I am Perry Kelvin, and this is my last day alive.
What a strange feeling, waking up to that awareness. All my life I have battled the alarm clock, pummelling the snooze button over and over with mounting self-loathing until the shame is finally strong enough to lever me upright. It was only on the brightest of mornings, those rare days of verve and purpose and clear reasons to live that I ever sprang awake easily. How strange, then, that I do today.
Julie whimpers as I extract myself from her goosebumped arms and slip out of bed. She gathers my half of the blankets around her and curls up against the wall. She will sleep for hours more, dreaming endless landscapes and novas of colour both gorgeous and frightening. If I stayed she would wake up and describe them to me. All the mad plot twists and surrealist imagery, so vivid to her while so meaningless to me. There was a time when I treasured listening to her, when I found the commotion in her soul bitter-sweet and lovely, but I can no longer bear it. I lean over to kiss her goodbye, but my lips stiffen and I cringe away from her. I can't. I can't. I'll collapse. I pull back and leave without touching her.
Two years ago today my father was crushed under the wall he was building, and I became an orphan. I have missed him for seven hundred and thirty days, my mother for even longer, but tomorrow I will not miss anyone. I think about this as I descend the winding stairs of my foster home, this wretched house of discards, and emerge into the city. Dad, Mom, Grandma, my friends . . . tomorrow I won't miss anyone.
It's early and the sun is barely over the mountains, but the city is already wide awake. The streets are crawling with labourers, repair crews, moms pushing knobby-tyred strollers and foster-moms herding lines of kids like cattle. Somewhere in the distance someone is playing a clarinet; its quavery notes drift through the morning air like birdsong, and I try to shut it out. I don't want to hear music, I don't want the sunrise to be pink. The world is a liar. Its ugliness is overwhelming; the scraps of beauty make it worse.
I make my way to the Island Street administrative building and tell the receptionist I'm here for my seven o'clock with General Grigio. She walks me back to his office and shuts the door behind me. The general doesn't look up from the paperwork on his desk. He raises one finger at me. I stand and wait, letting my eyes roam the contents of his walls. A picture of Julie. A picture of Julie's mother. A faded picture of himself and a younger Colonel Rosso in proper US Army uniforms, smoking cigarettes in front of a flooded New York skyline. Next to this, another shot of the two men smoking cigarettes, this time overlooking a crumbled London. Then bombed-out Paris. Then smouldering Rome.
The general finally sets down his paperwork. He takes off his glasses and looks me over. 'Mr Kelvin,' he says.
'Your very first salvage as team manager.'
'Do you feel ready?'
My tongue stalls for an instant as images of horses and cellists and red lips on a wine glass flicker through my mind, trying to knock me off course. I burn them like old film. 'Yes, sir.'
'Good. Here is your exit pass. See Colonel Rosso at the community centre for your team assignments.'
'Thank you, sir.' I take the paperwork and turn to leave. But I pause on the doorway threshold. 'Sir?' My voice cracks a little even though I swore I wouldn't let it.
'Permission to speak freely, sir?'
I moisten my dry lips. 'Is there a reason for all this?'
'Is there a reason for us to keep doing all these things? The salvages and . . . everything?'
'I'm afraid I don't understand your question, Perry. The supplies we salvage are keeping us alive.'
'Are we trying to stay alive because we think the world will get better someday? Is that what we're working towards?'
His expression is flat. 'Perhaps.'
My voice becomes shaky and very undignified, but I can no longer control it. 'What about right now? Is there anything right now that you love enough to keep living for?'
'Perry - '
'Will you tell me what it is, sir? Please?'
His eyes are marbles. A noise like the beginning of a word forms in his throat, then it stops. His mouth tightens. 'This conversation is inappropriate.' He lays his hands flat on his desk. 'You should be on your way now. You have work to do.'
I swallow hard. 'Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.'
'See Colonel Rosso at the community centre for your team assignments.'
I step through the door and shut it behind me.
In Colonel Rosso's office I conduct myself with utmost professionalism. I request my team assignments and he gives them to me, handing over the envelope with warmth and pride in his squinty, failing eyes. He wishes me luck and I thank him; he invites me to dinner and I politely decline. My voice does not crack. I lose no composure.
