What would you do if you woke up one day to realise your significant other had been zombiefied?
I should have known I wouldn’t have been able to get away with it.
‘Charlie, that’s the fifth fag you’ve had in as many minutes! What’s the matter?’ Laura demanded. I glanced up, and saw that she had turned her face to mine to get a better view. Her eyes looked greener and harder in daylight. Bitch.
‘So?’ Jutting over, lighter sparking in one hand, fiddly roll of tobacco in the other, I freed myself of the bother of maintaining that light tone I had been straining to impose on my voice since I stepped into the office six hours ago.
‘What’s going on?’
I couldn’t get the gas to light. I was probably being far too vigorous with the wheel mechanism. But the heartbeat rasp of skin on metal, the dim warm sensation in my hands, these things brought me comfort. My hair flopped forward. I should get it cut. Maybe then… All I could see was the pink of my palms, the steady stabbing movement of my thumb joint…
My left wrist buckled, falling under the weight of what I now saw to be Laura’s copper-clawed hand. She had batted my arm away. Everything I had been holding tumbled to the floor – pack, lighter, cigarettes.
‘Charlie – ’
‘Alan’s been acting strangely,’ I blurted, ducking down to retrieve, scrabbling dirt into my nails in haste. I felt my eyeballs twinge. I blinked twice, and then again.
Laura shifted her weight to her other leg, produced a lit fag from somewhere about her person and thrust it in my hand as soon as I saw fit to rise. I let the hot smoke crinkle the inside of my mouth.
‘Trouble in paradise?’ She nodded at me, peaks of yellow hair glistening in the afternoon dusk.
I had been silent for too long. I had lost all powers of discernment. I told her everything…
I admit it; I’m no expert when it comes to the opposite sex. Alan’s the only serious boyfriend I’ve ever had, I’ve no brothers or anything... Who am I to say what’s normal and what’s not? But I know him. For Christ’s sake we’ve been living together a year! We’ve been friends since sixth form! I know what he’s like. And these past two months – he’s been a changed man.
It started with the accident at work. You just don’t expect it to happen to you, do you? He came home, brown suit rumpled by the stress of it, bandaged round the middle. I leapt from the sofa, guilty for not having known, not having done something. Will and Grace yammered on at my back like a call to prayer. It’s nothing, he said. Bed rest, he said. Don’t worry. As we struggled up the stairs I suggested tomato soup. He insisted on chicken.
Bathing his wound – a strange, round hole with crenellated edges, mottled grey and pink – I reflect. He’s always been a bit quiet, but not silent, not like this. His chest hardly quivers. The books at his side have not been thought of, last Tuesday’s Kakuro suspended, incomplete. Should I check for a pulse? No, don’t be ridiculous.
I wonder – is it me? I lift the mirror off its hook on the wall and lean it against the laundry bin, angled upward so I can see most of myself in it. Is he… is he regretting me, regretting us? I smooth my new jeans over my thighs. I too have changed. My mouth never used to lie drooping like that. When did I start chewing my nails? I should get a makeover. The magazine guides me. I savour the glossy nap of each page. Later, I go shopping.
I am feeding him. Beefsteak and chips, soul food. Each piece is pre-cut. His hunger makes him obedient. He snaps each piece off the fork and chews it with a diligence few children possess. Nothing falls. I no longer remember to bring napkins up in case. For some reason I pause, not bringing the fork back to the plate as quickly as I usually do, dangling my wrist at eye level. His jaws widen, and he snaps again, and again. I gasp and clatter the metal down. His face flushes with something like pain, something like disgust. It is too fleeting to tell.
Shooting off some dull excuse, I left work early that day, the memory of Laura’s parting words shuttling though my head like rocket-powered pinballs. Well, she’s a dried-up old hag anyway, couldn’t get a man for love nor money, twice-divorced spinster cow... Emerging from the car, I noticed the peculiar smudged look of the sky, as if a thousand hands had tried to strike the colour from it. A stupid thought entered my mind. I recall its stupidity well. ‘I should wash my hair tonight, it looks like rain… the water had better be on...’
I found the corpse under the blanket, Alan cradling it to his chest. A snake of crimson wreathed his lips.