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Authors: Jess Walter

Don’t Eat Cat

BOOK: Don’t Eat Cat
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Don’t Eat Cat

 

 

By Jess Walter

 

BYLINER FICTION

Copyright © 2012 by Jess Walter
All rights reserved

Cover image: © John Slater/Photodisc/Getty Images (hand); Masterfile (cat)

ISBN: 978-1-61452-028-3

Byliner Inc.
San Francisco, California
www.byliner.com

For press inquiries, please contact
[email protected]

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Section
1

At night I deadbolt doors and hard-bar windows, and it’s not bad living in the city. I stay home a lot. Turn off outdoor lights, bring in garbage cans: simple, commonsense stuff. Obviously, I don’t have pets. I leave my car unlocked so they won’t break the windows looking for food and trinkets. Play music all
night to drown out the yowling. But nights aren’t bad. Daytime is when I get fed up with zombies.

I know. I shouldn’t call them that.

I’m not one of those reactionaries who believe they should be locked up, or sterilized, or confined to Z towns. I think there are perfectly good jobs for people with hypo-endocrinal thyro-encephalitis: day labor, night janitors. But hiring
zombies for food service? I just think that’s wrong.

That day, I’d had another doctor’s appointment and had gotten the unhappy results from a battery of invasive tests. I was already late for a sim-skype in Jakarta when I popped into the Starbucks Financial near my office. I got to the front of the line and who should greet me behind the counter but some guy in his early twenties with
all the symptoms: translucent skin, rotting teeth, skim-milk eyes—the whole deal. Full zombie. (I know: we shouldn’t call them that.)

His voice was ice in a blender. “I help you.”

“Grande. Soy. Cran. Latte,” I said as clearly and patiently as possible.

He said back to me in that curdled grunt: “Gramma sing con verde?”

I stared at him. “Grande … Soy …
Cran … Latte.”

“Gramma say come hurry?” His dull eyes blinked, and he must’ve heard the impatience in my voice—“No!”—because he started humming the way they do when they get agitated. “Gran-maw!” he yelled, and the manager, standing at the drive-through banking/coffee window behind him, gave me a look like,
Dude …
and I looked back at the manager:
you’re blaming
me
for this?
The other
people in the Starbucks Financial all took a step back.

Look, I understand the economics. I work in multinational food/finance. I know there has been some difficulty in staffing service jobs in the States since the borders were closed. More than that, I get the
humanity
of hiring them. Hey, my ex-girlfriend started shooting Replexen
after
researchers made the connection between
hypo-ETE and the popular club drug. Marci actually
chose
that life. So
yes, I know how their brains work; I know abstraction and contextual language give them problems; I know they’re prone to agitation; but I also know that as long as they’re not drunk or riled up, zombies can be as peaceful as anyone. And yes, I know we’re not supposed to call them zombies.

But come on.
Gramma sing con verde?
What does that even mean?

That day, the Starbucks Financial manager came over and put a hand on the zombie’s shoulder. “You’re doing fine, Brando,” the manager said. He was in his fifties, in a headset, tie, and short sleeves, one of those sorry men who try to overcome a lack of education and breeding by working up from food service into retail finance.
The manager smiled at me and then pointed to “latte” on Brando’s touchscreen sim, and they debited the sixty bucks from my iVice while I walked over to the other line. And over at the drink counter, who should be making my actual coffee but another zombie, a girl who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, standing there dead-gaze-steaming my soy milk.

Two zombies. At morning rush hour
in a Starbucks Financial. In the multinat/finance district of downtown Seattle. Really?

