Same But Different

I’ve actually shopped this story around to a few fiction magazines, but it’s never been picked up.   Personally, I love its weirdness and it seriously makes me think that there is something wrong with me.

by Jason Gaston
noonevlogslikegaston@gmail.com
© Jason Gaston

“Lucas!  Don’t go near that hoard, they’re covered in germs!”All Martha Ganes wanted was to give her son Lucas a proper birthday party.  He was turning five, after all, it was his first birthday following the divorce and she knew it had been a tough year for him.  Their wonderful family – this beautiful thing that they had built – had been destroyed and ruined, devoured by lies and selfishness and all they had now was each other and a sparsely furnished one room apartment.

Originally, she had planned on taking him to Chuck-E-Cheese like he had asked, but money was tight to the point of being non-existent so she had to settle on the park playground.  

She didn’t know it would be overrun with zombies, but she should have known better.  No wonder not a single one of Lucas’ friends had shown up.  What must the other mothers think of her?

In the last decade since the z-virus went wild, there had been a multitude of dire predictions from alarmists and cable news pundits that it would jump species and lead to an honest to goodness zombie apocalypse much to the delight of second amendment-worshipping rednecks and overweight gamers who fantasized about being Daryl Dixon should the end of the world actually happen.

Thankfully, so far, the only species on the entire planet that it had affected had been the lowly and humble squirrel and now, a multitude of disgusting and smelly zombie squirrels were everywhere.  Shambling about, squeaking plaintively, dripping with maggots, and attacking and eating any healthy squirrels they could find… which they couldn’t anymore because there weren’t any left for them to feast upon.  

Now, they just wandered in large groups, completely aimless and totally gross.

For a while, there was an effort to exterminate them, but as they never bothered humans or any another animal for that matter, the public outcry quickly died.  When the government completely cut the funding for the eradication in favor of a big juicy tax break to the job creators, the undead squirrels were accepted as the new normal.

Everyone with common sense hated them but, to young boys in particular, they were a source of fascination and Lucas was no different. 

“Mommy, look!”  Lucas held a zombie squirrel in his hands.  Its fur was matted, falling out over most of its body, and its organs could be seen though its exposed rib cage.  Its clouded white eyes stared blankly as a sliver of drool dripped from its open mouth, dolloping on the boy’s fingers.

“Lucas, put it down!” Martha shrieked.  The boy jumped at his mother’s tone and quickly complied.  The undead squirrel, once free of the child’s grip, docilely stayed put for a moment before sniffing the air and hobbling quietly away.   

“Come here and don’t touch your face!” Martha commanded, digging in her purse.  When her son made it over to her she had the hand sanitizer at the ready.  “I told you not to touch those things.  They’re disgusting.”

“They’re cool!” Lucas said with an excited cadence, rubbing the sanitizer all over his little hands, “And they don’t even care if you pick them up!”

“I don’t care if they don’t care,” Martha said, “I care!  I said no and if I see you picking up another one, we’re going home.  Forget the movies!”

“But, mom!” Lucas protested.

“No buts,” she warned. 

“All of the other kids are playing with them,” Lucas whined.

“I don’t care what all the other kids are doing, Lucas,” Martha said in her firmest mom voice.  “I care about what you’re doing.”

“Jerkemion Jones has three of them,” Lucas said as his mom squirted sanitizer into his hands with a loud farting noise, “He showed me a picture on his phone.  He keeps them in a cage in his room.”

“That’s just silly,” his mother said, “What’s a six year old boy doing with a phone?”

“He says you don’t have to clean up after them or nothin’,” Lucas informed her, still making his pitch, “They don’t even poop!”

“Really?” she said feigning interest, “They don’t poop?”  She stopped for a moment and thought about what her son just told her and, against her better judgment, asked, “If they don’t poop what happens to the bits and pieces of the other squirrels they eat?”

“He says they ooze,” Lucas added.  He cocked his head quizzically and then asked, “What is ooze?”

Martha rolled her eyes, making sure that her son cleaned his hands properly.  “You know what happens when you bite into a hot pocket and it squirts out on one end?  That’s ooze.”

“Awesome,” the boy said laughing.

“There’s nothing ‘awesome’ about them,” she sighed.  “When I was a little girl, squirrels were cute and cuddly.”

“I’ve never seen a living one before,” Lucas said with a twinge of sadness.

“I know,” Martha said taking his now clean hands into her own, “The outbreak happened before you were born.  Before that, there were a lot of them.  Then, only a few… then you could only see them in zoos or pet stores, but eventually the undead ones got to them too.  Now, all we have around are… these.”

She motioned to the wandering horde, about fifty or so squirrely walking dead that moved almost like an army of disgusting smelly ants.

“Did you play with them when you were a little girl?” 

She thought about it.  “Well, no…”

“Why not?”

“They were skittish, Lucas,” she said.  A look from her son made her realize she had to explain the word.  “They would run away if they saw you.  Besides, even if I could have held one, it would have bit me… or my mother would have said it could have had rabies or was full of germs.”

“Like today?” Lucas asked, wrinkling his nose.

She laughed, “Kind of… Zombie or not, they’re still rodents.”

