The thing he’d raised from the dead stood, the ligaments in its legs creaking with disuse. Its skin hung sallow and loose, and the hair on its head was spare, brittle, and white. It looked at Cory with eyes that were withered orbs set in dark sockets and let loose a moan that rattled its chest.
Cory held up two fingers and pointed at his mouth. “Hello.” He said.
The corpse looked at him, and its mouth worked for a moment. Its chest heaved, and it gave a wracking cough, black bile dribbling from between its lips and pattering to the dirt below. Cory waited, as patiently as he could after having already failed three times before. The corpse tried again, a thin wheedling breath playing through its nose.
“Aaaaa.” It shut its mouth, and its brow furrowed. It tried again. “Aaaaaa. Aaaap. Aaaaple. Apple!”
Its mouth screwed up into a hideous grin, yellowed teeth shining dully in the moonlight. Cory slapped himself in the forehead. Failure number four. He took the corpse by the arm and patted it on the shoulder.
“Yes, yes. Very nice, er…Hank. Come along.”
He guided it to the shed and opened the door. Moonlight spilled onto the wood floor, and up the back wall, where it half-illuminated three other corpses. Two men and a woman, he had given each of them names – Mona and Harvey and Bill. They looked up at the sound of the door opening and the sudden influx of light and smiled. The air was filled with the voices of the dead as they each tried to speak.
“Throndset!” Cory wasn’t sure how Bill could even get that word out. Half his tongue was gone, eaten away by insects.
Hank grinned and replied to them. “Apple!”
Cory rolled his eyes, and gave the newcomer a little push, and Hank shuffled inside. He shut the shed door and locked it. He turned on the hose attached to the back of his house, and washed his hands, then went inside. Behind him, dimly, he could hear the corpses yammering in their one-word sentences to each other. He sighed. Maybe he’d get it right tomorrow night.
Cory knew where he’d gone wrong. He’d had a good think about it while trying to chew through the rubber mat that passed for Salisbury steak in his frozen dinner. It was a matter of freshness. Like the steak, the corpses he’d been getting from the cemetery where old and freezer-burnt, so to speak. He needed fresh meat.
It was that line of thought that had led him to drive through downtown rather than digging up some country grave in the middle of the night. He trolled the streets in methodical fashion, driving first north and south, then east and west. He considered a hooker but discounted it. There were a number of problems with that approach, not the least of which being the fact that he’d been raised to respect women, and not kill them and raise them from the dead.
Two hours of driving, and Cory was about to point the car toward another country road when he saw something promising. He slowed the car and pulled over, then shut the engine off. He sat in the quiet for a moment, listening to the tick of the cooling engine. He was screwing up his courage and found he had to both swallow past a large lump in his throat and force himself to breathe evenly. He could hear the rush of blood in his ears.
He watched the man standing under the overpass, his hands held before a barrel fire, his tattered coat clinging to a body that probably hadn’t been washed in some time. His hair hung in long tatters and in some places mingled with his beard. Finally, when Cory thought he’d grabbed hold of himself enough, he took a deep breath, exhaled, and left the car.
He walked to the barrel fire, his head on a swivel, watching for other men or women, other possible witnesses. When he saw no one, his confidence picked up, and his step became surer. A few yards out, his shoes crunching on gravel, the old man heard the sound and looked up. A frown crossed his forehead, bringing his bushy eyebrows together.
“You lost, John Q?”
Cory shook his head and tried to put on his friendliest smile.
The man gestured back at his car and at Cory himself.
“Car, job, house, wife, picket fence, three point five kids. John Q Public.” He snorted deep, and spat a wad of phlegm to the side. “So, you lost?”
Cory was close enough to feel the heat from the barrel fire. He smiled again and hoped he sounded compassionate.
“Close. No wife, no kids. Not really lost, either. Just out for a drive, and I thought I saw a guy who could use a little kindness.”
The old man was looking at the fire, his hands tucked into his armpits. He snorted. “Huh.” Then he looked up at Cory.
