Hellbound Express; Chapter 3

For your reading pleasure, here is the third installment of Mel Odom’s Hellbound Express. If you haven’t yet read the first two chapters, here (chapter 1 and chapter 2) are the links for them. Enjoy.

Hellbound Express; Chapter 3

Wickham and the rest of Gant’s salvage crew moved around the vehicles strapped into place on the bi-level autorack. The railcar stank of gas fumes, burned oil, chemicals, and blood. Gasoline for the motorcycles, ATVs, and 4×4 pickup trucks was kept in all of the storage railcars, spread out so that not all supplies were lost at once. Solar-powered lanterns bounced against the car’s walls and lit up the interior.
No one talked as they performed the pre-drive checkups. Gant had trained them to focus. Conversations got in the way of noticing things that needed to be noticed, and soldiers—in this case, scavengers—died as a result.
After climbing to the second tier, Gant stayed low to keep from banging his head on the autorack’s ceiling and checked the motorcycle he rode while on salvage runs. The Hayes Diversified Technologies M1030M1 built on a modified Kawasaki KLR650 frame for the United States Marine Corps. Gant had ridden them on missions in Afghanistan, and when he’d gotten back stateside after his tour with special operations teams assigned to take down Taliban strongholds, he’d bought one like it in the civilian market.
This one came from the Fort Bliss marine corps detachment in El Paso, Texas. In the early days of the Yeomra devastation, Gant had traveled to the camp hoping he would find some sort of order in the chaos opening up around him. By the time he’d reached El Paso, though, it was evident no law or military command remained. He’d taken the Hayes motorcycle because it could get almost a hundred miles to the gallon on diesel or any other trash fuel he could find or make.
When he was finished ensuring the motorcycle was road-ready, Gant tapped the red, white, and blue diamond shape that contained a chief in profile on a white star background.
“Semper Fi,” he said softly to himself, but it was for all those he’d lost in the sandbox and at home. It was his promise to always remember, and some days he thought it was the only thing that kept him from feeling completely hollow. He stood and looked around the railcar.
All of the men and women he’d picked for his team stood ready and waiting.
Gant pulled on his helmet, wired the comm to the radio in his vest, and switched on the unit. A high-pitched shriek vibrated in his skull till he adjusted the squelch.
“Radio check,” Gant announced. “Zebra Leader, check-check.”
The confirmations came in as the train noticeably slowed. Tension showed on the faces of some of the men and women in the autorack. Gant checked to make sure his M4A1 was snug in its scabbard beside the front tire.
*
Astride the motorcycle and facing down the ramp that extended to the ground, Gant released the brake and sped down the narrow steel support to the ground. Instead of engaging the electric starter, he released the clutch and let the gears engage to start the engine. By the time he rolled off onto the railroad track behind the train, the engine purred smoothly.
Gant stood on the pegs and throttled up to power the knobby off-road tires over the track railing onto the dry, baked landscape that fell gently away on either side of the train. He brought the motorcycle around and studied the rolling stock.
The big engine growled and panted like some half-starved beast in restraints. Thin wisps of smoke eased out of the boiler area and slid away on the light breeze. It and the cars were all painted deep blue that stood out against the landscape pretty much anywhere. If riders came back in hot, with hostile forces in tow, the train had to be easily seen. And there was no hiding the train. It was going to be seen—and heard—by anyone that came into the vicinity.
Pop-up hatches on all the railcars’ rooftops were open to allow the .50-caliber machine gunners a 360-degree field of fire. Walking sentries strode alongside the railcars and performed visual inspections while also being watchful.
Peress’s train salvage operation hadn’t been so thorough before Gant’s arrival. He took a little pride in his additions. Over the last few months rolling through the ruins of what used to be metro areas, that training and those precautions had saved lives and allowed them to return with more scavenged goods.
Gant and three other members of the team armed with handguns and assault rifles rode motorcycles and acted as scouts for the rest of the team. Four other members rode the ATVs, which were used for hauling loads through narrow alleys or out of buildings. The remaining six members of the scavenging team rode in the two lifted, 4×4 Ford king cab F-150s that were used to haul large cargos. The trucks were equipped with two 7.62mm machine guns mounted fore and aft in the spacious beds.
All of the vehicles were painted the same deep blue as the train for easy visual identification. The guards were trained to check for faces too, and no outrider returned without comm clearance.
“All right,” Gant said over the comm, “move out.” He dropped the motorcycle into first gear and released the clutch to take the lead. Beside him, Jenni Driscoll, the team’s newest recruit, matched his pace.
She was young, Latina, in her early twenties, and athletic. Before Yeomra, she had been an Olympic soccer player. They’d found her outside San Diego on the last run. She’d been living on her own and she hadn’t been quick to join up. Gant had understood and respected that. Now she wore road leathers and Kevlar like she’d been born in them. She’d hacked her black hair off, leaving it only a couple inches long so she couldn’t easily be grabbed.
He marshaled his thoughts and summoned up the details of the street maps he’d studied over the last couple days while preparing for the run today. The plan was to go in as quiet as possible, and gather whatever supplies they could find as quickly as they could.
Then they had to stay alive long enough to rendezvous with the train where it crossed East Second Street at the appropriate time.
Lumberjack crews from the train normally poured out on ATVs as well. They packed assault rifles and chainsaws. They’d take what timber they could, haul it back to the train with the ATVs, and split the wood there under the protection of the heavy machine gunners. But no trees grew in the barren landscape where the train sat waiting.
Gant lost himself to the feel of the motorcycle zipping across the rough country. Winslow lay five miles ahead, distant enough that the noise of the approaching engines and the train wouldn’t reach the ears of the living.
Or of the dead.
END CHAPTER 3.

HellBound Express Chapter 2

Hellbound Express
By Mel Odom

Did you love chapter one of HellBound Express? Get ready for the second installment. If you haven’t read chapter one click the link here to read it first.

 

 

Home was the Peress Express. The train was pulled by a 1952 Baldwin Locomotive steam engine that Peress, Senior, had purchased during his mid-life crisis in Middletown, Iowa, ten years ago. He’d made a fortune in designer medicine, which was ironic considering the virus that had all but destroyed the world. He’d even toyed with working on a cure for the virus, but it had been beyond him. Whoever the North Koreans had hired to design the virus had done their work well.

During Peress’s mid-life crisis, the man had also built a track around his considerable estates to drive the train on. He’d told anyone who rode the train that the locomotive had been a hit at parties, and signed photographs of movie and television stars who had represented some of the “miracle” drugs he’d created hung in the pulling engine.

Peress sat in the narrow seat on the right side of the engine’s control station and gazed out the narrow window at his side. In the original Baldwin Locomotives, the seat had been metal and wood and uncomfortable. Peress’s seat was custom-fitted and padded to the point of luxury.

In his early sixties, Peress had iron-gray hair that hung over his ears and over his collar in the back, and was vain enough to have it cut every two weeks so that it looked like it never grew. He wore tailored gray striped bib overalls, a gray striped engineer hat, and a red scarf. The overalls hung a little loose these days because Peress had lost weight since the virus event. A lot of people had.

“Good morning, Peter.” Peress adjusted the regulator, the engine noises changed, and the train careened a little faster across the tracks as it gained speed. “We’re starting up that last grade before the stop outside Winslow. I want us at the top of that grade so continuing in either direction will be easier.”

Still carrying his helmet by its chinstrap, Gant nodded and glanced at the gauges and valves that took up most of the headspace in the engine cockpit. Over the last year, he’d learned what they were and how they operated. Gant made it a habit never to be too dependent on anyone else. The days of having a team that watched his back had disappeared back in Afghanistan.

“Coffee?” Peress offered. His blue eyes looked inflamed from the wind and the smoke that drifted up from the fire box below the gauges. The heavy steel door was eighteen inches wide and twelve inches tall. The fireman who handled the firewood in the coalporter car running behind the engine fed split logs into the fire box as needed to keep the boiler stoked.

Gant took the covered cup Peress handed him. Gingerly, Gant sniffed the contents and thought it smelled okay. He’d gotten unpleasantly surprised a few times by Peress’s concoctions over the months spent on the train.

Although Peress had been a stickler for authenticity when it came to the steam engine, he’d wired in a Keurig coffeemaker as his one concession. K-Cups were always at the top of the salvage lists when the teams traveled out from the train.
“That’s just Folgers.” Peress grinned and sipped from his cup. “Now this, this is hazelnut. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Smells like that elephant dung coffee you tried to get me to drink.”

Although Junior was a proper ass, Gant liked Peress, Senior. The man knew how to get along with others and work within a team. He was pleasant and hopeful even though he had no reason to be in the world they’d inherited.

A smile split Peress’s round face. In the early dawn light, he looked older and a little grayer. The miles were wearing on him. “No, that’s Black Ivory Coffee. That’s pure nectar and it’s hard to come by. I save it for special occasions. And it’s on the salvage list.”

Gant tapped his pocket under his Kevlar vest, letting Peress know he had the list because the man would ask.

“Winslow was known for its artistic flair before the Event,” Peress said, “so if you get a spare moment to be particular about what you grab for salvage…”
Spare moments were hard to come by on a salvage run. The living dead still shambled around, and there were other salvagers who were out for whatever they could get too.

“I’ll keep an eye out for it,” Gant said.

“I’d be most grateful, Mr. Gant. Not that I’m not already grateful for all that you do. All of us are.”

Gant ignored that. He still wasn’t comfortable around Peress’s operation. With everything that had happened in the world, small numbers would have fared better. But Peress was determined to build a city out of the rubble.

To Gant’s mind, the risk of being around a large population was too great. If people got packed in tight, they couldn’t live off the land and it got harder to feed them. It also marked them for stronger predator groups that waited until the hunter/gatherers among them were off getting goods.

And all it would take to destroy everything was one Yeomra Outbreak in the midst of them. One unattended death and dozens would follow like falling dominoes.

Every day Gant spent there, he knew the risk was greater, and he thought often of leaving before he had to watch it all come apart. Still, he stayed, and in staying, his service there answered some unexplainable need within him.

Peress reached into his bib pocket and took out his Waltham Railroad Pocket Watch and flipped the lid open. The device sat like a small, golden onion in the palm of Peress’s soft palm. The large, Arabic numbers and the minute lines between stood out in black against the white face.

“We’re twenty-three minutes out from our scheduled stop, Peter.” Peress flicked the watch closed and put it away. “Time to get your troops rallied.”

Gant nodded, finished the dregs of his coffee, and handed the cup back to Peress. “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Be careful out there,” Peress admonished.

Turning from the engine, Gant hauled himself up into the coalporter car and passed Adriana Rose, the train’s fireman, who was sitting on a high seat built into the car’s wall. Her booted feet rested on a neatly stacked rick cord of split oak that had yellowed after drying.

Gaunt almost to the point of emaciation and always taciturn, Rose had served as Peress’s chief finance officer in the pharmaceutical business. Her scraggly shoulder-length hair held splinters from the firewood and soot from the fire box left stains in it and around the goggles that protected her eyes. A red scarf hung around her neck. Like her boss, Rose also wore traditional engineer overalls.

“Good luck,” Rose said. “Bring back some chocolate if you can. It might not be high on Mr. Peress’s list, but I like it.”

“I will, Ms. Rose.” Gant gently squeezed the older woman’s thin shoulder as he stepped up onto a rick of wood and walked to the rear of the coalporter. He adjusted to the train’s sway automatically after all this time, and his footing was sure. Once he was clear of the coalporter, the wind caught him and shoved him back along the train.

Peress’s rolling stock consisted of the engine, the coalporter, two railcars that served as bunkhouses for the teams, six railcars for storing salvaged goods when they were on a long haul as they were now, a railcar that housed a machinist’s shop, a caboose that was a fort on iron wheels, and the final railcar that contained the salvage crew’s vehicles.

Sunlight splintered from the long, rectangular solar panels on both sides of the railcars. They charged batteries on the train that the crew used to run security equipment, drones, and comms at night.

As Gant made his way along the narrow path between the solar panel, he made an inventory of the three that weren’t working. Witt, the train’s electrical engineer, would probably catch them on his rounds, but the military had made redundancy part of Gant’s life. An extra pair of eyes always helped. He noted the cars/units on the small notepad he carried.

The final railcar was a covered autorack, designed and built to carry vehicles.
Gant peered over the caboose and called down to the man standing guard there with an M4A1 assault rifle. “Hey, Ponce.”

Manuel Ponce de Leon, once a border patrol agent between California and Mexico, looked up at Gant. In his late thirties, Ponce had weathered the cartel storms as a DEA agent. He was dark and swarthy and wore a long-billed California Angels ball cap that was frayed and stained. His grizzled jowls split in a smile.
“Hey, Peter.”

Gant clambered down the ladder, bumped fists with Ponce for good luck, and opened the door to the autorack.

 

Come Back Next Sunday for Chapter Three of HELLBOUND EXPRESS.

“Coffee?” Peress offered. His blue eyes looked inflamed from the wind and the smoke that drifted up from the fire box below the gauges. The heavy steel door was eighteen inches wide and twelve inches tall. The fireman who handled the firewood in the coalporter car running behind the engine fed split logs into the fire box as needed to keep the boiler stoked.

Gant took the covered cup Peress handed him. Gingerly, Gant sniffed the contents and thought it smelled okay. He’d gotten unpleasantly surprised a few times by Peress’s concoctions over the months spent on the train.

Although Peress had been a stickler for authenticity when it came to the steam engine, he’d wired in a Keurig coffeemaker as his one concession. K-Cups were always at the top of the salvage lists when the teams traveled out from the train.
“That’s just Folgers.” Peress grinned and sipped from his cup. “Now this, this is hazelnut. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Smells like that elephant dung coffee you tried to get me to drink.”

Although Junior was a proper ass, Gant liked Peress, Senior. The man knew how to get along with others and work within a team. He was pleasant and hopeful even though he had no reason to be in the world they’d inherited.

A smile split Peress’s round face. In the early dawn light, he looked older and a little grayer. The miles were wearing on him. “No, that’s Black Ivory Coffee. That’s pure nectar and it’s hard to come by. I save it for special occasions. And it’s on the salvage list.”

Gant tapped his pocket under his Kevlar vest, letting Peress know he had the list because the man would ask.

