Jacobs was dead to begin with. There can be no doubt about that. His certificate of death was signed by the doctor, the nurse and his wife. Donny signed it; and Donny’s name was good for anything he put his name to. Except for the 55-inch television, but in Donny’s defense we live in difficult times. The point to take away is this: Jacobs was dead before our story begins. It is important to understand this, or nothing later will make sense.
He was in the cabinet for four hours, though afterwards neither Donny nor anyone else at the hospital could remember exactly. It was two days till Christmas, after all, and no one puts quite the same effort into his work the week of Christmas. He hurried through the business of the day, cataloging a liver failure here and a car wreck there. No attention whatsoever was paid to poor Jacobs, who in his fashion had died without putting everyone to a whole lot of trouble. At the end of the day, Donny pulled on his coat and walked out into the dusk of Christmas Eve with a head clear of worry.
Donny thought nothing of the cold. Day or night, his simple wool coat sufficed. His eyes glittered blue above cheeks flecked with stubble. Passers-by breathed short and shallow into their scarves, and their mouths left patches of gooey damp-smelling rime. Lumps of gray slush cowered in the shaded foundations of buildings. Street lights winked alive and the salt-streaked sidewalks shimmered. Men and women swaddled in dark coats bellowed season’s greetings to one another. Their lungs threw out great plumes of white like steam ships.
It was twenty-six steps from the lawn to his front door; four to the front step and two flights after that. Ingrid had laid a wreath on the door, a real one that had begun its life as an actual plant. It smelled so strongly that Donny was afraid to touch it, knowing his hand would come away sticky and the sticky would last for hours. Through the door and down the hall he marched, taking care to remove to his shoes just inside the doorway, and when the hall ended he stepped into kaleidoscopic light.
Yellow and orange flared like the sunset and dimmed, making way for blue and purple and the night sky. Green came next and Ingrid was wrapped around him with the sweet-sour smell of thick wool. The tree squatted along the west wall of apartment—a malformed but quite well-needled shrub of a thing standing maybe two-and-a-half feet—and in truth it did not look out of place. The apartment was itself a tiny affair, kitchen and living room and bedroom all in the same wide-open space. A tall, wide counter and a layer of worn formica demarked the kitchen’s boundary and a curtain was strung across the alcove into which they’d wedged the bed. The tree’s irregular boughs were laden with baubles and lights, so many that the poor appendages sagged comically under the weight of them.
“I know I was going to wait, but I got impatient and put the lights up anyway.”
“It looks great.” She laughed at this.
“It looks as good as it’s going to look.”
“I sawed that tree with my own two hands off of the tumor-like growth on the side of another tree. It is a sacred relic of the Winter Solstice.”
“It’s actually pretty cute, isn’t it? In a Charlie Brown kind of way.”
Donny kissed the top of her head and opened his mouth as though to say something, and then his stomach dropped. The blood rushed to his face and he patted Ingrid’s back as he broke from her embrace.
“I forgot something.”
“What is it?”
“I forgot your present at work. I have to go back. I know exactly where it is.”
“You already got me something! You put it under the tree.”
“It’s something else.” He was headed down the hall already.
“You can do this later!”
“I love you!” And he was out the door. She heard it close and the apartment was silent. “WELL, YOU BETTER HAVE GOTTEN ME SOMETHIN’ GOOD!” she yelled, to nobody in particular.
He jogged back to the hospital. With two strong legs beneath him and an irritated girlfriend behind, to say nothing of the winter night, this was an obvious choice. The streets were emptying out as the last few miserable drudges who couldn’t get Christmas Eve off filtered home. The last holiday shoppers went with them and all who remained were the patience-drained employees of the retail stores who’d stayed open late. At last he came to the broad grey expanse of the hospital, dotted with windows and lit outside and in with clinical white. A pair of police cruisers sat on the curb outside the front doors.
The front lobby was empty and most of the lights were off. Donny made his way to the elevators and got in a car headed down. “The Little Drummer Boy” was playing, and Donny recalled a time long ago when he had seen David Bowie singing it along with an old fellow named Bing Crosby. Donny didn’t know who Bing Crosby was, but he had a nice voice and he had the look of someone who could have been famous long ago. A chime sounded, the doors opened and Donny took a right down a long corridor.
