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K.G. Jewell


The day they repossessed my zombies was the day Andrea broke up with me. She said she knew where our relationship was going, and it wasn’t someplace she wanted to visit.

I, on the other hand, knew where our relationship had been, so I wasn’t surprised by her goodbye. I’d have preferred the breakup wasn’t written in blood on my workshop door, but you learn to expect certain things from a witch, and I had to admit the message had flair. Her words made clear that if I ever called her again, I’d be turned into a frog.

The zombies were another matter. I’d just landed a job to scrap three dozen school buses, and that metal wasn’t going to eat itself. I’d underbid three trolls and the Pixie Syndicate for the job, counting on my undead labor to get it done. Without the zombies, I was in a bit of a pickle.

I went to my usual source of emergency finance for a quickie loan, but Joe reminded me I still owed him for fronting last month’s rent. I got out of his office with only two broken fingers rather than the usual three. “A discount for a frequent borrower,” he said. “Come back soon.”

I looked through my inventory for something to pawn, but the pickings were slim—scrap metal isn’t great collateral. I considered pawning Hank, my shop gargoyle, but he threatened to bite off my unbroken fingers if I tried. I gave him a pass.

Unfortunately, I could see only one path to the funds I needed to get my zombies back. Well, two, but I wasn’t about to sell my soul, even as tattered as it was.

Andrea’s mother Katherine had once offered to buy my middle name. “It has a nice sound,” she said. “Fadai—I could pick up some extra votes with a name like that.” Katherine sat on the city council and was always working an angle on the next election.

For my part, I wouldn’t miss the name. It came from the dark recesses of my father’s side of the family, and I hadn’t talked to them in years. I didn’t know the whole story, but my mother only used the name when I was in trouble: Theodore Fadai Schinkel, you get back here this instant!

So I left Hank watching the shop and went uptown to visit Katherine. An a cappella group huddled in front of city hall singing an off-key rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” A sign said they were The Undead Abolitionists. I guess it was a protest.

One singer, a woman in a neon-orange sundress, approached me with a clipboard. She was alive—that is, not-dead the first time around—and kind of cute.

“Can the undead even be saints?” I asked her, waving off her petition, “I mean, isn’t that whole eternal damnation thing how they got stuck here in the first place?”

She winked at me and kept singing. I went inside.

Katherine was having open constituent hours, so I put my name on the list and parked myself in the lobby. The faint strains of the abolitionists’ rendition of “The Internationale” drifted in every time the lobby door opened. I sat next to a gentleman who was very upset about the fluoride conspiracy.

“The undead don’t drink tap water,” he said, “and they don’t go to the dentist. Coincidence? I think not.” He shook a toothbrush at me.

I nodded and then avoided eye contact until my name was finally called.

“Ted! How are you holding up?” Katherine said, giving me a long hug that meant she’d talked to Andrea.

“I’ve been better,” I said truthfully, gingerly touching my broken fingers. I settled into the chair across from her desk. “But I was wondering if you could help me.”

“Oh, Ted,” Katherine said, “You’re one of my favorite people in the world, but Andrea’s a grown girl. She made me promise not to get involved in her romantic affairs after that unfortunate Samhain…incident.” She shook her head. “Although, really, I think that was the right hook-up for her at the time.”

“No, no, this isn’t about Andrea. I just have a cash flow problem and you’d mentioned you were interested upgrading your appellation.”

Katherine folded her hands on her desk and looked up at the ceiling. “That’s right. Fadai. I do like that name.”

“Do you like it to the tune of $1500?” That would catch me up, even get me a month ahead, on my zombie lease.

The door blew open with a billow of smoke, cutting off her response. The lights dimmed, thunder crackled, and a dark figure swept through the door.

“Hi, Andrea,” I said. She was the queen of dramatic entrances.

