by Hamish Robert Johnson
Cemetery Highway is currently on tour with Bewitching Book Tours. The tour stops here today for an excerpt. Please be sure to visit the other tour stops as well.
Cemetery Highway is a rollicking tale of fame, friendship and falls from grace, set in a world where zombies are the elite and humans are the underclass.
Best friends Dexter, Michelle, Penny and Cakes have started a group called the Anti Zombie Alliance and plan on sticking it to the zombies once and for all. But when zombie big-wig Max convinces the suave Dexter to trade his standards for stardom, things get ugly.
1 - Michelle
It is said that becoming a zombie is inevitable. Either we get attacked, or we sell out and take the Package, but sooner or later we all become zombies. I, for one have never seen the advantage of aligning myself with a large group of any kind, certainly not one hell bent on human cranial carnage. Sure, they have all the power and wealth, but take a look at their lifestyle. Zombies work 100 hours a week, and yes they do make a lot of money, but what do they spend it on? A nice car that they only use to drive to work, and expensive clothes to wear there. They have no time to enjoy themselves, or their all-important wealth. And they don’t even have love, because a zombie can only have whom he loved in life. To find love after the change had always been considered impossible. Oh, and they eat peoples' brains. I tell you, it can really test my faith in the world.
Because of the current economy, more and more humans are taking the Package. This means they sell their humanity to the Zombie Corporation in exchange for zombie wealth and servitude. As a human I’ve always found this to be terribly disappointing, but it is not without its advantages. Current Zombie Corporate standards have put a stop to any unauthorized kills, which means that all kills must be ordered by the King. With the reduced number of savage zombie predators out and about, the streets are safer to walk than ever before, and I have long been an advocate for human safety and self-defense. Which brings me to the start of the story. This is the night when everything changed.
My friends and I had formed a group called the Anti-Zombie Alliance, and we were holding our first fundraising event at a cruddy bar in downtown Industry. And I mean maximum cruddiness. There were tacky neon beer advertisements, sticky carpet and a musty smell that clings to you like a stray cat. And I’m told the men’s bathroom was just a trough of ice. Self-flushing maybe? Who knows, some questions a lady knows better than to ask.
I was sitting behind a desk with my best friend and Alliance co-founder, Penny Farthing, handing out brochures and stickers that proudly bore slogan, “Life, it’s always worth the wait.” We really believed in the cause we were fighting for, because the zombies have had it too good for too long. I didn’t realize it as a kid, or maybe I did and just didn’t see the significance or implications, but they really do own and run EVERYTHING. And they don’t care about us humans at all, so we decided to stand up for ourselves. By we, I mean Penny, her ex-boyfriend Dexter, Cakes, and me, my name is Michelle Fernside.
Dexter was performing on stage as the evening’s musical entertainment. He did kind of a one-man show where he used programmed electronic music on his laptop and played electric guitar and sung over it. He was good, too, we always said that he would make it big if he could just get that all- important break.
Anyway, the guy has charisma, and bags of it. Every time he would spin or shake his hips, which was pretty frequently, all the girls in the crowd would swoon. Myself included. And he kept making eyes at me and smiling while singing his beautiful lyrics. I made eyes right back at him, which made me feel excited and nervous. I was trying to be subtle because I didn’t want to upset Penny, but seriously, Dexter has always been my cup of tea. He had a perfectly tapered short Afro that he combed meticulously, and really took pride in his appearance. I always admired that. Even when he had no money at all, he would buy silk ties from the Salvation Army for next to nothing and wear them in such a way that he would look like he had just taken the Package. But on this night he had no tie to speak of. Actually he was covered with no shirt at all, just sweat dripping over the tattoos on his smooth brown chest. I felt guilty just for looking, but it was a good kind of guilt. Exciting, you know? Like I was getting away with something naughty.
Speaking of naughty, I was surprised to notice that Penny was drinking something other than a soda. “Penny Farthing, what are you drinking?”
“Wine,” she said matter-of-factly. She took another sip then smiled at me. “This is a bar, Mishy.” Of course she was right. I had never been a drinker, but why should I look at my friend differently for doing what one does in such an establishment?
