Tag Archives: death
Running again. When I’m not running I’m shambling. I hear gunshots, feel chunks flying out of my back. At least they miss my head.
The head. My mind’s the only thing that feels like it’s still a part of me. Everything else always feels numb.
I miss my heartbeat.
Stupid to go so far, I know, but food is scarce. Our bodies still process meat, somehow, still use it to repair the normal wear and tear. Human meat works best, but we’ll eat animals if we find ‘em already dead. Or if they don’t mind us putting our hands on ‘em.
A deer runs by. Deer. So good, so hard to catch. And strong; one of those things can take five of us, no problem. We have tools, weapons. A lot of us even remember how guns work. I don’t think the living know about that. They’d probably double their efforts if they did.
Pretty sure I lost them. I found a river and let myself fall in. Hit a bunch of rocks when I reached the rapids, stayed under for a while. The water was cold. Really cold. Perfect. I don’t think it got over fifty all day. Too damn hot.
The water kept me safe. After about an hour I bobbed to the surface. Clouds were covering the sky. They told me it was safe to climb ashore. Their rain and thunder would drive the living back.
I feel the raindrops pooling in the pockets where my skin has worn away. It drowns the awful bugs that try to lay their eggs in my flesh.
I make my way to camp.
I see camp, far away. No fire; never fire. Just the others, shambling around, most of them probably unaware they’re moving. That happens sometimes. I’ll sit down, stare into space. Next thing I know, I’m walking, no idea how I got on my feet. I guess we sleepwalk. Maybe we daydream.
Our camp is small. Didn’t use to be. A lot of us once, enough to keep everyone away. Then the living burst through, stealing guns from a store we don’t use, bombing us to cover their escape even though we’d all fed that day. The little girl with the torn teddy burned real fast. The teddy turned to ashes before her groans died away. The staples I’d used to keep her bear together had melted from the heat. I still don’t know what they used when they firebombed us in our sleep.
I keep the staples, stuffed in a chamber my heart doesn’t use anymore. I take them out when the moon is full enough to make them glint. She had very bright eyes. I miss her.
The fat one grunts at me. He’s sitting down, like he usually is. Sitting bowlegged. Shotgun blast took out an ankle, now it’s too much trouble for him to wander around. He spends a lot of time throwing cards in a pile, then shoveling them back in his hands to throw them again. Pictures on the cards show his wife and daughter. They’re still alive. His wife’s the one who shot the ankle.
The new one still doesn’t like us. She hasn’t gotten used to what happened. We bit her…can’t remember who did exactly. It’s not a disease that makes us walk, like a lot of the living think. TV said something about radiation before there wasn’t TV anymore. But we’re dead; there’s a lot of nasty things swimming inside us. One of us bit her. She got real sick. I think the living pushed her away. She came to us, kept waving her arms around our mouths. A dead bear had kept us pretty well fed, and we weren’t interested. She cried a lot, until she got real cold and still. Now she just sits by herself. I don’t like her very much.
I like Rosa. Rosa’s mine. She likes me too. I’m hers. We like to stand around and put our hands on each other’s waists. We both remember music. We growl, but we can’t remember the tunes Rosa used to dance too. She wears a tight red dress that her body has stained. She wears underwear, too, I think. I know she still has dollar bills stuck in a frilly band around her leg. They weren’t always there, but one day we found the money fluttering along the ground. Rosa picked them up and stuck them in her garter. She made a sound like she couldn’t quite remember how to laugh. I like Rosa. Rosa likes me. We dance, even if we’re not actually moving much.
I stand next to Rosa. I took a chunk out of the big one in the blue uniform, the one always giving the other living people orders. He shot me. Always shooting me. Sometimes I wonder if he hates me. Doesn’t even know me. I let Rosa take the meat out of my mouth. She doesn’t have cheeks, so she eats it all in one bite. Rosa’s lucky. She doesn’t have a face that gets in her way when she’s eating.
Rosa keeps biting at me, and wails a little when she remembers she needs lips to kiss. I bite back. It’s okay, Rosa. It’s okay.
That seems to calm her down. The rain comes down harder. Rosa tilts her head back, looks at the clouds like she’s surprised. The rain pours off her face, and she closes what’s left of her eyelids to enjoy it. The rain washes Rosa. She smells like ginger. And me.
