The moon fought to shine through the clouds, casting the dilapidated trailer in a patchwork of light and shadow. In the darkness, a tall, crooked man shambled toward it. He navigated the trip-traps of rusting car parts and garden gnomes, avoided the pitfalls dug by dogs with the ease of familiarity until his foot caught on a newly dug hole. He staggered into a plaster deer, spotted from birdshot. With an unintelligible roar, he smashed the fawn with both fists before continuing on. He paused at the steps, actually walking into them a few times, before the right foot lifted, then the left, and he ascended the rotting wood. He hardly noticed as he crashed through the screen door, leaving it hanging off one hinge.
Inside, the television blared reruns of South Park to no one. He sat down on the Lay-Z-Boy to watch.
Josie woke up from yet another nightmare of Jebediah having one of his "fits." She always felt so guilty after a dream like that. Poor man, two days buried, and she had to think about him this way?
Not that the past few years had been kind, she reminded herself as she schlepped into the bathroom, one arm in her robe, only habit making her wash up and get ready to face another day as Widow Gump. She sighed. No, not easy years at all. After that Conroy had shot him in the calf trying to kill that badger, Jeb hadn’t been able to work much. He’d go out for the day, come home without a job, but always with something he’d killed for dinner. She didn’t believe those people who said he was drinking in front of the Gaslight Inn. Then she took that job–
We were going to lose the house, part of her said, and she knew it was true, but she knew that was the last straw for him.
"No woman of mine is going to work! Your job is to stay home, cook my dinner and have my babies!" he’d declare. It was so cute when they were dating, how manly he’d act. ‘Course, she’d failed him there, too.
She looked into the mirror at a face dripping with water. "You’re getting fat and ugly," he’d warned her, more than once, sometimes with a pull on her frizzy hair or a pinch of her stomach to prove his point. "Don’t be thinking about leaving me now. There’n’t a man in the world gonna take you!"
Now, as the tired, faded and old face stared back at her, she saw just how right he was. That was going to be the hardest part, too, she knew it. Living alone. She left the TV on all night and slept with the dogs, but it weren’t no substitute for a man.
Their–her–retriever Buford and her poodle Pinkie scratched at the bedroom door. They nearly bowled her down as she opened it, dashing into the living room, barking furiously.
"What is it? Another coon?" She grabbed Jeb’s shotgun and made her way down the hall.
She recognized the back of the head she’d seen resting against that chair for twenty years. The shotgun slipped through her hands and crashed to the floor.
Jebediah grunted and stuck out his arm in a way she recognized as well, and with shaking knees and trembling hands, she hurried to the kitchen and brought him his favorite beer.
It was him! It was a miracle!
"This is Dave Neilson, here with Josie Gump, whose husband, Jebediah, seems to be the first confirmed case of a zombie interacting safely with other humans."
Josie gripped her elbows and watched the camera as if the big lens might swallow her. She still didn’t know if she’d done right by letting the reporter in, but she’d asked Jeb and he’d grunted that it was okay. At least she thought that’s what he meant. He really only grunted anymore. Guess being dead takes a lot out of a guy.
Besides, after his grave had been found dug open from the inside, everyone from Momma to her preacher to the Sheriff had come calling. He was a zombie–the murderous, shambling undead, they told her. She needed to take the dogs and get away fast, they told her.
They were worried about her, they told her.
They were always worried about her. Why couldn’t they be happy for her? So she let them get a peek of him, and once they saw him drinking his beer, they were satisfied he wasn’t some murderous shambling undead that was gonna rip her to shreds. She didn’t let them talk to him, though. He wasn’t ready. Besides, Jeb always hated visitors that weren’t his friends. Not that any of them had come round to check on her after he’d died, she thought bitterly.
Anyways, she needed to let folks know everything was okay, so they’d leave them alone to get on with life.
She was worried when the cameraman filmed him, even if he did so from the safety of the kitchen. Once upon a time, Jeb would have smashed the camera into his face or, at best, flipped him off. But he sat watching his game peacefully enough. Even the dogs were behaving, snuggled together on the couch, giving their master forlorn looks. She’d been worried about that, too; Pinkie always protected her and never got along with Jeb. Things were going well.
Reporter Dave had asked her a question.
