Keith shut the door, locked it, and carefully lowered the steel bar in place across it to ensure no one could push it open. It wasn’t foolproof, but it had worked so far.
The evening sun’s golden glow crept through the boards that covered the windows, and Keith realized that it was deathly gloomy in the house. Gloomy, warm, and quiet. He wiped sweat from his brow, his hand jittery. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and counted to ten. The jitters still persisted deep in his stomach.
Keith looked at the bundle on the floor, the sheet tied tight, dirty, stained.
“Daisy!” he called, knowing he shouldn’t be so loud, shouldn’t disturb all this silence- “I’m home, honey!”- knowing there would be no answer.
He kicked the bundle. “It was a tough day at the office, baby.” The bundle was still, the body wrapped within dead.
Keith grabbed the shrouded figure by the feet and drug it down the hall into the shadows. He grunted with the effort, it was heavy— full dead weight. In the kitchen he felt around in the growing darkness (and it was always growing deeper, ever deeper and darker these days) for the flashlight on the counter-top.
He opened the basement door and flicked the torch on. The putrid smell of decomposition swept up the pitch black stairs like a gale wind, but it didn’t bother him anymore. It was something a person became accustomed to, Keith guessed, though he never thought it would be him who would consider the putrid smell of rotting death just another mundane, every day bouquet.
The stench (so common now) was quickly followed by the groans. That slow, raspy, animal groan; never threatening, or angry, yet always longing, yearning, desperate. Hungry. Sometimes it resembled words. Most times not.
Keith carefully descended the complaining stairs, letting the dying beam of the flashlight guide his way. At the bottom he switched on the basement lights.
“I’m home,” he said. “You miss me, Daisy?”
Daisy had shielded her eyes from the sudden illumination of the fluorescent bulbs. She lowered her arms and opened her mouth, lips receding in a grimace to show yellow teeth and grey gums. She groaned again and lumbered forward, arms reaching for her husband. Her head snapped back, the collar and chain limiting her advance, causing her to lose balance and fall over.
“Baby, are you okay?” Keith moved closer and knelt down, making sure to keep a safe distance. “Daisy, are you all right?”
She looked up at him, her long brown hair hanging down over her face. Mouth open, arms reaching.
“You’re okay,” he whispered. “I’m going to prepare supper.” He smiled, “I’m quite hungry myself.” He resisted the urge to brush her hair back out of her face or to take her hand in his. “I got you something…to eat, while I was out.”
Keith unfolded a collapsible table from the back wall; from a far shelf he retrieved a startlingly white sheet and spread it over the table. He pushed the table in front of Daisy who pawed at him with her flaking hands, her splintered and torn fingernails. She grunted, jaws snapping, teeth gnashing so hard an incisor broke.
He backed away. “Guess what I got you?”
She clawed the table, the chain taunt between collar and wall.
“Do you remember Mr. Bortayo? Of course you do,” said Keith. “You only used to talk to him every day,” he chuckled. “I found him this morning.”
Keith jogged up the stairs. He drug the bound body through the doorway and shoved it, letting it tumble down the steps end over end. Mr. Bortayo lay sprawled at the bottom on the basement floor, the sheet half off, his cold expression lost in space.
Keith wrestled the body from the sheet and drug Bortayo into the open.
“I went next door to check on him, you know, like I always do since all this began. You know I always check on him. I found him in his recliner. I think he had a heart attack or something in the night. He wasn’t bitten like y-”
Daisy’s growls completed Keith’s thoughts. Even with her hair obscuring it, he could see the gaping bite, so corroded now, on her once supple neck.
“That’s a lie,” he said. He stared at Mr. Bortayo’s head, caked in blood, still oozing, busted open. “I used the hammer on him.”
Daisy’s hand caught the table, lifting it up and nearly toppling it.
Keith pulled the table from her, straightened the sheet.
“I know it’s…it’s the only thing you’ll eat now, baby. Flesh, right.” He swallowed the words along with the lump that clogged his throat. “I thought you’d like a decent meal, that we could have a nice dinner together. We haven’t had one since…you know.”
She groped for him, him remaining still just out of reach. He inched closer, keeping the table between them, letting her fingertips brush against his chin, his chest and neck.
