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    All The Dead Are Here - Pete Bevan's zombie tales collection


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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    DOWNHILL by JH Mae
    October 2, 2014  Short stories   

    Jack hadn’t eaten in two years. There was no point – his digestive system no longer worked properly. Even so, this afternoon his stomach was churning.

    Or he imagined it. The mind is a funny thing.

    Is this what nausea feels like? he asked himself, rattling his leg up and down to shake out the nerves; his knee cracked musically. Drawn by curiosity, his waiting room companion – there was only room for two – regarded Jack from the corner of his eye then quickly turned away.

    Jack knew the man was afraid.

    It was a grimy room he’d found himself in, feeling so dismally nervous and well aware that this theater company was far beneath him. He was surrounded by the supporting evidence: the minuscule waiting room, sparsely furnished and lit only by a frail yellow bulb in a plastic lamp, and in a building that smelled of stale dust with a tinge of something sour – like week-old dirty dishes. But this was it, the last hurrah.

    I must be desperate.

    Perched in a cracked, sea green chair, Jack fingered a little slip of paper that was smoothed like a river stone and hidden in his silken pocket. It was his lucky charm, the ticket from his very first play – Biloxi Blues; his part was so small he wasn’t even in the program. Jack had rubbed the ink clean off that ticket waiting in dozens of rooms like this one, grasping for smaller and smaller parts. Going back to the beginning.

    The door creaked open and it smacked Jack in the knee for the tenth time. He massaged it with a wince, though of course it didn’t hurt. Best to keep up appearances, though. In the doorway stood a geeky fellow, not taller than five foot five inches, wearing circle glasses and pretension, and neither very well. Jack tilted his Borsalino fedora to hide his face.

    Careful…don’t give yourself away.

    “Maurice,” the geek said with a hand perched on a girlishly protruding hip. He searched the room as if it was expansive and filled with actors and not the size of a shoe box. Maurice, a handsome young man with an auburn ponytail and cautious sideways eyes, strode forward to meet the geek in the doorway. They disappeared behind the closing door.

    He’ll get the part, Jack thought, wondering what Maurice chose for a monologue. To chase away his self-pity, Jack adjusted himself on the seat and smoothed his vintage suit, fluffed the cornflower blue handkerchief in his lapel and tightened the knot of his matching tie. Jack knew he looked like hell, but he could still be well-dressed. And he could still command a stage, certainly better than Maurice and his ponytail.

    But he’d been waiting two hours; the plastic clock that hung on the yellow-stained wall above the door ticked away the time. That was 120 long minutes spent contemplating his fate, envisioning his name in lights on a shiny marquee; and then, in his worry, destitute, filthy, half-dressed and dying in his apartment with only an emaciated dog for company.

    No, cat – that’s more pathetic.

    Jack shook his head and stopped his thoughts right there, repeating instead a frequent internal pep talk. Never give up! This could be the one!

    Jack wasn’t always hanging by a thread. In fact, he was once handsome, before the sickness made his skin sallow and his hair brittle and his innards putrid. Before it banished him into solitude. Jack sighed and the deep inhalation cramped his lungs.

    The door opened again – this one the entry door from the hall, slightly too far away to hit him – with a rusty rattle that made the glass tremor in its frame. Jack didn’t look right away, rather he peeked to watch a young woman with a bounce of spiral curls the color of summer hay enter, and brighten, the room. She surveyed her seating options with fawn-like eyes and then came inside, oblivious, for the moment, of Jack.

    What a fox.

    The girl – she looked about 20 – smacked her gum and examined ruby nails; she wore a curve-hugging dress that crept up to reveal her thigh as she crossed her legs. Jack studied the plump lips and glowing skin and forgot himself; for a second, he began to fashion a clever line of introduction to charm her. He even met her eye, but they didn’t exchange shimmering, flirtatious glances – she looked disgusted.

    And Jack remembered himself.

