Zombie, Incorporated by Jill Elaine Hughes
Twilight. With zombies.
Eighteen-year-old Katie Allred is socially awkward and unpopular at school. The only child of parents who had her right out of high school, Katie is herself about to leave the nest, even though she hardly feels ready.
Katie’s new after-school job at the Zimble Box Corporation draws her into the complex social strata of high school cliques and backstabbing friends in ways she never imagined. Katie soon discovers there’s something very strange about the “in” crowd at school—and about her employer, too. Shortly after starting her new job, the Contagion breaks out, plunging her town and the entire nation into chaos as zombie shadow forces come out into the open, ravaging the streets. Katie goes into hiding and her parents disappear, along with almost everyone else she knows.
But Katie soon discovers she has special powers that help her survive. She’s a Beacon, someone with the innate ability to help zombies produce children. It’s a power her employer — and what little remains of the U.S. government — both want to exploit for their own ends. Not only that, it runs in her family—which has a secret past Katie never knew about until now.
Enter Agent Morehouse of the FBI Special Zombie Control Unit. A reformed zombie working undercover, he suppresses his urge to eat human flesh in order to serve and save humanity. But Agent Morehouse can’t help but be attracted to a Beacon like Katie, and she to him. Even as they fight zombies the world over, they must fight their intense attraction to each other, hoping to keep Katie from suffering Agent Morehouse’s terrible zombie fate.
The security guard, a grandfatherly-looking man who smelled like a combination of cherry pipe tobacco and Aqua Velva, smiled and tapped the side of his nose. “If you’ll just have a seat, ma’am.”
Mom obeyed, visibly flinching at the use of the word “ma’am.” She’d had me so young that she often tried to pass herself off as my older sister in public. Obviously she wasn’t fooling anybody today.
Mom plopped down in the nearest chair and clutched her purse tightly against her chest, muttering something unintelligible under her breath. Then she cleared her throat and looked up. “Go on in, Katie. I’ll be waiting for you. And don’t blow it. You won’t be able to pay your rent when you move out after graduation without a job. And you are going to move out no later than July 1, even if I have to toss you out onto the street myself.”
Subtlety has never been my mom’s strong suit. Neither has parenting. She’s always treated me more like a financial obligation than a daughter. I guess that’s what happens when you get married and pregnant right out of high school like she did.
Mom reached into her purse for her lipstick and compact and touched herself up a bit, though I didn’t understand why. She wasn’t the one going in for her first-ever job interview—-I was. I stared at her, my feet frozen to the floor. This was really, really happening. I was going into a real job interview in a real office like a real grownup. Not bad for someone who was still in high school. I knew I should feel proud of myself or something, but I didn’t.
Mom applied a fresh coating of frosted peach lipstick and smacked her lips. “Good luck. Hurry up, don’t keep them waiting. Otherwise they’ll fire you before you even get a chance to get in there.”
I sighed. Not exactly a good way for a mother to inspire confidence. But I was used to that where Mom was concerned. She’d never get the Mother of the Year award. But I’d never get the Daughter of the Year award, either. Between the two of us, we pretty much cancelled each other out.
I took several deep long breaths, and willed my feet to unfreeze themselves from the threadbare gray carpeting. I pushed through the double doors, more than a little frightened of what I’d find on the other side.
As I stepped into Mr. Zimble’s office, I ended up not in an office at all, but something else entirely. At least it didn’t look like any office I’d ever seen before. It really looked more like a toy store.
Lining the walls were floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves. But instead of books, they were lined with brightly colored cereal boxes, mostly childrens’ cereals like Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms. In between the cereal boxes were unopened boxes of toys. Toys of all kinds—Star Wars action figures, Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Bakugan games, GI Joes, and a bunch of stuff that looked like it was from the 70s and 80s that I’d never even heard of. There were lots of Halloween-themed toys, too—werewolves, Frankensteins, mummies, and zombies.
