Pause the Dawn of the Dead remake, the one from 2004 with its seemingly unlimited makeup and rubber limb-torn-from-the-socket budget. Pause the film, and—yes, it certainly looks like Kiersten down there in the zombie hordes that surround the shopping mall where the film’s protagonists (the ragtag group of survivors who, a discerning viewer might realize, represent as many different audience demographics as possible) have sequestered themselves. You see Kiersten. It’s her! She’s clear for an instant, face recognizable to those who love her, Kiersten Collins in the flesh, but then the camera zooms out to show the totality of the zombie apocalypse and she becomes just a vague smudge bumping around in the undead CGI moshpit.
But no, that can’t be right. This is just a movie, right?
Or maybe it isn’t. Because make no mistake…she’s down there in her tight, form-fitting Nike athletic pants, her zip-up track jacket, her hair in a ponytail beneath an LA Lakers cap, body as perfect as some bitch in a damned Fabletics ad, even though she’s apparently a zombie now. It’s as if she’s mocking you, even in death (undeath?), shoving in your face her ease in maintaining such a figure.
She’s doesn’t dress like this to upset you, of course. Likely, she was about to go for a five-mile morning jog (the sort of jog that’s soooo easy for her) but clearly had no idea that a zombie outbreak was sweeping across the West Coast, undead multiplying exponentially, bite by bite by bite. Likely, Kiersten herself was bit before she even cleared her own driveway, and if you know Kiersten (and God, do you ever, more than you care to), her last conscious thought before turning to zombie was a deep rage that her jog—just five miles, but absolutely necessary for her half-marathon training plan—would not happen.
She’s there in the hordes, on your television, and you have it all figured out, how this happened…But I’m here to ask you, what if you don’t? What if you don’t know Kiersten nearly as well as you think you do? What if things are not so easy for her? What if she woke up late that morning, still sore from the pi-yo class you made her take the day before? What if she was kind of burnt out on the long-distance running thing in which you were both immersed but on which she suspected you were skipping out (she was right) even as she killed herself (not literally) to put in her daily miles? What if, truth be told, she was burnt out on the entire healthy-fit lifestyle everyone’s been pushing on her for so long, and she kind of wanted to just lay out by the pool all morning, eat a Snickers?
Of course, what does it matter?, because she’s down there now, pieces of flesh still caught between her teeth, and she’s moaning and bumping into all the other zombies and craving—like, seriously craving—some motherfucking brains.
This definitely doesn’t seem likely, does it, this craving? It doesn’t fit with what you know of Kiersten. Nor does it seem possible that, after being bitten by a neighborhood child, she subsequently tackled her lawn guy and with just her teeth—the teeth that cost so much to straighten when she was a kid, and that have been through so many whitening treatments that she’s sometimes afraid to even drink coffee or red wine for fear of spoiling their brilliance—with these teeth she tore into the lawn guy’s neck, bit it like it was a turkey leg at a medieval faire, and there was blood, and bones sticking out of a crater where once there was neck, lots of squirting, and it doesn’t seem possible, the act, or the fact that she was chewing human skin and blood and tendon and muscle and bone, just chewing and swallowing no different than if she’d taken a piece of broccoli through a bowl of hummus and chomped down. Like, this happened. You’re watching the movie, but this is no movie. She ate human flesh!
Allow me to fill you in on what else happened after that, all the other things you don’t know:
Kiersten turned zombie after that bite from the neighborhood kid, and—strange as this sounds—she understood what that meant. She’d watched enough zombie movies with her awful husband Craig to know the rules, to know she was now an undead predator who was supposed to stalk the living, to chew and chomp and swallow human meat even though (as you know) she hadn’t eaten any meat in ten years because, like, she’s a holier-than-thou vegan who won’t shut up about animal pain, and environmental ramifications and blah blah blah. She’d been on an all-juice cleanse for three weeks before the bite. All. Juice. (And wine. Wine’s juice, right? Haha. She kids. Even (un)dead, she kids.) It should’ve been tough for your best friend, right? You’d think that her brain wouldn’t so quickly surrender to the zombie compulsion, that there’d be some internal struggle where maybe the zombie brain would say, “Okay, let’s take baby steps with this people-eating thing, maybe try some fish first?”
