A/N: This is the first story I've written in over two years, so go easy on me. That being said, comments are always welcome! I've worked hard to try to capture R's voice and make the narrative more conversational (things are not always perfectly grammatically correct for this reason). It's a pleasure to be able to write again! I hope you like it.
PS. I don't own Warm Bodies in any form.
My sleep is dreamless. I wake to hunger.
I tense, feel goosebumps spread over my skin. But then I realize it's real, human hunger. Not the "new hunger"—not the way it was before. Relieved, I exhale, feel muscles unclench.
Is this normal? Do normal people get hungry at 3am? I press my eyes shut, clutch at sleep. It's been a few weeks, but I'm still getting used to this. Human feelings. Living. I guess it takes practice. I mean, I can almost sleep through the better part of a night, now. It's easier when Julie's here. Most nights I sleep in Julie's bed and Colonel Grigio pretends not to notice. But tonight Julie's on patrol, Nora's on shift at the hospital, and Colonel Grigio's out doing something in the dead zone, leaving me the house to myself. To do… whatever, I guess. I'm not really sure what that means. Sleep seemed like a good idea at the time.
But now I'm wide awake. I can't help it. I give in, sit up, look around my room. By "my room", I mean Colonel Grigio's study with a cot made up against one wall. Call me crazy, but it's kind of hard to sleep with a portrait of the guy in uniform, holding a shotgun over my head.
I've left a window open and somewhere a few streets over, the patrol is passing. A rooster crows. The dog at the end of the block barks. Sounds of Life. I wonder if the patrol is Julie's unit, but she won't be back for hours. I push the covers off and stand up, stiffly, swipe Julie's ipod off the corner of the desk. Out in the hallway, I stuff the earbuds into my ears, click to something random, wind up with Bon Iver. Makes me miss my vinyl. My stomach rumbles as I trudge down the stairs, and I pause to look down at my gut. Jesus. I just ate, like five hours ago. You'd think I'd be used to this by now.
I guess I can sleep when I'm dead. Oh, wait.
The kitchen is dark, but I don't bother turning on the light. I shuffle into the pantry and look at the packed shelves. The number of zombies in the city has dropped a lot as… whatever we started… spreads, allowing more trips out into the dead zone. Good thing, too, considering all the new people the city has to feed. The Grigios' pantry has more food in it than Julie can remember since before this whole zombie apocalypse thing happened. I mean, most of it is canned, but I still feel pretty good about that.
For me, food is kind of a puzzle. Eating as a zombie was messy, but you gotta admit it was simple—only one thing on the menu. Here, there are so many options: cans of beans, soup, fruit cocktail, peaches in syrup, potato chips from some mini mart in the 'burbs, vegetables, 20 pounds of rice. I am overwhelmed by choice, and usually I don't really know what to expect, but at least variety is something new. Everyone encourages me to eat. They've even assigned me extra rations. I wonder if they're worried about what kind of appetite I might develop if I'm not well fed.
Julie says they just want me to get better.
I'd eat the peaches but it's the last one and they're Julie's favorite, so instead I grab some chips and a can of beans. The can opener gives me some trouble, but the chips are easier and this time I manage to rip the bag open without spilling it everywhere. Not bad. I can handle silverware when I try, but since it's just me I slide down to the tile and slouch against the cabinets, scooping up mouthfuls of beans with the chips. I squint at the label in the dark, make out BAKED BEANS. Huh. Living taste buds are nice.
I'm feeling pretty good by the time I get to the bottom of the can, but I have trouble reaching the last few bites. The rim of the can is jagged from my struggle with the can opener. But, you know, I'm the guy who doesn't know when to give up. Or maybe I'm the guy who doesn't know when to get up and get a spoon. So I try to be careful, but my hand slips.
Blood everywhere. Shit. So much for the rest of the beans. Why am I so bad at this stuff? It's not that complicated.
