I take Julie to the food court, and she gives me an odd look when I immediately start moving towards the Thai restaurant. As we get closer she cringes and covers her nose. 'Oh God,' she moans. The warming bins in front are frothing with dried-up rot, dead maggots and mould. I'm pretty much impervious to odour by now, but judging by Julie's expression, it's foul. We dig around in the back room for a while, but the airport's intermittent power means the freezers only work part-time, so everything inside is rancid. I head towards the burger joint. Julie gives me that quizzical look again and follows me. In the walk-in freezer we find a few burger patties that are currently cold, but have clearly been thawed and refrozen many times. Dead flies speckle the white freezer floor.
Julie sighs. 'Well?'
I look off into the distance, thinking. The airport does have a sushi bar . . . but I remember a little about sushi, and if a few hours can spoil a fresh hamachi fillet, I don't want to see what years can do.
'God,' Julie says as I stand there deliberating, 'you really know how to plan a dinner date.' She opens a few boxes of mouldy buns, wrinkles up her nose. 'You've never done this before, have you? Taken a human home alive?'
I shake my head apologetically, but I wince at her use of the word 'human'. I've never liked that differentiation. She is Living and I'm Dead, but I'd like to believe we're both human. Call me an idealist.
I raise a finger as if to stall her. 'One . . . more place.'
We walk to an unmarked side area of the food court. Several doors later, we're in the airport's central storage area. I prise open a freezer door and a cloud of icy air billows out. I hide my relief. This was starting to get awkward. We step inside and stand among shelves stacked high with in-flight meal trays.
'What have we here . . .' Julie says, and starts digging through the low shelves, inspecting the Salisbury steaks and processed potatoes. Thanks to whatever glorious preservatives they contain, the meals appear to be edible.
Julie scans the labels on the upper shelves she can't reach and suddenly beams, showing rows of white teeth that childhood braces made perfect. 'Look, pad thai! I love . . .' She trails off, looking at me uneasily. She points to the shelf. 'I'll have that.'
I stretch over her head and grab an armful of frozen pad thai. I don't want any of the Dead to see Julie eating this lifeless waste, these empty calories, so I lead her to a table hidden behind some collapsed postcard kiosks. I try to steer her as far away from the School as possible, but we can still hear the wretched screams echoing down the halls. Julie keeps her face utterly placid during even the shrillest wails, doing everything short of whistling a tune to show that she doesn't notice the carnage. Is this for my benefit, or hers?
We sit down at the cafe table and I set one of the meal trays in front of her. 'En . . . joy,' I say.
She jabs at the frozen-solid noodles with a plastic fork. She looks at me. 'You really don't remember much, do you? How long has it been since you ate real food?'
'How long has it been since you . . . died or whatever?'
I tap a finger against my temple and shake my head.
She looks me over. 'Well, it can't have been very long. You look pretty good for a corpse.'
I wince again at her language, but I realise she can't possibly know the sensitive cultural connotations of the word 'corpse'. M uses it sometimes as a joke, and I use it myself in some of my darker moments, but coming from an outsider it ignites a defensive indignation she wouldn't understand. I breathe deep and let it go.
'Anyway, I can't eat it like this,' she says, pushing her plastic fork into the food until one of the tines snaps. 'I'm going to go find a microwave. Hold on.'
She gets up and wanders into one of the empty restaurants. She has forgotten her shamble, and her hips sway rhythmically. It's risky, but I find myself not caring.
'Here we go,' she says when she comes back, taking a deep whiff of spicy steam. 'Mmm. I haven't had Thai in for ever. We don't do real food at the Stadium any more, just basic nutrition and Carbtein. Carbtein tablets, Carbtein powder, Carbtein juice. Jesus H. Gross.' She sits down and takes a bite of freezer-burned tofu. 'Oh wow. That's almost tasty.'
I sit there and watch her eat. I notice she seems to be having trouble getting the clumpy, congealed noodles down her throat. I fetch a lukewarm bottle of beer from the restaurant's cooler and set it on the table.
Julie stops eating and looks at the bottle. She looks at me and smiles. 'Why, Mr Zombie, you read my mind.' She twists off the cap and takes a long drink. 'I haven't had beer in a while, either. No mind-altering substances allowed in the Stadium. Have to stay alert at all times, stay vigilant, blah blah blah.' She takes another drink and gives me an appraising look laced with sarcasm. 'Maybe you're not such a monster, Mr Zombie. I mean, anyone who appreciates a good beer is at least halfway okay in my book.'
I look at her and hold a hand to my chest. 'My . . . name . . .' I wheeze, but can't think how to continue.
She sets the beer down and leans forward a little. 'You have a name?'
Her lip curls in an amused half-smile. 'What's your name?'
I close my eyes and think hard, trying to pull it out of the void, but I've tried this so many times before. 'Rrr,' I say, trying to pronounce it.
'Rur? Your name is Rur?'
I shake my head. 'Rrrrr . . .'
'Rrr? It starts with R?'
I shake my head.
I shake my head.
'Uh . . . Rambo?'
I let out a sigh and look at the table.
'How about I just call you "R"? That's a start, right?'
My eyes dart to hers. 'R.' A slow smile creeps across my face.
'Hi, R,' she says. 'I'm Julie. But you knew that already, didn't you. Guess I'm a fucking celebrity.' She nudges the beer towards me. 'Have a drink.'
