I can't quit staring.
There's no doubt that it's Laura Johnson, but that's not why I can't quit staring. She's dead, that much is obvious, and that's no reason to stare, either.
I remember the dress.
I didn't ever really like Laura Johnson, but I knew her well. Everyone in Sand Skillet did. She was the type of woman who invited herself over and didn't accept excuses or dismissal, no matter how valid. If she wanted to come over for a cup of coffee or two, she would, your chores could wait, your life could wait. Selfish and stubborn, and not many folks liked her. My mama was one of the only people in town who'd tolerate her in good humor.
Probably her only friend, so when she passed, I felt obligated to take Mama to the funeral, even though she was having a pretty bad day. I wasn't sure how it was going to go, her being around the people from town after being secluded for so long.
But it's a small town, and they knew about her deteriorating mind, and they gave us our space, most people just said hello and left it at that. I walked with Mama up to the front of the church, hoping that this was the right thing to do, hoping I wasn't going to scare her or cause her mind any undue damage by showing her the dead woman she knew for so long.
She looked into the coffin with no sign of recognition, and we filed back to our seats. About halfway through the service, she said she had to use the restroom, so I walked her out to the lobby. After she took care of business, I decided not to push my luck, and instead of walking her into the church auditorium, I led her back out to the truck and took her home.
On the way, all I could think about how is that dress stood out. Blue flowers on a yellow print, it didn't match at all against the red satin lining of the coffin. One thing about Laura, she always wore matching everything, and here she was, going to her eternal resting place in something that didn't match.
Eternal rest doesn't seem like the right phrase, not anymore.
One arm's missing, it looks like it might have been torn off, and the sleeve of her dress flutters wildly in the wind. Her other arm is trying to pull her body towards us. It's slow going, because instead of a hand, there's only a stump. It isn't a bloody stump, but it is wet. Some kind of fluid, deep brown and spoiled, is oozing from inside the stump, and each time she tries to use it to move herself, little clumps of dirt stick to the place her hand should be.
Her legs are over by the side of the house, slowly pumping. Her waist is a jagged mess of ooze and bone and leathery flesh. Jagged because my mama blew her in half with a shotgun. She should be dead. Again.
Instead, her legs continue to slowly pump, and her stump continues to scoot her towards us.
Her face is the worst. The eyes are milky, and one of them is leaking some kind of fluid down her face. Her jaw snaps at us every few seconds. So hard that she's destroying her dentures. They're chipped and hanging at an odd angle. Each time she snaps her mouth closed, they become a little more skewed.
"I didn't realize until she got close that she was all messed up," Mama says. "I told her to stay away, but she wouldn't listen. I went in and got a gun, the first one I could put hands on, and she was right there behind me, so I led her out the back door. Fired a warning shot, but she reached for me right when I did, and that's where her arm went. She didn't even flinch, and that's when I knew I needed to put her down."
She stares down at the thing, at what used to be Laura Johnson. "I guess I didn't do as good a job as I thought."
"You...you gotta shoot them in the head," I tell her.
Without hesitation, she fires the rifle into what's left of Laura, and skull and more black fluid splashes all over the side of the house. The arm stops moving, the torso drops to the ground. The legs continue to skritch in the dirt.
"The legs?" she asks.
"I don't know. Maybe like a chicken with hits head cut off?"
"What's going on, Jeffrey? Is this just another part of it, am I going crazy as well as forgetting?"
"No, Mama, this is real. It's been on the news, I guess. Mark down to the Co-Op told me about it, but it sounded like...well, it sounded too weird to be true."
She stares down at the Laura creature. The legs finally stop moving. When she looks up, she has a hard look on her face, like when I was a child and she'd have to whip me, even though she didn't want to.
"Jeffrey, I hate to do this to you, but I have to. This kind of thing, it's not something you can survive with...well, with someone who has my condition." Is it suicide to ask your son to kill you? Suicide's a Hell-worthy sin, which is why she has to ask at all. Otherwise she would have smiled and talked to me about the strawberries and cleaned herself up with all her nice-smelling soaps and creams, and then she would have put that shotgun in her mouth and done the job herself.
"Hush, Mama. We need to think clear about this, not what you're talking about."
"Jeffrey. Son. You know it's the only way. You can't watch out for me and yourself, too. It was only luck that I was having a good day when Laura came walking up. What would have happened if she'd found me on a bad day?"
I think about the other day, when she was telling me how she saw Laura walking along the fence. That dress, the blue one with yellow flowers, I could see rips and tears in it, not caused by a shotgun, but something sharp. Shredded, the way a barbed wire fence would do, if you were walking along against it, trying to get through.
