by Heidi Nibbelink
I hung out my shingle after they closed all the schools due to the zombie plague: Deborah Ramos, Speech Therapist. Business was as slow as I expected at first (i.e., nonexistent), but I sat in my newly decorated office space/front room of the Craftsman-style bungalow Jesus and I had spent the last twelve years restoring, and waited.
Closing school was just another example of the Atlanta Public School System’s reacting to everything too little, too late. By then, we’d already gotten used to having zombies among us; bistros were adding zombie-only seating areas where they offered Latin-fusion offal specials. It was only when humans gathered in large groups that zombies forgot their manners and began shrieking about brains. All the students now doing online classes at home meant goodbye to enrichment activities and student services like orchestra and speech therapy.
It was a Tuesday evening and I was just about to put out the “We’re Closed” sign, arm the security system, and head back to the kitchen to see about making some dinner when the knock came and I scrambled out from behind my desk to answer the door. It was a female zombie, only about twenty percent of her face had decayed, and her once-glossy long blond hair hung off her scalp like strands of Spanish moss. She jerked her arm up and I stepped back, then realized she was showing me a copy of my flyer, slightly crumpled, but clearly stating: Want to Improve Your Confidence, Better Your Love Life, Earn Respect at Work? Improve your Speech—Clarity, Fluency, Tone. Dr. Deborah Ramos, Certified Speech Therapist, can show you the way. Board Certified, Advanced Techniques, Cutting Edge Technologies. Call or Visit Today!
“Unngh?” she said.
“Yes, I am Dr. Deborah Ramos, Speech Therapist. Come right in,” I said, and led the way into my office. I slid behind my desk and surreptitiously texted my husband, Jesus, who was watching the Falcons game being broadcast from the heavily fortified walls of New Atlanta Stadium. Education, the country might do away with for the sake of safety, but NFL football, never.
With zombie client. Lock front door!
“Please, have a seat,” I said, and my client collapsed her limbs into the wingback. I briefly wondered if her zombie bottom would leave a stain on my new upholstery job.
“Unngh?” she said again, and pushed the flyer across the desk toward me. I saw she had drawn a sloppy red X next to the word, “Clarity,” in what I hoped was sharpie and not blood.
“You want to improve clarity?”
“Unngh!” She nodded her head up and down vigorously.
“The clarity of your speech?”
“Unngh!” She nodded even more violently.
I leaned back in my seat and folded my arms across my ribs in a gesture of confident expertise. “I believe I can help you. But if we’re going to enter into a therapist, client relationship, we need to establish some parameters. First of all, what is your name?”
“Wooooooooceeeeeee,” she managed in a sort of gargling howl.
“Wooooooooooooooceeeeeeeeeee” she said, even more slowly and higher pitched.
She nodded, and an expression of sorrow crossed her ruined face. I imagined it had been a while since she’d heard anyone call her by her given name, or anything other than “Freak” or “B.O.D.”— the new socially acceptable shorthand for saying Better Off Dead.
“Alright, Miss Lucy. My fee is $100 per session. We’ll meet bi-weekly to start with, and if you make significant progress we can cut back to once per week. You should see results in as little as three sessions, however, my standard course of treatment is ten sessions. Do you agree?”
She nodded, and, with difficulty, disentangled herself from a messenger bag slung across her chest. She held the bag out to me.
“Uuuuhhnnnneee,” she said.
“The money is in here? “
Trying to keep my face a professional mask instead of betraying the disgust I felt, I gingerly opened the battered bag, stained with God-knows-what fluids. Inside was a hammer, a toothbrush, a shoe, a copy of comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s latest book, You Might Be a Zombie If, and a jumble of loose bills of various denominations. I extracted five twenties and laid them on my desk. Then I held up the Foxworthy book.
“Good read?” I asked.
“Reeeeeeeeelllleeeee hhhhhunnnnnnneeeee!” she howled enthusiastically.
I dropped the book in the bag and passed it back to her. With some grunting and straining during which a bit of earlobe may have dropped off onto the Berber carpet, she managed to return her bag to its previous position. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jesus stick his head in the door and look at me questioningly. He had the hammer we used for tenderizing meat stuck through his front belt loop. I smiled and shook my head at him, and he disappeared. I heard the lock click in the front door.
“Alright, Lucy, let’s begin. First of all, I’m going to have you do a series of simple oral exercises that will help me determine your areas of strength and weakness so we know what to pinpoint in order to improve your clarity. I’ll give you some simple instructions, demonstrate, and then you try to do it with me. Ready?
“Rrraaaahhh!” said Lucy.
We practiced saying “oooo”; we tried “la la la la”. We blew bubbles, with limited success; the same with puffing the cheeks. It seemed the condition of being a walking dead person left one with the capacity to take air into the lungs and expel it to create speech, but since breathing was no longer an autonomic body function, control of the air stream required great concentration. Since one of the features of zombification was a decline in cognitive function, this presented its own set of challenges. I soon realized I couldn’t rely on my years of experience with school-aged children, and would have to pull out my old textbooks and review techniques for dealing with toddlers and preschoolers.
