Her Little Zombie Girl
by Ken Barnett
Melinda, her hands buried deep in the warm pocket of her hoodie, watched from the sidewalk as her daughter, Linda, shambled across the leaf-strewn lawn. According to the letters affixed to the decorative faux mailbox at the end of the driveway, this was the home of the Figg family. Linda came to a halt in front of a maroon door rimmed with a strip of plum-sized Jack-o’-lantern lights.
The eight-year-old readied her bucket, pressed the doorbell, and gleefully exclaimed, “Trick or treat!”
Ten seconds later, the door opened. Butter-yellow light washed over Linda and spilled across the lawn. A tall, hunched figure holding a large bowl stepped into the doorway.
“Well, aren’t you just one of the most terrifying zombies I ever did see,” the figure cooed, their voice scratchy and feminine. The woman, presumably Ms. Figg, grabbed a handful of candy from her bowl, leaned forward, and dropped the sugary treats on top of Linda’s overflowing skull-shaped plastic bucket. Ms. Figg then hastily pulled back, bringing her hand in front of her nose. “My, my. You sure went the extra mile. The smell is so . . . pungent.”
“I know!” Linda said proudly. “My mom doesn’t like the smell either.” She glanced over her shoulder.
Ms. Figg followed Linda’s gaze and waved cheerfully at Melinda. Melinda returned it, albeit with a much more hurried, somewhat distracted gesture. The Figg home was the last house on the last street of the neighborhood, which meant Melinda and Linda’s night was approaching its end. The end of October thirty-first was always difficult. But this year . . . this year was going to be much harder. A small gourd of anxiety had formed in Melinda’s stomach when she picked Linda up four hours ago. It had been uncomfortably sloshing around all evening. Now the gourd began to grow.
“Thank you,” Linda said, giving Ms. Figg an unsteady bow. She then turned and shambled across the lawn to Melinda. Linda lifted her bucket in triumph, smiling—one of her front teeth was missing and the other was oversized.
“Well done, my little zombie girl,” Melinda said. She held out her hand, and Linda gladly took it. Melinda’s grasp was delicate. Too much pressure would crush Linda’s brittle fingers.
Hand-in-hand, they strolled along the sidewalks of the unfamiliar neighborhood. Melinda tightened her thick, orange-and-black checkered scarf to ward off the chill air that smelled faintly of hearty stews and pumpkin-spiced baked goods. Linda crooned a spooky song of her own making while she swung her bucket back and forth, candy occasionally falling out in ones, twos, and threes. Two-thirds of the homes flaunted Halloween decorations—fake cobwebs, painted Styrofoam gravestones, costume store masks affixed atop poles, fences, and rooftops, whirring machines blanketing lawns with thick fog, and hidden boxes emitting the sounds of cackling witches, groaning ghouls, and wolfy howls. The most standout house was covered in a dozen Christian crosses of varying sizes and had a large sign staked across the front door walkway with a warning for the night’s revelers: SAVE YOUR CHILDREN! FORSAKE THIS DEVIL’S DAY! SEEK SALVATION IN OUR LORD AND SAVIOR!
They occasionally passed other young, costumed trick-or-treaters, dutifully following parents, and, with the night growing late, packs of ghoulish teenagers. Many of the people they passed often cast odd looks at Linda. That was normal. Linda’s zombie appearance was incredibly detailed and, as Ms. Figg pointed out, very smelly. Linda paid the looks no mind. Neither did Melinda. Not anymore, anyway. Melinda had been a nervous wreck the first few years of trick-or-treating with Linda. Now, having learned only dogs were interested in looking too closely at something so grotesque and stinky, Melinda actually enjoyed their yearly excursion to acquire vast amounts of candied goodies. She cherished spending time with Linda, and she found the confused and horrified stares of the other Halloween goers incredibly amusing. Although, that year, melancholy constricted her amusement.
Twenty minutes later, they reached their car parked at the edge of the neighborhood and hopped inside. Melinda turned over the engine, blasted the heater, and rolled down the two passenger-side windows—Linda’s odor really was worse than ever this year. After a posse of headless kids riding BMX bikes with Jack-o’-lanterns affixed to the handlebars rode past, Melinda merged onto the street, drove away from the neighborhood, and headed towards Potsdam Hill.
While Melinda focused on the road, Linda dumped her dragon’s hoard of sugar into a plain bucket resting on the car floor. She then began sorting her treasure. Using the camera light of Melinda’s phone to intently inspect each piece of candy, Linda divided the treats between her bucket and Sam’s bucket. Linda always did this, ever since her first Halloween. She found it sad and incredibly unfair that her younger brother never got to go trick-or-treating, so she always made sure to bring him half of her candy.
