'Live through death'
Candlelight flickered on the counter top in TJ’s kitchen, a weary flame tossed back and forth by a careless breath or a sigh. TJ, his mother and Sunday huddled around the small kitchen table and ate in silence. A restrained rattling of cutlery hid polite coughs and awkward glances across the table. No one dared utter a word.
TJ’s mom smiled at whomever cast an eye her way, but her smile was a little cracked on one side.
They finished a humble meal of frozen pork chops and a garden salad from a re-sealable pack, which TJ’s mother put back in the crisper at the bottom of the fridge. She cleared their plates.
“Mom, let me help you.”
“It’s fine. You two wash up and get to bed. I set you two up on the couch until we can get your room tidied up.” She sighed. “It’s such a mess; you said an animal got in?”
“Yeah,” TJ said as his hands slipped from the plates. He turned his head away and felt a cold steel ringing in the emptiness that was growing inside him.
His mom smiled as she took the plates to the dishwasher and loaded them in.
“It’s OK. I didn’t like any of those posters anyway; we can get it cleaned up in no time.” A weak laugh tried to escape her diaphragm, but it didn’t quite make it and instead came out as a pained hiccup.
TJ sat back down and looked at Sunday anxiously. She sat with her feet up on her seat, poking at a very dry piece of lettuce, trying not to be noticed.
“I’m done,” she said as she pushed the table away and hopped off the seat. She swam through the tension in the little kitchen and escaped to the cosy solitude of the living room.
TJ bit his bottom lip and swallowed a dry lump, his chest feeling tight and hot.
“Good night,” he said as he got up from the table and walked away. His footsteps, light, barely made contact with the floor. The image of his mother at the kitchen sink got smaller and smaller as he left the room. That image of her burned into his memory.
“It’s almost time,” Evergreen sighed. He felt a strange elation washing over him. He kept it to himself. “What do we have in stock?” he said through gritted teeth. A closeted eagerness leaked out in his voice as he leant against a high back chair in the operations van.
“Err, a couple of chimeras, one of those big bastards and that new one,” the tech said as he handed Evergreen a small tablet computer over his shoulder.
The tech seemed to be getting high off of Evergreen’s steely excitement. He sat in his chair, craning his neck to watch. Evergreen smiled, flipping through the pictures on the tablet as it lit up his dark, shark-like face. The mobile command centre was dark, lit only by a series of monitors. They covered the inside of something that looked like a large tanker truck from the outside.
Noticing the attention he was getting from this eager little whelp, Evergreen cast a disparaging eye towards the tech. He was a young guy, maybe late twenties, early thirties, with shaggy blond hair. A set of boxy glasses perched on his sharp nose. His name tag said his name was ‘Murray’. Tossing the tablet into his lap, he said, “Fuck it, ‘Murray’, use ’em all.”
Murray, feeling a little exposed, tilted his eyes down, cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses and got back to work. “Yes, sir. T minus two hours to full release of specimens.”
In the dimly lit living room, Sunday had commandeered the roomy sofa and had spread herself across it like Cleopatra. She wore another one of TJ’s zombie-themed shirts with no bottoms. ‘Evil Dead’, this time, with a picture of Ash lifting his chainsaw, ready for root canal work.
“Got a big day tomorrow,” she said as she rolled onto her side, away from TJ, revealing a set of pink panties with a picture of a little cartoon, a smiling green ice cream cone, on the back.
He turned away, trying not to look and burst a blood vessel; a sudden rush of sadness hit him. “Tell me…” He pulled a blanket off the coffee table. His mother had set out a bunch of folded bedding for them both. He began to lay it down flat on the wooden floor. “…Are we gonna make it?”
“What are you doing?” She turned to watch him laying the blanket on the floor. “There’s enough room for both of us on here.” She rolled back over onto her side.
“Err.” A cold sweat began plummeting down to TJ’s ass crack, like cold corpse fingers running down his back “What?” His breath came out in short bursts now.
“You need to get your rest for tomorrow.” She paused and took a deep breath. “You can’t sleep on the floor; I won’t let you.”
TJ swallowed hard, harder than he’d ever swallowed, and began to shake his head up and down like a dog.
TJ edged his way closer to the couch. Each step felt like jumping on a slippery rock in a fast flowing stream. The image of Sunday’s warm back jostled in his field of vision as he tried to get closer. He reached the edge of the couch. He stopped dead, trying not to make a sound.
She rolled sleepily onto her back.
Without opening her eyes, she yawned and said, “TJ, get on the fucking couch.” She then rolled back onto her side, showing him her lovely back again, with that signature green quaff of hair sticking up from where she had just lain on it.