Lots of zombies. There were a bunch of Evil Dead toys on one shelf, and about sixteen different versions of one of the zombie villains from Scooby-Doo. I recognized it right away because they still ran that episode of Scooby-Doo on Cartoon Network all the time, even though it was ancient, like from the sixties or something. All untouched and perfect and sealed in the original packaging.
In between the regular toys and cereal boxes were tiny little cheap cardboard toy-things, the kind that you usually find in cereal boxes and Cracker Jacks. Stupid stuff like stickers, cardboard footballs like the kind you’d toss around in study hall, and those little thin pieces of plastic that show different pictures when you flick them back and forth. At the end of the room was a huge mahogany desk, also covered with toys and brightly colored boxes—leaving just enough space for a laptop, desk pad and phone. Behind that desk sat a funny-looking little old man that I assumed must be Mr. Zimble.
And when I say funny-looking, I really mean funny looking. He reminded me of something you would see in a cartoon. Or maybe a video game.
He was short. Very short. So short that his head barely made it above the edge of his desk, and he sat in a huge leather-upholstered chair that was almost twice as tall as he was—looking at him reminded me of seeing one of my toddler cousins sitting in my grandfather’s old La-Z-Boy. He had a perfectly bald head that shined under the florescent lights like Mr. Clean. He wore huge black hornrimmed glasses that were almost twice as wide as his head, along with big bushy white eyebrows and gray hair growing out of his ears. By the looks of him he had to be almost ninety years old. Or maybe just sixty. But definitely old.
Mr. Zimble saw me come in and smiled wide. So wide, in fact, I thought his face would break in half. He had large, white even teeth that looked fake. He pushed back his huge leather chair from the ginormous desk and stood up. But it looked like he must have been sitting on a box or something, because when he got down from the chair he disappeared behind the desk for a moment. I didn’t see him full-length until he came out from behind it.
Mr. Zimble was a midget.
Or rather, a little person. I think I read somewhere that little people find the term “midget” offensive or something.
He held out his tiny hand, and I reached down to shake it. “Hello there,” he said in a deep voice that didn’t match his small stature at all. “You must be Katie Allred. Tell me, are you any relation to Gloria Allred?”
He laughed—a deep, resonating laugh that reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West’s singing guards in The Wizard of Oz. I blinked my eyes a couple of times just to make sure they weren’t playing tricks on me, but when I opened them, Mr. Zimble was still just as short as he’d been before. “Gloria Allred is a famous Hollywood lawyer,” he said. “She’s on TV a lot, I thought you might be related.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “We definitely don’t have any lawyers in the family,” I said. No, we were mostly a bunch of working stiffs. I remember Mom talking about a second cousin who worked as a high-level computer programmer someplace, but as far as I knew that was the most important job anybody in my family had. Except maybe for my uncle Lou who worked as a garbage collector on a military base in Kentucky. You know, for like a government pension and everything.
My family isn’t exactly what you’d call successful. At least not in the traditional sense. If you could afford rent and gas in your car, that was successful enough for us. At least, that’s what my parents always said. Small wonder they’d never bothered to put away a college fund for me. For the past four years, the recurring mantra at our dinner table was, “Katie, forget college. You have to go out and get a job and support yourself the minute you graduate, just like we did.”
“Well, here I was thinking you could get me Gloria Allred’s autograph.” Mr. Zimble seemed a little disappointed. “I do know for a fact you’re related to Bud Weidle, though. My top line foreman in the box plant. I understand Bud is your uncle?”
“Yes, he is. Uncle Bud is on my mother’s side. He’s technically my great-uncle since he’s my mom’s uncle, but we don’t call him that.”
Mr. Zimble motioned for me to take a seat in one of the hard wooden chairs in front of his desk. I sat down and instantly felt at least a foot shorter. The huge wooden desk suddenly towered over me, as if it were the Grand Canyon and I were standing at the bottom of it looking up. Mr. Zimble climbed back up into his chair, and now he looked like a giant. It reminded me of a room at the carnival funhouse, the one with the tilted floor and the funny mirrors. You know the ones—at one end of the room you’re a fat midget, at the other end you’re a tall, thin giant and your head knocks up against the ceiling. Mr. Zimble was kind of like that, except he was like what would happen if the carnival funhouse room got turned into a person.
