Saturday, 29 June 2013

Excerpt: Zombies, Incorporated: A Katie Allred Novel

Excerpts from ZOMBIE, INCORPORATED: A Katie Allred Novel


                The security guard, a grandfatherly-looking man who smelled like a combination of cherry pipe tobacco and Aqua Velva, smiled and tapped the side of his nose. “If you’ll just have a seat, ma’am.”

Mom obeyed, visibly flinching at the use of the word “ma’am.” She’d had me so young that she often tried to pass herself off as my older sister in public. Obviously she wasn’t fooling anybody today.
                Mom plopped down in the nearest chair and clutched her purse tightly against her chest, muttering something unintelligible under her breath. Then she cleared her throat and looked up. 
“Go on in, Katie. I’ll be waiting for you. And don’t blow it. You won’t be able to pay your rent when you move out after graduation without a job. And you are going to move out no later than July 1, even if I have to toss you out onto the street myself.”
Subtlety has never been my mom’s strong suit. Neither has parenting. She’s always treated me more like a financial obligation than a daughter. I guess that’s what happens when you get married and pregnant right out of high school like she did.

                Mom reached into her purse for her lipstick and compact and touched herself up a bit, though I didn’t understand why. She wasn’t the one going in for her first-ever job interview----I was. I stared at her, my feet frozen to the floor. This was really, really happening. I was going into a real job interview in a real office like a real grownup. Not bad for someone who was still in high school. I knew I should feel proud of myself or something, but I didn’t.

                Mom applied a fresh coating of frosted peach lipstick and smacked her lips. “Good luck. Hurry up, don’t keep them waiting. Otherwise they’ll fire you before you even get a chance to get in there.”

                I sighed. Not exactly a good way for a mother to inspire confidence. But I was used to that where Mom was concerned. She’d never get the Mother of the Year award. But I’d never get the Daughter of the Year award, either. Between the two of us, we pretty much cancelled each other out.

I took several deep long breaths, and willed my feet to unfreeze themselves from the threadbare gray carpeting. I pushed through the double doors, more than a little frightened of what I’d find on the other side.

                As I stepped into Mr. Zimble’s office, I ended up not in an office at all, but something else entirely.  At least it didn’t look like any office I’d ever seen before.  It really looked more like a toy store.

Lining the walls were floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves. But instead of books, they were lined with brightly colored cereal boxes, mostly childrens’ cereals like Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms. In between the cereal boxes were unopened boxes of toys. Toys of all kinds—Star Wars action figures, Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Bakugan games, GI Joes, and a bunch of stuff that looked like it was from the 70s and 80s that I’d never even heard of.  There were lots of Halloween-themed toys, too—werewolves, Frankensteins, mummies, and zombies.

                Lots of zombies. There were a bunch of Evil Dead toys on one shelf, and about sixteen different versions of one of the zombie villains from Scooby-Doo. I recognized it right away because they still ran that episode of Scooby-Doo on Cartoon Network all the time, even though it was ancient, like from the sixties or something. All untouched and perfect and sealed in the original packaging. 

                In between the regular toys and cereal boxes were tiny little cheap cardboard toy-things, the kind that you usually find in cereal boxes and Cracker Jacks. Stupid stuff like stickers, cardboard footballs like the kind you’d toss around in study hall, and those little thin pieces of plastic that show different pictures when you flick them back and forth. At the end of the room was a huge mahogany desk, also covered with toys and brightly colored boxes—leaving just enough space for a laptop, desk pad and phone. Behind that desk sat a funny-looking little old man that I assumed must be Mr. Zimble.

                And when I say funny-looking, I really mean funny looking.  He reminded me of something you would see in a cartoon.  Or maybe a video game.

                He was short. Very short. So short that his head barely made it above the edge of his desk, and he sat in a huge leather-upholstered chair that was almost twice as tall as he was—looking at him reminded me of seeing one of my toddler cousins sitting in my grandfather’s old La-Z-Boy.  He had a perfectly bald head that shined under the florescent lights like Mr. Clean. He wore huge black hornrimmed glasses that were almost twice as wide as his head, along with big bushy white eyebrows and gray hair growing out of his ears.  By the looks of him he had to be almost ninety years old. Or maybe just sixty. But definitely old. 

