You Are What You Eat
Holly was falling apart. One of her toes had gone missing without her notice the week before. Now half the grayed skin and meat of her pinkie finger traveled down the conveyor belt with her groceries. Her eyes met the cashier's with pure embarrassment.
"Plastic okay?" the cashier asked. The teenager was clearly trying not to look at the fingertip as she scanned a box of gauze rolls.
"It's fine," Holly said, taking care to enunciate. If she spoke too quickly the words would come out sounding like a garbled grunt, which would only add to her embarrassment. She grabbed her fingertip off the conveyor belt and tucked it in her purse while the cashier finished ringing up the steaks and clothes.
As soon as Holly paid and grabbed her shopping bags, she tried her best to hurry out of the store. But one of her legs had started to stiffen up on her over the past few days and it was more of an awkward, shuffling speed-walk than anything. She knew it. She could feel the eyes on her, judging her, despising her, barely tolerating her. A weak smile tugged at the corners of her lips as she passed another zombie heading into the Walmart as she headed out. At least she wasn't alone.
Holly was almost to her car when she felt one of the bags slip off of her fingers. The plastic took another finger with it and plopped on the pavement of the parking lot. She squatted down and picked up the end of her ring finger. One glance at her hand, now proudly displaying shiny white bones, was enough to push her over the edge. She started crying. There were only dry sobs at first, but slowly the murky tears welled up and oozed down her cheeks.
"You all right? Need some help with those bags?"
"I'm fine. I just dropped one." Holly looked up, sniffling, and quickly stuffed her fingertip into her purse with its companion. The guy smiling down at her was good looking, though he had some deep scars on his neck and face. It gave him a rugged appearance that sent Holly to wiping the tears from her face and feeling even worse. The living could recover after major wounds. But the undead? They were left to wander around missing chunks of themselves. Nothing was worse than decomposing in public.
"Here, let me help anyway," the man said. He reached down and grabbed two of the bags, then held out his other hand to her. "I'm Dalton, by the way."
"I'm Holly. Nice to meet you." She took his hand and let him help her up, appreciating that he was gentle but firm. It was really amazing that he didn't seem bothered by touching her either. Most people cringed if they had to get near a zombie, especially one showing outward signs of decay. Suddenly she was hyper aware of her thinning hair and graying complexion. But it didn't matter anyway. Dalton was just being kind and she would likely never see him again after this. She smiled at him, then nodded down the row of parked vehicles. "My car's over there. The blue one."
Dalton walked along side Holly towards her car but didn't mention anything about her gait. Just one more thing she was grateful for.
"Thanks for helping me," she told him while they put her grocery bags in the trunk of her Corolla. "I know the government has made strides with zombie rights laws, but that doesn't change the way the living feel about us. You're the first living person to want to talk to me other than my sister."
Dalton waited patiently while she spoke, then closed the trunk lid for her. "What makes you think I'm one of the living?" he asked with a cheeky smile.
"What?" Holly's brows furrowed and she looked him up and down again. "You're whole... you're not..."
"I'm not gray? I'm not falling to pieces? My limbs haven't got stuck in place?" he finished for her, but his tone wasn't harsh. He pulled a business card out of his pocket and handed it to Holly. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"Sure," she said absently. The card had her attention. Zombie Restoration Organization.
Her gut instinct told her it was a complete scam. Dalton was lying to her, just trying to lure another depressed zombie into some redeath trap, but she was depressed enough to try anything at this point. If Dalton was telling the truth, she could already envision a better life for herself. A new job. A new love. No more embarrassing trips to the store. No more shutting herself up in her sister's house for weeks at a time. No more worrying about how long her body would last, or if it would outlast what was left in her savings account. No more feeling like a burden on her family and the world just because she hadn't stayed dead.
"Are you really existing off raw beef?" Dalton asked.
"Yes... why?" The question caught Holly completely off guard. She was expecting some prodding curiosity about how she'd died or how long she'd been undead. Why did he care about her diet, of all things?
"If you value your second life, Holly, then you've got to stop," he warned, suddenly very serious. "There's nothing in those slabs of cow meat that'll do you any good. It's just the same as starving yourself, but without the hunger pains. Either way you'll just... keep on going the way you are now."
