by B. A. Crofts
This is about zombies and life
In the early twenty-first century America’s consumerist frenzy had reached a plateau. The rollercoaster hung at it’s precipice at the dawn of the new millenia for an instant before plunging into arm-waving, fear-laced recession. Declining markets coupled with a pseudo-religious, neo-patriotic fervor most directly dependent upon the leading market indicators sent economic “scientists” scrambling for an answer to the capitalist identity crisis of the modern era. The efforts started with simple propaganda campaigns, using the national media and a host of psychological research to hawk fear and disaster radios, terror and duck tape, in attempt to bring the nations books into the black. But the results fell short of the goals and the experiments grew heavier handed, more oblique in their cynicism about the human experience.
As the nation faced an influx of undocumented, meaning unindoctrinated immigrants, particularly Latina/Latino-Americans, bringing with them dangerously non-material aspects of their startlingly holistic cultures white-lab coat wearing techno-plutocratic anthropologists panicked. Insightfully drawing on the tendency of First Nations cultures and their Hispanic descendents to be influenced by their environment, scientists began perfecting hypno-environmental control as a means of enticing the drive to purchase. Labeled “The Russo Project” for unknown reasons, they determined that by introducing particular smells, sounds, even subconsciously based iconography into certain localities dramatic behavioral modifications could be achieved on the statistical level without manipulation becoming evident to any particular individual.
The promising future of this new form of social control was predictably co-opted by a private enterprise that pushed the technology to its breaking point; producing customized products that were later found to be too memory specific. Their danger lie in prompting overwhelming emotions of the sort not conducive to social cohesiveness, much less commerce. Prospective customers wept in the streets or stabbed all their coworkers rather than the goal behavior; milling around a big box store subconsciously accumulating unnecessary goods.
Eventually this technology was exposed along with its harmful effects by the CEO of the highly profitable customized product company, who spoke frankly of its terrifying power to control and ultimately commoditize the human psyche. In his speech he coined the term “Corporate-Laboratory Complex” as a byword for a new and terrifying enemy of humankind, a conspiracy of nihilistic men in search of the bliss of social oblivion.
Another decade passed during which social unrest mostly related directly to the conspiratorial hints of government mind control led the market to a certain level of stability. Violent protest were put down violently and the existential fear of having ones heart hardened at the whim of a government scientist was surpassed by the immediate horror of the rioting. The cudgel of the officer replaced the mind of the scientist as the major object of fear.
Researchers noted that “natural fear of present conditions”, as it turned out, was the best mental state for consumption. During the riots, those who had the means bought their way out of danger and as the economic scientists saw it, those without the means were not very likely to acquire them. This “natural fear”, as apposed to the states of existential terror or nostalgic malaise that their previous efforts had elicited prompted action. Because modern society, as it’s hallmark, provides the resources to thwart any danger, abate any fear for a fee, it modern citizens has adapted by response through purchase. In example: If one were to be bit by a deadly snake the first response would not be to face death and think Greek thoughts, but rather to contact someone with and emergency snake bite kit or call a hospital with a cell phone. The modern mind is apt to use its universal tool (money) prior to other available assets. In example: If one were thirsty and standing before both a stream and a bottled water dispensing machine most would buy a bottle of water for a dollar. Its interesting to note that many locations that provide assumedly potable water for free (i.e. water fountains) also sell bottled water with no apparent conflict.
“Rest assured you will be replaced”
As the year 2050 approached a Renaissance-like main-stream surge in cultural exploration threatened the very ideological foundations of Western economics. People were simply not buying it. A new generation of white-lab coat-wearing techno-plutocrats, piggybacking off the scientific achievement of project Russo, sought to amp up the power of psycho-environmental control. Under the name “Operation Baal” the crowning achievement of this vast secret organization was the release of an exotic nerve gas into an untold number of big box stores on January 1 2050. If they were correct the gassing would boost sales exponentially throughout the year and save the human race from a catastrophic economic downturn by eradicating the human brain’s will to abstain from purchase.
It worked but only too well.
