I stared at them through the thick glass. They really were sort of cute. Their skin clung tight to their small skulls, which made their distant eyes appear large as foreign planets set afloat in a sky of mottled flesh. Dresses adorned with lace and tiny printed flowers swayed as they paced in their separate enclosures.
I pulled out my cell phone and took a quick video clip of a pacing child zombie and then decorated the footage with sparkling heart emojis before adding it to my story. After sliding my phone into my back pocket, I tapped once on the glass. The girl within swiveled her head toward me, and I jolted back. Long, dark hair framed a pale face with silvery scars.
“Oh well, isn’t she a sweet thing! What’s her name?” My mom leaned towards the paper description pasted to the upper corner of the glass and tucked a brown curl behind her ear when it fell forward. “Abigail. How sweet! Likes Barbie Dolls and good with cats. Minimal scarring and bruising. 8 years old. All immunizations up to date and looking for a forever home. What do you think, John?”
“Seems like she would be a great fit for us,” Dad said, eager to get the adoption process over with, having looked at zombies all morning. “All of these zombies are starting to bleed together,” Dad said to me with a wink that looked more like a full-face scrunch. He chuckled at his own joke until he looked back up at the glass and jumped. Abigail was much closer to the glass than she had been a moment before. Dad coughed.
My mom gave a sharp laugh. “Oh shush, none of them have any open wounds. What do you think, Rebecca?”
I looked back at the zombie. I liked having a cat. I figured it couldn’t be that different.
“Really cute,” I said. I just wanted to make it back home in time to meet up with Mackenzie and still get to the party we were going to at the ideal 30-45 minutes late mark.
My mom waved over an employee who got a leash for Abigail, droned on about care instructions, and gave the mandatory safety explanations. I zoned out, having already heard all this stuff in school.
Once the vaccine came out that made the public immune and the already-turned harmless, people didn’t know what to do with all of the vacant-eyed humans that roamed the streets like purpling dolls. The vaccine, along with the brain damage caused by the virus, made them completely docile, and their physical development stopped at the age they had been infected. Some people liked to shoot them for sport out of their trucks. Some people used them for perverted means. Others, like my mom, argued violence against zombies was inhumane and should be considered abuse. For many, it seemed strange to hurt something so humanoid and complacent. Several zombie rights activists began campaigning for better treatment of zombies, which led to the Zombie Justice Act several years ago. Of course, with so many crowding the shelters, some still had to be put down—something the zombie pet commercials emphasized as melancholic music swelled in the background. Commercials with trendy celebrities emphatically reciting lines such as:
Totally safe, totally adorable.
I lost a child to the Outbreak, but now I can provide the home I wish my lost zombie child had.
Zombies. The modern pet for the modern family.
On the drive back from the pet store, my mom twisted around in the passenger seat to coo at Abigail as we drove through suburban neighborhoods. Abigail sat a seat apart from me, blinking her planet eyes. Once we arrived in the driveway, my mom, leash in hand, led Abigail through the front door and into our living room where Ida, our cat, hissed upon seeing the new addition to our family and arched her grey back.
“There, there, Ida, we’ll still have plenty of attention for you,” my mom said. “It’ll just take some getting used to.” Whether she was talking to the cat, Dad and I, Abigail, or herself was unclear.
In a week’s time, we settled into a routine. Mom fed her. I walked her. Dad would tie her to the stair rail in the evenings. Zombies don’t sleep, so at night Abigail was given a chair to sit on and her leash knotted around the wooden railing that led up to my parents’ bedroom (“So she doesn’t hurt herself,” my mom had said).
If I got up for a glass of water or a small stack of Oreos in the night, she would regard me with eyes that glinted black in the darkness as I made my way across the living room to the kitchen. On my way back to my bedroom, they would track me once again.
“Hey there, Abigail,” I would say, around a mouthful of Oreos. Abigail would blink back at me. I was never sure how much she understood.
My mom loved to brush Abigail’s long, dark hair and braid it into elaborate hairstyles. When I arrived home from school, the two of them would often be sat in front of the TV, the suspenseful music of a cooking or dating game show coming from the speakers, as my mom’s fingers disappeared and reappeared in the swathes of Abigail’s hair like worms rippling through mud. I had never had the patience to sit still for so long when I was Abigail’s age.
