Bruce Johnson is a PhD fellow in the University of Southern California Creative Writing & Literature program, and he holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. His work has appeared in Cutthroat, The Adroit Journal, Floodwall, and Gone Lawn, among other places. He lives with his wife and two cats in Quito, Ecuador, where he is working on his dissertation.
I know you love the things now, the way they are on TV. But they won’t be so popular if they come for real.
They won’t be evil, simply misguided. Not bloodthirsty, just wanting of a little human company. You will wake up and there’s your mother at the door, your mother who’s been dead ten years or more. Maybe even me, looking lost. You will know that me and Marie are dead, but won’t want to be rude, so you’ll have no choice but to open the door. You’ll sit us down at the table with your family. You’ll be eating rehydrated bread or nutrient pills or whatever the hell people eat by then. You’ll say to your kids, “You remember Grandpa Tom. You remember Nana Marie.”
We won’t say anything in return, because our vocal cords will be long since decayed. You’ll wonder, What did we ever say to each other anyway? Were their eyes this lifeless before, or is that new? What about the smell, the sunken gums? You’ll have a hard time sitting there, trying to sort out the parents you remember from the ones that are there now. This will be anything but simple.
Your mother will make a whirring sound in the back of her throat like a malfunctioning garbage disposal, and your kids will try to imitate this sound. Your wife will hiss under her breath for them to stop, not to be rude. Soon, your children will be sauntering all around the house making this noise, “speaking zombie.” This will annoy you to no end. You’ll sit them down and try to impress upon them that it’s not polite to make fun. When they say they’re not, they’re just trying to be closer to Grandma, you’ll say, Some things are best left distant.
Though I always pictured a house in the country for you, big and affordable with a creek out back and maybe a chicken coop, you’ll probably live in the city, or at best a house in the burbs that looks like all the other houses. I’ll make that sound like a broken garbage disposal at you and I will mean, You should have lived out in the country. In the country you could put up chicken wire to make sure your mom and me don’t wander off or scare the neighborhood.
You’ll have no choice but to shut us up in the attic with all the boxes of crap you didn’t get around to sorting through after we died. You’ll tell your child, Don’t worry, they like it up there. There are other parents in other attic windows, and they can wave to them, and they will wave back.
But we will be zombies, after all. You’ll start to notice things after a while, things that make sleep difficult. Pained moans in the night, strange shufflings at all hours, the sound of fingernails scraping against the front door, like someone’s trying to get out. You’ll tell your child, Make sure you lock your door at night. Then there are the things we will leave behind, starting small: a blue tip of finger here, a pile of yellow teeth there. Finally a dark, withered ear found in the cookie jar, like the person who lost it felt ashamed and tried to hide it. You’ll put a lock on the attic door and your wife will get mad. She’ll say, This is a natural part of life. How will you feel, if when we’re old and zombied our children lock us up in the attic?
And when you wake up in the middle of the night and there I am, gnawing on some exposed part of your arm, you’ll smack me with a folded magazine and tell me to shoo. It’s just a phase, you’ll say to yourself as I lumber out of the room, like a child teething. How long can parents stay zombies? And anyway, how much damage can they really do? He barely drew blood. You’ll try not to think of those movies you watched when you were young, where if you were bitten that meant you were soon to turn.
The next night you’ll show your children how to barricade the bedroom door, just in case. Just like in the movies you remember from when you were young, the ones where zombies attacked—some two-by-fours from the construction yard, scrap metal from the garage, various riffraff from around the room. It will be fun, this parent-child bonding, in a bittersweet way. But this memory will loom in their minds, not as a memory about their grandparents but about their father, you, and how you handled me. It will be a lesson in the protections needed against family, and how to build walls when the time comes.