The damn anxiety gourd grew and grew the closer they got to their destination. Melinda intentionally took the long way. She and Linda chatted about anything and everything that came to mind—Linda’s favorite animated show, the new woman Melinda recently started dating, fast zombies versus slow zombies, Sam face-planting into his cake on his birthday, her ex-husband’s latest get-rich-quick scheme, how much Linda missed gran-gran’s cooking.
Melinda didn’t want the night to end. Ever.
She drove past their destination. Unfortunately, the road they were on was a dead-end street, which Melinda found morbidly appropriate. They reached the dead end a few minutes later. She glanced at the clock and sighed. She couldn’t stall any longer.
Father Time dictated the night had to end.
Melinda flipped a U-turn and headed back. Pressure built behind her nose and eyes. She pulled into the sparsely lit parking lot of Agatha’s Cemetery, the car’s high beams casting long, narrow shadows across the cluttered grounds. She parked the car, rolled down the remaining windows, and turned off the engine. Linda continued meticulously sorting her candy.
Melinda casually scanned the cemetery. It appeared little different from last Halloween—the trees loomed larger, the wrought-iron fence was black and glossy instead of gray and sun-faded, and new asphalt covered the parking area. Though it shared the same somber atmosphere common to most cemeteries, Agatha’s was a nice place. Placed on Potsdam Hill’s peak, the air was always clean and sweet; the groundskeepers kept the cemetery well, with flowers aplenty to pick and place; it also boasted a spectacular view of rolling hills dotted with clusters of lush oak trees.
Melinda would need to build a habit of visiting more than once a year.
She leaned on the headrest and closed her eyes. The gourd rattled within her gut uncomfortably, as if it were an egg ready to hatch. Truth be told, Melinda had been dreading this Halloween. Debating with herself since the end of the previous Halloween, she had finally come to a decision on Linda’s birthday back in May. Since then, however, she had refused to think on how to actually carry out said decision. She kept putting it off, always finding an excuse to focus on something else. Big mistake. She, at last, started thinking about this moment yesterday, envisioning all manner of sentiments she could say or explanations to give. Nothing felt right. Everything felt . . . hollow.
Melinda pinched the bridge of her nose, sighing. Parents shouldn’t have to go through things like this.
Melinda opened her eyes and gazed at her daughter. Linda stared up at her with milky doe-eyes and a wide smile of yellowed teeth pockmarked with black cavities. She held up her and Sam’s candy-filled buckets—Sam’s was a traditional orange and black pumpkin. The gourd migrated from Melinda’s stomach and lodged itself in her throat.
“Alrighty,” she croaked. “Let’s go see your brother, then.”
They got out of the car and ventured into the silent cemetery. Melinda followed a few steps behind Linda as they strolled along cobblestone pathways covered in autumnal leaves. The little girl glanced back and forth between the graves. She occasionally nodded or waved or offered a cheerful “Good evening!” She’d always done this, even before the accident. Melinda never asked what or who Linda saw.
When they reached the end of the path in the southwest quadrant, they turned onto short-shorn grass. They ambled past an ancient oak tree and weaved between a dozen gravestones. Just on the other side of a massive, ornate headstone engraved with the myriad accomplishments of the individual interred beneath it were a pair of smaller, far more modest grave markers. Melinda and Linda stood above the marker on the left. Linda stared at the plaque, her skull and pumpkin buckets limp at her sides and her black, scraggly hair falling around her hanging head. Melinda rested her hands on her daughter’s stiff shoulders. Linda glanced back at her.
“Go on,” Melinda said, smiling. “Sam is waiting to hear all about your night of fright.”
The little girl sniffed, then nodded. She rested Sam’s bucket next to his marker before sitting criss-cross applesauce at the foot of the grave.
“Hey, Sammy,” Linda whispered, patting the bronze plaque and running her crooked fingers over the letters etched into the metal.
Sam H. Whitmyer
Jan. 14th, 2001 ~ Dec. 2nd, 2002
His heart was too big for this world.
“We scored big this year,” Linda continued. “I made sure you got most of the jolly ranchers and pixie sticks. A big guy dressed as a werewolf football player was giving out jawbreakers as big as his fists, and he liked my costume so much he gave me two! One for each of us. Oh-oh, also, . . . ”
Melinda sat next to Linda. She stared with lidded eyes at Sam’s grave. Linda’s voice regaling Sam about the many spooky houses and awesome costumes she saw that year became a far-off echo. Memories of countless, exhausting hours spent worrying in antiseptic-smelling rooms of white and beige slide showed through Melinda’s mind. This happened every year. She tried in vain to fight it the first few years. Now, she allowed herself to sink into her numb, lingering grief. The experience was oddly cathartic. The show always ended the same: Melinda and Linda kneeling next to Sam’s grave, weeping in each other’s arms, and her husband trudging away with his hands buried in his pockets.
