by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Anthropomorphic Dreams Podcast, November 2011
When Shreddy was a young cat, he and the Red-Haired Woman lived alone. Shreddy enjoyed his youth and, in later years, he often daydreamed of those days before the Red-Haired Woman declared: “I think I’ll take up a hobby.”
Shreddy wasn’t worried at the time. She’d taken up a hobby before, growing orchids, and he’d found her pastime perfectly delightful. Delectable, even. This time, the Red-Haired Woman decided to grow something that Shreddy couldn’t eat.
“Isn’t she adorable?” the Red-Haired Woman asked Shreddy. He fluffed his fur and bared his claws, but the Red-Haired Woman didn’t notice. “I hope you two will be friends.”
Shreddy didn’t think so. Shreddy thought he would slash the cuddly, little, speckled brown and white Cavalier King Charles Spaniel right across the nose. That, however, the Red-Haired Woman noticed, but it was worth it. Susie, the speckled spaniel, knew from day one to give Shreddy his space.
Susie wouldn’t have been so bad, but Shreddy hated it every time she had puppies. Each litter was two months of hell. Worse, sometimes not all of the puppies sold right away. Invariably, it would be Shreddy’s least favorite of the sniveling, whining, icky little creatures that stuck around for the extra month. Or half year. Shudder. Shreddy didn’t understand why anyone bought the little brats at all. But he was glad when they did.
Susie whined and cried whenever the last puppy from one of her litters was finally sold. Shreddy sniggered. He wasn’t completely heartless though. Whenever Susie lost a puppy, even Shreddy stood at attention in the window watching the somber proceedings of the little funerals outside. He may have hated the little brats, but cats understand the seriousness of death.
Over the years, the little row of tombstones in the garden grew. Five were stillborns; one had a weak heart; and two were too adventurous with necks too weak for their own good. Shreddy mourned them all. Though, he would have hated them had they lived.
It was an unhappy equilibrium, for Shreddy, but it was stable. Puppies came, and puppies would go. Grumpy cats will be grumpy. All might have been well, if the Red-Haired-Woman could have left well enough alone.
Shreddy, Susie, and their shared master.
It was Shreddy, Susie, Cooper, and a woman who Shreddy would no longer acknowledge.
Cooper was a yellow, toy Labradoodle. Where Susie looked like a painfully precious pillow-decoration, Cooper looked and acted more like a mop. Nothing could be more contemptible. Susie, however, was smitten, giving Shreddy one more reason to despise her. That reason multiplied the next time — and every subsequent time — she bore a litter of puppies.
As if Susie’s puppies had not been contemptible enough before, they now sported Cooper’s ridiculous blonde curls and idiotic grin. Whole litterfuls of Cooper.
Shreddy had to take action, and a few weeks after the second litter of abominations was completely sold, Shreddy came up with the perfect plan.
“Cooper,” he purred, ingratiatingly one day. “Have you seen that magic, shiny box that the Red-Haired Woman adores?”
Cooper was busy shoving his head under various couch cushions for no apparent reason, so it took him a moment to respond. And, when he did, his voice was slightly muffled. “Yeah,” he barked, “What of it?”
Shreddy suppressed his inherent desire to yowl, “What are you doing, you stupid dog!” at Cooper and instead launched into an insidious, complex, and logically self-contradictory (but Cooper would never realize that) discussion of how the Red-Haired Woman clearly loved her magic, shiny box more than she loved Cooper.
By the time Shreddy was done talking, Cooper’s couch-mangling activities had slowed to a halt. He was unusually still for his hyperactive Labradoodle self. It looked like he was actually trying out thinking. Shreddy didn’t think the experiment wasn’t going so well for him.
“If I were you,” Shreddy offered, “I’d bury the horrible thing. In the yard somewhere. If I were you.” He sounded immensely casual and looked like he was more interested in cleaning his claws than talking to Cooper. Which wasn’t entirely untrue. Nevertheless, Shreddy was extremely gratified when Cooper wandered off muttering about whether magic boxes had a scent and wondering whether they were trackable by nose. Step one was well underway.
As the day wore on, Shreddy’s self-satisfied notions turned to glowering. He liked the Red-Haired Woman’s smartphone. He’d spent many happy evenings sitting on her shoulder, watching the little lurching and zooming figures on the shiny screen as she played her favorite app, Cars Vs. Zombies. Sometimes, he’d even reach out a paw and try to catch them.
The Red-Haired Woman had let him play once… When he’d finally gotten his paws on them, the little figures were invisible to the touch. But he could see them skittering!
Shreddy grumbled. He hoped Cooper didn’t find the phone.
