Norbert and Edward

Norbert was actually, for maybe the first time that he could remember, smiling as he crossed the lawn of his foster home toward the shed. His foster parents hadn't noticed his change in attitude because that would have required looking at him, which was arguably difficult to do. Norbert had severe teen-aged acne problems, very nearly English teeth, hair that managed to always be a sort of sickly brown color, no matter what he put in it, and thick rimmed glasses that served to make his eyes appear four times larger than normal.

But he was smiling, and it changed his whole face. It softened the impact the acne had on the eyes, he managed it without teeth, and the crescent of his lips served to underline eyes that were magnified to show the hope he had for the future to the rest of the world. It would have been uplifting, truly, if his hopes were not all currently pinned on Edward Tolliver.

Edward Tolliver was dead. He had been dead for almost 20 years. The fact that he was up and about would probably alarm many people. The fact that he was currently fighting a rake for room in a shed and grumbling about the fact that no, apparently zombies do NOT sleep, would have made those same people laugh nervously. The fact that his body, if not his mind, obeyed the voice-crackingly delivered commands of Norbert, and Norbert alone, would assuage all of their fears and help them sleep better at night.

Norbert fumbled with the padlock on the door of the shed, and hastily opened the door, drawing a small scream from the zombie within. "Ow!"

"Oh, sorry!" Norbert said quickly. "Um... what's wrong?"

"That's really bright!" Edward complained.

"Oh."

Edward climbed over the debris of years worth of unused or misused lawn equipment and half stepped, half fell out of the shed, grumbling as he checked his suit for holes. Well, new holes. He'd been buried in a fine suit, but said suit was also obviously what he had died in. Four small holes had been poked into the front part of the suit coat and shirt, and one of them had also pierced his tie. He was a little upset about that.

"I couldn't find anything in Mary's makeup kit to help with the glazed over eyes," Norbert said apologetically, handing Edward a few small containers. "But this and this should help with your... um, skin tone problems."

Edward, still grumbling, took them with a muttered "Thank you."

"I even brought a mirror," Norbert said helpfully, holding up a hand mirror his foster mother would probably have yelled at him for touching.

"Well done," Edward said flatly. Aside from being dead, being trapped in a shed all night had done very little for his mood. "I don't suppose there's a pair of sunglasses or something I could use? The sunlight may not set me ablaze, but it is oppressively bright."

"Oh, sure," Norbert nodded, running back to the house. Edward sat down against the hated shed and set about applying the makeup. He was surprisingly adept at it. By the time Norbert had returned, Edward had finished making his face look a bit more alive and had moved on to his hands.

"So, were you a cross dresser or something?" Norbert asked as he handed Edward the sunglasses. The zombie rolled his eyes.

"I'm capable of using makeup to a relatively effective degree, and your mind immediately assumes cross dressing as the most logical explanation?"

"... yes?"

"Kids today," the zombie scoffed. "I was an amateur actor in college. Makeup is part of the gig."

"Oh. Cool. Were you in anything good?"

"Death of a Salesman."

"Oh," Norbert replied. He hadn't heard of it, obviously. "Wait, was that a joke?" he asked after a moment.

"No," Edward sighed. "but I guess in hindsight I should have seen this coming, hm?"

"I guess," Norbert shrugged. "So what do you want to do?"

"Find a phone," Edward said earnestly.

"Oh, are you still on about that?" Norbert asked.

"I'd like to call my wife."

"Why? Do you think she'll take it well, you being not-dead and all?"

Edward paused. The pause became a halt, and then a full stop. As it evolved into silence, Norbert's brow furrowed in concern. "Didn't really think that through, did you?"

"Well, I spent most of the night fighting with a rake for space to stand in a shed after being raised from the dead by a teen-aged orphan. I had some things on my mind."

"Fair enough." Norbert thought for a while, and then shrugged. "Let's go find breakfast."

"What?"

"I'm hungry, let's go out and find food. You need to get back into the world anyway, right? Learn what you can about the world 20 years after you last saw it before you try finding people who still think you're dead."

Edward groaned. "That makes sense, but come on, how much could possibly have changed since 1993?"

Norbert sighed. "Well, I wasn't born until 1997, so there's at least four years we need third party input for."

