He stands completely still, as if he had died right there on his feet. His dislocated jaw hangs slack. A bead of drool dangles in parallel stasis. Low, snarling, labored gulps of air. The sound of a neglected tract being pressed into service. Hot breath gurgles in his throat. His crisp lips cracing as they purse, a guttural mumbling slowly becoming a word, “Buh, buh, buh-buh, braaaaaiiiinnns.” He groans the word as if remembering it after a century of disuse. Its rediscoery empowers him; “Braainns!” The importance of the word reasserts itself in his being. “Braaaaaaains! Neeeeeed braaaaaaainnnnns!” He stumbles forward all at once, arms and legs unsynched, as if each part of him is in a race with the others. He staggers forward a few steps un-til he is comfortably out of the shot.
“… And cut tape.” said Agnes Chung. Those three words told Kevin everything he needed to know: he had blown this audition.
Agnes had been running casting rooms for so long that she still said “cut tape” as if anyone in the world was still using tape for auditions. She’d been there since before the dead were even allowed to walk the streets, much less join SAG. Over the years Agnes’s ‘tell’ had become legendary amongst Los Angeles actors; If she didn’t pop in an adjective (nice, strong, interesting, orange, something, anything) before “… And cut tape,” you were dead in the water.
Agnes turned to the table behind her, regarded the bored-looking producers and assistants. Some were living, some undead, all united in their pointed lack of interest. Most of them did not look up from their phones. One picked his teeth with a pen cap, “Anyone need another look at that?” Asked Agnes. The resounding silence indicated that they did not, “I think we’re all happy with that one. Great to see you, Kevin, always a pleasure. Give my best to Jay, will you?”
Kevin nodded as he gathered up his jacket. He thanked the room of disinterested strangers, who mumbled in appreciation, refusing to meet his colorless eyes. Kevin felt it was fairly obvious he would not be appearing in Blood Spillers Thr333.
The waiting room was florescent. Kevin felt exposed by the lighting. The flaws in not just his corpse and his audition but also his personality seemed somehow magnified under the harsh fluo-rescents. He wanted to think that he had given a nuanced performance, that the problem lay with the philistines evaluating him who were unable to appreciate it, but in this unforgiving light, artistic integrity looked more like haughty pride.
The waiting room around him was full with two dozen or so undead actors fastidiously preparing for their auditions, a sea of insecurity. Kevin watched a man frantically scraping flesh from his forearms to give them that ‘gnawed on’ look. Another was practicing popping his eye out of its socket on command. A woman carefully rearranged her teeth by the grace of a tiny hand-held mirror, trying to replicate the snarl on her headshot. The room was filled with an atonal symphony of undead actors speaking at half volume as they warmed their voices and practiced their lines. An echo of “Braaaaains” bounced all around the ugly little room, but only Kevin really heard it, as the rest were too busy prepping and preening, desperately jockeying for pole position on a job that paid less than a thousand dollars before taxes.
Kevin put his head down and quickened towards the exit. His left foot dragged nosily behind, the way it did when he was rushing, and he felt like a stereotype. If there had been enough blood in his hollow cheeks to blush, he would have.
Outside, Kevin clomped his way through the parking lot towards his gas-guzzling 1987 Crown Vic. The dented, scraped white carcass looked nearly as pallid and dead as its owner. He turned the key, manually unlocking the ton of white steel, climbed inside and collapsed face first across the bench seat, feet dangling out the open door. He wanted to sleep, to knock out right there and hide from the awful grind of his life. He inhaled the smell of mildew, pot, cigarettes and French fries out of the velvety seats. Part of him wished he could go back to being dead. Forget not just about acting and Hollywood, but the whole coming-back-to-life thing all together. He couldn’t really remember being dead, but it couldn’t possibly have been worse than this. Yet even that dark line of thinking failed to distract him from the fact that he was still accruing expensive park-ing meter charges. So, he forced himself to sit up and drive his small continent of a car out onto Ocean Park boulevard and back towards the ten.
On the ten, he made it nearly three full car lengths past the on-ramp before traffic turned to a standstill. An accident at the 405 junction had stopped traffic in all four cardinal directions. Kevin moaned, long and slow, a perfect A flat that he held for seven seconds before letting his neck go limp, swinging his forehead into the steering wheel with an impact hard enough to give a living person a concussion. It failed to shake Kevin out of his funk. He took some deep breaths, counted to a hundred, and then looked up to see that the traffic had moved precisely three feet.
There had to be more to afterlife than this.
Realistically, it was going to take over an hour to get back to his apartment. Unrealistically, it felt like it might take a month. Kevin inched the car forward as he fished out his phone and began typing an email to his agent:
Hey man. BS3 audition did not go well. They hated it and so did I. I don’t think I can keep going out on shit like this. From now on, I don’t want to read anything that doesn’t have at least two words (two DIFFERENT words) for me.
