by Susan McCarty
The zombie apocalypse took everyone by surprise, not because it was very different from all of the movies and books and television shows and songs about it, but because nearly everyone considered it not a real possibility but a metaphor about themselves. Back then everyone thought everything was about themselves. People in failing relationships said things like, “It’s not about you,” by which they meant “it’s all about me.” Children took guns to school and shot other children to see what it would feel like. People in positions of power did illegal things they did not even attempt to cover up and were unapologetic when caught. Men put on Santa Claus suits and sprayed families with jet fuel, ignited it. No one saw it coming.
Out of habit and a long-standing sense of morbid curiosity, Dee logged onto EdenMatch and began to read through the profiles of the men who posted there. She was making a list of users who cited Dan Brown as their favorite, or one of their favorite, authors. The list was long and she wasn’t sure what she would do with it once it was finished. Some days, she thought she might invite them to her house as a group and then set the house on fire. She wouldn’t really do this, probably. But some days it helped her to think she might. She didn’t care why this was. She had stopped being very introspective some time ago.
No one on EdenMatch was very attractive, including herself, so it was different from online dating before in that the picture was no longer the main thing. In fact, many people didn’t have pictures or even interests. Many people had interests that had nothing to do with the world they were currently living in. Ron, 47, liked parasailing and drive-in movies. He lived in Gated Community Orion, about three hundred miles from Dee’s GC, Wonder, both of which were in what had been the state of Ohio. Ron had the usual scars and missing teeth, the usual weight put on from years of eating packaged corn-based junk food products, scurvy. Dee had these things too, but recently she had stopped eating and soon all her problems would cease to be problems. Her last meal had been three days ago. She thought she might never eat again and see what happened to her. It was something to do.
An instant message popped up on her screen accompanied by a picture of Jim. The photo had been taken at a distance—he was mostly a shadow in a kitchen. The text of his message said: “Lonely. You?”
“No,” she wrote back.
“Want to meet? I’m the next GC over from yours—Brookside.”
“Do you like Dan Brown?” she asked.
“Who’s Dan Brown?”
“You can come to my house at noon tomorrow,” she wrote and typed him the gate code then logged off. She hadn’t had a visitor in a very long time.
Before the zombie apocalypse you could find anything online, including the weather in any part of the world, satellite photos of your local library, porn, paintings of famous people with pancakes on their heads, Kurt Cobain’s autopsy photographs, mug shots of celebrities, recipes for Frito pie, and videos of human decapitations. After the zombie apocalypse, there was only internet dating.
When he came to the door, he looked like the shadow from his picture. He was dark, almost gray, even in the sun and close-up, Dee had trouble distinguishing his features. She had forgotten how to look at people—eyes first, down to mouth when it started talking, then away and back again angling for a nose or cheekbone or eyebrow. She looked at his earlobe instead, which was actually the absence of an earlobe—soft ear tissue ending abruptly in tatters. So she focused on her mailbox, which lay behind him in the distance and rested, from her perspective, like a parrot on his shoulder.
“Can I come in?” he asked, both of them forgetting to introduce themselves.
She moved aside and waved her arm in front of her. He walked ahead of her like a butler into her kitchen.
“My house has the same layout,” he said over his shoulder, beneath his ruined earlobe, back at her.
“Oh,” she said. “In Brookside?”
“Yeah.” He sat on a stool that stood beside a tiled island in the kitchen. She sat on the stool adjacent to his, not wanting to gaze or be gazed at.
They sat in silence for a minute, facing her bare white walls, until Jim asked, with some hesitation, “So. Do you want to have sex?”
She thought a moment and rubbed at a spot on a tile in front of her and unable to decide, said, “Okay.”
Before the zombie apocalypse some people liked to have a lot of sex. They talked about it all the time and made everyone who liked to have some sex or very little sex or no sex feel as though something was wrong with them. The people having a lot of sex felt bad for everyone else and wrote books about how to have better and better sex. There was no consensus on who was having the best sex, though, which made it difficult to know which book to buy or which person to have sex with. Everywhere you looked, people were talking about the sex they were having or wished they were having, even children, which disturbed some people and excited others.
People especially liked to watch strangers have sex. The demand for this was so high that it was impossible to find enough strangers having sex at any given moment to meet it. As a result, VHS and digital video and the internet and web cams and virtual reality and sexy robots were invented. Pretty soon, people became lazy. Pretty soon, people stopped having sex with each other. Sex became a very private act. The feeling of someone’s palm on your skin, or their hair in your mouth, or their toenails scraping your knee were universally understood to be distracting and intrusive.
Jim took Dee’s hand and led her upstairs to her bedroom, to Dee’s double bed. He held her hand at his chest and motioned for her to sit down. He placed her hand carefully in her lap and then took off his clothes. After he was naked, he took her hand again and beckoned her up. She stood and he took off her clothes as well, even her socks, which he crouched down low for. She put her hand on his head to steady herself.
