In the morning, my wife finds me slumped against one of the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the runways. My eyes are open and full of dust. My head leans to one side. I rarely allow myself to look so corpse-like.
Something is wrong with me. There is a sick emptiness in my stomach, a feeling somewhere between starvation and hangover. My wife grabs my arm and pulls me to my feet. She starts walking, dragging me behind her like rolling luggage. I feel a flash of bitter heat pulse through me and I start speaking at her. 'Name,' I say, glaring into her ear. 'Name?'
She shoots me a cold look and keeps walking.
'Job? School?' My tone shifts from query to accusation. 'Movie? Song?' It bubbles out of me like oil from a punctured pipeline. 'Book?' I shout at her. 'Home? Name?'
My wife turns and spits at me. Actually spits on my shirt, snarling like an animal. But the look in her eyes instantly cools my eruption. She's . . . frightened. Her lips quiver. What am I doing?
I look at the floor. We stand in silence for several minutes. Then she resumes walking, and I follow her, trying to shake off this strange black cloud that's settled over me.
She leads me to a gutted, burned-out gift shop and lets out an emphatic groan. Our kids emerge from behind an overturned bookcase full of best-sellers that will never be read. They're each gnawing a human forearm, slightly brown at the stumps, not exactly fresh.
'Where did . . . get those?' I ask them. They shrug. I turn to my wife. 'Need . . . better.'
She frowns and points at me. She grunts in annoyance, and my face falls, duly chastised. It's true, I haven't been the most involved parent. Is it possible to have a midlife crisis if you have no idea how old you are? I could be in my early thirties or late teens. I could be younger than Julie.
My wife grunts at the kids and gestures down the hall. They hang their heads and make a wheezy whining noise, but they follow us. We are taking them to their first day of school.
Some of us, maybe the same industrious Dead who built the Boneys' stair-church, have built a 'classroom' in the food court by stacking heavy luggage into high walls. As my family and I approach, we hear groans and screams from inside this arena. There is a line of youngsters in front of the entryway, waiting their turn. My wife and I lead our kids to the back of the line and watch the lesson now in progress.
Five Dead youths are circling a skinny, middle-aged Living man. The man backs up against the luggage, looking frantically left and right, his empty hands balled into fists. Two of the youths dive at him and try to hold his arms down, but he shakes them off. The third one nips a tiny bite in his shoulder and the man screams as if he's been mortally wounded, because, in effect, he has. From zombie bites to starvation to good old-fashioned age and disease, there are so many options for dying in this new world. So many ways for the Living to stop. But with just a few debrained exceptions, all roads lead to us, the Dead, and our very unglamorous immortality.
'Wrong!' their teacher roars. 'Get . . . throat!'
The children back away and watch the man warily.
'Throat!' the teacher repeats. He and his assistant lumber into the arena and tackle the man, forcing him to the ground. The teacher kills him and stands up, blood streaming down his chin. 'Throat,' he says again, pointing to the body.
The five children exit shamefaced, and the next five in line are prodded inside. My kids look up at me anxiously. I pat their heads.
The five youths inside are nervous, but the teacher shouts at them and they begin to move in. When they get close enough all five lunge at the same time, two grabbing for each arm and the fifth going for the throat. But the old man is shockingly strong. He twists around and flings two of them hard against the wall of luggage. The impact shakes the wall and a sturdy metal briefcase topples down from the top. The man grabs it by the handle, raises it high, and smashes it down on one of the youths' heads. The youth's skull caves in and his brain squishes out. He doesn't scream or twitch or quiver, he just abruptly collapses into a heap of limbs, flat and flush with the floor as if he's been dead for months already. Death takes hold of him with retroactive finality.
The whole school goes silent. The remaining four children back out of the arena. No one really pays attention as the adults rush inside to deal with the man. We all gaze at the youth's crumpled corpse with sad resignation. We can't tell which of the gathered adults might be his parents, since all our expressions are about the same. Whoever they are, they will forget their loss soon enough. By tomorrow the Boneys will show up with another boy or girl to replace this one. We allow a few uncomfortable seconds of silence for the killed child, then school resumes. A few parents glance at each other, maybe wondering what to think, wondering what this all means, this bent, inverted cycle of life. Or maybe that's just me.
My kids are next in line. They watch the current lesson intently, sometimes standing on tiptoes to see, but they aren't afraid. They are younger than the rest, and will probably be matched against someone too frail to put up much fight, but they don't know this, and it's not why they're unafraid. When the entire world is built on death and horror, when existence is a constant state of panic, it's hard to get worked up about any one thing. Specific fears have become irrelevant. We've replaced them with a smothering blanket far worse.
