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    47 DAYS IN THE MURDER HOLE by Kevin Fortune
    October 22, 2014  Longer stories,Short stories   Tags: ,   

    Betrayal, revenge and murder; lovely meaty sounding terms, eh? They’re such thrilling, blood dripping and juicy words that I’ve always loved, but only in fiction of course. I mean… I never thought, not for one second, that I’d ever become the central character in such a terrible story myself, but I have. And that’s the thought that runs through my mind as I move sneakily up behind Tommy O’Brien to push him over the edge of this high sea cliff.

    Opportunistic murder is a tricky thing – or so I’ve read, I’m no expert – but this is the perfect time to repay him for what he did to me. Just look at him there; he’s so intent on watching seagulls dive on the broken bodies we’ve just dumped that he doesn’t notice me closing in on him.

    There’s a fifty fifty chance that his daughter might turn and spot my evil purpose but she’s far too busy peering through the grubby murk for prowling corpses, otherwise I should expect nothing less from her than a bullet in the brain, and quite understandably so.

    I stare intently at the back of Tommy’s head, remembering how we were once the best of friends, but well, some things can change in a flash, so I held my breath and moved in for the kill…

    *****

    Long before this awful nastiness kicked off, back before the whole world changed, Tommy told me and Joanie over dinner in our local Italian that he’d bought himself an old Martello tower on the Atlantic coast of Galway. My jaw nearly dropped at this surprising little snippet. He said his plan was to renovate it and hold parties there for his clients (a tax write-off, in other words) or for anyone else willing to make the four hour trip out of Dublin. (Anyone else meant any woman – not his wife – who fancied a weekend alone with this handsome, callous charmer).

    “It could even be a great night spot,” he added thoughtfully. “And it’s really very scenic, so Charlie, be sure to bring your water colours when you visit.”

    “A Martello Tower,” I exclaimed, turning my attention to Tommy’s unusually silent wife. “And did you have any say in this, Jenny?” I asked her. “I mean, surely you’re not the type to entertain businessmen and their spoilt trophy wives, are you? Certainly not in the wilds of Connemara.”

    “No,” she said flatly. “I’m not. And anyway, the place is a ruin, a money pit. But we all know what an eejit Tommy is with his money sometimes, don’t we, Tommy?” She poked her husband hard in the arm and turned irritably back to us. “And did he tell you what else he’s getting?” she asked indignantly. “No?” She dropped her voice as we leaned conspiratorially across the table, me and Joanie grinning with delight at her uncharacteristic tetchiness. “Well, he’s only gone and applied for a gun licence, that’s what.”

    I nearly choked on my bruschetta. “Aw, Tommy, that ruins everything!” I cried in mock outrage. “How can I possibly make passes at your wife if firearms have entered the equation?”

    “Oh, come on now Charlie,” my Joanie said, putting a sly hand on my thigh where Jenny could see; winking broadly at her. “Since when have you disliked guns? I mean, you’re continually obsessing about your own.”

    “Um, well…” I said, shifting uncomfortably. “What you’re referring to isn’t technically a gun, snookums. I only said it was so you’d take it out for me every now and again and give it a good oiling.”

    “Snookums,” Jenny laughed.

    “A good oiling,” Tommy snickered, looking at Joanie a bit more lasciviously than I’d normally like him to.

    *****

    Not long after that evening my best friend Tommy, that dirty treacherous bastard – as if he didn’t have enough women on the side – took it upon himself to bed my Joanie. The circumstances are unimportant but he spotted a weakness in her defences and fully exploited it. I’d seen him do this with other women and I always accepted it as Tommy just being Tommy, the ladies’ man; I neither approved nor disapproved but this time, I mean…my wife.

    I took the blame entirely upon myself for Joanie’s part in this, though. As far as I was concerned, rightly or wrongly, it was my failure as a husband that drove her to do this in the first place, so it was only Tommy that I targeted with my outrage.

    Another friend of mine mentioned that Tommy was more distraught by the ending of our friendship than he was about Jenny sensibly kicking him out of the family home. It was also said that I was far too hard on him, especially in light of his open, frequent and public apologies, yet he sickened me with his pathetic nighttime phone calls and his shameless use of mutual friends to intercede on his behalf. He’d caused me real damage; deep down damage and I had no intention of ever forgiving the backstabbing bastard.

    Then I heard, much to my disgust and annoyance, that Jenny’s resolve had crumbled under a barrage of silky lies and she’d allowed him back home again. As for me and Joanie, well…to make a sad story short we did our best to reassemble the shards of our marriage but the brutal knowledge of what had happened built a wall between us. What finally killed our relationship was her bitter and incorrect belief that it was Tommy’s betrayal – and not hers – that had wounded me the most. I’m still trying to get my head around the logic of that one.

    Then one stormy evening a taxi called and took her away for good; off to her big sister on the far side of the world. I lay on the floor for a full day – it might have been two – just looking at the ceiling, raging and raving, before eventually calming down and accepting the permanence of this vacuum in my heart. Life must go on but my anger never left; nor did my sense of betrayal and loss. I was angry for weeks. I was angry for years. I still am; but not at Joanie; never at Joanie. No, all my bitter antagonism was blindly aimed at Tommy, and someday I’d make him pay.

    Day Zero

    Anyway, one evening I realised I was watching the End of the World on TV. I also realised, because I’m no fool, that this undead maelstrom would simply swallow me effortlessly. Despite my modest wealth I had nowhere effective to hide that wouldn’t have a thousand frightened souls already there before me, all clamouring violently for entry. I was sitting there in my armchair, numbed with growing terror, when the phone bleeped. I picked it up fairly quickly as I always do; always hoping that one day it’d be Joanie telling me she’s coming home.

    “Howya, Charlie.”

    “Tommy,” I said coldly. “Why don’t you just fuc…”

    “Hear me out Charlie, please,” he interrupted nervously. “Things are getting sorta dodgy out there on the streets so I’m just checking that you’re okay, y’know?”

    “Why wouldn’t I be?”

    “Well, because it’s just not looking good, is it? I’ve already moved Jenny and Debbie out to Connemara.”

    Something pinged in my head. “Your Martello tower?”

    “Yeah. But hey, the Living Dead; can you believe it?” he snorted as if it was a joke. “Anyway listen; I’ll cut to the chase. Me and Jenny were talking and…look, Charlie, I know you don’t want to know me, but… But I owe you a big one and it’s just that we’ve got a spare room up for grabs in the tower – if you’re interested, that is,” he added quickly. “I mean, I’ll fully understand it if you’re not… after, you know…. that’d be quite alright. It’s small, but it’s totally secure. And we’re well stocked too.”

    I held the phone and watched the smoke and the madness blossom on TV. An offer like Tommy’s at a time like this was pure gold dust except…except that Tommy would be there too, wouldn’t he? But beggars can’t be choosers and I reasoned quickly that Jenny and Debbie would be distraction enough for me so I decided to accept his invitation. It was a no-brainer really but it took all my willpower to actually say yes to the creep.

    “Ah, Charlie, that’s brilliant! Brilliant!” He gushed, maybe mistaking my acceptance as forgiveness. “It’ll be great to see you again. Do you know what Jenny and Debs said when I suggested calling you? They said you’d bring a touch of class to the old place – what with your good table manners and charm and all.”

    “Well Tommy, tell them that I only use my charm when I’m dealing with scumbags like you. Or with the judiciary, I suppose.” There was a dead silence at his end until I laughed; letting him know I was only kidding. Then he laughed, too. Prick.

    “Yeah, scumbags and the judiciary,” he agreed uneasily. “And I’ll tell you what else as well, Charlie; I’ll even let you play with my new guns if you promise to leave that sharp tongue of yours at the door. I’d hate for it to go off by accident and cut the head off one of us.”

    “Perish the thought,” I said. “Anyway, I expect you have a big shopping list all ready for me, don’t you?”

    Day 1

    Tommy’s Martello tower stood well off the beaten track at the top of a lonely Atlantic cliff. When I saw it silhouetted against a vast blue sky filled with soft edged cirrus I thought I might actually like it here. I drove my packed van through an ancient roadside gate and up a steep, windswept, stony track. A couple of other vans were already parked in the Martello’s squat shadow and three figures waved at me from the rooftop parapet.

    Tommy once described his tower as… an upside down flowerpot. It even had a bloody big cannon on the roof to blow Boney back to France! The structure stands fifteen metres tall and about the same in diameter. A small wind turbine had replaced the old gun on the flat roof, its flashing blades like vertical car spoilers spinning in the fresh Atlantic breeze. The only entrance is through a small reinforced door situated halfway up the tower. Directly overhanging this is the sinister stone box of a murder hole.

    Blazing white gulls wheeled and screeched above the spray of the boundless green ocean. I got out of the van and admired the sweeping panoramic views until Tommy ruined it all by poking his head through the door above.

    “Charlie!” he yelled down the lightweight metal staircase. He wore his familiar stupid grin and had his arms open wide in welcome, the idiot. My initial instinct was to run up the steps and throttle him on the spot but I’d promised myself I’d play the game for the sake of Jenny and Debbie, both of whom I was genuinely fond.

    “My god, Tommy,” I exclaimed, impressed, as he guided me deferentially up the stairs, through the thick stone wall and into the body of this solid edifice. “How did you get planning permission to revamp all this?”

    Everything is curved and rounded and tasteful; even the ceiling. This mid-level area is divided into three small, windowless bedrooms and a bathroom. Whatever floor space remains is considered living area. The interior is dark by default and the roof mounted turbine powers the lighting that Tommy had installed.

    Jenny and Debbie clattered their way down a stairway concealed within the wall itself. Seeing the girls after so long gave me an unexpected boost. Jenny looked really good. I smiled sadly, feeling Joanie’s living ghost hovering nearby. She’d always stuck very close to me whenever Tommy’s wife was in the vicinity. Jenny threw her arms around me, gave me a big wet kiss on the cheek and refused to let me go.

    “Jaysus Jen,” Tommy said with forced joviality as the embrace continued. “Don’t break him. He only just got here.”

    “I won’t break him,” she smiled and held me out at arm’s length. “Oh Charlie, you look really good.”

    Debbie hugged me, too. She’d always been a fantastic, funny kid and I was really pleased to see her. “Look at you,” I said. “You’re growing up lovely.”

    “Oh, go on with you, Uncle Charlie,” she smiled. “It’s great to see you again. And you don’t smell of pee at all like Dad said you would.”

    “What?” Tommy yelped in alarm. “I never said that.”

    “Just kidding,” she whispered and we snickered together.

    “This place is so cosy!” I said. “It must have cost a bomb to renovate.”

    “Well, it’s about to pay for itself,” said Jenny. “Have you heard the latest news?”

