Welcome to DAGSTINE’S HALLOWEEN! Did you ever wonder what it would be like to teach undead children? Did you ever wonder what the scientific, psychological, and moral implications of something so eerie would be like? I mean, dead kids with some thought processes still intact being taught and experimented on.
Ever since 28 Days Later, every few years zombies have this funny way of making a comeback (perhaps too much). From the Dawn of the Dead remake to Diary of the Dead and Land of the Dead. From foreign masterpieces like [.REC] to hilarious films like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. It’s as if we truly are a “zombiefied” culture. For this year’s fiction sample and Halloween story, I’ve decided to present to you one of my more widely accepted tales — mags ranging from Necrotic Tissue to Atomjack — entitled, Classroom of the Dead. Have a wonderful holiday and enjoy!
HAPPY HALLOWEEN 2009 – FREE FICTION
CLASSROOM OF THE DEAD
Lawrence R. Dagstine
The room was huge. A cavernous, old turn-of-the-century affair, with twelve-foot-high ceilings and magnificent, large windows that looked out on absolutely nothing worth seeing: a brick wall and the smokestack of the chemical plant next door, a well-sized piece of land fenced off and secluded from outsiders—most called it a playground for the stiffs—and it was just how the government wanted it. A hefty chunk of the room had been partitioned off with gray steel industrial shelving units, used to store the supplies of safety such a learning environment would require. The T-shaped area that was left belonged to substitute teacher, Howard Tressy.
Windows ran the length of the wide, long arm of the T, where the chairs and work desks were; the narrow, shorter arm of the T contained the blackboard on one wall and the titanium emergency hatch at the opposite end. It was an adequate amount of space—he had taught in more cramped, dangerous conditions—but it was a quirky arrangement. The blackboard was useless because it couldn’t be seen from the work area, and the children didn’t have the skills required to pay full attention to it anyway. And short of standing like a guard at the junction of the two arms of the T, he saw that he could not monitor the hatch. Most eccentric, and morbid, however, was the government’s decision to combine a classroom for undead children with regards to furthering their education even after their pulses stopped.
They called it HOS (short for hostile, or Homicidal Outburst Syndrome). You know, one of those biological “Oh, shit, it’s the End of Days” diseases which turned a whole nation of little boys and girls into half brain-dead monsters, flooding them with super strength and unbelievable rage. It was to be one of the first official self-contained classrooms in the state of Colorado for zombies, ages twelve and under, who could be instructed and mentally reared since the No Kill Act had been passed in 2018. For Howard, walking back into a schoolroom with musty children that early September morning, having been gone from teaching almost three years, had provoked a sense of intense déjà vu. Looking at the twenty or so decomposed faces, it seemed as if he had been away forever and yet had never left at all.
He put down his briefcase and studied the features of each of them. Their pale white eyes caused a shiver to run up his spine to his shoulders. As a precautionary measure, those who were extra vicious were handcuffed to their chairs, and if they were caught escaping or attacking the teacher, an armed guard, usually a Marine, would hear an alarm go off and hurry inside, then blow the ravenous child’s head off.
The six through eight year olds came with the kind of profile that was almost a cliché: borderline death IQ, short to almost non-existent attention span, no verbal skills beyond a grunt or a moan, overaggressive and violent behavior when in large numbers. In his entire short career as a substitute, Howard achieved virtually nothing. Yes, some could talk. But most could neither read nor write, or understand even the most basic of math.
The nine through twelve year olds had succumbed to the HOS sickness quite some time ago; it was obvious in their pale, sunken cheeks. They had spent virtually all of their dead time in confinement facilities or walking the red earth. Their early days were horrible—a litany of bloodshed and brutality. And while it would take more than the joy of love and learning to conquer their fateful disease, they were diagnosed as being too unstable to ever make a return to society, and had a very poor prognosis for improvement.
Nervous, Howard said, “Children, uhh, inside your desks you will find textbooks. Open up to the chapter marked PLAGUES.” The school was required to have a certain amount of copies of the same particular book on hand, and he saw that only a select few had the capacity to pick them up. “Start reading amongst yourselves under THIS DAY IN HISTORY: 2012. I’ll be with you all in a few moments. Before the day is out, I’ll be testing you on this.”
Putting his pencils out and searching himself now, he realized he hadn’t meant to be teaching again. He’d been abroad, living between Baltimore and Bangkok, working part-time as a book translator, and he intended to return to his life in the East, to his little straw shack, his laid-back life and no worries if a zombie was going to turn a corner and jump out at him. However, a phone call and an insurmountable pay hike from the government—and a less than enthusiastic divorce settlement—had brought him back to the States for good, and before he knew it, he was looking for an apartment outside of Denver.
