'Julie,' I say, bracing to confess my final sin. 'I need . . . to tell you . . .'
The Stadium's field halogens flare like suns and midnight becomes daylight. I can see every pore in Julie's face.
'What the hell?' she gasps, whipping her head around. A piercing alarm further shatters the night's stillness, and then we see it: the Jumbotron is aglow. Hanging from the upper reaches of the open roof like a tablet descending from Heaven, the screen plays a blocky animation of a quarterback running from what appears to be a zombie, arms outstretched and clutching. The screen blinks between this and a word that I think might be:
'R . . .' Julie says, horrified, 'did you eat someone?'
I look at her desperately. 'No ch . . . no choi . . . no choice,' I stutter, my diction collapsing in my state of panic. 'Guard . . . stopped me. Didn't . . . mean. Didn't . . . want.'
She presses her lips together, her eyes boring into me, then gives a single shake of her head as if banishing one thought, committing to another. 'Okay. Then we need to get inside. God damn it, R.'
We run into the house and she slams the door. Nora is at the top of the stairs. 'Where have you guys been? What's going on out there?'
'It's a breach,' Julie says. 'Zombie in the Stadium.'
'You mean him?'
The disappointment in her reply makes me wince. 'Yes and no.'
We hurry into Julie's bedroom and she turns out the lights. We all sit on the floor on the piles of laundry, and for a while nobody speaks. We just sit and listen to the sounds. Guards running and shouting. Gunfire. Our own heavy breathing.
'Don't worry,' Julie whispers to Nora, but I know it's for me. 'It won't spread much. Those shots were probably Security taking them out already.'
'Are we in the clear, then?' Nora asks. 'Will R be okay?'
Julie looks at me. Her face is grim. 'Even if they think the breach started from a natural death, that guard obviously didn't eat himself. Security will know there's at least one zombie unaccounted for.'
Nora follows Julie's eyes to mine, and I can almost imagine my face flushing. 'It was you?' she asks, straining for neutrality.
'Didn't . . . mean. Was . . . going . . . kill me.'
She says nothing. Her face is blank.
I meet her stare, willing her to feel my crushing remorse. 'It was my last,' I say, straining to force language back into my idiot tongue. 'No matter what. Swear to the skymouth.'
A few agonising moments pass. Then Nora slowly nods, and addresses Julie. 'So we need to get him out of here.'
'They shut everything down for breaches. All the doors will be locked and guarded. They might even shut the roof if they get scared enough.'
'So what the hell are we supposed to do?'
Julie shrugs, and the gesture looks so bleak on her, so wrong. 'I don't know,' she says. 'Once again, I don't know.'
Julie and Nora fall sleep. They fight it for hours, trying to come up with a plan to save me, but eventually they succumb. I lie on a pile of pants and stare up at the starry green ceiling. Not so easy, Mr Lennon. Even if you try.
It seems trivial now, a thin silver lining on a vast black storm cloud, but I think I'm learning to read. As I look up at the phosphorescent galaxy, letters come together and form words. Stringing them into full sentences is still beyond me, but I savour the sensation of those little symbols clicking together and bursting like soap bubbles of sound. If I ever see my wife again . . . I'll at least be able to read her name tag.
The hours ooze by. It's long after midnight, but bright as noon outside. The halogens ram their white light against the house, squeezing in through cracks in the window shades. My ears tune to the sounds around me. The girls' breathing. Their small shifting movements. And then, sometime around two in the morning, a phone rings.
Julie comes awake, gets up on one elbow. In some distant room of the house, the phone rings again. She throws off her blankets and stands up. Strange to see her from this angle, towering over me instead of cowering under. I'm the one who needs protecting now. One mistake, one brief lapse of my new-found judgement - that's all it took to unravel everything. What a massive responsibility, living as a moral being.
The phone keeps ringing. Julie walks out of the bedroom and I follow her through the dark, echoing house. We step into what appears to be an office. There is a large desk covered in papers and blueprints, and on the walls various kinds of telephones are screwed to the Sheetrock, different brands and styles, all from different eras.
'They rerouted the phone system,' Julie explains. 'It's more like an intercom now. We have direct lines to all the important areas.'
Each phone has a name-tag sticker stuck below it, with the location Sharpied onto the blank. Hi, my name is:
And so on.
The phone that's ringing, a pea-green rotary dialler covered in dust, is labelled:
Julie looks at the phone. She looks at me. 'This is weird. That line is from the phones in the abandoned outer districts. Since we got walkie-talkies nobody uses it any more.'