"’Changed’? Well, he don’t talk about it much. Jeb was always the private sort. But, yeah, I think he has changed. He’s a lot gentler now. Not that there’s been any…you know. I just mean that he’s a lot more content. He’s a better listener, too." She blushed. Had she really just told the world about their…you know? Not that there’d been any. Even alive, she could count on one hand–
But that was my fault. I let myself go. I was so tired and angry all the time. Funny how anger made a person so tired. Still, he could have–
"So how does he feel, physically? Is he stiff?"
Her eyes widened. Why had she ever brought it up? "Well, I think that’s rather personal!"
Dave blushed. "I mean, like rigor mortis? Does he have a pulse? Is he warm? Does he feel alive?"
Actually, when she’d hugged him this morning, reaching around his back and squeezing into his arm, careful as usual to avoid getting in the way of the television, he’d felt kind of squishy under his skin. She forced a grin.
Dave continued, "And what about the smell?"
Suddenly she regretted ever having let this, this reporter into her home. "Now you listen here! I have been in mourning! And now my husband is back, and he has special needs! If I’ve let the housework slip–"
"No! Wait! I just meant–"
She didn’t care what he meant. This was a bad idea after all! She blinked back angry tears as she stormed for the door and flung it open. She called for the dogs and they rose from the couch, barking and snarling.
"Please! All I meant–"
"Buford! Pinkie! Sic!"
The reporter and cameraman ran past her. The cameraman remembered the quick turn and made it down the steps, Pinkie snapping at his heels, but Dave overshot and tumbled off the low railing, Buford jumped after him, teeth bared.
She slammed the door on their screams.
Jebediah grunted with more force than usual. Josie hurried to put a fresh beer in his hand.
"I’m sorry, Jeb! I’m so sorry. I won’t ever let anyone intrude on us again!"
Jeb gave another grunt and poured beer into his mouth. Some spilled on his shirt. She wiped it off with a dish towel, then got a tissue for her eyes.
Josie halted her cart from where she was about to enter the beer section and glanced past the detergent, stationary and bargain aisles to where her best friend, Audrey Callahan, came rushing up from the Hannah Montana clothing display aisle. It took awhile, because Audrey was wearing those strappy heels of hers again. She outweighed Josie by 30 pounds, easy, but she always wore the latest fashions, always had a man looking her way. Some people was just born knowing how to "work it."
Audrey’s smile clouded with concern as she approached. "Josie, oh, honey. You look so sad!"
Sad? "What? No, no. Just tired, I guess. Jeb’s got a lot of needs these days, and I decided to spring clean…" Her voice trailed off. After that reporter’s rude comment, she’d taken a good look at her house and seen it for what it was. A sheer shambles. Plus, she’d found cockroaches near Jeb’s chair! She’d decided she was going to spruce things up. She’d spent the past few days cleaning the house top to bottom. She’d come to Wal-Mart to restock on cleaning supplies and buy some material for bibs. Jeb just didn’t have the motor skills he used to, and when she mentioned that she’d make him something in camo and hunter orange, he’d groaned long and slow, which she took as a good sign.
Audrey peered into her cart with a gasp. "New curtains? He’s letting you get new curtains?"
Josie shrugged. "I told you. He’s changed." Actually, she’d gotten them for the bedroom, which he never went into anymore. He spent night and day in that chair. Still, she hoped that one day, he’d rejoin her, and if he noticed the new curtains, he’d appreciate it. Besides, she needed something to cheer herself up, especially after the phone call from that Carol Lyffe, Zombie Exterminator Woman. Telling her that her husband was a reanimated corpse that would kill and infect her when given the right motivation. She’d even offered to come all the way from California and re-kill him for her!
After she’d hung up on the horrible woman, she’d put the shotgun on top of the television set where Jeb could grab it fast and told him she was going shopping and to open the door for no one.
"That’s a lot of Febreze," Audrey said.
Josie didn’t want to admit the reporter had been right about that, too. "It…was on sale."
Audrey dragged her to the store McDonalds and treated her to a biggie-size McNuggets and chocolate shake. She chowed down on her own cheeseburger and chicken fries while Josie told her about the very nice phone call she’d gotten from a woman representing the "Zombies Are People, Too" movement.
