How Zombie Learned the Difference Between Obsession and Love by Colton Merris

I left bits of body and micro-letters on strips of skin at her wedding
. Some strips draped the backs of seats like coats.

One note: To the bride: Some things are better left buried; does your husband know what you carry?

I left every little bit about her.

The outdoor wedding gave the guests a view of kayakers slicing rifts into the river. Their oars cut the blue water like scalpels. Caterers guarded hors d’oeuvres: pigs in blankets, cucumbers rolled into thin tortillas, and cream cheese and sliced meats, all delicacies in soft coffins. Everywhere, always, guests said how good everything smelled and tasted.

Dead like I am, you can’t smell. Dead like I am, food turns to ash in your mouth.

Everyone else was all made-up, their faces painted and their bodies—whole and intact— tucked in suits and dresses. Everyone else kept themselves.

I lost a tooth talking to the bride’s father; the blackened bone loosened in quiet, sweat-palmed truths about what we failed to chew over. It fell mid-sentence. I told him how his daughter and I played chess. Passing pawns over glasses of merlot with painted nails, she would tell me I played like him. She would get turned on by how I sat when I thought, with my hands balled together into one, my lips pressed into my fingers and their ridges. 

My powdered nose fell. Maybe it was only the polite reflex of the not-yet-dead, but the bride’s father kneeled and scooped it from the grass. He pinched the pale nub until the cartilage popped. He offered it to me. 

I said, “I don’t need it anymore.” 

He shoved it into his jacket pocket and said, “It was nice seeing you again.” 

Until then, I failed to give any part of me to anyone other than her. From my neck, another strip of skin; it tore easy, slick and pulpy like an orange peel. I left this note on the father’s chair in front of the altar.

To the groom: Does she call you daddy too? 

Dogs followed me. I took my pocket square and hid the raw meat where my nose used to be. They scavenged my dropping teeth from the grass with measured laps. A woman called for them, but they ignored her. Even dogs know to stay with those who sustain us.

I brought the dogs to her. When she took my hand, she felt me up, her fingers awkwardly gardening past my palm and wrist, like I should have been a ghost. She pulled, and my right arm popped. She removed my hand and a portion of my wrist from my sleeve. This woman shared the bride’s oval face and arching nose.

The bride’s mother stared at the gnarled holes above my mouth, then at the hand she still gripped. She picked off the bits of cemetery soil and wood chips beneath my fingernails. She said, “Your hands are like ice!”

I told her about the first time we met. Once, in her house, back when I was not-yet-dead, she found me away. I stood by a series of photographs joined together within a spiraling, floral frame. She pointed and said, “Here are the ruins of a temple dedicated to Apollo, and here is us on the Turkish coast just outside of Assos. We used to live there.”

Another picture captured what remains of a man: a headless statue with its arms broken off at the shoulders. The stone man kept only his chest and, beneath his naval, a stub with testicles nesting in stone pubic hairs. 

I said, “Did a woman do that to him? At least she let him keep his penis.”

The bride’s mother turned red. 

My toothless grievances gummed and flecked off my decomposing tongue, down to the dogs and dirt. The irony, I explained, lisping, was how her daughter and I would sit across from each other on my mattress playing cards. She taught me so we could play as a family. She brought several decks, all of them belonging to mother dearest, and she’d give us each two sets of eleven cards, with five decks stacked on top of each other in the middle. She called the game hand and foot. I said, “The goal wath to be the firtht to rid yourthelf of your limbth.” 

Her brown eyes widened as the joints in my jaw wobbled. I moved my pocket square to hide the stretching, exposed tendons. She reached for her own eye while mine began to sag. She worked my disconnected hand. Worrying, wrist twisting over fingers, pressing her thumbs into my palm, pressing the knuckles, each finger broke off and plopped to the dirt and dogs.

She said, “It was nice to see you again” and left with a trail of me-crumbs, and the dogs followed.

I orange-peeled another strip off what was left of my wrist. I wrote: For the bride: Do you remember when you held that puppy, and asked me if you’d be a good mother? I lied. I laid this note over her mother’s seat in front of the altar. I tucked what was left of my arm into my pocket.

Dead like I am, there’s no way to make rot look casual.

Guests sequestered themselves in circles, looking between skin parchments, me, the bride, and back again. Imagine the Necronomicon as a collection of sticky notes. They made my decompositions look like a scavenger hunt.