Chaos floods the aisles of big boxes across the nation as customers are driven mad by savings. In their manic state all bargains seem existentially too good to pass up and items disappear from the shelves while large piles of cash and credit cards mount at the registers. Everything seems to be going as planned, until one by one across the country each store ran out of low-priced merchandise. Happy retailers dance in the empty lanes while intermittently calling the logistics centers for re-ups and vague congratulations.
They knew, of course, that this drastic success would trickle down like half-amber sap in January, covering the cost of their new car maybe by next year, but not fundamentally altering their lives. But a more immediate problem was brewing. Despite the excellent customer service of millions of sales staff, cashiers and management, the lack of reasonably priced consumables began to drive the mind-fried customers into a riotous frenzy. Within a day or two of desperately and unsuccessfully trying to meet this new demand, the military is called in to quell the maddened soccer moms and the electrically charged sit-down retiree shoppers. Across the major news networks an iconic image is graphically splattered: the singular image of a blue-haired lady with smeared lip-stick clutching in one hand an incredible number of doctor’s prescriptions while using the other to hug to her chest the dozens of empty bottles that once contained her life-sustaining medications and screaming bloody murder at the camera with grey gums visible. As days pass the carnage mounts until lives begin to be lost in the consumerist frenzy. It’s explained that the market is simply not capable of adjusting so rapidly to this new surge in demand, but that given time...
Behind closed doors a massive effort is undergone to stop, or at least adapt, Operation Baal. The governmental arms of the conspiracy work to tame the disparate non-specific rebellions that have popped up in cities across America, while the more surreptitious, operational tentacles of the organization, reaching even into the armed forces, simultaneous dismantled the delivery systems which had pumped the gas into the stores and worked to keep whatever cells active that they could without spreading public awareness of the Operations existence beyond a few conspiratorial nuts.
In the end it was decided that only a single store on a remote island would remain under the auspices of Operation Baal. The rest were fitted with systems that could deliver a counteractive nerve agent through the drinking fountains that over time worked to undo the neurological damage inflicted to those shopping during the projects operation. The fountains employed an antidote similar to what had been unwittingly administered to all employees long ago to immunize them against the affects of the gas by exposing them to a curative released through the vents in the break room.
On the remote island the limited population had somewhat negated the impulse to riot. Though shoppers have been affected by the same desire to buy, their rage at the lack of products was diluted compared to the minor revolts on the continent. After its ties to the outside world are sever by the operative arm of Operation Baal, trailers full of merchandise are flown in by helicopter. Boats are set adrift and the world is told not to notice by very convincing voices.
Eventually the madness to buy warps into the more primal instinct to purely ingest. Cannibalism, and thus death, runs rampant prompting the think tank at Operation Baal to introduce its new necronomic chemicals onto the island, leading to full on zombification while maintaining a certain level of recognizable consumerist tendency.
They’d created a perfect sample of material, purchase-driven humanity. The only unaffected humans remaining on the island are those employees in charge of unloading the trucks. Since the zombies are so willing to buy whatever merchandise is available, without hesitation, sales staff is unnecessary. Since they never complain, customer service is obsolete. In fact, since the zombies pick the products straight off the palettes and make payments themselves at self-scan machines, the only humans necessary to sustain the system are those who take said merchandise from the truck to the floor.
And so, after a full days work the crew at the island big box store attempt to return to their families, trying to cope with the mania that has slowly taken hold of their small island, as well as the world at large, they walk apathetically passed the emptied shelves, pools of blood, cash and bargain-drunk zombie shoppers, only to find the front door locked, and the building under some kind of flashing light siren-accompanied quarantine. A nasally voice comes over the PA.
“Attention all associates, attention all associates, please return to the GM backroom. Your families are dead. Your lives, as you knew them, are over. Everyone on the island is a zombie and you have no chance of escape. The blood lust of the shoppers still in the store can only be abated by a daily dose of palletized freight. Trucks will be supplied with the usual amount of merchandise. For your safety it is recommended that you continue to perform up too our high expectations, or risk being bitten by angry shoppers and becoming one of them. If this occurs rest assured that you will be replaced. Zombie customers are similarly replaceable. The only thing irreplaceable is you commitment to excellence. In exchange for your cooperation the facilities and products are at you disposal. We at Operation Baal expect, in fact demand excellence! For the future good of the future country. For your God! For the children! Forever!”
