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I clutch my hand, watching the flesh beneath the fingernail darken—one more bruise for my rich tapestry of wounds. The pain is distant. I am still a tourist in the land of the Living, snapping pictures of their struggle from my hotel balcony, but I want nothing more than to join them in the dirt. The plywood slips and falls on my foot. I hear one of my toes crack.
At least Security was kind enough to clear out the bodies—the ones with flesh, anyway.
Why are we here? In a world where all anyone dreams of is comfort and safety, why did we choose this haunted house in the middle of a war zone? I lean back into the prickly cushions and remember the first time I sat on this couch. A cold night. A long drive. Julie on the staircase in her soaking wet clothes, inviting me upstairs. This is a big responsibility. They have to be tended and trained. And they will never grow up. Look at them. Watch them as my wife and I release their hands and they wander outside to play.
They tease each other and grin. They giggle and laugh, though it sounds choked through their dry throats. They resist our curse for as long as they possibly can. I watch them disappear into the pale daylight at the end of the hall. Deep inside me, in some dark and cobwebbed chamber, I feel something twitch. I feel the electricity in my limbs fizzling, fading. I see relentless visions of blood in my mind, that brilliant, mesmerising red, flowing through bright pink tissues in intricate webs and Pollock fractals, pulsing and vibrating with life.
I find M in the food court talking to some girls. He is a little different from me. He does seem to enjoy the company of women, and his better-than-average diction draws them in like dazzled carp, but he keeps a distance.
He laughs them off. The Boneys once tried to set him up with a wife, but he simply walked away. Sometimes I wonder if he has a philosophy. Maybe even a world view. I shake my head and clutch my stomach harder.
He is, after all, a zombie. He manages to find a few others with appetites, and we form a small posse. Very small. Unsafely small. We set out towards the city.
We take the freeway. Like everything else, the roads are returning to nature. We wander down empty lanes and under ivycurtained overpasses. My residual memories of these roads contrast dramatically with their peaceful present state. I take a deep breath of the sweet, silent air. We press further into the city than normal. The only scent I pick up is rust and dust.
The unsheltered Living are getting scarcer, and the ones with shelter are venturing out less frequently. I suspect their stadium fortresses are becoming self-sufficient. I imagine vast gardens planted in the dugouts, bursting with carrots and beans. Cattle in the press box. Rice paddies in the outfield.
We can see the largest of these citadels looming on the hazy horizon, its retractable roof open to the sun, taunting us. But, finally, we sense prey. The life scent electrifies our nostrils, abrupt and intense. They are very close, and there are a lot of them. Maybe close to half our own number. We hesitate, stumbling to a halt. M looks at me. He looks at our small group, then back at me.
M shakes his head. He sniffs the air. The rest of them are undecided. Some of them also sniff warily, but others are more single-minded like me. They groan and drool and snap their teeth. Focused thought. The rest of the group reflexively follows. M catches up and walks beside me, watching me with an uneasy grimace. Spurred to an unusual level of intensity by my desperate energy, our group crashes through the revolving doors and rushes down the dark hallways.
Some earthquake or explosion has knocked out part of the foundation, and the entire high-rise leans at a dizzying, funhouse angle. After a few flights of stairs I start to hear them as well, clattering around and talking to each other in those steady, melodious streams of words.
Living speech has always been a sonic pheromone to me, and I spasm briefly when it hits my ears. As we approach their level of the building, some of us start groaning loudly, and the Living hear us.
We burst through a final door and rush them. M grunts when he sees how many there are, but he lunges with me at the nearest man and grabs his arms while I rip out his throat. The burning red taste of blood floods my mouth. The sparkle of life sprays out of his cells like citrus mist from an orange peel, and I suck it in. The darkness of the room is pulsing with gunfire, and by our standards we are grossly outnumbered — there are only three of us to every one of them — but something is tipping things in our favour.
Our manic speed is uncharacteristic of the Dead, and our prey are not prepared for it. Is this all coming from me? What has come over me? Am I just having a bad day? There is one other factor working to our advantage. These Living are not seasoned veterans. They are young. Teenagers, mostly, boys and girls. Their leader is a slightly older kid with a patchy beard, standing on a cubicle desk in the middle of the room and shouting panicked commands to his men. As they fall to the floor under the weight of our hunger, as dots of blood pointilise the walls, this boy leans protectively over a small figure crouched below him on the desk.
