(Content Note: Rated R. Also, I’m told this story should not be read by anyone anywhere. You have been warned.)
Left for Dead: A Preface
It’s no fun being a zombie, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Every time I see an advertisement for that damn Walking Dead series, I want to scream. Every time I hear someone talking about how ‘cool,’ or ‘unusual,’ or ‘thrilling’ they think it would be to live forever in a perpetually desiccating corpse, I want to slap them silly. (Neither of which, I can do, by the way, but we’ll get to that.) This attitude is particularly frustrating to encounter on Halloween. Don’t get me started on what popular entertainment is teaching a generation of youngsters about what ‘life’ in a world of undead dead people can be like. To the t.v. producers, it’s all drama and gore. Something to glorify in the name of ratings. I hate that this sort of media is marketed to children. Kids are a hideous soft spot for me.
I started my human life in 1978 as the daughter of an engineer and a biologist. Two highly successful, socially conscious, maritally fulfilled individuals who would be mortified to see what I’ve become since they last saw me. My decision not to pursue the sciences in college was hard enough for them; I can’t imagine how they’d react if they knew I’d been catapulted into a life of mandatory carnivorality, estrangement from family and friends, and an endless parade of costumes, stage make-up and overpriced wigs. Subsisting in the class of the undead in an all too living world isn’t for sissy pants.
After my transformation, I lost everything. No one understands, or can understand the plight of the zombified. And contrary to what George Romero may have duped you into thinking, we don’t travel in packs, we don’t help each other out. There are no support groups for us, no unions, no members-only clubs. This is the ultimate club no one wants to join. Please remember, as you read these pages, I didn’t choose to go zombie. It’s an existence forced on me by the worst kind of bad luck, and no matter what else you think you know about it—it could happen to you.
I: ‘Death’ and Rebirth
We were in Santa Fé when it happened. Lev and I were on a picnic with our three year old, Chandra, enjoying an unusually warm March afternoon in our area. (Little known thing about New Mexico for those who’ve never lived there—it isn’t always a million degrees outside, or even sunny.) We had packed well, even brought out the proverbial square food basket and checkerboard blanket, trying our best to effect the attitude of a normal, happy family and, miraculously, succeeding for once.
It hadn’t been easy for us to do, settle into family life. For many years, I had denied a desire for children, believing, as any devoted secular humanist would, that procreation could undermine both my creative spirit and whatever use I hoped to be for society at large. On top of that, I was an untenured art history professor at a small, New England university and couldn’t, realistically, raise a baby on either the low salary for my position, or its erratic scheduling demands. I had been there eight years, and knew no women on the faculty with children, even the married ones. Lev understood. As another Internet industry gun for hire, whose own income and time realities fluctuated wildly, he knew he would not be in a position to pick up the slack.
But as our thirties rolled forward, both of us began to feel the pressure of what I had always believed was an oppressive, sexist and thoroughly made up idea: that infernal thing called biological imperative, more commonly referred to as one’s biological clock. Before mine began to tick with the subtlety of a wrecking ball into bricks, I had thought its existence to occupy roughly the same space as those urban legends about choking Dobermen and alligators emerging from toilets on the Upper West Side. I wanted a baby. Not a horde, just one. And it seemed Lev had wanted that longer than I had.
You’d think this would have actually lowered the barometer between us, a couple who could get along more sporadically than consistently, and which is comprised of a female spouse who is high strung under the best of circumstances. Yet, no, opening the lines of communication about baby making actually created more stress between the two of us, particularly after I admitted to having, as I graciously put it, “daydreamed about a child for more than two years,” at that point.
“How could you have kept that from me?” Lev asked, shocked, over a plate of chicken vindaloo. I had mistakenly thought broaching the subject while we were in a public space, such as Bronwyn, Connecticut’s nicest Indian restaurant, would help calm the waters.
“I don’t know,” I answered lamely, staring down at my curried vegetables and trying not to cry. My inexplicable silence did seem pointless, almost callous, at that point. What had I been thinking? “Maybe I thought you’d say no. It’s not as if you’ve ever been gung-ho about the subject of children, not even when we were first married.”
“What, when I was twenty-six?” He had moved from shocked into distinctly unkind. “Things can change quite a bit in a decade, Selah.”
