by B.J. Keeton
I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a grunt. I stood up from straightening the endcap of blank DVDs, and put on my best smile. If I had learned nothing else from nearly four years of working at MediaTown, it was that I never sold a single laptop, flat-screen TV, or Elton John boxed-set if I didn’t greet everyone who wanted my attention with a smile.
Sometimes it was all I could do to make the smile touch my eyes, but it still counted as a smile. That day, I was in a pretty good mood. I was getting paid at the end of my shift, and for the first time in my life, I was going to be able to pay something off. Two somethings, actually. I had made some stupid decisions since I had graduated college, the worst of which involved living off a high-interest credit card and buying a new car a month after graduating. In my defense, I had been promised a cushy programming job at a tech firm in the fall, and I thought as long as I could live through the summer, I’d be okay. But that was the summer of the outbreak, and while I–and my accrued debt–lived through the summer, the firm didn’t. On top of regular living expenses–rent, utilities, gas, and so on–those decisions made money a little tight in my neck of the woods.
But that week’s paycheck was going to make the final payment on the credit card, which was going to finally get me off my signature “Dollar Menu and Bologna Diet.” I would still have enough money to throw at getting the car paid off, too.
So it wasn’t even a fake smile I put on when I had to stop stacking DVD-Rs.
“Hi there!” I said as I pushed myself from the floor. “What can I do for–Holy Mother of God!”
Given my normal clientele, I expected to find one of three types of people waiting for me:
The first type, and probably the easiest to deal with, was the three-hundred-fifty-pound man with a cowboy hat he bought in the 80s, a mustache that would have made Tom Selleck jealous, and a question about “one of them TeeVoe thangs.” I could point these guys in the right direction after that, but sometimes I’d answer a few vague questions and make a sale.
The second type was the elderly lady who would do nothing but talk about her grandson and how he wanted some game that she couldn’t remember the name of. She would then start describing it in the most general way possible; she would talk about how he wanted to fly and shoot a gun, change his costume, and collect those little things if he waves the controller really hard. She thought the name was Nintendo or something like that. More often than not, my best attempts at finding what she wanted would leave her frustrated, and she would leave after saying something like, “Oh, nevermind. I’ll just come back when he’s with me and he can find the stupid thing himself.”
But the third type, my most favoritest type of customer in the whole, wide world, the kind I loved best of all and made my whole job worth it (can’t you just see my eyes rolling at this point?) were the teenagers who would come in, grab something random off the shelf, and approach me as a pack. One of them would get my attention, hand me whatever it was and ask, “Uhh, how much is this?” while his two or three goons giggled behind him. Because it was my job, I would have to go and run a price check. When I told him whatever price came up, the teenager would laugh and barely get out, “Oh, sorry, I thought it was $4.20,” before he and the goon-squad would shamble into another department, laughing at their oh-so-hilarious and oh-so-original joke.
On any given day, I dealt with at least two out of those three before the end of a shift. Sometimes, I would be really lucky and run the trifecta.
However, this time, when I turned around, I was legitimately surprised.
A man stood in front of me. He was about six feet tall, had matted brown hair, teeth that screamed for braces, and one eye hanging halfway out of its socket. Most of his skin was either rotten or missing, and his shoes were on the wrong feet.
That just goes to show how common zombies are these days: when face to face with one of the living dead, I don’t think about running away or killing it. I think about what feet its shoes are on. I bet that if I had spent more time critiquing his appearance, I would have found his shirt misbuttoned, too.
I wonder what that says about me…
Common or not, it’s still not terribly often I find a zombie in MediaTown tapping me on the shoulder. The authorities keep telling us that some people didn’t go completely zombified, that some people are still pretty high functioning, but that doesn’t mean they’re all like that. My Aunt Stacey was. She could water her plants as long as my Uncle Rory turned on the hose for her and showed her where to point the nozzle.
For every zombie like my aunt, though, there were three dozen who just wanted to eat flesh, gurgle unintelligibly, and try to convert anyone who wasn’t like them. They were worse than the Mormons.
