The thing about the Dead is that they just keep coming, wave after wave. Nobody knows how or why it started, but now that it has, there’s no going back. You find them in the yard in the morning, standing blinking in the sun; or weaving their way upstream against traffic on a crowded sidewalk at noon; or swaying and dancing in the middle of a busy intersection, tattered clothes hanging like greasy raven’s feathers from their desiccated bodies. And the smell. Jesus.
You learn not to make eye contact. If you do, they’re liable to latch onto you, start asking all their unanswerable questions: What happened to me? Why am I here? Where are my loved ones, my pets, my toes? As if you’re supposed to know. No, it’s best to leave it to the professionals. Call the hotline and they’ll dispatch a Resurrection Wagon, haul them off to the nearest processing center. Let the doctors, nurses, and social workers sort it out. Let the Lazarogenealogists figure out where they belong. Let the resurrection bureaucracy swallow them up and spit them out in some slightly more palatable form. That’s what we pay our taxes for, right? Besides, it’s only a matter of time until your turn comes around.
Dad is on the floor in the den, playing with the cats. During his lifetime he didn’t even like cats, but now he can’t seem to get enough of them. He goes out and finds them around the neighborhood, brings them home, sometimes several at a time. A few resist, scratching and hissing and squirming in his leathery arms. “Pri-ddy ki-ddy,” he intones, pulling them further into his concave chest. More often than not, though, they just trot along willingly behind him, intrigued by his moldy beef-jerky smell. They roll around on the carpet, Dad and the cats, swatting at each other with their feral claws. When they get bored, they preen themselves or look for new toys outside. The latest craze is grasshoppers. They bring them inside, torture and then abandon them. Their legless husks litter the carpet like bombed-out tanks after a battle. Some cats like to chew on what’s left of Dad’s toes, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Now and then, a neighbor will knock on the front door to ask if we have their missing pet. I point them toward the den and say, “Take as many as you want.”
It’ll be two years this April since Serena and I drove out to the facility near Pittsburgh to pick up Dad. He’d been found just across the border in Ohio, standing in the middle of a cornfield like an old scarecrow. A farmer drove him into town in the back of his pickup. When we got to the facility in the early afternoon, Dad was sitting in the office in a wheelchair, looking confused. He got up unsteadily when we walked in, and the two of us regarded each other across a safe distance. I’ve seen plenty of Dead, of course—who hasn’t?—but it’s different when it’s one of your own.
They’d dressed him in a pair of khakis and a gray sweatshirt that bunched up in folds on his emaciated frame. His hair, once bushy and brown, was now wispy and gray, like an overused paintbrush. His face—well, there was enough left for me to know it was him. Let’s just leave it at that. He blinked a few times and his lower lip trembled. Serena squeezed my arm supportively. It had been nearly a decade since we’d said our tearful goodbyes at the hospice, and I had no idea where to pick up the thread I’d assumed was forever cut that day. Part of me resented having to revisit my complicated feelings about his death, especially after having gone through the difficult process of mourning and moving on. This reaction, I’m told, is not uncommon, and is often accompanied by guilt, which I also felt.
“This is your son, Evan,” said the social worker, helpfully. “And this is Serena, your daughter-in-law.” Dad continued to stare at us with his big, yellowy eyes. Serena gave me a little nudge, and I took a step forward. I thought maybe I should hug him or something, but he looked so fragile I was afraid he might break. I awkwardly stuck out my hand and, after a pause, he took it. His flesh was cool and leathery, and I had to resist the impulse to pull away. People say this is also a natural response to the Dead, and a difficult one to overcome. We can’t undo millennia of evolution overnight just because the rules have changed. In the end, it was Dad who pulled away. He sat, or rather folded like an accordion, back into the wheelchair and arranged his hands in his lap. The social worker pointed Serena and I to the two chairs flanking the wheelchair. We sat and listened as she read us the standardized disclaimers—basically, they’d done their best, were not responsible for whatever happened from here on, and best of luck. We signed the transfer papers and he was ours.
The three-hour ride back to Harrisburg was excruciating. A cold rain fell most of the way, but we kept the windows open to try to alleviate the smell. We attempted initiating conversations, first about the present, then about the past, but he didn’t seem to register any of it, so eventually we just fell into an oppressive silence. The social worker had said not to expect too much. Some Dead regain their memories gradually, others not at all. He did perk up once, when a cement mixer roared past in the opposite lane. He sat up and yelled “Dah!” and pointed. “Dah! Dah!” Serena, trying to encourage him, said “That’s right, truck,” but the moment had passed and he fell back into silence and stared out the window the rest of the way.
