Home > Warm Bodies (Warm Bodies #1)(12)

Warm Bodies (Warm Bodies #1)(12)
Isaac Marion

The towering shadow staggers closer. A flash of lightning illuminates its face, and I drop my arms to my sides.

‘M?’

I almost fail to recognise him at first. His face has been torn and clawed, and there are countless small chunks bitten out of his body.

‘Hey,’ he grunts. The rain streaks down his face and pools in his wounds. ‘Let’s . . . get out of . . . rain.’ He walks past my leaky trees and climbs down the slope to the freeway below. I follow him to the dry space under the overpass. We huddle there in the dirt, surrounded by old beer cans and syringes.

‘What . . . doing . . . he . . . out . . . out here?’ I ask him, fighting for the words. I’ve been silent less than a day and I’m already rusty.

‘Take . . . guess,’ M says, pointing at his wounds. ‘Boneys. Drove me out.’

‘Sorry.’

M grunts. ‘Fuck . . . it.’ He kicks a sun-faded beer can. ‘But guess . . . what?’ Something like a smile illuminates his mangled face. ‘Some . . . came with me.’

He points down the freeway, and I see about nine other figures moving slowly towards us.

I look at M, confused. ‘Came . . . with? Why?’

He shrugs. ‘Things . . . crazy . . . back home. Routines . . . shook.’ He jabs a finger at me. ‘You.’

‘Me?’

‘You and . . . her. Something . . . in air. Movement.’

The nine zombies stop under the overpass and stand there, looking at us blankly.

‘Hi,’ I say.

They sway and groan a little. One of them nods.

‘Where’s . . . girl?’ M asks me.

‘Her name is Julie.’ This comes off my tongue fluidly, like a swish of warm camomile.

‘Ju . . . lie,’ M repeats with some effort. ‘Okay. Where’s . . . she?’

‘Left. Went home.’

M studies my face. He drops a hand onto my shoulder. ‘You . . . okay?’

I close my eyes and take a slow breath. ‘No.’ I look out at the freeway, towards the city, and something blooms in my head. First a feeling, then a thought, then a choice. ‘I’m going after her.’

Six syllables. I have broken my record again.

‘To . . . Stadium?’

I nod.

‘Why?’

‘To . . . save her.’

‘From . . . what?’

‘Ev . . . rything.’

M just looks at me for a long time. Among the Dead, a piercing look can last several minutes. I wonder if he can possibly have any idea what I’m talking about, when I’m not even sure I do. Just a gut feeling. The soft pink zygote of a plan.

He gazes up at the sky, and a faraway look comes into his eyes. ‘Had . . . dream . . . last night. Real dream. Memories.’

I stare at him.

‘Remembered . . . when young. Summer. Cocoa . . . Puffs. A girl.’ His eyes refocus on me. ‘What . . . is it like?’

‘What?’

‘You’ve . . . felt. Do you know . . . what it is?’

‘What are . . . talking about?’

‘My dream,’ he says, his face full of wonder like a child’s at a telescope. ‘Those things . . . love?’

A tingle runs up my spine. What is happening? To what distant reaches of space is our planet hurtling? M is dreaming, reclaiming memories, asking astonishing questions. I am breaking my syllable records every day. Nine unknown Dead are with us under this overpass, miles from the airport and the hissing commands of the skeletons, standing here awaiting . . . something.

A fresh canvas is unfurling in front of us. What do we paint on it? What’s the first hue to splash on this blank field of grey?

‘I’ll . . . go with,’ M says. ‘Help you . . . get in. Save her.’ He turns to the waiting Dead. ‘Help us?’ he asks, not raising his voice above its easy rumble. ‘Help save . . . girl? Save . . .’ He closes his eyes and concentrates. ‘Ju . . . lie?’

The Dead quicken at the sound of the name, fingers twitching and eyes darting. M looks pleased. ‘Help find . . . something lost?’ he asks in a voice more solid than I’ve ever heard from his tattered throat. ‘Help . . . exhume?’

The zombies look at M. They look at me. They look at each other. One of them shrugs. Another nods. ‘Help,’ one of them groans, and they all wheeze in agreement.

I find a grin spreading across my face. I don’t know what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, or what will happen when it’s done, but at the very bottom of this rising siege-ladder, I at least know I’m going to see Julie again. I know I’m not going to say goodbye. And if these staggering refugees want to help, if they think they see something bigger here than a boy chasing a girl, then they can help, and we’ll see what happens when we say Yes while this rigor mortis world screams No.

