The world was just beginning to warm to the idea of spring when Collette began to see the zombie. She thought it funny at first that a zombie would find itself so comfortable positioned in the middle of the south and northbound lanes just when the rest of the world was beginning to bloom and come to life. The highway was nothing but hurry and concrete and asphyxiation. But, then again, what did a zombie need with fresh air or air at all? Collette asked herself before answering with confidence. Nothing.
The zombie was of average height, as far as she could tell, with shoulders so broad he seemed, even from a sitting position, top heavy. He had short red hair, not quite a military haircut but close, and a thick neck she would have found unattractive if not for the way his head sat softly on it—she would describe it as contemplative—so that all meathead possibilities were null and void. If he had not been dead, Collette would have placed his age at forty. His skin was pale, normal for a redhead if not for the bluish tint. He sat on the concrete divider just at the curve where the median was at its narrowest. If she drove in the fast lane, Collette could get a pretty good glimpse of him even at 70mph.
Collette worried about the zombie’s feet. They seemed his most vulnerable spot and not just because they were edged out into traffic, inches from being squashed, but because their yellow-brown hue, the dark toenails, and the veins all along the top that sunk in when they should have protruded looked like the part of him that was the most dead. She knew that this thought was silly. No one died feet first, but she thought it anyway, in spite of herself. Perhaps he was a brave and inquisitive man who had walked the earth in search of truth and love. Perhaps he’d been so far and seen so much of what humanity had to offer that he’d collapsed. His feet had given out on him and the rest had no choice but to follow. She liked this idea. She found it romantic. She felt too that the zombie would find it complimentary if she ever got the chance to explain it to him. She wanted to ask him exactly how far he’d gone. Had he been to other continents and countries? Did he know the Red Sea? The open markets of Abu Dhabi and Dubai? Had he been to the Webster Street Market on Saturday morning? Had he canoed the Mad River or had a glass of wine at the jazz bar downtown?
Collette’s husband never went to jazz bars. She had never been attracted to her husband—a fact she’d never admitted to anyone. She’d been tempted to tell her girlfriends over cocktails that she had never lusted after him, but as they gushed out their complaints about their own spouses between sips and outbursts of laughter, Collette held her tongue. It seemed to delight her friends—their dislike of their own husbands—while Collette’s dislike sat inside her rank and solid, too pernicious to spit up and out.
Collette had a long history of making friendships and then maintaining them diligently with people she suspected she did not actually like. Her husband sat number one on this list. He was an attractive man, successful, who loved Collette as best he could. She’d married him, because he’d asked. He’d gone to a lot of trouble and spent a lot of money on a ring. When she’d said yes, it had not occurred to her that she was saying yes to a contract that was meant to last forever. He’d asked her a question: “Will you marry me?” She hadn’t known immediately what to say so she’d looked into his eyes—she had a habit of doing this, searching the other person’s face for the correct next move—and seen that the correct answer to the question was “yes.” She’d done the same thing during the wedding ceremony. She’d looked out at the crowd, all those faces yearning for the “I do” and then at her future husband, and so she’d provided it.
It was mid-May by the time Collette realized she was falling in love with the zombie. He had not asked for her love nor had he had the opportunity to love her back, and yet the feeling breaking open in her chest seemed like love. She loved him first because he did not wear shoes or suits or a heavy silver watch like her husband. He wore, instead, khaki shorts and a white t-shirt. Nothing else. He had tattoos on his arms that sneaked out from under his shirtsleeves and snaked down to his wrists. The patterns were not entirely recognizable from driving distance, and they seemed to have discolored and wrinkled a bit in death, but they still revealed to Collette that he knew something of the world, of pain, of beauty, of body. She liked the hint that he’d led a full life not made up of drives to work, house payments, and flat love stories. Most of all she liked his stillness. Her husband was always in motion. He was either on the phone, texting or talking, or pacing whatever space he occupied. Colette was always wishing he’d stay still. Breathe. Think. Notice.
Colette drove the same route at the same time every morning—except, of course, on weekends. He sat in the exact same spot, staring, always, down at the pavement just beyond his toes. He never looked up except, of course, for the one time he’d searched the sky, perhaps for the sun, and she could tell he was pondering the greater questions of life. Thinking so hard that he didn’t notice the rush hour traffic that zoomed by purposeful in its endlessness. He was so still, in fact, that for a long time, she imagined she was the only one who could see him. She had, at first, even assumed herself to be crazy. In movies, zombies meandered and groaned with their arms outstretched. This zombie moved only when she was not watching—he was never there on her way home from work—and he radiated something like hope. If there was hunger, it was not for flesh.
Collette worked at a failing public school. She was only 25 and faced with the realization that the world was too fucked up to be saved. She’d begun to hate her students. They were needy and pitiful. They would never be okay. No matter how her dislike grew, blossomed into secret hate, they continued to adore her. To seek her out like no other counselor in the school’s history. The only good thing about this love, as far as Collette could see, was that it made her hate herself more than she hated them. She hated her colleagues as well for the seriousness with which they took their jobs, and she hated her drive to work more than anything—until the zombie appeared.
