Home > Warm Bodies (Warm Bodies #1)(15)

Warm Bodies (Warm Bodies #1)(15)
Isaac Marion

I study them intently, searching for Julie’s secrets in their clumsy brushstrokes. Two are just bright colours and thick, tortured texture. The third is a crude portrait of a blonde woman. I glance over at the black wall, which bears only one ornament: a thumb-tacked Polaroid of what must be the same woman. Julie plus twenty hard years.

Julie follows my gaze and she and Nora exchange a glance. ‘That’s my mom,’ Julie says. ‘She left when I was twelve.’ She clears her throat and looks out the window.

I turn to the yellow wall, which is notably unadorned. I point at it and raise my eyebrows.

‘That’s, um . . . my hope wall,’ she says. Her voice contains an embarrassed pride that makes her sound younger. Almost innocent. ‘I’m leaving it open for something in the future.’

‘Like . . . what?’

‘I don’t know yet. Depends on what happens in the future. Hopefully something happy.’

She shrugs this off and sits on the corner of her bed, tapping her fingers on her thigh and watching me. Nora settles down next to her. There are no chairs, so I sit on the floor. The carpet is a mystery under ancient strata of wrinkled clothes.

‘So . . . R,’ Nora says, leaning towards me. ‘You’re a zombie. What’s that feel like?’

‘Uh . . .’

‘How did it happen? How’d you get converted?’

‘Don’t . . . remember.’

‘I don’t see any old bites or gunshot wounds or anything. Must’ve been natural causes. No one was around to debrain you?’

I shrug.

‘How old are you?’

I shrug.

‘You look twenty-something, but you could be thirty-something. You have one of those faces. How come you’re not all rotten? I barely even smell you.’

‘I don’t . . . um . . .’

‘Do your body functions still work? They don’t, right? I mean, can you actually still, you know—?’

‘Jesus, Nora,’ Julie cuts in, elbowing her in the hip. ‘Will you back off? He didn’t come here for an interrogation.’

I shoot Julie a grateful look.

‘I do have one question, though,’ she says. ‘How the hell did you get in here? Into the Stadium?’

I shrug. ‘Walked . . . in.’

‘How’d you get past the guards?’

‘Played . . . Living.’

She stares at me. ‘They let you in? Ted let you in?’

‘Distrac . . . ted.’

She puts a hand to her forehead. ‘Wow. That’s . . .’ She pauses, and an incredulous smile breaks through. ‘You look . . . nicer. Did you comb your hair, R?’

‘He’s in drag!’ Nora laughs. ‘He’s in Living drag!’

‘I can’t believe that worked. I’m pretty sure it’s never happened before.’

‘Do you think he could pass?’ Nora wonders. ‘Out on the streets with real people?’

Julie studies me dubiously, like a photographer forced to consider a chubby model. ‘Well,’ she allows, ‘I guess . . . it’s possible.’

I squirm under their scrutiny. Finally Julie takes a deep breath and stands up. ‘Anyway, you’ll have to stay here at least for tonight, till we can figure out what to do with you. I’m going to go heat up some rice. You want some, Nora?’

‘Nah, I just had Carbtein nine hours ago.’ She looks at me cautiously. ‘Are you uh . . . hungry, R?’

I shake my head. ‘I’m . . . fine.’

‘’Cause I don’t know what we’re supposed to do about your dietary restrictions. I mean, I know you can’t help it, Julie explained all about you, but we don’t—’

‘Really,’ I stop her. ‘I’m . . . fine.’

She looks uncertain. I can imagine the footage rolling behind her eyes. A dark room filling with blood. Her friends dying on the floor. Me, crawling towards Julie with red hands outstretched. Julie may have convinced her that I’m a special case, but I shouldn’t be surprised to get a few nervous looks. Nora watches me in silence for a few minutes. Then she breaks away and starts rolling a joint.

When Julie comes back with the food, I borrow her spoon and take a small bite of rice, smiling as I chew. As usual it goes down like styrofoam, but I do manage to swallow it. Julie and Nora look at each other, then at me.

‘How’s it taste?’ Julie asks tentatively.

I grimace.

‘Okay, but still, you haven’t eaten any people in a long time. And you’re still walking. Do you think you could ever wean yourself off . . . live foods?’

I give her a wry smile. ‘I guess . . . it’s possible.’

