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Strange Candy, Page 2

Laurell K. Hamilton

  Being an animator meant very little nightlife, no pun intended. Afternoons were spent interviewing clients and evenings raising the dead. Though we few were very popular at a certain kind of party--the sort where the host likes to brag about how many celebrities he knows, or worse yet, the kind who simply want to stare. I don't like being on display and refuse to go to parties unless forced. Our boss likes to keep us in the public eye to dispel rumors that we are witches or hobgoblins.

  It's pretty pitiful at parties. All the animators huddled, talking shop like a bunch of doctors. But doctors don't get called witch, monster, zombie queen. Very few people remember to call us animators. For most, we are a dark joke. "This is Anita. She makes zombies, and I don't mean the drink." Then there would be laughter all around, and I would smile politely and know I'd be going home early.

  Tonight there was no party to worry over, just work. Work was power, magic, a strange dark impulse to raise more than what you were paid for. Tonight would be cloudless, moonlit, and starred; I could feel it. We were different, drawn to the night, unafraid of death and its many forms, because we had a sympathy for it.

  Tonight I would raise the dead.

  Wellington Cemetery was new. All the tombstones were nearly the same size, square or rectangle, and set off into the night in near-perfect rows. Young trees and perfectly clipped evergreen shrubs lined the gravel driveway. The moon rode strong and high, bathing the scene clearly, if mysteriously, in silver and black. A handful of huge trees dotted the grounds. They looked out of place among all this newness. As Carla had said, only two of them grew close together.

  The drive spilled into the open and encircled the hill. The mound of grass-covered earth was obviously man-made, so round, short, and domed. Three other drives centered on it. A short way down the west drive stood two large trees. As my car crunched over gravel, I could see someone dressed in white. A flare of orange was a match, and the reddish pinpoint of a cigarette sprang to life.

  I stopped the car, blocking the drive, but few people on honest business visit cemeteries at night. Carla had beaten me here, very unusual. Most clients want to spend as little time as possible near the grave after dark. I walked over to her before unloading equipment.

  There was a litter of burned-out cigarettes like stubby white bugs about her feet. She must have been here in the dark for hours waiting to raise a zombie. She either was punishing herself or enjoyed the idea. There was no way of knowing which.

  Her dress, shoes, even hose, were white. Earrings of silver flashed in the moonlight as she turned to me. She was leaning against one of the trees, and its black trunk emphasized her whiteness. She only turned her head as I came up to her.

  Her eyes looked silver-gray in the light. I couldn't decipher the look on her face. It wasn't grief.

  "It's a beautiful night, isn't it?"

  I agreed that it was. "Carla, are you all right?"

  She stared at me terribly calm. "I'm feeling much better than I did this afternoon."

  "I'm very glad to hear that. Did you remember to bring his clothes and a memento?"

  She motioned to a dark bundle by the tree.

  "Good, I'll unload the car." She didn't offer to help, which was not unusual. Most of the time it was fear that prevented it. I realized my Omega was the only car in sight.

  I called softly, but sound carries on summer nights. "How did you get here? I don't see a car."

  "I hired a cab, it's waiting at the gate."

  A cab. I would love to have seen the driver's face when he dropped her off at the cemetery gates. The three black chickens clucked from their cage in the backseat. They didn't have to be black, but it was the only color I could get for tonight. I was beginning to think our poultry supplier had a sense of humor.

  Arthur Fiske was only recently dead, so from the box in the trunk I took only a jar of homemade ointment and a machete. The ointment was pale off-white with flecks of greenish light in it. The glowing flecks were graveyard mold. You wouldn't find it in this cemetery. It only grew in graveyards that had stood for at least a hundred years. The ointment also contained the obligatory spider webs and other noisome things, plus herbs and spices to hide the smell and aid the magic. If it was magic.

  I smeared the tombstone with it and called Carla over. "It's your turn now, Carla." She stubbed out her cigarette and came to stand before me. I smeared her face and hands and told her, "You stand just behind the tombstone throughout the raising."