“So they’re not that different,” the boy laughed.

“They’re plenty different,” his mother told him, “they’re kind of the same, but it’s not like they used to be.  Not by a long shot.”

“Like us,” Lucas said.

Martha was shocked for a moment and stood there with her mouth open.  She clamped it shut.  “I try my best.”

“I know you do,” Lucas said, his attention snatched away by the shuffling decaying mob, “But it’s still not the same.”

“I know it’s not like it was,” she said, “It’s harder now.  I wish it wasn’t, Lucas.  I really do.  This… it wasn’t my choice.”

The words eluded her and she felt the pressure of a good cry behind her eyes, but her son was still smiling that wonderful innocent smile that he always seemed to wear.  She wondered if he truly understood the world around him or if he was just stronger than she was.  She put her arms around him and hugged him, embracing him as if she hoped to squeeze some of his childlike optimism out of her son for herself.  His back cracked and he farted.  Lucas cackled with laughter.

Above them rang out a horrified squeak that caused mother and son to look up.  High in the branches was a healthy living gray squirrel.   Surrounding it, closing in for the kill, were several dozen zombie squirrels intent on making a meal of it with even more of the hoard climbing up the tree trunks like a moving matted carpet.    The healthy animal ran back and forth inside of the closing circle of the undead desperately looking for an escape.

Lucas’ mom finally understood why the park was overrun and, knowing full well what was about to happen, she pointed up despite her instinct to have her son look away from the carnage that was about to occur.  

“There,” she said in a whisper, “Look, there’s a normal one.”

“I see it!” Lucas said, his bright eyes widening with astonishment, “I’ve never seen one before.”

“You might not see one again,” his mother muttered as the ring of carnivorous undead squirrels drew closer and closer.

“It’s so… cute,” the boy stated.  Realizing what was about to happen to his great horror, he asked,

“Can we do something?”

Martha picked up a stone and threw it into the treetops.  Her first stone missed, but the second hit one of the squirrel creatures.  It fell out of the tree and hit the ground with a splat, but rolled over onto its legs and stood, its head hanging loosely to one side thanks to a broken neck.  It walked with a purpose back to the trunk of the tree and began to climb again, still pursuing its victim.

There were too many of them.  The normal squirrel couldn’t be saved. 

With a final panicked squeal, the gray squirrel was attacked by the hoard.  After a brief scuffle in the tree canopy, a whirlwind of fluffy tails and teeth fell right into the middle of Lucas’ birthday cake, splattering it everywhere.

I probably should have turned Lucas’ head away, was Martha’s first shocked thought.   I’m a terrible mother.

Either the contaminated squirrels finished it off or the fall had killed the normal one.  To the zombies, it didn’t matter.  They feasted on it in the middle of a happy scene of a smiling cartoon racecar and dump truck painted in sugar, frosting, and speckles of blood, maggots, and fur.

A twenty dollar store-bought cake was ruined.  Lucas’ mom yelled a bad word that the boy had never heard before.   He mentally filed it away for later use.

After a shocked moment and what Martha was sure would be a traumatizing event for her son he would relate to a psychiatrist years later, the boy, despite her expectations, actually laughed, “I don’t think we should eat that cake.”

The stress of the day, everything going wrong, was finally causing Martha to crack.  She thought about plucking the squirrely little monsters from the cake as if it could be salvaged in some way, but she simply put one hand over her eyes and made a miserable sound as she tried to contain her deteriorating emotions.

But there was no stopping it this time.

“Mom?” Lucas said, “Are you crying?”

“I’m not crying,” she cried, tears running down her face.

“Don’t cry,” he said, hugging her leg, “please don’t cry.”

“I just wanted to give you a birthday party.  That’s the only thing I wanted to do!” she sobbed, “I wanted today to be special for you and I couldn’t…”

“It was!” he said hugging her closer, “I saw a squirrel.  A real squirrel.  Wait until I tell everyone!  They’ll be sorry they didn’t come!”

She looked at him, her mascara ran down her face in little streaks, “But they killed it.  Right in front of you.”

“Yeah, but look,” he said pointing to the mess that was his cake.

The recently murdered and partially eaten normal squirrel rolled over onto its paws.  Its eyes, clouded and only partially open, it made a squeaky attempt to growl at one of the undead that continued to chew on the exposed bone and mangled tendons of its hind leg.  The other zombie squirrels sniffed at the resurrected rodent and then, apparently no longer interested in eating one of their own, shambled out of the cake mess, tumbling off of the picnic table and onto the concrete foundation with deep hollow thonks as they hit the ground.

“See?”

“But, it’s… disgusting now,” she said shaking her head, “It’s this beaten up, eaten up thing.  It’s not like it was.”

“No, it’s not,” he said, picking the little ghoul up despite his mother’s previous warnings, “But I still like it anyway.”

Martha sighed, smiled and laughed.  She picked up her son, squirrel and all, and held him close to her face.

“If you like it that much,” she said, “Let’s go find a cage to keep it in.  I don’t think I can handle seeing this thing wandering around the apartment.”

Lucas threw his free hand around his mother’s neck.

​“Best birthday ever!”

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