“Hi, Ted. Did you get my note?” The smoke whirled around Andrea and disappeared into her waist-length, jet-black hair; the lights returned to their generic fluorescence. She wore her copper bodice, which really was my favorite item in her witchy wardrobe. Little sparks still arced across the wire ties, electrostatic remnants of her entrance.

“I did. Sorry to hear that.” And really, I was. Andrea had her strong points; we just didn’t belong together—my drama and her drama exceeded a relationship’s critical mass. “What brings you here? Trying to supplicate for a second chance?” Her eyes glowed red in punctuation.

“No, no. I understand where you’re coming from. You’re right—it’s really for the best if we go our separate ways.” I shrugged. She was looking for a battle, but this was one I could only lose.

“Oh.” Andrea frowned. I think she really wanted to turn me into a frog.

“I had a business proposition for your mother. BrainCo repossessed my zombies, and I’m a little short on cash.”

“Zombies!” Katherine said. “You didn’t say anything about zombies.”

“Oh, no. The zombies aren’t your problem, they’re my problem.”

Katherine opened her window. The dissonant singing of The Undead Abolitionists flowed into the room, “How many roads must a man shamble down before you call him a man?” She shut the window.

“They’ve been out there for three days straight. They’ve made the zombies my problem. If it gets out that I bought your name and you used the money to rent zombies, that’ll look bad. I can see the attack ads now—Katherine Wret: funding enslavement of the previously alive.”

I checked my moral compass. It was missing, but that didn’t surprise me. I hadn’t used it since high school and I’d gathered a lot of ambiguous moral clutter since then.

“Wait a minute—have you met a zombie? They aren’t enslaved, they just have a one-track mind, and “More Brains” is the track on repeat. My hamster has more free will than a zombie,” I said.

Andrea snorted. “You don’t have a hamster. You’re just saying that because you need zombie labor at the shop.”

I stuck out my tongue. I knew that drove her nuts. “The hamster might be hypothetical, but that doesn’t mean the argument isn’t real.” I turned to Katherine. “Do you know how I get my zombies to scrap a vehicle? I smear a dab of brains on the transmission, and they take apart the entire vehicle for the chance to lick it.

“I don’t even lock them in at night. I put a Teletubbies DVD on repeat in the breakroom, and when I come back, even if I’ve gone on vacation for a week, they are still sitting there, watching the sun giggle.”

Katherine shook her head. “It still doesn’t look good. I mean, BrainCo owns them, and you pay BrainCo for their use. Sounds like slavery to me.”

“I give them everything they want in undeath—brains and brain-dead television. What would change if they were free?”

“The world would be a little more just,” Katherine said. I’m pretty sure she recycled that from the council debate on instituting a no-kill policy at the town animal shelter.

“And more in balance, free from the chains of capitalism,” said Andrea, tracing a glowing yin-yang circle in the air.

That was the moment I realized the true injustice of zombie slavery. If zombies were free, they would still work for brains and television but I wouldn’t owe BrainCo a monthly payment. If zombies were free, they’d be free.

I was a convert.

I threw my hands up in the air. “Ok, you guys are right. What can I do to support the abolition of zombie oppression?”

Andrea furrowed her eyebrows and cast a suspicious glare. “Just like that?”

“Just like that.” I smiled brightly.

Katherine took my turn in stride. I imagine she’d seen some flip-flopping politicians in her day. “Well, for starters, you can stop paying BrainCo.”

“Done. But what can I do for the zombies that work at my shop? I can’t stand the thought of them being enslaved like that.”

“Can you buy them free?”

I wanted to say If I could buy them, I would have bought them a long time ago and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Instead I said, “I have a buyout clause in my lease, but I can’t afford to swing that.” I lifted my hands helplessly. “Unless you like Fadai $150,000 worth? Freeing the oppressed could make a great ad!”

Katherine grimaced. “Let me talk to some people. We might have some cultural affairs funds in the city budget we can squeeze into this.”

“Oh, this is a cultural affair alright,” I said. “Zombie culture is the next big thing. It’s going to make the neo-pagans look like community theatre.”

