The ebony circle of coffee lightened into a creamy half moon as runnels of milk were poured into Todd’s cup, diffusing into the scalding liquid. He half drowsed over the coffee vapor, barely stirring enough from his stupor to stop pouring and prevent a mess on his desk. Today would be the third day of little to no sleep. He felt that he’d proverbially burned through both ends of the candle; what remained of him was just a puddle of wax. Try as he might he couldn’t resolve the last escalated call he’d taken at the turn of the week. The specter of the woman’s voice echoed in his thoughts at night like a bereaved wraith.
Twice he’d gone to the company therapist with little avail. He knew he could have done more; if he’d only thought it through sooner and made the call for a drop or requested a team to get there when the caller and his group still had the upper hand on the horde, maybe…maybe it didn’t matter. His tendency towards self-reproach certainly wasn’t giving him any respite.
“Hey man, how’re you doing?” He heard Jimmy ask through the fog shrouding his head. He looked up from his desk to see the stocky square shape of his co-worker’s head peering over the cube wall.
“I’m…fine right now. Just getting ready for the day, you know?” Todd said through a false smile. Jimmy fiddled with his glasses and continue to stare down into milk colored coffee, as if he’d find his answers alongside Todd.
“Good, good. Just a FYI for you, but I heard Mister Palanski saying to Cheryl that he planned to talk to you about what happened.” Jimmy told him. Todd’s counterfeit smile constricted into a rictus.
“Are you kidding?!” Todd said. He spit the words out far harsher than intended, which startled the portly man. He was sure everybody else in the row around would have pricked up to see what his commotion was about. Let them, he thought sourly. Like I give a fuck what they all think? Do they even understand?
He thanked Jimmy brusquely, signaling an end to their conversation by returning his attention to his drink. He thought back to the shit house Monday had been. Had he really lost his temper with the customer? It had just been a bad moment. This job was stressful; these were stressful times. He hadn’t intended to snap, but when you have a panicking screamer in your ear, it’s hard not to mirror the emotions back.
“Thanks for calling 1–800-ZOMBIES, where we aim to make you safe. This is Dwayne, can I get your ID please?”
“Oh shit — oh shit — oh — uh, Z37B. Hurry!”
“Whoa man, stay with me now…Z…3…7…okay, am I talking to a Mister Randal Martin?”
“Yes, yes you are! Please, you have to help me, us — my son-”
“Please Randal, take a breath if you can, alright? Are you in a safe place to be talking right now?”
“We are.” (Slight static on the recording as the caller takes several deep breaths). “We’re going to be ok, alright sweetie?” (Muted crying of a small child)
“Caller Randal, my name is Dwayne. How can I help?”
“It bit my son.”
“What bit your son, Randal? Was it a zombie?”
“I-I-I don’t know. It was a dog — I think. A big animal, something. It might have been rabid for all I know — but it’s eyes were dripping blood, just like the zombies.”
“Are you absolutely sure about this? The World Health Organization’s guidebook to zombies clearly states that research and study shows that it’s not transferable between other species.”
“I know all that too, but the guidebook sure as hell didn’t help my son out here!”
“Look, I’m sorry. You’re right. Let’s just focus on what we can do about it. Now, can you please explain the appearance of the wound? And what medical supplies do you have on hand? We have clinical staff on hand that can provide you with instructions…”
(Voice fades as the volume drops on the recording until only static can be heard).
Each hesitant step brought Todd away from his cube, through the narrow corridor of ?rowed? desks, and entering into a high hallway that led to Palanski’s office. He could feel the stares of the entire row gazing at his slumped shoulders, each shuffling footstep. He was certain they all thought this was the last they’d see of him. He would agree.
Since the outbreak and the failure to contain it, America had become a diverse breeding ground for zombies, and those trying to not become one. There was very little in between the spectrum, and the number of living humans decreased every year. Walls patrolled by gunmen stretched from one end of the continent to the other along the border of Mexico and Canada. Only the privileged and the lucky had managed their egress before the total siege. Working for 1–800-Zombies at least afforded Todd a safe haven midst the decaying carnage. However, it still extracted a price on him.
His apathetic thread shuffled him to the heavy looking door of Palanski’s office. He lifted a hand to knock, reconsidered it, then boldly opened the door towards him to let himself in. He would confront this head on, not meek and intimated. He was still an employe here, and a living person.
