Phil will miss the smell of meat and the feel of standing before a hot grill, so when you invite him to your annual Independence Day barbecue, make sure to keep him away from your new Weber Spirit E-330 so that his already-slack and bruised skin doesn’t melt further. His wife, Deborah, who is still alive and kind enough to let him sleep in their bedroom (she has, however, separated the two mattresses that once made up their California king, so the room looks inspired by I Love Lucy), will stand with you and lament poor Phil, who will sit on the end of the canvas chaise longue, a beer bottle slipping from his gummy grip. It will shatter on the concrete but fortunately none of the shards will fall into the pool and fuck with the filtration system you had to replace the summer before.
And speaking of the pool, you’ll need to be watchful of Sam and Therese’s kids, because water and the undead don’t mix particularly well. The boy, Troy, is still pretty active even though he took out all the skin on his knee when he got tripped in a pickup basketball game. It will still unnerve you to see the flash of white bone, even though it’s not nearly as pearlescent as it was when it was still alive with fat and blood. All of that stuff is gone, the wound now a brackish dark color, sick with rot and gangrene. Troy will limp and stare longingly at the rippling water, his younger sister Sally’s face just as despondent. You’ll ask your twin girls to keep it cool, to try, just this once, to skip the joy of plunging in, and they’ll listen because they love you. Everyone, you know, does.
When you go door-to-door stuffing mailboxes with flyers for the annual fun run and 5k, skip Barbara’s house, the large Victorian on the corner, the one she snatched up in her divorce settlement after catching her husband Bo plowing the mailman when she came home a day early from a conference on plastics, intending to surprise him. She spent years running marathons, body lithe and tight, so much so that even in death she’s still pretty spry, the atrophy that has warped and slowed so many others taking much longer to catch up with her. But she’s not supposed to run, as it makes popping blood vessels and severing ankle and knee ligaments way too easy, and so the flyer will just be a cruel reminder of what she no longer has: the inability to defend her four wins in a row in the women’s 31-40 category, her time improving steadily each year. Marcia Caldett and Pauline Snell stopped inviting her to Bunko on the third Thursday of every month out of spite, not that she ever showed up anyway.
And don’t say anything about the high heels, either, which Barbara insists on wearing despite the disaster last summer when she walked out in the hundred-and-five degree heat and got caught in the dip between flagstones when she went to check the mail and laid there on her right side, cheek abraded by the grass and her temple caved in where she clocked it against one of the sharp rocks. She still plies her face with makeup, as most of the undead women do, but hers is the least artfully applied, smeary wobbles around her droopy lips, her mascara crooked like she applied it on a turbulent plane. She dresses as if heading to a high class cocktail party, where the men will be decked out in tails, the women spangly and bronzed, their clavicles exposed, knees moisturized, teeth bleached. Even at the grocery store—she insists on shopping, still, even though everyone knows the undead cannot taste or digest properly, that she’ll shit out whatever herring or ninety-three percent lean beef she buys in depth-charge chunks that look just the same going in as they do coming out—Barbara is dressed to the nines, her flowing gowns catching on cart wheels and cereal displays. Children laugh and gawk when she snags one of the frilled, lacy extravagances (“It’s Gucci!” she howls) on a pyramid of packaged brioche, sending the buns tumbling to the floor of the bakery section.
You know she cries herself to sleep, because on some nights, when you take walks to escape the blare of the action movies your son marathons on the living room television, you can hear her, the groaning sorrow that she broadcasts from her open window, a grotesque moaning choked with mucous and tears. Or, perhaps, she’s simply losing control of language, her words and wishes twisting into a gurgling, animal mess.
The plague is indiscriminate, but Richie and Mark will be the most put-out by their un-deaths, salty and slandered and convinced that they suffered the early wham-bam of disease because they are gay. As if contagion could discriminate.
You like Richie and Mark, if for no other reason than they used to hit on you when you were at neighborhood parties. They would pass you cans of beer and ask if you’d been working out, slapping playful hands at your bicep, being entirely indiscreet as they scanned the shape of your shoulders and chest. Sometimes you dreamt of the three of you naked on a couch in a glamorous mansion with vaulted ceilings and marble floors and three-foot-tall golden vases on pedestals around you, your hands groping, tongues dragging, butt cheeks clenching. You would wake up with painful erections, your wife Marybeth snoring into her pillow, your mouth dry and head spinning. Sometimes you managed to coax out a surprise bout of morning sex, subdued because you left the bedroom door cracked and neither of you wanted to scamper to close it.