Marching back through the community centre lobby I glance towards the gym and see Nora staring at me through the tall windows. She's wearing snug black shorts and a white tank top, as are all the pre-teens on the volleyball court behind her. Nora's 'team', her sad attempt to distract a few kids from reality for two hours a week. I walk past her without so much as a nod, and as I start to push the front doors open I hear her sneakers slapping the tile floor behind me.
I stop and let the doors swing shut. I turn around and face her. 'Hey.'
She stands in front of me with her arms crossed, her eyes stony. 'So today's the big day, huh?'
'I guess so.'
'What area are you hitting? You got it all planned out?'
'The old Pfizer building on Eighth Ave.'
She nods rapidly. 'Good, that sounds like a good plan, Perry. And you'll be all done and home by six, right? 'Cause remember we're taking you to the Orchard tonight. We're not letting you spend today moping alone like you did last year.'
I watch the kids in the gym, bumping-setting-spiking, laughing and cursing. 'I don't know if I'll make it. This salvage might go a little later than usual.'
She keeps nodding. 'Oh. Oh, okay. Because that building is crooked and full of cracks and dead ends and you have to be extra careful, right?'
'Yeah.' She nods towards the envelope in my hand. 'You checked that yet?'
'Well, you should probably check it, Perry.' Her foot taps the floor; her body vibrates with restrained anger. 'You need to make sure you know everyone's profiles, strengths and weaknesses and all that. Mine, for instance, because I'm on there.'
My face goes blank. 'What?'
'Sure, I'm going, Rosso put me on yesterday. Do you know my strengths and weaknesses? Is there anything on your agenda you think might be too hard for me? 'Cause I'd hate to jeopardise your very first salvage as team manager.'
I rip the top off the envelope and start scanning the names.
'Julie signed up, too, did she mention that?'
My eyes flash up from the page.
'That's right, fucker, will that be a problem for you?' Her voice is strained to breaking. There are tears in her eyes. 'Is that a conflict at all?'
I shove open the front doors and burst out into the cold morning air. Birds overhead. Those blank-eyed pigeons, those shrieking gulls, all the flies and beetles that eat their shit - the gift of flight dumped on Earth's most worthless creatures. What if it were mine instead? That perfect, weightless freedom. No fences, no walls, no borders; I would fly everywhere, over oceans and continents, mountains and jungles and endless open plains, and somewhere in the world, somewhere in all that distant untouched beauty, I would find a reason.
I am floating in Perry's darkness. I am deep in the earth. Somewhere far above me are roots and worms and an inverted graveyard where the coffins are the markers and the headstones are what's buried, piercing down into the airy blue emptiness, hiding all the names and pretty epitaphs and leaving me with the rot.
I feel a stirring in the dirt that surrounds me. A hand burrows through and grabs my shoulder.
We are in the 747. My piles of souvenirs are sorted and arranged in neat stacks. The aisle is softened with layers of oriental throw rugs. Dean Martin croons on the record player.
He's in the cockpit, in the pilot's chair with his hands on the controls. He's wearing a pilot's uniform, the white shirt stained with blood. He smiles at me, then gestures at the windows, where streaks of clouds flicker past. 'We are now approaching cruising altitude. You're free to move about the cabin.'
With slow, cautious movements, I get up and join him in the cockpit. I look at him uneasily. He grins. I rub a finger through the familiar layers of dust on the controls. 'This isn't one of your memories, is it?'
'No. This is yours. I wanted you to be comfortable.'
'Is it your grave I'm standing on right now?'
He shrugs. 'I suppose. I think it's just my empty skull in there, though. You and your friends took most of me home for snacks, remember?'
I open my mouth to apologise again, but he shuts his eyes and waves it away. 'Don't, please. We're past all that. Besides, that wasn't really me you killed, that was older-wiser Perry. I think this is mostly junior-high Perry you're talking to, young and optimistic and writing a novel called Ghosts vs. Werewolves. I'd rather not think about being dead right now.'
I eye him uncertainly. 'You're a lot more cheerful here than in your memories.'
'I have perspective here. It's hard to take your life so seriously when you can see it all at once.'
I peer at him. His reality is very convincing, pimples and all. 'Are you . . . really you?' I ask.
'What does that mean?'
'All this time I've been talking to you, are you just . . . leftovers from your brain? Or are you really actually you?'
He chuckles. 'Does it really actually matter?'
'Are you Perry's soul?'
'Maybe. Kind of. Whatever you want to call it.'
'Are you . . . in Heaven?'
