Since this story is no longer available on the web, I thought I would post it here. If you don’t care for tongue-in-cheek humor or zombies, then this isn’t for you.
(originally appeared in the Fall issue of Allegory)
by Steve Lowe
Jefferson Franklin le Petomaine had had enough.
“I have had enough,” he declared to his empty apartment as he ripped the stained napkin from his collar and flung it onto his clean plate. He rose to his feet and pounded his meaty fist on the kitchen table to add emphasis. The thin, weathered wood shuddered, rattling the plate and toppling an empty carton of Chinese food. Crumbs old and new flew and danced before resettling into familiar grooves.
“Enough of this blight, of this degradation!” Jefferson turned to the ancient black-and-white television set he had scavenged from the Salvation Army. It was quite the prize when he wrestled it away from a bony vagrant who clearly had no practical use for, nor wall socket to plug in, such technology. Jefferson stabbed an accusing finger at the scratchy, low-def image of Hugh McLaughlin, Kansas City’s Most Popular News Anchor For The Fourth Straight Year!, shimmering on the screen.
“Enough of your lies and insinuations! Enough of your endless bad news, of your fear mongering! Enough of your advertisements designed to frighten the sheep into mass consumption, interspliced with insipid slices of Americana! Enough, I say!”
Jefferson tossed his frayed scarf around his neck and snatched his tweed jacket from the back of his chair. He carefully brushed cat hair from the worn fabric and stuffed his arms into the sleeves. He took a deep breath and pulled the coat around his momentarily shrunken belly to allow the re-sewn button just enough leeway to pop into place. His exhalation stressed the poor button to the point of breaking and also induced an asthmatic fit of coughing. He snatched an inhaler from the table and huffed the medicine until his breathing normalized.
He watched as a breathless female reporter continually looked over one shoulder, then the other, dramatically recounting some kind of horrific attack as a fire raged behind her. Each day, the news stories grew ever more desperate and WKCU’s specially-composed Breaking News theme music grew ever more dramatic, to the point that Jefferson considered hurling his plate of lo mein into the screen. He eventually determined such an emotional overreaction to be an awful waste of perfectly delicious lo mein. That was yesterday, though. Today, he’d finally reached his breaking point. He felt the wretched walls of his pathetic little hovel closing in on him, with nothing on any television channel but this foolishness going on outside. Jefferson rarely switched from WKCU as the other news channels were intolerably worse. Normally, smoldering WKCU meteorologist and wicked temptress Kathleen Spannigan was enough to assuage his daily maelstrom of discontent, but Miss Spannigan’s heavenly visage had not appeared for two straight days due to the preponderance of coverage on this latest conjured crisis.
Jefferson turned to his cat, Maximilien Robespierre le Petomaine, and said, “As per my prediction Maximilien, human civilization is finally eating itself alive.” He held his hand out toward the television to further expound on his point for his mewing pet. “See this, my old friend? On every channel, nothing but the same, nothing but inane analysis and panicky hyperbole over a non-event that has suddenly morphed into a panic, fueled by none other than the over-wrought media machine itself, designed to pump out fear and paranoia in mass quantities and infect the populace with a desire to consume. Well, now that populace will consume itself, unaware of and beholden to its own avarice.” He turned back to the screen just as Hugh McLaughlin’s grim face faded out into an insurance advertisement, sending Jefferson into a rage. “YOU SEE? DO YOU SEE THIS? THIS IS EXACTLY MY POINT!” he shouted, propelling bits of food and spittle across the narrow room.
Jefferson Franklin le Petomaine, named thusly by his mother, Francine Marie le Petomaine, who had feared that such a heavily French surname needed proper patriotic American balance to allow her son any chance at one day becoming president of the United States, stood trembling with anger before his television. Maximilien Robespierre le Petomaine, named thusly for the most famous insurgent of the French Revolution and his Reign of Terror, nuzzled up to Jefferson’s taut belly and rubbed his muzzle against the distressed jacket button. Jefferson strode to the refrigerator and produced a plate of half-eaten moo goo gai pan. He had declared upon first bite three days prior, that it had to have been cooked not with chicken, but rather sewer rat. He placed it on the table in front of Maximilien, who greedily dug in.
