The sports arena Julie calls home is unaccountably large, perhaps one of those dual-event 'super-venues' built for an era when the greatest quandary facing the world was where to put all the parties. From the outside there is nothing to see but a mammoth oval of featureless walls, a concrete Ark that not even God could make float. But the interior reveals the Stadium's soul: chaotic yet grasping for order, like the sprawling slums of Brazil if they'd been designed by a modernist architect.
All the bleachers have been torn out to make room for an expansive grid of miniature skyscrapers, rickety houses built unnaturally tall and skinny to conserve the limited real estate. Their walls are a hodgepodge of salvaged materials - one of the taller towers begins as concrete and grows flimsier as it rises, from steel to plastic to a precarious ninth floor of soggy particle board. Most of the buildings look like they should collapse in the first breeze, but the whole city is supported by rigid webs of cable running from tower to tower, cinching the grid tight. The Stadium's inner walls loom high over everything, bristling with severed pipes, wires, and spikes of rebar that sprout from the concrete like beard stubble. Under-powered street lamps provide dim orange illumination, leaving this snow-globe city smothered in shadows.
The moment I step out of the entry tunnel my sinuses inflame with an overwhelming rush of life-smell. It's all around me, so sweet and potent it's almost painful; I feel like I'm drowning in a perfume bottle. But in the midst of this thick haze, I can sense Julie. Her signature scent peeks out of the noise, calling out like a voice underwater. I follow it.
The streets are the width of sidewalks, narrow strips of asphalt poured over the old AstroTurf, which peeks through any unpaved gaps like garish green moss. There are no names on the street signs. Instead of listing off states or presidents or varieties of trees, they display simple white graphics - Apple, Ball, Cat, Dog - a child's guide to the alphabet. There is mud everywhere, slicking the asphalt and piling up in corners along with the detritus of daily life: pop cans, cigarette butts, used condoms and bullet shells.
I am trying not to gawk at the city like the backwoods tourist I am, but something beyond curiosity is gluing my attention to every kerb and rooftop. As foreign as it all is to me, I feel a ghostly sense of recognition, even nostalgia, and as I make my way down what must be Eye Street, some of my stolen memories begin to stir.
This is where we started. This is where they sent us when the coasts disappeared. When the bombs fell. When our friends died and rose as strangers, unfamiliar and cruel.
It's not Perry's voice - it's everyone's, a murmuring chorus of all the lives I've consumed, gathering in the dark lounge of my subconscious to reminisce.
Flag Avenue, where they planted our nation's colours, back when there were still nations and their colours mattered. Gun Street, where they set up the war camps, planned attacks anddefences against our endless enemies, Living as often as Dead.
I walk with my head down, keeping as close to the walls as I can. When I meet someone coming the other way I keep my eyes straight ahead until the last possible moment, then I allow brief contact so as not to seem inhuman. We pass briskly with awkward nods.
It didn't take much to bring down the card house of civilisation. Just a few gusts and it was done, the balance tipped, the spell broken. Good citizens realised the lines that had shaped their lives were imaginary and easily crossed. They had wants and needs and the power to satisfy them, so they did. The moment the lights went out, everyone stopped pretending.
I begin to worry about my clothes. Everyone I encounter is wearing thick grey denim, waterproof coats, mud-caked work boots. What world am I still living in where people dress for aesthetics? If no one realises I'm a zombie, they may still call in a report on the stylish lunatic roaming the streets in a fitted shirt and tie. I quicken my pace, sniffing desperately for Julie's trail.
Island Avenue, where they built the courtyard for the community meetings, where 'they' became 'we', or so we believed. We cast our votes and raised our leaders, charming men and women with white teeth and silver tongues, and we shoved our many hopes and fears into their hands, believing those hands were strong because they had firm handshakes. They failed us, always. There was no way they could not fail us - they were human, and so were we.
I veer off Eye Street and start working my way towards the centre of the grid. Julie's scent grows more distinct, but its exact direction remains vague. I keep hoping some clue will emerge from the chanting in my head, but these ancient ghosts have no interest in my insignificant search.
