Crash Test Zombie

Inspired by Bentley A. Reese’s “Suicide Bots”
 
Fiction by Joshua Shaw

 
 
Friday?

Ha-ha. Faster. Faster! Pedal to the metal, s’il vous plait. Let’s get this show on the road!

A woman sits in the car next to me. In the passenger seat. Her name is “Jane.”

Jane.

That’s what she said when they hefted her in, buckled her down. Her leg was shattered, splintered bone jutting through skin. The smell: dead for days.

What’s your name?

Jane, she said.

We’re in love. Me and Jane, we’re holding hands, over the gearshift, because that’s what couples do. Hold hands. Share feelings. Never seek to “fix” each other.

Mostly, the hands, till death do us part, which will be soon, seeing as how we’re careening toward a speck on the horizon, the termination of a seven-thousand-meter length of track, which I know from yesterday’s deaths terminates in a solid wall of concrete.

God, I’m in love! Are there guns in the car? Are there? Because, and maybe it’s this Richard’s biochemistry talking, maybe it’s the Euforaflex Control keeps glanding, but right now I wish to fire a gun into the sky as a declaration of love.

For Jane.

You know, like cowboys robbing a bank? How they fire their pistols? Where will the bullets land? Who cares! say cowboys, who live fast, die young, blazes of glory, no time to pay no mind to the terminal velocities of celebratory gunfire.

Dear god, please let me empty a clip into heaven as an expression of love.

For Jane.

{Control: There are no firearms in the car, Richard.}

Fine. No guns. I hang my head out the window, howl storms of crazy-ass elation—

I do not. The windows are up. I fumble at the window switch.

I do not. What’s wrong with my hand?

{Guys, seriously, what’s up with my hands?}

Clearly, whoever’s in Control (Chalmers? Yablo?) can’t be bothered to restart my hands, which won’t budge from the steering wheel, which is locked on that spot on the horizon, now clearly a wall, which comes as no surprise—in Life there is only Speed and Pain and Love (for Jane) and, usually, a thirty- to forty-minute CI on the pros and cons of experimental safety technologies.

These truths fill my mind: Speed, Pain, Love.

But my bullet-firing-into-the-air love will not be silenced, so I pound my forehead into the window until it’s smeared in purple goo and cracked with spiderweb threads.

The pounding joggles memories. For a moment, I am Lil’D’Anthony, seventeen, hefting a coffin, older brother Pepe inside. Nineteen, cold night, me and Tay-Tay littering his headstone with brandy bottles. Twenty-one, drunken sway-dancing in a social hall’s basement, clutching my two year old, Janessa, and promising, music too loud to hear it, that I shall be a better man.  

Then I’m me again.

Jane says, “What’s your name, hon?”

I say, “I am Richard. But, please, call me Dick,” and wiggle my eyebrows up and down.

Jane’s in her fifties. Male. Caucasian. Looks to weigh around 250 pounds. She has a pencil-thin mustache, gray whiskers, which no one in Control bothered to shave before they stuffed her in a sundress and drew ragged lines of devil-red lipstick over her mouth, tossed on a wig. Copper-colored ringlets. They look like a stainless-steel sponge.

Her GEIST™ is fitted in her right eye cavity. Its LED blinks at me.

Please, let me kiss Jane.

Let me fire bullets into the sky.

Let me kiss fire bullets into Jane’s sky.

I stomp on the gas, lean on the pedal so hard I stand in my seat. “This is fun, isn’t it?” I say. “We’re having fun, right?”

There’s a biker tattoo etched across Jane’s chest, a skeletal eagle clutching assault rifles and a billowy Confederate flag. Teardrop tattoos run down her cheeks. Her eagle has faded. It’s difficult to see under her ample carpet of chest hair, and, okay, I want to kiss her, I do, but, guys, come on, would it kill you to thaw more ladylike Janes?

{Control: Sorry, Richard.}

I inspect myself in the rearview. My face, what’s left of it, what’s not yet beaten to pulp, is dodgy, shifty looking, like I would’ve made an excellent dog catcher in a children’s movie full of talking pets. My GEIST™ has been staple-gunned onto my clavicle. Control’s run a Chebel into my mouth—over teeth, through palate. I feel it when I bite down, gritty on my tongue.

I wish I was prettier. Fortunately, there’s little time for remorse.

