Usually Rachel Harding did not want to go to her brother Joshie’s birthday party. This year was different. She had finally figured out what to get him.
Rachel made sure her parents did not see the change in her. She took as long in the shower as she usually did. She hesitated between two dresses before deciding on a third. She intentionally left her backpack-slash-purse up in her room so she had to run back for it. She slipped her birthday present for her brother into the backpack and then pouted down the stairs and out to the car.
“Really, darling, I don’t understand why you make such a fuss.” Her father’s seatbelt clicked with a sense of finality. “It’s only twice a year.”
Three times a year. Rachel’s mother dragged their family to the viewing home on Mother’s Day too. Christmas, Mother’s Day and Joshie’s birthday. Rachel’s three least favorite days of the year. She suspected her mother went more often, but she hadn’t figured out a way to prove it.
“She’s here. That’s the important thing.” Rachel’s mother cradled the boxed cake in her lap. “This is a day for the whole family.”
This was a day for Rachel’s mother. Rachel and her father were just in the car to keep her happy. Rachel kept her mouth shut and looked out the window. The countryside blurred into streaks of dying grass and withering trees that made Rachel feel sticky just looking at them. The weatherman predicted rain sometime this week. She knew how the sky felt. Stifled, like it could burst at any second. If only conditions were right.
The drive out to Eternal Rest Viewing Center only took an hour and a half, but it always seemed longer to Rachel. At last the family car passed the ruins that meant they were getting close. Rachel often wondered if they put the viewing center out here simply because no one wanted it in their back yard, or if there was a conscious irony. A viewing home in the middle of a ghost town.
They pulled up in front of what looked like a large hospital. Rachel supposed it had been a hospital, before the Troubles. Whatever had happened out here must have been bad. No one wanted to move back. But when the U.S. got control again, the viewing home had taken over the hospital. As the family got out of the car, Rachel resisted the temptation to slam the car door. No sense in overdoing things. She did trudge up the steps after her parents.
Her mother signed them in. Someone who looked like a nurse but wasn’t ushered them into the waiting room. Rachel and her father sat in the hard plastic chairs while her mother paced the floor. Rachel lost count of how many times she went back and forth.
She had been moving back and forth ever since Joshie got sick. Carrying Rachel and her father in her wake.
“Party seventeen, we’re ready for you in viewing room three.”
Rachel’s mother was off, making it hard for Rachel to keep up with her. Beyond the waiting room ran a corridor with marked doors. The viewing room was only slightly smaller than the waiting room. It was dimly lit. A curtain ran the length of the long side opposite the door. Rachel could never decide if the curtain was grey or blue. Rachel’s mother already had the cake out of the box and was setting up the candles. A large one and six made of red wax. The curtain slowly drew back.
The entire length of the wall was a large window. It looked onto a room decorated as a small boy’s room. Rachel knew Joshie didn’t live here. The bed and dresser and toys on the floor were just for the rest of the family.
“There’s the birthday boy. Happy birthday to you…”
Rachel joined in with the song, but the room swallowed up the sound. The glow from the candles lit up the face of a boy about ten years old. His dark hair was buzzed short. He wore jeans and a striped polo shirt. His skin had a greenish pallor, his eyes a milky film.
Joshie, Rachel’s older brother.
“Look! He’s smiling! He’s happy to see us.”
The creature that had been Joshie was opening and closing his mouth, revealing grey-black gums. No teeth, just in case. Rachel thought it more than likely that her zombie-brother realized the light from the candles meant there was food nearby. Of course he was happy to see his family. He thought he was about to get a snack. Of course Rachel didn’t say anything.
Their mother stood right up at the window rubbing her fingers against the glass where Joshie pressed his face. He gummed at the window as if he were trying to eat her fingers and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t biting down on human flesh.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
Rachel’s mother didn’t say anything. There were times when Rachel wondered if she had gotten the cancer instead of Joshie, would her mother gone through all the trouble and expense to…preserve her. Rachel didn’t think so. She didn’t know whether she hated or loved her mother for that.
Rachel’s father rested a hand on her shoulder but he was staring at the viewing window. His face bore the same expression Rachel had seen on it when they passed a highway accident. Or when he watched the news on the last of the Troubles. Compassion mixed with disgust and horror. And curiosity. You didn’t want to look, but you still couldn’t look away.
“Do you want me to go with you, darling?”