“Well, I really don’t know, why didn’t you say something?”
“Because I thought you had ruled the idea out entirely! Because of your career, the university system as you like to call it, your parents, your grandparents—”
(Most of my mother’s family had survived the Holocaust, barely, and their reluctant, though vivid, disclosures of their experiences as the victims of genocide actually had given me great pause regarding whether or not the idea of children was ethical in our still dangerous, anti-Semitic world. And being the child of my mother, who bore the lingering misery of her mother’s survivor’s hardships, wasn’t exactly a compensating motivator.)
I’m getting weepy again. It’s amazing to me how the discussion about creating life in the middle of generations of murder, death, and unhappiness was ever a discussion to begin with, let alone a debate. Especially given the way I live now. We wasted a lot of time, Lev and I, and I wasted a ton of living. And if we’d talked earlier, tried earlier, the child could have become children, who could have been born under other circumstances, into another place. Maybe I wouldn’t have wound up on that picnic blanket, and maybe I would be with my family today.
I digress. The truth is, it’s impossible to hate the way things went up until That Day in the Park, or hate the product of our fruitless years of Hamletesque delay, because that series of events ultimately produced the world’s perfect child. I would often think, in that first, insomniac year, despite being trapped in the restless whirlpool of early parenthood, that if we had acted any differently, I wouldn’t have Chandra, I would have some other baby. There is only one Chandra, and for a time I was horrified that had our mating dance been made up of just one altered step, she could have been supplanted by a child who would, I was sure, be a stranger to me. Only one daughter. I would never want any other, or anyone more.
In the end, we got lucky. Extremely lucky. Like, zillion dollar jackpot lucky after you’ve been living on assistance for ten years. Okay, it wasn’t a zillion dollars. Lev’s father died and left us ten million. It was supposed to be used for the care and feeding of his mother in her golden years, but she had passed a month earlier, so the remains of the family fortune, a more modest sum after the relevant taxes, went to us.
We left Connecticut, and moved to Santa Fé after I got an offer to manage a gallery there. Lev’s plan was to run his own software developing business from home. (Neither one of us wanted to fall into the trap of confusing inheritance for long term security, and so planned to continue working.) After brief consultation with supportive doctors, Chandra was conceived. I’ll spare you the details of the pregnancy and birth, which, honestly, are simply too excruciating to want to think about anyway. She was born in June, 2006, under a full moon in the sign of Sagittarius. I read that this means a child may have a mother who works in academia. Or a mother who is sort of free spirited, and leaves the child in peace to do her own thing. It can also mean a mother who roams the earth, with or without her kid, which I think is obviously how it played out.
Or astrology is crap. Sometimes I become sentimental about her.
We chose her name, Chandra, for its magnificent meaning: she outshines the stars.
I hope it’s true.
My ‘death’ took place in the following way. Or, rather, I thought it took place in the following way.
I was on the blanket, cleaning up the napkins, cups and crumbs, when I started to feel dizzy. Since I had just finished a meal, I knew it couldn’t be my periodically low blood sugar. Since it wasn’t that hot out, or even warm, really, I knew it couldn’t be heatstroke. Vertigo? This seemed like the most likely choice, as the disorientation became worse after I stood up to walk to a recycling bin.
I hadn’t had vertigo in ages. That should have been my first clue. That and the way Lev was looking at me, as if I were not quite right. He didn’t seem ‘right,’ to me, either. There was a reddish haze around his skin. His eyes were whiter than I’d realized. When he reached out to feel my forehead, the parent’s auto-response to see if a potential contagion has entered the sanctum of the child’s biosphere, he smelled like a, well, it sounds cliché now, but it was like baked Alaska. Roast chicken. Savory meat.
“Are you okay, See?” he asked, and his voice was also altered. A slow motion baritone rumbling through a mile of ocean, beneath which I had sunk, so fast I could not remember the descent.
The next bit I recall in flashes, because I know my spirit must have been orbiting outside my body at that point, and most of what I saw and heard I could not have heard in my condition. Either that or the mind movie was filmed by some other consciousness, implanted in my brain because mine was not ‘recording’ at this juncture. (The latter explanation is most probable, actually, but that’s a story I’ll get to later on.)
