An essay by Nathan Williams, as provided by Nicole Tanquary
Art provided by Scarlett O’Hairdye
The door to the shop was open, so I walked in, scuffing the bottoms of my shoes against the welcome mat to get off the slush. Mrs. Mabel was way in the back, hunched low over her worktable. She had sets of pliers in either hand, and there were thin clinking noises as she twisted together metal circlets into what looked like the beginnings of a necklace. The clinking wasn’t just from the metal, though; some of it was the sound of metal-on-bone.
Mrs. Mabel had been running Mabel’s Maille for as long as I could remember, after all, and all that work had worn away the skin from the tips of her fingers. It didn’t seem to bother her customers … they were all from Deddville, so they had come to expect this sort of thing in the working dead. The important thing was that it didn’t hurt her at all. And, of course, there was no blood. Everyone knows the dead don’t bleed.
I folded my hands behind my back and cleared my throat. Her eyes shot up, and I got a good look at them, more than I wanted to: moldy-white except for the pupils, which she must’ve had surgical work on to keep clear and black. She needed good eyes for her work.
Mrs. Mabel set down the pliers and stood, smoothing out her sweater with her half-skin, half-skeleton hands. Then she walked stiffly over, gesturing at the display cases as she went. “Anything here that interests you, young man?” Beads and jewels glinted among the metalwork like fresh teeth.
“Yeah. I’m getting a present for someone. Today’s her death-day.” I pointed to a bracelet, carefully arranged on a velvet cushion. “Is that bronze?”
“It sure is.” Mabel smiled, and even though her gums were more gray than pink, it was a sweet smile. “What a gentleman, getting something for your girl for her death-day!”
I felt myself blush a little as she picked out the bracelet and tucked it delicately into a little white box. “It’s not … it’s for my mother. Today’s only her second death-day anniversary, so I figured I’d make it special.”
Mrs. Mabel let out a little gasp. “Oh, what a nice boy you are! Getting her a gift is a lovely idea. The first few death-days can be hard on a woman. It’s such an adjustment, you know.”
I nodded, thinking to myself, How could I know? I’m not a woman, and I’m still alive. But I guess these were small enough matters.
The price-tag read $50, so I felt around for my checkbook, then peeled out a piece of paper and started writing down the price in my labored cursive.
Her eyes drifted to my fingers, still fleshy and intact. “The price is $25, dear,” she said kindly.
I looked up at her, dazed. “Mrs. Mabel, you don’t-”
She pressed the white box into my hands and smiled again. I got a whiff of her dead flesh. Not natural, but more of a powdery, plastic smell that stuck in the back of my throat. “Tell your mother that Mabel wishes her a happy death-day.”
I told her that I would, handed her the discounted check, and left through the propped-open door. It was cold outside, but Mrs. Mabel must like the cold. Most of the dead do. Keeps them feeling fresh, they say.
A few months ago, Dad died, and shocked the family by declaring in his will that he didn’t want the procedure to be brought back. I had been away then, out in the rest of the country where people died, you had a funeral, and that was it. But Dad’s funeral brought me back to Deddville so Mom wouldn’t be alone.
As it was, Mom was still grieving, hard, and trying to process his decision. Dad had been among the original followers of renowned scientist Arthur Dedd, so why wouldn’t he want to be brought back? It was even how he had first met Mom, thirty years ago at one of the various press conferences Dedd organized to publicize his discoveries. The revolutionary quality of it had attracted my parents and other followers, who devoted their lives to support Dedd’s innovative treatment and everything it stood for. They even pooled together resources with Dedd and the others to purchase land in rural Michigan, all to build a town where they could practice the treatment in peace; there, at least, they could shelter themselves from the inevitable outcry.
She and Dad had married, moved across the country to settle in this new town, had a son, grew old, and by all appearances had a happy life together. So why on earth would her husband of thirty years, lifetime supporter of life-after-death, suddenly change his mind? Perhaps he had not been so happy after all. Perhaps he had come to hate the treatment. Perhaps he had come to hate her …
This was the train of thought Mom had been getting onto lately, and it never ended up anywhere good. That was another reason I was on the lookout for presents; I wanted to find things to distract her with.
