Catch up on the story here
It’s too early in the morning and the low hanging sun is reflecting orange off the lake when I pull into one of the many parking lots that are stationed along the wooden walking path. The clock on my dash reads 6:59, one minute before Tripp told me to meet him. I have always prided myself on my punctuality. Tripp apparently does not, so when his doorless canary yellow Jeep rolled into the lot at 7:38, I found myself angry at him for the second time in as many days.
I slide out of the driver’s seat and slam my door a little harder than I should have. Tripp, oblivious to my frustration, climbs out of his car with a groggy yet cheerful smile on his face.
“Morning!” He runs his fingers through his shaggy brown hair which is sticking out oddly, a sign of a great night’s sleep. He reaches back into his Jeep and grabs a paper coffee cup brandishing the logo of one of the local cafes.
My face flushes red as a wave of anger flows through me. Nice to know he had time to stop for a cup of coffee. I open my mouth to say something to this effect when the cup is shoved into my hands and he turns to grab the other from his cup holder.
I bite my lip and quickly say, “thanks,” before taking a sip of the world’s sweetest coffee. The sugary taste caught me off guard and I make a surprised sound in my throat before I’m able to swallow and recover.
“Yeah… I didn’t know how you take your coffee so I made it like mine.” He chugs a big sip and smacks his lips. “Black with 8 sugars.”
“That’s quite a coffee,” I say before drinking more. I hoped that being prepared for the sweetness would make it less of a shock but it was still jarring on my tongue as I sipped it. “So what’s the plan for today? More meteorite hunting in the forest?”
His charming grin spreads across his face again. “Nope, today is gonna be much more fun. Let’s take your car, it’s less conspicuous.” The shock must have shown on my face because he quickly added, “Don’t worry, we’re not doing anything illegal.”
He grabs a large backpack from his Jeep, slinging it over his shoulder. Brushing past me he climbs into the passenger seat, tossing my purse and empty water bottles that had taken residence there into the backseat. I dutifully hop into the driver’s seat and follow his directions as he takes me out and around the lake, headed away from my town and toward his hometown, Greenville. Between giving me orders, he flipped quickly through the radio stations, searching for the perfect soundtrack. When he couldn’t find it, he found the cord to connect his phone to my car’s stereo, putting on one of his favorite playlists. A soothing male voice accompanied by folksy guitar blasted through the speaker. He mouthed along with the lyrics, his hand holding an invisible microphone as he does so.
I couldn’t help it and a chuckled at how goofy he looked. When he realized I was watching he stopped and almost looked embarrassed. I quickly changed the subject. “So what exactly are we doing today?”
“Surveillance.” His smile returned. “It was suggested to me that Charles McMillan, our local mayor, is a practicing witch and he did some spell that backfired and that’s what caused The Rising.”
I could feel his eyes on me, but I stared straight ahead, foot slowly pressing on the brakes as I pulled the car gently to the side of the road and put it in park. “Ok, that’s absolutely ridiculous. You can’t possibly expect us to sit around and watch the mayor to see if he’s a witch.” I emphasized the words hoping to impress their absurdity on him.
“Hey, I have a responsibility to the truth. Also, I’m undead. Witchcraft doesn’t seem that strange.” He continued to stare at me as I looked everywhere except his gray eyes, waiting for me to make my decision.
I let out a long sigh as I put the car into drive and eased back onto the road. With a glance back at Tripp I see he’s smiling and lip syncing along with the music again. Before long were parked in front of a larger than average size home with a well tended lawn and a “vote McMillan” sign wedged into the grass. The mayor’s face is plastered on the sign as well with a thumbs up and the perfect politician’s smile that doesn’t extend to his brown heavy lidded eyes. We sit for several minutes, watching the front lawn sprinklers lazily drift back and forth, the house otherwise silent.
Another jarring sip of coffee later and I’m already antsy. “So what exactly are we looking for here? I highly doubt he’s gonna walk around in a ‘ask me about my magic’ t-shirt.”
“Ha! Well no he probably won’t be wearing that. Honestly, I’m not sure what to look for, but we’re just going to do surveillance and see if anything weird happens.”
