"Follow me please."
The administrative assistant led Paffenroth into a large office with no walls. A large scaffold stood on one side of the room, stretching up to a breath-taking ceiling high above him. The ceiling was filled with paintings of ecclesiastical wonder illustrated in colors that would shame a rainbow.
Sitting behind the desk was a clean-shaven, white-haired man, flipping through the pages of, Dying to Live: A Novel of Life Among the Undead. He closed the book and put it down on his desk, then folded his hands on top of it. He smiled at Paffenroth. "Hi, Kim. Please have a seat."
Paffenroth sunk into one of the stuffed leather chairs. "My word," he said.
"Yes, I know," said the man behind the desk. "Heavenly, aren't they? I've ordered a set of ottomans to go with them, but I'm afraid I may have guests falling asleep the minute they sit down," he chuckled. "Kim--or would you rather I called you Dr. Paffenroth?"
Paffenroth waved his hand.
"Kim, we need to talk about this novel of yours. I'm not sure if—"
He was interrupted by singing. It drifted down from the top of the scaffold. "Hey, Michaelangelo!" he called. "Why don't you take a lunch break? I've got to talk with my guest in private."
A head peered out from the scaffold. "Bene." To Paffenroth's surprise, the individual stepped off the scaffold. Two large white wings unfolded as the man fell and they began flapping the air, quickly stopping his descent. He flew off into the distance still singing.
"Now Kim," said the man behind the desk, picking up where he left off, "I love the book. It has all the right beats, and builds on each beat, making you really care about the people surrounded by that universe in chaos. Sort of reminds me of those first seven days, you know. I just don't know if people are ready, though, for a thought-provoking religious approach to zombie horror. I mean—"
He noticed that Paffenroth's attention was focused on the desk. "Like it?"
Paffenroth nodded. "It's unbelievable. Does it ever end?" he asked, looking off to the horizon, first left, then right.
"Da Vinci did it," said the man behind the desk. "Looked great on paper. Hell, everything he draws looks great on paper. But the downside is it takes an eternity to find anything in it's draws."
Paffenroth laughed. "That's funny."
"Can God make a desk so big that even he..."
"Oh, you're right! I hadn't thought of that." They both chuckled.
The door to the office opened and a wizened, long-bearded man poked his head in. "I'm heading to Starbucks, any takers?"
"Kim?" asked the man behind the desk. Paffenroth nodded no. "We're good, thanks for asking, Methuselah."
"Okie dokie," said Methuselah, and closed the door.
"Great guy; been with us for ages. Now, getting back to your book. I'm certainly not one to interfere, but I do have some concerns about where this might go. I just want to—"
The door to the office flew open. A man dressed in a gray pin-stripe suit and carrying a briefcase sprinted in, followed on his heels by the administrative assistant.
"I'm sorry, sir, but I couldn't stop him," said the assistant, apparently at her wit's end.
"That's all right, Ruth. I'll take care of it."
"Dr. Paffenroth, don't say another word. Permuted Press sent me to handle everything." He put his briefcase down and handed out his business card.
"You're a lawyer, Mr. Christian?" asked the man behind the desk. "This really isn't necessary. I just wanted to chat with Kim about the philosophical implications of his wonderful book."
"Yes," said Paffenroth, "I don't think we need to—"
"Tut, tut," said Mr. Christian. "Permuted Press just wants to make sure that everything is fairly weighed in the balance and nothing is found wanting."
"Alright then, have a seat."
"I rather stand, if you don't mind. These chairs look too comfortable," said Mr. Christian, with a twinkle in his eye.
"Fine. I was just telling Kim how much I like his novel. His choice to use the first person narrative is well-chosen, as it's really the only way to get inside Jonah's head to understand where he's coming from, and learn his thoughts about the other people he meets who are also surviving by the skin of their teeth." The man behind the desk picked up the book, thought a moment, and continued.
"Through Jonah's eyes, you can also experience the pain of separation, of a house divided on a global scale. Believe me, that is something I can fully appreciate. Metaphorically speaking, the situation of utter despair these survivors find themselves in can also be viewed in the light of many current events. Their questioning of their faith, and the ultimate reason for it all is a universal constant we all share."
"I'm glad you like it," said Mr. Christian, "but why, then, are we here?
"Well, it's the questioning part that concerns me," said the man behind the desk. I am, after all, the prime mover—it wasn't easy—even though it was a labor of love. But it's this constant blame game that's driving me nuts."
"What blame game?" asked Mr. Christian.
"This blaming me for everything new or old under the sun, whether good or bad. Simply put, I'm not my children's keeper. They're a will and a law unto themselves, and anything bad or good that happens from their actions is their responsibility and their reward alone. I have enough trouble making the little green apples grow. I'll probably be blamed for global warming next. This "it is or it isn't God's will" has simply got to stop. And your characters, from Jonah to Tanya to Jack wonder where I fit into all of it."
"But that's like saying don't fight the good faith," said Mr. Christian. "How else can a person give meaning to their actions, their existence, if they feel there is none at the end of the day? No trip to Atlantic City when you retire, no winning Lotto ticket even if you pray and pray for one. Hey, you started all this. Now you want to leave everyone high and dry?"
