O amiable, lovely death!
Thou odoriferous stench! sound rot-
Arise forth from the couch of lasting
Shakespeare, King John III
“I told you, we needed to use human blood. Pig blood’s just not going to fool anyone.”
“So you make a donation. It’s more than I planned to give. Besides, I had to get the candles and the incense.”
“We didn’t even need the incense, I told you. According to the book..”
“The book. The book said we’d see something by now. Come on, let’s go.”
“We can try again when we find some human blood.”
“Let’s just go.” The two teenagers collected their paraphernalia and scampered over the low stone cemetery fence, leaving behind them a small rough circle of burned grass where a fire had been built. Nearby was a stain on the lawn, black on gray in the dim moonlight.
Time passed, and more dew collected on the blades of grass and on the artificial flowers left at the single fresh gravesite. A passerby would not have noticed anything odd about that grave, would not have heard the muffled pounding and clawing, then the splintering of thick wood, the trickle of earth into an enclosed open space, the gagging, choking sounds, and then the continued clawing, up, up. Hours later, however, just before dawn, a visitor might have heard a scrabbling sound, and seen powerful, gray fingers break the newly-planted turf from below, and would certainly have noticed the figure of a man painfully pulling himself out of the heavy ground. But no one was around.
The figure, clothes and skin caked with damp earth, stood erect and looked around. Then with a deathly moan it sank to its knees, leaning against the tombstone. “Oh, God,” Mike Bagget said. “Now what?”
He lives, he wakes — ’tis Death is dead,
Shelley, “Adonais” Shelley, “Adonais”
Well, leave the graveyard, for one thing. Mike tried the little cemetery gate, but it was locked. “Now, why… I mean, what’s the use of that?” he muttered, shaking the iron bars. But it wasn’t a tall fence, just an iron railing, a little less than chest high, so he managed to climb over it, leaving smears of wet earth on it as he slid himself over.
Now where? He sat with his back against the gate to think things over. Mike had never been dead before, to his knowledge, and didn’t quite know the rules.
What had happened to him? He was pretty sure he had made no pact with Satan, and if it was Resurrection Day, was he the only one? And the end of the world should be more exciting. Mike stood up and looked back over the fence into the cemetery. Except for the gaping hole from which he’d emerged, all was normal.
But what was that near his hole? Some stubs of candles, and a blackened patch of grass. Clues? Was he raised from the dead through some kind of magic? Then where was the magician? Well, he could puzzle that out later.
Mike sat again and leaned back on the fence, his chin resting in one dirt-encrusted hand. “OK, so I’m undead, or whatever. So what are my options?” he said gravely to himself. “I can’t go back to my grave; I’d die of boredom, lying there for eternity, conscious the whole time. I certainly can’t go home — Mish and Jeff would lose their minds, seeing me like this. But where else can I go?” He looked around, though it was still dark. It occurred to him that there just aren’t many places for a walking corpse to exist undisturbed, especially in a suburb. No dark alleys or abandoned factories or dense forests within which he could lurk.
The only role models that came to Mike’s mind were movie zombies, and they were no help. Assuming, that is, that he didn’t feel an overpowering urge to eat the brains of the living, and so far, at least, he felt no hunger of any sort, though he must have been dead at least a few days, judging from the loose, dry condition of his skin.
Also, to his ill fortune he couldn’t recall many zombie movies set in suburbia.
He could recall his death, though, quite clearly. Walking out to get the Sunday paper, in the street as usual, in his bathrobe, and then looking up just before the damn Ford Explorer had slammed into him. Had the driver even stopped afterwards? He had no idea. The driver must have been drunk. Who the hell else would be driving so fast on a dead end street, early on a Sunday morning? Or maybe he was some kid, or a guy talking on a cellphone. Mike’s next memory had been waking up dead, in his coffin. And so much for death revealing all of life’s secrets. He didn’t know anything more now than he did when he died. What a crock.
I’ve been cheated, he thought. I was supposed to have comforting visions of a bright light, and old friends and relatives to welcome me to the other side, and then some kind of heaven. What do I get, instead? Nothing. Nothing at all.
Oh, well. The problem remained: where to go? At night he could just wander the streets, keeping to the shadows as much as he could. If he could get hold of better clothes, and a hat or a hood, probably no one would worry too much if they saw him walking by, right?
