'You need to corner sharper. You keep almost running off the road when you turn right.'
I crank the skinny leather wheel and drop my foot onto the accelerator. The Mercedes lurches forward, throwing our heads back.
'God, you're a leadfoot. Can you go easier on the gas?'
I come to a jerky stop, forget to push in the clutch, and the engine dies. Julie rolls her eyes and forces patience into her voice. 'Okay, look.' She restarts the engine, scoots over and snakes her legs across mine, placing her feet on my feet. Under her pressure, I smoothly exchange gas for clutch, and the car glides forward. 'Like that,' she says, and returns to her seat. I release a satisfied wheeze.
We are cruising the tarmac, taxiing to and fro under the mild afternoon sun. Our hair ruffles in the breeze. Here in this moment, in this candy-red '64 roadster with this beautiful young woman, I can't help inserting myself into other, more classically filmic lives. My mind drifts, and I lose what little focus I've been able to maintain. I veer off the runway and clip the bumper of a stair-truck, knocking the Boneys' church circle out of alignment. The jolt throws our heads to the side, and I hear my children's necks snap in the back seat. They groan in protest and I shush them. I'm already embarrassed; I don't need my kids rubbing it in.
Julie examines our dented front-end and shakes her head. 'Damn it, R. This was a beautiful car.'
My son lunges forward in another clumsy attempt to eat Julie's shoulder, and I reach back and smack him. He slumps into the seat with his arms crossed, pouting.
'No biting!' Julie reprimands, still inspecting the car's damage.
As we circle back towards our home terminal, I notice the congregation emerging from a cargo loading gate. Like an inverted funeral procession, the Dead march out in a solemn line, taking slow, plodding steps towards the church. A clutch of Boneys leads the pilgrimage, moving forward with far more purpose than any of the flesh-clad. They are the few among us who always seem to know exactly where they're going and what they're doing. They don't waver, they don't pause or change course, and their bodies no longer either grow or decay. They are static. One of them looks directly at me, and I remember a Dark Ages etching I've seen somewhere, a rotting corpse sneering at a plump young virgin.
Quod tu es, ego fui, quod ego sum, tu eris.
What you are, I once was.
What I am, you will become.
I break away from the skeleton's hollow stare. As we cruise past their line, some of the Fleshies glance at us with uninterest, and I see my wife among them. She is walking alongside a male, her hand woven into his. My kids spot her in the crowd and stand up on the back seat, waving and grunting loudly. Julie follows their gaze and sees my wife wave back at them. Julie looks at me. 'Is that like . . . your wife?'
I don't respond. I look at my wife, expecting some kind of rebuke. But there is almost no recognition in her eyes. She looks at the car. She looks at me. She looks straight ahead and keeps walking, hand in hand with another man.
'Is that your wife?' Julie asks again, more forcefully. I nod. 'Who's that . . . guy she's with?' I shrug. 'Is she cheating on you or something?' I shrug. 'This doesn't bother you?'
'Stop shrugging, you asshole! I know you can talk; say something.'
I think for a minute. Watching my wife fade into the distance, I put a hand on my heart. 'Dead.' I wave a hand towards my wife. 'Dead.' My eyes drift towards the sky and lose their focus. 'Want it . . . to hurt. But . . . doesn't.'
Julie looks at me like she's waiting for more, and I wonder if I've expressed anything at all with my halting, mumbled soliloquy. Are my words ever actually audible, or do they just echo in my head while people stare at me, waiting? I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I'm drowning in ellipses.
Julie watches me a moment longer, then turns to face the windshield and the oncoming scenery. On our right: the dark openings of empty boarding tunnels, once alive with eager travellers on their way to see the world, expand their horizons, find love and fame and fortune. On our left: the blackened wreckage of a Dreamliner.
