Look, I was just innocently walking by. A car was in the driveway, so I knew someone was home. I only walked around to the side of the house, because I thought I might see Bob or Elise and give ‘em a wave. Just a small thing to make them feel welcome in the neighborhood.
Janet and I had been talking about bring them a casserole or something, but then we started considering food aversions and allergies, and…well anyway, we ended up not doing anything.
I didn’t want to look like I was snooping, so I kept walking, slowly, as I peeked through the kitchen window.
And that’s when I saw something that stopped me right in my tracks.
At first, I just crinkled my brows a little and chuckled. Obviously it couldn’t be what it looked like it was.
The window was open. If I got a little closer, I could smell it and confirm. It was probably a gelatin mold. Strawberry-flavored from the looks of it. It was just out of place, being as how Halloween was over a month ago.
Also…it was so realistic-looking.
Not that I would know for sure. My eyesight was sharp enough to see it clearly, of course. But I didn’t know what a real one looked like.
Is it human? I wondered, morbidly.
Assuming it was real, of course it wasn’t human. It looked a little too big to be human, for one thing. Maybe a cow? Didn’t seem advisable to eat then.
I crept a little closer.
A little closer.
It was lying on a platter. Bunches of parsley, oranges and figs cut in half, cranberries, and sage leaves were arranged all around it.
It was a brain.
The first thing that came to my mind could not be the truth.
Bob and Elise were normal humans. Normal living humans. They smelled alive. I’d gotten close enough to them once to know that much. And even if I hadn’t noticed, Janet would have. She had the keenest sense of smell of everyone I knew. She would have mentioned it. (Though, come to think of it, we hadn’t met their son yet.)
I got closer to the window, and craned my neck forward. I definitely would have smelled a gelatin flavor by now. My head was practically in the kitchen window.
The side door suddenly opened.
I jerked backward.
“Hey there, neighbor!”
It was Elise. I peered at her in the afternoon sunlight. Her skin looked smooth and flush with blood and life. Not gray, ashen, and dull as I would have expected.
Stop it, I told myself. She’s not undead.
“Hi, Elise. I saw the car. Thought you might be home. Just saying hello.” I gave an awkward wave. “Hello!”
Elise tilted her head and twisted her mouth to the side. “That’s sweet of you.” She pointed a finger up, a finger that was not just bone with a few shreds of skin attached, but a plump living finger. “Sweetness deserves sweetness,” she said. “Why don’t you come in for some lemonade?”
I hesitated. On the one hand, I wanted nothing more than to rush home, talk to Janet, and make some kind of game plan. On the other hand, I might be making a big deal about nothing at all. That brain was not made of gelatin. It was probably real. But if it was an animal brain, well, that was an unusual thing for me, especially given that it looked raw. But maybe it was some cultural thing I just didn’t know about. If that was the case, I could just ask.
But if I asked, she’d know I saw it. And if it was a human brain, then something troubling was going on.
If I got close enough to the brain, I was pretty sure I’d be able to tell, by smell, if nothing else.
“You know what,” I said. “The offer is so kind, I just have to accept.” I took a step toward Elise, but she raised a hand.
“The kitchen is a mess,” she said. “Could I trouble you to go around front?”
I blinked. “Of course not.”
I went around front. And as stepped past Elise into her front room, I turned to her and tried to lean in a bit—without being too obvious or creepy about it. I inhaled and smiled as naturally as I could.
“Are you wearing cologne?” Elise asked.
I froze for a moment. Was she reading my mind? Or was her question a coincidence? She smelled human. She wasn’t undead. Maybe she was something else. A witch? I gulped. If she was witch, it was worse than I thought. There was only one kind of witch who used brains, blood, and flesh in their concoctions.
Maybe they’re cannibals, I hoped against hope.
I stepped away. She must have noticed my sudden distress.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to get too personal,” she said. “I’ve just been wracking my brain about what to get Bob. Our anniversary is coming up.”
