The guard is about five feet away from me. His hand is on his gun. He moves closer and peers at me through slitted eyes. ‘Have you been drinking alcohol tonight, sir?’
I open my mouth to say, No, sir, absolutely not, just a few glasses of delicious and heart-healthy grapefruit juice with my good friend Julie Cabernet. But the words evade me. My tongue is thick and dead in my mouth, and all that comes out is, ‘Uhhhnnn . . .’
‘What the fuck—’ The guard’s eyes flash wide, he whips out his flashlight and shines it into my grey-streaked Step two 5 страница face, and I have no choice. I leap out of the shadows and pounce on him, knocking his gun aside and biting down on his throat. His life force rushes into my starved body and brain, soothing the agony of my hideous cravings. I start to tear into him, chewing deltoids and tender abdominals while the blood still pulses through them – but then I stop.
Julie stands in the bedroom doorway, watching me with a tentative smile.
I shut my eyes and grit my teeth.
I drop the body to the ground and back away from Step two 5 страница it. I can no longer hide behind my ignorance. I know now that I have a choice, and I choose to change no matter what the cost. If I’m a thriving branch on the Tree of Death, I’ll drop my leaves. If I have to starve myself to kill its twisted roots, I will.
The foetus in my stomach kicks, and I hear Perry’s voice, gentle and reassuring. You won’t starve, R. In my short life I made so many choices just because I thought they were required, but my dad was right: there’s no rulebook for Step two 5 страница the world. It’s in our heads, our collective human hive-mind. If there are rules, we’re the ones making them. We can change them whenever we want to.
I spit out the meat in my mouth and wipe the blood off my face. Perry kicks me in the gut again and I vomit. I lean over and purge myself of everything. The meat, the blood, the vodka. As soon as I straighten up and wipe my mouth, I’m sober. The fuzz is gone. My head is clear as a glossy new record.
The guard’s body Step two 5 страница begins to twitch back to life. His shoulders slowly rise, dragging the rest of his limp parts with them, as if he’s being pinched and pulled upwards by unseen fingers. I need to kill him. I know I need to kill him, but I can’t do it. After the vow I’ve just made, the thought of tearing into this man again and tasting his still-warm blood leaves me paralysed with horror. He shudders and retches, choking and clawing the dirt, straining and dry-heaving, his eyes bulging wide as the grey sludge Step two 5 страница of new death slithers into them. A wet, wretched groan escapes his mouth, and it’s too much for me. I turn and run. Even in my bravest moment, I am a coward.
The rain is in full force. My feet splash in the streets and spatter mud on my freshly washed clothes. My hair hangs in my face like seaweed. In front of a big aluminium building with a plywood cross on the roof, I kneel in a puddle and splash water on my face. I wash my mouth out with dirty gutter run-off and spit until Step two 5 страница I can’t taste anything. That holy wooden ‘T’ looms overhead, and I wonder if the Lord might ever find cause to approve of me, wherever and whatever he is.
Have you met him yet, Perry? Is he alive and well? Tell me he’s not just the mouth of the sky. Tell me there’s more looking down on us than that empty blue skull.
Wisely, Perry doesn’t answer. I accept the silence, I get off my knees, and I keep running.
Avoiding street lights, I make my way back to Julie’s house. I curl up Step two 5 страница against the wall, finding some shelter from the balcony overhead, and I wait there while the rain pounds the house’s metal roof. After what seems like hours, I hear the girls’ voices in the distance, but this time their rhythms stir no joy in me. The dance is a dirge, the music is minor.
They run towards the front door, Nora with her denim jacket pulled over her head, Julie with the hood of her red sweatshirt cinched tight on her face. Nora reaches the door first and rushes inside. Julie stops. I don’t know if she Step two 5 страница sees me in the dark or just smells the fruity stench of my body spray, but something draws her to look around the corner of the house. She sees me huddled in the dark like a scared puppy. She ambles over slowly, her hands stuffed into her sweatshirt pockets. She crouches down and peeks out at me through the narrow opening of her hood. ‘You okay?’ she says.