Jewel Street, where we built the schools once we finally accepted that this was reality, that this was the world ourchildren would inherit. We taught them how to shoot, how to pour concrete, how to kill and how to survive, and if they made it that far, if they mastered those skills and had time to spare, then we taught them how to read and write, to reason and relate and understand their world. We tried hard at first, there was much hope and faith, but it was a steep hill to climb in the rain, and many slid to the base.
I notice the maps in these memories are slightly outdated; the street they're calling Jewel has been renamed. The sign is newer, a fresh primary green, and instead of a visual icon it has an actual word printed on it. Intrigued, I turn at this intersection and approach an atypically wide metal building. Julie's scent is still distant, so I know I shouldn't stop, but the pale light coming through the windows seems to prick some wordless anguish in my inner voices. As I press my nose against the glass, their musings go quiet.
A large, wide-open room. Row upon row of white metal tables under fluorescent lights. Dozens of children, all younger than ten, divided by row into project groups: a row repairing generators, a row treating gasoline, a row cleaning rifles, sharpening knives, stitching wounds. And at the edge, very near the window I'm staring through: a row dissecting cadavers. Except of course they aren't cadavers. As an eight-year-old girl in blonde pigtails peels the flesh away from her subject's mouth, revealing the crooked grin underneath, its eyes flick open and it looks around, struggles briefly against its restraints, then relaxes, looking weary and bored. It glances towards my window and we make brief eye contact, just before the girl cuts out its eyes.
We tried to make a beautiful world here, the voices mumble. There were those who saw the end of civilisation as an opportunity to start over, to undo the errors of history - to relive mankind's awkward adolescence with all the wisdom of our modern age. But everything was happening so fast.
I hear the noise of a violent scuffle from the other end of the building, shoes scraping against concrete, elbows banging sheet metal. Then a low, wet groan. I traverse the building, searching for a better viewpoint.
Outside our walls were hordes of men and monsters eager to steal what we had, and inside was our own mad stew, so many cultures and languages and incompatible values packed into one tiny box. Our world was too small to share peacefully; consensus never came, harmony was impossible. So we adjusted our goals.
Through another window I see a big open space like a warehouse, dimly lit and scattered with broken cars and chunks of debris as if simulating the outer city landscape. A crowd of older kids surrounds a corral of chain-link fencing and concrete freeway barriers. It resembles the 'free speech zones' once used to contain protesters outside political rallies, but instead of being crammed full of sign-waving dissidents, this cage is occupied by just four figures: a teenage boy armoured head to toe in police riot gear, and three badly desiccated Dead.
Can the Dark Ages' doctors be blamed for their methods? The bloodletting, the leeches, the holes in skulls? They were feeling their way blind, grasping at mysteries in a world without science, but the plague was upon them; they had to do something. When our turn came, it was no different. Despite all our technology and enlightenment, our laser scalpels and social services, it was no different. We were just as blind and just as desperate.
I can tell by the way they stagger that the Dead in this arena are starving. They must know where they are and what's going to happen to them, but they are far beyond what little self-control they ever had. They lunge for the boy and he aims his shotgun.
The outside world had already sunk under a sea of blood, and now those waves were lapping over our last stronghold - we had to shore up the walls. We realised that the closest we'd ever get to objective truth was the belief of the majority, so we elected the majority and ignored the other voices. We appointed generals and contractors, police and engineers; we discarded every inessential ornament. We smelted our ideals under great heat and pressure until the soft parts burned away, and what emerged was a tempered frame rigid enough to endure the world we'd created.
'Wrong!' the instructor shouts at the boy in the cage as the boy fires into the advancing Dead, blowing holes in their chests and blasting off fingers and feet. 'Get the head! Forget the rest is even there!' The boy fires two more rounds that miss entirely, thudding into the heavy plywood ceiling. The quickest of the three zombies seizes his arms and wrenches the gun out of his hands, struggles with the pulse-checking safety trigger for a moment, then throws the gun aside and tackles the boy into the fence, biting wildly against the helmet's faceguard. The instructor storms into the cage and jabs his pistol into the zombie's head, fires a round and holsters the gun. 'Remember,' he announces to the whole room, 'the recoil on an automatic shotgun will drive the barrel upwards, especially on these old Mossbergs, so aim low or you'll be shooting blue sky.' He scoops up the weapon and shoves it into the boy's trembling hands. 'Continue.'