    “New York? Yes.”

    “Unbelievable,” Tommy sighed as we trooped from the tower to unload the van. “An unarmed, brainless, undead rabble routed the US Army. Can you imagine that? Attack helicopters and all. The centre has fallen, Charlie.” We packed everything into the windowless cellar. Tommy reckons we can hold out for a year or more and I took his word for it; him having cooked the books for the most pious in the land and, as he liked to boast, for one or two of the bishops as well.

    Later, on the roof, he made a big show of activating a winch, which raised the hinged outer stairs away from ground level. He’d really thought of everything. We watched it climb slowly above the reach of any raiders.

    “That’s it now, boys and girls,” he announced cheerfully. “The door is locked, the drawbridge is raised and we’re fully stocked for siege.”

    “So, who brought the can opener, then?” I asked innocently, smiling at his unsure expression. He’d obviously never heard that old joke. “Seriously though, what happens if people come along and ask to get in?”

    “Well, we take their can opener, I suppose,” Debbie said brightly. “Why?”

    “Because some are coming up the track.”

    “Oh god,” Tommy whispered, staring over the parapet. “It’s the Dead. They’re already here. They’ve seen us.”

    “Maybe we should go below for a little while,” suggested Jenny nervously and that’s exactly what we did. As I followed them down this claustrophobic, shoulder hugging vertical pipe I decided that the Brits of yore must have hired the shoemaker’s elves especially to build these terrifyingly narrow spiral steps.

    Day 2

    There was no escaping it. This morning we held a polite, mature and calm discussion in which Tommy painfully bared his soul about how much he desired to atone for all the misery he’d caused and it made for cringe inducing listening. As he blathered selfishly on about how much he’d suffered for his badness I quietly refrained from mentioning that my Joanie is still gone, my heart is still broken and my former best friend is still the conniving, deceitful cause of it all. So, in the true spirit of forgiveness, I decided I was going to kill him. I mean, why not? I’ll just wait and see how things pan out in the coming weeks and months – you know, bide my time. Then I’d stop his clock. But in the meantime I’m quite happy to have him believe that our animosity is over and he’s absolutely delighted to think that he has his old friend back.

    In the end we all shared a few wry smiles and some agreeable nods. I also felt a palpable sense of relief that we’d gotten through all this stupid soul searching without the horror of a group hug rearing its ugly head. That would have blown my cover for sure, and probably my breakfast too.

    Day 8

    We’re seeing a lot more of the Dead. Over the last few days we’ve watched them stumble in packs along the road out of Clifden. The infection seems to be spreading fast. What a nightmare it must be for those unfortunates with nowhere to hide.

    They move pretty aimlessly unless they catch sight of us on the roof; then they lurch with purpose up the steep stony track and bump stupidly against the base of the tower. Unfortunately we can’t see directly downwards from the roof as the parapet wall is two metres thick. It also slopes down and away from the top, which means it’s too dangerous to stand on, so we’re effectively blind for a fifty metre radius all around.

    However, the commotion the Dead makes attracts others. To keep them quiet Tommy and I squeezed into the murder hole chamber and began to nervously pick off any that wandered below the tower door. We took turns firing his Winchester .308 rifle and I soon discovered that this pastime satisfied me immensely. Killing seems to feed some creepy, untapped part of my nature, which is a deliciously nice thing to discover – what with my growing intentions towards Tommy and all.

    Once I got into it I refused to give him back the rifle and by the time I got the call for dinner there was a respectable pile of corpses slumped motionless below. We later agreed to take turns. Each of us will have our own designated killing days.

    Day 20

    Today being Tommy’s killing day I broke out my watercolours to capture the wildness and beauty of this wonderful countryside. I’m years out of practise so I must admit that my efforts are pretty laughable but everyone is very polite and complementary; except perhaps for Debbie who, as a prank, attached one of my failed sketches to the fridge and wrote: Uncle Charlie, aged 4 on it in crayon. I made a passable show of chuckling along with her little teenage joke but later, as I prepared dinner, I covertly spat a fat green one into her mashed potato. This helped me to tolerate some additional comments at my artistic expense as we dined.

    Day 29

    Towards evening Debbie’s muffled voice echoed down the spiral stairs. “Come on up and take a look at this,” she cried. We clambered out on the roof like submariners emerging on a conning tower to gawp at the strangest, reddest sunset I think I’ve ever seen. The western heavens were awash with dull, dusty reds. Unusually too, there were subtle patches of green in the mix.

    “That looks so weird,” said Jenny. “Like it sort of… lacks something,”

    “It does seem a bit flat, all right,” the artist in me agreed as orange tinted seagulls wheeled about the spinning turbine blades. I briefly considered going below to grab my watercolours but I was afraid I’d miss some aspect of this rare display if I did.

    Day 32

    After several days of enjoying the most colourful morning and evening skies the weather has finally taken a turn for the worst; clouds and rain rolled in from the choppy Atlantic and the temperature dropped dramatically. Visibility has closed right in. On waking, we spent a large part of the morning searching the tower for the source of a burning smell but it transpired that it came from outside. The best theory we have is that nearby Clifden must be on fire.

    Day 35

    Dark, heavy clouds remain low overhead and it’s been particularly gloomy all day. The only patch of colour I saw was a bright corporate logo on a corpse’s shirt and the gouts of brown liquid I subsequently blew from its head as it climbed up the mound of its fallen comrades to get at me.

    I’m increasingly concerned by the growing number of dead lying packed and crushed against the stonework below the murder hole. With every bullet fired this mound grows higher and I fear that soon the Dead will simply walk up this fleshy embankment and knock politely at our door. I suggested over lunch that we should go out and clear away these accumulating bodies before they pose us all a serious health risk. I used words like cholera, hepatitis and tuberculosis to bolster my argument. There was some sensible grumbling about it being too dangerous at the moment so I considered myself outvoted. I’ll just continue to thank the god of sea breezes for keeping the stench away.

    The ever-present gulls seem to have developed a curious taste for corpse meat. Flocks of them descend on the pile and devour whatever they can get. The braver birds even dine directly off some of the walking ones. Debbie and I watched what must have been a particularly tasty, plodding corpse make its way up the track wearing a rather fashionable crown of squawking gannets, its entire head buried beneath a frenzied mass of flapping wings.

    “Hey, Uncle Charlie,” Debs laughed. “Let’s go down there and get ourselves some of that tasty corpse. I mean, all those birds can’t be wrong. That one must be delicious.”

    “I’m game,” I said. “But best not. You’re cooking tonight and you’ll probably just burn it.” Eventually, almost as one, the gannets exploded raucously from its stripped down skull when it strolled eyeless over the cliff.

    “Wow,” said Debs. “That was pretty cool.”

    Day 36

    It hasn’t rained for days but nevertheless the cloud cover is getting heavier and heavier. These are by far the dullest, darkest days I can ever remember. It grew even colder overnight and the roof is slippery with frost. This is unusual for this time of year so I stayed below for most of the day.

    Every now and again I heard the muffled crack of a gunshot as Debbie de-brained another cadaver. She says it’s getting increasingly difficult to see through the midday murk; that the Dead emerge from it like ghosts, only becoming visible when halfway up the track.

    “The mist is that heavy, then?” I asked.

    “But that’s just the thing, you see?” she said. “There is no mist, it’s just plain dark.”

    As a solution to our narrow field of fire problem – that is, only being able to shoot the dead through the murder hole, Tommy triumphantly produced a safety harness that the renovation crew had discarded. We went to the roof and he put it on, clipping the lanyard to an old gun bracket and climbing up on the sloped, frosty parapet wall. He moved with confidence knowing that if he slipped and fell he could be hauled back up again. He even leaned out over the brink and took some shots directly downwards. I neglected to tell him that this was really, really stupid because he’d irritated me immensely with his smug, I’m so inventive attitude.

    He leaned even further out, showing off now, and I gazed thoughtfully at the taut lanyard and wondered what would happen if I was cleaning my nails with my knife and… oh, accidentally slipped on the frost, you know… tragically slicing through the cord as I grabbed it to save myself from stumbling. I began patting my pockets in earnest for my blade when Debbie emerged from below.

    “Daddy!” she yelled abruptly. “Get back in here at once!” Goddamn meddling kid.

    Day 38

    Well, it had to happen, didn’t it? I said we should clear away all those stinking corpses, right? Well, we didn’t, and over the last couple of days we’ve all become sick; headaches, fever, nausea and worse. The bathroom is continually occupied and I’m fearful for our toilet paper supply. We’ve tried every medication in the kit but to no avail. Debbie and Jenny seem to be the worst hit; Tommy maybe not so bad; and me even a little bit less, I suppose – and I feel really awful. Tommy actually blamed Debbie’s cooking, can you believe that?

    I suggested once again that we go outside and move the corpses before we get worse; just toss them into the ocean or something, and that’s exactly what we did. When the coast was clear Tommy winched the outside stairs to the ground and we ventured into the miserable morning gloom.

    The dense black cloud was like a weight on our shoulders. Flocks of irritated gulls took flight from the corpse pile and settled on the parapet wall above, fouling it and cursing us loudly from the upper shadows. Debbie kept a lookout from the door with the rifle but Jenny remained inside, too sick to help. There was a considerable amount to do; over eighty bodies of various shapes and sizes to dump.

    “Why aren’t those bleeding gulls bigger,” muttered Tommy through his paper mask. “Then they could’ve eaten this lot and made our job so much easier.”

    It was the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever had to do. It was tough, wet, stinking work, and the rats didn’t help. The smell was beyond belief. We began at the top, close to the underside of the door. We climbed up the decomposing pile and pulled the corpses down one by one. Each time we shifted a body a new reservoir of maggots and liquidy decay was exposed with stomach-churning consequences. Unspeakable fluids ran in viscous rivers from the bottom of the mound and pooled in little lakes against the base of the stonework. Small wonder we’re sick. Those crushed lower down tended more towards liquefaction and I could feel the meat slough off their bones through their wet clothes as we pulled them from their resting place. We dragged each one to the cliff with gloved hands and pushed them over the edge with our feet. As we laboured through this foulness Debbie put down several incoming corpses. We dumped those too.

    As the last cadaver tumbled into the sea we felt so wretched that we slumped miserably to our knees at the cliff edge, panting thinly through our masks. A dry wind cooled our dripping brows and gulls flew from the shadows of the tower and dropped gracefully through the dark to the broken bodies below. Tommy’s gaze followed, engrossed by the seagulls antics as they fought for decomposing scraps on the sea washed rocks. It was here that I saw the perfect opportunity for retribution. I decided to deal with Tommy right here and now, for me and for Joanie. It would be so easy to explain how he got careless and just slipped…

    I staggered as I stood and moved into position behind him, glancing quickly towards the tower. Debbie was just a vague shape in the murk. She seemed to be looking the other way but I couldn’t be certain in this light. I gazed at the back of Tommy’s head; my heart pumping, and I raised my shaking hands and moved forward…

    “Dad! Uncle Charlie! Hurry up! Come on!”

