Millie’s daughter came back twenty days after her death.
This was not surprising, since everybody came back twenty days after their death. What was surprising, though, was that Ariana chose to come back as a young woman, even though she was only ten when she was struck by a passing car. The driver had been drunk, and was now locked up in the city jail, awaiting trial. Millie had hardly given him a second thought. Her entire being was focused on holding herself together before the Reunion Day. Sometimes the temptation to let it go, explode in the uncontrollable burst of grief and anger was too much. Millie imagined her body expanding into a cloud of shrapnel, piercing fragments of herself flying in all directions and lacerating her smug neighbors and solicitous friends. She hated them because their children were still with them. They could see their smiling faces every day at breakfast table and every night before turning out the light. And Millie would have only one more opportunity to see her daughter—ever.
When the traffic wardens had knocked on her door and told her there had been an accident, Millie had tried to push past them and to rush out into the quiet suburban street, only to be stopped and told, quite gently, that the body of her daughter had been taken away already. They had said “the body”, so there was no ambiguity. “Look forward to the Reunion,” the chief warden had said as they were leaving.
The twenty days between the wardens’ visit and the Reunion were spent in the unending bustle of cooking, cleaning, making up lists, and airing the bedding in the guest rooms for relatives who would want to stay overnight. This suited Millie just fine because it exhausted her to the point where she would manage to fall asleep for a couple of hours as her head hit the pillow. And then she would be jerked into wakefulness by the knowledge that Ariana was gone. Scooting away from the gently snoring bulk of Arwen, she would stare at the ceiling and imagine Ariana’s body on the table in the Mortuary, her eyes, amber colored like Millie’s own, also wide open. She had heard that the Mortuary was always brightly lit but did not know whether it was true or not. Sometimes Myrtle would cry in her bedroom, and Millie would drag herself out of bed, her body as heavy as a prisoner’s shackles. Myrtle would not be comforted, and Millie would eventually leave, closing the door behind and letting the child exhaust herself in sobbing. Myrtle was three but still did not speak.
Millie did not sleep at all before the Reunion Day and spent the night in Ariana’s room. It fell to Arwen to go to comfort Myrtle. He was better at coping with her anyway, treating his youngest—and now only—daughter’s developmental delay with the tenderness Millie could not muster. She resented Myrtle for having been born, and even more so—for being alive, while Ariana was dead.
The guests started arriving early in the morning. Millie’s and Arwen’s siblings, cousins, and other relatives were first. Friends and coworkers would drop by later, for a brief visit to pay their respects. Millie wished it were the other way round. She would rather see her few friends than the third cousins whose faces blurred into an indistinct tableau of shopworn familiarity. And she did not want to see her father at all.
But he came in anyway, limping and leaning on his intricately carved and polished stick. As a child, Millie had hated this stick. In her imagination, it had somehow usurped the place of her mother.
Her father embraced her awkwardly, his walrus moustache tickling her cheek, and his familiar smell of rosewater-scented tobacco making her nauseous. He sat heavily at the kitchen table, while Millie busied herself with making coffee to avoid conversation. It did not work. Her father cleared his throat and glanced at the flower-painted clock on the sideboard that had belonged to Millie’s mother.
“What time . . . ?” he inquired unnecessarily. Millie shrugged. The dead person’s visit on the Reunion Day did not follow any particular schedule. Some came first thing in the morning, some delayed until the sunset. The only stable thing was that the entire duration of the visit was three hours. And then, the closest adult relative would have to say the Farewell, and the dead would go away, never to be seen again until the Final Reunion in heaven—if you believed such a thing, which Millie did not.
Arwen came into the kitchen with Myrtle in his arms. The little girl’s lopsided face lit up with a smile when she saw her grandfather. Millie started setting the table.
After the Farewell was properly said, the dead visitor would dissolve into a cloud of luminescent bluish smoke that slowly coiled upwards until it dissipated. Millie remembered trying to catch handfuls of her mother’s smoke as it drifted away.
People started trickling in, and Millie’s hostess persona took over: a slick armor containing the seething of grief and anger inside. She imagined it pouring out like a stream of black oily poison once the armor was removed. But she would see her daughter soon. She kept repeating it to herself as she circulated among the throng, dispensing petit-fours and tea sandwiches.
Her father and Arwen sat in the corner, Myrtle nestling between them and playing with a rattle she should have outgrown years ago. Millie wanted to take it away but was afraid to cause a scene. Her father noticed her expression and made his way toward her.
