Diana the Zombie
When Henrietta saw me peering at her through the tree branches, the stupid cat reacted like she always did: Ears flat, back hunched, low…
When Henrietta saw me peering at her through the tree branches, the stupid cat reacted like she always did: Ears flat, back hunched, low growl punctuated by the occasional hiss. Her ungrateful reaction did not deter me. “Stuck in the tree again? I’ll just — ”
I scraped my palm against the tree trunk and ignored the large flakes of skin that fluttered to the ground. I looked over my shoulder. “Yes, Mrs. Merkin?”
“How many times have I told you that Henrietta doesn’t like dead people?”
“I’ve rescued her before.” The little hairy snot was as ancient as her owner and I’d been rescuing her since I was a teenager.
The elderly lady shuffled onto her porch and shook the morning paper at me, her yellow housedress hanging listlessly from her pale, bony arms. “That was before you died, Diana. You’re a soulless zombie now.”
“I am not soulless.”
She straightened as much as her stooped form would allow and sent me a frosty glare. “Young lady, don’t you lecture me about the state of your soul. I’ve attended church every Sunday for sixty-four years. When you get a shotgun blast through the stomach” — she looked at my sweatshirt as if she could see the big hole it hid — “you’re supposed to stop walking the Earth and go meet Jesus!”
Maybe he had another appointment, I wanted to say, but my mother would kill me — well, lecture me, which was worse than death — if I was rude to Mrs. Merkin or any of the neighbors who’d watched me grow up, get married, get divorced, and, almost a month ago, get killed.
My mother had gone on an ice cream run. Not five minutes after she left, Ronny, my asshole husband, blasted the front door with a shotgun and found me standing there staring in stunned amazement at the destruction.
I said, “Wha — ” and BLAM, I flew backward and landed in the living room, a bloody mess.
“Blikitch!” he yelled. “You fluduckin’ blikitch!”
I think he was trying to say “fucking bitch,” but Ronny never could articulate once he’d imbibed a 12-pack. I don’t remember any pain from the hot spray of lead, but my ass throbbed from skidding across the carpet. Ronny looked just as surprised as I felt when I climbed to my feet and assessed the damage. He dropped the shotgun and ran away.
I figured that my mother would be livid about the stains on her carpet. When I was ten-years-old, I spilled grape Kool-Aid and got a blistering 20-minute harangue. I could only imagine the ferocity of Mom’s scolding when she saw all the blood and guts. OxyClean will never get this out, Diana Marie. Couldn’t you have the decency to die in the kitchen, on the tile, so I could use the Swiffer?
My mother didn’t reprimand me, though. She didn’t even look all that surprised when she walked in, laden with Ben & Jerry’s pints, and saw me scrubbing the carpet with my arms caked with blood and my stomach missing. She got a blowtorch to sear close the wound, helped me change clothes, and handed me a carton of Chunky Monkey. Eating it was a brief joy — the ice cream just plopped into the hole and made my singed flesh smell like fried bananas.
“Diana!” Mrs. Merkin yelled, exasperation making her reedy voice break. “Go home. Henrietta won’t come down until you get away from the tree.”
I complied, stepping out of the tiny yard and onto the pathway.
“Good Lord!” Mrs. Merkin grabbed her nose. “You are stinking up the neighborhood!”
“I am not.” The urine smell came from her house — probably the result of Henrietta’s peeing on everything. Since I wasn’t decomposing, I didn’t stink. Once I’d gotten over the fact I’d been killed, the horrible realization hit me that my body would slowly turn to mush. I’d wake up one day, a stinky pile of goo, unable to do much more than gurgle. But I just sorta … froze up, I guess. Sometimes, parts of me fell off, but Mom always figured out how to reattach ’em. Being a zombie wasn’t fun, but it was better than being dead.
Mrs. Merkin gasped and wheezed, holding her nose so tight, it turned purple. I moved away from the porch and she released the grip on her schnooze.
“I’m praying for you, Diana.” Her head bobbed. “I’m praying that you can leave your corpse and go to Heaven.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Merkin.” You … you … fluduckin’ blikitch.
