What Mother Never Told You
D. Lynn Frazier
The Wileys birthed a zombie last week and tried to hide it. I'd known about the baby, of course. I could smell its nature during Elizabeth's rather skittish pregnancy, when either shame or hope kept them from having the amniocentesis done. I probably should have hooked them up with the underground, but such kindnesses usually backfired. So I kept my mouth shut, having a few things to hide myself.
And I was proven right when my neighbor, Arthur Tanner, told me about the intervention. I'd been working second shift at the new job and so hadn't heard about the social workers and CDC cops descending on the neighborhood around everyone else's dinner time yesterday.
"You should have seen it, Meggie," Arthur says to me as he drops beside me on the porch, where I am drinking coffee and trying to feel human. His Pomeranian, Fitzi, takes the biscuit I have ready for her. These are specially home made, and the dog wolfs it down. Most dogs don't like me. Fitzi, however, is swayed by the biscuits.
"Seen what?" I prompt, and he fills me in on the details.
"Lizzie's screaming and crying, and all the while that thing is snapping at the wranglers like a rabid dog. Took three guys to get it in the cage. Can you imagine what would have happened if the cops hadn't twigged before it sprouted fangs?"
"Mmm," I say. "Would've been messy." Inwardly, I wince, and wonder if Arthur was the one who'd reported our neighbors. I've always thought if he knew about me, he'd act like a fascinated teenager and ask all sorts of inappropriate questions . . . before tiptoeing off to call the CDC cops. Bit of a ghoul, our Arthur, but pro-human all the way.
Eventually I go inside, grateful to be rid of Arthur. I take my pills, drink my liver shake, and grimace at the flat taste of beef. I'll have to have some of the real stuff soon to keep the cravings down--blood, at the very least. Passing for human is hard enough when you cover your fix, let alone when you keep to the thin edge of starvation like I'd been doing all my life. And I have too much to lose if I let go: my husband, my life, my family.
I wonder if I should call my mother and ask her to trace the baby. But it's too high profile, a reality that is hardest to accept with infants. Those born with the syndrome usually don't survive long. I can only hope the kid is taken to one of the Ranches that are infiltrated and run by my kind. There the baby can receive what it needs to thrive, be hidden and eventually mainstreamed like I had been.
John is still sleeping when I go into the bedroom to dress for my shift at the plastics plant. I advised against it when he'd taken the night shift job at the mortuary, but he insisted because, that way, he can bring me a judicious supply of what he jokingly refers to as 'dietary supplements.' Love is indeed a many-splendored thing. He's even managed an occasional steak, cribbed from future cremains. At least with my new job I see more of him than before.
I bend, let myself breathe in the warm, meaty scent of him until my glands start to ache and I must swallow saliva lest I drool and wake him. Being a mortician, John is difficult to gross out, but even so, drooling would be a bit much. I kiss his cheek, pull reluctantly away. He murmurs sleepily and rolls over, breath slow and calm, unworried that his wife hungers for his flesh. He trusts me.
John is the reason I manage. He's my rock in this crazy world. Without his faith, I would have lost my resolve to live a mainstreamed existence a long time ago.
At Kilgore Plastics, the office is winding down for the week. New orders are filled from our catalog if they are in stock, but most are backordered until order quantities justify another production run. My job on Fridays is to go through the orders and plan the next week's production schedule. I'm new at this, having just transferred last month from Corporate Planning, so it takes me a while.
The downside of my new job is that I'm around zombies on a day-to-day basis out on the manufacturing floor. As Assistant Quality Control manager, it falls on me to ensure the gangs are kept according to CDC and OSHA regs--clean, fed, and treated 'humanely.' Yeah, neither the irony nor the hypocrisy escapes me. But I figure that the zombies are doing better with me supervising their care. Not to mention the prevention of accidental transference, which is Fed-speak for 'keep them from biting anyone.' Not that anyone ever catches zombiism from a bite; it's either in your heritage or it isn't. A bite only converts those who have the inactive syndrome.
