THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
by Melissa Brooks
The world was fuzzy. Victoria blinked. She blinked again and again until the room came into focus. A pixelated ceiling. A window opening to blackness. An unkempt man slouched in a chair, fist propping up a mess of greasy dark hair. He had sallow skin, dark bags beneath bloodshot eyes. Familiar eyes. Barry’s eyes? Benny? Billy? Billy.
“Billy?” she rasped.
He sat up straight, suddenly alert. He flew toward her, swooping down and kissing her before she could stop him. His breath smelled like something rotten—a forgotten peach, curdled milk. His lips smashed into hers, pressing her hard into the pillow. Every time she thought it would end, it somehow kept going. “I can’t breathe,” she managed to mumble beneath the weight of his lips.
He released her. He dragged a chair next to her hospital bed. “Do you remember the accident?”
Victoria had a vague memory of leaving work. Nodding to the resident peddler on the corner. Fishing a bruised banana from her purse for him. Staring at the steady stream of hypnotic white lines, the empty pavement stretching to infinity.
“You smashed into a tree,” Billy said. “You must have fallen asleep. The doctor said you have a pretty serious concussion.” He was grimacing.
“Why are you making that face?”
“It’s the baby,” Billy said. “They couldn’t save it. I’m so sorry.” He brushed a lock of hair from her forehead, exposing a ripe armpit.
Victoria wrinkled her nose.
He grabbed her hand, but she could barely feel his touch. “It’s not your fault.”
She leaned back against the pillow and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m so hungry.”
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll go find the doctor and hunt down some food.”
After Billy left, she examined her body. The left side looked all banged up—leg in a brace, arm in a sling—but she felt perfectly symmetrical. She felt a large bump on her forehead, but it didn’t even hurt, like it wasn’t even real. She moved her hands to her stomach. She hadn’t even been showing, and yet, she felt lighter.
It was nearing ten p.m. The hospital was strangely quiet. Victoria got out of bed. The thin hospital gown hung from her body like a bag.
Outside, leaves rustled in the trees. The breeze drifted in through the open window, grazing Victoria’s exposed back. She nearly fell over. She walked to the hallway on unsteady feet, wispy legs. The gown fluttered behind her. She could barely feel the ground beneath her feet, like she was floating.
She floated out of the room, down the hospital’s corridors, all the way outside. The street lamps lit up a mosaic of reds and yellows blazing in the trees, openly signaling their imminent decay. The breeze rustled her hair, blowing behind her, going through her, carrying her faster, farther.
She remembered the great big oak rushing toward her. The flash of bark. The exhilaration she felt when she thought it was all over.
“Look what came!” Billy said, appearing in the kitchen. Victoria sat at the island counter, eating chocolate chips straight from the bag.
Billy set down a bouquet of pineapples, strawberries, chocolate-covered bananas blooming from a pot wrapped in crinkled red paper. “Get better soon!” the card demanded. “We’re lost without you.” It was from her coworkers at the marketing firm. Instead of feeling guilty, Victoria felt relieved not to be there, contorted in her desk chair so long her knees went stiff, her feet numb, tingling pinpricks climbing her shin until her entire leg fell asleep and she had to punch it back to life.
Billy wrapped his arms around her waist. He massaged her belly, slid a hand up her shirt. His fingers felt like clammy little tendrils. She slid off her stool and moved to the other side of the counter.
Billy sighed. “I know it must be hard.”
He gave her a pitying look. “You know.” He placed a hand back on her stomach.
“Don’t you have tires to rotate? Oil to change?” she said.
“You have to talk about your feelings, Vicky.”
“I’m just trying to help you. You could meet me halfway here.” His irritation was palpable. A hot white light radiated from his body, but it was hard for her to care. She plucked a strawberry from a plastic stem. It tasted like ashes. She spit it out, covering her hand in a stringy mess of red entrails.
“Jesus, what’d you do that for?” Billy said.
She held out her hand. “Taste this, will you?”
“That’s got to be the grossest thing you’ve ever done.” He forced a smile to show he was only joking. He wiped her hand clean with a paper towel.
He took a fresh strawberry from the bouquet, sniffed it. Poked it with his tongue. Nibbled off the end. His expression lightened. He popped the rest in his mouth. “It’s good,” he said with his mouth full, garbling his words.
Victoria braved the chocolate-covered banana. The banana tasted just as ashy as the strawberry, but the chocolate casing was smooth and velvety. She wondered if maybe it wasn’t the fruit. If it was her. This strange, new body.