"What am I supposed to do? What'd you do?" Holly blurted out. Her words ran together like an interstate pile up. She took a deep breath and was about to repeat herself, more slowly, but Dalton just pointed to the card.
"The ZRO, we like to call it Zero, what we do is help other zombies. We figured it out, and word is slowly getting around. But it's not something we can just shout from the rooftops or the living might get themselves into a panic," Dalton said. "Our next local meeting's on Friday at seven. Just call that number and they'll give you directions if you're interested."
Holly nodded and smiled. She still wasn't sure she really believed Dalton was a zombie, but she knew she'd be going to the Zero meeting regardless. "Thanks again, Dalton," Holly said and tucked the card into her purse. She hoped whatever the big secret was could help her put her fingers back on permanently.
The directions to the meeting were easy enough to follow, but the destination itself was on the outskirts of the next town over. Holly had told her sister, April, that the meeting was a support group for zombies. It was at least partially the truth, or so it seemed. Still, she was nervous and kept her eyes peeled for anything that looked strange or suspicious until she finally turned onto the dirt road that lead back to the barn the meeting was to be held in. The professional looking ZRO sign by the entrance made her feel better about showing up to the right place at least.
She parked her car at the end of a row of vehicles on a gravel patch in front of the barn. Getting out of the car was tedious with her left knee almost completely locked into place now. Holly also had to be careful of her fingertips, which she'd stitched back in place and secured with medical tape.
Footsteps crunched against the gravel and Holly looked towards the sound. Even in the twilight she recognized Dalton.
"Glad you could make it," he said with a bright smile. "There's a couple of other new faces here tonight, so don't be bashful."
Holly locked up her car and met Dalton part way to the barn. "I really hope this works. The restoration," she said honestly.
"It's all about learning how to take care of yourself," Dalton said in a reassuring tone, then lead her over to the building. "You wouldn't believe how bad I looked before I found out about Zero. I just about gave up. Started digging a grave for myself in the woods out behind my house. Figured that'd be better than falling apart in the living room."
"Is that why you've got those scars?" Holly asked.
Dalton held the side door of the barn open and ushered her in first. "No, those're from my dog. I guess he didn't like the way I smelled anymore and figured me for someone or something else."
"That's terrible," Holly said softly. Certainly it hadn't been a cake walk for her either since she'd been back, but she'd been luckier than others. Her parents had called her an abomination. Her now-ex-boyfriend had called the cops on her when she'd tried to visit him to show him she wasn't really dead. Her job had been taken by some living person and her former employer refused to give her an interview for a lower ranking position. The only person she knew who wasn't afraid of her was April. But Holly hadn't done anything in the past several months to try to connect with others like her. She hadn't wanted new friends, she just missed her old ones. Yet no one had tried to set fire to her or chop her head off. Of course, if things kept going they way they were, her head would abandon her neck of its own accord.
Now she was desperate. Just like the other zombies in the main room of the barn, and there were a lot more than she'd expected to see, she didn't want to lose this second chance. She took a seat in the middle row of chairs next to a teen boy who didn't look undead at all except for a slight chalkiness about his dark skin. They smiled at each other. Holly was glad when Dalton sat down next to her since he was the only one she knew there. A few more people trickled in, one who looked twice as bad as Holly and two others that looked perfectly alive.
"Now that we're all here, let me make a general announcement about the great organization that is Zero," the man at the podium said. He was older, with white hair and a neatly trimmed goatee to match. "We now have chapters in all fifty states, every Canadian territory, seven countries in Central and South America, eight countries in Europe, four countries in Africa and the Middle East, five countries in Asia, and three states in Australia." He paused during a great round of applause from most of the people in the room, including Dalton and the teenager. "And now, for our new friends joining us tonight, please let me introduce myself. My name is Henry Boyd and I'm the founder and President of our fine, local Zero chapter. We like to think of our little group as a family; a network of friends brought together for community and personal betterment. We are proud zombies unashamed of the label given us by our, so called, 'living' peers. Some of the things you may learn here will be difficult to understand. You're, of course, free to leave at any time. Are there any questions before we begin?"
