The Newly Undead
I DIDN’T MEAN to kill her.
Then, all things considered, I guess you need to see that night my way. Things hadn’t gone well. Ha! You can say that again. I’d lost nearly thirty grand in a poker game, and my pockets were coming up dust. I had my silver monogrammed letter opener that I always carried, and it was getting pretty lonely in my jacket pocket.
Then she came on to me like a fly to honey, sitting in my lap like a hired party girl at a randy stag party. I’d seen her at the bar, earlier, name of Selina. She’d caught my eye, and I’d bought her a drink.
I liked her, too.
Except for the money thing, it would have turned out to be a good night. A very good night. We’d have gone back to my hotel suite—one at the top of the tower, the kind where the really ritzy gamblers have all their dreams come true—and I would have worried about the hotel bill I could no longer cover come sunrise.
We didn’t make it that far.
Not even close.
It was Jack the Crack that tried to put the cinch on my plans. Well, on our plans, because by that time, she had her hand inside my shirt, working its way to places you don’t need to know. She was licking my ear, and I was bleary-eyed with her presence. I was in the middle of my final hand, ready to give up for the night, when the Crack laid out his cards, grinned at me, and his gold tooth caught the light.
“Your girl, you willing to wager a night with her?”
His words were a bass guitar in apoplectic overload, just at the threshold of hearing, and I caught the insinuations. He’d thrown a knife-thrust of insults in that one sentence, and my mind went crazy with the need to protect Selina’s reputation.
A woman I didn’t even know.
I should have shrugged it off, thrown my cards onto the table, and walked away. That would have been the smart thing to do. Still, no one’s ever accused me of being smart around women and made it stick. Besides, her hand was so deep into my shirt, I didn’t know how she could reach so far.
I forgot my dusty pockets, and I fired back, with all the snarling arrogance I could manage, “Joker’s wild.”
The cards flashed in the dim light, and it seemed magic happened at that moment. With her as my stake, I pulled aces in every hand, dealt one after another. She cheered by clapping her hands, and more than once, she kissed me on the cheek. I couldn’t lose. The Crack was furious, with his face growing redder with each hand he lost.
I just kept raking the chips my way and setting them aside. I was going to be a rich man after tonight.
She whispered the words in my ear, and I looked up from my royal flush to catch a glimmer in her eyes that said she had plans that wouldn’t wait. Desire swept through me, and I didn’t care about the money, anymore. I glanced at the Crack and flipped the cards his direction.
“This hand’s yours. You’ve lost enough.” I stood, and she wrapped herself around me like I was a pole and she was a dancer, and she was about to give the performance of her life.
“You don’t want to leave with Selina.” The Crack spat the words, pushing my cards away. His eyes were coals as he taunted me. “Play another hand. Let me save your life tonight.”
“Fool. You’ve given me my life tonight. I intend to live it up on your cash.” Selina’s hand was toying with my waistband, and I wanted to get her alone and to myself as fast as I could.
“Ache, your life! Waste it, if you want. Come play again when the woman sucks you dry.”
Everyone at the table went silent at his words, but I didn’t pay attention. She was licking my neck, and I had my arm around her waist. She felt good, too, like a piece of candy that I wanted to consume until it was all gone.
We made it as far as the elevator. Once inside, she ripped my shirt wide, tearing the buttons off on the way down, like a hungry beast. It was half a grand, but what was money? I figured I’d won two million from Jack. What was $500 against that?
I hardly felt the prick of her teeth. They say the bite of a bat doesn’t hurt because it emits an analgesic that erases the pain. I think love does the same. All I knew was my knees went weak, and I sank to the floor of the elevator as she held me in her arms.
I was so far gone that I didn’t hear the ding of the door as it opened to let her out.
When I awoke, I knew what she’d done. I was hungry, so hungry, and every warm neck drew me like a fly to honey. I wanted a taste of every man, woman, and child so badly I could barely make my way to my room.
That’s why I killed her. I found my silver letter opener in my pocket, and I knew what I had to do. I discovered her back at Jack’s table, her hand inside another man’s shirt. Silver kills as well as wood, when it’s driven into the heart.
Now, I’m the one undead, and Jack’s looking my direction. I’ve got a mark to play, and then I get to feed.
Catching Her Eye
THE EYES IN the painting followed Eli.
Never mind they were just oil and pigment, something smeared across the canvas, an artist’s rendition of an old soldier’s sour expression that would forever haunt the mansion’s dark walls.
