Mr Schmidt’s Dead Pet Emporium


The black patches grew with agonizing slowness. The end of his nose was excruciatingly sensitive and Eli Schmidt’s eyes watered. The tears spilling down his cheeks were an unaccustomed sensation, one barely noticed through his pain. This was worse than creating the purple lividity patches on the rest of his body or the swatches of grey on his arms, face, and neck.

Still, the black ovals he was filling in on his nose did grow, and he kept the hand holding his tattoo gun characteristically steady.  It was satisfying to see how ghastly he already looked under the fluorescent lights of the small bathroom. But the nose was crucial. Get it wrong and every dead thing would see right through him. Eli focused on getting his fake enlarged nostrils just so, dabbing beads of blood away with the tissue clenched in his left hand. He had never been one for sloppy work. Careful fingers and the dead were the only reason he was alive to grimace at his prematurely grey hair.


Eli Schmidt had always made his living from the dead. They had been his constant companions and means of survival since his youth when he had pulled gold from teeth in a shed beside Buchenwald. There, he was not only surrounded by shambling skeletons each night, and all day, he was one of the walking dead.


His careful posthumous dental work, always punctuated by the beatings of the Kapo who oversaw the pajamaed dentists, had allowed him to join the other shamblers in stacked bunks each night instead of going to the graves.


So it was natural he preferred to remain with the dead when he emigrated to a new country, unable to bear staying anywhere near Weimar. They were far kinder than the living, in his experience.


In the Displaced Persons Camp where he and so many other survivors were initially stored he had caused dismay by asking to learn tattooing and embalming. These were strange requests from a person newly out of a concentration camp.


Eli was immediately sent to a bluff American psychiatrist. However, the kindly Doctor could not break through Eli’s humble insistence that these were his interests.


“Why not let him have at it?” The Doctor said finally when he had enough of Eli sitting quietly and speaking as little as possible. “I’ll be right here.”


But Eli hadn’t needed him.


Instead, as before, he let working on bodies succor him and he learned how to decorate them in life and death.


When he reached Australia he was offered ‘placement’ in a funeral home. This meant lower than usual wages for shaving, then making up the faces of the deceased, closing their eyes and mouths, massaging them to loosen their limbs for positioning, and filling their body cavities with preserving fluids. Eli shuffled through these days as he had shuffled through the last four years: stoop shouldered, thin, and always quiet as the grave. He worked to improve his English as a matter of principle but seldom used it. His eyes never stopped looking sunken and his hair was thin from his twenties on.


His habit of hoarding his meager earnings (and all manner of other less important things) caused a little teasing, and some sympathy from his co-workers, but as he kept to himself they learned not to notice his peccadillo.


In ten years he garnered enough money and knowledge to buy his own funeral parlor, the Lychgate. But he still preferred working with dead customers to meeting his living contractors.


When the virus infected his customer base Eli refused to panic. As he always did, he would survive.

The first day — before news of a virus was even made public — Eli was picking up groceries and saw a shambling man pull down a woman and start feasting on her. He didn’t break into a run as so many around him did. He was an old man at fifty-eight. Carrying his groceries, he set a steady pace, and went where he liked most to be when troubled; to his work.


It was abandoned and Eli shook his head at that. All the doors that communicated with his workspace were airtight and it was ventilated by a system with back-up generators. It wouldn’t do to have the living smell their dead family members in a power cut. Every door locked. He ignored the thumping coming from the lockers in his holding room and secured the doors behind him. He tossed his groceries in an empty locker and sat down to think.


He would, he decided, wait. For three weeks he listened to his radio, slept in an empty walk-in fridge which he turned off, and washed in his preparation room sinks. His bed was a casket and his pillows and clothes were those left by relatives of the deceased but never needed. He was thankful for his bags of groceries, and his tendency to hoard food, which his staff had found so funny. Each day part of him was expecting one of his workers to seek shelter with him. But none of them came.


After three weeks, when the bulletins on the radio were replaced with static, Eli began to prepare. For nights at a time he stood in front of the mirror in his small bathroom and applied makeup to his face, arms, hands and legs. He worked on one patch of skin until he had got the appearance of dead flesh right. When he was happy with a design he went to a cupboard he normally kept locked and pulled out, from among the many useful things inside, his tattoo gun and inks. His purple and grey inks ran out but he thought he had done well reproducing the appearance of the zombie from his shopping trip.  It looked good, especially when he mussed up his sparse, grey hair.