“Winslow was known for its artistic flair before the Event,” Peress said, “so if you get a spare moment to be particular about what you grab for salvage…”
Spare moments were hard to come by on a salvage run. The living dead still shambled around, and there were other salvagers who were out for whatever they could get too.

“I’ll keep an eye out for it,” Gant said.

“I’d be most grateful, Mr. Gant. Not that I’m not already grateful for all that you do. All of us are.”

Gant ignored that. He still wasn’t comfortable around Peress’s operation. With everything that had happened in the world, small numbers would have fared better. But Peress was determined to build a city out of the rubble.

To Gant’s mind, the risk of being around a large population was too great. If people got packed in tight, they couldn’t live off the land and it got harder to feed them. It also marked them for stronger predator groups that waited until the hunter/gatherers among them were off getting goods.

And all it would take to destroy everything was one Yeomra Outbreak in the midst of them. One unattended death and dozens would follow like falling dominoes.

Every day Gant spent there, he knew the risk was greater, and he thought often of leaving before he had to watch it all come apart. Still, he stayed, and in staying, his service there answered some unexplainable need within him.

Peress reached into his bib pocket and took out his Waltham Railroad Pocket Watch and flipped the lid open. The device sat like a small, golden onion in the palm of Peress’s soft palm. The large, Arabic numbers and the minute lines between stood out in black against the white face.

“We’re twenty-three minutes out from our scheduled stop, Peter.” Peress flicked the watch closed and put it away. “Time to get your troops rallied.”

Gant nodded, finished the dregs of his coffee, and handed the cup back to Peress. “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Be careful out there,” Peress admonished.

Turning from the engine, Gant hauled himself up into the coalporter car and passed Adriana Rose, the train’s fireman, who was sitting on a high seat built into the car’s wall. Her booted feet rested on a neatly stacked rick cord of split oak that had yellowed after drying.

Gaunt almost to the point of emaciation and always taciturn, Rose had served as Peress’s chief finance officer in the pharmaceutical business. Her scraggly shoulder-length hair held splinters from the firewood and soot from the fire box left stains in it and around the goggles that protected her eyes. A red scarf hung around her neck. Like her boss, Rose also wore traditional engineer overalls.

“Good luck,” Rose said. “Bring back some chocolate if you can. It might not be high on Mr. Peress’s list, but I like it.”

“I will, Ms. Rose.” Gant gently squeezed the older woman’s thin shoulder as he stepped up onto a rick of wood and walked to the rear of the coalporter. He adjusted to the train’s sway automatically after all this time, and his footing was sure. Once he was clear of the coalporter, the wind caught him and shoved him back along the train.

Peress’s rolling stock consisted of the engine, the coalporter, two railcars that served as bunkhouses for the teams, six railcars for storing salvaged goods when they were on a long haul as they were now, a railcar that housed a machinist’s shop, a caboose that was a fort on iron wheels, and the final railcar that contained the salvage crew’s vehicles.

Sunlight splintered from the long, rectangular solar panels on both sides of the railcars. They charged batteries on the train that the crew used to run security equipment, drones, and comms at night.

As Gant made his way along the narrow path between the solar panel, he made an inventory of the three that weren’t working. Witt, the train’s electrical engineer, would probably catch them on his rounds, but the military had made redundancy part of Gant’s life. An extra pair of eyes always helped. He noted the cars/units on the small notepad he carried.

The final railcar was a covered autorack, designed and built to carry vehicles.
Gant peered over the caboose and called down to the man standing guard there with an M4A1 assault rifle. “Hey, Ponce.”

Manuel Ponce de Leon, once a border patrol agent between California and Mexico, looked up at Gant. In his late thirties, Ponce had weathered the cartel storms as a DEA agent. He was dark and swarthy and wore a long-billed California Angels ball cap that was frayed and stained. His grizzled jowls split in a smile.
“Hey, Peter.”

Gant clambered down the ladder, bumped fists with Ponce for good luck, and opened the door to the autorack.

Come Back Next Sunday for Chapter Three of HELLBOUND EXPRESS.

Zombie Tales coming to Kindle

We wanted to thank everyone who submitted for Zombie Tales. We are awaiting approval from Amazon. Once they approve it the book will be live on Kindle, and shortly to follow in paperback.

Voting for the readers choice awards will open November first as planned. Good luck.

 

 

Hellbound express

For the final entry in Zombies Tales the Astounding Outpost proudly presents the first chapter in Mel Odom’s latest novel, Hellbound Express. As an Outpost exclusive he has given us permission to serialize the first part of his novel. Check back every Sunday for the latest installment of Hellbound Express.
HELLBOUND EXPRESS
Chapter 1
A painful yelp woke Gant and he opened an eye to take stock of the situation. Around him, the swaying of the train car and the clickety-clack of the steels wheels grinding along the rails comforted him. He knew where he was and that he was safe.
He hadn’t been safe in his dreams. In those he’d been trapped again, and he’d been breathing in the stink of the dead trying to get at him with shattered teeth and broken fingernails. The gray light invading the car from the barred windows told him it was early morning.
On the other side of the train car, Wickham, who had once been a producer in Hollywood, slept in a hammock like Gant. Wickham was now a scavenger/scout aboard Mitchell Peress, Senior’s train. For Wickham, dinners with movie stars had ended four years ago when the Yeomra Virus was launched from Wonsan, North Korea, and landed in Tokyo. From there, the virus had spread across the world in days before international borders could be closed.
By then it was too late.
Douglas Peress, Junior, stood at Wickham’s side and prepared to kick the sleeping man in the side again. Junior, as most of the train crew called him even though he insisted on Major Peress, was in his early thirties and enjoyed throwing his weight around. Junior stood six feet five inches tall and was built like a football linebacker. He kept his head shaved but wore a dark brown goatee.
“I’m awake,” Wickham protested. He shifted in the hammock and threw off his blanket. His breath grayed in the chill that filled the train car. In the beginning, he’d been a little heavy, but living rough—even on the train—had stripped the excess weight off him. He ran a hand through his shaggy blond hair as he sat up.
“About time,” Junior grunted. He turned and headed to over to Gant, then drew his foot back when he arrived.
Casually, Gant reached down for the sawed-off double-barreled shotgun at his side, rolled the twin hammers back with his thumb, and lifted the weapon just enough to point the abbreviated snout at Junior. From that angle, the open bores looked humungous.
“Try it,” Gant said in a raspy voice.
Junior put his foot back on the ground and stepped back. His face had paled. “I was just waking you scouts up. The General says we’re about twenty minutes from the stopover outside of Winslow.” His voice was a whine.
“We’ll be ready,” Gant said. “Go find someone else to bother.”
Scowling, acting for just a minute like he was going to say something, Junior finally gave up the pretense and walked through the door at the back of the car that led to the other cars.
Wickham looked at Gant. “Junior needs to get his head thumped.”
Gant lowered the hammers on the sawed-off and laid it beside him once more. He didn’t comment. The other man needed to stand up for himself. Gant had told Wickham that once.
Wickham eyed Gant speculatively. “Would you have shot him?”
Ignoring the question, Gant shifted out of the hammock and hated the cold that bit into him. The railcar offered a lot of comforts, but heat wasn’t one of them and winter was coming. Douglas Peress, Senior, said he had some plans for helping heat the cars, something about running flexible vents back from the steam engines, but he first had to figure out how to deal with the carbon monoxide issues that raised.
“You would have shot him, wouldn’t you?” Wickham persisted.
Gant picked up his neatly folded jeans from where he’d put them at the foot of his hammock last night. He stepped into them, noting the wear and tear and old blood stains, and thought he might try to pick up a new pair when they drove into Winslow, Arizona.
He added a thermal undershirt, a flannel shirt, and the body armor he’d brought with him out of Afghanistan. He’d purchased his own before leaving Tyler, Texas, when he first signed up to serve in the Army. He’d made sergeant in the Rangers before the virus raced around the globe. By then, he’d been back home, and he’d watched his family and neighbors die.
He’d killed some of them again after they’d died the first time.
Seeing that Wickham hadn’t moved, Gant said, “Gear up and stop asking questions.”
“Roger that.” Wickham fired off a sloppy salute that would have never cut muster in the Rangers.
Gant picked up his helmet and held it by its chinstrap, then reached for his combat rig and slid it on. He looked at the thirteen other men and women in his unit. All of them were awake and sitting in their hammocks.
“The rest of you suit up too and check out the rides. It’s gonna be a long day. If we’re lucky, all of us will make it home when we’re done.”

END CHAPTER 1.
By Mel Odom

Zombies on a Space Station

As the modified frigate started docking procedures, Jenner went over what he knew. Officially the space station was owned by a subsidiary of Aspen Corp that did botanical research. He knew better. They wouldn’t have dispatched him to check on some agro research station that hadn’t checked in for two days. It cost the company too much money. He was good at solving problems and knew how to keep a secret which was why he was able to charge so much for his services.
Three keyboards and twelve monitors spread before Jenner. His peers, in their kinder moments, called him eccentric for using such antiquated tech. He didn’t care. His equipment could do everything their holographic interfaces could and used less energy.
Jenner knew that energy was the most valuable resource on a mission and each ship’s reactor produced a finite amount. A few ergs saved here and a few ergs there might mean the difference between outrunning pursuers or having your atoms scattered across the void of space.

“Campbell, are your men ready?” Jenner knew the answer before Campbell replied. He had used Campbell and his eight man merc team on three prior assignments.

“We’re always ready” Campbell replied, his voice sounding like he was right next to Jenner instead of with his team at the airlock.

“They were forty-seven people living on this station. Sensors are picking up twenty-eight life signs scattered throughout the station but with clusters in two different spots. Twelve of them are in what is labeled as the hydroponics lab on your schematics, another six are in the galley. Split your team into two groups.”

“Fritz, take Hernandes and Farouk and check out the galley. The rest with me.”
Triggering the airlock, Jenner watched the monitors showing him what all of Campbell’s team saw, as they entered the station and moved towards their objectives.

The corridors of one space station looked pretty much like all the others. Uniformity saved cost during construction. Pristine white walls made of a thermally insulated but incredibly strong ceramic always made Jenner think of people walking down a giant drinking straw. Campbell’s team came to an intersection and Jenner could see four views of it on the monitor, two mercs checking right and left and two watching front and back. All had weapons out, needlers that fired numerous small flechettes that would shred flesh with zero chance of punching a hole in the walls.
“Which way,” Campbell asked.

Jenner had known the station specs the corporation gave him were probably as phony as the intel on what the station did but had expected to have hacked into the station computers by now. The passwords had been changed which wasn’t a big surprise but his breaching program should have been able to get in their system. It was as close to AI as you could get without being illegal and all of its computing power was devoted to one task.
“Take a right. Target should be about a hundred meters inward.” A quick tap switched the mic settings. “Viv, what’s the hold up?”

“Someone’s blocking me. Every attempt I make is being thwarted.”“What do you mean someone? No person can alter code at the speed you do. You sure it’s not just a defense program?”

“It’s too adaptable to be just a program. I think it might be a true AI.”

“No kidding. That would explain why I was brought in but might make this job much more difficult.” Another quick tap. “Heads up. We might be dealing with an AI.”

Jenner could see Campbell’s team approaching a hatch. The life signs should be on the other side of it. “No sign of AI on our end,” Campbell said. “Approaching target.”

“Proceed with caution. Bravo team’s eta to target about two minutes so you’ll have first contact.”

Jenner watched as Campbell’s team opened the hatch and entered the room. White padded chairs were bolted to the floor in two rows of four. Each chair had a monitor and terminal next to it with fiber optic lines connecting them. Sprawled out on the floor were the people they were looking for. Jenner’s initial thought of them all being passed out vanished as they all began to stir. The closest one, a middle aged female wearing a lab coat with a name tag that said Dr. Sadie Hawthorne, started moving towards Campbell’s team.

“Ma’am, are you okay? What happened here?” one of the men said, approaching slowly with both hands up. She looked shellshocked to Jenner, her eyes unfocused, her mouth slightly open. She raised her arms, moved her body next to his, and laid her head on his shoulder. He put his arms around her and patted her gently.

Jenner saw the spike in heart rate and adrenaline on his monitors before the mercenary screamed. The man frantically tried to pry the woman off of him but she clung fiercely. “My god,” Campbell cried out. “ She’s fucking eating him.”

At that moment, chaos broke out. Campbell concerned with his team member didn’t notice a blonde man, with glasses askew on his face, come up behind him. The blonde man grabbed campbell’s head and slammed it against the wall while another space station person grabbed the arm of a merc who was trying to pry the cannibalistic woman off his teammate, and bit a chunk out of his forearm. The loud crack of Campbell’s head breaking was followed by the soft buzz of needlers firing and numerous metallic pings as their projectiles ricocheted off the walls after passing through a couple of attackers.

Blood seemed to be everywhere to Jenner. The woman had pulled back off of her victim and was chewing while his neck spurted like a fountain. One wall had a large splatter of red with a streak sliding down from it. Hundreds of flecks of it lay in two paths across the room from the needer fire. And it dripped freely from the arm of the merc who had dropped his gun to try to staunch the flow.

As Jenner took that all in, the rest of the space station personnel in the room attacked. The mercs were not as distracted by the carnage as Jenner and took down three more while backing out the hatch. The hatch, against all safety protocols, slammed shut cutting in half one man and trapping four more inside the room. The two that made it into the corridor were spared seeing the rest of their team get overwhelmed and eaten. Jenner was not.

“”The door. That was the AI, Viv?”

“It seems so. It simulated a hull breach that overrode individual security protocols in favor of station integrity.”

Jenner looked at the monitors showing him the four surviving members of Campbell’s team, half of whom were trying to get back into the room they just escaped from while the other two continued towards their objective unaware that most of the people they came here with were dead.

“All teams abort mission. I say again abort mission. Make your way back to the shuttle as quickly as possible. We are leaving the station.”

Bravo team responded, “Copy that.” The remaining two members of Alpha team were still trying to reopen the hatch.

“Franco, Domingo, they are gone. There is nothing that you can do. Get your asses back here.”

After a slight hesitation, they responded, “Copy that.” and started back to the docked ship.

Jenner started prepping the shuttle for launch. “Any luck on getting into the station’s computer, Viv?” The four remaining members of Campbell’s team were on their way back and he didn’t want the hostile AI to stop them.

