I fed my brother from a paper plate because my mother worried his un-death was contagious. Yesterday, Roy choked at the dinner table. None of us were able to displace the errant chicken bone. As his hands stopped flailing, the silence that followed his guttural gulps engulfed us. But, moments after we draped a bed sheet over his pale face, Roy yanked it back down. We watched as he clambered up the steps to his room and stayed away from him until this morning.
My father and I opened the door slowly, expecting to find a stiff body–but there he stubbornly laid, languid and pliant.
Still, we checked if Roy was breathing even though the naturally pink bloom in his cheeks had been replaced by a dull sheen. Blisters popped and oozed when he slid from the bed, climbed down the stairs, and staggered outside into the backyard. My father and I followed at a distance until Roy clumsily slumped unto the ground, his back against the wall. Our German Shepherds, Trixie and Sherry padded over to their best friend. Roy grimaced from the effort needed to pat their heads.
Without a word, my mother made a bologna sandwich and arranged it crust-free and diagonal on a paper plate. As I handed the sandwich to him, I checked that our parents were out of earshot. They hadn’t uttered a word to Roy since his demise.
“You know you’re dead, right?”
“Yup.” Roy ran his thumb over the sandwich’s crumbling edges before tossing it to the dogs. He pulled his legs to his chest and wrapped his hands around them. Blackened veins splintered through exposed skin. Could he could feel the chill in the air? I almost hugged him. Almost. I struggled to keep the mood light despite the heaviness in my chest.
“So why’re you still here?”
“You want me to go?” He spoke with a fire his cloudy eyes could no longer convey. Still, I looked away in embarrassment and mumbled at my old shoes.
“I dunno. I mean this can’t be how you die.”
There was a muffled gurgle in Roy’s stomach and he poked at it, bending his softened nail so that it slid a little from its nail fold.
“You probably should have eaten the sandwich.”
A wry smile tugged his lips to the side. “The only thing my body craves is itself. Don’t you remember anything from that Bio class where they talked about the stages of decomposition?”
His eyes rolled once in their sockets and sat askew when they settled.
“So you’re just going to sit here and turn to mush?”
“Sit here? You mean Dad hasn’t called the funeral homes yet to scoop me up?”
We shared a snicker. I sobered up first.
“Seriously, while we wait to find out what’s going on what d’you want to do?”
“Honestly?” He paused to poke a new blister on his thigh. “See Angela.”
I guffawed. Images of the curvy, raven-haired girl came to mind. Her dark brown eyes had always shone with unfiltered joy until Roy broke her heart.
“As in your ex-girlfriend Angela? She said she never wanted to talk to you again after that crap you pulled before prom. What could I possibly say to get her to leave her house and come here?”
The call to Angela was shorter than I anticipated. It had been at least a month since I’d called on Roy’s behalf.
“Clyne?” Her voice was filled with resignation. Good. At least her rage had simmered.
“Yeah, look don’t hang up. Roy wants to see you.”
Angela’s shriek of laughter was as loud as if she had slammed the phone back into its cradle. “Why the hell would I do that?”
She broke the silence with words pressed through clenched teeth. “You said he wanted to see me. You think that’s funny?”
“Maybe you should come see for yourself. Please.”
The phone clattered in my ear, but I knew she would come because things had ended so abruptly between them. True communication had been lost in the deluge of angry texts, voicemails, and the terse messages Angela asked me to deliver.
I broke the news to Roy as he caressed a brown tooth in his palm.
“At least she’ll see me before things get any worse.”
I rubbed his shoulder, the skin slipped beneath my fingers like an overripe tomato. Immediately, my mother’s hysterical shriek pierced the air.
“Clyne! Get in here!”
My shoulders drooped as a heavy sigh fell from my lips, but I still went to my mother. She stared at me pointedly before spinning me around to check for any blemishes. I took a deep breath, expanding my chest to her satisfaction.
“I feel fine Ma.”
“As far as you know. Please Clyne, don’t touch him again. You think I don’t want to…” A pause. A breath. “Just please keep your distance.”
I nodded but returned to my brother’s side. A sickly sweet smell permeated the air around him and the squelch beneath my slippers told me the source. Roy’s eyes met mine, and I set off in search of something to cover the ooze.
I had just thrown a beige blanket from the linen closet over him when the backdoor squealed and I met Angela’s curious eyes. Her fingertips were pressed against the door’s hard dark wood.
“Your mother said this is where you’d be.”
I nudged the blanket over further with the tips of my toes as she stepped out into the backyard. Black slime seeped and spread, darkening the soft fabric. I had wanted something darker but our mother only believed in light coloured bed linen. Angela wrung her hands when she approached Roy, and I couldn’t tell if she was angry or confused. Her eyes widened as Roy’s rotting body came into view, and her hands slowly crept up to her lips.
“Oh my God,” she whispered, “what’s happening to you?”
Roy shrugged and gazed at her, his rheumy eyes appearing almost tear-filled in the mid-morning sun. He beckoned Angela towards him with a slight wave of his pale hands, but her eyes flicked to the dusty ground and she dragged her boot’s tip slowly through the dirt. Maybe drawing another line she hoped Roy wouldn’t cross.
Her voice travelled easily in the still air. “I hear she didn’t even put out for you.”
Roy shook his head. “It was stupid. I was stupid. I’m sorry, Angela.”
“I know.” Her voice was soft, tinged with regret.
“You think we would have gotten back together?” Roy asked wistfully.
“You planning to haunt me if I say no?”
They shared a laugh that ended abruptly when Angela noticed the few remaining teeth clinging to Roy’s bruised gums.
“I think we would have, yeah.”
