The Caretaker

The warming baked the fields to dust, turned forests into stands of dead wood. And the vamp infection spread.

Among his other jobs, Damien tends the high school football field, one bit of green left in the small town of Elk Park.

He worked all day so he didn’t have to think about being alone, aching for someone to touch, to love.

Warning: Graphic content.

 

They had crucified another cheerleader on the home team’s goal post, the third of that hot August, which must set some kind of record for a town like Elk Park with two thousand people on a good day. But why’d they have to do it on the goal post, leaving it to him to clean up the mess? Damien pulled a stained handkerchief from his pocket, mopping his forehead. The day was already hot — even though the sun hadn’t actually risen yet.

The sun coming up was like a hot oven at his back. Ordinarily he got out earlier to take care of the field, that one solitary patch of green grass left in the whole town. They’d had a meeting on it and everything, when it turned out that denying a thing didn’t stop it from coming and baking the fields to dust, and turning forests into stands of dead wood. The town had voted to keep on watering the football field, so Damien kept his job and came out in the early morning to mow and trim, and lay out the chalk lines again each week and before each game. When he finished he went on to his job at the Thompson’s IGA grocery market until his evening shift over at the solar charging station. Three jobs to cover for his ex’s gambling debts. It wasn’t too bad, at least at the store and the station he got to work in air conditioned buildings, but at home with the broken air conditioner, lying on the sheets damp with his sweat, he ached for someone to hold again.

Continue reading “The Caretaker”

Hauntlet

You know that moment when you’re standing outside the worn down Victorian house, it’s night, and Friday the 13th?

Thomas does and he knows he shouldn’t go inside. Except his best friend lives there and Percy might need help.

For readers who enjoy a little spooky with their eggnog. Happy Holidays!

December thirteenth was colder than a witch’s tit, a fact that Thomas knew very well as he coasted his mountain bike to a stop outside the worn down Victorian house his best friend, his only friend, Percy had leased as the headquarters for App-aration.

Percy’s idea of a pun. He designed independent apps and games for the iPad, iPhone and whatever else Apple decided to come out with.

It was almost five already, which meant that it was pretty much dark already and in the gloom the house suited the name. The light on his helmet cast a circle across the front of the house as he studied it. Peeling paint, cobwebs, and missing shingles were just details. No lights, that was another point, the only light, beside his helmet light, came from the nearly full moon already up casting pale shadows across the yard from the skeletal fruit trees rising above the patchy grass. The house suited the name of Percy’s business very well, it was just the sort of place to send children running by in fear.

Not that children would come out here. The house sat pretty much by itself at the end of a dead end street just outside Rainier. It had taken Thomas the better part of an hour to ride out the Chehalis-Western trail, then find the street and get to the house. All because Percy had promised to show him something really cool. After which Percy had also promised a movie marathon with eats and drink. And tomorrow was his mid-week day off so he didn’t have to bike it back until later. After it warmed up.

Still, the place looked dark and empty. He didn’t see any lights on in the house, which wouldn’t have been unusual for Percy but there should have at least been the glow of his computers. Percy always had at least three monitors on his primary machine, not to mention his other machines, game consoles and HD TV.

But there was none of that. No lights, not so much as a candle flickering in a window.

The longer Thomas stayed outside with his bike the emptier the house felt. He had a strong urge to get back on the bike and ride home. If this was a haunted house in a horror film this was the point when the audience would be screaming at him not to go into the house. What sort of person did that?

An idiot? Maybe, he’d been called worse. And if it didn’t matter he would have left but the house was very isolated and Percy had a lot of expensive stuff. What if someone had broken in and Percy was hurt? Was he supposed to ride off and just leave his only friend on the floor bleeding or worse?

That was bad enough, and probably ridiculous to think, but there was also the fact that it was freezing. He his breath fogged in the moonlight. Even with his shoe covers his feet were freezing. His fingers almost felt numb beneath his outer shell and the gloves he wore underneath. Leaving now would mean at least another hour of riding in the dark and cold all the way home.

It was insane to even think about that when he hadn’t even tried the door. He could go that far, at least.

He rolled the bike up the cracked and weedy walk. The grass coming up through the broken concrete was covered in glittering frost and crunched beneath his feet. The house needed lots of work. Percy had been excited about the deal he got on the place, but seeing it Thomas could understand why he got such a deal. The roof of the porch sagged and one of the posts was at an angle. The board at the bottom of the steps was cracked in half and needed to be replaced.

Thomas carefully stepped over the broken board, lifting his mountain bike up with him onto the porch. No way he was leaving his bike out on the porch, given the state of the place.

The front door might have been lavender at one time but now it looked more gray than anything. There was a nice frosted oval window in the door, but it was crusted with grime, spider webs and desiccated bug corpses. There was a brass knocker, a simple bar weighted with a ball at the end but Thomas just knocked with his hand.

“Percy? Are you in there?” He didn’t hear any response to his cry. He stripped off his outer glove shell and cycling glove to knock with bare knuckles on the wood. The door felt solid. He wasn’t sure how much the sound got through the heavy door, so he grabbed the knocker and smashed it down once, twice and three times. “Percy?”

The door handle, an actual long handle instead of a knob, turned. Thomas jumped back, startled because he hadn’t heard anyone coming to the door or seen a light.

Hinges screeched as the door swung open. A pale face, thin with haunted dark eyes and wet hair plastered to his scalp, swam up out of the darkness and squinted against the light from his helmet. It was Percy. He looked terrible, but it was Percy.

Percy raised a hand to shield his eyes from the light. “Thomas, man, what are you doing here?”

“You invited me. Remember? I’m off tomorrow? We were going to watch movies, plus you said you had something to show me.”

Percy scratched at his wet hair. His clothes were wet too, it looked like he had been sweating with large wet circles under his arms on the white t-shirt. He had on faded blue jeans, no shoes or socks, despite the cold.

“Can I come in?” Thomas asked. “I’m cold.”

“This isn’t a good time, man. Sorry I forgot about, you know, but really, it isn’t so great.”

“What’s wrong? Are you sick or something? Maybe I should come in while you tell me about it.” Thomas leaned forward with his hand on the door frame. “It’s a long ride home in the cold and dark.”

“I’ve been so hot,” Percy said. “I like the cold and dark.”

“I don’t. Let me in, Percy. Then you can tell me what’s going on.” Thomas moved forward and Percy stepped back out of his way.

Percy tucked his hands beneath his arms and backed off. Thomas came in, wheeling his bike in with him, then shut the door to keep in the heat. Except there wasn’t any heat! It didn’t feel any warmer inside than outside, just darker without the moon.

There really wasn’t any light in the place, except for the light from his helmet. Percy was standing at the edge of the light and just beyond him Thomas could see the dark shape of Percy’s old leather couch that he’d bought with his first app release.

“Some lights, maybe? Heat?”

“No,” Percy said, drawing it out. “I don’t think that’d be good. I think you should go, man. I’m really sorry for bringing you out here, but it’d be better.”

Thomas was really worried. This wasn’t like Percy at all. Something had to be seriously wrong. He turned around and found the light switches himself and flipped them on.

“Hey!” Percy cowered back from the light, shielding his eyes. “That’s bright!”

Except it wasn’t. A light had come on in the fixture above the door but it was a weak yellow light that just cast a pale circle of light on and around Thomas and his bike. He leaned the bike against the wall beneath the light switches.

The other lights on were the two lamps on either side of the couch. They both looked like they had twenty-watt bulbs at best. But over in the front alcove Christmas lights had come on around Percy’s Christmas tree. It was a thick Douglas fir, not much taller than Thomas, sparsely decorated with ornaments but a string of lights blinked on and off in red, green, blue and yellow. It should have cheered the place up but the tree leaned a bit to the side and the needles looked dry. When Thomas’ light hit the stand he could see that it was bone dry.

“Man, you forgot to water your tree. We should do that before the lights start a fire or something.”

“Just turn the lights off,” Percy groaned. “I don’t feel good.”

“Yeah, I get that, but it’s not good to sit here in the dark.”

Thomas went around the corner and found a thermostat on the wall. The needle was pushed all the way over to OFF. He pushed it back up until the needle hit the seventy degree mark. Something thunked downstairs and rattled. Then he heard the faint hum of air blowing through the vents.

“There.” Thomas took off his helmet and switched off the light.

Percy crawled onto the couch and lay in a fetal position with his hands up over his head.

Thomas hung his helmet on the bike then crossed over to the couch. There was a knitted afghan in faded green and yellow crumpled on one end. He picked it up and pulled it up over Percy.

“Yeah, just stay there. I’ll go get you something to eat. You’ll feel better. Trust me.”

Percy didn’t answer but he also didn’t complain anymore.

Thomas didn’t know which way to go but he made his way back to an entry leading out and that led to a hall, and across the hall, through a passage beneath the staircase, he could see the kitchen. And there was a smell coming from it that made him hesitate. He didn’t want to go in there and turn on the lights. But what choice did he have? Percy was in a bad way, he probably needed food.

The kitchen was as bad as Thomas feared. It was like sedimentary layers. The bottom layer, still visible from the side, were dishes and utensils in the sink and on the big oak kitchen table. Then on top of that was a layer of paper plates and plastic utensils. The final layer was pizza boxes and fast  food wrappers from the espresso and pizza place in town.

Flies crawled in bloated agony across the piles, gorged on the stomach-churning mess. The stink made Thomas’ eyes water and his stomach clench. The very last thing he wanted to do was go into that kitchen, but it just confirmed what he had feared. Percy was in trouble and this was as good of a place as any to start.

Thomas took a minute to go back to the living room with its pathetic Christmas tree and check on Percy. It looked like Percy had fallen asleep. That was good, it’d give him time to clean up and find out if there was anything edible left in the house. If not he could call the place and have them deliver something. With one last look at Percy’s pale, sweaty face – even sleeping his face was drawn in like he was in pain or having bad dreams – and Thomas went back to the kitchen.

 

Cleaning that kitchen would haunt his nightmares. He’d wake up some nights clenching his gut with the memory of that night.

By the time he finished the kitchen was stripped down and cleaned. The dish washer was running the last load of dishes, and the rest were put away. The cupboards turned out empty of anything except mouse droppings, dusty spider webs and lots of old cartons and boxes.

Thomas returned to the living room and sat down in the recliner that faced the alcove and Percy’s pathetic Christmas tree. He took out his cell and called the pizza place. Some guy answered, sounded bored and asked what he wanted.

“Large pizza, Canadian bacon and pineapple, extra cheese on a thin crispy crust. Not soggy, okay?”

“Yeah, no problem. What’s the address?”

Thomas told him and there wasn’t anything else on the other end except he could still hear the guy breathing.

“Hello?”

He heard the guy whispering to someone, then the guy came back on the phone. “That’s the big spooky place, right? You don’t sound like the guy that lives there.”

“Yeah, that’s the place. I’m a friend of his.”

“Right.” More whispering and the guy came back on the line. “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve told him we’re not delivering out there anymore.”

Thomas laughed. “Come on, seriously?”

“Sorry, but you’ll have to tell him that having someone else call isn’t going to change anything. We’re not allowed to deliver out there.”

Thomas felt his neck redden. Despite the mess in the kitchen he was still somehow hungry and Percy was clearly sick. They couldn’t do this! “Look, my friend is sick. I don’t know what’s been going on but there’s no food in the house. I just spent an hour cleaning up his kitchen!”

“Sorry man, we can’t.”

The line went dead. Thomas rose up out of the chair clutching the phone. He had his hand back, ready to throw it and he stopped himself. He took a breath in and blew it out. Then he looked over at Percy. The guy needed something to eat. And if they weren’t going to deliver then he had to go get something.

Thomas slipped the phone into his jacket pocket and zipped it closed. He looked at Percy sleeping. “Dude, sorry. I’ll go get something to eat. Just rest until I get back.”

Percy didn’t give any indication that he had heard.

Thomas went over to his bike, put on his helmet and gloves, and pushed the bike outside. He reached up and turned on his light again. The beam shot out and illuminated bright white snowflakes floating down from the sky. His breath fogged in the beam. He took a breath, so cold that it felt like it was freezing his lungs. Best get it done.

The only thing worse than going into the haunted house in the first place was returning again. Thomas stood outside Percy’s house with fresh snow crunching under his numb feet. His fingers felt stiff and unwilling to move. He hadn’t expected it to get quite this cold or he would have bundled up more. But then he had also expected to stay inside the house tonight.

The lights were off again. The house looked as empty and as dark as it had the first time Thomas arrived. Percy must have gotten up and turned off the lights. Or the power had failed, but they still had power back in town.

He really didn’t want to go back inside. If it wasn’t so cold he would have considered going back home, except he couldn’t leave Percy in the state he was in. And riding back now, in this cold, threatened frostbite. He had to go inside.

And it was Percy. Sick, true, and catching something would suck, but it Percy. It wasn’t like Percy was a deranged killer or something.

Standing outside in the cold wasn’t helping. Thomas pushed his bike back up the porch, lifted it up and stepped over the broken step. He didn’t even bother knocking this time. He reached out and tried the knob. He expected it to be locked but it turned easily and the door opened.

His helmet light splashed across a pale figure sitting on the stairs. It startled Thomas but he was too cold to react much. A second later he recognized Percy, sitting with his knees up and head down. It looked like he was cradling something on his lap.

Slowly Percy raised his head. His expression was pale, drawn and his skin still glistened with sweat. His hair clung to his scalp like a wet towel. His lips spread in a jerky, uneven motion into a parody of a smile that bared his teeth.

He slowly lifted the thing in his lap. The shiny, techy screen caught the light from Thomas’ helmet.

“I’d forgotten.” Percy’s voice sounded faint, distant and in a way mechanical. It could have been someone pressing play on a tape recorder. “I wanted to show you something.”

Thomas realized he still had the door open. He pulled in his bike, bags from the store banging into the door frame. He leaned it against the wall and closed the door. The heat was still on, he felt the difference in the air.

“Yeah man, that’s one of the reasons you invited me over.”

Percy lifted the thing he held higher and tipped it toward Thomas. It was an iPad. Percy always had the latest gadgets.

“Your app? You finished it?”

Percy nodded but it was more like a convulsion than a normal nod. His breath hissed between his teeth. It took Thomas a second to realize that Percy was laughing through his clenched teeth.

“That’s cool.” Thomas took the bags off the handle bars. “Look, I ran to the gas station store and got a bunch of chicken noodle soup. They didn’t have many options. I also got some frozen breakfast stuff. Why don’t I fix us some soup, and then you can show me?”

“No. No.” Percy moaned, shaking his head. His hands holding the iPad trembled. “No! No!”

It scared Thomas. He really thought maybe he should call someone, but he couldn’t do it while Percy was freaking out. So he put the bags down and pulled off his gloves. After he stuffed them in his pocket, he stepped forward and extended his hand to Percy.

“Okay, man. It’s alright. I can take a look now.”

Percy stilled but a shudder ran through him. He gave Thomas another one of those broken grins with his head cocked oddly to the side. “Take a look.” More hissing laughter through his clenched teeth. “Yes, that’s it. Take a look. If you dare!”

Thomas took the iPad. He was half-afraid of dropping it with his frozen fingers but humoring Percy now might make him more willing to eat something. “What do I do?”

“Push the home button, at the bottom.”

He pushed the button and the screen turned see-through. Or not exactly see-through, it was a camera app. He’d seen the camera app before on the iPad and this looked very much the same with buttons to switch to the front or back camera, between still and video.  There was another setting on the slider. It showed a cartoony ghost icon.

Thomas’ finger hovered over the icon. “What happens if I hit the ghost icon?”

More hissing laughter and Percy rocked back and forth. “Take a look!”

Still Thomas hesitated. The way Percy was acting, it was like he’d gone crazy or something. But it couldn’t be because of the app. That was just a program running on the iPad. Where could the harm be in that?

So why was his mouth dry? He was shivering because he was half-frozen from being out in the cold, but that didn’t explain the chill of fear icing its way along his nerves.

It was ridiculous. He touched the icon.

The edges of the screen fogged. It showed Percy sitting on the stairs, illuminated by the light from Thomas’ helmet. The fog effect made the image look cool, faded sort of like an instant aging effect. Thomas felt relieved and a bit let down. This was it? This was what Percy had come up with after all this work? Had it led to a nervous breakdown for this? That was a depressing thought.

“Okay, man, I guess that’s neat enough –”

The fog on the right side of the screen pulsed. Thomas automatically turned the iPad in that direction and the fog effect pulsed more, draining in an eerie fluid way from the other sides of the screen to the right where it thickened.

What the hell?

The more he turned the iPad the more the fog concentrated. Then it started flooding back around the other sides of the screen. When he turned back it flooded back to the right. Thomas laughed.

“Okay, that’s cool. Weird, but cool.”

Percy moaned in response.

A little more experimenting showed that the fog was acting in a hot-warm-cold fashion, increasing as he moved in the direction the app wanted him to go.

Thomas followed the fog indicators. The effect grew more intense as he walked into the darkened living room. He couldn’t figure out how the app was leading him. Was it random? Any time he turned the iPad toward the walls the effect diminished and faded, only to strengthen when it turned toward the room. Was the app actually aware of the space?

If that was the case, what Percy had accomplished was even more impressive. Particularly the elegant, fluid way the fog moved and coalesced like a living thing.

As he entered the living room Thomas paused and flicked on the lights. The light above the entry way, the lamps on the couch and the lights on the Christmas tree came on. Immediately the fog effect vanished and the screen went blank, white and featureless. Red letters swam up out of the white background, which rippled like milk.

TOO MUCH LIGHT.

Thomas flipped the light switches off again. The picture came back along with the fog, which had gathered near the upper right corner of the screen. Thomas followed its cue and turned in a circle, holding the iPad up to study the room.

Sudden the fog swam down into the picture as the Christmas tree came into view. It looked like it actually left the screen and flew out into the room, an amazing 3D sort of effect. The fog swirled beneath the tree and took on a shape.

Thin white arms, pale and swollen with putrescent cracks, wrapped around bony knees. A child with dark hair plastered to pale, rotten skin. Part of the skull showed through a patch where the skin and hair were peeled down the side of the child’s face. The bones were cracked and stained with long-dried blood. The fog had become a child but he was there, beneath the tree. Thomas’ heart hammered in his chest. He’d never seen anything like it.

The child’s head was down. The image looked incredibly real. He couldn’t look away from the shattered patch of skull. Thomas realized he was shivering harder than ever. His eyes burned and he rubbed at them. It was only a special effect. It had to be. Percy had taken the picture of the child, all done up like that, and the app just revealed it inserted into wherever you were, a sort of augmented reality thing. Chilling, effective, but that’s all it was. Horrifying, really.

Then the child shuddered.

Thomas froze, his eyes fixed on the screen. He must have imagined it. Then the child’s hands twitched. They released their grip and the knees lowered. Thomas pressed a fist to his mouth.

The child’s head was coming up and soon he would be able to see the child’s face. He so, so, so didn’t want to see that! Thomas looked away from the iPad, looked beneath the tree and there wasn’t anything there – but on the screen the child kept looking up.

Pale eyes with no iris, streaked with broken blood vessels looked straight at him through the iPad.

Thomas staggered back. He looked away from the iPad and then back at the screen.

The boy was standing, looking at him.

“No,” Thomas moaned.

Percy laughed between his feet and started to sob.

The child took a step forward. His mouth opened and there was nothing but blackness inside. From the iPad speaker came a sound like a wind blowing through a pipe. A moaning, crying noise that grabbed Thomas’ heart. His chest hurt.

Thomas’ stomach tightened and he felt like he was going to be sick. He threw the iPad away from him. It hit the back of the couch and flipped over onto the seat.

The windy, moaning noise continued coming out of the iPad speaker.

Thomas stumbled back into the foyer. His light splashed across the stairs and found Percy looking not too different from the boy. His eyes were streaked with red blood vessels already.

“Took a look!” Percy giggled. “Now you’re hooked!”

Thomas swallowed and managed to clear his throat. “What did you do?”

“Exposed the truth! Ripped back the veil! Answered the question we always wondered about!” Percy rocked back and forth. “You can’t take it back. Can’t.”

The noise kept coming from the iPad and it sounded louder. “What do you mean?”

Percy looked right at him with red-rimmed eyes. “You took a look.” Percy licked cracked lips. “It looked back!”

Percy clenched his teeth and his breath hissed in and out as his whole body shook in a convulsion that threw him back on the stairs.

Thomas ran to his bike. He yanked it around and pulled the door open. Seconds later he was outside, standing on the pedals as he rode away as fast as he could. Cold, cold wind bit into his fingers, his toes and face but he hardly noticed. There was a deeper chill that seemed to have sunk right down into his core.

Careening into the frozen night Thomas feared he could never ride fast enough. And he couldn’t help but wonder, had Percy uploaded the app to the App store?

It didn’t take long before his extremities grew numb and his legs felt like wood. He was miles down the trail when he saw the benches beside a trail marker. It looked like a good place to stop. Get some sleep.

The next morning a runner found Thomas, frozen, on the bench. Death by exposure, but exposure to what? And he was only the first.

 

4,318 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 42nd weekly short story release, written in January 2012, so just about three years ago. It appeared in Exposed Monthly, the monthly magazine I was releasing at the time. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. 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 also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story The Caretaker.

Bed Bugs

No one really understood what it took to be a single parent running your own business out of your house.

Anne treasured a few hours of uninterrupted sleep and nap time when she could get a little work done.

No one could expect her to do everything. She had to prioritize. Sometimes things just creep up on you, as Anne discovers in this story.

🐛

Anne had her arms full of fresh-smelling, warm right-from-the-dryer clothes when she stepped out of the laundry room and saw something long and dark slither rapidly away from her bare foot.

She screamed! She jerked back. Clothes flew into the air and rained down around her. She hit the door frame. Blood rushed to her face and she brought her hands up to her mouth. A short slender woman in her twenties, suddenly realizing that her reaction must have looked pretty silly. She laughed uneasily and peered around.

Had she really seen it? Had that been a snake?

If there had been a snake she didn’t see it now. She looked at the clothes scattered about with suspicion. What if the snake was under that black t-shirt? Or her purple panties?

Then suddenly she heard baby giggles and Carrie toddled across the hard wood kitchen floor towards the scattered clothes. Anne stuck out her hand.

“Stop!”

Carrie skidded to a stop, wind-milled her arms to keep her balance. Her big eyes looked at Anne in total surprise.

“Sorry, honey,” Anne said quickly. “Momma’s not mad, but stay there. Okay?”

A wide smile spread across Carrie’s fat round face showing her four bottom and four top teeth. Deadly cute, Anne thought, and wicked.

“No, Carrie. Stay there.”

Carrie laughed and toddled rapidly across the floor towards the fallen clothes. If she hit them she could slip or worse ― she might step on the snake! Anne lunged forward, stepping right in between her black lace bra and the dark blue hand towels. Not fast enough to stop Carrie from grabbing the violet washcloth.

A long black and yellow snake jerked into motion. It slid across the wood to Carrie’s leg and curled around a fat ankle. Carrie stopped. The snake slithered right around her leg, up around her waist and out around one out-stretched arm so that its head came back looking right at Carrie’s face. A long tongue flicked out as if tasting Carrie’s breath.

Anne felt like her heart might explode. “Oh. Oh. Oh. Shit. Carrie! Don’t move! Don’t move, honey!”

Carrie turned her head a bit to the side with her blue eyes locked onto the snake’s yellow gaze. She giggled deep in her chest and brought her arm and consequently the snake’s head closer to her face.

Anne reached out towards the snake. She didn’t want to spook it. What if it bit Carrie? Was it poisonous? How would she know? Shit. Shit. Shit.

Fuck!

She clenched her fingers into a fist and froze. Maybe it would just slither away on its own. The snake slid further up over Carrie’s arm. The end of its flicking tongue only a hair away from Carrie’s face. Carrie reached over with her other hand, her fat fingers reaching out for the snake.

“No, honey! Don’t grab it!”

Carrie didn’t even look up. And she didn’t stop. She grabbed the snake just behind its head but gently. Then she lifted it up and took a hold of its body with the other hand. She slowly lifted it up and then lowered it down over her head so that the snake hung like a scarf over her shoulders.

Carrie laughed and clapped her hands together. The snake lifted its head and regarded Anne with black eyes. Carrie lurched into motion, toddling towards Anne with outstretched arms. Anne screeched ― Carrie giggled ― and Anne jumped back. Carrie kept coming and Anne couldn’t help it. She back-pedaled away from her daughter.

“Stop! Stop, right now Carrie!”

Instead her daughter just kept coming. Anne scrambled backwards and her foot came down on something hard that twisted underneath her. Pain flared in her ankle and she stumbled. Almost fell down. A bright red plastic triangle block. She caught her balance and saw the snake watching her with those horrid black eyes. The tongue came out and tasted the air. Carrie kept coming.

Anne looked behind her at the sliding glass door. An idea came to her. She hurried over to the door and forced a smile on her face. “Come on Carrie! Let’s go outside!”