I eye the bottle for a second, feeling a strange kind of nausea at the thought of what's inside. Dark amber emptiness. Lifeless piss. But I don't want to ruin this improbably warm moment with my stupid undead hang-ups. I accept the beer and take a long pull. I can feel it trickling through tiny perforations in my stomach and dampening my shirt. And to my amazement, I can feel a slight buzz spreading through my brain. This isn't possible, of course, since I have no blood-stream for the alcohol to enter, but I feel it anyway. Is it psychosomatic? Maybe a distant memory of the drinking experience left over from my old life? If so, apparently I was a lightweight.
Julie grins at my stupefied expression. 'Drink up,' she says. 'I'm actually more of a wine girl anyway.'
I take another pull. I can taste her raspberry lip gloss on the rim. I find myself imagining her dolled up for a concert, her neck-length hair swept and styled, her small body radiant in a red party dress, and me kissing her, the lipstick smearing onto my mouth, spreading bright rouge onto my grey lips . . .
I slide the bottle a safe distance away from me.
Julie chuckles and returns to her food. She pokes at it for a few minutes, ignoring my presence at the table. I'm about to make a doomed attempt at small talk when she looks up at me, all traces of joviality gone from her face, and says, 'So, "R". Why are you keeping me here?'
The question hits me like a surprise slap. I look at the ceiling. I gesture around at the airport in general, towards the distant groans of my fellow Dead. 'Keep you safe.'
There is silence. She looks at me hard. My eyes retreat.
'Listen,' she says. 'I get that you saved my life back there in the city. And I guess I'm grateful for that. So, yeah. Thanks for saving my life. Or sparing my life. Whatever. But you walked me into this place, I'm sure you could walk me out. So again: why are you keeping me here?'
Her eyes are like hot irons on the side of my face, and I realise I can't escape. I put a hand on my chest, over my heart. My 'heart'. Does that pitiful organ still represent anything? It lies motionless in my chest, pumping no blood, serving no purpose, and yet my feelings still seem to originate inside its cold walls. My muted sadness, my vague longing, my rare flickers of joy. They pool in the centre of my chest and seep out from there, diluted and faint, but real.
I press my hand against my heart. Then I reach slowly towards Julie, and press against hers. Somehow, I manage to meet her eyes.
She looks down at my hand, then gives me a dry stare. 'Are you. Fucking. Kidding me.'
I withdraw my hand and drop my eyes to the table, grateful that I'm incapable of blushing. 'Need . . . to wait,' I mumble. 'They . . . think you're . . . new convert. They'll notice.'
'Few . . . days. They'll . . . forget.'
'Jesus Christ,' she sighs, and covers her eyes with her hand, shaking her head.
'You'll . . . be okay,' I tell her. 'Promise.'
She ignores this. She pulls an iPod out of her pocket and stuffs the earbuds into her ears. She returns to her food, listening to music that's just a faint hiss to me.
This date is not going well. Once again the absurdity of my inner thoughts overwhelms me, and I want to crawl out of my skin, escape my ugly, awkward flesh and be a skeleton, naked and anonymous. I'm about to stand up and leave when Julie pulls a bud out of one ear and gives me a squinting, penetrating look. 'You're . . . different, aren't you?' she says.
I don't respond.
'Because I've never heard a zombie talk, other than "brains!" and all that silly groaning. And I've never seen a zombie take any interest in humans beyond eating them. I've definitely never had one buy me a drink. Are there . . . others like you?'
Again I feel the urge to blush. 'Don't . . . know.'
She pushes her noodles around the plate. 'A few days,' she repeats.
'What am I supposed to do here till it's safe to run away? I hope you don't expect me to just sit in your housejet taking blood baths all week.'
I think for a moment. A rainbow of images floods my head, probably snippets of old movies I've seen, all sappy and romantic and utterly impossible. I have got to get ahold of myself.
'I'll . . . entertain,' I say eventually, and offer an unconvincing smile. 'You are . . . guest.'
She rolls her eyes and resumes eating. The second earbud is still sitting on the table. Without looking up from her plate she casually offers it to me. I stick it in my ear, and the voice of Paul McCartney drifts into my head, singing all those wistful antonyms, yes/no, high/low, hello/goodbye/hello.
'You know John Lennon hated this song?' Julie says as it plays, speaking in my direction but not really addressing me. 'He thought it was meaningless gibberish. Funny coming from the guy who wrote "I Am the Walrus".'
'Goo goo . . . g'joob,' I say.
She stops, looks at me, tilts her head in pleasant surprise. 'Yeah, exactly, right?' She takes a sip of the beer, forgetting the imprint of my lips on the bottle, and my eyes widen in brief panic. But nothing happens. Maybe my infection can't travel through soft moments like these. Maybe it needs the violence of the bite.
'Anyway,' she says, 'it's a little too chipper for me right now.' She skips the song. I hear a brief snippet of Ava Gardner singing 'Bill', then she skips a few more times, lands on an unfamiliar rock tune, and cranks the volume. I'm distantly aware of the music, but I have tuned out. I watch Julie bob her head from side to side with eyes closed. Even now, here, in the darkest and strangest of places with the most macabre of company, the music moves her and her life pulses hard. I smell it again, a white glowing vapour wafting out from under my black blood. And even for Julie's safety, I can't bring myself to smother it.
What is wrong with me? I stare at my hand, at its pale grey flesh, cool and stiff, and I dream it pink, warm and supple, able to guide and build and caress. I dream my necrotic cells shrugging off their lethargy, inflating and lighting up like Christmas deep in my dark core. Am I inventing all this like the beer buzz? A placebo? An optimistic illusion? Either way, I feel the flatline of my existence disrupting, forming heartbeat hills and valleys.