He felt it every day on the way to breakfast, then back again. At lunch, they tracked his every move, and on the way to dinner, they judged his attire as appropriate or not, even if he wore the same thing every day.
He tried watching them from time to time, staring at the oil-formed orbs, but was frustrated at every turn. When he glared at the eyes, they looked away, as if daring him to accuse them of a misdeed most profound.
Now he hunched his shoulders and turned his head, refusing to look. It wasn’t fair in his own home, but what choice did he have?
None, none at all.
Then Sally came to visit.
She was a happy presence in the formal parlors. Her smile brightened everything, and she wore laughter in her eyes. She was a friend of a friend, a sister, really, to someone, from what he heard, and he made excuses for her to return. It was the third party of the summer before he realized he was falling in love.
Eli hoped Sally was, too.
There were moments in the garden when she stopped to talk to him. Intimately, too, touching his arm and whispering to him how much she appreciated her invitation. Once, at a formal lunch, she sat across from him at the table, and her foot bumped his under the flowing cloth. She seemed puzzled at first, then caught his eye and gave an embarrassed laugh. She flushed a light rose just at her collar, and he didn’t see that it could have been an accident.
Her attention made him want her more.
One Thursday Eli invited Sally for afternoon tea. He made sure no other invitations were out in the village, that the church calendar was clear, the ladies’ auxiliary wasn’t having a meeting, and there were no shops running specials that must be attended. He was clear she was under no compunction to attend, but her presence would be welcome, and it would help fill his empty day.
It was the first time he noticed her attention on the painting. She strolled by and seemed to smile at the scowling soldier’s face, and she gave a little laugh, as if a moment of secret understanding had passed between them. Then she looked away, offered her arm, and they continued into the solarium for light cakes and an hour of pleasant conversation.
Eli forgot the incident, as when she slipped on her gloves afterward, she asked if she could return. His next party? he inquired with a smile.
Tea tomorrow, Sally returned.
And so they did, letting it become a daily habit. Her presence filled him with such warmth that he felt no concern when she made a point to visit the solitary soldier for a few moments each time she passed him by. Eli no longer felt the eyes following him as he made his way to breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and he knew why.
That special attraction had entered the walls of his home, that emotional bond that drew people together, and all else was eclipsed from their souls. With the joy he now felt, he dismissed all the years of dread passing the painting as no more than an affectation on his part. Eyes following him? Bah! How foolish he’d been. It was loneliness that had haunted him, not dabs of pigment and a painter’s brush strokes.
He felt emboldened one afternoon, and over decorative sandwiches, during a lull in the conversation, he remarked on the painting, noting that she seemed to find it fascinating. He laughed, telling her that at one time, he had felt that the eyes followed him.
Her reply surprised him. You, too?
Not anymore, Eli remarked and smiled, although he didn’t tell her why. The inquiry had been more a manner of connection, a point of conversation, something to let her know he was intimately aware of her moods and interests.
It was his way of saying he had fallen in love.
That night, preparing for the following evening’s gala, Sally’s words began to gnaw at him. You, too? What did she mean? It was just a painting. The eyes didn’t move. They couldn’t. Besides, he’d studied them closely numerous times, never once finding evidence to support the claim.
His feeling had been that, only, an emotional state of mind devastated by his desperate need for a companion in life and in love. His proof? He had found love, and the eyes no longer followed him.
He vowed to tell Sally of his desire for her the very next evening.
She arrived with a press of guests in the fading evening light, her bright laugh and her brilliant smile lighting the doorway. She paused for a very long time in front of the painting, with a look of longing in her eyes.
The gala continued around her.
As the evening wound down, Eli searched for her to tell her of his love, and she was nowhere to be found.
Eli finally located Sally the next morning.
The old soldier’s eyes in the painting no longer followed Eli, even as he grew lonely and old. They were on the woman in the painting beside him, one with a very bright smile and eternal laughter in her eyes.
FOOTSTEPS CREAKED ON the treads of the stairs.
The bedroom door handle turned slowly. It protested with a squeak, and the handle paused; then it began to turn again, this time more carefully. With a click, the door released, revealing the light of a candle shining through.
“Lucy? Are you there?” A giggle of feverish anticipation accompanied the words.
The candle slipped through the opening, illuminating a thin figure dressed all in black, the color of midnight assignations. The build suggested a man. When he pushed his hood back, his smooth face suggested someone younger. He was decorated with color, glitter, and rhinestones, a character in a child’s fantasy tale.
“Your mum’s light was on. I was sure I’d get caught. I’m a day early for the wake.”