“Want a sip?” she asked me. “It is your 18th birthday,” she said teasingly. I smiled and nodded. She poured me a healthy glass of burgundy liquid and I took my first sip. It was not as acrid as I expected. Quite pleasant, actually. Fruity, in fact.
“How many of these have you had?”
“What? Tonight?” Her giddy laugh indicated that she’s had a few. I took a big swig and Penny topped off my glass. She splashed a bit on the white tablecloth, but it was still the cleanest thing in here.
Penny turned to me and smiled. “I think he likes you.” I was a bit taken aback. “Really?” I said. “Dexter?” I immediately regretted saying his name, because I was well aware of their romantic history, and the fact that I knew she was not yet over him.
“No, Cakes,” she said without missing a beat.
It had been quite obvious to me for a while that Cakes was into me but I just didn’t feel that way about him. The funny thing is, if he had not been so obviously interested I’m sure I would have liked him more, but the fact that he made it so clear left no mystery for me. No place for my mind to wander, and this girl’s mind loves to wander. And also, I had never really been like that with guys before. I mean, I’d kissed a boy here and there, but it was all very innocent. In those situations I always felt like a kid trying on adulthood and walking around the store to see how it felt, before returning to my natural state. The idea of officially being in a relationship with someone, of having an actual boyfriend made me feel very self-conscious. I guess I was nervous about letting go of the final strands of my childhood.
“Oh, really? Cakes? Does he now?” I said, averting my eyes from Dexter.
“Because if you’re not into him,” Penny continued, “I could totally see he and I…” Cakes bumbled over and interrupted.
“I don’t know why he left our band for this,” he said. “This has no chance of going anywhere at all. Right?” He folded his arms, screwed up his nose and watched Dexter’s performance with scrutiny. “Not a chance.”
“I don’t know, Cakes. The girls seem to like it,” Penny said.
“Whatever. Who wants to play for a room full of girls anyway?” Cakes snorted. “Not you, apparently,” I quipped.
Cakes’s real name is Patrick Baker. Dexter used to think it was hilarious to call him Patty Cakes Baker, and over time I guess the name Cakes just stuck. It could have been worse though, he could have been called Patty. Anyway, Cakes was quite good looking, actually. Not handsome per se, but definitely good looking enough to be one of the “other guys” in a boy band. I always joked that he looked like he’d just fallen out of a cheap fashion catalogue, wet brown floppy hair and all. Why some guys have perpetually wet hair, I’ll never know.
“Wait.” Penny turned to me. “Why did you think I meant Dexter?” I froze, clamped my hands together and looked down at my black kitten heels. “Oh, no reason.”
2 - Max
It was supposed to be a proud day for this hard working zombie. I’d slogged my way up from the bottom, and managed to carve out one hell of a career for myself. I stood in the ballroom of a luxury hotel - the finest in all of Industry - and the spotlight was on me. Finally me. I was about to be announced as the King’s Number Two, and I had officially made it!
The emcee smiled my way as he said some kind, slightly roasty words about yours truly. I pretended to laugh in all the right places and took the ribbing on the chin, but honestly it felt like something was missing. I was achieving my dream, a dream I’d worked at for decades, but here I was having second thoughts. It felt like I’d finally reached the top of a huge ladder, only to find I’d leaned it against the wrong wall.
“Zombies, let me introduce to you, the King’s new Second in Command, the incomparable Max Enfield.”
I walked out and accepted my trophy, and robotically began my acceptance speech, thanking this zombie and that, and telling several mildly amusing anecdotes. All was going well, until I noticed my reflection in the window. ‘Who is this zombie?’ I thought. Then I looked through my reflection to the world outside, and saw a group of young people milling around the front of a bar across the street. They were drinking, laughing and doing something I hadn’t thought to do in years. They were living their lives. All at once I knew what I’d been missing. Humanity.