“You ain’t a weirdo, are ya? You know, give me a meal, maybe a shower, and then you want me to spank ya?”
Cory chuckled. “Hell no. Just a nice guy. Isn’t that weird enough these days?”
“So whaddya want?”
Cory shrugged, tried to look like he was altruistic. “Like you said. Well, without the spanking. Shower and a meal? Maybe your name?”
“Name’s Phil.” He eyeballed Cory one more time, one eye squinting. “You sure you ain’t a weirdo?”
“Pretty sure. C’mon, we’ll get you a steak and some warm water.”
Phil seemed to struggle with himself for a minute. He muttered something under his breath and then shook his head. Another minute and he seemed to come to a decision.
“Great.” Cory was smiling. It felt weird to him. Like wearing someone else’s face.
And you’re not a weirdo. Right.
Cory turned to go, and Phil followed him to the car. Before he got in, the old man stuck out his hand.
Cory smiled again. He thought of the Joker and shook Phil’s hand. “Not a big deal.”
They left the overpass behind.
While Phil washed up, Cory got dinner ready. Chicken with rice, buttermilk biscuits, a salad, and a Kool-Aid and antifreeze cocktail. Cory made Phil’s plate and set the table, then ate a sandwich over the sink. In the background, he heard the shower shut off, and a few minutes later, the bathroom door open. He left the kitchen to find Phil sitting down at the table. He already had a mouthful of chicken.
“This is great, man. I can’t thank ya enough.” The words came out a bit rounded from the mouthful of food. He took a sip of his drink and smacked his lips, then raised the glass and grinned. “Good.”
He fell back to the food. He looked presentable enough with his hair trimmed and combed. An idle part of Cory’s brain wondered how messy this was going to turn out to be. Another part, the part he was struggling to keep tamped down, wanted to knock the glass of poison from the man’s hands.
Cory took the chair across from Phil and watched him eat for a while longer, each bite of chicken and rice punctuated by a sip of Kool-Aid. Before long, the plate and glass were empty, and the old man was leaning back, his hand on his stomach. He belched loudly and then gave Cory a sheepish grin.
“‘Orry. Good. Food like that, go to a man’s head.” The words were slurred, and he giggled. “Got an’more drink?”
Cory shook his head. “Sorry, no.”
“S’alright. Shay, you sheem like a nishe fella affer all. Shure you don’ wanna fonnle me?”
He stopped talking, and he got a distinctly green look on his face. With a lurch, he bent to one side and emptied his stomach on the wood floor.
“Shit. Shorry. Shicken. Buc Buc.”
He vomited again and fell off the chair to the opposite side.
“Ow.” He said, the word floating up to Cory from the floor. “OOOOWW-”
The room was suddenly silent. Cory stood up and walked over to the man. He was lying face up on the floor, bits of vomit clinging to his freshly groomed beard. Cory fought to keep his gorge down. Phil’s eyes were fixed on the ceiling, one pupil dilated. Cory looked at the puddle of vomit on the floor, and grimaced, then fetched a roll of paper towels, plastic bags, and a pair of rubber gloves.
Fifteen minutes later, the floor was clean, albeit one dead man. Cory stood and tossed the plastic bags into the garbage, then grabbed a small area rug from the foyer and laid it next to Phil. With some effort, he managed to get the dead man on top, and then used it to slide him to the back door and down the steps to the yard.
Outside, the moon was a quarter crescent sickle hanging among tatters of wispy cloud. Stars peeked out of the black above, like the eyes of some predator. Cory drug Phil to the circle of dirt he’d dug into the ground. He laid him out, hands pointing to the sides, legs splayed. Satisfied the old man was laid out just right, he stepped out of the circle.
He’d done this before, and was getting to be old hat at it. First, a bit of blood at each of the five points – feet, hands, and head. He picked open the scab on his arm where he had cut himself open the first time, and caught the drops in his hand, then scattered them at the cardinal points.