    Embarrassed, he forced himself to appear fascinated by a poster behind her left shoulder – its colors faded to pale versions of their former selves – which advertised industrial strength sanitizing gel (“Protect you and your family against CRS!”). Jack examined the lap of his velvety gray trousers and attempted to shrink, his face crackling with heat like a warming radiator. Or was that his imagination yet again? He hadn’t forgotten how embarrassment felt, that was for sure.

    That morning he’d painted his face with an entire bottle of liquid foundation (he kept a stock of them for just these occasions) but now worried he’d overshot his mark and turned himself into a peaked clown.

    I probably look like a serial killer.

    Jack offered the girl what he hoped was a calming expression. But she was eyeballing him, the pretty skin of her forehead crinkled.

    “What’s wrong with you?” she said in a voice like a glass shard. “Are you sick?” She crossed her arms, expecting a swift and truthful response.

    Accusation and fear – Jack had heard it all before. He wanted to say he wasn’t contagious or violent but such a speech would waste his dwindling supply of breath. Maybe the plague had abated but that hadn’t changed the minds of the mob. Plagues of panic are much harder to cure.

    “Indeed, miss,” Jack said, worrying at an itchy spot on his finger. “I’ve been fighting off a cold, you know, the one that’s been making the rounds. I sure hope you don’t catch it…”

    Jack emitted a fake cough that sounded terminal and phlegmy. The fair beauty raised a perfectly arched eyebrow.

    “A cold, huh?” She opened her mouth to bully him further, but was then silenced by the opening of that door, which once again smacked Jack in the knee. He forgot to wince and the girl scowled again.

    “Jack?” The unexpected sound of his name jolted him. Jack kept his head down and raised his hand.

    “Follow me,” said the geek in a dopey voice.

    The geek made a serious study of Jack’s every movement as he rose arthritically from the chair with caution more suited to octogenarians: too fast and he might actually break his leg. The bones creaked and snapped like a xylophone.

    Here we go – wish me luck, Jack recited to himself. Break a leg, Jack.

    And so he followed the geek – the one curly-haired and prim and straight-backed, and the other gangly and slope-shouldered and clumsy – down one hall, then another and another. Each looked much the same as the last: cracked tile, streaky stained windows, humming and flickering fluorescent bulbs, and broken classroom doors propped back onto their hinges in an apparent attempt at restoration. And most haunting of all: rusted lockers painted with the vulgarity of long dead students, some of whom were actually dead, others just pretending.

    This sure isn’t the big time, Jack thought while he itched that blasted finger again and passed a stack of old school desks, their tops decorated with graffiti. But it’s something.

    As he watched the geek’s sashaying hips, Jack wondered absently if he was being led to a mildewed basement to be destroyed. It wasn’t long after that he was stopped before an open door that revealed only darkness beyond; Jack’s clammy skin prickled. He took a step forward but the geek stepped aside and put up a hand to stop him.

    “What…the hell are you wearing?” the geek yowled, his open mouth resting on a delicate little “o” of shock.

    Jack caught the geek’s eye swiftly; the little man examined Jack’s suit with those circle glasses pulled down on his ratty nose.

    “It’s my best suit, sir,” Jack said. “Vintage Fendi.” He stretched out his arms as if to display the garment like a catalog model.

    The geek scoffed. “It’s appalling,” he said. “You know Fendi still makes suits, right?”

    “Of course,” Jack said, letting his arms fall to his sides. “But I guess I prefer to be old-fashioned.”

    With a snit, the geek stepped aside and directed Jack to walk past him and into the black doorway. “Don’t start until they tell you to,” the geek said as he walked away and shimmied down the hall, heels echoing off the water-stained ceiling and chipped cinder block walls.

    With a calming breath, Jack walked through the door and then navigated a maze of heavy curtains that fell upon and entangled him; he swatted them away, feeling for a second like a child in a house of mirrors. Then suddenly a spotlight shone upon him, warm and familiar and welcome as the summer sun, and he walked onto a stage the size of a postage stamp. The sharp twinge of ammonia tickled Jack’s nose, but a faint hint of filth still cut through it.

