Maisie doesn’t respond to me. She just gets out of the car like she didn’t even hear me.
She stays a few steps ahead of me as I follow her, my feet and heart like concrete blocks.
I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to have this discussion, but with what just happened…
I’d chewed on a man and then turned on her when she went to save him. The way she’d been looking at me when my sanity returned crushed me.
I broke her heart. I saw it.
There’d been fear, disappointment, and a deep sadness layered in her eyes.
I’d betrayed her. I’d tarnished the vision of the good man she held in her heart.
I’d forever be the man that almost hurt her. That scared her.
I’d broken that intrinsic trust between a couple that says I’m safe with you. I’d made her feel unsafe, even momentarily, before her trust in me snapped back into place.
And the worst part is she is unsafe with me. She just loves me too much to see it. And I love her too much to ignore it.
We make it through the door, but she’s not going to answer me. She’s not going to address it all.
“Maisie, stop.” The blanket falls away as I grasp her arm. “We have to talk about this.”
“No, we don’t. You need to rest and go—go get some food.” She’s talking to me, but she won’t look at me. “You’re obviously hungry, so go eat and then we’ll see what our next step is.”
I let go of her arm, hoping she’ll turn to face me. “I know what my next step is,” I murmur. “And so do you.”
She does turn to me then, fists on her hips like she’s scolding me. “You’re overreacting. You don’t need to die. We’ll go to Ms. Josephine tomorrow and she if she can help you, see if she can do anything else.”
“I already know what she’s going to say. I asked her before.”
“You knew this would happen?” Her expression is wounded.
“I strongly suspected.” I hold a hand out, pleading. “Maisie, this isn’t normal, and you know that.”
“We just need to try harder to find a solution. Voodoo did this, so how do you know there isn’t something else out there that can fix it?”
“I don’t know that. But Maisie…I don’t have the time to find out.”
“What? That’s nonsense. Of course you do.”
I’m shaking my head before she even finishes. I know the truth. My encounter with Biff had been a wake-up call. I’m losing my grip on this world, on my soul, and I can’t let that happen. “No I don’t, Maisie—”
“Maisie, I ate the neighbor’s dog.” I can’t look at her when I shout it, but she needs to know it now. No more half-truths or omissions, or worrying if she’d still love me. She has to know who she’s married to. What she’s married to.
I glance at her, and she’s shocked, confused. “The night I came back. I blacked out and I ate Barkley.”
She shakes her head, refusing to believe.
“I did,” I emphasize, stepping toward her. “And one day while you were at work, I went in to the woods and killed and ate a deer. At least I hope it was dead before I started eating it. I blacked out and don’t remember.” I step even closer, invading her space, pressing her back into the wall. She needs to understand. “I killed it with my bare hands,” I say, holding them out, fingers curled, “and ate it warm, while its blood was still running.” My voice lowers to a growl. “It wasn’t neat, and it wasn’t quick. Less than an hour ago, I wanted to do the same to Biff. I almost did.” She won’t look at me so I grab her jaw and force her to face me, to face reality.
Force myself to face it while looking into her beautiful, innocent face.
“When I was lost to the darkness, I wanted to do the same to you.” She tries to yank her head away, but I won’t let her go. “Do you understand now? I turn into a monster who doesn’t recognize you as anything but food.”
Tears flood her eyes as she stares at me. I soften my grip on her chin, and stroke her hair back with my other hand, before cupping her face in both. I press my forehead to hers. “Hear me, please. I’d rather die a thousand deaths than hurt you.” I’d already died once, what was one more, right? “No matter what you say, no matter what we want, what I want, I can’t keep going like this. I’m hungrier, more often. It takes more to satisfy me now. There will come a time when I either won’t be able to be satiated, or I won’t be able to return to sanity. Or both. And then I will be a ravenous, rabid, dangerous monster with no logic, no self-control. No guilt. And it will be soon. It could have been tonight.” I don’t know what stopped me this time, but I couldn’t trust something that wasn’t in my control. “I won’t do it, Maisie, I won’t kill anyone. I won’t risk it. I won’t be like the people who murdered me and wrecked our lives. I will not hurt anyone. Not even Biff, who arguably deserves it. But especially not my wife, the woman I love.” I may be zombie, but I’m not a monster. Yet. “I won’t risk hurting you. Do you understand?” And she’s the one in the most danger, because she loves me.
