Originally published in Our Values, January 2006.
A crow day, if ever there was one, I think—this as I pull the collar of my jacket tight against the cold rain that’s dripping down my neck, soaking my sweater. But I figure, hell, at least it’s cold. Nothing worse than Christmas and it’s hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk.
Most times I like rain. The sound of it. Washes everything clean. Even me. But I haven’t eaten all day, my shirt’s half-soaked, and I got a bra wire chafing my armpit—sorry I had to share that—so with one thing and another I’m hating it fierce this afternoon.
These dead winter Ramadan days; you think you might not even bother because it’s not as if you ever see the sun, it just comes up under a cloud and goes to bed again the same way, and the cold creeps into your skin the minute you wake up and stays there ’til sunset. God! (Whatever)
I try to be good, God, but it never seems to work out.
The walking dead that crowd the street agree with me.
“Kate,” one groans as he lurches past, “you really deserve this.”
Shove your face in a blender, I think, and I’m fingering the .50 caliber Bigmouth slung under my armpit—the one that isn’t chafing. Even though I know I’m not going to drill the guy. I think I must be hearing things. Doesn’t matter. Just another zombie.
There’s no bullet gonna kill my personal ghosts. I wonder idly if I’ve gone insane. If I were insane, I could have a cigarette.
God, I want a cigarette.
I think I’m actually digesting myself.
I push my way under the awning of the pizza place by the Ministry of WhoEffingCares, the one with the broken neon sign, and the Japanese guy who runs it gives me a gap-toothed grin and shoves something greasy at me. I think this guy’s dead, but it’s hard to tell. His face is like the bottom of an ashtray, but he looks okay in bad light.
“Flesh pizza,” he says. I give him a look. God, I hope not.
“You like pizza?” he wants to know. “Flesh pizza?”
“Cheese,” I say. I can’t eat for another hour anyway, but at least I won’t be stuck waiting later on.
The dead folk lounging at the tables on the sidewalk seem to think this is effing-A hilarious; they grin at me with broken pavement smiles. When zombies hang out in groups they tend to get kind of mushed up together, just a bunch of rotting arms and teeth and eyeballs.
Pepperoni has totally lost its appeal.
One of ‘em is smoking a cigarette, and little curlicues of white ash are drifting out of the holes in her face. The dead got no respect for religion. Then again, I wonder if you can fast if you’re dead? Can the zombies stumbling through their prayers know what they’re saying?
I doubt it matters.
Ashtray-face hands me the pizza box, and I peek at the greasy mess inside. Yeah, flesh as the driven snow. I don’t know why I come here.
I stick the box under my arm and duck back out into the rain, dodging the frantic, nerveless corpse drivers in their big black Sport Utility Hearses. Slack faces gaze vacantly from behind rain-slicked windshields; white knuckles grip steering wheels as they careen aimlessly through the streets, going nowhere.
Some of them never stop.
When I finally shove my way back into the office there’s a well-dressed corpse standing in the front room, and the first thing I think is I don’t know how the heck he got in here without getting soaked; but his suit is dry and pressed so tight you can still see the crease in his trousers, and here I am, nearly drowned, dripping mud and regrets all over the carpet. He looks at me like “who the hell are you,” so I just toss the pizza on my desk and sit down.
“Yeah?” I say.
“Oh,” he says, a bit surprised. “Are you Mrs. Al Amin?” so I say yeah again, ’cause I can’t come up with anything better. I’ve sat down with my soaked jacket on, and I’m trying to figure a way to take it off without looking silly, but I can’t, so I just sit there.
“Kate,” I add, not that there’s any point.
And then the second thing I think is, no effing way, this guy’s alive. Alive and breathing.
You can go whole weeks in this city without seeing anyone who’s still alive.
But I can see his chest move under the handmade Zegna, and when the breath comes out, it smells like garlic, not toothpaste or Lysol or grave rot.
Garlic. SOB’s obviously not fasting, either.
And the third thing I think is, I know his face from somewhere.
“Well, Mrs. Kate,” he says, “I have a job for you. I hear you are the best.”
I pray at sunrise, and then can’t get back to sleep. I don’t like the job Mr. Zegna gave me, but it pays well. At least I can work at night. Downside is, I got a whole day to kill before then.
