This story is an excerpt from the novel of the same name, available via amazon.com.
Scott Erickson is an award-winning writer of humor and satire. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is possibly the nicest curmudgeon you’ll ever meet.
For two hours the van headed north into the north woods of Northern Minnesota, along a series of increasingly remote roads. For the last hour she had seen no sign of human civilization, just towering green woody things she assumed were trees. Having lived in St. George, Utah, her entire life, she had only seen photographs of trees.
The driver was a healthy looking woman in her mid-20s with shaved head. She had a mellow “Mona Lisa” smile, like she thought she knew the secret of life but didn’t really know but didn’t care that she didn’t really know. The ride was silent, void of conversation.
Life wasn’t fair, Janet thought. How could a nice young teenager’s life be destroyed for no good reason? She had done nothing wrong, and yet she was being punished. Why? What about the concept of as you sow, so shall you reap? What about karma? Yeah, what’s up with that, all you people who believe in those things? Is life—and by extension, the universe—rational? Or is everything all topsy-turvy? Is life a cosmic joke? Or just a plain old ‘knock-knock’ joke?
Knock-knock, who’s there?
It’s the Meaning of Life.
The Meaning of Life, who?
The Meaning of Life that doesn’t exist, Hahaha!
Janet’s mind grew still, unable to penetrate the same profound questions that the world’s greatest living philosophers have been unable answer. Also the world’s greatest dead philosophers. Unless the dead philosophers know the answer but can’t tell us because they’re dead.
She gazed out the window, watching the endless forest of tall woody things flow past the window. Then more tall woody things. Gosh, there were lots of them. So different from St. George!
They arrived at a clearing in the trees and a large sign that read: “Lake Wichiganawaneehoohaw Wayward Youth Recovery Camp.” There was a large rustic lodge building, and rows of rustic log cabins. She’d never seen anything like it, because Utah had banned the concept of “rustic” in 1963. The state was so serious about portraying itself as “nice” that saying the word rustic in public carried the same penalty as spitting on the sidewalk.
The van pulled beside a body of water that she assumed was Lake Wichiganawaneehoohaw. She reasoned, using her mind, that it would make no sense to call it “Lake Wichiganawaneehoohaw Wayward Youth Recovery Camp” if it was located along the shore of Lake Titchowinininhagoc. But then, she was learning that the world didn’t always make sense. Oh, how she was learning that!
The water was beautiful. She wondered if it was wet. Having lived in St. George her entire life, she had only seen photographs of water.
The van screeched to a stop, even though the parking lot was gravel. Entranced by the lake, Janet was oblivious to the inappropriate sound effects and headed toward the deep blue water. After hitting her face on the van window, she decided it would be helpful to first open the door.
The water was mesmerizing. She was fascinated by the ripples…so much like Ruffles® potato chips. She was drawn to the water as a moth is drawn to a flame, except she was not a moth and water puts out flames so that metaphor doesn’t really work.
She walked out onto a wooden dock, alongside which were tied several “Lake Wichiganawaneehoohaw Wayward Youth Recovery Camp” canoes. She was unaccustomed to the effect of the rippling water and felt slightly queasy. She found herself wishing that for lunch she’d eaten something besides a quart of sauerkraut.
She glanced into the watery depths and spotted something moving—alive! It looked to her like a strange-looking underwater dog, except it had no fur and was long like a snake and had fins. Recall that she had never been outside of St. George.
“Hi, puppy!” she called, waving. “You sure can hold your breath a long time. Hey, what happened to your paws?”
“Hey dere!” boomed an angry Swedish voice. “Be careful dere, ya?”
The sudden voice startled Janet, and the Swedish accent made her think of windmills, which makes no sense at all. She nearly lost her balance and fell off the dock onto a duck. When she composed herself and turned around, she was shocked to see that the angry Swedish voice had come from a red-cheeked teenage boy with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes.
A defiant Janet looked him in the piercing blue eyes. “Why don’t you leave me alone? I was just saying hi to the puppy!”
“Uf-da!” he said, rolling his piercing blue eyes in disgust. “Looks like we gots us anoder city slicker dot tinks dey know everyting!”
Strange, thought Janet, that out of this teenage boy should emerge language that sounded like it was from an old man. Who uses expressions like “city slicker” anymore?
Continuing the defiant attitude popularized by Janet three paragraphs ago, she retorted, “Just because I’m from St. George, Utah doesn’t mean I’m out-of-touch with life in rural Northern Minnesota! It’s just that I’ve never actually seen an underwater puppy—only photographs.”