The phone clangs its bells, loud and insistent. I can't believe Nora is still asleep.
Slowly, Julie picks up the receiver and puts it to her ear. 'Hello?' She waits. 'What? I can't under - ' Her brow furrows in concentration. Then her eyes widen. 'Oh.' They narrow. 'You. Yeah, this is Julie, what do you - ' She waits. 'Fine. Yeah, he's right here.'
She holds the phone out to me. 'It's for you.'
I stare at it. 'What?'
'It's your friend. That fat fuck from the airport.'
I grab the phone. I put the earpiece to my mouth. Julie shakes her head and flips it around for me. Into the receiver I breathe a stunned, 'M?'
His deep rumble crackles in my ear. 'Hey . . . lover boy.'
'What's . . . Where are you?'
'Out in . . . city. Didn't know . . . what would get with . . . phone, but had . . . to try. You're . . . okay?'
'Okay but . . . trapped. Stadium . . . locked down.'
'What's . . . going on? Out there.'
There is silence for a moment. 'R,' he says. 'Dead . . . still coming. More. From airport. Other places. Lots . . . of us now.'
I'm silent. The phone wanders away from my ear. Julie looks at me expectantly.
'Hello?' M says.
'Sorry. I'm here.'
'Well, we're . . . here. What now? What should . . . do?'
I rest the phone on my shoulder and look at the wall, at nothing. I look at the papers and plans on General Grigio's desk. His strategies are all gibberish to me. I have no doubt it's all important - food allocation, construction plans, weapon distribution, combat tactics. He's trying to keep everyone alive, and that's good. That's foundational. But like Julie said, there must be something even deeper than that. The earth under that foundation. Without that firm ground, it's all going to collapse, over and over, no matter how many bricks he lays. This is what I'm interested in. The earth under the bricks.
'What's going on?' Julie asks. 'What's he saying?'
As I look into her anxious face, I feel the twitch in my guts, the young, eager voice in my head.
It's happening, corpse. Whatever you and Julie triggered, it's moving. A good disease, a virus that causes life! Do you see this, you dumb fucking monster? It's inside you! You have to get out of these walls and spread it!
I angle the phone towards Julie so she can listen. She leans in close.
'M,' I say.
'Tell Julie . . . what's happening.'
There's a pause. 'Changing,' he says. 'Lots of us . . . changing. Like R.'
Julie looks at me and I can almost sense her neck hairs standing on end. 'It's not just you?' she says, moving away from the phone. 'This . . . reviving thing?' Her voice is small and tentative, like a little girl poking her head out of a bomb shelter after years of life in the dark. It almost quivers with tight-leashed hope. 'Are you saying the plague is healing?'
I nod. 'We're . . . fixing things.'
'Don't know. But we have to . . . do more of it. Out there . . . where M is. "Outside".'
Her excitement cools, hardens. 'So we have to leave.'
'Both of us?'
'Both,' M's voice crackles in the earpiece like an eaves-dropping mother. 'Julie . . . part of it.'
She eyes me dubiously. 'You want me. Skinny little human girl. Out there in the wild, running with a pack of zombies?'
'Do you grasp how insane that is?'
She is silent for a moment, looking at the floor. 'Do you really think you can keep me safe?' she asks me. 'Out there, with them?'
My incurable honesty makes me hesitate, and Julie frowns.
'Yes,' M answers for me, exasperated. 'He can. And I'll . . . help.'
I nod quickly. 'M will help. The others . . . will help. Besides,' I add with a faint smile, 'you can . . . keep yourself safe.'
She shrugs nonchalantly. 'I know. I just wanted to see what you'd say.'
'So you'll . . . ?'
'I'll go with you.'
'You're . . . sure?'
Her eyes are distant and hard. 'I had to bury my mom's empty dress. I've been waiting for this a long time.'
I nod. I take a deep breath.
'The only problem with your plan,' she continues, 'is that you seem to be forgetting you ate someone last night, and this place is going to stay clamped shut until they find and kill you.'
'Should we . . . attack?' M says. 'Get you . . . out?'
I put the phone back to my ear, gripping the receiver hard. 'No,' I tell him.
'Have . . . army. Where's . . . battle?'
'Don't know. Not here. These are . . . people.'
I look at Julie. She looks at the ground and rubs her forehead.
