“Can’t believe I didn’t see this coming,” Priscilla said, shaking her head. “She was always so … alive.”
I nodded and pistoned my straw into my pumpkin latte, the plastic squeaking. I hadn’t ordered low-cal even though my boyfriend was always telling me to lose weight. The scent of cinnamon laced the air as a redheaded man in a wheelchair wheeled toward Cinnabun Sins.
“There were indications,” Priscilla went on. “That terrible case of pneumonia.”
I nodded, set down my straw, popped off the plastic lid, and clapped the cup on the table to collect the whipped cream. “Close call,” I said.
“But she survived.” Priscilla leaned toward me across the table, her brown eyes taking on a hard copper glint. “Hooked up to those tubes, so pale. Grinning like a maniac.” She leaned away and continued in a foggy voice. “But she seemed disappointed, too. Like she’d flubbed a dream job interview.”
I tipped back the cup to my mouth for the last sweet clumps and glanced over at some teens in heavy black eyeliner. They were tangling their arms and legs in the primary-colored stair rails. Then I remembered. “That time she broke her arm taking care of the old lady Hawkins. She kept taking it out of the sling.” An espresso machine was firing, so I had to raise my voice. “She would dangle the broken bones at weird angles.” I shook my head. “She really knew how to freak” — here the espresso machine quit, and my voice shot over the high metal rafters — “us out! Enough with the severed body parts!”
Two old ladies at the next table blinked at me, faces blank over small black coffees. “We kept telling her to put her arm back,” I finished quietly.
“She never took anything seriously.” Priscilla propped a thin elbow on the table and rested her delicate chin in her hand. Brown curls with permed bleached-blond tips fell to her shoulders like frizzy question marks. She had forgotten her herbal tea.
I took a final slurp of my drink and felt a sploosh of whipped cream on my face. If Daphne were here, she’d be laughing. Can’t you keep your little pug nose clean?
Daphne was always fixing some mess of mine. She repaired a broken water pump in my car, the squeaky hinges of my front door, and my leaky kitchen faucet. As my boyfriend was always pointing out, I was not mechanically minded. There was the time my Hyundai was making a weird, unearthly sound and I called Daphne in a panic. She rode two blocks and erupted into guffaws. “That’s not your engine, Squeezix” — her twist on my name, Susanna — as she reached into the back seat. “It’s your iPod.” Earphones dangling, the device had been buried under a Holy Hill Camp sweatshirt and a Goodwill shopping bag. “It’s Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
We hadn’t laughed together for ages. It had been a weird year. The space shuttle exploded with a teacher on board. My little brother in the Marines was sent to Iraq. Parker took most of my time.
Priscilla and I could do nothing but brood in a stuffy food court on an unseasonably warm October day. “Nothing will ever be the same,” I said quietly. “Not for Daphne.” But I was thinking about me.
I wiped the whipped cream off my nose; Priscilla was gazing mournfully and hadn’t noticed. She tipped onto both elbows. “What I don’t understand is,” she said, “what is Daphne about? Now? As a person?”
“She has her sense of humor,” I offered.
Pris tapped her chin with a French-manicured nail. “True. She kept a couple costumes from her collection. And she’s got her motorcycle. The engine’s coughing, but it works. That’s about it. Everything else she gave up. When they said you can’t take it with you, they only meant 95 percent.”
“Do you think she could have gone the other way …?” I asked. “You know, just stayed a regular dead person … if she really wanted to?”
Priscilla thrust her chin into the air. “I have to believe it was a choice.”
I felt guilty this was such a big deal for us. But now Priscilla had an interesting problem.
“I hope she doesn’t want to be in the wedding anymore,” she sighed. The redheaded man was rolling down the ramp with a pink box of cinnamon rolls. I was craving a cinnamon roll.
“It’s something to consider.”
“I don’t know what to tell her,” said Priscilla. “I never officially asked her to be maid of honor. We both, you know, assumed.”
“Best friends for six years,” I said.