People honked at him, angry honking that seemed to say: “What the fuck buddy?! Why don’t you have something to do? Why aren’t you on your way to work like the rest of us?” Collette was, at first, excited. It meant he was real. Throughout all the honking, he kept his eyes on the space in front of him, and his hands on the concrete barrier at his sides. He didn’t notice the commuters’ anger or acknowledge it in anyway. This, Collette felt was remarkable, because she herself was sponge-like, soaking up the feelings of others to such an extent that her own feelings had shriveled into raisin shapes that could not be accessed.
The fifth day of the angry honking, Collette began to feel bad for the zombie. Just because he didn’t look up didn’t mean he didn’t feel hurt by their anger. On that day, a Friday in May, Collette honked a quick, friendly hello, as if to say: “Don’t worry. I see who you are and what you’re doing. Enjoy.” After all, didn’t the dead deserve peace?
An incredible thing happened the day Collette honked. The zombie looked up and gave Collette a little wave. His hand, a bright, purple pink at the fingertips, soared lightly in her direction. She saw his peaked eyebrows and the 3 o’clock shadow of a red beard. His nose was a bit large for his face, but he was handsome all the same. In that one glimpse of his still eyes, she saw what must have killed him. His heart had been offered up too many times until the pieces that were left were just too small, too weak to pull together and pump blood. So, right then and there, she gave her heart to the zombie.
Collette was in love, and suddenly life was bearable. Every morning she would drive to work and honk at her zombie and he would wave. It made her giddy to think she was the only one he acknowledged. He made her forget how living among people who did not truly know you could make you lonelier than if you were the last woman alive. Soon, though, she began to come up with excuses to drive the route on Saturday and Sunday. She’d go to the park or go into the city for coffee or meet with parents and students just for the zombie’s wave. Then she realized she wanted more. She wanted to know his name—first, last, and middle. She wanted to know where he went in the afternoons and evenings. She wanted to know how he’d managed to come back. Why wasn’t there a loved one to provide him with a coffin and a deep cool grave?
There was no place to pull over. No way to be close to the zombie.
In late June, the zombie’s pale purple skin had begun to leather up. The direct sunlight was making his arms and legs look like something she’d adore if it were sewn into a wallet or purse, but on a person, it was disconcerting. Even his face, when raised to wave to her, showed signs of fading.
Collette rolled down her window, slowed as much as she could without threat of being hit (55mph) and shouted, “Get out of the sun!” The shout came out wrong. She regretted it right away. A tone that could have been perceived as angry. This was why, she thought, he had not waved to her that day. His lack of movement tore her open a bit.
So Collette began to offer the zombie objects. She practiced throwing them out her car window on country roads. Some of the objects were heavy; so she wanted to make sure she could throw them without destroying the object of her affection.
The first day Collette threw suntan lotion. On the second day, she threw an umbrella. On the third day, she threw sunglasses. She threw a mirror so he might see his burnt skin. She threw lip balm and windbreakers and insect repellent. All these objects sat seemingly untouched at his feet. So finally, Collette did a very brave thing. She taped a small note under the bill of the baseball. The note said only: “I love you.”
She had to drive past him before releasing the hat. In her rearview mirror she saw the hat fly back to land at his feet and then she saw something miraculous. Her zombie bent down and picked up the hat. The next day when she drove by, he was wearing her Cincinnati Reds hat.
Collette began to offer him more and more. She threw books she loved, clothes she’d thought he’d look good in, an ipod with all her favorite music. Each object was taped with the same note: “I love you.” On good days, when she’d drive by, he’d be reading what she’d offered or listening to the ipod, but on most days, he would only be sitting there, her offered objects piled up around his feet as if they were nothing more than highway litter. It didn’t matter to Collette. She was pretty sure he loved her, and more importantly, she knew she loved him.
As the winter months began to threaten harsh weather, she threw sweaters and blankets, mittens and scarves. She began to notice, however, two things: 1) no other cars seemed to notice him anymore. This was good, she thought. He was safer if they simply considered him litter or road kill. 2) Like road kill, he was rapidly decomposing. This was not good. He was beginning to slough off patches of skin, not holding together well.
In early December, someone ran over his feet. They were flattened to the pavement. Comically spread out as if they were clown shoes and not her beloved’s feet at all. Collette couldn’t stop crying. She had to cancel her appointments for the day. She could tell no one what was wrong. What would she say? Zombie, my lover, is dying? She was a married woman. No one would sympathize.
Now he was always there. Morning, noon, and night. And although it seemed it might cost her her job, her marriage, her friends, she began to drive the highway as much as possible. In fact, she did little else but drive back and forth. She spent money only on gas, gifts for Zombie, and the meager sustenance she needed to keep herself driving.
Zombie lost his first body part in a hailstorm—his left arm. It sat among her gifts like it had little value. She wanted badly to tape one of her love notes to it, but stopping was impossible so it became just another book or toy in the pile. His “good” arm was sure to come loose next and then how would he wave to her? How would she feel his love?
