Marli finds a corpse resting at the bank of a river in the middle of the woods after school. She almost doesn’t see it hidden amongst the brush and the moss, but the dingy gray color of its sneakers sticks out underneath the vibrant autumn leaves. After cleaning off her Dana Scully glasses – and squinting for good measure – she’s certain that it is a corpse, and not a fresh one either. Definitely the most decayed corpse she’s ever seen, that much she can tell, even from underneath the pile of shrubbery. Its skin painted in a mixture of muddled hues of green, blue, and bloody browns, all kaleidoscoping into one off-putting color that almost blends in with the dirt beneath it. Its head had caved in on the right side above its ear, exposing gray brain matter and thick, black blood. The same side of its body decayed much faster than the rest, the skin more or less had fallen off, and she can see its brown teeth in a place that may have, at one point, housed fine dimples.
“Holy crap,” Marli whispers, in awe of the sight before her. She has walked this trail many times before with her brother Daniel, but since his tragic demise she hasn’t been out in the woods in months. Boy, has she missed out.
After ensuring that no one is on her trail, she treks down the small hill to get to the corpse, careful not to slip on any stones. The smell engulfs her, like a toxic wave of sulfur and fecal matter, and triggers her gag reflex. Not to worry, she’s prepared for this sort of thing. She pulls out posy oil from her backpack – which she had stolen off of her dad’s desk two years ago just in case this very thing happened – and rubbed some under her nostrils to block out the stench of rot.
Finally safe from the smell, she slithers closer to the corpse and can see it in greater detail. It, she can now tell is a he, fully equipped with the sociological telling’s of manhood: sharp jaw (although decaying), broad shoulders (also decaying), and an Adam’s apple that protrudes far from his thin neck. She can see now that his fingertips are darkened with dirt and dried blood, and bits of his skin had blistered open to reveal brown blood and the bone underneath. He has a bandana rolled and tied around his head – Marli thinks it may have been blue when he put it on, though it’s hard to tell.
She squats next to him in the dirt and reaches her hand forward to pull off his blanket of moss and wet leaves, slowly, so as not to wake him. Her hand inches closer and closer, darting her eyes to make sure his don’t open. This is, by far, the closest she has ever been to a corpse. Her parents have a rule, since she was a child, that she is not to get too close to the dead. The sight and smell of them is far too gruesome for a child to have to endure, though Marli stopped seeing herself as a child at the ripe age of seven, more closely identifying with the adults in her life. She frequently spent time with her brother and his friends, though he made her promise to sit in the corner and be seen, not heard, while they played pool or discussed the various students in their class. She would nod and pretend like she knew even remotely what they were talking about, and though Daniel seemed inconvenienced by her presence, every now and then he would flash a grin that made Marli believe he enjoyed having her around.
Though she feels no fear, she holds her breath when she finally contacts the corpse, surprised at how firm and stiff his body is, like stone. As she attempts to peel off a wad of leaves, a cold hand reaches up and grabs her wrist with surprising strength. She can feel the flesh from the palm of his hand shift and slide, falling off onto her own skin. She lets out a yelp and falls backward, and he lets go of her, so he doesn’t risk losing an arm. Sure enough, chunks of his skin are left on her wrist, peppered along the sleeve of her jacket and tangled in the fabric of her fingerless gloves. He sits up now, staring at her with yellowed eyes, the iris and pupil so cloudy and gray, she wonders how he sees at all. But he does. He stares directly at her, snarling with the teeth that protrude from his cheek.
“What the fuck is the matter with you? Can’t a guy rot in peace?” He talks slow, so as not to upset the tendons in his jaw.
Marli pauses, frozen by the growl in his voice and the menace in his eyes. She knows in her heart that she’s in no danger, the Undead frequently reiterate that they are not dangerous, but she fears that she upset this magnificent creature. This gruesome display of art before her, painted in the colors of the earth, should be respected.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you,” she grins sloppily, apologetically.