    Beyond the edge of the stage voices spoke as Jack stepped forward into the light. The auditorium felt small and Jack imagined trumpets and baritone saxophones and clarinets blasting movie scores into the seats, where proud parents watched with luminous faces. He heard two hundred ghostly young voices fading into time, their songs now replaced by the penetrating quiet.

    People like me did this. I created this emptiness.

    Jack pushed away the guilt – he always forgot that he, too, was a victim – and turned his attention to the living audience before him, affixing upon his face a smile that didn’t reveal his cracked, yellow teeth.

    A group of disembodied voices talked among themselves in hushed, pretentious voices. Squinting through the gloom, Jack discerned the thumbnails of theater seats and in the center, four large, moving shapes. He heard rustling papers and a squeaking chair – one of those shapes reclined, perhaps, but otherwise no one stirred. Jack was thankful for the healthy distance between the stage and his audience but perhaps because of it, they had not heard Jack enter. He cleared his throat.

    Nothing.

    Well, isn’t this rude. He shuffled his feet to mimic entering footsteps. Nothing.

    Jack cleared his throat again, but still, the figures neither moved nor acknowledged him. The indifference stung and Jack stood there, bare and exposed under the light, embarrassed and angry in turn, unsure if he should leave with a damning turn of his heel, or wait and be seized by waves of desperation.

    “Name?” a voice said suddenly, impatient.

    Jack straightened up.

    “Jack Darte.”

    “Your headshot is terrible. I can’t see your face,” said another voice. It wasn’t a head shot actually, but a photo of Jack leaning against a tree looking debonair and famous from a safe distance. The better to hide his decaying flesh.

    “My apologies,” Jack said. “My looks aren’t what they used to be, I’m afraid.”

    Jack’s laugh echoed alone; the figures seemed absorbed in another conversation. He imagined their hoity-toity faces and porcelain skin, framed in cashmere scarves and pinstripe blazers, all with circle glasses perched on ratty noses. Jack worried that his performance would not sway them and a black pit once again opened up in his gut, swallowing the flashing marquee and hum of happy applause.

    Be positive! If you can dream it you can do it!

    The figures concluded their discussion and readjusted themselves, their chairs squeaking and groaning. Jack snapped to attention.

    “What’s ‘Canterville Ghost?’ said one voice. “I don’t recognize it.”

    “Oscar Wilde, the 19th century writer and poet? Surely you know The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest…” Jack said, not a little off-put that someone in theater was unfamiliar with a great literary genius.

    Surely, I’ve never heard of him,” the voice sniveled. The group at large then conferred among themselves, perhaps about the merits of this enigmatic Oscar Wilde fellow, who lived so long ago he deserved to be forgotten.

    “If you will read the part of Miss Virginia – you should see the script there with my head shot, I believe,” Jack said. Papers shuffled and Jack sensed a fug of confusion and impatience that quickly died down to a murmur. Jack tried – with difficulty – to keep his expression compliant and civil.

    “Get going. I don’t have all day,” said the bodiless voice.

    “Certainly.” Jack bowed his head in deference to his audience, then cleared his dusty throat and pictured pale moths fluttering out of his mouth. He sensed the form of the room, pictured the busted seats and puddles of moldy wetness on the leaky ceiling. That wouldn’t do.

    So he closed his eyes and imagined the stage was in the Broadhurst Theater and he was the star. Suddenly, the monologue flowed from his pale lips like it had all those years ago. This reading – between Virginia and the ghost – was one of his favorites.

    “Please don’t go, Miss Virginia. I am so lonely and so unhappy, and I really don’t know what to do. I want to go to sleep and I cannot,” Jack began.

    There was an ignorant pause as Jack’s noncommittal reading partner evidently forgot his role in the audition. When he finally did speak, his voice was monotone and uninterested.

    “That’s quite absurd! You have merely to go to bed and blow out the candle,” the voice read, rushing the words so that one could barely be separated from the other. “It is very difficult sometimes to keep awake, especially at church, but there is no difficulty at all about sleeping. Why, even babies know how to do that, and they are not very clever.”

    Jack did his best to overcome Miss Virginia’s anesthetized tones, hoping his own performance would shine in comparison.