The boy hesitates, then raises the barrel and fires twice. Bits of gore slap against his face-guard, spattering it black. He rips the helmet off and stares at the corpses at his feet, breathing hard and struggling not to cry.
'Good,' the instructor says. 'Beautiful.
We knew it was all wrong. We knew we were diminishing ourselves in ways we couldn't even name, and we wept sometimes at memories of better days, but we no longer saw a choice. We were doing our best to survive. The equations at the roots of our problems were complex, and we were far too exhausted to solve them.
A snuffling noise at my feet finally tears me away from the scene in the window. I look down to see a German shepherd puppy studying my leg with flaring wet nostrils. It looks up at me. I look down at it. It pants happily for a moment, then starts eating my calf.
A little boy rushes up and grabs the dog's collar, pulls her off me and drags her back towards the open doorway of a house. 'Bad dog.'
Trina twists her head around to gaze at me longingly.
'Sorry!' the boy calls from across the street.
I give him an easy wave, no problem.
A young girl emerges from the doorway and stands next to him, sticking out her belly and watching me with big dark eyes. Her hair is black, the boy's is curly blond. They are both around six.
'Don't tell our mom?' she asks.
I shake my head, swallowing back a sudden reflux of emotions. The sound of these kids' voices, their perfect childish diction . . .
'Do you . . . know Julie?' I ask them.
'Julie Cabernet?' the boy says.
'Julie Gri . . . gio.'
'We like Julie Cabernet a lot. She reads to us every Wednesday.'
'Stories!' the girl adds.
I don't recognise this name, but some scrap of memory perks at the sound of it. 'Do you know . . . where she lives?'
'Daisy Street,' the boy says.
'No, Flower Street! It's a flower!'
'A daisy is a flower.'
'She lives on a corner. It's Daisy Street and Devil Avenue.'
'It's not a cow, it's the Devil. Cows and the Devil both have horns.'
'Thanks,' I tell the kids and turn to leave.
'Are you a zombie?' the girl asks in a shy squeak.
I freeze. She waits for my answer, twisting left and right on her heels. I relax, smile at the girl and shrug. 'Julie . . . doesn't think so.'
An angry voice from a fifth-floor window yells something about curfew and shutting the door and not talking to strangers, so I wave to the kids and hurry off towards Daisy and Devil. The sun is down and the sky is rust. A distant loudspeaker blares out a sequence of numbers, and most of the windows around me go dark. I loosen my tie and start to run.
The intensity of Julie's scent doubles with each block. As the first few stars appear in the Stadium's oval sky, I turn a corner and halt below a solitary edifice of white aluminium siding. Most of the buildings seem to be multi-family apartment complexes, but this one is smaller, narrower, and separated from its tightly packed neighbours by an awkward distance. Four storeys tall but barely two rooms wide, it looks like a cross between a town house and a prison watchtower. The windows are all dark except for a third-floor balcony jutting out from the side of the house. The balcony seems incongruously romantic on this austere structure, until I notice the swivel-mounted sniper rifles on each corner.
Lurking behind a stack of crates in the AstroTurf backyard, I hear voices inside the house. I close my eyes, luxuriating in their sweet timbres and tart rhythms. I hear Julie. Julie and another girl, discussing something in tones that jitter and syncopate like jazz. I find myself swaying slightly, dancing to their conversational beat.
