The dead do not rest here. I have never been certain of the cause, but it is not because the people of this town are wicked and are cast out of both heaven and hell when they pass into the next life. From the mass graves of the great plague and cholera to the silent passing of a solitary elder in a quiet residential area, they always come back.
My name is Martin Callahan. My family have been known as “The Undertakers of Carver Green” throughout the centuries, tasked with dispatching the living dead when they do rise. For that reason alone, you’d think that I’d know exactly why they claw their way back up through the dirt and wander the Earth, but my father would never tell me, and insisted that it was because his father before him refused to disclose that information. Perhaps my father did know, or perhaps none of them knew. There is a sickness in the earth. That’s the way I see it.
When my father passed, the heirlooms I received were unconventional, to say the very least. A Winchester rifle, with explicit instructions that it must be kept in the best possible condition, a World War II service revolver and a specially crafted hunting knife. There was also a silver bottle, used to carry holy water. My father told me that it was a superstition upheld by my great grandfather, but in a world where the recently deceased are able rise from the grave and resume even a fraction of their humanity, such a term loses its meaning altogether. My great grandfather would sprinkle a little of the water on the corpses of those whom he had returned to the grave, and his sons and grandsons, myself included, followed suit. It was some kind of way of easing their passage, I suppose.
I understand that it makes little sense to an outsider to wait for the dead to come back when we could simply burn the bodies or put a bullet in their brains before the re-animation takes effect. It may sound hard to believe, but there are few in this town that truly know of this bizarre epidemic of living death. It is simply too strange of a phenomenon to allow for many people to know of; it is a secret that must be kept hidden for fear of national or even global panic. A handful of elders in the community are aware of it, as is the local priest and a few core members of the police and fire departments, as well as the chief of surgery at the closest hospital. Then there is of course my own family, condemned to inherit the perpetual task of protecting the local populace by killing that which is already dead. I myself have two children; Daniel and Meredith. Twins. I can still recall the joy that swelled within me in the delivery room seven years ago, cauterizing the terrible thought that the Winchester rifle and the hunting knife would eventually be placed in their hands when I could one day do no more than push myself up from an armchair.
As I watch them play on the living room floor, I can recall the first time that my father took me out to demonstrate his “work” to me when I was twelve years old, which had been a mystery to me until that night. It was after a hearty dinner of spaghetti and meatballs- one where my mother looked unusually queasy and white as a ghost- that my father told me that he was going to take me out to show me the “ways of the world”. I sensed some dismay in my mother’s eyes, but she said nothing as I slid my shoes on and followed my father down the road to the local cemetery, the Winchester rifle slung over his shoulder.
Upon reaching the cemetery, I asked my father why we were here at all, let alone when the tangerine sunset was beginning to fade to black. He said nothing, simply pointing to the back of the cemetery. My gaze slowly began to fix on a solitary figure, shambling awkwardly amidst the tombstones, seemingly indecisive about whether or not to wander into the forest that sat by the cemetery.
“Who is that, Dad?” I had asked.
“That’s my job for this evening.” He said calmly. “Come with me. Keep quiet, boy.”
My father took the Winchester rifle that hung lazily from his shoulder and advanced toward the figure, which ceased its seemingly aimless shuffling as we approached, like a drunk gawking at a neon sign. I heard a faint moan emit from the person that stood before us; it sounded pained, sluggish, tired. I couldn’t tell which one. The half-light barely revealed its appearance, but from what I could tell it was deeply dishevelled, dressed in a bedraggled looking suit and seemed to be halfway caked in dirt. An earthy, damp scent emanated from it, but not one that was particularly pleasing to the senses; more like a wet dog than a lush grassy knoll after a rainstorm. My sharp young eyes studied the obscured features of the figure, and a creeping suspicion began to eat away at me. I was sure I recognized the figure. It was a man whose funeral we had attended the previous week.
“Dad, is that Mr. Thornby?” I asked.
“Son, listen carefully.” He said sternly. “That isn’t Mr. Thornby, not anymore. That’s just his body. It’s…come back from the dead. I’m not really sure how, but what you need to know is that it’s dangerous and needs to be put back in its grave.”
The corpse’s head twitched, and it began to shamble toward us, the moaning growing louder and more aggravated. My father raised the rifle, closing his right eye to better his aim. The re-animated body of Mr. Thornby drew closer, and my father drew in a breath.
“Abraham Thornby. To eternal rest, in peace.”
Without so much as a tremor in his wrist, my father fired, the shot landing squarely between the corpse’s eyes. The moaning ceased and the body fell to the ground, limp. I had half expected every light in the neighbourhood to switch on immediately and for a horde of people to pour into the cemetery, bewildered by the thunderous crack of the rifle. There was little more than the lonely howl of a dog, way off at the end of the street.
“Dad…” I began tearfully.
