Authors: Elizabeth Massie
By Elizabeth Massie
First Digital Edition published by Crossroad Press
Copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Massie
Cover art by Cortney Skinner
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Afraid & Other Tidbits of the Macabre
Sineater â Narrated by Joe Geoffrey
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eggie's a-line dress is yellow, bright like a new dandelion in the side yard and as soft as the throats of the tiny toads Meggie used to find in the woods that surround the farm. There aren't many stains on the dress, just some spots on the hem. Mama Randolph, Quint's mother and Meggie's mother-in-law, ironed the dress this morning, and then gave it to Meggie with a patient and expectant smile before locking the bedroom door once more. Meggie knows that Mama likes the dress because it isn't quite as much a reminder of the bad situation as are the other blotted and bloodied outfits in Meggie's footed wardrobe.
From the open window, a benign breeze passes through the screen, stirring the curtains. But the breeze dies in the middle of the floor because there are no other windows in the room to allow it to leave. The summer heat, however, is quite at home in the room and has settled for a long stay.
There has been no rain for the past fourteen days. Meggie has been marking the days off on the Shenandoah Dairy calendar she keeps under her bed. Mama has not talked about a grandchild in almost a month now; Meggie keeps the calendar marked for that, as well. Mama Randolph's smile and the freshly ironed dress lets Meggie know that the cycle has come 'round again.
Meggie moves from the bed to the window to the bed. There is a chair in the comer by the door, but the cushion smells bad and so she doesn't like to sit on it. The mattress on the bed smells worse than the chair, but there is a clean comer that she uses when she is tired. She paces about, feeling the soft swing of her hair about her shoulders as she rocks her head back and forth, remembering the feel of Quint's own warm hair in the sunlight of past Julys and the softness of the dark curls that made a sweet pillow of his chest.
At the window, Meggie glances out through the screen, down to the chain-linked yard below. The weeds there are wild and a tall and tangled like briars in the forest. The fence is covered with honeysuckle. There is the remainder of the sandbox Quint used as a child. It is nearly returned to the soil now, and black-eyed Susans have found themselves a home. Mama says it will be a fine thing when there is a child to enjoy the yard once again. She says when the child comes she and Meggie will clean up the yard and make it into a playground that any other child in Norton County will envy.
Mama had slapped Meggie when Meggie said she didn't know if there would ever be any more children in the county.
On the nightstand beside Meggie's bed is a chipped vase with a bouquet of Queen Anne's lace, sweet peas, red clover, and chicory. Mama said it was a gift from Quint, but Meggie knows Quint is long past picking gifts of wildflowers. Beside the vase is a picture of Meggie and Quint on their wedding day three years ago. Meggie wears a white floor length dress and clutches a single white carnation. Quint grins shyly at the camera, the new beard Meggie had loved just a dark shadow across his lower face. It would be four months before the beard was full enough to satisfy him, although it never satisfied his mother.
“You live in my house, you do as I say, you hear me?" she had told Quint. And although Meggie believed in the premise of that command, and managed to follow the rules. Quint always had a way of getting by with what he wanted by joking and cajoling his mother. And in the dark privacy of night, while cuddling with Meggie in bed, he would promise that it wouldn't be long before he had saved enough money to build them their own small house on the back acre Mama had given him by the river.
But that was back when Quint worked the farm for his mother and held an evening job at the Joy Food Mart and Gas Station out on Route 146. Back when they had a savings account in the Farmers' Bank in Henford and Meggie happily collected her mother-in-law's cast off dishes to use as her own when the house by the river was built.
And then came the change. Things in Norton County flipped ass over teakettle. Old dead Mrs. Lowry had sat up in her coffin at the funeral home, grunting and snarling, her eyes washed white with the preserving chemicals but her mouth chattering for something hot and living to eat. Then Mr. Conrad, Quint's boss down at the Joy Food Mart and Gas Station, had keeled over while changing a tire and died on the spot of a heart attack. Before Quint could finish dialing the number of the Norton volunteer rescue squad, Conrad was up again and licking his newly dead lips, his hands racked with spasms but his teeth keen for a taste of Quint-neck. Quint hosed him down with unleaded and tossed in his Bic lighter and then cried when it was over because he couldn't believe what had happened.
They all believe now, all-righty.