I didn’t write this script, my life, its notes, my score. What’s mine is to play it well, abandon myself to truths, Speed-Pain-Love, hoping only to discern in my lunar moth livings and dyings, my untimely loves of Janes, precious splinterings of energies on their way, dissolving like patterns in beach sand, frost flowers on drafty windows, melodies spat into the endlessness of night and melting to quiet, for to blind oneself to such fleeting beauties is, in our short days of frost and sun, to sleep before—

What did you enjoy most about dying in the all-new 2049 Chrysalis Gallivanterra?

If you could add any feature, what would it be?

 

Monday?

Today is a new day. I am a new Richard.

My new Richard tastes like sour cream. Not him. Like, I didn’t stick his fingers in his mouth to assess their taste. What I mean is that this Richard’s world, its taste, is similar to sour cream.

Not sour cream. Sour cream-flavored potato chips. With chives.

A woman sits in the car next to me. Her name is Jane.

“What’s your name?” she says.

I want to say Toby. Just to be spontaneous. Shake things up.

Hello, my name is Abed. Hello, my name is Pete. Hello, my name is The Fonze. Ayyyyyyyyy.

Like, instead of saying Richard, maybe once, just once, I could say My name is Root Beer because I’m sodalicious.

It might make Jane laugh. Probably not a hearty laugh; I’m not expecting guffaws. A polite chuckle, like a tap on a hotel’s call bell. Less than a laugh even—the mumble people use to acknowledge a joke’s been told.

Ha?

Jane arches an eyebrow. Once. Twice. Three times. “What’s your name?” she repeats.

I stare.

I look away but regret it. Probably it looks like I’m hiding something, like I was trying to check Jane out without getting caught, so I look again, unequivocally. Glower. Which is weird, right? Probably she’s thinking, What’s wrong with him? Did I get a defective Richard?

So, I look away again.

Then I look back.

Fuck.

“What your name?”

“Richard,” I say.

Jane does not hold my hand.

Jane could be a real Jane. That is, she could’ve been one in real life. She’s female, for one thing. No prison tattoos. Lots of Richards and Janes—if they’re not convicts, they’re suicides—but I don’t spot any telltale scars on her wrists or ligature marks on her neck. She looks . . . thin. Mousy. Nice? A plain Jane.

But in a sexy way.

Like, I could picture her weeding a garden in a frumpy hand-me-down kerchief around her head, and jarring her own pickles, boiling her own rhubarb jam, knotting heaps of macramé planters for her copious indoor plants.

But in a sexy way.

The only thing mildly revolting is her GEIST™, which Control has mounted on the nape of her neck, which is long and willowy, but they’ve threaded the Chebel clear through her eye. It’s unnerving: a hair-thin filament of steel fiber smack dab in the white of her sclera. It tugs whenever she tries to glance away.

{Control: Richard?}

{Copy.}

{Control: Start the car.}

I grip the steering wheel, pinch the key, but I can’t bring myself to turn the ignition. Jane’s hands are folded in her lap. Realistically, there is no way to casually/accidentally drop my hand after turning the key and have it fall close enough to casually/accidentally brush hers, thereby establishing a possibility that our hands might entwine prior to our deaths.

I wish I’d said Root Beer.

Maybe we’d be at a different stage in our relationship. Jane might’ve laughed. Emboldened, I might’ve inquired about her hobbies. Gardening? Macramé, perhaps?

Ha?

For of course our lives are confined to cycles, Speed-Pain-Death, wound too tightly for biographies, let alone hobbies. At most, there is Waiting. Mornings, newly woken, newly bodied perhaps, shuffling and groaning while Control preps our biomechanics, or when we’re sitting in cars, chit-chatting, I am Richard, I am Jane, the hiatuses we’re given before vanishing back into nothing. If we’re lucky, there’s enough time to hold hands, because that’s what couples—

{Control: Start the car, Richard.}

I turn the key, gingerly lower a foot onto a pedal. Control has us on Track Four, a scant three hundred meters. One side ends in a battered telephone pole, the other in guardrails, recent replacements. They sparkle in the morning sunlight.

Otherwise, there’s not much to see. The hangar that houses Control. The morgues—refrigerated shipping containers for backup Richards and Janes. A few wrecks wait to be towed. Otherwise, nothing: open sky, arid wasteland.

{Control: Faster please, Richard.}

I check the speedometer. Thirty-five miles an hour. Do I wish to die without ever saying the words root and beer?

Thirty.

