Diffuse rays of dusty sunlight cut through the cheap Venetian blinds on the window by my bed and smacked me in the face until I was awake. The ceiling fan chopped impotently at the air spinning a vortex of dust motes through the golden beams crashing into my eyes. The motor whirred and buzzed electrically as it struggled to turn over inside its housing. I reached for the carpet and groped blindly over the well-worn Berber until I found the pack of Pall Malls sticking out of my crumpled jeans. Empty, except for a half spent book of matches and some tobacco dust, I crushed the pack in my fist and lobbed it at the window. Grudgingly, I crawled out of bed and started another day.
The apartment was a Spartan little efficiency unit, one of a dozen or so in the old Dixie Motel on the edge of town. The motel had been one of those sleazy, pay by the hour “No Tell” motels a long time ago and now was about the lowest rent apartment building in the little town of Berry Hill. My single bed, more of a cot really, sat against one wall while a mini fridge, hot plate and record player sat against the opposite wall. There were no pictures, no plaques or mementos of past glory or lost loves hanging up anywhere in the room. I slipped an album out of the milk crate by the old Victrola, blew the dust from the grooves and gently laid it on the turntable. The needle touched wax and, after a pop and a static click, Sam and Dave sang Soothe Me to start the day off right.
There was half a bottle of bourbon in the milk crate with my records. I pulled it out, took a sip and put it back. It had been a rough night full of bad dreams and haunting memories that had done their best to keep me up. Twenty years of this job was enough to make anyone a little nuts and, truth be known, I was starting to think it might be time to hang it all up. I laughed at the idea as I stepped into the bathroom and took a look in the mirror. This was the life I’d been handed. What else was I going to do? Blue eyes stared accusingly at me from the reflection in the glass. Buzz cut brown hair was receding little by little in a widow’s peak exposing the bone white scalp while a three day beard covered a scarred face and square jaw. I had never been the Olympian ideal but a bit of a beer belly was starting to make me look like a sad old drunk instead of the soldier I’d been.
I scratched my stomach absently. “You’re not a kid at thirty three,” I muttered to myself.
From the floor by my bed, my cell phone started to ring. It wouldn’t be good news. It never was. Grabbing my jacket from the closet by the sink, I staggered back to the bed and found my pants. It was time to start another day with the dead.
I hate Tuesdays; they’re always the worst. My kid brother died on a Tuesday. My wife left me on a Tuesday. Civilization as we knew it came to a screaming stop on a Tuesday and every day since had been a nightmare. Mondays suck and Wednesdays aren’t much better but in the annals of human history there’s never been a redeeming factor for a Tuesday and this one was looking no different as I turned onto Steele Road. The deputy was waiting at the end of a long driveway and breathed a heavy, noticeable sigh of relief as I pulled up alongside him. He couldn’t have been more than twenty two, rail thin with those baby features that wouldn’t be weathered away from his face for another decade at least. He barely fit inside the baggy beige uniform and offered a relieved smile as he handed me the paperwork on his clipboard.
“What happened,” I asked, looking up at him from the driver’s seat.
“Little girl flagged me down at the bottom of the hill,” he said nervously. His voice was still breaking a bit as if he still hadn’t hit puberty. “She said her mom was dead and that her uncle had killed her. I put up a cordon and held it down until you arrived.”
“So, we’ve got at least one corpse?”
“Far as I know.”
I stared at him for a moment. “You mean you haven’t been up there yet?”
“I’m young, not stupid,” he retorted. “Sheriff said we’re supposed to hold our ground until an undertaker shows up. We keep it contained, we don’t engage unless we have to. You know the procedure.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Well, I’m here now so let’s head up there and get this scene cleared, huh?”
The deputy shook his head. “All due respect, maybe you didn’t hear me? I ain’t going up that hill. Period.”
“So it’s a potential homicide, no reanimation involved, and a crazed killer could still be on the loose and you’re not the least bit curious?”
He shook his head.
“At least tell me you got some smokes I can bum off you?”
“Sorry, I don’t smoke,” he said with a shrug. “Those things’ll kill you.”
