Masochuticon #9.

Working Stiff

by Dan.

John Parr arose promptly at seven in the morning, ready for another day at Price and Partners. The fact that this time he was rising not from his mock-Elizabethan bed but from the dead was neither here nor there. This was a work day, and that meant an early start.

It was a matter of some pride to John Parr that he had never taken a sick day in his life; the sudden and violent cessation of life did not seem in itself a convincing reason to shirk. In many ways, he might have thought, if most of his cerebral matter was not currently sitting in the oesophagus and gullet of a former loss adjuster (himself now sitting, due to an absence of working knees, in the gutter of Threadneedle Street), becoming a zombie was precisely the kind of radical change that employees often need if they are to resist staleness. There might even be advantages. Discounting for a moment the constant, instinctual yearning for brains, the undead did not appear to need food, and as such the tendency to dawdle over lunch could be excised from a workforce. Also, since zombies were by any legal standard as dead as… well, as dead as John Parr himself, it was reasonable to suppose that much of the workplace legislation that had recently caused so many problems in some of Price and Partners’ more production-oriented holdings could be open to challenge as discriminatory against the deceased.

Unfortunately, John Parr was not actually thinking any of these things, because, as has been mentioned, John Parr had spent the evening, after a series of terror-stricken sallies down the winding streets of the financial district, in the arms and down the throat of a loss adjuster. As a result of this, John Parr was primarily thinking, insofar as the dead can be said to think at all, about the hitherto unrealised comestibility of brains. Still, if there was one thing the regular commuter knows it is how to navigate to work without any higher brain function whatsoever. So it was that John Parr shambled north through largely empty streets to the office.

John had lost, along with his life, several pints of blood and enough of his cerebral cortex to make a serviceable kite, his entry pass. A security guard would probably still have been able to pick out John Parr’s identity from the architectural remnants of the man stumbling through the new and challenging broken-glass motif of the thick carpet covering Price and Partners’ foyer. Although John had lost a statistically significant percentage of skin from the upper part of his face, and what was left was concealed by generous amounts of dirt and blood (from his own wounds and the necrotic fingers and gums of their donor), the trim moustache and dimpled chin were still recognisably those of the former Vice President, Supply Chain and Procurement. One of his patent-leather slip-ons had parted company with his foot on the way, and lazy streaks of blood were underlining the questionable wisdom of a cream carpet in a public area, but that was certainly the understated dark two-piece of a man who had, although his ascent was slowed by fatherhood, put together a highly motivated team at Price and Partners and achieved significant cost reductions by tough renegotiation or (where necessary) reassignment of contracts. It was also the torn, bloody and assymetrically lapelled dark two-piece of a man who had yesterday climbed his first wall in thirty years in an enterprising but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to avoid being killed and eaten (in that approximate order), but the mark of good tailoring is versatility.

Since the guards had adapted fairly quickly to the idea that the general practice of omophagy by dead people put the provision of security well past the ability of a blue shirt and a baton, there was nobody to wave John through, but he still flapped one empty hand at the desk, with its banks of monitors showing static or darkness. His wedding ring caught on the edge of the counter, but a steady forward lurching motion and the separability of flesh and gristle soon sorted that out.

It was already later than John normally liked to get to the office—he had found while alive that the period before 9am was his most productive of the day, and carefully assigned key tasks to the period between eight and nine—which may have informed his decision to skip his desk, and the computer and telephone which were now at best sources of frustration and at worst completely inedible, and go straight to his first meeting.

In the way of modern business, Price and Partners’ nominal boardroom was actually very rarely occupied by its geographically diverse board, and also did duty as a meeting room, presentation space and, for a brief but intensely productive period earlier that week, last redoubt of the still-living employees. As a result, the heavy mahogany table was jammed against the main doors, and it took John a few minutes of aimless shambling before he found the right angle of attack to enter. The various bodies presented their own obstacles—from the number of severed heads and systematically dismembered bodies the casual observer (assuming said observer was able to manage any thought beyond the desirability of brains) might think that the revenants had had by far the worst of it. In fact, the human casualties were currently gathered around the end of the table not forming an improvised barricade, gazing slack-jawed at the blank white square of the display screen as if expecting a presentation on successful transition to a life based primarily around a desire to eat brains in an environment where fresh brains were becoming an increasingly rare commodity, with handouts and a brief Q&A session.

