Everything Is Better With Zombies
by Hannah Wolf Bowen
Hannah Wolf Bowen's fiction has appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Polyphony 6, Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, Ideomancer, The Fortean Bureau , and Alchemy . She is also currently one of the fiction editors of Chiaroscuro , a webzine devoted to dark fiction.
«Everything Is Better with Zombies» began as a joke. «I had a list of things that everything was better with,» Bowen says. «Monkeys was on the list. Also, pirates. One day in the summer of 2004, I was in a chatroom with several writer friends and I said (for reasons not clear to me now), 'Everything is better with zombies,' and then thought, 'Hmm.' One of those writer friends, I believe, challenged me to make a story out of it, and so I did.»
The story deals with the idea of loyalty, and with the question of what you do when what seems like the loyal, faithful thing conflicts with what's the right thing for you. But when it came to researching the story, Bowen just googled a bunch of zombie facts and played a lot of Resident Evil.
Everything would be better with zombies. Take my junior high school graduation. Everything would have been better if zombies had shuffled in to «Pomp and Circumstance.» They would have lurched into the gym, devoured the principal's brains, and shuffled out again.
There were no zombies at graduation. We walked in line. We took our seats. Living dead.
I've long suspected that I might be a zombie. If I were a zombie, how would I know? I study scary and not-scary movies. I read books. I play the relevant video games until my thumbs ache and my eyes grow tired and dry.
My best friend Lionel says that he would know. «You'd walk,» he says, and demonstrates, shambling gait and arms draped in the air. He lists left, which helps to make it work, but Lion's walked badly for a while now. He's not doing it for effect. «And you'd go 'Braaains!' and everyone would run away.»
Lion scowls and sits down beside me on the crumbly step. He picks at the grass growing up through the cracks. He would be out of luck, if it came to running from the zombies.
Besides, he's described half the town. If I were a zombie, I don't believe Lion would know.
There are lots of ways to end up with a zombie. You can start with a dead person, or you can start with a live one, or you can start with a live one and turn him undead. That's part of what makes it so confusing. I know what a zombie is supposed to be like, but I could be wrong.
I spend my days reading up at the library instead of packing for the move. Late afternoon, I ride my bike past the stoplight to the hardware store where Lion works. He fetches his bike from the alley and we pedal, not talking, up the road, across the tracks, and out of town.
If we lived other than where we do, maybe we could explore. Turn left instead of right. Ride a little further than ever before. Or keep going through the cornfield that's grown up tall, bumpity-bump to the other side with the wind around us like the sea.
But we live where we live and we have all our lives up until now, and the other side of the cornfield looks a lot like this one. So we stand on the pedals and creak up Salt Hill, then over the spray-painted bridge to gravel-topped Strawberry Road, which curves sharp to the left and down and if you're not careful, you'll fly off into the air with the creek down below. I almost did, the first times that we came this way, and then some other times later when I thought I knew how to ride it, but was wrong.
I have it now. I lean and the bike swings left beneath me, and Lion yells but his words are shredded by the wind. I coast all the way down to the cemetery, and there I stop.
You can make a zombie with a disease. You can make a zombie with a potion. You can make a zombie with the right chants and voodoo charms. You may be able to make a zombie in other ways, too. It's hard to be sure.
What we can be sure of is that some of the graves in the cemetery aren't as neat as they ought to be. The town isn't all that big. You'd expect that we'd know everyone, and you'd be right. But sometimes we find headstones we haven't found before and Lion lingers to read them over and over aloud.
I head down to the creek because the cemetery is a lot like the town and barring unexpected headstones, I know every corner by heart. So I sit on the muddy bank on a rock or on a fallen log and listen to the creek go splish-splashity by.
I see the footprint there. I'm still studying it when Lion comes up, muttering, «Emily Fitzhugh, '87 to—what's that?»
He spots the footprint right away. It's hard to miss. The water is edged in mud, speckled with raccoon fingerprints. But this print is in a smooth empty spot and clear as if I'd stamped it there just now. One left footprint, deeper at the ball of the foot and the toes, like she stepped down from the grassy tree-shaded bank, dropped and sank, pushed off against the yielding muck and landed her right foot in the creek, or on a stepping stone.
«Not me,» I say. «Do you think it's Emily?» But my name is Emily, too.
Lion gives me a hand up, long chilly fingers wrapping my wrist. I kick off my sneakers and pick my way through the mud to the stepping stones, cool and rough beneath my toes. I crouch down, teetering, to examine the others ahead. There's another print, imperfect, rubber stamp in need of ink. And on the far bank grass, a smudge of mud on a flattened dandelion. I stand and wave to Lion. «She went this way.»
«You don't know that she's a zombie,» Lion says as we walk our bikes back up Salt Hill. The side that sweeps down to the cemetery is steep and we've no momentum to carry us up. Instead, we'll trudge to the top of the hill and remount there. «She could be a ghoul or a ghost or a skeleton. We could've made her up.»