I headed home. I don’t know why I bothered being nice to Mrs. Merkin, who never liked me, even when I was alive. So much for taking a nice walk around the neighborhood. Sugarwood Ranch was a square of twenty-five houses plunked into the middle of nowhere. Surrounded on three sides by a thick, forbidding forest, it wasn’t exactly fashionable suburbia. When Sugarwood was built, the developers had counted on a freeway project to open up the area for new businesses and more tidy little neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, the freeway never materialized. Thirty-something years ago, a trip to the nearest grocery store was a thirty-minute drive; to get into the city proper, it took an hour. That hadn’t changed. And neither had the people who lived here. No one else wanted to move into the back-of-beyond, no matter how cheap the house. So, most of the original owners still occupied the residences, including my mother. My dad died in a car accident when I was two-years-old, just a few months after they’d purchased their first home in Sugarwood Ranch. Mom raised me all by herself and she never remarried.
An overturned garbage can rolled down the street, vomiting its contents as it went. Sheesh. The neighborhood had fallen into serious disrepair. When I moved back into Mom’s house just a few weeks ago, everything seemed different — shiny, clean, cared-for. What had happened?
The next night, I found out.
* * *
Mr. and Mrs. Javish hosted the meeting. I’d known the Javishes my whole life and had even dated their son, Chad, when I was in high school. Mom and I weren’t so much invited as commanded to attend.
We all sat in the backyard, the only place large enough to accommodate everyone. Mr. and Mrs. Javish sat on either side of a long table covered by a purple cloth. Mom and I huddled in the last row listening to people discuss how my zombiness had somehow overtaken Sugarwood Ranch.
“How do you know it’s me?” I asked. “Maybe it’s a sewer back-up. Or Henrietta. She has urine challenges.”
Mrs. Merkin sent me an evil glare and harrumphed.
“Ida — it’s your turn,” said Mr. Javish.
Ida Bilbury rose and turned to address the crowd. She was as old as Mrs. Merkin and just as bitter. If getting older meant getting über-crabby, I was glad I had died at twenty-eight.
“Everyone here knows that at the annual potluck dinner, I fix my Great Grandma Birdie’s beef stew. It takes two days to make!”
“It’s real good, Ida. Real good,” said Mr. Javish, who had also hosted the annual potluck dinner in this very backyard.
“Thank you.” Mrs. Bilbury’s head dipped. “Diana was put in charge of serving since — as far as we know — she doesn’t need to eat.”
Heads swung around and old, beady eyes surveyed me as if they could determine whether or not I was nibbling human flesh for sustenance.
“I don’t know why someone thought it was a good idea for her to dole out food,” continued Mrs. Bilbury.
Oh, crap. I knew where this was headed. I sunk lower in my seat and stared at my sneakers.
“She lost a finger! In the stew.”
Gasps echoed; punctuated by a loud guffaw from Mrs. Bilbury’s mortal enemy, Stella Peabody, who everyone knew only made the second best stew.
“It was an accident,” I said. “I didn’t realize I’d lost it until Mrs. Staki found it in her bowl.”
Mrs. Staki looked pale and shaken, her blue-tinted hair and jowly face nearly vibrating with the same disgust and outrage she’d displayed when she presented the tip of my middle finger to me. Then she promptly threw up — into the slow cooker that held Great Grandma Birdie’s beef stew.
Needless to say, the party ended early.
“I Superglued it back on,” I said, showing the digit to everyone who turned to look at the finger. “See?”
Outraged hisses and fierce whispering ensued. Mom tugged on my shirt. “Dear, you’re flipping off the neighbors.”
“Oh.” I put my hand down. “Sorry.”
“Stew!” yelled Mr. Grouseman, who was deaf, even with hearing aids on the “high” setting, and always yelled. “Who cares about stew? She’s eating cats, I tell ya. Cats.”
“I caught her trying to eat Henrietta. Again,” said Mrs. Merkin. “She was climbing the oak tree in my front yard so she could take a bite.”
I stood, indignant. “I was trying to help her out of the tree.”
“What?” yelled Mr. Grouseman. “She’s been eating keys, too?”
“I don’t eat cats. Or keys. I don’t eat anything.”
