He clasped her ghastly, pallid cheeks between his rotting brown fingers, peered into her eyes – or, rather, her one eye and the socket where the other one should have been – and said, ‘Braaaains’.
When you only have a single word vocabulary, clear communication relies on inflection and emphasis. Depending on how you say it, ‘braaaains’ can convey a myriad of meanings to zombies, from ‘Isn’t the weather nice today?’ to ‘oh dear, my big toe has fallen off.’ The slight rise in intonation on the fourth ‘a’ here meant, Sharon knew, that Barry was saying, ‘I love you.’
‘Braaaains,’ she replied, snuggling her desiccating nose into the extremely hollow hollow of his cheek. This meant, of course, ‘I love you too.’
Barry and Sharon lived, or rather ‘unlived’, in an old graveyard at the back of a church. They occupied a prime spot in the corner, behind the oversized tomb of a former chief constable of the parish, where the wind and rain didn’t bother them much.
As you probably know, legend has it that if a zombie eats your brains then you become a zombie too, but actually that’s only true if the entire brain is consumed. If, say, a few ounces of parietal lobe are left lying around for the rats, the dead person doesn’t turn into a zombie and simply remains a present for maggots. That’s not common knowledge among the living, but it’s something your average undead person knows instinctively. For decades they’d survived by consuming only ninety percent of their victims’ minds. More zombies would lead to complications, Barry had told Sharon. (Well, he’d said ‘braaaains’, but he’d coupled it with a series of surprisingly adept mimes.) The humans would notice, he’d insisted, and it would make them more likely to be captured. For her part, she sometimes looked at the rusting wrought iron of the cemetery gates and somewhere in the fug of her zombie mind images of what had been before, and what could be in future if she only ventured outside, flickered into view, then subsided. Then she’d catch Barry watching her and try to forget about it.
But then, one year, came a blizzard. Snow landscaped its way over the graveyard, burying the headstones in white. No-one came to mourn their loved ones that winter, for why would you go out to visit your old Grandpa’s grave when it was chilly outside and you could stay in with Netflix and a hot chocolate? Sharon and Barry huddled together behind the tomb, not really feeling the cold – zombies don’t – but becoming more and more ravenous as the hours and days ticked by. They fed on the odd mouse here and there, but that didn’t really cut it. Their rodent brains were so small that the zombies couldn’t help but scoff the lot, and now there were undead mice running all over the place.
‘Braaaains,’ said Sharon, mournfully.
‘Braaaains,’ agreed Barry.
Then one day the clouds parted a crack, the sun slid weakly through and the first mourner came, a young woman, who trudged through the drifts and hunkered down next to a headstone, brushing the already-melting snow from it.
‘Braaaains!’ squealed Sharon, and before Barry could stop her, she was off, shuffling at top speed towards her target, who didn’t see the danger until the zombie was almost on top of her. There was an almighty scream and it was over, just like that. And every last bit of the brain had disappeared down Sharon’s throat.
Barry dragged the corpse back to his and Sharon’s patch. ‘Braaaains,’ he snapped at her. Sharon kept her eyes on the floor as she followed behind, brain juice dribbling down her chin.
* * *
Six months later, Barry and the new zombie – Jade, according to the driving licence they’d found in her purse – were stuffing the contents of an unfortunate old lady’s skull into their decaying mouths, eyes locked together and fingers almost touching.
‘Braaaains,’ smiled Barry.
‘Braaaains,’ giggled Jade, reaching forward to wipe a cerebral cortex smear away from what remained of Barry’s upper lip. Sharon watched this from a distance. Jade still had her long blonde hair, while Sharon’s was coming out in clumps. Jade had both her eyes. Sharon didn’t. Only the tip of one of Jade’s fingers had rotted away, while Sharon’s hands played host to a collection of brown stumps. And Jade didn’t have maggots wriggling under the skin of her forehead. It was hardly a contest really, but Sharon still had her pride. She pulled herself to her feet and approached the giggling, greying lovebirds, who hurriedly yanked their hands apart.
‘Braaaains,’ she scowled, pointing at Jade.
‘Braaaains!’ screeched Jade.
‘Braaaains!’ shouted Sharon.
‘Braaaains,’ said Barry, making a ‘calm down’ motion.
