The worst thing about being dead, in Don’s opinion, was the critters. His coffin was damn comfortable—better have been, what with all the cash he left behind after that car accident on the I-10. It was nice and cushy, top of the line soft velvet interior with solid bronze to keep him warm. Despite all this, there were the critters, the little beetles and centipedes and God knew what else that crawled up his nose when he slept. He spent most mornings huffing them out like snot rockets.
The best thing about being dead was the Zombie Walk, and according to his gold Rolex—still working, thank you—it was that time of year again.
October was the month for zombie walks, but Don had one in particular he frequented, along with a few of his dead pals. They met in the same place every year, going on three now, down at Tempe Town Lake. It was amazing what mortuary guys could do, pumping corpses full of chemicals to keep ‘em in good shape. They’d even used string to tie Don’s right arm back on after the accident, but the string was long gone. He carried his limp appendage around nowadays like a briefcase, force of habit.
Carl was already waiting when he arrived.
“Carrrrrl!” Don gargled.
“Donnnnn,” Carl moaned.
“How the hell—” He spat out a cockroach. “How are you?”
“That wife of yours really shoulda gone the extra mile with the coffin cushion,” Don said. “I’m telling ya, I don’t feel a day over six months dead.”
“Gaaahhh …” Sometimes Carl didn’t make much sense.
“Where’s the rest of the gang?” Don did a slow visual sweep of the black, nighttime water, nearby white lights of the bridge quivering in the reflection like fried eggs.
“Dunno.” Carl itched his head, and his ear fell off.
“Here, I’ll get that.” Don picked up the fallen lobe with his one working arm and handed it to his bloody bud.
Carl ate it.
Carl had been dead for twenty years—heart attack. He wore a tattered gray suit that was green and black with mold. He still had a couple white hairs on his head, but he was mostly just a skeleton with skin on top. He had a tendency to lose things, not because he was absent-minded but because shit just fell off. That’s what happened to three of his fingers the year before. At least that’s what Carl claimed. Don had a sneaking suspicion he’d slammed his fingers in his casket on his way back to bed.
“We can’t wait much longer,” Don said. He pointed his amputated arm in the direction of Mill Avenue. “Don’t want to be late.”
“Here,” said a rough female voice.
She limped up to them, the only gal who still thought the Tempe Zombie Walk was sort of funny. She’d been dead a long time, and Don thought she must have been kind of crazy, being buried in her wedding dress and all. He noticed something on her face.
“Is that blood on your—”
“Ate a cat,” she said loudly. She shook her head. “Timmy!”
No, the cat wasn’t named Timmy. Timmy was their fourth, but based on the squeaky quiver of Carissa’s head, he wasn’t coming. When she moved, she reminded Don of Oz’s Tin Man. He made a joke one year about bringing an oilcan, but Carissa wasn’t good with jokes.
“Oh, shucks.” With some finesse, Don folded his detached arm over his chest. “What’s the matter with Timmy?”
“You ate Timmy?”
Carl said, “Fruuuu.”
Carissa nodded and pointed to Mill Avenue.
Don sighed. “Well, he was dead already. Let’s go, team!” He lifted his detached arm like a baton, and off they walked … or rather, stumbled, up the loose rock path of Tempe Town Lake and toward the lively, glittering streets of the city.
As expected, people were decked out. Those kids really looked dead. Everywhere Don looked, college students were covered in fake blood. Their healthy, glowing skin was painted in mottled shades of gray, green, and purple. It did his dead heart good to see the youth of his country standing up united for a cause.
Carl started up his usual routine. He walked around on the tips of his toes, arms extended in front of him. He growled and clicked his teeth together. Carissa chewed on one of her own fingers until it broke off. She swallowed it.
Don was no slouch either. He loved swinging his arm around, shaking it in kid’s faces. They loved it! They laughed, applauded, until Don took a bow. He needed Carl’s help to stand up straight when one of his vertebrae cracked. Maybe he was showing his dead age more than he thought, but hell, rotting flesh just ain’t that malleable.
He stepped in when a tall guy in a torn football uniform started talking up Carissa and she tried to bite his arm.
“No,” Don said.
Carissa lolled back and forth on her heels, glassy eyes forever open.
“No,” he said again, but the football guy didn’t seem offended. He even tucked Carissa’s would-be snack around her shoulders.
“You guys look amazing,” the kid said. “Love the zombie bride thing. Let me buy you,” he pointed at Don, “a beer.”
“Well, son, that is mighty kind of you, but—” He choked when he felt a tickle in the back of his throat. He hacked until he got the beetle up and spat on the sidewalk. “Jesus, them critters.” He wiped his mouth, using his disembodied hand like a handkerchief.
Carl wandered up from behind and hit him soundly on the back until one of Don’s eyes popped out.
“Shit, Carl,” he said. He knelt down to search the pavement, and by the time he’d popped the thing back in, Carissa was covered in the football kid’s blood. Don shouted and dragged her off his throat. “Damn it! You guys don’t know how to have fun anymore.”
Carissa kept fighting to get back to the kid’s mangled body, but Don held her until her head popped off in his hand, which didn’t deter her body from its continued motion—although, without a mouth, munching was a futile endeavor. He shook her head in his hand and pointed at her with the other, which wasn’t so much a point as a limp wave of his dead-arm wrist.
“We’re going home,” he said. “Carl!”
“Yes, home.” He dragged Carissa’s body up by the back of her once-white wedding gown and shoved her head against her neck. She lifted her bloody hands to hold it in place and frowned at him. “This is not my fault,” he told her. “If you can’t behave like a civilized dead person, we won’t be having any fun. Now, let’s go, both of you.”
Carl and Carissa followed Don back to the lake’s edge like pecking chickens, occasionally breaking from the path to grab at chipmunks and birds, although the birds usually got away.
At the edge of the lake, Don pointed at his so-called friends. “You’re not invited next year.”
Carl gesticulated as if to say, “What did I do?” Another of his fingers fell off and landed in the nearby black water with a quiet plop.
“Nope.” Don shook his head. “I won’t have this sort of behavior. We can’t go around eating people, just perpetuating a stereotype. No, sirs, I won’t stand for it. Y’all just stay underground next October, you hear me? I’ll make some new friends, damn it.”
Carl at least had the presence of mind to look forlorn—maybe. It was hard to tell with his papery skin, but his shoulders did sag some. Carissa, though, lifted her bloody head from her neck and shook it in Don’s face before moaning and wandering off under the bridge.
Don sighed. “I’m sorry, Carl.”
“All right, you can come back next year, but no eating people.”
Don tapped his amputated arm against his thigh. “You know what? We should hit some fraternity parties. Would you like that, Carl?”
Carl said, clearly, “Yes.” See, he had his moments.
“Let’s do it!” Don trundled ahead, knowing Carl followed due to the stomp-drag sound that was his familiar walking cadence. Together, they explored the night, wowing party people and making pretty girls squeal. Don knew he was a bit old for the late night college scene, but he figured, why not? He would sleep when he was deader.
(Winner of The Traveler Fiction Contest, 2nd Place.)