He cocks the gun and presses it against my forehead, directly onto Julie's Band-Aid. Here it comes. Here is M's ever-present irony. My inevitable death, ignoring me all those years when I wished for it daily, arriving only after I've decided I want to live for ever. I close my eyes and brace myself.
A spatter of blood warms my face - but it's not mine. My eyes flash open just in time to see Julie's knife glancing off Grigio's hand. The gun flies out of his grip and fires when it hits the floor, then again and again as the recoil knocks it against the walls of the narrow hall like a ricocheting Superball. Everyone drops for cover, and the gun finally spins to rest touching Nora's toes. In the deafened silence she stares down at it, wide-eyed, then looks at the general. Cradling his gashed hand, he lunges. Nora snatches the gun off the floor and aims it at his face. He freezes. He flexes his jaw and inches forward as if about to pounce anyway. But then Nora pops out the spent ammo clip, whips a fresh one out of her purse, shoves it into the gun and chambers a round, all one liquid motion without ever taking her eyes off his. Grigio steps back.
'Go,' she says, her eyes flicking to Julie. 'Try to get out somehow. Just try.'
Julie grabs my hand. We back out of the room while her dad stands there vibrating with rage.
'Goodbye, Dad,' Julie says softly. We turn and run down the stairs.
'Julie!' Grigio howls, and the sound reminds me so much of another sound, a hollow blast from a broken hunting horn, that I shiver in my damp shirt.
We are running. Julie stays in front, leading us through the cramped streets. Behind us, angry shouts ring out from the direction of Julie's house. Then the squawk of walkie-talkies. We are running, and we are being chased. Julie's leadership is less than decisive. We zigzag and backtrack. We are rodents scrambling in a cage. We run as the looming rooftops spin around us.
Then we hit the wall. A sheer concrete barrier laced with scaffolding, ladders and walkways to nowhere. All the bleachers are gone, but one staircase remains; a dark hallway beckons to us from the top. We run towards it. Everything on either side of the staircase has been stripped away, leaving it floating in space like Jacob's ladder.
A shout flies up from the ground below just as we reach the opening. 'Miss Grigio!'
We turn and look down. Colonel Rosso is at the bottom of the steps, surrounded by a retinue of Security officers. He is the only one without his gun drawn.
'Please don't run!' he calls to Julie.
Julie pulls me into the hallway and we sprint into the dark.
This inner space is clearly under construction, but most of it remains exactly as it was abandoned. Hot-dog stands, souvenir kiosks and overpriced pretzel booths sit cold and lifeless in the shadows. The shouts of the Security team echo behind us. I wait for the dead end that will halt us, that will force me to turn and face the inevitable.
The hallway ends. In the faint light creeping through holes in the concrete, I see a sign on the door:
Julie runs faster, dragging me behind her. We slam into the door and it flies open -
'Oh shhh - ' she gasps and whips around, grabbing onto the door frame as one foot dangles out over an eight-storey drop.
Cold wind whistles around the doorway, where torn stumps of a fire escape protrude from the wall.
Birds flutter past. Below, the city spreads out like a vast cemetery, high-rises like headstones.
Rosso and his officers roll to a stop about twenty feet behind us. Rosso is breathing hard, clearly too old for hot pursuit.
I look out the door at the ground below. I look at Julie. I look down again, then back at Julie.
'Julie,' I say.
'Are you sure you want . . . to come with me?'
She looks at me, straining to force breath through her rapidly constricting bronchial tubes. There are questions in her eyes, maybe doubts, surely fears, but she nods. 'Yes.'
'Please stop running,' Rosso groans, leaning over, hands on his knees. 'This is not the way.'
'I have to go,' she says.
'Miss Cabernet. Julie. You can't leave your father here. You're all he has left.'
She bites her lower lip, but her eyes are steely. 'Dad's dead, Rosy. He just hasn't started rotting yet.'
She grabs my hand, the one I shattered on M's face, and squeezes so hard I think she might break it even further. She looks up at me. 'Well, R?'
I pull her to me. I wrap my arms around her and hold tight enough to fuse our genes. We are face to face and I almost kiss her, but instead I take two steps backwards, and we fall through the doorway.