Andrea glared at me, smoke leaking out of her hair.

MY ACCOUNT MANAGER at BrainCo was the only person I’d ever met in person that actually used pomade. You could smell the stuff the second you entered his office, and his slicked-back hair resembled a speed skater’s helmet, only more aerodynamic. His snakeskin tie was slick too, but not in an aerodynamic way.

His name was Jeff. You knew this because he referred to himself in the third person, as in “Don’t worry, Jeff is on your side,” or “Jeff wants you to be happy with your undead purchase decision.”

Today Jeff was a little negative.

“Thanks for paying up your account, but Jeff can’t let you exercise your buyout clause.”

“Why not?” I asked, waving a ridiculous wad of cash under Jeff’s nose. Jeff was clearly not used to turning down money. I think those were tears in the corner of his eyes.

“Jeff wonders if you would be interested in some house zombies? They make great trash disposals.”

Katherine had come up with the cash, in part donated by one of her campaign supporters and in part covered by the cultural affairs budget. The zombies were going to have to do a dance routine symbolizing freedom when this was all done. I was thinking a “Thriller” cover.

Andrea had declared the entire procedure some type of scam and stomped off. She wasn’t as good at dramatic exits as entrances. But here I was trying to buy out my zombies, and BrainCo was having nothing to do with it.

“Why won’t you take my money for the buyout?” I repeated. I counted the money in front of him one more time.

“Jeff wishes he could tell you.”

I set a grand down on the desk. “Can Jeff tell me for this?”

I’m sure a bribe wasn’t an approved use of the city’s cultural budget, but Katherine had made the mistake of giving the money to me because town legal said they couldn’t execute the buyout clause of my lease directly themselves. That meant I had some flexibility. If I had to, I’d do the “Thriller” cover myself.

Jeff picked up the wad and counted it. He looked like he wanted more, but I put the rest of the funds back in my knapsack.

“Jeff was told that the pixies pushed for the repossession. You were only a couple of months behind—BrainCo would have let it slide a little further to maximize the late fees. But pixies bought your zombies— BrainCo didn’t want to sell, but it was an offer they couldn’t refuse. The zombies are excavating for the new syndicate headquarters under the bridge.”

The Pixie Syndicate. They must be pissed I underbid them for the bus contract. Now they were playing dirty.

They weren’t the only ones in this town that could play dirty.

Game on.

THE UNDEAD ABOLITIONISTS were easily swayed when I presented them with a plan of action. They were tired of the city hall scene; I think it was the perpetual smell of the hot dog vendor next to their protest site.

“Free zombies!” they chanted as we marched on Pixie Bridge.

I chatted with Lisa, the cute abolitionist in the orange sundress. She reminded me a little of Andrea, sans the hellfire and brimstone.

“Will you pay a living wage?” she asked, after I explained my plan to offer employment to the free undead.

“Oh, I’ll pay an undead wage. I think they’ll be happy with that, especially the brain bonus. I’ve got a great recipe for grey matter au gratin.”

Lisa smiled, but it was an unsure smile. I think she hadn’t thought through the whole zombie diet thing.

A crowd drifted along with the procession, growing block by block. By the time we reached the excavation site, we had a couple of hundred sympathizers, oglers, and hecklers, although they were surprisingly hard to tell apart.

A pixie, if you’ve never met one, is about the size of a pencil eraser. They are easily overlooked individually, but what they lacked in physical mass they made up in magical heft. One was trouble enough, but when dozens of the most powerful ones had swarmed together to form the Pixie Syndicate, they’d taken trouble to a new level.

That trouble had fermented into a diversified portfolio of drugs, protection rackets, and contractor fraud, and now the Pixie Syndicate was using their ill-gotten gains to build a gleaming new headquarters under their namesake bridge.

At this stage of construction, the building was a hole in the ground; a hole filled with zombies pawing in the mud with their bare hands. Poor guys.

