First Chapter: Split Screen

By Brent Hartinger

I was standing far from daylight, deep in an echoing corridor of stone. The air was dry and dusty, and all around me, lifeless bodies lurched and groaned.

Then my best friend Gunnar motioned to me and my other best friend Min from over by a bulletin board next to a row of lockers. "Russ! Min!" he said. "You have to come see this!"

I was standing in the concrete hallways of Robert L. Goodkind High School, surrounded by sleep-deprived high school students. Hey, it was 8 A.M. - what'd you expect?

Why the zombies-in-a-crypt imagery? Well, that's just me, Russel Middlebrook -always trying to be cute. But it also had something to do with the flier that my best friend Gunnar had seen on that bulletin board.

ZOMBIES WANTED! it read. Below that in smaller print it said:

Teenagers needed as extras for upcoming horror film, Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies, to be produced in local area. Come let us turn you into gruesome, monstrous zombies!

Then there was contact info.

"They're filming a zombie movie in town, and they need teenagers to be extras, isn't that cool, we should totally do it!" Gunnar was saying, all without taking a breath. I hadn't seen him this excited since he found lamprey eels in the creek near our houses.

Let's face it, Gunnar was kind of a geek. But I loved that he got so obsessive about things, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. He was originally from Norway, which has nothing to do with anything, but he has this slight accent (which people used to make fun of him for), so I figured it was something you should know.

"Aren't they kind of late for zombies?" Min said.

"Halloween was two weeks ago." She was right. It was already the second week in November.

"They're filming the movie," Gunnar said. "Not releasing it."

"And what's a 'brain zombie'?" I asked.

"I know," Min said. "Brain zombies? That doesn't even make sense."

"I'm sure it's explained in the script!" Gunnar said loudly. "Look, do you guys want to do it or not? I know Em will!" Em was Gunnar's girlfriend, who was just as geeky as he was (in a good way).

"I don't know," Min said. She was the school egghead, but she wasn't your typical Chow Mein Brain (her term, not mine). For one thing, she wasn't at all shy and submissive. She was actually pretty in-your-face. Example: she had recently put purple streaks in her hair. And she was bi and open about it. Still, she loved monster movies, so I would have thought she would have wanted to be in one.

I looked at her. "What's wrong?"

"Huh?" she said. "Nothing."

But I like to think I'm a pretty observant guy, and I knew she was lying. Min was lonely. She'd had bad luck lately, with both guys and girls. I could relate. I'm gay, and before I came out the previous spring, I had felt like the only gay person in the universe. But I had a boyfriend now, this great guy named Otto (who, unfortunately, lived eight hundred miles away).

"This zombie thing could be fun," I said to Min.

"Yes, maybe." She stared past me, down the hall.

"We'd all be together, at least."

Min met my gaze. "No, we won't. Not really."

"Yeah, we will!" Gunnar said. "Why wouldn't we be?"

Min sighed. "Because people are always alone. Sure, we're 'together,' but not really. We all might be doing the same thing, being zombie extras on this movie set. But we wouldn't ever really know what the others are thinking or feeling. It'd be a completely different experience for each of us."

Needless to say, not only was Min in-your-face, she could also be full of it. But at least now I knew I'd been right about her feeling lonely.

"Please," I said. "Zombie guts are zombie guts are zombie guts." This was a play on that poem, "A rose is a rose is a rose." Trust me, I didn't go around quoting Gertrude Stein to just anyone. But I knew Min, being full of it, would get the reference.

"Are they?" she said. "Zombie guts might mean one thing to you, but something completely different to me. Even if we were always together, which we won't be, it wouldn't be the same experience at all. I bet you ten dollars that if we do this, we'll have completely different experiences."

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean-"

Suddenly Gunnar erupted (and interrupted). "Enough with the boring philosophy talk!" he said. "Are we going to do the zombie movie or not?"

"Oh, calm down," I said matter-of-factly. "Extras in a horror movie? Of course the three of us are going to do something as cool as that."

So a couple of days later, Min, Gunnar, Em, and I trundled off to this informational meeting for extras who wanted to be in Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies. It was held in the afternoon in the auditorium of a local high school, one that had been closed for the year for remodeling. About forty other teenagers shifted uncomfortably on squeaky wooden seats. I hardly recognized anyone - almost everybody else must have come from the other high schools in the surrounding area. The somewhat meager turnout surprised me, since I couldn't imagine any teenager not wanting to play a zombie in a real movie. Then again, I'd learned long ago - and had been reminded so many times in my life! - that what interested me didn't necessarily interest other people my age.

There were a few wannabe divas from the schools' various drama clubs, but most of the other people who'd showed up were pretty clearly geeks. The teenage zombies in this movie were going to be doubly scary: in addition to mangled faces and intestines hanging out, they would all have an irritating knowledge of calculus and old Star Trek reruns.

"Carrots and peas," Gunnar said out of the blue.