Eyes red and wet, mouth wobbling, she nods. “I do. But what about Biff? What about the lab? What about justice? Don’t you still want that?”
I do still want it, but it’s less important now. “I thought I needed justice. But when faced with choosing between that and you, your safety, our child… it’s disappointing to let it go, but I CAN let it go. I can not let your safety go.”
“What if we don’t have to? Grady, we have to try. Aren’t we even going to try?”
My stomach sinks. She won’t give up on me, so despite the bad feeling in my gut, I agree with her. “Okay. Tomorrow we’ll go see Ms. Josephine and see if she can help, or knows anything else that will.” I enfold her in my arms, and she rests her wet cheek on my shoulder, soaking my shirt.
She still believes in me, believes this will all work out, somehow. And I love her for that optimism, that naivete. I do.
But I also know she’s wrong.
Maisie still doesn’t agree that I need to die.
We’re on our way now to Ms. Josephine’s house to talk to her, to plea, to beg. To see if there is anything else she can do for me.
I know the answer, and I suspect Maisie does too. But I guess she has to hear it with her own ears before she’ll believe it.
I look over at Maisie. She looks tired, in a way sleep can’t fix. The way she did when I first returned to her.
We pull up in front of Ms. Josephine’s house, and then sit there a minute in silence after Maisie turns off the ignition.
“Hey, why don’t zombies eat clowns?”
She’s a good sport, and even though the last thing she probably wants to do is play along, she does. She thinks about it a moment before giving her answer.
“Because they’re scary?”
Maisie doesn’t like clowns, like a lot of people I guess. They don’t bother me. But I guess it’s good I came back as a zombie, at least, and not a clown. We would have had no chance then. “No. Because they taste funny.”
I fake a grin at her horrified laughter. “Too soon?”
She nods, hand over her mouth. I’m trying to lighten the mood because my heart is breaking. We have to say goodbye, for real this time, or I could hurt her. Would hurt her.
But the jokes from before aren’t so funny now. We get out of the car and Ms. Josephine is waiting for us, holding the door open. “Welcome, welcome. Come in. You’re right on time.”
We’re early actually, but I learned my lesson from last time. Early is on time, on time is late, and late is completely unacceptable.
Ms. Josephine gives Maisie a double cheek to cheek kiss and then she waits for hers from me. I oblige, and she motions for us to follow her.
She’s wearing what can only be called a mu-mu. My great-grandmother wore them almost exclusively in her later years, but Ms. Josephine seems to young for one in my mind.
Maisie and I meet eyes for a second, and she raises her eyebrows. I just shrug. No, she’s not what you expect from a zombie-raising vodou priestess.
She leads us into a little sitting room I didn’t see before, with a low table and a few couches and chairs.
“Sit. Please,” she says, waving to the couch.
Plastic crinkles beneath us as we do, and the corner of my mouth tips up in a brief smile. All grandmothers everywhere must be the same.
The smile doesn’t last long, because Maisie’s here to ask Ms. J for her help to keep me alive. I’m here to ask her to help me die. And everything is weighing so heavily on me.
Eyes burning, I look down at my hands and take a deep breath.
“You don’t like kremas?”
Neither I or Maisie have touched our drinks yet. We look at each other and dutifully take a sip.
It’s like eggnog, but coconut-ty, and with enough booze to make my eyes burn.
