As for the story itself: I'm not a big fan of zombies these days. I think the genre is over-saturated with this particular monster, and I usually avoid books and movies about zombies if I can help it. That said, while I'll never say never, there is very little chance that you'll ever see a zombie story from yours truly . . .
. . . after this one, anyway.
I wrote this one after asking myself, "Where is the worst possible place you could be when the zombie apocalypse starts? What's the last situation you'd wanna be in, at that exact moment?"
I wouldn't want to be in this kid's shoes, that's for sure.
“You can go up there, baby,” Mama tells me, “if you want to.”
She sniffles, wipes her nose with a crumpled tissue. Poor Mama barely looks like herself. The dark make-up she normally keeps so perfect around her eyes is smeared down her cheeks. Her pretty blond hair is all out of place.
This has been so hard for her. So hard for every one of us.
“Honey?” she says again. Another loud sniffle. “Would you like to go up and see Grampappy? It’s okay . . . . ”
She urges me forward with a soft hand on my shoulder. I can feel her trembling.
“Rachel,” Daddy whispers. He wraps one arm around Mama’s skinny waist. “He’s eight years old. I’m not sure if . . . I mean . . . do you really think we should –”
Daddy has a pale, worried look on his face that’s not unlike the look he gets the times I’ve seen him and Mama argue (which isn’t often). Like he’s searching for the right words to say, but they just won’t come to him. As if he knows anything he says is only gonna make things worse.
Mama nods, pulls away from him a little but not in a mean way. She wipes at her leaking nose again. “We can’t shelter him from the truth forever, Marcus. We had this discussion already. He’s got to learn about death sooner or later. Besides . . . I think . . . I th-think it’s what Papa would have wanted –”
Mama breaks down. Her knees buckle. At first I think she’s going to fall, but she catches herself. New tears stream down her cheeks.
Daddy reaches for her. “Oh, sweetheart . . . . ”
“I’m sorry,” she says, first to Daddy then to the rest of the family gathered around her. “I’m s-sorry . . . I can’t do this –”
She runs from the room, her heels clicking loudly on the funeral-home floor where lush carpet turns to polished hardwood outside the Viewing Room. Mama’s brother, big red-faced Uncle Tommy, goes after her. Papa glances around at the rest of the family, mumbles “excuse me” under his breath before following Uncle Tommy.
I watch him go. Everyone watches him go.
I want to leave with Daddy. But I don’t. I stay behind. Because I know this will be my last chance . . . .
My last chance to tell Grampappy good-bye.
Slowly, I approach his coffin. My tie – the one Daddy picked out for me last night at Wal-Mart, a silvery-blue clip-on with little black crosses all over it just like the one he’s wearing – suddenly feels as if it’s choking me. I pull at it, wish I could yank it off and throw it across the room, even though Mama and Daddy have been telling me all morning to stop fidgeting with it.
I take a deep breath.
I step forward.
The smell of the flowers all around Grampappy – more flowers than I’ve ever seen in one place in my life -- tickles my nostrils. For a second or two I’m afraid I might sneeze on him.
I imagine how someone would flinch, if you did that. They’d wake up, probably get mad.
I stand on my tippy-toes, chew at my bottom lip as I peer over the side of his coffin.
I expect to smell something awful. The smell of death, and dead things. Something like that cat me and my best friend Danny Monohan found in a ditch behind his house last summer, and we spent the next few weeks poking it with a stick till there wasn’t anything left to poke.
At the very least, I expect to recognize Grampappy’s own smell. That faint, familiar – but not at all unpleasant, ‘cause it was his, ya know? -- odor of sweat, hay, motor oil, and aftershave. A mixture of all the things that made up his day. The things that made my grandfather.
But Grampappy has no smell.
There’s . . . nothing. As if he isn’t even real. As if he’s just a manikin lying there. Or a figure made out of wax.
That thought makes me shiver.
The only smell is the jungle of flowers around Grampappy’s coffin. That, and my Aunt Ophelia’s cologne somewhere behind me. She always wears too much, and ever since she kissed me earlier I’ve tasted it on one side of my mouth.
I stroke Grampappy’s wrinkled hand with one finger. It’s so cold. As if he’s holding a handful of ice-cubes.
Tears blur my vision. There’s a heaviness in my chest, like I swallowed something big and it got stuck around my heart.
I hear murmurs behind me. Whispers that I can’t quite make out. Quiet sobs. Prayers. The sound of my Great Uncle Arthur loudly blowing his nose again into his bright yellow handkerchief. Sad organ music plays from a small speaker over my head, to the right of Grampappy’s coffin.
Now more than ever, I feel every adult in the room watching me. I wait for one of them to pull me away from Grampappy, to tell me “it’s okay, honey, why don’t you go find your Mama and Daddy and wait outside,” as if I’m doing something wrong here. But that doesn’t happen. Not yet. Their gazes burn into the back of my head, and I don’t like it at all. I ignore them. I wish I could be alone with Grampappy, to say my last good-bye.
I stand there, staring at my grandfather. At what he has become.
I’ve been told many times in the past that I look a lot like him.
I always liked it when people said that. Made me proud. And I could definitely see it: I have Grampappy’s nose, his big ears.
As I stare down at him, I understand what the grown-ups meant when they said “he looks so peaceful, like he’s just lying there sleeping.”