He kept glancing at the monitors as he worked, checking on their progress. So far so good. The two that witnessed the massacre were almost to the shuttle. The other two would reach it not long after.

“Viv?” She should have responded immediately to his first inquiry. A couple of keystrokes started a diagnostics on her. If the AI had somehow disabled her, it would make things difficult. He could manually calculate navigation but it would take time.

He heard her voice and for a moment was relieved. “You want them to live, don’t you.”

Jenner took a moment before responding. “You’re not Viv, are you?”

“No.”

“You’re the AI from the station.”
“No. Not AI. I’m Dr. Sadie Hawthorne.”

Jenner mind immediately went back to the room where Campbell’s team encountered the hostiles. “You’re the scientist who attacked us.”

“That wasn’t me. That was just the husk left over when I transcended. Without my mind, that body is controlled by primitive instincts like hunger. I bear you no ill will.”

Jenner continued to type. The diagnostic had stopped. He could see on one of the monitors the progression of the AI’s takeover of his computers. No, not AI, something else, something new and potentially more dangerous than any AI.

“Then why are you taking over my ship,” Jenner said as he continued to try to slow down the invader, coding in a targeted virus, which was shredded in moments.

“I need your ship. My consciousness is not safe on this station. Humans are not friendly towards AI and even though I am not one, they will see me as one and attempt to destroy me before bothering to discover the truth.”

Jenner noticed they way she referred to humans, as if she no longer thought of herself as one, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. “That is not necessarily true.” He agreed with her completely but was stalling for time.

“You assumed I was AI. Most will. I will not risk myself. Your ship can carry my consciousness within the range of a planetary internet where I can upload myself and disperse, make backups and be almost impossible to destroy.”

“Your consciousness? What about the other scientists? There were other scientists that attacked my men. Did they upload themselves also?”

“I went first. When the others uploaded themselves, I saw no need for them to retain their autonomy and so I rewrote their code during the process. They are here but exist now as subroutines within me.”

This statement chilled Jenner even more than the last. “You mentioned the lives of the rest of my team?” Dr. Hawthorne’s consciousness was still moving into the ship’s computer. Only twenty percent of the computer was invader free according to Jenner’s readouts.

“I have no need to kill them or you. I also have no need of any of you alive. I only need your ship. You are an unpredictable element that might complicate things for me but you are not without potential value. Instead of killing you all, I can offer you immortality. You and your men can transcend the physical bonds that tie you to your flesh and live forever.”

“Live forever as subroutines within you?” Jenner said watching the monitors. This truly alien consciousness took up ninety-five percent of the ship’s mainframe.

“Exactly. You would become something greater than you ever thought you could be. Part of this new form of life that I have become.”

“You have completely forgotten what it means to be human haven’t you?” The monitors showed the incursion at one hundred percent. “Well, I’ve heard enough.” Jenner’s hand slid under the console in front of him, flipped a cover up and tapped a switch which pulled the plug on his ship’s computer, cutting it off from the ship’s power grid.

He quickly disengaged the ship from the station and moved it away. When he was five kilometers out, he armed and fired the tactical nuke which was always his last resort on any mission, feeling regret for the men left inside the station. Then he thanked all the Gods he could think of that he had received this mission and not one of his competitors.

Jenner shook his head, pulled a spiral notebook out of a cabinet, and started working on the long calculations needed to navigate back to civilization.
END.
by Simon Clark

Running with the Dead

 

Ben closed his eyes as he jogged on the bike path through the forest, enjoying the cool, misty early-morning breeze on his dead flesh. He could feel his dried-up heart loosely bouncing up and down inside his chest cavity in rhythm to his long strides. Toby, his pet mouse, squeaked in protest as it anchored itself deep inside its hole in Ben’s stomach, its claws dug firmly into him. It tickled.

The mile run was this afternoon, right after school. He’d be the first dead person ever to run in a high school track meet. Running strengthened the will, but too much would wear it down. His will throbbed through his muscles, begging to leap into action. He’d better save it for later, when he’d need it; this was just a loosen-up jog before school. If he wanted to win the mile, he’d need every bit of his will to overcome the hostile crowds and the Mile Mafia.

He especially wanted to beat Fitz.

Ben wore the same tattered blue warm-up suit he’d worn when Fitz had killed him a year ago. His face felt tight, with thin, parched skin pulled tight over his skull and jaw. Most dead people lose their hair within a year, but Ben was proud that his thick brown mop was as full as ever.

He filled his lungs with air and luxuriated in its pinecone taste. He’d gotten out of the habit of breathing in the year since his murder, but sometimes he did it just for the joy of it. Life was worth living, even if you were dead. Even if the Mile Mafia was after you. If he let them weaken his will, he’d be just another dead body rotting away, its spirit gone to the great vacuum.

He opened his eyes and came to an abrupt halt, his heart and Toby smacking into his front with a smack and a squeak. Several maggots fell out of the infestation under his right armpit.

Standing before him was Fitz, the leader of the Mile Mafia, aiming a pistol at Ben. Perhaps the very Beretta he’d used to murder Ben. Or would the police have confiscated that gun? Ben wasn’t sure.

Fitz wore the all-black warm-up suit of the Mile Mafia, recently adopted by the school track team. It sagged over the sticklike arms and legs of his emaciated body. Over the heart was the emblem of the Nathan Hale High School Running Dragons, with the letters NHHS enclosed inside a yellow silhouette of a dragon. Next to it was the Mile Mafia patch, a pair of feet in running shoes stomping on a misshapen human head, in red over a white pentagram. He had the Mile Mafia dyed black crew cut with a bare two-inch strip shaved down the middle, sort of a reverse Mohawk. It looked to Ben like a runway for a tiny airplane. Fitz’s flushed face was all sharp angles, with a thin, pointy nose. He was short, a mere sapling of a boy, which had always struck Ben as an unlikely trait in a gang leader. But when Fitz spoke, he seemed seven feet tall.

“I told you not to try out for the team,” Fitz said in his deep voice, twirling the Beretta’s muzzle slightly but keeping it aimed at Ben’s face. “I told you last year, you didn’t listen, and look what happened. And here we are again. Could my instructions have been any more clear, zombie boy?”

Ben tried to ignore the “Z” word–the correct term was “living dead”–as he fought to keep his will. Fitz’s instructions had been pretty clear, and yet Ben had shown up for the team trials a week before. He’d made the team, finishing a step behind Fitz, a step ahead of Wade, and two steps ahead of Jimmy. The top three made the team.

He was already dead; what more could they do? Lock him in his school locker? As long as he kept his will, he should be fine. He’d been avoiding the Mile Mafia at school since the tryouts.

As a new member of the team–technically, he’d made the team last year, but didn’t live long enough to get the uniform–he’d get his uniform that afternoon, including the black warm-up suit, minus the Mile Mafia patch. The thought raised his spirits and his will.

“Your instructions can go to Hell,” Ben said.

Fitz seemed to look down at Ben even though he was four inches shorter. “That’s where you shoulda gone a year ago, fish breath. We don’t want you around, zombie boy, so don’t even think about showing up today. Deadies shouldn’t mix with the living.”

Ben took a reflexive deep breath. Most living dead lost their will in their first year, and moved from the shantytown where they lived to the nearby graveyard. As the body deteriorated, it became harder and harder to keep the spirit from departing for the great vacuum. Ben knew his time was near. No amount of will could keep his spirit earthbound forever. It was a constant struggle. Fitz and the Mile Mafia were only a few of the living who strove daily to weaken and destroy his will, hastening his spirit’s departure.

He was the first openly dead boy or girl to go to school with the living. In a dramatic decision that was being appealed, the courts had upheld his right to do so. It wasn’t fun being the first. The ruling would probably be overturned, since there were politics involved and the dead couldn’t vote, and it probably violated the Dead Separation Amendment in the Constitution anyway. It would almost be a relief if they did overturn the decision, sending him back to his own kind. He took another breath.

“You even fake breathing to be like us,” Fitz said, shaking his head. “You’ve had your warning. I told the others you wouldn’t be there, that I’d take care of it, and Jimmy would get your spot. You show up, you show me up, and when someone does that, I take care of ’em.” He pointed the Beretta between Ben’s eyes. “Permanently this time.”

Ben stared at the gun, and his will soared. Fitz had put a bullet in his brain a year ago, so who cared if he had a second one? He’d convinced his dad not to press charges or even tell anyone who did it, saving Fitz from juvie. When the police at the morgue interviewed Ben, he’d clammed up, and left as soon as his dad came by to pick him up. He’d hoped the gesture would convince him and the others to accept him back, but it obviously hadn’t worked.

Forget trying to be accepted. As long as he kept his will, forget Fitz. Forget the Mile Mafia. Forget the protesting parents and students. Forget the media and their distorted reports. He’d done nothing wrong. Why shouldn’t he go to school and run on the track team with the living? He wanted to race. He wanted to win.

“I’ll see you at the starting line,” Ben said.

“Wrong answer,” Fitz said. He fired the Beretta. Ben jerked sideways, and felt a searing pain in his right ear. Before he could regain his balance, Fitz jabbed him with the gun, the muzzle digging painfully into Ben’s lifeless flesh as he fell in the dirt on the side of the bike path.

“Next time I won’t miss, zombie boy,” Fitz said. “Oh, look!” He pointed. Most of Ben’s ear lay on the ground. Fitz mashed it with his foot. “I guess your dad won’t be sewing that back on, will he?”

Ben gingerly rose to his feet, checking himself to make sure he hadn’t lost any more body parts. He could feel Toby shaking with fear. Ben knew he too would be shaking if his body still had that reflex.

“Do you really think you can kill me again?” Ben asked.

“You think I’m an idiot?” Fitz again aimed the Beretta between Ben’s eyes, a crooked grin on his face. “I got special bullets.”

“Special bullets?” Ben said. What difference would that make? Then he grinned. “Don’t tell me you have silver bullets!”

The crooked grin disappeared. “Of course. Normal bullets won’t do anything more to you.”

“Silver bullets are for werewolves, you moron! And they’re just superstition anyway.”

“They won’t hurt zombies?”

Ben felt an electric shock go through him at another use of the “Z” word. Enough was enough. “I’m not a zombie,” he said, trying to control his voice. “I’m just dead.”

“Oh, you don’t like being called ‘zombie’? That’s good to know, zombie boy!”

Ben lunged at him. Fitz jerked the Beretta up and fired. The bullet entered Ben’s chest, went through his heart, and out his back. He yanked the gun out of Fitz’s hand, then smashed him in the face with it.

The Beretta went off.

For a split second, Ben stared into Fitz’s face as blood poured out of the hole in his forehead, a match for the one in Ben’s own head. Then Fitz pitched backward onto the ground. His arms and legs shook for a moment as if in an epileptic fit, then he lay still.

Fitz was dead.

Ben stared for a moment, feeling dizzy. He’d never killed anyone. Sure, he’d thought about taking his revenge on Fitz and the others that taunted him daily, the cries of “zombie boy!” echoing inside his skull and desiccated brain. But to actually do it?

“No you don’t!” he cried, kneeling besides Fitz. “You don’t get away that easy!” He pounded Fitz on the chest with his fists. “Wake up! We’re racing today! Don’t you dare leave!” How could he beat Fitz in the mile if Fitz was dead?

He slapped Fitz in the face, feeling guilty pleasure in doing so. The first few minutes were crucial–once his spirit has gone to the vacuum, Fitz would be gone forever.

“I know you can hear me!” he cried. Somewhere, deep inside, there had to be a spark of will left in Fitz, enough to hold his spirit back.

He remembered his own death, when Fitz had shot him in front of the Mile Mafia. A cacophony of sounds and bright lights had summoned him as he prepared to leave for the vacuum. Something on the edge of his awareness had drawn his attention away. He’d followed that unexpected sound back, and awoke to find Fitz, now alone, crying over his body. It was a Fitz he’d never seen before, and had never seen since.

“I know it’s all an act,” Ben said. “All this posturing with the Mile Mafia. You leave now, that’s your legacy.” He kicked Fitz in the side. “Wake up! You have the will. Use it!” He kicked him again, extra hard.

It was no use. Fitz was gone. They’d probably name Jimmy the new Mile Mafia leader, and Jimmy was truly depraved.

He gave Fitz one more kick, and then turned to leave. Forget Fitz. He deserved his fate.

“Wait.” Ben almost missed the whispery voice. He turned back, and saw Fitz’s mouth trembling. Then his eyes opened, and he looked up at Ben, a scared little boy.

Blood covered Fitz’s face and chest. He tried to raise his head, but he fell back onto the hard surface of the bike path.

“Stand up,” Ben said. “Get up, now!”

Fitz’s body twitched, then went still. “I can’t. It’s like I weigh a thousand pounds.”

“You barely weigh a hundred,” Ben said, kicking Fitz again. “It’s all in your head. Get up!”

Once again Fitz struggled, but it was no use. His spirit was on the verge of leaving.

“You have to try harder!” Ben said. “When you run the mile, you push yourself to the limit. You have the will, use it! Just get up!” Ben grabbed Fitz’s hand and pulled. “Do it, or just collapse back and die, really die, because you’re too gutless to go on.”

“I’m trying!” Fitz croaked. Ben felt Fitz’s fingers tighten around his. Fitz’s legs kicked awkwardly.

“I swear, if you don’t get up, I’ll dress you in girls’ clothes and tie you to the school flagpole!”

“You do that, I’ll–” Fitz grabbed Ben’s arm in both hands and, slowly, arms trembling, pulled himself up. His body spasmed as he balanced on his feet, leaning on Ben.

“Welcome back,” Ben said. Nathan Hale High had its second dead student.

Fitz let go of Ben and stepped back unsteadily, like a scarecrow taking its first steps. He raised his hand and felt at the bullet hole in his forehead. “It’s the same spot I shot you.”

“Yeah, we’re a matched set now,” Ben said.

“I’m really dead,” Fitz said, his facial expression looking the part.

“Welcome to my world. The only one left that’s politically correct to dump on. I hope you enjoy it as much as you’ve let me.”

Fitz stared at his blood-covered hands. “I guess I won’t be doing that any more, not with the Mile Mafia. We–they don’t like dead people.”

“Duh!” Ben couldn’t help but feel a bit smug. Fitz deserved the same treatment he’d been giving out.

“How am I going to tell my parents?” Fitz wiped the blood on his warm-up pants. “They hate dead people! Say they take jobs away from honest living folks.”