“So I’ve heard.”
The hearse groaned and struggled up the steep hill leading to the house. The shocks were bad and the suspension needed work so every minuscule bump, every loose pile of gravel and divot felt like a bomb blast rocking the car from side to side. Clearing a house was dangerous with a partner. Alone it was almost a guaranteed suicide mission. I had a call in to both my cohorts, Pete Nebraska and Gladys Campbell, neither of whom had called me back. Since deputy Fife at the bottom of the hill had no intention of helping me, I was doing this one solo.
Story of my life.
I parked by the front porch and immediately started inspecting the damage. It was a small little two story with one of those flimsy, cheap doors they used to slap across every cookie cutter house in every subdivision in the known world. It wouldn’t have held up to a glancing blow from a baseball, let alone whatever the hell had taken it apart. With a heavy sigh, I threw the paperwork on the dash and slid my sawed off from the scabbard under the driver’s seat.
The stairs were solid, heavy wood and didn’t creak at all as I carefully climbed up and took a peek inside the house. There was blood on the welcome mat and a small pile of glass that had been some ridiculous frosted oval window in the center of the door. This led straight into a vestibule with rooms off to either side with a staircase straight ahead. The trail of carnage seemed to lead to the left so I followed it. Bloody foot prints, hunks of flesh and splintered debris from furniture were all across the off white carpet and sticking in and out of the drywall of the living room. There was a clump of long, blonde hair dangling from the ceiling fans broken blades. This led on behind the stairwell to a kitchen that was a littered mess of cutlery and appliances that had been used in a pitiful attempt to fend off the attacker. The dining room table had a streak of red slapped across the top that ended in a thick puddle in the floor by a fish tank buttressed up against the side of the stairs.
So far, all I had found was the lingering mess, the evidence of an epic struggle that had ended badly for whoever had fought for their survival. There were no bodies and, worse yet, no noises. Maybe I would get lucky; the killer dragged his prey into the tree line and towards the border fence to finish his feast. I reached instinctively for my cigarettes and found empty space. My luck was not going to hold out. I could feel it. Karma and I had a long, tumultuous relationship not unlike the one I’d had with my first wife.
I crossed myself as I looked up towards the second floor. I wasn’t Catholic but it couldn’t hurt.
The carpet on the steps was a plush, spongy sort of material that should have muffled each step I took. Instead, they slopped in the sticky fluids that had saturated them and groaned under every move I made. The top of the stairs opened up into a hall that made an L and circled back around behind me. Call it intuition, precognition or just a hunch after a lifetime spent on the job. I felt eyes staring at me over my shoulder. I turned around and looked up to find mommy dearest waiting eagerly for her prey.
Her face was gone, ripped clean from her skull leaving bulging gray eyes and a skeleton grin inside her gore soaked visage as she looked down at me. Clumps of blonde hair were soaked red and caked in a mess of her own fluid and tissue. Her ring finger had been degloved and was a skeletal talon that tapped anxiously on the railing as she continued to stare curiously at me. She was wearing a white bathrobe, stained maroon from the confrontation that ended her life. Her jaw dropped open and a steadily swelling tongue lolled out, licking across the bare bone where her lips should have been.
I didn’t waste any time. I raised the shotgun, took aim and pulled the trigger.
I forgot to rack it before I went inside. I pushed the switch in and racked it forward but I was too late. The petite, putrid mess dove over the railing and landed on my back. My face slammed into the carpeted stairs which did nothing to soothe the impact. The shotgun flew out of my hands and landed a step above me. Her hands clawed viciously at my jacket, her bare teeth snapping in my ear as she tried to take a bite out of my head. I pushed up hard, hoping to buck her off my back so that I could grab my shotgun. Instead, the motion sent us cartwheeling over each other until we crashed through the remains of the front door and out onto the porch. Something crunched as I hit the hardwood and rolled down the second flight of steps into the yard. Breathless, I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the pistol on my hip.
