Drew McCutchen

Fiction

Drew McCutchen lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. He enjoys hiking and backpacking in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. He studied creative writing at the University of Washington and is considering adopting a cat. This is his first published story.

 

Zombie Horror

I had to eighty-six Daniel three times from the overpass, hit my clipboard against his dirty blue tent and wait for him to crawl out of his sleeping bag before he agreed to see his daughter. He’d been dead for sixteen years and back for nine months then. He’d done the usual reanimation cycle: shower off the dirt, six months in rehab, iris repair, tongue ligimentry, and then booted out on his own with the address of a group home and fifteen hundred dollars from Uncle Sam. Within four days he and his roommates were dragging their mattresses out to the backyard and burying themselves in the dirt. He didn’t get up, just lay there. He lost his job, lost his housing, and then got turfed to the streets. He was a typical zombie, and thus a typical zombie case, which made him my responsibility, or, to be more specific, that made him my case: Case 7, Daniel Hedrig.

~

Every week there is some new theory out there by a scientist or mental health doctor who comes up with a strategy for how to deal with the dead. Not how to deal with the problem of the dead. That’s a political conversation left to twenty-four hour news channels and presidential candidates. But instead, how to deal with the individual dead. This issue is debated in academic journals, daytime television programs, and just about every single religious group’s newsletter—both print and online versions. Most of the time what changes our work on the front lines is what we hear from psych Ph.Ds.

Our department head sends out weekly training videos with new insights and the latest research: a hyperlink to a video of a doctor with thick-rimmed glasses sitting in front of a mountain of books: “You must talk to them quietly. They’ve been used to quiet for so long.” Last month we had a speaker with a slide show and a laser pen extolling on zombies’ need for tough love.

That’s the thing, this whole zombie stuff: it’s still in its infancy. We’re only five years out from the first risers, and even now there are only about a thousand cases every year. So people come up with ideas. They run experiments, they form test groups and control groups, they isolate variables and tinker with other ones, they ask questions and measure pupil dilation, hook electrodes to dead neural transmitters and watch zeros readout. But mostly they apply for government grants and Uncle Sam says, yes please, because the Z’s are a drain on the economy, and they’re also a reminder. Just like Daniel is a reminder, and every other one is a reminder when they’re sleeping on church doorsteps, living tucked under overpasses, begging for cigarette butts on a street corner—this isn’t working, the system. It’s broken in some way. The government just wants the problem to go away now that a weaponized application is out of the question. Turns out a bunch of creaking old bones and broken superegos will not be the future of the military. Go figure.

Doug says the problem is that it’s so new, people haven’t figured out how to relax and not worry about trying to find the "right" way and just try anything that works. He says, "Think about it. They’re still talking about the right way to raise a kid, and we’ve been messing that up for thousands of years. There ain’t no truth in the future." Doug talks in quotes like that. He’s got the highest success rate of consecutive indoor sleeps across his entire case load. If you’re dead and Doug’s your case manager, you have a nine out of ten chance that you’re sleeping in a bed five nights a week. Those are damn good odds, and that makes Doug a dead-genius. When we’re in the breakroom, gnawing on Danish, slurping coffee, talking about our cases and staring out that thirty-fifth floor window, we listen when Doug talks.

Doug steps one bended leg up on a chair, stuffs a thumb into his suspenders and says, "The key to a beat-less heart is finding a beat, a rhythm, something that makes their spirit alive again."

It’s cheesy, homespun bullshit. We all agree when Doug leaves. We laugh as we hear him whistling down the hallway, but we also know he’s got as much room to talk as he wants, so our laughs turn into coughs, and we find excuses to get back to work.

We lost a lot of the first risers, mostly to people shooting them. They'd come up out of the ground, meander down to some farmhouse, and get whatever was left of their heads blown off. We couldn’t blame the people that did it. Literally, the state couldn’t blame them. Didn’t manage a single conviction of murder the first year, both on account of the victim was already dead and because it just seemed like a reasonable reaction to seeing a walking corpse. But we got the word out, and now most folks know to call the city when they see one that looks new.

Some poor kids found Daniel outside of Portland at a swimming hole. They were jumping off a sandstone ledge when he came limping into view at the end of the water and scared the holy living hell out of them. Most people have never actually seen a dead person, and those that have usually haven’t seen one that’s been dead for years and is up walking around.

Daniel had been a plumber his first go around. A plumber’s apprentice, actually, to his father, William Hedrig, who is currently dead and has stayed that way so far. According to the WHO, post-necrotic animation is not a hereditary condition. These details are all in Daniel’s case file, and every once in a while we would talk about it. He’d had a cute wife, a double-wide, and an adorable little girl that he’d named Susan after his mother, who died when Daniel was young. Susan, the daughter, was six when Daniel died and is a whopping twenty-three now. She didn’t want to see Daniel at first. Most people don’t feel comfortable. We don’t blame them. We don’t blame anyone. It’s not in the pamphlet.

