Her lips are cold.
She doesn’t kiss him on the mouth, of course. She merely brushes those cold lips along his neck, behind his ear. She raises goosebumps there, with her chill touch.
He notices out of the corner of his eye that her lips are blue, a lovely purplish hue that sets off the veins in her pale-as-china skin. He wonders if her lips are tinged with lipstick, or if that’s their natural color.
Her nipples are blue, too. He wants to touch them, take them in his mouth, to see if they, too, are cold. To see if he can warm them. But he isn’t allowed to move his hands.
She is wearing a tiny blue g-string; she is rubbing her crotch on his knee.
This dead girl is the best stripper he’s ever seen. He will tip big.
All the girls in the club are dead. The sign out front flashes neon, three simple words: Dead. Nude. Girls.
But this girl is different.
He can’t exactly say that she’s his type, because dead girls aren’t normally his type. Really, normally he prefers them breathing. And the hollow-eyed blondes that bracket this girl’s appearance on the stage are definitely not his type—now that they’re dead and their artificial tans have faded, they seem even more like plastic dolls than before.
But this girl. She may be dead, but there’s a fire in her eyes. A sinuousness to her dancing. It’s anything but rote, mechanical, programmed. She’s still remote, and, he must confess, a little detached from the audience. But he can tell that she loves to dance. Even now.
Her skin is smooth as porcelain, and just as cold.
Her stage name is Lily, so he brings her a spray of white flowers, callas and lilies of the valley. He waits until closing time, although the flowers have begun to wilt a little by then, and hands the bouquet to the stage manager. There is a card attached.
He waits in the parking lot.
She comes out in a thin robe, pale blue and vaguely hospitalish in cut. She is smoking a cigarette, which he finds odd. She stands beneath one of the fluorescent fixtures mounted on the outside wall; the harsh light makes her look even paler and more washed-out.
“Hi,” she says, her voice low and husky from the smoke.
He tries to smile, to relax his shoulders. “I’m Jim,” he offers.
“Pleased to meet you, Jim,” she says. “Thank you for the flowers.”
There is a pause. He tries a joke. “How can you smoke when you don’t breathe?”
“I don’t inhale.” She doesn’t smile.
“I’m not quite sure where to take this,” Jim admits. “I think you’re beautiful. I love to watch you dance. I could watch you all night.”
“Thanks,” she says, and smiles. A blue-lipped smile.
“What’s your name?” he ventures.
“Lily will do.”
“Is that your real name?” He is blushing; he knows he’s being impertinent.
But she smiles again and takes a long drag from her cigarette. “It is now.”
Where do you take a dead girl on a date? The cemetery? A funeral home?
Lily wants to go to the library.
“There’s a cafe,” she says. “And it’s quiet.”
She doesn’t eat. She doesn’t even bother to pick at her salad, like the other girls he’s dated in the past; she doesn’t even order a salad. She just sits, watching him eat his sandwich and sip his coffee.
She asks him to check out six books for her. “They won’t give the dead library cards,” she says, and smiles. Her smile makes his heart swell and his palms sweat.
“What do you do when you’re not at the club?” he asks once they’re through the checkout counter.
She shrugs. “I sleep.”
“The sleep of the just,” he jokes. She doesn’t laugh. At least I didn’t ask about coffins, he thinks.
She holds hands with him as they walk back together, toward the club. Her palm is clammy and cold, but he doesn’t mind.
“Where do you live?” has asks her at last.
She waves a hand in the air. “Here,” she says. They are standing outside the club again, and she is smoking without inhaling.
“You can’t be serious,” he says.
She frowns. “Why not?” She takes a puff from her cigarette. “Did you expect me to say I live in an apartment? What for? Or maybe you want me to take you back to my place, a crypt in the cemetery perhaps?” Her cheeks remain porcelain-white, but he can tell that she is angry. She drops the cigarette on the ground, stubs it out with her toe. Clenches her hands into fists, and then lets them relax.
“I’m sorry,” he says simply. Then, “Do you want to see my place? I’m sorry I didn’t ask you earlier.”
She manages a small smile. “Is it a dump? Are you embarrassed?”