“Dot dere ain’t no puppy!” he said, pointing to the underwater puppy. “Dot dere is what you call a Nordern Pike. Fierce ting it is! It’ll take your fingers clean off, so be careful, ya?”
“Really?” said Janet. “A Northern Pike? I’ve never heard of such a breed.”
“Uf-da!” he cried in disgust, although not rolling his piercing blue eyes this time. “I been puttin’ up wit dis kinda ting since the 80s!”
“The 80s! Oh, I just love 80s music,” gushed Janet. “Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand / Just like that river twisting through a dusty land / And when she shines she really shows you all she can.”
“Huh?” he said. “I don’ know what yur talkin’ about.”
“What?” replied a shocked Janet. “How can you not know that one?”
“You young whippersnapper!” he shouted. “Youse all da same, buncha darned city-slicker know-it-alls!”
“Oh yeah?!” yelled Janet, oozing contempt. “In a totally irrational reply, I just want you to know that what they said happened isn’t true! Not at all! It was a tragic misunderstanding! Also, I have no idea why I’m telling you any of this, unless it’s because underneath my superficial anger toward you I’m actually attracted, and my fear of the implications is causing me to push you away.”
Janet thought to herself: The nerve! Just because he’s from a progressive country that provides universal health care to all its citizens, he thinks he’s so smart!
“Act your age, not your shoe size!” is all she could think to say.
He threw up his hands in disgust and stormed off, leaving Janet alone with her thoughts. It suddenly struck her how this whole situation was so surreal. Here she was, a decidedly non-wayward teenage girl in a camp for wayward youth, being punished for something she never did, being told to recover from something she never even covered.
She gazed out upon the calming blue waters. Despite that rude Swedish boy, she thought she might like it here. After the desert heat of St. George, she was refreshed by the moist coolness of the North Woods, comforted by those woody green things sticking up all over the place.
Suddenly she remembered what she had been hoping to forget…hoping upon hope that it wasn’t true, that it was all a weird dream from which she would soon awaken. Suddenly it came rushing back to her consciousness: She was turning into a zombie!
She sat down on the dock. Or rather, the sudden remembering made her fall down on the dock. She gazed into the wavy ripples of the blue water, which made her mind get wavy, until everything got wavy. This indicated she was having a flashback.
Turning into a zombie. At first she thought the doctor was joking, especially since he broke the news while he was juggling hamsters.
Janet had been feeling “out of sorts” for months. She tried explaining to her father, but he misheard and thought she said “out of shorts” which led to a really stupid conversation.
First there were the headaches. Then the occasional uncontrollable drooling. Then the unquenchable hunger for human flesh.
Her father reasoned, “This is all because of your decision to become a vegetarian. A couple of nice juicy steaks will fix you up just fine!”
“That would be awesome daddy,” she answered, “As long as they’re steaks made from people.”
Also, Janet’s two best friends had recently turned into zombies.
It was not a pretty scene. They were at the mall, shopping for jeans at Banana Republic. Britney had emerged from the dressing room breathing heavily with her hair mussed, followed closely by the stock boy who ran into the back of the store while buckling his belt.
“Ohmigod!” she said, rearranging her disordered clothes, “I told you these jeans made me look hot! José took one look and couldn’t resist doing me in the dressing room!”
“Wow!” said Tiffany. “Do they have those in, like, my size?”
Janet broke in, responsible as always, “We don’t have time, Tiffany! We’ll be late for Tai Chi class!”
“Oh, Janet!” complained Tiffany, “You’re always so darned responsible!”
“Seriously, you guys!” complained Janet, brushing aside her sensible brown hair. “I don’t want to be late. And by the way, Britney, what do you mean by José ‘doing you’?”
But before Britney could answer, she got a strange look on her face. Her eyes glazed over. Her skin took on an ashen gray pallor. Then she began drooling.
“Oh, Britney!” said Tiffany, “I told you not to get a corn dog at the food court!”
Suddenly, Britney took a deep bite out of Tiffany’s throat. Then she tore off Tiffany’s left arm and violently gnawed at it.
Almost instantly, Tiffany’s face took on the same weird gray pallor and strange expression. Then she began drooling.
Then José appeared. “Watch out for the merchandise!” he yelled. “If you get any guts on it, I have to put it on sale!”
Britney shrieked, “Brains! Brains!” then twisted José’s head off his body.
Janet grew discouraged. “Look you guys,” she said, “I hope you don’t think I’m going to use my dad’s credit card to pay for your mess.”
Checking her watch, she added, “Oh! Tai Chi class! I’ll meet up with you guys later. Bye!”
Janet had explained all this to the doctor, who listened while keeping a growing number of plates spinning atop flexible wands.