"You get beat up a lot, don''t you?"

"Yeah, but not today. Let's go."

It was a long walk. That was the first thing Edward noticed. Of course, Norbert didn't own a bike, and he certainly couldn't drive. So they walked. They walked from a middle-income housing suburb, through an upper-income suburb and down a busy four lane street until it crossed and even busier six lane highway that ran through a large commercial area.

"So, wait, we're still in Mopeit, right?"

"Mopeit?" Norbert asked over the din of the traffic. "What's a Mopeit?"

"It's... it was the town I lived in. It was the town I was buried in! Where the hell did all of this come from?"

Norbert shrugged. "It's been like this as long as I can remember. Just one big City. I don't even know if it HAS a name anymore. Everyone just calls it The City."

Edward's wrinkled, dry brow furrowed. "There was a City, I remember, but it must have been an hour's drive away when I was alive. How did it expand this far in just 19 years?"

Again, Norbert's lack of knowledge expressed itself through his shoulders. "The City expands. Dad says it spreads like a cancer. Dad's a little over dramatic."

"Your foster dad?"

"Yeah."

Edward found himself losing words to describe the thick urban environment they walked through as they traveled. The suburbs they had walked from and past were encircled by this commercial district, and beyond it all, closer to the sea on the other side of this urban sprawl were towering spires of glass and steel, gleaming in the mid-day sun. The City had crawled up a hillside to devour his old hometown of Mopeit, and aside from a few run-down buildings, not a shred of Mopeit remained. It was all too fresh. Entirely too new to truly be real. It was almost like Edward Tolliver had been buried in a quiet sleepy town, and then dug up and brought here, only to be buried again in some forgotten little cemetery.

"I... I think I need to sit down."

"No problem," Norbert said, opening a door and holding it for his zombie. "We're here anyway."

'Here' turned out to be a small diner. One of those hole-in-the-wall places that you can find virtually anywhere in the multiverse. They have colloquial names like the Colonial, the Olympic, or Mrs. F's. They're always open, they are staffed by the same family for generations, and no matter how many laws get passed, they always have ashtrays on the tables. This one was known only by the scratchy letters on the door as 'Reba's.'

Norbert hopped up on a stool and smiled at the lady across the counter. "Hello Mrs. MacShane!"

A broad woman, Reba MacShane looked every bit the matronly woman you'd expect to be running a place like this. "Hi Norbert. Who's yer friend?"

Edward, still mildly stunned, sat down. "Edward Tolliver, ma'am. I'm..." there was a minor pause as he turned and started to smile, and then remembered what the inside of his mouth looked like, and merely spread his wrinkled lips, "Norbert's case worker. Just checking in to make sure he's settling in with his foster family."

Norbert blinked once or twice as Reba smiled. "Well, he's never been a bother to me. Helps out occasionally, too. He's a good boy."

"Glad to hear it ma'am."

"Y'all gonna be eatin'? It's on th' house."

"Could I please have two eggs, Mrs. MacShane?" Norbert asked.

"In the basket?"

"Yes please."

"Certainly. And for you, Mr. Tolliver?"

Edward gave some thought to the idea of food, and tried to decide what might sound good. "Er. I'll start with some coffee, please. I've had a bit of a weak stomach lately."

"Oh, such a pity. We've got oatmeal. That's pretty easy on th' plumbing."

"Um... sure?" Edward ventured.

"Capital," she smiled, clapping her hands together and bustling off.

Edward watched her go, and Norbert beamed at him. "She's a nice lady."

"Where the hell does that accent come from? Or those accents? Good lord, it's like the woman can't decide which part of her multiple choice heritage she's proud of!"

"Hey, be nice to her. She's giving us free food."

Edward sighed. "I suppose."

"Was this place around when you were alive?" Norbert asked.

"No," Edward replied. "None of this was. I'm so turned around I don't even know what would have BEEN here twenty years ago. This is... sorry, it's just a lot to take in, all at once."

"That was quick thinking with the case worker bit."

"Oh, thanks."

"Just an actor in college, huh?"

"Well, in high school before that, but once I had my philosophy degree..."

"I thought you were a doctor?"