Eventually the talk trails off, and Julie emerges onto the balcony. It's only been one day since she left, but the sense of reunion that surges in me is decades strong. She rests her elbows on the railing, looking cold in just a loose black T-shirt over bare legs. 'Well, here I am again,' she says, apparently to no one but the air. 'Dad clapped me on the back when I walked in the door. Actually clapped me on the back, like a fucking football coach. All he said was, "So glad you're okay," then he ran off to some project meeting or something. I can't believe how much he's . . . I mean, he was never exactly cuddly, but . . .' I hear a tiny click and she doesn't speak for a moment. Then another click. 'Until I called him he had to have assumed I was dead, right? Yeah, he sent out the search parties, but how often do people really come back from stuff like this? So to him . . . I was dead. And maybe I'm being too harsh but I absolutely can't picture him crying over it. Whoever told him the news, they probably clapped each other on the back and said, "Soldier on, soldier," and then went back to work.' She stares at the ground as if she's seeing through it, down into the hellish core of the Earth. 'What's wrong with people?' she says, almost too quiet for me to hear. 'Were they born with parts missing or did it all fall out somewhere along the way?'
She is silent for a while, and I'm about to show myself when she suddenly laughs, closing her eyes and shaking her head. 'I actually miss that stupid . . . I miss R! I know that's crazy, but is it really that crazy? Just because he's . . . whatever he is? I mean, isn't "zombie" just a silly name we came up with for a state of being we don't understand? What's in a name, right? If we were . . . If there was some kind of . . .' She trails off, then stops and raises a mini-cassette recorder to eye level, glaring at it. 'Fuck this thing,' she mumbles to herself. 'Tape journaling . . . not for me.' She fast-pitches it off the balcony. It bounces off a supply crate and lands at my feet. I pick it up, tuck it into my shirt pocket and press my hand against it, feeling its corners dig into my chest. If I ever return to my 747, this memento will go in the stack closest to where I sleep.
Julie hops onto the balcony railing and sits with her back to me, scribbling in her battered old Moleskine.
Journal or poetry?
Am I in it?
I step out from the shadows. 'Julie,' I whisper.
She doesn't startle. She turns slowly, and a smile melts across her face like a slow spring thaw. 'Oh . . . my God,' she half giggles, then hops off the railing and spins around to face me. 'R! You're here! Oh my God!'
I grin. 'Hello.'
'What are you doing here?' she hisses, trying to keep her voice down.
I shrug, deciding that this gesture, while easy to abuse, does have its place. It may even be vital vocabulary in a world as unspeakable as ours.
'Came to . . . see you.'
'But I had to go home, remember? You were supposed to say goodbye.'
'Don't know why you . . . say goodbye. I say . . . hello.'
Her lip quivers between reactions, but she ends up with a reluctant smile. 'God, you're a cheeseball. But seriously, R - '
'Jules!' a voice calls from inside the house. 'Come here, I wanna show you something.'
'One sec, Nora,' Julie calls back. She looks down at me. 'This is crazy, okay? You're going to get killed. It doesn't matter how changed you are, the people in charge here won't care, they won't listen, they'll just shoot you. Do you understand?'
I nod. 'Yes.'
I start climbing up the drainpipe.
'Jesus, R! Are you listening to me?'
I get about three feet off the ground before I realise that although I'm now capable of running, speaking and maybe falling in love, climbing is still down the road for me. I lose my grip on the pipe and fall flat on my back. Julie covers her mouth, but some laughter slips through.
'Hey, Cabernet!' Nora calls again. 'What's going on? Are you talking to somebody?'
'Hang on, okay? I'm just doing a tape journal.'
I stand up and dust myself off. I look up at Julie. Her brows are tight and she bites her lip. 'R . . .' she says miserably. 'You can't . . .'
The balcony door swings open and Nora appears, her curls just as thick and wild as they were in my visions, all those years ago. I've never seen her standing, and she's surprisingly tall, at least half a foot above Julie, long brown legs bare under a camouflage skirt. I had assumed she and Julie were classmates, but now I realise Nora is a few years older, maybe in her mid-twenties.
'What are you - ' she starts, then she sees me, and her eyebrows go up. 'Oh my holy Lord. Is that him?'
Julie sighs. 'Nora, this is R. R . . . Nora.'
Nora stares at me like I'm Sasquatch, the Yeti, maybe a unicorn. 'Um . . . nice to meet you . . . R.'