“It’s nothing special,” he says. “That’s all. Nothing much to see.”
He had been worried about the first kiss, he realizes when her tongue slips into his mouth. He had worried that her breath would stink of the grave, that her tongue would remind him of rotting meat. But it’s just a kiss.
A romantic kiss.
Her lips are cold.
Not icy, not frigid, just cold, as if she’d been outside on a snowy day.
It isn’t until the third trip to the library that he notices the titles of the books she’s borrowing.
Tell My Horse. Jambalaya. Guidebooks to Haiti. New Orleans Cemeteries. And a worn little pamphlet titled Famous Voodoo Rituals and Spells.
She’s been taking out armfuls of these books. Consulting with the ladies behind the counter about interlibrary loans. He wonders what they make of her requests, her pallor, her scent, earthy and musty. Do they imagine her just another goth girl out in the daylight, or do they know about the club, not so far away?
It takes him another week to screw up the courage to ask.
“Stupid, stupid, doesn’t know a thing about it.” Lily is muttering over a copy of The Serpent and the Rainbow, taking copious notes.
“Why do you need all these books?” he says.
She flinches, sharp, like she’s just heard a gunshot. Her smile is tight. “I’m just curious, that’s all. Why should I stop with the self-improvement, just because . . .” her voice trails off, and she will not meet his eyes.
“You’re researching zombies, aren’t you?” he says.
Dead girls can’t blush. Lily only nods curtly.
He collapses onto the bed, his bed, his narrow bed, the only place to sit in his tiny studio apartment besides the desk chair. He puts his head in his hands.
After a moment, Lily is standing beside him, one cold hand resting lightly on his shoulder.
“It’s not being a stripper. I like being a stripper. And it’s not you. It’s being dead.”
He drops his hands to the mattress and closes his eyes. She sits down on the edge of the bed.
“Or, well, being undead.” Her voice is quiet and roughened by smoke. “I like dancing, and I like you. But it’s all I have. And it’s not enough. I see live people around me, every day—eating, laughing . . .”
He has never heard her laugh, he realizes.
He tries to picture her porcelain skin, rotting. Warm with decay. He listens to her voice, soft as smoke.
“Who made you this way?” he asks, without opening his eyes.
“The manager,” she says.
“Who is he? Some voodoo priest?” He pictures a black man with a bone in his hair, puts a hand to his forehead to wipe the image away.
“He’s just a man. I don’t know where he learned to do what he did. Or how to undo it.”
He stops asking questions.
He starts to watch at the club, striving for a glimpse of the manager. He spends so much time there that some of the other girls start to come on to him.
“Blondes aren’t my type,” he says, as kindly as possible, to the woman leaning over him, her large breasts hanging in his face. He can see the raised line of a vein that once traversed the left one, but instead of being blue or green or purple, it’s as white as the rest of her skin.
She smiles at him. “You’re Lily’s boy, aren’t you?” The blonde stripper runs a finger along the ridge of his jaw. “She likes you a lot, you know.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“She won’t mind if we play,” the blonde says.
“I know,” he says, although he doesn’t. “And you’re very pretty.”
Her eyes light up at that. She has very pretty eyes, limpid and moist, just like a living girl’s eyes. She sweeps back her hair with one pale hand. “Then would you like to go to the back room with me?”
“Some other time.”
“I can see why she likes you,” she says. “You’re a sweetie.” She turns around and wiggles her ass at him. “Ta-ta,” she waves as she heads to another customer.
Jim can’t bear to look at the other customers. It’s bad etiquette in a strip bar, but that’s not the reason he avoids their gaze, tries to position himself so that he can’t even see them out of the corner of his eye. He doesn’t want to know what kind of guy prefers to come to a zombie bar. He doesn’t want to remember what brought him here in the first place, before Lily.
He’s no necrophiliac, though sometimes he wonders about the other patrons. He has his limits.
He always liked the shy girls, the lonely girls, the broken and the damaged. Maybe he thought he didn’t have a chance with the blonde cheerleader types, the tan hardbodies that populated the high-end gentlemen’s clubs.