“Ten.” Priscilla’s voice echoed among the metal rafters. She wrapped slim brown hands around her tea. She moved her head in the direction of the window. No view except a fire escape of painted steel. “It would be weird,” she said, “for everyone. It’s going to look — and smell — bad. Loose bandages falling all over the aisle, tripping up the ring bearer and the flower girl. Sticky, rotting flesh. Fred has allergies. We’d have to turn up the air conditioning. In November.”
“Weeks away,” I said.
“Twenty-nine days,” she said.
Pris had gotten advice from everyone on her marriage, from premarital counselors to financial planners. She was now bereft of a maid of honor. Would I have handled it so well?
She picked up her herbal tea and took a sip. She didn’t look stressed. Except for the twitch above her carefully tweezed left eyebrow.
As for the Change, neither Priscilla nor I knew how it had happened; none of our friends knew, and no one dared ask. The only certainty was that last year on May 23, Daphne was in an accident involving a neighbor’s dog and a freak surgical reaction. Priscilla and I raced to the hospital, but we weren’t allowed into Intensive Care.
Daphne’s frantic mother filled us in between hand-wringing. That horrible, crazy rottweiler had gotten loose from the apartment upstairs and torn Daphne’s arms and hands, which she’d thrown to her neck to protect her jugular. Awful. The surgery was supposed to patch her up though. Supposed to.
No one knew about her fatal allergy to anesthesia. An hour later, Daphne was dead.
Priscilla and I had gone home in shock, just about ready to break down into real tears when Priscilla’s Motorola rang. It was Daphne. We put her on speaker, stunned. Yes, Daphne explained, she was really dead, but feeling more comfortable in her own skin than ever before. “It’s like — this is the body I’ve been waiting for all my life!” she said.
Priscilla and I looked at each other in bewilderment. Were we excited? Disbelieving? Freaked out? We didn’t know what to think. We sat together for 20 minutes in morgue-silence. Finally, Priscilla stood up, reaching for her keys. “I’ve got grocery shopping to do,” she said. “I’m going to take this one step at a time.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I agreed.
No further word from the unearthly Daphne for two days. Then a text message: “Breakfast. Igor’s Pancake House. Sunday afternoon.” And a smiley emoticon with a p for a tongue sticking out.
Sunday morning, taking our places left fourth pew, middle, we looked around with faint hope that Daphne would join us at Holy Hill Community. No such luck. Priscilla turned to me with a sad smile. “If it really is Daphne talking to us — wouldn’t she be here this morning?”
As we left the parking lot, Priscilla pulled her shiny blue Camry alongside my dented Hyundai and powered down her window. “Still want to go?”
“What have we got to lose?” I shrugged.
Priscilla tapped the window ledge. “Our self-respect.”
That word hovered above my head as I drove to the restaurant. What did Daphne’s life — or lack thereof — have to do with our self-respect? Was I capable of allowing Daphne the freedom to make her own choices? Sometimes, after a night out with Parker, I questioned whether I had in any kind of relationship.
This was my first experience with someone close to me choosing a different deathstyle. I had a lot to learn.
“Thing is,” I said, when I met Priscilla in Igor’s parking lot, “I’m dying to know if she’s really still with us.”
I followed Priscilla inside, and there, in our favorite booth, grinning over the plastic daisies, was the face we knew and loved.
Or what was left of it.
There was a bandage around Daphne’s head, soaked with deep brown-crimson. Her hair was translucent in places, razored into a feather-thin bob. Her eyelids were a mottled red and white, sinking under pockets of air.
“Hey chicky babies,” she said.
We met for breakfast a couple Tuesdays in a row. Then it was six weeks. There wasn’t a lot we enjoyed doing together anymore. Yoga was out of the question — “My body parts don’t stretch,” Daphne said. “They just twist off, like sausages.” She wasn’t interested in seeing old friends, or going to music venues, or hiking our favorite hikes. And for sure, Daphne wasn’t comfortable at Holy Hill. “But there are places that welcome me,” she told us, “Not every institution is narrow-minded.”
