If you’re a long-time Devilfish Review reader (or someone who has made their way through the archives), you may remember C.D. Carter from his story in Issue Two, Life on the News Feed. Carter combined zombies, journalism, social media, and characters in a way that made us forget we had an 8,000 word limit. Well, we didn’t exactly forget, but there was a lot of “But it’s so long.” “But it’s so good.” going on. In the end, we decided that word count be damned, we were taking it. So of course when he approached us about running an excerpt from his latest novella, Consuming Dead and Alive: A story of love, greed, and zombies, we could only say yes.
The sound of children singing “Jingle Bells” floated softly in the background, somewhere beyond the crowd’s din, the smells of various chocolate favors mixed with the pungent perfume wafting by us with every overdressed woman scouring the place for their next kill, their next purchase, and I sat on a bench in the mall, next to my little girl, watching the dead do their hideous little dances in their glass boxes, all for our amusement.
The animated corpses swayed and pushed and sometimes snarled at the people pointing at them, laughing, occasionally banging with happy fists on the see-through coffins, placed upright, outside storefronts hoping to draw customers for last-ditch shopping needs on Christmas Eve.
This was new and different, this very public display of the raging dead-but-not-dead things that had killed half a million in New Orleans eleven years ago.
I had heard TV commentators and politicians and religious people say that tormenting these walking dead fiends was cathartic, a therapeutic measure that would help Americans work out their complex feelings about the awful things that had happened to their countrymen and women on a summer night in the Crescent City more than a decade ago.
They had saved so many zombies after the siege of New Orleans that when the scientists and military types had all the still-moving corpses they could handle, the rest were sold to private companies, most for hard labor, many for the entertainment industry. A few sports franchises bought the undead and had lucky fans take target practice on the field at halftime.
Just another part of our national post-zombie therapy, I suppose.
Many of the woken corpses were still functional in some basic ways. Quite a few of the freshly dead, and those whose bodies weren’t shredded to bits, still had control of their extremities. They could follow basic directions as long as the scent of human blood was kept far, far away. They could even talk in stilted, sometimes gurgled language that came to be known as deadspeak.
All in all, much of the undead population had all – or most – of the functions required to be a persistent and obedient worker.
The economy had slipped into its second recession in five years just before the siege of New Orleans. They called it a double-dip recession, and just as unemployment peaked at thirteen percent, interest rates spiked. I remember hearing a bald, bespectacled economist call the country’s economic conditions “nuclear level stagflation.”
I remember that because the man’s voice shook as he spoke to the Sunday morning news anchor. He seemed terrified. I would’ve bet a fair amount of money that that economist would have preferred nuclear annihilation to nuclear level stagflation.
Americans had become accustomed to the price of living outpacing their dead-end salaries while enormous economic growth benefited the top sliver – the cream of the moneyed crop. But now, thanks to stagflation on ten kinds of steroids, even the elites were hemorrhaging money. Labor costs had already been slashed to the bone, so using the undead was the last hope in cutting overhead costs and giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to corporate profits.
And it worked – it worked beautifully. The economy of the few, by the few, for the few was almost instantly revived. Unemployment ticked up, but no one cared. We were told that “employing” the undead was our last chance. Without it, purveyors of the norm said, we would be eating out of dumpsters by Tuesday. It was a masterstroke of the ruling class. We thanked them with our money and credit cards.
Those who protested the selling of the remaining New Orleans zombies – and the raising of new dead, which came later — were smeared as agents of an extremist anti-free market agenda.
I’m familiar – too familiar — with what it was like to be labeled a hater of freedom in those days, as I’ll detail later, and as I can prove with the scar above my left eyebrow.
The National Guard, after a few months of tolerating the swelling crowds of protesters who warned against another outbreak if the living corpses were sold to the highest bidders, cracked down in a way they hadn’t since Kent State.
The angry throngs receded as puddles of protesters’ blood meandered toward Small Town America, or Real America, as half the country would say.
