MORE TOP RANKED STORIES WE THINK YOU'LL ENJOY:
- Pica ★ 8.43 Rating (63 votes)
- The Man on Easter Island ★ 9.29 Rating (17 votes)
- Zero ★ 9.28 Rating (18 votes)
- Breach ★ 9.25 Rating (20 votes)
- Safe ★ 9.22 Rating (45 votes)
- “Don’t ever let them in.” ★ 9.17 Rating (23 votes)
- Crying Numbers ★ 9.17 Rating (23 votes)
- The Story of Her Holding an Orange: Part Five ★ 9.14 Rating (14 votes)
- The Sealed Building ★ 9.14 Rating (21 votes)
- A Sailor Without Two Coins ★ 9.14 Rating (28 votes)
- A Slight Misunderstanding ★ 9.14 Rating (28 votes)
The town of Saluzar, Arizona existed in its own world, and its citizens liked it that way. The town was accessible only by way of a little dirt path, and if anyone had ever stumbled upon it by accident, they probably would have turned back, unaware that anything lurked behind the row of elm trees. And had anyone somehow come across the town, they probably would have felt uneasy, as if they were disrupting some sort of enchanted burial ground. They would have felt unwelcome. This isn’t to say that the people of Saluzar, Arizona weren’t friendly. It’s just that everyone in the small town knew each other, and their ancestors knew everyone else’s ancestors too. And in a town like that, where you know everything, when someone or something comes along that people know nothing about, it can be unsettling. But the people of Saluzar were as nice as you’d find any other place— they were just shy to the idea of any change visiting their humble town
The town, it was readily accepted, started at the giant church building, which doubled as a town hall, and which was the very first building built in Saluzar. And, fittingly, the town’s boundaries ended at the cemetery in the fields beyond the schoolhouse. Every person who’d ever lived in Saluzar was buried in the cemetery, as there was no other area in which to bury them. And while cremations sometimes occurred, it was uncommon. Even after death, the citizens of Saluzar wanted to be a part of their town. Why, they wondered, would anyone want to end up in an urn? The burials were always conducted by the Thade family, who ran the Saluzar funeral home. The current chief undertaker, Evan Thade, had learned all the secrets of embalming that had been passed down from father to son for generations. Evan Thade looked like an undertaker. He had a brow that was permanently furrowed, and his spine was perpetually in the shape of a question mark, the result of years of hunching. His hair was brown, but anyone would have sworn it was black; not because the hair was dark, but simply because it felt like it should be black. His eyes, likewise, were overshadowed by the blackness of his pupils, although if one were to look closely, they would have noticed that his eyes were actually a piercing, vibrant green. It was among Evan’s duties as town undertaker to conduct the autopsies on the dead, since the town did not possess a licensed mortician, but Evan had never been trained in that practice. Embarrassed, Evan had never told anyone, and so the cause of death was always listed as “natural causes.” But, whatever skill he may have lacked in performing autopsies, Evan made up for in terms of embalming. Evan Thade was a true master of preservation. The Thade’s were artists, and their canvas was the dead.
Between the church and the cemetery, were a variety of small homes, and enough shops to keep people occupied. Mildred Snipes, now 82 years old, had a clothing business which she ran out of her little cottage– the same house she’d grown up in as a little girl. Mildred, despite, several strokes, and a healthy dose of arthritis, had managed to maintain her good looks. She aged as one with wisdom might, not as one who had given up. A gifted seamstress, Mildred had spent since the age of 16 sewing clothes for the various townspeople. Be it socks, hats, shirts, dresses– whatever someone needed, they went to Mildred and she’d make it for them. Her favorite garment to make was suits. Something about the fitting of suits exhilarated Mildred. She felt alive when making them. The smooth lines of the pinstripe as they run down the jacket or the pant leg, the crisp formation of the collar. Her father had been a button maker, and so each suit had a different custom set of buttons. Some were metal, some were wood, some bone. As she had studied violin as a young girl, she was the only member of the town who could read music, and therefore had been chosen as the town organist each Sunday. When not playing, she’d stare out at all the men sitting in the pews, admiring her handiwork on each of their Sunday suits.
The church was the closest thing to a town hall. Despite Saluzar’s intimate setting, those Sunday church sessions were the only times the whole town would gather together. Although most members of the town were religious, even those who did not consider themselves so would go weekly, in an attempt to fulfill their social obligations to the town. For two years now, Father Todd Luger had been the town’s only priest. And while serving an entire town of parishioners alone seems a daunting task, Father Luger hadn’t given a sermon for the past ten months. He accomplished this through a program where he’d invite the members of the town to be what he called “guest priests.” It was an attempt to make church a more interactive and enriching experience, he said. Some of the older generation, such as old Mildred at the organ, though, felt that Father Luger was simply shirking off his priestly duties, and longed for the days of Luger’s predecessor, who had staunchly followed all of the parochial rules to the very letter. But, the “guest priest” sermons did at least serve to enhance that social feeling that church seemed to provide the people of Saluzar.
