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Behind Grey Eyes

Chris Ovenden teaches philosophy at the University of Manchester, UK. In his spare time he writes flash fiction about robots, time travel, and possible worlds.

"I don't know that I'm comfortable with the whole zombie thing, you know."
Sara laughs. "What, you scared they're going to eat you?" She's too busy counting out the exact change for her coffee to look at me.
"Very funny." I scratch at the "Jen" written on the side of my cup. He does his Js like I do, a curly tail with no bar on top.
"It's just... I don't know. It doesn't seem right sometimes."
"Four... thirty-five. There you go." Sara puts the coins into the zombie's hand and joins me at the end of the counter. "What doesn't?"
"Using them like we do."
The zombie drops Sara's coins into the till and sets about making her coffee. He looks about twenty-five, quite handsome for a zombie: thick black hair shaved at the sides, light stubble on his chin, striking grey eyes. You'd never guess what he was, if it weren't for the Z scorched neatly into his cheek. I actually kind of liked it on him.
"Why? They don't feel anything. They aren't... whatcha call it... conscious, or whatever."
"I guess I never really understood how that's supposed to work."
Sara shrugs. "They shut off a part in their brain. Prevent awareness loops. We did it in neuro last semester. Did you get an invite to Maddie's next week?"
"Hmm?" It takes me a second to realize we've changed topics.
"She's invited Tom and Charlie, but not me. I mean, as if they weren't going to tell me."
Tom and Charlie lived across from us in first year. Sara was seeing one of them for a bit, I forget which one. They sort of blended into each other to be honest. I sometimes wondered if Sara even knew who was who. And now she was ignoring me.
"You might be a zombie for all I know."
Sara laughs, loud enough to draw the zombie's attention away from the coffee he's making her. "You think I'm a zombie?"
"No, but it's not like I can look inside your head, is it."
I go back to watching the zombie. He's looking at me now, smiling, his big grey eyes flirting with me across the counter. I almost look away. I would have if it was anyone else.
"Don't you ever wonder what it's like, being a zombie?"
"It's not like anything," Sara says, "that's the point, that's why they're behind the counters and we're drinking the coffee. Or at least we would be if it ever hurries up."
The zombie's eyes snap back onto the machine. He acts like he's embarrassed, though, of course, he can't be.
"I don't know," I say, "sometimes I think, maybe we should make our own coffee, drive our own cars. Maybe that's all just important, you know."
"You want to work in a coffee shop?"
"No, I just... Forget it."
I unlock my phone and flick though the dozen or so new messages. Half of them from Sara.
"Sorry about the wait." The zombie says as it slides the coffee over the counter. Sara takes it and heads for the door without a word.
"Have a nice day," he says.
"Thanks, you too," I say for both of us, then, "sorry," a little quieter. The zombie grins and sinks his hands into his pockets.
"Beautiful day out."
The zombie leans over slightly to look out the shop front. "Beautiful day."
"Oh, is it?" I manage. I hadn't noticed.
The zombie flashes me another grin then goes back to work. I watch him a moment longer, then hurry out after Sara.
"Thanks, Mr. Zombie, have nice day, Mr. Zombie" she chimes as I fall into step.
"Oh, shut up."
"Did you get his number?" She laughs. "I don't know why you bother, it can't hear you. Not really."
We walk off towards her car. Sara's zombie has already seen us coming and started the engine. We're a few paces away when someone shouts behind us.
"Miss!" I turn to see the grey-eyed zombie running after us, and for a moment I think he really might be coming to eat me. I let out a tiny shriek and step backwards off the curb, tumbling over and landing squarely on my bum.
I open my eyes.
I'm looking up at the zombie: his silhouette against the clear autumn sky, the late afternoon sun brushing through his hair. Along the street, the trees lining the road are just starting to turn, painting the red brick buildings behind them with splashes of green and orange and gold.
"Are you o.k.?" the zombie says as I take his outstretched hand. "I think you forgot this." He pulls me to me feet. He's got my purse in his other hand.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Sara screams, "You scared her half to death!" She starts fumbling with her phone. "What street is this? I'm reporting this."
"I'm really sorry," he tries, "I didn't mean to make you jump."
"No no," I say, brushing myself off, "it was my fault. I wasn't really looking. Thank you."
The zombie nods and hands me my purse.
Sara is still screeching beside us. Acting outraged, though of course she isn't. Her zombie has jumped out of the car by now and wandered over to see if I'm all right. I wave him away.
"I've got to get back," my grey-eyed zombie says, "sorry again." I give him a little wave as he jogs back to the shop, apron flapping beside him. There was a lot going on behind those grey eyes of his, even if he couldn't see it.
"You know," I say, as he disappears through the door, "it's such a lovely day, I think I'll walk home. I'll see you tomorrow, yeah?"
Sara doesn't answer, she's still trying to work out where we are. I'm halfway across the road before she calls after me.
"Jen? Hey, where are you going?"
I don't respond. She's not listening, not really.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Author Comments

I've been wanting to write a story about philosophical zombies for a while now--people with minds but no conscious awareness--but I've always gotten stumped with what to write because, by definition, zombies don't have a perspective from which to tell a story. I eventually got this idea after listening to a friend complain about how everyone is always on their phones and never really paying attention to what's going on around them. I thought: what would be worse: perceiving things but having no capacity for awareness, or having the capacity for awareness but not perceiving anything anyway?

- Chris Ovenden
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