A few years earlier
Two figures darted down the hill and across the road. Neither bothered looking out for traffic: only a few people ever came up here regularly, and all of them were probably at home, settling down for the evening. Across the road was a chain link fence covered in thick but conveniently thorn-free ivy.
The shorter of the two figures reached the fence first. He jumped and hit the fence a foot off the ground. "You coming?" he said, scrambling through the ivy.
"Tom," said his brother, eyeing the ivy uncertainly. "You sure this is a good idea?"
Tom reached the top and took a second to catch his breath. He chuckled. "Good? No. But I just gotta try this out." He leapt off the edge and landed among the graves with a thud.
Mathew groaned and tossed the shovel over ahead of him. It hit a gravestone hard enough to chip the rock. “Dammit!” He topped the fence and jumped into the cemetery. “Which one did I hit?”
Tom pointed to the stone on his left. “They’re gonna make you pay for that,” he said.
“Not if they don’t catch us, they won’t.” Matt picked up the shovel. “Do you really have to get one here?” he said. “Couldn’t you just go to the pet store and play with the feeder fish?”
Tom picked his through the plaques and stones, looking for something promising. "Where's the fun in that?"
1982? he thought. Too far gone. He needed something recent. Something fresher.
"Come on,” he said. “Look for something within the last year."
Matt scowled at him. "Oh sure, just fine. 'Pick a good dead one, Matty.' Jeez, how do I let you talk me into this kind of thing?"
Tom ignored his brother and continued off towards the newer, cleaner looking portion of the cemetery. The dates on the headstones got progressively more recent as he went.
"Matt!" he said, kneeling over the grave of one Mr. Tiddles. The headstone was relatively fresh granite, and engraved beneath the late Mr. Tiddles' name was a cartoonish ball of yarn. "I think I found one."
"Mine's three months and it looks like a cat."
"Mine's last month and it's a parrot."
Tom shot to his feet. "A parrot? Really? Cool!" He ran to where his brother was crouching.
The parrot in question had apparently been in life one Mr. Hecuba Hermellion Squawker, loving companion, who would be missed. Carved above the name was the face of a macaw.
"I never get people who give their pets full names like that," said Matt. "Just seems kinda weird."
"Yeah, rich people are weird. Gimme the shovel, will you?"
Matt sighed and tossed him the shovel. "Do you have to have it right in front of you? Can't you do it from here?"
"Well I could," said Tom, starting to dig up the plot of Mr. Hecuba Hermellion Squawker. "But then he'd be alive underground."
It took less time than he'd thought to dig up the bird. It'd been buried in a wooden box that, thanks to the quality paint, was still in good condition, despite the month underground. Once the top was clear, Matt grabbed one end and together, they pried it loose from the dirt.
Death had been kind to Mr. Squawker. He was stiff and gangly and his feathers were mussed, but there weren't any bits missing. There weren't any bite marks or open wounds. He didn't even look particularly malnourished or sickly. As far as Tom could tell, the bird had probably just died of old age.
He pulled the bird out of the box and sat down with it on his lap.
"Huh," said Matt, surprised. "I thought it would smell more."
"You ready, Matt? Knife."
Matt wrinkled his nose and brought out his pocket knife. "I hate it when you do this bit."
Tom opened up the tiny blade and ran it across his thumb. A single bead of blood welled up. "Wimp. It doesn't even hurt."
"You're gonna get an infection. You're gonna get infected and wind up in the hospital and mom's going to blame me."
"And I'll feel very bad on my deathbed knowing I got my big brother into trouble." Carefully, Tom pried open the bird's mouth and rubbed his thumb on the underside of its beak, scraping off the blood. "Come on, get down here and help me."
Matt sighed and sat down beside him.
Tom half-closed his eyes and, with Mr. Squawker resting stiffly on his lap, quietly began to hum.
The song, Terra had told him, didn't matter. The noise didn't matter. He just needed something to cling to, something to remind him that the real world still existed. Music, she'd said, worked best for most people, though she knew some who could only do this if they had someone physically reminding them that their body still existed. So he hummed, and he kept humming until Matt started humming along with him. He stopped, then, and let everything but the sound go.
The color of the world drained slowly. It started off with a slight gray tinge that had nothing to do with the sun going down. Then the edges of things began to blur: trees no longer had green leaves. The grass was a blanket of gray shades. Even the air took on a gray, misty feel. Somewhere above, in the background of things, he heard somebody humming.
He stood up, then, and looked down at Mathew. There was fire inside his brother. It writhed under his skin and pulsed with his blood. Whenever the fire began to fade, his heart would beat and send it alight, burning brighter than before. Every breath he took fed the flames until they were white-hot.
Tom grinned and looked around. Almost everything had the fire. Insects he never would have noticed on his own burned like tiny candles in the grass, standing out against the gray. Squirrels and birds filled the trees like tiny lanterns. Even the trees themselves had a light to them, deep inside though it wasn't nearly as bright and alive as the real fire.
