When the zombies overtook the Lakeshore School District, the Dads were the first to go. They were crossword Dads. Whiskery and near-sighted. They were dads with novelty bowties. Some say the zombies took the Dads first because they were the strongest, because the zombies were building an army and needed strong soldiers. But we know the truth. The Dads were the first to go because they were easy targets. When they got cornered in drug store parking lots, in movie theater bathrooms, in art galleries held in warehouses, we know it’s because they never learned to fear corners. We know it’s because they never wondered who’s behind the darkened windows of cars or learned to walk with keys pinched between their fingers like talons. We knew those things even before the zombies came a year ago.
We were girls, and we were born ready for danger.
In Ms. Rubble’s class, I am learning that Anything Can Be a Weapon. A globe. A number 2 pencil. A bookcase. A stapler. Uncut toenails. An expired EpiPen. A hooked earring. A severe enough smell.
I wonder if my dad, six months gone, would have survived his zombie attack if he had taken this class. If he would have known to use the gas nozzle to gouge out the zombie’s eyes, the scrub brush to sweep the zombie’s clumsy feet out from under it. I don’t share my thoughts with Ms. Rubble or my class. A sure sign that someone’s about to fall prey to a zombie is that they start reminiscing about those they’ve lost. The First Rule in Anything Can Be a Weapon is Don’t Look Back. Actually, the first rule is, Aim for the Head, especially the center. The brain is said to be soft in zombies. It is said to be the weak spot. I imagine a red and white bullseye. I imagine it like an egg exploding on the roof of a car. Ms. Rubble says using figurative language to describe our experiences is useful, psychologically. Similes, she says, were invented to help us see the beauty in violence.
Ms. Rubble is small and solid. Her calf muscles like cantaloupes, her biceps showing through her thick-knit cardigan. She wears tennis shoes and cargo shorts with her work blouses. She used to be a gymnast. We’ve seen videos of her twenty years younger, cracking her ankle on a dismount and not flinching, even a little.
At the end of her lesson, Ms. Rubble sits cross-legged on her desk, checks her watch, and announces, “Put away your notebooks, class. It’s Drill day.”
Every month, we have one scheduled Zombie Drill. During Zombie Drills, everyone is assigned a role, and every month our rolls switch. Last month I was Tactical, a window-boarder. The month before I was a Fighter. This month I’m a Survivor, which is a kind way of saying I’m a hider. Ms. Rubble is teaching me how to fold my body over itself, to become less than what I am.
“Like a scorpion,” she told me. “The Ancient Romans believed scorpions would spontaneously generate from a pile of rags and hot bricks, because they’d show up in rooms people thought were impenetrable. They even found scorpions in the tombs with the Terracotta soldiers. Scorpions know how to flatten themselves.” And then she bent her body impossibly and my joints ached as I mimicked.
All month, I’ve been stretching in bed before I sleep. Reaching my forehead for my ankles. I stretch in the shower and let the water run down my neck into my eyes. I feel my body go elastic. If I wanted to, I could fit myself into the ring of a tractor tire. I could angle my way into a file cabinet. I could cling to the bottom side of a bleacher for twenty-two minutes. If I let the air out of my lungs I could curl my limbs into the bottom of a janitor’s yellow mop bucket. I understand the burrowing instinct. I felt it six months ago, curling under the dashboard of my dad’s car, pulling my arms inside my sleeves towards the torso of my shirt, making myself as small as possible. I felt it as I crawled over the back of the seat into the trunk, squeezed my eyes shut, and imagined my body away.
“Hurry, class,” Ms. Rubble says. “The alarm is supposed to go off at 10:25. Remember, you won’t always be prepared for a Zombie attack. Concentrate on what you’re doing. Memorize the steps so deep they’re screwed in your muscles.”
Most of the class reaches for objects that could be used as weapons. The quickest students get the protractors and staplers. The slower students are left with rulers and dictionaries. They circle the door, some face the windows.
I push pass them to the blue recycling bin next to the door and begin pressing the air from my lungs. I imagine the empty spaces in my body collapsing in on themselves, my body becoming compact. I fold myself into the bin, my ankles up by my ears, my chin tucked into my chest. I pull papers and plastic water bottles over myself, hiding my skin.
When the sirens begin to scream, Ms. Rubble shuts off the lights. It’s dark for a very long time. Then someone kicks the door. One of my classmates, one of the fighters, screams, and I hear a yardstick drop to the floor.
