Your Stepmother Looks Like a Zombie
By: Lynne Phillips

"Is it true you live in a cemetery?" the pimply faced boy asked. 

As new kids at St Cuthbert's Catholic School, my sister and I were under scrutiny. Sitting in the playground eating our lunch, all eyes swivelled towards us, as his voice filled a gap in the busy noise of kids talking. I cringed; his question made us sound weird. It was hard enough having to change schools, mid-term, and leaving all our friends behind, without getting the third degree on our first day. 

I pretended I didn't hear him, but my saucy, twin sister looked him straight in the eye and stated, "Well, our father is the new caretaker at the church cemetery, and we live in the cottage attached to it, but nobody lives in the graveyard. Everyone there is dead."

I smiled. Trust Roxie to think of something witty. She's the more out-going twin, always ready to speak up; usually something clever. I take longer to come up with a suitable reply and by then it's too late.

A ripple of laughter went through the group, but the pimply faced boy wasn't content to leave it. 

"So, it's true, you live beside dead people? Isn't it creepy living next to bones and rotting flesh? Does the smell permeate the air and float into your house?"

The bell rang for the end of lunch break.

 "Come on, Jazz," Roxie said. "If we stay here, we'll have to tell him about the crazies that come out every night."  

As we walked away, I wasn't sure that was a sensible thing to say, but it brought another ripple of laughter from the group and the pimply faced kid — who we later learnt was called Garry Gumsboil — looked stupid. From his facial expression, I knew he would get back at us later somehow. We'd made our first enemy. It didn't worry Roxie, but it made me uneasy. Life at our new school wasn't off to a good start. 

It's true we live in a cemetery, well, within the church grounds in the caretaker's cottage. My father is the new custodian of the graveyard adjoining the church, which means he digs and fills in new graves, and maintains the tombstones, gardens, and lawns around the existing ones. Once the caretaker had to dig the new graves by hand, but now my father gets to use a mechanical digger. 

It has surprised him to discover he enjoys working outside, and it's very peaceful in a graveyard; no annoying customers to deal with like in his last job in a bank, which often saw him coming home stressed.

After our mother died five years ago, our father was lonely and struggling to bring up ten-year-old Roxie and me. With the house becoming untidier and us out of control and disorganised, he advertised for a housekeeper governess, and Carrie was the only one who answered the advertisement. With her goth, dark clothes, dyed black hair and kohl around her eyes, dad had his misgivings, but Roxie and I loved her at first sight, so dad gave her a trial. Only fifteen years older than us, she was more like a big sister. She kept the house clean, and because we wanted Carrie to stay, we were on our best behaviour. She got the job.

Two years later, dad fell in love with her too, and she became our stepmother. Roxie and I were thrilled. None of our friends have a stepmother like Carrie. She's lots of fun. 

Life is never boring since Carrie joined us. Roxie and I sometimes feel guilty that we don't think about our birth mother very often, but she was sick for most of our life, so we don't have many happy memories of her. We've a photograph with her hugging us, which Carrie insisted hangs on the wall to remind us how beautiful she was and how much she loved us. It's hard to believe that Roxie and I might look like her once we lose the braces from our teeth and cover the freckles with make-up. We share the same dark auburn hair and pale skin. People look funny at us when we introduce Carrie as our mother; the contrast is so different.

"Ah, so you got your complexion from your father," they say and look bewildered when we answer no. 

It was our stepmother's idea for dad to apply to be the caretaker. She saw the job advertised on the internet. Knowing dad wasn't happy in his position in the bank, she sent off his resume, and the rest is history. I think he must have been the only applicant because he doesn't have any experience with mechanical diggers, ride-on mowers, or cleaning tombstones. 

Carrie packed us up, and we moved from our noisy, busy life in the city to a country town. The cottage was small; we didn't need to take much with us. All our goods fitted on the back of dad's truck and in the back of the SUV. Carrie sold all our extra furniture.

"I'll put the money aside for something special," she said.

She was vague about what she considered special, but Roxie and I had dreams of a pony, seeing as we were moving to the country.

"We'll know what is special when it comes along," Carrie said, and it forced us to leave it at that.

With only two bedrooms in the cottage, Roxie and I have to share, but being twins, we do everything together anyway, so we don't mind. Carrie made the cottage cosy with rugs and cushions, and despite its small size, it feels like a proper home.

Our only misgiving is we left all our friends behind. We knew it would be a pain making new friends and fitting into a group that has been going to school since kindergarten. Being fifteen is hard enough when you've already established friendships. Making new ones in a new town is a challenge. Roxie and I have each other. No matter what happens, we have each other's backs. 

Since we've been living in the cottage, Roxie and I think we understand why Carrie wanted dad to get the job. She seems very at home in the graveyard and has a fascination with reading the inscription on headstones.

