Yes, it was morally ambiguous. Potentially blasphemous, depending on your religious affiliation (although what was Lazarus, really, if not a zombie?) and, of course, highly illegal. But since when had any of that stopped anybody?
Lucy wasn’t some kind of anarchist–she believed in the need for rules and principles as much as the next civilized person. But it was her dad. What was she supposed to do? It all looked very different when someone you loved was at stake.
She met up with Ballard at three in the morning, in the car park of a disused warehouse in Rainham. The whole area was empty, overgrown and, most importantly, not considered worthy of CCTV.
Lucy got out of the car and walked over to Ballard’s Jeep. He opened the back and stepped out of the way so that she could inspect the zombie. It was a male, about fifty or so when he’d died, by the look of it. He was grey, and just starting to flake. A dry, musty smell came off him. Not unpleasant, just a bit stale. Like opening a dark cupboard where you’d kept old, forgotten spices.
‘There’s a bit of wear and tear,’ Ballard said. ‘But he’s only done small stuff. Asthma, diabetes, that sort of thing. Nothing major, nothing life-threatening. There’s enough juice in him for what you need.’
‘What’s his name?’ Lucy asked.
Ballard gave her a look, but pulled a sheet of paper out of his jacket and gave it a cursory glance. ‘Atkinson.’
‘His first name.’
The look turned to amusement. ‘He’s not going to answer to it, you know.’
‘Tell me anyway.’
He shrugged and checked the form again. ‘Gilbert.’
She wanted to tell Gilbert that she was sorry he was being treated like second-hand goods in a car boot sale, but she didn’t want to say it in front of Ballard. So she kept her mouth shut, and just handed over the money.
Ballard opened the sports bag, rummaged around in the bundles of notes, and zipped it up again. He chucked it on the passenger seat, then came back and helped her heft Gilbert out of the Jeep and into the boot of her Volvo. The zombie was purring.
Ballard crossed his arms and looked away. ‘I wish they wouldn’t do that,’ he said. ‘It’s creepy.’
‘And we’re body-snatchers. I don’t think we’ve got any right to complain about creepy.’ She slammed the boot shut.
Ballard went back to his car. ‘Pleasure doing business with you, Ma’am.’ He gave her a quick salute. ‘Please do think of us again, for all your zombie needs.’
‘I hope not to have any more,’ she said, and they both drove away.
• • •
She unloaded Gilbert in the garage and got him to sit with his back against the wall, next to a broken lawnmower. He was very well-behaved.
You heard stories, sometimes, where it all went horribly wrong. But almost always, it turned out that they’d been murder victims. Violent death didn’t make for a viable zombie. Which was probably for the best, really.
Lucy liked to think she would never have gone that far, but did anyone ever really know what they were capable of?
Her father was asleep on the sofa when she went to check, the TV still cycling through old Red Dwarf repeats. She turned it off and pulled the blanket over his shoulders. He struggled with the stairs these days, and slept in the lounge more often than not, but he wouldn’t let her officially turn it into a bedroom. As if that would be giving in. Making it real. And Ervin hadn’t always enjoyed a fruitful relationship with reality.
Lucy kept a complete set of his novels down there, on the shelf in the alcove. Something else he objected to, something else she ignored his wishes about. He said print books were pointless and old-fashioned. She said he was missing the point–print books weren’t for reading. Maybe that was something a writer just couldn’t relate to.
It amused her, in a not-really-funny-at-all kind of way, how much of an anti-climax the zombie apocalypse had ended up being. And that her father, of all people, should have been so squeamish about it.
In the early days, a lot of people had phoned the house looking for advice. Mostly fans, but quite a few journalists, too. A couple of police officers. And, she was pretty sure, the Health Secretary.
‘But I just made it up,’ Ervin told them, sounding plaintively bewildered. ‘They’re just stories. It wasn’t supposed to be real.’
Apparently, the same thing had happened to various people in America, including George Romero and the actor who played the lead role in The Walking Dead. Maybe it wasn’t that strange, really. When life imitated art, who were you going to turn to?
And some things were consistent with the fiction–decapitation, for example. Head shots. Take out the brain, destroy the zombie. And the initial panic. That had been very similar to what you saw on the shows, in the comics, in the books.