“These days, you can be ordained in an instant. On these computers. Why can’t ordinary folks be allowed to give sermons as well?” thought Father Luger one Sunday morning, as he slept through Egan Ammon’s impassioned speech concerning the Gospel of John.
The only person in Saluzar who was never in attendance at Sunday services was Martin Glinser. From the time Martin had shown up for the first day of kindergarten wearing aviator goggles, he had been pegged as the weird kid. Perhaps because of that label, Martin’s readily apparent genius was ignored. By the age of seven, he’d constructed blueprints to create a flying bicycle. At ten, he’d developed a unique and, to his knowledge, undiscovered fungus culture. And by the time he was twelve, he’d created an effective and non-toxic deer repellant for folks to spray on their gardens. But even if someone had recognized the brilliance that Martin Glinser possessed, it would have been greeted with the same response.
“Kid, you’re from Saluzar, Arizona. And no one from Saluzar, Arizona ever goes anywhere or does anything.”
As such, the days where Martin should have been at MIT were spent huddled in a small broom closet which he referred to as his lab. His hair had gone grey early in his twenties, a trait he inherited from his father, and he felt so cheated by this fact, that he’d allowed his hair to go into complete disrepair. Never combed, it had gone past the point of being unruly, and was now permanently matted to the spot. The aviator goggles he wore in his youth had now been replaced by thick glasses. They were much thicker than he actually needed, but he liked the feel of the extra weight the lenses provided, and so he’d worn the overlarge glasses for some time until he got used to it. He had denounced God completely, and so found church unnecessary. So, despite the distinct impression he inevitably left on those he met, there was no one in the town who he ever considered a friend. The one person Martin had gotten to know well of late was Evan Thade, the reclusive undertaker. Martin had recently seemed to have developed a profound curiosity for Evan’s line of work, and the ordinarily shy undertaker had been more than happy to talk about the subject he was so familiar with, and which no one else seemed eager to talk about. And while they could never prove anything, some of the older schoolchildren had even mockingly commented on the relationship between the two bachelors, upon seeing them walking in the cemetery during school hours. When they shared this with their parents, the response was generally quietly encouraging.
“Good for them. Everyone deserves to have someone in their lives,” people would say. It was indicative of the overall mentality of Saluzar. The town liked to think of itself as open-minded, and filled with open-minded and good people.
Aside from menial errands and his daily walks and conversations with Evan, the only other times Martin emerged were when he came to present one of his inventions to the town council. The council was made up of the most prominent citizens of Saluzar, Arizona, and were in charge of allocating the small budget the town had. Despite having meetings in the church every Tuesday from 3:00-4:15, no one ever attended. The only time the council had anything to actually do at the meetings was when Martin had an invention, hoping to get funding to mass produce it. And while Martin’s inventions ranged from good to not so good, the town’s response was always the same.
“Kid, you’re from Saluzar, Arizona. And no one from Saluzar, Arizona ever goes anywhere or does anything.”
But, whether through obliviousness or blind optimism, Martin was feeling assured on this day as he approached the altar to begin the presentation on his latest invention. It was a good one, he was sure of it. With any invention, Martin brought it to the council with the confidence of a child whose watercolor is hung on the refrigerator, sure that one day they’ll be a great painter and that the work will sell for hundreds of dollars. This time, however, was different. The product simply called out, ringing like a siren in Martin’s ears, and there was no way it could be ignored. Surely the town council would hear the importance of this one, surely they too would hear that ringing.
“Hello, everyone. I’ve um…I’m glad you could all make it.” Martin paused to carefully wipe the sweat from his knuckles. His palms, amazingly, were dry, but his knuckles were the ones glistening under the bright lights. “It should only take a minute.”
“Yes, well, weekly meeting. Meetings are open for all to come. Share ideas,” said Saul Moon, mayor of Saluzar. Mayor Moon had always been a fair man. He felt strongly that the town should be able to weigh in on all of the town’s decisions, even if they weren’t part of the esteemed council. It was level thinking like this which made him so popular amongst his constituents, and which had allowed him to run unopposed for the past thirty odd years.
“No one comes anyway,” laughed Egan Ammon, hitting Moon in the side. Ammon, a retired traveling string salesman, was the most recent member of the council. When not in the surrounding towns, pitching various strands of twine to housewives, he had claimed his own bench outside the barber shop, where he would wax poetic about the world. His job meant that he’d seen the whole state, and so was among the more cultured members of the town. Each day, Egan would sit on his bench and talk. Even if no one was there to listen, his voice kept himself company, reciting and inventing proverbs and mantras by which he’d live out his coming week. And if anyone felt that he was an unbearable bore, those opinions were never shared.
“Well, Martin’s here, right? That’s someone,” replied the mayor.
“Yes, and when Martin’s here, it’s the only time we have anything to talk about!”
“So, we should give him a chance, shouldn’t we, Egan?” said Mildred Snipes, nodding to Martin with grandmotherly eyes. “What do you have for us today, Martin?”
“Well, I think this is a big one. I think that this could, well, change the way that we live.”
“Hrrumph,” snorted R.C. Goose, a local businessman and the richest man in all of Saluzar.