He sizes her up, still trying to figure her out, what her intentions are. She guesses he must have decided it’s not even worth considering, as he gently lays his body back down on the ground that’s as cold as he is and pretends as if she isn’t even there.
Marli settles into the dirt as well, which had become quite the comfortable little seat, and stares in awe at the being before her. “I’ve never been this close to one of you before.”
“If you’re going to treat me like a spectacle, you could at least pay me.”
“I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, really. It’s just that I walk this trail all the time...well, I used to, but...Anyway, I’ve just never seen a zombie – is that the correct term, zombie? I’ve never seen a zombie out here before. What are you doing here, if you don’t mind my asking?”
He takes in a sharp breath of the cold air – even though he doesn’t need it – and lets out a long sigh. Long enough to let Marli know her companionship is quite the inconvenience to him.
“No, zombie is not the correct term,” he says. “I’m returning myself to nature. I will lie out here and let the bugs and the scavengers eat away at my flesh and muscle until it decomposes back into the Earth and I’m nothing but bones for the coyotes to gnaw on.”
“Dark.” Marli takes out a granola bar from her backpack, because her travels have been long, and places a large chunk of the grain in her mouth. “How come?”
“You’ll understand one day, kid.”
She considers informing him that she will probably never become Undead, as her parents have practically decided the fate of her and her siblings, but she realizes that might be too personal to share with a stranger. She instead finishes her granola bar in silence and places the trash back in her bag. Her mouth feels dry and grainy, and she wishes she had more water. She can feel the coolness radiating from the lake that lies beside the corpse, as crisp as the air. For a moment, her mouth waters in anticipation, but she quickly loses it when she sees a rotting toe float by.
“Well, I suppose that’s your prerogative, but it’s not going to be very effective.”
He opens his eyes again, staring at her down sunken cheeks. “Excuse me?”
“Sure, you can lie here and wait to turn to bone, but that could take months to happen, especially with winter coming up. Seems like a waste of time. My folks are undertakers. They cremate people who don’t want to be Undead. That’s really the only way to stop it. That, and a bullet to the brain, of course.”
“Yeah, that’s great, kid. Thanks for the tip.”
Marli observes how the corpse lies, hands resting on his tummy, one on top of the other. If she didn’t know any better, she’d think he’s sunbathing. Enjoying the little bit of relief the sun provides from fall’s frosty winds. She thinks he almost looks peaceful. It reminds her of when her brother would lie in the backyard, headphones in his ears as he tapped his foot to Pearl Jam, soaking up every last bit of sun he could until it diminished in the bitter winter.
“My name’s Marlowe, but I like for people to call me Marli. What’s your name?”
“That’s really none of your business.”
“I have to call you something.”
“No, you don’t.”
Marli rolls her eyes at his negativity and decides that, fine, she will choose a name to call him herself. She looks around for inspiration, and her eyes land on the dirty t-shirt lying limply on the gaunt body before her. Bowie’s face, gazing downward, with a flaming red mullet and a giant blue and peach-colored lightning bolt painted on his face, beginning on his forehead, falling down his right eye, and zigzagging down his jaw line. Marli grins.
He opens one eye to peek at her, seeing a look of satisfaction on her face. She thought perhaps he might smile, if the corner of his mouth hadn’t rotted away, though he probably doesn’t want to encourage her. However, she can tell, this name registers with him. She’s good at naming things, her cat seems to take a liking to its name – Bonkers.
He grunts in response and shuts his eye again.
“Ziggy it is,” she smiles. “Well, Ziggy, I should get home, but it sure was great chatting with you. I assume since you’re planning on rotting here that you’ll still be here tomorrow, so I’ll try to stop by and say hi.”
“Please, I can’t wait.”
