When I pick Grady up at dusk, the sun is behind the horizon, making Mis. Josephine’s house a spooky black silhouette against the ombre’ purple of the sky. The lights in the windows of the upper story seem like eyes, watching me.
He waves goodbye to Ms. Josephine at the door. She’s smiling, but he’s not. He’s somber, and he gets in the car without saying a word. I can’t take that, I’ve never been able to.
“So how’d it go?”
“She made me dinner.” He glances over at me, looking a little bewildered. “Chicken.”
“Ooookay,” I say, putting the car in gear. I want to know more, but he’s quiet as we drive. He seems a little lost. “That was all? She just made you dinner? Did she ask for money?”
“Not even once.” He says it defensively, like I’ve insulted her. I don’t mean to, it’s just, the things she’d told him before…
Guilt pricks at me. I’d seen a black woman, pretending to be homeless, and made terrible assumptions about her based on what she’d said to Grady. I’d have to work on that. Maybe she really believed the things she’d said, and not been trying to take advantage of him. “Okay, I’m sorry. I was wrong about her. Did you learn anything else?”
He turns from the window to meet my eyes. “Yes. A lot more.” But then he turns to look out again. “I’m just not ready to talk about it yet.”
Alarmed, I look him over and ask, “Are you okay?” I should’ve known better than to let him go to that crazy old lady’s house alone—
“I don’t know yet.” He puts his hand on my leg. “But she didn’t hurt me.” He gives my knee a little squeeze, and I try to calm my racing heart. “Then, or now. She just gave me some information I didn’t like.”
I take a deep breath in because, dammit, I want to ask so bad, I want to know. I feel like I deserve to know. But he needs time to process, so, fine. I have to wait.
I try to find something to say that isn’t prying. “Krissy came by.”
He turns back to me. “How was she?”
I turn back to the road and shrug. “She’s… as good as can be expected.” Which was depressed, weepy, and hurting. “She’s in a lot of emotional pain.” Understandably. “To her, you’re is still dead. Her brother is dead. It’s hard to see, and I really don’t feel comfortable keeping this from her. We have to tell her soon—”
“No. Not yet.” His answer is emphatic and final, and he won’t meet my eyes.
He’s hiding something. Now I’m sure of it. What happened at Ms. Josephine’s? What did she say? What did she tell him?
“Grady, we can’t keep this a secret any longer, especially from your family. They deserve to know that you’re okay, that you’re alive. Your sister, your parents. Your poor family! They’re suffering. We have to tell them—”
“We can’t.” His voice is quiet, but has all the force of a yell, and I realize how upset he actually is. Quiet-angry is one step past loud-angry for him.
I take a deep breath and blow it out. “Okay. I don’t want to make you mad by insisting, but I need to understand why.” After all, it wasn’t too long ago that I’d learned he was still alive. Not knowing sooner filled me with guilt and an anger I hadn’t had the time to deal with yet.
How could I have accepted it so easily?
“I—” He stops, and then restarts, voice hoarse. “I died, Maisie. Someone hurt me, and I died, and I was buried in chemicals. Ms. Josephine brought me back to life with Voodoo, and the chemicals are what healed the damage to my body over the six weeks I was gone—”
I interrupt him with a huffing laugh as I look over at him, but he looks completely serious. He speaks again while my mouth is still open with shock.
“But I don’t know if it’s permanent or not, so I don’t want to tell anyone yet if…” He gestures into the air. “If it’s not. It would just hurt everyone again.”
“Is that what she told you?” My temperature is rising. “I can’t believe it, and I can’t believe you believe it. That’s ridiculous.”
What reason did she have to tell him that? Why would she take advantage of his mental state by telling him crazy stories like that?
“I knew you wouldn’t accept it,” he mutters, hunching into his seat and staring hard out the window.
“I know you’re desperate to find out what happened to you, Honey, but that is not it. That’s insane. She must be running a long con.” I shake my head, because of course. Voodoo and chemicals and magic. I scoff. “Grady. Seriously, you can’t believe that.” But it was clear that he did. He stays quiet through my ranting, slouching down into his seat, eyes dejected but jaw angry.
I don’t know what else I can possibly say at this point, so I say nothing.
When we get home, I heat up a portion of the casserole Krissy brought over, and we sit and eat in silence. Well, I do. He just pushes his food around. His stomach still isn’t great, so I cover his plate and go to put it in the fridge. But when I open it up, there’s no place to put it. After a few days, the refrigerator is overflowing with covered plates. He’s not eating. At all, by the looks of it.
And now I know why he looks worse. I have to get him to eat.