This one, though, was probably the highest functioning zombie I had ever seen, including the videos I’d seen on the Internet of Zombie Knievel. The zombie in front of me grunted and pushed his hands toward me. In one hand, he was holding an HDMI cable and in the other, a laptop case.
“Nunglebnnnnnnn,” he said, his one good eye looking back and forth between mine.
I just stood and looked at him for a second. I didn’t know what else to do. After a few seconds, I took the items from his hands. As soon as I had, he shuffled 180 degrees and walked toward our laptop department. He said, “Maaanginnnnnnnnggg” over his shoulder as he shambled.
I think he wanted me to follow him, so I did, and he stopped in front of our highest priced laptop. He pointed at it, and I noticed that the middle and index fingers on his left hand were missing. “Saaaaannnnn,” he said and gestured back at me.
I just stared at him. “You, uh, you want to buy that one?” I asked.
“Ummmmmph,” he said. He turned toward the laptop and started hitting the keys with his remaining fingers. I stood and watched and he turned back to me. “Ummmmmph,” he said again.
“Ohhh-kay,” I said, finally catching on. “I gotcha.” If he was high functioning enough to buy a laptop, who was I to deny him? As long as his wallet was still in his pants pocket, or he had a card somewhere on him, his money was as good as anyone else’s. “Why don’t you just come with me back over here, and we’ll get the paperwork filled out?” I started to walk back to where he found me, and he grunted.
“Naaarwl,” he said and shuffled himself toward the TVs. I went with him again, and this time he stood in front of a 60-inch Sony 3D-TV. “Guuuuuuunnnnnnnph,” he said.
HDMI cables and a laptop case. Of course. I reached into my pocket and grabbed a pen and notepad to jot down the TV information so I could ring him up and said, “Yes, sir. Is that going to be all?”
“Aaaaaghnnn,” he said.
I figured that was a yes since he just stood and stared at the TV instead of moving into another department. “Alrighty then. I can get you all set up if you just come back over here where we left your other items. If you’d just follow me.”
I walked back to my department, found his cable and laptop case, scanned them into the computer, and put in the request for a stocker to bring me a boxed laptop and TV. It was a fairly long process, and by the time I was finished, the zombie had finally made it back. He was high functioning, but he still moved just as slowly as the rest of them. He stood there and waited patiently while I finished the last few details on his order. He never grunted or gurgled at me, never made any hostile gesture, really. It was pretty easy to let my guard down around a zombie like this, but I had to keep reminding myself that at any moment, he could lunge at me and start gnawing at my eye socket.
“I’ve got a request in for your computer and TV. They’ll send someone out with them in just a few minutes,” I said.
He just shuffled a little in place and never said anything. I looked at his injured eye hanging over his cheek and how it swayed slightly as he shifted his weight. I also marveled at how there was no blood on him anywhere. Rotting flesh, sure, but no blood. Did he wash himself? Did he shower? I chuckled to myself a little as I thought that this may be the one zombie since the beginning of the outbreak that still considered personal hygiene.
I turned back to the register and totaled his order. “That’ll be sixty-six twenty-three ninety-seven,” I said. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about how big the commission was going to be from that sale.
The zombie’s expression never changed as he moved his hand into his front pocket. I watched in morbid fascination as what flesh was left on the back of his hand peeled off as it rubbed against the edge of his pocket. It was disgusting.
“Naaaarnnnnnnn,” he said, handing me a card. As he did so, the lump of skin he had accidentally peeled from the back of his hand fell to the ground and just lay there. He never even noticed it was gone.
“Credit or debit?” I asked out of habit. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lump on the floor.
“Nnnnnnnnda,” he said.
“Credit, it is!” I said, hoping that it would run without the need for the guy’s PIN.
I had just taken the card from the zombie’s hand when–
The zombie lurched a little and fell toward me. I leapt backwards instinctively, but still felt bits of the zombie splatter against my face and chest. There had been a lot of liquid in the zombie’s head, which was now all over my shirt.
For a second, I just stared down at my former customer, dead for the second time and seeping what little liquid was left inside him onto the industrial carpet. I scowled. It might be in my department, but I was not going to be the one who cleaned that up.
