30 April 2009

My Best Friend's Corpse

I was best friends with Kyle DeManais from the time we met on the first day of kindergarten until the day he died. I don't think any of us really recovered after a drunk driver smashed him into a coma, a coma that lasted for almost two weeks and left him, left all of us, hovering there between life and death.

I remember sitting in the waiting room one afternoon after school with Kyle's mother. I'd been there almost every day and sometimes she ignored me like I was a reminder that he'd been on his way to my house, that if he hadn't been on the way to my house he'd still be healthy and alive.

"Oh, Lisa, honey," Mrs. DeManais said one day toward the end and she brushed a lock of hair behind my ear in the exact same way my mother did. "You really should show your face. You're so pretty."

I immediately pulled the hair free, just like I did when my own mother tucked it back there. I didn't feel pretty and especially not while sitting with my best friend's mother in a hospital waiting room.

The doctors never gave his family any real hope that he would recover or, that if he did miraculously recover, he'd be anything close to the same as he'd been before the accident. They predicted something they called a "vegetative state."

His parents' marriage lasted just under a year after they'd pulled the plugs and buried Kyle and they both moved to completely different cities as if putting that much distance between themselves and the accident, between themselves and each other, would somehow make it easier to deal with the senseless death of their only child. I don't know; maybe it helped them. I just know that I never saw either one of them again.

"Sometimes, something like this makes people change," my parents told me. "Maybe it's for the best. Maybe this is what the Mr. and Mrs. DeManais need to do."

I had no way to find out if running away to another city was the answer. Maybe I would have liked to run away, too, but I had to stay here in this town and it sure didn't help me deal with the loss of my friend or get over it or move on or anything else people say you're supposed to do. What I did was sort of hover in an my own emotional coma, neither depressed about nor reconciled to Kyle's death, not moving on but certainly not staying stuck. I was all over the place, all churning on the inside and placid on the outside.

What are the five stages of grief? I was in all of them and none of them simultaneously. I was 13 and I'd lost my first boyfriend before we'd had time to become involved "in that way." But then the zombie plague descended, and all that grief and all those feelings just got pushed aside under the onslaught of terror and bloodshed and atrocity. I just remember one long scream that seemed to go on for weeks and weeks and weeks.

After the things settled down, after those long weeks of protracted chaos and panic and courage and cowardice, our little suburban community had reorganized itself into a living-dead-free enclave with tenuous connections to other such enclaves along the Eastern Seaboard. We were all learning as we went while surrounded by the shuffling, idiotic horde of zombies just outside our increasingly strengthened barrier.

We got irregular and usually pointless updates from the government-in-exile in Colorado, and we exchanged information with other survivors via short wave and CB radio, most in our general area but some as far away as Europe or South America. Our dads would huddle over those radio sets for hours and come away with ideas they deemed good and ideas they deemed terrible. They pooled their weapons and their limited ammunition and whatever skills they had. They learned new skills and improvised or adapted when forced.

Sometimes one of their contacts went off the air. Once, it was rumored, they could hear the screaming through the radio until it went dead. Other times, there was no way to know. Someone somewhere would stop answering, would stop broadcasting their call sign and whether overrun by blood-hungry zombies or just out of batteries, we could never be sure, but the grown-ups always took it very hard when they lost communication with another group. It seemed to make them feel more alone, but I couldn't understand how anyone could feel more alone than we already were.

Our lush, green, well-watered suburban lawns were replanted with carefully irrigated corn, beans, and squash. We stopped having pets and started breeding dogs and cats and rabbits and guinea pigs for animal protein. Eventually, we even started having school again with grown-ups and high school kids as volunteer teachers.

It was weird, I'll admit, but not much weirder to my barely adolescent eyes than the world had been already. Adults were still too bossy and intrusive, maybe even more so. Little children were still too much of a reminder of how young I really was. It was a different world, to be sure, but all the barbed wire and reinforced checkpoints weren't that much different than curfews and hall passes had been. I still had fights with my parents because they didn't understand me. I still sat on the swings in the schoolyard watching little kids play their little kid games and feeling like I'd like to join them and knowing that I could never join them again.

"Lisa," my dad told me during a basic radio operation workshop. "This is a different world and in order to survive, you're going to have to take on responsibilities you never imagined."