My protests were lost in the rise of voices as everyone uttered loud accusations about how my inability to die like a normal person had mucked up their lives. I plopped into my seat and crossed my arms.
If I still had the ability to cry, I would’ve bawled. Hell, I couldn’t even sigh anymore. I had to stop rolling my eyes, my favorite gesture to show contempt, after one popped out of the socket and ambled across the floor like a shiny black-dotted marble. It fit right back in, and I can see fine with it. Weird, right?
“Okay, everyone,” Mr. Javish said, clapping his hands. “That’s enough. There’s only one thing to do.”
Everyone settled down and faced forward, leaning in eager anticipation of Mr. Javish’s solution to the problem of Diana the Zombie.
“We must chop her into small pieces, burn them, and dump the ashes in the forest.”
“What!” I hollered, stunned. “What!?”
“We should let cats eat the pieces,” yelled Mr. Grouseman. “Give them critters some justice!”
“They might get zombified, Peter,” said Mrs. Merkin, her steely gaze assessing Mrs. Staki, obviously thinking about how the woman had eaten soup with a zombie finger in it. “I won’t let Henrietta near a Diana chunk.”
Mr. Javish clapped his hands for order again, directing a kind look at me. “I’m sorry, Diana. I really am. You were a nice girl. Wasn’t she, sweetheart?” He looked at his wife, and she smiled, nodding as she rose, and whipped off the purple cloth to reveal an assortment of gardening tools, a chainsaw, and … was that a scythe? Who the hell keeps a scythe?
“I don’t suppose you’d stand in place while we took the saw to you, would you?” asked Mr. Javish.
“Oh, yeah. Sure. Would it be easier if I sat down and held out my arms and legs? Hey! Do you want to use a permanent marker to trace out the best spots for cutting?”
Mrs. Merkin hopped out of her seat and marched to the table. She picked up the large curved blade and waved it in my direction. “You know something, Margie,” she said to my mother, “you raised a real smart ass.”
“Judith, for heaven’s sake, put down the scythe,” Mom said. “You look silly.”
“Now Margie … it’s for her own good. She’s dead.”
“And you will be, too, if you don’t stop acting like an idiot.” Mom rose from her chair, the look on her face one I knew well. She was going to give a Big Lecture. Hah. These people deserved every acid-dripped word.
“Earl, I can’t believe you organized this … this mob.”
“Margie — ”
“You ol’ wind bag. I know why you started this nonsense and it has nothing to do with Diana’s death.”
Mr. Javish straightened, his usual congenial expression twisted in anger. “All we have to do is kill Diana to make everything in our little neighborhood right again. Otherwise the association dues are going to go up.”
This announcement caused another bout of distressed murmurings.
My mother looked mightily pissed-off. “I saw you and your wife knocking over trash cans,” she said.
Mrs. Javish gasped in outrage, pressing a manicured hand against her chest. “Well, I never!”
“You’re mistaken, Margie,” said Mr. Javish. He looked at me, his gaze benevolent. “It’s not personal, Diana.”
“Yeah. I get it.” I felt more resigned than afraid. I was the walking dead. Hel-lo. It wasn’t exactly a picnic for me, either.
“If you had died when Ronny killed you, we wouldn’t have to do it ourselves,” said Mrs. Javish, her girlish voice soft with reproach.
“Let’s kill ’em both,” muttered Mrs. Merkin.
“Won’t do no good. The whole neighborhood is going to pot,” Mrs. Staki’s stout voice interrupted. “My house stinks to high heaven and I clean it with bleach top to bottom every day.”
Hah. So it wasn’t me stinkin’ up the neighborhood. I caught Mrs. Merkin’s gaze and smirked. She raised the hooked blade in a swishing motion and smirked back. Sheesh.
“Shouldn’t use bleach,” said Mrs. Peabody. “Gotta use OxyClean. That stuff works wonders.”
“You know as much about proper cleaning techniques as you do about making stew,” reprimanded Mrs. Bilbury in a surly tone. “Everyone knows that mixing vinegar and dishwashing soap together works best.”
“Oh yeah? Is the stink in your house gone?”
Mrs. Bilbury’s stony expression answered Mrs. Peabody’s question. The ol’ gal cackled. “You know don’t know jack shit, Ida. And your stew sucks.”