I nod dishonestly.
She sits next to me on the small patch of dry ground and leans against the house. She takes off her hood and lifts the wool beanie underneath to brush Step two 5 страница wet hair out of her eyes, then pulls it back down. ‘You scared me. You just disappeared.’
I look at her miserably, but I don’t say anything.
‘Do you want to tell me what happened?’
I shake my head.
‘Did you, um . . . did you knock out Tim and his friend?’
A smile of embarrassed pleasure creeps onto her face, as if I’ve just given her an over-large bouquet of roses or written her a bad love song. ‘That was . . . sweet,’ she says, holding back a giggle. A minute passes. She touches my Step two 5 страница knee. ‘We had fun today, didn’t we? Despite a few sticky moments?’
I can’t smile, but I nod.
‘I’m a little buzzed. You?’
I shake my head.
‘Too bad. It’s fun.’ Her smile deepens and her eyes become far away. ‘You know, I had my first drink when I was eight?’ There is just a faint slur in her voice. ‘My dad was a big wine buff and him and Mom used to throw tasting parties whenever Dad was between wars. They’d bring all their friends over and pop a prized vintage and get pretty Step two 5 страница well toasted. I’d sit there in the middle of the couch taking little sips off the half-glass I was allowed and just laugh at all the silly grownups getting sillier. Rosy would get so flushed! One glass and he looked like Santa Claus. He and Dad arm-wrestled on the coffee table once and broke a lamp. It was . . . so great.’
She starts doodling in the dirt with one finger. Her smile is wistful, aimed at no one. ‘Things weren’t always so grim, you know, R? Dad has his moments, and even when the world fell apart Step two 5 страница we still had some fun. We’d take little family salvage trips and pick up the most crazy wines you can imagine. Thousand-dollar bottles of ’97 Dom. Romane Conti just rolling around on the floors of abandoned cellars.’ She chuckles to herself. ‘Dad would have absolutely lost his shit over those back in the day. By the time we moved here he was kinda . . . muted. But God, we drank some outrageous stuff.’
I’m watching her talk. Watching her jaw move and collecting her words one by one as they spill from her lips. I don’t deserve them. Her Step two 5 страница warm memories. I’d like to paint them over the bare plaster walls of my soul, but everything I paint seems to peel.
‘And then Mom ran off.’ She pulls her finger out of the dirt, inspecting her work. She has drawn a house. A quaint little cottage with a smoke cloud in the chimney, a benevolent sun smiling down on the roof. ‘Dad thought she must have been drunk, hence the alcohol ban, but I saw her, and she wasn’t. She was very sober.’
She is still smiling, as if this is all just easy nostalgia Step two 5 страница, but the smile is cold now, lifeless.
‘She came into my room that night and just looked at me for a while. I pretended I was asleep. Then right as I was about to pop up and yell “boo” . . . she walked out. So I didn’t get the chance.’
She reaches a hand down to wipe away her drawing, but I touch her wrist. I look at her and shake my head. She regards me silently for a moment. Then she scoots around to face me and grins, inches from my face.
‘R,’ she says. ‘If I kiss Step two 5 страница you, will I die?’
Her eyes are steady. She’s barely drunk.
‘You said I won’t, right? I won’t get infected? Because I really feel like kissing you.’ She fidgets. ‘And even if you do pass something to me, maybe it wouldn’t be all bad. I mean, you’re different now, right? You’re not a zombie. You’re . . . something new.’ Her face is very close. Her smile fades. ‘Well, R?’
I look into her eyes, splashing in their icy waters like a shipwrecked sailor grasping for the raft. But there is no raft.
‘Julie,’ I say. ‘I Step two 5 страница need . . . to show you something.’
She cocks her head with gentle curiosity. ‘What?’
I stand up. I take her hand and start walking.