The pianist played a Pixies song, that one with the piano that everyone knows. The hollows of my skull prickled, spaces where the bride and I played together, how she folded my hand over hers to guide it, warmed her chin on my shoulder and told me it’s how her mother taught her to play—the same way a father balances his child’s feet on his own when they dance.

The bride drank champagne with her friends. Between sips she twirled a gold chain around her neck. Even from where I was, it twinkled, blinded. The world split in half, half her, half the rising earth come to take me back. Or perhaps at that moment, my eye finally dropped from its socket. It hung from a foul cord, bouncing against my cheek. I struggled with the slick ball and string, trying to drop my eye back into its socket. It fell backward into my toothless, gaping mouth. It tasted like ash and formaldehyde. I tilted my head back to let the cord fall into place. 

At the end of the bride’s necklace was another eye, the blue evil eye. One late night, she took her necklace off and carefully wove it between my fingers. She patterned my hand with gold, and the blue eye, the evil eye, spun between us. “Promise me something,” she said. “Promise me you will love me more than our children. Promise me more than the promises my father made from the kitchen to my mother in the yard.”

The groom startled his bride about the shoulders. He gripped them like a steering wheel. She spilled red wine on her sundress, and his shirt. The veins in her neck throbbed, and she talked with her teeth. He talked with his palms up, flinching. She and her bridesmaids went to her tent.

The groom picked a chunk of skin off the bride’s seat. He mouthed words, one of them being buried. He looked at me.

I peeled my chest like duct tape. I penned: For the bride: Do you recycle terms of endearment? I’m asking if you also call him your future widower.

After a driver hits a pothole and loses control over black ice and hits someone with his supermassive, gas-guzzling SUV, sending the not-yet-dead tumbling, spinning into the snow, the body quickly replaces the cold with sticky, hot warmth. 

When the driver lifted me, my shattered ribs cut my insides like glass. His checkered shirt looked like a chessboard, spilled with pinot noir. He propped me against his knee and called 911. When he got off, the driver asked, “Is there someone else I can call, just in case?”

I gave him the bride’s number.

Perhaps my dismemberment was a product of knowing she had separated herself entirely from me. Not knowing-knowing but knowing in the way your body knows before you. The body makes its authority known only when needed. 

Even dead, the body needs what it knows.

In the inky nothing on nothing, it started with a crunching sound. A wet, slopping crunch, then another. A spade pried open my casket. The bride, before being the bride-of-another, bathed in moonlight, stood over me. She crawled into my casket, and the heat of the not-yet-dead passed to me. Warm lips pressed against mine, and her pulse passed through me. 

The most important sex you can have is goodbye sex. Good goodbye sex is just that, but even better goodbye sex is maybe I’ll see you again sex. La petite mort, but more. She closed her legs, took her vagina, and left.

How do other people manage to keep so much of us?

I sat in the back of the ceremony proper with the friends of friends and second cousins, all pinching their noses. The dogs were split down the middle: half were leashed to the bride’s mother, the other half to the groom’s mother. The dogs stared at me with big brown eyes, panting, drooling, waiting. 

I waited for what the bride would leave behind as she walked to the altar. I waited to see the lump bulge up from behind her white dress and expose itself in the grass. The big fear— what would ruin this wedding even more than me—was what would happen if the dogs got it.

A barefoot flower girl walked down the aisle with the ring bearer. She scattered pink petals from her basket, and with each scattering, she would stop and stoop down to recollect them. The bearer pressed on, occasionally picking his nose. Reflexively, like I was still alive, I reached to scratch mine and poked at the raw hole where my nose used to be. 

The girl stepped, scattered, stooped, and scooped. During one of her collections, she plucked a finger from the earth, then held it against the sun, studying it. She buried the finger beneath the flowers in her basket.

Everyone stood when the bride walked down the aisle with her father. When I tried to stand, my leg snapped. I stumbled and caught myself with my chin against the back of a metal fold-out chair. My dirty black loafer stood in the grass with a pale shin sticking out, skin scraps sailing like white flags. My jaw flexed and stretched, its pops and tears drowning out the piano.

Her father held her arm in his, and he fumbled in his suit pocket with his other hand, jostling and tumbling my nose in his fingers. When the bride reached the altar, everyone else sat while I stood like a decomposing flamingo. The priest told me to sit and the lower half of my face fell off before I could say anything.