After I get the schedule worked out for the next week, it's eight p.m., time for lunch. I'm slurping homemade soup when a zombie wrangler comes to me with a complaint. It seems one of the dayshift gang is acting funny in the pens. The wrangler smirks behind that 70's pornstache of his as he lays out a vague line about something wrong with number six fifty-two, a new zombie just delivered.
It's part of my job to oversee the zombies, but the day-to-day stuff is the wrangler crew's responsibility. I've been out on the floor every night first and last thing, eyeballing the pens and the gangs on shift like I'm supposed to. No worries there; I've got a wrangler's license because my folks believe in protective coloration. If I ever show too much knowledge about the undead, my license covers that easy-peasy. But this guy, his name is Jubal, is this shift's new senior wrangler. Instant dislike there on both sides when we met. He likes to hurt things that can't fight back. He's gotten away with it because he's a good actor. But he can't hide his scent, which lets me read him like the proverbial book.
Smelling deception, I raise an eyebrow and tell Jubal I'll be out there in a few. Instead of heading out back, he drifts around the office, keeping an eye on me. I figure he's looking for signs of vulnerability, the old staff-versus-management angle. Not to forget plain old sexism. So, in the interest of playing one-upmanship and to make a point, I make Jubal look obvious by drawing out the wait, straighten a couple things on the desk, make a quick phone call. When I see he's feeling uncomfortably obvious, I tilt the last of the soup down my throat and toss the cup. I touch John's picture on my desk to remind me about patience and suffering fools.
Last thing, I grab one of the scented paper respirators despite the patronizing way I'm eyeballed. Protective coloration, I remind myself. Besides, it helps-just in a different manner than they all think.
Nevertheless, my face is hot as I don the mask for this particular audience. I breathe the smell of camphor and clove and think of John, think calm thoughts.
We enter the clanging din of the production floor, me in the lead.
Swing-shift gang is fifteen strong, all wearing hot pink tunics to identify them. Day-glow pink, lime green and orange for the three crews. Seeing as it's Friday and wash day is Saturday, their knee-length clothes are covered with myriad stains; but they all appear relatively clean and cared for.
As we approach, the line wranglers glance our way, checking to see what might distract their charges on the assembly line.
John advised against this job because I'd be around the lost ones, those lost to the Crave. And John is right; seeing them chained to the line and the wranglers slapping their shock sticks into their palms like old time jailers bothers me every time I see it, even though I know the shock collars and cattle prods are the only way to reach the gangers. But I deal with it. I've been mainstreamed since grade school and haven't lost control yet. There's too much at stake because, deprived of my fix, I'll be just like these zombie gangers in a few week's time, submerged in the Crave and fast losing intelligence and personality.
I skirt the yellow hazard zones and this shift's gang. The sour smell of zombie mingles with the petroleum odor of hot plastic and machine oils, and the heat gives it a power that a mask cannot really filter.
One zombie looks up at us and forgets what he's supposed to be doing. He stretches arms in our direction, fingers reaching, lips working over shriveled gums and broken teeth. He bumps against the end of his chain and nearly falls over backwards as his feet keep going. Then the collar zaps him and the wrangler uses the shock stick to herd him back toward the conveyer belt.
I pause to watch and let Jubal come up next to me. The look on his face, the thin smile and narrowed eyes, feed the perpetual rage in my gut. My fingers curl into claws and I press them against my thighs, making it look like a nervous gesture. Attitudes like his are poison, fostering cruelty and dangerous behavior.
The wrangler lights up the ganger once more, and quite unnecessarily, just when he is moving back into position.
Naturally, the zombie roars and turns back to the wrangler, blood in his eye and teeth bared. Saliva foams on his lips and sprays as he roars again, shaking his head against another zap. And now the other zombies moan and shuffle in distress. If not for the din of the extrusion equipment, I'd hear the wet sounds of their eyes rolling in their sockets and the back-of-the-throat sounds their thick tongues make in vague echoes of speech.
I grab the remote from the man's hand before he knows I'm there.
I glare at him after I see the power setting and rip the mask off. Now I want my expression seen.