Even to her own ears her voice sounded high-pitched and fake. Carrie obviously didn’t care she just kept coming. Anne opened the sliding glass door and stepped out. She moved back away from the door. Carrie appeared in the door, squinted and hung onto the side to step out onto the back porch. She immediately did what she always did and headed for the steps and the lawn beyond. Anne crossed her arms and watched. She felt sick. What if the snake bit Carrie? She didn’t know if it was poisonous. She didn’t want to touch it. So far it didn’t show any sign of wanting to leave Carrie.

Carrie reached the steps and sat down to scoot down the two steps. She stood up and ran towards the lawn. Right at the edge she forgot to step up and tripped.

She fell flat forward on the grass. Anne hurried towards the edge of the porch and saw the snake slither away unharmed into the grass. Carrie picked herself up and patted her chest. When she didn’t see the snake her little face screwed up and she screamed.

Anne scooped her up and ran up the stairs back into the house. She shut the slider and locked it while still holding Carrie. Then she went to the couch and sat down rocking her daughter.

“It’s okay. It’s okay now.” She didn’t know who she was trying to reassure more, her or Carrie.

 

🐛

It was absolutely the weirdest thing ever, a fact that somehow escaped people when she told them about it. Her own mother said, “Anne, that’s just what children do. They love all those creepy crawlies.”

Anne shuddered. “I never liked snakes!”

To which her mother responded, “But Anne, you were always a fussy girl. You’d go into hysterics if a bug so much as crawled on you. I guess not much has changed.”

After that Anne sat stewing at the window looking out at the yard. A perfect lawn. Flower beds with roses kept trimmed around the edges. All sorts of roses. She loved looking at the roses. Carrie was down for a nap. She still had reports to finish for her bookkeeping clients. She needed to get as much of that done before Carrie woke as possible. These days it seemed nearly impossible to get anything done when she was awake.

Anne got up from the couch and headed down the hall to Carrie’s room. She eased the door open and looked in at Carrie sleeping peacefully in the oak crib.

The spider crouched with malevolent intent on Carrie’s arm. Giant freaking spider! All big hairy brown legs and body. Carrie had her arms up, hands palm up beside her cherubic face and the spider was right on the soft underside of her arm next to her elbow. Two legs waved in the air as if the spider just need to pick the most delectable place to bite.

Anne felt like she had swallowed a tennis ball. She couldn’t breathe at all. There was a giant freaking spider on her daughter’s arm and her hand felt glued to the door jamb. She couldn’t breathe. Her heart probably wasn’t even beating anymore. In her head she heard a high keening noise that she couldn’t get out but then she realized that she was getting it out, that that sound was really coming from her and oh my god giant freaking spider!

If anyone were there to say “just a spider” she’d hit them. If she could move. But what was she going to do? Stand there and watch the spider bite her defenseless daughter? What kind of mother would she be? Carrie would hate her. She could just see the disgust in Carrie’s eyes every time that a bug came into the house and sent Anne into cataleptic shock.

Anne managed a breath. She could do this. This. Remove the spider. How? She let go of the door jamb and could almost swear that her fingers creaked. She drew another breath. Let it out.

She could do this. Would do this.

Anne eased into the room on tiptoes. She slowly reached out and picked up Mr. Moo from the end of the crib where the raggedy cow hung watching over Carrie. Fat lot of good you did, Mr. Moo. Time to make up for it.

Right up alongside the crib. Then Anne brought Mr. Moo up into the air. Her hand shook. She took a breath and swept Mr. Moo down. The raggedy cow, still soggy from Carrie teething on him, snapped across Carrie’s arm and sent the spider flying out of the crib into the center of the room.

Carrie screamed. Anne looked down and saw the skin on Carrie’s arm had turned bright red. Shit! She reached in and scooped up her daughter. Cradled her and grabbed her arm to look at it closely. No fang marks. She’d done that, when she hit the spider the raggedy cow and snapped across Carrie’s arm like a locker room towel. Shit. Shit. She rocked Carrie.

“I’m so sorry honey,” she murmured as she backed out of the room. The giant freaking spider had scurried off into a toy or under the dresser. Maybe in that hole in the wall where the previous owners had pulled through cable into this room. “Shhh, honey. It’s okay now.”

Anne closed the door and took Carrie down the hallway to her own bedroom. She sank into the rocking chair and tried not to sob as she rocked Carrie back to sleep. And what made her feel really guilty? She wanted to go scrub Carrie’s arm where the spider had touched her. What kind of a mother was she?

 

🐛

The question plagued Anne the next day. She hovered over Carrie while her daughter played with blocks. She put off doing the laundry because she didn’t want to leave Carrie alone in the living room. They read books together and played patty cake. Carrie’s arm didn’t even have a mark on it anymore but Anne still felt guilty.

A little after three Carrie started rubbing her eyes. Then when the plastic barrel of monkeys wouldn’t go back together again she screamed and threw the toy away. Anne scooped her up and rocked her.

“Time for a nap, honey. Somebody is too tired.”

Carrie nodded sleepily against Anne’s shoulder. Anne kissed her soft hair and kept rocking her until Carrie’s breathing settled down and she went limp in Anne’s arm.

Even though it made Anne’s stomach feel all fluttery she took Carrie into her room and laid her down in her crib. Anne had picked up all of the toys early that morning and had vacuumed all of the cracks and crevices. She hadn’t found the spider, which bothered her still, but it didn’t seem to be anywhere in the room. It must have crawled away.

Carrie looked so peaceful lying in her crib. Her face scrunched up a bit as Anne lay her down and then she was peaceful. For several minutes Anne stood beside the crib watching her daughter. Then she realized just how grungy she felt. She hadn’t showered today because she had been so afraid to leave Carrie alone. But she was sleeping peacefully and Anne could leave the doors open. And it wouldn’t take very long to just get in, a quick wash and then out again.

The hot water felt great. Twice she stuck her head out and listened but the house was quiet. Anne finished washing and toweled off quickly. As she walked down the hall she thought she heard something and stopped. It had sounded like Carrie laughing. Or coughing. But nothing now.

Anne went into her room and pulled on underwear, jeans and a plain green t-shirt. She left her wet hair loose and walked in bare feet across the hall over to Carrie’s room.

She eased open the door.

Peeked inside at the crib.

Her brain couldn’t process what she saw. She didn’t see Carrie. It didn’t make sense. Carrie couldn’t be in the crib, but she couldn’t have left.

A swarm of flies crawled around over the blankets. Then the flies moved enough that Anne saw a small pink pinky finger before more flies crawled over it again.

Carrie! Anne ran into the room. Flies crawled all over Carrie. A few buzzed around in the air above her as if searching for a place to land. Others crawled along the light wood rails.

Carrie giggled. Anne realized that her daughter was awake. Flies moved and she caught a glimpse of Carrie peeking out at her between the flies. Carrie giggled again.

Anne took a step back. Her hands pressed against her mouth. She bit down on her knuckle. This wasn’t normal. Something was horribly, horribly wrong!

Carrie rolled over and the cloud of flies buzzed up around her. Anne saw her daughter sit up, smiling. She looked up at the hundreds of flies buzzing around her and spread her arms. As if invited the flies started landing again all over her arms, her face, her head and everywhere else. The flies enveloped her once again.

“Mama?” Carrie waved her fly-covered arms the way she always did when she wanted to be picked up. “Mama?”

Sobbing, still biting her knuckle, Anne shook her head. She backed up into the hall.

“Mama?” Carrie cried out, more frantic.

Anne popped her finger out of her mouth, flinging spittle onto the wood. “I can’t!”

She turned and ran away from the room. Down the hallway, out and across the kitchen, through the laundry room. Unable to stop. Out into the yard. She staggered out right into the middle of the grass and dropped to her knees.

Faintly, from the house, she heard Carrie screech louder. “Mama!”

Anne’s gut clenched and up came coffee with eggs whites and toast and bacon all splashed across the brilliant green lawn. A fly buzzed through the air and circled her head. She screamed and scrambled away across the grass batting at the fly.

 

🐛

Anne huddled in the back of the ambulance watching the flashing lights from the police cruiser. Neighbors must have called after she ran out of the backyard screaming. So embarrassing, but they’d know. They’d understand. All they had to do was go inside.

Poor Carrie. She must be so scared. Anne turned and looked at the paramedic slipping a blood pressure cuff on her arm. An older black woman with gray in her hair and a thin, kind face, she smiled at Anne.

“There, just a little pressure now.”

“My baby, she’s inside,” Anne said. “Is she okay?”

Pressure built on Anne’s arm. “I’m sure that they’ll take good care of her. Let’s just look after you right now.”

Two police officers, both heavy set men, walked past the ambulance. Anne caught snatches of their conversation.

“― a mess. Food and dishes everywhere in the kitchen ―”

“Lost it, looks like.”

Anne looked at the paramedic. “What are they saying?”

“Don’t worry about it. Please hold still.”

Anne leaned forward, straining to hear. She didn’t see Carrie anywhere. Who was taking care of her?

“Ma’am, please?” The paramedic pulled on her arm.

Anne pulled away and stood at the back of the ambulance. “Carrie?”

Then she saw her daughter. Carrie sat on the roof with bright yellow and black butterflies all over her upraised arms. Carrie waved her arms and a couple butterflies took off into the sky.

“Carrie!”

Hands grabbed her shoulders. Anne jumped out of the ambulance and ran towards the house.

“Help here!”

Carrie toddled towards the roof’s edge. Didn’t any of them see?! “Carrie!”

Anne stopped and pressed her hands to her face. Carrie teetered right on the edge. Anne heard them coming, running up behind her. “Please, honey?”

More butterflies took off. Carrie snatched at them with her perfect, delicate fingers and then she fell and as she fell she broke apart into dozens of butterflies.

They scattered, flapping away in all directions. Carrie’s laugh floated on wind.

Hands grabbed Anne and dragged her away from the house. She sagged in their grasp and watched the butterflies that had been her daughter fly away.

🐛
2,737 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 41st weekly short story release, written in July 2010, and initially released under my “R.M. Haag” pen name. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. 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 also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story Hauntlet.

The Thing in the Snow

Living at the end of a dead end road with nothing but pine trees and snow, Ray tended his chores, feeding the horses even in below zero temperatures.

Only tonight something up in the woods made a noise unlike any he knew..

Braving the night, Ray discovers more questions than answers in this dark science fiction story.

1

Raymond, Ray to his buddies, Anderson walked out of the trailer that December night in 1984 a normal thirteen year old. Brickland, in the northeastern reaches of Washington state, normally saw plenty of snow and cold, but the winter of ’84 was the sort of winter that people would talk about for years to come. No sooner would one day set a record snow fall or a record low temperature — or both — than a new record would be set a day or two later.

Record cold temperatures or not, the horses needed feeding and it fell to Ray to do it that night. It was his turn, lucky him, so he bundled up and braced himself as he opened the door and stepped outside.

His slight frame was hidden in the depths of a puffy green winter coat, hood up around his thin face. The first breath of air outside came like twin ice picks rammed up his nose, sharp and unforgiving. In the pool of light from the open door he saw the rough-hewn boards of the porch, made from half-split logs, caked in ice and frozen mud, but beyond that only dark shapes of snow shrouded pine trees in the darkness.

“Close that door! You’ll let all the heat out!” That was Ray’s mother, huddled inside beside the wood stove.

Obediently, he pulled the door closed, which plunged him into darkness. It wouldn’t be so bad once his eyes adjusted, but right now he couldn’t hardly see anything. He dug into his pockets for his gloves and pulled them on by feel. Next he pulled his flashlight out of his pocket, but didn’t turn it on just yet.

He went down the porch, his boots clumping on the ice-crusted boards, and down to the snow-packed path at the bottom. It made a rubbery sort of noise beneath his boots. So cold now that you couldn’t pack it into a snow ball or anything. It wouldn’t stick together. Even though the sun hadn’t been down long Ray wagered that the temperature was already down below zero. Quite a way below but he didn’t turn on the light to check the thermometer hanging on the post at the bottom of the steps.

Rays eyes started to adjust as he clomped along the path they’d made through the snow. Now that his eyes were adjusting there was just enough light from the moon filtering through the clouds for him to see the path. Of course he had good night vision. He liked playing a game of it and see how far he could go without needing the flashlight. If the moon wasn’t nearly full there wouldn’t be enough light getting through the clouds. He’d been out on other nights when he couldn’t see his hands in front of his face.

On either side the snow rose up nearly to his waist and it was snowing right now, a fine white powder drifting constantly down from the sky. Each flake that hit his cheeks a tiny spark of cold. He caught one on his tongue and it tasted like a pinprick.

The trees around the path stood like dark conical structures in the darks, their branches weighed down by snow. The fine light snow falling made a hissing sound, but otherwise the night was quiet except for the rubbery crunching sound of his footsteps.

Ray was almost to the clearing where the barn was when a new noise rose in the night. He stopped in his tracks to listen. The noise pulsed and throbbed through the night, rising up in intensity.

Womm, womm, womm.

He’d never heard anything quite like it. A machine, obviously, but from where? It didn’t sound like any generator or engine he knew and besides there wasn’t anything nearby. But the sound continued, coming from somewhere ahead.

Womm, womm, womm.

Ray thought about turning around and going back. But he wasn’t a chicken, and didn’t want anyone saying that. His older brother, Pete, would tease him about it for weeks. Ray’s ears burned just thinking about the taunting he’d have to endure if Pete thought he came running back because he was afraid of the dark and a snowmobile engine.

Womm, womm, womm.

Except that wasn’t a snowmobile engine, he knew what they sounded like. This noise was unlike anything that he had heard. It might be best to go back, even at the risk of Pete’s teasing. But the horses still needed feeding. Whatever the noise was it sounded farther away than the clearing. He could go that far at least and feed the horses. If he did that then he wouldn’t need to say anything about the noise. He could go back and pretend that everything was fine. The noise wasn’t loud enough to reach all the way back to the house.

Womm, womm, womm.

Ray flicked on the flashlight. If he was going to do this, he wanted a light on at least. The bright flashlight made the night seem darker. He couldn’t see much of anything outside of the beam of light. The falling snow sparkled in the beam.

Womm, womm, womm.

Squaring his shoulders, the flashlight lighting up the path in front of him, Ray picked up his pace and hurried down the trail to the clearing. He passed the small well shed and came out into the clearing. The barn stood dark and tall ahead. The metal roof white with new snow that hadn’t slid off yet.

Here the noise sounded louder. Ray stopped in the middle of the clearing and aimed his flashlight up, across the snow to the trees on the other side on the hill. From the clearing the hill rose up, all forested and difficult to access. No one lived up there. It was nothing but private property all the way up to the state lands and then state forest on up over the hill and down the other side until Deer Lake.

But something was up there, making that noise. Ray shook his head. It didn’t make any kind of sense. Nothing was going to get up there. The only road came across their property and they had a gate across it. Plus, once you got to the hill it was too steep, rutted and covered in several feet of snow. A snow mobile could make it up the road, maybe, but no trucks, and that machine noise didn’t sound anything like the whine of a snow mobile engine, or a truck engine. And no one had gone up the road anyway. He couldn’t think of another way that anything could be up there in the woods.

Ray shivered, but not from the cold. The noise scared him. He didn’t like admitting it, not even to himself, but there shouldn’t be anything up there and he had never heard anything like that noise.

Best feed the horses, and hightail it back inside. Just keep quiet about it.

As Ray lowered the flashlight, the white circle sliding down across the trees onto the unbroken snow of the clearing, he saw something red. His heart beat faster and the flashlight shook. He steadied it and found the thing he had seen.

There, within the dim white circle of light from his flashlight a red circle lay gleaming on the snow.

Womm, womm, womm.

Ray bit his lip. “What the hell?”

How could there be something lying out there on the snow? It didn’t even have any snow on it and it’d been snowing all evening!

Ray looked at the barn. He still needed to feed the horses. Under the throbbing noise up in the woods he could hear them shuffling and snorting in the dark of the barn. They were probably spooked by the noise, but had seen his light.

Whatever that red circle was it didn’t do anything. It just was there, on the undisturbed snow at the base of the hill.

He had to check it out. He was spooked, alright, but he couldn’t ignore that there was a strange noise in the woods, and now this strange thing just lying out there on the snow. Ray left the path and immediately plunged up past his knees in the snow. Just forcing another step through all the snow was a chore but he did. One step and the next, more wading through the snow than walking. After a couple minutes he was sweating beneath his thermals.

Struggling through the snow it was impossible to keep the flashlight on the red circle but every so often he paused to catch his breath and found the circle with his light. It didn’t move, but the snow also didn’t stick to it. And the noise in the woods above continued.

It took several minutes before Ray reached the red circle and what he saw just made the whole thing feel even stranger. About two feet across, the material was a perfect circle, but the edges were cut into a fringe of small strips, about two inches long, all the way around the circle. It looked very thin lying on the snow. The red color was the color of a bright fresh red rose, shocking against the white snow all around. Snowflakes that hit the surface didn’t stick. He couldn’t see what exactly was happening to them, they just went away but the surface wasn’t covered in water drops either, so it didn’t look like the snowflakes were melting.

Ray hadn’t ever seen anything like it. No feed bags, no packing material, no packaging that he was familiar with looked like this thing. If he had to guess, just looking at it, he’d have called the material plastic. Some kind of plastic anyway, but what was it? There wasn’t any obvious purpose to it. Seeing it up close only added to the strangeness of the situation. Ray couldn’t decide what was stranger between this thing, and the constant thrumming noise up in the woods.

How had it gotten here? If it was plastic it could have blown into the clearing except there wasn’t any wind. The snow drifted about as it fell, but wasn’t blowing. The thing lay on top of the fresh snow so it had to have shown up recently. Like tonight, probably in the last few minutes.

Ray shivered at a sudden thought. What if it had only shown up when he came into the clearing? He turned and aimed the light up at the snow-cone trees, only a short distance away up the hill. What if someone had put this here, seeing him come into the clearing? But why? It looked harmless enough. A marker? A lure? Something else?

One of the horses down in the barn whinnied and he nearly jumped out of his boots. He chuckled when he realized it was only the horse. He still needed to feed them. This strange plastic circle, the noise still going on up in the woods, those were mysteries he didn’t have answers for and should probably ignore. He could walk away, feed the horses, and go back to the house.

Except.

Ray shook his head. If he did that wouldn’t he always wonder about this night? He couldn’t leave it, not and just walk away. Whatever this was he wanted to understand, at least enough so that he could go back and prove to Pete and everyone else about what he’d seen. Starting with this thing in the snow.

Carefully he reached out and used the flashlight to probe the edge of the circle. The material moved like plastic, bunching slightly, but seemed inert. Nothing bad happened. Ray transferred the light to his left hand and then reached out with his right. He very carefully pinched one of the little strips on the fringe around the disc. When nothing happened he lifted the circle up.

It weighed nothing. It did nothing, just hung limp from the strip he help between his thumb and finger.

Ray turned the thing around but it just hung limp over his glove. It didn’t do anything. It felt thicker and heavier than it looked, but still seemed like some sort of thick plastic sort of material. The snow falling on his glove stuck around but none of the snow could touch the red circle. That wouldn’t happen if it was just made from plastic.

Womm, womm, womm.

A horse whinnied again at the barn. He couldn’t stay out all night. If he took too long his mother would start worrying. And when his dad finally got home from work in the early hours of the morning there’d be trouble to pay. If he was going to do anything he needed to do it soon.

If he needed any evidence at all of what was going on out here tonight, he was holding it in his hand. He wasn’t sure about bringing it back to the house. He could shove it down into the snow and come back for it in the morning, once it was light. Ray bent down and stopped. He straightened back up. What if it disappeared? He couldn’t explain how it got here, what if he left it outside and it went away? He couldn’t take that chance. He stuffed it in his pocket instead. As big as it was it folded up alright. He got it into his pocket and snapped the flap on the pocket closed.

Womm, womm, womm.

The noise up in the woods worried Ray. Something was definitely up there, he had no idea what, but someone had what sounded like a big machine running up in the snowy woods at night.

He couldn’t go check it out. On foot it’d take forever to get very far through all that unbroken snow. Besides, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to go up there in the dark to find out. He had the red circle in his pocket. That was enough. The horses needed feeding, it was below zero and he was freezing. Time to get back inside.

Retracing his steps wasn’t much easier than breaking the trail through the snow in the first place, but Ray managed to get back to the shoveled path leading to the barn. The odd noise up in the woods continued without pause as he hurried on up to the barn and slipped inside through the side door.

The barn smelled of manure and hay and horses, a rich warm smell. It made Ray feel safer. Plus it was warm in the barn, at least compared to outside thanks to the heat lamps hanging above the stalls. The lamps gave off a red light that made everything look reddish, but it didn’t bother his eyes like the bright flashlight reflecting on the snow. Even the sound of whatever it was up in the woods was muted in the barn. As Ray went about his chores, filling the horses feeders with fresh hay, checking to make sure that their water troughs were full and clean, he talked to the horses as he worked. He patted their soft noses when they pressed close to the stall doors, probably seeking reassurance that everything was alright.

“Shhh,” he said. “It’s fine. Probably just somebody up cutting wood illegally. Most likely they’ve got a generator going, or a log splitter or something.”

Except, Ray told himself, the noise didn’t really sound like a log splitter, did it? He ignored that thought and finished up with the horses as quickly as possible.

When Ray left the barn, stepping back out into the biting cold, the night felt darker than ever. He turned on the flashlight and blinked in the bright light when it hit the snow. Not only darker, but snowing harder than ever. He couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. A slight wind had also come up so the snow moved through the beam of light at an angle. The noise of whatever it was continued up the hill in the dark, but more muffled now.

He hurried back to the house, clomping through the fresh snow on the path that had already turned his old tracks fuzzy. By the time he got back to the trailer he couldn’t hear the noise at all, but it kept playing in his head like when a stuck song.

Ray stomped his feet on the porch steps to knock off what snow and manure he might have tracked back to the house, then opened the door and stepped inside. It felt like he had stepped into an oven. Hot, dry air hit his face, making it hurt after the intense cold outside. His mother looked up from her recliner near the wood stove, facing the TV on its stand against the wall. She was in her early forties, but her craggy face and uncombed hair with its gray streaks made her look even older. Sometimes he thought she was permanently attached to her chair since that’s where he mostly saw her. Her dark eyes narrowed when she saw him standing by the door.

“Took you long enough, thought you might have gotten all hypo-whatever, frostbit or something, froze your ass off.”

Ray pushed back his hood, then shut the flashlight off and put it down by the coat rack next to the door. He started peeling off his gloves, but didn’t respond to his mother. Doing so wouldn’t help anything. He kept waiting for her to say something about what was in his pocket, but of course she didn’t. The TV had already recaptured her attention, even though it was only the news playing.

A giggle threatened to escape from Ray’s lips. He turned and blew into his cold hands instead. Boy, did he have news. Whatever that thing was he found, not to mention the noise outside? Not that he was going to tell his mother about it, she wouldn’t understand. He peeled off his boots and left them by the coat rack, but kept his coat on. He was padding across the room, heading back to the bedroom he shared with Pete, when his mother spoke up again.

“Why’re you still wearing your coat?”

“Haven’t warmed up yet,” Ray said, without stopping.

“I don’t want to find that coat wet on the floor!” His mother called after him. “You put it away right!”

“Okay!”

Ray made it down the hallway paneled in fake wood, past the pictures hanging on the walls full of him and Pete with plastered on fake smiles. He hated the pictures, it always felt like their eyes were watching him. Especially right now, sweltering in his coat, knowing that the red thing from the snow was in his pocket.

When he reached his room he opened the door slowly. Pete didn’t like being surprised so Ray called out. “Hey.”

“What, chump?”

That was Pete, lying on the bottom bunk of their bunk beds, knees up and a comic book open across his legs. Action Comics and Batman were Pete’s favorites and he never let Ray touch them. Of course Ray had taken a look at them Pete was out.

“Nothing.” Ray hurried across the room and jumped up on the ladder, tensing in case Pete tried to hit his feet.

Ray made it up onto his bunk unscathed. Quickly, before he melted any more, he stripped off his coat. Up on the shelf above his bed he had a mason jar for coins. He pulled off his socks, then took down the jar and unscrewed the top. He poured the coins out into his sock.

“What are you doing up there?” Pete asked.

“Nothing.” Ray dropped the sock back onto the shelf. He held the jar, ready to hide it if Pete got up.

“Well keep it down,” Pete said. “I’m trying to read.”

“Sure Pete.”

Ray unfastened the snaps on his coat pocket, wincing with each, but Pete didn’t say anything else. The red thing from the snow was still there in his pocket. Ray reached for it, planning to pull it out, but then hesitated before he touched it. He still didn’t know what this thing was. What if it turned out to be toxic or something?

The bed beneath him squeaked as if Pete might be getting up. Ray grabbed the red thing. The piece of material he pinched felt like slick oily plastic, thick to the touch, but it didn’t hurt or anything. He yanked it out of his coat pocket and stuffed it into the mason jar. At first he thought it might not fit but he crammed it down until it filled the jar and only a few of the fringe pieces were sticking up. He grabbed the lid, put it on and spun it closed. The bottom bunk squeaked more, really sounding like Pete was getting up.