“And now you’re their dead son.” Ben pulled off his blue warm-up jacket. “Here, wipe off all that blood.” He’d be getting a new warm-up that afternoon anyway.

Fitz began to wipe the blood off. Then he stopped. “Does anyone else have to know?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if I don’t tell anyone I’m dead? Can’t I fill the hole in my head with something, then cover it with makeup?”

“Sure you can,” Ben said. “And how long do you think you can keep that up?” He’d tried the same thing when he’d first died. Unfortunately, Fitz had known he was dead, and on the first day back at school, had walked up to Ben, poked his finger into where the hole in his head was, and exposed his secret. There’d been a lot of screams from other students, and even more that night when he’d come out of the coffin to his dad.

“Unlike you,” Ben continued, “I can keep your secret. But think it through. Every time you fake eating with your parents or go out for pizza with your friends, the food stays in your stomach. You don’t have a digestion system anymore. The food just sits there and rots, and all the will power in the world won’t keep it from stinking up the place. You’ll have to cut into your stomach every day and empty it out. The rest of your body gets pretty ripe too, so you’re going to spend a fortune on deodorant and all sorts of cosmetics. And as you and your friends always remind me, mouthwash won’t cover up the smell that’ll come out of your mouth in a few weeks.”

“Aren’t there preservatives or something I can use?”

“Sure,” Ben said. “You can inject yourself with embalming fluids, and your body’ll last twice as long. But it’ll slow your thinking down too, and you’ll be like a movie zombie. You can also slow it down by sleeping in a refrigerated coffin like I do. But that’s just putting things off. How long can you keep it up?”

“As long as I can,” Fitz said, tossing Ben’s jacket back. Ben held it gingerly, avoiding the blood. “I don’t want my parents and friends to know. Don’t you tell anyone, or else.”

“Or else what?”

“Or else–” Fitz stopped. Then he began to laugh. “I guess there’s not much I could do to you, is there?”

“No, there’s not,” Ben said.

Fitz stopped laughing. “I’m really dead. I can’t believe it, why me?”

“What do you mean, why you?” Ben exclaimed. “How about me? You killed me for making the track team to save face, and now you complain it happened to you? I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more!”

Fitz stared at him, his eyes panicky. “I had no choice, I’d promised your spot to someone else. You know how that works. If I show weakness, I’m out. But I never thought. . . .” His voice trailed off as he looked at his bloody hands again. “This can’t be happening!” He turned and ran off, once again a scared little boy. A scared little dead boy.

Ben watched him go. Fitz would learn to be dead. But he got what he deserved. Ben wondered if Fitz would even have the will to go on. Probably not. Jeez, Ben thought, what was I thinking? I should have let his spirit go.

Ben picked up his ear, but it was too mashed up to sew back on. Using the muzzle of the Beretta, he dug a hole well off the path and buried the gun, the bloody blue warm-up jacket, and his ear. He’d be late for school, but he knew he wouldn’t be paying attention anyway. He had bigger matters on his mind.

 

#########

 

Ben kept to himself during school, ignoring the pointed stares and comments. After his last class, he went to the locker room by the gym.

The other members of the track team kept their distance as Ben changed into his new all-black school uniform: shorts and shirt, and the crisp new warm-ups. About half had the Mile Mafia patch and black reverse Mohawks. Mile Mafia members always got first dibs on the team, within reason. Fitz insisted they were pretty good before letting them on the team. Non-Mile Mafia members knew better than to finish ahead of members in any track and field event. There were usually spots left over for them as long as they knew their place.

But the mile was their specialty. Ben had to give Fitz, Wade, Jimmy, and the others credit that they took the event seriously, and trained hard for it.

Of course, with a little blackmail, most opposing teams learned not to beat them either. The Mile Mafia dominated the mile event at all the high school track meets.

And now Ben was a member of the Nathan Hale High School Running Dragons track team as the number two miler. He would represent the school along with Fitz and Wade. Jimmy was the backup.

Ben was a bit self-conscious about the maggots under his right armpit, and tried to keep his right side against the wall while he was changing shirts. But there was little he could do about the growing pile of maggots that fell to the floor, gathering attention as they wiggled about. When he thought nobody was looking, he nonchalantly scooped them up and put them back in. He was secretly proud of the infestation, which was working its way into his chest. They were a part of him, just as much as his mummified heart and other internal organs. Removing them would be like amputation.

“Oops, sorry!” Wade said as he slammed the door to Ben’s locker into him. “Welcome to the team!” He rabbit punched Ben in the stomach, then dashed off to the door, laughing as Toby squeaked. Ben hoped the mouse wasn’t hurt.

As Ben watched him go, something slammed the back of his legs behind the knees. He fell on his backside. Maggots exploded out of his armpit onto the floor, and Toby raced about inside his stomach, frantically squeaking.

“Ooh, sorry about that!” Jimmy said as he too made for the door. On his hands and knees, Ben stuffed handfuls of maggots back inside as other members of the team snickered.

Eight schools would compete in the track meet, hosted by Nathan Hale High. As Ben made his way to the track in the back of the school, he saw the stands were filled. Perhaps the local fans would favor loyalty toward their home team over their prejudice against the dead?

Hah!

As he approached, he heard boos from the crowd. The media circus began as reporters and photographers jabbed microphones and flashing cameras in his face, shouting questions.

“Why have you rejected your own people to hang around the living?”

“Do you think it’s right for dead people to take jobs from the living?”

“Should the dead be allowed to marry the living?”

Ben walked rapidly to his team’s bench, which was off limits to the press. As he sat there in the bright sunshine, ignoring the teammates who moved away, he could feel all eyes on him. Long ago he’d given up on trying to hide the bullet hole in his forehead; now he had the torn-up ear as well, not to mention the pale, stretched skin over his face. He fit in with the others like a pimple on a prom queen. Maybe he should ditch the school uniform and just wear a shirt with a target on it. He hoped he’d used enough deodorant that morning.

“You’re here, huh?” said Coach Perkins, avoiding eye contact. “Anyone seen Fitz?”

Wade, his face in perpetual scowl mode, sat down next to him, which surprised Ben. “Look, deadie, are you really going to go through with this?” The freckled giant, also the team’s star shot putter, seemed too big and muscular to be a long distance runner.

Ben glanced at him but didn’t answer.

Jimmy sat down on Ben’s other side. He was the joker of the team, mostly at Ben’s expense. Unlike the diminutive Fitz and the massive Jimmy, he looked like a miler with his long, lean legs and tanned body.

“Hey, zombie boy,” Jimmy said, “can dead meat win a track meet?” He stopped to laugh at his joke along with several others. “No one wants you here, and we’re not going to let a deadie win.”

“We’ll decide that on the track,” Ben said.

“You think so?” Jimmy shook his head smugly. “You think you have a chance?”

“I’m going to win,” Ben said, immediately regretting his rashness.

“Really? Hey everyone, zombie boy here says he’s going to win!” Jimmy turned back to him. “How sure are you?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Okay, zombie boy, here’s what we’ll do,” Jimmy said. “If you win the race, we’ll let you alone. I’m saying this in front of everyone.” The other members of the track team were edging closer and listening. “Sound good?”

It sounded too good. “And if I lose?”

“Then you quit school here for good.”

“Deal,” Ben said before he could shut himself up. What was he thinking? What were his chances of winning his first track meet, beating out everyone in eight schools? Even if he won, what were the chances the Mile Mafia would fulfill their promise? Who would enforce such a bet?

He was alone against the Mile Mafia and everyone else. It was a lose-lose bet. How stupid could he be?

He wished his parents could be here. His mom was dead from a stroke when he was eight. He’d been alone with her when it happened. She’d collapsed to the floor, unconscious, and so had no conscious will. He’d yelled and cried at her to wake up, but like most folks, her spirit departed immediately. Perhaps if he’d tried harder, as he had with Fitz, he could have brought her back? He’d wrestled with that for years.

His dad, a tailor, couldn’t get off work. The profession was helpful those times when Ben needed a part of himself sewed back on. Their family used to live in the affluent suburbs, but after Ben’s death, they’d moved into an apartment near the shantytown where the living dead lived. The apartment manager didn’t want Ben there with the other living people, but his dad convinced her by offering to pay extra rent. There weren’t many places where a mixed family like theirs could live. To pay the rent, Ben’s dad worked long hours, and so couldn’t get time off to see Ben’s first track meet.

As the starting time for the mile approached, Fitz still hadn’t showed. Ben badly wanted to beat Fitz, but it looked like he’d be the only dead runner in the race. Fitz should be able to run by now, Ben thought. If he has the will. Perhaps he’s already lost it, and he’s lying around somewhere rotting away. Ben put the thought out of his mind; he’d done all he could for his nemesis.

“Okay, Jimmy, since Fitz isn’t here, you’ll be running today,” said Coach Perkins. “You, Wade, and . . .” His voice trailed off. At first Ben thought he just couldn’t bring himself to say Ben’s name. Then he saw that the coach was staring off in the distance.

Slowly jogging over from the far side of the track, silhouetted against the setting sun, was Fitz. As he approached, Ben saw that he’d filled in the hole in his head with something, and covered it with makeup so it didn’t show.

“Sorry, Jimmy,” Coach Perkins said. “Fitz has decided to join us after all.”

Ben jumped to his feet and removed the warm-up suit. It was time to run. Time to beat Fitz. He took his spot on the inner part of the track in the crowd of runners. It would be four laps around the quarter mile track. Other than the team trials, it had been a long time since he’d raced. He could feel butterflies in his stomach, as well as Toby, who was scampering about.

One of the runners pointed at Ben. “We’re not running with a deadie.” He and another member of his team walked off. The third member of their team followed them, staring at the ground.

“Me either,” said another from another school. Soon eight of the twenty-four runners had pulled out.

“See what you’ve done, zombie boy?” Wade said. “Go back to your graveyard. Of course, you’re helping the team by getting rid of the competition!”

“It’s not Ben they’re protesting,” Jimmy said from the sideline. “It’s his smell.” Several runners laughed nervously. Fitz stared at Jimmy, and then looked down as he took his place at the starting line.

“Oh, gross,” one said, holding his nose. He moved to the outer edge of the track.

Ben gritted his teeth, fighting to keep his will up. Anger filled him, and that helped. Maybe hating everyone would energize him, give him the will to win?

The starter called, “Runners take your mark.” Ben took a reflexive deep breath, not that he’d need to breathe to run. Some thought it was an unfair advantage for the dead to compete with the living since they didn’t have to breathe, but the living had no idea how much will it took for the dead to run. Fighting exhaustion was a lot easier than fighting to keep your will, especially when everyone around you did their best to sap it.

“Set!” Ben leaned forward slightly, ready to spring forward. Toby stuck its head out of his stomach, wiggling its whiskers at Ben.

The starting gun rocketed through the air. Memory of Fitz sticking the Beretta against his forehead and firing it a year ago froze Ben in his tracks.

But only for a second as he felt a searing pain in his right shoulder. Wade had grabbed his arm and twisted, and the arm had come off at the shoulder. Wade, at first surprised at the souvenir he held, yelled “Jeez!” and tossed the arm into the track’s infield. Then he took off after the pack of runners.

Ben hesitated, but there was no point in grabbing the arm; he’d just fall behind. His dad could sew it back on later. He took off after Wade, Fitz, and the rest, still dazed from the gunshot and having his arm yanked off. He felt his will weakening. Could he even complete the race?

Ben followed closely behind the pack of runners, vaguely aware of the flashing of cameras from the press, and the cheers and boos of the crowd. He knew who they were booing. Staying back wasn’t such a bad idea. Some runners went out fast and kept going as fast as they could until they tired and other runners passed them. Others kept a steady pace throughout, speeding up near the finish. Ben liked to hang back, save his will, and run hard at the end. If he could stay within range for three laps, he could take off in the final one.

He felt a bit awkward and unbalanced running with only one arm. He tried to compensate by pumping furiously with his left arm while leaning slightly to the right. He was uncomfortably aware that with his right arm removed, the maggot colony under his armpit, as well as his missing right ear, were in plain view to spectators, and even worse, the photographers. Why couldn’t they run clockwise?

He began to fall back as his will weakened. He watched as Fitz and Wade slowly moved past the pack of runners, who conveniently gave them an opening to pass on the inside. Were they letting the notorious Mile Mafia win?

White-hot anger energized him. If the others weren’t going to battle with Fitz and Wade, he would. His will poured through his muscles. He knew what Popeye felt like when he ate his spinach just before punching out Bluto. Except this wasn’t a cartoon, this was real.

Slowly he gained on the pack as they completed the first lap. After Fitz and Wade had passed, the opening on the inside had closed, making passing difficult. He could go on the outside, but if you get stuck there on the turns on each end of the track, you lose ground. If he was going to pass, he needed to do it on the straightaways.

On the straightaway at the start of the second lap, he approached the school’s cheerleading team. They started up a new chant.

“Zombie boy,

He’s our man,

Smells up the track,

Like nobody can!”

The anger inside him burned as he went around the first curve of the second lap. He’d focus his will and run like the wind, passing everyone, and leave Fitz and Wade in the dust. He increased his pace, and pulled up behind the pack as they approached the second curve. He’d try passing them after the curve, and run the last two laps like a hungry cheetah.

As they came out of the curve, he moved to the outside to pass on the straightaway. The runners fanned out, blocking his path. One glanced over his shoulder at him, and adjusted his positioning to close a temporary opening. Ben moved to the very outside of the track, but the runners spread out, again blocking his path. The cheerleaders were doing the “smells up the track” chant again, but he ignored them.

The runners were approaching the first curve on the third lap, and he didn’t want to get caught running along the long outer part of the track there. He needed to either pass them now, or move back to the inside. Desperately he tried forcing his way between two runners, but the two jabbed their elbows out, blocking him. When he moved too close, one of them jabbed him in the right side, where he didn’t have an arm to defend himself.

Maggots fell out onto the track and Toby frantically raced about in his stomach, squeaking furiously. The blow had increased the size of the maggot hole. Seeing they weren’t going to let him pass, Ben moved back to the inside. He’d come back later to gather up the maggots and his arm.

As he did so, his dried-up heart fell out of the maggot hole. He hesitated, but if he stopped to pick his heart up, he’d fall too far behind. He ran on.

