Joe Hill is the best-selling author of the novel Heart-Shaped Box and the short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, both of which won the Bram Stoker Award. He’s also won the World Fantasy Award for his novella “Voluntary Committal,” and his story “Best New Horror” won both the British Fantasy Award and the Stoker. Hill is currently working on a comic book miniseries with artist Gabriel Rodriguez called Locke & Key. Right around the time this anthology sees print, a hardcover collecting all of the comics should be available.
On his website, www.joehillfiction.com, Hill describes this story as a tale of two ex-lovers who have a chance meeting one day in 1977 on the set of Dawn of the Dead, where both have found work as extras. “Theoretically, ‘Bobby Conroy’ is a romance,” he says. “The real romance on display here, though, is my twenty-year love affair with the zombie movies of George Romero.”
This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.
Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead
by Joe Hill
Bobby didn’t know her at first. She was wounded, like him. The first thirty to arrive all got wounds. Tom Savini put them on himself.
Her face was a silvery blue, her eyes sunken into darkened hollows, and where her right ear had been was a ragged-edged hole, a gaping place that revealed a lump of wet red bone. They sat a yard apart on the stone wall around the fountain, which was switched off. She had her pages balanced on one knee—three pages in all, stapled together—and was looking them over, frowning with concentration. Bobby had read his while he was waiting in line to go into makeup.
Her jeans reminded him of Harriet Rutherford. There were patches all over them, patches that looked as if they had been made out of kerchiefs; squares of red and dark blue, with paisley patterns printed on them. Harriet was always wearing jeans like that. Patches sewn into the butt of a girl’s Levi’s still turned Bobby on.
His gaze followed the bend of her legs down to where her blue jeans flared at the ankle, then on to her bare feet. She had kicked her sandals off, and was twisting the toes of one foot into the toes of the other. When he saw this he felt his heart lunge with a kind of painful-sweet shock.
“Harriet?” he said. “Is that little Harriet Rutherford who I used to write love poems to?”
She peered at him sideways, over her shoulder. She didn’t need to answer, he knew it was her. She stared for a long, measuring time, and then her eyes opened a little wider. They were a vivid, very undead green, and for an instant he saw them brighten with recognition and unmistakable excitement. But she turned her head away, went back to perusing her pages.
“No one ever wrote me love poems in high school,” she said. “I’d remember. I would’ve died of happiness.”
“In detention. Remember we got two weeks after the cooking show skit? You had a cucumber carved like a dick. You said it needed to stew for an hour and stuck it in your pants. It was the finest moment in the history of the Die Laughing Comedy Collective.”
“No. I have a good memory and I don’t recall this comedy troupe.” She looked back down at the pages balanced on her knee. “Do you remember any details about these supposed poems?”
“How do you mean?”
“A line. Maybe if you could remember something about one of these poems—one line of heart-rending verse—it would all come flooding back to me.”
He didn’t know if he could at first; stared at her blankly, his tongue pressed to his lower lip, trying to call something back and his mind stubbornly blank.
Then he opened his mouth and began to speak, remembering as he went along: “I love to watch you in the shower, I hope that’s not obscene.”
“But when I see you soap your boobs, I get sticky in my jeans!” Harriet cried, turning her body towards him. “Bobby Conroy, goddamn, come here and hug me without screwing up my makeup.”
He leaned into her and put his arms around her narrow back. He shut his eyes and squeezed, feeling absurdly happy, maybe the happiest he had felt since moving back in with his parents. He had not spent a day in Monroeville when he didn’t think about seeing her. He was depressed, he daydreamed about her, stories that began with exactly this moment—or not exactly this moment, he had not imagined them both made-up like partially decomposed corpses, but close enough.
When he woke every morning, in his bedroom over his parents’ garage, he felt flat and listless. He’d lie on his lumpy mattress and stare at the skylights overhead. The skylights were milky with dust, and through them every sky appeared the same, a bland, formless white. Nothing in him wanted to get up. What made it worse was he still remembered what it felt like to wake in that same bed with a teenager’s sense of his own limitless possibilities, to wake charged with enthusiasm for the day. If he daydreamed about meeting Harriet again, and falling into their old friendship—and if these early morning daydreams sometimes turned explicitly sexual, if he remembered being with her in her father’s shed, her back on the stained cement, her too-skinny legs pulled open, her socks still on—then at least it was something to stir his blood a little, get him going. All his other daydreams had thorns on them. Handling them always threatened a sudden sharp prick of pain.
They were still holding each other when a boy spoke, close by. “Mom, who are you hugging?”