Does this make you feel good, Jenny? That your perfect friend surrendered her veganism and her values so quickly?
Even now, you can imagine the monologue you’d have assumed she might deliver to the other zombies about how, like, even if you admit that most humans are basically dickheads who deserve to be eaten (and good riddance, am I right?), the consumption of human meat is just incredibly wasteful because so few victims are ever fully consumed. “It’s so wrong,” you can imagine her whining. “Do zombies ever keep eating a corpse even as it starts to rise and itself becomes living dead? If every victim was eaten in their entirety, Indian-style” (“Native American style, you fucking racist!” some flickering corner of your brain interjects), “brains and heart and fingers and even rectum and spleen—well, then there wouldn’t be any hungry zombie hordes, would there? No. The thing is, it’s just a zombie taking a bite here, a bite there, so much food left to waste, to rot, because for some reason these selfish zombie carnivores are demanding only the freshest of meat” (though, as major supporters of the farm-to-table movement, you can both sort of respect that) “and then so much of the food supply comes back to life again as new mouths to feed, and that shit is not sustainable.”
Ugh. The sermons from Kiersten. The sermons. It gives you untold happiness to see her down there in the zombie hordes, animated entirely by her brain cravings.
But don’t get too happy, Jenny.
I’m here to tell you that it isn’t just an act, that the sermons are not just for show. These are the actual thoughts sputtering through your friend and workout partner’s dead-ish mind: she’s thinking that, if she had better control of her basic motor functions, she’d start a Zombie Pinterest board for better eating practices, and for what to do with those chunks of bone she picks clean. Make necklaces, toys, Halloween decorations. So much potential with all the abandoned dead bodies, too. And yet these zombies are just decimating the damn environment, killing and munching and leaving behind a hellscape of corpse-rot and CO2, of poisoned rivers and wells, LA growing worse every day, and she can’t imagine the worldwide carbon footprint. She’s thinking that someone should make a documentary about the ecological toll this whole apocalypse is taking.
God, this is all tough to hear, isn’t it, Jenny? This is what you’ve always secretly hated about your friend, how much better than you she is. Zombie Pinterest boards? For all that you’ve come to despise about Kiersten (her honest love for chia seeds, most of all, and the way she says “I’m so tired” when you meet up for morning workouts but never seems as tired as you), she’s a pretty decent person, wouldn’t you agree? How upsetting.
Anyway, she’s down there. That’s what I’m here to tell you. She’s down there, and these genuinely altruistic thoughts are firing across the dead-branch synapses of her black reanimated brain, but all she can physically do is groan, and sniff, and turn in the direction of the occasional human voice from the mall’s roof and try her best to scramble that way in hopes of getting a bite of human, even though she knows she’s competing with thousands of other hungry zombies for just a taste of, like, twelve people in a mall. If she had better sense, she’d go somewhere less populated by the undead. (You’d probably tell her that, too, wouldn’t you? Make her feel stupid for standing out there in the hordes, as if you’d have better sense were you in her position. Now who’s the asshole, Jenny? Spoiler alert: you.)
Truthfully, I can tell you that, if she had better sense, she’d pursue the weakest humans she could find: tired ones, fat ones, disabled ones. She’d find a hospital, maybe. An orphanage. But some part of her brain rebels against such terrible thoughts. Pursuing the healthy humans seems more fair, but it’s also dangerous game: twice now, she’s been whacked in the head with a baseball bat by some angry still-live human, the blood streaming down her ponytail but her black brain still firing and her Lakers cap keeping everything under her scalp from spilling out. When she’s pushed herself up from the ground after these attacks, she’s noticed brained zombies around her. Her, the lone survivor. Lucky, lucky.