Heck, of course they would. The Neighborhood Watch would wonder why someone was out walking so late, and insomniacs seeing him out their windows would talk to their neighbors the next day about that mysterious night stalker.
Then he recalled that under his house there was a crawlspace. It was used for nothing — the haunt of spiders and probably mice, but no one ever went there. It wouldn’t be comfortable, but it was better than nothing.
And — who was he kidding? — it was a reason to go back home, and see (or at least hear) something of what was going on there in his absence. He picked himself up, wiped ineffectually at the damp dirt now drying on his clothes and face, and then departed the cemetery, heading home.
In the midst of life we are in death
The Book of Common Prayer
It was a lot farther to his house than he remembered it being; but then, he wasn’t driving. On the other hand, though, the long hike didn’t tire him; he felt full of energy, even though earlier in the night he had clawed his way up through several feet of dirt. Well, it was only fair for death to give him some compensations.
The night passed away as he walked, and the sun was already showing a bright crescent over the neighbor’s house by the time Mike neared home. He had kept to the shadows as the dawn had slowly brought them into being, both to make it harder for early risers to notice him — though he wouldn’t mind startling that damn paperboy who always missed the porch — and because he feared that direct sunlight might have the power to vaporize him.
Then he was just across the street from his home, and he crouched in the Lemmons’ hedge, looking out. No traffic on the street this early; fortunately, he lived on a dead-end. There didn’t seem to be anyone awake in his house, yet, either — no surprise there. But there was no way to get home without crossing the strip of sun which lay on the road between the Lemmons’ house and his own.
Leaving the hedge, he walked slowly forward, until he stood at the edge of the shadow cast by the Lemmons’ house. He extended his left arm and leaned forward until his fingers entered the sunlight.
Nothing. No searing sensation, no bubbling of the flesh. Breathing a sigh of relief (just the force of habit; he had noticed some time ago that he no longer breathed), he quickly crossed the street and slid into the shadows along the left side of his house. At the base of the wall, half-hidden by the rhododendron bush, was the small, square entrance to the crawlspace. He pulled the chicken wire off of the rusted nails that held it in place and crept into the dark, dry crawlspace. Then he wrestled the wire back into place.
Inside he found that he could sit up, as long as he didn’t sit up straight.
“Honey, I’m home!” he said softly to himself. “Sorry I’m late.” He produced half a smile.
He wished he had a book, or something.
What is this world? What asketh men
Now with his love, now in his colde
Alone, without any compaignye
Chaucer, The Knight’s Tale
“Get away, Squiggles! Go on!” he whispered harshly to the animal sniffing around the entrance to the crawlspace. That damn dog! Someone was bound to start wondering sooner or later what she was so excited about. She would sniff around, tail wagging, then lie at the opening and whimper. Then up to her feet, and the process would repeat. This had been going on almost without break since the clapping of the screen door had let the dog outside to do her morning business.
Finally Mike removed the wire again. “OK, Squiggles. Come on in. Come on! Come on!” True to her mutt nature, the dog quailed at the opportunity, but her tail wagged harder, until it seemed ready to fly off the dog’s butt, and the little creature whined even more urgently.
“OK, here we go,” said Mike. He leaned out of the opening, and the dog danced back, then returned. She sniffed Mike’s outstretched hand for a bit, looked skeptical, then finally gave into joy and licked it, though somewhat dubiously. Mike took hold of the dog’s collar and pulled her into the crawlspace.
“That’s OK, yeah, Squigger-dog, I’m home again, how are you?” he said, petting the dog. Squiggles still seemed a little confused by his smell, but eventually she lay down by Mike’s side happily enough, her tail thumping up brown dust.
“I see your grief over your departed master hasn’t done any damage to your appetite,” Mike said. “Still fat as a pig, aren’t you, dog?”
He couldn’t get enough of petting her. It was a great comfort to have her lying near him, to feel her breathing, and sense, even if only vaguely, her warmth. For the first time since his death, Mike smiled broadly.
“Well, you can come down and visit me here anytime you want, Squig, but you can’t tell anyone about me, OK?” Sitting up was awkward, so Mike lay belly up next to Squiggles, one hand on the dog and the other on his stomach, his head on a leftover brick that he had tossed down here after he had finished the patio three summers before.
As the morning wore on Mike heard the front door slam as Jeff went to school, and later the sound of the vacuum cleaner running across the floor above his head, bumping into the furniture. Thunk, the sofa. Clunk, the coffee table.
