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Here's How It Happens

They bonded over zombies, while at a writers' convention. Perched on a settee near the hotel bar, she claimed legends of the undead spawned from historical fact, an ancient disease. He thought zombies would arise from hubris, like in a Stephen King novel. She was a biologist and amateur archaeologist, though, and he was a gentleman. He pretended to defer to her wisdom. But not until long after midnight, when everyone else had drifted off to bed.
Are you wondering if they have names, he and she? Perhaps you want to confirm this story isn't about you or someone you know. Allow me the veil of anonymity. Names aren't important here. This isn't a love story.
Woven into their debate, he confessed a love for Diana Wynne Jones books, and she sang "Careless Whisper" in a voice husky with whisky and a lingering cough. At first glance, you'd think them well-matched--two twenty-somethings, flushed with each other's company. But she was of middle age, married, and remember, this isn't a love story.
They were both writers: he accreting words on a novel, she stalled after a few early successes. When he mentioned his job as a freight truck driver, she swore she had a story that needed his expertise. Of course he'd help, he said, laughing. A handshake sealed the deal. Then her eyes grew unfocused, revealing a hidden depth of age. "Here's how it will happen," she said.
"In ten to fifteen years, after you've forgotten me while becoming the next Neil Gaiman, you'll get a manuscript from an unfamiliar address and a note saying, 'Tell me where it's wrong.'"
He grinned and shook his head. "I doubt I'm the next Gaiman. And I don't forget people."
She raised a finger from her whisky glass. "You'll be busy with deadlines and red carpets, so the manuscript will sit until a moment of boredom. The story--something about the undead--will reference Howl's Moving Castle and George Michael songs, reminders of this quirky woman you once met. You'll send the story back with corrections, imagining you'll reconnect with this forgotten friend. But you won't. Even after the story wins a major award."
"Nice. Shooting for the stars." He smiled and stretched, looking around the emptying bar. "So, you can see the future?"
She shook the cloudiness from her gaze. "Just a long experience with the past."
He didn't forget her. Not that first year.
Before they parted by the elevator, he'd emailed her his novel draft. By the time his flight home landed the next evening, she'd returned a critique illuminating where the story shone, so he saw instantly where it didn't. Afterwards he called her, sometimes daily, while his truck rolled over miles of tarmac, to discuss the book's problems or their own.
His novel sold quickly. Between edits and drafting the sequel, the phone calls dwindled. Then she went on an extended dig in Romania. The last time they talked, she was in the hospital, recovering from "a little nothing" she'd picked up mucking through dank catacombs.
The rest happened as she'd predicted.
He sat in his study twelve years later, head propped on one hand as he read her story. When he'd finished, his desk light shimmered on a face sheened with tears.
She'd threaded in everything they'd talked about that first evening. A long-dormant fungus that reanimated flesh, its discovery by a scientist researching eternal youth, the resulting zombie plague defeated by fire. His days hauling freight, the magical kingdom of Ingary, their love of Eighties' pop. Those weren't what tore his heart.
This isn't a love story, and neither was that story of hers. But how else to explain the loss that scarred the pages trembling in his hand, if it wasn't love she'd lost? The shelves of his books, the posters for film adaptations, were each now an accusation of guilt. He'd forgotten about her, but clearly, she hadn't forgotten him.
Guilt fumbled his hand from the phone whenever he tried to call. But when her story was nominated for that award, he went to the ceremony. As her win was announced, he scanned the crowd, unsure how she'd look after thirteen years. Silence drew his attention back to the podium. The presenter regretted the winner could not attend. She'd died the previous day.
By the time he reached her hometown, the funeral was over. A stranger opened the door at her house, impossibly weathered to be husband to the woman he remembered.
He'd come bearing her award statuette, which granted him access to the house and her basement lab, with its racks of mummified tissue samples and Petri dishes sprouting molds. Two walls held bookshelves of lab notes, biology texts, novels, and histories chronicling the mythology of the undead.
Her husband watched from the top of the stairs. "Burn it all, she said. Her life's work...."
Our hero froze. Her story's plot unreeled in his head, implications cold against the grief burning within. He sprinted upstairs. "Was she cremated?"
"She asked, but how could I?" Her husband collapsed against a chair. Photos of their life together covered the living room, forty years of history framing her beautiful, unchanging face.
At the local Wal-Mart, he bought a propane torch. He didn't know if it would help. Surely his suspicions were just a writer's imagination run wild. Twilight dimmed the cemetery paths, but the square of artificial grass was easy to find.
He stood by her grave and tried to predict what would come next. The police, the news--would they believe that he, author of make-believe monsters and unlikely heroes, was telling the truth? He spun variations of the story, to account for his presence in the graveyard, the burning of an unearthed corpse. Trying as always to retain the truth of the tale, as I've done--slanting the facts but only telling one lie.
Torch in hand, he pulled away the blanket of fake turf and waited for the earth to shift.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 18th, 2018

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