The plushie fell out of his old storage box by accident. The box was full of school things, and he was only looking there for some long misplaced project for Midori to maybe update and re-cycle…
And there the plushie was, staring back at him with its mismatched button eyes.
The memory attached to it was old but with physical evidence in hand it all returned with surprising clarity.
Thursday evenings were usually a quiet affair in Watanabe household. Neither he nor his parents lead particularly exciting lives so dinner talk was usually just his mom chattering pleasantly and his dad encouraging her by filling up brief silences.
Not tonight though. Tonight, his father ran into the living room brimming with excitement, all decorum forgotten, his coat flapping about him like wings, thin hair in tousled disarray. He looked as if he was struck by lightning on his way home as he started to animatedly recount embassy’s latest plans of offering senior staff members their pick of test specimens of new and improved zombies.
“No collars at all!” he thrilled “ZOM-COM guaranteed nanotechnology! Perfect for housework and companionship!”
Hisashi’s father was very enthusiastic about zombies. He was working with them every day at the US embassy and basically loved the very idea of them.
As such Hisashi’s family would have probably gotten one much sooner but zombies didn't ship well and restrictive Japanese regulations only enabled purchase and keep of immediate family. Neither grandma nor grandpa were well enough at the time of passing to qualify for anything but burial which Hisashi’s father was heartbroken over it for months. This offer was a dream come true for him.
Mother, on the other hand, remained much less enthusiastic. She was of a mind that the dead — no matter how well-preserved — should not be in any way involved in food preparation and even as excited as father was he knew better than to argue that point.
But the offer turned out to be too good to pass upon and not a week later Hisashi's dad brought home their first family zombie.
It was a boy. Older than Hisashi but barely. Undoubtedly dead. One of his pupils was blown wide, the other barely a pinprick. There was probably an incision hidden under tidy clothing or maybe by the hair through which the ZOM-COM nanites were implanted.
“Okay he doesn’t have to help in the kitchen, but Nomi-chan,” his father reasoned, not letting up on his good cheer even though Hisashi’s mom was tapping her foot expectantly. “Think what amazing opportunity it is for our Hi-chan!” He laughed jovially as he reached out to bend the zombie head in greeting and then pushed it lightly towards Hisashi.
Truthfully Hisashi was not really into the newest craze of having your dead grandma, dead brother or dead parent following you around. He thought robots were much cooler and in fact planned to study bio-robotics as soon as he'll be able to get out of high school. But even he had to admit getting to have one that was not a family member was awesome.
The Zombie — as father explained petting the dead boy’s brown hair, then moving them around to show how they hid sutures — was a failed test subject for newest ZOM-COM nano-wiring technology. It was supposed to keep the zombies aesthetically pleasing but the dead boy’s eyes came out wonky. It was a cosmetic detail at best, in no way impacting the zombie’s luxury level safety rating. A perfect, high-class companion model being given away basically for free!
“Isn't it nice to finally be able to get with the times?” his father wheedled, kissing his mother on one cheek, then the other. She huffed and hemmed about it but finally let herself be convinced.
And maybe it was, but that night — alone in his room with his homework and his new zombie, “nice” was not what Hisashi was feeling.
Firstly the zombie didn't really react to anything at all that wasn't directly transmitted into its cerebral function controller. A feature that — as Hisashi’s father has explained — will fade with time and use. The zombie was not yet accustomed to… being. It was — supposedly — very fresh.
Secondly, — for someone dead — the boy looked incredibly sad.
Zombie kids and zombie grandmas maybe weren't the most talkative, but they looked to be at least somewhat contented in their situation — some even reaching out for their owners as if to show affection.
His zombie just stood there, motionless, his freaky eyes unfocused, looking as if he was about to cry.
Luckily - he remembered, smiling and squeezing the plushie until it squeaks quietly - he got to find out why that was.
It took almost exactly three months and during that time the zombie boy managed to conquer his parent’s hearts, his teacher’s hearts, his classmate’s hearts and — to some extent — his own heart as well.
Like all zombies he was endlessly useful. Didn't tire, didn't sleep.
Mother strongly held beliefs about undead hygiene in the kitchens crumbled to dust two weeks in, when it turned out the zombie boy could bake. She couldn't, and also hated it, but loved baked goods, so she forced herself sometime.
Dad theorized there was something in the mechanical, repetitive motion of mixing ingredients that survived even into the dead boy’s new state of being but what did it matter? The cupcakes the zombie baked were very good.
