The Working Dead
By Douglas J. Troxell
*This story originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of Dark Futures
Keith and Cheryl White stepped through the automatic doors into the mud-stained lobby of the Walmart. Keith stopped dead in his tracks when he spotted the zombie greeter next to the cart corral.
“Damn it, Cheryl, they got zombies working here.”
The undead greeter swayed back and forth, its bright blue vest contrasting with its jaundiced skin. One yellow eye protruded out of its socket while the other was set deep into its skull. Its hand moved back and forth in a mechanical motion -- an imitation of a wave. The nametag on the zombie’s vest read, “Danny.”
She shushed her husband and tried to forge ahead into the crowd, but he buried his fists in the pockets of his camouflage jacket and stayed put.
“No way. I ain’t going in there. Zombies, Cheryl, working in our town! Zombies!”
Cheryl pulled her husband to the side and out of the flow of human traffic. “Please lower your voice. You’re embarrassing me. And they don’t like to be called zombies. They prefer the term ‘living-impaired.’”
“Do you think I give a damn what they like to be called? Now let’s go. There ain’t nothing here we can’t get in town.”
He tried to pull her toward the door, but she pushed him away.
“The stores in town are too expensive. I just figured with you being laid off --”
“I prefer the term ‘occupationally-impaired,’” Keith said, mimicking his wife’s prim tone.
She rolled her eyes. “If you quit your whining we can be in and out of here in fifteen minutes.”
Keith knew fifteen minutes in shopping time really meant at least half an hour, but he couldn’t argue with her suggestion to economize. He’d been laid off from the auto plant after corporate decided to axe all the humans in favor of a zombie workforce, and their finances were starting to become a frequent dinnertime conversation at the White household.
He gave her the nod of surrender and they rejoined the horde of customers staggering into the store. Keith moved to the side of the aisle furthest from Danny and turned his face away as he walked past the waving corpse, catching a faint whiff of formaldehyde perfume.
Cheryl removed a tie from the rotating rack. The polyester tie was checkered in two different shades of green.
“What do you think?” She held up the tie for Keith to inspect. He looked past the tie to the far side of the men’s department where a zombie stock boy slowly pushed a cart full of haphazardly stacked cardboard boxes. The boxes swayed and teetered with each step until the entire pile collapsed, blocking the aisle.
“Unbelievable,” Keith said. “You know, these corporations hire zombies by the thousands and pay them next to nothing. Those maggot-eaters are taking jobs away from hard-working living people.”
Cheryl sighed loudly. “Well, what then? Do you want them roaming the streets feeding on the living like the old days? This is a new world. It’s just the way things are.”
His wife hung the green checkered tie back on the rotating rack. “So, no to the green then? Ok. How about this?”
She held up a paisley tie in purple.
“God no,” he said. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that fairy noose.”
He turned to find a zombie stock boy standing next to him and flinched. It lowered its head, groaned, then shuffled off toward the changing rooms.
Cheryl punched his shoulder. “Keith Henry, you need to be more biologically sensitive about what you say.”
He ripped the tie out of her hand and tossed it back onto the display. “Hey, if they don’t like it, they can go back to the grave where they belong. I’m going to get the ink. I’ll meet you at the front of the store in ten minutes. Be ready to leave.”
He walked off and left her in the men’s department.
Keith pushed and shoved his way through the hordes of shoppers to the office supply aisle. When he finally found the ink cartridges, he discovered that they were locked behind a glass security case, protected from tech-savvy customers with sticky fingers.
“Goddamnit,” he said under his breath.
He searched the surrounding aisles for a tech worker, knowing that obtaining the cartridge was the key to his salvation. He finally found one two aisles over, a young zombie girl. A mop of dark, curly hair framed her yellow-stained face, and, judging from the dark tumbleweeds all over the floor, she seemed to be losing hair faster than a dog with mange. The nametag on her blue vest read, “Jill.”
He grunted and approached from behind. Jill held a price gun and appeared to be attempting to price a scanner. Upon closer inspection, Keith realized she was holding the price gun the wrong way. He stood as close as he could, fighting the formaldehyde stench, hoping Jill would notice him on her own.
