Vibeke vs. The Red Pen of Death

Timeline: Within a week or so of arrival.

There’s nothing worse than an editor on a power trip.

Unless, of course, that power trip is coming in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. That’s a whole new level of bullshit right there.

You might wonder why an editor of all people would be enjoying some sort of delusion of grandeur during such trying times. I mean really, in all the war and disaster movies I’d seen growing up, wordsmiths were usually the first ones to kick the bucket. A lifetime spent in front of a computer doesn’t exactly prepare you for hand-to-hand combat, and let’s face it, razor sharp wit gets you nowhere when it comes to the slobbering undead.

No, I don’t know why I’m still alive, either. By all rights I should have been one of the shambling horde a long time ago.

Instead, I was staring at Benedict V. Birtwhistle while he slashed his red pen across the three-page drabble I’d written about Camp Elderwood’s animals, along with its pet policy. I was proud of myself: I’d interviewed the top brass up to Captain Hammond, and even nabbed a quote from the secretary of the elusive general in charge of our facility…who may or may not have actually existed. Opinions were split.

And now my masterpiece was bleeding.

I can do this, I thought. I’ve had bad reviews before. Everyone’s work gets torn up sometimes.

Not mine, though. Not since I started working at Rock Weekly, anyway.

Birtwhistle handed the papers back to me. “I am struggling to find any redeeming value in this at all,” he said. “You were paid for your writing?”

“A salary,” I said.

“In actual American dollars?”

“Yes.”

“And not because your family was owed favors?”

Serenity now, serenity now, serenity now… “Yes. I mean no. I mean—I got the job because I’m a good writer.”

Or I had been a good writer. Maybe the evil stardust scrambled my brain when it raised the dead.

He squinted at me from behind oversized spectacles. Forget me surviving the end times. How had this guy stayed alive?

“I suggest you rewrite this very, very carefully,” he said. “And please remove anything you kids today celebrate as…what is the word? Snark.”

He pushed the bleeding mass of papers back to me with one finger, as if they were something distasteful.

I should have laughed in his face. Should have dumped my bottle of water over his head. But water was precious in these trying times, and…well, frankly my work hadn’t been ripped apart like that in years, and I had no fucking clue what to do.

I collected my wounded magnum opus and went meekly out the door.

 

*

 

It had all started innocuously enough. Some asshat in the camp’s hierarchy decided we needed to implement a Community Values Program, which meant that on top of regular jobs, citizens—refugees, really—needed to do something to give back to our glorious pseudo-city. Based on my interests and prior occupation, which I’d explained during processing just a week before, I had been selected to contribute to Elderwood’s newsletter.

“We have a newsletter?” Tony had asked over dinner the night I got the notice. We were sitting in the chow hall with my tent mate, Augusta, eating what I thought might be refried beans and some sort of meat dish. “Why the hell do we need a newsletter? Is life around here really that exciting?”

“To provide information and entertainment to the population,” I said. I handed over the sheet of instructions. “Apparently it’s been ongoing.”

“The word entertainment is used loosely,” Augusta said. She had brought a copy of the newsletter itself—which better resembled the ten-page screed my former landlord had sent me when he thought I had pointed my speakers at his back house in an effort to drive him away. “It reads like a textbook humped a thesaurus. Lotta random words I don’t understand. And the text is too close together.” She poked at it. “Or do I just need glasses?”

“Benedict V. Birtwhistle, editor in chief.” Tony let out a low whistle. “Benedict Birtwhistle. Is he British?”

“He better be,” Augusta said. “With a name like that.”

I didn’t comment. Growing up with a name like Vibeke pretty much gave me free rein to make fun of someone’s name as much as I liked, but after surviving our present situation this long, I didn’t feel like taunting karma any further.

Dax slammed his tray down against the table hard enough to make me jump. “You are not going to believe what just happened,” he said.

“You have to volunteer for a weird cause,” I said.

His gaze landed on the paper. “You got one, too.”

“Camp newsletter. The…Elderwood Elucidator, it appears.”

