March of the Zombies
Date of Birth 10/26/78
Lawrence West High School
Submitted for considerationto the annual Douglas County High Schools in the Arts contest1995-1996 season
At midnight the undead rose from the earth. Of the three zombies, the boy made it out of the ground first. His fingernails clawed at the black soil that foamed around the gravestone. One arm struggled forth, another, then the shoulders and neck. Slowly, his face emerged, hints of white skin gradually visible, like a drowned boy surfacing from the cold depths of a lake. It had rained since his burial, and his exquisite struggle made soft sucking sounds. In the distance he could hear a barn owl's lamentation. And the thunder, like a warning.
The boy pushed up, fists on the ground stamped firm by the gravedigger's boot. He could feel the spiders weaving webs in the seams of his clothes. The worms on his wrists like gray bracelets, biding time until their burrow into flesh. For now he didn't mind. The boy fought harder, sloughing off the earth. His knees, ankles, feet.
Body cleared at last, he crouched to brush the loamy residue from the headstone. The capital B of his first name, the following four letters, the surname given by unknown parents who'd orphaned him fifteen years ago. The dates 1978 to 1995. Rest in Peace. The boy stared, uncomprehending, then stood to wait for the other two.
The young woman was next. It seemed as though she'd practiced months to meet the challenge. Her movements were graceful, her resurrection smooth as ballet. Soil peppered her eyelids, her scarlet lips. She shook her head, nuggets of damp earth falling from her hair to reveal the blond beneath. In the moonlight her face was pale, beautiful, smoldering. She still appeared girlish, years younger than her thirty-two. Her ankle twisted in the mud. She kicked her shoes away and lumbered barefoot toward the south end of the cemetery, where the boy waited. When she saw him, the memories registered, and she offered the chilly gift of her arms until they fell around him in a fusion of love and exhaustion.
Last was the old woman. As with her friend, death had made her gorgeous. The two days of rest had gelled her beauty, proved it true. Her silvery hair, ribboned with vermilion and gold, had tumbled free to curtain her face and shoulders. They'd buried her in white, the fluted dress a shock against the cemetery's shadows. The old woman took her time, clawing through grass and clods of dirt. She tore petals from a spray of roses that someone, feeling sorry for such an elderly soul, had placed at her grave.
The woman heard her friends approaching and looked up. Her eyes were like gray slate, reflecting their vacant faces. A crimson petal clung to her thin shoulder. She reached for their hands, and the rest of her removal came easy.
At last they stood together. Tens, hundreds, thousands of skeletons rested unbreathing beneath them. Grave markers held still on all sides, headstones against the moonlit horizon like razorblades embedded in the soft black flesh of earth. Somewhere another night bird murmured and mourned, heralding their ritual of revenge. The time had arrived, time to repay the years of torment, the sorrow and suffering. Their impatient and unbearable hours of sleep over, the trio joined hands and formed a circle. They were ready at last.
The March of the Zombies had begun.
Darkness waits for them. It waits with purple thunderheads and wet ivy shadows and spangled air gone blizzardy with rain. It will wait forever if they let it. At last they give up, shield their faces, walk out: past the hospital's automatic doors, glass sliding open and whipping shut, and into the parking lot.
Sarah holds one of Harriet's hands; Boris, the other. They crane their heads toward the storm and its hot adhesive threat. Five-thirty--the close of afternoon visiting hours--yet it seems like dusk, the bruised sky bandaged with clouds, the inky water falling slow and sugar-thick. They didn't remember umbrellas. Behind them, in his bed, Marshall still sleeps, spinning numb through a black consumptive dream. "Fading," the doctor told Sarah. He said the word in a surly whisper, with Harriet out of earshot, and for a long, long time Sarah heard it, fading, fading, its two-syllable echo rattling in her head.