    Feckin…goddamned…bastarding Debbie! Tommy, oblivious of his narrow escape, backed away from the edge as I mentally screamed in frustration, cursing Debbie and her timing. I was furious that my opportunity had been thwarted at the very last second.

    We pulled ourselves wearily up the clanging metal steps and paused at the tower door to catch our breaths again. Tommy took the rifle and went to the roof to winch up the stairs. I shut and bolted the heavy wooden door, seething coldly. Debs brushed at a patch of dried puke on her blouse as the stairs began to rise, the skin on her hands was red and chaffed, her chin spotted from a nosebleed.

    “Uncle Charlie,” she whispered. “Will we have to do all that again? That was really scary out there today.”

    Was it? Well good, you interfering little sow. “Oh, don’t be scared, Debs.” I said. “You did really great out there.” If she’s really that fearful, then I knew exactly how to repay her for scuppering my impulsive plan.

    “Oh my god!” I whispered in fake alarm. “What on earth was that?”

    “What?” she said. “Where?”

    “Just there. I thought I saw a large shape move across the outside of the door.” I made a big show of peering into the night-dark evening through the little inset window. Debbie pushed me aside, pressing her face hard against the glass.

    “Where did it go?” she whispered urgently.

    “I don’t know, but you stay here; I’ll go up on the roof and check. If it’s nothing I’ll be right back down, okay? Straight back, I promise.”

    “Hurry, Uncle Charlie,” she cried. “Hurry! Okay?”

    “Back in a jiffy,” I lied, cruelly intent on letting her sweat it out for a half an hour or so. I made my way painfully up the spiral steps on all fours, utterly exhausted by my long day’s toils. I stank of sickness and death. A pall of decay clung to me, seeping out from my soiled clothes. I could taste it on my swollen tongue and ragged throat.

    Tommy lay near a fresh puddle of puke, half slumped on the frozen rooftop, his shoulder and neck leaning uncomfortably against the parapet as he gazed dully at the louring cloud. He looked almost dead but no such luck. I sat heavily across from him and coughed, tasting blood. Unseen gulls cried sharply in the dark.

    “Those feckin seagulls,” he whispered faintly. “I can’t stand them. They never shut up squawking and bellyaching.” After a while he shuffled to his feet and staggered off below, clutching his guts and shaking his head. He’d left the rifle behind and so, having time to spare, I pulled the harness on and climbed heavily up on the parapet wall.

    A newly arrived corpse was already poking around below so I brought the rifle to my shoulder and took a lacklustre shot at it.

    “Oh!” It cried.

    I gasped in shock. A woman; a survivor. It was just so hard to see properly in this cursed light.

    “Move out to where I can see you,” I croaked, and when she did I lined her up carefully and popped her neatly in the brainpan.

    Day 41

    I couldn’t sleep with the stink in the tower so I crawled up to the rooftop in the dead of the night in search of fresh air. As I sat with my back to the parapet I heard a low grumbling noise. It was distant; no doubt about that, and powerful. I clutched my blanket tighter around me knowing it wasn’t thunder. It wasn’t an earthquake either because the tower remained steady. I got to my feet and peered myopically into the surrounding darkness, seeing nothing but listening hard.

    These noises were deep and grinding, at the very limit of my hearing; low and huge and threatening. My primordial hindbrain was convinced that something monstrous lurked out there in the night, regarding me unblinkingly, preparing to snatch me clean off the roof at any given second, whereas rational thought kept me rooted solidly in place. Nevertheless, every part of me that could stand on end – or shrivel up – stood on end and shrivelled up, so I scuttled shamelessly off to the murder hole chamber and cowered in a corner until the noises eventually faded away.

    Day 42

    I described the sounds to the others but they’d heard nothing. They were so preoccupied with their worsening symptoms that I’m not even sure that they listened to me.

    Debbie has taken up residence in the narrow entry door alcove. She sits there for hours just cradling a shotgun and gazing through the inset windows.

    “What’re you up to Debs?” I asked, noting the dark rings below her eyes.

    “Oh, just keeping watch, Uncle Charlie,” she rasped through her inflamed throat. “I don’t want them getting in the door. You know, catching us by surprise.”

    “But the Dead can’t climb, Debs.”

    “But… but you saw something outside, Uncle Charlie, didn’t you?”

    Oh, shite. Now I understood. I’d only meant to scare the girl but it looked like I’d knocked something askew in her poor, weakened mind. I was genuinely disgusted with myself. Tommy was right to tell me to leave my tongue at the door.

    “Aw, now listen Debs,” I said very carefully. “I’m not really sure that I actually saw anything at all that time. I even put on the harness and looked around the outside walls so I’m positive I just imagined it, really, so there’s no need for you to be sitting here. Wouldn’t you prefer to be taking pot shots on the roof with your Dad?”

    “I haven’t the energy to climb the steps, so I’d prefer to just sit here. Anyway, I’m happier here. You know, keeping an eye out, just in case.”

    “But Debs,” I persisted. “I saw nothing, honest. Really I didn’t. Besides, the murder hole is directly above us. Our bullets go whizzing by less than half a metre from where you’re sitting.”

    “I’ll be okay. You all know I’m here.”

    Shite. I really need to convince Debs that I’d seen nothing at all, but in such a way that won’t expose me as a mean spirited bollocks. I considered discussing it with Jenny but she’d kept to her bed and I won’t talk to Tommy if I don’t have to. Frankly I feel so sick and weary I’m not really bothered doing anything about Debbie right now, anyway.

    We’re getting worse. The sour smell of sickness permeates the tower like an unclean miasma. We sprawl limply across the seats in the living area, wheezing and coughing and bleeding. The bathroom is constantly in use and the chemical toilet bucket has gotten too heavy for any one person to dispose of alone.

    The power failed unexpectedly this afternoon, plunging us into darkness. Tommy stumbled off with his toolbox to check the turbine while I fumbled around blindly looking for candles. Jenny crept from her room to see what was up. I got a real shock because she looked like she’d aged twenty years. She had a nosebleed, and more alarmingly, a clump of her hair was gone.

    “Jenny,” I gasped and she touched her lip in the flickering flame. “Oh no,” she said. “This is becoming a real pain.”

    “No, I mean your hair…” I began.

    “My hair?” she muttered sarcastically. “Hairdressers just aren’t taking appointments these days, Charlie…”

    “I didn’t mean that,” I explained, but she’d already shuffled off to the bathroom. When her shocked cries rang through the tower Debbie just stirred at the door whereas Tommy almost fell down the steps in his rush to see what was up.

    “It’s Jenny,” I explained. “It’s really quite odd,” and off he scurried to investigate. I waited until they reappeared, Tommy leading her gently by the arm.

    “Charlie,” he said. “Can we have a little bit of light over here please so I can settle her back into bed?”

    Day 44

    None of us ate today. Debbie sits and stares through the little window with lifeless, dull eyes; unwashed. I sat and held Jenny’s hand while Tommy continued to work on the turbine. She’s withdrawn entirely inside her own head; lethargic, anxious and unable to sleep. She asked me nervously if Joanie was out on the roof with Tommy and I told her no, she wasn’t. At one point she slouched from room to room, tapping the walls; looking for the source of a murmured conversation that I couldn’t hear. As I watched her I felt one of my teeth click loosely around in its socket.

    Tommy got the power back up and both he and I left the tower briefly this afternoon to clear away our more recent kills. There were noticeably fewer seagulls lining the parapet and I lacked the strength and the will to push him to his death.

    “Your marksmanship’s improving,” he grunted as we rolled the carcass of the woman I’d shot over the cliff. I’d already rummaged through her backpack and presented Tommy with her can opener. He just smirked wanly and threw it after her.

    Day 45

    Tommy absently tossed several dead gulls off the roof before slumping down heavily beside me, both of us wrapped up in blankets like refugees. We glumly eyed a solid black cliff of slick, oily clouds as they crawled in low across the invisible sea. It was only eleven in the morning. I could see in the gloaming that he looked as bad as I felt, and for the second day running I lacked the energy for antagonism.

    “What did they infect us with Tommy, do you reckon?”

    “Who, the Dead?” he said softly. “Nothing, Charlie. Forget about them. They’re no longer a problem. In fact, they’re just an inconvenience compared with what’s coming.”

    “What? What’s coming?”

    He nodded towards the sky. “See that? That’s not a normal cloud, is it? It’s too dark, too deep. There’s no rain in it. I suspect it’s mostly smoke and soot because no sunlight’s getting through.”

    “Soot? From where?”

    “Pakistan probably,” he said slowly. “Iran. They were butting heads, remember? Well, I think they’ve gone and nuked each other and if they did, then maybe fifty or sixty big Middle Eastern cities have gone up in smoke, along with refineries, oilfields and all the rest of it. The detonations and the burnings would have lifted all this soot and shite into the stratosphere. I guess the Jetstream took it from there and plonked it right down here on top of us in Galway.” He paused to cough. “So, you see that there, Charlie. See that dirty plume? That’s probably a bit of Karachi, that is. And that one over there? A small suburb of Tehran, complete with local populace.”

    “Jaysus.” I said. “Are you sure? How long will all this stay overhead?”

    He shook his head. “Hard to say. I’m only guessing; but I’d say the U.S. nuked some home targets too to sterilise urban centres. That’s what I’d do, anyway; so see that billow passing us by? That there’s the Brooklyn Bridge. And that burning smell? Ha! We thought it was just our own little Clifden aflame when really it was the whole world. And just look at the state of us now, Charlie; exposed to all this dirty fallout.”

    “Fallout?” I gasped in alarm.

    “Well yes, of course. What did you think is causing our nausea and bleeding bowels? My loose teeth, Jenny’s hair loss? Even our blistered skin indicates radiation poisoning. I only realised it after we’d dumped all those bodies and still got no better. I should have herded us into the cellar last week but I just didn’t recognise the symptoms, feckin eejit that I am. I’m sorry Charlie, but I think it’s already too late for us. We’ve been overexposed.” He shuffled uncomfortably and looked at his feet. “Jenny, already I think, is…Jenny is…”

    But I wasn’t listening. I was in shock. I gazed blankly into a bowl of darkness and imagined the harsh radioactive dust tingling in my lungs. I couldn’t really take this in; that it’s really, really over; that we aren’t going to make it through alive. Radiation. My head was abuzz with this devastating bombshell but I wasn’t ready to give up, not just yet. Certainly not before Tommy snuffs it, anyway.

