Memento Mori: Four – One Armed Scissor
Alone With the Dead:
by Andrea Speed
Four – One Armed Scissor
They were right behind him, and he couldn’t get away.A house materialized in front of him, and Gryphon hastily scrambled up the front porch, yanking open the old door so hard he almost tore it off its hinges. Once inside he slammed it hard, throwing all the bolts and locks, leaning against it in hopes of holding them back. Their steps thudded on the hollow porch, sounding like a rain of boulders, and it seemed like there were hundreds of them after him, thousands.
He heard scrabbling beneath the floorboards, skeletal fingers clawing the wood, and he backed up across the empty front room, looking down warily. Sharp, loud booms made him jump, heart leaping up his throat in return, while the door bowed under sudden pressure, as if made from balsa wood. There was another noise in the background, and he told himself it was the wind, but if it was, it was the sound of the wind howling through an empty skull, making syllables that could have been his name. (Gryph – on …)
“I can’t help you!” He shouted, as they pounded against the door once more, making it bend like rubber. The scratching beneath the floor continued, the wood splintering and cracking as they tore frantically at it, digging themselves out of their own graves.
Arms burst through the floor, decayed flesh like rotting leather hanging in flayed strips off greyed bones, cadaverous fingers skittering across the floor like spiders as the restless dead pulled themselves up, dirt and chunks of littering the floor as the rotting corpses continued their pursuit. The door finally broke, a sea of dead washing in, falling over one another in their haste to reach him first. The room filled with the scent of blood and something sweet, decaying meat.
“I can’t help you!” He screamed, desperately looking for somewhere else to hide. Everything behind him was solid black, like shadows had solidified, but feeling his way along the darkness he found something that could have been a door, and shoved inside.
It was an utterly black room, a pocket of darkness that seemed to seal up after him, and he hit the wall, trying to catch his breath as he listened for more of them. It was oddly quiet in here, and he didn’t trust it. All he could hear was his heartbeat, his breathing, and he knew lurking somewhere behind it was the dead, the hungry dead with their desperate and terrible need to reach him, possess him, take him over for one final time. He wanted to melt into the wall, merge with it, so they couldn’t see him, or find him, or do anything to him. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?
It was then a seam of sickly yellow light appeared in the wall, yawning wider and wider, the jaundiced illumination making him squint. In it was a single black shadow of a seemingly whole, intact man, which was a relief. Or was it? Because suddenly he got a bad feeling about this, his skin prickling like it was trying to crawl off his body, and a taste like copper filled his mouth and made him want to gag.
The man just stood there, in a narrow rectangle of piss colored light, and said, “You’re the one?” It was a man’s voice, deep and resonant with ill humor. “You’re just a boy. For all the trouble you’re causing, I expected more.”
He just stared at him, wishing he could see his face, and wanting to ask him what the hell he was talking about, but he was far too scared to utter a single syllable. This man … there was something not right about him. Oh, he wasn’t dead, but he wasn’t sure he was alive either. But he must have been, right? There was no third choice. (Was there?) He was radiating cold like an open freezer, an air conditioner on full, frost condensing in the air, drifting to the floor between them like dust. “You won’t be any challenge at all.”
It was then the scene stopped, shifted, with the violent randomness of a dream. He was now standing on a small porch overlooking a flat roof, upon which someone had built a meager but endearing rooftop garden. There was a small, burbling fountain and plants in decorative urns and narrow, window style boxes near the edges of the roof, making a type of rectangular formation, and there was a covered aluminum grill, a Styrofoam cooler, and two plastic lawn chairs, currently empty. Although from here – and the roof below – he could see down the street, where cookie cutter suburban housing stretched on towards the horizon, and on the right, across the grey ribbon of street, a chain link fence contained the charred remains and garbage of a burned down house. While the scenery was drab and boring, the roof garden was at least strangely peaceful, and unusual enough to seem almost beautiful in this sterile urban setting. He was standing beside a wooden trellis smothered by pea vines and the occasional bright fuchsia flower of a petunia, growing intertwined with the snap peas.