"We'll figure something out," I tell her. "We'll just be sure to keep you inside."
It feels dirty talking about her condition. It's there, it's always there, we both know it, but it's something we ignore. Even on good days, we'll skirt the issue, talk around it. And here we are, forced to face it, no hiding or acting as if it wasn't a big thing.
"I can't do that, you know I can't do that. I never wanted to be locked up in an institution, and I don't want to be locked up inside my house. You know better."
"Mama, we don't even know what this is. What you're asking me to do, what if I did, and then two days later, they find out it's temporary?"
She laughs, and her laughter carries out across the heat-cracked valley. "Baby, the dead are up walkin around! You think that's the kind of thing that's temporary?"
"Well hell, Mama, I don't know! To be honest, I don't think anyone does. Mark thinks it's zombies, but the news is saying it's an infection or something, and really it's anyone's guess at this point. So please excuse me if I'd like to wait until I have a little more information before I kill you. Which is what you're asking me, is to kill my mother in cold blood."
She stares at the corpse of the Laura thing some more, and then looks out across the valley, out across miles of stubborn land that has always been worked by stubborn people.
"All right. I'm sorry, I know that isn't fair of me. I just...I don't want to be the reason, if anything bad happens to you."
"It'll be okay," I tell her, and I don't believe it any more than when I've told it to her any other time in the last several years. But I've had time to practice on making it believable, and when she returns my smile, I know that I've convinced her again.
The sun breaks the horizon as I look over my land.
Nine years ago, there was a severe drought in this part of the world. The temperature stayed over one hundred degrees for thirty-eight days. Our land, which was never a pleasant thing to work, became a dustbowl. Livestock thinned and died.
My father and uncle had pressure from the bank, sell some land, just a little, just enough to make sure taxes could be paid, enough so loans made against the land for equipment could be paid.
Sell some land, just a little, just enough.
But this is family land, and it is stubborn, but so is the family, and instead of selling, the brothers decided to gather all of the cattle, bring them in closer, and irrigate crops by hand.
It was a hellish summer, but one in which we all took pride. The cattle were all brought up near our house, ushered or lured in with fear or feed. I spent day after day driving posts, digging holes, stringing barbed wire. Making a corral, right up next to our house.
My cousins spent the summer filling water trucks, driving them out to manually irrigate the crops. I spent the summer dodging cow flop right outside my back door, feeding cattle, and building fence.
We made it through that summer, and the rain eventually came, and we moved the cattle back out to where they belonged, free range, and our crops grew without having water transported to them.
We always said we'd take down the chutes and the corals we'd built up near our house, but we never did. Truth be told, I think it was more superstition than anything. Felt like if we tore it down, there'd be another season without rain, and we'd end up building it all over again.
The fence posts and railings look old, but they're sturdy. Sturdy enough to herd bulls in when it's castration time. Sturdy enough to withstand un-broke horses.
I take a drink of my coffee. The puddles of cloud in the sky change color as the sun rises, everything going from black and white to extra-saturated color.
The quail whistle lonely down in the the valley, and I hear a tractor engine grumble to life somewhere in the distance. Five, six miles, probably Jed Norton on the Northeast field.
The coffee tastes good, but not as good as when Mama makes it. Something about sipping hot coffee on a cool spring morning, it always tastes better, though, feels more right.
I don't know what to think. I tried calling a couple folks last night, but the phone lines are down--nothing out of the ordinary there. Every spring, the rain soaks down into the earth and causes shorts in the ancient lines. I stared up at my ceiling and waited to hear the town alarm warble itself awake, its wail alerting everyone to the bizarre emergency of the walking dead.
It never came, and I fell asleep to troubled dreams. I woke early, and the bad thoughts woke right along with me, and I knew right away that I wouldn't be falling back asleep.
I crept out to the kitchen and started coffee, and as it brewed, I made my way through the house, checking every window, shotgun in hand. Expecting a corpse at every pane of glass, expecting something to pop into view and terrify me. Nothin happened, though.
You start wondering. You start wondering if maybe it's contagious. Out here all alone with a woman who doesn't understand what reality means anymore, will it seep into you, as well?
It's stupid, I know it is, but when you find yourself watching your mother kill a dead woman, stupid ideas don't always seem so stupid. If the dead can walk, why can't the loss be contagious?
That's how I always think of it, is the loss. Mama always called it Old Timer's disease, even though the doctor tried to tell her it was technically called Alzheimer's.
