By Alexandra Erin
First Publication: September 15th, 2015
Word Count: ~4,200
The funeral home is very old, old enough that it still has an old-style chapel. That’s where we’re holding what is still called the viewing.
The podium on which sits the now-traditional portfolio album is situated in the middle of a recessed nook that was obviously designed to hold something a bit larger than a person in repose, and which now holds something a bit smaller than the average end table.
I’m being a bit clinical about it all partly because I wish to remain detached from the scene, and partly because I am detached, whether I want to be or not.
The jungle of flowers flanking the photo display do nothing to disguise how small it is. They swallow it up.
From a certain angle, it looks like my mother’s unnaturally youthful face is peering at me from out of a monstrous hybrid rose bush. It is not a pleasant or comfortable idea, all things considered.
I turn away. It’s not easy to detach myself from that image.
My grandmother isn’t any happier with the state of things. She handled the arrangements. She picked the funeral home. It apparently has some history that I don’t remember with her side of our family.
I wonder how many times has she been here, before? How many times after? How long would it take a person to get used to a change of that magnitude? I don’t know. The world I live in is the only one I’ve ever known.
My uncles have been trying to keep my grandmother calm for a good twenty minutes. Their results have varied.
“But I just wish I had another chance to see her,” she is saying when I tune in. “Would that really be so much?”
“Ma, the law’s the law,” my Uncle Mike says.
“It wouldn’t be her anyway,” Uncle Jeff says. “You know a body’s just a body. Anyway, is that how you want to remember her? The pictures are better.”
“The pictures are pictures!” Grandmother yells. “She’s my only daughter!”
“Geez, quiet down, Ma,” Mike says. “People are gonna…”
“People know she’s grieving,” Jeff says. “That’s what this is. Grief. It’s okay. Ma, you know it would break her heart if she knew you took that kind of risk. You know how careful she was all the time.”
“You mean she was afraid all the time,” Mike says. “And she wasn’t happy if everyone else wasn’t.”
That’s when I turn away.
* * * * * * * * * *
This is what she’d yell whenever I was heading out the door. It didn’t matter where in the house she was, or whether I’d told her I was going out. She’d sense the front door opening, zip to the nearest doorway to the front hall, and yell out the reminder.
“I know,” I’d call back over my shoulder.
I did know. Everybody knew. Just like, sometimes, everybody ran, because no matter how brave we all acted around the schoolyard, we still got scared a bit at a rustling in the ditches or saw something staring eyelessly out of a hedge.
There was no need to run. None of them could. Most of them could barely walk. But at the same time, there was no real reason not to run. The point was to get away, right? Running was safer than walking. As for the risks…
“That’s how you trip,” my mother would say.
“But I’m still faster even if I trip,” I said back to her, once. “If they’re not close enough to grab me when I start running, they’re not going to be any closer when I fall!”
“The one you know about won’t be,” she said. “They hunt in packs, remember?”
“Mother!” I said. “There haven’t been packs for years!”
“There are occasional packs still,” she said. “It doesn’t even have to be a pack. It could just be two of them, the one you see and the one you don’t. Anyway, it really only takes one. What if you trip and twist your ankle? What if you break your leg?”
“I’ll still drag myself faster than it can,” I said.
“Oh? Have you ever had a broken leg? Remember when you broke your finger? You almost blacked out.”
“I could still trip if I’m walking.”
“But it’s all about odds,” she said. “It’s all about risk. When you’re running, you can’t keep your eyes on the ground. You don’t have as much time to react when something comes up. You can’t stop yourself if your foot snags on something. And what happens if you wind up running right into a dead end?”
“We don’t live in a labyrinth,” I said. It was a new word to me at that point, and I was very proud of it. Probably a bit too proud, or else I wouldn’t have dared to say that, as sure of myself as I was.
I don’t remember exactly what my mother said in response to that. I do remember I was less proud of my vocabulary afterwards.
I never argued with her about that again. I still didn’t think she was right about running. If it was about odds, then who was to say that it wasn’t riskier to spend more time in the area? If there might be more than one, then wouldn’t it be better to get out of there before they could surround me?
But even if I didn’t think running was as dangerous as she made it out to be, I recognized that there was a different kind of danger in pushing her too far.
In all honesty, the danger posed by the amblers was distant and abstract compared to the danger posed by pressing my mother’s buttons. I had no experience with being dragged down by an ambulatory corpse, but I had been grounded.
Anyway, the debate about running had only been a side point in an older, longer-running argument about the way to deal with things like amblers in the first place.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Hey there, Safety Tip,” my cousin Brian says.
“I’ve asked you not to call me that,” I say.
“Ah, hell,” he says. “I’ve been calling you that for years. Everybody in school did! What else am I supposed to call you?”
“My name. Anything else. Just don’t call me that today.”