“Yeah, I’m just…”
He turned away and edged his roomy behind onto the tip of the couch, praying to himself in his head, Please don’t fart. Please don’t fart. Please don’t fart. When all his weight was equally distributed, he let out a little sigh, followed by a small yet squeaky fart that he hoped only dogs could hear. He froze, swallowing hard as he waited for her to say something. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! he said to himself. She stirred. His heart pounded in his chest. His throat became drier than a cough sweet sitting at the bottom of an old lady’s purse.
After a moment of nervous pause, he deduced that she was asleep and hadn’t heard, so he began to gradually lower himself into position on the couch. Pulling the cover up over himself and Sunday, he ever so delicately slid his large body in next to hers. His belly pressed against her warm back and, as he put his head down to rest next to hers, he could smell her hair. It smelled a little musty but not bad musty. Like the stump of a tree with fresh moss growing on it, fresh and rich and intoxicating. Her smell made his hair stand up on his pudgy arms. He tried to position his arms behind her back without touching her butt or making too much noise.
Don’t get a boner, don’t get a boner, don’t get a boner, don’t get a boner, he said to himself, under his breath, as he slithered his arm around her waist, angling for a more comfortable position while holding his breath. It was not unlike someone trying to defuse a bomb in an eighties action movie.
Sighing and releasing the tension in his arm, he grinned like a monkey and took a large inhalation of her hair as he settled into his dream position: the big spoon of a girl he couldn’t have imagined would say more than three words to him if the world wasn’t ending.
His heart leapt in his chest as if it wanted to climb out of his throat and give him a high five. For a minute he forgot what he was even doing on the couch. Oh, yeah, sleep.
He settled and forced his eyes closed. And he glided off to sleep on rainbows and bullshit.
Dave scurried and scraped his way down the rope ladder to the ground floor of hell, viciously swinging the kukri that Pete had given him at every scuffing noise his shoes made.
He waddled across the open street between the gun store and the diner, holding onto his turban and scuttling like a startled crab. Reaching its entrance, he checked his surroundings, peering at the darkness, while the shiny knife shook in his hands.
The street was poorly lit. He couldn’t see much but for the light of the moon, which in a small town like this wasn’t too bad. After careful inspection and almost shitting his pants, he realised the street was actually pretty empty, just as Pete had told him it would be. It was just that the shock of being down, you know, where all the cannibal corpses were, was a little ‘jarring’.
There were a few shambling corpses, but none seemed that alert, and they looked too far away to notice one Asian lad with a shiny toothpick. So he felt a little more confident as he began scoping out the diner, picking at the many corpses that littered the street for bolts.
Over the first two days, despite being a little late to the party, Pete had done pretty well. There were corpses lining the street, all with neatly drilled holes in their heads and black aluminium shafts sticking out of them. Dave scurried about, collecting them up like a gnome bundling together twigs to build a fire for his gnome children. Wtf, Dave thought to himself, Gnome children? He figured it had been a long day. His mind was trying to make light of the fact he was yanking aluminium arrows out of the heads of dead people. Every sickly slimy popping noise signalled the release of a reusable arrow for Pete. It was especially disgusting because the arrows were barbed and each time he yanked on one he had to twist it a little to get it loose. It was a little like trying to pull a wet spoon out of a jar of instant coffee granules: a crunchy wet feeling.
But he couldn’t help feeling a little impressed with some of the marksmanship on display, if just to focus on something other than swallowing a mouthful of vomit. Since they’d been eating nothing but MREs and three-day-old leftover gorilla meat, he didn’t fancy having it repeat on him.
Dave was especially impressed by one very nice shot: two pinned, with one arrow, to the side of a deli wall. Maybe Pete hadn’t noticed or, if he had, had just been too modest to point it out. Fat chance! Dave had managed, over the past two days, to disassociate his sense of wonder from his sense of innate disgust as he marvelled at the accuracy of his boss’s new toy.
He tugged at the shaft of the arrow, but could get very little purchase. There wasn’t much to grab. Most of the shaft was stuck between the heads of the corpses. They were pinned together against the deli’s specials menu. The special was brisket.
He finally gave up on trying to pull the arrow out. It hadn’t budged an inch. Come to think of it he didn’t really want to touch the corpses to pull them apart so, with a stroke of genius and of a Kukri, Dave decided to hack off the head of the corpse on top.
It was a task he believed would be fairly easy. Alas, after the first wet chop, the sound and smell of sloppy, cold flesh splitting was like being hit in the gut by a runaway airline food cart. The smell alone was enough to make him gag and hiccup vile burps from the pit of his stomach. They tasted faintly of King Kong’s arse meat. It was as if, left alone, the corpse was innocuous, but scratching the surface with a knife brought up all those disgusting meaty smells. And the added heat from the friction brought them out into the upper atmosphere. Before long all Dave could taste was a searing bile at the back of his throat.