The big blue one shoots at us. He’s got the arm that he swung at me wrapped up real tight. He’s yelling, angry. I’m pretty sure he hates me. He doesn’t see me, though.
Billy and Mary just stand there. They never really got that the living don’t like us. They forget we’re not like them. Billy actually waves. He’s hugging Mary close, still hugging her when the blue man makes her head explode with his shotgun.
Billy just stands there a minute, ignoring the slug that goes through his chest. He kind of just ends up on his knees, holding Mary. But she’s not moving. She’s gone, gone forever now. Billy doesn’t have Mary anymore.
It takes a while for him to get it. He has to see Pops go down, his tie fluttering on the ground, before he understands. Mary’s gone. He doesn’t have Mary anymore. Billy doesn’t understand why the big man did that to him. He closes his eyes and rasps, trying to cry. He makes one sad sound that maybe could have been a wail, and then the back of Billy’s head shatters. The mud is flecked in light gray. Bits of skull are still stuck to Billy’s skin. Billy has Mary again now. They’re both on the ground. They’re both not moving.
The big man shoots at us a little more, then runs away. We’re sad Billy’s gone. He used to run. Still remembered how to run. He’d run, and those of us who could remember would laugh. Or try to.
Some of us can survive without our brains. I don’t know how, or why, but some of us can. Not many. Probably not me. My brain is the only part of me I have.
I think about that while some birds are eating Billy and Mary. Some of them let Rosa pet them. She likes birds. One time we went back into the city to find Rosa’s bird. It was on the bottom of the cage, not moving. Rosa picked it up in both hands, bounced it up and down. She looked sad. It didn’t move. She tried to remember its name and grunted a little. Then she got so mad she tore pieces of her face off. Now she can’t kiss so well, but I bet Rosa’s happier without the skin getting in her way. She gets to see real Rosa when she looks into the water.
Sometimes I think about peeling off the rest of my face. It’s mostly burnt up. It feels tight when I try to eat. I tried it once but Rosa stopped me. She likes me like I am. I like Rosa.
One bird seems sick. It walks slower than the others, has to take a rest. It walks over to Rosa, pecks at her leg. Rosa picks it up, looks it in the eye for a while. It doesn’t move, just rests and breathes. Then she hands it to me. I eat its head in one bite. It kicks for a while. The meat stays warm while I eat, all that kicking pumping the blood. I like it. I rasp while I eat. I see little cords in Rosa’s face twitch as she smiles. Rosa likes me.
The blue man doesn’t look well, but he shoots at us anyway. He holds his arm close like it hurts. He shoots Rosa, hits her knee. I bet Rosa can still dance though, just not very well. Probably.
He shoots the fat man. The fat man’s cards scatter everywhere. His daughter’s face blows away in the breeze. He smooshes his wife into the mud when he falls over. His brains are all torn up. They bounce in his blown up head when he falls over.
The big blue man almost falls down. Almost. Then he stands up again and shoots one more time. Shoots me.
Shoots me in the head.
I fall down. I don’t get back up.
Rosa’s fingers in my heart. I like Rosa. Like her in my heart.
She takes out the staples. Rosa liked the little girl too. She left pictures of the little girl hanging by the birdcage. Rosa with her face still on, standing next to the little girl. The little girl standing on a ball, holding a big shiny cup. Before they were both what we are now.
The staples glitter in the moonlight. Almost as bright as Rosa’s eyes.
I only see things, little things, but they’re going away. Going away. I’m going away. My brains are leaking out. All of me is going away.
Funny. Light on the staples. Rosa’s eyes. Living people don’t have any light in their eyes. Always blink it away.
All of me.
I like Rosa. Rosa likes me.
One day I get up. Rosa walks up to me, sits down and looks at me. I just sit there for a second before I start to crawl. Rosa crawls behind me.
After a little while I reach a puddle. Most of my head’s gone above my eyes. Big chunks of brain hang on my skull.
My brain. Big pieces of me. Don’t feel like mine anymore.
I shake my head, hard. Clear it out. I sling bits of brain on Rosa. She rasps, because she can’t remember how to laugh anymore.