"I was. Am. Doctorate in philosophy." Edward's undead eye twitched. Norbert may look like what you get when you combine teenage hormones with all of the charm of a paste-eating six year old, but he was smart.

"Oh. You just made it sound like you were a doctor doctor. Not a... well, not-doctor doctor."

Edward blinked a few times, shook his head and sighed.

"Oh, and I've never had a case worker. I'm pretty sure I don't even have a case."

"I'll admit," Edward said, "if there was a flaw in my lie, it's that I have little idea of how orphan children and foster care is handled these days."

"That's okay," Norbert said with a smile. "I don't think anyone else does either."

They sat in silence for a while, and soon enough Reba brought Norbert's eggs and Edward's coffee. Edward stared into the cup like it was a challenge, which in many ways it was, as Norbert started eating.

"So, what do you want to do next?" Norbert asked between bites.

Edward considered the question as he tried to figure out if his body was going to be down with the idea of coffee. He had a lot of questions, really. How did he die? WHY did he die? What had happened to his son, to his wife? After 20 years, would either of them be happy to see him? Also, MAGIC? What the hell? There was something in the sheen on the surface of the coffee that sucked Edward's mind into a reflective state he hadn't been in since his resurrection. He stared into nothingness for a while.

He'd been shot. A few times if his clothes were any indication. That was HOW he had died. To be shot four times would suggest it wasn't accidental, so he'd been murdered. But why? Edward Tolliver was by no means a saint, but he hadn't been a bad person, had he? At least, not THAT bad. Broken legs and loan sharks, maybe, but to be murdered? And if they'd gone after him, had they gone after Jessica and Alex as well? And to top it all off... why had HE, of all the bodies in that graveyard, been the one to come back? To be given a chance to personally find those answers, and then to have all his major motor controls be at the behest of some kid with crippling self-confidence issues? Was this a cruel joke, or a blessing in disguise?

And more importantly, what would happen to his undead body if he were to consume coffee?

Well, no time like the present to try. Edward took a deep breath, scooped up the mug, and put it to his wrinkled lips, taking a deep sip, swallowing, and put the cup back down again.

He held onto the edges of the counter, almost afraid he was going to explode when the coffee his his stomach. After a few minutes, he realized Norbert was staring at him.

"What are you doing?"

"Um... I don't know?"

"I'm already done eating," Norbert told him. "Drink the rest of it and let's go."

"No wait yburbleblebblulbblbub-"

The noise was accompanied by the following visual. Edward's arm, now working independently of his brain, and one the orders of Norbert, scooped up the cup and pushed it to his mouth, dumping the contents of the cup mostly into his mouth. Edward found himself swallowing automatically, which was a disconcerting feeling since he was trying to protest at the same time. Also the burning. Zombies still feel hot and cold, it turns out, and right now Edward's mouth was so hot it steamed. Or maybe smoked. He couldn't tell.

"Oh, man," Norbert said, trying to stifle a laugh, "I'm sorry, I didn't think... Oh, crap that was funny!"

Edward was still dabbing napkins on himself and occasionally swearing as he and Norbert left the diner. Rebae MacShane watched them go before moving on to a customer further down the counter.

"What do you think?" she asked him.

He smiled. His face was built for smiling. Literally. It had no other features. No ears, no nose, no eyes. Just a smile. More of a grin, really. Made all the more prominent by the brown bowler hat with the black band pulled low over the head, given a rakish tilt by a thin, spindly white hand. The lanky suit matched the bowler in color, with a strikingly black and, again, thin tie against a white shirt to match thin, pointed black shoes with white spats. A brown, dead rose sat on his lapel, and a black cane with a gold-plated handle leaned against the counter beside him.

"I think the boy will need some guidance," Reba said. "He doesn't have any idea what he's doing."

"He doesn't have to." The voice was high, tinged with a certain mirthless glee, and cold. So cold. It also came without any impact on the grin that occupied the sum total of the face. "He just has to be alive for now."

The man... unfolded from the stool. He stood taller than most, and looked almost like a living stick figure. He picked up his cane and gave it a twirl. "Keep an eye on him. And his pet. Fail me, and you won't die, no matter what I do to you. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Mr. Cheshire."

"Good. A pleasure as always, Reba."

And with that, he left. And not through a door.