It was then that Collette got lucky. It was New Year’s Day. She hadn’t been home for days, she’d finally been fired from her job, and her cell phone battery had long ago died so that her husband’s nagging calls of worry no longer bothered her. It began to snow, and by late afternoon, the snow was blinding, and so the city did a miraculous thing. It shut down the highways.
Collette heard it first from the clerk at the Speedway—Alexis—who she’d come to know quite well, as it was the quickest gas stop off the highway.
“They’ve shut down the north and southbound lanes. This snow is a bitch.”
“That’s not possible,” she began to say. “I can’t stay here. I have to see my love,” but then it hit her. Smiling, Collette left her shopping items on the counter—at some point, she’d begun to buy Zombie impractical things just to have something to give, like candy bars and toothbrushes and fruit snacks.
Out in the blinding snow, Collette’s body knew the route. She ran when she could and walked purposefully the rest of the time. Her full heart, all of her enchanted insides, were pulling her down a gloriously empty highway.
When she reached Zombie, her toes and feet were numb. The snow was falling fast and thick so with each step she first had to sink in and then had to pull herself back out. Her snot had long ago frozen into drips on her upper lip. Her face pink with windburn. She had very little warmth left in her body and so none to offer Zombie. He looked up at her right away and tried to smile. He would have smiled too, but she could see his jaw was loose. It would fall off if he moved too much. Both his arms were gone now, buried in the snow she assumed, and his left leg had come loose from its socket. She had always imagined she’d touch him when they met. Hug him. Help hold him together in some way, but now she could see that touching him would only tear him apart. She had imagined too that they’d talk. He’d tell her his real name. Tell her how he’d come to be. Tell her what he’d seen and done in his life…in his death. She saw now that none of this was going to be possible, but she did not let herself get sad. Instead, she cleared a place next to him and sat, looking at his spot of pavement to see what he’d been seeing. The snow obscured the pavement, but even without actually being able to see the black asphalt, she knew now what he’d been doing.
It was an absurdly obvious realization for Collette, but in realizing it, she began to refocus her attention on her own body. She felt her heart pumping despite the cold. She felt how the blood it pumped rushed her veins, how her muscles responded and twitched and stretched and thrived. She felt the cold pucker and pull at her skin. She felt how alive she was; how difficult it would be to stop her body from living.
She’d been wrong about Zombie. He did desire flesh. He wanted more life just like everyone wanted more life. All this time he hadn’t been looking at anything on the pavement. He’d been looking inward, dreaming of his insides. Trying to feel them again. Colette knew how that felt.
She turned to him and put her hand on his back so that she could lean in to find what was left of his lips. With her fingertips on his back, the exterior of his body began to give way. His skin began whirling up into ash that was barely distinguishable from the snow. The red of his muscles exposed held in place for a moment by the surprisingly thick weave of his veins and a thinner network of white, his nerves, thin as a fishing net. The warp and weft of it all was no longer strong enough, and she watched it drip away, puddling to red at the bones of his feet. His organs, however, stayed put. They were beautiful, still beating, flush with blood and full of color—pink and red and blue and purple. She put her forehead to his, looked at the blur of his empty eye sockets, the sharp jut of his cheekbones in her peripheral.
Reaching forward she found his last rib with the top of her hand then turned her fingers up and pushed in, feeling the warmth of his left lung in her palm. She wrapped her hand around it, pulling it gently free. She leaned back away from him to look at his lung. It’s gentle swell and pulse meant it still held breath. Laced through with white and red it reminded Collette of the leaves she used to collect in the fall. How they’d lay flat in her hand, crisp enough to shatter if she wasn’t gentle, the veiny tunnels that had once fed an entire tree as visible as Zombie’s bones.
Collette tilted her head back, poured the lung into her open mouth. It was warm, heavy, like the drinking chocolate she’d once tried on a trip to the Southwest. Sweet and bitter, thick with flavors she couldn’t name. Once she felt it settle inside her, hot against her own organs, she greedily reached inside of him again, grasping his other lung, then his liver, his kidneys, his heart. Her body grew warm from him, giving off a heat and light that she knew others would be able to see. She felt his joy move through her, his rage, his grief, his desire to keep going. She reached into him one last time up into his skull to gently scoop out the wiggle and swirl of his brain. She felt hot, steaming. Capable of dying. Capable of living. Her options were endless.
His bones, now empty, clanked against each other as they cascaded down from skull to ribs to hipbones and femurs into a pile that was so shiny and white in the moments before the snow set about swallowing it that Collette could only find it beautiful.
When Zombie’s bones were fully covered, she began to walk the yellow line against what would be oncoming traffic when the storm cleared. She was headed home, thinking of how, before she left, she’d explain to her husband, to her colleagues, to her acquaintances, to all the people she’d shut out, how much she’d been holding back and how capable she’d been all along.
Rachel Eve Moulton earned her B.A. from Antioch College and her M.F.A from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Beacon Street Review, Bellowing Ark, Chicago Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, Bryant Literary Review, Narrative, and New Ohio Review, among other publications. Her debut novel—Tinfoil Butterfly—was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and nominated for both a Shirley Jackson Award and a Bram Stoker. She’s spent most of her life as an educator, working primarily with middle school to high school students. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the mountains east of Albuquerque.