THE ZOMBIE GOSPEL
Four Polyphonic Novelettes
Comprised of Interlocking
AN EXPERIMENTAL NOVEL
BY PETER JASON PAYNE
Copyright 2016 Peter Jason Payne
I. COMPASSION AND TOLERANCE
1.1 CORA LEE
1.2 LOU ANN
1.4 LOU ANN
II. COMPASSION AND TOLERANCE
2.3 EPILOGUE: LOU ANN/BOB/THE TWINS
2.4 BONUS CHAPTER: JESSE’S BACKSTORY
LOVE AND EMPATHY
4.2 LOU ANN
5.2 LOU ANN
5.4 LOU ANN
SALVATION AND SOLIDARITY
6.2 LOU ANN
In The Zombie Gospel, the undead find hope and salvation amidst the rot and decay of postmodern life.
Nothing lasts forever. Every good thing must eventually come to an end. Every joy will turn to sorrow, every smile into sadness, and every temporary triumph into inevitable defeat. Such is the way of man. From dust we came and to dust we will return. Yet despite our human finitude we can find joy and a sense of purpose within the brief temporality of our lives…
She dreamt the sweet Lord Jesus had taken her home. But when Cora Lee Keaughan woke, there were no streets of gold, no mansions in the sky, no choirs of angels. Just the knick-knack, bric-a-brac of her overcrowded bedroom.
She went to the kitchen, leaned against her walker, and fished out a packet of oatmeal from the pantry. Clicked on the Christian Broadcast Network. Adjusted the antenna to lessen the AM crackle. Turned up the volume. Water dripped on her head as she prepared breakfast. Must have rained last night.
“I wish Jesse would fix that leak,” she said, “but he doesn’t come around anymore. Why?”
“You know why,” she answered herself. “He doesn’t have time for an old woman. No one has time for you. You should die and be done with it.”
She poured hot water in the plastic bowl filled with instant oatmeal. Carried the bowl to the table. Tried to eat, but she was out of breath. Her legs were swollen. Doctors called it edema. Heart wasn’t pumping the way it should. In the last few months she had swollen up like a balloon. It was so bad that the skin on her legs had split. Had to keep them bandaged.
She swallowed a mouthful of oatmeal, and spat it back up. Her breathing was hard and ragged. Spots in her vision, her head dizzy.
Cora Lee set the spoon down with shaking hands and looked around. If someone did visit, she’d be ashamed to let them in the front door. A bowl of fruit on the table had gone black from rot. Garbage was piled in a corner, fetid with decay. Mold grew on the drywall, black polka-dot spots, visible under the paint. The ceiling was sagging. Water stains everywhere.
The house was a complete mess, and because of her heart failure, and overall weakness, there was nothing she could do about it.
She tried another spoonful of oatmeal, but spat it up again.
“Remember New York?” she said to herself, wiping her mouth with her hand.
“I sure do. I never should have moved to Florida.”
“What about the plays?”
She smiled. “I used to go to Broadway three, four times a year.”
“Remember Carnegie Hall?”
“Oh yes. And the Botanic Gardens, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art…”
“And Sophie used to go with you.”
“God bless that woman! The times we had together!” Cora Lee clapped her hands, and chuckled, lost in memories. “Ah, she told me not to come down here, but I listened to Jesse, my first born son.”
She sat at the table, with a faded smile and oatmeal gone cold.
She’d forgotten about the radio. But now the commercials faded, and the pastor introduced the choir. She recognized the tune as soon as the piano started. They were playing her song.
Love lifted me, love lifted me. When nothing else would help, love lifted me…
She tapped her hand against the soiled tablecloth to the slow, steady beat. She let out a few notes, but then faltered. She tried, hard as she could, but her voice couldn’t find the right pitch. Now the song ended, and the pastor began to pray.
She stood slowly, her housedress wet from spilt oatmeal. She had decided that this would be her last day. Best to do it now, while she still had the strength. Cora Lee hobbled back to the bedroom, and pulled a shoebox from under the bed.
This is the hour of healing. You don’t have to be sick. You don’t have to be ill. Jesus can and will heal you.
She sat on the edge of the bed, and held the box with shaking hands.
“If you took Vitalia,” she told herself, “you wouldn’t have this problem.”
“You’re right,” she said, “but I can’t afford Vitalia.”
She stared at the box, her eyes wide and frightened, as if a coiled snake lay inside. “I don’t want this,” she said, and then: “Cora Lee, you must.”
There’s someone out there right now suffering from asthma. Heal them, Jesus! There’s a man suffering from cancer, stomach cancer. Heal him, Jesus! There’s a woman battling sugar diabetes. Jesus! Heal her body!
She opened the box and took out the gun.
“One shot to the head,” she said. “Destroy the brain.” She switched off the safety, and placed the muzzle against her temple.
I sense a woman. She’s very sick. She’s alone… rejected… tormented… forsaken by her family.
Cora Lee hesitated.
She can’t afford her medication. She can’t afford the doctors. She has prayed and fasted for God to heal her.
She put the gun back in the box. Closed the lid.
This is your… salvation… claim your miracle…
She stood. Pain shot through her body. Blood was leaking from one of the thick bandages that swaddled her legs. If she could just make it to the radio, adjust the antenna. The static was drowning out Pastor Pete’s words.
I pray that God… heal her… Bring peace into her life… Heal her, body and soul…
“Yes,” Cora Lee said, lifting hands to heaven as she hobbled back to the kitchen. She had prayed for this. Waited for an answer. And now, in her darkest hour, here was a sign. Pastor Pete had gone into such detail. Described her as if he knew her.
“Thank you, Jesus,” she said. “Thank you, Holy Spirit.”
She should have used her walker. Cora Lee, with hands raised to God, slipped in the rain puddle under the ceiling hole. Hadn’t noticed it in her joy. Now she lay on the kitchen floor.
“Jesus,” she called out. “Jesus, where are you?”
The radio had turned to noise. Pure static. Dirty water soaked into her bandages, turning them brown. She tried to stand, but the wet linoleum flooring was too slick. She panicked, felt her heart race up, and then slow down. It skipped a beat, and then throbbed with a flurry of palpitations. Pain radiated throughout her body. Heart squeezed tight. Vision gone black. Her lungs burned. Her chest ached. She couldn’t breathe. Her tired heart was at its end.
Cora Lee closed her eyes. Her last thought was of Jesse, and of how much she loved him.
The shotgun house stood solitary under the noonday sun. It was surrounded by dying scrub pines strangled in layers of creeping vine. The narrow, wood framed building was old and decrepit; it had lost its dignity a long time ago.
Jesse stood on the dilapidated porch, and loaded his weapon.
“Ma?” He unlocked the door, and pushed it open with his Mossberg. She hadn’t answered the phone all week. Something wasn’t right.
Inside the house, the ripe smell of decay almost knocked him over. Jesse swatted away flies and turned on the AC. A bowl of oatmeal, covered with mold, sat on the table. The radio was on, sending out a steady stream of white noise. Half the place was covered in layers of dust. Cobwebs crisscrossed the walls. A spider, and its mummified prey, hung from a massive web over the lumpy bed.
Jesse found the .45 Auto still hidden under the bed in a shoebox. He stuck the pistol in his waistband. He left the bedroom, shotgun at the ready, and kicked open the bathroom door. He lowered his weapon; the room was empty.
The medicine cabinet was chock full of prescription bottles for everything from diabetes to congestive heart failure. Most of the bottles were old and expired. Jesse rummaged through the cabinet until he found the Vitalia prescription. He shook it and cursed. It was empty. The Zestia and Vivera bottles were empty as well. How long had she been off her antivirals? He tossed the empty bottles to the floor, and continued the search. Minutes later, he found her.
Jesse’s mother lay in the backyard, half-hidden by overgrown grass and invasive vines. A dead dog lay at her side. Cora Lee’s dress was torn. There had been a fight, and the stray dog had lost.
“Ma?” he said.
“Jesse?” She looked up, with crusted blood on her lips. The dog’s eyes were clawed out. Cora Lee had been trying to get to the brain. He noticed one of the dog’s eyeballs—half chewed—on her lap.
“Jesus Fucking Christ.” He raised the shotgun. “Didn’t I warn you? If you ain’t on Vitalia, the virus activates when you die, and you come back.” He pointed the barrel at her head. “I warned you. I fucking warned you.”
She stood, and pranced towards him stiffly, like a marionette.
“My son? You’ve come home!” Cora Lee clapped her hands, a rapturous smile on her face. “I’ve missed you so much!”
Jesse backed away. She looked the same in death as she had in life. Disheveled. Sickly. Pathetic. She stunk to high heaven. His own mother, a Stinker. A pus-bag, maggot-face. Jesse spat in disgust, and pulled the trigger. He pumped the action, and didn’t stop, until he had emptied every shell into her smiling face.
At Riverside Bank, the AC was on full blast. CD signs spun slowly in the artificial breeze. [_ 0.9% APY, 1K, 12 Months! _] Lou Ann laughed at the ridiculous rate.
She passed baby-faced customer service reps, and one grizzled loan officer with dazzling white dentures. Credit card applications, scattered throughout the lobby, beckoned to her but she resisted their charms. God knew she needed the money, but there were better ways to earn it. Ways that didn’t involve repayment.
Lou Ann stopped at the teller station. “Where is Sarah Goldman’s office?”
“Upstairs,” the teller said. “Third door on the left.”
The woman smelled strongly of perfume. Sarah’s hair was too perfect and her eye color too intense to be real. She had on so much foundation that her face was almost mannequin-like. She was obviously trying to hide the decay.
“Hello,” Lou Ann said as she stepped into the room.
“Thanks. For coming.” Sarah closed the office door and then sat down behind her desk. A sign in front of her inbox read “Closed. Back at 1:30.”
Lou Ann took a seat.
“Are you? A natural red head?”
“Yes.” Lou Ann took off her sunglasses, and placed her handbag on her lap.
“You are very pretty. I love. Your freckles.”
“Thanks,” Lou Ann said, slightly irritated by the flattery.
“I am glad you saw my profile. On Roommates.com.” Sarah turned off her computer, and pushed aside the paperwork on her desk. The zombie moved slower than Lou Ann’s grandmother, and smelled twice as bad. “The pictures of your house are beautiful. I would love to rent. A bedroom.” She unbuttoned her pink cardigan with one hand. The other hand patted her desk with bony, claw like fingers tipped with pink, well-manicured nails.
“Are you tired?” Lou Ann said. She thought the woman overly dressed, and obscene in her charade.
“No,” Sarah said. “My condition. Slows me down.”
Sarah must have been preserving herself, and feeding on brains, to be so aware and alert. At least that’s what Lou Ann assumed. The perplexed woman crossed her legs and leaned forward in the chair. She took a deep breath and confirmed her suspicions. There was a faint odor of formaldehyde beneath the rot and heavily applied perfume.
Sarah patted her hair, and her entire scalp shifted. It was a wig.
Lou Ann should have broken the ice with frivolous chatter, before delving into the business at hand. It was the polite thing to do. However, she was pissed by the ridiculous masquerade.
“I’m going to ask you a few questions.” Lou Ann said. “What’s your income?”
“I make enough. To pay the rent,” Sarah replied, with a slowness that tested Lou Ann’s patience.
“So, how much do you make?”
Sarah smiled pleasantly, a difficult feat for a dead woman. “I would rather not say.” There was a finality in her gravelly voice that kept Lou Ann from pressing the question further.
“How’s your credit?”
“I reassure you that my finances. Are excellent.”
“How’s your references?”
“Good,” Sarah said. “But it does not matter. You are not interested.”
“I can see it in your expression. You know what? Forget it. I am not rooming with you.”
Who did this uppity zombie think she was? Indignation rose in Lou Ann’s heart. “Wait a sec! I raced all the way here from my doctor’s appointment! You said in your email that you needed a place ASAP and couldn’t wait to see me! Now you’re suddenly changing your mind?”
“I am not doing this,” Sarah said. “Not again. I am not moving where I am not wanted.”
“Why would I not want you as a tenant?” A shot of adrenaline coursed through Lou Ann, a mixture of anger and anxiety.
“You come in here cold as ice,” Sarah said, her voice picking up speed, “staring at me. Like I’m a shit stain on your shoe.”
So many people hated zombies. It was the classic knee-jerk reaction, to hate and fear what one didn’t understand. Lou Ann was an open minded person. A non-judgmental woman. So it was no surprise that she now felt shock as her long-repressed prejudices began to surface.
“You think I have something against you?” Lou Ann’s face reddened. She blinked nervously, knowing full well that she did have something against this woman.
“Honey, I’m living-impaired. I hate bringing it up, it’s not an issue with me. But I suppose it is with you.”
Sarah had come alive. Lou Ann hadn’t realized zombies could speak so fluently. Maybe it was the anger.
“You’re a zombie?” Lou Ann said, stalling for time.
“Don’t play dumb,” Sarah said. “And don’t use the Z word. It’s demeaning.”
Lou Ann took a deep breath, tried to pull herself together, and realized the giant disconnect between her heart and mind. She had rationalized, mentally, the logic of zombie equality. Feeling it in her heart, on the other hand, was a totally different matter. “I don’t have a problem with you or your kind.” Her voice was high pitched, her hands sweaty. “I’m very open minded. If you think I’m judging you, you’re wrong.”
“She stinks, she’s hideous, what will the neighbors think…” Sarah stared at her, with eyes that seemed to look into her soul. “I know exactly what you’re thinking.” She wagged a bony finger at Lou Ann, in a fast, fluid motion.
Lou Ann’s self-awareness grew as she saw the suspicion in Sarah’s eyes. I’m not prejudiced! She wanted to scream. Instead, she said “The only thing that bothers me… is that you didn’t tell me your condition earlier, when we were emailing each other on Roommates.com.”
“What would you have done?” Sarah said.
Such a simple question, and yet here she was, on the verge of a panic attack. Lou Ann shut off her emotions, repressed her squeamishness and disgust. “I would have treated you equally,” she said, “just like anyone else.”
Sarah gave her a skeptical frown.
“Look, I had a bad day,” Lou Ann said. “Actually, I had a bad week. I didn’t mean to be curt with you. I should have scheduled our meeting for another day, but I was eager to see you.”
“Really?” Sarah seemed unconvinced.
Lou Ann sighed. She had thought she had gotten over her necrophobia long ago, but now she wasn’t so sure. God knew she hated sexist, misogynistic males, yet here she was, about to discriminate against another woman, simply because she was dead.
“Alright, I admit it! I was shocked when I saw you. I had no idea you were living impaired.” Lou Ann breathed easier now, as the truth came out. “There aren’t many living impaired in this town. Most people don’t have your condition; when they die, they stay dead.”
“Well I’m dead Lou Ann, but at the same time very much alive.” Sarah sat up straight, with her elbow on the desk, and her chin in her palm. Her dull blue eyes seemed to brighten.
“Why are you suddenly so… animated?” Lou Ann couldn’t resist the question.
“I took Promethia before you showed up. I wanted to be at my best. Is that a problem?”
“No,” Lou Ann said, with hands held out in deference.
Sarah’s face softened into a sad smile. “I’ll be frank with you. I just moved to Florida this winter. I had a job transfer from San Antonio. I hardly know anyone here. Whenever I meet with a new landlord, they usually give me a hard time, with or without the Promethia. I can’t find a place to stay. I’ve been living in my car for so long…”
Sarah put her face in her hands.
Lou Ann recalled a local news story on cable the night before.
“You’re not… by any chance… the woman who was attacked on Garden Street?”
“Some young guys broke my car windows. Spray painted ‘zombie,’ amongst other things, on my car door. If the cops hadn’t shown up…” Sarah’s voice broke, “they would have done far worse.”
What was the world coming to? Lou Ann reached over, and held Sarah’s hand in a gesture of comfort. The woman was trembling.
“I think we misjudged each other.” Lou Ann cringed inwardly as she thought of Sarah’s hardship, and of the hate she faced on a daily basis. No one wanted her and so she was homeless, through no fault of her own. It was senseless. Lou Ann saw the immaculate cleanliness of Sarah’s desk. She saw the fine precision of her hair and nails. She looked closer at Sarah, and saw a woman desperately trying to meet society’s standards.
“So, what do you think about moving in?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I can’t move in. You’re obviously uncomfortable with me.”
“Sarah, I don’t know you personally. We just met… and yet I’m willing to give you a chance as a roommate. I think it’s the right thing to do. Can’t you give me the same benefit?”
Sarah’s frown softened.
“And you don’t have to take Promethia to impress me. The drug makes you crash. In the long run it accelerates the decay, or so I’ve heard. Tell me, do you have enough for first month’s rent?”
“You can move in as early as next week. Of course I’ll need a few days first, for a background check. Look, I’m really sorry if I upset you earlier. I didn’t mean to be an ass.”
Sarah narrowed her eyes, and cocked her head, as if pondering a response. “Don’t apologize,” she finally said. “I understand. We’re all human. We have our good days and bad.” She held out her hand.
Lou Ann shook it.
“Before I move in, I need to see the house in person,” Sarah said.
“Of course. Call me this evening, and we’ll work out a time convenient for both of us.”
“Four-hundred a month, right?”
“Yes.” Lou Ann pulled out a tenant application from her bag and sat it on the desk. “Fill this out for the lease agreement. And I need references. Do you have family?”
Sarah sighed. “We’re estranged. I’m dead to them, pun intended. However, I do have good employer references, and my friends can vouch for me.”
“Great. Will you need help moving? Do you have anything in storage? I have a truck.”
“Yes. I could use the help, but… are you sure you’re really OK with me living with you?”
Lou Ann wasn’t sure. She was still conflicted, but she wanted to give this woman a chance. More importantly, she wanted to exorcise her own phobias and prejudices. Sarah had really put her on the spot, and she wanted to prove this zombie wrong.
“Everything will work out,” Lou Ann said with a smile. “You’re moving in with me. I insist.”
Sarah clasped her hands and arched her brows. She looked as if she were about to pray. “Thank you,” she said. “I did misjudge you. It’s been so hard finding a roommate. You have no idea.”
Bugger these tightwads, and their stinginess! In the three sweltering hours before noon, Bob had raked in a quarter, a nickel, and a Christian tract. “Are You Going to Heaven?” the pamphlet said, with a sissy-faced Jesus printed on the cover. He had balled it up, and thrown it in the gutter.
Bob wiped the sweat from his face with a rag, and shoved the cloth back into his pocket. Did fags still wear hankies, half exposed, in their back pocket? Bob pushed the rag all the way down, until it was out of sight. Last night a kraut, with accent and all, had offered to polish his knob as he panhandled. “Go fuck yourself,” Bob had said, and the horn dog had driven off—in a Volkswagen, no less—though not before uttering a disappointed whimper.
What the hell was wrong with this town? Bob felt like a piece of meat on the narrow sidewalks, as drivers zipped by, eyeing him with disgust, or secret lust. He wasn’t a gigolo, or a crackhead, or a thief, just a homeless guy looking for a drink and a hot meal.
He hated Laguna Bay, especially this downtown area. There were no benches to sit on, no plazas to relax in, no overhangs for shelter, few sidewalk trees for shade, and hardly any crosswalks. The cars went by like bullets. One had hit him four months earlier, fucking up his leg and almost crippling him.
Today, as Bob limped down Lee Avenue in the midday sun, simmering in his own sweat, waiting for a decent handout, and cursing the city under his breath, the words Zombie Bitch! flashed before his eyes. It was that weird van again, now blocking his view. It had pulled up, on Lee Avenue, to the curb, and parked right in front of him.
Bob forgot his panhandling, and eyeballed the curious vehicle.
It was a luxury van, a Mercedes, that had seen better days. The back windows were busted out and covered with garbage bags. The bright red graffiti was a slur against the undead; it leapt out at him in 3D boldness from the minivan’s dark blue paint job.
Bob sat down on a hydrant, and looked on as the driver’s door opened. Out stepped a dead lady, one of those hoity-toity types, with a prim skirt suit, a luxurious blonde wig, and enough make-up to outdo a drag queen.
She was fake from head to toe.
Her airbrushed skin was flawlessly artificial, and her vibrant blue eyes were most likely contacts. The façade—although not impeccable—wasn’t too shabby. Bob gave her an A for effort, though underneath it all, he knew she was rotten to the core. She was a creepy enigma, a biological singularity, unfathomable to even the brightest of scientists. No one fully understood how zombies ticked, not even zombies themselves. The fact that some of them could mimic the living made them all the more fascinating… and frightening.
Bob stared up at the woman. At first he was impressed by her cascading hair, rouged cheeks and mincing gait, but as she drew closer, he saw through the illusion. Her body was no more than the desiccated husk of a living mummy, and beneath her pleasant, perfumed odor was the pungent scent of rot. Under the thick layers of airbrushing he could make out the uneven discolorations of her skin. Her doll-like face was the most frightening of all, porcelain in its inflexibility, and inhuman in its rigidity.
Bob forgot the cars driving by. He forgot the oppressive heat. Alarm bells rang in his brain, flooding him with adrenaline. Every fiber of Bob’s being told him to get away from this horror, but his stomach was empty, and so were his pockets.
The need for sustenance outweighed his common sense, and so Bob girded his loins, manned himself up, and said in a squeaky voice, “Spare some change?”
He shook in fear as she loomed above him, a giant predator poised to kill. The sun, a corona behind her head, fixed him in her shadow.
Bob cursed his cowardice. He wouldn’t let a woman, not even a dead one, intimidate him. He braced himself, and stood on shaking legs. Leaning against her minivan for support, he cleared his throat and repeated his request.
“Spare some change, ma’am?” Bob covered his nose, in anticipation of rank breath.
“How much?” she said, in a distorted baritone far too deep for a woman.
“Whatever you have.”
She reached into her purse, with jerky movements, jostled a few items around, and zipped the bag closed. “Would you like… to eat with me?”
She spoke the words slower than a retard. Bob listened carefully, and translated the guttural gibberish.
“Eat with you?” He frowned at her words. Bob shifted his weight, and stood squarely on his feet. “I’d prefer the money,” he said, with a heart waxed bold with confidence.
The woman twitched every few seconds, as she fought her spastic muscles for control of her own body.
“I don’t have any money. I thought I did…”
“What do you have?” he said, irritated by her slowness.
“A few… credit cards.”
“I’ll take one.”
Her rigid face cracked with emotion. She was laughing!
“What’s so funny?” Bob demanded, taken aback by the woman’s strange smile.
“Come. With me,” she said with a crawling cadence that tested Bob’s patience. “Let us eat. Together. I know you are hungry. You have been on this street corner. All day.”
“I don’t eat brains,” he said.
“Neither do I. I am offering you. Real food. From a restaurant.”
He couldn’t figure her out. What was her game? “Are you always this generous?” he said as he limped after her.
“I try. To help people. Whenever I can.”
The downtown streets were mostly empty. After all, this was a small town. She was so much smaller than him. He could have snatched her bag, or dragged her into an alley. The storefront windows distorted their reflections: a hobbling woman shuffling with palsied jerks, and a painfully-thin man—crippled as well— with peeling skin, matted hair and dirty jeans.
Suddenly, a roaring hum cut through the air. Bob grimaced as a black Ford F-150, complete with lift kit and off-road tires, raced by.
“Zombie bitch!” came a high-pitched tenor. A coke can arched through the air, and bounced off the woman’s shoulder.
Bob glimpsed the blurred faces of two pimple-faced punks, one behind the wheel and the other shotgun, probably driving their daddy’s truck. “Sons o’ bitches!” Bob yelled back, while inwardly admiring their perfect aim. He pondered their taunt, and turned to the woman. “They’re the ones who spray painted your van, aren’t they?”
Dark brown chew had splashed from the can, soiling the woman’s off-white blouse.
“Do not mind them,” she said, ignoring both the stain and the question.
“Wait,” he said, touching her shoulder. “Are you OK?” She was burning up. Sizzling to the touch.
“Why are you so hot?”
The woman didn’t answer. Instead, she crossed the wide street, and shuffled through honking traffic.
“Hey, wait!” Bob said as he followed her.
She came to a halt in front of Szechuan Buffet. A flyer on the glass door read Grand Re-Opening! Discount Buffet! All Welcome! The woman entered with Bob in tow, and they settled into a cramped, red booth. Chinese string instruments, accompanied by flute, played over the speakers.
He watched her.
She watched him as well. “Go on,” she finally said, croaking the words as she pointed a gnarled finger towards the buffet.
He didn’t have to be told twice. Bob jumped up and rushed to the serving table, with eyes wide and shiny like a kid on Christmas Day. He made a generous selection, and returned to the booth seconds later, with a crowded plate of spicy, overcooked delights.
“My name is Bob,” he said, while shoveling the hot food down his throat.
“It is nice. To meet you. Bob. I am Sarah.” She ate nothing, just sat there, watching him as he filled his empty stomach.
The food was good, but it made his rotten wisdom tooth throb.
She must have noticed his discomfort, because she asked,
“What is the matter?”
“Nothing.” He ignored the pain, reached over, and handed her a treat from his plate. He felt the freezing coldness of her hand as she brushed the cookie away.
“I am not hungry.”
“Go ahead. Just one bite.”
Sarah took the almond cookie from his grubby fingers, and bit into the sweet concoction. “This is good,” she said.
“You don’t have to pretend. I know what you are. I just wanted to see you eat something.”
Sarah chuckled, and her strange smile returned. “You are silly.”
Bob smirked, and popped a dumpling in his mouth.
As he finished off his first serving, a short Asian woman with a long ponytail approached the table. She wrinkled her nose. “You have to leave,” she said.
“I am sorry.” Sarah took out her debit card.
“No. I don’t want your money. Just leave.”
Sarah fumbled with her purse as she stepped into the aisle.
“Wait, Sarah,” Bob said. “What are you doing? Where are you going?”
“I to go. I sorry have… am.”
He arched a brow. “Huh?”
“Mean sorry I… I so am sorry.”
Sarah took a step towards the door, and fell to her knees. The hostess stared, and so did Bob as Sarah’s body jerked and twitched.
The hostess put her hands on her hips. “Get up off the floor, and get out.”
Just then, the kitchen door creaked open. A burly cook, in a white soiled shirt, locked eyes with the hostess. He yelled something in Cantonese.
“Me?” The hostess pointed to Sarah, her voice crackling with indignation. “She’s the monster, not me!”
Bob leaned back in his seat, and tapped his plate with his fork.
“And why are you kicking us out?”
“She’s a zombie!” The hostess said, her face livid. “We don’t allow zombies here… ouch!”
The cook had crossed the room and whacked his daughter on the shoulder with a stainless steel spatula. He yelled something else in Cantonese, and the words shot out faster than machine-gun fire.
The hostess’ shoulders slumped. “Yes Dad,” she said, and retreated to the cover of the reception desk.
The cook helped Sarah back into her seat. “Sorry to inconvenience you,” he said with a thick accent. “My mother-in-law is a zombie. She has seizures too… when she is stressed. You feel better now?”
“Yes,” Sarah said, her voice less than a whisper.
Bob took a bite from his hodge-podge of goodies. “You don’t have to be embarrassed, Sarah, or ashamed.” He was glad the showdown was over. After all, he had yet to eat his full.
“We welcome all people here.” The cook smiled profusely, and patted Sarah on the head. “You come back again. We welcome you.”
“Discrimination is illegal,” Bob said as soon as the cook was gone. “Stand your ground, or people will walk all over you.”
Bob watched the fastidious woman open her purse, take out a bottle, and spray herself lightly. Then she clasped her hands, to stop them from shaking. Bob inhaled deeply, appreciating the fresh, clean scent. It was an odor neutralizer.
“I am sorry,” she said.
“Don’t apologize.” He was tired of her obsequiousness. She had the self-esteem of a maggot. “Your money is as good as anyone else’s.”
Sarah stood, obviously embarrassed.
Bob heaved himself up, and grabbed her arm. “Don’t go.”
She wouldn’t look him in the eye.
She was thin as a toothpick. He relaxed his hold on her arm, afraid he might break the bone. “I enjoy your company,” he said, feeling strangely protective of this fragile creature.
Sarah parked in front of his sidewalk stoop. He was glad to see her again.
Bob had spent the morning harvesting cigarette butts from sidewalks and ashtrays, after which, he had held up a cardboard Homeless Vet sign in front of a drug store, but no one had given him a dime. On days like this, with an empty stomach and no money in his pocket, he wondered if life was worth living.
“How are you?” Sarah said as she exited her van.
Her voice was sweeter. Softer. He noticed that right away. Bob stood from his stoop and managed a “Hello.” He didn’t know what else to say. He knew that she felt sorry for him, pitied him. It didn’t bother him. He pitied her as well.
They headed to Szechuan Buffet. Sarah’s limp was gone, and so were the spasms, her movements now smooth and coordinated. She held her head high as she walked through the door. That small gesture made him smile. He stared at the hostess, daring her to protest.
The two went down the aisle, and slid into the same booth.
The hostess approached their table. Bob prepared to give the woman a piece of his mind.
“I apologize for yesterday.” Her voice was husky, her face older. It wasn’t the same woman. “My daughter was foolish to make a scene. You eat free today, OK?”
“Thank you,” Sarah said.
“And come back soon. We don’t discriminate here.” The woman placed a slip of paper on the table, and left.
Sarah read it aloud. “VIP Special. Ten percent off any order.”
“Wow. Problem solved. See? Everyone isn’t an asshole.” Bob gave Sarah a wink, and then got up to serve his plate. When he came back, he gave her an almond cookie.
Sarah took a bite. “Good,” she said.
He turned his head, pretending to admire the large aquarium across the room. He heard the ruffle of a napkin. She had spat it out.
“I like eating with you,” he said. He took a bite of fried dumpling. “Do you have many friends?”
“Are they zombies, too?”
Her cheeks reddened, but that was impossible. It was almost as if she had blushed.
“Yes… well, no…” she stuttered. “I used to have undead friends… but not anymore.”
“I prefer the living.”
She was different today, and strikingly so. Her voice was quite feminine. The guttural groanings—almost comical—were gone.
Her movements, once jerky and spastic, were fluid and smooth. Even her face was different. The skin was smoother, the color more even.
“I’m on Promethia,” she explained, reading his mind.
“Is that the drug that makes zombies look more alive?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “Do you like it?”
He reached across the table, took her hand, and kissed it.
She blushed. He caught it this time, saw it for certain: the faintest of color in her cheeks. Her hand was cold, her skin pale, but there was a spark within her, waiting to be coaxed back into life… or so he mused.
Poor girl. She must be very lonely to befriend a homeless guy like me, out of the blue.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“You seem preoccupied. You’ve hardly touched your food.”
“Where do you come from, before you show up?”
“Work,” she said, and glanced at her watch. “I’m on my lunch break.”
“Do you eat, before you arrive?”
“No. I’m usually not hungry.”
“You eat brains, right?”
Sarah’s face darkened. She crumpled the tablecloth in her fist, but quickly regained her composure.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s alright,” and then, “May I ask, why are you homeless?”
He looked away.
Now it was her turn to apologize.
He had lost his engineering job at United Space Alliance, right after his divorce, and right after that came the cancer diagnosis.
The resulting depression, and his lack of social networks, combined with a lousy retirement plan, had all played a part in his downfall… but Sarah didn’t need to know that. Why should he tell her? It was none of her business.
His destitute appearance said it all. Bob’s clothes were ratty, his hair unkempt. He lived out in the woods, in a makeshift tarpaulin tent. He had caught and eaten a squirrel once, he’d been so hungry. He knew people thought he was worthless, a drop out from society. Yet Sarah seemed different. She was concerned for him; he saw it in her expression.
Bob didn’t have a family, and he didn’t have a future. His only companion was cancer. He was dying, and in pain. Sometimes he couldn’t even think straight, sitting in a stupor for hours at a time. Only drugs and alcohol brought relief, but rarely could he afford them. He was a zombie, so to speak, hollow eyed and lifeless, a man whose raison d’etre had withered long ago.
Until he had met this strange woman.
They sat in heavy silence, punctuated by the occasional belch. The food had given him indigestion.
“I’m a dead man walking,” he finally said. Bob pushed his plate back, and put his elbows on the table. “I have inoperable cancer.”
“Oh my God.”
“I’m not on medication; I don’t have insurance. I’ll be just like you, by year’s end, if I don’t blow my brains out first.”
“You’re probably eligible for Medicaid.”
“I’m through with hospitals. The radiation and chemo make me sick. And what’s the point? My wife left, took the kids back to Thailand.” He shrugged. “I don’t even have a fucking job. There’s nothing left for me. I’m a worthless unemployed man, worn-out and ready for the junk yard.”
“I don’t think so.” She started to speak again, but hesitated. “I have a proposition. Would you…”
“Would you like to come to church with me, tomorrow?”
Church was the last thing on Bob’s mind. “No,” he said, disgusted by the idea. “I wouldn’t.”
He spent the next afternoon passed out in an alley.
“I had a feeling you’d be here.”
“How the hell did you find me?” He opened his eyes, and sat up.