Maisie’s eyes go wide as she takes a drink, and then she puts the cup down and pushes it away. “Thank you, it’s delicious. I just shouldn’t drink.” She flashes a look at me. “I have to drive.”
I don’t, thanks to her, and if this is my last day on earth, I’m going to enjoy whatever this kremas is, and the buzz that would come with it.
Maybe. Could I get a buzz as a zombie? I didn’t know. But I was going to give it my best shot. I take another big drink and pull Maisie’s cup in front of me. “It’s delicious, Ms. Josephine.”
Our hostess looks between me gulping down alcohol and Maisie sitting there stiff and subdued, and sits her drink down on the table. “There is something on your minds.”
It wasn’t a question. We’d called and asked to come over, and I felt guilty for her thinking it was just a social visit. We should have come over for kremas and conversation, at least once, before I asked her to kill me.
Oh well. I didn’t have the time.
Maisie clears her throat. “First of all, I want to thank you for what you did for my husband. I never got the chance to do that, and I just… I thank you so much.”
“You are welcome. However, it is for God’s glory, not for mine,” but she smiles and preens a bit, obviously pleased.
“Of course,” Maisie says. “Still, it wouldn’t have been possible without your help. I’m… hoping you can help us again. If you’re willing.”
“You see, Grady has been getting hungrier, and losing more time when he’s out of it. He’s also been a little more… agitated than before.”
Agitated. Such a nice, mild term for becoming a rabid zombie and almost eating my wife and my former boss. “I’m getting worse,” I interject, head fuzzy from the alcohol. I meet Ms. J’s eyes, because I know she knows precisely what I mean. “I almost hurt my wife.”
“But you didn’t,” Maisie is quick to reply, staring at me.
“This time.” I look back at Ms. J. “I can’t risk it. I won’t.”
“You are eating regularly?” Ms. J asks me.
“Yes, but I have to eat more food, more often now. And I get hungrier. And it takes longer to come back from feeding.”
I shake my head. “I’m always tired, but I can’t ever sleep.”
“This is serious, yes. I’m afraid what I warned you of is happening. Your soul is losing it’s grip.”
“I’m hoping—we’re hoping—that there is something else you can do to help him,” Maisie says. “Or somewhere else you could send us, something else you know of. Some other…magic?”
Ms. Josephine sets down her drink on the table and then sits back with folded hands and a deep breath.
“I told your husband before. There is nothing else I can do to help him here.” Maisie’s face crumbles, and Ms. J turns to me. “The only ‘ding I can do, is remove the spell binding your soul to your body. But be clear, if I do dat, you will die. And if you’re not ready to go… your soul might still be trapped here.”
Without hesitation, I say, “I’m ready.” I glance over at Maisie as her eyes fill with tears and she looks down at her hands. Her feelings are hurt, but she doesn’t understand.
She’s more important to me than life.
Even though Ms. J doesn’t need the explanation, Maisie does. So I offer it, staring at her profile. “If the choice is between going to the afterlife, or staying here and possibly hurting you, then I have to go. And I’m ready to.” I know I am, way down inside where you feel things without conscious thought sometimes.
I grab her hand in mine and squeeze, and she nods wordlessly as she swipes at her tears with her other hand.
Ms. Josephine grabs it in both of hers as she lowers it, and scoots to the edge of her chair. “Listen for me. Sister, sister. Please listen for me.” She then cups Maisie’s face as she continues to cry. “It will be okay. Your husband, he’s been blessed. Most people don’t get a second chance. He’s had one.” She pats her cheeks and then looks at me. “Okay, so when do you want to do this?”
“Tomorrow. If possible.”
Ms. Josephine nods, but Maisie looks at me as if I’ve betrayed her.
I beg her with my eyes to understand. It was now, or maybe never. I’d lose my resolve. I wanted to stay with her too badly. I’d risk too much, wait too long. Maybe it would eventually work out okay, but maybe it wouldn’t.