Maybe it was misplaced pity. Maybe it was a closet fetish for control.
But he didn’t think so. To be dead was to admit something. Something about reality. We would all be dead someday, strippers and marks, bartenders and managers and bachelors and regulars, everyone in the club. Of course, they wouldn’t all be zombies someday, and that thought gnawed at him always, like a worm at the back of his brain.
The manager wasn’t at all like he’d expected.
He was from New Orleans, he’d learned, but he was white. Jim hated to admit it even to himself, but he’d guessed Creole at least. And he looked like a nice guy. A little sad, a little thoughtful. He watched his dancers without a trace of lust or greed in his eyes.
He was going bald, just a little at the crown. His eyes were blue, his hair a sandy brown. He was tall, with big hands and thin wrists. He wore black jeans and a black t-shirt. Every day. Jim had been watching him for three days now. He slouched, but his clothes were remarkably tidy for such a casual outfit. As if he ironed his t-shirt every morning before putting it on.
Jim had learned the man was from New Orleans because he’d bought the guy a drink. The manager had smiled and slipped onto the bar stool next to him with a tired smile. “Not too many people in this sort of place buy me a drink,” he said, with a nod towards the stage. Jim could hear the accent in his voice.
“I’m Drew,” the manager offered, and put out his hand. Jim shook it.
“You’re Lily’s boy,” Drew said.
Jim took a long draw from his beer. “That’s right,” he said. The bartender set a second beer in front of Drew.
“It’s nice that she has a beau,” the manager said.
They sat together in silence, the dull bass thump of the DJ’s beats shaking the floor beneath their feet.
“I take good care of her,” Drew offered, without prompting. “I take good care of all my girls. She’ll tell you that, too.”
Jim studied the manager’s countenance for signs of a guilty conscience. The man just picked at the label of his beer. He didn’t frown, or clench his jaw. His eyes stayed fixed on his hands. Haunted, maybe. Not guilty, if Jim was reading his face right. He couldn’t be sure. He took a last long gulp from his beer.
Drew did likewise and slipped from his stool. “I appreciate the drink. I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name.”
“Well, thanks, Jim. You’re welcome here any time.” Drew saluted him with the beer bottle and headed toward backstage.
After the conversation with the manager, Jim starts checking out books on his own, without taking Lily to the library. It almost feels dirty, somehow. He hides the books beneath his bed and takes her out twice as often to compensate. He begins to feel as if he lives at the library. The women behind the counter smile when they see him now. “Take care,” they say, and, “you treat that girl right, now.”
They must know she’s a zombie. They must.
And he must know the answer to the question that has been pushing against his brain like a bubble ready to pop. He can’t figure out how to ask it politely, so one night, late, after fortifying himself with a couple of shots of vodka straight from the freezer, he just bursts out with it.
“How did it happen?”
She looks up from the book she is reading. “What?”
The vodka hasn’t done its job. It’s frozen his tongue instead of loosening it. He pushes the words through the icy dam and they come spilling out, an uncontrollable torrent. “You know. You’re this now. You were alive before, and now you’re this way, and it’s not that I mind, in fact I know it’s probably sick and wrong but I probably kind of like it or I wouldn’t never have gone into that place—not that I wouldn’t have liked you before, I’m sure I would have liked you before, you’re a nice girl whether you’re dead or not. Very pretty, very sweet—but I’ve got to know.”
Her eyes are dark. “Know what?”
“You know. How did it happen?
“You mean,” she says the words slowly and with care, “How did I die?”
Jim lets out a breath he hasn’t known he was holding. “Yes.”
“And how did I become undead?”
“Yes.” A thought occurs to him belatedly. “If you remember, that is. You do remember? I could ask—”
“Don’t ask Drew.” She unfolds her legs and crosses her arms, goes to stand by the window of his bedroom. “You really want to know? It’s that important to you?”
She doesn’t wait for his answer. “All right.”
Unconsciously, she rubs her arms as she speaks. “We were on the road, in a van. A touring van. We were going to a show. Drew had got all of us girls a gig at some big party. I can’t remember if it was a trade show or just some rich bachelor’s fling. All I know is that it was a day away, we’d be driving all night. Drew was going to drive ahead in his own car and meet us there.”