Lifeless eyes stared at me from the door. Teeth snapped at the air. I would have been more concerned but the head was on backwards now, the body it was barely attached too was still and motionless. I fired a single shot into the left eye, or the right, I was a little disoriented by its angle and the fall I’d taken. I dragged the corpse out of the doorway and started up the stairs for the second time that morning, I noticed a picture hanging on the wall as I inched closer to my shotgun. There was a little blonde haired girl in her mother’s arms. The mother, who was a lot better looking in the picture than in person, was smiling brightly as a large, muscular man towered over her holding a skinnier, much nerdier looking fellow in glasses up in the air like a dumbbell. I was praying like hell that the nerd was the uncle who had done all the damage and killing this morning.
My prayers went unanswered.
I was a step away from my shotgun when a large, steel toed boot stomped down on the barrel. Looking up, I met a man wearing a blue mechanic’s uniform with the name Fred in red cursive over the left shirt pocket. His arms were as big as tree trunks, his neck rippling with muscles and veins. He was a jaundiced shade of dead that would have been comical to me if he wasn’t standing on the better of my two guns glaring at me with milk clouded eyes. His mouth was torn off revealing a muzzle of sharp, broken teeth that , while smiling, seemed nowhere as happy or pleasant as they had in the picture on the wall.
Now, my grandfather always taught me to do a job right. He had been an undertaker before the resurrection and believed in being thorough. Nothing says thorough quite like face full of twelve gauge buck shot so I grabbed the stock, hoping I could dislodge it and maybe topple the big man over onto his back in the process. The ghoul looked down at the gun, at me, and snarled belching a cloud of putrid breath that lingered in the air between us. Taking a step back I took aim with the pistol and emptied the remaining four rounds from the cylinder. The first rule of successful undertaking: get ‘em in the first shot. Bullets popped bloody holes in Fred’s name tag, neck , shoulder and left ear but none of them hit the skull or penetrated into the spinal column. The big cadaver looked down at his uniform, up at me and growled.
I remember a feeling of weightlessness as big Fred’s fist slammed into my chest and sent me flying down the stairs and into the floor in the vestibule. My arm and leg caught some of the railing on the way down and sent a hunk of wood straight through the fish tank. I had goldfish flopping in my ear as the monster slowly walked down the steps. My shotgun was behind him. My pistol was gone. I knew it was a bad idea before I went into the fight but there I was, breathless and burning in my chest and back as I struggled for air, wondering how fast my life would flash in front of me. Big feet lumbered from up the stairs, a familiar growl echoed from the fetid trenches of dead lungs. I struggled for my feet but I was still choking for air. That’s when I felt the hands around the collar of my jacket, jerking violently.
I was out on the front porch beside the dead woman before I heard the shots, before I caught my breath and saw the familiar grin of my best friend and business partner standing over me with his twenty two caliber rifle and his cowboy hat like a pudgy reject from a John Wayne film. He was olive skinned with a bushy mustache that draped over fat lips perpetually curled up in a smile. He wore a pair of dirty overalls with his badge, a glinting skull and crossed scythes, stuck sideways on the left strap. Big Fred tumbled down the stairs and rolled to a stop at Pete Nebraska’s feet.
“You just can’t wait to piss people off, can you, boss man?” He laughed as he helped me to my feet.
“What can I say? It’s a gift. Took you long enough to get my message,” I told him, brushing drywall and goldfish water from my jacket.
“Message? I saw the cop car on my way to work. Figured I’d be nosy.”
“Glad you were,” I said, rubbing my chest. “Want to take the paperwork on this one, give me a chance to find some semblance of normal for my day?”
“My pleasure,” he said, slapping me on the back with a pudgy hand. “Besides, heard them talking on the radio when I met Barney back there. Something weird’s going on over by the interstate.”