Julie grins at this. Half at my unexpected use of sarcasm, half at the implied hope behind it. Her whole face lights up in a way I’ve never seen before, so I hope I’m right. I hope it’s true. I hope I haven’t just learned how to lie.

Around 1 a.m., the girls start to yawn. There are canvas cots in the den, but no one feels like venturing out of Julie’s room. This gaudily painted little cube is like a warm bunker in the frozen emptiness of Antarctica. Nora takes the bed. Julie and I take the floor. Nora scribbles homework notes for about an hour, then clicks off the lamp and starts snoring like a small, delicate chainsaw. Julie and I lie on our backs under a thick blanket, using piles of her clothes for a mattress on the rock-hard floor. It’s a strange feeling, being so utterly surrounded by her. Her life scent is on everything. She’s on me and under me and next to me. It’s as if the entire room is made out of her.

‘R,’ she whispers, looking up at the ceiling. There are words and doodles smeared up there in glow-in-the-dark paint.

‘Yeah.’

‘I hate this place.’

‘I know.’

‘Take me somewhere else.’

I pause, looking up at the ceiling. I wish I could read what she’s written there. Instead, I pretend the letters are stars. The words, constellations.

‘Where do . . . want to go?’

‘I don’t know. Somewhere far away. Some distant continent where none of this is happening. Where people just live in peace.’

I fall silent.

‘One of Perry’s older friends used to be a pilot . . . we could take your housejet! It’d be like a flying Winnebago, we could go anywhere!’ She rolls onto her side and grins at me. ‘What do you think, R? We could go to the other side of the world.’

The excitement in her voice makes me wince. I hope she can’t see the grim light in my eyes. I don’t know for sure, but there is something in the air lately, a deathly stillness as I walk through the city and its outskirts, that tells me the days of running away from problems are over. There will be no more vacations, no road trips, no tropical getaways. The plague has covered the world.

‘You said . . .’ I begin, psyching myself up to express a complex thought. ‘You said . . . the . . .’

‘Come on,’ she encourages. ‘Use your words.’

‘You said . . . the plane’s not . . . its own world.’

Her grin falters. ‘What?’

‘Can’t . . . float above . . . the mess.’

She frowns. ‘I said that?’

‘Your dad . . . concrete box . . . walls and guns . . . Running away . . . no better . . . than hiding. Maybe worse.’

She thinks for a moment. ‘I know,’ she says, and I feel guilty for crashing her brief flight of fancy. ‘I know this. It’s what I’ve been telling myself for years, that there’s still hope, that we can turn things around somehow, blah fu**ing blah. It’s just . . . getting a lot harder to believe lately.’

‘I know,’ I say, trying to hide the cracks in my sincerity. ‘But can’t . . . give up.’

Her voice darkens. She calls my bluff. ‘Why are you so hopeful all of a sudden? What are you really thinking?’

I say nothing, but she reads my face like a front-page headline, the kind that announced the atomic bomb and the Titanic and all the World Wars in progressively smaller type.

‘There’s nowhere left, is there,’ she says.

Almost imperceptibly, I shake my head.

‘The whole world,’ she says. ‘You think it’s all dead? All overrun?’

‘Yes.’

‘How could you know that?’

‘I don’t. But . . . I feel.’

She lets out a long breath, staring at the toy planes dangling above us. ‘So what are we supposed to do?’

‘Have to . . . fix it.’

‘Fix what?’

‘Don’t know. Ev . . . rything.’

She props herself up on one elbow. ‘What are you talking about?’ Her voice is no longer quiet. Nora stirs and stops snoring. ‘Fix everything?’ Julie says, her eyes sparking in the dark. ‘How exactly are we supposed to do that? If you have some big revelation please share, ’cause it’s not like I don’t think about this literally all the time. It’s not like this hasn’t been burning my brain every morning and night since my mom left. How do we fix everything? It’s so broken. Everyone is dying, over and over again, in deeper and darker ways. What are we supposed to do? Do you know what’s causing it? This plague?’

I hesitate. ‘No.’

‘Then how can you do anything about it? I want to know, R. How are we supposed to “fix it”?’

I’m staring up at the ceiling. I’m staring at the verbal constellations, glimmering green in distant space. As I lie there, letting my mind rise into those imaginary heavens, two of the stars begin to change. They rotate, and focus, and their shapes clarify. They become . . . letters.

T

R

‘Tr—’ I whisper.

‘What?’