    “…but this is nothing,” he was murmuring. “There’s a lot worst to come.”

    “Worse?” I snapped angrily. “How could it possibly get worse, you twat?”

    “Well,” he said tiredly, ignoring my tone. “What about all those nuclear plants that’re dotted around the globe? Eh? I mean, who’s maintaining them? Is the power to keep their reactors cooled still flowing? I’ll bet it’s not. Maybe a handful of stations held out against the undead but that’s about it; a handful. So logically all the rest are melting down; all four hundred plus worldwide. Most have multiple reactors too, not to mention tons and tons of untended spent fuel rods.”

    I stared at him as he shook his head in horror, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I guarantee it Charlie, Chernobyl and Fukushima were just little gnat’s farts compared to the radiation storm that’s about to sterilise this planet, land and sea.”

    Day 46

    Jenny died. We were with her as she breathed her last and Tommy asked for some time alone with her body. Debbie crawled up the steps to the roof but I remained outside of Tommy’s room and waited.

    The door was open a crack so I sat and watched him place mittens on Jenny’s bony hands and tape them to her wasted wrists. I saw him cut a pillowcase in half and force it gently between her toothless gums, filling out her cheeks. Then he kissed her softly on the lips and sealed them shut with strips of duct tape. Funny, really. Here we have the most adulterous bastard in the universe yet he still loves his wife. I picked up the Winchester in preparation for the inevitable.

    “Tommy,” I said, when he came out, “we’ll have to eh…you know, look after Jenny. You know what I mean? What I’m talking about?”

    “I do. But I’ll organise that end of things myself Charlie, if you don’t mind. Okay?” he said, avoiding my gaze. Lying sod.

    “I’ll do it for you if you like.”

    “I said I’ll look after it.”

    We stood there wearily eyeballing each other, too sick to argue. I considered just wasting him there and then like I’d promised myself but Debbie needed him right now. Then I considered just shunting him aside and doing it myself anyway but the idea of him shooting her was much more satisfying.

    “Do what you like, then,” I said, pushing the rifle on him.

    I found Debbie collapsed on the roof; a woollen cap pulled tightly over her balding head, loose strings of mousey hair twirling in the frigid wind. I felt a sudden gush of compassion for this sociable girl. She was only a kid, after all. She felt tiny and fragile as I sat her up and wrapped my arms protectively around her. It was like holding a bag of sticks. I averted my face from the tang of sickness on her breath.

    “I’m so sorry about your Mum,” I said. “I don’t know what to say. We all loved her.”

    “Thanks, Uncle Charlie,” she whispered, her dark rimmed eyes barely visible in the light.

    “Anyway, your dads looking after her now,” I said. “You know… so she won’t come back.”

    She nodded meekly as I gazed into the howling dark, wrapping us both in my coat to keep her warm with my body heat, waiting to hear that single, telling gunshot from below which never came. After a while Debbie said: “I’m cold, Uncle Charlie. I’m going to go back down now.”

    I leaned against the cold parapet wall and considered what was coming. I thought about all of humanities wonderful inventions, our technologies and art; of all our advancements since we first crawled from the ooze. Soon it would be utterly meaningless, a total waste of time; tens of thousands of years of our labour and brainpower was about to fall outside of any living memory.

    Day 47

    Debbie’s gone. I didn’t think she’d leave so soon but she did. I found her this morning in her chair; eyes open, staring through the window. Tommy shut himself into her room with her body to “look after the necessary arrangements.” I was depressed beyond words. I was like a lost little boy; utterly lonely and thoroughly frightened. For the second time in two days I sat and waited while Tommy prepared his dead for…I don’t know what for – I just don’t know.

    We sat together after, our lips stained red from bleeding gums, our shirt fronts spotted from nosebleeds. Exposed skin covered in weeping sores. I picked at a fingernail and it just fell off.

    Jenny stumbled from her lightless room and wrapped her mittened arms tightly around me. She pushed her face roughly into mine and snarled through her duct tape gag before I remembered she was dead. I yelped in fright. I realised that this yellow, hairless, bony creature was starving; simply ravenous, and had more than enough strength to overpower me.

    “Now, Jenny,” Tommy scolded her stupidly as he bundled her corpse back into their bedroom. She struggled and moaned. I don’t know where he found the strength to overwhelm her. I just stood there watching, furious. He’d chickened out of shooting her and she could have infected me just there. I’m already a dead man but that would have been a stupid way to die. I shook with anger and picked up the Winchester.

    Tommy secured his dead wife somehow and returned, leaning heavily against the bedroom doorframe exhausted, his legs close to folding. He smiled a ghastly, gap tooth smile full of apology and regret.

    “I’m finished, Charlie,” he whispered. “So I’m going to leave you now. It was really, really good to see you again. I’m genuinely sorry for what I did to you and Joanie, really I am, but well, I’m just so glad you came back to me.” He began to shut the door; to lock himself away with Jenny’s corpse forever, but I had a different notion.

    “Wait, Tommy,” I croaked and fired from the hip. The bullet took him in the side and he folded to the floor with a grunt. With a weak, fragile old man’s caution I stepped gingerly over him and into his room. A single plastic cable tie was all that secured Jenny’s wrist to an old wall ring. As she reached out to tackle me I shot her in the head.

    Debbie seemed only ten years old as she lay peacefully on her bed. Her mouth was taped and her hands were gloved but she hadn’t turned yet. Tommy had carefully braided her hair and I found this rather touching. “Sleep tight, little Debs. I’m so very sorry for frightening you the other day.”

    Tommy hadn’t moved when I returned. I poked him with the hot gun barrel, my ears still ringing from the shot that finished Debs. He moaned weakly, his eyes opening and meeting mine.

    “That was for Joanie.” I told him. “Do you understand?”

    He seemed confused, betrayed even. I almost laughed. How ironic. “Do you understand me, Tommy?” I repeated, and when he gave me a tiny nod I plugged him right between the eyes. I gazed expectantly at his body for about five minutes, waiting for that glorious feeling of victory to suffuse me.

    “Well, bastard on it,” I eventually hissed bitterly and threw the rifle aside. I still felt empty and befuddled.

    I stood on the roof confounded by the dark, by the freezing wind, by the black, scudding clouds; by how utterly, existentially alone I was. It was much too dark to see very far but I could hear the grumble and hiss of the waves beyond the cliff. I ignored the harness and climbed out on top of the parapet wall. I stood at the brink on wobbly legs and faced into the west. I had no idea what I was doing; I just knew I had no interest whatsoever in taking another breath on this bleak, bereaved day.

    Then, to my astonishment, a low angled sunbeam flickered into existence and bloomed in the dark smoky distance. It flared across the faraway whitecaps like a searchlight, gaining strength, soft edged and silent; a warm reminder of the sunshine that exists forever above this treacly, tumbling filth. My heart lifted at this spectral sight.

    This incandescent shaft of light cut through the darkness as it cruised smoothly landward, dimming and brightening as high altitude clouds billowed and parted. A few kilometres offshore it revealed to me the source of those mysterious nighttime noises. A maritime graveyard of distressed ocean going vessels flared starkly into view and dissolved back into shadow as if scrutinised and rejected. They’d been beached chaotically by the poisoned westerly’s; tilted and angled, their ruined keels ripped to pieces by the offshore rocks as powerful Atlantic rollers pounded their sides.

    I deliberately waited until the sunbeam slipped over the cliff top before gazing skywards and when I did I was rewarded with a precious glimpse of glorious blue before growing dazzled by the ever-brightening glare.

    “Oh, Joanie,” I murmured. “You should see this.”

    Then the tower and I blazed out like beacons in the polluted night. I opened my arms to gather in the fleeting sun. The heat baked my emaciated, freezing frame. The air sizzled with life giving radiance. Oh! This surge of well-being; this flood of goodness, this utter warm delight…I shuffled three steps forward to meet it… for I mustn’t let it end…

     

    DOWNHILL by JH Mae
    October 2, 2014  Short stories   

    Jack hadn’t eaten in two years. There was no point – his digestive system no longer worked properly. Even so, this afternoon his stomach was churning.

    Or he imagined it. The mind is a funny thing.

    Is this what nausea feels like? he asked himself, rattling his leg up and down to shake out the nerves; his knee cracked musically. Drawn by curiosity, his waiting room companion – there was only room for two – regarded Jack from the corner of his eye then quickly turned away.

    Jack knew the man was afraid.

    It was a grimy room he’d found himself in, feeling so dismally nervous and well aware that this theater company was far beneath him. He was surrounded by the supporting evidence: the minuscule waiting room, sparsely furnished and lit only by a frail yellow bulb in a plastic lamp, and in a building that smelled of stale dust with a tinge of something sour – like week-old dirty dishes. But this was it, the last hurrah.

    I must be desperate.

    Perched in a cracked, sea green chair, Jack fingered a little slip of paper that was smoothed like a river stone and hidden in his silken pocket. It was his lucky charm, the ticket from his very first play – Biloxi Blues; his part was so small he wasn’t even in the program. Jack had rubbed the ink clean off that ticket waiting in dozens of rooms like this one, grasping for smaller and smaller parts. Going back to the beginning.

    The door creaked open and it smacked Jack in the knee for the tenth time. He massaged it with a wince, though of course it didn’t hurt. Best to keep up appearances, though. In the doorway stood a geeky fellow, not taller than five foot five inches, wearing circle glasses and pretension, and neither very well. Jack tilted his Borsalino fedora to hide his face.

    Careful…don’t give yourself away.

    “Maurice,” the geek said with a hand perched on a girlishly protruding hip. He searched the room as if it was expansive and filled with actors and not the size of a shoe box. Maurice, a handsome young man with an auburn ponytail and cautious sideways eyes, strode forward to meet the geek in the doorway. They disappeared behind the closing door.

    He’ll get the part, Jack thought, wondering what Maurice chose for a monologue. To chase away his self-pity, Jack adjusted himself on the seat and smoothed his vintage suit, fluffed the cornflower blue handkerchief in his lapel and tightened the knot of his matching tie. Jack knew he looked like hell, but he could still be well-dressed. And he could still command a stage, certainly better than Maurice and his ponytail.

    But he’d been waiting two hours; the plastic clock that hung on the yellow-stained wall above the door ticked away the time. That was 120 long minutes spent contemplating his fate, envisioning his name in lights on a shiny marquee; and then, in his worry, destitute, filthy, half-dressed and dying in his apartment with only an emaciated dog for company.

    No, cat – that’s more pathetic.

    Jack shook his head and stopped his thoughts right there, repeating instead a frequent internal pep talk. Never give up! This could be the one!