I spend the morning watching the rain pelt the windows and drip through the cracks in little rivers that run and hide under my plastic floormat. For company, my own collection of ghosts and monsters and bad memories. It’s like group therapy, but there’s no coffee, and everyone just wants to talk about you. The dead flatmate sitting on top of my TV puffs a cigarette and blows smoke at me.
“Why are you still here, Kate?” she’s asking me. “What, like you’re too good to be dead?”
Static on all the stations. Doesn’t matter. Who’s left alive to listen?
I think maybe I should get a Christmas tree. My mom always used to put a little Christmas tree in her room in December, before our dad made her cut that crap out. I liked that tree. Just a tree wouldn’t be haraam, would it?
Screw it. I’m burned out on Christ anyway. Coming back from the dead is like black nail polish or rubber bracelets: it’s not so cool when everyone’s doing it.
At this point, I’d kill for a cup of Turkish, or even the lousy gasoline tea they serve around here.
I won’t get into what I’d do for a cigarette.
I try to pray again, just for kicks, but I can’t get the words out right. The dead people keep interrupting me. After five hours of listening to them, I give up.
Fortunately, there are forms of pain relief that don’t actually have to pass your lips.
You lose people. That’s just the way it is. People you knew, people you loved. They get chopped down by the big ol’ lawnmower of the future. Some die—suicide, cancer, car accident. Some are friends, others clients, the ones you couldn’t save when things got too ugly.
Some you just . . . lose. You look back and they’re not where you put them. One day they don’t write back, and you don’t either. A few you wanted gone, like that drug-dealer boyfriend who banged your flatmate. A few you didn’t, but there it is: they’ve fallen off the boat and they’re not getting back on.
At least, that’s how it was until the Whole Big Thing happened. We lost half the world in about two days. But they started coming back. Everyone, one by one, from wherever you left ‘em, they came back to find you. The enemies, the friends, the lovers. Some days, you just wake up with some dead boy in bed with you. There he is, all rotted away and kissing the back of your neck, like, “Baby, I’ve missed you; why did you go?”
Then you gotta kill ‘em all over again.
I wake at sunset to the sound of the athan from up on the hill. I wonder if the guy singing up there is still alive; if that makes two of us breaking our fast in this wasted city at the end of the world. I wonder how many of us are left.
I doubt it matters.
I shovel in the last of the flesh pizza, pull on a sports bra (smart, Kate), grab my shoulder rig. Jacket, bullets, shovel, and I’m ready for work.
Just another Thursday night.
The guy driving the taxi looks frayed, like maybe he had a little too much motor oil in his morning coffee, and his cab smells like rainwater and meth, but at least he’s breathing. Must be from out of town. His eyes go big when I tell him where I’m going, and he gets that “nice knowing you” look on his face.
Anyone left alive by now sees that a lot.
I have a lotta time to think as we drive, with all my ghosts crammed in the backseat grinning at me.
“Which is worse,” the drug-dealer boyfriend asks, kinda experimentally; “If she isn’t there . . . or if she is?”
I sip gasoline tea out of a little plastic cup the driver gave me, and wish for them to go away. The only one I never see is Mom.
I think about a lotta stuff on that ride; maybe I’ll write it all down here later. But not now; this is the part where things start getting really messed up.
I barely get both feet on the ground before the cabbie peels out—not that I blame him. Nobody likes the Mall. Not since it got to be Dead Girl Central.
The lot around the building is wet and empty, except for the overturned cars, and the ragged strips of newspaper dancing with empty plastic bags. The sky above is a mess of gray clouds.
The undead bouncers try to stop me at the doors, but I flash the Bigmouth and they get outta my way.
Here they are. All the pretty little corpses, dressed to the nines in clothes that fit them when they were alive, shuffling from shop to shop carrying bundles of crap they’ll never try on. Some have huge piles of department store bags tied together by the handles in bunches high as your shoulder—they drag them along like anchors as they walk in circles around the concourse.
Haifa Wehbe screeches over the speakers, making me wish for elevator music. After an hour in the mall, I usually wonder if I’m really alive.
When the Whole Big Thing happened, and the dead started rising, the first thing we realized was most of ‘em didn’t really get that they were dead. They just tried to get on with whatever they were doing. Get another carryout meal. Shag their girlfriends. Find a lipstick that matches their complexion. (Corpse is the new black.)
Every day there were more of them, wandering around and slowly falling to bits. Who knows how. People just started wakin’ up dead. Pretty soon they were just about the only ones left. But everything kept going, just as if it didn’t matter at all.