I pace outside the 747 boarding tunnel for about an hour before going in. I open the jet's door quietly. Julie is curled up in business class, sleeping. She has wrapped herself in a quilt made of cut-up jeans that I brought back as a souvenir a few weeks ago. The morning sun makes a halo in her yellow hair, sainting her.
'Julie,' I whisper.
Her eyes slide open a crack. This time she doesn't jolt upright or edge away from me. She just looks at me with tired, puffy eyes. 'What?' she mumbles.
'How . . . are . . . ?'
'How do you think I am?' She puts her back to me and wraps the blanket around her shoulders.
I watch her for a moment. Her posture is a brick wall. I lower my head and turn to go. But as I step through the doorway she says, 'Wait.'
I turn around. She is sitting up, the blanket piled on her lap. 'I'm hungry,' she says.
I look at her blankly. Hungry? Does she want an arm or leg? Hot blood, meat and life? She's Living . . . does she want to eat herself? Then I remember what being hungry used to mean. I remember beefsteaks and pancakes, grains and fruits and vegetables, that quaint little food pyramid. Sometimes I miss savouring taste and texture instead of just swallowing energy, but I try not to dwell on it. The old food does nothing to quench our hunger any more. Even bright red meat from a freshly killed rabbit or deer is beneath our culinary standards; its energy is simply incompatible, like trying to run a computer on diesel. There is no easy way out for us, no humane alternative for the fashionably moral. The new hunger demands sacrifice. It demands human suffering as the price for our pleasures, meagre and cheap as they are.
'You know, food?' Julie prompts. She mimes the act of taking a bite. 'Sandwiches? Pizza? Stuff that doesn't involve killing people?'
I nod. 'I'll . . . get.'
I start to leave but she stops me again.
'Just let me go,' she says. 'What are you doing? Why are you keeping me here?'
I think for a moment. I step to her window and point to the runways below. She looks, and sees the church service in progress. The congregation of the Dead, swaying and groaning. The skeletons rattling back and forth, voiceless but somehow charismatic, gnashing their splintered teeth. There are dozens of them down there, swarming.
'Keep you . . . safe.'
She looks up at me from her chair with an expression I can't read. Her eyes are narrowed and her lips are tight, but it's not exactly rage. 'How do you know my name?' she demands.
There it is. It had to come eventually.
'In that building. You said my name, I remember it. How the fuck do you know my name?'
I make no attempt to answer. No way to explain what I know and how I know it, not with my kindergarten vocabulary and special-ed speech impediments. So I simply retreat, exiting the plane and trudging up the boarding tunnel, feeling more acutely than ever the limitations of what I am.
As I stand in Gate 12 considering where to go from here, I feel a touch on my shoulder. Julie is standing behind me. She stuffs her hands into the pockets of her tight black jeans, looking uncertain. 'Just let me get out and walk around a little,' she says. 'I'm going crazy in that plane.'
I don't answer. I look around the hallways.
'Come on,' she says. 'I walked in here and nobody ate me. Let me go with you to get food. You don't know what I like.'
This is . . . not entirely true. I know she loves pad thai. I know she drools over sushi. I know she has a weakness for greasy cheeseburgers, despite the Stadium's rigorous fitness routines. But that knowledge is not mine to use. That knowledge is stolen.
I nod slowly and point at her. 'Dead,' I pronounce. I click my teeth and do an exaggerated zombie shuffle.
'Okay,' she says.
I lumber around in a circle with slow, shaky steps, letting out an occasional groan.
I take her by the wrist and lead her out into the hallway. I gesture in each direction, indicating the small cliques of zombies wandering in the dim morning shadows. I look her straight in the eyes. 'Don't . . . run.'
She crosses her heart. 'Promise.'
Standing so close to her, I find that I can smell her again. She has wiped much of the black blood off her skin, and through the gaps I can detect traces of her life-energy. It bubbles out and sparkles like champagne, igniting flashes deep in the back of my sinuses. Still holding her gaze, I rub my palm into a recent gash on my forearm, and although it's nearly dry now, I manage to collect a thin smear of blood. I slowly spread this ink on her cheek and down her neck. She shudders, but doesn't pull away. She is, at the bottom of everything, a very smart girl.
'Okay?' I ask, raising my eyebrows.
She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, cringes at the smell of my fluids, then nods. 'Okay.'
I walk and she follows, stumbling along behind me and groaning every three or four steps. She is overdoing it, overacting like high school Shakespeare, but she will pass. We walk through crowds of Dead, shambling past us on both sides, and no one glances at us. To my amazement, Julie's fear seems to be diminishing as we walk, despite the obvious peril of her situation. At a few points I catch her fighting a smile after letting out a particularly hammy moan. I smile too, making sure she doesn't see me.
This is . . . new.