                Mr. Zimble saw me come in and smiled wide.  So wide, in fact, I thought his face would break in half.  He had large, white even teeth that looked fake.  He pushed back his huge leather chair from the ginormous desk and stood up.  But it looked like he must have been sitting on a box or something, because when he got down from the chair he disappeared behind the desk for a moment.  I didn’t see him full-length until he came out from behind it.

                Mr. Zimble was a midget.

                Or rather, a little person.  I think I read somewhere that little people find the term “midget” offensive or something.

                He held out his tiny hand, and I reached down to shake it. “Hello there,” he said in a deep voice that didn’t match his small stature at all.  “You must be Katie Allred. Tell me, are you any relation to Gloria Allred?”


                He laughed—a deep, resonating laugh that reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West’s singing guards in The Wizard of Oz. I blinked my eyes a couple of times just to make sure they weren’t playing tricks on me, but when I opened them, Mr. Zimble was still just as short as he’d been before.     “Gloria Allred is a famous Hollywood lawyer,” he said. “She’s on TV a lot, I thought you might be related.”

                I had no idea what he was talking about. “We definitely don’t have any lawyers in the family,” I said. No, we were mostly a bunch of working stiffs. I remember Mom talking about a second cousin who worked as a high-level computer programmer someplace, but as far as I knew that was the most important job anybody in my family had. Except maybe for my uncle Lou who worked as a garbage collector on a military base in Kentucky. You know, for like a government pension and everything.

                My family isn’t exactly what you’d call successful. At least not in the traditional sense. If you could afford rent and gas in your car, that was successful enough for us. At least, that’s what my parents always said. Small wonder they’d never bothered to put away a college fund for me. For the past four years, the recurring mantra at our dinner table was, “Katie, forget college. You have to go out and get a job and support yourself the minute you graduate, just like we did.”

                “Well, here I was thinking you could get me Gloria Allred’s autograph.” Mr. Zimble seemed a little disappointed. “I do know for a fact you’re related to Bud Weidle, though. My top line foreman in the box plant. I understand Bud is your uncle?”
“Yes, he is.  Uncle Bud is on my mother’s side.  He’s technically my great-uncle since he’s my mom’s uncle, but we don’t call him that.”

                Mr. Zimble motioned for me to take a seat in one of the hard wooden chairs in front of his desk. I sat down and instantly felt at least a foot shorter.  The huge wooden desk suddenly towered over me, as if it were the Grand Canyon and I were standing at the bottom of it looking up. Mr. Zimble climbed back up into his chair, and now he looked like a giant. It reminded me of a room at the carnival funhouse, the one with the tilted floor and the funny mirrors.  You know the ones—at one end of the room you’re a fat midget, at the other end you’re a tall, thin giant and your head knocks up against the ceiling.  Mr. Zimble was kind of like that, except he was like what would happen if the carnival funhouse room got turned into a person.

                 He gazed down on me from his high perch like an evil king out of a fairy tale. I craned my neck to see if there was a wooden box on his chair to give him more height, but I couldn’t tell from such a steep angle.
Okay, so this was weird. I suppressed an urge to bolt for the door. If I screwed up the interview after my Uncle Bud went to all the trouble to arrange it for me, Mom and Dad would be furious. I knew I’d never hear the end of it for as long as I lived.

                “Your Uncle Bud is one of our best employees,” Mr. Zimble went on. “He’s been with us for almost forty years.  I remember when I first hired him.  He wasn’t much older than you then, we hired him right out of high school. He started at the bottom and worked his way up. He runs the secondary production line now, a big step up from when he swept the factory floor and took out the trash. I like to see my employees work their way up the system on their own merits.”

                “Does that mean I’ll be sweeping the factory floor and taking out the trash?” I blurted out. “I thought this was an office job.” Before the words even made their way out of my mouth, I was already embarrassed.