Her usual smile had faded. “Are you drunk, or are you high?”
“Come with me.” Sarah held out her hand, and hoisted him up.
She helped him to her van. The inside was filled with scented sachets, loosely strewn potpourri, and cans of air freshener.
“Sorry for the clutter,” she said.
Bob sat, and slammed the door shut. He rubbed his throbbing head. “Where are we headed?”
Sarah started the car. “Put on your seat belt.”
The bumpy ride upset his stomach. Bob rolled down the window and vomited. Sarah passed him a box of napkins. He wiped his mouth and stared out the windshield, unsure of where she was taking him, until he saw the looming steeple.
“I can’t go there,” he said, fiddling with the hem of his dirty t-shirt. “They won’t accept me like this.”
“Church isn’t for the healthy,” Sarah told him. “It’s for the sick, and the needy.”
They walked into the lobby. Bob stared at the well-dressed people around him. He didn’t belong here. Sarah was delusional. He almost laughed and turned away, but something compelled him to follow her.
Once inside, they settled for the back pew. He wondered if she had chosen this seat voluntarily, or if the pecking order had relegated her to such. Maybe it was for the best. After all, they both reeked. She stunk of death and decay. His stench rivaled her own, and was a miasma of dirt, vomit, booze and pot. In truth, he smelled far worse than her, and yet Sarah sat beside him, with a reassuring hand on his arm.
“Birds of a feather…” he mumbled.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing.” He smiled, and pushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes.
The service had yet to begin. The street lights outside shone through the stained glass. It was a beautiful sight. Patrons came and went, up and down the crimson carpeted aisle in an endless stream, occasionally shaking Sarah’s hand, and then shaking Bob’s as she introduced him. Their eyes were wide, their hands sweaty.
They were afraid of Sarah. Couldn’t she see that? The high pitched tones, the breathless “hellos,” the brief handshakes, after which they scuttled away, as fast as they could.
“Are you comfortable here?”
“Yes,” She handed him a dollar. “That’s for the offering plate.”
He shoved the bill in his back pocket. “How long have you been coming here?”
“A few days. I just rededicated my life to Christ.”
She was holding her Bible to her chest, as if it were the most precious thing in the world.
A small child walked up to Sarah. It stopped, and stared at her.
“God bless you, Chris,” she told the boy. “Isn’t he cute, Bob?”
Bob watched the mother drag the boy away.
“They stink, mommy!” the boy said, to which the mother replied, “Hush!”
Bob groaned. Sarah patted his arm. “The heart is what matters most,” she told him. “God doesn’t care about the outward body.”
“Tell that to the woman who just dragged her kid away.” Bob’s sense of alienation grew, as he observed the men of the church, with their shaved faces, combed hair, sleek suits, and lovely wives.
He stepped into the aisle. “I can’t do this.”
He sprinted out the church. Sarah caught up with him in the parking lot.
“Let’s go back,” she said.
“I don’t want this. I don’t want religion.” He leaned forward, until their faces were inches apart. “I’ll tell you what I do want: a bottle of spiced rum, a zip bag full of pot. A roof over my head. A stomach full of food.”
She turned away, disappointed.
“I’m alive, Sarah. I can’t live on occasional free meals and Saturday afternoon sermons.” He put his hands on her shoulders, and turned her around. “I have needs,” he said. “I thought maybe you could fulfill them.”
Her skin was icy cold, her flesh hard. Bob held her face in his hands, and wiped away a black tear that had slid down her cheek.
Bob kissed Sarah. She didn’t resist. He kissed her on the forehead, the cheek, and finally, on the lips.
A few young boys, playing outside the church, had gathered. They kept their distance, as they watched in fascination.
“Get outta here!” Bob yelled. The boys shrank back to the church.
“I thought maybe the deacons could pray for you,” Sarah said. “God works miracles.”
“If he does then why are you still dead?”
She smiled bitterly. “That was unfair.”
“Take me to your house,” Bob said.
She hesitated, but then he kissed her again. Sarah took his hand, and led him to the car. They got in. She turned on the ignition. Headlights cut through the twilight.
He turned on the radio, switched to a classic rock station. “Pick up a bottle of rum on the way there. It doesn’t have to be big; a small bottle will do.”
“I have a roommate,” Sarah said.
“Well then sneak me in through the back window.”
As soon as Lou Ann parked, the front door opened.
“You’re back!” Sarah came running from the house, her steps unusually spry.
Lou Ann took the key from the ignition and closed the truck door. “Did you finish unpacking?”
“Yep!” Sarah hopped down the stairs, and raced to the driveway. “It felt good! How was work?”
“I saw a peacock in the backyard.”
“Uh-huh,” Lou Ann said, with easy indifference. She had lived in Laguna Bay long enough to take its charms for granted.
“I love this house. The fuchsia bougainvillea in the front yard is gorgeous, and the gardenia bush… oh, it almost made me cry.”
Sarah spun on her heels, and stretched out her arms. “Trees. Grass. Beautiful animals. Kids playing in the street. I love it.”
“There’s no kids here,” Lou Ann said. “Mostly seniors. It’s something of a retirement community. That’s probably why it’s so peaceful.”
“Either way, it’s wonderful.” Sarah smiled in contentment, and did a little jig.
“Why are you so hyper? Did you OD on Promethia?”
Sarah chuckled. “Of course not.”
The young women walked down the cracked sidewalk and up the porch steps. Lou Ann was the shorter of the two, with wiry red hair and dull blue eyes. Sarah was tall, modelesque in stature. She would have been pretty, were she not dead.
Moths brushed past them, headed for the yellow light of street lamps.
“Why is the house elevated?”
“It’s a manufactured home, and it’s raised on chassis for mobility and as a flooding precaution.” Lou Ann opened the front door, and the two women stepped inside.
It was a two-bedroom home, large enough for the both of them, yet from the outside it seemed tiny, dwarfed as it was by the massive oak that grew beside it. Inside, the rooms were dim and shadowy; the sun had just dipped below the horizon.
Sarah stood by the window. Her gaunt lips stretched in a contented smile as she traced the lace curtains with bony fingers.
Lou Ann threw her car keys on the console table. “Can I see what you’ve done with the room?”
“I would like that.”
They went to the front bedroom. Sarah turned on the ceiling light.
“Wow.” Lou Ann scratched her head and stared at the walls.
Sarah’s décor was an overwhelming sight. The bedroom walls were alive with images of happy, radiant people. There were old black & whites and faded Polaroids, interspersed with colorful digital prints.
“This is my family,” Sarah said.
Lou Ann inspected the collection. Hundreds of faces peered back at her from under their glazings. A wedding here, a sweet sixteen there. A young man with tassel and gown, leaping in joy at his graduation. A crying mother hugging a tiny newborn infant. A smiling elderly couple arm in arm under a bright summer sky.
“Your family may be far away, but you keep them close to your…” Lou Ann stopped in mid-sentence, interrupted by her cell.
“Excuse me.” She switched it on, and held it to her ear.
“I’m dropping by in an hour, Lou.”
“No, you’re not, Dad.”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Lou Ann switched off the phone.
“Who was it?” Sarah said.
“No one important.” Lou Ann took in the rest of the room, and noticed an empty rum bottle perched atop a large Bible. “Captain Morgan?”
“I invited a friend over earlier. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not, Sarah. This isn’t a convent. You can have guests.”
“So, are you ready for dinner?”
“We don’t eat the same food.”
“We can share the same table.”
Lou Ann shrugged.
“Come. Let me show you what I cooked.”
They left the bedroom. Sarah turned off the light and shut the door. She opened a box of matches. “It’s pot roast. Hope you like it.” Sarah lit the incense and candles she had set throughout the house. She poured vanilla oil into an aromatherapy bowl and lit the tea light under it. Now she opened the stove and took out a pot roast. “It’s done!” She rubbed her hands in excitement, and did a half run, half hopscotch back to her bedroom. “I’m getting dressed. I’ll be back soon, hope you’re hungry!”
Lou Ann sat in the kitchen, surrounded by wisps of scented smoke and shimmering candlelight. She thought about Sarah. The woman was an enigma. How could something so cold and dead be so warm and alive? How could something so god-awfully horrific bring such warmth and coziness to a home?
Wax dripped, pooling into crystal candleholders. As Lou Ann gazed at the flames and inhaled the incense, she realized something: Sarah’s smell was barely noticeable. Her odor was a bit off, but the rankness was gone. With heavy makeup and perfume she could probably pass, at least at first glance, as a living person.
An unexpected sound jarred Lou Ann from her thoughts. Heavy steps on concrete. A knock at the door. Lou Ann stood. She left the kitchen and looked through the peephole. Her father was early. She opened the door quickly, but was careful to keep the chain on.
“Not now, Dad,” she whispered loudly. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Just go home, please.”
Her father Jesse wore the usual battered jacket, with wrinkled blue slacks, from his bus job. “Open the door,” he said, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The cherry flared. He exhaled, and coughed. “Gotta make sure you’re safe. My baby girl shouldn’t be living alone.”
“Go home, Dad.”
“C’mon, baby!” He took another puff, and then threw the butt on the ground and stomped it out with a booted foot.
There was a click of heels against tile. The smell of Chanel No. 5. From the corner of her eye Lou Ann glimpsed Sarah, returning from the bedroom. She wore a high collared, cream colored dress and a blonde, pageboy wig.
“Who’s at the door?” Sarah said.
“It’s my dad.”
Sarah’s eyes widened, her lips flowered into a smile. “I want to meet him.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“I’m not sure if…”
Sarah reached over and took off the chain.
Lou Ann was livid. “Sarah!”
Jesse pushed the door open and almost bumped into Sarah.
“Who is this?” he said, squinting in the dim candlelight.
Sarah reached forward, and shook Jesse’s hand. She gave him a glossy, candy-colored smile, a bright red that competed with the bright blue of her contacts. “I’m Sarah,” she said. “Lou Ann’s roommate. Would you like to stay for dinner?”
Jesse ran a dirty hand through his tangle of brown hair. His tight frown broadened into a surprised grin. He took off his gloves. “Well… sure,” he said.
“Great!” She seated Jesse at the kitchen table.
He squinted at the zombie, unable to see her clearly—or recognize her true nature—in the semi-darkness. “Someone forgot to pay the electricity bill?”
“Of course not, Dad. Sarah likes the ambiance of candlelight.”
“Whatever.” He sniffed the air. “What’s that smell?”
“Forgot to take out the trash.” Lou Ann stood in the kitchen, pondering how to undo this home invasion. “Please leave, Dad,” she said, trying stern politeness.
Jesse lit another cigarette, and leaned back in the kitchen chair.
“You have a roommate, Lou. Good for you. Are you getting along?”
Sarah passed Jesse a fork and knife. “Oh, we’re great together.”
“When did you move in?”
“Today.” She took down a fancy china plate from the cupboard, and piled it high with pot roast, carrots and beans.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said as Sarah placed it in front of him. He picked up a fork, and tore into the food with gusto.
Lou Ann stood in a corner of the kitchen, eyeing her father.
“Whatcha givin’ me dirty looks for?” he said. “Sit down. Eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“She eats like a bird,” Jesse chuckled. “Maybe your cookin’ will put meat on her bones.”
Sarah smiled, and took out a pie from the refrigerator. “You’re lucky to have a father, Lou Ann.”
“Got anything to drink?” Jesse had wolfed down the pot roast and was now eating the carrots, rubbing each forkful in grease that had pooled on the bottom of the plate. “You sure are hospitable,” he said, wrapping greasy fingers around the glass as Sarah poured him Chardonnay. He drained it in three gulps, and then licked his empty plate clean.
Sarah cleared the table. “I made apple pie, too. Would you like a slice with vanilla ice cream?”
“Whoo-wee! I wish Lou was more like you!”
Lou Ann rolled her eyes. If he only knew. She needed to get him out of the house, before he figured Sarah out.
Jesse stood. “Need to use the bathroom. Be right back.” He grabbed a piece of meat from the pot and reached for the light switch. “Too dark,” he muttered.
The fluorescent kitchen lights flickered on. Jesse gasped.
Lou Ann raised a hand. “Dad, calm down.”
“What’s wrong?” Sarah said.
“Forgot to take the trash out, my ass. That smell. I should have known. You’re a fuckin’ zombie.” Jesse spat a half-chewed carrot from his mouth. “And to think, I ate your…” he pointed to the pot roast, “…home-cooked brains?”
Sarah dropped a china plate. Porcelain scattered across the floor.
Jesse grabbed Lou Ann’s arm. “What’s going on, baby? Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? Why are you living with this thing?”
“I told you not to come, but you never listen. I think you should leave, now.” Lou Ann broke free of Jesse. She opened the front door. “Come on, time to go.”
Jesse slammed his fist on the hallway console table. He punched the wall, and then punched it again. “You don’t need this scum living in your house.” He took out his wallet. “Are you low on cash? Is that it? How much do you need?”
Lou Ann half-pushed, half-prodded her father towards the door.
“Your mother and I raised you better than this.”
“Don’t you dare bring up Mom, of all people!”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “But Lou, where’s your decency? Where’s your morals?”
“After what you did to Mom… you have the audacity… oh, you hypocrite! Get out!” Lou Ann nudged Jesse closer to the door.
“You’re kicking me out? You’re choosing this abomination over me? Lou, baby. Don’t you understand? She’s a killer. An animal. Once she gains your trust, she’ll destroy you. Crack open your skull while you sleep. There’s only one thing they want,” he yelled. “Do ya hear me? There’s only one thing on their minds. Wake up Lou, before it’s too late.”
“Sarah, go back to your bedroom,” Lou Ann said. “You don’t need to hear this.”
Sarah had swept up the broken porcelain. Now she leaned against the kitchen sink. Her back was hunched, her arms limp at her sides. “For a fleeting moment, it felt as if I was actually part of a family.”
“Part of a family?” Jesse laughed. “You’re crazy! Who would want you in their family?”
“Just go Dad, please.”
“You’d choose a monster over your own father?”
“I won’t say it again. Get out.” Lou Ann, strengthened by anger, herded Jesse out the door.
“You were never this unreasonable, Lou. Never this cold.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. Snot bubbled from his nose.
“Sarah never hurt you,” Lou Ann said. “She never wronged you. Why hate her? If you can’t accept Sarah, then I can’t accept you. The world’s changing, Dad. Wake up. Get with the program.”
Jesse laughed through his tears. “A leopard can’t change its spots. Deep down Lou, you’re a necrophobe just like me, and you know it.”
Lou Ann pushed him from the doorway, and across the porch. Jesse stumbled backwards down the porch steps, and caught himself just in time on a handrail.
“I have something to tell you,” she said. “I stopped taking Vitalia.”
Jesse climbed back up the steps, wiped his tears and laughed nervously. “Now you’re putting me on.”
“I’m serious, Dad. I threw the prescription out. It makes me sick. Chest pains. Vomiting. Fever. Cramps.”
His expression sobered. “It doesn’t matter. Lou, baby, you need to take your meds… if you die without them…”
“Is that a threat? Will you do to me what you did to Esther?”
“Of course not! I didn’t mean it like that!”
Lou Ann’s face was flush, her throat tight. She clutched the door firmly, to steady herself. Her hands were trembling. “Well then when I die, I’ll be just like Sarah and you can hate me, too.”
“This is madness!” He had stopped crying. His eyes were wide, his expression one of confusion. “You would become a zombie?”
Lou Ann slammed the door shut and locked it behind her.
It was an ugly night, with nature at her worst. Brush fire smoke had turned the moon blood red. The air was soured by that burnt odor, mingled with the rotten scent of algae bloom. Jesse wrinkled his nose, with windows shut tight and vents closed.
He turned on the radio and pressed scan, skipping to a random station.
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened… And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”
“Tell me, friend, is your name in the book of life?”
Jesse took another swig from his flask. His two sons were waiting for him back home. They were both fourteen, almost men, but Jesse knew they would always be children. The babysitter would charge him extra. He should have been home an hour ago.
“Will you be ready, my friend, when the end comes?”
Jesse shut off the radio and belched, the taste of whiskey and stomach acid on his tongue. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He stopped at a McDonald’s drive-thru.
“May I take your order?”
Jesse inhaled. The rolled joint was hot, but his chapped lips were used to the burn. “Two Happy Meals,” he said into the microphone, “and a large Coke.”
Jesse slipped his keys in his pocket and drank the last of the Coke. He opened the front door of his cabin.
“I bought you guys hamburgers and fries.”
“Thanks Daddy!” Rick and Daniel attacked him with fierce hugs. The soda cup slipped from his hand. Ice spilled across the frayed carpet.
“I want an extra ten,” the babysitter said. He gave it to her, thirty dollars total, and she hurried out the door.
He turned on the Cartoon Network. The boys sat in front of the TV, munching away on their kiddie meals as he watched them from his armchair.
Jesse had to look away for a moment to keep from crying.
“Can we go to the beach tomorrow, Daddy?”
Jesse would sleep in, but he’d be up by noon. They’d go to the beach later in the day. His sons would play tag and dog paddle in the shallows, while other boys their age surfed the deep water and flirted with hot girls. Jesse would have to keep an eye on his sons, and protect them from the occasional bruiser who’d bully his way up to the twins, shouting “Hey retards, quit throwing the ball so close to my girlfriend!”
Jesse kicked off his shoes and unbuttoned his work shirt. “Do you like your Happy Meals?”
“They’re great!” Daniel said, cheeks full and lips smeared with ketchup.
Jesse lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair, his mind lost in fantasy. He wondered what it would be like to have real sons. Sons who would grow up to be men. Sons who would be independent. Sons he wouldn’t have to support for a lifetime.
Sometimes, drunk off his ass and woozy from too much homegrown pot, he’d consider sitting in the car with Rick and Daniel, with the garage door closed and the engine running. It was just a fantasy, of course. He would always recant hours later, once he was clearheaded and sober. Besides, to really do the deed, he’d have to use a shotgun, and the mere thought of such was enough to turn his stomach.
As he rocked in his armchair, Jesse felt the warmth of a small body press against him.
Rick had wrapped his skinny arms around Jesse’s neck in a tight hug. Now came the sloppy kiss, mostly spit and ketchup. “I love you Daddy. Thanks for the hamburger.”
The boys were a disappointment to him, and a burden. Yet they were affectionate, and that was their saving grace. Their love soothed his spirit, and kept the darkness within him at bay.
“Yeah, I love you, too,” Jesse said, mussing Rick’s reddish brown hair. “Now stop strangling me and sit back down. Finish your food. Enjoy your cartoons…”
Jesse stopped mid-sentence. There was a commotion in the back yard, the sound of heavy panting. He got up and pulled back the vertical blinds. A burly dog was digging near the rosebush, at the exact spot where Cora Lee was buried.
Jesse slid open the glass patio door. “Get away from there!”
The mongrel growled and stood its ground.
Jesse shot it between the eyes, and shoved the Colt pistol back in its holster, all in one easy motion.
The boys giggled and clapped their hands. He could feel them behind his back, craning their necks, trying to see the dead mutt in the darkness of the yard.
“Finish your cartoons. It’s almost bedtime.”
They went back to the TV, forgetting the dog in a flash, like the simpletons they were.
Jesse went outside in stocking feet, got the pick and shovel from the shed, and buried the dog besides the blooming rose bush, right next to Cora Lee.
The next day, true to his word, he drove the boys to the beach. Jesse parked, got the towels and ice chest from the trunk, and the trio headed to the boardwalk. Problem was, the gate was locked.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?”
The beach stunk like hell, but he really didn’t give a fuck. The boys wanted to play in the sand, and by God, that’s what they were going to do. He had promised them such last night.
A few people had climbed over the fence. He could see them walking the beach. None of them were in the water, or anywhere near it. That’s when he noticed the waves; they were bloody under the afternoon sun.
“It’s red tide,” he told the twins. “Come on, let’s go back home.”
The highway air was smoky. The brush fires up north were getting out of hand. This was supposed to be the rainy season, but it hadn’t rained in weeks. The grass was dry as kindling.
A woman was thumbing on the side of the road. Jesse pulled over. She got in.
“Are you OK with me?”
“I saw your Live Pride sticker on the bumper, and wasn’t so sure.”
“Relax,” Jesse smiled, and then punched her over and again until she slumped forward, unconscious. He drove out to the woods.
“Where’s the beach? I want the beach.”
Jesse wiped the woman’s black blood from his fist. God, she stunk of death and decay. “Get out the car,” he told the twins.
“We want the beach.”
“Forget the beach. Now come on, boys. I’m gonna teach you something. It’s about time you learned.”
Once the woman woke, Jesse opened the door and gave her a head start. Then he popped the trunk, pushed aside the beach cooler, and grabbed his rifle.
“Follow me,” he told Rick and Daniel.
Tracking her through the woods was easy. She was loud, her bright red shirt screaming Shoot me! amidst the green foliage.
She was beneath them now, in a clearing; she didn’t have the sense to lay low.
“This is how you do it,” Jesse whispered, pressing the stock against Daniel’s shoulder. “Look through the eyesight and remember what I taught you. When she gets in the crosshairs, pull the trigger.”
She was less than fifty feet away, dazed and confused. A sitting duck. Even a retard could shoot her.
“C’mon. You’re wasting time. Get her before she escapes.”
Daniel dropped the rifle and stood. He pulled away from Jesse’s grasp. “Run lady, run!” Now Rick joined in, flapping his arms and blowing their cover. “Get away, lady! Get away!”
The betrayal was a slap in his face. A fist in his gut.
“After all I’ve taught you…” Jesse choked on the words. First Esther, then Lou Ann, and now his sons. Traitors, one and all. He snatched up the rife, slung it over his shoulder. “Don’t go anywhere,” he screamed at the boys, his face red, “or you’ll be lost out here, forever!”
Jesse sprinted down the ravine, jumped over the narrow stream. She ran slower than molasses, tripping over low branches and stumbling through piles of damp, mouldering leaves.
Catching her was child’s play. She would try fighting him off, with fingers like claws raking his face, but it would be no use. He would take his Colt and fire a round, point blank. One shot, one kill. Easy as pie. The animals and elements would scatter the remains.
However, after twenty minutes of fruitless searching, Jesse lost his surety. There was no sign of the woman. Where the hell was she?
He spent another hour trying to pick up her trail amongst the fern covered oaks, but it was hopeless. Jesse gave up and hiked back towards the boys. He had fucked up this time, but no matter. She was an outcast. No one would believe her. No one would care.
His main concern was his sons. He was going to punish them like never before. There was hell to pay, and not even a kiss and a hug would save them, not this time. He’d tan their hides and ground them good. No cartoons. No TV. Babysitters were out of the question. He’d lock them in their bedroom whenever he left the house. They were the enemy now, betrayers of the cause. They’d have to win back his trust, little by little.
Damn kid should have pulled the trigger.
Jesse reached the top of the ravine. He stood at the spot where he left the twins. “Rick? Daniel?” He braced himself and balled his fist, ready to knock them senseless. He called out again, louder this time, his voice harsh with anger.
There was no answer.
“Rick! Daniel!” Jesse wandered the area. Minutes turned to hours. As the sun dipped below the horizon, guilt set in.
“Rick! Daniel!” And then, “I’m sorry!”
Jesse hiked the woods all night, spraining his ankle on a tree root, and stumbling through stifling darkness, until he lost his way. Something large hissed in the shadows, trailing him across the wet ground. He kept his gun at the ready, his skin thick with goosebumps.
“Come back to me! I’m sorry! Rick? Daniel?” He blubbered on, crying like a baby. First Lou, and now the twins. Gone. Cora Lee and Esther, gone too.
Jesse was alone, drowning in darkness.
“Rick? Daniel?” The chant went on all night, like a broken record, until his throat was sore and his nerves ached for a toke of pot and a swig of whiskey.
He heard that hiss again, closer this time. He had stumbled from the wood’s edge, and into the marsh lands. Jesse’s shoes were waterlogged. He was up to his knees in cattails and bulrushes.
Something loud slapped against the watery ground, followed by a loud exhalation of air. Jesse aimed his pistol at the hissing noise and pulled the trigger. The weapon misfired. He tossed the Colt aside and unslung the rifle, but it was too late. The thing was on him and it dragged him to the ground, twisting him round and round.
It ripped into him and swallowed him inch by inch, severing arteries in the process. Jesse couldn’t fight it. He had finally met his match. The beast crushed him. Killed him. Jesse closed his eyes for the last time, as the alligator devoured him alive. His last thought, before the toothy maw broke his spine, was of Rick and Daniel, and of how much he loved them.
She opened the mini fridge beside her bed and took out a can of Z! Liquid, a nutritional drink of micronized amino acids. No sooner had Sarah drank it than a siren blipped outside her window. She heard the front door unlock, and the clomp of booted feet.
There was a tattoo of hard knocks on her bedroom door. Sarah opened it.
Two police officers stood in the hall, with Lou Ann behind them, a wine bottle in her hand.
The drunk redhead pointed at Sarah. “My father gets angry at you, threatens you, and the next thing I know, he disappears along with the rest of my family!”
Sarah tried to answer Lou Ann, but all she could do was stutter.
“You see that? She won’t talk to me!” Lou Ann took a step forward.
“Back away, Ms. Keaughan, and stop drinking while we’re in the house.” Now one of the two officers turned to Sarah. “Hello, ma’am,” he said, his voice gone gentle. “May I see your identification?”
Lou Ann would not be silenced, her temper as fiery as her hair. “Be sure to get the truth out of her! She won’t speak to me! Maybe you’ll have better luck…” The bottle slipped from her fingers, spilling Chardonnay on the bamboo flooring.
Sarah fetched her license, threw a white robe over her old housedress, and followed the officer outside to a waiting patrol car, while the shorter officer helped Lou Ann clean up the spill in the hallway.
Sarah could still hear Lou Ann’s voice, even with the front door closed and windows shut.
“Jesse, Cora Lee, Richard, Daniel… they’re all gone! She did something! She must have! And now she won’t speak to me!”
Sarah fidgeted on the sidewalk, alarmed by Lou Ann’s accusations.
“As you know,” the tall officer said, standing with Sarah under the shade of an oak, “your roommate wants to file missing person reports… on her entire family. She thinks you might have done something… or maybe you hired someone?” He trolled the possibilities, no doubt expecting a defensive reply, but Sarah remained steadfast in her silence.
“Do you know what happened to Mr. Keaughan or his family?”
“No,” she sputtered, the word indecipherable. Sarah’s throat was tight from nervousness. She held her arms close to her body, to keep them from shaking.
“A clear yes or no will suffice.”
Sarah steadied herself, opened her mouth, and managed a “no.” The officer gave the frightened woman an unexpected smile.
“I’m a good judge of character,” he said. “Your record is clean,” and as a whispered aside, “I don’t think you’re guilty of anything.”
Thank you for believing in me, she wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Look, because of your condition,” he said, his voice still a comforting whisper, “some people you meet will be fickle. They’ll move in with you one day, and accuse you of murder the next. Now I’m going to ask you a few more questions, and you need to answer them. No more of this voiceless martyr syndrome, okay? No more long pauses, and no more silence. Tell me what you know. Speak up for yourself.”
After the officers left, Bob stopped by. Sarah came out and greeted him in the street, alerted by the clack and squeal of his bike’s rusted gears.
Then the screen door opened and banged shut. Out came Lou Ann, red-eyed and angry as ever. “I still can’t reach Dad, or Cora Lee!” She shoved her cell phone into her denim pocketbook, and jumped down the porch steps, two at a time. When she reached the bottom, she glared at Sarah. “You’d better not go anywhere, missy. You’re staying right here, until I get to the bottom of this!”
“What in the hell is wrong with her?” Bob said, after Lou Ann had driven off. “I’ll stop coming around, if that’s what it takes to get her off your back.”
“No. It’s not that,” Sarah said, finding her voice in Bob’s soothing company. “It’s her family. She can’t get through to her father, or her grandmother. They’re not at home, and they’re not answering their phones.”
Bob propped his bicycle against the fence and the two walked under the porch roof for shelter. A sudden shower had fallen, scenting the air with the fresh scent of wet soil.
The Florida sun and returning rains were transforming Laguna Bay into a midsummer Eden. Crape myrtle blossomed in clusters of tiny flowers, magnolia trees were heavy with fat-petalled blooms, and the warm nights were redolent of sweet-smelling jasmine.
“If I were you, I’d beware of that woman.” Bob chucked a pebble from the porch at one of the city’s ubiquitous fat-breasted doves. The brown bird let out a soft, feminine coo, and flew away.
“She’s got you wound up tight as a clock. I feel sorry for you, stuck in this house, living with that evil troll.”
“She’s not like that,” Sarah said. “Lou Ann is a very nice woman.”
“Could have fooled me.”
They sat on the porch all afternoon and evening, sharing thoughts and advice. Sarah went inside the house twice, returning with bottles of alcohol she had bought for such an occasion. God knew, Bob liked his rum.
“I see how people look at you,” Bob said, sipping a pint of Captain Morgan. “It sickens me, the hate and suspicion in their eyes.”
“It’s nothing,” Sarah said. “I manage.”
“You need to stop being apologetic for who you are. Don’t care what others think. Enjoy your life, on your own terms. Make noise. Let me see some eye contact. Go ahead. Look me in the eye.”
She wouldn’t, she was so shy.
“Yell at the top of your lungs. Say, this is me, world. I’m here, like it or not.”
Sarah giggled. Yell? She could never do something like that. People would think she was crazy.
As she rocked on the porch swing, Sarah imagined Lou Ann’s grandmother. She had never met the woman. What had happened to her? And what had become of Jesse, and Lou Ann’s brothers? Jesse had been so mean, the first and last time Sarah had seen him, but she didn’t fault him. He was coping the best he could, just like everyone else.
Everyone had it hard, not just her. What happened to old widows past their prime, forgotten and forsaken by family and friends? What happened to overworked men, fallen packhorses with broken backs, unable to carry life’s burden? What happened to simple folk, driven to madness by a fast changing world?
What happened to average Joes in a world of changing demographics and moral upheavals, in which yesterday’s monsters became today’s saints, a world in which the moral bedrock of one’s forefathers dissolved into a morass of slippery clay?
Sarah pitied most everyone, because they were lost in a world of confusion, a world of pain, and she felt their pain, because she was dead to herself and to her own needs, and alive only to the needs of others.
“What do you want to be?” Her high school counsellor had asked her years ago, expecting the stock reply of model, entertainer, or perhaps businesswoman.
“I want to be someone who helps others,” Sarah had said.
And yet she had failed so many. Here she was, buying rum for an alcoholic, when she should have been taking him to church.
Here she was, turning a father’s love for his daughter into estrangement and hatred. Here she was, somehow losing an entire family. It was her fault, somehow, that the Keaughan’s were lost, and she knew she had to make this right.
The porch swing creaked as Sarah rocked in it with Bob. He had snaked an arm around her waist.
“Your roommate should oil these chains before they rust,” Bob said.
“I’ll do it, tonight.”
“No,” Bob said. “Let her do it. It’s her swing.” He ran a finger through Sarah’s hair. “You know, I’ve never seen you with black hair. You’re even prettier as a brunette.”
“It’s just a cheap, synthetic wig,” she said, fending off the compliment, unsure of its veracity.
Earlier that day, before the police had shown up, she’d gone to the mall. The place had been filled with young men and women, beautiful people that filled her with longing. The young men sat with their girlfriends, or chatted amongst themselves while the girls shopped and gossiped over ice cream cones and baby strollers. Sarah had sat at a bench, pretending to read a Vogue magazine, as she admired these wonderful specimens of life, love and vitality.
Now, as she sat with Bob, she dared wonder if they could ever have a life together. She’d give anything to walk through the mall with him, holding hands and laughing over shared jokes. But did he truly feel the same way she did, or was it all just a lovely mirage, soon to fade?
The day was almost spent. The sky had darkened and the sun was low in the sky.
“I have to leave soon,” Bob said.
“I wish you could stay here.”
“In this house with Lou Ann?” Bob chuckled. “I’d rather sleep in the woods.”
He coughed again, he’d been doing that with growing frequency, and this time Sarah noticed the flecks of blood in the palm of his hand.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
Bob didn’t answer.
A vast cloud of birds was wheeling overhead as the sun pooled on the horizon.
“Why do they move so?”
“They’re going to roost,” Bob said.
Sarah sat in awed silence and watched the majestic show.
“I’ll be honest with you.” Bob leaned towards her, and whispered the words, like a secret, in her ear. “The cancer is getting worse.”
“Are you afraid of dying?”
“No. I just don’t want to die alone.”
“When the time comes,” she said, “you know I’ll be there.”
“After I’m dead,” he replied, with hesitation, “if I come back… like you did… do you think we’ll make a good couple?”
She felt him slip something into her hand. “What is this?” she asked, though by the feel of it she knew the answer. It was a silver colored ring, with a giant rhinestone. It couldn’t have been worth more than five dollars, a small fortune for someone of his means.
“Thank you,” she said, with dignified reserve, but then he smiled that beautiful smile and she broke down, kissing his face, and sobbing into his threadbare shirt.
