Melanie hitchhiked for the first time ever after she climbed out of her grave. A week later, and she wouldn’t have been able to flirt her way into the trunk of a late model sedan, much less shotgun with full access to the radio. But she had a stellar figure, a southern California tan, and bleach-blonde hair that could pass for natural. Maintaining a beautiful body had landed her a rich husband, and she’d kept the position of wife long past the time when a less successful trophy would have been replaced.
That nice face and body still served her, for the embalmers had done a great job preserving her not-inconsequential looks. The middle-aged chiropractor who drove her from the cemetery would happily have driven her all the way across town to the house she shared with Brandon, her husband, but she decided to go to Larry’s condo first.
More than anything else, she needed to find the man who had raised her from the dead.
A few people noticed as she walked from the parking lot to Larry’s door, and she got some second looks, but she paid them no mind. People often mistook her for an actress or a model here in Los Angeles, the land of the Barbie.
The steps up to Larry’s condo seemed endless when you were wearing four-inch heels. She smoothed her hair, cleared her throat before knocking on Larry’s door, and felt a thrill of anticipation. Wasn’t he going to be happy to see she was alive again!
Larry’s mouth gaped, closed partially, then opened again. His eyes bugged out, like a fish flopping on a shore gasping for air.
“What are you doing here?” Larry finally said. “I thought you were dead.”
“I am.” She pushed her way into the condo, irritated. For that, she didn’t slip her pumps off and line them up next to his five pairs of shoes on the tile, but tracked grave dirt across his white carpet. “And I don’t appreciate you raising me from the grave if this is the kind of welcome I’m going to get.”
Larry had slipped on his loafers to walk two feet from the carpet to the door, and now he took them off. His linen pants were cuffed, but not wrinkled, and he smoothed the fabric out as he settled at the far edge of the couch. “Why are you here?”
“Because you raised me.” Melanie looked at her fingers. The grave had not yet been filled in with dirt, a small blessing, but her manicure looked terrible. “Why are you being such a prick? Come on, it’s me, baby.”
“Did someone murder you?” Larry asked. He perched on the edge of the cushion, hands resting on knees, leaning away from her. “Is that why you’re haunting the living?”
“No one killed me, Larry, I just went in for a routine tummy tuck. Must have been some kind of complication.”
“So if no one murdered you, why are you haunting me?”
Melanie frowned. She’d been excited to see him, flattered that he loved her enough to raise her from the dead, but now it was apparent that he didn’t. All those times he swore he couldn’t get enough of her, and now he was tapping nicotine-stained fingers (and she had always hated how his condo stank like cigarettes) his gaze flicking towards the door. Why had she ever slept with this man?
Back when she was alive, a strong chest and blue eyes must have outweighed his other faults. “Aren’t you going to offer me a drink?”
“You want a drink?” he spluttered, as though pouring a glass of wine for the woman he’d been carrying on an affair with for four months was the last thing on his mind. “You want a drink?”
“I want something.”
“I, uh, I’ve got some orange juice.”
He got the drink from the fridge, still sidling around her as though she were a crazy bag lady instead of a rich, young (young-looking, anyway) and beautiful woman who, now that she was thinking about it, was probably too good for him. After he handed her the glass, he watched her drink it, not sitting, but standing expectantly, as though she were an auditor, or an in-law: someone distasteful he couldn’t wait to get rid of. After she drank the orange juice, she realized the discomfort was mutual.
Funny, when she’d first met him, she had thought he might be the kind of lover who’d keep her amused for years, a secret pleasure for when Brandon was working late again, a not-so-secret one for when Brandon went out of town. And yet by the time she finished the orange juice, she realized that what had started as a very promising affair was over.
As suddenly as, well, as death.
“Gotta go,” she said, setting the half-finished glass of orange juice on the coffee table, next to the coaster. “I’m late.”
Larry didn’t laugh or offer her a ride home, and she had already walked down all the stairs when she remembered she didn’t have her car.
It was easier to go without a soul than a car in this town. She felt her skirt for keys which weren’t there, since they don’t bury you with car keys, and muttered some unladylike words. They don’t bury you with a purse, either, no matter if it was Prada and went very well with the shoes. And they don’t bury you with money, or even a bus pass, that mythology about the river Styx notwithstanding.