Priscilla and I exchanged a look and then dropped our eyes.
It was the last time we met for breakfast.
I didn’t know what Priscilla was feeling, but deep down I had to admit that I was driving squarely in the middle of my institution’s narrow lane.
“I’ve talked to Pastor Heimlich,” Priscilla said suddenly, after the espresso machine went on and off again. “He said that Daphne has been overcome by temptation. What she thinks she’s experiencing is a delusion.”
I squinted an eye. “Huh? That makes no sense.”
“And that …” She hesitated, biting her lip as if to hold back news I wouldn’t like.
“Say it,” I said.
“Well, that if she doesn’t repent, she’s bound for hell,” said Priscilla. “Dead people don’t belong in heaven.”
“I’m not convinced he knows that much about it,” I said. “Aren’t Catholic priests supposed to be the experts, rather than ministers like Pastor Heimlich? I mean, you’d never use a nondenominational pastor for an exorcism or vampire-killing. Pastor Heimlich never even wears black.”
“Maybe Shanta will shed some insight.” Our yoga teacher was always inspiring.
“By the way.” Priscilla tapped her glossed lips with a fingertip. “I keep remembering things.”
We went over the afternoon of Daphne’s death. Priscilla reminded me about a girl in the waiting room. She was wearing what looked like 13 ballerina skirts, layered on top of each other, in ice cream colors. “When she stood up, her legs were covered with gaping, white flesh, like the scales of a spawned salmon.
“I was sure I’d seen her before,” she said.
“At the hospital,” I said. “That first time, when Daphne had pneumonia? The ballerina was there. And the gangly boy going into the emergency room with the Adam’s apple bigger than his broken nose. And there were others, who may or may not have been there on Daphne’s final day.” I recalled an old man in an old-fashioned brown suit. “He looked like a chimney sweep. Soot rising around each step he took. But as he crossed the room to change magazines, he shortened, the way a stick of charcoal shrinks as you use it.”
“All three of them,” added Priscilla, “had the oddest coloring. Absolutely gray.”
Besides discussing our memories, we talked to friends over the next few weeks, seeking to manipulate ourselves into understanding. While Priscilla’s theory had to do with the waiting room visitors working strange powers on Daphne, Terri’s theory involved the dusty books with thin, crinkly pages we found on Daphne’s bedroom shelf: How to Be UnDead, Afterlife or Afterdeath? and Zombieism: The Extreme Alternative. They were bookended innocently by Bible Devotions for the Single Woman and Liqueur Confections Fast and Easy. “I think she’s been dabbling with these ideas for quite a while,” Terri had said.
What could we do now? I felt helpless to help Priscilla. Let alone Daphne.
On Saturday, Priscilla met me outside the yoga studio, mat tucked under her arm. We cast a look at the sidewalk corner, where Daphne used to practice handstands before class in broad daylight, with a daisy-brimmed straw hat. Hat in her toes, she’d pop her feet into the air. I gave an involuntary shudder, remembering those gray shrunken toes in Daphne’s flip-flops the last time I saw her.
“I can’t help thinking,” said Priscilla, “she has new friends now. Places where she belongs.” She heaved a sigh. I felt my stomach twist, and it wasn’t about the gray toes. It wasn’t because I’d eaten only limp, measly salads all day. I was disappointed in life, and in us.
“I just don’t understand,” said Priscilla, shaking her head.
I shifted my rolled mat to my other shoulder. As if these things could be explained. Could they?
There was the temptation to diagnose, to manage change. Even if her life — death — wasn’t ours to interfere with.
We stood and watched a hand move the fluttery white curtain over the yoga studio door. The last time I saw Daphne, her hand was in a sling just to keep fingers from falling onto the sidewalk. Shanti’s hand turned the sign from Closed to Open and we walked in.
An hour later, as we lay on our mats in Vipassana, Shanti spoke a line from Rumi: “This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.”
