Todd, an up and coming artist, has his first show in a New York gallery where one bad critique could ruin his burgeoning career. Too bad one of the most important critics plans on making an appearance.
Todd adjusted his painting of Zombie Jesus because everything had to be perfect. He nervously fixed his skull and crossbones bow-tie, ran his fingers through his meticulously styled hair, and took a deep breath. “This should be perfect,” he thought to himself. “This will be perfect.” His positive thoughts were received with nothing but heart palpitations, and a gnawing dread at the pit of his stomach. “I hope this will be over soon.”
It was Todd’s first art show after graduating from college. He lucked out because of certain familial connections, and was allowed to display his art in one of the most prestigious galleries in New York City. What came along with showing his work in the gallery was an appearance by the most famous art critic in the city. That’s what scared Todd the most. With that man’s approval, Todd’s career would be made; a bad review and he would never show again.
He was, in truth, extremely excited about his show. It had been a dream of his since he saw his first art show at a gallery back home. The paintings on display were much to be desired, but the people crowded around the artist, constantly patting him on the back, telling him how great and transcendental his work was; that was what drew Todd in. He wouldn’t say it out loud, but he was dying for that admiration. So, while going through art school, he worked on his own collection, pulling constant all-nighters to get both his school, and his personal work done. He did truly enjoy being an artist, but he enjoyed attention even more, and the thought of mixing those two together spurred him on to make the best collection of art ever. As he walked back to the gallery’s office to wait for the doors to open, Todd looked around approving his every brushstroke, his pride and joy inside every frame and on top of every pedestal. He was exuberant, awash in his morbid talent.
The title of his show, written on the foyer wall of the gallery in bright red paint was “Zombies in the U.S.A.” It was a funny, but slightly disturbing collection of celebrities, religious, historical, and political figures all turned into the brainless undead, lusting for human flesh. While friends and family tried to analyze the pieces to find the deeper meaning in the works (his favorite was: though we think we’re so different, we’re going to end up the same way), Todd really only did it because he loved zombies, and there was a certain thrill in ripping apart the faces of much beloved people, making them undesirable in the process. He tried to tell himself that he couldn’t be so sick and twisted, but he couldn’t help his excitement as he looked at his paintings of the deformed dead.
He loved zombies more than was entirely possible. He was in the process of collecting every book, movie, comic, magazine, anything that concerned his shambling friends. And he knew anything anyone wanted to know on zombie lore. He loved zombies so much that he was even sporting a tattoo on his leg of a ripped off, zombified hand, grasping his ankle. If he didn’t feel the need to look so professional in a suit, he would’ve bared his new ink (drawn by himself, of course). He broke out of his prideful reverie, and gave the display another once-over.
When he got to his favorite sculpture, he looked on with admiration at his crowning achievement. Strung up from solid wooden gallows, a noose tied around its ankle, was a zombie version of the artist himself. It was meant to resemble “The Hanged Man” a tarot card that he saw while getting his fortune told a couple of months ago. His psychic was trying to tell him something about life in suspension, some great letting go, but Todd was too entranced by the picture to pay attention to the old hag. He especially didn’t care for her after she refused to give him the card, so he begrudgingly took a picture with his phone, and left without tipping her. He raced around after, gathering the materials needed to make such a sculpture, and worked on it for half a year, shirking most of his responsibilities to devote his time into a piece that he felt would be his magnum opus.
The resemblance really was uncanny. It even freaked his mom out. She didn’t really want to think of her baby boy as dead, let alone stare at the upside down, rotting corpse version of her son. Todd walked around the display, and made sure that everything was in perfect condition before he went to the back of the gallery with the same sly grin on his face that he gave to his zombie twin.
Todd later sighed with relief while walking through the throng of invited people that packed themselves into the airless gallery. With wine glasses in hand, they knocked into each other, voraciously trying to get a glimpse at the work of the much buzzed about young artist. They were impressed, excited, disturbed, or a mixture of all three. Todd was just happy to see that people were actually there, and excited about what he’d done. He heard a woman cackle, pointing at the picture of Zombie Elvis eating a fried peanut butter and brains sandwich, and couldn’t help but think that everything was going great. “He just needs to show up and be amazed, and then everything will be perfect,” thought Todd as he chugged his second glass of wine and let the compliments of strangers flow over him as they crowded around him to praise his work.