"Lisa," my mom told me during gunnery training. "It's a different world now and you're going to have to learn things we never imagined you'd have to learn.

"I know," I'd scream back at them. "I know."

But I didn't.

I was on junior perimeter patrol one afternoon with three of my so-called peers and an adult supervisor. Mr. Halloway was armed with a Mossberg .12 gauge pump shotgun and a 9mm pistol on his hip. The four of us kids carried chopping weapons—cleavers and axes and garden tools. We'd have to wait until we'd gotten our firearms certificates and reached the age of 18 before we'd get to wield any of the community guns. Sometimes I got the impression that Mr. Halloway would have preferred to turn the shotgun on us, as surly and sarcastic a bunch of teens as ever existed before the zombie plague. We didn't much like each other, we'd been thrown together merely because of our ages, but we certainly didn't like Mr. Halloway and made fun of him not quite completely behind his back.

"Two words," Mark Abeyta stage-whispered. "Comb. Over."

Mr. Halloway pretended not to hear. It was too much trouble to acknowledge that he heard us.

"Plumber's. Crack," Erin Lackmore continued.

"Mo. Ron," I contributed and we all snickered enough to elicit a response.

"Just shut up, you guys, and keep your eyes open."

We rolled our eyes for each other's benefit but we also turned them back toward the barrier.
Rising twelve-feet above the ground, the barrier was cobbled together from chain-link, barbed wire, sheet metal, and automobile body-parts like hoods and trunk lids. As usual, the living dead pressed silently forward and against it, eyeing us like the meat we were to them and making small groaning noises.

Some of them had been there since the very beginning, since the barricades first went up and the crowds of zombies began to press against them. We’d given them nicknames like “Grandma,” what had once been someone’s cookie-baking, $5-in-the-birthday-card grandmother and was now just a blue-green corpse, eyeless with black loops of intestines hanging from her rotten belly. There was “Elvis” with his Grecian formula hair still waxed into a greasy pompadour though he lacked a lower jaw, his liver-colored tongue wagging against his mottled throat. “Plato” pressed against the sheet-metal wall wearing only a toga-like hospital gown. “Hasselhoff” must have been a body-builder in his youth before he got middle-aged and before he died to be reborn as a zombie, his ribs visible where his pectorals once flexed.

All of them, those with names and those we just called zombies and deadheads and meat-puppets, spent their days and their nights roiling against the barrier in their mindless press wanting only to get inside our sanctuary and kill us and eat us and turn us into more of them.

It was hard to believe we'd grown accustomed to this. It was hard to look at all those zombies in varying degrees of decomposition but it was impossible not to look, not to loathe and fear the danger they represented to us all.

Every person, every family, seemed to have at least one story of putting down a loved one, of being attacked by a former friend turned living dead, of recognizing a grandmother or an uncle or a next-door neighbor in the virulent horde that was always waiting to attack and tear us to pieces.

I'd thought about it enough times and once even dreamed it, but still I felt unprepared when Martin Bush pointed him out.

"Holy shit," he said and I followed his outstretched arm and pointed finger. "Isn't that Kyle DeManais?"

"Who?" Mr. Halloway asked.

"Kyle DeManais," Martin answered. "He used to go to our school."

"He used to be Lisa's boyfriend," Erin added.

"Shut up," I told them. "He was not. And it's not him anyway."

"Look," Mark said. "It's got to be him"

And, of course, it was. Dressed in the suit they'd buried him wearing, covered with the dirt he'd clawed his way through to emerge from his grave, Kyle DeManais had come home to the only place he knew. He'd joined the ranks of those who sought to break into our community and eat us. His dead, dull eyes looked at us, looked at me, and there was nothing there but dead, dull hunger.

"Kyle," I whispered to myself using the name that hadn't filled my mouth since the day of the funeral.

"Lisa and Kyle, sittin' in a tree…," Martin started to sing but a sharp nudge from Erin cut him short.

"What?" he asked her.

"Just shut up," she replied.

"What are you guys screwing around with now?" Mr. Halloway asked us.

"Nothing," we answered in unison.

