Monday, 21 December 2009
EVEN THE DEAD NEED A SPOTTER By Stephen Hill
Todd’s dumbbells hit the floor after 10. That’s 10 full reps on the incline. Ninety pounds of iron in each hand, and he’d pumped them out like they were cake. Thanks to the rubber mat wedged under the bench though, they may as well have been a pair of fives for all the noise they made. Kind of lame, but it’s not as if anybody else was in the gym to hear them.
Unless you count the zombie.
This was just before midnight on the night before the last day of midterms--I think Todd and I were both writing Anthropology. Besides us, the only students left in residence were a handful of pencil-necks, all drowning themselves in caffeine for an extra few minutes of study time. Whatever. Within four months, Todd and I had slapped an inch of beef on our arms, doubled that on our legs, and carved our guts into six-packs. Truly kick-ass. Even if the zombie were still a biter, he’d have been running from us. Of course when it came to biters, they were now as extinct as VCRs.
A year before it was different. When the virus first hit, people-turned-zombies would claw through cement if they thought you were behind it, and--once they had you--you had a better chance of squatting a Buick than prying their jaws off.
But then came Z-Tap. Scientists promised it would lay waste to the zombie-making effects of the H1N1 vaccine cluster-fuck. Dumped into the water, through the air, and concentrated into a shot, everyone got a taste. The good news was the zombies stopped biting. The bad news was, nothing else changed. Thousands of bodies returned to their jobs, schools and homes, but that’s all they were--all bodies, no brains. They slumped over desks, sprawled on couches, or staggered around their front yards in strange, stupid circles. They were still contagious through their blood and their spit, but since you were now more likely to spot Bigfoot in a tutu than get chomped, the remaining rotters were tolerated. After all, now the only thing threatened if you did turn zombie was your IQ. I remember a buddy once saying that watching cured zombies was like watching bugs, but that wasn’t quite right. Bugs always look busy. Every last bug is getting a job done. Zombies?
They can’t pick their noses without a spotter.
As for Gym Zombie, Todd and I both recognized him. He was the only one of the undead who ever visited the weight room regularly--a pile of grey flesh that looked as out of place as a toddler in a nursing home. Who knows where his family was, or even if he had a home. Some zombies never found their way back. Others weren’t welcome. We guessed Gym Zombie was once a student just like us: a dude who lived in Lambton Rez, worked out nights, and maybe even squeezed some book-time in now and then. That night he wore the usual: a pair of tattered blue Nike sweat shorts, and a faded green t-shirt with the slogan “Irish Pimp” busting out in a four-leaf clover. No sign of his socks or shoes. Slack-jawed and teetering, he stood for a few moments between the treadmills, staring out at the room with those spooky, curdled yolk-yellow eyes they all have.
Inspecting his wings in the mirror, Todd didn’t even notice him at first.
“Irish Pimp’s here,” I said, loud and clear. I could have gunned my dad’s Hummer from a few feet away, and Irish wouldn’t have so much as cocked his head. Definitely not pimp.
“Fucking z-tard,” Todd said. “I thought we’d have the gym to ourselves.”
“It’s just one zombie, Toddilus,” I said. “We can deal.” If I wasn’t spending time in the library, I wasn’t about to waste it hassling a rotter, either.
The zombie shuffled towards the barbell bench a few feet over. As he sat on its cracked leather, the stink of maggot-fattened meat gave my gag reflex a yank. I pictured scabs of mold nestled in the thing’s skin.
“Wait a minute,” said Todd. “Weren’t we going to kick ass on the barbell bench next?”
“Well, yeah, but…”
Todd’s eyes narrowed. “Barbell bench,” he repeated, and aimed his finger at the zombie like a weapon. “We know the z-tard’s not going to use it.”
Todd heaved himself up, and we both headed over. Hunched like an old woman, the zombie stared down at the filthy fingers snarled up in his lap. Cogs of yellow bone jutted through torn knuckles, and his mop of greasy black hair was clotted with burrs, grass, and clumps of dirt. Under the smells of soil and rot clung the stink of dog shit.