The night is still except for the primeval hiss of the rain. It drenches the dirt and slicks the asphalt, liquefying the shadows into shiny black ink. I stick to the narrow back-streets and unlit alleys. Julie follows slightly behind me, staring at the side of my face.
‘Where are we going?’ she asks.
I pause at an intersection to retrace the maps of my stolen memories, calling up images of places Step two 5 страница I’ve never been, people I’ve never met. ‘Almost . . . there.’
A few more careful glances around corners, furtive dashes across intersections, and there it is. A five-storey house looms ahead of us, tall, skinny and grey like the rest of this skeletal city, its windows flickering yellow like wary eyes.
‘What the hell, R?’ Julie whispers, staring up at it. ‘This is . . .’
I pull her to the front door and we stand there in the shelter of the eaves, the roof rattling like military drums in the rain. ‘Can I . . . borrow your hat?’ I ask without looking at her Step two 5 страница.
She doesn’t move for a moment, then she pulls it off and hands it to me. Over-long and floppy, dark blue wool with a red stripe . . .
Mrs Rosso knitted this for Julie’s seventeenth birthday. Perry thought she looked like an elf in it and would start speaking to her in Tolkien tongues whenever she put it on. She called him the biggest nerd she’d ever met, and he agreed, while playfully kissing her throat and—
I pull the beanie low over my face and knock a slow waltz on the door, eyes glued to the Step two 5 страница ground like a shy child. The door opens a crack. A middle-aged woman in sweatpants looks out at us. Her face is puffy and heavily lined, dark bags under bloodshot eyes. ‘Miss Grigio?’ she says.
Julie glances at me. ‘Hi, Mrs Grau. Um . . .’
‘What are you doing out? Is Nora with you? It’s after curfew.’
‘I know, we . . . got a little lost on our way back from the Orchard. Nora’s staying at my house tonight but um . . . can we come in for a minute? I need to talk to the guys.’
I keep my head down Step two 5 страница as Mrs Grau gives me a cursory appraisal. She opens the door for us with an annoyed sigh. ‘You can’t stay here, you know. This is a foster home, not a flop house, and your friend here is too old for new residency.’
‘I know, sorry, we’ll . . .’ She glances at me again. ‘We’ll just be a minute.’
I can’t endure formalities right now. I brush past the woman and into the house. A toddler peeks around a bedroom door and Mrs Grau glares at him. ‘What did I tell you?’ she snaps, loud Step two 5 страница enough to wake the rest of the kids. ‘Back in bed right now.’ The boy disappears into the shadows. I lead Julie up the staircase.
The second storey is identical to the first, except there are rows of pre-adolescents sleeping on the floor on small mats. So many now. New foster homes pop up like processing plants as mothers and fathers disappear, chewed up and swallowed down by the plague. We step over a few tiny bodies on our way to the stairs, and a little girl grasps feebly at Julie’s ankle.
‘I had a bad dream,’ she whispers Step two 5 страница.
‘I’m sorry, honey,’ Julie whispers back. ‘You’re safe now, okay?’
The girl closes her eyes again. We climb the stairs. The third floor is still awake. Young teens and patch-beard semi-adults sitting around on folding chairs, hunched over desks writing in booklets and flipping through manuals. Some kids snore on stacked bunks inside narrow bedrooms. All the doors are open except one.
A group of older boys look up from their work, surprised. ‘Wow, hey, Julie. How’s it going? You holding up okay?’
‘Hey, guys. I’m . . .’ She trails off, and her ellipsis Step two 5 страница eventually forms a period. She looks at the closed door. She looks at me. Gripping her hand, I move forward and open the door, then shut it behind us.
The room is dark except for the faint yellow glow of street lamps through the window. There is nothing in here but a plywood dresser and a stripped bed, with a few pictures of Julie taped to the ceiling above it. The air is stale, and much colder than the rest of the house.
‘R . . .’ Julie says in a quivery, dangerous voice. ‘Why the fuck are we here?’
I finally turn to Step two 5 страница face her. In the yellow dimness, we look like actors in a silent sepia tragedy. ‘Julie,’ I say. ‘That theory . . . about why we . . . eat the brain . . .’