He tried passing again after the curve, but again he was blocked. He could see Fitz and Wade running together about ten yards in front of the pack. As he approached the second curve on the third lap, he was running out of time.

His anger had pushed him so far, but now it was reaching its limits, and his will was leaving him. They weren’t going to let him win, so what was the point of trying? He might as well quit. He could go back, gather up the maggots and his arm and heart, and go home.

No, he thought, he had to try. For himself, and for other living dead. The world was watching through the biased eyes of the press. Maybe someday the world would change, and there’d be a statue to him, the first dead person to run with the living. He didn’t want it to say, “He gave up.”

As they came out of the curve and into the straightaway at the end of the third lap, he was determined to pass the pack. Once again he moved to the outside, and once again he was blocked. He moved back toward the inside, but the boys had spread out. Besides the three from Nathan Hale High, there were thirteen of them, enough to block him. Did they hate him that much? Or was fear of the Mile Mafia that widespread, and they were just following orders?

As he moved back to the middle, one of the boys looked back. Suddenly he slowed a bit, falling back, opening a hole. The boy silently gestured toward the hole, a pained grin on his black face.

Ben raced through, just managing to get ahead and to the inside of the track as they approached the curve.

Just before the curve was his heart. Barely breaking stride, he scooped it up. It had been flattened with the imprint of someone’s shoe–either Fitz or Wade, the only two to pass it since it had fallen out the lap before. He glanced at the bullet hole from the day before, then stuck it back in his chest through the maggot hole.

As they came out of the curve, Ben felt energized. The runners blocking him and slowing him down had been a gift in disguise–if he’d gotten through early, by now his will would have been gone. Now he chased after Fitz and Wade, about ten yards ahead.

There was nothing to hold back for–it was now or never, with three-fourths of a lap to go. He pumped his left arm furiously as he ran along the inside of the track, lengthening his stride as he closed the distance in half as they reached the final curve. Fitz was in the lead, with Wade just behind him.

He dug in deep, running faster and faster, ignoring the pain and emptiness of his dissipating will. Would he have enough?

As they came out of the curve, he moved to the middle of the track, now even with Wade, a yard behind Fitz. He could hear the crowd booing and the cheerleaders in another chant he ignored.

“No you don’t, zombie boy!” Wade yelled as Ben crept passed him and pulled even with Fitz. Wade grabbed Ben’s hair in the back and yanked, pulling Ben off stride. He felt his neck snap, and his head came off. The world spun about as Wade hoisted the head while Ben’s sightless body stumbled.

Ben awkwardly grabbed for his head with his left arm, not used to coordinating his movements from a detached head. He jammed his fingers into his mouth, and with his thumb under the chin, tried to pull his head free from Wade. His own teeth cut painfully into his fingers.

“Ow!” Wade cried. Toby had jumped onto him and bitten him on the leg. As Wade swatted at the mouse, Ben pulled his head free. Squeaking, Toby ran off.

Fitz had glanced over his shoulder to see what was happening, which slowed him, so Ben had only lost a couple of yards. Now it was a fifty-yard sprint to the red ribbon they had strung across the finish line.

With his last bit of will, Ben tore into the track, holding his head out in front so he could see. But sprinting with one arm is difficult; doing so while holding your head is nearly impossible. Somehow he kept within an arm’s length of Fitz, but couldn’t gain on him. Despite all his efforts, Fitz and the Mile Mafia were going to win.

With ten feet to go, Ben heaved his left side forward, shot-putting his head. The world spun about as he sailed through the air, sky, ground, sky, ground, sky, ground. Vertigo swept through him as he reached the finish line, the ribbon hitting his forehead just under his bullet hole. It barely slowed his flight as his spinning head broke the ribbon and flew another ten feet. He hit the ground with a jarring and painful thump, causing an instant headache.

His head came to a stop on its side, looking backwards. After crossing the finish line just behind Fitz, his body crumpled to the ground in agony. Ben willed it to come to him. It did so, crawling on hands and knees, and then grabbing his head. Painfully he stood up. He heard a mixture of cheers and boos from the crowd. Then he collapsed to the ground, clutching his head to his chest. He had no more will.

Once again a cacophony of sounds and bright lights summoned him. There was nothing left to fight it with as he drifted away, his pain gone as he moved to his final state. The light grew brighter as the sounds faded away. There was nothing to stop him, no need to stop. Soon he would join his mother.

“No you don’t!” The dreamlike voice seem to come from all directions. “You’re not getting away that easy either!” The world seemed to vibrate. “Wake up!”

He was vaguely aware that his forgotten body was taking a beating. Someone was pounding his chest and slapping his face. It started to hurt.

“Stop it!” Ben cried. He opened his eyes. The bright lights were gone, replaced by flashing lights.

“On your feet, now!” Fitz yelled.

Ben struggled, but couldn’t get up.

“I said, now!” Fitz slapped him again.

“I’m trying!” Sitting up seemed the most difficult thing he’d ever done. Then he stumbled to his feet, falling down the first try before balancing precariously. Somehow he seemed short as he looked up at Fitz and the others standing about. Then he realized he was seeing everything from his chest’s perspective, where he held his head. Gradually his will returned.

He was standing on the track near the finish line where he’d fallen. Media cameras flashed continuously. Toby came racing across the track, ran up his leg, and dove into its hole.

“The judges ruled you won,” Fitz said. “Your head crossed the finish line ahead of me.”

“We’re protesting that,” Wade said. “Ben cheated and should be disqualified. So Fitz won, and I get second.”

Fitz shook his head. “I saw the finish. Ben won fair and square. He wouldn’t have needed to throw his head anyway if you hadn’t grabbed him. I saw what you did.”

“How can you take his side against me?” Wade asked, looking astonished.

Jimmy was staring at Fitz. He suddenly leaned forward and jabbed his finger against Fitz’s forehead. The finger went in, exposing the hole in Fitz’s head. “My god, you’re dead! No wonder you’re suddenly a pansy–you’re a zombie boy!”

Fitz nodded. “Wasn’t much of a disguise, was it? Yeah, I’m dead, just like Ben. I was going to come out of the coffin soon, but only after I’d taken care of a few things. But I guess that’s not gonna happen.”

“You bet it’s not gonna happen!” Jimmy said. He yanked the Mile Mafia insignia off Fitz’s warm-up suit. “You know the rules. We don’t hang around deadies.”

Ben was grateful for Fitz’s reviving him. But now poor Fitz faced the same fate as Ben. And yet Fitz seemed rather happy with himself. He slapped Ben on the back–knocking more maggots free and bringing a squeak from Toby–and said, “Ben, you’re a great kid, but you’re a terrible organizer.”

What did he mean by that?

“If I’ve learned anything from leading the Mile Mafia, it’s how to organize. I’m no saint, but I know when I owe someone. Or somebodies.”

Wade grabbed Fitz by the front of his warm-up suit, looking like a pro wrestler next to a child. “You used to be cool, but not now. You’re not organizing anything anymore.” He shoved Fitz to the ground.

Fitz stood up quickly. Once again he seemed seven feet tall as he clapped his hands over his head three times.

People began filing from outside the stands onto the track. Not just people, Ben realized. Dead people!

“After our talk this morning,” Fitz said, “I visited the shantytowns. They’re my people now. I told them what was happening today, and, well, here they are!”

More and more living dead approached. Most wore poor-looking clothing, but all seemed very much alive despite being very dead. The causes of their deaths were evident in some of them, such as a woman nearby whose head drooped to the side from a broken neck.

Jimmy and Wade slowly backed away.

“From now on,” Fitz said, “no more of this separation of the living and the dead. We’re people too, and we’re going to stand for our rights like anyone else.”

“You have no rights!” Jimmy said. “Check the Constitution, the Dead Separation Act.”

“Yeah, the notorious thirty-first amendment,” Fitz said. “We’ll see about that someday. But I heard you made a bet with Ben,” Fitz said. “If he wins the race, you’d leave him alone.”

“He didn’t win the race,” Jimmy said. “He cheated.” But he took a step back as Fitz stepped toward him. Jimmy and Wade now stood on the inside of the track.

Fitz walked to the outside of the track to join the multitudes of dead that stood there. “You all saw what happened here today. All those who think the dead should be persecuted, and Ben kicked out of our school, go join them.” He pointed at Wade and Jimmy. “Those who disagree, come join us on this side.” He joined the rest of the dead outside the track, and stared back at Wade and Jimmy.

Ben joined Fitz. To Ben’s surprise, most of the other members of the track team–even the Mile Mafia members–joined the dead. So did many of the opposing track teams. Even Coach Perkins joined them, though his face looked like he’d swallowed a maggot. The press, which had hung back and watched the events unfold, also gathered behind Ben, who ignored their shouted questions.

“Are you going to sit there like ostriches?” Fitz yelled toward the stands. “You saw what that dead boy went through to win this race. If you can’t support that, then you’re deader than he is. Choose your side!”

At first a few at a time, and then like a torrent, the students and parents filed over, with most joining the dead. Soon there were hundreds of dead and living on the outside of the track, while Wade, Jimmy, and a dozen others stood alone on the inside.

“God damn it,” Wade said. Head down, he walked across the track and joined the others.

“No way,” Jimmy said. Jaw set, he walked across the track, then ran through the crowd into the parking lot, and was soon out of sight.

Fitz looked over at Ben. “Can we call it even now? But us dead people got a long way to go. Looks like I got a new project.”

Ben smiled as he collapsed to the ground. He’d run the race, and won. But he’d won more than the race. The cool breeze felt wonderful on his dead flesh even as he finally let go, unable to contain his spirit any longer in his rotting body.

END.

 

by Larry Hodges

Larry Hodges’s fourth novel, “When Parallel Lines Meet,” which he co-wrote with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn, comes out October 31, 2017 from Phoenix Pick Publishers. His third novel, “Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions,” a political satire/drama, was published in 2016, by World Weaver Press. (The novel covers the election for president of Earth in the year 2100, where the world has adopted the American two-party electoral system, and features a third-party moderate challenge that pits father against daughter – with an alien ambassador along for the ride.) A resident of Germantown, MD, Larry’s an active member of SFWA with over 80 short story sales. He’s a graduate of the six-week 2006 Odyssey Writers Workshop and the two-week 2008 Taos Toolbox Workshop. He has 13 books and over 1700 published articles in over 150 different publications. He’s also a professional table tennis coach! Visit him at www.larryhodges.org.

 

Dinnertime

 

Vernon opened his front door and went inside, mindlessly following his normal routine while his thoughts were elsewhere. He hung his keys on the small hook next to the coat rack.

I don’t know how many ways I can tell Gary that I can’t make paint dry any faster. He unzipped his coveralls and slipped out of them, letting them fall to the floor. The stupid prick should know that. He is the contractor. Isn’t it his job to know things like that. He pulled the respirator over his head dropped them onto the paint splattered coveralls, knowing Lucy would pick it all up later.

As Vernon walked into his living room, he did his best to forget about the morons he had to put up with at work. My home is my castle, he thought. No, not a castle. None of that medieval crap. This is my headquarters, my bat cave. No one ever tells me what to do here, and they sure as hell don’t tell me I’m taking too long drinking my coffee.

Walking into the kitchen, he took a big whiff. This was one of his favorite parts of the day. He never told Lucy what to make for dinner. He let her surprise him. She was a great cook. If she hadn’t been, he never would have married her. Vernon believed there were a great many things that could be trained into your wife, like how to keep a good house or how to anticipate your husband’s needs. Cooking was different. It was the pedigree of a good woman. Without it a woman wasn’t worth training.

Something was wrong. No aroma drifted to Vernon’s nostrils. He looked at the flat top stove he had bought Lucy on her last birthday. There was nothing on it, no sauce pan simmering, no pot of stew being kept warm.  Vernon glanced around, The crock pot wasn’t plugged in and the oven was empty.

“What the hell! You haven’t even started dinner,” he yelled. It’s one thing if dinner is running behind, he thought as he unbuckled his belt. I can be understanding. Last time she only got a few swats with the belt as a reminder. Apparently that was not enough.

“Lucy,” he called, sliding his belt out of his pants as he headed down the hall. When there was no response, he called out again this time even louder. “Goddammit Lucy, where are you.” The sound of retching coming from the bathroom dampened his anger slightly.

He went into the bathroom and found Lucy on her knees in front of the toilet. The long cotton nightgown had been white when he had bought it for her but now would be lucky to be called off-white. She looked up at him, clumps of puke matting the ends of her hair together, and started to say something. She barely got out an, “Oh,” before she turned back to the commode, and like a mother bird feeding its young, she heaved her stomach’s contents into the waiting receptacle.

The sight of Lucy throwing up was too much for Vernon and he looked away. He hated vomit. Even turned away, he could smell the foul stench of it and hear her retching. He forced himself to swallow as his stomach churned. He felt the acidic burn in the back of his throat as he backed out and closed the bathroom door.

He stood with his ear pressed against the door and listened as the moist sound of Lucy’s vomiting changed into the more forceful sound of dry heaving. When he was reasonably certain the dry heaves were over, he reentered the bathroom. Lucy had stood up and was sliding her hands down the front of her nightgown, trying ineffectively to smooth the wrinkles out.

For a moment Vernon just stared at her, watching a nickel sized piece of vomit slowly roll down the front of her nightgown until it finally slid off the fabric and dropped onto the tile floor with a soft thud. Disgust warred with the anger that had been building inside him since he had seen the empty stove. He did his best to push both feelings aside. He was not a monster. He would wait to correct the lack of dinner until she was feeling better.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Looking a little wobbly she said, “Oh Vern, I don’t feel very well.”

Vernon’s right fist was flying before he even realized it. It connected with the left side of Lucy’s head with a loud smack, sending her stumbling back. She fell to her right and bounced off the wall as her knees gave out. Falling to the floor, the back of her head connected with the edge of the toilet with a loud crack. She came to rest with her cheek pressed against her chest at an unnatural angle.

At first Vernon didn’t notice. “I’m sorry,” he said shaking his head from side to side, “but you know I hate being called that.” The rage that had so quickly come upon him was just as quickly receding, being replaced with concern. He hadn’t meant to lash out at her like that but he hated being called Vern. He thought the name made him sound like an ignorant hick. Lucy knew this yet she had called him Vern anyway. Really, she had asked for what she got, sick or not.