She brushes her hair back from her face. “The bus was defective. It hadn’t been inspected in a while, and it had a leak. A monoxide leak. The bus driver started to feel sleepy, pulled over at a truck stop somewhere, forgot to turn off the ignition. We were all asleep in the bus. Fourteen of us. The bus driver passed out as he stepped out of the cab; they managed to recusitate him. But we were goners. So I’m told.”
“That’s awful,” Jim whispers.
Lily ignores him. “You have to understand, this next part might be a little fuzzy. It’s what Drew told us, but I can’t be sure, you know? He was all torn up with guilt. If he hadn’t booked us for this stupid show, we’d all be alive. And he’s from New Orleans. He knew a couple secrets. He called in some favors.”
Lily lights a cigarette. Usually, Jim doesn’t smoke in his room, but he lets it go this time. He watches the ember of her cigarette instead of her face as she speaks. “And that’s about the size of it,” she says. “He couldn’t give us back our lives, but he could give us a semblance of it. He thought he was looking out for us. Maybe he was. Maybe he just didn’t think it through. Maybe he just didn’t know.” She blows smoke out the window. “He’s a nice guy. He respects us. Maybe he even loves us, in a way, like family I mean. We owe him everything. He opened the new club just for us. How many bosses would have done that? How many bosses would have gone as far as he’s gone for us?”
“But you don’t want it any more,” Jim says.
Lily nods. “I don’t want to be a dancer forever.”
Jim sits on the bed for a long, silent moment. Then he reaches underneath and pulls out the hidden stacks of books. Lily’s eyes widen, just a little. “I’ve been doing some research,” he says.
His apartment is so small. He’s always thought himself lucky to have an actual bathtub. Sure, he might have to crouch inside with his knees against his chest, but at least it’s a tub. A real tub.
He’s fetched the box of salt from above the refrigerator and let the hot water dissolve the crystals.
Now Lily is reclining in the hot, salt water. She is naked, but he has seen her naked many times before. “You’re sure this will work?” she says. She sounds nervous. Understandable.
“How does it feel?” Jim asks.
She shrugs, making the water splash. “Like a hot bath. A little itchy.”
“Salt’s supposed to have something to do with the process. Disrupts neurochemical activity somehow.”
Lily actually smiles. “I don’t think it’s working.”
“We’re not finished.”
If he were a girl, it would be easy. A curling iron, or a blow dryer. He doesn’t even own an electric razor. He has to go to the kitchen and unplug the toaster.
There’s an outlet by the mirror. If he stretches the cord, it will just be long enough.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” he says. He tries to keep his voice steady. It wouldn’t do to have it crack. Not now.
“Jim.” Lily starts to get out of the tub, then sinks back. “This is really sweet of you.” She pauses. “Have you thought about the consequences? A dead girl in your bathtub . . . an undead girl. . .”
“It’s OK,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I want to give it to you.” It’s his turn to hesitate. “Anything to make you happy.” He doesn’t look at her as he speaks.
The bathroom seems to echo with their mutual silence. Finally, she says, “Will you kiss me once more? For old time’s sake.” She tries to make it into a joke, but it falls flat.
Jim balances the toaster on the edge of the sink. He leans down, over the rim of the tub. Lily grasps his face in both of her cold, wet hands, and kisses him deeply, until her lips lose their chill and take on the heat that he is radiating from every pore. Her palms, too, warm against his skin. It is almost, at the end, like kissing a real girl.
She strokes his hair, then releases him. He dries his hands thoroughly on a towel before he hands her the toaster.
He wants to leave the room, leave the apartment, turn and walk away and never return. But he has to wait to see if it works. He has to look, for he can’t merely listen for the sound of her breath—she doesn’t breathe.
She looks as if she’s asleep, her hand clutched around the toaster lever. She looks as beautiful as always. But he can smell ozone, and burning hair. And her eyes never open, her hand never moves.
He doesn’t call Drew. He calls 911. Then he grabs his coat, and heads for the door.
He stops to pick up the stack of library books.