“Enjoy, my dear Maximilien, for this may be your final meal if the vultures have their way.” At that moment, Jefferson experienced a vision. Before his mind’s eye, a grand plan began to unfold. He saw himself charging down to the television studio, chastising everyone in his path, and barging into their live feed to announce the truth to the world, that this consumer-driven mass hysteria was nothing more than a plot to placate the masses. That the world needed to revolt against these charlatans who had contributed nothing to the Greater Good with their “fair and balanced” lies.
“I have seen this coming for a long time, but now I must act,” he told Maximilien. The hungry cat kept its face buried in the plate of cold leftovers, purring loudly as it devoured the mysterious meat. “I have sat idly by for far too long, swallowing it all and contributing nothing, and now, look at what is happening.”
Jefferson prepared to depart and brushed back his hair as neatly as the stringy, tangled mess would lie. The television buzzed with yet another on-scene report. A young man clutching a microphone ran along a sidewalk.
“As we began to set up for this report, a band of attackers appeared from behind a building and tried to accost us,” the sprinting reporter relayed. “We are now on the run for a safer spot-” In mid-sentence, the reporter disappeared from the camera’s view. A blood-curdling scream rang out clearly through the tiny TV’s tinny acoustics, causing both Jefferson and Maximilien to flinch. The camera spun about wildly and the sounds of a struggle were evident, as was a growing chorus of ghastly moans. Then the camera clattered to the ground, falling on its side, still broadcasting its skewed picture. Hugh McLaughlin and his co-anchor, the ditzy Maryanne Tinley, called for a response from the reporter. Instead, a host of feet both shod and bare shuffled across the screen in a slowly advancing line. The awful groans grew louder until the view switched back to the stunned anchors, sitting motionless with mouths agape.
“Ridiculousness,” Jefferson announced with a wave of his hand as he exited his apartment. He burst out of the building into the bright midday sun, full of purpose and striding grandly along the sidewalk adjacent to Donner Avenue. After just two blocks of marching, his breathing grew ragged and his gait slowed. He paused at the deserted corner of Andes and Donner and scanned all four directions for signs of life while catching his very short breath.
With another tug on his inhaler, Jefferson set off once more, though at a much more conservative pace. He practiced his speech and considered his reflection in the windows of the darkened, apparently empty shops along the way.
“Citizens! The hour is upon you to WAKE UP!” He paused before a liquor store and adjusted his scarf. “No, that will never do.” He stroked the sparse whiskers that populated his chin in wiry blotches. “It is time to shed our dependency on the system,” he told his reflection. “It is time to learn to live off this fertile land of ours once again, to use our hands to create our own wealth and eschew this credit- and fear-driven society. Melt down your plastic and remove yourselves from the grid! Throw off your shackles! Burn your money and turn up your soil! Begin planting for tomorrow, for the future!” He grinned at the booming sound of his voice as it echoed through the barren neighborhood.
A man suddenly appeared in the darkened doorway of the liquor store. His clothing was torn and his jaw hung loosely as he emitted a pained groan. A wave of foul, rotten air enveloped Jefferson and antagonized his already weak gag reflex. He covered his mouth and nose with his hands and stepped back. “My God, man, have you never been introduced to the tooth brush?”
The indigent old man held out his hands and moved toward Jefferson, who continued to retreat. A lifetime in this downtrodden neighborhood had taught him how to adeptly avoid contact with the beggars and vagabonds who littered the way. “I haven’t any money, nor would I give you any if I did, seeing as how you would clearly only end up staggering back to this liquor store anyway.”
The man’s only response was his pitiable moaning as he incessantly slouched forward. Jefferson stopped abruptly, full of reproachful anger.
“Damn you man, can you not see that I have no time to waste with this nonsense?”
Jefferson stood his ground with his fists planted on his plump hips. “I will not cow to your pathetic pleas. I am on a mission to save you and the rest of your ilk scurrying about the dark corners of this wretched neighborhood. I am about to throw back the curtain and expose the truth of this bastardized Oz. The least you can do is show me a bit of respect.”
The man reached for the lapels of Jefferson’s coat. He recoiled and threw his hands up in defense. The man pressed straight into him, jaws working as if he meant to bite Jefferson, who reflexively pushed the man away. He turned and stalked off, flustered by the encounter. The pathetic beggar stumbled over his own clumsy feet toward the gutter, where he fell into the street. There was a frightening snap, much like twigs crunching under foot during a quiet stroll through the woods.