It was vaguely sunny, a layer of thin clouds keeping the light to tolerable levels, and it was so much warmer here than it had been with that man it almost felt like being tossed in a sauna. “Sorry to interrupt your nightmare, but I figured you wouldn’t care,” another male voice said, so suddenly it made him jump. But at least this one was familiar and friendly. “Wanna beer?” Hugh asked, going down the stairs, headed for the rooftop and the cooler. “It’s not that piss in a can stuff you usually drink either.”
“Uh, umm, why am I here?” he asked, wondering what the hell was going on. “What’s wrong?”
Hugh paused at the bottom stair and looked back up at him, as if trying to discern from his expression how much he already knew.
This was Hugh’s rooftop garden, or at least one he put together with some neighbors in his small apartment building, a place where they could – in Hugh’s words – ‘get drunk and grill up some ribs’. It was another odd piece in the puzzle that was Hugh – he never would have thought of him as a gardener in any definition of the word. Seeing him again only made it more strange, as he had only seen him just the once, when they first “met”.
Hugh was one of those firefighters who was always picked to be the shirtless cover boy for their charity beefcake calendar. (And he was, three times.) He was tall, six four, and had the broad shoulders and chest of a man who did a lot of heavy lifting in his daily life, which was only partially true, as he wasn’t hefting the fire hose every single day of his existence; but he did hit the gym for a bit in his spare time, which showed. He also liked to show off the physique he worked so hard for, by wearing tight t-shirts such as the one he was wearing here, navy blue with some kind of Denver area firefighter’s insignia on his left breast. It was tight enough that it seemed like the shirt might tear every time he moved.
He also had an absurdly handsome face, with a strong jaw, raven hair, and clear blue eyes, a visage attractive to men and women in equal measure. He liked to point out, if given the opportunity, that he was once a Cosmopolitan magazine “bachelor of the month”, which led to an agent contacting him and telling him he could have a real future as a male model. Since Hugh had always suspected this anyways, he felt unduly proud.
But as inadequate, ugly, and small as being around Hugh made him feel, Gryphon knew things about him that no one else knew, mainly because he was a part of Hugh now, and vice versa. He knew that Hugh always suspected there was something deeply wrong with him, because he found it nearly impossible to connect with people in any meaningful way; the few relationships he had had, with men and women alike, had ended very badly. His last girlfriend, Carmen, who’d broken up with him about three weeks before he died, told him he was a “pretty robot”, all surface and no depth, and no real feelings. He suspected she was on to something there, but would never admit it. The only time he ever felt alive was in the middle of a raging inferno, tackling a problem that could, in all likelihood, kill him. He had been considering seeing a therapist, but didn’t know what he’d say, so he never bothered. Once, when Gryphon was feeling really depressed about his lot in life, Hugh had said Cheer up kid. At least you’re not like me. I think I was dead before I was dead, you know? At first, he didn’t know what he meant, but now he thought he did.
Hugh could help people, he could calm them, he could save them, he could fuck them, he could leave them, he could pretend to be the amiable party guy, but he could never understand them. He felt like a sleepwalker in a waking world, only awake when he was staring death in the face.
“Well,” Hugh began, unusually tentative for him. That alone was a warning flag. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
He wanted to say ‘being attacked by zombies’, but he refrained. Gryphon thought about a minute, and remembered the café. “Oh shit, I hit the floor, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you did.” Hugh started climbing back up the stairs, and Gryphon felt his stomach in the real world just clench like a fist. “I want you to know we tried to take you over, but your body wasn’t working quite right. It was … you were really sick, okay? We did what we thought was best.”
Gryphon gripped the porch railing hard, sure he could snap it with the power of his own dread. “What the hell do you mean? What did you do?”
Hugh glanced off towards the side, as if afraid to look him in the eyes. “It isn’t so much what we did do more than what we didn’t do.”
He stared at him, at his handsome mask of a face, and didn’t want to understand him. He didn’t want to know what he was trying to brace him for, but he feared that he did. If he had a real body here, Gryphon was sure he would be swallowing back bile again. “No.” It was all he could make himself say.
Hugh held up his hands, a warding off gesture that was especially funny due to the fact that his hands alone were twice as big as Gryphon’s – he felt like a child beside an adult. “Don’t panic. We have everything under control -”
“Did you people walk me to a hospital?”
“No.” His pause was dramatic. “We let the EMTs take you.”