"You're breaking five government regulations that I can think of, right here," I say with a voice raised to carry over the din. "Consider the cost to the company if you fry this ganger's brain without sufficient cause. And since I didn't notice your life in danger-" I read his name tag, "-Lou, you might keep the bottom line in mind and save losing your job for another day. Now get the gang back to work before the production schedule is completely shot for the night."
I jam the collar control into his chest with force enough to drive the air from his lungs. Ooops.
"Yes, ma'am," Lou says, eyes the tiniest bit wider than normal-although the lip twitches, wanting to curl.
The zombie, no longer over-stimulated, has stopped lunging at the end of his chain to get the sadist who's hurting him without cause. I take a controller from my pocket and give him a jolt of a specifically keyed white noise that has a soothing effect on the Lost.
"Even zombies know when they are unjustly punished," I say to Lou. "Give him another reward jolt when he gets back to work." And I say to the zombie in a firm voice, "Work now."
He shuffles his weight from foot to foot, eyebrows bunched as he processes the options of pain versus no pain, then slowly turns back to the repetitive task of setting the ejected parts into the assembly racks. And now I understand why he'd been so distracted by Jubal and me walking by: Somebody with a twitchy finger on the remote, and a shift lead who's a rotten apple.
Stupid. Another thing I'll have to keep on top of. Zombies have a narrow window of focus. Don't distract them and they'll generally perform the repetitive, mind-numbing tasks they are trained for like an obsessive-compulsive with a favorite ritual. Add to that their strength and endurance and zombies are deemed indispensable to industry. Machinery would be simpler, certainly; but zombies are cheaper to maintain and last years with minimal upkeep. They never get bored, and they almost never make a mistake if their focus isn't shattered. Let's just say, the bottom line loves the undead.
I think of the Wiley kid, now going to grow up in a zombie ranch, treated like a commodity and never given the opportunity to be normal because of a stupid cultural bias. Poor little mite. He'll never even learn to talk. Once he grows enough to work, he'll be collared and chained and taught rudimentary skills before being sold as a corporate cog in the machine just like the zombies here at Kilgore Plastics. An unloved slave treated worse than a dog, no dignity or quality of life. And needless. Don't forget needless, I remind myself.
"Was that necessary . . . ma'am?" Jubal grinds out, his breath carrying the lingering odors of his lunch, including the beer he hopes is hidden by breath mints.
Stuffing the mask in my jacket pocket, I breathe deep to calm myself before I give him a level look. "I won't tolerate anyone damaging the gangers without cause, Jubal. I don't care how it gets your or anyone else's jollies off. They are assets and we will maintain them properly or I'll know why." The anger in my gut is a hunger that burns. It is all I can do not to rip this idiot's face off. With my teeth.
Perhaps John was right that I shouldn't have taken this job. But just thinking about him is my touchstone and it makes me less edgy. But the odor of singed zombie sickens and infuriates me still. My fingers find the mask and I put it on again.
I can see the wrangler's desire to flinch as my anger pheromones sink in, his reaction unconscious, masked by machismo before he even recognizes the urge. It's a hind brain thing, and I must be careful not to let it go too far. Right now, he's just thinking me a raging bitch, a control freak who's caught him with his shorts down, to mix a metaphor. If I don't go too far in pushing him, it'll fade, and he'll be cursing me behind my back instead of suspecting the truth.
"Anyway," I say to distract him, "I'm sure with you being new on this shift you weren't yet aware of the infraction." Of course, I hadn't observed any infractions of this nature under the last lead wrangler's watch; but I refrain from pointing it out.
Now he wants to bristle, but because of my jibe, not from primordial fear. It's safer, anyhow.
"I'll keep an eye on it." By his expression, saying that must hurt.
"Thank you. We're both new in our jobs and don't need the black marks." I smile, friendly like, so he can see it around the mask. He looks like he wants me to choke on it, and I have to admit, I do sound patronizing.
We skirt the stacked pallets where one job is being prepped for shipment and dodge a forklift hauling the half-ton totes of plastic pellets. We go toward the steel door that guards access to the zombie pens. I hold the back of my hand against the sensor plate. The access key on my wrist lets us in.
