The scene as Julie and I make our way out of the airport resembles either a wedding procession or a buffet line. The Dead are lined up in the halls to watch us pass. Every last one of them is here. They look restless, agitated, and would clearly love to devour Julie, but they don't move or make a sound. Over Julie's heated protests I asked M to escort us out. He follows a few paces behind, huge and vigilant, scanning the crowd like a Secret Service agent.
The unnatural silence of a room full of people who don't breathe is surreal. I swear I can hear Julie's heart pounding. She is trying to walk steady and look cool, but her darting eyes betray her.
'Are you sure about this?' she whispers.
'There's like . . . hundreds of them.'
'Keep you safe.'
'Right, right, safe, how could I forget.' Her voice grows very small. 'Seriously, R . . . I mean, I've seen you kick ass, but you know if someone decides to ring the dinner bell right now I'm going to be sushi.'
'They . . . won't,' I tell her with a surprising degree of confidence. 'We're . . . new thing. Haven't . . . seen before. Look at them.'
She looks closer at the surrounding faces, and I hope she can see what I've been seeing. The strange array of their reactions to us, to the anomaly we represent. I know they will let us through, but Julie seems unconvinced. A tight wheeze creeps into her breathing. She fumbles in her messenger bag and pulls out an inhaler, takes a hit from it and holds it in, eyes still darting.
'You'll . . . be okay,' M says in his low rumble.
She expels the breath and whips her head around to glare at him. 'Who the fuck asked you, you fucking blood sausage? I should have hedge-trimmed you in half yesterday.'
M chuckles and raises his eyebrows at me. 'Got . . . a live one . . . "R".'
We continue unmolested all the way to the Departures gate. As we step out into the daylight, I feel a nervous buzz in my stomach. At first I think it's just the ever-present terror of the open sky, now looming over us in bruised shades of grey and purple, boiling with high-altitude thunderheads. But it's not the sky. It's the sound. That low, warbling tone, like baritone madmen humming nursery rhymes. I don't know if I've just gotten more attuned to it or if it's actually louder, but I hear it even before the Boneys make their appearance.
'Shit, oh shit,' Julie whispers to herself.
They march around both corners of the loading zone and form a line in front of us. There are more of them than I've ever seen in one place. I had no idea there even were this many, at least not in our airport.
'Problem,' M says. 'They look . . . pissed.'
He's right. There is something different in their demeanour. Their body language seems stiffer, if that's possible. Yesterday they were a jury stepping in to review our case. Today they are judges, announcing the sentence. Or perhaps executioners, executing it.
'Leaving!' I shout at them. 'Taking her back! So they won't . . . come here!'
The skeletons don't move or respond. Their bones harmonise in some sour alien key.
'What . . . do you want?' I demand.
The entire front row raises its arms in unison and points at Julie. It strikes me how wrong this is, how fundamentally different these creatures are from the rest of us. The Dead are adrift on a foggy sea of ennui. They don't do things in unison.
'Taking her back!' I shout louder, faltering in my attempt at reasonable discourse. 'If . . . kill her . . . they'll come here. Kill . . . us!'
There is no hesitation, no time for them to consider anything I've said; their response is predetermined and immediate. In unison, like demon monks chanting Hell's vespers, they emit that noise from their chest cavities. That proud crow of unyielding conviction, and although it's wordless, I understand exactly what it's saying:
No need to speak.
No need to listen.
Everything is already known.
She will not leave.
We will kill her.
That is how things are done.
Always has been.
Always will be.
I look at Julie. She is trembling. I grip her hand and look at M. He nods.
With the pulse-warmth of Julie's hand flooding through my icy fingers, I run.
We bolt left, trying to dodge around the edge of the Boneys' platoon. As they clatter forward to block my path, M surges out in front of me and rams his bulk into the nearest row, knocking them into a pile of hooked limbs and interlocked ribcages. A fierce blast of their invisible horn stabs the air.
'What are you doing?' Julie gasps as I drag her behind me. I am actually running faster than her.
'Keep you sa - '
'Don't you even think about saying "keep you safe"!' she shrieks. 'This is about as far from safe as I've ever - '
She screams as a skinless hand pinches down on her shoulder and digs in. The creature's jaw opens to sink its filed fangs into her neck, but I grab it by the spine and wrench it off her. I fling it to the concrete as hard as I can, but there is no impact and no shattering of bones. The thing almost seems to float in defiance of gravity, its ribcage barely touching the ground before springing upright again, lurching towards my face like some hideous, unkillable insect.
'M!' I croak as it grapples for my throat. 'Help!'
M is busy trying to peel skeletons off his arms, legs and back, but he seems to be standing his ground thanks to his superior mass. As I struggle to keep the skeleton's fingers out of my eyes, M lumbers towards me, pulls the thing off me, and flings it into three others about to jump on him from behind.
'Go!' he yells and shoves me forward, then turns to face our pursuers. I grab Julie's hand and dash towards our target. Finally, she sees it. The Mercedes. 'Oh!' she pants. 'Okay!'
We jump in the car and I bring the engine to life. 'Oh Mercey . . .' Julie says, stroking the dashboard like a beloved pet. 'So happy to see you right now.' I put the car in gear and release the clutch, gunning us forward. Somehow, it seems easy now.
M has given up trying to fight and is now just running for his life with a mob of skeletons trailing behind him. Hundreds of zombies stand outside the Departures entry area, watching everything in silence. What are they thinking? Are they thinking? Is there any chance they're forming a reaction to this event unfolding in front of them? This sudden explosion of anarchy in the state-approved programme of their lives?
M cuts across the street, directly across our exit route, and I floor the accelerator. M crosses in front of us, then the Boneys cross in front of us, then four thousand pounds of German engineering smashes into their brittle, ossified bodies. They shatter. Bits of anatomy fly everywhere. Two thigh bones, three hands and half a cranium land inside the car, where they vibrate and twitch on the seats, releasing dry gasps and insectile buzzes. Julie hurls them out of the car and frantically wipes her hands on her sweatshirt, shuddering in revulsion and whimpering, 'Oh my God oh my God.'
But we are safe. Julie is safe. We roar past the Arrivals gates, onto the freeway, and out into the wider world while the storm clouds churn overhead. I look at Julie. She looks at me. We both smile as the first raindrops begin to fall.