The transmission cuts out and they are left alone with one another surrounded by oblivious, disheveled customers. Looking around with new eyes they are faced with the carnage in the aisles, not to mention the zombie customers gnawing at the bleach-white bones of their kind-hearted manager.
A skinny bespectacled unloader walks cautiously up to one of the blood-encrusted customers, a huge student-athlete in full fraternity regalia staring at a barrel of DVDs emptied except for twenty-seven copies of “Kazaam”. The unloader says, “Um, excuse me but do you know…ahhh!”
From where the crew stands it looks as though the pledge has leaned over to act upon his latent homosexual impulses and has begun necking with the likeable dweeb of a backroom associate.
In unison the remaining crew of backroom associates react guffaws or disgusted looks that rapidly turn to fear when they see a six foot spurt of blood erupt from the supposed sight of the hickey. “McLovin!” scream all; that being the name of their coworker who was now bleeding from a huge neck wound, spraying blood all over the newspaper rack. Stepping forward Army Chris, an ex-military man whose personality is severely shell-shocked despite having never served in combat, picks up a copy of USA Today, the front page of which consists of a single full-color photo of the front of a big box store its giant logo splattered in blood. A small stock quote indicates that the retail sector has rallied.
Standing stark still holding out the paper to show the rest of the unloaders, who are now, in panic, pounding at the locked sliding glass doors, Army Chris unnecessarily flips his short hair back in an awkward neck-wrenching motion before saying in a smoke-accented voice, “Welcome to Baal-Mart”. The crew, looking past him, watch, struck dumb by terror as McLovin rises zombie-eyed from the ground.
“Barrel of McLovin”
Striding awkwardly toward his one-time friends the zombified McLovin moans incoherently for a few seconds before becoming distracted by the in-store Subway and repeatedly moaning the “five-dollar foot long” song. While he’s distracted the unloading team converses.
“I think he’s a zombie guys, but like none I’ve ever seen,” says a handsome curly-haired, pseudo-intellectual with a penchant for breaking the fourth wall, known to the rest of the crew as “the Writer”.
Ernest, a black southern gentleman with a compulsion for continuously brushing his hair, pipes up with a good-natured rebuttal. “Maaan, please! You have never seen a zombie. Maybe in a movie, but this ain’t no movie. He’s probably just sick like usual or caught something from either that fraternity dude or that slutty girl he’s got.”
Everyone looks over to the zombie-pledge to see him tonguing a life-sized cardboard cutout of some self-help book author and they react with a mixture of disgusted looks and accepting shrugs.
“This guys going down, nobody kisses Dr. Wayne without me getting involved!” Shouts Army Chris confusingly. The rest of the crew stands back as Army Chris taps the make-out zombie on the shoulder and sucker punches him in the face as he turns around, marine tattoo flexing in full glory as the wild right cracks the zombies chin to the side. Summarily unfazed the frat-boy raises arms in traditional zombie fashion and lunges toward his assailant clumsily. Dodging to the other side of a large display of books, Chris evades the lunge only to slip on the well-waxed and blood speckled floor. The zombie in turn walks into the corner of the book display and looses footing, landing badly on his neck. As Army Chris stands and moves to safety the zombie also lurches to his feet; neck now bent at forty-five degree angle.
“Yo, this is stupid, son,” mumbles Jimmy an easy-going, weed-smoking, fro-rockin’, self-proclaimed pimp, as he reaches for the bottle-shaped handle of a refrigerator in which remain a few bottles of pop. Armed with a glass bottle of “throwback” Pepsi, he brained the Zeta Chi zombie in one dramatic smash of broken glass and blood.
Retrieving a “cigarette” and lighting it, he whispered, “I hate frat boys”.
Over by the subway zombie-Mclovin was clearly getting restless, his “five dollar foot long” chant more menacing by the verse.