My mind woke up a little when the cling! of a shop’s doorbell sounded nearby. I turned and watched as a couple left a storefront arm-in-arm, the man carrying a bouquet of red roses in his spare hand. The green, tangy perfume of plant life followed them out into the winter cold.
I glanced at the building, and, after a moment of staring at the wide glass display windows, recognized the Smiths’ old flower shop. A hand-lettered sign in the window read, “Great deals for death-days–lilies are the perfect gift!” I could see the lily displays from the sidewalk, sweeping white petals in clear bowls, ready to be wrapped up and taken home.
I took out my wallet and folded it open to peek inside. One lonely dime was stuck in the corner, its only company a crumpled piece of gum wrapper. I closed my eyes and sighed. I knew for a fact that the Smiths didn’t take checks. They were the stubborn, old-fashioned kind of dead couple who asked for cash only, please, in a day and age where cash barely existed in the rest of the modern world.
The Deddville Cooperative was just around the block, next to a line of maple saplings that had already lost their leaves for the winter. I had two, maybe three hundred left in my account, if I remembered right, the last of the money collected from my jobs as a high school kid working summers at the Deddville Deli.
It was enough, at least, for a bouquet of lilies.
It was Friday, pay-day, and the Cooperative had five people (three dead, two living) standing in line when I walked in–keeping in mind, of course, that anything over three people in Deddville is considered a crowd. I slipped into the end of the line and waited. The inside of the Cooperative was quiet and contemplative. People talked in murmurs, and the tellers were mostly old and dead people who didn’t mind if you couldn’t remember your account number and would, in fact, be happy to look it up for you.
Behind me was the thud of a hand hitting against the entry-way door to push it open. Now we were six; this really was a crowd. Out of curiosity, I glanced over my shoulder at the man who had just entered. His pale face had a sunken look to it, the cheekbones sharp, highlighting the bruise-red circles under his eyes.
No, I decided to myself, I had never seen him before. He wasn’t from town. Must’ve somehow found his way over dirt roads half-frozen with ice, which was a bit surprising in and of itself. No busses ran to Deddville, and every once in a while the National Guard even set up a blockade to keep people from going in or out. That didn’t happen too often anymore, as the National Guardsmen had realized at some point that Arthur Dedd’s followers in Deddville weren’t anything dangerous. They weren’t even anything special. They just had a different way of life–so to speak.
Trailing on with my thoughts, my eyes, still on the man, turned down. That was when they noticed what I should have noticed first: the bulge at his hip pocket. Even then, the idea of what it was didn’t connect in my head.
Not until he began to shout.
“Everyone DOWN!” came the words, bursting loud out of his skinny chest. He flung aside the front of his jacket, drew the handgun and pointed it at one of the tellers.
No one got down. We just turned to stare at him. Robbers belonged to the same group as monsters and fairies and Santa Claus in Deddville … there were stories about them, but at the end of the day, they just didn’t exist. Someone laughed, slow and unsure. The sound petered off when they realized he wasn’t joking.
“I said GET DOWN!” He rushed forward and slammed the gun barrel into the back of an old man, who cried out as he went tumbling to his knees. That broke the dream, and everyone crouched low to the floor and put their hands behind their heads.
That must’ve been when one of the dead tellers pressed the silent alarm. The possibility of a silent alarm didn’t occur to the man with the gun; he wasn’t even looking at the tellers when they did it. He wasn’t in a position to notice anything, really. He had gone kind of rabid, the red under his eyes spreading up into the eyeballs themselves, glassy and watering at the corners.
Drugs? I thought, dimly, taking it as further proof that he was from out of town. I hadn’t even tried weed until I went to college out-of-state–again, a drug market in Deddville simply did not exist. Unless, of course, it was made by Arthur Dedd or related to the treatment …
The man thrust a plastic Walmart bag at the tellers, who opened the drawers with shaking hands and began pulling out thin wads of money. The tellers were slow–the dead don’t move quickly, no matter how much you yell or threaten them, which the guy was doing plenty–and they were still at it when a voice came from the door. “Son, what exactly do you think you’re doing?”
