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Listening to: Anson Funderburgh's "Some Sunny Day"
Laughing at: More Brains!: A Zombie Pinup Calendar
Chapter 2 (continued)
Back at Casa de Mona, Zelda was swiftly aware that something was seriously wrong with Chainsaw. The formerly food-fixated feline shambled around and then did stealthy fast sprints around the house. Normally such behavior was expected of Zelda – she was spritely, nimble, a jumper who once climbed up the exposed brick wall of Mona’s study and just clung to the wall for shits and giggles, but Chainsaw was not an active cat. All Chainsaw normally did – beyond make people laugh at his portly to-and-fro belly and unusual name, a nod to one of the many power tools on Mona’s father’s farm – was sleep on Mona’s red couch, sneak into her bedroom to burrow down into the down comforter, or bully Zelda when treat time came by swooping in to eat the most treats, despite Mona’s best tendencies to keep the two cats separated and to ensure that Zelda had an opportunity to eat her treats before Chainsaw got to them first.
This Chainsaw was a whole different picture of his past personality. No longer submissive or sleepy, this iteration, Chainsaw 2.0, was a little bit creepy as far as Zelda was concerned, which is why Zelda positioned herself on the kitchen cabinets above the refrigerator. No matter how much renewed zest for life and energy Chainsaw now had, Zelda was sure of this much: His fat-cat self wasn’t leaping onto the kitchen counter, on top of the refrigerator, and then on the cabinets. He was simply too big – and too out of practice – for such a standard Zelda maneuver.
When Zelda heard the keys in the back door of her home, she had to stifle her innate urge to run to the door and sidle up to her mistress. Zelda loved Mona – she knew when Mona was home there would always be fresh water, soft food, high quality dry food whose No. 1 ingredient was meat and not some pathetic corn filler, and lots of silly play time where Mona would throw crumpled up paper balls and Zelda would fetch. Sometimes, if Zelda was particularly feisty, Mona would get out the feather – a dust-buster looking contraption attached to the end of a thin purple plastic stick. Zelda was all over that game and often drug the Feather away from Mona as she pranced around the house, flitting from one room to the next, tearing through the ceramic-tiled hallway and coming to a scooching, sliding halt, legs almost akimbo, on the hard wood floors.
This time, however, Zelda stayed put. She had seen too much weirdness in the past 24 hours and knew instinctively that something was messed up with her furry friend.
“Zelda! Chainsaw!” Mona said when she came through the door. “Come here guys. Let’s get you fed.”
From Zelda’s vantage point she could see what Chainsaw was up to – shuttered behind one of the partially shut French doors in the living room Zelda say a stake-out if she ever saw one. Chainsaw was getting ready to pounce. His eyes were eery orbs of pinkish light, far removed from the routine gray and gold flecked eyes he normally had. His gray fur was on end and his claws were at the ready.
Zelda knew she had to do something. While she was typically a quiet cat, one who rarely meowed or yowled unless there was something really important to mention, she started making noise now.
“Zelda, baby,” Mona said. “Have you had a long day too? You need some lovin’?”
Zelda stayed on top of the kitchen cabinets and watched Chainsaw as he revved up his back legs like Bugs Bunny in some cartoonish race against Wile E. Coyote. This wasn’t looking good.
“Where’s your buddy,” Mona cooed. “Why are you all the way up there? Come down.”
No way, Jose, Zelda thought. A million salmon-flavored treats would never get her down from that cabinet. She needed to be here.
Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, Mona saw Chainsaw tear out from behind the French doors and come charging straight for Mona. She had never seen her cat this animated and was, quite frankly, a little scared to see such a huge personality shift. Not only that, this didn’t appear to be a harmless cat game. Chainsaw wasn’t letting up and there was something wrong – familiar even – in the pinkish glow of Chainsaw’s eyes and at-end coat.
“Oh my god,” Mona said to herself. “Chainsaw? You’re infected too?”
Right as the realization that Chainsaw was no longer the sweet, lazy cat she had once known but rather the first feline undead Mona had ever heard about; Zelda lept off of the kitchen cabinets and miraculously, skillfully, landed on the in-motion Chainsaw. Zelda was intent on making this a quick fight and not biting her new nemisis. She had heard what had happened when Chainsaw was behind the house in the trash cans, and she had seen the foul-smelling creature – far worse than some of Zelda’s favorite soft food treats – who had turned Chainsaw into a souped-up attack cat. Biting was spreading something Zelda had no interest in catching herself, so it was not an option. The back paws were her only hope.
Before Mona could separate or even distinguish one ball of fur over the other, Zelda had successfully kicked the fatter cat to the side. Chainsaw, however, wasn’t going to take it. This time he knew that Zelda would be just as tasty, albeit smaller, than his initial prey. But before Chainsaw could lunge towards Zelda again and make his death-hunger move, Mona had run to the laundry room, grabbed a light-blue-and-white polka dotted sheet, and thrown the soft cotton on top of Chainsaw. With one fell swoop, Mona scooped the feral cat up in the laundry basket and then grabbed another basket to keep the crazy cat contained.