“Five, five dollar, five dollar foot long… five, five…five… I want my baby back baby back baby back baby back…” His blood-shot eyes scanned the rest of the crew as he paced toward them repeating the lyric maniacally. The unloaders exchanged glances; no one wanting to be the one to have to do in their respected coworker. Stepping backwards without looking, the Writer fell, head-first, into the barrel of “Kazaam” DVDs. As he rolled on the ground, struggling to extricate himself, the loose copies flung to the zombies feet, where again he became distracted by them reaching to pick one up.
“Shaaaq.” He repeated the word and gave a short chortle after each repetition.
Regaining his feet, the Writer said.
“I guess that voice over the PA was pretty accurate. ‘Looks like we’ve got no choice but to play along for now. What should we do with McLovin? I mean none of us even has the slightest idea on how to even go about finding a cure, right?” The crew shrugs and nods in agreement. “And it seems like he’s lost most of his personality anyway. There’s no way he’d look twice at a “Kazaam” DVD, he didn’t even really like Shaquille O’Neal.” Again nods of consensus.
“Fuck it.” Ernest Approaches the distracted McLovin from behind, eyeing the empty barrel which he stood near.
“You were a good dude, McLovin, now it’s time to RUIP” With a running start Ernest leaps high into the air, hanging for a moment, before descending with the back of McLovins head in the palm of his hand, driving his scrawny neck against the steel rim of the barrel and depositing his head neatly within.
“Receive Unemployment in Peace”
The unloaders swiftly realize that if they don’t continue to provide these sub-human consumers with quality merchandise at low, low prices they will never survive.
Trailer of merchandise continue to come and go, but all other contact with the outside world is cut off. Cell phones get no reception and the land lines go dead, the doors are barred and sealed shut except for the automatic front door which only seems to activate in the presence of infected consumers who enter and exit the store only when unloaders are at a sizable distance from the doors. Despite repeated attempts to dash through the door during this window of opportunity, eventually all hope of escape is lost and the crew settles into their reality. They heroically deal with the day to day realities of working for …Baal-mart!
The tents they’d propped up in the backroom were serviceable for sleeping after they’d put the inflatable vinyl mattresses in them, but in terms of sound proofing they were useless. Some tried to us ear plugs they’d snatched from the pharmacy department, while others fell asleep to ipod music. Many nights were spent struggling against the ever-present moans of the shop-zombies getting hungry for commodity. Eventually it just became a kind of white noise; a sound they adapted to hearing and their brain began to ignore. They lived virtually in silence otherwise, having little to talk about without news, sports, or new entertainment. They adjusted to just doing their jobs and being satisfied to be alive and to have complete access to so many things, so many material possessions.
When the voice first came over the PA system it was startling to say the least.
“You know what I think? Well I’m gonna tell ya! There was this one time, I think it was me, my buddy, my dog and my dad and Jonah and he said something I’ll never forget. You know what I’m talking about right. And if you don’t, well you can just imagine, I bet. Soo, anyway… Did you see that movie, where it was like that guy…”
The tone was erratic, the content empty, the thoughts and sentences incomplete. The being who produced them, by proxy, was assumed to be oblivious if human.
“Three times I’m telling you, now stuff like that just doesn’t happen! It was ridiculous and then I said ‘No way’. I’m so glad to have been there at the time and seen that, a total joy, for sure.”
The droning didn’t cease for days. Ear plugs made life more difficult and when Karita got an ear infection it was decided that the Voice had to go. Temporarily satiating the consumers with new purchases, the crew when to work with poles, ladders and hammers, smashing the speakers into shards of plastic, metal and silicone, the voice dimming by the hour. The decrease in volume, however, seemed to almost intensify the aggravating obsurdity of the voice’s speech patterns.
“Could I interest you in a bumper sticker? This one’s pretty cleaver, it’s from Jews for Jesus it says “My boss is a carpenter and I’m Jewish so…”. See told you it’d make you laugh. I’m not really Jewish and I’m sure what their getting at, but it’s from Jews for Jesus so… it cool with me, I’ve been told I’m tolerant like that.”
One by one the unloaders smashed each speaker until only one remained. It was located high over the grazing area of grocery-side, where the zombies had become particularly violent for some reason; behaving less like “Last Man on Earth” zombies and more like “28 Days Later” zombies. Squatting from a hidden position the crew observed their virulent shoppers and asked the Writer why they were frenzied in comparison to the rest of their sluggish brethren.
