In my old days of scavenging the city I often gazed up at the Stadium walls and imagined a paradise inside. I assumed it was perfect, that everyone was happy and beautiful and wanted for nothing, and in my numb, limited way I felt envy and wanted to eat them all the more. But look at this place. The corrugated sheet metal glaring in the sun. The fly-buzzing pens of moaning, hormone-pumped cattle. The hopelessly stained laundry hanging from support cables between buildings, flapping in the wind like surrender flags.
'Welcome to Citi Stadium,' Julie says, spreading her arms wide. 'The largest human habitation in what used to be America.'
'There are over twenty thousand of us crammed into this fishbowl,' Julie says as we push through the dense crowds in the central square. 'Pretty soon it'll be so tight we'll all just squish together. The human race will be one big mindless amoeba.'
Why didn't we scatter? Head for high ground and plant our roots where the air and water were clean? What is it we needed from each other in this sweaty crush of bodies?
As much as possible I keep my eyes to the ground, trying to blend in and avoid notice. I sneak glances at guard towers, water tanks, new buildings rising under the bright strobe of arc welders, but mostly my view is of my feet. The asphalt. Mud and dog shit softening the sharp angles.
'We're growing less than half what we need to survive,' Julie says as we pass the gardens, just a blurry dream of green behind the translucent walls of the hothouses. 'So all the real food gets rationed out in tiny servings, and we fill the gaps in our diet with Carbtein.' A trio of teenage boys in yellow jumpsuits hauls a cart of oranges past us, and I notice one of them has strange sores running down the side of his face, sunken brown patches like the bruises on an apple, as if the cells have simply collapsed. 'Not to mention we're burning through a pharmacy worth of medicine every month. Salvage teams can barely keep up. It's only a matter of time before we go to war with the other enclaves over the last bottle of Prozac.'
Was it just fear? the voices wonder. We were fearful in the best of times; how could we cope with the worst? So we found the tallest walls and poured ourselves behind them. We kept pouring until we were the biggest and strongest, elected the greatest generals and found the most weapons, thinking all this maximalism would somehow generate happiness. But nothing so obvious could ever work.
'What's amazing to me,' Nora says, squeezing past the strained belly of a morbidly pregnant woman, 'is that despite all these needs and shortages we have, people keep pumping out kids. Flooding the world with copies of themselves just because that's tradition, that's what's done.'
Julie glances at Nora and opens her mouth, then closes it.
'And even though we're about to starve to death under a mountain of poopy diapers, no one's brave enough to even suggest that people keep their seed in their nuts for a while.'
'Yeah, but . . .' Julie begins, her voice uncharacteristically timid. 'I don't know . . . there's something kind of beautiful about it, don't you think? That we keep living and growing even though our world is a corpse? That we keep coming back no matter how many of us die?'
'Why is it beautiful that humanity keeps coming back? Herpes does that, too.'
'Oh shut up, Nora, you love people. Being a misanthrope was Perry's thing.'
Nora laughs and shrugs.
'It's not about keeping up the population, it's about passing on who we are and what we've learned, so things keep going. So we don't just end. Sure it's selfish, in a way, but how else do our short lives mean anything?'
'I guess that's true,' Nora allows. 'It's not like we have any other legacies to leave in this post-everything era.'
'Right. It's all fading. I heard the world's last country collapsed in January.'
'Oh, really? Which one was it?'
'Can't remember. Sweden, maybe?'
'So the globe is officially blank. That's depressing.'
'At least you have some cultural heritage you can hold on to. Your dad was Ethiopian, right?'
'Yeah, but what's that mean to me? He didn't remember his country, I never went there, and now it doesn't exist. All that leaves me with is brown skin, and who pays any attention to colour any more?' She waves a hand towards my face. 'In a year or two we're all gonna be grey anyway.'
I fall behind as they continue to banter. I watch them talk and gesticulate, listening to their voices without hearing the words.
What is left of us? the ghosts moan, drifting back into the shadows of my subconscious. No countries, no cultures, no wars but still no peace. What's at our core, then? What's still squirming in our bones when everything else is stripped?