'My boyfriend cheated on me once,' Julie says to the windshield. 'There was this girl his dad was housing while the foster homes were being set up, and they got blackout drunk one night and it just happened. It was basically an accident, and he gave me the most sincere and moving confession of all time, swore to God he loved me so much and would do anything to convince me, blah blah blah, but it didn't matter, I kept thinking about it and running it through my head and just burning with it. I cried every night for weeks. Practically wore the binary off all my saddest Mp3s.' She is shaking her head slowly. Her eyes are far away. 'Things are just . . . I feel things so hard sometimes. When that happened with Perry, I would have loved to be more . . . like you.'
I study her. She runs a finger through her hair and twists it around a little. I notice faint scars on her wrists and forearms, thin lines too symmetrical to be accidents. She blinks and glances at me abruptly, as if I just woke her from a dream. 'I don't know why I'm telling you this,' she says, annoyed. 'Anyway, lesson's over for today. I'm tired.'
Without further comment, I drive us home. I brake too late, and park the car with the bumper two inches into the grille of a Miata. Julie sighs.
Later that evening we sit in the 747, cross-legged in the middle of the aisle. A plate of microwaved pad thai sits on the floor in front of Julie, cooling. I watch her in silence as she pokes at it. Even doing and saying nothing, she is entertaining to watch. She tilts her head, her eyes roam, she smiles and shifts her body. Her inner thoughts play across her face like rear-projection movies.
'It's too quiet in here,' she says, and stands up. She starts digging through my stacks of records. 'What's with all the vinyl? Couldn't figure out how to work an iPod?'
'Better . . . sound.'
She laughs. 'Oh, a purist, huh?'
I make a spinning motion in the air with my finger. 'More real. More . . . alive.'
She nods. 'Yeah, true. Lot more trouble though.' She flips through the stacks and frowns a little. 'There's nothing in here newer than like . . . 1999. Is that when you died or something?'
Another obstacle to estimating my age: I have no idea what year we're in. 1999 could have been a decade ago or yesterday. One might try to deduce a timeline by looking at the crumbling streets, the toppled buildings, the rotting infrastructure, but every part of the world is decaying at its own pace. There are cities that could be mistaken for Aztec ruins, and there are cities that just emptied last week, TVs still awake all night roaring static, cafe omelettes just starting to mould.
What happened to the world was gradual. I've forgotten what it actually was, but I have faint, foetal memories of what it was like. The smouldering dread that never really caught fire till there wasn't much left to burn. Each sequential step surprised us. Then one day we woke up, and everything was gone.
'There you go again,' Julie says. 'Drifting off. I'm so curious what you think about when you daze out like that.' I shrug, and she lets out an exasperated huff. 'And there you go again, shrugging. Stop shrugging, shrugger! Answer my question. Why the stunted musical growth?'
I start to shrug and then stop myself, with some difficulty. How can I possibly explain this to her in words? The slow death of Quixote. The abandoning of quests, the surrendering of desires, the settling in and settling down that is the inevitable fate of the Dead.
'We don't . . . think . . . new things,' I begin, straining to kick through my short-sheeted diction. 'I . . . find things . . . sometimes. But we don't . . . seek.'
'Really,' Julie says. 'Well, that's a fucking tragedy.' She continues to dig through my records, but her tone starts to escalate as she speaks. 'You don't think about new things? You don't "seek"? What's that even mean? You don't seek what? Music? Music is life! It's physical emotion - you can touch it! It's neon ecto-energy sucked out of spirits and switched into sound waves for your ears to swallow. Are you telling me, what, that it's boring? You don't have time for it?'
There is nothing I can say to this. I find myself praying to the ghastly mouth of the open sky that Julie never changes. That she never wakes up one day to find herself older and wiser.
'Anyway, you've still got some good stuff in here,' she says, letting her indignation deflate. 'Great stuff, really. Here, let's do this one again. Can't go wrong with Frank.' She puts on a record and returns to her pad thai. 'The Lady is a Tramp' fills the plane's cabin, and she gives me a crooked little smile. 'My theme song,' she says, and stuffs her mouth full of noodles.