We start lumbering north on the southbound freeway, and the thunder drifts away towards the mountains as if it’s scared of us.

Here we are on the road. We must be going somewhere.

step two

taking

I am young. I am a teenage boy aflame with health, strong and virile and pounding with energy. But I get older. Every second ages me. My cells spread themselves thinner, stiffening, cooling, darkening. I am fifteen, but each death around me adds a decade. Each atrocity, each tragedy, each small moment of sadness. Soon I will be ancient.

Here I am, Perry Kelvin in the Stadium. I hear birds in the walls. The bovine moans of pigeons, the musical chirps of starlings. I look up and breathe deep. The air is so much cleaner lately, even here. I wonder if this is what the world smelled like when it was new, centuries before smokestacks. It frustrates and fascinates me that we’ll never know for sure, that despite the best efforts of historians and scientists and poets, there are some things we’ll just never know. What the first song sounded like. How it felt to see the first photograph. Who kissed the first kiss, and if it was any good.

‘Perry!’

I smile and wave at my little admirer as he and his dozen foster-siblings cross the street in a line, hand in hand. ‘Hey . . . buddy,’ I call to him. I can never remember his name.

‘We’re going to the gardens!’

‘Cool!’

Julie Grigio grins at me, leading their line like a mother swan. In a city of thousands I run into her almost every day, sometimes near the schools where it seems probable, sometimes in the outermost corners of the Stadium where the odds are slim. Is she stalking me or am I stalking her? Either way, I feel a pulse of stress hormones shoot through me every time I see her, rushing to my palms to make them sweat and to my face to make it pimply. Last time we met, she took me up on the roof. We listened to music for hours, and when the sun went down, I’m pretty sure we almost kissed.

‘Want to come with us, Perry?’ she says. ‘It’s a field trip!’

‘Oh fun . . . a field trip to where I just spent eight hours working.’

‘Hey, there aren’t a lot of options in this place.’

‘So I’ve noticed.’

She waves for me to come over and I immediately comply, while trying my best to look reluctant. ‘Don’t they ever get to go outside?’ I wonder, watching the kids march in clumsy lockstep.

‘Mrs Grau would say we are outside.’

‘I mean outside. Trees, rivers, etc.’

‘Not till they’re twelve.’

‘Awful.’

‘Yeah . . .’

We walk in silence except for the burble of child-speak behind us. The Stadium walls loom protectively like the parents these kids will never know. My excitement at seeing Julie darkens under a sudden cloud of melancholy.

‘How do you stand it here,’ I say, barely a question.

Julie frowns at me. ‘We get to go out. Twice a month.’

‘I know, but . . .’

She waits. ‘What, Perry?’

‘Do you ever wonder if it’s even worth it?’ I gesture vaguely at the walls. ‘All this?’

Her expression sharpens.

‘I mean, are we really that much better off in here?’

‘Perry,’ she snaps with unexpected vehemence. ‘Don’t you start talking like that, don’t you fu**ing start.’

She notices the abrupt silence behind us and cringes. ‘Sorry,’ she says to the kids in a confidential whisper. ‘Bad words.’

‘Fuck!’ my little friend yells, and the whole line explodes with laughter.

Julie rolls her eyes. ‘Great.’

‘Tsk tsk.’

‘You shut your mouth. I meant what I said to you. That’s evil talk.’

I look at her uncertainly.

‘We get to go outside twice a month. More if we’re on salvage. And we get to stay alive.’ She sounds like she’s reciting a Bible verse. An old proverb. As if sensing her own lack of conviction she glances at me, then snaps her eyes forward. Her voice goes quiet. ‘No more evil talk if you want to come on our field trip.’

‘Sorry.’

‘You haven’t been here long enough. You grew up in a safe place. You don’t understand the dangers.’

Dark feelings flood my belly at this, but I manage to hold my tongue. I don’t know the pain she’s speaking from, but I know it’s deep. It makes her hard and yet so terribly soft. It’s her thorns and it’s her hand reaching out from the thicket.

‘Sorry,’ I say again and fumble for that hand, nudging it out of her jeans pocket. It’s warm. My cold fingers wrap around hers, and my mind conjures an unwelcome image of tentacles. I blink it away. ‘No more evil talk.’

