The last time I saw my stepdad Ron, he was pretty much a zombie anyway. I had come into town to sign a contract with a family that had lost a son. I needed some time to collect myself before going back to the farm, so I decided to stop in for breakfast at a place on the corner of where County Road H intersected with Main. The server had just set down my eggs with hollandaise in front of me when in came Ron and sat across from me at my booth. He was underweight and his skin was pale, his eyes sunken in. He was stooped. He looked like one of the zombies out at my farm. He pleaded with me, wanted me to tell him what he could do, what did he need to do to change, to get my mom back.
I could smell his breath from across the table—stale cigarettes, several cups of coffee that had been sitting in the pot for a day, cheap vodka and a hint of listerine to cover it all up. I said I couldn’t say what he should do, but what I wanted to tell him was to look at himself, to really take one long look. If he did, he might’ve seen what I saw, a barely functioning alcoholic begging his former stepson to tell him how to get his wife back at a diner at 9:30 in the morning on a Monday. Really look at yourself, Ron, I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It wouldn’t have helped anyway.
Then a rattling came from way back in his throat. I thought he was going to die right there across from me and my breakfast. But he didn’t. It wasn’t his time yet. He wheezed a dry cough from deep in his lungs—was he trying to tell me something?
“Okay, Ron,” I said then. “I need to finish eating.”
So he got up and left without another word.
Two weeks later my younger brother Alex called to tell me that Ron had died. I was standing in the kitchen looking out at my backyard. The grass was hoary with frost. Al told me Ron was driving home from his son’s after dinner and smashed his car into the side of a brick house. Killed instantly, Al said. I imagined Ron, his face all black and blue and red, all mangled up. I mean, it was sad but there were worse ways to go. Drowning. Having your head sawed off. Being eaten alive by a crocodile.
“I told you, man,” I said. “When you let him use your car to get his license again.”
“This was the best possible outcome.”
“I was right.” I scratched my nose and looked out the kitchen window again, out past the yard to the stable. The zombies were stirring. It was time for breakfast. “He’s lucky he didn’t kill anyone else.”
“I KNOW.” Al was practically yelling now.
“He drove his car into someone’s house for Christ sake.”
“You’re right. You’re always right.”
“Well,” I said. “I have to feed my zombies. They’re going crazy out there.”
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll talk to you later.”
I hoped Al felt terrible. I couldn’t believe he helped Ron get his license again. He probably felt sorry for him, but that wasn’t an excuse. Ron was going to kill himself one way or another, either drinking or smoking or having a seizure at the top of a staircase while he was trying to dry out, but he didn’t need to take anyone with him.
I used to think Sunday afternoons at the farm were depressing. Families came by to look at their undead. Memories were brought to life. My zombies kept the past present, not to be forgotten. They were terrifying shadows of what they were in life. Eventually I came to see that they were still something for their loved ones to latch onto. It was appealing, I supposed, somehow, in its own way. I just never loved anyone in my family enough to turn them. Maybe I loved Al enough. Then again, maybe I didn’t. At any rate, it was because of me these families got their Sundays, the chance to see their dead once again in the flesh. I guess I felt good about that, like it might not be so depressing after all.
A week after the crash, Ron was interred. The night before his funeral, our mom called me to complain that Al was going.
“You’re not going, are you?” she asked me. “It’s open casket.”
“Why would I want to see him dead?” I said. “Are you going?”
She said she wasn’t, and then she started to cry. I could tell she had been drinking. She said how she was terrible to him the final year they were together. Just awful. It seemed like she was fishing for me to say that no, she hadn’t been that bad. But how would I know? I was never around. Then I said I had to go, that I had to get up early in the morning. She said she loved me and I said okay.
The next day Al called me to ask if he could drop by. A couple hours later we were outside the zombie corral, watching my deadstock while he told me all about it, a solemn affair, thin attendance. Al came late, slipped into a pew at the back of Our Savior’s. Followed the procession out to Calvary Cemetery. Stood at the edge in the cold for the rites, etc., then left before anyone knew he had been there at all.