But Cooper did. And he buried it in the garden. Among the tombstones.
Shreddy shuddered at the sacrilegious desecration as he watched Cooper, nose-down in the dirt, from the safety of the window. Nevermind, he thought, I’ll get the phone back. Step two: wait a few days, and when the woman is frantic, I’ll tell Cooper to lead her to the phone.
Cooper would think he was the heroic rescuer, but the Red-Haired Woman would see him for what he truly was: a wretch who dug in her garden and stole her phone. And that would be the end of Cooper.
Perhaps it might have worked, if not for the lightning.
But that night, after the Red-Haired Woman gave up searching for her phone and went to bed and Shreddy lay twitching beside her, dreaming of playing Cars Vs. Zombies, there was a lightning storm of awesome proportion. Winds and rain rioted the air, and lightening forked across the sky followed by the hideous crack of thunder… and the crack of an elm branch, thick as the telephone pole it crashed into.
The elm branch tumbled, tangled in telephone and power lines, down to the garden beneath. Angry, urgent electrons coursed from the broken ends of those lines, desperately seeking the lower ground offered by the garden.
Inside the house, Shreddy and the Red-Haired Woman slept fitfully; Cooper slept soundly; and, Susie awoke suddenly. She knew, deep inside her, that something was wrong. Whining and tucking her tail worriedly between her hind legs, Susie risked the storm and took the pet door outside. Peering through the dark, she looked at the garden, but her dog’s eyes couldn’t see a thing.
“Shreddy!” she woofed. “Shreddy! Shreddy!” Running back inside, she roused the angry cat and begged him to come with her, lending his night vision to her cause. Normally, Shreddy would have spat at her and slashed her nose for waking him. Tonight…
Shreddy came outside. Glowing eyes looked into the night, and what Shreddy saw made his fur stand straight on end.
Puppies rose from their graves.
Lurching, decomposing, horrible puppies. Covered in dirt clods. In various stages of decomposition. “We have to re-kill them,” Shreddy whispered to himself. They looked like squished bugs. Only worse. Shreddy knew they had to die.
Then, he looked at Susie, her night-blind eyes staring blankly at him. She implored him with a whimper-whine. “What do you see?”
“Nothing,” Shreddy said, realizing that the mother of these undead monstrosities could be no help to him. She’d fall apart the instant she saw her darling babies hideously reanimated. No, she must be protected against ever discovering what the night’s dark shielded her from.
The puppies were approaching. “Go inside,” Shreddy hissed urgently. “Guard the woman. Don’t leave her side all night. She needs your protection.” That would get rid of Susie. Now, though it pained Shreddy to say it, he knew he would need help: “But wake Cooper, and send him to me.”
Cooper might be an idiot, but he was stronger than Shreddy.
While Shreddy waited, he watched the activity in the garden. The horrifying little zombie dogs were nuzzling around, woofing and yipping, “Brains! Brains!”, from their decaying jaws. Just like the little figures in Cars Vs. Zombies, only canine and real.
“What’s up?” Cooper said when he arrived.
“Zombies,” Shreddy explained. And as he said it, he realized: he knew how to kill zombies. With cars. “We need to steal a car.” To Shreddy’s consternation, cars in the real world didn’t start as soon as he lightly set a paw on them. Apparently, video games could be misleading. Undaunted, Shreddy directed Cooper to find a large branch and, with it grasped firmly in his mouth, Cooper bludgeoned away at the windows of the car. Shreddy had seen people sitting inside cars, so he knew if he could just get inside, the car would obligingly zoom away and smash down zombies. That’s what cars did. Only he couldn’t get inside.
Frustrated and grumbling, Shreddy wanted to give up on the whole project and get a good night of sleep in the plushy orange chair. How bad could few zomb-pups living in the backyard really be? Then he saw two things that changed his mind.
First, against all odds, the puppies caught a mouse. The poor thing must have let curiosity get the better of her… There was no way the blundering zomb-pups could have caught her if she’d been smart enough to keep away. “Argh! Brains!” she squeaked, limping about, freshly turned by the zomb-pups. It was the most horrible, icky waste of a plump, tasty mouse that Shreddy had ever seen.
Then, second and much more upsetting, Cooper ran into his friend Buster, another neighborhood dog. Buster had been dead for nearly three months. He was a boxer mix. Twice the height and weight of Cooper. Which meant the zombie problem was more serious and farther reaching than Shreddy had realized.
“There’s something wrong with Buster,” Cooper confided to Shreddy after the two of them safely evaded the large, lumbering zomb-dog by ducking under the front porch and escaping through the back.
