Authors: Daryl Banner
“Are … Are you ready, sweetheart?”
“Yes.” Her eyes have turned to glass and she can’t feel her toes. Well, of course she can’t feel her toes; since the fall, she couldn’t even feel a knife in her thigh if it were buried there. She’s wheelchair-bound, now. After the fall, her legs were rendered useless. “I’m ready.” Everything’s tingly and far away and she suddenly can’t remember whether she’d turned the stove off after breakfast.
“What are you holding, sweetheart?”
She holds a headless doll named Princess. It belonged to …
. “Nothing,” she whispers, setting it down.
The car ride is quiet. As the road hums by, Julianne studies the light through the trees, shadows dancing over her face like tiny friends, and it reminds her of last winter, of the winters before that, of winters when she used to walk, of winters in the condo on the beach and how sand felt between her toes, of winters that used to be warm. Her long head of hair used to be darker too, but she’s stopped coloring it or caring ever since … ever since …
When the car door opens at the church, she refuses to get out. “No,” she keeps repeating, her eyes held hostage by some vision she’s having, by some memory of
, by something awful she said once and can never take back. She cries, her voice quavering: “I can’t take it back now, I can’t unsay it, not any of it. Now she knows everything! She knows it all!” Soon, the fears that have arrested her let go, and she allows Samuel to help her out of the car and into her chair. He wheels her into the church, and Julianne ignores the quiet murmurs and greetings from their relatives and friends who’ve come. “I have no relatives,” she quietly tells herself. “I have no friends.”
Parked by the front pew, Samuel holds her hand through the first two prayers, then doubles over in a fit of coughing during the third. It is the only thing that seems to sober Julianne. She places a hand on his back and rubs. He still hasn’t recovered fully from the metal poisoning that stole three and a half months of his life. It was during those three and a half months when he was bedridden in the hospital that
disappeared. “I had to do it all on my own,” Julianne whispers to Samuel’s backside, her mind drifting off again while he hacks and coughs horribly. “I had to do it alone.” He hacks and coughs and coughs some more. She pats his back distractedly.
One relative, a twice-removed cousin or something, takes the podium and speaks. “What?” Julianne mumbles tiredly, too quiet for anyone to hear, but maybe she’s not paying attention to the speakers anyway. Another relative takes the podium and can’t manage more than four words before the tears steal away all her rehearsed sentences.
“Are you ready?” Samuel whispers in her ear.
Julianne turns to her husband, confused. “Who?”
“It’s your time.” He nods his head at the podium. “I can speak for the both of us … if you’d prefer.”
“No.” She clutches the wheels of her chair and thrusts. It is a slow effort, much like some dramatic march of death. The entire church waits for her as the wheels of the chair creak and groan, rattling obnoxiously as she ascends the ramp on the far left end of the stage. She struggles a bit, so a man, unasked, pushes her up the ramp. Once on the stage, she hisses at him, assumes control once again, and rolls to a stop in front of the podium. The pastor hands her a microphone and says, “A word from Julianne Westbrook, the mother.” She holds it awkwardly, taken aback by its heaviness. Her tired eyes survey all the red-faced, sniveling nobodies in the room. She wonders who they all are; she can’t name more than three of them.
“Hello,” she grunts into the microphone, unsure to whom she ought to direct her words. “How are you?”
The cold silence of the room is an answer.
She turns her head to acknowledge the coffin. “It’s empty,” she declares flippantly. “We all know it’s empty. But it’s there. And someone really wise told us this funeral would be a great idea. To put it all behind us. To grant us closure.” Julianne chuckles dryly. “I guess that ought to tell you how much wisdom’s worth.”
She looks up at the hazy ceiling. She thinks about the last time she saw her precious daughter … the hurt look on her face, the gushing tears when Julianne told her she couldn’t go to prom. “I didn’t
her to go to prom, not officially,” Julianne says to no one in particular. “So why did I mend my daughter’s pretty red dress? Why did I sew it back up? Did I … Did I provide her the means to go out that night? Did I let my own daughter die?”
“No, honey,” says Samuel from the pew in a weak and quivery voice. His words echo like little wailing ghosts, sad and alone. “No, no, honey. No, you aren’t to blame, sweetheart.” He puts a hand to his own mouth, overcome with a new, annoying wave of tears.
Julianne regards his protest with a sigh. “The only one left to blame is me,” she says. “Didn’t I do this to myself?” Her eyes have lost all their tears, so there’s no fear of crying in front of this room full of strangers. “Claire. My sweet, dear Claire is out there somewhere. We can’t even say for sure that she’s … dead. We’ve only given up trying to find her. Don’t you understand the difference? Claire is gone. She is not dead.” Because we never die … not truly.
Then she sees it. At the top of an opened window. Bright and beautiful sunlight pours into the room like liquid gold, and perched atop the window is the dark and horrible blackbird pressed into all that beauty like some ugly stain. The creature is so still, one could mistake it for a tiny statue … or a shadow … or a fly.
But Julianne Westbrook knows exactly what it is.
“It’s no matter,” she murmurs into the microphone, her lips pressed to it like a kiss. “It’s no matter at all. None of this matters. What’s in the end for any of us but death? That’s not what the blackbird’s here for.”
It doesn’t even flinch. It doesn’t ruffle its feathers. It doesn’t stretch its wings, nor turn its head. It only stares, stares, stares, stares at Julianne Westbrook, waiting.