  She took her place without a word while I placed ointment on myself. The pine scent of rosemary for memory, cinnamon and cloves for preservation, sage for wisdom, and lemon thyme to bind it all together seemed to soak through the skin itself.

  I picked the largest chicken and tucked it under my arm. Carla stood where I had left her, staring down at the grave. There was an art to beheading a chicken with only two hands.

  I stood at the foot of the grave to kill the chicken. Its first artery blood splashed onto the grave. It splattered over the fading chrysanthemums, roses, and carnations. A spire of white gladioli turned dark. I walked a circle sprinkling blood as I went, tracing a circle of steel with a bloody machete. Carla shut her eyes as the blood rained upon her.

  I smeared blood on myself and placed the still-twitching body upon the flower mound. Then I stood once again at the foot of the grave. We were cut off now inside the blood circle, alone with the night, and our thoughts. Carla's eyes flashed white at me as I began the chant.

  "Hear me, Arthur Fiske. I call you from the grave. By blood, magic, and steel, I call you. Arise, Arthur, come to us, come to me, Arthur Fiske." Carla joined me as she was supposed to. "Come to us, Arthur, come to us, Arthur. Arthur, arise." We called his name in ever-rising voices.

  The flowers shuddered. The mound heaved upward, and the chicken slid to the side. A hand clawed free, ghostly pale. A second hand and Carla's voice failed her. She began moving round the gravestone to kneel to the left of the heaving mound. There was such wonder, even awe, in her face, as I called Arthur Fiske from the grave.

  The arms were free. The top of a dark-haired head was in sight, but the top was almost all there was. The mortician had done his best, but Arthur's had been a closed-casket funeral.

  The right side of his face was gone, blasted away. Clean white bone shone at jaw and skull, and silver bits of wire where the bone had been strung together. It still wasn't a face. The nose was empty holes, bare and white. The skin was shredded and snipped short to look neater. The left eye rolled wildly in the bare socket. I could see the tongue moving between the broken teeth. Arthur Fiske struggled from the grave.

  I tried to remain calm. It could be a mistake. "Is that Arthur?"

  Her hoarse whisper came to me. "Yes."

  "That is not a heart attack."

  "No." Her voice was calm now, incredibly normal. "No, I shot him at close range."

  "You killed him, and had me bring him back."

  Arthur was having some trouble freeing his legs, and I ran to Carla. I tried to help her to her feet but she wouldn't move.

  "Get up, get up, damn it, he'll kill you!"

  Her next words were very quiet. "If that's what he wants."

  "God help me, a suicide."

  I forced her to look at me instead of the thing in the grave. "Carla, a murdered zombie always kills his murderer first, always. No forgiveness, that is a rule. I can't control him until after he has killed you. You have to run, now."

  She saw me, understood, I think, but said, "This is the only way to be free of guilt. If he forgives me, I'll be free."

  "You'll be dead!"

  Arthur freed himself and was sitting on the crushed, earth-strewn flowers. It would take him a little while to organize, but not too long.

  "Carla, he will kill you. There will be no forgiveness." Her eyes had wandered back to the zombie, and I slapped her twice, very hard. "Carla, you will die out here, and for what? Arthur is dead, really dead. You don't want to die."

  Arthur slid off t
he flowers and stood uncertainly. His eye rolling around in its socket finally spotted us. Though he didn't have much to show expression with, I could see joy on his shattered face. There was a twitch of a smile as he shambled toward us, and I began dragging her away. She didn't fight me, but she was a dead, awkward weight. It is very hard to drag someone away if they don't want to go.

  I let her sink back to the ground. I looked at the clumsy but determined zombie and decided to try. I stood in front of him, blocking him from Carla. I called upon whatever power I possessed and talked to him. "Arthur Fiske, hear me, listen only to me."

  He stopped moving and stared down at me. It was working, against all the rules, it was working.

  It was Carla who spoiled it. Her voice saying, "Arthur, Arthur, forgive me."

  He was distracted and tried to move toward her voice. I stopped him with a hand on his chest. "Arthur, I command you, do not move. I who raised you command you."