‘Braaaains,’ grinned Jade, grabbing Barry’s hand. One of his fingers fell off, but that didn’t seem to bother her.
He didn’t let go.
‘Braaaains?’ said Sharon, her bottom lip trembling. Thankfully, it stayed attached.
‘Braaaains,’ he replied, shrugging.
‘Braaaains,’ she whispered, turning her back and walking away.
‘Braaa-ains!’ hollered Jade as she left. Sharon stopped, stiffened, then sagged and disappeared behind the trees.
* * *
Sharon was lonely at first, living by herself on the other side of the graveyard behind a trio of dilapidated headstones. She ate on her own. She went for walks on her own. When her ear fell off, there was no-one there to offer a sympathetic ‘braaaains’. Occasionally she saw Barry and Jade from a distance and Jade would raise her hand to wave and grin, or at least she did until it dropped off, which was so funny Sharon coughed up one of her lungs. She shrugged. She didn’t need it any more.
But then, after a time, she stopped feeling so bad. She built herself a little shelter from branches. She watched the birds perch atop the graveyard wall and dug up some worms to feed them with. She read the inscriptions on the gravestones – slowly and hesitantly, for reading doesn’t come naturally to zombies – and imagined the lives people had led before they’d ended their days beneath her feet. She conjured up fantasies of pirates and warriors, knights and princesses, and realised that these were all things she’d never done – or even thought to do – in all her years with Barry. She’d done what he did and thought how he thought and it was only now that they were apart that her mind was becoming clearer. One day, she began to think about the outside world again. The thought of all the sights, smells and different brains out there made her quiver. Yet, when she approached the gates, a warning ‘Braaaains’ echoed in her mind and her courage shrank away.
Then, one evening, there was bellowing from the direction of the chief constable’s tomb. A angry chorus of ‘braaaains’ sliced through the air. Sharon sneaked over to the site of the disturbance and watched from a distance as Barry and Jade yelled in each other’s faces. A body lay between them. It was a young man – a very dead young man. A very dead, but extremely good-looking young man. There didn’t seem to be any bits of brain left over.
‘Braaaains,’ said Barry.
‘Braaains.’ That was Jade.
Sharon winced. That last ‘braaaains’ was zombish for a name you simply never called a lady, even someone like Jade, who responded by lashing out at Barry with the stump of her wrist, knocking the tip of his nose clean off.
‘Braaaains,’ she hissed. She grabbed hold of the corpse’s arm and dragged it away to another area of the graveyard, well away from Barry and Sharon, to await its reawakening.
There was silence. Barry looked around, then caught sight of Sharon hunkering among some weeds. ‘Braaaains,’ he said. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled, his rotten tongue squatting behind his putrid gums. He made gestures to Sharon, indicating the corner of the graveyard where she and he had lived for so many years. ‘Braaaains?’ he said again, shrugging once more.
Sharon pulled herself upright and looked at him. There was already a maggot poking out of the fresh hole at the end of his nose. There were craters in his cheeks, exposing the bone. His lips had rotted away and his left earlobe dangled loosely, threatening to fall off at any moment.
He was still handsome, no doubt about it.
But then she peered back across the graveyard, eyes resting at first on her new patch, where she’d learned to be independent. The sunshine picked its way through the branches, illuminating her shelter. Then she glanced at the gates. They were open a crack, almost inviting her over and insisting she explored what lay on the other side. Barry saw where she was looking. ‘Braaaains,’’ he said fiercely, reminding her again how dangerous it was outside. But now Sharon began to wonder exactly who it would be dangerous for.
She turned back to Barry, who stretched his grin even wider, cracking his mouth at the corners. ‘Braaaains?’ he asked again.
‘Braaaains,’ she told him, and before he had time to respond, she walked away, through the gravestones and towards the gates. He watched her pause for a moment, then slip through the crack and disappear from view.
‘Braaaains,’ whimpered Barry as the fear of being alone fell upon him. The flattening of the second ‘a’ made this mean ‘I’m sorry,’ but it was much too late for that.
David Cook is not a zombie, but often feels like one in the mornings. He’s had stories featured in the National Flash Fiction Anthology, Spelk, Flash Fiction Magazine and more, and you can find his work at http://www.davewritesfiction.wordpress.com or on Twitter @davidcook100. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, with his wife and daughter, who aren’t zombies either.
Image: ulleo via Pixabay