The Zombie Game Diet: a Tale of Grilled Cheese & Cola

grilled cheese ZombieThere are zombies in my house.

Not actual zombies, mind you, but the blood-less kind on computers screens deftly out-maneuvered by my resident teens and tween. It may seem strange, but I’ve come to enjoy the presence of these video-game zombies in my living room, as well as all the nonsensical hilarity such entertainment brings with it.

As I sat–placidly hemming a set of linen dinner napkins–last night, I happened to overhear a string of sentences emanating from a corner of our living room.

“Do you have any more grilled cheese sandwiches?”, my sixteen-year-old son asked of his younger sister.

“Nope,” Eleven replied. “But, I have four bottles of cola.”

My interest was piqued. Casually, I rolled my chair over and made inquires about the variety of zombie-game foodstuffs that the average survivor might come across in that cartoon-ish realm. While searching the dark corridors of an abandoned structure, my son assured me that a remarkable number of the fatty, dairy-rich sandwiches could be found strewn about the otherwise ruinous landscape.

My theory that they fell from the sky was met with scorn.

“No, they just spawn,” Sixteen informed me. “Like the bandages and ammo. But, sometimes you can get food from animals. See, I just killed this wolf and I got… venison.”

My son’s puzzled expression mirrored my own at this very strange turn of events. Eleven had her own theory.

“Maybe the wolf ate the deer,” said she, “and then, when you killed the wolf, you got what it ate.”

It sounded plausible, but none of us fancied the idea of eating deer already consumed by a predator (Sixteen has, after all, been studying bacteria in Biology) but more than that, we all doubted that said meat would be quite as whole post-chewing as it appeared in the character’s inventory. There was a unanimous feeling of gratitude among all present that the wolf had not eaten any fellow survivors.

As my children’s gaming counterparts plodded from one empty village after another, they found no end of candy bars, sandwiches and sodas, water bottles and sports drinks among the piles of brick and wood, seeded with the odd can of beans… or SPAM.

“Mom,” Eleven said. “What’s SPAM?”

“Compressed pig parts, I think,” I told her. “I’ve never had to eat it.” (Personally, I may prefer the previously-gnawed venison to SPAM, but I digress.)

The limited sustenance aside, the abstract nature of the zombie game continued, highlighted by the nearly-endless ‘slots in a given character’s inventory, a phenomena apparently ‘balanced out’ by the completely random order by which objects are found.

“Huh,” Sixteen wondered aloud. “How did I end up with $1,000, binoculars and a bedroom window in my hand?” I wondered that as well, but it seemed a happy problem to have.

Eventually, I penetrated the point of this game: to gather as many items with which to make and strengthen both bases and vehicles, with the aim of going even farther afield in search of more consumables. “Infected” items were to be avoided, a parting gift from slain zombies of yore.

True to the game’s name, the half-dead (un-dead?) creatures roamed the land, popping up now and again–favoring shadow corners to the point of tedium–and dressed in the most fashionable attire, complete with pricey rips and ‘distressing’ once . complete with their own funny noise… like a cat trying to imitate a bear by gargling Epsom salts.

Try as they might to invoke fear, the characters would have none of it, and for good reason. The zombie were easily dealt with by the swift smite of a stick, or a precious bullet from one of the abundant firearms laying in the corners of nearly every dark room. In a fun twist of irony, the rifles and handguns were often located in a entirely different area of the map than their particular type of ammunition. The only real zombie threat  was in large numbers.

“A zombie got me,” Eleven lamented. “But, don’t worry… I didn’t have anything on me but some money and a pair of pants.” Her character re-spawned and the game continued.

As I sewed, I made a mental note to have another talk with the youngest about the concept of Death and its inherent reality… one of many such talks I’ve had with my kids over the years. I was comforted by the notion that they enjoy playing these rather harmless game with each other, comfortable to play with earshot of Mom. I listened them laugh uproariously as their fictional helicopter glitched through a building and came to rest, half-buried in the ground.

“At least no one can steal it now,” Sixteen said, with immense satisfaction. Eleven agreed. They hurriedly picked up their scattered treasures from the wreckage: a golf club, a can of tomato soup, plate armor, a blimp (yes the Hindenburg kind) and a pair of socks.

This zombie virus must be infectious… for now I, too, crave grilled cheese and cola.

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O’ Bending Light

{A short inspirational story}

“The sun is leaving now, painting in its wake a fleeting promise to return, as it sinks below the weathered wooden teeth of our fence.”

Muriel glanced up from her laptop and over, at the backyard fence. The aging planks indeed seemed to bite at the late afternoon sky. Warped with time, the fence was hideously in need of sanding and paint… or a sledge hammer. At the moment, however, Muriel didn’t see just the fence, for over its top the setting sun freely cast red and orange hues across the firmament. The fading rays tinted the fleecy rounded edges of the high gray clouds with their rosy breath.