                He laughed again, somewhat higher-pitched this time.  In fact, his laugh started out 
low and deep, but then seemed to get higher and higher, faster and faster, like when you speed up a recording, until he almost sounded like one of the Chipmunks. But then when he started talking, his voice sounded just like it had before. So maybe I just imagined the whole thing.
“It is an office job, Katie. I won’t have a pretty young lady like you working on the dirty, loud factory floor.  You’re not strong enough to lift the pallets or run the pressing machines either, I can tell just by looking at you.”

                I probably should have been offended by this, but I wasn’t. Feminism and equal rights were fine and all, but you’d never see me lifting pallets or running machines. No way. That was sweaty work made for fat hairy old men. Fat hairy old men like my Uncle Bud who smelled like a mixture of cherry Jell-O and trash. (Seriously, he did. So did his entire house. Don’t even get me started.)

                “Well, that’s good,” I said.  “What exactly will I be doing? Uncle Bud said it was just typical office stuff, typing and filing and answering phones and stuff. Or maybe packing boxes to put on the train?  I saw on the way over here you guys use the trains to like, ship stuff.”

                “Yes, that’s exactly right, Katie,” he replied, picking up a tiny plastic werewolf figurine and toying with it between his gnarled fingers. I saw that the skin on the backs of his hands was paper-thin, almost transparent, showing a roadmap of knobby blue veins pressing up from underneath. “I can see right off the bat that you’re a real go-getter.  To answer your question, you’ll be doing all the typical office work, plus things like making coffee and running errands. You’d be working under the supervision of our chief office manager, who started out ten years ago right out of high school as an entry-level office girl, just like you’ll be.”

                I realized with some trepidation that this really wasn’t an interview at all. Mr. Zimble had already decided to hire me sight-unseen. Which on the surface seemed great, but there had to be a catch. I might be only eighteen, but I wasn’t born yesterday, either.

                But what was the catch? Other than the fact this whole place seemed like something out of the Twilight Zone and Mr. Zimble reminded me a lot of a cartoon villain, it still seemed just like any other place to work. “So, um, does this mean I got the job?”

                 He smiled wide enough to show the tops of his dentures. “Yep. Your Uncle Bud says you can type and you’re a nice girl and a hard worker, so that’s good enough for me. When can you start?”

                I guess if I really thought hard about it, Mom was right.  The zombie apocalypse was my fault.  Everything was my fault.  I’d ruined her life, and now she wanted me out of it. All the mean underhanded comments over the years, all the passive-aggressive decisions to spend money on herself instead of me, their decision not to plan for my future, all the not-so-subtle hints to get the hell out of her house and become somebody else’s problem----it all made perfect sense now.

                I could take a hint.  I knew where I wasn’t wanted.  And somehow I figured I’d have a better chance of surviving the coming onslaught of the Undead if I was on my own.  Conventional wisdom says there’s safety in numbers, but I’d watched enough horror movies to know that sometimes it’s best to fly solo.

                I went to the bookcase and dragged over a milk crate to stand on so I could reach the top shelf. I reached behind the main part of the bookcase to the secret compartment I knew was behind it, the same secret compartment where I’d hidden candy and comic books as part of a treasure hunt game I’d used to play alone as a little girl.  My fingertips felt around until they touched the smooth, cold gunmetal.  I wrapped my fingers around the pistol, pulled it out, inspected it.  It was a lot heavier than I’d expected, yet it still seemed small, too small to be something that could explode and kill someone----or something----in less than a second. The lines of Dad’s semiautomatic Glock were sleek, almost animal-like in their curvature. I didn’t know what I was doing, but on sheer instinct my finger pressed a tiny switch on the spine of the weapon and the chamber popped open, revealing a bullet.  I popped the chamber closed, pressed another switch and the clip fell out into my hand.  I inspected that, studied it, worked out in my head how its various components connected with various components inside the gun which, when the trigger was pulled, would result in a projectile issuing forth, then with a flick of my wrist pushed the clip back inside its slot, heard it click.