But after the first head was off he felt pretty good about himself. Picking it up by the hair, he detached it from the neck. The weight felt a little like wet noodles. It had taken about ten minutes of brutal, laborious butchering. He almost dropped it and had to pause for a minute and reflect on why he cared about whether or not it hit the ground. Common courtesy, he guessed, as he laid the head down on the sidewalk. The headless body fell away, like a mannequin with no stand, blown over in the wind. Dave felt heat in his chest, which brought on a wave of sweat and sudden tightness in his joints.
Wiping his brow and clearing his head with a deep breath, he went to work on the next corpse. He paused for a second as he got a little closer. It was quite dark and his initial assumption that this had been a double head shot was... wrong.
Pinned to the deli specials menu was a very (using the word loosely) ‘live’ zombie. It writhed sleepily at first, as if waking up from a coma. Pete had said they weren’t the quickest of cats at night. And to be fair they weren’t the quickest of cats at the best of times. But it almost looked like it was under water, gasping for air and moving like a thawing beetle caught in a snow drift. Dave couldn’t make out any of its features, nor did he want to look at it. It just looked like a darkened humanoid mass spewing forth from the shadows.
“Oh shit!” Dave said as he hopped back, dropping the Kukri into the gutter with an echoing splosh. “Shit shit!” he lisped, biting his tongue and plunging his arm into the inky black gutter. The zombie reacted to the noises and movement. Its arms and legs became animated, like a parade float inflating. It began to pull itself off the wall, the arrow working its way through the hole in its shoulder as it pushed away, a monstrous silhouette taking shape against the red brick backdrop of the deli. “Oh balls!” Dave squealed. “Oh bugger, I knew I was gonna die! I just knew it!” Just as all hope sauntered out of his mind, he felt the slimy horn handle of the kukri. The zombie peeled itself off the sign. Dave, filled with a new zeal for life, wrenched the kukri from the gutter. It stuck with a trollish clink. “Bollocks!”
The zombie opened its mouth as a churlish response to his misfortune, just as another black arrow pierced its mouth. Another tore through its eye, again pinning it to the deli sign.
Dave turned towards the gun store with a crooked, tearful smile.
He was only about fifteen or twenty feet away, so he could clearly make out Pete with the torch under his chin, mouthing, “Stop facking about!”
Dave furrowed his brow, straightened his turban and shook the now smelly and wet kukri.
He paused to remark on a strange, itchy rash on his hand.
“Bloody mosquitoes!” he said, giving it a good scratch.
He picked up the remaining arrows from the floor and, with spiteful glee, pulled two out of the zombie twice-pinned to the sign. They were fresh, so they came out like a dream, the flesh still pliable from the force of the blows.
The zombie fell in a heap on the floor and Dave continued on into the diner, the diner in which Pete had been so kind as to save the rape victim, first from her rapist, then from her wicked existence.
The door had one of those annoying bells, which made the gorilla in his stomach jump a few inches. He felt like it was swinging off his lower intestine. He flicked on a little pen torch, which he had been hesitant to use outside because of the attention it might draw. The moonlight had been enough, but it was not welcome in the Horny Hog diner.
He swung the torch around, unsure of what he was looking for, just getting a feel for the place. It smelled like stale condiments and old bread. The moonlight died around two or three feet from the window of the long L-shaped diner.
He stood in front of the main window and looked out at the gun store. He saw the holes in the window from Pete’s shots and put his hand up to frame them, trying to work out the trajectory of each, to locate the bodies in the dark.
He followed his hands and probed the darkness just outside the reach of the moonlight. The twelve-inch beam from his dinky torch gingerly lifted the skirt of the darkness. It fell on cigarette butts, dirt and dust, glass, stains, and a hairy sausage someone had dropped on the floor. He saw a dead cell phone and some blood scuff marks on the floor but no bodies. Shit, Dave thought to himself. He raised the kukri up to his eye line, keeping the torch prone.
He thought that it wasn’t worth it; he should turn back, but something made him want to go deeper into the diner. A morbid curiosity perhaps, or something else? A strange smell. Nevertheless, he cautiously edged his way further into the darkness with his sword and shield of light held aloft.
He poked the torch into the darkest recesses of the diner, with a shyness reserved for Amish prom dates. The swirling dark devoured the light.