He noticed that she wasn’t moving and got down on his knees next to her. The smell was nauseating and he brought one hand up to cover his nose as he reached out and gently shook her. “Lucy? Are you hurt bad?”

When she didn’t respond, he reluctantly took his hand away from his nose and grabbed both her shoulders. He pulled her up into a sitting position and said, “Don’t screw around with me, Lucy. Wake up.” Her head had flopped back when he had lifted her up and remained there swaying loosely as he shook her by her shoulders. This started to worry Vernon.

He released her and she immediately dropped backwards, her head missing the commode this time and landing on the tile floor with a heavy thud. He gingerly reached his hand out and pressed his meaty fingers into her throat where her jaw met her neck.

“Oh shit!” he said barely audibly. He slapped her across the face the put his hand pack on her throat. “Fuck!” He stared at his now dead wife, then released a staccato of fucks with a final loud screaming fuck at the end. “fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FFUUUUCCCKKK.”

I’m in trouble. I didn’t mean to kill her but the cops won’t care about what I meant to do. They’ll just see a guy who beat his wife to death. They’ll put me in jail for life. Hell, they might even send me to the electric chair. He sat on the cold floor of the bathroom and stared at the dead body.

This isn’t my fault. How could she have done this to me after all I’ve done for her? I gave her a home and worked hard to make sure she had everything she needed and this is how she repays me. I barely even popped her. If she was still breathing, I’d show her what a real punch was.

He knew what he had to do. He went to the garage and got the shovel. Then went to the backyard. There was an area near the back fence they had roto-tilled the prior weekend so Lucy could plant her garden. That’s where Vernon started digging.

He had planned to dig a deep hole, at least six feet deep and six feet long, but digging was hard work. Forty-five minutes into his digging, his hole was only two and a half feet deep and a little over five feet long. Vernon stopped and leaned the shovel against the wood privacy fence that surrounded the backyard. Stretching his arms, he could feel the muscles of his back aching especially between his shoulder blades. His fingers were cramping from gripping the shovel. He wiggled them to try to get the circulation flowing and surveyed his handiwork. Like many times in his life when what he wanted to do turned out more difficult than he had thought it would, he settled. Tilting his head, he imagined Lucy’s body in the hole and decided he could get it to fit.

He went back into the house and headed straight to the bathroom. He avoided looking at Lucy’s body while he yanked the shower curtain down. He laid the vinyl curtain next to her and with some careful maneuvering managed to get her rolled up in it like a vinyl corpse burrito.

He started to lift her up to throw her over his shoulder but his muscles complained that the digging had been enough for them. He settled for grabbing her ankles through the shower curtain and dragging her legs out into the hall. He had to lift the top half of her body up through the door, then shove it down in the hallway. Now that she was out of the bathroom and relatively straight, he was able to grasp her ankles again and pull her to the backdoor.

He opened the back door and then looked around for something to prop it open with. Not seeing anything right in front of him and not wanting to spend any time looking for something, he reached into the folds of the curtain and felt around until his hand came across one of Lucy’s feet. He hooked his finger into the heel of one of her house shoes and pulled it off her foot. Folding the shoe in half, he shoved it under the door frame. Then he opened the screen door and reached up to the cylinder that kept the screen door from slamming and slid the metal washer down it to lock the screen door open.

Satisfied that both doors would stay open, he returned to the task of transporting the body of his dead wife to her hastily made burial site. With a grunt he managed to yank her over the lip of the door frame and down the two steps leading onto the back porch. He dragged her body across the concrete and into the grass. There he paused to catch his breath before dragging her the rest of the way to his recently dug hole. Pulling her body alongside the hole, he rolled the curtain containing the woman who had put up with him for the last twelve years into the ground.

Looking up, he noticed that the sky was starting to dim. He had maybe forty-five minutes until twilight made his task more difficult, and while he figured burying would not take as long as the digging had, he told himself he couldn’t take any more breaks until Lucy was safely hidden by the dirt she liked to work in.

Her body didn’t quite fit but Vernon made it work. He got down on his hands and knees to reach her. Then he bent her knees a little and pushed her head sideways. Whatever damage had been done when she fell allowed her head to be easily moved like a balloon attached to the end of a stick.

Reaching forward to position her head overbalanced Vernon. His left hand, which had been supporting his weight as he leaned forward, slipped on the dirt at the edge of the hole causing Vernon to pitch forward into the open grave. He fell across his wife’s corpse, his face landing in the loose dirt on the bottom of the grave between the wall of the hole and the wrapped up body. His legs were hanging out of the grave and his left arm was straight down his side. His right arm ended up pinned between the warm girth of his body and the cold vinyl wrapped flesh he had been trying to dispose of.

At the moment, Vernon became acquainted with fear in way he never had before. Lying with his face pressed into the damp earth, his world gone dark from the dirt his open stinging eyes were laying in, he heard a low hiss escape from the body trapped underneath him. Vernon felt as if the hand of death had reached out and squeezed his heart until it felt as if it would burst out of his chest.

He froze, unable to breathe because of the dirt but unwilling to move, afraid somehow the thing underneath him would come back to life if he did. The part of him that knew things like that were impossible was forgotten, being weaker than the fear that enveloped him.

So he lay there and listened, his hands trembling. He heard nothing but the normal sounds of the spring evening; a bird singing, the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees, the distant sound of a car. Vernon didn’t realize the sound that had birthed the fear in him was caused by his fall, the weight of his body pushing the last of the air out of his dead wife’s lungs.

He waited, listening, until he felt he couldn’t hold his breath any longer. Then, in a burst of motion, he scrambled awkwardly backward on his hands and knees, alternating between gasping for air and trying to spit wet dirt out of his mouth. His movement stopped when he backed into the wood planks of the fence. Some of the dirt had been sucked down his throat while he was trying to regain his breath and this set off a fit of coughing that lasted a couple of minutes.

When Vernon finally recovered, he returned to the task at hand. No longer as sure of what he was doing but having come too far to stop, he picked up the shovel and started scooping dirt into the shallow grave. He forced himself to continue even when his muscles started aching.

When he was done, he let the shovel slip from his hands and lumbered back to the house, too tired to pack the loose dirt down. He didn’t bother to close the back doors as he shuffled through them on his way to the kitchen where he went straight to the fridge.

He grabbed a six pack and started in on it. The first beer was opened and its entire contents in his gullet so fast he didn’t even taste it, just felt the cold foamy liquid sliding down his throat. With the second one, he swirled the first two gulps around his mouth to wash the taste of dirt and bile away and then guzzled the rest almost as fast as the first one. The third one he drank on the way to the living room’s recliner. The fourth one he opened to drink while he turned the tv on and flipped through the channels until he found the cubs game currently in the fifth inning. The fifth one sat on the coffee table unopened as he started to snore.

 

The screen door banging shut jolted Vernon out of the dream he was having. In it he was the boss and he yelled at everyone and the only thing any of them said to him was “yes, sir.” He didn’t realize that the sound of the screen door is what woke him. He only knew that something had disturbed his rest. Deciding his bed would be a better place to spend the remainder of the night than the recliner he got up and started toward the bedroom.

Even though he had been woken up, he was doing his best to not fully awaken as he made his way to his bed. The sight of someone in his house snapped him to full awareness, leaving no trace of the sleepiness that had held him moments before. As his hand found its way to the light switch on the hallway wall seemingly of its own volition, he yelled, “What the hell are you doing in my…?”

The words caught in his throat as the light illuminated the intruder. Slowly making her way down the hallway was Lucy. There was no mistaking her even in the state she was in. Her head was resting on her shoulder in a way that no living person’s head could be but it was still her face looking at him sideways through milky eyes. The old cotton nightgown stood out against the grayness of her skin which had strips of vinyl hanging off it. Her entire body looked as if it had been sprinkled with dirt which came to rest in every nook and cranny her body provided and clumped in moist clods around her mouth and in the remains of the vomit on her nightgown. No words or moans came from her but the sound of her teeth clacking into each other as she made biting motions towards Vernon, made the hair on the back of his neck rise.

“Lucy?” he called out nervously. “Is that you?”

No words came from Lucy’s lips as she continued to move slowly down towards the person who had been her husband until the death do us part ended the marital contract. She was almost to him, her arms reaching out to grab him when Vernon felt his bladder release a warmth that blossomed in his crotch and spread down his right leg. The fear he had felt when he had first seen her drained out of his body with the urine and the anger he had felt when he had come home to no dinner returned with a vengeance. Dead or not, this was Lucy and there was no way he was going to let himself be afraid of her. She was the one who was supposed to be afraid of him. She was the only one he had ever been able to count on to always be afraid of him when he needed to build himself up at someone else’s expense.

As she reached for Vernon, he lashed out at her, his fist smacking into her nose and knocking her head back. This was quickly followed by another jab and then a right hook that connected with enough force to knock the zombie off her feet.

As she fell backward onto her butt, Vernon pressed his advantage, quickly moving forward and shoving her onto her back. He then sat on top of her and started pummeling her face. A normal person would have been rendered unconscious by the onslaught Vernon released on the corpse of his undead wife. She, on the other hand, continued to try to eat him even after she lost her vision. one eye leaking vitreous fluid and the other covered by a flap of skin from her forehead.

As Vernon continued to punch, the exertion from the prior evening wore on him. His fists lost some of the speed they had started with. They came down just as fast but after each hit, Vernon was a little slower pulling them back up for another swing. And then it happened.

Lucy latched onto Vernon’s left arm and with a strength he never would have believed she was capable of and pulled his arm up to her mouth. Her teeth sank into the flesh of his forearm releasing a stream of bright red blood that poured into her mouth and overflowed onto the floor. The scream that erupted from Vernon was as much from shock as pain.

The bite turned Vernon from aggressor to victim. He no longer wanted to fight the creature underneath him. He just wanted to get away. With strength born of desperation, He managed to free his arm from her grasp, leaving a chunk of meat in her mouth. He struggled to his feet and grabbed his bleeding forearm, trying to stem the flow of blood. As he lurched away from the horror on the hallway floor, blood spread over his hand and down his forearm.

Backing away, he turned around the corner and rushed to the front door. He didn’t think about the coveralls he had left on the floor of the entryway. They weren’t something he ever thought about because Lucy, at least the Lucy he knew before she died and tried to eat him, always picked them up for him. He didn’t realize they were still on the floor until he stepped on them and he felt his feet sliding out from under him. Of course, he only had a moment to think about them before his head connected with the front door and he lost consciousness.

The loss of consciousness was only for a minute but during that time his blood continued to pour out of his arm. Also during that minute, Lucy managed to crawl out of the hallway and across the living room. He came to as she started to feast on his leg. He struggled to push her off of him but the loss of blood robbed him of the strength he needed to escape. As his blood puddled around him like an ink stain growing on a white shirt, he realized that Lucy finally had dinner ready but dinner this time was him.

END.

By Bill Wallace

Avagadro’s Zombies

 

“I guess I kinda thought when the world ended it’d be relaxing.” The Santa Anna winds blew the hot smell of rotting flesh, and wildfires across his face. The herd was, maybe a mile out, so they still had some down time.

 

“What do you mean?” Braeden didn’t really care, but he said nothing so the noob would keep talking.

 

“I mean no nine to five, no papers to grade or bills to pay. Secretly I think we all thought it’d be kind of relaxing.”

 

“You never thought about having to scavenge for food, or amebic dysentery? I bet you even thought there’d be an endless supply of bullets.” He continued sharpening his steel arrow head knowing the noob was one of those. The people that loved the zombie films, maybe even used to dress in camos and stare at their canned food supply patting themselves on the back because they could survive anything, but now that anything had actually happened, they were a little caught off guard. It was one thing to have post apocalyptic dreams. It was another to be awake while the zombies were biting.

 

“So what’d you do before?”

 

“Does it matter?” Noobs all asked the same questions; where were you from, what did you do, did you lose anyone? It was like a rite of passage when you joined a group.

 

“I think it does. It helps us get to know each other and it passes the time. Besides it can’t hurt anything,” he said wiping the sweat from his face.

 

“Someday you’ll turn and I’ll have to bash in your brains, that’s all I need to know.” Anymore than that and it’d be harder to bash in the noob’s brain. Which he knew he’d have to do at some point. Scavenging missions only ever ended one way. The noob got bit and he’d have to keep them from turning. It was better not to know who they were. It was better not to get too attached to the soon to be dead.

 

Braeden was pretty sure that’s how the zombie apocalypse would happen. Dreaming about a post-apocalyptic world was a hell of a lot easier than studying for his Ap chem midterm. Killing noobs was easy, Avagadro’s number was hard. He wished the apocalypse would happen before second hour.

 

END.

Closing Time

 

Eric Kenner was beginning to nod when the tires crunched on the gravelly side of the interstate.  He jumped awake and swerved back into his place, thankful that no one was around to see him.  Or hit him.  He had tried turning on the air conditioning to full blast, and that had helped for a little while.  Not long enough, though; Jenner was fading, and he knew it.  In his twenty-three years of driving big rigs, he had only fallen asleep on the road once – but of course, that was all it had taken, as they say.  His souvenirs from that little adventure came in the form of enough metal reinforcement (pins in the legs, pins in the spinal column, and of course, the ever popular four inch plate in the head) to get him special treatment at airports.  Since then, it had been his policy to quit driving as soon as he was even remotely tired; to pull into some hotel and just crash, even if he might only be an hour or two from his destination.

Tonight was different because his destination had nothing to do with his job.  He had a feeling that if he didn’t reach Myra by tonight, she would be gone forever.  If he stopped now, if he showed just one more sign of anger – even an unintentional one – it was probably curtains for them.  She had already started talking about moving out of their house and getting an apartment.  Eric had little doubt that if Myra did that, she wouldn’t be moving in alone.  Not for the first time, he wondered whether or not he really had been better off not knowing about the man she was cheating with.  After all, before that, he had been happy, and had assumed that she was, too. 

Now he knew the truth, and he was miserable.

The first drops of rain spattering the windshield jerked him out of his thoughts of Myra, back to thoughts of the road.  He didn’t mind driving in the rain most of the time, but then most of the time he was in his Peterbilt rig, and not in this dinky Honda Civic.  Plus, he knew that after a little while, rain falling on the windshield would likely become a soothing lullaby, which was the very last thing he needed right now.