The exploitation of those who were once dead and buried extended well beyond the corporate sphere. Our culture became immersed in it, soaked through and through.
TV shows challenged contestants to find new and horrible ways to destroy the things. I tuned in once to find the undead galloping across a stage somewhere in Hollywood after they had been doused with gasoline and lit aflame. The show’s judges cackled with delight until, finally, the charred remains twitched in black lumps on stage. This, I learned, was only the show’s introduction.
The inhuman treatment of the once-human saturated everything, making it all the easier for our nation’s plutocrats to exploit the tragedy.
Zombie selling was too profitable for far too many people to put an end to the practice. The industry became a train, barreling down the tracks with ten thousand conductors, and opponents were told to clear the road or face the consequences. We blinked first, needless to say. There was money to be made, living corpses to be sold, and basic morals to the ignored.
I sat in Rockville Mall in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., on that Christmas Eve, with my daughter, Haley, by my side while the corpse of an old woman slammed against the glass case set directly outside a candy store on the east end of the mall.
Haley, dressed in a forest green sweater with a snowman family stitched across the front, nibbled on a chocolate square filled with gooey caramel and looked on with guarded curiosity, as if she weren’t sure how much she should care about this specter.
“Why are they doing this?” she asked me as a chubby little boy smacked an open palm on the glass and called the swaying dead woman a bitch. “Didn’t they think this would scare people away from their stores?”
“No,” I said without really thinking. “Nothing interests people more than death. Displaying them” – I pointed at the creature, with half its face gone and its remaining skin a sick green – “is like drawing bees to honey. People are defenseless – they can’t resist. They love death, as long as there’s a layer of glass between them and it.”
Too heavy for a kid, I know.
I watched Haley’s little nose wrinkle as more kids joined the jeering, cursing at the old woman in her glass pillar while their parents stood in line to collect their box of overpriced chocolates. My girl had always had her sharp edges, but I loved the part of her that empathized with people and things with which she could not relate.
Haley had always had a hidden softness that gave me chills. It reminded me of her mother.
The line had snaked out of the cramped chocolate store by then, and I was glad Haley and I had bought our chocolate stash just before this sugar-craving onslaught had poured in from some other packed crevice of Rockville Mall.
Haley opened her mouth, and closed it abruptly when an employee emerged from behind the counter and approached the children gathered so joyously around the undead spectacle. The employee, a forty-ish man wearing a flopped-over Santa hat and donning a sparse, salty beard, let out a guffaw when he reached the glass pillar. Haley and I looked on.
“You kids having fun today?” he asked, and drew ecstatic cheers. He offered a high five to the chunky kid, the one who had called the dead hag a bitch so many times.
“Well, you know what time it is, don’t you?” the store’s Santa asked, his eyes bugging from his pudgy face. The kids looked at him, then at the old woman, who had dropped to her knees and was banging at the glass with a fingerless left hand.
“It’s time,” the employee yelled, and paused for effect, “for the incinerator!”
And with that, the man withdrew a tiny remote control from his pants pocket and pressed a button.
From the floor of the upright coffin came a tower of flames – blue at the bottom, orange on top — that shot to the very top of the ten-foot-tall structure. The children stepped back and shielded their eyes as the woman inside screamed a banshee scream and banged on the glass with a fury many times what we had seen in the minutes before. Santa leaned back and scream-laughed, the children joined suit – tears of joy and laughter running down their bloated cheeks — and the undead woman shrieked over all of it.
Jingle Bells still played softly over the mall speakers.
Haley and I felt the heat, even from our spot on a bench twenty feet from the gruesome glass showcase.
The flames receded a moment later. A pile of scorched bones and skin and hair lie at the bottom of the glass case. One of the zombie’s eyeballs sat atop the remains, scanning the scene of her second death. Santa laughed heartily and the children screamed with delight.
Two little girls hugged each other and laughed until tears streamed from their eyes.