Clear my head. Feel like me.
I get up, but it takes a while. I have to stop and think about it.
Think. Don’t know how to do that right now, but I guess I’ll learn.
I get up. I start walking into the woods.
The big blue guy is on his hands and knees. He’s looking into the river. Won’t see anything but foam. It’s the rapids we’re at now. I walk up to him. Rosa follows, though her heels get stuck in the mud.
The blue guy gets up, turns around. His mouth is open and he’s tilting his head. He’s gray. Veins around his eyes aren’t throbbing anymore, like they always did before.
He looks sad. He makes a little moan, reaches out to me. I push him in the water.
He just looks confused, but I don’t care. I don’t like him. I don’t want him in our camp. I don’t want him near Rosa.
He just keeps looking at me, even when the rocks break his ribs and flip him in the water. He just looks at me, and gets washed away. Maybe he’ll fall off a waterfall.
I turn around. Rosa gets her heels out of the mud, and walks with me until she’s ahead.
I follow Rosa. I’ll always follow Rosa. We have time now. We don’t have to run right now, like we always have to.
I like Rosa. Rosa likes me.
We shamble on. It’s gonna be dark, but not yet. The living won’t come right now. We have time to walk in the cool air, in our cool skin. We have time.
I touch the staples in my heart. I’m lucky. The living don’t have any in theirs.
It wasn’t summer for Nat until he heard the buzzing and the clinking. The air would get hot and everything would start feeling sticky, but it didn’t sound like summer until a hornet found its way into his basement and hovered around his work light. Even over the roar of tools and the rolling thunder of laundry, Nat could hear whether or not the hornets had come.
The clinking was more insistent than usual this morning. Contrary to his wife’s panic over finding one, Nat knew from experience that the insects tended to more towards calmness, almost to the point of laziness. When he found one hovering around the light bulb he felt sorry for it. They were often deeply hypnotized by the glow, smacking their armored heads into the glass with a slow, concentrated motion. In those moments Nat would cup his gloved hands around the bugs and toss them out the window.
This morning, it wasn’t one wasp around the light. It was four.
“It stinks down here.” Mattie muttered as she came down with the hamper. The smell was sharp and chemical, but not unpleasant. The varnish he’d layered on the door gave Nat’s work space a clean, scrubbed odor. “You might as well start smoking again.”
“Near’bout finished with the door for the kitchen.” Nat turned on a halogen and twisted it to the drying slab of oak. Mattie looked it over, shrugged, and unloaded the dryer.
“You’re drawing those damn hornets inside with all the shit,” she called back, her voice echoing inside the drum of the dryer. It must sound lovely in there to her.
“They aren’t comin’ after the varnish. Here, look.” Nat picked the varnish up from the bench and wafted it beneath the light. Immediately the hornets dispersed to the far corners of the basement, their flight swerving and unsteady. One bounced against Mattie’s temple and careened into the dryer. Mattie screamed and fell over, throwing hot bed sheets in front of her in case the hornet doubled back and came after her.
“Goddamnit, Nat! Shut that goddamn window! Get some spray and kill these fuckin’ things!” She got to her feet and hurried to the stairs. “And put that door back on its hinges soon! There’s somewhere on the screen door they’re gettin’ through upstairs.”
“What’d you even take the door down for anyway? It wasn’t broken or anything.”
“I just…thought you’d like it if I fixed it up a little.”
A hornet whizzed by Mattie’s face. She ducked back, followed its path with a flailing palm. “Goddamn, Nat,” she muttered, and went back upstairs.
When Nat was done, he leaned the door against a cinder block wall and went up for lunch. Before he hit the lights, he counted two more hornets circling the bulb.
“Don’t swat at ’em! You’ll just rile ’em up!”
Nat ignored her and waved a lazy hand to shoo the hornets outside. Abby’d driven to school, and he scrubbed lazily at the morning dishes, killing time till he figured she’d had enough of a head start.
“Let the suds run off a little before you put ’em in rinse water, Nat. You’ll have ’em drying with a layer of soap on em otherwise.”
Nat was about to pull the drain plug and re-rinse the plates, but a hornet zipped in and out of the window, startling Mattie and backing her away from the sink.
