Young Zombies in Love (part 1) by Kyle Garret from Best New Writing 2014
Karen has decided that her revenge will be cantaloupe. Greg is not a fan; he’s not a fan of anything in the melon family, so they rarely have it in the house. So she has bought not one, but two cantaloupes, which she will cut up and include in any fruit salad she makes, and he will have to eat around it.
She has decided that a silly fight deserves silly retaliation. She thinks Greg will see the humor in this. She hopes he will. She used to know.
When she gets to her car, Karen sets down her groceries to search her purse for her car keys. They regularly disappear into the void, hiding behind ridiculous amounts of change or tucked into a side pocket that’s supposed to be holding her cell phone. This is the kind of thing that used to annoy Karen, but at the moment she’s trying to be a better person.
When she can’t find them, she dumps her purse out in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, laying bare her life for any passers-by. There’s no sign of her keys.
She pushes her face up against the windows of her Acura and quickly scans the inside. There, on the passenger seat, are her keys.
“Yeah, that’s about right,” she says. She smiles a tiny smile because she should have known something like this would happen. She remembers one time in high school when she locked herself out of her car while it was still running. She takes comfort in the fact that at least the car is off, and that these days she has a cell phone.
She dials Greg, thinking that perhaps this is just as funny a way for them to make up as the cantaloupe.
She gets his voicemail.
She tries the landline and gets the voicemail.
Even if Greg didn’t hear his cell, he would have heard the home phone. Maybe he just couldn’t get to it in time. She tries the home number again. She gets voicemail again.
She tries Greg’s cell phone again. Voicemail. “Hi, you’ve got Greg, leave a message or risk never hearing from me again.”
“Hey, it’s me. Why aren’t you picking up? I tried the house line. I’m at Trader Joe’s and I locked my keys in the car. Call me.”
For a few minutes, Karen is angry. Why isn’t he answering? What else could he be doing? What could be more important? She is frustrated and angry and the annoyance she felt from the fight earlier, the annoyance she tried to bury and forget about, is bubbling to the surface. She thinks of the cantaloupes and even that doesn’t help.
She is always there for him, she thinks. She only saved his life and yet the one time that she needs him, he won’t answer the phone. He’s probably sulking after their fight, their pseudo-fight, more like. He’s using it as an excuse to sulk and to not answer the phone.
Or perhaps Greg has tried to kill himself again.
The contents of her every day life still lying in a pile in the parking lot, Karen begins to run. The grocery store is just under two miles away from their house.
“There are too many zombies,” said Greg as he knocked on Karen’s office door while simultaneously opening it, something she had repeatedly asked him not to do.
“I know,” she said, as he set the script down on her desk.
“It’s actually fairly decent, for an adaptation,” he said. “And I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that they added so many zombies.”
“I know,” she said again.
“I suppose their numbers aren’t even really the issue, so much that they show up right away, which is completely against everything the book is about.”
Karen looked up at him. He was sincere in his desire to help, something she hadn’t seen from him in some time.
“Well,” she said as she pushed herself back from her desk, “it would seem that someone at the studio has realized they aren’t going to make much money on a strict zombie movie.”
“I don’t know,” said Greg. He took Karen’s engagement as an opening and sat down in the chair on the other side of the desk, “Romero keeps making movies and I don’t think they’ve been particularly good for a while now.”
“I think they want more than just the horror crowd,” said Karen. “I think they’re looking for cross-demographic appeal.”
“Like the book.”
Karen flipped through the script. The notes she’d made in red pen had now been joined by notes in black pen. Greg’s were few and far between and generally consisted of “exactly” next to her notes.
“Which is why they gave it to me,” she said. “Because I do romance.”
Greg smiled. “You’ve been pigeon holed.”
Karen set the script back down, looked up at her husband, at his amused smile.
Whenever Karen had doubts about her marriage – which, if she were honest, was frequent even before Greg tried to kill himself – she thought about their third date.
They had been driving to see some band, as that’s what they did back then. Greg’s car had broken down, in and of itself a memorable experience since Greg was meticulous about keeping his car in working order. He had no idea what was wrong, just that it had simply shut down, right there on the street.
It was cold out, and Karen had curled up in the backseat to try to keep warm while Greg looked under the hood. He kept looking at it, going over every inch of it, as if something would change if he just kept looking long enough.
After a while, Greg crawled into the backseat and joined Karen, who was nearly asleep by this time. He wrapped his arms around her, tried to keep her warm.
“I called AAA,” he said.
That was a big step for Greg. He seldom admitted his own shortcomings and rarely acknowledged when he needed help.