After Bob left, Sarah went into the yard. She kneeled before the gardenia bush in the darkness, and plucked a flower. Her movements were slow and reverential. She knew plants could feel. All living things could feel. She didn’t want this magnificent shrub to feel pain.
She separated flower from stem, almost apologizing as she broke off the bloom from its slender green neck. It was everything she wished she could be: beautiful, delicate, and fragrant. She inhaled its scent and blinked back tears.
Who am I? Where am I going? She placed the white flower in her hair, and stared up at winking stars in a vast black sky.
The rumble of an engine shattered the silence. Lou Ann’s truck pulled into the drive. The woman hopped out of the Chevy and slammed the door. “We need to talk,” she said, her face dark with anger.
Sarah tried to answer Lou Ann, but all she could do was stutter. She smoothed her dress, a nervous habit, and felt a bump in the fabric. It was the ring.
Sarah took the ring from her pocket. She almost dropped it; her fingers were shaking. Yet holding it soothed her, and the longer she held it, the calmer she became. Maybe most people hated her, and were suspicious of her. But one person didn’t, and that made all the difference in the world.
Sarah stared at the cheap ring in her palm. It shone in the darkness, brilliant in its gaudiness.
No longer would she be a subservient, ingratiating scapegoat, a voiceless martyr, a modern-day Jesus Christ, submitting willingly to crucifixion.
Sarah pushed Bob’s ring onto her finger. “Yes,” she said, the words strong and clear as she looked Lou Ann in the eye. “We need to talk.”
“Well, come on then!” Lou Ann led the way to the front door. She jumped up the porch steps, two at a time, like she always did when she was angry.
This time, she slipped.
Lou Ann lost her footing and her grip on the railing. She would have fallen backwards, head over heels, coming to rest with a thump on the concrete walkway, with blood pooling under her head, and herniated brain matter poking through her busted skull, her red hair plastered to her pale sweaty forehead, her watery blue eyes dilated, her breathing irregular and ragged.
Life is a vapour; here for a moment, and gone the next, so this surely could have happened, with a devastated Sarah kneeling beside the dying woman. Sarah would call an ambulance. Sarah would scream for help. Sarah would comfort Lou Ann and tell her to hold on. Sarah would fight her own instincts and ignore her own grumbling stomach, trying not to look at Lou Ann’s cracked skull and tasty cervelle de mademoiselle, leaking its delicious cerebrospinal fluid onto the concrete ground. Human brains could cure a zombie, or so went the urban legend.
Sarah, with a faithfulness perhaps undeserved, would hold Lou Ann’s hand until the paramedics arrived, refusing to give into her own base cravings. And when Lou Ann died, minutes later, Sarah would cry inconsolable tears, lost in a catharsis of sorrow.
But for a slight twist of fate, this could have happened. Instead, as Lou Ann fell backwards, Sarah leapt to cushion her, and hit the ground hard, with Lou Ann on top of her.
Then Lou Ann stood from the inhuman monstrosity, and brushed herself off in disgust. With a stick, she pushed aside the black wig and prodded the creature’s head, surprised and relieved at how thoroughly the sidewalk had split the decayed skull and crushed the brain within.
I’m a stupid Democrat, a liberal-minded girl who always sticks up for the underdog. Well, not anymore. My Dad used to say, Lay down with dogs and get up with fleas.
I should have listened to him.
I visited Dad’s house again this morning. The place was still empty, with weeds growing in the unmown yard, and it was as quiet as a library too, without Dad’s loud banter, or the annoying cacophony of my brothers’ cartoons.
God, I miss them.
Just before I left, I took down Dad’s Live Pride flag, emblazoned with a red heart pierced by a blue thunderbolt, symbolizing a living heart electrified with life. I wrapped up the heavy cotton flag, faded from years of use, and brought it home. Now it hangs here from the side of my roof, snapping something fierce in the wind.
As I stand on the porch, securing the flagpole firmly into its bracket, I hear the sound of a rickety bicycle and sure enough it’s that alcoholic freeloader, Bob Visentini, coming up the street. He had better steer clear of me. I’ve got a Taser in my pocketbook and I’m not afraid to use it.
This spectacle of a man parks himself right in front of the house and asks to see my roommate, when I told him yesterday, clear as day, that an ambulance had carried her off Wednesday night in a body bag. Either he’s too stupid to understand or he’s in denial.
Just looking at Sarah’s Italian dreamboat makes me cringe. His skin is sun burnt deep brown, and his hair is matted.
“Where is she?” he asks from his bicycle seat, batting thick lashes and staring at me with those dark, brooding eyes. I tell him once again that Sarah is gone.
I don’t know, I say. She’s probably at a morgue, awaiting cremation. No mister, I did not kill her. Besides, she was already dead. It was an accident… look, I’m not arguing with you. I’m too tired for this shit…
He won’t let it go.
Now listen here, I say, I’m sorry for your loss, but don’t come here again. I have my own problems to worry about. Get off my property. What? No, I don’t hate her. I tried living with her. It just didn’t work.
He asks me something else and I feel the beginnings of a headache.
Please leave, sir. And don’t come back. I’m not having this conversation. Stay away from my property, or I’m calling the police!
You bike away from the house, as fast as you can pedal. You don’t know what to believe, but one thing is certain: you never want to see that two-faced redhead again.
The wind is strong. Grey clouds are blowing in from the lagoon. You pedal faster, hoping to beat the rain. Finally, Garden Street dead-ends. The brakes don’t work so you dig your heels into the crumbled asphalt. The 10-speed stops with a screech. You dismount and follow a beaten path from the road into the grass, dragging the bike with you through dense trees, until you’re out of breath. Half an hour later, you reach your camp site: a smelly old tarpaulin tent with cinder blocks for flooring, strung up between two pine trees in a sandy clearing.
Tired from your exertions, you enter the tent and curl up in your sleeping bag. You sneeze into your shirt; you’re coming down with a fever. As you wipe your nose and scratch your dirty skin, you think of that mysterious woman and the ring you gave her.
You were going to stop drinking. You were going to look for a job. You were going to turn your life around, because of her. You had thought Sarah was the one, the one you would care for and who would care for you in return. You were wrong.
She’s gone now. Forever.
You drift in and out of sleep, listening to the cold wind pummel the tarp. Your muscles are sore, your old bones brittle as glass.
Your whole body aches with a throbbing pain, but it’s nothing compared to the pain of your heart.
We hike day after day, trying to find our way. Still, we are lost. Two boys, battered by the elements, with tangled hair laced through with pine needles. For days we have seen only trees and more trees. Daddy left us out in the woods and we don’t know why. We are delirious with fever as we stumble in the wrong direction, deeper into the woods. We are hungry and miserable, eating bugs and leaves just to stay alive. We haven’t watched cartoons in a long, long time.
Today the sky goes dark. It will rain on us again. Time is running out. We’re getting sicker by the hour. Our toes are turning grey; we don’t have the wisdom to take off our shoes and let our feet dry out.
Now a cold wind hits us carrying another burst of rain. We stumble through the downpour with our arms wrapped around each other, looking this way and that, hoping to see Daddy or Lou Ann, or Grandma Cora Lee—not realizing we will soon die, not realizing no one will save us—and in our frightened hearts we hope and pray that everything will be alright.
If there was one thing Jesse enjoyed, it was chess. He must have played a hundred games with this set alone. Back in ‘86, Esther found it at a yard sale. She loved rummaging through battered items she could have bought at K-Mart for a few dollars more.
One evening she went to a neighbor’s yard sale and returned home with a gorgeous chessboard. Jesse ran his fingers across the lacquered walnut surface and inspected the carefully carved pieces.
“It was fifty dollars, but I talked them down to twenty,” she said.
Within a week the chess set was forgotten. Jesse chucked it in the shed, after stubbing his toe on it one hangover-of-a-morning, and that’s where it stayed for the next ten months.
The young couple had more important concerns than board games. Esther was gone from the house by day, working her Student Coordinator job at Florida Tech. Jesse’s bus driving kept him at work late, and by the time he got home, his live-in-lover was back from work and transformed, from a white collar skirt suit to a cowboy hat, denim skirt and kidskin boots.
He’d drive her to the Round Up and watch her line dance all night as he threw back one gin and tonic after the next. He would go out to the dance floor a time or two, only to return to his bar stool embarrassed. Esther would be on his heels saying “It’s OK, baby,” with a laugh. Then they’d share a Marlboro, until his leg went numb. He’d have to push her off his lap, and just like that, she’d be back on the dance floor again, kicking up a storm as he tapped his toe to the music.
Music and dancing, shopping and eating, these are the things that kept her happy during those early months. And when they’d lie together in bed, sweaty from sex and drifting off to sleep, with her back pressed against the hollow of his chest, he’d feel so grateful that she was easy to keep and easy to please.
The mood swings started after the birth of Lou Ann. The baby had taken a lot out of Esther. She had quit her job and now stayed at their cabin, all day every day. Jesse would come home to his newly-wedded wife in a kitchen that smelled of diapers, with the air gone humid from boiling pots filled with baby formula bottles.
“I’m thinking,” Esther would answer, unresponsive to his kisses, and shrugging off his hugs as she stared at the chess set retrieved from the shed.
Jesse would frown at his wife and her newfound obsession, and then fix his own meal: cold cuts and Swiss cheese on hero bread. Then he’d check on his daughter, dropping crumbs in the crib as he scooped Lou up with one hand and propped her on his hip.
Mind you, Jesse never wanted a committed relationship. Esther, more or less, was the one who had proposed. He still couldn’t get over the wedding ring on his finger. And children? Jesse never wanted any. Lou Ann was a mistake, the result of birth control gone awry. As a bachelor, Jesse had hopped from one loose young woman to the next, with money in his wallet, an endless supply of cigarettes, and as much liquor as they could drink. So when Jesse hopped over to Esther’s pad, it was business as usual, or so he thought. Yet here he was, a year later, stuck in an unexpected marriage gone unpredictably sour, with Lou Ann—his beautiful mistake—as his only consolation.
He got a night nanny for Lou just for the weekends, so that Esther could get back into the swing of things, but hard as he tried the swing never came back. Esther sat listless at bars as Jesse tapped his foot to honky tonk music. She shirked the cigarettes he proffered, and held up a palm when he tried passing her a drink. His wallet was getting fat, full to bursting.
When he took her to the mall, she bought nothing. When he took her to restaurants, she ordered next to nothing. Back then he didn’t know anything about postpartum depression. He was just too stupid, too focused on trying to set things back to the way they had been.
“Let’s play a game,” he said one spring night, unbuttoning his work shirt and rolling up his sleeves.
“Aren’t you going to shower first?” Esther told him, waving her hand across her nose.
The day had been a Floridian scorcher. The bus AC had broken down. He had sweated it out during his entire route, and now, coming back home to the house and its blessed AC, he found his wife analyzing the chess board. Jesse took a quick shower, and came back to the kitchen smelling of Irish Spring and Brut. She seemed to notice him then, her perception breaking through the numbing fog that had separated them for the last six months.
Jesse pushed aside a baby bottle. He sat across from Esther as she reset the chessboard. She nodded when he asked her if she had been playing all day.
He moved a pawn. She moved a pawn. He knew a thing or two about chess, and could tell right off the bat she was going to lose. She was making bold choices. Sacrificing her pieces. He killed her queen in less than ten moves, and it was all downhill from there.
She pushed up her sleeves and pulled her red hair back into a ponytail. “That was just a warm-up. Let’s play again,” she said after he had decimated her forces, and put her king in an easy checkmate.
“No.” Jesse stood from the table. The baby was crying. Couldn’t Esther hear it?
He changed Lou’s diaper, which had turned out to be clean after all, fed her formula and mashed bananas, and then made Esther a ham sandwich with stale Italian bread and Swiss cheese. By then, it was already past eleven, and he tried getting Esther to come to the bedroom with him, but she was still tinkering with the chessboard.
She was still tinkering with it ten years later, after the birth of their two sons. Since ‘86, Esther had been missing. Ten long years. Ever since the birth of Lou, ever since that summer they had gotten that goddamn, yard-sale chess set. Jesse missed the crazy, funny Esther he had fallen for. Where had she gone? He missed lying in bed with her, listening to her stupid, silly talk about girly things of no consequence. He missed amusing her, and seeing her laugh with that goofy overbite. He missed wining and dining her until she practically popped, and had to undo the bottom button of her blouse to give her tummy breathing room. He missed teasing her with silly jokes, until she laughed so hard that she spat out the food she had just eaten. He missed rubbing her tired feet when they came home from The Round Up, and he missed hearing her sigh of relief as he drained the blisters on her heels she would get from line dancing in brand new snakeskin boots.
In ten years, all of that had died, leaving Esther a ghost of her former self, a stranger to Jesse. No clubs, no bars, no restaurants. All she did now was work, study, and worry over the new pandemic sweeping the nation.
Esther had become an expert chess player, and—perhaps bored of it, he joked—had shifted to astronomy. Scientists claimed the Lazarus virus was astral, that it had hitchhiked to earth on a meteoroid. That was the real reason she had grown interested in science and astronomy. Jesse ignored that possibility. He kept his head in the sand as she read Pre-Calculus texts in the evenings and fiddled out back with her new telescope once the sun went down.
What’s more, she had gotten her job back at Florida Tech, and as a full-time employee, was accorded two free classes per term. This semester, she was taking Intro to Astronomy and Intro to Chemistry.
“This airborne virus… my God. I can’t believe we’re all infected.”
“Everything will be alright,” Jesse said, as he bottle fed Rick and Daniel, the twins from hell, as he lovingly called them.
“Why are you so relaxed,” she replied, with hands on hips and lips in a scowl, “drinking gin and going out to bars, as if the world hasn’t changed?”
He almost dropped the baby, he was so angry. “I’m sick of people obsessing over the dead!” he screamed. “The living should focus on the living, and the dead should go back to the grave where they belong!”
Now the baby was crying. “I’m sorry for my temper,” Jesse said, “but Esther, your obsession over the dead is driving me nuts!” He took the twins upstairs to the nursery and placed them in their oversized crib. When he returned to the kitchen the banter resumed.
“I never realized you were a necrophobe. Jesse, what if I become a zombie? What if you become a zombie?”
“We would take care of it.”
“What do you mean, take care of it?”
Jesse placed an index finger to his forehead and cocked his thumb.
Esther shuddered. “And who would raise the children?”
There were goose bumps on Esther’s arms. “You’re a monster,” she said.
“Me? I’m a monster? The zombies are the monsters! You’ve gone nuts, you and the rest of the freakin’ world!”
Jesse was right. The world had gone mad, as it raced towards the new millennium. There were the homosexuals with AIDS demanding government funding for HIV research. There were the blacks begging for equality, while lazily subsisting on welfare and food stamps. Illegals were migrating to Florida by the boatload, parasitizing off the state, not paying taxes, not even bothering to learn English. And then there were the liberated wives with their full time careers, forcing husbands to stay home like housewives and raise children.
And now, as if all that weren’t bad enough there were brain eating zombies masquerading as the living, making a farce out of life itself.
“You can’t kill someone just because they’re a zombie. They have the right to life, just like the rest of us.”
“The right to life? They’re dead!” Jesse shook his head with exasperation. “And what about my rights? What ever happened to my future? My happiness?”
Esther’s cheeks flushed. She pointed a shaking finger at Jesse. “You think you’re special. You think your privileges override everyone else’s!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re patronizing, condescending, haughty, prideful. You talk down to me, treat me like a kid. I’m not a little girl. I’m a grown woman.”
The world had turned against him, and now even Esther was joining the ranks of the enemy.
“I feel like I’m under attack!” he stuttered as his glaring wife shot daggers at him. “It’s like suddenly I’m the bad guy, no matter what I do, right or wrong!”
“You’re a narrow-minded necrophobe, amongst other things. God, Jesse, the world is changing. Get with the program.”
Esther waved a dismissive hand at her husband and walked out the door. She had an evening laboratory class, and so Jesse cared for the kids that night. When she came home, still in her lab coat, there were no hello dear’s or greetings of any sort. There was nothing left to say. Jesse went to bed alone as she played in the backyard with her telescope.
After Esther’s death—sudden and unexpected—two years later, those objects that he had so greatly detested became relics of her memory. Lou, Rick and Daniel grew up in a home where chess was played frequently, and sky watching was a family affair.
“I thought you hated chess,” Lou Ann had said to Jesse after the funeral, watching him as he leafed through a large game book.
“No, baby. I love it. I really do.”
“But after what you did to Esther, I thought…”
“Don’t ever bring that up again! It’s our secret. The virus may have gotten her in the end, but by God I still loved her, and I did what I had to do.”
The last time Jesse had played chess with Esther, a few weeks before her death, she had beaten him mercilessly, while spouting terms like Black Knight’s Tango and Two Knight’s Defense. He had had no idea what she was talking about, but after the funeral, he had found the book in her belongings: a huge hardcover entitled The Oxford Companion to Chess.
Now, twenty-five years after Jesse and Esther’s wedding, and thirteen years after Esther’s death, Lou Ann was all grown up and had just moved to her own home across town. Jesse offered her Esther’s books and belongings, figuring the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, but it had. Lou Ann declined everything.
Perhaps one day when Jesse died his daughter and sons would have a yard sale, and someone else would come to possess that chess set. But for now he treasured it, and on nights he couldn’t sleep, he’d pour a glass of gin and play a game with himself, pretending Esther was still there.
Mother and daughter were at it again.
“What are you reading?”
“Gone with the Wind.”
“Another romance? Sarah, you indulge in too much fantasy. You read one book after the next. Go outside. Get some fresh air.”
Louise snatched the book from her daughter’s hand and closed its hardbound cover.
“Mother, I’m hideous. I can’t go out… the Promethia isn’t working.” Sarah wore a sweet perfume, flowery and sharp. Her skin was airbrushed to hide its discoloration, her silky hair was a wig. Her blue eyes poked out a bit, a little too convex to be anything but contacts.
“The pills are working, sweetie. You’re as lovely as ever. Let’s go to the mall. There’s a sale at Harrold’s.”
Sarah covered her face with bony hands. “I’m tired. Please. Leave me be.”
“You need to update your wardrobe.” Louise jangled her car keys from well-manicured fingers. “We’re going shopping. I insist.”
The girl sighed and rose from the tapestry-upholstered chaise.
“Good girl. I’ll meet you at the car in half an hour.”
“What in heavens are you doing?” Louise said, half an hour later at the driveway rendezvous.
“We’re going… shopping? Mother?”
“Not with your skin exposed!”
Sarah shambled back to the front door.
“Wear a long sleeve shirt! Don’t forget your sunglasses and sun hat… and don’t forget to deodorize!”
“I just did.”
“I can smell you. The odor lingers. Fumigate some more. Don’t embarrass me at the mall.”
Sarah returned to her bedroom, a gilded cage in her mother’s condo. She took off her leather sandals and wiped her skin with a desiccant. There was no time to fumigate but no bother, she had already done so the night before. Instead, she sprayed herself with an odor neutralizer. Then she swapped out her Armani tee for a silk turtleneck and her semi-sheer palazzos for 501 jeans.
“Don’t forget your gloves, darling,” Louise called from the driveway. “And no open-toe shoes!”
On went the elbow length gloves, floppy sunhat, and thick, wraparound sunglasses.
“That’s much better,” Louise purred as Sarah returned to the Buick Enclave. “A young lady should always look her best.” The placated mother opened the vents, turned on the AC and sprayed the interior with Febreze.
They drove to Harrold’s Mall and went straight to Nordstrom.
Mother and daughter passed crowds of fresh-faced girls in skimpy clothes that hugged young, healthy figures. The girls stared at Sarah but resumed their shopping once they had gotten an eyeful of the zombie wrapped head to toe like some modern-day mummy.
Meanwhile, the overdressed young woman was eyeing a rack of denim miniskirts. “Mother, aren’t these divine?”
The grey-haired woman frowned. “They’re mosquito diapers. You might as well wear a rubber band and call it a skirt.”
“So then what should I buy?”
“Don’t play dumb… and I’m not buying you a mini.” Louise gestured at her own outfit: brown casual loafer pumps, sage chinos and a white poplin shirt. “You see? Conservative and respectable.”
Sarah pulled a powder blue mini off the rack. “I really want one.”
“They’re too expensive.”
“I have enough money.”
“What are you thinking?
“I’m twenty-five, Mother. I’m not a child.”
“Age isn’t the issue. The dead can’t wear minis.” Louise laughed. “Your legs are too bony, your skin too lumpy.”
“Spanx would smooth out the unevenness.”
Louise grabbed Sarah’s hand and dragged her to the formal wear department. “These are so much prettier.” She picked out a herringbone maxi skirt and held it in front of her daughter.
“Oh, that’s lovely! We’re getting it!” Louise took a matching jacket off the adjacent rack. “And you can pair it with this.”
“To cover your arms, dear.”
During the drive home, Louise broke the news.
“Deacon Harmon is visiting tonight.”
“I’d prefer if he didn’t.”
I told him about your new Promethia regimen. He’s going to pray for you. He says medication works best when combined with prayer.”
“I appreciate his concern but…”
“You’re a stiff-necked girl, Sarah. You know what they say about the wages of sin.”
“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit. Accept your sin. Take responsibility for it. Then God will heal you and make you whole.”
“You think being necrogenic is God’s punishment?”
“I’m not arguing with you.”
“Once the deacon prays for me, and I don’t get better, then what? Will you blame me for that too?”
“I love you, Sarah. I want what’s best for you. I’m trying to help you the best I can.” Louise smiled, and with one hand on the wheel, gripped her daughter’s hand with the other. “You know, love itself is a medicine. It’s the secret ingredient that will make you well again.”
“Do you really love me, Mother?”
“I’m shocked you would ask me! Of course I do, sweetie. Of course I do.”
An unpalatable surprise awaited Sarah at dinnertime.
“Is this my plate?” she asked with shoulders slouched, weighed down by her wool herringbone ensemble.
Louise ate a forkful of pasta. She chewed the food slowly, and then spoke with measured words. “I made patties, sweetie. Just for you. Now eat them.”
“Where’s my protein drink and pemmican?”
“You don’t need them.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“That’s all you need to know. Protein and fat, that’s all you ever eat. The patties are so much better. Why, they almost look like real food!”
Sarah’s eyes blackened as she held in her tears. “My meals are real food.” She sat at the oak dining table and picked at the mystery concoction. “At least tell me what’s in it.”
“Tofu, gelatin and wheat germ, though mostly tofu.”
Sarah’s lips puckered. She stood and hurried to the oversized refrigerator. She rummaged through it, searching for her tallow and organ meat. She searched the cupboard for her pemmican. Then she looked under the sink for her single serve packets of liquid protein.
“Eat your patties. Deacon Harmon will be here any minute.”
“No more charades. Where’s my food?”
“I threw everything out.”
Sarah put hand to mouth and gasped. “Why on earth would you do that?”
“It was the deacon’s idea. It’s the first step in your reparative therapy. Sarah, if you want to live again, you have to start acting like a living person.”
“I don’t want to act. I want to be me, the real me.”
“The deacon and I have thought this out: you need to transition to real food. Now come back to the table and eat your dinner.”
The young woman returned to the polished oak table. She picked up her fork but then hesitated.
“Eat it,” Louise insisted. “Don’t you see, sweetie? Once you start eating tofu, we can broaden your diet. I have it all planned out. Next we’ll try soy milk, then fruits and vegetables, and other normal things that normal people eat.”
Sarah stood so fast her chair tipped over.
“Sit back down!”
“Mother, you keep trying to turn me into something I’m not. You might as well hate me, the way you treat me. Can’t you accept me for what I am?”
Louise grimaced. “This isn’t a discussion. Eat your food, or go to your room.”
Sarah went to her room. She packed her bags.
Louise walked in minutes later, alerted by the commotion.
“What are you doing?”
“Where will you go?”
“I’m a fool for living here like a child under your thumb.”
“Pshaw! You’re a zombie! You can’t live on your own!”
“I have enough money saved for an apartment.”
“You need more than money to make it in this world. Look at you. You’re shaking. You’re absolutely terrified. You can’t survive without me. How will you make it without my help? Without my advice? Besides, no one will rent an apartment to a zombie! You’re not thinking clearly.” Louise ran a hand through her grey hair, tousling it in frustration. “You’re having an adverse reaction to Promethia!”
“No Mother, I’m having an adverse reaction to you.”
“Well then leave. I am tired of your rudeness. Get out of my house. See if I care!” Louise followed Sarah to the front door and opened it.
Sarah stepped outside. The taxi she called was pulling into the drive. The driver took one look at her and sped off.
“You see that?” Louise said. “You can’t even catch a cab!”
Sarah held her head high. “I will walk,” she said, clutching a suitcase in either hand. She started out down the road, unsure of where she would go, or what she would do. Now her mother was calling her, the voice loud and urgent.
“Come back! I didn’t mean it!”
Sarah kept walking. The nearest motel was miles away, but she was determined to see this through.
“Don’t leave me alone!” Louise cried from the yard. “Come back Sarah! I love you!”
Sarah reached the end of the street. She looked back at the prison of a home with its warden, and wondered why she had willingly lived in bondage for so many years. Then she continued her walk, on shaking legs, towards a free yet uncertain future.
Landlords cringed when Sarah dropped by for tenant applications. Employers cringed when she showed up for interviews. Everyone cringed when they saw Sarah. She expected nothing less. Yet in the end they acknowledged—albeit reluctantly—the conscientious woman behind the mask of horror. Through her actions and bearings it was plain to see that Sarah was trying to fit in, trying to follow society’s rules, trying to become a productive citizen.
Key Bank reviewed Sarah’s resume and credentials and hired her as a customer service representative. Meadow Landings reviewed her spotless background check and accepted her tenant application. It had taken some time but now Sarah finally realized the truth. She didn’t need her mother; she was an adult and it was high time that she lived her life on her own, on her own terms.
Three years passed and Sarah prospered both financially and career-wise. She eventually transferred to Key Bank’s Laguna Bay branch, where she rose to the position of loan officer. She may have seemed slow and stupid to some, with or without the Promethia, but her mind was sharp, her intelligence matched only by her tenacity.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical corporations and biotech firms were pioneering astraviral technologies. Eden Labs was the first company to research Lv gene therapy. Over a three-year period, the company had reengineered the alien virus, using it to create therapeutic astraviral treatments. The medical breakthrough came just in time for Sarah, and on June 17th, 2011—shortly after her traumatic accident at Lou Ann’s home—Sarah became the very first patient in Eden Lab’s Phase III gene therapy trials…
“I’m Dorothy Nash, Head Nurse Care Coordinator.”
Bob shook her hand. “When can I see Sarah?”
“You’re an elusive man, Robert,” the nurse said, her voice loud in the empty waiting room. “Sarah spoke of you, during a brief moment of consciousness, but without your contact information we had no way of reaching you. Do you have a home address?”
“Call me Bob, and no, I don’t.”
The slim, black nurse with salt and pepper hair sat across from Bob in a leather reception chair. “Sarah has no insurance.” The woman’s eyes were sharp behind wire rim glasses.
“I’m Sarah’s fiancé, not some gold-digging gigolo.” Bob looked away from the intense gaze. “I don’t care about life insurance. I never assumed Sarah had any.”
“What do you care about?”
“I care about Sarah. I visited every hospital in town, but she wasn’t on the rosters. Finally someone told me about Eden Labs, and when I called, you said she had been here all along.”
“But you do realize that Sarah is undead?”
“Of course I do!”
“Are you family?”
The nurse stuck a hand in her lab coat, and crossed a leg, away from him. “Robert, I want to believe you care about Sarah. I want to believe you’re engaged to her. I want to believe love trumps all, even death itself. However Sarah is our patient and we hold her personal safety in high regard. You’re no blood relation…”
“I’m her fiancé.”
“…and living and undead pairings are a rarity. So make me understand Robert, why you really want to see Sarah, and why I should let you visit her.”
Bob wore a three-piece polyester suit, a thrift store find he thought appropriate for the visitation. He had brushed his teeth, polished his shoes, remembered to smile… what had offended this woman? Should he have forgone the onions on his lunch burger?
Dorothy seemed much younger than him, yet her tone was that of a disgruntled parent.
Bob sat up in his chair, adjusted his bow tie, and then: “Sarah helped me when no one else would. She took me to church when I was drunk and high. She fed me. She accepted me. She loved me. I made her smile. She blushed whenever she saw me.
“She and I have more in common than you realize. I have cancer and my immune system is shutting down. I don’t have long to live. When I die the virus will take over and I’ll be just like her.” He leaned over the coffee table and caught his reflection in its black smoked glass. He was well groomed and presentable. No, there was nothing wrong with him. If there was a problem, it was with Nurse Nash.
“What is this?” the woman said as he handed her a folded paper.
“My lab work. Blood tests. It proves everything I just said. I’m not lying to you.”
She pushed her glasses up her nose and studied the lab work.
“Three million… that can’t be right!”
“Your viral count is skyrocketing. You’ll be undead by year’s end. My God, you should be in a hospital, getting treatments.”
“No matter. Can you tell me more about Sarah’s condition?”
“She’s in Phase III of our Genesis therapy trials.” Dorothy’s face softened. “I was unaware of your condition. You have my condolences.”
“Don’t worry about me. The Vitalia is staving off the virus for now, and I’m on Gleevec, but Sarah… how long will it take to cure her?”
“We don’t know if a cure is possible. We’re managing the virus the best we can.”
“So can I see her? And can you tell me more about your astraviral therapy? I’m taking a Lazarus virus class at Laguna Bay Community College but the syllabus is all theory. I’m more interested in praxis.”
“You’re taking classes? How can you afford them?”
“But you’re homeless.”
“I’m apartment hunting… may I speak with your supervisor?”
“Isn’t your motto ‘Rehabilitate, Reintegrate, Coexist?’ I didn’t expect discrimination, not from Eden Labs, of all places.”
The nurse’s smile was tight. “I’m simply following procedure.”
“If I can’t see Sarah, then I would like to see your supervisor.”
The woman sighed. She uncrossed her legs and slouched in her chair. “Yes, you may visit Sarah.” She reached over the coffee table and returned Bob’s lab work. “I think we misunderstood each other.”
The paper was damp. The woman’s hands were sweating.
“Oh, I understand you perfectly Mrs. Nash. Now please have someone escort me to my fiancée.”
You visit your girlfriend but she is still in a coma. You talk to her, even though she cannot hear you. You tell her about your new job and your apartment search. You tell her that you’ve stopped drinking, that you’ve turned your life around, because of her. Most of all, you tell her that you love her.
An hour later, you leave Eden Labs and catch a public bus to Laguna Bay Community College. You’re didn’t enroll in the town college for another degree. You couldn’t care less about grades and diplomas. In the school’s biology building you jostle through crowds of healthy young students. The Lazarus virus is abstract to these carefree young folk—a subject for intellectual rumination— but it is very real to you. Studying the virus helps you understand your girlfriend and what she is going through, and gives you a small measure of hope during these bleak depressing times.
You sit in the first row of the college classroom, eager to learn, eager to understand.
An oversized monitor sits in front of the chalkboard. The instructor connects his computer to the monitor and now a video presentation appears on the screen.
You study the screen and then raise your hand. “Those are human cells.”
“Yes Bob,” your instructor replies. “Healthy and in their prime.” He points to a mass in the center of one of the cells. “This is the nucleus, and within it is the Lazarus virus.” Now the instructor presses play with the computer mouse, and the cell changes color.
You raise your hand again and speak. “Why is the cell turning green?”
“The color symbolizes the cell’s destruction. The cell’s organelles are beginning to break down. In sum, it is dying.” Your instructor pauses the video. “We have expanded the term necrogenesis to include the symptoms of the Lazarus virus. But the condition was originally called Janus syndrome. The virus sends out signals that trigger cellular decay on a massive, systemic level. But then the miracle happens.”
The video resumes, and the green cell reverts to crystalline clarity.
“Why isn’t it green anymore?”
The instructor scowls. “Please raise your hand before speaking.”
The other students aren’t asking questions. They don’t seem to care. To them, this is just another course that stands in the way of their degree. But to you, this class is special. At forty-seven, you’re the classroom’s eldest student. You enrolled in Lazarus virus 1000A, not towards the achievement of a degree, but to better understand your girlfriend and what she is going through.
You raise your hand and wait for the instructor to acknowledge you. When he does, you repeat your question.
“The cell is no longer green because it’s no longer breaking down.” He moves the mouse, and you watch the tiny arrow on the oversized display screen point to a dark spot in the nucleus. “Do you see that? It’s Lv RNA. Isn’t it beautiful? It both preserves cellular DNA and causes cellular breakdown. What a dichotomy! The virus triggers abnormal cycles of cellular decay and regeneration!” There is passion in the instructor’s voice. He’s a graduate student, writing his senior thesis on Lv gene therapy. This subject is as important to him as it is to you.
In your excitement you once again forget to raise your hand.