Here’s something to make you feel better, Jenny. Kiersten does indeed still value the frivolous. She does indeed lament that zombies cannot ever heal, and that—in the beauty arms race that seethes silently between the two of you, best friends and unspoken competitors—she knows that she’ll never again look half as good as you. This makes you feel good, doesn’t it, that she’s lamenting what’s become of her skin, her breath, her cracked fingernails. It makes you feel good that she misses yoga, feels off-balance always. That she misses showers, and the ability to change Lululemons three times a day, and broccolini, and couscous. To some extent, she misses you and she misses Craig, though she’s fairly certain you’re the kind of people who’ll survive by constantly screwing over others.
But—and this has taken her a long time to admit, a lot of lumbering, a lot of zombie pontification—she does not miss the juicing, the cleansing, the trips to Whole Foods, the portioning, the dumping of things into the blender, the first taste of the juice or smoothie and the hope that it will taste better than the last but—acchh! Still tastes like eating dirt out of a garden. Nor will she miss that you force her into these fitness challenges (and then drop out just as she’s made the toughest sacrifices to continue), or that Craig forces her into equally insane diets and then disappears on business trips where she’s certain he’s cheating on her by eating steaks and hamburgers and fried chicken while she consumes kale and carrots three meals a day. Also, he might be fucking other women, but whatever: it’s the hamburgers that are truly hurtful.
Beyond the mall where Kiersten now circles endlessly, there’s a Whole Foods Market. She imagines that there are other yoga-fit zombie-women who—powered only by impulse and habit—are there right now, full spin classes worth of these gory bitches. The same women who were always trying to lure her into some multi-level marketing bullshit, trying to sell her power-beans and facial wraps and mushroom puree that’d ramp up her sex life, or thicken her hair, or give her extra hours of energy, etc. Maybe you’ll soon be there with these women, too, bumbling from olive bar to craft beer fridge to organic free-range walnut rack, searching for non-GMO honey, arriving at the seafood fridge to find scallops and conch fritters now spoiled and smelling worse than the dead people all around, these women—yourself included, perhaps?—drawn to the store by habit and knocking into wine, shaking boxes of gluten-free granola, fondling shriveled brown avocados…all these women, even in zombie-hood unable to let go of the old way, every day starving in their yoga pants because their deteriorating hands cannot operate blenders to make their morning/ afternoon/ evening liquid meals.
She wants you to know this, Jenny. That’s why I’m here, talking to you now, translating her thoughts to the page, all of the things you can’t possibly know about your old friend. Kiersten wants you to know that it was tough at first, but it’s become increasingly easy. Detox be damned. Ten-years-and-running diets and lifestyles and philosophies be damned. She is here at the mall, and there are people in that mall, real fucking blood-rich human meat-bags, and she is gonna eat her fill.
You, and all the other bitches who pressured and shamed her until she became a glossy Women’s Health photo, tight body but strained smile because she was incapable of making her own decisions…you can all eat your weight in tempeh and wheatgrass.
She wants you to know that she is a zombie now, and she’s resolving at last to stop caring about others, about her body, her face, her teeth, her hair, to stop lamenting, to stop competing, to stop pretending. She never fucking liked spinach anyway, you know that? She’s going to embrace the sweet liberation of monster-dom. Sure, she’s a smudge down there in the mass of the herd, one among thousands, but she’s gonna break all the rules she’s been forced to follow for years. She’s gonna purge every recipe, every 15-day plan, every memory of having read an internet article about the ten most toxic foods in her pantry, or about the fifteen most obscure superfoods that you’ve got to drive fifty miles in order to locate.
Because the two of you will never work out together again, will never spend another long morning feigning friendship while judging one another’s total caloric consumption at brunch, Kiersten wants me to warn you, here and now, wants me to make it clear: Do you still have a functioning brain and a beating heart? Stay the fuck out of her way.
Nathan Holic is the author of The Things I Don’t See (a tiny but awesome novella, from Main Street Rag), and American Fraternity Man (a big big [yet equally awesome] novel, from Beating Windward Press). He is also the editor of the 15 Views of Orlando anthologies (from Burrow Press), and the Graphic Narrative Editor at The Florida Review. He writes fiction, draws comics, and teaches writing courses at the University of Central Florida. He enjoys pretzels and often wanders his garage and wonders what he was looking for. He has three children under the age of four.