Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Better Off Undead

James Preller

Feiwel & Friends

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

MIRROR, MIRROR


Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the deadest of them all?

There I was, lying on my bed on another sticky summer afternoon, examining my reflection in a hand mirror. I pondered the first day of seventh grade, just four days away, and gazed at my decomposing face.

It wasn’t too bad, considering I was dead. When you took into account that minor detail and then compared me to all the other dead people in the world, hey, I was doing all right. Better than all right! Go ahead: Dig up a grave, stick the corpse in a wicker chair next to me, and then compare and contrast. Do a Venn diagram for all I care. I’ll win that beauty contest eight days a week, twice on Sunday.

That’s me, Adrian Lazarus: way hotter than most dead people.

Compared to living folks, the ones who aren’t full-on zombies, maybe I don’t look so great. Mine is a face only a mother could love, though I was beginning to have my doubts about that. After all, how could she? The whole zombie thing had been tough on Mom. She hadn’t bargained for a zombie with bad breath, body odor, and a hunger for braaaaains. Just kidding about the dietary issues. I’m pretty satisfied with an undercooked hamburger and greasy fries. Not super hungry these days.

A fly touched down on the windowsill near my bare feet. It lifted off again like a barnstorming pilot, performed a few dives, loop-the-loops, and barrel rolls over my exposed flesh. It buzzed my face before squeezing out a hole in the window screen. Probably just an advance scout for the coming swarm. It would tell the other flies they hit the jackpot. That’s one of the downsides of zombie life. Ha, there’s a phrase, zombie life: an oxymoron, like plastic glass and jumbo shrimp and cafeteria food. I attract flies. They follow me in black clouds like I’m the Pied Piper. Kneel down before me, for I am the true Lord of the Flies!

I was basking in my misery when the door opened. As usual, my little brother, Dane, was itching to enter my inner sanctum. As if the closed door meant nothing, and the words KEEP OUT! signaled an open invitation. Dane poked his chubby-cheeked, pug-nosed face into the room. His head was seemingly squished from forehead to chin so that it resembled an old, soft orange. To me, Dane’s smooth, dark, elastic cheeks made him look like a living garden gnome, hideous and adorable at the same time.

Dane was four years old. And unlike his big brother, very much alive.

“Hi,” Dane said. “What are you doing?”

I was doing exactly nothing, but I told him I was reading a comic book. A believable lie, since I often flipped through comic books and graphic novels. There were a few comics scattered by my pillow. Reading was doing something, a way of being alone and yet totally (amazingly) connected to something else, some faraway place called anywhere but here, which is where I longed to be. Without turning around, I grabbed a comic book and held it up for Dane.

“See,” I said, swiveling my head, back still to him.

“The Sandman,” Dane murmured with awe. He stepped into the room, emboldened. Dane wore red shorts held up by an elastic waistband. He had on his favorite T-shirt—the one with a picture of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Inspired by his favorite movie character, Dane often stumbled around the house, pratfalling like the boneless, brainless man of straw, windmilling his stubby arms, humming the tune from the movie.

If I only had a brain.

Concern creased Dane’s face. “Can I come in?” he asked, already in.

I shrugged. All I wanted was to be left alone. But Dane needed to be near, I knew. Even a dope like me can see when he’s loved. It’s better than nothing, by a lot.

“Where’s Mom? Yoga class? Work?” I asked.

“She’s on the phone, talking to somebody about periodic rate caps,” Dane explained, without a flicker of comprehension as to what he was saying. He could join the club. I didn’t know what periodic rate caps were, either. That was Mom’s work. Flipping houses, skimming a percentage off the top, moving on like a shark in bloody waters. Buying and selling.

After my father went overseas with Corporate to fight in the Water Wars, and kept reenlisting, Mom reinvented herself. Today she’s a successful real estate agent. I couldn’t walk three blocks in town without seeing her face beaming out from a FOR SALE sign: ROSIE LAZARUS, AN AGENT YOU CAN TRUST.

Dane reached into his pocket and produced two sour-apple candies. My little brother knew the way to my heart—through the gap in my rotten teeth and down into the cavities. He offered both to me.

I took one, told him to keep one for himself, pulled on the twisted ends of the crinkly wrapper, and popped the hard candy into my mouth. I grunted “thanks” and returned to my horrible mirror.

I sighed. “I might run away.” I could see Dane standing behind me now, reflected in the mirror, pressing closer. I felt his sticky fingers on my back, heard the hard candy rattling against his teeth.

“Don’t go to California, it’s on fire,” Dane said.

After years of drought, wildfires had started up and kept spreading. Nobody was running away to California anymore. “Not all of it,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, blinking. Dane considered the news in silence. “Can I have your room?”

“Dane!”

His head pivoted on his shoulders as he eyed the walls and sloped ceiling, redecorating in his imagination. He’d probably fill it with Legos. Dane caught my eye in the mirror’s reflection. “Mom would be mad if you ran away.”

Maybe mad, I thought. Or relieved. “You hungry?”

The sweet boy with fat cheeks and loose curls nodded. Yes, he was hungry. Dane was always hungry.

I sat up and put my feet on the carpet for the first time in hours. My toes were numb, like dull weights, lead sinkers on a fishing line. No nerve endings. I could take an ax and chop them off, from big toe to little toe, and never feel a thing. Pop ’em off like grapes from the stem.

Dane took my cold, clammy hand. “Come,” he said, and tugged, dragging me from my dark room into the light.


Text copyright © 2017 by James Preller

Illustrations © 2017 by Andrew Arnold