Melinda snapped back to the present. Her vision swam, and the cold autumn night made the liquid streaks down her cheeks feel like frozen blood vessels. She looked away from her son’s grave and focused on her daughter. Linda was no longer talking to Sam. Instead, she picked at the grass around Sam’s grave. Melinda felt compelled to say something. But what? She still didn’t know.
Midnight crept ever closer. This had to be the last year. But how could she possibly say that to—
“We won’t be going trick-or-treating next year, will we?” Linda asked, her voice small and afraid.
The gourd cracked open and released an icy flood of fresh grief, all-consuming and regretful. Melinda closed her eyes and breathed heavily through her nose. It was time. No putting it off any longer. Linda had done the hard part: starting the conversation. Now it was Melinda’s responsibility to have it.
Melinda opened her eyes and stared at Linda. “No, sweetie. We won’t.”
Linda nodded, solemnly.
“I’m so sorry, Linda.”
Linda shrugged. “It’s okay. I’m eighteen now. What eighteen-year-old still goes trick-or-treating with their mom?” The eighteen-year-old forever stuck at eight-years-old looked up at Melinda. “You’re ready to move on.”
A guttural sob crawled from Melinda’s constricted throat. She pulled Linda into her lap and delicately wrapped the little girl in her arms. Linda buried her head in her mom’s chest.
“I will never move on from you, Linda. Not ever. I love you far, far too much.”
Linda nodded but tightened her grip on Melinda.
“I’ve cherished all these extra Halloweens I got to spend with you,” Melinda continued. “Selfishly so. I didn’t deserve them. Not after what I did.”
Linda shook her head. “You couldn’t have known that truck was there.”
Melinda squeezed her daughter a little tighter. Yes, she could have known that truck was there. If only she had thought to check her blind spot; if only she hadn’t been in such a hurry and driving recklessly; if only she hadn’t been stewing in her frustration with her soon-to-be ex-husband; if only Sam was still alive; if only; if only; if only.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Melinda said. “It’s not healthy. For either of us.”
Linda nodded again. “I know. I’m just . . . I’m just scared of what happens next.”
“So am I, sweetie. Terrified, actually. But it’s time. For both of us.”
Linda sniffed loudly and peered at the grave next to Sam’s. “I don’t want to go through it alone.”
“Maybe . . . maybe you won’t be,” Melinda ventured. Linda looked up at her, eyes questioning. “Sammy might be there.”
Linda stared at Sam’s grave. “That would be nice.”
Melinda’s phone buzzed insistently in her pocket. It was five till midnight. Fresh tears pricked her eyes.
Melinda unwrapped herself from Linda. Linda did the same a few seconds later. Shuffling along on her knees, Melinda scooted over to the second grave, placing herself between it and Sam’s. Linda followed and stood at the foot of that second grave.
May 22nd, 1997 ~ Oct. 31st, 2005
A creative flame that burned bright and far too quickly.
It was a beautiful copper gravestone etched with drawings of cat faces, pencils, zombie hands, and paintbrushes.
Melinda held out her hand. After a moment’s hesitation, Linda took it. Melinda gently helped her daughter lay on the disturbed patch of earth. She then mimicked tucking Linda into bed. Openly weeping, Melinda leaned down and placed a long kiss on Linda’s cold, leathery forehead. “Goodbye, my sweet, sweet zombie girl.”
Linda stopped moving, her body falling limp. Roots and stems and weeds pushed up from soft soil. They wrapped around Linda’s arms, legs, and torso before dragging her back beneath the ground. This happened every year when they returned Linda to what should have been her final resting place.
What didn’t happen every year was a condensed white mist staying above the grave. The mist had the shape of a child.
Melinda cautiously reached her hand forward. “Linda . . .?”
Mist Linda stood. In the crook of her free arm, she held another figure formed of mist, this one the size and shape of a toddler. The two figures gazed at Melinda with glowing, unblinking eyes of white. Melinda sobbed through a smile. Her children leaned forward, reached out, and wiped away Melinda’s tears. Mist Linda then placed a warm, loving kiss on Melinda’s forehead. Melinda closed her eyes.
When Melinda opened her eyes, both her children were gone. She wallowed in the mix of grief and joy roiling through her, sometimes silently, sometimes screaming, sometimes weeping, sometimes even laughing. Late, late in the night, after placing a kiss on the two grave markers, Melinda stood on shaking legs and walked away. Her final Halloween with her little zombie girl was over.