by N. J. Kailhofer
Jimmy took a long drink. "Since you insist on askin', I make pills for the dead."
"What do you mean? Pills to bring them back from the dead?"
Jimmy looked at Walter crossways. "What the hell kind of stupid sumbitch are you? They're dead. Ain't no coming back from that."
Walter blinked, staring at the drunk in front of him. Jimmy was tall and thin, almost gaunt, under his stained, sleeveless one-pocket t-shirt and ratty jeans. A shock of unkempt blond hair extended out from under a spattered Huston Astros ball cap that was too small for his head. The heat of the bar and the drinks combined to bring out beads of sweat on his forehead that ran down his flushed face into the stubble on his chin.
Walter cleared his throat, trying to be sociable as he sat next to Jimmy in front of the dark oak bar top. "Well, what do they need pills for, then?"
"They got ailments."
"Yeah." Jimmy shrugged. "Everybody's got ailments. You got 'em, I got 'em. All the dead got 'em, too."
Jimmy turned on his stool. "They got 'em more so. Pieces of themselves are mortifying right off their creepified bones. How would you feel if you finger just fell off or if some bunch of worms were nibbling on your insides? That hurts, right?"
Walter nodded, just a little.
"The dead's no different."
Jimmy gestured, and the bartender placed another double in front of him, the third since Walter had sat down.
"Bless ya, Joe," he told the glowering eyes of the barman. "I needed this."
Jimmy downed the double. "Too many stiffs around here, Joe. Gimmie another."
Walter's eyes darted around the bar. It was a run-down establishment, complete with two broken mirrors and six half-torn posters barely hanging on the walls. Behind the bar, most of the seven bottles that were still standing were empty. Overhead, a bent, five-bladed ceiling fan lurched slowly, stirring the stale air only enough to keep it feeling uncomfortable. The four other patrons looked no better than Jimmy did, and they paid no attention to his ravings, save the barkeep, who refilled the glass with a flat, bored expression. They were obviously used to him.
"W-what," Walter asked, "do these pills do for the dead?"
Jimmy scrunched his face up. "You stupid? Lets 'em get back to restin'. Shoot, I thought you was a smart guy, with your fancy gray suit and all."
Walter tried not to look stupid. "Why do they come to you?"
Jimmy turned back to his drink. "'Cause I know how to make 'em."
"Yep," Jimmy said, swilling the rest of his shot down. "They's always trackin' me down, stopping me on the street, wakin' me up in the middle of the night... You never really get used to it when some dead person jumps up out of the ground next to ya."
He paused. "The ones I hate though is the ones who bother me when I'm doin' something' I need to be by myself for, like takin' a dump or in the shower--that one bothered me the most."
He grabbed Walter's sleeve and pulled the startled man close to him. "That dead sumbitch jumped right in the shower with me. Jesus on the cross! You imagine... mindin' your own business, washin' yourself, then BAM! into the shower jumps this half-decayed, creepified dead guy, wantin' a pill. The water was runnin' all over him, washin' off his deadness and the ground from his grave, spashin' on me..."
Jimmy wrinkled his face and shuddered. "I felt sorry for him, though. So I helped him out."
Walter boggled at him. "You helped him?"
"He was in a bad way," Jimmy said. "He was a decent enough fella when he was alive--was my mailman, matter of fact. Hell, just 'cause they dead don't make 'em stop bein' decent. Just... sooner or later the ailments get the best of 'em, and they come see me."
There long silence, marked only by the sound of the lurching ceiling fan.
"So, Walter," Jimmy asked before downing another tequila, "what is it that ails you?"
"Me?" Walter looked down at the bar top. "Nothing ails me. I just stopped in for a drink."
Jimmy snorted thickly. "Oh, yeah? That why you ain't touched your, what, first club soda there?"
Walter shrunk. Quietly, he asked, "If I did have, as you say, ailments, what could you do for me?"
Jimmy rolled his eyes. "I'd give you a pill. Ain't you been listenin'?"
"B-But," Walter stammered, "I mean, these pills, do they always work? Is one dose... permanent? Would I need a second one later?"
Jimmy's hand settled lightly on Walter's nervous shoulder in a friendly, reassuring way. Walter studied it oddly.
"Walter, back Before, you had one of them uptight jobs, didn't you? Somethin' serious and cautious-like?"
The small man swallowed. "I was an accountant."
Jimmy nodded. "I knew it. If you was bold, you'd a just demanded one right away."
Walter's look was pleading. "I-I just want to be sure. They say there used to be another gentleman in Fort Worth who could make pills."
His voice lowered to a whisper. "I heard his pills stopped working, and he's not... in your line of work anymore, so to speak."
Jimmy snorted, laughing darkly. "They finally caught up with ol' Bart, huh? Man, he was a mean sumbitch, tried to control everything. He was a deacon or something higher up Before.
"I was just an altar boy, myself."
Joe the bartender's lifeless eyes sprang open wide. Bellowing a demonic howl, he lunged at Jimmy.
Lightening fast, Jimmy pulled a black 9mm Beretta from his loose trousers and drilled a bullet between Joe's eyes. The bartender's lunge stopped in its tracks, and the body slowly tipped backward, collapsing in a heap on the floor behind the bar.
The wound in his face produced a sickening yellow fluid that hissed and sizzled in the air. A foaming reaction spread outward from the hole, consuming the body in seconds. The air in the bar choked with a stifling smell of sulfur. When the sickly yellow foam slowed to a halt, just stained bones remained.
"Damn!" Jimmy shouted. "Now I gotta find a new bar."