Bobby Conroy opened his eyes, shifted his gaze to the right. A little blue-faced dead boy with limp black hair was staring at them. He wore a hooded sweatshirt, the hood pulled up.
Harriet’s grip on Bobby relaxed. Then, slowly, her arms slid away. Bobby regarded the boy for an instant longer—the kid was no older than six—and then dropped to Harriet’s hand, the wedding band on her ring finger.
Bobby looked back at the kid, forced a smile. Bobby had been to more than seven hundred auditions during his years in New York City, and he had a whole catalog of phony smiles.
“Hey chumley,” Bobby said. “I’m Bobby Conroy. Your mom and me are old buddies from way back when Mastodons walked the earth.”
“Bobby is my name too,” the boy said. “Do you know a lot about dinosaurs? I’m a big dinosaur guy myself.”
Bobby felt a sick pang that seemed to go right through the middle of him. He glanced at her face—didn’t want to, couldn’t help himself—and found Harriet watching him. Her smile was anxious and compressed.
“My husband picked it,” she said. She was, for some reason, patting his leg. “After a Yankee. He’s from Albany originally.”
“I know about Mastodons,” Bobby said to the boy, surprised to find his voice sounded just the same as it ever did. “Big hairy elephants the size of school buses. They once roamed the entire Pennsylvanian plateau, and left mountainous Mastodon poops everywhere, one of which later became Pittsburgh.”
The kid grinned, and threw a quick glance at his mother, perhaps to appraise what she made of this off-hand reference to poop. She smiled indulgently.
Bobby saw the kid’s hand and recoiled. “Ugh! Wow, that’s the best wound I’ve seen all day. What is that, a fake hand?”
Three fingers were missing from the boy’s left hand. Bobby grabbed it and yanked on it, expecting it to come off. But it was warm and fleshy under the blue makeup, and the kid pulled it out of Bobby’s grip.
“No,” he said. “It’s just my hand. That’s the way it is.”
Bobby blushed so intensely his ears stung, and was grateful for his makeup. Harriet touched Bobby’s wrist.
“He really doesn’t have those fingers,” she said.
Bobby looked at her, struggling to frame an apology. Her smile was a little fretful now, but she wasn’t visibly angry with him, and the hand on his arm was a good sign.
“I stuck them into the table-saw but I don’t remember because I was so little,” the boy explained.
“Dean is in lumber,” Harriet said.
“Is Dean staggering around here somewhere?” Bobby asked, craning his head and making a show of looking around, although of course he had no idea what Harriet’s Dean might look like. Both floors of the atrium at the center of the mall were crowded with other people like them, made-up to look like the recent dead. They sat together on benches, or stood together in groups, chatting, laughing at each other’s wounds, or looking over the mimeographed pages they had been given of the screenplay. The mall was closed—steel gates pulled down in front of the entrances to the stores—no one in the place but the film crew and the undead.
“No, he dropped us off and went in to work.”
“On a Sunday?”
“He owns his own yard.”
It was as good a set-up for a punch line as he had ever heard, and he paused, searching for just the right one… and then it came to him that making wisecracks about Dean’s choice of work to Dean’s wife in front of Dean’s five-year-old might be ill-advised, and never mind that he and Harriet had once been best friends and the royal couple of the Die Laughing Comedy Collective their senior year in high school. Bobby said, “He does? Good for him.”
“I like the big gross tear in your face,” the little kid said, pointing at Bobby’s brow. Bobby had a nasty scalp wound, the skin laid open to the lumpy bone. “Didn’t you think the guy who made us into dead people was cool?”
Bobby had actually been a little creeped out by Tom Savini, who kept referring to an open book of autopsy photographs while applying Bobby’s makeup. The people in those pictures, with their maimed flesh and slack unhappy faces, were really dead, not getting up later to have a cup of coffee at the craft services table. Savini studied their wounds with a quiet appreciation, the same as any painter surveying the subject of his art.
But Bobby could see what the kid meant about how he was cool. With his black leather jacket, motorcycle boots, black beard, and memorable eyebrows—thick black eyebrows that arched sharply upward, like Dr. Spock or Bela Lugosi—he looked like a death metal rock god.
Someone was clapping their hands. Bobby glanced around. The director, George Romero, stood close to the bottom of the escalators, a bearish man well over six feet tall, with a thick brown beard. Bobby had noticed that many of the men working on the crew had beards. A lot of them had shoulder length hair too, and wore army-navy castoffs and motorcycle boots like Savini, so that they resembled a band of counterculture revolutionaries.
[End of Excerpt]