Discards

Aspen Winters loves the library. The books. How organized everything was on the shelves. That it wasn’t her father’s pharmacy.

Her first step to independence. A real job and a chance to get away from her father. Soon she’d get her own apartment.

Plus Tony worked at the library. Two years older, with the cutest dimple, she couldn’t wait to work side-by-side with him.

One day she’d run the library and everything would be perfect. Just perfect.

💀

This was one of those perfect blue sky days that came along too rarely in Grays Harbor, even in June. Today the sunshine brought out the bright reds and pinks and yellows of the roses along the front of the Parker library. The green metal roof sparkled with droplets from the brief rain last night. The rain had stripped the mill-stink out of the air, leaving everything fresh and smelling clean.

A perfect day to start a new job. Aspen Winters rose up on her toes, feet in her white pumps, the ones that she normally only wore on special days. Her heels dropped back down to the sidewalk with a click. If she took that step, if she walked into the library, it’d be real. Today she wouldn’t be going in like it was any other day. Today she’d be going in as someone who worked in the library. Like Ms. Rachel, the librarian, or Tony Hill who was two years older and had the cutest dimple on his cheek. She wouldn’t be a librarian, no, not yet. Not until after she finished high school, college and then got a master’s degree, which was all going to take forever. But it was sort of like being a librarian.

It was her chance for everything. To save enough money to get away from her parents for good. Her own money, not the small allowance that Daddy paid when she worked down at his pharmacy. Eventually even her own apartment.

Aspen ran her hands down her blue dress. Not the robin’s egg blue of the sky, but a rich blueberry blue, almost a purple like the blueberries that Mom used when they made jam. It was one of her favorite dresses and came with a wide orange belt. Mom had complained of course, like always, saying she was too pale for such dark colors. Aspen liked bold, bright colors. She had won on the dress, giving in to Mom on her lipstick, going with a light pink instead of the deeper ruby that she had wanted.

She wasn’t about to let that spoil her first day on the job.

Aspen took a deep breath, there was just a faint hint of saltiness to the air, and took that first step. She walked right up to the staff entrance and knocked sharply on the glass with her knuckles.

The door swung out and Aspen stepped back. Tony Hill leaned out, hanging on the door frame with one muscled arm. A tattoo peeked out of the sleeve of his black t-shirt. Aspen had to look up to see his eyes, deep hazel and gold, and his bright white smile.

“Hey there, Aspen! You’re on time, good move!” He winked. “Got to get on the Dragon Lady’s good side on your first day.”

Did he mean Ms. Rachel? She always seemed so sweet. Aspen tried to think of something, anything to say, but her tongue had curled up and died like a salted slug in her mouth. Her gut clenched.

Tony moved to the side, holding the door and gestured. “I’m kidding, of course. Come on in. I’m supposed to give you the grand tour. Ms. Rachel should get here soon.”

Somehow, Aspen managed to walk past him. She kept her hands clasped together. In all the years that she had been coming to the library she hadn’t been back in the staff areas before. The room was bigger than she imagined. With a couple computers, doors that went to other rooms, and then the short hallway that went out behind the front desk. The door clanged shut behind her.

Tony appeared beside her. “Well, this is the workroom. It’s where we hang out and make fun of the people coming into the library.”

He laughed and bumped his arm into hers. “Don’t look so shocked, Aspen. I’m just kidding. Mostly.”

Aspen forced a small smile on her face, hoping that she wasn’t blushing. God, she probably was. Mostly when she came into the library she didn’t say anything to Tony. She was always tongue-tied around him. He was a senior at Parker High, on the swim team and the cross country team. He didn’t hang out with any one group at school, but seemed to know everyone. He was like totally her opposite. Tall where she was short. He had dark wavy, beautiful hair and her hair was so blond it was almost white. He was tanned and she was a pale fish. Plus he was popular with everyone, and no one hardly knew that she existed.

It was so strange that she was going to be working with him now.

Tony didn’t seem to notice that she was at a loss for words. He pointed at a computer sitting up on a computer desk in the middle of the room.

“That’s the processing station. We check in stuff there. All the courier boxes that come from the other libraries, plus whatever people dump in the book drops. You have to watch the book drops. Sometimes people put all kinds of crap in there. We’ve had needles, used condoms, and actual crap, like dog shit bags and stuff.”

“Really?” Aspen blurted the question, horrified at the idea. Who would put that stuff in the book drop?

Tony shrugged. “Sure. Not all the time, of course, but yeah, it happens. One time we had a guy that put mason jars full of honey in the drops at several of the libraries. No lids, but it was actually pretty smart. The jars rolled into the drop and then the honey just oozed out all over everything in the drop. That was a bitch to clean!”

“That’s awful!”

Tony laughed. “Yeah, it was. Lucky for me, I wasn’t working that day, so I didn’t get stuck cleaning it up.”

He turned and pointed to her left. The corner of the room was taken up with something, she didn’t know what it was. There were handles with three grips that looked like they turned, on tall panels of whatever it was. Some sort of track ran along the bottom.

“That’s the compact shelving,” Tony said. “It’s where we store supplies, weeds, and all that stuff.”

“Weeds?”

Shelving? It didn’t look much like shelving. Tony stepped forward and grabbed the handle on one of the middle sections. He spun it with one hand. The units parted and then Aspen understood. Each section was a bookshelf, but they were on tracks the tracks. As Tony spun the handles, the four units on the right rolled away from the other four and opened up an aisle in the middle. And there were shelves, full of all sorts of books on both sides. The shelving was taller than Tony, rising up almost to the ceiling and it was three sections of shelving deep.

The shelves stopped and shiny red pegs popped out of the side with a loud clunk. “What’s that?”

“Safety lock.” Tony pulled on the handle to move the shelf. It wouldn’t budge. He slammed his hand against one of the pegs, pushing it in. Now spinning the handle moved the shelving unit. He reversed the direction on the handle until the peg popped out again. “See?”

Without waiting for an answer he moved into the aisle and pulled a book down from the shelves, flipping through the pages. He sniffed at it and wrinkled his nose before putting it back on the shelf.

“Smells like cat piss. We get that a lot. Too bad, good book otherwise. Sometimes you get some good stuff that’s being weeded.”

He’d said that before. Aspen took a breath. “Weeded? You mean the books?”

“Yeah. We discard them. They get weeded out when they’re damaged, or if it’s just been sitting around too long and no one wants to read it.” Tony grinned. “Sometimes you get pretty good stuff. Even if you don’t want it, things will sell online.”

Maybe she looked shocked or something because Tony stepped out of the aisle saying, “They’re going to just throw them away. It’s not a big deal.”

Tony hit the safety peg and spun the handle the other way until the shelves came together with a loud clang that made her jump. Tony saw and laughed.

“Hey, don’t worry. I won’t close it with you in there!”

Maybe not, but if she had to go into the compact shelving she was going to make sure to lock it so that no one could turn the handles. Just in case.

“Come on,” Tony said. “There’s a lot more I’m supposed to show you.”

💀

Twenty minutes later Tony was showing her the shelving carts when Ms. Rachel finally showed up. Ms. Rachel didn’t seem all that old, only in her twenties. She was short and fat, with long black hair and was always smiling. She waggled her fingers at the two of them, rings flashing on every finger.

“Are you two getting along okay?”

Tony beamed. “Oh yeah, she’s sharp. She already knows how to put things in order and where all the sections are.”

Ms. Rachel pulled off her jacket, a bright yellow slicker with white polka-dots. “I told you. Aspen has been coming in since she could hardly see over the front desk. I was thrilled that you applied for the job when Jon, well…”

Aspen nodded, saving Ms. Rachel from the awkwardness of saying anything. She knew all about Jon. He had been very old and forgetful. Probably the only reason that he had lived alone in that moldy old trailer was because he didn’t have anyone that cared enough to put him in a home. She didn’t think anyone was much surprised that he had left a burner on. More than once she’d been in the library when he was shelving books and had seen him put the books in the wrong place. Ms. Rachel was probably too nice to comment on it, but it did make things harder on everyone else when they couldn’t find what they were looking for on the shelves. For some reason, people would put up with that from somebody as old as Jon. Not for her. If she messed up that badly, even Ms. Rachel with all her smiles would let her go.

That was something that Aspen didn’t even want to think about. If she lost the job now, it’d make things that much worse at home. She’d never hear the end of it. They’d tell her that she’d have to just keep working in the pharmacy after all, like they’d warned her. At least through high school and probably community college. Maybe even after, if she went to Evergreen and they made her stay at home. The idea of spending the next four to eight years working in Winters Pharmacy, and being stuck at home, was about as appealing as going to prison. If Daddy had his way, she’d keep working for him for nothing except her allowance. Why would she get a paycheck when she got free room and board? They were family, Daddy said. Which obviously meant that he thought she would always work for free.

Not now. She was sixteen and had gotten the job on her own. So what if Daddy didn’t like it? The library was close to school, the schedule was flexible, and they actually paid her. Minimum wage, now, but it was a lot more than her allowance. Not even her mother’s guilt trips over leaving Daddy to work in the pharmacy alone were going to change her mind.

“Just give me a few minutes to get settled, and check my email and then I’ll be out,” Ms. Rachel said.

“No worries,” Tony answered. “I’ll watch the desk. Aspen can start working on her first cart.”

“Great!” Ms. Rachel said.

Then she was gone, disappearing through the door in the workroom that led to her office. It shut soundly behind her.

Aspen looked over at Tony. He tapped the shelving cart. “Almost time to open up. You can go ahead and start putting these away. When you’re done I’ll give you a pull list.”

“Pull list?”

“It’s just a list of stuff that people want at the other libraries. We pull it off and send it to them.”

Of course. She’d gotten holds in before, many times. “Oh, the holds!”

Tony laughed. “That’s right. Go on then, better get those shelved!”

Aspen pushed the cart. It wasn’t hard. The cart was gray, sort of like a small bookcase with three shelves. There was a different one for each of the three sections of the library, and the first she’d picked was the nonfiction section. It also had the teen books on it, labeled with a “YA” sticker. As she walked away from the desk she had the feeling that Tony was watching her. She resisted the urge to look until she reached the shelves and turned down the first aisle. Then she did glance back at the desk and Tony was watching her. She ducked her head and pulled the first book off the cart.

She really enjoyed putting the books away. She knew all about the Dewey Decimal system and everything. It left her mind free to wander. Was Tony watching her because she was new, or because he was noticing her? She hoped it was because he was noticing her, even if the thought made her all shivery inside. She’d noticed him, of course, at school but there was no reason to ever think that he had noticed her at all. More than once, as she  moved through the aisles, she glanced back up at the desk and found him looking her way. She just didn’t know why he was watching.

There was that, and it also bothered her what he had said about the weeded books. Just taking them didn’t sound right. Maybe he was telling the truth, that the books were going to be thrown away. In that case, you could look at it that he was rescuing the books, but it still sounded weird. Why would the library just throw away perfectly good books? Not the ones that stank of cat piss or whatever, but books that you could sell online? That really bothered her. If anyone was going to sell them online, shouldn’t it be the library, and the library getting the money from the books?

Aspen got to the end of shelving the first cart of books without figuring out an answer. It was her first day, after all. Maybe after she’d been working at the library for a while, she’d know more about it.

💀

Three weeks later, on a Tuesday when she was scheduled to work until eight, Aspen showed up at 3:30 and discovered that it was just her and Tony working the closing shift. They were in the workroom when he gave her the news.

“Ms. Rachel had an all-day sort of meeting at the admin building,” Tony said, leaning on the workstation in the back. “Sara’s off at five.”

Sara was an older woman, plump with curly gray hair who spent most of her time with her wide bottom planted in a chair at the desk. She tended to wear baggy shirts and stretch pants to work. And she had one of those mouths that turned down at the corners, which made her look perpetually unhappy. It would have helped if she smiled, but in all the years that Aspen had been coming to the library she hadn’t ever seen Sara smile. Even now, that’s where she was, parked on the chair at the front desk looking at some website on the computer.

Probably Facebook. Aspen had no idea what friends Sara had on there, but usually that was the site she had open.

Working in the library wasn’t exactly the way she had imagined it. Her job was mostly putting away the books, movies and making sure everything was straight and in order. Sometimes she pulled off materials that people wanted. She impressed Tony when she lifted the courier boxes, which were much lighter than the shipping crates used at the pharmacy. Even after only three weeks, Ms. Rachel had noticed how much better the library looked than when Jon was working there and had said as much.

Okay, she hadn’t put it quite that way. But Ms. Rachel did go on about how great everything looked, at how neat all the shelves were, and how much better it looked with books displayed on each shelf. Aspen had done that on her own, because she liked to see the beautiful covers, and figured other people would like it too.

It took work to keep it that way. She hadn’t found any needles in the book drop, but people did make a mess of her shelves. She’d go through a section, like the new book shelves making everything neat and then some old woman would come in and turn it into a disaster area. Books pulled out, falling over, shoved back behind the others.

How hard was it to put things back the way you found them? She wanted  to say that and didn’t. Instead, she smiled and put the section back the way it should look.

By the time Sara left at five, without saying anything, she was just gone from her perch, Aspen had shelved five carts of books. And she had fixed the mess someone had made of the cookbook section and pulled a holds list. Today she was wearing a cream-colored dress and she ran her hands down it, checking for any dust smears. When she had started working at the library the shelves hadn’t looked like anyone had ever dusted them. Dusting all of the shelves was one of the first projects she had tackled. Her dress was fine, including the strawberry-red belt that matched her new red pumps, her nails, and lipstick. She had treated herself with her first paycheck.

The library was empty. Even the bank of computer stations along the wall were empty. Usually there were patrons hunched over the stations, but it was late. Other than Tony, she was alone in the library.

She went back up to the desk where Tony was scanning a stack of DVDs into the computer to see if there was anything else she could do.

He scanned the last movie, Psycho, and then moved the whole stack into a recycled plastic grocery store bag. He smiled at her.

“Hey, Aspen. How’s it going?” His eyes moved as his gaze traveled from her face down to her chest. He did that a lot but still hadn’t asked her out.

Why did he have the movies in a bag? “Do you need me to shelve those?”

“No, that’s okay, I was just going to check them out.”

Aspen moved to the side enough so that she could see the screen. She hadn’t been trained on all the computer stuff yet, but she knew enough to know that Tony wasn’t checking out the DVDs. He hit the ESC key to clear the screen and laughed.

“Thing is, somebody beat me to it. Cleaned out all the discs and just left the cases. I had to withdraw them from the system.”

He was lying. His neck was flushed. His smile couldn’t cover it up.

Aspen’s heart pounded. She still hadn’t brought up what he said about weeds with Ms. Rachel. Usually Ms. Rachel seemed so busy, and Aspen had told herself that she must have misunderstood what Tony was saying. Or at worse, he was saving books from the landfill.

Now, she wasn’t so sure. She had shelved those movies recently and they weren’t empty when she shelved them, she was sure of that.

She found her voice. “Do we call the police or something?”

“No.” Tony laughed. “Like they’d care! It’s a few DVDs. Stuff goes missing from here all the time. Nobody cares. I’m just going to take the cases to recycle them.”

It was true that the library didn’t recycle anything. Ms. Rachel said that was because the city was responsible for that sort of thing, and they didn’t want to pay for recycling.

But she didn’t believe that Tony was taking the DVD cases to recycle them, any more than she believed that the discs weren’t in the cases. She leaned on the counter.

“Is there anything else you need me to do?”

He shook his head quickly. “No, that’s fine. I’ll just put these in the back. Holler if you need help out here.”

Tony hurried to the back.

Aspen walked around the counter, trailing her fingers along the smooth surface. No dust. She saw to it that things were kept clean. The library needed someone like her. Even Ms. Rachel didn’t care about the little things like dusting, but they were important. It made an impression.

This thing with Tony, that was a problem. A serious problem. If she went to Ms. Rachel with accusations would she believe that Tony was stealing things from the library? He could deny it. What proof was there?

Aspen ran her fingers along the keyboard. She knew that the system would show the movies as withdrawn, but that didn’t prove he hadn’t found the cases empty, just like he said. And the books he took off the weed shelf? Maybe if she knew where he sold them online, she could show that to Ms. Rachel. Even if she did, would anyone care? Why would the police care about someone taking books that the library was throwing away anyway?

Except no one was going to throw those DVDs out. Tony was just taking them. It wasn’t right.

Accusing Tony, though, that could go wrong. He could deny it. Or claim that she had taken them! What was there to stop him?

Nothing. Aspen sighed and leaned her elbows on the counter. She stretched her right leg back and rested her pump on the shelving cart.

When she saw movement in the corner of her eye she turned her head and beamed at Tony standing in the doorway staring at her.

“Do you have any plans after work?” Aspen asked.

Tony shook his head. “No, not really.”

Aspen arched her back a bit more. “No one’s going to notice if you don’t go right home?”

“No.” Tony laughed. “My dad’s usually good and passed out by the time I get home. I have a six-pack in my car, you want to go have some fun?”

Aspen straightened up. “That sounds perfect.”

She walked toward Tony, keeping her eyes on his. He took a step back into the workroom.

“I just remembered,” Aspen said. “I was looking at the books back here, but I couldn’t reach one on the top shelf. Could you help me get it?”

“Sure. Yeah, no problem.”

Tony turned and went to the compact shelving. He spun the handle to open the discards aisle enough for him to slip inside. “Which is it?”

Aspen reached the shelves and ran her hand along the long metal handles. “All the way back, on the left. On the top shelf. It’s the one with the blue cover.”

She leaned to peek down the dim aisle. The shelves were tall. Tony was stretching his right arm up, finger running along the base of the books.

Aspen kicked off her shoes and slapped her hand against the safety peg.

Tony turned and grinned. “Funny.”

She winked at him. He shook his head and went back to reaching up to the top shelf. She grabbed the handle on the shelving. She spun it to close the shelving. Tony yelped, still almost laughing, then there was a woof of expelled air as it got hard to turn the handles. With her feet planted, she used every bit of leverage she could squeeze from the handles. Every quarter inch she gained was hard.

Something snapped, like a stick breaking.

A gassy, farting smell leaked out of the aisle.

At one point there was a thrashing sound like a trapped animal trying to escape. Then a thudding, flapping sound as books fell.

A final wheezing, gulping noise.

Then nothing.

Aspen held on until her arms shook. When she finally let go blood rushed into her hands and she had tingles like they’d gone to sleep.

According to the clock, it was already past time to close the library.

💀

On Monday afternoon, when Aspen came into the library, Ms. Rachel was in the work room. She looked pale and washed out. Her fat hands wrung together.

“Oh dear, I have the most terrible news!”

Aspen clutched her small green purse in her hands. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s horrible. The police called. It seems that they found Tony’s Mustang at the bottom of the cliff off quarry road. It was all burnt up.”

“Tony wasn’t in it, was he?” Aspen asked in a breathless voice.

Ms. Rachel nodded. Tears welled up in her eyes. “He was such a beautiful boy. I know you two kids hit it off right away. I’m so sorry. They say he must have been drinking and smoking up there and lost control of the car.”

Aspen hung her head.

“If you need to take the day off, I completely understand. I’ve called admin. They’re going to send over help. Sara was so broken up, she had to go home.”

Aspen sniffled, then shook her head. “No. Thank you. Tony loved the library. I’d rather remember him by keeping it the way it should be kept.”

“Oh, you’re a sweet girl,” Ms. Rachel said. “I feel so lucky to have you here. I expect you’ll be running this place eventually.”

Aspen shook her head slowly. “Oh no, you’ll be around for a long time. Won’t you?”

💀

4,200 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 73rd weekly short story release, written in June 2013. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m a bit behind on posting stories but check back next Monday for another story. Hopefully I’ll have it up. Next up is my story Forgotten Opportunity.

The Greatest Gig

Tourists from many worlds enjoy cruises on the Elegant Slipstream for all the amenities and the cascading relativistic auras that surround the ship when it reemerges into normal space.

First Technician Chrystal Eagle never tired of the show. First Technician, she preferred starship plumber. Much better title. People — no matter the species, humanoid or not — expected sanitation systems to work invisibly.

The worst part of the job wasn’t the systems. It was the passengers. Still, greatest gig in the galaxy.

A story for those who enjoy big, bold, fun science fiction universes.

🚀

Coughed up into normal space, the Elegant Slipstream, rolled in the light of a cold blue Sun, giving the passengers, and one First Technician, a show worth dying for – of cascading relativistic auras. While the rest of the crew busied themselves with transition mechanics Chrystal enjoyed a forward lounge with a drink in her hand and a plate of genuine Terran truffles. Unless one of the Yelephant monks decided to use the humanoid facilities again she didn’t have anything to do except watch the passengers and the show outside.