The Deddville police hadn’t bothered to put on their sirens. The streets were empty, after all, and the station was just around the block; from the window I could see their cruisers waiting outside, silent as the grave but flashing blue and red lights that shimmered in all the shop windows.
The man whirled around, dropping the half-full bag of cash to hold his gun properly. Three dead policemen stood beyond the door frame, their arms folded stiffly together. The sun fell on their faces, revealing grays and blues and faint, faint greens, death-complexions in their full glory.
When the robber spoke, it was in a hoarse growl. “Get any closer, and you get a bullet through the heart. You’re just shit small-town cops. You don’t even have Kevlar, do you?”
The policemen seemed unimpressed by this observation. One of them stepped forward. His silver-gold badge flashed in the sun. “Doesn’t matter to us, son. You come out with your hands up, now, before anyone gets–”
There was a bang. The gun jerked in the robber’s hands, and a hole flared open in the policeman’s shirt, on the left side of his chest. It was a small hole. No blood.
The policeman glanced down at it, curling his lip. “Son, that was a damn rude thing to do,” he said. “You can’t just tear up a man’s uniform like that. We don’t run on a big city budget around here.”
The pale man’s eyes lost their glassiness for a moment. He just stared, mouth hanging open, at the cop who had not even flinched when the bullet hit him. Did he really come here not knowing about the dead? I wondered. It was in the town’s name, for god’s sake …
When the policemen started forward again, the pale man took several quick steps back, his gaze moving restlessly around the room. Then he spotted me. I felt a calculation go on in his head, tallying up my hard breathing and the red in my cheeks.
He reached down and yanked me up by the hair, hard. Water came to my eyes and blurred the edges of the room. The end of the gun poked into my temple. From the corner of my eye, I could see him smiling a sharp, crazy smile. “This one’s still alive,” he shouted. “Back off, or he’s dead. Reach for your guns and I’ll shoot!”
The policeman’s mild amusement disappeared in an instant. This was when, for the first time I could ever remember in my life, I saw real concern on their faces. Fear. It felt alien and wrong. Deddville police were never afraid. But there it was, nonetheless.
One of the dead tellers ran around and grabbed up the discarded bag of money, holding it out to the robber with shaking, wrinkled hands. “Please, let him go–” she stammered.
“Shut up!” The robber snatched away the bag, then returned his arm to its place around my neck. I could smell his strong, sour sweat … or maybe it was mine. I was hot all over, my blood not flowing now but pumping in my chest, pumping hard.
Locked together, me and the pale man side-stepped around the frozen policemen, the gun barrel still pressing into my head. We faced the Cooperative as we walked backwards, slow, to keep an eye on everyone still inside. Step … step … My eyes rolled downward to the pavement beneath us.
Deddville’s sidewalks were always clean and litter-free. When I was a kid, I loved to lounge around on them and people-watch. When someone died, there would be parades, as the caskets were carried down Main Street to the hospital for the treatment that would bring them back to life. Arthur Dedd himself would lead at the front–it was the only time he ever came out in public–robed in his classic white Doctor’s uniform, grinning and waving as the crowd shouted his praises.
I was in the crowd for every one of those parades. I knew these sidewalks like they had been etched into my heart. Picturing them with my eyes closed was as easy as daydreaming. Another step, I knew, and we would be right by the curb.
As the robber lifted his foot for another step, I jerked up and back, and felt him stumble off the side of the curb. There was a bang, and my right ear sang with pain. His arm had gone loose, though, so I pushed him off and fell forwards onto the sidewalk.
In a rare bit of speed, the dead policemen lunged past me, pinning him down and forming a corpse-blockade between him and the living people close to the Cooperative. There were some more bangs, but the policemen didn’t flinch away; they’d probably need to go to the hospital later to get the bullets removed from their dead flesh.
Finally, after a moment of struggle in which they ripped the gun out of his hands, they hauled the robber to his feet. He had gone red-faced and screaming, spitting mad, writhing like a snake until at last they could get him cuffed.
Then he was shoved into the back of a police cruiser–not very gently, either–and was driven out of view.
