The dead came back, not in a rush of sudden horror or waves of fear, but in their slow shambling way, shifting the dirt from their graves; sliding from their morgue drawers and tables in shuffling gaits. They didn’t come for flesh, or vengeance, and didn’t voice their hunger in moans that crept up the spine and lodged in the hindbrain.
Most couldn’t speak at all. Years, centuries in some cases, of grave dirt had lodged in their trachea. In others, those same organs we use for communication had been split and dissected on death by curious men with sharp minds and sharper knives. They looked at us in mute silence, their eyes, sometimes rheumy with age, sometimes clouded with cataracts that looked like a cloud of spoiled milk on water, pleading for understanding, for empathy. Those who could speak were sparing with their words, and shared the same needs as their mute brethren.
It was spring when I took my wife to see her father, his shanty at the edge of a great circle the dead had built on the plains, shacks radiating out in concentric rings that allowed their visitors some freedom of movement. Once we figured out that they didn’t mean us harm, we stopped burning and bulldozing them. They longed for family, and we did the only thing we knew would alleviate that loneliness.
I pulled the car up to the metal shack and cut the engine. I had the air going, a gentle recycle of the interior air, and when it cut out, the smell from outside began to creep in, like a stream flowing downhill. I offered a jar of mentholated cream to Cheryl, and she took it and rubbed a small bit under her nose, then breathed deep.
“That’s better.” She said, and smiled at me.
I put the menthol in the console, and got out. Outside, the smell was stronger, but bearable with the ointment under my nose. I shut the door behind me, the metal making a chunk sound as it snapped close, loud in the relative quiet, like a gunshot. Wildflowers nodded their heads between the ruts of the dirt track we had taken to the community, and the sun peered down from overhead.
We walked to the shack, a small thing made from rusting tin and half-painted barn wood. In places where the rust hadn’t quite taken over, the tin shot back the light, and created bright yellow pinpricks that stayed with your eyes if you looked too long.
Cheryl knocked on the door, part of an old metal sign that half read:
Her dad – Stan – seemed to enjoy that. He was one of the ones who couldn’t speak, but had pointed to the door excitedly the day the shack had gone up, and then at himself, his face breaking into a smile that exposed broken teeth and black gums, his yellowed eyes lighting up.
The knocks reverberated in the prairie quiet, and for a moment, muffled out the low drone that told you others lived there. After a moment, the door swung open, and we stepped inside. Stan was standing just inside the door, his tattered suit hanging from his spare frame. Light filtered into the shack behind him through gaps in the tin, sending shafts of sunlight into the interior like bright spears.
He shut the door and shuffled back over to the card table we’d bought him, pulling out the other two chairs. The stink was stronger inside the shed, but not by much. Stan had been dead for a while, and was starting to finally lose his hot, wet stench. He sat, and we sank into the chairs across and beside him. Cheryl put a hand on his.
“Hi Dad.” She smiled again. “How are you?”
He raised a hand and rocked it side to side in a comme si comme ca gesture.
“I brought you something.” She opened her purse and rummaged around. The thing was huge, and I always teased her about finding anything in there. I said you could hide a body in there, and the Feds would never find it.
After a moment, she gave a little yes, and pulled out a small book of Sudoku and a pack of colored pens. She laid them on the table and pushed them over to him. He smiled at her, his gums making me think of mold on a bathroom wall. Then he picked up the book and flipped through the pages, his hands clumsy, like a toddler’s. He put the book back down, patted her hand, and smiled again.
“Oh!” She said. She pulled out her phone and flipped to the gallery app. “Look at the boys.” She held it up so he could see the pictures. “Jaden is 6 now, and Carter is 4.”
His mouth worked soundlessly, his lips smacking together. His eyes looked sad. Cheryl must’ve caught on to it, because she closed the app and put the phone away. There was a moment of silence.
“Sorry, just be right back.”
She left the little shed, and Stan and I sitting across from one another. After a moment of silence, I looked at him.
He cocked his head to one side, his face in a slight frown.
“Why come back?”
He shook his head. I sighed.
“I know. No one else will say, either. Is it that bad on the other side?”
He shook his head again.
Something occurred to me. “Is this what we have to look forward to?”
He didn’t respond, and frustration welled up in my chest. I fought it down and looked around the shack. Light filtered onto one of the walls, and I saw a spot where the paint had been scraped away. I got up and walked over to it, bending a bit to look closer.