As Priscilla and I walked out, I stood on tiptoes to reach her ear and whispered, “Without feet.”
“Or at least half her toes,” she countered. “Time for the next step.”
So, Pris invited Daphne to her shower. Still no word on maid of honor choice. We gathered in the living room of the future sister-in-law. When Daphne walked in, it was a shock to all of us.
She was thin. In spots. Only in spots. Her left arm had thinned much more quickly than her right and was shedding rapidly. I noticed the flakes and shreds sifting through the air and landing on the carpet, and wondered whether this would be tactfully cleaned up, or whether Min would just ignore it until Daphne had left. There was a second bandage around Daphne’s head, crossing the first, covering her left ear. From what we could see, there was no hair, only random patches, long and thin. She used to have such beautiful hair! Her head jerked a bit. Black gashes and scrapes traced forearms, shins. She wore a T-shirt, some undefinable sort of throw, short flowered pants. Flip flops notwithstanding, her toes were now black flesh stubs. With each flop, small chunks spattered into the air. Her skin was white. It made me sick to my stomach. Her dark eyes were ringed with graying purple. Her tongue was red and bloody, the only bright color in her face when she spoke. She dangled and dragged through the room, setting down the jug of iced tea she had brought.
This had happened. So fast.
“Hey chicky babies,” said Daphne. “Pris. Terrier. Minute. Fee.” She addressed everyone with names she’d dubbed.
“How was the drive from Grave’s End?” asked Terri, looking more-alive-than-thou with her shimmery pink lip gloss. In pink capris pants, she fussed with her fat pink purse for a minute, then set it on the floor. She attempted a smile which turned out rather small and prunish.
“Great! I can pretty much ride my cycle as fast as I want now,” said Daphne. “Cops ignore you — especially the ones working graveyard.”
“Great,” everyone chimed, pretending to be enthusiastic.
“Can I take your … wrap?” Min asked, suddenly appearing. She flipped back her iron-straightened black hair and stood with one hand outstretched. She looked puzzled at the brown furry thing touching Daphne’s neck.
“It’s a mole,” said Daphne. She nodded toward the dead animal on her shoulder. “Really only big enough to be an earmuff. But I have this exposed shoulder bone. Gets cold. Wearing a fur is sort of retro.”
Fiona took the slightest pause, almost a throat-clearing, before asking in a controlled voice, “Mole?”
“They dig graves all the time,” said Daphne. “Craziest thing! Sometimes they exhume bones or tunnel up against steel and have no idea what’s going on. The very old coffins are wood, see, and the moles have a heyday getting in there.”
There was the first of many awkward silences. Beyond the kitchen doorway was a soft clatter, and I could see the flutter of a wan girl in gauzy pink garb, one of the caterers. Something familiar about her I couldn’t put my finger on.
“So,” Jennifer finally said. “What do you do for fun these days?” She leaned slightly away from Daphne, her legs crossed in crisp jeans, her lime-ginger mocktail in hand.
Daphne took her seat in the overstuffed chair and reached for a petit fours. Horrified, we all pretended to ignore the flesh chunk that hung over the platter threateningly, until it finally broke off and spattered the fabric arm. “Day-wise, not much. I mix drinks. You wouldn’t believe what you can make with embalming chemicals. At night there are people to meet. New to the complex,” said Daphne. “Fun showing them around. They’re always disoriented. I like to feel I can make my death of use to someone.”
“That’s great,” said Blaine. “You were always so service-minded. We could’ve used you at the Garden Bazaar.”
We all forced a smile, remembering the dismal occasion of this year’s Holy Hill Community Church Garden Bazaar — the tables in long rows sitting quietly and clean in the Sunday sunshine, and a handful of bored, orderly visitors moving in straight lines. In previous years Daphne’s schemes had kept us in stitches. Once she hauled out for sale various handmade items from her grandmother’s attic. There was a lace crochet toilet paper holder, dispensing Charmin. She created a display, complete with miniature toilet. Filled with water. Tinged yellow with food coloring. Another year, Daphne wore one of her costumes, the Jolly Green Giant, and gave out samples of her Aunt Virginia’s pickled asparagus. But we knew Daphne would never again be on that list of bazaar volunteers. Blaine’s words were just politeness.