“You can’t cook to save your life, Stella. I’ll have you know — ”
“That’s enough,” said Mr. Javish. “It does no good to fight amongst ourselves. Now, I think Judith has a valid point. If we kill Diana and Margie, everything will return to normal. And — ” he paused dramatically, his fuzzy gray eyebrows raised in excitement “ — we can destroy their house and build a community pool!”
“Hot damn!” said Mrs. Merkin. “Let’s get to it then.”
“What about the cats?” yelled Mr. Grouseman.
“Shut up, you old fool,” yelled Mrs. Merkin. “You don’t even own a cat.”
“Are we killing them or not?” asked Mrs. Bilbury impatiently.
“I ain’t killing nobody,” said Mrs. Peabody. “Margie has more sense the rest of you combined.” She rose and stalked to the back row to stand with my mother.
“Anyone who stands with the zombie, gets killed with the zombie,” declared Mr. Javish.
“Earl,” said Mrs. Peabody in her smoked-too-many-cigarettes voice. “You are a fucking moron.”
His faced mottled, turning an ugly shade of red. “That’s it! Grab your weapons, people.”
Being threatened by a knife-wielding geriatric mob was like being yapped at by a teacup poodle — it’s difficult to take it seriously. But Stella, Mom, and I wasted no time hauling ass out of there. To be honest, we could’ve walked home, bolted the doors, and unveiled Mom’s surprising and considerable stash of guns without a single person catching up to us.
“Just out of curiosity, if I get shot again — ”
“You’re already dead, sweetheart,” said Mom. “About the only way to dispose of you is to chop you into pieces or to behead you and crush your skull into dust.”
I paused from sticking bullets into the .38’s chambers. “Gee, thanks for the visual.”
Stella hauled an M-16 out of the hole in the living room floor. She popped the magazine into the slot like a Rambo Granny. “The good news is that bullets will always win in a knife fight.”
My mother rummaged through the guns, finally choosing one that looked like she borrowed it from Dirty Harry. After she loaded it, we turned the couch around and sat behind it, leaning against the back and stretching out our legs. We waited for the inevitable breaking and entering that would occur once the crazy neighbors arrived.
Mom rubbed the gun against her cotton shirt, apparently shining it up for the battle. Was there nothing my mother wouldn’t clean?
“I can’t believe they’re trying to kill us for a pool.” I still hadn’t gotten over that revelation. “That is so … stupid.”
“Yeah,” agreed Mrs. Peabody. “Earl is an idiot.”
I glance at my mother. “Why do you have all these guns?”
“I collect them,” she said. “It’s my hobby.”
“Riiiiight.” Most mothers knitted or baked. Mine took an interest in lethal weaponry. Go figure. “So what do we do now?”
* * *
When I heard the crash of a window breaking, I jolted. You know, I wasn’t that thrilled at the prospect of becoming cat chow at the hands of the Medicaid Mafia. Another window broke — upstairs, I think. Then a thwump thwump sound attacked the front door and I realized it was somebody hacking at the wood with an ax.
“So … er, what do we do now?” I asked.
“I hate to say it,” said Mom, “but we might have to kill the neighbors.”
As much as I wanted to live — hell, being a zombie was better than being dead — I didn’t want to slaughter twenty or so people. “I’m not sure mass murder is the way to go.”
“Don’t worry, honey.” Mom kissed the top of my head. “Everything’ll be fine.”
The door shuddered, cracked, and broke. I peeked around the couch and watched Mr. Javish lead several people into the living room. Me and Stella crawled onto our knees and looked over the back of the couch. We both aimed our guns, though Stella brandished her with a lot more enthusiasm than I did. My mother stood up and turned around, looking as though she were getting ready to address a classroom full of errant teenagers. “You’re paying for that door.”
Mr. Javish appeared surprised at my mother’s blandness, but he recovered quickly. He hoisted the ax up to his shoulder. “Screw the door. As soon as you’re dead, we’re demolishing this whole house.”
A wobbly chorus of “pool, pool, pool” sounded behind him.