I think of ancient paradoxes: the runner who never overtakes the turtle in the footrace, the arrow that never touches its target, because they’d need to cross half the distance first, half again, and again, an infinity of lessening steps. I picture us slowing till movement grows imperceptible: all the time needed to say all that needs to be said.

So, this “root beer” business . . . Tell us more about that. 

 

Tuesday?

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a chloroformed pig in a little red dress, but for some reason it really upsets me. The pig’s in the back, plopped in a safety seat, wearing a polka-dotted frock and a pageboy wig, mouth open, head lolling, eyes pinched like it’s laughing at a terrifically funny joke.

It is not wearing its seat belt.

Jane and I are still not holding hands.

The pig is our daughter, Sally.

It’s only a pig, of course, not a Sally. Just like I’m not a real Richard; Jane was probably never a real Jane. But Truths fill the mind: Speed, Pain, Love. Today, Control adds the Truth of Sally. I can’t help but adore. It’s like an optical illusion, the impossible staircase, the arrows that don’t appear to be the same size. Mind knows but eyes see.

Sally. So proud. Top of her class since kindergarten. Such sass. Such spunk. Just look at that face. A-Door-A-Bull.

Only today it’s like, whatever. She’s a pig. For some reason, I see it.

Sure, I yearn to call her sweetheart. Keep those hoovesies inside the windows, my dear. So many jackasses on the roads these days, driving too fast, eyes glued to their goddamn phones. Admittedly, none are in sight. Still, it’s a rule Sally should learn to observe at all times. Hands and hooves inside the vehicle, my darling. Don’t ask if we’re there yet. We’ll get there when we get there, sweetheart.

Only this time it’s like, come on. She’s a pig. In a dress.

And a wig.

Who do you think you’re fooling?

Somehow that makes it worse—spotting the joke. Like, I can already anticipate the splash of terror when Jane and I realize it’s too late, the car won’t stop, won’t turn away. The unbidden prayer that’ll dash across our lips: Please, not Sally. But part of me will know, just as thoroughly, that it’s a farce.  

I wonder: Will it feel any pain?

Imagination films in slow motion: Sally catapulting, windshield shattering, frame caving, glass hanging, Sally catches, rips free, tumbles, the squelchy thwap when she explodes into froth.

Rewind. Zoom.

Observe how wall saws skin, tears nociceptors, where impulses gather, sizzle on fibers, hurtle up spine, pour into thalamus to cascade across brain. Will the pig feel any of it? Perhaps not—the signals slowed by the chloroform, arriving too late to be heard, messengers clutching dreadful telegrams as a train pulls away from a station.

Still, there’ll be chemistry, right? Prostaglandins. Potassium. Histamine. That much, at least, is real. Right?

{Control: Drive please, Richard.}

I drive.

The pig dies. My heart breaks.

What a world.

Overall, how satisfied were you with losing a child while driving the all-new 2049 Chrysalis Samsara?

Based on your experience, how likely would you be to recommend it to friends and family members? 

 
 
Wednesday?

{Control: How about jumping jacks, Richard?}

I jump. Or try. My jumping jacks aren’t much to see. More shuffles than hops. My arms are rusty chains on an old swing set.

{Control: Good. Keep it up.}

The wireless goes quiet, but I can tell Control is finetuning my biomechanics. My hops become hoppy. My arms become animated.

I peek into the car. There’s a fresh Sally in the backseat, drugged and smiling. A new Jane awaits in the passenger seat. She’s male, beanpole skinny, crooked teeth.

I’m in love, I guess?

Only, I can’t help but think: Please, not another Sally day.

I’m back on Track Four, parked in front of the telephone pole. On the opposite end, there’s a mint green hatchback, a sporty new Gamine Prime, with a Richard beside it jumping jumping jacks.

He is balding, with a fantastic mustache, rich and full, like a shoe brush he’s managed to glue to his lip. His smile is an even greater wonder. Even from the far end of the track and sheltered under his terrific mustache, it dazzles. It gleams. Like, surely, there stands a Richard who relished life. Surely he sailed across it conjuring laughter from children. I mustache you a question, he probably once joked.

Mustache Richard waves—interrupts his jumping jacks to flash a pair of thumbs-ups. Ayyyyyyyyy. He lifts his shirt to show off his GEIST™, which is stapled to his belly, which is Santa Claus-y. Little. Round. Shakes like jelly. He flashes more thumbs-ups.