Ray stuck the jar up on the shelf next to the sock full of coins. He grabbed his coat and tossed it to the end of the bed so that it landed over the bed post and hung down.

Pete stood up beside the bunk bed. He glared at Ray. “What the hell are you doing? Are you jacking off up there?”

Ray, who only had a vague idea of what jacking off even was shook his head. “Naw, Pete, just getting ready for bed.”

“You should do that, so I can get some peace. And don’t be snoring tonight or I swear I’m going to pound on your throat while you’re sleeping.”

Ray shook his head quickly. “I won’t.”

Still glaring, Pete sank back down to his own bunk. Ray relaxed slightly. Sharing a room and bunk beds with Pete was like trying to sleep over the troll that lived beneath the bridge. Not a good deal. He looked up at the jar on the shelf. Whatever that thing was, he had it in the jar now. It wasn’t going anywhere until he could figure out just what it was. He finished undressing quickly, throwing his pants off the end of the bed, then slipped under the covers and lay down. He just had to wait for his chance, when Pete wasn’t around, and then maybe he could figure it out. Sleep weighed down his eyelids. Ray fought for a few minutes before giving in.

A noise woke Ray, a sort of metallic clatter. He sat up blinked in the dark and rubbed his eyes. It felt late, like middle of the night sort of late. He could see a bit from the night light in the hallway. In the bunk underneath him Pete snored. Whatever had made the noised hadn’t woken up his brother.

So what had made that noise? It wasn’t early enough in the morning for his dad to get home.

Ray sat holding his blankets and listened. He looked around, trying to see anything in the dim light. Then he saw something.

On his shelf. The jar. His heart hammered faster. The jar where he had put the red thing from the snow! The lid was off, and even without much light he could see that the jar was empty.

The thing was gone!

Ray jerked away, pulling his blankets free of the mattress in one jerk. He threw them away onto the floor.

The thing didn’t fall out. He didn’t see it on his bed. Slowly, carefully, he leaned over the bed upside down and looked at Pete. For a second he imagined that he was going to see the red thing stretched tight over Pete’s face like some hideous mask, the small strips around the sides digging into the back of Pete’s head.

But Pete was fine. There wasn’t anything there. Pete was asleep, snoring with his head on his pillow.

Ray pushed himself up, using the ladder as leverage, and saw something move in the hallway. He only saw it for a second but the image burned itself into his mind.

A being stood in their hallway, lit by the night light, its gray skin flat and dull. Big, big dark eyes looked straight at Ray, saw him, and for an instant he forgot to breathe. The being had a narrow mouth, but he could’ve sworn it snarled at him in that moment before it was gone. Had he seen something red in its hand? Ray thought he had.

Whatever the being was, it didn’t make any noise. It was there one moment and gone the next. Ray’s heart beat so fast that he thought it had to wake Pete up. Several minutes passed and he didn’t dare move. He listened with every bit of his attention, and heard nothing. The house felt so quiet that he thought he could have heard something, anything, but nothing happened.

Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. Even though he kept shivering, Ray climbed quietly down the ladder. He wanted to wake Pete up, tell him what he’d seen, but Pete wouldn’t believe him and would probably hit him for his trouble.

Instead Ray tiptoed past his blankets to the doorway. He stopped there and peeked out, listening carefully, ready to jerk back but the hallway was empty. He tiptoed on out to the main room. Nothing except his mom, sound asleep on the fold-out bed. Whatever he had seen, it was gone!

Ray hurried back to his bedroom. He scooped up the blankets, throwing them onto his bed, and bounded up the ladder. When he got to the top he dove beneath the blankets and hid his head. He didn’t think there was any chance that he would sleep, but he did.

When Ray woke the next morning he remembered the events of the night before but he had a hard time believing it was real. A red thing in the snow? The being in the hallway last night? That sound up the hill where there couldn’t have been anything? It all sounded impossible and he didn’t have any evidence to the contrary.

Only his coins were in his sock. And the lid was off the jar, balanced against the wall on the shelf as if it had rolled there, and the jar was empty. That made him think that what happened last night was real but he could hardly point to the jar and say that was evidence of whatever had happened.

Ray had nothing. Nothing, except he believed it had happened. He poured his coins back into the jar. So he couldn’t prove it. Not yet at least, but maybe someday. Maybe when he was older, maybe he could find the being he had seen in the hallway. If he did he’d ask them what they were doing up the hill at night, and what the red thing in the snow was, and like a zillion other questions.

But that was all for later. Ray screwed on the lid of the jar and put it back on the shelf.

4,996 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 37th weekly short story release, written in September 2011. It was one of the more autobiographical stories that I’d written. I’ll let you figure out which parts.

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases 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 also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is a science fiction story Eetees.

Trick or Treat

Christina wanted little Roy to have a perfect first Halloween.

She never considered what might happen, taking her innocent son up to strangers houses in the night.

On a dark Halloween night, the trick is on her.

1

The house stood proudly alone at the end of the dark street, surrounded by the dark wet boughs of the towering Douglas fir trees, but the street light across the street cast a pool of lurid orange light across the wet pavement. A three-story tall Victorian was painted like a bruise in deep purples, with yellow trim. Along the tops of the steep shingled roof iron spikes stabbed up at the heavens. The gutters ended in thick iron chains, down which the water splashed and tumbled into stained wooden rain barrels. The closest house, at a diagonal across the street, was an empty double-wide with a realtor sign in the window and Christina had already been to the last house before this one on this dead-end street. The people there must have gone to a Halloween party because her knocks had only raised the rabid barking of what must be a monstrous dog.

Christina popped the front wheel of the stroller up to swivel around a large puddle. Nestled in the seat Roy looked around at the dark night with wide eyes above the whiskers she had drawn on his face. His little tiger outfit was so cute but so far they’d only found one house where someone answered her knock and that was way back down the other street. For all the trouble she went through to get into her own witch outfit — and she looked totally hot despite the few extra pounds of baby weight — and to get Roy into his outfit, it didn’t look like it was going to be worth the trouble.

“I don’t know, little man. It might be your first Halloween but it looks like it’s going to be a bust.” Except for the pictures she took with the camera. Those came out good. If nothing else she could point to the fact that he at least had a costume and got to go out for his first Halloween.

Big Roy told her not to bother. He said that Roy wouldn’t even remember it, but she had said that she would remember it and when they looked back she wanted to have a picture of the holiday. And since Big Roy was deployed in Afghanistan right now it wasn’t like it even mattered to him anyway.

The house might look scary but it was dark and it was Halloween. On a sunny day it would probably look totally cute. The flower beds and lawns looked immaculate, plus they had on three lanterns on that big porch which wrapped around two sides of the house. At least a half-dozen Jack-o’-lanterns that leered, scowled and glowered from the porch railing. A skeleton reclined in a faded floral dress in a rocking chair near the door and another in overalls without a shirt leaned against the wall beside the door cupping the bowl of a pipe in his bony hands. She half expected to see the skeleton light the pipe and bring it up to his grinning teeth. To top it off tiny wizened shrunken heads with their eyelids sewed closed hung in between each of the pumpkins from the top porch beam. Clearly these people had gone all out to get their house decorated. With them being so isolated it was surprising that they had gone to so much trouble. How could she disappoint them? And besides, she deserved a bit more than a single tootsie-roll for all of her trouble.

She pushed the stroller up the concrete driveway and noticed that the flat stones among the flowers were done up as tombstones, with names and dates on them. They looked real, not like those cheap plastic ones sold at the store. So real that it made her feel all shivery inside. Or the cold night was finally getting to her through the thin black dress. It already made her breasts ache.

“We do this last house,” she told Roy. “And then we can go home and you can nurse until you pass out. How does that sound?”

Roy didn’t answer. Of course not. At least he wasn’t crying. He stared up at the bright lanterns that hung from the walls as she pushed the stroller up the ramp onto the porch. The tires made small thud, thud noises as she rolled across the boards. Her heels added sharper raps with each step. By the time she reached the door she wouldn’t even need to knock. These people had to hear her coming. The shrunken heads were like the tombstones in the flower beds. They didn’t look like plastic at all. She slowed and reached up, extending her index finger to touch one. The wrinkled skin felt just like dry skin! Christina gave a little yelp and jerked her hand away while the shrunken head rocked gently in the breeze and turned to look at her with sightless eyes.

She laughed softly at her fright and leaned over to look at Roy. “Momma’s silly! So silly.”

She pushed the stroller on toward the door. The heads had to be made of leather, that had to be it. Maybe rabbit hide or something like that. She considered turning back but if she did that she could never tell Big Roy about this. He’d never stop teasing her if she let a few Halloween decorations scare her off. Besides, they really were pretty cool. These folks obviously had the money to pay for that sort of thing. And besides all of that, they had to have heard her coming by now. Wouldn’t they think it was weird if she turned around and left now?

Christina reached the front door after navigating the stroller around the skeleton in the rocking chair. She gave both skeletons an uneasy look. Up close they looked startling realistic, horror-movie special effects realism. Bits of tissue clung to the bones just like a turkey carcass at Thanksgiving. Mold spotted the tattered floral dress and other dark stains marred the pattern. Beneath the rocker was a dark pile of something, it could be dirt but it looked more like mud with a few leaves stuck to it. A couple chilled flies took off from the skeleton and buzzed up around the lantern hanging above the porch. Too realistic. These people obviously wanted to carry the whole thing a little too far.

She raised her hand and knocked twice on the door. Two sharp knocks, and if no one came quickly she was going to turn the stroller around and leave. At least she could say that she was brave enough to get up to the door and knock. Maybe despite the decorations they wouldn’t come —

A woman opened the door. She was really tall, almost to the top of the door frame. Long blond hair cascaded down past her shoulders in complex motionless waves that look so unreal it had to be a wig. She wore a low-cut strapless red dress with pearls around her neck. From behind her came the sounds of music and laughter and the smells of roast turkey mingled with pie. The gigantic woman clapped her hands together and did a little bounce.

“Trick or treat,” Christina managed to say.

“How he’s so adorable! I could just eat him up!” She bent down and plucked Roy right out of the stroller.

Christina was so stunned for a half second. She just blinked in shock and in that moment the woman stepped back into the house and slammed the door in Christina’s face.

Christina hurled herself at the door, screaming Roy’s name. The door knob wouldn’t budge. She pummeled the door with her fists still calling for Roy. The door didn’t open.

She ran to the window, knocking against the pipe-holding skeleton in the process. He clattered to the porch behind her. There were dark curtains across the windows. She couldn’t see anything inside. Christina banged on the glass. She didn’t care if she broke a window or not. She wanted to break the window! That woman had stolen her baby!

The window held and no one so much as peeked through the curtain.

“Give him back!” She screamed so hard that the words tore at her throat.

She raced back to the stroller, stumbling over the fallen skeleton. She grabbed the stroller and carried it to the window. She drew back like a batter in the world series and let it fly at the window. The stroller hit hard enough to shatter the plastic that held the front wheel to the frame. The jolt numbed her arms but the window held. Christina stabbed the broken frame at the window again and it made a horrible screech as it slid down the glass without leaving so much as a scratch. Screaming in frustration she threw the stroller over the railing out into the yard.

Christina charged down the length of the porch looking at the other windows for any opening, any way she might even get a look inside. Nothing. She ran back the other way, jumping over the fallen skeleton, and checked the other windows along the porch. Not a single one showed anything from the inside. She threw herself at the nearest window, pounding against the glass with her fists while screaming Roy’s name over and over again.

Exhausted after several minutes of that she fell away. Her hands throbbed with pain. The skin on several of her knuckles had split open. She panted and stumbled down the porch, off onto the sidewalk, and then out into the yard. She collapsed on the lawn and vomited. The heaves brought up the tea she’d had before coming out. It felt like her insides were trying to claw out of her throat. She gasped and spit into the grass, then she got back up and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. She had to get her baby back! She saw the headstones in the flower bed. The stroller might not have broken the window but how about one of those!

Christina ran to the flower bed. She clawed at the ground. One of her nails ripped, the pain a bright star that she dismissed and kept digging. She got her fingers beneath the stone and yanked it out of the ground. The marble felt heavy in her hands. Abigail Mission, may she rest in Heaven. Too nice for a decoration. Much better as a battering ram!

She ran back to the porch. At the first big window she heaved the stone at the glass shouting, “Eat this!”

She rushed forward, raising her arms to protect her from the broken glass. The grave stone hit the glass and tumbled down. Christina couldn’t stop, she was already in motion. She crashed into the glass after the stone and the grave stone dropped onto her foot. The pain burned past her foot and up her leg. Sobbing, Christina stumbled away and fell on the porch. She hit the hard wood and raised her hands up to her head. Tears burned her eyes and sobs choked her. Her foot felt immense and on fire. Through her tears she could see that the window remained intact. There wasn’t even a scratch on the glass. She wanted to curl up in a ball but she couldn’t do that. That woman, those people inside, they had Roy. Her sweet little boy.

Christina got up and tried to stand but the pain in her foot was too much. She fell back to the porch. It felt like the shoe was closing around her foot. She kicked off her pumps. Her right foot was already turning red and purple across the top and sides. It was swelling out like a balloon beneath her tights. She dragged herself across the porch to the railing and used it to pull herself up, keeping her weight off her foot as much as possible. She must have broken it with the gravestone. It wouldn’t be so bad otherwise. Still, she made it up and wiped her face with her sleeves. They were probably all having a good laugh at her expense inside. For all she knew those curtains were like one-way mirrors and they were watching her throw herself at the windows. She pointed a finger at the nearest window.

“You’d better bring Roy back out here right now! Please, he’s my son. I won’t tell anyone, I just want my baby back!”

The curtains didn’t move. The door didn’t open and Christina wanted to wail but that wouldn’t get Roy back. She needed a better plan and she could hardly walk. She needed help.

She started shuffling down the porch. There might be another way in. She could go around the house and check. If she only had a cell phone this would be over so easily. She could just call the police. But she didn’t have a cell phone. Big Roy thought that they were a rip-off. They had one when he was stationed at home because he had to carry one, but he wouldn’t get one of their own for her to use. He went on about how it was a conspiracy to take over the nation’s communications. She’d take that right now if it meant getting Roy back. She reached the first Jack-o’-lantern and shoved it off the railing. It bounced unharmed into the flower bed. When she reached the next shrunken head she reached up and yanked it down. It left a few strands of dark hair trapped in the nail that had held it up. She chucked it after the Jack-o’-lantern.

Two more Jack-o’-lanterns and two more shrunken heads followed the others before she got to the end of the porch. She couldn’t put her weight on her foot at all, which made her next move difficult. She hoped around the post at the end of the porch and started back along the porch so that she could keep her hand on the house and avoid putting her weight on her swollen foot. God, it looked twice the size as normal and the tights were pulled taunt against the swollen skin. It throbbed with her pulse. She rubbed her nose and smelled the pumpkins on her skin. It suddenly made her think of carving pumpkins with Roy earlier in the evening. He had watched, not understanding, but it seemed like he had fun. He had smiled a lot. And those horrible people! They had stolen him!

Christina limped along the porch. She felt like puking again both from the pain in her foot and the thought of what might be happening to Roy. That woman had said she could just eat him up but she couldn’t possibly be serious, could she? It was hard getting across the uneven ground of the flower bed on one foot but she took great delight in each flower that she crushed. She reached one of the shrunken heads that she had thrown down and delighted in smashing it down into the earth. Horrid thing! She stepped off and a thought occurred to her.

What if that’s what the woman had in mind for Roy? The shrunken head’s stitched up eyes seemed to blindly look at her. She had thought that they must be made out of rabbit skin but what if these heads were actually the heads from babies?

Christina heard a low wailing sound that started building in intensity. It took her a couple steps away from the head before she realized that the sound was coming from her. She tried to stop making the noise. The shrunken heads couldn’t be baby heads. That was insane.

Nonetheless she saw Roy’s head hanging by his fine baby-soft hair from a nail in the porch beam. His plump cheeks withering like a raisin, and his beautiful eyes stitched closed with heavy black stitches.

No.

No. No. No!

Christina lunched along the porch. She was going to find a way into this house. She’d get Roy back. And she’d make them pay for what they had done.

She reached the end of porch and started around the side of the house. It was dark away from even the dim light of the street light. Not far across the narrow strip of lawn tall Douglas fir trees towered over the house, dripping with moss and menace. The ground started sloping down and that put the windows out of her reach. She stooped and grabbed a handful of rocks from along the base of the wall and threw them at the window overhead. They rattled off without harming the window.

“Roy!” She grabbed another handful and threw it at the house, not even caring what she hit anymore. “Give him back!”

The house stayed as silent and as impenetrable as the grave. Christina hobbled onward.

Around the side of the house she saw her first sign of hope. The ground continued to drop away and there was a daylight basement window only a few feet ahead. She hopped and shuffled over to the window and looked down. It was a good-sized window with a curved metal barrier holding back the earth. Like the other windows a dark curtain made it impossible to see inside. Christina scooped up a rock lying by the culvert and threw it as hard as she could at the window.

It bounced off with the same dull thunk as the others. She bit back her screams and sat down with her legs in the small area in front of the window. She crouched down, gasping when her foot hit the walls of the barrier, and tried pulling the window open. It wouldn’t budge. She pounded on the window with no result.

She had to get in. She had to find Roy! Christina grabbed the rock she had thrown from the ground and held it in her hand as she hit the window again. Her arm ached from the impact but the window remained unmarred.

Christina threw the rock aside. There had to be another way. She stood up on her good leg and grabbed the side of the barrier to pull herself up. She got up on the side on her knees and leaned against the house to stand again.

Just as she did she saw the curtain in the window twitch, just a tiny bit, but the flash of light from inside caught her eye.

“Give him back!”

The curtain didn’t move again. Christina leaned her head against the wall of the house. “Please give him back,” she muttered. “Give me back my son!”

The house might as well not be there at all, she couldn’t hear anything from inside. The light didn’t escape from the windows. She could just as well be asking a mountain to open up. The pain in her foot radiated all the way up her leg and made her teeth ache. She was tempted, despite the chill and the dew, to stretch out on the grass and just sleep. Escape from everything.

But she wouldn’t give up. Christina shook her head. She’d never give up Roy.

It was the house, or the people in the house, that even made her consider giving up. Like some Jedi mind trick, they wanted her to give up and go away, leaving Roy at their whims. She wouldn’t do it.

Christina started limping along the wall of the house again. As she rounded the back corner of the house without finding any way in a dog starting barking at her. She flinched, expecting to see it flying across the back lawn at her but it was contained within a chain link pen at the back corner of the lawn. Next to that were the desiccated remains of a garden. Dry stalks of corn like rows of spears. At the center of the garden a skeleton scarecrow hung from a cross. The dog barred his teeth and snarled at her. She couldn’t see much of him at all in the dim light. His teeth, and glowing eyes, beyond that he was pretty much just a black shadow. She ignored the barking. Let him bark, if he couldn’t get out then he didn’t worry her and the barking might bring someone outside.

There was a deck along the back of the house. Christina grabbed the railing and hopped up onto the first step. Her leg ached so much that she barely made it. She sank down to her knees and crawled instead. She made sure to keep her foot up so that she didn’t bang it on the steps. Once she made it up to the top of the short stairs she stopped and looked at the house.

One dim yellow bulb was responsible for what light there was in the back. Fancy double doors with framed glass were closed and curtains blocked any view of the inside, just like the windows on either side. It had to be locked. Everything else had been locked up tight. But she couldn’t let herself give in. She had to try. She thought of Roy’s perfect pink cheeks and his little fingers and she started crawling to the doors. It took a minute, but she got there. She reached up and tried the door handle.

It didn’t budge.

Even though she had expected the door to be locked, it felt like the door had maliciously taunted her. As if the door had been unlocked just until the second before she touched the handle. She grabbed the handles and yanked on them as hard as she could. They didn’t even rattle. She screamed despite her sore throat and banged her bloodied fists on the glass.

Nothing. No response. The whole place was locked down tight. There was no way she was getting inside.

Christina slumped against the doors, covered her face and wept. Roy’s face kept appearing in her mind. First the Halloween costume, his little Tigger outfit with the whiskers drawn on his adorable face. Or his to-die-for coveralls with the Thomas train engine shirt. The fuzzy monster pajamas covered in red and green monsters with green monsters on the feet. He loved to growl at them.

And now a real monster had him and she couldn’t get to him. She needed help. The two closest houses were empty, but if she went further back up the road there had to be houses with people home. All she needed was one place, one that would let her use a phone and she could call for help. Call the police. Then the people in this house would have to give her back her son. It’d be hard. She couldn’t even think about how hard it was going to be to walk all that way with her broken foot but it didn’t matter. She’d crawl if she had too. It made her sick to even think of leaving the house while they had Roy but what other choice did she have? She couldn’t get in and they just ignored her.

Christina lowered her hands and there was a small boy standing right in front of her on the deck. She hadn’t heard him at all. He wore a black outfit with a glow-in-the-dark skeleton on it. In one hand he held a black plastic bag with the picture of a Jack-o’-lantern design. He wasn’t such a little baby anymore, but she recognized him. How could she not?

It was Roy, a toddler but still Roy!

She reached out for him. “Roy —”

Roy turned and ran away across the deck, toward the stairs. He could fall!

Christina lunged to her feet and pain shot up her leg. It wouldn’t support her weight and she fell flat on the deck. She lifted her head just in time to see Roy descend the stairs and race away across the lawn toward the other side of the house. He moved so fast for a toddler!

She scrambled across the wood and got up holding onto the railing. She couldn’t put any weight at all on her foot without sharp pain. She hopped along the railing toward the stairs.

“Roy! Come back!”

He stopped running. But he wasn’t a toddler anymore. A boy of maybe five years old. Still wearing a black skeleton costume and holding the trick or treat bag.

Christina held out her hand. “Please come back, Roy, honey!”

He looked like he was listening to her. At least he didn’t run. Christina couldn’t stand anymore. She sank down on the step. “Please, come back.”

Roy waved to her and gave her his bright smile that made her heart ache. Then he turned away from her and walked around the corner of the house and disappeared again.

Christina pushed herself forward. She went down on her hands and knees and crawled down the steps. She kept crawling when she got to the grass. She didn’t care. She couldn’t walk and she wasn’t going to let Roy get away. Not this time. She crawled as fast as she could to the corner of the house.

Roy was walking away from her along the side of the house. Into the darkness. He wasn’t five anymore, more like ten, but he still wore the same costume.

“Roy!”

He glanced back and for a second she could just make out his face. His eyes searched the darkness but he didn’t seem to see her. Then he was gone again, around to the front of the house.

Christina scrambled forward, crawling as fast as she could manage. When she forgot to keep her foot up the pain flared up her leg and nearly made her give up. But she couldn’t let her son get away again.

So she crawled.

The wet grass soaked her clothes even more. Hidden stones dug into her palms. Her nose ran and dripped but she didn’t stop crawling awkwardly forward until she finally reached the front of the house.

A young man stood in front of the porch, lit by light from the open door. He was good-looking, with the same blond hair that she remembered, only not a boy or a baby anymore. It was Roy, dressed entirely in black but a long black coat had replaced his costume. She heard music coming from the house. Music so beautiful and dark it made her want to put her head down and just die. Christina crawled out of the shadows at the side of the house, and then used the corner of the house to brace herself so that she could stand up on her good leg.

“Roy?”

The young man that was somehow her son turned and looked at her. His eyes narrowed and then widened in slight recognition. He walked to her and she saw he was wearing an expensive black suit. A small curved silver tie-tack held a scarlet tie in place. A metallic black watch glittered on his wrist. He stopped several steps back.

“You’re her, aren’t you?” he asked, his voice gentle.

“Please Roy, please come back.”

Roy shook his head. “No mother, that’s a whole other world, don’t you know that? There can’t be any going back. Not now.”

“I don’t understand,” Christina said. “What’s happened to you?”

“I can’t explain it to you.” He looked at the watch. “But I remember seeing you, when I was little. I thought you were a ghost.”

“I’m not a ghost!”

Roy nodded. “I know. I understand it better now. I wish I could make it easier for you.”

The woman appeared in the front doorway. The same one that had snatched Roy away when he was a baby. “Roy, we’re ready to go. It’s time you went to work.”

Roy nodded. He gave Christina a sad smile and turned away. The woman that stole him came out. She wore a long flowing black gown. She was beautiful. When Roy stopped in front of her she straightened his tie, brushed his hair to the side with her fingers, and then they started walking down the porch. The front door shut behind them but the lanterns still lit the porch. The Jack-o’-lanterns were back, Christina realized, and the shrunken heads that swung in the breeze. Not only that the sky had cleared and the moonlight shown down on the yard and reflected off the roof of a long black car that sat in the driveway.

Christina limped along the wall of the house. “Wait! Roy! Wait!”

Neither Roy or the woman paid her any attention. They walked past her as if she wasn’t there at all and went to the car. Roy got in on the driver’s side, the woman on the other. Christina tried to step away from the house and fell. Her head struck the corner of one of the gravestones and the world went dark.

2

Hands grabbed her. Christina shrieked and fought.

“It’s okay! It’s okay!”

Someone held her arms. “It’s okay, ma’am. We’ll take care of you.”