Had the neurons in what was left of John’s brain been significantly less inert, he might have noted with a degree of satisfaction that he was the senior non-decapitated executive in the room. Clearly somebody had to take charge, and the increasingly ripe remains of John Parr were ready to take this step up to the greater responsibilities of team leadership.

‘Grrraaaaagh,’ he offered coolly as a thought-starter.

‘Graaaagh!’ responded Kate Williams, steepling her remaining fingers, leaning casually against a chair and falling over. As she flailed her limbs in a struggle to turn onto her stomach, John nodded in a decent if jerky imitation of thought. ‘Grraaaagh…’

Executive-level zombie confabs, it turns out, take a lot longer even than marketing meetings. The problem is not in the creation of shared objectives (Brains: i) finding, ii) extracting and iii) enjoying), but rather settling on a clear action plan covering points in greater detail than shambling, biting and devouring at leisure. The complete transcript of this particular exchange would probably have a similar effect to a good half-hour of zombie-on-skull action. The abbreviated minutes would reveal that all parties contributed a variety of unintelligible moans. Chris Martin (no relation), whose throat had been torn out by the Australian IT guy called either Mark or Mike with the shoulders, provided a series of bubbling hissing noises, to general indifference. The meeting was briefly disrupted by sounds of motion outside the room, but this turned out to be nothing more appetising than an unusually enterprising rat with a taste for sweetbreads, tacitly acknowledged as a very small amount of brain in a very fast chassis and ignored.

It was not, on the whole, one of John’s best ever meetings. Without speaker support, preparatory notes or the capacity to ratiocinate he was unable to convey his key messages. These would have centred on the importance of a coherent procurement strategy, establishing key suppliers (hospitals, train stations, the elderly) and putting action plans in place to surround these resources and empty them of grey matter with the greatest economy of motion possible. A couple of graphs and possibly a Venn diagram would have spiced it right up, but as it was the meeting broke up without any clear next (lurching, aimless) steps.

As it transpired, John’s closing proposition—a resolution to shamble out onto the streets in search of food—carried the day, and he found himself at the head of a small, soberly dressed and ravenous group of co-workers, contractors and one dedicated but extremely unlucky sandwich delivery boy. The onset of the apocalypse had left the financial district almost as deserted as it would have been at a weekend, but as the sun started to sink behind the burning buildings enough injured victims of less well-managed attacks, relapsed alcoholics and religious cultists had been found to bring the slaughter at least in line with expectations. Whatever was pushing John’s body forward also provided some dim awareness that an eternity at an all-you-can-eat cerebral buffet would not even begin to touch the sides of the vast, metaphysical emptiness at the heart of his being (even if at some point his mouth would fill up from the inside). As such, it was important not to push yourself too hard on your first day, John didn’t think as he limped along the bus route home, his team trailing behind him.

It took time, and there were many diversions on the way that would have seemed frustrating once, watched all the while by his own face, pasted in ever growing numbers on photocopied posters secured to lampposts and trees, a breadcrumb trail to prove that he was loved. But when his eyes fell on the warm lights of his home (and in one case onto the driveway), when he saw her haggard face beyond his own reflection in the living-room glass, when the window shattered and the screams from inside became suddenly more audible, a strange electricity in the ruins of his brain almost simulated affection. Twenty years of marriage, and he could still just eat her up. As Kate, Chris and Mike or Mark from IT joined him, clawing open his lovely wife’s cardigan, chest, ribs, skull, as he heard the crying from upstairs, he felt as if he had finally achieved a work/life balance. Then he just felt hungry.

By Dan, 12 April, 2006; direct link.