Whole world’s gonna fall apart one of these days.
Whoever is torturing Haifa finally stops, and starts putting the thumbscrews to Nancy Ajram. I hate pop music.
I contemplate shooting out the speakers, but it’s not smart to piss off the zombies. They don’t like their routines disturbed.
The Factory is on the top floor. It should be easy enough to get up there, as long as I don’t make anything mad. The problem is getting back down.
There’s a girl on the escalator with makeup on so thick, she almost looks alive, but her hands are skeletons. I hope she doesn’t take off her sunglasses.
Funny how death doesn’t change some people so much.
The Zombie Factory is what they call the old cinema. The seats are always packed, but no one’s breathing. No one knows where they come from, because zombies never seem to go in, but no one comes out alive.
And this is where Mr. Handmade Zegna has sent me. Mr. Handmade Zegna whose face comes back to me from so many late night newscasts. Mr. “I’m so rich I live in a fortified, zombie-proof compound in the desert, where the end of the world won’t bother me at all” Zegna. Mr. “sitting on the ruins of civilization with a glass of champagne in my hand” Zegna. Abu Apocalypse himself. Bastard.
Seems his daughter has gone missing.
Seems he’s got reason to think she’s dating a walking corpse. And I thought my social life was DOA.
Inside there’s popcorn all over the lobby, and it smells of mold and rancid butter and spoiled dreams. The place feels like a mortuary the morning after a staff party. I pull out the Bigmouth and chamber a round.
Hollow-point .50 caliber rounds with an explosive core. There’s not much that’ll stop an angry zombie, but the Bigmouth can. I’ve got a 10 slug clip, and three more in my belt.
And there’s 200 of them in each theater.
My dad is standing in the empty ticket line, taking bets.
“This is it, Kate,” he says. “I always knew you’d end up like this. One lousy stupid job you took for the money that’s going to leave you playing bass guitar in the garage band in Deadsville.”
What a jerk.
I go into the theater.
They’re all there, staring up at the screen from under a blanket of dust and centipedes, watching Casablanca—the 2008 one with Angelina Jolie. Clearly they haven’t moved in a while.
Two hundred to one, baby. Jim Morrison sings the odds to me in my head. I wonder if he’s still dead.
I come down the aisle and my ears are up, listening for a heartbeat. The dead eyes don’t even flicker from the screen as I walk past.
Forty rounds in my belt means I could take about one in five.
I smell something. A whisper of perfume from near the screen. Front emergency exit. I move to it slowly, careful not to block the view, then shoulder through the door fast, Bigmouth raised.
It’s what they always say: No one gets out alive.
Empty concrete stairwell.
Behind me, I can hear my dead boyfriend giggling.
“Not so smart, Katie,” he chuckles.
A little too close.
I look back to the theater and there he is, twelve years dead and smiling that same smile he had the day I said goodbye to him for good.
“Hello, lover,” Jamie says. And this time he’s not my imagination.
I try to point the Bigmouth but he’s dead man fast, and before I get it halfway round he socks me in the face and everything goes dark.
I met Jamie in Damascus just before the Whole Big Thing started. He was teaching English, and I was doing whatever I did back then, back in the bad old days.
Living, he wasn’t all that bad, if you didn’t get to know him too well. I said to Ayesha this one time, “He’s breathing, and he likes me, what else do you want?” Little did I know.
One thing I’ll say, he was hell in the sack. Pre-Jamie, I never understood what all the fuss was about over sex. It was something people did. A bit more fun than long walks in the rain. And when he wasn’t drunk, or shagging Ayesha, or trying to stab me or break his mates out of the joint, Jamie was a hell of a lot of fun.
What an asshole he was. I suppose that was why when the Algerians he’d scammed came after him, I let them find him. And when they’d done what they were gonna do, I found them, and everybody who needed to be dead was dead, and that was that.
Did I really do that? Yeah. If I told you all the stuff I did back then, you’d say I was an unbeliever. You bastards would probably call me kafir.
But it wasn’t like I ever stopped believing. Please, God, don’t think I’d do that, just because of Detroit or Tunis or Morocco or London. I always believed in you; it was me I quit believing in.
I was a rotten bitch; an embarrassment to everyone who’d sacrificed for me. I knew where I was going. I was one of the damned. Then the world came to an end. So, saved or damned now, Kate, what do you think? Doesn’t even matter anymore.