Noob. Probably it’s his first time dying.

I huff and puff and watch while researchers in lab coats roll out another pig in a wheelbarrow. One, Churchland, leads another Jane. I recognize her from yesterday: Plain Jane, looking upbeat but ragged from yesterday’s collisions—broken legs splinted inside metal braces. Mustache Richard gladhands all: Churchland and the others from Control, Plain Jane, even Sally in her wheelbarrow. Soon he and Plain Jane are mouthing introductions while the lab coats install Sally. Already they are holding hands and kissing, not salaciously but like an elderly couple who found each other in life’s twilight, soft kisses pollinating wizened lips.   

They climb into the hatchback. I continue jumping jumping jacks.

{Control: We’re ready, Richard.}

The way I figure, they’re screwed, Plain Jane and Mustache Richard. We’re all of us staring down the barrel of a long day of multi-family pile-ups. After lunch Control will probably refresh our Sallys. Then: more deaths of children, more calamitous grief. Me, I’m apathetic enough to endure. I’ll suffer, and also, yes, I’ll suffer. But someone as sunny as Mustache Richard, a love like his and Plain Jane’s—imagine the heartbreak.

{Control: Uh, Richard?}

I am running. Or trying.

Probably I look foolish. My limping gait, the effluvia drizzling from my wounds, loping along a landscape so vast it humbles. But for me it’s as if time fragments, a string of unconnected sensations, picture postcards spread on a table. Panting-panting. Flash of sky. Sound: bone cracking? Taste: clay? On your feet, sir. Smell: sagebrush? Me: laughing, only high and ethereal, how atoms might shriek in a nuclear blast. Wee!

{Control: Richard?}   

Faster. Faster, s’il vous plait.

{Control: Fuck it. Shut him down.}
 
 
Thursday?

I wake to footsteps, the crisp tap of dress shoes on concrete, staring at eyebeams where little birds jostle and preen. Can’t move: strapped to a gurney, the hangar that houses Control. The footsteps belong to Chalmers, who is fiddling at computer-y gizmos. He taps a clipboard, absentmindedly clicks his pen’s punch button on his teeth. I try for eye contact, but he’s preoccupied. Something in his body language, too—cold shoulders, calculated disregard. Still miffed about yesterday’s mutiny, I guess.

“Pardon me,” I say.

Chalmers doesn’t spare a glance, just waves a finger. Hold on. Wait. Later, he retreats to an office, sends Churchland out to explain.

Control is not happy. Probably I’m not to blame. Some Richards are janky. They’re like the insolent horse in Plato’s allegory of the soul, peevish, yielding not to whip nor spur, ever steering the soul’s chariot fuck-wise of its ambitions. Just so, some Richards are incorrigibly sulky, belligerent, sluggish. Even hefty glandings of Euforaflex and Pacifipril and Elantria-D can’t mend them—can’t coax them to posthumously model the cognitive-affective personality systems of an average North American Richard.

“That may be true,” I say. “This Richard is sour creamy.” 

Churchland gives me a pitying I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-talking-about smile. She pats my shoulder. “No worries,” she says. “We’re thawing a new Richard. We’ll have you rebodied in no time.”

I nod. She leaves. Time passes. I listen.

Outside, country miles of quiet unspool. Later, the faraway, tinny squeal of an engine revving is followed by a pillow-y thump.

Bored.  

I count. The rafters overhead, four. The birds fluttering, thirteenEight house sparrows. Four starlings. One dove.

Bored.

I name. The rafters, their color, Double Extra White. The titles of flocks: a host of sparrows, a chattering of starlings, a lone pitying of dove.

I set my mind to imagining Richards I might inhabit in days to come, Janes too should the opportunity present itself, the people we might’ve been.

Like, I picture myself bodied in a Richard whose earliest memory has him standing at the edge of an icy pond, children skating, staring into a gloaming forest, parents yards away but a distance unbridgeable in memory, the world a snow globe where nothing changes except the snowflakes falling because isn’t thathow life’s supposed to be?

Or a Jane now, early fifties, kerchief wrapped around head, rubber gloves, lemony scent tickling nose, spring cleaning and long overdue, and my beloved Jane (name = Lorrie?) calls from upstairs, a loft, where she’s emptied a drawer, found a key loaned to us decades back, neighbors who asked us to water their plants, keep an eye on their pipes while they wintered in Florida, when we lived in another city, another time, and we’re reminiscing, What were their names? and Do you remember the peach tree in their yard? How lightning struck it? and later she/me/we find Lorrie spreading a map across the kitchen table, plotting a road trip to return the key, to revisit places we loved, and the only thing that will silence her is a kiss because isn’t that how life’s supposed to be?   

