R remembers Christmas like a hazy, half-forgotten dream. The memory comes to him with the cold, breezing into his mind one cold, chilly night in December. He closes his eyes to savor it, like he does with every memory of his life before. He remembers the lights, twinkling on trees still green with leaves. He knows that Christmas is supposed to be associated with snow, but he's from a place without snow, a place where it didn't get cold enough to snow. He remembers decorating and ornaments, but most of all he remembers presents.
He's not going to get a present. He doesn't remember ever getting a present, but he assumes he has. What makes the memory of Christmas stick isn't the getting, but the giving.
He wants to give Julie a Christmas present.
The compound does not celebrate Christmas. No one has in years. They've had bigger concerns. Zombies. People like him. Even now, when the cure is spreading, there are still bonies to worry about. It's not safe, but it's getting there. Survival is a real thing and longevity is more than just hope.
What should he get Julie?
The sky was the limit. He could get her anything. Well, anything he could scavenge from the ruins of the city. That didn't narrow it down much. Museums and art galleries lie empty, full of precious works of art considered worthless in a world consumed by undead hunger.
It can't be anything practical. Gifts aren't meant to be practical. They're meant to be something the giftee likes but he doesn't know what Julie likes, not in any way that's useful for gift giving. Perry's memories don't help him in this at all. He knew less of what she wanted than R does.
He doesn't want to be a complete sap, even though he totally, totally is, so that rules out jewelry. She'd yell at him if he got her jewelry. Chocolates and flowers are hard to come by, so those are out too.
He wants to get her something personal, something that means something, not just to her but to both of them. He wants to make it special.
It's his first Christmas being alive again. It's their first Christmas together. It needs to be special.
There are still restrictions about going beyond the wall. The worry of infection is less now, but there are still bonies out there waiting to eat them, human and post-infected alike. Less bonies than there were but still, some linger. He's not sure why they stay, why they don't just turn to ash or move on, but they stay and they're dangerous.
He shouldn't be out alone but he doesn't want anyone to know about his Christmas idea until it's done.
He wanders the abandoned halls of the shopping mall, his footsteps echoing in the empty cavern of the building. He's the only one there. He'd hear anyone else, but even so the blank faces of the store mannequins give him pause every time he passes one.
There are dead bodies on the floor. He knows the stench of death should disturb him but he's grown used to it sometime during his long stint as a zombie. It doesn't bother him now, either. Corpses are just the litter of the present age, the refuge left behind by the new hunger.
He walks past stores full of clothes – mostly picked over – and perfume and jewelry, passing it all by in search of something unknown. There are movies and video games and cds, all worthless.
He could get her a watch, something functional and pretty, but it reminds him too much of Perry. He picks through toy bins, pauses in front of a display of brightly colored toy horses before moving on. Nothing hits him, not until he comes to a shop full of strange smells and stranger statues. There's a lot of wood and fabric in the shop, giving it a mellow, relaxing atmosphere.
Along the wall is a stack of posters and one draws his attention. There's a lot of green. It's a nature scene, but the nature isn't what he focuses on. Instead he sees the sky, bright strokes of blue with white lines streaking through it.
Julie misses airplanes.
He pulls out the poster, with its cardboard back and plastic wrap. He needs something to cover it, to wrap it, or at the very least a bow. Presents need bows.
He pulls down one of the dresses that hang along the walls and ties it around the poster. He's able to fashion it into a crude sort of bow, really more of a loose knot than anything. He tears the dress in half and tries again, manages to get an actual bow out of it with big floppy ears.
He gets a number of strange looks as he carries it back but he's used to people looking at him strangely. He's a corpse that came back to life. That's strange. Now he's a corpse that came back to life carrying a poster wrapped in a dress. That's even stranger.
What's more important than the strange looks is the recognition that flashes across some people's faces. They put together the month and the bow, and they remember. He sees inspiration on those faces, and he knows Julie won't be the only person getting a present this Christmas.
Nora gives him a soft look when he walks into the mansion. Her head tilts and she smiles. "Oh, R."
Julie hears Nora's voice and runs down the stairs. "God, R, you've been gone forever. I thought you were hurt somewhere."
"No." He shakes his head and holds out the poster in front of him with both hands. "Merry Christmas."
Julie stops at the foot of the stairs, her body going still. Her fingers tighten on the banister and then she's crying. She's crying and laughing and in a sudden burst of movement, she throws her arms around R's neck, the poster sandwiched between them. "Oh, R."
He lowers the poster and reaches around with one hand to press it against her back. "You alright?"
She laughs again. Her tears are wet against his cheek. She presses an even wetter kiss to his lips, her tongue invading, forming a deep connection between their bodies.
Her tears have stopped by the time she pulls away. "I can't believe you got me a present."
She takes the poster from him, giggling as she stares at the wrapping. She slips it off to get a better look at the poster. "You remembered."
"You miss airplanes."
She smiles and shakes her head. "No, silly. Christmas. I thought I was the only one."
She runs up the stairs, taking the poster with her.
"Come on." Nora drags him along after her into Julie's room.
Julie pulls a box out from her closet and slides it across the floor towards him. "Open it."
Inside is a record player and five vinyl records. He smiles as he caresses the turnstile. "Thank you."
It's their first Christmas together, the first of many in their new world.