“What was that?” asked the startled inventor.
“I said Hrrumph!”
“Yes. Hrrumph. I mean, really Martin, this whole ‘changing the way we live’ thing. You say this each time.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“It’s a charade!” growled Goose. “Every new invention, you claim it’ll be the biggest thing since non-iron shirts. It never is. What was that last one- a solar powered lamp.”
“Well, yes, I…that was energy efficient.”
“But, if you need sunlight to power it, then why would you need the lamp?” asked Goose. The portly man checked the time (he had a pocket watch, of course) and, once again, let out a resounding “Hrrumph!”
“I know you’re a busy man, R.C., but I can’t see the harm in letting him speak,” said Father Luger. Luger and Goose had never really seen eye to eye. Luger was constantly looking for more money to be allotted for the church. Goose felt that, since he owned the only lucrative business in the town, and brought in most of the town’s revenue, it should be his business which received a bigger share. And yet, both found common ground in that neither felt that Martin Glinser or any of his inventions should get anything.
“Thank you, Father.” Martin wiped his knuckles on his pant leg. “Um, well…I was thinking that for every disease, there is a cure. For every ailment. You have a headache, we can cure that. You have the flu, we can cure that. I mean, you have a broken bone, we can even fix that. Anything that our bodies do to us, we can, well, we can fix it.”
“So, is this some sort of medicine?” asked Mildred. R.C. Goose yawned.
“Not, well, not exactly. See, we can’t actually fix everything. There’s one thing we can’t ever fix, we can’t ever reverse. Once it happens, there’s no way of treating it.” A small bead of perspiration fell from his right knuckle, hit the stone floor and melted under the hot, orange light coming in from the stained glass window. “The one thing we cannot ever treat, we cannot ever fix…this one thing that our body does to us, is, well…we cannot fix death.” The council’s eyes were blank. “But, now, well, I’ve fixed death. I’ve cured death. This potion, it can bring the dead back to life.”
Everyone instinctively stared at Cameron Ward, the final member of the town council, who sat at the end of the pew. Ward had been a soldier in the Vietnam War, where he lost three of his toes at the age of seventeen. Once back in Saluzar, he’d cared for his mother, Cecilia Ward. Mrs. Ward had raised Cameron alone, as her husband Oliver had died when Cameron was two. Upon Cameron being drafted, Cecilia had descended into insanity, fearing she’d lose her son as she’d lost her husband. The past forty years, Cameron had kept her inside as much as he could, in an attempt to avoid embarrassment. Every Sunday, he and his mother would carefully go into the church, sit in the back row, and leave. Cameron was the perfectly dedicated son. And Martin’s news was especially welcoming to Cameron. Cecilia Ward had died only a month ago, making her Saluzar’s most recent casualty, and still fresh on everyone’s mind. Cameron felt the gazes of his council members, and chose to be silent. After a while, Mayor Moon felt the need to respond.
“You can fix death?”
“Revive the dead, yes.” Martin stared at them. “I mean, I really…I think, and I don’t believe I’m mistaken, but I think it will change the way we live.” The silence echoed through the church, bouncing off the organ pipes, the stained glass windows, the high ceilings. Finally, it was Egan Ammon who spoke.
“Any dead person?”
“Any recently dead person,” corrected Martin. “As long as they were properly embalmed and are still preserved, this potion will bring them back.” There was silence. “And Evan Thade ensures me that all of the dead have been properly embalmed,” he added. It was Egan Ammon who spoke first.
“You mean, with this potion, I would be able to bring Chloe back?” Chloe Ammon had died the previous year, just one week after her and Egan’s fifteenth anniversary.
“Well, this is preposterous!” exclaimed R.C. Goose. “You don’t really expect us to believe that you can revive the dead. That you’ve CURED death?”
“But, I have. It’s this potion right here,” said Martin, reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a little glass vial, filled with a viscous vermillion liquid.
“That, why that looks exactly like cherry cough syrup!” cried Goose.
“I know it doesn’t look like much, but it truly is a miracle potion,” insisted Martin.
“It’s black magic. Witchcraft!” hissed Father Luger. “I’ll have no part in it!”
“If it even works at all,” scoffed R.C. Goose.
“Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” reasoned the mayor. “If what Martin tells us is true, this would certainly be a remarkable invention, one that we shouldn’t just discount.
“The devil’s work,” crowed Father Luger.
“But, perhaps, perhaps we should see if it works. Just see. We don’t have to use it, but just see if it works,” said Mildred. Cameron Ward cleared his throat, and then nodded in agreement.
“I’m with Mildred,” said Egan Ammon. “We don’t have to use it, just see. What do you say, mister mayor?” The five other town council members immediately turned to stare at Mayor Moon. He looked at Martin.
“You, uh, you say this works? This potion as you call it, it revives the dead?”
“Do, you mind if we, well, if we experiment before we attempt this?” asked the Mayor. Martin shook his head.
“I promise, you won’t be disappointed.” said Martin. “I believe, if you want proof, I know where we can go.”