A gray, splotchy hand slowly raised in the front row.
"Yes, the lady in the front," Henry said and pointed at the zombie.
"How do we know y'all are for real? I need to know if this is some government setup to do experiments. 'Cause if so, I got somewhere else to be," the woman said slowly, her accent almost as thick as her rasping voice.
"Zero is not a government organization. In fact, we have strong doubts any government entities are aware of us at present. There are some plans to change this in the near future, for the good of the living and the undead. Already the head of our great organization is putting together a proposal to assist the corrections system in the United States. For starters," Henry said with a nod. He pointed to another raised hand.
"Is Zero illegal? Do you do illegal stuff?" a young man asked.
"In the strictest sense? Yes," Henry said. There were some murmurs in the crowd of seated zombies. The young man who'd asked the question got up and headed for the door.
"I don't understand?" Holly said quietly to Dalton. Why would they do something illegal knowingly? And why would they encourage others to do it? "How does any of this help anyone if it's illegal?"
"America's laws are the laws of the living," Dalton said.
Holly didn't have time to decide how she felt about that kind of statement before Henry began speaking again.
"We'll get to refreshments in a moment, you have my word. Now, for our new members, you have all clearly noticed how your bodies behave now that you have been reborn into them. They are defiant things full of deadened nerves and drying systems. We're all victims of a slow, premature rot. There will be no more mincing of words here tonight. The cure is simple and isn't a cure at all. It was all a matter of learning the proper diet for our kind. And the answer shouldn't shock anyone terribly. As the old saying goes..."
"You are what you eat!" the other zombies in the room spoke in unison. Some of them started laughing good-naturedly.
"Terrell, Dalton, please fetch the refreshments for our newcomers. They all look like they're starving," Henry said.
The men on either side of Holly rose and walked across the room to a door that obviously led to a smaller room. They reemerged pushing carts covered in a large tea service full of food. However, the food didn't look like the traditional cakes and sweets Holly associated with a tea service.
Terrell brought her a small bowl filled with something gray-pink and a plastic fork. She looked from the bowl's contents to the teen skeptically.
"Is this a joke?" she asked. Of course it couldn't really be a piece of brain in the bowl, cut so that it looked like a slice of pinkish-gray wrinkled cake. And there was no way that it could be a human brain. She expected some cameramen to jump out and shout 'a ha!' at having caught zombies doing the detestable things that all horror film writers knew they would.
"Only one way to find out," Terrell said with a shrug and a smile.
Holly's stomach growled loud enough for the teen to hear. He smirked at her as he properly handed her the bowl, then went back to the cart to deliver refreshments to the other Zero members.
Meat had been the only thing to quench the hunger. Raw meat. The bloodier the better, even if it was cold. After Dalton's advice in the Walmart parking lot, Holly hadn't eaten anything for several days. She swallowed hard and looked around at the others in the room, now happily devouring their slices of brain. What did she have to lose? Certainly not another piece of herself. Not physically speaking.
With a little effort she forked off a piece from the rest of the brain slice and, after a moment's hesitation, took a bite.
"Oh my God," Holly blurted out around the half chewed piece of brain.
"You all right?" Dalton asked, pausing next to his former seat on his way back to the refreshment carts.
"It's delicious!" Holly said. She quickly scarfed down the rest of her portion, forking huge chunks into her mouth at a time. Delicious didn't even begin to describe how amazing it tasted. It wasn't like anything else, but it was like all of her favorite foods combined. Goodbye mourning over tiramisu! Hello brain meat! Somehow she managed to restrain herself from licking the bowl. Already Holly felt more sated, more comfortable and, strangely enough, more alive than she had since she first woke up after death.
"Where did you get all this?" one of the other new members asked.
"Some of them came from the city morgue, our apologies they're not quite as fresh. The others were cultivated from the homeless," Henry said matter-of-factly. He'd stepped away from his podium to sample some of the other items on the food carts.