The voice sounded soothing. She opened her eyes, blinked against the blinding light, and finally could see the face of the man holding her arms. He reminded her of her grandfather, with his white hair and round face. He smiled at her.

“There you go, we’ll take care of you.”

Christina swallowed and looked around. There were other people. Police. A woman beside her in blue. She wasn’t on the ground, but a bed, a gurney. And it was daytime.

Roy. “Did you get my son! Roy! They took him into the house!”

The older policeman looked over at the woman in blue and back to her. “House?”

Christina tried to sit up. They pushed her back with their hands but not before she saw the blackened overgrown foundation at the center of the empty lot. No house. No sign that a house had been there in a long time. An enormous howling emptiness engulfed her mind and she went limp. The only thing that remained was the memory of Roy, smiling.

4,996 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 36th weekly short story release, written in November 2010, originally published under my pen name “R.M. Haag.”

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases 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 also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is the One more spooky story The Thing in the Snow.

Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same

Ted didn’t take his job too seriously, how could you? It paid the bills as long as he did enough work to keep his boss quiet.

He liked the quiet. It gave him time to plan his weekend.

The personals ad caught his eye. “SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.” Freaky chicks were sometimes the hottest. What could it hurt?

October continues with a cautionary tale in “Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same.”

1

Ted was at work, Employment Securities Department, in the big office building that went up right before the State started laying off everyone in Olympia. It was Friday too, when half of the staff were off on unpaid leave. Of course he’d gotten scheduled to work, because he always agreed to work.

Still, it left the offices quiet. Not even phones ringing. He’d gotten used to the quiet. He even liked it that way.

The blinds were closed against the rare sunny Spring day outside. Otherwise the glare on his computer made it impossible to see anything at all. Not that he was looking at the computer anyway. He had his iPhone out, flipping through the ads on Backpages for a little excitement.

One of the posts caught his eye.

“SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

It couldn’t be real. Cops, probably. Who would fall for that anyway?

Ted rubbed his hands on the hard plastic arms of his seat. He rocked back, looking out past the gray Ethospace cubby into the empty cubby across the aisle.

Used to belong to Dolores. Skinny woman, too bony, smoker. Usually sounded like she was coughing up a lung half the time, but now the space was stripped bare. The computer looked lonesome sitting in the corner of the cubby.

Ted looked back at the post.

“SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

He licked his lips. Twisted. Seriously messed up stuff. Sometimes the twisted girls were the hottest. He had dated a few over the years. This one girl had even been living with a guy. Just roommates, she said, but when the guy came home to them screwing on the couch, that wasn’t the reaction of ‘just a roommate.’

Hot, though.

But this?

“SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

That couldn’t be real. He hoped it wasn’t real. He didn’t get off on that sort of thing. He wasn’t a bad guy. Single, sure, he liked it like that. First dates, that was his favorite thing. You got to have a nice time with the girl, company for the night if nothing else. Even then usually a kiss.

And plenty of times you’d at least get to make out with her.

And a few, fewer than he’d like, honestly, would go all the way on a first date.

Not being a girl or being into guys, Ted found it difficult to judge his attractiveness to the opposite sex. At five eight he wasn’t exactly tall, not really short either. Thin build that he kept up with some light sprints and weight lifting. He didn’t go all chronic with cardio. Usually kept his diet pretty primal, few grains, starches, sugar or gluten.

Good-looking or not he knew the thing that really matter for most girls was being confident. He’d show up to take them out, and he dressed nice. Suit and tie, nice restaurants, a good time.

Three dates max, if she wasn’t going to sleep with him then she wasn’t, and he didn’t hold that against her. He was always mostly honest with girls. He didn’t go on about marriage or anything to trick them into bed. Nothing like that.

Most of the time he didn’t bother with online sites or anything. But Backpages had some girls on there who simply wanted to hook up. Some charged, others didn’t, and today he didn’t really want to take time to go find someone to ask out.

He really just wanted to get laid. Was that horrible? After a while jacking off just didn’t really swing it. He wanted someone in his bed.

The phone went dark. he pressed the home button to wake it back up. “SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

That was some crazy stuff. Maybe cops, but if he just offered to take her out on a normal date what crime was that? He’d set up a meeting at Anthony’s, and if she was hideous or looked like a cop he could also stand her up. And if she was hot? Well, it wasn’t like he was going to torture small animals with some crazy girl, but if she was hot enough he might fuck her brains out.

Who knew? It might actually help the poor girl.

Ted used his Hotmail account to answer the ad. “Hey, saw your ad and found it intriguing. Would you be interested in meeting tonight? Ted.”

Then, before sending the message a bright idea popped into his head. A test to see if the girl on the other end really was freaky. He changed the signature on his email.

“Ted, you know like Ted Kaczynski.”

He was getting a bit stiffer just thinking about the possibility when he hit send.

Nothing to do about that now. Chances were that he’d be going home alone tonight. Was it any wonder that so many civil servants ended up being found offed with a bottle of pills, or a razor in the tub? You worked these jobs long enough, it was bound to get to anyone.

Ted pocketed the phone and turned back to the mind-numbing grind on the computer. Paper pushing turned into digital pushing but he was still a rat smashing buttons in order to get fed.

Too bad he didn’t just have his pleasure center wired to doing work. It probably wouldn’t be long before they started doing that, wiring people up so that you came to work and plugged in. Each task you checked off would send a wireless signal to your implants in the pleasure center. Say goodbye to vacations and sick leave. They’d have people working overtime without any bonus, just for the privilege of working.

Only a matter of time.

A half-hour after he sent the email his phone buzzed, vibrating against his leg. Ted pulled it out, thumbed it on. Email. He swiped it open.

It was her, Tortures Small Animals, answering back.

“I’d love to hook up tonight. What did you have in mind? We could go by the pound, see if they have any kittens in? – T.”

T? She’d signed it T.? What did that mean? Was it short for her name, or his? And go by the pound to see if they had kittens? Okay, so it fit with what her ad said, but that was just twisted.

“Maybe that’s what T stands for,” Ted muttered aloud. He glanced around, but there wasn’t anyone around to hear him talking to himself.

He hit reply. “Kittens sound great, but do you mind if we get something to eat first? I was thinking Anthony’s? We could meet there at seven. Wear a red dress, so I know it’s you.”

He hit send with his pulse pounding in his ears. He liked women that could make red dresses work. A red dress, generous cleavage and pouty lips. Too much to hope for from Tortures Small Animals, but you never knew and it didn’t hurt to try.

The phone beeped and buzzed again. Her reply. “The pound closes before seven, but never mind. I’ll bring something special. Can’t wait to see you at Anthony’s. – T.”

Ted snaked a hand into his pants and made the necessary adjustments, but after that his mind wasn’t on work.

That evening he showed up at Anthony’s early, a quarter to seven, plenty of time to see her show up and decide if he was sticking around for the date or not. It wasn’t raining but he stayed in his Prius, parked in one of his favorite spots just down the street where he could watch the front of Anthony’s without drawing too much attention.

She showed up five minutes before seven by his phone. Red dress, creamy complexion that he couldn’t wait to taste and a fantastic body. He’d guess mid-twenties. He caught a glimpse of her face framed by waves of dark hair and didn’t even stop the laughter bubbling up inside.

Way, way out of his league. She was gorgeous. This woman couldn’t possibly be Tortures Small Animals, but he didn’t give a shit. He got out and raised his hand in the air as he started to the front of the restaurant.

She stopped, coolly watching him. Looking right at him as he jogged up. At least he had on a suit, but she still out-classed him. Close up he saw diamonds glittering at her neck, and on her surprisingly delicate ears. She hardly had any ear lobes at all, but the diamond studs she wore were probably worth more than he made in a month.

“I’m Ted.” He reached out to shake her hand and she let him. There was that almost electric feel when skin touched skin. Her nails matched her dress, and her hand was warm and smooth in his. Such soft skin!

“Good evening, Ted.” Her red lips spread in a wide, toothy smile. “I’m glad you could make it. I’m Tina.”

“Tina. I like it. You look absolutely stunning, Tina, I have to say it.”

“Thank you. Shall we go inside?”

“Yes, yes! Let’s do that.” Ted slid around her to open the door, taking advantage of the gesture to lightly touch her back with his other hand. That’s when he discovered that the dress she was wearing was backless down to her lower back. His fingers touched bare skin and he almost jerked away as if he had touched a hot stove.

Tina didn’t react, other than murmuring thanks before brushing past him, her hand grazing the front of his pants. She smelled like roses, and he was already reacting to her, getting an uncomfortable hard-on. He wiggled, walking through the door, trying to adjust position, but he couldn’t wait to get to the table before someone noticed.

He gave the hostess his name even though Megan knew him as a regular by now. She had the table ready and showed them right in. At the table Ted focused on the steps. The odds against getting this girl into his bed, shit, he didn’t even want to think about it. If he did he’d freeze up. Instead he focused on the routine.

Pull the chair out, which brought her close enough that her hair brushed his face as she sat, like touches of silk scented with roses. His hard-on had subsided by then. Sitting across from her Ted looked into her eyes, hazel with green flecks, almond-shaped and dark. It was the first time that he’d gone on one of these dates and ended up with someone that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a movie screen. Usually the girls he dated were pretty, or at least cute with a decent body, but never someone in Tina’s league.

She leaned forward on the table. “I’m so happy to meet you, someone that understands.”

He understood that he wanted dinner over quickly and then a trip back to his place, but he couldn’t rush this. Confident, but not over-eager, especially not with a woman like this.

“I feel the same way, Tina. I couldn’t believe your ad, when I saw it.” He laughed. “I even thought that it might be the cops putting it in.”

She laughed warmly, tossing her head a bit. “That’s so funny! I had the same thought, but as soon as I saw you I knew you weren’t a cop.”

“You did?”

“Oh yes, cops have cop eyes.” She looked at him through her lashes and her voice dropped lower. “I know what your eyes want.”

Her gaze dropped and he looked down to see what she was looking at only to find himself looking at the swelling mounds of her breasts, pushing against the red lace along the top of her dress.

Ted looked back up into her eyes, slowly, not rushing it. No apologies. “As I said, very lovely.”

The waiter came. “You want drinks, perhaps? Or to hear the specials for tonight?”

“Could we have a glass of Cava to start?” Ted asked. He looked across the table at Tina. “That’ll give us a chance to decide what we want.”

“Of course, sir. Very good.”

All routine, but Ted appreciated the fact that the man never sounded like he had heard it before. And then the waiter was gone, which Ted also appreciated.

Tina smiled. “I told I’d brought you something special, let me show you?”

Ted fought to keep his thoughts off his face. Please, not a kitten. So far Tina was by far the hottest girl he’d had out on a date and he really wanted to take this date all the way.

She reached into the small red purse that she’d carried in and came out with her hands cupped together, fingers extended, almost as if she was going to pray. She kept her hands together as she reached across the table.

“Put your hands over mine,” she whispered.

Okay. Anything that meant more touching had to be good. Ted slid his hands along hers, relishing the feel of her silky soft hands. He didn’t know what she did to take care of her skin, but it felt great.

“Keep your hands together.” She started to pull back.

Her hands sliding again against his, he wanted to do the same thing with their whole bodies.

Then something flicked against the inside of his hand. A light touch, but something twitched and it wasn’t her fingers.

“What?”

“Keep your hands together!”

Ted looked around. Nobody was paying them any attention. He kept his hands together but there was something in his hands. Alive. Feathery. A bird? Tina slid her hands entirely out of his, leaving him holding whatever the thing was.

She gave him another one of those big toothy smiles. “Look!”

Ted moved his thumbs back and a bright yellow head with a beak popped up between his fingers.

Tina’s hand darted out, onto his, pressing the bird back down into his hands. “Careful!”

Her hand slid down, caressing the back of his. Then her other hand was also caressing his hands, sliding up and down across his skin. The bird twitched inside his cupped hands. Tina’s hands pressed hard, almost massaging the backs of his hand, sliding back and forth. His hard-on came back, pressing against his pants. Fortunately the long table cloth hid that from view.

Tina was watching him, watching his face and her smile grew wider. “Exciting, isn’t it? Knowing you hold such a fragile life in your hands?”

It wasn’t the bird turning him on, exciting him. It was her touching his hands that definitely had an effect.

The waiter showed up then, suddenly at Ted’s elbow. He put the glasses of sparkling wine on the table. Tina had stopped stroking Ted’s hands but her hands were still over his.

“Do you need more time?”

Ted swallowed. “Uh, yes please. A few minutes.”

“Very good, sir.”

After he left Tina leaned further over the table as if she intended to kiss him. Her hands pressed firmly against his. Ted found himself leaning to meet her. She was a freaky girl, but what was the harm of a kiss? She stopped with her lips just above his, he could nearly feel them, her breath playing on his mouth.

“Crush it.”

He couldn’t believe what she’d said, but her hands pressed down harder.

“Crush it,” she repeated. “I’ll let you do it.”

Her tongue, just the tip, touched his lip, and at that he squeezed his hands together. Her hands pressing against his, his hands pressing in on the bird as her lips found his. Hot and wet, tongues touching, exploring, playing as bones and feathers crushed against his palms. Hardly any resistance at all.

As Tina drew back he was shaking. His hands were together, pretty much flat.

“You can use your pocket,” Tina said.

Right. Before someone saw. What else could he do? He pulled his arms back, cupped the pulverized limp body by feel in his left hand and stuffed it into his pocket. Only then did he even look at his hands. A small smear of blood on his left palm, and a tiny yellow feather stuck to it.

Tina reached out and used her thumb to wipe it away. Just like that it was gone. No sign of what had happened.

Tina lifted her glass, sipped the sparkling wine, watching him over the edge of the glass. “Do you know what you want?”

God help him, he did. He knew what he wanted, and dinner couldn’t end soon enough.

During the scallops over linguini they took turn feeding each other the morsels from the plate and while the buttery taste melted in his mouth Tina kept reaching over and rubbing his pocket.

Those pants were so going into the trash after this date.

Any chance of escaping without desert went out the window when Tina ordered the chocolate mousse. Ted asked for two spoons and once again they took turns feeding each other. He loved watching her lips slide over the spoon. He felt dizzy, intoxicated even though he’d barely even touched his wine with dinner.

Tina ran her finger around the inside of the bowl when they were nearly done and then held out her chocolate smeared finger to him. Ted bent down, taking the proffered digit between his lips, sucking off the sweet chocolate.

When she pulled her finger back she leaned in and he found himself drowning in her lips again, drinking in the taste of her mingled with the chocolate while his pulse pounded in his ears.

Her hand slid around the back of his head, fingers digging into his hair. As they broke apart he found himself looking into her eyes.

She asked the words he’d been dying to hear. “Should we get out of here?”

Ted smiled. “Let’s go to my place.”

Tina flicked her finger lightly across his nose, smiling. “No, silly. You’ve got to see what I’ve got for you back at my place.”

It felt like someone had opened a window as a chilly ran down his back. “Uh, your place? What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” she said, coyly.

Ted ran his hands down her arms, exquisite, like the rest of her. Why not go with it? So she was a bit crazy, look at her! This was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one he’d regret forever if he fucked it up now.

“What’s the surprise?”

Tina’s eyes narrowed. “You’re impatient. I’ll bet you couldn’t wait to open your first puppy.”

“What?”

She reached out and ran her fingers through his hair, lightly playing with his ear. “Come here, I’ll whisper a hint.”

Ted leaned in and found himself shivering as her lips brushed his ear. He wanted her more than he’d wanted any girl before. What did it matter what her surprise was, if he got the chance to screw her?

Her lips brushed against his ear again, her tongue lightly licking along his earlobe, sucking on it, and suddenly he was squirming in his seat. She stopped.

“It’s a surprise,” she whispered.

Then pain, sharp and immediate in the earlobe like an icepick through his head. Ted screamed. He jerked back, but Tina was still attached, teeth clamped firmly on his ear.

Other people were looking. Tina released him. Ted fell back against his seat, wilting away from her. His ear throbbed with pain. Tina slowly rose, showing him every fantastic inch of her body. She leaned on the table and Ted shrank back against his chair.

Tina made a tsking noise. “Maybe we shouldn’t take this too fast, Teddy Bear?”

She pouted, blew a kiss at him and then walked away, out into the night.

After that Ted figured she was gone, out of his life at least, off torturing someone else. He had dreams about screwing her, and they weren’t all bad. Mostly.

Saturday morning the doorbell rang. Ted looked up from his coffee, at first unable to even comprehend the sound. By the time he figured it out and got to the door he didn’t see anyone outside, but when he opened the door he found a small box sitting on top of a newspaper.

Ted picked up the box, it wasn’t heavy. No postmark and besides, it was too early for the mail. The newspaper must have come with the box, he didn’t get the Olympian, it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

Tina. The box was wrapped in plain brown paper, no marks, but he knew, knew it was from Tina. How she knew where he lived, he didn’t have any idea, but this had to be from her.

He couldn’t not open it, as tempting as it was to toss it directly in the trash. He tore at the rough brown paper. Tossed that aside. A plain white cardboard box, like the kind that Chinese food came in, without any markings. There was plain white card taped to the top. He peeled it off and read what was written in beautiful handwriting.

“Teddy Bear, look what you missed out on last night. I’ve got to go out of town for a while, but when I get back maybe we can try again. Kisses. – T.”

Ted tossed the card down on the counter. He really didn’t want to know what was in the box now. His eyes fell on the folded newspaper. A smiling little girl was on the front page, blond, probably about four years old. In big black letters beneath the picture he could read part of the headline.

MISSING.

The box. The newspaper. Ted’s ear throbbed. He stuffed his knuckles into his mouth, but even that wasn’t enough to muffle his screams.

3,626 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 34th weekly short story release, written in March 2012, while at a workshop on the Oregon coast. I’m putting up scary or disturbing stories all October.

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases 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 also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is an unsettling, sad story, The Bug Builder.

Eating Disorder

Some people would call it an eating disorder but a ghoul has to eat, right?

It’s actually a funny story, how I ended up this way. Why don’t you settle back and I’ll tell you all about it.

Yeah, I wasn’t really asking.

Kick off your October with a ghoulishly fun story in “Eating Disorder.”

1

I’ve got what you could call an eating disorder. I don’t like talking about it. Hell, I don’t even like thinking about it, but at three in the morning, listening to the sound of ice-coated branches and trees breaking all around me it’s hard not to think about how I ended up here, in Olympia, I guess that’s the capital, right smack in the middle of the worst storm in like fifteen years or something.

See I’m one of those people that no one likes looking at. Not that I’m bad on the eyes. I’m petite but what the guys call stacked. I’ve hacked off my hair, it’s all white, but you couldn’t tell that from the dirt, so it sort of just sticks up in every direction. It used to be black and long and I paid whatever it cost to have it look good.

Not anymore. A ghoul like me can’t afford that sort of thing.

Instead of designer clothes and jewelry I get what I can shoplift from Goodwill. Nothing pretty about that but when you’ve got what I’ve got you learn real quick not to get too attached to your clothes.

Or fingernails. Hell, I’d love to have the beautiful patterned nails like I used to get but instead I’ve got these thick yellow and black nails, not even nails. Let’s tell the truth. These babies are sharp enough to shave with. Not that I bother with shaving anything anymore.

You have a keen sense of smell, don’t you? It must be torture for you being close to me right now. But you’re going to help me with that.

This storm is sure something, isn’t it? A foot of snow overnight, that was bad enough, but then this ice storm on its heels? I usually don’t let things go this far, but the storm really messed up my plans.

See I never stay in one place too long. Too easy for the hunter to become the hunted, but then your type likes staying in one place. Ties to your dirt and all of that sort of thing. It’s usually pretty easy to spot your kind. From the money, the whores and the expensive houses closed up all day, your sort always stands out.

I know, you don’t think that you do, but it’s true. I spotted you right off.

Me? I’m on that. A Trek Marlin 29er, that’s a mountain bike. Big wheels, see. I don’t carry much. What’d be the point? Mostly my sleep-gear backed in that trunk bag.

Ordinarily I’m not one much for the chit-chat. I’m the go straight to the eating sort, if you get it?

Sorry about laughing, but you should have seen your face then. Your sort, how you’ve changed! Used to be among the worst sort of monsters imaginable, the kind of nightmare that made grown men wet their beds. Now you get their women to wet their beds and not the same way.

Now they all want to fuck you.

Talk about your PR campaign!

Oh? You want to know where this place is? I’d think even someone like you would recognize the piss-stink of an overpass. That’s the Woodland trail down there beneath us, street up there, duh.

Yeah, don’t worry about anyone coming by. You hear those cracks and snaps like firecrackers going off? That’s the sound of branches breaking and trees falling. This ice storm is making a mess of everything. Roads up there are awful.

No one’s coming. No one’s going to be using the trail. And I already dumped your car.

You and me, we’ve got time. That’s why I’m so chatty, and I’m not normally that sort of ghoul.

Sorry. Can’t help it. Do you think I like this? Fuck-you-very-much.

I don’t know if this is your lucky night or not. Thanks to that storm I can’t be riding or I’d have already eaten and gotten on my bike and put some miles in before I crashed for the night.

What with the ice storm and all I can’t do that right now and I don’t like sleeping where I eat. So you’re the lucky fuck. I’m going to tell you how I ended up like this. Just so you see it isn’t personal.

Like I said before, I wasn’t always like this. That changed six months ago. Before that I was a mostly normal girl, doing her thing. Oh I still rode the bike, that didn’t change. Give me an epic ride any day. Nothing I liked better getting out and hitting the trails, you know? I could ride all day until I didn’t have any energy left at all and then just crash. If I was back home that was cool but sometimes I’d just crash where ever I was at, stealth camp, you know? I always rode with my full kit so it didn’t really matter. I was always more home on the bike than I was back in my cheap apartment. That was just a place to keep the stuff that didn’t fit on my bike. But everything important fit on my bike.

So six months ago. I was out in Canada hitting the Tour Divide.

No? Haven’t heard of it? No reason you would have, heck even most people that get out during daylight hours haven’t heard of the Tour Divide.

Two thousand seven hundred and forty-five miles along the continental divide from Banff, Canada all the way down to a Mexico border crossing at Antelope Wells. Epic. Totally epic, that was the big thing that I’d been building toward hard for two years before that June.

Two years! More than that if you really went back, but two years that I had actually intended to ride the race. I’d even thought about doing it the year before but didn’t figure I was ready. I should have done it then.

The Divide throws everything at you. Climbing up passes, snow, brutal trails in the middle of nowhere. Total shitting in the woods, epic riding all frickin’ day. And the riders, they worry about things like grizzly bears because it totally goes through grizzly bear country.

I wish that’s all I had to worry about.

First day of riding and that night I’m up in the Flathead valley just pushing my bike up this trail that you can’t even hardly see along a mountain side covered in snow. There’s a bit of a moon, but not much. Enough to keep going. Not snow like you see out there right now, there wasn’t the fucking ice for one thing. This was old snow, all rotten and slippery. It used to be deep but now it didn’t even come up to my knee but I couldn’t ride through it, not if I hoped to get across the mountainside without tumbling down the cliff to an early death.

Even that would have been better.

So I’d gotten past the worst of it, so I thought, when I heard a motor. That  freaked me out. You’ve got to see it, you’re in the middle of shit-knows-where on this hillside and it’s all quiet. No cars, no sounds except animals and shit. And then there’s this sound of motors. Engines revving. I could hear shit getting kicked up and I’m freaking out. Who the hell is crazy enough to be out here at night except Divide riders?

I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

ATVs. Two of them ripping across the mountain without headlights. Crazy mother-fuckers, to ride those unstable machines across this mountain only by moonlight. Or that’s what I thought at the time. I didn’t know, couldn’t know right then, that they could see in the dark as well as an owl.

I could only see them as dark shapes roaring across the mountain, more shadow than substance. The sound and the size made it clear that they weren’t grizzly bears charging. They were much worse.

Only two ATVs but four riders. The came at me, engines snarling as they spun around in the snow and stopped. I was pissed but also scared. A woman alone in the middle of that God-forsaken country, with a pack of backwoods idiots on ATVs? It sounded like a recipe to get tortured, killed and thrown off the cliff for the animals. By the time anyone found any remains they wouldn’t have a clue what killed me, the animals or the fall.

Yeah, laugh it up. Obviously none of that happened. But that’s what I was afraid of back then. Only I wasn’t about to let these guys know that.

I raised a hand. “Hey, any of you got some Snickers? M&Ms? Really, any kind of chocolate would do.”

They gave me snickers, but not the kind I was looking for. The leader, Raul, I learned that later, got off the ATV first. In the dark moonlight he looked like any other raggedy thin guy you might find at some bar tossing back one or ten beers.

“What’re you doing out here?” He spread his arms. “Does this look like a fucking bicycle trail?”

“Sure as hell does, fuckwad,” I said. “And it’s going to take me all the way to Mexico, so why don’t you get out of my way. I’ve got a lot of riding to do.”

Saved my bacon. Sort of.

Raul, he sort of bent over and let out this hacking laugh. He slapped his legs as he did it and I thought he sounded seriously fucking sick. He hawked and spat into the dirty snow.

“Mexico? You’re a long ways from Mexico.”