“Yes, do come in. All of you, all of you. My, there are a lot of you, aren’t there? Watch for that!” Evan Thade jumped to stop the fall of a glass jar. The jar, containing a hand suspended in green liquid, had been disrupted when the rotund frame of Egan Ammon bumped into a cupboard.
“Formaldehyde,” continued Thade “you can never get it out.” Ammon mumbled something in apology. “Besides,” lamented Thade “this hand has sentimental value to me.”
“Please forgive us for barging in like this, Evan. We know you’re probably busy. This should only take a minute” said Mayor Moon, eyeing an unenbalmed corpse lying on the table. It was not anyone from the town. “Might I ask who…”
“It’s for practice,” interrupted Thade, hurriedly covering the corpse with a sheet. Thade’s lab was situated in a dimly lit stone cellar. The space had been used by the Thades to brew their own ale during prohibition. From that time, two large copper vats remained, pushed into the corner. For several years, the Thade family had tried to remove the now useless vats, but they were too large to get out of any of the doors or windows in the space. Which raised the question of how the vats were first brought to the basement in the first place. Thade had built two crude wooden cabinets. In one he kept his various chemicals, sorted by color and purpose. All the preservatives on one shelf, the sanitizers on another. In the second, he kept his utensils. Various syringes, pumps, and a treasured Mary Kay makeup kit, used to dress up the bodies for open casket funerals. Lining the cabinet tops were various morbid objects: books on death, assorted dark wooden boxes, mummy figurines, and the stuffed body of a raccoon. With the town council distracted by these objects, only Cameron Ward noticed what appeared to be a pile of small mouse bones piled up in the far corner of the room.
“Yes, thank you, Evan, for letting me, um, use your space.” Martin Glinser shook Evan Thade’s hand. “Could you please get me the specimen.” Evan Thade went atop one of his cabinets, and removed a small mahogany-paneled box. Evan put the box on the table. The six council members peered to view the box, as if by arching their necks, they would see what was inside. The box, however, was closed, and all they could see was the lid. On the lid, written in Evan’s scraggled handwriting, was the name “Edgar.”
“Open the box, Mr. Thade” said Martin, smiling with the feeling of someone who had practiced the line countless times in front of the mirror. Evan Thade did so. The box was lined with a rippling dark blue velvet. On the inside lay the lifeless body of a rat. The sleek fur was impossibly white, as if it had been completely untouched by anything. As if fingerprints would leave a blemish. It’s eyes were closed, peacefully, but the red cornea was peeking through an almost imperceptible slit– a tiny, morbid sliver of ruby.
“Mr. Thade, is this rat dead?”
“Yes, Martin. He’s most dead.” At this point, the ceremony had to pause. Egan Ammon insisted on testing the rat’s heartbeat for himself, and he ultimately concurred with Evan Thade’s assessment.
“All good. That’s one dead mouse,” announced Ammon, after his examination.
“His name is Edgar,” muttered the undertaker.
“Yes, so, as we have determined, the rat is dead,” chirped Martin. “But, as you can see…” he picked up the vial, and inserted into it an eye dropper. With Evan’s assistance, they opened up the dead rodent’s mouth, and carefully applied three drops of the potion.
“Now that we’ve applied the medicine, you wait just one second…” said Martin. The rat was still. Then, after a moment, the nose twitched slightly. Then its right hind leg. In almost no time, the rat had turned over and scampered over to Evan, as he always used to do before his passing. Evan reached into his pocket and gave the rat a piece of cheese. Edgar, happily and harmlessly, nibbled on the square of cheddar. Evan stroked its head with his pinky finger.
The council was silent, the exception being Egan Ammon who gasped.
“Chloe…Chloe can come back,” Egan gaped.
“It’s a miracle,” whispered Mildred Snipes. Cameron Ward was speechless. R.C. Goose looked at Father Todd Luger.
“I don’t believe it,” said Goose. “I just don’t believe it. Is it witchcraft, father?”
“Well, I…hmmm…” Father Todd Luger knew deep down that such a thing went against God’s plan. You live, you die, and then you were supposed to go into the afterlife. To bring people back would go against everything God had planned. And yet, there was no denying this curiosity. A potion to bring back the dead was, no doubt, remarkable. And Father Todd Luger felt that perhaps it would be best if the church remained silent on this specific issue. “It is intriguing,” he finally concluded.
“And you believe this same potion can be used on people?” asked the mayor.
“Absolutely. It’s the same process. A life is a life. If it works for a rat, why not a human?” replied Martin, who looked at his shoes.
“Well, could we, say, test this out?” The mayor eyed the corpse under the sheet.
“You don’t want to bring this one back,” warned Thade with a grim chuckle. “He killed four people a few counties over. Death penalty. I’m…well, I use him for practice.”
“I see,” said the mayor, quickly looking away from the sheet. “No, we wouldn’t want to bring him back.”
“Perhaps,” chimed Martin, “well, perhaps…perhaps if we were to bring just a few people back. A few that we would want to bring back. If it works on them, on this, well, this test sample, then we can always do more.”
“But, who are these few people? Who would they be?” asked the mayor.
