By Jeremy C. Shipp

Say you’re lost in the hustle-bustle of the local farmer’s market in search of some shiny bibelot for your girlfriend, and you find your mother mouth-to-mouth with a man who isn’t your father. In fact, he’s nothing like your father. He’s skinny and shaggy and short. You tell yourself that if he at least looked like your father, you could stomach the scene. Deep down you know that’s not true.

And maybe that’s not how it happens. Maybe you track her down. Maybe you climb the fruitless mulberry in front of their house and that’s how you cut your leg. Maybe you bought yourself some night-vision goggles off of eBay. Maybe you’re watching and waiting, and when you finally do see them together, in their bedroom, naked, you drop a bomb of vomit onto an unsuspecting yard gnome below.

You think, Get your fucking hands off my mother.

But she’s not your mother, is she? She used to be. Before she moved in here. Before she changed her name. Before the funeral.

Say this was your mother, and this is your life. You’d be here too, like me. You’d hear about Porter from a friend of a friend, and you’d show up at his doorstep with a hundred bucks and a wrenching knot in your gut.

Porter opens the door. “Yeah?”

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

“You’re Hadley?” he says.

“Yeah.”

“All right. Come in.”

I follow him inside. My mind spins, but I still notice that his home is a shitty place. Every step, my feet crunch down on trash and squish on soggy carpet. Lines of duct tape patch a few holes in the wall, but most are left gaping. I stop breathing through my nose before I have time to identity the sour stench assaulting the air.

He takes me to an empty room. At this point, the walls are more hole than wall. Under more relaxed circumstances I would crack up over such irony as the tarp on the floor, but I’m more in the mood for weeping.

“You brought the money?” he says.

I nod and hand him the bill.

He gives it back. “Not until after.”

“Oh.”

He takes another look at the money. “That’s a hundred dollar bill, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen one before. In person, I mean.”

“Oh.” I stuff the thing in my pocket, almost violently.

“Should I get undressed?” he says, and starts for his belt.

“I’m not here for…that.”

“I know, man.” He grins. “Just some people like me naked when they’re doing it. I don’t mind either way.”

I consider this. “Keep your clothes.” Part of me, though, wants to give the other answer. The thought makes me shudder.

“Whatever floats your boat.” He kneels. “Whenever you’re ready.”

I take a step forward, and then pause. “Is this going to hurt you?”

“Fuck, man, what do you care?”

“I care.”

“You say that now. Let’s see if you ask me again in five minutes.”

“Maybe I’m not your normal clientele.”

He sighs. “No, we don’t feel much pain, so clear your fucking conscience.”

“Are you just telling me that or do you mean it?”

He runs his hand down his face. “Look, man. You can either do this or go home. But no one ever goes home, so just face the fucking music and get on with it.”

So I do.

I start off by slapping him hard across the face, and go from there. Five minutes later, I’m not asking, “Is this hurting you?”

Five minutes later, I’m straddling his chest, smashing in his mangled face with my bloody fists, over and over and over. He’s shouting, “Stop it!” and I’m loving every second of it.

 * * * *

Hafwen’s nickname is Zippy. She likes to skip and sing about the dishes as she’s washing them and write poetry on waterproof paper in the rain. She’ll call me up just to tell me that she’s discovered the name for those imprints left in the skin when you press it against a textured surface too long. A frittle.

So when I see her sitting cross-legged on my bed, motionless, not frowning, but not smiling either, I know something’s wrong.

I sit beside her and kiss her. “What’s up, Haf?”

She doesn’t look at me. “I have to tell you something.”

My insides erupt. I’m afraid.

I’m afraid her feelings for me were just a frittle in her heart and now she wants to end what we have before I even have the chance to tell her I love her.

“Tell me,” I say. I try to sound brave, but I fail.

“My mom,” she says. “She’s a Remade-American.”

“Oh,” I say. “I didn’t know Cambree wasn’t your real mom.”

“No, Hadley. Cambree is my real mom. She’s a Remade-American.”

“Oh God…I’m so sorry. When did this happen? I saw her last week.”

“No, Hadley. She was a Remade since before she married my dad.”

“Oh.”

“I’m a Remade, Hadley.”

“But…” I can’t think of anything else to say except, “You don’t look like one of them.”

“One of them?”

“I’m sorry. I…”

She looks at me now. “I should’ve told you before we started going out, but…I liked you so much. I wanted you to get to know me first before you…you know…decided.”