I was on a gurney, being wheeled into the emergency room. I was behind a drape, my expression gone a slack, glassy blank. No response to questions. No response to painful stimuli.
I saw them asking Lev the usual questions. Which medications did I take? Drug and alcohol use? Signs of illness? Any recent foreign travel? Overall health status? STDs? Someone asked about allergies. No, he said. Wait, except for codeine.
Nobody was exactly worried about codeine by that point.
I saw them wheel me, or, rather, my body, to a room off the ER’s main hallway. They gave Lev a chance to ‘say goodbye’ from the doorway. No one could tell him anything. It didn’t look like a virus. It didn’t look like food poisoning. It didn’t look like a heart attack. They could investigate further in autopsy…maybe. (For some reason, they didn’t like that idea.)
Lev said no. I guess that was another piece of luck I should be grateful for.
Then he walked away. Chandra was getting checked over by nurses. He found her and went to a hospital lounge to begin calling relatives. I thought that was strange. It’s not like we were a young couple just starting out. It’s not like it was a long illness, a scenario in which some husbands might be relieved their wives had expired at last. I expected crying, or in the absence of tears, obvious grief.
But that is something he has never had for me. Maybe he knew, on some level, I was not truly and would never be gone, even if neither of us could know it then.
I woke up in the dim, peach colored lights of a quiet space. It was cool, and felt like a library. The walls were beige, and you could have heard a pin drop. I turned my head about to check out my surroundings. It was no hospital. Could it be rehab, I wondered? How long had I been out? Perhaps I had experienced coma. Where was Lev?
Then I remembered. I had ‘died.’ He thought I was dead. He had called to tell my parents I was dead. Chandra. Chandra had also been told I had died. My own daughter believed I had left her motherless.
Abruptly, I realized, with cold in the pit of my stomach—left alone in this room, the beige walls, the dreadful, inexorable silence. I was clearly in a funeral home.
Oh, I had to get to Lev immediately, get to someone, tell them all it had been a terrible, terrible mistake!
I tried to sit up. It was a no go. I was incensed at my predicament, filled with rage, but physically, I was very, very weak. It was an odd combination. Consumed with the worst blend of conflicted emotions and a body that won’t cooperate. That was definitely for the best, now that I think on it. If I’ve learned any lessons about rage in zombie form, it’s that it never goes anywhere I want to be (or you do.)
After an enormous effort, I managed to raise myself from the pallet I had been arranged on. It came to my attention I was dressed. My favorite blue piece, one I reserved for special occasions. My best leather pumps, with their low-heeled wedges. Some fumbling, and I was standing on the floor, though staying upright required the aide of a near by countertop.
I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. A long mirror hopefully reserved for the families who wanted to see their loved ones before internment. I didn’t look half bad. A bit pale. A bit thin. It was the grey pallor to my skin I didn’t care for, though I thought it meant I probably hadn’t been embalmed, and was temporarily thanks that the tenants of the faith we weren’t exactly ardent observers of generally discouraged embalming. When I moved closer to inspect my hair, amazingly well-coifed by the mortuary’s attendants, it appeared I was sprouting a few silver hairs I’d never spied before. Why should that matter now? I’d never really dwelled much on aging, even when we were committing to conceive Chandra. I wanted my husband and child to recognize me. Would they?
Getting out of a funeral home that’s been locked for the night is tough. Getting out of one when you are exhausted and perpetually thirsty is tougher. The doors were shut tight, so I had to wander the thin carpet of its air freshener coated halls until I discovered a back window I could wrench open. A little pounding on the screen outside with the bottom of one of my trusty wedges and the screen popped out. I heaved myself through the frame and took off into the dusty New Mexico night.
II: The God of Zombies
Lev sued the funeral home for five million dollars.
More accurately, my parents made him sue, on the grounds that ‘losing’ a body the morning of a burial service was the last thing a funeral home should allow to happen, which had brought severe emotional devastation to the family and on top of that the life of our toddler, who would have to live the rest of her long life knowing her mother could never be given a proper final resting place.
I’m not sure how all that translated into legalese, but what it says about the torment they endured explains why no one was at the house by the time I returned home the morning of my resurrection. Why no one was there at all the following day or the day after that. The trauma of a missing body, which the police began a relentless search for, must have been too enormous to face in the domestic familiarity of the family home.