It looked like Stan had etched a small doorway onto the wall. I leaned in and looked. There seemed to be a shape behind the door, though it was indistinct. I felt a tug on my arm, and turned to see Stan pulling me away from the etching. I stood, and the shed door opened, and Cheryl walked through. Her eyes were red. She smiled anyways.
“You boys bonding?”
I looked at Stan. I got the impression he knew more than he was letting on. His eyes pleaded with me, and I let it drop for the moment.
“Yeah, just checking out the digs. Hey, we ought to get back.”
I shook Stan’s hand, and Cheryl gave him a hug. I grimaced. She’d have to wash that dress twice. He saw us to the door, and we made our way back to the car, Stan waving us out. When we were on the highway, Cheryl spoke up.
“Do you think he liked the book?”
I answered in a noncommittal sort of way, my mind occupied with the drawing on the wall. I wondered if it was a compulsion – a sickness of the dead, that what they refused to speak still had to come out.
“Henry – you okay?”
The question snapped me out of my thoughts. “Hm? Yeah, fine. Just thinking about work.”
“Oh, okay. Hey, want to stop for dinner? There’s a diner a few miles from here.”
Despite the heat and the stench, despite black gums and papery flaking flesh that I could still feel on my palm, my stomach rumbled. I nodded, and pointed the car towards dinner.
The diner was one of those old metal streamliners, its siding shining in the late afternoon light. A dirt lot in front hosted a few other dust-coated cars that sat in the shadow of the sign overhead. It read Love’s in bright red outlined by neon tubes. Narrow glass windows decorated with white curtains looked out from the booths, and I could see couples sitting down with a cup of coffee, or a forkful of eggs.
We went inside, the air cool. The place was narrow, and a cashier’s station was directly across from the doors. A waitress in a tie-dye shirt and black slacks, her hair in a ponytail, smiled at us and grabbed a couple of menus.
I nodded, and she led us to a booth near the middle of the car. We sat and waited while she bustled about, getting us coffee and a couple of glasses of water. I looked out of the window at the highway, cars buzzing past. A couple and their kid brushed past the booth, and went to the front where I could hear the register clanging and chattering away. Cheryl was looking through the menu.
“What are you having?” She asked. “Everything looks so good.”
I watched the dust kicked up by a passing car spiral into a devil, whirling.
I pulled my gaze away from the window and looked at Cheryl. She was watching me, a concerned look on her face.
“Yeah.” I forced a smile. “Uh, the eggs. Those sound good.”
We sank into silence and sipped our coffee. The diner smelled of fried food and toast and cheap steak. I put down my cup, and looked up to ask Cheryl a question, something banal. Something harmless. I was cut off by the squeal of tires, and I snapped my head toward the source.
Outside, the world moved as if it were being filmed underwater. An SUV, red and glossy – I could see the plates, HPL 734 – was swerving, but not fast enough. A little boy was spinning in place, and I thought of the dust devil. His parents, horrified, eyes wide, mouths open. Blood in the dust. Blood in the air.
Then time snapped forward, and the boy was down, and the SUV was in the distance. His parents knelt over him, the mother weeping. I glanced over, and Cheryl was crying. She looked at me through raw red eyes.
“Do something, Henry. Henry. Do something.”
I got up and went outside. I could hear a bird singing even over the mother’s wails. I walked over to the boy and knelt with his parents. I could see the white of bone. The blood was so much darker up close. His eyes were crazed, staring in opposite directions. I reached out and closed them.
“We should move him.”
A small crowd had gathered outside the diner. No one moved. After a moment, I slid my arms under the boy and picked him up. His parents made no move to stop me, and I carried the body – the lightest thing I’d ever carried; he could blow away at any second, seeds from a dandelion – to the side of the diner. When I was in the shade, I laid him down, and waited.
The bird called again, light and trill. I looked up into the late afternoon sun, where the sky had turned to light oranges and pinks. There was a breeze, and the gentle murmur of onlookers, and the heavy weeping of the parents. No sirens. I felt a tremor, the flutter of life, like the pulse in a vein, from where I still touched the boy.
I looked down, and saw him open eyes already fogged with death, his lips working soundlessly. His trachea had been crushed in the accident, and the only thing that would escape his cracked lips were bitter rasps. His legs worked uselessly against the dirt, kicking stones to the side and sending them skittering like frightened mice.