But it hadn’t taken long for people to realise that real zombies didn’t actually want to eat people. Instead, they healed them. Which had probably turned out to be the most surprising thing of all. Nobody had seen that coming. Not even her father, in as much as a single short story.
• • •
‘This isn’t right,’ Ervin said. He backed away from the garage door, his hand covering his mouth. ‘You shouldn’t have done this.’
‘I know,’ Lucy said. ‘But a man who’s never smoked shouldn’t get lung cancer, either. Things are always happening that shouldn’t. That’s how life works.’
‘The usual. Money. Connections. More money. It didn’t hurt that you’re moderately famous. At least two of the middlemen were big fans.’
He went to the window and peered out between the slats of the blind, scanning the street.
‘Looking for police cars? They won’t be coming. They’re in on it. You have to know that, don’t you?’
Ervin sank down on the sofa and put his head in his hands. ‘Who is–was–he?’
‘His name is Gilbert Atkinson. That’s all I know.’
‘How did he die?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Where did he live?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Does he have family?’
‘I don’t know, Dad. I don’t want to know. Nor do you.’
‘This isn’t right.’
Lucy said nothing. She went back to the garage door and looked through the glass panel. Gilbert was still sitting where she’d left him. A spider had begun building a web in his hair.
Ervin followed her. ‘I told you I didn’t want this.’
She turned around. ‘You also told me you weren’t going to have chemotherapy, either. What was I supposed to do?’
‘Respect my wishes?’
‘Watch you die, you mean.’
Ervin rubbed his hand over his head. ‘I never wanted you to have to go through anything like this, I really didn’t. But when your time’s up, it’s up.’
‘Bollocks. I’m sorry, Dad, but bollocks. If that was true, why would we even have hospitals? Why would medicine exist? Leaving the zombies out of it entirely, why would we do any of it? And don’t try to give me ‘it’s unnatural,’ either. So are drugs, pacemakers, organ transplants, the lot. All of modern life is unnatural. People who are paralysed can operate computers with their thoughts. How is a zombie any more unnatural than that?’
‘It kills them.’
‘It uses them. You can’t kill what’s already dead.’ She yanked open the garage door. The zombie didn’t react. ‘Gilbert, the actual, human Gilbert, is long gone. He’s not in there. You’re not hurting him. You’re not using up his soul, or whatever nonsense it is they’re coming out with on the telly these days.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘I believe it. That’s good enough.’ She walked over to the zombie and grabbed his arm. It was firm, solid. ‘Up,’ she said, and pulled. He got to his feet in a surprisingly fluid, graceful movement.
‘Okay, so we don’t know why, or how, this is happening. But it is. He can save you, Dad, so why not let him? Maybe this is his purpose. Maybe it’s what he’s back here to do. Maybe it’s how he’s going to buy his way into paradise.’
The zombie’s head turned towards the sound of her voice. ‘I don’t know whether that’s true,’ she went on, ‘but I don’t know that it isn’t, either. And nor do you. So why not believe it? Why not, Dad?’
Ervin had his eyes closed. He shook his head and a tear gathered under his eyelashes. It slowly slid down his stubbled cheek.
Gilbert’s milky eyes tracked its progress.
• • •
On first glance, Lucy’s room was as neat and ordered as ever. But there were subtle signs. He’d gotten better at searching it since her teenage years, but she could still tell.
‘What were you looking for?’ she asked. ‘It’s not like I hide my weed from you anymore.’
‘Looking for something I didn’t find,’ he said, and she thought of her mother’s jewelry box on the cabinet, just a hairsbreadth misaligned.
‘Did you sell it all?’ he said. ‘How much, Lucy? How much did it cost you?’
He had his hands on his hips and his angry parent face on, which almost made her smile. That, he definitely hadn’t got any better at.
She was supposed to drop her head, be unable to meet his eyes. Be nervous, remorseful. Ashamed.
But she hadn’t been any of those things for a long time. She wasn’t sure she would remember how.
She lifted her chin and stared at him. ‘Less than it’ll cost me to bury you. Or do I assume you’d rather be cremated?’
His shoulders hunched and he looked away. ‘You spent the past thirty years writing about death,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell me you’re going to get skittish about the particulars now. Shall we talk about the music for the service? What clothes you want me to dress you in?’