“Sorry,” she whispers, but no one responds. The door to the classroom is rattling on its hinges. This has never happened before. I know it’s probably the teachers, testing to see how we’ll act under pressure, but it doesn’t feel fake. I think, Maybe the Zombies ambushed the principal while he was activating the outdoor alarm. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. The window-boarders stack more desks in front of the door—I hear the legs screeching against the tiles—but still the door shakes. I feel my body tensing, my muscles contracting, my limbs threatening to spring back into its regular shape. I grip my ankles, bite down on my thigh.
Finally, the door stops shaking. The alarm goes off, and Ms. Rubble turns on the lights.
“New Rule,” she says. “Never Scream.”
A year ago, we were a Catholic school for girls. We learned about the insides of cells. We used to learn about how to measure a flag pole without even having to climb it. We ate lunch in a cafeteria with open doors and Windexed windows reading notes our parents tucked in our lunchboxes. Now, we only go home on weekends, because it’s too dangerous to make the journey every day. We use up the superglue gluing the windows shut. We have classes called “Close Combat,” and “Disinfect-It!” We sleep in bunks in the gymnasium, which has been sectioned into rooms by standing blackboards. We hoard chalk, use it to scratch fake windows with fake views of the ocean. We miss sunlight. We don’t have recess anymore. We can never actually tell if it’s nighttime or if all the bulbs have just been screwed out. At home our mothers are using power drills to install fourth and fifth pad locks to the doors. They are laying quiltwork against the windowpanes and plywood over that. They are using the phone-tree system from former Girl Scout troops to exchange tallies on canned goods and bottled water, and to pass around a self-defense DVD from the late 80’s called “Bullshido,” which is basically a series of clips of women being attacked from behind, jabbing their assailants, and then cutting to a jaunty blond in a shiny blue leotard who smiles and punch-kicks the air.
One thing that hasn’t changed is we still learn about Greek myths. All of us want to be Artemis, who swore never to marry. In some stories, she is a life-giver. She helps women give birth on beds of green moss and makes fauns sprout from under stones like saplings. In some stories, she is a huntress. She bloodied men with arrows carved from cypress, she set traps in streams, slipped pincher bugs into beds. Our history teacher told us some scholars believed Artemis’s namesake was artemes, meaning “safe,” while others believed it to be linked to artamos: “butcher.” We like a woman who could be both, like us.
That night, my bunkmate and I can’t sleep.
Zumi is a Fighter this month. She tells me, “When the door started shaking, I wanted it to be real. I wanted to fuck those fuckers up.” She laughs. “With a yardstick.”
Zumi has never been face to face with a Zombie. Like most of the girls here, she’s just seen them from a distance, milling through abandoned mall parking lots or stumbling by the side of the road. Most people don’t know how close I’ve gotten. They don’t know that I was there when the Zombies came for my dad, don’t know that instead of fighting I hid. I made myself disappear. They don’t know that when given the chance to Fight, to Protect, I chose to be a Survivor.
“Do you notice?” Zumi says, “The government doesn’t call them Zombies, even though that’s what they are. They call them Sick. It’s like no one wants to admit what’s happening.”
The Zombies who attacked my father were sallow, ribs showing. Zombies, I know, will eat anything. The air from their lungs carries sickness. At first, hospitals sent them to mental wards. Sometimes they behaved, and other times they’d be talking to people who weren’t there, or tried plucking out their own eyelashes, or would hiss at the hot water from a shower. Then they got feral. They gnawed on railings like animals. They bent their ears down until they warped. Their eyes turned rose-colored, their hair fell out in clots. Their arms swelled. They scratched and bit and body-slammed and drew blood. It almost sounded pretty when you said it like that—‘drew blood’—as though our dads were all in art class, not the rich and fenceless night.
Sometimes I worry I’m becoming one of them. There are nights I wake up in a cold sweat, fingers tingling, lips numb. Sometimes during class, my lungs turn to lead, and I feel a pressure behind my eyes like I might cry. I have to run to the bathroom and lean my forehead against the mirror, do pull-ups in a stall until the feeling goes away. I have thoughts that won’t leave me, that get lodged in my brain like the skin around popcorn seeds gets stuck in my gums. I think about things that happened a long time ago, things I haven’t thought about in years, things that now turn me nauseous with guilt: the time a boy I knew said he wanted to stab himself and I never told anyone about it, the time a hungry dog came up to me and I kicked it, hard, the time I wrote my name against a glass window to see if my Zombie-Dad would recognize it, and my mother snatched me from the window and slammed the shutters, but not before I saw movement behind the trees.
A couple months ago, I asked my mother about my dad. She was going through the toolbox looking for a pocket-sized wrench for me to carry. She already had me keep a box-cutter in my bedroom, thumbtacks in a Tic Tac container, a nail-file in my shoe.
“What would you do if you saw him?” I asked.
