Rain. It was appropriate.
There were no real clouds in the sky when I left Healing Springs. But an hour away, my life changed yet again, clouds appeared off in the distance. Fat, nasty gray clouds with black ones lurking behind them.
I pulled off the road at a gas station that I’m certain had little gas to give. I still had plenty of full tanks in the back of the van, but it wasn’t gas I was after. I needed a map.
A rumble of thunder came from overhead. In the far away clouds I could see the strobe effect of lightning. Then came thunder again.
The glass door of the gas station had been busted out. I stepped through, pistol ready. I surveyed the gray tinted store. Near the counter was what I needed. I walked over, reached for the South Carolina Roadside Map. I took it, and didn’t bother looking around the store after that.
Still, I saw the dead man in the aisle. He was probably the store clerk. From the looks of him, he had been dinner to several of the dead.
“I hate it for you,” I said, and put the bullet through the center of his head.
Outside, there were a couple more shamblers making their way toward me. Even as members of the dead race, they had seen better days. I could have probably let them rot away, but there were souls trapped inside. I knew this sure as the day was long. I should have saved the bullets, but the bat was cruel, and they had suffered enough. Besides, I had no desires to exert any more effort than I had to at that time. Two shots, one to each head, and they were finally at rest.
In the van I looked at the map.
“We’re on 321, Humphrey,” I said. “If we take it out, we can pick up Number 1 here and that will take us back toward Batesburg and–”
And Humphrey wasn’t there. I looked at the empty seat where she had sat for so long with me, where she had been my constant companion. I wiped my mouth. My breaths were deep. I fought back the tears that threatened to fall.
I missed her terribly.
I wanted to whip the van around, and go back for her. What good would that have done? She didn’t want to leave the little girl. I can’t blame her—Alaya would probably play with her, would probably love her the way any child would love their stuffed animal.
What had I done to show that I loved Humphrey?
Not a damn thing.
I had abandoned her once. She had been scared in some of the places we went, by some of the things we saw, probably even by me. I had changed. I was no longer the crumbling man who found her in an abandoned house. I’m not really sure what I was, but I wasn’t the same.
And I was alone again.
I followed 321, and then hit Number 1 just as the map showed. Eventually I was back on Old Batesburg Road. Not too far down the road would be the turn for the armory. From there I would proceed to 378.
I reached Fat Boy’s truck. By then, it was raining and I had finished off the bottle of Jack Daniels. I pulled up beside the vehicle and got out. Scrawny lay dead in the middle of the road. The woman lay dead on the shoulder where I left her. This bothered me. I rounded the van and opened the door. I rummaged around until I found the shovel.
It took a couple hours to dig the hole, but really, where did I need to be? I picked the woman up and carried her to the grave. Water was already pooling inside the hole. I didn’t drop her in. Instead, I set her down, got in the hole and then pulled her in with me. I placed her arms at her side and brushed the nappy hair from her face. She had been a truly beautiful woman in life.
Another forty minutes and she was buried. I felt a touch of guilt, burying her in a pit of mud like that, but it was better than leaving her to rot away with the son beating down on her and whatever bugs decided to make her body a meal. I placed a stone in the center of the grave. “I hope you found peace.”
Not too far away, maybe a hundred yards or so from where I left him, was Fat Boy. He had managed to somewhat crawl away, mostly on his belly. His intestines trailed behind him and were covered in dirt and grass.
“Hey there, Fat Boy,” I said. “Remember me?”
He stopped, craned his neck toward me and let out a growl.
“How you feeling in there? I reckon it sucks, doesn’t it?”
Another groan, and then he turned back to his crawling away. He remembered me. He remembered what I did to him.
“It’s the end of the line, Fat Boy. Say hey to Scrawny when you get where you’re going.”
I pulled out my knife and drove it into the back of his head. He collapsed. I didn’t bury him or Scrawny.
I got back in the van and followed the road past the armory and further on down until I reached 378.
