Stillborn, west of Innisfree, 28 December, evening
When the dead started attacking, my wife and I barricaded the house with all the furniture we could find. We put couches against doors, hammered shelves and floorboards across windows, put heavy things against all entrances. It looked like some explosion had blown all the furniture to the walls. The house was empty and turned inside out.
The only piece of furniture we didn't move was our bed, and we spent most of the first three days fucking because we were bored and scared and suddenly a whole lot in love. We would go downstairs and we would gorge ourselves on the last of our refrigerated goods and try and hold onto the taste of the oranges and celery and frozen pizza rolls, and we would look at our tornado-blown house and we would see what we'd created together, the mess and the safety, our cocoon, and it would make us so horny that we would drop our oranges or pizza rolls and go upstairs and fuck like we used to when we were 17, when we first met.
I was never more sure I'd made the right decision in choosing my wife, than those first three days, when we stood together on the edge of apocalypse and spat in its face and made each other come over and over and over again. She wanted to do it. I wanted to do it. We were terrified but we spat in its face anyway and we came.
At first we just did the old standbys: missionary, doggy-style, 69; but eventually we started trying all sorts of things that I guess we'd always wanted to do but had been afraid to mention. I came on her face; she put the last cucumber in my ass; she dressed up in one of my suits and ordered me to "fill out her report". And afterwards we would lay back and listen to the sounds of the roving bands of dead outside, fighting over stray dogs and squirrels, and I would feel her heartbeat through her skin, trace my fingers along the ghost-pink of the stretch marks on her belly, and I would promise to be hers forever, even if forever was only a few more days.
The food in the fridge went bad long before we had a chance to eat it all, and so we just stopped opening the fridge, trapping the smell of rotten fruit and yogurt inside. We were much more careful with our reserves of canned goods and bottled water, rationing ourselves to just a few cans and bottles a day. After a few days of this we started to get really thirsty and hungry and the fucking pretty much came to a halt.
Our house became tense and one day in order to break the tension I said the nicest thing I could think of: "Honey, I've never felt this close to you. This is the tightest our bond has ever been, I think."
But before the words even left my lips I knew that I'd said the wrong thing. What was true for me was not true for her. Her full lips thinned and she left the room.
That night we slept next to one another, making complicated Tetris shapes under the covers to keep from touching any part of our bodies together. Even toes. I could hear her breathing in the night and I knew by her breath's cadence that she wasn't sleeping. I begged for her to say something; the silence between us was worse than being trapped in this house.
Finally she did: "This isn't the closest I've felt to you."
I thought I knew exactly what she meant, and I rolled away from her and buried my head in the pillow so she couldn't hear the sounds I made. I'm sure she knew anyway, though; I'm sure she could feel my hitching breaths shaking the bed.
The next morning we ate our last can of food in silence, on the bare floor of our living room. It was asparagus in natural juices and it made the thin, pathetic streams of our piss smell bad for the rest of the day. We pissed into the upstairs bathtub because we assumed that the extra floor's worth of gravity would help keep it from backing up into the house. We didn't really know what to do with our shit, though; it was piling up in the toilet, and we kept tossing laundry detergent on it to try and make the smell go away. Eventually we just kept the upstairs bathroom door closed all the time, lopping off that room like a necrotic appendage, making the house even smaller.
After we finished the asparagus I said: "I'm sorry, honey, I didn't mean what I said yesterday. It was cruel..." and I trailed off, hoping that what I didn't say would be a good enough stand-in for what I couldn't say. The truth was that those days trapped in the house truly weren't the closest I ever felt to her, it was just that, well, for years closeness hadn't really been the issue. What I should have said was that this was the happiest I'd been in a long time.
For years I'd lived with a specter who haunted the edges of rooms and whispered thank you's and please pass the chicken breast's and who sat on the other end of the couch at night when we watched our TV shows, absently rubbing the scars outlining where her pregnant belly used to be. To speak of closeness during those years was to make a mockery of the word. We were not close; we were one thing, indecipherable from the other, a miserable snake devouring its tail.