Al continued talking, but I wasn’t really listening. I stared at my zombies, shuffling around the corral. There was something inside of them, I thought, a spark of life. Some self-awareness. A deep, innate knowledge that they were hideous.
Then Al stopped. I could feel him looking at me.
“Are you even listening?”
I looked back at him. “Sure.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then we’ll take him out here and let him get bit by one of your zombies,” Al concluded.
“Wait,” I said. “Who? What?”
“Ron,” he answered. “We’ll turn him into a zombie, you know, just for a while.”
“Just for a while,” Al pleaded.
Deb approached us from the other side of the chain-link fence, jaws opening and snapping shut with the sound of bone knocking on bone. Her hair was frizzy and dry, like she had stuck her finger in an electric socket. Maybe she had and that’s how she went out. Sometimes the families told me how their loved ones died. Sometimes they didn’t.
“So he can be like Deb?” I nodded at her.
“I feel like I owe him one.”
“So you want to make him undead? Have you seen the zombies out in my corral? They don’t seem happy to me.”
“Do you tell that to their families that come to see them? That they don’t seem happy?”
“You’re different from them. You know better.”
“C’mon,” he said. “You owe him one too.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
“For Mom leaving him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You hated him.” Al rubbed his palms on his jeans and shoved them back in his front pockets.
It was true. Ron had repulsed me. “What if we get caught?”
“We’re not going to get caught. Just do this for me. For once think about me.”
Not long after our parents separated, my mom, Al, and I had moved in with Ron. When I turned eighteen, I left Al behind and moved into a small room in a house just beyond town limits. I took a job at the zombie farm. A couple years later the original groundskeeper got bit and I had to put him down. It was unceremonious and he would’ve wanted it that way. I walked him out into the razed cornfield out past the chain-link corral, took a shovel and the shotgun with me. When the coast was clear I blew his brains out and buried him. That’s when I moved into the main house and took over.
Even when Al pleaded for me to come home and “reconnect,” I wouldn’t do it. I knew I was being juvenile, but so what. I’d tell him I had enough work out on the farm and I didn’t need outside distractions screwing it up. I had to think about contracts, viewings, keeping the grounds looking good for the families when they came to visit, cow guts deliveries, all of it. It ate away at me though, each time he’d ask. So, I guess I did feel like I owed Al one.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll help.”
Two days later, we chucked a couple spades, a crowbar, and two blankets into the bed of my truck, parked a couple blocks from the cemetery and waited until long past dark. I asked Al one more time if this was what he really wanted, and he said it was. Then he said let’s go and we got our stuff and quietly made our way to Ron’s grave. When we pulled him out, I could see how his chest had been staved in by the steering column, his right shoulder dislocated. We could see how his face and forehead had been bruised, torn, and stitched back up for the viewing at his funeral.
By the time we pulled into my driveway with Ron’s corpse wrapped in the two blankets in the back, the sky was turning light and the zombies were beginning to stir out in the corral.
“What next?” Al said.
“Wheelbarrow’s in the shed.” I nodded toward the back of the barn. “Just need one of the zombies behind the fence to take a bite.”
There wasn’t any fancy way to turn the dead into the undead. Only zombies could make zombies. We rolled Ron out to the chain-link fence and put his right index finger through it and waited for a bite. Deb got to him first. She clamped down on the tip of his finger and we quickly pulled it back. She took the top off with her teeth, but that was okay. We wheeled Ron back to the barn and put him into a single holding corral where I put all the dead while we waited for them to turn undead.
“Come back tonight,” I told Al. “He’ll be ready by then.”
I wasn’t sure how long it had been going on, but I thought it was strange when I spotted Ron gathering and hoarding leftover cow guts. Then, after all the other zombies had eaten, he invited Deb over to share what he’d squirreled away. She shoved the entrails into her mouth without hesitation, staining the lower half of her pale face the color of syrah. The snow fell dryly and steadily so that everything outside my kitchen window was hazy and gray and hellish at once. After they finished, I watched as Deb touched Ron’s limp right shoulder tenderly. He moaned and then she moaned. It reminded me of something, the way my mom once touched my real dad’s shoulder tenderly, a rare scene from my childhood. It was like looking into some heinous mirror.