The cops had done a nice job cordoning off the off ramp by the time I showed up. The sergeant in control of the scene said nothing to me as he approached the hearse. He handed me a clipboard with the paperwork I needed and then motioned for his men to back away. Because this was the sort of thing I wanted to deal with, still aching from my encounter with Fred and faceless mommy. I got out and slid the shotgun into my hands -careful to make sure it was racked and ready. It was just another day with the dead for me, after all. The deputies were keeping a small crowd of parked cars and slack jawed gawkers at bay as I walked down to the bottom of the freeway off ramp. Times had changed but people were basically the same as ever. A little gore, a little blood and then off to dinner with the family or church or whatever it was that made them feel good about themselves. A little bit of excitement at someone else’s expense and then off to become oblivious about the darkness in the world.
I hate people.
The guy on the ramp wouldn’t have warranted much consideration from any of them anyway. He was a drifter by the looks of him, just another bum looking for a helping hand on his way to nowhere in particular. He was wearing some ratty jeans and an old OD green jacket with an American flag stitched on the back. Some kind soul had placed a cardboard sign in his hands. “Will Work for Brains” in bloody red paint that was still dripping under his grayed fingers. Cute.
His face was blistered, eyes that glassed over milky gray that make you wonder how it is they actually see you when you come to call. There were a pack of Marlboros still in the plastic in his jacket pocket and a look on his dead, blistered face that seemed to antagonize. Come and take ‘em, Chuck. That’s when I recognized the scar over his left eye, a big, hooking scar that I had put there when I was nineteen with the butt of a broken rifle. I knew this man.
“Herb,” I muttered. “Herb West? What happened to you?”
I didn’t expect to get an answer, not in so many words. The ghoul suddenly focused on my voice and in those lifeless eyes made a plea. Herb West had been an undertaker once, a long time ago. A near miss during a fire fight ended in a fist fight and a prompt pistol whipping after he blew apart my rifle with a stray bullet. His right arm was burned and blistered. He raised it up, reached out to me. I raised the shotgun, squeezed the trigger and watched as a spray of red erupted above his neck. The body collapsed lifelessly onto the pavement. I reached down and took the cigarettes out of his pocket, unwrapped them as I walked back to the hearse. I almost didn’t see the note that fell from the cellophane. I snatched it before it hit the pavement and crumpled it into my fist.
I sat down in the hearse, pushed the cigarette lighter in under the radio and waited for it to pop out. The inside of the cylinder glowed an emberous red-orange as I pushed the cigarette into it. With a deep, soothing breath I took in the flavor and exhaled a toxic halo of gray smoke that spun around me. I opened my fist and smoothed out the note over my right leg.
“See you soon. Love, L.”
Yeah, nothing cryptic about that. I leaned my head back in the seat and took another drag. I hate Tuesdays.
There was a cold can of RC and a bottle of aspirin sitting on the reception desk when I finally made my way into the office. Gladys was sitting behind them smiling at me. She was in her late twenties, blonde and skinny and bookish with big glasses and patterned dresses that made her look like some housewife from the days of black and white television. You’d never guess that she was an undertaker or that she had been nicknamed The Hammer. She kept a twenty pound sledge and a sawed off shotgun under her desk in case of emergencies as she filed reports and made sure that the paperwork I loathed got shipped off to the proper bureaucrats who paid us for our work. If she was smiling, I was in trouble.
“Rough morning?” she asked genially. I popped the soda can and took a sip.
“You might say,” I answered. “What’s with the snacks?”
“Can’t a girl do something nice for you without you thinking there’s an ulterior motive?”
She shrugged and nodded her head towards my office door.
“Caldwell dropped something off this morning for you,” she said apologetically. “I threw it on the pile in your office. Looked like another subpoena.”
“Great, love letters from some kiss a corpse, hug a tomb lawyer with a hard on for me,” I groaned, popping a fistful of aspirin. “Any other good news you need to deliver?”
“Yes,” she said, coming around from behind the desk. She was short and sweet and I liked her. She liked me too but we were trying desperately to keep it out of the office and away from any real emotion. Neither of us was the marrying kind and the last thing we wanted was a relationship in an industry where you were likely to get your face bitten off one day. She put her arms around me and squeezed me gently. “Pete told me what happened this morning. I’m glad you’re okay.”
I kissed her on the top of the head and pulled away.
“I’m in one piece.” I groaned as one of my fingers popped. “Well, mostly in one piece.”