Greatest gig in the galaxy, starship plumber. Or Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, but plumber worked and was less of a mouthful.

Speaking of mouthfuls, another truffle was in order. Studying the plate, her light suddenly was blocked. Chrystal looked up. Great. One of the passengers. She didn’t even know the species on this one. Humanoid, mostly. The cluster of wiggly blue, red and tan tentacles at the top of the shoulders didn’t exactly count as a head. The tentacles started out tan in the outer-most ring, longer and rougher looking. The red made up the innermost ring and looked almost pornographic. Were the black dots at the ends of the blue tentacles eyes? Who knew?

“Yes?” she asked, not knowing if the being would understand.

A translation bracelet on its disturbingly human-looking arm spoke up. Thought-controlled? Or was it making noises outside her range of hearing? “Pardon me. Are you a member of the crew?”

As if the blue coveralls and embroidered name didn’t give it away. But with so many species one couldn’t always tell what counted as fancy dress. She’d seen beings that thought wearing still-dripping bloody skins was the height of fashion.

“Yes. But I’m on a break.”

“Excuse me, you are broken? Do you require medical assistance? Should I call the Steward?”

The volume of the bracelet needed to be dialed down. “Jeez. Keep it down.”

Chrystal stood up and stepped closer, smelling something like ginger. Not bad. Too bad she couldn’t tell where to look at this being. She was taller than it and looking at the absence of a head was too disturbing. She focused on the intricate weave of its textured black shirt. Looked like some sort of artificial polymer.

“Look, what is it that you need?”

“I was using the facilities back there for the purpose of defecation –”

“That’s what it’s for.”

“– and something odd happened.” The passenger interlaced its hands together. It appeared to be waiting.

“I need a little more than that. What do you mean something odd happened?” She raised a hand. “Without getting too gross. I see enough shit as it is. I don’t need that kind of detail. And if this is a medical odd-thing, then I’m not the one you should be talking to.”

The bracelet sounded distressed. “I am in perfect health and do not appreciate the insinuation that my condition would be otherwise.”

“Jeez, I wasn’t saying that. Sorry. What was the problem?” Passengers. Greatest gig in the galaxy, but sometimes the passengers could be the greatest pain in the arse. And she was missing the show outside. Any moment now the relativistic cascade would surge and then the backwash would pass over the ship. She didn’t want to miss it.

“The disposal mechanism appeared to be jammed. It did not function properly.”

“Okay, great. I’ll fix it. You did the right thing reporting it.” She pointed at the huge transparent lounge wall. “But watch this, okay?”

The relativistic auras increased in activity. Fractal patterns exploded into view, spread, multiplied, spanned colors only seen in dreams. It became so bright that many beings looked away even though the screens wouldn’t allow any harmful radiation through. It was a birth-of-a-universe moment, only in this case the Elegant Slipstream was the universe. The CrunchBang drive collapsed the ship and everyone aboard at the departure point only to explode out at the destination point. Chrystal understood plumbing, not the drive, but she appreciated this moment when the ship was reborn in normal space. The trick? Don’t think about the “crunch” part.

At the moment the auras became their most intense the entire show vanished. For a long three seconds those that could hold their breath did. The passenger beside her didn’t twitch a tentacle where its head should be. Then a blinding wash of activity appeared and swept over the ship.

Chrystal popped a truffle into her mouth, chewed and washed it down. “We’re back. I’ll fix the loo. Enjoy the truffles, if you can.”

🚀

Chrystal waved into the facilities, the auto-servicing lockout triggering right away. The light panels above all of the stalls looked green indicating everything in good functioning order and unoccupied. The place smelled of antiseptic and cleansers. Even with the ventilation filters. But it could be, and had been on other cruises, worse. After the Yelephant monks had used the humanoid facilities she’d had to suit up in full bio-hazard gear before Larry, the Ship AI, even let her inside. That was the trouble with a cyanide-excreting species.

The first stall looked just as it should, like a complicated medical device with so many hoses and armatures that most new passengers needed an hour long orientation just to understand how to use the thing. Giving them plenty to eat and drink during the orientation help ensure that any initial hesitation would be overcome. Designed to function for nearly a hundred know species, the stall worked for all and wasn’t comfortable for any. Chrystal moved down the line, banging open each door. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. A bit of something on the floor there not cleaned up yet, but nothing to prevent a species from using the stall. Or, if exceptionally fastidious, any of the other stalls. Nothing. Visual inspection turned up exactly squat.

Maybe she should go back out and drag that passenger in here by his tentacles and ask him again exactly what his problem had been. But that ran the risk of being interpreted as a sexual advance. Rules stood very clear on that point. Avoid all reasonable risk of any behaviors that might be construed as sexual in nature. Grabbing some passenger’s tentacles? Yeah, that could be bad.

“Larry?” Chrystal called out. “I could use some help here.”

The smooth tones of the Ship AI came through her ear-piece. “Technician, why do you insist on using that nomenclature to address me?”

Just to see if I can piss you off. Fortunately Larry didn’t have telepathic capabilities. Too expensive. “You sound like a Larry to me. A passenger reported one of the stalls in here had jammed. Do you have any record of the event?”

“I do not record the private activities of passengers.”

“Never? Not even to study how biological intelligences behave behind closed doors?”

“Never.” Larry’s voice never varied. No emotions.

And yet she believed that Larry had emotions. There’d been hints over the years. Sooner or later she’d get a response out of him.

“What about the logs from the stalls? Any sensors detect any anomalous readings? Any interruptions in service?”

One of the stall lights switched to amber. Fourth down the row. “The indicated stall picked up an overload thirty-three minutes ago. Distribution fans in the initial capture chamber shut down to prevent damage. However the blockage appears to be clear now.”

“Clear? How could it clear if the fans shut down? Without fans there’s no airflow, no suction. Nothing to move material further down the system.”

“Nevertheless,” Larry said. “The system appears clear now on all sensors.”

“So I’m supposed to accept that it is clear? Based on a reading that could be faulty? I don’t think so. I do that and more passengers complain then I have a problem with the Captain. Shut it down. Send out the droids. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“As you wish, Technician.”

The amber light switched to red. In the wall opposite the stalls a panel slid up. Three squat egg-shaped chrome droids hovered into view, each about the side of her fist. The red sensor lights on their pointy ends traveled back and forth. All three hovered over and lined up in front of her.

“Okay, boys. We’ve got a passenger complaining of a jam in that stall. I need a volunteer to take a look inside the initial capture chamber.”

The two left-most droids floated back away several inches. The other one dipped briefly to the floor in defeat.

“Okay. Let’s do this. Come on Huey.”

She walked over to the indicated stall and pushed open the door. Huey floated right up to the door and stopped. Chrystal snapped her fingers. “Come on Huey, take the plunge!”

Huey let out a raspberry of protest and rose up to the seat. The droid position itself right above the seat and turned to face her. The red sensor light dimmed. It gave a small whistle of despair. “Sorry Huey. Gotta flush you.”

She pulled the release lever hit the override button to open the capture chamber seal. Huey hung for a moment above the open capture chamber and then dropped out of sight. Chrystal pulled her tablet out of her pocket and with a couple flicks pulled up Huey’s feed.

The capture chamber walls rose up around Huey, gleaming with the red light from his sensor beam. The upper part of the chamber looked perfectly clean without out any trace of what the chamber was used for or any sign of problem. Huey let out a questioning warble.

“Nope. Look down, Huey. Let’s assume that any problem would be lower.”

Huey screeched like a horny Moh’bunian. Then the droid rotated around its center of gravity until it could see the bottom of the capture chamber. There. Past the vents and fans, some sort of glistening blue shape in the bottom of the capture chamber. The blue whatever it was reflected the light from the droid, giving it a sort of purplish cast. The shape shrank back away from the droid.

Huey beeped and started to float up away from the substance. The blue stuff swelled out of the bottom of the capture chamber. Chrystal knocked the release lever back up. The top of the capture chamber rotated shut. Huey’s beeps became more frantic. The droid bumped against the top of the chamber with a dull thunk and still the substance rose into the space. She couldn’t see many details with only Huey’s light in the chamber.

“Larry! Can you get the scoop on whatever is in that capture chamber?”

“Sensors do not detect anything in the capture chamber.”

Chrystal looked up at the ceiling. “Yeah. What about Huey?”

Huey clanked against the top of the capture chamber again. The droid’s muffled beeps came faster. The other two droids floated into the stall and took up positions on either side of the unit.

“The sensors in the capture unit are designed to detect the presence of waste products. Not cleaning and maintenance droids.”

“Fine. Access Huey’s feed.”

More thunks on the lid of the capture chamber. On her screen she could see that the bluish substance now filled at least half of the chamber. Huey hardly had room to stay above it. In the dim red light she couldn’t make out many details. Whatever it was didn’t look liquid.

“Visual analysis is inconclusive.”

“Great.” Huey banged against the lid repeatedly. The droid’s beeps merged into a continuous sound of distress. “Alert the crew. There may be a hazardous substance in the waste disposal system. I’m going to try flushing it to composting and processing. Maybe I can clear it out.”

The stuff had nearly reached Huey. The droid screeched.

“Sorry Huey.” Chrystal waved her hand in front of the flush panel. An override prompt appeared on her tablet. She thumbed it. “We’ll get you out.”

One of the droids at her feet gave out a hiss of static. She faked a kick at it. “We’ll get him out. Really.”

The system fans kicked in creating a powerful suction. Fans in the capture chamber started to move. Huey’s distress signal cut off as the droid made a dizzying dive down to avoid the fans. The blue substance shrank back down into the drain. Huey dropped after it. The droid spun about, pointy end pointing up at the closed top of the capture chamber. Weak anti-gravs struggled to hold the egg-shaped droid out of the drain but soon proved no match for the suction. Huey spun around and with a loud sucking noise followed the blue gunk down the drain. Down, into the pipes and through the system.

Chrystal pocketed the tablet. “Let’s go get him, boys.”

🚀

Using the tablet Chrystal tracked Huey’s progress through the system. Now that the system had sucked whatever it was through the pipes, Huey dove after it in pursuit with cleaning brushes extended. With the other two droids trailing on her heels like a pair of baby ducklings she ran out of the facilities back into the lounge area. She turned and went through an unobtrusive door discreetly marked ‘Crew Only’. Behind the scenes she could really run. She grabbed a rail sled, pulled it down, stepped on and kicked off. The droid right behind her managed to get up on the sled and grabbed the front with an extruded manipulator. The other missed the jump as the sled shot off down the corridor. She twisted the throttle full up. The sled sped down the corridor at high speed. The rail guide lights flashed red ahead to alert anyone in the corridor of the oncoming sled.

The ship resembled a giant strand of DNA, a double-helix with a passenger side and a crew side. The sled reached the main crew strand and spiraled down to the lower processing levels, just one level up above the engines. She slowed right at the main access hatch and expertly stepped down. The sled snapped up. Faster than the droid which hadn’t relaxed its grip yet. A plaintive wail came from behind the sled. Chrystal pulled it down. The droid rolled out and bounced across the floor. The red sensor light dead. Chrystal walked over to it and gave it a nudge with her foot. A small spark of red appeared.

“Yeah, I know you’re not dead, Dewey. Come on.”

The light came on and moved back and forth over the pointed end of the droid as it rose from the floor.

“Don’t look at me like that.” Chrystal looked at the tablet. Huey had nearly reached this level. “Let’s go give an evacuation route.”

Through the hatch, droid close on her heels. This was on one of the cross chambers connecting the two strands of the ship. Massive and full of all sorts of equipment, the facility was capable of processing waste from over a hundred known species with up to ten thousand different passengers and crew at any given time. Crew technicians of many races in white coveralls walked with purpose. Every phase had to be monitored. With so many species waste handling could be a big deal. Even so they snapped to attention as she came through the corridor. Her blue coveralls announced her presence as a First Technician, top of the slop. Head of Biological Waste and Recycling on board the Elegant Slipstream.

“Don’t hold your noses now, get in there!” She waved them back to work. She ran down the corridor towards the central command center. A fat bead strung between the crew and passenger strands the C Prime coordinated all the waste handling on board. She came at the transparent doors fast enough that they barely slid open enough for her to get through. The doors snapped shut behind her. Dewey crashed into the door.

Miguel Stacks bounced up out of the command chair, his tan coveralls showing his rank as Second Technician. “Chief!”

Chrystal gave him a nod and dropped into the chair. Still warm. “Can somebody get me some iced tea?”

A junior tech appeared at her elbow with a steel, black-capped thermos of iced tea. Chrystal took it. Dewey managed to get through the door and hovered over to her chair.

“Miguel, there’s a blockage coming down the system. Tap into Huey’s feeds. I want it diverted into an empty and clean holding tank.”

“We’re at capacity. To free a tank we’ll have to shift waste. We might have to vent the excess.”

“And have the Captain deduct the cost of the organics from our budget? I don’t think so. If you need to bag and store it. We can reintroduce it into the system after I’m done.”

Miguel started shouting orders to the technicians. Droids and techs spun to work. Dewey waited beside her foot. She sipped her iced tea. Dewey whined. “I told you, we’ll get him out of there. Besides you volunteered him for this mission.”

Dewey sank lower.

“Larry?”

“Yes, Technician?”

“How long until Huey and the blockage reaches the chamber?”

“Two minutes.”

“Has the Captain been informed of the situation?”

“I have not informed her of the matter at this time since it has not threatened the integrity of the ship or passengers.”

“Good. Keep it that way. I’ll report after I have a chance to figure out what’s going on.” Chrystal got up, slipping the thermos into one of her pockets. “Come on Dewey. You’re in this with me. Miguel! I’ll be at the tank.”

“It’ll be ready when you get there,” Miguel said. “We’ve bagged the excess and stored it.”

Right. Back out of C Prime, down the corridor back to the main Crew strand. She followed the directions on her tablet to the tank, one of thousands of blisters sticking off the main strand. She waved a hand at the access hatch. It turned green and the hatch opened.

“Go on,” she told Dewey, nudging the droid in.

Dewey beeped in protest.

The tank looked pristine. The smell of bleach hung strong in the air. Given the turnaround time, not bad. She pulled her tablet and checked the feed. Huey whistled joyfully and plunged after the bluish blockage. She felt the breeze from the air being pumped out of the pipes leading into the blister. All other paths had been blocked off. Whatever it was, it was coming in here.

“Let’s wait outside,” she told Dewey.

The droid chirruped and darted around her when the door opened. She let the chamber seal behind her and turned the wall transparent. Just in time. A mass off blue doughy material appeared in the pipe. It oozed out down towards the floor. More and more poured out. With a last pop it fell free and landed on the floor. It immediately rose back up, moving. Three blobs appeared along the topside. Two lengthened and narrowed. The rest of the material rose up higher, then the lower section split into two trunks. It’d taken on a vague, doughy humanoid shape.

“Who’s that shit-head?” Chrystal asked.

Dewey gave a questioning warble.

“Let’s find out.” Chrystal waved open the chamber. “Larry, kill the fans.”

The door opened and Huey fell out of the pipe in the ceiling. The droid hit the blue person-thing, bounced off and managed to come to a rest an inch above the floor. Manipulators retracted leaving the droid a smooth egg-shape again. Both Huey and Dewey turned sensors towards the figure at the center of the chamber.

The shape continued to change and become more humanoid. In fact she could see now definite signs of maleness. The creature firmed up. Details began to take shape, features in the blue head. Right before her eyes the substance changed from a doughy caricature of a person to a gorgeous muscled guy with beautiful sky-blue skin and a sunny smile. Navy blue hair hung down to his shoulders.

“Hello there,” he said, clearly happy to see her.

Chrystal shuddered. “Okay. Icky. Do you know what you just came out of up there? You need a shower before you touch anything. Then, you need to explain what you were doing clogging up my pipes.”

The stranger nodded. “Whatever you say.”

🚀

Chrystal waited near the door to the finest restaurant on the Elegant Slipstream wearing a tiny black dress. She felt very exposed without her coveralls. But it wasn’t every day that the Prince of a planetary dynasty asked to take her to dinner for saving him from the complexities of the waste management system. It turned out he had attended the orientation for the humanoid facilities but had to revert to his unformed state to expel waste. He should have been in the non-humanoid facilities. Anyone could make that sort of mistake.

Prince Harris, as he asked to be called, walked into view. Dressed now in a fine black tuxedo, with his blue skin he looked exotic and lovely. And, he had assured her, entirely clean. He had promised that he had washed everything, not just his hands, before dinner. The Captain was pleased that her quick action had prevented some sort of diplomatic incident, which could have happened had the Prince been cooked, chopped and composted.

Watching him walk towards her with such easy grace Chrystal thought she’d gotten the best end of the deal. Starship plumber. Greatest gig in the galaxy.

🚀

3,548 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 72nd weekly short story release, written in April 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Discards.

Placer Crime

Beau Clayton loves the hustle of Eureka Gulch. Men swarmed to the growing town, caught in gold fever. A perfect place to begin a new life, build a new library, and bring culture to the new community.

Twice now his love of detective stories led him to help solve crimes. Sheriff Mullins wants help again with a dispute over a claim.

Trouble is, the story the miners tell sounds impossible.

💀

Gold fever wasn’t an illness. The people of Eureka Gulch didn’t lie around in their beds moaning with sweaty brows. They did puke in the streets, mostly outside of any one of the twenty some-odd saloons and similar establishments that had sprung up faster than the miners could dig out the ore. If anything gold fever made them stronger than normal men; the sound of hammers never stopped in Eureka Gulch these days.

Yes, things were happening and Beau Clayton was right in the middle of it all. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Creasor, owner of the Creasor hotel and other valuable properties, and the support of Ms. Emily Collins, Beau’s public library was getting a proper building after spending the past weeks in a log-base tent. The new construction was going up conveniently right across the road from the current tent library. The support came in part thanks to his help in resolving questions in a couple unfortunate deaths.

He was thin, of average height, with a dark charcoal suit, patched and worn. He wore a bowler hat over dark hair. His face was clean-shaven with high cheek-bones, a strong jaw and dark, intelligent eyes hidden under a deep brow. A thoughtful face, turned now to the building going on across the street.

Beau sat in a split log chair, sanded now to prevent splinters, with a copy of The Strand in his lap. It had only just arrived on the last stage up from Spokane with the camp’s mail, and Beau was quite excited to see it contained a new story by none other than A. Conan Doyle, “The Story of the Beetle-Hunter.”

He hadn’t started reading yet, choosing to savor the moment and he was distracted by the sight of the walls of the library going up. Built with strong timbers and then raised up. Down came the hammers! A flurry of nails driven into place and in moments the walls stood erect on their own.

He was the only one paying any attention to the library’s construction. All around the camp new buildings were going up. General merchandise stories, druggists, clothiers, mining supply companies, and of course, the saloons that the temperance movement couldn’t touch out here.

Each day he took a walk through the streets, marveling at the growth in the town as the population swelled in anticipation of the opening of the south half of the Colville reservation for mineral claims. Yet again those hopes had been dashed, a week earlier on June 8th, when the anticipated announcement had failed to come.

The mood in the camp was tense, swollen to bursting with dreams of getting rich. Thousands had poured into the region from all over. Sooners spotted claims out in the country, not legal claims yet, but there were many out there waiting for the word. The hotels were full, the women’s boarding houses and the drinking establishments alike were busy with customers. The merchants couldn’t keep enough shovels and picks in stock to meet the demand. Many men dreaming of their own claims had turned instead to working the already richly proven mines in the north half, like the Republic and Lone Pine claims. Everyone waited for word from President Grant that the bill had passed.

This was all a long way from his father’s established law offices and the courtrooms where he practiced. There had been a letter too, among the post, from his father’s firm. The letter sat unopened next to his coffee cup, on the stump beside his chair.

The Strand or the letter? Which to read first? With the Strand the outcome was already decided. He would enjoy reading the magazine. With the letter? That outcome was also already decided. There wouldn’t be any good news coming from that letter.

When he had broken the news of his decision to head north and establish a library, his father had thought him mad. So did everyone else. Who threw away a legal career in one of the most exciting cities in the west? Spokane was a center of activity and prosperity. It benefited from its placement, from the natural resources surrounding it, and the stream of men moving north to places like Eureka Gulch and Idaho. It was a modern city, full of modern ideals, and was a good place for a law firm to prosper.

Had Beau wanted to pursue that career, his future would have been secure. Instead he had thrown it to the wind to establish a library. A mad dream, yes, perhaps. Yet he was absolutely convinced, to the depths of his soul, that reading was the ultimate key to prosperity. He had always enjoyed reading. Everything, anything that he could get his hands on. It came to him that he could do much more good in the world by encouraging others to read. By offering books to all, and classes in reading, he could have far more impact on people than his father ever had in his law firm. Making the wealth of human knowledge available to everyone, what higher calling could there be? Surely that was better than the role of a lawyer!