“You’re gonna have to spray this place again pretty soon,” she moaned, but she left him to it. Once the dishes were rinsed and racked, Nat grabbed his keys, went out to his truck, and left for work.
Most of the students had already gone inside, but Nat stayed in this truck long enough to scan the parking lot for Abby and her friends. He couldn’t find them, and when it felt safe he got out and grabbed his lunch pail from the floorboard.
The wasps had spent the summer slowly invading the school, and Nat’s schedule that week consisted almost entirely of hunting down paper nests and drowning their builder’s in poison. When the wasps fell Nat watched their stingers slide in and out of their otherwise still bodies. He said a little prayer over every tiny carcass.
The nests soaked up the poison like sponges, and Nat had to collect them with rubber gloves before shoving them into trash bags. Those found in the crawl spaces took two hands to rip free. Those nests were so extensive the poison didn’t reach every grub. Nat would watch the few that shook loose, squirming blind on ceiling boards, before plucking them up and dropping them into the bag with their sisters.
Nat kept praying as the bags vaporized in the basement incinerator. He was grateful he couldn’t see the writhing grubs in the firelight.
“Aren’t ya hot?”
Nat wiped a rolled sleeve against his soaking eyebrows and looked over. Beyond the shade of the tree was a young woman, pale skin glowing in the sunlight. Her curly black hair billowed in the eddy that blew where the tree’s shadow met the heated noonday air.
She was young but she was dressed like a teacher, sleeveless button-up blouse, skirt with the hem down conservatively past her knees.
“Well, it’s hot work,” he told her, shrugging. “No real way around it.”
The yellowjackets had fallen like dry, brittle snow. Their yellow bodies sprinkled color across the gray dust between the oak tree’s roots.
“I don’t know how you stand it.” She was shielding her eyes with her hand. “Buy ya a Coke or somethin’?”
“Aw, naw, thank ya anyway.” He took out his handkerchief and wiped at his face. “I just got this to finish up and then it’s lunch time for me.” He smiled appreciatively, took of his cap to smooth out his hair. “You’re new, ain’t ya?”
“Yeah. Just started.” She looked over her shoulder to the kids eating in the courtyard. “I feel like I’m some kind of impostor. Most of these kids are almost my age.”
“Well, they give ya too hard a time, you can always hide out in the shed. Provided wasps don’t scare ya to much.”
He winked to let her know he was kidding. She had a big grin, almost bucktoothed. “What’s your name?”
Behind her, Nat could see Abby and her friends. The girl’s were watching him, pointing and laughing. Abby was hiding her face behind her hands.
“I’m Nat,” he told her.
“Hey, Nat.” She held out a small hand. Her nails were the same pale pink tone as her skin. “I’m Mary.”
In his hand, huge, dirty, rough, hers seemed like it would crumple like paper. He shook her hand and her arm moved almost without any effort on his part. He had an image of picking her up by the waist, just to lift her, hoisting her above his head with one hand. He thought he could feel the light fabric of her skirt blow against his face.
“Good to meet ya,” he said. “Don’t burn up out here, now.”
Nat stayed in the workroom even as he heard Abby come in. He’d made himself a sandwich, and every few minutes a gnat would buzz around the half-eaten turkey and mayo. Mattie had complained about the dirty dish, asking him why he couldn’t just use a couple paper towels to eat it off of. He grabbed a beer before heading down, making sure to take a glass with him.
Upstairs Abby and Mattie were talking, but Nat couldn’t make out the words and didn’t care enough to try. He touched up the stainer on the kitchen door with a small brush and waved a hand lazily over his food.
It was an hour later before Mattie finally came down to check on him. She waved a hand in front of her face at the smell of the stainer.
“Goddamn, how can you breathe down here?” Mattie batted her eyes like they would water.
“Got a ventilator if the air gets too thick,” he told her. “Some goggles over there if you wanna wear ’em?”
She sighed. “I ain’t gonna stay down that long. I was just wondering if you were gonna come up for supper.”
“What time is it?”
“Near about five-thirty. I’m gonna have the food ready in about an hour. You need me to fix you a plate?”