* * *
Marli’s dad rolls the shopping cart slowly down the aisles, scanning for some spark of inspiration on what to make for dinner. She trails behind him, moving the zipper of her army jacket up and down as she entraps herself in deep thought about Ziggy. She’s already antsy to return to the woods and talk to that magnificent, disgusting creature again, get to know more about him, hopefully.
A woman stands in the aisle and stares at the cans of soup on display before her, blabbering into her cell phone. “Brain noodle soup, can you believe that? Why do they sell that? Those freaks shouldn’t even be on this side of town, that’s why they have their own space.”
Marli pities the woman for her limited worldview. How lonely and sad a person must feel to have so much hate in their heart. Perhaps if she met Ziggy, she would feel differently.
“Kiddo.” Her dad stops wheeling and looks back at her with those concerned eyes she had grown much accustomed to. “You okay back there?”
“Yes,” she nods. “What did you say?”
“What sounds good for dinner?”
Marli thinks for a moment, but something about seeing a rotting corpse today really depleted her appetite. She shrugs and informs her dad that she isn’t hungry – she had a big lunch.
He presses his lips in a tight line and pushes his glasses back up on his nose to review the shopping list. “I guess the classic mac and cheese will have to suffice for tonight. What do you think, Marlowe?”
They roll forward with their cart, finding the few items they needed for their lackluster meal, and Marli considers what could have potentially caused his untimely demise. Accidents happen; that concept she is no stranger to after Daniel, but what sort of accident took the life of her dear Ziggy? She looks up at her dad as he examines two boxes of noodles – elbow and shell shape – carefully considering his decision. Suppose she could ask the expert?
“Hey, Dad, is there a way to tell how someone’s died?”
He raises an eyebrow at her. “How come?”
“I have a school project.”
“Well, yeah. I’ve got a book, A Lesson in Thanatology, on the bookshelf in the office at the funeral home.”
* * *
Marli makes her way through the woods, walking quickly to return to the comfort of her friend, despite being weighed down by the heavy book in her backpack. Her parents’ collection of books that sit on their shelf seemed endless, and all utterly boring, as she looked through the spines before school. No Rest for the Wicked: How Becoming Undead Can Ruin the Experience of Death, Crematory Techniques, Undertaking the Undead, amongst others. Once she found the book she needed, she stuffed it in her bookbag and pulled it out at school when she had downtime, attempting to decipher Ziggy’s backstory from pure memory alone.
Once she approaches the place where his corpse had lain the day before, she begins to worry that he may have left. Decided on a new spot to wallow in. The thought hadn’t even occurred to her until she finds the tiny hill where she spotted his decaying hand the day before. It rests there again and, yes, it is thankfully still attached to the arm.
“What’s up, my dude!” Marli says as she shimmies down the hill. Ziggy twitches when he hears her voice and visibly tenses up his already stiff body. If he had been Daniel, he would’ve replied by calling Marli a dork and teasing her with a smile on his face, but he isn’t.
“You came back?”
“Well, yeah, I told you I would,” she says and plops down at her spot on the ground.
“Hey, I brought you something.” She tosses a pack of brain-flavored gum at him and it hits him perfectly in the chest. “I read online that it’s good to exercise your jaw, so the tendons don’t decompose too fast. You don’t want your jaw to fall off, even though that would be sick.”
Ziggy studies the gum in his hand. She can’t decide if he’s going to throw it back at her and tell her to scram, or he’s thrilled by her awfully nice gesture. She just figured he’d need something to do while he waits for his second inevitable demise.
“Thanks,” he mutters and delicately places a piece of gum in his mouth. Marli is satisfied, and then disgusted by the sight of the gum writhing around his mouth through his exposed cheek.
“Don’t mention it,” she says. She fiddles around in her book bag, attempting to make room for the large book it’s housing to exit safely, dodging old quizzes she left loose in her bag and forgot to throw away, smashed up pieces of candy, and old receipts that she really didn’t need to keep, but didn’t see the point in tossing them because, well, you never know.