«You saw the footprint,» I remind him. «We didn't make her up.» We'd followed the trail to the highway. We'd paced along the shoulder, searching for the spot where she'd stepped back off the road. We hadn't found anything. But even Lion had agreed that the print by the creek was beautifully clear. «And if she'd been a skeleton, it would have just been bone. And ghosts wouldn't leave any prints at all.»
«They might,» Lion says, «if they were acting out their deaths.»
I shrug. «But a ghoul—«
«You don't know she's a zombie. You don't know she's dead at all.»
I blink up at Lion and into the sun. It's sinking now behind the top of the hill, though it'll be above us still on the way down. Interrupting is an unLion-like thing to do and he's scowling, staring hard ahead, and so I'm thrown. «Yeah,» I agree at last. «But what kind of freak goes barefoot in a cemetery?»
Lion slants a glance at my sneakers where they hang, laces bound to the handlebars. I shrug again, and he laughs.
Jokes may not be better with zombies. The problem about jokes with zombies is that they all have the same punch line. It all comes down to brains.
Sometimes I wish the rest of life was more like jokes about zombies. But maybe it is. Lion went up to see his doctors today and so I skip Amanda's end-of-the-summer party, sit out on the porch and count fireflies and pretend not to hear my dad saying we'll have to hit the road soon, to get me to my mom's new place before school starts up there. Later, there's bike tire whir on pavement. Lion coasts to a stop in the porchlight, panting hard. I offer him my lemonade and ask, «What do zombies want with brains?»
«Maybe they're jealous.» But he says it like he's not quite paying attention and it's been, I guess, a not-so-good day. «When you're a zombie,» he begins, «do you remember who you were?»
I take my lemonade glass back and set it with a thunk down on the porch steps. I fetch my bike and my pack from the side of the house. We ride slowly down the street and my pack lies close against my back and even coasting where I can, my shirt grows sticky with sweat. Over the tracks and out of town and up the hill. We don't have much momentum. Lion seems tired. We dismount and walk the bikes towards the top.
«You're quiet,» he says.
«So are you.»
«Yeah, but I'm always quiet.»
«I think,» I say, «that if I was a zombie, I wouldn't want to remember who I was. It's not like I could go back.»
I sneak a glance at him through the gloom, but this is a new moon night and it's dark out here in the way that it never is in town. He plows on up the hill, throws back, «When I'm a zombie, will you want to see me?»
«Lion,» I start, but we're at the top of the hill, climbing back onto our bikes, and I don't know what I'd meant to say.
Zombies will kill anyone. They'll eat anybody's brains. It doesn't matter if the brains belong to their dad, or their daughter, or their best friend. I don't know if this means that they don't remember, or that they do. And if we find the other Emily, it won't prove anything. But I've never seen a zombie before, however hard I've looked. Probably it's best to start with one that I don't know.
Lion beats me down the hill. He doesn't do that often, but tonight he's pushing hard and besides, I rode my brakes. I leave him alone when I get there, dropping my pack to the grass and digging for the flashlight, but Lion says, «Don't.»
Dark pools like water at the base of the hill. The creek shivers by and a cricket chir-squeaks and I spook, drop the flashlight before I realize that it's only Lion who's caught my other hand. «Don't do that.»
He's not listening. He's staring hard into the night, into the shadows under the trees. We could see every star if it wasn't cloudy, but this is Illinois and it's always cloudy here when you could use a little light. Night washes the color out of Lion's face, out of his bright hair and his red shirt. He could already be dead.
If Lion were a zombie, how would I know?
Someone locks the cemetery gates at night. I don't know who. It doesn't matter; the fence is barely waist-high and we hop it, iron slick under sweaty palms as we lift ourselves across. Lion steps deftly around headstones that I can't even see. I thump a knee twice into stone, fall back and follow instead.
The grass is on the long side of short: tended, but ambivalently, so it hides rocks and holes and things to trip me up. I keep one eye on Lion, one on the ground. I reach out as we skirt the headstone, where the grey of grass gives way to the grey of turned-over earth, and dip the tips of my fingers into the carven E.
«Lion,» I say. «Do you think she's scared?»
He stops, abrupt, and we almost collide. I skip sideways, sinking my shoes into the soft heavy soil of Emily's grave. I imagine the shiver of bodies moving, the strong twiggy fingerbone grasp on my ankle. But this patch of ground is already disturbed and not only by worms. The zombies can't grab you if the zombies have already gone.
«When you're a zombie,» Lion says, «you shouldn't have to be scared.»
I don't think of Lion as scared. He's too steady, too serious, Lion, my friend. He's braver about dead things than anyone I know. I guess he'd have to be.
You don't have to run from zombies. You just have to walk at a brisk pace, and maybe zigzag once in a while. You don't have to run to catch them either. They're not that fast. But Lion isn't waiting, or even walking. I've never seen him like this.
This isn't the first time that we've chased a zombie. I keep a list in a notebook that lives in my backpack, and Lion keeps one in his head. We can't be sure that every disturbed grave has a zombie in it. Probably there are ghouls and ghosts and skeletons, like he said. Probably there are vampires. Possibly there are mummies, too. You'd have to go out of your way to mummify anyone, here, which isn't to say that it couldn't be done.