“And I’m not getting any closer talking to you.”

He sort of stood up straighter then and an eye-blink later he was right up against me, like pressed up hard enough that I would have gone over and tumbled down the hillside except he had a hand around my waist and was holding me in a grip that felt like a fucking steel band. And the smell!

Well, you know all about that.

That dude smelled like something left dead on the road under a hot sun, even though it was cold. And when I looked into his moonlit face from a kissing-distance away I saw just how sharp and black his teeth were and I was suddenly truly, fucking scared. Far more than I’d been only a moment before. I didn’t understand how he moved like that. Worse, all of his buddies were off the ATVs and around us in a close circle like they were all waiting for a turn.

And they were, right then. All waiting for Raul to take his piece. He sniffed me real close. He knew before then, but he was making a show of it. He did a little pout.

“She’s muggle, every bit. Nothing special about her.”

I brought my hands up and pushed against his chest but I might as well have tried to push the mountain aside. “Whatever. I’m sure you find lots of women riding a mountain bike from Canada to Mexico.”

More snickers all around. Raul tilted his head. “We’re in Canada now?”

“Yes, don’t you know where you’re at?”

Raul stared at me. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with the guy, how he moved that fast, why his teeth looked like they did or why he smelled so bad. The rest stank too and I was starting to feel sick from it.

“I told you, I’m riding the tour divide from Canada to Mexico, so it sounds like we’re going opposite ways. Why don’t you get the hell out of my way and we’ll call it good.”

“Why?” Raul asked softly.

“Why what?”

“Why should we let you go?” The others all snickered more. “We could have fun with you.”

“Thanks, I’ll pass. Now let me go.”

Raul leaned in closer. I didn’t know what he meant to do but he was fucking freaking me out. So I did the one thing I could do. I lifted my can of bear spray that I had right there in my hand, on my bike and gave him a shot right in the eyes and mouth from inches away.

He howled! The sound split the night, and he flew back away from me. In the process that fucker scratched my back. I felt it tear, four long scratches that cut right through my jersey but I didn’t stop to worry about it. I was on that bike and I took off riding.

Snow flew from my tires and I got going. I was flying along that mountain side as if it was nothing but a smooth paved multi-use trail like that Woodland trail right down there. Or at least it seemed like that for a few minutes.

Then there was a tree down across the trail ahead of me. Not the first, or the last. I barely saw it in the dark and sort of braked and slid down the side of the mountain. I actually slid underneath the tree like I was going to slide under and pop back up on the other side. That would have been cool but that didn’t happen. I didn’t make it all the way. My head hit the tree and I was going so fast that it snapped my neck in an instant. I didn’t even know I was dead yet when I slid out the other side with my legs twitching on the pedals like I was still riding.

Being undead sucks. Being an undead ghoul really bites.

Yeah, very funny.

Raul and his buds thought my accident was hilarious. I don’t know about you vamps, but the change for ghouls happens pretty fast. You rot. I mean there I am, newly dead, and my skin bloats, the stink comes out and I started looking as nasty as something lying dead on the hillside for a week. My neck bones reset themselves at least.

See that’s the thing about us ghouls. We’re tough. We look and smell like shit, but there’s not much that can take us down.

Raul showed me that right off. Tore my jersey to shreds along with the skin underneath just to prove a fucking point.

But you know what happened then? He made the mistake. He told me that my only hope to look normal was to eat other supernatural critters. Humans might help for an hour, but there were other things out there that would make me look alive and human for days at a time. Maybe even weeks, but those sort of targets were dangerous.

Or I could hang out with them and just pick off anyone unfortunate to cross their paths.

I had another idea.

I thought I’d be squeamish about it, but it’s instinct. I went for Raul first. Ghouls are tough but I wasn’t just any old ghoul. They hadn’t considered that. Idiots.

Some might call that cannibalism. I called it justice. Maybe I’m deluded, but it felt that way at the time. I packed away extra nibbles and had myself enough to finish the whole Tour Divide race all the way down to Mexico. What I found there is a whole other, and much longer story.

Now, now. Don’t even think about trying to get away.

2,558 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 33rd weekly short story release, finished in January 2012.

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases 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 also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. For October I thought I’d focus on scary stories, and next up is Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same.

Trailer Park of the Dead Things

The call on Stefan Roland’s supernatural tip line describes the Willow Lane trailer park as haunted and terrifying.

It’s possibly the only opportunity for Stefan to revitalize his Dead Things series of films.

The whole gang comes back for one more shot at filming dead things before the Inquisition sweeps in to cover it all up.

Assuming they can get out alive!

1

The call on Stefan Roland’s supernatural tip line described the Willow Lane trailer park as haunted and terrifying. Leaning forward to look out the van window, Stefan agreed, but probably not for the same reasons as the caller.

Out of habit he pulled back and checked himself in the side mirror. At fifty-three he still managed to look good for the camera. Or good enough. He had that sort of Peter Jenkins look these days with his hair mostly gray, but he stayed in shape. When you had a reputation for filming zombies the last thing you wanted was to be huffing and wheezing on camera when you tried to get away. He straightened his bright red tie and straightened up in time to see his driver and cameraman, Craig Marshal grinning at him.

“What?” Stefan asked. “I have to look good when we shoot this.”

Behind his sunglasses Craig raised an eyebrow but remained silent as he steered the van around a child’s bike abandoned in the road. Roan Collins stuck her head up between the seats, still sporting the same spiky blond hair she had back in the days when they’d gone to Afghanistan to film War of the Dead Things. She looked more or less the same, actually more tanned with a few lines around her eyes but he wouldn’t dare mess with the petite sound wizard.

“Shoot what?” she asked. “This place is a dump. I can’t even believe that we’re doing this.”

Stefan shrugged. “I thought we all agreed that we needed another film. We can’t ride on the royalties from the first three forever. People want something new.”

“But this?” Roan grabbed the seat backs as Craig stopped the van in front of one of the trailers. A hand-painted sign out front read ‘Manager’. “We haven’t gotten anything better from the tip line?”

“No. These days the Inquisition swoops in too fast. They’ve usually got the witch in custody before we ever hear about it.” Which was part of the reason he hadn’t put out a new documentary in twenty years. That and after Afghanistan he had needed years of therapy. Not to mention the book deals, talk circuit and merchandising.

Craig spoke in his deep voice. “Then why aren’t they here? If there’s anything to this, shouldn’t they be all over it?”

“When I talked to the manager he said that they did send out a team and nothing happened while they were around, but he said it has started up again since then.” Stefan popped open his door. “Come on, grab your gear and let’s go talk to him.”

Craig and Roan exchanged a look before she disappeared into the back. Craig climbed out of the driver’s seat to follow. Stefan got out of the van and shut the door behind him. It felt good to have the team back together, out in the field. A cool breeze blew dry leaves around his feet that sounded like whispers and smelled like rain. He looked up at dark clouds massing overhead. Hopefully it’d hold off on the rain until they got set up, but it would make for some good atmospheric shots later.

The Willow Lane trailer park looked run down and worn out, but not really haunted. None of the trailers looked new and some looked dangerous. The one to the right of the manager’s had cardboard duct taped up over a broken window with big pointy shards of glass still dangling from the frame. More glass reflected light up from the weeds around the trailer. Moss and branches from the willow trees littered the roofs of the trailers. Garbage bags, boxes, kids toys and cars crowded around the trailers. He heard the van door open and walked around the front of the van, barely missing a pile of dog crap on the tiny patch of weedy grass around the manager’s sign. At least he hoped the crap was from a dog, it was fresh enough to smell, but he couldn’t shake the disturbing thought of some dirty child crouching to dump beside the sign as a prank.

 

Craig and Roan had their gear sorted when he reached the other side. These days Craig still had his height but he had put on more weight over the years. Like Stefan his hair was mostly gray now, but he wore it longer.

“Let’s do a quick intro,” Stefan suggested. “Do we have the wireless recording set up?”

Roan gave him that look that said he had dared to question her abilities. “Everything is transmitted back to the van and recorded. The system checks out.”

“Okay.” Stefan grinned. “You know me and new technology. Ready?”

Craig adjusted the camera. “Sure, any time you’re ready.”

Stefan glanced back and positioned himself in front of the willow tree leaning over the manager’s trailer. “How does it look?”

Craig gave him a thumbs up.

“Roan?”

“Ready.”

“Okay, on three, two, one.” He smiled for the camera. “Welcome to Willow Lane, a simple trailer park home to hard-working people just trying to get by, and just possibly, a witch. I’m Stefan Roland and I’ve made it my life’s work to document instances of witches waking dead things. From our rural countryside, to our malls, all the way to the deserts of Afghanistan, my team and I have traveled the globe to bring you the true stories of the behind these horrible events that the Inquisition doesn’t want you to see.”

Stefan walked a few steps closer to the trailer’s front door. “We’ve received tips that this seemingly peaceful trailer park is haunted by a dark force unlike any we’ve seen before. We’re here to uncover the truth.”

The front door opened and a man stepped out. At least he thought it was a man. There was enough white hairs on his chin to suggest a beard, but he was also fat and wore bright purple sweat pants and a stained pink sweat shirt. White hair stuck out in all directions on his head like pictures of Einstein. Stefan couldn’t have timed it better. He walked quickly toward the small porch.

“Hello? I’m Stefan Roland. Are you Pete Larson, the manager?”

“Yep, that’s me.” Pete grinned and pointed a finger at Craig and Roan. “Are you filming this?”

“Don’t worry about the camera,” Stefan said smoothly. “We film everything. Most of it never ends up in the actual movie. When we’re done we have to go back and edit it all together to make the documentary. Do you mind if we come inside, so you can tell us what’s been happening?”

“Sure, sure.” Pete turned back to the door and pulled it open, hinges creaking. “Come on in.”

Stefan looked back at the camera. “Let’s go find out about the haunting of Willow Lane.”

The porch steps sagged beneath Stefan’s feet when he stepped up to join Pete on the small porch. When Stefan got up close to the manager he smelled like dirty gym socks and fried chicken. It wasn’t only stains on the front of Pete’s sweat shirt but also bits of breading. Stefan breathed through his mouth and stepped on into the trailer. Given Pete’s appearance he expected a mess but it wasn’t all that bad. He went right into the small living room, which held furniture that would have looked at home on the curb with a cardboard ‘free’ sign. A kitchenette occupied one corner of the room but there weren’t even dishes piled in the sink. A small mini-fridge was tucked away beneath the counter. A big bucket of KFC sat on the battered and stained coffee table and the smell of fried chicken was even stronger. Stefan’s stomach growled, but the thought of eating held little appeal at the moment. Still, the place wasn’t actually messy. The lack of some sort of disarray made Stefan wonder if Pete hadn’t cleaned up specially for their visit. He turned back around as Craig came in with the camera, followed by Roan.

Pete let the door bang shut and shuffled in behind Roan. Stefan noticed Pete watching Roan’s backside and hoped, for the manager’s sake, that she didn’t catch him checking her out.

“Thank you so much for talking to us,” Stefan said. “How about we sit on the couch?”

“Sure, sure.” Pete brushed the front of his sweat shirt. “Should I change? Sorry, everything was dirty. Today’s laundry day but I haven’t had a chance yet.”

“It’s fine,” Stefan said. “We want to capture real life, here. I want you to feel comfortable.”

Pete beamed and dropped down onto one end of the couch. Stefan went over and sat on the other side, his arm along the back, and tried to project an air of relaxed interest. “Okay, Pete, whenever you’re ready, can you tell us about what has been happening in Willow Lane?”

Stefan heard a low groan. At first he thought it came from Pete, but the manager’s head turned and looked toward the hallway. Stefan leaned forward. “What was that? Is there someone back there?”

Pete wrung his hands in front of his chest. “No. I live alone.”

The moan came again, low and drawn out, like someone in pain. Or possibly pleasure. Stefan motioned for Craig to turn the camera. Craig did, filming Roan as she moved into the hallway entrance. She held up her mic, her head turned slightly to the right. Her left hand adjusted the controls on the equipment.

“What have you got?” Stefan asked.

“Someone’s in the bedroom,” she said flatly.

“Not ‘un,” Pete said. “See, that’s what’s going on! Stuff like that!”

Stefan stood up motioning for Pete to stay on the couch. He went around the coffee table to stand behind Roan so he could see down the hallway. With the light off it was dim, the room at the end darkened with closed curtains.

Another moan. The hairs on his arms and neck rose up. His mouth seemed dry. He swallowed. “Well, let’s take a look. That’s why we’re here.” He held his hand out to Craig. “Flashlight?”

Craig pulled a small Maglite out of his pocket and handed it over. Stefan twisted it on. The tiny dot of light danced along the walls.

Roan reached over and flicked a light switch. The light in the hall above the front door came on. “You get to go first.”

“Thanks.” Stefan turned the flashlight off and slipped past Roan.

“Don’t mention it. You’re the on-screen personality.”

He took a step forward and another moan rose out of the bedroom. It sounded like someone in pain. He made himself walk down the short hall, past a bathroom, to the bedroom.

“What is it?” Pete called out.

Stefan didn’t answer. From the hall light he couldn’t see anything. He slid his hand in along the wall and found the bedroom light switch. He flicked it up. Nobody there. A queen-sized bed with a dark blue bedspread covered the mattress. Other than a dark wood dresser beside a closet with mirrored doors, there wasn’t anything in the room. He turned back around to face the hallway and the camera.

“I don’t see anything in the room. Pete, do you mind if we look around?”

“That’s fine!”

Stefan went in and walked over to the closet. He really didn’t want to pull that open and see what was inside, but the camera was watching. He slid the door open. No zombies jumped out. Mostly the closet held empty clothes hangers, and a closet organizer with multiple pairs of shoes ranging from worn out sneakers to black dress shoes. Nothing that could have created the moaning noise.

“There’s nothing here.” Stefan closed the closet and moved over to the dresser. It felt wrong to dig through Pete’s stuff, but if the manager wasn’t going to complain, he wanted to rule out a prank.

It didn’t take long to pull out each drawer. Socks, underwear that Stefan wasn’t going to touch, some sweaters and in the bottom drawer stacks of Penthouse magazines. Stefan looked up at Craig after he closed that drawer. “Cut that when we edit.”

He went over to the bed and got down on his hands and knees. He grabbed the bedspread and suddenly froze. He really didn’t want to lift it up and find someone staring back at him from beneath the bed. What if Pete had tied up someone and hid them under the bed?

Stefan chuckled. “I hope there’s nothing under here.”

“Wait, let me shoot it,” Craig said.

Stefan waited until Craig got the camera down in position and gave him the nod, then he lifted the bedspread. Nothing. Not unless dust bunnies had started moaning. Stefan saw Roan’s sneakers over on the other side of the bed. As he dropped the bedspread she started walking back around the bed. He climbed up.

“What were you doing over ther—”

“What?” Roan asked behind him.

“Holy fuck!” Stefan jerked back from the petite sound technician. She was standing over by the closet. “No way.”

Craig brought the camera up. “What?”

There wasn’t anyone else in the room.

“We’ve got to play that back,” Stefan said. “Did you see the feet on the other side of the bed?”

“Yeah, I thought it was Roan.”

Roan grinned. “I haven’t been over on the other side of the bed, guys.”

“What’s going on?” Pete called from the other room.

Stefan shook his head. “Okay, I’m convinced there’s something going on. Let’s go finish talking to Pete, he’s got a vacant trailer for us. I want to play back that footage and see if we caught anything on tape.”

They all went back out the living room. Pete looked up from the bucket of KFC he cradled on his lap. “Want some chicken?”

“No thanks.” Stefan went back to the couch and sat back down.

“What’d you see?” Pete asked. “Was there something there?”

“We don’t know. We’ll have to review the footage. Pete, tell us what’s been happening in Willow Lane.”

Pete’s big shoulders rolled. “Weird stuff like that, noises, things happening. One time last week I heard my trailer door open. I always lock it. I’m like compulsive about it, you know? But I heard the door open and someone went into the bathroom. I heard that door close. I got up and asked who was there, but they didn’t answer. When I turned on the lights I went into the hall and I was so scared I thought I might pee my pants, but there wasn’t anyone there. Then I really had to pee but I didn’t want to go into the bathroom but I didn’t have any choice.”

“Is it only here, in your trailer?”

“No! I’m getting pestered all the time by people with weird shit happening. I don’t know what they think I can do about it, but I’m the manager so they think I have to do something. People tell me that stuff has moved around. Pets have disappeared. Things have gotten broken. I think it’s because of the cemetery.”

“Cemetery?”

“Yeah, it’s on the other side of the trailer park, been there for a long time. I think that’s why we’re getting haunted. Some of the dead folks are restless, coming over here and making trouble. That’s what I told the inquisitors that came. They said they’d look into it but nothing strange happened while they were here.” Pete looked back at the hallway. “I don’t know if I want to sleep back there with something strange going on.”

“Whatever it was, it seems to have stopped,” Stefan said. “On the phone you said that you had a trailer that we could use during our investigation?”

“Yeah, old Mrs. Kunkle’s trailer. They carted her off to hospice two months ago but no family showed up to take care of the place. I cleared out the fridge, just so things didn’t spoil in there, but all the furniture and stuff is still there. There’s soups and stuff in the cupboards. I don’t know who is going to take care of it, so I don’t think anyone would mind if you use it. Plus she was a real nice lady so I don’t think she would haunt it or anything.”

“Okay.” Stefan turned and smiled for the camera. “It looks like we have a haunting to investigate. Thank you Pete Larson, manager of Willow Lane trailer park.”

“You’re welcome,” Pete said.

2

Mrs. Kunkle’s trailer smelled of lilac, medicine and dust with just a hint of mold. She obviously enjoyed collecting dog figurines since the dusty ceramic figures filled shelves in each room of the single-wide trailer. Her trailer was larger than Pete Larson’s with a full kitchen, larger living room and a much bigger bathroom. Craig moved from room to room working on setting up cameras, just in case whatever was going on came back to this trailer too.

Stefan and Roan sat in the living room. Looking around at Mrs. Kunkle’s living room, the dozens of ceramic dogs, and the dried up spider planet on the window sill, it made him sad that no family had come forward to take care of the place. Who would turn out if he died? Would Craig and Roan clear out his studio apartment? They were the closest he had to family. He had the die-hard fans, of course, but that wasn’t the same thing.

“When did we become ghost hunters?” Roan asked.

Stefan shrugged. “Ghosts, zombies, what’s the difference? They’re all dead things.”

“Yeah, but ghosts don’t do us any good if we can’t catch them on film.”

That still bothered him. The first thing Craig did when they got back to the van was use the portable player to take a look at the bedroom recording. The video they’d shot under the bed didn’t show any sneakers on the other side of the bed. But both he and Craig had seen it, he was sure of that. Without it on camera he looked like an idiot reacting to something that wasn’t there. Likewise Roan’s playback of the audio didn’t show any of the moaning that they had all heard. She thought she might have more luck when she got the recording back to the studio and could really take a look at it, but playing it straight back they only heard their own voices. Once again making it look like they were trying to stage the whole thing.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and the witch will wake the zombies in the graveyard next door.”

Roan swatted at his arm. “Don’t even joke.”

Stefan laughed. “Who said I was joking? If we can’t record ghosts, we need something else.”

Craig came back into the room. “Cameras are set up. If anything moves during the night it’ll trigger the motion sensors and turn on the cameras.”

“Good job.” Stefan gestured to the recliner at the end of Mrs. Kunkle’s glass-topped coffee table. “Have a seat. I’ve ordered a pizza.”

Craig dropped into the chair. “Excellent. Better than Afghanistan, at least.”

“Yeah,” Roan said dryly. “I haven’t gotten shot yet.”

“What’s the plan?” Craig asked.

“We see if anything happens tonight, and tomorrow we start interviewing the residents. I want as many stories as we can get. Let’s keep our eyes out for anyone that might turn out to be the witch behind this.”

“You think there is a witch behind this?” Roan asked.

There was a knock at the door. Stefan glanced at his watch. “Under thirty minutes. Not bad.” He got up and looked down at Roan. “And yes, I do think there’s a witch involved.”

He went to get the food.

3

A loud crash woke Stefan. He sat up in the dark, his heart hammering in his chest. Had he —

Crash!

It sounded like something hit a wall and shattered. He threw aside the covers and sat up. On the other side of the bed Roan stirred.

Crash! Crash!

“What the hell?” She sat up too.

“I don’t know.” Stefan reached over for the lamp and felt rather than saw something fly past his head. He flinched as whatever it was smashed into the wall right in front of him. Tiny sharp fragments peppered his face as he dove back onto the bed.

Roan yelled in alarm.

From the other room Stefan heard Craig call out. More crashes, in rapid fire. Something hit his shoulder! He grabbed the object, recognizing by feel one of Mrs. Kunkle’s ceramic dogs. “Under the covers!”

He lifted the blankets and dived beneath. On the other side Roan copied him and from somewhere produced a small Maglite which she turned on. They looked at each other in the light while above the blankets more ceramic dogs shattered on the walls. Roan started giggling. A second later Stefan joined her. He held out the ceramic dog that had hit his shoulder. An English bulldog about the size of a baseball. His shoulder still throbbed.

“Not hardly a bullet it, but it still hurt,” he complained.

Roan laughed harder.

Stefan reached out and took her hand. “Thanks for coming.”

She grinned. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

The barrage slowed. A few more crashes and then nothing. Roan sat up more beneath the blanket. The flashlight pointed up at her face like she was about to tell a spooky story. Except they were in the middle of a ghost story right now.

“Do you think it’s over?” she asked.

“Only one way to find out.” Stefan pulled back the blanket, ready to duck back beneath. Nothing flew out of the dark at him.

Roan shown the flashlight around. “Holy shit!”

Even though he expected it, there was something horrible about the dozens of ceramic dogs lying shattered to pieces on the floor. Pieces marred the walls where they had been hit. No wall was left unmarked and the entire floor was covered in sharp shards of broken canines.

There was movement and a shape in the doorway. Stefan’s breath caught in his throat and Roan let out a little squeak as she pointed the flashlight at the shape.

Craig shielded his eyes. He was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and sneakers. A few scratches on his chest beaded with blood. “Are you guys okay?”

“I think so.” Stefan moved his arm. “One of them hit me.”

Craig looked at the bedroom. “I guess she didn’t like sharing her trailer after all.”

Stefan reached over the side of the bed to find his shoes. He shook out pieces of the dogs and pulled them on. “Let’s check the cameras. I hope it caught this!”

It did. Fortunately the cameras survived the incident, although one had gotten knocked over by a flying poodle. The three of them sat around the portable monitor watching the replay from the camera facing the bedroom. Stefan bit his knuckle watching the scene. Even unedited the night vision footage was chilling. The dogs shot across the room as if shot from a gun to explode on impact.

Roan made a disgusted snort and flopped back on the couch. He couldn’t believe it.

“What’s wrong?”

“That!” She shook her hand at the screen. “Who is going to believe that? With the night vision and everything they’re going to say it was all rigged.”

“We can prove the video wasn’t tampered with,” Craig said.

She shook her head. “Anyone with a brain watching that will assume you used filaments to pull the figurines across the room!”

Stefan shook his head. “There are dozens of figurines in that shot, plus the ones out here. It wouldn’t be easy to rig that.”

“I’m telling you it won’t matter.”

It was a sobering thought. Craig stopped the playback. “I think you’ll change your mind when we get this back to the studio. It’ll look better.”

“Not good enough.”

Craig’s jaw tightened. “I’m not offering you advice on sound recording.”

Roan got up. “I’m going to find a broom and get some of this mess cleaned up. Unless you want to take more pictures?”

“No, I’ve already got it.”

She left and Stefan looked over at his cameraman. He trusted Craig’s opinion, but he couldn’t discount what Roan said. “You could both turn out right.”

Craig surprised him by nodding. “Yep.”

“It’ll work out,” Stefan said. “We just move ahead with the plan. Get the interviews, see what else we can record. When we have enough footage then we call the Inquisition and turn over copies. We film them in action and then we’ve got another movie. Everything documented and verified.”

It had to work. They all needed another successful documentary in the series. This was his retirement plan.

Craig stood up. “Sounds good to me, man. I’ll give Roan a hand.”

While Craig went into the other room, bits of ceramic dogs crunching under his sneakers, Stefan hit the play button on the camera. There wasn’t any sound on the playback. He watched the blankets moved as he and Roan took shelter. She’d been scared, that’s why she was acting all pissed. The ghost or whatever force was here scared her. He rubbed his jaw, feeling the rough beginnings of a beard. He was already up, might as well get started figuring out what he was going to ask the residents today.

4

Willow Lane held twenty trailers and so far Stefan hadn’t found any really credible witness. They had great footage of half-literate types saying that they’d seen stuff move around in their trailer. A window or door opened or closed. One lady had a boxer that kept barking at a particular corner in her trailer, but he wouldn’t do it on camera.

Trailer eighteen, a double-wide trailer with flowered curtains and rose bushes growing in a small flower bed beside the porch. It almost looked out of place among the other trailers in Willow Lane. Stefan consulted the list that Pete Larson gave them this morning of resident names.