He grumbled something to himself that was probably something like "goddamned stupid kids" and turned his attention back to leading the patrol. I couldn't take my attention away from Kyle, away from what used to be Kyle, from what used to be my best friend and could have quite probably been my first boyfriend until our patrol rounded a corner and he was lost to my sight.
Later that night after dinner, after I'd eaten a nutritious meal of Labrador retriever, pumpkin, and salad greens, after I'd gone to bed and turned my kerosene lamp down low, I cried as softly as I could. I didn't know what else to do.

I must have cried harder than I thought because soon my mother was sitting on the edge of my bed. She reached out and brushed my hair behind my ears with her fingers.

"Oh, honey," she murmured. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing," I told her. "I don't know. Everything."

"I know it's hard," she said. "Everything has changed and nobody asked you about any of it."

"It's not that."

"Tell me, then."

"I saw Kyle today," I finally told her and I could feel her stiffen when I did.

"Who did you see?" she asked me.

"Kyle," I said. "I saw Kyle today."

"Where did you see Kyle today, sweetheart?"

"Where do you think I saw him?" and I instantly regretted the harsh tone I'd used. It wasn't her fault that he was dead and undead and moving around outside there in the darkness beyond the perimeter and waiting to eat us.

"I was afraid this would happen. This or something like this," she said.

"Like what?" I demanded. "Like my best friend would turn into a zombie? Like the only boy I ever really cared about would become a rotten corpse that wants to split me open and eat my brains? Like the only person I could ever really trust would turn against me?"

"Well, not exactly those things," Mom answered. "But I was afraid that someone would break your heart someday."

"Your wish came true."

She didn't say anything for a long time.

"It wasn't my wish," she finally said. "But it is something that I knew would probably happen sooner or later. Not in this way, of course, but in some way, some way more normal, more like the things used to be. I was afraid that some boy would take your affection and your love and then hurt you more than you'd ever been hurt before."

I didn't say anything.

"All I can tell you," she continued, "is the same thing my mother told me. Time. Time is what you need and time is the only thing that will heal these wounds. I know you probably feel so bad that you wish you could die, but in a week or two weeks or twenty weeks, this pain will go and you won't feel so bad anymore. You may never forget this pain and I know you'll never forget Kyle and the way he was before all this started, but it will be different and you will survive and you will grow up and maybe someday you'll have a daughter of your own and you'll have a talk like this with her. At least I hope you will."

The next day after school, I told Mr. Halloway that I had cramps and couldn't go on junior perimeter patrol. Instead, I went home to my empty house. Dad was working the vegetable gardens and Mom was sorting what was left of the supermarket's canned goods that day so there was no one around to bother me. I put my iPod's earbuds in and listened to music by people who were probably either dead or living dead. I stretched out on my bed and looked at the posters of movie stars and models and musicians who were probably either dead or living dead. I looked at the plastic horses on my bookshelves, at the books I'd already read about a hundred times each, at the stupid souvenirs I'd collected during a life that seemed a lifetime removed from the life I was living now. There were photos of Kyle and photos of Kyle and me together and I looked at them, too. I thought about what my mom had told me the night before and I wondered how long it would take before the ache would disappear or if it would keep coming back, coming back dead and dirty like Kyle came back.

I heard the door close and open downstairs as first one and then the other of my parents came home. I could hear their muffled talk when I removed the earbuds, but I just put them back in and lay there on my bed. Later, I heard my mom knock softly on my door and call my name. I didn't answer and she went away. A while after that, she came again and knocked again and said the word "dinner" but I ignored her again and, again, she went away.

Eventually, I fell asleep.

The next day, I again told Mr. Halloway about my nonexistent cramps, he again let me go home, and I again returned to my empty house.

I heard my parents come home and I heard them talking downstairs but this time it was my father who knocked on the door.

"Lisa," he said. "Open up."

I stood up and opened the door but I didn't move away and I didn't take my hand from the knob.
He'd been working all day on one of the teardowns, on dismantling one of the houses near the perimeter so the kill-zone would be wider, so the lumber, pipes, wires, insulation, and appliances could be recycled and reused. He'd barely washed his hands or his face and stood there dusty, dirty, tired, and haggard.

"Can't you just leave me alone?" I asked him.

"No," he answered. "No, honey. I can't."

I just stood there and tried to glare.