She smiled and went back to her desk. I carried my soda into my office and gently lowered myself into the seat behind my desk. The office had actually been a funeral parlor back before the rising and the near end of humanity. It had been in the family for almost a century and, despite some damage during the wars it was a sturdy and recognizable symbol for what we did. The embalming room had become an armory, the small chapel with its stained glass windows had become a reception area and office and the small office for the funeral director off to the side of the pulpit is where I sat and pretended to be the boss while Gladys managed the books and took care of business. Pete’s daughter did some flower arrangements and sympathy cards out of the room where they used to sell tombstones and coffins and we always made it a point to follow up with the next of kin to make sure they were okay.
A small window behind my desk looked out at the intersection of Thompson and Berry where the funeral parlor had sat for so long. Thompson was all business, had always been business with shops and restaurants lining both sides of the street. Berry, on the other hand, was residential; old houses full of happy families living on the edge of oblivion as if nothing could ever hurt them. Berry Hill was a border town, surrounded at the outskirts by a fence designed to keep the living dead inside the ruins of old Nashville and out of the civilized reaches slowly taking hold through the south.
I started on the pile of debris and wreckage I called my desk. Like any rarely used piece of furniture it had become a catch all for every bit of garbage and effluvia in the office. The top layer was bills and official correspondence laced with fliers from General Li’s Confederate Buffett. My latest subpoena from the offices of Carver and Caldwell, the local deader’s rights attorneys was on top of a takeout box with some leftover noodles. I shoved the box and the subpoena into the garbage where they belonged. The rest of the stack was no better, just a lot of red tape and useless paperwork in triplicate to show where Pete and I took out some rotters and earned the federal bounty. A little cash for a little carnage, I just missed the good old days when I didn’t have to file a report every time I fired a shot. After a few minutes staring at the pile, I got up from the desk, stretched and wandered off into the main office again.
Gladys smiled at me as I stopped at her desk.
“What can I do for you now, boss man?”
“How about lunch,” I asked.
“Don’t let the skirt fool you,” she said incredulously. “I’ve killed men for less sexist requests.”
“I didn’t mean go fix me a sandwich,” I laughed. “Let’s go and grab a bite to eat.”
“I thought you’d never ask.
Tupie’s was a greasy little cafeteria in the middle of town where you could get the best bacon and mustard sandwich in the state. Yes, I know it sounds disgusting at first but the only thing that wanted to stay alive inside the walls worse than humans when I was a kid were pigs and the only condiment that seemed to survive the whole damned apocalypse was mustard so, combined with some fresh baked bread it was a staple of any growing kid’s diet back in those days. Now it was seen as a poor man’s dinner and no one made it better than Arlo Tupie. He was pushing ninety, frail and skinny with a bald head hidden under a paper hat and a grease stained white apron over his dirty jeans and t-shirt. He was blind in one eye, hard of hearing and a little crotchety from time to time, but damn, could he cook.
Gladys and I were sitting at the bar admiring the old black and white photos hanging on the walls. They were all scenes from Berry Hill and the better Nashville area before the fall full of country music legends and local landmarks. The Parthenon and Athena stood proudly in Centennial Park, a fitting tribute for the Athens of the South. I saw it once, in passing as we made our retreat after the dead heads beat us during the Battle of Nashville. I smiled as Tupie fried up the bacon for our sandwiches.
“So, why’d you do it,” Gladys asked as she took a sip of her water. She was looking at me intently as she waited for me to speak.
“Do what,” I asked. “I’ve got a lot to answer for so you’ve got to be specific.”
She laughed. “Become an undertaker. Why’d you do it? I’ve known you five years and it doesn’t seem like your first choice of a career.”
I nodded. “It’s the family business. Grandad and his dad and all the Stones since they came to America have been undertakers. It’s what I know and I’m not half bad at it.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“Because I owe it to them,” I said. “My brother and Hatchet, my grandpa.”
