Frank slumped into the tired remains of the long-abandoned fast-food chicken restaurant. The fluorescent lights had been repaired and most of the rats scared away, but it still didn’t feel like the best place for a meeting. There was a church across the street, nice old building, but of course, a gathering there would raise all sorts of questions none of them wanted to answer. No, instead, a circle of plastic chairs had been arranged right in front of the old checkout counter.
“Good evening, Frank. Nice to see you made it back,” called Melinda. She was the leader of the group and certainly dressed the part. While she insisted everyone dress to their comfort level, Melinda always showed up in a fresh-pressed suit. Frank supposed that might have been her comfort level, but also knew it helped project authority over what could be a rowdy group of people.
“Evening, Melinda,” Frank moaned. Every step he took towards the circle was a step toward a truth he really didn’t want to talk about. He never liked being the first one to arrive, but most of his kind were perpetually late. Something about their brains made it so easy to forget and go chase after a butterfly instead.
“There’s donuts on the counter if you want some. Bought them fresh this morning.” Melinda smiled.
Frank knew the gesture was more habit than anything but went over to the donut box all the same. “Thanks.” Sitting in front of the ancient register was a bright pink box filled with multicolored donuts of all shapes and sizes. Variety is supposed to be the spice of life, he reminded himself. Next to the box were two large saltshakers and additional single-use packets.
Truth be told, for them, variety wasn’t the spice of life at all, salt was. Frank’s taste buds hadn’t worked in a long time, as was true with most everyone else who attended these meetings. As it turned out, salt was one of the few things they were still capable of tasting. So, whether it was stale donuts, pizza, or even a hot cup of coffee, without salt, it was like eating nothing at all.
Frank picked through the pastries, finding a massive apple fritter. He poured salt on it until the donut was covered in a thick layer of fine, white crystals. From a distance, it could have almost been powdered sugar, and that made him feel a little more normal. After all, wasn’t that why he came to the meetings? Frank took his salty prize and made his way to the circle of chairs.
Not wanting to sit too close to Melinda, but also not wanting to be directly opposite, he picked a spot halfway between. He hoped to hell she would let him sit in peace for a few minutes before starting. Even as he shoved a handful of fritter into his mouth, he could feel her eyes on him.
“How’s work?” asked Melinda.
“Fine,” he said through half-chewed bites of somehow crunchy apple. Frank worked pushing shopping carts at the local grocery store. It was simple, and some days felt like all he could handle. Most people in his situation couldn’t even do that, but Frank had practiced tirelessly. One of the goals for societal reintegration was to be as ‘normal’ as possible. Holding down a minimum wage job that would have starved the average living human seemed close enough.
“Fine is good.” Melinda smiled.
Frank stared at the mangled remains of his donut and prayed that others would start arriving soon. Eating delicately was a skill he no longer possessed. No matter how small he started, the process always turned into rips and tears. Staring down at the fritter reminded him suddenly of a brain and hunger stirred within him. He closed his eyes and counted to ten like they had all practiced.
At that moment, the doors to the Chicken Shack burst open in a display of force that nearly shattered the glass panels. A large woman stumbled into the dim light. The sweatshirt she wore had black blood caked at the wrists and a mottled tear running down one side. Her eyes were glazed over, far away. Frank thought she looked more than a little worse for wear, but then remembered his own condition.
“Adelaide, remember what we said about the doors?” Melinda’s voice was patient but firm.
“Quiet,” murmured Adelaide and let out a prolonged groan. “Sorry, forgot.”
“That’s alright. We’ve got fresh donuts on the counter.”
Adelaide nodded and shuffled her way over to the counter, barely sparing Frank a glance as she went. That was fine by him, the less interaction, the better. The process of others slamming the doors open continued as the rest of the group filtered in. Melinda maintained her calm demeanor with each admonishment and hardly a hint of frustration. Frank admired her for that.
Soon, all the chairs were filled and Frank was looking out at a sea of slack-jawed, slowly decaying faces. As a group, they were hard on the eyes to say the least. He thought of all the mirrors he had smashed in his own apartment to avoid his reflection and took some pity.
Melinda clapped her hands together, the sudden noise drawing the rapt attention of everyone in the room. “Alright, thank you all for coming, as always. This marks the tenth meeting of Abandoned Necromantic Creations Anonymous, name still pending.” She chuckled at her own joke, but the only response from the group was a low moan from Adelaide. Melinda wasn’t deterred. “Okay, Frank, why don’t you start us off? Tell us about your week.”
Frank’s mouth went dry – well – dryer than usual. “I um.” He faltered.