Everything the living would consider healthy—the kale spinach smoothies she used to blend every morning, the medley of squash, carrots, and onions she’d roast for dinner—tasted repugnant to her now. The only things Victoria could stomach were peanut butter cookies, potato chips and onion dip, popcorn doused in a stick of butter—things she’d long avoided.
No matter what she ate, she didn’t gain weight. She remained light and buoyant. She didn’t even need to exercise anymore. She could spend the whole day curled up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, reading the books lining her walls that she’d been meaning to get to since college: The Brothers Karamazov, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights. She’d sit for hours, getting lost in worlds of heightened emotion that seemed so much more meaningful than hers ever did, oblivious to Billy puttering around the apartment, the neighbor kids squealing outside as they chased their barking dog, the phone ringing and ringing and ringing (“Don’t you hear that? The accident didn’t damage your ears, did it?”). When Billy asked Victoria if she was up for a game night with their friends, she didn’t even glance up from her book. “I’m reading.”
“I don’t mean now, I mean in a little bit.”
“I’ll be reading then too.”
“Don’t you want to see our friends?”
“I just want to finish this chapter.” She’d played Apples to Apples a million times. She’d never read Moby Dick.
She used to read all the time as a kid—The Boxcar Children, Goosebumps, The Magic Treehouse, transposing words into vibrant movies in her head while her classmates turned every boring facet of their lives into a game: pretend grocery store, pretend doctor, pretend dinner. But after college, marriage, the marketing firm, she never could seem to find the time or the energy to read as much as she wanted. It often made her angry, losing so much time to things that seemed so pointless—watching Billy’s intramural soccer games, reviewing ad copy for products no one needed. “You’re being ridiculous,” she used to tell herself. “You have to live in the world.” Still, the thought nagged at her, burrowing deeper and deeper, its roots taking hold and spreading as far as they could go.
It was the reason she finally acquiesced to Billy’s guilt trips about having a kid. Her boss wouldn’t make her come in for six a.m. website launches, stay until nine p.m. for client feedback, attend product launch parties over the weekend. She only realized what she was doing when it was too late. She couldn’t bring a kid into the world for a terrible reason like that. How selfish that would be. How cruel.
Victoria walked straight at the bedroom wall. The limitations of the physical world she’d grown so used to for twenty-seven years overpowered her, so that instead of going through the wall, she collided with it. Her supposedly injured arm, locked in its sling, was the first point of contact. Her arms were turning into a mosaic of purple and blue splashes.
Billy called from the hallway. “I’m picking up tacos for lunch. You want fish?”
“Chorizo,” she called out. “Make it a chimichanga.”
She charged ahead again, faster this time, full of purpose. She willed herself to keep her good arm down by her side. To forget her old body. Still, she collided with the wall. She bounced back like a spring and fell to the floor.
“What the hell, Vicky?” Billy said, appearing at the doorway.
“I thought it might be one of the perks,” she said. He helped her up, inadvertently smashing an ice pack against her shoulder.
“You need to rest. You need to get better so you can go back to work.” He tucked her into bed and pressed the ice pack to her head, securing it with a long pink ribbon.
She loosened the ribbon under her chin. “Why would I go back to work?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Dead people don’t go to work.”
“Is this a bit?”
“I’m hollow inside, Billy. I float.”
He crossed his arms. He opened his mouth like he was about to say something, his chest filling with air, but then he released it in one big whoosh.
“You’re lying in bed, Vicky. You just walked into a wall.”
“That’s just an illusion.”
“So what then? Is your spirit really in the bathroom?”
She sighed. “I’m still trying to figure this body out. I realize I’m not a ghost, but I’m some sort of in between. Maybe a ghost with a human costume.”
“If you’re dead, why do you need to sleep? Why do you need to eat? Tell me that.”
“That’s the nice thing about being dead. You don’t have to do anything. You can do whatever you want whenever you want as often as you want. There’s nothing inside of me. No organs. Nothing to sustain.”
Billy put a hand to her breast. “I can feel your heart beat.”
“That’s just part of the costume.”
Billy shook his head, incredulous. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, Vicky.”
“Don’t do anything. I don’t need you.”
“You don’t need me.” His voice sounded so cold, edging on anger. That’s when it hit her—there was no way he could possibly understand what was happening to her. She should’ve known, but her new head made everyone else so cloudy, so that she’d been doing and saying whatever she wanted without considering how it might be received, which was nice for a change, but it also meant she’d have to contend with consequences she used to be able to sidestep. Had she realized this before, she wouldn’t have said anything. “I’m sorry, Billy,” she said now. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m really tired, that’s all. I should rest, like you said.” She curled up on her side. The ice pack slid down her forehead, covering her eyes.
