Slow steps. Mud under boots. Look nowhere else. Strange mantras loop through my head. Old bearded mutterings from dark alleys. Where are you going, Perry? Foolish child. Brainless boy. Where? Every day the universe grows larger, darker, colder. I stop in front of a black door. A girl lives here in this metal house. Do I love her? Hard to say any more. But she is all that's left. The final red sun in an ever-expanding emptiness.
I walk into the house and find her sitting on the staircase, arms crossed over her knees. She puts a finger to her lips. 'Dad,' she whispers to me.
I glance up the staircase towards the general's bedroom. I hear his voice slurring in the dimness.
'This picture, Julie. The water park, remember the water park? Had to haul ten buckets up for just one slide. Twenty minutes of work for ten seconds of fun. Seemed worth it back then, didn't it? I liked watching your face when you flew out of the tube. You looked just like her, even back then.'
Julie stands up quietly, moves towards the front door.
'You're all her, Julie. You aren't me, you're her. How could she do it?'
I open the door and back out. Julie follows me, soft steps, no sound.
'How could she be so weak?' the man says in a voice like steel melting. 'How could she leave us here?'
We walk in silence. The drizzling rain beads in our hair and we shake it out like dogs. We come to Colonel Rosso's house. Rosso's wife opens the door, looks at Julie's face, and hugs her. We walk inside into the warmth.
I find Rosso in the living room, sipping coffee, peering through his glasses at a water-stained old book. While Julie and Mrs Rosso murmur in the kitchen, I sit down across from the colonel.
'Perry,' he says.
'How are you holding up?'
'A good start. How are you settling into the home?'
'I despise it.'
Rosso is quiet for a moment. 'What's on your mind?'
I search for words. I seem to have forgotten most of them. Finally, quietly, I say, 'He lied to me.'
'He said we were fixing things, and if we didn't give up everything might turn out okay.'
'He believed that. I think I do, too.'
'But then he died.' My voice trembles and I fight to squeeze it tight. 'And it was senseless. No battle, no noble sacrifice, just a stupid work accident that could have happened to anyone anywhere, any time in history.'
'Perry . . .'
'I don't understand it, sir. What's the point of trying to fix a world we're in so briefly? What's the meaning in all that work if it's just going to disappear? Without any warning? A fucking brick on the head?'
Rosso says nothing. The low voices in the kitchen become audible in our silence, so they drop to whispers, trying to hide from the colonel what I'm sure he already knows. Our little world is far too tired to care about the crimes of its leaders.
'I want to join Security,' I announce. My voice is solid now. My face is hard.
Rosso lets out a slow breath and sets his book down. 'Why, Perry?'
'Because it's the only thing left worth doing.'
'I thought you wanted to write.'
'We have bigger concerns now. General Grigio says these are the last days. I don't want to waste my last days scratching letters on paper.'
'Writing isn't letters on paper. It's communication. It's memory.'
'None of that matters any more. It's too late.'
He studies me. He picks up the book again and holds the cover out. 'Do you know this story?'
'Yes. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literature. Humanity's debut novel, you could say.' Rosso flips through the brittle yellow pages. 'Love, sex, blood and tears. A journey to find eternal life. To escape death.' He reaches across the table and hands the book to me. 'It was written over four thousand years ago on clay tablets by people who tilled the mud and rarely lived past forty. It's survived countless wars, disasters and plagues, and continues to fascinate to this day, because here I am, in the midst of modern ruin, reading it.'
I look at Rosso and don't look at the book. My fingers dig into the leather cover.
'The world that birthed that story is long gone, all its people are dead, but it continues to touch the present and future because someone cared enough about that world to keep it. To put it in words. To remember it.'
I split the book open to the middle. The pages are riddled with ellipses, marking words and lines missing from the text, rotted out and lost to history. I stare at these marks and let their black dots fill my vision. 'I don't want to remember,' I say, and I shut the book. 'I want to join Security. I want to do dangerous stuff. I want to forget.'
'What are you saying, Perry?'
'I'm not saying anything.'
'It sounds like you are.'
'No.' The shadows in the room pool in the lines of our faces, draining our eyes of hue. 'There's nothing left worth saying.'
I am numb. Adrift in the blackness of Perry's thoughts, I reverberate with his grief like a low church bell.
