“Well, It’s Been A Quiet Week…”

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HOST: And welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the second half of tonight’s radio broadcast, brought to you this evening by Aunt Lena’s Almost-As-Good-As-Mom’s Cornbread Muffins — if you can’t have Mom’s, Aunt Lena’s is almost as good. And by the Society for Proper Punctuation, who remind you: think twice before using that apostrophe; you may not really need it. Coming up in this half hour of the program, The Washboard Revival Band will grace us with another toe-tapping number, so you’ll want to be sure to stay tuned for that.

Well, another week has come and gone in Wistful Harbor, the sleepy little Minnesota town that I call home. After one last warm weekend, it seems summer has finally bid its farewell to the upper Midwest, and autumn is once again upon us. And there really is nothing like the first days of fall, especially out there on the prairie’s edge. There’s a change in the air — not so much its temperature, but its very composition, its character. You can almost sense Nature beginning to slow down, exhausted after months of furious and enthusiastic growth. Even before the colors start to change, there’s the feeling that the trees are just about to exhaust their chlorophyll supplies, and that after weeks and weeks of mowing, the grass has finally decided to give up and offer its unconditional surrender.

In Wistful Harbor, we can always tell when summer is definitively over and fall is upon us when Maebelle Lindstrom starts to winterize her flower garden. Now, in this part of the country, first frost can be unpredictable — it can come as early as mid-September or as late as Armistice Day. Some folks will play it safe, digging up flower bulbs and covering their gardens with mulch a week or two after Labor Day, which creates a bit of a prematurely depressing air about their homes. Others push their luck as long as they can, and some inevitably push it too far. But in the forty-one years Maebelle has lived in her little house on the southern edge of town, she’s never lost a single plant to an unexpected cold snap, either at the beginning or the end of the season. No one is quite sure how she knows; there is no pattern, no rhyme or reason from one year to the next. The joke down at the Kathy’s Kurls Salon is that Maebelle was part groundhog on her mother’s side. Though not all of the ladies down at Kathy’s necessarily mean it as a joke.

And so, it did not go unnoticed in Wistful Harbor when, on Tuesday morning, Maebelle emerged from her garage like an oversized Puxatawny Phil, an unmistakable look of determination on her face. It was one of those perfect, crisp autumn days, with not a single visible sign that this was the day. But there Maebelle was, having donned a pair of dungarees — it never seemed right to call them “jeans” when she wore them — and her thick, tough old canvas gloves, long ago turned that shade of brown you only get after decades of working the soil. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so she wore a broad brimmed straw hat — a beat-up and ratty piece of headwear she’d owned for fifty-five years. Back then, it had been adorned with white silk daisies and encircled with a bright yellow ribbon that trailed down to the middle of her back. And to this day was still her “flower hat,” a reminder to her of beauty, and the dreams of youth.

So she set to work at the edge of her lawn, first trimming away the flowerless stems and the brown, brittle tendrils that had started their way up the trellises during the summer, but had fallen short of their destination in the house’s eaves. Then she took her wood-handled trowel and began digging, releasing that sweet smell of still-warm soil as she freed the flower bulbs from the earth. She tenderly brushed each one clean, wrapped them in newspaper, then placed them in box bound for a cool, dry hiding place, where they would wait out the winter, and then be returned here in time to be part of that remarkable, miraculous resurrection of life that was spring.

That’s when the first of the undead shuffled into town.

Of course, everyone in Wistful Harbor had been aware of the zombie uprising out east. It had been the regular topic of conversation down at the Harborside Diner ever since the story first broke on the cable news channels, with the Good Reverend Stromveldt explaining in his most soothing manner that, yes, this might be a Sign of the End of Days, but let’s not get too worked up over it just yet. Because, you understand, those news stories and debates all assumed that the crisis had been contained on the eastern seaboard. What nobody knew — not even Dottie the waitress, who always seems to know everything before anyone else — was that a few zombie attack victims had been flown out to the Mayo Clinic for experimental treatment. And since nobody knew about these experimental treatments, nobody was aware that they had failed, either.

So, when Maebelle saw these two figures making their way stiff-legged up the road from Rochester, she at first waved hello. Because that’s what we do in Wistful Harbor. It wasn’t until the pair came close enough to start kicking the slats off her white picket fence that she noticed the dried blood on their clothing, and the dark putrefied flesh in the process of peeling off their skulls.