“There’s my pretty girl,” my mom would say as she admired her own handiwork then turned to a metallic tin overflowing with shimmering polishes. After selecting some glooping, glimmering color, she would unscrew the top, pick up one of Abigail’s small, shriveled hands and begin painting her tiny, yellowing nails. The whole living room would thicken with a toxic aroma.
Abigail didn’t smell bad, exactly. She smelled synthetic. Before we had adopted her, she had been doused in some sort of preservative and then perfumed with something that smelled strongly of bubblegum. My mom kept Abigail in a continual fog of sugary fragrance and hairspray.
“Would you like to join us?” my mom would ask.
“Uh, no thanks, I have homework,” I would say as I escaped to my bedroom.
One evening, after giving up on a math problem set, I laid back on my fluffy blue comforter and called Mackenzie. Mackenzie had perfect, tight ringlets, a pool, and the expert ability to find indie bands just before they got big.
“We got a zombie,” I said as I stared at the cluttered shelves that flanked my walls. Two Barbies remained from my old collection, and they observed my messy room from above with cool expressions, their shadowed eyelids drawn halfway down. Surrounding their tiny plastic bodies were band aid wrappers from when I had cut my ankle shaving, a congealed mac and cheese bowl, a large pocketknife that I had used to carve my name into a park picnic table, and a collection of band pins from the local shows Mackenzie had taken me along to.
“You did? Like in the commercials?”
“Cool. I was obsessed with them back in middle school, but my parents never let me get one.”
“They were paranoid that the drugs they give the zombies after the vaccine would eventually stop working.”
“You have to give them drugs?” I pictured Abigail, in her pretty pink dress, snorting cocaine off the coffee table, my mom having carefully placed it into a neat little row for her beforehand.
“Yeah, they like, keep them really sedated or something? You’re the one with the zombie, Becca. Shouldn’t you know this?”
I had only gotten a C- on the exam we took at the end of our zombie unit last year in school, and I hadn’t been listening to the employee at the pet store when he had started rambling about care instructions. I had been staring at a still, blue fish in a clouded tank wondering if it was dead or not.
The next morning was a Saturday, and I spent an hour in bed on QuikPiks scrolling through posts. A selfie of Mackenzie with her neck tilted to one side, her mouth open, a guitar in her lap. A cake in the shape of a kitten. Suicide memes that I had already seen.
The icon for a suggested account caught my eye. The image was small, but the two figures it featured looked familiar. Was it my mom and Abigail? I clicked on the username, ZomMom. Column after column of photos featuring my mom and Abigail appeared on the screen. My mom and Abigail poised with dainty floral teacups in hand, Abigail’s overflowing with the pink and red slop she ate. My mom and Abigail in front of our garden, matching flower crowns on their heads. The back of Abigail’s head with a big heart braided into it. A clip of my mom saying, “play dead!” and Abigail reclining on the sofa in our living room with her eyes closed. I scrolled back up to the follower count. 11k.
I put my phone down. I felt oddly like I was intruding on something.
Since I was the one tasked with walking her, and Dad was the one tasked with spending time with me, walking Abigail became our father/daughter time. Every evening, or nearly every, Dad and I would make our rounds around the neighborhood, past the well-manicured lawns and the park with a small, glimmering pond. Abigail would walk on the pavement in front of us, a beacon guiding the way in her bright dress.
“Is it just me or is Mom kind of weird about Abigail?” I said as we made our way past the pond. Abigail’s back seemed to straighten slightly at the mention of her name.
“Eh, it’s a hobby. She’s a caring person. You should have seen her with you when you were younger!” Dad said.
“I wasn’t a pet, though.”
“Well, you sure did act like an animal sometimes!”
I didn’t laugh.
Dad sighed. “You know, during the Outbreak, your mom was terrified of losing you. You were only six, and you got sick so often.”
“So? I’m still here.”
“You are.” Dad smiled at me and rumpled my hair, which I was quick to smooth back into place with my free hand.
Dad looked down at his feet and furrowed his brow. “I think there’s something comforting for her in holding death so close and feeling like she can control it. You know, the thing that could have taken you away from us.”