Squiggles became restless, and Mike wrestled the chicken wire free so the dog could escape. Although he had yet to feel sleepy, or even tired, he again lay on his back. His mind wandered as he lay there, absently watching a spider move uncertainly across the ground.
He would have to find something to do, to occupy his time, or he would go mad from terminal boredom. Steal some books from somewhere, maybe, or find a way to get his little battery-powered transistor radio from the garage.
The sound of the vacuum had stopped long ago, and he wondered what Michelle was doing. In all the time they had been married, he had never really known what she got up to all day. She couldn’t spend all her time cooking and cleaning, could she? Would she watch soaps? Drink in her bathrobe? Mike suddenly realized how little he knew his wife, how little they had shared their lives in the house.
Later that morning he heard a low sound from upstairs, a burbling, choking sound. It went on for ten minutes before Mike realized that it was Michelle, crying. He pressed his hand against his low ceiling. “I’m here, honey,” he whispered. “It’s all right. I’m home.” After a while the sobbing dropped out of audibility. Perhaps she had fallen asleep.
It must have been past noon when he heard the dog again at the entrance, snuffling and whining. Mike let her back in. She briefly explored Mike’s underground domain, snuffling into the corners, then settled in next to Mike. He scratched her absently as he sat.
After a while he noticed that the dog was gently gnawing the edge of his hand, tiny teeth worrying the dead flesh, and Mike pulled it away. “Stop that, Squiggles. I might need that someday.”
Suddenly he heard the front door slam shut. After a pause, he heard the sound of the car starting, and then the crunch of gravel as it was leaving the driveway. “She must have gone shopping or something,” he said.
Then he sat up straight, hitting his head against the floor. It didn’t hurt. “Now is my chance!” he whispered. He tried to crawl to the opening, but the dog was in the way. “Come on, Squig. Let’s go. Come on.” The dog finally got to its feet and bumbled along beside him as he crawled to the opening. He took the chicken wire off the nails.
Outside, he crouched down. He could see no one, hear no one. He slunk around to the back door, on the other side of the rhododendron.
Locked. He reached into a pocket, then stopped himself. Of course he no longer carried his keys around. The people who had buried him had thoughtlessly not put them into the pocket of the suit.
Next to the back door was the laundry-room window. One single thin pane. He had always meant to do something about that window; it was too tempting for thieves. He still felt guilty about it. Still, it was lucky that he hadn’t put those bars in, as he had planned.
He drew back an elbow, then rammed it into the glass. It shattered, and as he pulled his arm back the shards of glass caught at his sleeve, ripping it and the skin beneath. But there was no blood, and no real pain, only a faint sensation, like the light scratching of fingertips trailing along the back of a hand.
He paused — had anyone heard? When all remained quiet, lifeless except for the sound of birds, he pulled away the pieces of glass from the window frame, until he could squeeze through.
By the time he worked his way through the window, the pieces of glass still in the window frame had badly torn his clothes, and punctured his skin along his left side and thigh. He grabbed the edge of the dryer, under the window, and pulled himself forward. Finally he was standing in the laundry room.
He walked through the empty house. First, the living room. Some of the furniture had been rearranged, he saw. His chair — his chair! — was gone, and the couch was against a different wall. He picked up some magazines from the coffee table, and a couple of books from the bookshelf next to the TV. Ah, the TV. What a shame that he couldn’t bring that down to the crawlspace!
Next, his old bedroom. Michelle hadn’t made the bed. That was unusual. Then again, maybe she always made the beds later in the day. She still slept on the left side, he noted from the indentation in the pillow. He bent down to smell it, but noticed nothing. His sense of smell seemed completely dead. But he found a stray hair on the pillow, and he picked it up and put it in his pocket. Funny; before his death he had never been the romantic type. Or so Michelle had complained; he was always at work, even bringing it home more nights than not.
He poked his head into the frozen maelstrom of Jeff’s room, and then went into the garage. There, under the workbench — his old radio. He also picked up a couple of hinges from a cabinet, and some screws and a screwdriver.
He went into the kitchen then, and found two extra batteries for the radio rolling around in the junk door. He put them in his pocket. He wanted to get some more, but which store could he pop into, in his condition? And he had no money, anyway.
Then he opened the refrigerator door. He hadn’t thought about doing it; it was just the force of habit. He looked at the food inside — a carton of eggs, carrots and celery in their plastic bags, less than half of a blueberry pie, the carton of milk, a plastic jug of apple juice.
