It was Sunday in New Orleans, and that meant it was time for a second line. The sun wasn’t quite down yet, but the drums were already thumping along Rampart like the plodding heartbeat of the city. Drums always got us in the mood for a funeral.
From my seat on the porch, bones creaking loud as my old chair, I had a clear view of the parade route past the crumbling facades of this once grand neighborhood. There were only a dozen of us left on this block, and most of them hardly constituted as living.
Across the way, old Gina Mae lurched to and fro on her rocker, eyes lolling in oversized sockets. Sinews peeked through the flesh of her fingers as she worked her knitting needles. A new hat for little Jerome, although the poor child at her feet already showed signs of the rot. Big splotches covered his cherub face and emaciated body. Both of them just creeping toward the grave. They don’t call it the slow death for nothing.
Sometimes I wondered if I was the last person alive in this whole town.
Hammered brass glinted down the street. The big metal donuts of the sousaphones bobbed to the beat, farting out notes that shook the earth. Trumpets wailed like haunts from beyond the grave. Trombone slides flashing across a sliver of setting sunlight. They marched six abreast, tattered clothes just now coming into view. Still too far to see their putrefied flesh.
I gave Gina Mae a nod. She smiled, showing what was left of her teeth. The second line would be coming for her soon enough.
The rot hit New Orleans hard, sweeping up from Mexico like a regular Category Five. They say it loves water, and god knows we’ve got plenty of that. Claimed a hundred thousand the first year. Half the survivors packed up and fled, though I doubt they fared better. What I hear, the rot’s everywhere now. At least here we’ve got good music. At least here when the rot claims another body it gives us a reason to dance.
The sun dipped below the horizon with a parting burst of orange. I tapped my foot to the beat, started to groove. The band grew closer. Rows of gold buttons glinted under the streetlights. Polished shoes clack-clacked against the cracked asphalt. Through holes in their uniforms, bones gleamed bleach-white against decaying flesh. Patches of hair scattered their translucent scalps. A trumpeter held his hand to his tattered throat to keep the air from leaking out on the high notes. Eyes rolled from side to side with the beat. The stench swept in like a plague, but I didn’t wrinkle my nose. Gotta respect the dead.
They called the smell a warning sign since it came on before anything you could see. Hospitals reeked of it. Neighborhoods barricaded themselves, boarded windows and all. But as long as there was air, the rot found a way. Soon enough, the boards came down and everyone gave in to the inevitable. At least we had our second lines. We don’t treat death like the rest of the country, all somber and crying. Here in New Orleans, death is about coming together and dancing and moving on.
Most of the time, at least.
My own ma was the first to go in the whole parish. Made me something of a local celebrity. I still remember her poor wrecked face when they came to take her away. Stern as ever. “Don’t you dare cry.”
Can’t say it was the first time I disobeyed her.
The drums thumped. The saxes howled. The trumpets wailed. Soon the band—the main line, we call it—gave way to the second line. Hordes of marchers in their Sunday best, tight collars and sparkling gowns holding in moldering flesh and desiccated bones. Dancing and twirling and hoisting umbrellas like we do in these parts.
The second line outnumbered the band fifty-to-one, and it trailed longer every week. Seemed to be tapering lately, though. Soon I really would be the last person alive.
The trailing end of the parade caught up to us, and the ceremony began. The band fell silent. The dancers shuffled to a halt. Teeth and bone flashed in the night. They were close, real close. It had to be Gina Mae they’d come for. She nodded real slow. Acknowledging me. I lifted a hand to wave, when movement caught my eye.
The second line was turning the wrong direction. A chill overtook me. It wasn’t Gina Mae they were collecting today.
A thousand hollow eye sockets faced me, an undead army come to claim their latest recruit. I looked down. My fingers ended in bone, gray flesh stripped clear to the first knuckle. I touched my face, felt a hole near my temple. I licked my lips and tasted decay.
The slow death. Goddamn. So busy watching everyone around me die, I never even saw it coming.
Slowly, carefully, I rose to my feet. I took the stairs one at a time. The second line didn’t mind; they had all night. I paused at the crumbling sidewalk. A mist worked its way into my eyes.
Then I saw their faces. Elizabeth from church, in that beautiful blue dress. Old Man Arman, the artist from Jackson Square. And right at the front, regal as could be in her fraying evening gown, my own ma. A tear clung to her eyelashes.
I stepped into the street. “Don’t you dare cry.”
She watched me in silence. Then, slow as the rot, a grin split her face. She blinked back the tear, and so did I. We don’t treat death like that here.
The crowd engulfed me. The band passed a trumpet down the line until beautiful Elizabeth held it out in her withered hands. I smiled, pressed the mouthpiece to my lips, and let it wail.
The second line rolled on into the night.
Derrick Boden‘s fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including Freeze Frame Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online.