Melanie had never walked so far in her life. No one had ever told her how awkward it would be to find her way home when she was used to having a car, and now she had to navigate around freeway overpasses and alley walls behind shopping complexes, which would have been no fun to traverse even if she were alive and wearing sensible footwear.
She thought about hitchhiking again, but decided she didn’t really want to talk. She’d just ended an affair, after all. She needed some alone time.
But it was warm for May, and the horizon held a brown layer of smog. No one left their cars, no one walked the streets if they could help it, and the air had a grimy feel to it that would have burned her lungs if she were still breathing. She walked for several hours. She wanted someone to give her a ride, her husband maybe, or a girlfriend. She wanted someone to talk to. And maybe a glass of merlot.
By the time she staggered up the pavement in front of their house, the lacquered layer of hairspray on her professionally-dyed hair was starting to flake off, she was getting a little squishy around the eyes, and the flies kept landing on her, especially her eyes and mouth. She tried to wave them off, but her coordination wasn’t what it should have been, so she kept accidentally smacking her boobs. Her boobs were still as plump as ever, which was only fitting seeing as how she had paid more for them than she had for her first car. Her sister Jessica had mocked her for the waste of money, but Jessica had the same flat chest Melanie had been cursed with and hadn’t even managed to get married.
She undid another button, displaying more of the cleavage she had bought. Men loved her breasts. Someone had raised her from the dead just so they could see them again.
Probably Brandon. Her husband was the kind of guy who could make anything happen with enough money. She’d have to thank him when she saw him again, but right now she was tired, she was irritable, and she needed a drink.
Melanie pounded at the door, even though Brandon wouldn’t be home. Maybe the housekeeper would let her in.
A woman screamed.
Melanie turned. The petite blonde wore a camel-colored suit that might have been Chanel until someone let out the seams beyond what its lines were ever meant to bear. She kept screaming, her hands in the air (holding a set of car keys that looked suspiciously familiar), and screaming, and screaming, until it became obvious to the both of them that no Dudley Do-Right was going to sweep out of the bushes and save her.
Brandon’s secretary, Cindy. She better be there just to drop something off, Melanie thought. Just because she was dead didn’t mean Brandon could cheat. Melanie waited until the buxom waif grew hoarse.
Cindy tapered off to fluttering hands near her throat, and finally, when nothing else seemed to work, the girl spoke.
“Is Brandon home?”
Cindy began to scream again, which was really irritating, because one, Melanie still wanted a decent drink, and two, she needed to see Brandon to figure out what to do about this whole ‘rising from the grave’ nuisance. Cindy kept screaming, so Melanie finally plucked the keychain directly from the her fingers. Sure enough, there was a house key. Melanie unwound it from the ring.
“You can’t do that!” Cindy had regained some spunk, even if it was just the pique of a woman whose sorority sister just puked on her new blouse. “Those are mine.”
She tried to take them back, and might have succeeded (death does terrible things to your muscle tone) except at that point the orange juice that Melanie had drunk poured down her leg, embarrassing them both. It wasn’t pee, she wanted to explain, it was just orange juice and maybe a little embalming fluid, but there was no way to gracefully recover from such an event, no matter what finishing school you had attended, so neither tried. They just stared at each other for a long uncomfortable moment. Melanie dropped the key ring.
With an exaggerated shudder, Cindy scooped up the keys and drove off. In Melanie’s Mercedes. In her Mercedes!
“You bitch!” Melanie screamed at the car as it squealed away. Only dead a few days and Brandon was letting his secretary drive her Mercedes? He’d better offer her several karats of apology for that.
Melanie let herself in the house and went straight to the bar. She poured herself a drink, and then another. She accidentally spilled some vermouth on her blouse, so she decided to change out of her grave outfit and have a shower. She had a really beautiful shower, she decided. The whole house was beautiful, really, and her clothing had been tastefully selected. She’d taken it for granted while she was alive, but now that she was dead, the luxury of organic cotton towels and travertine underfoot actually meant something to her. Maybe it wasn’t a living-dead thing, maybe it was just relief that she was finally home, where she was supposed to be.