                I knew next to nothing about guns or weaponry or ballistics, other than that I knew my father stored guns in the basement and I had always been forbidden to touch them. But despite that lifetime of ignorance it seemed as if merely holding the weapon in my hand transferred all the knowledge I needed about how or why to use it directly to my brain.  As if I had a natural (maybe even a supernatural) talent for it, or a gift as my grandmother would have said. I could see all the moving parts in my mind’s eye as if they’d been there all along.

                I reached back into the secret compartment and felt around again until my fingertips touched dusty cardboard.  I grabbed and pulled and came out with a heavy box of magazine clips.  Three magazines, sixteen shells to a clip. I couldn’t do the arithmetic in my head, but I knew it was a lot of bullets.  A lot, but probably not enough.  I reached and grabbed and pulled once again, and retrieved two more boxes of magazines.  Lots and lots of bullets now.  I hoped I’d never have to use them, but just to hold them in my hand felt like a good life insurance policy.

                I stood and turned my newfound possessions over and over in my hands, studying the switches and gears, memorizing where the safety was and mentally practicing how to disengage and re-engage it. I read the instructions and warnings on the sides of the magazine boxes, noted how they said that semiautomatic-loading weapons were illegal in many states, and the manufacturer had no liability for any physical or legal consequences for any injury or death resulting from improper (or proper? Since guns were for shooting, after all) use of its commercial products. I knew I was holding deadly force within the palm of my hands, and knew that should have scared me at least a little bit.

                But it didn’t. It did the opposite.

                Mom watched me do all of this without comment.  I made a point not to meet her eyes for a while, instead keeping my gaze on the gun and the shell magazines. The basement air thickened between us. The ticking sound of the air conditioner as the blower switched on automatically on the other side of the wall seemed way too loud.  We both waited for the other to speak, or at least meet a gaze. But neither of us did, and for far too long a time.

                Finally, Mom broke the silence. “It’s been way more than ten minutes, and your father isn’t back yet. What do you want to do?”

                “I don’t know.”

                “I think you should go up there after him, Katie. Take the gun with you.”
                I forced myself to meet Mom’s eyes.  I saw a lifetime of disappointment behind her tinted glasses and blue-black mascara.

                “You’re in a real hurry to get rid of me, aren’t you Mom?” I asked. My tone was cold, deadpan.  I was through with all the bullshit.  I just wanted my mom to tell the truth about me for once.

                “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

                “Admit it. You’ve been trying to get rid of me for years.  Makes me wonder why you didn’t just get rid of me before I was born and saved yourself the trouble.”

                All the color drained from Mom’s face.  “How dare you speak like that to me!”

                “How dare you say straight to my face that you didn’t want me, that you never wanted me, and that I basically ruined your and Dad’s lives!” I shrieked. “Because that’s basically what you just said.”

                Mom took off her glasses, pressed her palms flat against her eye sockets and choked down a sob.  “Katie, you’re reading way too much into this.  Your father and I----we made a lot of sacrifices for you.  Most people who became parents as young as we did would never have done even a tenth of what we’ve done for you.  You should be grateful.  And I think it’s high time your father and I had some time to ourselves now that we gave up so much to raise you. Except----“

                “Except now you can’t. Because of the stupid zombies.  Which I suppose are all my fault too, just like everything else is.”

                Mom slumped down onto a stack of milk crates. “I never said that.”

                “You didn’t have to.”

                We stared each other down for a minute or two, Mom always keeping a nervous eye on the gun.  For a split second I actually considered shooting her with it, but dismissed the idea as insane.  Plenty of teens my age think they hate their mothers, but they really don’t. It’s just a phase all young women go through.  The more I thought about it though, I didn’t hate my mother.  I honestly didn’t feel anything for her.  I was as indifferent to her now as I was to a lump of coal.  And that was far worse that hate.  After all, in order to hate someone, you have to love them first.  I wasn’t sure I ever loved Mom, and in that moment I doubted my mom ever loved me either.  Sending me off to face the zombies and my almost-certain death just proved my theory.

                “So now you want me to save you from the zombies at the risk of my own life, huh?” I said, fingering the barrel of the gun in my hand. “Sort of kills two birds with one stone, doesn’t it?”

Mom’s face crumpled in horror. “I want you to go find your father!”