She starts to shake her head.
I look into her reddening eyes a moment longer, then kneel down and open the bottom drawer of the dresser. Inside, under piles of old stamps, a microscope, an army of pewter figurines, there is a stack of paper bound together with red yarn. I lift it out and hand it to Julie. In so many strange and twisted ways, I feel like the Step two 5 страница manuscript is mine. Like I’ve just handed her my own bloody heart on a platter. I am fully prepared for her to claw it to shreds.
She takes the manuscript. She unties the yarn. She stares at the cover page for a full minute, breathing shakily. Then she wipes her eyes and clears her throat.
‘“Red Teeth,”’ she reads. ‘“By Perry Kelvin.”’ She glances down the page. ‘“For Julie Cabernet, the only light left.”’ She lowers the manuscript and looks away for a moment, trying to hide a spasm in her throat, then steels herself and turns Step two 5 страница the page to the first chapter. As she reads, a faint smile peeks through the tear tracks. ‘Wow,’ she says, wiping a finger across her nose and sniffling. ‘It’s actually . . . kinda good. He used to write such dry and detached bullshit. This is . . . cheesy . . . but in a sweet way. More like how he really was.’ She glances at the cover page again. ‘He started it less than a year ago. I had no idea he was still writing.’ She flips to the last page. ‘It’s not finished. Cuts off in the middle of a sentence. “Outmanned and outgunned Step two 5 страница, certain of death, he kept fighting, because—”’
She rubs her thumbs into the paper, feeling its texture. She puts it near her face and inhales. Then she closes her eyes, closes the manuscript, and reties the yarn. She looks up at me. I am nearly a foot taller than her and probably sixty pounds heavier, but I feel small and featherweight. Like she could knock me down and crush me with a single whispered word.
But she doesn’t speak. She sets the manuscript back in the drawer and gently slides it shut. She straightens up, dries her face with Step two 5 страница her sleeve, and embraces me, resting her ear against my chest.
‘Thump-thump,’ she murmurs. ‘Thump-thump. Thump-thump.’
My hands hang limp at my sides. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
With her eyes closed, her voice muffled by my shirt, she says, ‘I forgive you.’
I raise a hand and touch her straw-gold hair. ‘Thank you.’
These three phrases, so simple, so primal, have never sounded so complete. So true to their basic meanings. I feel her cheek move against my chest, her zygomaticus major pulling her lips into a faint smile.
Without another word, we shut Step two 5 страница the door on Perry Kelvin’s room and leave his home. We descend the stairs past beleaguered teens, past tossing and turning kids, past deeply dreaming babies, and out into the street. I feel a nudge low in my chest, closer to my heart than my belly, and a soft voice in my head.
Thank you, Perry says.
I would like to end it here. How nice if I could edit my own life. If I could halt in the middle of a sentence and put it all to rest in a drawer somewhere, consummate my amnesia and forget all Step two 5 страница the things that have happened, are happening, and are about to happen. Shut my eyes and go to sleep happy.
But no, ‘R’. No sleep of the innocent. Not for you. Did you forget? You have blood on your hands. On your lips. On your teeth. Smile for the cameras.
‘Julie,’ I say, bracing to confess my final sin. ‘I need . . . to tell you . . .’
The Stadium’s field halogens flare like suns and midnight becomes daylight. I can see every pore in Julie’s face.
‘What the hell?’ she gasps, whipping her head around. A piercing Step two 5 страница alarm further shatters the night’s stillness, and then we see it: the Jumbotron is aglow. Hanging from the upper reaches of the open roof like a tablet descending from Heaven, the screen plays a blocky animation of a quarterback running from what appears to be a zombie, arms outstretched and clutching. The screen blinks between this and a word that I think might be:
‘R . . .’ Julie says, horrified, ‘did you eat someone?’