Richie and Mark will not flirt with you anymore because they will hole up in their house, a modern ranch with a pair of bay windows that always remind you of glassy breasts or pudgy cheeks, depending on your mood. Sometimes you’ll see one of them staring out, skin even more cadaverous against the sharp orange and pink and yellow shirts and plaid Burberry shorts they still insist on wearing. They still drink oolong tea even though Richie’s jaw and mouth have become half unhinged after what you suspect was an inadvisable round of sixty-nine (Mark once told you, smashed on Buffalo Trace, that he and Richie both hate anal sex, and so their sex life is nothing but a string of blow jobs exercised in exotic positions). They glower in the window together sometimes, an undead, LGBT American Gothic, pitchfork traded out for curtain wand, which one of them swipes across the glass, shuttering them from view.
You will try to invite them out, send texts and leave voice mails, but unlike Phil, they do not want to be seen, do not want to remember the life that has left them. They are enraged, they are grumbly, and you’re convinced that if there is an uprising of the undead, they will be the leaders.
The morning you discover that Marybeth and the twins are undead will be like any other, the air conditioning humming and pumping too-pure oxygen into your bedroom, the ceiling fan tilting and whirling as usual, sending a spray of breeze over your bare legs and toes that jut out from the twisted sheets. Marybeth’s snores will sound near enough the norm that you won’t notice that she’s really growling, that her flat back isn’t rising and falling as it should. You’ll tumble down to the kitchen and start on pancake batter as you do every Saturday—it will, cruelly, be a weekend, so you won’t be able to jet off to the office before seeing the girls, their matching T-shirts stained with dribbles of hacked-up blood—and when they first appear on the other side of the marble kitchen island you’ll swallow a shriek but won’t be able to keep your grip on the mixer, which will clatter to the floor and send uncooked batter splattering against the low cabinets.
The girls will say good morning, bouncy on their now-dead joints, eyes ringed with black bruises and deoxygenated skin, their mouths already wrinkling like prunes. You’ve heard of the worst cases, the ones that don’t realize they’ve died and been reanimated, and your stomach will turn, turn, turn as you recognize this lack of awareness in the girls, who will pull out chairs at the table in the breakfast nook and start pounding their dead fists on the tabletop, giggling and demanding that you add chocolate chips to the pancakes.
When your wife enters the room she will gasp, and the girls will scream and start to cry, but no one will say any real words to anyone else. And there you will be, standing over the hot griddle, considering what would happen if you shoved your face onto the sizzling surface so that your own skin could match theirs.
Two years before the undeath, the local PTO sold maps as a fundraiser, your neighborhood sketched out on blue paper, each house filled with an advertisement for a local business. You will staple yours to a corkboard in your home office above the desk cluttered with family photos and tax returns. Every time a neighbor dies, you will poke a thumbtack into the promotion for the local plumber, for Bart’s Books, for The Magellan, the pirate-themed bar where the attractive woman who serves IPAs wears a billowy white blouse that leaves no question about the color of her bra or shape of her breasts (until she, too, is undead, and can no longer grip the huge 22-ounce pint glasses with enough strength to avoid dropping them to the KegWorks bar mats lining the slick floor). The day you skewer your own house you will finally let out a gunky howl—the girls and Marybeth asleep, following the emotional exhaustion of seeing themselves in the bathroom mirror, screaming and clawing at their own rotting shapes—and put your head in your hands, pound your forehead against the sharp edge of the desk hard enough that you will feel the skin break like a blister, seeping blood onto a stack of leave request forms you brought home the day before, most of which you’re sure don’t matter anymore because half of your employees no longer breathe.
It will get worse in the fall and winter, when the undead suffer frostbite and their skin begins to flake away like dandruff and the rigor mortis that calcifies their joints ramps up, muscles twisted and knotted with charley horses. Your children will howl from their beds at night and cry when you try to pack them up for school, complaining about the mockery the undead suffer at the hands of the living. You will regret telling them to simply bite the hands that tease them after they are both sent home, expelled for infecting a perfectly healthy blond boy whose parents say they are going to sue but, fortunately for you, die the next night, rising to moan threats into your voicemail. Your girls will sulk around the house, beg you to cover all the mirrors, blacken all the shiny surfaces so that they cannot see themselves. Your wife will begin sleeping on the couch, her death-stink seeping into the cushions.
Phil will throw himself off his roof during a snowstorm and won’t be found for two weeks, buried beneath the white drifts that pile up overnight. Deborah, still alive, won’t know how he managed to climb the ladder.