“Helen Richardson, lives alone. Pete said she gets lots of guests.”

“You know what she does,” Roan said, grinning. She was in a better mood since breakfast.

Stefan got the nod from Craig and walked up the three steps to the porch. He rang the doorbell and heard it ding dong inside. A dog barked somewhere inside, its voice deep and raspy. There were footsteps and then a woman opened the door, leaning out to look at him. She was something. Long legs that ended in a small blue jeans miniskirt, and a fuzzy white tube top that showed off her bare midriff. She wore way too much blue eye-shadow and her hair rose up in sculpted waves. Stefan’s eyes stung from the cloying scent she wore. Big red lips parted into a man-eating smile.

“Hey handsome, what’re you doing here?” She looked at Craig and Roan standing at the bottom of the porch with her equipment. “Hey! Are you like from publisher’s clearinghouse or something? Did I win a ton of money or something?”

“Helen Richardson?” Stefan asked.

She looked him up and down then reached out and ran one hideously purple fingernail down his tie. He resisted the urge to swat her hand away. “That’s me, honey. So what’s the story?”

“I’m Stefan Roland, the filmmaker? Farm of the Dead Things?”

Helen laughed and clapped her hands together. “So you are! Shit, I’ve seen that movie! That was really good. I’ve watched them all! I didn’t know you were still making movies!”

Stefan tried not to wince. “I’m here because of reports of strange things happening here in Willow Lane. Have you noticed anything odd happening? Things moving on their own? Doors or cupboards opening and closing? Anything like that?”

“Honey, are you going to put me in a movie?”

“It’s possible,” Stefan said, although at the moment that was the last thing he wanted to do.

Helen pressed closer to him and it was a struggle not to hold his breath. “Heck, if you’re going to put me in one of your movies then we’d better get a lot better acquainted. Why don’t you all come inside and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Really? So you have seen things?”

Helen winked at him then tugged on his tie. “Honey, I’ve seen everything. You can’t surprise me, and heck yeah, I’ve seen some weird shit around here.” She covered her mouth. “Oops. Can you say shit in your movie?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Stefan said. “We’ll take care of all of that sort of thing.”

She laughed. “I’ll bet you will. Probably put in a beep or something, am I right?”

“It’s possible.”

“Come on.” Helen held the door open. “Inside with you.”

Stefan walked into the trailer. Craig and Roan followed him up the steps and inside. They came into a linoleum section between a living room on the left and a dining room on the right off the kitchen. An arched entry on one side of the living room must lead on down to the bedrooms and a bathroom. Beneath the over-powering scent of Helen’s perfume he smelled something else that stunk, a hint of rot or decay. The whole place was a disaster area. Clothes were scattered around the room, draped over furniture and piles of newspapers. Everywhere he looked there were more newspapers in stacks. Half of the dining room table was covered with more papers, and just trashed all piled up on the table. From where he stood he could see dirty dishes in stacks on the counter, and piled high in the sink. This was what he had expected when he first went into Pete’s place, but that was spotless compared to this trailer. And it had looked so nice on the outside.

Helen headed back to the kitchen, her red pumps clicking against the floor.

“Can I get you anything?” She called over her shoulder. “I’ve got beer or wine, if you want.”

“No thanks,” Stefan said. “We only have a few quick questions.”

“I’ll get you a beer.”

Roan handed the equipment over to Stefan. He took it as her hand went to her mouth. Her eyes watered. “Sorry, got to go. I’ll, uh, check the equipment in the van.”

She bolted before Helen came back. As the door banged shut behind her Stefan heard retching noises outside. He slung the strap over his shoulder as Helen walked back holding a couple beers in her hands.

“Did someone leave? Or was that just the door banging on its own again?” She held out a beer to Stefan.

“Thanks.” He took it, and set it immediately down in a tiny clear patch on the coffee table. A fly buzzed up away. “She needed to check on our gear.”

Helen shrugged and smiled at him. She raised her beer can and took a drink without ever taking her eyes off his. “So you came all this way about some little noises out here?”

“We thought we’d check it out. Do you think the place is haunted?”

She laughed. “Honey, what place isn’t haunted? Plus we got that big ‘ole cemetery out back. Seems to me there’s bound to be a few things going bump in the night.” She grinned. “If you know what I mean.”

That wasn’t a thought he even wanted in his brain. “What can you tell us about the —”

The dog started barking again, its voice scratchy and harsh, somewhere back in one of the other rooms. Stefan heard nails scratching and then the clear sound of a door opening. Claws rattled on the hard floor of the hall and the dog ran out right at him. Craig moved smoothly out of the way, still filming the whole thing.

The dog skidded to stop a few feet away and lowered its head. Stefan’s gut tightened up at the sight of the dog. Some sort of mutt, maybe a Rottweiler mix. It was mostly black with brown on the paws and muzzle, but its fur looked greasy and unkempt. It barred yellowed teeth at him. Worse of all was the look in its flat eyes, almost like it had cataracts and couldn’t quite see him. A deep growl rumbled out of its throat.

Helen came to his rescue, stepping in front of it. She stamped a foot down and pointed. “Get back there! Get! How dare you fucking come out here and growl at my guests! Go on! Get!”

The dog’s heavy head turned her direction and its lips raised higher. The dog’s tongue vibrated in front of its teeth.

Helen cocked her head to the side and stared back at the dog. Stefan couldn’t believe it. He felt frozen, expecting the monster to leap on her any second. And what was he going to do?

The dog staggered, its growl cut off. A whimper crawled out of its throat. Just like that the tail dropped and it turned quickly around, feet slipping on the floor, and ran back into the hallway. Helen looked over at Stefan and smiled.

“Just a sec, honey. I’ll lock him back up. I swear sometimes I think he stands up and turns the knob himself. That door never wants to stay shut!”

Her heels tapped on the floor as she went back to the other room.

“Stay the fuck in there!” She yelled.

Stefan heard a door slam. Craig looked at him, eyebrow raised. The stink in the place was giving him a headache. He started thinking of an excuse to leave when Helen came back, taking a swig from her beer.

“Okay, sorry about that. I think Chuckles is upset today.”

“Do you need to take him to a vet or something? We could come back another time.”

Helen waved her hand. “No, hon. Don’t worry about that dog. He hasn’t been himself lately, that’s all. It’ll pass.”

Not himself? Stefan decided to try again. “Let’s start at the beginning. We’re talking to folks in the park about strange things that some people have noticed. How about you? Anything happen here?”

“Honey, I specialize in strange. Just ask my daughter!” Helen laughed. “I need a cigarette. Why don’t we go in the dining room? We can have a seat and I’ll tell you what’s going on.”

The idea of sitting around that filthy table disgusted him but Stefan forced a smile onto his face. It couldn’t get any worse than it already was. Actually, if she started smoking the cigarette smoke might help cover up some of the other stink. He could already feel the headache coming on.

“Okay.” Stefan motioned to Craig to follow. “Let’s go sit down.”

Helen didn’t move until he got gloss and then she pressed herself up against him, intertwining her arm around his. She leaned close. “You’re even better looking in person.”

He smelled the beer on her breath, even through her perfume. He was totally going to shower after this interview. No way he was going through the rest of the day smelling like this woman. In the dining room he pulled out the chair at the less cluttered end of the table for her.

“Such a gentleman,” she said and laughed. She picked up a pack of cigarettes and tapped one out. She extended it to him. “Want one?”

He raised a hand. “No thanks.”

Helen shrugged and pulled one out. She slid it slowly between her red lips and used a lighter on the table to light up.

Craig moved around by the kitchen counter to get them both in the shot. Helen blew out a cloud of smoke at Stefan. He struggled not to cough. She pointed the cigarette at Craig. “Do we have to have that camera on? I thought maybe you and I could have a private chat, off the record, you know?”

That was interesting. Stefan looked at Craig. They’d worked together long enough that Craig understood what he wanted when he said, “No problem. Why don’t you put that down and take a break?”

“Sure, boss,” Craig said. He put the camera on the counter, shoving some glasses out of the way.

The shot wouldn’t be quite as good, but it’d work.

Stefan leaned forward. “Okay, Helen, whenever you’re ready?”

“That’s off?”

“Yes,” Stefan lied.

Craig pointed his thumb at the door. “I’m going to go check on Roan, make sure she’s okay.”

“Sure,” Roland said, keeping his eyes Helen.

Her smiled widened, a predatory, chilling grin. He smiled back. Craig left quickly. When the door banged shut the dog started barking again back in the bedroom.

“We’re alone now,” Helen said. “I like that. It gives us a chance to get better acquainted.”

“How about we start with what’s going on? I get the feeling that you’ve been avoiding the question, you know what’s happening don’t you?”

Helen took a long drag from her cigarette and glanced into the kitchen. She looked back at him. “Sure I know. I know all about it. Seems to me we can help each other out.”

“How’s that?”

“You’ve got connections. Seems to me that if you make a movie about me, I should get something out of it. That’s only fair isn’t it?”

Stefan interlaced his fingers. “Is this movie about you? Are you saying that you’re behind what’s been happening here?”

A fly landed on the table near his elbow, a big fat black fly. It jerked and toppled over. The legs twitched one and stopped. Helen lowered her cigarette and pressed the ash and glowing tip into the fly’s fat body. Stefan smelled a sharp stink and a thin column of smoke rose into the air. She lifted her cigarette off the charred body and took another drag.

“I don’t mind flies,” she said, smoke pouring from her mouth. “A lot of people don’t like them, but they’re just doing their thing, you know?”

The fly twitched. Its wings buzzed against the table. Stefan jerked away in surprise. After a couple attempts the fly righted itself and took off buzzing into the air. It circled his head. He swatted at it and missed.

More flies rose up from the dishes in the sink and took to the air.

Stefan looked at Helen watching him coolly. “You’re doing that? You brought that fly back to life?”

“That’s right honey, I can wake dead things. Sometimes it happens all on its own. It’s like I’m full of static electricity or something and they just start doing their thing again like someone put new batteries in them.”

He heard a glass move in the kitchen, sliding across the counter, but when he looked he didn’t see which of the dirty glasses had moved. “Was that you too?”

“Nope.”

He let that go for the moment, but he was glad that Craig and Roan could watch what was happening from the van. “So what are you going to do with this ability? Aren’t you afraid of the Inquisition?”

Helen shook her head. “That’s where you come in, honey. I’m gonna raise me a whole big flock of dead things. More than anyone, more than that big woman you filmed. And I’m not gonna be stupid about it either. I’ll raise ‘em up and people are going to have to start paying attention to me. The Inquisition won’t do nothing.”

“They’re pretty effective at what they do. I don’t know if you’d want them showing up.” Stefan didn’t dare look at the camera but he hoped that Craig and Roan were paying attention. “At least not until we have everything ready.”

Helen’s smile broadened. “See, that’s what I’m talking about!”

More dishes clinked together in the kitchen. The dog barked back in the bedroom. The air felt charged and the flies flew in faster circles around the table.

Helen leaned forward. “Honey, we’re going to make a fortune together! Just wait and see. Once I get started they aren’t ever gonna stop me. You can put me on TV, can’t you? Get me on the news?”

“Yes.”

A dish fell off the counter and shattered on the floor. Stefan tried not to looked startled. He forced a chuckle. “But maybe we’d better dial back until we’re ready?”

Helen took another long drag on her cigarette and blew out the smoke. “What’s wrong? You’re scared?”

“I’m just wondering what’s going on?”

“Nothing but some itty bitty little ghost in a tizzy.” Helen glared at the kitchen. She caught him looking too and laughed. “You’re not gonna see him. Not unless you’ve got the gift too.”

“I don’t see anyone.”

She waved the cigarette, tracing smoke circles in the air. “There you go. That’s why you need me. See, what I figure is we stir things up around here. I know some people that have been a pain in my ass, I wouldn’t mind scaring them in the process, and then we bargain with the Inquisition.”

“Bargain about what?”

“Whatever I want! It’s about time that people like me got the respect we deserve. Instead we’ve got the Inquisition running around burning out people’s brains! It isn’t right.”

He wasn’t going to argue the relative merits of the Inquisition. As far as he was concerned, since it shed its religious affiliation a long time ago to become a secular, international police force designed to protect people from those with paranormal abilities, he didn’t have a problem with it.

She wouldn’t want to hear that. “I don’t think they’ll listen me.”

“What choice do they have? If we’ve got hostages they won’t have any option.”

“Hostages? Helen, maybe you should rethink that plan.”

She waved her hand. “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry about it. You put us on TV and they aren’t going to do anything that might get the poor people of Willow Lane killed. That’s all you have to do. Then we’ll be the ones in control.”

Stefan decided to try again to convince her to cooperate before this thing blew up. “Helen, don’t you think that taking hostages and making demands just reinforces the Inquisitions’ mandate? People aren’t going to cheer for you if I put it on TV, they’re going to be cheering for the inquisitors to put a bullet in your brain!”

Helen took a long drag on the cigarette. Her hand shook. She just sat there looking at him. The combined odors from her kitchen, her perfume and the cigarette smoke was making his head pound. Back in the bedroom the dog started barking again. Helen turned her head and looked at something he couldn’t see, then her eyes slid back and fixed on him. It was the same look he’d seen in the dog.

“You lied to me.” Her words came out flat and cold.

Stefan stood up fast enough that the chair tumbled back with a crash to the floor. The dog’s barking took on a new level of ferocity. Then he heard it chewing on the wood of the door. The camera moved and Stefan lunged without thinking. He grabbed it and hung on. It felt very cold to the touch. Some unseen force pulled it but he clung to it and when whatever had a grip on it let go he stumbled back. He tried to keep it turned toward Helen. Flies buzzed around his head but he ignored them.

She started panting.

Stefan hoisted the camera up, but backed up. He tried to distract her. “What are you talking about?”

Helen grinned and at him, her face taking on a skull-like appearance. With her eyes open wide she lowered the cigarette to the pale underside of her arm and pressed it to her skin.

She screamed at him. Stefan nearly jumped backward but held his ground. The smell of her singed flesh mingled with the rest of the odors in the place. She clawed at her own arms, her purple nails leaving long welts of bloodied flesh as she panted and screamed. There was a loud thud in the bed room, and the crack of wood breaking.

Stefan backed quickly to the front door. Helen screamed over and over in quick succession, clawing at her neck, and ripping at her hair. There was another thud from the bedroom and a louder crack of wood followed by the sound of teeth ripping and cracking the wood further. He turned the camera down the hall and saw the dog’s head burst through the door. It looked at him with maddened eyes and struggled to pull itself free.

He moved faster, getting the hell out of there, but unwilling to stop filming. Helen reached down and clawed at her inner thighs, screaming all the while, but her cries were changing, turning to deep moans.

Stefan grabbed the door and yanked it open. He almost tripped stepping out and the strap of the recording equipment slid down his arm. He caught it and hurried down the steps. His heart pounded so hard in his chest that he worried about a heart attack. Wouldn’t that be perfect? Dying right outside of the witches’ trailer?

A long yowl of protest on his right made him jump. It came from a trailer beside Helen’s where a decaying leg pushed through a hole in the siding around the base of the trailer. Claws extended from the bony paw.

She was waking dead things. The air seemed thick with flying specks. Bugs, he realized. All of the dead flies, bees, moths, mosquitoes, gnats and nits were up and moving again. The air was filled with their buzzing as they flew around him. He ran through the park to their van outside Mrs. Kunkle’s’ trailer. Craig and Roan jumped out as he got close and ran out to meet him.

“Holy shit!” Roan reached him first and took the recording equipment. “That was intense! You’ve got a way of pissing people off, you know that?”

Craig accepted the camera back. “Thanks for grabbing it.”

Stefan tried to catch his breath and looked back the way he’d come. Beside all of the bugs flying around the place he saw bigger things too. Dead birds had joined the party. The whole mass of them swirled around the trailer park in a sort of funnel that reached into the sky.

“I think she’s a bit upset. Did you call the Inquisition?”

“Hell yes,” Craig said. “She’s as crazy as they come.”

Stefan heard a motor revving and a small four-door Volvo sped into the parking lot. It blasted past their van and went on around the loop away from Helen’s trailer.

“They’re in a hurry,” Craig said. “I wonder why?”

Roan swatted at bugs flying around her face. “Can we take this inside? I don’t like bugs, and I really don’t like dead bugs still moving around.”

“Good idea,” Stefan said.

They all piled into the van. Stefan got into the driver’s seat so he could keep an eye on what was happening outside. Craig went around and got into the passenger’s side with the camera while Roan got in the back and shut the door. A few bugs managed to get inside. Roan pulled out a fly swatter.

“I’ll get ‘em,” she said grimly.

“I already got the gear out of the trailer,” Craig said. “We’re good to go if we need to get out of here.”

Thwack! Stefan glanced in the back. Roan grinned. “Got one.”

A fly buzzed past Stefan and landed on the dash. It sat there cleaning its head for a second until Roan lunged forward between the seats and smacked it with the fly swatter. Another one gone. She flicked it off to the floor.

“Don’t worry, I’ll clean them up later.”

“We need to warn these people,” Stefan said. “If she wakes the cemetery this place is going to turn into ground zero with zombies.”

“It sounds like that’s her plan,” Craig said.

“So we’d better move.” Stefan dug the keys out of his pocket. “Stay alert. If you see anything zombies, shoot them.”

“Too bad we don’t have guns,” Roan said in the back.

“Funny.” He looked in the back. “You still got that loud speaker back there? Can you give the warnings?”

Roan grabbed a box of equipment and started pulling out components. “Sure. Go, I’ll have it patched in a second.”

Stefan started the van and pulled out, moving slowly forward to the next trailer. “Roan?”

“I’m good, keep going.” He heard a noise and glanced back and saw her wedging the loud speaker in the side window. She grabbed a mic and thumbed it on. “Evacuate. Attention, please evacuate the trailer park.”

Stefan kept the speed down under ten miles per hour while Roan repeated her warning. He saw people coming out of their trailers. Then he saw something that chilled him to the core. Past the trailers, through a broken and falling down fence, a crowd of people staggered toward the trailer park. Even from here he could see that they weren’t really people but zombies, dead things woken by Helen. Even after all these years he recognized the dead and they were coming. Now the people coming out of the trailers saw them too. A muscled guy with tattoos and a shaved head jumped on a Harley and gunned it out into the road right in front of the van, swerved and kept going.

“Evacuate now! The dead are coming. Attention, evacuate the trailer park!”

More cars pulled out ahead of them. A woman in a blue bathrobe came out of her trailer rubbing her eyes and holding a coffee cup. She squinted at the van.

“Yes you!” Roan shouted. “Look the fuck behind you! Get out now!”

The woman turned around in time to see several zombies crash through the fence not ten feet from her trailer. The coffee cup tumbled from her fingers and shattered on the porch. Then she darted back inside, slamming the door behind her. Stefan braked.

“What are you doing?” Roan asked.

Craig had the camera out the passenger window, filming the dead things converging on the trailer. Stefan heard their moans again and felt ill. More zombies followed the first three and soon there were at least seven dead things dressed in their funeral finery pounding on the side of the trailer. A window in the side of the trailer slid open and a shotgun barrel poked out.

Blam! The head of one of the zombies exploded in a spray of gore. The others continued pounding on the wall. The gun shifted to the side and with another loud crack a second zombie toppled to the ground.

“Yeah! You go girl!” Roan shouted in the loud speaker.

Several pairs of dead eyes turned to look at the van. Roan clicked off the loud speaker. “Uh, boss, maybe we’d better move.”

She got back on the loud speaker. “Evacuate! The dead are coming! Evacuate the trailer park!”

Blam! A third zombie fell.

Stefan gave the van gas and picked up speed around the driveway. Around the next corner was Helen’s trailer and he tensed up approaching it. Other cars were moving now. People were running away from the cemetery end of the trailer park. He saw Helen’s trailer and she was actually standing right there on the porch with her arms spread and her head thrown back. She’d ripped off her top and stood bare-chested, with more welts crisscrossing her front. Her tits sagged without support but she had what looked like teeth marks on both. Self-inflicted? Stefan gave the van more gas and it picked up speed.

The idea of ramming her with it flitted through his mind. No more witch, no more dead things walking around.

He rejected the idea. Let the Inquisition deal with her. They’d do what they could for the people in the park. Zombies gathered near Helen’s trailer, looking up at her with dead gazes. The whole time Craig filmed the scene.

Stefan drove the rest of the way around Willow Lane and joined the stream of cars, pedestrians and cyclists getting the hell out of the park. It looked like most of the residents had opted to flee. He hit the street and drove north a half-mile before pulling over when he saw sirens and lights approaching.

“We’ve got to go back and get this on film,” he said. “Or we don’t have an ending.”

Craig grinned. “Just like old times.”

“You’re both crazy.” Roan grinned. “Count me in.”

Police cars blasted past them, heading to the trailer park. And right behind the police came several black SUVs with the red pin stripe that identified them as Inquisition vehicles. Stefan got out and hurried around the van to the sidewalk. The others joined him.

His mouth felt dry as he started back. Inside he felt sick, like it was all his fault. Was it? Had he goaded her into doing this? He pushed the thought away. Helen was crazy. Whether her ability made her that way, or she became crazy after it he didn’t know. Sooner or later she would have lost it, if not today than some other time.

Down the road was chaos, but the police and the Inquisitors were already getting the situation under control. Stefan waved to the others and picked up his pace. They made it back as the police started putting up barricades. Zombies staggered out of the trailer park into the street.

One of the zombies, who looked like a forty-something guy in a suit, stepped right out in front of an old green Volkswagen Beetle pulling over to the side of the road in between the police vehicles. The driver obviously didn’t see the zombie in time and hit it. The dead thing tumbled down to the road.

The passenger side opened and a young man got out. He looked back at the police cars and then down at the fallen zombie. Cries rang out from the trailer park evacuees watching but he didn’t listen.

Stefan willed the man to stop. He could see the confusion on the guy’s face. They’re driving along and suddenly there’s all these people and police and they’ve hit someone. He tried to do the right thing and ran over to the fallen zombie.

It felt like time stopped. People were crying out, no! Sirens still rang out. Over by the barricades Stefan saw men in deep red suits with black ties, inquisitors, moving past the barricades with weapons in their hands.

No one could reach the guy in time.

The passenger bent down over the zombie, not realizing that the zombie was already dead.

The zombie grabbed the passenger and yanked him down, going for his throat. Stefan was too far away, there was nothing he can do to help. He couldn’t hear the sounds but in his head he imagined the meaty tear as the zombie tore skin and flesh, chewing and eating its way into the guy’s throat in a spray of hot blood.

A crowd of zombies shuffled out of the trailer park. Stefan heard screams. There was movement in the Beetle as the driver leaned across the car and yanked the passenger door closed.

Stefan looked at Craig and Roan. Their faces were set as they recorded the scene. Right now there wasn’t anything he could do. Later there’d be things for him to say, interviews to record. For the moment he couldn’t do anything except watch.

The inquisitors moved forward, eight of them, shooting zombies in the head with deadly accuracy.

5

Stefan stood in front of the barricades facing the camera when they brought out Helen. The inquisitors had her in cuffs, wrapped in a blanket. A bloody bandage was wrapped around her leg.

“They’re bringing her out now, Helen Richardson, the witch of Willow Lane. It appears she’s been injured, we’re told that she was shot attempting to flee the scene. According to the laws regarding individuals with paranormal abilities the Inquisition will evaluate her and determine whether or not her abilities can be safely removed. Until such a time she will remain in their custody.”

Stefan turned and watched as they bundled her into the back of one of their vehicles. No ambulance, no trial. Most likely they’d burn out the part of her brain responsible and, if it was determined that she was no longer a threat, she’d end up released but likely with significant brain damage. He couldn’t really say that he felt bad about that either.

He noticed the others looking at him. “That’s it. I’m done. This is my last one. I’m retiring.”

Craig nodded. Roan came over and slipped an arm around his waist and gave him a squeeze. Stefan felt better, lighter somehow. Maybe now he could rest.

9,272 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 21st weekly short story release and the fourth 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. Stefan Roland returns to the series in Killing Dead Things.

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 new  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 in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Attack of the Sand Gnomes, a fantasy set in a different world.

Mall of the Dead Things

In 1969 Stefan Roland made history with his documentary on Glenda Barker, the witch that raised dead things in Farm of the Dead Things. The film showed the dangers fought by the Inquisition.

Now a tip takes Stefan and his team to an upscale neighborhood to investigate the possibility of a dead thing.

This time dead things have woken in a city and he faces terror for a second time.

The Tomas Dias Story

Stefan Roland stepped out of his van onto an unblemished sidewalk beneath a bright sunny afternoon blue sky. No weeds or trash littered the sidewalk. The adjoining lawn was a perfectly mowed swath of green between the McMansion and the sidewalk. And next to it was another perfect house with popup sprinklers spraying water over another perfect lawn. The whole neighborhood looked flawless, except for the police cars parked across the street with flashing lights just ahead.

The van’s side door slid open and his camera man, Craig Marshal, jumped out with his new camera already on his shoulder. Tall and muscular, Marshal had the build of a long distance runner. He wore a black t-shirt and jeans. Even his sneakers were black. Right behind him Noah Crane climbed out of the van carrying the sound gear. Crane was the most colorful of the three with his tie-dyed shirt, beads and a wild head of ginger curls. The three of them had already made history filming dead things with the Glenda Barker incident, now maybe they’d get a chance to repeat that earlier success.