A girl, young and blonde, bracing her bird-boned shoulder against her shotgun as she fires blindly into the dark. I pull his feet out from under him and he falls, cracking his head on the edge of the desk. Without hesitation I pounce on him and bite through his neck. Then I dig my fingers into the crack in his skull, and prise his head open like an eggshell.
His brain pulses hot and pink inside. I take a deep, wide, ravenous bite and— I am Perry Kelvin, a nine-year-old boy growing up in rural nowhere. Other than the emergency chain-link fence between the river and the mountain ridge, life is almost normal. My neck. My neck hurts, it— I am eating a slice of pizza with my mom and dad. I take an oversized bite and the thick cheese sticks in my throat. I choke it back up and my parents laugh.
Tomato sauce stains my shirt like— I am fifteen, gazing out the window at the looming walls of my new home. She has short, choppy blonde hair and blue eyes that dance with private amusement. My palms are sweating. My mouth is full of laundry lint. Her eyes glitter. I glimpse her braces.
Her eyes are classic novels and poetry. She twines her fingers into mine and squeezes hard. I kiss her deep and caress the back of her head with my free hand, tangling my fingers in her hair. I look her in the eyes. She smiles. I want to be part of her. Not just inside her but all around her.
I want our ribcages to crack open and our hearts to migrate and merge. I want our cells to braid together like living thread.
Julie is on the seat behind me, her arms clutching my chest, her legs wrapped around mine. Her aviators glint in the sun as she grins, showing her perfectly straight teeth.
But at least I can protect her. At least I can keep her safe.
She is so unbearably beautiful and sometimes I see a future with her in my head, but my head, my head hurts, oh God my head is— Stop. Who are you? Let the memories dissolve. Your eyes are crusted — blink them. Gasp in a ragged breath. Welcome back. I feel the carpet under my fingers. I hear the gunshots.
I stand up and look around, dizzy and reeling. I have never had a vision so deep, like an entire life spooling through my head. The sting of tears burns in my eyes, but my ducts no longer have fluid. The feeling rages unquenched like pepper spray. I hear a scream nearby and I turn. Julie is here, older now, maybe nineteen, her baby fat melted away revealing sharper lines and finer poise, muscles small but toned on her girlish frame.
She is huddled in a corner, unarmed, sobbing and screaming as M creeps towards her. He always finds the women. Their memories are porn to him.
I still feel disorientated, unsure of where or who I am, but. I approach the girl.
The urge to rip and tear surges into my arms and jaw. But then she screams again, and something inside me moves, a feeble moth struggling against a web. I let out a gentle groan and inch towards the girl, trying to force kindness into my dull expression.
I am not no one. I am a nine-year-old boy, I am a fifteenyear-old boy, I am— She throws a knife at my head. The blade sticks straight into the centre of my forehead and quivers there.
But it has penetrated less than an inch, only grazing my frontal lobe. I pull it out and drop it. She is fumbling through her jeans for another weapon. Behind me, the Dead are finishing their butchery. Soon they will turn their attention to this dim corner of the room. I take a deep breath.
It rolls off my tongue like honey. I feel good just saying it. Her eyes go wide. She freezes. I put out my hands. I point at the zombies behind me. I shake my head. She stares at me, making no sign that she understands. I reach my free hand into the head-wound of a fallen zombie and collect a palmful of black, lifeless blood. Slowly, with gentle movements, I smear it on her face, down her neck and onto her clothes. She is probably catatonic.
I take her hand and pull her to her feet. At that moment M and the others finish devouring their prey and turn to inspect the room.
Their eyes fall on me. They fall on Julie. I walk towards them, gripping her hand, not quite dragging her. She staggers behind me, staring straight ahead. M sniffs the air cautiously. Just the negativesmell of Dead blood.
Without a word, we leave the high-rise and head back to the airport. I walk in a daze, full of strange and kaleidoscopic thoughts. Julie holds limply to my hand, staring at the side of my face with wide eyes, trembling lips.
After delivering our abundant harvest of leftover flesh to the non-hunters — the Boneys, the children, the stay-at-home moms — I take Julie to my house. My fellow Dead give me curious looks as I pass. Because it requires both volition and restraint, the act of intentionally converting the Living is almost never performed.
Most conversions happen by accident: a feeding zombie is killed or otherwise distracted before finishing his business, voro interruptus. The rest of our converts arise from traditional deaths, private affairs of illness or mishap or classical Living-on-Living violence that take place outside our sphere of interest.