His nose had come next: he gritted his teeth and committed to his work.


Eli no longer knew if it was night or day, living under artificial light, and without the guidance of the radio.  He ate, slept, and woke, and it was time to tackle the next challenge — his smell. Eli was used to covering the smell of the dead; now he had to recreate it. There was putrescine, in the form of Stanyl, in a large bottle on top of one cupboard. It had always fascinated him that one of the two key components in the smell of death was used by modern industry to create plastics. So he’d kept the bottle in pride of place. Stanyl had a notoriously long lasting odour.


He tinkered with various chemicals from his cupboards and supply room for several cycles of waking and sleeping before he had a smell that suggested cadaverine (the other component of the scent of death) to add to the Stanyl.  When it nearly smelled right Eli added two natural sources of cadaverine. He urinated and collected a quarter cup in one of the chipped mugs from his collection. Then he stood in his closet of a bathroom and masturbated, switching his mind off, and letting his body react to motions he hadn’t attempted in decades. He left the semen — a fluid he had previously had little use for —in a beaker for a day or two before he added it to the mix with his urine.


It smelled right, or really wrong, as the case may be. Still, it took a lot of courage to open one of the chilled lockers.


The zombie inside thrashed her way out clumsily, spilling onto the preparation room tiles in a heap. She looked at Eli and moaned listlessly before she clambered to her feet. But she stood up facing away from him. Eli swept her feet from under her and pulled her into a closet. It wasn’t hard: she was skin and bones.


Then he removed the cotton swab from around his neck. His mixture was slightly toxic and he took care not to touch the foul brew as he discarded it. Eli took his lab coat and daubed it with his ‘aftershave’.


He was almost ready to leave.


First: product testing. He opened the closet the loose zombie was banging around in and stepped back. She fell forward onto her face, groped at the scratched grey linoleum, and got up sluggishly. Eli had to repress an almost chivalric urge to help her up. He found himself wondering who she had been in life: her clothes were nice. Before it turned into a brittle, dusty matt her hair might have been light blonde.


Eli walked slowly to her empty locker and checked the tag. Her name was Stella Jenks. Stella didn’t react to him at all. She gained her feet and began patrolling the room aimlessly. All Eli had to do was avoid her.


When he was confident in his disguise, Eli grasped her arms from behind, and pushed her away from him as her head snapped to one side, her teeth clacking. Sick shock registered as he felt the bone in her forearm break but Stella seemed oblivious to anything except trying to bite whatever held her.


“Come, come,” he told her, reprovingly, and noticed her efforts increase. They reacted to human voices. Gently but firmly Eli pushed Stella into the closet again. She banged against the door but he had closed it and was already turning away.


“I hope I am back soon,” Eli called to her softly, and stepped out of his office.


He decided to leave out the front door. The back door let onto a small garden with the cemetery conveniently over the road. The front door stood between him and a side road off the main street of town. It was more dangerous, being potentially more crowded, but Eli needed to see how bad things were and the back door represented a longer journey.


He stood inside the frosted front door for some time. Occasionally a human shadow moved in front of the glass but everything was silent but for the shuffling of feet and none of those moved with purpose. So neither would Eli.


He listened carefully and, when he thought it was likely the door was unobserved, he opened it. A zombie lunged at him; the corpse had been slumped in the doorway and responded to his movement more quickly than Stella had. Eli stepped on its arms and used his hand to hold its head back. He danced away a few steps, around the side of the building, and put his back to the wall, freezing in place while the dead man he had stepped on lumbered clumsily to his feet. And straight past Eli.


He watched carefully and stayed still. Human noises, human speed, seemed to be a trigger. Plus zombies don’t open doors. He slumped to the ground against the frontage of his funeral parlor and none of the zombies shambling near him reacted. There were only a dozen of them which was far fewer than Eli had expected. The pet shop next to the funeral home was intact but other shops had broken windows; the cafes, the health food shop, and the sporting gear shop he’d never entered.


Eli noted the dead near him looked better off than Stella. They not only moved faster, they looked less thin — less fragile — than she did. But they were filthy and they reeked even over the liberal dressing of aftershave Eli had put on his coat.