“Yes, that’s somewhat interesting,” he said, “but has anything unusual happened to you lately?”
“Unusual?” asked Janet. “Like what?”
“Well, let me see,” said the doctor before blowing up a balloon, then popping it to reveal a dove which proceeded to fly into the wall. “For example, have any of your boyfriends gotten you pregnant recently?”
Janet’s face grew beet red, even though she didn’t like beets. “No, doctor, of course not!” she said in a panicked voice. “I don’t even have a boyfriend! In fact, I’m still a virgin.”
The doctor’s plates all crashed to the floor and the doctor fell out of his chair.
“Doctor!” complained Janet, “Exactly what are you implying?”
Just at that moment, Janet noticed his diploma: Doctor of Magic and Juggling, available for corporate functions, bar mitzvahs, and parties.
The party! Suddenly she remembered. Then things got fuzzy again, indicating that she was having a flashback within the flashback. She began leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so later she could follow her way back to the present.
The party was the day before the mall incident. Janet didn’t want to go, but Britney and Tiffany had shamed her into it.
“What’s the matter, Janet,” sniffed Britney, “are you afraid you might loosen up and have fun?”
“Oh no, Janet doesn’t want to have fun,” Tiffany added sarcastically. “She’d rather be a secular humanist.”
“Okay, that does it!” said Janet, with a defiant toss of her sensible brown hair, “I’ll show you that I know how to have fun, gosh darn it!”
The party was at a suburban home of a teen whose strict Mormon parents had left for a weekend prayer conference in Las Vegas. There must have been a hundred teenagers there, drinking not-legal-for-teenager beverages and talking loudly, their conversations peppered with salty language as if they were using words to season their scrambled eggs. Couples would occasionally run off to a bedroom and return an hour later, smiling in blissful exhaustion after some engaging non-fiction reading, Janet assumed.
Janet was too naïve to realize that the “punch” contained nothing of the kind. “This punch is weird,” she said, scrunching her face with displeasure. “This doesn’t taste like any fruit I’ve ever heard of.”
The next thing she remembered, many hours later, is sitting on a bedroom floor in a circle of people, playing a game called “spin the bottle,” except that nobody could find a bottle. Someone was saying, “It’s your turn, Janet! Spin the pickle!”
A chorus of voices echoed, “Spin the pickle! Spin the pickle!”
Her mind was spinning, and the room was spinning, and suddenly a pickle was also spinning. It was almost as if everything was spinning. Actually, it was exactly as if everything was spinning.
‘Round and ‘round went the pickle, which reminded Janet of a frog, if the frog had been rolled into a cigar shape and had the front and back legs removed. When the pickle finally stopped spinning, one end point toward her and the other end pointed toward…a boy!
Paralyzed by confusion and punch, she was helpless as the boy dragged her off into the closet, her ankles sliding along the carpet.
Oh my goodness! she thought. My ankles are naked!
The boy closed the closet door behind them, then whispered to Janet, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to do any weird sex stuff to you. This might sound weird, but I’m saving myself for after I’m not a virgin.”
“That pickle reminded me of a frog,” replied Janet. It was the punch talking.
“All I want,” said the boy, beginning to salivate, “is a little nibble.”
Then he bit her shoulder.
Then all hell broke loose. Sirens wailed. Blinding lights flashed though the windows. Doors came crashing down. A loud voice yelled through a megaphone, “HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, WE HAVE YOU SURROUNDED!”
The headline in the next day’s St. George Spectrum announced: “Teens Nabbed in Booze-Fueled Cannibalistic Drug Orgy.”
Typical media hyperbole, thought Janet, reading the article while rubbing the painful shoulder bite. It was just a little game of “spin the pickle” that got out of hand.
The weird thing—which she learned after talking to Britney and Tiffany later on—is that they had also been subjected to “a little nibble” courtesy of that strange boy.
She continued reading the newspaper, and noticed another news item: “And in a totally unrelated story, strange boy runs amuck after transformation into flesh-eating zombie.”
“I see,” said the doctor, bringing Janet back to flashback #1. “That’s somewhat interesting, but what I want to know is: How did all these breadcrumbs get into my office?”
“Oh doctor,” she said, tears welling up, “you must believe me! It was all a misunderstanding! But my father doesn’t believe me. He’s threatening to send me off to some wayward teen camp to punish me.”
“Well, I believe he has the legal right to do that.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong!” she cried, tears shooting all over the floor and soaking the breadcrumbs.
“Well, Janet,” said the doctor, “I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first?”
As Janet pondered, the doctor snacked on a few of the breadcrumbs.