The dead wander the gravel roads and eat what they may, and everyone in Norton County knows it is no joke because they've all seen one or two of the dead, at least. The newspapers say it's a problem all over now; the big cities like Richmond and D.C. and Chicago got dead coming out of their ears. There is a constant battle in the cities because there are so many. In Norton County it is a problem, and a couple people have been eaten, but mostly the walking dead get burned with gasoline or get avoided by the careful.
A thud in the downstairs hallway causes Meggie to jump and clasp her hands to the bodice of her yellow dress. The permanent chicken bone of fear that resides in her chest makes a painful turn. She presses her fists deep into the pain. She waits. Sweat beads on her arms and between her breasts. Mama
Randolph does not come yet.
Meggie turns away from the wedding portrait on the nightstand and tries to remember the songs she sang in church before the church closed down. But all she can remember are some psalms. She walks to the clean spot on the bed and sits. She looks at the window, at the footed wardrobe, at the stained chair near the locked door. Above the chair is a Jesus picture. If there was some way to know what Jesus thought of the change, Meggie thinks she could bear it. If Meggie truly believed that Jesus had a handle on the walking dead, and that it was just a matter of time before He put a stop to it all, then Meggie would live out her confinement with more faith. But the picture shows a happy, smiling Jesus, holding a little white lamb with other white lambs gathered at His feet. He does not look like He has any comprehension of the horror that walks the world today. If He did, shouldn't He be crashing from the sky in a wailing river of fire to throw the dead back into their graves until the Rapture?
Meggie slips from the bed and kneels before the picture, Jesus' smiling face moves her and His detachment haunts her. Her hands fold into a sweaty attitude of prayer, and in a gritty voice, she repeats, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..."
The crash in the hall just outside the door hurls Meggie to her feet. Her hands are still folded but she raises them like a club. The sound was that of a food tray being carelessly plopped onto the bare hall floor, and of dishes rattling with the impact. Mama Randolph brings Meggie her breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, but today Mama is early.
Meggie looks at the screened window and wishes she could throw herself to the ground below without risking everlasting damnation from suicide. There is no clock in the room, but Meggie knows Mama is early. The sun on the floor is not yet straddling the stain on the carpet, and so it is still a ways from noon. But Meggie knows that Mama has something on her mind today besides food. Mama's excitement has interrupted the schedule. Mama has been marking a calendar as well. Today, Mama is thinking about grandchildren.
Meggie holds the club of fingers before her. It will do no good, she knows. She could not strike Mama Randolph. Maybe Jesus will think it is a prayer and come to help her.
The door opens, and Mama Randolph comes in with a swish of old apron and a flourish of cloth napkin. The tray and its contents are visible behind her in the hall, but the meal is the last of Mama's concerns. When business is tended, the meal will be remembered.
“Meggie," says Mama. "What a pretty sight you are there in your dress. Makes me think of a little yellow kitten." The cloth napkin is dropped onto the back of the stinking chair, and Mama straightens to take appraisal of her daughter-in-law. There is something in Mama's apron pocket that clinks faintly.
"Well, you gonna stand there or do you have a 'good morning'?"
Meggie looks toward the window. Two stories is not enough to die. And if she died, she would only become one of the walking dead. She looks back at Mama.
"Good morning," she whispers.
"And to you," Mama says cheerily. "Can you believe the heat? I pity the farmers this year. Corn is just cooking on the stalks. You look to the right out that window and just over the trees and you can see a bit of John Johnson's crop. Pitiful thing, all burned and brown." Mama tips her head and smiles. The apron clinks.
Neither says anything for a minute. Mama's eyes sparkle in the heavy, hot air. The dead folks' eyes sparkle when they walk about, but Meggie knows Mama is not dead. The older woman is very much alive, with all manner of plans for her family.
Then Mama says, "Sit down."
Meggie sits on the clean spot on the mattress.
Mama touches her dry lips. She says, "You know a home ain't a home without the singing of little children."
Oh, dear Jesus
, thinks Meggie.
"When Quint was born, I was complete. I was a woman then. I was whole; I'd done what I was made to do. A woman with no children can't understand that till she's been through it herself."
Meggie feels a large drop of sweat fall and lodge above her navel. She looks at the floor and remembers what Quint's shoes looked like there, beside hers in the night after they'd climbed beneath the covers. Precious shoes, farmer's shoes, with the sides worn down and the dark coating of earth on the toes. Shoes that bore the weight of hard work and love. Shoes Quint swore he would throw away when he'd earned enough money to build the new house. Shoes that Meggie was going to keep in her cedar chest as a memory of the early days.