, bring the enclaves together, pool our research and resources, maybe start working on a cure.' My dad claps me on the shoulder. 'You and me, everyone . . . we're going to make it. Don't give up on us yet. Okay?'
I relent with a small release of breath. 'Okay.'
My dad smiles. 'I'll hold you to that.'
Do you know what happened next, corpse? Perry whispers from the deep shadows of my awareness. Can you guess?
'Why are you showing me all this,' I ask the darkness.
Because it's what's left of me, and I want you to feel it. I'm not ready to disappear.
'Neither am I.'
I sense a cold smile in his voice.
'There you are.'
Julie heaves herself up the ladder and stands on the roof of my new home, watching me. I glance at her, then put my face back in my hands.
She makes her way over, cautious steps on the flimsy sheet metal, and sits next to me on the roof edge. Our legs dangle, swinging slowly in the cold autumn air.
I don't answer. She studies the side of my face. She reaches out and brushes two fingers through my shaggy hair. Her blue eyes pull on me like gravity, but I resist. I stare down at the muddy street.
'I can't believe I'm here,' I mumble. 'This stupid house. With all these discards.'
She doesn't respond immediately. When she does, it's quiet. 'They're not discards. They were loved.'
'For a while.'
'Their parents didn't leave. They were taken.'
'Is there a difference?'
She looks at me so hard I have no choice but to meet her gaze. 'Your mom loved you, Perry. You've never had to doubt that. And so did your dad.'
I can't hold the weight. I give in and let it fall on me. I twist my head away from Julie as the tears come.
'Believe that God discarded you if you want to, fate or destiny or whatever, but at least you know they loved you.'
'What does it even matter,' I croak, avoiding her eyes. 'Who gives a shit. They're dead. That's the present. That's what matters now.'
We don't speak for a few minutes. The cold breeze pricks tiny bumps on our arms. Bright leaves find their way in from the outer forests, spinning down into the Stadium's vast mouth and landing on the house's roof.
'You know what, Perry,' Julie says. Her voice is shaky with hurts all her own. 'Everything dies eventually. We all know that. People, cities, whole civilisations. Nothing lasts. So if existence was just binary, dead or alive, here or not here, what would be the fucking point in anything?' She looks up at some falling leaves and puts out her hand to catch one, a flaming red maple. 'My mom used to say that's why we have memory. And the opposite of memory - hope. So things that are gone can still matter. So we can build off our pasts and make futures.' She twirls the leaf in front of her face, back and forth. 'Mom said life only makes any sense if we can see time how God does. Past, present and future all at once.'
I allow myself to look at Julie. She sees my tears and tries to wipe one away. 'So what's the future?' I ask, not flinching as her fingers brush my eye. 'I can see the past and the present, but what's the future?'
'Well . . .' she says with a broken laugh. 'I guess that's the tricky part. The past is made out of facts and history . . . I guess the future is just hope.'
'No.' She shakes her head firmly and sticks the leaf in my hair. 'Hope.'
The Stadium rises on the horizon as the Dead stumble forward. It looms above most of the surrounding buildings and consumes several city blocks, a gaudy monument to an era of excess, a world of waste and want and misguided dreams that is now profoundly over.
Our cadaverous cadre has been walking for a little over a day, roaming the open roads like Kerouac beats with no gas money. The others are hungry, and there's a brief, mostly wordless debate between M and the rest before they stop at an old boarded-up town house to feed. I wait outside. It's been more days than I can remember since my last meal, but I find myself strangely content. There's a neutral feeling in my veins, balanced precisely between hungry and sated. The screams of the people in the house pierce me more sharply than in all my days of hands-on killing, and I'm not even anywhere near them. I'm standing far out in the street, pushing my palms into my ears and waiting for it to be over.
When they emerge, M avoids my gaze. He wipes the blood off his mouth with the back of his hand and shoots me just one guilty glance before brushing past. The others are not quite there yet, not even to M's level of conscience, but there is something a little different about them, too. They take no leftovers. They dry their bloody hands on their pants. They walk in uneasy silence. It's a start.
As we get close enough to the Stadium to catch the first whiffs of the Living, I go over the plan in my head. It's not much of a plan, really. It's cartoonishly simple, but here's why it might work: it's never been tried before. There has never been enough will to make a way.
A few blocks from the entry gate, we stop in an abandoned house. I go into the bathroom and study myself in the mirror like the former resident must have done a thousand times. In my head I jog through the maddening repetitions of the morning routine, getting into character. Alarm-shower-clothes-breakfast. Do I look my best? Am I putting my best foot forward? Am I stepping out the door prepared for everything this world has to throw at me?
I run some gel through my hair. I splash some aftershave on my face. I straighten my tie.
'Ready,' I tell the others.
M sizes me up. 'Close . . . enough.'
We head for the gates.
Within a few blocks, the smell of the Living is nearly overpowering. It's as if the Stadium is a massive Tesla Coil crackling with storms of fragrant pink life-lightning. Everyone in our group stares at it in awe. Some of them drool freely. If they hadn't just eaten, our loosely constructed strategy would collapse in an instant.
Before we get within sight of the gate, we take a side street and stop at an intersection, hiding behind a UPS truck. I step out slightly and look around the corner. Less than two blocks away, four guards stand in front of the Stadium's main entrance doors, dangling shotguns over their shoulders and chatting among themselves. Their gruff, military sentences use even fewer syllables than ours.
I look at M. 'Thanks. For . . . doing this.'
'Sure,' M says.
'Don't . . . die.'
'Trying . . . not to. Are . . . ready?'
'Look . . . alive . . . out there.'
I smile. I brush my hair back one more time, take a deep breath, and run for it.
'Help!' I scream, waving my arms. 'Help, they're . . . right behind me!'
With my best possible balance and poise, I run towards the doors. M and the other Dead lumber after me, groaning theatrically.
The guards react on instinct: they raise their guns and open fire on the zombies. An arm flies off. A leg. One of the anonymous nine loses a head and goes down. But not a single weapon points in my direction. Painting Julie's face on the air in front of me, I sprint with Olympian focus. My stride is good, I can feel it, I look normal, alive, and so I snap neatly into a category: 'Human'. Two more guards emerge with guns drawn, but they barely even look at me. They squint, they take aim at their targets, and they shout, 'Go! Get in there, man!'
Two more zombies hit the ground behind me. As I slip in through the doors, I see M and the remaining Dead veer off and retreat. As they go, their gait suddenly changes. They lose their stumble and run like living things. Not as fast as me, not as graceful, but with purpose. The guards hesitate, the gunfire falters. 'What the fuck . . . ?' one of them mutters.
Inside the entrance is a man with a clipboard and a notebook. An immigration officer, ready to take my name and have me fill out a stack of request forms before most likely tossing me out. The Dead have depended on this man for years to provide us with the defenceless stragglers we eat in the ruins outside. He comes towards me, flipping through his notebook, making no eye contact. 'Close call, eh, friend? I'm going to need you to - '
'Ted! Look at this shit!'
Ted looks up, looks through the open doors, sees his fellow soldiers standing dumbstruck. He glances at me. 'Wait right here.'
Ted jogs out and stops next to the guards, staring at the eerily animate zombies dashing off into the distant streets like real people. I imagine the look on the men's faces, their stomachs bubbling with the queasy sensation that the earth under their feet is moving.
Momentarily forgotten, I turn and run. I run through the dark entry corridor towards the light on the other end, wondering if this is a birth canal or the tunnel to Heaven. Am I coming or going? Either way, it's too late to reverse. Hidden in the gloom under a red evening sky, I step into the world of the Living.