“Don’t worry, it’s all for you,” he winked at her. “I made me a salad.”
Daisy ripped into Bortayo’s body like a starved animal. Keith had stripped, cleaned, and lifted the heavy, elderly, gentleman as best he could and plopped the corpse on the table, which creaked with the weight. Keith backed away as his wife let into the meal. Her teeth finding soft purchase and tearing flesh from bone, slurping down the gristle, fat, and muscle.
Keith nestled himself into a lawn chair near the stairs, his bowl of salad balanced on his lap. “Things are looking better out there. They’ve got this neighborhood fairly well cleared up.” He stirred croutons and Caesar dressing into the lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. “Help centers are open, with the governments help, you know. Fresh food, things like that. There aren’t too many of the…sick…walking around anymore.”
The table collapsed. Keith jumped at the sound. Daisy was on top of Bortayo’s body, his face eaten away to the gore smeared skull beneath and his head hanging by a thread of sinew.
“The police, the national guard, volunteers, everybody I think, are on the lookout. Trying to clean the towns up. I was talking with some of the others, you know, and word is it won’t be long before things get back to some kind of normal. Most everything is secure, no danger of losing any utilities, again. No more blackouts.”
Keith took a couple bites of his salad, washed it down with a sip of warm soda. “They still don’t know what caused all this. A lot of ideas and theories floating around, though. Always are I guess. I don’t believe much of any of it; you were always the conspiracy theorist.”
Daisy’s teeth ground against Bortayo’s jaw bone.
Keith cleared his throat. “This is nice.” He cleared his throat a second time. “Remember our last anniversary…well, last year on our anniversary. We went to that little Italian place, that new that opened across from the brewery.”
Daisy tore Bortayo’s loosely hanging head free from its anchor.
“It was nice, wasn’t it, that night. It was.”
Daisy dropped the head and sunk her teeth into Bortayo’s stomach with a surprising viciousness. She clawed until she had him split open in a belch of foul gasses. She slurped at the souring intestines dangling from her crusted fingers, lips smacking.
“I think I’m going to read for a while, baby,” Keith said. “Then, I don’t know, maybe try to sleep some. Will you be okay?”
She was emptying the cavity of innards, lost in her own world, feasting on the offal.
Keith closed the door on the darkened basement. He wiped away a wave of nausea with the chilled sweat on his forehead.
He eased his way to the den in the dark, not bothering with the flashlight in his hand. The lights were too bright, he thought, when he switched them on. Much too bright. But he wanted them, he wanted that brilliant comforting illumination, even though he knew he ran the risk of attracting those things that still prowled the streets outside despite their dwindling numbers.
He sank into a leather chair, weak, fatigued. The urge to cry came upon him suddenly, and he choked it back, throwing the flashlight to have it shatter against the wall.
He refused. He had to hold it together, for Daisy if for nothing else. She was the all that was left in the world to him now, all that was left of their life before this terrible horror of a storm.
So he fought those tears, that breakdown, because he knew to cry would be to admit a defeat. This storm would pass, things would get better, things would improve. He knew they would. Someone, somewhere, was cooking up a cure in some secret lab, mixing chemicals in vials and studying slides under a microscope. And those who had put down their husbands, wives, parents, and friends, they would look pretty stupid and feel pretty darn bad when that cure materialized. They would have nothing, but he would have his wife. He would have his Daisy.
That comforted Keith more than the lights that chased away the shadows from the room. His mind relaxed, followed by his muscles and nerves, and he felt himself falling into a sleep when the knock came at the front door.
He didn’t move at first. Probably one of them, or that was what he wanted to believe; in this day and age you just did not go visiting. One of those things had found its way to his door. A series of three knocks, stronger this time, extinguished that thought as it extinguished the thought of killing the lights.
Keith had a visitor. Someone not infected. And that frightened him worse.
He crept into the hall. The visitor pounded on the door again, and even pressed the doorbell for the soft chimes echoed in the darkness.
“Keith,” the visitor called out. “It’s Doug Bramble.”
“Okay,” Keith answered, “give me a minute.” He made his way towards the door like a blind man. He felt for the lights; black dots danced over his eyes. Keith let the spots clear, the entire time willing Doug away.