“Oh.”

“I told myself that I wasn’t lying to you, because I never said that I was alive, but keeping this from you was deceitful and I’m sorry. I understand if you’re angry at me. I’m angry at me too.”

“I’m not angry,” I say, and that’s true. I’d have to be feeling something to feel angry.

“I don’t know if that’s a good sign or a bad one,” she says.

“Me neither.”

She puts her face in the bowl of her hands and makes crying sounds. No tears come out, obviously.

I almost put my arm around her, but I don’t.

“I can’t keep living this way, Hadley,” she says. “I’m a Remade. I’m tired of hiding it.”

I want to tell her, “Don’t worry.”

I want to tell her, “I’ll love you no matter what.”

But I fail.

 * * * *

I thought Hafwen was happy before. But she tells me she wasn’t. She says she was smiling on the outside and crying on the inside.

Now, she cries a lot.

Now, she’s pale, because she’s stopped wearing makeup. She’s cold, because she’s stopped wearing heated clothing. Her hair is white, because she’s stopped dyeing it. She looks dead and says she’s the happiest she’s ever been.

I should be happy for her. Instead, I keep thinking about how someone else used to inhabit her body. I can’t look at her the same way anymore.

She’s used.

Second-hand.

Impure.

She says a lot of Remade girls try to pass for living, because they’re ashamed of who they are. They buy into the whole natural is ugly paradigm. But natural isn’t ugly, she says. Death isn’t ugly.

Whether she’s right or not, I don’t know.

If there is a beauty in death, I don’t want to see it.

I hate death. I hate that my mom died of thirst in a ditch on the side of the road. People drove by, but they didn’t see her. They didn’t hear her.

Now when Hafwen stands right in front of me, I try to look through her. When she talks to me, I try to tune out her voice. Deep down, I know she doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment. I also know that Porter doesn’t deserve the beatings I give him every Tuesday morning.

I just don’t care.

 * * * *

Animal brains have to be illegal,” I say. I say it with conviction, but I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I defend the living and the systems controlled by the living only because doing otherwise would feel like a betrayal. “They’re a gateway to human brains.”

Hafwen laughs. “You really think there are hordes of Remades out there feasting on the brains of the living?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “It could happen.”

“Hadley, animal brains are illegal because Remades eat them. They make us feel good.”

“Have you ever eaten any?”

“No, but that’s not the point. The point is, prisons are filled with Remades, and most of them are there just because they’ve eaten animal brains. The government sells these prisoners to corporations to use for manual labor, and every living person involved makes a lot of money. Doesn’t this seem wrong to you?”

“I guess,” I say. “But you have to admit. Violent Remade crime is a big problem.”

“If you read the statistics, you’d know that violent living crime is an even bigger problem. It only seems like a Remade problem because the media publicizes Remade crime a lot more often. A lot.”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“But we are talking about it, Hadley. It’s important to me.”

A few days ago, Hafwen told me the story of her parent’s divorce. I expected her to say that her mother lied about being a Remade and that when her father found out the truth, he left her.

But that’s not how it happened.

Her father, Barry, knew that her mother was a Remade from the very beginning. He was an activist for Remade rights and that’s how they met in the first place. He loved Cambree and he wanted to start a family with her. So they had a baby. Her name was Bronwyn. Since she was born from a Remade mother, Barry and Cambree knew that at any time she could pass away and be Remade with a new personality. This happened when Bronwyn was 19 years old. Barry loved Bronwyn, and refused to connect with Hafwen in any meaningful way, and all the while he blamed Cambree for his daughter’s death. One day he left for work and never came home again.

Now, this story buzzes in my head. I know that Hafwen’s just looking for some living person to listen to her. To understand her. To say, “You’re right. These things are very unfair.”

But instead I say, “I’m going to bed.”

 * * * *

This is our coffee-shop, Hafwen’s and mine. Neither of us drink coffee but we enjoy the comity and the photographs of dancing mannequins on the walls.

Today, I don’t invite her. I’ve never seen a Remade in here before, though I tell myself the reason I don’t call her is because I need some alone-time.

A man and a woman at the next table converse in loud whispers.

I stare at my book like I’m reading.

“I’m no racist,” the woman says. “But they have no legal right to be here.”

“I say send them back to where they came from,” the man says. “Start paving all the cemeteries and let that be the end of it.”