“It wouldn’t be your dad anymore, sweetie,” she replied. Hovering over the toolbox, her hair covered her face.
“But what would you do?”
Her hands stopped moving, stopped searching. She turned to face me. “Baby. I’d shoot him.”
And that was the end of the conversation.
I envy Zumi on the top bunk. I envy that she doesn’t know what she’d do when she finally does face a Zombie. I envy her for still thinking she’d be brave.
I enroll in a class called “How to Tell if Your Loved One is Becoming a Zombie.” I say it’s fulfilling a pre-rec. I say my coarse load’s pretty full this spring and I just want something breezy. I don’t tell anyone about how I’ve started to pick at the hairs around my temples and lay at night for hours staring at the door to the gym, wondering what it’d be like to just leave.
The class is held in the old speech-pathologist’s room, which I guess is really an office. There are only 5 of us enrolled in “How to Tell.” We all crowd around a kidney-shaped desk with our teacher, the head of the kidney.
Our teacher is the old school psychiatrist, and I’m not unconvinced she’s leading this class to suss out zombie sympathizers or those showing the pre-existing conditions. Her nails are long and untrimmed, a habit of many of our teachers, and I can see hers are sharpened at the tips, detailed with a single tear-drop shape in red. She wears large geometric rings on most of her fingers. Her hair is so short her ears stick out. I can smell her breath. She wears jeans and carries one of those hammers that holds about 4 screwdrivers inside. I like her instantly. I’m nervous instantly. She reminds me of a wolf.
She doesn’t introduce herself. Instead, she gives a lecture on the Z-strain as she augments the lid of a green bean can into a throwing star with her pocket knife.
“There are times you wouldn’t even know you’ve been infected. When you kiss someone. When you share a toothbrush. When you eat something unwashed or unsealed.”
I’m thinking of a peeled banana that was passed around the bunks one night. At least six of us girls shared it. I tried to remember if I was the first one to take a bite or the last. I’m thinking of the time in the bathroom not too long ago, when Megan and Louisa touched tongues on a dare.
“You know someone’s a zombie when their wounds don’t bother them.”
“You know someone’s a zombie when their fever spikes through the roof of their head and they feel like fainting but instead of fainting they die and reanimate.”
She sets her throwing-star down on the table and spins it in place.
“How do you know what being a zombie feels like?” asks Kay.
I am wondering the same thing too. I am wondering, Does anyone who becomes a zombie ever come back? The teacher doesn’t answer. Instead, she throws her throwing-star into a bulletin board. It quivers.
That night I take the nail filer out of my shoe. I hold it in my right hand, and I scrape the knuckles of my left hand across the blade. It hurts bad, but not so bad I can’t handle it. I hold my skin to my mouth and suck at the wound. My blood tastes like salt.
Ms. Rubble recruits the strongest of us to go on a real Zombie raid. She says that some of us are ready, that we have nothing more to learn from fake fighting, from throwing punches at the air. Zumi gets chosen first, and I’m surprised when Ms. Rubble also calls my name. “But I’ve been a Survivor this month,” I say, and she responds, “You know how to be cautious. And you’re quick. We need that.”
This is the first time anyone in our class has been chosen for a Zombie Raid. Usually it’s older girls. They leave scared and come back bruised, swaggering, high-fiving. Zumi has heard that the teachers only take students to zombie packs they know are slow, easy first kills to build our confidence. But you never know what will happen for sure. Rumor is last month, a girl went missing on a Raid.
Ms. Rubble gives us old police riot gear that’s too big for us but makes us feel impenetrable and strong. We wear helmets with opaque lids. We were flame retardant gloves. There are five of us in total. Ms. Rubble encourages us to make a pact that we keep going, even if one of us falls. I agree, even though I’m not confident that I can stick to it, because I want to be someone who can be counted on.
“Kill me if you have to,” Zumi whispers to me.
We shake hands through our riot gear, our firefighter gear, our hazmat suits, our gloves and goggles and boots.
“We’re starting you off easy,” Ms. Rubble says as she leads us through the teacher’s lounge, a school exit we didn’t even know about. To fenced yard we didn’t know about. “We found these guys roaming the old playground last night and rounded them up for you.”
In the yard: twin apple trees, and tied to them, the zombies.
A collection of three beat-up-looking ones, collared and chained. They kind of look like dads. Hawaiian polos. Birkenstocks. Cargo shorts. One in a ball-cap. One with grass stains. One with Ladies Man emblazoned on his shirt.
One’s my dad.
Ms. Rubble cocks a Taser and says, “They’ll be released one at a time. You are graded on agility, teamwork, evasion, and effectiveness. Your goal is to disable—knock ‘em out. But if you are wounded, you will be sent into quarantine. If he breaks skin, you will be thrown over the wall.” A stopwatch hangs from her neck. My dad bats at the sunlight like it’s fruit flies. He’s purple-blue with bruises. His wedding ring’s still on.