Emboldened by the chants, he swung the ax. The blade glanced off the long barrel of Mom’s gun and knocked it out of her hand. My mother bared her teeth in a smile that would’ve scared a horde of demons. She leapt over the couch and Mr. Javish planted the ax into my mother’s mid-section. It stuck in her stomach like the blade had wedged in a block of wood. Mr. Javish looked as surprised as I felt.
Mr. Javish sputtered in shock. “You! How did — ! When did — !”
“Last spring,” said my mother. “Remember, Earl? You and your lovely wife took your Buick and rammed me from behind? Thought I was dead, didn’t you? I bet you pissed yourself when you saw me the next day.”
Holy crap! My mother was a zombie, too! Wait. What? My mother had been a zombie for a whole year and I hadn’t noticed. Then again, up until two months ago, I had been in marriage hell with Ronny, trying to fix a man who liked being broke — and who liked breaking others.
Mom yanked the ax out of her middle then without so much as a “hey, watch out” she whipped the blade through Mr. Javish’s neck. The man’s head separated cleanly, hitting the floor with a sickening thud. The body stood for a full ten seconds before crumpling to the carpet. Blood seeped out from the mangled neck stump, pooling around the shoulders.
Ew. OxyClean would never get that out.
“It’s a good thing I can’t throw up,” I whispered. Stella looked at me and nodded in empathy.
Mrs. Javish stepped forward, her rheumy eyes glittering with hatred. “You killed Earl, you terrible woman!”
She stabbed my mother with ice pick — in the left eye. Mom sighed. She removed the implement, plucked off her eyeball then popped it back into the socket. Even though I’d done the same thing with my own eyeballs a time or two, watching my mother reinsert her own eye gave me the shivers.
Then Mom lifted the ice pick and shoved it into Mrs. Javish’s right temple. She used enough force that the sharp needle sank in all the way to the handle. The woman collapsed next to the corpse of her husband, landing on her side, with the ice pick sticking out of her skull and blood dribbling out of her nose.
Mrs. Merkin and Mrs. Bilbury stood next to each other, staring at the dead Javishes. I half-hoped Mrs. Merkin would threaten Mom, but the crone dropped her blade. Mrs. Bilbury did, too. The neighbors who had squeezed in behind them tossed down their weapons. Chainsaws, machetes, and baseball bats clattered and clunked onto the floor.
“Well,” said Mrs. Merkin. “This puts a crimp into the pool plans.”
“Not necessarily,” mused Mrs. Bilbury. “We could demolish the Javishes’ home and put it there. I never did like the way that woman kept her house.”
“Those Precious Moments figurines have got to go,” agreed Mrs. Merkin.
“We’ll have another meeting to talk about which companies to contact about building a pool,” my mother said. “And we’ll also discuss who’s paying for the damages to my house.”
“Now, Margie — ” wheedled Mrs. Bilbury.
“Go. Home.” My mother lifted up the bloodied ax. “Now.”
When motivated properly, old people sure could move. They hightailed it out of our living room and shuffled away as fast as their orthopedic shoes could carry them.
“We won.” I grinned at Mom and Stella.
Stella stared forlornly at her M-16. “Damn. I didn’t get to use this baby.”
“Hang on to it,” Mom advised. “If negotiations for the pool go south, you might get a chance to use it.” She looked around and grimaced. “This is going to take forever to clean up. We’ll have to burn the bodies, too.”
“What about the neighborhood?” I asked. “All the decay and stink and stuff?”
“I’m sure the Javishes had something to do with that. They wanted to rile up the neighbors into murdering us,” said Mom. “Hey Stella, you want the arms or the legs?”
“I’ll take the legs,” she said, leaning her M-16 against the turned-over couch. “Never could stand the Javishes, you know.”
“Me, either,” said Mom. “Especially after they killed me.” She reached down and grabbed Mrs. Javish’s forearms while Stella grasped the old lady’s ankles. “Diana, will you get out the Oxyclean and the Swiffer?”
“Yeah. No problem.”
They carried Mrs. Javish out the back door. Hmm. Before I got out the buckets and scrub brushes, I had a score to settle. If I hurried, I’d still have time scare the hell out of Mrs. Merkin.
And maybe, juuuuuuust maybe, I’d eat her stupid cat.