She did her pilates video workout and her nightly skin care regimen, then went to bed, only to find that she couldn’t sleep.
She turned on the television.
The next day, she skipped the pilates workout. Melanie found the remote and sat on the leather couch, putting her feet on a stack of magazines that she’d finally have time to read. The Tivo had four solid days’ worth of programming on it, which for once sounded encouraging rather than daunting. She’d hardly had time for it before—she’d had too many hair and manicure and personal trainer appointments-but now that she was dead, there seemed little point.
After all she’d been through, she deserved a little “me” time.
The calendar on the fridge said her husband would be home in three days, but it was closer to five. By that time, she’d grown decidedly squishy, and not just around the eyes. Her fingers shrank at the tips, giving her a claw-like appearance that begged for an acrylic fill. The flesh on her thighs sagged, detaching from the bones. She thought about the liposuction she’d gotten, and tsked silently.
Melanie watched QVC, drank everything in the liquor cabinet, and felt her body decompose. Really, Brandon was being insensitive; he could have at least called. She emailed him, then emailed her mom and her sister, just to say hi, back from the dead, what’s up with you?
She was lonely. She wanted comfort and companionship so desperately that she’d already decided not to be bitchy, to let the appearance of the blonde bimbo (who looked like a younger version of herself, she decided) just pass over. She could always argue about it later, and anyway, she’d always suspected that Brandon led a double life. She had had her lovers; why should he be any different?
The key rattled, and Brandon opened the kitchen door.
“Dear God,” Brandon said, garment bag dangling off his shoulder and laptop case in his hand. “What’s that horrible smell?”
“That’s not very nice,” said Melanie, feeling hurt. She had endured a lot in the past few days, and while she considered herself thick skinned, Brandon’s complete lack of empathy pissed her off. “Here I am, risen from the grave, even if not exactly fresh any more, and all you can do is complain that I’m a corpse? What did you expect?”
“Melanie?” Brandon said, his voice half wonderment and half horror. The garment bag slipped from his hands. He turned and vomited in the sink.
If Melanie’s tear ducts had been still functional, she probably would have cried. Really, why did he have to be so dramatic?
She stood, leaving a puddle of formaldehyde-tainted liquor and various body fluids on the couch. (She didn’t feel guilty; it was only from Ikea.) She meant to seductively slink into the kitchen, one hand coquettishly outlining her cleavage, but she couldn’t manage more than a shuffle. It was a wonder her tongue still worked, when you came to think about it.
“What were you doing, planning a business trip right after you raised me from the dead? Didn’t you think you might need to be here for me?”
Brandon made strangled gurgling noises. He pressed himself against the granite-topped island, hands splayed out as though he were Vanna White and the under-counter wine case a lovely vowel.
It was an awkward pose, Melanie decided. Actually this whole situation was awkward. “Brandon…”
“God, no, please no…”
She gave him her best pout. That pout had gotten her emeralds before, but now it seemed broken. She sighed. “So, what now? Why did you raise me from the dead?”
“No, no, no…” he moaned.
She snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Hello!” She was the one who had died, what right did he have to act like his life was turned upside down?
Brandon had always been a firm, take-charge kind of guy. An alpha male, he called himself. He dominated in tennis, took no prisoners when he negotiated a deal, and drove like an asshole on the freeway. And yet here he was, bawling like a scared little boy.
“Brandon!” she tried again, and when that didn’t work, she slapped him.
It wasn’t much of a slap, but as soon as her flesh touched his face, Brandon’s eyes rolled up in his head and he passed out, smacking his head against the counter and then the floor, his hands squeaking uselessly down the front of the dishwasher.
She sighed, and put her hands on her hips. Useless. Completely useless. And he obviously wasn’t the person who had raised her. She nudged him with her foot, but he wasn’t faking.
Melanie found her purse and her cell phone. She took his keys out of his pocket. She was going to take the z4, but she felt a little bad about slapping him, so she took the Audi instead. And even though he’d never liked the upholstery color, she put a plastic bag over the driver’s seat, because the half case of Remy she’d drunk wasn’t preserving her as alcohol was supposed to. It seemed to be turning her insides into a slurry of decay.