'Just wait,' I tell M.
'A little longer. We'll . . . figure it out.'
'Before . . . they kill you?'
A long, dubious silence. Then: 'Hurry up.'
Julie and I stay up for the rest of the night. In our rain-wet clothes we sit on the floor in the cold living room and don't say a word. Eventually my eyes sag shut, and in this strange calm, in what may be my last few hours on Earth, my mind creates a dream for me. Crisp and clear, alive with colour, unfolding like a time-lapse rose in the sparkling darkness.
In this dream, my dream, I am floating down a river on my housejet's severed tail fin. I am lying on my back under the blue midnight, watching the stars drift by above me. The river is uncharted, even in this age of maps and satellites, and I have no idea where it leads. The air is still. The night is warm. I've brought only two provisions: a box of pad thai and Perry's book. Thick. Ancient. Bound in leather. I open it to the middle. An unfinished sentence in some language I've never seen, and beyond it, nothing. An epic tome of empty pages, blank white and waiting. I shut the book and lay my head down on the cool steel. The pad thai tickles my nose, sweet and spicy and strong. I feel the river widening, gaining force.
I hear the waterfall.
My eyes open and I sit up. Julie is cross-legged next to me, watching me with grim amusement.
'Having some nice dreams?'
'Not . . . sure,' I mumble, rubbing my eyes.
'Did you happen to dream up any solutions to our little problem?'
I shake my head.
'Yeah, me neither.' She glances at the wall clock and bunches her lips ruefully. 'I'm supposed to be at the community centre in a few hours to do story time. David and Marie are going to cry when I don't show up.'
David and Marie. I repeat the names in my head, savouring their contours. I would let Trina eat my whole leg for the chance to see those kids again. To hear a few more clumsy syllables tumble from their mouths before I die. 'What are . . . you reading them?'
She looks out of the window at the city, its every crack and flaw brought into sharp relief by the blinding white light. 'I've been trying to get them into the Redwall books. I figured all those songs and feasts and courageous warrior mice would be a nice escape from the nightmare they're growing up in. Marie keeps asking for books about zombies and I keep telling her I can't read non-fiction for story time but . . .' She notices the look on my face and trails off. 'Are you okay?'
'Are you thinking about your kids at the airport?'
I hesitate, then nod.
She reaches out and touches my knee, looking into my stinging eyes. 'R? I know things look bleak right now, but listen. You can't quit. As long as you're still breath - sorry, as long as you're still moving, it's not over. Okay?'
'Okay? Fucking say it, R.'
'TWO. EIGHT. TWENTY-FOUR.'
We jolt away from each other as a speaker in the ceiling blares out a series of numbers followed by a shrill alert tone.
'This is Colonel Rosso with a community-wide notice,' the speaker says. 'The security breach has been contained. The infected officer has been neutralised, with no further casualties reported.'
I release a deep breath.
'However . . .'
'Shit,' Julie whispers.
'. . . the original source of the breach remains at large within our walls. Security patrols will now begin a door-to-door search of every building in the Stadium. Since we don't know where this thing might be hiding, everyone should come out of their houses and congregate in a public area. Donot confine yourself in any small spaces.' Rosso pauses to cough. 'Sorry about this, folks. We'll get it taken care of, just . . . sit tight.'
There's a click, and the PA goes quiet.
Julie jumps to her feet and storms into the bedroom. She pulls open the blinds, letting the floodlights burst through the window. 'Rise and shine, Miss Greene, we're out of time. Do you remember any old exits in the wall tunnels? Wasn't there a fire escape somewhere by the sky box? R, can you climb a ladder yet?'
'Wait, what?' Nora croaks, trying to shield her eyes. 'What's happening?'
'According to R's friend, maybe the end of this shitty undead world, if we don't get killed first.'
Nora finally comes awake. 'Sorry, what?'
'I'll tell you later. They just announced a sweep. We have maybe ten minutes. We need to find . . .' Her voice fades and I watch her mouth move. The shapes her lips make for each word, the flick of tongue against glistening teeth. She is holding onto hope but my grip is slipping. She twists at her hair as she talks, her golden tresses stiff and matted and in need of a wash.
The spicy smell of her shampoo, flowers and herbs and cinnamon dancing with her natural oils. She would never say what brand she used. She liked to keep her scent a mystery.
Julie and Nora are staring at me, waiting. I open my mouth to speak, but I have no words. And then the front door of the house bangs open so hard it resonates through the metal walls all the way to where we're standing. Heavy, booted footfalls pound the stairs.