'Likewise,' I reply, and Nora slaps a hand over her mouth to stifle a delighted squeak, looks at Julie, then back at me.
'What should we do?' Julie asks Nora, trying to ignore her giddiness. 'He just showed up. I'm trying to tell him he's going to get killed.'
'Well, he needs to get up here, first of all,' Nora says, still staring at me.
'Into the house? Are you stupid?'
'Come on, your dad's not back for another two days. Safer for him in the house than on the street.'
Julie thinks for a minute. 'Okay. Hold on, R, I'll come down.'
I go around to the front of the house and stand at the door, waiting nervously in my dress shirt and tie. She opens it, grinning shyly. Prom night at the end of the world.
'Hi, Julie,' I say, as if none of the previous conversation happened.
She hesitates, then steps forward and hugs me. 'I actually missed you,' she says into my shirt.
'I . . . heard that.'
She pulls back to look at me, and something wild glints in her eyes. 'Hey, R,' she says. 'If I kissed you, would I get . . . you know . . . converted?'
My thoughts skip like a record in an earthquake. As far as I know, only a bite, a violent transfer of blood and essences, has the power to make the Living join the Dead before actually dying. To expedite the inevitable. But then again, I'm fairly sure Julie's question has never, ever been asked before.
'Don't . . . think so,' I say, 'but - '
A spotlight flashes at the end of the street. The sound of two guards barking commands breaks the night quiet.
'Shit, the patrol,' Julie whispers, and yanks me inside the house. 'We should get the lights out, it's after curfew. Come on.'
She runs up the stairs and I follow her, relief and disappointment mixing in my chest like unstable chemicals.
Julie's home feels eerily unoccupied. In the kitchen, the den, the short halls and steep staircases, the walls are white and unadorned. The few pieces of furniture are plastic, and rows of fluorescent lights glare down on stainproof beige carpets. It feels like the vacated office of a bankrupt company, empty echoing rooms and the lingering scent of desperation.
Julie turns lights off as she goes, darkening the house until we reach her bedroom. She switches off the overhead bulb and flicks on a Tiffany lamp by her bed. I step inside and turn in slow circles, greedily absorbing Julie's private world.
If her mind were a room, it would look like this.
Each wall is a different colour. One red, one white, one yellow, one black, and a sky-blue ceiling strung with toy airplanes. Each wall seems designated for a theme. The red is nearly covered with movie ticket stubs and concert posters, all browned and faded with age. The white is crowded with paintings, starting near the floor with a row of amateur acrylics and leading up to three stunning oil canvases: a sleeping girl about to be devoured by tigers, a nightmarish Christ on a geometric cross, and a surreal landscape draped with melting clocks.
'Recognise those?' Julie says with a grin she can barely contain. 'Salvador Dali. Originals, of course.'
Nora comes in from the balcony, sees me with my face inches from the canvases, and laughs. 'Nice decor, right? Me and Perry wanted to get Julie the Mona Lisa for her birthday because it reminded us of that little smirk she's always - there! Right there! - but, yeah, it's a long way to Paris on foot. We make do with the local exhibitions.'
'Nora has a whole wall of Picassos in her room,' Julie adds. 'We'd be legendary art thieves if anyone still cared.'
I crouch down to get a closer look at the bottom row of acrylics.
'Those are Julie's,' Nora says. 'Aren't they great?'
Julie averts her eyes in disgust. 'Nora made me put those up.'
I study them intently, searching for Julie's secrets in their clumsy brushstrokes. Two are just bright colours and thick, tortured texture. The third is a crude portrait of a blonde woman. I glance over at the black wall, which bears only one ornament: a thumb-tacked Polaroid of what must be the same woman. Julie plus twenty hard years.
Julie follows my gaze and she and Nora exchange a glance. 'That's my mom,' Julie says. 'She left when I was twelve.' She clears her throat and looks out the window.
I turn to the yellow wall, which is notably unadorned. I point at it and raise my eyebrows.