                “Find him yourself.”

                I turned on my heel and dashed up the creaky stairs, skipping the rotten ones at the bottom.  I was still missing one shoe.

                I headed up to my room and packed a knapsack with one hand. Clothes, shoes, and random toiletries landed in the bag at random as I kept the gun, cocked and ready to fire, out at an angle and sweeping the air, ready for whoever and whatever might appear.


                I froze. Nobody had ever kissed me before. I didn’t know what to do. I’d often wondered what my first kiss would be like.  (Yeah, I was eighteen and never been kissed. Talk about a late bloomer). And you can sure as hell bet that I never once would have guessed that my first kiss ever (especially with tongue) would come courtesy of Steve Bosch, the most popular guy at school at an exclusive invitation-only party at Lily Carmichael’s house.

                Wow, I had hit the ‘in’ crowd jackpot. This really was too good to be true.  All I could 
think about was what I might have done to bring this incredible chain of events about—and I was totally at a loss.

So we made out on the bean bag for a few minutes. I was scared at first, but Steve was really sweet and patient, and eventually I seemed to get the hang of things.  I relaxed a bit and even let my mouth open a little so Steve could get his tongue all the way inside.  I didn’t really tongue him back, just let him explore my mouth as he liked and enjoyed the sensations.  My whole body felt warm and tingly, and I started breathing hard.  I remembered from our Sex Ed unit in Health Class that this was all normal when it came to this sort of thing, but I’d never really made out with a boy before, so it still felt strange.          

Wonderfully strange.

                But when Steve reached under my blouse to grab my boobs, I put on the brakes.  I 
pulled away from him abruptly and turned to face the wall. “I’d rather you didn’t do that,” I heard myself say.

                Steve bit his lip and looked sheepish.  “Sorry,” he said in a small voice. “I thought you would like it.”

                I shrugged. “Maybe next time.” I tried to sound nonchalant, like I made that kind of remark to hot popular boys trying to feel me up every other day or something, but I just ended up sounding stupid.

But Steve seemed to take it in stride. “That’s cool,” he said. “I like a girl who takes her time with things.” He reached over and patted me softly on the back of the hand. “Do you want another beer? Or maybe some food? If you’re hungry I can go see what they have.”

                This day just got weirder and weirder.  Just when I thought Steve was going to ditch me and find some other more attractive and popular girl to make out with, he started waiting on me hand and foot. And I was sort of hungry. I’d forgotten my lunch money that day at school so I’d only eaten a few leftover tater tots from somebody else’s plate since breakfast. 

“Sure, I’ll eat something,” I said.

                “Cool. What do you like to eat?”

                I shrugged again. “Oh, anything I guess. I’m not picky.”

                Steve smiled again and left the room, giving my shoulder an affectionate squeeze first. I glanced around the room and saw that most of the other necking couples had disappeared, and the loud music that had been blaring from somewhere in the house when we arrived was gone, too. Plus the room seemed a lot darker than before. I glanced out the only window and saw that the sun was almost down.

Gee, time really flies when you’re having fun, I thought to myself with a chuckle. I glanced at my watch and saw that almost two hours had passed while Steve and I were sucking face. Boy, no wonder people were so into making out—it was more entertaining than going to the movies.

                I unwedged myself from the beanbag and tried to figure out what the hell was going on. How long had I been there, exactly? And what had happened to everybody else? God only knew where Stacey had disappeared to, or if she was even still here at all. I thought about going off to look for her, but then how would Steve find me when he came back with the food?  Would Steve come back at all?  Or was he just messing with my head and this whole thing was some sort of sick joke perpetrated by the popular kids onto lowlifes with no social standing like me?

                Just as I was weighing the merits of sticking around to see what happened next versus making a mad dash for home, Steve reappeared, carrying two Styrofoam dinner plates. “There wasn’t much left,” he said. “Looks like we missed most of the good stuff while we were, um, you know.”

He handed me my plate, and reached around to take two more beers that he’d stuffed in his back jeans pockets. It was the same beer as last time—Busch Light— but the food was, well, not like anything I’d ever seen before.



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