Is Elucidator even a word? My phone—and everyone else’s—was on the fritz, so I couldn’t just Google it like I would have in the past. Even if it was a real word, it was the type you’d use to prove you had education or something.

“What’d you get? Camp counselor?” Tony asked.

“Close. They’re setting up several bands to play…I guess in various areas. Give it a music scene.”

Considering Dax’s previous experience in the music scene involved a band called the Blood Nuts, I imagined something safe for Elderwood was pretty far out of his comfort zone. No wonder he looked twitchy.

“Man, you guys got good ones,” Augusta said. “I have to read to kids every other night.”

“That sounds fun,” Dax said.

“It’s not. Half the time their parents are screeching over the political correctness of whatever story I’m trying to read, and the other half the kids are whining for iPads or video games or whatever. These are not the sweet little tykes of our generation.” She stabbed her fork into her meat and said, “God, this food sucks.”

We got through about a minute of our meal before Tony realized something was horribly wrong.

“Why didn’t I get one?” he asked. “They should have at least called me for the newsletter. I used to write for a living, too.”

Dax nearly snorted out the beverage he was drinking from. “And let you incite rebellion? No fucking way.”

“I could do blind items. Newsletters need blind items.”

I poked at Dax’s drink, which came in a brown container with the words Chilled, Sweetened Beverage across the front. “What is that, anyway?”

He took another sip, his face screwing up as he contemplated its flavor. “It’s chai,” he said. “At least, I think it really wants to be chai. It’s got chai aspirations.”

Tony flicked what was supposed to be a French fry at him. “You should be ashamed, dude,” he said.

I managed to choke down a few more pieces of mystery meat—come to think of it, they may have been aiming for meatloaf—and then turned to Augusta. “What do you know about Birtwhistle?”

“Nothing, really. I think maybe he was a journalist over in wherever he’s from. Across the pond.”

“A British journalist.” Tony had already finished most of his dinner, and appeared to have an eye on mine. “You gonna finish that?”

“Stop poaching. This is my…” I checked the container and my heart sank, “…mystery meat.”

“It’s the apocalypse, sweetcheeks,” he said. “Early bird gets the worm. Or the mystery meat.”

*

So I had gone off to Birtwhistle, who had peered at my cobbled-together CV with the sort of disdain I usually reserved for cockroaches, unexpected piles of feces, and screaming babies in R-rated movies. He had pursed his lips, removed his glasses, and looked at me very solemnly, as if all the world’s troubles were somehow my fault.

Maybe they were.

“I’m not sure working for a publication, like, ahem, Rock Weekly is grounds to consider yourself a reporter.”

I had often thought the same thing myself, but I wasn’t about to admit it in front of this douchecanoe.

“Well,” I said, “they sent me here. You can send me back, if you want.”

I kind of hoped he would. The writing bug hadn’t exactly been gnawing at me since the dead walked. Something about trying to evade rotting cannibals just took all the glee out of wordsmithing.

No such luck. He’d decided to keep me on, starting me off with some ridiculous fluff piece about the local animals. I had typed it up on the clinic computer between bite victims, then printed it out while Dr. Samuels was busy trying to explain to an angry parent that no, there was no vaccination for the undead yet, and science didn’t work that way.

Birtwhistle hadn’t liked said fluff piece, and the rest was history.

Now I had to figure out how to fix the damn thing.

 

*

 

Of course, finding time to fix it took a little creative talking.

“What do you mean, you need more time off? I need my medic.” Samuels didn’t exactly block the door, but he did stand in front of the lobby desk, clearly perturbed.

“I’ve been told I have to go be good at writing again. For the newsletter.”

He frowned, folding his arms across his tattered white lab coat. “And what, exactly, am I supposed to do in the meantime? Good medics don’t grow on trees.”

“Nothing grows on trees anymore,” I said. “Wait. You think I’m a good medic?”

“Not really. You might be, one day.”

Considering the situation, that was probably as close to a compliment as he was going to give me.