Our only child was born when my wife was eight months pregnant. She woke up in the night and said that the baby was coming and that it was early, and her face was tight and frightened and glowing with the shine and pain of life begetting life. We went to the hospital and I stood by her side in the birthing room and I tried to hold her hand but she pushed it away and screamed and she screamed and neither of us noticed for awhile how strained the doctor's face looked or the slump of the nurse's shoulders when she placed the disc of the heart monitor to my wife's contracting stomach. Neither of us noticed, at first. And then we did.
Our only baby was born at 5:53 am on December 28. He was a boy. He never took a breath. The doctor said that the cord had wrapped around his neck and that the low birth weight suggested he had died several days, or maybe a week before. Our son had been lying dead inside my wife for almost a week, and she never noticed. She never forgave herself for that.
She cried everyday for eight months, one day for every day she'd been pregnant. She would lock herself in the upstairs bathroom and I would tell her it wasn't her fault and that I loved her and that I would always be there for her. Through the door I said these things, allowing the wood to separate us, to cover my face from hers so she wouldn't see that I was lying. I did blame her. It was her duty to carry the child, her body which was designed by God to nurture our baby boy and usher him into the world. I couldn't do it for her, and she'd failed. Her body had rebelled against its duty and strangled our son before he could glance outside the darkness of her womb, before he could even take one look at me. Her body had deprived me of even that, to look down in my son's eyes and know that he saw me and to know even for one moment what it was to be a father.
I never cried, except once when I watched a documentary on TV about penguins whose fathers carried the eggs on their feet and warmed them and kept them safe until the mothers showed up. In the movie the ground was so cold that if the eggs touched the ground, even for a moment, the baby inside would die. And there was this scene where one of the father penguins made one wrong move and stumbled and his egg hit the ice and cracked, and the father was trying to pull the egg back onto his feet as quickly as he could, but deep down you could see he knew it was over and that he'd fucked up. Then the father penguin lifted it's beak to the wind and the gray sky and let out the most terrible moan I've ever heard. It was then that I knew what my heart sounded like, like that bird, and the tears just started coming up out of me. I couldn't control them anymore than that bird could stop the ground from being so cold. I was helpless, and in that moment I let myself feel the terror of my helplessness.
Three years passed and I'd like to say that things got better, that my wife and I had some grand revelation and we were able to move beyond the heartache of losing our son, but that just wasn't the case. Every year brought 12 negative pregnancy tests, and by the third year we no longer bothered buying the brand name tests. Instead, we just went to the dollar store, and my wife became a ghost and she moaned in her sleep a name I didn't recognize.
Then we saw the first news reports of bodies rising up out of the grave. And then the TV went out, and the electricity, and the storm sirens cried in the air all the time, until suddenly they didn't. Everything was still and my wife and I decided we'd seen enough and that staying in the house was our only chance of survival, and that was when we barricaded the house. And for those first few days it was like everything was back the way it used to be. Without any jobs to go to and all our furniture against the walls, and us eating as much fresh fruit and yogurt and butter as we could, it seemed like maybe things had changed so drastically that what had happened to us in the past no longer bit with the same ferocity. Maybe this was the revelation, this was when we finally cut ties with the son that had haunted us for so long.
But my wife was right, this was only a dream. The past could never be undone. It was like a tree branch that grows year by year in the direction of the sun; you can never ignore the growth, no matter how twisted and diseased. You could only let the branch grow where it was going to grow, or you could cut it off.
The trouble really began when we ran out of water, and after two days without anything to drink our tongues felt like porcupines in our mouths and it hurt to swallow, and there was a burning in our fingers and toes that was like itching but way worse. We didn't talk to each other. We just lay in different rooms, panting, and glowering through the thin amber bands of sunlight that broke the gloom of our house into alternating stripes. We didn't even think. Our minds were just white hot neon signs flashing the repeated message: waterwaterwater.
