Nora Greene is in the square by the Stadium's main gate, standing with General Rosso in front of a huge crowd. She is a little nervous. She wishes she had smoked before coming out today, but it seemed inappropriate somehow. She wanted a clear head for this occasion.
'Okay, folks,' Rosso begins, straining his reedy voice to reach the back of the assembly spilling out into the far streets. 'We've prepared you for this as best we could, but I know it may still be a little . . . uncomfortable.'
Not everyone in the Stadium is here, but everyone who wants to be is. The rest are hiding behind locked doors with guns drawn, but Nora hopes they'll come out eventually to see what's going on.
'Let me just assure you once again that you are not in any danger,' Rosso continues. 'The situation has changed.'
Rosso looks at Nora and nods.
The guards pull open the gate, and Nora shouts, 'Come on in, guys!'
One by one, still clumsy but walking more or less straight, they wander into the Stadium. The Half-Dead. The Nearly-Living. The crowd murmurs anxiously and contracts as the zombies form a loose line in front of the gate.
'These are just a few of them,' Nora says, moving forward to address the people. 'There are more out there every day. They're trying to cure themselves. They're trying to cure the plague, and we need to do whatever we can to help.'
'Like what?' someone shouts.
'We're going to study it,' Rosso says. 'Get close to it, knead it and wring it until answers start to emerge. I know it's vague, but we have to start somewhere.'
'Talk to them,' Nora says. 'I know it's scary at first, but look them in the eyes. Tell them your name and ask them theirs.'
'Don't worry,' Rosso says. 'Each one will have a guard assigned to them at all times, but try to believe that they won't hurt you. We have to entertain the idea that this can work.'
Nora steps back to let the crowd come forward. Cautiously, they do. They approach the zombies, while wary guards keep rifles trained. For their part, the zombies are handling this awkward experience with admirable patience. They just stand there and wait, some of them attempting affable grins while trying to ignore the laser dots jittering on their foreheads. Nora moves to join the people, crossing her fingers behind her back and hoping for the best.
She turns towards the voice. One of the zombies is watching her. He steps forwards from the line and gives her a smile. His lips are thin and slightly mangled under a short blond beard, but they, along with countless other wounds on his body, appear to be healing.
'Um . . . hello . . .' Nora says, glancing up and down his considerable height. He must be well over six feet. He's a little heavyset, but his muscular arms strain his tattered shirt. His perfectly bald head gleams like a pale grey pearl.
'I'm Nora,' she says, tugging at her curls.
'My name is Mm . . . arcus,' he says, his voice a velvety rumble. 'And you're . . . the most beautiful woman . . . I've ever seen.'
Nora giggles and twirls her hair faster. 'Oh my.' She reaches out a hand. 'Nice to meet you . . . Marcus.'
The boy is in the airport. The hallways are dark, but he's not scared. He runs through the shadowed food court, past all the unlit signs and mouldy leftovers, half-finished beers and cold pad thai. He hears the rattle of a solitary skeleton wandering in an adjacent corridor and quickly changes course, darting around the corner without pausing. The Boneys are slow now. The moment the boy's dad and stepmom first came back here, something happened to them all. Now they wander aimlessly like bees in winter. They stand motionless, obsolete equipment waiting to be replaced.
The boy is carrying a box. It's empty now, but his arms are tired. He runs into the connecting overpass and stops to get his bearings.
The boy's sister appears behind him. She's carrying a box, too. She has bits of tape stuck all over her fingers.
'All done, Joan?'
'Okay. Let's go get more.'
They run down the corridor. As they hit the conveyer, the power comes back on and the belt lurches under their feet. The boy and the girl are running barefoot at the speed of light, flying down the corridor like loping deer while the morning sun drifts up behind them. At the end of the corridor they nearly collide with another group of kids, all holding boxes.
'All done,' the kids say.
'Okay,' Alex says, and they run together. Some of the kids still wear tatters. Some of them are still grey. But most of them are alive. The kids lacked the instinctual programming of the adults. They had to be taught how to do everything. How to kill easily, how to wander aimlessly, how to sway and groan and properly rot away. But now the classes have stopped. No one is teaching them, and like perennial bulbs dried up and waiting in the winter earth, they are bursting back to life all on their own.
The fluorescent lights flicker and buzz, and the sound of a record needle scratches onto the speakers overhead. Some enterprising soul has hijacked the airport PA system. Sweet, swooning strings swell into the gloom, and Francis Albert Sinatra's voice echoes lonely in the empty halls.
Something wonderful happens in summer . . . when the sky is a heavenly blue . . .
The dusty speakers pop and sizzle, short out and distort. The record skips. But it's the first time in years this place's inert air has been stirred by music.
As the kids run to the Arrivals gate to get fresh boxes, fresh rolls of tape, they pass a pale figure shambling down the hall. The zombie glances at the Living children as they run past, but doesn't pursue them. Her appetite has been waning lately. She doesn't feel the hunger like she used to. She watches the kids disappear around the corner, then continues on her way. She doesn't know where she's going exactly, but there's a white glow at the end of this hallway, and it looks nice. She stumbles towards it.
Something wonderful happens in summer . . . when the moon makes you feel all aglow . . . You fall in love, you fall in love . . . you want the whole world to know . . .
She emerges into the waiting area of Gate 12, flooded with bright morning sunlight. Something in here is different than before. On the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the runways, someone has taped small photos to the glass. Side by side and stacked about five squares high, they form a strip that runs all the way to the end of the room.
Something wonderful happens in summer . . . and it happens to only a few. But when it does . . . yes when it does . . .
The zombie approaches the photos warily. She stands in front of them, staring with mouth slightly agape.
A girl climbing an apple tree. A kid spraying his brother with a hose. A woman playing a cello. An elderly couple gently touching. A boy with a dog. A boy crying. A newborn deep in sleep. And one older photo, creased and faded: a family at a water park. A man, a woman and a little blonde girl, smiling and squinting in the sun.
The zombie stares at this mysterious and sprawling collage. The sunlight glints off the name tag on her chest, so bright it hurts her eyes. For hours she stands there, motionless. Then she takes in a slow breath. Her first in months. Dangling limply at her sides, her fingers twitch to the music.