Out of morbid curiosity, I pull one off her plate and chew it. There is no taste at all. It's like imaginary food, like chewing air. I turn my head and spit it into my palm. Julie doesn't notice. She seems far away again, and I watch the colours and shapes of her thought-film flickering behind her face. After a few minutes, she swallows a bite and looks up at me.
'R,' she says in a tone of casual curiosity, 'who did you kill?'
I stiffen. The music fades out of my awareness.
'In that high-rise. Before you saved me. I saw the blood on your face. Whose was it?'
I just look at her. Why does she have to ask me this. Why can't her memories fade to black like mine. Why can't she just live with me alone in the dark, swimming in the abyss of inked-out history.
'I just need to know who it was.' Her expression betrays nothing. Her eyes are locked on mine, unblinking.
'No one,' I mumble. 'Some . . . kid.'
'There's this theory that you guys eat brains because you get to relive the person's life. True?'
I shrug, trying not to squirm. I feel like a toddler caught finger-painting the walls. Or killing dozens of people.
'Who was it?' she presses. 'Don't you remember?'
I consider lying. I remember a few faces from that room; I could roll the dice and just pick one, probably some random recruit she didn't even know, and she would let it go and never bring it up again. But I can't do it. I can't lie to her any more than I can spit out the indigestible truth. I'm trapped.
Julie lets her eyes auger into me for a long minute, then she falters. She looks down at the stained airplane carpet. 'Was it Berg?' she offers, so quietly she's almost talking to herself. 'The kid with the acne? I bet it was Berg. That guy was a dick. He called Nora a mulatto and he was staring at my ass that entire salvage. Which Perry didn't even notice, of course. If it was Berg, I'm almost glad you got him.'
I try to catch her gaze to make sense of this reversal, but now she's the one avoiding eye contact. 'Anyway,' she says, 'whoever killed Perry . . . I just want you to know I don't blame them for it.'
I tense again. 'You . . . don't?'
'No. I mean, I think I get it. You don't have a choice, right? And to be honest . . . I'd never say this to anyone, but . . .' She stirs her food. 'It's kind of a relief that it finally happened.'
I frown. 'What?'
'To be able to finally stop dreading it.'
'Perry . . . dying?'
I instantly regret speaking his name. Rolling off my tongue, the syllables taste like his blood.
Julie nods, still looking at her plate. When she speaks again her voice is soft and faint, the voice of memories longing to be forgotten. 'Something . . . happened to him. A lot of things, actually. I guess there came a point where he just couldn't absorb any more, so he flipped over into a different person. He was this brilliant, fiery kid, so weird and funny and full of dreams, and then . . . just quit all his plans, joined Security . . . it was scary how fast he changed. He said he was doing everything for me, that it was time for him to grow up and face reality, take responsibility and all that. But everything I loved about him - everything that made him who he was - just started rotting. He gave up, basically. Quit his life. Real death was just the next logical step.' She pushes her plate aside. 'We talked about dying all the time. He just kept bringing it up. In the middle of a wild makeout session he'd stop and be like, "Julie, what do you think the average life expectancy is these days?" Or, "Julie, when I die, will you be the one to cut off my head?" Height of romance, right?'
She looks out of the airplane window at the distant mountains. 'I tried to talk him down. Tried really hard to keep him here, but over the last couple of years it got pretty clear to everyone. He was just . . . gone. I don't know if anything short of Christ and King Arthur returning to redeem the world could have brought him back. I sure wasn't enough.' She looks at me. 'Will he come back to life, though? As one of you?'
I drop my eyes, remembering the juicy pink taste of his brain. I shake my head.
She is quiet for a while. 'It's not like I'm not sad that he's gone. I am, I . . .' Her voice wobbles a little. She pauses, clears her throat. 'I really am. But he wanted it. I knew he wanted it.' A tear escapes one eye and she seems startled by it. She brushes it away like a mosquito.
