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[personal profile] crazyjane

Some years ago, I was enrolled in a writing workshop which I described as being, apparently, peopled by zombies. When I described this to [profile] fire_wuff, he challenged me to write a story about it and read it out to the members of that workshop. This is the result. Enjoy.

Oh, and for the record? Nobody in that workshop realised.

The Workshop

‘It was with a deep, quiet sense of satisfaction that Olivia patted the last piece of turf into place and sat back on her heels. At last everything had been laid to rest. The pain of the past had been buried, and she could turn her face towards life, and hope.

‘A hand fell upon her shoulder, and she turned. Silhouetted against the sun was the strong, square-jawed figure of the man who had saved her, and to whom she had lost her heart. “Come away, Olivia,” said Christian in an uncharacteristically gentle voice. “We’ll carry them with us in our hearts, but now, we must live our own lives.” He slipped a hand under her elbow to help her rise. Able to smile at last, Olivia took his arm, turned her back on the grave and stepped confidently forward into her future.’

The young writer took a deep breath and laid the pages from which she had been reading on her lap. Damp, greasy spots marked where her sweating fingers had gripped the paper. There was utter silence in the room. Oh my god, they hated it. She fumbled with the glasses that hung from a chain around her neck, which had somehow gotten tangled in her shirt buttons. She had taken them off before entering the room, thinking maybe if I can’t see them this’ll be easier to handle. Setting her jaw, she abandoned the attempt and looked up. A sea of blurry faces swam in front of her.

The teacher beside her stirred. ‘Well, Anna, thank you very much. I know that must have been terribly nerve-wracking for you, this is your first workshop, after all, and I must say that we all really appreciate your courage in volunteering to be the guinea pig, the sacrificial lamb.’ She laughed, a curiously nervous titter that seemed to set her whole thin body quivering. ‘As it were, of course.’ A long-fingered hand covered in cheap silver rings patted the fold-down desk of Anna’s chair. Bracelets of crystal clacked against the plastic. ‘Now, before we open up the workshop, is there anything you’d like to say to the group? Any questions, guidelines, things you’d like us to consider?’

How about, can I get out of here right now, please? ‘Well, Ms Appleby –’

‘Lucinda, please, we’re all on the same level here. My task is to facilitate a free exchange of ideas. We’re here to –’ again, that shivering laugh – ‘pick each other’s brains, not sit in judgment.’ She sat back, folding a huge, lacy shawl about her thin frame.

Anna tried again. ‘Um, okay, Lucinda – well, what I’m really looking for is whether my character’s resolution is actually believable. I mean, she’s survived a disaster and she’s the only one left of her entire family, but she’s strong, right? She has to put it all behind her.’ There was still no response from the others, although she thought someone in the back shifted in their seat. Great. This was definitely a mistake. What made me think I could just come in here and compete with all of them? Wait – I’ve got to stop thinking like that. Maybe they’re as freaked out as I am, maybe they don’t hate it. I know I’m good, I have to stop self-sabotaging, this is exactly what Doctor Corwin was talking about last session. She realised, with a start, that Ms Appleby – Lucinda – was staring at her. Get a grip. ‘So, yeah – that’s what I’m looking for.’

‘Right, well, I think that’s perfectly clear, so who wants to get us going? Denise? Eli?’ Silence.

Anna peered at the indistinct shapes. Seated towards the back, one of the girls appeared to be biting her nails, or perhaps hooking the remnants of lunch out of her yellowish teeth. Another looked as though she was chewing an exceptionally large wad of bubble gum. Near the front, a boy in a filthy Metallica t-shirt slumped in his seat. His eyes were hidden by his overhanging, badly-dyed fringe, but there appeared to be something dripping from his mouth. Oh god, is that guy actually drooling? This is a nightmare. They’re not going to say anything, they’re just going to let me sweat.

Without warning a low groan sounded from somewhere in the back row. Lucinda jumped, and said hurriedly, ‘Well, perhaps we can do a little better than that, surely? Anna’s taken a big risk coming here today, don’t we all owe it to her to make just a bit of an effort?’ Anna glanced at her. The teacher seemed unaccountably nervous, twisting her fingers in the shawl. ‘Brendan, what do you think?’