"Your mother told me what happened. And I can't tell you how sorry I am. You know how much we both liked Kyle."

Still, I just stood there.

"If things were normal," he continued, "I might be able to let you stay in your room and ignore the rest of us and what has happened to us. But, I can't. There are too many people depending on you, on all of us, to do our parts so that all of us can survive this thing, so that we can build something safe for all of us. And, as much as it hurts you, as much as maybe you don't believe it, you are a part of us, of this whole community. And we all need you just as much as you need all of us to do our parts together so that we are all safe together."

I listened to him but I still didn't move.

"All right, Lisa," he finally said. "All right. You've got some fast growing up to do and you can stay up here for now and think about what I said. You can think about what I said and decide if you want to rejoin us. Just please remember that we are hurt, too, by the news about Kyle and about everything that has happened since this terrible thing first started. Just remember that we need you, too."

I heard everything that he said, but I couldn't make myself do anything but stand there and act like I hadn't.

"Are you finished?" I finally asked.

"For now."

"Fine," I said, and I closed my door in his face and felt terrible about it even as I was doing it. It was a long time before I heard him walk away down the hall and I could put the earbuds back in my ears and not think about anything at all.

The next day after school, I didn't tell Mr. Halloway about cramps and he didn't say a word about it. Neither did Erin, Mark, or Martin. We just all grabbed our stuff and went back out on perimeter patrol. Actually, nobody said much of anything that day, no clowning and no making fun of Mr. Halloway, as if they were all of a sudden sensitive to my feelings or something. I hated it.

When we got to the place we'd seen Kyle three days previously, everyone seemed super-tense. They'd been on patrol the days I hadn't gone and they knew for sure what I was certain of: Kyle was still there.

He pressed forward in the mass pressing against the barrier. He moaned softly from whatever hunger and fear and self-loathing the zombies carry inside what is left of whatever is human about them. His eyes traveled up to look at us while a long thread of mucus dangled from his open, dirty mouth.

"Are you okay, Lisa?" Mr. Halloway asked without looking at me.

"Yeah, I guess so," I answered and shifted the hatchet I carried from my right hand to my left.

"Attagirl," he said.

We passed one of the teardowns on our circuit of the perimeter and I saw my mom coming out of the door with a bundle of copper piping. She looked up and saw me. Since her arms were full, she couldn't wave. Instead, she tilted her chin up in my direction.

"Hi, honey," she called.

Embarrassed as any other teenager who unexpectedly has to acknowledge that she has parents, I lifted my hand and half-heartedly called back.

"Hi, mom."

"How are you doing today?" she yelled out as if I wanted to have a shouted conversation with my mother in front of other people.

"It's okay," I said and I could tell she couldn't hear me but had probably read my lips.

"Okay, then," she shouted. "I'll see you at home."

I waved again and turned back to the group.

"Sorry," I told the other kids.

"No big deal," Martin said and the others seemed to agree.

Below us, the zombie horde acted like nothing had happened and continued to mill about.

"Anyone want to take a shot?" Mr. Halloway uncharacteristically asked. Officially, it was against all sorts of different rules about putting guns in the hands of unlicensed teenagers and wasting ammunition on less than critical situations.

"Hell, yeah," Erin, Mark, and Martin said almost simultaneously.

I just stood there.

"Lisa?" he asked while the other three watched me carefully.

"I dunno," I sort of mumbled. "I mean, isn't it against the rules?"

"Jeez, Lisa," Martin said.

And he was sort of right. Under other circumstances, it would have been fun to loose a few rounds of double-aught buckshot into the crowded undead. Shooting guns is fun, even for a girl, and ever since the plague, we'd all become familiar with firearms and their use. At least once a week, we spent time at the makeshift shooting range studying marksmanship, gunsmithing, and gun maintenance. I'd fired a shotgun many, many times. In fact, I'd probably fired the very same shotgun Mr. Halloway was holding out to us like a treat.

"No," Mr. Halloway finally said. "Lisa's probably right. I shouldn't even have offered. Sorry."
I got eye-daggers from the other kids, but there was no way I was going to walk up to the perimeter and point a gun in Kyle's direction. I didn't care what any of them thought.