The sky shakes and shakes and blankets every car with the same gray shade. Here, a pickup with a flat front tire; there, another sporting a rear-window tableau where a widemouth bass leaps to snag a fisherman's spinnerbait. Rows of Kansas license plates: blue numerals superimposed over gold shocks of wheat. From the slippery distance, a storm siren initiates its wail. The stereo tympani of thunder; a cicada's flat drone; the wind's hissing rip against the shaggy dropseed grasses. But conquering these sounds, conquering the cars in the lot and rain on Sarah's face, is the odor. It slams into them, unrelenting, heavier than the antiseptic memory of Marshall's hospital room, the hot rubbery macadam, the floral hint from the storm's onslaught. It is a scent Sarah should easily pinpoint, like bananas or blood. Yes--there--spray paint. A smell of high school art projects from years back, spray-painted plywood sculptures she and Marshall giggled over, turned in for measly B minuses.
She tightens her hold on Harriet's hand and feels the older woman's ring pressing its nugget: a junk-store pigeonblood ruby, Marshall's gift from some Mother's Day or birthday past. Sarah brushes her lips against Harriet's fingers, lets her hand fall, and fumbles in her bag for keys. A change in the air's current suctions leaves between her feet. The echo of the warning siren ceases; within that stillness, Sarah looks at her car.
Boris stops. Harriet stops, the wrinkles on her forehead deepening. They have seen it, or rather comprehended it, first. Boris steps closer, breathing an unintelligible monosyllable, and Sarah moves beside him. It is her Volkswagen, and although it remains positioned as before, now she barely recognizes it. Its red color, changed; its beetle shape, altered. Sarah drops her fingers on the side door, gradually clenching them into a fist, the knuckles shiny-white and hard as cherry stones.
She walks around the wreckage of her car, each step cautious and rabbit-soft. Only hours before, she drove south of town to pick up Harriet; she stopped at a filling station for five self-serve gallons and added a bottle of multivitamins, for Marshall, to her bill. She and Harriet and Boris had whiled the day at her best friend's bedside and she should be devoting her thoughts to him, Marshall, not this. This practical joke, this artifice or mistake. Hammers or crowbars or wrenches have bashed the doors' midsections, have spiderwebbed the windshield, dented the fenders. A star-blast cavity, evidence of a boot kick, has ruined the passenger-side headlight; the sideview mirror bears a deep meniscal crack. But these wounds seem less noticeable under the painted words. The vandals used black, blue, and white, scar colors against the red. Letters overlap parts of other words, some words misspelled, trailing off the sides of fenders or breaking at the angles of window frames. Sarah reads what she can: gutterslut. homo. aid's victim. bitch in heat. fossle. faggots. smelly old crazy granma. queers. She rounds the back end of the car and studies the other side. prostitute. loosers. pansyass. stupid cunt. roting flesh grayhared bitch. cocksucker. trash motherfuckers.
The siren blares again, pizzicato bursts warning, warning. They stand poised in their separate places, circumventing the gashes and dents and broken glass. The aqueous black of the asphalt rises and ripples around them. Boris shuffles forward, nickels and dimes and pennies jangling in his pocket. He takes Sarah's arm as though she needs steadying. "I'm okay," she says.
But Sarah knows she isn't okay; knows she should worry about repairs or the identities of the culprits. Instead she wonders what her heroines would do: those victims in horror films, women who run screaming through the woods or the empty spirit-dark house, arms pinwheeling the air, only to be corralled by the murderer. Alone and headspun with fantasy, Sarah sometimes pretends to be those girls. But now, as she opens the VW's door, those dramatics seem improper, wrong. Her best friend is dying; his mother stands trembling beside her; and Boris too, her meek and innocent comrade. Marooned in reality, far from dreams of movies, Sarah only stares. The t's on prostitute mock, meant for her, lowercase crosses wedged between the surrounding capital letters.
The sweat from Boris's palm threads down her arm. Sarah inhales another breeze of paint fumes, steps closer, places her foot on the seat to brush away the shards of glass. Then she slides behind the wheel; Boris takes the back, leaving the passenger door open. The rearview frames him: strawberry-blond bangs, evening-sky eyes. pansyass, they wrote. homo. His gaze links with Sarah's, and she looks away. In Awe. Copyright © by Scott Heim. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.