Oh, he tried to be humble, but the look of self-satisfaction lingered on his face until he heard the gallery owner yell from the front, “Oh, Mr. Devereux, how lovely it is to see you!” Todd’s blood froze in his veins, and he nearly knocked over an old woman to get to the critic in time. He wiped his sweaty hands surreptitiously onto his pants, and shook hands with the tall, white haired, snobby man that could make or break his career. “N-nice to meet you, Mr. Devereux, it is q-quite an honor that you came to see my show.” Todd stammered. The older man only nodded his head toward Todd, looking around the gallery with dull eyes of infinite boredom. “If you would like, I could show you around, a-and explain my work to you.” The art critic only nodded again with pursed lips, and followed Todd.
Todd thought the next hour was the worst of his life. He tried every trick in the book to keep the critic’s attention. He even tried to explain the “we’re all different until we die,” deeper meaning to his show, but the critic seemed to go comatose as Todd stammered along, nervous sweat dripping down the back of his dress shirt. Finally, feeling almost completely dejected, Todd showed Mr. Devereux his crown jewel. The art critic looked at the work briefly, as he did with the rest, shook his head, and laughed.
Todd’s spirit soared. He thought he finally had the critic in the palm of his sweaty, shaking hand, and even the crowd got in on the act, laughing along with the art critic, and Todd. His spirit dropped just as quickly when the critic finally opened his mouth: “You foolish children and your monsters; first vampires, then werewolves, now this!” He jabbed his hand toward Zombie Todd with a cruel smile. He shook his head some more, all mirth leaving his snooty face. He looked back at human Todd. “Young man, you are going to have to do much better than this trivial garbage if you plan to impress me, and next time, do try to be less cliché, and more original.” Mr. Devereux gave one short snort at the artist, and turned to walk away.
Instead of feeling sad and dejected like Todd thought he would feel if Mr. Devereux proved to hate his work, he felt nothing but pure unfiltered hatred for the man. That man brushed aside with disgust the only things that Todd really loved in his short life: art and zombies. Not to mention the embarrassment of being made into a joke in front of his admirers. He laughed as if tearing the young artist’s world a part was the funniest thing he ever witnessed. Todd wanted nothing more than to punch the smug look off of the top critic’s face. No, actually he wanted to rip the flesh off of Devereux’s face, and feed it to him.
He donned the sly grin that matched his rotting twin, and called to the critic, his voice calm. “Mr. Devereux, would you care to see a piece that is completely original?” All went quiet as the art critic turned around, stunned by Todd’s unnerving coolness.
“Y-yes, I would,” he managed to stutter out.
“Good,” Todd smiled even wider until all of his teeth were bared, and then he lunged. No
one in the large crowd knew what to do as they watched the artist knock the critic to the floor, tearing at his skin with hands and teeth. The thin and aging critic tried desperately to push the young man off him, but Todd was too fast and too strong, tearing into Mr. Devereux’s skin with savage ferocity.
It took Todd biting into the shoulder of the screaming critic for the crowd to catch on, and a group of three people managed to tear Todd away from his bleeding victim. He stopped struggling as a few other people picked up the beaten man from the floor. The artist pushed away from his captors and grabbed an empty chair that was next to the small sculpture of Zombie Gandhi. He put the chair underneath his prized piece, and climbed, unnoticed onto the chair as everyone fawned over the injured art critic. It was only the sound of Zombie Todd crashing to the floor that made them notice him. That’s when his mother screamed.
She saw his eyes grow cold, and hard; his lips bloodied, and stuck in that cruel smile. In that moment he looked exactly like his undead twin, whose remains were scattered at his feet. No one moved as he slipped the noose around his neck, no one made a sound as he jumped from the chair, and no one dared to breathe as he twitched painfully for a minute or two, and then finally became still.
No one knew what to do. They stared, shocked, trying to piece together what they just witnessed. The only one that moved was Mr. Devereux, the top art critic of New York City. He got to his feet, feeling the pain of Todd’s attack. He looked at the young, dead artist for only a moment before he started to clap, the sudden noise reverberating through the dazed audience. He started slowly, his eyes glassy with tears, a large smile growing over his face. He then clapped faster despite the pain from Todd’s bite. He didn’t care. Tears rolled down his face as he laughed, hysterical at the magnificent scene before him. Mr. Devereux never saw anything quite like Todd’s art in his entire career. It was perfect.
AN: This story was originally published in Clever Girl Magazine's Fall 2015 edition
Picture courtesy of Lucas Pezeta