When we got home, he made a slow circuit of the house, tracing the perimeter of each room and running his hands along the walls, leaving smears of rust-colored dust that have never completely come off, despite repeated scrubbings. After he finished his tour he returned to the living room, collapsed into a fetal position in the corner, and began shrieking. When he was done shrieking, he turned his head to wall and sobbed. Then he shrieked some more. He continued this pattern, alternately shrieking and sobbing, day and night. We threw a heavy wool blanket over him to muffle the sound. Another thing about the Dead is that they don’t sleep, ever.
“Evan, don’t you have a half-brother in St. Louis?” Serena asked one day, after about a week of this. I do have a half-brother in St. Louis, from Dad’s previous marriage, but he walked out on them when Billy was three, and they weren’t even on speaking terms when Dad died. I doubted that death had done much to improve their chances of reconciliation, but nevertheless I called Billy and told him that Dad was back. He received the news with no great enthusiasm. “Thanks for letting me know,” he said curtly. I haven’t heard from him since.
Mom arrived that July. She’d been picked up wandering naked on the Jersey Turnpike and came to us by way of a facility in Bayonne. They were kind enough to bring her to us in a van. The moment she set foot in the house, Dad’s shrieking and sobbing ceased abruptly and for good. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that he might have been missing his wife of three decades. As the orderlies wheeled her in and helped us prop her up on the sofa with some pillows, Dad rose from his corner and shuffled over. I thought he was going to sit down next to her on the couch, but he just stood there, his forehead scrunched up like he was trying to puzzle something out. Then he began shifting his hips from side to side in a series of spasmodic jerks, as if experiencing a distant body-memory of dancing the cha-cha. She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make eye contact with him—or with anyone else, for that matter. She seemed distracted by something in the distance, beyond the walls of our house. Dad stopped his gyrating, licked his lips a couple of times, then turned and lurched toward the back of the house, where he’s been stationed ever since. At least it’s quieter around here now, except for cats mewling to be let in or out.
Mom, for her part, stays on the couch, right where we left her. We keep the TV on most of the time, but I don’t think she watches it. She doesn’t need food or water, of course, so there’s not much to do other than sponge her off and change her clothes every now and then when the smell gets oppressive. The Dead don’t have bodily functions, but they do provide a fertile environment for bacteria and fungi, so you still have to swab them down regularly with various solvents if you want to maintain a livable environment.
It was Serena who remembered how much Mom loved to knit, so one day, as an experiment, we placed a pair of needles in her hands, securing them to her fingers with fishing line, and then attached some yarn to them. Sure enough, she began to stitch—slowly, clumsily at first, but gaining momentum over the days that followed. She’s kept at it ever since, knitting what would probably be the world’s largest afghan, if we could afford the wool. We can’t, so we have to unravel the stitches and return the yarn to the bag by her side. Serena ties the ends together, so that she can just keep using the same yarn over and over again in a very large loop.
No one knows if the Dead truly are immortal, but they’re certainly resilient. It’s both illegal and surprisingly difficult to dispose of your Lazarus or Lazaress, though that hasn’t stopped people from trying. I can’t say that I blame them, but it’s a whack-a-mole situation. You can drive them into the country and drop them off, but they’ll find their way back eventually, with or without help. You can cut them into little pieces and bury them in twenty different places, but the pieces will find each other and reassemble as best they can, making an even bigger mess than the one you tried to disposed of. You’re better off just owning up to your responsibilities and making the best of it.
It’s amazing how fast you can get used to just about anything. Within a few weeks of Mom’s return, we’d settled into a more-or-less manageable routine. Mom stayed parked in the living room, Dad in the den. Cats came and went, the eternal afghan continued to unfurl, and Serena and I slowly regained some semblance of the lives we had before. Luckily, her folks are both still alive, so we weren’t anticipating new arrivals anytime soon. Lots of other couples we knew had dead folk living with them, so we got together from time to time to commiserate and swap stories.
It was at one of these gatherings that Carrie Unger from up the street came up with the idea of the Resurrection Club. “What would happen,” she asked one evening as a bunch of us were having drinks on her and Richard’s patio, “if we got all of our Dead together?”
“What, you mean like a party?”
“Maybe more like a playdate. Or a babysitting club. Deadsitting, I guess you could call it.”
“Oh, I like that idea,” said Norma Klose. “We never get any privacy anymore. Edgar’s mother just wanders right into our bedroom at any time of the day or night.”
“Why don’t you lock the door?”
“We do, but she stands there pounding until we open up. It’s better just to let her have her way. She never stays for more than a few minutes.”
“What does she do?”
“Mostly she goes through the drawers, looking for stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“She likes cold cream. Skin conditioner. KY jelly. Anything oily and viscous.”
“Ew. What does she do with it?”