A few nights later I had a dream. In it I stood outside Ron’s old house, the one Al and I moved into with our mom—brown cracked stucco overgrown with green ivy. It was a warm summer day, overcast, the air still and humid. I went up the sidewalk between the purple bell heather that our mom had planted on either side. As I did, a light breeze blew, and the flowers bobbed and swayed on their stems. I opened the front door, expecting to encounter Ron inside. But the house stood cool and still and empty. And that was my dream.
The next morning, after I had finished my breakfast and was going outside to feed the zombies, I noticed Ron and Deb were missing from the corral. I went back through the kitchen to the back door and there they were, standing arm in arm, their mouths agape, moaning. I hadn’t ever needed anything more for the corral than a basic kind of mechanism that you’d use to keep cows fenced in. I couldn’t figure out how they’d escaped. Maybe I’d left the gate open the night before. Maybe I’d wanted them to get out. Past them, across the backyard, the gate was closed, back the way it should have been. None of the other zombies had gotten out. It didn’t make sense.
They looked like two newlyweds from hell. There was something there that I hadn’t noticed before, something more human than zombie. Their faces were pale and sad. Even though their eyes were veiled with cataracts, I had the sense that they could see me the same way that I saw them. I locked the deadbolt. If they figured out how to open the latch to the corral, they could figure out how to open a doorknob.
I didn’t know what to do next so I called Al and told him about Ron and Deb. He said he’d come over and I told him to be careful, but he’d already hung up. Besides, Al never really listened to me when it came to our family. He was good to all of us, didn’t protect himself in the least. He left everything wide open for anyone to take.
I went to the back door again to see what Ron and Deb were up to and they were still there, holding hands. Now Ron made the same dry hacking noise from way back in his throat like the way he’d confronted me the last time I saw him alive, like he was trying to tell me something.
“What?” I yelled.
His response was incoherent. He pointed at his chest, then at Deb, then in my direction.
“You want to come inside?”
“No!” I wagged my finger at them like two dogs. “Go back to the corral.” I pointed behind them. “Go!”
But Ron only moaned louder, and then Deb joined him. I wanted to go get the shotgun, but I thought it’d be better to wait for Al. I’d ask him what he wanted to do, and I’d listen to him for once.
When he got out to the farm Al didn’t come inside. Instead, he went straight around to the backyard. I banged on the window to tell him to come inside and talk to me first, but he wouldn’t listen. I followed him through the kitchen to where Ron and Deb stood. Al crept up behind them and then he shouted. They turned around. He stood there with this stupid, pleading look on his face when he should have been running away. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. Was he trying to get them back in the corral? I wanted to get the shotgun, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the three of them. Al took a couple steps backward, tripped and fell on his ass. He tried to scramble away but Ron and Deb were on top of him before he could. Behind them, in the corral, the other zombies had lined up, clawing at the fence, jaws opening and snapping shut. Moaning. Going crazy. I thought they were going to tear the fence down. Above it all I heard Al shriek. He surged and flung Ron and Deb from him as if he were throwing off a winter coat. He tore across the yard and came around front. I heard the heavy door open and thud shut. Ron and Deb stood and returned to their post at the back door.
Up and down Al’s arms were red gashes and bite marks. Some all the way down to the white bone. He was bleeding out. He looked at me for help, but it was too late.
“What do we do?” he asked.
I didn’t tell him that there was nothing left to do. I went out to the kitchen and filled a glass with water, but when I came back, Al was unconscious. He wouldn’t wake up alive again. I could feel something enormous swelling inside of me, an uncontrollable tide of sadness. I knew that I should walk him out to the cornfield with my shotgun, shoot him, and bury him like I did the old groundskeeper. But it wasn’t that easy. I decided that I wanted Al back, that it didn’t matter how.