'That's, um . . . my hope wall,' she says. Her voice contains an embarrassed pride that makes her sound younger. Almost innocent. 'I'm leaving it open for something in the future.'
'Like . . . what?'
'I don't know yet. Depends on what happens in the future. Hopefully something happy.'
She shrugs this off and sits on the corner of her bed, tapping her fingers on her thigh and watching me. Nora settles down next to her. There are no chairs, so I sit on the floor. The carpet is a mystery under ancient strata of wrinkled clothes.
'So . . . R,' Nora says, leaning towards me. 'You're a zombie. What's that feel like?'
'Uh . . .'
'How did it happen? How'd you get converted?'
'Don't . . . remember.'
'I don't see any old bites or gunshot wounds or anything. Must've been natural causes. No one was around to debrain you?'
'How old are you?'
'You look twenty-something, but you could be thirty-something. You have one of those faces. How come you're not all rotten? I barely even smell you.'
'I don't . . . um . . .'
'Do your body functions still work? They don't, right? I mean, can you actually still, you know - ?'
'Jesus, Nora,' Julie cuts in, elbowing her in the hip. 'Will you back off? He didn't come here for an interrogation.'
I shoot Julie a grateful look.
'I do have one question, though,' she says. 'How the hell did you get in here? Into the Stadium?'
I shrug. 'Walked . . . in.'
'How'd you get past the guards?'
'Played . . . Living.'
She stares at me. 'They let you in? Ted let you in?'
'Distrac . . . ted.'
She puts a hand to her forehead. 'Wow. That's . . .' She pauses, and an incredulous smile breaks through. 'You look . . . nicer. Did you comb your hair, R?'
'He's in drag!' Nora laughs. 'He's in Living drag!'
'I can't believe that worked. I'm pretty sure it's never happened before.'
'Do you think he could pass?' Nora wonders. 'Out on the streets with real people?'
Julie studies me dubiously, like a photographer forced to consider a chubby model. 'Well,' she allows, 'I guess . . . it's possible.'
I squirm under their scrutiny. Finally Julie takes a deep breath and stands up. 'Anyway, you'll have to stay here at least for tonight, till we can figure out what to do with you. I'm going to go heat up some rice. You want some, Nora?'
'Nah, I just had Carbtein nine hours ago.' She looks at me cautiously. 'Are you uh . . . hungry, R?'
I shake my head. 'I'm . . . fine.'
''Cause I don't know what we're supposed to do about your dietary restrictions. I mean, I know you can't help it, Julie explained all about you, but we don't - '
'Really,' I stop her. 'I'm . . . fine.'
She looks uncertain. I can imagine the footage rolling behind her eyes. A dark room filling with blood. Her friends dying on the floor. Me, crawling towards Julie with red hands outstretched. Julie may have convinced her that I'm a special case, but I shouldn't be surprised to get a few nervous looks. Nora watches me in silence for a few minutes. Then she breaks away and starts rolling a joint.
When Julie comes back with the food, I borrow her spoon and take a small bite of rice, smiling as I chew. As usual it goes down like styrofoam, but I do manage to swallow it. Julie and Nora look at each other, then at me.
'How's it taste?' Julie asks tentatively.
'Okay, but still, you haven't eaten any people in a long time. And you're still walking. Do you think you could ever wean yourself off . . . live foods?'
I give her a wry smile. 'I guess . . . it's possible.'
Julie grins at this. Half at my unexpected use of sarcasm, half at the implied hope behind it. Her whole face lights up in a way I've never seen before, so I hope I'm right. I hope it's true. I hope I haven't just learned how to lie.
Around 1 a.m., the girls start to yawn. There are canvas cots in the den, but no one feels like venturing out of Julie's room. This gaudily painted little cube is like a warm bunker in the frozen emptiness of Antarctica. Nora takes the bed. Julie and I take the floor. Nora scribbles homework notes for about an hour, then clicks off the lamp and starts snoring like a small, delicate chainsaw. Julie and I lie on our backs under a thick blanket, using piles of her clothes for a mattress on the rock-hard floor. It's a strange feeling, being so utterly surrounded by her. Her life scent is on everything. She's on me and under me and next to me. It's as if the entire room is made out of her.