He rested his head against the rough concrete wall, eyes closed. Another tooth slipped from his gums onto the soaked blanket. I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out what he looked like under there.
Angela reached out and then retracted her hand. “I should go. It was good to talk to you again Roy.”
I got a chair from the dining room, and we sat in silence as the sun trekked across the sky. I looked at Roy when he threw a handful of his teeth across the yard. Their clatter caught the dogs’ attention–they sniffed the suspicious brown lumps and withdrew with a whimper.
“So what now?” I asked.
“Tell Dad to get a funeral director before he has to wash me into the street with the garden hose.”
“But you haven’t…”
“Died yet? Yeah, I thought my stuff with Angela was keeping me here but…”
“You’re still here.”
“They should just bury me. I won’t feel anything, anyway.”
“But you’ll know.”
The idea that Roy could waste away alone while aware of every passing second was more than I could bear. “Hold on.” I pushed the backdoor open. “Ma! Dad!”
They rushed into the backyard, their faces twisted in panic.
“Roy has to stay here until the end.”
He poked my leg. I swatted his hand away. The oddly bent wrist flopped into his lap. At this rate, who knew how long he’d be in one piece?
“Clyne…” my mother interjected, “I-I don’t know how to deal with this. I’ve lost my son but I haven’t lost my son. I can’t…”
She crumbled into a fit of sobs and buried her face in one of the small cotton rags she had littered across the house. My mother was never a fan of tissues, they made her allergies worse. I blinked back tears. Roy jumped in before I had to say anything else.
“Have a funeral.”
He peeled a side of the blanket off the ground and an acrid smell wafted up into the air.
“Yeah. Today. I won’t be together much longer. I can feel it.”
My mother stifled a sniffle and went back in the house. I could hear bits of the conversation in the living room.
“Who d’you think she’s going to call?”
“Anybody with no plans this afternoon. ‘Hey you want to come say your goodbyes to my not-dead son?’”
His toothless grin brought a nostalgic smile to my face. Roy could find the humour in any situation. I was about to reply when my father shuffled through the backdoor. Without a word, he lifted the blanket and though I looked away, it wasn’t quickly enough. The image of my brother’s bloated legs surrounded by the thickening black ooze was seared into my memory.
“I’ll go get another blanket,” I mumbled.
I trudged down the stairs with a blanket, light yellow this time, and heard my father wrestling with the garden hose. I stayed inside until the water’s spray stopped then ventured outside. Roy’s legs were nothing but white bone speckled with bits of blackish-green flesh but at least the slime was gone for now. I spread the new blanket on him from shoulders to toes.
My mother’s sniffles preceded her through the door. “I only called a few close friends. I’m not sure they understood what I was saying but they’ll be here in the next hour or so. Roy, do you think you’ll still be…”
“Dead-ish? I guess.”
She answered his thin-lipped smile with one of her own and nodded.
I rubbed my old yard dress between my fingers; it suddenly seemed so thin and unworthy of the public eye. Much like the rest of the clothes I usually wore in the comfort of our home. “Should we change?”
My mother looked at me as if I had spoken a language she didn’t recognize. I was about to repeat my question when she nodded.
Half an hour later, we gathered in the backyard again, no less awkward but at least better dressed. My mother wore one of her favourite church dresses while my father wore dark jeans with a shirt and tie. I opted for comfortable black slacks and a light blue cotton blouse I had buried in the bottom of my drawer.
“Swanky,” Roy mumbled when he saw me. His voice sounded slurred under his melting vocal cords.
“You know you’ll be fine without me, right? I mean, Ma and Dad care more about you than you think. Besides, they’ve lost one kid so I doubt you’ll be able to scratch a mosquito bite without them knowing about it.”
“You need to be sure. I–I need to hear you say it.”
I looked at him, suspicion crinkling my eyes. “Am I keeping you here?”
“I think we’re both keeping me here.”
I pursed my lips and crossed my arms. For the first time since yesterday, anger surged through me. “Then yeah sure, I’ll be fine.”
The raw emotion in his voice cooled my irritation.
“I’ll be fine Roy. I know that.”
I ran my palm over the blanket until I found his skeletal hand. “It’s all fine,” I added.
“Good. I love you, Clyne.”
“You’d better.” His lips slid into a slow smile and the only sound breaking the silence was the patter of his bony fingers on the ground. Abruptly, they stilled.
“Roy?” I tapped on his hollow cheek but he didn’t budge. Somehow, his complexion was even paler. I looked around for my parents and spotted my mother greeting the first set of guests.
“Ma!” My voice was like a strangled cry swallowed by the distance. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Ma!”
She shuffled over to me, her eyes already glistening.
“He’s gone, Ma.”
“But I never said my goodbyes! I wanted, I wanted…” She burst into tears and I rose to hold her.
“He knew, Ma. He always knew.”
Hearing the uproar, the visitors drifted closer. I waved them forward so they could see Roy for themselves.
“Why is he on the ground?” the mortician asked.
My father ushered him away from the crowd, and I assumed he was explaining the situation or a reasonable variation.
While my mother regained some composure, I addressed those gathered. “Um, hello everyone. Thanks for coming out to this celebration of Roy’s life. I know this is unorthodox, but we just wanted to send him off the best way we could.”
My mother dabbed her eyes and kissed my cheek.
“Thank you, Clyne,” she muttered into my hair.
To the gathering, she said, “Let me begin by telling you about my Roy.”
I glanced back at my brother, the thin smile still playing on what was left of his lips.
Jesus Roy, even your death had to be weird right?
Karen Heslop writes from Kingston, Jamaica. Her stories can be found in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Martian Magazine and The Future Fire among others. She tweets @kheslopwrites