I'm hit by the sudden drop in the noise level as we pass beyond the chillers blasting air to keep the floor just slightly cooler than Hell's antechamber. My heels clack on the concrete. Then I'm hit by the smell. Odors of feces, unwashed bodies and rot filter through the mask. It ruffles the hair on the back of my neck and I shudder lightly as the wrongness hits my sensitive nostrils despite the camphor. Jubal catches my reaction, barely hides his smirk. Doesn't matter that he's dead wrong about the cause. Protective coloration at work yet again.
I examine the row of pens. Forty-five pens, fifteen empty of the swing shift gang, fifteen with the gangs from day shift in their lime green tunics, midnight shift in orange. One zombie per pen, as well as a wall-mounted water fountain and food dispenser, a cedar-stuffed pallet--a glorified dog bed on a raised concrete pad--and a toilet in the corner. Some of our zombies actually remember their training in that regard, and others do not. The sewage odor tells me that no one has hosed the pens since shift start, or flushed the toilets.
As we pass the pens, most of the zombies barely raise a head to acknowledge us, dozing on their beds to digest their dinners. Soporiphics lace the zombie chow, a suggestion I made so the gangers are more comfortable during the off hours--or at least as comfortable as the constant craving for human flesh knifing their guts could allow.
One of them--tag number ninety-three--presses his cheek against the mesh, mushroom colored flesh bulging through the wire. His smell is musty, like yeast. What might have been a high school homecoming king's face is mottled and deformed by the slow rot already showing in scabrous patches like lichen crossed with eczema. In the way of things, he's hit half-life at approximately sixteen.
I pause to let him sniff my fingers. Zombies see the world through their noses. My scent pleases him a little too obviously, which causes Jubal to curse and reach for the shock stick.
I catch his arm before he touches the zombie's face with it.
"Don't. He doesn't know any better than a dog would. Besides, if you shock him, it might result in your getting more than you bargained for on your clothes."
Biting my lips so Jubal wouldn't see my urge to laugh, I rub the kid behind the ear, fluffing his sandy hair. For some reason, most zombies retain nice, pettable hair no matter their age and state of decay.
The zombie makes a mewling sound and tries to sneak his mouth near my finger, despite the mesh.
"No biting," I say. I use the tone that slides through what mushy sentience remains.
The zombie tilts his head, eyes rolling sticky in thick mucous. One oozes a puss-filled tear down the lumpy flesh of his cheek. His jaw works and he makes nasal sounds in the back of his throat. No remembered words, but they are human sounds of a sort. They remind me how a deaf child sounds, their unformed groans and nasal vowels. So very human. My heart wants to break.
The image of the Wiley kid flashes in my mind. He'll be just like this teenaged zombie, never have a chance.
"No biting," I repeat, sealing away pity and tugging my fingers free. He drops his hand, backs away reluctantly. "Good fellow."
"Frigging zombie queen," Jubal mutters under his breath.
I move ahead, taking my time to check the state of the entire row of zombies and finding them not up to par. Amazing how the work standard has altered in such a short time. I've seen this before, and the best solution is the simplest: remove the problem's source. But there are the personnel policies to adhere to. Despite my threat to Lou, I'll have to document problems and counsel offenders, offer a rehabilitation plan and give second, even third, chances. Stupid, but the reality of things in the corporate world with union employees. To heck with the maltreatment of living, feeling beings who happen to share every single human DNA code, beings who technically are just another race of humanity . . . No, them we chain and torment.
The anger rises in me and I think of my husband and what he'd say to keep me calm, that he loves me and that we can manage, make a difference, if we are careful.
"So what's wrong with this new ganger?" I ask as we stop before pen six fifty-two.
"He ain't trained."
I cock an eyebrow. "You got his papers, right? With the certifications stamped on them?"
Jubal shrugs. "Bill of lading. Usually the invoice and all that comes separate, day or so before we get a new one."
I roll my gaze over the zombie inside. "You tried to work him and he didn't follow commands?"
"Nope. None of 'em. And we didn't shock him at all, like SOP says for the test run."
