Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to That Book Place, a new and used book store in Madison, Indiana, with my good friends Ben Rogers and Beth LaFond, where we were able to promote, sell, and sign copies of our books. It was a blast getting the chance to hang out with the customers and owners of the book store, and I was hoping to have the chance to swing back by down the road. Well, that time has come, and this Saturday, Ben, Beth, me, and a whole bunch of other authors will be hanging out at their fifth Anniversary celebration from 11-5. They are located at 337 Clifty Drive in Madison, and it sounds like they have done quite a few renovations to the place to make it bigger and better. There will also be music all day long, which will make it even more of a festive atmosphere. So if you are any where near Madison, Indiana, this Saturday, head on over and check out some of their outrageously good deals on books That Book Place has as well as getting the chance to have copies of your books from the various authors in attendance signed. Here is a link on Facebook with more details: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=188601541151430.
I know Ben, Beth, and I all have books as well as upcoming books to promote, and I am sure we, along with everyone else who is there, would enjoy chatting with folks about our writing, the stories ideas we come up with, and what the future has in store for each of us.
I would love to see you there!
Well, this is the last of them. At least the last one that I am posting here. The final one takes place deep into the last book, and is quite brief. It will be appearing on the kindle and smashwords version of the trilogy, but I can’t put it out here, because it reveals a bit too much of a book that has yet to be released. So I will leave it with this little back story on Sadie, the little girl in the RV camp from Into The Dark. I realize she has a very minor role in that story, although it increases with the last book. This particular flashback was originally written into the third book, and just gives us a glimpse into the reality of a small child during the zombie apocalypse, or so I hope.
It has been fun posting these, and I hope you’ve enjoyed them. I will have to figure out some other stuff to start posting soon! Bits and pieces of some of the short stories I have out there in some of the anthologies I’m in, just to give you a taste of them. Well, that’s a topic for another day. I hope you enjoy this tale of Sadie.
Sadie was a good little girl. A little angel. She knew that because her daddy had told her so time and time again. Now, after all this time, she could barely remember much else about him. He was just a shadow in her mind. There were no pictures, no recordings of his voice to refer back to and so she had begun making up new details about him. Little things about his hair and his kind and handsome face. For a time he looked like Ben, though there was a little spot in her brain that remembered that he looked nothing like the big burly bear. She had forgotten so much about her dad that she was starting to replace those lose memories with new ones. She recalled how brave and strong he was, how kind and gentle he had always been …
All she knew for sure anymore was that he had left their little two bedroom apartment one day and never came back. She could remember him and mommy arguing over his decision to leave, but even that was hard to recall clearly. It seemed so long ago to Sadie, even though it had only been a few weeks. When he did not return after a few hours, momma took it pretty badly for a couple of days, barely speaking or doing much of anything. She would still hold Sadie close and let her get what little food they had left in the kitchen to eat when she was hungry. Sadie remembered the first time momma smiled after daddy left. That was when she told her what had happened to him.
Sadie knew her daddy had gone up to heaven to be with grandma and grandpa, who were taken away from them a year before. Momma told her they would see him again real soon and that she should not worry about daddy anymore. She cried as she said it but at the same time, she told Sadie there was no more room for tears. They had to move on because that was what daddy would have wanted them to do.
Momma had already taught Little Sissy, as she called Sadie, how to be real quiet all the time. It was a game they played, to see who could last the longest without speaking or making any noise. Sadie remembered momma telling her about a little girl named Anne Frank who had lived in an attic for years with her entire family without making so much as a single peep. Anne had to be quiet because of the bad people who were outside, just like the ones that were outside now.
Sadie could hear the bad people outside and pretended they were Nazis like the ones who wanted to get the little girl in a faraway land called Amsterdam. She even began to scribble in a notebook that her momma gave her, pretending it was her diary.
After a couple of days pretending to be Anne it got really boring, but momma was so proud of her little girl that Sadie did her best to continue playing the game. The two of them slept a lot and played boards games in the dark with a flashlight. Sadie missed the outside world, she missed her daddy, and she missed the friends she had made in their little apartment complex, but momma told her everyone had left, just like daddy, and were up in heaven now. They only had each other now and that was what was important. Somehow, Sadie understood that it was true. No matter how hard things got she still had momma and that was good enough.
Until they ran out of water.
Sadie knew the water was getting low and had been for several days. Momma had stopped drinking and had insisted that Sadie still drink a full cup of the warm, stale tasting tap water that they had collected in a couple of plastic milk jugs and several glasses. As their supply diminished Sadie had whispered, asking what they would do when it was all gone. Momma gave her a look that scared the curiosity away and then walked to her bedroom, shutting the door behind her. Sadie couldn’t hear her crying, but as the tears rolled down her own face she imagined it was exactly what momma was doing.
For a day after the last drop of water was drank momma stood by the front door, still as a statue as she listened carefully, for over an hour. The noises had died down a couple of days before, going silent for long stretches. It had been nearly a week since Sadie had heard the last scream and sat shivering in momma’s arms as she cradled her and covered up her ears, rocking her back and forth.
Mandy Wharton had never been quick to make many decisions during her lifetime. It had taken getting pregnant with Sadie before she would finally accept Paul’s proposal of marriage. She had debated getting an elementary education degree up until her little girl was born, which meant she would have to put that off for several years, at least.
Paul had always been the one who made all the decisions for them, for better or for worse. So when he had decided to leave their little apartment, she had pleaded with him to stay, even though the walls had already started to close in. He insisted he would not be gone long. Enough time to either get them some more supplies so they could hunker down for a couple of months, until this entire thing blew over, or to find them a better place to hide out.
When he didn’t return, Mandy was forced to figure out what the hell to do for her and Sadie. Even that decision was put off until the last moment. She knew they could survive for a few more days with no water, but then they would be far too weak to escape. Besides, she had heard nothing outside for a long time. It was probably safe enough to make a break for it.
Mandy knew that her beat up old VW Bug would still be sitting in the parking lot where she’d left it. She had stared at it several times through the closed blinds earlier on, desperately wishing that it was closer to her front door. Their unit faced the parking lot and her old beat up car was on the far side of the lot. The last time she parked it, the lot was full.
Everyone had been home then, glued to their televisions as they watched the world falling apart before their eyes. Soon after that, many of the residents of their little community began taking off, ‘heading for the hills’ as Henry Chu, one of their upstairs neighbors, had put it. Big chunks of the parking lot became barren over night, but several cars still remained. Other folks had made the same decision Paul and Mandy did: to stick it out even with warnings that the National Guard was conducting house to house and apartment to apartment searches for anyone who had been infected. They were also carting off anyone else they came across and tossing them into the closest shelters.
There were enough horror stories about the shelters and the how clogged the highways were for them to decide that they would take their chances in their modest little home, where they would hole up and try to hide out until the military came knocking. But they never did. A couple of days later, Paul decided to head out on his journey, leaving his wife and child behind to fend for themselves. Mandy was still not sure if she was more angry or sad that he had abandoned them, leaving her alone to make all the decisions for her and Sadie.
When Mandy finally broke out of her stupor and decided they had to leave to avoid an agonizingly slow death, she did her best, as she had been doing all along, to make it into a game for Sadie. Something that both of them could play so they could make believe the world was not filled with hungry monsters like the TV had been saying before it had gone on the fritz like everything else. The two of them would be spies, sneaking around outside doing their best not to be seen by anyone.
Mandy knelt down in front of her little girl and told her that she had all the faith in the world that Sadie would do great with this new game. She told her that daddy would be looking down from heaven and expecting her to do her very best. Sadie nodded excitedly at that, ready to prove that she was as good at sneaking as she was at remaining silent.
But when they opened the front door it was clear that it would not matter how good Sadie was at sneaking around. Mandy had her fingers wrapped tightly around the car key that she was prepared to jam into the lock as quickly as possible so she could get Sadie inside. The car had remained dormant for over two weeks, but despite its rusted out and banged up exterior, it had always proven to be a warhorse that started on the first turn of the key. It had been her most trusted ally since she had bought it with some help from her mom and dad five months after her sixteenth birthday. Her dad had nicknamed it ‘The Beast’, but she ignored all the jibes from him and her friends. It was her pride and joy and had carted her all over the place for the past ten years.
So as they passed through the threshold of their apartment out onto the concrete path, Mandy’s eyes were locked on her car, their salvation. That was why she missed the movement off to her left, in the overgrown bushes, as they strode forward. It was only a short term mistake. Mandy had every intention of scanning the area before she had opened the door, but once she did her eyes were drawn to her car like magnets.
She got no more than a couple of steps out the door with Sadie running ahead when the smelly old cat lady who lived two doors down stepped out of the shadows and grabbed Mandy’s arm.
The elderly woman had been behind the bush, where she had stood for several days with the hot sun beating down upon her weathered and befouled body. She hadn’t had a meal since she had caught one of her older, lame cats and devoured the old tom, fur and all. Despite her nearly catatonic state she had reacted quickly to the sound of the opening door and the scent of human sweat.
Sadie turned as she heard her mother cry out in surprise. Seeing what was happening, she started running back, totally prepared to kick the mean old woman right in the shin. The cat lady had always scared her, even when she smiled. Her yellowed teeth, those that remained in her gingivitis infected mouth, and her taunt and leathery skin, made her look like a jack-o-lantern to Sadie.
Sadie was no longer afraid of her, just angry that she was grabbing her mother. She was going to save momma from the horrible witch.
It was then that Mandy looked up and screamed at Sadie as she tried wrestling her arm away from the old crone.
“Don’t get any closer Sadie! Get away from here now!”
Sadie was confused by the command. Her mother had cried out, which was enough of a shock, but now she was yelling for her to run away. It was the first time she had heard her speak above a whisper in a very long time and the raspy croak coming out of her lips did not sound a thing like momma anymore.
Sadie stood stock still, trying to comprehend what was going on. She was mesmerized by the contortions of the two women battling in front of her. It was not until the crusty old biddy leaned over and bit deep into her mother’s arm that Sadie reacted again. She screamed long and loud, louder than the voice her mother had used to reprimand her. She watched as mommy gasped with pain and stumbled backwards, her feet getting tangled with the other woman, whose teeth were still lodged in mommy’s arm.
Sadie started moving forward once again, her mother’s command to leave forgotten. That was when her momma got really angry. Mandy turned and twisted, wrestling desperately until her eyes locked onto Sadie’s one last time.
“GET OUT OF HERE YOUNG LADY BEFORE I SPANK YOUR BUTT!”
Sadie still hesitated and her mother’s words were cut off for a few seconds as she rolled around on the ground with the old bag of maggots on top of her. She wanted to help her mother, protect her from the mean old woman, but the fear of a spanking was like an electric jolt to her senses. Momma almost never spanked her. She had in fact only done so once before. The memory of that whipping was still fresh in Sadie’s mind and had come after she decided to play with a fork near an electrical in her bedroom.
“SADIE, DO AS I SAY! RUN AWAY FROM HERE AND FIND SOME PLACE TO HIDE. DO IT NOW!”
Sadie turned slowly, still hesitating, unsure of what to do. It was then that she noticed some of the other neighbors opening up their doors and stumbling out of their doorways. At first she thought they were coming to help. She opened her mouth to plead with them to get the crazy old lady off momma, but instead she found that she couldn’t speak as she looked closer at each of them.
They all looked funny. Sadie had not gotten that close a look at the old woman, but she could see all these other people quite clearly. A couple of the neighbors looked like they had been bashed over the head with a giant hammer, like the ones they always used in the old cartoons they showed on the Boomerang network. They looked like they should have stars and little birds flying around their heads, but instead they just had a lot of blood all over them. It was like they had all decided to dress up for Halloween and chose the same costume.
That was when the smell hit Sadie’s nostrils. The mean old lady smelled bad, but she had been out in the fresh air for days. The miasma that crawled out of the steamy hot apartments where numerous corpses had been festering for days and weeks was overpowering. To Sadie it reminded her of the smell of manure she had seen piles of at the farm she’d visited with her preschool class. The teacher had called it manure but she knew what it really was. It was like all her neighbors had decided to roll around in a big giant pile of poo.
Sadie noticed one person in particular. Someone who she had always liked. Unlike the others, he was shuffling toward her instead of towards her mother and the old witch. It was Mr. Gonzales, the building superintendent. He had always been nice to her. He always had a quarter or a dime in his pocket and gave her one of the shiny coins every time he saw her. His thick black mustache that drooped down over his upper lip always made her laugh. That and the neat little tricks he could do, like the one where he made it look like his thumb was detachable.
Sadie took a couple of tentative steps towards him, calling out for him to help mommy. He was in charge of all the buildings in the complex and was always there to help them when they had any trouble. She cried out again to him, repeating his name. If anyone could take care of the crazy old cat lady, it was Mr. Gonzales.
But he kept moving towards little Sadie, totally oblivious to her plea. Even when she started screaming at him, he ignored her desperate cries. He was certainly interested in the little girl, but not in anything she had to say. It was not until he was fairly close (in Sadie’s mind, he had been right above her and that was how she remembered things every night when she had nightmares about Mr. Gonzalez) that she realized his shirt was bloody and ripped in several different places. His brown skin beneath looked dipped in blood as well, most of it dried to a tacky consistency.
Mr. Gonzales was the superintendent, but it seemed like no matter what job he had to do, no matter how messy it got, he always had a clean shirt on. That was something Sadie knew for sure. He liked to tell the kids his shirts were magical and dirt was afraid to stick to them. Sadie always giggled at that, especially when he winked at her and gave her his best fuzzy mustache wiggle and great big grin.
Mr. Gonzales always had a smile for Sadie. But not today. His shirt was almost black with blood and though she could see his teeth underneath his thick black mustache, there was no smile there. As he reached out for her, she finally turned and ran; her mother’s screams fading in the distance.
The little girl didn’t look back, no matter how badly she had wanted. Past the little playground and down the hill that ran out back of the small huddle of buildings that made up the Pleasant Pines Apartment Complex. She kept running, making sure she never stumbled. She kept running until she couldn’t run any longer.
Sadie knew that her mommy was dead. Just like her daddy, she was up in heaven now. Because Sadie had screamed. Her mommy had taught her how to stay quiet and Sadie had been good at that, but once they had left the apartment she had screamed and mommy had died because of that.
It was then that she decided she would never scream out loud again. She would keep all her screams on the inside so that the bad people would never find her again.
For two days Sadie hid in an empty drain pipe beneath a road that had been under construction. She heard noises up above sometimes. Ones like she had heard outside their apartment day after day with momma by her side. She remained still and thought about her parents. Wondered what they were doing right at that moment up in heaven with grandma and grandpa.
She dipped her hand in the little trickle of water than ran through the pipe and though her stomach rebelled at the taste of it, she was able to keep the water down and not get sick. It was only when she became too hungry to remain in the dirt encrusted tube any longer that she finally climbed out, desperate to find something, anything to eat so she could crawl back down into the dark confined space that she accepted as her new home.
That was when Ben found her, an hour later, wandering in a small stand of trees, rooting around on the ground for acorns. He had been watching a group of about twenty biters for the past couple of hours when he saw the little girl stumbling around in the trees not a hundred yards from their position. She looked as dirty and pathetic as the ghouls, but it did not take Ben long to figure out that she was still amongst the living. Once he did he immediately swooped in, abandoning his hiding place and snatching her up before she could even react.
He had expected her to scream out and was surprised when she didn’t make a single noise. Instead, she only tried to struggle, beating uselessly against his chest as he carried her away from danger. Even at full strength, nothing she could have done would have bothered him, but she was as weak as a newborn kitten and after ten minutes of urgent, but futile attempts to squirm free of Ben’s iron grasp she was fast asleep in his arms.
He raced her back to the others, handing her over to Lydia before he returned to his scouting mission. From that moment on she became Lydia’s responsibility, joining the two little boys Ben had found only a couple of days before.
Sadie adapted as well as could be expected to her new environment. No matter how scared she got, she never raised her voice or cried out. Over the next few weeks she set an example for the two boys to follow as they moved forward with the group of adults that expanded and contracted as they fought to survive.
Even as the group was attacked everyone was amazed at how little Sadie did not utter a peep. Over time she grew closer and closer to Lydia and Ben; curling herself up around the two adults she trusted the most. But she never forgot her momma and daddy who were up in heaven, or what her momma had taught her.
But there were nightmares of the old cat woman and Mr. Gonzalez that haunted her dreams. Those two ghouls chased Sadie endlessly, night after night, as she raced to get back to her mommy. Sooner or later, they would catch up with her, but so far, she had eluded them.
I am closing in on finishing up with my Dark Stories that I will be posting on the blog. I wish they could go on and on, just because I have enjoyed embellishing on the characters that I created for my trilogy, but I have tapped into most of the characters with these stories, with a few minor exceptions.
One of my favorite characters is Ben, or Big Ben, as he is fondly known as to those who know him. He is sort of an enigma, or at least I tried to make him out to be that for the most part. He doesn’t say much-he is a giant of a man who doesn’t seem interested in much of anything except being left alone to do what he does best, for the most part. At least that is how he starts out, but it becomes more clear where his heart, and intentions lie as Into The Dark moves forward. He plays even a larger, more crucial role in Beyond The Dark, and once again, he is probably one of my favorite characters.
For better or for worse, the little story that appears below pulls the covers back on Ben and makes him less of a mystery. I believe after reading this, you will probably agree that he is the most unique of all the characters in the trilogy. In his own way, he stands out from everyone else more than Michael or even Cindy does.
This story takes place, like many of the others, predominantly in flashback, though it begins and ends after Ben has rescued Jeff and Ray from the deathtrap they were facing in Manchester. As always, there are probably some missed typos, and I ask for your forgiveness for those. I hope they don’t detract from your reading of this brief story about Big Ben.
Ben didn’t bother looking back at Jeff. It was wasted effort and efficiency was the hallmark of everything Ben did out in the open these days. Pausing to make a decision about what to do could be fatal. He knew the path he was running on, so it wasn’t as if he had to make any random choices anyway. The route he had taken was one that would distract and frustrate, then confuse and baffle the simple minded stiffs following him and Jeff. It was a piece of cake.
Once the group had decided that RVs were their best bet for staying alive, it had been Ben’s job to find a place to park them. And once he’d found a home for them at the edge of Manchester, he’d focused on committing the streets, buildings, and neighborhoods of the small town to memory so he would know all the threats and dangers that he would be forced to face in the future.
There would be no accidental dead ends and no second chances needed for his trip back to the RV camp. Even with a hundred and sixty pound kid on his back and a wheezing, out of shape man trudging along behind him, there was nothing in the town of Manchester capable of stopping Big Ben from making his way back to safety.
Before today it had always been quiet in the small town. A few wretched figures tucked away here and there, oblivious to his movements throughout the area. Once they realized one of the living was amongst them, it was always too late for them. Ben didn’t waste arrows or bother pulling his knife out. If he spotted a single ghoul, almost without fail he would move in and drive their head into the pavement before any synapses fired in their messed up brains. One quick, fluid movement. Once you learned how to do it, it was hard to forget. The results of his assaults were generally all the same: they were rarely noticed by the other infected nearby and there was only a limited amount of mess.
Most of the bodies were dry. Blood and other fluids that were a part of the normal human body had often already evaporated or leaked out of the stiffs Ben put out of commission. So when their heads met the pavement, if he did it correctly, there was no splash back, no gory splatter. No muss, no fuss.
Most of the shadow people, as Ben liked calling them, were not restless enough to investigate another decommissioned ghoul after it hit the pavement. They mostly hid in the dark, perhaps to avoid the detrimental effects of the sun on their deteriorating physiques. He had no real idea what the reason was for them hiding, but was appreciative that they didn’t bother investigating the corpses of their own kind after he executed them. Dealing with singles limited his headaches.
If there was more than one, it was best to hide and wait for them to depart. Only a small percentage could sniff the big man out and if Ben did not want to be heard, they simply did not hear him. Of course, when he was discovered, it tended to be over before they knew it.
If it wasn’t so sad, it might be comical in a dark and twisted way: he could swear he saw the surprise on their faces when he crushed their throats. That first little maneuver was so they couldn’t alert their buddies with excited moans that came with their discovery of warm flesh. Sometimes there was enough time to see what might pass for fear on their faces just before he crushed their heads beneath a giant work boot or cracked their skulls with whatever blunt object might be handy. It was almost enough to make him feel sorry for those tormented beings. Almost, but not quite enough to give him pause in his duties. Because if he slipped up he might get bitten, so there was no room in Ben’s heart for sympathy for the already dead.
Spending time out in the wilderness of the world was therapeutic for Ben. A thousand times better than that shrink he had paid to try and unscramble his brain a couple years back. Back then, it had all been about trying to forget; forget the life he had led, in all its lurid glory. It had been hard to do, nearly impossible at times. So it seemed amazing that something as simple as a name change, to Ben, did such wonders for his soul.
None of the people he was with now knew his real name. None of them recognize him, so when he was dubbed “Big Ben” he latched on to the name change like he had been thrown a life preserver. It was not as if anyone would recognize his real name, Shawn Horton, anyway, but Ben just felt right. The world had shifted on its axis once again and so Shawn Horton, who had also been known as Bloodthirsty Rick Roberts, was again changing his name to suit his new existence.
No one in Cincinnati had recognized him when he returned home from Atlanta, outside of his family and friends. Being one of the masked bad guys helped insure that was the case. When he stepped out of the ring and more importantly, out of the spotlight, it was the first step in abolishing all the old and ugly things that permeated his existence for years: the botched marriage to Becky, all the broken bones, and the part where he had sold his soul for a little bit of glory.
The final step, or so it seemed, was becoming Ben: just some big dumb guy who knew how to handle himself in a world where the dead decided to get up and start walking around again.
When Ben thought back on things, he knew it all began and ended with Isaiah. Isaiah Ezekiel Jones, head of IEJ Wrestling Enterprises, promoter extraordinaire and manager of one of the largest stables of professional wrestlers in the United Wrestling Federation. Isaiah was a retired wrestler and was slick and smart enough to have grabbed a share of the profits made with his body back in the sixties and seventies, when he was in his prime. There was not nearly as much money in it back then, but Isaiah was smart enough to invest and stake his claim with a chain of fast food restaurants that had a presence throughout the southeast. Isaiah was the one who discovered Shawn Horton, an ex-marine and wanna-be body builder, and turned him into one of the best paid bad guys in the sport of professional wrestling.
Shawn had been just too damn big for his own good when he had been in the Marine Corps. He had seen some action in Desert Storm and had been dubbed “mountain” by the other jar heads. Not just because of his size, but because he was an immovable rock that was as quiet and immutable as stone. He obeyed orders, was surprisingly light on his feet, but had little interest in showing off his exceptional strength to everyone around him, which left him isolated for most of his tour of duty. So when his four years were up, Shawn was glad to be done with it.
He returned to the states and decided to make a go of things in Atlanta. One of the few guys he had made friends with in the corps told him how great a place it was to live, so he thought he would give it a shot. Not knowing what to really do with himself, he got work in a gym as a personal trainer, bluffing his way into the job mostly. That was where he was discovered by Isaiah.
Shawn cut a pretty impressive figure and despite his shyness, Isaiah saw potential in the big lug. He wasn’t “pretty”, so a mask took care of that. Later would come tattoos, a bald head, and a devilish goatee. Isaiah dazzled Shawn with promises of easy money and a lot of fun along the way. He introduced him to several other wrestlers who did a good job luring him and coaxing him to take a shot at life inside the ring.
Six months later, he was Bloodthirsty Rick Roberts, one of the masked superstars of the UWF. He signed a lifetime contract with Isaiah and was taught the ropes in the business. He dyed his beard pitch black, learned all of the dirty moves he could, and created a few trademark catch phrases for the fans. He was on his way.
Becky was one of Isaiah’s stable of hot girls that were a part of his traveling road show. She got paid to be one of the good guy’s girlfriends and to maybe have the occasional catfight with one of the other girls up in the ring during introductions. It stirred up the crowd and gave the wrestlers ample reason to display what appeared to be real hatred for each other. She was a statuesque platinum blond, and had a surgically enhanced body that could make a Playboy Playmate weep with envy. Ben was a hooked on her before he even realized it, but Becky ignored him for the most part. Being shy, at least outside of the ring, he could barely talk to her unless it was a part of the script, when he was trying to “steal” her away from her onstage boyfriend. It was not until he got to be a popular attraction that she took notice of him. Even then, it took him becoming one of the star attractions facing off against the other big named talent every night before she actually deigned to speak to him.
Perhaps it was how naïve he was, or maybe it was just how opportunistic Becky was that Shawn’s timid efforts to court her turned into a whirlwind affair in no time flat. Three months after their first date they were married. Isaiah, ever the opportunist, turned something he was originally opposed to into something he could promote inside the ring. Becky became a cold deceiver, stabbing her ring good guy boyfriend in the back by becoming Bloodthirsty’s main squeeze.
All Shawn knew was that he was happy and had found the girl he would spend the rest of his life with. Becky was brash and bold, exactly his opposite. The mask gave him enough courage to stand up in front of thousands of fans and growl at them, but Becky gave him confidence to believe in himself outside the ring. Together they grew in popularity on the circuit as one of the elite couples on the wrestling scene. Shawn knew they would be together forever.
Forever lasted exactly one year.
Much later, it was obvious to Ben that the affair had been going on the whole time he and Becky had been together. But at the time he caught her and Isaiah in bed, he it was as if he’d been sucker punched by the deceit. For better or for worse, Shawn had trusted his little lady and her deception had been complete. When he discovered them together, Becky tried to convince him that it was all some sort of big mistake, and when Shawn didn’t buy that, she told him she was sleeping with the boss for the both of them, to help advance their careers.
Shawn, who had become Bloodthirsty Rick but had yet to turn into Big Ben, didn’t listen to a word she said and nearly killed Isaiah that night. The old man had been a pretty good wrestler in his day, and was still in good shape, but he was no match for the massive ex-Marine, who broke five of the promoter’s ribs, three of his fingers, his nose, and his right arm.
When Shawn finally calmed down, the police took him into custody and his face, his real face, was smeared all over the local and regional papers for the next couple of days.
Becky divorced him and Isaiah sued. In the end, Shawn was banned from wrestling for life and lost his three homes and all his other possessions to Becky. Most of his wealth, which Isaiah convinced him to reinvest in the wrestling operation, was gone as well. Shawn paid off his lawyers and washed his hands of it all. He took what little of what remained of his fortune and moved back to his hometown of Cincinnati, where no one had any clue who he had once been.
That had been almost two years ago. There was still a little money left over, and he didn’t have to scrounge for an existence and could even afford a shrink who he went to every week for almost a year, until the doctor told him that he had to do the talking if he wanted to get better.
He bought a small, secluded cabin in Kentucky down on Cave Run Lake, which gave him a chance to learn how to hunt and fish. It was comforting, being down there alone. Bow hunting became Shawn’s favorite new pastime. He split his time between there and Cincinnati, where he took on a job hoisting boxes in a factory. The money was crap, but it kept him busy and physically active. Shawn’s ripped physique was beginning to turn more toward a more pear shape. It was age and the lack of a desire to go to the gym anymore. That was how his father had been, barrel-chested and big armed. Even with his diminished physicality, Shawn still cast an imposing shadow and was still just as light on his feet as ever.
After a while, he got comfortable with this new existence, almost happy.
When Shawn heard the first reports about the contagion sweeping the world that might spell the end of everything, his plan was to make his way down to his cabin, but things got hairy way too quick. So instead he planned on ways of getting away from the city on foot, away from the thick knot of the dead that was growing larger every day.
Military training mixed with his wrestling experience became a pretty useful combination when it was made clear that there were a lot more of the infected than living out on the streets of Cincinnati.
Though Shawn was sure he could do okay on his own, he decided hooking up with some other people might enhanced his chances for long term survival. That was when he met Michael and the small band of people traveling with him. That was when he became Ben, the stoic giant who didn’t ask questions and did just about anything and everything everyone else needed to stay alive.
Ben had no inclination to become a leader, so he and Michael got along just fine. For Michael, it was clear that having this huge ally around was going to come in very handy. For Ben, it was easy to accept his role in this new little society. While he wasn’t sure he wanted to stick around with the group forever, he did like the idea of being needed. The cabin could wait. He would make his way there when he helped the others to find a permanent safe haven and they became self sufficient.
It was rough at first. The factory had been a really bad idea, and not one that Ben had been in favor of, but he let that go because Michael had believed it would work. After they fled from that nightmare, it was easy to see that the volume of infected anywhere near the city was going to overwhelm them no matter where they hid. They needed to migrate further east, toward the countryside.
Ben never made any unsolicited suggestions but the others, including Michael, were beginning to rely on him more and more for almost everything. The combination of his military training and the time he spent learning how to hunt and live off the land down at his cabin was invaluable to the group of city and suburban dwellers. He was the only one in the group not afraid to stalk the wilderness, to forge ahead and find the group new and safe places to go. The world at large was a fairly quiet place now, with no loud wrestling promoters or deceitful wives to mess with him. Just the shadow people. They might not like him, but he always knew where he stood with them.
So when Michael brought up the idea of getting an RV to just drive off in, Ben suggested they get several of them, and that they find a place where they could hide them away from the rest of the world. It would be better than hiding out in some building they had to fortify and barricade to the point where they could never leave. They could circle the RVs up to offer a walled in fortress and then flee in them if needed. Michael was skeptical at first; at least until Ben assured him that he could find the perfect place for them to put the RVs that would give them a chance to live unmolested.
And that is exactly what he did.
It felt good to be appreciated. Ben knew he was being used, just like he had been in the marines and as a wrestler, but this was different. Michael was, for all intents and purposes, his boss, but he didn’t push. The others? Well, they just needed him, and they appeared to be grateful that he was willing to do everything they were unwilling or incapable of doing for themselves. They didn’t beg or wheedle, but smiled and were friendly, despite the small amount of talking he was willing to do with them. Mostly, they were good people. Mostly.
Amongst the adults, Lydia was his favorite. The sweet woman treated him with respect and appreciated everything he did. She didn’t have to thank him for everything, but she did—every chance she got.
The little children she watched out for were angels. Especially Sadie, who Ben adored. Making them little wooden dolls and toy soldiers was one of the few pleasures he could provide them, and the fact that they were ecstatic with the results, despite how amateurish his efforts were, made him feel all the more protective over them.
The two teenage boys were good kids and Ben liked them well enough. They left him alone for the most part and even when they moved into his RV, they understood that he needed his space.
The new people were okay too, despite Michael and his two stooges instant dislike of Jeff. Ben was tempted to actually suggest that Jeff just go with the flow and not push Michael’s buttons so much, but why bother? It was clear that both of them were pigheaded, so nothing he said was likely to make much difference. Instead, it was easier to just sit back and watch what happened. Things would likely settle down within a few days between those two.
At least that was what Ben thought before Michael’s screwed up expedition.
Ben wasn’t afraid of the stiffs. Not on a physical level at least. He was careful to wear a thick coverall when he went out on his little forays, and for the most part the undead were weak and incapable of doing much to threaten him. What strength they had lied in their numbers and boundless determination to devour everyone in sight. He could accept that challenge. Even though he was not fearful of them, he was no fool. He never assumed anything with the shadow people. They were dangerous despite how pathetic they were.
Taking them out had always been easy … at least after he got past the queasy feeling that came with his first execution, which had been one of his neighbors. Ben still felt a vague sense of regret as he was eliminating the undead, but his priorities were always clear. He estimated he had “killed” several hundred ghouls, though he did his best not to keep track of the number. It was just a morbid statistic he had come to accept as a fact of this new life he found himself living.
Ben respected Michael. The man had some good ideas, though perhaps he was weak on his execution of some of them and needed a bit of assistance now and then. He kept everyone organized and focused, and was a natural leader. Ben didn’t feel compelled to follow him, but it was clear that almost everyone still alive needed someone to take charge and assure them that it would all work out in the end. Michael was more than willing to do just that.
Unfortunately, there were some annoying side effects that went along with having the young man as a leader. Michael seemed obsessed with testing those around him; testing their loyalty in particular. It was as if he believed he was destined to build some sort of society that would somehow take back the world from the undead, and he needed faithful subjects willing to do whatever he asked of them to insure his victory.
So when Jeff came along, someone who was a bit too independent minded, Michael felt obligated to put him in his crosshairs. That had to be the reason for the screwy food run. Ben knew there was no other reason for sending everyone out; he could more effectively take care of getting food and other supplies for the camp alone than a whole group of clumsy people following in his wake. Sending them all out was a power trip for Michael, pure and simple.
Ben almost said something about it to Michael, questioning him on the wisdom of his decision, but after seeing the confrontations in the camp before they left, he decided not get in the middle of things.
Now he was dealing with the unfortunate results of that hesitancy.
Ben was angry. Angry he had not spoken up and suggested an alternative to this snafu and angry he had not kept a closer watch on the little expedition as it moved into town. Instead, he had gone deeper into Manchester, surveying the various buildings and streets to convince himself things were as quiet as they had been for the past few weeks.
That was when he realized there was going to be trouble.
The ghouls he saw as he slinked from building to building were agitated, aroused like they hadn’t been since they’d first come to the town, rolling the RVs down the road and pulling them off into the woods. They were bouncing off one another, wandering the streets when before, they had been content to bury themselves in the deepest shadows they could find.
Perhaps it had been the minivan when it had driven into the area the day before, and once again, when it had been driven onto the road earlier, when the group going on the supply run had piled out of it and walked down the street toward town.
After seeing how many were stiffs were wandering the streets of Manchester, Ben knew he needed to get the group out of there before the ghouls could pinpoint their position. But by then it was already too late. He signaled to Michael over the walkie-talkie, but by that time the rest of the group had already left the van and were on their idiotic scavenger hunt.
When he heard the first shots, Ben was already running at top speed, trying to get back to the group before it was too late, though he suspected it had been too late the minute the others had driven out of the camp on this fool’s errand.
Finding Ray and Jeff as they were about to be overwhelmed had only reinforced that belief. He managed to save them, but given Ray’s condition and the shit storm that had been stirred up already, things were ugly and were about to get uglier still.
Ben broke free of the last building and took off at a sprint across the road. He had chosen an alternative path back to the camp; a route he had mapped out a couple of weeks earlier just in case something bad like this happened.
Ray’s dead weight in his arms slowed him down only a little bit. He’d dealt with packs that were just as heavy under equally tense situations. No situation quite as perilous as this one, though. Ray’s lolling head and quiet whimpers as he bounced up and down were far worse to cope with for Ben than the challenge of having to carry the boy’s weight on his shoulder.
Ben could hear heavy breathing behind him. He slowed to a fast trot to allow Jeff to catch up, knowing that if the other man fell behind, he might give away their position. The moaning was far too loud, but was still quite a ways behind them. The dead would continue to seek them out, but if they lost sight of them and couldn’t smell them, they wouldn’t know where to go.
Still, it was risky heading directly back to camp. Finding a place to dig in and cover up for the night probably would have been the best thing to do. Ben had done that on a couple of different occasions, even when he only suspected he’d garnered unwanted attention on one of his journey’s into Manchester. On both occasions, the coast was clear by morning and he never knew for sure if his ploy had been necessary. Still, waiting things out guaranteed the camp would remain safe. So it was tempting to pull off into one the buildings he knew for certain was clear and wait things out with Jeff and the teenager.
But if he did that, Ray would die out here.
The kid was dying. Ben was no fool and had no delusions about getting him back to camp being the way to save him. The teen was getting weaker every second and in a few hours, maybe even sooner, he would stop breathing. Soon after that, perhaps within moments, he would turn into one of the shadow people, and Ben would be forced to smash his skull into the pavement, or at the very least, slip his hunting knife into the back of the boy’s skull. But if it was Ray’s destiny to die, he was going to die amongst friends, not in some dusty abandoned storefront.
Ben had heard the van when it had departed without Ray and Jeff. The others, or at least everyone beside Marcus, had made it out of that mess alive. Ben hadn’t seen that bastard Marcus’s corpse, but could put two and two together. Jeff had been wielding the dumb S.O.B.’s shotgun and as the old saying went, the only way something like that happen was if he had pried it from Marcus cold dead hands. As far as Ben was concerned, Marcus’s death was nothing to be sad about. But that wasn’t how Frank or Michael would see things. They would be out for blood once they knew what had happened … even if the dipshit had gone and gotten himself bitten and the others had been forced to brain him to protect themselves.
Nope, things were about to get very messy back at camp, and not just because an entire town filled with undead were all riled up.
Here is the second half of the story of the two teenage boys. This one is devoted to Teddy’s tale of his first exposure to the undead, and reveals some details about his family. Not much more of an introduction is needed for this one, so without further ado:
Ray and Teddy, Part II
Teddy’s story was quite a bit different than Ray’s, but he had no interest in sharing it or anything else about his family with the other boy, or anyone else for that matter. It just didn’t seem necessary. His life had been altered permanently, like everyone else’s, and just like them he had a sad story to tell. But it seemed like almost a violation of his privacy to share it with someone.
Teddy was an only child and his parents were much younger than Ray’s, but he had always been surrounded by cousins, aunts, and uncles his entire life. His father and mother were born and lived in Ellington, Ohio. Like the rest of his relatives, they stuck close the area, which was a small town not all that far from Manchester, where the RV’s were parked.
Teddy, like his father, had always been short but athletic. His father was an outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish and had tried extremely hard to pass that interest along to his son. As many times as Teddy had been pushed out the door at four AM on cold fall mornings or was dragged along to sit all Saturday in a little boat out on a lake, he never gained much of an interest in either sport. Instead, he discovered soccer. His mother decided early on that he should be able to choose for himself what sports he could play and despite the fact that his father said no son of his was going to play a “queer” sport like soccer, his mother, who was usually quite passive, stood her ground.
Joe Schmidts never went to any of Teddy’s soccer games when he was little and even when his boy took up wrestling in the seventh grade, he didn’t think much of the sports his son had chosen. By that time, Teddy’s parents were divorced and he was only with his father every other weekend. They shared even less time than that together since all Joe ever wanted to do was go out on his fishing boat and get drunk on the weekends. Teddy was old enough take care of himself, so he was left behind by his grumbling dad in the rickety shack he’d moved into after the divorce.
It was one of those weekends when things started getting strange.
It was about five PM on Saturday; at least three hours later than Joe usually got back from one of his typical fishing expeditions. Usually his trips landed him no fish, but a case of empty Bud cans rattling around in the bottom of the ten foot aluminum Crestliner. The boat was dented and beat up, but was the pride and joy of Ray’s father. That and his collection of hunting rifles.
When his father finally did stumble into the house, he was drunk as a skunk, as Teddy’s mother used to say, and in a foul mood to boot.
Joe never hit his son, despite what Vicky believed. He pushed Teddy around a bit to toughen him up, but never abused him. At least not physically. Usually he rambled on about Teddy being a wuss and that he should try out for the football team. He was fast and could be a running back if he bulked up like his daddy. Joe was all of five foot six himself, but weighed over two hundred pounds. He claimed it had been all muscle in his day and perhaps that had been true when he had been a star player on the local high school baseball team. But now his beer gut was the most impressive part of Joe’s physique.
Upon Joe’s return from his latest fishing expedition, he tripped through the door griping and growling, like he normally did. But that wasn’t the first thing Teddy noticed about his dad. It was the blood on his shirt sleeve and his sloppily bandaged hand. It was wrapped with gauze from the first aid kit his father kept on the boat. All the teen could get out of Joe was that some bastard had bitten him when he pulled his boat to shore. After that, Joe proceeded to knock the man flat, kicking and punching him until he went down for the count. After regaling his son with the brief story, Joe threw up and collapsed to the floor.
After checking to make sure he was still breathing, Teddy dragged his father to the couch and with a Herculean effort, got him up on it. His father didn’t wake up the entire time his son manhandled him. Teddy then managed to clean up the vomit, which had left a foul trail from the spot where his father fell all the way to the couch. It bothered the teen that there was blood in his father’s puke, but he didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t the first time that had happened.
