First, they started eating our brains. It was a Wednesday, and everyone left work early to escape. Most of us escaped. It takes a long time for a zombie to eat a brain. They crack open our heads like we crack open eggs (they hate the texture of skull fragments in the slurry of our grey matter). And they chew carefully.
Still, everyone lost friends. And enemies. Many of us saw our enemies go down as we raced through the streets, screaming at the tops of our lungs. The screaming didn’t keep the zombies away. The screaming didn’t even keep the other screaming away, the bad screaming that came from our friends and enemies as they fell to the zombie onslaught.
For a while, we missed our friends and felt bad for our enemies, who we couldn’t really remember as enemies anymore. We were trapped in our basements, hiding from the zombies, thinking the worst had happened, talking about memories, not just the ones we had, but the ones lost when the zombies ate the brains that contained them.
“Wonder what happens to a memory in the stomach of a zombie,” we said. “How does it dissolve? What does it become? How much protein is there in a birthday remembered? How much in a memory of being alone?”
We tried to recreate those lost memories with the objects in our basements. We tried to rebuild memories that never belonged to us with long forgotten childhood toys and empty cardboard boxes we’d kept around in case we’d need them some day.
The cardboard boxes made us sad.
“Is this what we were saving them for?” we said.
Sometimes we sent people to the surface to check on the situation. No one went willingly. They went because we picked them up and threw them through doorways.
“If you don’t come back, we’ll recreate your memories,” we said to them.
While they were gone, we waited with a great deal of patience and told stories of their adventures, the courage we were sure they’d discovered and the strange people they met, the basementless people who lived in treehouses and port-a-potties. And when they didn’t return, we looked into the corners, at the uncookable eggs we’d so carelessly acquired as we raced through the supermarkets on the way to our basements, at the wrappers from all the candy we were eating to survive, and we accepted a little more each time what was happening.
“This is how life is going to be from now on,” we said, finally. “We will be shitting our pants forever.”
Then the zombies stopped eating our brains and started doing our taxes.
At first, we didn’t believe it. We were convinced it was a trick, a masterful duplicity to lure us into the open where our brains were more delicious. Days passed and the memories we were recreating in the basements became progressively more paranoid, until the world remembered by the dead contained no recognizable forms of love.
What finally drove us from our basements was the smell of cardboard, which had become insufferable. We fled from it to the surface, where we found a world we couldn’t explain: the zombies had taken over our schoolhouses and turned them into tax preparation centers. We could hear them working. We could hear them flipping through the pages of the tax code.
“It has to be a trap,” we said.
To be sure it wasn’t, we sent people in. They came back with their brains and a puzzled look on their faces.
“What is it?” we said.
“We’re getting refunds,” they replied. “We’re all getting huge refunds.”
We decided to play it cool.
“It isn’t even tax season,” we said with a laugh, and went back to our lives, setting alarm clocks, caring about money, educating our now school-less children. No one talked about what happened in the basements. No one talked about what happened before the basements. We looked serious on workdays. We smiled on the weekends. We did all our shipping in cloth sacks. The world was ours again. What did it matter to us how the zombies chose to spend their time? We had the sun back. We were reacquainted with the stars. We never looked at them, but we knew they were there.
Then our children, whom we hated thereafter, started asking questions:
“What’s a tax shelter?”
“Why do we amortize assets?”
“Am I deductible?”
“Good question,” we said to them before we sent them out to play so we could eat candy in the dark and drink wine.
An explicable malaise set in. For an entire month, every date ended in sex.
“But it isn’t even tax season,” we said to each other after the sex was over.
When the sex became intolerable, we turned to carpooling. We packed our people into cars with other people and drove nowhere for long periods of time. We saw the heavens and the earth and all the creatures God had created exempt from taxation.
The landscapes we visited were these and more: regular forests, petrified forests, mountains, hills covered in dry grass, hills covered in mud, picnic tables, puddles, potato farms, corn silos, dust bowls, haunted mansions, magic tricks, graveyards.
Sometimes, the smell of cardboard would drift into our perceptions, either from some mysterious source in the great wilds of nature, or from our own dark psyches. When that happened, we would accelerate. Our engines would sputter and then roar, and through the windows, the wind would pummel our heads like a pillow fight.
Here was the problem with carpooling: it always ended. We always found ourselves back where we started, amidst the terrible sounds of the zombies, who were leaping from loophole to loophole with their freshly sharpened pencils.
The tap tap tap of their calculators!
The click click clack of the one who used an abacus!