At this rate, she’d be nothing but a skeleton before the month was out.
Melanie got behind the wheel of the Audi and took off, hoping that some innate psychic sense would take her to the person that brought her back from the grave.
It didn’t. She took out her cell phone and dialed 411.
“Hello, can you give me the name of a necromancer?” she asked the operator.
“I’m sorry, we don’t have that listing.”
“Try surrounding cities, anything in Los Angeles County,” Melanie said. She’d never heard of someone looking up necromancers in the yellow pages, but there were apparently a lot of things she’d never heard of which existed.
“Sorry, ma’am. Nothing.”
“How about ‘witch-doctor’?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, we don’t have that—” The phone flew out of her hand and her already damaged face smacked against the steering wheel.
Melanie touched her face, and her hand came away sticky. Steam rose from the front of her car, the hood crumpled into an M. Great, that was just what she needed, to rear-end someone. The little Geo Metro ahead of her had also been crumpled, its frame bent around the base of the tire.
Well, at least it wasn’t an expensive car.
And it was her fault. She used to make calls while driving all the time, but now that she was decomposing, her reflexes had slipped.
She pulled her car to a gas station on the other side of the intersection.
“My baby! You hurt my baby!” The other driver neglected her car in the intersection and walked towards Melanie, despite the fact that traffic whizzed by them.
Melanie didn’t see a car seat in the other vehicle, but a bat-eared Chihuahua’s head peered out of the woman’s arms, and she realized the woman was talking about her dog.
How ridiculous. The woman had been in a car accident, just survived it, and she was worried about her stupid pet?
“I’m going to sue! My baby has whiplash!” The woman shook the dog at Melanie’s side window to demonstrate. “Do you hear me? Whiplash!”
Melanie turned the engine off and fumbled on the floorboards for her cell phone. She’d hoped she’d be able to get out of this without calling the cops, but that didn’t look like it was going to happen. She put on her sunglasses, unbuckled her seat belt, and opened the door.
“Eww!” the woman said audibly, as if Melanie stunk like old garbage. She put her hands to her nose, except she was still holding the dog, so it went too.
Melanie decided she didn’t like the Chihuahua woman. True, she hadn’t had a shower in a few days, but the woman was rude. “Get your car out of the road, so you don’t block traffic.”
“Oh, my God,” the woman said, in a horrified gasp. “Your face!”
“What?” Melanie wrenched the rear view mirror to inspect herself. The steering wheel had torn flesh away from her forehead, exposing bone. She almost cried. Her beautiful face, gashed open. Make-up wouldn’t fix that.
Her lip started to quiver, and her throat closed up as if she were about to sob. She had known this would happen someday—she was finally losing her looks.
The Chihuahua wriggled out of its owner’s grasp and scampered forward, its bark like the bark of a real dog played at 78rpm. When it reached Melanie’s leg, it chomped into her lower calf, shaking its head back and forth until it tore off a chunk. The rat-dog sank its teeth in, gnawing as though it had found a delectable morsel.
“Bitsy! Bitsy, stop it!” The woman picked up her Chihuahua and pulled the piece of flesh out of its mouth. “That’s dirty, don’t eat that.”
“Dirty!” Melanie wailed. That was it. She wasn’t going to deal with this bitch’s problems. Rat-dog woman would have to deal with the mess herself. “Screw you!”
She stormed off, crossing the street without even bothering to look for traffic. Cars screeched and honked, one missing her by inches, but she didn’t care. Peace and quiet, though…
Oh, and to find whoever had raised her from the dead, but since there weren’t any warlocks in her social circle, there was the horrifying possibility that it was an old boyfriend from high school or someone she barely even knew, but whoever it was, he could find her on his own.
She was done with living people. The living were so rude, so judgmental, about the least bit of decay.
She looked around, getting her bearings. She’d started driving without any goal in mind, and realized she’d driven north of Van Nuys, not too far from where she’d lived as a child. Hills rose ahead of her. She and her sister used to climb to the top of those hills to see the sunset, when they were younger.