It’s not always best for the riser and the family to meet. Sometimes we argue against it. Doug says, "What comes up ain’t what went in." I have that written down somewhere as a reminder, maybe in my car. I think he’s right, and he’s got the stats to back it up, but I do wonder about the coldness of his assessment. I was a chaplain before I was this. Whatever one calls this. My title says Reanimation Rehabilitation Specialist. Isn’t that something?

My first conversation with Daniel was typical of what you’d expect. We sat down in the children’s playroom at the social work center on account of our normal intake undergoing asbestos eradication. I remember him sitting there, slumped over in one of those little plastic children’s chairs aimlessly playing with the lettered building blocks in his hand, his ghoulish appearance frightening among all those children’s toys.

“You remember anything from before, Daniel?” He says sure. Sort of mouths it at me and nods his head, inclining it forward, leaving his gaze on the blocks, while I scribble a little in my notebook. I know some of the boys are behind the one-way mirror, watching my technique, taking their own notes. There’s a mutual appreciation and competition in this line of work.

“How much do you remember?” He shrugs his dead shoulders and discards the block he’s been playing with, like the question I asked him.

I give him a minute before I go on. “Do you remember your family, Daniel?”

He nods again and whispers yes. His voice guttural, rasping, like pouring gravel down a washboard. He seems apologetic for the way he looks and sounds.

“Do you remember how it ended?”

Daniel picks up another block and holds it up between us. He stares over the top of it at me with his glassed-blue eyes that sink like heavy river stones deeper into his skull and into mine.

He nods, points in his mouth, and then turns his head and shows me the hole in the back, pointing to it. It is cavernous and dark, and I remember the ice caves I used to visit with my family when I was a young boy. And then I think about a man that had an idea so bright and so full of energy that it simply was too much for his head to contain, and it leapt right out of him.

I wanted to ask Daniel why he made that choice. Why, when he had sweet little Susan at home, did he drive his truck to a trailhead, load up his backpack, hike into the woods, and make that decision staring over the powerful blue-green currents of the Snake River. But I didn’t and don’t ask those questions, because the pamphlet we have says to stay on safe topics. Try to focus on what new opportunities lie ahead. Focus on the future.

But I wonder about the past. I wonder what he said to his wife when he called her. Because I know he called her before he did it. They talked for one minute and thirty-five seconds. But the file doesn’t say what they talked about. Goodbye, maybe. I love you. Her knowing something isn’t right. Maybe he apologized for not just what was to come but for everything that led up to it, for not being right in all the ways that a person can be wrong. Maybe he hears her voice tighten and hyperventilate before he hangs up. Maybe he does it fast, crying over it, and her, and Susan, his hands fumbling, trying to do the work before he loses the necessary nerve. Maybe she tries to call him right back. And then tries to call and call and call—until that phone dies up there on that mountain with him. What do you say in one minute and thirty-five seconds that’s supposed to last a lifetime?

I try to stop asking myself these questions because we have a pamphlet for us too. And it says this isn’t healthy for me.

But the pamphlet only takes one minute to read, so you do the math.

~

I used to work at a hospital as a chaplain back when Deb and I were still married and there was a sense to life. The hospital was a real religious institution up north in a metropolis tucked into the wet, loamy farm fields of the Puget Sound. Up there the fog settles in and eats the trees as it works its way down a mountain. The hospital had an enormous cross, bright blue, installed into the patient wing, spanning four stories all together—The Sisters of Perpetual Serenity. I was the hospice chaplain. Those are the cases that don’t go home. I have placed my hands over the hands of the sick and dying and the loved ones of the sick and dying so many times I don’t remember if it was a thousand or ten thousand. But I remember the hands: strong hands; weak hands; hands with thick, knotted blue veins; and rough, calloused hands; hands with wedding rings and hands missing fingers. At the hospital you were guided to rely on God’s grace. That’s what you fall back on when things are bad. Place your hands over their hands and remind them that there is some infinite wisdom that we simply cannot understand or even begin to understand, that there is a reason for all of this pain and suffering, and that what helps, perhaps—and you look them in the eye when you say this—is to remember the grace of God.

It worked in geriatrics most of the time. One of those old timers lying rigid in a bed with eyes hard like marbles, waiting for you to say your saintly peace and let them get back to the work of dying. Up in the north county—that was hard land that only recently softened up a bit after so many generations of men and women throwing themselves against it. Like rain on granite, the hardness of human callouses sloughing away against rock and timber. A land like that requires sacrifice before it yields. I used to think those folks up there knew how to die. Now it seems no one knows how to die. Isn’t that ironic?