The Writer went on to explain that those zombies in this section of the store had instinctively assumed their right to eat bulk produce and candy, anything unwrapped really, because they by their very nature had an “intent to purchase”. It made them very dangerous, because their intent could not be quelled and their consumption could not be satiated.
“This rationale I’ve gathered from a book I found, coverless and ready to be compacted and discarded. It was written by Dr. Dwayne Elwell. In it Dr. Elwell, a p.h.d. in “psycho-nomics”, outlined a materialist philosophy in line with what we’re witnessing here. In truth what he says could’ve applied to all of the consumers we’ve seen over the years searching for they know not what amid the shiny rubble of this store. His is a philosophy of acquisition, the book is called I am what I want, I want what I am.”
The unloaders each contemplated this title, this concept of desire, and sought within themselves the shards of possessiveness they’d known in their previous lives on the outside. Now, in the shadow of the having-mad zombies, there could be no doubt of the foolishness of this way of life, of this attempt to have in lieu of being.
“You see, it’s like this, when you pray, things are gonna start coming you way. And what a lot of people don’t realize is, is that you, you gotta be ready for that commitment to the Lord. What you want is coming your way and when you pray and you really ask your Lord Jesus Christ for something, anything, it’s going to come you way, Praise the Lord…”
The voice continued.
“So what do we do!” they all asked the writer.
“Uh, I guess we could try…”
The volume of the one remaining speaker began to increase. Their proximity to it made speech short of shouting inaudible. It said, more authoritatively now, but still tinged with a kind of incoherent weakness:
“Without purity we are nothing. Without that pure white light within us to guides toward what we want, there is only confusion, chaos. When we become white with grace and love, when we transcendent the problems of our life and everything becomes pure, we will find our way out of the darkness; the blackness. Together let the whiteness overwhelm you, let your desires fill your soul and shout them at the blackness of space. Let your white light of…”
From among the unloaders Jimmy stands to say, “Aw, hell nah”. Before anyone else can move he takes his pick from out of his mouth, stabs it into his fro and runs past the frozen food aisles, toward the hoard of zombies, toward the blaring speak. Mid sprint, he passes a spill station, where an incredibly long broom handle with no head is perched. Leaping in stride onto the long open top coolers filled with sausages, ham hocks and juice, known as the bunker, he bolts along the thin spine with perfect balance, maintaining speed. Reaching the end of the coffin-cooler he thrusts the broom handle into a lip at its edge and vaults to a good fifteen feet in the air. The crew watches in stunned silences as rather than drop the pole, he swings two-handed it over his head connecting with the speaker in a shower of sparks and plastic.
Jimmy sprains his ankle landing badly, but a cheer goes up over the new relative silence for a few seconds before the crew notices encroaching zombies.
“What, what! Cause I’m a pimp!” Jimmy shouts, picking his hair and strutting unaware of the danger. Mauled and brought down by a the crowd of consumers in an instant, Jimmy’s life ends.
As he rises again with a new bleary-eyed dull look on his face, his dying words become a repetitive moan: “I’m a pimp. Cause I’m a pimp…”. He staggers toward the unloaders, repeating his slogan.
Someone killed him for the second time, it’s not important who really. Let’s say I did it, with a lightning bolt. The point is that identification via possession spirals toward death. Get it? Good.
The temperature within the building sweltered around the thermometer, making its reading a bleary trouble. The crew stood staring at a small weather station the writer had constructed from a kit he’d found in the crafts department. Everyone stared bleakly at it, like monkeys in front of a space-blank monolith, 2x4x9. The writer sat cross-legged before this sweaty group clad in Braile-studded foot-ball shoulder pads.
“It says that it’s hot.”
A drop of sweat slid down each unloaders nose and hung at the edge of their nostrils till, inhaling sharply, they were up-drafted and then plopped to the dusty cement floor.
“We should all take care to drink lots of water and conserve strength. Wear as little clothing as you feel comfortable with and for godsake, by Odin’s beard, for the Love of Dawkins work as little as possible.