La petite mort, but more. What I’d been waiting for fell from the bride. It lay in the sun like a shriveled slug attached to prunes. Second cousins, friends of friends, not-yet-dead grandparents pointed and gawked. The bride’s mother stood and turned. As soon as she did, the dogs leashed to the chair bolted, flipping the chair onto its side. Other dogs followed, pulling the groom’s mother to the ground.

The dogs wrapped around the outside and chased me. Hopping down the aisle, my other leg broke out from under me, sending me crashing, reaching with what was left of my arms. When they caught me, they played tug of war and split my slacks down the middle. They ripped out one of my stumps like a lizard’s tail, and this divorce gave me a minor escape, until they got the next limb. One arm from one shoulder, and then the other. They tore and snapped off my fingers, my ears. They threw my pieces everywhere until I lay even more helpless than that Turkish statue. Only then did someone call them off.

Without a jaw, I cried only in vowels. I cried and twisted my head until it rolled off my shoulders.

Hands—soft—pressed against my cheeks. They raised me from the ground to face the silhouette of an oval face and arching nose. Her touch—warm like coming home from a long walk in the rain and pressing my cheek against a hot cup of cocoa—was the first thing I’d felt since crawling out of my grave.

Cradling my head in her arms, the bride said, “It’s nice to see you again.” She held me so close her necklace itched my eyebrow.

I groaned.

The groom knelt by my torso. He asked, “Have we met?” and propped my torso against his knee, same as he did in the snow.

Between second cousins and friends of friends, bare feet and paws trampled grass. Tiny hands reached down and collected bits from the earth, racing lapping tongues. The flower girl raced the dogs for my leftovers. Whatever she didn’t bury beneath the petals in her basket, they ate.

The bride put my head on my shoulders. She said, “I’m sorry I didn’t come to the funeral. I’m sorry I waited so long to visit.”

The groom asked, “Is this what happens when you don’t let go?”  

If I had teeth, this wedding would’ve ended with another funeral. If the groom’s funeral were open casket, they’d have to hide his neck with bandages or an ascot.

The bride said, “Bring me his parts.”

A groomsman came forward, bearing an arm. After he popped it back into place, he placed a strip of skin on my chest.

The bride read, “To the groom: You can cry now or later, but you can never go back to cry when you needed to.”

Mashing my nose back into place, crooked, her father said, “I’ve got your nose.” He dropped his scrap of skin on my lap.

The ring bearer came, lugging a thigh over his shoulder. He plugged it into me. He read from the found scrap of skin, “To the groom: Do you know it’s over when you both fake orgasms, or are you a skilled denier too?” Pasting it on my leg, he asked, “What’s an orgasm?”

A bridesmaid set my other arm. Another strip of skin pasted below my navel.

The groom read, “For the bride: When your husband dies, how much of him will you keep?” The groom asked, “What does that mean?”

The bride fidgeted with her necklace. “Nothing,” she said. “It will mean nothing.”

One by one, the procession came and assembled me. Her mother with a hand and a foot, another bridesmaid with my shin and shoe. Even the dogs, with their tails between their legs, coughed up my teeth and ears.

Out there, away from everyone, orbiting, the flower girl scattered petals. She reached into the basket and threw them as high as she could. They came down like pink snow. She reached deeper and threw again, and again. With each scattering, bits of me flew into the sky and then pelted the earth. Fingers, skin scraps, and something . . . something bigger than a finger, something you never want to see in a flower girl’s hand. But thank God a dog didn’t choke on it.

Before I hobbled off to the flower girl to pick up my remains, the bride said, “Wait.” She took off her necklace and handed it to me.

I said, “I’ll be seeing you, someday.” I took the chain and patterned her palms in gold. 

Dead like I am, you learn to let go.

Colton Merris earned an honorable mention in the Oregon Writer’s Colony fiction contest with “How Zombie Learned the Difference between Obsession and Love.” He has been published in The Clackamas Literary Review (V. 25) with his piece, “Ashtray Divers” and in Pathos Literary Magazine: Fall 18-19 with his poem “After Chris Kalonji.” Colton Merris is currently earning his kitchen-table MFA under Chelsea Cain and Chuck Palahniuk.

Twitter: @ColtonMerris