He laughs and tugs his blood-soaked shirt. 'Yeah, not exactly. Whatever I am, "R", I'm in you.' He laughs again at the look on my face. 'Fucked up, isn't it? But Older-Wiser went out of this life pretty darkly. Maybe this is our chance to catch up with him and work some things out before . . . you know. Whatever's next.'
I look out the window. No glimpse of land or sea, just the silky mountains of Cloud World spread out below us and piled high above. 'Where are we headed?'
'Towards whatever's next.' He lifts his eyes to the heavens with sarcastic solemnity, then grins. 'You're going to help me get there, and I'm going to help you.'
I feel my guts twist as the plane surges and drops on erratic air currents. 'Why would you help me? I'm the reason you're dead.'
'Come on, R, don't you get this yet?' He seems upset by my question. He locks eyes on me and there's a feverish intensity in them. 'You and I are victims of the same disease. We're fighting the same war, just different battles in different theatres, and it's way too late for me to hate you for anything, because we're the same damn thing. My soul, your conscience, whatever's left of me woven into whatever's left of you, all tangled up and conjoined.' He gives me a hearty clap on the shoulder that almost hurts. 'We're in this together, corpse.'
A low tremor rumbles through the plane. The control stick wobbles in front of Perry, but he ignores it. I don't know what to say, so I just say, 'Okay.'
He nods. 'Okay.'
Another faint vibration in the floor, like the concussions of distant bombs.
'So,' he says. 'God has made us study partners. We need to talk about our project.' He takes a deep breath and looks at me, tapping his chin. 'I've been hearing a lot of inspirational thoughts prancing around in our head lately. But I'm not sure you really understand the storm we're flying into.'
A few red lights blink on in the cabin. There is a scraping noise somewhere outside the plane.
'What am I missing?' I ask.
'How about a strategy? We're wandering around this city like a kitten in a dog kennel. You keep talking about changing the world, but you're sitting here licking your paws while all the pit bulls circle in on us. What's the plan, pussycat?'
Outside, the cotton clouds darken to steel wool. The lights flicker, and my souvenir stacks rattle.
'I don't . . . have one yet.'
'So when? You know things are moving. You're changing, your fellow Dead are changing, the world is ready for something miraculous. What are we waiting for?'
The plane shudders and begins to dive. I stumble into the co-pilot chair, feeling my stomach rise into my throat. 'I'm not waiting. I'm doing it right now.'
'Doing what? What are you doing?'
'I'm trying.' I hold Perry's gaze and grip the sides of my seat as the plane shakes and groans. 'I'm wanting it. I'm making myself care.'
Perry's eyes narrow and his lips tighten, but he doesn't say anything.
'That's step one, isn't it?' I yell over the noise of wind and roaring engines. 'That's where it has to start.'
The plane lurches and my souvenir stacks collapse, scattering paintings, movies, dishes, dolls and love notes all over the cabin. More lights flare in the cockpit, and a voice crackles on the radio.
R? Helloooo? Are you okay?
Perry's face has gone cold, all playfulness gone. 'Bad stuff is coming, R. Some of it's waiting for you right outside this graveyard. You're right, wanting change is step one, but step two is taking it. When the flood comes, I don't want to see you dreaming your way through it. You've got my little girl with you now.'
Okay, you're creeping me out. Wake up!
'I know I didn't deserve her,' Perry says, his quiet murmur somehow rising above the noise. 'She offered me everything and I pissed on it. So now it's your turn, R. Go keep her safe. She's a lot softer than she seems.'
God damn it, you asshole! Wake up or I'll fucking shoot you!
I nod. Perry nods. Then he turns to face the window and folds his arms across his chest while the controls shake wildly. The storm clouds peel apart and we are diving to Earth, hurtling directly towards the Stadium, and there they are, the infamous R and J, sitting on a blanket on the rain-soaked roof. R looks up and sees us, his eyes open wide just as we -
My eyes open wide and I blink reality into focus. I am standing in front of a small grave in an amateur cemetery. Julie's hand is on my shoulder.
'Are you back?' she asks. 'What the hell was that about?'
I clear my throat and look around. 'Sorry. Daydreaming.'
'God, you're weird. Come on, I don't want to be here any more.' She strides briskly towards the exit.
Nora and I follow her. Nora keeps pace with me, eyeing me sideways. 'Daydreaming?' she asks.