Was he hungry? He wasn’t sure. He should be starving. Did his digestive tract even work anymore? Did the stomach and intestines have an afterlife, or was hunger as extinct as he was?
He closed the door and turned around. A bowl of apples and bananas sat on the kitchen table, Michelle’s continuing campaign to get Jeff to snack on something besides junk. He picked up an apple. He bit into it, chewed, and swallowed.
It was almost tasteless, maybe because of his sense of smell was deceased. But it didn’t seem to harm him, to eat.
A new thought striking him, he put the apple down. He picked up his reading materials and radio and put them on the coffee table in the living room, and went back into his bedroom. Good — she hadn’t gotten rid of his clothes yet. He grabbed a pair of jeans, a few T-shirts, some socks and his sneakers. He reached for his coat, then remembered that the cold seemed to have no effect on him.
What else? And how long would it be before Michelle came back from the store? He came back into the living room and looked around like a thief. Well, he could come back another time, if he thought of anything else he needed. Going back into the kitchen he took up the apple he had tried eating, and a couple more, along with a couple of bananas. Back in the living room, he tied the jeans around the magazines, books, radio, shirts, sneakers, and fruit, making a bundle, and went to the back door.
He opened it a crack, and jumped back when Squiggles tried to force her nose into the narrow slot. “Oh, only you!” he said. “You almost gave me a heart attack!” He looked out. No one nearby. He slid past the door, locking it again behind him. Crouching down, he crawled back into his dwelling.
First he changed his clothes. It did wonders for his self-image not to be covered by the torn, damp, earth-smeared formal vestments. Should have brought a comb, though, and a shower would have been nice. Well, next time.
Then he glanced at the magazines he’d grabbed. A National Geographic — that should be some good reading. And Jeffrey no longer seemed to like them as much as he’d used to, so he wouldn’t miss it. He paged through it, and then noticed something.
“Damn! I didn’t bring down a light!”
Well, there was still the radio.
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
From his lair he could hear the workman clumsily flirting with his wife, if he crouched near the opening. “Anything else I can do you for, you just let me know. I’m ready, willing, and able!” the man said, a leer in his voice. “A job like this — well, something like that won’t take me too long.” The guy probably thought he was being clever. Well, Mike thought, it was his own damn fault, for breaking the window in the first place.
“No, just the window, thank you!” said Michelle, laughing. But it was her fake laugh, he was relieved to hear.
“Change of heart, you know where I’ll be the next half-hour or so!” the deep male voice said. Then he heard the back door closing, and the same voice murmuring disconnected snatches of various songs.
“Idiot,” Mike murmured softly. Not softly enough — the song perished on the man’s lips. After a pause, he began again.
He had spent most of the night before scraping away at his dirt floor with the brick he’d been using for a pillow, pushing the discarded earth to one side. Now, he could sit up a little straighter. He planned to continue the project the next night. Death had boosted his strength and stamina; he was not the least bit tired. And he had yet to feel sleepy. But he couldn’t do anything now, with the workman so near. No radio, and it was still too dark in there to read. Too bad he hadn’t bought a kerosene lamp when he was living. Mike was bored to death.
The workman finally finished his job on the window. Mike could hear him talking to Michelle at the front door. After the door closed he listened intently for the sounds of the man’s boots on the floor over his head, but heard nothing. What would he do, Mike wondered, if he heard the sound of bedsprings? Erupt through the floor in righteous fury? Yet if he stayed down here long enough, Michelle was bound to start dating again.
Suddenly he heard the front door open, then slam shut with a bang. Mike, his protective instincts alive within him, sat up so quickly that he hit his head on the floor above him again.
“Mom!” he then heard. “Got anything to eat?” It was just Jeff, home from school.
“This is ridiculous,” he said quietly to himself. “Back from the dead, and I might as well be dead.” He looked up at the floorboards over his head. “I can’t live like this forever!” He wished he could at least pace.
The lack of light bothered him the most. He could pass a lot of time reading, and the gloom of the crawlspace was getting depressing. Michelle was bound to have candles somewhere in the house — the Christmas candles, and maybe some that she kept around for blackouts. But he didn’t want to break the window again. He’d have to wait for a better opportunity. He flicked a spider off his face. He would have to be patient.