There’s something comforting for her in holding death so close and feeling like she can control it. That sounded like lyrics to some song that Mackenzie would listen to.
I didn’t see what the issue was. The Outbreak had been years ago, and I was fine.
“Is it true that all zombie pets are on drugs?” I asked.
“It’s like the pet store employee said, you give them drugs to keep them calm.”
“Doesn’t the vaccine do that?”
“Think of it like insurance, Becca.”
The concept of insurance had always been slightly confusing to me. I thought of the mornings that I had watched my mom crush up white pills and sprinkle them over Abigail’s bowl of slop. When I had asked her what they were for, she had said that it was Abigail’s medicine to keep her happy and healthy. When I had asked her if they were like vitamins she replied, “sort of,” as she kissed the top of my head. I had squirmed from beneath her touch.
The leash was suddenly tugged from my grip as Abigail bolted to a nearby tree and crouched down low.
“Abigail!” Dad called as he jogged over to her huddled form.
Abigail rose, the legs and bushy tail of a squirrel dangling from her mouth. Her white Peter Pan collar was sprayed with blood.
“Abigail ate a squirrel on our walk,” I told Mom after I had made it back home and upstairs to her bedroom.
“Hm, yes, she brings me things sometimes,” my mom said. She reclined on her throw pillows with her long, smooth legs thrown out and shining atop the comforter. I imagined the feathery carcasses of small birds and the blood-stained fur of rodents tossed onto her white bedding like roses. “It’s quite sweet, but I have to bleach the stains out of her dresses afterwards.”
“I found your QuikPiks account,” I said. It came out more like an accusation than I had meant it.
“Oh, do you like it? It’s a fun hobby.”
“You have a lot of followers.”
“We’re starting to get sponsorships. I got several eyeshadow palettes in the mail for free today. Isn’t that nice?”
“Very nice,” I said and left the room.
That night, I awoke to a wet, chewing sound. Rolling over, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw Abigail in the corner of my room with the head of one of my Barbie dolls in her mouth, her teeth grinding away at Barbie’s shiny, plastic hair and causing the small head to deflate again and again with each bite.
I let out a shrill cry. Abigail continued chomping away at the Barbie, completely unbothered by my scream. I heard the rapid thud of footsteps on the stairs.
“What’s wrong?” my mom said as the door to my bedroom was slammed open and the bodies of my parents crammed in the doorway.
My mom flipped on the light switch, and my parents followed my pointing finger across the clothes-strewn carpet to where Abigail was crouched in the corner. The sound of plastic being chewed squelched from her mouth. A doll eating a doll. A torn red leash hung from her neck like a ribbon. I watched the tension ooze from my mom’s shoulders like nail polish spilling across a coffee table from a toppled bottle.
My mom rubbed her eyes. She looked fragile in her pale, silk nightdress. “Honey, did you forget to feed her?”
I thought back to earlier that evening. Homework. Mackenzie on the phone. Had Mom asked me to feed her? She had.
“Come on Abby girl, let’s go get you something to eat. Honey, be a little more careful next time. Plastic isn’t good for zombies,” Mom said as she trod across my discarded clothes to scoop up Abigail’s thin body as if it were a bundle of sticks bound by taffeta and crinoline. “And please clean up your room tomorrow. You’ll get spiders.” The dark hair of my mom and Abigail mingled at their shoulders and made them look like a strange, two-headed beast as they left the room with Dad in tow.
The lone Barbie left on my shelf looked accusingly at me as if to say, It’s your fault I’m up here all alone now. How could you let this happen?
I pushed my bookcase and the chest that I kept at the foot of my bed in front of my door before climbing back into bed, even though it made me feel silly to be afraid of something so much smaller than me. Something that wore frilly, flower-printed dresses.
The next night, after staying up late watching short documentaries about alleged alien sightings online, I got out of bed for my usual small stack of Oreos. When I opened my bedroom door, I could see Abigail sitting still with her hands on her lap by the stair rail. Her small, pale face was framed by two long pigtails which had been lovingly secured by my mom. She had a new leash—purple this time. Her blank eyes met mine from across the room.
I’m going to eat you, I imagined her saying. They don’t need you anymore. Maybe I’ll eat them too. I’m so, so hungry, Rebecca.