He looked down at himself. His body was still on the ground, crouching over the bird's corpse. Still breathing, presumably. He had the fire, too. But the bird was dead. Stone cold and gray as concrete.
Slowly, he raised his spectral hand and stuck it into his physical chest. It went right through, like there was nothing there. He felt around for a bit before finding the heart. That he could feel. It beat regularly. Camly. He twisted his hand to the side and stuck it through the heart, stopping it for a second while he took a bit of what was inside, siphoning off just a little bit of the fire before drawing his hand back out. When he was done, he had in his palm a steady flame roughly the size of a golfball. It wasn't much- Terra had warned him against taking too much, but it was enough for something small.
Like a bird.
He held the fire out and was just getting ready to pour it into the bird's corpse when the flame sputtered suddenly. It leaned to the left, as though somebody had blown it.
"Wait," someone behind him rasped. A hand grabbed his shoulder. "I need it more."
Tom gasped and dropped his hold on the fire. It flew to the left and sank into the cluster of bushes there. The hand holding his shoulder vanished.
The gray world snapped, and the next thing he knew, he was back in his body, struggling to breathe.
He coughed and gasped and toppled into Matt, clutching at his throat. Matt didn't waste any time and hit him in the chest, closed fist. That seemed to do the trick; Tom's fluttering heart steadied itself, and his lungs went back to working order.
"Ghost!" he rasped. "There's a ghost!" He scrambled to his feet and ran to the bushes where the flame had gone.
"What?" said Matt. "It's a pet cemetery!" He hurried after his brother. "You said there aren't any ghosts in pet cemeteries!"
"I think it was a-"
There was a loud groan from the bushes.
"Oh crap," said Tom.
"Oh cool! said Matt.
The bushes rustled, and the man crawled out.
It took Tom a second to register what he was looking at.
It was a man. A man in a collared, business looking, long sleeve shirt. It was white. White-ish. That only made the blood splattered over the left shoulder that much more noticeable, even in the dying sunlight. The man’s head was caved in partially on the left. There were white flecks sticking out through the blackish-red, and it took him a minute to realize that it was bits of bone. The man’s skull had shattered, and was being held together by the skin, but shards of bone were starting to pierce through.
The man pressed the base of his palms to his eyes and moaned. "Oh God, what hit me?"
"A baseball bat, by the look of it," said Matt helpfully.
Tom snapped out of shock long enough to elbow his brother in the ribs. After which he promptly returned to open mouthed staring.
"Ugh, feels like it." he removed his hands and tried to blink. It didn't work, his eyes were too swelled for the lids to shut properly. "What-?" He tried squeezing them closed.
"Tom, I think he's only half done. You need to finish him."
"I-I can't! I can't bring people back! It's- it's not supposed to work that way!" He started wheezing. "I- he- doesn't-"
Matt rolled his eyes and said to the dead man, "Sorry about this. He panics sometimes and it takes him a while to calm down."
"Understandable," said the dead man. He looked down at himself and saw the dried blood. "I'm having a little trouble keeping calm myself."
"You're not supposed to be alive!" Tom blurted.
"Well that's rude," said Matt.
"Frankly I'm hurt," said the dead man.
"No," said Tom. "There was only enough for the bird! It won't last with you!"
The man staggered a few paces forward. After a rocky start, he balanced himself and strode confidently towards the gate. "Then I suppose I ought to make the best of it."
"Wait!" They both followed him.
"Where do you think you're going?" said Tom.
The man began to awkwardly climb the fence.
"To pay a visit to my old friend Johan. He gave me something the other day and I dearly need to repay him."
"Ooh," said Matt. "I bet I can guess how."
"Listen," he said, trying to grab the man's pant leg. "I-I don't know what this guy did, but I'm sure it's not worth wasting any of your time on-"
The man chuckled- the hollow rasp of air coursing through lungs that had partly dried.
"Nice try, kid." He shook Tom off and made it over the fence, then down to the other side. Matt was already halfway up, hot on his heels. Tom made a strangled noise and started climbing after.
The dead man had stopped, and pulled a box of cigarettes out of the pocket on his shirt. A lighter was produced from one on his pants.
“Listen, sir,” said Tom. “I can’t let you go out and do whatever you’re thinking about doing.”
“Damn,” said the man. He tossed the box away disgustedly. “Too damp.”
“That would be the dew,” said Matt. “You look like you’ve been there a few days.”
“What day is it?”
“Listen!” said Tom. He tried to ignore the sound of his voice cracking. “You can’t leave, you have to go back-“
“Back into the bushes, then, right? Want me just to crawl back to where I was dumped and wait to die again? No chance, kid.”
The dead man strolled along, hands tucked in his pockets. For the first time, Tom got a good look at the back of his head. Unlike the front, the back was missing a large chunk of skull. He blanched and closed his eyes, swallowing back the urge to vomit. He didn’t know brains could throb like that.
Someone tugged his sleeve.