  She called one more time. That was all he needed. He flung me away absentmindedly. My head hit the tombstone. It wasn't much of a blow, no blood like on television, but it took everything out of me for a minute. I lay in the flowers, and it seemed very important to hear myself breathe.

  Arthur reached down for her, slowly. His face twitched, and his tongue made small sounds that might have been, "Carla."

  The clumsy hands stroked her hair. He half fell, half knelt by her. She drew back at that, afraid.

  I started crawling over the flowers toward them. She was not going to commit suicide with my help.

  The hands stroked her face, and she backed away, just a few inches. The thing crawled after her. She backpedaled faster, but he came on surprisingly quick. He pinned her under his body, and she started screaming.

  I half-crawled, half-fell across the zombie's back.

  The hands crept up her body, touching her shoulders.

  Her eyes rolled back to me. "Help me!"

  I tried. I tugged at him, trying to pull him off her. Zombies do not have supernatural strength, no matter what the media would like you to think, but Arthur had been a large, muscular man. If he could have felt pain, I might have pulled him off, but there was no real way to distract him.

  "Anita, please!"

  The hands settled on her neck and squeezed.

  I found the machete where it had dropped to the ground. It was sharp, and did damage, but he couldn't feel it. I chopped at his head and back. He ignored me. Even decapitated, he would keep coming. His hands were the problem. I knelt and sighted at his lower arm. I didn't dare try it any closer to her face. The blade flashed silver. I brought it down with all the strength in my back and arms, but it took five blows to break the bone.

  The separated hand kept squeezing as if it were still attached. I threw the machete down and began prying one finger at a time from her neck. It was time consuming. Carla stopped struggling. I screamed my rage and helplessness at him and kept prying up the fingers. The strong hands squeezed until there was a cracking sound. Not a sharp pencil break like a leg or an arm, but a crackling as the bones crushed together. Arthur seemed satisfied. He stood up from the body. All expression left him. He was empty, waiting for a command.

  I fell back into the flowers, not sure whether to cry, or scream, or just run. I just sat there and shook. But I had to do something about the zombie. I couldn't just leave him to wander around.

  I tried to tell him to stay, but my voice wouldn't come. His eye followed me as I stumbled to the car. I came back with a handful of salt. In the other hand I scooped the fresh grave dirt. Arthur watched me without expression. I stood at the outer edge of the circle. "I give you back to the earth from which you came."

  I threw the dirt upon him. He turned to face me.

  "With salt I bind you to your grave." The salt sounded like sleet on his suit. I made the sign of a cross with the machete. "With steel I give you back."

  I realized that I had begun the ceremony without getting another chicken. I bent and retrieved the dead one and slit it open. I drew still-warm and bloody entrails free. They glistened in the moonlight. "With flesh and blood I command you, Arthur, return to your grave and walk no more."

  He lay down upon the grave. It was as if he had lain in quicksand. It just swallowed him up. With a last shifting of flowers, the grave was as before, almost.

  I threw the gutted chicken to the ground and knelt beside the woman's body. Her neck flopped at an angle just slightly wrong.

  I got up and shut the trunk of my car. The sound seemed to echo, too loud. Wind seemed to roar in the tall trees. The leaves rustled and whispered. The trees all looked like flat black shadows, nothing had any depth to it. All noises were too loud. The world had become a one-dimensional cardboard thing. I was in shock. It would keep me numb and safe for a little while. Would I dream about Carla tonight? Would I try to save her again and again? I hoped not.

  Somewhere up above, nighthawks flitted. Their cries came thin and eerie, echoing loud. I looked at the body by the grave. The whiteness of it stained now with dirt. So much for the other half of my fee.

  I got in the car, smearing blood over the steering wheel and key. There were phone calls to make; to my boss, to the police, and to cancel the rest of my appointments. I would be raising no more dead tonight. There was a taxi to send away. I wondered how much the meter had run up.

  My thoughts ran in dull, frightened circles. I began to shake, hands trembling. Tears came hot and violent. I sobbed and screamed in the privacy of my car. When I could breathe without choking, and my hand was steady, I put the car in gear. I would definitely be seeing Carla tonight and Arthur. What's one more nightmare?