“The dead are not dead,” she whispers to it, but her voice is carried perfectly by the microphone, echoing down the throat of the church like the shuffling of mighty ghost feet. “The dead will rise. The dead will inherit the earth, and all our stupid efforts at trying to stay alive will be for nothing. FOR NOTHING!” Something fierce takes Julianne over, her eyes wide, crazed. “My daughter is not dead,” she breathes jaggedly, like a realization, like a discovery. “M-My daughter is not …”
Her husband cries out her name, having risen to his feet, but Julianne is carried by some strange psychotic conviction that has taken her by the throat and refuses to relent. Gill is still out there. He was the last one to see her alive, Claire’s prom date Gill. He took her to his big lake house and she went out for some air, alone, and was never heard from again. That’s the way of it, that’s what
claimed to the police even after being arrested and incarcerated and interrogated, so
why can’t she believe him?
The world is a foul, foul,
place for the Living.
“There are foul, foul,
people in this world,
people,” she cries, ignoring the drool that’s hanging from her mouth. Her vision is blurring, a mess of tears she thought she’d run out of and other fluids painting her face blind. “There is no eternity long enough to punish them, I swear to you this, and no death permanent enough to keep them.”
Many people in the room have risen. There is a chorus of gasps, men and women crying out, rasps and murmurs of dissent, of scandal, of fright.
“Yes, yes!” she agrees, shouting. “YOU SHOULD ALL BE AFRAID!
ALL OF YOU!
” she screams, riled by their reaction. She takes a step forward, another step, stamps her left foot angrily and hurls the microphone into the crowd, shaking, furious as a fire. “THEY WILL COME FOR US! EVERY LAST DEAD!”
That’s when she finally hears her husband’s voice, cutting through the chaos and the crying: “Your legs!”
It is only now that she takes a breath, a moment of clarity finding her,
her. She peers down and she is standing. She’s risen from the wheelchair somehow and stands now at the foot of the stage on two quivery legs.
Julianne Westbrook is standing.
She peers up at the window, mystified and scared. The blackbird is no longer there. Fluttered off, perhaps. Never there in the first place. A total figment of her imagination, who knows?
“Claire would know,” she decides quietly, and no one hears her. “Somewhere out there in the winter, lost and all alone, only she knows.”
When Julianne’s legs give out and she tumbles off the stage, she’ll never learn if someone was there to catch her. Some stranger in the front row. Samuel. A ghost. Her legs vanish and she drops and she never feels the ground meet her face. Like the empty embrace of a cliff’s edge, Julianne only falls and falls and falls … forever falling.
C H A P T E R – O N E
J O H N
And his hand bursts forth from the earth.
It is so unexpected, I let out a shriek of surprise. I’ve forgotten why I’m here, who I am, who this hand belongs to, what I’ve waited all this time for …
Time. How long has it been since …?
“John,” I hear myself say.
After a moment of bewilderment, I come to my stupid senses and grip the desperate hand.
“I got you,” I tell him. The earth is greedy and won’t return the gift I’d given it too long ago, so I relinquish his hand and begin to claw frantically into the now-petrified earth. How long has it been since I buried him? This is like digging into cement. “I got you!” How long …?
He’s here. He’s right here. He never left me and I never left him. Am I imagining this, or is John truly Risen?
Not just yet. “Pull!” I urge him, gripping his hand once more. The broken land crumbles and shudders and opens like grey, toothy mouths, fracturing, coming apart to spill forth his arm, his shoulder … and I still can’t see his face.
John is so, so close.
He didn’t die alone, and he won’t un-die alone either. We will do this the right way. To be fair, I’ve only performed one other Raise and … that didn’t go so well.
And then his thick, muscular body breaks free from the stony clutch of the ground, the earth shrugging off my lover’s back like a threadbare cloak of a decade’s worth of secrets. The dust doesn’t quite settle, like a late night winter’s fog, but through it I see his chiseled face, his strong jaw, the plush of his tender lips, the gentle curve of his ears, his blunt brown dabs for eyebrows …
He faces me at once, his eyes alarmed.
In this moment, a cruel flash of hope grips my throat. Does he remember his First Life? Beyond those desperate eyes of his, does he remember the hours we spent on Garden’s ridge? The kisses? Does he remember Trenton and the brave little girl Megan and the teenage twins? Does he remember Laura’s baby? Does he remember …
Does he remember me?
His mouth trembles. His eyes search mine, panicked. He quivers with a fear I’ve never seen in him before. It’s a boy’s fear of the dark. It’s a childlike terror, a grasping for something to comfort him.
It’s that look on his face that tells me everything: his First Life is gone and he doesn’t know who I am at all.
“Hello,” I try to say. I’m not sure anything comes out. I’d rehearsed this moment a thousand times. Over and over, I’d rehearsed what I should say to him the moment he Rises from the earth. “You’re okay,” I assure him, keeping my voice even, keeping his focus on my face.
Don’t let him look away.
“Y-You’re dead. Or, rather, Undead,” I amend myself. “Just like me. And you’re not alone. I’m Undead too.”
He parts his lips as if to speak, but nothing comes out. His eyes never leave mine, those doughy eyes of his which I know so intimately … except one of them has turned grey-white, I just noticed—the left one.
Keep talking. “I’m …” He’s remarkably preserved. His face is completely intact. His thick arms. His muscled legs. Everything. Except for that eye and all the dirt clinging to his body, he’s the same. “Do you … remember anything?”