One of the few rooms that showed off the company’s opulence, Palanski’s space was decorated in dark mahogany woods and living plants. A multitude of pictures hung from the walls; several outstanding employees or various teams of the company; Palanski meeting and shaking hands with celebrities and world leaders; a scattering of landscape shots. On his desk sat a row of various animal bobble heads, clacking methodically in a staccato fashion. A portrait photo of a young looking woman graced the open space next to his computer. He wore a wedding ring, but mentioned no wife. Rumors abounded. She’d been killed after turning early in the outbreak. She had been patient zero, or the first to be cursed into unlife after tragically dying. He kept her locked away and hidden like an aging dragon hoarding away his treasure. Everybody speculated; Palanski never said a word.
The tall balding man sat on the edge of the big desk, hands planted on the surface like support columns. Todd got a shock as he entered the office unannounced. A security guard stood just inside the doorway hands held loosely behind his back. Both men turned at Todd’s arrival.
“Ah, Mister Durham. Thanks for stopping by so promptly; I was just about to call you in after Brett left, but this works just fine.” Palanski said to Todd, waving him a welcoming hand to one of the pair of low chairs across from the desk.
“Feel free to take a seat now. Brett, go ahead and implement those instructions. I think your input will do us all good here.” He told the guard. He had an imperial manner to his speech that almost MADE you want to follow through his request. Brett nodded assent and left the office. Todd closed the door after him, then taking a seat with a resigned sigh.
“Did you want to see me, sir?”
“Thank you for calling 1–800-ZOMBIES, where we aim to make you safe. My name is Rebecca, how can I help yo-”
“I want to talk to Chris Palanski.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, Mister Palanski isn’t available to talk to right now, but I’m more than willin-”
“I don’t give a shit what you’re willing to do. I need to speak to Chris Palanski. Right. Now.”
“Ma’am, I completely understand your frustration, but before you would speak with our corporate manager, we need to asses the nature of your call, and what level of emergency and action it requires. Are you in safe place? Do you or anyone else need immediate medical attention?”
“The only the emergency I have right this fucking minute is that I’m hungry! I haven’t had anything to eat in three fucking DAYS.” (The caller’s voice becomes muffled and indistinct for several seconds. It appears that the caller pulls away from the phone. Metallic clangs can be heard in the background.)
“Sure, okay, that’s a concern I can understand. Can I get your ID first? I’ll bring up your account and see if you’re eligible for a supple drop, or if we can request another one if you were unable to retrieve the last-”
“My ID is FU. Fuck you.”
“No. I don’t want to hear it. I know you’re not really sorry for me. I need some fucking food. The last drop was supposed to be in Bingingham Park. I waited for days and nothing showed up; no helicopter, no package. Tell Chris Palanski that he needs to haul his ass here and bring me some damn food!”
“I can help. ID please.” (A long stretch of silence interrupted by the customer’s harsh breathing and the occasional shuffle of paper and metal sounding objects.)
“Z..4..7..7..B. Now send some damn food!”
“Ma’am — PLEASE. Just a minute.” (Keyboard clacking sounds. The agent Rebecca takes a deep breath.) “Alright. Am I speaking with Miss Lynette McGregor?”
“Yes you are. Where’s Chris Palan-”
“Wait. It shows in our system that the supply was dropped ten days ago on the 16th…The GPS tracking confirmed it DID drop in Bingingham Park. Also, it shows that the crate wasn’t forced into. We received the electronic signal that the lock was opened using the keypad with the passcode of…your ID.”
(The caller continues to breathe into the phone. Rebecca and the caller are both silence for a time.)
“Well, there wasn’t any damn food inside the crate!”
“Ma’am, it shows right here-”
“I don’t care what your fancy machine tells you! I didn’t get no food! I need Chris Palanski. Where is he! I know he’s there…”
(The voices fade away until only the buzz of static remains. The recording switches off.)
Todd sat in the low chair in the plush office, with Palanski perched on the edge of his desk like an accommodating gargoyle. His nerves jangled, despite his resolution to be confident about this. Palanski continued to give off the appearance of a waiting predator; he watched Todd with sharp brown eyes for a moment without saying a word. Todd returned the stare in brief glances, his eyes roving about the office. His gaze settled on the mysterious picture of the young woman on the desk.
