“Uh, I think I know what’s real and what’s not, and this is definitely not.” We were eating popcorn, and Chiara was challenging the claim that movie theatre popcorn was made with real butter.
“It says made with real butter flavoring, so that doesn’t mean that it’s all butter. Some of it could be palm oil,” Chase countered. “Maybe it’s made with butter for flavoring, and the rest is like, that stuff that looks like motor oil.”
The movie was a zombie thriller, just what I felt like watching after months of being on lockdown due to the pandemic. The premise was that a zombie infection was threatening humankind, that the government was disseminating misinformation about the zombie apocalypse that was occurring, that humans were being infected until they were reduced to flesh-eating, catatonic shells of themselves, scrounging for food and weapons, shuffling around in mass numbers, until there were only two left in a cave, safe from the world. All would have ended well, except that a zombie-squirrel entered the cave and was about to scratch the protagonist when the screen went black. A perfect segue for the sequel.
“Freakin’ awesome,” Chase said. “That was worth a six month wait.” Chase had a soft spot for zombie and horror movies. “You know,” he said, “the zombie apocalypse has already begun. . . “
I chuckled. Images of mass gatherings of brain-dead, stumbling people wearing raggedy clothes and searching for human flesh to eat jumped back into my mind. The movie had been pure camp. But Chase had the last laugh. On leaving the theatre, a man was handing out handbills for the sequel to the movie. “The Zombie Apocalypse is now,” it read. “Told you so,” Chase said simply.
My internship is downtown. I work for the IT department of a big company. Since the pandemic, our department had been working day and night. Late night at the movies over the weekend was definitely not a spectacular choice on my part. I needed a cure: an extra-large coffee at the QuickMart would be the key to getting through this Monday.
When I got to the QuickMart, it was not yet 7:30 a.m. My shift started early, so I decided to grab two coffees, one for Chase, who also works in my department, one for me. When I got to the office, Chase was still on a high from the movie. I handed him a coffee. “Freakin’ awesome,” he said. He opened up his jacket. There was a T-shirt underneath that read, “My Zombie Preparedness Plan Isn’t So Funny Now,” and touted the sequel, “Undead 3: the Reckoning.” I rolled my eyes. If Chase weren’t such a good friend, for sure I’d dump him for being so nerdy. On the other hand, I work in IT. Pickings are slim.
“I got you something, too,” Chase said. His eyes lit up as he tossed the “Guide to Zombie Survival” my way. I thumbed through it. I read the Table of Contents: “Chapter 1: Mad Scientists Precede the Zombie Apocalypse; Chapter 2: “You Can Identify a Zombie by the Rags and Bags; Chapter 3: Protecting Your Brain . . . “ Oh God. I could tell Chase was going to be on a zombie tear for weeks.
Chiara walked up to my desk. “No offense, but you look like shit,” I said. “That movie killed me,” Chiara responded. I never had a chance to shower last night. Chiara’s hair hung in strings from her head. I could see dark circles under her eyes. “I’ve gotta go, I don’t want to get dress-coded at work. I didn’t have time to change out of my jeans.” I looked Chiara up and down. She was wearing her ripped and distressed jeans from last night. Involuntarily, I began to think of “Rags and Bags.”
“Veronica, thank goodness you’re here, we are going to have a really busy. . . argh!” I looked up. It was Sam, our department head. He had a hip replacement last month and appeared to be still recovering. I saw him grab at his low back and stumbled towards my desk.
“Orthotics must not be helping, huh?” I said. He was still having a hard time lifting his black, heavy corrective shoes.
“They are slowly killing me,” he said in response. I peered at him. Was it me or did his teeth seem to have a greenish tinge? I could see a greenish cast all around his lips. It was disconcerting.