But some other zombie, not my dad, gets released at the click of the button. The zombie stumbles forward, glaring, moaning, absently rubbing one arm. He doesn’t look like a monster yet, but we’ve learned about this. We call it the warm-up stage. He stretches the muscles in his neck. Curls and uncurls his hands. Works his jaw. My knees bend automatically. Automatically, I see a baseball bat leaning against the tree. Zumi’s faster though, is already behind the zombie right as he’s starting to crouch, like he can leap across the yard teeth-barred, into our throats.
Zumi has strong arms, used to play softball. It takes one swing.
My dad is pulling against his chains now, riled by the action. I wonder if all of these zombies are dads of the students chosen. Is that the real test? To see if we’ll hesitate?
The Ladies Man zombie is released next. His eyes, despite being half out of their sockets, are focused on me. I feel a jolt of electricity in my chest. “Go!” Zumi yells.
I get a running start and slide-kick his feet out from under him. As he falls, I catch the chain still swinging from his wrist. It’s a risky move, intentionally going to the ground, but I feel reckless. Even now, I know that part of me wants to be hurt, wants to be removed from the game before I have to make a choice. I spring to my feet, place a foot on Ladies Man’s back, wrap the chain around his neck, and pull tight.
Even as I decapitate the zombie, I can’t stop picturing that moment in Dad’s car. When I shrunk into nothing in the trunk. When I heard the glass shatter and my dad struggle, the way the car rocked, and my dad slammed the door shut on what sounded like an arm or a leg—slamming and slamming while I lay still inside it, tiny as a kidney stone. I always imagined he’d been bit on the neck but now I see it was his hands, both hands. How he must have held someone’s teeth open like a bear trap ready to spring.
He’s the next one to be released. My dad. But not really my dad.
“Take him,” Ms. Rubble screams.
He stumbles forward, and I tell myself that there is nothing familiar in his movements. If he looks the way he did shuffling into the kitchen every morning, back still sore from sleep, it’s only because our brains are wired to find familiar in the unfamiliar. Our brains turn clouds into castles, cliff walls into faces. I think about letting my dad bite me. How poetically tragic that would be. Maybe in the moment his teeth unlatched from my skin, I’d see a glimmer of recognition in his eyes. His eyebrows would soften. Maybe as my brain softened, I’d discover a secret zombie language, and I’d be able to talk to him again.
But then, Dad lurches at me. Teeth-bared, lips curled. And I know this is never a face my father would make. I jump out of the way, then kick into the crook behind his knees. It doesn’t feel like I’m kicking my dad. It doesn’t feel like the time I kicked that stray dog.
Another girl jumps in, slams him across the face with a piece of plywood. My dad gurgles and twitches on the ground.
“Again,” I tell her, and she brings the wood down hard enough that his face starts to flatten. He’s not moving anymore, but I want her to keep going. I want to stand here and watch her hit until the skull cracks and no part of this zombie looks like my dad anymore.
But then I feel Ms. Rubble’s hand on the back of my neck, the only part of me not covered. I feel her sharp nails prick my skin. “Good girl,” she says. “Now time to stand down.”
With all the zombie-dads destroyed, Ms. Rubble leads us into the forest beyond the school. She tells us a pack of zombies have been spotted stalking an apartment complex nearby. We’re going to take them out.
My limbs feel warm and ready. I feel patches of fern and moss bend under my feet. A woodpecker knocks on a hollow tree somewhere close by.
I can already feel it. The next time we meet a zombie, it’ll be exactly like TV. It’ll be exactly a videogame. I’ll almost be able to see an outline of white and the choices hovering above them: Strangle. Subdue. A shovel will feel natural; a gun will feel good. When I move to kill a zombie, it’ll be like some switch in the back of my neck has been touched. It will be as if I’ve been always killing zombies.
Dana Diehl is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK, 2018) and TV Girls, which was the winner of the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest. She is the co-author (with Melissa Goodrich) of The Classroom (Gold Wake, 2019). She earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University and her BA in Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. She lives in Tucson.
Melissa Goodrich is the author of the story collection Daughters of Monsters and the poetry chapbook IF YOU WHAT. She earned her BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University and her MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona. Her honors include the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books Fiction Award, the 2018 Passages North Waasnode Fiction Prize, the 2013 Margaret Sterling Memorial Award, the 2013 AWP Intro Award, and the 2012 Academy of American Poets Prize.
This story originally appeared as “The Dads” in our Future-themed issue.