Maybe I’d just disappear into the blackness, and accidentally kill and eat my wife and child. Or someone else.
I drop my eyes from hers in shame. “Knowing I have to die at some point is like staring into the sun,” I tell her. “I can’t face it for very long.”
I can’t face dying, or losing her, for very long without wanting to change my mind. But I know I can’t do that.
She pops up out of her chair with a quick, “Excuse me, I need some air,” and leaves the room.
I stand to follow her.
“Wait,” Ms. Josephine says as she stands. “I will speak with her. But first, if you are concerned for her safety before tomorrow, you can consider giving her your ring.”
I glance down at it on my finger. Why hadn’t I thought of that? But, as before I’d died, I’d gotten so used to wearing my ring that I’d barely thought about it or noticed it since Ms. Josephine gave it back a week ago.
It seems so plain, so innocuous, that it hardly seems possible that my soul and autonomy are tied to it.
But I remember Ms. Josephine leading me around her yard, commanding my actions, for the express purpose of keeping herself safe. Maisie could do the same. And maybe since it’s Maisie, it won’t feel so unwilling.
“You must not feel obligated to do this, however. It is your soul, and your choice, and must not be taken lightly.” Her face and voice both soften. “Death may still be preferable to ownership, even though it is your wife. However, it may be tolerable to both of you for one night.”
I nod, unsure of how to respond.
“Now I will speak to her. You go wait.” She flicks a hand toward the car.
Uncertain, I glance at the doorway they disappeared through. But then I nod, because I don’t think I can help her through her sorrow and uncertainty very well, when I’m positively drowning in my own.
When I left the room at Ms. Josephine’s house, it was because I felt like I was dying. My breaths were locked in my chest behind a cage of pressure and pain, and I just had to escape the room to get some oxygen.
I found the closest door and opened it, gasping for air to keep from throwing up or breaking into sobs.
Ms. Josephine followed me shortly after with a glass of water. “Sister, sister. Sit, please.” She grabs my hand and pulls me down to the porch steps, and then hands me the water. I don’t want it, but I sip anyway, focusing on the coolness of the glass, the clarity of the water. The way it feels cool in my mouth, when I swallow. Anything to keep the thoughts at bay.
“If you have something you need to tell him, you must do it soon.”
I turn to look at Mrs. Josephine, whose gaze is tender and understanding. She motions to my abdomen. “How far are you?”
How does she know? How did she guess? I stare into the water and try to answer without more tears. “Eight weeks.”
“You haven’t told him.”
I shake my head. I’d never found the right time, and this still wasn’t it, but now he’s given me a hard deadline. He wants to die, tomorrow.
I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach.
“You have a chance to share this child with your husband. A chance you will never get again. Do not deprive him, or yourself, of that.”
I can’t even reply around the brick in my throat.
Ms. Josephine lays a warm hand on my back. “I know this is hard. But you must remember that death is not the end of life. It is simply the next stop in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Grady’s natural cycle was interrupted by his murder, this is true, but I interrupted it again when I brought him back. Releasing his soul to the spirit world, to go on to God, will restore it.
The spirit world is more real than physical reality, and it lasts forever once we get there. This place—” she gestures around her yard, up to the sky, “—it is but one stop on the journey. He goes to a better place.” She grabs one of my hands into both of hers. “You will live a long, full life and when you die, he will be in Heaven waiting to reunite with you. And you will be together for eternity. This is a wonderful thing.”
I wish I could see it that way, but I all I can see, all I can feel, is the hole that will be left in this world without him in it. All the long years stretching out before me, missing him, mourning him. All the days and events he will miss, and that I will miss having him there. It’s too much. Too heavy, too painful.
“Sister, do not think about the whole road ahead of you. Focus only on what you have to do, have to endure, in this moment. Take one step at a time. You will survive.”
She takes the glass from me and sets it aside, and then takes both my hands and helps me to stand.
