My whole life I’d been waiting for someone cool to show up, someone who didn’t care about my weirdness, someone the opposite of my stepfather. Turns out that most people cared about the things that make you different from them and they didn’t care in a nice way. They cared in a way that made them call you a freak, a weirdo, a way that allowed them to point at you on the school bus, at the Y, or when you were just walking down the street and they’d murmur things.
So when I met Candace, it was pretty much the biggest event in my little life on Mount Desert Island in Maine.
It was a big deal because she was chill with what happened to me when I was with other people.
Every person I touched, skin on skin, without fail, I saw how they die. I always tried to not touch people because who wanted to see them screaming in a car accident, beaten by a husband, broken in a ditch on the side of the road or alone in a nursing home gasping for breath? Ever since I was little, it had been my secret—this magic, this curse, this broken bit inside of me that didn’t make me special, just made me a freak. Sometimes I would sneak out of our little house in Hulls Cove, stand outside alone in the stars, staring at those tiny specks breaking through the darkness, and I would pray to be normal, to not have people die, to not see people die, but those prayers were never answered, and so I just retreated more and more into myself—the untouchable girl, the girl who was alone.
I had been alone for years and years.
Death kept me from life.
Maybe that was how it was for everyone?
Sometimes someone else’s death came slamming inside my head and just marinated in there for a while, refusing to let go. When that happened, I went to the cemetery up by Holy Redeemer and hid among the truly dead. The living never went there and I tried to exorcise myself from the deaths I’d seen—the ventilators, the fires, the falls.
It was not easy.
And it was not something I got to talk to people about. I couldn’t go to a therapist or a priest or the grocery store checkout lady and say, “When I touch people, I see how they die.”
The only one I ever talked about it with was Candace.
And Candace wasn’t normal.
She was even less normal that I am.
Candace was Undead. That was capitalized on purpose like it was a scientific word for a whole species and maybe it was? I didn’t know. I didn’t know nearly enough.
Ever since I met Candace at that landscaping gig two years ago, I’d hoped that I’d meet another Undead. I mean, it wasn’t as if they ware frolicking all over Bar Harbor, Maine, but it wasn’t like a lot of people were even in our little, rural, coastal town until the tourists and the summer people started coming in May. But still, if there was going to be a state where the Undead congregated, you’d kind of imagine Maine, right? Long winters. Black flies. Setting for countless Stephen King novels.
What I’m saying is that I didn’t meet a ton of people, dead or alive. I liked it that way. I grew up on this big island with its tiny population and I’d already seen most everyone’s deaths, or everyone who had touched me at least. After you saw a certain amount of lying alone in a nursing home, a hospital, upside down in a car, trapped inside a burning building, drownings, drunk asphyxiations, falls down rickety stairs, and bone-crunching plane wrecks, you tended to not want to see any more.
Landscaping kept that interaction down to a minimum. First, you wore gloves and for me to see people’s deaths, I had to touch them, skin to skin. Second, it wasn’t like waitressing or retail where there was a constant barrage of people coming and going. You worked with your same crew. Occasionally a caretaker or property owner came out to dictate where to put the plants, or where to weed, or whatever, but normally it was just you and the flora and your coworkers, and you already had lived through their deaths before they did. So, it got—You got used to that.
It was a bit easier when the deaths had already happened because then, with the Undead at least, you know that they’ve officially moved on, and their death may have sucked, but it wasn’t the final end, that they’d have more good times afterwards.
It took me a long time to know that.
That’s because it took me twenty-three years to meet an Undead.
When I met Candace, I’d been pruning lilacs at the edge of a summer estate in Northeast Harbor on Cooksey Drive, just down the street from one of Martha Stewart’s summer places. Everyone else on our four-human crew was off in other vectors, mowing, transplanting, picking up brush and deadfall. It was all normal, start-of-the-season stuff. Wealthy people don’t like evidence of real nature on top of their other Pinterest-inspired, designer nature, so some of the guys always got pinecone and acorn collecting duty. Believe me, I was happy to be assigned trimming.
Candace came striding across the freshly-growing lawn. All the remnants of winter had already been raked away from the grass at the front of the three-story cottage, which was really a mansion, but for some reason the wealthy rich from away liked to call them cottages. I’d say that they were doing this because they were trying to fit in and not be pretentious, but that is hard to believe because they never seemed to care about being pretentious or fitting in at any other time or in any other way.
There’s a Dorothy Parker quote that says something about God must not like money because look at the people he gave it to. I get that. Whenever I saw one of our wealthier clients heading my way, I’d get instant social anxiety, and that wasn’t because I was worried about seeing their deaths. It was because I’m really not super cool with people talking down to me or thinking they’re better than me, or worse, grabbing my butt.
From her stride, it was obvious that Candace was walking with a purpose. She was just under six feet tall, and had long, lustrous hair the color of dark pine tree trunks, rich and nuanced. I steadied my nerves.
When she got to me, she didn’t instantly say anything. Instead, she studied me for a moment and asked in a silky voice with an accent I couldn’t figure out, “What are you?”
“What am I doing? Pruning.” I kept on pruning too. The clippers are a nice tool to keep you from having to really interact with someone.
“No,” she repeated. “What are you?”
