Chapter 1 - Clio

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Sometimes it’s difficult to do the right thing. But Okie and I tried; we did everything humanly possible. Granted, there are other things that are not humanly possible. I for one am not about to allow my arm be chewed off just because another person – another former person – is feeling like a snack. But humanly possible, we did.

That’s why I’m setting down my story: so everyone else in the family, such as our English relatives on Sumatra’s side, will understand the effort we made and not be too critical after the fact. Or everyone else in the family who is still in what I may term a reading state.

Because that’s one of the first symptoms, isn’t it? They lose the ability to read.You see them trying to decipher the street signs; it’s quite sad really, and worse than sad if they happen to be driving. So many mangled passers-by. The aphasia comes just before the insatiable craving for street-cart mini-wieners, but before the slavering and shambling and the attacks on pet dogs. And all that follows.

But I’m digressing. Let’s just say that if you can read this, you’re probably still unaffected.

Here is how it began.

I was out in the garden, cultivating the rhubarb plants, from which I intended to make a pie later in the afternoon, or two pies, or maybe even three if I added strawberries. You can never have too much rhubarb, in my opinion. You can eat too much of it, yes, but you can never have too much. I frequently give some of mine away, to family and the neighbours. Not that it is always appreciated by either.

After digging in the compost around the roots of the plants – rhubarb is what they call a gross feeder, it likes a lot of decaying organic matter – I stood up to check the perimeters of my admittedly large property in Rosedale – which, for those of my readers who may live in Britain or New York or even Scranton, is an old and once affluent section of the city of Toronto, Canada. My husband, Dexter, and I acquired this property after Dexter made a fortune from his patented anti-Alzheimer’s bottled energy drink, Glowing Skull, with its secret plant-derived neuron-altering formula.

It is by the way libelous to suggest – as some have done – that the present outbreak traces its origins to the widespread consumption of Glowing Skull and its effects on a certain strain of cold virus. If things were not such a trainwreck in the legal profession – how many firms have been decimated by partner predation? – I’d already be suing.

The sun was glinting off the double line of broken-bottle glass topping my high stone wall. The glass keeps them out as a rule, though occasionally one claws his or her way over, sustaining multiple lacerations, after which I’ve found it fairly simple to finish them off with a garden tool. The three-pronged cultivator is quite good, though the long-handled item with the gutter-excavating thing on the end – pointed, with a killer blade – is the best. Their skulls are soft, more or less like pumpkins, so it doesn’t take much force.

Decapitation is conventionally assumed to be the coup de grace, though I myself take off the arms and legs just to make sure. Even if they aren’t totally dead – with them, death is relative and may take place by degrees, as with sharks – a torso with no means of propulsion is no threat. Even if it’s rolling slowly towards you, it can be briskly sidestepped and then spiked with the four-tined fork. The problem has been disposal: opening the main gate in order to trundle out the torsos and assorted parts for curbside pickup is always risky. One never knows what may be lurking. For those occasions, I carry a fire extinguisher, and the tree pruners for good measure. Ordinary guns, needless to say, are no use whatsoever. You’d need a canon.

The first time I dismembered one I dug it into the vegetable plot, among the rhubarb, where I’m sure it did some good. But it was a lot of work for someone of my age, and it attracted rats.

So it was an ordinary sort of day. I was cultivating the rhubarb, as I’ve said, but not getting too absorbed in it– one should remain alert to one’s larger surroundings – when my cellphone rang. I keep the cell with me wherever I go, in case of emergencies. Not that I’d always know who to call.

It was my granddaughter, Okie. Such a pretty girl, just turned eighteen. I hadn’t seen her for a year – her mother, Sumatra, did not encourage visits – but we texted regularly. She’s been doing well at school, though I haven’t always approved of the sorts of friends she collected. An edgy lot, judging from the pictures of them she somewhat indiscreetly posted online: the hardware face jewelry factor was considerable, the sneer quotient high. But Okie is excitable, and easily impressed by negatively-themed sophistication. Girls that age can be rash.

“What, darling?” I said. “I can’t hear you.” Okie was crying so hard she was incoherent. “Now, calm down and get a grip on yourself.”

“Mother just ate Dad,” she managed to say. “In the kitchen.”

“Such things are a private matter for the two individuals involved,” I said. “You’ll understand it better when you’re older.”