“Oh, uh, congratulations.”
“Thanks, anyway, whatever it is you’ve got on smells nice. Subtle, fresh.”
“I’m not wearing cologne.” I pointed to my hair. “Maybe it’s the new conditioner I’m trying? Janet has been mentioning that my hair feels coarse lately.”
Elise’s eyes went wide. “Oh, how interesting. Does that happen during certain…seasons? Or does it come in cycles, I mean?”
I shrugged and chuckled. “Probably just age.”
We stood awkwardly for a moment before Elise seemed to suddenly remember why she’d invited me in.
“Lemonade!” she said, pointing a finger up, as if she had just made a great discovery. “Stay right here, I’ll bring us a couple of glasses.”
She left for the kitchen. And I sighed.
I had to get near that brain without Elise seeing that I’d seen it. I turned my head to my left, to the open dining area adjacent to the front room, turned forward again, and did a double-take.
Sitting on the dining room table was a familiar platter with a familiar dish plated on it.
Elise must have carried it to the table just before she opened the door for me. There was a thick vase full of sunflowers in front of the platter. Maybe she figured a casual visitor wouldn’t notice the brain. But if she had me come to the front door, why move it in the first place? It would have been completely out of sight in the kitchen.
Strange, I thought.
It wouldn’t take her long to bring out that lemonade. And if I tried getting closer to the brain, she’d see me through the open doorway that connected the dining room to the kitchen, which from the little I could see, did not look like a mess.
I took a step toward the brain. I heard the sound of pouring. I took a few more steps toward the brain. I could see Elise now through the doorway that connected the dining area with the kitchen. Her back was turned to me. Keeping my eyes on her I bent down and sniffed the gray-and-pink mass of folded matter on the platter. It was chilled. That dulled the scent somewhat.
I’d been fooling myself into thinking I’d be able to smell the different between a human brain and an animal brain.
But I did smell it. Faded. But it was there. A remnant of a unique spark.
The brain was human.
I swept back into the living room and stepped toward the front door.
I heard the squeak of Elise’s shoes on the kitchen tile. I stopped and turned back around, my heart pounding. She came back out, holding two glasses. She’d even garnished each with a lemon wedge.
She offered a glass to me. I stretched out my arm so I could stay as far away from her as possible, and I took the glass. A spike of panic pierced my gut as I realized that I had a living brain in my skull.
Elise looked at me with her brows raised. She glanced down at the glass in my hand.
She really wants me to drink this, I thought. She really, really wants me to drink this.
So what was in it?
I didn’t want to find out.
Elise frowned and checked her wristwatch.
I saw my chance.
“Are you expecting company?” I asked, moving to put the glass down on the nearby coffee table. “I don’t want to keep you.”
Elise waved her hand. “No, no, don’t worry about it. I’ve just been keeping track of sunset. It’s so bothersome how it gets dark so soon, isn’t it?”
Night time. That’s when the dead rise.
But Elise wasn’t dead.
I realized too late that I’d missed my chance to pretend that Janet had called while Elise was fetching that lemonade.
If I didn’t take a sip of lemonade, my neighbor would think I was rude. But if I did…then what? Had Elise drugged the lemonade? Would it knock me out? Would I wake up to find myself strapped to an operating table with a saw positioned over my skull?
“Is something wrong?” Elise asked. She took a sip from her own glass. Again, it was as if she’d read my mind, and was now demonstrating to me that the lemonade was perfectly safe.
Well, her glass was anyway.
Or maybe she was just good at reading body language and facial expressions.
I figured it out. I would take a sip, and when Elise turned around or looked down, I would spit it back into the glass. Or maybe I could ask if we could enjoy the lemonade outside since it was such a nice day, and I could dump half a glass into the dirt when she wasn’t looking.
I was still running through different scenarios for getting rid of the lemonade without drinking it when I found myself bringing the glass closer and closer to my mouth. If I went slowly enough, maybe the front door would open, or someone would knock, or Elise’s phone would ring, or mine.