Buster was too large — and stupid — to follow them.
“He’s a zombie,” Shreddy hissed. “And I don’t know how to kill him.”
“Is that why we were messing with the car?” Cooper asked settling into a crouch behind Shreddy who was peering gingerly around the corner of the house. “‘Cause bashing cars with sticks is no way to kill things.”
Shreddy turned his glowing night gaze full on Cooper. Did this dog have an idea?
“If you want to kill something,” Cooper said, “you bash it with a stick. Not something else.” Cooper snorted, clearly tickled with his own cleverness.
Shreddy’s flexed his claws, and his eyes narrowed to angry slits. After seeing Cooper’s success with the window, Shreddy was not optimistic about his chances against moving targets. He was reminded of exactly why he’d decided he was willing to sacrifice the Red-Haired Woman’s smartphone to get rid of Cooper. Clearly it had been a bad trade: Cooper was still here, and Shreddy was hunting real zombies in the cold and dark instead of watching the Red-Haired Woman smoosh e-zombies on a comfy couch.
“Cooper,” Shreddy said, measuring out his words carefully before saying them, “It’s time to bring back that magic box you buried.”
“The one the Red-Haired Woman loves better than me? Why would I do that?”
“You’ll be a hero,” Shreddy answered, but what he was really thinking was, You’ll be a zombie. To fetch the smartphone from where it was buried in the garden, Cooper would have to go nose-down in the dirt, right in the middle of zombie-central. Shreddy felt extremely evil as he said, “The Red-Haired Woman will be so grateful. She’ll probably give you bacon.” Being evil was so easy. And thrilling.
Cooper fell for it, and Shreddy felt all the hairs along his spine rise in a plume as he watched the foolish Labradoodle obliviously trot into the garden and begin digging. The dirt flew up around his Labradoodle rump, and the sound alerted the zomb-pups.
The eight zomb-pups, mewling “Brains! Brains!“, approached Cooper from all sides in the pitch dark. He couldn’t see them, and the sound of his digging covered their cries.
Absorbed in the horror show in front of him, Shreddy nearly made a fatal mistake. He forgot about Buster. Then his whiskers tingled, and, in a heartbeat, every muscle in Shreddy’s body contracted, launching him eight feet straight into the air. When he landed on the casing for the heat pump, Shreddy saw how near his escape had been.
Buster had been busy. His outraged baying of “Braaaaaaains!” was backed by an entire chorus of the chittering squirrels he had turned. “B-b-br-ains! B-b-br-ains!”
Shreddy shuddered and realized what a gigantic mistake he was making. Cooper might be the biggest waste of oxygen around, but the last thing Shreddy needed was more zombies.
Ricocheting off the wall of the house like only a crazy cat can, Shreddy leapt over the army of squirrels and shot into the night. His legs moved like he had eight of them.
At the edge of the garden, Shreddy surveyed his situation: squirrels and Buster behind him, puppies in front of him… and sizzling wires trailing into the awkward elm branch tangled into the rose bushes at the far side of the garden. Is that what made them zombies? Or was it a weapon Shreddy could use against zombies?
Electricity was powerful. Shreddy knew that from watching the Red-Haired Woman use it to power the horrible monster she called “Vack-ooom.” And Shreddy needed power on his side. So, creeping through flat iris leaves that marked the garden’s edge, Shreddy approached the elm branch.
Lifting one paw at a time, placing each paw carefully, silently back on the ground… Shreddy moved unheard. But not unseen. He had failed to account for the mouse. She was no hunter, but she had proven easy prey for an undiscerning snake. And the snake’s delectable brains had been in easy reach for the zomb-mouse from inside his esophagus. Together, they’d hunted down most of her kin. Zomb-mice littered the branches of the broken elm. Their beady eyes twinkled in the night. “Brainszszss!” their snake-maker hissed, and “Brains!” they all squeaked back in chorus.
With zombie armies on all sides, Shreddy froze in terror. At that exact moment, Cooper poked his nose up from the hole he’d been digging and woofed, “Found it!” Suddenly seeing the zomb-pups approaching him and the zomb-snake trying to hypnotize Shreddy, Cooper became a dog of action. Grabbing the smartphone in his mouth like a tennis ball, Cooper charged straight into Shreddy, bowling the tabby cat right over. “Snap out of it!” he woofed around the phone in his mouth, a skill he’d practiced to perfection with tennis balls at the dog park.
Shocked out of his stupor, Shreddy tore away from the garden. Cooper was hot on his heels. The two of them ran as fast as they could down the block. Three houses… Four… Five, and they stopped.
