The fingers of his left hand nimbly dance up and down the fret board, his right hand motionlessly plucking the strings in fanciful patterns. What comes out is from some magical place between folk and classical.
Finn has been playing guitar for seventeen years, ever since he was a boy of eight, but he’s never played with such passion. He’s performing for Sam, trying to set the mood. There’s a diamond ring resting in the pocket of his jeans draped over the bedpost waiting for the right moment, a moment they’ve both been anticipating since Valentine’s Day when she gave him pink heart shaped candies with the words “Marry Me” printed in rose red.
She’s 23. Her full name is Samantha, but don’t get caught calling her that. She’s sturdy, stocky and a Tomboy with a capital T. She wears her blond hair clipped short – to keep it out of her way. Brushing hair away from one’s eyes may be flirtatious fun for her friends, but it has no place in her life. Finn loves her hair short. Better to see her dazzling green eyes, her most striking feature. He’s been smitten since their first date when he narrowly escaped drowning in them.
Finn is her soul mate. He’s wiry, quiet and quick of foot and a bit softly effeminate of voice. His shadow could pass for a boy or a girl and nobody would think twice if he walked out the door one day wearing eye-liner or a wig. But androgyny can be a curious thing. He’s slight, but that didn’t keep him off the football field each fall. He could outrun the entire conference and was impossible to bring down. He wasn’t strong. He simply avoided being caught.
Sam is reclining on the bed with Finn, her head lazy from pot, his music fluttering about and smoke drifting over and through the curves of their naked bodies. She smiles, her mind lingering over the passions of the past hour. She looks up and is startled to see him smiling back. She blushes, kisses him on the rear end, and hops off the bed.
“I’m going to make coffee,” she says. She leaves, still naked, while Finn stretches out and continues playing, louder so Sam can still hear.
She pauses before entering the kitchen. The windows are boarded up, there are cracked open cases of canned food in the corner, and bottles of water line the counter top. She hesitates, wishing this reality would go away. She still hears him playing, but other sounds now fill her head – horrible, clawing, incessantly scratching sounds. She carefully pulls a knot-hole from a board covering the window and peeks outside. Her thighs begin to tremble slightly and she slaps them to make them stop.
“You really shouldn’t look outside?” Finn says as he covers her shoulders with her robe.
She slides the knot back into place and picks up a bottle of water. She crosses herself and says, “Please dear Mary,” before turning the knob on the stove. Flames ignite and burn brightly. They both know the day is coming when her prayer will no longer be answered. She starts making coffee.
“Time for my chore,” he says.
“Screw domesticity,” she says.
“You’re still making coffee,” he says.
“I’ll be quick. Latch the door behind me.” Still naked, he plucks up a bag of garbage. “I’ll be quick. Don’t want anyone to see my bare ass.”
He unlatches the kitchen door and dashes outside; she quickly latches it behind him. She plucks the knot back out of the board covering the window and watches, her thighs immediately trembling again. She doesn’t care now.
Finn reaches the middle of the yard and then does a skidding, sharp turn like a character in a Roadrunner cartoon. Then he angles toward the end of the driveway where a dumpster has been pushed as far from the house as possible until its wheels got stuck in a patch of grass and mud. You can see the smell. Garbage bags are spilling all about. Garbage men stopped coming long ago. He makes it to the dumpster, but it is always the trip back that’s tricky.
The first to appear, blocking his path is Mr. Christianson from two houses down the street. He used to be a plumber and always wore the same green overalls and red cap. He always had a lively skip to his step, clearly a happy plumber. Today though, like every other day lately, he’s changed. He’s still wearing the cap and the overalls, but the skip has left his step. Instead, he staggers a bit sideways and then lunges forward, gradually moving about. His face is tight like a mask, frozen in a final grimace from the day he died. There’s tattered flesh on the side of his neck, rotten, dangling, and gray. His eyes stare ahead, determined.