A friend of a friend in a top-secret division of the DOD had rang him one afternoon. He’d never met the military scientist, but he’d heard of him and his breakthroughs in “awakening the mummified cerebrum” in undead adolescents, or, “we mobilize them, you instruct them”. They had a problem of their own with a new school, it seemed, and since they had both held positions in the Pentagon, maybe they could help one another out. One of their special education teachers had been taken ill—actually, she’d been eaten at recess—and there was only two weeks left before the beginning of the second trial school year, and they had no replacement. They asked Howard if he would be interested in substituting.
No thanks, he said immediately. He wanted to be able to lead a zombie-free life the instant his wife cleared out. But the woman wasn’t easily moved, and finding himself almost penniless and without a roof over his head after the lawyers caught up to him, Howard finally said, Okay, I’ll do it.
Reminiscing, he sat down at his desk, the students in the back row frowning and groaning at him. He was staring out the gated window at the smokestack, dull and purple-gray in the late summer sunshine, when a ceiling light in back of the room went on and the hatch slid open.
“Mr. Tressy?” a female voice called. He couldn’t see who it was from where he was sitting, so he rose. An undead girl, deceased at maybe six or seven, was holding a torn Dora the Explorer doll. Her head and neck was twisted and decayed, practically snapping what was left of her upper spinal alignment and sliding off her shoulder, yet she still managed to poke her head through the hatch and around the left side of the room. “Another one of your students has arrived,” the woman that followed her said. “The parents are by the side of the road.”
“What?” Howard was confused. “Are you the principal?”
“No, of course not,” she said. “There are no principals here. I’m just a facilitator.” She walked the edge of the room carefully, so as not to rile up the students. Almost two-dozen pairs of eyes were on her. Finally, she reached the desk and extended a hand. “Dorothy Wilkins,” she added. An army brat with an M-16 waited at the foot of the room for her. He chewed on a saturated toothpick with a smug face.
“Pleasure,” Howard said. “Don’t mind me, it’s been a while.”
“Oh, really? I gather they didn’t give you the refresher course then.”
“No, they did,” he assured her. “Back in Baltimore. It’s just that… Well, I’ve never seen an arrangement like this so far out. It’s in the middle of nowhere.” He glanced down at the shy but mindless little girl who, like the others, had fine hair that was now brittle and streaked with gray. Her right eye was hanging halfway out of its socket, a few tethered veins and a single optical nerve holding it in place. “And what’s your name, darling?” he knelt down and asked her, trying to break the aura of creepiness surrounding him, and blend in as best he could.
“This would be Nancy,” Dorothy said, as the girl smiled wickedly through torn cheek flesh and hid behind her legs. “And if she puts what’s left of her thinking cap on, she’s good at numbers.”
“Is she now?” Howard was impressed. Mildly.
Then Dorothy smiled herself. “Why don’t you come with me? I’ll show you around and make you feel at home in our special school.”
“But the children,” he said, pointing, “they’ll—”
“Oh, they’re going nowhere. Think of them as well-behaved dogs when you’re out of the room.”
Howard nodded. “All right, then.”
Dorothy brought him to a much older building than the first one, part of an underground complex which looked abandoned since the late half of the 20th century. Only it wasn’t abandoned. Much of its interior was no longer used principally as a school. Instead, it housed a few administrative offices and a training facility for young cadets. The empty classrooms on the first floor were turned into an indoor shooting range—targeting practice and termination for the misbehaved or hopeless case (roughly one in every three), and to help coach newer soldiers in the art of zombie killing.
The scientists had the second floor, to work, sleep, and eat—they even had a recreation room with pinball machines, a pool table, and a dartboard—and as Dorothy gave him a quick tour of the upstairs, he noticed a few doors marked, EXPERIMENTAL TRIALS, GROWTH CHAMBER, and BIOFEEDBACK. The rest of the rooms were used for storage. In fact, there were only a half-dozen real classrooms there: the one he was going to be teaching in and a few turned laboratory two floors below, in the basement. Save for the occasional gun-toting soldier passing through, the building’s halls were hauntingly quiet on this first day of school.
Sublevel, however, he realized that the elevator system and intertwining tunnels connected with the old smoke-piping plant next door, and this interested him very much. Every corridor they turned down there were blue steel walls, reinforced metal or concrete, low rocky ceilings, and unusual looking cameras mounted above them. So unusual that he decided to question his tour guide on it. “Just wondering, Ms. Wilkins, but what is this place for?”
“The cameras got you?” she asked.
“Well, yes, I do find it unusual that you have this place so…so monitored…”
“One can never be too safe when it comes to a HOS casualty, Mr. Tressy. After all, these are not ordinary children we’re dealing with.”
