The Distribution Office

I finally found the Distribution Office after several wrong turns and no small amount of backtracking. “Just follow the direction I go,” the estrie had said. That was all well and fine, but didn’t work so well when the street split off into a tangled maze of alleys and derelict buildings. Were there any buildings on this side that weren’t falling apart?

The Distribution Office was one, I supposed, though no more easy on the eyes than the abandoned buildings. It squatted, a concrete, two-story hunk that covered at least a city block (by living side standards), like a half-dead, drunken spider in a web of its own making.

Just past the big metal gates, I spotted the estrie and the zombie child in a sort of open courtyard. The girl sat on a bench, slurping a drink through a straw. The estrie stood next to a window like at a drive-through, talking to a man inside.

A moment later, she caught sight of me. “Margot!” the estrie called, gesturing me over.

“Margot Lucas?” the man in the window asked as I drew close enough to hear. “As in the new zombie who kept me late because she wouldn’t drink her brains, then got me stuck on distribution duty when that damn wraith reported me for not confirming her name?”

I winced. Now that I was close enough, I recognised the vampire who had taken me from the living side to the dead side.

“On the plus side, you can report Shirin right back for not giving Margot the proper orientation,” the estrie pointed out.

“Really?” the vampire asked, looking at me. I shrugged. “Sarai, you are a genius.”

“Of course, it won’t get you off distribution duty,” the estrie—so her name was Sarai—pointed out.

“Yeah, but I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing she’s stuck on the same shift. And she hates it more than I do.” The vampire wasn’t even trying to conceal his glee.

Just then the zombie girl marched up to the counter, slammed her empty cup down in front of the vampire, and demanded, “More.”

“Manners, Merry,” Sarai scolded.

“More please Vincent,” the child continued, in no less of a demanding tone.

“Yes ma’am,” the vampire muttered, spinning around and fiddling with some machine.

“You know this wouldn’t be a problem if you got your rations on time, right?” Sarai’s expression was stern as she looked down at the oblivious child. When her eyes flicked briefly over to me, I realised her lecture was as much for my benefit as for the girl’s. “You won’t get so hungry if you eat regularly.”

My own stomach rumbled in response to that. I twitched. No matter what they said, I would starve to death before I ate human brains. It was abhorrent. If that was all they would serve me here, I’d just have to find other ways.

“When was the last time she…ate?” I asked, grimacing at my own question.

“A few days.” Sarai was now watching me steadily, her expression inscrutable. She wouldn’t try to force me to eat brains, would she? “At the least. Maybe a week. That’s how it goes with children. Their bodies hold together for longer, but their minds deteriorate faster without regular rations.”

“And how long could someone my age go without rations?”

“Don’t be stupid,” the vampire interjected, handing the girl her refilled cup. “It can only hurt you and those with the misfortune of knowing you to not eat.”

“A week, maybe two,” Sarai answered, much more helpfully. “But you should know, zombies that show no inclination of eating their rations regularly and have gone brain crazy more than twice are subject to execution.”

I blanched. “But zombies are already dead,” I protested weakly.

“Yeah, and the brain crazy ones are a menace.” The vampire sounded appallingly cheerful. “There’s no few of us who are happy when we get a good zombie hunt.”

Brain Crazy

“So…my skin’s going to fall off in chunks and I’ll start walking around like a robot and moan all the time?” I tried for a smile, but only managed a grimace. “I’m joking.”

The estrie—Sarah? Sherry?—just shook her head. “You’re highly unlikely to start walking like a robot, but I wouldn’t rule any of the rest out.”

“Oh.”

“What, not insisting you’re human anymore?”

“I am.” It sounded hollow, even to my ears. It couldn’t be true. Could it? “I’m human.”

She shrugged. “Your call.”

“So…my issues aside, who do you report problems to? Like…an unregistered—” What had she called it? “—possession.”

“Law Office. It’s right up by the fence. But really, nobody’s going to care.”

“But you said, the thing about possession—how you couldn’t know who was to blame? What about that?”

“Here’s the thing you need to know about the dead side. Most people? They don’t care what you do. So long as it doesn’t affect the living side, the Immortals stay out of our affairs. And we like it that way.”

I frowned. “What’s your job, then?”

“What do you mean?”

“If all that matters is keeping off the living side, why don’t you just guard the fence?”

“Because I happen to think that keeping order will making keeping the border secure a lot easier. And the boss happens to agree with me.”

“The boss? Who’s the boss? And how do I talk to him? Or her.” That sounded like the perfect person for me to talk to about my situation. Why hadn’t she mentioned it before?