"Wait, I'm not following all this," said Paffenroth. "My novel is focused on the feelings and dispositions of people in the face of overwhelming circumstances. It's only natural for them to question why they survived while others don't, and why—"
"And why I'd let it all happen?" interrupted the man behind the desk. "The minuses and the pluses for it all, and all that spotty divine intervention stuff as your survivors rationalize the random events around them and their existence, and the existence of the zombies? Holy Moses, I can think of—"
The door to the office swung open. "You called, boss?" asked a white-robed man, sticking his head in.
"Oh, no, sorry Moses. My bad."
"No problemo!" said Moses, and closed the door.
"Alright, alright, we can go around in circles all day arguing," said Mr. Christian. "How about we focus on the novel and work with some concrete examples?"
"A sensible idea," said the man behind the desk. He flipped through the book. "Here, right off the bat, you have a line that reads "God's righteous judgment on a sinful humanity." I don't judge. Hell, I have enough trouble keeping my own house in order."
"But you're taking that line out of context," said Paffenroth. "It's only natural for Jonah, or anyone else for that matter, to wonder if there really is a purpose to all the madness he's dealing with, all the death. I'm not implying there is, I'm just exploring how any individual in such a situation might think. People—especially people under extraordinary circumstances—question what's happening around them and to them. It's as natural as the changing of the seasons."
"Good point," said Mr. Christian.
Paffenroth continued. "First we find Jonah alone, his family gone, his life a daily, dismal chore of survival. Literally he's up a tree, the only safe place to sleep, and he's honed his skills at killing the zombies: but he still wonders about them. Who they were before they turned. The zombies are people like him, were people like him; that's what he realizes even when he's bashing their brains out. His remorse at killing them comes from his realization that, soulless as they may be—at least in their insatiable hunger and mindless purpose—they were like him once. That's the real horror of it all. That and the fact that he could become like that at any time if he let's his guard down."
"And that's what makes this novel something new under the sun," added Mr. Christian. "Sure, it's got well-written, suitably gory action scenes, but each character's questioning of their own experience gives this story legs. We're fast to include religious evil whenever horror happens, but I think it's high time we start including religious good, too. That includes the symbols we associate with them, and the thoughts we share about them. And even with all this philosophical thinking going on, the novel still moves at a brisk pace."
"Did you have a problem with Milton being considered some sort of zombie messiah?" asked Paffenroth.
"Yeah, what about that?" asked Mr. Christian. "How did your son take that one?"
"Oh, he's been on tour ever since Mel Gibson's film made him popular again. But I know he's good with it. He likes the introspective nature of the character. The realization Milton comes to—how he can best utilize his "gift", if you will, is wonderful. I am always one for hope, and he provides that with his actions."
"And isn't that what it's all about?" asked Mr. Christian. "Paffenroth's survivors add meaning to their actions to provide them with hope. Without it, you might just as well be a zombie."
He continued. "Even the ritual of going into the city to provide some sort of rite of passage for people joining that small community of survivors is important. Jonah questions it's effectiveness at first, but comes to realize it's necessary to get people into the proper mindset for survival. When all the usual rituals of everyday life fall by the wayside, it's important to provide new ones, otherwise people have no anchor to hold them steady."
"And it sets up the encounter at the hospital," added Paffenroth. "Without that journey, they would not have stumbled upon Frank and Zoey, a father and his infant daughter."
"That's quite a chilling scene, isn't it?" said Mr. Christian. "I mean, the locked room with all those zombies in it." He shuddered. "You were too graphic with that one. Like one of Dante's levels of Hell, a nightmare that never ends."
"Dante loved it, by the way," said the man behind the desk. "Wish he had thought of it first."
"It also foreshadows the events that take place in the prison, toward the end of the novel," said Paffenroth.
"Yes! That's quite a horrific little adventure for Jonah, Popcorn and Tanya, isn't it?" said Mr. Christian. "That prison, like the locked hospital room, is a microcosm of insanity surrounded by the same. Nicely poised philosophical question comes out of that, too. Are the zombies, who mindlessly kill and infect—in nicely gruesome ways—their victims, evil, or are the convicts, who, with malice and aforethought kill and torture their victims for pleasure the real evil ones?"
"That's it! That's my point exactly," said the man behind the desk. "Volition. Those convicts became a law unto themselves, and thereby were lawless—and Godless for that matter. But it still was there choice. Free will; once you have it, it's all up to you. That's all I'm saying."
"Now wait a minute," said Mr. Christian. "I happen to know you did a little miracle to keep Sanjaya going on American Idol. So don't give me that free will, no intervention crap."
"Okay, so I'm a sucker for an underdog," said the man behind the desk. "But it doesn't happen often. Besides, Mephistopheles has Simon under contract, so I had to needle him a bit."
"Look," said Mr. Christian, "we can argue until Hell freezes over, but I think the point of the novel is that people will always strive to find meaning in what happens around them; even during times of zombie apocalypse. All Paffenroth did was to bring that sense of meaning into his novel. I, for one, think it brings zombie literature to a new level. And even with all that philosophical wondering going on, the story is fast-paced, and his characters make you want to see them survive. Along the way, kicking some zombie butt is also a plus, and he tosses that in with an ease that's surprising coming from an author with his theological background."
"True," said the man behind the desk. "I think I have a better understanding of your motivations." He handed Paffenroth the book. "Just one last thing: can you do me a big favor and sign it? Make it out to 'my divine inspiration,' would you. Thanks."
"We done?" asked Mr. Christian, grabbing his briefcase.
"We're done," said the man behind the desk. "Oh, and Kim, you'll just wake up and think this was all a dream. I look forward to your next novel. Keep up the good work."