“Are you sure this is something you have to do?”

“We’re supposed to contribute,” I said. “What do you want me to do?”

“And what do you want me to tell Mrs. Smith when I can’t stitch her leg back on because I don’t have an assistant?”

I blinked. “That’s way over my pay grade. Besides, you told me on day one that we can’t put limbs back on. Risk of infection is too high.”

He paused, then nodded. “Well, I’m glad you were listening. Very well. I’m going to speak to the captain about this.”

“Please do.” I held up the paper, and Samuels flinched in spite of himself. “Birtwhistle is ripping me a new one.”

He edged a little closer, peering at the reddened marks. “What are all those symbols? Is that…is that another language?”

“Yes,” I said. “The ancient language of Comm 101. Which I apparently slept through.”

“Did he just cross out that entire paragraph?”

I was starting to think even zombies were better than this.

*

I was sitting in my tent, trying to decipher his handwriting, when Augusta got back from her shift.

“That looks angry,” she said.

“Mr. Birtwhistle thinks I’m a fluffy piece of shit.”

She flopped down on her cot and grinned at me.

He had circled one particular sentence—a direct quote from Captain Hammond—and written No jokes! across it.  “Am I just supposed to paraphrase him on this?” I asked.

“I thought you were a reporter. Don’t you know what all his little symbols mean? What’s that one?”

“STET. It means he decided it was okay after all. But then he scratched out the STET and decided I needed to delete it anyway.” I sighed, and rubbed my eyes. “I don’t think I’ve gotten back something this bloody since college.” And even then, it had been an English paper requiring me to wax poetic on Shakespeare. I didn’t like Shakespeare and I didn’t like waxing poetic, and boy, had that professor noticed.

But ever since then I’d done pretty well for myself in the writing department. Oh, sure, every gig had its learning curve, but I did all right for myself.

Or so I thought.

Maybe no one had cared about print anymore and I’d just skated by on that.

She held out a hand, and I pressed the papers into it.

Augusta flopped back on her bed, holding my poor, battered work up in the air. One eyebrow lifted. Then another. She paged through it, every now and then letting out an amused-sounding hmm.

After a few minutes, she handed it back to me. “It’s not like we need a newsletter, anyway,” she said. “I mean, the dead are roaming around. Come on.”

Dammit, she was right.

The sky had fallen, the undead were everywhere, and we were living under military rule. Who needed a fucking newsletter?

“What happens if you don’t redo it?” she asked.

“Then he has a hole in his paper.”

“I mean, what happens to you?”

I frowned. “I didn’t ask…”

“Maybe they’ll give you detention.”

I could sort of get behind that. Maybe Camp Elderwood would have its own Breakfast Club-type situation, where the people who didn’t want to volunteer would get stuck hanging out in a library and eat bacon or something.

God, I could go for some bacon. 

Or maybe Hammond was taking a hard line on things and intended to bring back capital punishment. Death by writing? Shitty way to go.

Maybe it wasn’t too late to sign up for the militia. At least then I’d get to shoot at something.

 

*

 

By the time dinner rolled around, I still hadn’t touched the bloodbath. I did, however, bring it to the cafeteria with me so my friends could gawk at it.

And gawk they did.

“The fuck is that?” Dax demanded. Rather than touch the wounded papers, he poked at them with a fork. “State secrets?”

“Oh, shit.” Tony, at least, knew exactly what I must be feeling. He ignored his refried ham and sat there reading over Birtwhistle’s comments, his expression growing blacker by the moment. “This is some Grade A Bullshit, Vibeke.”

“More like Grade F,” Dax said. “I mean, that’s a lot of red. Nothing in that thing came out alive.”

“Seriously. This is a shitshow.” Tony frowned at one of the comments. “‘Less elaboration on insignificant details.’ This sentence isn’t even about a detail. Maybe he was high.”

Augusta smirked. “Write drunk, edit high?”

“When is this due back?”

“A couple of days,” I said. “I don’t want to do it. Maybe I can get assigned to something else. Or enter the Witness Protection Program.”