Honestly, being a zombie is a pretty hard slog. To become one sounds easy, or at least that’s the sales pitch. You see, zombies really do have everything. We get paid crap loads of money to work for Zombie Corporation, drive nice cars and live in killer condos. And you should see our suits! Dapper is an understatement. All we have to do in return is be obedient and not drink alcohol, or take any intoxicants for that matter. It sounds simple, but the rub is that when you become a zombie, you get the career of your choice. I know that sounds great, but you literally have to do it forever. Or as our sales team says, “You get to do it forever.” It doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity, so my advice is choose your career wisely.
After my presentation I made a flimsy excuse, ducked out the back door and headed straight across the street. I had to remind myself what carefree socializing looked like, and maybe give myself the chance to feel it again. I had no expectations, I just knew I needed something fresh in my life, and thought that maybe I could find it there.
When I walked into the bar that night the first thing I saw was a banner reading, Anti-Zombie Alliance. Then i saw two girls standing behind it handing out ridiculous fliers extolling the virtues of self-defense against zombies and some counseling services for folks who had lost people to Zombie Corporation, and stickers with the slogan, Life, it’s always worth the wait. I’d heard that they think our lifestyle is shallow and based on instant gratification, but never had I had it shoved in my face like that before.
Offended, I was about to turn right around and go back to my swanky party when something grabbed my attention and would not let go. It was a sound unlike any I’d heard before. Wavering, pulsing music, devoid of structure and limitations. It was daring. It was beautiful. It was the sound of freedom. I turned to see where it was coming from to find a young guy poncing around on the stage, dancing between various pieces of electronic equipment, while strumming an electric guitar and singing sporadically. He looked like an Egyptian god, but shorter. He was cool as hell too, like he knew himself completely and was just doing his own thing. And let me tell you, people really bought into his thing. He had a swirly, girly kind of dance that really shouldn’t have worked, but every time he moved girls screamed. Actually screamed. He had the crowd eating out of his hand, and his music was totally unique. It sounded like it came from another planet, and I wanted to go there. I wanted all of us to go there, or for him to bring it to us. So without hesitation I called the Head of Recruitment.
“Charlie, yes, it’s Max. I know about the award, I got it already. No, just stepped out for a bit. Anyway, I need permission to sign a new recruit. Oh yes, he’s the realest deal I’ve seen for a real long time. This kid’s got soul, and Lord knows we need some of that. Perfect, I’ll be right over to pick up the Package.”
3 - Dexter
I had just rocked an awesome show. The crowd wasn’t that big, but I had fun. My act is pretty simple - a guitar, a microphone, a laptop and me. Some people say it’s glorified karaoke, but I see it as being more like rock and roll hip hop. Hip hop’n’roll, you know?
When I’m singing and I make eye contact with someone, it feels like we are the only two people in the world. All the negative things about my life seem to vanish, just wash away, and I’m left in a sort of paradise with my audience. I guess I made that type of eye contact with my friend Michelle Fernside, because 10 minutes later I found myself making out with her in the kitchen. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d always had a crush on her, but until recently she had been…how can I say this delicately… kind of a prude. Not that I was a total stud or anything, but I did allow myself to explore things sexually. Wow, that sounded terrible. What I mean is I’d been with a few and I intended on being with a few more. As for Michelle, I’d always wanted her, but I wasn’t expecting it to come up this way. I thought maybe we would be in our 20s and wise from travel before anything happened. And I had just broken up with her best friend, Penny.
But there we were in the dark. Just us. Making out. I pulled back for a breather.
“I’ve wanted this for so long,” I blurted out. I meant it, too. I love how candid you can be with someone when you get all intimate. And that daring feeling of allowing yourself become more vulnerable. I guess for me, it’s an extension of being on stage. Risky, you know?
“Really? You wanted me?” Michelle replied. I guess she was surprised because she recently went through a metamorphosis of sorts. She didn’t become a hussy or anything like that, but she made it obvious that she was trying to be the type of girl who goes out and gets some once in a while. But I liked her before all that, when she was just her basic, awesome self. And like I said, kind of a prude. “We should get together,” I said. I was breathless and my whole body was rushing.
“What about Penny?”