Nat thought a moment, waved a hand over his food. “Yeah. You can just stick it in the firdge, though. I still got that sandwich to finish.”
“Just grab it and let me take the plate back then.”
Without saying anything, Nat picked up his food and set the empty plate on the table near Mattie. Mattie scooped it up.
“Wouldn’t kill you to eat with us, would it?”
“Well, I don’t know, Mattie.” He pulled the goggles up over his forehead and blinked away sweat before looking at his wife. “Would it kill you if I did?”
“Oh, don’t start.”
“I wasn’t planning to.”
She took his plate and left. Hornets buzzed by his face until the fumes of the stainer shooed them away. Nat turned and reached for his sandwich, and stopped when he saw a gnat skittering across the bread. It flitted to his hand worked its way between the beads of sweat on his knuckles. When it reached his fingertips he clenched his fist and crushed it, looking at its shredded body when he opened its hand. He would’ve let it be if it only hadn’t come for him.
“So how’d Week One go?”
Mary ate her tasteless chicken sandwich and studied the students in the courtyard. “Not too bad,” she told Nat. “They haven’t figured out I’m practically their age yet.”
Nat grinned while he replaced the bolt on a wobbly picnic table. “Well, just repeat everything your parents ever told ya and you should keep the wool over their eyes.”
He sat the picnic table right-side-up. Mary took a seat while he boxed up his tools. “Join me?”
“Left my lunch back in the workroom, but I guess a sit-down wouldn’t kill me.”
His hips and knees ached, or almost ached, in the good, tired way they did when he’d done what he considered “good work.” It’d been a light day, but a productive one, tightening loose bolts and replacing busted combination locks. He wasn’t grimy or even very sweaty, which he was grateful for as he sat next to Mary. Her forearms were still goose-pimpled from the A.C. inside. She smelled like vanilla, and beneath it cigarette smoke.
Two tables over, Abbie’s friends pointed at them and giggled. Nat made eye contact with his daughter, the look she gave him shooting ice into his spirit. She gave a disgusted sneer, grabbed her books, and stormed off to the tune of her friends’ cackling laughter.
Behind Mary there was whooping, and she and Nat turned to see two boys squaring off, chests and noses touching, fists clenched. “Oh, shit,” Mary grunted, leaping up to cool them down.
That night Nat fell asleep in the easy chair he’d lugged into his workshop a year prior. He dreamed about the hem of Mary’s purple floral dress, the black hem billowing between her ankles as she ran to break up the fight. In his dream, though, she didn’t run so much as she floated. He could see her bone-white flats hover a breath above the asphalt, toes down, the soles paddling gently against the air.
The kitchen door was dry, and Nat was busy re-installing it when Abbie came back home from Jen’s. “Hey, baby girl,” he called over his shoulder.
He didn’t get a reply, but then he wasn’t expecting one. But he could feel her standing in the kitchen, close behind him, and after a minute he looked over to her.
“I can’t believe you did that?”
He sighed. “You don’t like the door either?”
“At school. I can’t believe you flirted with Miss Mary like that.”
“That’s not flirting, Abbie. She just came over to talk.”
“I never see you smile that way around Mom.”
Another, deeper sigh. “Yeah. I guess it’s been awhile since I smiled like that around her.”
“You look like a dirty old man when you’re around Miss Mary.”
“You watch your mouth.” She was startled by the sharpness of his tone. “That woman’s barely any older than you are. I would never do anything like what you’re sayin’ I am. She just needs a talkin’ buddy. You got that?”
Abbie was quiet, her eyes narrowed.
“Your momma an’ me haven’t been okay in awhile, but I would never do what you think I’m doin’.” He turned back to the door. “Now buzz off.”
Abbie was quiet a little longer. “I don’t want you talking to her anymore. It’s embarassing. My friends won’t stop making fun of me.”
“Then I guess you can’t rightly call ’em your friends, huh?”
“If you don’t stop, I’ll tell Mom.”
“Tell her.” He waved he off. “There’s nothing to tell. Unless you’re a liar.” He looked over at her. “Are you a liar, Abbie?”
Abbie was quiet another moment, then stomped her feet and stormed off. Nat turned back to the door.
“How do you think that makes Abbie look? How do you think that makes me look?”