And Priscilla still hadn’t plugged the hole in the wedding party.
I glanced out the window at the redhaired driver of the catering van, who sat at the wheel, reading a book. Min stood up. “Forgot to grab the gruyere artichoke dip.” She walked out.
Not a word of our dark thoughts did we breathe. We nibbled and sipped refreshments. I felt a jolt of joy when I saw the pink box of cinnamon buns and was reaching for one when Daphne spoke.
“Squeezix. You’ve gained weight. You look like a normal healthy person now.”
I shrugged, feeling warmth in my cheeks, strangely pleased. It was hard staying skinny for Parker. I surprised myself, rolled up my blouse sleeve and flexed my muscle.
“Whoa!” said Daphne. “Look at you!”
“Yoga strength poses.” I blushed.
She wanted to hear about my boyfriend and listened, nodding. When I told her about quitting choir and taking up vegetarianism for Parker, she frowned. “Did you ever think of staying you?”
The way she said it was a gentle breeze. Despite the rank odor. For a moment, I didn’t see the gaping holes in her gums, or the green fluid dripping from one sliver-thin incisor. It felt good to be heard. For a little while I forgot Daphne had changed at all.
And then Blaine got to talking. How she and Charlie, her soon-to-be husband, were signing up for Somalia on the Holy Hill Mission Team. Daphne smiled. “That’s great.” She wiped a petit fours crumb from her mouth, and some lip went with it. “I used to want to be a missionary.”
The discussion continued about youth group days. Such innocent dreamers. Zealots, the holy of Holy Hill Community. But what were we now? Now that we were trying to fix Priscilla’s wedding? Even graver was the question of the destination of Daphne’s soul.
Priscilla tapped my elbow, pulled me into the hall. “It’s all come back to me,” she whispered. “Who Daphne really is. What she means to me. I’m going to ask her. Fred has to understand. I don’t care what’s happened, or what these ladies have to say about it.”
Something warm and sweet melted inside me, like caramel on my last ice cream sundae — 26 days ago, not that I was counting.
Returning to the room, I was lost in the pleasure of Priscilla and Daphne. I could forget theology or propriety. There is nothing like being with your crazy, fun, never-again-in-a-lifetime friends.
Then I saw the blood.
Priscilla had a deep stain darkening the shoulder of her blouse. Red blood — much redder and fresher than Daphne’s anyway — trickled down the length of Priscilla’s arm, along her elbow, into her fingers.
“Oh no,” I gaped. “What did you do?”
“I have no idea,” Priscilla choked. Someone handed her a stack of cocktail napkins. There was no gash or incision. “It doesn’t hurt,” says Priscilla. “It’s the strangest thing.” She stood up slowly, wiping the stream, staining her arm muddy red.
Daphne was uncharacteristically silent. She looked over at Priscilla, took in the sight of the arm, and looked back at her drink, taking a sip.
“Maybe you burst a blood vessel?” wondered Blaine.
“Sorry about the carpet,” said Priscilla, taking a step back, avoiding the red puddle she was making on the floor. “Guess I’d better check this out. I’ll just drive myself to the emergency room.”
“No,” I interrupted. “I’ll take you. I’ll — ” And then I began to disappear.
“Ohmygosh,” said Jennifer, jaw dropping. She bit her lip and pointed to my wrist.
My left hand was translucent, ghostly. Maybe it was a trick of the light. I shook it, hard. “I don’t under— ” I wiggled my fingers, held them up. Now my forearm paled. I stood up shakily. “Something is … wrong,” was all I could manage.
Then Min let out a weird wail. She opened her mouth wide. With the next line, a white, milky liquid poured out of her mouth. “Wha — ” she said, “wha – da – hmph?” her words were muffled by the eery waterfall that flowed thick and chalky from her throat onto her chest.