"What?" I said.

"That's what movie extras are supposed to say to make it look like they're really talking," he explained. "They don't say real words, they just repeat the phrase 'carrots and peas' over and over again."

"Really?" Em said. "That's very interesting!"

"The thing I don't get," I said, "is why they didn't film this movie over the summer."

"Lots of reasons," Gunnar said. "Maybe they didn't have their financing in place. Maybe they needed the outdoor shots to be autumn-specific. That's the thing about filmmaking - you need to be flexible."

"But most of their extras are high school students," I pointed out. "During the week, we'll be in class all day!"

"So that's when they'll shoot the scenes that don't need extras in the background."

Gunnar had obviously done his research. I knew right then that he had suddenly become an expert on absolutely everything related to making movies.

A few minutes later, two guys plodded out onstage.

They looked younger than I would have thought, like college students (freshmen, not seniors). I wondered if they were extras who had gotten lost backstage.

Then they introduced themselves as the producer and director of Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies.

"In Hollywood, being young is a good thing," Gunnar whispered.

"So," the producer said, "you guys want to be zombies, huh?"

The crowd immediately whooped it up. They didn't care that the producer and the director were only shaving twice a week. They wanted to be zombies!

The producer and director smirked at each other. They were young, but cocky, and we were reacting exactly the way they wanted.

The producer went on to explain how they would be filming Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies at that school for the next three weeks, but that they'd only need us extras on the weekends and on the Friday of Thanksgiving break (we'd all get Thanksgiving itself off).

"During the week," the director said, "we'll be shooting the scenes that don't need extras in the background." Gunnar grinned at me like the Cheshire cat who had just spoken the words "I told you so." I rolled my eyes.

The producer told us we'd be playing high school students, but that over the course of the filming we'd be gradually turning into zombies. He also mentioned the "rules" of the set, which I won't bore you with here, except to say that under no circumstances were we supposed to talk to the stars. I couldn't help but notice that the producer was talking as if we'd all already agreed to be zombie extras.

Which I guess we had. But still, isn't that one of the techniques they use to get people to join cults?

Finally, the producer asked us if we had any questions. Gunnar's hand shot up. "Will you be making your own fake blood, or will you be buying it premade?" he asked.

"Because you can make great fake blood with nothing but corn syrup and red food coloring!"

Not one teenager in the auditorium laughed at Gunnar's question - which tells you a lot about the geekiness level of the gathering.

The producer looked at the director.

"Well," the director said, "we'll have to leave the technical questions for our special effects supervisor, who isn't here tonight."

Disappointment settled over the room like a blanket.

"Does anyone have any schedule-related questions?" the producer said brightly. "Anything like that?"

Min raised her hand. "How much will we be paid?" she asked, and Gunnar shot her a foul look.

The producer chuckled. "Fair enough. Well, this is a nonunion production, so you won't be paid according to the SAG scale."

"SAG stands for the Screen Actors Guild," Gunnar whispered.

For the record, I was already bored with Gunnar's knowledge of moviemaking.

"But you'll each get fifty-eight dollars a day," the producer went on. "And we will, of course, provide meals." We were going to be paid fifty-eight dollars a day? This was great news! After all, we hadn't come for the pay, but for the experience (or, according to Min, for all of our separate, individual, and completely unique experiences!). We were also there to keep Gunnar's head from exploding.

"So that's all for tonight," the producer said. "I've got some release forms that you need to sign, and you need to have your parents sign if you're under the age of-" Suddenly a mangled, green-skinned man burst from backstage. Tattered clothing dangled from his angular body; mustard-yellow eyes stared blankly forward. He stumbled, zombielike, toward the producer and director, who had not yet noticed him.

Down in the seats, we would-be extras gasped in surprise.

The producer and director jerked around to face the zombie. But it was too late to run. The creature was upon them, grabbing the director's arm and twisting it right out of its socket. The director screamed, and blood spurted as if from a hose. Meanwhile, the zombie started munching on the dismembered arm, actually biting off pieces of flesh. The producer started to run, so the zombie threw the arm aside and went after him, catching him and clawing at his chest with dirt-caked fingernails. The producer howled as bloody streaks oozed out into his shirt and a clear liquid soaked the crotch of his pants.

Needless to say, the crowd went absolutely nuts - both laughing and screaming hysterically, since nobody was completely sure exactly what was going on. All I know is we were transfixed, which I'm sure was the reaction the producer and director had intended.

Once the zombie had reduced both the producer and the director to quivering masses of flesh and little jets of pulsing blood, the creature lumbered off backstage again. The whole room fell silent again as we gaped at the now - immobile corpses up onstage.

Then suddenly the producer and director leaped up onto their feet, laughing and slapping each other on the back. The director's dismembered arm had been fake, and he pulled his real arm up out of his shirt. (Presumably, the wet stain in the producer's crotch had been faked too - a very realistic touch!)