The estrie shook her head. “You really—”

She was interrupted by a loud sound that was a cross between a scream and a growl. I turned to see a half-grown girl barrelling towards us across the street. The next thing I noticed was that she had a zombie caste mark x-ed across her face.

I backpedaled instinctively, but the estrie swooped in front of me before I took more than two steps and grabbed the girl around the middle, pinning her arms and lifting her off her feet. The girl kicked and writhed and continued to make that horrible sound, but the estrie didn’t seem terribly bothered.

“What’s going on?” I demanded.

“Meet Meredith.” The estrie turned so I could see both her face and the girl’s. “This will be you if you don’t eat your brains. And brain crazy zombies are a pain to deal with, so please eat your rations. Would you untie my hair? My hands are a little full.”

I blinked. “I’m vegan.”

“My hair. Would you untie it for me?”

“Why?”

“Because I’d rather fly to the Distribution Office than walk.”

“But what does that have to do with your hair?”

“I’m an estrie!” she snapped. “Would you just do it?”

“Right.” I edged forward, not wanting to get too close to the zombie girl. When I got within a foot, she craned her neck toward me and bit the air, her jaws snapping shut. “What is she doing?”

“Trying to eat your brains.”

I tuned out the writhing child as best I could and focused on getting to the hair. When I tugged her hair free of its braid, it spread outward like it had a life of its own, shaping itself into delicate wings.

“Well, I’m off to the Distribution Office. You should probably come too, get your ration for the day.”

“Where’s the Distribution Office?”

“The person who let you out of the cells didn’t tell you?”

“No…”

The estrie let out a string of liquid-sounding words that were probably curses. “Some people just don’t give a damn. Anyway, it’s not hard to get there from here. Just follow in the direction I fly, and it’s the massive concrete building with the gates.”

I nodded. That seemed straightforward. Sort of.

Without another word, the estrie took to the air. Despite the flimsy look of her wings, her actions seemed graceful and effortless, even with the struggling child in her arms. With a sigh, I trudged along the street in her wake.

Not a Zombie, Not a Vampire

I followed the vampire woman in silence for a couple blocks. Her pace was slow and comfortable, and her eyes were constantly roving over everything. I decided she was unlikely to initiate anything.

“So, here’s the thing.” My hands had risen up to gesture as I spoke. That meant I was nervous. “I’m not really a zombie. I’m human. Someone made a mistake. Do you know who I could talk to to fix it?”

The vampire woman stopped and turned to face me, her arms crossed. “It doesn’t much matter if you’re a zombie or not. Your caste mark says you’re a zombie. End of story to anyone here who will listen.”

“But—”

She cut me off with a gesture. “Only the Immortals can change a caste mark. And none of them care about the dead side.”

My shoulders sagged. The first part I knew was true. The second part I could easily believe.

“Besides, it was a werewolf that brought you in, right?”

I nodded.

“Then you’re a zombie. Those shifters can smell the difference.”

“But—”

“Look, I can tell you what’s what, but it’s up to you to accept it.”

“You don’t understand.”

The vampire shrugged. “Whatever.”

Another block passed in silence. Slow, awkward silence that stretched out far too long while I waited for her to say something. “You promised to help,” I blurted.

“You’re new here.” She continued to walk without the slightest pause. “Two things happen to new people here. Either you adjust your perspective, or you’ll end up in an alley somewhere, dead. Permanently.”

“If it’s that bad here, clearly you vampires aren’t doing your job right.”

The vampire stopped. I continued for a few paces before turning, surprised.

“I am not a vampire.”

I gestured at my face. “You were just lecturing me about how my caste mark makes me a zombie whether I like it or not.”

“I’m an estrie. The Immortals, in their infinite wisdom, decided we were close enough to vampires to be given the same mark. You won’t see a vampire with hair like mine.” She gestured at the thick, dark braid that hung down her back.

“So…you drink blood?”

“Yeah. But I can also fly and turn into a cat.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope.”

“Can zombies transform?”

“Nice try. But zombies are pretty much as bad as everyone says they are.”

Possess?!

“Hello?”

I looked around, but saw no one. What was it now, an invisible person?

“Excuse me—I couldn’t help but overhear…”

I turned again and finally spotted a middle-aged woman with the kind of cane blind people use emerging from a nearby alley. “Hello…”

“You must be new here. I can always tell.” The woman stopped when her cane tapped my foot. Up close, I could see that her eyes were a milky white, and her caste mark was the simple outline of a pair of feet, one on each temple. What sort of creature was she?

“Can you tell me where the local government’s office is?”