“What’s so special about today?”
I stare at him. I know he’s making fun of me, but I can’t tell if this is part of the tease or not. I don’t know which would be crueler.
“My mother is dead,” I say. It’s all I can do to get the words out. I expect them to come tumbling from my mouth in a rising roar, but when I hear my voice, it is tiny, thin, and piercing. I want my words to push him away, but I can see on his face he doesn’t even feel it.
I turn and walk briskly away.
* * * * * * * * * *
My mother always did love her safety tips.
Look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t go in the water for a half hour after eating. Stop, drop, and roll if you catch on fire. Stop, look, and listen when you get to the train tracks.
Her favorite, of course, was the famous WALK.
Every time she shouted “walk” to me as I was heading out the door, I knew she didn’t just mean “walk” but “WALK”. I knew this because for the longest time, she would give me the whole spiel before letting me go out alone:
Walk briskly, stay Alert, keep your eyes Low, and Know the area.
That’s what you did if you encountered an ambler. That’s what you were supposed to do, anyway. Don’t approach. Don’t engage. Don’t stop and watch it stumble around towards you. Don’t laugh at it, no matter how helpless and harmless it looks. Don’t stop and take a picture of it. Definitely don’t try to get a picture with it.
Almost everyone else in my class had a picture of themselves with an ambler in the background. Polaroids, mostly, because they didn’t have to be developed. The kids who had actual film photographs were the coolest kids with the coolest parents, the ones who would let them have everything and let them do anything.
Justin Peterson was one of those kids. He had a picture with his arm around one, though it was dead. I mean, it had been rendered inert again. He’d shot it between the eyes and then propped it up for a picture, which his dad took.
He’d been a hero to the whole school, once.
For a while, everyone had wanted to be him.
* * * * * * * * * *
“I’m told your mother died peacefully,” a blonde woman wearing a red pillbox hat with a veil of netting on it tells me. “And that she passed without incident.”
“Yeah,” I say.
I’ve been told that, too.
Everybody keeps telling me that. They clasp my hand in theirs, give me firm, unblinking eye contact, and tell me the news that I had been given long before them: my mother’s body went into the crematorium peacefully and still.
Why do they tell you this? Why do they think you need to know? Dead is dead, even now, or at least gone is gone. My mother is every bit as gone as if something had tried to beat and claw its way out of the box.
Anyway, what do they tell the people whose loved ones did turn unexpectedly? If it’s supposed to bring peace to know that it didn’t happen, what do they tell the family when it does happen? Nothing?
Then I know, with a certainty: they passed without incident. Like an angel. Like a sleeping angel.
Of course they do.
“What a blessing!” the pillbox lady says.
“Yeah,” I agree.
“I had nightmares about my Albert, before he went into the fire,” she continues. My eyes dart around the room looking for an escape, but I know I’ll find none. I came to this corner to escape. It seemed like the last safe place for me to stand. “They tell me that they can’t feel anything, that it’s not really them anymore, but what if they’re wrong? What if they’re wrong? They still don’t know why it happens, and I mean, people used to think cows don’t feel anything. We don’t really know anything, do we?”
“No, we don’t,” I agree.
* * * * * * * * * *
The first thing I asked for when my mother said I was old enough to go out by myself was a sword. Sherry Morgan had one that she said was Japanese. Her grandfather had brought it back from the war, she said, and now it was hers. Everybody thought it was the coolest.
I liked it because I thought its curved, single-edged blade would impress my mother. What could be safer than that?
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “What good is a sword for?”
“Sherry says it can cut right through bone and everything,” I said.
“What sounds safe about that?” she said.
“Mom, it’s not even sharp like a razor,” I said. “You have to, you know, swing it. Hard.”
“Then it’s not going to do you much good at your age, is it?” she said. “Anyway, you don’t have any reason to cut one up. All that’s good for is getting seven kinds of yuck on you, and it doesn’t even stop them.”
“I could cut off its arms and legs and then go for the head,” I said. “Sherry Morgan says she’s killed lots of them.”
“You don’t kill an ambler, sweetie,” my mother said. “They aren’t alive.”
“They’re kind of alive?” I said. “Mr. Grossman says they’re undead.”
“That is superstition,” she said. “They’re just… a thing that happens. Like a storm, or an avalanche, or a sickness. And speaking of sickness, the last thing you want to do is smack into them with a sword. Who knows what germs you’ll splatter yourself with?”
“Mom, you can’t catch it,” I said.
“That’s what they say, but no one knows what causes it,” she said. “And even if you can’t, you can catch other things. A rotting body is a perfect incubator for disease.”
“I’d be careful!” I said.
“Showing off with a sword is the opposite of careful,” she said. “I’ll get you something you can use to keep them off of you and get away. That’s the goal. Just get away.”