Mattie slapped the work table with each sentence. Loose bolts bounced with each blow.
“All we do is talk, Mattie! Why are so upset about this? It ain’t like I’ve never talked to any of the teachers before!”
“So why haven’t you mentioned her?”
“There’s nothing to mention! I’ve spoken to her three times when she’s on lunch duty. There ain’t nothin’ to it! Good God, she’s young enough to be my daughter!”
“That’s right, Nat! She is young enough to be your daughter! And you call holding hands with her nothing?”
“I told you we’ve never held hands!”
“Why would Abbie lie, Nat?”
“Are you really asking me why a teenager would lie to get what they want?”
“You’re pathetic.” She smacked at a hornet as it bounced against her face. The insect thumped against the cinder block wall and fell to the floor, stunned. “You hide in this hole and you chase the first pretty thing you see when you come out, like you and I haven’t been married twenty years.”
“Right, I’m pathetic.” Nat picked up his claw hammer and slammed it against the work table. “Your fat ass spends all day doing nothing in my house, badgering me over anything you can imagine, and I’m pathetic!” He slammed the hammer into the table again. “Get your ass out of my basement before I drag you out!”
She slammed the door twice to make a point, and once Nat’s heartbeat went down, the basement was quiet again.
Soon he could again hear the humming behind the wall.
Garrison Keillor was speaking softly on the radio as Nat slid the skill saw across the sheet rock. He worked a small sliver of drywall away and peered inside with a pen light.
The hornets were a soft, humming blanket of shining red and yellow. They twitched, cleaning antennae and walking over their sleepier sisters. Occasionally one would buzz by, fluttering across the beam of Nat’s flashlight to another section of the paper nest.
“Thank you, oh God,” Keillor said, “for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”
Nat could see Mary’s bone-white flats, grinding the corpses of the yellowjackets into the dirt around the oak tree’s roots. She looked lighter than the air, but her footfalls came like hammer blows.
Nat could see himself sitting alone, sharing this house with the small guests who stayed tucked inside his walls. Out of his way, and he out of theirs.
But even in her kindness, Mary would come for them. Maybe more in fear than hate, but still she would wish them dead. Like Mattie would. Like Abbie. Simply because they were there.
“And it is enough,” Keillor whispered.
The hammer chewed through the drywall and its studs like fanged teeth, so that the basement coughed clouds of plaster into Nat’s face. The noise agitated the hornets.
“It…is enough,” Keillor finished with a sigh.
Nat’s arm burned, and then ached, and finally he could feel nothing at all. He swung again and again and again and…
“Nat!” he heard from upstairs. Mattie was stomping on the floor of the kitchen. The hornets could hear that too. “Nat, what are you doing down there?”
The wall studs shook and cracked against the hammer.
Mattie stomping on the floor again. Abbie asking: “What’s Dad doing?”
The hammer striking the awakening bed of hornets. Dozens flying away, higher up the wall, into the upper floors of the house.
The hammer killing, angering. Hornets finally buzzing out, trying to find the source of this sharp, sudden storm. Hornets pouring out.
Needles on his face and his neck. Needles by his ears. Needles that stuck, and stuck again.
Abbie upstairs: “Jesus, that’s the fifth one! Hasn’t Dad sprayed for these yet?”
Mattie stomping to the door. He hadn’t thought to lock it but the heated tide was too high behind his eyes, and he swung, feeling the hammer scrape against brick.
“Nat?” Mattie’s heavy steps, too fast for her to take proper stock of the cloud that grew in the room. “Nat, what are you-?”
“Mom!” Abbie started yelling. It sounded like she’d begun to stomp around as well. “Momma!”
Mattie was yelling too, now, but Nat could hardly hear her.
The wall was now near totally evacuated. Nat felt the heat in his mind burn through his face. His flesh felt tight and puckered. The room was blurred by fluttering wings. He had to fight his arm to move it.
He thought to wonder if Mattie and Abbie were still screaming. Above his head now, he could only hear the sound of hornets.
Going to a funeral today. Sad but the loss didn’t catch us entirely by surprise. Still, it occurs to me that for all the efforts by others at telling us how to best lead our lives, all we can do is just what feels right in the moment in which we do it.