“Put it down,” said Theo.
He watched the scabby hand of his current zombie assistant stretch out and place the papers on his grey veneer desk. He couldn’t remember her name, didn’t know if he’d ever bothered to learn it. She was getting ripe, so it didn’t matter.
Her skin was falling off in chunks from the side of her face, and he could already see her ribcage literally poking out of her skin. He knew if he kept the temperature lower in the office his workers would last longer, but it got so cold, and they weren’t going to run out of dead people.
Only certain creative or managerial tasks required live intervention. Basic office administration was deemed too soul-crushing to give to the living. This also applied to factory work, the fast food industry, and government.
Since the population had dwindled due to higher education and the realization that children were drains on precious resources, much of the lower-level work force was made up of zombies.
It worked out well. Families could lease out the bodies of their loved ones for as long as they were still able to perform office tasks. Some corpses lasted up to five years in optimal conditions. Others, well, they gave new meaning to the term diminishing work force.
Theo watched his assistant go before he scanned the contract. All that was left for him to do was to sign. This was all they needed him for: someone of intelligence to read over and sign and approve boilerplate paperwork. The mindless tasks of data entry, printing, stapling, faxing, copying, and compiling—those were all tasks that sentience got in the way of.
There were no fights over the corner office. Theo was the only one who had one. The corpses were left to cubicle farms.
During his daily rounds, which he did out of sheer boredom and not because zombies required managing, he noticed some of the zombies had printed out inspirational quotes and tacked them to the gray fabric wall with some gummy part of their anatomy that had fallen off. It was sad. Just a plain particle board desk with a black and white printout that would say something ironic like, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” He often wondered—but never asked—if they could read or if the previous manager had a sick sense of humor. For once a sign was up, it never came down, no matter who worked in the cubicle.
Conversation with zombies was out of the question. At best they could moan. At worst, their jaw would unhinge and drop to the floor. Once, Theo had attempted office gossip. He stood in a worker’s doorway. He didn’t even know if the rotting carcass was male or female anymore.
“Have you seen the way Jack’s been eyeing Sara? I mean, not that he has eyes anymore, but you can tell that they’ve got something going on the side. I bet you she’s eaten more than his brains, if you know what I mean.”
He’d gestured and everything, pumping his fist like it was sex and waggling his eyebrows suggestively. The zombie faced him while he spoke, waiting for one of the command words that would tell it what to do. Not hearing one, it returned to its filing. The perfect employee.
Theo watched them file in each morning. Having nowhere else to be and a bus that brought them all in, they were always on time. He didn’t know where they went after five or came from before eight. What was interesting was watching them come lumbering in. Did they know it was Friday? Monday? It was difficult to read expressions on faces like putty. It didn’t matter. Watching them and wondering was just something to do. He didn’t actually care.
That is, until he arrived.
Sometimes he got corpses who were fresh. The freshest were usually parceled out to executives, and Theo was thoroughly middle management. But sometimes there would be a huge batch—maybe a mass shooting or religious suicide pact.
They seemed almost lifelike other than their dull stares and the way that their dead blood pooled in whatever body part they’d been found lying on.
Usually he could tell how they died. He was becoming such an expert that he was considering a second job as coroner. Hemorrhaging in their eyes, bruises on their necks. Domestic violence, drowning, hanging, shooting—you could see the distinctive patterns on their skin that told the story, not of how they lived or who they were, but simply how they died.
Theo thought that would make picking a real, live human out from a crowd easy. When he came in, he was radiant with life—pink cheeks and dewy porcelain skin. His hair was golden even under the doom of florescent lighting. The straight fringe fell into his face, but he didn’t make a move to adjust it. It was a subtle move to appear dead, but Theo wasn’t fooled. Not even from a distance.
The rise and fall of his chest where all other chests remained motionless was a dead giveaway. Also, Theo couldn’t see any telltale signs of what killed him. Sure, he could have been poisoned, but even then there would be bloating.
What sealed the deal, though, was when he handed in his reports. They were arranged in coordinating colors and not the random mishmash of what he got from the dead, who had no sense of aesthetic.
As they both held the bound document, Theo met the man’s gray eyes. They had almost no sparkle and could have easily been mistaken for translucent white deadness by someone less observant. His expression was studiously blank, but his long, toned muscles tensed for just a fraction of a second under the tattered wool blend jacket.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” Theo was breathless with excitement. Even if the man hadn’t been gorgeous in that Swedish god way with his lanky frame and square jaw, Theo would’ve been happy to talk to someone.
The man let go of the report started to lurch away with greater exaggeration than when he came in.
Theo leaned forward. “I know you’re alive.”
The man stopped. His shoulders sagged.
Theo stood, his chair thwacking against the window in his haste. “I’m not going to throw you out. Just talk to me, please.”
Still the man did not speak. He turned his dead eyes on Theo from over his shoulder.
The force of the glare made Theo take a step backward. Now that he got a better look at him, Theo was having doubts. Maybe that guy was dead.
After the man staggered away, Theo pulled his rolling chair back and sat down, shaking his head. “I must be losing my mind.”