“But I’ve taught HOS victims in the past,” he explained, “and though the tutoring sessions and trials were costly and much to the government’s disadvantage in containing the disease, security and surroundings were still never like this.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Dorothy recalled. “They had you handing out leaflets and crayons from a fold-up table in a giant hangar, a bunch of men in gasmasks and white suits patrolling the corners and exits.” They passed an opening in the tunnel’s rock face, a small exterior shell of a room with no door to bar the outside but plenty of digital monitors and equipment on the inside. “We do things much differently here. Have a look for yourself.”
Howard stepped inside briefly. Two men in gray jumpsuits and donning headsets swiveled around a vast circle of television screens, wired through the rocks and pipelines above. One man took notes in front of a microphone and recording panel, while the other wheeled back and forth mumbling things like “progress” and “stages”.
Howard moved closer. He turned to Dorothy and said, “Is all this for real?”
“Why, of course,” Dorothy answered.
Howard turned back and observed the two men at work.
The first man backslapped his coworker on the arm and said, “Hey, look at this. Monitor no. 34. We have us a live one, a thinking one.”
“Get out of here,” the second man said. “He’s scratchin’ for maggots again, I tell ya.”
On-screen, at one of many different angles, a moldy looking child slowly went into his desk and pulled out a crayon and a composition notebook, studying the two objects carefully. Searching for some kind of meaning, it was as if he wanted to know what they were for.
“That’s my class,” Howard whispered. “That’s one of my students.”
Dorothy smiled. “Yes.”
“I remember gray shelving and a closet there. You mean that’s a hidden camera?”
“One of many, Mr. Tressy. Also, you have the key to that closet at all times. There’s a shotgun and a first aid kit in case of an emergency.”
Howard was astonished.
Finally, the first man in front of him said, “That’s the Tarhouse brat. He’s picking up the crayon, Harry. Look, he’s opening the book and starting to scrawl. He’s making circles!”
The second man couldn’t believe his eyes. Hurrying for the panel, he said, “Holy shit, you’re right! We do have a thinker.” He brought up a school record on the screen in front of him, turned on the microphone, and started taking notes: “Student identification no. 42501236… Name: Billy Tarhouse. Deceased: St. Louis, Missouri, 2017. Noted age and race at time of death and reanimation, approximately eight years old and Caucasian. Child has picked up a writing instrument without teacher present, and appears to be drawing. At this stage, I’d say motor skills are barely level three. But it’s a positive sign. I repeat, there is progress.”
After he’d heard all that, Howard stepped away in disgust. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” he told Dorothy.
“Well, we could—”
“No, Ms. Wilkins. This is too disturbing. Take me elsewhere.”
They walked the remainder of the underground halls in silence, until they reached a secure metal door with a window in it. With a dull expression on his face, Howard quickly peeked at what was going on inside the room. Much to his surprise an officer, in standard military uniform, was sitting down behind a large table. His eyes were glued to a teenage girl, tall, thirteen, maybe fourteen, standing with only half her skull visible against the far wall. To the military official’s credit, a scientist arrived on the scene from a buzz-in door on the opposite side. They both studied the unfortunate subject, and, while she hadn’t quite managed to shed the undead image, she’d obviously tried. Her rank face was covered in makeup. With the help of others, prosthetics and lengthy but seedy looking clothes had replaced the skeletal parts of her body.
“What else can she do?” the uniformed man asked.
The scientist said, “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“Will she cooperate this time?”
“Much of the exterior fractures and impact holes are small,” the scientist pointed out. “You’ll also notice her left temporal lobe and hypothalamus are still intact. So, yes, I don’t see why not.”
The uniformed man took the scientist’s clipboard, then faced the girl again. Her features, for a HOS victim, were decent; her oozing brain matter, however, was another story. She’d clipped the cracked pieces of her skull back with large barrettes so that it would stay in place on her head. Shocked, Howard wondered if it would be enough to convince the officer for whatever purpose his visit required.
Finally, the man nodded. “You look good,” he said. “But can you braid what’s left of your hair back or something?”
Sitting down across from him, she pulled strands of her hair around over her shoulder and began to braid it. She never spoke.
“Are you quite well now, Tracy?” the scientist inquired when he reintroduced the military official to her. “We don’t want another incident.”
The uniformed man glanced in the scientist’s direction, a questioning expression on his face; it occurred to him that she might have little or no memory of that previous occasion. Then he gave her a knowing look. “He means when I was last here. You know, last semester.”
She grinned. “Yes, I remember,” she replied.
Howard was taken aback. He wondered where this girl’s intelligence and ability to speak and think came from; even more perplexing, how had these scientists succeeded where he had failed?
Through the window, Tracy smiled in a friendly way. “I know where I saw you last,” she said. “You were laying on the ground, protecting that teacher.”
A flush of color filled the uniformed man’s face.
And of course, there was the scientist and Howard.
“Your men all came outside at once. You shot me. Over and over.”
“Are you sure about that, Tracy?” The man looked up and said, “This isn’t working. She’s still too corpselike.”
