I watched from a distance as the boy, thin and lanky, approached the porch of the house. The sound of his footsteps, followed by the squeaks of old wood, rode the wind across the alley to reach my ears. I didn't recognize him. From what I could see of him--short haircut, baggy jeans, designer shoes--I assumed he was in his late teenage years. Yet these days, I knew assumptions meant nothing.
This one. This one was a work of art. Even from so far away, I could smell his freshness. I could imagine the smoothness of his skin, so clean and lacking the greasy consistency of so many bodies lately. His eyes would be bright, not glazed over. His breath would be sweet--free from the odor of decay. He slipped in the front door, unaware of my interest, and I turned back to my cup of coffee and morning newspaper.
The paper's black ink bled into the tan newsprint, distorting the words, making them illegible. I blinked, but my vision remained foggy. My thoughts insisted on turning to the boy and the house. The house and the boy. Somehow they seemed perfect for each other. Polar opposites. One, a decrepit old man who was wrinkled and falling apart, and the other, so new. Or maybe I was clinging to an analogy that described my hope that this perfect young man would be drawn to my wrinkly, old ass. I knew that hoping for things only left me empty handed, but the possibility made a dim future more bearable.
I finished my coffee and rinsed the cup as I stared across the alley. He passed in front of a window--only a second in my vision, but that moment clarified my next move. When I stepped outside, a strong gust of wind tousled my hair and tickled my scalp. Curiosity overcame any doubt. I walked with determination. Only when I knocked on the door did my stomach knot.
He answered the door and he was more than I could have imagined. I inhaled. His scent filled my nose. Humanity radiated from his pores. My first impulse was to touch his arm and see if the flesh sprang back, but I restrained myself. This boy was unaware of our strange customs, oblivious to our history. Too much immersion would drive him away.
"Can I help you?" he asked. His voice reminded me of smooth milk chocolate.
"I'm Eddie Lucas. I live across the alley here." I pointed behind me--a stupid gesture, but it was a brainless action. "Just thought I'd stop by and welcome you to town."
"Thank you," the boy said. He stepped aside, letting me step into the living room. He wasn't a city boy--convinced that the stranger on the doorstep would rather steal his television than share a conversation over a cup of tea--in fact, he possessed the trust more likely to be found in a farm kid.
The room was sparse, yet clean. Still, I felt a disturbing intuition overcoming me. The house had a history. One that couldn't be denied no matter how much we would rather believe such a tragedy couldn't happen. The events shaped the community and defined our rituals. But a house that, just moments ago, seemed so perfect for the beautiful youth, suddenly felt all wrong.
"You live here alone?" I asked.
"Unless you count the rats and the cockroaches, yeah, I do."
He smiled a wry smile and waved a hand toward a battered recliner, encouraging me to sit. When I did, the cushions sucked me in. The comfort was exquisite. Who would have thought that something so flawed could be a source of reassurance? Pain fled from my bones and sorrow escaped from its cage in my heart. In this house, in the presence of this boy, I could believe in tomorrow.
"So, what's your name?" I asked when I recovered from the unexpected relief the chair offered.
"Darius," he said.
The next day, I returned to work. My stomach balked when I smelled the sickly-sweet scent I'd grown accustomed to over the years. Subordinates brought me completed assignments and I counted three different smells from a variety of people: earthy, sweet and bitter. When my boss arrived, I was distinctly aware of the growths on his cheeks. I'd touched those growths before, and remembered the texture. It reminded me of touching a used candle. Even in the midst of passion, I considered the possibility of popping the clumps off his cheeks and returning his face to the handsome state I remembered from so many years ago. But I knew instinctively that acting on such an impulse would lead to his destruction.
It was the boy's doing. I knew Darius's presence was forcing me to consider how this town once thrived. How the scent of lilacs filled the air instead of decay. How people moved in fluid motions, unencumbered by putrefaction and muscle rigidity. I tried to deny that it was all falling apart. My mind focused on the citizens, told me that they lived--they thrived--despite the tragedy of our past. I needed to believe. Without the people, I would surely go insane.