I heard laughing in front of me and looked up.
“Did you see that sucker explode? And how you jumped when he fell over? Haha!”
“Randy, you sorry sack of–”
“Whoa, hold on there a second, little buddy. I just saved your life.”
“You did not,” I said.
“Did, too. It was a zombie,” said Randy.
“Yes,” said Randy, “it was.”
“Well, yeah, obviously it was a zombie.”
“And you know what? Zombies are meant to be killed.”
“Whatever,” I said. “But, seriously, Randy, you didn’t save my life. You screwed up the biggest sale I’ve had in months.”
“From a zombie? You’ve got to be kidding me.” He sounded incredulous. And from his perspective, I can understand why. If I hadn’t been the one the zombie approached, I might have been equally unbelieving.
“Yes,” I said, “from a zombie. He was high functioning.”
“So you can smell your own?” Randy said, laughing.
“Funny,” I agreed, not laughing. “For real, though, look.” I pointed at the screen for Randy to see the total.
“That’s a hell of a commission, man,” Randy said.
“It would have been, yep,” I said. “If you hadn’t–I don’t know–killed my customer.” I did my best to make my voice relate my exact level of anger.
“To be fair, he was already dead,” Randy retorted.
I just stared at him. “I’m not cleaning that up,” I said.
“Well, I’m certainly not.”
“You going to buy me a new shirt?” I asked. I picked a piece of skull off my shoulder and toss it at him.
“What do you mean?”
“You did this, and this was my last good work shirt. You know how tight my money is, especially without that commission. I don’t think I’ve sold anything but flash drives and blank DVDs all week. Maybe all month.”
“Nope, not going to happen,” Randy said. “Job hazard.”
“Of your job, not mine,” I said.
He shrugged, as though that let him off the hook. “I’ll see you around,” he said. Randy then holstered his pistol and walked toward the front of the store, throwing his hand up in a wave as he left the building.
I blinked at him. There wasn’t anything else I could do.
“Did I hear shooting?” came a voice behind me.
“Oh, yeah. Zombie,” I said, pointing at the body at my feet.
“Oh,” said the voice. The complete nonchalance of that exchange is a testament to how messed up our society has gotten in the past few years. Ten years ago, a gunshot in public would have caused a riot. Heck, five years ago. Now…well, I’m amazed anyone commented on it at all. “Well, anyway, here’s your laptop and TV.”
I turned around and looked at him. I opened my mouth to speak, but couldn’t. How was I going to explain that my customer had just been shot through the face and was lying dead on the floor in front of me?
“The, uh, customer backed out just a minute ago. With the shooting and everything, I hadn’t been able to cancel the request. I’m sorry, man.”
The stock guy shrugged. “No big whoop. Happens all the time,” he said. “I’ll tell someone to get out here and clean that up, too.” He turned and pushed the cart with the laptop and TV back toward the stockroom.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. At least I wouldn’t have to take care of the mess.
I sighed and looked at the dead zombie again. I could feel the blood soaking through my shirt and matting the material to my chest. It was gross.
So I left my section unattended, which would be a write-up waiting to happen in any other situation, and went to the break room to see if anyone else had a shirt I could borrow until my shift was over.
No one did.
“Mrs. Higgins?” I asked, knocking lightly on the manager’s office door.
“Come in,” came her reply. I moved into the room and stood in front of her desk. “What can I do for you, Mr. Gordon?”
“There was a zombie on the floor, ma’am, in my section. There was a Hunter nearby, luckily, but his killshot kind of…” My voice trailed off as I gestured at my shirt.
“Do you not have a spare shirt with you?” She asked.
“No, ma’am. I was wondering if you had an extra I could borrow until my shift was over.”
The middle-aged woman wrinkled her nose as she looked me up and down. “I’m sorry, Mr. Gordon, but company policy prohibits me from letting anyone ‘borrow’ uniform apparel. You’ll have to buy the extra shirt if you wear it.”