Try telling that to his father who saw most common people as barely a step above illiterate savages. Given the examples of humanity that he saw in his practice, that was hardly a surprising attitude. When it became clear that Beau really meant to leave the firm and pursue his mad dream, his father had threatened to disinherit him. For all he knew, that was the contents of the letter. It’d be like his father to serve official notice that he had been disinherited.

Stuff it all. He’d left that behind and didn’t need the reminder. Beau left the letter untouched.

Across the street, the men working on the library swung down from the beams. They dropped their tools and walked away down the street. Beau pulled his pocket-watch out. Past noon already. They wouldn’t resume their hammering until later in the afternoon, when it began to cool slightly. This would be a good time to get some reading done. Or would be, except that sheriff Mullins was making his way down the street toward the library. The sheriff’s attention was clearly fixed on Beau, although his eyes still watched everyone around him. He nodded congenially to those he passed, his clear blue eyes catching everything with a hawk-like intensity. His long mustache and sharp nose emphasized the hawkishness of his face. He was young, but there was nothing green about the sheriff. He had that look on his face as he got closer.

It was a look that said Beau wasn’t going to get a chance to read his magazine. He set it aside and stood as the sheriff strolled up, boots kicking up dust.

“Mr. Clayton.” Mullins extended his hand.

Beau shook. The sheriff’s grip was strong. “Sheriff. Looking for something to read?”

Mullins’ lips twitched. “I haven’t finished the Tolstoy you gave me to read. Maybe I should have waited for winter.”

Beau chuckled. “Maybe.”

The sheriff turned and looked across the street. “The new library is coming along.”

“Yes. As fast as they work, we’ll be moving the books in before long. Ms. Collins is already arranging a ribbon-cutting ceremony.”

Mullins stroked his mustache. “She is a fine lady. It’s hard to credit the doctor with such a daughter.”

Dr. Collins was an odd man and maybe slightly too fond of whiskey for “medicinal purposes” to be considered strictly professional. Ms. Collins had mentioned that the loss of her mother had changed him. Hardly surprising.

“I think her late mother deserves much of the credit.”

“Just so,” Mullins said. He looked like a man at a loss for words.

“You didn’t come by to discuss Ms. Collins,” Beau said. “And since you’re not looking for another book, there must be another reason for the visit.”

Mullins stuck his thumbs behind his suspenders. “Yes. I did have a reason, although seeing the library going up, I see that there’s little point in raising the matter.”

“Sheriff, you might as well tell me since you came down here.”

“Okay, then. I will. I was thinking of asking if you’d like a deputy position. I could use someone smart and educated to keep me from making a fool of myself.”

“You don’t need me for that,” Beau said. “No one would make the mistake of thinking you a fool.”

Mullins’ blue eyes sparkled. “Maybe not. I still could use someone like you, if you weren’t busy running a library, that is.”

Beau glanced at the letter from his father’s law firm. A sheriff’s deputy? No, he wasn’t really suited to that either. He looked back at Mullins.

“You’re right, I’ve got a library to run. And you need men that can shoot straight and break up fights. That’s not me.”

“Of course. Sorry to trouble you.” Mullins started to turn.

“Sheriff?”

Mullins turned back around.

“I would have time to consult, from time to time, as needed.”

“Consult?” Mullins rubbed his chin.

“Reading isn’t the camp’s favorite vice, although my storytelling sessions have attracted a fair share of miners interested in hearing something other than the Bible. What I mean, is, if there are problems that require someone smart and educated, I expect I’d have time to assist.”

“As it so happens, I’ve got a dispute between some men right now, that could use some expert advice.”

“A dispute?” Beau scooped up the letter and pocketed it. The Strand he left on his chair. “Tell me more.”

💀

Beau’s borrowed mare bounced him in his saddle as he followed Mullins along the San Poil. The river was still high from the flooding a couple weeks earlier, but down from that torrent. The water was mostly clear now, instead of the muddy, foamy froth that had rushed down the river bed during the storm.

Other than the sound of the horses’ hooves on the packed trail, once they were away from Eureka Gulch, a quiet fell. The sort of quiet that city men never knew. It still struck Beau when he was away from the bustle of Eureka Gulch just how quiet it was in this wilderness. The sound of the shallow river flowing over the rocks, the bright bird song off in the trees that shaded the river bank, and little else. Truthfully, it was a bit unnerving. Beau watched the woods carefully. Would a bear make a noise before it attacked? What about wolves? There was probably more to fear from half-savage sooners that camped out in the wilderness waiting for the chance to strike gold when the south half opened. Not to mention the Indians from the reservation. Twelve tribes, including Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, and some men were bound to hold grudges. Either way, the quiet made him uneasy.

“How far are we going?” He asked Mullins.

The sheriff’s gelding clopped along in an unhurried  fashion. The sheriff twisted around to look back. “Not far now. Not as far south as that trouble we had.”

That trouble being the murder of one Indian, and the attempted murder of both the Mullins and Beau. Fortunately a fate they had avoided.

“Just up here, around this bend.”

Around the bend revealed a wide sunny bank stripped of plants and a good deal of dirt. Two men sat on piles of dirt. Panning gear, a rocker box, and shovels had been left lying on the ground while the men ate what looked like a rabbit roasted over a small, almost smokeless fire. Horses were tethered further up the bank. Both men were dressed in dirty clothes, worn and patched. They were skinny, with deep-sunk eyes and similar long faces. They might have been brothers, although the one on the left had deeper creases in his face, less hair and what there was of it tended to gray. A father and son, then?

The older man dropped his tin plate and stood up. The younger slowly followed. Dark eyes glanced at Beau and back to the sheriff.

“Sheriff,” the older man said. His few teeth were yellow and long. “You find that thief yet?”

Mullins’ reined in his horse. “Not yet, Mr. Higgins.”

A scowl deepened the lines on the man’s face. “What’re you doing back here, then?”

Mullins gestured at Beau. “I brought my consultant down to hear what happened. This is Beau Clayton, he’ll be helping me out.”

“Consultant?” The younger man said.

“That’s right,” Mullins said agreeably. “You just tell him your story.”

Mr. Higgins spit, a high long arc that splashed into the slow-moving river. “Couldn’t you jus tell him yourself, instead of riding out here?”

“I could,” Mullins said. “Except I want him to hear it from you so he can ask questions if he wants.”

“I’ll try not to waste your time,” Beau said.

The young man laughed, which earned him a scowl from the other. Mr. Higgins hitched his thumbs in his suspenders.

“Fine. What happened, Mr. Clayton, is that a dirty con man took our money and left us an empty claim.”

Clayton looked at the torn up bank above the river. “You bought this claim?”

Mr. Higgins nodded. “Yup. Paid twenty dollars for it. We were working our way down stream looking for a place to work when we came across a man here. He only had a shovel and a small pan, not much equipment, but we could see the gold in the pan as we rode up.”

“So you offered to buy his claim?”

The younger man spoke up, his tone bitter. “No. We didn’t. Would’ve moved on. Should have done.”

“Yeah, we should’ve done so. My son told me as much, but I didn’t listen. He had the gold right there in his pan. Told us he was finding it much harder work than he had thought, and wanted to go back to making shoes, and wondered if we’d like to buy the claim. He even dug out some more ground and washed it right in front of us, showing us the gold.”

Beau recognized the story. “So he took the gold he had already found, your money and left you with the claim.”

“Right,” Mr. Higgins said. “I feel the fool. He was gone on his donkey and we got to work. We found a few small flecks, nothing more. By the time we stopped, he was long gone. I sent my son up to talk to the sheriff.”

“And I brought Mr. Clayton to consult on this,” Mullins said.

“What’s so confusing about this?” Mr. Higgins said. He jabbed a finger at the dig. “There’s no gold here!”

“I’ve read about cases like this,” Beau said, trying to calm the man down. “The con man loads a shotgun with a small amount of gold and shoots it into the ground. Then he pretends to discover the gold but lacks the means to realize the claim himself so sells it off to someone else.”

Mr. Higgins shook a finger at Beau. “See! That’s what happened! He shouldn’t be that hard to find, sheriff! Mark told you what he looked like!”

Mullins tipped his hat up. “Yes, he did. Why don’t you just tell Mr. Clayton and be done with it?”

Clearly, Mr. Higgins was reluctant to say anything. He rubbed his jaw, and spit again with great accuracy into the river.

“Jus tell him Pa!” Mark Higgins said.

“Fine!” Mr. Higgins squinted up at Beau. “He was small, a dwarf. Odd-looking, his face wrinkled but somehow he didn’t really look old. He wore a funny coat, square and red, worn and patched but dressy, with a ruff round his neck and lace at the ends of the sleeves.”

Beau rocked back on his horse. Surely, the man wasn’t describing what it sounded like.

Mr. Higgins went on. “Also had buckles on his shoes, a leather apron and a cocked hat on his head! That’s the way he looked, I tell you!”

Mr. Higgins’ jaw clenched, as if he dared Beau to dispute him.

“And you said he rode off on a donkey?”

“That’s right. Man that size, he’s not going to ride a horse, is he? Ask around, you’ll find ‘em and get our money back!”

Everyone was looking at Beau, Mullins and the miners. Was this a joke? Mr. Higgins certainly didn’t look like he was kidding, and less likely to have read Yeats.

“Forgive me, Mr. Higgins, maybe I’m misunderstanding something. Are you saying that this man was a leprechaun?”

“Leprechaun!” Mr. Higgins scowled. “I never said that!”

“No,” Mullins said. “You didn’t call him that, but this is why I asked Mr. Clayton to come down and talk to you. He’s setting up a library back in Eureka Gulch, he’s an educated man and I thought he might recognize what you were describing.”

The younger Higgins surged to his feet, hands clenching into fists. “What are you saying? My Pa told you what he looked like!”

Beau held up a hand. “I didn’t mean any offense, son. A man named Yeats compiled a book ten years ago on fairy and folk tales. The  man you describe sounds like a leprechaun, the one-shoe fairy.”

Mr. Higgins turned to Mark. “Get it.”

Mark turned fast, nearly tripped and scrambled across the uneven ground to the other side of the fire where he rummaged in their gear. He ran back holding something in his hand and gave it to his father. Mr. Higgins turned and offered it up to Beau.

It was a shoe. Beau took it. The shoe was leather and well-made, narrow at the tip with a silver buckle across the top. It looked new. The smooth leather didn’t show any signs of wear. There was little dirt on it, mostly from the miners’ hands. He passed it on over to Mullins, who turned it over in his hands too.

“Where was this?” Beau asked.

Mr. Higgins pointed over to a log near the dig. “Found it over there, figured he left it.”

Mullins said, “You didn’t mention this before.”

Mr. Higgins shrugged. “Didn’t see no point. Might be worth something, we don’t get our money back. You mind?”

Mr. Higgins held up his hand.

Mullins  glanced over at Beau.

Beau shrugged. Keeping it wouldn’t help them find this man, leprechaun or not. Mullins tossed it down to Mr. Higgins.

The man caught the shoe. “So, sheriff? You gonna look for ‘em or not?”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out for a little man in a red coat on a donkey. If I see him, I’ll ask about your money. My guess? He’s moved on already.”

“Figures,” Mr. Higgins said. “Just our luck, you know?”

“Keep the shoe,” Beau said. “Maybe it’ll turn out to be lucky when the south half opens.”

Mr. Higgins held it up, looking at it. “Maybe so.” He pointed the shoe at Beau. “You believe us?”

“Mr. Higgins, I’d be delighted if we found this man you talk about, I’d have many questions for him.” That much was true.

💀

The ride back to Eureka Gulch passed mostly in silence as the day wore on. Beau mulled over the story in his mind. The miners hardly seemed the sort to make up such a story. And what about the shoe? It was real enough, quality craftsmanship. Just one shoe. What did that prove? Mr. Higgins could have heard the stories about leprechauns, but why make up the story? What would it gain him, except ridicule if word got out?

Riding over the last hill, the town lay beneath them. Mullins reined in his horse and fell in beside Beau.

“You’ve been quiet,” Mullins said. “What do you think of their story?”

“The details are right,” Beau said. “The obvious answer is that they set it up themselves. Except I don’t get the sense that Mr. Higgins would deliberately lie about what they saw. He seemed genuinely angry about the money he claims he lost.”

“That’s my sense too.” Mullins chuckled. “A leprechaun, though? Running a scam like that?”

“It’d fit. According to the legends they are fond of pranks, gold and drink. A town like this? They’d be right at home. You might want to start looking for him in the saloons, sheriff.”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out. Somehow I doubt I’ll have much luck.”

They reached the rode and headed on into town. The noise of Eureka Gulch washed over Beau, a welcome change from the quiet out in the wilderness around town. He touched his hat.

“Thank you sheriff, that was an interesting diversion. I wish I was more helpful.”

“You’ve helped plenty,” Mullins said. “Thank you for your time.”

“You’re welcome. I’m always happy to help.”

Their paths separated. Beau rode back to the livery and left the horse. He was on his way back to the library when he spied a familiar, and welcome sight coming down the street ahead.

It was Emily Collins, the lovely daughter of Dr. Collins. She wore a simple blue hat, with a white ribbon, over her dark hair and a plain but neat blue dress. Today she also wore white gloves. She smiled warmly as he approached, then wrinkled her tiny nose when he got close.

“Mr. Clayton, you are covered in dust! What have you been doing?”

“The sheriff and I rode out to talk to a couple of miners, victims of a prank at a placer mine.”

“Prank?”

He doubted the sheriff wanted stories of leprechauns spreading around the camp, but the rest of it didn’t matter. “A con man discharged gold from a shotgun into the San Poil river bank, then panned it out of the ground, thereby proving that there was an easy deposit of gold to be found. He sold the claim to the miners and left with the gold and their money.”

“The lure of gold does attract all sorts of men,” Ms. Collins said. “Any chance that the sheriff will catch the man responsible?”

“Perhaps,” Beau said. “His description was distinctive.”

“I hope he is caught. We don’t need thieves around here!”

“Better the sheriff catch him before anyone else,” Beau said. “The men around here tend to believe in a very swift form of justice at the end of a rope.”

“I would hope that they would respect the order of law.”

“As I would,” Beau said. “Would you like an escort?”

Ms. Collins’ smile widened. “I would. I’m returning back to my father’s house for supper. Would you like to join us?”

Beau’s stomach rumbled in response. Ms. Collins laughed.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

He smiled in return. “I do apologize, the sheriff took me away before lunch.”

“Then you must join us. I insist.”

“It’d be my pleasure.” He brushed at the dust on his clothes. “If I’m not too dusty?”

She laughed. “We will manage.”

Beau gestured and they walked on down the street.

Ms. Collins was just telling him about the progress on building the new school when he saw a small gray donkey tied up outside of one of Eureka Gulch’s many saloons. “The Cobbler’s Tankard,” according to the sign.

His heart nearly skipped a beat. He touched Ms. Collins’ arm. “Excuse me, one moment.”

“What is it?”

It was a mad, impossible thing, but he had to see. “I need to see a man about a book.”

He hurried off to the saloon. The donkey was covered in long hair, and wore a tiny leather saddle. There was a rolled blanket across the back, and bags of goods strapped to the small beast. The stock of a shotgun stuck up out of the rolls.

Beau went on past, up onto the wood porch, and shoved open the door. The interior was dim and smelled of smoke, beer, bread and meat. His stomach growled again. Behind the bar the bartender, a gray-haired man gone wide around the middle, leaned on the bar and watched him over a drooping mustache. Other than the bartender, there were only a few men, sitting alone or in small groups around the rough wood tables in the place.

None were wearing red jackets or a cocked hat. He got a few glances in his direction, standing in the doorway, but most were more interested in their drink or food. He turned, feeling foolish, except for the fact of the donkey outside.

Back in the shadowy corner, light glinted on metal. His eyes began to adjust and he made out the small shape of a man at the table. He made his way across the room, expecting something, anything except what he saw when he reached the table.

A wizened face peered up at him from the dark shadows beneath his cocked hat. Thick whiskers ran down the sides of his jaw. Dark eyes looked back at him. The man’s coat was red, with golden embroidery and rows of shiny buttons. Just as Mr. Higgins had described, there was an Elizabethan ruff around the collar and lace on the ends of the sleeves.

“Ye been lookin’ for me?” The man said, his voice high-pitched.

“The sheriff is looking for you,” Beau said. “About a claim you sold to some miners.”

The man, Beau couldn’t think of him as a leprechaun, leprechauns didn’t exist, lifted his glass and drained it down. He clunked it down on the table and belched.

“That’s what I think of de sheriff!” His dark eyes glittered. “What business is it of yers?”

“He asked for my help.” Beau took a breath. “Why don’t you come with me back to the sheriff’s office? We’ll straighten it out there.”

The man stood up on his seat, which put him nearly at Beau’s height. He sneered. “I don’ think so.”

He reached into his coat and pulled out a silver snuff box. He opened the lid and offered it up to Beau.

Beau lifted his hand. “No, thank you. I really think —”

The man took a pinch of the snuff and flung it at Beau. The dust hit Beau’s face with the rich scent of tobacco. He coughed and the dust tickled his nose. He sneezed explosively and heard the man laugh. He sneezed again, then a third time before he recovered. He rubbed a hand across his face and looked for the man.

He was gone. The table was empty.

Beau spun around. None of the other customers were paying him any attention, and there was no sign of the little man.

He rushed to the door and burst outside. There wasn’t any sign of the man, and the donkey that had been tethered outside was gone. Ms. Collins stood right outside of the saloon looking up at him. Her eyebrows raised.

“Mr. Clayton, are you quite alright?”

“Did you see where he went?”

“Who?”

“A little man, in a red coat…” How foolish did that sound? Beau stopped himself before he could continue. The leprechaun — what else could describe him? — was gone.

“Little man?” Ms. Collins said. She looked up and down the street. “I didn’t see anyone. Does this have to do with the man the sheriff was seeking?”

Beau looked down at her. If he chased this, he’d look crazier than he already did. He smiled. “Yes, but I must have been mistaken. I thought I recognized him from the description, but he’s not here.”

“Okay. In that case, should we continue to my father’s house? He does get grumpy if his supper is late.”

Beau descended to the street. He took her arm. “Supper sounds fantastic. Don’t let me delay things any longer.”

“Very well.”

They started walking. Beau decided not to mention this to the sheriff. The library was getting built, no matter how crazy it might seem to his father. He touched his jacket and felt the letter. Later, he’d read that and see what news it contained. For now, tonight he wanted to enjoy a meal with the lovely Ms. Collins and Dr. Collins, safe from troubling news or meddlesome leprechauns.

There was enough gold fever in Eureka Gulch without chasing after fairy stories!

💀

4,721 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 71st weekly short story release, written in July 2013. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story The Greatest Gig.

This Treehouse is Haunted

Joel returned to start over. Seeing his best friend’s house for sale felt like fate. A new job. A house he remembered from childhood. Even the old treehouse remained.

Almost as if time stayed still here. As if everything had waited for him.

You never forget your first loss. On either side.

💀

For Joel the yellow ranch house represented a homecoming, and yet not, at the same time. The house itself hadn’t changed much since the summer days he had spent here playing with AJ. It was still that same sunflower yellow with the bright green trim. Obviously it had been repainted because it looked just like he remembered it. The stone-walled flower beds out front hadn’t changed at all either, but the satellite dish perched owl-like on the corner of the house was new. Standing on the wood porch everything felt askew and out-of-proportion. He was too big for the porch, and it was empty of the worn nylon patio furniture that AJ’s parents had kept on the porch. Even stranger was looking across the street at his old house, hardly recognizable, with piles of junk and several rusted cars decaying on what strands of grass remained.

Joel knocked his fingers against the sturdy white post beside the steps, just to assure himself that it was real. He was back, in the town that he had never expected to return to, owning his best friend’s old house. He knocked once more on the post and went inside, feeling like a visitor in his own house, to confront the piles of boxes scattered around the house. Kitchen first, he wanted the coffee maker, coffee and his thermos. Fuel for the rest of the day.

Not having to report to work at his new teaching job until Monday, Joel spent the day unpacking and putting away his few belongings. One of the bedrooms became his office with his computer desk in the corner, the glass surface actually having made the move without getting broken. He set up his two computers, monitors side by side flanked by the scanner and the printer. From his tan microsuede chair he could lean back and look out the window at trees across the brown backyard. Surprisingly the treehouse where he had spent so much time with AJ still looked intact despite all of the years. Others must have kept it up in the years since AJ’s parents had moved away. When night fell Joel made himself a plate of spaghetti, with a spicy Italian sausage sauce from a jar, and carried it into the office. He put it down on the clear glass in front of the monitors while he pulled up his latest project on the right computer. TweetDeck filled the screen on the second computer, the constant stream of tweets giving him a sense that he wasn’t entirely alone.