Once she gets the book out of her bag, she rests it on her legs and opens it to the few pages she had marked while still in school. Ziggy is intrigued by her rustling around and looks pleased that she brought a book with her. Marli mutters to herself as she reads, using her finger to follow the words on the page, and bends her knees to pull the book closer to her face. This is easily the quietest she’s ever been in her life. Ziggy sits up against the tree that grows beside him and watches.
“A Lesson in Thanatology?” he asks, impressed. “What’s that?”
“It’s a book about how to read the Undead’s bodies to see how they died. It says here that you guys remember your past lives, but not how you died. Some weird fluke of the brain that eliminates itself from your memory to prevent distress, I guess. The brain is so cool.”
“Why do you have that?”
She looks up at him, as if he was stupid, as if he didn’t know. After all, there’s only one corpse in this friendship. “We’re gonna figure out how you died.”
“Nononononono no.” He wags a blue finger at her. “I don’t want to know that.”
“Why not? Aren’t you curious?”
“I’m really not.”
“Oh, come on. I would be totally curious. It’s so interesting. People make a living out of this, you know. Now, I don’t know how accurate I’ll be, but my confidence will make up for my lack of knowledge.” She goes back to reading, much to the dismay of Ziggy.
“It’s just...not important.”
“But your death is a huge part of your life and you don’t know anything about it. Doesn’t that bother you at all?”
“No,” he says. But Marli isn’t convinced.
She waits, studies Ziggy. He just stares back in return, chewing his gum loudly. Of course, he can’t help it. The gum snaps and pops in his mouth, rolling around his bloated tongue, exposed to the world. Marli wants to remove her glasses so this sight is just a blur, but she doesn’t want to be rude.
For a moment, she contemplates putting the book down, complying with Ziggy’s wishes, but the curiosity begins to eat her alive. Her leg bounces in anticipation, the words on the book rumbling into a smear of ink. Marli is silent for only a second.
“Is it okay if I look and then just...don’t tell you?”
Ziggy rolls his hazy eyes, but there is a glimmer of endearment Marli notices. “Knock yourself out.”
She begins to read feverishly, occasionally looking up at Ziggy to study the various marks on his body. The book encourages her to focus on the areas around his face and neck, which can apparently tell a lot about a person’s death. It proves to be a little more difficult than she thought, only because his body has already decomposed so much, and she is a novice, after all. Flip through the pages, look up at Ziggy, repeat.
She rules out all types of cancer, mostly due to his young age and the fact that his hair appears to have been full and thick at the time of his death – it is now patchy and falling out with bits of his scalp. She rules out a car accident, despite the large missing piece of skin and bone on his head, and because there doesn’t appear to be any road rash or seat belt marks across his chest as Daniel had, which is partially exposed from the holes in his shirt.
Marli inches closer to him, causing him to eye her suspiciously. The gum falls out of his cheek onto his shirt and he flicks it off into the woods.
“Could you take your overshirt off?” she asks.
He huffs, but complies, removing the blue flannel shirt carefully to avoid any large chunks of skin falling off. Of course, some bits do fall off onto the shirt, and the newly removed piece of clothing causes a new wave of smell to fill the air. Marli doesn’t notice, as she had already placed the posy oil under her nose before she reached the woods. She notices that his face is a shade or two bluer than the rest of his body, something she hadn’t realized until she got closer to him. His lips are an even darker blue, at least the half that’s left, and his fingers are substantially bluer than the rest of him. His arms are hard to read without some of the skin and muscle, but Marli gets a clear picture of the story they tell.
She looks down at the book, finally landing on an ailment that she believes caused his death. Without a word, she closes the book and places it back in her backpack, keeping the secret safe between her and the book.
Ziggy waits for a moment, thinking maybe she’ll blurt it out against her will, but Marli says nothing. “So? Did you figure it out?”
“I think so,” she nods.