Teddy glanced at the bandages on his father’s hand and dismissed them as well. The gauze looked gross, but not too bad-the wound underneath had stopped bleeding. He doubted the validity of the story his father had told, but had heard stories on the television about all sorts of the freaky stuff going on all over the place. Teddy wasn’t much for TV so he didn’t pay much attention to those stories, figuring it was more of the same over blown crap newscasters were always babbling about.
Regardless, he made no connection between the news and what happened to his dad. More than likely his father had done something stupid like get one of his fishing lures stuck in the webbing between his fingers where the cut was and in his drunken state ripped it out with some pliers. Making up a ridiculous excuse about some nut job biting him just went with the territory with pops.
Teddy didn’t bother trying to take the bandages off or even looking too closely at the wound. His father looked green around the gills and was probably going to throw up a few more times before it even got dark out. Instead, Teddy grabbed a bucket from under the sink in the kitchen and set it on the floor close to his father’s mouth.
Teddy decided to go for a run to clear his head. Exercise had always been like that for Teddy; it allowed him to think when all his thoughts seemed to be zooming by at a hundred miles an hour. None of his friends liked running, even the ones he knew on the soccer and wrestling teams. So he was typically in far better shape than nearly everyone else at the start of the new seasons of his two chosen sports. In less than one month, soccer practice would begin and he wanted to make the varsity squad. He would be the only sophomore if he made it, and his coach told him that he had a great chance this season. There were enough seniors who had graduated the prior year that there would be room for one sophomore and he was hoping that Teddy would put in the effort to be that one.
Teddy couldn’t imagine not going full bore with every sport he tried. Despite their differences, he knew that his father and he had persistence in common. His father was a talented athlete, but said time and again that no one had given him a God damned thing—he worked his ass off for it all. He claimed he got a scholarship to play baseball in college and did so for one year before he jacked up his knee. And that, according to Teddy’s mother, was when the drinking started. He and Vicky were married by then and Teddy came along a year later, but Joe was already on the path to oblivion well before his son was born.
Vicky had spotted Teddy’s natural abilities early on, as well as his endless energy, and got him into the peewee soccer leagues. Wrestling was discovered later. He excelled at it as well, but soccer was the boy’s first love. Teddy dreamed of getting a scholarship like his father and leaving his small hometown for good. The conditioning he put his body through would insure that he didn’t “jack up his knee” like dad, and maybe someday he would have the chance to play professionally.
So Teddy ran out of his dad’s dingy, broken down house out in the sticks and down his gravel road so he could clear his mind and focus on all his big goals for the future.
The other houses in the neighborhood were as cheap and shitty as his dad’s, and were populated mainly by Joe’s lame ass drinking buddies. Buddies dad had made after the divorce. All of them seemed as hateful and bitter as Teddy’s father toward women, and the world in general. At least he would not have to put up with them tonight, since his father probably wouldn’t be awake to call them over. Hopefully he would he would stay passed out all damn night and Teddy could head back to mom’s by noon the following day. It wasn’t like dad wanted him around when he had a hangover anyway.
After about an hour of running, things started to look strange out on the road. Teddy had followed his typical route of five miles down the road and back again. He was about a mile from his father’s when he noticed a few people in their overgrown yards stumbling around nearby.
Must be Miller time. It seemed a bit early, but who was he to judge? His father was already passed out on the couch and Teddy hadn’t seen anyone who lived along this back road that ever met a beer they didn’t like. Still, it was only six o’clock. Usually they were just getting started at this point and wouldn’t be fall-on-their-faces drunk until ten if they decided to stay home or a bit later if they headed to the local tavern Joe frequented with many of them.
What was stranger still was the fact that Teddy was seeing at least six or seven people out on their lawns all looking exactly the same-stoned out of their gourds. His best guess was that someone had a booze picnic-he had to chuckle at the fact that his dad hadn’t been invited. If he wasn’t passed out, Joe would’ve been pissed at the snub.
Teddy kept his eyes trained on the road, setting one foot in front of another, watching his feet kick up dust on the gravel road. And yet, he couldn’t help but notice the people stumbling around.
It wasn’t just how they walked. That would have been enough for Teddy to think it somewhat funny. But as he glanced even closer he realized they looked messed up. Really messed up. Every last one looked like they had thrown up all over themselves, and not just with normal vomit—there was blood and other gunk all over their clothes.
After a few more moments of jogging, Teddy dared to look at one of the drunks head on. He figured he could divert his eyes just as quickly if need be; if the person saw him staring and took offense. Teddy learned that keeping his eyes diverted from some of his father’s “friends” was the best thing he could do most of the time. They wouldn’t necessarily leave you alone because of that, but for the most part it kept them from pushing too hard when they were three sheets to the wind.
When he glanced at Missus Chilton, it was the first time that Teddy suspected that these people weren’t just drunk.
Marge Chilton was a widower who was probably ten years older than Teddy’s father, and Teddy unfortunately also knew from his dad that she was easy, which was grosser than just about anything. Most of the men in the area had taken a “whack” at ‘ol Marge, and if what dad said was true he had ridden her a time or two as well. That was far more than what Teddy needed or wanted to know about his father’s sex life, though Joe thought it was hilarious when his uptight son turned beet red and ran out of the room after several graphic descriptions of his conquests.
When Teddy worked up the courage to take a look at Missus Chilton, he stumbled and fell hard to his hands and knees on the gravel. The pain was intense, though he barely noticed it as his eyes never left the woman stumbling toward him.
Marge Chilton’s left cheek was gone. Teddy’s eyes were glued to the hole where he saw her jaw working underneath. It was a bloody mess, with the white of her teeth and pale gums clearly outlined. Part of the skin that had either been torn or ripped free remained behind and jiggled as she opened her mouth and moaned. It was like nothing Teddy had ever heard before. A ball of what looked like phlegm landed with an audible plop in front of her as her jaws split wide.
She was in a house coat, exposing a small and tight fitting nightgown beneath. In the lunacy of the moment, Teddy could tell it was silk and that his mother had one just like it. It clung tightly to the middle aged woman’s body.
Missus Chilton had been an attractive, if rather trashy, woman and her forty five year old figure still garnered its share of looks. Teddy was not sure how trashy she really was, but she had been at his father’s house with all the guys and a few other women on occasion, and was hanging on a different man each time. She smoked like a chimney and even tried flirting with Teddy once, which had ended with a horrified look on his face and her cackling like some insane witch at how funny she thought she was being.
The silk nightgown was covered in a brown fluid that Teddy guessed was a mixture of blood and something else he didn’t want to know anything about. More importantly, she was shambling toward him across her small front yard.
“Missus Chilton? Are you okay?” Teddy winced as he tried to get back up and pushed up on hands that had a thousand shards of gravel jammed into them. There were no cuts, at least.
She responded with another moan and if anything, it seemed even higher pitched than the one before, as if his voice excited her. Teddy’s gut clenched as he got to his feet and inched backward. He was afraid he was going to throw up as he imagined this horny old bag wanting to screw him, ripped up cheek and all, right here on the gravel road that ran in front of her house. It was insane, but no more so than any of the other thoughts running through the boy’s mind at the moment.
As he continued to move backward and repeated “Missus Chilton?” one more time, Teddy spied something out of the corner of his eye.
There were several other people moving toward him. The same ones who’d been stumbling around their yards like Missus Chilton.
They were walking just as slowly as the woman who was now only about ten feet from where the teenager stood. As Teddy looked a bit closer at the one nearest, two houses down, he recognized Phil Gomez. Phil was one of the few people who Teddy liked in his father’s neighborhood. He drank like all the rest, and yet never acted drunk. While he hung out with the other folks when they got together, he seemed to be the only one with a level head. He always had something nice to say to the boy and didn’t mock him for playing soccer like his father encouraged everyone to do.
Phil looked just as screwed up as Marge. Even more so. There was a big chunk of meat missing from his right arm and a great deal of dried blood around the wound. Teddy couldn’t see Phil’s eyes all that well but he thought they looked more cloudy than usual. But what really stood out about the man was the fact that his midsection was a ragged mess.
Phil’s t-shirt was shredded, as if someone had tried to tear it off him like he was some sort of rock star. The collar and sleeves were still intact, but the lower half was completely gone. So were most of his internal organs below the rib cage. Bits of gristle and whatever dark tubing that was supposed to be inside him were dangling down to his jeans. Thankfully the denim was holding up, along with his spine.
When he moaned like the woman closing in on Teddy, the boy nearly fell again. He felt woozy, but managed to stay on his feet. His knees were weak, though the pain from where he’d fallen on them was already forgotten. Behind Phil were at least three other people who looked as messed up as him.
Marge was getting closer.
Teddy panicked, not sure what to do. He turned to face the direction he had been running, figuring he was faster than any of these people even when they had been … been what? Normal? What the hell is wrong with these people? What did this to them?
It still didn’t occur to Teddy that the things he heard on the television were somehow correlated to this. That was the kind of crap you saw in the one of those sensational magazines his mother got a kick out of at the checkout stands in supermarkets. This was real. It was here and now. This was happening to people he knew.
When he turned back to the road, Teddy realized what a predicament he was in. There were even more of them coming.
He didn’t bother counting. There was more than he could slumping toward him. If he didn’t move soon, he would be surrounded.
The teen took off running.
He didn’t remember the rest of the roughly three quarters of a mile to his father’s house, except when dodging a few grasping hands. Teddy thought he had felt some fingers swipe the back of his shirt, but wasn’t quite sure. He didn’t bother trying to speak to anyone after Missus Chilton, although he thought he saw Rodney Williams, the African American guy who lived two doors down from his dad. Teddy always remembered that Rodney seemed blacker than black, his skin almost charcoal in color. All his father could think to say about the man was something nonsensical like “he sure as hell ain’t high yella,” before laughing like a loon. Teddy had no idea what it meant, but was sure it was offensive.
Rodney was the only black man in the area and some of the other neighbors didn’t seem to like him all that much for that reason, but Joe Schmidts had no issues with anyone as long as they brought beer with them when they visited, and Rodney always did. He was as much of a lush as the rest of them.
Teddy got to the door without a scratch, although he was drenched in sweat and panting. He opened the front door and slammed it shut behind him, locking it.
Teddy saw that the couch situated next to the front door was empty before he even got the door locked. Screaming for his father, Teddy’s heart nearly exploded when Joe stumbled out of the kitchen.
He didn’t look as bad as the others outside, but it was clear that whatever had gotten a hold of them had gotten to him as well. Joe’s skin had a grayish hue to it, and his eyes looked strange in the thin slivers of light trickling through the broken blinds on the front window. But it was the sound emanating from Joe’s mouth that confirmed it for Teddy. It was the same haunted, keening noise that he’d heard outside; as if some great sadness had gripped his father.
“Dad?” was all that Teddy managed to ask before Joe lunged at him. Perhaps it was the adrenaline, or the realization that it was pointless trying to break through whatever fever had a hold of his father’s mind, but Teddy managed to dodge the sloppy attack and make a run for the bedroom before Joe could do much more than growl in frustration.
Teddy rushed into his father’s bedroom and locked the door. It didn’t take long for him to hear banging on the front door over the sound of his own heavy breathing. But it wasn’t until his father’s fists slammed into the bedroom door that a startled yelp burst from Teddy’s lips.
Looking around the room, Teddy moved to the small window that faced the backside of the house. He could see several people moving toward the house across the acre-sized back lawn. It took only a moment to confirm that they were in the same shape as the others. Tugging on the pull cord, Teddy let the blinds drop across the window so they wouldn’t spot him.
Hearing glass shatter from across the house, Teddy knew that it was the back door being broken into. The pounding on the front door continued, but he could already hear footsteps moving through the kitchen. It didn’t take much to deduce that whichever neighbors were inside the house would be joining his father at the bedroom door within seconds.
Teddy rushed to the beat up dresser near the door and pushed against it. It didn’t budge at first, but as he let out a grunt of frustration, he felt it slide an inch or two across the ratty carpet. The sound of the effort acted as an incentive to his father, who increased his pounding on the door. The cheap wood of the door wouldn’t hold up long and that was all the motivation Teddy needed to continue straining until he managed to slide the dresser in front of it. The frame continued to rattle, but the heavy piece of furniture would at least give him a few minutes to think of an escape plan.
Scanning the sparsely decorated room, Teddy stepped to his father’s closet. That was where the rifles were kept. When Joe and Vicky were still married, he had a nice display case in the basement for all his weapons. It was locked, but had a glass front. All the rifles had trigger locks as well, which was something Teddy’s mom had insisted on. Since he’d moved, Joe was forced to sell the display case to a friend and had taken each rifle and blasted the trigger locks to pieces. Teddy supposed it was his father’s way of getting back at his mother for everything she had ever done to him.
Now the few rifles that remained in his collection were buried on the bottom of the closet. The only admonishment that Joe ever gave his son anymore was “don’t touch them or I’ll break your neck.” Teddy never had, until now. He sifted through the pile of dirty clothes on the floor and grabbed the Springfield Model 70. It was his father’s favorite. He had been forced to sell most of the others to pay child support and alimony. He couldn’t find steady work in construction so the collection, which had originally consisted of upwards of thirty different weapons, had diminished to about five rifles. He’d handed over the shotguns and other rifles to some dealers and collectors, but held on to the old Springfield, even though it was probably was worth more than any of the other weapons he had. It was Joe’s baby and when he’d bought it at a gun auction ten years before he swore up and down he would never part with it. His father, Teddy’s grandfather, had one just like it and Joe grew up using it.
Teddy held the rifle awkwardly. He had never fired it and had never really wanted to. Guns held no fascination for him.
He grabbed a box of .30 caliber rounds and noticed that several other boxes said 7.62mm on them and knew that he could grab them as well—his father had taught him that much, at least. He loaded the rifle as he had seen his dad do and poured as many bullets as he could into his pockets without feeling weighed down. Moving out of the closet, Teddy glanced over at the dresser and opened one of the drawers. He grabbed a pair of balled up socks and poured more of the stray cartridges into one of them. He wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, but filled it about half way up and then tied the opening of the sock off into a thick knot. Swinging it around a couple of times to test its weight, he hoped it would do the job of knocking someone silly if they got too close.
Staring at the dresser, Teddy watched it vibrate as several fists pounded on the door behind it. There were at least three people out there with his father now, and he was sure more would be joining them.
What the hell is wrong with everyone? It was the thought racing through Teddy’s mind as he stood, stunned and panting inside his father’s bedroom. They were in varied states of messed up, with his own father the least so. He remembered his father saying that someone had bitten him and that was starting to make more sense. Perhaps that was what caused this. Someone with rabies or hepatitis was out there attacking everyone, turning them into homicidal maniacs.
The more his mind raced, the stranger Teddy thought it was that no one out there appeared to be attacking anyone else. They were all bloodied and messed up from some type of assault, but they were all after him, not one another. Watching the door, Teddy held the rifle in front of him as he glanced furtively over to the window. No one had attacked his dad-he couldn’t hear any brawling going on outside the bedroom door, and yet they all wanted to get at him. Why?
Taking one last look around the room, Teddy cursed. No phone. His father had one phone and it was next to the couch. The man refused to get a cell phone and it damn near took a court order to get him to buy an answering machine. There weren’t too many people that Joe was interested in talking to anyway, and that left Teddy in a bind. What the hell was he going to do? In answer to his silent query, the sound of the bedroom door cracking made Teddy take a step back deeper into the room.
The truck! His father’s truck was parked next to the house. The beat up old shack didn’t have a garage. Just a cheap sheet metal cover that counted as a car port. The old beat up Chevy S-10 was underneath it with the boat attached behind. Teddy had always shaken his head at the amazing luck his father displayed in driving back from the small lake where he fished. They were out in the country, so he was almost always able to avoid the cops on his drunken returns home. He was not quite as good with trees and fence posts though. The truck had suffered some pretty nice dings and dents and Joe spent some plenty of his free time fixing a few neighbor’s split rail fences. Fortunately for him, they were as apt to get ripped and do the exact same thing, so they were more or less forgiving of his indiscretions.
But where were the keys?
He thought back to his father’s return. The old man didn’t carry the damn things in his pocket like a normal person. If Joe remembered to get them out of the truck, he would usually toss them on a counter somewhere or underneath a pile of trash he had not cleaned up in months. “My cleaning lady will get to it, but this is her year off.” Some lame joke like that was always his excuse. When Teddy tried to clean up once, his father told him to leave it. He’d left the boy’s mother so he could get away from dealing with crap like that.
As the bedroom door splintered and the dresser shuttered, Teddy thought hard. He couldn’t remember his father doing much more than throwing up and passing out when he got home. That and talking about getting bitten. No keys. Were they still in the truck?
The question was rendered moot as the dresser moved and the door behind it gave way. The moaning outside grew louder and it sounded like a lot more fists were pounding on the front door as well.
Teddy moved to the window and peaked through the blinds outside. Nothing. Just the weedy back yard that seemed to stretch for a mile. No more shambling forms. Anyone moving toward the house were probably already inside and trying to get at him through the bedroom door.
The window was fairly small and was at chest height. Outside of the dresser and the bed there was not much to climb on in the room. It would take too long to move the bed underneath the window. Being short sometimes was a real disadvantage. Teddy couldn’t remember how he managed, but he was able to slide the window open and pull himself up just as the dresser toppled over and crashed to the floor. He tossed the rifle outside as the sock full of cartridges swung like a pendulum from where he had tied it to his sweatpants.
Before sliding through the window, Teddy took one last glance back into the room, which was a big mistake. He froze halfway out the window as he stared into his father’s eyes.
The man was dead. Looking at Marge Chilton had not convinced Teddy of that, nor had seeing Phil, even with his guts ripped out. But looking into his father’s eyes as the man climbed over the toppled dresser made Teddy realize they were dead. Every last one of them.
Teddy almost died alongside them right then and there. He continued staring at his father, stunned by his revelation. His father was dead, but somehow moving toward him. The teen was frozen in place as his father crept closer, just a couple of feet away. Joe would grab him by the legs and pull his son back inside where everyone in the neighborhood would do unspeakable things to him. Then he would become one of them.
That was when Teddy felt the hand yanking him out the window.
He screamed as he fell to the ground, knocking down whoever had pulled him outside. His legs had been scrapped up in the fall and the bag of bullets had landed on his back, knocking the air out of him and leaving some nice gouges there as well.
Teddy rolled away, trying hard to catch his breath as the other person climbed to their feet. He rolled to his back so he could see what was going on. As he looked up, he discovered that his savior was one of them.
He didn’t recognize this person. It was man dressed in denim overalls with one of the straps missing. So was the man’s right arm.
Teddy gaped at the man and once again felt as if he couldn’t move. The rifle was behind the ghoul, out of the reach. Not that he could manage his first shot with the weapon anyway. There was no way in hell. The only thing he could do was run.
Teddy tried to scoot backwards, but the man was moving faster than he could scoot. When he did scoot, he heard the bag of bullets making noise as the cartridges clicked together in the sock. He reached and tugged at it. He had tied it to the pull string of his sweats and it had tried to break loose when he fell, but remained where he’d put it. Teddy had tied it tight, wanting it to remain snug to his body. Now he cursed as he struggled to get it loose.
The memory of how long it took to fumble the sock free played over and over in Teddy’s dreams for days. In reality, it took less than a couple of seconds and then he was able to launch the makeshift sling at the man well before he could lunge for him. But in his dreams, it was always one second too late …
Teddy watched as the weighted sock traveled upward and smacked the stiffening corpse in the nose. It caused the man to stumble. After a moment the monster regained control of his erstwhile feet and moved toward Teddy again. By then the boy had snapped out of his trance and was on his feet, slipping backwards, away from the man. The truck was on the side of the house, past the pus bag in front of him. But that wasn’t the only problem: someone was stepping out the back door of his dad’s house and others were following.
A voice inside Teddy’s head managed to cut through all the static and noise racing around in there. It whispered that he already knew that he was faster than any of these people. All he had to do was move, and move quickly and there was no way in hell they could catch him.
He took the voice at its word and decided to run straight at the man. This seemed to take the slug off guard a bit and it nearly toppled over. Teddy feigned another move and the klutz did fall over this time. Moving past the wriggling form, he snatched up his father’s rifle and then darted around the other dead figures pouring from the house as he ran to the truck.
The keys weren’t in the ignition.
Teddy slammed his fist against the window and was tempted to shoot the damn thing out of frustration. That was when he saw the keys. They were on the floorboards beside a discarded fast food bag. Yelping with glee, Teddy tugged on the door handle and got into the truck. He crammed the key in the ignition and tried to start it. The engine wouldn’t turn over.
The wretched thing was fifteen years old and holding on for dear life. It had some hard miles on it and had been a good truck for many years, but it was well past its expiration date. Teddy, who had never driven before, was winging it. Thankfully it was not a standard transmission or he would have been forced to run instead. He was reasonably sure he could handle an automatic.
When the first fist slammed against the glass, Teddy nearly wet himself. He stomped on the gas pedal and twisted the key again. Nothing. He remembered his father cursing the old beast a time or two and bitching about having flooded it. About how temperamental she was, almost as bad as his mother. Teddy cursed himself and brought the rifle up. There were more monsters coming.
He saw the first one moving its fist down toward the door handle and he locked it, wondering in amazement why he hadn’t done that in the first place. After another few moments of staring at the man close up, he blinked and leaned over to click the passenger side lock down as well.
For the next few minutes, Teddy Schmidts felt like he had been condemned to hell as punishment for not playing football as his father wished. Joe Schmidts became a drunken loser because his son was a great disappointment, but that wasn’t punishment enough for Teddy. No, he was going to be surrounded by his father’s disgusting neighbors so they could drag him down to the fiery pits, kicking and screaming.
That was when Teddy saw his father again. The old man came through the back door after somehow managing to realize he couldn’t follow his son through the window. The other neighbors in the room had followed and were out on the lawn coming toward the truck. There were at least ten of them and Teddy was certain he recognized at least half of them.
Teddy spent a great deal of time later wondering about the seemingly endless time he spent behind the wheel of the idle truck. Perhaps he should have died then. Maybe it would have been easier. He considered putting the rifle in his mouth and pulling the trigger. Contemplated it, but never took the idea seriously. It was no more a viable option to his way of thinking than shooting out the window and trying to blow away all those dead people. Maybe shooting one would scare the others off, but Teddy had a sneaking suspicion they wouldn’t be bothered by such an effort. Half already looked like they had been mauled by wild dogs or worse. A little old rifle blast would probably just get them more excited.
After forcing himself to wait the necessary amount of time (based on the amount of his father’s curses when he dealt with the flooded engine), Teddy was able to get the engine to turn over. When it started up, the rotters got even more agitated and slapped their fists into the truck even harder. Teddy flipped it into drive and lurched out of the car port. The boat tagged along for the ride, at least until he turned his first corner and it flipped off its carrier. Apparently his father hadn’t done a good job of securing it on his return trip from the lake, so the ten foot long fishing boat ended up in a ditch.
Teddy, who had been bound and determined to make it home to his mother’s after fleeing his father’s place, ended up crashing into a tree a couple of miles down the road when he attempted to avoid hitting an elderly man who he recognized from town. The old codger had been infected like all the rest. Fortunately, Teddy was able to escape the truck before Russell Torrance could attack him. Russell was the oldest citizen in Ellington and had a gold plated plaque to prove it. It had even been signed by the Mayor. Now he was just the oldest ghoul in town.
Teddy spent the entire night trying to find a way past the infected so he could get to his mother’s, but had no luck. After a sleepless night hiding out in woods near town, he realized he had to leave Ellington. The area was swarming with those bastards. There had to be someone, somewhere, who would know what to do. Teddy hoped that his mom had escaped, but it was hard to believe that she had gotten out past the mess their town had become. She lived near the center of town and the entire area was toast. Several fires had been started, and he could hear gunfire and sirens off in the distance. He prayed for her, but was already beginning to accept that she was gone for good.
The next few days were a nightmare of hiding and hoping. When he was finally discovered by Michael’s group, Teddy had traveled nearly twenty miles away from Ellington and had only vague recollections of what he had ate and drank to stay alive.
Teddy glanced over at Ray. He was his only friend now. His father was dead and so was his mother. Of that he was certain. Unlike George, he’d seen the devastation wrought upon his hometown and knew there was no chance she had made it out alive. He spoke to her on the phone just a couple of hours before his father got back to the house on that fateful Saturday and she told him she was going to stay inside the rest of the day. There were strange reports on the news that were freaking her out. It probably no big deal, but she asked him to be careful and not do anything foolish, at which Teddy had rolled his eyes. Like what mom? Get drunk with dad? He didn’t say it, but felt mild contempt for her concern, like any teenager would.
Thinking back on that conversation, Teddy was filled with tremendous guilt at the disdain he had for his mother. She told him she loved him and he’d mumbled a response, like he always did, before hanging up. That was the last time he ever spoke to her; ignoring her warnings and grunting at her like some sort of animal. I’m so sorry mom. I DO love you and I should have listened … not only then, but every time you tried to tell me something.
It took some time, but Teddy also realized soon enough that he loved his father too. Despite the man’s flaws and contempt he showed for his son’s choice of sports, it was clear that his father cared for him.
Joe had revealed himself on occasion, when he was sober, as a man who actually cared about his boy. It was clear to Teddy that his father was embarrassed about his failings and what his life had become-not that he would ever admit it. Joe might not be the greatest dad in the world, but he didn’t deserve what had happened to him.
None of them did.
This is essentially a flashback for Ray and Teddy that I had originally put in Into The Dark as they waited for Jeff and George outside the convenience store. Naturally, after realizing how big of a departure it was from the main story, I had to remove it, even thought it allowed these two characters, which up to that point had been extremely minor, to have more of a sense of existence to the reader. I’ve broken it into two parts, and this one primarily deals with Ray, but also provides some more details on Teddy as well. The second part focuses on Teddy and is a bit longer, and I plan on posting that in the next few days as well.
As always, I do my best to catch the glitches in editing, but I am sure there are some left behind here.
Ray and Teddy, Part I
The two boys took a little time making a connection after they met. Certainly, there were some significant differences between them, but after a while, they took comfort in having each other to lean on. Ray was a year older than Teddy, but given the fact that the other children in the group were significantly younger and the rest of the survivors were made up of adults, a minor difference in age and their distinctly different personalities didn’t seem to matter all that much to Ray and Teddy.
They were excited when Jason showed up, though the younger boy seemed to take more of a liking to Michael than them. It only served to reinforce their belief that they were a team and they weren’t going to let anyone get in their way.
Ray was a self proclaimed computer nerd and was very proud of that fact. His claims were, of course, untested since computers, like so many other things these days, were historical artifacts. He jokingly introduced himself to Teddy as a “Nerd without a cause”. Ray had been into video games and blogging, which was something that he had to explain to more than one person in their group. He shook his head in amazement at the lack of awareness some people had of the wonders of the internet world.
He had felt strange and totally out of place within the group of survivors until Teddy showed up. Even then, it took them a while to understand one another. Ray wanted to talk about all the video games he missed and the website he had been creating with some online friends dedicated to Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show that had been off the air for years but lived on thanks to You Tube and Netflix. Teddy, sadly, had never even heard of the show and sadder still, according to Ray, didn’t really care. When Ray tried to explain the wonder of it all, Teddy interrupted him almost immediately with “It doesn’t really matter anymore, does it?”
From that moment forward Ray decided he would never speak of the show or any other useless hobbies he had ever again. He never told Teddy how much the deadpan comment hurt, and that was partially because he had to admit that what the other boy had said was true: none of that stuff did matter anymore. Not in the world they lived in. He tried to get angry about that fact, but failed. Everyone Ray had known who loved MST3K was dead, and so were all the other geeks he linked up with on Xbox Live to play Halo. His world of computer screens and game controllers was officially dead and buried.
Even with Teddy’s brush off, the two boys worked hard to find common ground, in particular after they witnessed the deaths of several members of the group and even more so when they had to flee the factory. Teddy was somewhat reserved and aloof with Ray at first, but with nothing much else to do when the survivors weren’t running or hiding, he began sharing more and more about himself with Ray.
Teddy Schmidts was a small kid, a few inches above five foot tall and weighing in at 100 pounds. He was a freshman in high school and remarkably, at least to Ray, he had been quite popular with his classmates despite his diminutive stature. Teddy didn’t speak of his popularity as if he was bragging. Like everything he said, the words sounded genuine and honest. There was no embellishment in anything Teddy stated or did. He played soccer and wrestled and was good at both. Despite not having the size to play football or basketball, he was strong and fast, which landed him on the varsity wrestling squad. He had a good chance to make varsity in soccer as well by his sophomore year, according to his coach, if he stayed focused and kept improving his footwork.
Teddy had energy to burn, but athletics calmed him down. He told Ray that when he was little, doctors advised his parents to get him into sports year round to help with his focus and concentration. He had been diagnosed hyperactive, but did well with a lot of exercise. As he got older, the hyperactivity dissipated and his grades improved. Ray had wondered why Teddy felt the need to run around all the time and do pushups and sit ups like his life depended on it. He still didn’t understand after Teddy’s explanation, since Ray loathed physical activity, but shrugged it off. If it made his newfound friend happy, it was cool with him.
When Ray had asked about the Springfield rifle that Teddy had with him when they first met, Teddy stated that his father had been a hunter, though he refused to say much else about either of his parents beyond that. He did let it slip that this particular weapon had been his father’s favorite, and Ray suspected that was a pretty important detail about Teddy’s life, and a good reason why he wasn’t so chatty about his family. No one had any pleasant stories to tell about what had happened to their loved ones, so if someone didn’t want to talk about them, they were left alone.
Ray, on the other hand, didn’t mind speaking about such things and Teddy was good enough to listen.
He was the youngest of three, and as his mother described it, he had been a happy “accident” when he had come along in her early forties. Ray’s older sisters were well into their twenties and he didn’t see them all that often anymore-he had no idea what had happened to them when the world had fallen apart. They both lived in other parts of the country.
His father was an electrical engineer and his mother a librarian. “Thus, I got my card as a charter member of the nerd society while still in the womb.” They raised him to be proficient on the computer and a voracious reader, but had not graced him with many social skills. Outside of an almost obsessive focus on his grades, Herman and Bess Jordan had little interest in their son’s social development.
When the first reports came on the air about the dead beginning to walk, Ray’s parents, like so many other people, dismissed it as mass hysteria. It was only when local reports about riots and attacks in the streets of Cincinnati started showing up on the TV that they showed even the most remote interest. It still took them a couple days before they came to the conclusion that they should do more than quibble with each other and take some action. They piled into their car with the idea of driving out to a campground they had spent a single weekend at several years earlier. The idea of heading to one of the National Guard shelters or remaining at their house seemed foolish. From the campground, they would figure out where they could best sit tight to wait out this whole ridiculous mess.
They did not even get five miles from their house.
Caught in one of the many never ending traffic jams on the interstate, they sat waiting, like everyone else. About an hour after getting stuck and watching other motorists leave their cars, Ray’s parents bickered and debated yet again about what they should do. Since Ray’s mother had severe rheumatoid arthritis and his father was not in tip top shape either, it didn’t seem like such a good idea for them to grab what they could and hoof it. The mini-debate was settled twenty minutes later when they saw people running and screaming in both directions along the median and breakdown lanes of the highway.
Ray, who was a nervous wreck at that point, watched as his father got out of the car despite the fact that his mother was pleading for him not to. He told them to wait for him, and that he would be right back. Herman moved off from them and for the next five minutes the two people he had deserted in the Volvo Station Wagon sat and wept. Ray tried to comfort his mother by putting his hand on her shoulder, but she swatted it away, crying and screaming unintelligibly at him. After that he balled up in the back seat and whimpered, imagining what was happening to his father and wondering what he should be doing. His mother was hysterical, which was something entirely new to Ray. It felt like his world had collapsed.
Things got worse from there. His father finally came back to the car and opened his door. Bess Jordan pled with him to get in and lock the doors. After nearly thirty seconds of screaming, her voice elevating higher and higher with panic, Herman pushed her frantic hands away, hard. He leaned into the car and the look on his face was one Ray would never forget.
It must have had the same impact on his mother because she went silent. The last words Ray recalled his father saying were so quiet he was not quite sure he heard them correctly, but what he believed they were remained etched in his mind.
“We have to leave. If we stay here, we’ll die.”
His father grabbed his mother by the arm and pulled her out of the car. She resisted at first, most likely thinking Herman mad. The look on his face was like nothing Ray had ever seen before. His father had always been steady, composed, and dispassionate. Ray found it nearly impossible to describe what had become of his dad to Teddy, except to say it looked like someone had scraped all the color out of his skin and replaced it with the same texture and color as milk. It was as if his father’s blood flow had stopped. His eyes were wide and bulging and he looked like some sort of side show freak as he gaped at Ray and his mother.
It took a couple of minutes for Herman to finally pry Bess free of the car. As Ray opened his door and stepped out, he tried asking his father if they should take anything with them. His inquiry was ignored for the most part as his father dragged his mother down the road.
Less than a minute later Ray understood what had caused his father to act as he did.
Their car had been stuck on the inside lane of the highway. The cars had been moving at first, slowly inching forward, but then came to a halt. Besides having bumper to bumper traffic, the median was clogged with more cars trying to sneak past everyone. Overpasses with huge cement pylons had served as blockades to traffic along the grassy center strip every few miles or so.
The Jordan’s ran forward, limping along with the scattered crowds of other desperate people. The obstacle course of cars required them to adjust their path continuously as other people plowed past them, bumping and shoving them with an equal amount of desperation.
Ray remembered hearing a noise behind him mixed in with the screams. At first it sounded like a swarm of locusts and he remembered that being odd because he recalled locust only came out once every few years. Maybe cicadas? He had no idea if there was any difference between cicadas and locusts and dismissed the line of thought as useless.
Only in hindsight did the sound have any real meaning.
The Jordan family were buffeted and pushed around by most everyone rushing past faster than Ray’s parents were capable of moving. As hundreds of people streamed by, Ray spared a moment to look back in the direction they had come from. They were on a straight ribbon of highway that stretched for several miles off into the distance, and he could see everything behind them very clearly.
What Ray saw, and later told Teddy about, confirmed everything the news reports had been saying that his parents had found so hard to believe. The dead had come back to life and were attacking the living. Ray had remembered all the postings on the net spewing out rumor after rumor, and dissecting every sordid detail being reported from around the globe. Some were absolutely ridiculous while others, especially the ones displaying extremely graphic photographs or grainy cell phone videos, were hard to dismiss. Now he was bearing witness to everything he’d laughed about as the random ravings of internet sensationalists just a day or two earlier. Nothing even the most artful fear monger on the web had tried to relay to the rest of the world could compare to what Ray was seeing with his own eyes.
People were being pulled out of their cars by other human beings who weren’t even waiting for them to clear the shattered windows and windshields before tearing into exposed flesh. Some ganged up on the people in particular vehicles while others stood alone, smashing their bloody fists against windshields. It all looked like some slow motion movie being played out frame by bloody frame.
Ray stopped running and watched the unholy scene unfolding off in the distance.
It wasn’t just those stuck in their cars being attacked. Everyone on the road was fair game. The slowest and weakest were being dragged to the ground, along with anyone who had the misfortune of being trampled in the mad rush to escape the claws of the rotting army marching toward them. The old, the infirm, and those carrying small children were the easiest for the horde to overwhelm, while a brave few who chose to fight wielding an assortment of weapons such as golf clubs and hand guns were obliterated just as quickly as the horde of maddened cannibals poured in around them.
Ray gauged the distance to the closest fighting at about a half a mile. There the feeders were still sparse, a recon force leading the way for a much larger mass of infected out beyond the horizon. Ray’s eyes scanned further back and saw that their numbers were endless; they were a great consuming machine destroying everything within their reach.
Ray had looked up at Teddy at that point in his story and gave him a meek smile.
“I remember sitting on my porch when I was a little kid, watching an ant hill off in the dirt in my front yard. I was always fascinated by the worker ants, when they carried all those little pebbles of dirt and bits of leaves down into their underground bunker. I must have watched that ant hill for thirty minutes one day,” he laughed as his eyes grew distant.
“But then something happened. Another ant, obviously not from that colony, because it was larger and red, wandered by and was attacked by all those smaller black ants. It didn’t have a prayer. It must have taken just a few seconds for it to be swarmed over. The black ant army came in huge numbers and annihilated their enemy, dragging its carcass off down that same hole they used to carry all those pebbles and leaves. I’m not sure if they ate it, and I really didn’t want to know, but that’s what those dead people reminded me of: those black ants, climbing all over their enemies and tearing them to pieces within seconds.”
Ray swallowed hard and paused before continuing his story.
Like the ants, the undead attacked as a unit, swarming over their victims mercilessly. Ray remembered that all the black ants looked just like the bigger red ant except for the color and size, but the black ants sure had recognized the difference in species.
He watched the ghouls attacking the living with that same sense of fascinated dread as he’d had watching that insignificant skirmish on his front lawn years earlier.
The tide of the undead plodded along, excited yet systematic in their assault. Some would stop and focus on a car where they thought someone was hiding, while the rest forged ahead, pursing the huge crowd of the living that had gone mad with fear. A great sea of humanity was being pushed and prodded toward where Ray stood.
He realized he’d seen enough and turned to follow his parents. It was only then that he realized that they were already gone. They had not waited for their son to figure out what was happening and had left him behind. Ray ran forward a few car lengths and then reversed his course and went back to his family’s car to glance inside; irrationally believing his parents might have returned to wait for him there. He climbed on the hood and screamed for them, scanning the highway to the south, away from the slowly encroaching doom. He couldn’t pick them out amongst the hundreds, if not thousands, of people surging away from his position.
Ray screamed for his parents once again, although his voice was drowned out by the screams and the sound of locusts he’d heard before.
Much like what George had discovered a few days later when he fled the high school gymnasium with Jason, it dawned on Ray that it was the song of the dead he was hearing, not some harmless insects. They were crying out to him and the desperate refugees trying to flee from their inevitable grasp. From his vantage point he could see thousands of the dead marching forward. Those not busy biting or tearing into those frantic souls in their path were moaning. They were moaning and as the sound emanating from their ragged, rotten vocal chords joined together, it sounded like some sort of deranged chorus. It was so loud that it vibrated the car roof beneath his feet.
Ray could feel his grip on reality slipping away, but was coherent enough to realize that the screams of the living weren’t just coming from behind the car. He turned around again and made one last futile attempt at a search for his parents. There were people being trampled everywhere and he feared that given their physical condition, his mother and father might be injured. As he looked further in that direction, thoughts and concerns for his parents evaporated.
The dead were coming from the other end of the highway as well.
They were further off in the distance, but still surging toward the living caught in the middle of the two groups of surging corpses. They moved with a purpose, opening their arms and mouths to the crowd that appeared oblivious to their existence as they ran from the threat coming at them from the opposite direction.
Ray glanced around the immediate area and noticed that while most people were following the path of the highway in some blind attempt at escape, more people were taking off toward the trees surrounding the areas on both sides of the road. There were sound barriers off in the distance that helped shield the neighborhoods abutting the interstate from excessive noise, but in the immediate area, the woods provided a natural barricade, and a fortunate exit route for those stuck on the highway.
There was no hint that any ghouls were hiding in those woods, but it was almost impossible to tell from Ray’s current vantage point.
He stayed on top of the car for a few more moments and screamed as he did. This time, it wasn’t for his parents, but for anyone who would be willing to help him, to tell him what to do, or to take him away from this place. He shouted at the people running by, warning them of what was up ahead, but either they couldn’t hear him or more likely, chose to ignore the pimply faced kid raving like a lunatic from on top of the Volvo.
Even in his state of growing hysteria, Ray knew what he was doing was pointless. Everyone around him was already dead. They just didn’t realize it yet.
He wasn’t ashamed to admit to Teddy it was at that point where he broke down crying. It was easy to tell the other boy because Teddy had wept openly more than once during their escape from the factory. It was a heck of a lot easier to admit you cried these days and only Frank and Marcus seemed to get upset if you did.
Teddy listened, fascinated as Ray completed his tale. After another bout of crippling fear, Ray was able to give up on the idea of ever finding his parents again. There was poorly hidden guilt on his face as he talked about sliding off the roof of the Volvo and making for the woods to the east of the highway. When Teddy patted Ray on the back and smiled at him, the older boy felt a tremendous relief, as if a great burden had been lifted from his soul by revealing what was his darkest secret.