Then, out of the corners of her eye, more appear, two from the left, three from the right, all of them blocking Finn’s path back to safety. Her thighs tremble faster.
Finn has been here before though. He gets a kick out of it. He gets down into a three-point stance, looks to the left, then to the right, and is off and running. He runs straight up to Mr. Christianson, stopping just short of his groping grasp, tweaks his red cap playfully and is around him with a quick sidestep and a twirl. He makes similarly easy work with the others as well, but he always cuts it too close for Sam. Her whole body is trembling as she unlatches the door, lets him in, and pushes it shut behind him. He notices her trembling and takes her in his arms and holds her.
She returns to the stove. He returns to the bedroom. She can hear the notes from his guitar again drifting out the bedroom door, down the hall, and through the living room as she pours two cups of coffee. She turns around and... One of the cups crashes to the floor.
Outside, Mr. Christianson slowly turns to see Finn prance back into the house. The other zombies gathering in the yard – nine by the time Finn escaped – all look confused and dejected, if such feelings can be attributed to the walking dead. But Mr. Christianson presses on, side-stepping and lunging after Finn as he has so many times previously. It’s a routine. Everything in the life of the dead is routine. Finn’s adventures outside are what he – uh – lives for.
He reaches the door. He stumbles against it and turns to stumble away, but is surprised to see the door swing inward. He wavers side to side with uncertainty and then shuffles inside. And there she is just a few feet away. He lets out a groan that emanates from his bowels as she turns toward him holding coffee cups, startled. Fear glazes her eyes. Her mouth opens but is silent. She drops one of the cups with a crash.
He lunges toward her. She’s trapped. She tries to run past him, but he reaches out and grabs hold. Zombies are dead, but they’re remarkably strong. She is in his grasp, helpless. She screams “Inside!” as rotting teeth sink into her shoulder.
Finn is relaxing on the bed, wiggling into his jeans with one hand while strumming his guitar with the other when he hears the cup shatter across the floor and hears her scream.
And he is instantly in motion, no movement wasted. He’s rehearsed this moment in his mind many times while hoping the tables would be turned and it would be Sam rushing to his aid. He’s off the bed in a flash, the guitar bouncing on the sheets, the box still ringing with his final notes. He runs from the room.
He grabs a Ruger Blackhawk from a holster on the wall in the hall without looking. No need to check if it’s loaded. It always is. He dashes through the living room and skids into the kitchen taking in the situation at a glance. Two more zombies are halfway in through the open door. Point blank he puts a bullet through the head of the first one and he crumples to the kitchen floor. He kicks the other in the chest and she tumbles backwards outside. He slams the door and latches it.
He turns, places the barrel against Mr. Christianson’s head and pulls the trigger. Brains and skull spray the kitchen wall. Sam breaks free and collapses into Finn’s arms. He holds her. They’re both sobbing now. A tear runs down his cheek as he watches blood from her bite wound pulse out, flow down her arm, and drip into a puddle on the floor.
Sam is breathing quickly and shallowly. Her shoulder is bandaged and she’s propped up against pillows on the bed. He takes the ring from his pocket and slips it onto her left ring finger. This, ever so briefly, coaxes out Sam’s last little smile.
Finn sits facing her, serenading her. The revolver rests on the bed beside him. He sings:
“Childhood living is easy to do/The things you wanted, I bought them for you/Graceless lady, you know who I am/You know I can't let you slide through my hands…”
The passion in his playing is laced with melancholy, the sadness a musician feels during a final performance. While he plays, he watches Sam’s final performance.
Every time she takes a breath, there is a terrible rattling sound in her chest like she’s drowning and her eyes become frightened. When she exhales, her arms stiffen and then she finds a bit of peace for a moment. And then the whole thing happens all over again, each time the peace lasting just a bit longer. Finally, the peace goes on and on. She doesn’t inhale again. Her head rolls slightly against the pillows and her eyes close.
Finn lays the guitar on the bed and picks up the revolver. He studies her face; waiting for the moment he knows is coming. Death always follows the same script nowadays.
