by Alex Shrapnel
There was a small sign outside the door to the visitation room. A list of rules.
- No alterations to legal agreements made prior to the death of the resurrected person or persons.
- No food, drink, or smoking is permitted in the visitation room or waiting room.
- Abuse of any kind toward team members will not be tolerated.
- No physical contact of any kind.
Sam was used to waiting rooms. She’d seen so many over the past two years. An elderly couple sat opposite her. The husband looked like something dredged from a bog. They were stealing glances at Sam – the widow, the bereaved. Well, same to you, she thought. The clock read eleven thirty-five.
A uniformed official stalked in.
‘It’s time,’ she said. ‘You’ve got ten minutes with Harry. I’ll be waiting just here, so please don’t hesitate to give me a yell if you need a hand with anything.’ She gave Sam a sterile smile and unlocked the door.
Harry was sitting up in the hospital bed when she came in, gazing out the window. The doctors had dressed him in a smart black turtleneck and given him his hair and the fullness of his flesh back. He didn’t look like a corpse. Which was the whole point, she supposed. You can’t find closure with a corpse.
Harry turned from the window, and her breath jammed in her throat. He was smiling. His old, tired smile. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen it.
‘Sam,’ he said, breaking the spell. He sounded older.
‘Hey,’ she choked.
‘How’re you… how’ve you been?’
‘Um. Good. Well, you know. I’m… I’m coping, I suppose. How’ve you been?’
Harry gave a shocked laugh.
‘How’ve you been? Hah! A-hah! Oh my God, Sam. How’ve you… well, to be perfectly honest with you, I’ve not been especially well, recently. Matter of fact…’ Harry paused. ‘Matter of fact, I thought I’d never see you again. I thought that – well, that that had been it.’
‘It, uh, it was. They tell me it very much was it. It’s, um, it’s a miracle we can say goodbye.’
Harry went quiet for a moment.
‘I… I mean, I knew this was an option with my insurance, but… I still can’t believe it. After all that, after all the awful shit I went through, they wake me up and tell me I’ve got five minutes with you again. I’m not religious, but… yeah. A miracle. Hah.’
The pause stretched on.
‘So,’ he said. ‘There’s only one thing left I want, I guess. One last thing before I pass once more into the great beyond or whatever the fuck.’
Harry spread his arms. There were small plastic tubes plugged into his wrists.
‘…The doctors say I’m not allowed to touch you.’
The clock read eleven forty-one.
Two days later, there came a knock at the door.
She’d fallen asleep in Harry’s old armchair, dry-cleaned and fumigated the day before. She could see a shape standing out there. A great bear of a man, his features muddied by frosted glass.
She stood, stretching the ache from her muscles, and made for the door. Her veins ran with acid. Calm the hell down, she thought. It can’t be him. The clinic said the process only works for an hour, maximum.
Sam opened the door. It was him.
A few years before he’d died, Harry had been diagnosed with cancer. They’d both thought it was funny at the time. Cancer? It doesn’t happen in real life. The tragedy of it all was so cliched and mundane that it was hard to take seriously. Harry was going to die in three years. Maybe four.
He would talk about how scared he was. About how hard it was. Every now and then, they’d send him home to enjoy what little remained of his life. Sam remembered a stupid argument they’d had. She’d told him to stop being so goddamn miserable all the time. What an awful thing to say. She had no idea of what Harry was going through. None whatsoever. She could count his ribs. He had brought death into their home, piece by piece, as he had cultivated it under his fingernails and tongue.
Harry didn’t look quite as good as he had in the hospital bed. His skin was taut, his eyes colourless, his lips blackened, and his cheeks slick and tight around the ears. The skin-toned makeup was flaking off. He looked down at her with a curious expression, pleading and apologetic all at once.
‘Sam,’ he said.
“Uh,” said Sam.
He was still wearing the turtleneck the resurrection clinic had dressed him in. Loose wire and plastic nibbled at the edges.
‘I guess they were wrong. The doctors. I didn’t go back to sleep.’
Sam said nothing. He smelled of… formaldehyde? The stuff they used to preserve snakes and two-headed possums in jars.
‘You’re—’ she began. Nothing followed.
‘Hey,’ he said, pulling her into an engulfing hug. ‘It’s okay. I’m okay. We did it.’
He was damp to the touch. She could feel wires and tubes under the jumper. His topography had become alien to her, angular in places and squishy in others. Harry pulled back, holding her by the shoulders. He smiled, a deep classic Harry smile full of warmth and life and love.
‘You don’t have to be alone. It’s okay. We’re okay. You got me back.’
There were grey tears in his eyes. He smiled wider, and his lips cracked.
Sam could feel Harry sitting at the kitchen table behind her as she worked the coffee maker. It wasn’t even the smell. He was just there, a dark spot in her mental map of the house. She closed her eyes. Still there.
The coffee was done.
‘Here you are,’ she said gently, turning to hand him the mug.
‘Thanks,’ he mumbled, taking a long, dragging sniff. Frustration crossed his face. He took a deeper sniff. ‘Rrgh,’ he grunted. Without warning, he opened his jaw and tipped the scalding cup into his mouth, brown rivulets tracing boiling paths down his pale chin.
