In Bensonville, nobody wants to raise the dead anymore, so they leave them on the porch with the rest of the recyclables. Sometimes, the dead are wrapped in quilts or given a few crackers and a bit of water while they wait for the cremators to arrive. Most of them never make it to sunrise.
I’m what you call a Flesh Picker. I drive all night, scanning the streets for someone to resurrect before the cremators can burn them to ash. It’s not a glamourous life or anything; most of us barely make enough to pay the bills, but none of us are in this for the money. It’s all about the creed, the 3 Rs of flesh picking:
My truck slows in front of a bungalow perched on a steeply sloped and cracked driveway. The dead has a sign around his neck that reads, “Beware.” The letters drip down the page as if written in blood. He doesn’t look dangerous apart from his bared, yellow dentures. His cataracts are so bad, his eyes barely turn in my direction when my foot creaks on the top porch step.
“Go away,” he hisses.
“What’s your name?”
“Business. As in, ‘none of yours.'”
“Can you walk?”
“Walk?” he squawks. “If I had wings, I’d fly. Leave me be, flesh picker.”
He weighs far less than he should, barely more than a toddler. The bulging, blue veins on his hands look like they’ve been painted on a thin layer of plaster. As I cradle him in my arms, his heartbeat is a farrier’s hammer striking iron.
He lets me strap him into the passenger seat in my truck, but he turns his face away from mine. Pulling away from the house, I don’t press him for details on how he ended up on the porch. We ignore the whir and roar of cremators sucking up all the debris left curbside, converting carbon, glass, textile, vegetation, grease, and electronics into energy.
One cremator raises itself on insectoid legs and pauses at the porch where the rocking chair still sits. Its electronic eyes shift side to side and track my truck as it races down the street.
The first hours with the dead are always the hardest. They won’t sleep in a bed because its too lumpy or the mattress smells funny. Most prefer a recliner and an electric blanket. Sometimes they fall asleep with the lights on or close their eyes and just scream for hours. You can never tell what you’re going to get.
Urination is a frequent problem. The dead are no longer housebroken. Some flesh pickers buy diapers in bulk, but I prefer to line an armchair with an absorbent towel until I can remind them how to flush a toilet.
“Can you walk?” I ask my visitor.
“If I could walk, I’d run out of here faster than you could say ‘Jimminy Cricket’.”
I fit his legs with an exoskeleton I have built from scrap metal. The titanium braces straighten his crooked legs while the harness hugs his slim hips, sliding in just beneath the barest hint of a potbelly. It takes a few minutes for the neurotransmitters to hack his nervous system.
With the help of the exoskeleton, he flexes his feet. His knees pop and crack like firewood as his legs move slowly up and down. His first steps are wobbly. His hands conduct music as he reaches for support and finds the edge of a transistor radio instead.
His voice softens. “Turn this on.”
I extend the antenna and flip a switch. His spotted fingers fumble with the dials as static crackles and squeals. Ghost voices materialize and evaporate while musical notes tinkle like distant windchimes.
Eventually the tuner catches a station: “You’re listening to WKBR, playing songs from the 70s, 80s, and beyond.”
The music is bright, hopeful. It is lemonade and porch swings, fireflies and shooting stars. The corners of his clouded eyes are moist, and he licks his cracked lips a few times.
“Thank you,” he whispers.
He takes my elbows as I steer him toward an armchair. In a few hours, we’ve made tremendous progress. Some resurrections take weeks or months, and more than half will fail despite your best efforts.
A good flesh picker doesn’t give up. They’ll draw warm baths, offer clean clothes, or rub liniment into arthritic joints. They’ll do whatever it takes to keep the soul in the body a little bit longer. But no matter what you do, the dead always die. No body lasts forever.
“What’s your name?” I ask my newest arrival.
“Stanley,” he says. “Stanley Ruddabaker.”
Now that I have his name, I can proceed to the final step of the resurrection.
RELIVE THE PAST
I pull a digital recorder from my pocket, place it on a table next to an antique lamp, and press record.
“Tell me about your life,” I pray, for this is the one thing that all flesh pickers believe in — preserving narratives that cannot be recycled into energy for consumption. Stories are priceless, and the dead are chronicles of rich lore that cannot be mined or manufactured. These tales must be surrendered freely, if they are to have any value at all.
“It will take a while,” Stanley replies.
I cover his hand with my own, let him feel the warmth of the blood coursing through my veins. “Take as long as you need. I’m not going anywhere.”
Jeff Gard likes to keep his inner demons happy, for they always bring him the best story ideas. When he isn’t writing or teaching students how to write, he enjoys procrastination in all its forms. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, and The Arcanist.