“You about done here, chief?” Todd barked.
The zombie just sat there. Staring. A fly buzzed past my ear, and I swatted it away.
“Partner!” Todd said, louder now, and clapped his hands an inch away from the thing’s wasted face. “You moving or what?”
I watched the fly light on the zombie’s shoulder, and dart into the hair on the back of his neck.
“All right, what are you lifting then, Irish?” sighed Todd. “Two more plates?”
The racked bar already had a 45 on each side. Todd slid on another one, and iron clanged as the plates slammed together. I checked the clock as Todd slid on a fourth plate.
“Dude. He can’t hear you. He’s not going to do any-“
Todd wasn’t listening. “Hey Irish, 225 is waiting!” he yelled. “It’s what we lift. So unless you’re going to do something with it, get the hell off!”
He slapped the bar, and the plates shivered. This was going nowhere. I glanced back at the dumbbells, thinking about vamoosing to do some curls. “Todd I-” But that was all I got out, because the zombie was slowly laying back.
“Well look at this,” Todd whispered.
I couldn’t believe it. Somehow, the rotter was listening. And it understood.
Flat on the bench and staring up at the racked bar, Irish opened his mouth. His tongue was nothing but a frayed nub of meat, and his breath stunk like a puddle of bad milk.
“Terd-ing” the zombie said. His voice sounded clogged with wet gravel.
“What?” Todd asked. His eyes were huge. Schwarzenegger-in-his-prime huge. “Are you saying-“
“Terd-ing,” repeated the zombie, and his lips pulled into a smile of pitted and broken teeth.
“Thirty?” Todd asked. “Are you saying thirty?”
The zombie nodded, and folded his ruined fingers around the bar’s cold metal grooves. Then, with a coughing grunt, he heaved the weight into the air.
“Holy shit,” said Todd. “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit…”
Slow but steady, the bar lowered, grazed his filthy chest, and rose right back up. Again and again, the zombie muscled reps out, as if the weights were made of marshmallows. Soon his snaggleteeth were gnashing at the air.
“I think his appetite’s back,” Todd said.
He was right.
By 12 reps, the zombie was chomping his own lips to pieces. By 20, a hunk of his mouth had splattered onto the floor, and Todd’s complexion was as grey as the z-tards.
“You know what we have to do, right?” Todd said, eyes glued on the zombie.
“Yeah.” I knew all right.
The rotter racked the bar, and lurched to his feet. A ferocious, drooling snarl stretched the skin on his face so thin, it could barely contain the bone.
“You ready for this?” said Todd.
I nodded. No time like the present.
“To our new training partner!” yelled Todd, and held up a hand.
“Kick-ass,” I said, and high-fived him. Irish had just pumped out 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench. With this kind of motivation, I knew I could bench 300 by Easter.
The zombie let out a gurgling moan, and held up his own palm. For the first time, I noticed his ring finger dangling off his hand like a split branch, bent backwards and twisted.
“Oh my God,” Todd cried. “He wants a fiver!”
“Hells yeah,” I said, and tagged it.
“Kick-ass,” laughed Todd, and gave it a smack.
The only problem was, when Todd tagged it, the zombie’s hand snapped clean off.
The rotter grunted, swinging his arm around. Blood hosed out of his wrist, and a ropey stream lashed across my chest, as sticky as syrup. I stumbled back screaming, wiping at it in a panic. When I looked up from the mess, only thin trickles of blood were left dribbling down the zombie’s wasted arm. His mouth was hanging open, and his dim, piss-yellow stare was fixed on the space where his hand used to be.
Todd looked even worse. His face had been splashed so badly, it was as if it had been painted.
“You all right?” I asked, and he spat out a mouthful of zombie blood. That answered that question.
He had five minutes. Max. I noticed his eyes starting to spoil, rusting across the corneas.
“So, what do we do now?” I said, already knowing the answer.
Todd nodded at the bench. In the middle of all that red, his grin was ghost-white. “Guess I’m maxing out.”
“Kick-ass,” I said, and began adding more weight.