So the fact that I have purposely brought this girl home unconsumed is a thing of mystery, a miracle on a par with giving birth. M and the others allow me plenty of room in the halls, regarding me with confusion and wonder. I lead her to Gate 12, down the boarding tunnel and into my home: a commercial jet. Sometimes it even tickles my numb memory. Looking at my clothes, I seem like the kind of person who probably travelled a lot.
And then the fresh lemon zing of poisson in Paris. The burn of tajine in Morocco. Are these places all gone now? Silent streets, cafes full of dusty skeletons? Julie and I stand in the centre aisle, looking at each other. I point to a window seat and raise my eyebrows.
Keeping her eyes solidly on me, she backs into the row and sits down. Her hands grip the armrests like the plane is in a flaming death dive. I sit in the aisle seat and release an involuntary wheeze, looking straight ahead at my stacks of memorabilia. Every time I go into the city, I bring back one thing that catches my eye. A puzzle. A shot glass. A Barbie. A dildo. I bring them here to my home, strew them around the seats and aisles, and stare at them for hours.
The piles reach to the ceiling now. M keeps asking me why I do this. I have no answer. Her lips are tight and pale. I point at her. I open my mouth and point at my crooked, bloodstained teeth. She presses herself against the window. A terrified whimper rises in her throat. This is not working. I dig through my LP collection in the overhead compartments and pull out an album.
She is still frozen, wide-eyed.
The record plays. I can hear it faintly through the phones, like a distant eulogy drifting on autumn air. Last night. I close my eyes and hunch forward. My head sways vaguely in time with the music as verses float through the jet cabin, blending together in my ears. Life was so new.
The terror has faded, and she regards me with disbelief. I turn my face away. I stand and duck out of the plane. Her bewildered gaze follows me down the tunnel. After weeks of staring at it, I figured out how to fill its tank from a barrel of stabilised gasoline I found in the service rooms. But I have no idea how to drive. Sometimes I just sit there with the engine purring, my hands resting limply on the wheel, willing a true memory to pop into my head.
Not another hazy impression or vague awareness cribbed from the collective subconscious. Something specific, bright and vivid. Something unmistakably mine. I strain myself, trying to wrench it out of the blackness. Erotica is meaningless for us now. A distant echo of that great motivator that once started wars and inspired symphonies, that drove human history out of the caves and into space. M may be holding on, but those days are over now. Sex, once a law as undisputed as gravity, has been disproved.
The equation is erased, the blackboard broken. I remember the need, the insatiable hunger that ruled my life and the lives of everyone around me. But our loss of this, the most basic of all human passions, might sum up our loss of everything else.
I watch M from the doorway. He sits on the little metal folding chair with his hands between his knees like a schoolboy facing the principal. There are times when I can almost glimpse the person he once was under all that rotting flesh, and it prickles my heart. We sit against the tiles of the bathroom wall with our legs sprawled out in front of us, passing the brain back and forth, taking small, leisurely bites and enjoying brief flashes of human experience.
The brain contains the life of some young military grunt from the city. His tastes are a little less demanding than mine. I watch his mouth form silent words. I watch his face shuffle through emotions. Anger, fear, joy, lust. When he wakes up, this will all disappear.
He will be empty again. He will be dead. After an hour or two, we are down to one small gobbet of pink tissue. M pops it in his mouth and his pupils dilate as he has his visions.
This one is different, though. This one is special. I tear off a bite, and chew. I am Perry Kelvin, a sixteen-year-old boy, watching my girlfriend write in her journal. The black leather cover is tattered and worn, the inside a maze of scribbles, drawings, little notes and quotes. I am sitting on the couch with a salvaged first edition of On the Road, longing to live in any era but this one, and she is curled in my lap, penning furiously.
I poke my head over her shoulder, trying to get a glimpse. She pulls the journal away and gives me a coy smile. I lace my arms around her shoulders. She burrows into me a little deeper. I bury my face in her hair and kiss the back of her head. The spicy smell of her shampoo— M is looking at me. He holds out his hand for me to pass it. I take another bite and close my eyes. We lie on our backs on a red blanket on the white steel panels, squinting up at the blinding blue sky.
I nod. I never got to do that anyway with Dad the way he is. I just miss airplanes. That muffled thunder in the distance, those white lines. My mom used to say it looked like Etch A Sketch. It was so beautiful. Airplanes were beautiful. So were fireworks. All the indulgences we can no longer afford.