He sat there for a while, staring at her. She could practically see his body through the back of her head, the way it pulsed and blazed.
Finally, he left the bedroom, yanking the door shut behind him so it slammed. She squeezed her eyes tight, pulled the blanket over her head.
Victoria perched on the edge of the exam table, her jeans crinkling the paper lining.
Billy sat in a nearby chair while the doctor checked her blood pressure, heart rate, the dilation of her eyes.
“Your husband tells me you think you died in the accident.”
Victoria sighed. She rubbed her face with her hands. “Would you believe me if I said I was kidding?”
She stared blankly past the doctor at the wall. An anatomical chart of the human body hung there, illustrating stringy muscles she was glad she no longer had to worry about. “It doesn’t really matter what I say, does it? You’ve already decided.”
“She’s never this brazen,” Billy said.
“A miscarriage can be very traumatic,” the doctor said. “We might come up with all kinds of ways to cope.”
“It was the size of a centipede. People squash centipedes all the time,” Victoria said.
The doctor placed a little blue pill in the palm of her hand. “I want you to try this.”
“It’ll help you feel more like yourself.” He handed her a cup of water.
“But I feel better than ever.”
“Please, Vicky?” Billy pleaded. They both stared at her, a manic orange pulse radiating from their bodies, consuming the entire room until it engulfed her too. They weren’t going to let her leave until she took it.
She swallowed the pill, trying to assure herself that it couldn’t affect her anyway.
They both relaxed, and the orange receded back into their bodies.
“Wonderful,” the doctor said. “I’m going to have a word with your husband.” He and Billy stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind them so she couldn’t hear. Like she was a child, she thought. Maybe this was how the dead were treated. Patronized.
At first, she didn’t feel anything. But after a while, she felt weighed down. The left side of Victoria’s body, the side that had been most banged up in the accident, now felt heavier than the right. She hobbled lopsided around the living room, her swollen leg crashing into the floor with each step. She walked too quickly and fell over, her bad arm breaking her fall. She rolled over on her back and rubbed her tingling arm. Shapes began to form on the stucco ceiling—Billy, her friends, her clients and coworkers and boss. She needed to go back to work. She needed to exercise. She grabbed her belly and felt soft flesh—too much flesh.
She remembered with painful clarity the tree speeding toward her, the flash of bark, the rush of anxiety, and it hurt suddenly, even though it was weeks ago, it hurt. She felt the tree bearing down on her, crushing her, crushing the baby. She squeezed her belly, empty now. It was her fault. She was careless. She was reckless. She was selfish.
When she woke the next morning, before she even opened her eyes, she felt her body levitating above the mattress. All the worry was gone. She remembered that none of those things mattered. Why couldn’t she see it before?
You could work somewhere else, Billy used to say. Write for a nonprofit that helps the homeless.
And make my entire purpose and livelihood dependent upon their misery?
I’m just saying if you’re not happy, do something, don’t just bitch about it.
Well she’d gone and done something about it alright. She felt so lucky not to have commitments anymore. She refused to let Billy manipulate her back into her old ways, the ways of the living.
When she went to the bathroom, she flushed that day’s pill.
Later, when Billy said he needed to take her to a therapist, she smiled sweetly and climbed willingly into the car.
She tried running out the clock by reading The Grapes of Wrath in the drab pink waiting room, but people kept asking if she had an appointment. So she hid in the bathroom. She locked herself in a stall with her book for the rest of the hour, not even minding the open toilet seat crawling with bacteria, the smells wafting beneath the short, thin walls.
When exactly one hour had passed, she went outside to wait for Billy.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
“Fantastic,” she said, smiling extra wide for good measure.
Billy walked in circles around the living room, straightening books, folding throw blankets, fluffing pillows—something she’d never seen him do before.
“You can go back to work you know,” she said, looking up from Anna Karenina. “Clearly you’re bored. I’ll be fine.”
He put on a record. The Temptations’ Greatest Hits.
He shimmied over to Victoria. “Hey, let’s dance,” he said.
“I thought I was injured.”
“Think of it as physical therapy.” He took her hand and pulled her up from the leather armchair.
They swayed in the small space between the coffee table and TV, her feet hovering above the ground. She could feel the music pulsing through her costume. Was it fun? Maybe. When she was alive, she used to enjoy dancing with Billy. Was even the one who’d put on records and rub up against him to make him laugh.