God’s grace didn’t work in oncology with the kids’ cases. You could put your hand over a parent’s hands and look into their eyes, but you couldn’t bring yourself to mutter the blasphemy of God’s grace to them. And I never did. I talked. I listened. I played with stuffed animals in funny voices and pressed the pen in my pants pocket into my leg until I was sure I wasn’t going to cry. I asked doctors to slow down and talk a little louder when they spoke if they could, because Paul’s dad, who wears the orange suspenders and comes in every day after sunset, is a little hard of hearing after twenty years on a chainsaw and if you could just talk a little louder when you come by, I’d appreciate it as a personal favor.

After so many years, I’d finally had enough of dying and decided to take out the middle man. Work a job in straight death. No ifs, ands, or buts. The work doesn’t seem any easier, but I don’t have to talk about God and his grace. I just have to try to help people, shrug my shoulders, and say things like, "What are ya gonna do?" Some call what I’ve done losing faith. I tell them to take it up with God. I already got too many cases.

Three weeks after Daniel becomes my problem, I tell him Susan responded to my phone call and has agreed to see him. I tell him this over coffee, after picking him up from the overpass and doing my best to dust the dirt off him. I tell him we’re going because he hasn’t shown any change and I need to see some change so I can mark it down in his case folder, and I’ve got two new cases this week to add to my overload of cases. He sits in his chair uncomfortably, staring back and forth and keeping his back and the hole in his head pointing towards the wall behind him. I can tell he wants a cigarette. Daniel chain smokes. Nearly every single one does. I used to think it made them feel alive, but how can you feel alive when you can’t say, "These things are killing me."

“Do you remember Reagan?” Daniel asks, smelling the steam of the coffee through his tipless nose.

“Yeah I remember him.”

Daniel nods his head and keeps going. “I remember Reagan and the wall before and after it came down. I remember Coca Cola and black and white TV and catching Sockeye in the Snake River, and I don’t remember cell phones. I remember my daughter. But not all grown up.” When Daniel talks, I see bits of the painting behind him through his mouth and the exit wound in his head, using him like a bad telescope. I can see the tendons in his face straining where his cheeks are shrunken in. I’ve seen pictures of Daniel in his folder from before. He was handsome in a gentle way, and in some weird twist of the modern world, he looks handsome in that coffee shop. He looks tired and gentle and handsome.

“I’ll go if you say I have to go.”

The pamphlet says he has to go.

So we go.

~

James Turk is the poster child for successful risers. He’s one of Doug’s of course. He died in a fire. Fell asleep smoking a cigarette after flushing a hit of heroin through his veins. He managed to crawl out of his house and die on the front lawn mostly from smoke inhalation, but the burns still covered almost his entire body. His case stunk. He’d been a beater of women, a user of drugs, had a rape charge he’d avoided somehow. But he woke up after five years and showed real promise. He sells hot dogs from a stand down in Long Beach, Washington now. He sleeps in a bunkbed. He pays his taxes. They made a documentary about him; almost everyone, even people outside of this line of work, have seen it. He’s a success story, I guess.

I met him once. I bought a hot dog from him, took it out of his gray hands and ate it, and asked him about his life. He whistled through the hole in his cheek where the burned flesh was thin, an ingratiating move he’d picked up along the way. He said he’s famous now. He said in the summer, families come by with perky teenage daughters and good tips, and in the winter he moseys on down to California and surfs and stays with friends. When I talk to Daniel I want to tell him about James Turk. That there is a success story out there of happiness. And then I think, I’m not made out for this kind of work, and I think about that big blue cross glowing out into the land where the people come from, and I just keep my mouth shut and read the pamphlet.

~

We drove to Portland a week later and met Susan at a deli by her apartment in Hawthorne. She looked as pretty as she sounded on the phone, dressed up in the electric blues and pinks of punk. Her hair dyed with an undercut exposing the short stubble on one side of her head. Her blue eyes went bright and big when she saw Daniel. We made awkward small talk in-between the orders for French dips and chicken clubs at the counter. Daniel jumped a little every time they yelled, "Order up!" Susan ordered a sandwich but only played with it.

Daniel says, “What do you do for fun?” And Susan says, “I like to listen to live music and play the guitar.” And Daniel smiles and sucks at his teeth.

Daniel pulls the beanie he has brought down further over his head to cover the hole. To make sure no light comes through when he talks.

“Do you remember when I used to carry you around on my shoulders?”

“I think I was too young to remember that.”

Daniel nods and works his hands together like he’s polishing brass.

“Mom kept all your pictures. So many of them. She didn’t want me to forget what you looked like I think. But I can’t remember what’s a memory of you or just something I made up over the years of staring at those pictures.”

Daniel says, “You were a runner. Did your mother tell you that? You didn’t learn to walk, you just went straight to running.” Daniel smiles at his daughter.

