The committee is having cake and cordials and talking about the undead.
"Undead," Mrs. Peterson coughs. "Must we use that dreadful word?" She sips at her tiny bell of a glass.
"What would you suggest?" asks Mrs. Baxter.
"Something more positive," Mrs. Peterson says. "Re- something. You know, like again."
"Re-livers?" offers Mrs. Weaver.
"Yes," Mrs. Peterson nods. "Re-livers." She presses her hand to Mrs. Baxter's arm. "Put that on the cake this time," she says. "That would be lovely."
Mrs. Baxter does not want to make another welcome cake. So Mrs. Peterson suggests cupcakes instead.
"You could put one letter on each cupcake, wouldn't that be fun?" she says.
They eat welcome cake with plastic forks that bend and break, and the cake tastes terrible like all of Mrs. Baxter's cooking.
There's a warm spell, and the stench of plastic comes skipping into town as if everyone was hoping it might show up. It sets up shop in everyone's nostrils and clothes, cozying up in their lungs and those tender spots where thinking happens. Mrs. Peterson doesn't mind so much. Not this time.
Now that all the husbands are dead, the plastic factory runs on robot power. The robots make the plastic bins and water bottles and eating utensils, and every so often a truck will come by and take these things away. When the men worked there, the wives could sneak a few items for themselves, but the robots don't allow it anymore.
Mrs. Peterson organizes a shopping trip for new outfits.
"For the party," she says. "When they come."
"They're not coming," says Mrs. Baxter, who can't get her cupcakes to rise.
"Don't say that," Mrs. Weaver whispers. "They can hear you."
"They aren't coming," Mrs. Baxter says louder.
They buy new clothes anyway. Clothes that should be worn by younger women—hip-hugging skirts and low-cut blouses. Bare shoulders, bare legs. Breasts are smashed down instead of up, but it will have to do. Mrs. Peterson pretends to be tired so she can leave her friends and do some secret shopping on her own. She buys a five-pound bag of Cajun drumsticks at the grocery store. She buys chicken wings, whole chickens, other meat with the bones still intact. She roasts the whole chicken with rosemary butter, and even though her stomach rumbles, she sets it out on her porch. She makes the Cajun drumsticks and arranges them so they lead to the couch, where she plans to sleep.
Mrs. Peterson takes the phone off the hook, unbolts the front door and waits. They are coming. Sure as she has cancer.
They shuffle into town at twilight when everything looks a little invisible. They could be anyone's husband, but for their limps, their stench, their trouble with diction. The mist sticks to them like capes. They lurch past Mrs. Peterson's roast chicken without a second glance. They do not knock on her door.
Mrs. Peterson wakes up in the morning feeling like Christmas. She pats her bare arms and legs to see if anything is different and looks around for her guests. The trail of drumsticks is still there, seeping Cajun sauce into the carpet. Shoot. She should have made a sign. With lights. They probably didn't see the chicken in the dark.
Unless they went to Mrs. Baxter first. Or Mrs. Weaver. Mrs. Peterson rushes around, picking lint off the drumsticks and packing them in plastic tubs, rubbing rouge into her cheeks and running a quick iron over her blouse. She hurries over to Mrs. Weaver's olive green wreck, clutching the tub of drumsticks. Surely they wouldn't go there first. The Weaver house has been falling apart piece by piece since Mr. Weaver passed. Mrs. Peterson sneaks up the lawn to the front windows and peeks in. No re-livers, thank heavens.
Another Mrs. leans out the front door of an adjacent house and waves. She wants to be on the committee, but she really isn't committee material. Always complaining about Mrs. Peterson's hostessing skills. Mrs. Something.
"Did they come?" Mrs. Something asks. "I've heard so much about them!"
"Yes," Mrs. Peterson says. "I'm sure of it."
"Why didn't they come to you first?" the Mrs. asks. "I thought that was the plan."
Mrs. Peterson squeezes the tub of drumsticks tightly. "They had important business to attend to," she said.
A low hum zings through their toes, followed by the tell-tale thunking of the plastic factory presses.
"They went to the factory, of course," nods Mrs. Peterson. "Important business. I told you."
Mrs. Peterson leaves a drumstick on Mrs. Weaver's doorstep. It's only neighborly.
When the husbands ran the factory, wives were allowed inside. They dropped off lunches and gave quick cheek kisses. But then the husbands all died of cancer, or maybe it was boredom or suffocation. It's so hard to remember. Now, with the robots in charge, wives are just ordinary people, so Mrs. Peterson has to peek in the dusky windows like an orphan.
The re-livers are in there, broad-shouldered and capable in their frayed suits. They've found some old boom boxes and are blasting Motown. And instead of tubs and water bottles and eating utensils, they are making toys. They are making honey bears and filling them with jellybeans. They are making prophylactics. Mrs. Peterson blushes.
They have shut down the robots.