    Jack wasn’t always hanging by a thread. In fact, he was once handsome, before the sickness made his skin sallow and his hair brittle and his innards putrid. Before it banished him into solitude. Jack sighed and the deep inhalation cramped his lungs.

    The door opened again – this one the entry door from the hall, slightly too far away to hit him – with a rusty rattle that made the glass tremor in its frame. Jack didn’t look right away, rather he peeked to watch a young woman with a bounce of spiral curls the color of summer hay enter, and brighten, the room. She surveyed her seating options with fawn-like eyes and then came inside, oblivious, for the moment, of Jack.

    What a fox.

    The girl – she looked about 20 – smacked her gum and examined ruby nails; she wore a curve-hugging dress that crept up to reveal her thigh as she crossed her legs. Jack studied the plump lips and glowing skin and forgot himself; for a second, he began to fashion a clever line of introduction to charm her. He even met her eye, but they didn’t exchange shimmering, flirtatious glances – she looked disgusted.

    And Jack remembered himself.

    Embarrassed, he forced himself to appear fascinated by a poster behind her left shoulder – its colors faded to pale versions of their former selves – which advertised industrial strength sanitizing gel (“Protect you and your family against CRS!”). Jack examined the lap of his velvety gray trousers and attempted to shrink, his face crackling with heat like a warming radiator. Or was that his imagination yet again? He hadn’t forgotten how embarrassment felt, that was for sure.

    That morning he’d painted his face with an entire bottle of liquid foundation (he kept a stock of them for just these occasions) but now worried he’d overshot his mark and turned himself into a peaked clown.

    I probably look like a serial killer.

    Jack offered the girl what he hoped was a calming expression. But she was eyeballing him, the pretty skin of her forehead crinkled.

    “What’s wrong with you?” she said in a voice like a glass shard. “Are you sick?” She crossed her arms, expecting a swift and truthful response.

    Accusation and fear – Jack had heard it all before. He wanted to say he wasn’t contagious or violent but such a speech would waste his dwindling supply of breath. Maybe the plague had abated but that hadn’t changed the minds of the mob. Plagues of panic are much harder to cure.

    “Indeed, miss,” Jack said, worrying at an itchy spot on his finger. “I’ve been fighting off a cold, you know, the one that’s been making the rounds. I sure hope you don’t catch it…”

    Jack emitted a fake cough that sounded terminal and phlegmy. The fair beauty raised a perfectly arched eyebrow.

    “A cold, huh?” She opened her mouth to bully him further, but was then silenced by the opening of that door, which once again smacked Jack in the knee. He forgot to wince and the girl scowled again.

    “Jack?” The unexpected sound of his name jolted him. Jack kept his head down and raised his hand.

    “Follow me,” said the geek in a dopey voice.

    The geek made a serious study of Jack’s every movement as he rose arthritically from the chair with caution more suited to octogenarians: too fast and he might actually break his leg. The bones creaked and snapped like a xylophone.

    Here we go – wish me luck, Jack recited to himself. Break a leg, Jack.

    And so he followed the geek – the one curly-haired and prim and straight-backed, and the other gangly and slope-shouldered and clumsy – down one hall, then another and another. Each looked much the same as the last: cracked tile, streaky stained windows, humming and flickering fluorescent bulbs, and broken classroom doors propped back onto their hinges in an apparent attempt at restoration. And most haunting of all: rusted lockers painted with the vulgarity of long dead students, some of whom were actually dead, others just pretending.

    This sure isn’t the big time, Jack thought while he itched that blasted finger again and passed a stack of old school desks, their tops decorated with graffiti. But it’s something.

    As he watched the geek’s sashaying hips, Jack wondered absently if he was being led to a mildewed basement to be destroyed. It wasn’t long after that he was stopped before an open door that revealed only darkness beyond; Jack’s clammy skin prickled. He took a step forward but the geek stepped aside and put up a hand to stop him.

    “What…the hell are you wearing?” the geek yowled, his open mouth resting on a delicate little “o” of shock.

    Jack caught the geek’s eye swiftly; the little man examined Jack’s suit with those circle glasses pulled down on his ratty nose.

    “It’s my best suit, sir,” Jack said. “Vintage Fendi.” He stretched out his arms as if to display the garment like a catalog model.

    The geek scoffed. “It’s appalling,” he said. “You know Fendi still makes suits, right?”

    “Of course,” Jack said, letting his arms fall to his sides. “But I guess I prefer to be old-fashioned.”

    With a snit, the geek stepped aside and directed Jack to walk past him and into the black doorway. “Don’t start until they tell you to,” the geek said as he walked away and shimmied down the hall, heels echoing off the water-stained ceiling and chipped cinder block walls.

    With a calming breath, Jack walked through the door and then navigated a maze of heavy curtains that fell upon and entangled him; he swatted them away, feeling for a second like a child in a house of mirrors. Then suddenly a spotlight shone upon him, warm and familiar and welcome as the summer sun, and he walked onto a stage the size of a postage stamp. The sharp twinge of ammonia tickled Jack’s nose, but a faint hint of filth still cut through it.

    Beyond the edge of the stage voices spoke as Jack stepped forward into the light. The auditorium felt small and Jack imagined trumpets and baritone saxophones and clarinets blasting movie scores into the seats, where proud parents watched with luminous faces. He heard two hundred ghostly young voices fading into time, their songs now replaced by the penetrating quiet.

    People like me did this. I created this emptiness.

    Jack pushed away the guilt – he always forgot that he, too, was a victim – and turned his attention to the living audience before him, affixing upon his face a smile that didn’t reveal his cracked, yellow teeth.

    A group of disembodied voices talked among themselves in hushed, pretentious voices. Squinting through the gloom, Jack discerned the thumbnails of theater seats and in the center, four large, moving shapes. He heard rustling papers and a squeaking chair – one of those shapes reclined, perhaps, but otherwise no one stirred. Jack was thankful for the healthy distance between the stage and his audience but perhaps because of it, they had not heard Jack enter. He cleared his throat.

    Nothing.

    Well, isn’t this rude. He shuffled his feet to mimic entering footsteps. Nothing.

    Jack cleared his throat again, but still, the figures neither moved nor acknowledged him. The indifference stung and Jack stood there, bare and exposed under the light, embarrassed and angry in turn, unsure if he should leave with a damning turn of his heel, or wait and be seized by waves of desperation.

    “Name?” a voice said suddenly, impatient.

    Jack straightened up.

    “Jack Darte.”

    “Your headshot is terrible. I can’t see your face,” said another voice. It wasn’t a head shot actually, but a photo of Jack leaning against a tree looking debonair and famous from a safe distance. The better to hide his decaying flesh.

    “My apologies,” Jack said. “My looks aren’t what they used to be, I’m afraid.”

    Jack’s laugh echoed alone; the figures seemed absorbed in another conversation. He imagined their hoity-toity faces and porcelain skin, framed in cashmere scarves and pinstripe blazers, all with circle glasses perched on ratty noses. Jack worried that his performance would not sway them and a black pit once again opened up in his gut, swallowing the flashing marquee and hum of happy applause.

    Be positive! If you can dream it you can do it!

    The figures concluded their discussion and readjusted themselves, their chairs squeaking and groaning. Jack snapped to attention.

    “What’s ‘Canterville Ghost?’ said one voice. “I don’t recognize it.”

    “Oscar Wilde, the 19th century writer and poet? Surely you know The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest…” Jack said, not a little off-put that someone in theater was unfamiliar with a great literary genius.

    Surely, I’ve never heard of him,” the voice sniveled. The group at large then conferred among themselves, perhaps about the merits of this enigmatic Oscar Wilde fellow, who lived so long ago he deserved to be forgotten.

    “If you will read the part of Miss Virginia – you should see the script there with my head shot, I believe,” Jack said. Papers shuffled and Jack sensed a fug of confusion and impatience that quickly died down to a murmur. Jack tried – with difficulty – to keep his expression compliant and civil.

    “Get going. I don’t have all day,” said the bodiless voice.

    “Certainly.” Jack bowed his head in deference to his audience, then cleared his dusty throat and pictured pale moths fluttering out of his mouth. He sensed the form of the room, pictured the busted seats and puddles of moldy wetness on the leaky ceiling. That wouldn’t do.

    So he closed his eyes and imagined the stage was in the Broadhurst Theater and he was the star. Suddenly, the monologue flowed from his pale lips like it had all those years ago. This reading – between Virginia and the ghost – was one of his favorites.

    “Please don’t go, Miss Virginia. I am so lonely and so unhappy, and I really don’t know what to do. I want to go to sleep and I cannot,” Jack began.

    There was an ignorant pause as Jack’s noncommittal reading partner evidently forgot his role in the audition. When he finally did speak, his voice was monotone and uninterested.

    “That’s quite absurd! You have merely to go to bed and blow out the candle,” the voice read, rushing the words so that one could barely be separated from the other. “It is very difficult sometimes to keep awake, especially at church, but there is no difficulty at all about sleeping. Why, even babies know how to do that, and they are not very clever.”

    Jack did his best to overcome Miss Virginia’s anesthetized tones, hoping his own performance would shine in comparison.

    “I have not slept for three hundred years,” Jack opined. “For three hundred years I have not slept, and I am so tired.”

    The figures mumbled and shifted papers again. The reclining figure was no longer satisfied and squeaked his chair forward. Jack wished they’d show a little respect. Another impolite pause preceded the next line.

    “Poor, poor Ghost,” the voice contributed hastily. “Have you no place where you can sleep?”

    “Far away beyond the pine-woods, there is a little garden. There the grass grows long and deep, there are the great white stars of the hemlock flower, there the nightingale sings all night long. All night long he sings, and the cold crystal moon looks down, and the yew-tree spreads out its giant arms over the sleepers.”

    A reprieve from torment – that’s what Jack wanted more than anything, too. And the stage is where he’d always found it. Oh please, oh please, he thought, let me come back.

    From the depths of the shadowed audience came the drawling voice. “You mean the Garden of Death,” it said.

    “Yes, death. Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence.”

    Jack raised his arms to the ceiling and let his raspy but still butterscotch tones rise to the invisible rafters. He imagined the audience at the edge of their seats, enthralled and impressed and oblivious to his strange posture, the nauseating reek of his cologne and smell of death it meant to conceal.

    “To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace. You can help me. You can open for me the portals of death’s house, for love is always with you…”

    At that moment, and to Jack’s horror, his index finger – the itchy, damnable one – wriggled free and fell, selfishly, to the stage floor with a skeletal plop. He froze, face locked in theatrical anguish, and stared into that hollow and finally silent audience.

    It’s no big deal. Ignore it, keep going.

    “…and love is stronger than death is.”