“Can I revise it?”

Out of all the strange offers I’d heard during my so-called journalistic career, no one had outright suggested they do my edits. Specifically not Tony, who wrote for the gun magazine upstairs and took great pride in tailoring his copy to offend as many people as he possibly could without getting fired.

I must have had an interesting look on my face.

“Really,” he said. “I’ll rewrite it.”

I pointed at the papers. “You don’t seem to be familiar with write boring.”

“I used to do a lot of freelance technical writing gigs. Most boring shit on the planet. That seems to be the tone this guy is going for.” Tony leaned forward. “Please? I need a challenge.”

He said, during the zombie apolcaypse.

Augusta and Dax looked at me, eager for my response.

It still all seemed so stupid. But hell, it was one less thing for me to do.

“Knock yourself out,” I said. “You may have to fight someone for a computer, though.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get at one.”

He folded the papers in half and tucked them into his jacket. I half-hoped he’d lose them and then Birtwhistle would just have to run his precious paper without commentary about the camp’s pets.

*

Speaking of pets, I was walking ours when Tony handed the papers back to me at the end of the next day.  Evie stood on her hind legs and pawed at him, wagging her tail furiously. I held onto her leash while trying to skim the verbiage on the page. Tony had always struck me as a pretty good writer, albeit a highly opinionated one—I hadn’t much liked reading about guns, but he’d also had some sort of advice column in Rifleman and I remembered thinking he was entertaining, if nothing else.

Not a speck of personality remained in these words. They were devoid of any charm, any humor, anything human at all. It might as well have come out of a scientific journal. Just looking at the revision made my eyelids feel heavy.

Birtwhistle would love it.

*

Spoiler alert: He didn’t.

I returned to his little station the next morning, where an even more badly mauled carcass awaited me. I picked it up between my thumb and pointer finger, afraid I might catch whatever it had.

I cleared my throat. “Didn’t like this one either, did you?”

“Miss Orvik, I admit I’m surprised…I didn’t think you could get any worse at this.” He peered at me over his spectacles, his small eyes remarkably beady behind the glass. “I really must question whoever kept you employed. You can barely put a sentence together.”

Now, I had read Tony’s revision—bit by brain-curdling bit—and while it was boring as shit, he’d strung words together just fine. “That thing is grammatically perfect,” I said. “The sentences are correct. I can’t help it if you don’t like pets. Or me.”

His mouth pinched shut.

“Besides,” I said, “why do we need a newsletter? The fucking dead are up and walking around. If we have any kind of newsletter, it should be about self-defense or something.”

I could barely see his eyes anymore. He remained still, but a reddish tinge was starting to spread across his neck and face.

Since he was probably going to murder me already, I plunged on ahead, determined to really issue something cutting: “Why are you running it, anyway? I’ve never heard of you.”

He removed his spectacles, folded them, and placed them on the table.

Oh, hell. Shit was about to go down. It was on. Birtwhistle vs. Orvik, one-time-only. I briefly took stock of my physical ability. I had no gun on me, but I was squirrely.

He had a stapler on his desk. I can use that. But do I bludgeon him with it or actually try to staple him?

Stapling might be more painful, but throwing it at him was probably a safer bet.

“Please take your manuscript and leave,” he said. Maybe he saw me eyeing the stapler. “I don’t think this is the right position for you.”

I ogled him.

Now,” he said.

Something about his tone of voice gave me a chill. I was quite certain that if I didn’t take my—well, Tony’s—battered revisions and leave, some seriously bad shit would go down. Birtwhistle might flip the table. He might flip me. British rage is a terrifying sight to behold.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I gathered up my paperwork and fled the building.

*

Augusta didn’t ask me what had gone down when she came back to our tent and found me burrowed under a blanket. She made a hmm sound, then rustled around on her side. After a moment, I felt something poking at me.

I stuck my head out. Augusta had a miniature Snickers bar in her hand, and was using it to gently jab me.