“Martin.” He said, steel lining his voice. “That was not a man. That was not Mr. Thornby. It was just his body. You can’t afford to waste your feelings on a job like this, boy, you hear me? If that corpse had even an ounce of a soul, it would thank me for putting it out of its misery.”
I dried my tears and watched as my father solemnly filled in the grave that Abraham Thornby’s cadaver had clawed its way up from, and I even looked on as he dragged the body into a clearing in the woods and set it ablaze. My father spent the next few years teaching me how he dealt with the living dead; teaching me to shoot, how to approach them and how close to get, what I must do should the situation go awry. He also always made sure to hammer home one very specific fact about the undead; they are not evil. The few cognitive functions they have that compel them to consume the flesh of the living also renders them confused, and in pain. Releasing them from the stubborn grip of the mortal realm is a favour to them. Heeding this advice made the otherwise harrowing task easier for me when my father drew his dying breath and I became the sole undertaker of Carver Green.
There was one secret of the trade that my father withheld from me, however. One that he perhaps thought would be a weight upon my moral compass when dealing with the living dead. Not all of them are devoid of the soul that once inhabited their corporeal forms in life. My father and mother; who were both in their eighties when they passed, were not unlike Abraham Thornby in their returned state. Simply groaning corpses with lifeless eyes, decayed to a point where they were almost unrecognizable. It wasn’t always that easy.
Two months ago, my wife passed away at the age of thirty-five. I had considered protesting against having her buried within Carver Green, however her parents, nor my children would ever have understood. I had let it be, knowing full well what was waiting ahead.
Tonight marks the two-week anniversary of her death; a frigid Monday in October, the dark evening rushing hurriedly in to steal away the sunlight. The cemetery ground had been dressed in a carpet of wet leaves, their springtime colour fading from the brilliant auburn touch of the autumn season. I’ve been slumped against the broad body of a willow tree for the past four hours, protecting myself from the rain that came and went in brief but intense showers. Next to me the Winchester rifle sits idly, my only companion in this endeavour.
Carver Green is pitch dark by the time the clock strikes eight. My eyes are fixed on the headstone that marks my wife’s burial spot, illuminated by a lantern I had placed next to it.
“Margaret Florence Callahan, 1964–1999, a loving daughter, wife and mother. Forever cherished.”
The earth around the grave begins to shift as the minute hand hits the ten, as though the soil itself is alive. A mottled grey hand springs up through the dirt, its nails encrusted with filth, waving aggressively like a drowning sailor. It digs its nails into the tender earth again, trembling as it strains to push the rest of its decaying form through the ground. After a brief struggle, the ground erupts and the corpse pushes itself up, patches of grass and clods of dirt raining down as it flops like a fish on a pier side out of the crude tunnel it had dug. It stumbles to its feet, a groan spilling forth from its mouth. It stands up, looking directly at me.
I swallow hard. The body is only in the early stages of decay, and still retains many of the features that my wife has possessed in life. The navy dress she was buried in is such a deep shade that it seemed as though the dirt had hardly stained it at all. Her favourite item of clothing, something that belonged to her grandmother. I could still picture her standing in the living room, charming friends and family with her wit and endless conversation. I must maintain the thought that this is no longer Maggie, though. Just a husk with enough brain power to drive it to attempt to feed its insatiable hunger.
The corpse draws closer, its arms swaying limply as its cracked voice groans. There are patches of deep grey and patches of pale white upon the skin, like some kind of marbled concrete, its eyes cloudy. As suddenly as it had pushed its hand up through the ground, it speaks.
“M…Martin…” It whispers.
Tears fill my eyes, streaming down my cheeks as my shaking hands grasp the Winchester. It… no… she was talking.
She’s in there. My wife is in there somewhere. I swear that I can see a shade of warm, friendly emerald shimmering through her otherwise lifeless eyes, reaching out and grasping ahold of me.
“Martin…. I don’t… know… what’s… what’s… happening…”
My body shaking with violent sobs, I back away as the rifle judders up and down in rhythm with my teary convulsions. I don’t want this for Daniel and Meredith. I’ll take them away from here after this, somewhere where they can live a better life, somewhere that would allow them to have normal childhoods and experience their adolescence the way young people should do. I want to burn the town down, excavate it until it’s just a mammoth crater and I can find out exactly why it spat up the re-animated corpses of its residents.
Nobody deserved to suffer from whatever arcane disease had run wild within the borders of this town for so many centuries. Not the people who lived here, nor those who were tasked with keeping the town’s secret, nor the dead who were denied their eternal sleep. I didn’t know which path I would choose, but in that moment, there was something I knew I had to bring myself to do.
I raise the Winchester rifle up again, tensing as not to miss the only shot I’m willing to take. The husk that carries a piece of my wife’s spirit inside its rotting interior moans one final time.
“Maggie Callahan… to eternal rest… in peace.”