By late afternoon, we've come to the road once known as Jewel Street. The school buildings wait for us ahead, squat and self-satisfied, and I feel my stomach knotting. Julie hesitates at the intersection, looking pensively towards their glowing windows. 'Those are the training facilities,' she says. 'But you don't want to see in there. Let's move on.'
I gladly follow her away from that dark boulevard, but I stare hard at the fresh green sign as we pass. I'm fairly sure the first letter is a J.
'What's . . . that street called?' I ask, pointing to the sign.
Julie smiles. 'Why, that's Julie Street.'
'It used to be a graphic of a diamond or something,' Nora says, 'but her dad renamed it when they built the schools. Isn't that sweet?'
'It was sweet,' Julie admits. 'That's the type of gesture Dad can manage sometimes.'
She takes us around the perimeter of the walls to a wide, dark tunnel directly across from the main gate. I realise these tunnels must be where sports teams once made their triumphal entries onto the field, back when thousands of people could still cheer for things so trivial. And since the tunnel on the other end is the passage into the world of the Living, it seems fitting that this one leads to a graveyard.
Julie flashes an ID badge at the guards and they wave us through the back gate. We step out onto a hilly field surrounded by hundreds of feet of chain-link fencing. Black hawthorn trees curl towards the mottled grey-and-gold sky, standing guard over classical tombstones, complete with crosses and statues of saints. I suspect these were reappropriated from some forgotten funeral home, as the engraved names and dates have been covered over with crude letters stencilled in white paint. The epitaphs resemble graffiti tags.
'This is where we bury . . . what's left of us,' Julie says. She walks a few steps ahead as Nora and I stand in the entry. Out here, with the door shut behind us, the pulsing noise of human affairs is gone, replaced by the stoic silence of the truly dead. Each body resting here is either headless, brain-shot, or nothing but scraps of half-eaten flesh and bones piled in a box. I can see why they chose to build the cemetery outside the Stadium walls: not only does it take up more land than all the indoor farmlands combined, it also can't be very good for morale. This is a reminder far more grim than the old world's sunny yards of peaceful passings and requiem eternum. This is a glimpse of our future. Not as individuals, whose deaths we can accept, but as a species, a civilisation, a world.
'Are you sure you want to go in here today?' Nora asks Julie softly.
Julie looks out at the hills of patchy brown grass. 'I go every day. Today's a day. Today's Tuesday.'
'Yeah, but . . . do you want us to wait here?'
She glances back at me and considers for a moment. Then she shakes her head. 'No. Come on.' She starts walking and I follow her. Nora trails an awkward distance behind me, a look of muted surprise on her face.
There are no paths in this cemetery. Julie walks in a straight line, stepping over headstones and across grave mounds, many still soft and muddy. Her eyes are focused on a tall spire topped by a marble angel. We stop in front of it, Julie and I side by side, Nora still lingering behind. I strain to read the name on the grave, but it doesn't reveal itself. Even the first few letters remain out of reach.
'This is . . . my mom,' Julie says. The cool evening wind blows her hair into her eyes, but she doesn't brush it away.
'She left when I was twelve.'
Nora squirms behind us, then wanders away and pretends to browse the epitaphs.
'She went crazy, I guess,' Julie says. 'Ran out into the city by herself one night and that was that. They found a few pieces of her but . . . there's nothing in this grave.' Her voice is casual. I'm reminded of her trying to imitate the Dead back in the airport, the overacting, the paper-thin mask. 'I guess it was too much for her, all of this.' She waves a hand vaguely at the graveyard and the Stadium behind us. 'She was a real free spirit, you know? This wild bohemian goddess full of fire. She met my dad when she was nineteen, he swept her off her feet. Hard to believe it, but he was a musician back then, played keys in a rock band, was actually pretty good. They got married really young, and then . . . I don't know . . . the world went to shit, and Dad changed. Everything changed.'