"They’re really interested in Jeb and me joining–apparently, we’re still the only case where an undead hasn’t been come back a murderous shambling monster. ‘Course I don’t see how we can. Jeb’s got so many needs now, and…"
Instead of smiling, Audrey asked, "Honey, are you really all right? ‘Cause we’re all worried about you."
How many times had Audrey stuffed her with fast food and asked her that question? The reply came automatically. "Oh, it’s hard sometimes, but really, we’re fine."
Then she laughed. "Actually, things are better. We sit and watch TV, and I talk to him–really talk to him. Like we used to when we was dating. He don’t answer much–he can only grunt, still. If I can just find a way to break through–"
"Did you ask him about her?" Audrey demanded.
That evening, Josie tied the large square cloth around Jeb’s neck, careful not to block his view. She’d already emptied a can of Febreze so that all she smelled was Lilac Summer. "There now! Do you like it? It’s got little deer on it. Remember how you used to hunt deer?"
Jeb grunted and held out his empty.
When she’d replaced it with an open cold one, she sat down on the chair beside him. She steeled herself. Audrey was right; if they were going to move on, they had to discuss this. She just had to find the right way.
"Jeb, honey, remember when we were dating? You were so handsome, and strong–" She bit her lip, looking at how the lights from the wrestling show on television reflected off the pale, sickly color of his embalmed skin. Maybe she shouldn’t concentrate on his looks.
"And you were so protective of me! Remember? Remember when I cast flirty eyes on Carson Fielding? And you broke his nose?" And that night Jeb had shoved her hard against the back seat, screaming at her to stay away from that loser. She’d been so terrified–yet so drawn to his passion.
"’No one can love you like I do!’ you told me. ‘You’re mine and mine alone.’ Do you remember that? I do, like it was yesterday. And that’s how it’s always been, Jeb. I’m for you and you alone."
She waited for his reaction, but his eyes continued to stare dully at the game. She swallowed and steeled herself.
"Jeb. There was…a woman at the funeral. Your funeral. She said that you and she were–She wasn’t nasty about it, either. Said that now that you were, well, were dead, we should comfort each other. But Jeb, I gotta know. Were you and she–did you and that woman–"
Jeb grunted and took a swig of his beer.
She took his hand in both of hers. She sniffled. "All right, then. I suppose it’s enough that you chose to come home to me."
She felt a tickling on her palm. At first, she thought he was being frisky. Then she saw the cockroach.
Swallowing, she palmed it and rose to kill it outside. He didn’t need to know. She didn’t need him to know.
Josie glared at the mirror as she applied more blush. She puckered her lips and struck an off the shoulder pose. Last night, she’d washed her hair in mayonnaise and slept in rollers to tame her frizz into bouncy curls. So she wasn’t the beauty she was thirty years ago–Audrey always said, "You have more confidence when you look good." She was going to look as good as she could.
She walked into the room, a rose-scented hankie up to her nose in part to calm her and in part to mask the smell of Lilac Summer and insecticide. She looked over to make sure Jeb was all right, and noted with disgust that the roaches had made it past the circle of Boraxo she’d put around his chair again. Well, she’d spray the area down with Raid again in a bit. First, she was going to make that phone call.
I can’t do this alone, anymore, she reminded herself. I need to get professional help. We need professional help.
Still, her fingers trembled and hesitated as she dialed.
A warm, caring voice answered. "You’re talking to Dr. Wilson. Who’s this?"
Suddenly, despite her best intentions, the tears came. Oh, she so did not want to sniffle on the radio. She took a deep breath. "Josie Gump, doctor."
"The Josie Gump? Wow–how can I help you, Josie? Things not going so well with Jebediah?"
See? That’s just why she chose to call Relationships with Doctor Wilson show. He just knew how to zero in on a problem. Now remember what you practiced. Be positive, like Momma always said. "Well, I know I shouldn’t complain, and I really am grateful to have him back. A house needs a man, if you know what I mean. But all he does is sit there and stare at the TV. Night and day, day and night, and–"
"Have you told him how you feel?" he interrupted, but now that she’d started, all the pain welling in her wouldn’t let her stop to answer.
"And it’s grunt for a beer, and grunt for another. And I don’t even know where they all go! Literally, Doctor. He never, never gets up from that chair–"
"Have you talked to him, Josie?"