Not long after that, Ray managed to make his way to where Michael and his band of survivors were hiding out. It had been a harrowing adventure for him, but most of it had consisted of hiding in dark corners and staying as still as he possibly could as the song of the dead haunted his every waking moment for the next few days.
After his story was finished, Ray never brought up the subject of his parents again. Teddy was smart enough not to ask anything further, knowing that the guilt his friend felt was probably mixed in with a sense of betrayal and confusion at what they had done to him. They had left him behind and that was almost impossible for Teddy to imagine being forced to cope with.
This is the last of the Michael and Cindy Dark Stories, and this one takes place immediately after the argument that takes place between Michael, Jeff, and George about Jason leaving with them to go to Manchester to collect supplies. I thought this one would give you one last look into the twisted relationship these two have, as well as Michael’s paranoia about those around him.
There are a few more stories to tell, including one about Ben, the teens, and even Sadie, the little girl in the camp. So stay tuned for those.
Michael and Cindy Part II
“What a bunch of pathetic wussies. They make me sick.”
“Tsk, tsk dear. Such harsh language.”
Cindy shifted her gaze from the curtain and focused on Michael as he sat at the table reassembling the M16 he’d decided to clean yet again before going on the hunt.
“Ya know, you keep rubbing that gun like that and you’ll go blind.” She slinked over to him, her body lithe and sinewy. She was a predator, a jungle cat on the prowl. She treated most men, including Michael, like prey. They were either food or sex, nothing more. That was why when most men caught Cindy’s attention they usually did their best to divert their eyes and look away. They seemed to know that to her they were just meat, pure and simple.
“And if you keep wishing such ill will on others you won’t get into heaven.”
Cindy almost laughed, but instead continued creeping up on her boyfriend. Michael was definitely sex to her, but also food. She craved him like meat, like a meal that could never completely sate her hunger, so she had to continue to hunt and devour him, over and over again. She slithered to the floor and moved her hand over his combat boot, sliding it underneath his camouflaged pants. Blocked at the bend in the knee, her hand hovered just below it scratching at his calf with her ragged fingernails.
Michael ignored Cindy as he finished reassembling the weapon. After a second he admired his work and nodded in satisfaction. He was getting more proficient at taking care of the rifle. He’d searched around and managed to find a manual covering the how-to’s of field stripping and maintaining it in a bookstore he’d come across during the group’s travels.
As much as he had every intention of keeping it operational, the fact that he’d acquired only two thirty round clips with it, one of which was only partially full, meant that he had very little desire to use the M16. It was more a symbol of his authority than anything.
He’d squeezed off a few rounds in automatic mode a while back, just to convince himself that it did indeed work and when the time came he could put it to use. Other than that all he did was keep it clean and ready to go. There would be time to acquire more rounds. After all, there had to be tons of munitions floating around these days, it was just a matter of venturing into an area where soldiers had been stationed that wasn’t currently overrun by the undead. Until then, the rifle would continue to serve its purpose as his staff of office.
He grinned as he flashed back to how he had acquired it. It had been a shame, a real shame, that the soldier had been unwilling to surrender the weapon. The boy had been brave, but he was injured, and in a bit of a jam. He had required a bit of extreme persuasion, as Michael liked to think of it, to finally relinquish his rifle and sidearm. Desperate times called for desperate measures …
Michael’s daydream was shattered by the sensation of sharp fingernails digging into his lower leg and a warm trickle of blood running down his calf.
Cindy was looking up at him, her head leaning against his leg. Michael glanced at her, but despite the pain she was inflicting, he continued smiling at the M16. Yes, it had taken quite a bit to get the damn thing, but it had been worth it.
“If you don’t ravage me soon, I am going to take that thing away from you and use it to get off.”
“Well that would be something to see. It’d be even better if you let me pull the trigger while you did it.”
Michael caught Cindy’s fist before it could connect with his crotch. He had no doubt that she would have hit him so hard he wouldn’t be able to stand up straight for a week. He twisted her wrist until she gasped in pain. As usual, it sounded more like a moan of pleasure coming from her lips.
He gritted his teeth as she dug the nails even deeper into the meat of his lower leg. Michael knew no matter how much he twisted Cindy’s wrist, she would keep digging, even if he went so far as to snap the slender bones in her arm. It was a tempting proposition, but with no doctors around he couldn’t take things that that far. Still, the idea of putting the certifiably insane girl out of commission for a while was tempting.
Standing up abruptly, Michael flung her arm away with a sharp kick of his leg. Before she could react he brought his knee up and slammed it against Cindy’s chest, forcing her to the ground.
Gasping for air, her eyes widened in surprise. When she was able to breathe again, a knowing smiled appeared on Cindy’s lips.
“Maybe now I’ll finally get some attention.”
Michael glared down at her, angry again. After what had happened outside with George and Jeff, he needed an outlet for the rage building up inside of him. How convenient for him that Cindy was always available, willing to scratch any itch he might have.
Perhaps what had happened outside should be considered a moral victory. At least on the surface, it appeared that way. Everyone had been watching as Jeff had gotten flustered when he couldn’t persuade Michael to let Jason stay in the camp. He’d been forced to demand that the boy be left behind when they went into town, which would have ended very badly for Jeff if he had remained obstinate. That is, if George hadn’t butted in.
The final result, though unexpected, was a pleasant surprise. George had committed to staying with them, which wasn’t what Michael had expected to get out of him. Not in a million years, and certainly not voluntarily. The deal George offered was one Michael was more than willing to make.
The plan had been to dress down Jeff, make him sweat a bit, and make it abundantly clear who was in charge so there wouldn’t be any more opportunities for them to butt heads. Jeff would know his place and would be content from then on in following orders. Backing him into a corner should have been easy, with just a little bit of help from his friends. Megan was never going to allow Jason to leave the camp and it was Jeff’s duty to enforce her wishes. In the end, Jeff was backed into a corner, but George’s little outburst had pulled his bacon out of the fire.
Looking back on the spat was amusing. Michael could care less about whether or not Jason went with them. When the conversation first started even Frank seemed to question the value of having a twelve year old going out with them, but even someone as dense as that fat hick was able to pick up on what Michael was trying to do after a few minutes and kept his big yap shut, except to tease George and Megan.
Jason was just another pawn to Michael. It appeared that Jeff was really the only other person who picked up on that little detail. Perhaps George and Megan had suspected, but they let their emotions get in the way, which was exactly what Michael had hoped for. The kid liked Michael, and that made him pretty damn easy to manipulate. Since none of the adult newcomers seemed to have much fondness for the camp’s leader, resorting to using the kid was the natural choice for sorting things out and clearing the air as to who was in charge.
Jason would be useful again later on. He was probably mad at everyone at the moment, including Michael, but he would get over it. Kids were resilient like that. All it would take would be a few more gentle reminders that he had to stand on his own two feet and needed to act like a man. He couldn’t allow the adults in the group to coddle him like a little baby anymore. With a few well placed words, Jason would ditch the others entirely and be as loyal to Michael as Frank and Marcus.
Jason’s destiny was to drive a wedge between Megan and the two other men. The subject of the boy would be a hot topic amongst them from now on and sooner or later they would not see eye to eye on how to deal with the rebellious preteen. As they argued, it would be easy to chip away at their loyalty to one another. In time, one of them would decide they were better off offering up their loyalties to Michael, who was the one providing them with shelter and food, rather than the other two troublemakers, who were just stirring up shit and doing little else that was productive. It was just a matter of letting them fall apart on their own, with a few well placed nudges, of course.
It would all work out, but there was still something that bothered Michael. Something about what had happened outside that tasted foul on his tongue—like fruit that had started to ferment a little too quickly. Something was not right.
George had shown some backbone, which was far more than Michael thought the dumb bastard was capable of. George was supposed to be some miserable wimp pining away for his family, so it came as a big surprise when he agreed to stay at the camp to avoid putting Jason in any sort of danger. Even more surprising were the threats he’d uttered. Michael had to admit that it had unnerved him—not because George was so big and scary. Michael had taken down bigger foes in the past. Instead, it was what he had seen in the big man’s eyes: there was no bluffing there. George had every intention of killing Michael if he continued pushing him.
Despite that, there was a simple answer to the George dilemma: he would have to be watched and watched carefully. The old man would fly the coup if he was certain the boy was safe and secure here and the opportunity to escape presented itself. But more important than making sure he stayed put was getting him to behave. That might require poking and prodding him into a fight. It would give Michael a chance to break the old man down and sap his will to rebel just a little bit. And if that did not work, more drastic measures might be in order …
But as much as George might end up being a headache, he would be easy to deal with—he was a minor nuisance at most. George was not the one bothering him. Jeff was.
Michael had seen his type before: the reluctant leader. Jeff did not crave power, at least not in the form of authority over others. He was the type that preferred staying behind the scenes, doing his own thing, and would only step up when he was forced to. He wasn’t fearless, but like so many other people, he had probably lost everything and figured he didn’t have any real reasons left to be afraid anymore.
So the trick, as Michael saw it, was to give Jeff a few reasons to be afraid once again.
Jason had told Michael a bit about the group. About how he and George had spent most of their time stuck in some church, and then all the excitement that had occurred over the past couple of days, ever since Jeff and Megan had shown up in their minivan. Michael had gotten a few juicy tidbits from the stories the boy had told, enough to use against Jeff and George when they’d argued earlier, but he needed more information on the newcomers. Lydia was the one who’d spent the most amount of time with Megan and Jeff since they’d gotten here. Michael would need to have a long discussion with her about what they’d shared with her after they returned from the supply run. If anyone in the camp was non-threatening enough to open up to, it was Lydia. She was good at keeping secrets, but with a little sweet talk there was no doubt she would reveal things to Michael about her new friends.
Getting to know Jeff better would allow Michael to know what made him tick. There was no doubt he’d lost his family over the past few weeks. The thousand-yard stare confirmed that much. And when he’d stood up for himself outside, and given the ultimatum about Jason staying inside the camp … well, that had been a bit of surprise.
He would have never thought the other man had it in him. Jeff was soft, not a brawler of any sort. Unless he was hiding some sort of ex-military commando existence behind his bland exterior, Michael knew he could easily take Jeff down in a fight. More importantly, Jeff knew that as well. People like him avoided physical confrontations like the plague. Jeff was just an average dude who had been a family man once upon a time. Michael did his best to try to understand it. Jeff had to know that Michael was younger, faster, and stronger than him, plus he had all the weapons. So why risk getting his nuts squashed? The whole idea went against the grain. Jeff had probably lived his whole existence going with the flow, not rocking the boat. He lived a dull, unexceptional life, kept his nose clean, and obeyed all the laws … just like 99.9% of the other slobs out there.
As Michael continued to mull Jeff over, another possibility occurred to him. Maybe Jeff was willing to get a few teeth knocked in, just to show everyone he wasn’t a coward, and that Michael needed brute force to maintain control over the camp. Jeff would have been beaten, but Michael would have lost the respect of some of the camp members.
Oh you son of a bitch. You sly, sly son of a bitch. You almost had me, you cock sucker.
There was a small sense of satisfaction at having rooted out the trickster’s plan, but it was surrounded by doubt. Was that really Jeff’s intention? Was he willing to get bloodied to prove a point? George had stepped in and changed things with his declaration, which left Jeff’s real intention a mystery. All Michael knew was that there was no way that motherfucker was going to undermine his authority. No way in hell. Others had tried before and he had dealt with them—it was one of those ugly responsibilities that came with the burden of leadership. His father had taught him that. “Make a good enough example out of a troublemaker and the others will think twice before they cross you.”
Jeff was just another liability that would be dealt with soon enough. Michael just needed to get a better fix on him, so he could find out the best way to make him behave.
Perhaps if Michael had bothered looking out the window of the Winnebago at that moment, he would have seen Jeff and Megan consoling one another, which might have given him some ideas of how he could keep Jeff in line. Instead, his thoughts shifted back to Cindy as he stared down at her, his knee still on her chest. In that moment he felt the closest thing to love for her that he could possibly could. She had allowed him to see things in ways he had never seen them before. Everything was … easier now.
Without her he was a good leader, but with her he was a leader that understood that he always needed to be consolidating his power and eliminating elements that would seek to undermine him. He knew the sensation he felt was not really love; it was more like gratitude. An appreciation for the woman who had unearthed in him the feelings and passion that drove him. He grew more excited as he continued gazing at her.
The resentment and regret that always seemed to creep up on him when he thought too much about her had dissipated, as it always did. It seemed foolish not to embrace the power he felt because of what Cindy had done for him, what she had shown him.
He slapped her across her jaw as a grin surfaced on his face. He watched as the side of his girlfriend’s face slammed into the carpeted floor of the RV.
Cindy felt dazed, but knew once again that Michael was just getting warmed up. It made her shiver with excitement. He was getting closer to losing control with the others like he did with her. He’d nearly gotten into a fight with both George and Jeff instead of trying to be diplomatic, which was how he used to handle things like that. Not anymore. He’d used that brat Jason to get his way, and it had stirred up shit with that bitch Megan, as well Jeff and George. What had happened outside was a tantalizing tease and there was a good chance that Michael would come to blows with one or both of the new men in the next couple of days.
The idea of it nearly sent Cindy over the edge with excitement. She loved seeing the hate boil up behind her man’s eyes. It wouldn’t be long before he stopped trying to restrain himself and let go. It would be a beautiful sight to see when he did.
She licked at the small trickle of blood that came from her split lip and returned Michael’s smile.
This little vignette, which takes place in Michael and Cindy’s RV on the first night after Jeff and company’s arrival in the camp, mainly takes place in the minds of the two characters, though there is some dialog surrounding it. I discarded this mainly because the story was able to move forward without knowing these two and their hidden agendas, but of course, this serves as a way to better know about the twisted relationship between these two. Once again, Michael didn’t seem the type that would willingly fall in with a girl like Cindy, despite the lack of other women his age surrounding him. This, and the next story I will post should provide more depth to their relationship, and how screwed up they really are. Again, for those of you who haven’t read Into The Dark, this might not make much sense, so you might save checking this out until after you’ve had the chance to read that.
Again, as always, this is a rough cut, with my own meager editing efforts. So forgive me the typos and other errors as you read. Thanks.
Michael and Cindy
He grabbed her coarse blond hair and pulled her head back. Biting at her neck, he listened as she moaned in pleasure.
“You like it rough, don’t you, bitch?” It was a harsh whisper as his lips traveled up her neck and towards her earlobe.
“You know it baby.” The voice was unstable, shaky. If you didn’t know her you might think she was afraid. But for the few who truly knew Cindy, of which Michael was the only one still alive, it was obvious there was no fear in the woman. She was pure adrenaline and rage bottled up in a healthy young female package. At twenty three she was already savvy enough to understand how things worked in the world (even this particular variation of it) and vicious enough to achieve any objective that she set her mind to.
The tattoos on her neck covered up the hickeys and bite marks that Michael gave her. The scabs might be noticed, but no one would say anything. It was odd enough that Michael, a graduate of the Michigan School of Business and the son of extremely wealthy and prestigious parents, was shacked up with her in the first place. The additional ‘wounds’ that adorned her seemed to stretch comprehension levels to the breaking point. Who would ever believe that the prototypical ‘boy next door’ was the culprit responsible for those?
When Cindy had wandered into his little clan, it was clear to her that since Michael was in charge, he was the only person for her. He was far from her type, but her type was all dead, and that was just fine with her. He bit and scratched in bed, but only because she had taught him so well. She had unleashed his kinky side. Michael in turn had shown her that all men have one, it just took a strong and harsh enough woman to pull it out of them, kicking and screaming if need be.
Michael was all the power in the universe now. It was the only drug left to her after the last hit of ecstasy was gone well over a month ago. Cindy had been an addict at one point or another in her illustrious career to nearly every drug and intoxicating substance known to mankind. In essence, she was addicted to addiction.
Michael was just as addicting to her as anything she had sniffed, drank, or injected into her veins in the past. He was a royal prick under his nice guy persona and it tripped her trigger that she knew it and had known it from the moment she laid eyes on him. At first, she had repulsed him. It made no difference to her and in no time she was able wear him down. After all, geography might be the only thing they had in common in their relationship, but that was all she needed.
But some bony bitch had arrived in the camp and threatened to change the landscape drastically. She was sweet, she was demure, and she was everything that Michael would have found appealing in the past, before Cindy had corrupted him. Certainly the woman had the whole anorexia theme going, but beyond that she was perfectly “normal.” Attractive even. The jealously Cindy felt didn’t extend to any desire to be like that woman at all. It was strictly raw rage at a potential threat to her existence as the Queen Bee.
That was not all of it. Not by a long shot. None of it would have bothered her (or so she had herself convinced) except that it was very clear that Michael had been eyeing the other woman. Within the first five seconds the battle lines were drawn in Cindy’s mind. She knew her man well enough to know that when he fixated on something, it would not be long before he went after it. Michael was not one to take no for an answer. He had little inclination to deny his own base needs either. So far he had been satisfying them with Cindy, but now that Megan was here, she would be the new candy for him.
It was obvious. He did not hide it very well. She knew that sooner or later he would go after Megan and kick Cindy’s skanky ass to the curb. Even if that other bitch did not return his interest, it would make no difference to him. He would dump Cindy just to prove himself worthy of Megan. What a lousy piece of shit name: Megan. Everything about the other woman was something to despise.
Cindy had felt hatred from the moment she saw her. That was nothing big, she hated Lydia too. Most men pissed her off pretty fiercely as well. The teenagers had looked at her with lust in their eyes at first and that was amusing. She had joked with Michael how she was going to break Ray and Teddy’s cherries at the same time. She asked him if he wanted to watch while she did it. In response, Michael had smacked her in the jaw so hard that she had been knocked unconscious. When she came to, he was wringing his hands over her, in a panic, worried that he had killed her. When she smiled up at him and licked at the trickle of blood on her chin demurely, he nearly fainted. Then, when she insisted they have sex right then and there he almost had a nervous breakdown. Still, he complied and it gave her a sense of power over Michael that nothing else could. She owned him. That bitch Megan could never have that sort of a control over a man. Never.
The sex was interesting and Michael was willing to experiment, though he was amazed at how depraved Cindy’s mind could become. It was all boring to her though. She gave thought to cheating on him with that filthy scumbag Frank. Or maybe Frank and Marcus together. They were disgusting and they leered at her when they did not think she was looking. She knew it would be a hell of a challenge to get them into bed though. They were scared shitless of Michael and the idea of crossing him like that was probably the equivalent of committing suicide to their pea brains. That turned her on even more. Imagining having Michael walk in on something like that was delicious to think about. He would beat the living shit out of her but he would kill them, just as they feared. She knew she could get him to do it, especially if the look on her face when he burst in was of pure ecstasy. Those two slime buckets couldn’t turn her on if they slapped an electric motor to her ass, but she would play it up for all it was worth if it did a number on Michael.
Later, as they lay side by side, panting, with their sweat soaking through the sheets, Cindy jumped on top of Michael, knocking the air out of him. Anything that made him feel uncomfortable was a good thing.
“So what are you going to do about those new people?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
Michael looked up at her in disgust. “Bah, screw you tramp. I do know what you mean. You’re asking about Megan.”
A wicked grin creased her face. In the darkness and shadows it was disconcerting, but Michael knew it was no better in daylight and was grateful that he could only see part of it now.
“Of course I am.”
The smile disappeared as she moved her hand up his hairless, muscular chest and grabbed at his nipple, squeezing it. She moved her face directly in front of his, less than an inch away, and pinched his nipple as hard as she could as she hissed at him.
“So are you going to screw that whore?”
Cindy went flying, hitting the wall opposite the bed where she slumped to the floor.
“Bitch! You might be into fucking pain but I’m not!” Michael screamed as he stood before her. She stared up at him, her eyes gliding down his naked torso. She smiled.
She reached up and grabbed at him as he swatted her hand away. Grabbing a hold of her other wrist, he wrestled her up on the bed again, jumping on top of her and holding her down.
Cindy purred like a kitten and Michael stared down at her, exasperated, but unable to deny that she had him aroused once again.
Michael hated Cindy.
But as much as he hated her he hated himself even more for ever having hooked up with the psycho bitch in the first place. She was a piece of trash, pure and simple. Somehow, as much as she appalled him, her trashiness was the root of everything that turned him on about her. There was absolutely nothing he couldn’t do to her. He could beat her to within an inch of her life and she would come crawling back for more. When she had first provoked him he had resisted the temptation to smack her, but she cried out for it. She dared him, taunted him, and did her best to humiliate him.
Michael had not been that violent of a man before he met her. He’d never laid a finger on a woman in his entire life, and thought anyone who did was scum. He’d beaten the crap out of a few losers, true enough. A drunken brawl back at college had sent a guy to the hospital, but Michael’s father, with his many connections, was insurance that a little problem like that never became a big problem.
Michael had taken martial arts training to teach him balance and patience, but all it had done was allow him to bury the anger he felt a little deeper. It didn’t rear its ugly head as much. Still, he could be cool and calm one moment and explode violently the next, as it suited his needs.
His temper had all been well under control. There was some rage inside of him, but that was fairly normal for most red-blooded American guys, wasn’t it? Except these days there were plenty of excuses for rage to shine through and no one to question it anymore. In fact, rage was an excellent motivator. It drove Michael in his quest to survive and thrive in these dark times. He had refused to yield to the undead, refused to believe that everything was over and done with just because some virus had torn the human race to shreds. This was a new beginning. Whoever was strong enough to stay alive and adapt would reap the rewards.
Cindy had just … amped things a little bit. It was okay to unleash all that pent up rage in front of her, around her, and upon her. Every impetuous desire he had been repressing his entire life could see the light of day. In fact, he could use those impulses to help his followers to survive and prosper.
It frustrated him that Cindy had been the only piece of ass in his age range for miles around, possibly anywhere anymore. So her aggressive tactics when they first met wasn’t a total turnoff. What other options did he have, anyway?
Cindy was a tattooed and pierced freak that he would not have given the time of day to when he’d been wearing his Canali business suits and was climbing the corporate ladder. The bleach in her hair was erratic and left her hair a mess of black and white scattered across her head. It had originally been shaved on one side and spiky on the other, but as time went on she let it grow out and got rid of the dye. Not that she had much of a choice. Supplies they had collected did not include much in the way of hair care products outside of shampoo.
They made an odd pair and everyone knew it. He made it clear from the moment they fell in bed together that he would tolerate no crass acts from her in front of the others. Whatever she wanted to do with him, or more specifically to him, was to be limited to when they were in private … at the factory at first, and then in his RV when they had set up the camp in the woods.
Soon after they had gotten together she began provoking him. At first it was simple taunting, but it turned into getting rough in bed. Punching, kicking, and biting. Part of him wanted to kick her to the curb right away. But every time she would do something to him, she would pretend to be sorry. She would promise him she would never do it again if he would forgive her. Then she would blow his mind in the sack and he would be left trying to convince himself that the pain was worth it.
But finally, after a while, something happened. In a fit of anger after one of her mocking abuse sessions, he hit her. It was a slap, hard, across her face. A little trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth was the result, plus a welt that would be hard to imagine makeup hiding like it did the hickeys he’d already given her. After realizing what he had done, he lost his mind. He begged forgiveness and apologized profusely, swearing he would never do something like that again. For all the minor abuse she had heaped on him, hitting her had never crossed his mind. But when she grinned and asked him to do it again, he was speechless. He refused, so instead she jumped on him and practically raped him, which only served to confuse Michael even more.
But not for long.
The hit that knocked her unconscious was next. From there it became easier for him to do whatever Cindy wanted. The guilt was fading into the background he let the rage inside of him come to the surface. After that, they learned to keep the bruised and welts hidden to avoid any questions from the others.
Over time, Michael began to dread the encounters he had with Cindy. But it was dread drenched in an undeniable craving for what she offered. Because she had unleashed a part of him that he didn’t know existed, a part that wanted to cause pain. Specifically, pain to Cindy, which he could rationalize as okay—she wanted it, so he gave it to her. But it was how that desire to administer pain was spilling over to everything else he did that was disturbing him.
And now, as he sat above her in what was supposed to be a position of complete control, she was the one in charge and deep down, Michael knew it.
Cindy’s purring stopped. “So, you gonna screw the whore or am I going to slit the bitches’ throat?” She smiled up at Michael, taunting him, prodding him onward.
The fist crashed down on her stomach. Cindy gasped in surprise as the air whooshed out of her. Her vision blurred and a thousand stars appeared before her eyes. When her eyes were able to focus again, Michael was already laying next to her, pretending not to care about how badly he had hurt her this time. She had taught him well.
Cindy was a masochist and enjoyed the pain, partly because after years of abusing her body with drugs and anything else she could get her hands on, her nerve endings had dulled to the point where excruciating pain was about the only thing she could feel anymore. But even that was a fleeting sensation.
As the pain faded, her mind fixated on Megan once again. So what does he see in that bitch anyway?
Megan looked pretty hideous to Cindy. Although run down and so thin she was almost transparent, there was an aura of confidence and toughness about her. She was ‘normal’ on top of that. That more than anything drove Cindy bat shit crazy. Megan was someone Michael could be seen with by the others and not be embarrassed. She was the antithesis of everything that Cindy was or believed in.
And there were the others that had come into the camp with Megan. Two men and a black kid. The kid was nothing, just like those other little brats that Lydia dealt with. The bigger man looked like some sort of whiney wimp. That was obvious to Cindy almost immediately. He moped around like he was already dead and in general irritated her.
The other, Jeff, was more interesting. He appeared to be with the woman. Not that it would stop Michael. If he wanted Megan, not much would stand in his way. In a twisted way that was yet another thing that turned Cindy on about him. Society may have dulled that caveman edge out of him, but society was dead and Michael was the one making the rules these days, so he could take what he wanted.
Cindy didn’t so much care if he got his rocks off with the bitch once or twice, as long as that was all there was to it. Hell, she would hold Megan down and get off watching him rape her if that was something that could be arranged. Screwing meant nothing to Cindy. It was all about control. Being controlled and controlling the other person.
No one else seemed to understand the level of control you had over another person when you forced them to willfully inflict pain on you. Michael beat her because she willed him to do it. He did not want to, but she did. Now, only after a few weeks, he couldn’t stop himself. And because of all the guilt and trauma that it caused inside his head, she was able to manipulate him in other ways. Michael was a good little puppet.
But that weasel, Marcus, had mentioned how Megan had slapped Michael when they first met. That was something she could not tolerate. Cindy knew the stupid bitch had no idea what a slap meant to Michael, the meaning attached to such a violent physical act, but she bet that if Megan had been looking deep into his eyes at the time her hand crossed his face she would have realized what it had done to him. The fact that he had to let off some steam by putting a knife to Frank’s throat right after that confirmed how excited Megan had made him. Cindy had corrupted Michael enough that the violence was the only thing that really turned him on any more.
There was no doubt in Cindy’s mind that her boyfriend was already fantasizing about that pathetic tramp. But tackling that subject head on wasn’t going to give her any answers she wanted, so instead, Cindy knew to come at it sideways.
“Okay, so forget about Megan. What are you going to do to put these newcomers in their place?”
Michael rolled over to face Cindy. There was weakly hidden guilt tracing his features from the latest assault he had perpetrated on her. It was always there, no matter how well he tried to hide it. It made Cindy smile inside, though she was careful not to show it. The guilt was a tease. Everything forbidden had guilt associated with it. Guilt was one of the strongest stimulants there was in the world. As long as it kept showing up on his face, that meant whatever caused that guilt was still tantalizing and forbidden. It was simply too much to for him to resist.
“What do you mean?”
He was tired and past getting angry or aroused anymore that night. In other words, he was getting boring. But it also meant that his defenses were down and she could easily get him to divulge the truth and perhaps even agree to do something she really wanted just to get her off his back.
“I mean, you dragged them in here and treated them like your best buddies. Then you brought Jeff in the RV and had a nice little chat with him. Now I hear that you and the rest of the guys are going into town tomorrow on some sort of supply run. What the hell is the point of that?”
Michael closed his eyes and put his hand over them in hopes of blotting out all traces of light trickling through their window.
“So you’re asking what the hell I have planned.” He paused. She did not respond and he sighed heavily. “Well my dear, that is very simple. I am going to test their loyalty to me and see if they can obey orders like good little soldiers.”
“Loyalty? From people you kidnapped off the fucking road? Are you nuts?”
Michael opened his eyes and glared at Cindy. “I must be if I’m with your psycho ass.” She gave him a finger and he ignored it. He propped a pillow up beneath him and put his hands behind his head. “It shouldn’t be too difficult, actually. The only one that will be a problem is Jeff. He is too damn smart for his own good.”
“What about George? Doesn’t he miss his ‘widdle famawy’? He looks like he could tear your head off if he was motivated enough. If you make him stay here against his will sooner or later he is going to try.”
Michael smiled at his girlfriend. “Quite the contrary. He is going to be a good little boy and do just as I tell him to.”
“How do you propose getting that to happen?”
“Nothing too technical. I’ll just hold Megan and Jason hostage. Once Jeff messes up and I have to ‘deal’ with him, George will realize that he is the only one that can protect them. A few well placed words here and there along with a few delicate hints and he will decide for himself that staying is the best possible idea. Momma and the kiddies are dead already and sooner or later he will realize that. And then, he will come to love it here with us. He’ll be just another big, dumb, malleable grunt like Ben.”
“If Ben heard you say that he would twist you into a pretzel.”
“Indeed. He might just do that. If he knew I said it. But that is how things work around here. The pawns do not realize what they are. I am the king and I control the board. They are expendable pieces, but valuable. I move them into harm’s way as I see fit. If there is a rogue piece, I simply get rid of it, sacrifice it to my opponent, and keep on moving.”
Cindy looked over at her man and saw a look on his face that was reminiscent of the cat after eating the canary. He was just too damn self-satisfied. But she decided to let it go. He had his little plans and she had hers. She knew a little bit about chess as well and while the King was the piece that ruled the board, the queen was the one who took care of business.
That Jason brat should be enough leverage to keep George in line. He doesn’t need Megan as well.
With their conversation finished, Michael drifted off to sleep. Cindy stayed awake a while longer, shaping and reshaping her own plans so that they merged and fit with her lover’s. She smiled down at him as she did so. He was a beautiful man, nearly perfect on the outside. But it was his insides, his guts, which were getting black and ugly. She had initiated the process, but it had taken hold and was flourishing without constant nurturing anymore.
She laid her finger on his jugular vein and felt it pulse. She moved her mouth close and gently flicked her tongue out at it, like a snake. It would be so easy. She grazed her teeth against it and Michael stirred, but sleep already had him in its grasp. It was tantalizing: the idea of wrecking everything with one simple effort. She could tear out his throat and even slip out the window with very little fuss and muss. All they would discover was his bloodied carcass and the signs that she was responsible for his death all over the bed. But they would never find her.
As tempting as it was, she knew that Michael was far more exciting alive than dead; powerful and yet powerless at the same time. She had weakened him. Before they met he was probably a good man with a penchant for anger now and again. He could hide it then and he still could now, but that façade was chip away. The violence was bubbling to the surface more often and more readily. It was wondrous to behold.
She shivered in the bed next to him. Whether in excitement or fear, it was hard to tell. She laid back and planned the death of Megan LeValley. It would be a simple thing, not too complicated. It couldn’t be blatant though. The others could never know what really happened. She imagined the pain and agony Megan would experience when she did it. But what would be the kicker was when Cindy got to tell Michael what she had done and the supreme pleasure she would get out of watching him react.
A few minutes later, Cindy wrapped her arms and legs around her man like a spider and fell asleep, content in knowing how things were going to play out over the next few days.
It’s been a while since I posted just some random thoughts, or even some updates on my experiences in writing. Most of my blog posts have been book reviews and updates on stuff being released, Dark Stories, etc. So I thought I would post some comments based on how things are looking these days. It’s been around six months now since Comes The Dark came out, and this whole process of writing, promoting, editing, and all that wonderful stuff has changed for me since the book’s release. It used to be that I was always preparing for something to happen, and it seemed like a distant dream. For several years, when I meandered down the path of writing the manuscript that became my trilogy, it almost seemed theoretical that it would ever be published and that this whole effort was being done for nothing more than a “see, I told you I could do it!” perspective. But then it became real, and the first book was released.
Things went great with that, and have been great, no doubt about it. Sure, there have been a few negative reviews, which are almost like a badge of honor for a writer. Having someone tell you that you suck and please stop writing is sort of a tough one to handle at first blush, but you can either ignore it, or try to extract something from that which motivates you to do better. You can’t respond in kind, by lashing out, because it does no one any good, especially me. Even trying to explain why you did something in your book that someone really didn’t like is pointless, because the inevitable truth that you have to embrace as a writer (especially of genre stuff, and in particular, sub-genre stuff as this zombie stuff has been called) is that there will always be people for who your work does not resonate, and in fact, they do truly hate it, because something you said, did, or didn’t do really rubs them the wrong way. And if you try to absorb all that criticism and validate it in your mind, it will drive you crazy. You will have one person who sights that you poured on the emotions far too heavily in one scene, and then someone else will come along and point out that your characters seemed emotionally withdrawn in that exact same scene. I would never say that you can’t extract something out of the critiques you get, but you have to be true to yourself in the end, and let the chips fall where they may. And trying to get everyone to like your stuff is a tough way to go through life, and there will be a LOT of disappointments along the way. I want people to enjoy my work…otherwise, I wouldn’t have tried to get any of it published. But knowing that you have done your best, no matter what, has to stand for something.
I will be the first one to admit that I have a lot to learn about writing, and a lot to learn about the editing process. I know that there is always room for improvement, but at the same time, sooner or later, you have to step back and tell yourself that all that can be done has been done. I’m not sure when that point is, but I think sooner or later I will find it. It probably has something to do with being a bit OCD now and then, and not having the ability to walk away from a story and just leave it be, knowing that I’ve done all I can with it.
With all that said, I am taking another swipe at having some edits done to my trilogy. The third book, Beyond The Dark, is complete and I am satisfied that it is the best it can be, with no further tampering from me. I have had several edits done to it, and I know well enough to leave it be after that, because better editing minds than mine have worked it over and slapped it on the grill. If it keeps cooking it will be overcooked and no one wants that. But in conjunction with the edits being completed on that book, I have had an editor have another go at Comes The Dark and Into The Dark, and those edits will be implemented with the paperback and electronic versions of the book that are sold after the release of Beyond The Dark. In fact, there will be several releases in March for the grand finale of the trilogy. Here they are, briefly:
Beyond The Dark is being released as a paperback and on Smashwords, naturally. The edits, as I mentioned, are complete, and I am very happy with them. I honestly think that this is the most compelling of the three books, for many reasons I won’t divulge here.
Future versions of the paperback and smashwords versions of Comes The Dark and Into The Dark will be the revised versions, though we won’t be advertising that. The new copies sold will just have some new editing touches that won’t change anything with the stories, but will do a bit to get rid of some of the typos and grammatical errors that were in the original releases.
The Dark Trilogy, Revised, Expanded, and with Additional Stories will be released for both the Kindle and smashwords. As I mention here: https://patrickdorazio.com/2010/11/22/announcement-about-the-kindle-version-of-comes-the-dark/, there was a snafu with the kindle release of Comes The Dark. It was the raw, unedited version of the entire manuscript for the trilogy. We pulled that version off the market, but not before a substantial number had been sold, and as you can guess, many of those kindle readers assumed that Into The Dark would end up being an entirely new story, not one that had appeared already in the version they had (mind you, there were some new chapters added and it was edited, which the raw manuscript was not), so we did not release Into The Dark on the kindle, nor are we releasing Beyond The Dark as a stand alone on the kindle either. Instead, we are releasing, as the title describes it, the entire trilogy, plus all the stories that appear here, on my blog, under the page heading “Dark Stories”. It will be around 250,000 words and include a lot of stuff that didn’t show up in that raw and unedited kindle version that went out.
Maybe that will allow my OCD to relinquish control of me and let this trilogy rest for a bit after all that is said and done in March. And that is the key, I think. I need to focus 100% of my efforts on new stuff, and not on revising, editing, messing with, or otherwise tweaking stuff I have already done. Granted, I have written my fair share of short stories and have outlined and even started writing new novels over the past few months, but the focus has been splintered with a LOT of it devoted to the trilogy. I will continue to promote the Dark trilogy via the net and in other places, but it has been crazy for the past year, with so much effort put into something I had already written, and re-written, several times. But that is what it takes to get a novel out there, and ready to go for public consumption. I will even mention that another publisher came along and chatted about buying the rights to the trilogy and doing a re-release, which was very flattering, but a very daunting prospect. The idea of once again diving into this trilogy of books, which has consumed so much of my time, effort, and energy over the past few years, was terrifying. I just couldn’t do that. I love these books-they will always hold a special place in my heart, and I love talking about them, promoting them, and doing whatever is needed to make them appear more polished and professional, etc. but as far as writing, editing, etc…that all needs to be in the rear view mirror for me. I need to focus on other projects and throw myself into them like I did this one.
With that in mind, I though I might give some vague ideas of what the future holds. Because regardless of the guy on Amazon who pleaded with me to stop writing, I plan on doing some more…and I hope to get better at it-perhaps enough, someday, that he might change his mind, or might be able to brag to his friends that his comments were the ones that motivated me to get better and I actually did! I guess there are crazier dreams out there.
I will finish off the Dark Stories. I still have a handful of these stories to offer up to you, and I intend on finishing them before the release of Beyond The Dark.
There are about 15 submission calls for short stories that I would love to tackle. Realistically, I will probably go after no more than 5-10 of them, but I will give it my best shot. Another stab at keeping my writing diverse and not just tackling zombies, but other horror stories, sci fi, fantasy, and other genres as well.
I have two novels outlined, and I will admit that one is a fourth book in the same universe that the Dark Trilogy takes place in. In all, the plan would be for five books total, with the fifth book being the final chapter in the tale. The other novel is another horror tale that includes both our dear friends, the zombies, as well as their arch nemesis (well, at least I think so), the vampires. And no, neither side are made to look like the good guys. This one will hopefully be a very dark, very grim tale.
I have at least two or three other novels floating around in my head, including an overhaul of a book I wrote back in college. High fantasy, as it was originally written. Granted, the book was bad, really, really, bad. But my new slant would be to do an overhaul with a few winks, a nudge here and there, and not try to take it so seriously. Would it be outright comedy? That remains to be seen, but I think I would like to take a swipe at doing my best to overhaul this sucker. Another would be a YA adventure story, which is one that got into my head over the past few months and I really want to run with it. It would be something very personal because of the elements of the story and the main characters, but unfortunately, I really don’t want to divulge much else because again, I haven’t done much with it yet. But one of my longterm goals is to write YA fiction, and this would be my first step into that arena, perhaps beyond a few short stories I plan on doing before the novel would get done. The final book floating around in my mind, and that I have created a description that would fit nicely on the back cover of the book, would be a futuristic novel. It would actually have noir elements, would be at its heart a mystery, and takes place a decade after the zombie apocalypse has come and went-the humans won, and the zombies were wiped out…but someone out there knows the secret to creating zombies, and wants to bring them back…the main character’s job would be to stop them, and discover why they want to do such a crazy thing.
Again, this is all just ideas floating around in my head. It is always fun to come up with ideas that you believe can be turned into novels, and then doing your best to putting them down on paper and get rolling with them. They don’t always continue to speak to you after you start the writing process, and you realize that a good idea was actually only that-an idea. But the ideas can morph and change into something completely different, which is also part of the fun. You have the opportunity to change a story mid-stride and make it into something you never expected, but really gives you the juice to go the distance with it.
I guess that is it for now. Sorry for the long explanation of things, but a lot on my mind lately, and a lot of things going on. And for better or worse, I wanted to share it all with you. 😉
This is the first of the stories I originally wrote that would have appeared in Into The Dark had they made the cut. Of course, I have revised this one a bit due to the fact that it is no longer integrated into the actual book. This particular story is primarily flashback, with Michael being the main focus, but it also provides an introduction to both Frank as well as Cindy, explaining how he got mixed up with both of them. Michael was always someone who was different than the people who were closest to him in the story, and this brief vignette hopefully explains why he was with them.
