I was dead when I woke up this morning. The virus had taken hold in the night. I was one of them now: a departed spirit tethered to a sack of decaying organic matter with a taste for flesh; in short, a zombie. Other than an intense hunger for meat- new for me since I’d been a vegan for years before I died- I didn’t feel much different. Meat; my lip curled at the thought, but my stomach gurgled. No family, no girlfriend, meant there wasn’t anyone fresh about and my apartment didn’t allow pets. Getting dressed, I noticed a springy new tightness in my muscles. The monster in the mirror looked like me, only more pale, and with eyes that now glowed a fiery red. Digging through a drawer I slipped on my darkest pair of sunglasses. I heard a bang from downstairs - my landlady, Oma Cici. My inhuman stomach rumbled. The old witch had never given me a break on rent or made improvements. I’d always paid on time and signed multi-year leases and she never even allowed me to have a pet goldfish. Walking downstairs, happy I wasn’t to the lurching stage, I pounded on her door. She answered and waved me inside without a word. I stood facing the kitchen where something bubbled on the stove. Catching a whiff of whatever it was awakened my salivary glands. Whatever was in the pot, needed to be in my empty belly, the sooner the better. “What is that?” The rattling of the lid became a siren’s song. Stalking over I lifted the lid and stuck my face right in the heat, smelling the fragrant steam and groaning aloud. A wooden spoon smacked the back of my hand. My head whipped around. I could feel a growl vibrate low in the back of my throat even if I couldn’t hear it. “Is goulash. Sit. Wait to cool. Or you will rot faster, Shmumpkin.” “What?” “You heard me,” she prodded me with one a bony finger in the chest, as that was as high as she could reach. “Now sit.” She spoke a word in some other language and a kitchen chair flew across the floor to press itself against the back of my knees. I sat. My landlady took the lid from me and put it back on the pot but not before giving the goulash a hearty stir. Witch, indeed. “You know what you are,” she said. “Yes.” “But you not like others, Shmumpkin. You special.” I didn’t feel special. “You are.” I thought she’d read my mind, but she went on. “You not eat animal flesh?” She spun around to point at me with the spoon she’d used to stir the pot. “No.” “Not for years?” “No.”“Thank the powers for dat.” She relaxed, lowering the spoon. “You safe.”“Safe?” “From virus.” I shook my head. “I’m already infected. I’ve already succumbed.” I spelled it out for her, “I’m a zombie.” “Eh… -not quite.” “What?” “I say you not quite dead. Or, for zombie, you just a smidge too alive.” “How?” “I tell you. You not eat animal flesh for years. You one of those veggie people…what they called?” “Vegan?” “Yes, dat. Now you not need human flesh. Animal flesh will suffice.” With a flourish she lifted the lid off of the pot and filled a bowl with a large portion of goulash. My mouth watered. I was zombie enough to only be thinking with my stomach. Whatever objections I’d had to eating meat were gone with whatever made me human. It had to be better than eating human flesh, I reasoned. “You always good tenant. Never try to hassle old lady. Now I offer you job.” She held the bowl just out of reach. “What kind of job?” “Little this, little that. You zombie now, but not mindless. You help me, you not pay rent.” I hadn’t thought about work when I woke up this morning but my job at the bank was over. They weren’t going to have an employee who was one of the walking dead. Although, thinking back on it, they probably already did. “We have deal?” “Deal,” I went to take the bowl. “One more thing,” she said pulling back. “What?” “You not eat human flesh. Not once. Not ever.” “Okay.” I took the bowl and let the heat from the soup inside warm my fingers. For the first time in several years I ate meat, and asked for seconds. ### My new job was different than anything I’d ever done before but I couldn’t decide if it was better than being a teller at the bank or not. Instead of a steady nine to five, Oma CiCi had me out doing odd jobs all hours of the day and night, mostly pick-ups and deliveries. The old woman really was a witch; one with clients. She was forever making potions for people or reading their futures with an old deck of cards. The former kept me busy. Her concoctions required a strange assortment of ingredients that could only be purchased from special retailers. And by special, I mean people in back alley dens of questionable legality. They were the types of places where nobody looked too hard at anybody else, unless they wanted to find