“A gorgeous gal, huh?” Palanski said, following Todd’s line of sight to glance at the picture himself. That was all he said. He turned back to Todd. Todd willed himself not to sweat through his shirt.
“Yes, I did want to talk to you today, Todd. I appreciate you taking the initiative to come to me first. I wanted to talk about your latest audit — the call taken earlier this week.”
“Well, I can tell you that it was really stressful, Mister Palanski. I didn’t mean to say those things. It just got out of control so quick.” Todd said. A vitriol mixture of guilt, shame, and anger bubbled in his gut.
“Yes, it certainly did get out of control. Here, I’d like for you to listen to the recording. Are you alright with doing that?”
“Uh, well, I mean, if you want, yeah. Sure.” Todd said, fumbling over several responses that attempted to escape his mouth at once. He sunk lower into the chair, seeking sanctuary inside the cushions. Palanski pushed off the desk adroitly, returning back to his seat to access his computer.
“I’m not doing this to embarrassed you, or for the sake of being macabre. Your Lead and I have already heard this once, and I will say, it’s extremely unsettling. I’d rather avoid listening to it again, but I think you need to hear this. If for nothing else than for a coaching opportunity.” He spent a moment booting up a program, then leaned into his high backed chair as static whispered from the speaker on the desk.
Todd waited with the nature of a condemned man; he waited in dread of the axe. His voice cut the susurrus of static on the recording.
“Thanks for calling 1–800-ZOMBIES, this is Todd.” His voice came through tinny and distinct, as if from through a dark well. Then her voice entered next.
“Oh thank God. Hi, this is Sarah Wheeler.” Hearing her voice again caused him to nearly gasp aloud. He could clearly hear her choked desperation under the veneer of certitude she spoke with. Palanski watched on patiently unmoving; the arbiter meting out judgement.
“Hello, this is Tommy with 1–800-ZOMBIES, where we aim to make you safe. Please state your name and ID and I’ll be happy to assist you.”
“Tommy, this is Sergeant ?Budeir? Of the National Emergency Corps, 3rd Division. I have a situation at our ?army term for hotspot? That I could really use your help with.”
“Y-yes, certainly sir! Do you have a moment to give me your badge number quick?”
“N-3874-C. I need you to listen: we’re currently hold up in the third floor of a clothing store down in the Financial District. We had six civies unbitten but all immobilized by injury. Two of my own detachment are KIA, another currently MIA after several attempts to reach her by radio. I’m not sure of the exact coordinates; I can see the street signs of Lawther and East Square down the block from my position. We’ve got at least 40 or 50 biters outside looking for a way to get in on the main floor, by my last count.”
“Ok…I’m emailing all this directly to my manager. Just tell me what you need, and we’ll pull our resources to help you as fast as we can. It’ll all be billed to the NEC military account, so you have unlimited access to any type of assistance you need.”
“I already understand all that, boy. This isn’t a time to worry about charges.”
“I know sir, but part of our scripting is to inform you there is no limit or restrictions on Crack Team or Air Support Packages.”
“Enough. We don’t have time to fuck around with this bullshit. I need to get these people out of here alive.” (The officer’s voice fades, his muffled voice can be partially heard barking an order at somebody.) “This is what I need: Get an order out for two or three gun mounted jeeps, if you can. I’d say a platoon of soldiers at least. There may be less than a hundred of them out there now, but once the shooting starts, it’ll attract them throughout the entire city. I also want an evac vehicle here to move the wounded straight away. These people need immediate medical attention.”
“Right, got it…Alright. I’ve put your request in as a level 5. That means it’s gonna happen as soon as we get our guys on the trucks and out the garage. I should have an expected arrival time in just a few minutes. Do you want to stay on the line with me until then?”
“Sure, that’s fine Timmy. Give me a moment, okay? There’s something going on out there; I’m going to recon for a sec.”
“Actually, it’s Tom-sure, not a problem sir.”
(The recording crackles static as the agent waits silently for Officer Budier to return. Several voices can be heard mingling in the background. The sound of a shot careens wildly into the speaker; followed by the hiss of static and a shocked noise from Tommy.)
“Officer Budier!? What’s going on?”
(A ragged gasping steadily increases in volume as Officer Budier returns to the radio.)
