The Dead Do Not Close Their Eyes

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

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The Tragic and Untimely Demise of Uncle Ilbert

Chuck Wendig at TerribleMinds gave us another challenge. This time with the picture below as our prompt. The picture is Chuck’s not mine.

 

—–

The Tragic and Untimely Demise of Uncle Ilbert

Uncle Ilbert Notwithstanding was always my favorite of twelve uncles. An explorer, con-man, literary agent and hunter, Uncle Ilbert was somewhat of a black sheep in the Notwithstanding household, a title which took a considerable amount of effort on his part.

The majority of my uncles were scallywags to some degree, each of them doing his best to try and one-up the next. Uncle Ilbert was the oldest, and thus, the most ambitious to try and make a name for himself. He wanted to leave a mark on the world. I would say he succeeded.

When he announced that he would set out to discover the largest library ever known, none of us were surprised. Hyperbole was practically a genetic trait in in the Notwithstanding family. Being somewhat short of stature even by most standards, exaggerated stories were what we used to draw attention away from our shortcomings–a pun that often resulted in some form of disciplinary action when used by the youngest of my brothers and sisters.

The library was a great distance away and not exactly a place we normally even think about going. No one in their right mind would have made even a claim to visit such a dungeon, much less risk being caught by the monsters who dwell there.

Perhaps the whisperings of Uncle Ilbert’s insanity were more than just hearsay. I would like to think that they were only rumors and nothing more. To think that he would have risked (and lost) his life over a mental illness is just too much for me to bear. I rather like to believe that it was pure chutzpah that made him do what he did.

He had convinced his youngest brother Jacob to go with him on the expedition, something that my father never lets me forget. I understand that he and Jacob were close. The library was only accessible through a small opening on the rear wall, a tight squeeze for most, but the Notwithstandings are a resourceful folk.

“There ain’t never been a space too tight fer me to fit in, lad,” he told me once, pulling off my hat and mussing my hair. “The world’s a big scary place. Ye gotta use ever’thing in yer arsenal.”

The story I always tell my children about their Great Uncle Ilbert is one of heroism. If it is ever brought into question, a quick trip to view his hunting trophies is usually enough to silence them.

Once inside the library, he was confronted by a dog so large it nearly towered over him. It was like staring at the middle head of Cerberus, all snarling teeth and slobbering drool. The beast’s breath was foul and in the middle of the night, its howl echoed through the vast halls.

Uncle Ilbert had come prepared of course. Something as mundane as a watchdog was not going to deter a man who kept the heads of far worse creatures mounted on the walls of his study. His harpoon gun was made from found objects and fired with enough power to punish the beast, blinding it in one eye and sending it screaming across the floor to lick its wounds.

“And ya better stay outta ma sight,” he yelled after the animal.

Only once the danger had passed, were they able to completely appreciate the immense hall laid out before them. The pale moon shed dim light on the spines of a million books, all looming over them like sea cliffs  etched with bright words.

“We’ve got ta bring one back,” Ilbert said, panting in his elation. “Jus’ one ta prove this place exists.”

“I don’t think its existence has ever been in question,” said Jacob. “The fact we’ve been here should be–”

“What in the world is that?” Ilbert was always more of a doer than a talker.

He stepped away from the conversation, drawn by something on a table. A book, the huge spine visible over the ledge. A YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO HORROR was written in gold.

The table itself was something used by giants. It towered above them, requiring Ilbert to outfit a rappelling line to his next harpoon. It speared the table with a heavy clunk. The climb took them longer than they had expected. It was the second to last mistake Uncle Ilbert would ever make.

The thing about gnomes, a little known fact to the Massives, is that we have a somewhat adverse reaction to sunlight. It paralyses us, causing our limbs to freeze and our lungs to halt. Direct sunlight is the worst, causing the joints to calcify and the heart to stop.

The giant clerk entered the library unexpectedly, alarmed by the shrieking terrier.

“Hide!” shouted Ilbert

“Where?” cried Jacob. Already the sky outside the window was beginning to lighten.

“Grab the book!”

“The book? There’s no time!”

“There’s always time!” he yelled, their voices nothing more than a mouse squeak to the owner, who swung a beam of light around the shop like a lighthouse.

So they each grabbed a book by its spine, two little men, clad in their finest expeditionary clothes. They gripped it as the owner looked for the intruders. They held on even as the sun rose, fixing their bones and melting their skin.

Today they are something of a legend in our family. Late at night–well before the sun rises, mind you–we will sometimes take the children out to the empty street and look in the giant window. We smile as they “Oooo!” and “Ahhh!” at the diminutive skeleton clinging to his treasure.

“There lies your Great Uncle Ilbert,” I say to them. “A man so much larger than life, he belongs with the giants.”

I’m sure he would have appreciated the sentiment.

(c) Marlan Smith 2011

The Last Honeymoon

 

Chuck Wendig threw us another short fiction challenge. This time the prompt was an image.

Now I have to start by saying that I don’t think I have ever written a story based on an image. I don’t like comics, and I don’t care for illustrations when I read. I like my imagination to do the looking for me.