“The undead always seem to be decaying, but you’re saying they regenerate as well?”
The instructor, moved by your enthusiasm ignores your oversight and answers your question. “That’s the beauty of it!” he exclaims. He stands from his desk and smiles as he stretches out his hands in excitement. “The virus is quite novel. It behaves like nothing else on the planet. Each somatic cell that it affects is at a different staggered phase in the necrogenic cycle. To illustrate the point with gross simplification: while the undead’s skin cells are regenerating, their liver is breaking down. But before the liver cells reach the point of no return, they miraculously begin to rebuild. Then as the liver cells regenerate, the infected person’s skin cells once more begin to die. The cycle occurs in staggered intervals, causing parts of the body to decay while the rest recovers.”
“They should call it the S&M virus,” a classmate blurts out. “It builds them up, just to break them down.”
Everyone laughs. It’s funny to them, but you think of Sarah and hold back tears.
“S&M virus?” The instructor repeats the quip and shares in on the laughter. “I never thought of it that way!”
Your serious words cut through the classroom’s mirth. “Jokes aside, Eden Labs is researching a cure for the disease. They have a new gene therapy in the works.”
“Why, yes,” your teacher replies, his eyes wide behind thick glasses. “Their Lv vector therapy is in Phase III testing. They’ve patented it under the name Genesis therapy, and from what I’ve heard the research is quite promising.”
“Do you think the therapy will work?”
The instructor scoffs at your question. “That’s all you people ever care about: Will it work? Eden Labs isn’t Burger King. Gene therapy isn’t a fast food franchise. Medical breakthroughs take time and research.”
You ignore the rebuke. “Exactly how does the therapy work?”
“They inject the necrogenic patient with a vector.”
“And how do they do that?”
“Eden Labs collects a viral sample from the patient’s blood. They hollow out the virus, make it non-infectious, and then fill the virus with modified RNA. When they inject the virus back into the patient, it delivers a payload of modified RNA to the infected cells. The RNA disrupts the replication process. The death signaling ceases, so the cellular breakdown stops. The DNA is still infected with the virus but now the virus is unable to reproduce.
“The ultimate goal of Lv astraviral therapy is to stave the virus from unchecked replication—so that the body’s cells can grow, live and die naturally without viral interference.”
“Then the patient would be normal?”
The instructor scratches his chin while contemplating your question. “I can’t give you a definitive answer to that question. All I can say is that viral suppression is the key to controlling necrogenesis. There’s always a chance the virus will resist therapy and unexpected complications will arise, but at the present Genesis therapy is the most promising treatment available.
Sarah opened her eyes to a world of agony.
“She’s coming around,” a man said.
“Where am I?” Sarah drawled, her words dissonant in her ears. “Is this hell?”
There was a sound of heavy knocking, and she realized it was her heart, pounding a harsh staccato. An IV fed fluids into her once desiccated body. The flesh had filled out, her shriveled form now plump. Her brain wave chart was spiking, signaling the end of her coma.
“You’re finally waking up,” the man said to her. He wore green scrubs and a surgical mask. White latex gloves covered his hands.
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t.”
Now she touched herself as she lay on the operating table, exploring her body and its new wondrous state: her firm breasts, her warm cheek, her long tapering legs, voluptuous and graceful. She saw the locks of blonde hair spilling down her shoulders. “I was dead…” she said.
“You are a living, vibrant woman.” The man pressed a button on a console and the bed Sarah lay on adjusted to an L, with her prone form now in the seated position. The stainless steel was hard against her skin, her lungs filled with the fumes of hospital disinfectant, the taste of bile acidic on her tongue. The man removed his surgical mask and unbound the restraint from her waist. He covered her nakedness with a hospital gown and her limbs flopped around with disjointed coordination.
“My name is Doctor Hussein,” the man said. “Sarah, do you know where you are?”
“Of course I do!” she muttered with a tongue that was numb and heavy, but then realized she didn’t.
“Please, slow down,” a woman said to Hussein. She wore the ubiquitous green scrubs of the medical team. “She’s not ready for a briefing. It’s too much, too soon. She’s just coming around…”
Hussein brushed the woman off with a dismissive frown.
“Her pulse is racing, her vitals are erratic,” the woman insisted.
“Indra, she’s fine,” Hussein said, and then to Sarah, “You’ve been in a coma for the last three months. Do you remember how you first came here, to Eden Laboratories?”
When Sarah shook her head no, he continued.
“Surely you recall your accident, hitting your head on a concrete walkway?”
Sarah’s eyes widened. Her hands were shaking. Droplets of sweat had formed on her brow. She ripped the IV from her arm. She swung her legs over the edge of the table. Cold tiles chilled her bare feet.
Hussein grabbed her in alarm. “You can’t get up!”
“I want to stand,” Sarah said. “Can you help me?”
He hesitated for a moment, but then complied.
There were spots in her vision and her exertions made her shudder. Yet her muscles—fresh from regenerative therapy—were responsive to her commands. Sarah stood and leaned against the man.
“What can you remember?” Hussein said.
“That I died. I was in heaven.”
“It must have been a dream,” he said, his expression still locked in a condescending smile. “What else can you recall?”
Sarah placed a hand over her heart and felt its strong, rhythmic beat. “I was dead. A zombie. A decayed, hideous thing, infected with the Lazarus virus. But now…”
But now what? Was this the future? Had she been resurrected? Not in spirit, but in flesh. Not by God, but by technology?
“The development of Lv RNA therapy, or Genesis therapy as we call it, has created a new world. The virus within you is practically dormant. Your viral load has dropped to undetectable levels. Sarah, you are no longer necrogenic.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He had stubble on his chin and a small cut on his neck, probably from shaving. He smelled of sweat and aftershave, a combination Sarah found pleasant. Yet his mannerisms were overbearing, almost threatening. He was too close, too pressing.
“Look at your arms and legs. They are healthy and strong. Your mind is sharp, your thoughts are clear. The gene therapy healed your brain injury and restored your full spectrum of senses. Your nervous system is back online. Your whole, healthy… all systems go!”
“I’m not a machine.”
Sarah flinched as Hussein brushed a lock of hair from her eyes.
“Your hair has grown out as fast and as long as Rapunzel’s,” he laughed. “Can’t you feel it trailing down your back?”
“I want to go home.” Sarah’s knees went weak. She wrapped an arm around Hussein’s stout waist.
“I won’t let you fall,” he said. He smiled again, apparently pleased by the success of the therapy, but then she slumped forward. Hussein fumbled to support her swooning body as Sarah blacked out, overwhelmed by her new revitalized condition.
Bob rushed down the halls of Eden Labs with two of the facility’s personnel trailing behind him.
“Slow down,” Dorothy said, her short legs no match for his galloping pace. The security guard reached him first.
“Compose yourself,” the guard said, or I’ll escort you off the premises.”
“Where’s Sarah’s room?”
“I will show you,” the nurse snapped, “if you would just slow down!”
She stopped in front of a door and slid her security badge through the card reader. She entered the room. Bob and the security guard followed.
The small room was scarcely furnished. Its prominent features were a medical monitor and a strange large cylinder.
“That’s the hyperbaric chamber,” the nurse said. Sarah lay inside the coffin-like contraption.
Bob rushed to the metallic chamber. “How do I talk to her?”
“Slow down, sir!” The nurse took her time observing readings on the hyperbaric chamber and fiddled with the controls. Then she snapped her fingers to get Bob’s attention. “Sit down.”
Bob sat on the bench beside the machine.
The nurse picked up a corded phone from the control panel.
“Hello Sarah. How are you?” she said, and after a moment, “That’s good to hear. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you. After all, you’re our star patient.” She looked at Bob, grimaced, and then into the phone: “I have a guest for you. Yes, it’s Bob.” The nurse forced a smile. “Yes, it really is him. I’m going to put Bob on the line now, alright?”
The woman handed Bob the phone. “You may speak with Ms. Goldman.”
“What do I say? Can she understand me?”
“Weren’t you in a rush to see her? She’s happy you’re here. She can’t wait to talk to you, though I have no idea why.”
Bob placed the phone to his ear. “Sarah?”
“Oh Bob! I’ve missed you!”
Bob stared into the young woman’s bright blue eyes. “You sound wonderful! You look wonderful!”
“It’s the Genesis therapy.”
He placed a hand on the see-through acrylic window and so did Sarah. Their palms were inches apart. Bob imagined her warm touch.
“How are you feeling?”
“Healthy,” she said, “for the first time in years. They’re giving me oxygen treatments. Bob, it’s a miracle!”
“Yes,” he agreed. “It most certainly is.” It was a miracle indeed, a wonderful paradox. She was still infected, but her viral load had dropped to the point that she was no longer necrogenic. Perhaps now, thanks to the therapy, Sarah could finally live a normal life. All he had to do now was get her out of this creepy medical facility.
“The therapy reversed the necrogenesis,” Sarah said. “Now the virus is working for me, instead of against me.”
“Oh Sarah, the worry I went through! It’s been months! You were unconscious for so long…”
Sarah’s eyes lit up. Her smile widened into a grin.
“You’re gorgeous!” Bob thought about their future together. He had proposed to her, back when she was necrogenic, but was she still interested in him? Now that she was a beauty, was this beast good enough for her?
Bob whispered into the phone. “I hate to bite the hand that fed you, but I need to get you out of this lab.”
“Is there something wrong?”
“No,” he replied, trying to ignore the nurse’s glowering stare, trying to ignore the security guard who stood far too close for comfort.
“I’ve been staying at a shelter, but I just found an apartment. I was thinking… after your discharge… would you like to live with me?”
“You found… an apartment?”
“Yes, and a job.”
“Oh my God, Bob! That’s wonderful!”
“So what do you say? We’d be perfect together!” He waited for her eager agreement, but then Sarah’s smile faded. Seconds went by and he didn’t know what to make of the silence.
“Is something wrong?”
“Bob, what if the treatments don’t last? What if I revert?”
“Who told you that?”
“I wanted to leave yesterday, but Nurse Nash and Doctor Hussein said I have to stay for observation.”
“The virus may reassert itself.”
“Hogwash! I want you to live with me Sarah. I love you. I want to take care of you.”
“Eden Labs is taking care of me.” A tear slid down her cheek. Sarah readjusted her position on the gurney inside of the chamber and turned her face away from the window. “I don’t want to fill you with false hope.” She sniffed, and wiped her face with her hands. “I should find an apartment of my own and take things slowly. These treatments are experimental. This is all too sudden, too miraculous. It’s all too good to be true!”
The nurse leaned over Bob’s shoulder. “Wrap things up,” she said. “Sarah needs her rest.”
“I’m not finished talking to her.”
“You can always see her tomorrow.”
Bob tapped on the hyperbaric glass. “Sarah, look at me. You’re fine.”
I have cancer, he wanted to say, but life goes on. If you give into your fears, then you might as well be dead. Instead, he told her “I accept your decision.”
Sarah was sobbing.
He heard the nurse groan, and now she was holding out her hand, demanding the phone.
“Sir, it is time to leave.”
“Why? I just got here!”
“Look at Ms. Goldman’s vitals.” The nurse pointed to the medical monitor which displayed rapidly rising numbers. “You’re causing her undue stress. Sarah may have recovered physically, but she hasn’t recovered psychologically. She needs time to resolve her past and come to terms with her present before you burden her with talk of the future.”
Bob sighed. “I have to go, Sarah.” He pressed a palm to the chamber’s window. “I love you. I hope you still love me too.”
“I do love you and I do want to live with you, but now is not the time for us to plan our future together.”
“That’s exactly what the nurse just told me.” Bob grinned, and rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment. “I feel like a fool for stressing you out, for focusing on my needs and ignoring yours.”
“You’re no fool, and I know you care about me.” Sarah smiled despite her tears. “Does the engagement still stand? Is the wedding still on?”
“You know it is, but don’t worry about that. Just relax. Take things slow. Do what’s best for you. And when you’re ready for me Sarah, I’ll be waiting.”
In two weeks’ time Sarah left Eden Labs. Doctor Hussein had demanded an extended stay, but Sarah was fully recovered, so he signed off reluctantly on her discharge paperwork.
A Housing Department liaison helped Sarah find an affordable apartment, and she used her disability benefits until she was ready to return to work. Genesis therapy was the talk of the nation and news reporters solicited her for interviews. Sarah did her best to stay under the radar and avoid the controversy loving media. Weeks passed and she fell back into her daily routine. Her life was normal again and open to new possibilities. Now she looked towards her future with Bob, and dared hope for a life filled with happiness and companionship.
The doorbell rang.
“One moment, Bob!” Sarah slipped a cotton jersey dress over her hourglass frame. She cinched a hemp belt around her narrow waist. She moisturized her arms and hands with cocoa butter, and daubed her wrists and throat with a cinnamon-based perfume. She slid her feet into cork-soled sandals and opened the front door.
“Will you marry me?” Bob was at it again, ever the persistent optimist. He wore brown slacks and a crisp white button down shirt. His hair was slicked back from his well-groomed face. Most noticeable was the diamond ring in the palm of his hand. He was putting her on the spot.
“It’s a diamond,” Bob laughed, “not a rhinestone like last time.”
Sarah winced. She placed a hand to her forehead. “It’s a beautiful ring,” she said, “but…”
“I never proposed properly the first time around, but now that I’ve rejoined the ranks of the middle class I can afford better.” He tried slipping the gold set, half carat diamond onto her finger.
“No, I can’t.” Sarah pulled away, with her back against the apartment door.
Bob clenched his jaw and gritted his teeth. “I understand.” He dropped the ring in his pocket. “I don’t want to push you, or rush you.” Now he stood from bended knee and brushed his pant leg.
“You don’t understand,” Sarah pressed both hands against her temples. “It’s not you. I love you. It’s just that… well, what if my transformation doesn’t last?”
“We’ve been through this already. Eden Labs brainwashed you, filled you with fear and doubt. They want you hospital-bound, as their guinea pig.” Bob wrapped large, strong hands around her slender fingers. They stood hand in hand, face to face. “I love you Sarah. Do you love me?”
“So then live! Seize the day! Don’t hobble yourself with fear. In the end, everyone dies. Live while you can.”
“I can’t take the ring…”
“Bob, I just can’t live with you. Not yet. Not until Eden Labs finishes the clinical trials. Not until I’m certain the decay won’t return.”
Bob’s lips curled upward. “You’re impossible!”
“So are you,” she replied and broke into uneasy laughter.
“I can’t force you to see things my way, but don’t expect me to stop proposing.”
“If you did I’d start to worry.”
“You’re a mysterious one,” he said with a smirk. Bob kissed Sarah’s hand and linked his arm in hers.
They took the elevator to the first floor and passed the doorman in the foyer.
“You’re beautiful as ever, Ms. Goldman.”
“She most certainly is,” Bob replied to the uniformed man, and then whisked his stunning date through open glass double doors.
Fireflies glowed in the night air. The couple walked through the parking lot. Bob guided Sarah to his white Honda convertible. He opened the passenger side and the statuesque woman took a seat.
Before getting into the car, Bob paused and looked around. “Can you smell that?”
“Life. It’s all around us.”
Sarah inhaled. She smelled the night jasmine blooming. She smelled the pine grove that bordered the apartment complex. She smelled Bob’s musky cologne. And she smelled her own fresh scent, so unlike the odor of death that had once marked her as undead.
Bob started the car. The dashboard controls glowed red in the darkness. Streetlights shone in a blur through the smeared windshield. The air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror rocked as the car left its parking spot.
He kept one hand on Sarah during the crosstown drive and the other on the wheel. “I’ll never forget what you said to me, that I was a caterpillar turned butterfly that chose to crawl even though it could fly, that chose to stay within its cocoon even though a vast open sky awaited it. Sarah, you are my sky.” Now his hand rose from Sarah’s thigh and stroked her cheek. “Your skin is soft and warm,” he murmured.
Sarah held Bob’s hand as it pressed against her face.
“When we first met,” he said, “I wasn’t sure about you. But there was a spark between us, so I decided to follow my heart. I’m glad I did.”
Her cheeks burned. “You flatter me.”
“You are my motivation, my reason for living.”
He parked a few minutes later at a rustic-style building with a log cabin façade. A sign over the door read ‘Country Dave’s Swamp Shack.’
Sarah peered through the windshield. “Is this the place?”
“It’s one of my favorite restaurants. I hope you enjoy it.”
Inside, a waitress greeted the couple and seated them at a homey pine table. She served them water and warm bread, and waited for their orders.
Sarah didn’t bother to read the menu. “A rare steak, please.”
“We don’t serve steak.”
“Would you like gumbo?” Bob said.
“I’m not sure…”
“Or alligator tail? They fry it in a spicy batter.”
“It tastes like chicken,” the portly waitress chimed in.
Sarah closed her menu. “I’ll give it a try,” she said, but when the entrees arrived, her charade came to an abrupt end.
“You don’t like the food. I can tell. What’s the matter?”
She sat her fork down. “I was never much of a liar.” Sarah’s cheeks blushed. “Bob, I have a confession…”
“The food… it’s… I mean… what I’m trying to say…”
“Don’t hold back.”
Sarah bit her lower lip, flecking a tooth with coral lipstick. “I can’t eat it. I can pretend, but my body won’t process it.”
“It just goes straight through you, doesn’t it? The nurse at Eden Labs told me your nutritional needs were special, but I didn’t understand. You don’t eat brains now, do you?”
Sarah glared at him.
“Sorry. Stupid question. I won’t ask it again. But what do you eat, Sarah? You had a rare steak and baked potato last time, though you never touched the potato.”
“Here’s the truth…”
Bob arched his brows as her words trailed into silence. “It can’t be that bad. Tell me. I’ll understand.”
“I like my food… uncooked.”
Bob shrugged. “Check, please.” He threw his napkin on the plate and opened his wallet. “Let’s hit a sushi bar.”
“There’s more to it.”
The waitress arrived. Bob read the bill, and forked over his credit card.
Sarah whispered after the waitress left. “I like to eat things that are… alive. I never had a problem repressing the urge, but ever since the gene therapy, that’s all I want to eat. Living things.”
Bob shrugged again. “There’s no shame in that. Why lower your voice?”
“It doesn’t disgust you?”
“No, it doesn’t. You need to let go of whatever it is that makes you feel shame over who and what you are.” Bob stood from the table and helped her from her seat. He picked up his credit card on the way out. “Where would you like to eat, babe?” he said as they got into his convertible.
Bob drove to the Japanese Korean steakhouse. It was an undead-friendly restaurant whose menu included live Asian dishes. The eatery was sleek and trendy, a far cry from Country Dave’s homey feel. Their waitress wore a dragon print kimono and black, fitted leggings. She took their orders and came back with ikizukuri and sannakji, setting the plates down on their lacquered, black table.
Sarah swallowed a live shrimp whole. Then she picked up a baby octopus with chopsticks, chewing the head. Outraged tentacles slapped her lips. She pulled the suckers off her cheeks, and quickly slurped the defiant rubbery arms into her hungry maw.
She glanced up at Bob, but his smile betrayed no sign of revulsion or disgust. Far from being a spectator, he seemed intent on joining her in her meal. He had ordered live carp. The fish gasped on his plate. Its body was sliced in half. Its exposed heart throbbed and its glistening fins wriggled.
Bob ate the fish. He occasionally covered his mouth, perhaps to keep from vomiting. Sarah knew he didn’t like the food, yet here he was, willing to share this strange meal with his beloved, in an attempt to better understand her.
Once the meal was over Bob showed Sarah his plate, like a kid impressing his parents by eating all his broccoli. Sarah was impressed. Good Lord, Bob had eaten everything save the head, bones and offal.
Now he weaved in his chair with a nauseated expression that he tried to hide. He clutched his stomach and swallowed. “I need a drink. Just one.”
Sarah helped him from his chair and the two stumbled to the well-stocked bar.
“Are you sick, bro?” the Korean bartender said.
“I’m fine. Just give me a Sapporo.”
Bob plunked down a five, and sipped his malt beer as he chatted with Sarah. “I should probably drink half, what with the cancer.” Bob’s lopsided grin disappeared in a flash.
Bob swilled his beer glass. “What’s in this stuff?” he asked the bartender. “Truth serum?”
“We both tried lying tonight,” Sarah said. “I came clean, now it’s your turn. Tell me the truth. “Did the cancer return?”
She patted her eyes with a napkin. “You said it was in remission. Why didn’t you tell me the truth?”
“Stop worrying. I’m not dead yet. Let’s just make the most of what we have.”
Seize the day. That’s what Bob had told her earlier, and now she understood what he meant. “Propose to me. Right now.” Sarah regretted turning Bob down. She imagined him dying of cancer alone without her. “I was stupid,” she said, leaning towards him on her bar stool. “I don’t want to push you away anymore. Let’s seize the day.” Sarah placed her hand over his. “I love you Bob. I want to marry you.”
She wondered if he knew how much she truly loved him. Perhaps she was too reticent in expressing her feelings. Truth be told, she couldn’t get enough of the man. Sometimes she felt she could eat him alive, so to speak. She liked his beard, how it framed his face. She liked his pointy nose. She liked his thick lashes and his dark Mediterranean eyes. She liked his tall thin frame, his smooth chest and his fuzzy legs. She’d lay in bed with her head on his chest, listening to his heart’s rhythmic beat. Then she’d place a hand on his neck, and feel his strong pulse. She couldn’t imagine living without him. The thought left her with a devastating sadness, but if he wasn’t long for this earth…
“Bob, I want you, to love and to cherish, alive or undead, for the rest of your life, no matter how long or short… but if you don’t want to marry me…”
“Yes, Sarah. I do.” Bob stood like a seasick man, his nausea still evident. He took the engagement ring from his pocket and fell to one knee. He placed a hand on the ground to steady himself.
“Sarah, will you marry me?”
“I just said I would,” she snapped, self-conscious from the sudden circle of onlookers.
“He’s proposing!” the bartender shouted, and more people turned and stared.
“Say it again,” a bystander cried out. “Let’s hear you accept his proposal!”
Sarah locked eyes with Bob, and her self-consciousness melted in the serenity of his gaze. How could he smile when he was sick from ikizukuri? How could he be so carefree when he was dying from cancer?
“Seize the day,” Sarah said again, taking the words to heart, and then: “Yes, Robert. I will marry you!”
The tranquil barroom descended into raucous applause. Bob slipped the diamond ring on Sarah’s finger, and her salty tears mingled between the press of their lips.
Sarah called her mother with the good news.
“I’m getting married!”
The woman seemed pleased, though it was hard to tell for certain through the crackling phone line.
“I’m coming to visit,” Louise said.
“Well of course you are! I want you here in Florida for my wedding!”
Sarah had hesitated in calling Louise. Three months had gone by as the young woman wrestled with the decision. Was her mother still angry with her? They hadn’t spoken since the night Sarah walked out. Yet she loved her mother and so decided to contact Louise, in hopes of renewing their bond of kinship.
Louise arrived from Dallas the next week, expecting to see her old daughter. She had finally made peace with Sarah’s necrogenesis and was ready to accept her for the zombie she was.
Yet Sarah had changed, and to Louise’s horror, her daughter was now masquerading as a living, breathing woman…
Louise was dehydrated from the simmering sun and congested from the pollen and humidity. Then the tropical storms came. Thunderheads filled the sky during torrential afternoon rainstorms. Rolling thunder woke her from naps.
Despite the frequent rain, spring temperatures continued to rise. She prayed for a cold front, but none came. Her days droned on, accompanied by the hum of ACs and dehumidifiers.
“It’s global warming,” she told Sarah. “The virus is messing up the ecosystem, affecting animals, plants, even the weather.”
“You worry too much,” Sarah replied. “Look, my pitcher plant is turning pink!” The beautiful young woman was repotting the bog terrarium in the kitchen sink. She had changed since Louise had last seen her and now had a new house and doting fiancé. Even the decay was gone. None of it made sense to Louise. Sarah pretended to be alive and happy but truth be told she was a wretched, undead thing. The poor girl had forgotten who and what she truly was.
Louise stood from her chair. “I hate carnivorous plants. They belong in the wild, not on your kitchen windowsill. Why don’t you buy something normal, like orchids or lilies?” The disgruntled mother picked up her iced tea and went outside to the backyard.
The rain had let up, and now Bob was on the deck with the smoker and its rusted propane tank. Louise waited alone at the gazebo—away from the cooking smoke and the chatter of her kitchen-bound daughter—while holding the sweating glass of Lipton to her face, letting it cool her burning brow.
She heard the screen door close and out came Sarah. Louise groaned as her daughter invaded her hideaway.
Sarah sat beside Louise and offered her a bowl. “I made these last night, just for you.”
“What are they?”
“Rummed melon balls.”
Louise ate one, expecting to spit it back out. “These are good!” she said, eating another. The marinated fruit tasted of honey and OJ. She hoped the alcoholic concoction would take the edge off her misery.
“Are you enjoying your stay, Mother?”
“What do you think of our new house?”
“You shouldn’t have bought one so soon. What if your engagement doesn’t last? Then you’ll be stuck with a mortgage and an empty home. I don’t like it.”
“The house… or the relationship?”
“Bob bought the house. It’s in his name.”
“Uh-huh. I bet it didn’t cost much by the looks of it.”
There were wide cracks in the concrete pavement, and huge patches of grass missing from the withered lawn. It was a Craftsman-style bungalow, almost a century old. Black mold grew around the building’s foundation, and tiles of roofing had given way in the windy weather.
“Sarah, you don’t see things realistically. You told me the house was renovated, but it’s not renovated. You say you’re alive, but you’re not alive.”
“You’re just upset, right?” Sarah ventured. “You’re upset that we haven’t spoken in so long.”
Louise snorted. “You haven’t spoken to me in three years, since 2009. But I forgive you.”
“I needed time to myself, I was so confused and I had so many self-doubts… and then there was the necrogenesis, but I’m better now. I want you here for my wedding. I want you in my life again. I think it’s time for a fresh start.”
When Sarah had called Louise a few days ago, the woman could scarcely fathom the wonderful news.
I’m getting married, Mother!
Oh the joy! Her prodigal daughter wasn’t lost after all! She had finally found someone! Well, a zombie no doubt, or a blind man. Who else would want Sarah? But at least the girl had finally found companionship.
Sarah took the bowl from Louise as the woman ate the last melon ball. “There’s so much catching up to do! You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve been through in the last few years!”
Louise sniggered. “I can imagine.” She placed a hand on Sarah’s arm. The skin was smooth and warm. “I have to admit, I liked you better the way you were. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I liked you better when you were my little zombie.”
Sarah smiled. “The gene therapy was a blessing and Bob was a godsend. I’m happy with myself and I’m proud of my life. I was hoping you would be proud too.”
“I am, honey, but if you’re so proud of yourself, why not stay necrogenic? Why take gene therapy? The Promethia pills were working just fine.”
“No they weren’t.”
“You hop from one treatment plan to the next,” Louise said, “trying to be something you’re not. It’s not a rational course of action.”
“Don’t you want me to live again?”
“That’s just it, Sarah. Despite what you believe, once you’re dead you can’t come back. I finally accept that you won’t live again. I accept you for the undead person you are.”
“You said I needed reparative therapy, that being a zombie wasn’t part of God’s plan.”
“That was a long time ago. I have nothing against zombies, not anymore. Even my church accepts them now, go figure.” Louise sighed. “I suppose they’re God’s creatures too. They’re icky, but God created vultures for a purpose, so zombies must have a purpose as well.”
“I know a mummy named Eric who says the living are walking cesspools.”
“He’s in therapy at Eden Labs. He doesn’t have intestines. I guess it all comes down to one’s perspective.”
“What’s your point?”
“Anything can be disgusting… based on your perspective. No?”
Louise stood. “Are you insinuating something? I thought we were having a civil discussion. If you think I’m full of shit, just say so.”
“That’s not what I meant…”
“My God, Sarah! I’ve finally come to terms with you being a zombie, and now you’re ashamed to be one! What’s gotten into you? Weren’t you the one who wanted me to accept you? Isn’t that why you left? You should still be on Promethia, accepting yourself for the dead girl you are, not experimenting recklessly with gene therapy!”
“I do accept myself, and for the first time in years, I’m at peace.”
“What if it mutates the virus? What if you develop a new strain? I don’t trust Eden Labs. Even Bob dislikes them. And speaking of Bob, if you accept yourself then why are you marrying someone who’s Lv negative? Why not marry your own kind?”
Sarah sighed. “Because I love him. Can’t you see that?”
“Honey, here’s the unvarnished truth. When I booked my flight Monday it was to come here and visit my undead daughter. I was hoping we’d reunite and that things would go back to the way they used to be. Imagine my shock when I saw what gene therapy has done to you. Sarah, you’re ashamed to be undead. Even worse, Bob is egging you on, encouraging this ridiculous masquerade. I think your best course of action is to come back home with me to Dallas.”
“Here you are again Mother, telling me how I should live, how I should act. Who I should love. Trying to shame me into being what you think I should be.”
“Why are you so bold and brazen to me, yet meek and submissive to everyone else? Why don’t you listen when I tell you the truth? You’re a hardhearted girl Sarah, trying to pass as living. It’s all just a fantasy. Don’t you see? I’m trying to help you. I want you back. The real you. I want my zombie daughter back.”
“No, you want a codependent emotional cripple, a neutered daughter with a stunted ego. Mother, I’m not your toy dog. I’m not a pet for you to keep.”
Louise pressed hand to heart. She closed her eyes and shook her head. She had heard enough. Her daughter was stiff-necked and would not listen. After realizing Bob was alive, and that her daughter was confused and in denial, Louise had come to Florida with two return flight tickets in her pocketbook: one for her and one for Sarah. Now she realized she would be using just one.
“Sarah, this is my last evening in town.”
“But the wedding is in a few days!”
“I’m sorry, honey. I’m flying back to Dallas tomorrow.”
Back in the house, Louise stood by the window and eavesdropped on Sarah and her fiancé.
“Your mother is leaving?”
“Tomorrow. Oh Bob, I thought I was strong enough to deal with her!”
“You did good,” the intrusive man said. “You need to set boundaries, for the sake of your own wellbeing.”
“But she’s my mother! I want her in my life. I put on a brave face, but my heart was crying out. Maybe I should apologize. I don’t want to fight with her anymore. Maybe I’m the one being stubborn. And what about the child? I wanted to tell her…”
“Sarah, don’t worry about that. Your mother isn’t ready for that revelation. For now, simply focus on your own health and wellness. Be in control of your own life. You can’t control how others react to you. You can’t control how others behave. That’s what your mother tries to do, and that’s why she’s unhappy. The only person you can control is yourself. Respect others, but respect yourself as well. Be your own woman.”
The next day, there were love bugs everywhere. In the air, on the ground. They covered the walls of the house and crawled on Sarah’s blue van in the narrow driveway. The bugs were tiny black creatures with red spots just below their heads. They flew through the air in twos, copulating aerially.
“Hold still,” Sarah said as Louise tried to get into the van. “I’ll brush them off your head.”
“No. You’ll mess up my hair.” Louise wore a simple tan skirt and blouse, and a string of pearls around her wrist and neck. The clothes were polyester, the pearls synthetic. As she melted in the afternoon heat she felt cheap. She should have brought classier couture. Then again, she was only visiting her daughter, so it didn’t matter anyway.
Bob opened the door for Louise. He was playing with the bugs on his shirt, squishing them and flicking them off one by one.
At least they’ll never have children, Louise thought. What an awful father he would make. The disgusted woman glimpsed heavenward as she got into the van. Above her was the vast Florida sky, stretched out over a skyline of trees and littered with big fat bottomed clouds. The wind was picking up. White clouds were turning grey, their numbers spawning faster in the darkening sky.
At the airport, Bob carried Louise’s bags and the family walked together across the parking lot. Heated air rose shimmering from the asphalt. The gleam of shiny cars blinded Louise, her reflection distorted on their fiberglass bodies. Lightning forked in the distance with a loud boom, spurring the trio to pick up their pace.
They made it to the small terminal just in time. Inside, Louise heard the staccato of fat raindrops against the roof. She went to a window and looked outside. The tropical storm downpour had erased the sun.
The rain was a vicious, hateful thing that pummeled the earth with cold hard fists. The horizon was a smear of washed out grey; the rain had knocked the color out of it. Louise pressed a palm to the glass and felt the moisture of cold air condense on warm window panes. Her instincts told her her flight would be cancelled. A few minutes later, Bob confirmed her suspicions.
“They grounded all flights, Louise. Guess you’ll be staying with us, at least for another night.”
Louise’s stomach lurched. Her heart raced.
“Look on the bright side. Maybe we can watch the meteor shower tonight,” Sarah said, “if the rain stops.”
Louise had no intention of watching meteors from the very same comet that had brought the virus to earth. “The Antarids? Sounds lovely.” Louise smiled, feigning interest. She fidgeted nervously as the trio waited in the lobby for the storm to abate. As much as she wanted to return to Dallas, Sarah’s tantalizing secret made her want to stay, at least until she got to the bottom of the mystery. On the drive to the airport, she had asked Sarah, “Are you adopting?” to which Sarah replied “No.”