One of the re-livers grabs a bunch of honey bears and staggers to the door. Mrs. Peterson bends over to shake her breasts into place and smoothes her shirt. He opens the door and drops the honey bears on the stoop. Jellybeans roll everywhere. Mrs. Peterson holds out the tub of drumsticks and exposes her bare forearms to him.
"Charmed," she says. She closes her eyes and waits for the bite, waits for the change.
He groans and loose grey skin vibrates around his mouth. He throws open the door, and it bangs against the door frame. Mrs. Peterson jumps.
"Heavens, you're strong," she says. "May I come in?"
He stumbles inside without answering, and the door slams shut.
Mrs. Peterson waves in the window. "Some other time then!" she yells. "Thank you for the honey bears!"
She picks up a honey bear and jogs home with one hand over the top so the jellybeans don't spill. She calls an emergency committee meeting.
"They gave me a present," she says, passing around the honey bear. "Do you have the cupcakes?"
Mrs. Baxter chews on a black jellybean. "They're already here. Welcome cupcakes would be redundant," she says.
"It's only polite," Mrs. Peterson says. "They gave me a gift."
"I thought they were coming here first," Mrs. Weaver says. "I thought that was the plan."
"They had important business to attend to," Mrs. Peterson says.
The committee plans a party. There will be meat and plenty of jellybeans. Mrs. Weaver promises to help with the shopping. Mrs. Peterson wishes she could buy another new outfit, but has to settle for washing and re-wearing her old one. Mrs. Baxter can buy a new outfit with her settlement money.
Mrs. Peterson shouldn't be shopping for her own party. The committee should do it. She is the hostess. But Mrs. Baxter has been non-stop complaining, and Mrs. Weaver hasn't answered her phone in two days.
The deli counter at the grocery store has been picked clean of meat. The jelly bean aisle is empty. The shelves have been knocked against each other like dominoes, and the floor is slippery with milk. Only one shelf still stands, and it is packed with honey bears filled with apple juice. There are plastic straws shaped like loop-de-loops, plenty to go around. Next to the honey bears is a mound of plastic fruit. Deformed peaches and apples and grapes like tumors. Mrs. Peterson picks up an apple, and it cracks along the seam. She hides it under a bunch of grapes. Mrs. Peterson will not pay for defective merchandise.
A re-liver lurches toward her, and Mrs. Peterson's heart flutters. She makes a point of declaring how delicious the fruit looks.
"These grapes are so realistic!" she says. "And there's nothing more refreshing than apple juice."
The re-liver says nothing.
"I hope you'll come to my party," Mrs. Peterson says. She lays her arm on the shelf in front of his face, her thick skin quivering. The re-liver dumps more plastic fruit on the shelf and leaves.
If she had been shopping with Mrs. Weaver like they planned, they could have cornered the re-liver, but Mrs. Peterson alone is helpless to stop him from walking away. Mrs. Peterson cannot believe how irresponsible Mrs. Weaver is, disappearing at a time like this. She leaves the store empty-handed. She will have to make do with the left-over Cajun wings and that old roast chicken.
A lemonade stand made of old plastic tubs is set up outside the grocery store. Two re-livers stand behind the counter, and the lemonade sloshes around in another plastic tub atop the others. Mrs. Peterson can smell it from inside the store. It is definitely not lemonade. Mrs. Peterson digs through her change purse to buy some.
"One please," she smiles, holding out her quarter.
But there, stirring the wretched sludge with her bare arm, is Mrs. Weaver. She has on a new outfit.
"Mrs. Weaver," Mrs. Peterson stammers, "what a lovely outfit. I didn't recognize you."
Mrs. Weaver groans, and lifts her dripping arm from the lemonade. Her ring finger and its ring remain floating in the tub. Mrs. Peterson clears her throat.
"Your ring," she says, pointing. But the other re-liver wraps his arm around her shoulders and smashes his lips against hers. It strikes Mrs. Peterson that maybe they don't want her because of the cancer, which is just about the cruelest thing she can think of.
"It's not contagious," she says. "Tell him, Mrs. Weaver." She holds out her wrist to the re-liver, but he just pecks his grey lips against Mrs. Weaver's. Mrs. Peterson lowers her arm and nods her head in quick jerks.
"I'll just," she says, backing away from the table, "I'll just see you two later then? At the party?"
Without Mrs. Weaver, the committee only has two people, which is not really a committee. Mrs. Baxter suggests Mrs. Something.
"Oh no," Mrs. Peterson says. "Not her."
"You've been overruled," Mrs. Baxter says. "Mrs. Weaver and I both voted 'yay' on the matter before she . . . turned."
"You had a committee meeting without me?" Mrs. Peterson says.
"Put on something nice, will you?" Mrs. Baxter says. "Mrs. Something is on her way. And tidy up the place while you're at it."
"May I borrow one of your outfits? I only have this one," Mrs. Peterson asks.
"Oh heavens no," Mrs. Baxter shakes her head. "You'd stretch it out."