While this is primarily a flashback, it is mainly a story about Michael’s reflections on why and how he ended up with Cindy, and it is while he is sitting down at one of the tables in the RV camp on the morning after Jeff, Megan, George, and Jason have joined his group.
If you haven’t read Into The Dark as of yet, I won’t suggest that you don’t read this, but it might not make as much sense until you do have the chance to check it out. The same applies to the rest of the stories that I will be posting from here on out. I will do my best to avoid revealing anything that may come as a major surprise to anyone who hasn’t read further than Comes The Dark, but since none of these characters are even introduced until the second book in the trilogy, all of this is probably a surprise anyway.
As always, I must state that I have tried my best to catch all the typos and glitches that are in this story, but I am sure there are some still in there. So forgive me for that.
Michael, Frank, and Cindy
He knew being with her was all wrong. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Everything up to this point in his life had been regimented and controlled, structured to allow for the greatest amount of success. Even when civilization crumbled, he had adapted and maintained control over the situation. Now he was the leader of a small, but growing tribe of people. The bloody lines on the map he looked at every day spoke of his triumphs: where he had come from (where they all had come from) and where they were heading. They would continue heading east, away from large population centers, and find even more people to join them. His power would grow as more people relied on him and trusted his leadership. It was all working out as planned.
But all those visions, all those dreams, had been disrupted. He still wanted the power, but there were other, darker things crossing his mind these days. They hadn’t been there before. They had been planted there recently.
Perhaps that was an excuse. Maybe they had always been there, and it took the right, or more accurately, the wrong person to trudge them up. So maybe if that person was out of the picture, maybe all those dark, hideous desires inside his head would disappear along with her.
Either way, he was sure that Cindy had to go.
Michael had been groomed for greatness by his parents from early on in life. Private boarding schools, Princeton, and then Michigan for his MBA. Business first, then politics. There had been a stint in a corporate training program for Proctor and Gamble. That was after they had wooed him and offered him the best compensation package amongst a slew of elite employers. There were several rapid promotions leading to the executive level. He was the youngest Vice President in the company and was expected to go much further with them … if he chose to stay. The plan was to build relationships with various lobbyists, business leaders, and politicians, working those connections to his advantage. His father was highly respected not only in Connecticut, where Michael had grown up, but had politicians in his back pocket from all across the country. Between his own burgeoning relationships and those of his father, Michael would be ready to run for office either in Connecticut or Ohio shortly after turning thirty. From there the sky was the limit.
He was to marry first, of course. There had been a few respectable girls in Cincinnati he’d dated, but they were of the disposable variety. Most were young and attractive, but interspersed with them were a few women of more … experience, who had helped him along his career path at P&G and with his political desires. But he was from old money and the expectations were that he would marry old money. There just was not enough of it in Cincinnati for his or his father’s liking. So he had been shuttling back and forth between Cincinnati and New York on weekends for the past few months so he could court Ms. Penelope Warden. Her father was a business associate of Michael’s father. More importantly, Penelope’s family had political connections that ran up and down the east coast and it certainly didn’t hurt that as an only child, she was due to inherit substantial holdings in several Fortune 500 companies when dear old dad kicked the bucket.
That was about the time when things went haywire and the blasted virus came into play. At first Michael reacted like everyone else, in a complete panic. His world came crashing down around him. His downtown Cincinnati condo was in jeopardy almost immediately and he found himself barricaded inside it as the city tore itself apart thirty stories below. He tried to contact his parents and younger brother, but they were out of the country, somewhere in the Mediterranean on the family yacht. When he couldn’t get a hold of anyone else back home or even any of the other P & G executives to see if he could snag a ride out of town on one of the corporate jets, he realized he was on his own. He didn’t bother trying to contact Penelope. Despite claims of undying love for him, she wasn’t going to be much help from over six hundred miles away. In a way, it was a relief. She was an insufferable bore and a hypochondriac that complained incessantly. Michael could tolerate a lot to achieve his objectives in life, but having her at his side during the apocalypse terrified him.
As the world crumbled around him and he was certain his demise was eminent, Michael recalled something his father had said to him repeatedly as a young boy. “Life is what you make of it. When things go bad and you get knocked down, dust yourself off and get back up. You were born with my blood running through your veins and I’ve never been a quitter. So don’t bother with the excuses, because I’m not interested in them.”
Thinking back on it those words, they seemed trite and unimaginative to Michael as an adult. But to a child of ten, they sounded far more impressive and scary. It really was not the words anyway – it was how his father had backed them up. He pushed Michael into every activity the private schools he’d attended had to offer. Every sport, every extra-curricular activity. He was never allowed to quit or perform at a subpar or average level. He was expected to have stellar grades, leadership roles, and top notch girlfriends from well to do families. Of course, nothing was ever good enough for dear old dad, and Michael spent much of his early life sniffing at his father’s feet for any sort of praise he could get.
There was no sob story attached to his upbringing. Michael did not freak out, rebel, or ever climb onto a therapist’s couch. Sure, dad had his mistresses and because of that, mom was a functional alcoholic and pill popper, but none of that ever played out in public or really caused any uproar. It was simply par for the course for a well to do family.
Instead, he grew up knowing he was better and stronger than everyone else. If for no other reason, because of all the sweat he had to pour into all he did. His childhood had been hard, but he knew anything worth having in life was hard. His father’s philosophy had carried him this far and he knew it would carry him further still.
The sense of helplessness he felt while watching the city burn evaporated as he concocted a plan. Once the fear left him, things became clear. He grabbed the camouflage outfit he’d bought for some retreat he’d gone on with other executives at P&G. For three days Michael had played paintball, got drunk out in the woods, and howled at the moon. It had been an absolutely worthless experience, but at least he got some useful duds out of it. He also grabbed the rather large knife he’d bought out of a catalog after training with edged weapons in his martial arts classes. Tai Kwan Do had been studied more for keeping in shape than for self-defense, but now it appeared that he would have the chance to put that training and the knife to good use.
For one last time he scanned his place; all the expensive decorating touches he had spent top dollar for. He glanced over at his wine collection and the few pieces of artwork he’d bought at auction. The accoutrements of wealth and success. It was all kindling for the bonfire that humanity was being tossed into now, nothing more.
Being able to accept that was what made Michael stronger than his peers, and he knew it. So many of them would be desperate to save the trappings of their prior lives, believing that somehow that would make a difference. They would all die clutching at scraps of that old world. He could relinquish it all – the wealth, the prestige, the potential power … and recognize that in this new world there would be other types of power which would allow only few to stand out from the crowd. And that power would not come from possessions or connections, but from the strength of one’s determination and ability to adapt. Michael vowed to embrace this new world order and show his father and every other ghost living inside his head that he was up to the challenge.
The next couple of days were a blur of furious movement and hiding in any hole he could find. He managed to escape the tower he lived in with a couple of other tenants, though neither of them made it too far. They were convinced the police or military would save them, or that they would find a safe haven within the city. Michael didn’t spare much regret when they were torn to pieces within blocks of their former home.
The running seemed endless, as did the uncomfortable and cramped spaces he found himself in to avoid detection. He slept in a broom closet in the bowels of an office building at one point, with the mop bucket and several large containers of cleaning solution pushed up against the door. He swiped bottles of water and smashed in vending machines to get food. He avoided confrontations with both the living and the undead while moving steadily in the direction that appeared to be the safest: east.
The city was not only in flames, it a war zone. The trick, Michael learned, was to be counterintuitive. Other refugees migrated toward the shelters and where the National Guard was located. They headed to the hospitals, police, and fire stations. They were idiots. Because not only were the living moving in that direction, so were the dead.
Michael listened to a portable radio he had taken with him from his condo, and every report about a shelter that had been set up in the city told him exactly where not to go. And when the reports stopped, he continued listening for gunfire, and steered clear of that as well. He slipped into areas that had already been overrun by the dead, because the stiffs had a pack mentality and followed their prey where ever they could sense them. That meant that only the stragglers and those too feeble to walk were usually left behind once all the living had fled or been devoured. Those few ghouls were far easier to manage than the large hordes attacking the National Guard troops and the frightened sheep the general population had become.
By the time Michael met Frank, the endless hiding and running had taken its toll on him. He was wearing down and feeling dispirited, questioning whether his brilliant plans for the future were all just a bunch of crap he’d made up to keep him motivated to stay alive when there wasn’t much sense in doing so.
Michael almost killed the other man by accident, thinking Frank was a rotter. He was beating the brains in of a woman with his bare hands out on the street, and it was hard to tell which of the two was alive.
Michael tried avoiding situations where things might get out of control on him. He had no interest in playing the hero or drawing a crowd, but this was in a quiet residential neighborhood that he was walking through – there was no one in sight beside the two people a dozen yards in front of him. It was, in fact, one of the first streets he’d been on that didn’t have at least a half dozen stiffs wandering aimlessly on it.
He’d come down this road because he saw several cars and even a work van that appeared to be in working condition out in plain sight. Looking for a vehicle he could drive out of the area had preoccupied Michael’s mind during much of his journey. Walking was getting old, and being out in the open and vulnerable was making him a nervous wreck.
As he came up on the two struggling figures, Michael wondered if the man, or maybe the woman he was beating on, might have a set of keys to one of the vehicles nearby. Looking around, he spotted a heavy tree branch that had snapped and fallen to the ground. There was, in fact, plenty of debris all over the street to choose from. Shattered door frames, discarded house wares, and even a few broken road signs. The area, an old, rundown neighborhood filled with dilapidated row houses, looked like a tornado had hit it. The two people doing battle appeared to be the last remnants of whatever madness had passed through the area.
Michael crept up behind the man and raised his weapon, ready to strike. Frank chose that moment to turn his head, perhaps having spied Michael’s shadow from the corner of his eye. That probably ended up saving his life. He turned white as a sheet and raised an arm to ward off the blow as he scrambled backwards. He stumbled over the woman he’d been pummeling and fell on his ass beside her.
The woman, no longer pinned to the ground, turned over in an effort to reach Frank, who scrabbled away from her. Her face was an open wound. A flap of skin that contained most of her facial features slapped at her skull with every jarring movement she made. She was a heavy set, matronly woman with thick arms and legs. She was trying to hiss out something through her lips, though nothing intelligible. With it, there was a shower of spittle and blood that came from the depths of her throat.
Frank was babbling as well as he pressed up against one of the cars parked at the curb. Reaching behind his back, he made an effort to hook his hand onto the bumper to help elevate his corpulent frame to a standing position.
Michael slammed his booted foot down on the small of the woman’s back and drove her chest toward the pavement. One of the hands she had used to elevate her body skidded out from underneath her, leaving most of the skin from her palm on the asphalt. Her other arm snapped, braking below the elbow, which caused her to collapse. Swinging the tree branch, Michael landed several blows as the ghoul struggled to get back up. A scattering of teeth sprayed from her mouth as the abuse rained down on the back of her skull. After a minute or so, the matronly woman’s movements stilled.
Michael studied the corpse for a moment before looking back at Frank. The expression on the filthy man’s face would have been amusing, if it weren’t so pathetic. Frank looked about as terrified of Michael as the monster he’d been brawling with.
The fear turned into nervous appreciation as the two men traded introductions. After that, Frank’s story came out in a tumble, as if he was relieved to have the chance to speak to a live human being. He’d been stuck in his basement for several days, and had been forced to “deal” with his wife, who’d been bitten early on. They had no children, so he had been all alone ever since. After a while, the itch to see what was going on outside as well as a chance to grab something beside the pork n’ beans he’d been living on caused him to climb the stairs, pry open the door he’d nailed shut, and take a look around. Most of the stiffs out of the street had migrated elsewhere by then, since a lot of Frank’s neighbors fled in the first couple of days of the madness that had gripped the city. So he went on the hunt for food in his neighbor’s houses. That was when he happened upon Lila, the woman he’d been attacking when Michael wandered by. She lived a couple doors down from Frank. He had entered her home and found her in the kitchen, snacking on Stanley, her husband. “I guess she wanted fresher meat, ‘cause ol’ Stan smelled a mite sour, so she went after me,” Frank said with a crooked grin.
He rushed to leave the house, but Lila followed, smashing through the front door he’d slammed shut behind him, forcing him to deal with her out on the street.
“I never liked that bitch much anyway,” Frank said with a nervous chuckle as his story came to an end.
Michael patiently listened to the sweaty, smelly man’s tale and tried to ignore the fact that Frank looked like the type of person he wouldn’t have spoken to on a bet just a week prior, unless it was to pay him to do plumbing work or some other menial task … not that someone in Frank’s condition (even if he had showered and had on clean clothes) would have ever made it past the doorman of Michael’s building. But things had changed, and the need to adapt to this new environment, and to the people who remained in it, was imperative. There would be a need for men like Frank, like there always had been. He was the type who took orders and was willing to get his hands dirty … very dirty, if necessary.
Nodding politely, Michael did his best to seem interested in what Frank had to say as his eyes kept gravitating to the work truck sitting in the driveway nearby.
Frank invited Michael into his house and they shared a sparse meal of the beans remaining in Frank’s stash and a few of the candy bars Michael was carrying. He did his best not to cringe at the smell of the decrepit house, noticing all the while that Frank didn’t seem to mind the foul odor emanating from his basement. Michael’s guess was that Frank’s wife was still down there, and his new acquaintance had grown used to the smell of her rotten corpse.
It didn’t take more than an hour with Frank for Michael to make up his mind. Frank wasn’t too sharp, but he was malleable and appeared willing to do just about anything to get out of the stink trap he’d been living in for the past week. The idle promise of some booze and the assurance that together they could forge a new existence for themselves and anyone else they found sounded pretty good to Frank. He was a pig, but Michael knew he would be a loyal pig, as long as he was given some mud to root around in on occasion.
Before the day was over, they were on the road in the truck, which happened to be Frank’s, maneuvering past the most of the wrecks and areas crawling with mobile corpses as they headed east, away from the city.
Frank was just another piece of the puzzle Michael had been working on in his head. Getting used to the filthy, disgusting man would be easy, since he was willing to follow orders and grew excited at the prospects of a lawless world that would need men like them to set things straight. They might have to do a few questionable things along the way, but that would be okay – in the end, those living under their protection would thank them for what the two men were willing to do for them, with no questions asked.
As they avoided the hordes of undead and the few clots of National Guardsmen still alive and still willing to fight, they passed their time capturing a few of the individual ghouls they came across. Michael felt it was important to understand the enemy, to see if anything could be done to salvage these inhuman wrecks. He tried to see if they would respond to any stimulus besides warm flesh, and if, given enough time, they could be turned into some sort of slave labor or mindless work force.
They would lure a single stiff into the back of the van. A dead dog or cat carcass was usually enough to get them moving in the right direction. The truck had a wire-reinforced barrier between the driver’s area and the back, which made it easy to collect specimens without fear of getting bit. A couple of hockey sticks, a fishing net, and some padded gloves acquired from an abandoned sporting goods store were the only equipment they needed to manage the task, along with some stout rope.
When every experiment Michael did failed, he turned the monsters over to Frank, who enjoyed torturing the creatures. Michael suspected it wasn’t because of some twisted desire for revenge that the small-minded man had, but because Frank got his rocks off that way. Michael tolerated the behavior, though it repulsed him, because it gave his partner a little bit of joy in an otherwise dreary existence.
Over the next few days, they had run-ins with both the living and the dead, and managed to come out on top in each situation, adding to their level of confidence as well as their arsenal. Frank laid claim to a double barreled shotgun while Michael got an M16 and 9mm pistol from some stubborn soldier who took a little bit of prodding before he gave them up. Not long after that, they were also gathering people; stragglers more than happy to let Michael take the lead in their efforts to survive. They ditched the van as their contingent grew in size, finding a small plastics factory that they could fortify until they could find more adequate transportation.
The battle to survive was a daily grind. The group spent their time foraging for food, water, and other supplies that would help them make a go of it. Everyone who joined Michael’s group was thrilled to be with other survivors and asked few questions about his methods, which was just how he liked things. He doled out the responsibilities and Frank made sure everyone did as they were told. It seemed that everyone was more than happy to be following orders – it gave their existence meaning and the confidence Michael exuded gave them hope.
Then Cindy came along.
Michael couldn’t say that she ruined everything. To say that she had even changed his plans would be an exaggeration and a lie. He knew Cindy didn’t change one single thing about his vision for the future. They would still find a permanent home for the living that Michael preached about, and he would continue shaping everyone’s vision of the future. Each step they took as a group was still as he dictated.
It wasn’t his vision that had changed with Cindy. It was him who had changed. After spending just a little time with her, he knew what she was. She was a succubus, taking great pleasure sucking the life force out of him bit by bit. But that wasn’t all. She was not so indifferent to his suffering that she wanted to take everything away until he withered and died. Instead, for every bit of him she took, she gave back piece of herself. It was her gift. For every rational thought, for every piece of compassion he tried to maintain a grip on but lost, there was something new put in its place. Something that was dark and squirmed beneath his skin. It burned in his gut and made it feel like his bones were turning to ash.
Cindy’s gift to Michael was her pure and unadulterated hatred for everyone and everything in the world. And as much as he wanted to deny it, he had to admit that a part of him liked the gift she had given him.
Cindy had stumbled into the factory a couple of days after they’d set up camp and told a muddled story about a boyfriend who she’d shared a camper with until he was bitten. The story was vague, but it didn’t bother Cindy that no one seemed to buy it – she stumbled over what her boyfriend’s name was and she was even vaguer about her existence before the virus had hit. It was easy for Michael to dismiss; several of the people with them found it hard to talk about their past. What was clear to him was that Cindy enjoyed the rough, harsh existence brought on by the plague, and didn’t have any problem killing infected. She was good at it. She was a strong, remorseless killer, and that appealed to him. Most of the people he was surrounded by had an almost crippling fear of the undead, but not Cindy.
Almost immediately after being welcomed into the group, Cindy began the process of insinuating herself into Michael’s life.
Despite her outward appearance as a tattooed, rebellious free-spirit, Cindy was, in her own way, even more power hungry than Michael. She recognized him as the person in charge and did everything she could to learn what made him tick. Michael, who had rubbed elbows with politicians and the well to do his entire life, realized too late that he had no built in defense mechanisms to hold off the advances of someone so … raw, for lack of a better term. Cindy had no fears, no boundaries, and a depraved, lusty nature that attracted Michael like a moth to the flame.
She was his girlfriend before he even realized it. And from the first moment he did realize it, he understood that he needed to figure out a way to be free of her clutches.
Cindy scared Michael. She could see right through him and knew from the get go that there was a repressed knot of rage buried deep inside that he rarely displayed. She massaged that rage to the surface, prodding him into directing his anger toward her. What scared Michael the most was that Cindy enjoyed it when he was mad at her. She didn’t stop there, and pushed him into getting violent with her when no one else was around. It was a sick trip, but the desire that burned in her eyes when she provoked him made it all the more frightening and appealing. When he tried to restrain himself, she would push harder. Lacing the violence with sex made it all the more confusing. It was exhilarating and terrifying, and felt like they were in some sort of sick, symbiotic relationship; Cindy fed on his anger while at the same time encouraging more of it to grow inside of him so the supply she craved would be never ending.
The urge to resist Cindy weakened in time, though never disappeared. There were far too many other things going on for Michael to worry about their relationship and what it was becoming. About a week and a half after they claimed the factory as their own, it was overrun and several members of the group died as they escaped.
Michael’s group was once again out in the open and that was when the idea of getting a hold of an RV or two popped into his head. Ben, one of the newcomers and a massive giant of a man, suggested they get more than just a couple, and set out to find a place they could bring them which would keep the group hidden away from danger. He alluded at the fact that getting diesel to fuel those beasts would be tough, and become next to impossible in the upcoming months, but they would be incredibly useful even if they weren’t able to go that far. They needed to find a place to hunker down that was defensible, and if they had enough RVs, they could create a barrier that would be difficult for the undead to penetrate.
It took several days, but they found an RV dealership not too far away while Ben found an ideal place to move the motor homes to near a small town called Manchester. Things got messy and a few more members of the group perished during the process of moving and transplanting the RVs, but afterwards they were safe again, hidden behind massive metal walls and buried in a wooded area that would keep prying eyes, both living and dead, from seeing their new home.
As things settled down, Michael found himself with more free time, and more time to reflect on his existence than he’d had since he left his condo in downtown Cincinnati. Marcus, who’d joined the group after they fled the factory, became Frank’s drinking buddy, which kept the lout preoccupied most of the time. Ben volunteered to collect the supplies they needed and spent much of his time beyond the walls of the RV fortress hunting and scavenging around Manchester. Lydia, one of the more recent additions to the group, was more than willing to take responsibility of managing the food and water and tending to the children. All of this meant that Michael had more time to spend thinking … thinking about the future of the little civilization he was trying to create … and about how imperative it had become that he sever his ties with Cindy.
It couldn’t happen yet, not with the batch of newcomers that had just arrived, but soon enough. No reason to give any of them any doubts about the stability of the pecking order in the camp. Even if he did find Megan intriguing.
She wasn’t attractive … at least not at first glance. She was physically weak and sickly looking, with dark circles beneath sunken eyes and pallor that was the norm for those who had spent the past few weeks either hiding or running in fear. And yet, there was a sparkle in her eyes which was hard not to notice and traces of what she might have looked like before her world had been shattered haunted her face. There was beauty hidden there, and given time and nurturing, it would return. And for Michael, more important than any physical potential she possessed, she was a normal human being. Megan was feisty, no doubt about it, but she wasn’t a sociopath, which elevated her status dramatically in his eyes. She was a suitable match for him, and he doubted that anyone except Cindy would disagree with that.
But that could wait. He could woo Megan after she, Jeff, and George understood their place in his little world. It wouldn’t take long for them to realize they were better off doing things his way, rather than resisting the inevitable, or they would suffer the consequences.
Given enough time, Megan would regain the weight she’d lost and a healthy glow would return to her skin. She would also come to her senses. Life was a struggle, but it would be much easier with Michael at her side. No amount of animosity she felt for him now would keep her from seeing the truth in the coming weeks.
The only thing standing in the way of that vision was Cindy. She would have to be dealt with. It had to happen soon. Their relationship had grown more and more twisted with every day and night they spent together.
Michael knew that “dealing” with her wouldn’t just be a matter of kicking her out of the RV they shared or telling her it was over between them. No. It would require something a bit more drastic than that.
Perhaps a trip beyond the walls of their little fortress for just the two of them might be in order. A trip she wouldn’t return from. It wasn’t as if anyone would miss her anyway.
As he ran his finger along the razor sharp edge of the knife he kept strapped to his wrist, a nervous smile twitched at his lips. He could deal with her. He just had to work up the courage.
Then everything would return to normal inside of Michael’s head. All the sinister urges Cindy had put in there would evaporate, disappear. The dark cravings would be gone, and he would become the leader he had always wanted to be; the one everyone admired and respected, and not just feared. All he had to do was get rid of her vile influence on him and everything would be just fine.
Soon. He would do it soon.
Well, I have come to the point where the main characters from Come The Dark have been all detailed out via the Dark Stories I’ve posted thus far. As I mentioned in the past, I wanted to continue this trek, and shed some light on some of the other characters that are introduced in Into The Dark. But before I do that, I decided that I would post this little tidbit.
I realize that this isn’t much of a short story, really. It is more of an information dump on two characters that show up briefly in Comes The Dark, but have a profound impact on the four survivors in the story. Fred, the father who ambushes Jeff and Megan at the farmhouse, and his son Bobby. I had originally written this bit as an extensive explanation of who they were in my manuscript, but for what seems like obvious reasons now, it seemed unnecessary to the main story as I started doing edits.
I will freely admit that this brief overview of these two may not resonate that much with any of you. More or less, it is information on two peripheral characters to make them hopefully feel more human to you, given the circumstances with which they are introduced in story. I guess my objective was to make sure that everyone had a reason to exist that I introduced. I wanted everyone, even these two guys who are in the story for all of a chapter, to have a real existence and real lives.
I guess it is up to you to see if I achieved that or not with this brief introduction to Fred and Bobby.
As always, I would like to point out that I did my best to make sure I edited this piece properly, but I am sure there will be a few typos here and there. So forgive me those. I hope you enjoy:
Fred and Bobby
Fred had spent his career as a mailman in Lawrence Park, where he and his wife Carol had lived for several years. It was located near Milfield, but closer to the city. Considered a more upscale address than most of the outlying suburbs, several recognizable local celebrities called it home. Old, trendy neighborhoods with half a million dollar plus homes were the norm, and the Harrington’s liked the status they gained when they moved into the area. While Fred’s salary wasn’t impressive, Carol was a marketing executive for a large downtown Cincinnati Fortune 500 company, which afforded them a pretty decent lifestyle.
Despite the ease with which Fred handled the expensive hunting rifle he was carrying when he ambushed Jeff and Megan, the first time he had handled the weapon had been only three weeks earlier. In fact, he had never touched any sort of firearm until he met Carol. Carol might have enjoyed her urban, yuppie existence, but she was still a country girl at heart with a family that loved to hunt and fish. Fred’s boys, Bobby and Charlie, had gone out with Carol’s brother Teddy on many occasions. He took them hunting near his place near Hillsboro, which was about forty five miles east of Cincinnati. He was the one, with Carol’s permission, who had bought the boys their rifles a few years earlier for Christmas. Fred had been hesitant about the idea at first, but Carol had convinced him that Teddy would teach them all about gun safety before they ever got to use them. He had agreed, reluctantly.
The rifle Fred was carrying had been Charlie’s. After his older son had died, Bobby managed to teach his father how to use it. That knowledge had helped him and his son out of several tough jams with the undead.
Up until coming across Jeff and Megan, Fred had handled the rifle fairly well. He’d been willing to pull the trigger when his wife had been bitten by several of the infected. When her eyes opened back up after her heart had stopped, he had taken aim and put her out of her misery, despite the sensation that the world was caving in on him as he did it.
Fred had managed twenty headshots on the undead at long range with Charlie’s rifle. Bobby had shot even more of the stiffs during their travels. Still, it was Fred, the novice, who came into his own during the apocalypse. He had become a survivor, able to deal with anything that came his way, or so he presumed. That rifle had given him a sense of confidence he’d never had before in life.
Back when everything started, when the first reports of the virus showing up in Ohio had hit the air, Fred didn’t have much of an assertive personality. Carol had been the one who ruled the roost in the Harrington household, which had been just fine with Fred. When the soldiers with bullhorns had rolled down their street urging everyone to head to the local community center where a shelter had been set up, it was her who had announced that they would be hunkering down in the house and not bothering with such a place. She believed that all of this nonsense would blow over within a few days. Fred didn’t have much to say about that, despite his unvoiced concerns.
And when everything continued to go downhill, and it was too late to do much except sit and watch as the amount of infected in Lawrence Park grew exponentially, it was Carol who decided it was time for the Harrington’s to make a run for it.
Up until that point, the boys hadn’t the need to fire their rifles in defense of the house. They’d learned by watching some of the neighbors as their houses were turned into something like the Alamo that just about any loud noise could set off the rotters. They would swarm and within minutes, there was typically nothing left of the people hiding behind their locked doors. But as long as things were quiet, the stiffs seemed willing to leave things well enough alone.
Their food and water supply had shrunk to a dangerously low level by the time Carol suggested to Fred that they get in the Acura SUV parked in the garage and head out to Teddy’s place. Fred, as he typically did, deferred to his wife’s judgment, which pleased the boys tremendously. Before their parents could say anything else, they were rushing around the house, collecting up everything they wanted to take to their favorite uncle’s ranch.
Later on, Fred could never quite recall what it was that had set the stiffs off. Perhaps it had been the suitcase Bobby had dropped down the steps, or the vase Charlie knocked over in the front hallway. It might have just been the fact that everyone seemed to have forgotten where they were and let their voices rise with excitement at their eminent departure. All he knew for sure was that one minute they were talking about what route they should take to get to Uncle Teddy’s, and the next the doors and windows were being bashed on by several of their undead neighbors. Within moments, the sounds of smashing fists had increased tenfold and there was a huge crowd surrounding the house. It sounded something like a hailstorm going on outside.
The Harrington’s had attempted to grab what seemed like all their worldly possessions for their departure, and only in hindsight did Fred realize how incredibly foolish that had been. Besides their weapons and the food and water they could carry, grabbing anything else hadn’t made much sense. Still, it seemed like the logical thing to do at the time. That, Fred decided, was the real culprit for what happened next.
As the front door threatened to collapse under the strain of a dozen bodies, Fred commandeered Charlie to help him drag more furniture in front of the door while Bobby and Carol scrambled to collect the suitcases and bags of clothing that had been tossed into the kitchen so they could move them to the SUV. Before they could get very far, the large picture window at the front of the house shattered and the feeble plywood sheet covering it was threatening to snap into kindling. Foolishly, everyone chose to rush to the window in an effort to hold off the onslaught, but it seemed like a hundred arms were already grabbing and pawing at them through the growing gaps in the barricade.
A stray arm clutched at Charlie’s neck, and before he could even cry out, he was being pulled through the rapidly increasing gap in their defenses, head first. It was just that quick. There was no slow, dreadful struggle, no failed tug of war between his family and the undead. It happened so fast, Fred didn’t even realize Charlie had been attacked until Carole screamed out a few seconds later. By then, it was too late. Charlie’s body didn’t even have much of a chance to twitch in its death throws as it was dragged ruthlessly out the hole. The instant his head had been yanked out the window, several ghouls had torn into his face and neck, killing him almost instantly.
The moments following Charlie’s death were a blur. Fred might not have believed in miracles before then, but he did after he somehow managed to drag his wife and other son to the garage as the rotting horde on their front lawn poured into the house. Bobby and Carol both fought him every step of the way, believing in their stunned state that Charlie was somehow still alive and they needed to save him.
Something snapped in Fred after Charlie’s death. His voice, always quiet and unassuming, thundered as he exhorted his family to get to the SUV. And for some reason he couldn’t quite comprehend, they listened to him. They managed to grab their weapons, but little else, before they climbed into the vehicle.
The back end of the Acura took a beating as it plowed through the garage door and several stiffs that had been in the Harrington’s driveway. Their race through the neighborhood was a chaotic obstacle course that forced Fred to navigate through several of their neighbor’s yards in an attempt to escape the horde. Tucked away inside their house, it had been hard for Fred to believe that most of the people in the world had turned into savage monsters, but the moment he saw how many of foul, rotting monsters were shambling around outside, all his doubts about the magnitude of the plague evaporated.
The sounds of Bobby’s howled curses was barely audible over the caterwauls of the deceased as Carol wept silent tears next to Fred. Despite the din, all Fred could hear was the pounding of his heart as he was forced to slalom around another clot of bodies in front of him.
The Acura suffered a few more dents and dings before Fred managed to plow through the twelve foot tall hedges lining the edge of their subdivision. As a mailman, he was familiar with most of the back roads in the area, and was able to navigate the SUV to an area not clogged with the wrecks choking the major roadways. Despite his desire to head straight for Hillsboro and Teddy’s place, he knew that wasn’t feasible. His knowledge of the local area gave Fred only a bit of an edge, which diminished as they left Lawrence Park. The GPS in the Acura was on the fritz, so their path became more convoluted the further away from home they got. Fred waited patiently for Carol to say something to him, to offer him some sort of guidance, but she sat in stony silence on the trip, leaving the decision making up to him.
After an hour or so, thoughts of getting to Teddy’s place took a back seat to survival. The world had been wrecked, and Fred was beginning to doubt that getting to Hillsboro was going to be something they would be able to do very easily, or perhaps at all.
The journey that first day consisted of a series of misguided attempts to stop and collect food and water, along with a failed attempt at seeing if there was any gas left in the pumps at a convenience store several miles from their house. The undead were everywhere, and every time they stopped the Acura and stepped outside, it never took more than ten minutes before the surviving members of the Harrington family were forced to rush back to the SUV before getting surrounded and overwhelmed.
Originally, Fred had believed the news reports that stated that most of the infected were confined to certain areas of the city, while outlying suburbs and rural areas were relatively safe. No such luck. There were deaders as far as the eye could see, in every direction. Many hadn’t stirred since the last of the living had departed or died days and weeks earlier, but when the sound of the Acura’s engine roared through the area they woke out of whatever stupor they were in and swarmed the vehicle. It made for some messy getaways.
They somehow managed to find a place to hide outside of Gallatin, deep into the night. They sat in the SUV, buried in a stand of trees for several hours with the engine turned off. They had been forced to leave the Acura where it was parked as they hoofed it to a house a hundred yards away that had been abandoned. They spent the next day silently fortifying the house the best they could, dismantling furniture and using it to barricade the doors and windows. The only door that wasn’t blocked off was the one off the back porch, which Fred and Bobby used to sneak out to go hunting over the course of the following week.
That was when Bobby taught his father how to use Charlie’s rifle. Hunting was a challenge, but they managed to scare up some game. It seemed that most of the wild animals were still plentiful despite the fact domesticated animals had been slaughtered just like the human population. They saw more than one dead cow, its bones picked clean by the combination of the ravenous undead and the scavengers that made sure whatever they left behind was devoured.
Unfortunately, with every shot of the rifles, the infected became aware of their position and tracked the father and son to their location within minutes. It forced them to travel further afield on each trip, away from the house they had commandeered, to insure they didn’t bring any stiffs back home with them. Even with a thorough effort to insure that the surrounding area was corpse-free, it was only a matter of minutes before the first trickle of rotters would appear off in the distance after a trigger was pulled. It was even worse when they got a kill. The scent of fresh blood was like a magnet that pulled and compelled the monsters.
Despite all their precautions, it was after one of their failed hunting trips that they returned to the house to find the windows smashed in and the back door wide open. Rushing inside, they discovered Carol had killed eleven ghouls with her small handgun. It had taken sixteen shots to take them down, which meant she had been forced to reload the semi-automatic in the middle of the fight. During the battle, she had been bitten, but even after getting her arm gnawed on, she managed to continue fighting the rest of the pack off. She let the one that had latched onto her arm clamp down tight while she fired the gun with her other hand, shooting the three other stiffs surrounding her. Even then, she didn’t shoot the one on her arm. Instead, she slammed the butt of the handgun down onto its skull until she heard the bone cracked, firing at several other stiffs between each downward strike. Finally, when she was out of immediate danger and the one that had bitten her was twitching on the floor, she put a bullet in its head.
Carol Harrington was a tough woman. Her husband would be the first to tell anyone that. It was forty hours of labor with no painkillers for the birth of Charlie and then a c-section with Bobby. Never a complaint in either instance and she was up and moving around the next day like nothing had happened. Any pain she had was suffered through in silence. This time was no exception. After all the ghouls were dead, she wrapped her arm in a bed sheet and waited for her son and husband to return to the house. Once they did, she was the one who insisted they leave right away, without any time for her to rest from the assault. Carol was nothing if not practical. They had to find another hiding place before more of the infected found them.
“Get off your asses, quit whining about me, and head for the Acura!” It was as simple as that. She made the pronouncement and there was no questioning her on it.
They drove the SUV until it ran out of gas, which unfortunately didn’t take long. After that, they walked for two hours, moving with as much stealth as they could manage. Carol, who refused any assistance, stood tall and kept walking until they found the old farm house with the grain silo next to it. It was surrounded by several large, barren fields and much like their previous hiding place, it had been abandoned weeks before. Given their ability to see what was coming at them for nearly a mile in every direction, they knew it was their safest bet.
Carol died a day later. She was strong, but like every other human being that had been bitten and infected with the virus, she couldn’t resist its deadly pull.
Less than thirty minutes after her demise, she sat up in the bed that Fred and Bobby had laid her down on in the farmhouse. The first thing she did after opening her rheumy eyes was to hiss at her husband. Fred, who had wrapped the rifle in a towel to muffle the sound, waited until the very last second before putting a bullet through Carol’s head.
They buried her an hour later, putting up a makeshift cross to mark her grave.
Fred and Bobby spent the next week or so at the farmhouse, living in silence, rarely speaking to one another. They saw more and more of the dead creeping around off in the distance, but none ventured too close. Even so, it was getting worse every day. There would be long stretches of time where they would see nothing, but then would spot a pack of twenty or thirty of the diseased vermin roaming near the property. At the same time, their ammunition was running low and they wanted to preserve it for hunting, so they had to continue keeping their heads down. Bobby found a bike out in the shed, but didn’t bother riding it anywhere. It was too dangerous a risk.
It was on one of those drab, muggy summer days that seemed endless when they heard a sound that was almost alien to them anymore. The sound of a car engine rolling down the road that ran next to the property. Even off in the distance, the engine was clear as a bell. There were no other sounds to interfere with it: no other cars, no people, no machines … nothing. There hadn’t been anything but the moans of the dead and chirping of birds for as long as they could remember.
The two of them watched as the blue Honda stopped in front of the huge property. At that point it was just some far away dot. It wasn’t until it turned up the road, moving closer, that Fred came up with a hastily outlined plan that would help him and Bobby escape the farmhouse and make one last attempt to get to Hillsboro and Teddy, if he were still alive.
Bobby had been hesitant about trying to hijack the van and wanted to see if they could just talk to the people to see if they might be able to hitch a ride with them. Fred steamrolled that idea without a moment’s hesitation. He was a changed man, no longer afraid to assert himself. The death of his older boy and wife of twenty three years had done that to him.
He reminded Bobby that the few people they’d seen since the escaped from their house in Lawrence Park had been none too friendly to them. If his family hadn’t been armed, Fred knew that there was no way they would have made it this far. They would be dead on the side of some road, left as bait for the rotters as their fellow survivors picked over their meager belongings. People were desperate, crazed, and none seemed to be in the mood for small talk or hospitality these days.
After a few seconds of heated discussion with his father, Bobby gave in and reluctantly nodded his agreement to the plan. Fred moved into position behind the shed and told Bobby to wait at the door. They would be ready for the people in the van, no matter how dangerous they were and how well armed they might be.
Despite the argument, and despite the lack of communication between the father and son, the two had grown much closer after Carol’s death. Before, their relationship had been okay-as best as could be expected between a rebellious teenager and his dad, but their level of trust and appreciation for one another had grown dramatically in the past few days. Despite the cloud of despair hanging over them, they knew they could count one another for anything.
Charlie had been a great older brother. He liked to heap abuse on his kid brother when they were younger, with wedgies and Indian burns being his favorite form of torture. But as they got older, they had learned to watch out for one another, to watch each other’s backs. Somehow, after Charlie died, Bobby managed to stay strong, despite losing his best friend. He had clung to his mother, knowing deep down that he had been her favorite, whereas dad had favored Charlie. So when she died, it had felt like his guts had been ripped out.
It had been the same for Fred. Somehow, out of their combined pain and anguish, they were able to form a new bond. Part of it had come from the last conversation Bobby had with his mother before she passed. When they had arrived at the farmhouse, Carol had sat her son down next to her. She had looked him straight in the eye and told him that it was his job to watch out for his father now. They were each other’s responsibility and no one else was going to take care of them if they didn’t take care of each other. The entire world was out to get them and they had to stick together if they were going to make it out of this alive. She made him swear to her that he would. Bobby had, and when he did, he meant every word of it.
Bobby didn’t realize it, but moments after he said his last goodbye to his mother and rushed from the room to weep silently in the shed, and before she took her final breath, Carol had the same conversation with her husband. And Fred had made the same promise to her that his son had.
They would stick together until the bitter end.
I hope everyone out there is having a great holiday season! I wanted to post this little stand alone introduction to Jason that actually takes place before he meets George. I probably could have posted this before the prior string of stories about the two of them together, but I guess this will work since it does relate to only Jason. This is fairly brief, but was my introduction of him as a character and delves a little deeper into his relationship with his mother and what happened to her.
There will be more Dark Stories to come, but this finishes the stories that introduce the initial characters that Jeff meets in the first book. Now that the second book is released, I will probably focus on stories about the characters introduced there from now on. Stay tuned.