He could make out the booths; they were empty. Everything had been abandoned. There was food still on the plates, butt imprints on the faux leather cushions. He swiped his torch beam across the row of booths, and saw nothing, until a sharp tinkling sound set his teeth on edge, a singular sound of metal ringing in the darkness. He flipped his torch in the direction of the noise. A hand dropped and hung from the seat of one of the booths.
The hand was stiff and pale and had light coloured hair on its knuckles. The skin was pallid, with purple splotches where the blood had pooled. Dave took sharp slivers of breath into his lungs, holding them for long periods of time and releasing them again without any sound. He scratched the rash on his hand feverishly. He approached the booth, as if on rails, like this was a fair ground haunted house ride he couldn’t get off.
He prayed to any god that would listen that this would be something completely benign. He’d slap his forehead and utter a cheesy ‘phew’. Perhaps it was a mannequin or someone sleeping or some other horror red herring cliché.
But as he reached the booth, feeling like an usher in a darkened movie theatre, there they were, laid out in front of him, the two people Pete killed: the attempted rapist and attempted rapee, sitting down for a meal in the family diner, in the dark.
It felt so normal and so formal, like this horror unravelling in front of him was just part of the ride. He just had to endure it to get his free T-shirt at the end.
He recognised them since it was he who had spotted them through the binoculars. It was them, they were dead, but here they were. They sat across from each other, silent. Dave looked down at the rapist’s arm and at the floor, where the fork had dropped from the man’s hand.
The girl sat with her elbows on the table, cocked to allow her head to sit cupped in her hands. A milkshake glass was placed between her arms. The straw was in her mouth, but the glass was empty. Her face was covered in dried blood and her own matted hair.
The man had slid to one side; he was slumped over, with a steak knife in his other hand, a large empty plate in front of him. He must have had his arms either side of the plate, with the knife and fork at the ready. His face was frozen in a waxy grimace, which shone when the light touched it.
Dave felt his pulse quicken. He was sweating bullet ants. His vision blurred. It was like a picture from a nineteen fifties Sears catalogue: a vision of an idyllic American newlywed couple, eating steak and drinking milkshakes. He shook his head.
He got a little closer, feeling bolder now, like that ‘aha’ moment was on its way. Any minute now this would all make sense and he could breathe a sigh of relief and laugh it off.
The plate the man was supposed to be eating from was not empty. Sitting atop it was a white diner menu with an embossed logo. Thinking this was strange and feeling a little like he was in the wrong story, Dave leant over the stiff to poke at the menu, which slid around on the clean, white plate. He was getting Miss Marple vibes from it. He took another frustrated step and picked it up.
He scanned the menu methodically, as if today’s special held some clue to life everlasting.
Feeling a little giddy, he flipped the menu over and drenched it in torchlight and cast off sweat. It was one of those laminated kids’ menus with a maze and a word search and other little games on the back, the ones that they could draw on. But on that side, written across the little maze, were the words “CRAPPY SERVICE” in red crayon.
Dave flipped the menu again. he felt like someone had just punched him on the bridge of the nose and his eyes began to water a little. The feeling coming over him was like standing naked in the middle of a busy intersection: a disarming dizziness. He heard a rustling behind him.
He froze as he felt the cold point of something poking him in the soft flesh under his chin.
Carpenter twisted a black bolt under Dave’s chin, smiling as he did it. “Looking for something?”
TJ awoke, feeling as though he had just put his head down on the couch only to immediately lift it up again. He found himself alone and unrested. She was gone. For a moment the thought that it was all a dream washed over him, carrying a wave of self-loathing, but it passed; he could still feel her warmth and smell her earthy scent in the indentation on the couch.
It was still dark in the living room. In the cold, early hours of the morning, his breath hung in the air. He collected his wits. A light went on in the kitchen and nudged its way into the living room. Sunday must have gotten up to go get a snack or a glass of water or pee or something. As TJ’s mind lingered on the thought of Sunday peeing he realised he also needed to pee. He hoped the morning wood he was sporting was related to him needing to pee and not to the thought of Sunday on the toilet.
He waddled out of the room, trying to keep himself warm and cover the enormous boner he’d woken up with. He peeked into the kitchen. His eyes tried to adjust to the light. All he could make out was Sunday’s slim figure standing in the kitchen, looking out the window. There was light on the horizon as the day began to toss and turn and wake, allowing the chaos to start all over again.
His vision returned in stabbing pangs of artificial light. He saw Sunday was leaning over the sink and looking out into the back garden. As she strained to look over the fence into the open lot, which led to a wooded area behind the house, he could see the ‘Evil Dead’ T-shirt she was wearing lifting off her butt. It revealed those little pink panties with the smiling cartoon green ice-cream cone, which did nothing to decrease his morning wood, but something in her posture made the hair on his arms stand up.