None of that happened before my lips met glass, and I took the smallest possible sip I could take.
“Mmmmm!” I nodded my head, holding the liquid in my mouth.
Elise smiled. “Made a pretty good batch this time.”
And I waited for Elise to turn away, to look away, to blink.
But she didn’t. She made small talk. And I answered with nods and throat sounds that replicated “no,” “yes,” “maybe,” “kinda,” all with the lemonade still in my mouth. When Elise finally peered at me with a crinkle in her brow, I gulped down that one sip, hoping it wouldn’t be enough to knock me out or kill me if it was drugged, and if I acted quickly enough to get out of the house and get help.
And that’s when Elise’s phone rang.
She excused herself and walked back into the kitchen.
Now was my chance. I moved to the door again, but Elise came walking back in. She put her hand over the phone. She mouthed the word “sorry,” smiled, and waved at me.
I smiled back and nodded, my hand reaching for the doorknob.
Again, she returned to the kitchen.
And I…did not leave.
It was probably a dumb move. I truly didn’t know if there was anything toxic or poisonous or venomous passing into my blood from the lemonade. Just because I didn’t feel anything didn’t mean nothing was happening. Maybe I could find clues while Elise was on the phone. I opened the front door and closed it. Then I snuck down the hallway, past the kitchen, as quietly as I could, which was very quiet.
If I happened to bump into Elise, I would tell her that I was looking for the bathroom.
A terrible excuse, considering that my house was only a five-minute walk away.
Surely, they wouldn’t keep anything incriminating in the medicine cabinet of their downstairs bathroom. But then again, if Elise was openly placing a platter of brains in front of her kitchen window and on her dining table, maybe I had a good chance of stumbling onto something.
The bathroom was down the hall, so I made my way to it.
I heard a snippet of Elise’s conversation. “You’ll never guess who just stopped by!”
I held my breath as I passed the doorway to the kitchen. Elise wasn’t even in view. I heard her turn on the tap.
I passed an open door leading into a small room that was furnished like an office.
It must have been Elise’s office. Bob worked at a small firm a few cities over. Insurance or something, I couldn’t quite remember. But I did remember that Elise said she worked from home.
It was risky going into that office. Probably riskier than going upstairs. But if I was going to find any clues about who or what Elise and her family were, her office was the best place to start.
There was a window. Big enough to fit me. So I had an escape route if I needed one. I slipped inside the office, and I slid open the window.
Elise’s office was big enough to fit her small desk, with a couple of shelves mounted to the wall above it, a comfortable-looking chair, a shredder and a trash can, and two bookshelves that were packed to the brim. I started scanning titles that were at chair level, figuring she’d keep the important stuff within easy reach.
Books and binders about her work (doing medical transcription, I think) were neatly organized on one shelf. But the books on the second shelf didn’t seem to be organized in any way. Still, it didn’t take me long to read a few titles that made my breath catch and my heart freeze.
Moonlight and Silver: Sources of Power and Weakness for the Werewolf.
A Were-hunter’s Guide: Strategies for Killing or Capturing.
It was definitely a dumb move.
I had a chance to leave, but I stayed.
It was definitely a dumb move.
I had to jump out of that window.
I had to do it now, but I couldn’t make my limbs move. I couldn’t even make my eyes move. I couldn’t stop staring at those books.
A sudden slam jerked me out of my trance.
It was a door. A door slam.
I gasped by reflex, and when I did, the smell hit my nose.
A sickly tang that made me cough. I slapped a hand over my mouth and my nose. Another odor woven in, dusty and sulfurous, like dried feces. My chest heaved.
That smell. It was rot. It was decay.
It was the undead.
I took a slow, shivering breath and held it.
I heard Elise’s voice answer the cry of her son. He’d just gotten home. I could only hear a garbled word here and there as their voices moved away from the front door.