The drooling figure raised his head and uttered in a monotone, ‘Brains.’ His head dropped again immediately, as though it was too much of an effort for his neck muscles to keep him looking up.

Anna blinked. ‘I’m sorry – did you just say, “brains”?’ Brendan had, apparently, lapsed back into semi-consciousness. From the other side of the room, though, came an unexpected response. ‘Yes. Brains.’ The woman who had spoken seemed to be talking through a mouthful of porridge.

‘Well, now, that’s certainly an interesting observation, why don’t we just run with that for a while? You’ve both touched on an excellent point, Anna’s heroine does seem to be rather intelligent, and perhaps you’re saying, Brendan, that her resolution is not quite, well, in keeping with that?’ Lucinda’s fingers were knotting up in the shawl now, her quivering more pronounced. ‘Perhaps, Carmella, you could –’

‘Okay I definitely want to talk about that,’ snapped Anna. ‘I don’t see why it’s incompatible at all! Olivia is intelligent but that doesn’t mean she can’t show a vulnerable side. After all she’s gone through–’ A long, groaning belch drowned her out, and a thick, somehow meaty smell filled the room. She clapped a hand to her mouth, gagging. Okay, that’s it. Be assertive, right? Stand firm for my space, I have a right to be here. ‘Look, if you’ve got a problem with my writing just come out and say it, because this is just crap!’ Lucinda let out a tiny shriek.

‘No no no, dear, we appreciate it, really, please do try and be calm, you have to stay calm, please!’

Anna stared at the teacher. She looks really scared. I’m not that intimidating, am I? What’s going on here? One of the students shifted, and let out a guttural moan. ‘Just what’s the deal here, anyway? This is the weirdest writing workshop I’ve ever been to!’ She shoved her glasses onto her nose, turned to glare at the class – and froze.

By the window, a boy stared vacantly at the whiteboard. His skin had a ghastly, grey-green pallor, and his eyes were filmed over. He was absently scratching at the plastic coating of his chair. Anna realised he had peeled back two of his fingernails, but he seemed oblivious to the pain he must have been causing himself. The girl next to him, who had been chewing loudly, reached into her mouth and withdrew a wad of pinkish material almost as big as her palm. She inspected it critically for a moment, and then tossed it over her shoulder. It landed with a sodden splat on the grey carpet. Brendan, his eyes still obscured by his fringe – which she now saw was matted with something thick and gluey – shifted in his seat. A long, thin rope of pinkish drool stretched down from his mouth to a pool on the desk. Beside Anna, Lucinda whimpered. ‘Oh, not again.’

There was a movement to Anna’s left. Snapping her head around, she saw the girl who had been biting her fingernails straighten up in her chair. One hand was still in her mouth – and Anna stared in disbelief as the girl bit down on her own fingers, worrying at the flesh until there was a sharp crunching noise. Anna shot to her feet. Got to get out, get out of here

As though her movement had been a signal, the whole class began to rise. Bags and notebooks tumbled to the floor. Anna’s eyes skittered from one to the other, snagging on tiny, horrible details. Red-stained mouths, yellowish crust gathering in the corners of their eyes, their fingernails ragged and clotted with tiny shreds of meat. Almost absently, she noted a foot come down on the chewed lump, causing the girl who had stepped on it to skid slightly and lurch into the boy next to her. He turned to snarl at her, pulling back shredded lips from his rotting teeth. Anna reached down to grab Lucinda’s arm as the teacher shrank back against the wall.

‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I thought that maybe you – but I can’t get involved, don’t you understand, it’s the only way, let me go, please, please,’ Lucinda babbled. Anna gaped at her, dropping her arm. A loud clatter jerked her attention back to the others, who were now shuffling forward. One had somehow become tangled up in the fold-down desk; rather than try to free himself, he simply dragged it with him, knocking it into the other chairs. Now very close to her, Brendan’s hand reached out to pull on Anna’s sleeve. He had tilted his head back, and she could finally see his face. One eye had been partially torn out, and bulged from its socket. A patch of greenish decay was festering around it. He opened his mouth, a fetid smell escaping from his throat.