It gave Rachel some comfort that she wasn’t the only one in her family who thought what had been done to Joshie was wrong. But her father had never said anything about it, in six years. Was that love, or cowardice?
“Dad… It’s…personal stuff…”
Rachel had hated it when she started menstruating. It was messy and gross. But she had learned a new power came with her period. Especially since her father didn’t keep track of her cycle. He blushed.
“Well, um, hurry back.”
“I’ll do my best.” She shouldered her backpack and headed out of the viewing room.
There were bathrooms near the viewing room. Rachel went in, making what she told her father not a lie. She waited a minute and walked right out. A quick look around. No one else was in the corridor. Rachel pushed open the door marked Authorized Personnel Only.
Rachel expected alarms to sound and half a dozen security officers to swarm her. Nothing happened. She stepped through the door. It swung closed behind her with a solid, final thud.
She could do this. Rachel looked around her. She shouldn’t be too far from the other side of the viewing rooms. She turned the corner and found a large door — more solid than the one she had just passed through — marked Viewing Rooms 1-4. A heavy steel door, with the hinges on the inside. A steel bar fit over the door in two heavy brackets. Next to the bar was a key card slot, its red light staring at Rachel.
Before the girl could even curse, footsteps echoed down the corridor. She heard female laughter and a male voice in reply.
“Don’t worry. That one could be there for the rest of the day. You can tell it creeps the guy and the girl out. She must really have him by the short hairs.”
More laughter. Rachel ran away from the sound as quietly as she could. Only after she started did she realize she was going further into the former hospital. She turned a corner, listening for pursuit. When she stopped, she nearly gagged. Something smelled awful.
A loud whirring sound made Rachel jump. It continued for a full minute and stopped again. The putrid smell grew stronger. Rachel put her hand over her nose and pressed onward. There had to be another way to get to Joshie.
The whirring sound started again, louder this time. Light spilled onto Rachel’s path from a half-open doorway. The stench and the whirring sound both came from inside. Rachel crouched down and stuck her head inside. The sound cut off.
A man stood at a long black counter like the lab tables at school. He wore a long dark apron, black gloves up to his elbows and enormous safety goggles, giving him a mad-scientist look. He was standing at an industrial-sized blender and singing off key to himself.
“Feeding the zombies, feeding the zombies…”
He reached into a grey bin to the side and pulled out a brain. A cow brain, Rachel hoped. He stuffed it into the blender and added organs and bits of intestines and other things Rachel couldn’t identify. He put the top on the blender and started it up. Rachel had to turn away. She still threw up into her mouth. She forced herself to swallow it.
As she looked away, she saw a white lab coat draped over the back of a chair. More important was the name badge clipped to the lapel. If it was a dual badge and key card, it was Rachel’s ticket further into the viewing center.
The sound of a viscous liquid poured into a container. Rachel didn’t look. As the blender whirred again, she crept forward. When it stopped, she stopped. She didn’t look at the man. If she didn’t look, he wouldn’t look. That’s what she told herself. He kept singing. Rachel inched forward with each pulse of the blender.
As she made her slow progress, Rachel found herself wondering if Joshie liked the slurry the man was making. Did cow guts taste as good as human flesh? If she got caught, would she find her way into the blender as a special treat?
She reached the badge at last and unclipped it from the lab coat. Scott Bridges looked like an ordinary guy in his photo. Not at all like the goggled ghoul in the room with her. Rachel slipped the badge into her pocket and turned to make her way back to the door.
“Where did you get to?”
Rachel froze. Had the man known she was there all along? She envisioned him cheerily pulling her intestines from her guts and adding them to his mixture. She hazarded a look in his direction.
The man was bent over his table, evidently trying to chase down a bit of organ that had escaped.
“There you are. Into the soup you go.”
When the blender started again, Rachel crawled to the door as fast as she could. She sat outside the gruesome kitchen panting. This was crazy. There was no way she could pull this off.
She saw Joshie’s face in her mind, and the glow of the candles on her mother’s face. She adjusted the strap of her backpack on her shoulder and rose. She had a birthday present to deliver.
She wondered how long she had been gone. Were her parents worrying about her? Her mother was probably still glued to the window, laughing at everything her precious not-Joshie did. Her father usually zoned out at a viewing, in his own world of loss and guilt. Rachel had plenty of time.
