Excerpt: Less Than Dead


“I can’t sleep,” Pearl whispered, crawling into bed with me.

In the morning, I woke up cold, clutching the wedding dress she’d been buried in.

I was sorely afraid, not because my dead lover had come calling, but because I knew Pearl’s parents would be fit to be tied if they found out their darling daughter had chosen to take her nightwalkings to sleep with me, Cissy McGurk, instead of that nice Howell boy they had picked out for her.

A haint in the family was one thing, but a fish-kissing girl was quite another. Plus, they wouldn’t be pleased if they knew Pearl lay in the cemetery in her underthings, right next to the church and all. I held the dress to my heart, torn between the want to never let it go and the need to hide it at once.

Old Henrik might howl at the moon once a month, and the O’Neil boys could blame all manner of things on run-ins with the Snallygaster beast, and nobody worried too much about the blue-faced Fugates over in the next county, but a girl was expected to know her place, especially these days. I was going to have to figure out what was going on with Pearl, but quiet like, and first there were chores that had to be done.

Standing in my bedroom still in my old too-short cotton nightgown, I allowed myself to hug the dress and take a deep breath. There was the expected smell of dirt and pine, but there was also the distinct scent of Pearl, like all the first little flowers that poke their heads up after winter mixed together, a perfume of kindly spring.

I had helped Pearl sew that dress, putting love and heartache into every stitch. If I couldn’t convince her to put it back on, for something told me this was no one-time nightwalk, I’d have to unstitch the entire thing, break it down into smaller pieces like bloomers, petticoats, undershirts, and all manner of smaller clothing that could all be tucked away in drawers and worn later with no one the wiser. I could do that, if I had to. Give me an old blanket, a needle, and scissors, and I’ll be able to turn out near a whole new set of Sunday best for a whole family.

In truth, I had sewn more of the wedding dress than Pearl. She had often said she wished she had my patience for sewing. She was always ready to throw down her piecework and run off to pick apples or climb cliffs or look to see if they chickadees had new eggs, or just about anything that meant being outside and roaming.

I don’t know how it is for other folks, but me, when the stitches are setting right and I get a good pace going, I can have practically a whole quilt border in place by sunset while my mind still thinks its morning. I feel it, though, when I finally stand, all my muscles cramped up and complaining about my steady work, but still, there’s a peace I couldn’t even rightly describe to Pearl about doing something I was good at.

With Pearl gone, sewing lost most of the pleasure it had given me, but it was steadying to have something to do, and to try and forget everything for a little while as I worked on this or that project. With spring in full bloom and summer making all sorts of noises about being about ready to drop by for a long spell, I had just been beginning to think maybe the world wasn’t over even if Pearl wasn’t in it anymore. But now she was again. Sort of. Dead. But not dead. What was I going to do?

I folded up the wedding dress with gentle care and stored it in my hope chest guiltily, sliding it between two layers of linens. Cousin Martha had begun to make a few remarks that I hardly need worry about filling the chest at my age, but I knew no one would bother poking around in there.




Marcus is alive, the kind of alive with no gangrenous limbs, and his reward is a palm full of corn chip flavordust from the bottom corner of a bag. At the checkout counter there’s a hot dog rack so moldy he wouldn’t touch it unless he knew for sure that eating one would kill him. The kind of dead that wouldn’t sit back up. Marcus breathes in extra deep since closing his eyes is out of the question. He is alive. And so are a thousand cockroaches. He shakes a couple off of a tragically empty pizza box.

Marcus picks the least carbonated water brand to pour across the latest gashes and distinctly doesn’t think about AJ’s voice. Instead he lets himself think about his mother’s, only enough to not get lost in it. About old game show reruns and her fingers laced loose in his. About how you can’t stay crying honey just cuz you’re blessed with something not everybody else got.

Under all the fresh glass shards, there’s a mound of juice packets, pierced with yellow straws and emptied flat. One shelf of canned chips is set like a shooting range. Twelve tubes of Country Ranch are sniped clean through. Marcus picks one up and sets it back down in surprise just as instantly. The wounded can is suspiciously warm, enough that the bullet hole could be fresh.

He interrogates the whole display with his eyes. Every can is standing like the shooter propped them back up. A few feet away, by the door, there’s a swath of empty cereal boxes. Next to them, the whole glass front of the donut case is smashed in.

Marcus fully reloads his rifle and remains optimistic, all at the same time.

At the end of the hallway in the back of the store, there’s one light on, inside a walk-in freezer. He watches for more than a minute until he sees shadows swim against the walls.

If Marcus had a nickel for every horror-movie bad idea he had executed today, he would have a week’s paycheck.

Two paper towel rolls bounce silently off the doorframe, so he throws cat food cans and dashes around the corner when one smashes the window. Marcus yells at the rusty swing of a metal door that whatever is opening it had better have a pulse.

“Hello?” a voice from inside the walk-in answers him, seemingly unfazed. “…Did you just chuck me a Fancy Feast?”

“I’m alive, don’t shoot!” Marcus adjusts his own trigger finger before he steps around the corner. “I, um, threw the cat food.”

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