Jay’s response popped into Kevin’s inbox almost instantly:
I’ll look, but, no promises. That’s a white whale.
Captain Jayhab was wise not to make promises. Nobody wrote actual parts for zombies, and the rare ones that did pop up went to the same half-dozen proven box office earners. At least human actors knew the old guard would eventually age out, then die off. Kevin had no illusions about Hollywood rewarding his virtuosity. He knew he’d just booked himself a nice long break. He would like to go up to Joshua Tree, spend the break seeing the desert commune they called Z-town, to reconnect with his people in this time of spiritual crisis, or attack of ethics, whatever he was calling it. But it was not in the cards, not with the pathetic, dwindling figure in his bank ac-count. So, instead, job interviews.
Everything about Kevin Kingstein screamed, “Do not hire.” To start with, he was an actor. There was no way around that one, as it was the only paying work of substance he’d had in two years. Without those lines his resume, already threadbare, was downright transparent. Acting may have given him a recent work history, but it wasn’t exactly a dependable one: who wanted to hire some vain, self-obsessed actor who would only leave to do an episode of ZSI: Miami? Kevin’s resume was full of jobs he had left for reasons like that. Three months at a Starbucks. Fourteen weeks as a membership salesman for his gym. Four different stints at four different restaurants, all for less than six months. It was a mausoleum of employment. As if his resume wasn’t bad enough, he was also dead. The nonliving-American-rights act had mandated life-blind hiring practices throughout the nation, but, come on. If there were three acceptable applicants, two dead and one living, and the manager was alive, then there was really only one acceptable applicant.
So, predictably, nothing panned out in the first week of searching. The only callback had been from an electronic application he’d filled out to be a street ambassador for a cell phone company. It turned out the job largely consisted of spinning a cardboard arrow through the air; and despite a whole evening of practice, Kevin’s inert nerves and decayed muscle just weren’t up to the task. He offered that he could simply stand on the corner with the sign, and for hours on end without need of a break, but this bid ended abruptly when the interviewer (correctly) assessed that this was a version of the job best done by a pole or stick, and that it was the spinning that was worth paying for. They said they’d call Kevin back, but did not.
So, when Jay Marsh sent him an email about a potential audition with “Multiple words, like you said!” Kevin was as free and ready as he’d ever been to prepare. Which was good, because as soon as he read the script, he realized he’d have quite a lot to prepare for.
He only had a few pages of the film, of course, but they were enough. Jay had undersold it, actually. Kevin’s audition would include a lengthy and heartfelt monologue. Reading it over, Kevin’s heartbeat quickened—blasting at over four beats per minute now. He tried to remember ever reading a film script that gave him lines he actually believed in, knew instantly it had never happened, and resumed devouring the script. The audition notice hadn’t said anything about having to be off-book, but he got to work memorizing it right away. The universe had heard his plea, answered it, in stunningly efficient fashion, and Kevin was determined to seize his chance. He worked through the night, rereading, rehearsing, playing with timing and tone and the weight of the words. For the first time, Kevin felt like he was brought back from the dead for a reason. He worked all through the night, pacing and practicing long after the sun rose on another perfect day in Los Angeles.
The call was in Santa Monica, again. Even at this early hour, the room was bustling with actors. Mostly they were the sort who had requested the earliest possible audition slot not out of enthusiasm, but out of practicality. They carried Best Buy polos and Starbucks visors in their purses and backpacks, ready to head off to a day of work after their bright and early near-certain dose of aspirational failure. Kevin didn’t have a job, but if he had, his confidence for this audition was so high, he wouldn’t have brought his uniform, because he would have been certain that, after this, he wouldn’t need it. His body coursed with nervous energy. He felt almost alive.
Finally, he was called in. And who else could have been waiting for him inside but Agnes Chung? She smiled a knowing smile that was at once authentically welcoming and deeply patronizing, ‘aww, look who’s back for another try.’
“Kevin, lovely to see you again.” Agnes, diabetes-sweet.
“Agnes, always a pleasure.” Kevin, unfazed. He felt certain he could perform this part naked at midday in front of Times Square and his mother and still nail it. He casually dropped his headshot flat on the table in front of her, blithely wandering back in front of her camera.
“Did you need a copy?” She asked.
“Oh no. I’m off book.”
“Great. Then, unless you have any questions, you can go ahead and slate.”
Kevin cleared his throat, “This is Kevin Kingstein, for Marsh Talent.” He took one deep breath, closed his eyes, exhaled, and begun: “No! Betsy… Hector is right.” His eyes were big and sad, almost damp. Instantly, two producers in the row behind Agnes sat up, looked at each other. That’s right, schmucks, get a good look. Because I am going to blow your fucking minds.