Now, a lot of women would have screamed at that point — men, too, for that matter. But Maebelle, she was the proud granddaughter of pioneers. She’d survived tornadoes and floods and bitter prairie winters. So, as those two perambulating corpses crossed her lawn to where she knelt beside her flower bed, she only hesitated long enough to say, “Well…. zombies in Wistful Harbor, of all places…” before lashing out at the closer one with her rusty old garden trowel in her hand.

Now, it’s one thing to take a swing at a zombie with a blade or blade-like tool while standing face to face. Because rotted flesh does not offer very much resistance, even an untraditional weapon is capable of ripping through the undead creature’s rotted flesh of the neck, splitting the connective cartilage of the spinal column, and decapitating it. But, when you cut at their abdomen, all you end up doing is spilling out its decomposed guts and inner organs, along with what can seem like gallons of dark, foul ichors. And when you’re in a kneeling position, like Maebelle was… well, it was like having the roof fall in during a late summer cloudburst. All the rot and bile and acid washed over her, knocking the once-pretty Easter bonnet off her head, and flooding her mouth, open as it was in shock. She spat and she sputtered, but much of the awful offal ended up flowing down her gullet. It’s hard to say that there could be anything worse than having a zombie turn you by eating your brains, but in comparison to this, one has to think, the brain-eating doesn’t sound half as bad.

Well, it should come to the surprise of no one who knew her that Maebelle, once she was turned, quite quickly established herself as the leader of this feral pack. She knew the town better than her new companions, of course, and for the first time in a long time, she was the most physically intact member of her immediate circle. What did come as something of a surprise, once the trio reached Kathy’s Kurls, was how quickly and how viciously the patrons were assailed. One would quite likely — and reasonably — conclude that their whispered disparagements about Maebelle had not been as quiet as they had thought they’d been.

But that really didn’t explain why the thing that used to be Maebelle Linstrom had fixed her sights on Eleanor Svegle, who was seated in the stylist’s chair furthest from the doors as the trio burst in. Or why, with so many others in the shop, Maebelle had focused so intently ripping her way through the big, old-style hooded metal hair dryer Eleanor cowered under. But Eleanor, being close enough to look into the still-human eyes of her attacker, surely would have known…

His name was Nils Undset — Sergeant Nils Undset of United States Marine Corps, and he was home for the first time since leaving Wistful Harbor for Parris Island three years earlier. His high school classmates remembered him as a somewhat gawky, awkward sort of fellow, and not a one of them recognized the broad-shouldered young man in impeccable Marine dress blues who appeared at the Lutheran church for services that Palm Sunday.

Well, the young ladies of town were particularly taken with Sergeant Undset, including two best friends named Eleanor and Maebelle. Both had hoped to turn the young man’s head the following weekend at the big Easter Day Parade. But when Eleanor saw the beautiful new hat her friend Maebelle had bought, with its array of spring blossoms and flowing silk ribbon,… well, she knew the handsome young Marine would never give plain-ole her a second glance. Which wasn’t at all fair, since Maebelle had her choice of any of the boys in school… and in fact had chosen more than a few of them to share the back seat of her father’s Buick. So to her mind, it was poetic justice when, during the parade, Maebelle’s hat was “accidentally” knocked from her head, presumably by a very brief and very focused gust of wind, and subsequently flattened under the feet of Cub Scout Pack 130.

Ironically, young Sergeant Undset spent his entire leave blissfully unaware of the rift he had caused in this lifelong childhood friendship, and had he known, he would have told the young ladies that he was already sweet on a young widowed nurse he knew from his posting in occupied West Germany. Which ultimately didn’t matter, as shortly afterward, Eleanor met Horus Svegle, and a year later she asked Maebelle to be maid of honor at their wedding. It wasn’t quite an apology, since no one had ever admitted to doing anything necessitating forgiveness, but all the same, Maebelle decided to accept, and to bury the hatchet. Because that’s what you do when you live in a small town: you put the small slights aside, you let the little things go, because that’s better than the awkward encounters at the supermarket and church socials. Because you all have to find a way to live together.

For those no longer living, however, there’s no reason to hide those ancient grudges. Warm relations turn as cool as the late October air, and old friendships become ugly, rotted husks of what they once were, ripping uncaringly through flesh and bone and brain matter… and feelings.

And that’s what’s new in Wistful Harbor, where all the children are obedient, all the women sturdy, and all the men rough, tough and ready… which they’ll need to be, if there’s any hope of more news from there next week.

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