"Okay, so we lied!" the producer said. "The special effects supervisor is here tonight!" He winked in Gunnar's direction. "And for the record, we do make our own blood!"

The crowd roared again. Meanwhile, the producer introduced the "zombie," who came back out onstage to explain everything that they had just done to make it look like we had witnessed a vicious monster attack.

Okay, so Gunnar had been right. This whole movie thing was going to be incredibly cool!

Finally, the meeting really came to an end (no more zombie attacks). The producer and director passed out the release forms, and we were free to go.

We were working our way to the back of the auditorium with the rest of the crowd and were almost to the exit when I suddenly spotted a very familiar face.

Kevin Land.

Long story short: Kevin had been my first boyfriend, this baseball jock with dark hair and an impish grin. He wore a light blue work sweatshirt that had been spattered with red paint (and boy, did he fill it out nicely!). Basically, Kevin was hotter than jalapeños. He was also sweet and gentle and oh-so-cuddly.

Sounds like the perfect boyfriend, right? Well, he was, except for one small thing. I came out of the closet at school, and he didn't. Which sounds like a small deal, except it's not. When two guys are dating and only one of them is out of the closet, eventually the in-the-closet one will be forced to choose between the closet and the other guy. In my case, Kevin chose the closet, and he'd been a real jerk about it. In other words, he wasn't so sweet and gentle and cuddly after all. So I had no choice but to dump him. Which isn't to say I didn't miss him, sometimes a lot.

I know this is confusing. The point is, I now had this great new boyfriend, Otto, so the whole thing was moot anyway.

I'd seen Kevin since we broke up, at school and stuff. But he and I ran in different circles - really different circles. Basically, he was popular, and I wasn't. Which meant that while I had seen him, I hadn't ever talked to him. But somehow running into him here seemed different than seeing him at school.

"Kevin?" I said. I'm pretty sure I looked happy, in spite of everything.

"Kevin!" Min said. She didn't look or sound happy at all. On the contrary, she seemed annoyed.

He nodded and grinned - the impish smile I mentioned earlier. "Hey, Russel," he said. "Hey, Min." But it was like he was deliberately avoiding looking at her.

"Uh, what are you doing here?" I asked him. I figured he had to have been waiting for someone - a friend, a tutor, maybe even (gulp) a new boyfriend.

"Well, I wanted to be a zombie."

"Is that right?" This was actually Min, not me.

"Yeah," Kevin said. "That was pretty cool, what they did, huh?"

"Huh?" I said. "Oh, yeah, it was. So you came here to be a movie extra too?"

"Yeah, I saw that poster in the hallway, and I thought it looked really interesting."

"What a coincidence," Min said.

I, meanwhile, was thinking, This is not possible! Kevin was going to be in Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies too? Talk about the dead rising up out of the grave!

But now we were both working on the same project. So suddenly Kevin Land was talking to me again. This was the last thing in the world I wanted (more or less).

"Russel," Min insisted. "We should go." Gunnar and Em had somehow already passed us and were probably waiting in the parking lot.

"Yeah," I said. "Sure. Well," I said to Kevin. "See you."

Min was pulling me away.

"Hey, Russel?" Kevin said. I turned. "We should get together sometime. Just to talk."

Just to talk? Well, what else would we do? (Get your mind out of the gutter!)

"I mean it!" Min said. "We really have to go."

Before I could give Kevin an answer, Min was literally dragging me away. If I hadn't been so stunned by the whole Kevin-suddenly-reappearing thing, I probably would have wondered what the hell had gotten into her.

So Kevin Land was back in my life. I could not believe it. At that point, I couldn't imagine anything that would make my life any more complicated.

Then I got home from zombie practice. I walked past the living room, where my parents were taking down the Halloween decorations.

My mom immediately turned to confront me. She was clutching a white candle in the shape of a skull, something that had been set on the fireplace mantel.

"Russel," she whispered, like just saying the word was this great, terrible burden.

My dad looked over at me too. "Russel, please come in here," he said, also choking out the words. "We need to talk." He was holding a paper coffin against his chest like a security blanket.

"Talk?" I said. This wasn't good, but I couldn't exactly walk away. I pushed my way through the strands of fake spiderwebs that hung, partially unpinned, from the arch that led into the living room.

I had barely gotten two feet when my mom suddenly blurted, "Is it true? Are you gay?"

Un-fricking-believable. The exact same day that Kevin had zombied his way back into my life, my parents had somehow also discovered that I'm gay!

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(Reprinted with permission of the author.)

Comments

haNa's picture

Flip Side

Could you add chapter 1 of the flip side, Min's?

~haNa

jeff's picture

Actually...

The books are meant to be read in order, preferably starting with Russel's story, so, posting both, you would start to see how the narratives interlock in different ways and I don't think it would improve the experience of the books. In fact, I think it would have the opposite effect, because you'd see the "seams" more.

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"Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there." -- Josh Billings.

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