I open the door to my apartment and drop my bag, jacket, and tie in a pile. Dragging myself to the bedroom, I collapse onto the creaky bed with a huff. I’ve been pulling double shifts all week because some kid went and quit with no warning. My limbs feel like lead and a headache is pulsing behind my eyes. I curl up in a ball under the thick blanket and wait for sleep, but after an hour, my eyelids refuse to stay shut. I stick my arm out of my warm cocoon and feel around for my laptop, dragging it into bed. I squint into the soft blue glow and smile. Reading stories in the horror forums about people getting their comeuppance from zombies, ghosts, or serial killers can be oddly soothing after spending twelve hours trying to sell useless crap to unhappy people. After a moment, a chat request from beseeingyou6 pops up. My finger hovers over the trackpad for a minute before I sigh and click accept. I rub my dry eyes until I see swirling golden patterns. “It’s gonna be a long night.”
beseeingyou6: hey man! been a while
RomeroMan: working double shifts. barely sleeping
beseeingyou6: sucks. got a minute? i heard a new zombie infection theory
RomeroMan: bet i know it
beseeingyou6: bet you dont. its not a virus. its an idea that infects people
RomeroMan: ok, dont know it. how? like mass hysteria? hypnosis?
beseeingyou6: more like zombie ant fungus. its called zombie so I bet you know it
RomeroMan: yeah. fungus spores infect an ant, spread into its brain, and take it over. it makes the ant climb up the nearest plant to a spot where the fungus grows best. it explodes out the ants head, spreading spores over more ants. pretty smart for something with no brain
beseeingyou6: shit yeah
RomeroMan: but its not a new theory. it was in a book and a movie recently
beseeingyou6: this isnt a fungus though. the idea of turning into a zombie is like the fungus. it gets into someones head, spreads, and takes them over the same way. then they shamble around craving brains.
RomeroMan: what about zombie movies?
RomeroMan: people watch them and don’t turn into zombies. arent those ideas of zombies?
beseeingyou6: its gotta be the right fungus, right person, right time. not every fungus is a zombie fungus. not every person gets infected by the idea.
RomeroMan: how do you know if its the right fungus? who gets infected? when?
beseeingyou6: good questions…
RomeroMan: fine but the ant fungus does what it does to reproduce. how does someone killing people and eating brains reproduce an idea?
beseeingyou6: hadnt thought about that. crazy right?
When I log off hours later, I glance at the clock and rub the back of my neck. “Maybe I can at least get three solid hours.” My eyes finally stay closed but my mind drifts for a while before I fall asleep. I dream I’m crunching down a gravel path through a park. There are thick clouds floating overhead and bits of something are raining down. I catch some on my palm. It’s a yellow dust, so fine it puffs up at the slightest touch. As it drifts over on the people in the park, several of them fall to their knees coughing and leaving spatters of bright blood on the white gravel before collapsing. Then they all stand back up at the same time, swaying as if drunk. They raise their eyes to the sky, shamble to the nearest trees, and climb up. When they reach the top, they open their blood stained mouths and scream until their heads burst open like seed pods, releasing clouds of dust. I run toward the people on the ground, yelling at them not to breathe it in when I collapse in a coughing fit that doesn’t stop until blood drips from my lips and my vision narrows to a small point. I wake up with my heart pounding and the taste of copper lingering in my dry mouth.
Sitting at the bar the next night, the dream hasn’t completely faded and all the muscles in my body are still stuck in flight mode. As I gulp down one beer and then another two, my shoulders start to creep down from my ears. By number four, I’ve decided I should put this stupid zombie theory to the test. Glancing around, my eyes fall on Colin, the resident drunk. He’s about forty-five, balding, and the biggest asshole I know. One time, he overheard me telling a friend that Night of the Living Dead is one of the greatest movies ever made; now every time he sees me, he feels the need to tell me how much he thinks it sucks. I doubt he’s even seen it and I can’t say I’d feel too bad if this idea actually worked on him.
When I plop down on the stool next to him, he’s several beers ahead of me and yelling a steady stream of curse words at the TV. “Hey, man. I heard this weird theory about how the idea of turning into a zombie can turn you into one.” I chuckle and belch. He drinks his beer in silence so I continue. “The idea is like a fungus spore. It gets into your head and takes you over. You lose your mind, start killing people and eating brains.”
Colin turns to me with a frown and says, “Spores? The fuck you talkin’ about?” He throws a bowl of peanuts at me. “Fuck off. And Night of the Living Dead sucks my ass!” he says, turning back to his beer.
The next two weeks pass by in a blur. I’m still pulling double shifts and I’m so tired when I get home, I can’t even sleep. When I get sick of pacing a rut into my carpet, I head over to the bar. Colin’s always there and it pisses me off that he doesn’t seem any different. Maybe I was too drunk when I told him the idea. Maybe it wasn’t the right “fungus”. Or maybe the whole thing is bullshit because an idea is just an idea, I think as I down my last beer and pay up. When I get home, beseeingyou6 is online and I tell him about my drunken experiment.
beseeingyou6: you tell anyone else about the idea?