“You killed the zombie whore,” the fat boy squealed like the pink pig he resembled. “You killed her dead.”
“That’s not…” Haley said, and stopped. A hand was on her shoulder, with flawless fingernails adorned with intricate Christmas trees.
“That was beautiful,” my wife said. “What a wonderful little display. What a way to celebrate the season, don’t you think? Just perfect.” She looked at me with that practiced indifference, then back to Haley.
“Now let’s go,” she said. “They’re giving away free HoloPad Sevens to the first fifty people in the Nexiverse store, and the line just started to form.”
I tried to give Haley, my precious sweetheart, a reassuring glance, but how could she take reassurance seriously after two years of acknowledgement that I had replaced her mother with someone so opposite, so terribly different from her saintly mom?
Haley didn’t meet my eyes.
We were soon off the bench and following my wife, Kim, to the place where everything – and I do mean that in the most universal sense – would change.
We arrived at the Nexiverse storefront to find a line fourteen people deep, with several dozen speed walking toward the electronics manufacturer that had made the HoloPad, the world’s first commercial hologram computer tablet, seven years earlier.
The technology goliath that had been one of the first to experiment with zombies as free laborers was coming out with its seventh iteration of the HoloPad – this one with some basic telepathic abilities. As I understood it, a person could write a message simply by thinking the words.
Kim, my wife, had bought a new one every holiday season since the very first HoloPad hit store shelves. Kim, I knew, bought it as a status symbol. She was technologically inept, rarely using the miraculous piece of otherworldly machinery for anything more than ordering clothes.
She wasn’t the type to think beyond consumption.
Haley tapped my arm and pointed beyond the growing line of chattering people, where another glass pillar stood, this time split down the middle by another piece of glass that extended from the structure’s floor to its ceiling.
There were two undead monstrosities in this see-through container – one on either side of the dividing glass. If left in close proximity, the living corpses got testy with each other, even dismembering their own kind in the most extreme circumstances (and lab experiments). Everyone knew that. It was on the news.
The one on the left, a young guy with dreadlocks draped over this ravaged face, teeth showing through his deteriorated lips, was rocking back and forth, moaning in that low-pitched undead way, while to his right, a teenage girl with a shaved head and one remaining eyeball heaved herself at the dividing glass. I watched her growl at the young man across from her, and I thought of my Dot, and what she’d say in this moment. Dot had made me think so differently of these horrors.
Then Haley went ahead and said it for her, for Dot.
“Why?” Haley asked in a whisper, wanting to avoid chastising from her stepmother, whose dyed blonde locks cascaded down her back, just above the ass she had had surgically lifted three months earlier.
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” I said, and rubbed her head. “I really don’t.”
Kim, holding two overstuffed shopping bags on her shoulder, clapped her hands in delight and turned to us. “Do you think they’ll retract the glass and let them go at it?” Kim said, looking at me with her perpetually arched eyebrows, always simultaneously surprised and excited. “I’ve never seen one eat another.”
“And you won’t,” I said. “They’re repulsed by each other’s flesh and blood. They only harm each other – they never eat one another. Only our blood interests them. Anything else would be…unnatural.”
It felt strange to say. Everything seemed unnatural in those days.
I thought everyone, after eleven years of zombie media saturation – of movies and TV shows and books and action figures — had known these basics of the undead. Not Kim, that woman of strikingly little curiosity. Not her, who loathed even the mention of intellectual pursuit, who thought it offensive to better oneself in any way not visible to the world.
Wonderment was of the devil. Acceptance was of God, the Holy Spirit, and blonde-haired, lightly-bearded Jesus Christ, whose stock portfolio kicked ass.
“Don’t talk to me about unnatural,” Kim shot back, then smiled at Haley. “These things are an offense to God Almighty. They deserve everything they get.”
A man wearing a suit jacket and jeans turned and regarded Kim. “Right on,” he said, and offered a high five. Kim accepted, and smacked the man’s hand with such force that his perfectly gelled, slicked back hair wobbled slightly.