The kids gaze at me eagerly, huge eyes, spotless cheeks. I wonder what they are and what they mean and what’s going to happen to them.

‘Dad.’

‘Yeah?’

‘I think I have a girlfriend.’

My dad lowers his clipboard, adjusts his hard hat. A smile creeps into the deep creases of his face. ‘Really.’

‘I think so.’

‘Who?’

‘Julie Grigio?’

He nods. ‘I’ve met her. She’s – hey! Doug!’ He leans over the edge of the bulwark and yells at a worker carrying a steel pylon. ‘That’s forty-gauge, Doug, we’re using fifty for the arterial sections.’ He looks back at me. ‘She’s cute. Watch out though; seems like a firecracker.’

‘I like firecrackers.’

My dad smiles. His eyes drift. ‘Me too, kid.’

His walkie-talkie crackles and he pulls it out, starts giving instructions. I look out at the ugly concrete vista under construction. We are standing on the terminating end of a wall, fifteen feet high, currently a few blocks long. Another wall runs parallel to it, making Main Street into an enclosed corridor that cuts through the heart of the city. Workers swarm below, laying concrete pour-forms, erecting framework.

‘Dad?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Do you think it’s stupid?’

‘What?’

‘To fall in love.’

He pauses, then puts his walkie away. ‘What do you mean, Pear.’

‘Like . . . now. The way things are now. I mean, everything’s so uncertain . . . is it stupid to waste time on stuff like that in a world like this? When everything might fall apart any minute?’

My dad looks at me for a long time. ‘When I met your mom,’ he says, ‘I asked myself that. And all we had going on back then was a few wars and recessions.’ His walkie starts crackling again. He ignores it. ‘I got nineteen years with your mom. But do you think I would’ve turned down the idea if I’d known I’d only get one year? Or one month?’ He surveys the construction, shaking his head slowly. ‘There’s no benchmark for how life’s “supposed” to happen, Perry. There is no ideal world for you to wait around for. The world is always just what it is now, and it’s up to you how you respond to it.’

I look into the dark window holes of ruined office buildings. I imagine the skeletons of their occupants still sitting at their desks, working towards quotas they will never meet.

‘What if you’d only gotten a week with her?’

‘Perry . . .’ my dad says, slightly amazed. ‘The world isn’t ending tomorrow, buddy. Okay? We’re working on fixing it. Look.’ He points at the work crews below. ‘We’re building roads. We’re going to connect to the other stadiums and hideouts, bring the enclaves together, pool our research and resources, maybe start working on a cure.’ My dad claps me on the shoulder. ‘You and me, everyone . . . we’re going to make it. Don’t give up on us yet. Okay?’

I relent with a small release of breath. ‘Okay.’

‘Promise?’

‘Promise.’

My dad smiles. ‘I’ll hold you to that.’

Do you know what happened next, corpse? Perry whispers from the deep shadows of my awareness. Can you guess?

‘Why are you showing me all this,’ I ask the darkness.

Because it’s what’s left of me, and I want you to feel it. I’m not ready to disappear.

‘Neither am I.’

I sense a cold smile in his voice.

Good.

‘There you are.’

Julie heaves herself up the ladder and stands on the roof of my new home, watching me. I glance at her, then put my face back in my hands.

She makes her way over, cautious steps on the flimsy sheet metal, and sits next to me on the roof edge. Our legs dangle, swinging slowly in the cold autumn air.

‘Perry?’

I don’t answer. She studies the side of my face. She reaches out and brushes two fingers through my shaggy hair. Her blue eyes pull on me like gravity, but I resist. I stare down at the muddy street.

‘I can’t believe I’m here,’ I mumble. ‘This stupid house. With all these discards.’

She doesn’t respond immediately. When she does, it’s quiet. ‘They’re not discards. They were loved.’

‘For a while.’

‘Their parents didn’t leave. They were taken.’

‘Is there a difference?’

She looks at me so hard I have no choice but to meet her gaze. ‘Your mom loved you, Perry. You’ve never had to doubt that. And so did your dad.’

I can’t hold the weight. I give in and let it fall on me. I twist my head away from Julie as the tears come.

‘Believe that God discarded you if you want to, fate or destiny or whatever, but at least you know they loved you.’

‘What does it even matter,’ I croak, avoiding her eyes. ‘Who gives a shit. They’re dead. That’s the present. That’s what matters now.’

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