She looks at me. We have to remember everything. I let it saturate my brain. I turn my head and kiss Julie. We make love there on the blanket on the Stadium roof, four hundred feet above the ground. The sun stands guard over us like a kindhearted chaperone, smiling silently. M is glaring at me. He makes a grab for the piece of brain in my hand and I yank it away. I suppose M is my friend, but I would rather kill him than let him taste this. The thought of his filthy fingers poking and fondling these memories makes me want to rip his chest open and squish his heart in my hands, stomp his brain till he stops existing.
This is mine. He sees the warning flare in my eyes, hears the rising air-raid klaxon. He drops his hand away. He stares at me for a moment, annoyed and confused. I leave the bathroom with abnormally purposeful strides. I slip in through the door of the and stand there in the faint oval of light. Julie is lying back in a reclined seat, snoring gently.
I knock on the side of the fuselage and she bolts upright, instantly awake. She watches me warily as I approach her. My eyes are burning again.
I grab her messenger bag off the floor and dig through it. I find her wallet, and then I find a photo. A portrait of a young man. I hold the photo up to her eyes. She looks at me, stone-faced. I point at my mouth. I clutch my stomach. I point at her mouth. I touch her stomach. Then I point out the window, at the cloudless black sky of merciless stars.
I clench my jaw and squint my eyes, trying to ease their dry sting. Her eyes are red and wet. That fat fuck that almost got me? And then it hits me, and my eyes go wide.
The room was dark and I came from behind. Her penetrating eyes address me like a creature worthy of address, unaware that I recently killed her lover, ate his life and digested his soul, and am right now carrying a prime cut of his brain in the front pocket of my slacks. I can feel it burning there like a coal of guilt, and I reflexively back away from her, unable to comprehend this curdled mercy.
Her first questions are for others. I am the lowest thing. I am the bottom of the universe. I drop the photo onto the seat and look at the floor. When I emerge from the boarding tunnel, there are several Dead grouped near the doorway.
They watch me without expressions. We stand there in silence, still as statues. Then I brush past them and wander off into the dark halls. I look at my dad. He looks older than I remember.
He grips the steering wheel hard. His knuckles are white. The gas station where I bought Coke Slushies is on fire. The windows of my grade school are shattered. The kids in the public swimming pool are not swimming.
I thought everyone comes back now. My voice cracks. No one comes back. Not really. Do you understand that? I try to focus on the windshield itself, the crushed bugs and tiny fractures. R omeo kills and eats Perry Paris who is trying to protect his girlfriend Julie t. In Isaac Marion's world zombies enjoy brains because it gives them brief flashes of human memory. R gets Perry's memories of Julie. Essentially all he knows about Julie beyond that she's warm and delicious is from Perry.
Perry's memories and feelings for Julie motivate R to save her, even attacking his bestest zombie buddy M ercutio. And since I want to get my effing Romeo and Juliet references out of the way now, I'm just going to let you know Julie's best friend is named Nora. Nora wants to be a nurse. I thought all the Romeo and Juliet crap was done by the time I got to Nora and I almost had a seizure when I realized there was more. Believe me, I'm sparing you by telling you in advance. There are more Romeo and Juliet references sprinkled throughout the book with all the finesse of a two-year-old flower girl throwing balled up, crumpled hunks of flower petals on the floor as she stomps her little way toward the alter, but none of them bothered me as much as the repetitive transparency of the names.
So, back to R and Julie. He saves her from M who Julie calls a 'fat fuck' for the rest of the book , smears dead blood all over her face to hide her from the zombies and takes her back to zombie HQ at the airport.
Julie goes along with this because her options are kind of limited to R or being devoured by a pack of zombies. I don't really know how she managed it without hysterics, the story is told more or less from R's POV, but she was a little too levelheaded about the whole experience given that her boyfriend and most of her friends just became chow.
R shoves Julie inside the airplane he lives in to keep her safe from the other zombies. He goes off to hang out with M. Together they eat the brain of another teenage boy who had been in the group with Julie and Perry. The experience isn't anything extremely altering for R, but luckily he's still got some of Perry to gnaw on. You see, he didn't eat all of Perry's brain in one sitting.
No, he carries the rest around with him to much on slowly so he can, um, savor the experience? Sorry, bad Lucy. Again, R experiences Perry's memories of Julie and this is where the author fumbles. I can forgive the cheesy quality of retelling Romeo and Juliet. I can forgive a zombie society that actually is a society, but there comes a point when as an author you have to man up and deal with the circumstances of the story you're writing.
R is a zombie. Zombies are monsters. R is a monster. Perry's life force was either so vibrant that it changed R or his love for Julie such a unique experience that it changed R, who has eaten hundreds of other brains.