What had Bob’s cryptic words meant? Louise couldn’t stop thinking about last afternoon, about the conversation she overheard between the couple.
What about the child? I wanted to tell her… Sarah had said, to which Bob had replied, Don’t worry about that. Your mother isn’t ready for that revelation.
As Louise waited at the terminal, she plotted on how to extract the truth from Sarah. And then, and hour later, the vexed woman followed her daughter and son-in-law-to-be, out into the drizzling rain, back to the van, back to the miserable bungalow on Sunset Lane.
The Heineken short-circuited every neuron of sensibility in Damien’s brain. Something seemed wrong, but he ignored the premonition, guzzling beer and watching Carrie on Revelations’ dance floor, her blue prom dress shiny, her petite limbs blurred in ecstatic motion. Such a slender little thing. And the hair. Blacker than black, falling down around her shoulders as she laughed and spun round in those impossibly high heels.
If you told Damien that Carrie was dead, that his darling paramour was a skull-cracking brain-eating ghoul, he would have punched you in the face and kicked you in the head as you crumpled to the floor. As far as he was concerned, she was normal in all regards. And don’t you dare say otherwise!
What a stupid boy.
Everyone had the virus. You inhaled it in its airborne form, or caught it from someone else. But if you took your cocktail of pills—Vitalia, Vivera, Zestia—the Lazarus virus would stay dormant and you would live a normal, healthy life.
Problem was, some people didn’t like normal.
The high school kids ditched Vitalia and overdosed on Promethia instead, the drug for the undead, addicted to its amphetamine-like high. The massive doses killed some. No surprise there. The adults tried fighting this horror. Pastor’s preached against it. Teachers warned parents. Politicians milked the tragedy in their campaign agendas. Elect me, they proclaimed, and I will put an end to this scourge!
Carrie succumbed to Promethia in her senior year.
Her parents identified her at St. Luke’s as they cried in each other’s arms, but then she opened her eyes and sat up on her cot. Her shocked parents followed the morgue attendant as he rushed Carrie upstairs to the ICU.
“Is she Lv positive?” her parents asked hours later as they stood at Carrie’s gurney.
“It’s necrogenesis.” The critical care specialist opened a folder and showed Tom and Mei the lab results. “The overdose stopped your daughter’s heart and turned off her immune system long enough to activate the virus. We gave her Genesis therapy treatments, and will keep her under observation, but if her condition deteriorates or if she has a change in appetite…”
“She’ll be fine,” her parents insisted. “You’ll see.”
“Yes. We will,” the doctor said.
Carrie’s condition remained stable throughout Wednesday and Thursday. Her viral load was undetectable and her PET scan showed no signs of necrogenesis. The virus had returned to latency.
Doctor Mahmood discharged Carrie Friday evening. When Tom and Mei showed up the family reunited amidst tears of joy. Yet at the outpatient desk, when Tom signed his Hancock, he almost ripped the page in anger.
“Why did you people keep Carrie hospitalized for three days? She was never necrogenic! Look at her; she’s fit as a fiddle!”
The indignant father stormed out the hospital with wife and daughter, jump-started his station wagon jalopy, and after the crosstown commute guided Carrie through the front door of their shotgun home, the last house on a dead-end street.
Carrie ate her dinner in the living room: chicken fried steak with extra helpings of gravy, half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie, and a mug of A&W.
The girl must be alright, Mei thought with a smile. She can’t be necrogenic. Her appetite’s never been better.
“Why did you do it?” Carrie’s father asked during the ninth inning.
Carrie kept her eyes on the television, watching the Reds and Cardinals, but Tom persisted.
“Why abuse prescription drugs meant for zombies? Why abuse any drug for that matter? Don’t you know what the Lazarus virus can do to you? You could have died and came back undead.” Tom picked up his beer from the coffee table but didn’t drink it. His forgotten cigarette, burnt to the butt, threatened to singe his fingers.
Carrie looked to Mei but as usual her mother was silent, deferential to the man of the house. The girl squirmed on the sagging couch and felt its springs against her haunches. “Don’t you get it? I am undead, Pa. I am a zombie. I woke up in a morgue. Everyone said I was necrogenic. Then Doctor Mahmood gave me antiviral treatments.”
Tom’s green eyes flashed with anger. “You were never sick, never dead, much less undead!”
“The Genesis therapy treatments can help me…”
“The doctors are quacks; all they want is our money. Carrie, you are my living, breathing daughter. You don’t need treatments. You don’t need doctors. You are not a zombie!”
At Laguna Bay High, Carrie ignored the Promethia pushers, or death dealers, as they were called. She had no time for drugs, now that Damien Podlaski had noticed her.
It seemed out of the blue to her, but the six-foot-two football jock had planned this proposal for a very long time, afraid a girl as cute as Carrie would reject him with a laugh if he didn’t play his cards right.
She came home from school wearing his blue varsity jacket.
“I’m going to the prom!” Carrie screamed, and did an impromptu dance while her mother and father looked on.
“You are not dating a Polish boy,” Tom said.
“Fuck it! I’ll date whoever I want!” the slender girl screamed, and then stared down her Irish father until he looked away with blinking eyes.
Something was terribly wrong with Carrie. She was aggressive, demanding, unlike her usual self. Tom now realized the transformation and its implications frightened him.
“Do you think she’s a zombie?” Mei hazarded after Carrie had gone to her room.
Tom sat down on the kitchen stool and collected himself, taken aback by his daughter’s glaring eyes and snarling words. She was turning into a monster.
Two weeks passed and the necrogenic transformation accelerated.
Her girlfriends laughed as they drove her through an abandoned airfield after school, the glaring headlights cutting through the darkness. Carrie had come crawling back to them, now that she trusted neither parents nor doctors.
“I can’t believe Damien asked you out!” Amanda and Missy jeered.
The grassy field was abandoned. Amanda parked the silver Jeep Wrangler at the edge of the field, near a dead tree.
“Look at me! Look at what Promethia has done to me! I can’t hide this much longer. Damien’s going to dump me! I’ll never go to the prom!”
“You’re fine,” Amanda reassured. “No one knows.”
“My hair is falling out!”
“No one can tell.”
Carrie had spent the last two hours at home, vomiting in the toilet, hurling until her stomach was raw and empty.
“We have to take you back to the hospital,” her father had said, “for additional testing.”
“No.” Carrie had replied, waiting in the driveway, eager for her friends’ arrival.
“Dr. Mahmood wants you to see a specialist at Eden Labs.”
“I don’t trust doctors, not anymore.”
“You’ve been vomiting all night.”
“Carrie, you need to see a doctor!”
“Eden Labs is a research facility for zombies. I’m not going there, Pa!”
“You need blood tests Carrie, to make sure the virus hasn’t taken over completely. Their Genesis therapy injections will set you straight.”
“You said I didn’t need treatments. You said I shouldn’t trust doctors.”
Tom smiled a sheepish grin. “I was wrong.”
Carrie saw the sweat on his brow and the fear in his eyes.
“Wake up and face the truth. You’re in denial. I’m a zombie, and there’s no hope for me. Now get out of my way.”
Tom blocked her path. She pushed him away with ease, as if he were a paper doll. Carrie’s friends had arrived and she stormed down the driveway towards their Jeep.
Carrie’s conflicted father watched as his defiant daughter, that once sweet girl he now feared, hopped into the vehicle and drove off with her friends. Tom knew what she was but couldn’t say the word.
“I just had a huge fight with my father! Oh my God, I can’t stand him!”
“Parents are assholes,” Amanda said from behind the wheel. Missy giggled on cue, a human laugh track.
The three girls parked the Jeep at the abandoned airfield. Carrie eyed the dead willow; its twisted, clawing branches seemed to stretch out towards her. She shivered, rubbed her bony arms, and then: “My father won’t even acknowledge the truth, that I’m a zombie. That’s what I am, right?”
“That’s what you are,” Missy said with a giggle.
Carrie had lost ten pounds in less than a week. Her hair was thinning. Her skin was drying out. Her heart would skip a beat, and she’d realize she had stopped breathing for a full minute. She had taken to wearing heavy foundation, to cover the strange pallor of her skin. And now here she was, in the same empty field she had OD’d in, with the same deadbeat girls she had vowed to avoid.
Amanda raised a pill bottle, and shook its contents. How had she kept from decaying? She was beautiful to Carrie’s hideousness, vibrant to Carrie’s decrepitude. “Want some?”
Carrie wrapped her arms around her chest and felt the bones of her ribcage. “You gotta be kidding me! Hell no!”
Amanda hopped down from the hood, and flanked Carrie’s left as Missy took a box from the back of the Jeep. Kneeling beside the dead willow in front of Carrie, Missy opened the box’s lid.
It was a small Styrofoam ice chest. The moonlight illuminated its contents.
“No,” Carrie said.
“You think you’re better than us?”
The two girls crowded her in. Missy held out the gelatinous brain she had scooped from the cooler.
“No,” Carrie repeated.
“It’s your salvation, sweetie,” Missy smiled. “Now eat it.”
When Carrie woke in the morgue, she thought God had given her a reprieve. Then Damien came, sweeping her off her feet. Now here she was, back at square one, slumming with death dealers who offered nothing but damnation.
Amanda and Missy had OD’d on Promethia. Yet instead of recanting their mistake, they reveled in it, seeking to enlarge their clique.
“Eating brains will cure you.”
“That’s an urban legend, Amanda. Besides, I’m on Genesis therapy.”
Amanda brushed back a stray lock of wheat-coloured hair from her gorgeous face. “Hospitals can’t cure you. Their therapy doesn’t work, and you know it. Forget St Luke’s. Forget Eden Labs. Forget your family. Forget our high school. Forget everything.”
Amanda and Missy circled Carrie. “You’re one of us,” they said, “and that’s all that matters.”
For the longest time Carrie had mistaken them for meth addicts and Promethia pushers. As she stared at the human brain she realized these harpies had finally crossed the line, from petty crime to cannibalism.
“This is your cure. This is what you need.”
Carrie heeded the words, surprised by her overwhelming hunger as she eyed the glistening organ. As one, the three girls kneeled in the empty field, and tore into the brain like a pack of starving animals.
Carrie’s Genesis therapy kicked in that night. It was an unfortunate coincidence; the stupid girl now attributed her recovery to cannibalism. A few days later she stopped wearing heavy makeup. The color had returned to her skin. Her wispy hair thickened at the roots and she regained lost weight. Soon she was vibrant and healthy as ever. Damien’s interest rekindled, conflagrating into a bonfire.
“Want to go out tonight?” he said.
“Anywhere you want, baby.”
He dropped money on her like she was a queen and drove her anywhere she wanted to go. He was her Romeo, her knight, her confidant, her lover… everything she hoped for in a boy, and more.
And every weekend, she’d meet with her friends in the field. She had no idea where they were getting the brains. She was simply glad they were willing to share.
Then prom night came, and everything changed.
Damien watched Carrie as she danced under strobe lights in her slinky blue prom dress. Something was wrong. It was a feeling in his gut he tried his hardest to ignore. Half the senior class was on the dance floor, grinding to a bass-heavy R&B song. Now his girlfriend gave him the come-hither with her index finger and he was dancing with Carrie and Amanda, a hunk of meat sandwiched between this Betty and Veronica duo.
“Get off me,” he said, as Amanda groped his crotch, right in front of Carrie, but the blonde vixen wouldn’t quit.
The thumping bass gave him a headache. There were stars in his vision. His lungs burned, his stomach churned. The girls were too close, too pressing.
He crawled out the club, a dog on a leash, as Amanda pulled him by the tie. The commanding young woman led Damien and Carrie to the silver Jeep double parked at the end of the block.
Missy laughed from the driver’s seat. “Fresh meat,” she giggled.
Damien’s brain was foggy. He couldn’t think straight.
Amanda’s long slim legs straddled him in the backseat. He saw a cascade of black hair in the front and knew Carrie was riding shotgun. He almost threw up during the wild ride, expecting a cop car to stop them for speeding. But no, the Jeep parked near an empty runway, having raced through the town’s back roads unchallenged at breakneck speed.
He stumbled from the vehicle and crashed blindly into a tree. Amanda push him down under the dead willow, down onto the hard-packed earth. Her small hands were all over him, her slim fingers rough and insistent. The world faded, his vision darkened. The drugged boy convulsed and blacked out, never to awaken again.
Carrie rose from her stupor. The wetness of the ground had soaked through her dress, staining the cheap blue polyester fabric. “Where am I?” she drawled. “What happened?”
“What do you think, stupid?” Amanda brushed back a lock of blonde hair from her glaring eyes. “It’s time to feed.”
Carrie looked around, recognizing the familiar field and its twisted, tortured tree. She heard Amanda pop open the tailgate, and expected the white cooler.
The moon was almost full. By its light, Carrie saw a glint of metal. She couldn’t figure out what it was, until Amanda said, “Put the bone saw away, Missy. You have to drain him first.”
Carrie’s grogginess transitioned to clear sobriety. She held onto the vehicle, and bolstered herself up. “What are you doing!”
She heard Missy’s bangles tinkle, and the melodious lilt of her laughter. “It’s dinnertime. Help me take off his clothes.”
“That’s my boyfriend.”
“No,” Amanda said. “It’s cerveau de l’homme. Nice and fresh.”
“Stop the bullshit. Get your hands off Damien.”
Amanda frowned. “This is what we do. This is what we are. Where do you think the brains have been coming from? A test tube?”
“I thought you were getting them from a morgue, or a funeral home.”
“That’s disgusting!” Amanda joined in on Missy’s laughter, and then resumed undressing Damien.
“If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me, too.”
“Get over yourself. If it wasn’t for us, you’d be a shambling corpse.”
“Amanda, I don’t want this!”
“Yes you do. You were tired of your boring life. You wanted to cheat death, and you did. We all did. Now we exist our way, on our own terms. Instead of being victims, we are the predators!”
“We’re sisters.” Missy hissed.
“Let him go, and I promise I won’t tell!”
Amanda’s punch came hard and unexpected, knocking Carrie out cold.
Carrie woke, after some indefinite period, expecting cackling demons and hell’s flames, but no, the girls were pulling her back into the Jeep.
They drove her home.
“See you tomorrow,” they said with a smile, as if nothing were amiss, as if they hadn’t just murdered her boyfriend, ate his brains, and buried the remains in the field.
They drove off, leaving her shivering on the cold concrete doorstep. Her father ran out the house, screaming, “I’ve been worried sick!”
Carrie wasn’t listening. She was too busy calling the police on her cellphone.
The Laguna County Courthouse terrified Carrie, with its imposing neoclassical Greek style and towering Doric columns of poured concrete. To her surprise, the stone-faced prosecutors within offered her a plea deal. Her murder charges were dropped. She didn’t even do jail time, just one year of probation in exchange for being a state witness.
By the end of the trial, the whole town knew her name. She was the city’s scourge, the monster Mayor Laughlin remarked on in speeches, the demon Pastor Buckley sermonized on at churches, and the deviant that psych professors lectured on in front of horrified students.
Amanda and Missy were sentenced to five years in prison, which was more or less a death penalty for someone with their affliction. When the sheriffs escorted the chained girls from the courthouse, they were nothing more than animated skeletons, starved of brains, detoxed of Promethia, denied Genesis gene therapy and not long for this world.
The undead were pathetic, better off euthanized than left to fester at society’s fringes. In the end, Carrie’s father killed her, unable to cope with having a zombie for a daughter. When the firemen put out the flames in her bedroom, they found her body in the back of the closet, with a melted lighter in the palm of her charred hand.
Carrie’s body was taken to the morgue, but this time she didn’t wake up. The mortician drew up her death certificate and labelled her demise a suicide. Tom had the body cremated, and Mei—the sole grieving parent—released Carrie’s ashes on the bacteria infested red tide of the Laguna Bay River.
Lou Ann lost herself in dollar margaritas, her arm propped on the bar, sunning herself under Ken’ smile.
What a queer man. He wasn’t husband material, but over the last month his idiosyncrasies had entertained Lou Ann, enough to make her say yes every time he had asked her out.
Now he was playing with her hair. His hand was heavy on her knee. Lou Ann leaned forward on her bar stool and pecked his cheek, his stubble rough against her lips.
He was a dangerous man, rough around the edges. Ken thrilled her and she was unable—or perhaps unwilling—to reject him for the sleaze he was. She admired his motley tattoos, faded to greenish-blue on his brawny biceps. His sleeveless vest was leather, the back embroidered with an American bald eagle. He wore an oversized biker skullcap over his Afro, and leather chaps and snug denims over his thick, muscular legs.
“Once you join the Minutemen, there’s no turning back.”
She inhaled and smelled his cigarette funk, laced through with the reek of alcohol. “I want to go all the way.”
Ken hugged her, and they rocked back and forth. Then he stood and yanked her off the bar stool. Lou Ann’s skin went hot and sweaty as he tugged her out the bar.
“Are you sure you want to do this? This is your last chance to back out.” He kissed her one last time before mounting the bike.
“I’m ready,” she said.
“Once you’re in, you’re in. This ain’t no joke.”
“Let’s do it!” She tapped her foot impatiently as he mounted the maroon Harley.
“Then why are you standing there? Get on the bike bitch, and hold tight.”
Ken drove so fast Lou Ann feared the Harley would crash. She held on with a death grip, her arms around his waist and her cheek pressed flat against the back of his leather vest.
They zipped through the night, away from the bay and further inland, eventually passing the city’s outskirts.
Once the road and its yellow streetlights were gone, Ken slowed the bike. The asphalt had given way to hard-packed earth. The outlying landscape was deserted and underdeveloped, with nary a building in sight. Then she saw the motorcycles’ headlights in the distance and Ken honed in on the beacons.
Minutes later they parked. Ken helped her off the bike.
He was quiet, unusually so, and it made Lou Ann all the more uncomfortable. “What is this place?” she said, taking in her surroundings.
“Toughen up, and follow my lead. This is your initiation.”
A mob of booted gang members, in skullcaps and leather vests, were raising hell in a close-packed circle.
Ken smiled. “We almost missed the party.”
He led Lou Ann towards the crowd, and introduced her to people on the outskirts, but all Lou Ann could focus on were the screams. Where were they coming from?
Ken guided his girlfriend towards a man in a folding lawn chair, an old timer with a scraggly blonde beard. He smiled a grin that was mostly toothless.
“This is Colson, head honcho,” Ken said.
The old man shook Lou Ann’s hand. “You believe in Live Pride?”
“Hell yeah,” Lou Ann said, knowing any other answer would be fatal.
Colson squeezed her shoulder. “Welcome home, girl.”
There was a roar of shouts from the tumultuous circle.
“Go ahead, take a closer look.” Ken goaded her towards the mob, and next thing Lou Ann knew she had broken through the circle’s perimeter, her heart aflutter in fear and excitement.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this town,” a man was shouting as he stood on a tree stump-cum-make shift stage. “Tolerance. There’s too much of it. Only zombies thrive in this city, what with their illicit drug trade and penchant for brains. They’re a cancer to the system, and they’re killing us.
“God knows the government doesn’t support us. Washington and Tallahassee have done everything possible to further the rights of the undead. Our nation takes it for granted that zombies are human. People debate over how they should be treated, as if they were one of us. Now Eden Labs has moved into the city, creating zombie technologies and making killings off the patents. The pharmaceutical companies aren’t far behind, doping up the dead with overpriced drugs just for the sake of corporate profit.
“Stop the drug companies. Stop Eden Labs and its sister biotech firms. Stop the billion dollar industry of astraviral technologies and the dead will show their true colors: they’ll revert to the brain-eating ghouls they are. Then folks will finally wake up and start sending them to crematoriums where they belong.
“Governments in Africa are guillotining them. In the Middle East and China they’re cremating them. Yet Americans remains lenient towards the undead, even as our cities become necropoleis. Something needs to be done by us, right here and now, with no more delays or moral debating.”
A bound man and woman were dragged into the center of the crowd.
“Those two are monsters!” someone said.
“Of course they are! They corroborated with the undead!” Ken yelled back.
Lou Ann recognized the couple. They were the O’Sheas, parents of Carrie O’Shea, a notorious zombie who had feasted on many innocent young men.
The mob found its prey revolting: Tom and Mei, a father and mother who had stood by and done nothing while their zombie daughter took one life after the next.
For the next half hour she watched the execution. The crowd stomped on the couple’s chests and kicked in their skulls, like cats clawing cornered rats, until the punishment of death was meted out. The couple’s faces were cracked and busted, the features warped to inhuman distortion. Brains hung in gobbets from split skulls. Lou Ann didn’t look away. Instead she marveled at the wondrous sight, with wide, shiny eyes.
Ken pointed at the ruined heads. “Genesis therapy can’t fix that!”
The men and women in the circle laughed heartily.
As the gang cleared out, Ken rejoined Lou Ann. He put an arm around her shoulder.
“Were they zombies?” she asked.
“Nope but their daughter was, and a mass murderer to boot. We did the city a favor, taking out its trash.”
Ken told her to close her eyes and then slid something up her arms. Lou Ann went with the flow and said thank you to the present. It was his leather vest with its embroidered eagle logo on back. Now he snorted something off his pinky, and extended the finger to her. She sniffed it gingerly and thanked him again. Ken licked his fingertip, swallowing the trace residue. Then he shoved the packet of coke in his jeans pocket.
Engines revved. Head lights flashed. Guns pointing heavenward went off in rapid fire. The Minutemen gang was celebrating, drinking from flasks, snorting coke, getting high. Lou Ann smelled marijuana and inhaled gratefully when Ken offered her a drag. She took a few more hits off the joint and snorted some more coke, but no matter what drug she took, it couldn’t compete with the high she had gotten from watching those zombie-lovers die.
Ken hefted the frying pan and walloped the dog on its head. If that didn’t cause a fracture, then nothing would. The dumb dog let out a stupid howl and collapsed on the floor.
“Get up, Uber.”
The pit bull staggered to its feet and hobbled away.
Ken hid the cast iron pan behind his back. “Here ya go, sweet boy.” Ken stooped and held out his hand. The dog took slow, cautious steps toward the man. After an eternity, the dog reached his hand and sniffed the meat. It was a defrosted bottom round, with white spots from freezer burn.
“You know you want it,” Ken said as the dog took a tentative lick.
Can I trust you? the dog’s eyes seemed to say as it eyed both the delicious food and the sadistic man.
“Jesus Christ, my arm’s going limp. Hurry up and eat it, you twat.”
The dog kept sniffing the meat. It flinched as Ken swayed the raw flesh in its face. He was keen on shoving the food down the stupid dog’s throat, but no, he had to wait patiently until the mutt ate it of its own accord.
This was the price of fun. Every act of violence hidden with kindness.
“What are you doing?” Tod said, walking into the small, cluttered kitchen.
Ken stood and dropped the pan in the sink. The dog bolted, startled by the clang of cast iron on stainless steel.
“I was trying to give him a treat.”
“Come here, Uber.”
The frightened dog trotted back into the room, responding readily to Tod’s command. Ken’s roommate was the taller of the two men. He was wiry and pale to Ken’s short swarthy muscularity, and at fifty-three was two decades Ken’s senior.
“Sit,” Tod said.
Uber sat. Thump-thump-thump went the happy tail, slapping against the brown linoleum floor.
Tod patted the dog’s head. Uber whined a bit—probably from the pain of its frying-pan concussion—but then the dog forgot its agony and licked its master’s hand.
Ken leaned against the cluttered sink counter. He took off his biker’s skullcap while he watched Tod and Uber, puzzled by their mutual affection.
“Throw me the meat,” Tod said. Ken threw it underhand, and Tod caught the greasy hunk of flesh in his fist.
The dog, enraptured by trust and affection, obeyed his master and swallowed the raw steak in one gulp.
Tod scratched at a new tattoo on his arm: a pin-up girl with snakes entwined around her thighs. “Whatcha doin’ feeding him steak?”
Ken averted guilty eyes. “It’s off. Best to feed it to him than waste it in the trash.”
Tod walked to the sink. He pushed aside the greasy pans and washed the blood from his fingers.
“If it’s off then you shouldn’t have fed it to him. Are you high?”
“Yeah,” Ken said.
“Got any more coke?”
“Nope. Just pot.”
“Whatcha doin’ up this late?”
“Partying with the gang. We killed two zombie lovers.” Ken grinned. “It was slow and painful.”
Tod scratched at the crudely-inked tattoo again. His eyes were yellow and his skin flush. Ken wondered if his roommate was coming down with another bout of hepatitis.
“I hate the dead, but I don’t believe in torture. Send them back to the grave, yes, but do it quick and clean, with compassion.”
Ken rolled his eyes, and then: “Hey, you wanna go hunting?”
“For sport? Just for the hell of it?” He lit up a joint. “No. I’ll tell you something, bro. As you get older, you’ll realize there’s more to life than chasing around zombies with a shotgun.”
“Suit yourself.” Ken started to leave the kitchen but then faltered. “Hey, can I take your rifle with me, or is it still jammed?”
“You’ll have to pry the shell out, but yeah. Take it. Knock yourself out.”
Ken breezed past Tod and Uber, with an eager gleam in his eye.
“Wait a minute. What’s with Uber?”
Ken smirked. “What do you mean?”
“He seems frightened lately, whenever he’s around you.”
“I play rough,” Ken replied with a shrug. “It’s not my fault your dog’s a wimp.”
Tod hacked a phlegmy cough and then took a puff from his joint. “From now on, be more gentle with him.”
“Alright,” Ken said, making a mental note to kick the dog in its nuts next time he saw it.
It was four AM and Ken had to be at work by nine, but he still had an itch for killing in his bones. So he got Tod’s rifle, hopped in the SUV and drove towards northern Laguna Bay, to a forgotten subdivision on the outskirts of town called White Point. It took a while, but Ken eventually reached his target location: a place so desolate that it seemed apocalyptic. Urban decay had brought the neighborhood of White Point to its knees. The streets were empty. There were no pedestrians, no playing children, not even a stray dog. There were no parked cars, or traffic of any sort. Windows were shattered and graffiti was everywhere, splashed across abandoned buildings overgrown with creeping vines.
The old sports utility van drove down rubble strewn streets through a maze of ruined hovels. Nature flourished amidst the urban decay. Vines and tall grasses choked unmown lawns and scores of bats flew overhead, en route to their nocturnal hunting grounds. Heavy fog rolled in from the Laguna River. It was almost dawn and Ken knew he needed to hurry. It was too risky hunting in broad daylight.
Drug dealers, prostitutes and other undesirables plied their trades in the streets of White Point. Zombies had taken to the neighborhood as well, and sure enough, as Ken cruised the wasteland a lone woman came into view. Ken parked the truck, and the zombie shambled towards him, slow as a turtle. The dead woman stopped in front of the driver’s side window. She took one look at Ken and smirked.
“Yeah,” he said with a lascivious grin.
The woman lifted her shirt and revealed shriveled tits and a scrawny torso that outlined the contours of her ribcage. One of her ribs had broken through the skin. The bone was grey with flecks of white that glittered in the street light.
“Come closer,” Ken said.
The woman’s lips widened into a smile.
“Do you take Promethia?”
“Hell no. And why do you care? You ask too many questions!” Her voice was tinny and small. “I’m raw. All natural. I don’t do none of that medical shit. I’m fine just the way I am!”
“Easy woman. No need to bite my head off. I just wanna get to know you better. Is this how you treat your paying customers?”
“Fair enough. What do you want to know?”
“How did you die?” Ken said as he studied his victim.
“Murdered. By one of my johns. Does that turn you on?” The zombie pointed to marks on her chest. “I’ve been stabbed dozens of times.” She put a hand to her neck, and touched the puckered, torn skin. “I’ve been strangled, got my throat slit. Hell, I’m the best girl you could have, because you can kill me while you’re fucking me.”
“I pity you,” he said, toying with the wretch. “The living can be cruel.”
“Who said anything about the living? It was dead folk who did this to me.” The woman’s ghoulish smile slipped. “It’s your own kind who hurt you the most.”
“I don’t want to hurt you. I’m not that kind of guy.” Ken blew her a kiss. He grabbed the rifle as he spoke, but kept it low and out of sight.
The dead woman raised her hands and twirled around, tripping over herself as she showed her wares. “Go ahead sugar, exploit me. That’s how you menfolk get your kicks, ain’t it? No need to lie, just make sure you pay me first.”
Ken leaned his head out the window. “What’s that mark on your forehead?”
The woman grinned with lips stretched wide, revealing black gums and a row of broken teeth. “I got shot in the head. Survived it. I’m hard as nails,” she cackled.
“Ah, but can you survive a point blank rifle blast?”
“Are you certain?”
The woman eyed Ken suspiciously. “That was a joke, right?”
The dead woman backed away. She pulled her shirt down over her bony chest.
Ken swung his arm from behind the van door and revealed the rifle.
“Please don’t shoot! My name is Jocelyn and I have a family! I have children!”
“I thought you were hard as nails.” Ken grinned a toothy smile. “You’d say anything to survive.” He raised the shotgun and placed a finger on the trigger, “Your sob story ain’t gonna work on me!”
“Mercy!” Jocelyn cried, but realized none was coming, and so turned and shambled away as fast as she could.
“Come back here, bitch!” Ken aimed the shotgun and placed the undead woman in his cross hairs. He pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through her spine. The zombie grunted and fell to her knees.
Ken got back in the van, and drove it across his victim. Now he put the van in park and sauntered towards the twitching abomination.
Ken surveyed his handiwork. Jocelyn’s head had ruptured like a crushed coconut, and her torso was an indistinguishable mess. An eye swiveled in its fractured socket and stared at him.
“Jesus Christ!” he exclaimed, realizing the thing was still alive.
Ken kicked the body from a reflex born of shock and disgust. Then he got a shovel and garbage bag from the van and began scooping up the still living remains.
It was another sultry Laguna Bay afternoon, and the blazing sun was high in the sky. Mayor Jack Laughlin parked his Cadillac in front of the Laguna Bay Chamber of Commerce. He swatted away ravenous mosquitoes as he walked towards the brick and masonry building. Inside, he was greeted by four council members.
“I have some private issues to address today,” he said, taking a seat at the head of the oval conference table. He smacked a mosquito as it pricked his plump forearm, and flicked away the bloody parasite. “This is an informal meeting. No pledge of allegiance. No formalities. And no minutes,” he said to the secretary.
“Yes Jack,” Tanya pushed her steno pad aside.
Jack clasped his pudgy fingers together, the grip tight enough to turn his knuckles white. “Let’s get straight to the point,” he said. “We’re at a crossroads. Our city is changing, in body and spirit. I don’t like it, you don’t like it, and neither do our living citizens.
“Our focus for today,” the mayor continued, eyeing each council member in turn, “is the undead, and how they are changing our city. What can be done about them? How can we, as the caretakers of Laguna Bay, effectively deal with this growing menace? The undead fiasco is hitting the nation hard. It’s creating a moral quandary. People are turning against each other. We’ve lost faith in God, and in the nation. Political fights at the capitol are getting more vicious. The Left and Right are tearing this nation apart.”
Heads nodded in agreement.
“I tell you this town needs to stay united,” Mayor Jack said. “We’ve lost our solidarity and our sense of civic duty. Today’s generation simply wants to live in relative comfort, and then die. Laguna Bay has become a place to exploit. People move here from up North, and from the Midwest, knowing nothing substantial about their new homes. They don’t know the city’s needs or its problems, and they don’t take the time to educate themselves. Our citizens turn inward within their isolated mansions, like manor houses, and gated communities, like fiefdoms. Sometimes I think only the crackers—the ones born and bred here for generations— truly care. The non-natives don’t see Laguna Bay as their homeland, something to cherish and respect. They don’t know the city’s history, and they don’t cultivate their own roots as citizens, because they don’t have any.”
“It’s a rootless, deracinated community,” Vice Mayor Chip Green interjected, “ready to tip over at the slightest breeze of adversity!”
“It’s a town of apathy,” the mayor agreed, “and now the undead are taking over. The economy is tanking, property values are going down, and businesses are moving out. Everyone is hurting, everyone except the undead.
“Only zombies thrive in this city, what with their illicit drug trade and penchant for brains. They’re a cancer to the system, and they’re killing us. Zombie blight parallels the coast. That’s where all the drug dealing and crime is. People are moving inland to escape the zombie menace, and I don’t blame them.
“The city’s problems were already spinning out of control, but now zombies are making things worse. I tell you, we don’t need another subset of thugs and hoodlums accelerating the decay of our city.”
Councilwoman Carpenter raised a finger. “If I may. I agree with you Jack, but let’s cut to the chase. What’s your plan?”
The mayor ran a hand across his face. His eyes were red from lack of sleep, his expression one of fatigue. “We need to start liquidating the dead,” he said, with point blank honesty.
No one flinched. No one raised a hand in disagreement. If anything, they seemed eager to hear more. Considering the situation, who could blame them?