A left would have taken me to Newberry and Prosperity and Clinton. But straight took me to Lake Murray. I kept thinking about that boat and drifting my days away. I could do some fishing, catch my own food, clean it and cook it. Surely, the lake would be teeming with fish by then. I doubted anyone had been fishing there for a while.
I crossed over 378 and followed the road until it forked to the left. I stayed straight and passed a church on the right. The windows had been broken out. I thought of Pastor White and his congregation. I wondered if anyone went there seeking refuge, but instead found an overzealous, end of the world, come follow me to your death type. Or if they found salvation on their knees, with hands and voices lifted high. I hoped, if there had been any seeking shelter from the dead, they found what they wanted and made their peace. I hoped they survived. Though more and more it seemed like very few lived, and those that did, had lost their minds.
I turned left on a street that seemed to lead further toward the lake. I passed a dirt road on the right, stopped and backed up, then turned onto it. I could see the water from the entrance, maybe a hundred yards away. Probably less.
The dirt road circled around in a U until it came out on the road I had been on to start with. There were a handful of houses, a couple of trailers, and several boats that sat near piers. Circling back, I stopped at the first place to the right. It was a trailer, and kind of ramshackled at that. A brick house sat in what looked like the trailer’s yard. Behind them both was a fence where it looked like animals had been kept. I pulled onto the easement and to the side of the house. There was a tractor beneath a wooden canopy and another smaller building beside it. I found out later it was a tool shed.
It wasn’t the perfect place, and there was plenty of work that needed to be done to make it safe. The stairs leading to the back door were high off the ground, and the ones in the front could easily be removed, making it harder for the dead to get inside. I would have to board up a set of glass patio doors, but for the time being, it would do for shelter.
“Come on,” I said, reaching for Humphrey. Again, I had forgotten she was gone. My hand hung in the air for several seconds before pulling it away.
Before heading to the trailer, I downed the last of a bottle of water. Some of it spilled down the side of my mouth. The whiskey had been gone for about an hour, and I can’t really say if I was a little drunk. If not, I missed a good chance to be. My ears hummed and the world felt a little off kilter.
I peered in through the patio doors. The house was dark, but the sun shone through enough to see a dining room table, a couch, coffee table and a door off to the right with what looked like the entrance to a kitchen to the left. I saw no bodies of any kind. The patio door, like so many others after people abandoned their homes, was unlocked. It slid open with ease.
The place was cooler than I expected. And clean. No one had ransacked the place searching for supplies. I went around the dinner table and stood in the living room. A useless big screen television sat across from me, along with a recliner and a rocker and a piano. A small hallway led to the back door. Across the hall was another room. There were pictures of children and adults, a family portrait full of smiling people.
The door to the right led to a bedroom and a bathroom. I left that room, crossed the living room and stepped into what amounted to a small hall that really wasn’t a hall at all, but more like a two-foot wide divider between the two rooms. There was a table in the room in front of me, and several full bookcases, a computer desk, and another piano. They must have liked pianos. Across the room and to the left was another bathroom and bedroom.
The bathroom was white tiled with a forest green toilet and bathtub. The sink was the same green, but there were no toiletries on the counter that surrounded it. Instead there was a five-gallon jug, like one that belonged at a water cooler. The water in the jug was clear, probably cleaner than any water from a faucet, but not as clean as the water from Healing Springs. A hose ran from a fitted cap to another jug, this one more like a pot with a lid. The pot sat on a homemade oil burner. On the floor next to the counter were items I didn’t expect to see in a bathroom. Cornmeal, sugar, malt and yeast, all of them opened at one time, but now held closed with clothespins.
A homemade still. I couldn’t help but smile. If I hadn’t been already well lit, I probably would have tried the shine. But, at that time, I didn’t.
The house was empty. No living. No dead.
I left the bathroom and walked back out into what I could only think of as a den. On the wall was a picture of a woman in her wedding gown. Her hair and eyes were brown and she had a great smile, a genuine smile. Her face was radiant. She was a pretty woman.
“You made someone very happy, didn’t you?”
Thankfully, the picture didn’t answer.