At the end of the corridor a woman in a hospital gown lay face-down. Donny ran over to her and dropped to a knee. There was quite a lot of blood on the floor beneath her. He yelled for help. She wasn’t moving and her still eyes were half-lidded. Donny felt as though he should search for a pulse, but he had no desire to touch her. He yelled again and heard nothing back. There was a telephone in his office, twenty yards down the hall and not five feet from where Ingrid’s gift lay.
When he got there he saw the door was ajar. The frame was damaged and splintered; the catch assembly lay discarded in a cloud of jagged splinters. He peered into the darkened morgue and might have gone inside had he not heard movement. When he looked up she was already on her feet, her weight shifting from one foot to the other. She brought glassy eyes to rest on him, and it was here that a truly remarkable thing happened. We take a moment here to recognize it because it is something seldom seen. For Donny did not live his life in a fantasy world, some conjured parallel reality where films and books and stories never once imagined a phenomenon such as the one he now faced. No; he immediately saw the situation exactly as it was. This woman, whose bloody form he’d just stepped over, was on her feet and advancing towards him. She did so with a glassy stare, slack jaw and unnatural gait. Her arms and hands were adorned with bloody scrapes, none more gruesome than a yawning wound in her shoulder which was not scabbed over yet did not bleed. This, Donny knew immediately, was a fucking zombie.
It’s fortunate that Donny understood the situation before him, because that knowledge immediately had an effect on his decision-making. Whereas a typical person observing another person in distress might approach and try to render assistance, Donny immediately moved away from this poor woman and tried to find something with which to hit her. He quickly laid his hands on a fire extinguisher, liberating it from its spot on the wall and gripping it upside-down by the nozzle. The woman continued her slow, deliberate advance. As he prepared to swing, his mind raced. He’d never engaged in any real violence, certainly had never killed anyone, and honestly doubted whether he’d even be capable. Is it difficult to bring someone down that way? What if he had to beat her for a long time? Surely there had to be some kind of optimal technique. He was out of time. Red bubbles ran down her chin, forced from her throat by ragged breathing. He pulled the heavy red cylinder back, took a breath and swung.
The blow connected with such surprising force that his hands slipped a little from their purchases. A wet crack sounded in the corridor, and as a softer ffssshhh as the extinguisher’s nozzle erupted all over Donny’s pants. The creature went down in a heap with the slightest of gurgles. It had been easy; stupidly easy, in fact. Donny dropped the extinguisher, and with his bare hands he began to wipe the cold odd-smelling foam off his jeans.
It was very cold in the morgue. You misunderstand; obviously, being a morgue, it was kept cold at all times. But a window had also been smashed and the winter breeze was swirling inside the room. It had begun to snow and the flakes were a fine dust on every surface. It was an unholy mess in the office, with papers and equipment strewn about the room and the wounded door hanging by a hinge out into the hall. The lights responded when Donny flipped the switch, but he got only a busy signal on the phone. He dropped to a squat—at this point, he had every intention of grabbing the present and running—and his heart sank once again. Without thinking he began to run his hands along the undersides of shelves, as though somehow he thought he’d gone blind, but it wasn’t there to be found. The reader will be spared the list of expletives that burst forth from our hero’s mouth; suffice it to say these were not emotions lightly felt.
Who could have taken it? And why? He had left after all his colleagues. There simply wasn’t an explanation, for this or for the creature he’d dispatched out in the corridor. Donny stormed about the morgue, casting about for answers, and it was then that his eyes lighted on an odd sight. The cabinets were open; not all of them, not even most of them, but by his frantic count there were a dozen. They were empty and it was not difficult for him to scry out what had happened. He turned to the broken window and peered out. Most of the glass had been knocked out of the frame, clearly by an individual trying to escape, and black rivulets of frozen blood ran down the walls. On the floor lay a white card, dabbed in blood and attached to a broken string of elastic. It must have come off while the creature struggled in the window frame. Donny picked it up and read the name: JACOBS, RICHARD.