Walter gurgled, aghast. "I--I thought he was your friend!"
"Naw. He just mixed a good drink." Jimmy shrugged. "Nope, he's been ailin' a long time, but he was scared of me. Thought I had magic power or some such shit. But it ain't my power."
Walter was quiet, looking at the bones.
Jimmy kept his pistol out. "Well, now you know what happens. You got the whole picture."
"I didn't want this, any of this."
Jimmy's voice was strikingly sober. "Well, who did want it?"
He paused. "I was a shitty altar boy. Father Johnson always had to ride me hard... That day, I got hungry, and I ate a bunch of the Host he had out--right before he was goin' to start service. I knew it was wrong, but he had more, I saw it. Father looked so mad I thought he was going to beat me with his Bible, but instead he sent me down into the crypt for more hymnals--so I never even saw it fly over, whatever the hell it was. I just came up to find the dead everywhere. The whole congregation, dead in place in the pews, dressed in their best church clothes. I sure didn't want that.
"Then, three days later, when they all came back... I didn't want to be the last one left alive, with all them dead assholes wantin' to eat my flesh."
He shuddered. "And I sure as hell didn't want to be the very last living human being on the whole damned planet, shooting sorry sons of bitches like you all day long!"
Walter skittered to the other side of the bar and ducked behind the bar top.
Jimmy seemed to recover himself. "I ain't like that, Walter. You can come out. You're safe. My Daddy, he was the town marshal, and he taught me wrong from right. That's where I got this gun from."
He held up his pistol. "When those first crazies woke up in church, I hid up in the choir loft, but they found me. I was so scared I dropped this gun right over the edge, down into the baptismal. They nearly got me before I could get it back."
Walter's eyes rose cautiously over the bar top.
Jimmy continued in a softer tone. "Look, the crazy ones pretty much went off right away. You were one of the good ones. You went back to carryin' on like you always had, because you was a normal fella--upright in all the right places. You knew killin' was wrong, and kept on, following what you knew was right before you died. The rest of the dead bastards in this bar ain't no different from you.
"Hell, you know there's places where they still go to church and pray for deliverance? The whole goddamned congregation--including the preacher out front--dead as a Moses and Pharaoh hisself."
Walter stood carefully. "I didn't want to hurt anyone."
"'Course you didn't," Jimmy said. "You never done none of that because you thought it was wrong."
The accountant nodded once.
Jimmy sighed. "But you got the ailment, just like everybody else, so you're hungry. You can't help bein' hungry, but you can't stand the idea of doin' that to somebody. Then you heard about a way out. My pills are the only medicine that can put you at rest, but it ain't pretty.
"So it's up to you now, Walter. You got the whole of it. If you can put up with your ailment, you can just go on back to your life, so to speak. If you can't stand it no more, then I can pill you now."
Walter studied the floor. "I haven't worked in so long. Nobody had any hope. I mean, why try to make it big when you're already dead? You can't live happily ever after. Money has no meaning."
There was a long pause.
Softly, he said, "I don't want one of those pills. I think I'm going to go."
Jimmy relaxed. "I'm glad."
Walter shuffled slowly, unable to meet the gaze of the bar's other inhabitants as he edged toward the door. When he was even with Jimmy, the small, humbled bean counter stopped and whispered, "Thanks for telling me the truth. It made all the difference."
Timidly, he asked, "If you don't mind, would it be all right if I shook your hand?"
Jimmy smiled. "Sure. I respect that."
He set the pistol on the bar in front of him and stretched out a hand. Tentatively, the dead accountant took Jimmy's hand in his own.
"Thanks." Walter seemed to have a thought. "Was it the holy water it fell in to? When you dropped your gun in church? Is that why it worked?"
Jimmy grinned, patting the top of Walter's hand that he still gripped in his other. "You guessed it. The bullets and the gun were blessed. Plus, I cool the bullets in holy water when I make them."
Walter looked relieved. "Thanks again. You were much easier than Deacon Bartholomew."
Abruptly, Walter slapped his other hand over the top of Jimmy's. His grip was like iron.
"Hey! What're you doin'? You're a goddamn accountant!"
Walter grinned slyly. "For the mob, and now that we know how to pill the dead, we'll have leverage over people again. They'll pay for pills. We'll be back on top. We'll have dealers back on every corner, just like it used to be. It can all start back up, the contracts and the money."
Walter chuckled. "There's still holy water left in those old churches. I'll be counting again soon."
Jimmy shrieked as Walter pulled him toward him with tremendous, unnatural strength. Walter's teeth bit deep into his neck, tearing at his jugular.
The others in the bar rose, the look of hunger in their eyes. Walter's face was wet with blood, his mouth filled with a chunk of what used to be Jimmy's neck.
As Jimmy's body convulsed into unconsciousness, Walter smacked his lips.
"Mmm. Good for what ails me."
© 2009 N. J. Kailhofer
Bio: Nate Kailhofer is the Flash Fiction Editor for Aphelion, in recognition of his tireless work as creator, ringmaster and author-tamer for the monthly Flash Fiction Challenge in the Aphelion Forum "Fun and Games" section. (It may involve more than that in the future...) Every month for a couple of years, he poses a challenge to Aphelion readers: write an original story of no more than 1000 words, with some special requirements (varying in form and content every month), and every month he provides a fresh-off-the-word-processor example. He is also the author of a number of short stories and longer works here and in other publications (including several entries in the Nightwatch series), and has earned an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future competition, among other honors...
E-mail: N. J. Kailhofer
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