But Once A Year

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WHEN THE rotting corpse of Ted Winters stumbled into Gas 'N Stuff, the little entrance bell tinkled and Harry thought he was either going to faint or laugh.

But he did neither.

Stunned, he watched it lurch toward the front counter with one flesh-gnarled fist raised to the cigarette display.

"Is that really you, Ted?" The word escaped Harry's lips before he realized he was speaking. What a stupid thing to say to a corpse, he thought. But then again, what is the smart thing to say to the corpse of a dear friend?

Ten minutes ago, as he sat there in the deserted convenience store and gas bar located across the highway from the Eastview Cemetery, Harry's worst fear had finally come true. While sipping from his mug of bitter, cooling coffee, Harry couldn't believe what he'd seen through the window.

There was this figure, walking through the fog among the tombstones across the highway. He'd thought, what fool would take a short cut through the cemetery after midnight on Halloween?

Then, as the figure stumbled to the cemetery fence and shakily climbed it, Harry recognized the fool. It was Ted Winters, a friend who had died eight months earlier, and who'd been buried in that very cemetery.

By the time memories of his dead friend, of the funeral services, and of the intense period of grief he'd experienced had filtered back through Harry's mind, the corpse had made its way across the highway and entered Gas 'N Stuff.

And now, standing across the counter from him, Ted Winters' unfocused eyes frantically moved all over Harry.

"Ted," Harry said, again surprised he was even able to speak. "You're dead. You can't be standing here."

Slowly, the head of the corpse moved back and forth. The movement brought the stench of its rot to Harry's nostrils.

Leaning forward, Harry threw up all over the counter, the newspaper and his coffee.

Ted, with his fist still pointing at the cigarettes in the glass case above the counter, ignored Harry's latest action. Then again, Harry thought, the act of puking is probably quite uninteresting to a corpse. Once you've seen death, vomit probably seems not worth mention.

The corpse's fist thudded down on the counter as if it were unable to hold the arm up for too long, then it raised it again.

Slowly, Harry reached up, took the brand of cigarettes that his friend used to smoke, and placed them in Ted's hand.

The corpse's eyes rolled around in their sockets, the head pitched back and forth. The mouth worked slowly, and little fetid puffs of air blew into Harry's face.

"What? What?" Harry started to yell, the idea of what was happening trying to force itself to the surface. He's dead, Harry. He's dead, his mind screamed. He can't be standing here. Another part of his mind yelled back: He's dead, that's true. But he IS standing here. Deal with it.

Ted dropped the cigarettes on the counter and slouched to one side. At that point Harry knew he had to just go through with this. He could deal with the impossibility of it, sort out the logic, later.

"What is it you want, Ted?"

Ted's crusted lips worked slowly, and as before, only soft puffs of air came out. The corpse lifted his hand to his mouth, his first two fingers forming a "V" as they came to his lips.

Suddenly, Harry understood. Back when Ted was alive, he suffered from some mighty painful arthritis. It was so bad in fact, that sometimes he couldn't even get himself his favourite thing in the world - a cigarette. When that was the case, Harry usually did it for him.

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