The point was, I made Jamie into a ghost. It’s what you do with the ones who disappear. You make a little box in your head, and you fill it up with all the snapshots of them you never took, and places you never went together, and you put it on a shelf and leave it there. So even though you know you’ll never really be rid of them, it’s the memories in the box that are real to you, not the rotting reality of someone you sorta (stupid) loved cradled in topsoil and old flowers and muddled up with the roots of mushrooms.
I got a lot of boxes. Annie the anorexic I watched starve herself to death in Cairo. Natasha, who I couldn’t save from the pimp who brought her here. All the people in that damned bus in Tunis. The chick whose name I forget who got strangled, stabbed, and burned by her brother. They follow me around, all mixed up together.
Until they find me for real.
I wake up to a thirty foot high Brad chucking Angelina on the chin.
“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” he says.
I’m lying on a moldy sofa in a room full of cobwebs, and the Bigmouth is gone. The lights are low, but projector glow fills the room, and I realize I’m behind the screen. Jamie is sitting next to me, stroking my hair with one desiccated hand. Funny how he didn’t rot much. The Algerians must have dropped him in the desert. Being dead suits him. Skinny and brown and weathered, with his old tangle of long black hair and shiny sunglasses and spider tattoos. Behind him are two walking corpses of the usual lasagna variety, and then the girl.
Pretty little Egyptian girl, with big dark eyes. Looks a lot like I did, twelve years back.
“Get off her, Jamie,” the girl says, and he gets up and goes over to her and takes her hand.
“Nice boyfriend you got, Samah,” I mutter. “Where’d you dig him up?”
“Isn’t he killer?” she says, putting her arms around his waist. “We’re gonna be together forever.”
“He says that to all the girls,” I snap back. “But you don’t wanna end up like them.” I nod at one of the corpse-sidekicks. He looks like a hamburger that’s been sitting on the sidewalk for three days. “There aren’t enough skin care products in the world.”
Funny thing, she laughs.
“Daddy didn’t tell you, did he?” she says. And she leans into Jamie, and she kisses him, long and deep. Deep enough to infect, that’s for sure.
Damn, damn, damn. I figured it was gonna be too late for her, but that’s not like seeing it. I hang my head, and the girl laughs again.
“He figured it out. My daddy. How to use them. The dead ones. How to infect ourselves, without dying. So we just go on forever.”
No effing way.
I stand up; the guards lurch forwards, and I put my hands behind my head.
It’s impossible, but I think it’s true. I can smell it on her. She looks fine. She’s breathing. Probably blood’s still flowing. But something in her skin smells wrong, like new car smell in a rushing glen.
“Ain’t it cool?” she says.
“Yeah,” I snap, “Pretty soon, everyone’s gonna be doing it.”
“You oughta join us,” Jamie says, lighting a cigarette.
“I wouldn’t wanna share you, baby,” I sneer.
“Aw, you can have him,” the chick says. “I can always make a new boy.”
Jamie takes another step forward, and now he’s smiling right down at me.
“Come on, baby,” he says. “We’ll go somewhere, just us. It’ll be like it was before. You an’ me. Before the world got all screwed up.”
I’m tired of this. Tired of rain. Tired of being tired. Tired of the crappy movie behind me, tired of listening to these dead bastards. I’m ready to start handing out wolf tickets. My left hand drops inside the collar of my jacket, and comes out holding the boom stick I keep taped in the back.
Boom stick: two shotgun slugs packed in front of a pair of solid propellant charges like they use for model rockets. One trigger, two shots.
The first one plows through one of the sidekicks’ heads and sets the back wall on fire. The second catches the other in the chest and blows him apart.
The girl’s eyes go bloody as she runs at me, and now she looks like what she is: deader’n hell. I know I can’t fight her, not even close, so I step back, fake-stumbling over the couch. She takes the bait and jumps, and I catch her with my legs and flip her up and over, right through Brad and Angelina and out into the front row of the audience.
“You slut,” she screams as she gets up. She starts to push her way through the zombie film buffs, and one of them grabs her arm.
It’s not smart to piss off the zombies. They don’t like their routines disturbed. And they’ll eat anything.
Samah keeps screaming as they dig in, but I don’t worry about it too much.
And then it’s just me and Jamie in the burning theater, playing out a love scene twelve years old: the last chance I never gave him.
