I wrote this in 2012 for an anthology of short stories and flash fiction called “A Quick Bite of Flesh”, which is available at Amazon. This was my first paid publication, and I’m pretty proud of it. The horror genre was deep into the zombie fad at the time and you couldn’t swing a stick without hitting a zombie story. I wanted to tell a story about zombies without people being eaten or bioweapons or the end of the world.
Darlene had some fuzzy memories involving a canary from when she was very young. There was something about her mother and a little yellow canary that she couldn’t quite make sense of. Like most memories from youth, it was recorded by a brain that still had some trouble making sense of events, so all she had was a collection of snapshots, sounds, and a feeling of unpleasantness. She can see her mother cradling the little bird and putting it in a small box, like a shoebox. She can remember touching the canary, and how stiff it felt, before her mother put a lid on the box and picked it up. She can remember her mother gasping, lifting the lid off the box, dropping it, and screaming her way out of the room.
As a kid, they had a cat, Muppet, who got hit by a car. Darlene raised hell until her father let her help bury Muppet in a hole in the yard. She never saw her dad put the cat in the shoebox, so it didn’t surprise her when Muppet turned up later on that day. He looked a little…unsettled, but he had been involved in a traffic accident, Darlene thought. Darlene assumed he’d simply wandered off while still stunned from the accident, and that her father had buried an empty box so she wouldn’t think he was lost.
Muppet finally died later that day. Darlene’s father, who later swore he’d done no such thing, had gone out into the yard and put Muppet out of his misery with a shovel. Darlene watched from her bedroom window, sobbing. He was out of breath by the time he finally buried Muppet, so there must have been a lot of misery involved. Muppet was the last pet the family owned during Darlene’s childhood, despite some half-hearted pleas for a dog. By unspoken agreement, the family decided that they just weren’t a good fit for a pet, which, on reflection, Darlene thought was probably true.
Through a remarkable coincidence, Darlene’s grandmother happened to pass away the night before her parents surprised her with a trip to Disneyland. They made it back in time for the memorial service. It was held in a park. Darlene’s father held the ashes while she waited in the car.
Darlene’s teenage years were rough. Her mother, who had become very sick shortly after they’d returned from Disneyland, abandoned them shortly after Darlene’s fifteenth birthday. It was cancer, the doctors had said. The treatment process was hard, and didn’t seem very effective. For the last couple of weeks her mom had been around, she’d been bedridden, but she’d also gone out of her way to stay awake with Darlene and her dad. That was the hardest part—thinking that her mother was getting ready to run off even while she was kissing the tears off of her father’s cheeks.
She was angry, hurt, and filled with hormones, so Darlene dealt with the trauma in the way teenagers have since the dawn of time: rebellion. She went to parties where she drank booze stolen from the liquor cabinet of an absent parent. She wore too much makeup and flirted with boys. Black lace and safety pins eventually infiltrated every piece of clothing she owned. She even stopped being a vegetarian. Her father had fainted for some reason when she’d slapped a raw steak on the counter, but after that he was fine. He even gave up the vegetarian thing, too, which was nice.
Her grades had suffered a bit, and so she didn’t make it into the premed program she’d argued with her father about. As it turned out, it was a good thing she’d decided to go to an in-state school close to home. She was getting worried about her dad. The last time she’d come home to visit, she’d told him that she’d picked a major: mortuary science. He’d clutched his chest and fell over, and when he finally came to he wouldn’t say a word.
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