The scientist disagreed. “I beg to differ. Here, feel her arm. Touch it.”
“I’m not going to touch no dead girl!”
“Touch it. Feel her arm. See? See how warm her arm is. Dead people are cold, aren’t they? Feel how warm she is. A part of her brain is still sending signals to other parts of her body.”
“Get her away from me!”
Suddenly, she shrieked, “It’s the dead teacher! That dead teacher is here…” She pointed toward the door with Howard staring through it. “She wants her old job back!”
“Tracy, she’s not exactly dead. Now calm down,” the scientist ordered.
“Who’s that?” the uniformed man asked.
“He’s our new substitute,” the scientist replied. “Ms. Wilkins is giving him a go of the place.”
“No, she’s dead!” The zombie girl shouted. “I killed her. I made the teacher go away. Now she’ll be back!”
To say that the two men inside were looking horrified by this point was a vast understatement, Howard thought. From the other side of the door, even his expression was more horrified than before. The girl was frozen, unable to pull herself away from staring at him, a maniacal little smile repeatedly coming to her lips. And though the trancelike connection was eventually broken, she seemed to confuse him for this other teacher.
Dorothy put her hand on his shoulder. “She’s a special case,” she said. “We should go.”
Howard moved away from the window.
“How do you keep them so calm?” he asked. “A girl as challenged as that one should have attacked the door the moment she spotted me.”
“Every morning we prep them with mega-dosages of tranquilizers,” Dorothy said. “Their parents must sign confidentiality agreements and permission forms before the administering begins. And even then, we have a special selection process as to who gets into one of our classes. Naturally, those we feel are most gifted are bumped up to the top of the list.”
They took the elevator back to the first floor, and it was here, on their way back to the other building, that Howard stopped to gather his thoughts. “Ms. Wilkins, I never signed up for this,” he said. “I realize not all HOS victims are unique, and all cases can’t be alike, but—”
Dorothy shushed him. “Mr. Tressy, did you know that a child’s brain grows until age twenty? After that, adult brains become atrophic and shrink. A young person’s brain, however, produces a certain amount of cells and neurotransmitters, and often well through college. Even in death, these kids sometimes maintain serotonin levels equal to living people.”
“Listen, I’ve taught zombies before, but never within a factory or military science installation. What could a child, dead or alive, possibly learn in an environment where purple smog and constant monitoring is the everyday norm?”
“Ah, I knew you’d question that,” she said, “and it turned three other teachers off by the position. The reason we keep this school next to a chemical mill is not by accident. The discolored remnants you see coming out of that smokestack, the smog as you call it, isn’t just some industrial pollution. The science team is releasing a mile-wide toxin that gives parents their wishes and children a second chance at life. We’re giving mothers and fathers peace of mind, and kids the opportunity of learning and adapting to society. The toxin tries to tap into a dormant cell in young people. This cell has the potential of multiplying into millions more just like it, only at a slower pace than the living. A thinking cell. It doesn’t work for all of them, naturally. It’s all behavioral when you observe these youngsters together in one room, and you get to look beyond their musty features. Speech, logic, reason—in the right-fueled environment, undead children can be host once again to these traits, and many more they picked up whilst among the living. So yes, in a way, they are like guinea pigs. But we’re trying to help these guinea pigs, because we feel they deserve an education.”
She reached forward and gave his hand a quick, clammy shake for good luck. Howard was glancing around nervously, but he still regarded the facilitator’s words. While his take on the school by now was not precisely negative, neither was it positive. Once more he studied the environment with the kind of unabashed scrutiny not usually tolerated among substitutes. Every muscle in his body was taut, and when the woman opened the hatch for him, a strange silence followed. It was almost as if he didn’t know what to do once he stepped back inside the room.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, urging him forward. “You won’t know unless you try.”
The door sealed behind him and, like an hour earlier, he found himself alone with his new class.
The girl with the twisted head and neck, Nancy, walked over to him. She seemed the most sedate of the bunch. “What should we do, Mr. Teacher?” she asked, looking up and tugging at his pant leg.
He smiled down at her. “Ah, a genuine talker. Let’s just leave things and get acquainted for today,” he told her, his mind still gazing off. “Perhaps we’ll feel more like learning tomorrow.” After that, he told the students—the ones that could understand, and the ones that couldn’t—that they could put their textbooks away.
He had an idea.
As had long been his custom in special classes, he opened the day with “story time”. Story time required a book, which he searched the wall in back for; stories traditionally explored areas that persistently got the children thinking, or took them on brave new adventures—an escape from their horrible disfigurements, their cause and effect behaviors, lack of feelings and moral understanding. The period was not used for problem solving or problem making, but relaxation and fun.
He was creating a comfort zone and, once at ease, finally realized that he could make a difference in these young people’s lives, no matter what their ailments. So much that their grunts and moans were replaced by laughs and smiles.
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