Again, as always, forgive me for any editing misses-I try to clean these up, but I know I will end up missing a few bits and pieces here and there.
Without further ado, here you go:
Everything had been screwed up since momma dragged him out of school up in Detroit and moved him down to this white bread hillbilly paradise. They sure as heck hadn’t been rich up in Dearborn, but he’d gotten to see his father every now and then and they had a nice apartment. Jason didn’t want a house, even if momma insisted that they needed a place where they weren’t crammed in next to twenty other families. He didn’t want to leave his school either. It wasn’t like he had lots of friends there, but he was comfortable with his teachers and knew what was expected of him. Here, he stood out like a sore thumb. They had gotten a house like momma had always wanted, but there were even more trailer parks in the town they lived in than he’d ever seen back home. That momma somehow thought moving to Gallatin, Ohio was a step up from Dearborn, Michigan was beyond Jason’s ability to understand.
After living in the small town for a while, things leveled out, though they still sucked. The kids in Gallatin more or less ignored him. There was a good share of white trash, but most of the kids were nice enough. There were only a few black families in town so it was almost like most of the white kids had no idea of how to act around him. He could tell that they’d been taught that racism was bad and yet they were still uncomfortable being around someone who wasn’t the same color as they were. The school was okay. Jason had always been smart and adjusting academically wasn’t too challenging. His mother insisted he was getting a better education here, though he kind of doubted it.
He was getting used to things in Ohio, even though his father hadn’t called or written since the move. He didn’t like the nasty things momma said about dad, but didn’t argue with her about it. With as many times as she called him worthless, it didn’t seem all that surprising that Jason’s father chose to forget about his son once they moved away.
Momma never accepted any blame for anything in regards to Jason’s father, even after deciding to pick up and move almost three hundred miles away from him. She insisted that it was her ex-husband’s fault he couldn’t pick up a phone or try to arrange to have Jason go back up to Detroit for a week during the holidays or in the summer. She didn’t accept any blame, but Jason silently affixed much of it on her. But as with everything else, he suffered quietly and didn’t act out or complain. He was her good son, well behaved and shy. He loved his momma and even if he wished she wouldn’t have made some of the choices she did, he was smart enough to know that she was the one person in the world who would always be there for him, no matter what. He still loved his dad, but he’d known for years that the man was unreliable. That was just the way it was. Momma could always be counted on.
That was, until the world fell apart.
Jason was watching TV that morning, the morning when everything changed. He already knew things had been getting bad over the past few days, but with all the special reports breaking in on every channel, things had boiled over.
Yvonne, his mother, had been concerned about what was going on around the country and around town, but that concern didn’t mean she was interested in skipping out on work.
“They need me down there, especially now. You stay home today-no playing outside. Lock the doors and don’t answer the phone. I’ll be home after my shift.”
She hugged him tight and left. Jason wasn’t concerned for himself. Things had been quiet in their neighborhood, but there were some terrible stories on the news about what was happening in the cities, like where momma worked.
As the day wore on, Jason found himself glued to the TV, watching news reports that were getting harder to believe by the second. Every program he switched to was talking about the same thing. The virus had gone global and there were reports of infection everywhere. Doctors were baffled, despite the government’s reassurance that they were working on coming up with a vaccination or cure.
People were dying everywhere, and the televised attacks by the infected were hard to watch. Still, Jason was mesmerized by the violent images as they rolled by on the screen.
More than once, he was tempted to call the hospital where momma worked, but resisted the urge. He was only supposed to call in case of an emergency. This was a worldwide emergency, no doubt about it, but it wasn’t as if someone was banging on the front door, trying to get inside the house to attack him. So instead, he continued watching the stories about the virus spreading, maps with containment vectors discussed by Army Generals, and the riots breaking out in towns and cities across the country and across the globe.
Jason was still in front of the TV when Yvonne, his mother, came home five hours before her shift was supposed to end. He was thrilled she’d returned early, until he saw the bandage on her arm. She had been scratched by a patient at the hospital.
She had been plain unlucky. That was how she described it. Jason’s mother was a nurse a big downtown Cincinnati medical center and was taking the vital signs of a patient who’d come into the emergency room after claiming to have been bitten. The man was delirious and he freaked out when she put a stethoscope against his chest. He’d been lying on a gurney in one of the hallways off the ER, because people were jammed to the rafters in the place and the nurses and doctors had to deal with patients where they sat or stood. Yvonne had been commandeered from her post on the Cardiac ward to help with the overflow.
The man had reached up to grab her wrist as he babbled unintelligibly at her. When she tried to remove his hand, he raked his fingernails across her forearm as he spit up blood and frothed at the mouth. With the help of a couple of orderlies she got the man under control and sedated, but not before his spittle and blood and gotten all over her, including into her brand new wound.
Yvonne Samuels told her son that she’d had the suspicion that things were going to hell the moment she had walked into the hospital six hours earlier. It’d taken less than an hour before she’d been called into the emergency room. The rumor mill among the nurses had gained a full head of steam, and while much of what she was told sounded ridiculous, it was getting easier to buy into the various stories they were feeding her as the day went on.
A particular one stuck with her. One of the regular ER nurses indicated that she’d heard that the National Guard was planning on shutting down most of the hospitals in the area and not letting any more patients into them. In addition to that measure, rumor also had it that any of the people already in the hospitals, including staff, were to be quarantined.
It had sounded like an unlikely possibility the first time she heard it, but by the time she was scratched a few hours later and the emergency room had turned into an utter madhouse, it was getting hard to deny that something was about to happen. Fear, like the virus, was spreading across the hospital at an exponential rate.
No one really knew for sure how the virus spread. Bites without a doubt, but no one knew if it was also airborne, could be transmitted through drinking water, or if there was some other route to getting sick.
Paranoia and panic were engulfing the hospital. Both the patients and staff were rapidly losing their minds. Yvonne suspected that whatever plan the National Guard had in mind to restore control would be acted on far too late to do any good. The situation had deteriorated far too fast.
There had been several attacks when bitten patients died on operating tables or while waiting to be checked out in the ER. Far too late, someone in a position of authority decided that anyone who came in bitten was to be restrained. Unfortunately, that wasn’t before several nurses, doctors, and other patients were attacked.
Jason’s mom had never been one to pull her punches and she didn’t do so as she relayed her tale to him. She had a pretty good idea how much trouble she was in after bandaging her scratched arm. The wound had felt like it was on fire mere seconds after the attack. Since it wasn’t a bite, no one paid the wound much attention, but there was no doubt in her mind that she would be getting curious glances in no time. She was already running a fever. She had to get the hell out of there before she ended up tied to some bed while she waited to die.
Taking one last look around, Yvonne decided to make a beeline to the garage where her car was parked. There was no way she was going to let them quarantine her or tie her up; not with her boy waiting for her to get back home. She had been prepared to do anything, up to and including blasting through the gate at the edge of the employee lot with her beat up old Buick Skylark. It didn’t matter that there were two police cruisers parked on the street outside the garage-nothing was going to stop her from leaving that place.
Fortune smiled on her. The attendant waved her through without even looking up from the portable TV he had in the booth with him.
On the drive home, Yvonne listened to traffic reports that indicated every highway in and out of the city was either clogged or blockaded by the military. Even many of the major roads were backed up, but Yvonne had been driving in the city long enough to have learned about several lesser known routes that would get her home without all the traffic headaches the main routes tended to provide. It was clear as she headed east out of Cincinnati that the city was shutting down, and soon there wouldn’t be any roads open to traffic anymore. There was unchecked chaos and destruction everywhere she looked. People running in the streets, gunfire, and the sounds of screams she heard through the rolled up windows. She didn’t see any of them, but suspected they were there, nonetheless.
Perhaps it was a miracle, or just dumb luck, but she managed to get back home without incident.
She told Jason her story in a breathless rush. By the time she was done, her skin had gone an ashy color and she was drenched in sweat. When he suggested they find a doctor in Gallatin to check her out, she waved him off.
“What we need to do,” she replied, “is find someone to take you in while I deal with this.”
Jason had learned over the years that there was no use arguing with momma, especially when she gave him the “look”. The woman could be downright scary when she wanted to be. So when she picked up the phone and tried to reach out to some of her friends in the area, he remained silent, even as he felt terrified about what was happening to his mother. She was still in charge, and until she said different, there was nothing her twelve-year-old boy could say about it.
After the final call, when Yvonne was unable to reach a single other person, she sat in a chair in the living room and took a deep breath. A few seconds later, she slapped her hands on her knees, announcing to Jason that she had come to a decision.
“There’s just one thing left we can do.”
Jason would never forget when his mother directed him to tie her arms and feet to her bed. She told him that if she got delirious, like the man at the hospital, she didn’t want him to be in any danger of getting scratched or bit. She also joked that it was ironic that she had been desperate to avoid that fate at the hospital, but now felt it was the only solution she had remaining at home.
“If I turn into one of those monsters, and I doubt I will, I don’t want to be able to hurt you. I don’t want to bite you like all those people you’ve seen on TV.”
Once again, Jason had the urge to argue with his momma, but even with her eyes getting cloudy with infection, she wielded an authority that bucked no debate from her son.
So he helped get her into bed, taking several extension cords and wrapping them around her wrists and ankles and then the bedposts. When he tried to be gentle with the knots he made, Yvonne chastised him, insisting he make sure she couldn’t break free.
“I plan on fighting like crazy against this virus, baby, but I’m not taking any chances with your safety. If I turn, I need to know you’ll be safe.”
After the knots were tied and before the tears could come, Jason’s momma told him to sit down next to her on the bed.
“Jason, you’re a stronger boy than you realize. I’ve always known that about you. I also know you resent me for taking you away from your father, but I think, deep down, you understand why I had to do it. He could never take care of you, even if he thought that what he was doing was good enough.
“I didn’t bring you to Ohio to make your life miserable, I brought you here to make you stronger. You needed to get away from that place and learn to stand on your own. I didn’t realize how quickly you would need to be able to do that, but God gives us challenges we think we aren’t prepared for because he knows better than us how strong we are, and how much we can handle.
“I’ve done the best I could for you. It wasn’t enough, but there isn’t any time left for me to do any more. Now I don’t want you crying for me. Instead, I want you to do exactly as I tell you.”
Jason’s mother tolerated no back talk, even as she grew weaker by the second. So he listened to every word she had to say, and despite his reservations, he did as she asked. He collected what he could into his backpack-clothes, food, a pocket knife, and the spare cash she had hidden in a shoebox at the back of her closet. She told him that money probably wouldn’t mean anything for much longer, but it might help him out of a tight jam with someone he came across.
Yvonne didn’t want her son going to one of those shelters, but knew there were few other options available to a twelve-year-old on their own. The scroll at the bottom of the television screen listed the different shelters in the Cincinnati area, and Gallatin high school, which was just a few miles away, was the closest one. He was to try and go to the neighbors first, and see if any of them would take him in, but if that didn’t work, or if he came across anyone acting suspicious, he was to run to that high school as fast as he could.
She told him the some people might not think twice about taking advantage of a young boy without any guardians, so he would have to stand tall and fend for himself. And once things calmed down and the world got back to normal, he would have to try to reach out to any family they had up north that was still alive. Yvonne hadn’t been able to reach any of them for a couple of days, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t make it through this. And when they did, he needed to find them. They would take care of him.
Jason wondered if his mother actually believed that things would ever go back to normal. A cure sounded next to impossible from what he’d heard, and the military didn’t seem to be having any lucky anywhere as far as containing the spread of the contagion. After watching the news all day, and having heard horror stories coming in from across the globe for the last few days, the chances of the world ever being sane again was about as likely as momma being able to avoid succumbing to the virus.
She was the strongest person Jason had ever known, but no amount of determination to resist the rapid creep of the plague was going to keep her from changing. The doctors on TV had bickered back and forth on just about every minute detail related to the virus, but one thing they all agreed on was its 100% mortality and reanimation rate. If you were infected, you died, and then you came back.
After momma gave Jason her instructions and was certain he would carry them out, her voice became soft as she reminisced with him about their lives together. She told him stories about her youth she’d never revealed before and managed to get a few laughs out of him, even as the tears flowed despite her stern command he not weep for her.
On more than one occasion, Jason hinted that he wanted to remove the cords that bound her, but she would chastise him every time he tried, even when she grew delirious and her words were slurred.
Near the end she told him to leave, to get out of the house and go to the neighbors. He needed to find someone who could take him to the shelter, or away from this place. There was no more pretending. She was going to die and she had accepted that. He refused until she had to yell at him, telling him through her own tears that he needed to go, that she did not want him seeing her like this.
Jason pretended to leave, hiding at the front door after he slammed it shut. He slumped against it, crying silent tears while his mother lay dying down the hall. He wanted to untie her, cut her free and hold her tight one last time. And when he heard her loudly weeping, that desire became almost unbearable.
After the crying stopped about an hour later, Jason strained to hear anything coming from his mother’s bedroom. It didn’t take long for him to hear the wheezing as her struggles to breath became more pronounced. As he did, he laid his head on his knees. At that point, he’d been awake for nearly twenty four hours straight. His mother’s struggles with the virus had lasted through the night. So as he sat and listened to the ragged rhythm of her breathing, his eyelids continued to droop lower no matter how hard he fought against it.
One of Jason’s uncles had died of cancer, and he’d watched him gradually lose weight and hair from chemotherapy. It took several months, and the changes were gradual, but hard not to notice. When the man was brought home to be with his family for the last few days of his life, after the doctors had done everything they could for him, Jason was forced to go into his uncle’s bedroom one last time. The man’s eyes had sunken into their sockets and his skin was gray. The smell of illness in the room terrified the boy almost more than how his uncle’s looks had changed. There was a cloying scent of despair that hung heavy in the room. Even the reassuring grin his uncle gave him scared Jason. It made him look like one of the demonic creatures in a horror comic Jason’s dad had given him. His uncle’s eyes had gone from white to a jaundiced yellow, which added to the devilish effect.
What had happened to his mother was like a time lapse recording of the illness his uncle had suffered through. Several nightmarish months of agony jammed into a few hours of living hell, with the same terrible sights and smells that had given Jason nightmares for a year after his uncle died.
Jason woke with a start. He had been dreaming of his uncle, smiling up at him from his deathbed, telling him that his momma would be with him soon. As he spoke, he reached out with his hand, as if asking the boy to join them.
While he’d slept, the wheezing in the other room had stopped. The house was silent. Jason stood, fearful he’d missed the chance to rush back to his mother’s side to see her face and hold her hand one last time before she died. He couldn’t come to grips with the idea of his mother being taken away from him. How could some minor scratch undo such a larger than life person?
Jason listened for a few minutes, peering at the walls that separated his mother’s bed from where he was stood. Nothing. No sound at all. Had she passed? He had to know even though part of him was screaming that he needed to run away and not look back. He could pretend she was still alive if he wanted to. All he had to do was leave.
His voice sounded timid, almost embarrassed. He half expected her to come bursting through the doorway, yelling at him to do as he’d been told and leave the house.
It didn’t happen. Nothing did.
Fear mingled with a sliver of courage that resided deep within the twelve-year-old; courage that came from realizing he had nothing left to lose.
He waited. Sweat dripped down his face, rolling onto his upper lip. Droplets quivered there before falling to the floor. Jason moved his right foot forward with care, somehow afraid that the noise from a squeaky floorboard might upset momma even more than the fact that he’d yelled her name.
His foot was still hovering above the floor when he heard it.
The bed was making a creaking sound, but there was also another sound. One that was almost human.
The sweat pouring down his face and back turned to ice on his skin. An involuntary shiver wracked Jason’s body as he brought his foot down. Hairs on his arms and legs stood at attention and were almost painfully stiff as goose bumps covered every exposed inch of skin. His foot retreated to its original position and he remained locked in place at the front door.
It sounded like a moan coming from the bedroom, but not like any he’d ever heard before. He doubted that a human being in a normal state of mind could make a sound like that.
It was the terrified little boy inside of him reaching out for her now. Tears mixed with the cold sweat and Jason’s vision became blurred. He thought he saw his mother in her nightgown, the one she had worn when she had gotten into bed. It was her favorite. She was walking out of the room, coming toward him, angry at him for not leaving as he’d been told to do. He slammed his back into the front door and gave a wailing cry of his own that didn’t sound quite as bad as the moaning, but had the effect of making the inhuman sound grow louder. Frantically wiping at his eyes, he blinked and saw there was nothing in front of him. Momma was still in her bedroom, tied down.
She needs you. Go to her.
Jason slid to the floor, hugging himself as he wept. No longer concerned about the amount of noise he made, the sound of his crying echoed through the small house. After a couple of minutes, his sense of loss turned to anger as the moaning increased in volume, as if his mother was mocking him.
“Shut up! You’re not my mother anymore! Just leave me alone!”
It’s your mother in there, how dare you yell at her? Go in there and apologize!
The moaning didn’t stop and his anger gradually changed, morphing into something closer to regret. He begged and pleaded, yet knowing somehow, on a coldly logical level, that the monster his mother had become would never listen to him again. At the same time, the voice inside his head, the one that knew nothing of logic or sanity, kept whispering to him that he should go to his mother, that she needed him.
Jason knew it wouldn’t stop until it drove him mad.
That was about all the twelve-year-old was sure of anymore. That and the fact that there was no way he could face his mother ever again. Not with what she had become.
He turned away from the noises and stared at the front door of the house. This was no longer his home, and even as the strange voice inside tugged at him, he could feel the house pushing him away.
You are no longer welcome here. This is a place for the dead.
Jason leaned his forehead against the cold, unforgiving wood of the door and banged it against the pine gently, but repeatedly.
“I’m sorry momma. I love you, but I’m sorry. I can’t stay here anymore. Goodbye.”
It was a lousy eulogy, but was all he could think to say. The maniacal voice inside his head screamed at him to turn around and go to her, but he blotted it out, screaming and cursing at it.
Momma was gone.
Walking out the door, Jason didn’t look back as it slammed behind him. He stepped out onto the grass, unconcerned with where he was going. The world around him was in panic and upheaval. Several of the neighbors had fled, their front doors flung open while others had already in the process of barricading their homes. He didn’t concern himself with any of them, even as several called out to him, screaming his name. The blare of sirens and the sound of gunfire in the background also didn’t distract him.
He picked up his feet and ran, moving swiftly past his neighborhood. His only plan was to keep on running, perhaps all the way to Detroit, if he could. He would run until his legs gave out, his heart exploded inside his chest, or one of those things caught him and tore him to pieces. That was the only thought he had left in his head. He would run until he died.
By the time the soldiers caught up with him twenty minutes later, all the tears had dried and the stony visage that George knew so well had taken their place.
It’s always really nice when an anthology you are in gets warm praise. It is even better when it is from one of the premier horror magazines in the business. But the icing on the cake is when they mention your story by name as one of tales they really liked.
It is always flattering and humbling to receive praise like this. The fact that this particular story in Eye Witness: Zombie is tied into the world where my Dark Trilogy takes place is even more gratifying.
So take a few seconds and swing by this link and check out the review for Eye Witness: Zombie from Fangoria!
I recently had the chance to answer some questions for Erika Gilbert for Permuted Press about my books, my experiences as an author, and on writing in general. It was fun to do and I hope you’ll check it out!
Hit this link to go to my interview: http://permutedpress.blogspot.com/2010/12/interview-author-patrick-dorazio.html
Many thanks to Erika for asking the questions and Jacob over at Permuted Press for hosting the interview!
Well, I kept my promise. This final piece in the George and Jason introductory puzzle is complete and posted below. Please note, there will be another, briefer story about Jason that I will be posting next-it actually takes a further step back, and details his experiences before he met up with George and the others at the emergency shelter. But that is for another day. With this section of the George and Jason tale, we conclude their experiences up to where they meet Jeff and Megan.
And for a little plug for all of you out there: make sure you check out the sequel to Comes The Dark, which is Into The Dark. It is available on Amazon and Smashwords. I may be posting a few Dark Stories about some of the characters found in that book as well in the upcoming weeks, so stay tuned. You will want to have read the second book before you check them out.
And just as a reminder, if you haven’t read all the Dark Stories yet, go over to that page and you can read them all in order, including this one. Thanks!
As always, I do my best to clean up any typos and grammar errors before I post these, but I am sure I missed a few here and there.
So without further ado, here ya go!
George and Jason, Part 4
The tears did flow as George sat in the room with the unread romance novel open on his lap as he relived those last moments standing outside of the church. He was crying for Jason. He was crying for Al and Jennifer. He was crying for the family he still hadn’t returned to. But mostly, he was crying for a world that was lost forever.
They managed to make it inside the church. The metal shard had enough left in it to shatter a window too high for George to crawl through. He managed to boost Jason up to it, and the kid was able to climb inside. He unlocked a lower window, which allowed George to climb in and lock it behind him.
The bright flashes of light from explosives and spotlight out on the street diminished as the night went on, so it was difficult for either of the refugees to see much inside the room they were in. All they knew was that they had made it to a classroom for preschoolers, based on the tiny desks spread around the room. They didn’t feel up to exploring, so instead they huddled behind the teacher’s desk.
The sounds of battle diminished, though George couldn’t help imagining more screams out on the street. The logical part of his brain knew he couldn’t hear them from where he was hunkered down, but that didn’t make the nightmares any less real. The only comfort was that despite the fact that they could still hear the drone of the undead, it was greatly reduced and appeared to be getting further away as the night wore on.
George knew what that meant, but tried not to dwell on it. The ghouls had broken through the last barriers and were inside the schools, tearing through the last of the living.
We’re alone now. It was the cold, harsh thought that stayed with George throughout the night.
Dawn broke after a couple of sleepless hours. George was shocked when he realized Jason had dozed off shortly after they’d gotten through the windows and settled in behind the desk.
Rooting around, they found a few rags and were able to clean off the worst of the gore that cover both of them. After that, they set out to explore the place and see what rooms they could barricade from outside assaults.
George promised Jason that they would stay here for only a couple of days, until he figured out an escape strategy. The boy listened to the promise impassively, seemingly unconcerned about their current situation.
They pulled down blinds on the windows that had them and propped a few cafeteria tables up in front of other windows that faced the road. They secured the exits as best they could, which amounted to little more than moving a few desks in front of the doors and praying the undead wouldn’t notice that someone was now inhabiting the church.
A search of the premises revealed a small stash of food and drinks—stale crackers and juice boxes left over from the previous school year. The box full of bottled water was a nice bonus, along with a stash of junk food George found hidden in a janitor’s closet. It was better than nothing and would prevent them from starving if they were forced to stay for a while. They claimed their bedrooms on the second floor and hunkered down.
After a couple of days with no attacks on the church, they were able to relax a bit and start monitoring the situation outside. The amount of rotters roaming the streets was diminishing. With the lure of warm flesh gone, George’s best guess was that they had wandered into the schools, away from the blazing sun. A few would pop out of the school buildings every now and then. George would watch them from the second floor as they stumbled around, picking at the Humvees and other vehicles that were now collecting dust.
That was when George wondered if those sad creatures still had a shred of humanity left to them. He couldn’t help but compare them to the boy he was hiding out with. Jason was acting more like some sort of drone or robot with each day that passed. Nothing George did seemed to break down any of the kid’s hard earned barriers. The twelve year old spoke only when absolutely necessary. He followed George’s rules without question or complaint. He knew that they needed to be quiet; he knew that if he went on the first floor he was not allowed to let any of the doors slam shut and he needed to stay away from the windows. But none of that came up too often, because Jason spent most of his time in his room up on the second floor, alone.
Days passed and time crawled. George plotted and planned different possible escapes. At the same time, he felt the strong need to keep Jason sheltered, to prevent even more damage from occurring to him. He prayed to God to give him an idea of what to do and when to do it. He stared out windows and went through different scenarios in his mind. Every single one ended up with the two of them being surrounded and devoured by those things. Time ticked by and after a while, the ideas ran dry. George needed to get to his family, but he wouldn’t risk the boy’s life to do it.
The slim hope that someone might come to their rescue disappeared not long after they arrived in the church. George had held out little hope for the Ninth Infantry to come blasting in or some Navy SEALs to sneak them away, but he tried to hold on to the belief that there was someone, anyone, out there and that they were trying to figure out a way to save the people who were trapped, like him and Jason.
The thought that some savior might show up and save them was a ludicrous fantasy, but George couldn’t help thinking about it every now and then.
Mostly, George slept. And when he wasn’t sleeping, he would exercise. He would do sit ups, push ups, jog around the gym … anything to distract himself from the current situation.
The weeks went by and the food continued to diminish, but nothing happened-either outside or inside the church.
George was about to doze off after a pretty aggressive workout when he was jolted out of his daze by the Jason, who was peering at him through his bedroom door.
It was shocking to see the boy; he never entered George’s room. Now here he was-the door partially opened with him leaning in with a look George had forgotten could exist on Jason’s face: excitement.
It was all the kid had to say for George to jump up and get moving. No questions, no skepticism. Those two words were the most he had heard from Jason in several days and the emotion he displayed in the few seconds it took George to rush through the door was more than he had shown since they had gotten to the church. Jason waved him on, pointing toward one of the small windows at the end of the hall.
“Okay, Okay,” George said as Jason grabbed him by the arm and yanked him to the window.
The windows faced the street and were spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t see directly below, due to the roofline of the building, but you were able to see most of the street between the two of them. Jason was pointing out the left window, frantically jabbing at something down below.
George moved up to the window and saw what the boy was so excited about. It was some sort of van slowing down in front of the high school. It was blue and he could see the silhouette of a driver who appeared to be staring at the sign posted nearby that stated:
GALLATIN EMERGENCY SHELTER. ALL FAMILIES AND INDIVIDUALS REPORT TO THE GYM FOR REGISTRATION.
One suitcase per family, clothes only. No pets! All food and water is provided. All food and water brought on the premises will be confiscated. NO FIREARMS! Please have valid state or federal ID available for inspection. Thank you for your cooperation.
George had memorized those words and even dreamt about tearing down the sign on more than one occasion. It felt like a mass grave marker to him; a sign painted in the blood of dead soldiers and refugees.
It was a man behind the wheel, George could see. He was wearing a tee shirt and a ball cap. Other than that, it was hard to tell much about him through the dirty window of the vehicle. The man was gesticulating at a passenger as the van slowed to a stop.
George could tell the vehicle had been through the ringer. It was banged up and splattered with gore. The rear windows were tinted and it was nearly impossible to tell if there was more than the driver and the person he was talking to inside. Got room for a couple of hitchhikers?
“Should we open the window and yell down to them?”
George shook his head at the excited plea as he continued watching the dark blue minivan inch down the street.
A cynical side of George did want yell out at the fools to tell them that they had picked the wrong street to cruise down. But mostly, he felt like he had just been shocked by defibrillation paddles. His heart was racing and his pulse was going through the roof with insane hope. Less than one hundred yards from where he and Jason stood were the only living beings they’d seen in ages.
The van came to an abrupt stop at the sign. The driver had probably read it, but was still jabbering at their passenger. What in the Lords name are these two squawking about? What could be so damnably important? George was getting irritated just watching the scene unfold below. He noticed Jason glancing over at him and realized he was mumbling, talking to the driver. He slammed his mouth shut and both he and the boy returned to looking at the vehicle.
“Huh?” Jason responded to the whispered word as he continued staring out the window. He jumped when George exploded a moment later.
“No, God dammit, no!”
George slammed his fist against the glass, rattling it in its frame. Jason was surprised to hear the supposedly religious man he’d shared this place with lash out with blasphemy.
Looking back out the window, he knew why George had lost his composure. Dead people were surging out of the schools on both sides of the road.
The van shot forward, and Jason wanted to scream along with the man next to him, yelling at the driver to come back. The vehicle moved of sight down the road past where they could see them.
Their rescuers were going to leave before they even knew he and George were here.
Jason was angry at the people in the minivan. He wanted to lash out at them, kick them, and beat on them. In that moment he hated the other survivors for everything that had gone wrong in his life. Every bit of his pent up rage that had been festering for weeks came to the surface in an instant.
The twelve year old grabbed George’s arm and pulled on it until the big man snapped out of his angry trance. Jason almost dropped his hand when he saw the seething anger in the man’s eyes. It looked like it was directed at him and he was ready to move backwards out of the range of those large clenched fists. But the anger dissipated and Jason realized George wasn’t angry, he was frustrated.
“We need to go after them. We have to leave here, now. I can’t stay here anymore.”
George had a surprised look on his face. His mouth opened as he tried to sputter out a response, but Jason spoke again before he could.
“I know those people took off and those dead things are out there, but if we go out back we could sneak around those creeps, we can track those people down. They have to stop sooner or later. We have to try!”
George shook his head as he watched Jason’s face grow more panic-stricken with each word.
“It won’t work.”
Before the boy could blurt out a protest, George continued. “The van will be coming back anyway.”
Jason looked confused, but if what George was saying was true, it was all the better.
“Then we have to go downstairs. We have to let them know we’re here! Come on!”
Now it was George holding Jason’s arm, easily keeping him from racing for the steps. George continued to shake his head, a resigned look on his face. The tug of war lasted only a couple of seconds until George snapped.
“Jason! Shut up and listen!” The command had the desired effect and Jason steadied, at least for a moment. George turned and pointed out the window down the street in the direction the vehicle had headed. “Can you see out past the schools?”
Jason’s vision was pretty good, but the road was curved and the church was far enough back on the road that it was hard to see that far. He shook his head.
“I’ve been looking out this window, just like you have, for a month now. I’ve looked at it from every angle. Believe me-I’ve tried figuring a way out of here … probably a million different times.”
George pointed and Jason followed his finger. He saw the blue spec that was the minivan, way down the road.
“See them there?”
“That’s as far as they go. There’s a bunch of vehicles down there blocking the road … and here they come again.”
The van had turned around and was heading back toward the church. George’s resigned voice deflated Jason’s enthusiasm, but seeing the van return still excited him.
The kid turned to rush to the stairs and George did not grab him this time. Instead, it was his words that stopped him cold this time.
“They’re dead already.”
Jason halted his progress and turned back to look at George, an angry and puzzled look on his face.
“See for yourself.”
Jason hesitated, fearful of what he might see, but his curiosity was too much for him to resist as he moved back to the window.
The van was skidding around the parking lot next to the church. The angle wasn’t great and Jason could barely see the vehicle, but the van was getting closer and was surrounded by crowds of the undead.
The driver was darting in and out of the horde and was having a small amount of success, but from their elevated vantage George and Jason knew what was about to happen.
The van would run out of space. There were too many monsters to ram through. They would be forced to stop, and the driver and his passenger would be torn to pieces.
Jason watched the vehicle pitch and weave and knew in his heart they were doomed. He glanced over at George and realized the old man was only watching the scene unfold out of some morbid sense of curiosity, not because he was hoping the driver would figure out a way to escape.
“I can’t stay here. I’m going to help those people.”
Jason turned and ran for the stairs. He had no idea what he was going to do, but he had to do it fast. He had hit the bottom of the steps when George caught up to him and whipped him around by the arm.
“Are you crazy? Have you completely lost your mind? Jason, I know being stuck here sucks, but that doesn’t mean you should go on some suicide mission to try and save some people who are already dead!”
The anger on Jason’s face as he wriggle free of George’s grasp startled the man. He was even more stunned when Jason slammed a fist into his chest.
“I’m not going to kill myself! I’m gonna to save those people and they’re gonna take me out of here. You and those creeps aren’t going to stop me either!”
Jason kept punching George as he raged. It was like hitting a side of beef, but he didn’t care. The anger he’d felt only moments before toward the people outside had been redirected toward the man he perceived to be his jailor. George, stunned by the outburst, couldn’t react. He could only watch as tears of rage formed in Jason’s eyes.
That’s when it all crashed down on George like a ton of bricks. He’d been sheltering Jason all this time, believing that the boy was some fragile child who needed to be kept safe from the horrors outside the door. The reality was that it was impossible to keep him safe. Not here, not anywhere. Jason already knew this, and was willing to take any risk necessary to get the hell out of this mausoleum they’d been dying in for far too long.
If we hide out in this place any longer, we’ll die here. It was a simple thought, clear and precise in George’s brain. The clearest though he’d had since they’d arrived.
An image of Helen popped into his head. She was listening to him talk on his cell phone from the high school gym. He was promising her would be home soon, that nothing would stand in his way of getting back to his wife and daughters.
So what the hell have you done since then, George Montgomery? A whole lot of covering your ass, that’s what.
Taking a deep breath, George grabbed Jason’s hands and held them tight, bringing his full strength to bear in an effort to control the erratic kid. Looking him in the eyes, he smiled at the twelve year old.
“Ok, let’s do it.”
He nearly laughed at the surprised look on Jason’s face.
Jason’s surprise turned to joy and he tried to move away, but George pulled him back until they were facing each other once again.
“But we do this my way, ok?”
George peered into Jason’s brown eyes with a steely glare. They looked at each other and an understanding passed between them. After a moment Jason nodded vigorously. George smiled at him and winked, which elicited a confused grin from Jason.
“Come on, we don’t have much time,” George said as he wrapped his arm around the boy’s neck and gave it squeeze.
They moved toward the gym, ready to get down to business.
The run out onto the street felt liberating this time. For the first time since that horrible night long ago he was doing something. It was rash and there was a good chance it would be fatal, but this was the choice George had made: choosing a dangerous risk rather than slowly dying with only dust and despair to mark his final resting place.
When it came right down to it, there it had been no real choice at all.
He told Jason to sit tight while he ran across the street. He would make a break for the water tower as the attention of the horde was directed toward the people in the van. Hopefully the effort (along with the screaming and yelling he would do once he got to the tower) would lure enough of the mob in his direction and give the van a chance to break free and Jason a chance to either flag them down or escape into the woods behind the church.
After that, the plan was for George to run away from the tower before it was surrounded, or for him climb the sucker if he had to. He didn’t want to think too much about what would happen if he was forced to choose the latter option.
The first part of his plan went off without a hitch. There were some stragglers still roaming on the street as he ran across, but George only had to bowl over a couple. The rest were far too slow to react before he made it to the fence.
As he was running, he could see the woods beyond the tower and a twisted urge to keep on running raced through his mind, but the temptation passed as quickly as it came. George knew he had stood by doing nothing as far too many people died to even consider that possibility. He increased his speed and hit the chain link fence a second later.
As he climbed the fence, he realized that getting up the water tower would be next to impossible. There were X-shaped struts running between the metal stems of the tower, but no ladder to be seen.
George bit his tongue as nervous laughter almost escaped his lips. It was far too late to turn back. He reached the top of the fence and balanced there, one leg tossed over as he twisted his body around so he was facing the mass of dead bodies surrounding the van. The few he’d passed were moving in his direction, though most remained focused on the van. He glanced over at the woods one last time.
Take a deep breath, he closed his eyes. The buzzing noise he’d discovered a few weeks back had returned, bringing with it memories of that terrible night. The solider on top of the truck, bodies being torn to pieces everywhere he looked, Al bleeding to death on the asphalt, and Jennifer’s last words.
Feeling dizzy, George opened his eyes again, keeping his precarious balance atop his narrow perch. He focused on the van and took a deep breath.
He screamed. It was a long, howling wail contorted with pain and a rage that George didn’t realize he’d been holding in all that time. He clenched a fist and raised it up high, shaking it at the demons spread out before him.
In that moment, it came to him. The prayer he’d forgotten on THAT night—the one he thought he believed he’d never memorized, but must have, years before. It thundered out of him, billowing forth as if he was an avenging angel:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever!”
As he began shouting, they turned. As he continued, his voice rising, more came forward as they forgot the van. They moved as one, drawn forward by his words. It felt like that even as the rational part of his brain told George they were only coming to him because he was food; food that was screaming like a lunatic for all the world to see.
He didn’t care. What he did care about was how it felt to finally curse the monsters that had caused all this. All his emotions: the rage, the fear, the helplessness were funneled into the words he spat out at these interlopers and cast-offs. As he shook his fists at them, it was as if he was calling thunderbolts down from heaven at the heaving mass of death dragging itself toward him.
When the speech was done and the fervor gone, George tried to comprehend the response he got. His words had bounced off his impassive congregation like everything else the human race had thrown at them. But at least they were coming for him-that much was certain.
Jumping down inside the small compound, he watched as the first of the raggedy monsters slammed into the fence. George stepped back, getting the first daylight close-up of one of the creeps, as Jason called them. He had seen enough of them in the dark, but now was getting a full Technicolor display of the dead soldiers and refugees he’d shared the high school gymnasium with.
As gruesome as the crowd was, George was still relieved. He didn’t recognize anyone, and the niggling fear Al or Jennifer might crop up was something he doubted he could handle. But if they were in the crowd, they were indistinguishable from the rest of the rotting mass of corpses, which was a small blessing.
The fence appeared to be strong enough to keep the army of slavering maniacs at bay for at least few minutes. The rust on it didn’t inspire confidence, but at least the invasion force pounding on the chain link didn’t appear to have much in the way of climbing skills. All they could do was press their swelling, overheated carcasses up against the fence as they bashed at it and hissed at George. They seemed almost insulted that the meat so tantalizingly close was not willingly sacrificing itself.
More and more corpses crowded up against the fence. They were drawing attention of others … it was a domino effect: even those that could not have possibly seen or heard him were moving in his direction, away from the van.
Looking through the gaps in the crowd, George could see that there were fewer bodies pressed up against the Odyssey. It wasn’t rocking back and forth anymore, though many persistent attackers were still engaged in an effort to crack into it.
George frowned, his frustration with the driver of the minivan surfacing. Why haven’t they tried moving yet?
The path was clear, or so it seemed, though it was getting harder for him to see over the bodies tugging at the fence. He did see a smaller group of the infected splitting off from the main force coming in his direction. They were on the opposite side of the street, still near the van, but moving toward the church.
Looking over at his old hideout, George groaned. The kid had done it. He’d disobeyed the order to sit tight and wait. When all the attention was drawn away from the church, Jason would have had his chance to take off. Until then, he was supposed to be safe behind the closed doors.
Now that was shot to hell.
George watched in stunned silence as the twelve year old whipped a clunky text book out one of the second floor windows at the crowd of onlookers gathered around the front of the church. The book spun like an oversized shuriken and sideswiped what may have been an elderly woman. The creature had a cloud of messy white hair and the tattered remains of a flower print dress on, which were the only hints at its gender. The book spun the recipient of the blow around, but didn’t knock it over. What it did do was draw its attention, and moments later it was clawing and beating at the church doors.
Where the hell did he get the book? It didn’t matter much, but George surmised that Jason must have done some exploring in the classrooms and found a few teaching manuals. More rectangular missiles flew out of the window, smashing into the heads of the ghouls down below. Though it was hard to tell from a distance, it looked to George as if Jason was enjoying himself.
“Get out of there now, dammit. GET OUT!”
It was pointless-the kid couldn’t hear him. The maddening sound of hornets was too loud, and they were vibrating every bone in George’s body. He could barely hear himself.
Resisting the temptation to launch his body at a part of the fence still bare of smashed-up bodies, George paced behind the walls of his prison as more stiffened corpses made the pilgrimage to the church. His movements were spreading the ghouls out around the perimeter of the fence. As they tried following him, more blocked his view of the van and the church. He wanted to signal for Jason to just cut and run, but it was fast becoming clear that for the first time in a long time, the boy’s fate was entirely out of his hands.
The crowd outside the fence continued to shift, moving to the side of the compound George was closest to-at least most of them were doing that. There were more than enough to spread around and those pressed up against the chain link appeared unwilling to give up their prime spots along the fence line.
George knew he would have to make a break for it soon. The fence was starting to sway as more bodies pressed against it. It wouldn’t be long before it collapsed.
He was still sizing things up when he heard the roar of the van’s engine. Finally! At least the people in the van would be able to escape this nightmare, even if he and Jason were screwed.
Even as he thought about how futile this whole rescue effort had been, George had to smile. It beat sitting on his ass until he starved to death.
Moments later, George’s eyes widened as the sound of metal crunching against metal jolted him out of his reverie and he saw the blue prow of the minivan heading in his direction.