"Look Jazz, this person was one hundred years old and over there are seven little babies all buried in the same plot. Isn't that sad? Imagine having seven babies, and they all died before they were two years-old?"

Seven little crosses adorned the small, neat plot surrounded by a white picket fence. Carrie rattled off their names as a tear rolled down her cheek, making the kohl run. I thought it was silly crying over babies that died eighty years ago, but Carrie wiped her eyes and dragged us over to see more graves.

"Roxie, this couple was only married for three months before they both died of influenza. How romantic."

Every day she would wander around the graves reading the epitaphs and helping dad keep the plots tidy.

#

I was right about Garry Gumboil. He never forgave Roxie and me for making him look foolish that first day. Every chance he got, he said snide things about us and especially about living amongst dead people. Some of the other kids did too, but they soon got bored and ignored us.

The term passed. Roxie and I got excellent reports; we weren't slackers like some of the other kids. Getting first-rate results pleased dad and Carrie but didn't improve our popularity. In fact, it made us the target of some of the other kids who ignored us.

"Snotty-nosed city-kids trying to make us look stupid," they scoffed.

"Don't you know teenagers are supposed to be too cool for school?"

Garry Gumboil was the worse. Of course, he had to include living in the cemetery in his comments. 

"So, eating the brains of the dead people has been a bonus," he sneered. "All those brains have made you clever." He held out his hands and stared into space like a zombie and paraded up and down. His two best friends, Nancy Mansfield, and Drew Seaton did the same. The other kids laughed.

My first reaction wanted to punch his head in. I am the twin who is quick to anger. Never able to think of the smart words in a hurry, I've always been ready to fight. Roxie grabbed my arm.

"Walk away," she said. She turned to Garry Gumboil. "It's almost Halloween. Make sure you keep away from the graveyard. We might get our friends to emerge and scare you."

As we left, I wondered if that was a responsible thing to say, but I had nothing better, and I still wanted to punch his head in. Instead, I glared at him and his friends. I knew I would be in trouble with dad and Carrie if they suspended me from school for fighting. 

As the year progressed, things settled down at school. We made a few friends, but those kids afraid of being the target of Gary Gumboil's bullying – and glad we were his focus – kept their distance. 

#

Dark clouds blotted out the moon. The wind rattled the windows and its icy fingers crept in through the window, which was ajar. Neither Roxie nor I had fallen asleep. Restless, Roxie got out of bed to close out the draft. Peering into the darkness, she whispered,

"Jazz, wake up. There's a light in the graveyard."

A grey shape carrying a torch beam wove between the headstones, stopping to shine its light on the inscriptions. It was hard to tell if it was a man or a woman. Either way, I wondered who it was and why they were there. 

The torch swung up. 

"It's Carrie," I exclaimed. "Why would she be out there alone at night?" 

It was more than an hour before Carrie walked back to the house, her face stark white in the moonlight — which was no longer covered by clouds — except for the dark smudges under her eyes. We heard her lock the door. 

"What do you think that was about?" Roxie asked.

I shrugged. "I'll ask her tomorrow."

Carrie looked bewildered when I questioned her at breakfast.

"You must have been dreaming, Jazz. I slept like a baby all night," she said.

Roxie and I exchanged surprised looks. I dropped the subject when dad came into the room for breakfast.

#

The autumn leaves turned red, orange, and yellow and littered the cemetery as Halloween approached. Carrie raked the leaves and kept the graves tidy.

There were several more nights when Roxie and I saw her out in the graveyard; always on dark spooky nights, but when we mentioned it again, we got the same answer.

"You must be mistaken. I slept all night."

"I think we should follow her," I told Roxie as we walked to school.

We didn't have to wait long. The next night was dark; the sky was full of black clouds obliterating the moon.

"Jazz, the front door rattled. I think Carrie is going out." Roxie watched out the window. It was several minutes before she whispered,

"There she goes. Come on, Jazz."

Pulling on warm clothes, we crept out the front door. Keeping in the shadows, we followed the dark form, only lit by the single beam of the torch. Using the larger headstones as cover, we crept closer. 

An owl hooted, and I yelped in fright. 

"Shush," Roxie warned. A fox yipped, a high-pitched call to its kits, and Roxie looked towards me, her eyes like huge saucers. Graveyards are spookier at night, I thought, as the hairs on the back of my neck bristled. An icy wind whipped the autumn leaves around our feet and crunched underfoot. I was sure Carrie would hear us, but she seemed unaware of our presence.

The torch light moved between the graves — stopping only to shine on the inscriptions — for more than an hour before it turned towards home. Its beam flickered upon Carrie's face. 

Carrie raised her arms and walked — staring straight ahead — back to the house and locked the door. It left us shivering out in the cold, uncertain what to do next.

"Do you think Carrie is a zombie?" Roxie whispered.