I looked at Fiona. Hair by hair, Fiona’s short, blond locks were twisting off, crumbling around her feet, as if consumed by flame.
Each girl stood, one by one, and inspected herself in horror, finding some monstrosity. Only Daphne sat calmly sipping her drink, pulling close her mole stole.
Fiona gritted her teeth and turned on Daphne. “What did you do to us?” she demanded in a harsh whisper. “Why are we becoming monsters?”
Daphne shook her head. “I may be a zombie, but that doesn’t mean I would put curses on my friends.”
“What did you do?” Jennifer said, her last word becoming a shriek.
All bets were off now, and all politeness and respect for Daphne were fading fast. We just wanted to get away — far away from there. How could I defend against this? What was Pastor Heimlich’s phone number? My elbow had faded almost completely now, and I could no longer see my hand or forearm.
“Get me outta here!” said Blaine, who was growing long, noodle-like tentacles from her middle. They burst through her shirt and spread, inch by inch, trailing the floor.
“I’m going to be sick,” said Fiona.
And then I saw the faces in the kitchen doorway. There was the girl in ballerina skirts with the chafing legs, standing hands on hips. The chimney-sweep man, leaning against a door jamb, rubbing his chin thoughtfully (while it sloughed off, onto the floor). They were grinning, slack jawed. Through the kitchen was the open door and the catering van rumbling in the driveway, the redhaired man at the wheel.
I flew out the door toward him. “What’s going on?” He dropped his arm — but not completely — over the edge of the open window, holding his book. Two fingers were missing from his hand. There was a passenger in the back seat, a skinny young man with a neck goiter.
“We don’t like your attitude,” said the skinny young man, leaning forward. “Daphne’s one of us. And we’re going to make sure you don’t pull her back into your world ever again.”
In a flash — or a lurch — Daphne stood behind me. “Oswald,” she said. “I know you mean well, but you are as narrow-minded as the other side.” She rolled her eyes, and it was such a stress to her eyeballs that they remained white for several seconds. She bent down, still white-eyed, and picked up the book the red-headed man had dropped: Afterlife or Afterdeath? She shook her head. “Chester,” she said sadly, “don’t use these spells on my friends.”
“Amelia!” she called. “Reynolds!” The would-be ballerina and chimney sweep hauled, scraped, and scissor-stepped their way to the van. Daphne shook her head. Something tiny and oozy — a worm perhaps — flew wriggling from her ear. “Really!” she said. “I expected better of you.” All the zombies hung their heads, their holey bottom lips protruding as they stood abashed.
Daphne shambled to the kitchen, and after a clatter, came out with iced tea. “Special formula,” she said, “hibiscus and formaldehyde.” We stared at each other a moment, gobsmacked, and not knowing what else to do, took the glasses from her. Daphne stood at the front of the room and raised her oddball arms, whispering an incantation to reverse premature deadness.
Half the words, and all the names, were made up. “ — and Squeezix,” she finished.
In the case of all the party guests, the death and decay had been premature.
After the first sip, I held my glass in my left hand while my right glowed into view again, elbow to wrist to hand. Bit by bit, around the room, limbs regrew, spines straightened, tentacles retracted, and my own fingertips reappeared, solid and plump as ever.
Daphne’s friends had their own pew at the wedding. They groaned and shivered at all the places in the ceremony where everyone else sighed and clapped, but the wedding was a smashing success. Who knew that Daphne’s Hazmat costume could be the answer to all our problems? It contained her perfectly.
True, there was extra cleanup afterward, but I considered it a joy. I rewarded myself by cutting an extra slice of white chocolate strawberry wedding cake, taking a break while Daphne and I mopped, scrubbed, and disinfected.
I smiled as a cake crumb dropped onto my silk scarf. My little brother was coming home for Thanksgiving. The stars were emerging in the late Autumn sky. I’d dumped Parker the week before. I was feeling more alive than ever.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now