  I left Carla there alone, with Arthur's forgiveness, one leg lost in the flowers of his grave.


  I feel like we need a depth chamber between this and the preceding story. We're moving from almost as dark as I get as a writer, to almost as light as I get. I got a lot of nice rejection slips on this story. Editors loved it, but not enough to buy it. One editor at one of the top-paying magazines at the time actually told me the truth: that since they published only one piece of fiction in each issue, I wasn't a big enough name to help their magazine sales. But she adored the story. When I became a big enough name to make a difference, I did not send the story back to her for another chance. One, I was too busy with novels to think about it. Two, I'm petty. It's the same story; the only thing that changed was that now I was a name. I rarely give second chances.

  I WAS walking along Market Street on my lunch hour, wishing I hadn't worn high heels today, or a skirt. Pantyhose were no protection at all against the icy winter air. I was minding my own business when I saw them. They floated by the streetlight at the corner like gigantic moths attracted to the cold electric light. Half a dozen small naked children with cotton-candy wings and curly ringlets, mostly blond. They were also carefully neuter, smooth as a Barbie doll.

  Cupids. Shit. That was all I needed. I looked for a door, a shop, anything that I could take refuge in. The brick building stretched smooth and doorless. There was a small shop across the street, but I'd never make it, too open, no cover. I began to walk sideways, back down the street. One hand on the wall to make sure I didn't trip. If I could just make the far corner, maybe I could run for it.

  But it was too late; they had spotted me. One of the chubby pink things strung his tiny golden bow and began to sift through his quiver for an arrow. His shiny little eyes never left me. I wasn't close enough to see his eyes, but I knew what color they were. All Cupids have sky-blue eyes, like Easter eggs, or baby blankets.

  I didn't wait to see what color of arrow it chose, I turned and ran. My high heels seemed to echo the narrow street. They'd find me. Damn it!

  I made it around the corner and found every building as blank and smooth as the Cupids themselves. I had just walked down this street. There should have been doors, shops, people. I had heard that Cupids could cloud your mind, but I had never believed, until now.
/>   I darted a look behind me. Nothing. I wasn't sure if that was a good sign, or a bad one. They either had given up, or were so sure of me that they didn't need to hurry. Or, they were right above me and I just couldn't see them, like the doors that should have been here. I wanted to scream and rant and stomp my feet, but that wouldn't help. Think, Rachel, think.

  If I couldn't see the doors, maybe I could feel them. Cupids wouldn't follow me inside. I had walked this street a hundred times, surely I could remember where one door was, any door.

  My hands slid over cold, blank bricks. If there was something there, I couldn't feel it. The Cupids flew around the corner. There were six of them, hovering, soft pastel wings fluttering like lazy butterflies. The look in their eyes wasn't soft, it was cold.

  I flattened myself against the wall and screamed, "Leave me alone, you overweight cherubs!"

  They glanced at each other; maybe I had offended them. I hoped so. A Cupid with soft pink wings drew an arrow from behind his back. The rest of them hovered like chubby vultures.

  A man yelled, "In here!"

  I glanced to my right and found a door open and a man motioning to me. "Run for it," he said.

  I ran for it. I was almost to the door when my heel broke and sent me sprawling on the sidewalk. Something whirred over my head and thunked into the door. The white arrow vibrated in the door. White, the color of true love. Shit!

  A hand grabbed my arm and pulled me inside. I scrambled inside the shop on hands and knees, no time to be ladylike. A tall, broad-shouldered man closed the door and asked, "Are you all right?"

  I nodded, still sitting on the floor, staring at the arrow. It was already beginning to evaporate. In a few minutes it would be gone. No danger of us mere mortals getting hold of one of the arrows of love. Once fired they just didn't last.

  "What did I do to deserve white?" I asked, not really expecting an answer.

  "Are you over thirty?" the man asked.

  I thought that was a rather rude question from a stranger, but he had saved me. "Why do you ask?"

  "Because once you're over thirty the little things get pesky. I'm thirty-five and never been married. Something in a Cupid just can't stand that."