He holds his chest, fingers dig into his skin nervously. He looks around for his beloved, stares in-to her eyes as he speaks, “I’m already becoming one of them. I can feel my blood… turning cold.” His palm rests on his chest, his hand shakes nervously; “But Bets… I’m still me. I’m still Peter. I’m still the boy that stole that first kiss from you under the bleachers, all those years ago. I’m still the man that asked you to be his—“
He is interrupted by a violent cough. Blood stains his lips. With resolve, he resumes his last words, “To be his wife. Best decision I ever made, too. It’s going to be different now. You’ll never know the warm touch of my loving embrace. I’ll never again be comforted by the sweet smell of your hair in my face as I lay beside you. But our love still happened, Betsy. Nobody can ever take our lives away, because we already lived them, together. And together, we’ll find a way to be happy like this, too. Even if I lose my sense of touch, my sense of smell, my ability to paint watercolors, and the actual flesh holding me together… I’ll never lose the love I have in my heart.”
His voice cracks as he says, “Love;” and he coughs again, blood splattering into his fist. When he speaks again, his voice is raspier, sickly, “Now come here, and embrace your husband one more time, before we begin this next chapter the same way I want to begin every chapter in my life: with you at my side. Dead or alive.”
A single tear presses out of his dried-out duct, runs down his crinkling cheek. He holds it for a long breath, reveling in the tension of the room. Finally, he exhales, straightening his spine. Just like that, it was gone. One perfect moment, now instantly behind him. He tried not to beam at the room of producers and assistants.
“Impressive,” said Agnes Chung, her blessing the cherry on Kevin’s emotional sundae; “And cut tape.” She turned first to her producers, arching an eyebrow that Kevin read as did you all just see what I just saw? She turned back to Kevin slowly, taking a breath before she spoke, “A lot to un-pack there.”
“The role really speaks to me,” said Kevin, almost too quickly — he had rehearsed that line, too.
“Clearly. Okay. Well, Kevin, I gotta be honest, I’ve had you in maybe a dozen times now, cast you twice… I’ve never seen anything like that out of you! Where you been hidin’ that, huh?”
“Guess I just needed the right script.”
“Well, I want to see more of it in the future! That was just great. Now, the only thing, is… I wanted to make sure you realize we’re casting Zombie Peter today?” The way she said it made it sound as if he’d done something wrong.
“Right. Yeah?” One of the producers shook their head.
Shit. Something was wrong.
“I only ask because, that monologue you read, that is for Human Peter. Your part, Zombie Peter, begins on the next page.”
The developing pit in his stomach dropped past his toes, “R… right but I… No, I thought, well… Sorry, could I see a script?” He crossed to the producers’ table and snapped a script up, started flipping through it frantically.
“It’s not a big deal,” said Agnes; “It’s just, I wanted to make sure you knew that portion you just read will be done by a different, living actor. But, seriously, I am completely confident in your ability to bring that same energy to the character’s zombie personification. I think we all are, yes?” She turned, soliciting from the room a chorus of ‘uh-huh’s and ‘oh, yeah’s. Kevin ignored them, frantically read over the next page of the script:
Peter DIES, collapsing to the ground.
Betsy kneels over him, cries quietly for a moment. Suddenly ZOMBIE PETER sits straight up, his eyes dead and jaw slack. He is a MINDLESS ZOMBIE now.
BRAAAINS! NEEEEEED BRAAAAAAAINS!
Ahh! Kill it, Kill it!
Big Hank BLASTS Zombie Peter with a shotgun.
His head EXPLODES.
Kevin wished he was physically capable of throwing up, “Do you see what I’m saying now, Kevin? About the two parts?” Agnes, trying to bring him back to reality.
“Yup.” He heard his voice speak, seemingly without his participation. He felt Agnes take him by the elbow, reassure him of the quality of his work, walk him to the door with promises of future calls and shoot dates and emails to Jay Marsh, whom he should please say hello to for her when he got the chance. He heard the door behind him click, the real world welcoming him back to his waking nightmare.
Agnes faced her producers and made a show of releasing a big breath and pulling at her collar, “A little awkward, huh?” This played for a big laugh in the tense little room; “Still, clearly he can handle two words. We’ve got thirty-four more parts like this to fill today. Everybody okay throwing him this bone? He’s an alright kid.”
The room nodded, murmuring with general assent, and Agnes’s assistant moved Kevin’s head-shot into a different, smaller pile. Just then, an older producer, a zombie, in the back row, spoke up, “Listen…I know we all loved the monologue…but I’m just gonna say it: I think Zombie Peter should be a little thinner in the face.”
Again, the room mumbled in agreement. Agnes nodded slowly, “Yeah. He is a little chubby cheeked. Fair point. Forget it, then. Let’s bring in the next guy.” Her assistant moved Kevin’s photo back to the larger pile, and a thinner, living actor came in, all smiles, excited to read for the part of Zombie Peter.