When she didn’t, he reached out to tap her on the shoulder but jerked his hand away once he realized what he was doing.
“Hey!” he shouted at the back of Jill’s head.
When she didn’t turn, he shouted again, louder this time. She turned slowly, her head tilted awkwardly to one side, her mouth hanging open.
“I want an ink cartridge!” he yelled.
Jill tilted her head to the other side and grunted. The gesture reminded Keith of his Rottweiler, Bandit, who made the same gesture when he was trying to decipher a command he couldn’t quite understand.
“I—WANT—INK CARTRIDGE!” Keith repeated, louder.
When Jill didn’t move, he waved, motioning for her to follow. She seemed to get the hint and shuffled after him. He jogged over to the display case and tapped the glass in front of the cartridge he needed. She straightened her head, grunted, and shuffled over.
She fumbled in her vest and slowly lifted a key ring from one pocket. She began to rifle through the keys, examining one -- and then another -- and then another.
“C’mon!” Keith said. “Some of us still have some living to do.”
Jill groaned when she reached a small, silver key and moved it toward the lock. The key bounced off the glass display case. Dozens of tiny dents pocked the glass from previous misses. She pulled her hand back, took aim, and tried again. This time the key missed the mark by almost two inches.
Keith ripped the keys away from her so forcefully Jill’s hand separated at the wrist and hung there by the tendons. Jamming the key into the lock, he swung the glass door open, snatched the print cartridge, and slammed the door shut again.
Glancing down at her hand hanging by a few threads of fibrous tissues, Jill uttered a pitiful groan and tried to put it back into place.
He took a deep breathe and lowered his eyes. “Look, I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry about your hand.”
He slowly raised his eyes until they were level with Jill’s and shook his head. “No, you know what? I’m not sorry. You may not have two hands, but at least you have a job.”
He turned and stomped out of the office supply department in search of his wife.
Keith pulled on Cheryl’s arm, dragging her toward the checkout lanes.
“Stop it,” she said. “You’re hurting me.”
They emerged from the aisles into the checkout area; twenty lanes lined up like toll booths at the end of a pay road. Of the twenty lanes, eight were open. Two were manned by living teenagers. The other six had zombies stationed behind the register. The lines for the living cashiers were backed up almost a dozen customers deep. The zombie lines looked less populated, but then zombies were notoriously slow cashiers.
Keith moved toward the line manned by a teenage Puerto Rican girl, but Cheryl yanked him back by his jacket sleeve.
“That’s the longest line. Lane nine is almost empty.”
Lane nine was manned by an elderly zombie sporting a horseshoe of white hair. His nametag read, “Roy.”
Keith shook his head. “No way. I’ve had enough of the working dead for one afternoon.”
“You’re the one so desperate to leave,” she said. “Besides, I’m not going to waste the rest of our afternoon just to appease your deadist prejudices toward the living-impaired.”
She dragged him into lane nine and they waited. He had enough time to read two articles from The Inquirer before they finally placed their items on the belt. Roy grunted a greeting and reached for the ink cartridge. He turned the item slowly in his hands, searching for the barcode. He turned the item over and over again, passing over the barcode several times before he finally noticed it. Then his hand lowered slowly toward the scanner.
“This is ridiculous,” Keith said, glancing back at the other customers in line.
Cheryl kicked him in the shin.
Roy swiped the cartridge over the scanner but uttered a disappointed groan when the motion wasn’t accompanied by the familiar BEEP of the scanner. He made another pass but again, no beep.
Keith’s boot tapped the floor. Cheryl petted his shoulder, but he shrugged her off. After the third pass with no beep he ripped the cartridge out of Roy’s hand and scanned it himself, tossing it into a bag. Then he did the same with the rest of the items, throwing them into the same bag. He held it up in front of the zombie’s face.
“There. It’s done. Now just give me my goddamn total!”
Cheryl hid her face behind her hands and groaned, not unlike a zombie, low and pitiful.
Roy punched a few buttons on the register and the total appeared on the screen: $74.96.