Mrs. Peterson scurries into the laundry room and drags out the ironing board. While the iron warms, she runs a vacuum over the hallway rug and puts the drumsticks in the microwave. The iron sticks to her shirt, leaving behind a black residue that Mrs. Baxter will disapprove of. Mrs. Peterson scratches at it with her fingernail, but that only makes it spread. She has to wear an old shirt instead, one with ring-around-the-collar. One that covers up all her skin. Mrs. Peterson decides to beg Mrs. Baxter for a shirt. She peeks into the sitting room.
"Please, Mrs. Baxter," she says. "I won't stretch it out. Won't you let me borrow a shirt just this once? Look at me."
Mrs. Baxter doesn't answer. She is lying face down on the couch, blood seeping from her neck. Mrs. Something sits in the armchair across from her, smiling smugly. The front door is open.
"Mrs. Baxter?" Mrs. Peterson breathes.
After a moment, Mrs. Baxter's head rises from the couch. She groans. Her face pales, and Mrs. Something claps.
"Wonderful," Mrs. Something laughs. "Just wonderful."
"They came?" Mrs. Peterson asks. "They came just while I was cleaning? Just now?" She tugs at her shirt, rolls up the sleeves as best she can.
"Oh don't bother," Mrs. Something says. "They've already left."
Mrs. Peterson lowers herself to the couch, avoiding the blood stain. Mrs. Baxter moans and stares at her fingers. Mrs. Something clears her throat.
"Maybe if you were a good hostess they would have stayed," she says.
"I think I know a little more about the re-livers than you do," Mrs. Peterson says. "They're afraid of my cancer. I just need to make them understand."
"You don't have cancer," Mrs. Something says.
"Not yet," says Mrs. Peterson.
Mrs. Baxter heaves her body off the couch and lurches toward the door.
"Don't forget your purse," Mrs. Peterson says, grabbing Mrs. Baxter's purse and following her. She has to take tiny steps to match Mrs. Baxter's slow limp.
"What about the party? Only a bad hostess leaves her own party," Mrs. Something says.
"They're not coming," Mrs. Peterson says. "I'll have to go to them."
It is dark by the time they reach the plastic factory. Mrs. Peterson tried to coax Mrs. Baxter along, first by pushing her forward and then with words of encouragement, finally with words of warning that the party will be over before they even arrive. But nothing could speed up Mrs. Baxter's lurching gait.
Mrs. Peterson breathes a sigh of relief at the Motown music pumping from the factory windows. They are still here. She loops her arm through Mrs. Baxter's.
"Doesn't this just feel like the prom?" she giggles. "I remember that like it was yesterday. Mr. Peterson wore his funeral suit instead of a tuxedo! We laughed about it for weeks—remember that, Mrs. Baxter?"
Mrs. Baxter tries to shake her arm free, but Mrs. Peterson holds fast. Finally, the arm pulls out of its socket, and Mrs. Baxter continues her slow shuffle to the factory door. Mrs. Peterson drops the arm with a cry. Inside the factory, the re-livers are drinking cocktails out of honey bears. Some are using the loop-de-loop straws. Mrs. Weaver has a plastic swizzle stick with a plastic grape speared on one end. She points to Mrs. Baxter through the window and lurches across the room toward the factory door.
"Ooh here we go!" Mrs. Peterson says.
The door flies open, and Mrs. Peterson has to jump out of the way so it doesn't hit her. Mrs. Weaver holds out a honey bear cocktail to Mrs. Baxter, and they shuffle inside.
"May I?" Mrs. Peterson asks, gesturing inside the factory. "I make a delicious gimlet."
The women do not answer, and Mrs. Peterson tries to shuffle in behind them, but they pull the door shut before she can squeeze through.
Mrs. Peterson stares through the front windows like a wallflower, like the ugly girl. Then she remembers the back door. She picks through the spilled jellybeans and the weeds to the back of the factory. She trips and falls. She rips her shirt; she twists her ankle. The back of the factory is a robot graveyard. They are piled on each other, tarnished, rusted, and useless.
The back door is locked.
She limps to the front of the factory just in time to see the door shut behind Mrs. Something. Mrs. Peterson moans horribly, lurching toward the windows. She presses her grey face to them, watching the re-livers mingle with her friends, her committee, watching as hors d'oeuvres are passed around on plastic trays shaped like fish. She bangs her fists on the window and slides her palms down the dirty glass. The re-livers turn to face her, and she bangs harder, moans louder. They lumber toward her, slowly, so slowly.
"Yes," she groans. "Yes! Finally!"
They cluster around the windows, staring down at her scratched and haggard face, her torn shirt, and with a collective heave, they pull the curtains closed.
Eden Robins has work forthcoming in M-Brane, the queer SF anthology Things We Are Not, and from Eraserhead Press. She also co-edits Brain Harvest and sells dildos for a living. You can find her infrequently updated blog at www.monkeythumbs.com.