Meanwhile, he had the radio. He switched it on, keeping the volume low. There was a lot of crap on the radio — Rush Limbaugh, Art Bell repeats, Dr. Laura, endless traffic reports — but he was discovering some good stations. He set the dial on a jazz station he’d found in the dead hours of the night before and lay back. He remembered that, in life, he had sometimes had this station on when he was washing the car on Sunday afternoons in the summer.
Just be patient, he told himself. It wasn’t much of a life, but it beat being dead. He supposed.
Whence and what art thou, execrable shape?
John Milton, Paradise Lost
His opportunity to break into his house again came a few days later. It was a warm day, unusually so for this early in the spring, and Michelle had been working on preparing the little vegetable garden in the backyard for planting, hoeing the dark soil, tossing weeds and rocks, both of which seemed to multiply each year, into a small pile. When she went inside, she left the back door open. After a time, Mike realized that she must have finished her work; maybe she had turned her attention to the flower garden in the front yard.
Or was she still in the house? He had to know, before he dared enter the house. How could he find out? He crouched indecisively in the darkness. By dislocating his right shoulder, he could just manage to press an ear against the dirty dry ceiling — the floor of the living room. He heard nothing, no TV or radio or dishwasher, no vibrations from walking. But she might be reading, or dozing on the couch. He bit his lip in thought.
Then he heard a sound — from the front yard. The sound of water hissing through a hose, and of sprinkles hitting leaves — she was watering the front yard, or the flowers! It would take time — not much, but some — for her to finish watering, and then to re-coil the hose. He had a minute or two, if he acted quickly.
Swiftly he pulled at the chicken wire, tearing the skin of his right hand in his haste. He felt the skin ripping, but again there was no pain, nor blood. He got the screen off and pushed it aside.
Poking his head out, he saw that the back yard was indeed empty. He crawled out, and crept to the back door. He would just get some candles. Or a flashlight — yes, there would be one in the kitchen drawer, and maybe some batteries. Maybe getting both a flashlight and some candles would be best. And matches and batteries.
He knew he had to hurry. He entered the door, and looked around. All quiet, except for the sound of the water hitting the lawn in the front yard. On the way to the kitchen he skulked past the entrance to the living room, glancing in as he passed. He saw through that the front door was also open, at the far end of the room. He couldn’t see Michelle in the yard. But he still heard the sound of water.
In the kitchen. He pulled at the junk drawer — damn, it was stuck! He pushed and pulled and jerked, and finally it came open, a screwdriver and a box of staples and some dried pens rattling as it did so. No more batteries in there. But — ah! There was a single dusty candle. He snatched it up, then it flew out of his hands as something jumped on the small of his back.
If his heart had still been beating, it would have stopped then. Mike whirled around.
“Squiggles! You damn dog!” He tried to keep his voice low. “You scared the damn life out of me!”
Then he noticed a change in the light, a sudden shadow. He looked up. There stood Michelle in the doorway, her dirty gardening gloves in her hand.
Mike had never seen anyone actually faint before. He had thought that it was something that only happened in the movies. Michelle collapsed like a deflating hot-air balloon, settling to the floor in a delicate, dream-like way. Squiggles hurried to her and licked her face, but Mike pushed him away.
He gently picked Michelle off of the tiled floor, brought her into the living room and lay her on the couch. The dog looked worried, then decided to lie down and sleep it off.
Well, the jig was up. In a way, it was a relief to have been found out.
He sat in his chair and looked at her. She seemed to be sleeping normally. Then he realized that he must look like hell, so while she was out he took the opportunity to duck into the bathroom, and washed his face and hands — that took a while, and he had to be careful not to scrub too forcefully, lest the dead flesh be peeled from his bones — and combed his hair with one of Michelle’s brushes.
He looked at himself in the mirror. His face didn’t look so bad, considering. His eyes had a bit of an orange tinge that hadn’t been there before, and the skin under his eyes was darkened, and sagged to an alarming extent. His skin was a pasty whitish gray, and he could see that he could use a haircut. But, all in all, not too bad.
Then he returned to the living room and again sat in his chair. He considered, and then got up. He pulled the chair a few extra feet from the sofa; he didn’t want her terrified upon awakening. He sat down again, and waited.
After a few more minutes, Michelle began to stir. She gave a quick, involuntary shake of the head, and her mouth turned down, her brow creased. Then she suddenly opened her eyes.