The brightly festooned youth set the candle on a dresser cluttered with a young girl’s dreams. It was a memorial of dried flowers, laughing pictures of friends, and scattered cosmetics of various colors and styles. Butterflies of plastic or silk, large and small, decorated the mirror. A hairbrush was littered with remnants of green and gold, two of the girl’s latest experiments, both now history. The mirror on the wall reflected a covered form on the bed, the image dim in the flickering light, a girlish shape, underneath a neatly tucked sheet.
“I brought some soda like you like.”
The boy sloughed off a pack, set it in a chair, and unzipped a long zipper that ran up one side and down the other. He pulled out two cans triumphantly and turned to the bed. He set one down on the dresser and popped the top of the other with a distinctive click. It began to foam, and he jumped backwards, trying to drink the excess, as he searched for a waste bin. He stumbled into the door, kicked a metal can with his feet, and with a laugh, held the drink steady to let it bleed its excess life into the receptacle.
“Glad your mum didn’t hear that.” He grabbed the backpack and sat on the edge of the bed, taking another sip, before putting the can on the floor. “Want to see what else I brought? I told you I had one. Here it is.”
Out of the pack, he pulled a clear jar with a brass screw-on lid. Inside, a butterfly of exquisite beauty flexed its wings. It seemed to glow in the dim light, with crystalline colors of red, gold, and azure. The boy held it close to his face, and his features lit up with multicolored light, reflected in his rhinestones and glitter makeup.
“Do you want to see? I’ll show it to you. No one else knows about it. Lucy, you’ll be the first.”
He didn’t look the bed’s direction but put his hand on the lid and began to unscrew it. The butterfly quivered in anticipation, as if it knew it was about to be free. It crawled to the rim, and outside the glass, now it truly began to shine. The youth held out a finger, and the creature gently walked onto his skin. Each step it took left footprints of shining light and sparkling gemstones that only faded when it took to the air.
The youth’s eyes followed it as it flitted around the room. It landed on the mirror, and soon, the plastic and silk butterflies seemed to take on a life of their own. Their wings twitched, and in minutes, living butterflies filled the air, the breath of their wingbeats brushing the candle flame into dancing shadows that sprinkled color across the walls.
He gave a small whistle, and the butterfly—the original one with the glowing wings—alighted on his outstretched finger. The rest gathered on his arms and head and shoulders.
“Lucy, it’s time. You have to wake, now. My butterflies will show you how.”
He walked gently to the bed, so as not to disturb the fluttering creatures, and he worked the taut bedding back. Underneath, Lucy’s lifeless form lay with an empty expression and pale skin. She smelled of clean sheets and rosewater, a person whose life had only recently slipped away.
When he had her completely exposed, he held out his finger and let his butterfly alight on her chest, just over her heart. The glow of its wings increased, until Lucy’s skin began to warm with a soft light. Soon, the form of the butterfly was sublimated into the brightness. The youth shook his arms and shoulders, driving the rest of the butterflies into the air. They began to settle on Lucy’s limbs, face, and torso, until she was covered with their brightly colored wings.
The youth stepped away and retrieved his soda. His skin decorations sparkled in the changing light from the bed. He lifted his head to drink from the can, revealing a neck as colorful as his face.
When he heard a gasp of indrawn breath from the bed, he smiled. He set the can aside and retrieved the one he’d brought for Lucy. He found his way to the bed and knelt at her side. When she opened her eyes, he popped the top of the can and held it out to her.
“You’re beautiful again, Lucy. Look in the mirror and see.”
Each butterfly had left a piece of itself where it had landed, and she sparkled in glitter and rhinestones. The most beautiful place was just over her heart, one that glowed in crystalline colors of red, gold, and azure.
The youth pulled one last item out of his pack. It was a black robe. Lucy slipped it on, and together, they fluttered out the door, leaving the candle to burn itself out.
“AM I IN HEAVEN? What’s happened to me?”
I asked the question aloud, but there was no answer. That made sense, as there was no one around that I could see. Only tons of fluffy clouds.
Oh, and I had wings. That was my best clue. Where else did one receive wings, if not in heaven?
I looked over the edge of my cloud, getting a bit ill to my stomach. I’ve never had a constitution for heights. Even walking up the stairs gives me the jeebies, unless the railing’s solid.
My head spun, and I pulled away, collapsing into my cloud like it was a giant, white beanbag, only softer. It was the earth down there, about a million miles away. All green, and divided neat-like into farming squares of different colors.