I barely know this woman, but I find myself unwilling to let go of her hands. I need the strength she is trying to give me. I’m greedy for it. I don’t have enough of my own.
Grady’s abandoning me, abandoning our child. I would stay for him, I love him that much. If only he loved me that much. I thought he did.
“Do not blame your husband for making a choice you do not have to make,” Ms. Josephine says, as if she can read my thoughts. She could raise the dead, so maybe she could. “You do not really know what you would pick in his shoes. Now, go to him.”
She squeezes my hands and then releases them, and guides me to the car.
We drive home in obese silence. He can’t say he’s changed his decision, and I can’t say I forgive him for making it.
So we say nothing.
I’m remorseful yet resentful of the precious minutes ticking by with this wall between us.
I can’t decide if knowing these are the last things we’ll share together is easier or harder than when they simply stopped abruptly before.
We should be happy in these moments together, but we’re both quiet, lost in our own thoughts and sorrows.
I need more time. I’m not enjoying this time with him the way I should be. I’m sad and scared and I feel betrayed and abandoned. And yet also honored that he would sacrifice his life for me. I know that shows the depth of his love for me.
And yet, he’s taking away the most important thing in my life from me, and that feels cruel. I know it’s not, but these thoughts and feelings swirl around inside me, hindering and diluting my enjoyment of his presence.
Panic rises in my chest. He dies tomorrow. I can’t believe it.
“Please,” I beg into the silence as I pull into the driveway, “please just wait a little longer. Let’s look for more options. If voodoo is real, then there’s got to be other magic that is real, other magic that can help. We can find it—”
He looks down and shakes his head, “I can’t Maisie,” he says, interrupting me. “I’m so hungry. I just ate this morning, and already all I can think about is fresh meat.”
His eyes flick up to mine, and I inhale with alarm at the red cast to his irises. “I’m getting hungrier more often, losing control for longer. And things will only get worse from here. I can control it right now, but I don’t know for how long. I’m sorry. I’m just not willing to risk it.” He looks at me again, his irises a sorrowful but reassuring brown. He gets out of the car and goes in. I sit there a minute and then follow him inside, all the way to the bedroom where he sits slumped on the side.
I’m going to tell him.
Now I know why I’ve hidden the news of the baby, why I’ve kept it from him all this time. Our baby is my trump card, my last resort in this whole situation.
I’d known something was wrong, hadn’t I? That him coming back was somehow too good to be true. Because it is.
But now I’d tell him about his son or daughter, this gift, and he’d stop all this nonsense about dying and leaving me, and we would keep searching for a solution so we could all be a family. Together.
“Grady, I need to tell you something.” I sit on the edge of the bed beside him, cross-legged, and I grab his hand in both of mine.
He’s staring at me. In the midst of all the serious conversations we’ve had in the last few days, he seems to know it’s going to get even more serious.
I calm my heartbeat, my fear, my hope. “I’m pregnant.”
He searches my face for a moment before I see his eyes light up and his lips start to bow. He turns toward me and pushes his hands into my hair, touches his forehead to mine.
“Really? Your pregnant?”
I nod, throat closing for a second, overwhelmed by the moment. “I wanted to tell you sooner, but—” I tossed a hand in the air. “Everything.”
He’s nodding, because it’s been a roller-coaster for both of us, and he knows it. He looks down and puts a hand to my belly. A peculiar thickness to his voice, he asks, “How far along?”
“About eight weeks.”
A tiny grin on his pale face, he meets my eyes. “So, the shower.”
“Yes.” I smile and blush, because that’s what I’d narrowed it down to, too. And it had been… memorable. His grin grows.
Wistfulness in his voice, he says, “I can’t believe I’m going to be a dad.”
My smile vanishes. “Not if you’re not here.” It comes out harsher than I intended, and he pulls away like I’ve slapped him. He pops up off the bed and stands at the window, hands on his hips. He puts the back of his hand to his mouth and turns back to me. “It doesn’t change anything. It can’t.” His eyes are shiny.