I try to read her eyes but her hair obscures them. I hear a tremor in her voice. 'Mom tried. She really did try. She did her part to keep everything together, she did her daily work, and then it was all me. She poured it all into me. Dad was hardly around so it was always just her and the little brat. I remember having so much fun, she used to take me to this water park back in - ' A tiny sob catches her by surprise, choking off the words, and she covers her mouth with her hand. Her eyes plead with me through strands of dirty hair. I gently brush it out of her face. 'She just wasn't built for this fucking place,' she says, her voice warbling in falsetto. 'What was she supposed to do here? Everything that made her alive was gone. All she had left was this stupid twelve-year-old with ugly teeth who kept waking her up every night wanting to snuggle away a nightmare. No wonder she wanted out.'
'Stop,' I say firmly, and turn her to face me. 'Stop.' Tears are running down her face, salty secretions shooting through ducts and tubes, past bright pulsating cells and angry red tissues. I wipe them away and pull her into me. 'You're . . . alive,' I mumble into her hair. 'You're . . . worth living for.'
I feel her shudder against my chest, clinging to my shirt as my arms surround her. The air is silent except for the light whistle of the breeze. Nora is looking our way now, twisting a finger through her curls. She catches my eye and gives me a sad smile, as if to apologise for not warning me. But I'm not afraid of the skeletons in Julie's closet. I look forward to meeting the rest of them, looking them hard in the eye, giving them firm, bone-crunching handshakes.
As she dampens my shirt with sadness and snot, I realise I'm about to do another thing I've never done before. I suck in air and attempt to sing. 'You're . . . sensational . . .' I croak, struggling for a trace of Frank's melody. 'Sensational . . . that's all.'
There's a pause, and then something shifts in Julie's demeanour. I realise she's laughing.
'Oh wow,' she giggles, and looks up at me, her eyes still glistening above a grin. 'That was beautiful, R, really. You and Zombie Sinatra should record Duets, Volume 2.'
I cough. 'Didn't get . . . warm-up.'
She brushes some of my hair back into place. She looks back at the grave. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a wilted airport daisy with four petals remaining. She sets it on the bare dirt in front of the headstone. 'Sorry, Mom,' she says softly. 'Best I could find.' She grabs my hand. 'Mom, this is R. He's really nice, you'd love him. The flower is from him, too.'
Even though the grave is empty, I half expect her mother's hand to burst out of the earth and grip my ankle. After all, I'm a cell in the cancer that killed her. But if Julie is any indication, I suspect her mother might forgive me. These people, these beautiful Living women, they don't seem to make the connection between me and the creatures that keep killing everything they love. They allow me to be an exception, and I feel humbled by this gift. I want to pay it back somehow, earn their forgiveness. I want to repair the world I've helped destroy.
Nora rejoins us as we leave Mrs Grigio's grave. She rubs Julie's shoulder and kisses her head. 'You okay?'
Julie nods. 'As much as ever.'
'You want to hear something nice?'
'I saw a patch of wild flowers by my house. They're growing in a ditch.'
Julie smiles. She rubs the last few tears out of her eyes and doesn't say anything more.
I peruse the headstones as we walk. They are crooked and haphazardly placed, making the cemetery look ancient despite the dozens of freshly dug graves. I am thinking about death. I'm thinking how brief life is compared to it. I'm wondering how deep this graveyard goes, how many layers of coffins are stacked on top of each other, and what portion of Earth's soil is made from our decay.
Then something interrupts my morbid reflections. I feel a lurch in my stomach, a queer sensation like what I imagine a baby kicking in the womb might feel like. I stop in mid-step and turn around. A featureless rectangular headstone is watching me from a nearby hill.
'Hold on,' I say to the girls, and begin climbing the hill.
'What's he doing?' I hear Nora ask under her breath. 'Isn't that . . . ?'
I stand in front of the grave, staring at the name on the stone. A queasy sensation of vertigo rises through my legs, as if a vast pit is opening up in front of me, drawing me towards its edge with some dark, inexorable force. My stomach lurches again, I feel a sharp tug on my brainstem . . . I fall in.