She took the crow’s path, cutting across lawns and parking lots and once over a chain-link fence despite a ‘No Trespassing’ sign. What was the point of following city ordinances when you weren’t even obeying the laws of nature?
Flesh was falling off faster now. She’d been buried more than a week earlier, after all, and the temperatures had to be in the nineties. Flies clustered around her wound, each carrying off a small mouthful. She thought of them as lightening her load.
The tendons in her legs weren’t working as well as they had, and her gait slowed to a weary shuffle, but since she didn’t have to sleep or rest or eat (though she wouldn’t have minded a glass of wine) she was able to travel all afternoon and through the night. She didn’t mind.
By dawn she’d reached far enough up the hill that she could see pinkish light creep over the town. She carefully sat down, her back against the concrete support of a power line, and watched the sun rise.
Time ceased to have meaning. The sun rose and set, animals carried on their daily business, and the trees got older. Her flesh rotted away, her skin and eyes dried and shrunk, and her lips pulled back. Her hair stayed blonde, her teeth were still white and straight, and her breasts still defied gravity (those silicone implants would last forever) but she didn’t care much about that any more.
She’d grown lazy and peaceful, now that she didn’t have anyone to impress. Whatever magic animated her left her able to think and see, even without eyes and a brain. On the day her sister hiked up the hill, she was still able to wave.
Jessica was boyishly thin and dirty, hair hanging around her face in walnut-colored dreadlocks. She had loose cargo pants, a tiny tank top, and a haversack made of Guatemalan fabric with Peace Corp written on it. Her neck was hung with bone and shell beads strung on thongs, and she had lines on her face even though she was only in her mid-thirties. She was more beautiful than anything.
Jessica sat down next to her gracefully, not winded from the climb up the hill.
“Oh, my God,” Jess whispered. “I am so, so sorry.”
“No, I mean it. When I came back for the funeral, I had no idea. I mean, it was such a shock for me that you died in the first place, what with you being so young, and I completely forgot about the shaman. I’m sorry.”
“Really, Jessica, it’s okay.”
“You can yell, it’s okay, I deserve it. You must be so mad at me.”
“No. I’m not mad. I’m happy.” Jess was the only one who had been nice to Melanie since she died. How could she yell at someone who apologized to a corpse? “What happened?”
“It was this shaman, see, at least, he said he was a shaman, and he asked me if I wanted to live forever.” Jess sat cross-legged with her elbows on her knees, as though she were used to sitting on the ground. “I said no, but my sister would, because you once said you were more afraid of getting old than anything else. It was kind of a joke.”
Melanie waited for the rest of the story, but Jess stopped and leaned back. Melanie belated realized she’d been too silent. “Go on.”
“I thought he was kidding. He was kind of drunk, you know? And then as soon as I got home from the funeral, I got an email from you, and then from Brandon, saying that you’d been wandering around scaring people, and I realized I’d really screwed things up. It took a month or so before I could get my visa sorted out and come back to the States again, or I would have been here earlier.” Jess sighed. “I’m so sorry. It must have been horrible for you.”
“No, not bad.” Melanie said. It was getting harder to talk now that she didn’t have lips. “Happens to everyone.”
Jess pulled one of the bead and bone necklaces off. She laid it on the ground beside Melanie’s bony hand. “I got him to give me this. This will let you die the second time, when you’re ready.” She kissed Melanie on the skull.
“Thanks,” Melanie said. She didn’t reach for the necklace yet, since she had all the time in the world. “But I’m going to enjoy the view for a while.”
Catherine is a graduate of 2007 Clarion. She has recently sold work to Cat Tales and Coyote Wild, and has been published in small literary publications. She has upcoming anthology contributions in The Living Dead, Leonardo Variations, and Last Drink Bird Head. She has also won several contests for her short fiction.
The idea for this story actually came from the theme of the World Fantasy Con for 2007 which was “ghosts and revenants.” I didn’t know what a revenant was, so I wikied it and found that it was a person who came back from the dead and caused great trouble for the living. It’s that last part that intrigued me. What kind of trouble could they cause?