I awake to the sound of screaming.
My eyes snap open and I spit a few bugs out of my mouth. I lurch upright. The sound is far away but it's not from the School. It lacks the plaintive panic of the School's still-breathing cadavers. I recognise the defiant spark in these screams, the relentless hope in the face of undeniable hopelessness. I leap to my feet and run faster than any zombie has ever run.
Following the screams, I find Julie at the Departures gate. She is backed into a corner, surrounded by six drooling Dead. They close in on her, rearing back a little each time she swings her smoke-belching hedge trimmer, but advancing steadily. I rush at them from behind and crash into their tight circle, scattering them like bowling pins. The one closest to Julie I punch so hard the bones of my hand shatter into seashell crumbs. His face cracks inward and he drops. The next closest I ram into the wall, then grab his head and smash it into the concrete until his brain pops and he goes down. One of them grabs me from behind and takes a bite out of my rib meat. I reach back, tear off his rotten arm, and swing it at him like Babe Ruth. His head spins a full three-sixty on his neck, then tilts, tears and falls off. I stand there in front of Julie, brandishing the muscle-bound limb, and the Dead stop advancing.
'Julie!' I snarl at them while pointing at her. 'Julie!'
They stare at me. They sway back and forth.
'Julie!' I say again, not sure how else to put it. I walk up to her and press my hand against her heart. I drop the arm-club and put my other hand on my own heart. 'Julie.'
The room is silent except for the low grumble of her hedge trimmer. The air is thick with the rancid-apricot smell of stabilised gasoline, and I notice several decapitated corpses I had nothing to do with lying at her feet. Well done, Julie, I think with a faint smile. You are a lady and a scholar.
'What . . . the fuck!' growls a deep voice behind me.
A tall, bulky form is picking itself up off the floor. It's the first one I attacked, the one I punched in the face. It's M. I didn't even recognise him in the heat of the moment. Now, with his cheekbone crushed into his head, he's even harder to identify. He glares at me and rubs his face. 'What are . . . doing, you . . .' He trails off, at a loss for even simple words.
'Julie,' I say yet again, as if this is an irrefutable argument. And in a way, it is. That one word, a fully fleshed name. It's having the effect of a glowing, talking cellphone raised before a mob of primitives. All the remaining Dead stare at Julie in hushed silence, except M. He is baffled and enraged.
'Living!' he sputters. 'Eat!'
I shake my head. 'No.'
'Eat, fucking - '
M and I both turn. Julie has stepped out from behind me. She glares at M and revs the trimmer. 'Fuck off,' she says. She links an arm into my elbow, and I feel a tingle of warmth spreading out from her touch.
M looks at her, then at me, back to her, then back to me. His permanent grimace is tight. We appear to be in a stand-off, but before it can escalate any further the stillness is pierced by a reverberating roar, like an eerie, airless horn blast.
We all turn to the escalators. Yellowed, sinewy skeletons are rising up one by one from the floors below. A small committee of Boneys emerges from the stairs and approaches me and Julie. They stop in front of us and fan out into a line. Julie backs away a little, her bravado flattening under their black, eyeless stares. Her grip on my arm tightens.
One of them steps forward and stops in front of me, inches from my face. No breath wafts from its hollow mouth, but I can feel a faint, low hum emanating from its bones. This hum is not found in me, nor in M, nor in any of the other flesh-clad Dead, and I begin to wonder what exactly these dried-up creatures really are. I can no longer believe in any voodoo spell or laboratory virus. This is something deeper, darker. This comes from the cosmos, from the stars, or the unknown blackness behind them. The shadows in God's boarded-up basement.
The ghoul and I are locked in a stare-down, toe to toe, eye to eye socket. I don't blink, and it can't. What seems like hours pass. Then it does something that slightly undermines the horror of its presence. It raises a stack of Polaroids in its pointy fingers and begins handing them to me, one by one. I'm reminded of a proud old man showing off his grandkids, but the skeleton's grin is far from grandfatherly, and the photos are far from heartwarming.
Off-the-hip shots of some kind of battle. Organised ranks of soldiers firing rockets into our hives, rifles popping us off with precision, one two three. Private citizens with their machetes and chainsaws hacking through us like blackberry vines, spattering our dark juices on the camera lens. Monumental stacks of freshly re-killed corpses, soaked in gasoline and lit.
Smoke. Blood. Family photos from our vacation in Hell.