Bloody footprints led away through the dusting of snow that fell and continued to fall. Red and blue lights flashed on the spotty white surface. He could hear sirens. Taking a heavy blanket from the supply closet, Donny laid it down over the window frame and gingerly made his way through to the outside. The tracks led across the lawn and down to the road. As that snowy Christmas Eve set the stage for the first white Christmas in a decade—an exciting fact which would lead off the local news that night—Donny set out to keep a promise he didn’t really make to someone who didn’t really want him to keep it.
END PART ONE.
Donny made his way through darkened streets. Police cruisers roared by him headed in the other direction, towards the hospital, which he decided could only be a positive thing. Because there had indisputably been a zombie in the hospital, however it had come to be, and Lord only knew how many others there were. The cabinets were not encouraging and he counted himself truly lucky to have gotten away with a single swing of the fire extinguisher. As his damp jeans attested, the business of killing zombies was not a business for Donny. He found it curious that such a creature would have any use for Ingrid’s gift, wrapped up as it was with iridescent blue paper and gold ribbons, but there was no better explanation. There were only the footprints, fading step-by-step as the creature’s bleeding slowed but unmistakable in the deepening snow.
They wound their way, staggering and uneven but never meandering, into a residential neighborhood within earshot of the sirens. Jacobs, it turned out, did not live far from the hospital where he'd spent his final days—as well as a few hours afterwards. The blood was all but gone from the prints when they veered through a lawn and up to a doorstep, as though the creature had been taken by a powerful and sudden fancy. Donny walked up to the door; like his own, it was gaily wreathed, but the driving snow and cold kept the scent of pine tar from his nose. Bright yellow light poured through small panes of glass like molten butter. Neighbors' houses fairly buzzed with electricity as lights flashed and spun. Across the street eight twinkling constellations hauled a neon sleigh and a glowing red Santa Claus drive them merrily onward. The Jacobs house was, by contrast, quite dark and spartan; a few fistfuls of blue lights lay strewn atop the hedge row by the door, and somehow they only made the scene more gloomy. Donny felt terrible at once for thinking this, as he imagined in the last few unhappy days of Richard Jacobs' life there had been no time to adorn his home. He even imagined Jacobs' fate had come as a punishment, some kind of macabre divine retribution for a life of insufficient Christmas displays, and he counted himself lucky that Ingrid had taken the initiative to decorate the tree. What if he had perished that very evening with a tree left un-decorated, and been forced by the circumstances into an eternal twilight? It was nearly as ridiculous a thought as the one that had led him out of that window back at the hospital and there, he knew, lay the danger. In the corridor with his fire extinguisher, he had behaved as one is supposed to behave towards a zombie: one is supposed to stave its head in and run. One is never meant to pursue it to its original place of residence and attempt to retrieve a holiday gift from it.
Donny took the brass knocker, so cold it burned his skin white, and rapped twice. After a moment's hesitation he rapped once more, as though anyone inside might believe that two strokes were an accident of the wind while three were not. A silent stillness followed and he stood perfectly still with a knot in his stomach, as though he were a child selling cookies door-to-door. Muffled footsteps sounded inside and the door opened. Light poured out into the snow and soaked into it like buttered grits. A thin woman, perhaps as old as his own mother with deep lines in a serious face, peered out the portal.
"Can I help you?"
"Yeah, hey, my name's Donny and, uhh,"--how does one approach this?--"well, I think there's been a mix-up."
"What kind of mix-up?"
"I don't really know how to put it." He thought furiously. "Is there an extra present here? I think it's mine, because I lost one."
She stood up straight and breathed in, all at once, and became a different creature entirely. There was a sudden edge to this woman, something she'd kept hidden to this point, and Donny's heart began to thump in his ears.
When she spoke, it was apparent that she was choosing her words carefully. "Would you like to come in? We're about to sit down. Have you eaten?"
"To tell you the truth, ma'am, I've got a meal waiting for me at home. I've just got to find this box. I don't know if you've seen--"
"The blue one," she interrupted. "I wondered about it. You'd better come inside." He obliged.