“I’ve never seen anything like it — the fucker was BIG.”
“Sir, please. What’s happening?”
“I went to a window to scope the street; this…this thing jumped right up from the crowd of them right at me. Three fucking stories, right from the fucking ground.”
“What do you mean Sergent?! What jumped three stories? Nothing can do tha-”
“Fuck! Biggs, cover the window — Richards and Morly, cover the injured NOW!”
(The recording picks up tatters of faint screaming and the piercing staccato of gunfire. The agent begins to call franticly for the officer to return to the radio. Several moments of frenzied activity and shouting can be heard. Tommy continues to call out for a response, along with asking for assistance on his end.)
“Sergant Budier!? Sergant Budier!”
(Scabbling and harsh gasping approaches the radio.)
“Shi…fuck me. Arughhh…”
“Sergeant Budier!? Stay with me man!”
“This is Specialist Richards…I’m…Budier is down…I think.”
“Stay with me! We’ve got evac on it’s way. ETA less than ten minutes!”
“No, no, I’m not gonna make it. The biters are in through the front doors now…those jumpy things chased the rest of us away. I’m the only living one left, I think.”
“Ok, alright. What’s the current situation for you? Have you been bitten? Can I help in any way?”
“I don’t think I was…I think I have a couple broken ribs — oh fuck. FUCK. One of them is back. Shit!”
(A spatter of gunfire commences. Specialist Richard begins to scream in high pitch tone as a snarling growl can be heard.)
“Hey! Richards? Richards!”
(The agent continues to call out franticly. The voices and screams fade away into static.)
Todd sat in the low plush chair, pale and shaken. The reinforced walls of the office soaked in the last of the echoes of the recording. Palanski had started the taped conversation at a high volume. Todd hadn’t been spared Sarah Wheeler’s raw urgency. Had he really been so uncaring? How could he have been so obdurate to her need? Since when did he become so jaded and far removed from compassion? He couldn’t recognize the harsh exactitude of his voice. Why hadn’t he cared enough?
“What happens now?” He asked the silence of the office. Palanski slowly lifted himself from his office chair; a man heavy with burden after witnessing Todd’s pitiless display.
“I think that entirely depends on you, Mr. Durham. I feel the need to be honest about this; brutally honest. That was terrible. Almost vulgar. When I first heard the recording, I was sickened. I don’t know what would drive you to be so uncaring for another person like that. Not only that. Our business is founded on being compassionate and willing to assist. It’s the pillar and code of this company. People who pay for our services expect the highest class of responsiveness and empathy from our agents. YOU are HERE to HELP.” He empathized the last of these words with a strike of his palm on the surface of his desk.
Todd felt cold fear coiling around the pit of his stomach. Two years of working in the closeted space of the Chicago office Palanski rarely revealed a glimmer of emotion. Here he was tense anger wrought into the shape of a tall man. His narrow set eyes exuded a fierce light. Todd felt the stirrings of fight or flight tensing his limbs.
“I understand that, sir. I know my job. I’m very good at it.” He felt wounded from his own awful actions, but couldn’t find the face to force out any sort of an apology. He couldn’t apologize to Sarah now, anyways.
“Good? Then what the hell was that, man!?” Palanski shouted, stabbing a hand at the speaker on the desk. He was silent a moment, visibly gaining control over his outburst. Todd remained sullen. Finally his boss spoke again.
“I think you need to be reprimanded for this. I’m not sure yet what form that will take, but I believe it’s appropriate.” Todd narrowed his eyes. The icy fear melted before a growing tempestuous anger.
“Look, that’s not me! I wanted to help; I really tried! She just…I couldn’t…” His voice died away. Palanski returned to his seat, sat down heavily with a long indrawn breath, hands folded before his face.
“Alright. This is what we’re going to do. First, I’m going to have you temporarily suspended from work. Of course you can continue to bunk in your quarters, have access to food and water. I may have you under isolation for a time too, at least until I can speak with the board to see what will be the best action plan to take.”
Palanski pulled open a drawer and removed a small sheaf of papers, sliding across the dark mahogany grain towards Todd.
“Now, in the meantime until we sort this out, I’d like for you to read through this carefully, and sign at the bottom. Can you do that for me?”
“Wait a second — are you suspending me without pay?”