“My God, are these the people who will benefit from my benevolence?” He shook his head incredulously while the old man, face down in the street, sputtered into a puddle and thrashed his limbs about. “Is there not one man or woman in this sewer worthy of my efforts?”
A distant moan answered his rhetorical query. It began as a slow roll from around a corner, an unseen voice gradually growing in volume. It was soon joined by another voice, and then exponentially until the chorus grew quite loud. A group of groaning, wailing, dragging people edged around a building corner and began to slouch their way down the sidewalk toward Jefferson. More appeared from doorways and added to the whole that inched forward.
“Hello there, what is going on?” None offered an answer. Old men and young women and small children held their hands out and called to him longingly. Fear began to pinch his heart, but anger quickly joined that emotion. “I say again, what are you people doing?” Still no response, save for their pathetic wailing and moaning.
“This is exactly what I am talking about. You’re all sheep, the lot of you! One following the other, as you always have and always will.” Their combined moans began to resemble the bleating of an actual herd of sheep and Jefferson responded in kind. “BAAAAHHHH! BAAAAHHHH! This is how you sound to me! Nothing but sheep!”
Jefferson turned in a huff and resumed his advance toward the television station. He threw glances over his shoulder and noted the ridiculously slow horde, which continued to follow and swell in number. The sheep streamed from every cross street and spilled over from the sidewalks on each side into the middle of the road. They wormed around abandoned cars and stumbled over debris in their path, seeming to pay it no mind whatsoever.
Jefferson came to the next cross street and more moans greeted him from each direction. He avoided eye contact and sped up, pumping his arms and legs with purpose. They reached for him, groaning pathetically, and one man was even naked! Of all the ridiculousness!
“Bloody fools, don’t even know to cover themselves in public. Have they all gone mad?” His cheeks burned with embarrassment and he held a hand up next to his face to shield the disturbing vision. “HAVE YOU ALL GONE MAD?”
Jefferson’s chest constricted and his lungs burned as another asthmatic spasm threatened. He knew he should stop and catch his breath, but he began to worry that perhaps his comments were too sharp, had hit too close to home, even with these simpletons. Directly in his path, a pickup truck had jumped the curb and slammed into a Paylittle Shoes store, its front end crumpled into a pile of brick and glass. A large banner announcing a MASSIVE LIQUIDATION SALE, and littered with subliminal instructions to Buy! Buy! Buy! and Save! Save! Save! hung askew across the store front, one corner draped over the hood of the truck. The driver still sat behind the wheel, his seat belt still strapped across his shoulder. He reached out and moaned as Jefferson nervously passed by.
Once clear of the truck, Jefferson stopped, huffing with his hands on his knees. “What in God’s good name is this?” The way ahead began to close with a wall of noisy, slouching fools. Jefferson looked around and realized that he was in the center of a slowly constricting circle. The man in the truck had slipped his seat belt and was now pressed against the truck’s back window, clawing savagely at the glass. His pursuers were ragged and limp, aside from their groping arms and working jaws. Their clothes and skin, and in some cases their limbs, sagged and dangled from their frames.
“People, I implore you, let me pass! There is evil afoot and I am on a mission to put an end to it!” He yelled to them, but their growing, groaning cacophony drowned out even his booming voice. Their circle shrunk ever tighter and Jefferson began to fear for his safety for the first time. The idea of escape entered his mind. He looked around at the buildings and realized he was standing in front of Cho’s Chinese Buffet and Takeout. His stomach rumbled in recognition.
“Of all the perfect luck!” As he reached for the door handle, a bolt of fear struck through him that the door would be locked. Oh, what delicious irony it would be, to meet his end in such a way as this, outside a Chinese buffet. But the door opened easily and he jumped inside. He fumbled with the lock until he heard the bolt slide home and instantly felt at ease. Then he looked across the storefront to see the crowd slowly converging on the front of the restaurant through the tall glass windows.
“That will never do.” He poked his head back out the door and searched the front overhang until he found the roll-down grate that kept the scofflaws out during closed hours. The nearest person was less than 10 feet away, but moving slowly. Jefferson jumped outside and grabbed the bottom of the grate. He held the entrance open while he pulled the grate down until it hit the top of the door, then he scurried back inside and closed the door behind him. The grating trundled down its tracks and slammed on the sidewalk just as the first groping fool reached for him. Jefferson stood inside the door, huffing and watching as the crowd pressed against the metal slats, gnashing and wailing.
