A Family Matter

Raise your hand if there are (toxic) people in your family who put the concept of “family” above all else? Who use that particular F-word to manipulate you and/or others into doing their bidding? Who truly believe that “blood is thicker than water”?

Granted, if you have a healthy relationship with your family, that’s a non-issue. But let’s be honest: most of us don’t. Most of us know at least one person who is exactly like the Margret in this story. Someone who will do the craziest, most unimaginable shit – even to the point of putting other, innocent people in danger – all in the name of “family”.

Spoiler alert: I know someone who’s almost exactly like the Margret in this story. And her pathological obsession with the concept of family – and the detrimental consequences it’s had for innocent people around her – inspired this story. Enjoy.

Some people just don’t know how to let go.

That’s what Nancy used to tell her, anyway. All the time. Nancy was Margret’s sister, and all their lives Nancy was always harassing Margret about her inability to detach.

When she was nine years old, it was her Barbie doll collection; Margret couldn’t bear to part with it. She even still played with them, in secret, from time to time. But Nancy caught her eventually. She teased her mercilessly, called her a ‘big baby’, refused to let her live it down until she watched her sell them all off, one by one, at their family’s annual summer garage sale. Margret cried the entire day. Nancy laughed. Their parents shrugged it off, attributing it to the normal bouts of sibling rivalry inevitable for sisters their age.

“How does it feel to be a big girl now, you big baby?” Nancy asked her that night as they fell asleep in their beds. Margret didn’t answer.

Nancy had been dead now for years. As Margret prepared some PB&J for her children’s lunch and cut the crusts off two perfect squares of Wonder Bread, she found herself almost feeling happy that her sister had died in the first wave with all of the other Unfortunates.

Stop that Margret admonished herself. She was your sister. Your family. You don’t have anything if you don’t have family.

Margret knocked softly on the door before entering the bedroom where her children slept. She beamed with pride when she saw them. Their expectant faces and vacant, unblinking eyes fixated on her as she walked toward them. They recognized her.

Of course they do Margret thought to herself. Why wouldn’t good children recognize their mother?

Margret crouched down and sat on the floor, the tray acting as a barrier between her and the kids. Kipp, only five but growing like a weed, stumbled towards her on two feet while his little sister, Angie, resorted to crawling. She had turned three last week and the crawling worried Margret. She thought her daughter should be able to walk by now. However, taking her condition into account, it wasn’t a total surprise.

Even if Margret could take her daughter to a doctor, it wasn’t as if they would be able to tell her anything she didn’t already know.

Margret held a perfect right triangle of bread, jelly, and peanut butter out for the children, beckoning them closer. Kipp reached the end of his chain first, the momentum jerking his head back where the steel collar was fixed around his neck. He righted himself, slowly, his hungry mouth snapping at the air just in front of the sandwich.

Margret inched closer, putting the sandwich just in reach of her son’s mouth. His mouth snapped at it, pulling away chunks of sandwich and spitting them out almost as quickly. The barely masticated bits of food fell to the floor, joining a graveyard of previously uneaten meals littering the wooden boards.

I’m going to have to clean that up soon Margret thought to herself. Before the neighbors start complaining about the smell and the bugs.

That’s the last thing I need.

An invisible cloud of putrid air wafted towards her nose as Angie struggled towards Margret’s sandwich-filled hand. In that moment, Angie’s face was briefly illuminated by a sliver of daylight. The boarded up windows weren’t supposed to let any in. Unfortunately, however, at this hour of the day, the penetrating glare of the sun was unavoidable.

Margret’s smile, though deeply etched with frown lines, faded and her wrinkles grew more pronounced as she caught a glint of her daughter’s hair in the sun. The color was all wrong.

Mr. Tai must have screwed up the order Margret sighed. She hadn’t noticed until that moment the lack of a true resemblance…

Margret closed her eyes and tried to shake the unsettling feelings from her mind. When she opened them again, her daughter was sitting back in the shadows, just as beautiful and perfect as the day she had been born. Margret smiled again.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Margret’s body tensed up with fear. She hadn’t been expecting anybody, and as she rose to her feet and hurried toward the door, her mind raced with possibilities of who this unannounced intruder could be. She began to mentally prepare contingency plans for a worst case scenario.

Margret was nothing if not thorough. Mr. Tai could attest to that.

Margret opened the door just enough to extend the security chain. Through the crack in the door she saw a familiar face: a young man in a snug pair of exterminator BDUs, digitized and gray to match the city landscape. She could see the muzzle of the assault rifle strapped to his back and a .22 in his hand. Her heart sank painfully to the bottom of her stomach.

“Pest control, ma’am,” the young man greeted her. His words were polite, but his tone was grave and a little bit sorrowful. “We’ve been receiving some complaints. I have to inspect your apartment.”

“Yes, okay, just a minute…I’m not dressed decently,” she lied, closing the door and scuttling back into the kitchen. She reached for the cookie jar – a jar which had not held any real, edible cookies for a very long time – and counted off several one hundred dollar bills. After rolling them up and fastening them together with a rubber band, she returned to the soldier at the door.

 She opened it again, security chain still in place, and shoved the wad of bills towards him. “Just one more week. Please,” she begged him.