    “What the hell was that?” one of the voices said. All ancillary talk stopped and shuffled papers froze in midair. Hatred poisoned those simple words, like a knife in his rotten heart.

    “Your finger just fell off!” said another.

    Jack still had his arms raised, determined to continue. He risked a glance downward, moving only his eyes. There, silhouetted against the scuffed and honeyed wood he saw his finger, unmistakably lying.

    “Um… Can I finish? There are only a couple lines remaining…”

    “Absolutely not!”

    “Are you kidding me?”

    “What the hell are you doing here?”

    Jack flinched, the assault of words stinging as they struck him. He finally abandoned his pose and faced the audience, the spotlight suddenly too garish and glaring. Despite his embarrassment, and with his finger staring up at him from the floor before his feet, Jack straightened his back and adjusted his jacket and cuffs and declared: “I am an actor, sir.” He then bowed his head in a manner he hoped was penitent and respectful.

    “An actor? You’re a zombie, Mr. Darte!” A taunting laugh echoed in the theater and others joined it – a chuckle, a giggle, a guffaw – together multiplying and rising in pitch and volume until they crashed together in a piercing chorus.

    Jack clenched his jaw. He hated that detestable epithet. It had been 20 years since the plague began – hadn’t the masses learned by now that people like him weren’t harmful?

    “I am not a zombie…” he started, humiliated. He knew every eye in the room was examining and judging him, looking at him anew to finally see his odd complexion and shuffling gait. The voices laughed together again and Jack imagined a couple pointing and another pinching a nose against his stink. “I am not…I am afflicted with Corpus Retexens Syndrome, yes, but I don’t like that term, sir, and I’d thank you…”

    A wallop echoed throughout the silent auditorium, cutting off Jack’s words with another flinch. One of the figures had pounded a fist on the table and for once, everyone was paying attention to Jack; each had turned his chair, rigid with paranoia, to stare at him.

    “I’ll call you what I like, zombie,” said a voice. “You come in here without the proper notifications and infect my staff, how dare…”

    “CRS is not contagious, sir. It’s a genetic mutation…”

    “Shut up,” the voice said; he let the word echo and fade for a moment. “Get the hell out of here.”

    “Sir, please, I beg you, let me finish my monologue. I want to be in your theater company, sir, please. I’m a good actor. Perhaps you recognize my name, sir. I played Antonio in the Merchant of Venice? Perhaps you saw it?” Jack said, feeling small as he heard himself beg and parade his past fame before them.

    God, I hate myself right now.

    After a brief interlude, the voice began again, now cold and sapped of all patience: “Mr. Darte, we have jobs for people like you. Do you really think actor is one of them?”

    Yes, of course. Jack knew about the jobs he was allowed to have: Transporting the corpses of fellow CRS sufferers for one, sewage work for another, then there was garbage man, road kill scraper and pauper’s grave digger. A zombie could aim so high these days.

    It’s over, Jack thought. What shall it be, then? Shall I dig graves, or simply wait to waste away, my cat eagerly waiting with knife and fork to dine on my corpse?

    Jack knew he was ignorant to believe the living would ever see him as anything more than rancid and decaying, foul and frightening, but he kept his head raised and his posture intact, with as much pride as he could muster.

    “No, of course not, sir,” Jack said plainly. “Can you tell me one thing before I go, please?”

    “Make it quick.”

    “If I was someone else, if I was like you, would you say you enjoyed my performance?”

    Jack bated his fading breath. Only one voice seemed to pay him any mind.

    “Yes, Mr. Darte, it was very well done.”

    He hadn’t heard this voice yet. It sounded kind and pitying but was quickly overcome by the fearful, angry one.

    “Get out of my theater,” it said. “And don’t touch anything on your way out;” then in a slightly lower voice,

    “Gloria, get CRS Annihilators on the phone right now.” One of the figures rose and walked with gently tapping footsteps along the aisle towards the exit.

    Very well done, Jack repeated. He was still a good actor, he was right about that at least. But a good actor without a stage, a man without a place, a zombie without hope. He sighed and had barely turned when a voice stopped him.

    “Mr. Darte.” The voice was laced with distaste, but Jack’s heart lifted nonetheless. Or maybe it only felt that way. After all, his heart was blackened with disease now and only pumped a trickle of blood through his body. “You can’t leave your finger here.”

    Oh yes, my damn finger.

    Jack’s bones creaked and snapped as he knelt down and scooped it up with his remaining digits, resting it in the palm of his hand. He stared at it – freshly disguised with fleshy makeup and otherwise a nice, slender finger – and wondered if his ruse would have worked if not for its bad timing.

    The voices had resumed conversation, but were louder this time. With his back to the dark auditorium, he heard the words “filth” and “gross” and “contagion.” Jack lifted a hand to the sagging flesh of his wrinkled cheek, feeling absurd and clownish.

    Why do I try so hard?

    Jack had to admit, one day, that he was nothing more than his sallow skin, brittle hair and loosening teeth. He had to admit he was dead, inside and out. But he didn’t want it to be today.

    He left the stage to walk back through the maze of black curtains. Practically, Jack wondered if he could find someone to reattach his finger and if from now on it would be crooked. He didn’t want to look like the others, with missing limbs and exposed jaw bones, trailing putrefied entrails behind them. He certainly couldn’t work for a theater company looking like that.

    Rolling the finger in the palm of his hand with a thumb, Jack pushed back the darkening weight of defeat. But in the depths of his slowly liquefying brain, he knew he couldn’t stop it.

    That’s stage three, he thought. It’s only downhill from here.

    DREDGING UP MEMORIES PART XIX by A.J. Brown
    September 17, 2014  Longer stories   Tags:   

    “Are you just going to leave them there?”

    I looked at Hetch. “Close the door, why don’t you?”

    My arms and legs shook. My clothes were soaked in gore and dried vomit.

    The door clicked shut, but Hetch didn’t move away from it. Instead, he watched me as if he thought he was next on my list. His eyes were wild, and he constantly licked at his lips, which, for the most part was covered in a brown beard.

    “What?” I asked.

    “You’re just going to leave them out there to rot?”

    I almost laughed at that, but managed to hold back. “In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve been rotting since they died.”

    “You know what I mean.”

    “Do I?”

    He went from scared to angry in a couple seconds. “You’re an ass, you know that?”

    “Sometimes.”

    Living interaction. I wasn’t so sure I wanted it. It had been all too infrequent, and what little there had been, ended badly for the most part. Someone always ended up dead. So, maybe I was being an ass. Maybe I always would be. At least until I die.

    Thinking on that now reminds me death isn’t that far in the future. Not many people stand a chance of living into the golden years now. And what type of life would that be? Could the world rebuild itself? Could people rebuild their lives? Maybe, but first they had to figure out how to get rid of the biters.

    “I’m going to go shower,” I said. “Unless you have a problem with that as well.”

    “You don’t get it, do you?”

    That was it. I’d had enough. “Do me a favor,” I said.

    “What’s that?”

    “Open the door.”

    “Why?”

    “I said so.”

    He was hesitant at first. I could see his thoughts in his eyes. He was inside, and probably in the safest place he had been in a while. Could he possibly step back outside, back out where the world was rotting away? After several long seconds, he listened.

    “Now, step outside.”

    He frowned, started to speak, but I guess he decided not to. He closed his lips tightly and buttoned them up as pretty as you could want. Then he stepped onto the landing.

    “Now close the door.”

    “Wha…What?”

    “Close the door.”

    “Look, man, it’s not safe out here, and I don’t have any weapons, and…”

    I drew my pistol, pointed it at him and took the five steps toward him. “If you’re still here when I get done cleaning up and changing, then we can talk. If not, goodbye.”

    He said something else, but I paid him no attention. I slammed the door, and locked it. He wouldn’t be able to get in—the windows were boarded up and there were a series of four locks up and down the door, all of which I bolted.

    It didn’t take him long to start beating on the door. I ignored him as I went down the hall to the bathroom and got undressed. One good thing about that house was it had a well and a windmill that provided power, and the well hadn’t dried up yet. I would never drink the water, but showering in it was a different matter. It was icy cold and my muscles felt like stone before getting used to the water and relaxing. I took my time, hoping Hetch would leave. In the short time I had known him, he struck me as high maintenance; someone who would question everything I did, and every decision I made. I had been on my own for too long by then to let a stranger question my motive.

    I dried off, feeling refreshed. How long had it been since I took a shower? I didn’t know. I got dressed and went back up the hall.

    I listened. Hetch no longer beat on the door. I waited several seconds, holding my breath, my hands clutched into tight fists. Then something happened, something I didn’t expect.

    Panic took hold.

    I was alone again, and being alone was not good for me. Humphrey had kept me sane after everyone else had died. But Humphrey chose to leave. She had been my anchor, and without her, I was nothing more than an abandoned ship with torn sails. I was adrift in an ocean of death, just waiting to sink.

    Hetch’s screams had awakened me from a drunken stupor. Though he seemed difficult, he didn’t come off like most of the nutcases I had met in the dead world. If anything, I was probably the head job, with all those biters nailed to stakes out in the yard. What was I thinking?

    The door was so far away, and each step I took felt like I moved backward instead of forward. I was having a nightmare within a nightmare, and I knew I would never wake up from it, especially if I were alone again. I slung the door open. I started to yell his name, and then stopped. Hetch sat on the top step, his elbows on his knees, hands dangling between his legs. He looked back at me.

    “I’m gonna die,” he said.

    He was right. He had been bitten, and not just in one spot. He would die and it would only be a matter of days. Maybe just a day.

    “I’m gonna die, just like everyone else, and then I’m going to come back and…and…and…I don’t want to be one of those things.” He pointed to the bodies on the ground. “I don’t want to go through what my buddy, Dean, went through. It was hard to watch and he was delirious at the end…”

    “You’re not going to die, Hetch.”

    “Yes, I am.”

    I waited a minute longer. His eyes were rimmed red. He was scared. So was I. I had a gallon of healing water—touched by God, so the Cherokee say—but did I want to use it on some stranger I may not even like after a couple days?

    “Haven’t you seen what happens when someone gets bit? They die. They die a horrible death and then they come back.”

    I nodded. “I’ve seen it, up close and personal. But, you’re not going to die.”

    “I’ve been bit! What part of that don’t you understand?”

    “I understand quite well. But I have a cure.”

    “Whatever.”

    Hetch stood.

    “Where are you going?”

    “To die.”

    “You’re not going anywhere, and you’re not going to die.”

    “Yes. I. Am.”

    “Come inside.”

    “No.”

    “Are you going to make me slug you over the head again?”

    “You wouldn’t slug a dying man, would you?”