He managed to dive out of the way as the Odyssey plowed through the fence, smashing at least five stiffs into its grill as it did so.
George wobbled to his feet, still in a daze, as he finally got a good view of the scraggly driver of van when he rolled his window down. At the same time, the cargo door on the minivan slowly opened. A thin, haggard looking woman stood behind the door, a massive revolver in her tiny hands.
He was still staring at these ragged people, trying to comprehend what had just happened, when he heard one of them shout “Get in!”
Sorry it has taken me so long to post another part of George and Jason’s tale, but I should be able to get Part 4, the final part of their story, posted within the next week or so. There are other stories based on other characters, and now that Into The Dark is on the verge of being released, some of the other stories about characters appearing in that book will also be showing up here, on my blog.
As always, you can find all my Dark Stories listed in order on the Dark Stories page of my blog. So if you haven’t read all the ones that came before this, check out that page first. Thanks!
As usually, I apologize for any typos or grammatical errors. I try to do my best to insure that what I post is clean, but I am sure I missed a few things here and there.
So without further ado, here you go. I hope you enjoy this installment.
George and Jason, Part 3
George thumbed through a paper back romance novel he had commandeered from one of the preschool teacher’s desks. Wretched was the only word he could use to describe it. But it passed the time. He would not have been caught dead with such a book previously but now, with only Jason left to pass judgment, he could care less.
He thought about the boy and what was to become of him.
Jason would be a tall teen. He was gawky, scrawny perhaps, but he had the bone structure that indicated that he would easily break six feet as an adult. The boy was the whole reason they were holed up in this church instead of dead out on the road somewhere. George wanted nothing more than to take his chances and leave this place behind for good. He would take any risk that he could to return to his family. They needed him.
But so did Jason.
Jennifer had coaxed some other details out of the shy boy in the few days they were stuck at the high school. It was far more than George had been able to get out of Jason since then. His father lived up near Detroit and was not on speaking terms with his mother. She made the decision a year ago to move to Ohio for a fresh start. She got a job as a nurse and promised Jason a house to live in, so they moved to Gallatin where they could afford a cottage in the little town.
The move was a shock to Jason’s system. He did well in school, but being uprooted and losing all his friends had been tough. His mother was happy here so he didn’t complain for her sake.
The boy had lost touch with his father long ago. He barely knew the man and hadn’t said much about him unless prodded. Jennifer guessed that even though Jason acted like none of it mattered, he still missed his father a great deal.
Jason lost his mother not too long before he had gotten to the shelter. It did not take much to figure that out since he had come to the place alone. He would not talk about it and all Jennifer could gather was that the National Guard had picked him up, perhaps in his house, or off the street, and dumped him in the shelter.
So Jason had lost his mother and then the one person he had latched onto when things had gone from bad to worse. George guessed that Jason felt that Jennifer had betrayed him when she had chosen to stay with her dying husband rather than escape with him from the parking lot.
It was a harsh assessment and George could not blame Jennifer for giving up when her husband, who was her high school sweetheart, was lying beside her with his lifeblood pouring out onto the asphalt. All she could do for the boy was to tell him to run away with George. That she could not see past her own grief and agony was nothing George could blame her for, but he knew Jason didn’t see it that way.
After George and Jason fled the parking lot of the high school, they kept moving around the building. As they got further away from Al and Jennifer, Jason managed to start walking on his own instead of forcing George to drag the boy along behind him.
Jason’s reaction to Jennifer’s abrupt farewell was worrisome to George, but his concern for the pre-teen’s mental well being had to take a back seat to bigger priorities.
They gradually made their way to a corner of the high school where they could spy what was going on out on the street. It took forever as George kept them sliding along the cold bricks of the building. The wall was not straight and it forced them to spend time creeping around corners, pausing to make sure they were not coming up on anything they couldn’t deal with. They reached several bushes that hugged the corner of the building and dove behind them, hoping they could hide there for a few moments. It was then that George realized how truly screwed they were.
The undead were scattered, spread out after moving in from north of the school onto the street between the high school and the grade schools across the street. They had pushed survivors they came across before them, herding them like cattle to the slaughter. By the time the hoard had reached the schools, its numbers were in the hundreds, if not thousands. Both soldiers and citizens alike had been defeated at every turn and it appeared that this was where the final battle between the undead and what remained of humanity in this region would take place.
The ghouls were in thick clusters surrounding islands of soldiers and the sound of automatic weapons fire were small disruptions to the deafening roars of the creatures. They were in the street, on the grass, everywhere, attacking everything living thing they could get their hands and teeth on.
Before that night, George had seen only bleak hints and whispers of what was happening outside the high school he’d called home for the past few days. It had been nothing worse than an uncomfortable itch at the base of his spine. That itch hinted at the truth of things, but nothing up until now had grabbed him by the throat and throttled him with the revelation that the world had come to an end.
George’s eyes zeroed in on a particular soldier on top of a pickup truck out on the street. It looked like he was dancing on the narrow roof as he dodged the grasping hands of the undead surrounding the truck. For an instant George was reminded of a group of concert goers trying to touch the leg of a lead guitarist as he jammed out on stage. The M16 in the soldier’s arms looked somewhat like a guitar, even as he fired into the crowd erratically, frantically trying to clear a path for a quick escape. Despite his efforts, the crowd wouldn’t part and the clot of ghouls around the truck kept growing thicker by the second. The dead clumsily attempted to climb the truck to get at him, but instead fell underneath the press of other bodies pushing on them from behind. Those that were crushed underneath served as step stools for the other stiffs who were able to get higher and closer to the soldier.
The young private continued to fire his weapon and bellowed resistance as he did. He hit the mark with the occasional shot and a head would disappear below the mass of contorting bodies, but mostly his attacks did little to influence the crowd, except perhaps to make it grow even more excited by his presence.
The ghouls dragged themselves onto the hood and into the bed of the truck behind the soldier, who was able to dodge their hands for a short while. The first few that that snagged his camouflaged leggings were easily shaken off. George was hunched down the bushes at the corner of the high school with Jason held closely in front of him as they watched helplessly as the terrible scene unfolded no more than fifty yards from where the hid. George could feel Jason shaking uncontrollably and tried to squeeze his shoulders tighter just to let the boy know he was safe, but it was useless. The middle-aged man would later recall whispering something like ‘everything will be okay’ in the boy’s ear, but wasn’t sure if it had been more to reassure Jason or himself.
George silently rooted for the soldier, who ran out of bullets and started swinging his M16 around like a bat, not with much hope of connecting with anyone, but more in an effort to deter those closest from reaching out to grab him. The young man’s screams increased in volume as he sidestepped several grasping claws and backed into another group of avaricious hands that latched on to his legs at the ankles. He attempted to turn and face these new attackers, his rifle still held out in front of him, but lost his balance and slammed down hard on the metal truck roof. A hollow clunk was the only sound George heard as the soldier crashed and was pulled over the side of the truck.
George, at ground level, couldn’t see what happened next, but he was cursed with a vivid imagination. He knew the man was being pulled apart, the angry ghouls snapping at one another as they fought over the tastiest morsels. The only consolidation for the soldier was that there were enough of the undead that it was unlikely there would be enough of him left to reanimate.
The ongoing carnage out on the street was almost hypnotic. There were numerous small groups of living humans trying to hold the line, but all of those groups were being infiltrated by the walking dead. So many of the infected were in army fatigues it was hard to tell who was alive and who was undead. George remembered how fast the old man that had bitten Al had changed and knew that those dying right now would be up and helping the other ghouls within minutes. It made the battle all that much quicker: soldiers often had no idea who was alive and who had reanimated, because both the living and the dead were saturated with blood and viscera.
Of all the crowding, surging undead, the largest concentration George could see was moving toward the entrance of the high school. Some of the guardsmen were falling back, around the bushes where George and Jason hid. George retained a firm hold on the boy as he watched the soldier’s run by. He felt like he was clutching a rabbit: he couldn’t squeeze Jason too tight, but if he relinquished his hold the kid would more than likely skitter away. But at that moment, Jason seemed sedate, not squirmy or making any noises that would draw any attention, at least.
One of the entrances to the high school was behind where George and Jason hid, and it was apparently the fall back position for many of the National Guardsmen. They were trying to delay the inevitable onslaught by seeking sanctuary inside the high school with the rest of the soldiers and refugees inside.
George wondered if the riot inside the high school had been quelled and how much innocent blood had been spilled in the process. After seeing the massacre outside, he suspected that anyone who had been killed in the clash between refugees and soldiers was probably better off than anyone still alive.
He scanned the front of the building, but his vision was blocked by part of the high school that jutted out onto the expansive lawn in front of the school. He couldn’t see the opposite end of the building, but did see the advancing horde moving in his direction. The ghouls were methodically following the retreat anyone left alive on the street … and those survivors were leading the dead straight to the high school.
George saw several vehicles moving erratically back and forth on the road and in the parking lot across the street, where even more soldiers were falling back through the doors of the elementary schools. Looking around, he dismissed the idea of trying to find a vehicle. There were far too many bodies already jammed underneath the wheels of several military vehicles and even a semi that had been commandeered by the National Guard. There was no possibility of driving out of the area.
George held his stomach in check as he saw more bodies being crushed under the heavy equipment and pulped beyond recognition. The few vehicles still in motion were barely moving as more ghouls mindlessly crashed against them in an attempt to reach the drivers. Bodies and appendages were dragged under wheels and bogged the machines down. Corpses ruptured and became wedged into wheel wells, forcing the vehicles to a standstill.
George forced himself to continue looking out on the street, which was starting to resemble the ninth circle of hell. There had to be something out there … something that would give them some spark of hope.
There has to be someplace for us to hide.
The screams echoed all around them. More of the dead filed past their hiding space, not sensing the two easy targets as they followed groups of soldiers streaming past. The sound of shattering glass and panicked shouts behind them told George that the people still alive inside the high school were starting to realize what they were up against.
Jason had grown still, only barely shivering. As George looked out on the street, he forgot about the boy for a moment. It appeared as if the dead were all clumping up out there, attacking the established positions of the soldiers while others surrounded the entrances of the two schools across the street. He watched as countless numbers of the wretched creatures crawled through shattered windows of classrooms that looked dark and vacant. Jagged shards of glass sticking out of the window frames were ignored as they sliced into the rotting bodies of the ghouls. Chunks of their flesh fell to the ground, bloodless and inert.
That was when he saw it-the one place in this nightmarish realm that they might make it to alive.
There was nothing surrounding the church. No soldiers and no stiffs. Gallatin United Methodist Church was posted on the sign out front. Flashes of light from weapons fire and spotlights being used lit up the building as George scanned it for damage or indications of someone hiding inside.
It looked like a simple church with a modest steeple that had been built onto. Another structure, attached by an extended hall, stretched north of the main structure. There was a set of double doors at the front of the church, but no other entrances facing the road. No visible shattered glass, no boarded up windows. It was next to the elementary schools, just north of them on the other side of the street. It would be a straight shot across from where they were hidden.
More of the undead had shuffled past where George and Jason were crouched behind the bushes. The battle raged on behind them and on the street in front of them. They had move soon.
George closed his eyes and tried to ignore the tumult of unnatural moans, human screams, and ear shattering explosions. He found it to be nearly impossible as he mumbled a short prayer.
As I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
He brain locked up, blanking on the rest of the passage. George promised that if he ever saw another bible he would memorize all of it.
He opened his eyes and grabbed Jason by the shoulders. The look on the boy’s face made George pause. Jason was still breathing, still conscious, but there was something in his eyes that sent a chill down the man’s spine. Jason looked dead inside.
George shook the boy, rattling the teeth inside his skull.
“Jason!” he screamed in a stage whisper. “We have to go! We have to go NOW!” He continued shaking the boy, almost as much for his own benefit as for the kid’s. It was activity, it was movement. It would keep him distracted enough that he might not freeze or go mad with fear.
Jason eyes moved, tracking until they focused on George, who stopped shaking him and took a deep breath. The blank stare remained, but it looked like there was a trace of curiosity in Jason’s eyes. It wasn’t much, but George would take it as positive sign that the boy was listening and knew what was going on.
“We have to go … there.”
George pointed across the street, pushing the itchy leaves of the bush out of the way to give Jason a chance to see where he was pointing. The kid stared at the church, but did little else.
George shook him again. “Jason! We have to go now!”
A barely visible nod was all George got in response. It was enough. After a quick survey of the area, he stood, tugging on the back of Jason’s shirt as he did. After a moment, the boy rose of his own volition. George put his hand around Jason’s neck and leaned in.
This time Jason looked at George and nodded with confidence.
They took off running over the unkempt and slick grass that fronted the high school. A brief glance down confirmed that the grass was not slick with dew, but with blood.
The vivid image of hell returned as George imagined that they were slipping on the entrails of the dead, sliding downward into a pit toward Satan himself. The heat of several explosions nearby reinforced his nightmarish thinking as they slogged forward.
They ran, slipping in and out of flashes of light that showed ghouls surrounding them on all sides. Soldiers who were still alive kept the ghoul’s interest directed elsewhere. That was what George was counting on. If the infected discovered him and Jason, they might not break off an attack, but it would be best not to tempt them.
Their movements couldn’t be heard over the eruptions of screams or weapons fire, even as the duo weaved between clots of the infected and living that seemed more like a single organism with a thousand tendrils frantically waving about.
The dead grabbed and pawed at the living, smashing fists into armored vehicles that were stalled out, shattering glass or pressing themselves inward on small groups of men firing frantically into the crowd. Other survivors were doing better. They had managed to put down enough of the undead that they had created barriers made of piled corpses that encircled their positions. But even the most composed and calm soldiers were faltering, and as their ammunition ran out they were using their rifles as bludgeons before falling beneath a tide of rotting arms and gnashing teeth.
They kept moving, pausing only briefly to skirt the areas that would draw attention to them. The dead had won this battle and more than likely the war against humanity. They were too busy gorging themselves, swelling their ranks even further, to notice two dark shapes in the night as they ran past. As the duo inched closer to the church, a cold though ran through George’s mind: the human race was about to become extinct.
They hit the other side of the street and avoided a chain link fence that had been smashed flat by vehicles traveling back and forth over the grass between the school parking lot and the church.
They crossed the church lawn with Jason running at
George’s side. George knew the boy was suffering from the loss of Jennifer among other things, but as stunned and traumatized as he was, Jason still seemed willing to fight for his survival. That was something, at least. They reached the edge of the church, sliding across the wall until they were next to the glass doors. A quick tug on the handles confirmed they were locked.
Both the man and the boy were out of breath, wheezing and slumped over as they leaned against the building. After a few seconds, George slapped Jason on the back and led the way to the north side of the building, where the parking lot was. It was furthest from the action. It was also where he hoped to gain entrance to the church without attracting attention.
They crept along, paying close attention to everything behind as well as in front of them. George did his best to scan the area, but it was next to impossible to be sure they hadn’t been spotted. They managed to get to a darkened window and glanced inside at the chapel. It was nearly impossible to see much, but as far as George could tell, the inside of the church looked untouched by the calamity outside.
They kept moving, turning the corner and gliding into the parking lot. There was another set of glass doors and several windows that gave them a view of several vacant class rooms.
Great, it’ll be real tough for these bastards to get at us with all this damn glass, George thought sarcastically.
The side doors were locked as well. George peered inside and saw another set of doors beyond a vestibule that were wooden. The inner doors had small panes of glass in them at eye level, but he couldn’t make out anything beyond them. He turned and scanned the parking lot, trying to find something that might help them break into the building. An open dumpster sat at the back of the lot.
“Stay here,” George commanded Jason as he sprinted toward it.
There didn’t appear to be any movement beyond the lot, though the battle from the street remained thunderous. The side of the building was strangely peaceful and calm, as if it had a bubble of protection over it. George had already blotted out their harrowing experience on the street in his mind. A wrong move out there and he and Jason would have been dragged down in an instant, surrounded and engulfed, but that was in the past. The adrenaline coursing through him had him feeling energized and invulnerable.
He reached the dumpster and leaned over it. The whiff of stale garbage was pleasant compared the stench of corrupted human flesh that wafted on the air and stuck to George’s clothes like cigarette smoke. If he ever made it out of this place alive, the first thing he was going to do was ceremoniously burn the jeans and button down shirt he had put on that morning.
He pushed several garbage bags and loose trash about, leaning deeper into the container in an attempt to reach the back. As he lifted yet another hefty bag, he spied something that might work for what he needed. It was a broken piece of metal framing. He practically slid into the dumpster to avoid losing the spot where it was buried between several sticky plastic cups and what felt like a bag full of grass clippings. He got his forefinger and a thumb around it and grunted as he inched it closer, before managing to wrap his hand around it. George winced as the sharp piece of metal almost cut into his hand. It dug into the skin but didn’t break it.
George heard a whimper behind him and slid out from the dumpster, in the process scraping up his belly to match his scratched hand. He turned to see where it had come from, but already knew. Jason was on the ground squirming backwards in a corner of the entryway as a large figure shambled toward him from the direction of the street. George could see others in the darkness behind the intruder and knew they had been followed. He took off running toward the boy.
The man was hulking. A huge gut protruded outwards and the arms, which had a multitude of bite wounds running up and down their length, wobbled as the he came at the young boy. To say the man was obese was the understatement of the decade. It would be more accurate to say that the man was carnival-freak sized. George estimated he weighed at least four hundred pounds. The waddle of flesh hanging from his chin had been chewed on, but only half devoured. The free floating skin and greasy fat beneath flopped and slapped against the open wounds on the man’s shoulders as he moved closer to Jason. There were stains running down the front of his shirt and onto his pants. Normally George would assume it was the blood, but wondered if the behemoth had been caught mid-meal and it was the remains of his last supper as a human being.
George closed the distance quickly, gripping the shard of metal in his hands. It was rather thin but the broken end was sharp and could spear someone pretty good. Knowing that there were others coming, he didn’t want to lose the sliver on his first attack.
The huge man noticed George and shifted its massive girth in his direction. No sound came from its mouth, but a bubbling hiss emanated from the wound in his throat and green goop spewed forth from it as the man silently growled. George rushed forward, launching his foot at the beast’s chest, sending it backwards. He was surprised at how incredibly heavy the man was, even in death. It toppled into the arms of one of the creatures following it.
Moving past the tangle of arms and legs on the ground, George lashed out with his metal weapon at a teenage girl. The metal bent, but the force of the blow knocked her to the ground. The girl had no lips or eyelids and looked cartoonish with her rictus grin and bulging eyeballs. Two more stiffs were behind her, but George could see no others following them. Those last two were still a few feet back.
The final two ghouls were moving slow enough and were far enough back that George had time to raise his heel and send it down with the full force of his weight onto the head of the girl he’d just smacked with the metal framing. A sickening crunch verified that he had shattered her skull and he avoided looking at what he was sure would be a grisly scene beneath his foot. He could feel the ooze of mushy organic matter clumping to the heel of his shoe.
George turned to glance at the two stiffs he’d knocked over and was happy to see that the smaller one’s legs were still stuck under the stiff he’d dubbed Gigantor. The diminutive one tried to reach out and grab for George, oblivious to the fact that it would have to extricate its legs from underneath the huge beast first to reach him.
Jason was back up and moving toward the fray. George waved him back, sending a well placed kick to the skull of the ghoul trying to grab for him from underneath Gigantor. Its head rocketed to the side and sprayed the asphalt with teeth and what looked to be an eyeball. George looked at his handiwork and realized even with the head trauma he’d just caused it was still moving. He kicked it several more times, until its arms stopped twitching.
Gigantor was desperately trying to get up off of his back, but like a turtle that had been flipped over on its shell he was having a hard time of it. He could wait.
George turned to face the last two monsters that were closing in on him and Jason.
They had been soldiers. The first’s uniform had been ripped off to the waist and he was a few organs short, although his ribcage was still intact. Most of the visible meat on its arms had been ripped clean off, with only bones and ligaments remaining. The other one had one arm and only two fingers remaining on the mauled hand at the end of the appendage.
Dropping the piece of metal, George charged at them. His fist nearly dislocated the first soldier’s jaw as it plowed into it. The blow knocked the creature back and gave George the time he needed to grab the other ghoul by its lone arm and spin it so its gnashing teeth couldn’t reach him. He sent the ghoul skidding across the pavement as he let go, leaving a trail of gristle behind. The one George had punched was already moving back for more, and the stench emanating from its open chest cavity was horrendous. He grabbed both sides of its head quicker that it could react and drove the skull down onto his knee. Pushing the head away, he watched the body tumbled before him. To insure the job was complete, George brought his heel down on the skull and then raced over to finish off the other soldier, who had managed to get back to his knees. A quick kick to its hindquarters dropped it to the ground again. George placed one foot on its back to hold it down while he stomped on its head with the other, until his shoe was soaked with brain matter.
George bent over, exhausted. He was going to have to deal with Gigantor still, but knew the fat man was probably still trying to get off his back. Filling his lungs with corrupted air, he tried to lower his frantic heart rate.
Despite the grim chores he had just completed, George felt exhilarated. How these slow moving, stupid creatures had conquered the human race within a span of just a couple of weeks was incomprehensible. Unless he had to face off against the entire horde on the street, he was certain he could manage just fine against them.
Taking a deep breath, George turned, ready to deal with Gigantor. What he saw sent shockwaves through his body. He had already been stunned several times that night, but nothing compared to what he was seeing now.
The boy that had been nearly catatonic only minutes earlier had managed to regain his senses enough to pick up the piece of metal George had dropped and beat the fat ghoul to death with it.
After it had stopped moving, had stopped grabbing for him, Jason had continued pounding on the head of the corpse, sending sprays of blood and some sort of black, oily discharge squirting out of it as the sharp piece of metal connected with it time and time again.
The look George saw in the boy’s eyes of a stone cold killer. There was no anger, no rage, just focus. He made no sound; there were no screams passing through Jason’s lips. He just kept beating on the dead man, obliterating the flesh and bone of his skull.
George hesitated before moving closer to the boy. At that moment he was afraid to try and separate Jason from the lump of dead flesh in front of him. All the bravado he’d felt at his meager victory against the ghouls slipped away in a heartbeat. It was like a cold splash of water to his face as he watched the twelve year old in his care take out all his frustrations on one of the monsters who wanted to corrupt him like all the others.
The boy was not just splattered with guts, he was drenched with them. Bone chips and a stringy substance that George did not even want to guess at dangled from the boys tightly curled hair as he continued pounding on the corpse with the bent piece of metal.
“Jason!” His voice carried over the muffled sound of battle out on the street. He used the same tone of voice he used when he was mad at his children. He prayed to God it would have the same effect on the orphan as it did his daughters. George got what he wished as the boy stopped the gore-drenched piece of metal from descending into the innards of the ghoul’s head once again.
“Stop that NOW!” George stood with his own clenched fists, trying to display an anger he did not feel, but needed to dredge up if he had any hope of saving Jason from oblivion.
Jason looked at George for a moment and then his eyes dipped back toward the dead man at his feet. After a moment, perhaps to insure that the man was indeed dead, he looked up again. Lifting his hand, he offered the thin strip of metal to George. The look on the twelve year olds face was the same hollow, shell shocked look that had been there earlier, back where they had hid in the bushes next to the high school.
There was something else there too. Through all the dirt and gore that covered Jason’s face, George could see tracks of tears running down it, leaving a trail of purity in a field of blood caked nightmare. The middle aged man felt like crying as well, as he realized that despite all Jason had been through, the boy’s soul was intact. It was pummeled and damaged nearly beyond repair, but it still remained. But for how much longer?
George held back the tears and slapped Jason on the back affectionately, smiling. It was not returned, but he still felt relieved. They were survivors. More importantly, their humanity was still intact.
I wanted to post this as soon as this was official.
Press Release: Library of the Living Dead
November 22, 2010
The Library of the Living Dead would like to announce that the current Kindle version of Comes The Dark, by Patrick D’Orazio, is no longer be available, as of today, in anticipation of a revised and edited version being released to coincide with the paperback release of the third book of the trilogy, Beyond The Dark, in March of 2011.
It was recently discovered that some of the copies of the Kindle version of Comes The Dark included an early, unedited version of the entire Dark trilogy, including Comes The Dark, Into the Dark, and Beyond The Dark. Because of this discovery, the Library of the Living Dead will not be releasing the edited versions of Into The Dark and Beyond The Dark separately as kindle books. Instead, it will be releasing a Revised and Edited version of the trilogy, which will include all three books along with several bonus short stories from the realm of the dark trilogy that will be exclusive to this new kindle release.
The release of the paperback versions of Into The Dark and Beyond The Dark will go forward as planned, with Into The Dark being released in December of 2010, and Beyond The Dark being released in March of 2011.
More details about the Revised and Edited Kindle version of the Dark trilogy will be revealed before the scheduled release date.
Those who purchased the Kindle and got the entire trilogy got a glimpse of the raw, unedited version of the book. Given the reviews that have been posted that were based on that, I can’t complain. This wasn’t how things were exactly planned, but it works out quite well, giving my publisher and I the chance to re-release the entire trilogy on Kindle in a few months with some really nice bonus materials. That plus Into The Dark will be out within the next few days, which I am really excited about.
In honor of Halloween, and in honor of my new favorite TV show, The Walking Dead (I saw the premier tonight, and I loved it!), here is some more of the continuing saga of George and Jason, before they enter Jeff’s life in Comes The Dark. I wrote a lot of stuff for them both, and there is at least a Part 3 coming up, and maybe even a Part 4. Forgive me for any typos that I missed-I tried to clean this up as best I could, but I am sure there are a few here.
Without further ado, here ya go.
George and Jason, Part 2
The memories from those early days continued to trickle into George’s mind as he entered the room he used as a bedroom. He plopped down on the small blanket and thin pillow he had acquired from the nurse’s station downstairs. His room was situated next to the room Jason had laid claim to, which had once been a dusty storage area. The entire second floor was mostly storage with the main area below housing the class rooms, gym, and church. He and Jason had blocked off the doors to the church from the part of the building they stayed in when they first arrived. It would have been impossible to protect the large open nave, with its massive windows and glass doors. The irony was not lost on George. He had found Jesus and even fled to a house of God, but had to steer clear of the church to avoid an agonizing death.
After the riot, George, Al, Jennifer, and Jason decided to bide their time for at least one more day. The rumors about what was happening outside had faded away as fewer newcomers were funneled into the high school. Most of the refugees still trickling in were being processed at the elementary school, but one of the last bits of gossip they heard was that there weren’t any more people seeking shelter. There was no one left out there alive.
Soldiers patrolled the gym, moving between isolated groups with their automatic weapons un-slung and ready for anyone who chose to cause them trouble. Another day went by and any new rumors passed along by the refugees about what was going on outside were mostly just unintelligible garbage George dismissed out of hand. Soldiers who were willing to talk insisted there were more refugees still funneling in across the street. All he knew for sure was that more troops were showing up at the school. He saw them talking outside the gym and could hear more vehicles out in the parking lot. Soldiers stationed with the huddled masses inside were more agitated than usual.
It was enough to convince George that their little group’s time had come. Despite the eradication of the troublesome gang members, it would not be long before someone else tried to start another revolt. Everyone was tired, angry, and afraid. They were jammed into a claustrophobic environment and it appeared as if George wasn’t the only one planning something. When it all went down, he wondered if the soldiers would even bother with tear gas or just start firing their weapons into the crowd.
After a long sleepless night it came to George. Jason was small enough that he could slip out of the cafeteria when they shuffled into the cafeteria to eat breakfast. There had been no head counts in several days. The guards had slacked off ever since the real troublemakers had been eliminated. They were paranoid and concerned that everyone would try to rush their positions at the main exits, or try and steal their weapons, but didn’t appear worried that someone might try sneaking deeper into the building. When George approached the twelve year old, Jason was more than willing to go on an “adventure” to help them all out. He was practically champing at the bit to make a break for one of the doors that led to unused classrooms in the high school.
At breakfast, Jason displayed no fear as he stood up and boldly walked across the room away from their table. No one, including the soldiers standing guard and serving the food, took notice of the twelve year old. Just as George thought, the other refugees were too wrapped up in their own woes to care about some random kid. The soldiers were just as distracted, with someone different approaching them to argue or complain about something every few minutes to pay attention to a boy slinking around the crowded space. George, for all his confidence that he was doing the right thing, could barely watch as Jason crossed the linoleum floor toward one of the sets of doors. When Al squeezed his arm and smiled to let him know that Jason had made it, George felt weak.
No alarms were raised as Jason slipped through the doors, nor were there any hints that the soldiers suspected anything.
When the time came to leave the cafeteria the three remaining members of the group shuffled out with all the rest of the entrapped citizens and returned to their cots, biding their time until lunch. If Jason were caught in the few hours in between the two meals, they hoped he would get no more than a scolding. Even as high strung as the guards were, unless he snuck up on one and yelled ‘Boo!’ he would probably be safe. If one of the adults had gone and had been caught … it was hard to imagine it would have gone well for them. George remembered the fit Jennifer had thrown about Jason taking on such a responsibility and how she couldn’t sit still as they waited, wondering if he was okay.
At lunch, when Jason returned to them unnoticed, it took all the trio had to not stand up and cheer as he slipped in beside them at their table. They sat, grinning and patting him on the back, but waited until they were back in the relative privacy of their small section of the gym before asking him what he had seen. He told them about the corridors he was willing to venture down. He had found several empty classrooms, but more importantly a hallway leading to an exit on the opposite side of the building that didn’t appear to be guarded. He was able to open the door-no alarm had sounded and it was only locked from the outside. There were no guards posted outside at the back of the building. Now all they needed was a distraction so they could make their move.
George winced at the memory of their excitement and shared euphoria. They had been so optimistic! It was hard to imagine how he had rooted for someone to attack the guards or to cause another riot, just so the four of them could steal away in the ensuing chaos. There was nothing redeeming about such thoughts, though surely God would forgive his weakness in that moment. The four of them gathered up what few possessions they still had and the small amount of food they were able to sneak out of the cafeteria for their anticipated journey.
The rest of the day went by uneventfully, except for more and more soldiers running in and out of the gymnasium, hour after hour. Most of the newer residents of the makeshift dormitory did not notice, but George and his team was studying the soldiers, hoping that something would come up that would keep them occupied so that the foursome could make an unannounced exit.
With looks of exasperation and nervousness on most of the soldier’s faces, George guessed it wouldn’t take long. He could sense that things were getting ready to boil over outside.
They settled in for the night and the lights were turned off. George told Al to be ready to wake Jennifer and Jason at a moment’s notice. After a few uneventful hours, neither of the men could keep their eyes open and so when the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night it woke them both. People were jumping up all around them and several were screaming. After a couple of minutes of complete confusion, a young lieutenant came into the gym with a bullhorn and called for everyone’s attention. After the alarm was shut off and he had spent the better part of another minute asking for silence, everyone settled down.
The lieutenant appeared poised and George guessed he was a veteran of either Afghanistan or Iraq and was called back stateside when the shit hit the fan. The soldier’s voice was confident and forceful. He announced that they were going to have a fire drill, strictly as a precautionary measure. No one had any reason to be alarmed and they would all be back in their beds in a few minutes if everyone cooperated. He directed them to form two single file lines so they could move over to the cafeteria. George heard the calm and calculating words and could see that the lieutenant’s body language did not contradict it—there were no nervous twitches and no cracks in the his veneer. But when he looked closer, the soldier’s eyes told George everything he needed to know. He wondered how many others sensed it. There were ripples of panic throughout the crowd but nothing substantial. The lieutenant was good, but George could see the truth he was trying to hide.
It was time to leave.
George squeezed Al’s arm and gave the younger man a curt nod. Al returned the gesture and pulled his wife close, leaning in and whispering in her ear. She went white as a sheet as she listened to him speak. Her hands were on Jason’s shoulders and as they tightened, the pre-teen looked back at the others. His eyes began to sparkle with excitement as he realized their adventure was about to begin.
When the sound of gunfire from outside became audible, only a few people toward the back of the lines noticed. When those people hesitated, several soldiers jabbed at them with their M16s and kept them moving toward the cafeteria. Soon everyone could hear the weapons fire and frantic conversations broke out up and down the lines of refugees. Several of the men and a few of the women yelled at the soldiers, demanding to know what was going on outside. When they were ignored, they screamed even louder and others added their voices to the mix. What started out as apprehension was turning into something far worse as panic spread throughout the crowd.
The foursome knew they needed to make their move before things got ugly. They fought through the surging crowd toward the front of the pack, making their way into the cafeteria. They then maneuvered over toward the exit Jason had departed through hours before. They waited, afraid if they tried to leave now it would be noticed as the rest of the refugees filtered into the room.
George couldn’t recall exactly how everything went down, but he believed that was the moment when several people decided to charge the soldiers. He could not recall if it was a bunch of individuals acting on their own or some sort of concerted effort. What he did remember were the results.
A warning shot was fired and rifles were aimed at the potential attackers, who had enough sense to stop before they were fired upon. Another noise, this time an explosion from outside, shook the floors and walls moments later. After that, everything was a blur. There was pushing and shoving and more shots fired, but George didn’t pay that any attention. Instead, his eyes were focused on the door offering him, Al, Jennifer, and Jason a chance at escape. He grabbed Al by the shoulder and slammed his other fist into the door, pushing it open and shoving the other man through. George then waved Jason and Jennifer into the depths of the darkened building. They took off running, the sound of gunfire and screams echoing behind them.
Jason took the lead, maneuvering them through the building, easily avoiding areas that had been populated by soldiers. There was little to worry about; it appeared as if most posts had been abandoned, perhaps only moments earlier. The repetitive reports of automatic gunfire and the rage of the crowd became muffled as they passed through several more doors.
After a while, it was hard to determine whether the gunfire they were hearing was coming from inside or outside the building. The echoes made it hard to tell if they were getting closer or farther away from various trouble spots as they followed Jason down another dark hallway. After ten minutes of running, George began to worry that the twelve year old was leading them in circles. But when he saw a beam of light shining from down a hallway, he breathed a sigh of relief and swore to never doubt Jason again.
Moonlight shined into the hallway as they turned the corner and made their way down that final corridor. Jason ran ahead and waved them on as they rushed toward the exit. The sound of gunfire and screams were getting louder. The letters in the EXIT sign were lit in a luminous red and everyone felt a great sense of relief. George gestured for Jason to get behind him and he moved up to the door and peaked out the glass door. What he saw confirmed what the boy had told them earlier.
The door led out to the staff parking lot at the back of the building. The lot was jammed full of cars. Beyond that a flat field ran for about a quarter mile, with a wooded area beyond that. George cursed, wishing that just one member of his little party had some familiarity with Gallatin and might know how deep the woods were and what was beyond them. His best guess was that they weren’t too deep and that a subdivision or a farm or two weren’t far off in the distance.
Even if the stand of trees was only a few feet thick, they should be able to slip into them and not be discovered by the Guardsmen. George didn’t want to creep around in the darkened woods for too long, especially with the infected roaming around out there. There was no distant glow of city lights out beyond the woods, but he wondered if the power was still up and running anyway. Beside starlight, the only other light source was coming from the other side of the high school.
Another explosion had the little group grabbing for each other and Jennifer screamed, startled by the excruciatingly loud noise. The building vibrated and a bright light flashed overhead, casting dramatic shadows on the parking lot. The image was so bright it burned into George’s retinas and he spent the next thirty seconds trying to blink it away. More gunfire followed, louder and closer. He listened for any other noises he could differentiate from the explosions and was rewarded with sounds of men yelling and vehicles moving off in the distance. There was something else as well. It was a sound he could not quite decipher.
He turned to face the others. The plan wasn’t complicated. The woods were their best bet. They could angle away from the parking lot and go north—the trees dipped in at their closest point there and were only a hundred yards away from where they were now. They would avoid going deep into the woods unless they were spotted or in danger and would try to figure out the best direction to head after they got there.
Even when George could no longer hear any yelling or the sound of vehicles moving out in front of the high school, that other noise, the one he couldn’t quite put his finger on, continued. It was a constant hum, almost a buzzing. It was as if a massive hornet’s nest had been riled up.
George ignored the sound as he wrapped his hand around the door handle, ready to jump outside. It was then that he noticed something out in the dark—shadows moving out in the woods. Before he could take a closer look he heard the thudding of boots echoing down the hallway behind them. The four turned as one to stare back down the passageway. They couldn’t see anything, but heard yelling along with the echoes of gunfire and screams coming from inside the building. It had been muffled before, but now was much clearer.
George said a little prayer and opened the door, ushering the others outside where they pressed themselves up against the building. As soon as the door opened, sound thundered from all around them and the meager noise from inside was drowned out. The night sky flashed repeatedly with a lightshow that reflected off the woods beyond the parking lot. The shadows George had seen moments before were coalescing into human shapes moving through the woods toward them. He swung his arm out, pressing it against Al’s chest, who was about to depart their shadowy hiding place to rush for the woods as they had planned. George motioned for Al and the others to take a closer look at where they were headed.
A man had broken free of the trees. Behind him, several others followed. It was hard to tell if they were men or women with light flashing only intermittently on them.
At first, none of them could discern much about the man as he stumbled out from behind a tree and moved closer. After another flash of light from the front of the building, his face was lit up brighter than daylight for an instant.
Al hugged Jennifer and muffled her scream. The man moving out of the woods was dead. He wore a pair of overalls with a tremendous rip in them. The hole in the material was wet with blood and something that looked like tendrils dangled from the rift, bouncing against the soiled denim fabric as the stiff stumbled along. To George, it looked like the man had been torn open and then something had decided to dig into his guts haphazardly, pulling random bits and pieces out. As quickly as the man was showcased in all his malignant glory, the bright light blinked out and he was hidden from view once again.
They tried to remain calm as they huddled against the wall, watching as more of the human shaped monstrosities came from the woods. George recalled wondering if he had gone insane, because none of what he was seeing could be real. But as the lights flashed on more ghouls making their way toward the soldiers at the front of the building, he realized that this was far too horrible for his mind to have created on its own.
The quartet was still trying to grasp the full magnitude of this nightmare when another door, about thirty feet down from their position, opened and slammed against the brick wall. Another group of refugees poured out and ran toward the cars in the parking lot. They didn’t notice George’s group and apparently had not looked outside before bursting from the building. Based on how fast they were running, George guessed that something had scared the hell out of them inside.
One of the people in the other group, a heavy set man wearing a John Deere cap, was waving the rest on, getting them to fan out and check the cars for one or more that had keys in it. George hushed his crew to silence as the other group became loud enough to be heard over the clamor coming from the far side of the building.
When some of the shadowy forms to the north stopped their progress toward the front of the building and turned to face the parking lot, George knew his decision to remain quiet had been the right one. The infected switched direction and moved into the parking lot toward the other group. As George watched them, he blinked twice, hard. He could see more human shapes coming toward the other group of refugees, but these weren’t bunched together like the others. They were spread out, coming from … everywhere, from every direction past the parking lot-from across the field, from the woods … everywhere.
A dark thought trickled into George’s head. If these people hadn’t come along we would all be dead now. He would have led his group into the woods and right into the arms of the undead if the loud group of refugees had not drawn their attention first.
A screamed ripped through the air from the north side of the building and the thunder of numerous M16’s firing on full auto nearly shattered the foursome’s eardrums. The mix of sounds was joined by the screams of the group in the parking lot as they discovered the unwanted attention they had gained. George counted at least forty shapes closing in on the parking lot.
He motioned for his group to move south along the building, toward the larger student parking lot situated to their left and away from the other refugees. He put his finger to his lips and the others nodded, petrified. George knew he was just as terrified as Al, Jennifer, and Jason, but also knew that unless he found a way to fight through his fear he would never see his wife and daughters again.
Even as they kept moving, it was hard not to watch the larger group of refugees as they were slowly surrounded. Most of them were hysterical with fear, but they continued to search the vehicles in the lot. The first of the shambling monsters reached the edge of the parking lot with five others right behind it. They stumbled along, but did not falter as they stayed locked on the live targets in the lot.