“Grady, aren’t you hungry?”
“Yes, I’m starving.”
“Then why don’t you eat any of the food I make you?” I cross my arms, but I’m more worried than mad.
He looks at me, and I can tell he was hoping I wouldn’t notice the food thing.
He shakes his head. “I can’t. Everything smells bad, tastes bad. I can’t stomach any of it. It’s not your cooking,” he reassures me, “my stomach is just weird.”.”
I’m fairly confident in my cooking abilities and the food smells and tastes fine to me, so I don’t think it’s that. I think he’s sick.
“You told me you ate.”
“I did,” he says, affronted. Then looks away. “At Ms. Josephine’s.”
Two days ago.
I sit facing him on the couch. “Grady, you have to eat. You’re going to make yourself ill, and you don’t look that healthy to begin with.”
He nods. He knows.
“I’m going to make you some chicken noodle soup.” Everyone likes chicken noodle soup, and it was the only thing he ever wanted when he was sick. It wasn’t high on calories, but at least it would get something in him.
“Okay,” he nods.
After twenty minutes, I’ve got a bowl of fragrant, steaming chicken noodle soup on the table. It smells so good that I make myself a small bowl too.
But unlike him, I eat it. He takes two bites and struggles to take another. He actually gags. On soup. His paleness has taken on a greener tinge, and now I’m really worried.
I put my spoon down. “You can’t eat it, can you?”
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what it is about it, but it tastes rancid and makes my stomach cramp. But I’m still starving.”
“Tell me what you want,” I say, feeling desperate. “What sounds good? I will go to the store and buy anything that sounds appealing to you.”
He carefully puts his folded napkin down, avoiding my eyes. “I’m afraid to tell you what sounds good.”
At this point I will buy him nothing but beer and chips if it gets him to eat. With my hand on his, I say, “You have to eat. If you don’t, I’m taking you to the doctor, even if I have to call an ambulance.” He looks at me, questioning, but I keep my jaw tight, because I’m serious. “Tell me. Whatever it is, I’ll get it for you. You have to eat.”
He meets my eyes. “Meat.”
“You mean like chicken? Steaks? Or like hamburger patties?”
“Yes, but…plain.” He’s looking away again.
“Okay.” I pat his hand. “I’ll go to the store right now.”
I’m up and I’m gone and I’m back with two packages of raw hamburger before I allow myself to think.
He takes it out of my hands and sits at the table. He rips the cellophane open and pinches a chunk out with his fingers before I can even offer him a fork. I blink, because that’s not at all what I expected. I don’t think it could be what anyone would expect, but I said I would get him anything to get him to eat, and I meant it. I just… when he said ‘plain’, I thought meant without anything else. I didn’t think he meant raw.
His eyes close as he chews, and I’m still standing by the door with the empty grocery bag, trying not to think. It’s not working. My stomach rolls.
Maybe he is severely low on iron, since he’s so pale, and that’s why he craved raw meat. Or maybe it is somehow easier for him to digest with whatever this illness is that he has. Maybe he’d been poisoned while he was gone, or experimented on, and this is all he can eat.
Most of the package is gone now, and his bites have slowed down. But he’s starting to look queasy again, and after watching him devour a whole pound of raw meat, I’m feeling the same way.
Balling up the bag in my hand, I sit by him at the table. “What’s wrong?” Perhaps he ate too fast. Or perhaps he just ate a pound of beef, raw.
He makes a face. “I can eat it, but it tastes old.” He meets my eyes. “It’s like kale. I can eat it because I’m starving, but it’s not great, and I don’t know how long I can eat it.” Then he looks away, and I can feel that something else is coming.
“I need…” He glances back at me for a split second, and there’s an otherworldly redness to his irises that wasn’t there before. “…fresher.”
And suddenly I know perfectly well what he means. The neighbor’s dog. The second set of bloody clothes in the dumpster. Him wearing his burial clothes, the paleness of his skin, his almost absent heartbeat. What he said about Ms. Josephine, and dying, and Voodoo.
It all makes sense now. He was telling me the truth.
My stomach rolls again, and I run to the bathroom and get rid of the soup I ate a little bit ago, my dinner from earlier, and possibly the lining of my stomach.
I’m limp against the wall when he comes in and gets me a wet cloth and a cup of water. He squats down in front of me and holds them out. I take them, because I’m so wrung out from puking, I can’t even run anyway.
I can’t meet his eyes though. I sip the water, a certain word I don’t want to say pinging around my brain.
“Please don’t freak out until we know more,” he begs. “You’re not in any danger from me.” He ducks down to meet my eyes. “I would never hurt you, no matter what. I love you.”