But as unsettling as this slide show is, I've seen it before. I've witnessed the Boneys performing it dozens of times, usually for children. They drift around the airport with cameras dangling from their vertebrae, occasionally following us on feeding trips, lingering in the back to document the bloodshed, and I always wonder what it is they're after. Their subject matter follows a precise theme that never varies: corpses. Battles. Newly converted zombies. And themselves. Their meeting rooms are wallpapered with these photos, floor to ceiling, and sometimes they drag in a young zombie and make him stand there for hours, even days, silently appreciating their work.
Now this skeleton, identical to the rest, hands me these Polaroids slowly and civilly, confident that the images speak for themselves. The message of today's sermon is clear: inevitability. The immutable, binary results of our interactions with the Living.
They die / we die.
A noise rises from where the skeleton's throat would be, a crowing sound full of pride and reproach and stiff, rigid righteousness. It says everything it and the rest of the Boneys have to say, their motto and mantra. It says, I rest my case, and That's the way it is, and Because I said so.
Looking straight into its eye sockets, I let the photos fall to the floor. I rub my fingers against each other as if trying to brush off some dirt.
The skeleton does not react. It just stares at me with that horrible, hollow stare, so utterly motionless it seems to have stopped time. The dark hum in its bones dominates everything, a low sine wave prickling with sour overtones. And then, so abruptly it makes me jump, the creature pivots away and rejoins its comrades. It barks out one last horn blast, and the Boneys descend the escalator. The rest of the Dead disperse, sneaking hungry glances at Julie. M is the last to go. He scowls at me, then lumbers away. Julie and I are alone.
I turn to face her. Now that the situation has settled and the blood on the floor is drying, I'm finally able to contemplate what's happening here, and somewhere deep in my chest, my heart wheezes. I gesture towards what I assume is the 'Departures' sign and give Julie a questioning look, unable to hide the hurt behind it.
Julie looks at the floor. 'It's been a few days,' she mumbles. 'You said a few days.'
'Wanted to . . . take you home. Say goodbye.'
'What difference does it make? I had to leave. I mean, I can't stay here. You realise that, right?'
Yes. Of course I realise that.
She's right, and I'm ridiculous.
And yet . . .
But what if . . .
I want to do something impossible. Something astounding and unheard of. I want to scrub the moss off the Space Shuttle and fly Julie to the moon and colonise it, or float a capsized cruise ship to some distant island where no one will protest us, or just harness the magic that brings me into the brains of the Living and use it to bring Julie into mine, because it's warm in here, it's quiet and lovely, and in here we aren't an absurd juxtaposition, we are perfect.
She finally meets my eyes. She looks like a lost child, confused and sad. 'But thanks for uh . . . saving me. Again.'
With great effort, I pull out of my reverie and give her a smile. 'Any . . . time.'
She hugs me. It's tentative at first, a little scared, and yes, a little repulsed, but then she melts into it. She rests her head against my cold neck and embraces me. Unable to believe what's happening, I put my arms around her and just hold her.
I almost swear I can feel my heart thumping. But it must just be hers, pressed tight against my chest.
We walk back to the 747. Nothing has been resolved, but she's agreed to postpone her escape. After the messy scene we just caused, it seems prudent to lay low for a bit. I don't know exactly how much the Boneys will object to the irregularity Julie represents, because this is the first time anyone has challenged them. My case has no precedent.
We enter a connecting hallway suspended over a parking lot, and Julie's hair dances in the wind whistling through shattered windows. Decorative indoor shrub beds have been overrun with wild daisies. Julie sees them, smiles, picks a handful. I pluck one from her hands and clumsily stick it in her hair. It still has its leaves, and it protrudes awkwardly from the side of her head. But she leaves it in.
'Do you remember what it was like living with people?' she asks as we walk. 'Before you died?'
I wave a hand in the air vaguely.
'Well, it's changed. I was ten when my home town got overrun and we came here, so I remember what it used to be like. Things are so different now. Everything's gotten smaller and more cramped, noisier and colder.' She pauses at the end of the overpass and looks out the empty windows at a pale sunset. 'We're all corralled in the Stadium with nothing to think about but surviving to the end of the day. No one writes, no one reads, no one really even talks.' She spins the daisies in her hands, sniffs one. 'We don't have flowers any more. Just crops.'
I look out of the opposite windows, at the dark side of the sunset. 'Because of us.'
'No, not because of you. I mean, yeah, because of you, but not just you. Do you really not remember what it was like before? All the political and social breakdowns? The global flooding? The wars and riots and constant bombings? The world was pretty far gone before you guys even showed up. You were just the final judgement.'
'But we're . . . what's killing you. Now.'