“Now what?” Mona said to Zelda as one of Chainsaw’s paws made an attempt to swipe passerby from the laundry basket.
Zelda looked up at her mistress from the floor – she hadn’t been bit or scratched thankfully, but she was so sore from landing on top of Chainsaw from such great heights. “Lady,” Zelda thought. “This is where being human should help you out.” Since Mona had no idea what Zelda was saying, she interepretted Zelda’s purring and circling around her feet as happiness and not a reminder to figure some things out for herself.
Chainsaw yowled something fierce. A noise emanated from the laundry baskets that finally made his name make sense. Mona kept her hand firmly on top of the top basket to keep Chainsaw in his makeshift plastic cage.
“Duct tape,” Mona said. “That’s what I need. I’ll tape the baskets shut and drive Chainsaw to the vet’s office.”
Gigi rolled over in bed. The clock read 2:30 a.m.; Pamela – Gigi’s girlfriend – was slightly snoring, her Pixie cut crested above her forehead like an unruly wave of spiky blonde hair. Gigi’s night vision had slowly become more and more acute, almost as keen as a chinchilla’s. Gigi touched her neck. The scratch Adolphe had given her in Paris wasn’t healing. The discoloration was deepening not fading, but Gigi couldn’t bring herself to seeing to Dr. Owen.
Denial was a sweet, intoxicating balm that helped Gigi convince herself that the vision Adolphe had been running from that early morning near the Catacombs wasn’t going to be her fate. If she really admitted what she knew, Gigi was certain that she would kill herself. That one brief glimpse was enough to know that she didn’t want that life. So, Gigi murdered the creeping thoughts instead. That was the only way to keep putting one foot, one f-stop and aperture in front of the other.
Yet her photography customers had noticed that something was off in Gigi’s photographs. The photos from Betsey’s new legging and tights line had been fine, beautiful and arresting amid all of those ancient Parisian skulls and femurs actually, but the images from the Austin rodeo were all wrong.
“Honey,” Burt Ralston said gruffly over the phone, “What the Sam hell are you doing taking shots of the cowboys heads and not the whole shot of the cowboy and the G-D broncin’ bull?”
“All of them are head shots?” Gigi stammered. She had seen the digital images prior to uploading them to the online server and didn’t remember only taking head shots of men in 10-gallon Stetsons and handlebar mustaches.
“Darling,” Burt said, “These shots are a mess. There are no animals in these photos.” Burt said photos like “faux-toes,” dragging out the o-sound long enough that it sounded like he was surprised or mildly amused.
“My readers pay for action, blood, maybe even a cowboy escaping an angry bull. They have no predilection for cowboy noggins.”
“Yes, sir,” Gigi managed. “What would you like me to do?”
“There’s another rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming in a few weeks. Try to get some full action shots of man AND beast. Otherwise, sugar, I’m going to be in the market for a new faux-tographer.”
With that, Burt Ralston hung up on Gigi Hernandez.
Gigi’s problems were bigger than messed up rodeo shots. She was ravenous, and yet everything she tried to eat didn’t satisfy her. The 13-ounce bison rib eye from Whole Foods didn’t put a dent in her appetite. Nor did the barbecued pork steak from Salt. Lately she had been drawn to culinary delicacies that used to completely disgust her – flash-fried squirrel brains that her granddaddy prepared as a throwback to his Depression-era palate, headcheese from her favorite Argentinean restaurant in Austin, and liver and onions from the greasy spoon across the street.
In the dark of Gigi and Pam’s bedroom Gigi reached over to her sleeping lover. Gigi adored Pamela – so efficient, so meticulous, so gorgeous, and German in everything she did. Gigi stroked Pamela’s neck, caressed her hair, and breathed in her citrusy-woodsy smell. She loved Pamela, and yet all Gigi could focus on was how big Pam’s head was, how generous and substantive her brain must be. Gigi lunged and bit into Pam’s neck – far from a love peck – and Pam woke with a start.
“Gigi, what are you doing?” she said firmly. Pam’s eyes were still closed by she had moved away from her partner, and was now turning towards Gigi.
“Nothing, darling,” Gigi lied. “Go back to bed.” She knew that what she hungered for was far removed from her granddad’s back-woods kitchen. She wanted Pam.
Gigi rolled over with a sigh, touched her neck, and closed her eyes, fitfully dreaming of Pam’s frontal lobe, wondering how one got passed the occipital bones to the custardy, meaty goodness of human brains.