‘Brains,’ he said conversationally.

Anna screamed and shoved him away. He stumbled backwards, arms windmilling, but managed to regain his balance. He reached for her again, and now Anna could see that her only escape route was almost blocked. She dived for the door, only to be caught by grasping hands that snagged her hair and clothing. Kicking, flailing, screaming, she was dragged down, her sad little story trampled underfoot.

Forgotten, Lucinda squeezed herself into a tight ball, sobbing. ‘I’m so sorry, so sorry, I have to do it, please don’t fight.’ She pushed her fists against her ears.

On their knees beside Anna, the class bent down and opened their mouths –

‘What? Are you kidding? You wrote a zombie story?’ An outraged voice yelled. Startled, Nadine faltered to a stop. She looked up at the boy who had spoken. He was half out of his seat, face reddened and nostrils flaring. ‘Is this supposed to be some kind of joke? This is a serious workshop!’

‘Never mind that,’ the girl next to him broke in. Her skin had taken on a waxy, pale colour, and she swallowed convulsively. ‘That was just horrible! You didn’t give us any warning, and all those descriptions –’ Abruptly she bolted from the room, retching.

‘See what you’ve done?’ the boy shouted. ‘You’ve insulted everybody here, coming in with that kind of – of – pulp trash!’

‘No – no look, hang on a minute,’ Nadine stammered. ‘I think you’re missing the point. I wanted the zombies to symbolise the way writing is consumed mindlessly by the masses, and –’

‘Bullshit! You just wanted to gross everyone out!’ a girl from the back row called. ‘And what’s with putting us all in the story, huh? What are you trying to say?’

Nadine stared at her. ‘I didn’t, Janet, honestly!’

‘Oh, really?’ The girl held up her hand, showing fingernails bitten almost to the quick. Nadine swallowed.

‘I – I wasn’t even thinking of you when I wrote that character,’ she protested weakly. She turned to the teacher. ‘Max, please, you realise what I was doing, don’t you?’

The teacher held up his hand for silence. Reluctantly, the class subsided, the ringleader dropping back down into his chair, his furious eyes fixed on Nadine. They waited while Max resettled the jumper tied around his shoulders and straightened the stack of papers in front of him. Finally he took a deep breath, and addressed them.

‘First of all, I have to say that I’m really disappointed in everybody here. Workshopping is a constructive process. I realise that certain material can provoke strong emotional effects in people, but I did expect that we could all conduct ourselves like adults. Perhaps I need to institute more formal rules. Vikram, I’m particularly surprised at you.’ The boy who had yelled looked down, shamefaced. Max turned to Nadine. ‘That said, I have to agree that your choice of material was not really appropriate for this forum. You’re a very good writer, Nadine. I must say that I expected that your effort would be a good deal more – literary, shall we say?’ Nadine started to protest. ‘No, no, we’ll say no more about it, but I do think you should choose a more suitable subject for your next workshopping piece, don’t you? Now,’ he looked at his watch, ‘our time is nearly up, so why don’t we just end here? Perhaps you could all go and have a coffee together. Oh, and could someone please see if Eleni is all right?’

Vikram was the first to leave, tucking his laptop under one arm and hooking the strap of his backpack over his shoulder. The others followed more slowly, some with a final resentful glance at Nadine, who was shoving the typed pages of her story into her bag, face crimson and hot. She refused to look up until all the sounds had died away. Swiping furiously at her eyes, she picked up her bag and turned to leave.

There was still one boy seated in the corner. His head was down, and he showed no sign of reacting to her presence. Probably stoned, she thought, and shrugged.

As she passed through the doorway, she heard him mutter in a low, thick voice, ‘Braaaaaaains.’

Without turning, Nadine snapped, ‘Oh, fuck you,’ and strode away.

Behind her, the boy raised his head. From his lips hung a long strip of something pink and glistening. He sucked it back into his mouth, chewed for a moment, and grinned.

August 2017

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