She stood up, muttering under her breath–I’m pretty sure she hadn’t meant for me to hear her do so–and grabbed a light grey shirt like the one I had on and tossed it to me. I caught it against my chest and was very glad the new shirts came wrapped in plastic.
“Thank you, Mrs. Higgins,” I said.
She sat down at her desk and said, “You’re welcome. I think checks have already been cut this week, so that will have to come out of the next pay period.” She looked back down at whatever she was working on and said, “Make sure the mess gets cleaned up out there.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said through gritted teeth. “Thank you.”
“Mmm hmm,” she said. “Pull the door shut on your way out, too, if you don’t mind.”
I minded, but I did as she asked anyway. I closed the door heavily, though. Take that.
I went to the men’s bathroom and took off my ruined uniform. Both the over and undershirts clung to my chest, so I went some brown paper towels and washed myself off as well as I could. I was careful to not tear the plastic bag the new shirt came in too badly as I opened it, and I stuffed the old clothes into it and tied it up.
I sat the bag of bloody clothes aside and stared into the mirror. I couldn’t afford to spend that money on a shirt, and the thought almost made me break into tears right there. I tried to compose myself. I grabbed the soiled clothing as I left the bathroom, and was going to toss them in the garbage when I decided to put them in my locker instead; I couldn’t afford to waste the shirt if there was even a small chance of it coming clean again.
I had just lost a great commission, and I had to actually pay for a new shirt. I would just have to eat a few more meals off dollar menus. Maybe eat a few more bologna sandwiches, too. It wasn’t the end of the world (that had already happened, after all), and it was probably only until the next pay period was over in two weeks. But that didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.
I wondered how much worse the day could get as I walked back to my section. I checked my watch. Two hours to go. Not that long. Not a lot of time for things to go bad.
The zombie’s corpse (is that redundant?) was already gone when I got back. The floor was being shampooed, and there were “Wet Floor” signs all around. I nodded at the janitor and went back to the straightening I had been working on before the whole ordeal had begun.
I hadn’t been working five minutes when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a muffled giggle. When I turned around, I saw a greasy teenage boy, maybe fifteen years old, with two equally skeezy friends behind him. The one in front held out an Afroman CD and said, “I, uh, was wondering if you could tell me how much this is?”
I didn’t feel like playing their games after the last hour. I glared at the group and said, “It’s not $4.20, I promise. And neither is anything else in the store.”
“Wha? Uhh,” the leader stammered. I had taken him by surprise, obviously. Then he and the other two winners burst out laughing and wandered deeper into the store. I turned back to the endcap, intent on toughing out the next two hours with as little contact with customers as possible.
Two hours. Just two hours.
“Excuse me, sir?” said a hesitant female voice behind me.
I told myself to smile, but my mouth wouldn’t listen. The best I could do was not frown. “What can I help you with?”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, “but I found this on the floor over there.” She pointed at the “Wet Floor” sign. “I thought I should give it to someone before it got stolen.” She held out a green credit card, and I took it.
“Oh, yeah, thanks,” I said. “I’ll be sure to get this to Customer Service in case someone comes back looking for it. Whoever it belongs to will be happy to know it’s safe, I’m sure. Thank you very much. Can I do anything else for you?”
She smiled and said, “No, thank you. I’m just browsing.”
“Just let me know if I can.”
“Will do,” she said and walked away.
I absentmindedly ran my thumb over the card she handed me. It was covered in something sticky, and that’s when I noticed that the credit card I had agreed to help return to its owner was never going to make it back home. The sticky substance on the card was blood (maybe some brain, too), and the card was the same one my high-functioning zombie customer had handed me before my day went to crap.
I’m sure I looked like a fool standing there in the middle of MediaTown, gawking at a credit card, but I didn’t care. I needed that time to compose myself. To figure out what to do.
On one hand, I could take the card to Customer Service like I said I would. It would be put in a file somewhere, or a box, and it would sit there for God knows how long. No one would come to claim it, and it would eventually be thrown away. That would be the right thing to do.