I thought of my family, Mom, Dad, and Gramps. Did they know where I was? I doubted it. I began to wonder how I got here, and whether they were likely to be here with me. You know, like in a car wreck where everyone is killed.
It might have happened.
I didn’t remember us going out together, but we might have. Possibly, although we usually didn’t.
A house explosion? Like with natural gas? It was conceivable, but I remembered that we were all electric.
Maybe Gramps went postal, and he’d shot all of us. That made me laugh. I couldn’t imagine Gramps postal. Anyway, I had full health insurance, so I’d be in the hospital now, even if he did. Gramps is a really lousy shot with a rifle.
“Hey, anyone!” I yelled the words, hoping to get a response. I peered at the different clouds, just then noticing that they were moving around like real clouds. I looked around me, wondering what would happen if my cloud disappeared. Sometimes they did that. Would I fall to the ground? Oh, right, I had wings . . . that I’d never used.
My cloud began to vibrate, and I noticed a rumbling sound growing quickly louder.
“Hey, is someone paying attention to this?” I stood and yelled it out. Someone had to be somewhere. Didn’t they?
Just then, right under my feet, a 747 tore by at a phenomenal speed, ripping the cloud right from under me.
“Yikes,” I yelped, as the air cleared around me. By then, the airliner had disappeared into the distance, leaving no more than a thin contrail to show where it had been.
I began to tumble, and before I knew it, I was flapping my wings, as though I’d been doing it all my life.
Rather, all my death.
After an hour or so, with no place to land, I began to tire. By then, the sun had slipped to the far side of the globe, and it had started to get dark. Seeing the terminator line sweep across the planet, turning day into night, was impressive. Lights flickered on, more and more, the darker it got. It seemed strangely cheerful, like watching the Northern Lights in Alaska, except I was way up in the stratosphere. I was surprised to see how bright it was, especially along the coastlines.
I thought of my gramps’ beach house. It would be dark this time of the year. That made me sad. I wanted it to be included in the happy lights. I searched just outside Vancouver, wondering if I could fly that far before I gave up, but it wasn’t completely dark there. Anyway, thin clouds had started to put some drag into my flight. I hoped they thickened enough I could stop and rest for a time.
I was distracted by a bright light moving through the sky really fast. It zigzagged around a few times, as if searching. I decided that it was too bad I was dead. I could definitively prove that UFOs were real, because by the flight pattern, this was definitely one. If I had my cell phone and could take a picture, I could sell it to the National Enquirer and make a fortune.
Then, if I had my cell phone, I wouldn’t have to yell into the clouds to see if anyone was nearby. I could call 9-1-1 and let them know I was here and needed a rescue.
Angel wings and all. Wouldn’t that go down well?
I guess I must have fallen into the UFO’s search pattern, because after about ten minutes, it zipped my direction, coming really fast. The clouds had thickened up by then, and I was resting my wings, with my feet on a not-very-solid cloud. When I shifted position too fast, my feet tended to slip, so I was holding really still.
When it got close, I saw it wasn’t a UFO at all. It was a glowing chariot with a white-bearded, robed man holding the reins.
“Jesus?” I called out, as I waved my hand.
“Hardly,” he laughed. “Yeshua is at a camp meeting in Australia. He’s hoping to be back before dark, though they tend to go to all hours there.”
“Sorry, God,” I apologized.
“No, no!” He really laughed at that, holding his belly. “Yahweh is at orientation. I’m here for stragglers.”
“Oh?” I was pleased to hear that. “You must be St. Peter.”
“I wish.” He held out a hand. “Moshe, of Exodus fame. You know me as Moses. Come aboard. It seems you got left behind.”
“Left behind?’ Did that mean I didn’t get to go to heaven?
“Shush.” Moses held a finger to his lips. “I won’t tell if you don’t. You slipped off the back of Elijah’s chariot, and no one noticed. I hope to get you back before Yahweh notices you’re gone. It doesn’t look good when we leave someone behind, even accidentally.”
“Before we go, I have to ask an important question. How did I die?” If anyone would know that, Moses would. I shook with anticipation.
“Your health insurance was cancelled, just before you got stung by a wasp, and you were out of EpiPens.”
“My health insurance was cancelled?” I was incredulous.
“Sorry, but when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.” Moses shrugged.
I was disappointed. My death should have been more exciting. My chariot ride to heaven made up for it, though. If anything, Moses drove at a spine-snapping million miles an hour.
I whooped with excitement all the way.