Based on what I would eventually read in the exposé a local paper ran on my story, the cops concluded a body thief had abducted my remains from the window I’d climbed out of, then done god knows what with them. Sold them to an unscrupulous med school for research. Turned them into a sex toy for a death fetishist. Who knew. I hate that they had to worry about any of that. That my parents and friends and maybe Chandra will always wonder.
The morning of my escape, the only thing I could really focus on, aside from walking, was thirst. Somehow, I had surmised that if I was to reintroduce myself to my family, I would have an easier time of it if I hadn’t created unnecessary witnesses to my inexplicable return from beyond the grave. This ruled out convenience stores, the only places open in the pre-dawn hours, which I would have had to skip anyway without a wallet.
I wandered sixteen blocks before I found a public drinking fountain, and stayed there almost forty minutes trying to sap as much water out of it as I could. There was a bizarre edge to the quality of the water, as if I could taste every molecule of grit and pollution in it, but also as if it was the most wonderful experience I had ever had. The drawback was I couldn’t get enough. No amount of it seemed to truly satiate me. How dehydrated I must have been, was all I could come up with. How dehydrated.
I had the wherewithal not to try to hitchhike, primarily worried about the witness factor, but it took five hours of walking to get from the funeral home to our neighborhood. By the time I reached the deserted house, I was too limp to go any further, and ravenously thirsty again.
That was the point I began to grab hold of the idea that I might not have been ‘mistaken’ for dead. What was it you called someone who had died and then not dead anymore? Vampire? No, that other thing. In the movies, they shuffled and struggled to walk.
I got into the house by the backdoor, which Lev had forgotten to lock for some reason. Normally, I would have been pissed, but once inside, I was overtaken by other urges. The family cats were about, and while I had forgotten their names, I could smell them everywhere. They had lost the smell of the fuzzy felines I had given homes and cat treats to, however, and instead smelled to me like chewy pieces of beef jerky. Where were they? I had to find them. I had to find them.
I never did find the cats, but I will forever be consumed with gratitude that Lev had temporarily abandoned the house in those days. If he had come home that morning, he would have found me eating frozen chicken unceremoniously on the kitchen floor. I ate what seemed an impossible amount of chicken, maybe ten pounds of it, then proceeded to go about gorging myself on all the meat items we had stashed away anywhere.
I stayed there for two days and two nights, before Lev’s car in the driveway forced me out of my slumber (yes, we undead do sleep) and out a second floor window. I took a small bag of clothes with me, light enough to carry, along with some jewelry I knew I would have to pawn while I searched for shelter, lodging. I don’t know if Lev had cause to ask what happened to those diamonds, or if he just chocked it up as another misfortune atop the pile he had already endured that heartless Spring.
I never did believe in a god during human existence, but there is an entity in Zombieland that seems to have a powerful, you might say omniscient quality. I encountered Him once, and it was frighteningly memorable. (Yes, we undead feel fear; quite a bit of it—you’d be surprised.)
Our meeting was in the rear parking lot of a Walmart where I was munching raw chicken straight from the package. The cravings for meat had not subsided in the seven months since I had died, and as a result, I had been forced to resort to eating as much of it as possible whenever I could. With extreme difficulty, I had acquired the Walmart job, where I could shoplift as much chicken as I could carry out in my bag every day. In addition, my Walmart access came in handy as a supply of cheap, heavy cosmetics, which I needed to cover the skin dry enough I had to massage it with olive oil each night, when I wasn’t gulping the stuff by the cup. As I wrote earlier, being zombified is no party.
“That is no meal for the likes of you,” rasped a voice from above me. I looked up, and saw a mass of dark gold light hovering a few feet from my head. It was eye shaped, much like the Tolkienian eye of Sauron and glowing as brightly. The voice was hard, the unkindest I could imagine.
“Haven’t you learned how to feed yourself?” it asked. It was like someone speaking through a corn husk hollowed out. Air and dust. Menacing. Mean.
“This is how I feed myself,” I said. There was a side to my personality by that stage that responded to meanness with meanness. “What’s it to you?”
He told me, then, I was breaking the rules. Zombies, prey upon human flesh, not the flesh of the lesser, the animal.