Evening would be coming soon and the sun would lay itself to sleep. I had work to do, but I was tired. So tired. My head was heavy and swimming. My body told me to lie down and rest before I passed out. The world was out of focus. It had been a long time since I drank anything besides beer, and even then, it had been a while since I had one of those. The whiskey had gotten to me.
Standing in that room, staring at the picture of the beautiful woman on the wall, I imagined life in that house. Did she live there? What was her name? Did she have kids?
The sounds of children, a boy and a girl, came from behind me. I spun on my heel, pistol drawn, surprised by their voices. Giggles filled the room and footsteps ran away from me.
I crossed the room in four long strides, searched the next room, then the kitchen and the back bedroom.
But I heard it.
‘What’s wrong, Walker?’
“Did you hear that?”
“The children. They were laughing. They ran off. I heard them. I heard their footsteps.”
‘There are no children. There is only you.’
I turned, searched the room. Humphrey’s voice was so loud, so real, so much older than I had recalled. But there was no Humphrey.
The laughter came again. I circled the kitchen and went to the front door. I found no one.
Footsteps followed, the heavy thumps of kids who still hadn’t learned to run soft.
No running through the house.
I spun, gun out in front of me, finger on the trigger. The voice had a melody to it, a sing-song tone. It was beautiful. But there was no one there.
The back bedroom was still empty except for a dresser and two beds–probably where the children slept. There were no toys, no clothes in the dresser and only a handful in the closet–none of them belonging to children. There was no one in the closet or in the bathroom. I pulled the shower curtain back to see a green tub and several full jugs, much like the one on the counter.
Laughter again, this time more than the happy giggles of children. There were adults, both young and old, and they were in the living room. And I ran back in there and…
The laughter filled my ears. Bits and pieces of conversations filtered in. I turned, my pistol out at arm’s length, looking for ghosts that weren’t there. A whisper on my neck and I whirled, pulled the trigger. A hole appeared in the piano, but there wasn’t a person lying dead on the floor.
I shoved the gun into my waistband, slid the pack from my shoulders.
I remember doing that.
Then everything went hazy, and gray around the edges. White dots filled my vision and it was tough to breathe.
Then I was falling…falling…
The world is a dark place. Has been since the beginning of time. The darkness in our hearts goes right along with the darkness of the things that lurk in shadows.
I heard her calling me long before I woke to the darkness of that house. It was faint at first.
Walker. Walker, wake up.
As I lay unconscious, the voice speaking to me, I could see Jeanette kneeling by my prone body. Her hand was stroking my hair, my cheek. There was a tapping coming from somewhere in the house.
Walker, please get up.
Her eyes sparkled, even in the blackness that surrounded us. She continued to stroke my face as she begged me to stand, but her lips never moved.
The tapping was like rain on glass, or maybe small hailstones.
Walker, if you don’t get up, you’re going to die here.
Jeanette’s features washed away and she was gone. The tapping continued, but it was less like rain and more like thumping. I tried to wake up. I could feel myself on the edge of consciousness, but too paralyzed to wake fully. My body felt heavy, my eyes glued shut.
Wake up, Walker!
And her voice grew more and more frantic.
The world swam back and my eyes snapped open. I lay on my stomach, one side of my face smooshed into the plush carpeting.
It was Humphrey and she was on the verge of panicking.
Pushing myself to my knees, I shook my head. For some reason the thumping was still there.
I looked toward the kitchen, to where the dining room table was and the sliding glass door just beyond it. One of the dead stood on the other side, her hand steadily beating on the glass. I wasn’t sure, but it sounded like she had something in her hand and was trying to break the glass out.
I stood on legs of lead, my head like a ten-pound weight on my shoulders. I went to the patio door. I didn’t remember locking it, but I must have. Or maybe it had been the ghost of the giggling children, or the pretty brown haired bride. The dead struck the glass harder when I stopped. She smashed her face against the door, sludge spilling from her mouth like brown drool.
The gun came from my waistband and I took aim. She stopped beating on the glass as if she recognized what a gun was and what it could do to her. She took a step back, like she was scared of me. Another step and another, her hands down at her sides. The woman toppled off the edge of the patio deck.