Would there even be a back way into the viewing area? The viewing center did everything to make its wards as non-lethal as possible, but they were still dangerous. The lock on the door leading to the viewing rooms, not to mention the bar on the outside of the door, suggested that they didn’t want to take any chances of the zombies escaping.
No. There had to be a way in. Rachel owed it to Joshie to find it. She owed it to Joshie, to her father, to herself. Even to her mother. She crept further into the viewing home.
Rachel wondered why her mother couldn’t see what she had done. Rachel couldn’t even remember Joshie’s face any more. Not his real face. The face of the brother who had pushed her on the swings and chased her around the back yard. The face of the brother who had held her hand when the Troubles began and made sure she brought Mr. Ted to the relocation camp.
The face of the brother who had held her and cried when the president went on TV and declared the war against the zombies over. The face of the brother as he got sick. The face of the brother nestled among all the tubes and monitors at the hospital.
A low sound from up ahead. Rachel slowed. The sound was constant and grew louder as she walked. She fingered the strap of her backpack and went on, looking around with each step.
Over Rachel’s every memory of her brother had spread the face of the zombie. She understood why her mother did what she did. But she just didn’t get it. Turning him hadn’t kept Joshie’s memory alive. It killed his memory, infected it. The zombie ate away at the real Joshie every time they came to see it. It would continue to eat away at the Joshie who lived in their hearts until there was nothing left.
Joshie was dead. Rachel had to believe that.
The sound grew still louder. Rachel recognized it at last. The moan of the walking dead as they roamed the earth hungering for human flesh. Even as the sound increased in volume, it still had a muffled, contained quality. Rachel frowned. Her muscles tensed, ready to flee from a lurching horde.
She turned a corner and came upon another door barred and locked like the door leading to the viewing rooms. Had she found a back way in? Unlike the other door, this one had a large window. Wire crisscrossed through the glass. Rachel crept closer and looked inside.
The room had maybe been an operating room before. Something big. Any equipment had long since been removed. Chained along the far wall were perhaps a dozen zombies. They wore iron collars and heavy shackles on their wrists. Their feet were unchained. The zombies all walked in place, the chains keeping them from going anywhere.
The zombies moaned as black gums chomped down on nothing. Perhaps they were all waiting for Scott Bridges to make his rounds. The all wore grey hospital robes, some with red-brown stains. Lunch apparently was messy.
Rachel scanned the room. Two of the creatures on the far end were children. There was a gap in the line before the adults began. Collar and shackles hung limply. Rachel just knew that was Joshie’s spot. The zombie-Joshie’s spot.
“Would Rachel Harding please report to the sign-in desk? Rachel Harding to the sign-in desk. Your family is waiting for you.”
That was it then. Her mother was done, and they were leaving the viewing home. They had started to look for her. Rachel had missed her chance.
She looked back at the zombies chained to the wall. She could still do this. If her mother was done, that meant Joshie was on his way back here.
She lifted up the heavy bar and slid Scott Bridge’s card through the lock. The light switched from red to green. She pulled the door open. The scent and sound pushed her back. She forced herself into the room.
The door swung closed. The zombies moaned louder. Could they sense her in the room? See her? Smell her? She heard the sound of chains pulled taught. She waited to hear links snap. Nothing happened. All four walls held zombies, not just the one wall she had seen from outside. But there was a clear space on either side of the door, about four feet wide. Rachel stood against the wall next to the door hinges.
She opened her backpack and pulled out her present for Joshie. The machete her father used for clearing out brush in the yard. She heard footsteps and voices in the hall. The door opened.
Two guards marched the Joshie-thing into the room. One was a man, the other a woman. They directed the zombie with a long pole with a noose on the end. The door swung closed.
Rachel let out a shout. She swung the machete. The guards were too shocked to do anything. The blade cut through the restraining noose. It stuck in the zombie’s neck.
Rachel yanked the machete out. She shouted and swung the blade again and again. She closed her eyes at the dull, wet sound of the blade. Tears streamed down her face. She didn’t care.
Hands grabbed Rachel’s arm. She swung the machete a final time. The zombie’s spine gave way with a sticky snap. The guards pulled her back. The blade clattered to the floor. Her whole body felt limp. It didn’t matter. She had done it. She looked at her big brother’s body.
“Happy birthday, Joshie.”
And she could have sworn that Joshie’s head smiled at her from the floor.