“You have another daughter,” he said. Millie ground her teeth. The poison was about to eat through her armor, and she was beyond trying to stem the tide.
“Like you had another wife?” she snarled.
“I did not! You know, Millie, it’s not true! I started dating Rhoda only after your mother died. I almost died too in that collapse!”
His hand unconsciously touched his crooked left leg. Millie’s parents had been caught in one of the tower collapses that plagued the City. They had gone on some errand into the Inner Circle where high-rises housed the municipal bureaucracy and where both the very rich and the very poor lived in multi-story towers. Solidly suburban middle-class folks, her parents seldom ventured into the center of the City but as bad luck would have it, they had had to go on that particular day. The tower had collapsed, and they had been buried under the rubble. Her father had survived; her mother had not.
Millie had been in daycare at the time, too young to remember, her teachers said later. But she did remember. The ugly splotchy finger-painting pinned to the wall in the daycare center where she huddled alone, waiting for her mother to pick her up. Standing by her father’s bedside, Rhoda’s unfamiliar hand clutching hers, staring at his leg in a cast suspended from a pole like a monstrous cocoon. Clinging to her mother on the Reunion Day so fiercely that it took several adults to disengage them as her father was muttering the Farewell.
Her father and Rhoda married a year after her father had said the Farewell to her mother. They divorced a couple of years later. Millie hated her ex-stepmother and made a point of not inviting her to the Reunion.
“I know you blame me,” her father continued, “but what could I have done? It was an accident; these collapses happen all the time. I loved your mother.”
“But not loved her enough to ask her to stay?”
Her father’s face blanched, and he silently opened and closed his mouth like a beached fish.
There was a commotion at the door. A slender young woman came in. For a moment, Millie thought it was another forgotten cousin. And then she saw a pale bluish glow enveloping her like the corona of the sun during the eclipse. She rushed to the door, colliding with random bodies.
The woman stood at the entrance, smiling, dressed in a strange collection of mismatched clothes that must have been given to her at the Mortuary. She was as graceful as a reed, with long dark hair and amber eyes. The eyes were the same, but the face was to Ariana’s soft features as the finished painting is to a preliminary sketch. She looked like Millie. She looked like Millie’s mother.
Millie dug her fingers into the bones and muscles of her daughter’s grown-up body. The dead were as solid as the living. They ate and drunk if they wanted to, often sharing the last meal with their family and friends. They talked, and smiled, and laughed. They made last-minute arrangements for the disposal of their estates. They occasionally revealed family secrets or the identity of their murderers. The only thing they did not do was breathe. Some occasionally faked it, to make the guests at the Reunion feel better, but the body in Millie’s arms was as still as a rock.
Ariana gently disengaged herself, and kept smiling at her mother, showing flawless white teeth. The chipped molar on the left side had apparently been repaired. The bluish halo that marked her off as dead pulsed with a hypnotic rhythm, dimming and brightening at regular intervals.
“Mama,” she said. Her voice was only slighter deeper than when she had been alive.
Millie blinked away her tears and pulled her daughter away from the door. She was blocked by Arwen who embraced Ariana, but Millie could see in the knotted muscles of his neck that he was afraid of touching his dead daughter, and it made her furious. And then Myrtle came over, waddling like a duckling, and seeing her sister, opened her mouth wide and emitted such a piercing shriek that it silenced the buzz of conversations. She flopped down in a tantrum, her short legs pummeling the floor, her red face smeared with snot.
“Take her away!” Millie hissed at Arwen and led Ariana toward the food-laden table where the guests waited to receive the last blessing from the dear departed. Ariana had always been a precocious little girl, and her assumption of the role of an adult felt entirely natural. Millie’s heart swelled with pride, as she sat by her side, listening to her daughter’s easy flow of conversation. She did not say anything that would be too far out of character for either a ten-year-old or an eighteen-year-old, which is what she looked like now.
Some dead came back much younger than at the moment of their death. That was common with people dying of old age, so grandchildren were prepared in advance to greet a teenager as Grandpa. Some changed gender, giving rise to a flood of tongue-wagging after the Farewell. Millie had even heard of some dead coming back in distorted bestial bodies, though she was not sure how much truth there was to it. Everyone wanted to be their best at their Reunion. Even executed criminals showed up wreathed in smiles. For a child to come back as an adult was rare but not unheard-of.