Jack sighed. “We have to start following the Minutemen’s lead. We’ve tried fighting fair against the dead and their cohorts, to no avail. We’ve exhausted every legal avenue. What else can we do but turn to old-style vigilante justice?”
Councilwoman Rose’s lips curled into a grin. “We all agree with you. You won’t run into any opposition from us. It’s about time we hit back against the zombie menace, head-on, with extreme prejudice. For years we’ve tried to accommodate them, to no avail.” The elderly woman ran an index finger across the front of her neck, from ear to ear. “Do whatever you have to do to cull their numbers. Kill ‘em hard and kill ‘em fast. Let’s put them out of their misery and clean up this city, once and for all!”
Her words were greeted with applause, and the mayor was heartened by the council’s solidarity. With their approval, he’d stick his hand in the treasury and help fund the Minutemen’s activities. Yes, siphoning money from the treasury was illegal and at the very least could cause a huge scandal, but what other choice did he have? Should he just sit back and watch the undead destroy his beloved city?
Jack cracked his knuckles and placed both hands on the table.
“I’ll call Colson tomorrow, and work with him on a plan of action to exterminate the city’s undead scum.”
“Excellent,” Councilwoman Rose said, “and if I were you, I’d start with Sarah Goldman. Our Eden Labs informant claims she’s pregnant.”
Jack’s eyes widened. “A pregnant zombie? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“Eden Labs lowered her viral load, suppressed the Lazarus virus to near dormancy. They’ve revivified her organ systems.” Vice Mayor Chip whistled. “It’s hard to believe, but maybe… just maybe… she’s pregnant.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jack said. “If she still carries an active virus, then she’s still a zombie. Once a zombie, always a zombie. She’s got no business having a baby. We can’t have her challenging our concept of life. We can’t have her spawning monsters.”
“The undead are trying to destroy life as we know it,” Rose said. “Make sure Ms. Goldman and her family are on the kill list.”
“Don’t worry,” Jack replied. “Once I send out the order, Sarah and her zombie child will be the first to go.”
Eric unlaced the slit in his abdominal cavity and stuck his hand into the void within. He pulled out a small packet. The label read Odor Neutralizer/Moisture Absorber. He wrapped it in a plastic bag and threw it in his bedroom trash can. It used to come out gooey and smelly, but after years of mummification, the used packets were so dry and fresh that sometimes he wore them twice.
The young man sighed, and searched his messy bedroom for his cleaner. He found it a minute later, wedged between the wall and his dresser. He opened the container—a recloseable box of moist, formaldehyde towelettes—and used one to wipe down his dry, parchment-like skin.
Eric tossed the towelette into the trash with the neutralizer packet, shoved a new packet into his abdominal cavity and relaced the slit. Mummification was one of the more sanitary forms of zombie self-grooming. It helped quell the public’s fears of infection, a ridiculous phobia considering everyone had the virus. He peered into the mirror as he dusted himself with a salt desiccant. Skinny arms and legs. Mottled skin. He threw on a death metal tee, ripped jeans and a pair of combat boots. He grabbed his car keys and went outside. He had an evening appointment at Eden Labs.
In the Firebird, he turned to Channel Z, an AM station for the undead. They played black metal on Saturdays at midnight, but the evening schedule was usually religious.
“God wants to heal you! God wants to deliver you!” Sure enough, it was a crap preacher touting a crap sermon.
“I have a word from God! Turn to Revelations twenty, verse twelve:
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”
The old pastor hacked a sickly cough, and then his trembling voice continued. “As undead, you are alive, if not in body then in spirit. But if you forsake the good path, your soul is fit for the fire. That is the second death, the worst death of all.
“The living may think they’re better off than you, but if they forsake the good path even they will rot, not in body but in spirit. They will become like whitewashed sepulchers, beautiful without but filled with dead men’s bones within.
“So tell me, is your name in the book of life? Are you alive on the inside?”
“I’m dead,” Eric said with a bitter laugh. “Inside and out. My soul rotted away a long time ago.”
He rolled down his tinted car window. Wind whipped his face and ruffled his shirt. Its roar drowned out the pastor’s words. The lime green Firebird passed horse stables, and Eric smelled the odor of horse shit dried out by the sun. He passed derelict lots burgeoning with weeds and strangling vines. Now came the riverfront homes, with emerald green lawns saturated with pesticides.
Cities had souls, just like people, and he could smell the rot of Laguna Bay’s soul. For now, the signs were faint, but in time the decay would become more pronounced. He noticed things that others ignored with indifference: marshes drained in the name of real estate; overfished, over-polluted rivers sterilized into hypoxic zones of dead fish and algae bloom. He saw the estuary of Laguna Bay culled of its bounty, its withered banks buried beneath an urban sprawl of overpopulation sustained by widespread ecocide.
In Eric’s mind, the houses of Laguna Bay were mausolea, lining the streets of its necropolis. Its cars were coffins, spewing out fumes of death. The living dug their graves with their teeth, eating and drinking genetically-modified, chemically-laden foods that triggered cancers and strange mutations.
Humanity had rejected the natural state of things, instead choosing to subsist on imitation, on artificiality, on lifeless simulation, in a plastic world of synthetics and sterile environments, as far removed from the natural state of being as life is from death, a once uncrossable divide now bridged by the ecocidal power of technology.
So when the dead began to return, Eric hadn’t been surprised. The earth was now an overcrowded waiting room, a purgatory of sorts in which karma was hitting folks instantly, impatient to wait for their rebirths. Denied the release of death, people now had to live in the hell they had created. The future was no longer someone else’s problem, the burden of an unborn generation.
When Eric reached Eden Labs, he was greeted by a mob of protestors. News reporters jammed the streets, their cameras zoomed in on the biotech complex. Shouting people held up signs that read ‘Go Back to the Grave!’
Police struggled to maintain order. Rotten eggs hit Eric’s windows. He turned on the wipers, smearing the gunk across his windshield. Police pushed the small crowd back onto the sidewalk, clearing a path for the growling Trans Am.
The green muscle car reached the gate. Eric showed his ID.
“Yeah,” the guard said.
“Perverts!” one of the protesters screamed. “You can’t reproduce! Death can’t create life!”
“What are they yammering about?” Eric said.
“You don’t know?” The guard’s voice was faint through the tinny speaker. “One of our patients is pregnant.”
“Yes, a zombie. I guess hell finally froze over. It’s all over the news.” The guard laughed nervously behind bullet proof glass and then waved Eric through the building’s tall security gates.
Radcliffe Goldsmith waited inside of Eden Labs’ main auditorium. The Genesis therapy program participants filed into the room, one by one. They were all undead, Laguna Bay’s living impaired. As head scientist, Radcliffe knew each one on a first name basis.
“Greetings, greetings,” Radcliffe said once they took their seats.
He paused momentarily, until the microphone’s squelch and feedback died down, and then continued his welcome.
“This is a voluntary meeting, and I appreciate the large turnout. We’ve requested your presence for an announcement, a clarification of sorts…”
“We’ve all seen the news,” a woman said from the audience.
“We know about the conception. Just tell us: is the pregnancy legit or just tabloid sensationalism?”
“Yes,” Radcliffe affirmed, “one of our patients has conceived. Her status was supposed to remain confidential, for her safety. Unfortunately the info leaked and went public this morning.”
“Who is it?” the audience shouted.
“Fortunately, her name was not divulged, only her condition.”
“What’s her name?” came the insistent plea.
Radcliffe cleared his throat. “Her identity will remain confidential.” Now he picked up a small remote and pressed a button. There was a whir and clank of gears as the auditorium’s projection screen descended. Radcliffe pressed the remote again, and the projector displayed headlines from the day’s newspapers: A Genetic Abomination, Zombie Pregnant with Dead Child, The End of Humanity…
There was a collective gasp from the audience.
“The pregnancy isn’t an abomination and it certainly isn’t an omen of the apocalypse.” Radcliffe chuckled. “The media, as usual, has blown things out of proportion. I assure you, mother and child are doing fine…”
A man at the back of the auditorium stood. It was Eric. “You’re wasting my time,” he said and headed for the door.
Radcliffe’s face reddened. “As patients of Eden Labs, we want you informed…”
“I don’t care about your pregnant zombie! Your job is to make us better, so why am I still sick?” Eric turned around and walked back towards the podium. “I’ve lost faith in you, and your company. We’re not your patients. You treat us like sideshow freaks, like cash cows. All you care about is acquiring more clients and profits. But you know what? There’s a backlash growing in this city. People are protesting. They say we eat brains, and now they’re up in arms over this pregnancy debacle. They say we’re a physical threat to their health, a moral hazard to their society, and a destabilizing danger to the safety and security of their world.”
Eric glowered and his brows furrowed. His face was a grinning malevolent skull. “They want us out of the city and off their planet.” Eric scuffed the floor with his combat boots, leaving black streaks across the tile. “I’m tired of the bigots outside, and I’m tired of the sycophants in this room, using me just so they can fill their coffers!”
Radcliffe slammed a fist on the podium. “Now wait a minute!”
Eric pressed on. “The folks outside say we eat brains? Let’s eat brains! They say we’re cannibals? Let’s be cannibals!”
Radcliffe’s anger cooled, his frown replaced by a sad smile. “Don’t buy into society’s lies. Don’t be the stereotype they want you to be. There is hope. There is a bright future.”
The rest of the attendants began to bicker. “Shut up and sit down!” someone yelled at Eric.
“No, he has a point,” a woman in the front row said. “I’ve heard tell that if you eat brains, it will cure the virus.”
“That’s rubbish! Ignorance!” Radcliffe slammed his fist on the podium once more. “Pure misinformation! This meeting is getting out of hand! Eating brains will not cure you. Don’t believe the urban legends. Don’t listen to the lies. Don’t let the protestors outside get to you. We must learn to coexist peacefully, to integrate, the living and dead, as friends.”
Eric said nothing, and for a moment, Radcliffe thought he had gotten through to the disturbed young man. But then Eric turned on his heels and stormed out the auditorium.
Five years ago, Eric’s doctors had reassured him that mummification was his best course of therapy. Yet now that gene therapy was a reality, he knew his doctors had been dead wrong. There was no hope for him. He could never be cured. With half of his internal organs missing, he was dependent on the virus to keep him alive. If the virus ever went dormant, if it ever stopped replicating, he would truly die.
Radcliffe the eternal optimist had recommended organ transplantation, but Eric knew better. The young man’s chances of living a normal life were slim to none, with or without transplantation and gene therapy. As far as Eric was concerned, he was out of options. This was the end of the road.
Eric stormed out of Eden Labs, cursing the grounds as he left. The sun was setting and the crickets had already begun their evening serenade. Eric hopped in his Pontiac Firebird, punched the steering wheel, and then drove back to the main gate.
The security guard released him, and then Eric did the unthinkable. He parked his car, got out, and walked through the protesting crowd.
The chanting stopped. All eyes turned to him.
A reporter motioned Eric over. The shocked crowd parted, allowing him passage through their midst. He stopped in front of the news van and its telescoping camera.
The woman aimed a microphone at him. “What do you think of the demonstrations?”
“I don’t know,” Eric said, recalling Radcliffe’s words. “I guess the right thing to do is to try and live peaceably. To coexist, not as enemies, but as friends.”
“And what do you think of the pregnancy rumor?” the woman pressed. “Can the dead create life?”
Now the chanting resumed. Someone threw an egg at Eric, hitting him on the shoulder.
He surveyed the mob as it closed in on him. Where had the police gone?
The woman lowered the microphone. “You should leave,” she said. “It’s not safe here.”
Rocks hit the news van, with enough force to dent the siding and chip the paint.
The reporter and her cameraman jumped into the safety of the vehicle.
“Come with us.”
Eric held up a palm. “No. I’m tired of hiding, of being afraid, of living without hope. I think I’ll stay here, and see how things turn out.”
“They’re going to kill you,” the woman said. “Come with us.”
Eric smiled, his feet rooted in place. “I’m already dead.”
The reporter rolled the van door shut and the vehicle drove off.
By now the chants were deafening. “Go back to the grave,” some shouted, and others “Abort the Undead!”
Eric looked to the heavens. It was late evening and Venus was out. A few meteors streaked across the sky, no doubt part of the Beta Scorpiids, or Antarids as lay folk called them. The Lazarus virus had come from the stars, proving panspermia real. What else might be real, that his rational mind doubted? Maybe there was a better life beyond earth, beyond the confines of life as he knew it. He wanted to believe such a thing was possible, but he was too much of a realist to do so.
Eric stared down his assailants, daring them to show their true colors. A dark skinned Haitian cursed him in French. A sun burnt blonde hefted a chunk of concrete. A Spanish couple yelled “El muerto!” and shook their fists at him.
Here they were, Laguna Bay’s citizenry, brothers-in-arms against their hated foe. Now a fuming teenage girl took off a flip-flop and threw it at him. The rubber sandal bounced off his shoulder. He laughed at the madness surrounding him, but then a cinderblock knocked him on his head and he was on the ground.
“So this is how it ends,” he muttered. He tried to stand but lacked the strength.
An elderly man grunted with effort as he picked up the concrete block. “Make your peace with God,” he said.
Eric closed his eyes, and waited for the block to descend.
Go Back to the Grave! The sign read.
News reporters jammed the streets, their cameras zoomed on Eden Labs.
Laguna Bay’s police held the dissident crowds at bay.
An angry woman waved a placard that read ‘Cremation is the Cure.’ A reporter motioned her over to a news van.
“What’s your name ma’am?”
“Lou Ann Keaughan.”
“Do you mind if I interview you?”
“Sure!” Lou Ann said with enthusiasm. “Go ahead!”
“What do you think of the riot?” The crowd was tumultuous, and the reporter had to yell above the roar to be heard.
“It’s not a riot.” The redhead hitched a thumb in her overalls and grimaced. “It’s an organized protest against the undead.”
“Why do you hate the dead so much?”
The woman frowned in disgust. “Are you serious? Everyone hates the dead. They should stay where they belong.”
“And where is that?”
“In the grave, of course.”
“So you think you have the right to decide their fate?” The reporter wore a trendy asymmetrical haircut. Morning sunlight reflected off her patent leather pumps. Her teeth were gleaming and perfect, and so was everything else about her.
“Lady, I opened my house to a homeless zombie, gave her room and board. Next thing I knew my entire family went missing.”
The indifferent reporter signaled the cameraman to stop filming.
She took the ear bud from her ear and lowered the microphone. “Thank you for your time.”
Was she a zombie? You couldn’t always tell nowadays—thanks to astraviral technologies—and so the dead hid in plain sight amongst the living.
Now the crowd went wild. Something had set it off. A woman had stepped out of Eden Labs’ gates. She raised a bullhorn to her mouth.
“Hello friends,” she said, in over enunciated words. Her impeccable voice and diction was reflective of a well-educated woman. “We wish to coexist amongst you in peace. We are not enemies, but friends. Our shared humanity is the tie that binds us.”
She was a queen, with a diamond necklace, royal blue dress, and impeccable coiffed, frosted hair. Her elderly face gleamed with unusual vitality, the telltale sign of recent Genesis therapy. In sum, she was a high-maintenance zombie living on the tax payer’s dime.
Eden Labs wasn’t funded by the government, but it was an assumption the public readily believed. Someone pelted the woman with a volley of eggs, and the police pushed the crowd further away from the laboratory gates. A protestor shouted “Go back to the grave! Stop feeding off the living!”
The aggressive words reignited the crowd, and the woman with her bullhorn was shouted down by the masses.
Lou Ann came running into the bedroom.
Ken sat up and yawned.
“I’m on TV!” She bent down, flicked on the monitor, and pointed to her image in the news footage.
“Big fucking deal.”
“Aren’t you excited? We’re giving them hell!”
“Who’s we? You don’t know me, you stupid trick.”
…this week the Florida Supreme Court declared Laguna Bay’s objections unconstitutional. Now, free of legal roadblocks, Eden Labs will begin Phase IV of its Genesis therapy research program.
“You hear that? Congress is in cahoots with those bastards!” Lou Ann gesticulated wildly as she shouted. Spittle flew from her lips. “This city is headed straight to hell! The undead belong in the grave, not building medical facilities for themselves, and definitely not trying to reproduce and have offspring! These folks are dead. What they need is a pine box and a six-foot deep hole!”
Ken, with sleep in his eyes, listened as Lou Ann rambled on. “You’ve been on meth all week,” he finally interjected. “Drink some vodka and go to sleep.”
Lou Ann’s eyes were wide, her voice high-pitched and pressured. “Eden Labs won’t stop experimenting until the virus mutates out of control! Scientists are fools! The dead have a choice, just like everyone else. To do what’s right, or what’s wrong. When a person dies, they should stay dead. But these idiots at Eden Labs are trying to cheat death through science!”
“You’re preaching to the choir. Now get outta here and let me sleep!”
Lou Ann lowered the volume as a synthetic protein commercial came on. “It’s money,” she said. “Synthetic protein, Promethia pills, gene therapy… it’s consumerism, pure and simple! The money-hungry corporations have found a new market!” Now she fell silent as the newscast resumed.
Live Pride is planning additional demonstrations at Eden Labs. They hope to call attention to what they are calling unsafe and unsound genetic research.
“Let’s go to the demonstrations tonight.” Lou Ann fiddled with the buttons on the vest she wore. It was Ken’s leather vest with the eagle logo. It reeked of stale sweat, alcohol, and vomit.
Ken jumped out of bed. He pulled a pair of black jeans over his plaid boxers and shrugged a 9/11 t-shirt over his broad shoulders. “No thanks,” he said, running a pick through his Afro. “We’re through.”
Lou Ann’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t care about Live Pride?”
“No, I don’t care about you.”
“The state of Florida is forcing us to accept Eden Labs, and to accept the undead. If we stand by and do nothing, zombies are going to win this war! One by one, government agencies are falling for the undead lie. Ken, we need to take back Congress, and take back this nation, before the undead turn our own government against us!”
Ken opened the dresser drawer and took out his stash of pot. “I warned you. You can’t shoot meth all week and expect not to go crazy. When’s the last time you slept?”
“I’m not tired!” Lou Ann said. “I feel wonderful!”
Ken yawned and rubbed red, puffy eyes. “Walk with me.”
Lou Ann followed him down the hall and into the bathroom. He flicked on the light switch and pulled her in front of the mirror.
“Look at yourself. You’re white as a sheet. I can see all the veins in your face. That ain’t right.”
“I’m fine, Ken. Really, I am.” She spritzed herself with an old bottle of Givenchy her ex-roommate had left behind.
Ken looked on in disbelief as Lou Ann smeared lipstick on her face like a clown. Now she was combing her hair.
“Jesus,” he said “Your hair is falling out.”
Lou Ann pulled clumps of red from the comb with a jittery hand.
“For God’s sake, take some Vitalia!” He opened the medicine cabinet and rummaged through it. Where’s the pills?”
She was combing her hair again, oblivious to the bald spots she was creating. “I’m allergic to Vitalia. I take Zestia and Vivera instead.”
“Where the fuck are they?”
“I ran out a few days ago.”
“And you didn’t get refills?”
“Stop worrying. I’m not sick.”
“You are sick!” Ken pushed Lou Ann back in front of the mirror. “Your skin is cold. Your eyes are as flat as a dead woman’s.” He placed an ear to her chest and a finger on her wrist. “Holy fuck!” came the diagnosis seconds later.
“What is it?” she said as he backed away. “What’s the problem?”
Ken ran back to the bedroom. He put on his motorcycle boots and then ran out the house. Lou Ann stood at the front door and watched as her ex-boyfriend raced out the driveway and accelerated down the street.
Helen donned a pair of Nike sneakers, and shrugged a blue shirt over her sports bra. She tied her wavy hair into a ponytail, and rubbed a handful of Neutrogena sunscreen on her face, legs and arms. She left the bathroom and tied the drawstring of her running shorts as she walked the hall and entered the kitchen.
“Morning,” her husband replied. Greg was eating a jelly donut while frying bacon in a skillet.
Helen sat at the kitchen table with a single serve box of bran flakes. “Sarah asked me to be a bridesmaid at her wedding.”
Greg scowled. “She’s a zombie for fuck’s sake.”
There’s more bran flakes in the cabinet, if you want any.”
“Naw.” Greg dumped the bacon on a plate with two powdered donuts. “Sugar, salt and fat are all I need.”
Helen finished the tiny packet of cereal, and threw the disposable bowl in the trash. “Aren’t you worried about your health?”
Greg picked up a fork. “I don’t give a shit.”
“You might end up like Sarah.”
Helen’s husband left the kitchen for the den, but not before giving her the finger.
She followed him. “I think we should give Sarah and Bob a chance. They’re new neighbors. Let’s make them feel welcome.”
In the den, Greg sat behind the running computer and turned on the TV with a remote. “Pick up a six pack of Coors on the way home.”
“I’m not going to the store, especially not for alcohol. I’m going for a morning run. You should join me one of these days.”
Greg scratched his beer belly. “Real men don’t run.”
Helen rolled her eyes. As she walked over to the computer, she saw him click the mouse frantically. She imagined him closing a porn site.
She stopped behind his chair, leaned forward, and kissed him on the cheek.
Greg wiped his face. Then he picked up the TV remote and raised the volume.
“Just be sure not to tape over The War,” Helen said, yelling over the TV’s loud acoustics. “I recorded it last night.”
Greg crunched on a slice of bacon. “The War? Is that that new mafia movie?”
“Nope. It’s a documentary about the Afghanistan war. You should watch it with me.”
Greg belched and lit up a cigarette. “Fucking Afghans,” he said between puffs. “I’m not watching a movie about mud people.”
“You might learn something. You know, one of my coworkers is from Afghanistan.”
“They should stay in their own country.”
Helen sighed. “Don’t you care about the rest of the world?”
“No. I’m an American. Why should I?”
Helen pointed a finger at the television monitor. “Tabloid TV. Sensationalism. Bread and circuses. You’re rotting your brain watching nothing but crap. Where’s the husband I fell in love with?”
“I haven’t changed, Helen. You have.”
Helen considered her husband’s words and realized he was right. She used to be stupid, just like him. But then the virus inside her almost went active, scaring her into sensibility. She had changed, for the better, but in the process had left her husband far behind. Did she even love him anymore?
“Cigarettes, alcohol, pot, trash TV, media bubbles, endless sports… you’re not living, Greg. You sit in this den for half the day, wired to internet and cable TV.”
“I’m not arguing this early in the morning! It’s Saturday, for fuck’s sake! Leave me alone, you fucking shrew!”
“Greg, you’re a zombie.”
His eyes blazed. “I am not a zombie! I take Vitalia every day! Now get out of here! Go jog! Leave me alone!”
“You’re right,” Helen said, stalking the den. “I wouldn’t call you a zombie. It would be an insult to the undead.”
He made fun of everything: the operas she watched on video, the literary books she attempted to read, the college education she was trying to complete. It was almost as if he reveled in his own stupidity, and wanted to drag her down into it.
“You sit in this room all day, like it’s your tomb, yet you taunt me for trying to go out into the world and better myself. You should be looking for a better job to help pay the bills, instead of surfing porn on the net all day and watching sports channels all night.”
“Helen, I don’t give a fuck. I live in a democracy.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I have the right to live as I please!”
Helen sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Maybe that’s democracy’s weakness. Everyone does whatever the hell they want. Max their credit cards. Take out mortgages they can’t afford. That’s what we did. Screwed our credit, lived to the hilt. We were wrong, and I’m trying to change…but you’re not helping!”
“I’m not going to change. I am what I am. You are what you are. Look at you. You jog every day, but you’re still a fat bitch.”
“At least I’m trying. You know you’re wrong, but you don’t give a damn. All you care about is instant gratification, self-satisfaction. You don’t care about Sarah, or me, or anything but yourself. You have no sense of social obligation or responsibility. I’d choose Sarah over you any day. You’re worse than a zombie.”
The toll of the pandemic was rising. The undead population was growing. More people were dying and coming back necrogenic. With proper care the dormant virus would stay dormant. There was medication to suppress it, and a proactive lifestyle could keep it repressed for decades. So why was the undead population increasing at an exponential rate?
In truth, everyone is susceptible to viral infection. Everyone is susceptible to illness and disease. And of course, in the end, everyone dies. Yet people completely disregarded common sense. Greg had allowed trash culture to hypnotize him, pulling his strings like a marionette. Fast food, alcohol and nicotine were undermining his physical health, while junk news dumbed him down with ridiculous conspiracy theories and propaganda. He chased one self-destructive hedonistic pleasure after the next, with no discipline or self-regard. He was dying before his time. Here was a man who hated zombies, yet who was becoming one himself through his own volition.
Helen shook her head and turned to the door. “I’m leaving,” she said, “for my run.”
“If you hate me so much,” Greg said, “then let’s start the divorce paperwork, right now!”
“You couldn’t afford a divorce. Besides, I don’t make snap decisions; they usually cause more problems than they solve.”
“Well, have a nice run. I love you, dear.”
“I love you, too, sweetheart,” she said, and slammed the door behind her.
Helen went for her morning run. She passed Eric’s house. She was hot, miserable and out of breath. She could have focused on her run, lost in her own self-absorbed world, and passed Eric by without a word or gesture. Instead she slowed her pace and waved hello.
Her odd neighbor had sat in his bedroom all morning, nursing his wounded head and heart. The attack at the demonstration had almost killed him. Zombies were extremophiles, but they weren’t invulnerable. The cinder block had almost crushed his skull and destroyed the brain within. Yet he had survived. The insidious virus had preserved him, maintaining his unnatural homeostatic balance between life and death. It had saved his body from destruction, but despite its regenerative power, it had been unable to repair his wounded heart.
As the morning sun rose, he had stumbled out of his home and into the driveway, where he now watched the world with a thousand yard stare. As Louise neared Eric she noticed his black tears.
“What’s wrong?” She slowed to a walk, and came to a stop in front of his lawn.
His dull grey eyes turned to her. “I’m dead,” he said with candid bluntness. “That’s what’s wrong!”
The rawness of his emotion struck her. “My name is Helen,” she shot back, trying to diffuse the tension with friendliness. “I’m your neighbor. I live a few blocks down the street.”
“I’m Eric,” he said, and then, “I’ve never noticed you before.”
“I’ve been meaning to come over and introduce myself. I just never had the time.”
“Hmpf.” Eric stood and turned towards the front door. He made to walk back into the house, but instead just stood there, sobbing.
Helen had never seen a man cry in public. She walked up the drive and stood at Eric’s side. He smelled of formaldehyde.
Helen chose her words carefully. “I don’t know what you’re going through, but if you ever need someone to talk to, I’m here.”
“You’re right,” he said. “You don’t know what I’m going through.”
What a difficult man. Helen didn’t know what to say to get through to him. She didn’t want to meddle, or stick her nose where it didn’t belong, but this man clearly needed an intervention. “You know,” she replied hesitantly, “there’s an undead couple in the neighborhood.”
“Yeah. Sarah and Bob.”
“They’re doing well. It was hard for Sarah at first, that’s what she told me. But she had the tenacity to hang on.”
Eric stepped away from her. “I don’t have anything to hang on to!”
“You have me,” she said. She took a reckless step forward, determined to invade his personal space, determined to make a connection. Perhaps Eric was crazy. Perhaps he would attack her. After all, he was a zombie.
“No one should suffer alone. I can imagine what you’re going through. I want you to know that I’m here for you, as a neighbor and a friend.”
“What do you mean?”
“I care about you.”
Eric wiped away black tears. “Are you on Genesis therapy?”
“No. I’m not on therapy. I’m not undead.”
“Why do you care about me?”
“I’m human, just like you. Isn’t that enough?”
“Are you a Jehovah’s Witness?”
She laughed. “No. I saw you crying and… well… you remind me of one of my own adult children. Every now and then they call to share their problems with me. Eric, sometimes life is painful, and when you’re hurting it’s good to have someone to talk to.”
They stared at each other. Eric cracked a smile. “You’re a nice woman,” he said, “for an Lv negative.”
“Do you live alone?”
She had figured as much. “Do you have anyone to talk to?”
“Why don’t you come over to my house for dinner tonight?”
He seemed shocked. “You would invite me to your house?”
“Yes. I live at 267, just down the street. Dinner is at seven, if you want to stop by. Do you eat octopus? Live, of course.”
Eric gave her a quizzical expression. “What makes you think I like octopi?”
She had just read an article on undead cuisine. Cephalopods were chock full of nerve cells and highly intelligent, the next best thing to eating brains. “I know a thing or two about the undead,” she said. “I like to keep myself informed.”
“It’s one of my favorite dishes,” he finally admitted. Eric squinted, and rubbed his bandaged head. “Why are you doing this?”
“Why not?” Helen said with incredulous exasperation. “I believe in Southern hospitality.” She wondered how Eric had gotten his head wound. She imagined the worse. Had a necrophobe attacked him?
“I need to finish my run,” she said. She extended a hand and was pleased when he shook it. “I’m glad I met you, Eric.” Then she ran off, calling out “See you tonight!” over her shoulder.
Eric smiled for a second time that morning, a rare act on his part. He watched her run off into the distance and then went back inside his house.
Greg flipped through sports channels with one hand, while whacking his dick to internet porn with the other. He wanted to get some fried chicken from the kitchen, but his wife was entertaining a guest, a fucking zombie. Greg’s stomach grumbled, the sound mingling with the whack, whack, whack of his frantic masturbation.
He always felt hungry after he jacked off. He eyed the leftover, mouldy pizza on his desk and blanched.
Why the fuck had Helen let a goddamn zombie into their home? And why was he, master of the house, relegated to the den?
Greg grunted as the climax came. He squirted his load, wiped off his dick, and then stormed out the den and into the kitchen.
“Get out!” he shouted at the emaciated young man sitting at the dining room table. My God, the boy was hideous beyond belief. He was desiccated and wrinkled, a living mummy.
The thing’s greyish eyes widened. It dropped its fork into a plate of live seafood.
Greg picked up the zombie’s seething plate and dumped it in the garbage. “I’m not going to say it again. Get the fuck out of my house!”
He watched his wife jump up from the table and scowl. How dare she give him an attitude! She was the one at fault, sharing a meal with this worthless trash.
“Come on, Eric,” Helen said. “Let’s go.” She opened the fridge and took out a large bowl of seafood. Greg saw the writhing tentacles within.
“Throw that junk away,” Greg said, taken aback by the nightmare that undulated inside the Pyrex bowl. “Disgusting!”
Helen shook her head. “The only thing here disgusting is you. Put your cock back in your shorts.”
Greg looked down and saw his dick poking out of his boxer fly. Semen dribbled from the tip. His face reddened and he covered himself.
The young man coughed, suppressing a chuckle.
“Are you laughing at me?” Greg was furious.
“Don’t answer him,” Helen said to Eric.
She took the young man by the arm. How could she touch something so nasty? Greg watched his wife leave the kitchen with the corpse. She was unusually silent.
“What? You’re not even going to argue?” he shouted.
“You’re not worth the time,” she replied.
Outside the house, Helen got into Eric’s car.
“Was that your husband?”
“Unfortunately.” Helen saw Greg at the front door, glaring at her and grinding his teeth. She would get an earful from him tonight, but for the moment she didn’t care. She took out her cell and dialed Sarah’s number.
“Sorry to bother you Sarah, but I have a friend with me. I was wondering… do you mind if we come over? Greg just kicked us out.”
“It’s becoming routine.”
“Who’s the friend?” Sarah said over the line.
“The name sounds familiar… yes, I know him. He’s a patient at Eden Labs.”
“He’s your neighbor,” Helen chided. “And undead, too. I’m surprised you haven’t gotten to know each other.”
“Say no more. When should I expect you?”
“We’re headed over right now, with seafood.”
“Great.” Sarah said. “Maybe after dinner we can watch the Antarids.”
“Will they be visible this year? They were weak last year and the year before, to everyone’s relief. Most people were grateful for the meagerness of the showers, afraid that a stronger one might rain down a new plague of death on the planet.” Helen looked up at the evening sky. A bright meteor zoomed across the dim heavens.
“Speak of the devil. I think the show is already starting. Hey, have you been watching the news?”
Sarah coughed and inhaled sharply. “Um… why?”
“Have you heard of the undead pregnancy? Preposterous, isn’t it, that people would believe such a nonsensical thing.”
“What do you mean? I haven’t been following the news.”
“They say an undead woman is pregnant, but that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“I’d rather not talk about that,” Sarah replied, and abruptly disconnected from the line.
Lou Ann stumbled back to the bathroom. Her eyes were yellow. Her hair was falling out. Her tongue was grey. She stared in the mirror, her fingers tracing black blood vessels under fungus-white skin.
Ken had left her. She knew he would never return, though if he did it would be with a posse to kill her. He was supposed to be here, at her side, helping her kill Sarah. He had promised her such, days ago. But the fickle bastard had reneged on his word.
Lou Ann gripped the sink and screamed bloody murder. The bathroom window was open. “Shut up, bitch,” came the next-door reply. Lou Ann yelled back “Go to hell!” and collapsed to the floor.