    “I have not slept for three hundred years,” Jack opined. “For three hundred years I have not slept, and I am so tired.”

    The figures mumbled and shifted papers again. The reclining figure was no longer satisfied and squeaked his chair forward. Jack wished they’d show a little respect. Another impolite pause preceded the next line.

    “Poor, poor Ghost,” the voice contributed hastily. “Have you no place where you can sleep?”

    “Far away beyond the pine-woods, there is a little garden. There the grass grows long and deep, there are the great white stars of the hemlock flower, there the nightingale sings all night long. All night long he sings, and the cold crystal moon looks down, and the yew-tree spreads out its giant arms over the sleepers.”

    A reprieve from torment – that’s what Jack wanted more than anything, too. And the stage is where he’d always found it. Oh please, oh please, he thought, let me come back.

    From the depths of the shadowed audience came the drawling voice. “You mean the Garden of Death,” it said.

    “Yes, death. Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence.”

    Jack raised his arms to the ceiling and let his raspy but still butterscotch tones rise to the invisible rafters. He imagined the audience at the edge of their seats, enthralled and impressed and oblivious to his strange posture, the nauseating reek of his cologne and smell of death it meant to conceal.

    “To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace. You can help me. You can open for me the portals of death’s house, for love is always with you…”

    At that moment, and to Jack’s horror, his index finger – the itchy, damnable one – wriggled free and fell, selfishly, to the stage floor with a skeletal plop. He froze, face locked in theatrical anguish, and stared into that hollow and finally silent audience.

    It’s no big deal. Ignore it, keep going.

    “…and love is stronger than death is.”

    “What the hell was that?” one of the voices said. All ancillary talk stopped and shuffled papers froze in midair. Hatred poisoned those simple words, like a knife in his rotten heart.

    “Your finger just fell off!” said another.

    Jack still had his arms raised, determined to continue. He risked a glance downward, moving only his eyes. There, silhouetted against the scuffed and honeyed wood he saw his finger, unmistakably lying.

    “Um… Can I finish? There are only a couple lines remaining…”

    “Absolutely not!”

    “Are you kidding me?”

    “What the hell are you doing here?”

    Jack flinched, the assault of words stinging as they struck him. He finally abandoned his pose and faced the audience, the spotlight suddenly too garish and glaring. Despite his embarrassment, and with his finger staring up at him from the floor before his feet, Jack straightened his back and adjusted his jacket and cuffs and declared: “I am an actor, sir.” He then bowed his head in a manner he hoped was penitent and respectful.

    “An actor? You’re a zombie, Mr. Darte!” A taunting laugh echoed in the theater and others joined it – a chuckle, a giggle, a guffaw – together multiplying and rising in pitch and volume until they crashed together in a piercing chorus.

    Jack clenched his jaw. He hated that detestable epithet. It had been 20 years since the plague began – hadn’t the masses learned by now that people like him weren’t harmful?

    “I am not a zombie…” he started, humiliated. He knew every eye in the room was examining and judging him, looking at him anew to finally see his odd complexion and shuffling gait. The voices laughed together again and Jack imagined a couple pointing and another pinching a nose against his stink. “I am not…I am afflicted with Corpus Retexens Syndrome, yes, but I don’t like that term, sir, and I’d thank you…”

    A wallop echoed throughout the silent auditorium, cutting off Jack’s words with another flinch. One of the figures had pounded a fist on the table and for once, everyone was paying attention to Jack; each had turned his chair, rigid with paranoia, to stare at him.

    “I’ll call you what I like, zombie,” said a voice. “You come in here without the proper notifications and infect my staff, how dare…”

    “CRS is not contagious, sir. It’s a genetic mutation…”

    “Shut up,” the voice said; he let the word echo and fade for a moment. “Get the hell out of here.”

    “Sir, please, I beg you, let me finish my monologue. I want to be in your theater company, sir, please. I’m a good actor. Perhaps you recognize my name, sir. I played Antonio in the Merchant of Venice? Perhaps you saw it?” Jack said, feeling small as he heard himself beg and parade his past fame before them.