“Well, we have all of you. All of you here. The town council.” said Thade. Martin Glinser agreed.
“Each of you could bring someone back. And, Mayor Moon, you could decide if it’s a success.” Martin glanced at the townspeople. The mayor considered this.
“Yes, yes, we could. Egan, you would bring back Chloe I’m guessing.
“And Cameron’ll bring back his crazy old mother,” exclaimed Ammon. Cameron Ward said nothing.
“I could bring back Father Shanley,” piped in Luger, referring to his predecessor at the church. R.C. Goose stared at the priest in amazement.
“You’re on board with this?”
“Well, it is intriguing, R.C. And, when one thinks of it, is it really so terrible? If God has given Martin this potion, then perhaps he intends for us to use it. And, besides, wouldn’t you like to see Mark again? You were such a good team.”
R.C. Goose considered it. For years, he and Mark Leyman had been partners. Goose & Leyman was the most lucrative business to have come out of Saluzar in its entire history. The town’s only export, coal, had been outdated for some time, being replaced by fancier forms of fuel. Yet Goose & Leyman had a near monopoly on all of the coal in the state, so while business was slow, the pair did well enough to make by. Goose dealt with the personnel part of it. Making sure they had willing customers, figuring out what was the lowest they could charge and still make a profit (then he’d double that number.) Leyman dealt with the books. The two would split the profit 50/50, until Mark’s untimely death last July. The business partners had been inseparable, each owing their success to the other. The sign on the door still read “Goose & Leyman,” and not a church service went by where R.C. Goose did not at some point think of Mark.
“But, I have nobody. Who could I bring back?” asked Mildred. Mildred Snipes had never been married, although there had been offers. For one reason or another, none of the offers had ever come to fruition. Mildred, instead of a husband, kept cats. Many cats. She used to always take in the strays, care for them. Whenever anyone had a sick animal, they took it to Mildred. She was the closest the town came to having a veterinarian. Mayor Moon pointed out that if the potion could bring back a rat or, as Martin claimed, a human, why not a cat? And so it was decided that Mildred would bring back her most recently deceased pet, a tabby named William.
“Tomorrow, then. We will meet in the cemetery and bring back our friends and family,” said the mayor.
“Even my Chloe?” offered Egan.
“Yes, Egan, of course. Your Chloe.”
Cameron Ward sat at home and stared at his vial of potion. He ran a freckled hand through his straw-blonde hair. He sighed.
“Here, take this, watch after it, it’s yours, and be sure to bring it with you tomorrow,” Martin had said down in the Thade cellar. Cameron removed his left sock and applied some topical ointment to the stumps where his three toes used to be. Blown off by a shotgun. The wound had mostly healed after all these years, but Cameron didn’t care. He was still fearful of contracting gangrene on the foot, and besides, the ointment felt nice. It soothed any pain, massaged all of the tension out. The vial was on the table.
“Oh, ma,” he said to the empty room.
According to Martin, each body that came back had full memory of its past life. In fact, memories would be more vivid. It would be as if the body came back reborn, refreshed, a brand new mind full of the same old memories. Cameron’s heart had seized. His mother, if the potion worked, might no longer be insane.
Cameron went to the refrigerator and took out a beer. He always kept beer in the house in case there was company, as he himself rarely drank. He had always felt that if he were to drink, he’d become an alcoholic like his father, Oliver. All Cameron had ever known about his father was his name (he could never forget it, his father’s first name was his own middle one) and that his dad had drunk himself to death, as his mother put it. When Cameron was a boy, his mother had instilled in him that even a drop of alcohol would eventually lead to an untimely death. But, as he grew up, he learned this to not be true, that alcohol in moderation would not kill you, but he still felt an obligation to his mother not to drink.
“Such a dutiful son,” everyone always said about Cameron Ward. And, it was true, Cameron Ward had cared for his mother well after the breakdown. And while he gladly would have continued, the vial which held the magical potion to bring her back seemed to be taunting him. What if his mother came back and was not insane? And what if she remembered what had caused her mental breakdown? And what if she told people? Cameron felt his neck go clammy. He couldn’t let this happen.
Perhaps it was growing up with no father figure, as his mother had often reasoned, but Cameron had never been strong. And when he received the notice that his lottery number had come up in the draft, Cameron didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t go to war. The draft was an all-consuming entity, swarming through Cameron’s life in his peaceful childhood town. But more importantly, there was his mother. With his father having died, he was the only man in his mother’s life. Were he to die in the war, she’d have no one at all. It was with this reasoning that he had gone out back, picked up his dad’s old shotgun, said a prayer, and blew off three of his own toes.
When his mother heard the gunshot, she ran out into the yard, weeping. She screamed and hugged her son. Cameron did not cry.
“It’s okay, mom. It’s going to be okay. They can’t make me go to war now.”
Cecilia Ward looked down. She saw the smoke still trailing out of the wound, saw the shotgun in her son’s hand, and Cameron’s ever stoic expression.
“I see,” she finally said.