“A gardener?” Sometimes the super wealthy are not super smart, no offense to them. I
resisted the urge to talk slowly because that’s insulting. And I know all about people insulting you because they think you’re not smart.
She squinted at me. Her hands went to her hips and she stood there for a moment, just studying me, I think. The late May wind blew at her linen shirt and trousers and her hair.
In a huff, she yanked the mass of her hair up into a ponytail, and then she stuck out her right hand. “Candace Moonshower.”
“Alisa Thea.” I started to reach out my own hand.
She jumped back, recoiling. “Take off your gloves. They are absolutely filthy.”
If I wanted to keep my job, no matter how much I didn’t want to do something, I couldn’t ignore a client’s legal requests that weren’t pervy,. Though I knew it wasn’t a good idea, I peeled off my right glove. It dangled from my left as I reached out and steeled myself for what I knew was about to happen. A death and then I’d probably pass out. It was the same routine since I was eight. And fifteen years later I still wasn’t used to it.
Her hand was larger than mine. Her fingers engulfed my fingers as they closed and tensed and gripped. Almost instantly, images of a man standing over her, leering, wearing clothes that made no sense, a uniform? Confederate? Was it a cosplay gone bad? No. Yes?
I was her, kicking, screaming, trying to get to a knife that was tucked away beneath my petticoats, but I didn’t get there in time.
Panting and woozy, I broke off the handshake and this impeccable Candace woman in front of me, on her well-manicured lawn, in her well-manicured linen, stared at me and tilted her head and said it again, “What are you?”
“Nothing … Nothing …” I stumbled backwards, dizzy, fighting to stay conscious and trying to make sense of the death I saw.
Her death? It felt wrong. It felt … past.
“I’m a zombie,” she announced as she grabbed my elbow, steadying me. “I don’t eat people. I will deny it if you blab, Alisa Thea, but I am certain that you’re not a zombie, but you’re something aren’t you?”
“We’re all something,” I blurted, turning away, stomping off, and then pivoting back before my common sense stopped me. What had she just said? The words came ricocheting out into the air. “A zombie? Why are you playing me like that?”
“I’m not playing you.” She raised an eyebrow and actually smiled. “That’s the easiest way to describe the Undead as a group, don’t you think? That or vampires? Ghouls? Wights? Lichs? Draugrs? Revenants? Shall I go on?” She stepped closer to me, picked up the sheers that I dropped, turned them around and handed them back. “What did you see when we touched? You saw something, didn’t you?”
“I don’t like to tell people.” I took the sheers and rolled my shoulders out, hoping to feel less brain fuzzy.
“Cowardly? It’s kind.” I thought of my mother. “There’s no blessing in knowing how you’ll die.”
“Die?” She stands up straighter. She takes my hands in hers, but I’ve already seen her death once. I don’t have to see it again. Still, I tremble under the intensity of her stare. “It’s a blessing. Tell me what you saw.”
There is no point trying to argue with rich employers so I tried to steady my breath. “I saw a man standing over you, doing unspeakable things. He was wearing a uniform. It looked like a Confederate uniform.”
Her eyes clouded. “You saw my death.”
“That’s what I see.” I swallowed hard and tried to resist the urge to make eye contact.
“It already happened.” Her long fingers cupped my face beneath my chin and she turned my head so that I’d look up into her face as she said, “You mustn’t be afraid of it.”
I swallowed so hard that her fingers moved with my jaw muscles. “Of death?”
“No. Your power. Is that all you see?” She released my chin.
I kept eye contact, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak again. The word yes seemed stuck in my throat, completely incapable of making its way out.
“Sometimes death is just the beginning,” she said, putting her arm around my shoulders and walking with me back to the house where she insisted that I refresh myself and clean up and have some sweet tea. “A blessing instead of a curse. But not all the time. Definitely not all the time.”
After I was done trying to calm my nerves and look presentable, I came back out. Candace was just passing through, she told me, but if I ever had a problem, she said, ever couldn’t find a safe place to land, then I was to go to Backwood Hollows, a small RV campground just off the island, across the bridge in Trenton. “Use my name. They owe me.”
We were on the front porch, looking past the lilacs with their purple blooms that were just beginning to bud and down to the white-caps of the Atlantic Ocean. It was uncomfortable. No. I was uncomfortable.
“Do I owe you?” I asked and took a sip of the tea.
“Not yet.” She laughed.
“I don’t think I want to ever owe you,” I admitted and took another sip.
Greg, my boss, saw me and started striding towards us. He was using his I’m-going-to-fire-you walk, probably because he thought I was slacking off.
And that was the end of my conversation with Candace. She was never at the house again. Two years passed and I hadn’t seen her anywhere, not at the estate before I got fired, not even randomly at the store. She only showed up in my dreams. And in those two years, a lot of things changed.
I lost my job and my income. I tried to work at a bar, but they wouldn’t let me wear gloves unless I was washing dishes, but they never let me just wash dishes because I was “too cute to hide in the kitchen.” That’s their words not mine. But the moment I started interacting with people, I’d end up touching some random tourist and then it would all be over. I’d see a death, pass out sometimes, get fired, and it would start all over again.
The island wasn’t big enough to not have that kind of work history follow you around and it took less than two months before nobody would hire me, not even those people who were desperately searching on Facebook to hire anyone. But I wasn’t anyone. I was nothing. My stepfather taught me that a long time ago.