“And you said you didn’t want to know. That still true?”
“Yeah, of course. Just kinda feels weird that you know something about me that even I don’t know.” He crosses his arms over his chest. “Was it like ...bad?”
Marli shrugs. “I mean it killed you.”
As Ziggy sits across from her, Marli studies him. His eyes gaze blankly towards nothing. Marli leans forward within his line of vision, thinking maybe he’s gone into some catatonic trance and may never return, poor fella. She feels a pang in her chest at the sight of her newfound friend so uncomfortable.
“Would it make you feel better if I told you a secret about me? Something no one knows?”
Ziggy looks at her and actually grins. “Sure.”
“When I was about six, I was really into the Bee Gees and I was walking on our treadmill to the beat of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ and trying to do all these cool dance moves. I was walking sideways and backwards and moving all around – not going fast at all – and I tripped, and I hit my chin – see this scar here? – I hit my chin on the bottom of the treadmill and skinned it up. I was really embarrassed, so I told my parents that I fell trying to rescue a rabbit from a fox. They still think I’m a hero to this day.”
Ziggy cackles, a deep, throaty cackle, taking far too much pleasure at Marli’s expense. She doesn’t mind, though, as self-deprecation practically courses through her veins. It is, after all, a funny story. “That’s really embarrassing. Thanks for sharing that.”
“You’re welcome. Now we’re mostly even,” she laughs with him. “My brother was the only one who was totally onto me. But he never told a soul, no matter how mad at me he got. Of course, he always hinted at it in front of everyone to mess with me, but I knew he would never tell. That’s just how he was.”
Ziggy’s laughter begins to subside. “Was?”
“Yeah, he died like a year ago.”
“I’m really sorry.”
Marli nods and they sit in silence, sharing, for the first time, a moment of mutual understanding. The wind blows, knocking a few leaves off the trees and into the piles on the ground below, cascading into a sea of browns, reds, yellows, oranges. The colors that make up Ziggy’s resting place.
“Yeah, but that’s just life. You live everyday like there’s no tomorrow and then one day there isn’t. It sucks.”
“Death isn’t exactly a walk in the park either, if that makes you feel any better.”
“It truly, truly doesn’t.”
The two share another laugh, and Marli feels goosebumps rising on her arms and legs from the cool wind. The sun begins to escape behind the moon, illuminating the sky in the pinkish hue of sunset. It really brings out the blue and gray in Ziggy’s lifeless skin.
“I should probably get back home soon.” Marli raises herself and puts her backpack back on her shoulders, once again weighed down by the heavy book inside. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Ziggy nods, lowering himself back down to the ground from his spot up against the tree. Rigor mortis prevented his body from moving too fast, stiffened by the decay of time. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Marli smiles and turns to leave once she sees he is resting and comfortable. Well, as comfortable as a dead man can be.
She begins her trek back up the small hill just as Ziggy calls back out to her.
“Hey, kid...How’d it happen?”
“How’d what happen?”
“How did I...you know...bite the dust. Kick the bucket.”
Marli raises an eyebrow at him. “You’re sure you want to know?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
She lets the silence linger in the air for a moment, allowing the wind to carry Ziggy’s thoughts over to her. She gives him a moment to change his mind, if need be, because she knows that once it’s out there, neither of them can take it back.
The word feels strange coming out of her mouth, just as strange as it must have felt entering Ziggy’s ear, though perhaps not as much. He stares forward again, his eyeline following nothing in particular, and Marli wonders if he can see it unfolding in his head, unsure if it’s a memory or just a vivid reimagining of what might’ve happened. As if it were happening to him all over again.
His shoulders slunk forward in a sorrowful slump as he begins to anxiously tap his decaying finger on his dilapidated denim. Marli realizes then that, though Daniel met his end in a tragic accident, this was no accident for Ziggy.
To her surprise, he speaks one last time before she leaves for the day. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Marli.”