I look at her desperately. ‘No ch . . . no choi . . . no choice,’ I stutter, my diction collapsing in my state of panic. ‘Guard . . . stopped me. Didn’t . . . mean Step two 5 страница. Didn’t . . . want.’
She presses her lips together, her eyes boring into me, then gives a single shake of her head as if banishing one thought, committing to another. ‘Okay. Then we need to get inside. God damn it, R.’
We run into the house and she slams the door. Nora is at the top of the stairs. ‘Where have you guys been? What’s going on out there?’
‘It’s a breach,’ Julie says. ‘Zombie in the Stadium.’
‘You mean him?’
The disappointment in her reply makes me wince. ‘Yes and no.’
We hurry into Julie’s bedroom and Step two 5 страница she turns out the lights. We all sit on the floor on the piles of laundry, and for a while nobody speaks. We just sit and listen to the sounds. Guards running and shouting. Gunfire. Our own heavy breathing.
‘Don’t worry,’ Julie whispers to Nora, but I know it’s for me. ‘It won’t spread much. Those shots were probably Security taking them out already.’
‘Are we in the clear, then?’ Nora asks. ‘Will R be okay?’
Julie looks at me. Her face is grim. ‘Even if they think the breach started from a natural death Step two 5 страница, that guard obviously didn’t eat himself. Security will know there’s at least one zombie unaccounted for.’
Nora follows Julie’s eyes to mine, and I can almost imagine my face flushing. ‘It was you?’ she asks, straining for neutrality.
‘Didn’t . . . mean. Was . . . going . . . kill me.’
She says nothing. Her face is blank.
I meet her stare, willing her to feel my crushing remorse. ‘It was my last,’ I say, straining to force language back into my idiot tongue. ‘No matter what. Swear to the skymouth.’
A few agonising moments pass. Then Nora slowly nods, and Step two 5 страница addresses Julie. ‘So we need to get him out of here.’
‘They shut everything down for breaches. All the doors will be locked and guarded. They might even shut the roof if they get scared enough.’
‘So what the hell are we supposed to do?’
Julie shrugs, and the gesture looks so bleak on her, so wrong. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘Once again, I don’t know.’
Julie and Nora fall sleep. They fight it for hours, trying to come up with a plan to save me, but eventually they succumb. I lie on a pile Step two 5 страница of pants and stare up at the starry green ceiling. Not so easy, Mr Lennon. Even if you try.
It seems trivial now, a thin silver lining on a vast black storm cloud, but I think I’m learning to read. As I look up at the phosphorescent galaxy, letters come together and form words. Stringing them into full sentences is still beyond me, but I savour the sensation of those little symbols clicking together and bursting like soap bubbles of sound. If I ever see my wife again . . . I’ll at least be able to read her name tag Step two 5 страница.
The hours ooze by. It’s long after midnight, but bright as noon outside. The halogens ram their white light against the house, squeezing in through cracks in the window shades. My ears tune to the sounds around me. The girls’ breathing. Their small shifting movements. And then, sometime around two in the morning, a phone rings.
Julie comes awake, gets up on one elbow. In some distant room of the house, the phone rings again. She throws off her blankets and stands up. Strange to see her from this angle, towering over me instead of cowering under. I’m Step two 5 страница the one who needs protecting now. One mistake, one brief lapse of my new-found judgement – that’s all it took to unravel everything. What a massive responsibility, living as a moral being.
The phone keeps ringing. Julie walks out of the bedroom and I follow her through the dark, echoing house. We step into what appears to be an office. There is a large desk covered in papers and blueprints, and on the walls various kinds of telephones are screwed to the Sheetrock, different brands and styles, all from different eras.
‘They rerouted the phone system,’ Julie Step two 5 страница explains. ‘It’s more like an intercom now. We have direct lines to all the important areas.’
Each phone has a name-tag sticker stuck below it, with the location Sharpied onto the blank. Hi, my name is:
And so on.