Next, the guilt tumbled out. "And when that reporter talked about a smell, I thought he was criticizing me. He was trying to tell me about Jeb, and I sicced the dogs on him. I feel so bad about what Buford did to his–"
The doctor raised his voice without yelling. "JOSIE! Have you talked to him?"
"The reporter? I sent him a nice card." She kicked herself. Now she sounded like a twit. She glanced at the living room, but Jeb was absorbed in Jerry Springer.
Dr. Wilson was kind enough not to laugh. "Jebediah, dear. Have you told Jebediah how his behavior makes you feel?"
"Well, I tried? All he does is watch TV. He don’t even look at me, anymore."
He grunted, as if she’d said the most important thing. "You have to make him look at you, Josie. Didn’t you turn his head once?"
Josie glanced at herself in the reflection of her steel sink. What was she thinking? "I’m not that pretty anymore."
"Every woman is beautiful to the man who married her. Get yourself dolled up, Josie. Get dolled up, turn off the television and remind him that you’re his woman, and you need his attention, too."
Something in his voice made her think of evenings in the back seat after a football game. She’d certainly had his attention then. "Welllll, I thought you might say that, so I got prettied up before I called. But–"
Did he hear her renewed uncertainty? He said, "Go, Josie. Set the phone down so we can hear what happens. I promise to hang up if it gets too…attentive."
She giggled. He was as bad as Audrey had been senior year. "Go for it, Josie-girl! I promise, Kenny and I will be too busy to watch!"
She set the phone down, let herself thrill in the sound of her heels clacking against the linoleum. She was young, beautiful and in love–and she would remind him of what he was missing. That Woman didn’t have anything on her–and if death wasn’t going to stop him from returning to her, death wasn’t going to keep him aloof of her either! Besides, some of their best times had been when she took charge. How had she forgotten that? No more.
"Oh, Jebbers…" she purred as she trailed her arm across his back and chest while she circled his chair. He grunted dully as she passed between him and the TV. She leaned forward, twitched her shoulders that way that used to drive him wild.
He lolled his head to one side, trying to see around her.
Sudden irritation spiked her sexy mood. Who cares if Jerry had just brought out some married guy’s gay redneck lover? If she could put up with the smell of Raid, he could put up with waiting until the fight came back on re-runs. She turned, intending to snap off the television.
Jeb opened his mouth and let out a bellow worthy of a Lovecraftian horror film.
Josie turned to glare at him, hands on hips. On the still-blaring TV, Jerry encouraged the trio to express their feelings. "Now don’t get so mad! I just want a little of your–no! no!"
Jeb rose.
He opened his mouth to bellow again, but this time, intoxicated cockroaches spilled out of his mouth and staggered at his feet.
Josie screamed and backed up fast, spilling the TV off its stand just as the pansy was hurling a chair at the cameraman. The dogs leapt from the couch and started barking, unsure what to do. Over the radio, she heard Dr. Wilson telling someone to call 9-1-1.
Jeb took a step toward Josie, and Pinkie made up his mind. He leapt at the master that had hated him, knocking him to the ground. Jeb hit the corner of the TV stand and his nose fell off.
Again, Josie screamed, but this time, it was rage, not fear. He really was dead! Her momma, her preacher, that exterminator woman–they all tried to tell her, and she didn’t listen. Oh, sure! He’d come back to her, just like nothing had happened, like all he needed was a little attention. And she fell for it, too, taking care of him, guarding his pride–
He’d duped her again!
As Jeb swung awkwardly at the toy poodle, which jumped on him and yapped, and snapped at the roaches on his chest, Josie grabbed the shotgun from where it fell beside the TV. She took aim.
She screamed, "This is the last straw, Jeb! The. Last. Straw! You’re not the man I married. You’re not even a man! You’re a CORPSE! You lied to me for the last time! Pinkie, heel!"
The dog bounded to her feet, and she emptied both barrels into Jebediah’s dead and decaying head. Not like there’s been much of a brain in there, anyway.
Then she snatched up her keys and pocketbook, called for the dogs and got into the car.
She’d go to Audrey’s, but just long enough to borrow some shoes. Then, maybe she’d drive to California, meet up with that exterminator woman. People had to know, when the dead died–they didn’t come back. All the love in the world wouldn’t make them come back. They were just dead!
And if Jeb hadn’t come back a murderous shambling monster, it was because he was too damn lazy to make the effort!