“We don’t exactly know. We never see any of it again, except for the empty containers. She leaves those around the house in unexpected places—the oven, the fridge, the washing machine.”
“My briefcase,” said Edgar.
“If she’s trying to moisturize her skin, it ain’t workin’,” said Norma.
“Now, Norma,” said her husband. “She can’t help the way she is.”
“They’re so odd, aren’t they?” said Serena. “Anyway, I love the idea that we could take turns keeping an eye on them.”
Thus the Resurrection Club was born.
We agreed that the first “meeting” would take place following Saturday afternoon, at Carrie and Richard’s place.
“Do you think we should ask Camilla and Tom?” said Carrie. This young couple had the grim task of caring for their only daughter, Sophie, who was killed in a freak car accident at age fifteen and turned up one night, six years later, banging on their door at three in the morning. We’d been avoiding the three of them and feeling terribly guilty about it.
“I guess we should ask them,” said Serena.
“Do you think Sophie will get along with all those old people?” said Norma.
“I don’t see that it matters much. I mean, what are they gonna talk about, anyway?
“Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll ask them.”
When the appointed day arrived, the hardest part was getting Mom off the couch. Dad came willingly, though he insisted on bringing a fat orange tomcat under each arm, but Mom refused to budge. “You can bring your knitting, Eleanor—you won’t have to stop,” said Serena gently.
“Nnnnnn, mmmmm,” said Mom. She didn’t do vowels.
We finally hoisted her between us, each supporting an arm and a leg, and carried her out to the car. Her legs were bent as though she was sitting down, and she still clutched the knitting needles in her hands. We’d forgotten about the wool, so when we got to the car unraveled yarn trailed behind her like an umbilical cord, leading back to her beloved couch. I went back to retrieve the bag, crammed the loose yarn into it, and we were on our way.
On the short drive to Carrie and Richard’s place, one of the cats escaped, leaping out the half-open window and disappearing into a hedge, but otherwise we arrived without incident. Dad was surprisingly eager. As soon as I opened the car door, he hopped out and ambled across the lawn and around the side of the house, toward the backyard.
“Dad, wait!” I yelled and ran after him, but by the time I caught up he’d already pried open the sliding glass porch door and slipped inside. I went around to the front to help Serena lift Mom out of the car and carry her to the front door. This time we remembered to strap the bag of yarn around her neck so we wouldn’t have to rewind it.
Carrie and Richard had set up folding chairs in a big circle in the living room. Three seats were occupied, one by Carrie’s mother, Ruth, who wore a floral print housedress and fixed a baleful stare on each person who entered. Next to her, strapped to the chair by thin nylon rope, sat Edgar’s mother, Tillie. Her head sloped to the side at an impossible angle, and I tried to remember exactly how she had died. Was it a fall at the nursing home? To her right was poor little Sophie, who sat with her bruised hands folded in her lap, staring at the floor. I realized as soon as I saw her why we’d avoided this encounter for so long—death is particularly unbecoming on the young.
We propped Mom in a chair across from Ruth, who seemed the most promising company of the lot, and Serena busied herself trying to get the knitting set up. “I better see what happened to Dad,” I said. As I searched the house, I met Richard coming down the steps. “If you’re looking for your dad, he’s upstairs making the rounds,” he said, gesturing with a thumb over his shoulder.
“He did that when we brought him home, too,” I said, hoping he wasn’t leaving fleshy smears all over their walls.
I found Dad in the nursery, standing over a crib, looking down. Carrie and Richard’s kids were grown and out of the house, so it seemed odd they’d left this room intact. Were they expecting a grandchild? Or was there something else we didn’t know? A lost child, perhaps? With some apprehension, I joined Dad at the side of the crib, half expecting to see a living-dead infant staring up at the butterfly mobile. But no, it was the orange tabby cat—the one that didn’t get away—its eyes closed, front paws tucked under its chest, looking very much at home on the alphabet quilt.
“Eh beh,” said Dad, gesturing toward the cat.
“Yes, this was for a baby,” I replied.
He shook his head emphatically. “Eh beh. Eh beh!” He was getting worked up about something, and it suddenly occurred to me that he might be trying to say my name, Evan. Did he name his cats? Had he named one after me? Or had seeing the nursery triggered in him some memory of me as an infant?
“Dad, I’m Evan,” I said. “Your son. Right here, all grown up.”
He looked confused and hurt. He shook his head emphatically, and I wondered if he might even begin to cry—or, worse, shriek—but he just slumped his shoulders. “Eh beh,” he said sadly.
“I’m still here, Dad. I still . . . um, love you,” I said, wondering if it was true. What I felt at that point seemed more like duty than love. Nevertheless, now I was getting all choked up. “Come on, Dad,” I said. “Let’s go find the others.” I took his arm and gently guided him downstairs.