A young man thought it would be a good idea to climb on top of one of the cars to get a better view of the lot. He then proceeded to leap from one car to the next, glancing down through each windshield as he did so. He was moving so fast that George wondered if he would be able to tell which car might have keys in the ignition, assuming that was the purpose of what he was doing. It was too dark for him to be having much luck, even as bright flashes of light lit up the sky every few seconds. After about a minute of this futile exercise he had gained the attention of several of the rotting figures. If he noticed he didn’t seem to care as he continued his jumps, each ending with a loud whump as he crashed into the hood of the next car in line. He got half way through one row of vehicles when he noticed a hand reaching up for him. He was out of its reach, but he panicked and twisted his body away from the grasping claws and slipped, flying headlong into the next car. A sickening thud accompanied the fall as his skull connected with a Taurus’s front quarter panel. George watched in horrified anticipation as several fiends closed on the young man’s position. A shaky hand grasped the hood of the sedan and the refugee woozily got to his feet. He steadied himself just in time for the first ghoul to arrive. A scream burst from his lips as another came from behind and together they dragged him back to the ground. George tried to ignore the sounds that followed, which could only be described as cannibalistic euphoria. He looked away and fought the urge to wretch.
All of them saw what had happened to the car jumper, but there were other things occurring at the same time. Several people tried to outsmart the stiffs by weaving and darting in and around the parked cars, but still found themselves trapped between vehicles. One or two put up a valiant struggle, but others appeared to give up almost immediately as they were surrounded by ravenous fiends.
A young woman, possibly in her mid-twenties or maybe younger, had a small girl in tow as they made their way through the lot, focused on testing every door handle they passed. On the third try, the woman struck pay dirt-a Mercedes station wagon was unlocked. The woman tossed the little girl into the passenger seat and climbed in after her. Looking around frantically, she found the automatic door lock and pressed it before searching for the keys. An elderly man in their group who was nearby witnessed the young woman’s success and moved in her direction. He jiggled the handle and knocking on the window, pleading with her to let him in. After a few moments, he pounded frantically on the window with the flat of his hand, his voice raising several octaves as his frail arms smacked against the glass.
The quartet all watched as a teenager moved up behind the old man. For a moment it appeared as if he was going to help him with the car door, working to convince the woman to let them join her inside. The kid was wearing a yellow tee shirt and as the light brightened and another explosion rattled everyone’s eardrums, George could see words tattooed across it: Bravo Echo Echo Romeo. When the young man gripped the old man’s hair and pulled his head back to take a huge bite out of his nose, George’s little group knew the truth. The bite caused a geyser of blood to splash across the window of the Mercedes, but even before the blood had stop spewing from the wound the monster had removed his hand from the septuagenarian’s hair and wrapped it around the old man’s body. The ghoul’s mouth never let loose of its prize as the two crashed to the ground. The old man’s bellows of rage at being locked out of the car turned into honking squeaks of terror, then gurgling noises as he died on the pavement. Two other rotters joined in the feast, but were thankfully hidden from view behind the cars.
The woman and child who had barricaded themselves inside the German luxury car were locked in a silent scream as they witnessed everything. The woman covered the child’s eyes as the horror grew on her face. Perhaps, George guessed, the man had been someone she knew, perhaps even a family member. She was unwilling to unlock the door for him and as punishment she had to bear witness to the complete desecration of his body.
George knew that it was time for them to get the hell out of there. There was nothing they could do for any of the other refugees.
With a muffled command, George looked away and gestured for the others to pick up the pace. They had to get as far away from the asphalt surface of the parking lot and the few remaining refugees there who were getting torn to pieces.
But when Jennifer screamed out Al’s name, George was forced to turn and see what was happening.
“Al! What the hell are you doing?” he yelled after the younger man, who had broken ranks and was running toward the Mercedes. That was when George was sure they were all going to die.
His gut clenched up and he turned to Jennifer, who was about to take off after her husband. “Stay here with Jason. I’ll get him back.” He grasped her shoulders firmly, giving them a quick squeeze, and was off. He didn’t look back, hoping that his false bravado would be enough to keep Jennifer from making the situation go from bad to worse.
It was the little girl. That was the only reason Al would do something so unbelievably stupid. Maybe he could bear to watch an old man and a few other unfortunates get ripped apart without losing his mind, but a little girl? It had been too much for Al to take.
George took off after his friend, but Al had at least a twenty foot head start and was already closing in on the car and the three ghouls that had wrestled the old man to the ground. George clenched his fists in anticipation of a battle he dreaded but knew was unavoidable.
As he ran, that sound was back in his ears-the buzzing noise that kept getting louder. They weren’t just close to the hornet’s nest, they were inside it. It tickled George’s eardrums and made him want to cram his fingers in his ears to block it out. It felt as if it was vibrating his entire body and set his teeth to chattering.
He looked ahead and saw the three shapes shifting and twisting together on top of the corpse they had ripped open next to the Mercedes. He could also smell them as he got closer: sickly sweet, like rotten fruit splattered on the ground, the juice thick and sticky.
Out of the corner of his eye, George saw even more of the damned souls coming onto the parking lot. Others were moving past the flat asphalt square, on their way to where the soldiers were firing their weapons continuously in front of the school.
Al moved into the group of stiffs on top of the old man and nearly slipped in the wide pool of blood beneath them, but regained his footing. George watched as he planted his foot and kicked at the head of the first monster—it was the teen that had pulled the old man down. He connected; his tennis shoe landing with an audible thud as the monster’s head rocketed backwards. George covered the short distance and stomped on another ghoul’s arm that was reaching out to grab Al’s leg, snapping the bone and forcing its head to the asphalt. Its skin ripped and black ooze squirted out onto George’s shoe, but he ignored it as he sent his fist slamming into the side of the third one’s face.
They were far too late to save the old man and George doubted that Al had even considered that. But in just a few seconds of furious violence, they pulped the three rotters that had torn the senior citizen to pieces.
Later George would spend a great deal of time thinking about what he had done that night. He had never killed anything before. He hadn’t even clipped a squirrel or a dog with his car. He had never been a hunter and tended to prefer words over fists, although he had gotten into a few unavoidable scrums in his time. He had never enjoyed the sight of someone else’s blood. But as he sent the heel of his dress shoe into the temple of the last of the flesh eating lunatics, his only thought was better him than me.
Al reacted quicker than George, not giving a second thought to their handiwork as he banged on the window of the Mercedes and attempted to open the car door. He pleaded with the woman to open up and let them help her and the little girl over and over again.
George knew it was a lost cause when he saw that the woman could not differentiate between Al and the creatures he’d just pummeled in front of her. Streaks of blood and darker substances were spattered on his face and arms. He looked half crazed as he hammered on the window glass. She seemed to be sliding into shock and the little girl was now curled up in a tight ball next to her. The woman kept shaking her head, but it was hard to believe it was in acknowledgement of anything Al was saying. It was an empty gesture, a denial of everything left in the world.
The buzzing in George’s ears was overwhelming him. There were no other sounds that could fight their way past it, not even Al’s frantic pleadings. It felt like the sound was consuming him. It went beyond an auditory signal—it was inside him, in his skin and deep within his bones.
That was when he finally knew what it was.
It was the cries of the dead; thousands of them. They were everywhere. It was their moans of agony and delight as they cried out for living flesh. They were not only surrounding his little group, but everyone who remained—the soldiers, the diminished group in the lot, and everyone huddled inside the schools.
They had to leave. They had to leave right that minute.
George grabbed Al, who continued to bang desperately on the door. The wiry young man wriggled out of his grasp and continued to scream incoherently at the woman who was, for all intents and purposes, already dead. George spied Jennifer running toward them, unable to follow his command as her husband came undone. Jason trailed her, looking as frightened and confused as George was feeling.
It was all going to be over soon. George made a quick decision. He chose to give up on Al and rushed to intercept Jennifer before she could get to him. George was not going to wrestle a grown man, but knew he could handle a woman half his size. He would try to get her and Jason out of harms way. Perhaps her screams as George carted her back toward the wall might be like a splash of cold water to Al. He’ll follow us, he’ll have to. It’s his only choice.
He wrapped his arms around Jennifer and dragged her back toward the wall. She screamed for her husband and thrashed in George’s grasp, but he wouldn’t let go. He tried to calm her down but she was hysterical. When he heard Al scream once again, not in frustration, but in pain, George did not let her go. He was still trying to calm her down before it sunk in what had happened.
He swung around with Jennifer in his arms and saw Al bent over, leaning against the car and beating at something that George could not see. The old man. It hit George like a bullet. He had turned. They had forgotten him. It was so stupid. Everyone turned.
George could only say “oomph!” as Jennifer aimed a knee at his groin. He dropped her and sunk to the ground. Jason ran passed him and George weakly reach out to grab at his leg. He missed and fell over on his face. He crawled back to his hands and knees and tried to see what was happening. There was a sea of cars in front of him, blocking his vision. He saw Jennifer’s head moving and Jason was right behind her, looking as if he was trying to pull her away from something. George spared a glance to his left and saw several more of undead closing on their position.
There’s no time left.
He winced as he got to his feet and stumbled over to the others. As he rounded a car and leaned on the hood of another he knew he was too late.
Al had finished off the old man, but his hand looked mangled and broken, at least one finger bone had pierced the skin on his right hand, although his hand was covered in so much blood that it was hard to tell how much damage there was. The old man’s head was nothing more than a pile of mush below him. Al was screaming in pain and Jennifer had her arms wrapped around him, her scream a sharp counterpoint to her husband’s. George realized that the hand was not the worst of it for Al when he saw his leg. A huge chunk of flesh and muscle had been torn away. The blood squirting from the wound was creating a river beneath him. Jason was screaming at Jennifer, close to crying. He was screaming for her to leave. The only one who wasn’t screaming was George.
Al was going into shock and vomiting on himself. He slumped down next to the all the people he and George had killed-if that was what you called putting something that was already dead down again. Blood was everywhere. Al was shaking, staring straight ahead. He had stopped screaming. The woman and little girl in the car were forgotten and so was everything else. Jennifer was pounding on her husband’s chest, pleading with him to get up.
George felt dizzy and the buzzing noise was drowning out everything else. This plague of the undead would sweep them all away; it would take each and every one of them away from all of this.
Would that be so bad?
It would be easy. Let things just happen and they would be free of all the screams and all the fear.
George grabbed Jason and pulled him away from Jennifer. The boy resisted at first but then settled as he saw the dead moving toward them. The buzzing, the cacophony of moans, was reaching a crescendo. They would be here soon. George reached back and touched Jennifer on the shoulder. She had quieted some and she had her arms wrapped around her husband, holding him as if he was a life preserver—the only thing left to her. She looked away from Al for a moment and stared up at George.
He saw only despair in her eyes.
He extended his hand to her and willed her to take it, to lift herself up and come with him and Jason. He had one of his arms wrapped protectively around Jason who was staring at Jennifer, tears blurring his vision. Suddenly, it seemed like the buzzing stopped and all he could hear was the words Jennifer said as she looked at the boy one last time.
“Go with George, Jason. He’ll take care of you.”
It was the last thing she ever said. She turned away from them and buried her face against Al’s cheek. She closed her eyes and held him close. Al never stopped staring directly ahead as she pulled him in tight and kissed him on the cheek.
George whispered her name once, pleading. She would not turn away from her husband though. He stared at the newlyweds for a moment longer and then glanced inside the car. The woman continued shaking her head back and forth, denying that any of this was happening. She and the little girl were intertwined, the child’s head resting on the woman’s shoulder. George was tempted to bang on the glass, but Al was dying because of his attempt to save those two lost souls … Al and Jennifer both.
The buzzing came back to George’s ears, louder than ever. The moving corpses were closing in and it would be moments before they would lose even their miniscule chance at escape.
Jason did not struggle as George turned; dragging him away from the one person left on earth that he trusted. They didn’t look back as the dead closed in on their friends. George couldn’t bear to think of what was going to happen to them in just a few more moments.
As he and Jason turned the corner of the building they heard no screams, no cries for help from Al or Jennifer.
I thought it would be a good idea to pass along a few updates on things. First off, I wanted to thank Frank and the other folks at That Book Place for their hospitality this past Saturday. The book signing with Ben Rogers was a great experience and their book store is a fantastic place. If you are ever near Madison, Indiana, you HAVE to check it out. Great used books and they can order up any new ones that you are interested in as well.
In other news, the second book in my trilogy, Into the Dark, has been sent off to be formatted. Yep, the editing is complete and my obsessive-compulsive need to read it fifteen times in an attempt to catch every last mistake (which you simply cannot do, no matter how hard you try) is done. It is now in the extremely capable hands of Kody Boye, who is a formatter extraordinare. Philip Rogers is currently working on the cover and has passed along a rough draft of the back cover of the book, which looks great. While I have not seen the art for the cover, the theme will be similar to what was on the first cover. The back also retains that same flavor and to say that I am excited to see what Philip comes up with is the understatement of the year.
I will be working on another “Dark Story”, which is actually a continuation of the previous one, and will be about George and Jason again, very soon. I am hoping to have something posted within the next week or so. I am presently going to focus on a short story that has been nagging me for a while and try to get it done in the next few days, then I will be editing the next DS for the blog.
And for you folks who have not seen the back cover synopsis for Into the Dark, here it is again, for your viewing pleasure:
Six weeks ago, the mysterious virus came out of nowhere and engulfed the world. Everyone infected seemed to die … then rise again.
Jeff Blaine did his best to hold his family together and to protect them from the horrors scratching at their door, but in the end, they were ripped away from him like everything else that ever mattered.
Lost and alone, Jeff decided his only option was to destroy as many of the monsters that stole his life away before they destroy him as well. But when he discovers Megan, George, and Jason, three other survivors not interested in giving up just yet, he reluctantly accepts that there might still be a reason to fight and live to see another day.
Traveling through the blasted landscape their world has become, the quartet discovers that the living dead aren’t the only danger with which they must cope. Even other survivors who promise safety and security from the hordes of ghouls roaming the wastelands will test loyalties and their faith in humankind.
Jeff and his small band of newfound friends must forge a semblance of life in the newly blighted world. And they will have only the light of their own humanity by which to navigate as everything around them descends into the dark.
More updates as they come up. As I have already mentioned, Into The Dark will be released between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it is coming soon!
I had written quite a long introduction to George and Jason in my original manuscript for Comes The Dark. It was for the best that it didn’t make the final cut, because it ended up being a story that would have taken away from the flow and tempo of the book. But much like the story that I had written for Megan, it gave the reader a more in depth understanding of what these characters had gone through before they were introduced in the book.
I am not sure how many parts George and Jason’s story will have, but as I edit them, I will post them here, on my blog. Forgive me for any editing errors-I tried to catch them before posting this, but I am sure some have slipped through.
So here it is:
George and Jason, Part 1
The sandy haired man took a swig from the bottle of lukewarm water. He glanced briefly at the image of ice capped mountains on the label and grimaced at the taste. At least it wasn’t hot, although he wouldn’t gripe if it was. But a visual of a mountain stream filled with pure, icy cold water was a stretch. His world was not filled with breath taking vistas and bracing winds. Instead, there were dark, confining walls and thick, muggy air.
The sound was exaggerated and the marketers of Mountain Ice would have appreciated it … if they weren’t all dead. In fact, just about everyone they’d pitched their product to were dead too. So the sarcastic sound of satisfaction was pointless. George didn’t care, because just about everything was pointless these days.
He stood in the dark backroom and tried to push away the depressing thought. It was damned hard, but he had to believe it was still worth the effort. He was in one piece after everything he’d been through. Be grateful for the little things. It was his mantra these days.
George cut an impressive form. At six two and slightly over two hundred and forty pounds he was thickly built and muscular. The graying at the temples and creases in the skin around his eyes might convince some that he was past his competitive prime, but when they saw him move they would likely backtrack on such an assessment. George was naturally athletic, but as he’d hit middle age he discovered he had to work twice as hard to keep up with the kids half his age.
George wondered why he still bothered. Exercise seemed rather pointless anymore. Old habits die hard. He knew it was true enough, but that wasn’t all of it. So he went through the stomach crunches, push ups, sit ups, and anything else he could do in the silence of the dark and dusty rooms of the church he was stuck in knowing that as he tried so hard to exhaust his body, he was trying even harder to keep his mind occupied.
George surveyed the crowded back room. It was a storage closet in the place he’d called home for over a month now. Cardboard crates and cartons were stacked up against the far wall; corrugated sentinels guarding the abandoned building against the onslaught of dust bunnies and silverfish. Several boxes had been torn into and emptied of their content. George sighed as he did a count of what remained. He was sick and tired of the sticky sweet juice boxes and stale cheese and peanut butter crackers stored for the daycare and kindergarten programs the church ran. He relished the occasional water bottle, but soon the case of Mountain Ice that they’d been rationing at one bottle a day would be gone.
For what might have been the thousandth time, he sighed and shook his head. How did it come to this? He nudged one of the half filled boxes with his big toe and resisted the urge to kick it against the wall. This was all they had left.
George walked out into the gymnasium. The daylight shining down through the skylights was a Godsend. All the doors and windows on the first floor were blocked up or covered with plywood and cafeteria tables. The light felt good, but didn’t cheer him up. Whether George was in the gym or one of the few other areas he could roam freely in the building, he felt as if he were in perpetual darkness.
George mouthed a silent prayer for the strength to get through another day as he walked across the hardwood floor. It was one of dozens of little prayers he uttered these days. He hadn’t been a devout Christian before the plague-sure, he believed in God, but attending church was something he did on autopilot. It could salve a guilty conscience, demonstrate devotion, or set a good example for his daughters, but it had mostly been a façade, a convenient cover-up for someone who couldn’t be bothered to care anymore.
It shocked him when Helen decided to convert to his religion years ago. George was not gung ho about the idea, but she insisted. When Roxanne was born, religion all the sudden became that much more vital to Helen and she pressed George to become more active in the church. In his mind it felt as if he wife was steamrolling him, but he loved her too much not to cave to the pressure. He had to admit that without Helen’s religious zeal his children might have grown up clueless about God and faith in general. She made sure they were baptized, went to Sunday school, and took communion … the whole nine yards. George sat back and watched, content in knowing that his wife had taken on that mantle of responsibility and was doing a bang up job of it.
Now, in the aftermath of the hell the world had become, he’d been “reborn”. The pillars of the world had crumbled and that’s when the praying started. It came in a rush-there was no gradual transformation. George comprehended the error of his ways and that changed him irrevocably. He would recite prayers on an almost hourly basis, and they had an element of gratitude in them—he thanked God for tolerating a last second convert. Perhaps that was why he was still alive: he’d been given the chance to repent his sins and to rectify for his past mistakes.
George’s mind switched gears as he thought about the boy for a moment. They were trapped in this place together, but the pre-teen was so distant it felt as if he were somewhere else entirely. George had tried to get Jason to warm up to him, tried to get him to talk or even pray, but the kid cared little about God or anything else for that matter. That was no surprise, but was still frustrating. All they had was each other, but Jason acted as if even that was too much to deal with.
The boy had been that way ever since Jennifer had given up on him. That was when George had assumed the mantle of responsibility for Jason, but it was clear the damage caused by her decision had been profound. Those cannibal bastards roaming around outside couldn’t have ripped him apart any more thoroughly. Jason had been gutted, just not in a physical sense.
So George prayed alone.
George prayed for the boy, he prayed for both their souls, and he prayed for guidance. He prayed for strength and the ability to avoiding going insane. He also prayed for mercy and forgiveness. But mostly, he prayed for his wife and two daughters waiting for him back home.
George basked in the bright sunlight and tried to appreciate the warmth it gave off. His footsteps echoed as he walked across the gym. There was no rush to get to the door. These days there was little need to rush anywhere.
George resisted the urge to open the closet housing the basketballs so he could take a few shots with one. Working up a sweat would be great—it might even take his mind off of everything for a bit. Unfortunately, the dead were right outside. If they heard him, his struggles over the past month would be all for naught.
It was luck that had gotten him this far. All sorts of it: bad luck that the world had gone Looney Tunes, good luck that he had made it to the church with Jason alive and dumb luck that they had survived this long.
He would have run long ago. To hell with the walking corpses outside, he would have risked them and all the dangers they posed. They were frightening, those rotting mockeries of life, but more so, they were sad. When George looked into their eyes they seemed lost. They no longer knew who or what they once had been. They weren’t too sharp and he was certain he could slip past them if he was careful. The volume of abandoned vehicles on the road was staggering: he could have his pick of ones with the keys still in the ignition and enough gas to get him all the way home.
He would have done it already, had it not been for Jason.
There had been four of them originally: Jennifer, Al, George, and Jason. They had escaped the shelter together when things had gone bad. The high school was filled with refugees just like them, all crammed in the gym—a thousand or more at least. So many, in fact, the soldiers had to funnel newcomers over to the elementary school across the street. At first the refugees were mainly locals; residents of Gallatin and the surrounding area urged to head to the local shelter and wait out the chaos there.
Things had been easy for the early arrivals. There was plenty of room and a belief that the troubles outside would be resolved quickly. It was when people started pouring in from all over the region that the sense of optimism faltered. They brought with them stories of the city’s doom.
The Guardsmen did a good job of getting everyone settled and even squelching rumors of how things had gone from bad to unbelievably worse in the space of just a few days. Not just in Cincinnati but everywhere. But despite their best efforts, every new group brought with them horrific stories that spread like wildfire. Tales would spread from cot to cot, group to group. There was little else to do in the cramped gymnasium except to gossip and the only topic to gossip about was how bad things were out there.
George had been tossed unceremoniously into the shelter and knew no one there. With no family or neighbors to powwow with, he gathered what information he could by spying on other’s conversations. The city was burning; it was dying before their very eyes. The dead were coming back to life, attacking the living and transforming them into similar monstrosities.
The undead were everywhere. At first, reports were that they’d been contained. But outbreaks which started in some of the more blighted neighborhoods around the city spread rapidly. The National Guard would cordon off one area and an outbreak would be reported elsewhere. There appeared to be no way to pinpoint a source contaminant in the city at all. Someone would be bitten and then flee to another part of town. They would die, reanimate, and start the cycle all over again.
Nothing the military did seemed to make any headway and despite the best efforts to house refugees and protect them, everyone stuck in the Gallatin High School was getting the sense that there was nothing anyone, including the military, could do to stop this plague from engulfing everything.
The stories that came in were hard for George to swallow at first, but the volume of them wore him down as they did everyone else, until it was hard to deny what was happening. There were comparisons to Auschwitz and the battlefields of Vietnam. Dump trucks filled with corpses stacked like cordwood were driven through the city’s neighborhoods as soldiers in hazmat outfits dragged dead bodies out of houses and loaded them up. Crematoriums were set up around the city to euthanize or dispose of those who had been infected. ‘Emergency Virus Centers,’ were also set up—people could take those who were sick there to be treated. But treatment had a tendency to make a person disappear. Families and even churches had taken to hiding those who had been bitten, despite the government’s rather rapid enactment of laws calling for the execution of those offering safe harbor for the infected. Promises of a cure, or of genuine treatments, saturated the airwaves at first then tapered off as everyone stopped believing them.
Newer refugees arriving at the high school made it clear that shelters and the small areas surrounding their locations were the only places the government had control of anymore. Everywhere else, rioters and looters made it impossible for the military to differentiate between the undead and those who were just angry and desperate. There were still pockets of resistance against the inexorable march of the dead—citizen militias banding together and barricading themselves in apartment complexes, office buildings, and other makeshift fortresses. Others chose to lock their front doors and turn off their lights with the hope that death would pass them by. But even the most optimistic newcomers to the shelter admitted that most of those people had fared even worse than the National Guard troops committed to defending them.
The shelters were supposed to be beacons of hope. That’s essentially what the soldiers with the bullhorns said as they drove up and down the streets. It was what the government had claimed on television and radio. They were places citizens should go to insure their safety. George did not want to be here, separated from his family, but he did believe he was safe there, at first. Until he saw how some seeking sanctuary were treated. Those who had been bitten were forcefully separated from family members who naively believed all were welcome. Those who were docile or already in a state of shock would accept this, believing that the best possible treatments were being made available to those that had been bitten and they would be reunited with their family members once they had been vaccinated, or whatever it was the government doctors were doing to them. Others weren’t so understanding. In those cases, things tended to get ugly, fast. Fights would erupt in the hall where newcomers were processed and inspected for wounds and infections. Family members would scream and attack soldiers tasked with the responsibility of loading the infected onto the trucks to be sent away … to where, no one was ever told.
It was clear that most of the soldiers were losing the battle to stay impartial and focused on their duties. George knew that as National Guard troops, most of them were locals. They had grown up in the area and knew a lot of the people they were sending off for ‘treatment’. He could not imagine how hard these assigned duties were on them.
The shelter became something akin to a small city; people were jammed in shoulder to shoulder, attempting to live whatever lives they could under such horrid circumstances. George witnessed transactions for drugs and sex, theft, and acts far more foul. He felt helpless and that all hope for the human race was lost.
That was when George began to pray.
It wasn’t hard to surmise that it was like this the entire world over. The virus had first hit overseas, in several different areas of the globe, seemingly overnight. No one could figure out where it had started. It then hit North American with cases reported in Toronto, Canada and Monterrey, Mexico. Before the borders could be sealed, there were cases reported in Baltimore and Denver. The National Guard moved in quickly, imposing rules and taking over from the civil authorities. The army was next: men and women returning from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and U.S. military bases all over the world. The President recalled all troops to the Homeland in one fell swoop. But by then, the country was already in the grasping fist of the plague. Martial Law or it equivalent had been enacted in every corner of the globe, but there was nothing but complete and utter anarchy to show for it.
It was not the fondest of memories, thinking back to those days in the shelter, but as George remained stuck inside the church he and Jason were hiding out in, his mind kept reliving everything that had led up to his arrival there.
The sad part, the truly saddest part of it all, was that it could have been avoided. He had been staying at a local hotel and knew he should have left the moment he realized that the plague that had been sweeping the globe had arrived in his little corner of Ohio. Even later, when the hotel manager had come knocking at his door telling him he had five minutes to pack his belongings and get out in front of the hotel where a squad of National Guard soldiers were waiting, he should have ran.
Wildwood, where George lived, was less than an hour away. Even the traffic clogging the highways wouldn’t have been an issue. He knew plenty of back roads. Sure, it would have been dangerous, but he would have been with his family instead of stuck here in this dusty old church.
George opened the door leading to the stairwell, being careful not to let the door slam behind him. He began the short climb that would take him to the second floor.
George remembered when Jennifer and Al came to the shelter. Befriending the newlyweds had been the only good thing that had happened to him since he had gotten there. They had moved to Ohio only weeks before and knew no one in the city except for a few new coworkers of Al’s.
They had tried to leave Cincinnati, but the airport had been closed to non-military transport. Buses and train lines were shut down as well. Highways and most main roads became and remained jammed or blockaded by the military. So Al and Jennifer decided to leave their modest apartment in Gallatin and made their way to the closest shelter.
George was a naturally friendly person and when he smiled at the young couple they latched onto him immediately. They took comfort in his assurances that this would all blow over and they would all be back to their homes leading normal lives in no time.
A day later Jason showed up. He was terrified and alone, a twelve year old boy that had lost his mother. He had been put in with the other orphans and there were a shockingly high number of them. George didn’t pay him any attention at first, but Jennifer befriended him. She’d spent time teaching daycare and volunteered to tend to the children in the shelter. Perhaps it was her gentle nature, or the fact that she was quite attractive-whatever it was, Jason took to her immediately. Within a single day she had “adopted” him, convincing the soldiers to allow his cot to be moved next to her and Al’s. Al didn’t mind at all and welcomed the boy into their little clique.
It wasn’t long after when George had his last phone conversation with Helen. She begged him to come home as soon as possible and he promised her over and over that he would. She talked about the attacks in Dayton, but how Wildwood was still safe, for the most part. She would hold up in their house with the girls until he managed to find a way to leave the shelter. He told her to put boards up over the windows and doors and that everything would be fine until he returned home. If they stayed out of sight, no one would bother them.
That had been six weeks ago.
After that, the cellular network broke down completely. That last call would be burned onto George’s mind forever and was part of the reason why he was obsessed with getting home, no matter how impossible that goal might be. But until he figured out what to do with the young boy he was responsible for, his journey would have to wait. George had made a promise to Jennifer and to God above, and he intended to keep it. Taking Jason out into the hell the world had become was not a part of that promise.
George dragged up the stairs and reached the second floor. He opened the door leading to the narrow hallway and the rooms he and Jason spent most of their time in these days. The first floor was less closed in and had all their food and water, but the second floor felt safer. There was a much smaller chance of being discovered up here, in this little hideaway. If the time came when they were forced to evacuate the building, the second floor was not the best place to be since there was only one set of stairs, but knowing that the ghouls outside couldn’t break through their meager barricades and be on top of them right away help them to fall asleep at night.
The shelter turned into a madhouse a week after George got there. He guessed that it was getting almost as bad inside as it was outside, with the tension increasing tenfold every day. At first, when there was plenty of room and assurances that everything would be okay, it felt almost festive in the gymnasium. There were jokes and laughter and even sing-alongs. But after a few days, everyone was realizing they were trapped and might be for a very long time. That was when many of the refugees came unglued.
Various factions and even several gangs cropped up. Younger men began banding together for the purpose of intimidating the other residents. Whether for money or cheap thrills, it served as a distraction for them. The soldiers clamped down at first, responding to complaints and separating the troublemakers. But life was wearing on them as much as the people they were protecting, and after a while they left the refugees to their own devices, for the most part. As long as there wasn’t any obvious violence or disturbances, the Guardsmen didn’t interfere.
George became the protector over his little clan. He used his size to intimidate predators, who typically chose to seek out less daunting prey. The key was looking them in the eye and not backing off. A few well placed and meaningful looks at the leaders of the gangs was enough to convince them to stay away from him and his “family.”
They were confined to the gym and cafeteria in the high school for the most part. The National Guard had taken over the classrooms in the building for their living quarters. Refugees had been given limited access to the library at first, but the privilege was revoked when more and more fights broke out there. George knew things had moved over to the realm of complete insanity when soldiers decided to lock everyone in the gym one night instead of trying to break up a battle between two newly formed rival gangs. He and Al followed the lead of several other people and flipped over their cots to create a makeshift barricade to hide behind. It worked fairly well and kept George and his small troop out of the way of the fists and knives being thrown around. Weapons had been confiscated as everyone had entered the shelter, but it was no surprise that smaller pocket knifes and even a few hunting knives had gotten through. Those without weapons improvised, with wooden posts broken off cots and even several shivs appearing. That made it clear to George that the shelter had become a prison in virtually every way possible.
Thirty minutes after the brawl broke out, tear gas was tossed into the gym and almost everyone lost their desire to fight. No official count was made after the soldiers moved in to deal with those who were still interested in fighting, but at least a handful of people died in the chaos and a much larger number were injured. The bodies were hauled out and the soldiers thrust first aid kits into the hands of anyone still standing, forcing them to tend to the injured.
Perceived trouble makers were rounded up and dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the shelter. George wasn’t sure what happened to them, but as he lay awake in the middle of that night, he heard muffled shots being fired from automatic weapons outside the high school. After that, previously loud complaints turned into whispered grumblings and most of the refugees steered clear of the soldiers patrolling the gym.
That was when George and his new found friends decided it was time to plan their escape.
Here is Part 2 of Megan’s story. This leads up to her initial meeting with Jeff in Comes The Dark.
There will be more in upcoming weeks as I continue to sift through my old manuscript and try to dig free bits and pieces that I think might be worthwhile and contribute to the overall story of my trilogy.
I hope you enjoy it.
Please note: I will be posting all of these stories in order on the page entitled “Dark Stories” on this blog, so they won’t be difficult to find for anyone who discovers them later on. As the second and third book are released, I will post more stories there and in regular posts as well.
Megan, Part 2
There was plenty of noise outside. Beyond the reinforced doors and boarded up windows, she heard them. The infected had come to the neighborhood in force. Megan could hear the moaning and every now and then a scream.
Sometimes they were close. So close that they seemed to be right outside the window. And when Megan heard them that close, it wasn’t the moaning that bothered her. It was something far worse. She tried hard to pretend she didn’t hear it, but it burrowed down beneath the thick layer of blankets and pillows she had shrouded herself with. It burrowed into her ears and down into her soul.
It was the sound of them eating.
That was when Megan realized there were far worse ways to go than suicide or being forced to starve to death as you waited in the darkness, alone.
The fear that those things might discover her hiding place opened up a black and shriveled up part of Megan. The idea of them breaking in and tearing through the house, which would force her to pull the trigger again, held her in thrall for days at a time.
But they never came for her.
One particular memory of those dark days stuck in Megan’s mind. It must have been a couple of weeks after everything had fallen apart. A giant crash echoed up and down the street as several gun shots were fired. Megan refused to look past the blinds and see what was transpiring outside.
She did sit up in bed and then froze, staring at her shuttered window, wanting to go to it, wanting to do something to help whoever was out there.
Megan was terrible at categorizing guns or the report that occurred when any were fired, but the shots sounded like they had come from a rifle. After the first few shots a different weapon discharged and sounded similar to the handgun sitting on her nightstand.
The gunfire had snapped Megan out of the paralysis for a moment, but even as her heart raced and she had to steady her breathing to avoid hyperventilating, she could feel lethargy creeping back in. She shivered inside the sweat drenched night shirt she’d been wearing for days as she pushed her feet over the edge of the bed and stood up, her legs aching in protest as she did.
Megan hovered near the window but refused to pull the shade to look out onto her sun drenched street. The monsters out there were not coming for her this time, so she could drown in her sheets and pillows once again.
As the gunshots played out and the screams began, Megan stared at the .357 Magnum. What amount of energy would it take to burst through the front door and rush to the aid of the people out there? Wouldn’t trying to help be better than burying herself alive once again?
But in the end, all Megan did was stand next to her bedroom window and listen to the cries of agony, the sounds of pleading, and ripping and tearing that always came at the end of the attacks. She listened and let her mind create images of what was going on outside, because she couldn’t bear bending the blinds to know for sure.
There were more crashing noises and the gunshots subsided. The moans and screams grew frantic, an opera of voices covering every octave. Megan wanted to close them off but couldn’t. She couldn’t react at all-to help or to hide. She knew this was her punishment for letting Dalton die … and for participating in his death.
That was when Megan started to scream.
It took her a few moments to realize what she was doing. She was screaming into a pillow she had managed to pull off the bed.
Even as she screamed, Megan had a moment of clarity. The only thing to hope for was that it would go fast for whoever was being attacked. For the next few minutes all she heard was an increase in moans as her muffled screams were drowned out. More and more of the infected joined their brethren to take down the survivors.
Later, Megan realized then that her screams had stopped and her throat was a ragged mess. She had ripped it raw. She remained standing, holding her pillow with quiet desperation, as the undead tended to their needs outside.
At that point, someone must have broken free of the house they’d been hiding in and got out to the yard, and perhaps even the street. He was shouting for someone, but Megan couldn’t make out a name over the cries of the reanimated. Several more shots rang out and the screaming began again. It was a deep wailing at first-definitely a man, but toward the end it grew shrill and high pitched.
Megan tried to pretend she couldn’t hear what happened next but there was little doubt the man was being torn limb from limb. It sounded so close that she imagined the man making it to her front yard before her rotting neighbors pulled him down, swarming over his warm body. As his clothes were ripped away, the moans turned to hisses and squeals of delight as the creatures tore into their prize. Long after she believed the victim had mercifully ceased feeling any pain, one last scream rose above the sounds of eating. It was the cry of someone who no longer cared to be saved, but were instead drowning in a pain that overwhelmed all else.
Then the scream cut off. A sound like a wet branch snapping and then a short gurgle marked the end of the man who died on Megan’s lawn.
That was all Megan could take. She felt her knees give out as she collapsed to the bedroom floor. Curling up in a ball, she began to hum. It was what she did as a child to drown out people she didn’t want to listen to. As she curled even tighter and smashed the pillow over her eyes, Megan remembered her favorite rhyme.
Ms. Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black with silver buttons, buttons, buttons…
Megan repeated the rhyme over and over in her head to blot out the feeding noises as she crawled underneath her bed. The chant continued as the monsters that had been riled up by the introduction of new flesh continued their aimless wandering long after their feast was over. Megan didn’t realize she was sucking her thumb until it grew sore a few hours later.
Over the next day and a half the creatures drifted away and Megan faded in and out of a fitful sleep. Each time she woke up she would repeat the rhyme to avoid hearing them crashing around outside, searching for more food.
Megan was finally able to crawl out from underneath the bed, stiff and aching, two days after the attack.
She stared at the window for another day, teased by the idea of sneaking a peak outside. Nothing out there could be as bad as she had imagined, could it? She had to know if the cold creep of insanity tugging at her could be pushed back or if she should just embrace it, wrap it around her body like a warm winter coat and just drift into oblivion. Megan got close enough to touch the wispy material of her thin drapes. The fabric rippled gently in response to her touch, but she could go no further.
For the next few days, as Megan stared at the pattern the wallpaper border made around the room, she thought of Dalton a great deal. He was the only one of the dead who didn’t whisper to her, telling her to let go, to give up this charade of living. But the others would tell her that all she had to do was open the front door and step outside and all the lies would be over.
But Dalton never tried to speak to her like her dead neighbors did. The man who had died on the lawn, as well as the woman he had been with, came to her the most. The pain was fleeting, they said. It was just the body’s way of resisting its passage into the new existence they had all embraced. It was only a pain of transition, of shifting to a better existence.
She tried to ignore them, but as the hours ticked by and daylight faded into night, the strain of the words wore on her as her eyes drifted from the wallpaper to the gun on her nightstand.
Not yet. I made a promise to you Dalton. Not yet …
Dalton ran into the room and pulled her off the bed. “Come on hun, we have to leave!”
Megan was thrilled to see him again and knew he had come back to whisk her away.
“I have something to show you.”
Dalton pulled her out of the bedroom and down the steps. Megan nearly tripped her as she tried to keep up with her excited spouse. She managed to avoid a fall as they landed in the foyer.
Dalton smiled as he pulled his wife toward the front door. Megan resisted, but he smiled and gently shook his head. “I have something to show you.”
Megan looked at the door and saw that the makeshift boards Dalton had nailed over it were gone. Dalton put his hand on the knob and before Megan could protest, he pulled the door open.
Megan tried to scream and clawed at the hand wrapped around her wrist. She shook her head, pleading with Dalton.
Glancing outside, she saw the dark shapes of the dead. She stopped struggling and noticed that none of the stiff forms were moving forward, coming toward them.
Megan had never seen one of the walking corpses with her own eyes before. She had seen them on television, but had been hidden away in the house since the beginning, with curtains drawn and eyes firmly shut to what was going on outside.
The dead people on Megan’s lawn were not reacting like the crazed monsters she had been expecting. Instead, they stood silently, swaying back and forth, staring at her and Dalton in the doorway of their house, as if waiting for them to do something.
As they looked upon her, their eyes did not hide the emptiness behind them. There was no life there, no comprehension.
“I have something to show you,” Dalton repeated and put his hand on Megan’s shoulder as he pulled her out onto the porch. Megan looked in her husband’s eyes and her resistance faded.
The bright sun hit Megan’s face, nearly blinding her. Even with her limited vision, she could see the huge crowd that had gathered for them. As the two living people moved forward, the sea of rotting flesh stepped back to allow them to pass.
Megan smiled as she realized they were being allowed to leave! With that jubilant revelation she noticed something about the stiffened corpses all around her.
These diseased creatures were not moaning.
They were as silent as she was. Although they stared at Megan there was no hunger in their eyes. They didn’t reach out to touch or pull at her; they seemed to have no desire to violate her at all.
After a few minutes of trudging on blood soaked grass, Dalton spoke again. “Almost there,” he beamed at her as he looked back and grinned, his teeth dazzling in the sunlight.
Megan couldn’t remember how long they walked before the crowd ahead parted, revealing an opening. Not a large one, just a small circle of space free of the dead. Megan could see something on the ground, a bundle of some sort. But since Dalton was in front of her, leading the way, she couldn’t make out what it was.