themselves holding their own eyeballs. If anyone ever noticed they were doing business with a vegan zombie, they sure never said anything. The virus that turned people into zombies was mostly contained these days, so I don’t know how I managed to catch it. When someone did pop up infected, it made the news. A zombie sighting usually resulted in road closures and evacuations until the undead could be brought down and given a true death. Until then, they lurched about with single-minded intent trying to sink their teeth into whatever living human flesh they could find. Few survived a zombie attack; we have the ability to rip a body limb from limb with nothing but our bare hands. I had all of the strength, but none of the mindless desire for human flesh. As long as I ate enough animal protein, I had no problem with humans. In fact, without the lust for flesh clouding my mind, I could pick up a subtle energy in the air that told me if the person I was dealing with wasn’t entirely human; it felt like static electricity on my brain. A few of the characters I picked stuff up from never failed to give me a good tingle. Even Oma Cici gave off a low level hum from time to time, but I thought that had to do more with her magic. I’d never had any trouble picking up a package until this one afternoon, when I ran into trouble. Or rather, leaving the dingy dead-end alley where I’d just procured a special ingredient, trouble was waiting for me. Blocking my way back to the street was a giant dude in head-to-toe black leather standing like a statue in parade rest with dark shades covering his eyes. Where the leather vest didn’t cover his torso, he was etched in tattoos that stood out against his pale flesh. Storing the parcel I’d collected in an inside pocket I headed down the alley. If this was a shakedown, the guy was in for a surprise. Moving to the side to get past him, I thought he would just stand there until an arm shot out and a hand pressed into my chest. No such luck. The hand didn’t move, but his bald head turned toward me—he wasn’t much taller than I was—and I heard the tendons and muscles grate and snap in his neck as he did. What the hell? He shoved me an inch and I flew. I hit the brick wall at the opposite end of the alley before I fell to the ground. Getting to my hands and knees I shook my head and looked up. The guy came toward me. He grabbed me by the back of the neck and lifted me in the air. Thrashing, I knocked his glasses from his face. Glowing red eyes stared back at me with a fierce inner light. He threw a punch at my midsection, hard enough to make me think he was trying to reach my spine. At the last second, I tightened my core, curing around his fist catching most of it with my diaphragm. It would have been awful if I had to breathe more than once an hour. Feeling like I’d swallowed a hive of angry bees, I yelled and jerked. He dropped me. Popping up, I held a hand to my belly and aimed a kick at his right knee. Connecting with it sent him to the ground; his turn to howl in pain. Zombies still feel pain; we’re just able to ignore it a lot better than we could when we were human. Stumbling out of the guy’s reach I moved toward the mouth of the alley. He growled and I twisted around to see him staring at me. I tugged off my glasses and stared right back, releasing a growl of my own. I couldn’t fault him for thinking I was human, but I thought once he saw I wasn’t he’d change his tune. Boy was I wrong. He ground his teeth together and stood on his ruined leg. This was not the behavior of some mindless zombie. Typical zombies only went after the promise of human flesh, so why was this one so interested in me? “What do you want?” The other zombie laughed and lurched toward me, eyes glowing a more ferocious red than before. That was the thing about zombies. They just kept coming. And for some reason this one kept coming at me. He’d surprised me before. Grabbing the lid off a metal trash can, I held it up in front of me. He laughed again. I waited till he passed the last dumpster before rushing him. He saw me coming, but he didn’t see what I’d pulled out of my pants pocket and now held behind the lid in my free hand. On impact, we fell backwards. At the same time I plunged my pocketknife into the biker’s belly. It was like cutting into a bag full of sand. We landed and skidded along the ground, the other guy on bottom. As soon as we stopped he threw me off of him, lid and all. I watched him stand and pull the knife out of his midsection before focusing on me. Like I said, we can ignore pain, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t annoy us. Holding the lid up in front of me he lumbered forward and