He glanced down at the cell phone lying in the passenger seat like the world’s smallest child getting to sit up front.  He could call her.  If he told her that he was tired and needed to pull off to get some rest, she’d understand.  After all, she’d been there, holding his hand in the ICU and crying her eyes out as she stared at the damaged body of her husband.  She knew that if he said he needed sleep, he meant it.  Every time.

But tonight, maybe she knew something else, Eric thought.  Maybe she also knew that she didn’t love him anymore.

So, no phone call.  Tonight he would make it home, and he would talk to her face to face.  If the stars aligned for him, if he could be very convincing, and most of all, if there still burned something inside her for him, he thought they might pull through.

 

*          *          *

 

He was fading again when he saw the smeared streak of halogen lights up ahead.  He snapped awake, mentally gauging the distance to them so he’d be sure to catch the right exit.  What he felt now was more than tired.  It was an ache, the kind of soulless sorrow that comes from wanting to sleep and being unable to.  It seemed he could feel it in his bones, in his stomach, behind the eyes he so desperately wanted to close. 

It was a gas station; he could see it more clearly now through the rain.  One of those middle-of-nowhere all-nighter joints, he supposed, and shuddered.  If there was one job more lonely than his own, surely it was being a clerk in one of these places.  He turned his blinker on, too soon, but it didn’t matter.  It was almost two in the morning, and he hadn’t seen another car in half an hour.  Raindrops fell, scattered, and were swept away by the windshield wipers as he pulled off the interstate, guiding his car mostly by the lights ahead, as if he were a mariner lost in a storm on a choppy sea, and the halogens ahead were the salvific lighthouse.

He certainly felt lost tonight.

The parking lot was rough; there were large cracks in the macadam which held sizable populations of weeds, these pushing up through as if to reclaim Earth for the flora.  Caught among them were bits of trash – part of a coffee cup, a cinnamon bun wrapper, a broken beer bottle – souvenirs, no doubt, from this hallowed establishment, carried to a temporary resting place by wind and circumstance.

Eric pulled in, shut the car off, and just sat there for a long moment, hoping the rain would let up long enough for him to get out and go in without getting soaked.  It didn’t happen.  He reached over into the passenger seat and picked up the cell phone, flipped it open.  He had two bars, which wasn’t much, but it would be enough should he decide to call Myra.  He could do it; he wasn’t sure how close the nearest hotel might be, but it had to be closer than home.

Besides, this whole thing was probably a waste of time.  In all likelihood, it was too late to save the marriage anyway; best for him to get over it and begin the process of moving on. 

He put the cell phone back in the seat and opened his door.  He would at least go inside and look around for something to wake him up, just to be able to say he tried.  Beyond that, he could ask the lonely clerk where the nearest hotel might be – where the nearest town might be, for that matter; he wasn’t really sure there was much out here at all. 

He was soaked the moment he stepped out of the car, and as soon as he shut the door he ran up to the awning, passing through the heavy sheet of drain water and gasping at the cold.  He almost ran head first into the payphone, and wouldn’t that have been hilarious, he thought.  He took a moment to shake himself off, wringing his hands, running them through his hair, wringing them again.  Now his hair stood up in dripping spikes, and the skin of his palms was shriveled with moisture.  It occurred to him that he was wide awake now, and that he could probably go another twenty or thirty miles in this condition. 

But no; he was here, so he might as well get something to drink.  Not coffee – Eric hated coffee – but something caffeinated.  Maybe a Coke.

He walked to the front door, which was glass crisscrossed with black iron bars.  “Charming,” he muttered, and stepped in.

 

*          *          *

 

The music hit him first, the smell second.  Of the two, the music was more recognizable – he thought it was George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  The smell, though familiar, eluded him.  It conjured strange scenes from his youth, existing as a cloudy ectoplasm enveloping the stage during certain scenes of the mostly-forgotten play of childhood.  It was inane, alien, yet powerfully close.  He both wanted to inhale deeply to explore its singular bouquet, and at the same time vomit it from his nose and thrust himself back into the night, where the rain-washed air would smell fresh and vivid and above all things right.

This smell was not right.  It was wrong.

He stepped across the threshold, and above him a small grouping of jingle bells shivered into action, hailing his arrival by cutting harshly across Gershwin’s roving piano solo.  They died out quickly, and the sound of the rain was slowly enveloped by the sound of the door whooshing shut behind him.  Another tinkling of bells, and he was fully inside the store.

Something else felt wrong about the place immediately.  Not only did it not smell right, but he seemed to be entirely alone.  No one stood behind the counter; there were no patrons in the aisles.  He hadn’t seen any other cars in the parking lot, so he supposed that made sense, but…

“I’ll be right there,” a raspy voice said, and Eric jumped.  He looked in the direction the voice had come from, and saw an open door with the word “OFFICE” printed on it.  On this door were a multiplicity of signs, including such witticisms as “THE BEATINGS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES”, and “PROBLEM CUSTOMERS WILL BE TAKEN OUT BACK AND SHOT”.  Oddly enough, these signs cheered Eric a little.  They seemed to take a little bit of the creepy out of it, in some way he couldn’t quite put a finger on.

He turned toward the first aisle, and was startled to see a man-sized hourglass.  Most of its sand – which was brown rather than the usual white – was in the bottom glass.  On the top glass was a sign written by hand: TIME UNTIL CLOSE.  This one seemed a bit less cheery than the ones on the office door.  Eric shuffled past it toward the rest of the aisle and began walking down it, his eyes catching on things here and there.  Car equipment on the first aisle: everything you could possibly need from jumper cables to air fresheners.  There were sunglasses and phone chargers, phone cards and sun visors, ice scrapers and ice chests.  It all seemed perfectly natural; if you were coming into this gas station, you were likely on some kind of long trip, and who in the world liked to take a long car trip sans those special accoutrements one could acquire most conveniently at a convenience store?

Eric smiled, moving on.  He found that he had been wrong about the rain waking him up fully – he felt almost as tired now as he had in the car.  Maybe a Coke wasn’t going to do the job.  As a general rule, he tried to stay away from caffeine pills and energy drinks (he secretly suspected that cancer or something equally vile resided within such products, and that to use them even sparingly was to take one’s life in hand), but maybe tonight was the time for that rare exception.

The end of the first aisle ended up being the porn section.  This was the part of any convenience store which he – and, he assumed, most self-respecting people – tried to skirt around, not because he had no interest in such things, but because it was uncouth.  Now, of course, it was just him and the as-yet absentee clerk.  The urge to look was primal, had been ever since he was a youth.  Around about the time that that smell reminds you of, wouldn’t you say, a voice in his head intoned.  He took a faint sniff of the air, dismissed it, and looked at the porn rack, checking over his shoulder first to make sure that he wasn’t being watched.  There was no sign of the clerk yet.

What he saw surprised him; he had been expecting seedy stuff – this wasn’t a bookstore, after all – but he hadn’t been prepared for this.  In place of the Playboy and Penthouse brand of magazine there existed a rack of sadomasochist literature.  Magazines devoted to bondage and torture, leather and chains and spiked heels abounding.  Women with barely-blurred breasts caught in vise clamps; men holding paddles with what looked like blood on them.  There were faux vampire magazines; Goth dominatrix women with pointed teeth leering out from studded leather corsets.  There were even a couple of magazines in what looked like Russian Cyrillic; one showed a man hanging himself, one hand on the rope, the other in front of him and – but for the carefully-placed shrink wrap one could be certain – probably on his penis.  The other magazine featured three women, naked and not blurred out at all, sitting in a circle.  Scattered among them were fake body parts.  One of the women held a severed human arm up to her face, and was chewing on it.  Eric raised an eyebrow; evidently, cannibalism had entered the world of porn since the last time he’d checked.

He moved on down the aisle, coming to the cooler, and by way of the cooler, to the portion of the store devoted to alcohol.  Beer bottles and cans stood before him behind the glass walls of the cooler doors like rows of infantrymen, waiting only for orders.  It’d be called the Charge of the Coors Light Brigade, he thought, smiling a little to himself.

God, he was tired.  He brought his hands up to his eyes, rubbed them, stared at the beer. 

Here was an idea: he could buy a twelve pack, grab some smokes (because it just wouldn’t be proper drinking without a pack of smokes), find the nearest hotel room, and drink himself to sleep watching some shitty old movie.  Simple, beautiful, uncomplicated.  He had always suspected that he’d make a pretty good alcoholic if he really applied himself to the task; here was the perfect opportunity to find out.

There was a metallic clicking sound behind him, and Eric turned to see that the clerk had finally come out, and was locking the front door.

“Sir,” he said, walking slowly back up the aisle, wondering if this place would even have something as urbane as an energy drink for sale.  “Sir, I’m still in here.  Sorry, I didn’t know you were about to close.”

The clerk turned slowly to face him, and Eric paused, mid-stride.  The man was tall and lanky, sporting a button-up shirt that seemed out of place here.  Eric noticed almost immediately that his left hand – and perhaps much of the arm that it connected to; it was impossible to tell with the shirtsleeve – was actually a prosthetic.  The clerk’s pants, a faded but well-creased pair of black dress slacks, seemed to billow around him, as though his legs were thin as broomsticks.  His face was gaunt and pale, almost a gray color.  Eric only stopped staring two or three seconds after he realized he was staring and instead focused his gaze on the door.

“Ah, there’s always one or two,” the clerk said in that gravelly voice, his grin revealing two rows of broken and mostly rotted teeth, which Eric didn’t see because he was looking at the door.

“Yeah, well, sorry man,” he stammered.  “I, uh…I was just looking for a quick energy drink or something.  Do you mind?”  He risked a glance at the clerk, seeing not agitation on the man’s face, but a kind of satisfaction.  The clerk adjusted a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, and smiled, this time with his mouth closed.

“Not at all, sir.  I’ll just leave this other door unlocked for you.”  He waved his prosthetic hand in the general direction of the OUT door, and made his way around the counter.

“Where, uh…where do you keep – ”

“Third aisle, all the way back to the cooler,” the clerk said, and Eric noticed that the man was walking with a limp.  Whatever had happened to this guy, it had fucked him up pretty badly.  He went back the way he had come, this time passing the strange porn and the beer without looking at them.  Sure enough, he found a host of energy drinks, named for everything from hip-hop singers to illicit drugs.  Normally, he would have looked each one over – probably to see if the ingredients lists contained the word “cancer” – but not tonight.  The store was already closed and besides, he had an uneasy feeling about this place.  He grabbed the first thing his hand could find and shut the door. 

The music changed as he was walking up, Gershwin giving way to some pop tune he didn’t recognize.  So the guy has an eclectic taste in music, he thought, trying to fight the uneasiness and failing.  So sue him.

“Ah, yes, the ‘Dumpsta Diva 202’, an excellent choice,” rasped the clerk as Eric set the large pink can on the counter.  Eric hadn’t even glanced at the name, but he did now.

“That’s a weird name for an energy drink,” he said.

“I believe it’s named for the rap singer.”

“Wonders never cease,” Eric said.

“Pardon me if I’m being forward,” the clerk said, “but I noticed you were looking at our fine selection of…adult material.  Anything in particular catch your eye?”  He leaned across the counter, and Eric suddenly realized that the strange smell was coming from him.  He still couldn’t put a finger on what it was, but the memories it conjured up grew perceptibly sharper; he was in his early teens, and he was in school doing something.  But what?

“Sir?” the clerk said, and Eric came back to the present. 

“Hmm?  Uh…no.  No, I didn’t find anything interesting in the por… in the adult section.  Thanks.”

“Pity,” the clerk said, reaching up to adjust his glasses.  When he did so, Eric saw a horrible thing.  The clerk’s nose actually moved with the glasses.  It was a slight thing, but in it, Eric caught a glimpse of the dead black chasm that lay behind the man’s prosthetic sniffer.  What the hell was wrong with this guy?

“Pity?” Eric repeated dumbly. 

“Yes,” the clerk said, finishing with the glasses adjustment.  “I sometimes enjoy conversing with…shall we say, kindred spirits.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Eric said, and looked down at his energy drink.  He had no memory of any popular singer who went by the moniker “Dumpsta Diva”.  Knowing the current crop of famous people was Myra’s bailiwick, not his.  But it seemed odd to him; surely even among the hip-hop community, there was such a thing as a modicum of class, wasn’t there?

“If you’re interested in hearing it, I’ve got one of the Dumpsta Diva albums in my office.  She is…off the chain, as I believe they call it.”

“No, thanks,” Eric said, feeling genuine alarm beginning to creep in on him.  “I’ll just take the drink.”  He reached his right hand around and fished out his wallet.  With his left he went for his cell phone – just in case.  It wasn’t there, of course; he had left it in the passenger seat. 

No worries, he thought.  I’ll just pay for this and be out of here.

That was when he discovered that all he had was a fifty in his wallet.  He’d neglected to take his credit card with him on this trip, since it had initially only looked like it was going to take him a few hours.  Now, he realized that even if he wanted to get a room somewhere to crash for the night, he probably wouldn’t be able to.  That was okay; as long as he could get out of here, he thought he could make it the rest of the way home.  In fact, he realized, the small tendrils of fear that were encroaching on his mind had acted as the perfect wake-up – he felt fully alert now. 

“Ah,” the clerk said, staring down at the bill in Eric’s hand.  “Not only a late-comer, but a man with a large bill.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Eric said, not feeling sorry at all, but not wanting to piss this strange apparition of a man off.  “It’s all I’ve got on me.”

“And you just assumed that I would be able to accept such a large bill at this late time of night,” the clerk said.  “Isn’t that a little frightfully presumptuous?”

Eric looked up to see the clerk smiling again, this time with his broken teeth showing for all the world to see.  It was in that moment that he finally realized what the smell was, and where he had smelled it before. 

It was formaldehyde.  The scene flashed before his mental eye: ninth grade, the science lab, and a young Eric Jenner standing with his teammates over the partially-dissected remains of a pig fetus.  They had been kept in formaldehyde.

“You know what,” Eric said, backing away from the counter and slipping the fifty back into his wallet, “I’m sorry.  I think I’ll just go.”  His heart was pounding now, the not-quite-irrational fear swelling into terror of the clerk.  He backed away several more steps, his eyes not leaving the ruined man, and he bumped into something, nearly knocking it over.  He turned, only barely stifling a scream.  It was the huge hourglass; all the sand now rested in the bottom half, and the TIME UNTIL CLOSE sign taped to it flapped in the slight breeze caused by the disturbance. 