The manager was watching the girl zombie steam my milk when Brando screwed up the next order, too, turning a simple double cappuccino into “Dapple
cat
beano,” a hungry hitch on that word
cat,
and you could feel the other businesspeople in the Starbucks Financial tense, and even the short-sleeved
manager knew this could be trouble, no doubt thinking back to their training (apparently they put four or five of them in a room with an actual cat and repeatedly stress
“Don’t eat cat,”
which has to be tough when every fiber of the zombie’s being is telling him
Eat cat
); and in the meantime, poor Brando was humming, just about full tilt. At that point, of course, the manager should have called
the Starbucks Financial security guards to come over from the banking side or called whatever priva-police firm had that contract, but instead he put a hand up to the dozen or so of us in the store and walked calmly over to the kid and said, “Brando, why don’t you go into the break room and relax for a few minutes.” But Brando’s red-veined eyes were darting around the room and he started making
those deeper guttural noises, and look, I was not without sympathy for the manager, or for Brando, or for the twitchy zombie girl running the steamer, who looked over at her fish-skinned counterpart, both of them now thinking
ca-a-a-at,
salivating as if someone had yelled “chocolate” in a kindergarten, the girl zombie humming too now, the soy milk for my latte climbing to two hundred degrees—“Miss,”
I said—and still my soy was hissing and burbling, half to China Syndrome, the boiling riling everyone up, the manager calmly saying, “Brando, Brando, Brando,” and I suppose I was still freaked by the bad news from my doctor’s appointment, because I admit it, I raised my voice: “Miss, you’re
burning
it,” and when she didn’t even acknowledge me, just kept humming and watching Brando, I clapped my
hands and yelled, “Stop it!” And that’s when the manager shot me a look that said
You’re not helping!
And hell, I knew I wasn’t helping, but who doesn’t get frustrated, I mean, I wouldn’t want that manager’s life, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be some twenty-one-year-old with full-on hypo-ETE, but we all have our crosses to bear, right? I just wanted a stupid cup of coffee. And I’d have stormed
out right then, but my iVice had already been debited, and I suppose there was something else, too, something personal—I’m willing to acknowledge that—I mean, how would
you
feel if your girlfriend got so depressed that she actually
chose
to start taking Replexen, knowing it could make her a slow-witted, oversexed night crawler, how would you feel if the woman you loved actually
chose
zombie life
over the apparently unbearable pain of a normal life with you? So
fuck me, sue me, yes yes yes,
I was short-tempered! You bet your ass I was short-tempered, and I yelled at that poor pale girl, “Hey zombie! You’re scalding my fucking latte!”

I know.

We’re not supposed to call them zombies.

What was I supposed to say? “Excuse me,
unfortunate sufferer of
hypo-endocrinal-thyro-encephalitis
, please stop burning my latte”?

I suppose it was inevitable what happened next. As it unfolded, I felt awful. I still feel awful—but in my defense, I
was
the only customer who didn’t turn and run right then, as Brando flashed his teeth and pit-bulled the manager, leapt right into the poor guy’s chest, both of them tumbling to the ground. In
fact, I actually tried to distract him, clapping my hands and yelling as he worked over the poor, screaming manager. And to be fair, Brando didn’t get far.
He bit, but he didn’t chew
is I guess how you’d say it. He really wasn’t trying to
eat
the manager; he was just scared and agitated. Probably not a distinction the manager was making at that time, with Brando yowling, biting, and scratching,
sinewy veins popping beneath translucent skin, the manager lying on his back, covering his face, weeping,
“Oh God”
as Brando snarled and struck and the girl zombie yowled in sympathy, still standing there, steaming my soy milk, which was like magma now, gurgling over the side of the pitcher. And if I give myself credit for anything, it’s that I thought quickly on my feet, grabbing the scalding
pitcher out of her hand and throwing the boiling milk on Brando, who reared his head like a bridled horse, snarled, and spun on me. I turned and ran for the door, Brando now bounding over the counter and toward me like a hungry wolf, knocking over displays of coffee cups and food-finance brochures as he ran straight into the arms of two Starbucks Financial security guys who quickly Tasered him to
the ground and, eventually, into submission.

I stood on the sidewalk with the gathered crowd as the security guys loaded the hog-tied, muzzled Brando into the back of a Halliburton priva-police car, the poor kid still making that awful yowling noise, which shivered up my neck.

“What happened?” a young man asked.

“Zombie attack,” a woman said.

I muttered, “You’re not supposed to call them that.”

It was the first documented attack in months, and the sim-tweets went crazy, as they always do when the subject is hypo-ETE. The tweet was up for hours, twice as long as any election news; only the Florida evacuation tweet was up longer that week. Most of the noise came from Apocalyptics ranting about Revelations, law-and-order
types calling for another crackdown on Replexen, and, on the other side, hypo-ETE activists calling for mercy, for understanding, and for more government funding for programs aimed at those kids
born into
Replexen addiction, family support groups accusing the “irate customer” of being an agitator (thankfully, I wasn’t named). Starbucks Financial stock dropped a couple of points after that (I managed
to short the whole coffee/finance sector for my Indonesian clients), and the company announced it would “revisit its hypo-ETE retraining program.” But honestly, it just seemed like the whole thing would fade. The manager would get a good payout, I’d get a free latte, the zombies would get retrained (“Brando. Do not eat cat”), and the world would go on. Or so I thought.