He resumed. “I was saying, we are going to have a really busy week, so do whatever you can to walk people on the helpline through the calls,” he said. Chase stood on his chair in his cubicle, parroting Sam’s clumsy walk. I could see him mouthing the words, “Zombie Apocalpyse.” I had to bite my lip. Chase has a little crush on me. The feeling is not mutual, and the greenish tinge was definitely worrisome. “Another thing,” he said. “It’s Kelly’s birthday. There’s cake in the break room.”
“Great,” I said.
“I brought you a piece.” From behind his back, he produced a large piece of cake, with a green rose and heavy with dark green icing. “Thanks, Sam,” I said.
At lunch, Chase and I hunted down a restaurant with outdoor seating. Someone had left a newspaper on the seat, “Mad Scientist: Fauci Demands Total US Shutdown Until COVID Vaccine!” the headline read.
“What?” Chase asked.
I pulled the book out of my messenger bag and pointed to chapter one. “Yes, and the government cover-up has already started. . . “
Chase was playing along. “Remember the mask/no mask thing?”
I chuckled. I could recall it. For weeks, the President and the Secretary of Health had gone back and forth on the issue of the efficacy of masking to prevent the spread of COVID. We ordered lunch. “Next step of the zombie apocalypse will be the shortage of guns, as people try to arm themselves,” Chase nudged me. Across the street, in the courtyard, a small group of NRA-members were carrying signs.
“Ohmygod.” I said.
“I’ll bet you anything that by the end of the day, a real-life zombie will try to eat you.” Chase said.
I spit out my Coke. “You’re on,” I said. “Stakes?”
“If I win, you come with me to see ‘Undead 3: the Reckoning,’ and if you win, I’ll come with you to see ‘Undead 3: the Reckoning.’”
“Funny guy,” I said. “You’re on, but you also have to take all the helpline calls if I win.”
We walked slowly back to the office. The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Well, mostly. At 5:00 p.m. Sam approached my desk again, with his flat-footed lumbering walk. He placed a cold hand on my shoulder. I shuddered. I could see Chase peering over his cubicle again.
“Veronica?” Sam said. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”
“Um, yes?” I said, not wanting to hear whatever he had to say.
“I, uh, want to have you for dinner,” he said. Chase’s head popped up and his eyebrow raised. I glared over Sam’s shoulder at Chase.
“Um, I don’t know,” I said. “Sam, you’re great, but I just don’t think that you are my type,” I was starting to fumble. “What I mean to say is, um. . . “
Chase’s head popped out from behind his desk. “What’s going on?” he asked.
Sam looked embarrassed. “Uh, I just wanted to pick Veronica’s brain—”
“I’ll bet you did!” Chase was smiling.
“What’re you doing this weekend?” Sam asked Chase.
“I’m thinking I’ll be going to the movies. How about you?”
“I was hoping for something with a little more excitement, myself,” Sam looked hopefully at me.
“YOLO,” said Chase. “Well, I don’t want to speak for all of us,” he added.
* * *
“It wasn’t awful,” I said. Chase and I were watching “Undead 3.” “I mean, it was awkward, but he’s a decent cook.”
“Mmmmhmm,” Chase said.
“What?” I said.
“You want to be his ghoul-friend.”
Chiara looked up. “Ok, I just don’t this is real.” She was wiping grease from her salty fingers.
“Gimme some,” Chase reached into the popcorn. “It’s real,” he said.
“Uh no,” Chiara said. “It’s fake.”
“Chiara, you know what your problem is? You have no imagination.” Chase winked at me then and squeezed my hand. “Veronica?”
I tried a piece. It was salty, crispy, and completely inscrutable. “It’s real,” I said, and grabbing a handful said, “and pretty damn tasty, actually.”
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I am so sorry for neglecting your stories, and Reedsy, in general, this week. But I came over soon as I could. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, going on about how excellent your writing is again, but it is. So I will. You really do have a special talent, your stories are brilliantly thought out and thoroughly engaging. This is what short stories are meant to be like. You’ve really got this thing down. Very clever what you’ve done, and amusing as well, but there’s a very relevant, real-life observation here. People generally see...