Cameron expected relief, perhaps even praise. After all, by sacrificing three toes, toes he didn’t even use anyway, he had insured his own perfect safety. He would not abandon his mother as his father had done. But, he could not have anticipated the look of shame and anguish in her eyes. A fly flew towards her and she twitched to avoid it. And in that twitch, Cameron could see something within his mother snap.
“No son of mine’s a coward!” she calmly seethed, and then walked into the house.
Cecilia locked herself in her room, refusing all of the food and water Cameron attempted to bring her. Despite his best efforts, Cameron couldn’t save his mother. He watched her wither away. Her mind, deprived of nourishment, shut down. Cameron found her one night, violently writhing on the bed, near to death. He phoned the doctor, then fled, vowing not to return until the war had ended.
When he finally did return to Saluzar, he was surprised to find that he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Cecilia Ward told everyone her son had been dutifully serving in Vietnam. The doctors claimed she’d been so worried about him that she’d stopped eating causing her to lose her mind. And so, she’d told everyone that her son was in the war, bravely fighting for the cause. She had forgotten the incident, and it was Cameron’s belief that the story she had concocted was her mind protecting itself, her one solace once her mind had shut down. From what the doctors said, it would be best not to upset her, and so Cameron shyly went along, always shrugging off the praise, agreeing to his mother’s story. In that way, he felt he could perhaps meet her expectations.
And yet, Cameron Ward still felt guilty. Guilty enough to care for her for nearly forty years. When she’d died, he’d thought he could breathe easy, his secret would never be out. But, if she were to come back…what if she were to tell everyone? If she were to reveal Cameron’s secret shame? This town, the people that Cameron had come to know, would they shun him as his own mother had? If the whole town rose up against him, Cameron even feared for his life. The vial taunted him. The red liquid looked just like the color of the lipstick Cecilia used to wear every Sunday when they went to church.
Cameron took a sip of beer. In less than a minute, he’d finished the whole can.
R.C. Goose, meanwhile, sat in the office of Goose & Leyman. Business was done for the day, and had been for a while, but the stout businessman felt like it was where he needed to be at the moment. It had only been a year ago that R.C. Goose last sat in the same office with Mark Leyman. The men had been business partners for fifteen years at that point. It was evening, the curtains were drawn, and the only phone in the building was situated on the table in front of them. Leyman yawned and glanced at his partner.
“You’re welcome to go home, you know,” he told Goose, smiling wearily.
“Not at all. You probably get lonely sitting here all alone each night.”
“True. But I’m used to it at this point. You never stay this late.”
“I thought that my company would be a welcome change,” Goose taunted, using his index finger to pick some stray chicken breast from between his bottom teeth.
“Not at all! You know I enjoy your company.” Leyman nibbled on his fingernail. Goose stared at him for awhile, then let out a guffaw.
“I know, I’m just teasing you, Mark. Are they normally this late?”
“No, no. I don’t know what’s happened. The shipment normally gets in an hour ago.”
The pair certainly made a strange picture. Compared to Goose’s plump figure, Leyman’s figure was incredibly gawky and angular. His gaunt face was accentuated by a pair of copper wire glasses which framed his eyes to look irate at any moment, and which harshly left red footsteps on the trunk of his nose. The Arizona humidity chapped his slender lips, and so his mouth was constantly covered in bits of dead skin. It was Leyman’s unofficial job to sit and wait for their customers to call and say the shipments had arrived. It required very little attention, simply the ability to pick up a phone. The train would get in, the distributor would pick up the coal, and call the office. Leyman would warmly thank them for their business, and go home for the night. Most shipments got in at around six. This one was nearly an hour late.
“It’s bad weather I suspect,” croaked Leyman.
“What was that?”
“Sometimes, if there’s bad weather, then the shipment is delayed slightly.”
“Hm. Is there bad weather often?” asked Goose.
“Sometimes. Sometimes the tracks get icy, the train can’t get there in time.”
“Does that affect it? Ice on the tracks. It can make the train go slower?”
“Yeah, it happens sometimes.”
“Mmh. Maybe that’s what happened, then.”
“Yes, maybe.” Leyman seemed to be willing the phone to ring with his mind. His partner got up, strode to the pantry and got two pieces of shortbread. He wolfed one down, and gave the other to Leyman, who tried to wave it away. Goose put it on the table anyway.
“Eat it. You like shortbread.”
“No thank you. Really, I’m fine.” The truth was that Leyman was hungry. And he did like shortbread. He just didn’t like eating in front of people. And he was very conscious of Goose’s eyes. Leyman shook slightly. He picked up the shortbread and began to eat it.
“You know, Mark, I don’t know if it’s ice on the tracks,” said Goose, after Leyman had finished.
“Well, it just seems odd for there to be ice on the tracks in the middle of July is all. And this being Arizona, where we don’t even get ice in winter usually. It doesn’t seem like there’d be too much ice present, on train tracks of otherwise. Seems to me.”
“But, the shipment was heading to Pennsylvania. And they do get ice on the track there sometimes.”
“It’s possible, Mark, but, it’s still July. I don’t think Pennsylvania gets ice on the track in July.”