She nods. 'Sure, zombies are the most obvious threat. The fact that almost everyone who dies comes back and kills two more people . . . yeah, that's some grim math. But the root problem has to be bigger than that, or maybe smaller, more subtle, and killing a million zombies isn't going to fix it, because there's always going to be more.'
Two Dead appear from around a corner and lunge at Julie. I crack their heads together and drop them, wondering if I might have studied martial arts in my old life. I seem to be a lot stronger than my lean frame suggests.
'My dad doesn't care about any of that,' Julie continues as we walk down the loading tunnel and enter the plane. 'He was an army general back when the government was still going on, so that's how he thinks. Locate the threat, kill the threat, wait for orders from the big-picture people. But since the big picture is gone and the people who drew it are all dead, what are we supposed to do now? No one knows, so we do nothing. Just salvage supplies, kill zombies, and expand our walls further out into the city. Basically, Dad's idea of saving humanity is building a really big concrete box, putting everybody in it, and standing at the door with guns until we get old and die.' She flops across a seat and takes a deep breath, lets it out again. She sounds so tired. 'I mean, obviously, staying alive is pretty fucking important,' she says. 'But there's got to be something beyond that, right?'
My mind drifts through the last few days, and I find myself thinking about my kids. The image of them in that hallway, making a toy out of a stapler, playing together and laughing. Laughing. Have I seen other Dead children laugh? I can't remember. But thinking about them, that look in their eyes as they hugged my legs, I feel strange emotions welling up in me. What is that look? Where does it come from? In that lovely film projected on their faces, what beautiful score is playing? What language is the dialogue? Can it be translated?
The jet cabin is silent for several minutes. Lying on her back, Julie cranes her head and looks out of the window upside down. 'You live in an airplane, R,' she says. 'That's pretty neat. I miss seeing airplanes in the sky. Have I told you about how I miss airplanes?'
I go to the record player. The Sinatra record is still going, skipping on a blank inner groove, so I nudge the needle to 'Come Fly With Me'.
Julie smiles. 'Smooth.'
I lie out on the floor and fold my hands over my chest, gazing up at the ceiling, haphazardly mouthing the song's words.
'Have I also told you,' Julie says, twisting her head to look at me, 'that in a weird way it's actually been kinda nice, being here? I mean aside from almost getting eaten like four times. It's been years since I've had this much time to just breathe and think and look out of windows. And you have a pretty decent record collection.'
She reaches down and sticks a daisy into my folded hands, then giggles. It takes me a moment to realise I look like the corpse in an old-fashioned funeral. I jolt upright as if struck by lightning, and Julie bursts out laughing. I can't help a little smile.
'And you know the craziest part, R?' she says. 'Sometimes I barely believe you're a zombie. Sometimes I think you're just wearing stage make-up, because when you smile . . . it's pretty hard to believe.'
I lie down again and fold my hands behind my head. Embarrassed, I keep my face mirthless until Julie falls asleep. Then I slowly let it creep back, smiling at the ceiling as the stars flicker to life outside.
Early the following afternoon, her soft snoring tapers off. Still lying on the floor, I wait for the sounds of her waking up. The shifting of weight, the tight inhale of breath, the small whimper.
'R,' she says groggily.
'They're right, you know.'
'Those skeletons. I saw the pictures they showed you. They're right about what'll probably happen.'
I say nothing.
'One of our people got away. When your group attacked us, my friend Nora hid under a desk. She saw you . . . capture me. It might take Security some time to track which hive you took me to, but they'll figure it out soon, and my dad will come here. He'll kill you.'
'Already . . . dead,' I reply.
'No you're not,' she says, and sits up in her chair. 'You're obviously not.'
I think about what she's saying for a moment. 'You want . . . to go back?'
'No,' she says, and then seems startled. 'I mean, yeah, of course, but . . .' She lets out a flustered groan. 'It doesn't matter either way, I have to. They're going to come here and wipe you out. All of you.'
I fall silent again.
'I don't want to be responsible for that, okay?' She seems to be pondering something as she talks. Her voice is tight, conflicted. 'I've always been taught that zombies are just walking corpses to be disposed of, but . . . look at you. You're more than that, right? So what if there are others like you?'
My face is stiff.
Julie sighs. 'R . . . maybe you're sappy enough to find martyrdom romantic, but what about the rest of these people? Your kids? What about them?'
She is nudging my mind down streets it's rarely travelled. For however many months or years I've been here, I've never thought of these other creatures walking around me as people. Human, yes, but not people. We eat and sleep and shuffle through the fog, walking a marathon with no finish line, no medals, no cheering. None of the airport's citizens seemed much perturbed when I killed four of us today. We view ourselves the same way we view the Living: as meat. Nameless, faceless, disposable. But Julie's right. I have thoughts. I have some kind of a soul, shrivelled and impotent as it may be. So maybe the others do, too. Maybe there's something there worth salvaging.