I didn’t sleep that night. When morning came, I slipped downstairs quietly, snuck out the front door and went to Al in the barn. There he was, his face expressionless, his eyes cataracted. It was him and it also wasn’t. I saw now why people turned their loved ones into zombies, put them into my care so that they could visit them. I didn’t see the horror of him. I just saw my younger brother Al. Eventually I’d move him out to the big corral in the yard along with the others, but I wanted a few moments alone with him first.
I went to the shed at the far end of the barn and slipped on my black rubber gloves. I took out a handful of entrails from one of the rubber buckets. They were soft and squishy and heavy. I went back to Al and dropped the guts at his feet. He knelt down and gorged himself on his first meal as a zombie while I watched. I contemplated the way he ate his guts, the way his mouth moved up and down, like it hurt his front two teeth to chew. Just like when he was a boy. I could’ve been eleven again, Al nine. It felt awful in the best possible way. Those were some of the best memories I had and they all came rushing back, just like that, from watching zombie Al eat cow guts in the barn.
Eventually I was able to lure Ron and Deb around the farm with entrails from the shed. Sometimes I’d put Al, Ron, and Deb in the barn together and pretend they were all alive. I’d stare at them for hours, wishing I had given Al what he had wanted when he was alive. Wishing I would’ve been better to Ron, would’ve come around to visit.
It came to me late one Sunday afternoon after the families of the dead had left. And once I’d thought it, I knew it was the right thing to do. I went to the back door where Ron and Deb waited for me, and I opened it up. I ran upstairs to my room and waited for them to come inside. They wouldn’t figure out how to use the stairs to come up and get me. And if they did, so what.
And then I started living my life like I normally did, except Ron and Deb were downstairs. I became used to spending most of my time up in my bedroom. It wasn’t such a bad arrangement. I tiptoed around the house, careful not to draw their attention. It was familiar to me, like I was seventeen again. I folded into myself. I looked out my window at the grounds. I snuck out once a week for groceries, did laundry and dishes, chores outside all while dodging around my new zombie parents. For a while it was an added inconvenience to have them hanging around on the first floor of the house, waiting to turn me into one of them. But I got used to it. Early afternoons I’d let Al out of the big corral and lure him into the barn where I fed him privately. It felt like all those early afternoons eating lunch when we were kids. But that version of Al was dead. It had died after our parents separated. Now he was pale and hideous, a monster eating raw cow organs.
Ron and Deb seemed to be okay with letting me feed them and lead them around the house. Sometimes I’d take them outside and stroll around the farm. Black crows cawed and circled around us. One Sunday when the families came to visit, a little boy asked me, eyes wide, “You mean they live with you?”
“Sure do,” I answered with a smile.
He asked me what it was like and I said they were slow, not very bright. I explained how when I was inside, I lived in the moment. “The long now,” I told him.
He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language that he might understand one day. I had planted the seed.
One night, after I turned off the light in my bedroom, I watched the zombies out in their corral beneath the moonlight before I went to sleep; they slowly and aimlessly shuffled into each other and the chain-link fence, lowing and moaning to be fed, endlessly hungry. I saw Al and my heart ached, but not as much as it might if he were gone completely. I tried a thought experiment. I told myself that tomorrow would be the last day. Tomorrow I’d take the shotgun and walk him out to the cornfield. That was as far as I could get. It was too hard to think about.
Then, all the zombies in the corral went quiet. Sometimes they did this before a snowstorm blew in and whipped through the fence and screamed around the house. It was a strange thing to watch. They circled the corral, counterclockwise. It was like a silent film. I wondered what role I would play in this film. I supposed it would be exactly like my life. I would be the farmer of the dead, just as I was in real life. Ron and Deb would be in the living room downstairs. I’m sure if I went down there, I would see Deb on one side of the couch, watching the quiet flickering television through her cataracts, a totally blank stare. Ron would be on the other end, holding a newspaper in front of his face, but it would be upside down. It comforted me to know that I could join them whenever I wanted.