I shut my door and placed my furniture in front of it again.
“Dad, have you seen Ida around lately?” I asked one morning.
“Uh-huh, Honey,” Dad said as he took a bite of his tomato bagel sandwich and stared out the window.
Dad glanced away from the window. Crumbs flecked his mouth.
“Dad. Ida. Have you seen her around?”
Dad made his scrunched-up thinking face as he chewed. “I haven’t. Why?”
“Her food and water bowl has been full since yesterday morning. You didn’t refill them, did you?”
“No, but I’m sure she’ll turn up. Isn’t that what cats do? Wander around and then come back?”
Maybe, but Ida had never been gone for more than a day before.
When I got home from school, Ida’s food and water bowl was still full and the sink was full of dishes congealed with pink meat slop. I made my way through the living room and ran up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom. I knocked hard on the door before throwing it open.
Mom was laying on top of the covers in a sheer pink robe lined with pink fur. Her eyes were closed, and her mouth hung open. The curls of her dark hair were fanned out over a pale pillowcase. Abigail sat on the bed beside her, her back hunched slightly, as she gnawed on a lock of my mom’s hair.
“Mom!” I shouted.
My mom jolted awake and sat up, blinking and looking disgruntled. The lock of her hair fell away from Abigail’s mouth.
“What is it?”
“Abigail was eating your hair.”
My mom looked back at Abigail. She laughed as she tucked a stray hair of Abigail’s away. “Oh. Your dad and I had a puppy in college that used to do that all the time.”
“Abigail is not a puppy.”
My mom straightened the shoulders of her robe and tied the silk sash at her waist.
“No, of course not.”
“Mom, where’s Ida?”
“Ida?” My mom got up and took Abigail’s hand as she guided her off the bed.
“I haven’t seen her in two days.”
“Oh, well, I’m sure she’ll turn up.” My mom began making the bed, running her fingers along the blankets and smoothing out all the little creases.
“Yeah, when Abigail drops her bloody carcass at your feet?”
My mom began arranging the throw pillows with aggression, her movements harsh and jerky. “Rebecca. If Ida doesn’t turn up, we’ll all put up posters. Cats wander all the time. I’m sure we’ll find her. You know that Abigail would never kill a cat. Ida would be far too big for her little mouth.”
“She was eating your hair!”
“Just what exactly are you implying, Rebecca?” My mom stopped what she was doing to stare hard at me.
“That you should be more careful with her!”
“Good grief, Rebecca, look at her!” my mom gestured to Rebecca, who stood straight up in her yellow dress like a doll waiting to be taken down from a shelf and played with. Did I imagine an amused glimmer pass over her features? A slight upward tug at the corner of her mouth? “I’ve napped with Abigail around before. You’re being paranoid.”
“I’m not being paranoid, you’re being delusional!”
“Rebecca. I’ve done my research! I would never place you or your dad in danger like that!”
“I’m the one who’s parented you for the last 14 years. You could give me some credit, you know.” My mom pinched the bridge of her nose.
“I was never a zombie!”
“But if you had been, we would have found a way—” my mom began walking toward me.
I left the room and slammed the door behind me.
A couple of days later, after lying awake for hours, I grabbed my phone from off the bedside table and opened QuikPiks. A post from ZomMom was at the top. I had been avoiding it, but now I clicked on the account page.
A picture of Abigail posed on our floral couch in a yellow dress with rain falling outside of the window behind her. The caption: Rainy Days call for bright dresses 🙂. A closeup of Abigail’s face, her scars smoothed by a thick layer of concealer and her eyelids powdered to a glittering gold gradient. The caption: Had so much fun creating this look for my sweet Abby. It’s almost as sparkly as her personality! (Sponsored by BoldlyBright Cosmetics). A clip of my mom telling Abigail to sit and Abigail squashing her fluffy red tutu on a chair as she obeyed. The account’s follower count was up to 12k.