At about nine, long after the sun had set, a light flickering in the window pulled Joel’s attention away from the article he was writing. He leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. A blue light flickered in the distance. It was so dark at first he couldn’t even decide how far away the light was, but then he realized that it was coming from the treehouse. A bolt of fear shot through his nerves. If local kids were playing in the treehouse they could get hurt —

He pushed back from the desk and ran out of the room. The house was dark but he flicked on the light switches as he advanced through the house. First the hallway, then the kitchen and dining room, and last off all the light above the back deck. Joel unlatched the slider and stepped out into the yellow circle of light cast by the fixture above.

Cold air slipped through his t-shirt and across his chest. A loud chorus of frogs filled the night air with their music. Thanks to the bright moon didn’t look as dark outside as it had through the window. The porch light didn’t carry far past the deck but he could see the long overgrown back lawn, the flower beds marking the edge of the lawn, the large square of the garden filled with dried remains of plants and past that the field that was the main part of his property. Across the field stood the trees where he and AJ had built the treehouse.

The blue light flickered and bobbed within the treehouse, shining out of the single window facing the house. Clearly someone was there. Joel rubbed his jaw, stubble rough against his hand. He didn’t want to scare them, but just the thought of kids up in the treehouse made him feel queasy. He walked across the deck, skipped down the few steps to the lawn and started across. He’d have to get out there and tear it down. The treehouse shouldn’t have been left up all this time.

His eyes adjusted as he made his way across the lawn. He saw his faint shadow moving ahead as he reached the edge of the lawn and stepped off into the wilder field beyond. Dry tall grass tickled his elbows. He picked his way through the field, stumbling at times on the uneven ground. The blue light flickered and moved, reminding him of a candle, but what candles gave off that sort of light? Probably wasn’t a candle at all, but some sort of glow stick that the kids were holding.

Joel remembered another time, coming out here on a hot summer night with his sleeping bag tucked under his arm and his heart hammering a thousand beats per minute. The air hadn’t felt so cold that night, but it was cooler at least than his room. It was AJ’s idea that they sneak out to the treehouse and camp out for the night. Of course he couldn’t ask his parents if it was okay, his mom wouldn’t have thought it proper for him to camp out in a treehouse with a girl. At the time he both knew that his parents disapproval had something to do with kissing, and he thought the whole thing was weird because it was AJ. They always hung out together. But camping out together was something new, and exciting because they were sneaking out.

Now, as he got closer to the treehouse Joel still couldn’t make out anyone in the treehouse, just the blue glow coming from the window. The light flickered, dimmed and then brightened. Sort of like what he’d expect from an electronic device. A video game? But the light stayed a deep blue color and didn’t change. About ten feet from the trees Joel heard whispering. He stopped and listened. He heard the incessant croaking of the frogs, the wind rustling through the grass, and in the far distance the sound of a car. Nothing more from the treehouse.

Joel walked closer, almost to the first trees in the clump that held the treehouse. “Hey! In the treehouse! Come on down from there!”

The light winked out.

Joel put his hands on his hips and wished he had gotten a flashlight. “Come on, I need you to get down from there.”

Nothing. Nothing but the frogs and the cold wind that cut through his t-shirt. Bright stars and the moon lit everything clearly, and nobody came out of the treehouse. With the blue glow gone the window was a inky well of darkness. Boards nailed across the curved tree trunks made a ladder up to a trapdoor in the base of the treehouse. He could go around to the other side, there were windows in each wall, but he probably wouldn’t be able to see anything else. He couldn’t tell but they might have hung curtains in the window. It sure didn’t seem like the moonlight was getting inside.

“Listen,” Joel called. “That treehouse is very old. You could get hurt. Come out now, or I’m going to have to call the police.”

He crossed his arms and waited for the creak of the trapdoor opening, but nothing happened. The seconds passed and he started getting pissed. Maybe these kids were used to playing in the treehouse but they had no business being up there. This was his place now, and he and AJ had built the damned treehouse. They had no right to it. Even if they called his bluff about the police he was going to tear it down. He couldn’t have kids up there.

“Last chance, I’m warning you. Come on out now!”

A spark of blue appeared in the window. It flickered and danced but didn’t look quite like a flame. Then it spread out in all directions and thinned. The blue light poured almost like a liquid, tracing cheeks and a nose, swirled around dark eyes and poured over parted lips. She looked out the window at him with eyes that reflected back the moonlight.

Joel’s breath caught in his chest. He thought his heart might simply stop beating.

AJ.

That face, he knew it, the delicate features insubstantially traced in that blue glow, shifting almost like a candle flame, that was AJ. He took one step back and suddenly could move again. He turned and ran across the field toward the distant yellow porch light of the house. He tripped on a clump of grass and sprawled face down in the field. He scrambled up and ran again.

Joel reached the lawn, crossed it in a few strides and sprang up onto the deck. He yanked open the door and stepped inside. Only as he slid it closed did he look back.

The treehouse was dark again. No blue lights. No sign of AJ.

Joel groped for one of the dining room chairs and sat down. He put his elbows on the table and clasped his hands to stop them from shaking. His head hung as he focused on breathing. In and out, just the breath flowing past his lips. When he felt steadier he raised his head and looked out the sliding glass door, dreading what he might see. The treehouse was dark. The porch light cast a yellow circle of light on the red-stained boards of the deck. Superimposed over it all was his own ghostly reflection. A man on the verge of forty with extra pounds showing in his face and around his waist, his sandy brown hair buzzed close to his scalp. Hardly the skinny boy of thirty years ago with a mop of hair always in his eyes.

Slowly, feeling his years, Joel stood up and turned off the porch light. He went back through the house, turning off the lights as he went until he got to his office. There he sat down in front of the computer and with a few clicks opened his pictures folder. He scrolled through and opened the folder with his childhood photos. It took a few minutes to find the one that he wanted, but then he saw it and opened it in the picture viewer.

Two grinning, tanned kids stood waving on a bright summer day in front of the treehouse. AJ looked like a forest sprite with tiny daisies braided into her hair. Her nose had a small wrinkle between her eyes as she smiled, and there was a spray of freckles across her cheeks and nose. It was definitely her that he’d seen in the treehouse. He had hoped that somehow he was mistaken, that his memory was tricking him, but that was her. The picture was taken only a couple weeks before she died.

Joel rubbed his eyes. Had he really seen her ghost out there tonight? That’s what it seemed like, but that couldn’t be, could it? He stared at the picture. He hardly recognized himself, but AJ, she looked mostly the same. More vibrant and alive in the picture, of course. Not made of glowing blue smoke or whatever that was that he had seen, but it didn’t matter. He knew he had seen her.

He shook his head and hit the keystrokes to turn off the computer. Then he turned to the other computer and shut it down too.

Maybe he had seen her ghost. Maybe she came back because he moved into the house. He didn’t know and it didn’t matter, tomorrow he’d work on tearing down the treehouse. It should have happened a long time ago.

Joel turned out the light switch as he left the room. He hesitated and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Gradually he could make out the moonlit field and the dark shape of the tree in the distance. Nothing else.

He went to bed.

💀

The sun was almost straight overhead before Joel put aside the latest flattened cardboard box and admitted to himself that he was avoiding go out in the back yard. Even on this bright sunny, but cold, day, he didn’t want to face the treehouse again. But if he put off tearing it down would AJ come back again tonight?

He didn’t want that. He couldn’t face it again. Joel went over to the garage wall were he had been hanging his tools. He took down the long crowbar and headed out the back door into the yard.

The treehouse looked less frightening beneath a clear, sunny sky. The frogs were quiet. A few crows clung to the branches above the treehouse. Joel started across the lawn and the crows took off, flying out across the field toward the woods that ran along the back fence. Joel knew this whole area, which had managed to remain mostly unchanged despite the years. Part of that was the creek that snaked along the west side of the property, causing most of the property to fall under wetland buffer laws. It had kept this area from being developed the way the neighborhoods had taken over the other side of the street where he had lived as a kid. Not that he and AJ ever spent much time at his house. Why would they, when he only had a small yard and AJ had acres to explore? Plus the woods, which seemed to stretch on forever.

His first day back in town he had driven by the houses just to see what the places looked like and he had seen the for sale sign in front of AJ’s old house. It felt like fate when he called the realtor. Now he clutched the crowbar and looked at the treehouse and wondered if he had made the right decision. Maybe he should have stuck to places across town, it would have been closer to work, instead of acting on impulse and buying this place. But the price had been good and most of his memories were positive. All except the end.

Joel tromped through the last of the grass in front of the trees and came right up under the treehouse. The trapdoor was closed. He lowered the crowbar and then leaned it up against the trunk. Before he could question what he was doing he grabbed the boards that made up the ladder and hoisted himself up onto the trunk. It didn’t go up all that high but just being off the ground made him feel slightly dizzy. He looked up at the trapdoor and climbed up, carefully testing each board for any weakness before he trusted his weight to it. He wasn’t a skinny kid anymore.

At the top he reached up for the trapdoor and felt sticky spider webs on his fingers. He jerked back and looked closer. Webbing stretched across the trapdoor and old webs dangled, moving slightly in the faint breeze. A fat spider crouched in one corner, watching the web. Tiny mummified corpses hung from other strands.

Joel swallowed. Clearly no one had been inside the treehouse in a while. But then a ghost wouldn’t need to disturb the webs, would she? He grimaced and reached through the webs to the latch on the door. It had rusted and didn’t move easily but he pried at it until it popped loose and hung free. Then he pushed up, half expecting the latch inside to be fastened as well but the trapdoor lifted, hinges squealing and webs breaking. The spider scurried for safety across the bottom of the treehouse.

With a thud the trapdoor dropped back into the treehouse, shaking loose dirt and debris that rained down on Joel. The smell of dust and mildew filled his nose and he sneezed. He shook his head, wiped his face on his sleeve and peered up at the opening. He could almost hear AJ’s voice telling him to come on up, but there wasn’t really anything except one of the crows calling in the distance. His back ached from clinging to the boards. Up or down, he had to decide.

Joel sighed and climbed up the next couple steps. He put his hands on the floor on either side of the opening, wet slick leaves slipped beneath his fingers. He stood up and was in the treehouse at chest height. It didn’t look like anyone had been in the treehouse in a long time. The leaves piled in drifts in the corners and were matted down against the boards. Small plants had sprung up from the litter, including a small tree growing near the center of the treehouse. There was a gap in the moss-covered roof above. Spider webs hung thick across the underside of the roof, and stretched across the open windows. Up close the treehouse didn’t look all that safe. The boards could easily have rotted so much that they wouldn’t hold his weight.

But his plan had been to climb up inside and start by dismantling the roof first, and work his way down the walls, removing the floor and the ladder last. If he couldn’t stand inside then he was going to have to rethink his plans and get a tall ladder or something so that he could work from the outside. He reached out and pounded on the floor with his fist. Leaves squished beneath his hand but the floor felt solid and strong.

Joel braced his hands on both sides of the trapdoor and boosted himself up. Already into the movement he felt a sharp pain on the right side of his chest and in his right shoulder. He almost collapsed and dropped through the hole, but managed to sort of topple over onto his left side into the treehouse. The floor didn’t crumble beneath him. It felt strong and solid. Joel groaned and sat up, scooting back so that only his legs dangled through the open trapdoor. The boards seem secure enough, but his shoulder burned with pain. He must have pulled a muscle. He cradled his right arm in his lap and shook his head.

So stupid! He was supposed to start work on Monday and now he had hurt his arm. He had to go into work, he couldn’t afford to jeopardize this job. If he minimized writing on the chalkboard he might make it through okay.

Despite the debris and signs of age the treehouse looked very much like he remembered. With the trapdoor closed there had just been enough room for him and AJ to roll out their sleeping bags.

“I wish the ceiling opened up,” AJ said. “Then we could see the stars.”

Joel didn’t move, he didn’t turn to look at her. He cradled his arm and looked down between his feet. From here it looked like a lot farther down, but not too high, just high enough. One slip, and AJ had fallen, her arms spreading out like wings. Then she was on the ground, lying flat on her back looking up at the treehouse. Joel had expected her to move, to roll over, cry, groan or laugh. He kept waiting for her to do something but she didn’t do anything. A freak accident, his parents called it later. If she had fallen an inch or two to the right the fall might have knocked the wind out of her, but there was the branch and she just didn’t move.

“Don’t you wish we could see the stars?”

Then he turned his head enough to see her sitting on the opposite side of the treehouse with her legs drawn up against her chest, her arms wrapped easily around her knees. She was hard to see, the blue light she was made of was washed out by the daylight coming through the windows. She was like a faint blue flame on the verge of being blown out, but he could still recognize her.

“It’s daytime,” Joel said. “We can’t see the stars at all.”

“Oh.” AJ cocked her head at him and squinted. “You don’t look the same.”

Joel nodded, surprised at how calmly he was taking her presence. “Right back at you, kid.”

She laughed, her voice faint and high.

“What are you doing here, AJ?”

“Waiting for you, like always. You’re so slow.”

A shiver ran up his arms and Joel winced.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“It’ll be okay. I’ll ice it at home.”

“I think we should go see the stars now, why wait?”

“It’s daytime.”

“But the stars are always there.” AJ sprang to her feet and held out a faint hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

Joel reached out with his own hand, also blue and faint in the sunlight. He turned his arm, marveling at the way he could see right through to the sapling growing at the heart of the treehouse.

AJ took his hand and, despite the fact that both of their hands looked insubstantial, he felt her warm grip in his. Not only that but his hand matched hers in size. He stood and looked down, realizing that he had changed. His body was his as he remembered the last time he was with AJ, a young boy playing in the summertime.

Far down below he lay on his back beneath the treehouse, looking up with wide open eyes. Joel couldn’t see the crowbar but he knew it was there too, beneath him. A freak accident, people would say. He must have been climbing up to tear down the old treehouse and fell, landing on the crowbar.

Joel looked into AJ’s clear blue eyes that he had missed for so long. “Let’s go look at the stars.”

And they did.

💀

3,708 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 70th weekly short story release, written in March 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Placer Crime.

Witness to Dust

The Dust came and Death followed. An alien pandemic unleashed on the world, transforming people into Dusters.

They called themselves Witnesses. Witness to what?

Delancie Haines didn’t know. She read the news, saw the reports about the new minority, hated and feared by everyone. Stories of loved ones transformed, turning on their own families.

She didn’t understand. Not until Death chased her down the trail.

🚀

Delancie Haines didn’t have breath to curse but she sure as Hell swore silently with each step as she ran from Death down the old railroad trail.

Nowhere else to go. On either side the ground dropped off into deep ditches clogged with brushes beneath the drooping bows of the Douglas fir and cedar trees. If she tried leaving the trail the creature would be on her in a minute.

So she kept running. No fun left in running now. Her arm pulsed with pain and the blood ran down before flying off her elbow. Her breath sounded ragged to her own ears. And behind her, she heard the sound of the creature’s claws scrapping on the pavement with each stride. Death’s breath came hot and heavy, thick with excitement.

But he’d have to work to catch her. She wouldn’t make it easy.

Despite the pain, she found she didn’t feel scared. Pissed, yes. It galled her that she’d be fodder not only for the beast but the newspapers. The forest on either side looked beautiful, rich and green, glistening from the constant drizzle that rained down from the cloudy sky. It pained her that she’d never see it again.

Ahead, at the bottom of the slope, she saw the bridge over the Deschutes. The wood planks ran across of the old railroad bridge. Chain-link fences lined either side. During good weather people swam in the pool beneath. But today there’d be no one.

Except for the house overlooking the river.

Delancie stumbled. No way she’d make it that far. It sounded like the creature was right behind her now. She half expected to feel his claws at her back but she regained her stride and pumped onward. He had to be so close. She could smell him again. A rich organic scent like a freshly turned compost pile. She’d smelled it before he came out of the bush but she hadn’t recognized it until she saw him.

If she hadn’t been running already this chase wouldn’t have happened at all. He misjudged and she got away with only the cuts his claws left in her shoulder.

Across the bridge. If she could make it that far, get help from the people in the house. It was a chance.

She concentrated on moving her legs. Her breath rushed in and out. She pumped her arms in time. Death’s breath panted relentlessly behind her. She didn’t dare look back.

The bridge was right there. Delancie imagined her feet hitting the wood. The hollow sound it made with each stride. It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d run across it coming the other way. She could almost see herself running blissfully in ignorance towards her death.

A low snarl behind her and something snagged her shirt. Fabric ripped. A chill ran through her limbs and she pushed as hard as she could. Running with everything she had until she felt like she was going to puke. Fine, puke, but she wouldn’t stop. Not for that. Not for anything.

She wanted to see the Sun shine again. She wanted to admire Mt. Rainier towering like an impossible snow-capped colossus over the landscape. She wanted a hot double-cheese pepperoni pizza straight out of the oven. Or a night watching movies with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. Hell, even another day at work, never mind what anyone might think.

The bridge was only a half-dozen strides away now. Delancie ran for it.

Claws raked fiery pain down her back, the fabric of her shirt shredding like tissue paper. The force of the blow nearly drove her to her knees. She cried out. She screamed with as much rage as pain. No fucking way! Not like this!

Delancie slammed her elbow back. She connected with something that felt like a wood post but the beast fell away and she was still on her feet. She ran ahead onto the bridge. The chain link rose up on either side taller than her head.

Trapped.

She heard the beast’s claws on the wood. She felt sick and weak. She hated it and knew, she knew, she couldn’t make it to the end of the bridge.

Desperately she jumped at the chain link. She caught the wire and climbed despite the pain. The beast growled. She heard it coming.

She kicked out at the sound with everything she had. Her foot hit the beast solidly. She climbed. Grabbed the top of the fence.

Sharp spikes of pain sank into her calf and a terrible weight nearly pulled her from the fence. She clung to the fence and screamed.

“No, fucker! No fucking way!” She slammed her free leg down on the beast. Pain flared up in her leg and her stomach heaved.

Vomit exploded from her lips. She tasted her salad with Italian dressing again. She felt dizzy. She kicked down again as hard as she could. Again.

The weight vanished. Her arms felt like lead but she pulled up. Her breasts scraped against the top but she bent over..

…vision swam…

…water dark and rippling below…

A growl and scrambling on the wood.

Delancie swung her legs over the top of the fence. Her fingers still hung onto the wire. The beast hit the fence and shook it.

She blinked and saw it clearly, inches away through the fence.

A man, except not. A bare muscled chest and arms like two small tree trunks. Nice. Thick neck leading to a face not too human. A short muzzle with dozens of small, sharp teeth. Eyes an impossible blue like a high mountain glacier lake. Shimmering blues-black layers of chitin surrounded the eyes, covered his cheek bones and spread back over his head like a helmet. Despite the alienness she thought it was a nice masculine face.

“Fuck you,” she said sweetly.

She let go. Falling felt like rest. She closed her eyes. It ended too soon. She hit the water and it knocked the wind out of her.

She went under. Oh Hell.

🚀

Delancie grabbed the bed rails and pushed herself up. Pain ripped along her back and shoulder. She cried out.

“Whoa, you didn’t try to get up, did you?”

The speaker was a fortyish black nurse giving her a look that forbid any disagreement. The room had plain walls with a television on a mount above the bed. Metal rails on the sides of the bed. A hospital then. She should have known from the medicinal smell alone. Delancie eased back down, that hurt, rolled onto her good side and breathed a little easier.

She attempted a smile. “Better?”

“I’d better not find you getting up again,” the nurse said. Delancie saw her name tag read Sarah.

“Okay. Where am I?”

“Saint Peter’s hospital. You’re lucky to be alive after a Witness attack.”

A Witness. Delancie closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again Sarah wasn’t in the room but she found an older man sitting in the chair beside her bed. She must have fallen asleep. So had her visitor. He sat slumped in the chair. He had neatly trimmed white hair, pale skin, and wore slacks with a comfortable-looking brown and white knitted sweater.

His eyes opened. “You’re awake.”

“So are you.”

His lips twitched but he didn’t actually smile. He rose from the chair and placed his hands on the bed rails. No wedding ring but he did have a ring on his right index finger. A surprisingly delicate gold band which held a shiny blue-black stone. No, she thought. Not stone at all. Chitin.

“You’re a Witness.”

“At least you didn’t use the term Duster. I appreciate that.” His voice was calm. He seemed patient.

“Isn’t that considered rude?”

“Yes, but I am also being rude. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m called Wainwright. I’m here to be your sponsor, Delancie.”