“Harvey ‘The Hatchet’ Stone,” she said, giggling. “Killed thirty ghouls with a rusty hatchet on Hell Night and helped found the Undertaker’s Commission. He was a legend. Apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
“If you weren’t running the books I’d be six feet under. So what about you? Why does a pretty, college educated girl decided to ride a desk for a bunch of corpse catchers in the middle of nowhere?”
“They called me Hammer for a reason,” she said. “You may have noticed, I have a bit of a temper and busting some cannibal heads with a twenty pound sledge is great stress relief.” She shrugged, thought about it a bit more, then added: “I guess we’re all running from something in the end. Figured I’d go where no one would look for me.
Tupie dropped the plates in front of us, grunted something unintelligible and wandered back to his stove. I was about to eat my meal when the doorbell behind us chimed. It felt like the start of every bar fight in every spaghetti western I’d ever seen. The door swung open, the bad guy walked in and immediately the room was quiet. That alone wasn’t necessarily a bad thing until the smell of rotten meat overpowered the delicious bacon in front of me. I really wanted to take that first bite but I knew that just wasn’t going to happen. Gladys nodded as I looked into her green eyes. She’d already turned around and taken a quick assessment.
“Three in the doorway,” she said quietly. “Too packed for guns and I don’t have my sledge. How do you want to play this?”
“Hey, Tupie, you got some skillets I can borrow?”
The old man put two cast iron skillets in front of us on the counter, shook his head at the door and looked at me with his good eye.
“Don’t make a mess,” he grunted before returning to the grill.
Gladys took one, I took the other and the plan sort of evolved naturally from there. She slowly maneuvered herself to the emergency exit at the back of the diner as I climbed up on the bar beside my bacon sandwich. Pulling the expandable asp out of its holster on my belt, I started banging one piece of metal against another drawing not only the patrons’ attention, but the cadavers’ as well.
“If I can have your attention, please,” I announced as the Three Stooges slowly shuffled towards me. “My partner is about to open that back door and set off the fire alarm. When she does, I would like everyone to make a calm, orderly exit. This situation is under control.”
It’s the little lies that give me hope.
Gladys popped the door, triggered the alarm and stepped out of the way. Immediately, a sea of human bodies stampeded through the diner, past the corpses and the bar and all but trampled one another as they ran screaming into the street. Meanwhile, Larry, Curly and Moe were getting a little too close for comfort. They were a few weeks old, bloated and putrescent with black, mottled skin swollen and blistered from the slow decomposition. They were all wearing business suits, almost identical in color and stained in blood and bodily fluids. The fattest, or maybe just the most swollen of the trio, had a shaved head and pale eyes that had bulged out of their sockets over his puffy cheeks. The second had a bowl cut black and a hole where his nose should have been. The third I imagined might have had some red perm but he was scalped and as bald as Curly but with bits exposed skull showing.
Moe grabbed at my ankles and tried to yank me from the table but I kicked him back and joined him on the floor. He was a bit shorter than me and his hands were swollen so full of fluid that they looked more like rain filled garbage bags than appendages. He opened his mouth full of jagged, yellow teeth and let out a hiss of air that rattled from his chest and through his vocal chords in a deep, guttural growl. I turned away from his breath and swung the skillet. His neck cracked, his head fell over onto his right shoulder and he immediately rolled into the floor next to an overturned table by the bar. His hands had erupted in a foul splash that would have made me puke if I’d actually had anything in my stomach. I swept the room with my eyes and saw Gladys rolling Curly out the exit door with a skillful swipe of the skillet in her hands.
I turned to line up Larry for one last pratfall and found that he was already on top of me. He had stepped on the broken fragments of his comrade’s skull, assuring his demise, in order to take a bite out of me. I swung the skillet but he grabbed it and ripped it from my hand. Before the asp in my other hand could crack down into his sickly, skeletal face those yellow fangs were in my arm, gnawing down as hard as they could. Most of them broke against the skin, too weak and loosely held in his mouth to do anything but roll to one side or the other but one of his canines was true and opened a vein. I screamed and drew my pistol, pressing it against the bald white of his dome. I didn’t even hear the thunder crack as the shot sent brain and bone across the counter and into the innocent remains of my lunch.