“I missed you, Katie,” he says.
“I know, baby,” I say. “I missed you too.”
He reaches up and takes off the sunglasses, and somehow, miraculously, he still has those bright blue eyes. He looks at me like a tiger looks at a steak; I used to love that look.
“Why’d you have to kill me?” he asks.
“Well,” I say, “you were really, really asking for it.”
He takes another step closer.
“We can still be together. I can show you how.” He’s standing right in front of me, and I don’t move. His eyes are just like they used to be, the way they turn down at the corners when he’s upset. “I didn’t mean for it to be like this.”
“I know, Jamie,” I say, coming closer, so close our faces are almost touching. Even dead, he’s sexy. I let my hand slip under his shirt, and the muscles of his stomach feel like old leather. “I know.”
I catch him by the throat with his teeth inches from my face, and grab the Bigmouth from where he’s stuffed it in the waistband of his pants.
He always kept his gun there. The dead never change.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I say, and I blow his head off.
If you tell anyone I cried, I’ll shoot you in the face.
The boneyard. Morning. I haven’t slept. I haven’t eaten, but by the time I’ve lugged Jamie’s guts this far, it’s way past fajr, so there it is. No food for Kate today.
Every time I come here, I’m amazed by how many people have died in this city. It just goes on and on, acres of marble lawn ornaments on golf club grass.
This grass gets more attention than most guys’ wives.
Shame to rip it up.
I decide to plant Jamie at the bottom of the first valley, under a white fiberglass angel with BELOVED carved on the front and GET STUFFED scrawled underneath in magic marker. I kick it over and start digging.
If you’ve never dug a hole when you’re fasting, I don’t recommend it.
The shovel just gets heavier, and my fingers freeze, and soon enough a drizzling rain starts turning the ground to mud around me until I feel like I’m swimming in my own grave, and I’m just gonna keep digging until I sink down into the earth and disappear. And all around me, I see them standing: all my ghosts. All the other ones I had to dig for, watching in accusing silence.
By the time it gets deep enough, I can barely breathe, and there’s yellow insects flying circles around my head, and the ground is writhing with black worms. I wrap what’s left of Jamie up in the remnants of the movie screen and drop him in the hole. He sinks into the mud with all the previous occupants, and disappears.
Goodbye again, Jamie. Hope I don’t see you soon.
And then I’m walking back across the boneyard, thinking of how many prayers I’ve missed today, and whether God could forgive me for having a hamburger, and whether this stupid, stupid business will ever end or if it’s just going to go on like this, day after day in this stupid dead world where nothing matters, watching everyone around me dying from the inside with nothing I can do to stop it, until the day comes I have to make them into ghosts.
I think at some point I fall down, I can’t remember, and I’m vomiting water into the wet grass and there’s blood seeping out of my hand where the boom stick burned it, and I’m trying to remember something that feels really important, but I just can’t.
My face is pressed, gasping, into the earth that’s someone’s grave when without even a shiver it bursts open and a white bony hand comes thrusting up out of the mud. And I scream, scrabbling backward in a panic, clutching at the Bigmouth as the dead thing claws at the grass, crawling towards me like some kind of spider, and I’m still screaming and crying when my hand finally gets a grip on the butt of the gun and I jerk it out of its holster and empty the clip, pumping slug after slug into the arm, the grave, the ground, until my face is splattered with mud and blood and the stinkin’ thing finally slides back under the surface, twitching and writhing as it disappears.
And it’s the damndest thing, but that’s when I remember: It’s Christmas.
It shouldn’t matter to me. I don’t believe Christ died for my sins, and I sure as hell hope he ain’t coming back. It’s just a day. It doesn’t matter.
But it’s also my mother, humming to herself on winter mornings. Hanging lights on her little tree. And it’s her the way I last saw her, covering my ears from the sound of bombs and whispering,
“Have a little faith, Katie.”
So it matters. Something matters.
And just for a minute I can believe that whatever it is that’s happened to us—to me and Jamie, and Samah and her father, and Mom and the poor dead pizza guy and this whole stupid world—it still matters what we do.
So I get back up off the grave.
I pull my jacket tighter around me as I stumble towards the road. I need to sleep. I need to pray.
I need a fucking cigarette.
Some things you get, some you don’t.
Just another Christmas morning.
Originally published in Our Values, January 2006.