Keith pulled his wallet from his jeans and tossed four bills onto the counter. Roy counted them and then reached a hand out.
“What the hell are you doing? I gave you four twenties, maggot-breath.”
Roy grunted and shoved the hand out further.
“What’s wrong?” Cheryl asked.
“This thing’s brain malfunctioned. I gave it eighty bucks for a $74.96 bill, but it wants more.”
Roy grunted louder this time and moved his hand up and down.
“This is ridiculous,” Keith said. “I had four twenties and a ten in my wallet and I gave this thing all four twenties.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! Take a look. All I’ve got is the ten left!” He retrieved his wallet and opened it. Inside he found Andrew
Jackson staring back. He quickly shoved the wallet back into his pants before Cheryl could look.
The zombie grunted even louder.
Keith shoved his finger into its face. “Give me my change, deadhead!”
A crowd pressed in on lane nine to see what the fuss was about. The manager, a short, balding man in his forties, appeared almost on cue.
“What seems to be the problem, sir?”
“This dirt-chucker won’t give me my change!”
The crowd gasped.
“Keith!” Cheryl cried, slapping his shoulder.
“Sir, you need to calm down. There’s no need to be disrespectful --”
“The hell there isn’t! This is America, land of the free and the living. You got zombies working all over this store. It just ain’t right!”
A lone cheer rose up from lane ten.
Keith stuck his finger closer to Roy’s face. The zombie uttered a long, guttural growl and pulled his lips over his yellow teeth.
“Just you try it buddy, you try it.” He turned his attention back to the manager. “This thing shouldn’t be working when there’s hard-working living Americans struggling to make ends meet. The whole thing stinks worse than this rotting corpse you got here. Someone should put this abomination back in the ground where it belongs!”
Pain shot through Keith’s index finger and screamed through his hand all the way to the wrist. He whipped back to Roy, whose teeth were clamped down on the finger. Keith instinctively pulled his finger back but he left the tip in Roy’s mouth. Blood sprayed from the mangled digit onto his jacket.
He leaped over the counter and knocked Roy to the ground. He stomped on the zombie’s rotting skull with his steel-toe boots until Roy’s head caved in like a rotten pumpkin.
Keith sat on the bench near the automatic doors holding a handkerchief on the stub that was his index finger. He was under strict orders not to leave the store from the officer who had been called following the head-stomping incident. The officer and the manager were having a lively conversation with plenty of pointing in Keith’s direction. Keith wished he could point back, but his severed digit lay nestled in a bag of ice, courtesy of one of the zombie stock boys. Cheryl sat next to him, wiping tears from her eyes and refusing to look at him.
The officer finally shoved his notepad into his pocket and he and the manager walked over to the bench.
Keith shot to his feet and pointed his good index finger in the manager’s face.
“It’s about time, officer. This man is -- is hiring dozens of undead Americans. This entire place should be shut down.”
“Can you please turn around, sir,” the officer said.
“You’re under arrest, sir. This gentleman and several witnesses claim you exterminated that cashier’s life force.”
Cheryl uttered a tiny groan and sobbed.
“Cashier? You mean the -- the zombie?” Keith asked. His tongue felt heavy. The words stumbled out of his mouth. “But who care if -- if I stomp zombie brains in? Zombies not even real -- real people!”
“I guess you don’t keep up with the news, sir,” the officer said. “The living-impaired are now protected under federal hate-crime laws. You better get yourself a good lawyer.”
He handcuffed Keith and pushed him back onto the bench next to his wife. When Keith looked up, the officer was gone. He glanced over at his wife, who was speaking to him, but her words came out as an indecipherable echo. He retched and leaned forward to cough. His eyes grew wide as he noticed specks of blood on the floor. His throat felt so dry he could barely breathe. A high-pitched squeal filled his head but just as quickly as it came, it fell silent and he could hear again. Somewhere nearby, someone emitted a low, gurgling groan that trailed off and then slowly died. It took Keith a few seconds to realize it had come from his own throat.
The manager shook his head. “Oh dear. You’re turning fast. If you don’t make it to the hospital in time, I’ve got a cashier position available. The undead have to make a living, too, ya know.”