We plummet like a shot bird. My arms and legs encircle her, almost completely enveloping her tiny body. We crash through a roof overhang, a support bar tears into my thigh, my head bounces off a beam, we tangle in a cellphone banner and rip it in half, and then, finally, we hit the ground. A chorus of cracks and crunches shoots through me as my back greets the earth and Julie's weight flattens my chest. She rolls off me, choking and gasping for breath, and I lie there staring up at the sky. Here we are.
Julie raises herself on hands and knees and fumbles her inhaler out of her bag, takes a shot and holds it, supporting herself against the ground with one arm. When she can breathe again she crouches over me with terror in her eyes. Her face eclipses the hazy sun. 'R!' she whispers. 'Hey!'
As slow and shaky as the day I first rose from the dead, I lift myself upright and hobble to my feet. Various bones grind and crackle throughout my body. I smile, and in my breathy, tuneless tenor, I sing, 'You make . . . me feel so young . . .'
She bursts out laughing and hugs me. I feel the pressure snap a few joints back into place.
She looks up at the open doorway. Rosso is framed in it, looking down at us. Julie waves to him, and he disappears back into the Stadium with a swiftness that suggests pursuit. I try not to begrudge the man his paradigm - perhaps in his world, orders are orders.
So Julie and I run into the city. With each step I feel my body stabilising, bones realigning, tissues stiffening around cracks to keep me from falling apart. I've never felt anything like this before. Is this some form of healing?
We dash through the empty streets, past countless rusty cars, drifts of dead leaves and debris. We violate one-way streets. We blow stop signs. Ahead of us: the edge of town, the high grassy hill where the city opens up and the freeway leads elsewhere. Behind us: the relentless roar of assault vehicles gunning out of the Stadium gate. This cannot stand! declare the steel-jawed mouths of the rule makers. Find those little embers and stomp them out! With these howls at our backs, we crest the hill.
We are face to face with an army.
They stand in the grassy field next to the freeway ramps. Hundreds of them. They mill around in the grass, staring at the sky or at nothing, their grey, sunken faces oddly serene. But when the front line sees us they freeze, then pivot in our direction. Their focus spreads in a wave until the entire mob is standing at attention. Julie gives me an amused glance as if to say, Really? Then a disturbance ripples through the ranks, and a burly, bald, six-foot-five zombie pushes his way into the open.
'M,' I say.
'R,' he says. He gives Julie a quick nod. 'Julie.'
'Hiiii . . .' she says, leaning into me warily.
Our pursuers' tyres screech and we hear a rev of engines. They are very close. M steps up to the peak of the hill and the mob follows him. Julie huddles close to me as they sweep in around us, absorbing us into their odorous army, their rank ranks. It could be my imagination or a trick of the light, but M's skin looks less ashen than usual. His partial lips seem more expressive. And for the first time since I've known him, his neatly trimmed beard is not stained with blood.
The trucks barrel towards us, but as the swarm of the Dead rises into view on the hilltop, the vehicles slow down, then grumble to a stop. There are only four of them. Two Hummer H2s, a Chevy Tahoe and an Escalade, all spray-painted military olive drab. The hulking machines look small and pitiful from where we stand. The Tahoe's door opens, and Colonel Rosso slowly emerges. Clutching his rifle, he scans the row upon row of swaying bodies, weighing odds and strategies. His eyes are wide behind his thick glasses. He swallows, then lowers his gun.
'I'm sorry, Rosy,' Julie calls down to him, and points at the Stadium. 'I can't do it any more, okay? It's a fucking lie. We think we're surviving in there but we're not.'
Rosso is looking hard at the zombies arrayed around him, peering into their faces. He's old enough that he's probably been around since the beginning of all this. He knows what the Dead are supposed to look like, and he can tell when something's different, no matter how subtle, subliminal, subcutaneous.
'You can't save the world by yourself!' he yells. 'Come back and we can discuss this!'
'I'm not by myself,' Julie says, and gestures at the forest of zombies swaying around her. 'I'm with these guys.'
Rosso's lips twist in a tortured grimace, then he jumps in his vehicle, slams the door, and revs back towards the Stadium with the other three right behind. A brief respite, a quick suck of breath, because I know they aren't quitting, they can't quit, they're just gathering their strength, their weapons, their brute-force determination.