Dalton turned away from Megan and dropped her hand. She stopped, watching as the man she loved knelt down and wrapped his arms around the bundle. He made quiet noises she could barely hear as he rose up.
When Dalton turned around Megan knew what he was holding. Dalton was smiling down upon the blanket wrapped shape in his arms, slowly bouncing it and cooing. It was their baby. Their little girl!
Megan tried to reach out to take the baby and cradle it in her arms, but they felt like there were lead weights at her side. She had always known they would have a girl-it had been her dream all along. She could feel tears rolling down her cheeks as she watched Dalton hold their infant in his arms.
Dalton looked over at Megan and smiled. “She wants her mommy. She’s hungry.”
At his words, Megan’s felt lighter and she was able to move forward. It was some cruel twist of fate that had kept the child from her for this long, but Megan knew, deep in her heart, that she would never be separated from her again.
As Megan moved closer, Dalton smiled encouragement at her. She saw a curl of black hair peeping out of the snug blanket and her heart quaked in anticipation.
Megan reached out for her child as she stepped up to her husband. She had forgotten the dark figures surrounding them, though the dead appeared to be leaning in to get a closer look at the child. Dalton gently handed the child over to his wife as she held out her arms.
A scream burst forth from Megan’s lips. She wanted to drop the bundle but Dalton’s arms were wrapped tightly around her and the baby. Megan’s scream continued, piercing the silence of the netherworld like a knife.
Her child, her baby girl, was one of them. Its grayish skin was stretched tight over its skull, its eyes pus filled even though the murky pupils fixated on its mother. Its mouth was filled with jagged little teeth that gnashed and clicked together with menace. As Megan’s screaming stopped, she heard an unearthly moan of the dead escape the baby’s lips.
“She needs to feed,” Dalton hissed and Megan looked at his face. He was one of them, too. Half of the skin on his face had rotted off and the stench was overpowering as he leaned in. “She needs to feed … and so do we.” A thick green line of drool trailed from the corner of his mouth where multiple jagged and broken teeth sat. The moans rose as Dalton lifted the baby up to Megan’s breast.
Megan was torn from her nightmare, clutching at her belly, sweat-drenched as she attempted to hold in the screams. The pain she felt in her gut was real-as real as anything else in this dark, dank place she inhabited. The once almost impossibly strong desire to bring new life into the world had shriveled and died as dreams such this one haunted Megan’s sleep, tormenting her endlessly.
As she sat trying to regain her composure, it dawned on Megan that it wasn’t some simple mercy that had woke her up before her dream could reach its evil conclusion, as it had done so many times before. Something else had disturbed her sleep.
Megan didn’t have to wait long to discover that it wasn’t the sound of moaning or some window shattering nearby that had jarred her sleep. It was an explosion.
When the next one hit, it sounded like a bomb had been dropped on the neighborhood. The bedroom walls rattled as several more bursts occurred. Megan tensed, unsure of where they were coming from and if they were getting closer to her house.
She gripped the covers close, knowing they would provide no protection, but having no idea what else to do as she stared at the windows. A rumble of another blast caused them to vibrate.
Megan remained stationary for several minutes, even after the thunderous explosions ceased. She listened, waiting for something, anything else to happen, but there was nothing. Not even the ever-present moaning of the dead.
What the hell just happened?
It was the only thought that raced through Megan’s mind as she slid off the bed and searched for her shoes. Her actions were automatic. She hadn’t slipped on her sneakers in weeks, but it seemed like the thing to do as she pondered the explosions and the meaning behind them.
It had to be the military. They had been working all this time to clear the city of infected and they’d finally reached the suburbs. It was the only explanation that made any sense.
Limping as her sluggish limbs woke up, Megan made it to her closet. She needed to get dressed. For the first time in the five weeks, the close caress of the nightgown she’d been wearing repulsed her. It stuck to her skin and smelled foul, almost ripe. And as she stripped it away, it was as if layers of fear and intimidation disappeared with it.
Two minutes later Megan was moving down the steps, weak but excited. She had snatched the revolver off the nightstand and held in front of her like some sort of shield as she stared at the front door.
Memories of her nightmare returned. Megan closed her eyes as a vision of the baby she had held in her arms jumped into her head unbidden. She sucked in a sharp breath and opened her eyes again, determined to push the nightmare aside so she could focus on the aftermath of the explosions she’d heard.
After staring at the front door for a couple of minutes, her heart racing, Megan shook her head to clear it of all the confused thoughts that had been swarming through her mind since she had been so abruptly awoken.
“Shit happens,” Megan mumbled as she stepped closer to the door. Her voice sounded odd. Scratched, deflated. It was not the voice she had lived with her entire life, but instead sounded weak, insecure … frightened.
Steeling herself, Megan took a deep breath before leaning toward the window next to the front door, putting her hands on the blinds. There were a few more moments of seconding guessing before she was able to get close enough to pull a slat down.
Megan had to line her eyes up with the area between the boards nailed in place. She blinked a few times and tried to adjust to the light of the mid-day sun after having spent weeks in shadow. When she was able to focus on her front yard and what lay beyond, it took her mind several more seconds to accept what she was seeing was real.
The neutral toned brick and vinyl siding houses and manicured lawns were gone. They had been replaced with a palate of blackened and burnt wooden and stone skeletons. Several houses were smoking and ruined, while others still stood. All the lawns were overgrown and bushes were beginning to run wild. Fires had destroyed some structures while leaving others intact. Cars out on the street were covered with layers of dust, ash, and garish splashes of blood.
The burnt houses with timbers jutting into the sky mirrored the corpses littering the street. While it was mostly bones and splashes of blood, a few unidentifiable chunks of human residue were scattered about. Several younger saplings that had been planted in the grassy patch between the sidewalk and the street had been bent and broken, and Megan blinked as she spotted what looked like an arm dangling from one of the snapped limbs.
She took little comfort from the fact that she saw only a scattering of bodies. There were bones strewn about her yard and what appeared to be a torso stripped free of its flesh sitting on the Miller’s porch across the street.
Megan stifled a whimper as she saw the remains. A wide trail of blood led away from the torso to the front door of the Miller’s house, which had been ripped from its hinges. Several of the other houses Megan could see from her vantage point looked broken into as well.
Rubbing her eyes, Megan took a short break from looking outside while she tried to keep her breathing even and controlled. She’d seen nothing lurking in the shadows outside and the silence from earlier remained intact. There had been no noise since the explosions. No tanks rolling in, no gunfire, and no more moans. She took a small amount of solace from the possibility that the dead had migrated away from the neighborhood, but was disappointed that the cavalry had not appeared.
Megan was still rubbing her eyes when she heard another noise off in the distance. It startled her even though it was no where near as loud or abrupt as the explosions had been.
Letting go of the blinds, Megan stepped back and felt her legs give way as she collapsed onto the floor. Raising the revolver with a quivering hand, she pressed it against her temple.
It was those things. She could hear them moaning. They were coming back.
“Where’s my goddamn rescue?” Megan whimpered as she tried to fight back the tears.
Shaking her head, she refused to believe that the explosions had been some sort of freak occurrence. No! It had to be something else-something more than just another fractured, hopeless misery in a world already filled with them.
Megan continued sitting next to the door, hearing the moans getting closer while her arms rested on her knees and her head slumped over between them. She held the gun up and began tapping the butt gently against the back of her skull. This went on for another minute or so until she heard a new sound and raised her head to stare up at the window.
At first Megan couldn’t place what it was. She’d been subjected to the muffled wailing of flesh eating predators for far too long and her ears needed time to adjust to the subtleties of this new noise. When they did, Megan jumped up so quickly she almost fell on her side as a grin split her dry, cracked lips. She rushed to the window and clawed at the blinds. Flattening her face to the board again, Megan scanned her street and the one that crossed it nearby.
Megan’s street was at the bottom of a hill, the road feeding into her section of the subdivision on a downward slant. With the thin slit between the two boards showing only a little of the outside world, Megan couldn’t see that far, but as she waited, her patience was rewarded a few seconds later.
“Oh my God…”
It was a van! It was racing down the hill toward her street. Megan could hardly register what her eyes were trying to tell her brain. It’s a goddamned minivan! She nearly fell on her butt as her legs threatened to give out on her again. The dark blue van sped toward Nelson Street, where Megan lived, getting closer by the second.
Giggling hysterically, Megan wondered why the army was using minivans instead of Jeeps or Humvees. The vehicle continued to get closer, but appeared to be slowing down. A twisted part of Megan’s mind whispered to her that it was illegal for someone to be driving that fast anyway. The giggling ramped up and she wondered if she should call the police on the driver. Megan’s felt dizzy from all the laughter, but she was determined to get the attention of the person driving the van. Otherwise they would drive past her house, hit the dead end at the end of Nelson, turn around and speed out of the neighborhood without a single backward glance.
The laughter cut off as Megan realized she had a choice to make. It was either time to leave this house which was not only Dalton’s tomb, but fast becoming hers as well, or to give up and end it all.
That was when Megan realized there was still a spark of life left inside of her. This was her one chance for redemption; her one chance for freedom. The hell residing outside the house was beginning to look no worse than the hell that had been living inside of her mind for the past few weeks. Megan heard herself whimper as she reached for the first board that covered the front door.
Tears replaced the anxious laughter as she tugged at the lumber hammered into the top of the solid oak door. As she did, Megan wiped at the small beads of moisture coming from her forehead and her eyes.
The boards didn’t budge with her feeble efforts. Megan was already out of breath after a few tugs and her arms felt like dead weights. Need to get to the gym more often. She rubbed her forearm and glanced over at the window. Dalton had spaced the boards across it so they could still look outside. That would give her a place to slip her fingers as she gripped the boards when she pulled at them. Setting the gun down on a small table next to the front door, she moved to the window.
Megan could feel the itch of panic as she heard the minivan’s engine continued to creep closer to her house. It was taking way too long to get here. Hadn’t the driver been flying down the road? Now what were they doing? They’d been slowing down, but how slow could he possibly be going now? The speed limit is 25 MPH and every good citizen should observe that limit, even during the apocalypse. A new wave of giggles threatened to return with that crazed thought, but Megan was able to force them down as she struggled with the boards over the window.
She moved to the other window on the opposite side of the door and wrapped her arms around one of the boards over it. The fact that the driver was slowing down was some sort of cosmic nudge, urging her to try harder so she could let them know she was here. Megan yanked at the board and it bent slightly toward her but had no further give in it. She shook it, but it remained securely affixed to the window frame.
Megan screamed in rage. “Let. Me. Out!” Each word was punctuated by a futile jerk at the board. She kicked angrily at the wall as she pounded on the wood. Exhausted, she almost slumped to the floor again, knowing she wouldn’t make it in time. The van would pass by and never even know she was inside, desperate to be free.
Megan’s head snapped up as it dawned on her. The garage! She stumbled as she ran through the kitchen. She almost slipped on the linoleum but made it the garage door and pawed at the knob. She was nearly hyperventilating and couldn’t hear if the van was still outside. She slid between Dalton’s Jeep and her little econobox in a rush to get to the big aluminum garage door. With no electricity, the door would just pull up.
Megan snatched at the handle on the door and nearly wrenched her arm out of its socket as she yanked on it. It didn’t budge. A wave of pain shot through her arm as she recoiled from the handle like it was a venomous snake. The door was jammed.
Megan stared at the garage door, exasperated. The house didn’t want to let her go. Slowly her eyes grew wide and she cursed her stupidity. Glancing up past the handle, she saw a rectangular shaped protrusion half way up the door. It was connected to two metal rods that spanned the door horizontally. Of course! Dalton had manually locked the garage door on his return from the failed supply run.
Megan wrapped her hands around the cold, dry metal and twisted it to the left and it did not budge. Turning it the other way met with success as she heard the satisfying sound of the lock opening. She leaned down and tugged on the handle, receiving the result she was hoping for as the door began to rise. She let it go up about halfway and glanced outside, free of barriers between her and the rest of the world for the first time in ages.
Megan had been prepared to run screaming to flag down the driver, but as she looked out on the scene past her lawn, she realized that perhaps her grand vision of escape had been a mistake.
Things could be worse.
That was what Dalton had said to Megan when this whole mess started. He had been trying to raise her spirits and kept on trying to until the end. He wanted her to survive, wanted her to keep on fighting and find a way out of the hell they were in. Now, despite her efforts to entomb herself in the bedroom they had slept in, made love in, and lived in, she had finally woken up. She was somehow still willing to fight after all this time; not just for herself, but for her husband’s sake … because once she was gone, who would be left to remember him?
So when she saw the scraggly looking man standing on top of the blue minivan, looking away from her as he stared at the top of the hill, she realized that despite how terrible he looked and how dire her circumstances were, things could be worse.
Swallowing hard, Megan stepped out into the sunlight.
“Hello,” was all she could think to say.
As promised, I am providing additional story lines to complement the main story in Comes The Dark and its two sequels. The stories I will be posting here on my blog were originally written with the intention of being included in the book. But for numerous reasons, they did not make the final cut. My hope is that by posting them on my blog it will give those of you who have read my book a chance to get to know some of the characters in the story beside Jeff a little better.
There will be a few of these stories for Comes The Dark, and a few more that I will post after the second book is released in the new year for characters that are introduced in that novel.
For now, here is the first part of my introduction to Megan. This story, along with Part 2, relates what she was doing before her meeting with Jeff early on in Comes The Dark.
I hope you enjoy it.
Megan, Part 1
Megan rolled over and stared at the wall. The bedroom, with its closed drapes and lack of light was the only place that gave her any comfort or peace anymore, if there was such a thing. At least sleep still came with relative ease. When she drifted off, it was the only time she could sever the tenuous link to reality she hated so much.
Certainly, there were nightmares, but they were tame compared to her waking reality. All Megan did was drift along like some raft on a meandering river, floating through one horrific experience to the next, never sure if she was awake or asleep as she did.
Despite whatever demons her mind dredged up when her eyes were closed, Megan still craved the sweet release of sleep. Nightmares felt real, but so did the occasional pleasant dream. Those rare moments when she was able to get lost in a dream were the only times she could forget.
That little bit of joy was her drug, so when she woke from them, Megan would bury herself in blankets and pillows and grasp at those fleeting images of happiness. But it never worked; once they were gone, they were gone for good.
No matter how bad or good her dreams became, Megan never made a sound in her sleep, or when she woke up. There was just too much of a chance that her voice would carry beyond the walls of her house. That could not be tolerated.
Megan kept staring at her bedroom wall. She’d been working on memorizing the pattern of the wallpaper border over the past few days. It was a floral print Dalton hated and it consisted of an assortment of red hued flowers repeating on the six inch border all the way around the room. Memorizing the pattern wasn’t much of a challenge, since there were only about ten different flowers on the paper, but doing so passed the time until she was able to drift off to sleep.
The rich color of the flowers matched the comforter and drapes, as well as the pillow cases and bed ruffle. Dalton faked nausea the first time he saw the entire set, but as a husband, he had learned how to pick his battles and bowed to his wife’s evil glare rather quickly when it came to such minor things.
Megan was proud of the decorative choices she’d made in the bedroom. It was the first room they’d finished in the house. The rest of the place was a work in progress, and had been since they’d moved in a little over a year ago.
This was their second place together, and purchasing the house had been the start of their “serious” stage. They bought a house that cost too much, picked out furnishings that maxed out their credit cards, and made plans to have a baby.
Megan and Dalton had been together for five years, married for three, and Megan had been feeling the itch to start a family for at least a year. This house out in the suburbs was going to be the place. The place where they really got going as a couple … and having the bedroom finished and tastefully decorated was the first step in that process.
Now the bedroom was going to be her mausoleum.
It wasn’t as if the food had run out. Megan had never been a big eater and she lost what little appetite she had when the world fell apart.
She could feel her muscles being devoured by her desperate body as she ate less and less. It was fighting her, resisting her desire to fade away. For some reason, Megan’s body wasn’t ready to give up on her just yet.
Before everything started Megan had barely topped “a buck five” as Dalton would say. She was sure if she checked her current weight, it would be a miracle if it was above ninety pounds.
“A strong wind’s going to blow you away if you’re not careful, honey.”
Megan grinned at the memory of her husband’s words. If she lost any more weight she might test that theory. Floating away might not be a bad idea.
Megan spent the rare occasion when she wasn’t lying in bed trying to read old magazines and books, but having never been a big reader, that didn’t last long. So instead, she dug up an old cookbook and flipped through it for hours on end, staring at pictures of recipes that would never be made again.
Ghosts of her old life were in everything that surrounded her. Not just in the cookbook, but in all the little things in the rooms she floated through like some sort of ghost; things they had bought together, made together. There had been so much to live for, but in the blink of an eye that was all gone.
Megan also spent a lot of time thinking about her sister in Pittsburgh. Sandy had three little boys Megan adored. They were all under six; each cuter than the next. “Aunty Mega” probably would never get to see any of them again. Sandy told her she and Phil were taking the boys down to the cabin in West Virginia just as this mess began and pleaded for Megan and Dalton to join them.
Unfortunately, things had turned bad so quickly that the National Guard clamped down on travel and Dalton nixed the idea of trying to make the six hour trip in their Jeep.
With all the reports of log-jammed highways and roadside attacks Dalton doubted they could even make it out of town, let alone to the mountains of West Virginia. Nope, they would stay in the house, stock up on necessities, and pray this wasn’t the end of times, like so many of those damn televangelists were shouting about over the airwaves.
But those bastards had been right.
Early on, Dalton planned on going out one last time to collect supplies-food, water, batteries … anything he could get his hands on. Megan remembered CNN blaring in the background that day, saying that it was Day Six of the crisis.
Dalton was going to take the Grand Cherokee, all their cash, and the revolver. His plan was to head to the closest grocery store and pick up whatever would fit in the SUV and return home as fast as he could.
Megan recalled the conversation before he left, when she was in a white hot panic and pleading with her husband to let her come with him or better yet, for him to not leave at all.
Dalton had gripped her shoulders as he tried to reassure her. “Honey, it’ll be alright. You can’t come with me. You have to stay and—”
“But I don’t even want you to go! Don’t you get it? It’s not safe out there Dalton. God only knows if the virus is here already. Please! If you have to go, let me go with you.”
Megan had gone on like that for over a minute as Dalton shushed her while shaking his head. He never broke eye contact with her the whole time.
Dalton’s level of calm began to overpower Megan’s determination and her hysterics lessened. In a normal situation, if her husband had shushed her she would have punched him in the chest. Not that her slight frame could pack much of a wallop, but he would definitely have known she wasn’t going to tolerate such a condescending attitude. But this time it was having the effect he’d hoped for.
“You know as well I do,” Dalton said as she started to wind down, “there isn’t much you can do for me out there.”
The volume of Dalton’s voice increased as Megan grew agitated again. He glared at his wife. “I’m not taking a chance on something happening to you. And let’s not play bullshit games about who is capable of handling themselves better out there if things get crazy.”
Dalton LeValley stood a smidge over six feet tall and weighed in at a fit one hundred and ninety pounds. He was ex-military, though he’d not seen combat in his two years of active duty. Still, he’d been trained to deal with dangerous situations while Megan had taken a two week self-defense course offered down at the Y. She knew Dalton could deal with trouble and move faster without her tagging along, but the idea of being separated from him, even for an hour, terrified her.
Megan shuddered as she took in a deep breath. Closing her eyes, she tried to shut out all the logic her husband had thrust upon her. The world had gone mad and she didn’t care that what Dalton said made sense. She also didn’t care if she was being selfish. He didn’t have to go out at all. They had enough food and water for a couple of days, and this whole thing would blow over by then, wouldn’t it?
All that day there had been pictures on the TV showing riots. Sure, they were going on in places like New York and L.A., just like you would expect, but they were happening in smaller cities and just about everywhere else.
One story on the television had stuck with Megan. A convenience store clerk in Iowa had been hung from a light pole in front of his store because he tried to stop a crowd of looters from ransacking his place of business. Megan remembered the images of shattered plate glass windows, shelves stripped bare and the store looking like a tornado had hit it. But what resonated in her mind were the images of the poor man after he’d been lynched. He’d not just been hung; he’d been stoned as well. His face and body were a mass of bloody bruises and welts. The censors had stopped bothering to cover up such brutality by then, so she got to see it in all its glory.
Megan found it hard to believe that it would ever get that bad in their anonymous little suburb. Certainly, their subdivision was in an uproar, with neighbors panicking and wondering what to do, but the madness of the outside world hadn’t touched down in Milfield yet. Lots of people were leaving the area and a few teens were trying their hand at vandalism, but the overall perception was that this viral crisis was happening elsewhere and would never reach the local area.
It wasn’t until a camouflaged Humvee drove down their street with a loudspeaker announcing where the nearest Red Cross and National Guard shelters were set up that Megan realized the worldwide panic being wailed about on television had come to their little corner of the world.
The National Guard wasn’t requiring anyone to leave their homes. Dalton told Megan the military didn’t have the resources to waste on homeowners unwilling to evacuate. They were urging everyone to do so, but were too busy cordoning off areas of the city, battling rioters, and trying to maintain the peace to bother with house to house searches.
Some of the families in the neighborhood took the Guardsmen up on their offer, piling into their cars and heading to the shelters. Others like Dalton and Megan decided to hunker down and wait it out.
Dalton had dismissed the idea of heading to a shelter rather quickly. “Why should we spend the next month crammed into some shitty tin can like sardines eating lousy food when we can be comfortable here in our own house?”
Megan didn’t argue at the time. But now Dalton was heading out into that mess to do a little grocery shopping, where the possibility of facing looters wasn’t the worst thing he might have to deal with.
Dalton shook Megan. It wasn’t violent, but she snapped out of her reverie just the same as if he had slapped her.
“Megan! Please, let me go. We both know I have to do this.” He wasn’t pleading with her. It was the last gasp of rational arguing he would do before he got angry. It was easy to read him after five years together, although things had never been even remotely this intense before. Megan knew she didn’t want him angry. Because if something happened and she never saw him again …
Things didn’t seem normal outside their house but it wasn’t as bad as the horror stories the news had cooked up. If Dalton went out there, then everything would be real. Megan was beginning to understand that for her husband it already was already real, and had been from the moment he heard the first hints of trouble in other places on the news. Dalton had accepted this new reality immediately and had boarded up the house and rationed their food and water. He’d even packed the Jeep in case they needed to leave in a hurry.
As Dalton pleaded with Megan to let him leave, it dawned on her that the only reason he hadn’t proposed this trip a couple of days earlier was because he knew how she would react. He had waited as long as he could before broaching the subject, until he had no other choice but to make this trip if they were going to survive inside their barricaded house.
So Megan knew it had probably surprised Dalton when she pulled him close, hugging him, and nodded her approval, rather than choosing to continue arguing. The tension between them remained for a moment, but when Dalton’s stiff shoulders relaxed Megan knew things were okay between them.
Wrapping her hand around the back of Dalton’s neck, she pulled him close to whisper in his ear.
“Please Dal, be careful. God, just be safe … I can’t imagine what I would do—”
Megan’s words were cut off as her husband swept her into a big bear hug. Dalton kissed her on the forehead and then pushed her back so they could look each other in the eyes. She had to bend her neck back quite a bit, as she always did, to accommodate their difference in height.
“You know I’ll be as careful as possible. No screwing around, just getting what we need and then I’ll head straight home.”
He dropped his arms to his sides, still a bit tense, fearful that Megan was some sort of firecracker whose wick had burned all the way down, but hadn’t exploded. Megan gave Dalton one of her sleepy little smiles she reserved for those times when she had essentially lost an argument. Not that she would admit defeat, but it served to let her husband know that this firecracker was a dud. Megan’s smile didn’t reach her eyes, but it was good enough for Dalton. He pulled her close again and kissed her firmly on the lips before heading to the garage.
“Be back soon,” was all he said before getting into the Jeep and driving away.
Dalton did make it back. He had been through hell and the Jeep had suffered some serious dents but it returned, just like Dalton, in one piece. There was a small gash on his forehead, but no other visible wounds when he stepped out of the SUV.
He described people dying on the streets-some sick, but others looking more insane than anything as they roamed the area.
“People were trying to take the truck, grabbing at the doors. A bunch threw rocks at the police and the National Guard … hell, they were attacking them! Everyone out there is insane, I swear to God. But …” He paused, his face turning pale at the memory as he told Megan his story. “But it was those sick people, the ones who were infected. They were attacking everyone, ripping and biting them. Christ, there was so much blood. It was a fucking nightmare.”
Dalton hadn’t made it to a store. Two miles down the road past their neighborhood was as far as he got and that was more than enough. He tried to turn around but people were running everywhere, blocking his path. After a few minutes of negotiating traffic to a place where he could turn the jeep around, a bunch of teenagers began throwing rocks and surrounded the vehicle.
When Megan asked for more details, Dalton shook his head, only saying that he had gotten away and was fine. He wouldn’t let Megan touch him as he rattled off his story, spying through the slats he’d nailed over the front door and windows. It was as if he was worried someone had followed him home. When she tried to hug him, he darted away. He was too strung out to stand still for even a moment.
It was when he went to the sink a few minutes later and rolled up his shirt sleeve that Megan saw the bite mark. The wound on his arm looked superficial, but Dalton’s hooded sweatshirt was torn in a couple of places. There were blood spatters on his clothes and Megan wondered if there were any other wounds he was hiding from her.
Dalton pulled off his sweatshirt and tossed it into the trash can. Still agitated after cleaning up at the kitchen sink, he locked himself in the bathroom. Megan tried to leave him alone for a while, certain her husband just needed time alone to calm down. But when he didn’t come out for ten minutes, she couldn’t wait any longer and banged on the door, demanding Dalton talk to her.
When he came out, Dalton still didn’t want to be touched. The thrill of seeing him again had been replaced by a dread that grew inside Megan. Dalton was alive, but what he’d seen out there had rattled him to the core. He was supposed to be the cool and rational one-the one who remained calm no matter what. Instead, he looked like some scared kid who’d been frightened nearly to death.
The next few hours were almost as bad for Megan as it had been waiting on Dalton to return from his trip outside. She prided herself on knowing her husband fairly well, but even a complete stranger could tell that something was terribly wrong with Dalton LeValley. After any stressful event Dalton was always the first to make light of it, smile and joke, washing away the stress and forcing himself to forget. That was not the Dalton Megan was seeing here. It was then that she realized he was dealing with something more traumatic than a violent run in with some teenagers.
Megan had seen the broadcasts and watched the scientists debate over what was causing the virus to be transmitted so easily from victim to victim. There were countless theories, but the one that stood out from all the others was that it was transmitted through the blood-through bites and scratches.
She didn’t want to accept it, but there it was. Megan wept as she tried to deny the truth of the matter. Dalton had been bitten and he was infected.
Dalton was lying on their bed, and perhaps it was her crying that allowed him to see past his own pain for the first time since his return. He held out a shaky hand to his wife and Megan fought against the urge to recoil as she looked at the wound on his arm, which he wouldn’t let her see before. The bite mark had turned black, with red, puffy skin surrounding it. The infection was definitely in his blood, and she could see that the skin on Dalton’s entire arm looked discolored and in bad shape.
Megan wanted so desperately to touch Dalton, but what if the infection didn’t just spread through the blood, but from touch as well? As she stood above him, near the edge of the bed, her heart racing, Megan looked into the pleading eyes of her husband and realized she didn’t care.
She took Dalton’s hand in hers and climbed in next to him, feeling the heat radiating off of his body. He felt like a blast furnace as she touched his forehead. It was as if his brain was boiling beneath his skull. Megan immediately sprung up from the bed, mumbling something about getting him a cold washcloth, and ran to the bathroom.
As Megan doused the cloth in cold water her hands were shaking. As she glanced at the mirror a ghost stared back at her. There was no blood in her normally olive toned skin.
“Get a grip, Megan. Keep it together. You have to for Dalton’s sake.” The whispered words were drowned out by the running water, but had the desired effect. Megan was able to resist the urge to break down crying again. Instead, she turned off the water and rubbed away the tears that had already fallen.
Returning to the bedroom, Megan could feel the washcloth cold and wet in her hands. She leaned over the stationary form of her husband and gently put the cloth on his forehead, wondering if even though it was wet, it might burst into flames from the overpowering heat coming off of Dalton. When he grabbed her wrist Megan jumped, startled. She yelped before she could cover her mouth with her free hand as she stared into his eyes. The hazel color she had always loved was beginning to cloud over with a milky film.
“Promise me … promise me you won’t let me change …”
It was only a whisper. Megan stared into his dull and weeping eyes, fighting to break free of their hypnotic effect. She wanted to shake her head and turn away, to avoid seeing the ravages of the virus as it changed Dalton, twisting and warping him into some kind of monster. Although it was still her beloved husband lying before her, he was already changing as his body was consumed with poison.
Megan touched his face gently. “Everything is going to be okay, baby,” she said in a surprisingly steady voice. She forced herself to look deeper into Dalton’s eyes. His fetid breath smelled of rot and it was all she could do to not gag. Instead, Megan smiled weakly at him. She wanted to run to the toilet and throw up, but stood her ground. This was her husband, no matter what was happening and she had to make sure he knew she was there for him, would stay by his side no matter what.
Dalton attempted to smile. Although he was wheezing and showing all the signs of a terminally ill patient, he seemed to be winning the battle with his fear.
He retained his grip on Megan’s wrist as he spoke again. “I’m going to head down to the basement. Please help me get down there. We have some giant sized trash bags I can lay on. If you wrap a towel around the revolver it will muffle the blast and not drawn any attention to the house.”
Megan only heard the first sentence, and then the blood pounding in her ears was just too loud. She’d felt faint before, but nothing like this.
A couple of minutes later … or maybe it was much later, Dalton was still holding her tight and all she could remember was screaming “No! No! No!” over and over again while she battered his shoulders with her small fists. Dalton was weak, but still had enough strength to get control of Megan and hold her until she stopped. He waited patiently for her to regain some sense of comprehension before he spoke again.
“God I know this is hard honey. There is nothing easy about it. I love you. More than you’ll ever know. But I CAN’T change what’s happening to me. Don’t you see? Either I have to do this myself or you have to …” at that Dalton broke down crying, taking his arms away from Megan as his broad shoulders shook and heaved.
The world was ending right that second. Megan could feel it. There was nothing left. She would pull the trigger and murder her husband, then stick the barrel in her mouth to put the final touch on this nightmare. She sure as hell couldn’t stay here without him. That wasn’t going to happen.
At that moment Megan was angry. Angry at herself for letting Dalton leave the house and angry for not letting him go a few days earlier when it might have been safe outside. She was angry with Dalton for coming back infected. She was angry at God, who seemed to be turning his back on them. The world was coming to an end and God didn’t give a shit.
Dalton’s crying slowed as Megan’s rage grew. He tried to take a deep breath to steady himself, but a coughing jag took him and lasted several minutes. Megan sprung up and ran to get him a towel as Dalton spat up blood, bile, and whatever else his body was liquefying as the virus tore through his system. He gestured for her to stay back, but to toss him the towel.
As the coughing died down Dalton was able to speak again. “You have to live Megan. No matter how bad you feel, you need to make it through this.”
The look in Dalton’s eyes told Megan that her husband knew what she’d been thinking about. More tears flowed from her eyes as Megan shook her head violently. None of this should be happening. It wasn’t fair.
“I’ll be dead in a few hours, Megan. I know you don’t want to hear it, but it’s true. But you won’t be. You’re alive and I want you to stay that way. You can make it through this crap, I know you can! The house is fortified and by yourself there is enough food and water to last a long time.”
Megan could only stare at her husband. The idea of putting a bullet in Dalton’s head was abhorrent, but she knew that he would pull the trigger if she didn’t. That was as much a part of who Dalton was as anything else: once he made up his mind, he followed through to the bitter end. No chance things would be different this time.
Dalton took the towel and wiped away the spittle and sweat from his face, though his lips remained crimson from the blood he’d coughed up. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and Megan resisted the urge to rush to his side to help him. If he wanted to go down to the basement to commit suicide, he could do it by himself.
Megan wondered if the man she had loved since their third date would do more than say goodbye as he left their bedroom, or would realize he couldn’t go through with this and instead profess his endless love to her. It was a selfish thought, and she knew it. All she could think about was how this impacted her and her existence. She wanted Dalton to fight this thing, resist it, so she didn’t have to accept that this was truly the end of their lives together.
Megan watched as Dalton got out of bed and moved toward the door. He looked at her but said nothing. He could see the parade of emotions on her face and likely knew how impossible all of this was for his wife. And that was when it hit her.
Even as Dalton was dying, he was thinking of his wife, which was exactly what she was doing. In the last few hours of his life he was more concerned with her well being than his impending demise.
That was when Megan ran to Dalton and slid under his shoulder to help him make it down the stairs without stumbling or falling. She was too short for him lean on her effectively, but the pained smile on Dalton’s face told her how grateful he was.
Dalton’s last few hours were better than Megan could have hoped for. They talked about everything, cried, and even laughed a few times.
Toward the end, Dalton touched Megan’s cheek with shaking hands as he started to fade. She watched as her husband fought to stay coherent, her face stunned and fearful.
Dalton had avoided telling Megan what to do up to that point, instead sharing the memories they both cherished in an attempt to forget his impending doom, if only for a little while. But as he felt his body shutting down and the pain gripping him so tightly he could barely resist crying out in agony, Dalton knew he had to explain what needed to be done.
“Do it before I turn. Don’t wait long; it probably won’t take more than a minute or so after my heart stops.” Dalton’s eyes were closed as he spoke and his skin was a gray, almost translucent as the virus’s victory over his body was nearing completion.
Megan heard the words and despite the fact that Dalton’s eyelids remained closed, she nodded down at him, knowing that if she said anything her voice would crack and she would lose control.
She was still considering pulling the trigger on the .357 Magnum not once, but twice. It would be so easy: they would escape this lunacy together. ‘Til death do us part-that was the vow, wasn’t it? But what if she didn’t want death to part them?
Megan remained lost in her thoughts, only half listening to the rattle of Dalton’s breathing, when she realized that the basement was silent. She glanced down at her husband and tried to hold back the flood of tears as she realized he was gone. His chest had stopped rising and the loud and ragged breathing had cut off. Dalton was laying there, his head resting on a garbage bag she had placed beneath him at his request, his eyes closed for the last time.
So when he sprung back up a moment later Megan felt her heart stop and her bladder let loose. Dalton grabbed his wife’s arms, looking at her with eyes that were dead and unseeing.
Megan didn’t time to ponder the fact that she had waited too long to do what he had asked. All she knew was she was going to die on the basement floor as her husband attacked her. As he pulled her close, she prayed the pain would be fleeting.
Before she could scream out or squirm loose he spoke.
“… make it! … to keep fighting!”
It was all Dalton could spit out. He fell back so fast his skull thumped against the concrete floor, his grip loosening (later there would be welts where he had grabbed her).
This time there was no doubt Dalton was truly dead. He was gone and taken with him everything Megan loved in the world. His last words echoed in her head: he wanted her to keep fighting.
The terror of his death grip on her receded and her heart rate dropped back to normal. Megan’s head was pounding, but she felt more alert than she had been in a long time. The jolt to her system had cleared her head.
Megan stared at the body of her husband as she stood. She lifted the dead weight of the pistol as she hovered over Dalton’s corpse. She was the only mourner he would ever have.
It was up to her to say good bye.
Megan reached for the towel and wrapped it around the muzzle as Dalton had instructed her.
What if I wait? The though slithered through Megan’s head like a serpent, its forked tongue tickling and teasing her. What if I wait to see if he gets back up? I’ll be able to look in his eyes and know for sure.
The thought that Dalton was somehow still in there, inside his ruined body, splashed Megan with irrational hope. She looked at him with love in her heart, wanting to touch him again and wanting him to touch her as well. He’ll look at me and know who I am. He’ll understand what happened and still know he’s my husband.
Megan shook her head. She raised the gun and rubbed the towel against her wet forehead.
“I love you so much Dalton. I would give anything to have you back with me. But I …”
The pain in Megan’s stomach made her double over. A huge knot had formed inside her gut. She moaned and almost fell to her knees, but somehow retained her balance.
“You’re the best man I’ve ever known. I will always love you Dalton.”
As she pulled the trigger, Megan swore she saw her husband’s eyes opening. The gun kicked and the towel covering the barrel shredded away as the bullet traveled at a tremendous velocity and blasted a hole the size of a dime in Dalton’s forehead. Megan blinked as she fired and when her eyes opened again she saw that Dalton’s eyes were still closed.
Megan avoided looking at the mess splattered across the garbage bags underneath Dalton’s head. Instead, she grabbed a couple of extra trash bags they’d brought down and laid them on top of him. She unwound the towel from the gun and dropped it beside the body. She was trying to be as clinical and removed from the situation as possible.
It isn’t Dalton, it’s just his corpse. She repeated that over and over in her head in a vain attempt to drown out the part of her mind that wanted to believe if Dalton had come back he would recognized and love her still.
Megan’s thoughts bounced against one another, tormenting her until she raised an arm to her mouth and bit down, hard. The torment inside of her head disappeared with a muffled scream as the coppery taste of blood filled Megan’s mouth. She kept screaming as she stumbled up the steps.
Somehow, Megan managed to hold on to the gun all the way to the bedroom. Later, she would contemplate using it on herself again, but always at the back of her mind was her husband’s dying wish. She held on to the weapon, keeping it close, telling herself it was there, just in case.
Another anthology that I am excited to be a part of, Doomology, from the Library of Science Fiction and Fantasy, has produced it’s cover and I am thrilled by this. My story, “You Only Die Twice” appears in it. Another one to check out once it is on the shelves. More details to come once it is available.
A lot of things have been happening lately in my writing and personal life, and it feels like I am finally able to take a breather for a moment before I dive back into the chaos. Most of what has been going on has been good, though there have been a few trials as well. I am going to just talk about the good things here, and try to keep it brief.
First off, the Kindle version of Comes The Dark has been ‘fixed’. By this, I mean that a few formatting errors that occurred in the transfer to the kindle have been rectified and the new and improved version looks terrific. For anyone who bought the original version, they can re-upload it and will get the new, clean version. I was told by the folks over at Kindle that anyone who has any problems with that process can reach out to them by via the contact button at www.amazon.com/kindlesupport. Hopefully, that won’t be necessary and it will just be a click of a button on your Kindle. Of course, that also means for anyone who hasn’t bought it already, the Kindle version of my book is back up and running. At $2.99, its a terrific price, so check it out!
Second, I wanted to announce that I will be posting a few stories here under the category “Dark Stories” that I had originally written with the intention of including in Comes The Dark or in one of its sequels. There were several reasons why that did not happen, including space limitations. As I have mentioned in more than one interview, I originally wrote about a half a million words for what would become this trilogy. The final word count of the trilogy is around 170,000, give or take a couple thousand. That doesn’t mean the 330,000 words that were sliced in the editing process was pure gold…or even tin for that matter, but some of it was decent back story on characters, including flashbacks as well as parallel stories happening at the same time as events in the novels. With a little more editing, I am hoping to present a few choice bits here on my blog that will give readers of my trilogy a bit extra about characters like Megan, George, and others that are introduced in the sequels to Comes The Dark. I hope to post the first story within the next week or so. After that, there won’t be a set schedule, but I will try to post some more after Horror Realm, which is two weeks from now.
Third, I have been working on Chapter 12 in the Collaboration of the Dead novel that nineteen writers agreed to take part in several months back. Each writer gets to write two chapters, one in the first half of the book, and one in the second half. Since 11 chapters have already been written, my responsibility leans more toward character development rather than introducing new characters-at least that is how I see things. I realize that others have been adding new characters all along and will probably continue to do so, but I am focused on stirring the pot with what is already there. All I can say about this process is that it is tougher than I had expected. I was nervous about it from the get go, given that so many other talented writers would be counting on me to avoid screwing things up at the very least and maybe even doing something a bit better than that. Now that I am actually writing this, I find that I am putting more pressure on myself than I would have for something I was doing for myself. With that said, it is still a blast, and a learning experience to boot. Here’s hoping that I don’t get stoned when I submit my chapter, or worse yet, asked not to write the second chapter I’m supposed to write down the line!