Emergence of the Living Dead by Richard K. Weems
Associate fiction editors Michael Giddings and Matt Weinkam on the power of today's story: Between Night of the, Dawn of the, Shaun of the, and now The Walking, we have had more than our share of the Dead come back to life. But within the first three sentences of “Emergence of the Living Dead,” Richard Weems changed our minds by not only reminding us why we like zombie stories, but also by reimagining the mechanics of that mystery. The collective voice of the pack is as nonhuman as one would expect a group of decaying bodies to be, but it is also careful to remind us what it once was. Weems’ motley grouping of monster—singular in both its voice and its quest for adolescent flesh—refuses to let us forget that it was once, not so long ago, exactly like us. And that might be what we’re really gnawing on when we read this story. While we love Weems’ sense of rhythm (Chew? and Yes, Yes, Yes!), sharp imagery (we were snagged on that case of Glenmorangie single malt), and biting humor (teenage boys as deli meats), it is the uncomfortably familiar humanness in the voice that keeps us shuffling with the mob until the end. You may attempt to resist, but, as Weems has made very clear, it will only be a matter of time until we are all overtaken.
Emergence of the Living Dead
We have the memory and cognitive abilities of worker ants. When there is no immediate prospect of flesh to chew, our only intent is to find some. We don’t even swallow this flesh we obsess over, nor do we have the mechanics to digest it. We chew and chew until the warmth and juiciness and quivering of this flesh are spent, and then we let its remnants fall from the corners of our mouths as we search for a new fix. We put the question (Chew?) to everything we encounter. Our brains have deflated into on/off switches, propelled by the instinct etched into every inch of our rotten, incapable digestive tract: to find something to chew. Warm and salty, still vibrating with the pulse of its struggling host—we do not cease our forward progression until the toggle within the remnants of our skull says Yes. If the flagpole one of us bumps into is not something to chew (and it isn’t), that one moves on. This picnic table? No. Move on. This dead skunk? This memorial headstone? Some of us mill about in an orbit, while others meander for miles across state lines.
Say one of us stumbles upon a wooden box while trudging through a field. Maybe it is a bureau drawer, maybe a case of Glenmorangie single malt. All we identify is what it is not. Chew? As this item registers No, we don’t care what else it may be and move on.
But let’s say that the splinted corner of this item has snagged our pant leg so that after our query, we are swept around when we shamble forward and meet back up with the exact same object just seconds after the previous encounter. Will we recognize this item as the No determined just an instance ago and thus realize that we have doubled-back?
Inconceivable, such a thought! Instead, we look down at the exact same box and ask of it, Chew? No, we acknowledge, and if the snag holds fast, we will sweep around to the same spot and continue the same inquiry. One of us has been caught in such a loop for two weeks in a grass plain in Wyoming. Others pass regularly, but none assist.
Yet there is always a respectable gathering of us in the courtyard at the ready when an abundance of testosterone psyches these boys up like locusts to swarm into the breezeway and fire up the lights.
They appear only after night has turned official, so the breezeway of the school they’ve barricaded themselves into makes them look like salmon in the front window of a seafood restaurant. They rip open the snaps of their varsity jackets to bare their chests and bellies. Maybe one will unzip and whip out a tasty-looking morsel. Sometimes all six of them coordinate a simultaneous dropping of trou and press a dozen pasty hams to the glass. Their teenage bodies hum from a diet of tater tots, pink processed beef slime and fruit punch.
Their taunts work like a charm. Those of us malingering in the courtyard just past the windows take the bait and shamble toward them. And when our hands and mouths are fragments of an inch from their succulent offerings, bang! (or whop! or kreech!), we meet up against glass, which has none of the texture, warmth nor salty aftertaste of what we desire. Instead, we break and chip our already loose and rotting teeth. We turn up our yellowed cuticles. We mash our noses, and in time those of us at the glass are pressed further against it by the weight of those of us at the back who still clamber forward, unaware of the tasteless barrier that awaits.
All the while, these boys hoot, chortle and guffaw at our persistence and stick-to-it-tiveness. They rub their body parts along the glass to induce rubbery squeals. If the one of us who wears a cheerleading skirt the same color palette as their varsity jackets happens to join us tonight, these boys proliferate the unzipping of their flies and high-five each other as she grasps fruitlessly at their junk with her pom-pom-encumbered hand.
But in their revelry, these boys fail to note that we are always gathered in the courtyard before the breezeway when they decide to make an appearance, even though their appearances follow no regular schedule. How many of us there are and our exact makeup varies from event to event. Some of us appear regularly, while others are drawn once to the light and afterward wander too far to ever be drawn to it again. Yet we never fail to number at least a dozen, sometimes as many as threescore, when those lights fire up.