'You were talking to yourself a little.'
I look at her.
'Some pretty big words, too. I think I heard "miraculous".'
The waterfall noise of the city rushes into our ears as the guards open the doors and we step back into the Stadium proper. The doors have barely slammed shut behind us when I feel that baby kick in my stomach again. A voice whispers, Here it comes, R. Are you ready?
'Oh, this is lovely,' Julie says under her breath.
There he is, marching around the street corner in front of us: Julie's dad, General Grigio. He strides directly towards us, flanked on each side by an officer of some kind, although none of them wear traditional military attire. Their uniforms are light grey shirts and work pants, no decorations or rank insignias, just pockets and tool loops and laminated ID badges. High-calibre side arms gleam softly in their belt holsters.
'Be cool, R,' Julie whispers. 'Don't say anything, just, um . . . pretend you're shy.'
'Julie!' the general calls out from an awkward distance.
'Hi, Dad,' Julie says.
He and his retinue stop in front of us. He gives Julie's shoulder a quick squeeze. 'How are you?'
'Fine. Just went to see Mom.'
His jaw muscle twitches, but he doesn't respond. He looks at Nora, gives her a nod, then looks at me. He looks at me very hard. He pulls out a walkie-talkie. 'Ted. The individual who slipped past you yesterday. You said it was a young man in a red tie? Tall, thin, poorly complected?'
'Dad,' Julie says.
The walkie squawks. The general puts it away and pulls a pair of thumb cuffs from his belt. 'You are detained for unauthorised entry,' he recites. 'You will be held in - '
'Jesus Christ, Dad.' Julie steps forward to push his hands away. 'What is wrong with you? He's not an intruder, he's visiting from Goldman Dome. And he almost died on the way here so cut him some slack on the legalities, will you?'
'Who is he?' the general demands.
Julie edges in front of me as if to block me from responding. 'His name is . . . Archie - it was Archie, right?' She glances at me and I nod. 'He's Nora's new boyfriend. I just met him today.'
Nora grins and squeezes my arm. 'Can you believe what a nice dresser he is? I didn't think guys knew how to wear a tie any more.'
The general hesitates, then puts the cuffs away and forces a thin smile. 'Pleased to meet you, Archie. You're aware of course that if you want to stay any longer than three days you'll need to register with our immigration officer.'
I nod and try to avoid eye contact, but I can't seem to look away from his face. Although that tense dinner I witnessed in my visions couldn't have been more than a few years ago, he looks a decade older. His skin is thin and papery. His cheek-bones protrude. His veins are green in his forehead.
One of the officers with him clears his throat. 'So sorry to hear about Perry, Miss Cabernet. We'll miss him very much.' Colonel Rosso is older than Grigio but has aged more gracefully. He is short and thick, with strong arms and a muscular chest above the inevitable old-man paunch. His thin hair is wispy and white, blue eyes big and watery behind thick glasses. Julie gives him a smile that seems genuine.
'Thanks, Rosy. So will I.'
Their exchange sounds proper but rings false, as if paddling above deep undercurrents. I suspect they have already shared a less professional moment of grief somewhere away from Grigio's officious gaze. 'We appreciate your condolences, Colonel Rosso,' he says. 'However, I'll thank you not replace our surname when addressing my daughter, whatever such "revisions" she may have embraced.'
The older man straightens. 'Apologies, sir. I meant nothing by it.'
'It's just a nickname,' Nora says. 'Me and Perry thought she was more of a Cab than a . . .'
She trails off under Grigio's stare. He pans slowly over to me. I avoid eye contact until he dismisses me. 'We have to be going,' he says to no one in particular. 'Good to meet you, Archie. Julie, I'll be in meetings all night tonight and then heading over to Goldman in the morning to discuss the merger. I expect to be back at the house in a few days.'
Julie nods. Without another word, the general and his men depart. Julie examines the ground, seeming far away. After a moment, Nora breaks the silence. 'Well, that was scary.'
'Let's go to the Orchard,' Julie mutters. 'I need a drink.'
I'm still looking down the street, watching her father shrink into the distance. Just before rounding a corner he glances back at me, and my skin prickles. Will Perry's flood be of water, gentle and cleansing, or will it be a flood of a different kind? I feel movement under my feet. A faint vibration, as if the bones of every man and woman ever buried are rattling deep in the earth. Cracking the bedrock. Stirring the magma.