“Tom,” said Matt. “Don’t go to sleep on me now! We need to follow this guy.”
With that, Matt grabbed his brother firmly by the wrist and dragged him along, following the dead man down the street.
* * * * *
The sign outside the building proclaimed it to be the law offices of Jacques and Jenkins, and if the size was anything to go by, Mr. Jacques and Mr. Jenkins might’ve been the only ones working there. The place looked too small to hold anyone else. The windows were all dark, and the plaque on the door said it was several hours after closing time and even longer before they’d open again.
Tom tried not to smile. By the time they opened, the dead man would have hopefully run out of steam.
"Look, they're closed. You'll just have to come back some other time-" The dead man kicked down the door and went inside.
They ran after.
Inside, the dead man went down the hall and turned to one of the doors. He looked at the brothers and brought a finger to his lips. He knocked on the door.
"Yes?" called someone inside. "It's unlocked."
Matt slapped his palm to forehead. Tom started waving his arms in the umpire's X and whisper-shouting "No!"
The dead man grinned and turned the knob. "Hello, Johan!" he said as he entered. "Long time no see!"
There was a crash and a scream. Tom and Matt arrived in time to see the dead man hurl a skinny bald man across the room, into a wall.
"Stop!" said Tom. The dead man ignored him.
"Johan!" he shouted. "How're you doin', buddy?" He walked towards where Johan was cowering.
"Alive? Yep." He pulled Johan up by the front of his shirt.
"You can't! You're-"
"Dead?" the dead man growled. "I got better." He threw Johan into a filing cabinet.
"Tom," said Matt. "Do something! He's your zombie!"
Oh crap oh crap oh crap what the hell am I doing?
“Hey!” he shouted. The dead man ignored him and stalked towards Johan.
“I command you to stop!” Still nothing.
He picked up a thick book from the book case by the door and threw it. It hit the dead man’s shoulder, but he didn’t pay it any attention.
“Hey,” said Tom, moving closer. “I’m the one who brought you back, so you gotta-“
The dead man turned suddenly and backhanded him, sending him spinning to the floor a few feet away.
Matt shouted and started hurling more books at the zombie. Tom grit his teeth, picked himself up, and picked up heavy-looking lamp off the desk. While the zombie was busy batting away Matt’s books, Tom hit him on the back of the head with the lamp.
There was a crack and a squelch and the man whirled on him, ramming him into the back wall. He grabbed Tom’s wrist hard enough for him to drop the lamp. The dead man’s other hand was pressing Tom’s left shoulder, pinning him to the wall.
“Dammit, kid,” the dead man rasped. His breath smelled horrible. “I didn’t want you.” He let go of Tom’s wrist and grabbed his throat instead.
I’m gonna die, Tom thought. Somewhere in the background, he heard Matt shouting, but it was quickly being drowned out by the pounding in his ears. I’m gonna die, right here.
Unless. . .
He closed his eyes and let the world go. A split second later, he found himself looking at the dead man and seeing the small bit of fire- his fire, holed up in the center of his chest. It was burning out fast, but not fast enough. Somewhere above, Matt was screaming his name.
He raised his spectral hand and stuck it into the dead man’s chest.
“This is mine,” he said, though he doubted the dead man could hear him.
He pulled back his fire. The world snapped back and the dead man collapsed, dead again, this time for keeps.
Matt rushed to help him up.
"Dude!" he said, lightly kicking the corpse of the dead man to test. "You did it!"
Johan, who had been gasping and cowering in the corner, got shakily to his feet. His nose was broken and streaming blood, and it looked like he'd chipped a tooth.
"What was that?" he shouted. "What the hell just happened?"
"Dead guy," said Matt. "Don't worry, he's dead again. Come on, Tom. Let's get out of here before mom freaks out. It's already past curfew."
Tom nodded gratefully and they both headed for the exit.
"Wait!" said Johan. "What about my office? What about him?" He pointed to the now thoroughly dead man.
Matt shrugged. "You dumped him once before, you can do it again." He pulled Tom along out the door. They left him standing in open mouthed shock.
"Come on," Matt said when they were outside. "Before he snaps out of it and remembers we're loose ends. You got change on you?"
"Uh," Tom dug around through his pockets and produced a handful of quarters.
"Good." Matt took the money and ran down a few yards until he found a payphone. There, he put the money in and dialed.
"Hello? Yeah, anonymous tip here, but I'm pretty sure a guy named James was murdered recently. You may want to check Johan's office down at the law office of Jacques and Jenkins for the body. The address is 4952, Edenborough- yeah, down by the florists. Mmkay, have a nice night." He slammed the receiver down and stretched.
"Well," he said. "That was fun."
Tom gave him a look.
"Aww come on, you saved a guy's life, then killed him, and then saved another guy's life, then got him arrested. Most people don't do that much all week."
"I hate you so much right now."
Matt wrapped an arm around his brother's shoulders. Tom scowled and shoved him off.
"Come on, let's get the hell out of here."
Quite a few years later. Possibly.