Self Service

by Paul A. Hamilton

Before pregnancy became extinct and babies stopped being born, the greasing of death’s once firm grip caused a lot of worry about the potential of the revived. Would they turn vicious? Could they be restored to a responsive state? How much humanity do we ascribe to an animated cadaver?

I stayed apart from it all. I had my farm, my family. Cora was marrying age, but once it became clear there wouldn’t be any grandchildren forthcoming, Ma stopped needling her. When the corpses wandered through, stinking, twitching, chattering, Bub and I ushered them off our land, gently, respectfully. Then we went back to work. Outside, the world clashed and gnashed its collective teeth. I had less use for it than ever.

Cora got sick first. I drove her into the city, threading my way past thickening crowds of the dead. She wheezed from the passenger seat of my pickup; pressed her fingers against the side window as if she were reaching for those grim mannequins.

“When did there get to be so many of them?”

“Sh,” I said, concentrating on not running down any of the stubborn, reluctant dead. “You don’t need to worry about it. Try to rest.”

When we pulled up to the hospital, I stared at her. The girl and the building reflected each other: dilapidated, hunched over as if ready to collapse at any moment, pale and being reclaimed by nature an inch at a time.

“It’s deserted,” Cora said, without a trace of the panic I expected. She turned to me, and it was like I could hear the creak of tendons in her neck, the sheen of fever sweat on her brow shifting in the fading light.

“We’ll keep going,” I said.

Cora closed grey lids over sagging eyes and forced her lips into a smile. “Okay, Papa,” she said.

The next town wasn’t better. The ghosts in their rotting shells meandered, harmless, unsettling. Cora stared and choked on her breath.

“Will that be me?”

“No,” I said firmly.

I drove until we ran out of the food Ma had packed. I tried to find some sort of establishment, some oasis of life. They had to be out there. This wasn’t some Saturday matinee of bloodthirst and savagery, it was just a hiccup. Probably ol’ Mother Earth in a snit for the way we’d been treating her. Five years without babies wouldn’t be enough to cleanse the planet. There had to be more than just town after town of empty carcasses, jittering about with their nothing eyes and slack jaws.

I found a boarded-up gas station and kicked down the plywood. Dried noodles and greasy snack cakes was all I could find. I pushed some into Cora’s lap. “You need to eat,” I said. She nodded, but stayed slouched against the truck door, the window down just a little, her hair sucked out the crack and dancing the way she used to when she was little.

I refilled the big gas cans in the bed of the truck. I left a few bucks in the empty till. Seemed like stealing otherwise. A grim smile hit my face as we pulled away and I saw the sign on the station’s overhang that read “Self Service”.

Cora passed away sometime on the next fifty mile stretch. I wish I knew when it was. I could have held her. Touched her hand. Done something, maybe. I wept into the steering wheel. It was dark when I finally looked up. However long I may have cried, it didn’t feel like enough.

I brushed her hair back into the cab and rolled up the window. I watched her and thought about how little I really knew her. She’d lived in the same house with me for twenty years. We talked every day. But I only knew what she wanted me to. Had she ever kissed a boy? She never said. Ever gotten high or shoplifted something? She wouldn’t have told me. Were her dreams still the same ones she had last time she felt like sharing them, seven, maybe eight years past?

Now I’d never know.

I headed back to the farm.

About three hours later, Cora revived. She strained against the seatbelt, a continual arch in her back, pressing the shoulder belt deeper into the blanket and her sweatshirt, then her pale skin. I heard the bones start to snap, and I pulled over. I put her in the back, wrapped up in blankets even though I knew she wouldn’t be cold.

A few miles on, her foot started tapping. When I couldn’t tolerate it anymore I went back and tied her feet together. An hour later, she started rocking, the metal hook of the bungee cords tapping on the truck’s bed. I pulled over again, tied her tighter, and turned on the tape deck; Merle Haggard. About halfway through “Strangers” Cora decided to start banging her head against the gas cans.

When I got home, it was dark. Ma was gone. There was a note on the kitchen table, said that Bubby was sick, now. Said I’d been gone with Cora too long and she didn’t know what to do. Said a pair of men from a commune had come by, told her they could help get Bubby better. But they wouldn’t tell her where their place was, and she’d had to make the decision alone.

“Wait for me,” the letter said, “I’ll come back and get you as soon as Bub is well. Or, as soon as they’ll let me. Give Cora a hug and kiss for me.”

It’s been seven weeks since the date on Ma’s letter. I’ve been back to work, but it’s slow going. Those bodies are everywhere. They’re pests, like raccoons. Sure, they’re no threat, but they come up to the house. Walk right through the door sometimes. I catch them in the living room, staring at the useless TV or sprawled over the kitchen table. Woke up the other morning and found one standing in the corner of my bedroom.

Can’t get a moment away from them. I spend most days trying to zombie-proof my land. They’re cunning in a brainless sort of way. Too stupid to avoid the razorwire, too stubborn to let a fence or a door stop them, too numerous to stay long in any of the pits.

The smell’s gotten worse.

The first ones were mostly natural deaths. The ones I see now are self-inflicted or victims of violence. Leaking bowels and blackened gashes in the head, missing limbs, or gunshot wounds.

Everywhere I look I see these half-awake bodies. Neither dead nor living, they just move in the world, draining from people like me but contributing nothing. Helping themselves to the space I worked my whole life to keep.

I put Cora down in the basement. I tried burying her, but she clawed her way out after a few days. I washed her off, dressed her in something nice, tried putting her in her bed. But she won’t lie still and I can’t sleep with the racket. So I put her downstairs and I go down and talk to her now and then.

I tell her all the things I never said when she was alive.

Sometimes I pretend she’s talking to me, too. Telling me secrets. Keeping me sane.

Cora and I, we wait. To see if this crowded, lonely world has anything left to offer.

Notes …

Paul A. Hamilton is a writer and technology worker living in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. His stories feature broken people, reassembled worlds, beautiful monsters, and hideous love. He gets his inspiration by impersonating an old-timey bartender, listening to stories told by lonely strangers. When not writing, he can be found reading, drawing, taking photographs, or riding roller coasters. More from him can be found at http://ironsoap.com/, and on Twitter as @ironsoap.


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