And so, the carpooling stopped. In its absence, this became an average day:
“It isn’t even tax season,” we said over and over through it all. “It isn’t even tax season.”
The zombies continued to do our taxes and soon the mantra lost meaning. Everything lost meaning. The meaninglessness we found in the corners of each room in our house, in the centers of those rooms, under the rugs, in the dust that caked on the screens of our televisions, drove us from our homes and through the streets.
We were drunk. Incredibly drunk.
“Fuck you,” we said to every rainbow we saw, stopping every now and then to puke on our lawns. “Where were you before the zombies started doing our taxes?”
The air was filled with the acidic smell of half-digested booze mixed with the unmistakable odor of rotting flesh doing taxes. The scent drove us into a frenzy, pushed us to faster speeds. We rushed the schoolhouses and frantically flung our drunk bodies through the window glass.
“What’s wrong with our brains?” we said, but the zombies didn’t answer. They kept crunching the numbers, finding us deductions we never could have imagined on our own.
For days, we bled from the lacerations we’d sustained when we penetrated the zombie tax catacombs. The juices that came out of us were made of blood and gin and molecules of dead soul that we could see whenever the light hit the fluids at some mystical angle.
Sometimes, our children played with the liquid, in our front yards, mixing it with the soil to produce pies and cakes. We watched them play through the bitter windows of our homes.
“This can’t be the end,” we said, but some of the cells in our bodies didn’t really mean it.
When the bleeding finally stopped, we felt unexpectedly light. With half as much blood, anything seemed possible! We started to study: cosmology, abstract mathematics, Joyce. We got smart and wrote sonnets; we redesigned our cities; we reconciled every paradox we could find.
“Where time is an illusion,” we declared, “the free will of the whole seems like pre-destination to the parts!”
But the zombies kept at the taxes and the more we saved, the sadder we got.
“What’s wrong with our brains?” we said again, our voices trembling this time. It made no difference to the zombies. They didn’t even look at us when we spoke to them. Their eyes were buried in a variety of tax-related manuals. Or in the blank pages they were using to author their own tax manuals.
We read some of their tax-related writings.
“This will be a best-seller,” we said, and went home to kill ourselves.
We did not kill ourselves. We were sad, but not courageous. Instead of death, we watched cartoons. The boxing marsupials. The unsquelchable drive for someone else’s cheese. We watched them and gave them power.
“Please,” we said in whispers, “make sense of the world.”
Then the refunds arrived. The gargantuan refunds. We suddenly had resources like we’d never dreamed of and it gave us hope.
This is what we did with the resources plus hope plus our now highly developed intellects: we built spaceships.
“We’re going to leave,” we told the zombies, “forever.”
We spoke in eloquent rhetoric of the vast unknown that was beyond all taxation. The stars and planets that drifted through the giant tax loophole that is the vacuum of space.
“We will be traveling through the miraculous cosmos at light speed,” we said. “You can’t do the taxes of something that’s moving at light speed. It’s physically impossible.”
Our tone was smug. Our foolish mouths were oversalivated.
On a day in September, we boarded our creations.
“We’ll send you a postcard,” we said to the zombies and then closed the doors.
The countdown howled across the surface of the Earth through giant five-story tall speakers that had been designed as a subproject of the interstellar scheme.
The zombies called our bluff. They called our bluff and then amortized the enormous cost of the spaceships over a three-year period.
Deep inside the still-grounded starships, everything we said echoed off the walls.
“What’s wrong with our bWrhaaitn’ss wrong with our bWrhaai t n’ss wrong with our brains?”
We longed for certain smells.
Our children and their terrible questions.
“When will we get there?”
“Are the zombies coming with us?”
“Can we play with the stars?”
Two days later, we emerged from the massive space vessels and bowed graciously to the zombies.
“Let it not be said,” we said, “that we are without class.”
And then we did not go home. Not immediately. First, we scoured the universe for every piece of cardboard we could find, for every dull, rusty knife, every cigarette butt, every dried-up neon hi-lighter. We used our highly developed carpooling skills to gather these things and once we had them, we withdrew into our basements. We brought with us candy and a vocabulary stripped of words like sun and moon and stars, and while our teeth rotted and fell from our heads, while the zombies sheltered our income, we recreated over and over the world as we remembered it.
Philip Jason's stories can be found in magazines such as Prairie Schooner, The Pinch, Mid-American Review, Ninth Letter, and J Journal; his poetry in Spillway, Lake Effect, Canary, and Summerset Review. He is a recipient of the Henfield Prize in Fiction. His first novel, Window Eyes, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press. His first collection of poetry is forthcoming from Fernwood Press.