“You seem like you could use some chocolate,” she said.

“Holy shit,” I said. “Where did you get that?”

“I have my methods.”

That meant she’d either gambled for it or stolen it, and honestly I did not care. I sat up, took the candy, and unwrapped it. It sat in the palm of my hand, one delightful little morsel.

“Chocolate,” I said. “Cure to all maladies.”

“Yup.”

The stack of papers sat on the floor, a reddened mass of betrayal and broken dreams.

“I didn’t want to volunteer anyway,” I said.

“Maybe you can start at the library! We can go in back and smoke weed.”

“You have weed?”

“I don’t. But other people do.”

Well, it was the apocalypse. Getting high seemed as good an option as anything else these days.

Tony burst in without announcing himself. “How’d it go?”

I stuffed the chocolate into my mouth so I wouldn’t have to answer him.

Augusta, bless her, tried to cover for me. “She didn’t get it back yet,” she said, skillfully stepping in front of him and blocking his view of the paperwork.

He rolled his eyes. “That’s a lie,” he said. “Anyone can see Vibeke is stress-chewing.”

What? How did one stress-chew? Was that a thing? I tried to chew less, made my jaws work slower. It was a Snickers bar, dammit. It needed to be savored.

“She did the same thing whenever we had a round of layoffs, or when Clive wanted her to cover for the copy editor.” He stepped around Augusta, crouched down in front of me, and shook his head. “You gotta chew casual, Vibby.”

I stopped chewing entirely.

He reached down, scooped up the papers, and began reading them over.

I resumed chewing, albeit very slowly.

“Stop it,” he said. “Now you’re fear-chewing.”

Apparently Tony had listened to me chew often enough to identify multiple emotions conveyed by my masticating. Because why the hell not.

Repulsive sentence structure,” he read aloud. “Vibeke, this man better be strung up somewhere.”

I stopped chewing again.

Is he strung up somewhere?”

I chewed once.

“Vibby, tell me this asshole is not still roaming freely around camp.”

I had never felt so bad for not doing bodily damage to a person.

He scanned my features, and nodded. “I see.”

He straightened up, papers in-hand, and stormed out of our tent.

I gulped down my chocolate in a hurry and chased after him.

“Tony! Tony, what are you doing?”

“Killing the shit out of Birtwhistle.”

Of course. Of course he was.

Augusta came after us, her footsteps clattering behind me.

Oh, shit. We were gonna have a witness.

 

*

 

Tony knew exactly where to find Birtwhistle. Of course he does, I said to myself as I scrambled after him. Why wouldn’t he?

He stormed into the Brit’s office, his expression a mass of blackened rage.

Birtwhistle looked up, as composed as ever. “May I help you?”

Augusta and I nearly crashed into Tony’s backside.

Tony shook the mutilated story at Birtwhistle. “Do you know who I am?”

Birtwhistle removed his spectacles.

“It’s on,” I said to Augusta. “Oh shit, it’s on!”

“No,” Birtwhistle said coolly. “No, I haven’t the faintest inkling of who you are. Would you care to enlighten me, and perhaps explain why you’ve come racing into my office, clutching Vibeke Orvik’s descent into mediocrity?”

I shoved my head around Tony to scowl at him. “Really?”

“I am Tony McKnight,” Tony announced. “Associate editor at Rifleman magazine, among many other fine publications, including The Electric Current and pieces for Journal of Tech.”

“Aha,” Birtwhistle said. “Rifleman. Yes, I’ve heard of it. Fine American gun propaganda. So, Miss Orvik, you disliked my efforts to make your piece better, and instead of learning from this experience, you handed over your assignment to an opportunistic redneck without any sense of decorum.”

Holy shit. Tony was gonna need some burn cream for that one.

“Opportunistic redneck?” Tony asked wonderingly. “You limey piece of shit.”

“Severely lacking in creativity, as well. No wonder you got stuck writing for a second-rate propaganda rag.”

Tony lurched across the desk toward him.