"It really is... people?" Holly asked, her eyes growing wider. Somehow she'd convinced herself that it wasn't really a human brain she'd just devoured. It had to be a cow's brain or a monkey's brain even. Of course. That would make sense. And it wouldn't involve homicide or potential not-even-in-the-grave robbery.
"Think of it, m'dear! The old adage: you are what you eat. No doubt you've been following your doctor's and the government's advice and been eating raw beef. The real question here is: are you cattle? Or are you a human?" Henry said, his voice and posture exuding pure confidence on the matter.
Holly frowned, feeling all eyes turn to her as the other zombies waited for her to reply. She didn't really know what to say. It made sense in a twisted sort of way. Somehow she found it comforting that it sounded like Zero wasn't condoning grabbing random people to chow down on whenever a zombie was hungry. And hunger was something that seemed to dominate Holly's thoughts more and more each day that she, obviously, wasn't getting appropriate nutrients.
"Is there more? Do we have to pay for it?" she asked, raising up her empty bowl.
Henry smiled and rocked back on his heels. He held his hands out over the food carts. "You are all very welcome to help yourselves to the hors d'oeuvres, but do save room for the main course. And, m'dear, as this feast has come to us free of charge, so we share our bounty with the rest of our Zero family."
Holly wasn't the first to approach the food carts and dine on deboned fingers and toes, delectable eyeballs that burst in her mouth like overripe cherry tomatoes, and delicately sliced sections of what she guessed were tongues. It didn't matter that she knew what the pieces of skin and meat were, they were all wonderful. She felt like she was tasting food for the first time. The flavors and textures amazed her and she wasn't sure she could ever get enough.
Amid the chewing and light conversation it didn't take long for the carts to become empty.
"And now, friends, for our main course," Henry announced happily to the group. He led the way to the sectioned off room and Holly eagerly followed with the other Zero members.
"How are you feeling?" Dalton asked her just before they entered the room, a bright smile on his face.
"Good. Better than good," Holly said, returning his smile easily. But that smile soon faded when she saw the bodies laid out on tables in the side room. There were red tablecloths draped over the portable tables, which looked like the same kind her church used at pot lucks and holiday meals.
Holly watched, mouth ajar, as the other zombies walked right in, grabbed the available seating, and dug right in. The only ones that hesitated with her by the door were the other new Zero members. There was something entirely different about eating a piece of a person and the idea of taking a bite directly from a person. A severed finger was easy to displace as not being utterly and sickeningly human in nature.
Dalton gestured for Holly to join his table as soon as he noticed she'd hung back. He lifted up the arm of the body of the woman on the table in front of him and took a greedy bite. Holly licked her lips involuntarily as she watched the sinew rip and blood run down the arm and Dalton's chin.
"C'mon. While it's still warm," he said with a wink specifically for Holly. And she knew it was just for her, because she turned to the others standing with her and saw they'd all shambled off.
Holly shuffled over to the table and took a seat across from Dalton. She closed her eyes and buried her teeth in the body's other arm, suddenly fearful as she bit down that her teeth might loosen or break. But the meat came free without much effort and she fell into a sensory heaven. She still marveled that she could taste. She could smell the metallic tang of the blood, the light saltiness of the skin. Something seemed to snap loose in her mind and she became entirely focused on eating. She chewed the fingers off the bones ravenously and worked her way back to the elbow with no mind for how covered in blood she’d become.
Her eyes locked with Dalton's over their shared meal and at that moment she truly had no doubt that he'd been telling her the truth from the moment they’d met. His eyes had gone dark, then seemed lit from within by a red flame. Holly was entranced and didn't even notice she'd moved on to devouring the hip meat of the body.
Terrell tapped her on the shoulder lightly and she turned her head to look at him, a half torn piece of meat still clenched possessively between her teeth. His eyes were the same as Dalton's, but a serene smile graced his face. He held something out to her in the palm of his hand. Holly looked down at her own and saw her pinkie had slipped off again. But, before she could even begin to let embarrassment sink in, the teen reached over and gently put her grayed finger back where it belonged.
