May 3, 2021
Who are you, really, when you turn 13?
Yesterday you were a kid. Today you’re stumbling into adulthood.
Part of you is ready to speak like an adult and think like an adult. Part of you wants Mom to make you breakfast.
Part of you is giddy with freedom. Part of you is terrified of freedom.
Part of you wants to talk about grownup things, like how much houses cost and will they cost more next year.
Part of you wants to daydream about that cape you saw at the market, how it shimmered like water, how beautiful you’d look in it.
Daydreams and responsibilities.
Work and play.
Have-to and want-to.
Turning 13 is an uncertain, lurchy place to be.
Yet somehow, every grownup zombie in Plainfield had managed it. It wasn’t always graceful, since it’s hard for zombies to be graceful in the best of times. And yes, some seemed like they never fully grew up while others seemed to grow up suspiciously fast.
But one way or another, all the conflicting parts eventually managed to move in the same direction.
Sometimes a part — like an arm or a foot, say — wanted its independence so fiercely it fled its body.
I mean, these were zombies, after all.
Scarlet licked her lips, trying to imagine the dream-brains into existence.
When that didn’t work, she tried to fall back into the dream.
She resigned herself to waking up.
When I get older, I can have brains whenever I want, she thought.
Wait. I AM older.
She rose from her dirtbox — spraying dirt all over her bedroom floor — and lurched to her vanity table. She pulled down her dirtmask and leaned over to inspect her face in the mirror, her disappointment rising. Same hollow cheeks. Same dark circles under the eyes. Same matted hair. Same brown teeth. Same spongy nosehole.
Scarlet smacked her thighs with balled fists. “GARRR! I don’t look a day older.” Two dirt clods and three worms fell to the floor.
The worms wriggled back to the sanctuary of the dirtbox. (Worms are smarter than they’re usually given credit for. Except when it rains.)
Scarlet shambled back to the edge of her bed, sat down, and had a think. Which was this: Maybe this day was going to be just another ordinary day. That maybe she was wrong to get her hopes up about it. Maybe she should go back to bed.
She dislodged a crusty booger from her nosehole and flicked it into her bed. Worm food.
She was lost in thought when the door at the top of the stairs banged open and her parents clattered down the stairs.
“Happy unearthday to youuuu,” sang her mother, Daisy.
“Nyunnh nyunnh nyunnh nyunnh nyunnh nyunnh!” sang her father, Dr. Sigmund.
“Honey, your jaw!” whispered Daisy. Dr. Sigmund nodded and reached into the jaw-holster inside his tweed jacket. He pulled out the brass jawbone and snapped it into place. Click-CLACK.
“Happy unearthday, dear Scar-let,” they sang together.
“Happy unearthday to y—”
Daisy and Dr. Sigmund stopped at the bottom of the stairs when they saw their daughter.
“Darling, what’s wrong?” asked Daisy. “It’s your unearthday!”
“Nothing,” muttered Scarlet.
“Nothing nothing or something nothing?” asked Dr. Sigmnud. “Tell me, how do you feel?”
“Honey, not now,” said Daisy. “She needs you to be her dad, not her therapist.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” said Scarlet. “Something nothing. It’s just … I guess I thought I’d wake up and feel … I don’t know. Grown-up.”
Daisy and Dr. Sigmund sidled to the bed and sat down next to Scarlet. Daisy’s eyes darted briefly to the dirt trail on the floor. She almost said something to Scarlet about tidiness, then thought the better of it. Instead, she took Scarlet’s hand in hers.
“It doesn’t happen just like that,” said Daisy. “Give it some time.”
“Besides,” said Dr. Sigmund. “By the end of the day, you may feel more grown-up than you want to.”
“What do you mean?” asked Scarlet.
“Come upstairs,” said Daisy. “We’ll explain over breakfast.”
“I made brainwaffles,” said Dr. Sigmund. “The House of Bone unearthday special.”
Daisy patted Scarlet’s hand. Dr. Sigmund kissed the top of her head. The three of them rose and shuffled toward the stairs.
“Where are you going, Sweetie?” asked Daisy.
“Uh, brainwaffles … ?” said Scarlet.
“After your chores,” cooed Daisy.
“You know the rules,” said Dr. Sigmund. To emphasize his point, he strode to his daughter’s bookshelf and pulled out a copy of “The Zombie Rules: How to Act in Every Situation,” by Hubris R. Rottenstuff. (It was one of three copies in the house.) “And if you forget, ask Hubris.”
Scarlet groaned. “Seriously?”
“Absolutely,” said Daisy. “Brush your skin. Rake the bed. Feed your fish. You know the drill.”
Scarlet glanced at Chucky the Moldfish, inscrutable in his murky tank.
Scarled rolled her eyes. “Even on my unearthday.”
“Even more so,” said Daisy. She and Dr. Sigmund started up the stairs.
“The road to adulthood,” said Dr. Sigmund, “is paved with chores.”
“Now hurry-hurry,” said Daisy. “The clock is ticking. And … “she couldn’t resist the urge any longer, “don’t forget to clean your floor.”
They clomped upstairs.
Why do I have to hurry-hurry? Scarlet wondered.
She flipped open the Rottenstuff book to chapter on morning rules, though she didn’t need to look to know how it started:
“Brush early and fast
to make your skin last.
Sweep dirt into bed,
to help clear your head.”
And then, as she so often did, Scarlet daydreamed.
What did they mean when they said that after today, she’d feel more grown-up?
She grabbed the hard-bristle handbrush from the hook beside her bed and gave her skin a brisk all-over scrub.
She hoped it meant a shopping trip to the Plainfield Sanitary Market. Not just the market — Elysian the best store ever. Because of the cape. The cape that shimmered like water. The dreams-cape.
Something a grownup would wear.
She took the soft-bristle brush and swept her forearms. Dirt particles drifted to the mat below.
Scarlet smiled when she imagined how Jeminy Stinkpit and the other Threadheads would react. Scarlet had always felt like an outsider in the Plainfield Fashion Club for Girls. But now she’d finally belong. Now they’d be jealous. Now the teasing would stop.
She lifted her right foot and swept it clean. She repeated the motion with her left foot. Finally, she took the bufferbrush from the hook and rubbed little circles into her arms and legs to soften her skin.
Zombie skin is delicate. It requires a lot of care.
Scarlet lifted the bedmat and dumped the dirt back into her bedbox. With the floor clean, Scarlet slipped into her favorite day dress. It was light blue and its sequins were arranged in spiderweb patterns.
Scarlet dug her scoop into Chucky’s scum bucket and slopped some breakfast into his tank. Scarlet was at the bottom of the stairs when she remembered one last chore: Rake the bed.
She groaned, but she was too wrapped in her daydream to feel annoyed. She opened the bottom drawer of the bedbox, pulled out the rake, and smoothed the dirt. Sort of. Actually, she left it lumpy and clumpy, not level like The Rules suggested. “Good enough,” she shrugged, tossing the bedrake back in the drawer.
“Waffles!” called Daisy from upstairs.
“Coming!” said Scarlet, finally feeling some hope about this whole growing-up idea.
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