Arwen reappeared, having put Myrtle to bed, and sat silently by his dead daughter and living wife. As the Reunion progressed, and more people came over to shake Ariana’s hand, give her a hug, offer a fake smile or a genuine tear, he was slowly moving away until he ended by the far wall, hunched alone on a chair in the corner. But Millie remained by Ariana’s side, clutching her hand, occasionally stroking her silky-smooth hair. Some people tried to get a keepsake from the dead, but a lock of hair would fall into dust and photographs would end up blank or overexposed. Again, many whispered stories circulated about even worse things showing up on Reunion pictures—rotten corpses or maniacally grinning skulls. Millie would have tried to take a picture of Ariana anyway, but Arwen had hidden all the cameras in the house, and she did not want to use up any moment of the precious three hours to search for them. She felt every second tickling away like a drop of blood from a wound.
Millie’s father came over to say goodbye to his granddaughter. They had never been particularly close, as Ariana had seemed to copy her mother’s reserved attitude. Still, he was Ariana’s closest relative after her parents. It occurred to Millie that had she and Arwen died in an accident, Millie’s father would have been entrusted with saying Ariana’s Farewell. The idea made her sick.
Her father cleared his throat awkwardly, avoiding his dead granddaughter’s eyes.
“Godspeed!” he mumbled.
“She is not going anywhere yet!” Millie exploded.
Her father scuttled away, but Arwen pointed to the flower-painted clock. The ornate gilded hands stood at ten to seven. Ariana had walked through the door at four. Outside, the sun had dropped behind the City’s towers whose shadows crawled across the lowlands of the suburbia. Dusk was filling the streets like a flood of stagnant water.
“It’s time, love,” Arwen said quietly, and Millie heard the relief in his voice.
She got up, and the guests scattered around the living room, their plates and glasses empty, turned to her: a chiaroscuro of whitish blotches. She looked at her dead daughter. Ariana’s face was the only real thing in this faded room.
“Farewell!’ Arwen whispered urgently. If it were up to him, his daughter would be gone already.
Millie turned away from him and put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
“Ariana,” she said. “I will not bid you Farewell. I will not release you into darkness. “I will not let you go. Dead or alive, you are my daughter, and you stay with me.”
The collective gasp of shock and horror was so loud that it rattled the windows. And then the guests rushed to the door, tripping over the furniture and trampling each other in their haste to get away. But Ariana stared at her mother, and the small smile on her face grew wider.
Millie stirred the stew in the pot, tasted it and added more salt. It was too bland.
Not that it mattered. Millie’s liking for spicy dishes could hardly be indulged on the dole. And Ariana did not care how the food tasted, even if she was induced to eat it.
Her daughter was late. Millie came over to the window of their tenth-floor apartment, staring listlessly into the street below. From this height, the passersby appeared as tiny as ants.
She had never lived in one of the Inner Circle towers before. She had been a suburban girl, growing up with her parents in one of the garden townships surrounding the City, and later became a suburban wife and mother. Arwen had been a successful insurance accessor, so they could afford their semi-detached house not far from her father’s. Millie told herself she did not miss her old life, her gossipy neighbors, and leafy silent streets. But she did miss her garden.
She removed the pot from the stove and put it on the counter. She went around the apartment, turning on all the lights. It still felt as if the two cramped rooms and the kitchen were too dim but there was nothing she could do about it. And then she sat by the window, waiting for her daughter to return home.
The dead had jobs, and schedules, and weekly meetings in some clubs Millie had never heard about. She often reminded herself that now she knew so much more about the City. This was a compensation, surely, for her ignorance of Arwen’s and Myrtle’s lives. Yes, she lost her former life. But she had gained knowledge. And Ariana. She had gained Ariana.
The police had showed up quickly after the exodus of the guests at the Farewell party. Millie and Ariana were alone among the overturned tables and broken dishes; Millie had even started picking up shards of glass and squashed cookies from the floor. Ariana did not help. She just sat at the table, smiling the same enigmatic smile, her chest neither rising nor falling.
The police were brutally efficient. They hustled Millie away in a Black Maria, dismissing Arwen’s plaintive objections. Myrtle started crying when Millie was led out, and he rushed to her. Millie did not look back. She went out the door surrounded by black-uniformed constables buoyed by exaltation. Finally, in her ordinary boring life as a suburban wife and mother she had done something that had never been done before. She brought her daughter back from the dead!