For a moment she looked confused, finding herself on the couch. “Unh?” she said. No doubt she was wondering if the apparition of her dead husband she had witnessed had been a dream. Then she turned her head, and saw Mike.
He was sitting with his chin down to his sternum, his hands in front of his face.
Michelle made a sound, halfway between a gasp and an interrogation. Before she could find any words, Mike spoke.
“Yes, it’s me. Mike. I don’t know how, but somehow I have come back. Yes, I really seem to be dead. No, you’re not going crazy. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. And I’m not a flesh-eating zombie, I’m just the same old Mike, only dead now. Except I feel fine.” He kept talking that way, trying to give her time to adjust to the situation. And finally he took his hands from his face.
Michelle gasped again, but with recognition along with horror and disbelief. Mike stood up — Michelle shrank back — and turned his back on her. “I look like hell, I guess,” he said. It was manipulative, but he was sure she would try to reassure him, the same way she used to say that his potbelly was hardly noticeable, or that she didn’t mind him losing his hair.
Michelle couldn’t resist. “No, no, considering…” she started to say. “Mike… how?”
“I don’t know how,” he told her again. “I don’t remember a thing. I woke up, though, in the coffin, and I somehow knew that I had been dead. I clawed my way back up to the ground.” He smirked. “I’m a lot stronger now than I used to be. Every cloud has a silver lining, I guess.”
Then he told her of how he’d returned home, and how he had been living — “no, I guess ‘staying’ would be a better word” — under the house. Michelle listened to him without saying a word, without even glancing at him. She kept her eyes on the coffee table, unfocused, and her mouth was open a little.
Mike finally finished his story, and waited for Michelle to speak, or to at least look up. She didn’t.
“I know it’s not easy for you,” he said. “I can leave if you want. I don’t belong here anymore. But it was the first thing to come to mind. I didn’t know where else to go.”
Michelle finally looked at him, though only for an instant. “Of course you came home,” she said. “This is where you should be.” She clenched her hands in her lap. “It’s going to, it’s just going to take me some time to get used to it all, you know?”
Mike smiled. “I’m not impatient,” he said.
Michelle looked at him again, a firmer expression on her face. “We’ll work things out somehow,” she said. “Oh, Mike, welcome back!” She made as if to hug him, then stopped herself. “You probably want a hot bath,” she said. “You must be stiff from sitting under the house all that time.”
“Yeah, good idea,” Mike said.
“I’ll uh, I’ll get some clean clothes for you to change into.”
“Oh, I came in yesterday — I broke the window, sorry — and I got some clothes to change into then. They’re fine. I don’t seem to sweat at all.”
“Well, uh, OK, then. But they’re all covered in dirt.”
“Yeah, from the crawlspace. I guess I should change, then.” He bounced to his feet with fraudulent eagerness. “But first, that bath.” Mike paused at the bathroom door. “Do you want to tell Jeff, or…?”
“I will,” Michelle said. “He’ll probably think it’s cool.”
Let us have a quiet hour,
Let us hob-and-nob with Death
Tennyson, “The Vision of Sin” Tennyson, “The Vision of Sin”
“Mish, it’s time to renew that National Geographic subscription. It’s about to expire.”
“Write a check,” Michelle said, poking her head out of the kitchen. “Or use a credit card. That’d be better.”
“Good idea,” Mike said, deadpan. “But my Visa account is kaput, and the MasterCard people may have also decided to terminate my account. I never thought I’d see the day when I became a deadbeat dad.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Michelle stepped into the living room, drying her hands on a towel. “Those big companies can be so insensitive. I’ll do it.” She turned back to the kitchen, then stopped. “Are you using that deodorant?”
“Yeah. I used some this morning.”
“Why don’t you put some more on. Or use some aftershave. It smells like something died in here.”
Mike put down the magazine. “What are you doing in there? I said I’d clean up. It’s not like I’m working anymore.”
“Oh, I’m just getting some things put away,” Michelle called. “Besides, you’re doing all that envelope stuffing. That brings in some money.”
“That’s just at night. I’ve got to call them back about that phone soliciting job.”
“Oh, honestly, Mike. I’m working now. And it’s not like you eat. Besides, you have kind of a sepulchral tone nowadays.”
“Perfect for selling funeral plots over the phone.”
“Dad,” Jeffrey said, slamming the front door, “Connor did it again today.”