Ned Brandenburg had grown up in Abilene, Kansas, childhood stomping grounds of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ned still lived in Abilene, almost 700 miles north as the crow flys from Mona Swicegood, a straight shot up I-35. He had never met Mona, but he was ready for the problems that had suddenly cropped up in her life. As a software engineer with little else on his hands in terms of a social life, he had an intimate knowledge of zombie lore and films.
When Ned was 11 years old – the year was 1990 – his stepmother Darlene had rented Night of the Living Dead, a remake of George A. Romero’s 1968 cult classic. Like most things Darlene did, she broke his mother’s rules when he came to visit his dad and Darlene. No scary movies or films rated R. “Ah, she doesn’t know what she’s missing,” Darlene said as she pushed the VHS cassette into the video player. “A little zombie flick never hurt no one.”
Darlene also bought pudgy, bookish Ned boxes upon boxes of Hostess Snack Cake products – Ding Dongs, Twinkies, and Ho Ho’s. It wouldn’t be until his freshman year of high school, when he joined the cross country team on a double-dare, that he lost the years and years of his love affair with those synthetic shelf-life-secure parcels of sugary, artificial goodness. At 6 feet 2 inches, Ned was now lanky and handsome. He looked like a young Jim Belushi with Malcolm X browline glasses.
Darlene had been gorgeous when Ned was a boy – silky black hair, a pale sweet face with pouty pink lips and the bluest eyes Ned had ever seen, bluer than Kansas spring skies at midday. She drove a dove gray 1977 Camaro, listened to George Michael and Madonna while sunbathing topless in the front yard, and smoked copious amounts of pot when his farmer father was down at the barn, tinkering with an old John Deere tractor or fixing fences on the north 40. Truth be told, Darlene wasn’t ready to be a mother – she was 20 years old to his father’s 35 and not particularly skilled in anything domestic. Dinner was often burnt hamburgers and canned corn or pizza rolls and an iceberg lettuce salad with a few wedges of tomato and shredded orange cheddar cheese. Sometimes if she woke up from a long weekend night of partying at Merle Syke’s in-town bar, Darlene would try her hand at pancakes. But, no matter how hard Darlene tried, she could never make the N-shaped or Yoda pancakes his mom would make for him on Sundays. Darlene knew this, but never told Ned. She may not have been wanted to be a mom just yet, but she cared for Ned and wanted to try for his father’s sake, even if that trying was met with quiet disappointment and against-the-odds expectations from Ned.
But the one instrumental lesson Darlene taught Ned Brandenburg was that zombies were one of the scariest metaphors one could encounter. The cemetery scene in the 1990 remake was one Ned would never forget. The geeky red-headed Barbra and her teasing bespectacled brother Johnny, who tries to show Barbra that the undead are one big joke was a lesson Ned and millions of other viewers learned: Laugh if you will, but the undead may stumble behind you, knock your head against a tombstone, and eat you when you least expect it. The shambling or reanimated undead represented so much to Ned – what people do and how they react when they’re no longer in control, how run-amuck consumerist tendencies consumed the masses and in many ways made them the monsters they feared, and the very concept of zombies hinted at how imperialistic and misguided we were when we tried to use or enslave others for our personal gain.
After that film, Ned started to watch less TV and help his father around the farm every other weekend, bailing hay, mending fences, brush-hogging, feeling the small head of cattle in the winter time, and walking the north 40 with his father, who seemed to know every species of flora and fauna. Ned listened and watched. Became more concerned with survival and physical fitness and less enamored with the lure of high fructose corn syrup and Hostess snack cakes. Slowly, Ned went from fat to chubby and then high school arrived. Joining cross country had been his friend Silas’ idea.
Ned had shown Silas every Romero film made by the mid-1990s and both were hell bent on being able to survive the zombie apocalypse should such a preposterous event ever come about. When Ned decided to live with his father full-time in middle school, Ned and Silas joined the Clay Club and started shooting clay pigeons on the weekend. They began hunting during prescribed seasons – deer, pheasant, and turkey. They became decent marksmen by the time they were both 17 years old. An infared scope rifle was a site to be seen for both boys. They practiced their shooting skills during the day and at night. Ned was especially keen on practicing his shots at night. He knew – if Romero’s warning was any indication – that he would have to be ready.
Silas and Ned also joined the local branch of the FFA – the Future Farmers of America – not so they could show off prize-winning hogs or cows or make the best apple butter or sweet potato-pecan pie laced with bourbon, but so they would know how to plant and raise food indoors. They experimented with hydroponic farming so soil never had to be used. They researched the best grow lights and even got busted by the local sheriff since someone in FFA had tipped off the authorities that they feared Ned and Silas were growing marijuana. They weren’t. They simply wanted to know how to grow their own food indoors. That was what they told Sheriff Hartzell and he believed the two young men. Inside Ned’s house overflowing containers of snap peas, green beans, tomatoes, carrots, turnips, potatoes, and kale were ready to be harvested. By this time Darlene no longer made dinner. Ned did.