The fledgling zombie went to the beach. Ken’s vest hung loose from her shoulders. She took off her boots and hiked up her jeans. The sand was hot between her toes. Sandpipers hopped across the wet sand, staying just out of reach of the incoming waves.
A little girl playing with her father screamed. “Daddy, it’s a monster!”
Lou Ann looked around, ready to sneer at the zombie, but then realized the girl was referring to her. The disoriented woman, still coming to terms with her undeath, ripped off Ken’s vest. It smelled like him. Beer, sweat and cigarette funk. She walked to the water’s edge and flung it out to sea, as far as she could, but it came back to her on the incoming tide. She tossed it out again, and this time it sank, disappearing into frothy waves.
Lou Ann sat down on the wet sand, and let the tide wash over her. She cried, her black tears mingling with the salt spray. A surfer appeared in front of her, with wet trunks plastered to his muscular legs. She smiled at him, and he smiled back.
“Is this yours?” he said, holding up the leather vest.
“I suppose it is.”
The sun was in his eyes, but now a cloud dimmed the bright light. Realization dawned as he saw the symptoms of her necrogenesis. The horrified surfer dropped the vest and sprinted away as fast as he could.
Lou Ann snatched up the water-logged garment, brushed sand from her wet jeans, and returned to the truck. Inside, she holstered her Beretta and drove to US 1.
On the highway, a fleet of Harleys roared past her, yet one biker slowed and matched her speed.
“Damn zombie!” he said, lingering beside her truck window.
Lou Ann tried flipping him off but her stiff middle finger wouldn’t extend. The biker laughed and drove off as she shook her fist with impotent rage. The irony wasn’t lost on her. She had once been part of a biker gang, part of the Minutemen family, but now she was an outcast. Now she was the enemy.
She left the highway, with tears streaming down her face, and parked next to its riverside exit ramp. She felt hot and cold as she stepped out the truck, fell to her knees, and vomited until her stomach was empty.
Lou Ann wiped the puke from her lips and ambled to the nearby empty pier. The structure seemed solid underfoot, until she noticed a hole in its pressure-treated lumber. She had a fear of deep water—she couldn’t swim—but now that she was dead, what did it matter?
Afternoon sun dazzled on the water like paparazzi lights, forcing her to squint. A crane flew directly overhead. In the shadow of its wings a school of fish appeared, perhaps foolishly, with their tiny bodies vulnerable near the water’s surface.
Lou Ann forgot her misery as she caught sight of a manatee. Its fat, grey body was graceful in the tranquil current. She marveled at the sight as it made a tail swirl and sank back towards the estuary’s grassy bottom.
“So much life,” she cried with her chest caved in and her voice gone to a whisper. “You never fully appreciate it, until…”
Her words trailed off. Something had startled her. Lou Ann gazed skyward, her eyes drawn to a flutter of wings. A vulture, perched atop an electric post, was preening itself. She smiled at the sight, but then it stretched vast black wings, like an angel of death.
Lou Ann’s family had been missing since last June. Now here it was, twelve months later, and they were still unaccounted for: her grandma Cora Lee, her dad Jesse, and her twin brothers Rick and Daniel.
Lou Ann leaned back against the pier’s railing, daring it to crack under her weight. She wiped black tears from her eyes and looked further upriver, where intracoastal waters dead-ended into marshlands. Mangroves, with gnarled roots, rose from shallow pools. That’s where Jesse lay. He had been eaten by an alligator and his partially digested remains were now buried beneath layers of marsh sediment. The twins were dead too, victims of their father’s negligence, and Cora Lee had succumbed to her son’s necrophobia.
Lou Ann knew none of this, yet she had a vague awareness, an intuitive understanding, that her family had fallen victim to its own dysfunctions. Nevertheless, it was so much more convenient—not to mention cathartic—to blame Sarah, the ideal scapegoat.
The sun was setting and its lingering light pooled like liquid metal on the horizon. As darkness descended, the meteor show began in earnest, streaming from the eastern sky, radiating from Antares within the heart of Scorpio.
Lou Ann left the pier and shambled back to the truck.
She ignored the shooting stars as she sat in her cab listening to AM radio. Pundits and newscasters were ignoring the Antarids as well, instead speculating on the miracle conception.
A pregnant zombie, what a joke. Who could the pregnant freak be? Was it Sarah? Lou Ann shuddered at the possibility.
She had seen Sarah the other day, but the self-absorbed zombie hadn’t noticed Lou Ann. It had been too busy grooming itself in the mall’s public restroom, brushing its luxurious blonde hair, reapplying liner to its bright blue eyes, tucking in its white ascot blouse under a gold-link belt that circled its narrow waist.
God, Lou Ann hated her. She wanted to hammer Sarah’s skull until it split in two. She wanted to strip Sarah naked and burn her. She wanted to hang her with piano wire, and watch her kick, until the string cut through her spinal cord. No, what Lou Ann really wanted was to kill Sarah, and then bring her back to life, just so she could do it all over again.
Lou Ann had never really liked zombies, but had felt the need to prove herself tolerant, to go with the flow, get with the program, and accept society’s new ideology of peaceful coexistence. And for what? As her father had always said, if you lay down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas.
The street lamps were on, illuminating the darkness with a yellow, sickly light. Lou Ann left the pier and headed for Sarah’s home. This was it, the final ride. Bold and brazen, Lou Ann would careen into Sarah’s drive way, ring the bell, and empty a full magazine into Sarah’s face as soon as she answered the door
The tropical storm had moved on overnight, leaving a sunny morning in its wake. The skies were clear, and Louise could have hopped a flight back to Dallas. Sarah certainly knew how to push her buttons, however Louise decided to give the upcoming wedding another shot. It was her best chance at figuring out Sarah’s secret.
She now stood in the kitchen, helping Sarah set the table.
“Eric and Helen are coming over,” her daughter said. “They’re neighbors. Please be on your best behavior.”
“Don’t worry,” Louise replied. “I’m curious to meet them. Are they a couple?”
“Goodness, no. They’re friends, though I didn’t realize they knew each other, until today.”
“Sarah, I’ve been meaning to tell you… the tropical storm yesterday was a godsend. At first I was angry that my flight was cancelled, but staying here overnight gave me time to think. And so I’ve decided… I want to stay for your wedding.”
“Oh Mother! I’m so happy…”
“Hear me out. At first I decided to stay, and keep to myself, so as not to step on anyone’s toes. I was going to attend the wedding, and keep my mouth shut. I’ve tried helping you in the past, but apparently all I’ve done was hurt you. You made that quite clear to me this week. I don’t want to be officious, but I can’t coast through life standing on the sidelines either. Sarah, I can’t hold my feelings in. If I feel strongly about something, if I feel that I have advice that might help you, I’m going to speak my mind.”
“I understand what you’re saying Mother, and I understand how you feel. I just want you to try and understand me as well.”
Louise smiled as her daughter hugged her. “I’m trying sweetie. I really am. Now about the recent news on TV… do you know anything about the undead pregnancy everyone is talking about?”
Sarah blanched. “No,” she said. “I don’t.”
The doorbell rang.
“Can you welcome Eric and Helen? I need to change out of these old house clothes.”
Sarah hurried to the master bedroom as Louise opened the front door. She was greeted by a portly woman in a track suit, and a… oh my God… a shriveled man that reminded her of a mummy.
Louise repressed a shudder. She wanted to slam the door in his face. Instead, she smiled and motioned him to come in.
“My name is Helen,” the woman said, “and this is Eric.” She carried a clear container of what appeared to be wriggling snakes.
Louise tried offering up friendly chitchat, but the sight of Eric and the snakes addled her brain. She lost track of her sentences whenever she looked at him until the conversation turned awkward.
Bob showed up, just in time, saving the day with his usual charm. He talked sports, the universal language of men, making the uncomfortable zombie feel at home. Louise stayed on the sidelines, not wanting to say the wrong thing, or step on anyone’s toes.
By the time Sarah returned to the dining room, overdressed yet radiant in a burgundy ruched cocktail dress, the guests had already been seated. Bob opened the container in the middle of the table.
Louise groaned at the sight of two live octopi.
Well, Louise reasoned, zombies live closer to nature than the living. They eat their food without killing it first. Despite the rationalization, she still found it quite disgusting.
Everyone’s plate was served: leftover bourbon smoked chicken for the living, and heaping plates of seafood for the undead.
Bob poured Helen and Louise red wine, and then reached for the decanter of crystal clear protein. Louise stopped him.
“I’ll do it,” she said. She served her daughter and Eric their premium liquid protein, and then Louise raised her wine glass in a toast.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be undead. I can imagine the wonder and hardship, the joys and sorrows. I toast your tenacity, and your will to live. We all want to belong. We all want life, and we all want love,” she said looking from Sarah to Eric. “I hope you find the happiness in life that you seek.”
Everyone clapped. Louise sat. She would have felt smug from the applause, had she actually believed the words she’d spoken.
Fact was, she didn’t see happiness in Sarah’s future. She wanted to grab Sarah by the shoulders, give her a good shake and say You’re doing it all wrong! Why won’t you listen to me? For the love of God, she wanted so hard to make Sarah see things her way!
Yet the world was a cosmopolitan place and Louise was beginning to realize she needed to accept people’s differences, or at least tolerate them. She could no longer be the universal proselytizer, trying to make everyone else live as she saw fit.
Louise watched Eric as he ate his live octopus. It was half dead from chilblain and exposure. The sluggish thing was trying to get away from the ravenous man, but there was no hope for it.
“Why is your head bandaged?” she asked. “Are you hurt?”
“Someone hit me in the head with a concrete block.”
“Good heavens! Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. The blow would have killed a living person but, monster that I am, I survived it.”
“That’s just it,” Louise said. “You are living! The term undead is a misnomer. You are alive, just in a different way. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made.” She eyed Sarah and Eric. “Does anyone truly know how the human body functions? Do we really know how life sustains itself? You both exist through the same providence that we do. And speaking of providence,” she continued, with eyes zoomed in on Sarah, “let’s talk about the undead pregnancy. Surely I’m not the only one curious about it.”
“Undead pregnancy?” Sarah groaned. “You just said undead is a misnomer. So why are you still using the term?”
Louise placed a hand over her mouth. “My mistake. Though you must understand Sarah that we normal folk get confused over all these neologisms popping up nowadays. Let’s see… there’s undead, necrogenic, antemortem, necrocene… and I heard someone use the term lich the other day. I wonder what that means?”
“Normal folk? You’re infected, too,” Sarah retorted.
“With a dormant virus, may I remind you. And I’m not necrogenic. But you are necrogenic to some degree, just not visibly so.”
Sarah crumpled her napkin as her cheeks flared bright red.
“I’ve been thinking about the pregnancy myself,” Helen admitted. “It’s been in the news all day. It’s hard to believe that such a thing is possible.”
Louise turned to Eric. “Aren’t you curious as well?”
The young zombie frowned and shook his head. “Couldn’t care less. I prefer to keep my nose out of other people’s business.”
“And what about you, Sarah? Bob?”
“I agree with Eric,” Bob said with a smirk. “I don’t snoop in the private affairs of others.”
Was he implying she was a snoop? Louise couldn’t be certain. “But it’s all over the news!”
Bob sipped his Pinot noir. “Without the woman’s consent, I imagine.”
“You talk as if you know her,” Louise pressed. “Is she a coworker? A neighbor?”
“Enough!” Sarah screamed. Her temper was unusual, mild mannered woman that she was.
“Is something wrong, sweetie?”
Sarah didn’t answer Louise. Instead, she stood from the table and walked out the front door.
“My goodness! What’s gotten into her?” Louise stood, preparing to follow her daughter.
Bob reached out and grabbed Louise’s wrist. “Please don’t, ma’am. Give Sarah breathing room. She’s going through a lot right now. You have no idea.”
On the drive to Sarah’s home Lou Ann had a terrible flashback. For a brief moment Lou Ann’s surroundings faded and she was transported back in time, back to the night of Esther’s death. Lou Ann still remembered the night Jesse killed her mother. Bone and cartilage popped as Jesse twisted Esther’s head. The zombie struggled as he pinned it down on the kitchen floor, broke its spine, and wrenched its head around with such force that its chin rested between its shoulder blades.
A teenage Lou Ann watched the murder silently, shocked yet relieved, horrified yet grateful that her monster of a mother had finally died the true death.
The police arrived at the house an hour later. They found the body at the bottom of the staircase. Jesse was crying. His tears were genuine, but his words were lies. “She must have tripped and fell. I heard a noise and when I got to the stairs she was dead with a broken neck!”
“It was an accident,” Lou Ann confirmed when the police and EMTs began questioning her and her father. Every uniformed man there knew Esther’s death wasn’t an accident, yet they accepted the family’s explanation. They knew a homicide when they saw one, but how could you kill something that was already dead?
There was no investigation. The body was cremated and Esther’s demise ruled an unfortunate accident. Lou Ann learned that night that killing the dead wasn’t an act of murder, but one of mercy. Killing a zombie wasn’t an act of prejudice or hatred, but an act of love.
However, a decade later society’s attitude changed. Suddenly it was OK to be a zombie. As Lou Ann watched zombies integrate into society she began to regret her mother’s fate. Did Jesse have to kill Esther? Could she have thrived on Promethia? Would things have worked out? Could the family have stayed together?
The murder remained a family secret, and the topic was never broached by father or daughter. Meanwhile, the wounds of guilt festered within Lou Ann’s mind, hidden beneath the flimsy Band-Aids of self-justification and rationalization.
Now Lou Ann was face-to-face with her own necrogenesis, which made her life all the more surreal and nonsensical, an incomprehensible absurdist folly.
Lou Ann parked across from Sarah’s home. The building was a squat bungalow that grew like a weed between two larger Victorian houses.
Lou Ann was numb. Her fingers tingled. Her sense of touch was all but gone. She couldn’t feel the driver’s seat beneath her. She stared into the rear-view mirror and ran a hand across her balding head. As she stared at her ruined face she was filled with a peculiar sorrow, that she would never again enjoy the simple pleasures of life. There would be no cheesecake, or espresso, or Chardonnay, or warm English muffins… just meat and fat, marrow and offal. Eden Labs could fix her up, not her appetite of course but her ruined face. There was still hope she could regain at least a modicum of vitality. Their technology could help her masquerade as normal. In this moment of weakness she considered that option, but then remembered her loved ones and ripped the mirror from its mounting. No. Tonight was her final night. She’d rather die the true death than exist as a zombie.
Lou Ann snarled a curse and threw the mirror out the window. She stumbled from the truck cab and floundered across the sidewalk. The first thing she saw was a pack of raccoons investigating a trash can. They reminded her of her own wretched state as they scurried around in the darkness. She aimed the Beretta at the tallest one as it stood scratching at the can’s lid.
Her fingers were stiff. Try as she might, Lou Ann couldn’t depress the trigger. “Get out of here!” she yelled, and the startled critters ran off. She lowered the weapon with difficulty and turned away from the would-be target practice. Her body resisted her commands, making every movement a struggle. Lou Ann lurched across the dark street, past double parked cars until she reached Sarah’s crowded driveway. She had waited too long to kill Sarah and perhaps now it was too late, for as Lou Ann struggled up the concrete steps the gun slipped from her numb fingers and clattered to the ground.
“Heavens!” Sarah said, clutching her chest. “You frightened me!”
Lou Ann heard a gasp, and nothing more, as Sarah caught her breath. No screams. No curses. Lou Ann was disappointed. After all, Sarah should have stood and panicked at the sight of this interloper barging onto her porch in the middle of the night. Yet the serene blonde remained seated, grooming herself leisurely as if she was perfectly safe, as if nothing was amiss.
Dizziness overtook the fledgeling zombie. The world was spinning. Lou Ann’s legs shook. Her knees buckled. She collapsed with impotence into a wicker porch chair right next to her intended victim.
“I haven’t seen you in months,” Sarah said with a polite smile. She had been fiddling with a gemstone necklace, pulling it free of her long hair, but now her full attention was on Lou Ann. Had Sarah noticed the gun she would have jumped up and screamed, yet as the situation stood, she was unaware of Lou Ann’s murderous intentions. “I’m having a dinner party. There’s food inside. You’re welcome to join us.”
Lou Ann responded with a growl from her chair. “Enough with the false civility! We have unfinished business! Have you forgotten my family, and what you did to them?”
“You don’t look well,” Sarah said. “Are you necrogenic?”
Spots flashed in Lou Ann’s vision. She was nauseous, sick beyond death, weak beyond measure. Lou Ann laughed at her own frailty, at her incompetence, at this comedy of errors unfolding around her. If only she could stand and retrieve the gun. Then she would give Sarah a taste of her own terror, the terror she had felt when her family had gone missing, when she had called her dad’s number a hundred times, only to get an answering machine, when she had checked on his house and found it ghost-like in its emptiness.
As Lou Ann sat on the porch, watching shooting stars streak across a purple-black sky, she recalled her father’s hatred of the Antarids, how he had always called them by their proper name— Beta Scorpiids, like an angry father calling his child by its full name—saying it was bad luck to watch them, or be outdoors when they fell. The fact that they came from Scorpio was proof of their venom, or so he used to rant, carrying on about how they were a Pandora’s box full of unknown maladies, waiting to reinfect a defenseless earth.
The night breeze shifted, blowing Sarah’s Channel No. 5 directly into Lou Ann’s face. As she sat in the flimsy wicker chair assaulted by the flowery odor, Lou Ann recalled other scents: her fathers’ pungent pot, her brothers’ pissy underwear, her grandma’s peculiar odor of Vicks VapoRub and mothballs. She wanted them all back, her entire family, with all their human frailties: the paranoia, the mental retardation, the senility. She even wanted Esther back, alive or undead. Her family had been a consternation to her: her violent father, her pitiful grandmother, her mentally handicapped brothers, her murdered zombie mother. That’s why Lou Ann had moved away and rarely kept in contact. It had been too much shit for her to handle. But now, fourteen years after her mother’s death, and a year after her father’s disappearance, she was haunted by their absence, by the ghosts of their memories. Why had everyone disappeared, leaving her alone in this crazy world?
Lou Ann’s whimpers turned into sobs, and now Sarah’s brow creased, not from fear, but sympathy. “You poor thing. I’ll call an ambulance.”
“I came here to kill you.”
“By the looks of you, you’re in no position to kill anyone.” Sarah stood and hurried to the door. “Goodness, Lou Ann, you need medical attention!”
Her misguided kindness was a slap in Lou Ann’s face.
“That’s not why I’m crying, Sarah. You have no idea. I don’t want treatment. I don’t want to be like you. You’re a dead machine, a robot, a soulless imitation of human consciousness, a mimicry of neural processes, a ghostly echo of biochemical functions. You’re not even human. You are a shadow of life, and nothing more!”
“Who told you that propaganda?”
“Live Pride. It’s the truth.” Lou Ann spat at Sarah, but instead of hitting its mark, the black phlegm dribbled down her own chin. “You killed my family.”
Sarah sighed, long and deep. “That’s a lie, and you know it.”
“Anyway you look at it, you shouldn’t exist! You’re an abomination, and that’s the truth of the matter!” Words were now Lou Ann’s only weapon, but they failed her as she lapsed into clichés, into banal arguments that left Sarah rolling her eyes.
Sarah raised her hand, palm out, not wanting to hear Lou Ann’s litany of grievances. She stared above at the meteor shower, which in the last few minutes had strengthened. “You’re undead too, Lou Ann. If I shouldn’t exist then neither should you.” The statuesque blonde knelt and placed warm fingers within Lou Ann’s cold hands. “What you’re saying makes no sense.”
“Yes it does! I am not a zombie! I don’t eat human brains! I don’t abuse Promethia! I am not a monster!”
“Neither am I. We’re both unique individuals with our own unique identities. Neither of us are clichés or stereotypes. You think I’m a brain-eating ghoul? Of course you don’t. You’re smarter than that. You know what I think? You’re trying to live up to your father’s expectations. He raised you to be a necrophobe just like him, but you don’t have to follow in his footsteps.”
“I know what I’m talking about,” Lou Ann persisted. “This is fucking chaos! The dead walk the earth, society is breaking down, and now the sky is literally falling! The dead aren’t supposed to reproduce! But now right is wrong, and wrong is right! Everything is in disarray, and that’s the truth of the matter!”
The rigor mortis was spreading. Lou Ann’s fingers stiffened and curled uncontrollably, crushing Sarah’s hands in a death grip. Sarah tugged her hands free and stood. “I have my own truth to tell you. A secret to share.”
“I don’t want to hear it! I’m sick to my soul listening to you!” Lou Ann struggled to stand, struggled to get away, yet paralyzed by death, she was forced to hear Sarah’s confession.
Five weeks ago, Sarah had feared a terrible thing was growing inside of her, a monstrous child, a lump of malignant malformed flesh. Even with a happy home, healthy body and life filled with love, she had once again started to see herself as a monster… and by extension, her unborn baby.
Her heart ached for a child to love, while her mind’s sensible reasonings argued the necessity of abortion. If she gave birth, necrophobes would target the child as an abomination to be culled. Even Eden Labs had advised her against carrying the child to term.
“We’re not detecting normal readings,” the OB/GYN specialists had warned her. “Our recommendation is that you terminate the pregnancy while you’re still in the first trimester.”
And so two weeks ago, Sarah agreed to an abortion.
Five days later her gynecologist informed her, “You’re still pregnant, Ms. Goldman. We didn’t realize you had twins. One survived.”
The shell shocked woman confessed everything to Bob. “I tried to kill our own children! I’m a hypocrite! I hid the pregnancy from you! I am so sorry!”
If her remaining child had anyone to fear, it was its own mother.
“I’m a killer, a fool,” she sobbed. “I’ve internalized society’s necrophobia!”
Bob held Sarah tight as she cried in his arms. “One survived,” he said. “We have a second chance.”
“But how do I bring a child into this world, after what I did?” She expected some degree of anger, maybe even rage, yet he simply smiled and replied, “With love.”
That afternoon they visited a children’s store and perused wooden cribs, foldable strollers, plastic sippy cups and pastel pacifiers, while Bob beamed with happiness and Sarah clutched her stomach in trepidation as she hoped beyond hope that she hadn’t damaged the remaining child, that it would be healthy enough to come to term, and that she would never again be manipulated by society’s necrophobic fears.
“I don’t want to hear it!” Lou Ann said over and again, but Sarah revealed her secret anyway. It was a horrible revelation.
“You really are pregnant?”
“I am,” Sarah affirmed.
“Yes, it’s a miracle!”
Lou Ann laughed with sardonic mirth. “This can’t be real.”
“It is, Lou Ann. I’m real. My baby is real. And your own necrogenesis is real, too.”
Footsteps sounded from the foyer. The front door opened and out stepped Bob, followed by Louise, Eric and Helen.
“I’m fine,” Sarah told them as they took in the scene. She gestured towards Lou Ann. “It’s my ex-roommate, come to visit after all these months. She’s newly undead, a fledgling, incapacitated by rigor mortis.”
Bob snorted. “I feared she’d come skulking around sooner or later. That’s why I wanted to buy that magnum.”
Sarah frowned and shook her head. “There will be no weapons in this house. Violence and death are not welcome here.”
Lou Ann chuckled. “So then what should we do? Hold hands and sing kumbaya?”
There was a clatter of metal on concrete as Bob stumbled across Lou Ann’s Beretta. He picked up the gun and stared at it in disbelief. “Goddammit! Do you see this, Sarah? She brought a gun to our house!” Bob called 911 as he removed the magazine. He pocketed the ammo, and gave the empty sub-compact to Sarah.
Bob groaned. He rubbed a forearm across his sweating brow. Now he bent down, inches from Lou Ann’s face, and spoke with slow, forceful words. “You’re a mess, Lou Ann. Sarah is simply trying to pick up the pieces. She is trying to help you. She cares about you. Can’t you see that?”
Lou Ann tuned out Bob’s words. She didn’t want to hear the bullshit. Instead, she focused on a newscast blaring from a neighbor’s window.
…this unexpected surge in meteor numbers… we are passing through an uncharted but particularly dense part of the meteor stream. People throughout the continental US are reporting counts of over several thousand meteors per hour… They are the remnants of comet Bhol, the very same comet that brought the virus to earth sixteen years ago…
Over the last few minutes the quiet meteor shower had intensified into a bombastic storm. There was a flurry of activity on the street as startled families emerged from their homes with eyes transfixed to heaven. Wives screamed and blubbered while husbands stood speechless with arms wrapped tight around their own trembling bodies. A few averted their eyes from the celestial downpour to glare silent accusations towards Sarah’s house. The frightful meteors, nightmarish in their profusion, originated from comet Bhol. So did the active virus within Sarah. Therefore, she was guilty in her neighbor’s eyes, complicit in this frightful event, if only through the paranoia of their fear-addled logic.
Now everyone jumped as a bolide exploded many miles overhead. There was a burst of yellowish light that turned night to day, followed by the thump! of an earsplitting sonic boom.
Sarah reached out and took Bob’s shaking hand. Then she dropped the unloaded gun and rested her other hand over her stomach. “Do not be afraid,” she said to her guests. “This storm will pass. All storms eventually pass. In the meantime, I have good news to share! I’m having a baby!”
I’m Lv positive and pregnant, but so what? I’m healthy thanks to gene therapy and medication, and my baby will be too. There’s nothing for me to be ashamed of. I just need to get over my fears, come out of the proverbial closet, and tell people the truth!
And so Sarah listened to her conscience and made the announcement.
The meteor storm, unimpressed by her declaration, continued unabated in its torrent. Yet her words had upstaged the celestial event. Even now, the tension in the air was subsiding as expressions of dread transformed into lopsided grins and toothy smiles. Eric was the first to laugh aloud at Sarah’s words.
“What’s so funny?” Sarah said.
“I’m sorry,” he replied, putting hand over mouth, but then started laughing again.
Sarah’s smile faded. She had steeled herself for doubt, but was unprepared for outright laughter.
“Surely you don’t think you’re pregnant?” Louise said. “Eden Labs is probably using you to bolster their image.”
Sarah scratched her head in consternation. “How could my pregnancy bolster Eden Lab’s image?”
“If the undead could reproduce it would humanize them in the eyes of many who see them as inhuman.”
“So you think I’m lying?”
“No,” Helen chimed in. She rubbed the back of her thick neck with stout fingers. “We don’t think you’re lying, at least I don’t. I think you want this so bad that you’re not seeing things clearly. I had a false pregnancy, years ago. It’s why I married Greg. I made a lot of snap decisions. I did things I wouldn’t have done had I been more levelheaded.”
“I’m not delusional. I really am pregnant.”
“It’s wonderful my daughter has found relative good health and love, but having a baby?” Louise tittered behind her hand. “That’s silly. Why, it’s downright impossible! Even if you did conceive, the virus would destroy the embryo. Lv positive people can’t reproduce. Eden Labs is leading you on.”
“Goodness! You think you know more about my pregnancy than I do!” Sarah’s head was spinning from the criticisms. “I still don’t get it. Why do you think Eden Labs is deceiving me?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Eric rolled dull grey eyes. He spoke slowly, as if talking to a confused child. “In the last two days their stock has skyrocketed, and it’s all because of you.”
Sarah took a wobbly step backward. She was lightheaded and queasy. “So no one believes me?”
“I want to believe,” Eric said. “I really do. But it’s too good to be true. Our kind cannot reproduce.”
Sarah sat, with a hand on her stomach. She had bubbled with effervescent joy, but now her buoyant mood was flat.
Bob knelt beside her and entwined his fingers in hers. He raised her hand, kissed it, and whispered an admonition.
“Now is not the time to announce our child. It’s good that you found the courage to tell everyone. I guess the excitement of the night goaded you on, but let’s discuss this later, and not in the middle of a freakish meteor storm.”
“Et tu…” Sarah murmured. She rubbed her arms and shuddered. Bob hugged her but she was unresponsive to his touch. Now she pulled away and stood, with a listless expression and arms limp at her sides.
Louise pinched Sarah’s arm. “You’re quiet all of a sudden. Are you alright, sweetie?”
Sarah covered her mouth. She ran inside to the bathroom. She fell to her knees in front of the toilet, clutched her stomach and vomited into the bowl.
Bob was at her heels. “What’s wrong?”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’m alright,” she said, but started vomiting again.
Sarah’s hands were shaking. Her stomach churned. She was so nervous she couldn’t keep still. She needed to be alone, she needed time to herself, but Bob kept followed her from one room to the next.
“I’m going to the backyard.”
“I’ll keep you company,” he said, sealing the offer with a kiss on her cheek.
“No. Go back to the porch. Keep watch over Lou. I want to be alone.”
Most everyone was still on the porch, watching the Antarids and waiting for Lou Ann’s arrest once the police arrived. So when Sarah escaped to the backyard she was surprised to find Eric at the gazebo.
“What are you doing here?”
“Your mother is afraid of me, though she tries to hide it,” Eric said. “I needed a breather from her nervous banter and suspicious looks.”
“She’ll come around, eventually.”
“So what’s wrong? You’re shaking, and your eyelid keeps twitching. You don’t look right.”
“Of course I don’t look right! I’m miserable!” Sarah had taken off her satin burgundy pumps in the grassy yard, and now twirled one nervously by the heel.
“Are you angry at me for laughing at you… I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s more than that. It’s everything! The Antarids, Lou Ann, my mother, the baby… I thought I had everything under control. I thought my life was finally coming together, but now I’m not so sure. Eric, I could use your support, but you don’t even believe in me!”
Eric tapped the bench. “Sit down. You can talk to me.”
Sarah appraised the mummy as he sat in the gloom. His arms were crossed over his scrawny chest. He wore a smug expression on his gaunt face. He was a cynical, jaded man, but he was undead and willing to talk, so she divulged her emotional state and told him of her raw nerves and queasy stomach.
“It’s just anxiety,” he said, with a slight roll of his grey eyes. “There’s a dissonance inside of you, between what you are and what you think you should be. I think you’re neurotic, just like Lou Ann. Her necrophobia drove her mad. She’s undead and she hates the undead.”
Sarah paced the small enclosure. “I’m not self-hating, or neurotic. I just can’t believe that so many people doubt me. That’s what’s bothering me. My own mother said the virus would destroy the baby.” Sarah wiped teary eyes. “How could she say such a thing?”
“I’ve been thinking about it. It seemed illogical at first, you being pregnant,” Eric sucked in a ragged breath and shoved his bony hands into his pockets, “but maybe we were too hasty in our unbelief.”
“I am pregnant. Eden Labs confirmed it. Why is it so hard for you to believe me?”
“I’m mistrustful of Eden Labs, so their assurances mean nothing to me. But maybe you’re right. If you are, then you’ve managed to do the impossible. You’ve proven that necrogenesis is not a death sentence; it’s not a call to extinction. If you are pregnant, then you’ve proven our kind viable, that we’re not just freakish anomalies incapable of carving out a place for ourselves in the world.”
Sarah stamped her foot. “Can I get a straight answer from you? Do you believe me or not?”
“Maybe,” he said in a wishy-washy tone that upset her all the more.
Her stomach was bothering her again and now her throat tightened. Sarah ran to the bushes and vomited. When she was done, she saw Eric walking back towards the house.
“Come inside,” he said.
Tod and I sat parked a block away from Sarah’s house. Sarah was inside, a dead woman walking in more ways than one. Colson, leader of the Minutemen, had briefed us earlier on the situation.
“Mayor Laughlin put a hit on Sarah this morning. You boys are the first to take up the gauntlet.”
Tod and I were surprised we were the first to volunteer. Laguna Bay was a rough place. I could drive you across town and show you fifty secret graves where some undead schmuck had been buried after getting his head blown off by the Minutemen.
And of course, the mayor and police knew because they were the ones pulling the strings to make it all happen.
Just this spring, some high falutin’ Tallahassee journalist had blown into town. Word got around that he was “investigating the plight of Laguna Bay’s zombies.” What a laugh! He was looking for a liberal sob story, a smoking gun to bolster his journalistic drivel.
We ran his ass out fast. Made him feel mighty unwelcome. He ended up getting his big scoop further south in Miami. And I tell you, that man caused an uproar! After he wrote the article—some bullshit story about a drug dealing zombie getting his head caved in while in police custody—the mayor of Miami was forced to resign, as well as the chief of police.
That’s why Laguna Bay’s gangs were recruited for hits. Down here, the powers that be didn’t want blood on their hands. It was black, rotten blood, but blood nonetheless, and the stench of it was enough to draw zombie sympathizers like flies to shit.
Back at the Minutemen headquarters, Colson gave us a recent photo of Sarah, as well as her address.
It didn’t take long for us to get her in our sights. We spotted her during the peak of the Antarids shower, standing on her front porch. She ran her mouth off outside for a few minutes with friends and family in the semi-darkness while we stared at her long, flaxen hair and hourglass curves.
“Damn sure is a fine piece of ass, even though she’s obviously mixed. Wonder if she bleaches her hair?”