“No, no, not that!” she said. “We took all that in junior high. I mean she attacked him, she bit off… She’s sitting at the kitchen table drooling blood, with this blank look, and her skin is all…”

“Has she been drinking?” I said. I did not add, again. I suppose I was hoping for some explanation less dire than the obvious.

“No, it’s the… she’s got the…” She began to cry again.

“You don’t mean to say…”

“Yes! It’s too horrible! She doesn’t even seem sorry!”

I must say I wasn’t all that surprised. I’ve never had a high opinion of my daughter-in-law, Sumatra. She demanded too much of my son, Norman; she was never satisfied; she had issues with boundaries.

I did warn him. I did say, “Marrying that woman is a mistake.” To which he’d replied, in his doleful manner, “Sumatra says you think me getting born was a mistake.” I thought nothing of the kind, and said so, though I added that he could have waited to be born until after twelve midnight on the last day of December and thus have been a New Year’s baby, which would have been a better start in life. To which he replied, “Typical.” Always an insult – one never knows how many unspoken sins one is being accused of, with “typical” – and then we had words.

Of course children never listen when it’s a matter of what passes for love. Norman must have overshared with Sumatra on the subject of our interchange, and relations were not the most cordial after that. Citing my widowhood, I wore black to their wedding, which was noticed. “I hate rhubarb,” Sumatra said rudely when, to atone, I proffered one of my pies. And now look.

“Where is your father?” I said to Okie, as neutrally as I could. Of course I was distressed about Norman. You remember them as tots, cute as a button, before they make a string of unfortunate life choices, as Norman had done.

“Some of him is in the kitchen,” Okie gulped. “Some is on the back porch. The rest is…”

“It’s very upsetting,” I said. I was surprised there was any of Norman left. Take, take, take, that was Sumatra all over. But maybe she’d saved some of him for later. Not that she was ever the saving type.

“What’ll I do?” said Okie.

“Any means of whacking her head off?” I said, possibly too briskly, as Okie began to cry again.

“I can’t just… she’s my mother!” she sobbed.

Official protocol required that Okie call a Disposal Zquad. They’d arrive with stun guns and those gigantic skewers they use, and wrangle Sumatra into their truck, and that would be the last of her. The cover story is that they take them to a benign but secure location where they can roam around under firm but kind surveillance, but rumour has it that they run them through a converted gravel crusher.

“Yes, I can see that,” I said. I might have added that Sumatra may once have been her mother but could hardly be considered so any longer, in view of her unfortunate condition. But that would have done no good: family is family. “You’ll have to lure her into a Z-Liner taxi,” I said. “And bring her up here. It won’t be easy, there’s the U.S./Canada border to negotiate, but I hear the Z-Liners are experts at that. I expect they bribe the border officers, like all the other smugglers. Then, once your mother has been securely transported here, we’ll quieten her down with some lovely raw mini-weiners – I think I’ve got some in the freezer – with a dollop of DozieDrops added to each. It was one of your grandad’s products, I have some in the medicine cabinet."

“But then what?” said Okie.

“Then we’ll lock her in the garden shed,” I said, “and have a nice hot cup of tea while we’re figuring out the next step. Have you got any money? Cash – the Z-Liners don’t like a paper trail. Never mind, I’ll pay them when you arrive.”

“But how will I put her into the taxi?” Okie sobbed. “I’m scared to go anywhere near her!”

“The Z-Liner driver will help you,” I said. “They always bring a cattle prod or two, and a sack of street-cart mini-wieners. Works like a charm. Don’t let her get away before he comes, though. Lock the front door now. And remember, they aren’t good at climbing stairs. If she comes at you, go up to the second floor and push her back down with a broom. Now, time to call Z-Liner, like a brave girl.”

“Okay,” said Okie. She didn’t sound convinced.

“I’d fly down to help you,” I said, “but that would take too long, and my presence would simply provoke your mother. You know she’s never liked me. The Z-Liner men will handle this in a professional manner.”

Professional manner – those are magic words. I have used them to great effect in other circumstances, as for instance when berating sloppy telecom providers.

Okie stopped hiccupping. I could almost hear her squaring her young and most likely bare and tattoo-festooned shoulders, pulling herself together for the task that lay ahead.