Once safely inside, Jefferson turned his back on the horde and considered his surroundings. He had ordered in food from this restaurant for years but had never stepped foot inside the actual brick-and-mortar until now. The sanitary conditions left much to be desired. Spilled napkins and paper menus, covered from top to bottom with dense copy written in both English and Mandarin, littered the floor. He reached for the light switch on the wall, but noticed it was already in the ON position. As the group outside swelled, the natural light coming through the front windows began to diminish. He flipped the light switch a few times before officially declaring it dead.
Jefferson examined the menu board on the wall and casually approached the counter, as though at any moment the ancient Chinese man who answered his call-in orders and could no speak-a much Engrish would appear to scribble down his selections.
Instead, the kitchen area was dark and abandoned. He leaned over the formica and peeked into the kitchen area. Pots and woks littered the stoves and prep tables, along with a variety of wilting vegetables and mounds of rice both cooked and raw. The floor appeared to be awash in a dark liquid that also splashed on the cabinets and pooled in the low spots. A streaking trail of it led down the hall to the steel door of a walk-in refrigerator. Jefferson’s stomach grumbled again at the sight of all the necessary implements for concocting delightful Orient cuisine and decided that he would just have to help himself to what food was still edible.
He found the side door leading to the kitchen and cautiously threw it open. The entire floor was streaked with the dark, thick mess, but it did not deter him. He tiptoed over the larger pools and hopped his way to the prep area, where he was greeted by the foul stench of aged meats that at one time may have resembled chicken and pork. The vegetables looked no better.
Dismayed, he looked to the cooler and the long, crimson trail of liquid that disappeared beneath the door. The steel entrance jumped and vibrated against its rusting hinges and Jefferson heard a moaning from within rising above the clattering noise from the horde outside. The handle wobbled as the occupant within attempted to open it.
Jefferson’s appetite suddenly disappeared. He rushed from the kitchen and searched for an escape. He threw open doors to closets and restrooms, until he found one, near the back of the room that led up a stairway, presumably to apartments on the next two levels of the building, and possibly to the roof.
The front window imploded with a great crash and the ghastly symphony of the masses from without now swamped the room. The metal grating had bent horribly until it struck plate glass. It now clanged and twisted against the crushing weight of hundreds of bodies pressing inward. Those at the front were literally being ground into the metal, which was now black with the same sickly, sticky effluence that coated the kitchen floor. Jefferson’s last line of protection began to screech loose from its side tracks and bowed in, even more as the crowd surged forth.
The electricity suddenly flickered, momentarily casting the ghoulish lot with strobes of fluorescent light. The television mounted high in a far corner of the room sputtered until the power surged fully to life. Above the hungry din, a tanned and blown-dry Hugh McLaughlin, his jacket now cast aside and his tie loosened at the neck, desperately spoke to Jefferson.
“Bar your doors and windows, and if possible, ascend to higher levels of whatever structure you are currently hiding in. Go to your roof and the National Guard will try to reach you by helicopter. Do not attempt to fight your way through the attackers, but if you must defend yourself, there is only one proven method of stopping them, a direct blow to the-” The electricity winked off again and Hugh’s orange face disappeared, along with the artificial light that had filled the room, eliciting a scream of rage from Jefferson. The devilish crowd raged back and the metal grating finally gave way. They poured in, falling over themselves, pushing and pressing, creating a momentary traffic jam in the opening.
“Curse you, blithering idiot box! You have failed me for the last time!” He shook his fist at the television then slipped through the rear exit and ascended the stairs. At the top, a heavy metal door covered with flecking green paint opened up to the flat roof of the three-story building. He flung it closed behind him, but realized that it locked from within, rather than without. How long before the beasts below figured out stairs and doorknobs was anyone’s guess, but Jefferson preferred not to know this answer. His attention turned to the beating in his chest and he realized that it came not only from his thundering heart, but also the thump of nearby helicopters.