The man who owned the petrol station on the corner crossed the street in front of Eli. His blue overalls were covered with dark stains.  He served as a reminder. Eli closed his eyes and let his ears work. He reached for sounds beyond those of the walking dead’s restless feet and the breeze that pushed litter along the walls and gutters. The light became golden as he sat listening — the color that belongs to late afternoon. But Eli never heard a siren or the sound of a car. There were no voices calling for help. There were no voices at all. An unexpected queasiness disturbed Eli’s stomach and he breathed slow and deep till that passed too.


As it grew later the pace of what Eli dubbed the deadbeat — the footfalls of the corpses around him — quickened. The dead were night hunters.


When they were moving with an almost human speed Eli stood up slowly. Once his legs stopped prickling he wandered aimlessly toward the main street, sticking to a wider road, rather than going down an alley where he couldn’t move casually away from grasping hands.


He let his feet fall heavily on the ground, imitating the deadbeat. None of the dead reacted to him and Eli realized the hunched shoulders and self-effacing manner, which he had been unable to shed when he left Buchenwald, were serving him as well in this dead world as they had in the camp.


On Fort Street Eli wandered past the petrol station. The arms of petrol pumps lay tangled on the ground as if they had been used and discarded at speed. The shelves looked bare and only a few damaged items littered the ground.


On Main Street, walking corpses packed the square, and there was no sign of human life. The sheer mass of the dead blocked his view of the shops and, momentarily, hid the wreckage. Then Eli felt the first fluttering of panic. He was stirred to fear by the sight of the supermarket, now totally without the glass that used to stand between it and the street, and displaying its utterly empty shelves.


Eli saw a break in the traffic of zombie walkers, and took it, heading straight for the open shop front. He had to shuffle to one side: the glass was everywhere and he couldn’t risk a cut with the hungry dead all around him. But he had seen enough. The supermarket reeked of rotten produce and all the cans and packaged food were gone.


Spoiled meat and the dead drawn by the smell remained. Eli glimpsed a dead housewife battering her face against a closed freezer. Meat juice ran across the floor from it and a corpse child was on her belly lapping at it.


“At least you can eat,” Eli thought weakly.


Two doors down he slumped against a wall, his trousered legs splayed before him as he sank to the ground. He was done for. He knew he could survive on little food, and his hoard would last for perhaps two more weeks, that being so. There was a small community garden on the other side of the graveyard but it was certain to be picked clean too. Eli needed groceries and soon.


In despair, Eli ignored a dead check out girl as she stumbled into his legs and fell to the pavement. Her jaw clacked as she floundered but she clumsily regained her feet and wandered back across the town square.  Eli smiled grimly. His disguise was working perfectly but without food it didn’t matter.


Thud! A second zombie shambled at full deadbeat into Eli’s legs and hit the pavement. It complained deep in its chest — more a frustrated exhalation than a vocalisation — and Eli froze. But the thing also stuttered to its feet and walked haltingly on.


A shadow fell over Eli and he looked up slowly. A corpse stood right over him and it was looking at his legs intently. It still had glasses in its top pocket and wore the frayed remains of an old man’s cardi but Eli didn’t recognize him — he had kept too much to himself in the human world. Part of the corpse’s cheek had been clawed open and his teeth were exposed. Thick fluid ran sluggishly along the edges of the wound.


Eli hardly breathed. After the longest moment the once-old-man spun awkwardly and stepped off the pavement at a right angle, crossing the road.


Wonder filled Eli. The thing had learned. It had watched its fellows fall and understood how to avoid falling itself. His former fellow townsfolk were not at home in those bodies but someone — someone with horrible appetites — was. His interest was brief. None of it meant anything if he couldn’t find food.


Dejected, Eli pushed himself to his feet and wandered back to the funeral parlor. But the front of the building was now thronging with animated dead. Another hitch of panic hit his chest. The dead were definitely looking livelier. Eli kept himself to an amble and made his way to the back of the building. The garden was empty and so was the parking lot next to it.


Huffing, Eli made for the back door but he paused before he opened it. The back door to the pet shop was closed but the hasp that usually locked it hadn’t been put on. His guts clenched at the thought but Eli realized pet food could possibly save his life while local gardens recovered from the foraging of other would-be survivors. He had eaten worse things.