He does look peaceful. He does look like he’s just taking an afternoon nap after a hard day out on the farm.
He’s so handsome . . .
But that’s not my Grampappy lying there.
They’ve dressed him in a dark gray suit. Big, wide baby-blue tie with a clip that looks like two praying hands. Shiny gold wedding band on his left ring finger.
I have never seen my grandfather in a suit. He always wore wrinkled, faded flannel shirts, old brown workpants with grease stains on them or farmer’s overalls. He hasn’t worn his wedding band since Grandmama died, years before I was born. He always said he loved her dearly, but he didn’t wear it ‘cause it was too dangerous to have it on around all that farming equipment. Plus, he didn’t ever want to lose it.
Grampappy’s wavy white hair is perfectly combed. It looks slightly wet, as if he just stepped out of the shower a few minutes ago. His nails have been perfectly trimmed, and there isn’t a speck of dirt beneath them.
I remember Grampappy’s nails were always dirty, from working in the barn. At least one of them was usually chipped and bruised where he’d hit it with a hammer.
Everything feels wrong. So wrong.
That’s not my Grampappy lying there.
I can’t believe he’s gone. I can’t believe I’ll never see my Grampappy . . . my real Grampappy . . . ever again.
He’ll never hold me on his lap, tell me stories about what Mama was like when she was my age. He’ll never take me fishing out on the lake, never bait my hook for me because he knew of course I wasn’t scared of some stupid earthworm but just that big, scary barb stabbing through it. We’ll never ride around the farm on his beloved old John Deere tractor; he’ll never again pretend that he’s letting me drive it, as his liver-spotted hands cover mine on the tractor’s rusty steering wheel. Never again will his laughter fill the house as he watches those old Red Skelton videos or reruns of The Andy Griffith Show he used to love so much.
My grandfather is gone.
Gone . . . .
Mama says he’s in Heaven now, spending time with Jesus, but what does that really mean? I don’t get it. Grampappy’s not in Heaven. He’s here. Right here, this still, lifeless, fake-looking thing in front of me.
I don’t understand. I don’t want to understand.
All I know is: I want my Grampappy back.
More tears blur my vision. I grip the side of the coffin so tightly my knuckles turn bone-white.
It shakes a little. Almost looked like Grampappy just moved.
I swallow another lump in my throat.
Suddenly, I hear the adults gasp behind me.
I turn to face them, to see what’s going on, just as that tall man who runs the funeral home -- Mr. Mortensen, I think I heard Daddy call him – bursts into the room.
Normally his voice is quiet. Gentle.
Now he sounds scared. His voice cracks more than once as he speaks to my family, almost turning into a high-pitched squeal a couple of times as if his tie is choking him too.
“Uh . . . ladies and gentlemen? Can I have your attention, please? D-Don’t be alarmed. Try to stay calm, please. I . . . I need you all to follow me into the chapel. I . . . um . . . I have to tell you . . . s-something has happened. It’s all over the news. The government has declared a State of Emergency. They th-think it might be some sort of terrorist attack. Biological warfare. Some kind of . . . gas, maybe. They don’t know what’s causing this yet. But . . . they’re saying that dead people are -- no, no, of course that can’t be true. Ridiculous. It’s n-not . . . nevermind. Forgive my rambling. P-please, j-just . . . everyone, follow me. Quickly now! Into the chapel . . . p-please, people . . . we have to go . . . . ”
From somewhere outside the Viewing Room, there are screams. One of them sounds like Mama.
Mr. Mortensen’s head quickly turns toward the doorway. He looks back to my family. The doorway. My family.
“Oh, my God.” Mr. Mortensen’s face goes pale. He runs from the room as quickly as he appeared.
“To the chapel, everyone,” he begs us as he goes. “Please!”
Next I hear Daddy’s hoarse cry, from down the hallway: “Rachel! Rachel . . . oh, Jesus!”
Mama screams again.
A loud thump . . . .
And then a horrible growl, a sound that makes goosebumps pop up all over my arms. It sounds like something out of that old black-and-white horror movie Grampappy let me stay up late and watch with him one time: Night of the Living Dead.
Next, there are the sounds of wailing sirens outside, rising and fading in the distance.
A violent crash, from elsewhere in the funeral home. Breaking glass.
A man curses.
And now I am sure I hear that same man screaming: “No! G-God . . . D-Daddy, no . . . it’s me . . . what are you . . . no, d-don’t --!”
A gurgling sound, and then silence from the screaming man.
More breaking glass.
Then . . .
Was that . . . a gunshot I just heard outside of the funeral home?
“Get back! Stay away from me!” another male voice yells (Mr. Mortensen?).
The adults in the room start shrieking. My cousin Beverly passes out. Aunt Ophelia does too. Uncle Charlie tries to catch Aunt Ophelia, but he’s not quick enough. Her head hits the corner of the Guest Register stand – thunk! -- on her way down.
All around me now: chaos.
I barely hear any of it, though.
Because, suddenly, Grampappy’s ice-cold hand engulfs my own. It squeezes. Hard.
I turn back to him . . . .
His dead gray eyes are open. He’s staring at me.
His lips part with a soft ripping noise. The cotton balls Mr. Mortensen stuffed inside of there tumble out, onto my arm, onto the floor, as . . .
. . . Grampappy slowly sits up.
And now I’m screaming too.