With a Star Wars beach towel over my shoulder and a suitcase full of swimwear, I waited by the stairs up to our condo while Matt unloaded the ice chest from the car. At the top of the stairs, Matt’s parents stood smiling in greeting. It was the same condo we’d used last year, and the year before. And the year before that, as well.
“We’ve been coming to this park for more than thirty years, you know,” Matt’s mom likes to remind him. “Since before you kids were born, back when it was just the one water slide and a mini-golf course.”
This year, however, was bound to be different. We’d received a postcard from Matt’s folks well before our trip in June declaring that this year’s Hamilton Schlitterbahn trip would be themed (yes, we are THAT family), and the theme was zombies (we are also THAT family). “Oh my,” I said, stepping into the condo’s living room. “You weren’t kidding.” There were zombie apocalypse novels on the end tables, a red rubber brain on the countertop, a stack of zombie board games on the coffee table, even zombie-themed cups and napkins in the kitchen. “Where did you find all of this?”
“The internet,” said Matt’s dad. “Why don’t you put your suitcase in your room and we can play Zombie Dice.”
The moment I entered the room I saw him, all piercing blue eyes and a blood-spattered maw: a life-sized cardboard cutout of a zombie. “What?” I said.
“Nice,” said Matt, entering the room behind me.
“The internet again,” said Matt’s dad from the doorway, having followed us to see our reactions. “Were you surprised?”
Yes. For, you see, few things are ever as surprising as a life-sized cardboard cutout of a zombie.
In fact, there were three of them, and within a few hours Matt and his siblings were debating names. “I’m calling her Lucinda. Nurse Lucinda. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?” said Matt’s brother, Curtis.
“I’m leaning toward a J name for this one. Justine or Josephine or something,” said their sister, Julie.
“What do you think, dear?” said Matt. “Want to help us name one?”
“I like Francis,” I said. “I think he looks like a Francis.”
They were the walking dead. Francis, Lucinda, and Genevieve (a J sound, though it starts with a G) moved around the condo all week long. We hid them behind doors and around corners, first to scare each other and then to relieve the monotony of the cleaning staff: You’d open the shower curtain and there would be Genevieve. You’d close a door and there would be Francis behind it.
But as the trip wore on, we’d become numb to their presence. What at first had been shocking soon faded into the background. Just another piece of furniture, a bit of the scenery, something to step around on our way to the fridge. Even the cleaning crew seemed to take the zombies’ presence in stride, with only a bit of resigned head-shaking at the strangeness of their guests.
On the last day, Matt’s dad gathered his children before the packing up began in earnest and said, “Your mom and I have decided that each of you can take one of the zombies home with you.”
“Dibs on Francis!” I said.
“I guess we’re taking Francis,” said Matt.
“I’ll just put him here out of the way until we decide what to do with him,” I said when we got Francis home. “Here” was “prominently in the living room, behind the armchair, posed as if he’s about to feast on the chair’s inhabitants,” where we again promptly became accustomed to his creepy presence. We ate dinner in front of Francis. We played board games in front of Francis. I sat in the armchair reading in front of Francis, like the oblivious victim in a zombie movie.
Only when other people came around did I remember he was there.
“That’s mildly disturbing,” said Benjamin, stopping as he stepped in the front door one night. “You know that, right? That this is not something normal people keep in their living rooms?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. I honestly keep forgetting he’s there.”
On another night, Kristina stopped just inside the door and said only “What?”
“That’s exactly what I said the first time I saw him.”
“But… why?” she asked.
“He’s not staying there forever,” I assured her. “I just don’t know where to put him yet.”
The mild surprise of my friends was totally worth it. Complete strangers, though, are another matter. When the pizza delivery boy stood traumatized on my doorstep, hands locked in a death-grip on my dinner, too stunned to tell me what I owed him, I began to rethink my ways. After sending the delivery boy away with a generous tip, lest Papa Johns blacklist my address, I finally relegated Francis to the spare room.
“This isn’t forever, Francis. But in the meantime, no guest is ever going to inadvertently run across you in here.”
Crap, I thought, realizing only after I let him in that the exterminator is exactly the sort of guest who will visit an obscure room of the house that no guest would ever see, a room in which Francis was still prominently displayed. “Do you have any pets I need to worry about?” the exterminator asked.