He gazed down on me from his high perch like an evil king out of a fairy tale. I craned my neck to see if there was a wooden box on his chair to give him more height, but I couldn’t tell from such a steep angle.
Okay, so this was weird. I suppressed an urge to bolt for the door. If I screwed up the interview after my Uncle Bud went to all the trouble to arrange it for me, Mom and Dad would be furious. I knew I’d never hear the end of it for as long as I lived.
“Your Uncle Bud is one of our best employees,” Mr. Zimble went on. “He’s been with us for almost forty years. I remember when I first hired him. He wasn’t much older than you then, we hired him right out of high school. He started at the bottom and worked his way up. He runs the secondary production line now, a big step up from when he swept the factory floor and took out the trash. I like to see my employees work their way up the system on their own merits.”
“Does that mean I’ll be sweeping the factory floor and taking out the trash?” I blurted out. “I thought this was an office job.” Before the words even made their way out of my mouth, I was already embarrassed.
He laughed again, somewhat higher-pitched this time. In fact, his laugh started out low and deep, but then seemed to get higher and higher, faster and faster, like when you speed up a recording, until he almost sounded like one of the Chipmunks. But then when he started talking, his voice sounded just like it had before. So maybe I just imagined the whole thing.
“It is an office job, Katie. I won’t have a pretty young lady like you working on the dirty, loud factory floor. You’re not strong enough to lift the pallets or run the pressing machines either, I can tell just by looking at you.”
I probably should have been offended by this, but I wasn’t. Feminism and equal rights were fine and all, but you’d never see me lifting pallets or running machines. No way. That was sweaty work made for fat hairy old men. Fat hairy old men like my Uncle Bud who smelled like a mixture of cherry Jell-O and trash. (Seriously, he did. So did his entire house. Don’t even get me started.)
“Well, that’s good,” I said. “What exactly will I be doing? Uncle Bud said it was just typical office stuff, typing and filing and answering phones and stuff. Or maybe packing boxes to put on the train? I saw on the way over here you guys use the trains to like, ship stuff.”
“Yes, that’s exactly right, Katie,” he replied, picking up a tiny plastic werewolf figurine and toying with it between his gnarled fingers. I saw that the skin on the backs of his hands was paper-thin, almost transparent, showing a roadmap of knobby blue veins pressing up from underneath. “I can see right off the bat that you’re a real go-getter. To answer your question, you’ll be doing all the typical office work, plus things like making coffee and running errands. You’d be working under the supervision of our chief office manager, who started out ten years ago right out of high school as an entry-level office girl, just like you’ll be.”
I realized with some trepidation that this really wasn’t an interview at all. Mr. Zimble had already decided to hire me sight-unseen. Which on the surface seemed great, but there had to be a catch. I might be only eighteen, but I wasn’t born yesterday, either.
But what was the catch? Other than the fact this whole place seemed like something out of the Twilight Zone and Mr. Zimble reminded me a lot of a cartoon villain, it still seemed just like any other place to work. “So, um, does this mean I got the job?”
He smiled wide enough to show the tops of his dentures. “Yep. Your Uncle Bud says you can type and you’re a nice girl and a hard worker, so that’s good enough for me. When can you start?”
About the Author
JILL ELAINE HUGHES is a journalist and playwright as well as a New Adult fiction novelist. As a reporter, she has contributed to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Washington Post, New Art Examiner, Cat Fancy magazine, and numerous other media outlets. Her plays have widely published and produced in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, and many other U.S. cities, as well as in the UK and Australia. Before self-publishing New Adult fiction, she published many erotic romance novels under the pen names “Jamaica Layne” and “Jay E. Hughes” for publishers like Ellora’s Cave, Virgin Books, Decadent Publishing, and Ravenous Romance.
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