Back in the living room, things were picking up a bit. Two more Lazaruses had arrived, so there was now a full house. Instead of sitting down, Dad stood in the middle of the room and started doing his little hip-swiveling thing. I found this embarrassing, especially since he seemed to be directing his gyrations at Carrie’s mother Ruth, rather than at his wife—not that either of the women appeared to take the slightest notice.
“Should I stop him?” I asked Serena.
She shrugged. “It seems harmless.”
“Do you think it’ll upset Mom?” I looked over at her, but her she was focused on her fingers, which busily stitched away.
The party, such as it was, was barely under way when the front door burst open and in walked Death. We all knew it was Death because of the heavy black robe that draped to the floor and the big hood that concealed its face deep in shadow, not to mention the tall scythe grasped in its left hand. The tendrils of smoke slithering along the floor in its wake were also persuasive.
“Is this a joke?” someone said, but no one dared laugh.
Death took another step in, and the living took a step backward. Glowing red eyes scanned the room without settling on anyone in particular. “You’ve been very, very naughty,” it said, in a voice that was somehow both deafening and brittle, like thousands of dead leaves rattling in the wind. I stole an anxious glance at Serena. Surely it didn’t mean us? What had we done?
But it wasn’t us the creature was addressing—it was the Dead. They hung their heads—or, in most cases, hung them farther. The room grew silent except for the conspicuous click-click-click of Mom’s knitting needles, which apparently even the appearance of the Lord of the Underworld couldn’t interrupt.
“From time immemorial I’ve kept watch over the souls entrusted to my care,” the specter continued. “Not one has escaped my grasp!” It pounded the scythe on the floor for emphasis.
“What about Orpheus?” asked a small voice. It took me a moment to realize it was Mom’s. These were, as far as I knew, the first words she had spoken since her return. Having said them, she quietly went on with her knitting. Click, click, click.
“Well, okay, yes, Orpheus.”
“Lazarus,” she added. Click, click, click.
“Okay, yes, yes! Lazarus and Orpheus. But only temporarily!”
“Achilles.” Click, click, click. “Memnon.” Click, click, click. “Heracles.” Click, click, click. “Jesus.”
“Okay, fine! Yes, a few here and there, out of millions and millions of souls. The point is that I am Death, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, and you are my charges—all of you.” A bony, accusing finger extended from the outstretched sleeve and swept the room.
Click, click, click.
“I take one lousy break, a decade or two to catch up on some things, maybe enjoy a little time with the family, and what happens? All hell breaks loose!”
“You left the portal open.” It was Ruth this time.
A protracted sigh issued from the deep within the dark robes like dry wind from a desert cavern. “Yes, I know. I left the portal open. It was an accident, okay?”
Ruth continued: “So we decided to take a break. Catch up on a few things. Maybe enjoy a little time with the family.” Was that a tiny smile on her face? A murmur of assent went round the circle of cadavers.
Just then the orange tabby wandered down the steps and began circling the robed figure, rubbing up against its legs. “Shoo! Shoo!” hissed Death, nudging the cat with its foot. It scooted away and dove under a chair. Then, to the assembly in the living room, Death said: “All right, you’ve had your little outing. I hope you’ve all enjoyed yourselves very much. Now, do I have to drag you back with me, or will you come willingly? Either is fine by me.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Ruth. “It’s boring here. These people are boring.”
“And they smell funny,” said Tillie.
“They treat us like children,” said Dad. “It’s insulting.”
“We don’t belong here anymore,” said Mom. “We would have come back, but we couldn’t find the way and no one could tell us.”
“They’re all stuck here, aren’t they?” asked Sophie, pointing a finger at the rest of us. “They can’t leave.”
“For the time being, yes,” said Death. “You’ll be seeing them again, soon enough. Some sooner than others.”
We, the living, looked at one another. Which among us did he mean?
“But for now, we need to get going. I have a lot of you to round up.” Death beckoned with its scythe, and the Dead rose and began moving, in their various compromised fashions, toward the door. Death led the way as they filed out, Tillie with the chair still strapped to her back, Mom with her yarn trailing behind, Dad doing a little hoppy-skippy walk, and the others shuffling, limping, dragging their way along. We followed them into the yard and stood watching as the procession made its way up the street. The orange tabby trailed along behind, pouncing on the multicolored ball of yarn as it bounced along the pavement in their wake.
“Should we go after them?” someone said, but we remained standing in the yard, blinking in the sun. Our time would come, soon enough.
David L. Updike a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Razed, Satire, the Toronto Globe and Mail, Exquisite Corpse, and Side Show and is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, among other places. You can check out his blog at TheJackal.org.