“I won’t do that,” I told Him bravely. “I’m no murderer.”
The Zombie god howled, saying again I was profaning him, and the “gift” of eternal life.
“Some life,” I shrieked. “My husband is gone from me, my child. I roam the streets for—for this! Or else I suffer!” Yes, I had suffered. Before the Walmart job, there had been cats, the occasional dog, other creatures to weak to defend themselves. I loathe these memories, because they are emblem to the times I was subjugated to my disorder, my disease. My curse.
“And now some worthless god of zombies comes to condemn me! Who are you to object?”
He said that He had made me. “Saved” me, as he put it, from certain death. In my mind, I saw what had really happened in the park That Day. A bee had stung me under my right thigh, and I had been oblivious to the subsequent anaphylaxis. But the god had been watching. He said that as I started to die to this life He had stepped in, as I had always imagined the human god could step in, and the zombie god had filled my body with the energy of these eternal cravings for meat and blood.
“I am not your god,” He said at the end. Suddenly, he was standing five feet from me. “This,” he said, producing the carcass of an obviously dead full grown man, “this, is the God of Zombies.”
I threw down my chicken and bolted into traffic.
That was the evening I went after a group of school kids. They were twelve, tops, hanging out in a park not unlike the one in which I had spent my final day as human. The chicken had not satisfied me as it usually did. The scent of the children, fresh as sweet clover had been to me in my earthly life, was overpowering. The anger I felt from the zombie god’s harsh words egged me on. If they had not run as fast as they had, who knows? I might have feasted on their tiny brains instead of the chihuahuas I had to steal from a backyard kennel.
How there could be a god as cruel as to create something as pitiful as I am is too much for me to contemplate most days. When I do, these are the days I spend praying to any other energy out there to spare me another encounter with Him.
III: The Entirely Visible Barrier
I tried to go back to Lev and Chandra in November of the year I died.
Naturally, this took a hefty does of chutzpah, and hours upon hours of lengthy preparation. It also took about a month’s saved pay from Walmart, mostly used to purchase the most expensive of the several wigs I had to invest in when my daily cup of olive oil failed to prevent the drying out of my hair, and I started watching it fall from my head in clumps.
I found them in what had been our favorite playground. I thought it was sweet that Lev still brought Chandra there. She had grown about a foot since I had seen her last, and her father had changed her wardrobe style a lot in my absence. Gone were the corduroy and denim overalls I had kept her in 24-7. She was more grown up now, wearing a dress and red slip-ons. I thought briefly of a New Age Shirley Temple.
I hovered for a bit about twenty feet from the swing sets. Eventually, Lev did pick up on my presence. There was no sign that he recognized me. I couldn’t tell if this was because of my new hair, or the overall degradation of my appearance. (What I wrote at the start of this is somewhat misleading; I wouldn’t say a zombie desiccates, but I am constantly fighting my skin’s ever present desire to wrinkle deeply, which has shriveled my face considerably.)
When I took even one step toward them, he bolted. Chandra was whisked away to the Jeep faster than I lurch. I haven’t seen them since. I cannot bear to.
In academia, there were constant references, at least among my women colleagues, to the infamous glass ceiling, the invisible sexist barrier between us and the kind of success commensurate with what our male academics enjoyed. I never cared much for this discussion, because I believed, particularly after the wanting for children came into my (human) existence, that the barrier was anything but invisible.
It is the same with Zombieism. There is no more obvious barrier to equality than being trapped in a prison of grey, dead flesh.
IV: Prospects for Unity: Bridging the Zombie Gap to a Human World
The title of this section is another misnomer. Their aren’t any prospects for me. I work at Walmart. I steal their chicken. I buy make-up, then more of it. (I would buy the chicken, but the exorbitant levels I consume would, excuse the small bón mot, eat through my budget in a week.) When not at work, I drift through the streets, trying not to smell the enticing aroma of the human, and trying not to lose my temper with anything, which makes those insufferable cravings impossible to control.
Walmart, in spite of its reputation for disrespecting female employees, has promoted me six times. This is enough to keep me in a modest apartment, with a modest shield between myself and the rest of society. I have no friends. I own no pets. I am the living dead. I am nothing else.