Home > Warm Bodies (Warm Bodies #1)(6)

Warm Bodies (Warm Bodies #1)(6)
Isaac Marion

I shrug.

‘Stop shrugging, you as**ole! I know you can talk; say something.’

I think for a minute. Watching my wife fade into the distance, I put a hand on my heart. ‘Dead.’ I wave a hand towards my wife. ‘Dead.’ My eyes drift towards the sky and lose their focus. ‘Want it . . . to hurt. But . . . doesn’t.’

Julie looks at me like she’s waiting for more, and I wonder if I’ve expressed anything at all with my halting, mumbled soliloquy. Are my words ever actually audible, or do they just echo in my head while people stare at me, waiting? I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I’m drowning in ellipses.

Julie watches me a moment longer, then turns to face the windshield and the oncoming scenery. On our right: the dark openings of empty boarding tunnels, once alive with eager travellers on their way to see the world, expand their horizons, find love and fame and fortune. On our left: the blackened wreckage of a Dreamliner.

‘My boyfriend cheated on me once,’ Julie says to the windshield. ‘There was this girl his dad was housing while the foster homes were being set up, and they got blackout drunk one night and it just happened. It was basically an accident, and he gave me the most sincere and moving confession of all time, swore to God he loved me so much and would do anything to convince me, blah blah blah, but it didn’t matter, I kept thinking about it and running it through my head and just burning with it. I cried every night for weeks. Practically wore the binary off all my saddest Mp3s.’ She is shaking her head slowly. Her eyes are far away. ‘Things are just . . . I feel things so hard sometimes. When that happened with Perry, I would have loved to be more . . . like you.’

I study her. She runs a finger through her hair and twists it around a little. I notice faint scars on her wrists and forearms, thin lines too symmetrical to be accidents. She blinks and glances at me abruptly, as if I just woke her from a dream. ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this,’ she says, annoyed. ‘Anyway, lesson’s over for today. I’m tired.’

Without further comment, I drive us home. I brake too late, and park the car with the bumper two inches into the grille of a Miata. Julie sighs.

Later that evening we sit in the 747, cross-legged in the middle of the aisle. A plate of microwaved pad thai sits on the floor in front of Julie, cooling. I watch her in silence as she pokes at it. Even doing and saying nothing, she is entertaining to watch. She tilts her head, her eyes roam, she smiles and shifts her body. Her inner thoughts play across her face like rear-projection movies.

‘It’s too quiet in here,’ she says, and stands up. She starts digging through my stacks of records. ‘What’s with all the vinyl? Couldn’t figure out how to work an iPod?’

‘Better . . . sound.’

She laughs. ‘Oh, a purist, huh?’

I make a spinning motion in the air with my finger. ‘More real. More . . . alive.’

She nods. ‘Yeah, true. Lot more trouble though.’ She flips through the stacks and frowns a little. ‘There’s nothing in here newer than like . . . 1999. Is that when you died or something?’

Another obstacle to estimating my age: I have no idea what year we’re in. 1999 could have been a decade ago or yesterday. One might try to deduce a timeline by looking at the crumbling streets, the toppled buildings, the rotting infrastructure, but every part of the world is decaying at its own pace. There are cities that could be mistaken for Aztec ruins, and there are cities that just emptied last week, TVs still awake all night roaring static, cafe omelettes just starting to mould.

What happened to the world was gradual. I’ve forgotten what it actually was, but I have faint, foetal memories of what it was like. The smouldering dread that never really caught fire till there wasn’t much left to burn. Each sequential step surprised us. Then one day we woke up, and everything was gone.

‘There you go again,’ Julie says. ‘Drifting off. I’m so curious what you think about when you daze out like that.’ I shrug, and she lets out an exasperated huff. ‘And there you go again, shrugging. Stop shrugging, shrugger! Answer my question. Why the stunted musical growth?’

I start to shrug and then stop myself, with some difficulty. How can I possibly explain this to her in words? The slow death of Quixote. The abandoning of quests, the surrendering of desires, the settling in and settling down that is the inevitable fate of the Dead.

‘We don’t . . . think . . . new things,’ I begin, straining to kick through my short-sheeted diction. ‘I . . . find things . . . sometimes. But we don’t . . . seek.’

‘Really,’ Julie says. ‘Well, that’s a fu**ing tragedy.’ She continues to dig through my records, but her tone starts to escalate as she speaks. ‘You don’t think about new things? You don’t “seek”? What’s that even mean? You don’t seek what? Music? Music is life! It’s physical emotion – you can touch it! It’s neon ecto-energy sucked out of spirits and switched into sound waves for your ears to swallow. Are you telling me, what, that it’s boring? You don’t have time for it?’

There is nothing I can say to this. I find myself praying to the ghastly mouth of the open sky that Julie never changes. That she never wakes up one day to find herself older and wiser.

‘Anyway, you’ve still got some good stuff in here,’ she says, letting her indignation deflate. ‘Great stuff, really. Here, let’s do this one again. Can’t go wrong with Frank.’ She puts on a record and returns to her pad thai. ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ fills the plane’s cabin, and she gives me a crooked little smile. ‘My theme song,’ she says, and stuffs her mouth full of noodles.

Out of morbid curiosity, I pull one off her plate and chew it. There is no taste at all. It’s like imaginary food, like chewing air. I turn my head and spit it into my palm. Julie doesn’t notice. She seems far away again, and I watch the colours and shapes of her thought-film flickering behind her face. After a few minutes, she swallows a bite and looks up at me.

‘R,’ she says in a tone of casual curiosity, ‘who did you kill?’

I stiffen. The music fades out of my awareness.

‘In that high-rise. Before you saved me. I saw the blood on your face. Whose was it?’

I just look at her. Why does she have to ask me this. Why can’t her memories fade to black like mine. Why can’t she just live with me alone in the dark, swimming in the abyss of inked-out history.

‘I just need to know who it was.’ Her expression betrays nothing. Her eyes are locked on mine, unblinking.

‘No one,’ I mumble. ‘Some . . . kid.’

‘There’s this theory that you guys eat brains because you get to relive the person’s life. True?’

I shrug, trying not to squirm. I feel like a toddler caught finger-painting the walls. Or killing dozens of people.

‘Who was it?’ she presses. ‘Don’t you remember?’

I consider lying. I remember a few faces from that room; I could roll the dice and just pick one, probably some random recruit she didn’t even know, and she would let it go and never bring it up again. But I can’t do it. I can’t lie to her any more than I can spit out the indigestible truth. I’m trapped.

Julie lets her eyes auger into me for a long minute, then she falters. She looks down at the stained airplane carpet. ‘Was it Berg?’ she offers, so quietly she’s almost talking to herself. ‘The kid with the acne? I bet it was Berg. That guy was a dick. He called Nora a mulatto and he was staring at my ass that entire salvage. Which Perry didn’t even notice, of course. If it was Berg, I’m almost glad you got him.’

I try to catch her gaze to make sense of this reversal, but now she’s the one avoiding eye contact. ‘Anyway,’ she says, ‘whoever killed Perry . . . I just want you to know I don’t blame them for it.’

I tense again. ‘You . . . don’t?’

‘No. I mean, I think I get it. You don’t have a choice, right? And to be honest . . . I’d never say this to anyone, but . . .’ She stirs her food. ‘It’s kind of a relief that it finally happened.’

I frown. ‘What?’

‘To be able to finally stop dreading it.’

‘Perry . . . dying?’

I instantly regret speaking his name. Rolling off my tongue, the syllables taste like his blood.

Julie nods, still looking at her plate. When she speaks again her voice is soft and faint, the voice of memories longing to be forgotten. ‘Something . . . happened to him. A lot of things, actually. I guess there came a point where he just couldn’t absorb any more, so he flipped over into a different person. He was this brilliant, fiery kid, so weird and funny and full of dreams, and then . . . just quit all his plans, joined Security . . . it was scary how fast he changed. He said he was doing everything for me, that it was time for him to grow up and face reality, take responsibility and all that. But everything I loved about him – everything that made him who he was – just started rotting. He gave up, basically. Quit his life. Real death was just the next logical step.’ She pushes her plate aside. ‘We talked about dying all the time. He just kept bringing it up. In the middle of a wild makeout session he’d stop and be like, “Julie, what do you think the average life expectancy is these days?” Or, “Julie, when I die, will you be the one to cut off my head?” Height of romance, right?’

She looks out of the airplane window at the distant mountains. ‘I tried to talk him down. Tried really hard to keep him here, but over the last couple of years it got pretty clear to everyone. He was just . . . gone. I don’t know if anything short of Christ and King Arthur returning to redeem the world could have brought him back. I sure wasn’t enough.’ She looks at me. ‘Will he come back to life, though? As one of you?’

I drop my eyes, remembering the juicy pink taste of his brain. I shake my head.

She is quiet for a while. ‘It’s not like I’m not sad that he’s gone. I am, I . . .’ Her voice wobbles a little. She pauses, clears her throat. ‘I really am. But he wanted it. I knew he wanted it.’ A tear escapes one eye and she seems startled by it. She brushes it away like a mosquito.

I stand up, take her plate, fold it into the trash bin. When I sit back down her eyes are dry but still red. She sniffs and gives me a weak smile. ‘I guess I talk a lot of shit about Perry, but it’s not like I’m such a shiny happy person either, you know? I’m a wreck too, I’m just . . . still alive. A wreck in progress.’ She laughs a quick, broken laugh. ‘It’s weird, I never talk about this stuff with anyone, but you’re . . . I mean you’re so quiet, you just sit there and listen. It’s like talking to God.’ Her smile drifts away and she is absent for a moment. When she speaks again her voice is cautious but flat, and her eyes roam the cabin, studying window rivets and warning labels. ‘I used to do some drugs when I was younger. Started when I was twelve and tried almost everything. I still drink and smoke pot when I get the chance. I even had sex with a guy for money once, when I was thirteen. Not because I wanted the money – even back then money was pretty worthless. Just because it was awful, and maybe I felt like I deserved it.’ She looks at her wrist, those thin scars like a grim concert entry stamp. ‘All the shitty stuff people do to themselves . . . it can all be the same thing, you know? Just a way to drown out your own voice. To kill your memories without having to kill yourself.’

There is a long silence. Her eyes roam the floor and mine stay on her face, waiting for her to come home. She takes a deep breath, looks at me, and gives a little shrug. ‘Shrug,’ she says in a small voice, and forces a smile.

Slowly, I stand up and go over to my record player. I pull out one of my favourite LPs, an obscure compilation of Sinatra songs from various albums. I don’t know why I like this one so much. I once spent three full days motionless in front of it, just watching the vinyl spin. I know the grooves in this record better than the grooves in my palms. People used to say music was the great communicator; I wonder if this is still true in this post-human, posthumous age. I put the record on and begin to move the needle as it plays, skipping measures, skipping songs, dancing through the spirals to find the words I want to fill the air. The phrases are off-key, off-tempo, punctuated by loud scratches like the ripping of fascia tissue, but the tone is flawless. Frank’s buttery baritone says it better than my croaky vocals ever could had I the diction of a Kennedy. I stand over the record, cutting and pasting the contents of my heart into an airborne collage.

I don’t care if you are called – scratch – when people say you’re – scratch – wicked witchcraft – scratch – don’t change a hair for me, not if you – scratch – ’cause you’re sensational– scratch – you just the way you are – scratch – you’re sensational . . . sensational . . . That’s all . . .

I leave the record to play out its normal repertoire and sit back down in front of Julie. She stares at me with damp, redrimmed eyes. I press my hand against her chest, feeling the gentle thump inside. A tiny voice speaking in code.

Julie sniffs. She wipes a finger across her nose. ‘What are you?’ she asks me for the second time.

I smile a little. Then I get up and exit the plane, leaving her question floating there, still unanswerable. In my palm I can feel the echo of her pulse, standing in for the absence of mine.

That night, lying on the floor of Gate 12, I fall asleep. The new sleep is different, of course. Our bodies aren’t ‘tired’, we aren’t ‘resting’. But every so often, after days or weeks of unrelenting consciousness, our minds simply can’t carry the weight any more, and we collapse. We allow ourselves to die, to shut down and have no thoughts at all for hours, days, weeks. However long it takes to regather the electrons of our ids, to keep ourselves intact a little longer. There’s nothing peaceful or lovely about it; it’s ugly and compulsory, an iron lung for the wheezing husks of our souls, but tonight, something different happens.

I dream.

Underdeveloped, murky, faded to sepia like centuries-old film, scenes from my old life flicker in the void of sleep. Amorphous figures walk through melting doorways into shadowy rooms. Voices crawl through my head, deep and slurring like drunken giants. I play ambiguous sports, I watch incoherent movies, I talk and laugh with anonymous blurs. Among these foggy snapshots of an unexamined life, I catch glimpses of a pastime, some passionate pursuit long ago sacrificed on the blood-soaked altar of pragmatism. Guitar? Dancing? Dirt bikes? Whatever it was, it fails to penetrate the thick smog choking my memory. Everything remains dark. Blank. Nameless.

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