Smiling at the scene overhead, Muriel closed her eyes, accepting a final warm kiss before the back fence swallowed the sun whole. A cool breeze stirred itself from slumber, fanning Muriel’s face the moment the last golden ray stopped lingering.

Opening her eyes once more, the woman was confronted by her decaying fence. Muriel regarded it with an impassive expression, deciding whether or not to let the warped details and gray hues sink into her notice.

A patch of dying Bermuda grass at its base arrested her gaze, however. Mercilessly shorn and stiff, the weeds resembled a wire sculpture, ragged and unyielding, clawing at the air in a last show of defiance. Muriel caught whiffs of the chemical bath she’d poured over the patch days earlier. She’d long given up pulling it out every month. With a snort she returned her gaze to the entire scene, eclipsing the one problem with many.

The weathered wood, the bleached, cut weeds, the bold snails coming out of hiding… these caught her eye and held it, her hackles building up behind each observance. As she glared, Muriel’s poetic eye felt blinded. She did not see the yellow roses blooming in one partially-shaded corner, or that the rose petals appeared to recline under the long, splayed boughs of the adjacent cedar. Her red and pink geraniums also went unnoticed, as did the sword ferns and hydrangea bushes that almost hid her aging fence.

Muriel saw beyond the beauty to the hidden, creeping things that sought to destroy the work of her hands… the imperfect, the uninvited, the broken and the out-of-place. The garden—sans sunshine—seemed grayer and only full of things yet to be done. Opening her laptop, Muriel wrote one last line in her tiny, Twitter field.

“O’ bending light, how well you hide life’s blemishes… or at least better their appearance.”

The breeze grew cooler as she typed. Shivering a little, Muriel hesitated in getting up from the still-present warmth of the chair. Her nightly routine was waiting within doors she knew. The vegetable garden needed watering as well; it waited patiently in its corner of the backyard, the plant fronds, buds and stems trailing expectantly over the raised edges of their beds.

“The sun has left me with my work,” Muriel wrote. “Tomorrow may it return to see a bit more of it completed.”

Posting her last tweet for the evening Muriel shut down the laptop and closed its lid with care. As she moved from the chair, her eyes were drawn once again, to the fence. Out of habit, she ruminated upon the cost of replacing the entire back fence, even with the cheapest-possible cedar slats one could purchase from the grandiose home improvement store, just a few miles away.

Muriel shrugged. A new fence… or a specialist root canal? Both cost about the same, even with their dental plan. The offending molar send down a twinge of pain as the twilight breeze drew more coolness into the air. Gingerly feeling the top of the tooth with her tongue, Muriel winced a little. She made a mental note to regale her children with yet another ‘brush-your-teeth’ admonition, perhaps with a few horrific pictures of massive tooth decay downloaded from the internet.

Smiling at the thought, Muriel stepped carefully through the main lawn on emerging, favored type of grass–Fescue but sowed a few weeks before–moving almost reluctantly towards the back fence. Chores and tasks silently called out again from inside the house, but something in the way the old slats leaned against one another made Muriel step closer, past the pruned shrubs to stand on what remained of the beleaguered Bermuda grass.

Muriel did not dare look to her left. Full well she knew what her eyes would see bordering the neighbor’s yard: a new, redwood fence in back, topped with finely beveled lattice, perfectly stained and treated against the weather, rimed by the most glorious, weed-free flowers one could ever wish to see. Looking at her own fence, Muriel wondered if her neighbors had paid for their fence project outright, or merely put it on a credit card.

“Card,” Muriel thought, scrutinizing her fence closely, “Unless Mindy’s husband has taken on a second job.”

Reaching out, she touched the ridged, pocked-marked surface of a loose board. Muriel felt the rough lines and wondered how tall the tree had been from whence it had come. Was it from a burned trunk, one of the many leavings of a rampant forest-fire? The scent of burning wood hung faintly in the air–Muriel noted–most likely from a fireplace down the street. The fire theory seemed plausible; the wood of the fence felt tragic to the touch, and it looked the part.

“Tragic… and yet you’ve looked out over this yard for over thirty years.”

The words left Muriel’s lips before she was even cognizant of thinking them. The idea struck her silent. She and her husband were not the original owners of this place, but they knew the man who’d built the house… and the fence. Her hand still touching the board Muriel felt a sudden sense of shame fall over her.

“I’ve let you fall apart,” said she. Though spoken quietly, the words of her admission seemed to hang in the air nonetheless.

Stepping back, Muriel’s foot brushed against a small stack of scrap lumber, leftover from making the garden boxes. Squinting down at the haphazard pile, Muriel remembered placing them there herself, thinking she’d return later that day and put them away. Scowling at her own forgetfulness, Muriel picking up the topmost piece of wood from the pile and shook it, dropping it back to Earth. A small black widow spider atop the board met a swift end under her shoe.