Our readiness does not result from the effort of scouts who loiter in the courtyard day and night and signal when the lights fire up. When the lights are out and no boys present themselves, no notion of their existence lingers in any one of us. Nor should you think we have a queen to our hive or a zombie sovereign pulling telepathic strings to orchestrate our efforts. No chalkboard riddled with X’s and O’s drawn up by an undead coach with a whistle he is unable to fill with air. We would make the worst team in the world, as we are incapable of running scripted plays or memorizing signals. Our individual movements are short-minded and quite stupid, to be frank, but as a colony we are quite organized and complex.
Take the way we would speak, had we any desire to explain ourselves. Not as any kind of unified monologue, but as a chaotic sequence of monosyllabic grunts and moans induced by precipitating stimuli (a wisp of breeze through the grass, the crunch of a footstep in the dry underbrush, anything that intones the presence of flesh). Though our utterances are immediate and reactionary, conveyed without strategy nor orchestration, the combined field of our grunts and moans over the length of our existence composes a complex vocabulary and syntax that are surprisingly pedantic and belie our dull exteriors. So even though no single one of us is aware of the existence of these boys inside the school when we can neither see nor hear them and our decomposed brains have no capacity for anticipation, we are ready for them when they decide to appear as though we predicted their appearance.
Though our persistence never dims, theirs does in time. After a few minutes (thirty at most), they quit their hollering and hooting and glare at us as though there were some second act or further cache of tricks we should have dipped into by now. Maybe they’re reminded of how there used to be more of them before they tried to escape to one of the buses across the parking lot. They armed themselves with wrenches, landscaping tools, baseball bats—one with a ragmop—and took up a classic Roman testudo formation as they advanced.
They weren’t even across the outdoor basketball court when we reached impassable density. Without knowing it, we configured ourselves into a wedge offense that broke their formation, the rest of us ready with zone defense to make their retreat a difficult one. They lashed out and put some of us down, the one with the ragmop just trying to keep us at bay, but they were too focused on individual survival to work collectively. By the time the rest skedaddled back to school, we brought down eight of them, two of whom later joining our numbers. When these boys stare at us with disappointment, perhaps the disappointment is theirs.
Such is the case everywhere nowadays: any encounter with us usually leaves you overwhelmed. Whether you putter along in a delivery van, perch in a remote fire tower, strand yourself on an island or hole up inside of a school, you hide because you find yourself the vast minority. Even in landscapes reduced to cars and buildings and bats and sticks and bullet casings and the bony remnants of those we chewed on too completely to leave anything to rise up with us, we trudge onward in search of more to chew, though you have grown scarce. Endangered, even. We are the new masters of this globe, though we are individually unaware of having attained such status.
Thus, when the diesel tank of the delivery van goes dry and the inhabitants roll up the rear door and make a break for the pump they pulled up to, they will soon find a phalanx of us marching at them from behind the tree line. Those stranded by design on an island will wake too late when a gaggle of us trudge right up onto shore, having slogged along the bottom of the sea for miles in breathless determination. Even those barricaded inside of a fire tower will run out of supplies and venture onto nearby boughs like squirrels to forage for ravioli. But even squirrels stumble on occasion as they transfer from tree to tree, and when those tasty slabs slip from their roosts, they will fall among a pack of us as though we anticipated their moment of imbalance. We will be as surprised as they, only more pleasantly so.
And so it will be with these boys. They may consider their current circumstance impregnable, but their days of endless basketball, volleyball and ragmop jousts in the empty hallways are numbered. They may think they have enough tater tots to last until Doomsday, but their true doom lies in the temperamental lock on the bay door, or that crack in the frosted glass of the locker room window at ground level that needs only an inadvertent kick to bust out. Or one of them will leave a door ajar after a breath of fresh air. Or a handful of us will happen upon the service tunnel that connects the concrete shed by the football field to the school basement.
But maybe these boys know down in their genes that their end is only a matter of time, that they’ve sunk in the hierarchy of the food chain. They freeze into invisibility like rabbits when something clicks or maybe groans at the dark end of a hallway. And someone may fall into horror movie stupidity and venture into the boiler room to investigate a strange sound or the sudden loss of heat when one of us brushes against the breaker box.
Our entry into their safe haven is a mere inevitability.
While we chew, we will regain a shade of what we had before we joined this binary existence. Our joy will translate only into a single word: Yes, Yes, Yes Yes Yes Yes--Yes. When we exhaust the Yes out of what is in our mouths, we will want nothing less than to have more Yes in our mouths, to chew the Yes out of another piece of what we once were. In our Yes is the desire to forever maintain the Yes, and we will chew every molecule of Yes from the world before we rot to the point of incapacity, when we will fall to the ground face up or face down and ask of the sky or grass were are incapable of looking away from, Chew? Chew? Chew? We will do so until we are dust that blows into dunes and drifts—pretty formations organized without a maker.
Richard K. Weems just released The Way of It - New and Selected Cheap Stories exclusively as a Kindle book for now, forthcoming on iBooks. Publications include New World Writing, The Mississippi Review, Pif Magazine, North American Review, and Local Knowledge. His zombie obsession is nothing new.