“What about her?” Okay, I probably shouldn’t have said that. I will always love Penny and wouldn’t want to hurt her, and she was Michelle’s best friend, but at that moment the mere mention of her seemed to be dragging my future back into my past. That will teach me to speak before I think. “Didn’t you just break up with her?”
“She’ll be fine with it.” I leant in for a kiss knowing full well that Penny would absolutely not be fine with any of it.
“This is going way too fast.” Michelle pulled back and held her hands strongly on my chest, putting me at arms’ length.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, thinking the pace was right on schedule. “I’ve only just started hanging out with guys like this.”
“What do you mean?” I was genuinely confused now.
“I feel like this would be a colossal mistake. I’ve never navigated a situation like this before, you know? I mean, I really like you and you’re one of my best friends, but I have Penny’s feelings to consider and…” Michelle looked around the room for answers that were not there.
“If you like me, that’s a great start.” I caressed her face reassuringly. “Maybe it’s too early to tie myself down.”
“Oh really? You think you can do better?” I withdrew my hand. “It’s not that…”
“You probably can. I did just hurt your best friend after all.”
“No, really, it’s not that,” she said, looking me right in the eye. Then she nestled her head below my chin, into my chest. It felt fantastic and familiar, and I wanted her to stay there forever.
“You should tell me what it is then.”
“I’m not sure, Dexter. But if you really want me, you can wait.” We sat in silence for a long moment that became more and more painful with every tick of the clock. “You know, it’s always worth the wait,” she said. Wow, she actually used our slogan? Cold. I stood, peeling her from me.
“I can wait, but it won’t be easy. Please understand that I am still forming, and that if you make me wait too long, I might become a different person by the time you’re ready,” I said. Michelle stood and turned away.
“I understand. I better go and see the others. I’m supposed to be working the booth right now, and they must be wondering where I am.” She was trying to be all smiles, but I could see a tear in her left eye that was about to drop. She turned and left.
“You mean where we are,” I said to myself. Why do I always save my best lines for when I’m alone?
I kicked a metal closet in the corner and it felt good. I did it again, and again. I was starting to feel better, and then the door swung open revealing bottles of booze and wine. Perfect. I grabbed a bottle of red wine and set about finding a corkscrew, which was surprisingly difficult. I gave up and grabbed a bottle of vodka, unscrewed the cap and took a hard swig. What goes best with a swig of vodka I ask you? Another.
From the Author
I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and was fortunate enough to have a relatively unexciting childhood. After high school I attended film school at Deakin University, and while making the requisite pretentious art projects I discovered I had a knack for writing dialogue. In short, I wanted to be the next Quentin Tarantino.
After film school I put my passion aside and began an hilarious and relatively short lived culinary career. Quickly rising up the ranks, I found myself cooking in some of Australia’s finest restaurants and finishing a 3 year apprenticeship in 18 months. It was in these hellish kitchens that I rediscovered my love for quirky, dirty, flirty characters, which again stoked my desire for writing and the arts.
Upon hearing The Strokes for the first time, and with absolutely no preparation whatsoever, I moved to New York City in 2003. I was once more surrounded by a bevy of interesting folks, inundating me with stories of hardship, romance and hope. How one cannot find inspiration in this city was beyond me. What was also beyond me was the ability to generate an income, so I hopped on the Greyhound with the little money I had left and got as far away as I could.
Austin, Texas, was my next port of call. Upon arriving I had a mere $40 to my name, but coupled with the attitude of a fearless traveler, I was invincible. I quickly finagled a job, a room in a Revenge of the Nerds style college housing situation and the prominent position as lead guitarist in The Handsome Charlies.
I wouldn’t say I was a great guitarist, but I certainly knew how to act like one, and as we were sharing bills with The Black Angels and Ghostland Observatory, I could be excused for thinking that I too would make it. But after a particularly ghastly SXSW performance I found myself standing in the parking lot listening to The Strokes perform "Is This It?" across the road. "No it is not," I answered, and declared that I would return to writing and not continue to get distracted by flashier pursuits.
I commenced writing screenplays, pilots and web series like a madman and have not slowed down since. I now have multiple screenplays in various stages of development, and have completed my first novel. And I am here to stay!