Or, on the other hand, the more tempting hand, the more likely hand, I could put the little green piece of plastic in my pocket like the woman never handed me anything. Then I could go online and use it to pay off whatever was left of my car loan. Or at least most of it. It’s not like–I checked the card for a name–Chester Reddingfield was going to need his remaining credit limit in the near future (or ever). But, I told myself, that would be the wrong thing to do.
So I decided to take it to the Lost and Found. After my shift. I’d drop it off on my way out the door.
So I put the card in my pocket and went back to my DVR stacking. As I did so, my mind raced. I thought about the sale, the commission, the zombie’s–Chester Reddingfield’s, I corrected myself–eyeball hanging out of its socket and bouncing against his cheek when he walked. I thought about Randy and how much his cowboy attitude had really screwed my next few weeks.
But had it? Had it really?
I had the card in my pocket. I could have used that commission to get a little ahead, but if Chester was planning on buying over six grand worth of merchandise on that card, that meant there had to be at least that much of a limit. And if there was that much of a limit, I could do a lot more than get a little ahead. Maybe Randy had actually done me a favor. Maybe this wasn’t a bad thing after all. I could just go online, put in the new card number, and–
Since it was a new card, the online system I went through would require all sorts of information about it. Name and address, at least. And while I had Chester’s name, I had no idea where the undead techie slept at night. It’s not like I had the guy’s ID to go along with…his credit…card.
If I had been a cartoon character, that was the moment when the lightbulb would have all but exploded over my head.
I jumped up from the endcap for what I hoped would be the last time that evening, and ran to the phone beside the register. I tapped 1337 as quickly as I could and waited for the other end to pick up. It rang maybe a dozen times before someone answered.
“Hi, umm,” I said.
“Hi, what?” came the reply. “You need something?”
“Yeah, I was wondering what happened to the zombie that was on the floor. Where’s his body?”
“They dumped the thing back here. It’s just inside the loading bay door. Crew’s not been here to grab the thing yet. Who knows when they will, either, the lazy–” The voice chuckled. “Anyway, it’s back here. What’s up? Is there a problem or something? Do we need to move it? Again?”
“No,” I said. “No not a problem at all. Thanks a lot.”
“Yep,” came the reply. Then came the click.
I danced in place, then rushed toward the stockroom. I was going to be written up, but I didn’t care. This time, I didn’t have zombie brains painted across my chest as an excuse to not sell Cowboy Buddy a TiVo. I didn’t care.
When I passed through the swinging double doors, I beelined for the loading bay, and sure enough, there lay Chester Reddingfield in all his gory.
I looked around to see if anyone was watching me, and when I was confident no one was, I leaned down next to the corpse. He was on his back, which sucked, so I grabbed his left arm and tried to push him onto his stomach. It was a stupid mistake. Instead of rolling over, his arm came off.
I yelped a little and dropped the arm. How I didn’t throw up all over the dead man, I’ll never know.
Since his arm was no longer an option for leverage, I had to do it quick and dirty. I put both arms under his torso, lifted with my knees, and rolled the dead weight onto its stomach. I took the wallet from his pocket, noticed he didn’t have any cash–yes, I know a bad person, but there was a very good chance that an even worse person employed by MediaTown was why he didn’t have any cash–and removed his driver’s license.
Coincidentally, Chester lived just a few streets away from my apartment. Small world.
That’s when it hit me. This zombie–Chester Reddingfield–was a guy. Or he had been, at least. Just another dude who wanted a new TV. I wondered what he was going to watch on it, what he was going to do with that new laptop. My mind flashed to my apartment and the area around it. I imagined Chester here just a few streets over, shambling up his driveway dragging his new purchases behind him. I saw him lounging in a recliner, watching reruns and gurgling “nunglebnnnnn” at whatever sitcom or reality show he was watching.
And I got a little sick.
Because I could see myself doing the same thing. I had been wanting a new TV for a while now, and my laptop hadn’t booted correctly in months. In fact, the idea of Chester’s commission had prompted me to think of going home and watching a few celebratory episodes of something on TV. I might not “nunglebnnnnn” at them, but did that matter?