I looked around. Cheryl was still inside, and the parents were by their car, holding each other up against the weight of their tragedy. I leaned in close to the boy, hoping to glean a word from him, and only got the hot breath of the dead on my ear. I drew away, and was about to settle back and wait, when his hand, stuttering while tendons fought rigor mortis, drew in the dirt.
I watched as it etched four lines – a tall rectangle, and then the beginning of a shape inside of that. I leaned in for a closer look, and could feel sweat threatening to roll down my forehead. I ignored it and tried to make out the shape. A shadow fell over me, and the drawing, and I scraped it away out of guilt. I looked up. It was the boy’s father, fear and a half-hidden loathing on his face.
“Is…is he back?”
I nodded. The man knelt next to me. His hands dangled between his knees, and I noticed he had in his right a compact black pistol. It soaked up the sunlight. He looked at me, and his eyes were red, the grief written there like an epitaph etched in flesh.
“Thank you for your help. You want to go now, mister.” He said, barely able to choke the words out. I could still hear the soft sobs of his wife behind me. I thought of my boys, and tried not to lose my mind right there.
I looked down at the boy, at his rolling eyes and his heaving chest, as though he didn’t know he didn’t have to breathe any more, and his slowly twitching legs. I stood, and walked away, my back to the scene. The quiet stretched on.
There was a sob, and the sound of a shot, sudden and sharp in the near-dark quiet. I jumped. Someone screamed, and began bawling afresh. I turned, and saw the boy’s legs were still. I went back into the diner. Cheryl was in the booth, staring down at her coffee. She looked up at me, sorrow plain on her face. Tear tracks stained her cheeks.
“Let’s go.” I said.
She stood, and we left the diner. I pulled the car away, the crowd finally dispersing into the building I could only view as a silver coffin. I pointed us back to the shanty town.
“Where are we going?” Cheryl asked.
I had no good answer. Only questions. When I was silent for a time, she didn’t argue, and we drove on.
Dark had fallen, and away from the city, stars punctured the sky and glittered like corpselights. The shantytown was quiet, the stench much lighter in the cool of the night. I pulled up to Stan’s shack and cut the engine. Cheryl and I sat in the dark for a while. I felt her hand on mine. I sat there, feeling her comfort, and then pulled away. She didn’t follow.
I got out of the car and knocked on the door, its Stan Il stark in the night. Stan opened it, and stared at me for a moment, his gimlet eyes giving away nothing. He moved to the side, and I stepped in. He had set up a small battery-powered lantern he’d scavenged from somewhere, and its light threw the walls into stark relief and hid the corners in shadow. The door closed behind me.
I stopped in my tracks. The wall opposite the entrance was in color. Stan had been busy, the pens Cheryl had given him put to use in pursuit of this work. It resembled a stucco wall, ivy growing across it. In the wall was set a door that stood open, looking out onto a field of tall grasses. In the field stood a single barren tree. I stepped closer to see the detail. Something about the tree looked misshapen, off.
I picked up the lantern and held it close to the wall. Behind me, I could hear Stan shuffling about. I peered at the tree, and a cold dread ran through me, as though someone had dripped ice water into my veins. A body hung from that tree, crude hemp rope slung around its neck. At its feet lay a crown.
I stumbled back from the picture, and ran into Stan. I stepped away and turned, loathe to touch that decaying flesh. He picked up a pen and while I watched, horror creeping into my spine, rammed it into his throat, making widening circles to spread the opening. Caked dirt fell from the hole for what felt like a century, and then, it was clear. He took a breath, and the opening whistled.
His lungs full, he reached up and covered the hole with one grey finger. He croaked out four words.
“Even death may die.”
I screamed. I screamed until Cheryl came and led me away. I screamed until my throat was raw, and then, in my head for a time. It took time, piecing my thoughts back together. It took courage to return to that shack with my family.
Inside, I can hear Stan croaking out his dead syllables, and the laughter on the voices of the kids. In my mind, I can see Cheryl lighting up at her father’s newfound speech. I stand outside, trying to get a breath of fresh air, and trying not to think of the thing I saw on the wall.
The wind kicks up, sending the wildflowers nodding, and picking up strands of hair that tickle my forehead. I breathe deep and reach into my pocket. When my hand comes out, there is a box of matches. The wind blows again, and I can hear the dry rustle of grasses against the shack walls. I wait for another gust of wind, a voice from on high – any sign – and know it’s not coming.
It’s been a dry summer.