    “Come inside. Now. We need to treat those wounds—the sooner we do, the better chance you have of surviving.”

    Hetch climbed the three steps back to the landing, passed me and went inside. I followed, closing and locking the door.

    At some point during the drunken haze I had been in, I must have done some reorganizing. All of my supplies had been put away, in cabinets, along the counters, and in bedrooms. The healing water had been marked as such with a black marker (from somewhere in the house, I presumed). It simply read, HEALING SPRINGS. I grabbed it and a medicine measuring cup from a drawer by the sink. A measuring cup wasn’t going to do the trick. I took another cup—this one from the cabinet above the sink.

    I thought back to what Imeko had done for his granddaughter.

    ”Take your pants off,” I said.

    His hands went up, defensively. “Whoa, now. I don’t go that way, man.”

    “Shut-up, and take your pants off. You were bitten on the leg, right?”

    “Yeah.”

    “Take your pants off.”

    He was reluctant at first, but finally unsnapped the button and pulled his jeans down. The wound was small, much like the one on his stomach, but it was nasty. The area around it was gray, turning black. The back of my hand went to it, felt the heat radiating off the skin.

    I poured two tablespoons of water in the measuring cup, and put a rag under his leg.

    “Any water that drips off, catch it with the rag—we don’t want to waste this stuff.”

    “Okay.” He didn’t believe me. I could hear it in his voice.

    I poured the water onto the wound. Some of it spilled down the sides of his leg, and Hetch made sure the rag caught all of it.

    Another two tablespoons followed. I did the same thing with his stomach wound, and his knuckles just to be on the safe side. Then I poured him a cup of the water.

    “Drink.”

    “Where’d you get this from?”

    “Blackville.”

    “Where?”

    “A little town, well, near a little town, a place called Healing Springs.”

    Hetch rolled his eyes. “You’re kidding me, right? Healing Springs? That’s just a myth. Every state has one of those.”

    “It’s not just a myth. I’ve seen it. It works.”

    Hetch laughed.

    “Drink,” I repeated.

    As he downed the water, I worked on the wounds, bandaging them the best I could, the leg with a torn towel tied in a knot around his thigh, his stomach with a piece of that same towel and duct tape. Yeah, it’s funny when you think about it, but it was all I had, so it had to do. I poured him a second cup, trying to remember what Imeko had done.

    “Let me guess, I need to drink this one, too?”

    “Yup.”

    I worked on his knuckles next. It wasn’t a bite wound, but still it was a wound he received from a biter.

    “How are you feeling?”

    “Like I’m going to die.”

    I glanced up at him. There were bags under his eyes, and sweat on his brow.

    “Are you hot?”

    “My girlfriend used to think so.”

    I didn’t smile, though I probably should have. He was trying to make light of a bad situation. Why not indulge him?

    “Do you have a fever?”

    “I don’t know.”

    I reached up, touched his forehead. He was hot.

    “Well, do I have a fever, Nurse Walker?”

    “I’ll nurse you, all right,” I said, this time humoring him a little. “And, yeah, you have a fever.”

    A frown formed, and he inhaled deeply. “That’s how it starts. The fever. You get it and then you start throwing up and…and…”

    “You’re going to be okay, Hetch.”

    “How do you know?” He pulled up his pants, buttoned them.

    “I don’t.”

    We said nothing. I made him drink another cupful of water, and then took him to the back bedroom. From the looks of it, it had belonged to a girl at one time. A canopy bed sat along one wall–which was really the only thing feminine in the room. It was enough.

    “Lay down. Get some rest.”

    He shook his head. “I’m not going out lying on my back.”

    “You should rest, let the water have a chance to do its thing.”

    “What are you going to do?”

    “Kill the rest of the biters, then take the others off the stakes. Burn the bodies, I guess.”

    “I’ll go with you.”

    “No. You need to rest.”

    “You mean, I need to die. If I’m going to die, then I’m not doing it in a bed.”

    There was no need to argue with him. He wasn’t going to listen anyway. He thought he was as good as dead. Truthfully, I did, too. I couldn’t remember exactly what Imeko did to save his grandchild. I probably did something wrong. At least out there, I could just smash his skull with a rock or split it with the machete and not have to clean up anything in the house. Still, I wanted him to live. I didn’t want to be alone again. I believed that rest was the best way to get the healing water to work its magic…or miracle, if that’s what it was.

    “You mind if I use this?” he asked and picked up a hatchet near the fireplace. It was caked in dried blood.

    “No. Go right ahead.”

    Two hours. That’s how long it took before Hetch threw up the first time. If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed it was because of the work at hand. Killing the biters, moving the bodies, making a pile in the center of the yard between the house and the road, dousing them with gasoline, then setting them on fire. The stench was worse than I thought it would be, like pulled pork that sat out far too long. My stomach rolled, but I didn’t vomit.

    “You okay?” I asked.

    The voice in my head, which had probably been the same voice that had given life to Humphrey, spoke. He’s dying. Of course he’s not okay.

    “Yeah. I’m fine,” Hetch responded. “Just…” He pointed at the fire, and then threw up again. He held his stomach with both arms. His lips were pulled back, exposing blood-spattered teeth.

    I walked over to him. At Hetch’s feet lay a mixture of who knew what, but the main component was blood. I took his arm, and helped him stand upright. His face was pale, and sweat spilled off him in waves. He was burning up.

    “Let’s get you inside.”

    “I’m fine.”

    “No, you’re not.”

    Panic rose in my chest again, beginning at my testicles and working its way up to my throat where it caught like a lump. In the back of my mind I could see Hetch dead and rising, me shooting him in the head and then burying him, just like everyone else. Though I didn’t know him all that well, he was, in some ways, like me. He had survived that long, and he had lost everyone he loved. Now, he was going to lose himself. I was going to lose him.

    I had to save him.

    I.

    Had.

    To.

    Hetch could barely walk—how he managed to swing the axe or pull the bodies to the pile for the fire is beyond me. He held tight to the rail as I carried him up the stairs. Once inside, I closed the door—always closing the door, always locking it. I didn’t believe they could climb steps, but why take the chance? Down the hall we went to the room with the canopy bed. I thought for a moment to pull the canopy off, but chose not to. If there was a little girl with intentions of coming home to this room, I didn’t want her to find it wrecked. Thinking about that now, it seems like an oxymoron. I didn’t want the room a mess, but I put Hetch in there, who was almost certainly going to die, rise and be shot right there in that room.

    He didn’t fight as I put him in the bed.

    “Stay here.”

    “No problem.” His voice was weak.

    The jug of healing water sat on the table. I took it, a towel, and a cup to the bedroom. My hands shook as I poured a cup. “Drink.”

    “I can’t, Hank.”

    I lifted Hetch to a sitting position. “Drink the damn water!”

    I held the cup to his lips, just as I had seen Imeko do. Hetch opened his mouth, let me pour a little in. He licked his lips, opened his mouth again. “More.”

    By the time Hetch finished the cup, the edge on my nerves began to ease. He was taking water, and as much as this may sound corny, I felt like I was taking care of one of my brothers or Jeanette…or Bobby. I lifted his shirt and pulled the bandage off. Hetch didn’t so much as flinch. The gray had spread up into his ribs and down into his waistband. Those nerves went back on edge.

    I poured water onto the towel, then squeezed it onto the angry wound. I let it spill over his side and down into his pants. There was no time to worry with his pants. I put my fingers in the hole the biter had made and ripped the material until the pant leg was almost off. The other bandage was pulled off quickly, doused in water. Like the wound on his stomach, this one had stretched out along his skin, like long fingers reaching for something it couldn’t quite get to. The veins stood out beneath the skin as thick black lines.

    “Forget this,” I said, and poured water onto the wound.

    I filled the cup again. “Come on, Hetch, you need to drink up.”

    “Let me die.”

    It was a reaction. I swear. That’s all it was. I was angry with him, and I reacted.

    His head snapped to one side when I slapped him across the face. His eyes popped open, his brows curled down in angry check marks. “What the hell’d you do that for?” His voice was a little stronger, but it still sounded terribly weak.

    “I’m not letting you die.”

    “Why not? Please, just put a bullet in my head.”

    Why not? Why not? I thought about that. Why not let him die? I was being selfish. I wanted—no, needed—someone else in my life. I wasn’t afraid of the dead—that ended a while back, when I found out Jeanette had died. I wasn’t afraid of the living—not anymore, though the living were more dangerous than the dead these days. I was afraid of being alone, of having no one to talk to, of losing my mind, my sanity, my desire to live. I believed if Hetch died, I would not only put a bullet in his head, but probably drink myself to death, or at least get drunk enough to put a bullet in my own head.

    “I’m not killing you.”

    Tears spilled from the corners of his eyes.

    “Hang in there, and drink another cup of water.”

    “It’s no use.”

    “Drink the water, Hetch.”

    “Are you going to hit me again if I refuse?”

    “Probably.”

    He drank the water like an obedient Jim Jones follower. The difference is he had already been poisoned by the Kool-aid, and hopefully, this was the cure.

    I doubted it.

    There was no cure. What I had seen was an abomination…or a miracle. Maybe the little girl lived because Imeko believed she would. He believed God touched the water, that it had healing powers. I wanted to believe, and I think I did before I needed it to save someone. But doubt is a powerful emotion. Almost as strong as love and courage, but it can destroy both of those just by coming to the surface of thought.

    The bandage came off his knuckles next. The wound had puckered, the torn skin no longer covering the actual cut. It was still gray, but it hadn’t changed since the first time I cleaned it. Like the other wounds, water was poured onto it. And like the other wounds, this time I didn’t bandage any of them.

    I poured him half a cup of water. By then there was less than half a gallon left—it went faster than I thought it would.

    “Drink.”

    He didn’t argue this time.

    “I’ll be back,” I said and left the room. He had settled down into the bed, his head to one side, his eyes closed.

    Here’s a truth I thought I will take to the grave with me: When I closed the bedroom door, I went down in one of the other bedrooms and rummaged around a while. I found some rope at the top of one of the closets. From there, I went outside, taking my machete with me.

    My heart was heavy—a feeling I was tired of having. There were several biters roaming the dirt road, but none of them had crossed the little ditch or walked up the easement toward the house.

    I made my way to the backside of the house. Here the dead on stakes screamed in vivid colors. Arms hung down by their sides. Some of them were on crosses—how I managed those, I’ll never know. Wooden stakes, much like what they used in movies to kill vampires, had been driven through their chest. Their bodies were wrapped in wire from the fence, holding them in place. Their feet touched the ground. Each of them was missing portions of their heads. Flies buzzed around their bodies. I told myself I would eventually take the bodies down.