The streets grew preternaturally quiet and at night the crickets barked their unrequited love songs and the trees whispered secrets to one another.
On the fourth night without water I wandered into the guest bedroom where my wife lay on a rug with her tongue out and her arms splayed under her head.
I said: "We need to find some water." She didn't respond for a very long time, and I became worried and I kneeled next to her and that close I could see her chest rising and falling so slow that she couldn't have been taking more than a few breaths each minute. I placed my hand on her hip. "Honey, we're going to die if we stay here."
She rolled onto her back and looked up at me and I could see she was crying, though her eyes could produce no tears. Her face was pale and the hollows under eyes made her once proud cheekbones into grotesques.
"We're going to die anyway," she said.
I touched her cheek and she leaned into my hand the way she used to before our son died, like a child.
"We have to try."
I helped her up and she grunted like an old woman, and we walked downstairs to the living room where we could see out onto the street. The neighborhood was empty in both directions as far as we could see. The house across the street was dark and quiet, but we could see into the front room, and see that the furniture was undisturbed. The house had belonged to an old woman named Ms. Dingley. She had cats. She also had lots of canned goods. Both would be helpful.
We decided the best thing to do would be to go to the back of the house and break a window and then immediately block the window. It was going to take a lot of energy, but now that we were on the edge of action I was filled with adrenaline and the lethargy that had been clinging to my limbs for the last few days had fallen away. My wife looked resolute and that made me resolute.
I'd grabbed a crowbar from the garage and I gripped it in both my hands like a sword. I wished now I owned a gun.
She nodded and we moved the couch away from the front door. We unlocked the door and then we slowly opened it. We looked out onto the darkened street which had been our street for nearly ten years, and in the starlight it was unrecognizable. Houses were black hulks in the gloaming, trees were twisted shapes that looked like men, then didn't. We both took a deep breath and started to run, not bothering to close the door behind us. We were leaving for good.
Nothing moved as we sprinted across the street, though I thought I heard shuffling footsteps everywhere. I ran ahead of my wife because I had the weapon and I was willing to die to protect her, but as I rounded the last corner I looked back and was horrified to see that she was alone, unprotected, hobbling still in the middle of the street. I ran back to her and put my arm around her and we hobbled together, her breathing sharply and me looking in every direction at once.
The back of the house was even blacker than the front, covered in trees as it was. The starlight did not penetrate the splayed leaves, leaving the ground dressed as if in coal dust. We found the first window that we could climb into and I broke the window, wincing at the loudness of the smashing glass. I dropped the crowbar and held my hands out for my wife to lift herself through the window and she pulled herself up and grunted and pulled and grunted. Behind me a branch snapped and I looked but I could see nothing. My heart turned over and there was a moment of pure silence like the whole world was holding its breath and then the dead man's hands were on me. He pulled me away from my wife and threw me into the yard and I splayed onto the grass. My wife's legs dangled from the open window and the dead man grabbed at them and yanked her violently from the window. She thudded to the ground and lay still as the man dove onto her. I scrambled to the crowbar and I raised it above my head and brought the crowbar down on the dead man's head and there was the sound of eggs being broken under towels. I brought the crowbar down again and again and again, and a small whining sound escaped from the back of my throat as I killed this body that looked like a man, but wasn't. I brought the crowbar down once more and it sank into the mess. My wife was screaming and she pushed the body off of her, and held her arms up in defense as I raised the crowbar again. I stopped, let the bar drop to my side, and I kneeled and pulled her to my chest. Blood and brains and bits of hair pressed between us. She cried and I made a sound like a dog with ear mites, and the blood from the dead man's bite on her shoulder spilled onto my chest and soaked my shirt. We remained this way for several minutes, and then I helped her through the window.