Inside the house looked much like his parents'. There was an abundance of photographs framed and mounted in the foyer. They were portraits, family mementos hearkening ie ack to a time everyone agreed to agree was just a little simpler. The lighting was bright but cozy, the wallpaper's floral print faded with age. He heard the scrape of chair legs on tile and a man about his own age stepped out around a corner from the dining room.
"Mom, who's this?"
"Your father picked up something of his by mistake. The blue box. Will you go get it?"
"Please, Tim. Everything will be all right. Get the box for me? I think I put it under the tree. I didn't know what else to do!" She beamed at Donny, who did his best who smile back. The woman walked into the dining room herself, beckoning Donny to follow, and it was then that his blood ran cold.
The creature was seated at the dining room table. It wore a robe and its mouth hung open, a thin strand of drool stretching down to the table, and its blue eyes stared holes in the wall. Fresh gauze bandages adorned its hands and legs. There was very little blood on them. Donny recoiled and the old woman laid her hands on his shoulder, which caused him to twist away from her as well. When he spoke it came out much faster than he meant it to.
"Calm down, son. He's okay. We're all okay."
"What the fuck is that?"
"It's my husband."
"Lady, that's a zombie. It's a fucking zombie and I alreadykilledoneandit'sgonnafuckingkillusifwedon't--"
"Settle down! If he's here, he's okay."
"If he's here, with me in this house, he's okay. Harmless."
"I heard you! I meant 'what,' like, 'are you fucking crazy.' Because that is a zombie."
"I know what it is. It's here because of me. Now, pipe down while I explain."
"I don't want to know."
"He's my husband. He's Tim's father--Tim's our son. I won't tell you everything, but I will tell you that it's because of me. Not that he's dead, that he's like this. I didn't know what would happen. It was a mistake."
"No. No, there were others. I saw them. I killed one, I think. She fell down. I don't really know how it works."
"God, I'm sorry. That sounds awful, I can't imagine. The spell--it seems so silly, using that word--it wasn't as precise as I thought. It's a big thing, you know? And it's become a mess." It was then that Tim walked in with the box.
It was gorgeous, even with the paper torn in places. Jacobs' indelicate fist had crumpled a corner as well. The paper showed no water damage from the snow, and in fact it gleamed and bent the light just as it had in the store while the resentful cashier folded it. It rested comfortably in the other man's arms, and as Tim tilted it into Donny's waiting grasp he rejoiced in its comforting weight. It was here in his hands--the thing he wanted most in the world that night--and in a moment he would walk out the door with it to make his way home. He hoped he could flag down a cab or find a bus late on Christmas Eve. It would really suck to walk home.
"What's he doing?" Tim asked his mother.
"I'm going home. But I have a question. What's your name?"
"You told me already."
"Okay. How'd you do it? I can't imagine how anybody'd pull off that kind of...I don't know, ritual? Incantation? Because you want to bring somebody back from the dead? Which really shouldn't have worked. Can you do magic? Was this an accident? Why did a zombie steal my girlfriend's Christmas present? I don't understand!"
She opened her mouth as if to respond, then closed it and smiled. After a moment, she appeared to collect her thoughts and said, "I don't think it was anything you'd call magic. I wanted something very badly. I wanted this Christmas very badly and I think sometimes when you
want something badly enough...well, I don't know. Maybe it changes things."
Tim and Lacey led Donny back out to the front door. Outside the snow was still coming down, nearly ankle-deep by this late hour. Ingrid was going to be furious. He thanked the Jacobs family for their time and wished them a Merry Christmas.
"Hey, what's in the box?" asked Tim. "You went through some shit to get it."
"It's a pair of speakers!" Donny answered gaily. "Surround-sound enabled, and they've got the subs built right into them so you don't need a separate unit! These things will blow your ears off." Tim nodded in appreciation. Donny turned to Lacey.
"Why'd you do it? What pushed you so far?"
"Well...think of it this way. What would you do if you lost the most important thing in the world?"
It was a simple question with an obvious answer. "I'd try to get it back."
The door swung shut. All around him snow fell like powdered sugar.