“Sponsor?” Delancie shook her head. She felt her gut sinking. She knew what he meant. “I don’t need a sponsor. The guy that put me here needs a sponsor.”

Wainwright nodded. “Yes, indeed. He’s already been identified and is receiving the care he needs. But we’re talking about you. Unless you trust me next time it could be you attacking someone.”

“I’m not going to attack anyone!”

“That’s what we’re going to work on. I’ll be in touch. Here’s my card.” He left the card on top of the service table.

“Wait, shouldn’t you be answering questions?”

Wainwright shook his head. “Not just yet. It’ll all make more sense later on. Get some rest.”

Delancie lay back in the bed, grimacing at the pain. Although, to be honest, it didn’t hurt all that much. Most likely they had her on some good painkillers. She remembered the feel of the Witness’s claws raking down her back, and…

 

A thrum of excitement fills the air as she stands before the crowd. The houses have segregated themselves. Blue Hive clusters closest to the stage. Their chitin gleams like oil beneath the Sun’s light. To her left gather the Green and Red Hives, each keeping an extra space of separation between themselves and the neighboring hives. On her right are the members of Yellow Hive, only slightly fewer than Blue. The wind brings with it the co-mingled scents of so many people. Her mouth-parts vibrate as she draws in the odors. Their excitement pours across her pods like a fiery rush of hot blood. This is why she performs. This moment when she stands at the confluence of these hives beneath a deeply blue sky.

 

Delancie gasped. She clutched the bed sheets. For an instant she’d been somewhere else. Someone else. She still felt the sadness that underlay the excitement of the impending performance.

She lay in the hospital bed and turned the experience over in her mind. The people in that audience hadn’t been human at all. As it unfolded she hadn’t found anything odd in the way they looked because she hadn’t been herself. She’d been… Someone, the performer. She knew the name. It stuck in her mind like seeing an actor she recognized in a movie and not being able to recall the name.

But there wasn’t an Internet Movie Database for this.

Like everyone she’d read about what the Witnesses went through but she’d never realized it was like this.

The door to the room opened. Sarah came in and for a half second Sarah looked like the alien. A strange, soft, oddly colored alien. Her weakness made Delancie’s mouth water. Sarah looked like food.

The sensation passed in an instant and Sarah was only Sarah, her nurse. Even so it left Delancie shaken. She pointed at the service table just out of her reach.

“Can you give me the card, there?”

Sarah smiled. “Of course, hon. Here, let me move this closer.”

She wheeled the table up so it extended across the bed above Delancie’s waist. “Is that better?”

Delancie picked up Wainwright’s card. Just his name, number and email address. Nothing more. Plain type.

“Yes, thank you. Are my things here? My cell phone?”

“I’ll get them for you, they’re right over here.” Sarah opened a small cupboard in the corner of the room.  A LCD monitor hung on a monitor arm off the side of the cupboard. Sarah took out a plastic baggy. “I’m sorry, your clothes were ruined.”

“That’s okay, just the phone.”

🚀

“You’re telling me I’m going to be a werewolf?” Delancie stood in her own tiny half-painted green kitchen, her arms crossed, staring at Wainwright reclining on one of her so-called antique wood dining room chairs. No matter what he sat in he seemed to recline and melt into the furniture. His calm vibe got on her nerves. “Really? Isn’t that the gist of it?”

Wainwright shook his head. “We don’t like being called werewolves any more than Dusters. And with my help you can learn to control the change. You must, or you’ll make someone else the victim.”

“How many people just give up and eat a bullet instead?”

Wainwright grimaced. “Too many. I don’t think you’re one of them.”

He had her there. Delancie turned away from him because if she didn’t she might start shouting. And it wasn’t Wainwright’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, even the poor bastard that lost control.

And she didn’t want to be like that. She’d just put in the new bamboo eco-counter top in her kitchen. She picked up a plain hemp dish towel and wiped away a few crumbs from her morning toast. Wainwright was right. She wouldn’t eat a bullet.

That didn’t mean she needed to accept what he’d told her either.

She shook the crumbs in the sink and turned back around. “There has to be a way to cure this. Something that can be done before it goes any further. Aren’t there treatments?”

“Treatments? No. Not the way you mean.”

“So I don’t have any choice?”

Wainwright stood up. He smiled sadly at her. “You can either accept my advice or take the consequences if you don’t. You choice. You know how to reach me.”

Delancie slammed her hand down on the counter. “You can’t just walk away!”

Wainwright paused and looked back. “Watch that temper.”

Then he left. Delancie swore and leaned on the counter. She needed to run. She always felt better after a run.

🚀

When she hit the trail she turned towards Yelm. Not running away from what happened. She wanted to see different scenery. Six miles to Yelm, another four out along the Yelm Prairie Line trail and then back. Twenty miles. After a run like that she wouldn’t need to worry about changing into a monster. She’d collapse and sleep for ten hours.

She ran toward the Sun and it played hide-and-seek among the trees over the trail. A few clouds decorated the sky. Her breath moved easily in and out of her lungs. She felt good. Her wounds didn’t hurt. She didn’t even have any scar tissue. That freaked her out when she noticed that there was hardly any marks left by her attacker. Wainwright explained it but she hadn’t needed the explanation. She knew right away what it meant. She’d known since her first inherited memory.

She was a Duster. A freak. A werewolf.

Her face burned at the thought. She didn’t think that about other people. She understood that they didn’t have any choice about what they were, any more than anyone else with an illness. She didn’t approve of treating them like lepers. She’d always believed that the condition could be controlled.

But now she felt violated. It wasn’t even the attack. It was what happened. Like carrying a rapist’s baby. The thought of alien bio-tech coursing through her veins, remapping her DNA and changing her into something else made her angry. How dare they send that out into the universe, knowing that if it worked it would profoundly alter whatever life forms it came into contact with?

Much more practical than trying to send out starships to colonize other worlds. Just send out dust spread by the solar winds to rain down on other worlds and remap them to match your own physiology and embed memories so that the culture carried over as well. Better than any message. No need to decode it because the transformed organisms would simply understand the memories as if they’d lived them.

Delancie breathed deep. Her muscles flowed smoothly. She noticed a cross street ahead and checked for traffic on either side. Then she saw the name of the street. Bighorn. She’d reached the outskirts of Yelm already.

She checked her watch. 24:30:23. Impossible. She couldn’t run a four-minute mile. She considered stopping but she felt great. Fantastic. She crossed the street and kept going.

She ran past a housing development, the Nisqually Valley Golf course and then on into Yelm itself. She reached 510, darted in front of a large SUV and was across, ran past the metal wagon wheel onto the Yelm Prairie Lane trail. She kept running. She hadn’t even been trying before. She pushed harder. She felt her muscles work smoothly. Her left knee didn’t bother her. The wind blew past her face.

It didn’t take long for her to reach the end of the trail. She checked the time. 39:02:03. Delancie stopped. She put her hands on her hips and waited to be sick. She felt fine. Her heart dropped back to a normal rate. She didn’t even feel sweaty.

Impossible.

She turned around. Could she beat the time back? She grinned and took off running. She pushed. She sprinted. She didn’t hold back at all. She flew down the trail.

Pain!

It felt like a baseball bat connected to her skull and tried to drive her head out of the park. She dropped and her momentum rolled her across the trail. She ended up on the grass curled into a fetal position. She clutched her head as if she could hold it together.

She screamed. She lost all control then and seized. Her body thrashed in the grass. Her fingers burned. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t even scream anymore. She rode the convulsions until she thought she’d die and they kept going.

Delancie eventually realized that the convulsions had stopped. Warily she tried moving. Everything hurt. She reached up and froze.

Her fingernails hung by strips of skin. In their place were dark blue-black claws. Lighter blue chitin covered the backs of her fingers to her mid-knuckle.

“Fuck no.” She sat up and carefully reached into her pocket. The claws made it awkward but she got her cell phone out. She pushed the voice command button. “Call Wainwright.”

He met her on the trail with a baseball cap, sunglasses and gloves. Delancie snatched them out of his hand.

“Thanks.”

“Take a breath,” Wainwright said.

Delancie glared at him. He looked so soft and he had the gall to stand there and tell her what she should be doing.

“Think,” Wainwright said. “Think about what you’re feeling. Why are you so angry?”

“Because…” She couldn’t say why but it felt like everything must be his fault. She growled deep in her throat.

Wainwright held up a mirror in front of her face. He might as well have thrown a large bucket of ice water in her face. She shivered.

She’d always known that she was pretty. Twenty-four years old, with fair skin and a complexion her girlfriends always admired. She felt guilty because she didn’t have any extensive regime to maintain her skin. Even with all the running and weather her skin usually glowed with health. No one would be signing her up to win a beauty pageant but that’s only because she didn’t fit the standard mold. With her green eyes and little nose she looked good. Unconventional, but pretty.

She didn’t recognize the face in the mirror. It looked like her jaw bones had been pulled apart, widened. Rays of chitin extended from her now-missing eyebrows back over her head. And her green eyes had gone over to a deep sky blue. It was a striking face still, but broader and more powerful than her own. An alien face.

Wainwright lowered the mirror and held out the glasses. Delancie took them, slipped them on and then did the same with the hat. Before she could put on the gloves she had to brush away her fingernails. It seemed like it should hurt but it didn’t. She pulled on the gloves. She shoved her hands into her pockets as they left the trail to walk over to where Wainwright had parked on the street.

At home Delancie stripped off the hat, gloves and sunglasses and went straight to the mirror near the door. Wainwright came in and shut the door while she studied her modified appearance.

She looked at him. “How long does this last before I go back to looking like normal?”

Wainwright shrugged. “I couldn’t say. It varies. Some never switch back.”

“Have you changed?”

“Yes.”

“Did you attack anyone?”

“I killed my wife,” Wainwright said. He didn’t look away. He didn’t whisper. “I got mad. I got mad a lot in those days. It didn’t take much. Someone driving too slow on the freeway. Anyone working in customer service. I wasn’t mad at her. As usual she just got to hear about how my stupid boss pissed me off.  Then I went into convulsions. She tried to help. She called 9-1-1 but before they got there I’d already changed and killed her. I injured two of the EMTs before I ran out. I was stalking a young girl walking home from school when the police shot me.”

Delancie’s knees felt weak. She went to her couch and sat down. She grabbed one of the pillows, saw her claws pricking the natural cotton cloth and tossed it away. She hugged herself instead.

Wainwright walked over to the chair-and-a-half and dropped down. He swung a leg over the arm and watched her.

She felt like crying. She felt like tears should be pouring out of her eyes but nothing came. Her eyes stayed dry. She couldn’t cry. She looked at him and couldn’t bear it. She looked away.

“What happened after that?”

“I healed. While I was in the hospital I changed back. A Witness came to me and helped me. That was still in the early days.”

“You didn’t know you’d been exposed?”

“No. It was the Dust back then. I didn’t know until the change. It’d been in the news. You remember how it was.”

Delancie nodded. She remembered the fear bordering on panic. The alien pandemic that turned people into monsters. No wonder people had been terrified. But the world went on and there was a new minority for people to hate. If anything the hate burned brighter because this was a contagious condition. She closed her eyes.

In the darkness she listened to her house. The refrigerator made noises, the ice maker. Wainwright’s breath sounded soft and steady. She focused on that. Matched his breathing. In and out.

She felt an odd sensation. Like her fingers had become straws in an extra thick milkshake and they were trying to suck up the ice cream. She kept breathing. The pressure built and then popped. She felt a pressure growing on her head and jaw. It didn’t so much hurt as it felt like a chiropractor making a difficult adjustment. Then everything felt better.

Delancie opened her eyes. Wainwright gave her a small smile and held out his mirror. She reached out and stopped. Her claws were gone but her nails were still missing. The tissue looked pink and fresh. Tears sprang up in her eyes. She took the mirror and looked at herself. She had her face back. Except her eyebrows. Tears ran down her cheeks. She set the mirror down and wiped the tears away.

She took a deep breath and looked at Wainwright. “Okay. I get it. What do I need to do? This changes everything, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, more than anyone unmodified realizes.”

🚀

That night Delancie went out in her backyard and stood beneath the bright full Moon. She didn’t change into a monster. It didn’t have any sway over her. The stars burned bright above, the Milky Way a cloud of stars across the sky. The air felt cool on her skin. She rubbed her arms. She didn’t know what the future held. But whatever happened from this point on she knew she’d handle it. She wouldn’t let this beat her and make her into a monster. And maybe someday she’d actually understand why someone up around one of those stars had done this.

Because right now she didn’t have a fucking clue.

Delancie gave the stars one final look and went back inside. Time for a movie and Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. She’d earned it today. Hell, she hadn’t killed anyone.

🚀

2,007 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 69th weekly short story release, written in November 2009. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.

Better the Boy

New pups mean trouble. Bones found himself pushed aside when the Masters brought home their new pup. The Boy. Unable to walk or do much. It didn’t last.

Now the Boy takes Bones’ place in the Masters’ bed. He walks. Grabs. Pinches. Bones watches the Boy carefully.

Whatever else the Boy might be, he is part of the family, a small Master — and Bones protects the Masters.

🚀

Bones heaved a sigh and dropped down on the blankets beside the bed. He put his muzzle down on his paws and sighed again. The stump of his tail twitched slowly and ebbed. The Masters had said, No! Go lie down! But he wanted up on the bed with them, beneath the heavy blankets, out of the cold. Instead the Boy was sleeping between the Masters. Bones’ ears pricked up to the sound of the Man rolling onto his side. Bones groaned over his stiff legs as he stood up and shook. Sometimes when the Man was on his side he allowed Bones up on the bed beside his legs. Bones shoved his nose beneath the edge of the blankets. It smelled of the Masters’ sweat and beneath that the milky smell of the Boy.

A hand pushed his head back. “No! Go lie down!”

Bones drew his head back. He licked his lips and walked out of the room into the dark hallway. A plastic gate stretched across the hallway at the end by the stairs, blocking his way downstairs, so he couldn’t get on the couch. Bones turned the other way and walked down to the bathroom. He inhaled and smelled dust and a faint rich fishy smell. Two eyes looked at him from atop the toilet and a low growl filled the air. The Cat. Bones stopped in the doorway and licked his lips again. He didn’t dare check the box with the Cat crouched on the toilet. Cautiously Bones went into the bathroom, only far enough to reach the metal bowl of water on the floor. He kept his ears alert for any sound from the Cat as he lowered his head. He lapped at cold water.

A blue light flashed through the window. Bones lifted his head and saw the Cat turn and do the same. Bones watched the window. The light came again, a bright flash of blue light. The Cat turned and jumped quietly off the toilet. He hugged the ground as he scurried past Bones and down to the Boy’s room. Bones backed slowly into the hallway, watching the window.

The blue light flashed again. He heard something this time. His ears pricked up and he heard a low humming noise. Not a car noise or a rain noise. Bones whined in his throat. He turned and padded down to Masters’ bedroom and went inside. The light flashed again, around the edges of the curtains blocking the window. Bones went to the edge of the bed and shoved his nose beneath the blankets again, shoving his nose right up against the Man’s bare leg.

“No! Bones, lie down!”

Outside the blue light flashed again.

Bones whined and poked his nose back beneath the blankets. A hand roughly shoved him back.

“No, Bones!”

The humming noise sounded closer and louder. Bones sat down and watched the window carefully. On the bed he heard the Man’s breathing slow and soon he started snoring again. The Boy made a sniffling noise and sat up in the bed. Bones could see him sitting between the Masters, facing the window.

The blue light flashed again and the Boy giggled, his voice high and painful to hear. Bones whined. The Boy’s head turned quickly and his tiny eyes looked right at Bones.

Bones stopped whining. He didn’t dare move. He waited for the Man to shove the Boy and tell him to lie down but the Man didn’t move. The Woman was snoring too. The blue light flashed again, and the Boy giggled more. This time he moved, crawling down the bed between the Masters. Bones stood up and considered his escape options. When the Masters first brought their new pup home the Boy couldn’t do much of anything. But now he had mastered running around on two legs and grabbing things with his hands, including pinching ears.

The Boy reached the edge of the bed and swung his legs down to the floor. He ran around the bed right at Bones as the light flashed again. Bones turned and ran out into the hallway. He stopped and looked back as the Boy came into the hallway. The Boy went straight to the gate and reached for the latch. Bones tensed. Surely the Boy couldn’t —

The latch popped free. With a grunt the Boy shoved the gate and it swung open above the stairs. Bones took a couple hesitant steps closer. He looked into the bedroom but the Masters didn’t wake. The Boy didn’t hesitate. He went to the top of the stairs and looked down, wobbling a bit. Bones worried that the Boy might fall, he did that often. But the Boy sat down and scooted forward until he dropped down to the next step. He giggled again.

Outside the blue light flashed again and still the noise continued. It wasn’t loud but Bones felt it through his feet all the same. The Boy kept moving, one step at a time, until Bones had to go to the top of the stairs to keep him in sight. Bones looked back at the bedroom, whining but the Masters didn’t wake up.

Bones barked.

“Bones be quiet!” the Man shouted. “Bad dog!”

Bones cringed. His tail stub tucked up tight against his body. Meanwhile the Boy had made it all the way down the stairs and was running away. Bones whined. If anything happened to the Boy, the Man and the Woman might blame him. Bones hurried down the stairs after the Boy.

Downstairs the blue light flashed even brighter through the kitchen windows. The Boy clapped his hands together and laughed. He turned and looked at Bones.

“Bone!” The Boy said happily.

Bones watched him warily. There was no telling with the Boy what he would do.

Then the Boy turned away from Bones and ran out of the kitchen into the dining area. Bones followed. If the Boy wanted food off the floor there wasn’t any. Bones had checked before they all went upstairs. But the Boy didn’t look for food. He went over to the door and pushed the flap on the dog door. Bones whimpered. The Masters had told the Boy not to touch the dog door but the Boy didn’t stop. He got down on his hands and knees, and then crawled through the dog door! The blue light flashed as the door flapped back and forth.

Bones ran over to the door, his nails clicking on the wood floor. He got to the dog door and pushed his head through. The Boy was standing up again on the porch. Moonlight lit the smooth grass, flower beds and the raised garden beds where Bones wasn’t allowed to dig. And past all of that, where the hill rose up to the fruit trees a dark shape hung in the sky right above the trees. Bones smelled something on the wind, a spicy sort of smell that made his nose itch.

The blue light flashed and lit the whole orchard and yard for a moment. Long enough for Bones to see small shapes moving around the orchard. More little masters! He whined even as the Boy clapped his hands and walked to the edge of the porch.

The Boy pointed. “Light! Boon!”

Bones pushed through the flap and stepped out onto the porch. He shivered. They shouldn’t be outside at night. He was being a bad dog, but he couldn’t let the Boy go by himself. He barked softly at the Boy.

The Boy looked at him. “Bone!”

Then the Boy sat down on the top porch step and scooted off. It only took a moment for him to reach the bottom step and then he got up and ran off across the lawn. Bones followed, keeping up easily, but he felt sick inside. Halfway across the lawn the blue light flashed again and Bones saw new little masters gathering together ahead of them, just beneath the fruit trees. The Boy fell forward when he stepped off the lawn but he picked himself back up and kept going. Bones stayed beside him.

The blue light flashed on again and stayed on this time. The Boy stopped and the new little masters were just ahead. Bones whined deep in his chest. The new little masters were taller than the Boy. They had bigger heads that lacked fur. Large black eyes shaped like the Cat’s eyes looked at the Boy and at Bones. One of the new little masters made noises like a bird and held out a hand with four long fingers to the Boy.

Bones jumped forward, barred his teeth and growled. His fur stood up and then he sneezed. He growled more and barked. The new little masters shrank back. Bones took a step forward, still growling and showing them his teeth. He barked again and again. The Boy started crying and Bones felt sick inside. He didn’t know what to do, but these new little masters were too much. They had to go! He charged forward, barking.

That did it! The new little masters turned and ran away up the hill. The blue light flashed brighter from the thing humming and hovering above. Two of the new little masters vanished with the light.

Bones heard the door back at the house bang open.

The Man shouted. “Liam!”

The Woman shouted something too.

Bones kept up his barking at the fleeing little masters. The light flashed quickly and each time two more vanished. Bones heard the Man reach the Boy as the last of the new little masters vanished. The humming increased and the object in the sky flew away faster than a crow, going straight up until it disappeared from view. He heard the Woman reach the Man and the Boy

“Bones!” the Man cried.

Bones cringed. But then the masters and the Boy were all around him, petting him and praising him. “Good dog!”

Bones’ tail stump waggled as fast as it could move. Bones licked hands and faces that pressed close. He wanted it to go on forever but eventually they drew back again and headed back to the house. Bones followed, running around them all the way. When they got back inside his people got out food, poured milk and sat around the table talking in excited voices. The Man gave Bones a big milk bone. He flopped happily beneath the table and chewed on the unexpected treat.