RomeroMan: a few other people in chats
beseeingyou6: they live near you?
RomeroMan: dont think so. why?
beseeingyou6: i think it works
beseeingyou6: dont you watch the news?
RomeroMan: not really
beseeingyou6: you live in evanstown right? couple of homeless guys were murdered there last week. their heads were bashed in. wanna bet their brains were missing?
Shaking my head, I open a tab and google it. My breath catches as I click on the first hit: three homeless men killed near Boyle Park in the past two weeks. Blunt force trauma to the head. No leads.
RomeroMan: i see it but theres no mention of missing brains
beseeingyou6: police wont release that info. afraid of copycats or whatever
RomeroMan: no way its this guy from the bar. its a serial killer or something
beseeingyou6: how do you know it wasnt him? maybe your experiment worked. only way to know is to follow him
RomeroMan: no way man.
beseeingyou6: but what if its your fault? you gotta follow him to be sure
RomeroMan: no fucking way. thats crazy
An hour later, I’m perched on the edge of a barstool, trying to sip a beer through clenched teeth. Colin’s here, drinking even more than usual. That can’t be a good sign. I’m flagging the bartender for another when Colin falls off the barstool, taking his beer with him. The bartender sighs and steps around the broken glass. “You’re done. Go home,” he says.
“Fuck you, asshole! I’ll go somewhere else!” yells Colin as he hauls himself up and staggers out the door.
“Yeah, see you tomorrow,” mutters the bartender as he turns to get a broom.
I toss some cash on the bar and follow Colin outside, pulling up my hood and trying to keep to the shadows. This is crazy. He stumbles for four blocks before stopping next to a rust-colored Gran Torino papered in parking tickets. I duck into an alleyway as he stands swaying. He pulls some keys out of his pocket, and after dropping them half a dozen times, finally manages to open the door and climb inside. The car turns over a few times, but doesn’t start. Colin curses and slams on the horn before slowly slumping over. Even from across the street, I can hear him snoring. I stuff my hands in my pockets and lean against the cold brick wall, keeping one eye on Colin while watching out for rats with the other. A chill wind picks up and a moment later, a sudden, drenching rain ends my stupid attempt at surveillance.
I spend the rest of the night punching my lumpy pillow into even lumpier shapes, trying not to think about Colin or the murders. When my alarm starts shrieking, I groan and call in sick. I lay on the couch in front of the TV not really seeing whatever’s on. Every time I find myself reaching for my laptop, I hesitate. What if there’s been another murder? I still don’t know for sure. By the time the sun sets, I’ve made up my mind. I head to the bar and order a beer but leave it sitting on the table undrunk. Colin is quietly sitting on a bar stool, his leg bouncing and his shoulders hunched. He slams only one beer before paying up and heading out. I slip outside, glancing at the sky and hoping it doesn’t rain this time. After following him for several blocks, my chest tightens when I see the gates of Boyle Park looming up ahead.
Colin walks through the gates and heads down the white gravel path to the stone bridge. He steps under the arch and turns around as I duck behind a large tree. Standing in a dim pool of orange light, he leans against the wall, checking his phone and frowning. As the minutes tick by, he starts cursing and pacing. After half an hour, a skinny guy wearing a blue hoodie shows up. “The fuck man? I’ve been waitin’ forever!” says Colin.
“Hey man, you ain’t my only customer. The usual?” says skinny man, holding something in his hand. Colin nods and reaches for it.
Skinny man pulls his hand away. “Cash first.”
“Fuck you, I’m good for it!” says Colin.
“Don’t matter. No cash, no goods.” Skinny man turns to leave and Colin pulls a gun out of his jacket pocket.
Pointing it at his head, Colin yells, “Give me the fucking coke! All of it! I told you I’m good for it.”
Skinny man smiles and throws a dozen small baggies on the ground before backing away with his hands up. Colin lowers the gun as he kneels down to grab them. Skinny man lunges at him and knocks him over. There’s a flash of silver as they wrestle and I pull back behind the tree. Fuck, fuck, fuck! I sink down to the ground with my eyes squeezed shut. A moment later, there’s a bang and I jump. Footsteps take off and then there’s only silence. I suck in several deep breaths before peeking around the trunk. Colin is laying on the ground and skinny man is nowhere to be seen. Pulling my phone out of my pocket with a shaky hand, I slowly walk under the bridge. I kneel down and check for a pulse even though there’s a large hole in the side of Colin’s head. I stare wide-eyed at the blood and brains dripping down the wall and the phone drops from my numb hand, landing on the concrete with a crack. I want to vomit. I want to run away or call the cops. Instead, I find myself scooping up a still-warm handful of what used to be Colin. Swallowing and licking my blood-stained lips, I want more. A lot more.