‘Ah,’ said Sam. Harry tipped his head back, gargled, and swallowed the whole thing in a single gulp.
‘Nothing,’ he spat, sticking out his tongue. Covered in blisters. ‘No fucking taste what-so-ever. No expense spared, huh? They didn’t even fix my tastebuds. What, they think I’m just meant to expire once the hour’s up? Fuck. God damnit!’ He slammed a fist on the table. Sam jumped, and he didn’t notice.
‘…They won’t grow back?’ she ventured. Harry tilted back and studied the ceiling.
‘Dunno. Probably. Maybe. Hopefully. I’m not a fucking doctor. I guess my cells must still be alive, though, so… I dunno. I’m gonna go unpack my stuff. Love you.’
Harry pushed himself up out of his chair and leant in to give her a kiss on the cheek. His breath smelled of coffee and burnt meat.
She said nothing. He’d left wet handprints on the table.
Sleep was impossible. Harry was just a shape, a black mass taking up too much of her blanket. He’d spent the rest of the day raiding the stash of his belongings Sam had packed away in the weeks prior to his death. Stacks of uncategorised junk and random knick-knacks bound for the dump. It had taken her hours to clean up the endless, choking clouds of dust. He’d stomp past, arms laden with magazines and high school trophies, violently muttering to himself: ‘And this goes… there… and this goes… here…’
Deep breath. Just don’t touch him, she thought.
She slipped under the covers, as far from Harry as she could manage. She forced herself to breathe through the chemical stink. It had worsened since he’d come home, filled out by undertones of mould and faeces. She could feel a hum resonating in the bedsprings.
Click. Whirr. Mechanical sounds.
Bubble. Crunch. Biological sounds.
She rolled onto her back. The mattress was soaked through.
The morning sun gushed through the kitchen windows. Harry wasn’t up quite yet.
She was making scrambled eggs and bacon. Simple and delicious, one of the rare meals that they both enjoyed.
‘Harry!’ she called. No response. ‘Harry!’
She bashed the wooden spoon against the side of the pot to dislodge any last bits of egg and tried again.
‘Alright. Jesus. I’m fucking awake!’
He shambled into the kitchen.
‘God, what the fuck do you—’
‘Bacon and eggs. Scrambled.’
‘Mmmgh,’ The faecal undertones had fermented overnight. Dandruff was leaking out from under the wig stapled to his head, dusting his shoulders with grotesque snow. Whatever fluid he used instead of blood had burst a vessel in one eye, rendering it a sewage green colour. He was still wearing that same disgusting jumper.
A bizarre sort of focused calm settled on her. She set the plates down and poured Harry a glass of orange juice, which he drank.
‘Still no taste?’
‘Mm. Nope. Tastes like nothing.’
Sam’s heart beat a little faster.
‘Have some of the eggs. They’re great.’
Just one mouthful. Please. Just one mouthful.
Sam shovelled two forkfuls of egg into her mouth and swallowed in quick succession. She gave him her best, most convincing approximation of a smile.
‘Really. The bacon, too. Just the way you like it.’
Sam watched as Harry ate, picking away at her own plate to encourage him. He devoured the whole plate. Six eggs. Three rashers of bacon. One glass of orange juice. And a tin of rat poison. Just for him.
‘You still can’t taste anything?’ she prodded.
‘Yes! I’ll let you know if that magically fucking changes!’
‘Just checking,” Sam said, putting down her knife and fork. She rested her chin in her hands and stared.
‘The fuck’re you looking at?’
‘My husband,’ Sam replied in a cutesy voice.
‘The fuck—’ Harry began. His eyes unfocused. ‘What—’
He crashed to the floor. ‘Agh,’ he said. He tried to to push himself up, but his elbow joins failed inwards and he collapsed again. He retched. No vomit. She stood over him, watching his face change from confusion to betrayal to fury. An animal growl bubbled in his throat.
‘Listen. Harry. It kills me to do this, you know? I still love you, and I’ll miss you.’
‘Guh,’ he said. Black snot leaked from his nose. She contemplated finishing her rehearsed speech, but let the minutes pass in silence. Waiting. Just staring at each other.
Okay, that’s enough, Sam thought. She fetched the scissors from the hall cupboard. She’d gone with the poison mainly because she’d thought it would be cathartic to watch the bastard writhe for a bit, but the spectacle had worn off. Time to do the humane thing.
She rolled Harry onto his back with a kick. His eyes were unseeing. With all the care of a surgeon, she gently unseamed the jumper from hem to neck, Harry moaning passively with each snip.
She took a flap in each hand, and peeled him apart.
A medley of greens and browns and deep, dark blacks. Plastic and wires and diodes. Components. Pumps. The stomach had been tied off at the bottom, the space once occupied by the intestines filled by a slab of brown meat marbled by white veins of fat. Plastic arteries pumped black blood to the rest of the great machine, pulsing in time with Harry’s moans.
She stood again, thought about finishing her explanation. About all the millions of moments that had led up to now, the fear, the yelling, the decay, the death, and the undeath.
‘You made me sleep on the couch,’ she said. He would have to make do with that. Not that he could hear – he was insensate by now, oozing into her floorboards.
Sam threw open the windows to let the breeze in and made for the garden shed to fetch the shovel.
The morning air was clean and clear.