Melinda waited patiently.
Across the room, an overweight man named Bill picked a maggot out of his navel and put it on top of a frosted, pink donut.
Frank closed his eyes and continued. “Well, I’m Frank.”
“Hi, Frank.” The sound was like a hundred, out of tune, deep brass instruments playing discordant notes all at once. Surprisingly, it was better than usual.
Frank continued. “It’s been three years since I was first raised back in New Orleans.” He paused. “Hell, it’s really been three years. Time flies when you’re pushing shopping carts and squatting in a construction site, I suppose.”
“Brains?” asked Bill, holding up his donut with deep disappointment.
“God I wish.” The words slipped out of Frank’s mouth with hardly any notice.
Melinda shifted in her seat. “Bill, I think we all know that’s a trigger word for a lot of people here. What did we say last week?”
“Brains!” exclaimed Bill, suddenly angry. He dropped the donut on the ground with a melancholy plop.
“Bill!” hissed Melinda.
Frank raised his voice. “I think what he’s trying to say is, it’s bullshit. I’ve pushed carts for three years, done my best to blend in, and I still can’t walk into a grocery store without starting a panic. I’ve got ‘monster hunters’ coming after me every weekend with a six pack and shotguns. It’s no way to live.”
“Brains,” affirmed Bill and then added: “Sorry.” He made a slight bow to Melinda.
A young woman stood up. “I was happy in my afterlife. I loved my fiancée, but I never wanted to come back.”
“It’s not uncommon for death to push our loved ones to necromancy. That doesn’t make it right, but we have to recognize it for what it is, an act of love.” A soft smile crossed Melinda’s lips. It was working, people were talking.
“It’s not an act of love, it’s a mistake, we’re a mistake.”
Frank was sure tears would have run down the young woman’s face if her ducts were still working. He stood up, planning to call Melinda out on the hypocrisy of seeing necromancy as an act of love, but all he managed was: “Brains.” Shit, he thought to himself.
“Braaaaiins,” moaned a man sitting opposite Frank.
Melinda raised her hands in an effort to bring calm to the group, but her eyes were wide. She might have been the most well-adjusted out of all of them, but there was only so many times she could hear that word. “I think we all need to breath and count to brains—” Her hand went to her mouth.
Other members of the meeting were standing and shuffling towards the exit. Frank recognized the situation for what it was but felt propelled beyond himself. “Braaains,” he murmured, barely thinking anymore. The world was getting fuzzy. Warm rain kissed his face as he stepped outside. How did I get outside? They were moving in a group now; he could see that. Some might have called it a horde, but that was another trigger word.
He held up his hands and found two halves of a donut, no salt, just a regular old donut. In that moment, he wanted nothing else in the world. Shoveling handfuls of the delicious pastry into his mouth, Frank let out an audible sound of delight. Maybe it’s finally working. Sense of taste was something that could come back, right? He closed his eyes, savoring every bite, trying to taste the individual flavors that had been so lovingly crafted.
Raindrops continued to fall on his skin, heavier now. Dread crept into the back of his mind, slow at first, but building quickly. Frank opened his eyes, returning from his revelry and felt warm liquid dripping down his face. Ah shit. He knew that feeling.
Looking down, he saw a man wearing a visor and a tank top splayed out on the pavement, gurgling out his last breaths and then going silent. The poor man’s brains were spread across the pavement. Frank raised a hand to his lips, knowing exactly what he would find there. Not again. Disgust washed over him as he wiped away flecks of grey matter.
He looked around and saw other members of the horde in similar states of embarrassment. Melinda had a hand hanging out of her mouth, fingers still clenched between her jaws. The perfect suit she had worn was stained red and brown. Regret was plain on her face.
Frank stood suddenly as the man beneath him moaned.
“Braiiins,” the man said through a mixture of blood and bile.
Frank swore. Well done. He held out a hand. “Come on pal, get up.” He pulled the freshly formed zombie to his feet. “I’m sure you’re a bit confused.”
“Brains?” The man looked down at his bloodied tank top, growing faintly horrified.
“Yes, unfortunately you’re a member of the undead now. Sorry about that…” He was delicious though… Frank slapped himself in the face. There was little feeling, but the act itself was grounding.
“Brains!” cried the man, as if to say: ‘Aren’t you the one that killed me, asshole?’ It took the freshly resurrected time to gain any semblance of speech, especially when they were missing a few chunks of processing power.
Frank put a hand on the man’s shoulder, hoping he wasn’t a biter. “Yes, it’s a lot to take in, but don’t worry, we have meetings!”