She laid in the living room while I barricaded the house with the remainder of the adrenaline oozing through my body, and Ms. Dingley's cats meowing and pressing their starving bodies against my legs. When I was done I brought my wife into the bathroom and laid her in the tub and I ran the last of the water stored in Ms. Dingley's pipes. I found a few candles and a box of matches in a kitchen drawer and I lit the candles and set them at intervals along the edge of the tub. I dripped water over my wife's naked body, washing away the dirt and blood and sweat from her skin and her hair. She closed her eyes and the yellow light from the candles erased the sharpness of her cheek bones and made her look younger and more peaceful than she had in years. I washed the bite marks, and her blood leaked into the water like streamers of food coloring. Already the bruise around the bite was growing and lines of veins were spreading out from the bruise, sending the poison first to her heart, and then to her brain.
I leaned over the edge of the tub and whispered, "It's going to be alright, honey," though we both knew I was lying. Hours were all she had. Hours.
When she was clean I helped her out of the tub and wrapped her in towels I found in a closet in the hallway. I brought her to the bedroom and we lay in the bed. I held onto her and listened as her breathing slowed and slowed and the shuddering started. In her half-sleep she mumbled the name I'd heard her whisper for years and which I didn't recognize. During the times she was lucid she cried and she swore angrily and she struggled against me, but I held her tight and told her I was there and that I'd always be there. When she slept, I swore and struggled and I blamed myself for not being more vigilant. I balled my fists into knots and shook.
It turned out my wife had almost seven hours, and as each one passed the fits began to take hold of her. Her mind slowly gave over the reigns to her body, the animal inside of her. I had to hold her down to keep her from scratching herself, or me. During the fits I would hiss to her that it would all be over soon and she would be with our son and everything would be over and she would be free. She would try to bite me and scratch me and she would grunt like an animal and try to send me flying off the bed. But I was strong and I was determined to see this through.
I became exhausted holding her down and when she slept I couldn't help but sleep too. In the twilight of my consciousness I thought about the happiness we'd enjoyed during the first few days stuck in our house together, how it had felt almost as though our half-dead marriage had been revived, that we'd found some way to reconcile the failure of our parenthood. I thought about closeness and happiness and how very much we'd had of both, and I thought about snakes devouring themselves. I thought about my wife, adamant, saying to me "This isn't the closest I've ever felt to you."
Eventually, she spoke. She said: "Honey. I'm dying."
I nodded—the time for lies had long since passed—and my lower lip trembled. Even in that moment I fought against the threatening tears. She reached her hand and touched my lip and she frowned at me.
"I'm so sorry I didn't save you," I said, but she shook her head and kissed me and then she closed her eyes and drifted to sleep.
She didn't wake up again. Eventually the fits came so often and so fierce, and I was too weak to hold her down, that I left her in the room by herself and drifted downstairs to collect as much food and water as I could. Upstairs I could hear her screaming and the clawing of the bedposts on the wood floors, like fingernails scratching.
I listened to the tortured screams from upstairs, and I thought about the writhing, struggling body of my wife as she had pushed out of her the already dead body of our only son. I thought about the way her face had been a mixture of anger and pain and ferocious beauty. It had been the face of a goddess, terrible and great, as she gave birth to the prison that would become our world, ours together, the shared cell of our son's death. And I thought about those days whispering to her everything would be alright through the mask of the bathroom door. Though I'd been lying then, I hadn't left. I'd stayed. Even now, I stayed, listening to her give birth to yet another dead thing.
The screams stopped and I set aside the things I was collecting and went back upstairs. I pushed open the door and saw my wife lying prostrate on the bed, her face beaded with sweat, the bite on her shoulder festering and frothing onto the bedspread. Her eyes were open and she looked at me.
"You're still here," she said, too tired to hide the relief in her voice.
I went to the bed and I climbed in with her and I put my arms around her and kissed the back of her head. Already the smell of death was on her, but deep down there was still something which remained, something I recognized. Fresh ground coffee and linen.
"I'm here," I said and I kissed her hair again. I closed my eyes, and listened to my wife's slow, steady breathing. I wondered which one would be the last and how long I'd have before she woke up for the second time.
I wasn't afraid. There were so many ways to be close to someone.