The tooth was still stuck in my arm as I rinsed it with the glass of water I’d intended to have with my meal. Gladys had raced back in when she heard the shot, grimaced as she saw me cradling my bleeding arm. She pulled a handkerchief from a pocket on her skirt, yanked the tooth from the wound and held the cloth to my skin until the bleeding stopped.
“Ain’t ya’ gonna’ shoot him,” Tupie shrieked from behind the counter as he saw her bandaging my injury.
“I would, but I’m hoping to get a raise later this year,” she answered with a smile. “Can’t very well do that if the boss is dead.”
“Fucking hospital trip,” I groaned. “It’s just too much to ask for to have a nice, quiet lunch in this town, isn’t it?”
She put her head on my shoulder and laughed.
“You wouldn’t know what to do if this town was quiet,” she chuckled.
The coroner carted off the Stooges to the morgue as Gladys carted me off to the hospital. The most dangerous misconception of the last half century was that a bite from the undead was fatal. A lot of old B horror flicks and exploitation films showed the tiniest of scratches from a zombie’s bite leading to an immediate infection and death that was always followed up by reanimation and more death. The truth was, when you died, you came back no matter what the circumstances. Overdose on pills? You’re a zombie. Bleed out from a knife wound? You’re a zombie. As far as anyone who had studied it could tell, it was a genetic anomaly, some freak of radiation or medication that had mutated the brain in every man, woman and child on the planet. The only thing that kept you from getting back up was disconnecting the brain entirely, flipping that life switch to a permanent “off” position.
This wasn’t to say that a dead head’s bite wasn’t a medical emergency. With over four hundred different bacteria and germs working to break down the body and return it to the earth from whence it came, there was no telling what you would end up with. Lots of people died from bite related infections and turned days later, adding to the hysteria over the myth. The emergency room doc knew me pretty well. My body was a tapestry of old bite marks that I’d inherited over the last twenty years, many of which he had personally treated. They debrided the wound, that is to say scoured it until that tiny tooth mark was a decent crater on my wrist, cleaned it out real nice and sterile with alcohol and antibiotic creams and then hooked me up to nearly four hours’ worth of preemptive intravenous antibiotics.
I felt like I’d been hit by a freight train as Gladys helped me hobble up the stairs and into my apartment. She lowered me onto the cot against the wall and started to look around for something. She looked under the sink, around my footlocker and mini fridge and finally stopped by the milk crate where my albums were. She pulled out the handle of whisky, took a belt and then handed me the bottle.
“So, this is it, huh?”
“Lifestyles of the broke and desperate,” I quipped. “They’re doing a photo shoot next week I think.”
“Why do you do this to yourself, Charlie?”
She sat down beside me on the cot and slid her hand into mine.
“It’s easier this way,” I said, staring at the record player in the corner. “Can’t lose anyone else this way.”
“Can’t find anyone worth losing this way,” she said. “I have a kid sister still up north in Michigan. She comes down here every other month to visit me. That’s a twelve hour drive over six hundred miles of dangerous territory and I worry like hell about her every second of that trip. She’d never listen if I told her to stop coming and I’d never cut her out of my life just because I thought it might keep her safe. What’s the point of any of this if we can’t find some love and affection from time to time?”
Without another word she stood up, walked back to the milk crate and rummaged through the albums. She grinned and pulled one out of its cover. She blew the dust from the grooves and gently placed it on the turntable. Carefully she put the needle on the wax. Static crackled, popped and then gave way to the familiar beat of Sam and Dave’s Soothe Me. She reached up into the bun of strawberry blonde hair on top of her head, pulled away two clips and let it fall gently on her shoulders. Her petite, manicured fingers worked slowly along the buttons of her blouse until it was undone and lying at her feet in the floor. The skirt fell next. She walked the short distance between us in slow, deliberate steps that fell in time with the swaying of her hips and the rhythm of the music. She straddled my lap and placed her hands at either side of my battered face.
“What’s the point of living, Charlie, if we aren’t willing to have a little fun?”