I should feel guilty that I’m trying to manipulate him. I should feel sorry that I’ve given him the gift of a child, only for him to lose it tomorrow.
But all I feel is angry.
“It changes nothing?” The words rip out of me as I get off the bed on the other side, staring at him. “I’ve just told you we’re going to have a child together, and it doesn’t change your mind?” My entire body throbs with anger. “You’re still giving up?”
He turns to face me more fully. “If anything, it’s even more reason for me to go. Can’t you see? What if I hurt you while you’re pregnant? What if I hurt the baby after it’s born? As a child? You can’t trust me.” There’s horror in his eyes, and he reaches out a hand in a plea for me to understand, but I can’t.
This was supposed to stop him. To make him try harder, search harder, for an answer. This was supposed to make him wait a little longer, at the very least. To give us a little bit more of a chance to figure things out.
Instead, I gave him another reason to die.
Blindly, I turn away from him and jerk on my jeans. Then I slip on shoes and find my purse, my keys. I don’t know where I’m going to go—there’s no one I can turn to for comfort—but I can’t stay here.
He catches me before I can open the back door, and puts a hand on my upper arm. “Maisie—”
I shrug out of his grip and open the door, but he slaps a palm on it to hold it shut. I glare at it through unshed tears. I won’t turn to look at him.
“Maisie, come on, don’t leave.”
His hand lowers and he puts his arms around me, but I refuse to look at him or move or respond. If I do, I’ll shatter.
He holds me in the loose but unbreakable circle of his arms. “Please.” His voice lowers to a murmur as he presses his head against mine. “This is our last night together. Please stay with me.”
“Then stay with me!” I yell, finally shattering, a raw sob following. The anger disguising my hurt dissolves, and I sag in his arms as my legs give out.
“I can’t.” He murmurs against my hair. “You know I can’t. I wish I could. My God, how I wish I could. But I can’t. This was temporary, and it always has been.”
And I had known that, hadn’t I? When he first told me he was undead. I’d just been in denial.
“But I’m so thankful for the extra time I had with you.” His voice cracks. “Please don’t throw away what we have left because you’re angry at me.”
He’s right. I have less than twenty-four hours left with the love of my life, and I need to savor it.
And yet I am angry at him. I’m awash with painful rage.
“You’re choosing a permanent solution to something that might happen.” And that feels like betrayal. Maybe he would turn into a raging zombie and attack me. But maybe he wouldn’t, right?
He’s going by the assumption that he will, and I’m going by the assumption that he won’t, and there’s no way to know who’s right. So why give up too soon?
My head understands his reasons, and I even find it hard to disagree with them, but my heart still cries No!
“It will happen Maisie, make no mistake. It is only a matter of time. But…there is one last thing we can try.”
I look up so fast that I make his teeth clack with my head. “Why didn’t you say so!” I swipe the tears off my cheeks. “What is it?”
He messages his jaw a moment, eyeing me. “Ms. Josephine said it’s only a temporary solution. A very temporary solution.”
I’m desperate for any solution, any extra time. “What? What is it?”
He removes his ring and holds it in the palm of his hand. “Ms. Josephine said that when she brought me back she tied my soul to this ring, and then she gave it back to me so I would have my own free will. Whoever has the ring can control me. She used it to keep herself safe when I went to her house.” He holds the ring of silver up between his fingers. “Maybe if you keep it, we can make sure you will always be safe. You can tell me what to do, what not to do. You should be able to control me if I get too hungry. Hopefully.”
He grabs my hand, pulls my fingers out flat, and positions the ring at the tip of my thumb, the only finger his large ring will fit on.
He slides it on and weaves his fingers into mine, keeping contact with the ring.
I look up at him, and he stares back.
“I’m willing to try.”
Then he lets go of my hand.