Joel had been unconscious for the better part of two days and on the third his eyes fluttered behind their tissue-thin lids as he spoke his last words: “…they don’t….”
His voice croaked the words through a dry throat, squeezed them from his white-caked mouth. He spoke them and died, passing easily from the world.
The words meant nothing to Sherry, his wife.
The words were random syllables, stray consonants, impromptu vowels, chosen by the desperate neurotransmitters in his brain to float, dusty, on his final breath into the tepid midday air of the room.
“…they don’t…” had no meaning, only value. Sherry would remember them forever.
Sherry had been at her husband’s side for forty years, and Joel equally at hers. They had honored their wedding vows to each other. They had stood side by side through good and bad, thick and thin, job promotions, unemployment, successes, failures. They supported each other. They comforted each other through each pregnancy and miscarriage, through quarantine, through the sickness that crept over the world, through the cancer that found Joel and eventually claimed him.
…they don’t… what?
…they don’t… know?
Sherry fluffed Joel’s pillow. It was damp with sweat, smelled sour, decayed.
His eyes wouldn’t close. Sherry had learned too well since the outbreak that the countless movies they had seen all their lives lied: the eyes of the dead don’t shut so easy. Not in real life. No swipe of the hand draws the blinds. Joel’s lids remained half open, his eyes upturned to show the whites that reminded her of clobbered milk.
With those half closed lifeless eyes staring at her, Sherry checked to make sure the straps beneath the blanket covering her husband, her true love, were secured. Satisfied they were tight enough, she sat back at his bedside, a table they had converted to a bed just for this occasion, and she waited, holding his cold, limp hand.
…they don’t… love?
The buzzsaw (“A circular saw! Rechargeable!” Joel had said that last normal birthday so long ago at opening the present) waited on the floor beside Sherry’s chair. She charged it the day before when she ran the generator during one of the rolling blackouts.
She chose the buzzsaw, the circular saw, over the hammer, over the bat, over everything else because, she hoped, its whirring blade and winding motor would drown whatever noise Joel might make.
…they don’t…remain the same.
As the evening light painted warm orange and gold slats across the room, Joel’s hand twitched in hers. The smallest of twitches, like a baby responding to a dream of things beyond comprehension.
Sherry slipped her hand free. She stood.
Joel’s fingers flexed, searching. His lids raised on bitter white cataract eyes. He turned his head until he found his wife.
She stiffened, but held strong.
A plaintive moan as old as hell came from the dead throat of the thing strapped to the makeshift bed. The moan became a growl.
…they don’t…have a soul.
Sherry picked up the buzzsaw. The weight of it made her arms tremble. The green light on the battery gave her silent permission to start her task. All she had to do was press the button. Joel had long ago tinkered with it and removed the safety mechanisms.
Joel craned his head to look at her, straining his sinewy neck. He struggled against the restraints. His jaw stretched and chomped.
His teeth bit the air between them.
Joel’s dead eyes stared at her, covetous, starving.
…they don’t…know us as anything but food. That’s what the news reports had said, what the top scientists concluded. Once they, our family, our friends, anyone and everyone, reanimated, they operated on the basest of levels.
…they don’t…we do, Sherry thought. When we come back and before we even go.
She poised the stained blade of the buzzsaw at the crown of Joel’s head. He pressed against it in his attempts to escape, to reach her, to sate whatever hunger possessed him, compelled him.The blade nicked him, dug his scalp through the thin strands of his greasy grey hair. Blood welled and trickled along the shriveled skin.
Sherry’s finger rested on the trigger.
She put the buzzsaw on the floor. She held her arm over Joel’s mouth and let his teeth sink into her forearm.
Sherry screamed as pain shot up her arm. Her brain sent it throughout her body, waves of white-hot agony and dark sickness cascading from her head to her toes. The waves crashed, unrelenting, one upon the other.
She pulled her arm from Joel’s mouth. The raw muscle and bone she saw made her sicker than the sound of her husband’s greedy teeth grinding the morsel it had achieved.
…they don’t…know sickness and health.
We do, Sherry thought. She looked at her Joel. He raised his head. His blood smeared mouth still chewed.
Sherry cradled her arm and half fell into the chair beside her restrained husband.
She stared at the buzzsaw.
“Down diddy, down diddy,” she sang, “down dee down.”
Joel moaned, growled.
Sherry felt herself sinking inside, racing towards a tunnel that knew no light.
“Down dee down, dee diddy….”