“Zombies are sloo-ow!” Cooper crowed.
Shreddy glared at him. “They’re at our house,” he said. “We can’t go home. And if we leave them there…”
Cooper looked stricken. “Susie! The Red-Haired Woman!”
“Woah!” Shreddy yowled, stepping in front of Cooper. “What good will you do them if the zombies get you too?” And, Shreddy thought, Cooper would be even more annoying as a zombie. “We need a plan. We need tools.”
“Well, we have the magic box,” Cooper said, pawing it toward the angry tabby.
Shreddy grumbled at the smartphone. Its advice had failed him so far, but it was the compendium of everything he knew about zombies. Perhaps there was something he’d missed, something he could learn from looking at it. So, Shreddy stepped lightly on the icon for Cars Vs. Zombies, and the game maximized to fill the screen.
It had been running in the background, and as Shreddy squinted at the tiny icons, he realized something eerie.
In the game that was running, there were eight medium zombies arranged together; two crowds of smaller zombies, one of which was led by a large zombie and the other by a misshapen one; and one lone mega-zombie further away.
The eight medium zombies could be the zomb-pups; the crowds were the squirrels led by Buster and the mice led by the snake. But then…
What was the lone mega-zombie?
Cooper barked just in time, and Shreddy pulled his straight-up aerial leap trick again. They both scattered away from the new zombie lumbering toward them. If Shreddy had thought Buster was bad, he hadn’t counted on Dorothy — the St. Bernard — being resurrected.
“What’s that?” Cooper barked as the two live-animals reconvened under Dorothy’s front porch. The narrowness of the space there would protect them from her massive girth for now. But it would be no help against zomb-squirrels and zomb-mice when they got there.
“That’s Dorothy,” Shreddy meowed, his ears flat back and his eyes wide as a kitten’s. “She died four years ago. Before that…” He remembered the one time Dorothy cornered him and got that slavering jaw of drool around his body and shook him. He couldn’t talk about it. “We need that smartphone.”
“The magic box?” Cooper asked.
“It’s still on the driveway…” Shreddy said. His voice was a strangled whine, and Cooper proved himself forever brave (if not wise) in Shreddy’s eyes by turning tail, shuffling out under the other side of the deck, and prancing around the yard, calling “Doro-zombie! Over here!”
Shreddy couldn’t watch and squeezed his eyes as tight shut as they’d been when he was born. He realized he hadn’t even been breathing when he felt the cool plastic of the smartphone nudged against his paws. In a gasp of relief, Shreddy opened his eyes to see Cooper looking at him. “Now what?”
The skittery figures on the screen were multiplying. Shreddy’d had no idea how many dogs had died in this neighborhood over the years. Nor had he figured on how many mice, squirrels, snakes, voles, chipmunks and other backyard vermin would fall to this deadly plague. And how quickly.
“Zombies sure are slow,” Cooper barked again. “I could have made that big one chase me around all night!”
“Zombies might be slow,” Shreddy said, ears flat and eyes wide. “But zombification is exponential. If this doesn’t work…” He couldn’t finish the thought. He couldn’t even think it.
With a quivering paw, Shreddy touched the screen, setting off one of the iconic parked cars to zooming across the screen. With a cheerful electronic bleeple, the car skooshed the big zombie that represented Dorothy. This had to work.
Shreddy waited, fearing nothing would happen. But then the smartphone sent out its wireless signal invisibly through the air, and the snerffling, garrageling pile of putrid flesh and bone that had once been a St. Bernard lost its reanimation with a sudden THUD! A mere pile of re-death on the ground.
“You killed it!” Cooper said. “With the magic box! Do it again!”
Shreddy was quivering all over. He was terrified beyond words, but he touched his paw to another car icon. It took three tries this time, but Shreddy skooshed the snake zombie and a few mice.
For a moment, Shreddy and Cooper thought they were home free. Then they saw Buster, slavering zombie that he’d become, stumbling toward their hiding place. “Get him!” Cooper woofed. “Why aren’t you killing him!”
“I’m trying!” Shreddy shrieked in a blood-curdling caterwaul. But, on-screen, Buster was protected from zooming car-icons by the army of squirrels and zomb-mice following him. Car-icons kept striking them down, but there were so many… And Shreddy’s paws were shaking so badly, he couldn’t kill them fast enough. Buster would be on them any moment.
Shreddy panicked and mashed the phone’s power button, but turning it off had no effect. Buster and his army kept approaching. As Shreddy powered the phone back up, he cursed the precious moments he’d lost to this futile experiment. “Turn on! Turn on!” he yowled. “I have to play it… I need more time.”