I watched all of this from where I had fallen onto the sidewalk, gasping quietly to myself. It was only after the cruiser began to pull away that I noticed the warm seeping at the side of my head. I raised a hand to feel it, prodding at an open gash along my ear where the bullet had grazed past. The cut let out a sharp sting the moment my fingers touched it. It wasn’t deep, but head wounds always bled a lot, I thought to myself in a blur. I felt around in my pocket for a tissue and pressed it into the gash, still trying to catch my breath.
One of the policemen loomed above me, and a cold, bluish hand reached down to offer a help up. After a hesitation, I took it and was pulled to my feet. “You okay, son?” said the officer, his milk-eyes fixed on my head. Why’re you looking at me like that? I wanted to ask. Like I’m a rare animal you just saved from a poacher?
“I’m fine,” I said. Then, after a hesitation where it felt like more needed to be said, “I think I’ll wait around here until this scabs up. I don’t want to go home and have my Mom worrying.”
The policeman gave me a bleary smile and clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re a good kid. I’ll get you some antiseptic.”
I lingered outside the front door for a moment, brushing my hair with my fingers to make sure that it covered the patch of bandage that a medic had convinced me to put on. Good thing I haven’t cut my hair in a while, I thought to myself, as I at last found the courage to push inside.
The house was warm, everything painted in pastel colors with clean white linings. I found Mom in the kitchen, drizzling a vinaigrette over a bowl of fresh greens, walnuts, and cranberries. She turned when she heard me come in, and smiled. Death hadn’t changed her appearance much. Mostly it had drained the brightness out of her eyes and the red in her cheeks and lips. Her white hair was still bundled around her shoulders, though, and it had the same shine to it as always. “Hi, sweety. I was just making you a salad. I always used to love salad.” She set the bowl on the table and rummaged around for a fork.
I felt in my pocket until I came up with the white box from Mabel’s Maille. I held it out to her. “Um … Happy death-day, Mom.”
She turned to me, her mouth dropping open. “You didn’t have to get me anything! What could I possibly want?” I didn’t answer, and, reluctantly, she opened the box and let out an appreciative gasp. “Oh, sweety! It’s lovely! Is that bronze?”
“Yeah.” I lifted the bracelet out and helped to fasten it around her skeleton-slim wrist.
She went to stand by the window where the sunlight streamed in, so she could see it a bit better. One hand came up to wipe at the edges of her eyes. The dead don’t cry, but she always used to get teary when she was happy, and old habits die hard.
I sat down and started to pick at my salad. A book of poetry sat at the other end of the table, and before long she sat down and went back to reading. She had gotten into the habit of finding something else to do at the table while I ate.
I chewed slowly, the dark green leaves tearing between my teeth. Finally, though, I cleared my throat. “Hey, Mom. Can I ask you a question?”
“Mm?” Her eyes moved back and forth inside the book, swallowing words whole.
“What did it feel like? … Dying, I mean.”
She raised her eyebrows. Her expression, peaceful and dreamy a moment before, wrinkled in an unsettled look. Like I had brought back a memory she would’ve rather forgotten. “Mm, I don’t know. Was it supposed to feel like something?”
I picked up another forkful of salad. “No. I guess not.”
Nathan Williams, at 23 years of age, is a currently unemployed resident of Deddville, Michigan. Growing up in Deddville, Nathan is the son of original Arthur Dedd followers Jonathan (deceased) and Martha (deceased and brought back), and lives with his mother in an effort to help her through the grieving process. He recently returned to Deddville after attending the University of Rochester in New York State and earning a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Psychology, with a minor in Journalism.
Nicole Tanquary lives in upstate New York State, where she has worked variously as a geochemistry lab assistant, a teaching assistant, and a non-fiction editor and writer, and is currently employed as a writing tutor for Syracuse University. She has sold and published short stories to a menagerie of venues, the most recent of these including work with Fantasia Divinity Magazine, Grievous Angel, and Deadman’s Tome. Other things she likes to do include long hikes, playing with her pet rats and cats, and eating ice cream.
Scarlett O’Hairdye is a burlesque performer, producer and artist. To learn more, visit her site at www.scarlettohairdye.com.
“Deddville” is Copyright 2018 Nicole Tanquary
Art accompanying story is Copyright 2018 Scarlett O’Hairdye