Stefan smoothed his suit, brushed lint off the dark navy fabric and straightened his tie. He resisted the urge to touch his hair, knowing he’d mess it up more. As the on screen personality of the team appearance mattered. “Let’s do a quick setup. On three. Two. One.”

“I am Stefan Roland, reporting from the once peaceful neighborhood of Westfield Spring, now disrupted by reports of the dead coming back to life. We’re here to see if there are any truths to these rumors.” Stefan paused and then looked at Crane. “How do I sound?”

Crane said, “Good boss.”

Marshal shut the sliding door.

“Let’s go.” Stefan headed down the sidewalk toward the police barricade and the crowd already growing near the car.

As Stefan got closer to the scene he started picking it apart. The cops moved with quick professionalism. They had barricades up, crime scene tape across the road behind the two police cars. Their seriousness told him that this was something real. His pulse picked up. The call on his tip line didn’t say much. Only that there was a dead thing at loose in the neighborhood, but so many of those tips ended up being someone in make-up shambling down the street as a joke. Maybe this time was different.

The crowd also looked serious. The people wore mostly designer clothes. Parents held their kids close and the crowd spoke in hushed whispers. No one tried to challenge the police barricade. That told him something too. What was on the other side of the barricade that had everyone so scared?

Stefan led the way over to the right side of the police barricade. A young officer, her hair pulled tightly back into a sandy blond bun, sunglasses hiding her eyes, stepped in front of him. Marshal and Crane positioned themselves to film the encounter.

“Please stay back, sir.”

“Can you tell us what is happening?”

He saw her look at his team, then back to him. “There’s a domestic disturbance, we have the situation under control.”

“A domestic disturbance? I was told that there was a dead thing on the loose.”

 

Her lips tightened. He noticed the sweat beading on her brow. Finally, with a glance at the camera, she smiled slightly. “As I said, sir, we have the situation under control. Please stay back.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”

Stefan backed away from the barricade and headed over to the crowd. If this panned out he’d want to do some interviews, but not right now. He needed something more than interviews with bystanders and cops manning the barricades. He needed footage of the dead things. The guys followed him over past the crowd.

A tall, gawky sort of guy in a blue polo shirt stepped away from the crowd into his path. Out the corner of his eye Stefan saw the guys move to film and record the discussion. “You’re Stefan Roland, you made that movie about the dead things. Do you know what’s going on here?”

Stefan said, “That’s right, sir, what’s your name?”

“Conner Grant. My wife and I live just over here.” Grant pointed at a light blue McMansion just this side of the police barricades. “Are there dead things loose in the neighborhood?”

“We don’t know, Mr. Grant. What have you been told?”

“Nothing. We saw the cars and the crowd and came out to see what was going on, but people are talking about a zombie.”

“Just one?”

Mr. Grant turned and pointed to a sixtyish woman with her hair in short gray curls standing to one side of the crowd. “Mrs. Tremblay said that she heard there was a zombie a few houses down. At Mrs. Donohue’s house, but the police haven’t said anything.”

“Thanks,” Stefan said. “We’ll try to find out what is going on.”

He led the others away from Grant, up across the sidewalk and onto the Grant’s lawn. From this angle they had a good view of the crowd. Stefan gestured at the crowd. “Grab some footage of the crowd, try to get some statements. I’m going to want to look at it later, see if there’s anyone we might want to interview.”

“Sure boss.”

Marshal and Crane moved off together until they were right up against the crime scene tape as Marshal filmed the crowd’s faces. Stefan edged backward toward the Grants’ front door. He moved slowly, not wanting to draw any attention to himself. There wasn’t much to see at the moment but most of the crowd was focused on each other and the police. A few noticed the guys filming and crowded around for the off-chance that they might get on TV. Casually Stefan turned and walked right up to the Grants’ door. He didn’t look back, just went to the door, opened it and went inside.

The Grants’ house looked like something out of a catalog of fine home furnishings completely with a darkly stained side table against the entry wall, a chandelier hanging above the foyer and a staircase that curved up to the second floor. He didn’t waste time but went straight on through, down the hallway and through a door at the end into the kitchen. The kitchen was big with lots of polished marble countertops and gleaming wood cabinets. Modern appliances all caught the light. It really could be a catalog house. He didn’t see anything out of place but he did see French doors that opened out onto a deck, that’s what he wanted. Stefan hurried over and went on out onto the Grants’ deck.

From that vantage he could see into the neighbor’s backyards. Two houses down he saw the cause of all the disturbance. The house was more or less a mirror of the Grants’ house, except done in a pale yellow color. That house also had a deck, painted a deep green color, and beyond that a picture perfect if dull lawn graced only by a plain bird bath at the center. More interesting than that was the zombie that stood in the yard. It was an old woman in a pale blue bathrobe, pink bunny slippers on her feet and spatters of blood down the front. She wasn’t doing much at the moment, just shuffling slowly around the bird bath. He needed Marshal to get it on film. Stefan hurried back inside, through the Grants’ house, to the front door. He eased it open just an inch and peeked out. Everyone was turning away, looking down the road at the approaching black sedan.

The Inquisition. He was out of time.

Marshal stood with his back to the front door as he filmed the approaching car. Crane stood beside him. Stefan slipped out and walked casually up behind them. He stopped right behind the cameraman.

“Come on, we’ve got to get inside,” he whispered.

Marshal didn’t jump or stop filming. He just started backing up the walk. Crane came up beside Stefan. “What’d you find?”

Stefan shook his head. “We don’t want to draw attention, come on.”

Stefan led the way, convinced any second that someone would stop them but it didn’t happen. The Inquisition car came to a stop near the barricade. Stefan slipped inside. Marshal stopped right outside and filmed the scene as the car doors opened and four inquisitors in their red suits with black ties, stepped out. Sunglasses hid their eyes as they surveyed the crowd. Stefan pulled Marshal inside and shut the door.

“If they saw the camera they’re probably going to investigate, we’ve got to hurry.” Stefan was already moving.

Marshal followed on his heels. “What have you got?”

“A zombie, and our chance to follow up on the farm film.” Stefan opened the French doors and ushered Marshal and Crane out onto the deck. “Let’s get a quick setup shot and then focus on the zombie.”

Stefan positioned himself at the deck railing at an angle to the camera so that Marshal could keep the zombie in the shot. “Ready? Okay, let’s go.” Stefan paused for two beats and then spoke to the audience. “Behind me you can see one of the most terrifying sights anyone can encounter, the dead risen from the grave. We don’t know yet who this poor unfortunate woman used to be, but it is clear that she is recently deceased. The fact that she walks suggests the presence of a witch, a necromancer, haunting this stylish neighborhood. The inquisitors have arrived, so I expect they will deal with this situation promptly. Let’s see if we can get a better picture.”

Stefan gave Marshal the nod and the cameraman moved closer to the railing and zoomed in on zombie. She hadn’t changed her shuffling path around the backyard. Stefan stayed ready for any commentary but let Marshal film. He saw movement in the house. It was Grant, coming through the kitchen.

“We’ve got company,” he announced.

Marshal backed from the railing to get the shot. Crane joined him. As Grant came through the door Stefan stepped forward. “Mr. Grant, thank you for joining us. You can see right over there, is the zombie. Do you know her?”

Grant looked, and his eyes widened. He gasped. Stefan knew that Marshal and Crane had to have gotten his reaction.

“Oh God, that’s Mrs. Donohue, what’s happened to her?”

“Has she been ill lately?”

Grant shrugged and then crossed his arms. “I don’t know. I mean she always seemed frail, but she was old, you know?”

“I understand —”

“Oh God! What are they doing?” Grant’s arm pointed.

Stefan turned away from Grant to look across the yards. The back door of the house had opened and the four inquisitors in blood red suits moved smoothly out into the yard, weapons in hand, spreading out to surround the poor dead old woman. Even at this distance Stefan heard her growl at them. Her fingers curved into claws and she started toward one of the inquisitors, the one closest to the house. The inquisitor fired. The shot took her in the head and a spray of blood and bone splashed across the bird bath. Mrs. Donohue fell back onto the lawn as the echoes of the shot died away.

The inquisitors gathered around her body then slowly put away their guns. One of them pointed at Stefan and the others watching from Grant’s deck. Stefan stepped up to the railing as Marshal and Crane fell back, leaving him standing with the horrified Grant.

“We’ve just seen the shocking necessity that faces inquisitors. When the dead walk what else can be done? I believe we’ll soon be able to ask that question?” Two of the inquisitors had gone into Mrs. Donohue’s home.

While they waited Marshal kept filming the scene in the backyard. The remaining two inquisitors stood guard over the body. A couple minutes later one returned with a black body bag. The other appeared in Grant’s kitchen and came out onto the deck.

He wore a the slick red suit, black tie, black gloves and shoes that signified the Inquisition, the secular police organization that had replaced the original that had gotten its start burning witches at the stake. This inquisitor had blond hair greased back. He reached up and took off his sunglasses.

“Mr. Roland, I’m inquisitor Hitchens.” He extended a hand.

Warily, but knowing that his crew was filming and recording the encounter, Stefan accepted the handshake. “It’s nice to be recognized, Inquisitor. How can I help you?”

Hitchens gestured at the scene across the yards where his companions had donned gloves and were sliding Mrs. Donohue’s body into the black body bag. “This is an ongoing investigation as we establish the person behind this incident. We trust that you will not attempt to interfere with our work.”

Stefan shook his head. “I don’t have any plans to interfere. If it is possible I’d like a chance at an interview?”

“Perhaps.” Hitchens smiled. “Although we plan to resolve this situation before it gets out of hand, as happened in Springwood.”

“People died there. Has anyone been hurt yet here?” Roland was thinking of the blood splatters on the front of Mrs. Donohue’s dress, the ones from before she was shot.

“The only casualty so far was a small dog,” Hitchens said.

“Button?” Grant asked. He flushed when they all looked at him. “That’s what she called her dog, a little black Pekingese. Every morning she was out walking that dog to poop on someone’s yard. She never picked up after it.”

“That sounds like the dog,” Hitchens said. “And as I’ve said, we have it under control.”

“Thank you, Inquisitor,” Stefan said for the camera. “I’m sure everyone in this neighborhood appreciates your efforts in apprehending the witch behind this latest incident.”

The inquisitor nodded. “If you’ll excuse me now?”

“Of course.” Stefan looked back at the yard. The inquisitors were carrying the body bag out of the yard.

He quickly moved to the railing and faced the camera so that the shot would get him and the inquisitors. “There you have it. An elderly neighbor dies and walks again, her beloved pet the victim of the horrid tragedy while the Inquisition searches for the witch behind this incident.”

Stefan paused and then nodded to Marshal. “Okay. That’s it. Let’s get a shot of them leaving.”

He turned to Grant and held out his hand. Grant took it and they shook. “Thank you, Mr. Grant, for your help.”

“Any time, sure. It’s horrible, what happened to poor Mrs. Donohue.”

Stefan nodded and released Grant’s hand. Then he went on past into the house with Crane and Marshal following. They went out through the house into the front yard. The crowd was buzzing with whispers as two inquisitors loaded the body bag and a bright red biohazard bag into the back of a black van that had joined them. The other two were questioning the crowd.

What was wrong with this picture? Stefan looked at the crowd. Beside the excitement some of the people were pulling away, drifting back toward their houses and lives. That was the problem. Everyone seemed to think that the trouble was over.

“It can’t be over,” he said.

Crane blinked. “What man? Why not? I mean they hauled her away, right?”

Stefan noticed that Marshal had turned the camera in his direction but ignored it. “Look, why would the necromancer only bring back that one dead thing? One old lady?”

“Maybe they’re starting small, you know? Or maybe that was an accident.”

Stefan shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Maybe that’s all there is, man. Maybe this time you won’t get a big movie out of it.”

Bang!

Stefan flinched. People in the crowd screamed. Marshal turned toward the crowd. A battered green pickup full of gardening equipment was pulling away from the scene. The driver stuck his arm out the window and gave a wave at the crowd. Stefan saw him as he went past, a young man with dark hair and sunglasses. He wore a dirty work glove on his hand. Stefan shook his head.

“The truck backfired.”

“Man, that wasn’t funny.” Crane said. “I about shit myself.”

“Hey,” Marshal said, waving his hand. “Look at this!”

Stefan turned and looked where Marshal was pointing. Down the road, past the crime scene tape, down past Mrs. Donohue’s house, right in the middle of the street, a woman was walking slowly toward the crowd. In the bright afternoon sunlight Stefan could see her clearly and despite the hot sun he felt chilled. Her collar bone showed through her left shoulder. Her hair lay plastered against her skull and she was dressed in a long black dress but her feet were bare. She walked with a faltering, shuffling step that he recognized.

“It’s another one,” Stefan said. Then he saw something else and the day seemed even colder.

She wasn’t alone. She was just first.

A short distance down the street another crowd was following her toward the crime scene. On the road, sidewalk and across the perfect lawns. Zombies, but they weren’t alone. Just like back in Springwood other dead things were with them. Stefan could make out a dog limping along on three legs. Something flat and furry dragged itself along the road. Finally he realized that he could hear something too, the moans and cries of the dead things. The sky behind the zombies was dark with things that flew, birds and insects. All dead and all of them heading this way.

Although his legs felt wooden Stefan made himself walk toward the zombies until he was in front of Marshal’s camera again. “Are we good?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Marshal said.

Crane didn’t move. He stood staring at the approaching dead things.

“Crane!”

Crane jerked. “Yeah, boss, good.”

Stefan took a breath. “Three, two one. Just as it looked like the Inquisition had the scene under control here at Westfield Spring we’ve seen the terrifying sight behind me. A whole flock of zombies and other dead things coming this way. We can’t stay here, but we’ll stay as close as we can to document this latest incident and hopefully locate the necromancer behind it.”

People started screaming. Stefan turned in profile so that he could see what was happening. The crowd and the Inquisition had noticed the flock now. People turned and ran away. Some went for cars parked on the street, or in nearby driveways. Others ran for the houses. Grant ran past him yelling.

“Melody! Melody!”

A blond woman came out of the crowd, clutching a small girl with blond curls. Grant ran to her and took the child. Then they ran together back over to their house, past Stefan. Grant hesitated when he saw them and stopped.

“Do you want to come inside?”

Stefan shook his head. “Get inside, lock your door. Close the curtains. Stay quiet. The flock will probably pass by if you don’t draw their attention.”

Grant nodded and ran off.

Stefan started down to the street as the crowd evaporated. A line of cars pulled out and drove away. The inquisitors stood at their car, Hitchens inside the driver’s seat talking on a radio. A crow dropped out of the sky screeching as it flew right at Stefan. He ducked just in time but smelled the stink of putrefaction as the bird flew past. Following in its wake he heard the buzz of flies and other insects.

“Back to the van!” Stefan headed that way with Marshal and Crane following. The inquisitors got into their car too. The flock was too large for only four inquisitors to handle.

At the van Stefan noticed something moving on the front. He went over to the front instead of getting in. A grasshopper, squashed and stuck to the front of the van was twitching and trying to free itself. Not only it, but several of the more intact bugs splattered across the front of the van, all of them were wiggling and trying to move. Marshal stuck with him and filmed the van. More flies and other dead insects buzzed around Stefan. He swatted at them.

“Let’s get inside.”

Marshal went around to the passenger side while Stefan went to the driver’s side door and got in. Crane was already in the back, shutting the sliding door when Stefan climbed in. The flock was getting closer. Marshal was leaning out the window filming the approaching flock. The inquisitors had gotten in their car and were turning around, following the van that held Mrs. Donohue’s body.

The flock was close enough that Stefan could see more details on the zombies than he wanted. Most looked like they’d been buried in their Sunday best. Suits and fine dresses, but now and then there were exceptions. A woman in a bloodied pink jogging suit looked fresh. The blood glistened on her skin in the afternoon sun. She must have run into the flock while jogging. She was near the front of the flock. Scattered among the zombies he saw decayed cats and dogs coming too. A clump of flies flew right at the van’s window, some landed while most flew on past.

When the lead zombies were only about thirty feet away Stefan started the van. Dead eyes turned toward the van. Zombies that had wandered from the road toward the houses changed their direction. Stefan felt the weight of all of those empty gazes on him. Or were they empty. The jogger looked right at him, her eyes still as clear as when she was alive. Was there something behind her eyes? Was it the necromancer? Something else?

“You might want to move to the back,” he said to Marshal.

He put the van into gear and pulled out, swinging a wide circle that took him closer to the zombies. Marshal pulled the camera back in and rolled up the window. Then he climbed into the back as Stefan drove. Knowing Marshall, he was still catching it all on film. The zombies cried out and moved after the van. Their moans and cries filled the air. Cats yowled and spit. The dogs barked and growled. Birds flew at the window.

“I guess we got their attention,” Stefan said.

As he finished the turn Stefan felt a breeze and the stink of rot and death blow into the van. He looked in the mirror. Marshal had the back window open so that he could film without shooting through the glass. Stefan kept the van’s speed down and drove slowly down the road in front of the flock.

“Can’t we go faster?” Crane asked, dropping into the passenger seat next to Stefan.

“Not yet!” Marshal called from the back. “This is great stuff.”

Stefan kept the speed down and watched the mirrors. Most of the zombies were slow, but they knew from experience that the fresher ones like that unfortunate jogger could move fast.

“As long as we don’t let them get around us we’re fine,” he told Crane.

Crane looked back. “I think we’re closer than we need to be, man.”

“We’re okay.”

Over the zombie’s cries Stefan heard a scream. He looked out at his mirror in time to see a girl, not more than seven or eight, screaming as she ducked and ran out of a dog house. She clutched a white fluffy dog that barked at the zombies. She was quick, and avoided the zombies’ grabbing arms right at the dog house, but there were more in front of her that turned around. The girl stopped, looking for a way past the zombies that surrounded her.

Stefan slammed on the brakes.

“What are you doing?” Crane yelled.

“There’s a girl.” Stefan opened his door and jumped out. The air stank of the dead things.

He heard the van door open and saw Marshal get out too and hurry around the van. Beside the camera he held a wood baseball bat that he tossed to Stefan. Stefan caught the bat and ran toward the zombies surround the screaming girl.

His heart raced in his chest. His mouth felt dry, but he couldn’t sit by and do nothing. Not this time.

The first zombie he reached was a gray-haired old grandmother with leathered skin pulled tight over her bones like an Egyptian mummy. Stefan gritted his teeth and swung the bat at the back of her head. She dropped to her knees and toppled over face-first onto the lawn. The dog yipped and barked. The girl screamed. Stefan swung the bat again, this time at a chunky man in a dirty suit. He hit the zombie’s arms and it grabbed at the bat. Stefan yanked it away and lifted the bat over his head and brought it down on the zombie’s skull. The bat made a dull crunching noise and the zombie staggered away, turned and fell over. The smell of rot and death stuck in his throat and threatened to make him gag.

Stefan reached for the girl. “Come on!”

She stopped screaming and ran toward him just in time to avoid the zombies behind her. A teen-age boy zombie, his face mangled and oozing came at Stefan, growling and barring his teeth. Stefan swung the bat and as if he was going to hit a home run, catching the zombie in the side of the head. The boy staggered but didn’t go down. Stefan turned and ran after the girl.

Marshal waved them on. The girl darted around the van but more zombies were almost upon the van. Crane was in the driver’s seat with his sound equipment braced in the window.

Stefan ran as fast as he could around the front of the van. The jogger in the bloodied pink sweats was right there and lunged at him. He got the bat up in between them as her head darted forward. Stefan shoved the bat and her teeth hit the wood. He heard a crunch and saw her front teeth break. She grabbed at the bat.

Stefan struggled to hold onto it. He spun her around and tried to shake her off. She snarled and came at him again. Stefan kicked her in the stomach, and she fell back, releasing the bat. He turned and swung it like a battering ram, smashing her nose and knocking her back more. She fell on her rear.

He ran on around the van. More zombies had reached the van and scrambled at the sides, but they hadn’t reached the passenger door yet. He got there, opened it and jumped inside, throwing the bloodied bat to the floor. Crane had already pulled in his gear and rolled up his window. Just in time as a zombie hit the glass. Crane yelped.

“Go!” Stefan yelled, slamming his door.

The door hit something. He looked and saw a hand in the door, with bright red polished nails. He opened the door and a dark-haired woman zombie snarled at him. A dark bullet hole pierced her temple. She lunged forward as he slammed the door again. This time her head was in the door. He opened it again and she staggered back. Stefan slammed the door shut and hit the lock.

Zombies pounded on the sides of the van. Their moans and snarls filled the air. Flies buzzed around the windows and a bird battered at the windshield. The dog in the back kept barking.

“Oh God,” Crane said, giving the van gas.

Right in front of the van the jogger launched herself at the van. It hit her and knocked her down. Crane kept going as fingernails scraped along the van. The smell of the blood and embalming fluids clogged Stefan’s nose. He felt ill and looked at his hands. Specks of blood and other bits stuck to his skin.

Crane shifted gears and the van picked up speed. They pulled away from the zombies and in moments had a clear road ahead. Crane’s knuckles were white on the wheel. Stefan looked in the mirror and saw the flock of dead things receding in the distance.

“Slow down.”

Crane looked at him. “What?”

“Slow down, you’re going to get too far ahead.”

Crane laughed.

“Seriously, man. Slow down.”

The van slowed. “More.”

In the back the girl had stopped screaming and the dog wasn’t barking anymore. Stefan opened the glove compartment and found a rag. He wiped his hands off and tossed the rag onto the floor with the bat. Then he turned and looked in the back.

Marshal was in the back, with the window open again, getting the camera ready. The girl sat on the middle seat with her knees up in front of her chest and the dog on her lap licking her face.

“What’s your name?” Stefan asked.

“Shelley.”

“I’m Stefan, that man back there with the camera is Craig and the dude at the wheel is Noah. We’re filmmakers. Was that your house, where you were hiding in the dog house?”

Shelley shook her head. “That’s where Patches lives. Mr. And Mrs. Pegg live there but they’re on vacation. I was just there to feed and play with Patches.”

Crane was still driving the van slowly down the street. Stefan tapped his shoulder. “Stop here for a minute.”

Shelley looked alarmed. “Why are we stopping?”

“I know it’s scary, but we’ll keep you safe. We just need to film the dead things.”

“Why?”

“That’s what we do, make movies about things that are happening. Even scary things like this. That way people know what happened here and hopefully can stop it from happening somewhere else.”

Shelley chewed her bottom lip for a few seconds then nodded.

“Where do you live, Shelley?”

She pointed ahead. “This way, closer to the mall.”

“Okay, that’s good. If it’s safe we’ll drop you off, we just need to see where the flock is going.”

Stefan heard sirens, and up ahead several police cars shot across this street on one of the side streets, lights flashing. “Looks like something is going on. The Inquisition must be mobilizing local law enforcement.”

“You think they’ll get the National Guard involved?” Crane asked.

“Probably. I don’t think they have the firepower to handle it themselves. And this might not be the only flock. Remember last time? If it works out the same we can find the necromancer if we just stay ahead of them.”

But last time wasn’t in a city. Stefan looked back at the flock, the crowd of zombies on the ground and the dark cloud of flying dead things in the air. This could go very bad. The lack of traffic they’d seen so far suggested that officials were closing off the affected area, probably evacuating people in the path of the flock. But they might not get everyone out.

Behind them the flock was getting closer. Stefan tapped Crane’s shoulder again. “Okay, move ahead, but stay about this distance from them. Marshal, is that good?”

“Yeah man, I’m getting some great footage.”

“I’d feel better if you were driving,” Crane said.

Stefan shrugged. “Okay. Stop, we’ll switch.”

Crane stopped the van. Stefan climbed in back. Crane moved over to the passenger seat and gathered up his sound equipment from the floor. Stefan crawled back into the driver’s seat.

“Everybody set?” Stefan looked in back. Marshal gave him a thumbs up, Shelley nodded. In the passenger seat Crane shook his head.

“I don’t know why I still follow you around, man. This sort of thing is messed up.”

Stefan grinned. “You like the fame.”

“That’s you, you’re the one in front of the camera,” Crane said.

“No, I just think people need to know about what is happening. It keeps people honest. And we can’t have a police force like the Inquisition operating in the dark. People need to know what they do.”

“So you’re doing this for your noble ideals?”

“Hey, I have bills too,” Stefan said. “But I could have found a nice safe career if that’s all I cared about.”

“They’re getting closer,” Marshal said from the back.

Stefan put the van in gear and drove slowly down the street, under ten miles per hour, just enough to stay ahead of the flock. A fly flew past his head and battered itself against the windshield. The buzzing irritated him, but he tried to ignore it. In the mirror he could see the crowd of zombies moving forward. The bugs and birds spiraled above them like a dark tornado of death. Either the houses on either side of the road had already been emptied or people were hiding because the flock kept moving forward.