“I guess not, R.C.”
“No. And, since the shipment’s so late, and it couldn’t have been delayed because of ice on the track, it seems to me more likely that the order was never going to arrive. As if someone may have cancelled the order.” Leyman was quiet for a moment, refusing to meet Goose’s glare.
“What? R.C., you…you cancelled the order? R.C. you should’ve…”
“No, no, I don’t think you understand me. I didn’t cancel the order, Mark. But it seems to me that one partner would make more of a profit than two. That if someone cancelled the order and then shipped it off independently, they would keep all the profit. Not have to split it. You see what I mean?”
“Not really, R.C.”
“Did you cancel the order, Mark?” Mark Leyman wiped some crumbs from the side of his mouth.
“R.C., I don’t know what you’re talking about. Really, I don’t. It’s just delayed for some reason, there’s…”
“Because it seems odd to me that they’ve not called yet, unless they’re calling a different number. Like your home number. Like you told them to.” Goose had gotten up and walked to the fireplace.
“R.C., where is this coming from? You know I’d never…”
“I don’t like it when people double cross me. The profits have been a bit light this month.”
“Times are hard, R.C.”
“Which is the reason someone might try to do something like this.” He grabbed a fire poker and walked towards Leyman.
“No, R.C., I can explain. They’ll call! I know they’ll call!” Leyman put his hands out to stop his advancing partner. “I’ve never cancelled any order. Granted, it had occurred to me, but I’d never…never for more than a second did I think about it. Never more than just one second.”
“But, I can’t believe that, Mark.”
“No, please, I didn’t…please let me explain!” The blunt end of the poker collided with Leyman’s temple. He dropped impossibly fast, slumped over the coffee table, shortbread crumbs just barely visible on his unshaven face. Right in the spot, his head began to swell.
Goose returned the poker to the fireplace, dragged his partner up the staircase, not an easy task to do given that neither of the businessmen were in the best of shape. Once at the top, Goose let his partner fall. And that would be how R.C. Goose would tell everyone he found the lifeless body of Mark Leyman the next day when he came in for work.
But, that night, as he was about to leave the building, the phone began to ring. He picked it up, listened to the voice on the other line, and then thanked them confirming that the coal order had come in. The man on the other end apologized for the delay. Goose put the phone down, uttered an apology of his own to the man at the bottom of the stairs, went home, and made a cup of tea.
Now, Goose sipped his cup of tea in that office, the vial in his pocket. He grasped it, angrily. Tomorrow, he was supposed to bring Mark back. His grasp tightened, willing the glass to disintegrate at his touch. It did not.
The next morning, Father Luger walked to the cemetery, glass vial in hand. He hadn’t slept, thinking about the potion had kept him up.
The potion left him more than a little confused. He had no idea how he was meant to respond to the whole thing. The whole thing was so biblical. The walking dead, who wouldn’t think of Jesus Christ? And how he would respond worried him. He knew himself to not be a smart man. He liked his routines, his unchanging habits of daily life.
He had never been the most steadfast priest. In truth, he had his doubts about the whole Catholicism thing. As a boy, being a priest had felt natural to him. He loved the church building itself. The way the light was refracted by the stained glass windows, how the organ echoed in your eardrums. But, as Todd Luger had become more vested in his occupation, he found more and more inconsistencies. When he’d mentioned this to Father Shanley, he’d been told that all priests experienced doubts, but that one day, they’d pass. Todd Luger was still waiting for them to.
And now Martin Glinser’s potion concerned him. Sure, he’d been intrigued at first, who wouldn’t have been? But what if these corpses came back and said that there was nothing? Nothing in the afterlife. That would cement his doubts. It would be proof that his whole life, not to mention his livelihood, was a sham. This would be bad enough. But, even more worrying than that was the possibility that the dead would come back and say that God did exist. And that there was a heaven. Or a hell.
It was the hell part that worried the priest. If this potion proved that hell existed, he knew he would end up there. Certain things, he felt, cannot be atoned, and stealing periodically from the church’s collection plate was one of those things. At first, it had been just a couple of dollars here and there, and only when he needed the money to get by. But as Father Luger’s frustration with his religion grew, he began stealing larger and larger sums. It became a compulsion, and while he never kept track of the full amount taken, taking money from an entire town of people, every week, for two years…he couldn’t bring himself to imagine how much he had amassed. The only way he could live with himself was in trusting his doubts. Trusting that he’d not end up in damnation for his crimes. But, if those dead bodies came back and confirmed everything he’d once believed, then what would he do? It was weighing him down.
“Morning, Father,” called the jovial voice of Egan Ammon “I’m guessing you’re going to the same place I am.”
“Yes, Egan. I would imagine we are.” Father Luger let the rose-cheeked man catch up. Ammon was slightly out of breath.
“I’m glad I caught you, Father. I was wanting to say…this potion, it would be something, wouldn’t it?” The priest grunted in agreement. “Yes, well, last night, as wonderful as it would be to see my Chloe again, and it would of course be wonderful, I kept thinking that maybe the dead should be dead after all. Would it be so much harm to let Chloe rest?” Ammon looked at Father Luger hopefully. The priest stopped walking and stared at the retired string salesman.
