Our bodies wouldn’t hold together like they used to. Every day, strips of skin peeled off and hung like fringe from our decaying limbs. On bad days, chunks of muscle and flesh caught in the doorway. Once, I hugged Herb too hard and his kidney plopped out. The organ slid across the worn floorboards, Herb and I chuckling as we watched it smack the bowed curve of his rocking chair.
So much changed after the stranger came, after he gave us this gift. An odd fellow, he muttered and growled – Herb and I couldn’t understand what he said. Neither of us could remember much about that day. The memory was shrouded by a red mist inside my mind.
After that, Herb sat up late at night, staring into the flames in the hearth and trying to puzzle together what the stranger said.
Does it matter if you receive the gift, but don’t hear the message?
I told him he needn’t worry about it. We found a way to cheat death, to linger here. The cost seemed bearable to me. I was content to dwell here with Herb in our little cabin, just the two of us through the ages. One day, we would become walking, talking skeletons – and I was sure he would still wear that tattered flannel shirt.
But Herb wanted more. He wanted to share. I told that sweet old bastard it wasn’t a good idea. And wasn’t I right?
He dragged me into town one day and we stood on the corner near the drug store, preaching salvation. He wobbled, perched on a collapsing cardboard box. He didn’t know what to say. I think he just made up some stuff that sounded religious and hoped people would come.
People came, but not the way he wanted. As they approached, neighbors and old friends wearing wide-eyed masks of disgust, I knew we were in for trouble. Herb wanted to make them understand, but all they could see was the cost.
They were mortals and we were immortals – the rift was too wide for a few words to bridge.
When they started shooting, I had to drag Herb out of town. We left his cardboard box, smashed and lonely on the abandoned street corner.
Herb took it pretty hard. He rocked in his chair by the fireplace. “If I can remember what the stranger said, I’m sure I can explain it to them.”
“You’re a silly fool,” I replied, patting his arm.
The man wouldn’t give up. He hopped on my dusty desktop computer and pecked his way through the keys. He barely ever touched the thing before that. I let him be, content to sit near him and listen to the birds outside.
The birds, crows with glistening blue-black feathers, didn’t mind us, but sometimes they liked to chew on us. Stealing scraps of skin, they’d dart out of my reach. I didn’t blame them. So whatever fell off on its own, I tossed out in the yard. Might as well. Wouldn’t do any good decomposing on my floor.
After Herb got ahold of the computer, things started changing again. He put together a blog or something, bright green and red on the flickering monitor. He’d gone colorblind by that time. He invited people to come to us, and a few people trickled in. They took one look at our sagging faces and ran. Herb stood on the porch and called after them, trying to explain.
Not long after, police cars crunched up the gravel drive. The officers spoke grim words over the radio, shotguns held tight. Stern faces eying us through our grime-streaked windows.
Blue and red lights flashed on the rafters of our cabin.
Herb protested and squealed as I tried to drag him out. He wouldn’t budge. He fought me tooth and nail, and lost quite a few teeth and nails before I let him be. I was headed for the back door when someone stepped inside.
The intruder wore a white lab coat with a CDC patch on the shoulder. Both arms extended, he spoke words that were supposed to be calming. He carried little bottles and a set of tweezers. I stepped closer, and he shuddered. Squatting slowly and always eying us, he lifted one of Herb’s fingernails from a crack in the floorboards and set it in one of his containers.
At that moment, an idea, like a faded memory peeking its head through the mist, rose in my mind. Acting on this idea, this instinct, I lurched forward and grabbed the intruder. He was scrawny and wiggly, and I easily tossed him further inside, slamming the door behind him.
“What are you doing?” Herb cried.
“Sharing our gift like you wanted.” I leapt upon the intruder.
Herb skirted around his rocking chair, lipless mouth gaping. “But you can’t force the gift of life upon-“
“Think about it.” As I spoke, the words seemed to come to me, echoing from the back of my mind. “We didn’t understand what the stranger was saying. We didn’t know. We were scared. Can you remember? It’s just the same. New life follows after the pain.”
Herb stared at me for a long moment as the intruder screamed beneath me. I forced the scientist down, muffling his screams with one hand. He twisted and squirmed, but I wouldn’t let up.
Outside, more engines revved and cut out as reinforcements arrived.
“C’mon, Herb,” I prompted. “We don’t have long.”
I didn’t want to do it for him. I knew how much it meant to him to start the gift-giving on his own. He wanted to make a faith of it. And I would help him if I could.
Herb’s eyes lit up, and he fell to his knees beside the stranger. Neither of us knew what to do next, but instinct took over.
When the door burst open, I guess it did look kind of bad. I was holding the man down while Herb chewed on his arm.
Still, I think it was mighty backwards of them to just assume we needed to be shot. I threw my hands up and tried to explain, but the bullets whizzed through my chest and rocked me back.
“Go, Herb – he’ll live. He’ll receive the gift. Let’s go!” I shouted.
“But we can’t leave him with the wolves.”
I tore him off the man, breaking a few bones of Herb’s fingers. The guns continued to fire but the bullets sank into us without effect. I snatched Herb up and we ran into the woods. We ran until we couldn’t breathe – and then we remembered we didn’t have to, so we ran some more.
I laughed under the moon, so delighted to be free, giddy at what they must have thought when they walked in.
At last, we settled under an old oak tree, our skeletal bodies nesting in the fallen leaves. Bare branches, like exposed bones, waved above us. Herb rested his head on my stomach, lying sideways beside me. I stroked the few strands left on his head and smiled at him.
“It’ll take time, love, but we’ll convert them all. If that’s what you want.”
He smiled at me, a smile full of missing teeth and rotting, stringy tongue muscle. “I do.”
I sighed, overwhelmed by the love I carried for that man. “Then you’ll have it. I swear.”
Alexis A. Hunter
A lifelong fan of speculative fiction, Alexis A. Hunter specializes in all things mythical, ethereal and out of this world. Her work has appeared most recently in The Ghost IS the Machine (a Post Mortem Press anthology), Title Goes Here: Web Edition and Interstellar Fiction. To learn more about Alexis visit www.idreamagain.wordpress.com.