slashed at me with the knife. Retreating until the wall was at my back he grabbed at my improvised shield and took another swipe at me. Not only did he rip the shield out of my hands, he cut off two of my fingers in the process. He raised the knife over his head. With nothing between us I kicked him where I’d stabbed him moments before. His aim went wide and I knocked the knife out of his hand. It clattered to the ground. Snatching up the lid from where it fell, I swung it sideways at him. I caught him in the throat. The light in his red eyes dimmed as both hands went to his neck. I looked at the lid in my hands, lifted it and swung again. I kept on swinging until the biker’s bald head lay several feet away from the rest of him. As soon as I was sure he wasn’t getting back up, I dropped the lid. It clanged and rolled around and around on its rim before coming it stopped. Once the ringing faded the door I’d come out of earlier opened. The little guy who’d given me the package stepped into the alley with a couple others behind him. All three of them made my skull tingle. The first guy nodded at the other two and they came over to pick up the body of the dead biker for he truly was dead now. The first guy went and got the head, picking something else up off the ground as well. Tucking the head under his arm like a watermelon he came over holding whatever he’d picked up. Opening my hand, he dropped the two fingers I’d lost into my outstretched palm. Nodding once, I stuck the fingers in my coat pocket and staggered away. ### Back at my place I went straight to my landlady’s apartment and let myself in. I didn’t think I’d be interrupting, but a young woman sat with Oma Cici drinking tea on the plaid sofa. As soon as she saw me the young lady’s expression clouded over and she set her tea cup down with a clink in its saucer. She must be a special guest because Oma Cici had broken out the good china. I feared for the safety of the set with the way she was glaring at me. Oma Cici on the other hand, lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. “Shmumpkin!” She set her own tea cup down, gently, and stood, coming forward. “You’re back! Come meet Madam Zia.” She grabbed my forearm and pulled me closer to the couch. As she drew me into the room, my nerve endings tingled like mad. Whoever the lady was, she had more than a touch of otherness about her. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, her mouth pinched so tight, it was a wonder she could get the words out. “Shmumpkin,” she tacked on, sneering. “Nice to meet you, too.” Hey, I was dead, not a jerk. Reaching into my jacket I turned to the old witch and pulled out the package I’d been sent to pick up. When I handed it to her she saw my missing digits. “Oh! What happened?” I opened my mouth to tell her, but she cut me off. “Wait.” She turned to the other woman. “Can we continue discussion some other time, Zia?” Madam Zia rolled her eyes, but she stood and went to the door. “Next time,” she said, and swept out of the room. The tingling left my head when she did. “Sit down, sit down,” Oma Cici waved me over to the couch before she went to close the door. Crossing back over, she asked, “Do you have missing fingers?” I took them out of my jacket. “Good, good. Much easier to reattach than make new.” Huh? She could make me new fingers? She must have read the question on my face, because she said. “Yes. Witch, remember?” She took my fingers from me. “So, what happened?” I told her about the biker zombie. “You kill it?” “Yes.” “Oh-ho. Madam Zia not going to like that. Nuh-uh.” She shook her head, holding my severed fingers to their respective stumps. Then she let out a low chuckle. “Serve her right. She should not pick on small practitioners.” She spoke in a foreign tongue and I felt a sharp crack of electricity jolt my hand and flow up my arm all the way to the shoulder. Looking down I saw my fingers reunited with my hand. Oma Cici turned loose and I gave my phalanges a flex. “Madam Zia sent the biker? He worked for her?” “Ha. Work. More like she control it. But, yes, she send it after you. She try to make point.” “What point?” “That I old witch with little power and no protection.” She frowned for a moment before letting loose a chuckle. “You see her face?” She dissolved into a long and hardy laughing fit. The corners of my mouth were turned up by the time she finished. She settled back against the sofa cushions with a hiccup, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “I so glad you come back, shmumpkin.” She patted my hand and a shadow passed over her face. “You deserve rest. I not need you anymore tonight, so have supper then you off clock.” ### After