"Holly, you look amazing. I mean really! I'd never know you were a zombie," April said with a genuine smile as she watched her sister fix her hair in the bathroom mirror. Holly'd had it cut into a shorter style that framed her face instead of hiding it, and April had already expressed her approval the day before with tears of joy in her eyes. "I don't know what it is, but keep it up. If it's the support group or Dalton or both... I've just never seen you look so happy. Not even when you were alive."
"Zombies have a lot to learn from each other, and sharing our experiences helps all of us in the long run," Holly said in a now clear voice and smiled at the reflection of her sister. She didn't even have to put on make-up anymore if she didn't feel like it.
Four months of the proper diet had restored her to her former self, though she did have a few more scars than she'd had before. There were distinct scars around two of her fingers now, and she'd been shocked to discover that the muscle and skin of her missing toe had grown back. The regeneration had been a surprise even to Henry. And with the restoration complete, Holly had begun to feel stronger sensory input, proving her nerves weren't dead even if her pain receptors hadn't begun working again. She could heal now, and that was what was important. Over that same span of time she'd lost any revulsion she'd once felt about the quasi-cannibalism that she engaged in just to maintain her second life. The benefits were too great to her and the zombie community at large. And too delicious.
"I can see it with my own eyes. I just wish I could thank your friends enough," April said with a hand to her heart. She sighed and nodded, then stepped into the bathroom and kissed Holly on the cheek. "Have fun on your date. You deserve the little break for fun after all the work you’ve been doing.”
Holly had picked up a part time job as a file clerk for a law office, which was similar to her old job, but she’d also dove into helping draft the proposals for Zero’s campaign to work with government agencies. Their first two proposals, to the Department of Corrections and State Health Department the following week. Holly felt very hopeful they’d find the allies they needed. Or, if nothing else, the press coverage they’d need to spread awareness and get the country thinking critically about how to support its reborn citizens. Working out appropriate language for such discussions had been one of the first issues they’d tackled. Undead was definitely not a term that was flattering or helpful. Zombie-American, however, had been voted to have a nice ring to it.
The doorbell rang and April excitedly hurried off to answer it. Holly could hear her greet Dalton and invite him in. One more glance in the mirror at the pale yet healthy looking skin of her face, neck and arms was enough to put a bigger grin on Holly's face. She met Dalton in the living room and greeted him with a kiss and a hug, pleased that all stiffness in her joints had dissipated and she no longer had to shuffle from place to place.
"Beautiful as ever," he commented contentedly and took her by the hand. "G'night, April. A pleasure seeing you again. Take care, all right?"
"And don't wait up," Holly added and waved goodbye to her amused sister. She grabbed her small overnight bag and followed her date outside.
"The usual place?" Dalton asked once they were both seated in his car.
"I don't know, if we keep going there the cops are bound to get a tip off eventually," Holly said. She furrowed her brows in thought. They'd all had to get more bold in recent weeks since the morgues had taken better security measures after the rash of stolen bodies. Plus the population of local bums had thinned to next to nothing.
"Terrell told me about this place in the woods off Lakewood Drive where teens like to go and park," Dalton suggested. He smirked and quirked a dark brow.
"Are you taking me to lover's lane?" Holly said with a light laugh as they headed down the road in the direction of Lakewood Drive.
Ten minutes later they'd parked a short distance from where they intended to dine. Hand in hand, the couple walked down the winding dirt road into the dark woods. Soon they could hear a heavy bass beat coming from a parked car up ahead. The teenagers had left their parking lights on, which only made their car that much easier to spot.
"How hungry are you?" Dalton asked in a whisper.
"Famished," Holly replied quietly. And she was. It seemed since she'd had that first taste of human flesh she just couldn't get enough. Where other zombies, like Dalton, said they only got hungry once or twice a week, Holly was hungry almost every day now. She had to wonder if she just didn't have the same restraint as the others or if her body was making up for lost time with the proper nutrients.
"You get the passenger side, I'll get the driver's," Dalton said. He kissed her forehead before they parted ways and stalked up to the car.