But most of them are zombies if they're anything at all. You can tell from the prints, from the shuffling gait. You can tell from the town. If we were mostly beset by vampires, I think we'd be paler, colder, lonelier. Instead we move slow and try not to think.
I never thought Lion cared. He's a smart kid, reads a lot, might have been skipped up a grade if he hadn't missed so much school. But he's never seemed to mind the town or to mind not leaving it. He thinks the zombies are kind of neat, but he's only ever chased them because I do.
But tonight I'm not so much chasing as stumbling along behind as he tracks like a hound. We splash through the creek, no time for stepping stones or for taking off shoes. The bank on the other side is steep. The hill above is steeper. I grab onto slender trees for balance and to pull myself up. I lunge and my right shoelace swings with my stride, sticks soggy to my ankle.
At the top it levels out and opens up. The ditch is filled with fireflies and there's the highway, empty except when the semis pass, swallowing the miles and spitting out exhaust. They say it runs clear to Colorado, two lanes each direction with reflectors in the stripes. I've ridden along it going into the city, or with Lion to see a movie or a band, or going to see my mom's new place in the city, by the new high school that's supposed to be mine. I've ridden along it, up until now, back again.
This is where we lost her trail before. Tonight he doesn't pause. He lopes across the highway, crashing into the cornfield and I lose him, hear stalks bending, breaking, but the wind is in the corn, and so am I.
I stop. I can see where the corn's been pushed down where Lion passed, or the zombie girl, or a deer. I can hear the rattle of the stalks and a weird no-cricket stillness and then the wind as it kicks up again. I step deeper into the field and flattened stalks crunch underfoot like so many bones. I'd left my backpack in the cemetery; I hadn't expected we'd just take off like this. What would I do, if I found the zombie or if the zombie found me? I could, I think, just walk slowly, carefully, back to town.
But I have to be sure that I don't get grabbed. In this field, in the dark, I can't know where she is, or if she's still here at all. Something moves, off to my left, heavier than the wind, and I whisper, «Lion?» because it didn't matter. If it's the zombie, she probably already knows that I'm here. I hold my breath.
And let it out, explosive yelp, as Lion yells, more like a scream, ragged and sharp. I turn blindly into the corn, plow through to the tractor path between fields and, «Lion!» I yell. Another creek ahead, path of least resistance and you can't see color in the dark, but movement, yes. I run. I stop at the top of the bank, Lion in a heap below and behind me a sound, a staggering heavy tread and a retreating break of corn. I gather myself to turn, to chase, and then I don't. I couldn't leave Lion behind.
Endings may not be better with zombies. You can't have a happy ending and zombies both. Even if the hero survives. Even if her friends do, and let's face it: they don't. I skid down the bank on stones and loose dirt, catching an old tree to halt my slide. It's cooler down here. Heat rises. Fog settles in low-slung spots. And Lion shivers, hands around a twisted ankle, dirty face streaked and smudged. Not that he'd admit to tears. Not that I want him to. But I know I can't ask, «Are you okay?» and so try, «Did you see her?» instead.
He doesn't answer. He doesn't seem to hear. Also, did she see him? She shambled away and left us here. I don't know what that means. Maybe he wasn't the only one who could follow a trail. Maybe the zombie girl could, too. Then things would change. There'd be riots. Martial law. Boarded-up doors and baseball bats. I'd have to stay. They'd need me here.
But that's the other problem about endings with zombies: you only win if you cheat. You can run away if there's only one. You can dodge around two or smash them with a bat. But there are never just one or two zombies. Instead there's three, or four, or lots, shambling in cornfields or down the street, and it never really works, holing up and hiding out. I wouldn't bet against a zombie. Not on my life.
Only, it's a long walk back and an ankle's a bad thing to hurt and so even if we get that far, Lion won't be able to bike. «Did she bite you?» I ask, and he shakes his head, «Not yet,» without any more tears, just that sidekick's resolve in his eye. I swallow hard. I pull him to his feet and I hug him, fierce, say into his chest, «I'm going to miss you.»
Zombies pretend to be about how there are worse things than death. It isn't true. Being one is an in-between state, and the way out is pretty much what you'd expect. Zombies are about how there are worse things than life.
Lion's taller than I am and heavier still, but he leans on my shoulder and limps, more than usual, until we're back by the highway again. We know where we're going, have purpose and brains. I think we beat the zombie girl there. I break a low branch from a tree at the edge of the fields and Lion takes it from my hands. It's the best that we can do. He tries a few practice swings, and maybe baseball players know about zombies, too: you don't drop the bat unless you're going to run.
But you do run, in the end. That's how you get away from zombies. You back away a couple of steps. You say goodbye. And then you turn. You run. You don't look over your shoulder. You don't zig, because one too many zags puts you back where you began.
You run because zombies are slow but inevitable, and also because they're right. There are worse things than life, and zombies are better with everything.