Soon the zombie turned into a small local sensation. Very popular. Very busy. It remained patently unhappy though, Hisashi could always tell, but he also got used to it.
Sad zombie slowly shuffling his room into order.
Sad zombie polishing his dad’s car, it’s movements stiff and choppy.
His mother chirping at the sad zombie as it folded flour and butter into something delicious with slow, aborted precision of the dead.
The list went on.
Sad zombie actually watching high school baseball tryouts with his dad was new.
On one of his rare free days Hisashi’s dad decided to go see him practicing with his school’s team and took the zombie with him — probably because he really liked having it around.
Hisashi spotted them from his spot on the field and — even though it was frowned upon — waved in greeting. He wasn’t all that focused anyway. Practice games he got to play in were fun and all, but he has already resigned himself to the fact that he preferred watching the game to playing the game.
Some people on the field were much more serious though — played for keeps — and that's why it was shocking when one of the new pitchers suddenly threw his glove away and shot out into the stands.
Whatever else could be said about him — and Hisashi already put the boy down as an idiot — he could run like the wind. It took the pitcher no time at all to… run up to his dad?
No. No, he was actually running towards their zombie, who — for his part — was kept in place by Hisashi’s — probably flabbergasted — father.
The game was halted due to no-one paying in any mind. The pitcher — Sawamura — was having some sort of mental breakdown in the audience, crying in despair and reaching for Hisashi’s zombie that he was being kept at safe distance from by bystanders. Hisashi got there just in time for the other boy to calm down enough to start making sense, even though all the snot and tears weren’t really conductive to taking him seriously.
The zombie appeared to be his friend — Kazuya — who died and was then commissioned by his legal guardian for the experimental treatment. They were told the treatment failed and assumed it meant it didn’t take but in fact when no one came to claim the dead boy he got sent to the market where embassy bought him as part of workers entitlement program.
It was a huge coincidence that the pitcher spotted Hisashi’s zombie and recognized him as…
Hisashi was paying attention up to that point — piecing fragmented and soggy explanation into something that made sense — but then happened to look at the zombie and froze. The zombie was looking at the crying boy with his blown eyes wide open, mouth half-agape and — most importantly — he didn't seem sad anymore.
From there things became — firstly — very complicated, and then very simple: the Sawamura boy wanted Hisashi’s zombie like it was a part of his own body — even though he was really quite bad at expressing this sentiment. And the zombie — as much as it was possible for them — wanted to be his.
They tried for something like joined custody for some time but in only worked in that the zombie seemed less sad when the Sawamura boy was around. There was no repeat of that elusive almost-smile thing that happened the one time in the stands of the school stadium.
Hisashi was a smart boy. He knew what was going on and in the end Watanabe household was of big enough heart that they just ceded ownership of one zombie Miyuki Kazuya to one Sawamura Eijun.
He was gratified that since then the zombie was ambling about after the pitcher-boy with the very same bright almost smile on its face. It made its freaky eyes seem even creepier.
They even played catch sometimes — Hisashi remembered, the smile on his face getting wide enough to reach the creases of his eyes.
The plushie itself was a gift. Something akin to thank-you note written by a zombie who couldn't move well enough to write.
Two weeks after the dead boy moved out of Hisashi’s family household and into the school dorms with Sawamura he ambled up to his desk — in an another classroom, in another part of the school, Sawamura hovering out in the hallway probably — and placed the little thing on it.
It was made from arts and crafts materials — wool, plush, something soft filling it. There was — in black thread — wide smile sewn onto the plushie's face. Two buttons — one very big one very small — made up the eyes. It was recognizably a plushy of Miyuki himself. Maybe it was meant to keep Hisashi company even though the zombie himself was away.
Very cute gesture. Very cute plushie.
It was still cute quarter of a century later — though faded and somewhat tattered — when he happened upon it while looking for project ideas for his daughter.
Hisashi spared a thought as to what his old zombie’s life could like — as a most prized possession of one world-class athlete Sawamura Eijun. He most likely still looked exactly like the kid Miyuki Kazuya died as so maybe they were mistaken for father and son a lot. Or maybe he was undergoing intense tissue reanimation therapy. Hisashi heard ZOM-COM were making all kinds of things possible now and Sawamura could certainly afford it.
It would be good to see whether the zombie was still able to smile the smile he sewn onto this plushie of himself. Maybe it would be good to try to find out.