I recently entered this story in the Dayton Daily News Short Story Contest 2012. The judges did not see their way clear to accept it for the gold (or the silver, or the bronze, or the tin), so I am, as is my wont, forcing you, dear readers, to validate my shredded ego by reading it and (naturally) pronouncing the judges to be off their collective nut.
And so, without further ado, I give you:
‘TIL DEATH DO US PART
“Harold, I want a divorce,” said Mrs. Hildebrand, using a sable brush to finish the ebony streak of liner above her expertly-groomed lashes. The man she addressed, her husband of three wonderful years and four rather unpleasant ones, made no reply. He was just visible in the left edge of the gilded vanity mirror, cursing under his breath as he tried, with minimal success, to knot his bow tie. His eyes were crossed and his tongue jutted from one corner of his mouth as he fumbled with the tie; she rolled her eyes and, suppressing through supreme will a sigh she feared might never end, repeated, “Harold, are you listening to me? I said I want a divorce.”
Harold, having somehow managed to knot one end of the tie around each thumb, finally looked up. “You what?” he said with his usual wit and charm, brow furrowed as he awkwardly tried to free his trapped digits. “Why?” He gave a sharp tug on the bow tie and managed to jerk one hand free, sending bottles of expensive, unhelpful cologne cascading to the floor in a tinkle of glass.
Mrs. Hildebrand (“Molly to my friends, darling, although I’ve precious few of those”) swung around on the antique piano stool she used as a vanity bench and regarded the man she’d sworn to love, honor and obey with hooded eyes, her expression the very essence of “Why not?” She stood, carefully smoothing her dress before stepping into her heels. She snatched a pair of silver chandelier earrings from the tray on her vanity and walked to the door, stepping carefully around the shards of glass to address her husband, who was standing poleaxed in a cloud of citron, musk and bewilderment. “I’ll have Roger give you a call, darling. I’m sure he knows any number of perfectly good lawyers. Not as good as he is, but still.” He stared at her dumbly, like a man woken from a sound sleep. Some fleeting shred of affection made her reach out to pat his cheek before she took the rumpled bow tie from his hand and, slipping it around his collar, tied it with her usual ruthless efficiency. “Now, step lively, Harold. It wouldn’t do for us to be late to Mimi’s party. We’ll sort out all the details when we get home.” She brushed a stray hair from his sweaty forehead and glided out of the room, leaving Harold alone with his thoughts. He stood amid the broken glass and Madison Avenue vapors for a bit, chewing on his lip as thunderclouds gathered on his brow. If Mrs. Hildebrand had seen the expression on her husband’s face just then, she might have reconsidered the enthusiastic honking as she waited in the driveway. “Over my dead body,” said Harold quietly, grabbing his wallet and keys from the valet before dashing down the stairs.
This was Thursday.
By Saturday morning, most citizens of North America(including agents of divorce courts near and far), were occupied with the somewhat urgent pursuit of staying alive as their friends and neighbors tried to eat them. Reports varied on the source of the contagion: some said it was a government experiment gone wrong; some said it was a government experiment gone right; some tried to tie it to mysterious cults operating from shadowy ruins, hitherto-undiscovered, under the Atlantic waves. Strangely, all of these theories were close to the truth, but were largely dismissed by level-headed individuals in between cries for help and additional shotgun ammunition.
Whatever the cause, by the following Monday some semblance of order had been restored, mostly thanks to the efforts of a very motivated military and the, ahem, “miraculous” discovery of a vaccine for the contagion (hustled out and administered with a rather suspicious governmental efficiency seen neither before nor since); the combination of these efforts led to only five US states and two Canadian providences being quarantined with fire and steel (citizens trapped within these zones were assumed to have died quickly and painlessly, according to official reports, although the fact that these reports were delivered in the same funereal tones with which one might tell a child their dog had “gone to live on a farm” meant they ultimately brought little comfort to those with loved ones on the wrong side of the quarantine). Ironically, the excessive and paranoid security measures enacted in the waning years of the 2020s to reduce immigration kept Mexico almost entirely free of what the media was soon calling, without a trace of said irony, “Partial Death Syndrome,” and the hasty construction of a wall along the Mexican side of the border even taller than the 300-foot-high, blade-and-gun-encrusted Cheney Memorial Liberty Wall of Freedom was met with little surprise.
But that was Monday. On Thursday night, things seemed much grimmer. The Hildebrands never made it to Mimi’s party; they emerged onto Main Street from their winding hidden drive and were greeted with a scene out of Bosch. Roving gangs of “Ghouls” (the copyrighting of the word “Zombie” by enterprising Hollywood types some years earlier made efforts both popular and official to refer to the afflicted by this term unfeasible; even in a hellish apocalyptic nightmare, it seemed, nothing was quite as terrifying as a brace of intellectual property attorneys) staggered everywhere, their twisted countenances limned by the flickering crimson flames devouring the neighborhood’s elegant homes. Mr. Hildebrand, the product of two centuries of aristocratic New England refinement and breeding, said “Oh, my.” Mrs. Hildebrand, the product of a long line of hardheaded, pragmatic social-climbers, said “Roll up the windows and drive, Harold. NOW.”
