Emily Beck Cogburn

City of the Dead

Decatur watched the service from the edge of the graveyard. He knew it wasn’t real. For one thing, no one buried bodies in the swampy ground here. But if it weren’t for that, he’d still know. He’d learned to tell what was real and what wasn’t—or at least what he saw that others didn’t. The edges of the unreal things looked broken, crumbling. Sometimes, they were people or events from the past, occasionally from the future, or perhaps symbolic—things that didn’t exist at all in the traditional sense, but still were somehow true. He thought this was one of the latter, but if so, what did it mean?

Could Sissy see it too? “What are you looking at?” she asked, which answered his question. She wore a tattered rose-pink dress over a hoop skirt and little lace up boots. People saw her with her piled-up hair and powered cheeks and had no idea what she really was. Decatur couldn’t understand why she bothered to make herself up that way. When he’d entered the city, he’d decided to be a boy specifically so that he wouldn’t have to wear a corset and pointy shoes. He’d arrived in a shapeless shirt and overalls, with no knowledge of where he’d come from, probably four years old. His first vague memory was of wandering into the city, amazed at all the people bumping into each other on the narrow streets. It had taken him a while to figure out that most of them weren’t really there—the cracked edges gave away the long-dead people who must have fished and hunted this land long before the city rose up and covered it with buildings and bricks. He knew that he’d been aware of his special sight by the time Jimbo scooped him up and took him to the store. He didn’t know his name, so Jimbo named him after the street where he’d found him.

Decatur tilted his top hat slightly. He always wore it, along with a purple, pin-striped suit and wing-tipped shoes. Occasionally, he added a pair of aviator goggles or glasses from the shop, just for fun. Sissy picked up a piece of bent metal from the brick street and added it to the sack she carried. “Let’s go back to the shop. We have enough.”

People called them thieves, but they didn’t steal, as Decatur said, they liberated. Most of the things they found discarded and broken. If they really needed something particular, Decatur used his light fingers, honed from his days as a street urchin. But even then, the things were being set free, at least that was what he told himself.

It was a long walk back to the shop, through the cemeteries and past the mansions where the rich folks lived. Decatur and Sissy never went farther than the cemeteries. They said it was too far, but they both knew they were afraid. No one seemed to know what was beyond them and no one talked about it. As they strolled along, Sissy stopping to pick up something here and there, the big houses disappeared, replaced by smaller shotgun shacks and then the shoved-together wooden structures of the French Quarter. A half-rotted, narrow building just off Decatur’s namesake street housed the shop. Athena stood outside guarding it as usual, menacing with her block-like face and bear-paw-sized hands. Her face was impassive below her black hair, which was pulled into a tight ponytail behind her head. She just shrugged her enormous shoulders when they asked if there had been any customers—or any trouble. Decatur didn’t think she could speak English, though she seemed to understand well enough. No one knew where she came from either, but she had the strange ability to make bad things happen to anyone who bothered them—usually lightning storms, but occasionally swarms of rats or cockroaches.

The sign painted on the shop window read, “Rupert’s Candies,” but everyone in the city knew no pralines were sold there anymore. The display was full of napping gidgets, as Sissy called her creations. The other gidgets pranced around the store—little broken clocks tottering around on nail legs and dented teapots with wheels. Sissy said she didn’t know how she made them alive—when she soldered the pieces together, it just happened, she told Decatur. Once, he asked if they were happy and she said she didn’t know. “But doesn’t everyone want to be alive?” she asked. Decatur answered that he supposed so. Few people bought them because when most customers came, the gidgets refused to move. Those that did paid the exorbitant prices Jimbo set, though, and that kept their little shop going. Usually, they were lonely people who wanted companionship—widows or misfits. People with big hearts and open minds, Sissy always said.

Decatur usually liked hanging around the store talking to Sissy, but today he was too disturbed by the funeral. He set his sack down behind the counter and said, “I’m going for a walk. I’ll bring back dinner.” Sissy had just opened her sack and begun spreading the things on her worktable—a busted watch, a length of drainpipe, a lamp, and handfuls of screws and nails.

“Are you crazy? We just walked for miles!”

Decatur shrugged, trying to act nonchalant. “Do you want to cook dinner? If I go out, I can bring back some gumbo from Joey’s shop.”

Sissy pulled her welding helmet down over her face and said, “Fine. Don’t forget the bread.”

Stepping out of the shop, he narrowed his eyes, staring down at the bricks under his feet. He hadn’t been able to concentrate on the way home with Sissy’s constant chatter, but now that he focused, he saw what he’d feared he would. The bricks looked cracked, like the people and things that weren’t real. But that wasn’t supposed to happen. The bricks were real. This was their world. It couldn’t be broken at the edges like the fake things. He lifted his gaze from the bricks to the buildings and gasped. Cracks snaked along the outside walls, gaps, places where the wood was just gone. It was as if something had eaten chunks out of the world. He’d never seen that before. Was he going crazy?