The challenge in this case was: How do I make a story about the things you can’t see?

Here is my solution.

——-

Bobby lit another cigarette and lay in his bed, watching the smoke drift out the open window. The sheets were yellow, probably not originally. When they had checked into this room she had joked that they should have brought a black light. Bobby was glad now that they didn’t.

In fact, Bobby was pretty damn content to just sit there on the bed, smoking the last of his cancer sticks until the world ended. That seemed like a nice way to go.

He glanced toward the bathroom, the light flickering through the crack above the floor. A shadow moved along the crevice, blocking the light, then was gone.

How long was she going to be?

He looked back out the window. Storm clouds. Everyday, storm clouds.

It had sure seemed like a great idea when they checked in. You got a clear view of the city, a free drink from the tiny fridge and all the soft-core porn you could watch.

Bobby reached for the remote and turned on the TV. It sputtered static, bathed the room in blue light and then rolled the imaged over and over on the screen.

It was the same thing as before, the same monster movie scenario from 3am. Every few seconds the screen would roll, splitting the image in two, mashing it against the bottom then looping from the top.

“You about done in there?” he yelled.

“Hold your horses,” she said through the door.

“You hold your horses,” he said back lamely. He took another drag on the cigarette, staring at the luminous screen, matching the clouds outside.

Those clouds. No clouds should glow like that, unless it was mid-day. He looked at the clock, 10pm. Shit, had they spent the entire day in here, again?

Outside the clouds rolled over one another like juggernauts, but it wouldn’t rain. Oh, shit would fall from the sky, no doubt of that. He laughed to himself and smothered the spent cigarette on the tabletop.

“What’s so funny?” she asked from the bathroom.

“Nothing,” he said, reaching blindly for the pack. “Finish what you’re doing.”

“I just want… I just want to…” he heard a sob. “It’s supposed to be our honeymoon!”

He sighed and fumbled for the pack. Empty. Well fuck, he thought. He certainly wasn’t going to go out in this weather.

A laugh crawled up from his throat. Weather. How fucking rich is that? Two days in and it had gone from a global disaster to “weather.”

He crumpled the empty pack and threw it across the room. The TV image rolled again, voices trying to fight through the static. Amazing they even got reception at all, he thought.

“Just come out, Sweetie,” he said. “Nobody is going to judge.”

“I will!”

Well then you could stop obsessing at the mirror, he thought, but kept it to himself.

“Are the lights off?” she asked.

“The lights are off.”

“Are you lying?”

“Why would I lie?”

More silence and shuffling came from the bathroom.

“What about the TV?”

“Do you want it off?”

“Of course I want it off!”

Bobby reached for the remote again and killed the TV. It was the same shit anyway: a Lovecraftian nightmare of water and monsters. The meteorologists couldn’t explain it. The astronomers couldn’t explain it. Religions couldn’t explain it, but you bet your ass they tried.

It’s God’s punishment for our sins! It’s God’s punishment for socialism! It’s God’s punishment for the gays, for the war, for the taxing of the rich, for hurting the feelings of the Baby Jesus! It’s God’s punishment for neglecting the earth! Neglecting your spouse! Neglecting your church! It’s God’s punishment for Muslims! For Hindus! For Christianity! For Baptists! For Pagans!

Bobby was an atheist. Melinda was an atheist. It was actually the first thing they discovered they had in common. They had a whirlwind engagement and their parents had shit a brick when he delivered the news.

“And now, we’re going to Cuba for our honeymoon!” He said just to see the shock on his conservative parents’ faces.

So they flew to Havana, checked in, never turned on the TV set the entire first day (more carnal entertainment was in order.) When he realized that he was on his last cigarette, Melinda had hopped out of bed.

“You’ve worked hard enough, Tiger. I’ll get you a pack down the street.”

Neither of them had even noticed the clouds rolling in. Nobody had noticed. What’s to notice about some storm clouds in the middle of June? A fluke storm. And it wasn’t like they got a lot of American stations down here, and not like he understood the language of the stations they got.

Now Bobby stood in the silence of the room, staring out the window, wearing his boxers and scratching the uneven hair on his chest. The streets were invisible beneath the black water. Occasionally he could make out something massive beneath the surface. Nobody knew what it was, really. All they knew was that it was everywhere.

Bobby heard the bathroom door open and shut his eyes.

“Are they closed?” she said.

“They are,” he said, turning to face her.

He had promised after all. That was the vows, richer or poorer, sickness and health, human and– he cut the thought short as her footsteps drew closer. They squelched on the carpet like wet sneakers.

“I’m sorry,” she said nearby.

“It’s okay baby,” he said reaching out to the woman he had promised to love unconditionally. “You didn’t know.”

“We should have listened to the TV–”

“Shhhh,” he said as she melted into his arms.

Something wet, slithering and cold pressed against his back, hugging him closer. He felt her wet hair on his chest, that curious seaweed smell wafting up from her scalp. She had come back with the cigarettes. She had come back changed. He had changed with her.

In fact, Bobby expected he would change a whole lot more.