Gryphon felt all the strength bleed out of his legs, and he sat heavily on the porch, wondering if he could faint wherever the hell he was. “Oh god. You let me go to a hospital?”
“Look, we’re watching out for you as best we can, okay? And when all their equipment malfunctioned, they figured it was due to the fact that the power went out earlier, and it took a moment for the back up generator to kick in. A glitch. Of course, when they try and give you an x-ray, they’ll know it ain’t the equipment but you that’s causing all the interference, but -”
“How in the hell could you let them take me to a hospital? Do you want to kill me, is that it?”
Hugh crouched down so he was closer to his eye level, assuming a sympathetic expression. “Do you know how sick you are? The EMTs put your temperature around one hundred and six; that’s brain cooking level in kids. We think the reason we couldn’t take over your body is you were having some kind of seizure. They think you have fluid in your lungs, and the working theory is you have meningitis. That can be fatal, you know.”
“Hugh, it’s a hospital. It’s full of dead people.”
He seemed to be studiously ignoring that. “You’re also dehydrated and slightly malnourished. They’ve got you on i.v.’s, and they’ve already done the spinal tap, so -”
“Spinal tap? I’m assuming you don’t mean the band.”
“No. They needed to get a sample of your spinal fluid for meningitis testing. It hurts like holy fuck, but lucky you, you were out for it.”
That made him break out of his shock for a second. “Did you guys feel it?”
“Kind of. Not really. But we figured if anyone was idiotic enough to try and take you over, they would have felt every centimeter of that needle. None of us was that masochistic.”
Gryph rubbed his eyes, and demanded weakly, “Take me over and get me the fuck out, now.”
He grimaced and shook his head. “No can do. If it’s bacterial, you need immediate intravenous antibiotics, otherwise you’ll be dead within seventy two hours.”
“Since when are you a doctor?”
“I used to date one. Of course, date is a rather generous use of the term, as his damn beeper seemed to go off every time we actually bothered to go somewhere …”
“Why can’t I take my chances? Are any of us sure I can actually die?”
Hugh stared at him like he’d just said the most idiotic thing in the world. “Of course you can. Just because you’re stuck with us doesn’t mean you’re immune.”
“Let’s find out.”
He shook his head, trying on his best sympathetic face. “Maybe you want to play games with your life, but we don’t.”
His fear transmuted into anger, which was good, because it made him feel powerful. “Don’t you pretend that you’re all concerned about me, because I know that’s bullshit. The only reason you’re so worried about me is because I’m you’re ride, and without me you’re screwed. So don’t try this concerned shit on me, ’cause it won’t work.”
Hugh’s eyes narrowed, hardening somewhat. “We do care about you, even though you’re a whiny, annoying brat at times. Doesn’t that get us extra credit?”
“I want up. Stop holding me down, stop keeping me here, and let me wake up so I can get the fuck out of here.”
He rolled his eyes and sighed, a martyr ghost. “If you have a death wish, do us all a favor and wear a big Star of David and Pansy Division tour t-shirt into a redneck bar, okay? Just stop doing it in increments and half measures.”
“Ya vole, commandant. Now let me go.”
He must have, because suddenly Denver and Hugh were gone, an already fading dream, and he opened his eyes to find himself in a black room, not dissimilar from the “safe room” in his nightmare. He could see tubes snaking into his arms, and he felt weird, his head half hollow and radiating heat like an ember, his eyes dry as dust. There was ambient light bleeding under the curtain surrounding three fourths of his bed, oozing beneath the door, and he was baffled by the lack of monitors near him – he could hear them beeping away for someone else in this very room – until he remembered what Hugh said about the equipment malfunctioning when they tried to use it on him. His death psychokinesis or whatever screwing things up again. God, it was so hard to think, and he could feel a dull pain just behind his forehead, a throbbing that was just painful enough to be overwhelmingly annoying. He needed to get out of here, but he wasn’t sure how to go about it.
The door opened, letting in a shock of light, and as he squinted against it he could see the silhouette of two people … and something else. Something like movement in peripheral vision, half-shadows, smoke that drifted into near shapes and dissolved into fragments once more.
It was the dead. He could feel them as they must have felt him, and they were waiting impatiently, eager and hungry.
Gryphon realized that the earlier dream wasn’t a nightmare – it was a premonition.
And here they came.