    I passed the staked biters and continued up the hill, stopping at the woodshed that sat along the tree line. Inside were mostly smaller pieces of wood. I found the longer one sitting along the wall–a four-foot piece of 2X4. I tied a rope around it, grabbed a black toolbox that sat on the floor, and then headed back to the house.

    Inside I entered the room across from the one Hetch lay dying in. I didn’t know how much time I had, so I worked quickly. With the toolbox lid opened, I found a thick-tipped screwdriver and a hammer. It took a minute, but I managed to drive the screwdriver through the door, whittling out a hole the size of a nickel. I ran the rope through it, then nailed the board to the inside of the door. I opened and closed the door several times before stepping into the hall and tying the other end of the rope to the knob of the bedroom door Hetch lay behind.

    It wasn’t the soundest idea I’ve ever had, but all I needed was a little warning. If Hetch died and rose, he would try to open the door. When he did, the door opposite him would slam shut. The rope attached to the knob would delay him from getting out of the room. By then I would have my gun ready. I planned on sleeping in the main bedroom, the door locked, just in case.

    I untied the rope, and checked on Hetch. He was asleep, his face pale and peppered with sweat. With the door closed and the rope tied back around the knob, I went outside.

    I don’t know who first coined the phrase, ‘the world is a cruel place,’ but that person had no clue. Sure, it could be bad and difficult and people could be cruel, but the world itself? Not so much. Well, not so much back then. Now the world was nothing but cruel. I lost everything. So did almost every other survivor left out there. I didn’t know Hetch’s story, but he was about to lose his life after making it so long. The world isn’t cruel. No. The world is a real bastard.

    There were more biters walking around. They were like vultures that could smell Hetch dying. I stood on the porch stoop staring down at them. They seemed to stare back at me. I went back inside, reached for the machete, then grabbed several pistols instead. Screw being quiet.

    Back outside, the dead moaned. As I went down the steps, the moans grew louder. They worked themselves into a frenzy, but none of them crossed the circle of bodies. It was like a rotting corpse-laden force field. That was fine. They were about to join the barrier.

    I remember the first shot. It split the side of a teenager’s head. I remember the last shot. It caused the explosion of an elderly woman’s face. The force of the blast sent her sprawling backwards. I don’t remember any of the shots in between. But the bodies told me I had wiped them all out.

    And the sun told me it was near dark.

    Inside, I sat with a lamp on. It was late. I thought about checking in on Hetch. Then decided not to.

    At some point I fell asleep in the chair, one of the pistols in my lap.

    The slamming door woke me.

    My heart hammered my chest. My head buzzed with a bit of disorientation. The gun was in my hand, and near my head. I listened, heard shuffling from down the hall.

    “Hetch?” I whispered.

    It was dark in the house.

    The shuffling stopped, then came another slam. The rope trick worked. Hetch was dead and had been stopped by the rope between the two doors.

    I stood. My body shook, but not from fear—from sadness. I would put him down, and I would bury him. And I would be alone again.

    I eased into the kitchen, and caught a glimpse of him standing in the bedroom’s doorway. His head was down, as if he were looking at the rope. I wasn’t sure, but it looked like one hand was on it, or maybe both of them.

    “Hetch?”

    He lifted his head and looked at me for a long few seconds.

    “Walker.”

    I think I blinked. I think I stopped breathing. I think I almost pulled the trigger at the sound of his voice.

    Biters don’t talk.

    “Hetch?”

    “Yeah, man.” His voice was weak.

    The rope dropped to the floor. He had untied it.

    “What’s with the slamming door rig?”

    “I…I…”

    “You didn’t think I was going to make it, did you?”

    A small part of me was ashamed at my lack of faith, but not ashamed at my will to survive. “Truthfully? No, I didn’t.”

    “But I did. I did make it. I feel better. A lot better.”

    I lit a candle, and held it up. He was no more than six feet from me. His face didn’t look so pale. He was no longer sweating.

    “Let me see your knuckles.”

    He held out the wounded hand. The wound was pink, the skin around it white. I checked the wound on his stomach next. The gray skin had reverted back to white. The bite marks themselves were red, but not angry looking any longer. His leg was the same.

    “I can’t believe it. It worked.”

    “I can’t believe it, either. I just knew I was going to die and…and…”

    “Yeah, I get it. I was about to put a bullet in your brain.”

    The smile faded from his face. One appeared on mine. My heart didn’t feel so heavy. There was a way to save those that were bitten. I doubted it would work after someone died, but there was a way to save them before they reached that point. We didn’t speak for half a minute. Maybe more.

    “Why don’t you take a shower? You smell like death warmed over. I’ll make you something to eat.”

    After he left the room, I lit a couple candles. The cabinets still had food in them, but not a lot. We needed to go on a food run eventually. But not tonight. Hetch was probably still in no shape to run from biters.

    I pulled out a box of crackers that had expired two months earlier. They were still crisp and held no signs of going stale. Two bottles of water went on the table. My mouth was dry and I could feel my body wanting—craving—the alcohol I had lived off of for weeks. I didn’t know if there was anymore over at the other place, and I had no real desire to find out. My body, however, begged me to search. There had to still be some over there.

    I held onto the edges of the table, closed my eyes and took deep breaths. In and out. In and out. In and out…

    The urge passed and I sat down. I could see the jug with the Healing Springs water in it. There wasn’t much left—maybe a third of a gallon. I wished I had known about this before…

    …before Pop died…

    …before Davey died…

    …before I sat in that warehouse holding Lee’s hand as he threw up and sweated and wasted away, greeting death with a touch of humor and a lot of tears and begging me not to let him turn…don’t let me turn…please, Hank, don’t let me turn…

    …before Jeanette…

    A crushing blow sank my spirits. Hindsight and all that aside, my family was dead, and there had been a cure all along. Somewhere in the background of the world around me, I heard the sound of water running behind a closed door. I lowered my head to the table, the weight of truth crushing me all over again.

    I cried…

    REAWAKENINGS by Robb Walker
    September 9, 2014  Short stories   

    “Now, what kind of ceremony did you have in mind? Did you want a traditional burial or a reawakening?”

    The two women, mother and daughter, exchanged a look. “We’re very traditional people,” the mother, Elizabeth Reed, said. “I think we’ll just go with a burial.”

    I nodded. “I understand,” I said, keeping my voice soft and even, trying not to show how desperately I needed this to work out. The rising of the dead had not been easy on my business. After the cemeteries had opened, sending the dead staggering out onto our grounds and destroying the property, most of the family had left. Once, we’d been Walters, Gambol, and Sons. Now, it was just me, Rebecca Gambol, not even one of the sons. It figured. (more…)

    TIL DEATH by Lynda Marie Vanderhoff
    August 28, 2014  Short stories   

    Their wedding picture, spattered with her blood, kept him company when he couldn’t bear to look at her. The plague now confined him to his home, and one look out the window showed him a staggering, shifting army of half-rotted people, their once pristine clothing now tattered and dust stained. (more…)

    MEMORIAM by Jheri Potts
    August 18, 2014  Short stories   

    She sits by a lake, a massive body of water so cold that just thinking about it should have made her shiver in the morning light. But her legs are splayed out in front of her carelessly, and her arms lay unfeeling and cold on the dying grass that bristles on the sloping banks.

    The girl tries sorting through her web of tangled thoughts, but gets snared despite being the spider. She tilts her gaunt face back to stare at the sky, so clear it seems to be deliberately mocking her. So many tears have already been shed that nothing will come; only the vaguest feeling of loss permeates her chest and travels slowly to her jumbled thoughts like a storm cloud over a playground. (more…)

    DREDGING UP MEMORIES PART XVIII by A.J. Brown
    August 7, 2014  Longer stories   Tags: ,   

    The trailer wasn’t safe. It didn’t take long to figure that out. I could tear the steps away from the front door, and take down the patio deck, sure. But there was the issue of the patio doors, two sliding pieces of glass with just a thin aluminum frame holding them on their tracks and a small lock to keep them closed. It wouldn’t take much to bust in that way. The ramp leading up to the patio wasn’t a good deterrent either. A handful of the dead could push it in, break the trim-like frame and possibly crawl in. (more…)

    BOYS IN TIMES OF WAR by Justin Dunne
    July 29, 2014  Short stories   Tags:   

    At about what age do young boys stop fighting over whether or not their pretend bullets merely maimed or killed their friend?

    “You can’t shoot me. I already shot you!”

    “No! You only shot me in this arm, so I shot you with my other hand!” Are they just playing together one day when one of them finally realizes it doesn’t make sense to argue about it? (more…)

    DREDGING UP MEMORIES PART XVII by A.J. Brown
    July 21, 2014  Longer stories   Tags: ,   

    I don’t know how many people died between the outbreak and the time I laid in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar house. Thousands? Millions? Billions? I didn’t know if the entire world was infected, people dying and getting back up, the dead killing and eating, a relentless army of rotting flesh, never stopping, never resting, always hungry.

    How many people did the dead kill? How many of them were screaming and crying and begging for someone to help them, begging for their lives against creatures too unfathomable to believe were real, though they were? Creatures who may have understood inside their rotting brains, but were helpless to stop because of the hunger that drove them? (more…)

    BEHIND CLOSED DOORS by Courtney Button
    July 15, 2014  Short stories   

    His backpack sways lightly on his back as he walks, the worn straps hanging low from his shoulders. He can feel the few items knocking against him with each step, a constant reminder of the bag’s emptiness. His breathing echoes loudly inside of his gas mask, his hot breath reflecting back on to his skin. He clutches the hammer in his right hand, his calloused palm gripping its eroded rubber handle. The muscles in his wrist ache from the swinging weighted end of the tool. He flexes his hand around it as he reaches the turning for the street. The sun burns down, toasting his exposed arms. (more…)

    BLACK RIVER COUNTY by Craig Young
    July 12, 2014  Short stories   Tags: ,   

    The rain was driving down when the police came for Melanie Atkinson. She lived in a trailer on the verge of town and had, ever since the fire that obliterated the childhood home she had shared with her dad, Mitchell.  It had been a story of thwarted aspirations and dead ends, that sometimes occurs in depressed rural areas. About ten years before, Mitchell had moved to the town to start up a mechanics business, but the promised Taranaki oil boom had never eventuated, and the strains on his marriage with Alannah had led his soldier wife to take up with another man.  Or had it been Mitchell and Irene, the school teacher, at the same time? For whatever reason, Melanie became cold and distant. And then, one evening, she came running into town, with the night torn by the sound and fury of her home going up behind her.  Blackriver was a small, insular New Zealand town, and in such places, prejudice and rigidity are the main course. Anyone with ambition and drive left when they hit eighteen and went off elsewhere to learn a trade, or headed off to polytech or university. They never came back. (more…)

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