'Oh Jesus,' Julie says in a panicked breath. She herds us out of the room and into the hallway bathroom. 'Get his makeup back on,' she hisses to Nora, and slams the door shut.
As Nora fumbles with her compact and tries to re-rouge my rain-stained face, I hear two voices out in the hall.
'Dad, what's going on? Did they find the zombie?'
'Not yet, but they will. Have you seen anything?'
'No, I've been here.'
'Are you alone?'
'Yeah, I've been here since last night.'
'Why is the bathroom light on?'
Footsteps pound towards us.
'Wait, Dad! Wait a second!' She lowers her voice a little. 'Nora and Archie are in there.'
'Why did you just tell me you're here alone? This is not a time for games, Julie, this is not a time for hide-and-seek.'
'They're . . . you know . . . in there.'
There is the briefest of hesitations. 'Nora and Archie,' he shouts at the door, his voice compressed and extremely loud. 'As you just heard on the intercom there is a breach in progress. I cannot begin to imagine a worse time for lovemaking. Come out immediately.'
Nora straddles me against the sink and buries my face in her cleavage just as Grigio yanks the door open.
'Dad!' Julie squeals, flashing Nora a quick look as she jumps off me.
'Come out immediately,' Grigio says.
We step out of the bathroom. Nora straightens her clothes and pats down her hair, doing a pretty good job of looking embarrassed. I just look at Grigio, unapologetic, limbering up my diction for its first and probably last big test. He looks back at me with that taut, angular face, peering into my eyes. There are less than two feet between us.
'Hello, Archie,' he says.
'You and Miss Greene are in love?'
'That is wonderful. Have you discussed marriage?'
'Why delay? Why deliberate? These are the last days. Where do you live, Archie?'
'Goldman . . . Field.'
'Yes, sir. Sorry.'
'What work do you do at Goldman Dome.'
'Does that work allow you and Nora to feed your children?'
'We don't have children, sir.'
'Children replace us when we die. When you have children you will need to feed them. I'm told things are bad at Goldman Dome. I'm told you are running out of everything. It's a dark world we live in, isn't it, Archie?'
'We do the best we can with what God gives us. If God gives us stones when we ask for bread, we will sharpen our teeth and eat stones.'
'Or make . . . our own bread.'
Grigio smiles. 'Are you wearing make-up, Archie?'
Grigio stabs me.
I didn't even notice the knife coming out of its sheath. The five-inch blade sinks into my shoulder and pokes out the other side, pinning me to the drywall. I don't feel it and I don't flinch. The wound doesn't bleed.
'Julie!' Grigio roars, stepping back from me and drawing his pistol, his eyes wild in their deep sockets. 'Did you bring the Dead into my city? Into my home? Did you let the Dead touch you?'
'Dad, listen to me!' Julie says, holding her hands out towards him. 'R is different. He's changing.'
'The Dead don't change, Julie! They are not people, they are things!'
'How do we know that? Just because they don't talk to us and tell us about their lives? We don't understand their thoughts so we assume they don't have any?'
'We've done tests! The Dead have never shown any signs of self-awareness or emotional response!'
'Neither have you, Dad! Jesus Christ - R saved my life! He protected me and brought me home! He's human! And there are more like him!'
'No,' Grigio says, abruptly calm. His hands stop wavering and the gun steadies, inches from my face.
'Dad, please listen to me? Please?' She takes a step closer. She is trying to stay cool but I can tell she is terrified. 'When I was at the airport, something happened. We sparked something, and whatever it is, it's spreading. The Dead are coming back to life, they're leaving their hives and trying to change what they are, and we have to find a way to help. Imagine if we could cure the plague, Dad! Imagine if we could clean up this mess and start over!'
Grigio shakes his head. I can see his jaw muscles tightening under his waxy skin. 'Julie, you are young. You don't understand our world. We can stay alive and we can kill the things that want to kill us, but there is no grand solution. We searched for years and never found one, and now our time is up. The world is over. It can't be cured, it can't be salvaged, it can't be saved.'
'Yes it can!' Julie screams at him, losing all composure. 'Who decided life has to be a nightmare? Who wrote that fucking rule? We can fix it, we've just never tried before! We've always been too busy and selfish and scared!'
Grigio grits his teeth. 'You are a dreamer. You are a child. You are your mother.'