“Just because I’m dead, doesn’t mean you can treat me like shit.” Lila mutters.
She’s still staring at the wall, curled in a ball with her bony arms wrapped around her equally as bony legs. With the delay between her brain and her muscles, she’s too slow to turn to face me. She said this to me a few months ago, when I had shot her by accident in our favorite video game. Afterward, she punched me in the arm, laughing her laugh that was actually just a cough.
“You’re just so lifeless and boring, Lila.”
She takes a calculated breath, just barely turning her head to look over her shoulder without changing her facial expression, “Ha.”
I boil. “Lila. Be serious, for once.” I wait, but she is ignoring me, or I’ve offended her, or both. I leave the room.
There’s rain outside. Before the accident, Lila loved the rain, even though I hated it. She used to pull me out the glass sliding door, letting the rain soak her long, black hair before calling, “Darius, you know what to do.” I would groan, hating the rain, then run out and kiss her and swing her before throwing her over my shoulder and carrying her inside.
But now it makes her too cold and leaves pockets of fluid under her waxy skin. The first time she put her arm out from under the awning, watching the air bubbles wrinkle her too-white skin, she looked at her arm for a long time and then turned to me.
“This makes me sad,” she said. There were tears in her eyes, but her expression was the same as it always had been: emotionless, with a hint of fatigued surprise.
I sit down at the round table in the poorly-lit kitchen. “Do you remember when you made me a grilled cheese in this kitchen?” I call to her. She won’t answer, because it takes too much effort for her, but I want to hurt her. I’ve never wanted to hurt her before, but I cannot help it at this point. “That was the best grilled cheese I’d ever had. You’d never make me another one because of your feminist bullshit.” I cackle, then shout, “Typical Lila!” I watch the back of her head in the hallway mirror, still turned slightly from when she looked back at me. My breath is heavy and sounds as angry as I am, so I walk circles in the floor before I open and close cupboards and drawers, pretending to look for something. “Why couldn’t you just have stayed dead. That’s what I want to know. What was the point of this ‘agreement’ or whatever it was?” I keep slamming things, and then laugh grimly. “I mean, it seems like you might have gotten kind of cheated, babe. You have nothing. You have no one.” I know what’s running through her head, too slow to keep up with me, so I mock her voice and say it for her. “I have you. That’s funny, Lila. That’s a good one. Do you, though? Do you really?”
I turn, and she’s behind me, her fingers around my wrist, tightening more than she ever has, more than I thought she would be able to, in her weakened state. “Lila?” I let out feebly, because she’s scaring me. I’m about to say something, but her lips open and she begins to breathe, like she does to indicate that she’s about to speak. She’s standing close, the breath mints and mouthwash I’ve been neglecting to give her in these past few angry days are sorely missed when I smell the rotting from the inside of her. Her teeth are bared and her eyebrows just barely pulled together, and she stands taller than she has since her return. Sweat gathers on the back of my neck. I’m afraid of her.
“Get out,” she says evenly.
I open my mouth to tell her that this is my house, but only a squeak escapes.
“I don’t care.” She tells me, her grip on my wrist becoming stronger and stronger. “You don’t, and I’ll drain your blood for warmth.” I look for an indication of humor in her demeanor, but find nothing.
When she first returned, I took her to a lot of doctors. Some of them ran tests, but mostly she wouldn’t let them touch her, which made sense to me. The general consensus from the doctors and from what she had attempted to explain to me (she had only been dead for two weeks), was that all of the energy that she had when she had drowned was still present in her body after death. But, because her organs didn’t function, she couldn’t absorb new energy.
“So I’ll die again?” She’d asked the eighth doctor, who had stood on the other side of the duck-wallpapered pediatrics room with his clipboard held like a shield. “When?”
“When your energy runs out again.”
I flipped my baseball cap backwards and crossed my arms, in an attempt to look like the protective, muscled boyfriend my vegetative, zombie girlfriend needed. “Isn’t there some electrical method we can use?”
“No, Doctor Frankenstein,” the doctor had answered dryly, briefly lowering his clipboard. “The energy in her body is misplaced, only in parts of her brain – speech, hearing, motor functions – and that could make her…” he fumbled for words.
“Short circuit,” she finished for him. He’d looked scared, then nodded once. We didn’t go to any other doctors after him.
Everything was different. I couldn’t take her out to eat, because the bites she would be able to finish would rot in her stone organs and add to her putrid smell. I would wolf down my food, sneaking glances at her staring sadly down at her food before consuming. She would laugh uncomfortably at me when she told me she was done, pretending that the undigested food sitting inside her wasn’t completely disgusting. She would push her plate at me, barely touched, and quietly ask me to finish it for her.
She spent more time looking at herself, picking at her skin. When moisture formed under her skin, she would stand in front of the mirror and watch herself as she peeled it away, letting the water drip out of the opening in her gray flesh. She would wave it in my face when it disconnected, trying to make me laugh, but her closed expression was never something I could laugh along with.
And, of course, there were them. They followed us everywhere. They had signs, printed with red block letters or scripture, and their voices never seemed to get tired. In the beginning, it was really bad; they would block our front door, forcing us to escape out the back. When they followed us in the street, they were right behind us, close enough to harass Lila about her smell, close enough to smack my hand away when I reached for her. When it first happened, I punched a woman, the ringleader, in the face. She’d told Lila she was a crime against nature, that she had cheated the work of God, that she had slept with Satan, that her blood and her soul would be tainted forever (and in extension, my blood and soul), but it was by far not the worst.