Eventually the milk bone was gone and his people sounded tired. The Man yawned and then they all got up, the Boy already asleep in the Woman’s arms. They all went upstairs to the bedroom and the Man latched the gate again. Bones wearily walked over to the blankets piled on the floor but the Man lifted the covers on the bed.

“Come on, Bones.”

Bones didn’t need to be asked again. He crawled up on the bed against the Man’s legs and closed his eyes.

🚀

1,873 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 68th weekly short story release, written in November 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.

Farm of the Dead Things

1968.

In a world where witches raise the dead a filmmaker gets a chance to capture the Inquisition in action.

Stefan Roland’s team responds to reports of graves being disturbed. Their report takes on a terrifying new dimension when they come face to face with their worst nightmare and their one chance to become famous.

The Glenda Barker Story

The story must be told, that’s as true today as it was back on that Friday in 1968, when Stefan Roland, Craig Marshal and Noah Crane filmed dead things rising from their graves.

The air felt heavy, hot and still when Stefan popped open the van door and slid out onto the gravel beside the road. The on-screen personality of the group, Stefan possessed the casual handsomeness of an old western sheriff, crossed with a more modern relaxed professional style. From his mop top haircut and his neat, close-trimmed beard, to the long cut of his jacket, and dark sunglasses, he looked every inch the up and coming television news reporter. Out of the van he pulled off his sunglasses and surveyed the isolated road. Nothing in view except for the low stone fence along the edge of the graveyard with yellow and brown leaves piled up against the stone. The place looked worse for the wear with a couple sections crumbling down. Two deep puddles filled the ruts leading up to the modest wrought iron gates. And it was quiet. He didn’t even hear any birds or crickets. Not even frogs and this late in the day there should be frogs croaking in some nearby pond. Beside him the side door of the van slid open and Crane came on out.

Also young, Crane fit the hippy ideal from his sandals to his beads and tie-dyed shirt. His ginger hair spread out around his head in a mass of curls, the unfortunate result of his attempt at an afro. He whistled softly. “Wow, man. Look at this place.”

“Right.” Stefan turned back to the van. “Marshal —”

The dude in question slid on out of the van holding onto his camera. He wore thin jeans and a bright orange cardigan, and like Crane, sandals. He let the camera hang by the strap from his shoulder as he climbed down.

“Yeah, boss?” Marshal asked.

Stefan gestured at the empty road and the old cemetery. “Is this the right place? It doesn’t look like anyone gets out here. Man, this place is dead.”

Crane laughed. “Good one.”

Stefan shook his head. “Look, I wasn’t trying to crack a joke, but I think someone is trying to pull something over on us.”

“Dunno, man.” Marshal shrugged with one shoulder. “The man I talked to said that someone had been messing with graves here. Springwood Cemetery, just like the sign says.”

“And I thought you said that the Inquisition was investigating?” Stefan pointed his sunglasses at the closed gate. “I don’t see anything that looks like the Inquisition.”

“Dunno what to tell you. I only know what the man said.”

“Hey man,” Crane said. “We’re here. Let’s check it out. If we don’t shoot something the station is never gonna pay up for the trip out here. All we got to do is get in and get a shot of you in front of a disturbed grave, right? Grave robbing is news, right?”

 

“Yeah, right,” Stefan agreed. “Assuming we find anything disturbed.”

“Not a problem.” Crane laughed. “I’m sure we can scuff up some grave if we need to.”

“Nice idea,” Marshal said.

“Hey! It’s not my fault that we came all the way out here and there ain’t nothing going on, is it?” Crane turned to Stefan. “Is it, man? I didn’t even want to come on this joy ride.”

“No, man. It isn’t your fault. Fine. Let’s see what we can find. Maybe the man you talked to is around here some place. Either way, get your gear together. If we can find the guy I might be able to get something on film, but I’ll tell you man, this doesn’t look like my big break.”

Stefan left Crane and Marshal to gather the film and sound equipment while he checked out the driveway leading up to the cemetery. Gravel and dried leaves crunched beneath his black leather wingtips. The quiet started to bother him. He grew up in the city and out here away from the busyness and excitement of the city he felt cut off. Much like he felt cut off from the career he’d imagined he’d have. He detoured around the big puddles in the ruts leading to the gate, and the grass-covered ground along the sides of the drive squished beneath his shoes. He grimaced and went on around to the firm ground on the other side. Up close the gate wasn’t locked, only shut. He still didn’t think it was worth the risk of getting the van stuck to drive it up through the puddles. Stefan lifted up the heavy iron hook that held the gate shut and gave the gate a shove. The hinges squealed like an angry cat but the gate swung open a couple feet. Back at the van Crane and Marshal were untangling cords. Stefan left them to sort it out and stepped on through the gate.

More puddle-filled ruts dotted the dirt lane as it ran out into the cemetery. On either side marched ranks of headstones, statues and grave markers. Big old maple trees dotted the cemetery, the leaves on some starting to turn yellow while others looked untouched. The sun hung low in the sky behind one of the larger trees. Stefan slipped his sunglasses back on and walked on up the driveway on the lookout for the man Marshal had talked to about the disturbances. He didn’t see the man but something did catch his eye, the cemetery sloped up away from the road, and several rows up fresh dirt marred the green lawn. Stefan rubbed his beard and looked back down the drive. Crane and Marshal had gotten the gear sorted out and were starting toward him, skirting the puddles on the drive. Stefan raised a hand and waved.

Marshal waved back. Stefan pointed up the slope and got a nod back in return. Good enough. Let the guys catch up when they could, he wanted to see what was up there. He set off through the grass, which obviously hadn’t been mowed in a while. It rose up higher than his shoes and quickly wet his feet. He ignored it and walked around the nearest headstones.

The closer he got the clearer the dirt area became. A grave with a weathered headstone at the top, but the ground was all churned up like someone had dug it up and then put everything back. There were chunks of sod all uneven like a patch of broken ice on a pond. Something had obviously disturbed the grave, very recently too, because the piles of dirt didn’t show any sign of having been worn down by the recent rain showers that had made the puddles on the drive. Stefan looked back down the drive. Crane and Marshal had started up the slope toward him, he beckoned to them. “Up here!”

His encouragement didn’t speed up their pace at all. Stefan turned back to the grave at his feet. This grave did look like it had been disturbed, which fit what Marshal had been told. Small town grave robbing? Or a prank by the kids at the university? Hard to say. And without an interview with a caretaker or local sheriff it wasn’t going to be much of a story. Stefan looked at the headstone.

Albert Thompson. Loving Husband, Father and Grandfather. 1878 – 1959.

Family, that’d be another angle. If they could track down Albert’s family and interview them about the disturbed grave, that might add the human element he needed. Turn this into a real story. A glint in the dirt caught Stefan’s eye. He bent down and brushed away moist dirt clods. A worm wiggled beneath the dirt but that wasn’t what he had seen. A bit of gold metal caught the sunlight and glowed with bright reflections. Stefan brushed a bit more dirt away revealing what looked like part of a segmented gold watch band. He picked up a dirt clog and dropped it back over the part he had uncovered. It looked pretty much like how he’d first seen it and would make a good shot on camera when he uncovered it. They’d also need a shot with him in front of the cemetery gates to set it all up.

Crane and Marshal made it up to the grave.

“Whoa, man,” Crane said. “What happened here?”

Marshal hoisted his camera up to his shoulder. “This is what the man said, the caretaker guy. He’s keeps finding graves all messed up like this.”

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” Stefan said. “I’ll do a piece here by the grave. There’s a watch there in the dirt —”

“Where?” Crane bent to look at the grave.

“Never mind it right now. Get the sound set up. We’ll do the piece and I want Marshal to film me finding the watch. We’ll take in the headstone and then we can take a look around and see if we can turn up this caretaker. When we go I want a piece in front of the gates. If we can’t find the caretaker we can try talking to the local sheriff or look up this guy’s family.”

“It’s already getting late,” Marshal said. “We’re going to lose the light soon.”

“Then let’s get this thing done.” Stefan positioned himself beside the grave. He buttoned his jacket. “How do I look?”

“Cool, boss.” Crane got his microphone up.  “Okay, I’ll record when you give the word.”

“Ready,” Marshal said.

“Okay. Three, two one.” Stefan put on his serious, concerned face. “I’m standing at the side of one of these disturbed graves, a plot belonging to the late Albert Thompson. As you can see, the grave has been dug up very recently.”

Stefan turned, keeping his profile in the shot and looked down at the grave. He brought his hand up and stroked his beard. “Well, look at this. I see something in the dirt there.”

He bent down and brushed away the clog of dirt that he had placed over the watch band. “It looks like a gold band, maybe a watch.” He dug a finger into the moist soil and dragged it out of the ground. A man’s watch, sure enough, caked in dirt. It dangled from his finger catching the evening light.

“A man’s watch, maybe belonging to the late Mr. Thompson. We’ll make every effort to return this to the man’s family.” Stefan pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and made a show of wrapping the watch before he slid it into his pocket. He waited for a count of two. “That’s a cut.”

“Are you really going to give that watch back?” Crane asked.

Stefan didn’t bother answering. “Let’s look around and see if we can find this caretaker. I’d really like to get him in on this since he called us. We could use some local color. There must be some sort of caretaker’s shack or something, right?”

“Dunno,” Crane said.

“Come on.” Stefan set off back down the hill toward the road, trusting the others to follow.

Marshal kept his camera up on his shoulder. “I’m going to get some background shots in case we need them.”

“Great,” Stefan said without slowing.

He walked down the rows of graves with Crane on his heels. Marshal lingered and wandered away from them as he got the background shots he wanted. Stefan had nearly reached the road when he noticed a man up ahead, off to the side of the road, walking toward Marshal. The man staggered and caught himself on one of the headstones. He was, oddly enough, wearing a tux, but it looked rumpled and dirty even at this distance. Stefan pointed out the man to Crane.

“Do you think that could be the caretaker?”

“In a tux?”

“I don’t know, he looks like he has been roughed up.” Stefan started toward the man. “We’d better see if he needs any help.”

“It’d make a better story if he got roughed up trying to stop the dudes that messed up the graves.”

Stefan didn’t bother answering. He hurried through the wet grass toward the man. He raised his hand when he got closer. “Hey there.”

Marshal was still closer to the man than Stefan and had his camera up, filming Stefan’s approach. The man looked at Stefan but then shambled on toward Marshal. Stefan heard him making a noise, like a growl deep in his throat.

“Excuse me, are you the caretaker?”

The man ignored him and kept heading toward Marshal. Marshal actually started walking backward to keep the shot. The man in the tux moaned. Stefan put on more speed. He jogged up behind the man. “Excuse me, we’re from channel five news. Can we have a word, please? About what has been going on here?”

Then the wind shifted and Stefan caught a whiff of something harsh and chemical, and the smell of rotten meat. The odor caused his throat to clench and his gorge to do somersaults. Slowly the man turned to face him with clouded gray eyes. He sniffed heavily at the area and then let out the most mournful moan as he stared toward Stefan. The man’s skin was sunken, dried out and looked too pale. Stefan twirled his hand in the air.

“Film this!”

“I’m filming,” Marshal answered.

Stefan watched the man warily, holding out his hands. “Now calm down. Can you tell us what has been going on here?”

All he got in response was a low groan and the man lunged at him with out-stretched hands. His fingernails were torn, the ends of his fingers in tatters and oozed a foul dark fluid through the caked dirt. Stefan’s stomach turned over and he took a couple steps back to keep the distance between them.

“No hold on there…” Stefan shook his head. He looked right at the camera. “He’s dead, man.”

Then dead thing came at him again, grabbing at Stefan’s jacket. Stefan’s jaw tightened and he grabbed the dead thing’s arms and shoved it away. Still groaning the dead thing came back at him. Stefan didn’t back away this time. He grabbed its arm and swung it around as if they were at a square dance, and then let go. The dead thing stumbled back, tripped and fell. The back of his head hit the sharp corner of a grave marker with a sound like a melon hit with a hammer. His feet kicked against the wet grass for a second and then he lay still.

For several seconds none of the men moved.

“Whoa,” Crane said, breaking the silence.

Stefan made a chopping motion with his hand. “Cut. Stop filming.”

Marshal shut off the camera and lowered it from his shoulder. “Is he dead?”

Stefan took a couple steps back toward the body. It hadn’t moved since it fell. The eyes stared vacantly at the sky. “Man, he was already dead, just a dead thing.”

“But he was walking and making noise,” Crane said.

“Yeah.” Stefan tasted bile in his mouth. “Yeah, but he was dead anyway. I mean look at the guy. All covered in dirt, his clothes and hands all messed up. Look at his fingers!”

They all gathered around the body.

“So what do we do, boss?” Crane asked. “I mean, are people going to believe us?”

Stefan shook his head. “We’ll cover our bases.” He brushed the dirt from his sleeves and looked at Marshal. “Let’s shoot again. Another segment. Start on me and pull back when I signal.”

“What?”

Stefan position himself beside the body. He made a rolling motion with his hand. “Come on, let’s get this. Then we’ll do the piece by the gate on our way out of this dump.”

Marshal lifted the camera into position. “Ready.”

“Three, two, one. We’ve made a grisly discovery.” Stefan paused for a breath and continued. “Grave robbers have desecrated this quiet Springwood cemetery. While searching for the caretaker we discovered that the robbers didn’t get far with their stolen body.”

Stefan signaled with a flick of his fingers. He gave Marshal a second to pull back and include the body in the shot. Stefan pressed his hands together into a prayer position. “Although we cannot confirm at this time that this body is the remains of Albert Thompson it seems likely to this reporter. Final confirmation will need to come from the county coroner.”

A two count and Stefan said, “Cut. How’d that look?”

“Great,” Marshal said. “But man, we’ve got film of this dude walking around.”

“And I’m telling you that the guy was already dead when he was walking around.” When Marshal shook his head Stefan stepped past the body and grabbed Marshal’s arm. “Don’t believe me? Then touch him. Go on! He’s cold. I felt it when I wrestled with him. And the way he felt — he’s just a dead thing.”

Marshal slung his camera and went to the body. Stefan crossed his arms and waited. Marshal looked back up at them both. Gingerly he reached out and touched the neck. He jerked his hand away as if shocked. He got back up in a hurry.

“That’s why the guy said the Inquisition was investigating,” Crane said, excitedly. “It wasn’t because of grave robbing, it was this weird shit.”

“Maybe,” Stefan said. “Come on. Let’s get the gate shot before it gets too late.”

“You’re going to leave him here?” Marshal indicated the body.

Crane laughed. “What’re you gonna do with him, man?”

“I don’t know, it seems weird.”

Stefan shook his head. “We leave it all for the sheriff or the Inquisition. Right now I want to get that gate shot and then see what else we can find out. For one, are there more of these dead things walking around?”

“Okay, man.” Marshal started backing away from the body. “Let’s go then.”

“Totally,” Crane said.

Together they left the body and headed back to the road. They hadn’t gone far when Stefan saw something crawling through the grass alongside the road ahead. He held up a hand. “Just a sec. I see something. Marshal?”

Marshal got the camera up on his shoulder. Crane turned on the sound gear. Stefan went on ahead. He looked back at the camera. “We see something up ahead, alongside the road. Not sure what it is, but we’re going to take a look.” He got closer and the dark shape let out an loud caterwaul that raised goose bumps on his arms and stopped him in his tracks. “It sounds like an animal in pain.”

Stefan took a couple more careful steps and the shape in the grass crawled up onto the road. It was a cat, but it also another dead thing. One back leg hung by nothing more than a strip of flesh. Half an ear was missing, and the eye and most of the skin on the left side. The cat’s once white fur was caked with mud and patches had fallen away. It tottered out onto the dirt driveway and yowled again.

“Holy crap,” Crane muttered.

Stefan kept his distance but beckoned to Marshal. “Get a shot of this. Folks at home, this is a terrible sight. This cat is in awful shape. It looks dead, but it’s on its feet and making that noise. I can’t even begin to describe the smell of it, but I’m sure you can imagine it isn’t nice.”

The cat lurched in Stefan’s direction. It hissed and growled deep in its chest. He took a step back. “It seems understandably agitated. I think we’ll keep our distance and let the proper authorities deal with the poor animal.”

Stefan backed away across the road to circle around the cat. Crane and Marshal followed him.

Then Marshal said, “Boss, look!”

Marshal had the camera pointed back up the slope of the graveyard. Stefan turned around and saw what Marshal had seen. Two more people in the graveyard, a woman and a man. The man was too far away to see clearly but the woman was wearing nothing but mud and dirt. She staggered through the graveyard toward them. The man also walked with an odd, unsteady gait. The cat yowled again.

“At this point I think it is best we leave and let the authorities and the Inquisition deal with this situation.” The cat crawled unsteadily in their direction, still growling. Stefan twirled his hand. “Keep filming, Marshal. We’re going to want all of the footage, but let’s get back to the van.”

Together they set off back down the road to the gate at a fast pace. Not running, the dead things were slow and aimless in their movements, but Stefan didn’t want to risk getting too close again.

“Do you think it’s a witch behind this?” Crane asked as the gate came into sight.

“I don’t know, man,” Stefan said. “But I’ll tell you this, there’s definitely a story here and we’re going to get it on film. All of it.”

“What about the Inquisition?”

“We haven’t even seen them. And if they do show it I think it’s about time we got them on film. Don’t you?”

“Sure, I guess so. But they might not like it.”

By that point the gate was just ahead but Stefan saw another dead thing shambling down the slope in their direction. He touched Marshal’s arm and pointed out the newcomer. “I don’t care, people have a right to know what’s going on.”

A fly buzzed around Stefan’s head. He swatted at it and kept going all the way to the gate. He slipped through and waited for the others to get through then he pulled it shut and dropped down the latched with a dull clang. He positioned himself in front of the gate.

“Okay, let’s get the setup shot now. Ready?”

A quick count, Crane nodded, and Marshal gave Stefan a thumbs up. “This is Stefan Roland, reporting at Springwood Cemetery where we’ve received news of disturbed graves and the possibility of an investigation by the Inquisition. It raises the question, is there witchcraft at work?”

Stefan paused and the said, “Cut. How was that?”

“Um, boss?” Crane nodded at the cemetery.

Stefan turned and looked. Two of the dead things had reached the dirt lane leading through the cemetery and were coming toward the gate. “Right. Let’s get in the van and go back down the road. Not too far. I want to stay on this and see what they do.”

They all got into the van, Stefan behind the wheel so that the other two could film and record what was happening outside. He put the van into reverse and backed out of the drive into the road and then down the road another hundred feet or so. Marshal leaned out the window with the camera.

“How’s that?”

“I’ve got a clear shot of the gate. Let’s wait here.”

Stefan put the van in neutral and let out the clutch. He leaned on the wheel, watching the graveyard. “Do you realize this might be the first time anyone has documented an event like this?”

“That’s assuming that the Inquisition doesn’t confiscate our gear, man,” Crane said.

“They don’t have the authority.”

Marshal didn’t look away from the camera, but he spoke up. “Are you kidding? They’re like the feds on steroids. They go wherever they want, any country they want. If they decide to take our gear I’m handing it over.”

Stefan shook his head. “If it comes to that you give me the camera. I’ll deal with them. Something like this could be good for them, build up their image.”

“And yours,” Crane said.

Stefan looked in the back where Crane lounged against the seat. “Look man, this could be big for all of us. You saw those dead things back there. There hasn’t been a modern event like this, and we’re right here in the heart of it. I just wish we could talk to that caretaker guy that called, find out some things.”

Marshal tapped his shoulder. “Hey look, guys. They’re at the gate.”

Stefan leaned forward to get a better look. Two of the dead things stood at the gate. The naked woman and some guy in a suit. They reached out and pushed at the gate. Even from here he heard the gate clanking and a low moaning noise. A third figure shuffled into view, it looked like a man in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, with the right side of his neck a bloody ruin.  The blood had gone all down his shirt and pants. He joined the others in grabbing the gate but he shuffled along the bars, shoving past the others to get at the center. He fumbled at the latch.

Stefan’s breath caught. He had to get in the shot on this, the moment when the dead things were getting out of the cemetery. He spun in his seat and opened the door.

“What’re you doing, man?” Crane called from the back.

Stefan ran around the front of the van, the hot air stale in his mouth. He skidded to a stop on the road in Marshal’s shot. He looked back and then took one step to the right. “Come on, let’s get this. Crane!”

Crane slid open the side door and stuck out his mic. “Fine. Ready.”