'Are you working, Perry?' I whisper into the emptiness. 'Are you reverse-engineering your life?'
Shhhhhh, Perry says. Don't break the mood. I need this to cut through.
I float there in his unshed tears, waiting in the salty dark.
Morning sun streams through the balcony window of Julie's bedroom. The green constellations have faded back into the blue sky of the ceiling. The girls are still asleep, but I've been lying here awake for all but a few uneasy hours. Unable to stay motionless any longer, I slip out of the blankets and stretch my creaky joints, letting the sun baste one side of my face then the other. Nora sleep-mumbles a bit of nursing jargon, 'mitosis' or 'meiosis', possibly 'necrosis', and I notice the dog-eared textbook resting open on her stomach. Curious, I hover over her for a moment, then carefully lift up the book.
I can't read the title. But I immediately recognise the cover. A serenely sleeping face offering its throat of exposed veins to the viewer. The medical reference book, Gray's Anatomy.
Looking nervously over my shoulder, I whisk the heavy tome out into the hallway and start flipping through its pages. Intricate drawings of human architecture, organs and bones all too familiar to me, although here the filleted bodies are shown clean and perfect, their details unblurred by filth or fluids. I pore over the illustrations as the minutes tick by, racked by guilt and fascination like a pubescent Catholic with a Playboy. I can't read the captions, of course, but a few Latin words pop into my head as I study the images, perhaps distant recalls from my old life, a college lecture or TV documentary I absorbed somewhere. The knowledge feels grotesque in my mind but I grasp it and hold it tight, etching it deep into my memory. Why am I doing this? Why do I want to know the names and functions of all the beautiful structures I've spent my years violating? Because I don't deserve to keep them anonymous. I want the pain of knowing them and, by extension, myself: who and what I really am. Maybe with that scalpel, red hot and sterilised in tears, I can begin to carve out the rot inside me.
Hours pass. When I've seen every page and wrung every syllable from my memory, I gently replace the book on Nora's belly and tiptoe out onto the balcony, hoping the warm sun will grant some relief from the moral nausea churning inside me.
I lean against the railing and take in the cramped vistas of Julie's city. As dark and lifeless as it was last night, now it bustles and roars like Times Square. What is everyone doing? The undead airport has its crowds but no real activity. We don't do things; we wait for things to happen. The collective volition bubbling up from the Living is intoxicating, and I have a sudden urge to be down in those masses, rubbing shoulders and elbowing for space in all that sweat and breath. If my questions have answers, they must certainly be down there, under the pounding soles of those filthy feet.
I hear the girls chatting quietly in the bedroom, finally waking up. I go back inside and crawl under the blankets next to Julie.
'Good morning, R,' Nora says, not quite sincerely. I think speaking to me like a human is still a novelty for her; she looks like she wants to titter every time she acknowledges my presence. It's aggravating, but I understand. I'm an absurdity that takes some getting used to.
'Morning,' Julie croaks, watching me from across the pillow. She looks about as un-pretty as I've ever seen her, eyes puffy and hair insane. I wonder how well she sleeps at night, and what kind of dreams she has. I wish I could step into them like she steps into mine.
She rolls onto her side and props her head on her elbow. She clears her throat. 'So,' she says. 'Here you are. What now?'
'Want to . . . see your city.'
Her eyes search my face. 'Why?'
'Want to . . . see how you live. Living people.'
Her lips tighten. 'Too risky. Someone would notice you.'
'Come on, Julie,' Nora says. 'He walked all the way here, let's give him a tour! We can fix him up, disguise him. He already got past Ted, I'm sure he'll be okay strolling around a little if we're careful. You'll be careful, right, R?'
I nod, still looking at Julie. She allows a long silence. Then she rolls onto her back and closes her eyes, releasing a slow breath that sounds like consent.
'Yay!' Nora says.
'We can try it. But, R, if you don't look convincing after we fix you up, no tour. And if I see anyone staring at you too hard, tour's over. Deal?'
'No nodding. Say it.'
She crawls out of the blankets and climbs onto the side of the bed. She looks me up and down. 'Okay,' she says, her hair sticking out in every direction. 'Let's get you presentable.'