She poured boiling water on my girlfriend.
Lila was okay, of course, as okay as she could be, but that didn’t exactly register to me. All that registered was that I wanted this woman’s skull to hit the pavement, and I wanted to hit her in the face many, many times. Lila was in front of me when I took the woman down, but the damage was done. They moved their protests to the other side of the street, still following like flies that couldn’t be shaken.
We knew many of them, before the incident. They bagged our groceries or wrote us our speeding tickets, or gave us looks when we used to kiss in the street. I think one of them used to be Lila’s dentist, when she was a child. Once, when they knocked on your living room window, telling us Jesus wouldn’t save our eternal souls, Lila walked out naked, in full view of them all, pointing to her exposed ribs and moldy flesh, then pulling off bits of her hair and scalp, revealing the the yellowing skull beneath and putting two fingers in her eye socket and swirling her eyeball around between them before drawing the blinds. Afterward, she kissed me roughly, and bits of her skin came off into my mouth when I bit her lip. She told me that she hated everyone but me. It was endearing.
Lila lets go of my wrist, flinging it so it bounces back against my body.
“I mean it.” She tells me, then lets out a few breaths with her mouth hanging open. “Leave.”
She turns and goes into the bedroom, closing the door behind her. After a couple of seconds, I hear the space heater and furnace begin to buzz.
I get in my car but I’ve forgotten my wallet and my phone, and there’s only one person programmed into the car’s phone system. My thumb hesitates above the button on the wheel before pressing it. As it rings, I debate again and again if I should hang up. I’m about to.
“Hello?” I don’t answer, thinking I can still hang up, but instead it all comes out in a breath.
“Hi, Mom.” There’s no going back. “It’s me. It’s Darius.”
She sighs. “Good God.” There’s a pause. “Alright. How far away are you?”
“I’m pulling into the driveway.”
“Just… good God, son.” She hangs up.
The house is cleaner since my little brother left for college. He’s the smart one in the family; I made my parents promise not to waste their money on me, that it should all go to sending him to some ridiculously pretentious school on the East coast, so he could be absurdly pretentious. Those are the best things to be in this day and age, I think. Dad has cooked pot roast, but I know he’s not here. Mom is sitting at the kitchen table doing her crossword, pretending she didn’t know I was coming.
“Hi, Mom,” I call quietly across the kitchen. My voice echoes off the white tiles. I forgot that it did that.
She doesn’t look up. “Did she die yet?”
“Bite me.” I tell her, spooning out some of Dad’s pot roast onto a plate.
“Use a paper one.” She called.
“I don’t want to have to wash it. Use a paper one.” I do. I sit down across from her with my microwaved pot roast and eat, watching her continue with the paper.
“You ruin the food when you overcook it like that.”
I don’t answer. We’d had the same argument countless times. There’s a long silence between us. She puts down her crossword and looks across the table at me, but I’m looking at that black grid, trapped beneath her folded hands. She’s put in a long word, symposium, but spelled it simposeum. I rub my hands across my face.
“Mom, I just don’t know how much more I can take.”
“Don’t take it.”
“I love her, obviously. At least, I think so. I used to. I’m supposed to. I just don’t know how much more I can take.”
“She’s draining you.”
“Of course. But I can’t abandon her. She came back for me.”
“You can’t take it with you.”
I roll my eyes at her. “I just don’t know how much more I can take.”
“Move back home with us.”
“I don’t have a job.”
“Why not?” I give her a look when she says this. “Oh.
“How’s Chip?” I ask.
She shrugs. “Hasn’t called.”
“I’ll go see him in a minute.” I haven’t touched my pot roast. It’s still piping. She shakes her head, and I understand. “I just don’t know how much more I can take.”
“Darius, I love your father. And I love you. And I don’t love… but you do.”
“Do I?” I interrupt.
“Of course you do. If you didn’t, it wouldn’t have been this long. You love her, and even though it’s wrong, you’re going to go back to her. You shouldn’t, but you have to. It would be worse if you didn’t.”
She hasn’t given me a pep talk since Chip was a baby.
The house is over a hundred degrees. I never let Lila heat it up like this, but now it doesn’t matter. When I open the door to her room, the lights are off, and she’s on her side facing the door. Her eyes fly open when I walk in. It’s the hottest in here. I close the door behind me, and it’s dark again. It’s hot, and I’m immediately sweaty. It smells bad, and the heat on my skin feels like it is one and the same with the smell. It is touching me and watching me with slitted eyes. It’s dark but I reach out and touch the edge of the mattress, then lay down facing her. At least, I think so. I reach out to touch her side, but her cold arm flinches, so I retract my arm, but I hear her shifting slowly and her chipped fingertips creep onto the crook between my shoulder and neck.
“Where were you?” Her voice is low and sleepy.
I shake my head. “Somewhere dumb.” She doesn’t respond, but I can feel her breathing. “I don’t want to fight anymore.” The breathing stops, and I hear her teeth clicking together in her head. The scent fades, and somehow that makes it well up more in my nose. “Lila,” I whisper. I feel the hairs on the bare of her thighs prickle with goosebumps against my hand. “I love you.” She doesn’t say anything, just kept her fingers in the hair on the nape of my neck, and I realize she isn’t going to say anything. She doesn’t have to.
When I wake, the room is light. The sun is low in the clear sky, and there are bits of frost stuck to the window. My nose tingles and my mouth tastes rank. The smell is gone, and so is she.
Credit to Tumblr user cacas for the grime edit on the cover album art.