It starts with her legs cramping up, toes turning inward. Then there is a gurgle from her belly and a flatulent smell. Her arms curl into an awkward position with her palms facing upward, her hands twisting into claws. Then her neck stretches to its full length and the skin on her face draws tight, her mouth assuming a wild animal snarl. And then her eyes pop open, staring straight ahead.
He tries not to meet her gaze. He just lifts the revolver and points it at her head. He closes his eyes and silently prays and then opens them again. She is sitting upright and one hand is groping toward him. And then his eyes meet hers and he can’t help it. He’s smitten all over again. Everything about her has become grotesque from head to toe, except her eyes, those dazzling green eyes as deep as the deepest pond. There’s nothing to save him this time. He drowns in them, willingly.
Finn forms a box with his hands, blocks everything else out, and looks into Sam’s eyes. And he suddenly has his love back on the bed with him. There is no horror in those eyes, no hunger to devour, just desperate pleading.
The gun drops from his hand. He blows her a kiss and walks from the room. He opens the kitchen door and goes outside. The zombies have dispersed and he heads toward the woods behind the house. He’s in no hurry. As long as he keeps walking, he knows they won’t be able to catch him.
He walks deep into the woods, darker and still deeper, until he abruptly emerges into a clearing. He stands before an almost perfectly round pool with a stream trickling in on one side and another trickling the water away again on the other. There is a bit of sand and a bench. He sits facing the water.
He and Sam used to come here to relax before the zombies. He has so many memories here with her. Now, they flood is mind.
He used to be so nervous when he performed on amateur nights at the Sand Dollar. He’d spend his minutes of preparation in the men’s room trying to throw up, but failing. Not even that relief was going to help get him through the evening. He’d take the stage and sheepishly gaze into the darkness, lights glaring in his eyes. He’d start playing, fearing that his fingers had forgotten what to do, but the music always found its way out. He was never sure what the crowd thought. All he’d hear was shuffling of chairs and clinking of bottles.
One night when he wrapped up and started putting his guitar back into its case, he heard polite applause and was pleased that it lasted long enough to seem sincere. Then he heard a single voice coming from far away, booing.
He got up to leave and turned as the house lights came up. He could see a young woman seated at a table in the far corner booing; or rather it was a parody of booing. She kept cupping her hands over her smiling mouth to help her voice carry and then she’d resume clapping. When she realized she’d been spotted, she waved. A waitress arrived at the same moment and sat two beers on the table.
They wasted no time. The evening’s conversation covered all the bases. Same religion: check. Both wanted kids: check. Both wanted about three kids: check. (She preferred boys, he girls.) Who is better, the Rolling Stones or the Beatles? Why, the Kinks of course: check. They were between the sheets together that night. Within a week, they didn’t bother with sheets, they just ran out into the woods, stripped, and jumped into the pond together.
One night, they pitched a tent just a few feet from the water’s edge. They spent the night making love to a symphony of crickets and frogs. He awoke in the morning while she was still sleeping. While walking back to the house to shower for work he noticed something in his pockets, pebbles maybe? He started pulling out little Valentine’s Day candies, every one bearing the words “Marry Me.” He turned around and spent the entire day with her in that tent.
Finn hears the crunching of leaves and turns his head, expecting to see zombies, perhaps with Mr. Christianson leading the way. Instead, he sees Sam slowly moving toward him. She’s gripping his guitar in one hand, its body dragging the ground emanating curious vibrations like music.
She staggers up to the bench and stands wavering above him. She slumps down beside him and sinks her teeth into his throat. He reacts as if they’re making out. He doesn’t pull away. She growls hungrily. He wraps his arms around her and closes his eyes.
He falls, taking her to the grass with him. He opens his eyes to see her face and cringes. Then he regains his courage, forming a square with his hands so he can only see her green eyes. He begins to shiver calmly and closes his eyes again.
The next time he opens them, they will be together, forever.