“Oh, no, no, no. You don’t understand. I was hoping you could give me a hand with something. Since I lost my eyes, everything’s become so much more difficult. And while you help me, I can tell you everything you need to know about this side. How’s that?”

“Certainly.” Finally, someone reasonable. It never hurt to help out a person in need.

“Thank you so much. Just follow me.” She turned, cane tapping, and walked back the way she’d come. “So many people these days, they just don’t help each other anymore, you know? It’s such a shame.”

“I know exactly what you mean.” I followed her into the alley. There was a door at the end that I guessed was our destination. “You’re the first person who’s really listened to me for the past couple days.”

“That’s just like the dead side. Everyone keeps to themselves and—”

“Priyanka!”

I spun around to see a female vampire with the expression of one who has had to repeat herself a few too many times.

“Really?” the vampire asked the old woman. “Again? And this one’s a zombie.”

“Zombie? Why didn’t you say so? To think I might have… a zombie.” She shuddered.

“I’m not a zombie!”

“You know better than to possess the new corporeals, Priyanka. This—”

“Possess?” I squeaked.

“—is your second warning. If I catch you again, it’ll be the cells.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” the blind woman, Priyanka, grumbled. She tap, tapped her way back to the door at the end of the alley.

“What’s going on?” I demanded of the female vampire.

“Hi. I’m Sarai. You must be new.”

“Uh, yeah. What just happened?”

“Priyanka’s a bhoot. Remember her caste mark?”

The two feet. I nodded.

“Good. Don’t forget it. Most will leave you alone, but she likes to trick the newbies into letting her possess them. All possessions have to be officially registered, so if any of the non-corporeals tells you otherwise, you know they’re trouble.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

“She would’ve dumped you quick enough when she figured out what you were.” Sarai tugged at the end of her long, thick ponytail and half-turned away. “Anyway, I’ve got to go…” She started to walk away.

“Wait!” I swallowed my pride. Vampire or no, she was the most helpful person I’d met so far, and had the law enforcement badge to prove she was trustworthy. “Can you help me?”

She sighed. “Come on, then.”——

Free at Last…

When I stepped outside, I stopped, just for a second, to appreciate the moment. No bars, no floodlights, no strange caste marks or suspicious paperwork, just me and the streets and the sky.

“Aren’t you going to—” I turned around and stopped talking when I realised I was addressing a closed door. “—going to make me drink the brains?” Where had the creepy woman gone? I looked around, but saw no one. “Well, I wasn’t going to drink it anyway!”

What was I supposed to do now? I turned back to stare at the doors. I could go back in, find that creepy woman, and demand answers. Or, I could not go back in the place where I’d been locked in a cell.

I walked away. Maybe there was a hotel I could check into, at least until I got this whole zombie thing sorted. I looked up to see if it was morning or afternoon, and instead was faced with a half moon and a sprinkling of stars. Weird. Only about half the streetlights appeared to be working, but I could still see as if it was midday.

Unfortunately, my ability to see did not make any helpful figures magically appear. The street was eerily empty, and aside from the police building, most buildings looked abandoned. Were all the clichès and scary stories about the dead side of town actually true?

I turned a corner and felt like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over my head.

“Excuse you!” a voice snapped from behind me.

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Illustration by Jessica Emmas

I whirled around, shivering. The angry retort froze in the middle of my wide open mouth. The person—thing—that’d run into (through?) me was vaguely blue-ish and transparent. And floating several inches above the ground. It looked like a boy in its early teens, with all the attitude one would expect of that age.

“It’s rude to stare, y’know.”

“Are you a ghost?” It wasn’t the most intelligent question, but I was too surprised to think of anything else. And cold.

The creature heaved a great sigh. “Please. Doesn’t anyone know the difference?”

“The difference between what?”

“A ghost and a phantom! See?” It gestured at its caste mark: two squiggly lines running down the left side of its face.

“There’s a difference?” I wracked my brain, trying to remember the ghost caste mark, and came up blank. I could list a dozen or more living caste marks, but ghosts I’d always figured I’d identify by the fact that they were, well, transparent.

“Obviously!” It turned to leave.

“Wait!” I cried. It looked back over its shoulder. “Would you tell me where the local government’s office is? I want to lodge a complaint.”

It laughed, then stopped when I didn’t join in. “Right. Good luck with that.” Then it vanished.

“Are you kidding me?” I demanded of the now empty street. What was with these dead-side people and their complete inability to be helpful?

Human Rights

I spent a long, uncomfortable night in my cell, taunted by brain juice and the memory of the new scars I’d seen on my face in the werewolf’s mirror. I did try to sleep, once I realised the vampire really wasn’t coming back; it didn’t seem like anyone else would come to let me out any time soon either. Of course, sleeping’s a lot easier said than done when your bed is a concrete floor.