What if Randy had missed his shot? What if it had been me lying on the stockroom floor instead of Chester? What if it had been my brains on Chester’s shirt instead of the other way around?
I looked down at the armless corpse and choked back my sick. The only difference would have been that my arm wouldn’t have ripped off so easily.
Something about that felt so wrong. During the outbreak, things had been so simple. It was them and us. People and zombies. Kill or be killed. Monsters and…
What? Was there really ever a difference? And if so, which one was I?
I pocketed the ID and put his wallet back in his pants. I didn’t bother rolling him back over or putting his arm anywhere near where it should have been. I just walked straight out of the stockroom and back to my department.
When I got there, Mrs. Higgins was standing next to the endcap I had been working on all night.
“Mr. Gordon,” she said. That’s all. Just “Mr. Gordon.”
“Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Higgins?” I replied.
“Where have you been?” she asked. She always sounded mad, so I wasn’t sure if I was actually in trouble, or if she just wanted me to think I was.
“I, uhh,” I said eloquently. “The bathroom.”
“Mmm hmm,” she said. “You’re okay to leave early.”
“I said you can go home. You don’t need to finish your shift.”
I was baffled. I figured I would get a write-up for leaving the floor unattended, but fired? “Am I being fired, Mrs. Higgins?”
I think that was the first time I ever saw Mrs. Higgins laugh. “No, Mr. Gordon. You’re not being fired. I called Candace, and she’s going to finish the last couple hours of your shift for you.” I started to protest, but she held up her hand. “I know you need the hours, but I think after the night you’ve had, you could use the time off even more.”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Higgins. I really am.”
“It wasn’t a question,” she said. “Go home, get some rest, and I’ll see you, what, Monday night?”
“I think so,” I said.
She nodded and walked away. “Get some rest.”
Any other time, I would have been very irritated. I hated being sent home, especially as tight as money was. I generally needed the hours more than I needed rest. Even fifteen minutes ago, I probably would have been mad about being sent home. But right then, I wasn’t.
I went to my locker, grabbed the bag with my bloody shirt in it, and walked toward the front of the store. I passed the Customer Service desk and patted the credit card and ID in my pocket as I did so. I slowed as I walked past, thinking about dropping them off like I told the lady I would, but I kept walking.
I was probably a bad person for doing it, and I was sure that I was breaking more than a couple of laws, but…I had worked so long and so hard for so little return, mindlessly doing the same thing day in and day out just to get these bills paid off. I was finally going to have a little peace of mind. I mean, it wasn’t like I had killed the zombi—
His name was Chester. Thanks to Chester Reddingfield.
Anyway, it wasn’t like I had killed Chester. I just just…ripped his arm off, left him lying face down in the stock room, and stolen his credit card and ID.
What kind of person did that?
I looked back at the customer service desk. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the automatic doors open, and Candace came in smiling. She waved at me and said, “Hope you have a good night. Mrs. Higgins told me what happened. Go get some rest, feel better, grab a bite to eat.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I plan to. You sure this is okay?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I need the hours. Bills to pay and never enough money to pay ‘em, you know? Maybe tonight instead of stoners and old ladies, I’ll get a rich zombie carrying bags of money who’ll offer to pay off my student loans before he gets Hunted.”
I panicked. “What do you mean?” I asked. My heart thudded, and my hand instinctively went toward my pocket with the cards. Then I saw her smiling, and I realized it was a joke. “Heh…yeah, something like that.”
About that time, a large man wearing a cowboy hat and talking on a cell phone walked up to Candace. “Excuse me, miss? Do you know anything about – what was it called again, Margaret? TiVos?”
“So much for that,” I said and waved at her. She smiled back and walked with her customer deeper into the store.
B.J. Keeton is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting *Firefly* back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. He lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats.
B.J. is the co-author of *Nimbus: A Steampunk Novel* (available at Amazon.com & other major ebook distributors). *Nimbus* is a serial novel, and Part One can be read (for free!) at his blog, ProfessorBeej.com. His upcoming novel *Birthright* is the first in a trilogy titled *The Technomage Archive *and is slated for release in November 2012.
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