I slid the gun back in my pants and looked around the kitchen. A knife with a thick blade sat in a cutting block. I took it and went outside.
The rain had stopped. The moon was high and bright, casting a blue light on the world. It wasn’t quite full, and it seemed a lot closer than it should be, but it provided enough light for me to see the woman on the ground by the patio, her legs buckled in odd directions, one arm broken and laying beside her. Something like blood oozed around her head, soaking into the ground. Her eyes stared up at the sky, looking at the moon in sightless wonder.
The moon’s light shimmered off of something near the woman. The ring glimmered on her hand, and I knew that was what she had been striking the glass with–a wedding band. For several minutes I looked at her, hoping it wasn’t the brown haired beauty in the picture. I knelt beside her, turned her head to look at her face. It wasn’t the picture woman, but someone else. I let out a long sigh before walking back inside and closing the door behind me.
I flicked on a flashlight and glanced around, hoping to see Humphrey in the backpack I carried when we left the van; hoping leaving her with Alaya at Healing Springs was just a dream.
It wasn’t, and Humphrey really was gone.
I made my way to the first bedroom on the right. Closing the door behind me, I locked it. The pack went on the floor.
I stood in the middle of the dark room for a long while, my head still in a slight fog, my limbs aching. I should have just lain down and went to sleep.
Instead, I left the room, crossed the house and entered the back bathroom. I scanned the jugs in the bathtub, my light shining over each one. The liquids were mostly clear, except for a dark red one that seemed thick. It reminded me of blood, something I had seen too much of over the past months. There were smaller bottles interspersed among the jugs. I picked several up, scanned their handwritten labels. Apple Cinnamon Cider. Strawberry Rush. Blackberry Crush. Lemon Tongue Curler.
Lemon Tongue Curler? The name alone made the decision for me. I left the bathroom with the bottle and went back to the bedroom. I closed the door, locked it and then I pushed the small dresser by the wall to in front of the door.
I pulled the cork free. A hot smell like kerosene rose from the bottle and burned my nose. I tipped it to my lips, took a sip. Liquid fire ran down my throat, searing my insides and warming my stomach. My eyes snapped completely open, and filled with tears in the process. My head was suddenly clear and I think I spun around in a circle, and then braced myself with a hand against the wall.
‘What’s wrong?’ Humphrey was still in my head. I wonder now, if she always was.
‘Strong? Strong what?’
“Alcohol. I haven’t tasted anything this potent in years.”
‘Should you be drinking?’
‘Are you going to drink more?’
The conversation ended. It was the last one I ever had with Humphrey.
I drank too much.
At some point in the night–or was it early morning?–I stood at the window of the bedroom, a big double glass version that slid left and right instead of up and down. From where I stood I could see the water shimmering off the lake. I could see the other homes, most of them actual houses and not trailers like the one I was in. I wondered if I shouldn’t take one of them as shelter instead.
It doesn’t matter, little bro.
Lee stood beside me, staring out at the tranquil scene in front of us. He had a beer in his hand and he wore the flannel shirt and jeans he had on when he died. His head wasn’t an exploded mess, and there was no bite mark on his arm.
You can’t defeat them. They’ll keep coming and coming until they get you.
I held my tongue, the moonshine leaving a buzzing in my ears. My face was hot.
They got us all, Hank, he continued. Me, Pop, Davey Blaylock. Wilson and Nancy and Rick. Michael and his son. Mike Simmons. My Jessica and the kids, too. Paul Marcum. Mrs. Crenshaw. Jeanette. Jake and Bobby.
I turned and looked at Lee. He stared back at me, his eyes sad almonds on his face. There were whiskers on his chin.
There’s nowhere to go, little brother. Nothing you can do. You can fight and fight, but sooner or later…
“I can’t give up, Lee.”
He laughed, hardy and loud, a sound that startled me.
Hank, you already have.
“No, I haven’t.”
You can’t BS me, little bro. You gave up the moment you found out Jeanette was dead.