He thought she was dumb, some country bumpkin, because she never would use his word. He knew about it, he knew the technical name and the effects, and he knew what to expect, but he never had to personalize it. He never had it reach in and tear his heart apart.
Once you experience that, you can call it whatever you want, I think. Mama called it the Old Timer's.
I called it the loss.
What would that doctor think about me right now? Sitting here as the sun rises, wondering if the fear, the confusion, the loss, wondering if it's contagious, wondering if I've caught it just by being around her alone for so long. What's reality, when you only share it with one other person? Who's to say what's real, what's right, and what's crazy?
I sigh and shake my head. Dump the remainder of my cold coffee out on the remains of Laura Johnson. No good thinking like that, it'll just end up getting us both killed.
I turn to go inside, and see Mama standing at the back door. She's got a rifle, and I wonder for the millionth time if that's a good idea. She's never been violent towards me, but when a woman's holding a loaded weapon, you want her to be 100% sure who you are, and she spends most days wondering who I am.
"Mornin'," I say.
"Mornin'. Laura still dead?"
"Deader than she was yesterday," I tell her, thankful that she's still with me. Maybe whatever it is that caused a dead woman to work her way out of her grave, maybe it cures the loss. Probably not, I know that, but is the idea so crazy? Corpses brought back to life, why can't brain cells be rejuvenated? Whatever it is that causes the loss, why can't it be reverted?
"That's good. You comin' in for some breakfast?"
"I was thinking I might ought to head in to town early today, let everyone know what happened with Laura. Warn 'em."
"Good chance they'll lock us both up as crazy."
"Maybe so. But if it's the other hand, I'd hate to have everyone caught off guard."
She smiles. "You're a good boy, Jeffrey."
Her smile fades. She stares at nothing, and for a moment, I worry about losing her. But this isn't a lost look, it's a thinking look, a figuring out look. "Not sure we're in time for the town, though." Her head tilts, almost as if her gaze is shifting, but she's still not looking at anything. "Or Dennis Clements."
When she loses part of herself, memories and recollection, something about her changes. Not physically, exactly, but sort of. It's like dropping a handful of dirt into clear water, everything cloudy and murky, and right now, she looks so clear, but I still don't understand her.
"His tractor hasn't moved," she says. "He started up, what, twenty minutes ago? If he was in the old Parson field, I'd say maybe he just went back home to grab another cup of coffee, but he's way up in the gulch."
These places, various fields and pastures, they all have names. You tell your wife you're going to be plowing the Jenkins field, she knows right where you'll be, and half the people in the county would know where you were from that description, too.
Not Jed Norton on the Northeast field, but I was close. Dennis Clements has a field just south of there, down where the land dips and drops. The gulch. Dennis Clements squeezes a penny hard enough to make Lincoln cry, no way he'd let his old John Deer run for twenty minutes without reason.
I feel colder. My skin hurts, the hair's standing out so straight that it feels like needles.
"What's happening in town?" I ask. "I missed it."
"Annie's been playing 'Old Rugged Cross' on those bells every morning for fifty-two years. Not today. And listen: Co-Op hasn't started the auger yet, none of the morning traffic, and I haven't even heard a train pass through."
She stops talking, and I listen. It's amazing how silent the world is, now that she's pointed it out. There are birds chirping and whooping, there are insects buzzing. The slight breeze whispers across the land, causing nature to rustle.
But nothing man-made, aside from the tractor I heard earlier.
But not enough of them.
I missed it, and she caught it. She's so sharp, quick to notice, quick to understand. It makes the loss hurt even more, knowing how much it's stolen from her.
"What do you figure?" I ask her.
"Probably couldn't stand to live with ourselves if we didn't head in and at least try to warn folks."
I nod. "When should I head in?"
"No time like the present." I nod again, pick up the rifle leaning on the post beside me. I step inside the door to grab the truck keys and an extra box of shells.
"What were you out here looking at?" Mama asks as I climb into the truck.
She glances at the corals, at the fences.
"Not exactly free range," she says, "But I guess I could live with it, if I had to."
I blush as if I've been caught doing something bad. She smiles her warm smile that's always told me it's okay, and she says, "It's good you're thinkin, Jeffrey. We don't know what's gonna happen, so it's good to be weighing your options."
"If this is as bad as the movies always make it out to be, neither one of us is gonna be free-range for a while."
"We'll figure something out," she tells me.
I don't have anything to add to that, so I try to prepare myself for whatever I might find in town.
Posted under Short Stories on 10/25/10