"I don't know. It could explain her fascination with graves and headstones," I replied, my teeth chattering from the cold.

"We're locked out," Roxie said.

"Did you leave our window open?" I asked.

"I can't remember."

The window was unlocked, so we climbed in and dived under the covers, shivering until our bodies warmed up.

. We talked about what we should do next but came to no conclusion before we fell asleep. I dreamed about zombies chasing us around the gravestones. In the morning, the dark smudges under Roxie's eyes told me she had a troubled night, too. 

#

We debated what to do about Carrie's visits to the graveyard at night as we walked to school.

"Do you think dad knows?" Roxie asked.

"You'd think he'd know she got out of bed, although he's always been a deep sleeper. Remember how hard it was to wake him when we were sick during the night?"

We were still discussing whether to talk to dad when Garry Gumboil and his two best friends, Nancy Mansfield, and Andrew Seaton, waylaid us after school.

"Guess you love Halloween. You'll be able to dance among the ghouls," Gary taunted.

"Your weird step-mother looks like a zombie," Nancy added, while Drew did that zombie walking thing again. Roxie and I exchanged looks. Could she be right? Is our stepmother a zombie?

"Why don't you come around at Halloween and find out," Roxie replied, giving me the don't react look, when she saw my face turning red.

"Might just do that," Garry replied before the three of them ran off laughing.

#

Roxie and I considered ourselves two old for trick-or-treating, but we answered to door to the little kids who came knocking. Carrie piled candy into their buckets, and we all joined in the fun and pretended to be scared. 

It was after midnight before we went to bed. There was no sign of Garry and his friends.

A raucous sound woke us. With no moon, the room was the pitch-black. The sounds became louder, screams and shrieks mingled with some coherent words.

"Oh no, she's a zombie," a male voice cried.

"Help!" a high-pitched voice shrieked. There were more cries and shouting.

I could feel my heart racing in my chest and Roxie's eyes were large and dark as she pulled back the curtain.

"What is it?" I asked, but Roxie couldn't answer. She was laughing so hard.

Through the window, I saw Garry Gumboil, Nancy Mansfield and Drew Seaton, quivering huddle against a tall gravestone, as Carrie wandered among the graves, flicking her torch onto the epitaphs. 

The trio's mouths were open holes, screaming for mercy.

"Do you think we should interfere, Jazz?' Roxie asked when she controlled her laughing.

Before I could answer, Garry and his friend's eyes pivoted towards where we were standing; three terror-stricken faces, stark-white in the gloom. They scrambled to their feet and ran screaming into the dark and out of sight.

Carrie appeared oblivious to the ruckus. She turned and walked back to the house. We heard the door locking. Roxie and I stayed awake for hours discussing what we should do about the situation until, exhausted, we slept. I dreamed of dead people emerging from the graves and creeping into our house. From the dark rings under Roxie's eyes, I could tell she had a restless sleep, too.

At least, being Saturday, we didn't have to go to school and face Garry and his gang.

#

"We could bring Carrie's night wanderings up at the family meeting tonight, Jazz," my sister said as we cleaned our room. "I think she's sleep-walking." 

"Could be," I replied. "We know she's not a zombie,"

Family meetings were on the night of the first day of each month. It was Carrie's idea to prevent discord in the family. At first dad, Roxie and I found them awkward, but as we got used to the idea, it was a good way to keep communication open.

After dad made us all hot chocolate, we sat around the fire.

"Who wants to start first?" Carrie asked.

"Jazz and I have seen you out in the graveyard some nights, Carrie," Roxie said, finding it hard to meet Carrie's eyes. "We think you might be sleepwalking."

"I used to sleep-walk when I was a child," Carrie said. "I thought I'd outgrown it."

Roxie told her about the incident the previous night and how the terrible trio was terrified.

"Oh, no, I'm sorry. You'll be the butt of jokes at school." Carrie looked stricken.

"Garry Gumboil and his friends don't worry us," Roxie reassured her. ‘We're concerned about your sleep walking."

"My parents had to put on a security door to keep me in," Carrie said. "It was very expensive. I'm not sure the budget will stretch that far."

"What about the nest egg you put aside after we sold the extra furniture? It was for something special. I think this is special," dad said.

"Problem solved," I said, and we all laughed as Roxie and I recounted the whole incident and how terrified Garry, Nancy and Drew were.

#

Roxie and I were apprehensive about facing the terrible trio on Monday at school. We didn't want them telling everyone Carrie was a zombie. We needed to have worried.

"That was a funny trick your stepmother played on us on Friday night," Nancy said.

"We were terrified," Drew added.

"It was only when we got home, we realised it was a joke for calling her a zombie. Sorry," Garry said. "I guess we deserved it.'

I wouldn't say we became friends, but the trio left us alone after that.

-

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