Realistically, I know that, or even with the puking, I wouldn’t still be here. I’d have run out of the house spewing and driven straight to the police station, a trail of barf behind me. He’s still my husband, he’s still Grady. He’s just…still dead. Sort of. Mostly. “You’re a zombie.”
Saying the word is weird. It feels foreign in my mouth, sounds peculiar in the air.
Grady flops from kneeling to sitting against the other wall, head in his hands. “Yeah,” he says after a few seconds, muffled.
“Are you going to start the apocalypse?” I blurt out. I look up at him, my head against the wall, still too weak to do anything if my husband changes his mind and decides to start chomping on me.
“No,” he huffs. “At least, I don’t think so. Ms. Josephine made it sound like it was a soul-thing, not a contagious thing.” He throws his hands up, shakes his head, and then covers his face. “I don’t really know anything. I don’t know how this could happen, or why I’m back, or what any of this means.”
I don’t know either, but he’s still my husband, and he wouldn’t hurt me. I have to trust that.
He looks so broken. I put the cup of water down and crawl over to him. I pull him close, and he lets me, burying his face against my chest.
At least if he decides to bite my boob, it wouldn’t be the first time. I laugh.
And then I start crying, because son of a bitch, my husband is still dead. A dead man walking. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.
But just knowing that he really died, that I really buried him, and all my previous feelings about it were real, brought them all back in a rush.
We switch positions and my face is pressed against his chest, tears choking out of me and soaking his t-shirt. And I thought I was done crying. Silly me.
His arms tighten around me, and it takes me a minute to notice, but he feels different than the less time we hugged. I sniffle and pull back, and put my palm on the side of his neck to make sure.
“You feel warm.”
Indeed, he’s even got a little pink in his skin, his eyes are clear, the dark circles under his eyes almost gone. I meet his gaze.
“It’s because I ate,” he says, eyes dark, apologetic.
“Oh,” I say, recalling the other times I’d noticed him looking a little better. “So you have been…eating. Just not my food. Raw meat.” I don’t think I want to know the details.
He winces, nods.
There’s no avoiding the truth now, but I almost don’t care. It’s a bright light through the darkness that makes me hope we can have some semblance of a normal life. A way that we can be together. He’s more ‘alive’ now. So long as he eats raw meat, he looks, acts, and feels like my husband.
And suddenly I don’t care if he’s undead, I only care that he’s here with me, and that he stays that way.
I put my hand on his cheek and press myself upwards until my lips can meet his. They feel warm. Familiar. They’re the lips of the man I love.
I bring up my other hand to hold his face while I kiss him more, tears leaking out of my closed eyes. “I told you at our wedding that I’d love you forever,” I say between kisses. “No matter what. And I meant it.” I pull back to meet his eyes, and they’re a little damp, and he closes them as he pushes his fingers into my hair and presses his forehead against mine. And I’m now 100% certain that it’s my soul-mate in that body…even if the body is a little different than it used to be.
Somehow, whether by choice or chance, he’d conquered death and come back to me.
And I’d known he would if he could, didn’t I? I’d wanted him to, begged God for it to happen. And I would never reject an answered prayer, no matter what form he took.
“But if you’re undead…” I say, sniffling and swiping my eyes, “then that also means that someone, or some thing, made you dead in the first place.” And there were still so many unanswered questions around that. He nods again, but doesn’t reply. “Does Ms. Josephine know what happened to you? Before she did her spell?” He shakes his head, eyes damp, apparently struggling for words. “And you still don’t remember?”
He shakes his head again and sits back. “I don’t know, Maisie. I see shadows, shapes, partial faces, impressions… but it’s all a blur. I couldn’t move or breathe and I couldn’t see—” His eyes close tight and his voice cracks the tiniest bit, and I can’t help but press myself against him. Even if he doesn’t need it, I do. “—And all I wanted was to get home to you.” He opens his eyes and looks down at me, eyes soft as he strokes his fingers down my cheek. “I wanted to see you again so badly, I couldn’t let go.”
And as weird as our current situation is, as absolutely freaking crazy as it is… “I’m glad.” And I am, because it hurt too bad to say goodbye to him, and I would rather love my husband in person, zombie or not, than over the uncrossable distance of death. I lean up and kiss his mouth again, partially to hide the tears trying to fall.
To think about what he’d been through, it horrified me. I knew he was leaving out all the pain, the terror. I’d seen his face when he’d remembered in the car. To know that he’d been hurt like that by someone made me angry.
Whether or not he was in front of me now…
Someone had murdered my husband.