Gleaning the situation, Cooper earned his hero’s stripes again. Darting out from under the deck, Cooper bayed to the moon like a lonely wolf. Glittering, rodential zombie eyes turned to him, and zomb-Buster answered his bay with another that said, “BRAINS!”
The two dogs, living and un-dead, took off down the street. Cooper out-distanced Buster easily, but Shreddy could see on the glowing screen under his paws that the swarms of tiny zombies were multiplying. Zomb-rodents would soon surround him. Both of them. Hopefully, Cooper’s sacrifice would be enough to buy Shreddy the time he needed.
Clearing his mind and drawing a deep breath under his whiskers, Shreddy played as he had never played before. His paw-pads fluttered over the screen, setting off car-icons with a precision he’d never mastered on the complacency of a warm couch. Zomb-mice and squirrels that dared approach his hidden den dropped like flies.
When Susie’s unfortunate pack of zomb-puppies appeared drooling at the edge of the porch, with only the slightest twinge of conscience, Shreddy re-killed them. When the path to the large zombie-icon representing Buster cleared, Shreddy struck him down with a combo-move involving two cars and a truck.
It was an exhilarating and proud moment for Shreddy when he finally looked out at the battlefield and saw he’d cleared the entire yard, driveway, and street in front of him. All the corpses littering the lawn and cement were lifeless. Purely, straight-forwardly dead. He was safe.
The glowing screen at Shreddy’s paws had lit up in fireworks, and all the car-icons were happily dancing. He’d seen the Red-Haired Woman beat Cars Vs. Zombies many times before, but Shreddy had never won himself. Until now. But, now, the sweetness was embittered by the knowledge that Shreddy’s brilliant combo-move had taken down not one zombie but two.
Shreddy had seen the second zombie appear right as he struck the killing blow. Right next to Buster. Right where Cooper had been…
Shreddy had wanted Cooper gone. But not like this.
Paying brief homage at the overturned gravestones by now empty graves, Shreddy made his way back to his home. He bathed Susie’s freckled snout gently when he found her asleep on the Red-Haired Woman’s bed. Then, he joined her and their master for a dream-filled night of sleep.
He dreamed of flowers and sunshine and being young again. When he woke, Shreddy felt very, very old, and he didn’t know how he’d tell Susie when she awoke that her lover was gone. He’d sacrificed himself for her, the Red-Haired Woman, and… Shreddy.
The Red-Haired Woman got out of bed, tried to flick on the lights, and, when they didn’t work, drew the window curtains open instead.
“Oh my goodness,” she said, seeing the broken elm and toppled telephone pole. Throwing on a robe and slippers, she rushed out of the bedroom, and a minute later, Shreddy could see her outside the window looking at her garden. The dug up graves. The littered corpses. Shreddy closed his eyes trying to shut out the memories evoked by his vicarious experience of the Red-Haired Woman’s horror.
He felt Susie’s cold nose touch his whiskers. “Where’s Cooper?” she asked.
Shreddy’s ears flattened, and he wondered whether he could manage to never open his eyes again.
“What happened last night?” Susie said. “Where’s Cooper?”
A cheerful voice that didn’t sound like it belonged to a zombie barked, “I’m here!”
Shreddy’s eyes shot open. “You died!” he spat. “I saw Buster… right before he died…” Shreddy eyed Cooper skeptically. If you were dumb enough, could being turned into a zombie make you smarter?
“Right before Buster died?” Cooper said. “There was a road kill raccoon in the street. If there hadn’t been, Buster might have got me! But then he was busy eating raccoon brains… It was awfully close.”
Cooper bounced onto the bed next to Shreddy and Susie. Any other day, Shreddy would have hissed and scratched the impudent yellow dog. This time, although his fur fluffed reflexively at having his space intruded upon, Shreddy stepped lightly away, ceding the bed to the dogs. He wasn’t even too angry when the Red-Haired Woman returned and gave both dogs hugs, grateful they were safely inside after the turmoil of last night’s storm.
“I think,” she said, “we won’t be having any more puppies for a while.” In her eyes, Shreddy could see the horror of the hordes of re-dead zombies littering her lawn, emanating outward from those turned up graves. He was glad some good would come of that. Even if he was stuck with Cooper.
The Red-Haired Woman never did find her phone under the porch three houses down where Shreddy left it. When the replacement came, Shreddy was glad to see she didn’t download the app for Cars Vs. Zombies again. Instead, she downloaded its sequel, and Shreddy had very mixed feelings every time he watched her play Cars Vs. Ninjas.