Dee had never had sex with a real person before, but she didn’t tell Jim this because she thought he might act weird or refuse to have sex with her entirely. She just wanted to know what it was like. It was like this: Everywhere he touched her felt very warm and then immediately cold after he withdrew his hand or his mouth or his leg. Her body became a checkerboard of cold and warm patches and he kept getting her wet with his spit and sweat and other stuff and in the end she felt shellacked, as if she could slip carefully out of the dried lacquer skin and it would keep its shape, her shape, like the husk of a cicada, fragile but whole.
“Are you hungry?” Jim asked, after they had been laying there awhile.
“I’m not eating anymore,” said Dee. “So, yes, and no.”
“Why aren’t you eating anymore?” Jim asked.
“I don’t like it,” she said, and shrugged.
“You don’t like food?” he asked.
“I don’t like any of it. I don’t like anything anymore.”
“Yeah,” said Jim. He got up from the bed and put on his clothes. “I’ll be right back,” he said and she listened to his carpeted footsteps move down the stairs and to the front door, which swooshed open then shut with a puffy, pneumatic sound.
She knew he wouldn’t come back. She thought maybe she would wait the rest of it out here, in her shell on this bed, which she would slowly melt onto and dry into. Eventually, she would become the shell for this bed. The idea relaxed her.
Before the zombie apocalypse, when people were not used to thinking of themselves as food except in very extreme and disturbing circumstances often involving arctic weather conditions and poor planning, opinions about food were mixed. People loved and hated food. People who lived in Ethiopia and Beverly Hills did not eat enough food. People who lived in Mississippi and Iowa, it was said, ate too much food. No one could find a balance. Some people didn’t eat enough food because they had a disease. Other people ate too much food because they had another disease. Some people thought food could heal you or at least make you live longer. Others pointed out that certain foods might kill you, such as spinach, peanut butter, bread, anything prepared by frying, improperly processed and handled land meats and many kinds of seafoods. It was a lot to consider. To make everything easier for everyone, eventually all food was made out of corn and processed crude oil and vitamin supplements. It was very cheap and had an incredibly long shelf life.
When Dee woke up it was dark and there were sounds coming from her kitchen. She shivered into her pants and shirt, not bothering with the underwear. She grabbed her butcher knife and compact mirror from the drawer in her bedside table and heel-toed softly down the stairs and into the front hallway. She was not frightened but she was very alert. She tilted the mirror so that she could see around the corner and into the kitchen. Jim was there, his back hunched to her, his shoulders working. The island was strewn with plastic bags.
“Jim,” she said, careful not to sneak up on him.
“There you are,” said Jim and plucked the butcher knife deftly from her hand as she approached him. “I was looking for that.”
Everywhere there were vegetables. Cabbages and carrots lay like corpses in shrouds on the island. Kale leaves were stacked, waiting to be chopped on the counter near the sink. There were onions and tomatoes and celery stalks lolling on cutting boards. Something bubbled in a pot on a burner on top of the stove.
“What’s going on?” Dee asked.
“I’m making lentil soup,” said Jim.
“Where did you get all this … stuff?”
“From my garden,” said Jim. “And it’s not stuff, it’s vegetables. Real food.”
Dee’s stomach rolled over itself. “I didn’t know you gardened.”
“Why should you?” he asked.
“You didn’t list it as an interest in your profile,” she said.
“I’m not really interested in it. I just do it so I don’t have to eat Fritos all the time.”
Dee didn’t know how long it had been since she’d had real live food. She worked a carrot out of an old Wal-Mart sack on the island. It was wet and dirty in spots and tiny hairs sprouted up and down the root. It tasted muddy and bright when she bit into it. Jim paused in his chopping and tossed her a kale stem and a wedge of onion, which filled her head with a stinging mist and made the small, hard walnut of her stomach expand and warm like a loaf of rising bread.
“It might make you sick at first,” said Jim, “but you’ll get used to it.”
The lentil soup did make her sick. It was also very good. She asked Jim to show her how to make it, and the next night, he did.
Before the zombie apocalypse, people liked to measure their quality of life by considering whether or not they were happy. Some people were happy. Most people were varying degrees of unhappy. They bought things they thought might make them happy—expensive handbags, dogs, sexy robots, medications that increased the levels of serotonin in their brains—and sometimes they felt happier, but often they didn’t. Some people suggested that this was what happened when everyone thought about themselves all the time. After the zombie apocalypse, people were tired of thinking at all. They had seen and smelled and done things they wished they could scoop out of their brains and feed to the zombies. After the zombie apocalypse, people tried their best not to think about those things. Some people learned to make lentil soup. It was impossible to say if this made them happy or not.
Art by Jenny Arnold
Susan McCarty is the author of Anatomies (Aforementioned Productions, 2015). Her essays and stories have appeared recently in Creative Nonfiction, Ecotone, Zone 3, and elsewhere. She's an assistant professor at Oakland University in Michigan, where she lives with the writer Matt Kirkpatrick, their toddler and two terrible dogs. Her website is susanmmccarty.org.
Pub credits: "Another Zombie Story" was first published in Indiana Review, Vol. 34, No. 1, and also appears in McCarty's short story collection, Anatomies (2015, Aforementioned Productions).
Photo by Matt Kirkpatrick