Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Extravaganza gave us an assortment of 60 photographs to choose from as a prompt this time. The catch? Almost every one of them was practically unusable. I went with number 40. I’ll let you decide whether you want to view the photo first or read the story instead.
The Dead Do Not Close Their Eyes
We need to be reminded of this fact now and then.
I had been running hard and not the good kind of running. My running for pleasure days were over about two weeks ago. This was the scared-out-of-your-mind, not-stopping-even-though-your-side-hurts kind of running. It was the sort of running you do where you can’t feel your feet or your tongue because your mouth is so dry; the adrenaline makes everything seem distant, dreamlike.
My Uncle Chaz worked in a funeral home. He called me Charlie because even though I was named after him, he never felt comfortable calling me by his nickname.
“You see Charlie,” he’d say to me. “Most of the time when people die they’re looking at something. Nobody knows quite what it is they see. But they die that way and their eyes stay open. Even if you try and close them afterwards, the gasses that build up inside the body force them open.”
I saw my first dead body when I was ten. My parents had decided it was safe for me to go visit Uncle Chaz down at the funeral home. The body was pale and Chaz had to put makeup on her just to make her look like something other than a statue before he brought out the needle and thread.
“We go in from underneath the eyelid,” he’d say. “Some of the parlors like to use glue. That’s fine I say, but I’d hate to be at the funeral on the day the glue doesn’t set well, or chemicals in the tear ducts make it come undone. Don’t want Aunt Mabel winkin’ at ya.”
And then he’d wink at me. And I would laugh. It was funny at the time, hilarious in fact.
I spent a lot of summers at Uncle Chaz’s funeral home. When I joined the track team I even made it my daily route to swing by and see what body he was preparing, what new insights he might have on the world of the dead.
These days I’m sure he knows plenty.
Running gives you quite the endorphin rush. It’s actually a defense mechanism, something our bodies do for us when we are fleeing a predator, making the fear and strain on the body feel almost euphoric.
I had been running that night, but not for fun. Did I already mentioned that?
You see, I live down the left side of Eldridge street. It sits just north of the hospital. Now, you would think that the best part of living near a hospital would be the easy access to medical attention when epidemics break out. Not so much.
Contagions can spread rapidly in hospitals. They can mutate. Sometimes unexpected medical outcomes can occur. Sometimes people can become hungry, very hungry. Sometimes that hunger can spread rapidly through an entire ward, a hospital, out into the streets.
The hungry were chasing me that night. I had been an idiot and locked myself out of the house. We had one of those push button locks on the handle and I had accidentally pressed it when I closed the door to go out scavenging. It never takes the hungry long to find you, especially at night when the sun isn’t out to hurt their sensitive glassy eyes.
Maddie lived just one house down. After the outbreak we had communicated back and forth on the phone, then on the internet. After the power went out it was all flashlights and morse code. Sometimes she would hold up a note on the second floor window written in thick black marker, easy to read over the dangers in the yard below. I had invited her to stay with me at one point, but she always seemed to prefer her own home.
“BRB GETTING LAUNDRY. WORST BIRTHDAY EVER. LOL,” had been the last thing she wrote. Laundry was code for “checking the basement for hungry strangers.”
Now her house was dark. I ran to it anyway.
Something rushed at me from the bushes, and I nearly tripped. Fortunately, the hungry aren’t all that coordinated. They can’t climb or handle complex mechanisms. I heard something on the final news broadcasts about an advanced metabolism, the body sacrificing intelligence for sheer stamina.
The door was, of course, boarded from the inside. Anyone living still knew to do this. I climbed the trellis outside her window and crawled onto the floor in a heap, heaving, and panting.
“Maddie?” I called. No answer.
I carried a pistol with me, the last thing my dad ever left me worth anything in this brave new world. I hefted it. Cocked it.
“Maddie.” Still no answer.
Now, the hungry are pretty sensitive to sound, so I figured that if they had eaten her and if they were in the house I would have already met them. Instead, the only sounds were my feet on carpet.
Something like 30% of all accidental deaths occur in the home. A lot of those are due to things like electrocution or fire. Loose water kills more people than you can imagine. All it takes is a slip on tile, hit your head the wrong way and you’re done.
It was a long night before the sun came up. The walk downstairs to the basement filled me with a strange sort of longing. I guess human contact was more appealing to me than I cared to admit to myself.
I had gotten used to the sounds of the hungry outside, the scratching and groaning. Silence and stillness felt strange. That’s probably why I cried when I saw her there on the floor. The pink birthday balloon was what really got me. I had completely forgotten how the dead never close their eyes.
(c) 2011 Martin Kee