In the mirror just then Stefan saw a garage door going up on a smaller red and white house. A blue convertible mini-cooper backed out of the driveway, being driven by a woman with bright red hair, right into a crowd of zombies. Birds and other dead things swirled down around the car. Stefan braked. The crowd swelled around the car. Over the sounds of the zombies he heard screaming. Shelley covered her ears, but that let Patches jump down onto the floor.

For a second Stefan saw the crowd of dead things fighting over something red and glistening and then they closed around it again. Patches stood braced on the floor barking at the back of the van where Marshal leaned out the window and filmed the tragedy. The crowd started to break up. Dark streaks stained the shiny blue paint of the car. A torn and bloody shape on the road stirred, one hand reached out and pushed as the newly dead woman struggled to rise. Stefan’s stomach turned at the sight. He looked back at his hands on the steering wheel and noticed a bit of blood in the creases of his left knuckle. The first time had been a fluke of sorts, just following up on reports of graveyard vandalism in Springwood. He hadn’t thought anything would come of it. And this time he had found himself hoping that it was the real deal and the dead things were waking again. He looked in the mirror. The panicked driver, she had to have been panicking to try leaving right then, got to her feet. Her shirt and both breasts were missing. Stefan felt his stomach tumble again and looked away from the approaching zombies. He gave the van gas and drove away.

“Wow,” Marshal said from the back. “That’s some intense footage, man. I don’t know if we can use that.”

“We’ll use as much as we can,” Stefan said automatically. He felt disconnected from his hands as he drove slowly down the road.

At the next intersection two police cars drove out in front of him with lights flashing. They turned and stopped in his path. An officer jumped out and waved him at the side street.

For once Stefan didn’t even mind. He waved and made the turn. Ahead, just down the block, the police had erected barricades across the road. More cars blocked the road behind the barricades. There was a gap big enough for him to slip through. Behind him the police cars swung into line and followed. Another block down the street he saw a school yard where there was obviously a staging area established. He saw a man in the bright red suit of the Inquisition walking into a tent.

As he passed the barricades a tall black officer motioned for him to roll down his window. Stefan stopped and did as he was asked.

“Hey,” the officer said. “You guys are lucky to get out of there. Go on to the school straight ahead.”

“We picked up a girl, got her out in front of the zombies, can you help get her home?”

“Yeah, yeah, all evacuees are processed at the school. Get going, we’ve got to close this up and hope those things don’t turn this way.”

“Right.” Stefan pulled on ahead. He drove slowly, watching for pedestrians, and saw the cop cars pass the barricades behind him, then turn and block the road. The police reestablished their barricade and lined up facing the road. Over the rooftops he could see the swirling mass of the flying dead things. It wouldn’t be long before the flock reached the intersection. Would they turn, or go on straight ahead? He expected they’d go straight on unless the police did something to attract their attention. But it was hard to say, particularly since they didn’t know what the necromancer behind this wanted.

He stopped the van. Shelley picked up Patches and held him tightly. “Marshal, Crane, go ahead and get out. I’ll come back after I drop off Shelley at the school.”

Crane gave him a look like he was crazy or something but Stefan looked right back at him. Marshal didn’t show any hesitation. He opened the sliding door and jumped out, slamming it shut behind him. Crane sighed and got out as well. Marshal slapped him on the back as they walked back toward the barricades. Stefan twisted around and could see the cloud of dead things spiraling closer.

He looked back at Shelley. “We’ve got to get you to the school, you’ll be safe there until the police can get you back home.”

“Why is this happening?” Shelley asked.

“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” Stefan said as he drove on.

He pulled up to the curb in front of the school and climbed in the back to let Shelley out. She jumped down.

“Thanks!”

“Don’t mention it,” Stefan said, grinning. “Get inside now, over there.”

He settled back into the driver’s seat and watched until he saw a couple EMTs hustling Shelley and Patches inside. Then he pulled out and drove back to the blockade. He parked back far enough that the van wouldn’t get in the way and went to find the guys. He found them up front, on the left side of the barricades where they could get a good shot.

“She okay?” Crane asked.

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s do a spot on this man, I want to see what happens when they get here.”

It wouldn’t be long. The cloud of dead things spiraling above the flock was behind the nearest house now. Stefan positioned himself in the shot, but left Marshal a clear view of what was coming.

“We’re at a road block along the route that the zombies are following. The intent appears to be to keep the dead things contained, presumably until more assistance arrives. The big question that has to be on everyone’s minds at the moment is whether or not the flock will turn down this side street threatening the brave officers at this blockade or if it will continue on in the same direction as before.”

A murmur went through the crowd. Stefan saw officers tense and weapons were pointed down the street. The first zombie came into view at the intersection. It was the woman that had driven the mini-cooper. She walked with a long stride, out-distancing her killers. Was she still trying to get away? Her head turned and she looked down the street at the blockade but she didn’t stop.

More zombies shuffled into view behind her. The numbers swelled and grew until it looked like a fun run in slow motion. Above the zombies flew the cloud of dead birds, flies and other dead things. Stefan saw dead cats and dogs among the zombies, how many family pets had clawed their way up out of the ground for this?

The police all waited, weapons trained on the dead things. Given the size of the flock Stefan didn’t figure they’d have much luck holding them back if it turned.

None came toward the barricade. They spread out some in the intersection but then kept going down the street. Stefan looked back to the camera.

“It appears that the flock has another destination in mind. We’ll follow and see if we can figure out where they are going.” He held for a two count and then nodded to Marshal. “Let’s get back in the van and try to get ahead of this.”

The police were busy, evidently with the same idea. A couple patrol cars and one unmarked sedan pulled out and headed down the street parallel to the one used by the dead things. Stefan and the guys got in the van and followed.

Stefan drove past the school, following the cops in the unmarked sedan. There was a barricade up at the next intersection but the cops there let them pass through, probably unsure if they were part of the convoy or not. The cops went on up to the next cross street where there was another barricade and pulled in. Stefan kept his speed down and drove on past.

The neighborhoods changed around him. The expensive houses gave way to an older neighborhood with a cracked road and no sidewalks. The houses were smaller and more often than not the lawns looked less than perfect. Now and then there was a home better cared for than the others, but those were the exception. The road curved around back toward the main road being used by the flock of dead things. Stefan expected a blockade and wasn’t disappointed. He stopped as he rounded the corner and saw the police cars up ahead. At that end of the street the houses gave way to businesses, some in remodeled houses, and a Shell gas station stood on the corner, cop cars taking up the lot.

Crane looked at him. “Why are we stopping?”

Stefan leaned forward on the wheel. “The cops aren’t going to let us past onto the main street, but there might be another way around.”

Marshal popped up between the seats and pointed off to their left. “There’s an alley over there, behind that tanning parlor.”

“Right.” Stefan started the van again and rolled on down the street. The cops were busy at the barricades. He managed to reach the alley before anyone noticed him, then as he turned one of the officers turned around and saw them. Crane gave them a wave and Stefan kept going.

“Let them chase us if they want,” Stefan said.

The van bounced along the rough dirty alleyway behind the convenience stores and shops laid out in a strip along the road. Big blue dumpsters narrowed the alley at regular intervals. After a couple blocks they reached the end of the alleyway and looked down across an empty street at the newly constructed mall. Three long wings spread out with massive peaked, glass roofs surrounded by a sea of parking. Most of the parking spaces were empty but Stefan saw a truck he recognized.

“Look.” He pointed at the truck. “That’s the same gardener’s truck that pulled away from the barricades back where Mrs. Donohue was found.”

Marshal brought up the camera and shot through the front windshield. “What do you think, boss? Is that the guy behind this?”

Stefan put the van in gear. “Could be, the flock is coming this way. We saw that last time, they were coming to the necromancer.”

“Let’s go check it out,” Marshal said.

Crane groaned.

Stefan pulled out into the road. A couple blocks further down on the left was another police barricade but he went right. Far down the road ahead he could see another barricade, but it was well past the entrance to the mall. It looked like they planned for the flock to come here and had evacuated the area. Which meant it couldn’t be long before reinforcements arrived. He drove around down the ramp into the mall parking lot. If the police or the Inquisition wanted to get them out of the area they could come make them move. He cut right across the lot and pulled in near the green pickup. They all piled out.

Stefan turned and shaded his eyes with his hand as he looked back the way they’d come. The dark swirling cloud of dead things marked the approaching flock, but it wasn’t alone. To the west there was another, similar cloud of dead things. He pointed to the second flock.

“Look there, more dead things.”

Marshal turned the camera and shot the oncoming flock. Stefan gave him a few moments to capture the footage.

“Can we get both in a single shot?”

Marshal turned and pointed to a spot in the parking lot. “From over there, man.”

“Let’s do it. I want to catch that.”

They all hurried over to the section Marshal had indicated. Marshal walked backward, looking through the camera as he filmed the scene behind them. Up on the road Stefan could see the flashing lights of the police barricades. So far they hadn’t sent anyone down to stop them.

Finally Marshal stopped. “Here, this is good.”

Stefan went and stood in front of the camera where he thought it would put him between the two approaching flocks on the horizon. “Here?”

“Great, good, boss.”

“Crane, all set?”

“Yeah, man. Go for it and then let’s get out of here. I don’t want to be in this fishbowl when they start shooting.”

“We’re at the new Westfield Mall, apparently the target of not one, but at least two flocks of dead things approaching from the west and south, that you can see behind me. What looks somewhat like swirling storm clouds are actually masses of dead insects and birds circling above the shambling zombies. That puts us at ground zero. The police and Inquisition have evacuated the area and have set up roadblocks on the streets leading here. We suspect that the necromancer behind this incident has taken up shelter inside the mall. That green pickup parked next to our van —” Stefan pointed it out, “— was last seen leaving the scene in the Westfield Spring neighborhood. We’re going to try and get inside to see if we can find the person behind this.”

Stefan started walking back toward the mall. Marshal and Crane followed him. He walked quickly. Then he saw a patrol car coming around the east side of the mall with lights flashing. The siren whooped twice as it came their way.

“Come on!” Stefan broke into a run. He heard the guys running after him.

Behind them the siren sounded again and he heard the engine rev. Ahead on the top of the mall he saw several police snipers at the edge of the roof with rifles. He kept going. He didn’t believe that the snipers would shoot unarmed civilians. He reached the sidewalk in front of the mall and jumped up over the curb. He must have landed wrong because he tripped and almost fell. He laughed it off and kept going for the doors. He glanced back and saw the police car skid to a stop behind them.

“Hurray up!” He shouted to Marshal and Crane.

He reached the doors as the police climbed out of their car. “Freeze!”

Stefan grabbed the door, fearing it was locked, but it opened easily. He waved the guys inside. “Go, go on.”

Marshal and Crane both ran inside.

“Stop right there!” Both officers had their guns out, aimed at him.

Stefan lifted his hands and stepped back through the door as it swung in front of him. He winced, expecting gunfire to shatter the glass but the police didn’t fire. They lowered their weapons and one of them ducked inside the car to talk on the radio. Stefan turned away from the doors and went on into the mall. Marshal filmed him walking inside.

He smiled for the camera. “Well, I guess we’ll be safe enough in here.”

Elevator music played over speakers. Sunlight streamed down through three floors from the glass roof above and illuminated the trees and other plants that filled planters along the center of the mall. The shops showed signs of hasty departure, none of them had their gates down or locked. The air was cool, especially after the heat from the outside. The emptiness of the place was like a ghost town. Stefan walked deeper into the mall, followed by the guys.

“Hello?” he called out. “Is anyone here?”

Ahead was a wide food court area around some rather large cedars at the intersection of the three wings. Stefan smelled fried chicken coming from the KFC store on his left. His mouth watered at the smell. He laughed. “Anyone hungry?”

He turned in place and looked back at the entrance. The police car was gone. Stefan cleared his throat. “It appears that our friends in law enforcement don’t want to enter the mall themselves. Could it be that they are afraid of the necromancer? Let’s see if we can find the person responsible.”

Stefan decided to go straight ahead and walked through the food court. Food littered the tables, remains of hamburgers and fries, pizza, and even fried chicken. Walking past a bucket from KFC, Stefan really wanted to grab a drumstick but he resisted the urge. It wouldn’t look good on camera. The mall had three wings and three floors, it’d take time to search the whole place if the necromancer wanted to remain hidden. Longer than they had, before the flocks arrived and whatever the police and Inquisition had in mind happened.

“Hello? Is anyone here?”

Ahead, at Right Fit Men’s Clothing, a young man in a tux stepped out of the store brushing off his sleeves. He cocked his head and smiled at them. Good-looking, dark, with wavy black hair and shadowed eyes. He didn’t stray far from the front of the store.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice mild.

Stefan walked slowly forward. “Stefan Roland, I’m a reporter. You are?”

“Tomas Dias.” Tomas grinned. “You’re going to put me on TV, right?”

“That’s why we’re here. We want to let everyone know what is going on here.”

Tomas rubbed his jaw and nodded. He snapped his fingers and flashed white teeth at them. “Excellent. Yes, this is good. Man, people have to know, you know? With the war and everything going on people forget about what’s wrong right here.”

“You woke the dead things, the ones coming here?”

“Yeah, man. I did that. Only way to wake up everyone else too.”

“How did you do it? Bring them back?”

Tomas tapped the side of his head. “I hear them, you know man? Like whispering behind my eyes. They tell me things, important things. Secrets. They talk in the sleep of death. It only takes a nudge to wake them up.”

“Is this something you could always do?”

“No, man. A year ago I could not do this. I had nothing. But then things started to change. I’d get upset about something and that’s all it took. That energy, you see, it was enough of a nudge to do it. After that I learned to listen and to choose.”

“Why bring them here?”

“They’re going to tear this place down, man! All of this stuff that people think is so important, it’s coming down.”

“People have died out there,” Stefan said. “Did you mean for that to happen too?”

“No man,” Tomas bit his lip and suddenly looked angry. “Look, I warned them, you know? I told them what was coming. They were supposed to get everybody out.”

“So you don’t actually control the dead?”

“Only to a point, man. They’re hungry. Get too close and I can’t help you. You should all get out of here, they’re almost here.” Tomas fell silent. Then he scuffed shiny black shoes against the floor. “Aw, hell, man. Looks like you’re too late.”

And he smiled. A slick, gotcha sort of smile that raised goose bumps on Stefan’s arms. He heard them, then, the moaning and wailing of the dead things. A crow cawed and there was a buzzing noise that came from everywhere. Stefan backed away from Tomas.

Something moved in the store behind Tomas, and the ones next to that. It was flies, boiling out of the air vents. A cloud of dead flies that poured out of the stores and flew toward Tomas. Stefan ducked but the flies flew in a cloud around Tomas, not coming too close as they circled him. More poured over the railings on the floors above and streamers flowed through the concourse.

Far down at the entrance it looked like a crowd of sales-mad shoppers coming through the doors but Stefan knew better. It was the dead things.

Tomas still had that same smile on his face. Stefan turned back to his guys. “Upstairs, come on.”

“Run, run,” Tomas said. “You can’t escape the dead man.”

Stefan led the way to the nearest elevators and thought better of it before he pushed the button. If the Inquisition cut power to the mall they could be trapped but he couldn’t be sure that the zombies wouldn’t force the doors open. He pointed at a red door with a stairs symbol. “The stairs.”

With the sounds of the zombies and other dead things behind them, Stefan led the guys up the flights of stairs. He continued past the door on the second floor and on up to the third. Flies buzzed around the stairwell as they climbed. One nearly went in his mouth before he knocked it away. At the third floor Stefan pushed the door open and stepped out. Birds smelling of putrefaction flapped heavily past in front of him. He heard glass breaking below and a cat spit fury. Stefan walked right out to the railing and looked down.

The zombies hadn’t reached this section yet, but he could see them approaching the food court down the concourse and all manner of flying dead things filled the air in front of him.

“Boss!”

Stefan turned around. Crane was pointing at a sporting goods store nearby. “Good idea. Help Marshal record what’s going on, I’ll check it out.”

Crane looked like he wanted to protest but Marshal moved to the railing and filmed what was happening below. Crane joined him near the railing. While they recorded the incident Stefan went down to the sport goods store. At the front of the store he found the buttons to raise and lower the gate. He pushed the button to lower the gate and motors hummed into motion. The gate rattled and shook as it spooled down, a grid of metal bars that might keep the zombies out.

“Hey!” Crane cried out. “What are you doing?”

Stefan pressed the stop button with the bottom of the gate about three feet off the floor. “Just getting it ready in case we need to duck in here and close it. I didn’t want it to take very long if those things are after us.”

“Oh.”

Stefan waved at the concourse. “Keep recording!”

Crane turned back and held out the microphone. The cries of the zombies were clearer to Stefan’s ears now, and the smell of the place was deteriorating with so many dead things inside. He ventured deeper into the store and found a rack of metal bats. He took two and went back out to rejoin the rest of the crew.

He handed one of the bats to Crane. “Just in case. Marshal? Let’s do some commentary before things get out of hand.”

Stefan went around Marshal so that his back was facing the approaching zombies. He tried not to flinch as things flew past his head. He found himself twisting the bat in his hands so he tossed it over onto the floor beside Marshal’s feet.

“We’re in the Westfield Mall now, as are the flocks of dead things we saw approaching. At this time we have no information about the Inquisition’s plans to contain this incident. In our brief interview with Tomas Dias he said that he warned them this was coming, which gave them the time to evacuate the mall and surrounding neighborhoods. From the look of things he didn’t give them much time, we saw food left on tables in the food court, the stores are all open.” Stefan ducked as several crows came at him. He felt their wings and the stink of their decaying flesh. “We —”

The crows weren’t done. They came back at him, screeching and flapping at his face. He dropped to the floor and they went past. He looked up and saw them coming back, along with a large group of other birds and insects.

Stefan scrambled forward and grabbed the bat. “Go! Get inside!”

Marshal and Crane both ran for the sporting goods store. Stefan rolled to the side as the attacking dead things dove at him. Several of the birds hit the floor with soft thuds. He got to his feet and kicked one flopping jay away, then ran for the store himself. The dead things came back just as he reached the gate. He swung the bat and knocked several birds away but two crows got through and attacked his head. He felt a sharp stab of pain right beneath his right eye and flies crawling on his skin. Something stung his arms. Stefan knocked the birds away, brushed at his arms and then ducked down beneath the gate.

The motor kicked in. He saw Crane standing beside the button. The gate came down. Behind the gate were accordion glass doors which Marshal and Crane pushed closed as well. The dead things battered at the gate, insects crawled on the glass, but for the moment they were somewhat safe.

Stefan picked himself up. “Come on, we’ve got to cover the vents or more of those dead bugs will get in here.”

It didn’t take long before they had posters taped up over the air vents. The store was as secure as they could make it. Marshal stood by the front, filming what he could from the store. Stefan found some tissues and settled down back by the checkout counter to clean his wound as best he could. The stings on his arm, three of them, looked inflamed and hurt. Crane came back and sat next to him.

“That’s all I need,” he told Crane. “Stung to death by a dead wasp.”

If the stings were going to kill him it wasn’t going to happen immediately, but other things might.

“They’ve gotten upstairs,” Marshal called from the doors. “I can see some on the other side of the concourse, but more are coming this way.”

“Get back,” Crane said. “If they don’t see you they might not notice us in here.”

Marshal didn’t move. Crane got up and hurried over, leaving the sound equipment next to Stefan. He picked up the headphones, slipped them on and pointed the microphone at the front of the door. The tape was moving, it was recording.

Crane reached Marshal and grabbed his arm. “Come on, man. You have to get back!”

“No way,” Marshal said. “I want to get —”

A zombie shuffled in front of the store. He’d been fat once and had been buried in an pale blue suit but now it hung on him like sheets. The jacket was missing. Dirt and dark fluids stained the rest. What was left of his hair floated around his head. And yet his eyes looked right at Marshal and Crane standing at the door.

Did waking the dead restore withered flesh to some extent?

Stefan’s question seemed to answer itself as the zombie gave a wordless cry and threw himself against the mesh gate. He grabbed it and shook, howling in rage. Crane backpedaled until he hit a low table stacked with t-shirts. He tripped and went down on a knee and one hand. Marshal held his ground and kept filming.

The zombie’s actions had attracted others. Stefan saw a woman, no clothing to conceal her withered flesh. Her stomach hung open, a ravenous cavity beneath her ribs. Yet like the man in the blue suit her pale oozing eyes looked right into the store. She joined the first zombie in his assault on the gate and their cries became a continuous howl of rage.

Stefan pulled off the headphones and set them aside. “Maybe you’d better get back, Marshal. We’re attracting too much attention.”

For once Marshal did move back. He put a round rack of uniforms between him and the front and put the camera down on the flat top at the center, pointed at the door. Then he and Crane both came back and joined Stefan back at the counter.

Marshal put his arms on his knees and watched the two zombies at the gate. “What now boss? Wait for them to get bored?”

“I think that now we wait for the cavalry to arrive.” Stefan leaned his head back. “Not much we can do except wait.”

 

2

 

They didn’t wait long. Within the hour Stefan heard the first hard crack of a rifle shot. It echoed through the mall, momentarily replacing the cries and moans of the dead. More shots followed until they didn’t hear anything else except glass breaking on occasion. Marshal started to get up but Crane pulled him back down.

“Do you want to get shot?”

Marshal pulled away. “No, but I want to get the shot.”

“Marshal’s right,” Stefan said. “We’ve can’t sit here while the Inquisition or National Guard or whoever is out there shooting cleans the place up. We need to film it.”

“They might just shoot us!”

“I don’t think there are many zombies with cameras,” Marshal said.

Stefan grabbed his bat. “Or baseball bats. Let’s go.”

Crane came along with the sound equipment rather than be left behind. Since Stefan was only one semi-armed he went first and pulled open the glass doors. The two zombies at the gate renewed their efforts and several others turned to watch. Stefan positioned himself in front of the gate and nodded to Crane, standing over at button to raise the gate.

Crane hit the button.

The gate started to rise but the woman zombie held onto it. She bit at the links with her teeth and two fell out, clattering at Stefan’s feet. The motor whined but the gate kept rising and took her off her feet. The other zombie stepped back and watched her rising into the air. Stefan took advantage of the moment and ducked beneath the gate with the baseball bat held like a staff between his two hands. He ran right into the zombie, gagging at the smell and shoved the zombie backward. The woman zombie kept screeching behind him but so far hadn’t let go. Stefan kept shoving the zombie even as it grabbed at the bat. He pushed until it hit the railing, then jerked the bat free and it the zombie across the head.

It staggered.

Stefan crouched, grabbed the legs which slipped and squished beneath his hands, and lifted. The zombie flipped over the railing backward and toppled to the concourse below. A shot rang off the railing inches away.

“Don’t shoot!” Stefan shouted, standing with the bat raised in his hands. “Civilians! Don’t shoot!”

Down below soldiers moved through the concourse. He turned and saw more coming toward him on this level. Shots rang and two zombies that had been coming toward him fell with new holes in their heads. He heard a crunching noise and turned around as the gate pulled the zombie woman’s arms up into the slot where it rolled away. She kept biting it and several more teeth littered the floor. Crane was on his hands and knees by the doors, a puddle of vomit on the tile in front of him.

Marshal held the camera steady.

The gate pulled the zombie up, her arms crunching until her head hit the top of the entryway. For a second the motor strained and her head crumpled. A moment later the gate tore her free from her arms and the body dropped like a rag doll to the floor.

A figure in red walked past the soldiers, a gun in his hand. Inquisitor Hitchens. Stefan nodded to him and made a quick motion to Marshal who quickly brought the camera to bear.

“Inquisitor,” Stefan said. “Did you get Tomas Dias?”

For a second Hitchens just looked at them. Then he motioned to the soldiers and pointed at zombies further down the row of stores. When they were gone Hitchens put away his gun.

“Yes, Mr. Roland. The witch in question has been taken into our custody.”

“Custody?”

“That’s right. This isn’t the dark ages and we don’t literally burn witches unless there’s no other choice. Our researchers have worked out ways to burn out only that portion of the brain responsible for these paranormal outbursts. With time and treatment Dias may be rehabilitated.”

“That probably isn’t much consolation to the victims in the situation, both those injured or killed and the families of all of these poor dead souls.” Stefan gestured to the woman’s fallen body. “Instead of letting them rest in peace he woke them, disturbed their eternal slumber, shouldn’t he have to pay for that?”

Hitchens tilted his head slightly to the left. “What makes you think that he won’t pay for it?”

With that Hitchens turned and walked past them, following the soldiers.

Crane rejoined them. Stefan looked at the recording gear. “Tell me you caught that.”

“I did,” Crane said defensively.

Stefan nodded. “Great. Let’s get some closing shots of the bodies and then clean up. After that I’m going to go home and collapse on the couch with my dog. We’ll start interviews and editing tomorrow.”

Stefan walked over to the nearest fallen zombies. One was only a teenager, a young boy, but his body showing the signs of prolonged decay. Somebody’s son and grandson. Maybe a brother. One way or another, Stefan promised silently, he’d make people know what happened here all because of one bitter individual.

11,021 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 19th weekly short story release and the second 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 War of the Dead Things, the third of four stories that make up my Filming Dead Things collection.

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.