“I used to have a beautiful lawn,” Stanton said. “Fucking immaculate.”

We sat on the sun-bleached porch, Stanton in his rocking chair, bathrobe flopping out around the legs like some sort of goddamn wizard robe. His stained undershirt peeked up over the top near his neck where coarse, white hairs grew. He scratched his beard once before continuing.

“See that path?” he pointed out across the trampled grass. “Used to have a flower bed along there. Wife planted it twenty years ago. Goddamn kids would run by, kick it all to shit. I’d try to replant it but what’s the use? After another day or so, another herd of ‘em comes by and WHAM! knocks the whole fucking thing around. Might as well be running a goddamn daycare.

“That’s all the world is now,” he added. “One big fucking daycare center for those goddamn young’uns.”

“You mean actual children?” I asked. “Or do you mean the–”

“You know goddamn well what I mean,” he said, glaring at me from under bushy brows. “That’s the problem with this country, with the whole world. A bunch of children, all of you.”

“Literally,” I said and coughed. “Although, some of us didn’t choose this.”

I had lived next to Stanton for ten years or so. He was always a cranky bastard, yelling at people from his porch, scowling at us when we waved at him. He managed to warm up to us after a while, especially once Janet got sick. After Janet was gone, Stanton just got grouchier to everyone except me and my wife. Then Susie got sick as well.

Now it’s just us, the two bachelors, kicking it on the porch, watching the herds roll by.

“Bunch of petri dishes with feet,” he said. “I’ve said it from day one. Those fucking kids are nothing but little disease factories. Once one of them gets sick, they all do, then they pass that on to us. Then we get sick, only we’re fucking old, you know? Our bodies don’t cope with disease like they do.”

“Well, now it’s nothing but children,” I added with a chuckle.

We could hear the herd approaching from a distance, that aimless shuffling, the coughing and crying, like a parade of nightmares just wandering around the city, covered in snot and shit and dirt. They’d be here soon enough. Stanton was right about one thing, the young’uns were little disease factories all right. No doubt about it.

“Problem you see,” he said, pausing to spit over the arm of his chair, “is that back in the day, even before my time, people used to have some fucking respect for their elders. You showed some fucking respect when grampa walked into the room, or when gramma came to visit.”

At this point I just nodded. There was really no point in arguing with Stanton once he got on a roll.

“Then someone got it in their head that what people really wanted was to be young. They made those goddamn creams and those goddamn pants, even that fucking music is all about worshiping youth. ‘Baby’ this and ‘Baby’ that. And that’s how we got where we are now.”

“You think so?” I said, watching the sun slowly sink into the horizon.

“I fucking know so,” he said. “Why else do you think anyone would even consider making the De Leon virus? What’s the benefit? Just look at them!”

The parade had arrived.

We paused our conversation a moment to watch them crawl by, children, hundreds of them. At least they looked like children. They were certainly short, like an adult had somehow been compressed unevenly in some machine, arms and legs bunched up like soft dough. But those faces…

“And there they go,” said Stanton. “All over my fucking lawn. Look at that shit. They don’t give a goddamn rat’s ass about how much care Janet put into that yard. They just roll on through, tearing it up.”

A toddler with the face of a fifty-year-old man wobbled away from the crowd, his eyes old, and sad. You could see that they all knew they used to be something more, but just couldn’t remember what. They all looked confused, like Charlie from that book about the mouse, or maybe Lenny from that other book about the mouse.

“What was that one book?” I said as the toddler ambled onto the lawn, grabbing handfuls of grass and stuffing it into his mouth. “The one where the janitor gets all smart and then forgets everything?”

“Flowers for Algernon,” said Stanton, ignoring me to stand. “Hey! You little fucker!”

He shuffled over to the wall beside the chair, all the time yelling, “You get the fuck off my lawn, you hear! Just get! Get the fuck off! Shoo!”

But the middle-age toddler didn’t even listen.. None of them did, really. The De Leon virus pretty much makes you a functional infant. You could talk to them and they’d act like they used to be able to understand you, but then they’d just cry and cry, screwing up their little faces in the most grotesque way.

I sometimes wonder what it’s like, that eternal innocence. As I watched them roll and stumble by, their grimy naked bodies compressed like clay dolls, I thought that maybe I was the lucky one. Me and Stanton, two lucky guys.

“I fucking warned you!” yelled Stanton, turning the nozzle.

Sprinklers sprayed the toddler. He floundered, then ran squealing back to the herd.

And then there was Susie again, just like every night, waddling naked and dirty, a woman’s head on a toddler’s body. Her hair still had the barrette from that night.

When we hit forty, Susie asked me if I thought she was getting old. One of those De Leon treatment commercials was blaring on the TV. “Live forever or die trying!”

“We’re all getting old,” I had  said and laughed.

I really wish now, that I’d kept my damn mouth shut.

(c) Martin Kee 2011

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