“You won’t give her the potion?”
“No. I mean, if this works, I suppose that someone would get the potion to her eventually, and I don’t want to hurt Martin’s feelings. That poor kid hasn’t a friend in the world, and he worked hard on his potion and, well, I didn’t want to seem like I wasn’t grateful for the favor.” Ammon reached into his pocket and took out his vial. “So, last night, I switched my potion out for some cough syrup in the medicine cabinet. The color, it’s almost identical.” Ammon smiled broadly. He’d had the idea the night before, and had immediately poured his actual potion on some dead plants he’d not gotten around to throwing away (the plants looked lovely now). It had not been a difficult decision to make. Although maintaining good public appearances, the Ammon’s had had a tumultuous and abusive relationship. Egan Ammon felt constantly berated. Chloe had called him a “boorish git,” “bland as toast pig,” and much worse. Chloe’s death had been the greatest thing to have ever happened to the retired string salesman.
Father Luger held Egan’s vial. The color and texture inside were the same as his own. This is because that night, when Father Luger couldn’t get to sleep, he too had gone to his medicine chest and replaced the potion with cherry cough syrup. As had Cameron Ward, and R.C. Goose. And as too had Mildred Snipes, who realized that bringing back one of her cats might show what Evan Thade had missed in his poorly conducted autopsy: that pieces of each of her cats’ fur and bone were missing, used to make yarn and buttons for her thriving clothing business.
“I doubt the potion would have worked anyway,” Todd Luger finally said as he and Egan approached the top of the hill.
“I don’t…I don’t understand why.” Martin Glinser heaved as his shovel scattered another pile of dirt into the ground. It had only been an hour ago when he had finally conceded that the townsfolk could all go home, that none of the dead of Saluzar would be reawakened that day. Now, Martin was helping Evan Thade put the coffins back in the ground. Taking the coffins out had been an ordeal, but Evan was adamant that all the dead be returned to their resting places before nightfall. The last thing he wanted was for someone to unwittingly fall into an open grave. Safety first; that had always been rule number one in the undertaker’s household.
“No one will mind, Martin. They’ll all forget about it in time. These are good people. Simple townsfolk.” Evan took a break from shoveling and wiped some sweat from his brow. Mayor Moon had denied Martin the funding needed to mass produce the potion, citing that no one would want a potion that could only resurrect rats. At first, Martin had been distraught, pleading, but he had calmed down now. Standing over the open grave, listening to the rustling of dirt as it collided with the coffin top was peaceful– almost therapeutic.
“Well, maybe you could sell it to science labs. Bring their rats back from the dead,” Evan offered. “Or market it as fertilizer.”
“But it works. We know it works.”
“I know, Martin.”
Martin Glinser absently brought his hand to his head and felt the sore wound. He winced, and looked at his shovel. The shovel was caked in dirt, but the specks of burgundy were still more than visible on the metal spade. Evan had mentioned that the blood never had fully come out. ‘You owe me a new shovel,’ he’d said, but Martin had not realized the full extent of the stain. It wasn’t even that the stain was massive, it was just that the color was so intoxicating, so hypnotic, that one could not help but look at it. He stared at the red flecks, amazed to be staring at his own blood. To test the potion, he’d known he’d need to revive a human being. But he didn’t want to endanger anyone’s life, in case the potion didn’t work. So, one week earlier, he’d had Evan Thade kill him, hit him on the head with shovel, then feed him the potion.
“But, why, Evan? I mean, why didn’t it work? It worked on the rat. Every time, it worked on the rat. And, I mean, it, it worked on me.”
“A good thing too.”
Martin looked at the undertaker beside him. The inventor had never had many friends, and certainly not any close ones. But the bond that he and Evan had was unlike any other. Certainly Evan felt it too. Their friendship had grown considerably since that day when Martin had first approached Evan, telling him about the potion. And when Martin had him conduct that final experiment, the first thing Martin had felt when he’d been revived and looked into Evan Thade’s face was that they had just shared the experience of Martin’s death. And a connection like that couldn’t be broken.
“Maybe they weren’t meant to come back. You, it wasn’t your time, so the potion worked on you. But, the others…maybe, Martin, there’s a reason they needed to stay dead.”
The two men were silent for a moment.
“The corpses were perfect, Evan. Really, even after so much time, they looked as if they could have gotten up and walked around.”
“You’re an artist, you know that.”
The undertaker thanked Martin and shoveled another heap of dirt into the grave.
“Everyone was so nice about it. Told me it was okay, that they didn’t mind,” Martin continued. “‘Mistakes are made, chap,’ Egan said.” Evan laughed. Martin did a spot on impression of Egan Ammon
“Like I said, these are good, simple townsfolk. You can’t find any better people.”
“Salt of the earth,” agreed Martin.
They continued filling the hole with dirt, the sun slowly setting over Saluzar, as the church bell struck eleven. And when they were done, the simple country folk rested easy, comfortable in the fact that the dead would remain buried.