Lucy understood the comforts of denial, of course she did. But the time for comfort was gone.
‘Tough love,’ she said. ‘You used to think that was a great idea.’
• • •
Things Lucy had learned from the internet:
The zombies were a sign that Judgment Day was imminent, and she should repent in order to save her soul.
The zombies were a satanic inversion of the Rapture brought on by humanity’s collective slide into sin, and it was way too late to save anyone’s soul.
The zombies were incubators for aliens, the first step in a plan to invade and enslave the human race. Souls were irrelevant.
Drug companies had been trying to find a cure for the ageing process, and it had gone wrong.
The military had been trying to create unkillable soldiers, and it had gone wrong.
The President of the United States had become a zombie, and nobody had noticed.
Gilbert Atkinson, Catering and Hospitality Manager, 53, died of a heart attack during a performance of We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre. Mr. Atkinson was survived by his wife, Emily, and their two daughters. A service was held at St. Michael’s in the Field. No flowers. Donations to the British Heart Foundation.
The Health Secretary reminded the nation that so-called ‘revivification treatment’ was still unregulated and officially unproven, and confirmed there were no plans to make it available on the NHS.
The Home Secretary decried reports of a ‘zombie shortage’ as gross media sensationalism, and hotly denied allegations that the government was colluding in the stockpiling of zombie resources for the sole use of senior politicians, celebrities and footballers.
The tabloids reported that an unnamed reality TV star was allegedly keeping a ‘menagerie’ of zombies in the grounds of her Surrey mansion as an organic alternative to plastic surgery. Neighbours were said to be concerned about the effect on property values.
• • •
Ervin moved out of his bedroom and into the lounge. He didn’t speak to Lucy about it. He didn’t speak to Lucy about anything.
Lucy received an email from a man in HR advising her that she’d exceeded the company’s allowance for compassionate leave. She didn’t reply.
Gilbert sat in the garage. Occasionally, he hummed Queen songs quietly to himself.
• • •
Things Lucy had learned from her father’s novels:
Pragmatism gets better results than emotion.
Extreme situations call for extreme solutions.
The end justifies the means.
It’s always easier on the dead than the living.
Life goes on: the world doesn’t end, even when it should.
• • •
Last Will and Testament, signed and witnessed. Insurance policies, savings account details, finance agreement for the Volvo. Illegal barbiturates, prescription anti-emetics, cheap alcohol.
Lucy laid these items out on the dining table in neat rows. Ervin stared at them and shook his head, his eyes wide and his face pale.
‘It’s all about the state of mind,’ she said. ‘There’s no violence, this way. It’s a very peaceful method. Dignified. Plus, I’ve been meditating regularly. I have no doubt that I will make a highly effective zombie.’
‘You wouldn’t,’ he said.
‘No flowers. Donations to the British Heart Foundation.’
‘You wouldn’t,’ he said again. It came out in a whisper.
‘It’s one thing, refusing Gilbert. But would you turn me away too, when I’ve sacrificed myself to save you? I don’t think so. I don’t think even you can be that heartless.’
She smiled. ‘I think the phrase you’re looking for is emotional blackmail. It’s usually quite an effective technique. But if I’m wrong, then you can sell us both. Me and Gilbert. There’s a card here for a man called Ballard. He’ll get you a good price. Donate the money, if you don’t want it.’
‘I’ll save your life. Or if not, I’ll save someone else’s. You’ll get over it. Or if not, you’ll die. It all amounts to the same thing, in the end.’
Ervin let his head drop. ‘I’ve been a bad father.’
She put her hand on his shoulder. ‘Yes. But it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.’
He leaned on the table and coughed, long and harsh. The flecks of blood were bright against the white tissue he held to his mouth.
Lucy picked up the first bottle of pills and flipped off the cap.
‘Okay,’ he said. It sounded broken. ‘Okay.’
• • •
Lucy helped Ervin to the garage and settled him on the mattress. Gilbert was sitting with his legs stretched out and his back against the wall. He was still purring.
Michelle Ann King
Michelle Ann King writes SF, dark fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her stories have appeared in various venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra Magazine, and Drabblecast. She has worked as a makeup artist, tarot reader and insurance claims handler before having the good fortune to be able to write full-time. Find details of her stories and books at www.transientcactus.co.uk