“I went to the armory, where Jake said they were going. It was overrun.”
Lee tipped his beer up, took a long swallow. It was as if the old days were back, but Rick wasn’t there and neither was Davey or Jake. It was just the two of us.
Do you remember Roscoe?
That’d be the one.
“Yeah. What about him?”
Remember when he killed his brother out in the woods that day. Calvin was there. So was Joe and Shawn, I think.
He killed Rhonda, too, you know?
“No, I didn’t. I thought she just disappeared–left him after he was arrested.” I continued to stare out the window, not flinching at the revelation offered up by my older brother.
Well, she did disappear.
“How do you know?”
I was there.
Yeah. He took another swallow of his beer. It was the action of a man deep in thought, of someone pondering life things. She was such a whore. She cheated on Roscoe a lot. But he let it go. Then he just flipped out, put three bullets in Robert’s chest and drank a couple more beers before heading home.
“I’m drunk,” I said.
That you are, little bro.
I humored myself–I was the only one there. Lee wasn’t real. He couldn’t be–and asked, “You were there when he killed her?”
Yeah. We thought he was on the run, you know, fled town for the mountains. We were wrong. He came in while she and I were… you know…
I looked at him again, this time acknowledging that this bit of weirdness was taking place.
He killed her, threatened to do the same thing to me if I didn’t help him hide the body.
Disbelief. That’s what I felt.
“I don’t believe you.”
You don’t have to, you’re drunk and you’re talking to dead people, Hank. But that’s not the point. Roscoe gave up on life when he killed his brother. Just like you have.
I should have stopped then, stopped drinking and went to bed, and slept it off.
I didn’t. I took another long swallow, sucked in a breath of air as the fire raced down my throat and the buzz became more of a full throttle beehive between my ears.
Pop was sitting on the bed, his hands in his lap. I never realized how old he looked. He lifted his head to me.
You still have my shotgun, Hank?
You ever gonna fire it?
“I don’t know.”
Don’t let it break your collarbone. It’s got a heck of a kick.
The dead. They’re going to get you, Hank.
It wasn’t Pop this time, but Mrs. Crenshaw. Her hair was some shade of blue or purple and up in rollers. She stood by the dresser, a ruler in hand, much like when she was a teacher.
Do you hear me, Hank Walker? I ain’t going to keep spoon feeding you. The dead will get you.
I looked at the bottle, shook my head. It was half empty.
“Not if I drink myself to death first.”
And it was out. My intentions weren’t to drown my sorrows, but to drown myself. Lee was right. I had given up already. I was tired of running, tired of fighting. Tired of being alone. Maybe I would get drunk enough to go down to the lake and take a swim to the bottom.
You can’t give up, Hank.
Jeanette was there beside me, her hand on my shoulder. She was as beautiful as ever, but her eyes held all the sadness and pain in them that they could possibly hold.
“Too late,” I said.
It’s never too late.
“Oh, it’s too late, Jeanette. It’s way too late.” Tears spilled down my face and I turned to look at her.
She was gone.
At some point I ended up on the floor in the bathroom just off the bedroom I had barricaded myself in. My gun was still in the waistband, the butt jammed into my stomach. The tile was cold on my face and when I lifted my head, it felt like it would explode. I stood and my head swooned, my stomach lurched. Vomit spilled into the toilet as I heaved several times. When I was done, I reached up and pressed the lever. To my surprise, the toilet flushed.
Stumbling across the floor, I kicked the bottle. It clattered away, spilling the remaining Lemon Tongue Curler.
I lay down on the bed. Humphrey was there, but didn’t speak. I guess she was mad at me. I gave her a look and she didn’t seem right. Her fur was missing and she was a deep gray color. Her eyes were gone and there were wisps of blond hairs on her head. I turned away from just another hallucination and focused on the ceiling.
The world was out of control, both outside and in there with me. I thought of my family. My brothers were all dead. Pop and Davie Blaylock. Jeanette…
With tears streaming down the sides of my face, I slid the gun from my waistband and fingered the safety off…