After thrashing about in the covers for thirty minutes, Carson Pulley gave up on sleep after his wife made one of her infamous harrumphs. It was a noise that registered as deeply perturbing with Carson. Worse than crunching popcorn. Worse than the sound of breaking bone.
So he got out of bed and went to the kitchen and cut himself a slice of strawberry cake. The clock said 1:55am. The cake was gooey and moist. He poured a glass of milk and took a drink, topping off immediately, then put the carton back in the fridge. He made short work of the cake.
They had been using a fan to sleep for years, starting when they were a young couple living in his parent’s basement . The fan drowned out the sounds of shoes creaking across the kitchen floor above. When they moved into their first apartment, they used it to contend with the Latin music that seeped through their papier-mâché walls, and then, after they had bought their home, they found they couldn’t sleep without it. There was such a thing as too quiet now; every settling floorboard, every time the air conditioner kicked on, every time one of their two cats scratched near it’s collar in the middle of the night--jingling it’s nametag--they’d wake up. They even brought their fan with them when they would travel. But now it was dead, and as dependant as they were on the thing, they didn’t have a back up. It never occurred to either of them. Carson intended to go to Wal-Mart on Friday after he got paid and pick up a new one.
He finished off his milk and walked out onto the front porch. The cold, dewy air woke him as it splashed in his face. His bare feet came alive atop the cool wooden slats. He leaned his arm against the rail, and looked up at the deep blue sky, and then over the beaded grass of his front yard and down Main Street. One of the benefits of living in the center of town was being able to see all of the empty benches and deserted storefronts after everyone had gone home. Their little town went for a kind of rustic motif, and it was really charming at a time like this.
He was watching the little flags attached to the street lamps flap lazily in the early morning breeze, and taking deep, slow gulps of the morning air when something caught his eye. He squinted, and tilted his head towards the horizon. There were people coming up the hill.
Soon they were marching past his house. He could see them clearly now. They wore ragged clothes, and were creamy whites and light blues in skin color. There were a few children who skipped and lagged here and there, but mostly, it was an orderly procession. Pausing only to consider his attire--he was in a pink Donald Duck t-shirt and Mr. Potato Head pajama pants--he walked towards the troop, filled with unabashed curiosity. This kind of bravura was unusual to him.
Carson walked up to a fat man in a white tuxedo. His face was white, and there were small light green bags under his eyes. He had a moustache, and was balding. His clothes looked wet, and every step he took, his boots went Squash.
“Excuse me.” Carson said.
“Yes?” Said the man, not turning his head to see who he was speaking to.
“Are you the dead?” Carson said.
“Yes.” Replied the man.
“Oh, wow.” Said Carson. There was a moment of silence as he seemed to digest this news, and then, “But it’s two am.”
“Right.” Said the man. His voice had a little bit of a gurglely quality to it.
“But the witching hour is at midnight, right?” asked Carson.
“It was.” Said the man. “But we had to move it a couple years back. Too many gawkers were showing up. This is a solemn procession of course.”
‘Right.” Said Carson. And then realizing himself added, “Oh, sorry.”
“No worries.” Said the man. “One’s no trouble. One block.”
When he said this, Carson turned back suddenly. His house was a sprint behind him.
“Why are you marching?” He asked the dead man.
“Because we once lived, and don’t care to haunt.” Said the man, who had clearly drowned or been drowned.
“What do you mean?” Asked Carson.
“When you die” Said the man, “And if you are of a certain type--and aren’t malicious in any way--you’ll walk until the end of time; constrained only by the boundaries of the town or city you lived in.”
“What do you mean by ‘A certain type’?” Asked Carson.
“Not a member of Grace Baptist Church in Lebanon Ohio.” Said the man.
“What happens to the people who go to that Church?” Asked Carson.
“They go to heaven.” Said the man.
“And everyone else is doomed to walk the Earth until the end of time?” Said Carson, incredulous.
“Yes. Two blocks.”
“That’s terribly particular. Most of the population isn’t Baptist.”
“Most of the population doesn’t live in Lebanon Ohio either.”
“So all of the world’s dead walk the street at two am every morning?”
“With hemispheric time-semantics taken into account, yes. There are more dead walking the streets at two am than there are living sleeping in the houses they pass.” Said the man. “Three blocks.”
Carson turned around. His house was far out of sight. They were a couple of blocks from the end of town.
“What happens when you reach the edge of the town?” He asked.
“We return to our rest.” Said the drowned man.
Carson nodded his head, and thought quietly for a moment. “So, you drowned?”
“How did it happen?”
“Was it peaceful?”
“No. I was drowning.”
“Oh. I heard it could be peaceful.”
“I wonder how they would know.”
“Right. Good point.”
“What about people who work third shift?”
“What do you mean?”
“Doesn’t it disturb them to see you?”
“Third shift usually starts at midnight. Part of the reason we switched.”
“What about cigarette smokers?”
“They’re half asleep anyway. The living are very self absorbed. Five blocks.”
“Hm.” Said Carson. He thought for a moment. The sky had changed in the time he had been walking with the dead from deep blue, to a lighter shade. Now there were little pink wisps becoming illuminated in the sky, and around the horizon line he could see a golden aura lighting up some of the businesses in the distance. Carson suddenly felt tired again, and decided he had walked with the dead long enough.
“Six blocks.” Said the drowned man.
“Why do you count the blocks, by the way?” Asked Carson.
“Regulation. We have to warn the living.” Said the drowned man.
“Warn them about what?” Asked Carson, feeling something odd crawl up his spine.
“About the block rule.” Said the Dead man. “When a Living person walks six blocks with the 2 am procession, they become forever bound to it’s ranks.” The troop stopped walking. All turned their dead, spider webbed eyes on Carson. He shrunk beneath their gaze, and then began to walk backwards. He was stopped by what felt like a spongy wall.
“Am I dead now?” He said, his pitch rising.
The drowned man shrugged. “Not sure what exactly to call it, but it is what it is.”
“Isn’t there some way to appeal?”
The drowned man shook his head.
“I thought you said you weren’t malicious?” Carson said.
“I’m not.” Said the dead man. “Just apathetic.”
Carson put his hands on his face. He rubbed them across his stubble, then through his hair. He looked at the numbers around him. As the sun came up, they began to slowly disappear into the haze. If he was dreaming, it was the realest dream he’d ever had.
“ I thought you said there was another option.” Carson said to the drowned man as he felt himself beginning to disappear under the sunlight.
“We’re a long way from Lebanon Ohio.” Said the dead man, disappearing too.
“No, the other option.” Said Carson.
The dead man, now barely a mist, raised an eyebrow.
When Mrs. Pulley woke up, the fan in her bedroom was running.