“What you see behind me should disturb everyone. Those aren’t people trying to get out of the cemetery, but zombies.” Stefan took a breath and looked back at the cemetery gate. The dead thing in the flannel shirt was pawing at the latch. He lifted it and it dropped back in place, but for how long? Stefan turned back to the camera. “That’s right, zombies. Dead things brought back to a semblance of life. There have been other cases in history, but none so recent as this, and none with a trained news crew on site. We are sticking to this story to see how it develops.

“Right now the cemetery gate holds the zombies back, but for how long?” Stefan took another look. Two more figures approached the gate and he heard the sound of the cat’s caterwaul on the wind. “We also don’t know what supernatural force animates these creatures, but traditionally they are associated with a single twisted personality, one equipped with the supernatural ability to raise the dead. If that’s the case here we haven’t seen any sign of the witch behind this.”

Stefan heard a loud clank and turned to see the dead things had managed to unlatch the gate. They kept pushing and the heavy gates swung open with metal squealing. Stefan pointed at the zombies.

“Here they come! It’s a terrifying sight, the dead literally risen from their graves and they’re coming out now into the street itself and there’s no sign of anyone here. No local law enforcement, no sign of the Inquisition, we’re alone out here on this street. There aren’t any houses close by…” The dead things finally noticed Stefan and the van down the street. Blank eyes turned to face them. Stefan held his ground a moment longer. “We are going to stay with this story, to bring you the truth behind what is happening here, but we can’t let them get too close. We’ll back off and see what they do.”

With that Stefan hurried back around the van to the driver’s side and got in. Marshal kept the camera on the zombies shuffling out onto the street. With Stefan out of sight now in the van the zombies lost their focus. They stopped where they stood, one man standing up to his ankles in one of the puddles in front of the gates.

“There are more of them now,” Marshal said softly.

Stefan saw that his cameraman was right. Past the gates more dead things shuffled toward the open gate. In the small slice he could see there had to be at least a half-dozen more moving.

“Crane —”

Crane waved his hand. “Quiet, man. I hear something.”

In the back seat Crane held his microphone pointed out the partially open side door. He adjusted the controls and touched his fingers to his headphones. “I can’t make out what that is.”

Stefan listened carefully. Distantly he heard the moans of the zombies. The dead cat yowled again. A couple flies flew in the open window and buzzed about battering themselves against the front windshield. Then he heard more buzzing and saw more flies outside.

“Close the window! Shut that door!”

Crane pulled back his microphone and shoved the door closed, but not before several more flies flew in through the gap. Marshal pulled the camera in and started rolling up the window. A few more flies slipped in before he finished. The cloud of them flew around the van buzzing. Stefan grabbed the morning paper that he had stashed between the seats and swatted at the flies. Outside a dark cloud of flies flew past and around the van. They landed all over the windows, obscuring the view.

“What the hell?” Crane asked.

Stefan shoved the paper back down beside the seat. “Hang on.”

He pushed in the clutch, shifted into reverse and slowly started to back up the van. At first the flies on the windows and mirrors didn’t do anything. He gave the van more gas, trying to see where he was going as best he could, but the flies made it difficult. He went a bit faster and then suddenly the flies all took off. He braked and shifted back to neutral. They’d gone another few hundred feet down the road. The flies outside flew in a dark cloud toward the cemetery which continued to spew out more zombies that shuffled aimlessly around the drive in front of the cemetery with a few wandering near the road. Without prompting Marshal had already rolled down the window and was filming the scene again.

“Look man,” Crane pointed at the dash.

Stefan saw that the flies which had flown into the van lay dead on the dash. A couple had fallen to the floor beneath the dash. Marshal turned the camera and took a shot of the dead flies scattered across the dash.

“What killed them, do you think, boss?” Crane asked.

Stefan looked at the flies, and back to Crane, knowing that Marshal was still filming. “Maybe they were already dead, and when we backed up we took them out of the range of the witch, or whatever is causing this? I don’t know but if that is true it suggests a limit to the affected area.”

“But why flies?” Crane asked. “That’s just gross.”

Stefan shook his head. “I don’t know, man. But flies must die all the time, right? Seems like it to me, anyway.”

Marshal turned the camera back to the view outside. Stefan saw dark shapes flying above the cemetery. Birds? More dead things? The haze in the air had to come from the flies and other dead insects. Whatever was happening, it clearly wasn’t limited to the people in the graves. Every dead thing was getting up and moving, and they were getting it all on film. This was going to be huge but he wanted to know the answer to the question the audience was asking. Why?

For the moment they all sat and watched the dead things gathering around the cemetery like watching storm clouds growing on the horizon. After a few minutes Stefan heard the sound of a car approaching and checked his mirrors. A dark sedan was coming down the road toward them at high speed.

“Come on guys, let’s get out and see who this is.” Stefan opened his door without waiting for an answer. Behind him he heard the sliding door open, and the passenger door. Stefan shut his door and walked around to the front of the van, just in case whoever it was didn’t stop. Crane and Marshal took up positions behind him, and it made him feel better that everything was being filmed. Even from this point he could hear the zombies groaning and other odd cries and noises from the graveyard. A shadow flitted across the road. Stefan looked up and saw a flock of crows or black birds flying toward the cemetery.

The sedan pulled on past the van, turned across the road and stopped blocking both lanes. Front and rear doors opened and men got out. Sharp red suits with thin black ties and polished black shoes. All of them wore large dark sunglasses, all were white with their hair slicked back.

“It’s the inquisition, man,” Crane whispered.

Stefan beckoned to his crew and started walking toward the inquisitors. “I’m Stefan Roland, reporting on this developing situation. We’re happy you’re here.”

One of the inquisitors, tall with sandy blond hair, came forward, unbuttoning his jacket. Stefan caught a glimpse of a gun on the inquisitor’s hip.

“You’re reporters?” The inquisitor asked.

“That’s right. We were called about disturbances at the Springwood cemetery. Can you shed any light on what is happening here?”

“For your own safety we need you to leave,” the inquisitor said. “This is an inquisition matter now. Get back in your vehicle and go.”

Stefan shook his head. “People need to know about this. We have an obligation to stay.”

The inquisitor didn’t move. One of the others came close and whispered something. The inquisitor nodded. “If you don’t leave now we will arrest you for interfering in this operation and adding and abetting a witch.”

“So there is a witch involved here?” Stefan pressed.

“Get back in your vehicle now.”

Stefan held up his hands. “Okay, man. We’re going.” He headed back to the van. Marshal and Crane made it there first and climbed in.

Once inside Stefan put the van in gear and swung it in a wide turn across the road. He bumped down off the side of the road and then back up onto the asphalt and headed in the opposite direction. Marshal lowered his camera.

“Is that it? Are we done?”

Stefan laughed and shook his head. “Hardly. We’re going to check out the roads on the other side of the cemetery and see if they have it all blocked off.”

“Should we do that, boss? What if they do arrest us?”

Stefan shrugged. “They can arrest me if they want.” He glanced over at Marshal. “How’re we doing on film?”

“We’re good, man. No problem.”

“Great. Because is big, you know? We can do this like a whole feature, not just some segment. We get the station to back it and it could go nationwide. People need to see this.” Up ahead Stefan saw the dirt road that ran off east on his left. No sign of any other cars. He took the turn and increased his speed despite the rough conditions. Marshal got up and crawled between the front seats into the back of the van. He went to the window behind the driver’s seat and had the camera ready. A farmer’s field stretched away on their left toward the cemetery, which was a dark tree line in the distance. Glancing out his window Stefan thought he saw something like a haze hanging above the cemetery, a sort of swirling disturbance. Flies? Bugs? Birds? He needed to get around to the other side.

At last they came to another road running north and south, paved but cracked and obviously little used. Stefan turned back toward the cemetery and gunned it. His mouth felt dry as he sped down the road at nearly fifty miles per hour. Was the Inquisition ahead of them on this road, more zombies or both? It didn’t take long before he had his answer.

Dead things were massing outside the cemetery, but not the Inquisition. Those zombies that had come out the gate on the other side were the minority. Stefan licked his lips and brought the van to a crawl.

“Damn,” Crane said.

Marshal had the camera at the window. “Look at them all.”

A crowd of dead things spilled out of the cemetery onto the long hillside between the cemetery wall and the road, but they weren’t just standing there. Most lurched, shuffled, staggered and even crawled north, along the cemetery fence.

“Man, where are they going?”

“I don’t know,” Stefan said. “Let’s find out.”

“I’m not going to get as good of a picture through this window,” Marshal said.

“I can fix that.” Stefan swung the van across the road, shifted and then backed up into the road again to put the sliding door on the side facing the zombies. Marshal reacted immediately, climbing across Crane to open the sliding door. Crane shrank back from the opening. Several flies immediately flew into the van.

“You’re crazy!”

“Get the gear ready,” Stefan ordered. When Crane didn’t move Stefan gave the van more gas. They picked up speed backing down the road toward the zombies.

Crane swore and got the microphone ready and pointed the dish out the door.

Through the open door Stefan had a clear view of the dead things. Most of the human dead things looked long dead, like mummies in their best dress but here and there among them were fresher zombies. There was a young woman who even looked pretty at first glance with a long sleek black dress, blond hair tumbling in curls past her pale unmarred shoulder but when she turned her head the right side of her face was a dark ruin of torn and mangled flesh still weeping bright blood. She looked right at them with clear eyes and bared her bloodied teeth.

Stefan kept the van moving. Marshal and Crane kept recording. A few zombies had wandered down to the road but not many, he thought he could get around them. Just then the dead young woman growled and shoved aside a withered old granny zombie. The girl zombie started running at the van. Stefan noticed her feet were bare but bite marks and blood marked her left leg and foot beneath the dress. Had she been a mourner at the cemetery when these things clawed their way out of the graves?

“Boss?” Crane asked, his voice anxious.

She picked up speed. Sprinting down the grass at them. Not at all slow like the rest. Stefan gave the van more gas, accelerating in reverse down the road. The girl zombie altered her direction, still coming on fast. More dead things noticed and turned toward the van. A group ahead started coming toward the road. Dead voices groaned as they came at the van.

“Faster, boss,” Crane urged. “She’s coming fast!”

He gave the van more gas but the distance between the open side door and the dead girl had already halved. She was about twenty feet away, running fast down the slope. He heard her panting as she sprinted at the van. He was so busy watching her that he didn’t see the dead guy coming up the road at the van until the last second. He turned the wheel, trying to swerve around the guy, but the corner of the van clipped the zombie and knocked him aside. Crane yelled and caught the door to prevent himself from falling out. Only ten feet between the van and the running zombie, with at least a dozen more zombies coming behind her as fast as they could manage.

Stefan floored the pedal. The van picked up speed. Enough at the last second that she came up short, with her hands grasping at Marshal, her growling pants filling the van, but she didn’t quite reach the door. Her fingernails scratched alongside the passenger door and then he was past her. She staggered out into the road in front of the van. Then she recovered and her eyes locked on his. He didn’t see any intelligence there, only hunger. She ran after the van. Stefan smelled rot and decay on the wind coming in through the door.

He looked back, watching the road. More zombies stood closer to the road, turning as the van approached. He kept going in reverse as fast as he could to get past them and still give Marshal the chance to make the shot of the crowd of dead things moving away from the cemetery, human and otherwise. The air looked thick with insects and birds. He saw smaller shapes squirming through the grass. It looked like every corpse, no matter how small or large had risen up and all of it was on the move, heading north. The van cleared the zombies crowding the road. Stefan glanced back the way they’d come, but then girl zombie had slowed. She was still coming but not running. He let off the gas and brought the van to a stop, shifted back to first and pulled across the road to give Marshal another shot of the oncoming dead things.

More and more dead things turned their empty gaze toward the van. The dead girl led the pack, not yet running but walking quickly down the road in their direction. Marshal kept filming. The cries of the dead things grew louder and more flies flew into the van. Crane cried out and swatted at the flies. The distance between them and the gathering dead things shrank further. Stefan heard the sound of the dead girl panting. Her pace picked up to an unsteady jogging when she was maybe thirty feet away. Behind her came even more zombies and the general direction of the crowd started turning toward the road. Crane’s hand beat the back of Stefan’s seat like a wounded fluttering at a window. He had dumped the recording equipment on the seat, still running.

“Come on, man! Let’s go!”

Stefan ignored him. The gap between them and the girl shrank more. Twenty feet. Fifteen.

“Roland!” Crane yelled shrill, and panicked as he lunged for the sliding door handle.

The dead girl put on a burst of speed and in seconds was less than ten feet away. Crane shoved the door but Marshal put out a hand and stopped the door, holding it open with the camera in the gap. Crane shoved on the door handle.

“Come on, man! She’s right fucking there!”

And she was right fucking there, reaching out with scratched and bloodied nails to grab at Marshal but the camera man yanked the door closed in the last second. Her nails scrambled at the side of the van, trying to get at the handle. Marshal flipped the lock and raised the camera to the window. She attacked the window, her once pretty face bloodied and torn up. She bit and clawed at the glass. More zombies were coming behind her. Stefan put the van in gear and pulled away from the dead things.

“Bye baby,” he said.

Marshal cracked up. He fell back in the aisle in front of the back seat and laughed and laughed. Stefan laughed too, he couldn’t help it. He glanced back and saw Crane crouched up on the seat looking at them both with wide eyes. His face looked drained of blood. Stefan checked the mirrors. The girl zombie wasn’t running after them. The whole crowd of dead things continued to stagger along the road in this direction, the air thick with things that flew, and smaller shapes crawling and lurching through the grass. He didn’t see any sign of the inquisitors. He eased off the gas and kept the speed low enough to stay ahead of the dead things without leaving them behind.

Marshal finally stopped laughing and got up, climbing back into the front passenger seat. He dropped into the seat with a sigh and set the camera gear on the floor. “Man, that’s some fucked up shit back there. What do you think is going on? Where are they all going?”

“Beats me,” Stefan answered. “But we’re going to find out.”

“They would have torn us apart if they got in here,” Crane complained. “Why don’t we take what we have and get out of here?”

Marshal shook his head. “No way, man. And next time why don’t you try doing your job instead of panicking?”

“Screw you!”

“Hey, guys!” Stefan interrupted. “Let’s not, okay? Something caused all of this. We’ve got to get to the bottom of it, and then show everyone. That’s what we do. I said it before, but this is our big break. You dig? If we keep it together, stay cool, man, we’ll write our own ticket.”

“I just don’t need him telling me how to do my job.”

Stefan shot Marshal a look before the cameraman could say anything. “Fine. For now, let’s stay ahead of them and see if we can figure out where they are going.”

The van crawled down the road at no more than ten miles per hour to stay ahead of the dead things. Stefan kept an eye on them in the mirror. On either side of the road were brown fields bordered by trees. Up on the right stood a collection of buildings, white farm house, a long low barn with a rusted metal roof, a round silo, and a paddock dotted with black and white cows. The farm was a good distance from the road, unless the dead things changed their course they’d go right past the farm. Marshal took the camera and crawled into the back of the van to shoot out the rear hatch.

As he’d thought, the zombies didn’t turn away from the road to approach the farm house. If anything more of them drifted away from the road to the ditches and fields on the left side. When they came to a fence they walked into it, fell over it, or pushed through it but kept going. Some stuck to the road and just kept coming. They were about a mile past the cemetery now, all the dead things keeping more or less in a group, when Stefan saw headlights fast approaching. He hadn’t even realized how far the sun had sunk until that moment. He switched on his own headlights and honked his horn to get the driver’s attention.

Whoever was behind the wheel, they didn’t slow. The car shot past them, a dark Cadillac, headed straight toward the zombies and other dead things. Stefan hit the brakes and came to a fast stop. He twisted around.

“Are they stopping?”

“Not yet,” Marshal said.

Stefan shifted the van into reverse and headed back down the road after the car. A couple seconds later the car was close enough to the zombies in the street for the headlights to light them up. The brake lights came on. The zombies didn’t waste any time shambling to the car. The dead girl, still leading the pack on the road, ran right up to the caddy and grabbed at the door. This time she got lucky and managed to get a good grip on the door handle, popping the driver’s side door open.

Stefan’s stomach clenched and he gave the van more gas. He honked the horn as he reversed, trying to get the zombies’ attention. Nothing had any effect. Faster than he would have expected more than a dozen zombies had surrounded the car. It looked like they were trying to climb into the driver’s side. Stefan couldn’t make out exactly what was happening. Marshal had the camera up and was filming but Crane just sat on the back seat like a lump.

“Crane! We need to record this!”

Crane stirred, looked out the back with his face bleak. “You can’t be serious.”

“Do it,” Stefan said. “You said you didn’t need anyone to tell you how to do your job? Well, then get to it!”

The zombies had someone, the driver of the caddy, and pulled her out into the street. Her screams cut through the night.  She wore a pale pants suit, stained in splotches of red. Her blood. Stefan stopped the van. He couldn’t get any closer without risking the same thing happening to them. He grabbed the door handle and his hand shook. He shoved open the door and jumped down. There was a crowd of zombies in the field, more around the car with the woman, still screaming and fighting back against the zombies. She shoved the dead girl away into the others. For a second the space around her was clear.

Stefan ran past the rear of the van but more zombies came around the caddy and surrounded her again. He rubbed his jaw and backed away from the mob. He looked at Marshal and realized he was on camera.

“This is horrible,” he managed to say. “We tried to get the driver’s attention, but she didn’t stop and then the dead things closed around her so fast!”

The zombies weren’t alone in the attack. A cloud of flies flew around the zombies and several dark birds darted into the fray and away again. Crane threw up, leaning out the rear hatch but he kept the microphone pointed in more or less the right direction. Stefan’s own gut clenched when the woman’s screams stopped.

“We saw the inquisitors back on the other road past the cemetery, but none since. Maybe if they’d been here this terrible tragedy could have been prevented, if they had up road blocks or anything but we’re alone out here.”

Moans from the zombies carried on the wind. The activity near the car diminished. Several of the zombies turned their attention back down the road. Stefan saw more and more dead eyes turning in his direction. He took a step away. Just then the crowd parted. He saw the dead girl that had chased him, and beside her on the ground was the driver. Clearly dead. Her pants suit ripped open, along with her insides. Zombies shoved bits of gore into their bloodied mouths as they shambled in his direction. The dead girl gobbled down a chunk of unidentifiable flesh and then reached out a hand as if pointing at him. Marking him as next.

Stefan took another step back and looked at the camera. “Clearly they’ve noticed our presence. I wish we could have done more, but we’ve got to get moving to stay ahead of them.”

The driver’s foot twitched. Stefan didn’t move. The woman groaned loudly and rolled onto her side but the zombies didn’t pay any attention to her. He felt a chill settle over his limbs when he realized why. She’d become one of them. Dead birds clustered on the top of the car took off, screeching their disappointment. She pressed her bloody hands onto the road and slowly climbed to her feet. It looked like someone had taken a giant ice-cream scoop out of her stomach. Her once pale pants suit was mostly covered in red and darker stains. Her blond hair clung wet and red to her skull. One eye socket was empty, trailing gore down her cheek. With her remaining eye she looked straight at Stefan.

The weight of that gaze was like an accusation. It compelled him to move. He backed up almost to the van’s bumper, out of view of the camera. His mouth felt dry. He turned, staggered as if dead himself, and ran back for the driver’s side door. Loud groans rose up in the darkening twilight behind him. He reached the door and his heart lurched when a hefty figure stepped into the beam of the headlights wearing a decaying suit. Zombies from the main group had come over to the road. More stumbled down into the drainage ditch. Something flew past his head carrying with it the reek of rot and decay.

Stefan pulled open the door and looked back along the van. Crane started yelling. The dead girl and her recent victim both growled and ran at the van. Marshal wasn’t playing chicken this time. Stefan heard the rear hatch drop. He jumped in and slammed his own door closed. The zombie in the front of the van came around the bumper toward the driver’s side door. He shifted into gear and hit the gas. The van lurched and for a second he thought he had killed it by popping the clutch too fast but it caught and the engine revved as they shot ahead. The van bumped the zombie by the front of the van, knocking him away.

No other zombies in the road, but a bunch beside the road as he pulled away. Stefan accelerated quickly, shifting gears until he reached forty miles per hour. Only when the dead were nearly swallowed by the darkness did he finally ease off the gas.

“You guys okay back there?”

“I think I shit myself,” Crane said.

“I don’t know if we can show this footage,” Marshal said. “That woman’s family might object.”

Stefan’s heart still thudded in his chest but he shook his head. “People got to know about this, man. We can’t cover it up.”

“I hear you, but they might not let us.”

No need to mention who they were, the station executives or the Inquisition or federal agents. There were plenty of people that might squash this before it got out. But the idea made Stefan feel sick. A fly buzzed by his face. He swatted at it.

“No. We’ve got to find a way, but first we need to know why this is happening.”