“I have no idea what’s wrong with it,” he said. “They said it would be an hour.”
In Karen’s mind, she snuggled in closer to Greg. But the reality is that there was no room for her to move closer or even further away. The reality is that she was half awake and just trying to stay warm. But she holds on to the idea that the moment was about them and nothing else.
“Three Roses” was panned by critics and barely broke even, but in Hollywood the former doesn’t matter and the latter is enough. “A Winter Day” was a critical hit and actually turned a profit, and Karen’s stock began to rise. She imagined that movie reviewers, if they ever considered screenwriters, would have declared that her second script was a natural progression from the first, and that only good things lay ahead.
“Las Vegas Good-bye” opened in the top five. The reviews were mostly positive but the gross, both domestic and foreign, far exceeded what the studio expected. Entertainment Weekly went so far as to declare that “Romance Is Back!”
It didn’t stay for long.
Studios restructured and were bought up. Movies were abundant and free online. Movie theaters were expensive and everyone owned a plasma TV. Tests were run, questionnaires filled out, and in the end it was decided that the movie going audience was shrinking, and that money could no longer be spent on “niche” genres. Romance was out, unless it was able to bundle itself as a romantic comedy or, even better, an action movie with a romantic storyline.
That’s how “9 Gun Salute” was born and how Karen became the most sought after script doctor in Los Angeles.
It had been ten years since “Las Vegas Good-bye,” since someone bought one of Karen’s original scripts.
It had been five years since she even wrote one. Her time now is devoted to finding the love in action movies or the intimacy in war movies.
And now she is looking for the romance in horror.
Karen turned off the desk light. Her monitor was still on, so the room was lit up by the eerie off-white screen. She pushed the power button as she stood, the light in the hallway guiding her way.
She walked down the stairs, looking down on the living room. Their 42” flat screen was still on, although the volume was low because Greg didn’t want to bother her when she was writing. She could make out his form on the couch and assumed he’d fallen asleep.
But he was awake, hunched low in the cushions, one hand behind his head, the other hand holding the remote aloft, ready to fire at any moment.
“Still up?” she said.
“So it seems,” he said, not looking away from the TV. “This insomnia bit is starting to get old.”
“I don’t think it’s actually insomnia,” she said as she sat down next to him. “You fall asleep eventually.”
“I know,” he said, sitting up. “Maybe insomnia would be better, as opposed to pseudo-insomnia.”
When Karen’s sister miscarried, her mother described her as being “broken.” Her mother said “she’s been broken by this.” It was a descriptive term Karen had heard hundreds of times before, but not one she particularly cared for. If the handle breaks off a coffee mug, you glue it back on. Karen’s sister was never going to be fixed.
But Karen couldn’t help but think of “broken” when she looked at Greg. Since his uncle died, he had very much been broken. And all she could do was try to think of ways to fix him.
Greg’s solution was sleeping pills.
Karen looked at the TV. It was the tail end of some late, late, late show.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It is what it is,” he said.
Karen leads a sedimentary life. On one hand, this means she is not in the ideal condition for running. On the other hand, it means that she seldom if ever wears uncomfortable shoes.
Her adrenaline wants her to sprint, but her body wants her to walk.
The most obvious change in zombie mythology over the years has been speed. While zombies were originally slow, lumbering corpses, the most recent zombie stories have changed this so that zombies are just as fast – if not faster – than the average living human being.
Perhaps it was the advent of the readily available automatic weapon or simply the expansion of the human race, but at some point slow monsters were no longer scary. Perhaps society just decided it was okay with the fact that death would eventually come for them. Maybe the only way to make death scary again was by making it fast and unexpected.
To avoid picturing Greg on the floor in the bathroom, Karen does math. She calculates the distance from the grocery store to their house. She tries to remember the last time she ran a timed mile and what the result might have been. High school, she’s sure. When would anyone recreationally time themselves?
Karen has determined that it will take her twenty minutes to get home, and that’s if she doesn’t collapse. But she has adrenaline on her side, adrenaline and the ability to disconnect her brain from her body.
She plays back the argument, the stupid argument that was about something stupid and was stupid for even happening. She thinks about how he overreacted, how he suddenly found fault in a stupid adaptation of a stupid book about stupid zombies. She wonders if she should have seen this coming. Her stupid self should have seen this coming.
Karen can’t help but remember. She remembers when she found him on the bedroom floor, dead to the world, but not dead to her. She remembers dragging him into the bathroom, lifting him into the bath tub, turning the shower on him while holding his head over the drain and sticking her fingers down his throat. She never hesitated, never stopped to question what had happened. It was as if she knew, as if she’d always known, that it would come down to that moment.