I stand up, take her plate, fold it into the trash bin. When I sit back down her eyes are dry but still red. She sniffs and gives me a weak smile. 'I guess I talk a lot of shit about Perry, but it's not like I'm such a shiny happy person either, you know? I'm a wreck too, I'm just . . . still alive. A wreck in progress.' She laughs a quick, broken laugh. 'It's weird, I never talk about this stuff with anyone, but you're . . . I mean you're so quiet, you just sit there and listen. It's like talking to God.' Her smile drifts away and she is absent for a moment. When she speaks again her voice is cautious but flat, and her eyes roam the cabin, studying window rivets and warning labels. 'I used to do some drugs when I was younger. Started when I was twelve and tried almost everything. I still drink and smoke pot when I get the chance. I even had sex with a guy for money once, when I was thirteen. Not because I wanted the money - even back then money was pretty worthless. Just because it was awful, and maybe I felt like I deserved it.' She looks at her wrist, those thin scars like a grim concert entry stamp. 'All the shitty stuff people do to themselves . . . it can all be the same thing, you know? Just a way to drown out your own voice. To kill your memories without having to kill yourself.'
There is a long silence. Her eyes roam the floor and mine stay on her face, waiting for her to come home. She takes a deep breath, looks at me, and gives a little shrug. 'Shrug,' she says in a small voice, and forces a smile.
Slowly, I stand up and go over to my record player. I pull out one of my favourite LPs, an obscure compilation of Sinatra songs from various albums. I don't know why I like this one so much. I once spent three full days motionless in front of it, just watching the vinyl spin. I know the grooves in this record better than the grooves in my palms. People used to say music was the great communicator; I wonder if this is still true in this post-human, posthumous age. I put the record on and begin to move the needle as it plays, skipping measures, skipping songs, dancing through the spirals to find the words I want to fill the air. The phrases are off-key, off-tempo, punctuated by loud scratches like the ripping of fascia tissue, but the tone is flawless. Frank's buttery baritone says it better than my croaky vocals ever could had I the diction of a Kennedy. I stand over the record, cutting and pasting the contents of my heart into an airborne collage.
I don't care if you are called - scratch - when people say you're - scratch - wicked witchcraft - scratch - don't change a hair for me, not if you - scratch - 'cause you're sensational - scratch - you just the way you are - scratch - you're sensational . . . sensational . . . That's all . . .
I leave the record to play out its normal repertoire and sit back down in front of Julie. She stares at me with damp, redrimmed eyes. I press my hand against her chest, feeling the gentle thump inside. A tiny voice speaking in code.
Julie sniffs. She wipes a finger across her nose. 'What are you?' she asks me for the second time.
I smile a little. Then I get up and exit the plane, leaving her question floating there, still unanswerable. In my palm I can feel the echo of her pulse, standing in for the absence of mine.
That night, lying on the floor of Gate 12, I fall asleep. The new sleep is different, of course. Our bodies aren't 'tired', we aren't 'resting'. But every so often, after days or weeks of unrelenting consciousness, our minds simply can't carry the weight any more, and we collapse. We allow ourselves to die, to shut down and have no thoughts at all for hours, days, weeks. However long it takes to regather the electrons of our ids, to keep ourselves intact a little longer. There's nothing peaceful or lovely about it; it's ugly and compulsory, an iron lung for the wheezing husks of our souls, but tonight, something different happens.
Underdeveloped, murky, faded to sepia like centuries-old film, scenes from my old life flicker in the void of sleep. Amorphous figures walk through melting doorways into shadowy rooms. Voices crawl through my head, deep and slurring like drunken giants. I play ambiguous sports, I watch incoherent movies, I talk and laugh with anonymous blurs. Among these foggy snapshots of an unexamined life, I catch glimpses of a pastime, some passionate pursuit long ago sacrificed on the blood-soaked altar of pragmatism. Guitar? Dancing? Dirt bikes? Whatever it was, it fails to penetrate the thick smog choking my memory. Everything remains dark. Blank. Nameless.
I have begun to wonder where I came from. The person I am now, this fumbling, stumbling supplicant . . . was I built on the foundations of my old life, or did I rise from the grave a blank slate? How much of me is inherited, and how much is my own creation? Questions that were once just idle musings have begun to feel strangely urgent. Am I firmly rooted to what came before? Or can I choose to deviate?