He pulled her closer, smashing her arm in the sling between their stomachs. He rested his head against hers, breathed her scent in deeply. “Remember when I used to sing to your belly?” He kissed her neck, then moved his mouth to hers. He ran his hand down her side, across her hip, between her legs. She didn’t push him, but she pulled back so his hand got stuck in the waistband of her underwear.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“I’ve been trying to tell you. This body is all show.”
“You still think you’re dead?”
She sighed. “I know it’s hard for you to understand, but I need you to accept it.”
He grabbed her shoulders. “What’s the matter with you? I’m your husband.” He started to shake her. “Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Don’t you care?”
“Billy, you’re hurting me!”
“Now you can feel pain?”
Then suddenly, like a switch had been flipped, his anger turned to fear, to guilt.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” To her relief, he rushed out of the room.
The windows had frosted over, sealing them in a hazy bubble.
Victoria curled up on the couch beneath a throw blanket, reading The Stranger.
The phone rang but she ignored it. Billy picked it up without looking at her. He’d been avoiding her the last couple days, but she preferred it that way.
“Andy, buddy! No, I don’t think I can make it to soccer. I need to stay with Vicky a while.”
“You should go,” she chirped.
He moved to the kitchen, where she could still hear him mumbling earnestly.
She felt herself floating above the couch, her body filling with helium. She could float all the way up to the ceiling if she wanted to. She could float away. While Billy was preoccupied, she went to the sliding glass door.
Winter had arrived early, burying everything in snow, sealing streets and sidewalks beneath slick sheets of ice.
She glided out onto the porch without a jacket or shoes, but it didn’t matter because her socks hovered above the snow. She floated to the top of the railing. She wanted to float all the way up to the sky, but she felt invisible tethers tying her to the earth. She lifted her arms and closed her eyes, the helium tugging her up, up, up. Soon, the tethers snapped. They flapped loosely around her ankles as she rose above the house, the electrical wires, the tops of the bare trees. She knew she’d plunged into a cloud when the light filtering through her eyelids darkened and a soft, pillowy substance kissed her skin. When she was high enough, she stretched her arms out in front of her and flipped sideways, the better to soar across the great expanse of sky.
“Vicky, what are you doing!” Billy’s voice called from far below.
She would’ve ignored him, would’ve kept soaring until she could no longer hear him, but she felt herself being tugged back down, reeled back in like a kite. She floated down to the earth, landing softly in the snow.
When she opened her eyes, she was laying supine on the snowy lawn in front of the porch. She stared up at the sky. No clouds obstructed the sun, yet there was a dullness to it, as though it had spun farther away in space.
Billy towered over her. He must have yanked the tethers, pulling her back down. He picked her up and carried her like a baby up the porch steps.
“Put me down,” she said, but he didn’t listen.
He carried her inside and set her on the living room rug. He began peeling off her wet clothes. “Do you think you broke anything? How’s your arm? Christ, you’re soaked. You could have hypothermia. I better take you to the doctor.”
“I can’t get hurt, Billy. I told you.”
She touched her head. Her fingers came back wet with red. She licked one. It tasted sweet, like corn syrup. “It’s not real blood.”
He stared at her, mouth agape. “For Christ’s sake, Vicky, we can’t go on like this!”
She looked at him thoughtfully, relieved that he finally acknowledged it. “You’re right. We can’t.”
Victoria packed a bag. There were no clothes in it, only snacks and books, as many as she could fit. Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice, As I Lay Dying. The bag didn’t feel heavy at all.
Billy had finally returned to work the day before, maxed out on vacation days. She only had an hour before he returned. She left a note so he wouldn’t go looking for her. It wasn’t right for the living and the dead to be together, she wrote. He needed so much, and she needed so little. She hoped he found someone who could give him the things he needed.
Victoria didn’t mind being in limbo, but she never expected limbo would reside on Earth. Maybe it was the ones who loved you in life that kept you in limbo after death, she thought, with their insistence that they owned you, that you belonged to them, belonged to anyone at all beside yourself. Without Billy’s demands weighing her down, maybe she would’ve already floated up into space. She needed to find others like her, others who needed nothing.
Despite the snow, she didn’t put on a jacket. She didn’t put on mittens or a hat. She did put on boots, but only because it would be easier to traverse the ice if levitation failed her. She walked out into the cold. Of course, it didn’t feel cold to her. It felt invigorating.
Melissa Brooks is a Chicago-based writer with an MFA in Fiction from the University of San Francisco. Her work has appeared in The Matador Review, Arcturus, Gravel, and elsewhere. Her short story “Closed Casket Calling Hours” was included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She currently works in marketing at the University of Chicago.