Next, a bit of smoke. He pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it, inhaling deeply. Then he walked to the man’s head, bent low without entering the circle, and blew the smoke into Phil’s open mouth. There was a sound, like the wind picking up through the branches of a tree, and a voice came on the wind, whispering indistinctly.
Finally, the words. They were the hardest part. Each had to be spoken distinctly, clearly, and with intent. The book had been very clear. He stood at Phil’s feet and uttered them.
“Morte. Vitae. Veritas.”
Phil’s body twitched, and his feet kicked in the dirt. Cory repeated the words.
Another twitch and Phil’s chest deflated, a groan escaping from his throat. He twisted in place and struggled to stand. His eyes were glazed and foggy, as though cataracts covered the iris. He stood, and Cory waited for the fog to clear from the old man’s eyes. When it did, he raised two fingers to get Phil’s attention and pointed at his mouth.
“Hello.” He said.
Phil opened his mouth, and a thin blue stream of antifreeze and Kool-Aid drooled from between his lips, staining his beard. He opened his mouth, and- screamed. It was high-pitched and shrill, and loud enough to wake the birds in Cory’s maple tree and send them flying into the black sky. Cory stepped back involuntarily.
The sound stopped, and Phil’s chest expanded. Cory flinched as a second later as Phil let another scream loose, his voice echoing in the quiet neighborhood. Panic grabbed Cory by the chest and tried to crush his heart, and he did the only thing he could think of. He grabbed the shovel he had left out and clubbed Phil in the face with it.
The corpse stopped screaming for a second, shock creeping across its face like ice on a slow river. Cory tried to think. He needed to shut Phil up or muffle him before he belted out another scream and woke up the neighborhood. A thought occurred to him, and he tore off his shirt. Phil seemed to be recovering, and his chest expanded. He opened his mouth, and Cory lunged forward, stuffing the shirt between his teeth. The scream came, but it had lost its teeth.
Cory held the ends of the shirt and wrapped them around Phil’s head, then tied them in place. Phil’s nostrils flared, and his chest expanded, and another scream came. He blinked. Cory smirked at him.
He took the corpse by the arm and led him to the shed. He opened the door.
Phil screamed in greeting. Cory gave him a little push, and when the old corpse was inside, he shut the shed door and locked it. Through the door, he could hear the mutterings of the dead, punctuated by a muffled scream.
He was too fresh. The others were too old. Maybe, if I’m lucky, they’re in the Goldilocks Zone.
Cory finished his dinner and scraped the plate clean, then put it in the sink. He walked to the back yard and picked up the gas can he’d set by the steps. He fished in his pocket for a lighter. He felt the hard lump, and satisfied it was there, he began to douse the shed. It was a shame, really. It had taken him half a summer to build, but there was no helping it. The book had never said how to put the dead back.
When he was done, he walked over to the two circles he’d dug into the lawn and checked his handiwork. Cheryl and Carli were laid out in each, each in their pretty Sunday dresses. He walked around them and smoothed stray strands of hair back from their foreheads. His fingertips gently caressed the bruises the car dash had left on their faces.
Cheryl’s head flopped to the side, and he straightened it and then stood. He walked to the shed and with little ceremony, lit it. The gasoline went up with a whoosh, and he felt his hair singe. Inside, just below the roaring of the flame, he thought he could hear “Apple!” He walked back over to his wife and child and started the ritual.
A part of him thought of what it had cost him to get their bodies. All of his savings to bribe the city morgue. All of his humanity and soul to bring them back. It had better be worth it. He bled for them, and blew the smoke into them, and then spoke the words. They twitched and spasmed. They groaned.
As one, they stood, the fogginess clearing from their eyes. He raised two fingers and pointed at his mouth. He couldn’t help smiling, even as he felt the heat from the shed grow more intense. He heard sirens in the distance, and somewhere distant to him, Phil screaming.
“Hello.” He said.
They opened their mouths.