    God, I hate myself right now.

    After a brief interlude, the voice began again, now cold and sapped of all patience: “Mr. Darte, we have jobs for people like you. Do you really think actor is one of them?”

    Yes, of course. Jack knew about the jobs he was allowed to have: Transporting the corpses of fellow CRS sufferers for one, sewage work for another, then there was garbage man, road kill scraper and pauper’s grave digger. A zombie could aim so high these days.

    It’s over, Jack thought. What shall it be, then? Shall I dig graves, or simply wait to waste away, my cat eagerly waiting with knife and fork to dine on my corpse?

    Jack knew he was ignorant to believe the living would ever see him as anything more than rancid and decaying, foul and frightening, but he kept his head raised and his posture intact, with as much pride as he could muster.

    “No, of course not, sir,” Jack said plainly. “Can you tell me one thing before I go, please?”

    “Make it quick.”

    “If I was someone else, if I was like you, would you say you enjoyed my performance?”

    Jack bated his fading breath. Only one voice seemed to pay him any mind.

    “Yes, Mr. Darte, it was very well done.”

    He hadn’t heard this voice yet. It sounded kind and pitying but was quickly overcome by the fearful, angry one.

    “Get out of my theater,” it said. “And don’t touch anything on your way out;” then in a slightly lower voice,

    “Gloria, get CRS Annihilators on the phone right now.” One of the figures rose and walked with gently tapping footsteps along the aisle towards the exit.

    Very well done, Jack repeated. He was still a good actor, he was right about that at least. But a good actor without a stage, a man without a place, a zombie without hope. He sighed and had barely turned when a voice stopped him.

    “Mr. Darte.” The voice was laced with distaste, but Jack’s heart lifted nonetheless. Or maybe it only felt that way. After all, his heart was blackened with disease now and only pumped a trickle of blood through his body. “You can’t leave your finger here.”

    Oh yes, my damn finger.

    Jack’s bones creaked and snapped as he knelt down and scooped it up with his remaining digits, resting it in the palm of his hand. He stared at it – freshly disguised with fleshy makeup and otherwise a nice, slender finger – and wondered if his ruse would have worked if not for its bad timing.

    The voices had resumed conversation, but were louder this time. With his back to the dark auditorium, he heard the words “filth” and “gross” and “contagion.” Jack lifted a hand to the sagging flesh of his wrinkled cheek, feeling absurd and clownish.

    Why do I try so hard?

    Jack had to admit, one day, that he was nothing more than his sallow skin, brittle hair and loosening teeth. He had to admit he was dead, inside and out. But he didn’t want it to be today.

    He left the stage to walk back through the maze of black curtains. Practically, Jack wondered if he could find someone to reattach his finger and if from now on it would be crooked. He didn’t want to look like the others, with missing limbs and exposed jaw bones, trailing putrefied entrails behind them. He certainly couldn’t work for a theater company looking like that.

    Rolling the finger in the palm of his hand with a thumb, Jack pushed back the darkening weight of defeat. But in the depths of his slowly liquefying brain, he knew he couldn’t stop it.

    That’s stage three, he thought. It’s only downhill from here.

    5 Comments

    1. Writing something funny is hard enough. Writing something funny, about zombies, even harder. This had a good feel to it. I smiled the whole way through. Nailed it.

      Comment by Justin Dunne on October 2, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    2. This story contains the very essence of tragedy plus time. Nicely done sir and thank you.

      Comment by Brett on October 2, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    3. Very interesting.

      Comment by Gunldesnapper on October 3, 2014 @ 7:02 am

    4. This was very human. A well written story with a message. The outcast hoping against hope for acceptance and recognition for his abilities alone; for what he can do, not for what he is. Nonetheless, even if the theatre people were the kindest in the world they still would’nt have hired Jack. I suppose its a metaphor for prejudice. A really thoughtful tale with a likeable, tragic lead. I could imagine seeing this in an anthology some day. Keep up the good work.

      Comment by KevinF on October 3, 2014 @ 7:57 am

    5. Excellent!

      Comment by Kristen on October 5, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

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