two large servings of beef stew, I headed upstairs to my apartment, thinking about what I might do with my free time. Shrugging out of my jacket, I opened the door and went inside before I turned on the light. An unseen force slammed the door shut and held me against it. Then I saw Madam Zia sitting on the arm of my sofa. She flicked a hand and my sunglasses flew off. She got to her feet and stalked over to me. The asymmetrical hemline of her long dress drew my eyes to her legs. She was young and fit; emphasized by the wrap-around style of dress she wore. Personally, I thought she was trying too hard. She walked straight up to me and smacked me across the face. “What are you?” I didn’t say anything, figuring my glowing red eyes were answer enough. She backhanded me. “That’s for breaking my boy.” With a wave of her hand, I slid out from in front of the door, still being pressed against the wall. She turned the knob but turned back to look at me before opening the door. “Maybe you want to think about who made you a zombie in the first place.” As soon as she crossed my threshold, whatever force was holding me to the wall vanished. What did she mean by that? You couldn’t make a zombie. Could you? There was a virus… I rushed back downstairs and threw open Oma Cici’s door. She stood at the stove cooking up one of her potions. She turned around, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “How?” I asked. Oma Cici frowned, shaking her head. “How did you turn me into a zombie?” “I not turn you into zombie, I—“ “Liar! How did I catch such a rare virus then?” Oma Cici shook her head, holding her hands in front of her, palms up. “And what happens if I eat human flesh?” “Oh yes, Cici, what happens then?” Madam Zia said, walking in behind me through the door I’d left open. Oma Cici tossed the dish towel up on top of her shoulder. Still frowning, she pulled back the sleeve of her floral print blouse and held up her forearm. “Why not you find out?” Shocked, I stood rooted to the spot. The old witch wanted me to take a bite out of her? “Do it,” she commanded, crossing the floor to me. She held her arm up right in front of my face. “Have a bite,” Madam Zia said. I glared at her, eyes blazing before I turned back to the frail, spotted flesh before me. Oma Cici met my gaze, not flinching away from their redness. I brought my hands up to grip her arm at the wrist and elbow, reluctant to do as she instructed, but knowing I had no choice. Even if Oma Cici let me off the hook, Madam Zia certainly wouldn’t. I lifted her arm and opened my mouth. Drawing back my lips from my gums, I wrapped my teeth around the fleshiest part of her forearm and closed my eyes. In life, I would never have done this to a dead animal, cooked to perfection, but in death I was getting ready to do it to a live human. I took a bite. My teeth sunk into human flesh for the first time. Blood burst into my mouth filling it with coppery sweetness. I gagged. Dropping Oma Cici’s arm, I sputtered and spit trying to get rid of the taste of pennies in my mouth. “What?” Madam Zia shouted. Oma Cici held a hand over the fresh bite marks on her arm and turned toward the other woman while I wiped my mouth. She started chanting. “Don’t even try it, Cici. Stop.” The old witch kept chanting while she walked towards Madam Zia. “You don’t know who you’re messing with,” Madam Zia retreated backwards out of the apartment door even as she spoke. Oma Cici was speaking the chant louder and louder. I could feel electricity zing up and down my spine. All of a sudden she stopped chanting. “You know not who you mess with. Now go. And don’t come back.” She spit out the door at the younger woman before slamming it in her face. The tingling faded. I saw Oma Cici’s shoulders hunch and I flew to her side lifting the arm I’d sunk my teeth into. “I’m so sorry—” my bite marks were gone. Oma Cici squinted up at me and said, “Is nothing.” “But what happened?” “You try human flesh. It not agree with you.” “But I’m a zombie.” “A vegan zombie. Very rare.” I hesitated. “Did you—” “No, Shmumpkin, I not turn you into zombie. What give you that idea?” I glanced at the door. “Ah. Madam Zia crafty witch. We keep an eye out for her in future. Now, I need rest. You too. More work tomorrow. Always more work.” She patted me on the arm and shuffled back to the kitchen to turn off the stove. I let myself out and went back to my apartment, making sure it was empty before turning off all the lights. In the dark I sat and in the dark I waited. My eyes drifted shut. Sometime later I felt it, a beat—just one—in my chest. I smiled because I, Shaun Mumford Philips Simkin, was just a smidge too alive to be a true zombie.