“There are two cats, but they’re no problem. Just be prepared for the zombie in the spare room.”
“We keep a life-sized cardboard cutout of a zombie. For reasons. His name is Francis and he will not harm you.”
“Sure, lady,” he said, shaking his head at me and starting his job.
I sat on the living room couch listening to the sounds of his pump sprayer as he progressed down the hall: Pump, hiss, hiss. Pump, hiss, hiss. The door to the master bedroom opened – Pump, hiss, hiss. Pump, hiss, hiss. – and closed again. The upstairs bathroom: Pump, hiss, hiss. Pump, hiss, hiss. Then the spare room door opened, Pump, hiss… and the noises stopped.
There it is, I thought.
Finally, the noises resumed, traveling around the spare room and back through the hall where the exterminator gave me a long-suffering look before he headed downstairs. “I’m not gonna lie,” he said, “but even with the warning, that was creepy as hell.”
When we moved from Kansas to a new house closer to family in Oklahoma, Francis was among the first things to go. Being lightweight and able to fold down flat, conveniently the same size as the seldom used space between the backseat and the rear window, we loaded him up with the Christmas decorations, seasonal clothing, and other things we knew we wouldn’t need during the transition between homes.
“I’ll leave a key with you,” I told my mother, “and I know grandma already has one ‘cause she has a handy-man coming by later. We might bring another load up next weekend, but the official moving day isn’t until the end of the month.”
“No problem!” said Mom. “I’ll come over and clean your kitchen for you, and air the place out a little.”
“Okay, but Mom, there’s just one thing,” I said. “I’ve set up our life-sized cardboard zombie in the smaller bedroom where I piled our stuff. Don’t forget he’s there, okay? I know how easily startled you are.”
“You’re so silly,” she said.
After moving day, though, we got a mild lecture and “silly” wasn’t the word for it. “When you said ‘cardboard zombie’, I was expecting something cartoony! He’s really realistic! He about gave me a heart-attack! I forgot you told me about him! And did you hear about grandpa?”
I winced. “Was it bad? It never occurred to me to tell grandpa he was there!”
“The handy man too!”
As Halloween approached, I was still unpacking, and although I knew precisely where the Halloween decorations were, I didn’t decorate. With every available surface covered in boxes and things being sorted from boxes, I figured the decorations would only have added to the chaos.
What I did have was my porch light, my bowl full of candy, and one life-sized cardboard cutout of a zombie.
At first I worried that he would frighten the little kids, but that wasn’t the case. As it happens, Halloween is the only time of year when it’s appropriate to greet your guests with a realistic cardboard zombie.
“Oh my gosh! That’s awesome!” the trick-or-treaters declared.
“I was going to compliment your friend there on his costume, but I see now he isn’t real,” said a mom.
Late in the evening, I opened the door for a tiny cowboy and knelt down to his eye-level, with the candy bowl propped on my knees.
“Happy Halloween!” he said.
I complimented him on his costume while his dad looked on from the end of the driveway. “Now what do you say?” I asked.
“Thank you?” he said.
“Aren’t you supposed to say ‘Trick or Treat’?”
But instead of “Trick or Treat,” he pointed over my shoulder and said, “Who’s that?”
“That’s Francis. He’s a zombie.”
“Is that a costume? Does he live here? Is he your dad?”
“No, he’s my friend.”
“Your zombie friend?”
“Yes,” I said, giving the tiny cowboy a generous helping of candy, though I had to open his bag myself as he was too preoccupied with Francis to be interested in sweets.
He leaned in close, narrowing his eyes first at Francis and then at me. “Is he real?” the child whispered.
“No, he’s not real,” I whispered back.
“Okay,” he said, running off toward his dad and the next house.
When the candy bowl was nearly empty, I turned off the porch light and settled in for a (mildly) scary movie. It was well after midnight before I decided to turn in. Candy wrappers, candy bowl, a few LED tealight candles, all could wait until morning.
However, I did move Francis from his post by the front door to the out of the way place behind the chair in the living room, for old time’s sake. “I’ll put you away in the morning,” I said to Francis and to myself. “I’ll remember you’re there, and I will not be alarmed.”
But in the morning, I was alarmed.
Because in life few things are ever as surprising as a cardboard cutout of a zombie.