When she told me she’d get me a pike instead, I hadn’t known what she meant. Looking it up in the school library, I’d found pictures of wicked looking medieval weapons that looked like a spear had a baby with an axe. It wasn’t a shotgun. It wasn’t a handgun. It wasn’t a chainsaw. It wasn’t a sword. It wasn’t any of the things that I’d ever wished for, but I didn’t care. That just meant no one I knew had anything like it.
It meant that for once, I was going to be the cool kid.
When she actually brought it home, I was horrified. It was nothing like the pictures from the book. It reminded me of a whaler’s harpoon, or at least what I imagined one would look like, only the end of it wasn’t pointed or hooked at all. It was just a broad, flat metal thing, kind of like a boat oar. The patented safety tip, the package had called it.
My mother had loved her safety tips.
“If the goal’s to get away, why not just get me a sword?” I said. “At least then I could run away!”
I knew the words were a mistake as soon as I’d said them, but it was too late to take them back and I didn’t have the speed or eloquence needed to explain that I’d meant it in the sense of retreating, sensibly, at a safe speed.
“Don’t. You. Dare.”
I think I knew then and there that my fate was sealed, that I’d be stuck with the pike forever.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said.
“You don’t run from them. If you see them, you walk away from them. Walk briskly. The pike is only when one gets in your way, when one lurches around a corner or sneaks up on you.”
“How are they going to sneak up on me? Everyone says they barely know we’re here anymore. You practically have to step on one to get bitten.”
“Those are the old ones,” she said. “New ones pop up all the time, and they’re still a bit quicker, and they have better senses.”
“They still can’t exactly sneak,” I protested. “They’re not smart like that.”
“No, but they’re very quiet and they’re very patient,” she said. “Anyway, if you’re so sure they can’t get close, then why do you care if you have a sword or pike? You shouldn’t need to use it very often.”
“Then can I just leave it at home?”
“You were the one who wanted a way to defend yourself.”
“I wanted a weapon!” I said. “I want to fight them!”
“There’s nothing to fight! They aren’t exciting. They aren’t enemies to defeat. They’re just something to avoid when we can, and deal with when we can’t. That’s what you have to do.”
* * * * * * * * * *
They call what happens next the remembrance, though I know I won’t remember any of it.
While her brothers and co-workers get up and talk about the kind of person they think she was, I’m looking at my mother’s face in the big round oval frame that dominates the display. The pictures were chosen from all times of her life.
The biggest one is the one that I guess people thought best represented her. It wouldn’t have been my choice, and not just because I have a hard time remembering when she ever looked that young. Her cheeks are too rosy. Her lipstick waxy-thick. I know she looks happy, but I also know what she looked like when she was happy.
I don’t know what a corpse looked like, lying in a coffin with its face made up by a mortician and fixed into the best approximation of a relaxed expression that can be wrung from a corpse. I’ve read old books, though, where people talk about how such faces are unfamiliar, artificial.
I feel that way looking at the picture of my mother. I couldn’t guess the context from which the portrait was cropped. The background is an almost white sky. She’s smiling for the camera, with no idea that this forced, fixed expression is going to be her death mask.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Take your pike if you’re going out,” my mother said when she saw I was heading for the door without it.
“They just did a sweep yesterday,” I said.
“And they always miss one,” she said. “Watch the news and you’ll see. The day after a sweep is always when someone gets taken. Because it makes people careless, you see. Someone always dies after a sweep.”
“They do a sweep every month,” I said. “If someone died every time…”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I don’t mean here. But somewhere. Anywhere. It could be here. Take your pike.”
I sighed and lifted the long, unwieldy pole off its wall mounting.
“If you want to keep me safe from amblers, you should have got me a gun,” I said. I thought my logic was foolproof. “It’s got a lot longer reach than a big, heavy stick.”
“Are you kidding?” she said. “A gun is way more dangerous than an ambler.”
“Isn’t that the point?” I said.
“Do you know how many people get shot every day by accident? Do you know how many people a day shoot themselves?”
Probably not even one, I thought. It couldn’t happen that often or people wouldn’t make guns. I did know that I was on a losing track.
“I don’t even know how I’m supposed to kill an ambler with this thing,” I said instead.
“You aren’t supposed to kill them,” she said. “First, they’re already dead. Second, that’s why we have patrols. You’re supposed to get away from them. If one’s in your way, you push it back or you knock it down. Sweep…”
“Sweep the knees!” I said. “I know!”
“You get it down, and then you…”
“Then I walk away.”
* * * * * * * * * *
My name is called. I remember being told that I should probably say something, and I remember that I had said in response that I would like that. I hadn’t given it any more thought. That’s just what you do when your mother dies, right?
It’s never happened to me before and it would never happen again, but even an hour ago I couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t want to stand up in front of a room of mixed family and strangers, that I wouldn’t have anything inside me to say to them.