“Salty!” he said.
“Oh doctor,” Janet pleaded, “get the bad news over with first, so we can end with something positive.”
“Okey-doke,” he said, slicing open an orange to reveal a large egg. “The bad news is that you are turning into a zombie.”
“Oh, is that all?” said a relieved Janet. “Good thing we caught it in time. Just shoot me up with the anti-zombie vaccine or antibiotics or whatever.”
“Um…rather than reply to that directly, let’s turn our attention to the good news,” said the doctor, breaking open the egg to reveal a furry yellow chick. “You have a great opportunity here to live it up, for a little while. Take up smoking. Do drugs. Have unprotected sex with HIV-positive heroin addicts. Also, don’t bother contributing to a retirement plan or worrying about whether the Social Security system will remain viable.”
“Doctor, what are you saying?” replied Janet nervously, her face turning white as a parsnip, even though she didn’t like parsnips, “Are you trying to tell me there’s no cure?”
“Well, there are two cures for zombies: Cut off the head or smash the brains.”
“Oh, this is horrible!” cried Janet, streams of tears shooting out and splashing off the wall. “I’ve had my entire future taken away from me. I’ll never see Europe, never go skydiving, never play linebacker for the Denver Broncos.” She grew wistful, and added, “I’ll never have a family. I’ll never get married. And what about sex?”
“No thanks,” said the doctor. “You’re only seventeen. Also, I generally avoid having sex with zombies.”
“But I’m not a zombie yet!”
“Yes, and that’s what’s puzzling. Your friends became zombies soon after being bitten. Yet with you it’s been over a month and you’re only starting to have zombie symptoms. I have no idea why, unless it’s because your mallrat friends were practically zombies already, mentally speaking. In other words, perhaps there’s a correlation between intelligence and resistance to the onset of the zombie transformation?”
“That might be true,” mused Janet. “I have an IQ of 140, and Britney and Tiffany were too low to register, except for the shopping portion of the test.”
“Interesting hypothesis, but we can’t be sure. Believe it or not, almost no medical research has been conducted on this subject.”
“Well, I believe the reasoning is that medical research is difficult, time-consuming, and very expensive, whereas smashing the head with a shovel is quick and easy.”
Suddenly, it was all clear to Janet. She knew what had to be done.
“Doctor,” said Janet. “It’s suddenly all clear to me. I know what has to be done.”
“I know,” replied the doctor, “I heard the narrator.”
“I’m not going to let it happen to me, which could cause me to impose the same fate upon someone else. Therefore, I am prepared to take my own life. I refuse to pass on this suffering; I refuse to deprive others of the future that I have been deprived of.”
“Wow, that’s really noble of you.”
“I mean,” clarified Janet, “I wouldn’t be depriving them of my future. I mean, they have a whole different future I would be depriving them of. I just want to make sure I’m being clear.”
“Well it’s been great knowing you, Janet. Feel free to borrow my shovel, but can I ask as a courtesy that you smash your brains outside my office? Nothing personal, it’s just that I had the carpet shampooed last week. Oh, and if you could pay for this appointment at this time I’d really appreciate it.”
“Um, doctor? That’s not what you’re supposed to say.”
“Oh—I forgot to say that I accept all major credit cards.”
“No!” said Janet. “What you’re supposed to say is: Janet, it’s vital for you to carry on. Perhaps medical science can learn from you the secret of how to halt the zombie transformation. Perhaps medical science can learn the secret, and turn it into a very expensive drug that will earn billions of dollars for the pharmaceutical industry.”
“Oh yeah,” said the doctor. “What you said.”
“Also, this story would end right here. Pretty short story arc, and not emotionally fulfilling.”
“Yes!” exclaimed the doctor. “And we’d never know what happens between you and that odd Swedish boy along the shore of Lake Wichiganawaneehoohaw in Northern Minnesota.”
“Doctor!” shouted Janet. “You can’t know about that! All that takes place in the future! We’re still in flashback #1!”
“Are we? I can’t tell. The narrative structure has gone totally catawampus.”
Janet suddenly noticed the breadcrumbs were gone. “Oh no! You ate all my breadcrumbs!” she despaired. “Now I’ll never find my way back to the present!”
“Wait a sec…I think I know how to do it. I saw it in the movie The Wizard of Oz. You just click your ruby red slippers together and repeat: There’s no place like home…There’s no place like home.”
“But I don’t want to go to Kansas! And I don’t have any ruby red slippers. I have blue Reeboks.”
“Perfect! They’ll take you right to the dock on the shore of Lake Wichiganawaneehoohaw.”