When our hour was up, Lucy seemed exhausted but satisfied. She agreed to return on Thursday at “nnnnnnnooooooooonnnnnnn!”
On Thursday, Lucy returned, but she wasn’t alone. A red-tressed, buxom zombie missing an eye was with her. “Kkkkeeehweeee,” Lucy explained. “Ffffweeennnd.”
“Your friend Kelly?” I clarified. “She wants speech therapy too?”
Both girls nodded vigorously in their herky-jerky way, and Kelly thrust out a fistful of damp bills to me. I reluctantly took them, making a mental note that latex gloves were going to have to become part of my professional attire.
“Let me get you a receipt,” I said.
Things just snowballed after that. Soon my schedule was booked for nine hours a day with all-zombie clients. I started running evening conversation groups two nights a week where those who graduated from my ten-week course could continue practicing and refining their skills. And the money! I increased my fee to $200 per session and still was booked solid. I never asked how zombies came by so much cash, and they never volunteered to tell me. We could afford for Jesus to quit his job at the construction company and assist me full-time with billing and appointments. He also specialized in taking small groups out for real-world practice, bringing them to bistros and having them order off the menu and engage in conversation with the waitstaff. He would recreate conversations for me in detail when he returned from an outing, so I could assess client progress.
“Kelly ordered the Kidney Insalata with a side of ranch dressing,” Jesus told me. “She struggled a little with the “esses” and the “ch” on the end of “ranch”, but the waiter totally understood her.”
“Good!” I said. Kelly wasn’t progressing as quickly as I’d hoped, so this was welcome news.
“And when the waiter got around to Trevon,” Jesus said, already starting to chuckle as he remembered the scene, “He says, ‘And for you, sir?’ and Trevon goes, ‘Brains!!!!!’ and the whole tables busts out with ‘Brains! Brains!’ It was hilarious.”
“How did the waiter take it?” I asked. We didn’t need our clients scaring the general public.
“Oh, he was totally unfazed,” Jesus said. “It probably happens five times a day. I imagine you gotta have some balls to work the zombie section.” I agreed, remembering that the waiters and waitresses I’d seen serving the zombies at our favorite brunch place around the corner all seemed to carry abnormally large corkscrews, prominently displayed.
It wasn’t until sitting in on the conversation groups and doing the outings that Jesus and I realized that inter-zombie communication was no better than human-zombie communication, and was perhaps at the root of all the human-zombie mistrust and unfortunate violence of the past decade. I published a few articles outlining my theories, and postulated that the speech therapy techniques I was using had implications for opening a whole new chapter in human-zombie relations. The story got picked up by the media and Lucy and I were invited on CNN to explain that large groups of zombies shouted, “Brains!” because it was the only word any of them could understand each other saying. We said zombies much preferred the Latin-fusion offal specials being offered at finer restaurants across the city than live human brains, which had essentially the same culinary appeal as a stale granola bar. I’ve never had a more proud professional moment in my life than Lucy clearly articulating, “Buttercup, Buttercup, Buttercup,” and “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” on national television.
The next few years were a whirlwind of national speaking engagements and book tours. I know both my private practice and my marriage suffered. I think Jesus may have had a fling with the zombie office assistant we hired to keep up with all the filing. Jesus moved into more of an agent’s roll, booking all my appearances and managing our media presence. A bright spot was Lucy being the first zombie elected to the Georgia State Legislature, where she fit in just fine intellectually and verbally with the other senators and representatives.
But if the last decade has taught us anything it’s that all good things must come to an end. It was during a rare week at home when I could actually meet with some of my private practice clients, that the first whole tongue fell out on my office floor. The client and I sat there in mutually stunned silence for a minute, watching it twitch and then lie still. It turns out that zombie parts, even retrained and well-cared for zombie parts, like lips and tongues, don’t last forever. Soon our resident zombie population, at least those infected in the first wave of the plague, lost all ability to communicate. They stopped going to brunch and the humans gradually re-colonized the zombie-only seating areas in restaurants. Slaughterhouses went back to selling their offal to dog food companies instead of chefs. Old prejudices emerged, and there were rumors of backwoods hunts and gruesome trophy collections. Lucy was not elected to a second term.
I closed my home office and turned the front room back into a parlor. Jesus didn’t go back to the construction company; instead, with the skills he developed in the last few years, he went to work for hip hop artist Waka Flaka Flame at his studios in downtown Atlanta. He takes the Marta in every day; he’s hardly ever at home. I keep a signed photo of Lucy and me at her election night celebration on my nightstand. She jokingly signed it, “Rrraaaahhh!” Love, Lucy XXOO in red sharpie.
Heidi Espenscheid Nibbelink is Midwestern by birth, Western by heart, and Southern by circumstance. When not earning amazing sums of money (up to $100!) as a freelance oboist, she works as a counselor at an urban public high school.