She was propped up against the sink, her legs and arms stiff as she looked out into the back of the house. Her shoulders were knotted tightly.
“Sunday?” TJ said, a fearful innocence trembling in his voice.
“TJ, don’t come” she said, as soft and as quiet as if whispering in the ear of an open casket.
“What is it?” His voice got croaky and it’s pitch wavered as he sensed a primal fear welling up inside him, something he saw coming but would never admit to feeling.
“Don’t,” she said. She didn’t turn away from the window.
TJ shuffled over to her. Her face filled with fear and sadness, her eyes straining to look into his.
“What’s wrong” he said.
She took his pudgy hand and squeezed it like his mother had before he’d been due to get an injection as a kid. Sunday put her small hand on his cheek. His throat felt tight. He almost wanted to wince away from her cold little hand.
His breathing slowed. She’d turned to face him, trying to keep him looking straight at her. “Look at me.” Now she put both of her small, cold hands on his face. His heartbeat became fast and rhythmic. It hurt to breath as it pounded away, warming his whole chest. Thoughts like how his morning breath tasted like rotten eggs were burnt out of his head, as if with electro-shock treatment. “This is going to hurt more than anything you’ve ever felt before,” she said as she squeezed his chubby cheeks together, drawing his face closer to hers to keep his attention. “But you can’t blame yourself.”
TJ felt a cold shiver travel up his spine. His hair stuck up, making him feel like a cat being stroked against the grain. As it reached his shoulder blades and his neck, Sunday kissed him.
It was an explosion like ten thousand, no a million, atomic bombs going off all over his body. His heart bounced around his chest like it was in a pinball machine. Hot and cold and sour and sweet and up and down, and all those things at once, he felt her soft, thin lips against his. She tasted as bittersweet as broccoli ice-cream. She smelled like pine air fresheners and driving at night with the windows down. Her body close to his made him feel tall and lean and smart and funny. And thoughts of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ danced in his head. Thinking how maybe it could work. Maybe things would work out and it would be real and they could live somewhere out there. For just long enough to be happy.
His mind racing, light-headed, he snapped back into his body with a crawling self-doubt. He opened his eyes, sticky as they were and looked past her. He felt weightless for a moment, like his legs would buckle. His vision blurred and as his focus came back he saw into his empty garden. The bottle was still there from his sword test the other day. It just lay there in the grass. His eyes traced the fence at the back of his house and he saw something out of place: a figure wearing a dressing gown, just standing in the long grass. The figure faced the trees.
It was a woman standing against the wind, which seemed to pick up as TJ tried to focus on her.
Sunday clung to TJ. His body was warm and she found his girth quite firm and comforting. “Don’t look,” she whispered.
The hairs on TJ’s neck were frozen on end. A knot tightened in his stomach. The feeling drained from his extremities, his fingers and toes becoming numb.
“…Mmom??” TJ sputtered. His mouth filled with saliva. His legs became heavy as he tried to push away from Sunday who clung to him tighter. He shook as he watched the figure walk further into the long grass.
TJ pushed Sunday away from him and rushed out of the back door into his back yard. The cold of the early morning bit deep into his bones. “MOM!” he called out, his voice rasping from a pure need, a wrenching despair working its way through his ribs.
He scrambled across his lawn. His legs felt asleep, as if he was running through snow. The cold burnt the sweat that quickly accumulated on his face and neck.
He was struck to the ground with a dull thud. He squirmed on the grass, grabbing clumps of dirt in his chubby fists as he tried to scramble his way back to his feet. Sunday pinned him to the ground and wrenched his arm behind his back, forcing TJ’s face into the ground.
“If you follow her, you’ll just die too,” she whispered in his ear.
“I don’t care!” TJ spat bitterly, forcing back acerbic tears.
“You’re not like her. I know you’re not; you’re a survivor”
“You don’t know anything about me! Get the fuck off me! GET THE FUCK OFF ME!” He screamed and kicked like a five-year-old.
“I do. You’re like me. You’ll live if you can bear it, just like I did.” She swallowed hard as she twisted his arm hard up against his back, forcing his head down. He wriggled like an angry toddler.
A hissing sound, carried by the trees, ruptured the sound of his own breathing. A feint woman’s yelp as she dropped to the ground. For a moment he forgot to breathe. He was frozen, his body rigid. Sunday released his arm and got off of him. He remained, lying face down in the dirt, wishing the earth would swallow him. He made no sound.
“You’ll live, even if you don’t want to.” Sunday turned away. She swallowed hard, shaking the tears out of her head and, between her locked jaws, she muttered, “I’m sorry.”