A construction trailer sat at the edge of the work pit. The protestors and assorted hangers-on surrounded the trailer. Lisa started the singers on a rousing rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

The trailer door opened. A pixie swarm flowed out and reconstituted in the shape of an angry old man. “Quiet! We’ve got a meeting in progress!”

The singers continued, “We are not afraid!”

“Well, you should be!” stamped the swarm. “I’ve half a mind to melt all of you like peeps in a microwave!”

“The truth shall set them free!” sang the crowd. Lisa waved an End Zombie Slavery Today sign in front of the swarm.

“Who’s in charge here?” said the swarm.

Lisa looked at me. I suppose I had gotten folks into this. I stepped forward.

“We believe you are unfairly oppressing the undead.”

“We oppress everyone. There’s nothing unfair about it,” said the swarm. The crisp edges of the swarm blurred momentarily as its members laughed at their own joke.

“Set my zombies free,” I said. Hopefully my plagiarism was fair use.

“No.” The swarm turned to go back into the trailer.

“Yes,” I said. “Or we’re not going anywhere.”

Lisa started the singers on “If I Had a Hammer.” They were amazingly off-key. The dissonance sent shivers up my spine.

The swarm froze, then turned back to the crowd. “Ok, ok. The syndicate has a traditional method for resolving problems like this. We’ll pick a champion, you’ll pick a champion, they’ll have a duel. If we win, the rest of you go home.”

“And if we win, you set the zombies free?” I said.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” The swarm blurred again. “Who’s your sacrifice?”

I scanned the crowd, looking for the meanest, most magically powerful, abolitionist. There wasn’t a whole lot to choose from.

Then I saw Lisa was looking at me with adoring puppy eyes. Damn it.

I raised my hand. “I’ll represent the abolitionists. I’m going into the trailer. Send your best pixie in after me.”

Lisa gave me a kiss, while the crowd sang, “You’ll never walk alone.”

I walked alone anyways.

The trailer was small, hot, and stuffy. A single desk and chair sat at one end, a couple of shovels leaned against the other wall. Not much to work with. I grabbed one of the shovels and crouched behind the desk.

How had I gotten myself into this, again? Oh, yeah, Lisa’s kiss. A very fine smooch—hopefully, not our last.

Assuming I didn’t die in the next five minutes.

The door opened, then shut. The light flickered, and a small bolt of lightning flashed across the room at my feet, making me jump. I lunged across the trailer, swinging my shovel at the source of the lightning.

I hit nothing.

This was going to be difficult. I backed up against the desk, then caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye; I swung my shovel again. Nothing.

My shovel turned into taffy. Grape taffy. It drooped to the ground in the warmth of the trailer.

The pixie was playing with me.

I was never going to catch it. I couldn’t even see it. Even if I glimpsed it, hand-eye coordination wasn’t my strong point—I’d once spent three hours trying to catch a fly in my kitchen, and failed to even wing it.

A fly. That was the answer.

I hit speed-dial number one on my cell phone. “Andrea, I’m sorry you got so irrationally mad at me. Let’s make up.”

My phone glowed, and my perspective shifted—the room grew, and my field of vision wrapped practically behind me. My legs felt thick and powerful, my tongue long and sticky.

Being a frog was kinda neat.

A tiny pixie hovered in the corner, etching into the air what looked to be runes of total annihilation.

I jumped, flicking my tongue across the room.

He was tasty.

THE ZOMBIES CAME HOME with me. In exchange for Andrea un-frogging me, I returned most of the cash to her mom, but decided the possibility of a zombie dance troupe was a real opportunity. I replaced the Teletubbies DVD with Michael Jackson and asked Hank to work up some choreography. I think it will come together nicely.

Lisa and I had a date. We went bowling, and it went pretty well. Turns out she is a fortuneteller and already knows where our relationship is going.

And she’s ok with that.



© Phil Selby

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