“They’re just big, dumb animals anyway,” the man said with a weasel-like laugh. “All they think about is eating, killing, whatever.”
“It’s the only thing they were made for,” Kim said. She winked at the man. I ignored it.
The line outside the Nexiverse store had surely reached fifty people now, and as some latecomers arrived to see the masses had gathered for their free plaything disguised as an essential technology, I saw mall walkers wail as if draped over their lover’s casket at a wake. A girl Haley’s age smacked her father in the face when he told her that there was no use waiting in line.
“But I want it!” she bellowed through angry tears. “I want it I want it I want it I want it.”
The father soothed her and promised her something else, and off they went, with the child’s handprint still visible on her dad’s reddened cheek, into the mall’s toy store.
The line of fifty future HoloPad owners became restless as the doors stayed closed – I could feel their nervous energy pulse through the line, and I think Haley did too. Not even the double zombie chamber could distract them from the prey in their sights, and, I guess, mine too.
I am no innocent in this matter, no matter how judgmental I may seem. I’d blame Kim – that would be easiest – but these were my choices, not hers. I’m worse than all of them, because I knew better.
A Nexiverse employee, a plump woman dressed in a too-tight Nexiverse black collared golf shirt, emerged from the closed store doors and addressed the shoppers. Kim tiptoed, somehow, in five-inch heels, to see the short messenger.
“We’ll need a few more minutes, folks,” the employee said, her voice trembling a little with the last few words.
The man who had high-fived Kim spoke for the increasingly unhappy mass, slicking back his wet hair before he spoke.
“Fuck that,” he shouted, and looked to his line mates for affirmation. “We want it now. We don’t have all day to sit here and wait around for your lazy asses to get ready. There are things to buy, lady.”
Others, including Kim, nodded and mumbled their support.
“Let us in,” he continued, “and let us in now.”
“He’s right, you know,” Kim said to Haley, batting the fake eyelashes Haley joked about behind her stepmother’s back. “We deserve these HoloPads. It’s important to stand up for yourself in situations like these and demand what’s yours. These are our rights, and we have to defend our rights.”
Haley, so good at faking politeness, flashed a smile that I knew to be disingenuous, but looked uncannily real.
There was a disturbance at the front of the line; when I turned to see where the noise had started, I saw the squat NexiVerse employee backing into the store, pleading for patience, and trying – as nicely as possible – to pry customers’ fingers away from the open door.
They became more insistent as the woman, now panicked and panting, yanked the door harder.
A NexiVerse coworker, a balding twenty-something with acne scars on his cheeks, emerged just then and helped the poor lady pull the door away from customers. He yelled, in a voice that cracked like a teenager’s, for patience. These pleas only riled the crowd further. I stepped out of line and saw the thinly disguised looks of fury – the natural hatred that we all work so hard to suppress, but which lives deep within everyone.
Bile rose in my throat when the first punch was thrown – a square connection with the short lady’s neck. I caught a glimpse of the customers’ faces and thought of something Dot had said all those years ago. Human beings, she said, have two modes: I want to kill you, and I don’t want to kill you. We display the former with pointed fingers and bared teeth, like the animals we are.
These crazed people were, by Dot’s definition, firmly in the first camp. They wanted blood. And a free state-of-the-art holographic computer tablet, of course.
The other NexiVerse employee, the kid with the voice of a thirteen year old, kicked an old man in the gut as he pushed him aside and snuck into the store. A fist connected with the kid’s face a split second later, I heard Kim scream and drop her swollen shopping bags, and for reasons unknown to me, I took off for the front door.
I was only vaguely aware that Haley had grabbed onto the back of my shirt, and followed along into the jungle of shopping mall warfare.
But before I tell you how the world ended, and what I had to do with the End of Everything, let me tell you a little bit about my love, my Dot.
The rest of Consuming Dead and Alive: A story of love, greed, and zombies is available for Kindle on Amazon.com for $2.99.