Hours later—or so I guessed, since for all I knew it could’ve been days—the sharp click of heels on concrete snapped me out of a doze. My first thought was Tabitha. Then my brain caught up with my eyes, and I realised the newcomer was an unfamiliar woman dressed all in black. Like the vampire, she was pale and skeletally thin, but the caste mark on her face was different. Several black lines radiated outward from eyes sunk so deep they were little more than shadows. I shivered involuntarily.

“Margot Lucas?” Her voice was soft and dry, like dead leaves rustling against pavement.

“Why do people keep saying my name like a question?” I demanded. I couldn’t even fool myself into thinking my attitude toward the woman was anything but bravado.

“Because those incompetent wolves never confirmed your identity. You are Margot Lucas, yes?”

“Uh, yeah…”

She pulled a notepad from some hidden pocket and jotted down some notes. “Do you understand that, as a newly turned zombie, you are restricted to the undead zone?”

“But I’m not actually a zombie. There’s been a—”

The woman locked her eyes on mine, and I lost the ability to speak. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I squeaked.

She removed a sheet of paper from another of her hidden pockets, and slid it through the bars. A pen followed. “Sign.”

My eyes scanned rapidly over the text. She wanted me to sign away my rights as a human? “I-I can’t.”

She bent her empty gaze on me again. I shivered. “If you want to leave, you’ll have to sign.” She turned away. “Your choice.”

My choice. Not much of one, was it? Acknowledge, on paper, my new identity as a zombie and make any future claim to still being human legally impossible, or remain here in this cell where I’d never have a chance of proving myself human.

My gaze wandered over the bars, the hard concrete floor, the cup of brain juice. Stay, or leave.

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Illustration by Jessica Emmas

I signed the paper.

Take Two: Blended Brains

After a while, the vampire wandered off, leaving me alone with the brain. Without him there as a distraction, I found my gaze drawn to the brain, no matter how hard I tried to look elsewhere. I was so hungry. Not stomach-grumbling hungry, but I really wanted to eat something. How long had it been, anyway? The brain was right there in front of me. It was disgusting. But what difference would it make, really, if I just tried a little bit…

I clamped down on that thought hard and fast. What was wrong with me? I wasn’t actually considering eating brains, human brains…that was cannibalism!

I wanted it away from me. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being tempted. It was hard enough just picking up the plate and shoving it back through the slot. It was just so revolting. That thing used to be a person, and that vampire was trying to feed it to me like it was no different from a soy bean burger.

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Illustration by Chloe Omelchuck

“Oh, now really?” That vampire was too damn quiet. He held a different cup this time, one filled with an unidentifiable brown substance. “I’ll have to clean that up, you know. I hate touching brains.”

I glared at him. “You wanted me to eat it.”

“I didn’t really think you would.” He stepped forward, avoiding the brain and the wet spots it’d left on the floor, and passed the cup through the slot, tilting it carefully so it wouldn’t spill.

“What’s that?”

“The more appetising version. Gross, I’m going to have to touch it.” He slid the plate across the floor, towards where the brain had landed near the wall.

I eyed the cup disdainfully. “What does that mean? What’s in it?”

“Nothing for it.” The vampire grimaced, then braced the brain between the tips of his fingers and leveraged it back onto the plate. “Ew, ew, ew.” He shook his fingers out, as if that would get rid of the brain juices.

“What’s in it?” I repeated.

The vampire looked over, as if hearing me for the first time. “Oh, just more of the same, only blended up with some flavouring. Give it a try. It’s supposed to actually taste pretty good.”

“I’m vegan.” I nudged the cup away with my foot.

“You were vegan. Just drink your brains. I have to get a mop.” He left, taking the whole brain with him.

I was strongly tempted to tip the blended brains out over the floor, but resisted the urge. I could be the bigger person.

The vampire returned a couple minutes later with a mop in hand, just like he’d said. Unlike every time before, he didn’t say a word to me, instead focusing all his attention on scrubbing the floor with sharp, jerky motions. I felt unreasonably pleased to have gotten under his pale, shriveled skin.

I spoke up when he picked up the bucket to leave. “You may as well take this with you.” I gestured at the blended brains. “I’m not going to drink it.”

“Can’t,” he replied, walking away. “It’s against regulations. Besides, you’re not my problem anymore.”

“What does that mean?”

He paused in the doorway. “My shift’s about to end. You’ll have to bother someone else tonight.” The door banged shut behind him.