“You can’t keep doing this to yourself, Margie,” the young man lamented, his serious soldier face softening with remorse. “I have to do my job. You knew this wouldn’t last.”

“I’ll just go back to the Hagemashi store and purchase another set!” Margret insisted defiantly, standing up a little straighter as she tried to still the quivering in her chin. “So why bother? What’s the point? Just leave my family here and tell your boss you did your job-”

“They’re not even your real family, Margie!” He insisted, an ambivalent combination of frustration and sympathy in his voice. “You’re family’s dead. And what you’ve got in there, the bodies I am legally obligated to remove from this premises right now or else-” he continued, pointing towards the inside her apartment with an insistent finger, “-what you’ve got in there is someone else’s dead family. Jesus Margie, I know it’s hard! I lost people too! But you have to find a healthier way to cope-“

Margret slammed the door in his face, flopping her back against it and desperately fighting to quell the tears.

There was a long, tense pause before the soldier spoke again. “Ma’am, if you do not comply I will be forced to enter the premises without your consent and charge you,” the young man insisted, the words leaving a vile taste in his mouth. A moment later, she heard his pleading whisper through the door. “Please, Margie. Please don’t make this any harder than it is.”

One quiet sob hiccupped past Margaret’s lips before she took a hard, deep breath and blew out a long exhale. After a long pause she quietly unhooked the security chain, unlocked the door, and turned the knob just enough for the soldier to open it the rest of the way on his own.

“Come in,” she offered reluctantly. “Do what you must. Just…can you grant me one small favor? Before you take them?”

The young man sighed. “What?” he asked, somewhat impatiently.

“Just let me say goodbye to my husband,” she asked, closing the front door, hands behind her back, with the doorknob firmly pressed against her spine. “Please.”

“Fine,” the young man huffed, “but make it quick. I don’t have all day.” Those are the words his mouth pronounced, anyway; but the truth was that this was almost as painful for him to watch as it was for Margret to suffer through.

Margret left the young man in her entryway and shut the bedroom door behind her. Her husband – or, rather, the closest thing Mr. Tai had to her husband in stock that day – squirmed a little as she entered the room. His rotten teeth gnawed at the gag in his mouth. She watched him struggle to no avail against the bindings which immobilized his arms and legs.

It was hard to get used to sleeping next to him at night, what with the constant movement and, eventually, the smell. But Margret was a good wife. And she knew that, sometimes, you had to make sacrifices and tolerate uncomfortable situations in the name of family.

Grunting slightly with effort, Margret slid her husband’s feet off the bed and did her best to stand him upright. She took a knife from the large front pocket of her apron and cut his legs free. Then she marched him over to the bedroom door.

Holding him firmly by the back of the neck, she gingerly unfastened his gag. She silently hoped the soldier in the living room couldn’t hear his newly freed hisses and groans.

She also hoped he wouldn’t figure out too quickly that she’d locked the front door.

“Sweetheart, I am your wife, and I love you,” Margret whispered in her husband’s ear while doing her best to cut his remaining ties free. “Now, I need you to do something for me. I need you to be a good husband now. And a good provider. I need you to go out there and take care of the man who’s threatening your – our – family. Can you do that for me, sweetie?”

He didn’t give any coherent response. Rather, he struggled against her grip and tried to crane his neck around to bite at her arm.

“That’s the spirit, sweetheart,” she whispered proudly. “No, go!”

 Margret opened the door quickly, shoved him far out into the hall, and shut the bedroom door behind him with the loud click of a heavy deadbolt lock.

Margret waited, her breath held painfully tight in her lungs. As soon as she heard the screams, she relaxed and exhaled. Then she heard gunshots. She tensed up and held her breath again. Then she heard more screams.

Margret remained inside her bedroom, her back to the door, the noises in her living room delivering intermittent and inconsistent updates on what was happening there. After a few minutes, all noise had died down. The uncertainty of the silence hung heavy in her ears.

As she reached for the lock and slowly creaked open her bedroom door, she wasn’t completely sure what she would find after she entered the hallway. She took a deep breath, held it, and hoped for the best.

She also hoped she wouldn’t have to explain all the ruckus to her goddamned nosy neighbors. After all, it was none of their business.

This was a family matter.

Just a little extra note for context: Hagemashi Tai is a real practice in Japan. It’s a person rental agency and loosely translates to “I want to cheer up” in English. From Cracked.com: “You can hire one of its actors to act as just about anyone for just about any situation. For example, at a wedding in Saitama, Japan, the groom’s manager gave a heartfelt speech about how great a guy he was and how lucky everyone at the company was to have him. The thing is, this ‘manager’ had never set eyes on the groom or anyone else in the wedding before. The groom hired him from the friend agency to the tune of about 20,000 yen. It doesn’t stop with fake employers — you can rent people to play absolutely any part you want them to, for any occasion you see fit. You can hire a husband to tutor your kids and yell at the neighbors. You can rent yourself a father to walk you down the aisle at your wedding. You can pay someone to go to Disneyland with you.”

Obviously, in a zombie apocalypse, real people would be extremely scarce and expensive to rent/hire. But animated corpses? That’s a different story.

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