Just then, I heard a scream from outside. I turned to the window of Elise’s office. Her neighbors had come out into their yard, two kids and their mom. Their mom glanced over to the window and I ducked away, hoping she didn’t see me.
I couldn’t go out the office window then.
I heard Elise’s voice growing louder and closer.
“I made lemonade,” she said.
Her son answered. I knelt down and peeked past the office door. He was leaning at the doorway to the kitchen. The smell was overpowering in the hallway.
I couldn’t go down the hallway to the front door, or to the kitchen door.
I was trapped.
I started retching. My eyes watered from trying to hold in the sound. I had to do something.
I couldn’t get to their back yard. That door was on the other side of the front room. Every exit required me to get past that kitchen door.
The stairs leading to the second floor were just out view of the kitchen.
If Elise and her son were both in the kitchen, I could make for the stairs. And I could climb out of a window that no neighbor or passerby could see.
I peeked just around the door again.
Elise’s son was still standing at the threshold to the kitchen, chatting with his mom about his day.
She answered him. “I made your favorite. To celebrate.”
I blinked and wiped my eyes. My tears had turned gummy. My nose was dripping, desperately producing mucus to protect itself from the overwhelming odor of death.
I forced myself to keep watching. And I hoped they wouldn’t come out of the kitchen.
But they did.
I ducked back into the office. I listened. Their voices grew just a bit fainter. I peeked past the door again, cupping my ear, letting the echoes bounce around and guide my hearing.
They were in the dining room.
Now was my chance. I slipped out of the office and into the hallway. I paused for a beat. They laughed.
I crouch-walked over to the foot of the stairs. I kept my feet on the edge of step, and crept up, not making a sound.
Upstairs, I could still smell the odor of the undead. But it was easier to bear. I had a feeling mother and son would be downstairs for a while, probably enjoying that brain.
But I had lost all my drive to keep snooping.
I found a window in what looked to be a spare bedroom that was facing their back yard. The angle of the wall blocked their neighbors from seeing this window, and anyone who happened to be climbing out of it. I climbed onto the sill, meaning to just jump down, but I was having trouble balancing, and the height seemed much higher than the last time I remembered jumping out of a second-story window. But then, I wasn’t in human form at the time.
I climbed down the convenient trellis, empty of vines. That was actually easier than I’d thought. Maybe all the fresh air was restoring my strength.
Getting out of the back yard was not an issue. I rushed home, breathing deeply of the fresh air, and the smells of dinner cooking in the homes I passed, trying to ignore that lingering smell of rot that was stuck in the back of my throat.
Janet was in our front room, heading toward our kitchen, when I barged in through the front door, slammed it, and locked it.
She spun around. Her eyes went wide when she saw me. She stepped toward me.
“Janet, I have to tell you something big about Elise and Bob. It’s big, so just listen first and ask all the questions after, okay?”
“Okay, yes.” She pointed behind her. “But actually, uh—”
“Let dinner burn. That doesn’t matter. I’ve smelled worse today. Much worse.”
“No, it’s not dinner. It’s Bob. He’s—”
“Undead. Bob is undead.” I reached out and took Janet’s hands in my own. “Elise too. Or maybe they’re both human. She didn’t smell. But their son…Janet their son is definitely undead. And that’s not all. Elise has these books in her office.” I took a deep breath. “About werewolves.”
Janet nodded. She squeezed my hands. “I believe you.” She looked at my mouth. “Why is your tongue purple?”
“You do? It was bad. Janet it was real—what? My tongue?”
“Yeah, well, I would have believed you anyway. But also…” She turned around.
I looked to where she was looking.
Bob walked out of our kitchen.
I grabbed Janet’s arms and spun her around behind me.
“They’re planning on hunting us,” I said. “Probably capturing us alive, eating our brains.”
Bob threw up his hands. “Whoa!”
I felt my blood simmering, my muscles straining against my shirt. Afternoon was dimming into twilight. But my eyesight was only sharpening.