The phone that’s ringing, a pea-green rotary dialler covered in dust, is labelled:
Julie looks at the phone. She looks at me. ‘This is weird. That line is from the phones in the abandoned outer districts. Since we got walkie-talkies nobody uses it any more.’
The phone clangs its bells Step two 5 страница, loud and insistent. I can’t believe Nora is still asleep.
Slowly, Julie picks up the receiver and puts it to her ear. ‘Hello?’ She waits. ‘What? I can’t under—’ Her brow furrows in concentration. Then her eyes widen. ‘Oh.’ They narrow. ‘You. Yeah, this is Julie, what do you—’ She waits. ‘Fine. Yeah, he’s right here.’
She holds the phone out to me. ‘It’s for you.’
I stare at it. ‘What?’
‘It’s your friend. That fat fuck from the airport.’
I grab the phone. I put the earpiece to my mouth. Julie shakes her Step two 5 страница head and flips it around for me. Into the receiver I breathe a stunned, ‘M?’
His deep rumble crackles in my ear. ‘Hey . . . lover boy.’
‘What’s . . . Where are you?’
‘Out in . . . city. Didn’t know . . . what would get with . . . phone, but had . . . to try. You’re . . . okay?’
‘Okay but . . . trapped. Stadium . . . locked down.’
‘What’s . . . going on? Out there.’
There is silence for a moment. ‘R,’ he says. ‘Dead . . . still coming. More. From airport. Other places. Lots . . . of us now.’
I’m silent. The phone wanders away from my ear. Julie looks at me expectantly.
‘Hello?’ M says.
‘Sorry. I Step two 5 страница’m here.’
‘Well, we’re . . . here. What now? What should . . . do?’
I rest the phone on my shoulder and look at the wall, at nothing. I look at the papers and plans on General Grigio’s desk. His strategies are all gibberish to me. I have no doubt it’s all important – food allocation, construction plans, weapon distribution, combat tactics. He’s trying to keep everyone alive, and that’s good. That’s foundational. But like Julie said, there must be something even deeper than that. The earth under that foundation. Without that firm ground, it’s Step two 5 страница all going to collapse, over and over, no matter how many bricks he lays. This is what I’m interested in. The earth under the bricks.
‘What’s going on?’ Julie asks. ‘What’s he saying?’
As I look into her anxious face, I feel the twitch in my guts, the young, eager voice in my head.
It’s happening, corpse. Whatever you and Julie triggered, it’s moving. A good disease, a virus that causes life! Do you see this, you dumb fucking monster? It’s inside you! You have to get out of these walls and Step two 5 страница spread it!
I angle the phone towards Julie so she can listen. She leans in close.
‘M,’ I say.
‘Tell Julie . . . what’s happening.’
There’s a pause. ‘Changing,’ he says. ‘Lots of us . . . changing. Like R.’
Julie looks at me and I can almost sense her neck hairs standing on end. ‘It’s not just you?’ she says, moving away from the phone. ‘This . . . reviving thing?’ Her voice is small and tentative, like a little girl poking her head out of a bomb shelter after years of life in the dark. It almost quivers with Step two 5 страница tight-leashed hope. ‘Are you saying the plague is healing?’
I nod. ‘We’re . . . fixing things.’
‘Don’t know. But we have to . . . do more of it. Out there . . . where M is. “Outside”.’
Her excitement cools, hardens. ‘So we have to leave.’
‘Both of us?’
‘Both,’ M’s voice crackles in the earpiece like an eaves-dropping mother. ‘Julie . . . part of it.’
She eyes me dubiously. ‘You want me. Skinny little human girl. Out there in the wild, running with a pack of zombies?’
‘Do you grasp how insane that is?’
She is Step two 5 страница silent for a moment, looking at the floor. ‘Do you really think you can keep me safe?’ she asks me. ‘Out there, with them?’
My incurable honesty makes me hesitate, and Julie frowns.
‘Yes,’ M answers for me, exasperated. ‘He can. And I’ll . . . help.’
I nod quickly. ‘M will help. The others . . . will help. Besides,’ I add with a faint smile, ‘you can . . . keep yourself safe.’