'R,' she whispers, looking up at the ceiling. There are words and doodles smeared up there in glow-in-the-dark paint.
'I hate this place.'
'Take me somewhere else.'
I pause, looking up at the ceiling. I wish I could read what she's written there. Instead, I pretend the letters are stars. The words, constellations.
'Where do . . . want to go?'
'I don't know. Somewhere far away. Some distant continent where none of this is happening. Where people just live in peace.'
I fall silent.
'One of Perry's older friends used to be a pilot . . . we could take your housejet! It'd be like a flying Winnebago, we could go anywhere!' She rolls onto her side and grins at me. 'What do you think, R? We could go to the other side of the world.'
The excitement in her voice makes me wince. I hope she can't see the grim light in my eyes. I don't know for sure, but there is something in the air lately, a deathly stillness as I walk through the city and its outskirts, that tells me the days of running away from problems are over. There will be no more vacations, no road trips, no tropical getaways. The plague has covered the world.
'You said . . .' I begin, psyching myself up to express a complex thought. 'You said . . . the . . .'
'Come on,' she encourages. 'Use your words.'
'You said . . . the plane's not . . . its own world.'
Her grin falters. 'What?'
'Can't . . . float above . . . the mess.'
She frowns. 'I said that?'
'Your dad . . . concrete box . . . walls and guns . . . Running away . . . no better . . . than hiding. Maybe worse.'
She thinks for a moment. 'I know,' she says, and I feel guilty for crashing her brief flight of fancy. 'I know this. It's what I've been telling myself for years, that there's still hope, that we can turn things around somehow, blah fucking blah. It's just . . . getting a lot harder to believe lately.'
'I know,' I say, trying to hide the cracks in my sincerity. 'But can't . . . give up.'
Her voice darkens. She calls my bluff. 'Why are you so hopeful all of a sudden? What are you really thinking?'
I say nothing, but she reads my face like a front-page headline, the kind that announced the atomic bomb and the Titanic and all the World Wars in progressively smaller type.
'There's nowhere left, is there,' she says.
Almost imperceptibly, I shake my head.
'The whole world,' she says. 'You think it's all dead? All overrun?'
'How could you know that?'
'I don't. But . . . I feel.'
She lets out a long breath, staring at the toy planes dangling above us. 'So what are we supposed to do?'
'Have to . . . fix it.'
'Don't know. Ev . . . rything.'
She props herself up on one elbow. 'What are you talking about?' Her voice is no longer quiet. Nora stirs and stops snoring. 'Fix everything?' Julie says, her eyes sparking in the dark. 'How exactly are we supposed to do that? If you have some big revelation please share, 'cause it's not like I don't think about this literally all the time. It's not like this hasn't been burning my brain every morning and night since my mom left. How do we fix everything? It's so broken. Everyone is dying, over and over again, in deeper and darker ways. What are we supposed to do? Do you know what's causing it? This plague?'
I hesitate. 'No.'
'Then how can you do anything about it? I want to know, R. How are we supposed to "fix it"?'
I'm staring up at the ceiling. I'm staring at the verbal constellations, glimmering green in distant space. As I lie there, letting my mind rise into those imaginary heavens, two of the stars begin to change. They rotate, and focus, and their shapes clarify. They become . . . letters.
'Tr - ' I whisper.
'Truh - ' I repeat, trying to pronounce it. It's a sound. It's a syllable. The blurry constellation is becoming a word. 'What is . . . that?' I ask, pointing at the ceiling.
'What? The quotes?'
I stand up and indicate the general area of the sentence. 'This one.'
'It's a line from "Imagine". The John Lennon song.'
'Which . . . line?'
'"It's easy if you try."'
I stand there for a minute, gazing up like an intrepid explorer of the cosmos. Then I lie down and fold my arms behind my head, eyes wide open. I don't have the answers she's asking for, but I can feel their existence. Faint points of light in the distant dark.