I clicked on ZomMom’s story that featured a linked article titled “How Drugging Your Zombie Pet is Causing Them Harm.” My mom had added text around the link that read, “Such important information!! Wish more people knew about this 🙁 I know that Abigail would NEVER hurt anybody.” I clicked on the link and scanned the article. There were comparisons between giving your zombie pet pills and encouraging your child to do drugs. There were promises that if you gave up feeding your zombie pet their pills, they would start to seem “livelier” and “happier.” The article ended with statements about how incidents resulting in harm were “very uncommon.” I couldn’t find any citations. So, this was the research my mom had been doing. I put my phone down.
Abigail’s squirrel and Barbie meals must have been examples of “liveliness.”
My eyes found the spot at the end of my bed where Ida sometimes liked to curl up after nosing her way into my room. She still hadn’t turned up.
I glanced at the dark silhouette of the lone Barbie on my shelf. She looked like a fallen angel. Well, what now, Rebecca? Are you too afraid of Little Miss Roadkill to do anything?
I threw back my covers and grabbed the pocketknife from off my shelf before opening my bedroom door. I didn’t want to turn on the lights just in case my parents would notice, so I walked over to Abigail’s shadowy form in the dark. I placed my pocketknife between my teeth as I untied Abigail’s leash from the railing. After I had finally untangled all of Dad’s knots, I slowly opened the front door and led her out into the night, past the shadowed suburban two-stories, past the darkened pond, and past the little bikes laying, in trust, on the otherwise neat lawns.
Our neighborhood was a quiet one, and we were the only ones out. This left all of my attention for Abigail. I kept glancing at her sideways, the fingers of one hand coiled tightly around the new leash, and the fingers of the other coiled tightly around the pocketknife. I kept expecting her to make a dash towards a wandering cat, a fluffy-tailed squirrel, my face, but she only stared straight ahead in silence as we walked along the sidewalk.
Mackenzie’s house loomed before us. All the windows were dark. I led Abigail to the side of the house and reached over a low gate to undo the latch. We made our way into the backyard that was fringed by a white fence and tidy shrubs. The pool was in the center. I pulled back the cover. The surface rippled as the sharp tang of chlorine filled the air, reminding me of all the summers I had spent here with Mackenzie, eating popsicles and sharing a humongous inflated flamingo. I brought Abigail to the edge of the pool.
“Sit, Abigail,” I said.
Her small body squatted down, and she jutted her legs over the rim of the pool, soaking the sparkling, lavender tights that hid the green and yellow bruises that mottled her legs. Her Mary Janes loomed below like two black fish oddly distorted by the water. This end of the pool was eight feet deep—more than plenty to cover her short body. If she had learned to swim before she had been infected with the virus, would the muscle memory remain now? I looked at her tiny form. The drooping hairbow, the narrow shoulders, the downcast head. Was I wrong? Was Abigail as harmless as my mom thought, and would Ida be waiting for me to let her in once I got back home? I thought of Abigail’s white collar flecked with blood. She brings me things sometimes.
“Abigail, play dead.”
Abigail laid back on the concrete and closed her eyes.
I crouched down and pushed until Abigail’s torso was parallel to the edge of the pool. Her clothing snagged slightly on the concrete, and I wondered if I was scraping her cheek. I gave her a shove and watched her topple into the water with a splash. She sank down, down, and then bobbed, facedown, to the surface with her top and skirt inflating with water. I stood with my heart thudding in my chest for what felt like forever, but Abigail didn’t make a move. She just remained suspended in the water like some ridiculously outfitted animal preserved in formaldehyde. I glanced up anxiously at the windows of Mackenzie’s house, but they all remained dark.
When finally I thought enough time had passed, I put the pool cover back in place over the top of Abigail and crept quickly back to the fence. Even the soft sound of my sneakers on the grass made me wince. Once I was on the other side of the gate, I finally started to feel a sense of relief that neared euphoria. As I made sure the latch was in place, I glanced one more time at the side of the pool that was still visible. I could see the lump of Abigail’s body just beneath the pool cover.
How would my mom let her followers know?
A photo of Abigail face down in the pool with her dark hair floating outwards. Caption: So sad 🙁 A photo of Abigail in a tiny coffin with a tiny bouquet in her hands. Caption: Don’t these flowers bring out the beautiful violet of her bruises? A photo of Abigail being lowered into a grave. Caption: Poor Abby. It was an accident. She had been fed earlier. How strange that she escaped. No one’s fault.
I hadn’t even had to use my knife after all.