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The Zombies Can't Be Killed With Selfie-Sticks

Joy Kennedy-O'Neill lives on the Texas Gulf coast and teaches English for Brazosport College, where her husband K.S. O'Neill (also a DSF contributor) teaches math. Joy's stories have been published in Nature, New Flash Fiction Review, Flash Fiction Online, the Cimarron Review, Galaxy's Edge, Strange Horizons, among others. More of her work can be found at JoyKennedyOneill.com.

My dead girlfriend's face greets me in the kitchen, holo-projected above my burbling coffee pot.
"Your memories from seven years ago!" Alexis-5 chirps.
My heart cracks a little.
"Stop reminders," I say.
It hurts too much to see her. We broke up long before her cancer, but still. I feel guilty.
Alexis-5 is connected to my Fitbit, and it senses my pulse, hormones, and distress. It tries to cheer me up. "Your memories!"
There's me at seven, holding my first puppy. The picture spins above my kitchen table like a specter. Poor, sweet Rusty. Hit by a car.
"Stop reminders!" I shout.
"Noted." Alexis-5 beeps a sickly ping and Rusty fades, his fur going ghostly gray. The system pings again. "Reminder: it's been one minute since you stopped reminders."
Good grief. I don't need this glitch today. I'm meeting Sarah for coffee, the new girl from work. She laughs at the same time she says "hello," and then she laughs again. She smells like jasmine. Plus, she likes all my favorite movies. I haven't felt this happy in a long time.
When I leave my flat and hear Alexis-5 lock the door behind me, I even want to hum a little. I'm putting the past behind me, starting over. Huzzah-huzzah! I can do this.
It's a beautiful day, and people fill the sidewalks and cafes. But everyone is on their tech. People swipe left and right at holos above their phones, saying "Sorry, didn't want you to see that." Nervous laughter.
Other people shout to their phones, "Stop reminders!"
Apparently some new update has gone haywire. Everyone's connected on Alexis-5, and each automatic update hits us all. You can almost see the data rippling across cities, like a spreading infection. I'm relieved it wasn't just my tech going bonky.
"Hi," Sarah waves me over to a cafe patio, smiling.
Her shirt blushes red; she's wearing mood-tech fashion. Her phone chirps and an emoti-heart spins above her purse. "Sarah is feeling excited!" the narrative-app says.
"Oh my god, so sorry!" she takes out her phone and fumbles with it.
My own phone chirps. "You've visited here six times. Claim reward points?"
We both struggle with our phones. "Something's up with everyone's," I say. When I try to turn mine off, it bleeps angrily. It won't power down.
A group of girls on the sidewalk hold a selfie stick. "New status," they say. But the "You-in-fifty-years" fun app projects them as old, withering in mid-air.
Sarah doesn't laugh, and I don't either. It's creepy as hell. Then the "What's in your body?" app takes over from there. It projects the girls' sinews and bones, hollowed out skull-holes for eyes. The girls scream.
"Oh," Sarah blanches. "That's gruesome."
Something's happening. All around us, phones chirp and holo-stream. Alexis-5 is connected to everything, even e-jewelry--the onyx fitbits, data bracelets, and friendship pinky rings. Everything bleeps, chirps, and shrieks. The sound is deafening. No one can turn them off.
I take Sarah's hand. "Let's ditch brunch. The library has a signal-blocking reading room."
She looks up from her phone. "Okay," she nods. But she's obviously seen a memory that's upset her. She's starting to cry. Her shirt is blue now.
"It's all right," I say.
But it's not all right. The sidewalk and tables and streets have become crowded with people. No, not real people. 3D projections of posted memories:
Us, when we were healthier.
Us, when we thought we'd get into that grad school.
When we were hopeful.
When we had girlfriends who had no idea of the cancers that were growing inside them, even as we held them, planned lives.
I feel like my brain's sliding sideways.
Us, blowing out candles. Us in videos. Vimeos. Tagged, targeted, liked, hearted, starred, emoti-haunted.
It's all in crisp clarity. Life's Polaroids as an electronic plague. I see strangers as if they're naked.
When our dads were alive....
When our moms were alive....
When our pets were alive....
Everyone sees something upsetting.
"It feels like they can hurt us," Sarah says. "I know they can't but..."
This does feel threatening. Like memories turning on a knife blade, becoming real. We start running down the street. A woman hugs a lamppost, crying.
I see phones in the garbage, but holos still chase their owners down the block, connected to their devices, even linked to their mood-wear shirt tags.
Sarah's purse bangs against her side as she runs. Her phone inside bleeps and sends emoji faces spinning in the air. "Sarah is feeling scared!" Her shirt goes from blue, to purple, to a blotchy black of terror.
We run toward the library. In front of me, my ex-girlfriend starts to spin like a pixilated phantasm. There are pictures of us on the beach--me ogling her bikini and waving the hang-ten sign. I almost skid to a stop but Sarah's running faster, pulling my hand. My memories stay one step ahead; I can't run through them.
I pant and try to explain what we're seeing. "That was--years ago. She's gone. Cancer--"
"It's okay." Sarah's breathing hard too. Two more blocks to the library.
All the years of posting, pinging, and tagging. Why didn't we think it would come back to haunt us? Grief used to be a memory box that you could take out whenever you steeled yourself. A dusty photo-album, harmless and passive.
One more street to go.
A projection of a baby burbles on the sidewalk. "Da!" A man falls to his knees in response. An old Go-Fund-Me page for childhood neuroblastoma research scrolls above his wrist, along with an obituary. He wrestles with his bracelet, like trying to unlock a shackle.
We keep running.
Soon we burst through the library's door. Its blocking tech works, and our phones go silent. Holos disappear. Sarah's shirt turns white as a blank page.
Suddenly, I'm babbling. "I can't be counted on. I only visited her once in the hospital--"
But Sarah's not listening. She's looking out the window. People run. Others record the panic, already hitting "post" and "share."
She rests a trembling hand on a bookshelf. I put mine over it, hoping to feel a real connection. I want it to feel warm and strong and secure. Reliable. But she doesn't meet my eyes.
"We're fine in here," I tell her. "Really."
And it's true, I think. This new silence feels like a stone-sweet haunting. Every thought, every memory here, has a cover. It's concealed. Shelved. Spines out, with bone-white pages of endless patience. Waiting.
"Yeah, we're okay," I say again. And maybe we really are. Here, with all the books of the dead.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 16th, 2019

Author Comments

I teach a course on zombie literature. Their history is fascinating: from enslaved puppets, to cannibalistic ghouls, to contagious corpses. They can be shambling slow or lightning fast. They can be created by voodoo, radiation, viruses, fungi, terrorists, and even fracking--they are always a metaphor for our current fears. I've wondered, what's next? Why not social media? After all, zombies are essentially ourselves.

- Joy Kennedy-O'Neill
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