She shrugs nonchalantly. ‘I know. I just wanted to see what you’d say.’
‘So you’ll . . . ?’
‘I’ll go with you.’
‘You’re . . . sure?’
Her eyes are distant and Step two 5 страница hard. ‘I had to bury my mom’s empty dress. I’ve been waiting for this a long time.’
I nod. I take a deep breath.
‘The only problem with your plan,’ she continues, ‘is that you seem to be forgetting you ate someone last night, and this place is going to stay clamped shut until they find and kill you.’
‘Should we . . . attack?’ M says. ‘Get you . . . out?’
I put the phone back to my ear, gripping the receiver hard. ‘No,’ I tell him.
‘Have . . . army. Where’s . . . battle?’
‘Don’t know. Not here. These are . . . people.’
I Step two 5 страница look at Julie. She looks at the ground and rubs her forehead.
‘Just wait,’ I tell M.
‘A little longer. We’ll . . . figure it out.’
‘Before . . . they kill you?’
A long, dubious silence. Then: ‘Hurry up.’
Julie and I stay up for the rest of the night. In our rain-wet clothes we sit on the floor in the cold living room and don’t say a word. Eventually my eyes sag shut, and in this strange calm, in what may be my last few hours on Earth, my mind creates a dream for me Step two 5 страница. Crisp and clear, alive with colour, unfolding like a time-lapse rose in the sparkling darkness.
In this dream, my dream, I am floating down a river on my housejet’s severed tail fin. I am lying on my back under the blue midnight, watching the stars drift by above me. The river is uncharted, even in this age of maps and satellites, and I have no idea where it leads. The air is still. The night is warm. I’ve brought only two provisions: a box of pad thai and Perry’s book. Thick. Ancient. Bound in leather. I open Step two 5 страница it to the middle. An unfinished sentence in some language I’ve never seen, and beyond it, nothing. An epic tome of empty pages, blank white and waiting. I shut the book and lay my head down on the cool steel. The pad thai tickles my nose, sweet and spicy and strong. I feel the river widening, gaining force.
I hear the waterfall.
My eyes open and I sit up. Julie is cross-legged next to me, watching me with grim amusement.
‘Having some nice dreams?’
‘Not . . . sure,’ I mumble, rubbing my eyes.
‘Did you happen to dream Step two 5 страница up any solutions to our little problem?’
I shake my head.
‘Yeah, me neither.’ She glances at the wall clock and bunches her lips ruefully. ‘I’m supposed to be at the community centre in a few hours to do story time. David and Marie are going to cry when I don’t show up.’
David and Marie. I repeat the names in my head, savouring their contours. I would let Trina eat my whole leg for the chance to see those kids again. To hear a few more clumsy syllables tumble from their mouths before I die. ‘What are Step two 5 страница . . . you reading them?’
She looks out of the window at the city, its every crack and flaw brought into sharp relief by the blinding white light. ‘I’ve been trying to get them into the Redwall books. I figured all those songs and feasts and courageous warrior mice would be a nice escape from the nightmare they’re growing up in. Marie keeps asking for books about zombies and I keep telling her I can’t read non-fiction for story time but . . .’ She notices the look on my face and trails off. ‘Are you okay?’
I Step two 5 страница nod.
‘Are you thinking about your kids at the airport?’
I hesitate, then nod.
She reaches out and touches my knee, looking into my stinging eyes. ‘R? I know things look bleak right now, but listen. You can’t quit. As long as you’re still breath— sorry, as long as you’re still moving, it’s not over. Okay?’
‘Okay? Fucking say it, R.’
‘TWO. EIGHT. TWENTY-FOUR.’
We jolt away from each other as a speaker in the ceiling blares out a series of numbers followed by a shrill alert tone.
‘This is Colonel Step two 5 страница Rosso with a community-wide notice,’ the speaker says. ‘The security breach has been contained. The infected officer has been neutralised, with no further casualties reported.’