“Hold on,” he croaked. He lifted the bar and set it aside. He unlocked the door, his hand hesitating on the knob. He opened the door slightly.
“Doug, is it safe?” Keith asked.
“Yeah, it’s clear,” Doug said. Keith could see the streetlights beyond, the suburban lane empty, pristine. Doug’s house across the street was lit to blazing. “Can I come in?”
“I was just about to go to bed, actually. I’m kind of tired.”
“We should talk first, Keith.”
Keith listened to the quiet of the house, the birds and insects outside— they had returned; it was the first time he had heard them since this whole mess started. Finally he said, “Sure, if it’s that important.”
“It is,” Doug replied.
Keith opened the door and his neighbor entered. Doug tamed his comb-over, looked around. When Keith reached for the bar to secure the door, he said, “You don’t have to do that. This neighborhood is safe again. None of those things left out there.”
“Yeah. The whole town is almost clear.”
“That’s good to hear,” Keith said, and flipped the deadbolt. “Safety’s sake.”
“I understand,” Doug nodded.
“You want a drink, or anything?”
“No,” Doug said. “I just need to talk to you.”
“Like I said, I’m tired, Doug, so…”
“Yeah, it’s been something else the last few weeks, huh?” He inspected the foyer, the boards on the windows; he cast a lingering glance down the hall. “You secured the place, and good.”
“What’s this about, Doug? What’s so important?”
Whatever apprehension his neighbor had first had, it disappeared. “We’re no fools, Keith. At least those of us who know you. You can’t fool your friends. Maybe strangers. But not me.”
Keith leaned against the door, folded his arms. “I still don’t follow.”
Doug’s gaze still wandered. “None of us have seen Daisy in quite some time.”
Keith’s heart beat hard; he feared Doug hearing it. “It’s not safe outside. Or it wasn’t. I’m not risking her life like that.”
“I was the same with Mona,” said Doug. “But you’re going to risk everybody else’s life now.”
Doug looked him eye to eye. “I know. We all know, Keith.”
“We’ve been watching you, Keith. I convinced everybody into letting me come talk some sense into you before the authorities storm in here. Before they use force.”
“I’ve not done anything, Doug,” he said, trying to breathe easy to stop his hammering heart.
“We know Daisy has turned. We know you…we know about Bortayo.”
“Mr. Bortayo, he…” Keith couldn’t find the right words, the right lie.
“You killed him. Dammit, Keith, you drug him across two lawns in broad daylight. You didn’t think anybody would notice that? Our neighborhood watch is nothing but exemplary now, buddy. People will see someone tugging a load of bloody sheets.”
There was a hollow pit in Keith’s stomach. He slid to the floor clutching his gut.
“I can’t,” Keith said. “I can’t do it.”
Doug knelt beside him. “You don’t have to. I’ll do it for you.”
“No,” Keith breathed. “I can’t let her go. I can’t…without her I…nothing left for me.”
“You have to,” Doug said. “You know it has to be done.” He placed a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Where’s Jeffrey?”
Keith bellowed. It was a cry that came from his soul and he couldn’t hold the tears back any longer. “No,” he sobbed, gasping for air.
Doug embraced him. “Where’s the baby?” he asked. “Keith, where’s the baby? Where’s Jeffrey?”
“No no no no!” Keith moaned.
Doug let him go and backed away.
“Daisy,” Keith cried, “Daisy!” But there was more than mourning in that scream, there was anger too.
“He’s gone,” Keith stammered. “I came home, and she was…she…”
“My God,” Doug’s face paled.
“I lost my son.” Keith’s bawling had become a mewling. “I can’t lose her now. She’s all I got.”
Doug got under Keith’s shoulders and stood him up. “Where is she?”
Keith pointed off in the distance. “Basement.”
“Go to her,” Doug whispered in his ear.
People were gathered on their lawns, in the street. They had been told to stay back, to go home, but everybody wanted to watch.
Doug sat on his front porch with a cold one and a cigarette. He had locked up Keith’s house himself, poured the gasoline and struck the match himself. He lit the fire that now consumed it. He watched it burn.
“There but for the grace of God,” he said.
“What did you say, dear?” his wife asked in the rocking chair beside him.
“Nothing,” he said, and sipped the last of his second beer.
Previously published in Tales For the Toilet.