“Praise heaven and all the angels, I am saved!” He raced to the waist-high parapet wall at the roof’s edge and waved his arms wildly at the nearest aircraft, a menacing, black military bird five buildings away that had just lifted off from the rooftop. Its open doors bulged with arms and legs and slowly lurched away. It was clearly overloaded, yet people still clung to its wheels and more reached up from the roof, screaming to be saved.
Then chaos erupted as a group of the slouching ghouls burst through the rooftop door. The terrified people reacted in their own ways. A man, shielding a child behind him, stood his ground and chose to fight with his hands. A teenager wielded a club of sorts and attacked the ravenous crowd. A young woman, surrounded by half a dozen fiends, climbed the parapet wall and, just before the tearing hands and rending jaws reached her, leapt off to a fate of her own choosing. The rest were cannibalized with unflinching brutality.
More helicopters hovered across the city, but none chose Jefferson’s roof, with just one lone, pathetic soul to save while others teemed with desperate refugees. He called to them nonetheless, screaming and pleading in futility until the last of the hulking lifeboats turned its tail to Jefferson’s rooftop and flew away. Gasping and hoarse, unable to call out any longer, he slumped to his knees. Sweat and tears streamed down his face and soaked the collar of his tweed jacket. The heavy thump of the chopper’s blades slowly faded off, but was soon replaced by a new thumping sound from behind. Jefferson sat on the warm gravel of the rooftop and watched the metal door, his only option for safe egress from this newly deserted island, vibrate against scores of pounding fists.
“So this is it.” He looked about and considered his final resting place with a pathetic attempt at smug indifference, but found it difficult to choke down the abject fear of being eaten alive by these monsters. His voice cracked. “This is where I shall meet my end, and what a pitiful end it shall be. Not facing my enemies on a field of battle, but cowering in the only corner into which I can stuff my pathetic rear.” Tears flowed freely down his bulbous cheeks.
The thundering against the door steadily increased in rhythm and volume until Jefferson realized that another helicopter was approaching. Unlike the large, black military crafts, this bird was smaller and painted a nondescript white. He jumped to his feet and waved his arms madly. The helicopter responded immediately, deviating from its path to head directly for his rooftop. Joy exploded within him as it neared, and tears of happiness now began to flow. Jefferson backed away toward roof’s edge to give the pilot plenty of clearance to find a spot to set down on the narrow surface. As it descended, Jefferson noticed the large, blue letters WKCU stenciled on the tail. Once the helicopter settled on the roof, the side door slid open and two men greeted Jefferson. One clutched a microphone and beckoned with his free hand, while the other shouldered a camera pointed at Jefferson.
“Hugh! We’ve discovered a lone survivor among the rooftops, apparently left behind by the military rescue choppers! Sir! Come with us! We’re here to rescue you!”
Jefferson froze. He stared directly into the camera and realized that the news crew was filming and he was live. A stream of words swam through his mind, a muddle of his grand speech to the world, but nothing came out. Instead, he imagined himself gratefully accepting this reporter’s hand and tearfully clambering into the helicopter. It would be their dramatic rescue of some poor sap caught in the middle of this calamity and the sheep would laud them as heroes. He imagined film in an editing room being cut and spliced and set to dramatic music that would crescendo as he reached out to his saviors before cutting back to a smiling, ridiculous Hugh McLaughlin, who would look up from his monitor with that familiar, brainless grin that revealed those rows of gleaming, unnaturally white fangs. Then they would fade out to commercial and the image of the fat, grateful slob blubbering his thanks as the helicopter whisked him to safety would compel the masses to resume their avaricious consumption.
The reporter gave the most quizzical of looks and repeated his plea, urging Jefferson to the safety of the helicopter. Jefferson held his ground against the whipping wind from the rotor blades. He set his chin, stood straight, resolutely pulled his tweed jacket about his belly, and inserted the tired button into its distressed hole. He whipped his frayed scarf about his neck and dismissed the camera with a disdainful wave of his hand. “Be gone you bloody parasites! I’ll catch the next one!”
The reporter and cameraman exchanged stunned looks as Jefferson turned and walked away. Without another word, the chopper door slid shut and the helicopter lifted off just as the rooftop door gave way and the undead began to stagger out into the daylight. As the news copter pulled away, the cameraman captured a slowly ascending shot, broadcast to what remained of the nation, of Jefferson Franklin le Petomaine as he climbed the parapet wall, held his arms straight out, and executed an elegant forward pike.