2

Everyone has an opinion about when it all went to hell: this war, that epidemic, the ten-billion-people threshold, the twelve-, this environmental disaster, the repeated economic collapses, suicide pacts, anti-procreation laws, nuclear accidents, terrorist dirty bombs, polar thaws, rolling famines,
blah blah blah.
It’s getting to where you can’t watch the sim-tweets without someone saying
this
is the end of the world, or
that
—genetic piracy, food factory contaminations, the Wasatch uprising, Saudi death squads, the Arizona border war. Animal extinctions. Ozone tumors. And, of course, the so-called zombie drug.

But here’s what I’ve come to believe. That’s maybe it’s no different now than it ever was. Maybe it’s
always
the end of the world. Maybe you’re alive
for a while and then you realize you’re going to die, and that’s such an insane thing to comprehend, you look around for answers and the only answer is that the world
must die
with
you.

Sure, the world seems crazy
now
. But wouldn’t it seem just as crazy if you were alive when they sacrificed peasants, when people were born into slavery, when they killed firstborn sons, crucified
priests, fed people to lions, burned them at the stake, when they intentionally gave people smallpox or syphilis, when they gassed them, tortured them, dropped atomic bombs on them, when entire races tried to wipe other races off the planet?

Yes, we’ve ruined the planet and melted the ice caps and depleted the ozone, and we’re always finding new ways to kill one another. Yeah,
we’re getting cancer at an alarming rate, and suicides are at an all-time high, and sure, we’ve got people so depressed they take a drug that could turn them into pasty-skinned animals who go around all night dancing and having sex and eating stray cats and small dogs and squirrels and mice and very,
very rarely
—the statistics say you’re more likely to be killed by lightning—a person.

But
this
is the Apocalypse? Fuck you! It’s always the Apocalypse. The world hasn’t gone to shit. The world
is
shit.

All I’d asked was that it be better managed.

But four days after the Starbucks Financial incident, Apocalyptics began protesting Starbucks Financial headquarters, and the company announced the complete suspension of its zombie retraining
program, which got the hypo-ETE activists and support groups going again about the 60 percent zombie unemployment rate. Then, worst of all, some vigilantes came to Seattle from the country and killed a nineteen-year-old zombie girl with an antique hunting rifle, shot her outside a club and left her body outside a Starbucks Financial.

All because I’d wanted better service?

The dead zombie girl was all over the news-tweets. I couldn’t stop staring at her photo. Her ashen-white skin glistened in the blue light. Of course, it wasn’t Marci—it looked nothing like her—but I couldn’t stop thinking about my old girlfriend. I sat that night in our apartment on Queen Anne Hill, staring at the results from my full-body scan, the doors and windows double-locked, music playing
low, and I wondered if things might have been different.

3

Marci had a cousin who went zombie a few years back, before it was called that. It was the usual thing: Stephanie came from a poor family, got low scores on her sixth-grade E-RADs—we’re talking food-service low, manual-labor low. Imagine being a twelve-year-old girl and being told that all you can ever aspire to is
greeter at a Walmart-Schwab. Stephanie had childhood diabetes, and since her parents’ application for gene therapy had been rejected, her own chances of getting a childbirth license were nil. So she started snorting Replexen. This was right after kids in clubs discovered that grinding up the weight-loss/metabolism-boosting pill could give them an ungodly buzz, slow time, allow them to dance and screw
all night; and although it was already connected to the symptoms of hypo-ETE—milky eyes, pale skin, increased hunger, slow-witted aggressiveness—it didn’t stop them. For some, that only seemed to make the high better.

One day, Marci and I were watching sim-tweets of the Northeast Portland riots—during the debate over anti-harassment laws and the whole zombie rights campaign.

“Poor Stephanie,” I said.

“I don’t know,” Marci said. “Maybe she knew what she was doing.”

Afterwards, people at work would ask me, “Did you suspect?” Of course, after someone leaves, you find all sorts of clues, look back on conversations that suddenly have great significance, but honestly, that’s the first thing I remember: Marci saying about her zombie cousin,
Maybe
she knew what she was doing.

BOOK: Don’t Eat Cat
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