Forgetting about the gumbo, he hurried back to the shop. Athena wasn’t standing outside the door anymore. He found her inside, holding an armful of gidgets as if she was restraining them. Sissy held a sack full of moving things. Seeing Decatur, she cried, “Help us! The gidgets are trying to escape!” Decatur closed and locked the front door and handed Athena the other sack. Wrestling the gidgets, she lost one and it skittered across the floor toward Decatur. He tried to catch it, but it jumped away, bouncing on tiny spring legs. Athena caught the gidget and shoved it in the sack with the others, tying the bag shut.

“I’m going to see Jimbo,” Decatur said.

He ran up the stairs in the back of the shop that led to the two apartments upstairs. He, Athena, and Sissy lived in one and Jimbo had the other to himself. He never came out except to collect his money and “make groceries,” as he said. Decatur rapped on his door and Jimbo yelled, “Go away!”

Decatur yelled back, “No. I have something important to tell you.”

The door opened a crack and Decatur’s beak nose poked out. “You have money?”

Decatur shook his head and told him what he’d seen. Jimbo’s eyes looked like they might pop out of his skull. In all the years he’d known him, he’d never seen Jimbo frightened before, but he was now. His head disappeared and the door closed. “What should we do?” Decatur yelled at the door. There was no answer, but Decatur could hear Jimbo throwing things around. Was he packing? Or searching for something?

Decatur waited and, after a while, the door was flung open. Jimbo shot out like a cat and streaked down the stairs, a long jacket trailing behind him. All he said was, “Panic!”

Decatur went back to the shop. “What’s happening?” Sissy said, the still-squirming bag in her hands. Decatur figured the gidgets were panicking too. He had to hold himself together, though, for her. Sissy was pretty tough. Jimbo had found her living among some feral cats in a pile of rubble outside the city. He said she’d hissed when he approached. But Decatur still thought of her as his younger sister. “I think we should leave,” he said. “And take the gidgets with us.”

She gawked at him. “And go where?”

He considered that. Where would they be safe? “Outside the city.”

Without him asking, Athena easily lifted both sacks onto her shoulders, seemingly oblivious to the writhing of the gidgets inside, and they left. Decatur locked the door, though he had the feeling they wouldn’t be back. As he did, a chunk of the window disappeared. “Did you see that?” he asked. Sissy shook her head, looking terrified. “Okay, it’s okay,” Decatur said. It was hard to walk down the street when the bricks kept disappearing. He finally had to stop looking down. When they got close to the cemetery, he covered his mouth, hoping Sissy wouldn’t hear the frightened noise that came out of it. Another burial was taking place, a fake one. Men were digging a huge hole in the ground. It was too big to be a grave, but Decatur knew it was. What were they burying and why?

Sissy looked at him and Decatur knew that she realized he was seeing something that she couldn’t. But she didn’t ask what it was, as if she didn’t really want to know. Decatur felt his stomach clench as they hurried away from the cemetery. The ground rose up slightly, becoming higher and higher as they walked. The dirt road suddenly ended and under their feet was nothing but grass. Decatur was afraid to examine it too closely. He let himself be relieved that there was nothing frightening beyond the cemeteries. Nothing except fields and sky as far as he could see.

Finally, he could tell that Sissy was too tired to go on. Athena set down the bags and let the gidgets out. Decatur wanted to stop her because he was afraid they would run away, scatter and never be seen again. But the gidgets just teetered around on their mismatched feet, seeming to sniff the air like dogs.

Sissy plopped down on the grass, her skirts poofing out around her, and removed her shoes. She wiggled her toes in the grass and asked, “Is this all there is out here?”

Decatur said, “I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.” He felt a calm descending on him as the sun began to lower in the sky. He took off his hat and sat down next to Sissy. Athena gazed off into the distance, as if searching for threats, and finally joined them on the grass.

Decatur took off his coat and lied down on it, wondering where Jimbo had gone. He knew more secrets of the city than any of them. Perhaps he had a safe place there. Decatur hoped so. His stomach rumbled and he wished he’d gotten the gumbo or at least some bread to take along.

Relaxing into the grass, he began to feel safe. He’d come from here, somewhere out here, so in a way, this was a homecoming. It would all work out. They’d find something beyond the next hill, maybe even start a business again, but this time, they’d be their own bosses. There would be no Jimbo to take the largest share. But as his head neared the ground, he saw a blade of grass break and a crack appear. Fear choked him. He jumped to his feet.

Squinting down the hill, he could just see the cemetery. He watched the men preparing the grave, making it bigger and bigger. The city was becoming unreal—that was what the cracks meant—so maybe it was dying. Perhaps the first burial he’d seen marked the passing of a small chunk of the city and this one was for a bigger piece. How could you bury the earth inside itself? It made no sense, but then, the visions were just his brain telling him something. The world was dying. What that meant exactly, he didn’t know. He sat still and watched. The gidgets formed a circle around him, almost as if they were trying to protect him from the vision. Maybe they could see it too. Athena and Sissy were gazing in the other direction, searching for something beyond the fields, he supposed. Let them have their daydream.