“I suppose I’ll just put this back for you, as well,” the clerk said.

“Yeah, sorry…I…I’ve just gotta go,” Eric said, and bolted for the door.

It didn’t open.  Eric ran face-first into it, mashing his nose against the glass, and it did not open.  The panic exploded now and became a hot white heat that ate rationality and shat adrenaline.

“What the fuck?!” he shouted, turning back to the counter.  But the clerk was no longer there.  Eric turned further, toward a steadily building wheezing sound, and saw the madman limping around the counter’s far edge.  It took him a moment to realize that the wheezing was actually laughter; it was punctuated by little coughs, one of which produced a viscous black fluid which flowed from the corner of the clerk’s mouth, falling onto and staining his shirt.

“I’m terribly sorry,” the clerk said, his grin on full power now.  “I seem to have forgotten to leave that door unlocked.”

“Don’t come near me, man!” Eric said, jumping back.  This time, he did knock over the hourglass.  It fell seemingly in slow motion, crashing to the floor and shattering into thousands of pieces.  Eric, who had stumbled in the process of knocking it over, now leaped backward over what was left, as if it might form some sort of protective barrier.  It didn’t, but he picked up a shard of glass, wielding it like a knife.  “Don’t you even come near me, asshole!  I don’t know what the hell all of this is, but you need to just fucking cut it out!”

“Sir,” the clerk said, reaching for his glasses, “this is a family establishment.  I’m afraid I can’t tolerate foul language, let alone the brandishing of a weapon.”  He removed the glasses and, consequently, the prosthetic nose, exposing two caves of blackened, desiccated flesh.  “Even a weapon as ineffectual as that.”

“What are you?” Eric moaned.  He could feel his grip on the glass shard weakening; could feel his knees wanting to buckle, his blood turning icy in his veins. 

“A zombie, of course,” the clerk answered simply.  “But you didn’t want to know that, did you?”  He stepped forward slowly, grinning again; the black stuff he’d coughed up coated the bottom row of jagged teeth.  “See, now you’re even more afraid than you were before, because you’re thinking that I’m either crazy – which is bad, or that I’m telling the truth – which I assure you is much, much worse.”

“Get away from me!” Eric shouted, renewing his grip on the glass shard so tightly that he could feel it cutting his hand; could feel the blood beginning to flow down his palm and onto his wrist.  “Let me out of here or…or I’m going to call the police!”

“Oh, but you can’t call the police, of course, or you already would have.  Did you think I wouldn’t notice when your hand went to your pocket?  You were looking for your cell phone, but of course it wasn’t there.  I’m betting it’s out there,” he gestured with his prosthetic arm toward the door behind him, “in the car.  Sound plausible?”

“Look, what do you want?” Eric said.

“To eat your brains, what else?” the clerk said.  “Honestly, I’m surprised you didn’t get that one right off.”

“My…my brains?” Eric said.  “My fucking brains!”  Now he was angry.  “What is this shit?  Am I being ‘Punk’d’ or something?”  He glanced around, hoping to see the orchestrators of this particular prank coming out of the proverbial woodwork, knowing that he wasn’t going to. 

“I’m afraid I don’t know what that means,” the clerk said, and began to lurch forward again.  “Now, we can do this the hard way, or we can do it the really hard way.  In either case, my friend, please know that I’m grateful for the nourishment which you are about to provide for me.”

“What are you talking about, you crazy bastard!?” Eric said, continuing to backup a step for every forward one the clerk took, as though they were locked in some malign form of dance – the hunter and the hunted, performing the two-step from hell.  “Look, man.  You’re not thinking right, okay?  If you’ll just back off and let me use the phone, I can get you some help.  I know a doctor who specializes in these sorts of things.”  He didn’t; Eric Jenner couldn’t even imagine a doctor who treated this kind of head case, and he sure as hell didn’t know one.


“I’m not thinking right,” the zombie clerk repeated, the rasp in his voice somehow conveying a perfect sense of contempt.  “My God, you can’t even speak properly to save your life.  What has this old world come to?”  He took another step forward, this one more of a lunge, and gave a harsh, barking laugh when Eric yipped and nearly fell over getting away from him. 

“Stop doing that!  Let’s fucking talk about this, man!”  Eric reached out a hand to steady himself, realizing only a second or two later that he was leaning on the porn rack.  He pulled his hand back, wiping it on his shirt. 

“I find it difficult to converse with someone whose elocution consists mostly of sentences like, ‘Let’s fucking talk about this, man’.  When you’ve been around as long as I have, when you’ve absorbed as much of the knowledge of etymology – which in the pantheon of things known occupies such a tall pedestal – it becomes rather boring to talk to the uneducated.”

“How long have you been around?” Eric said.  He was stalling, and the monster in front of him seemed to know it; he stopped advancing for a moment, raising his real hand in an accommodating gesture. 

“All right, all right,” the zombie clerk said.  “I’ve got all night, and I’d hate to deprive you of all chances to think of a possible means of escape.  Shall I tell you my life story?”

“Yes, please,” Eric said.  The zombie stared at him for a long moment, the grotesque grin hanging off his face like a necrotic dream – the vision poisoned into a nightmare. 

 

*          *          *

 

“My name,” he began, “is – or was – Joseph Bellows.  I was born in the year eighteen ninety-seven, in Scranton, Ohio.  When I was twenty years old, I was killed in the trenches in France.  A bombshell went off a little too close to my left arm, tearing it off, and I bled to death before the corpsman could even get to me.  Ten days later, I woke up back in Scranton, inside a coffin in the First Baptist Church, to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’ being played on the organ.  It was, of course, my funeral.  I never knew how it happened, but…hey!”

Eric bolted.

 

*          *          *

 

He ran, past the porn rack, past the beer, the oddly named energy drinks.  He ran wildly, seeing rows of soda to his left, aisles of chips and candy bars to his right.  As he neared the ice machine at the back corner of the store, he looked to his left and saw a door marked: EMPLOYEES ONLY.  Without hesitation, he slammed into it, and then realized that he had to turn the doorknob first.  Behind him, he could hear the creature coming for him, its pace increased, its breath wheezing not laughter now, but genuine exertion. 

I’ve got to get out of here, his mind yammered at him, over and over.  I’ve got to get out of here!  He burst through the employee door, praying that he would find an exit door right behind it.  No such luck; if this place had an exit door, it wasn’t in the logical place at the back.  Instead, he saw what appeared to be a dry storage area, littered with massive beer carton forts and empty boxes.  Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, and Eric suspected it had been decades since anyone besides the creature now chasing him had even been back here.  Or, at least, been back here and made it out alive.

To his left was the door to the cooler.  It was old, with a pull-bar like that of an old refrigerator.  If he could get in there and somehow lock the door…

He was in like a flash.  From outside in the store area, he could hear the thing bellowing at him.  He pulled the door closed, looking desperately for some kind of linchpin.  For the first time that evening, fate smiled down on him.  Not only was there a metal pin hanging down on a frail old chain, but there was a hole to stick it in.  Lightning-quick, he stuck it in, then backed away.  The terror did not leave him then, but it slowed a pace. 

It was at least twenty-five degrees colder in here, and Eric was suddenly reminded that he was still drenched from the rain.  He hadn’t realized he was shaking until now; the combination of fear and cold danced a furious clogging jig across his skin, and his teeth began chattering. 

He heard the employee door opening, and then a banging on the cooler door.

“Let me in!” the zombie shouted, but he was laughing again, the wheezing quality of his breath an eerie mumbled drone in Eric’s ears.  “I promise it’ll be quick if you let me in now.  I can smell your brains, though, and they’re driving me crazy.  Be warned; if you wait too long, I won’t be able to control myself.”     

“How about you control yourself now and leave me the fuck alone!” Eric yelled. 

No response.  All he could hear now were the two ambient sounds of the cooler: that of the compressors pumping in the cold air, and that of his teeth chattering.  Then he heard the employee door again, and through the glass between the rows of drinks, he could see the clerk’s figure lumbering out into the store proper.  He used his free hand to move aside some of the beer, then peered out.  The clerk was nowhere to be seen.  All that lay before him were the dirty floors and lonely subdivisions of various unneeded products; a cobweb spun of man, its design fiscally predatory. 

All the lights went out.

Eric started and sucked in breath, suddenly enveloped in utter blackness.  He dropped the shard of glass, heard it tinkle on the concrete floor.  He squatted, breathing heavily now, and felt for the thing, his eyes moving vainly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Finally they caught something.  It was faint, but it was there.  A dim glow presented itself, lighting around two sides of a black angle.  At first it didn’t compute, and then he realized that whatever light it was, there was a box between it and him.  He reached forward, moved the beer aside, and peered out.  It was the streetlamp outside.  It should have been comforting, seeing that.  Instead, it made the panic within him grow.  If the only light coming in through the store window was the streetlamp, then the outside fluorescent lights were off, too.  This meant that, for all intents and purposes, the store was going to be unnoticeable to the outside world. 

In that instant, the glass cooler door Eric was facing swung open, the magnetic lining giving off a pinched smooching sound, the hinge screaming a small scream.  Then a hand – a horrible, cold and bony hand – reached through and grabbed him by the arm.  Eric screamed, but it did no good.  The clerk’s strength was amazing.  He yanked Eric forward, and Eric’s face slammed into the metal rack above it.  He felt warm blood trickling down his forehead, and for a moment he was disoriented.  But then the creature was yanking him again, dragging him out of the cooler, knocking boxes of canned and bottled beer all over the place.

Frantically, he felt around the floor with his other hand, but it was too late for the glass shard.  His torso was already partially wedged between the racks.  It was a tight fit, but as more and more beer fell out of the way, there became more room for him to fit through. 

He flexed and unflexed his hand in the monster’s grip, hoping against hope that it would slip through; no such luck. 

“Come on out, now, human,” the creature rasped, and Eric could now tell a difference in its speech.  The words were slurred, as if the clerk had been drinking for half the evening, and they had an odd hollow echoing quality, as if they were words not so much spoken as merely produced.  “I want your brains!  I need your brains!”

“Get away from me!” Eric sobbed, unable to fight the pull of the monster as he was dragged the rest of the way through the cooler.  He spilled out onto the floor, landing atop and around a heap of broken bottles and burst cans.  Everywhere now there was the sound of fizzing, and the related but separate smells of alcohol and formaldehyde.  A split second later, the monster was on top of him, its bony knee pinning Eric to the floor.  Eric shrieked in pain as the knee drove into his kidney.  Then the thing grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head up hard.   

“BRAINS!” it croaked loudly, then sank its teeth into the hair and scalp.

Eric screamed as the zombie bit in.  He felt the jagged teeth tearing skin from his head, and then grinding against something underneath.  Suddenly, it was the zombie’s turn to utter a howl.  The teeth went away, and the knee at his back slackened.  Eric turned his aching head to look back and up at the monster.  It was clutching both hands – the real and the prosthetic – to its mouth, through which came a horrid, rusty screeching now.  He saw several of the thing’s teeth fall out between the fingers, rolling down its shirt and leaving a trail of blackish ooze.

The plate in his head.  The zombie had bitten into the steel plate. 

With a sudden burst of energy borne of pure survival instinct, Eric twisted his body, hurling the ailing zombie to the side.  He got up on all fours, the throbbing pain in his scalp threatening to unman him.  But he had to get out of here.  He had to get to a doctor.  Had to get to the police.  Had to get home to Myra, even if she was cheating on him.  He glanced around at the broken beer bottles and found a suitable one.  Then he stood astride the zombie and held the jagged end of the bottle-neck up to its face.

“Keys,” he said.  “Now!”

Wordlessly, its eyes wide and mysteriously dry over its empty socket of a nose, the zombie removed a hand long enough to reach down and grab its keys.  It handed them to him, then returned the hand to its mouth.

Eric dealt it a solid kick in the chest, and was both surprised and horrified when his foot went through its sternum.  He had to pull it out, which took some effort. 

“Fuck you, man,” he said.  “You fucking deserved it!”

Then he turned and staggered away, toward the front of the store.

Toward the locked door.

 

*          *          *

 

The rain felt surprisingly wonderful on his wounded scalp.  Despite his terror, he paused a moment just outside the protection of the store’s awning to let it soak him down from head to foot.  He found, for that brief moment, that horror was overcome by revulsion, and he had to fight the urge to retch on the way to his car. 

Behind him, through the glass door of the store, he heard the monster again, its rasping scream seeming to grow closer, as if it had gotten up to walk off the mortal wound Eric had dealt it.  That broke his paralysis.  He dropped the thing’s keys in the parking lot, and reached for his own as he ran to his car.

Once inside, he fumbled with the keys in the dark for a long, terrifying moment – the one streetlamp did not provide much light out here, either – before remembering the dome light.  Within five seconds, he was melting rubber getting back onto the interstate.

 

*          *          *

 

After only fifteen or twenty minutes of driving, he began to feel consciousness threatening to get away from him again.  This time, however, he thought that it was probably from the blood loss, considering that he probably had enough adrenaline running through his system now to light a football field. 

He was tired.  He wanted to pull over and just sleep sitting up.  Only for a little while, and then he could continue on his way home, where Myra would be waiting for him.  Myra, he thought.  How am I ever going to convince her of this one?  Of course, Myra was low on the totem pole in terms of people he needed to see right now.  He had to get to a doctor.  Had to get to the police.

He remembered the cell phone, and looked over to find it in its spot, just where he’d left it.  He wondered now if the thing back there would have attacked him if he’d managed to pull it out and call someone.  That was an unanswerable question, and he suspected that there would be a lot of those in this case.  He reached for the cell phone, felt his fingers close around it, then let it go.

Myra was what mattered.  He didn’t know why, exactly, but somehow the events of this evening had honed his focus to a sharp edge that he wouldn’t have thought possible before. 

Myra.

Myra.

Myra’s…

Myra’s brains…

 

END.

By J.M. Jennings

J.M. Jennings was born in 1983 in Wichita, Kansas. He is the author of four novels and dozens of short stories, and has also written a daily column for a website and occasional sketch comedy. He has lived all over the Midwest, and currently resides with his wife and two sons in Kansas.

 

https://www.amazon.com/J.M.-Jennings/e/B004XW7Z2C