“Did what, Jeff?” Mike put down the magazine.
“He just came right up to me in the hall, and I wasn’t doing nothing, and he pushed me, he slammed me against the lockers. And he’s a really big guy, too.”
Mike looked up. “Maybe you should bring him on over here for a little visit, son. You know, I really should meet some of your friends.”
Jeff looked perplexed for a moment, and then he grinned widely. “Oh, that would be so cool!” he said. “He’d just crap his pants!”
“Now, Mike,” Michelle called from the kitchen. “It’s hard enough to keep you out of sight. We’re not going to have you coming out of the closet just to terrify the local bully. Jeff will have to find some other way to get the Connor boy to behave.”
“I suppose you’re right, Mish,” Mike said. In a lower voice, he said to Jeff, “We’ll work something out, kid. I can always pop out from a hedge when he’s walking home one night, and give him a little thrill. He’d never connect us.”
“That’d be so great!” Jeff said, his voice also a conspiratorial whisper.
“Shhh,” Mike reminded him, pointing to the kitchen.
Just then Michelle appeared in the kitchen doorway. Jeff snatched up his school backpack and hurried to his room, giving his dad a wink before disappearing. “Mike, is this the thumbnail that you were looking for this morning?” Michelle asked, holding something between her thumb and forefinger. “I found it on the kitchen floor, under your chair.”
Mike put the paper down on the coffee table and got up from the armchair. “Oh, yeah, yeah it is. Thanks.”
“Sweetheart, you just can’t keep leaving parts of yourself all over the house like this. I mean, what if I had thrown it away when I was sweeping?”
“Yeah, I got to be more careful. Where do we keep the superglue?”
“Same as it’s always been, in the kitchen drawer.”
He rummaged through the junk drawer until he found it, a small, creased tube. “We’d better get some more of this stuff. It’s great.” He squeezed a drop onto the thumbnail.
Michelle said, “Here, let me do that. You’ll put it on all crooked.”
“So I tear it off again, and try again,” Mike said. But he let Michelle put the thumbnail back on.
“Thanks, dear,” he said when she had finished, kissing her on the cheek. Suddenly she returned the kiss. He put his arms around her. When they’d finished, he raised an eyebrow.
“It’s been so good to have you back with us again,” Michelle said.
“For me, too, Mish.”
“It was hard at first.”
“I even felt like you had cheated me, that my grief was all for nothing.”
“Your eyes are looking a little red, dear.”
“No doubt it’s due to the fires of hell that revived and sustain my decaying corpse.”
“Yes, well, let’s try some eyedrops later,” Michelle said. “And speaking of your decaying corpse, I think you should spend more time in the sun. The backyard fence is high enough to hide you. Maybe if you could dry your skin out..”
“Tan my hide?”
“..then you might not, uh, rot away so quickly.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Mike. “And maybe I can hurry the tanning along a little. I’ll see what I can do, pressing your iron against my skin. I really should learn how to use that thing for clothes, too, now that I’m a house-husband.”
“Well, do it outside. It might smell,” said Michelle. Then she looked down, concern crossing her face.
“What is it?”
“I just wish.. you know, since your, uh, your near-death experience..”
“– More like near-life experience,” he said.
“When you were gone,” she continued, “I used to talk to Deborah almost every day, sometimes for hours. She and Larry were just great for me.”
He wasn’t sure where this was leading. “They’ve always been good to have as neighbors,” he said. “I’m glad they stuck by you. Really.”
“Yes, well, since you came back, I’ve hardly spoken to Debbie. She called this morning. I think she’s getting concerned.”
Mike considered the information. “She has to be wondering why you’ve stopped seeing her so much,” he said. “Inviting her over to the house and so on.”
“Do you,” he said, “do you want to try, uh, try to include them in our dirty little secret?”
Michelle was relieved. “Do you think we could?” she said. “I don’t think they’d let anything slip.”
“No, I guess not,” Mike said. “They’re good people.” She nodded. “OK,” he said. “How do you want to do this?”
“I can invite them over for dinner tomorrow night,” she said. “Now don’t go misplacing any of yourself before then, and use some of that rouge on your face and hands. Just a little bit. Like I showed you.”
Mike didn’t enjoy using the makeup, but he saw her point. Better to let Larry and Deborah get used to him being back first, before they saw his deathly pale visage.