‘Truh—’ I repeat, trying to pronounce it. It’s a sound. It’s a syllable. The blurry constellation is becoming a word. ‘What is . . . that?’ I ask, pointing at the ceiling.

‘What? The quotes?’

I stand up and indicate the general area of the sentence. ‘This one.’

‘It’s a line from “Imagine”. The John Lennon song.’

‘Which . . . line?’

‘“It’s easy if you try.”’

I stand there for a minute, gazing up like an intrepid explorer of the cosmos. Then I lie down and fold my arms behind my head, eyes wide open. I don’t have the answers she’s asking for, but I can feel their existence. Faint points of light in the distant dark.

Slow steps. Mud under boots. Look nowhere else. Strange mantras loop through my head. Old bearded mutterings from dark alleys. Where are you going, Perry? Foolish child. Brainless boy. Where? Every day the universe grows larger, darker, colder. I stop in front of a black door. A girl lives here in this metal house. Do I love her? Hard to say any more. But she is all that’s left. The final red sun in an ever-expanding emptiness.

I walk into the house and find her sitting on the staircase, arms crossed over her knees. She puts a finger to her lips. ‘Dad,’ she whispers to me.

I glance up the staircase towards the general’s bedroom. I hear his voice slurring in the dimness.

‘This picture, Julie. The water park, remember the water park? Had to haul ten buckets up for just one slide. Twenty minutes of work for ten seconds of fun. Seemed worth it back then, didn’t it? I liked watching your face when you flew out of the tube. You looked just like her, even back then.’

Julie stands up quietly, moves towards the front door.

‘You’re all her, Julie. You aren’t me, you’re her. How could she do it?’

I open the door and back out. Julie follows me, soft steps, no sound.

‘How could she be so weak?’ the man says in a voice like steel melting. ‘How could she leave us here?’

We walk in silence. The drizzling rain beads in our hair and we shake it out like dogs. We come to Colonel Rosso’s house. Rosso’s wife opens the door, looks at Julie’s face, and hugs her. We walk inside into the warmth.

I find Rosso in the living room, sipping coffee, peering through his glasses at a water-stained old book. While Julie and Mrs Rosso murmur in the kitchen, I sit down across from the colonel.

‘Perry,’ he says.

‘Colonel.’

‘How are you holding up?’

‘I’m alive.’

‘A good start. How are you settling into the home?’

‘I despise it.’

Rosso is quiet for a moment. ‘What’s on your mind?’

I search for words. I seem to have forgotten most of them. Finally, quietly, I say, ‘He lied to me.’

‘How so?’

‘He said we were fixing things, and if we didn’t give up everything might turn out okay.’

‘He believed that. I think I do, too.’

‘But then he died.’ My voice trembles and I fight to squeeze it tight. ‘And it was senseless. No battle, no noble sacrifice, just a stupid work accident that could have happened to anyone anywhere, any time in history.’

‘Perry . . .’

‘I don’t understand it, sir. What’s the point of trying to fix a world we’re in so briefly? What’s the meaning in all that work if it’s just going to disappear? Without any warning? A fu**ing brick on the head?’

Rosso says nothing. The low voices in the kitchen become audible in our silence, so they drop to whispers, trying to hide from the colonel what I’m sure he already knows. Our little world is far too tired to care about the crimes of its leaders.

‘I want to join Security,’ I announce. My voice is solid now. My face is hard.

Rosso lets out a slow breath and sets his book down. ‘Why, Perry?’

‘Because it’s the only thing left worth doing.’

‘I thought you wanted to write.’

‘That’s pointless.’

‘Why?’

‘We have bigger concerns now. General Grigio says these are the last days. I don’t want to waste my last days scratching letters on paper.’

‘Writing isn’t letters on paper. It’s communication. It’s memory.’

‘None of that matters any more. It’s too late.’

He studies me. He picks up the book again and holds the cover out. ‘Do you know this story?’

‘It’s Gilgamesh.’

‘Yes. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literature. Humanity’s debut novel, you could say.’ Rosso flips through the brittle yellow pages. ‘Love, sex, blood and tears. A journey to find eternal life. To escape death.’ He reaches across the table and hands the book to me. ‘It was written over four thousand years ago on clay tablets by people who tilled the mud and rarely lived past forty. It’s survived countless wars, disasters and plagues, and continues to fascinate to this day, because here I am, in the midst of modern ruin, reading it.’

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