Eli pressed himself against the pink pet shop door, listening. Something moved inside, several somethings, but they sounded lighter than dead people. There must still be animals trapped inside. Pity touched Eli’s heart and, not knowing if he did them a favour or not, he opened the door and stepped behind it.


The first puppy nearly killed him. Folds of skin hung off it, where perhaps its litter mates had chewed on it. Teeth bared, it darted at his exposed ankles, hungry for his flesh. But Eli was wearing his work boots and he shoved it back hard with his foot, pressing himself further behind the door. The dead pup raced out of the shop and into the Lychgate’s garden. Three more necrotic Labradors pelted after it. They were only halfway across the lawn when a group of dead stumbled through the garden gate and lurched after them. In moments the puppies were cornered and covered by hunch-backed feeding corpses.


While the dead were distracted, Eli slipped around the door and into the pet shop. A cacophony greeted him. No more animals were loose.  But dead budgies hooted from their cages and milk eyed rats banged against the acrylic fronts of terrariums. Cats with open sores, and fur falling off their bodies, clawed at bars. Eli reeled for a moment before he gathered himself.


There were sacks of cat and dog food on the shelves. But first he investigated the tiny staff room off the shop area. It held a fridge and inside was a carton of vanilla soy milk. Eli drank it immediately, easing his thirst. There were plain biscuits in the cupboard next to the fridge, though they had long gone stale. He ate them, of course. This was all the human food he found but it lifted his spirits.


Eli had done enough, and had enough, for one day even so. He peered around the pink door, and shut it carefully, as he slipped outside again. The dead were busy over the last remnants of the puppies and he let himself back into the funeral parlor.


Eli shut the fridge door after himself, crawled into his casket bed, and pulled the lower half of the lid closed before he could begin to relax. Ideas swam in his head and all sorts of horrific images from the day but he couldn’t make them resolve into anything useful. It felt like hours before he slept.


But when he woke he had a crazy plan that might work.  First he had to renovate his new home.


He went straight to the workshop where a young man used to build boxes to put the dead in, fancy or plain. Happily, the counter of the pet shop ran parallel to the outside wall of the casket workshop.


It was early, and the local zombies would be sluggish, but Eli would have to be fast to survive. He took up the circular saw and plugged it in. Heart in his mouth, Eli started the thing and pushed it into the workshop wall, cutting a narrow rectangular hatch at shoulder height.


It only took moments but Eli switched off the saw and downed it, leaving it spinning blade up, while he bolted to his workroom. The alley between the shops was less than a foot wide — too narrow for any intact body. He was more worried about the dead reacting to the noise by smashing open his front door or the windows of the pet shop.


Eli waited until the next morning to cut a matching hatch in the neighboring wall. After he had laid low for several hours, he emerged nervously but his house was undamaged and no dead roamed next door. Neat in his work as always, he took up several smooth bits of wood and glued and screwed them into place so the two hatches became a bridge between the buildings. Then Eli attached two casket handles, one above each side of the hatch. He could pull himself from building to building but the dexterity required would, he hoped, be too much for the dead.


That night, under the glow of fish tank lights, Eli put newspaper over the windows of the pet shop. He moved slowly and quietly, taping the paper before he approached the window and freezing at any movement in the shadows until the danger had passed. It took most of the night but he got the windows covered.


Fortification was required. Eli took two of his church trucks — the massively solid collapsible gurneys used to transport casketed bodies — and a pile of the clamps from a funeral marquee. When he had pulled each truck through the hatch into the pet shop he put them on the counter, opened them to their fullest extent, removed wheels and clamped everything in place. The diamond shaped struts that supported the bed of each truck were capable of bearing 800 pounds of dead weight. Fully opened and on the counter, Eli was able to bolt them to the ceiling as well as to the counter itself. He had created a grill that kept anything in the rest of the shop away from his side of the counter. But the dead would be able to reach through it.


It took Eli several more days to empty the shop of stock and shelves and raid the local pound for protective gear. He experienced a moment of dismay when he saw some well-meaning person had released the impounded animals from their cages but he told himself it was all to the good.


Finally, Eli set up an elaborate system of pulleys that would allow him to open cages from the safety of the counter space. As he worked, in full bite gloves from the pound, the caged animals lunged at him repeatedly.