I wake up staring at the distant ceiling. The memories, empty as they already were, evaporate completely. It's still night, and I can hear my wife having sex with her new lover behind the door of a nearby staffroom. I try to ignore them. I already walked in on them once today. I heard noises, the door was wide open, so I walked in. There they were, naked, awkwardly slamming their bodies together, grunting and groping each other's pale flesh. He was limp. She was dry. They watched each other with puzzled expressions, as if some unknown force had shoved them together into this moist tangle of limbs. Their eyes seemed to ask each other, 'Who the hell are you?' as they jiggled and jerked like meat marionettes.
They didn't stop or even react when they noticed me standing there. They just looked at me and kept grinding. I nodded, and walked back to Gate 12, and this was the final weight that broke my mind's kneecaps. I crumpled to the floor and slept.
I don't know why I'm awake already, after just a few feverish hours. I still feel the weight of my accumulated thoughts bearing down on my tender brain, but I don't think I can sleep any more. A burr and a buzz tickle my mind, keeping me alert. I reach for the only thing that's ever helped in times like these. I reach into my pocket and pull out my last chunk of cerebrum.
As residual life energy fades from the brain, the useless clutter is first to go. The movie quotes, the radio jingles, the celebrity gossip and political slogans, they all melt away, leaving only the most potent and wrenching of the memories. As the brain dies, the life inside clarifies and distils. It ages like a fine wine.
The piece in my hand has shrivelled somewhat, taking on a brownish-grey tint. I'll be lucky to get another few minutes of Perry's life out of this, but what blazing, urgent minutes these will be. Closing my eyes, I pop it into my mouth and chew, thinking, Don't leave me yet, Perry. Just a little longer. Just a little more. Please.
I erupt from the dark, crushing tunnel into a flash of light and noise. A new kind of air surrounds me, dry and cold, as they wipe the last smears of home off my skin. I feel a sharp pain as they snip something, and suddenly I am less. I am no one but myself, tiny and feeble and utterly alone. I am lifted and swung through great heights across yawning distances, and given to Her. She wraps around me, so much bigger and softer than I ever imagined from inside, and I strain my eyes open. I see Her. She is immense, cosmic. She is the world. The world smiles down on me, and when She speaks it's the voice of God, vast and resonant with meaning, but words unknowable, ringing gibberish in my blank white mind.
She says -
I am in a dark, crooked room, gathering medical supplies and loading them into boxes. A small crew of civilian recruits are with me on this salvage, all of them handpicked by Colonel Rosso except one. One of them picked herself. One of them saw a look in my eyes and worried. One of them wants to save me.
'Did you hear that?' Julie says, glancing around.
'No,' I reply instantly and keep loading.
'I did,' Nora says, brushing her frizzy curls out of her eyes. 'Pear, maybe we should - '
'We're fine. We scoped it out, we're secure. Just work.'
They watch me constantly, tensed like hospital orderlies, ready to intervene. It changes nothing. I won't endanger them but I'll still find a way. When I'm alone, when no one's looking, I'll do it. I'll make it happen. They keep trying and trying but the beauty of their love only drives me deeper. Why can't they understand it's too late?
A noise. I hear it now. A rumble of footsteps up the staircase, a chorus of groans. Are Julie's ears so much more sensitive or have I stopped listening? I pick up my shotgun and turn -
No, I blurt into the middle of the vision. Not this. This isn't what I want to see.
To my surprise, everything halts. Perry looks up at me, the voice in the sky. 'These are my memories, remember? You're the guest here. If you don't want to see it, you can spit it out.'
This is a shock. The memory has come unscripted. Am I having a conversation with the very mind I'm digesting? I don't know how much of this is actually Perry and how much is just me, but I'm swept along.
We should be seeing your life! I shout down at him. Not this! Why would you want your last thought to be a replay of your dirty, meaningless death?