But how could I deny what I saw as I passed my neighbors? How could I deny something I'd known all along, but managed to repress? The horror in the basement of the house stuck with me, and I knew I lost my mother and my sister there. As far as I knew, they still lingered there, mingling with the dirt. Yet, I couldn't remember why they died when so many others who were there that night survived.
Whether I was home or at work, in the shower or in bed, I thought of Darius. He'd turned eighteen three months earlier, and my mind thrilled at the possibility that he could become a part of my future. I returned to the house often to sit in that chair and ease my pains. My world began to revolve around the boy. He seeped beneath my skin and became a part of me. It shouldn't have surprised me; he was so full of life. I realized in those early days that his presence defined me. I even learned to appreciate the house again. To see the beauty in the cracks in the walls and the peeling paint. Somehow, he could make dirt tantalizing.
Our relationship grew and one evening, as we were sitting in his kitchen laughing and drinking screwdrivers, I reached across the table and pressed a finger into the skin of his forearm. The flesh sprang back and I nearly swooned. He was real. Not some shell of a person preserved in death and reanimated. No. He ate and drank with me. He was warm. I needed him.
Without speaking, we retreated to his bedroom. I'd forgotten how it felt to hold a live person--how warm the living could be. The pleasure he gave me that day completed me. It no longer mattered that we were living in a ghost town haunted by deformed specters. The years that I'd spent alone were worthwhile since they paved the way to him. Days later, he asked me to move in with him. I agreed.
Before long, Darius began asking questions. I tried to change the subject, but he persisted. He wasn't blind. He could smell the decay wafting from the people going about their business in the department stores and cleaning up the trash in the streets. The fading flesh and emerging wax on the faces of his customers at the auto body shop couldn't be explained away.
I settled into the recliner and told him the story of the house.
"I grew up in this town. Leaving has never been an option for me. Yet, I always seemed separate from the community. My family was close and I had my friends and lovers, but the secrets behind closed doors remained mysteries to me. The ignorance I saw as a curse may have saved my life," I said as I watched Darius for his reactions. He didn't move a single facial muscle, just sat and listened.
"People changed. It meant nothing to me; people always change. I continued with my life despite the strange occurrences. Mr. Horus, my next-door neighbor, disappeared for six months. Perhaps others went missing before and I just didn't realize it because they weren't part of my normal routine. But Mr. Horus was always part of my day. I would greet him in the morning when he stepped outside to grab his newspaper from the damp grass. We would share pleasantries whenever we passed each other. We weren't more than acquaintances, but given time, I'm sure a friendship would have developed.
"I reported him missing, but the police didn't seem interested. At the time, I figured he'd gone away on vacation and the cops were aware of his plans. After all, this is a small town. Despite the plausibility of that theory, I wondered why he hadn't shared his plans with me. When his absence failed to make the news, I assumed that Mr. Horus felt that his vacation was none of my business.
"Mr. Horus returned, but he was different. His face was plumper, his belly rounder. I couldn't help but notice the scent that he emitted. Sweet, but slightly rancid. His movements were jerky. A film covered his eyes, making him look stoned. He greeted me as usual, but it seemed forced.
"Over time, I became more observant. I saw the same changes in employees who vanished for the same six month period only to be rehired. When my boss returned from a similar leave, I knew something strange was happening. It bothered me to be left out of the loop, but it was nothing new. My mother left. My sister vanished. Although I kept expecting them to return, they never did. Before long only two people in town remained who were unchanged. Me and a woman I hardly knew.
"She was exhibiting the behaviors I'd seen in people before they disappeared. Over time I noticed the weight she was gaining. She walked with the single-mindedness of a woman on a mission. I chose to follow her. For two days I trailed her, making note of her every move. At the end of the second day, she slipped into the basement of this house. It was an abandoned building then, so the ease with which she opened the door seemed out of place. Once she was inside, I wiped dirt off one of the small windows and crouched so I could peer inside.