Or—

Chalmers bursts out of the office, bangs the door so hard it cracks the glass in its pane. He sputters out of the hangar. Churchland follows along with others, researchers whose names I don’t know, snagging an empty gurney as they hustle.

Later, Mustache Richard gets wheeled in. He’s a mess. No smile. His mustache is shot with broken glass. A steering column is buried so deep in his chest that Control’s left parts behind—splinters they couldn’t reach with their pocket saws. His GEIST™ is gone. Pulverized, I guess.

Ouch.

Wouldn’t want to be him, I think.
 
 
Friday

Does it get any better than this?

Pfft. Not likely.

The colors! The desert clay, shall it be carmine? Let it be so. Let sky’s blue cotton to azure. Dapple it moreover in flocculent clouds shaped like, sheesh, I don’t know, camels? Lambs? Hang ’em low. So much to see, amIright, Sally? Look upon yon plastic sack in the rearview, caught in the backdraft, how it heaves, twists as if dancing? How whimsical! Does that shopping bag think it’s alive? Hey, shopping bag, guess what? You’re a plastic sack, for Chrissakes! Hahaha.

Allow me to stroke my tremendous mustache . . . Why, hello?! Is this my wife’s hand? Is that my daughter’s smile? Surely this must be the best of all possible worlds.

Best of all worlds. Carve it on a monument, bitches.

I say none of this, of course. Sometimes there’s too much. Serendipity? Beauty? Just too much, you know, Too Much.

Like, my innards might as well be pie placed before the king, full of tiny birds, and were I to crack my lips, dare the least word of acclamation, out they’d flit, trilling agreeably, yet empty tumult when sung at once, sound and fury, albeit twinkly, and, just so, I’d love to say, Hey, look at that crazy plastic bag and synchronize us such that in our minds—mine, Jane’s, Sally’s—we each saw maybe not the same plastic sack but kindred approximations of grace, which might not even be plastic bags in their minds but, sheesh, I don’t know, cherry blossoms tumbling from a supple branch as a pert sparrow takes flight? Anywho, imaginings near enough in spiritual drift that, for a breath, we’re all feeling it, meaning, I don’t know, the Too Much, a faultlessness in which we’ve earned our right to clichés.

Only, in the real world, Sally would be like, Yeah right, Dad, whatever, I’m livestream facebotting with ZombieWaffles22 and OMGitsSa55yPants.    

So, yeah, zip the lips. Enjoy the silence. Let it be.

Still, it’d be nice to know a few things.

Like, where in the Sam Hill are we going!?!

I’ve no destination in mind. Sally isn’t dressed for karate ballet gymnastics. A trip to the market? Did we run out of coffee filters toilet paper dog biscuits? Yet there’s no grocery in sight. Nothing in sight. Barrens. A vacation, then? Only, no luggage bungeed to the roof rack. A soothing drive through the country, perhaps?

I smile at Jane, extricate my hand from hers long enough to give her thigh a squeeze. Something leaks. She smiles. I wiggle my eyebrows up and down—twist my mustache’s tips into devilish points.

Her smile wavers—something on the road. Another car? Only driving on the wrong side of the—“Jackasses,” I say, and tap the horn. Probably teenagers, probably texting. I tap the horn again—no, lay on it this time. Lay on it again. Why the fuck aren’t they—Oh god—

Jane says, “Oh, oh. See, Dick? Look and see!” She’s standing in her seat, pumping away at a make-believe brake pedal.

I say, “Look, Jane! Look, look! Oh, look!”  

Now’s when our lives should flash, right? When our pineal glands should release their lifeboats of DMT so generations can dwell inside seconds? Time enough to say all that should be said? To relive, again and again, like a toy train circling the same festive village under a holiday tree, where the snow has always already fallen and everyone is glad that it came?  

Only yes but wh—

Joshua Shaw is a philosophy professor at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. He began writing fiction mid-career because story-telling made him happier to be alive. His stories have appeared in Hobart, Booth, Split Lip, and Pithead Chapel. More information about him can be found at: https://sites.psu.edu/joshuashaw/