Mr. Hildebrand was in something of a snit in the wake of his wife’s earlier demand for divorce, however, and so left his window down. He kept the Bentley at a crawl, ignoring his increasingly-agitated wife as he tried to catch the attention of screaming passersby. “Er, pardon me, friend” he ventured, flapping a manicured hand at man being gnawed on by a ravenous meter-maid. “Any idea what all the fuss is about?” The man responded with a gesture made difficult by only two remaining fingers, but managed to convey his point nonetheless. “Well, I never,” gasped Mr. Hildebrand, who had, in fact, never made a gesture more offensive than a halfhearted comme ci, comme ça wave when describing an indifferent Merlot. Several of the ghouls were now shuffling in the general direction of the car, moaning in a synchronized fashion that had a little something of Tibetan throat singing in it (and quite a bit more of cannibalistic demands for brains).
“Oh, for the love of Mike,” said Molly Hildebrand, who decided that now was as good a time as any to expedite the divorce proceedings. She took the Taser kept for protection (Mr. Hildebrand had heard about carjacking from one of the caddies at his club and thought it best to have some sort of deterrent in his car) from the glove compartment and jammed the arc of blue light against her husband’s neck with surprising strength; Harold (who was glaring at the approaching mob with narrowed eyes, as though the blood-drenched revenants might have the effrontery to ask him for spare change) spasmed briefly and slumped in his seat. Molly unbuckled her twitching husband, then, reaching across his chest, opened the door and pushed him out onto the street with her legs (still strong from thrice-weekly tennis at the club). “Dinner time!” she cried, sliding into the driver’s seat and slamming the door. “Goodbye, Harold,” she muttered, rolling up the window. “Urk,” said Mr. Hildebrand, twitching feebly and trying to understand why his limbs seemed to have gone on vacation to several different continents simultaneously. The Bentley tore away into the night, the squeal of tires accompanied by several meaty thumps and his wife’s cackling laughter.
Some moments later, Harold had received several encouraging communiqués from his arms and was beginning to hope his legs might soon reach out in friendship as well when the first mud-spattered boot shuffled in front of his bleary gaze. “Urk,” he said again, his speech center apparently enjoying its time en vacance and in no hurry to return. “Urk,” said the thing agreeably, and for a moment Harold was cheered. He was making new friends. Perhaps these chaps with the ratty clothes and wild eyes weren’t so bad after all.
Oh, but they were.
Time passed. Life, in several exciting new varieties, went on. The least pleasant symptoms of Partial Death Syndrome – rotting flesh, rising from the grave as a soulless husk, something of an obsession with snacking on others – were preventable with the vaccine, although those already infected seemed to respond to treatment with varying degrees of success. A few cases of spontaneous recovery – i.e., going from undeath to true, sentient life – were reported, but for the most part the “recovered” seemed to exist in limbo, staggering around, drooling all over their nice new jumpsuits, and basically making a nuisance of themselves at public events. Government agencies were created to return these “cured” individuals back to their families, ostensibly to reunite the Ghouls™ (a registered trademark of the PDS Association, all rights reserved) with the families who loved the people they used to be, but mostly to relieve the government of its burden housing and clothing them. Those whose loved ones had vanished in “The Troubles” (including Molly Hildebrand, the very merriest of merry widows this side of the Bard) came to be seen as the lucky ones. There was some talk of “recidivism;” serious men in very serious suits appeared on the evening news and stressed that such talk was anecdotal, that authorities had the matter well in hand, and that the best thing for most people to do was to welcome home their loved ones and get on with the business of living (whatever that was supposed to mean these days).
Several months after that fateful Thursday night, Mrs. Molly Worthington (formerly of Quarantine Zone Beta), wife of one Samuel Worthington (a man even wealthier and less interesting than Harold), was carefully selecting her dress for the “Ghoul-Aid™” Regatta (“Together, We Can Outsail PDS!”) when the doorbell chimed. She waited for the maid to announce her visitor, and when no such announcement was forthcoming, sighed and went downstairs. “Honestly, Elisa,” she began, distractedly fastening her brooch as she reached the foyer, “how many times do I have to tell you to…”
There was a slight scuffing sound behind her – the faintest scrape of a ruined calfskin Oxford on marble – and then a hand, grimy and slick with blood, closed around her throat. “Urk,” said Mrs. Worthington.
“Urk,” agreed Harold.