“Sure thing,” he said. He suddenly felt a desire to hold her again. She leaned into his embrace, and they stood silently for a moment. He felt her eyelashes flick his cheek as she blinked.
She pulled herself back and looked into his eyes. His hand found hers.
“Cold hands, warm heart, isn’t that what they say?” he said.
She nodded. “I guess we, I mean, we haven’t really tried, since you came back, to see if that’s, I mean, if you can still, you know.”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“Well, let’s find out.” She pulled him towards their bedroom. “Turn me on, dead man.”
The gods conceal from the living how pleasant death is, so that they will continue to live.
“Well, hell, Mike, you know, any way you can screw the insurance company, that’s just fine with me!” Larry laughed, but Mike saw the uncertainty in his eyes. Still, he was impressed. Michelle had done a great job preparing them for the shock of his appearance among them.
“Yes. Welcome back to the neighborhood, Mike,” said Deborah. She extended her hand, as if to shake, and then changed her mind and fumbled for a cookie from the platter, trying on a smile.
Mike smiled at them both. He saw their eyes searching his face for signs of death, but he pretended not to notice. He would probably have been uneasy, too, if one of his neighbors had become the living dead.
“Sorry, Mike,” she said.
“No problem,” Mike said. He sat at the kitchen table with the others. Michelle had set things out to make things seem as normal as possible. The cookie platter was in the middle of the table, and of course everyone had their usual cup of coffee, and a napkin. Deborah had twisted hers into a tight knot.
“It’ll just take a little time, I guess,” she said. “But it’s good to have you back. I know Michelle has really enjoyed the working world, and you’re home to look after Jeff and things. It must be really nice.”
“Do you have any idea of who or what brought you back?” said Larry.
“You know, Mish is working at the library, and she found that some very unusual books were borrowed just before my resurrection,” Mike said.
“Yes,” Michelle said. “Special-ordered. There was one by a guy named Levi, The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic, and some stuff other people I never heard of, who I guess are big in the black magic world — Agrippa, Boullan, Barret. On demonology and witchcraft and stuff like that. We’re guessing the spell must have been in one of those.”
“Kids, I suppose,” said Larry.
“Sounds like you’ve become quite an expert on the subject, Michelle,” said Deborah.
“Well, I have a lot of free time there at the library. You know,” she put down her cup, “actually I brought those books home. Reported them missing. The thought of those things in the library, where kids could get at them… and what if anything should happen to Jeff? I just couldn’t live with myself..”
“That coffee smells good,” Mike said. He picked up a cookie and nibbled on it.
“Oh,” said Michelle. “Let me get you a cup.”
“You can still eat, huh?” said Larry.
“Sure,” Mike said. “Just because I’m dead that’s no reason to starve to death.” He didn’t mention, of course, the bits of masticated food he would find in the toilet later, since his bowels no longer functioned. But he figured that pretending to eat alongside Larry and Deborah might set them more at ease, make him seem more like his old self.
“One thing, though,” he said. “I get no effect from beer these days.”
“Oh, Jeez,” said Larry. “I think I’d rather die.”
Death is sometimes a punishment, sometimes a gift; to many it has come as a favor.
Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus
I have been half in love with easeful
Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale” Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
“I just don’t know what I can say, Deb.”
“Oh, he always had a roving eye,” said Deborah. “But I never thought that he might actually act on — those impulses, I guess you could call them — until just lately.” She looked out the kitchen window at the stunted apple tree in the yard.
Michelle sipped her coffee. “I used to wonder, myself, about Mike, sometimes,” she said. “You know, when he would work late. Now, of course… I mean, he’s really dead down there.”
“Well, that’s no good.”
“Well, he still, I mean, he has his ingenuity. Actually, it seems that now that he can concentrate on my… Well, let’s just say it hasn’t been a problem. And at least I know where he is nowadays, and since his death he’s never been sweeter, in bed or out.”
“You know, Michelle, it strikes me that, in some ways, you have an ideal situation.”
“You think so?” She sipped her coffee. “That couldn’t be envy I hear, is it? I just knew it. Get a dead husband, and before you know it all the neighbors want one too! I hope Larry has a good life insurance policy. He’d better watch out!”
Deb laughed. Then, the coffee cup halfway to her lips, she paused, thinking.
And be a carrion monster like thyself
Shakespeare, King John III
“The Carrion Monster” originally appeared in Afterburn SF.
Art by Pexels, from Pixabay.com.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in