Eli was ready to start training though he had no idea if this part of his business plan would work. From his hoard he took one of the few remaining cans and slipped it into his coat pocket.  Then, with straps in hand he opened Stella’s closet door. She hurtled out as if she had been pressed against it. Eli waited patiently for her to slow down then slipped up behind her, dropped a trolley strap down over her shoulders, and cinched it tight just above her elbows.


She tried to spin in a circle to get at him but Eli had the catchpole he had stolen ready. He put the noose over her head, pulled it tight, and pushed her away with it. Stella was furious and she struggled at the end of the pole gnashing her teeth in apparent frustration.


Eli didn’t like to handle anyone roughly but needs must. He pushed her ahead of him and then backed down the hall to open the back door. It was morning and the garden was still. He pulled Stella after him, guiding her as best he could, and walked her through the pink door of the pet shop.


She went beserk as soon as they stepped inside. She darted at the cages moving faster than Eli had seen before. As she clawed at a cat hungrily Eli released the trolley strap and lifted the catch pole gingerly off her head. While the cat Stella slavered after took the opportunity to chew on her fingers, Eli backed away and closed the shop door after him.


Eli hastened — as much as a man imitating a zombie could safely hasten — back to the funeral parlor, into the workshop and through his hatch. Stella was still too excited to notice. So he put the can outside the grill on the counter, pulled out the chair that rested under the till, and settled in to wait.


Eventually, Eli curled up on the floor and slept. Stella had gone from reaching for the cat to trying to fish, and her fingers were quite damaged, while the tank water had become cloudy. But still she tried.


When he stirred back to wakefulness the pet shop was quiet. Eli stood up and Stella, who had been standing quietly in the centre of the room, staggered at him. Her flailing hand caught the can on the counter and knocked it through the church truck legs toward Eli. He grabbed one of the ropes hooked to the counter and tugged it firmly.


Behind Stella a dead cat shot out onto the floor. Stella turned immediately and lurched at it, her arms stretched before her, and her mouth dripping mucous.  She threw herself onto the cat, fingers tearing, teeth champing. Eli winced. It wasn’t long before he pulled himself back through the hatch into the funeral parlor and shut himself in his casket.


Over the next week, or perhaps two, Eli repeated the process with Stella until he could leave the can anywhere in the pet shop and she would deliver it to him for her treat. The day she picked it up off the floor to give to him was a red letter day. Another day or two later, he eased the pet shop door open and used the catchpole to push Stella out into the world. That night he took the newspaper off the windows and put up the little sign he had, in a moment of humour, crafted in the workshop.


Its tidy lettering read: “Mr Schmidt’s Dead Pet Emporium.”


Mr Schmidt hung clothes that were once left for women and children, daubed with plenty of his aftershave, along the church truck grill. Then he made himself a bed of pillows. It was four days before Stella shambled back in and dumped a can on the counter. Unaccustomed tears formed in Mr Schmidt’s eyes — partly with relief and partly because he felt like a proud parent — and he opened the cage of a good sized terrier.


The zombies on the pavement outside paused to watch.


Eli’s cans and dead animals were both running low by the time Stella brought him her third can. A day later a dead person Eli had never before seen shambled into the open door. This happened occasionally: a corpse would wander in, bang at the cages, and patrol the room for a while before shambling back out. But this time the teenager who had come in clutched a tin. He missed the counter top but Eli released a cat at once, beaming. He had a business once more.


It was time to go hunting. At dawn the next morning Eli assembled traps from the pound on a church truck. They had been baited with mice from the shop; Eli had halved them lengthways and they still wriggled. He covered the truck with an aftershave painted sheet and pushed it slowly through the back door.


Eli let out a breath he hadn’t known he held when none of the dead reacted to the trolley. Perhaps, he reasoned, it wasn’t all that rare for them to get tangled up in — and carry along — the detritus of human life.  He ambled slowly into the suburbs, stopping at one home to harvest the tomatoes he saw growing up the back fence, while its dead occupants watched him dully through the window.


As Eli went he watched for other things he could forage and laid out the traps in spots the dead couldn’t get to them. Once he had run out of traps he took shelter in an empty shed, ate his tomatoes, and curled up to sleep on the church truck bed under the stinking sheet.