The moment of pride, however, was short-lived. Millie was taken to a police station in the Inner Circle of the City located in the upper story of a needlelike tower. There, a good-looking young man with shiny teeth and opaque eyes explained the situation to her. The office was brightly lit by an unshaded electric bulb, but Millie could see the faint bluish aura wrapped around him.
Millie was not the first nor the only one to refuse to say Farewell. In fact, the young man told her, last year more people refused to let their dear departed go than sped them on their way. The balance of the dead and the living in the City was slowly but surely tilting toward the former.
“Why don’t they tell us?” Millie exclaimed. The young man, who never introduced himself, shrugged.
“Domestic tranquility,” he explained.
The dead lived mostly in the towers of the Inner Circle, though some were beginning to penetrate the suburbia. Their living relatives, the ones who had kept them from dissipating into a burst of blue light, were given a choice: reside with the dead, or sign a non-disclosure agreement whose breaking would result in the entire family’s banishment from the City.
For Millie, it was not a choice. Her last glance at Arwen’s face as she had been led away confirmed to her that her marriage was over. His horror and revulsion were palpable, as he backed away from Ariana who placidly sat at the table. Millie had signed the divorce papers without ever seeing him again. She lingered a bit over the paragraph in which she gave away her parental rights to Myrtle but then initialed it anyway.
When she was finally reunited with Ariana, Millie had clung to her daughter as if her embrace could melt the stoniness that separated them. Ariana had neither returned the embrace nor pushed her mother away. She just stood there, as implacable and immobile as a rock. When Millie’s arms slid off her, she saw that the slight smile on Ariana’s face was still there. Afterwards, it never left.
So, now they lived together in this tiny apartment, and Millie spend her days cooking and cleaning for her daughter who needed no food and generated no waste. She listened to the radio, but the audio dramas she used to love were as alien to her now as if they were in a foreign language. She would wait up for Ariana who would show up late or occasionally not at all. She would peck her mother on the cheek with cold lips, thank her for the food which she would not touch, and then go to her room. Millie waited for the click of the lock because it was the only sound that ever came from there. A couple of times, she even listened with her ear to the door and heard only a heavy treacly silence.
Millie did not know what Ariana did all day, or even if she did anything at all. But she knew that other dead had jobs. The City’s bureaucracy was mostly staffed with the dead, though the Mayor and chief Councilors were alive since they had to show up for face-to-face meetings with constituents. The pulsing bluish halo was the one sure sign that distinguished the dead from the living, and that could not be faked or disguised.
Mother and daughter almost never talked. It was not that Ariana was rude or impolite. Her glued-on smile never wavered. She would answer some questions that Millie asked her. The questions that she really wanted answers to were simply overlooked.
Once, when Ariana was alive, and eight years old, just two years ago, she had a temper tantrum when Myrtle, then a toddler, broke her favorite cup. Millie replayed this scene in her memory as she waited for her daughter to come home, striving to bring back the sound of her anger. The tower was eerily silent. Millie had not met many of her neighbors, but she suspected most of them were dead.
The sun had dropped behind the towers, and the sky was the color of clotting blood. The ants below seemed to be drowning in the maroon tide.
And then one of the towers shook.
Millie blinked, believing her eyes were deceived by the dusk. There was no sound, and the strange, graceful sway of the slender silhouette felt as unreal as a dream. But the sound came next: a deafening cracking thunder; a crash so powerful it reverberated in her bones. The floor listed like the boat deck in a storm. Millie fell to the ground, hugging the tiles, flattening herself against the floor as if she could prevent the collapse of the concrete colossus that held her within its grasp. The blind panic swamped her, erasing everything but the fear of dying, and Millie screamed. Her voice was swallowed up in the crashing and breaking: the noise of a disaster.
And then the noise stopped.
Millie raised herself on one arm, her face streaked with tears and snot, and discovered that apart from a broken plate on the floor and some stew that splashed out of the pot, everything was normal. The electric lights were undimmed; the furniture in place; the windows whole. She clambered to her feet, feeling ashamed of her panic, and looked straight into Ariana’s calm face.
Her dead daughter was standing by the door, as well put together and elegant as she had been this morning. Not a hair out of place; not a crease on her pencil skirt. Millie was acutely aware of the difference between the two of them. She realized just how chaotic and polluted the living were as compared to the serenity of the dead.