'Okay,' I say. 'You have . . . to leave.'
She nods silently.
'But I'm . . . going with you.'
She laughs. 'To the Stadium? Tell me that was a lame joke.'
I shake my head.
'Well, let's think about that a moment, shall we? You? Are a zombie. As well-preserved and kinda charming as you may be, you are a zombie, and guess what everyone in the Stadium over the age of ten is training seven days a week to do?'
I say nothing.
'Exactly. To kill zombies. So, if I can make this any clearer - you can't come with me. Because they will kill you.'
I clench my jaw. 'So?'
She tilts her head, and her sarcasm dissolves. Her voice becomes tentative. 'What do you mean "so"? Do you want to be dead? Really dead?'
My reflex is to shrug. The shrug has been my default response for so long. But as I lie there on the floor with her worried eyes looking down at me, I remember the feeling that jolted through me the moment I woke up yesterday, that feeling of No! and Yes! That feeling of anti-shrug.
'No,' I say to the ceiling. 'I don't want to die.'
As I say it, I realise I've just broken my syllable record.
Julie nods. 'Well, good.'
I take a deep breath and stand up. 'Need . . . to think,' I tell her, avoiding eye contact. 'Back . . . soon. Lock . . . door.'
I leave the plane, and her eyes follow me out.
People are staring at me. I was always a bit of an outsider here in the airport, but now my mystique has thickened like port wine. When I enter a room, everyone stops moving and watches me. But the looks on their faces aren't entirely grim. There are notes of fascination buried in their reproach.
I find M studying his reflection in a lobby window, sticking his fingers in his mouth and prodding. I think he's trying to put his face back together.
'Hi,' I say, standing a safe distance away.
He glares at me for a moment, then looks back at the window. He gives his upper jaw a firm push, and his cheek-bone pops back into place with a loud snap. He turns to me and smiles. 'How's . . . look?'
I wiggle my hand non-committally. Half of his face looks relatively normal, the other half is still a bit concave.
He sighs and looks back at the window. 'Bad . . . news . . . for the ladies.'
I smile. As deeply different as we are, I have to give M some credit. He is the only zombie I've met who's managed to maintain a dangling scrap of humour. Also worthy of note . . . four syllables without pause. He has just matched my former record.
'Sorry,' I say to him. 'About . . . that.'
He doesn't respond.
'Talk to you . . . a minute?'
He hesitates, then shrugs again. He follows me to the nearest set of chairs. We sit down in a dark, defunct Starbucks. Two cups of mouldy espresso sit in front of us, abandoned long ago by two friends, two business partners, two people who just met in the terminal and bonded over a shared interest in brains.
'Really . . . sorry,' I say. 'Irrit . . . able. Lately.'
M narrows his brow. 'What . . . going on . . . with you?'
'Don't . . . know.'
'Brought back . . . Living girl?'
'You . . . crazy?'
'What's . . . feel like?'
'Living . . . sex.'
I give him a warning look.
'She's . . . hot. I would - '
He chuckles. 'Fucking . . . with you.'
'It's not . . . that. Not . . . like that.'
'Then . . . what?'
I hesitate, not sure how to answer. 'More.'
His face gets eerily serious. 'What? Love?'
I think about this, and I find no response beyond a simple shrug. So I shrug, trying not to smile.
M throws back his head and does his best impression of laughter. He thumps me on the shoulder. 'My . . . boy! Lover . . . boy!'
'Leaving . . . with her,' I tell him.
'Taking . . . her home.'
I nod. 'Keep her . . . safe.'
M considers this, watching me with concern clouding his bruised face.
'I . . . know,' I sigh.
M folds his arms over his chest. 'What . . . going on . . . with you?' he asks me again.
And again, I have no answer but a shrug.
'You . . . okay?'
He nods uncertainly, and I squirm under his probing eyes. I'm not used to having deep conversations with M. Or with any of the Dead, for that matter. I rotate the coffee cup in my fingers, intently studying its fuzzy green contents.
'When . . . figure out . . .' M finally says, in a tone more earnest than I've ever heard from him, 'tell me. Tell . . . us.'
I wait for him to crack wise, turn it into a joke, but he doesn't. He is actually sincere.
'I will,' I say. I slap him on the shoulder and stand up. As I walk away, he gives me that same strange look I'm finding on the faces of all the Dead. That mixture of confusion, fear and faint anticipation.