"The basement, lit by hundreds of candles, resembled the scene of human sacrifice. In the center of the small room, I noticed a rectangular pit filled with what I thought must be water. The dirt walls of the hole crumbled a bit as the woman moved past them. Despite the appearances that a ceremony was planned, the woman was alone. The flickering light distorted her features as she glanced around the room. Her eyes came to rest on something to her left and I followed her gaze. On a table and surrounded by candles was a small object which I immediately perceived as a sacrificial dagger, although it could have been nothing more than a standard kitchen knife.
"I watched as she picked up the dagger. Her movements demonstrated her determination. She took two steps toward the pit and stood at the base, facing away from it. Although her balance seemed to waver, she didn't fall in as I expected. Instead, her feet left the dirt floor and her body floated above the muddy water. As she lingered in the air, I couldn't see her facial expressions. I stared as she clutched the knife in both hands and raised it above her heart. When her arms brought the dagger down to pierce her skin, she plummeted to the watery grave below.
"The sound of her splash sent me running. I'd never seen anything so horrible in my life. Her clinical approach to her own suicide sent my heart racing and twisted my stomach into knots. Had this been the reason for the change I'd seen in my friends and neighbors? I couldn't deny my suspicion that she would arrive in six months, all chubby cheeks and putrid scent, slipping back into her normal life as though she'd never left--never died. When I returned exactly half a year later, my theory was confirmed. She climbed from the grave still holding the knife that killed her.
"I couldn't leave, despite the fact that I knew what type of being populated the town. I eased my loneliness with an affair with another neighbor, a tall man named Michael. The strength of the stench faded over time, eased by Michael's continual proximity. Life continued, altered but similar. After an evening together, he told me why he'd fallen into the pool.
"'I heard people talking,' he told me, 'about a place in town where a person could go to die and be resurrected an immortal. At first I thought nothing of it, but as I overheard more conversations and saw the alterations, I believed. When I asked, I was told to go to the abandoned property in the center of town. The guy said I could get into the basement without going through the house. The door would be open.
"'Then, he told me that people with more fat were more likely to experience the resurrection than trim people.' He glanced at me, confirming that I understood, then moved on. 'After the death, the process takes about six months. The power of the water preserves the body keeping it whole while the magic begins to work. I remember waking up in the water and the brief moment of panic before I realized I didn't need to breathe.'
"I understood. My lover wasn't human. He didn't possess the eroticism associated with vampirism or the brainless bloodlust associated with zombies. Instead, he wandered through life without fear and was spared the hassle of eating and drinking. For a moment, I was tempted to give in. To fall into the pool and join the rest of the town in immortality. Then, the growths began to form.
"I watched the bumps develop on Michael's face. Watched as his flesh peeled away, revealing that waxy substance that soon became just another taste--another sensation--while I shared my body with another. I began to crave a lover with warmth. The affection of a human who could ease the chill in my bones as the wind raced past our bedroom window. Michael's touch became an irritation and I left him. I pass him from time to time, but any affection we had for each other has faded."
I looked at Darius, taking in the glow in his eyes and the smooth skin on his face. "I've had other lovers since Michael. Other affairs with those who fell into the pool. Yet, I can't maintain the relationship. I lose interest. I need someone warm--someone fresh--someone like you."
Darius said nothing after I finished the story and we went about our day. He seemed to distance himself from me and at times I got the feeling I disgusted him. When I tried to learn the reason for his cold interactions with me, he shrugged it off. As the days passed, he began fixing more elaborate meals and eating almost constantly.
I should have known.
A month later, Darius disappeared. I calculated that he was around thirty pounds heavier--enough to help ensure his resurrection. The correlation made sense to me when I remembered how skinny my mother and sister had been.
I wait in our house. Six months has taken years to pass, but tomorrow I'll go down to the basement to greet him. I want to be the first person he sees when he emerges. I want to see if his adipocere retains the sweetness once contained in his living flesh.