She hobbled to the window and looked out. At first, save for the glowing pearls of streetlights, it all seemed unchanged. But then she saw a gap like a missing tooth in the palisade of the Inner Circle towers. She squinted. An enormous pile of rubble glistened against the night sky where one high-rise had stood just an hour ago. Millie waited, expecting the wail of sirens and the flashing of ERV lights but all was quiet.
“They will clean it up tomorrow,” Ariana explained.
Millie stared into her placid face, as alien as if an earthworm suddenly reared up and addressed her in human language.
“What about the people?” she demanded. “There must be survivors in the ruins!”
Ariana turned around and glided to her room, but Millie grabbed her shoulder. She let go immediately, as the heavy cold flesh seemed to burn her fingers. But Ariana stopped and looked into her mother’s face. Her eyes, Millie saw, were no longer amber. They were yellow, dull, and glazed, with no pupil and no white.
“Twenty days,” she said.
“And what of those who will say the Farewell?” Millie asked.
“There will be losses, for sure. But some will never let go.”
“And then another tower will collapse,” Millie said, and the words tasted of wormwood in her mouth. “And another. And there will be more of you.”
Ariana did not respond, and made to go into her room, but Millie barred her way.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“You know who I am, Mama,” Ariana responded, and this time, Millie stepped aside.
She sat in the dark in her own bedroom, listening to the silence, and imagining the apartments above and below filled with frightened, despairing, angry people chained to their dead parents, children, husbands, and wives. But what could they do? Could the dead be killed?
Millie went into the kitchen and pulled a large butcher knife from the block. She pushed Ariana’s bedroom door, and to her surprise, it opened.
Ariana lay on her bed, fully dressed in her business suit and high heels. The ceiling light fixture was on, and in the bright soulless light, Ariana’s open eyes gleamed like wet stones. But the light did not dim the bluish glow wrapped around her; if anything, it seemed to intensify it.
Ariana turned her head when her mother approached, the knife held inexpertly in her nerveless finger, but made no other move. Her stillness was as absolute as the patience of a lizard.
“You are not my daughter!” Millie whispered.
“No,” Ariana said. “But I am all you have left of her.”
The knife cluttered to the floor, and Millie slid down, hugging herself.
“Why are you doing it?” she asked, but though Ariana said nothing, she could guess the answer. The City was rich and powerful. These creatures—whoever they were—found a foolproof way to conquer it. A bloodless and gentle takeover, powered by love, not violence.
“Will all the towers collapse?’ she asked.
“No. It takes too much effort to rebuild. We will find other ways.”
“I bet you will,” Millie said and got up. The knife lay on the floor. Ariana lifted it and handed it to Millie. Her fingers grasped it too tightly and the sharp edge sliced through the pale flesh, which parted in a neat bloodless incision. Ariana did not seem to notice it.
Millie took the knife and hesitated, but only for a second. The wasteland of her life lay before her, with her dead daughter’s face the single beacon of light. Even if it belonged to an impostor, there was nothing else.
I am all you have left of her.
Ariana lay back on the bed as Millie went out. Her cut hand curled on the bedspread, the incision gaping like a smiling mouth. The dead don’t bleed.
It had taken Millie two hours and several buses to get to the suburb where she used to live. She had not realized how far it was from the Inner Circle. On her way, she stared out the window as the asphalt and concrete were gradually replaced by lawn and stucco. In the City Center the dead clamped together when going about their business. Occasionally, there were so many of them that their combined bluish auras flickered and reflected off the sidewalk like rising water. But the closer she got to the suburbia, the fewer of them she saw. The bus was gradually filling with familiar types: retirees rustling their newspapers and housewives with perpetually harassed expressions, clutching their shop-bags or the hands of their children. Some of them glanced at Millie, and she worried that she now bore some mark that set her apart from the living, despite the steady beat of pulse in her throat. But nobody said anything; and there were no familiar faces in the crowd.
Finally, she disembarked and walked toward her former home, its wooden siding gleaming in the bright sunshine. The roses she had planted were in bloom; she could smell their sweetness in the air. It occurred to her that Arwen might have remarried by now. But it did not matter. She would have to talk to him anyway. He deserved to know.
Millie put her hand on the swinging gate when the door opened, and Arwen stepped out. Clinging to his hand was a little girl. Millie recognized Myrtle immediately, though her youngest daughter now looked healthier than ever. There was pink in her cheeks, and her hair was neatly braided and gleamed. And surrounding her was a bluish halo.