“How are we going to find out?” Marshal asked.

Stefan looked in his mirrors. He couldn’t see anything behind them. He hit the brakes.

“What’re you doing?” Crane cried.

“Waiting. The only way we’re going to find out what is going on is if we see where these dead things are going.”

“We don’t know that they’re going anywhere,” Crane objected.

“They’re all going in the same direction. It isn’t like they’ve scattered in every direction. They’re going somewhere and I’ll bet it has something to do with what is going on.”

A short distance ahead on the left side of the road, Stefan saw lights just past some small Douglas fir trees. From what he could see it looked like a trailer. He tapped the window. “We need to warn those folks about what’s coming.”

It wasn’t far. Stefan pulled into the dirt driveway, lights flashing across a rusted swing set with blue and white spiral limbs, a bicycle discarded on a weedy lawn and two dented aluminum trash cans beside the wood porch. Marshal crawled up from the back.

“Think they’ll let us use their john?”

“You’d want to go in a dump like this?” Crane asked. “Who knows what you’d catch?”

Stefan ignored them and got out. He heard the sliding door open too, so evidently the guys were getting out as well. He headed straight for the front door, mostly straight except when he had to avoid stepping in piles of dog crap, and hurried up the wooden steps. He knocked hard on the metal frame of the screen door, rattling it. A dog started barking inside the trailer and first a woman’s voice, then a man’s hollered at it to shut the fuck up. A second later the main door was yanked open by a stringy woman wrapped in a blue terry cloth robe with pink curlers in her hair. A half-smoked cigarette dangled from her lips. The lines around her eyes deepened as she looked at him.

“Who the hell are you?” Her eyes shifted and she pointed a bony, liver-spotted hand. “And who the hell are they? What’re you doing with that camera?”

Stefan glanced back, not surprised to see Marshal filming the scene while Crane recorded. He looked back to the woman. “I’m Stefan Roland, ma’am. That’s my film crew. There’s something strange going on, and I need you to listen carefully.”

“This is some trick, isn’t it?

“No ma’am.” She scowled but Stefan hurried on. “I know how implausible —”

“What?”

“How unlikely this will sound, but we’ve just come from Springwood cemetery. The dead people there have risen from their graves, along with every other dead bug, bird and animal in the area and they’re coming this way.”

She didn’t move for a couple seconds as if his words had frozen in where she stood. Then she hollered so loud that Stefan nearly jumped back.

“Earl! You gotta hear this! This man here says that judgment day has come!”

From somewhere in the trailer the dog started barking again and the man shouted at it and her to be quiet.

“It isn’t judgment day, but the dead are coming. We saw them kill a woman only a little way up the road. You and your husband need to get in your car and get out of here.”

She shook her head. “Car’s all busted up. Don’t run worth shit.”

“We’ve got room in our van, but we have to go.”

She took a long drag on her cigarette and blew smoke at the screen door. Stefan coughed and she shut the trailer door in his face. He banged on the door frame again.

The woman hollered from inside. “I got my twelve gauge here!”

“I hear them,” Crane said.

Stefan turned around. Crane had his microphone pointed back the way they’d come. He turned back to the door and banged on it with his fist. The door flew open and he found himself looking at the black barrels of a shotgun through the screen.

“See?” The woman said around her cigarette, still dangling from her lips. Smoke curled out of her nose. “Now get the hell off my property.”

Stefan took a step back, holding up his hands. “We’re only trying to help. They are coming.”

“Anyone else shows up here I’ll show them the business end of this.” The shotgun twitched in her hands. “I don’t think you’re moving fast enough mister. Get!”

“We’re going.” Stefan made his way down the steps. He waved at the others and they retreated back to the van.

The woman stepped back and let the door swing shut. Stefan hurried back to the van. Once inside he started it up. So far he didn’t see any of the zombies. He backed out into the road. It was getting too dark to see far behind him.

“How far back do you think?”

“Not far enough,” Crane said.

Stefan let the van idle. They still had a half tank of gas. Enough for now. He rolled down his window. The wind whispered in the trees, chilly as it blew into the van. Even from this distance he heard the dog barking in the trailer and the wordless, futile shouts of the people. He gripped the wheel until his knuckles turned white. Why wouldn’t they listen? Sure, it sounded crazy, but still, sticking a gun in his face?

“Boss, what’re you doing?” Crane asked.

“Waiting.” Stefan leaned on the window. He closed his eyes and listened. Then, faintly, he heard them. Low groans and moans in the distance, the harsh cries of the birds in the dark sky and beneath it the persistent buzz of the dead flies. The sound floated on the wind and raised goose bumps on his arms. He twisted around.

“Get back to the hatch. I’m going to pull forward enough so you have a shot of the trailer. Tell me when to stop.”

Crane rubbed his face and his cheeks looked wet. Marshal just crawled into the back, dragging along the camera gear. He popped the rear hatch and pushed it up. The wind felt cold on Stefan’s neck. He put the van in gear and moved it slowly forward.

“That’s good,” Marshal called. “Crane, come on.”

“Damn you both,” Crane said. Still, he picked up his equipment and joined Marshal in the back.

Stefan left his window down and waited.

It didn’t seem that long before the first shadows appeared out of the night, flying around the brightly lit windows. Then a zombie walked out of the night into the yard. It was the unfortunate woman that hadn’t stopped her caddy. Right behind her came others and he saw hints of movement around the sides and back of the trailer. The dead things converged on the trailer and even the dog fell silent. Stefan watched carefully, but for the moment he didn’t see any dead things nearby except he heard flies buzzing about.

The caddy driver reached the porch steps first. She started up, tripped and crawled the rest of the way. Once on the porch she pulled herself up on the screen door. The trailer door flew open and the woman was there again, a dark shape against the light.

“Lord in heaven!” She cried.

The shotgun blast cut through the moans and cries of the zombies. The caddy driver’s body flipped away from the porch and fell into darkness, but more zombies came at the door. The woman backed up as they ripped apart the screen. Screams joined the moans of the dead. Stefan looked away.

He stared at the dash for several seconds. The dog started barking again and he looked back at the trailer. Zombies crowded all around it, hitting it with their hands. The whole thing rocked on its blocks. A line of them led to the open door. Then zombies fell away and the dog, a big black dog ran out of the trailer, knocking aside zombies in its way. Stefan leaned out the window and whistled sharply.

He couldn’t see the dog in the dark but he leaned across the front of the van and opened the passenger door. A zombie appeared in the doorway, a balding man with skin peeling away from his skull. Withered hands reached into the van.

Crane screamed in the back. Stefan swung around and kicked at the zombie, hitting it in the head. It stumbled back and a large dark shape jumped up into the van. It was the dog, a massive brute with hanging folds and big drooping eyes. Stefan leaned across the dog and pulled the door shut. The zombie he had kicked returned and beat at the window. Stefan hit the lock and moved back into his seat. The dog jumped up in the passenger seat and bared its teeth at the zombie.

He heard the rear hatch shut and looked back to find the camera aimed at him. Marshal gave him a thumbs up. Crane had his face in his hands, but he didn’t look hurt. Stefan turned forward and realized that there was a face right at his window.

The dead girl from the cemetery stood right outside his window looking at him. The dog barked, the sound deafening in the van. Stefan hit the gas and the van jumped forward. Dead fingers grabbed at his door and slipped away. A couple other zombies staggered around the road but Stefan swerved around them and kept going.

“Can we go home now?” Crane asked.

Stefan didn’t answer, but if he found a connection back to a highway or something he was tempted to take it. The dog sat placidly in the passenger seat, panting softly. With the road ahead clear Stefan rolled up the window with one hand while he held the wheel with the other. Up ahead a bright red reflector caught the headlights on the side of the road. He slowed but the reflector only marked what looked like a dirt road or driveway leading off into the darkness. He kept going.

A minute later the headlights caught something ahead. More zombies, out in the roadway, coming toward the van. Stefan slowed to a stop. Marshal came up between the seats with the camera.

“How’d they get in front of us?”

“I don’t know.” Stefan didn’t see that they had many options. The crowd ahead looked too thick. The dog growled deep in his chest like an engine at work. “This has to be a different group, no way they got ahead of us.”

Crane laughed in the back. “That’s just swell.”

“We’ll have to go back to that turn off we passed a minute ago. There’s nothing else unless we try to force our way through them.”

“There are more behind us,” Crane said.

“So we’d better get to the turn off first.” The zombies ahead were getting close. The dog barked once. Stefan shifted into reverse and backed up until he had enough room to turn around. Soon they were driving back down the road. Another reflector marked the turn off from this direction as well, Stefan turned and took it.

The road or drive had grass growing down the center and the tracks were like a washboard. The van rattled slowly along with the headlights lighting up the field ahead. A dark hill with a few trees and a small house at the top rose up ahead. As near as he could tell the road was taking them to that house. A dim light lit up one of the windows, so someone must be home.

The driveway turned a corner and headed more directly toward the hill.

“Wait,” Marshal said. “Back up.”

“Why?” Crane asked from the back.

Stefan didn’t question it. He stopped and put the van in reverse. As he backed up the lights shone out into the field. Then he saw it. Dark shapes moving through the field on two legs. More zombies, but headed toward the house on the hill.

“This is where they’re all going,” Marshal said.

Crane laughed. “Oh that’s fucking great. We’re right at the middle of all of this?”

“Hang on,” Stefan said.

He started driving on up the road, faster now. The van bounced over pot holes. It was risky, but he didn’t want to be cut off either. Even if the zombies and other dead things were coming to this house they might be able to hold them off. And if the dead things were coming here there might be a reason. Like the person responsible.

“Have the gear ready. When we get out I want you to be filming and recording everything.”

“Is that all?” Crane asked.

“Yes!” Stefan looked in the rearview mirror. “That’s all man! Hold the microphone. Record what happens so that people know what went on here tonight. Okay!”

“Why not?” Crane asked miserably.

The driveway curved around the hill and came up the backside. As they rounded the last curve the headlights caught more dead things down that side of the hill. This place was the bulls-eye and they’d been herded right to it by trying to stay ahead of the dead things from  the Springwood cemetery.

It wasn’t much of a house.  A small square house, white paint gone gray with age and weather, peeling off the siding in places. Moss covered much of the roof but through yellow curtains light glowed in one window. Back behind the house on one side was a sagging old barn and paddocks with broken fences. A rusty old pickup with side-boards sat alongside the house. Stefan parked the van behind the pickup and got out. The dog followed him, Marshal and Crane got out the sliding door with their equipment. Marshal had the camera’s spotlight on now. Stefan faced them, the house behind him.

“Ready? Three, two, one.” Stefan took a deep breath. The light from the camera was blinding but he looked to the side at the dark night. Overhead he heard the birds cry out. “The dead things we’ve followed tonight are coming here, to this isolated farm house. We’ve encountered groups of them coming from all directions. They’re here now, and we’re going into this house to see if there are any answers or refuge from the dead.”

Stefan walked up the cracked and weedy concrete walkway to the front door. He knocked on the dark blue-painted wood. Like the rest of the house it had seen better days and the paint was a web of cracks now. Marshal’s light lit up the whole doorway. Stefan raised his hand and knocked again. He heard boards creaking inside.

A woman in a gigantic pink spotted dress opened the door. Stringy hair hung down in her face, she was tall, an inch or two taller than Stefan and large. Her frame filled the doorway. She looked at Stefan, her face expressionless.

“I expect you’re here about them dead things?”

“Yes, ma’am, you know that they are coming here?”

She heaved a big sigh. “You’d best come in before they do get here.” The corners of her mouth twitched as if she might smile. “Unless you want to stay out there.”

“Thank you, we’ll come in.”

She moved on into the house. Stefan followed with the dog at his heels, and then the guys with the gear. Crane closed the door after they were in and turned the dead bolt. She led them into a small living room. Two other doorways in one corner. A couch slowly decayed on one side of the room while a dusty television sat on the opposite side, on with the evening news playing. A smell of fried chicken and sour milk hung in the air. In front of the couch was a small glass-topped coffee table with three KFC buckets on the top.  A few flies buzzed around the buckets. The woman moved past the coffee table and dropped onto the couch, which sagged so much that it looked like it might fold up around her. She reached into the middle bucket and took out a drumstick. The dog sat down at one end of the coffee table and watched her intently.

There wasn’t any place other than the couch to sit. Stefan went around the other side of the coffee table and perched on the padded arm of the couch. “My name is Stefan Roland, I’m a reporter. These other men are my crew and the dog, well, he joined us when the dead things attacked his owners.”

She bit into the drumstick and didn’t say anything. She tore loose a long strip of greasy meat with her teeth and then tossed it to the dog. It landed limply on the floor. The dog looked at it, then back to her and didn’t touch the scrap. She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

“Could you tell me your name?”

She still didn’t look at him, just stared at the television. “Might as well, I suppose. I’d have thought folks like you would turn up sooner than this. I’ve been waiting.” She gestured at the television. “So far there’s been nothing.”

“We’ve been filming,” Stefan said. “When we get back we’ll be able to report.”

She nodded. “That makes sense. I’m Glenda Barker. It was me that woke those dead things. I’ve got the gift.”

“Why?”

She chewed on the drumstick, slurping the meat off the bone. As she chewed, she answered. “When it started I didn’t mean to, it just happened. Little things at first. A mouse caught in a trap, or a spider I’d squashed. Kinda fun once I got the hang of it.”

“You said you woke them, how could you do that? Are you a witch?”

Glenda chewed at the scraps on the bone. When she finished she tossed it into the right hand bucket. “I don’t know about that, it’s a gift, that’s all. A sign from the Lord that I’m blessed. I can raise the dead just as surely as Jesus raised Lazarus! It’s time people knew that, paid me a little respect.”

Something hit a window at the back of the house. The dog growled.

“If you woke them, can you make them go back? Can you stop them?”

Glenda reached into the center bucket and pulled out a wing. “Why? With them to do what I want?”

Another thud against the house. Stefan heard moans from outside. If she couldn’t stop them it sounded like they would break in soon.

“Why are they coming here?”

“Because I woke them. They know who I am, and when you all show your film so will everyone else. I’ll be rich! Can’t you see it? Everyone will want their dead back, and I can give them that.”

“These dead things have attacked and killed people.”

Glenda bit into the wing and chewed off the meat. She sucked the last slivers free and tossed the wing into the right hand bucket again. She closed her eyes and for a second Stefan thought that she was falling asleep but then the bucket on the right shook. He heard snapping noises from inside. Several more blows hit the windows, all around the house. The moans grew louder. The bucket tipped over and an assembly of bones flopped out onto the table. It fell apart, then the bones rolled and snapped and reconnected again into the shape of a bird without feet or a head. It flopped off the table and fell apart again.

The dog whined. Glenda opened her eyes and chuckled.

Something pounded on the door.

“Glenda, you need to stop them, before they break in here,” Stefan said.

“Don’t you tell me what to do! No one tells me what to do!”

Stefan rose up off the couch. “I’m not telling you, I just wonder if you can do it.”

Glenda’s head fell forward, her hair hiding her face. She reached into the bucket for another piece of chicken. Stefan beckoned to the guys and they followed him over to the other doorways. One led to the kitchen, and at the back, another door. Stefan leaned into the other. It smelled like dirty gym socks but he could make out a bed, and a door at the end. A bathroom?

“Come on.” They all, including the dog, followed him into Glenda Barker’s bedroom. As he walked past a dresser he noticed something. “Marshal, bring your light over here.”

The light pointed at the dresser. It was a scrapbook on one side of the dresser. Stefan picked it up and went on around the bed, past a closet to the other doorway. Sure enough it led into a bathroom.

“Okay. We’ll hole up in here. We can push the dresser over in front of the doorway, pull it into place from the inside and close the door. There’s only that one small window above the tub. I don’t think the dead things will get in.”

Something hit the window above the bed and elsewhere in the house Stefan heard glass break. “Come on!”

Stefan snapped his fingers at the dog and pointed at the bathroom. It obediently ran inside. “Crane, help me with the dresser.”

Marshal went on into the bathroom. Together Crane and Stefan shoved the dresser over in front of the doorway, leaving only a gap to squeeze through. Then from the inside they pulled it over completely in front of the door. Stefan shoved the door closed. The space was pretty small and it smelled of piss and mold. Dark stains crawled along the ceiling and walls. A stand-alone sink with a cabinet beneath it, a toilet across from that and the tub along the wall. The dog jumped into the tub. Marshal sat down on the toilet, after putting down the seat, the camera still running. Crane perched on the edge of the sink and Stefan leaned back against the door.

The house echoed with the bangs and thumps from the dead things. The moaning cries carried through the walls.

“How long do we wait in here?” Crane asked.

Stefan shook his head. “As long as we have to, until those things go away or the Inquisition shows up and gets rid of them.”

“You think that’ll happen?”

“They know about it, but I’ll bet it was a bigger problem than four inquisitors could handle. They probably needed to get help.”

The dog whined and lay down in the tub. Stefan looked at him and shook his head. “He has the right idea.”

Marshal shut off the camera and the light, but Crane found a night light in one of the outlets and switched it on. That gave them something to see by. Crane kept recording the sounds of what was going on.

Windows broke. The cries of the dead things grew louder. Glenda started shouting in the other room but soon her shouts turned into screams. Crane took off his headphones and put his hands over his ears but as loud as she screamed Stefan doubted that Crane could block them out. He felt sick and felt bad when he was relieved that the screams stopped.

“Do you think they’ll stop now?” Marshal whispered.

Evidently not. They could still hear the zombies shuffling around the house. Something that sounded like dishes breaking. A cat yowled and it sounded like it came from the bedroom. Wings beat on the bathroom window several times before going away. The dog whined softly in the tub.

Once something hit the dresser, shaking the door, but otherwise nothing tried to get in. Eventually Stefan sat down on the floor with his back against the door. He leaned forward and rested his head on his knees.

Three hours they sat in the bathroom before they heard the first gunshot. Then more, shot after shot firing. Crane and Marshal joined Stefan on the floor, worried that shots might come through the walls. Several minutes later they heard voices. Stefan gestured at the equipment. He took the scrapbook and shoved it into Marshal’s bag. Marshal picked up the camera and started filming.

Stefan heard footsteps in the house. Several more shots, followed by the sound of bodies hitting the floor. Then footsteps in the bedroom and a voice, loudly, “Clear!”

“Help us!” Stefan called out.

That brought shouts and more footsteps. “Hello?”

“We’re in here,” Stefan said. “Three of us and our dog.”

There was a great deal of scraping as the dresser was moved away from the door. Stefan cautiously opened up the door. Flashlights shone in their faces. Stefan blinked and saw the inquisitor that had spoken to them on the road. He smiled slightly.

“I thought I recognized that van outside. You just couldn’t stay away?”

Stefan shook his head. “We had to get the story.” Two men in hazard gear carried a body out of the bedroom. It was the dead girl that had chased them from the cemetery. She had a fresh hole in her head, right between the eyes. Stefan looked back at the inquisitor. “I’d like an interview, when you have a moment?”

“I’ll have to talk to my superiors about that. Right now we need to get you out of here so that the cleanup teams can do their work. If you’ll follow me?”

Stefan nodded and led the way out. He whistled and the dog came with him, sticking to his side. The inquisitor followed them on out of the house and over to their van. A large bonfire burned in the front yard, the smell of singed flesh filling the air. In addition to the inquisitors’ car were three big green national guard trucks and a jeep. Soldiers were active around the house. Two soldiers in hazard gear staggered out of the house with Glenda Barker’s ravaged body between them. Like the others she had a bullet hole in her head. Stefan didn’t say anything to the inquisitor. The soldiers tossed her body onto the bonfire. She landed on her back, her empty eyes looking out of the flames. Smoke billowed up and obscured her face. Stefan looked over at Marshal and saw that the cameraman had caught the shot.

Gunfire rang out in the night. A soldier with a flamethrower sent fire into the sky, roasting the flies and the birds.

Stefan reached down at patted the dog’s head, then crouched. The dog’s big tongue licked at his hands. “We’ll have to get you a name. How about Buddy?”

The dog leaned against him, his weight almost enough to knock Stefan over. He patted Buddy’s back and watched the bonfire burn. He still needed to shoot the wrap-ups, interview anyone he could, find other witnesses and interview them. Then editing and everything else, but he didn’t doubt one thing. This film, when they released it, would be big. The career-changing film he’d been looking for.

So why didn’t he feel better about it? He’d gotten the story of a lifetime but he felt sick and empty inside. All he really wanted to do right at that moment was knock back a beer or six and sleep for a week.

13,465 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 18th weekly short story release and the first in the Filming Dead Things series. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Mall of the Dead Things, the second of four stories that make up my Filming Dead Things collection.