I'm not sure I believe that, but human smells are drowned out by the reek of undeath and filth around me, so I let it pass.
Six-fifty-two is standing in the middle of his pen, hands gripping his collar, his face shadowed by black hair falling over his forehead. He's still wearing the bright yellow shipping tunic with a giant barcode on front and back. The color washes out a complexion owing more to the Mediterranean than Africa, although that's there too. Dark hair that lies in crisp curls on his neck, skin that's a healthy color above the curved collar of the tunic and below the sleeves and hem. In fact, he's so healthy looking he could still pass for a thirty-something human. His posture is rounded, the head dropped like a cowed puppy. Or, I amend as dark eyes full of hate roll up to meet mine, a junkyard dog.
That gaze is aware. Sometimes a vestigial personality lingers; but this poor fellow has been passing until recently. The insanity of the Crave hasn't swallowed all of him yet.
When I walk around to the side of the pen, the zombie shifts to watch me, his stare sharpening as nostrils widen, catch my scent. Yes, I think, you recognize me.
"Hey there," I say, "want a biscuit, fella?" I pull one from my pocket. It's one of the special ones I make that Fitzi likes so much. Zombies go crazy for them, too.
He moves toward me with that annoyingly musical clink of chains. I waggle the cookie. His hand reaches out, his nostrils twitch.
"Mmm good," I say, and wink with the eye Jubal cannot see. The zombie blinks, reaches out and takes the dog biscuit, jams it into his mouth and chews maybe twice before he swallows.
I hand him another one. He looks at me, eyes dark and narrowed to slits. His jaw starts to work, his lips to form words. I shake my head the tiniest bit, but he goes and speaks anyhow.
"Not. Dog. Not dog!" Like he's suddenly remembered speech. It's difficult by now, a month, month-and-a-half maybe since he got outed.
"Eat your cookie like a good boy."
A moment of stillness. He opens his mouth, lips the cookie thoughtfully, lustfully before closing his eyes and dropping it to the floor. The human flesh in them endears me to the zombies; but this one misunderstands what I'm offering by taking the edge off his Crave and starts to scream wordless, throat shredding howls as he launches against the cage, fingers straining for me where I stand inches from the ragged nails aiming to rend my flesh.
I turn to Jubal. "You're right. This one can't be used. Too fresh. Get me your paperwork immediately, and I'll dig up the rest of it and have him replaced ASAP."
Jubal eyes me differently as we head back. He thinks we'll get along. I'm planning how I'd butcher him, given the chance. For once, I find my violent zombie nature soothing. When I picture the spray of arterial blood against my face should I rip out Jubal's throat, it helps drown out the howls of six fifty-two until we leave the pens for the production floor once again.
Returned to my desk, I stare at John's picture for a moment, reassuring myself I'm doing the right thing. I can almost see his handsome head nod in agreement. Almost.
Two phone calls and six-fifty-two is picked up and another zombie placed in our gang, one truly lost to the Crave. It's all over by end of shift.
The rest of the night is thankfully dull. I'm too distracted to do any of my work justice and can only be grateful that tonight is Friday, John's night off. Today has disturbed me on so many levels.
John greets me in the garage, folds me in his warm embrace. "Dinner's ready," he says, "the wine has breathed, and I've made you your special steak-bloody, just like you like it."
I'm ushered to the table and my plate is set before me before I can even take my suit jacket off. John is a perceptive soul, but not that perceptive.
"To what do I owe this coddling?" I ask. "Not that I'm complaining."
"Well, your mother called," John says, coming around to knead the tension riding my neck. "She said to tell you the rescue went as planned."
I stiffen. "I didn't have time to consult with you. I'm sorry."
He leans around to kiss me. I purr and he grasps my chin, grins before nipping me on the nose. "It was the right thing, sweetheart."
My Johnnie understands everything perfectly.
"Thank you," I say. "He's rather handsome. I think your sister might like him. What do you think?"
John laughs. "Your mother also said to tell you your problem wrangler is on the List."
"I hope you told her to have us over for supper when his day comes."
"We're penciled in for the Fourth of July."
Revenge, after all, is a dish best served barbecued.