'You think death isn't meaningful?' he retorts, chambering a round in his shotgun. Julie and the others wait in their positions like background props, fidgeting impatiently. 'Wouldn't you want to remember yours if you could? How else are you going to reverse-engineer yourself into something new?'
'Of course, you dumb corpse.' He puts his eye to the sights and makes a slow scan of the room, holding for a moment on Berg. 'There are a thousand kinds of life and death across the whole metaphysical spectrum, not to mention the metaphorical. You don't want to stay dead for the rest of your life, do you?'
Well, no . . .
'Then relax, and let me do what I need to do.'
I swallow the lump in my throat and say, Okay . . .
- pick up my shotgun and turn, just as the thundering footfalls reach our floor. The door blows open and they burst inside, roaring. We shoot them, we shoot them, we shoot them, but there are too many, and they're fast. I crouch over Julie, shielding her as best I can.
No. Oh God. This is not what I wanted.
A tall skinny one is suddenly behind me, grabbing my legs. I fall and hit the table and my vision flashes red. Everything is wrong, but as the red fades to black I still allow an exultant shout, one last selfish orgasm before I go to sleep for ever:
And then -
'Perry.' A jab in my ribs. 'Perry!'
'Don't you go to sleep on me now.'
I open my eyes. An hour of sun glaring through my closed lids has faded all the colours of the world to bluish grey, like an old movie poster in a dying local video store. I turn my head to look at her. She smiles wickedly and jabs me again. 'Never mind. Go ahead and sleep.'
Beyond her face I see the looming white posts of the Stadium roof arches, and beyond that, the deep cerulean sky. I slowly alternate my focus between her and the sky, letting her face blur into a peach-and-gold cloud, then refocusing it.
'What?' she says.
'Tell me something hopeful.'
'What kind of hopeful?'
I sit up, crossing my arms over my knees. I look out at the surrounding city, the crumbling buildings, the empty streets and the lonely sky, clean and blue and deathly quiet without its white-sketching airplanes.
'Tell me this isn't the end of the world.'
She lies there for a minute, looking up at the sky. Then she sits up and pulls one of her earbuds out of her tangled blonde hair. She gently plugs it into my ear.
The warbled strumming of a broken guitar, the swelling of an orchestra, the oohs and ahhs of a studio choir, and John Lennon's weary, woozy voice, singing limitless undying love. Everyone playing this song is now bones in a grave, but here they are anyway, exciting and inviting me, calling me on and on. The final fade-out breaks something inside me, and tears squeeze out of my eyes. The brilliant truth and the inescapable lie, sitting side by side just like Julie and me. Can I have both? Can I survive in this doomed world and still love Julie, who dreams above it? For this moment at least, tied to her brain by the white wire between our ears, I feel like I can.
Nothing's gonna change my world, Lennon chants, over and over. Nothing's gonna change my world.
Julie sings a high harmony, and I murmur a low. There on the hot white roof of humanity's last outpost, we look out over our rapidly, hopelessly, irretrievably changing world, and we sing:
Nothing's gonna change my world. Nothing's gonna change my world.
I am staring at the airport ceiling again. I drop the last chunk of Perry's brain into my mouth and chew, but nothing happens. I spit it out like gristle. The story is over. The life is gone.
I find my eyes burning again, craving tears that my ducts can't supply. I feel as if I've lost someone dear. A brother. A twin. Where is his soul now? Am I Perry Kelvin's afterlife?
I finally drift back to sleep. I'm in the darkness. The molecules of my mind are still scattered, and I float through oily black space, trying to swipe them up like fireflies. Every time I go to sleep, I know I may never wake up. How could anyone expect to? You drop your tiny, helpless mind into a bottomless well, crossing your fingers and hoping that when you pull it out on its flimsy fishing wire it hasn't been gnawed to bones by nameless beasts below. Hoping you pull up anything at all. Maybe this is why I only sleep a few hours a month. I don't want to die again. This has become clearer and clearer to me recently, a desire so sharp and focused I can hardly believe it's mine: I don't want to die. I don't want to disappear. I want to stay.