After delivering our abundant harvest of leftover flesh to the non-hunters - the Boneys, the children, the stay-at-home moms - I take Julie to my house. My fellow Dead give me curious looks as I pass. Because it requires both volition and restraint, the act of intentionally converting the Living is almost never performed. Most conversions happen by accident: a feeding zombie is killed or otherwise distracted before finishing his business, voro interruptus. The rest of our converts arise from traditional deaths, private affairs of illness or mishap or classical Living-on-Living violence that take place outside our sphere of interest. So the fact that I have purposely brought this girl home unconsumed is a thing of mystery, a miracle on a par with giving birth. M and the others allow me plenty of room in the halls, regarding me with confusion and wonder. If they knew the full truth of what I'm doing, their reactions would be . . . less moderate.
Gripping Julie's hand, I hurry her away from their probing eyes. I lead her to Gate 12, down the boarding tunnel and into my home: a 747 commercial jet. It's not very spacious, the floor plan is impractical, but it's the most isolated place in the airport and I enjoy the privacy. Sometimes it even tickles my numb memory. Looking at my clothes, I seem like the kind of person who probably travelled a lot. Sometimes when I 'sleep' here, I feel the faint rising sensation of flight, the blasts of recycled air blowing in my face, the soggy nausea of packaged sandwiches. And then the fresh lemon zing of poisson in Paris. The burn of tajine in Morocco. Are these places all gone now? Silent streets, cafes full of dusty skeletons?
Julie and I stand in the centre aisle, looking at each other. I point to a window seat and raise my eyebrows. Keeping her eyes solidly on me, she backs into the row and sits down. Her hands grip the armrests like the plane is in a flaming death dive.
I sit in the aisle seat and release an involuntary wheeze, looking straight ahead at my stacks of memorabilia. Every time I go into the city, I bring back one thing that catches my eye. A puzzle. A shot glass. A Barbie. A dildo. Flowers. Magazines. Books. I bring them here to my home, strew them around the seats and aisles, and stare at them for hours. The piles reach to the ceiling now. M keeps asking me why I do this. I have no answer.
'Not . . . eat,' I groan at Julie, looking her in the eyes. 'I . . . won't eat.'
She stares at me. Her lips are tight and pale.
I point at her. I open my mouth and point at my crooked, bloodstained teeth. I shake my head. She presses herself against the window. A terrified whimper rises in her throat. This is not working.
'Safe,' I tell her, letting out a sigh. 'Keep . . . you safe.'
I stand up and go to my record player. I dig through my LP collection in the overhead compartments and pull out an album. I take the headphones back to my seat and place them on Julie's ears. She is still frozen, wide-eyed.
The record plays. It's Frank Sinatra. I can hear it faintly through the phones, like a distant eulogy drifting on autumn air.
Last night . . . when we were young . . .
I close my eyes and hunch forward. My head sways vaguely in time with the music as verses float through the jet cabin, blending together in my ears.
Life was so new . . . so real, so right . . .
'Safe,' I mumble. 'Keep you . . . safe.'
. . . ages ago . . . last night . . .
When my eyes finally open, Julie's face has changed. The terror has faded, and she regards me with disbelief.
'What are you?' she whispers.
I turn my face away. I stand and duck out of the plane. Her bewildered gaze follows me down the tunnel.
In the airport parking garage, there is a classic Mercedes convertible that I've been playing with for several months. After weeks of staring at it, I figured out how to fill its tank from a barrel of stabilised gasoline I found in the service rooms. Then I remembered how to turn the key and start it, after pushing its owner's dry corpse to the pavement. But I have no idea how to drive. The best I've been able to do is back out of the parking spot and ram into a nearby Hummer. Sometimes I just sit there with the engine purring, my hands resting limply on the wheel, willing a true memory to pop into my head. Not another hazy impression or vague awareness cribbed from the collective subconscious. Something specific, bright and vivid. Something unmistakably mine. I strain myself, trying to wrench it out of the blackness.
I meet M later that evening at his home in the women's bathroom. He is sitting in front of a TV plugged into a long extension cord, gaping at a late-night soft-core movie he found in some dead man's luggage. I don't know why he does this. Erotica is meaningless for us now. The blood doesn't pump, the passion doesn't surge. I've walked in on M with his 'girlfriends' before, and they're just standing there naked, staring at each other, sometimes rubbing their bodies together but looking tired and lost. Maybe it's a kind of death throe. A distant echo of that great motivator that once started wars and inspired symphonies, that drove human history out of the caves and into space. M may be holding on, but those days are over now. Sex, once a law as undisputed as gravity, has been disproved. The equation is erased, the blackboard broken.
Sometimes it's a relief. I remember the need, the insatiable hunger that ruled my life and the lives of everyone around me. Sometimes I'm glad to be free of it. There's less trouble now. But our loss of this, the most basic of all human passions, might sum up our loss of everything else. It's made things quieter. Simpler. And it's one of the surest signs that we're dead.
I watch M from the doorway. He sits on the little metal folding chair with his hands between his knees like a schoolboy facing the principal. There are times when I can almost glimpse the person he once was under all that rotting flesh, and it prickles my heart.
'Did . . . bring it?' he asks, without looking away from the TV.
I hold up what I've been carrying. A human brain, fresh from today's hunting trip, no longer warm but still pink and buzzing with life.
We sit against the tiles of the bathroom wall with our legs sprawled out in front of us, passing the brain back and forth, taking small, leisurely bites and enjoying brief flashes of human experience.