That night at dinner, I used my fork to push the food around my plate but I put very little of it into my mouth. My parents made small talk about the day's events, the gossip a community as small and isolated as ours generated, and what movie was going to play at the community center on Friday night. It was Godfather II again for about the tenth time and I could never really understand why the adults liked to watch it so much even if the supply of DVDs was so limited. Mom and Dad both agreed that it was better than watching another Land Before Time disc even if the little kids loved them so much. It was sort of like my iPod. I'd never download another song again so I'd gotten used to listening to the same ones over and over again, even the ones I didn't really like.

Eventually, there was a lull in their conversation.

"Well, Lisa," my dad said. "Your mother says she saw you on patrol today."

"Yeah," I answered.

"And how did that go?"


"Did anything unusual happen?"

I just stared down at my plate of zucchini and rabbit, rabbit that was the great-great-great-granddaughter of some kid's pet rabbit about a million years ago.

"I don't know," I finally said.

"I mean…did you…was there…?" he said.

I couldn't help myself. I stood up at the table and threw my napkin onto my plate.

"Do you mean, 'Did you see Kyle today?'" I screamed. "Did I see my best friend the zombie today? Well, the answer is 'Yes.' The answer is 'Yes, I did see my best friend covered in grave-dirt with a big glop of zombie drool coming out of his mouth. Yes. Yes. Yes.' Are you happy now?"

And I turned to run upstairs, run to my bedroom, run to my iPod. I saw my mother place her hand on my father's arm and pull him back down into his chair.

I lay on my bed looking at posters of dead people and listening to dead people's music and I cried as silently as I could make myself cry.

Sneaking out of the house had been no big deal, really. I'd done it a few times before the plague. It was just a matter of opening my window quietly and slipping out onto the roof, sliding over to the trellis, and easing my way down through the ivy that grew there.

Nowadays, however, with armed night patrols of heavily armed grown-ups, searchlights, and even motion detectors, sneaking out was a different matter altogether. It was all moving slowly and waiting, moving and waiting and watching, moving and waiting and watching some more. Getting caught was one thing. Getting shot would be a different matter altogether.

Once down the street, I had to really keep low and keep my eyes open to avoid being seen. I guessed it took me almost two hours to reach the edge of the kill zone and slip into one of the teardowns still standing. From an upstairs window, I could look out at the perimeter, at the patrols going by under the glare of the searchlights, without much chance of being spotted. Once I was there, though, all I had was time to think about what I was doing there, what I wanted to see, what I wanted to do about it.

Up there in that abandoned house, hugging my knees and looking out the window, I started thinking about a song from one of my parents' oldies records (they still had vinyl). Back in the old days before the zombie plague, my mom would sometimes put that record on while she was doing housework and sort of dance around while she was dusting or mopping or whatever.

"Honey," she'd laugh. "These songs were oldies when I was your age. But I can still love them even if they are from someone else's past."

The song that I was thinking about was by a girl-group from the 60s called The Angels and it went:

My boyfriend's back
and you're gonna be in trouble.
Hey la, hey la,
my boyfriend's back.

I didn't think The Angels had the present situation in mind when they were singing that song back in nineteen-sixty-whatever, but it sure seemed to fit.

I started thinking about Romeo and Juliet, about star-crossed lovers divided by their differences and by their fates. I started thinking about what other boys I could ever love, about whether I could ever feel about Martin or Mark the same things I'd felt about Kyle.

I watched the patrols go by, I watched the searchlights sweep the barrier, and I watched the formless mass of the undead moving and moaning stretched back into the darkness and I just wanted to die. I just didn't want to live in this world anymore.

I don't know how long I sat there in that abandoned house except that it was getting to be dawn when I finally stood up. I waited until it was fully light before slipping out of the teardown and walking back home where I was pretty sure my parents were getting panicky and frantic if they'd discovered I wasn't up in my room.

"Hey, la, hey la," I whisper-sang to myself as I started walking home in the middle of another suburban undead dawn. I wasn't sure if mom and dad had noticed my absence yet so I really didn't know what I was walking toward. I was probably going to be in all sorts of trouble. I was probably going to be grounded, get my iPod taken away, get extra chores, and who knew what else. I did, however, know exactly what I was walking away from.

(published in Scalped, 2009. Click on title for more information.)

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