With the loud music and steamed windows it was no wonder the two teens were caught unaware. Holly wrenched the nearly naked girl out of the car by her leg, the shrill screams and struggling only succeeded in making her laugh. She held the girl's throat tightly until she stopped flailing. Dalton, meanwhile, made short work of twisting the boy's neck and dragged him around to rest on the weeds and tall grass on the other side of the car. Rock music blared out of the car doors' speakers and into the woods.
"Not my usual favorite, but I kinda like it," Dalton said while he watched Holly tear into the girl's calf.
"You going to have some?" Holly asked after she'd nearly finished off the girl by herself, leaving nothing but a lot of bones, hair, a bra and a few less palatable organs on the blood soaked ground.
"A few bites, but I'm still good from yesterday's meeting."
Dalton mostly watched while Holly tried to quench her insatiable appetite. They both cleaned up and changed into fresh clothes in the little stretch of trees near where they'd parked, then headed back toward Dalton's place on the other side of town.
"I wish I could stop," Holly said, looking down at her stomach critically. The way the seat belt straps sat around it only made her feel more self conscious. "All this eating is making me fat. Whoever heard of a fat zombie?"
Dalton chuckled until he glanced over and saw she wasn't joking. He dropped his gaze to where her hand rested on her stomach, which was definitely larger than it had been several months ago.
"Holly... you don't look fat."
"Yes, I do. That wasn't a trick comment to get my boyfriend's sympathy," she said with a small smile.
"No." Dalton paused, then glanced over at her belly again once they were stopped at a red light. "You look pregnant."
"That's impossible," Holly said quickly. And wasn't it? A fat zombie was one thing. "Really, whoever heard of a pregnant zombie?"
The two looked at each other for a long moment. Then the light turned green and Dalton turned down towards a more main street. He pulled into the first pharmacy he saw, dashed inside, then returned with a pregnancy test box in hand. By the time they were back at his place, Holly feared he was right. They'd started seeing each other about three months prior and, of course, there had been sex almost right away. They'd both been starved for affection and sexual attention. Protection was the farthest thing from their minds on that occasion and all the ones after.
Holly stared down at the little stick in her hand and the unfolded instructions laid out on the bathroom counter. "Dalton this is impossible. Undead sperm? Undead eggs? What if this stick can't read my undead hormone levels?"
"Undead is just another kind of alive," Dalton said calmly. He squeezed her shoulders gently, then left the bathroom and closed the door.
Holly didn't have any trouble peeing on the stick, but after setting the kitchen timer she struggled watching the seconds to tick by on Dalton’s wall clock. She alternated between pacing around the living room and lifting up her shirt to scrutinize her rounded belly.
Holly raced back into the bathroom and read the single word from the digital display on the stick. Pregnant. She swallowed hard.
A million thoughts raced through her mind at once. First, how miraculous this was, even compared to her coming back after drowning in the first place. Then, how she'd always wanted to settle down and start a family of her own. And finally the rush of terrible thoughts about the government finding out and trying to dissect her. And Dalton. And their unborn undead child.
She burst into tears, both of happiness and fear, and Dalton was there in an instant, holding her and running his hands through her hair.
"Would this be a bad time to propose?" he asked after giving her a few moments to calm down.
"What?" Holly looked up at him through tear laden lashes. She was too shocked to notice that real tears spilled down her pale cheeks.
Dalton dug around in his pocket and pulled out a little velvety black box. He shrugged as if it were nothing at all and held it out to her. "Not exactly how I planned the evening would go, but I've come to appreciate surprises."
Holly took the box in shaky hands and carefully opened it. The ring was simple, but beautiful; a diamond solitaire set on a gold band. She watched with wide eyes as Dalton took the ring out of the box and gently slid it on her ring finger. It fit perfectly and sat just below her ring of a scar, which was still a strange but welcome reminder of the moment they first met.
"Marry me?" Dalton asked with a crooked smile.
"Yes!" Holly said, her breath suddenly catching in her throat as fresh tears sprang to her eyes. She leaned in and kissed the man she never would have had the chance to love in life.
They could tackle this together, head on. It would be hard work, but it would be so very worth it. They’d keep their child and their Zero family protected and healthy for years to come. She couldn’t wait to tell Henry, and her sister, the great news.