As GeekDead week draws to a close, we have a special team-up of two guys named Charles. Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, wrote this zombie short story especially for us, and Charles Orr of the Hypothetical Library created this fantastic cover image to go along with it. Thanks to Charles Yu for a fun story and Charles Orr for responding to a last-minute request! (Be sure to click on the image to see it in its full-resolution glory.)
First Person Shooter, by Charles Yu
Janine is on line four.
“There’s a finger in housewares.”
I don’t ask what she means, because I can’t think of anything funny to say, because I can never think of anything when I’m talking to Janine, because I am in love with her.
I tell her I’ll check it out and hang up the phone. The whole way over to Home and Bath, I’m just repeating to myself, under my breath, stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid dummy. The only thing that makes me feel better is that none of this really matters since I don’t have a chance in hell with her anyway.
I hang a left at the towel racks and then a quick right and, whoa, Janine was not kidding, that is definitely a finger. On the ground. In the middle of the aisle with all of the automated soap dispensers.
I work the graveyard shift at WorldMart. Biggest store in the human world. I work Sunday through Wednesday, and then Fridays if anyone calls in sick, which, of course, is pretty much every Friday. We’re open twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year because keeping the fluorescent lights on for a decade or so until they burn out is actually cheaper than turning them on and off, and that means for eight hours every night there are two of us in here, minding the store. A store that’s the size of three city blocks.
I walk over to the nearest store phone and call Janine.
“We should tell Burt,” I say. Burt is the manager on duty. At the moment, Burt is not in the store. He’s in the parking lot, a quarter-mile away, listening to Black Sabbath with the windows rolled up in his smoke-filled Pontiac Sunbird.
“So tell him,” Janine says, and there’s something about the way she says it. It’s a dare. She’s daring me. I start to wonder whether, despite all of the stupid things I have said to her, I might actually have a chance with Janine.
I hang up the phone and go back to where the finger was.
Then I feel something cold and sharp tickling the back of my neck and I almost wet myself. A small yelp escapes from my throat.
I turn around to see Janine. I hate everything about her except for the fact that I love everything about her. I don’t think I would actually ever want to kiss her so much as I’d want to possess her. Consume her. Eat her, so that no one else could have her.
“You should have seen your face,” she says. She’s laughing at me, but she’s not mocking me. Not exactly. Is this how she flirts?
A bunch of stuff crashes to the floor over in another section.
“That sounded like Toiletries,” I say, and we both run over there. We stop in Mascara, crouch down, and listen to what sounds like shuffling. Janine starts crawling toward Lipstick and I try to grab her ankle but just end up with her shoe in my hand. She looks back, catches me watching her from behind, frowns, then motions for me to follow.
We stop at the Maybelline end cap just in time to see someone, or something, slowly shuffling away. Janine shrieks, and then the thing lets out a groan and then Janine and I are both up on our feet and running and we round the corner into Eyeliner and come face to face with it, whatever it is. It’s a her. A zombie. A woman. A zombie woman. She’s older than Janine, closer to my age, maybe early thirties, missing a little bit of her face, but otherwise sort of pretty in a melancholy way.
“She looks nervous,” I say to Janine, but Janine’s gone, flat out sprinting, screaming all the way to Power Tools.
Pretty Zombie Lady holds up two different tubes of lipstick, one blood-red and one that’s more of an earth tone and then I understand. She wants my opinion. I step back, look at her skin which I guess is sort of a grayish bologna color, and I point to the earth-toned tube. She’s holding it in her right hand, and I notice that she has re-attached the finger I saw earlier. Or at least jammed it back into the socket anyway. She sort of nods as if to say thanks, in a dead-eyed way, and then starts to creep over toward Accessories.
We shop for a while together like this. She stops, picks out a couple of options, I give her my choice, sometimes she goes with it, but a couple of times she goes the other way, almost apologetically. At one point she stops in front of a mirror and looks at herself and I’m looking at her look at herself, wondering what she sees, what she is thinking, and we lock eyes, we’re making eye contact with each other in our reflections in the mirror. I didn’t even think zombies could think. And I’m thinking maybe she’s not thinking, maybe she’s under the control of someone else. Maybe I am, too.
The zombie lady moves slow, and by the time she manages to pull together a decent looking outfit, it’s a quarter past two. Just as I realize that I haven’t seen Janine in half an hour, I hear her voice booming over the PA system.
“I’m in firearms,” she says. “Stay low.”
I pick up the nearest phone.
“She’s not going to hurt us,” I say.
“What are you talking about?” Janine says. “She’s going to eat us. She’s going to eat our brains.”
“No, I don’t think so. That’s not what she’s doing here.”
“Then what is she doing here?”
“I think she’s getting ready for a date.”
Before Janine has time to process that, though, I see Pretty Zombie Lady over in Video Games.
“Uh, I gotta go,” I say.
Janine can hear in my voice that something’s very wrong. “What’s happening?” she says.
“Our friend just discovered House of the Dead 2.”
I approach carefully, stop a few feet behind her. We both stand there watching the demo for a while, limbs being blown off, exploding heads, and I’m wondering what she could possibly make of this, when she turns around and I see that, in her dead-eyed kind of way, she looks hurt. Betrayed, even. It can’t be. She doesn’t have feelings. That’s impossible, right?
Janine comes marching down the aisle with a hand cannon. Her skinny arm can barely keep it level. She’s got it pointed at Pretty Zombie Lady, right at her head. The zombie just looks at Janine, unblinking, almost as if she wants to get her head blown off. Which, I suppose, is understandable. She started off tonight excited for a date, and then she comes in here and sees this game, and now who knows what’s happened to her self-image, to her picture of the world. Is there such a thing as a self-aware zombie? Can a zombie realize that she’s a zombie? Maybe I don’t know what a zombie is. Or maybe there are degrees of zombification, and she’s not quite all the way zombified yet. Maybe I’m part way there myself.
I put my hand on top of on Janine’s and slowly lower the gun. Her hand is warm and full of blood. I should be excited to be touching Janine but instead I’m worried about Zombie Lady. Her finger falls out again, and we all look down at it.
The House of the Dead demo is starting over. A bunch of zombie heads explode. Janine’s still got the gun in her hand. I’m trying to figure out if this is the best day of work ever, or the worst. Why am I so self-conscious? What am I so scared of? It’s now or never.
“Would you like to go see a movie on Thursday?”
“Are you asking me or her?” Janine says.
“Looks like she’s already seeing someone,” I say.
Janine looks at me for a long moment, like she’s trying to look inside of me, almost as if she’s noticing me for the first time.
“Yes,” Janine says. “Yes, I would.”
I look at Zombie Lady, who is staring at us, slack-jawed. Whatever flicker of awareness I might have seen behind her eyes a moment ago, it’s gone now. She turns and shambles toward the exit, and then, with a whoosh of the automatic double doors, she’s gone, out into the parking lot.
Janine and I stand there, enjoying the blast of cold air, glad to be inside.
“I wonder if she’s still going on her date,” I say.
“I wonder if she’s going to find Burt and feast on his brain,” she says.
You can read our Q & A with Charles Yu and follow him on Twitter, where he says things like “I’m the Twitter equiv. of the guy at a party: from across room, you think you want to talk to me but then you get close and nuh-uh.” Also, be sure to visit Charles Orr’s Hypothetical Library for more great covers of books that don’t exist and follow him on Twitter.