“What? Shut the fuck up!” I said. “She’s a fuckin’ zombie—a perversion—and shouldn’t even exist! That’s all that matters! Dead is dead!”
Tod kept blabbering on. “Ain’t that your ex-girlfriend?” He said, pointing at Lou Ann. “What the hell happened to her? How did she turn?”
I could have punched him in the face. Instead, I grunted and said nothing.
A male zombie left the porch and skirted round back to the gazebo. Then Sarah left and eventually made her way to the backyard as well. Meanwhile the Antarids were goin’ buck wild. The empty streets had filled with terrified people staring at a Fourth of July sky.
“It looks like artillery fire,” Tod said, glancing every now and then at the bolides that exploded overhead.
“I don’t give a shit. The Antarids already fucked up everyone. What more can they do?”
“Destroy the planet?”
“That would be a mercy,” I said. “The human race is fucked, what with all these goddamn zombies running around all over the place. The pathetic things need to be put down, and taken out of their misery. Fuck the Antarids… and fuck zombies, too! We should torture ‘em first—before we off ‘em. Make the fuckers suffer… they deserve no less!”
“Now don’t get any crazy ideas,” Tod said. “You black folks are so hot-blooded…”
“At least I ain’t chickenshit like you!”
“Easy, tiger. Let’s just go for headshots, quick and clean, and then get outta here.”
I frowned. Before I could say anything else Tod left the car and scoped the back of the house. He returned moments later with a sour expression.
“The backyard is empty. Sarah must have gone inside. I wonder why she isn’t with everyone else?”
“Who the fuck cares?” I shot Tod a dirty look. He deserved it, coward that he was. “Let’s just go kill ‘em all, right now!”
Tod shook his head. “You’re jumping the gun, throwing caution aside. Let’s take it nice and slow… there’s too many witnesses…”
“No more talking. The street’s in a panic. Everyone’s distracted. This is our chance!” I holstered my Smith & Wesson and opened the car door.
“Sonofabitch has a death wish,” Tod muttered.
“You’re a coward!”
That must have riled him up, cause he flipped me off, left the car, got his rifle from the trunk and slung it over his back. Keeping to the shadows, Tod low-crawled to a patch of oleander bushes in front of the house.
Now it was my turn. Crossing the street, I made my way to Sarah’s picket fence.
“You in position?” Tod said over the radio.
Tod was gonna aim for Lou Ann first, and give her a headshot that would put her out of her misery. Then he’d pick off the three zombie lovers as they tried to escape.
I was positioned by the fence, staring at the sky, pretending to watch the Antarids, though I was really prepping myself to charge up the stairs and kick in Sarah’s front door.
I must have waited for at least ten minutes as Tod got his sights lined up. I was wiping sweat from my forehead every few seconds, and then…
Crack! came the sound of the shot! I looked over the picket fence and saw black blood spurt from Lou Ann’s shoulder. Now he blew his cover and ran past me, bounding up the steps.
So much for caution.
A man on the porch was shielding two women with his own body, the three of them backed in a corner. “Run, Sarah, run!” he was saying as he stared at Lou Ann’s gunshot wound with his eyes bugged-out in fear. His voice was weak and shaky. Worse than a woman he was. He’d be easy pickins.
Lou Ann noticed me as Tod shoved his rifle in her face. “Fuck you, Ken!” She said, like she didn’t give a shit. Bitch probably wanted her head blown off. Didn’t wanna live life undead.
Tod pulled the trigger twice. Two three-round bursts ripped through her skull. As he turned on the three survivors I headed towards the front door, ready to claim our main prize: Sarah Goldman.
The sound of sirens stopped me dead. Red and blue lights washed over the front yard. I turned towards the street and saw police cars barreling towards us.
I shot at the closest car and prepared to run, but then a bullet hit me, and then another, and another.
Dark red blood was all over my shirt and knew I was a dead man. Just shoot me in the head! I thought, but then the firing stopped.
I must have started hallucinating, ‘cause right then and there I heard Pieter De Klerk. He was one of Live Pride’s spokespersons. He had lectured the Minutemen during one of his U.S visits.
I was bleeding out and everything was going black when suddenly it was like Pieter was right next to me, talkin’ in my ear with that Dutch Afrikaans accent I despised… but he hated zombies and I hated zombies.
As they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Is it so difficult to accept life for what it is? A brief moment of existence? Peter had said, months ago, as me and the gang had cheered him on at our headquarters.
The undead want to extend their lives. They clamor for more time, trying to keep the spark of consciousness alive by whatever means necessary. Not content with a normal lifespan, they beg for more, continuing to take beyond their measure until life’s natural rhythm is disrupted and its cycle broken. The world, unable to support both the living and undead, will collapse upon itself in ruin. That is the world’s true end, ushered in—not by war and hatred—but by humanity, brotherhood, and tolerance.
Half a dozen officers converged on me. I aimed at them but couldn’t shoot for shit. Then everything went black and I fell to my knees.
I knew I’d be dead in seconds.
I felt another bullet tear through my chest. They wouldn’t shoot me in the head, and I had no intention of waking up undead in a morgue.
There was only one thing left to do. It was the best I could hope for. I placed my gun in my mouth, pulled the trigger, and let the true death carry me off to peaceful oblivion.
After freshening up in the bathroom, Sarah sat across from Eric in the living room. He proffered a drink.
“What is it?”
“Prion-free spinal fluid. USDA approved.”
“It must be expensive.”
Eric shrugged. “Helen brought it over but forgot to serve it. It’s nutritious and good for the baby… if you really are pregnant. Drink up.”
Sarah took the goblet and held it gingerly while staring at its crystalline contents. She took a sip, then licked her lips. “I like it.”
Eric smiled. He reached across the coffee table. “Take my hand.”
Sarah did as asked. His grip was firm and his gaze steely.
“Sarah, I want to believe.”
He leaned over the table and now they were so close that she could feel his rancid breath on her face. He paused, and for a moment it seemed as if he were about to kiss her. There was passion in his eyes and fervor in his voice. She pitied him, knowing exactly how it felt to be necrogenic and without hope.
“Sarah, I really want to believe!”
The callous facade had finally crumbled, and she saw him for what he truly was: a lost, frightened soul.
Eric’s lips stretched into a rictus. “You and Helen saved me, inviting me here tonight.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ve been on a suicidal kick of late. I was going to destroy myself tonight. A bullet to the brain.” He squeezed her hand and drew her even closer.
“I want to believe in something Sarah. I need to believe in something! There is a grace about you—mercy, love, goodness, and compassion—that is almost divine!”
He was like a new convert electrified with religious fervor, propping her up, putting her on a pedestal, egging her on to some strange apotheosis.
“There’s nothing special about me,” she said with downcast eyes.
“I’ve walked in darkness for so long, but when I look at you I see a shining light!”
“So then believe in me!” she said. “Believe in my child!”
“I want to! I want to believe that there is hope for our kind, but if your pregnancy turns out to be nothing more than a farce…”
“Oh, Eric! Why can’t you believe? I am pregnant. Have faith.”
“Faith is a relic from a bygone era. I’m too modern for it, too cultured for such naivety. Besides, we may not be around in nine months. Have you considered that?”
“What do you mean?”
“The meteor storm could be our undoing. People see it as a sign of the apocalypse. Folks are already saying that the undead are bringing down God’s wrath.”
“I want to fight the ignorance and stupidity, I want to reason with the living, but no matter what I say they won’t listen to me.”
He had all the characteristics of mummification. He was unnaturally gaunt. His skin was hard and dark as parchment. Sarah noticed his ankh necklace. With his leather motorcycle jacket and combat boots, he reminded her of Eddie, Iron Maiden’s perennial mascot. He was dead yet alive, and it was ridiculous that he could believe his own miracle of life, but could not believe hers.
“I see,” she said, staring into his desiccated face. “You think they won’t listen because of your appearance.”
Eric nodded. “But you… you don’t realize how important you are. You’re a figurehead to us. You have what it takes, appearance-wise, and I think you’re the most charismatic one amongst us.”
She blushed at his words. “I don’t need an ego trip or a messiah complex.”
“But it’s true. You could be our representative. The undead have many expectations of you,” Eric confessed, with a faraway stare and wide, dreamy eyes. “Advocacy, lobbying… some think you should run for city council. If anyone can improve our social condition, it’s you.”
Sarah arched a brow. “City council? I’m not into politics or controversy.” She rubbed her aching head. The erstwhile cushy divan now seemed hard and lumpy. She repositioned herself on the beige microfiber couch and sighed in irritation.
“Look at yourself,” Eric said, pointing to the bamboo-framed mirror behind his loveseat.
She looked at her reflection and saw an attractive young woman, a far cry from what anyone would consider a zombie.
“You’re pretty, middle class, and quite normal,” he said. “Helen and Louise are at ease with you, but when they talk to me I see their fear and revulsion. They try to hide it but it’s unmistakable.
“Show your allegiance. Help us out. Take a stand and join in our struggle. Sarah, we zombies need you. The undead community needs a voice. We need someone to represent us. Someone normative and non-threatening in appearance, someone like you, who can appeal to the living on our behalf without frightening them into hostility.”
“But I’m no leader,” Sarah said. “I don’t know anything about politics. I’m not interested in that sort of stuff.”
“Get your priorities straight. These really might be the end times for us. War machines—embodied by disgruntled citizens, vigilante groups, and even the government itself—are bearing down on zombie civilians and subjugating us with terror, mutilation and death. Parents are enacting honor killings to rid themselves of their zombie children. Vigilante groups are abducting and murdering zombie sympathizers. The living call us killers and savages. Even the government is against us. Personally, I think the city council is conspiring to systematically wipe out every last zombie in Laguna Bay.”
Sarah shook her head in disagreement. She had tried to understand Eric, she had tried to swallow his pill, but its aftertaste was bitter and so she spat it out. To be sure, there was some truth to his words, yet they were steeped in bitterness and resentment. “You’re knee deep in conspiracy theories. No wonder you’re depressed! Eric, you have a victim mentality. Necrophobia and intolerance are gradually subsiding. Society is beginning to accept the undead. Things are changing for the better. Have patience. You’ll see.”
“Patience? Ha! In the meanwhile,” he said, with a grunt, “the dehumanized zombie has become the ultimate Other, a monstrous savage fit for exploitation and mass slaughter. It’s called necropower, and it’s happening right now in Laguna Bay: the management of zombie populations through fear, torture and liquidation. And you’re right, mulling over this stuff does depress me, but ignoring it won’t make it go away.”
Eric balled his fist and rapped it against the coffee table. “Things are not getting better! Zombies are internalizing necrophobia, necrophobes are continuing to justify their prejudices, and open-minded progressives are succumbing to implicit bias.
“In an age of viral pandemic, good health and vitality have become a badge of privilege fiercely guarded by the living. From a bionormative perspective, anyone carrying an active strain of the Lazarus virus is seen as genetically damaged and therefore infertile. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I still have doubts over your pregnancy.”
Sarah wanted to throw a pillow at him. “You call me a figurehead. You obviously believe in me. But when I tell you I’m pregnant my words fall on deaf ears. Really, Eric. This conversation is going nowhere.”
“You want me to believe in you,” she said with icy coldness, “but you refuse to believe in me.”
Eric stood, and returned to the loveseat. “I’m sorry, Sarah, but I really don’t think you’re pregnant.”
“It’s not just that! Your whole outlook on life bothers me! You want society to accept you, but you don’t accept society! Your anger and bitterness brings out that same anger and bitterness in others. Seeing others as different from you, as threats to your wellbeing, as enemies, is self-fulfilling. Eventually they do become the enemy. The living and the undead are polarized, however there can be compromise. We can put aside our us-against-them mentality. We can check our prejudices and ingroup mentalities and keep them from flourishing. Tolerance. Unity. Compromise. That is what paradise is made of. Without such, there can be only hell. Despite our differences, we can be united. Only thought love and friendship, mutual understanding and compromise, can we ever hope to live together in peace and prosperity!”
Eric’s smug grin faded. His face cracked with dark emotion. “That’s not true! The living are prejudiced against us! We have to fight them! And I don’t believe in compromise! We need to force the government to see things our way! We need a revolution!”
Sarah shook her head. “Three-hundred million versus fifteen million. The odds for revolution are not in our favor.”
“But… we can… you don’t understand!” Eric bowed his head and put his face in his hands.
Sarah reached across the coffee table and placed a hand on his shoulder. He was shaking.
“Are you alright?” She said.
“I… I don’t know. Three-hundred million living versus fifteen million undead. I never thought of it that way.”
“We make up less than three percent of the population. If we’re going to survive and prosper, we need to work hand-in-hand with the living.”
Eric looked up with black tears streaming down his face. “You deconstruct everything I believe in!”
“Look at my life,” Sarah said. “I have a relationship with Bob that gives me the love and support I need. I feel good about myself. I have a sense of humor. I’m not depressed all the time. And I have realistic goals and expectations. I have resilience, and it keeps me sane in a crazy world. You need resilience. Positive friendships, a healthy self-image, rational goals and ideals. Everything is doom-and-gloom with you. Your outlook on life is based on pessimistic speculation, but my baby… it’s flesh and blood! It is real! If you seek truth, look no further than my child! Believe in me. Be my friend. Come over and visit, or invite me over. We can talk politics and theory over drinks. Don’t be so isolated and bitter. Some of your ideology is true, but the rest is self-defeating. Cultivate a positive outlook on life.”
Sarah stood and ran to the bedroom. She came back a minute later with a grainy black and white photo.
“What is it?” Eric said as she laid the photo on the coffee table.
“It’s an ultrasound.”
Eric studied the tiny embryo in the middle of the photo. “That’s… your baby?”
“I could have shown it earlier, but I figured you would take me on my word.”
“I believe you now,” he said, staring at the concrete proof in front of him.
“Yes. Sometimes we zombies can be our own worst enemies, mistrusting each other, not having faith in our own kind. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
He sniffed and wiped his eyes. His palm came away black and sticky.
“Are you crying?”
“Yes,” he said, through tears of joy. “So how far are you in?”
“I can hardly believe it. This is our future,” he said, tapping the photo. “This is the first of a new generation!”
Sarah laughed. He spoke with fierce pride, as if the child was his own.
“So it is true!” Eric said, finally comprehending the miracle, finally realizing its certainty. “You are pregnant!”
“Yes. I am.”
Eric handed the ultrasound back to her. “We zombies need to look out for each other. Necrophobes will try to kill your baby. The living are out to get us, Sarah. It’s us against them. We need to protect the baby…”
“Us against them? Everything you say is based on nothing but fear and prejudice!”
“Well, Sarah, consider zoetic hegemony. From a bionormative perspective…”
“I’ve heard enough of your intellectual, biased perspectives! Sometimes a person can be too smart for their own good!”
Eric shrugged. “I took zombie theory 101 in college. It’s a sociology class. Very insightful. Perhaps you should take it too.”
“No thank you. This ‘zombie theory,’ as you call it, seems to blame the living for everything. I prefer taking responsibility for my own life without pointing fingers.”
Eric’s lips puckered. “Why are you so fond of the living? What have they ever done for you? We need to fight the power…”
“Stop it, Eric. Between you and necrophobes, I’m getting different strains of the same crap.”
“The living are the enemy! We have to fight them!”
“Enough! We zombies need to get ourselves together. No more whining. No more complaining. No more fighting with the living. Tell me Eric, why don’t you get transplantation?”
“If I got transplantation, I wouldn’t survive. I would need gene therapy too, and the gene therapy would kill me.”
“No more excuses Eric. How do you know for a certainty that you wouldn’t survive therapy?”
“You don’t know. You hold too many false assumptions towards life, and so I’m telling you right now—no, I’m demanding—that you get transplantation and gene therapy!”
“I get it. You’re joking.”
“No. I’m not.
“What is this, tough love? You don’t seem to get it. Organ transplantation and gene therapy would kill me! I’m a mummy. Many of my organ systems have been removed. It’s ironic, but in order to live I have to stay undead!”
“The virus is hell bent on keeping us alive. It wants us to live. My brain was destroyed, yet it regenerated completely. So don’t tell me that with gene therapy your new organs wouldn’t…”
“Your brain was destroyed, and then regenerated?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Sarah raised a finger in irritation, ready to spar with Eric again, but his question gave her pause.
Why didn’t you tell me?
In a flash of painful memory, she recalled falling down concrete stairs and waking up months later at Eden Labs. “I guess my ordeal was so personal, and painful, that I never got around to divulging it. Besides, this is the first time we’ve talked.”
“So you got gene therapy because of your brain injury?”
Eric stood and paced the carpeted floor. “If a zombie’s brain can regenerate, if their organs can regrow, well… that changes everything! I’m making an appointment to speak to Radcliffe, tomorrow if possible. If he vouches everything you said, then yes, I will get therapy and transplantation!”
Sarah didn’t know if she should laugh or cry, so she did both.
“Really? Oh, Eric!” She stared at him through blurred vision and then crushed him in a fierce hug.
“Careful! I’m a bit more fragile than you.” He rubbed his side. “I think you rearranged my ribcage.”
Eric moaned and then inhaled his characteristic ragged breath. “I’m fine. I think. Truth be told, I feel invulnerable after what you just told me! I don’t want to be wretched! I don’t want to be miserable! If I was healthy again, oh the things I could do! I thought my dreams were broken but now…”
“But now you know. You aren’t wretched. You have a bright future ahead of you. Claim it. As Bob always says, seize the day! The sky is the limit!”
Eric smiled a grey-toothed rictus. “Thank you, Sarah. You just gave me something that I’ve lacked for so long: hope!”
Sarah hugged him again, gently this time, and was surprised when he pulled away from her.
“Hush!” Eric said. He walked to the hall and craned his neck towards the front door. “Did you hear that?”
Sarah followed him. “Hear what? I didn’t hear anything…”
Eric put a finger to his lips. Sarah stopped talking. She cocked her head and listened for noise. Now there were goosebumps on her arms. Were her ears deceiving her?
Run, Sarah. Run. It was Bob’s voice coming from the porch, faint and winded, like he was out of breath or hurt in some way.
She didn’t understand what she was hearing, so she walked towards the front of the house with Eric at her heels.
Fuck you, Ken! came Lou Ann’s voice, loud and defiant through the closed door, followed by a sound like firecrackers:
Pop, pop, pop!
Eric tapped Sarah’s shoulder. “That’s gunfire,” he whispered.
“Did Lou Ann…”
“No. She can’t move.”
“So then who’s firing a weapon?”
“Calm down.” Sarah laughed uneasily. “Bob is playing a joke…” She reached toward the door handle but Eric swatted her hand away.
“Let’s leave through the patio door.”
“Something is wrong.”
“Sarah, shut up and listen!”
She did as asked and heard nothing. There was no talking, or sounds of movement, or anything. “It’s quiet.”
“Exactly. Something isn’t right.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“The police are coming.”
Eric put a hand over her mouth. “Keep your voice down,” he hissed. “Maybe that gunfire was the police.”
“But why would they be shooting outside the house? It’s probably just harmless noise from the equally harmless Antarids. Goodness, everyone is so paranoid and on-edge tonight!” Sarah tried opening the door again but Eric wouldn’t let her.
Pop! pop! pop!
Eric cringed as the gunfire resumed. “Follow me, and not another word!”
“Enough, Eric!” Sarah yanked her arm from Eric’s grasp. She was about to open the door when a booted foot kicked it in. The door swung on its hinges and hit the wall with a crack!
Sarah and Eric threw their hands up reflexively.
“Who are you?” one of the two officers barked.
“I live here! This is my home!”
The officers, with guns drawn, looked past Sarah and into the house. “Is there anyone else here?”
“No. Just me and Eric. What the heck is going on?”
“Follow me.” A third officer had appeared and now led Sarah and Eric outside.
More police cars were pulling up to the house. Red and blue lights cut through night air backlit by the falling Antarids.
She turned to the comforting voice. It was Bob. Sarah ran into his arms.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes. And you? You weren’t shot, were you?” Bob patted her down frantically as if searching for wounds.
“I’m fine, but where is everyone else?” she said, just as she caught sight of Helen and Louise huddling arm in arm besides a police car. Now Sarah scanned the porch and lawn for her former roommate. “Where’s Lou Ann?”
“She didn’t make it.”
She saw them now, the three lifeless bodies on the porch: Ken, Tod and Lou Ann. Sarah held back a scream.
Later, the local news channels would fill Sarah and Bob in on the details of the attempted hit. An undercover officer had been investigating the Minutemen. He had learned of their murderous plans and warned the local precinct, just in time. Now Tod and Ken were dead, killed by the police. The interlopers had shot Lou Ann on the porch and would have killed everyone else as well, had the police not arrived on the scene.
Bob shielded Sarah’s eyes. “Don’t look.”
Too late. She had already taken in the gruesome sight. The three bodies were riddled with bullets. Lou Ann’s head was a ruined mass of blood and gore, yet her face was intact, frozen in a defiant look of smug contempt.
“Live by the sword, die by the sword,” Bob said.
Sarah agreed, though she couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the poor woman.
The street buzzed with milling officers, who were radioing dispatch, filling out reports and questioning the dinner party’s witnesses in a scene reminiscent of some foreboding crime drama.
Sarah gave an officer a harried statement. She didn’t have much to say. She hadn’t seen anything. Nevertheless he pressed her with questions until she satisfied his frantic inquiries. Now she had questions of her own.
“Why did the two men target us? Why did they want us dead?”
The officer was short on details. No matter. Eventually the law would bring everything to light. By the end of the year Colson, Mayor Jack, the Minutemen and the city council would be implicated in the murderous plot and prosecuted. Shocked by the betrayal of her own city government, Sarah would take up Eric’s challenge and run for council. Fickle citizens would come down from their fences and side whole heartedly with Sarah and her cause. Her popularity would coast on a rising backlash against government corruption, and she would become the first undead councilwoman ever to hold office in Laguna Bay.
Three hours later, after the police had gone, along with ambulances carrying off the bodies of the dead, the shell-shocked guests returned to their spoilt dinner party.
Now Sarah stood in the center of the living room. All eyes fell on her. “Things need to change,” she said.
“I agree,” Louise replied. “Tonight was barbaric. This can never happen again. What have we become as a community, fighting and clawing at each other like animals? No one will ever again threaten my daughter, or any zombie for that matter. Laguna Bay is more civilized than that, or at least it should be. I think the meteor storm tonight was sent by God, to mark this night as a turning point for our city.”
Helen mirrored Louise’s sentiment. “Never again!” she said. “It was like a pogrom! What are we? Vermin to be rooted out?”
Bob stuck out a finger and cocked his thumb. “We need to start arming ourselves. All of us.”
“No. We need to start communicating,” Sarah replied. “We need to come out of our isolated homes and social groups and start interacting with the rest of the community. Only through communication can we bridge the gap between the living and the undead.”
“I couldn’t have said it better,” Eric affirmed. “Here I was mistrusting the living, when you guys were just as much of a target as Sarah and me!”
“Exactly.” Sarah said, “We are all in danger, as long as intolerance and necrophobia run unchecked. That’s why I’m running for city council.”
“City council?” Louise arched a brow. “You’re intentions are admirable but misguided. You don’t have what it takes for such a high pressure job. Besides, running for councilwoman is dangerous.” Louise wagged her finger in disapproval. “Tsk. Keep a low profile, or you’ll end up in another madman’s crosshairs.”
“Don’t you get it, Mother? The only way to fight evil is with good. It’s going to be difficult, but I can do it. I can become the leader this city desperately needs.”
Bob interrupted. “Sarah, you’re not responsible to anyone but yourself.”
“No. Hear me out. To whom much is given, much is required. I am privileged. I realize that now. I have a gorgeous husband, a nice home… and a baby on the way, whether everyone believes me or not. What have I done to help other undead folk who are worse off than me? It’s time I started reaching out to others. I’ve been so wrapped up in my own superficial problems that I’ve forgotten the things in life that matter most.”
“What matters most to you?” Bob said.
“Well, besides family and good health… community. I’m not part of the undead community, but I need to be. Hub, it may seem out of the blue to you, but after the events of tonight, I really want to run for city council!”
“Good luck with that,” Louise said with a chuckle.
Sarah ignored the mirthful cynicism. “And Eric,” she said, turning to the seated man, “we undead must strengthen prosocial behavior.”
Eric smiled weakly. He may have been a persecuted minority, but he too had his wealth of prejudices.
“We need to reevaluate our antisocial mentality. Some of the living do want to help us. Are we allowing them to do so, when all they’re trying to do is lead us towards health, wellness and full actualization?”
“You’re right,” Eric said. “You’re absolutely right. I promised to see Radcliffe tomorrow and by God, Sarah, I plan on keeping my promise. Now be a doll and keep your promise. When I go to the polls next year I expect to see your name on the ballot.”
Sarah reached out and clasped Eric’s hand. You will,” she said. “I promise.”
Bob cleared his throat. “Let’s not get too perfectionistic. Society does need to change, but the undead… well, they’re fine just the way they are!”
Sarah disagreed. “I would love to see a well-adjusted necrogenic, and I suppose someday I will,” Sarah said. “But until then, our best course of action is to seek gene therapy and rehabilitation.”
Louise laughed. “So you want reparation? I knew it!”
“No. We don’t want to be alive,” Sarah said. “We’re not zoetics. We don’t want to mimic the living. And we most certainly don’t want reparative therapy. What we do want is to be the best that we can be, to kick necrogenesis in the butt, and live healthy, productive lives. Surely you understand.”
Louise bristled. “I most certainly don’t!” She sank further into her chair, and crossed her leg, away from the group. “My goodness, Sarah. What are you? The zombie messiah?”
“Of course not. But what do you really think about our condition?”
Louise pouted. “The truth? I’m confused! Sometimes I wonder if there’s any hope for zombies at all!”
Sarah sat beside her mother. “There is hope, even for necrogenics who can’t change. They may not have good health, but they still have their dignity and their sense of self-worth. Besides, we all eventually age and die. Remember Dad?”
Louise put hand to heart. “Poor Steven, hooked up to machines in that awful nursing home!”
“Yes,” Sarah said. “And yet we loved Dad despite his cancer. We treated him with dignity and humanity, until the very end. That is what I’m asking of you, Mother: that you love us, and treat us with dignity, despite our illness. If we can change, then we will. If we can’t or choose not to, love us anyway.”
“Sounds quite reasonable,” Helen said, and then with a smirk: “I think your mother is just being contrary.”
“I am not!”
Sarah pressed her argument. “See us as more than just zombies. I’m a wife, a daughter, a loan officer, and so much more. I’m more than just undead.”
Eric bowed his head and stared at his feet. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just a viral status. And then I get depressed.” Now he looked up, with fire in his eyes. “Well, after today, no more!”
“You’re more than just a minority,” Sarah said. “You’re more than just a zombie, or a statistic. See yourself as a complete person. And if people don’t accept you, so what?”
“Exactly!” Bob said. He grasped Eric’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Realize that some people will never accept you, and that’s OK. Their rejection of you doesn’t make you any less of a person.”
Sarah stood and walked away from her mother. “My mother calls me a zombie messiah.” Sarah laughed. “Maybe I am. We undead need to start changing our negative ways of thinking and living. We need to take responsibility for our own self-defeating behavior. Integrity, dignity, communication, self-actualization and good health: these are the goals that zombies must strive towards, and I’m going to do everything I can to help us all reach those ideals.”
“Good heavens!” Louise snapped. “I didn’t know you had it in you! I guess it takes a near-massacre to get a zombie’s blood pumping!”
Bob laughed so hard he fell off his chair. Now the laughter spread, first to Eric and then to Helen and Sarah.
“What’s so funny? Why is everyone laughing? We almost died tonight!” Louise pushed her drooping glasses back up her nose. “Actually, you’re already dead, Sarah, or at least mostly so, or partially so…”
The laughter turned into an uproar.
“Dagnammit people, you know what I mean!”
“If you win the election, Sarah,” Helen chortled, her face red from mirth, “you know who to make your court jester!”
Louise groaned her disdain. “Is everyone laughing at me? What did I say? What did I do?”
Sarah’s eyes were teary from the hilarity of Louise’s latest faux pas. “I love you, Mother. I really do.” Sarah hugged the perplexed woman and felt a sense of solace as her mother hugged her back.
“I love you too, sweety, and I hate to admit it, but with your new bold attitude I daresay you’ll make an excellent councilwoman!”
The earth passes through the debris trail of a comet and picks up an alien virus in the comet’s wake. The astral virus does more than infect. It reanimates. Now the dead are alive.
In a nation united by a culture of fear, the dead are a godsend. They are the new scapegoats, the new bogeyman, rich fodder for lurid news stories. They are the newest sensation for a controversy loving public.
The living are excited to a frenzy of moral panic and mass hysteria. There are calls for a national witch-hunt, or at the very least, local city-wide pogroms. “Send Them Back to the Grave,” becomes a political slogan, espoused by Democrats and Republicans alike. For the first time in history, the nation is united, brothers-in-arms against the undead menace.
Then the disappointing news arrives, direct from the Centers for Disease Control: The dead pose no threat of viral contagion, because everyone is infected, living and undead alike. Moreover, despite the undead’s frightful decay, their minds, personalities, and moral sensibilities are fully intact, preserved by the Lazarus virus. The monsters are still human, notwithstanding their menacing appearance, and pose no threat to society.
Nevertheless, sporadic attacks against the undead continue.
“Shoot ‘em in the head” becomes the rallying cry of the living, from the smallest conservative towns to the largest, liberal cities.
However, with their humanity vouched for by the government, the undead are gradually rehabilitated into society. State-sponsored liquidation is no longer an option, and without the complicity of the police or the military, vigilantism subsides.
Decades pass and the Lazarus virus persists, mutating into ever stronger strains. Anthropologists declare the Holocene epoch over, as more of the living succumb to the virus.
A bleak Necrocene era overtakes humanity, yet the hopeful stand firm, refusing to accept defeat. Activists support the rights of the undead. Eventually they are fully enfranchised, and their conditions commercialized. Pharmaceutical corporations develop pro-viral medications, marketed towards the undead. Health care for the infected becomes a billion dollar industry, attracting the brightest minds in science, medicine and technology. Medical nanotechnology is pioneered on a massive scale. Cellular repair treatments are invented, revivifying the undead from the molecular level, restoring them to full health and wellness.
Crisis turns into triumph. “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” becomes the tongue-in-cheek joke of a relieved public. The fear of a zombie apocalypse subsides, and in its stead a golden age rises.
The Zombie Gospel was a dark prologue to that bright future, covering the early panic-fuelled years that followed the antemortem age.
LAZARUS VIRUS an astral virus of extrasolar origins. (Written abbreviation Lv)
COMET BHOL the astronomical body that carried the Lazarus virus to earth’s solar orbit.
BETA SCORPIIDS (informally known as the Antarids) meteor showers originating from comet Bhol’s debris trail. Through the Beta Scorpiids, the Lazarus virus reached earth’s atmosphere.
ZOETIC a rarely used, formal term denoting an Lv negative person. A more common term for “zoetic” is “living” (as opposed to “undead”). A living person.
LV NEGATIVE a medical term, denoting a carrier of the dormant Lazarus virus. A living person. (Written abbreviation Lv-)
UNDEAD popular term for an Lv positive. A zombie (derogatory).
LV POSITIVE A medical term, denoting a carrier of the active Lazarus virus. An undead person. (Written abbreviation Lv+)
ZOMBIE a pejorative term for the undead.
NECROGENESIS abnormal decomposition and regeneration of the human body. A common symptom of the active Lazarus virus.
NECROPHOBIA a negative mentality towards the undead consisting of fear, disgust and revulsion.
NECROMORMATIVITY conforming to bionormative values. Example: an Lv positive who does not eat brains and who tries to pass as “living” may be considered necronormative.
BIONORMATIVITY the assumption that human existence consists of a dual category comprised of the living and the undead, and that within this duality the living are the norm and the undead an aberration.
ZOETIC HEGEMONY Power and dominance of the living over the undead.
NECROPOWER the control of the undead by the living through violent, brutal and destructive means.
EDEN LABS a biotechnology research corporation currently testing gene therapy treatments for the Lazarus virus.
GENESIS GENE THERAPY an experimental therapy purported to lower Lv viral loads and decrease necrogenic symptoms in Lv positive test subjects.
CELLULAR NANOTECHNOLOGY a yet unrealized medical therapy for the treatment of necrogenesis.
PROMETHIA proviral medication that boosts viral replication in Lv positives.
VITALIA, VIVERA, ZESTIA antiviral medication for Lv negatives.
ASTRAVIRAL TECHNOLOGIES all medical and scientific technologies created solely for treatment of the Lazarus virus.
LIVE PRIDE a social movement that celebrates live identity and that seeks to further the rights and privileges of the living worldwide.
THE MINUTEMEN a motorcycle gang associated with criminal activity and anti-undead violence.
ANTEMORTEM occurring or existing before the Lv pandemic. Pre 1996.
NECROCENE the current epoch of the Quaternary period.