'Good . . . shit,' M wheezes.
The brain contains the life of some young military grunt from the city. His existence isn't particularly interesting to me, just endless repetitions of training, eating and mowing down zombies, but M seems to like it. His tastes are a little less demanding than mine. I watch his mouth form silent words. I watch his face shuffle through emotions. Anger, fear, joy, lust. It's like watching a dreaming dog kick and whimper, but far more heartbreaking. When he wakes up, this will all disappear. He will be empty again. He will be dead.
After an hour or two, we are down to one small gobbet of pink tissue. M pops it in his mouth and his pupils dilate as he has his visions. The brain is gone, but I'm not satisfied. I reach furtively into my pocket and pull out a fist-sized chunk that I've been saving. This one is different, though. This one is special. I tear off a bite, and chew.
I am Perry Kelvin, a sixteen-year-old boy, watching my girlfriend write in her journal. The black leather cover is tattered and worn, the inside a maze of scribbles, drawings, little notes and quotes. I am sitting on the couch with a salvaged first edition of On the Road, longing to live in any era but this one, and she is curled in my lap, penning furiously. I poke my head over her shoulder, trying to get a glimpse. She pulls the journal away and gives me a coy smile. 'No,' she says, and returns her attention to her work.
'What are you writing about?'
'Journal or poetry?'
'Am I in it?'
I lace my arms around her shoulders. She burrows into me a little deeper. I bury my face in her hair and kiss the back of her head. The spicy smell of her shampoo -
M is looking at me. 'You . . . have more?' he grunts. He holds out his hand for me to pass it. But I don't pass it. I take another bite and close my eyes.
'Perry,' Julie says.
We are at our secret spot on the Stadium roof. We lie on our backs on a red blanket on the white steel panels, squinting up at the blinding blue sky.
'I miss airplanes,' she says.
I nod. 'Me too.'
'Not flying in them. I never got to do that anyway with Dad the way he is. I just miss airplanes. That muffled thunder in the distance, those white lines . . . the way they sliced across the sky and made designs in the blue? My mom used to say it looked like Etch A Sketch. It was so beautiful.'
I smile at the thought. She's right. Airplanes were beautiful. So were fireworks. Flowers. Concerts. Kites. All the indulgences we can no longer afford.
'I like how you remember things,' I say.
She looks at me. 'Well, we have to. We have to remember everything. If we don't, by the time we grow up it'll be gone for ever.'
I close my eyes and let the scorching light blaze red through my lids. I let it saturate my brain. I turn my head and kiss Julie. We make love there on the blanket on the Stadium roof, four hundred feet above the ground. The sun stands guard over us like a kind-hearted chaperone, smiling silently.
My eyes snap open. M is glaring at me. He makes a grab for the piece of brain in my hand and I yank it away.
'No,' I growl.
I suppose M is my friend, but I would rather kill him than let him taste this. The thought of his filthy fingers poking and fondling these memories makes me want to rip his chest open and squish his heart in my hands, stomp his brain till he stops existing. This is mine.
M looks at me. He sees the warning flare in my eyes, hears the rising air-raid klaxon. He drops his hand away. He stares at me for a moment, annoyed and confused. 'Bo . . . gart,' he mutters, and locks himself in a toilet stall.
I leave the bathroom with abnormally purposeful strides. I slip in through the door of the 747 and stand there in the faint oval of light. Julie is lying back in a reclined seat, snoring gently. I knock on the side of the fuselage and she bolts upright, instantly awake. She watches me warily as I approach her. My eyes are burning again. I grab her messenger bag off the floor and dig through it. I find her wallet, and then I find a photo. A portrait of a young man. I hold the photo up to her eyes.
'I'm . . . sorry,' I say hoarsely.
She looks at me, stone-faced.
I point at my mouth. I clutch my stomach. I point at her mouth. I touch her stomach. Then I point out the window, at the cloudless black sky of merciless stars. It's the weakest defence for murder ever offered, but it's all I have. I clench my jaw and squint my eyes, trying to ease their dry sting.
Julie's lower lip is tensed. Her eyes are red and wet. 'Which one of you did it?' she says in a voice on the verge of breaking. 'Was it that big one? That fat fuck that almost got me?'
I stare at her for a moment, not grasping her questions. And then it hits me, and my eyes go wide.
She doesn't know it was me.
The room was dark and I came from behind. She didn't see it. She doesn't know. Her penetrating eyes address me like a creature worthy of address, unaware that I recently killed her lover, ate his life and digested his soul, and am right now carrying a prime cut of his brain in the front pocket of my slacks. I can feel it burning there like a coal of guilt, and I reflexively back away from her, unable to comprehend this curdled mercy.
'Why me?' she demands, blinking an angry tear out of her eye. 'Why did you save me?' She twists her back to me and curls up on the chair, wrapping her arms around her shoulders. 'Out of everyone . . .' she mumbles into the cushion. 'Why me.'
These are her first questions. Not the ones urgent for her own well-being, not the mystery of how I know her name or the terrifying prospect of what my plans for her might be; she doesn't rush to satisfy those hungers. Her first questions are for others. For her friends, for her lover, wondering why she couldn't take their place.
I am the lowest thing. I am the bottom of the universe.
I drop the photo onto the seat and look at the floor. 'I'm . . . sorry,' I say again, and leave the plane.
When I emerge from the boarding tunnel, there are several Dead grouped near the doorway. They watch me without expressions. We stand there in silence, still as statues. Then I brush past them and wander off into the dark halls.