His trip was a success. He was not only unscathed, but he returned with enough dead animals to restock his cages, and a supply of fruit. Months passed, his customer based developed, and the Dead Pet Emporium thrived.


Eli took to taking Stella with him, on the catchpole, when he went foraging. He couldn’t have said why he did it, but her presence certainly seemed to deter other walkers, and she allowed herself to be pushed before the cart without apparent distress.


At the end of summer Eli guided his cart slowly down the middle of a suburban street. He had nearly reached the end of his supply of traps and he was tired. It took him a moment to react when a figure wandered out into the middle of the street, a long block away, then turned and stared at him. He stopped. Could he expect violence from the first human he had seen in months? Would he or she take him for a corpse?


But no — the figure looked all around, then beckoned. Eli kept his walk slow, watching for the dead, but he only saw those trapped in houses. He had become so used to being surrounded by them that under the pressure of the stranger’s direct gaze his skin crawled.


Eli stopped when he was still ten metres out from the other human. He walked around Stella, his hands held away from his body. But he didn’t speak until he had done another check for corpses, and even then he kept his voice down. It cracked but he managed:


“Who are you?”


“A librarian,” the person answered and it was only then Eli knew he spoke to a woman. There was a belt hung with corpse hands around her waist and they twitched idly. Eli noticed none of them had fingernails. Front and back the tiny woman wore gory ribcages, laced around her tightly like a breastplate.


“I’m a fun — a pet shop owner,” Eli amended. “Are you o.k?”


“Yep,” the librarian answered. “You?”


“Thriving,” said Eli, humbly.


“Good,” she said, and turned and started walking down the side street away from him. Eli stood and watched her until he could no longer see the gore laden spikes of hair on her head.


It took another two trips before he saw her again. Although his catch decreased he had made both trips to the same area.


She emerged from a garden, her backpack bulging, and stood watching him come closer.


“What’s your name then,” she asked.


“I’m Eli,” he said.


“Pleased to meet you.” The librarian held out a zombie arm she had taped to a metre long ruler.


Instinctively, Eli took the hand and shook it, admiring the firm pressure of the hand’s grasp. The librarian had bridged the gap between them most cleverly. Stella was trying to get to the woman but Eli had put the brakes on the cart. He ignored her.


“Is she your missus?” the librarian asked.


“No,” said Eli. “She is my best customer though.”


“Oh,” said the woman, “Okay. My name is Anna.”


It was a sensible name and Eli saw that the librarian fitted it.


“I finished setting traps for today. You can come back to my place with me tomorrow if you need a place to stay,” Eli told her, his heart in his mouth and that mouth very dry.


“Um… no thank- you,” Anna said, “I’m really o.k.” She turned and walked off.


Once more Eli watched her disappear down the street. He searched out an empty shed, tied Stella up outside, and put a pair of shoes he’d found on her feet. Her soles had worn through with all the journeying Eli had inflicted on her.


Then he crawled onto the church truck. Curled on his side, he felt hollow. He got up restlessly and ate a can of peaches. But it didn’t help at all.


The next morning, when Eli set back out along his line of traps, he forced himself to focus on his hopes of a good haul and minimal interruptions from the dead.


But when he reached the road where he and Anna had last met, she waited for him. He approached cautiously.


“I think you should let her go,” Anna said, pushing her chin in Stella’s direction.


For a moment Eli was at a loss but the rightness of what she was saying filled him. “She should be let go nearer home though,” he answered, “You know, around familiar places and people.”


Anna eyed him for a moment, then nodded. “Righto,” she said, and added — “I’ve been going around collecting seeds.”


“I’ve got a garden,” Eli said. “High brick walls on two sides. Could reinforce the gate and build the other two fences up.”


“Oh,” Anna said. She turned, taking a position far from Stella and started walking in the direction Eli was going.


For a moment Eli was caught flat footed, then he shambled slowly after her. They walked for hours, only pausing to collect traps, in perfect silence.


Eli had started to feel less scared of her presence when he felt something bump his hand and looked down.


It was her hand on a stick. Eli glanced at Anna but she was looking away from him, her shoulders hunched defensively. She looked scared. So Eli took the hand’s aimlessly clenching digits in his careful fingers. They walked home side by side.





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