I watch the blood run with a weird mix of frustration and pride and even a little relief. I mean, it's proof that I am more than dead, like the bullet wound in my chest. That's healing, slowly, but it still hurts sometimes. Nora helps Julie change the bandages. I know I should probably do something about the cut on my hand but instead I just sit there, listening to Bon Iver and watching blood drip down the back of my fist. Being still is a habit, I guess.
I mean, maybe I'm still not the liveliest guy ever.
After a while, I hear the door open and shut, one set of footsteps. Julie. The corners of my mouth turn up as I put the can down, pull my earbuds out, and stand, cradling my bleeding hand against my chest.
"Julie—" I call, shuffle forward a few steps. My voice is rough.
"R!" I hear the smile in her voice. "Where are you?"
"I'm in the… kitchen." Words are still hard, sometimes. I'm working on it. She appears in the doorway.
"Did you get hungry? Why are you sitting in the dark?" I shrug, and she flips the light switch. Her eyes get wide as she sees my hand. "You're bleeding! What happened?"
"Trouble with the… can opener." I kind of deserve it, but she doesn't laugh. Instead, she grabs my elbow and steers me over to the sink. Blood tints the water and flecks the basin. Alive. Julie peers around my shoulder and shakes her head.
"Jesus, R!" I look down at her, meet her gaze, shrug. I mean, I've had worse. She frowns, worried.
"You gotta be more careful, okay? You're not unbreakable anymore." I duck my head. Oh no, I'm acting weird again. "How long did you sit there like that? And you got blood all over your shirt, too. Jeez." She disappears and I stand there at the sink feeling stupid, watching water run off my skin. When she comes back she's got a bunch of bandages. "Here." She turns off the tap, pats my hand dry with a dishtowel, takes a good look at the wound. "This is pretty deep. Wow. You liked those beans, huh?" She glances up at me, eyes laughing. I half-smile and shrug again. I mean, you would too if you didn't have taste buds for like, a decade. But I stand still as she fixes me up: presses gauze pads with ointment over the wound, wraps my hand in a cotton bandage. Her fingers are warm. It feels good to be cared for. "We'll get Nora to look at it in the morning. Hope you don't need stitches." I nod, look at my fist. The white of the bandages isn't so different from the color of my skin, but at least I'm not gray anymore.
"How was patrol? I thought you were… out 'til dawn."
"Kevin actually let me cut out early, for once. He knows how many extra shifts I've been pulling since everyone else is on sweeps."
"R-really?" That guy takes 'stiff' to a whole new level. I should know.
"Ha—yeah! Turns out he's human. I was starting to wonder. Anyway, come on." Julie gathers up her medical supplies, pulls me toward the stairs. "You think you can sleep a few more hours?" I nod. Like I would say no.
I put on a clean shirt, then she leads me to her room. I hesitate, not really sure what to do with myself while she changes. She comes out in a tank top and shorts, and climbs straight into bed, patting the mattress beside her. So I shuffle over and stop by the nightstand. Jesus, I'm so awkward. Why do I always have to be so awkward? "Come on, R. You need to sleep. You know that, right?" She looks worried, again.
"It's harder when... you're not here." I shrug. I mean, it's the truth. She smiles a little.
"I know, but you've gotta try. It'll get better. You just have to be patient." I shrug again, look away. Sometimes it's hard not to be frustrated with myself. You'd think after all those years at the airport, I'd have learned to be patient, but— "Hey," Julie says, watching my expression. Her tone is soft. She pulls me into bed next to her, puts a hand on my chest and presses, grips a bit of t-shirt. I meet her gaze. "I know you get fed up sometimes, but you're getting better every day. Even dad says so." She brushes some hair out of my face, puts her hand against my cheek. "We're in this together, remember? Stay together. Everything is gonna be okay." I nod. She slides over and puts her head on my shoulder, makes small sounds as I wrap my arms around her. I feel my mouth tighten into a smile. She's right. This is more than okay. This was worth the wait.
"Good night, Julie." I mumble into her hair.
"Good night, R." She sighs. I can feel the rise and fall of her ribs against mine, her quiet breaths. I lie awake for a while, but her warmth and her breathing pull me under. This time, I dream.