I would like my life to be a movie so I could cut to a montage. A quick sequence of shots set to some trite pop song would be much easier to endure than the two gruelling hours the girls spend trying to convert me, to change me back into what's widely considered human. They wash and trim my hair. They wear out a fresh toothbrush on my teeth, although for my smile anything above a coffee-addicted Brit is not in the cards. They attempt to dress me in some of Julie's more boyish clothes, but Julie is a pixie and I rip through T-shirts and snap buttons like a bodybuilder. Finally they give up, and I wait naked in the bathroom while they run my old business-casual through the wash.
While I wait, I decide to take a shower. This is an experience I had long forgotten, and I savour it like a first sip of wine, a first kiss. The steaming water cascades over my battered body, washing away months or years of dirt and blood, some of it mine, much of it others'. All this filth spirals down the drain and into the underworld where it belongs. My true skin emerges, pale grey, marked by cuts and scrapes and grazing bullet wounds, but clean.
This is the first time I have seen my body.
When my clothes are dry and Julie has sewn up the most noticeable holes, I dress myself, relishing the unfamiliar feeling of cleanness. My shirt no longer sticks to me. My slacks no longer chafe.
'You should at least lose the tie,' Nora says. 'You're about ten wars behind the fashion curve in that fancy get-up.'
'No, leave it,' Julie pleads, regarding the little strip of cloth with a whimsical smile. 'I like that tie. It's the only thing keeping you from being completely grey.'
'It sure won't help him blend in, Jules. Remember all the stares we got when we started wearing sneakers instead of work boots?'
'Exactly. People already know you and me don't wear the uniform; as long as R stays with us he could wear spandex shorts and a top hat and no one would mention it.'
Nora smiles. 'I like that idea.'
So the tie remains, in all its red silk incongruity. Julie helps me knot it. She brushes my hair and runs some goo through it. Nora thoroughly fumigates me with men's body spray.
'Ugh, Nora,' Julie objects. 'I hate that stuff. And he doesn't even stink.'
'He stinks a little bit.'
'Yeah, now he does.'
'Better he smell like a chemical plant than a corpse, right? It'll keep the dogs away from him.'
There is some debate about whether or not to make me wear sunglasses to hide my eyes, but they eventually decide this would be more conspicuous than just letting that ethereal grey show itself.
'It's actually not that noticeable,' Julie says. 'Just don't have a staring contest with anyone.'
'You'll be fine,' Nora adds. 'No one in this place really looks at each other anyway.'
The final step in their remodelling plan is make-up. As I sit in front of the mirror like a Hollywood starlet getting ready for her close-up, they powder me, they rouge me, they colourise my black-and-white skin. When they're done, I stare at the mirror in amazement.
I am alive.
I am a handsome young professional, happy, successful, in the bloom of health, just emerging from a meeting and on my way to the gym. I laugh out loud. I look at myself in the mirror and the joyful absurdity of it just bubbles out.
Laughter. Another first for me.
'Oh my . . .' Nora says, standing back to look at me, and Julie says, 'Huh.' She tilts her head. 'You look . . .'
'You look hot !' Nora blurts. 'Can I have him, Julie? Just for one night?'
'Shut your dirty mouth,' Julie chuckles, still inspecting me. She touches my forehead, the narrow, bloodless slot where she once threw a knife. 'Should probably cover that. Sorry, R.' She sticks a Band-Aid over the wound and presses it down with gentle strokes. 'There.' She steps back again and studies me like a perfectionist painter, pleased but cautious.
'Con . . . vincing?' I ask.
'Hmm,' she says.
I offer her my best attempt at a winning smile, stretching my lips wide.
'Oh, God. Definitely don't do that.'
'Just be natural,' Nora says. 'Pretend you're home at the airport surrounded by friends, if you people have those.'
I think back to the moment Julie named me, that warm feeling that crept into my face for the first time as we shared a beer and a plate of Thai food.
'There you go, that's better,' Nora says.
Julie nods, pressing her knuckles against her smiling lips as if to hold back some outburst of emotion. A giddy cocktail of amusement, pride and affection. 'You clean up nice, R.'
'Thank . . . you.'
She takes a deep, decisive breath. 'Okay then.' She pulls a wool beanie over her wild hair and zips up her sweatshirt. 'Ready to see what humanity's been up to since you left it?'