Susan takes the crust off her sandwich, then looks up at him and says, “I don’t understand why you did it.”

Snow falls outside but doesn’t stick to the ground. It just melts and disappears. The cook yells, “Order up!” I try to think of what to say, but I fail.

Daniel works his thin fingers over the beanie again, looking from her to me and back, and I feel the weight of a father’s love for him.

“I . . .” he starts but stops.

“Go on now.” I tell him.

Daniel looks at me, and whatever it is that I have made my life about shudders under the weight of its lie.

“I’d thought about it before then. Before you, I mean.” Daniel works his hands together in front of him, knitting and reknitting them. “It’s all like a dream now, you see. It’s like this dream that I’m trying to remember after all these years, but I had wanted to be released. Not from you. Not like that. Just the . . .” Daniel puts a fist to his chest and looks at his daughter.

I look at them. Both of them are different now. Strangers to whatever versions of themselves they were together.

“I’d been waiting for my Dad to go before I did it. I thought it’d hurt him too much, you know?” Daniel’s talking at the table now. Susan is crying one tear at a time. They run down her cheeks in single streams until she wipes them away with her sleeve.

“I needed to be done. I needed a release from the hopelessness. You see?”

Susan puts her hand on Daniel’s. I watch her jerk away from the cold she wasn’t expecting, but she recovers herself and grips his hand.

Outside the diner, we stand in the cold air. I take a picture of them together. Susan and Daniel. Clouds of her breath and only her breath floating upward. They each smoke a cigarette, the same brand. I think, at least they have this in common. Maybe this is what progress looks like. But then I remember: they already have death in common.

Sometimes when I’m working my cases, I wonder if I’ll come back. I’m old enough to know my time is coming down the way sooner than later. You might wonder, a guy like me, whether I’m ready for it. That great big beyond that’s rushing towards us. I worry less about that than about coming back, rising again years later and seeing this world all dressed up in a new wardrobe and smelling different. Like running into an old girlfriend you haven’t seen in years, and you struggle to recognize her or the man you were when you were with her. I’ll have to come back and have weekly meetings with a guy like me. Some working stiff leading my stiff body around the ashes of my past, trying to make amends for a life already ended. Maybe he’ll have me go back and apologize to Deb if she’s still kicking. I wouldn’t mind that I suppose. Maybe she’ll be back, too, and we’ll start all over again. Two dead divorcees with all the time in the world on our skeletal hands. Till death do us unite.

~

Daniel and I are driving back north to Seattle when I decide to take us to the ocean. It’s still a hundred miles away, but as soon as we take the junction and head west, I can taste the salt water in the air. I roll down the windows all the same and let the breeze hit us. Daniel stares forward, his shoulders are slumped. I wonder what Doug would do in this moment, but I think that maybe something as big and beautiful as the ocean can do the thing that needs to be done.

Daniel never asks where we’re going, but an hour and a half later, we drive down the hill and the ocean spreads out before us. I take us to the state park and we pull into a sandy spot. I get out and breathe in the air, and Daniel pulls himself out of the car and follows me down the sandy bluff.

We stay at the beach awhile, not talking, just picking up sand dollars and digging our toes in the cold, wet muck. Eventually we end up back at the car watching the surf.

I ask Daniel, “Well, you gonna go back and see her again?”

But he shakes his head. “I’m just a bad memory.”

Then Daniel explains it to me. Why they want to sleep so much. He tells me to think about an afternoon. A warm one, with a slight cooling breeze coming in through an open window. Think about the moment, he says, right after you’ve just made love to a woman, and you’re lying on that couch feeling the breeze. And you know you’re falling asleep. There’s a calm tingle to your whole body. Like you’re feeling every single cell you’ve got. You know you’re drifting off. That you’ll wake up again in a bit. But right in that moment, that perfect moment, your eyelids drop down like anvils, and each time you just barely manage to open them again. Fighting sleep just cause of the way it feels. Your head and body are clear and weightless. Like you’re floating. And then, and this is when Daniel places his cold hands over mine and keeps going. And then, when you’ve struggled enough and you give in, the euphoria laps and washes over you like a warm wave and your last blink turns into sleep. You think, I’m going to sleep now, and then I’m going to wake up to this perfect moment.

He stops talking, and the sounds of the ocean wash over us. I want to say something to Daniel after this, when his eyes are searching mine and his grip is so strong. I want to give him the absolution that walking death has robbed him of. But I don't have that to offer. I won’t tell a dead man about God’s grace.

I can only write that Case 7 shows progress, reread the pamphlet, and drive us the long way home.

I wrote the first paragraph of this story after reading Diane Cook’s story collection, Man v. Nature. She blends raw humanity into surreal worlds to create such beautiful stories, and I was wonderfully overwhelmed by that influence.