The two struggled for a moment, until Birtwhistle shoved Tony backward.

Tony had a long red mark across one cheek. I thought for a moment the Brit had managed to claw at him, but the red didn’t move when he swiped at it. Not blood, then.

The pen. Birtwhistle had gotten him with the pen.

“Maybe you should get some help,” I said to Augusta.

“Do I have to? This is kind of fun.”

The men had the desk in between them again, and they circled one another. I had figured Birtwhistle had some ninja skills tucked away, but damn. He moved fast for a stuffy editor.

“Get help,” I said. “Unless you want them to stab each other with pens.”

Her sense of humanity eventually won out, and she scampered away.

*

“This is terrible,” Hammond said, looking through the marked-up atrocity that had started the whole thing. “This is what’s going into the newsletter?”

“You don’t read it?” I asked.

He stared at me. “I’m trying to manage a refugee camp. You think I have time to read a newsletter?”

“You ordered it!”

He sighed, tossing the papers onto Birtwhistle’s still-askew desk. “The general ordered it, and had a lot of specific requests, didn’t he, Benedict?”

Birtwhistle nodded. He and Tony stood at opposite ends of the room, still glaring at each other.

The general ordered it? Now there was a twist. I’d never met the general—only heard of his decrees—but so far he hadn’t made a great impression. He thought the zombie plague was one big STD, felt dogs and children needed to be separate, and, according to Dax, was quite possibly a never-nude. That was, if he existed at all. No one I’d met had ever seen him.

The dry writing style and strange content requirements of the newsletter suddenly made a lot more sense.

“Maybe this forced volunteerism isn’t a great idea,” Hammond went on. “I can think of better things for both of you to do, particularly if it’s going to lead to this level of…frustration…that is ink on both of you, right? No blood?”

“No, sir,” they both mumbled.

Augusta stared down at the floor, her lips pressed tightly together. I think she was trying not to laugh.

“Benedict, let’s pare down the newsletter for now. Maybe one page. McKnight, I…what are you even doing here? You specifically requested to be assigned to the militia.”

Tony glanced at me.

“He was helping me with revisions,” I said. “I got assigned to the newsletter.”

Hammond frowned. “You’re a medic. You’re exempt from the volunteer requirement, too.”

Shit. “I am?”

“Yeah. Those involved in health and safety do enough already. Says so in the assignment. Samuels came to ask me about it, but you could’ve just gone to processing and they’d have reversed it.”

Shit.

“I didn’t read all of it,” I admitted.

Tony and Birtwhistle slowly began transferring their rage-stares to me.

“Neither did you!” I snapped at the pair of them.

“I almost got my eye poked out,” Tony said.

“He could have broken my spectacles!” Birtwhistle said.

“Guys, I think we’re all guilty here.” I began backing out of the room, past Augusta. No way was I getting strung up over this.

Birtwhistle held up a finger. “I spent hours trying to make sense of your drivel.”

“And I spent at least twenty minutes banging out garbage to replace it.”

“I bequeath my belongings to you,” I said to Augusta. “Tell Dax his band wasn’t that bad.”

Hammond blocked the doorway, effectively stopping the two guys from presumably ripping me to pieces with their bare hands or scathing wit. “Gentlemen, I think this means I need to keep a closer eye on the volunteer positions…and Benedict, I think we should leave the newsletter in your hands for now.”

Birtwhistle stared at me for another long moment, then nodded.

“That’s best,” he agreed.

“You need blind items?” Tony asked. “Because there is dramatic shit going down all over this camp, let me tell you—“

“Shut up, McKnight,” Hammond said. “Orvik, get back to the medical facility.”

I’m relatively certain I covered the distance between Birtwhistle’s office and Samuels’s domain in record time. When I got there, I dug through the stack of papers on the front desk—the place where I’d set up camp—and found the volunteer notice.

Health & Safety Staff Exempt, it said at the bottom.

I lowered the paper. “Son of a bitch.”

And that was how I learned that even after the apocalypse, you should always read the fine print.

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