The widower wasn’t planning to launch a revolution the night he dragged a sleeping bag to the cemetery and unrolled it across his grave. All he knew was that he’d lost his house paying off the medical bills, and he might as well live in the place where he could still sleep beside his wife. They’d reserved their plots together when she was first diagnosed, so it was legally his property. The fact that he wouldn’t need to pay rent was more of an afterthought for him. But for the rest of us, that was the answer to everything.
We learned about it when the news ran a human interest piece celebrating the widower’s undying devotion. One of those heartwarming segments they save for the end of a broadcast, like the evergreen stories about kids selling lemonade to help their parents afford insulin. Jaded though we were, this segment managed to draw us in. We were gig workers, essential employees, discarded veterans. Across the city, we drifted from our hovels to inquire about the price of a burial plot.
Living in the cemetery came with a catch: in order to comply with city zoning regulations, we would have to declare ourselves legally dead. This meant no more jobs or bank accounts, but we didn’t mourn the loss. For the many of us in debt, a net worth reset to zero was the largest financial boon we’d see in our lifetime. Though technically, we weren’t within the bounds of our lifetime anymore.
In death, we thrived. Our human potential soared like a trapped bird escaping the rafters of a shopping mall. We constructed bunk beds atop our plots and used the upper bunks as a means of both shelter and sustenance. Those of us with green thumbs converted them into gardens, and those of us whose thumbs were thoroughly flesh-toned set up fish tanks, chicken coops, or even apiaries. Our neighbors six feet under may have been gradually rotting away, but six feet in the air, the cemetery was bursting with life. Every night, we gathered around the fire to swap goods and stories, clinking our jars of mead. As we fell asleep, we’d gaze up at the fruits of our labor and think, Yes. We made this. This is something real.
It didn’t take long for our underground movement to hit the mainstream. When the undead population really started booming, we adapted to the crowds by taking things underground all over again. There’s no limit to the depth of one’s real estate, so we dug out extra rooms under our bunks until our shovels struck solid shale. A whole new world of possibility awaited us below the surface. We could store food in the cool recesses carved into the dirt. Bathe in the refreshing aquifers. Sling hammocks off the rib cage of an ancient sauropod. Everyone kept making the same joke, that maybe hitting rock bottom wasn’t so bad after all, and we’d laugh every time.
We knew it was too good to last. We knew the bankers were seething up above. Even if we no longer needed the world they’d built, they still needed us. A parasite cannot survive without its food supply. And each of us had personally experienced the desperation of a starving creature. So we should have known how vicious they’d be when they came for us.
They pressured their politicians into tweaking the law so that student debt could be collected posthumously. That was easy enough. The hard part was enforcing it. We had no assets to seize, and locking us up wouldn’t get them their money, so they turned to more creative intimidation tactics. Nobody can sniff out loopholes like a capitalist scorned, and the ultimate loophole was right under their nose. Y’know, one executive mused to his board, it’s not technically illegal if the victim is legally dead.
They killed the widower first. We found him crumpled over his headstone with the day’s date painted over the blank marble reserved for his date of death. The bastards. He wasn’t even in debt, but he started this all, and they wanted to send a message. At first, we were strengthened, defiant even. Then we noticed the graffiti on the rest of our headstones. Some dates were a month away, some less than a week. Naturally, we got spooked. The sweet hereafter had softened us. We’d forgotten what it was like to feel powerless.
So we burrowed even deeper into our holes, through the shale and limestone. We didn’t stop digging until our palms were blistered into pomegranates and the world above was a pinprick of light. Sunken in our cowardice, we were more alone than ever. But only for a little while. Because something interesting happens when you keep digging straight into the earth. Eventually, all those holes start to intersect, and we’d unwittingly carved out a sprawling network of tunnels that connected cemeteries from all over the Midwest.
The deeper we dig, the larger our community grows. Our tunnels stretch from the Tokul soil of Washington to the sandy bedding of Florida. Even the softest voice echoes for miles down here, and now that we are all united in this darkness, we finally see what we need to do. While the lenders on the surface plan their next incursion, we’ve been plotting a measure of our own. For now, we remain underground, like seeds awaiting the Spring, but in due time, the dead will rise.
Do you ever think about all the people who are buried wearing their wristwatches? If the batteries in those watches are any good, some of them may keep running for years after the flesh has withered off their owners’ bones. The next time you visit a graveyard, go ahead, find a patch of grass where you can lie down and press your ear against the earth. Listen. They’re ticking all around you.