Richie and Mark will finally try anal sex, the results disastrous and exaggerated by gossip (you will hear that Richie’s rectum tore like rice paper, and he bleeds through all of his underwear and every surface he sits on is slicked with his blood); they’ll never be seen again.
When Barbara tries to off herself for good with a shotgun, she will simply split her head in two and start saying she understands how horses see the world. For the sake of melodrama, she will begin eating grass, shoving it into the split holes of her mouth, where it will pile up into a blood-sticky mash that you will one day use to put her back together, smacking her two lolling heads against each other like melon halves, the grassy salve pasting her back whole. She won’t thank you, but she won’t try to bite you, either.
Soon you will feel like you are the only living person left. Your accounting firm will be a den of shuffling undead; Todd in HR will stop cinching his tie or brushing his teeth, and your secretary won’t look you in the eye; her mobile headset will gouge into her flattened, runny ears. Even the albino woman from down the street, who only tends her garden at night and shops at the twenty-four hour Piggly Wiggly because too much sun hurts her eyes and burns her like a vampire, will end up dead, and you’re not quite sure how she, the hermetically sealed widow with skin like white-out and flashes of red in her eyes, has managed to kick the bucket before you.
You know your neighbors hold it against you, the tan of your arms, the muscles of your calves, the fact that you don’t have any bones poking out through your pants or T-shirt. That you can still mow the lawn and shovel snow and eat real food. The hunger, Marybeth will say, is the worst part.
“I want to fucking gobble down your brain,” she will tell you. You’re not sure if she’s joking, because she will start making a sound that could be laughter or a sob. “And I’m so horny, not that you can do anything about it.”
It’s true; after Richie and Mark’s butt sex fiasco, you will lose all interest in your wife’s genitals. You surf the web at work—who wants their taxes done now, especially by the living?—looking up the porn stars of your adolescence, finding stills of Jenna James, Jenna Haze. You’ll wonder why they’re all named Jenna. You will ache at the sight of perky breasts, pink vulvas. Want will tingle through the back of your neck and in your mouth and chest, your sternum warming like an electric blanket, but your crotch will be steady and unmoved like a parked Volvo. You will feel at yourself through your pinstripe pants (why you still dress in business attire when your associates are decked in bloodied, gunky flannels or whatever else they wore when they died, you’re not sure), but nothing will happen. You will channel every sensation of fucking your wife, conjure the memory of the one threesome you stumbled into in college, even reconstruct the one time you experimented with another guy, also in college, the musky smell of his crotch like something out of the woods. But no matter how hard you wish and rub and squeeze, nothing will happen. You will sigh and crumple, open an Excel spreadsheet, and type in numbers that mean nothing to you.
At home, you will stare at the map, your town so engulfed in tacks it looks like a riddled switchboard. You will run your fingers over the ridges like you are reading Braille, pluck out the tack on your house, stick your index finger with it, and watch blood bead up on your skin. Then you’ll smear it along the quarter-inch spike before plunging the tack back in. In your imagination your blood blooms and tracks across the map, spilling over every house and street, plunging the ads for the local ice cream parlor and Roto-Rooter franchise a sticky ruby. You will pinch your eyes closed and then squeeze your inner thigh with your clean hand, but when you open them the map is still there, blue and blitzed by your signs of the dead.
Your girls will howl out for you. They only want to smell you, to see you, even though your coursing life depresses them. When you enter their bedroom, they will be playing with a pair of lively, pink Barbie dolls.
“We want hair like hers,” one of them will say.
“Long and flowing. And legs like hers.”
You will sigh and kneel next to them.
“Don’t we all,” you will say, folding the cuffs of your dress shirt to expose the hairy meat of your arms. You will pull your girls close so they can taste, smell. “Don’t we all.”
Joe Baumann holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he served as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou: an Online Literary Journal and the Southwestern Review. He is the author of Ivory Children: Flash Fictions, and his work has appeared in Eleven Eleven, Zone 3, and ellipsis…, among others. Joe teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. He is the founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Gateway Review: A Journal of Magical Realism.
George L Stein is a writer and photographer living in Michigan City in Northwest Indiana. George works in both film and digital formats in the urban decay, architecture, fetish, and street photography genres. His emphasis is on composition with the juxtaposition of beauty and decay lying at the center of his aesthetic. Northwest Indiana’s rustbelt legacy provides ample locations for industrial backdrops. George has been published in Midwestern Gothic, Gravel, Foliate Oak, After Hours, Hoosier Lit, Gulf Stream Magazine, and Darkside Magazine.