After inspecting the wood more thoroughly, Muriel picked it up again. Squinting at the fence she held the board up before it. She knew that she probably looked insane, standing there in the shade of the cedars, clutching her laptop to her chest with one hand and picking up wood scraps with the other. Smiling, Muriel set the piece down and continued searching. A few more spiders, a few more boards… and then, an epiphany.

One of the scraps bore a distinctly curved side, a left-over piece from a weekend project months before: an Adirondack chair, pieced together with the help of an old issue of Popular Mechanics and assembled with marginal success. Turning the piece of oddly-shaped wood over, Muriel glanced at a particularly sagged section of the fence.

“With a few more pieces,” she thought, “I can bolster up the fence… with tangible art.”

The breeze blew in the cedar branches overhead. The flat needles stirred up that strange, rushing sound only they knew how to make. It invigorated the very blood in Muriel’s veins to move, to do something other than complain and glare.

Haste was present in her movements as she put away her laptop. Muriel located gardening clothes; pulled from the baskets in the laundry room they still harbored that morning’s mud. Thusly arrayed, Muriel searched the sheds on the side of the house for more scrap lumber. She dragged out her husband’s old miter saw and two paint flecked saw-horses. A smile graced the woman’s face as she hauled over the scrounged bits of lumber and wayward bags of mismatched screws. The fence–blessed with one touch–soon felt many, along with the cool, metallic feel of a measuring tape upon its surface and the scraping of a stubby pencil. Muriel drew a rough sketch of the picture in her head on the back of an advertisement envelope, now plying an eraser, now biting her bottom lip.

The sharp buzz of the miter saw filled the backyard soon after, its noise gearing up to a tearing crescendo before tapering off to a low whine and then starting up again. Weathered bits of cut lumber stacked up next to the saw, one end as bright and new as the day it left the mill, the other graced with age and weather. Muriel paused between each to cross out yet another measurement, impatiently flicking her hair from her face.

Home from school, her children stood at the glass door to the patio, looking out into the backyard, plainly wondering where their dinner was. Muriel smiled at her offspring and waved them closer. Directing her oldest daughter to re-heat leftovers she sent her son to find his father’s hammer while the younger girls fetched the ‘outdoor’ plates.

“We’ll eat outside,” Muriel told them, turning off the saw. “Like a picnic.” Stepping over small piles of sawdust, they cleared the patio table and set up chairs.

Turning on the backyard floodlights, Muriel she marked and pre-drilled scraps of wood. Mosquitoes flocked to the electric light, all too willing to feast on the seated forms nearby. Muriel’s oldest daughter brought out a half-empty bottle of tea tree oil. Giving her neck and wrists a quick slather, her mother thanked her and resumed drilling.

With little hands to help hold the fence up, Muriel drove a strengthening stake on each end of the fence and set the first board–the curving Epiphany Board–across the fence’s drooping waistline. Making faces, Muriel drove galvanized screws deep into the wood. The fence beneath creaked and squealed at such treatment, but Muriel paid the sounds no mind. The initial glimmer of inspiration in her eyes gave way to one of determination as the next pieces were fitted, spaced and secured.

With each new addition the crude sketch —now fluttering amid the sawdust—transcended its two dimensions, ‘growing’ planes and lines with scope. An Escher-like fence began to emerge, with rotating curves and blunted points, neatly covering cracks and adding stability where none had been in over a decade. The lines of the boards seemed to mimic the shrubs in front, the flowers providing depth for the eye as well in their night-dampened colors and forms.

An hour passed, then two. Muriel stood back from the fence, looking at her handiwork as the children cleaned up dinner. It was a far cry from the neighbor’s staid and pricey border, standing so thin and erect to one side. The newly-enhanced wood-structure made up for its lack of status quo with dimension, with artistic curves and enough re-claimed items to make any green-minded relative crow with delight.

Tenderly feeling a newly-emerged blister on her hand, Muriel smiled at the fence with real joy as she stood amid scraps and sawdust. The moment swelled in her mind, putting words in her soul to utter… but she grabbed a broom before breaking out in verse.

 “O’ bending light, well you hide imperfection,

Though in your leaving you betray one’s pride;

How happy are we to live and let live,

To ignore that by which we daily guide.

O’ drenching sunshine in your wake

The idea sprung and work took hold;

Old and forgotten becomes used again,

And so with motions worth their gold.

O’ bending light, thy veil is needed no longer…”

A swift glance back, at her children, made Muriel laugh. The little faces—so like hers in feature and form–bore either uncertainty or an elevated eyebrow.

“One day you’ll like poetry,” said their mother. “Now, help me clean up before Daddy gets home from work.”

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Follow author L. R. Styles on Twitter @writerlrstyles

Steven & L. R. Styles write novels for sale on Amazon, with more in the works.