“But as Socrates might have said, death will come to those who wait. Our lives hang in the balance and effort is a weight we need in our favor. Blood and sweet buy us time, unloading these boxes keeps the zombie shoppers calm and they do seem to be more ornery cause a the heat.”
Blank stares answer him and the Writer knows that this is not enough to keep them motivated, not enough to keep them safe.
“So, uh, I guess keep up the good work!”
The early part of the day drags and by lunchtime the majority of unloaders, male and female, are dead beat and sweating like pigs. The writer knows that a revival is in order, he sets one up.
Taking pains to gather the masses to his stage a presentation begins:
“This island is old, this island has seen other people…” His hands clasped behind his back, he strides among them and then back around to center-stage.
“These were the first people, in fact, each one different, unique and powerful, godly even. They dwelt here immortal until one hot day they all got drastically and simultaneously hungry and thirsty. So thirsty and so hungry yet there was no food existed. Hunger had never before occurred. Thirst had never before occurred. The only thing they could think to consume was each other but in the moment before they began to cannibalize they spotted in the distance a burst of mist. They stared numbly on the shore as over and over spray erupted off in the sea, over the vast ocean waves.
“One man answered the call that they all heard, swimming out in search of the source of the sudden, fountain of refreshment. Seymour!!”
From the corner of the impromptu stage leapt Ernest, wearing a snorkeling mask. He mimed a desperate swimming motion on stage to the uproarious laughter of the rest of the unloaders.
“As this brave of the first men plied his strength against the Sea it became furious. The gods struck madly at his defiant efforts. They sought to end his struggle with deadly drowning waves.”
A bucket of water from off stage splashed Ernest in the face unexpectedly and he paused for a refreshed moment and comic effect before swimming on.
“The gods summoned beasts for him to battle, such as the nerf, a tribe of winged demons that hurled squishy missles at our hero.”
Foam footballs thrown by winged-costume-wearing unloaders bombarded the actor to no avail.
“At last he reached the Beast itself, a whale of immense size, an orca the size of five trucks. “
A plastic inflatable whale was brought on stage guided, by three black-clad unloaders.
“He was the source of all Waves! The lord of storms! Baal himself, god of troubled waters!”
Five more buckets of water flung through the air and a cd player, on cue, started playing a gospel version of “Trouble the Waters”.
“They fought an epic battle.”
The plastic pool toy was used to assault Ernest, scoring many welts and a few scratches before he was tossed a razor-knife by someone in the audience and he used it to slash at the balloon, deflating the giant-orca avatar of Baal.
“He then took the corpse of the great whale in his hands by the tail.”
A pallet jack over-loaded with a heap of bagged rock salt had been spray painted with a stylized tribal orca on its side.
“The first hero struggled against the weight the god-corpse, hauling it ever closer to shore and to his thirsty/hungry kith. They were dying one by one as he struggled to bring his marine freight to shore, each one withering into the sand and disappearing. Suddenly a crowd of angry bottle-nosed dolphins began to impede his progress. They nipped at his hard won prize, taking large chunks of meat off the bones. They barked into his ears, driving him mad with their frenetic noise”
Ernest and the rest of the performers rejoined the crowd, listening silently to the conclusion of the story.
“By the time he made it back to the island much of the flesh had been shorn from the whale-skeleton and many villagers had died of famine. Many of those few hundred left grew violent and greedy, chewing voraciously at the meat and becoming rather anti-social. After a fashion, when the whale-flesh was all gone, they began to consume each other and but for a few who chose not to taste the gruesome meal, including Seymour Orca-killer, they died in a bloody feud till only one remained.
“The others, those who’d eaten no whale-flesh sat on the shore together. They were each of an archetype: the Writer, The Athlete, The Pimp, The Religious Army Guy, The Not-Crazy Army Guy, The Farmgirl, The McLovin, The Mayor, etc… In other words we were all there together in the beginning, sitting together on the shore watching the descending caramel sun, eating dolphin to stay human.
“There was only one Enemy left on the Island. He was like us once, but has lost control of himself, he has lost himself. But that’s another story.”
Icy cool hung in the air for many silent moments, each person feeling simultaneously refreshed. They stood and gathered themselves, striding into their respective duties effortlessly. The day began.