* * * * * * * * * *
Justin Peterson got his throat torn out when I was fourteen. He’d been hunting in the woods, supposedly for deer but probably not really.
There’s no rule that says getting killed by one always turns you into one, if there are any rules at all. It seems to happen more often that way, though. Some people think there is just a correlation between dying violently and alone and turning, but other people say that’s just anecdotal. They say it seems that way because people who died in accidents in the middle of nowhere never get cremated.
I don’t know.
I do know that the thing that had been his body stumbled onto the field during an outdoor day in gym class, I was the last one to know it had been him. I turned, and I walked briskly towards the school, taking the long way around the big sloping hill up to the parking lot, because I might slip. I heard my classmates’ laughter turn to screams and resisted the urge both to look back and to run.
Most of them were okay, physically. They were screaming because they recognized who it had been. Some of the jocks tried to tackle it and bash its brains in. One of them got a bad bite on his arm. He needed stitches and antibiotics, but he lived. His reputation did a 180 overnight, though. No one ever quite believed that it wasn’t infectious. He went from being one of the coolest kids in school to a total pariah.
It wasn’t just that the other kids were afraid of him. He’d get knocked down in the hall, have things thrown at his head. People would shuffle past him, moaning in the way that amblers never moan but people always act like they do.
I didn’t understand it. I still don’t. Everyone acted like at any moment he might turn into a monster and kill us all, but they didn’t act like he was a threat. They acted like he was weak. I asked my mother about it, not because she’d understand but because I didn’t have anyone else to ask.
“Fear does that to people sometimes,” she said. “It brings out the worst in people. That’s part of why it’s so important not to be afraid.”
“You don’t act like that.”
“Sweetheart, that’s because I’m not afraid,” she said. “And I don’t want you to be afraid, either. I don’t want you to think you have to be afraid.”
“Then why do I have to carry a stupid pike around, if I’m not supposed to be afraid? Why do I have to know all the rules? And why are you always checking on me, always hassling me about them? Why all the stupid safety tips?”
“There are things we do when things are scary, so that we won’t be afraid,” she said. “It would be terrifying to go down the road at sixty miles an hour if there weren’t seat belts and brakes and signal lights and, and… safety features. We have all those things, and we have rules of the road, and because we can count on them to keep us safe, we don’t have to be afraid.”
“But people still die in car accidents, don’t they?”
“They do,” she said.
“And people still get killed by amblers.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, they do. They probably always will.”
“You are afraid!” I said. I’m not sure if I felt triumphant or terrified at catching her in this contradiction. “You said you’re not.”
“I don’t have to be,” she said. “Love, things—people—aren’t just one way or another. Sometimes I get scared when I’m driving, too! The important thing is that it doesn’t become all that I am, that the things I feel don’t overwhelm the things I know, like how to drive safely. The important thing is that you don’t panic.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“My mother,” I say, “always kept me safe.”
I know these words are inadequate. I know I should be explaining, elaborating… saying something about how she knew it was a scary world, and she didn’t hide that from me, but she always made sure I had the tools to deal with it.
I should be saying that “safe” didn’t mean I wouldn’t die, though I didn’t. It didn’t mean she didn’t worry every time I went out the door, but that she could let me go out the door.
None of these words will come, though. They won’t form up into ranks inside my head and I can’t make them march out of my mouth.
“She wasn’t afraid,” I say. “She taught me not to be afraid. I love her, and I miss her… and I’ll always miss her… but I still know I don’t have to be afraid.”
People are looking at me like they’re not sure if I’m finished. Have I said enough?
“That’s all I have to say,” I say. “There isn’t anything else…”
There’s some awkward, scattered clapping, which weirds me out because I didn’t expect it. Were people clapping at the other speakers? I get out from behind the lectern and head down the aisle. I don’t go back to my seat. I need air, but more than that, I need to be somewhere else, anywhere else, just as fast as I can safely get there.
I fumble out the claim ticket for the coat check and thrust it with shaking hands to the attendant, who peers at the scribbled scrawl underneath the description.
“It’s the pike,” I say. “Seven and a half feet long, with a safety tip.”
“Right,” he says. “I saw that in the corner. Hang on. You know, I didn’t know anyone still carries these. Sure, you could brain a thing hard with it, but it’s so awkward to swing. There’s got to be easier ways to take out an ambler.”
“I’m sure there are,” I say. “But I don’t have to take them out. I just have to get away.”
“Well, the threat level for tonight is elevated, so if you’re not looking to fight, you’d best be ready to run. Can I call you a cab?”
“No, thank you,” I say, sniffling. “I’ll walk. Briskly.”
Alexandra Erin is a crowdfunded poet, tweeter, blogger, and author. If you enjoyed this or her other work, please join her on Patreon to keep the words coming.