At least I’m not them. I don’t want to get rid of the Remades. I’m all for equal rights. Hell, I’m even dating one of them.

I’m not a terrible person. So why do I feel like such a monster?

Minutes later I’m in my car making a call.

“Porter?” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “Hey, man.”

“Do you want to hang out?”

“Hang out?”

“Yeah. We could go bowling or something.”

“I hate bowling.”

“Whatever you want.”

“I don’t know, man. I don’t usually hang out with clients.”

“Come on.”

“All right.”

Fifteen minutes later, and I’m in a Remade bar. My mind spins, but I still notice that this is a shitty place. Like it hasn’t been cleaned since it opened. Maybe that’s true.

The waitress, who’s either a living person or one of those Remades who buy into the natural is ugly paradigm, hands me my chai, and gives Porter a wad of tin foil.

“Thanks, man,” he says to the girl.

She smiles and walks away.

Porter unwraps the foil.

“What is that?” I say.

“Brains,” he says.

“I know that. I mean, what kind?”

“Human.”

“Oh.” I swallow.

“I’m just fucking with you, man. They’re pig. Want to try some?”

“No!” I’m louder than I expect.

“Calm down, man.”

I try.

Porter nibbles at the brains. He trembles.

After a few sips of my tea, I say, “Is it really so bad being dead?”

“What do you mean?” he says, gazing at his hands.

“I mean, why do so many Remades eat brains? Is it such a horrible existence?”

“No, man. Being dead is cool.”

“Then why do you eat brains?”

His expression changes to one that I’ve never seen on him before. It’s one of the looks my mother used to give me, when she was disappointed in me, but showed sympathy at the same time. “Figure it out yourself, man,” he says, very quietly.

“Fuck you!” I say, standing.

“Let go of me.”

I realize my hand is squeezing his arm. My other hand, it’s in a fist.

“I think you should go, man,” he says.

Part of me wants to stay and beat the non-living shit out of him. I want to blame him. Not just for how I’m feeling right now, but for everything. My mother’s death. The state of the world.

Everything.

Instead, I release him and say, “Yeah.”

 * * * *

Say you’re lost in the orange groves behind your apartment complex because you’re not ready to go home again, and you find three guys dragging a tied-up young woman toward a hole in the ground, with three shovels nearby. They’re alive and she’s not. You tell yourself that if they were dead and she wasn’t, the scene wouldn’t be so disturbing, because it’s supposed to be the dead who do things like this. Deep down you know that’s not true.

You think, “Get your fucking hands off her.”

Say all of this happens. You’d be here too, like me. You’d crouch down behind the nearest trunk you can find, waiting and watching, with a wrenching knot in your gut.

For a moment I consider racing out into the clearing, bellowing and swinging my fists. But these guys, they’re not like Porter. They’d fight back. They’d kill me.

So I watch them bury the poor girl. I listen to her muffled screams.

They dump her in the hole and start shoveling.

They say things like, “You like that dirt in your face, don’t you, bitch?” and “Fucking zombie whore.”

I try to study their faces, so that I can identify them later, but it’s so dark. And I’m crying too much.

When they finish with the dirt, they pound the backs of their shovels against the grave, over and over and over. They laugh, and high-five.

Finally, they leave.

I dive onto the ground and start digging with my bare hands.

What I’m uncovering isn’t just a young dead girl.

From deep within myself, I pull out a truth that I’ve always known but never wanted to admit. Remades don’t eat brains because of the pain of being dead. The real pain comes from how the living treat them. How I treat them.

I pull her out of the hole. I remove the gag.

She looks at me with fear in her eyes.

I’m afraid she’s going to scream.

I’m afraid she thinks I’m one of them.

But her face changes. It’s one of the looks my mother used to give me, after I did something bad and then made things right. “Thank you,” she says, very quietly.

I put my arm around her, and in my heart I’m embracing Hafwen at the same time.

I see her when I close my eyes.

She’s beautiful.

I’m ready to go home.

 

Those Below” first appeared in the anthology Love and Sacrifice, 2007, Zen Films

Jeremy C. Shipp is the Bram Stoker-nominated author of Cursed, Vacation, and Sheep and Wolves. His shorter tales have appeared or are forthcoming in over 50 publications, the likes of Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Rosebud, Pseudopod, and Withersin. While preparing for the forthcoming collapse of civilization, Jeremy enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse with his wife, Lisa, and their legion of yard gnomes. Feel free to visit his online home at jeremycshipp.com.

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