I felt a cool hand on my shoulder.
“Wait a minute.” It was Janet. “Let’s all calm down.” She leaned closer to my ear and whispered. “Let him talk. Plenty of time to rip him to shreds if it turns out you don’t like the smell of him.”
I took a deep breath, smelling nothing but the iron tang of my own blood. The simmering calmed. But I didn’t step away from Janet.
Bob lowered his hands. “We’re all undead,” he said. “All three of us.”
He explained. And I listened.
Bob and Elise didn’t smell, because they were wearing odor neutralizers. Some new-fangled expensive stuff that was specially formulated according to a body’s unique decay rate and microbiological condition. Their son wasn’t as diligent as applying it, but humans didn’t notice all that much. He was a teenage boy after all. Some odors were expected. Necromancy explained their appearance.
When Bob and Elise first suspected that there might be a werewolf family in the neighborhood, they had two reactions. Bob was terrified of being found out. Elise was elated.
“My wife…well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say she fetishizes werewolves,” Bob said. “But she’s fascinated by, well, uh your kind, even though she’s never met a werewolf—until now, of course.”
“We like to keep a low profile,” Janet said.
Bob nodded. “Same.” He slipped his hands into his pockets. “Those books you mentioned. Elise just wants to learn. To be honest, she’s the one who first suspected. She showed me the signs, but I was in denial. I was scared you’d, well, smell us out.”
He shrugged. “But then I figured it couldn’t hurt to just ask you outright. And maybe let you know about us. We’re newly risen. Still getting used to it ourselves. We want to let people know, but then again, it’s not really anyone’s business. I mean, we’re not hurting anyone.”
“Oh no? Then why was your wife trying to get me drink her drugged lemonade?” I stuck out my tongue.
Bob groaned. “Elise! I told her not to make the stuff.” He sighed. “It’s not a drug. I mean, it won’t hurt you, and the color should fade by morning. It’s just a potion for detecting the presence of a werewolf. Any exposed parts turn purple.”
Janet huffed. “A litmus test for lycanthropy?”
“Then what about that brain your wife was preparing?” I asked.
Bob frowned as if he were confused. Then his brows shot up. “Oh, don’t worry. That brain was ethically sourced.”
I narrowed my eyes. “How do you know that?”
“It’s a good point, Bob,” Janet said. “How can you be sure? Lot of vendors are using those buzz words these days.”
“Oh, I know. I’m always bugging Elise about checking on that. It’s all on the up and up. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have come over to invite you to dinner.”
I felt my face go slack with surprise.
“We appreciate that, Bob,” Janet said. “But we’re not really…adventurous eaters.”
“Sounds like it’s a special family night anyway,” I said, still staring at Bob. I sniffed, and all I smelled on him was a hint of the hand soap from our kitchen. “To celebrate something about your son.”
“Oh!” Bob cried out. And he slapped his forehead.
His movement was so sudden all my muscles went taut again.
“Thank you for reminding me!” He swept forward, making an arc around the sofa, before veering toward the front door. “We’ll have to have you over for dinner some other time.”
Janet and I turned to follow his movements.
Bob opened the door and stepped out, but then turned around, looked at me, and said, “My family and I have no intention of eating anyone’s brains without permission.”
And he left.
Janet pulled out her phone. “I’m calling Mandy. Get her to check you out just in case that lemonade wasn’t as harmless as Bob says it was.”
I stared at the door, already mostly calm again. “I should have apologized for snooping.”
Janet raised her brows and shrugged. She wasn’t as much of a stickler for neighborly propriety as I was. As I usually was, that is.
She put her hand under my chin and examined my lips. “How bad did the kid smell?” she asked.
I felt my face making expressions as I tried to think of the words. Whatever those expressions were, Janet took one look at them and took a deep breath of the clean fresh air in our house.
“We’ll think of some excuse,” she said.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel