Warm Bodies (Chapter 1)
I don't know how long it's been since our last hunting trip, probably just a few days, but I feel it. 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'd like to sit down with him and pick his brain, just a tiny bite somewhere in the frontal lobe to get a taste of his thoughts. But he's too much of a tough guy to ever be that vulnerable.
'City,' I say, putting a hand on my stomach. 'Food.'
The girls he's talking to look at me and shuffle away. I've noticed I make some people nervous.
'Just . . . ate,' M says, frowning at me a little. 'Two days . . . ago.'
I grab my stomach again. 'Feel empty. Feel . . . dead.'
He nods. 'Marr . . . iage.'
I glare at him. I shake my head and clutch my stomach harder. 'Need. Go . . . get others.'
He sighs and walks out, bumping into me hard on his way past, but I'm not sure if it's intentional. 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. But I don't care. I don't recall ever being this hungry.
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 ivy-curtained 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. 'No,' he grunts.
I point towards the crooked, collapsed skyscraper that's emitting the aroma, like a cartoon tendril of scent beckoning come . . .
'Eat,' I insist.
M shakes his head. 'Too . . . many.'
He looks at our group again. 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.
I'm getting agitated. 'Need it!' I shout, glaring at M. 'Come . . . on.' I turn and start speed-lumbering towards the sky-scraper. 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. It's hard to navigate the zigzagging halls, and the inclines make it a challenge to even walk, but the scent is overpowering. 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. I've yet to meet another zombie who shares my appreciation for those silky rhythms. M thinks it's a sick fetish.
As we approach their level of the building, some of us start groaning loudly, and the Living hear us. One of them shouts the alarm and I hear guns cocking, but we don't hesitate. 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? Creatures without desire don't move quickly, but they're following my lead, and I am an angry whirlwind. 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. One of them has such gruesome acne he's likely to get shot by mistake in this flickering light. 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 lope across the room and grab the boy's boots. 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. The threats are all on some distant coast and we don't worry about them here. Other than the emergency chain-link fence between the river and the mountain ridge, life is almost normal. I'm in school. I'm learning about George Washington. I'm riding my bike down dusty roads in shorts and a tank top, feeling the summer sun braise the back of my neck. My neck. My neck hurts, it –
I am eating a slice of pizza with my mom and dad. It's my birthday and they are doing what they can to treat me, though their money isn't worth much any more. I've just turned eleven, and they're finally taking me to see one of the countless zombie movies cropping up lately. I'm so excited I can barely taste my pizza. 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. Clouded grey sunlight drifts down through the Stadium's open roof. I'm at school again, listening to a lecture on salvage safety and trying not to stare at the beautiful girl sitting next to me. 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. When the class ends, I catch her in the hall and say, 'Hi.'
'Hi,' she says.
'I'm new here.'
'My name's Perry.'
She smiles. 'I'm Julie.'
She smiles. Her eyes glitter. 'I'm Julie.'
She smiles. I glimpse her braces. Her eyes are classic novels and poetry. 'I'm Julie,' she says.
She says –
'Perry,' Julie whispers in my ear as I kiss her neck. 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. 'Do you want to?' I breathe.
She smiles. She closes her eyes and says, 'Yes.'
I crush her against me. 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.
And now I'm older, wiser, gunning a motorcycle down a forgotten downtown boulevard. 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. The grin is not mine to share any more, and I know this, I have accepted the way things are and the way things are going to be, even if she hasn't and won't. 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 –
Who are you? Let the memories dissolve. Your eyes are crusted – blink them. Gasp in a ragged breath.
You're you again. You're no one.
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. It's the first time I've felt pain since I died.
I hear a scream nearby and I turn. It's her. She's here. 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 shove M aside and snarl, 'No. Mine.'
He grits his teeth like he's about to turn on me, but a gunshot tears into his shoulder and he shuffles across the room to help two other zombies bring down a heavily armed kid.
I approach the girl. She cowers before me, her tender flesh offering me all the things I'm accustomed to taking, and my instincts start to reassert themselves. 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. In this brief moment of hesitation, still warm with the nectar of a young man's memories, I make a choice.
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 fifteen-year-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. I hold out my hands, making soft noises through my lips, but I'm helpless. How do I appear unthreatening when her lover's blood is running down my chin?
I'm just a few feet away from her now. 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.
'Ju . . . lie,' I say.
It rolls off my tongue like honey. I feel good just saying it.
Her eyes go wide. She freezes.
'Julie,' I say again. 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. But when I reach out to touch her, she doesn't move. And she doesn't stab me.
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 doesn't even flinch. 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. But I know he's smelling exactly what I'm smelling: nothing. Just the negative-smell of Dead blood. It's spattered all over the walls, soaked into our clothes, and smeared carefully on a young Living girl, concealing the glow of her life under its dark, overpowering musk.
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.