I never got a chance to ask what that meant because at that moment, the front door of the house sprung open and the man from the lawn sign stepped out, dressed in a dark grey suit and carrying his briefcase. He got into his silver sedan and began his journey to work. We followed behind, being cautious not to get too close to arouse suspicion. The last thing either of us wanted was to try to explain why we were following him.
Several turns later, the mayor pulled into the parking lot next to the brick building that is home to the local government officials. Tripp and I parked on the street, keeping the mayor’s car and the building in view. Once he entered the building, I broke the silence.
“So what now?” I asked.
A devious smile spread across Tripp’s face. “Did you bring your long range lenses?”
Ten minutes later I had swapped out my walk around lens for a longer telephoto lens and we had left the car and stationed ourselves hidden in the tree line behind the building. That position gave us a clear view of the windows into the mayor’s office.
Through the viewfinder, I had a clear view of the back of the mayor’s head as he sat at his desk on the fourth floor of the building. Handing the camera over to Tripp, I say “Not much activity, but he’s got a really nice haircut if you wanna see.”
He takes the camera and looks through, focusing hard for a minute or two before handing it back to me. “Well, I googled how long stakeouts usually take and most of the websites said a good stakeout usually lasts all day or night. So we’ve got some time.” He opened his backpack and pulled out two bottles of water, handing one over to me. “I packed snacks too if you get hungry.”
I couldn’t help but to smile; his positive attitude is infectious. Without meaning to, my glance shifted from his warm gray eyes to the gaping bullet hole up at his hairline. I diverted my gaze quickly, but not quick enough. He shifted uncomfortably and dug the worn baseball hat out of his bag and slipped it on.
“I’m- I’m sorry.” I looked at my feet as I said it, unable to look at him.
“It’s ok. I actually forget it’s there sometimes. Other than the not really eating much and no bathroom breaks, I don’t feel very different than before.” He fiddled with the label on his water bottle, picking at it to distract himself.
I wasn’t sure what to say. Do I ask what happened? Do I ignore it? My heart fluttered with nerves and instead I blurted out “My dad is undead too.” He looked at me expectantly, or maybe hopefully, either way, he remained silent waiting for more. “He was dead for two years before The Rising. Heart attack. Him coming back was the best thing that ever happened to my mom and me.”
He nodded slowly and was silent for a few minutes, continuing to pick at the label on his water. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking and was unsure of what to do next when he spoke up.
“It was my dad who shot me.”
The words were so quiet I wasn’t sure if I had actually heard them at all but when I looked up and met his eyes, it was clear that was what he had said. “Your dad?”
He adjusted the brim of the baseball cap absentmindedly. “My dad was an accountant for a construction company in Minnesota where we lived. He found out his company was cheaping out on materials and still charging their clients for the high-grade stuff and keeping the difference. When he told them what he found out, they gave him a ‘bonus’ to keep him quiet and doctor their books. He happily accepted the money, but I couldn’t let it stand.”
He cleared his throat, and I wondered if this was the first time he had told anyone the story since it happened.
“I was working for the local newspaper so I wrote a huge exposé on it that eventually led to the company folding and a lot of the higher ups going to jail. My dad knew he would be called to court and tried, so one night he got blind drunk and raged out on me for ruining his life and we fought and it ended with him… well…”
“That’s horrible, I’m so sorry that happened to you.” I meant what I said but it felt so small and worthless after what he told me. Nothing would ever be able to take away the pain of what happened to him. “How did you end up here?”
“My Aunt paid to have me brought here for a proper burial when she found out what happened. And I’m really happy she did.” He spread his arms in a ‘here I am’ gesture.
I bit my lip, a question I knew I shouldn’t ask on the tip of my tongue. “Has-“ I stopped, unable to bring myself to ask it. One look into his gray eyes showed he knew what I was going to ask.
“No, he never tried to reach out to me after the Rising.” He started picking at the label again, peeling a corner and resticking it a few times.
The silence between us was broken by a twig snapping in the forest behind us. We both turn to the sound and Tripp takes a step forward, placing himself in between me and whatever made the noise. The shadows of the forest cloak the figure that stands there, twenty feet away from us.
“Who is that?” Tripp demands.
A wheezing noise is all that responds as the figure steps into a sunny patch peeking through the treetops. The old hag from yesterday stands there looking at us reproachfully. Her brown eyes seem younger than they should set in a face that is weathered with wrinkles. As her gaze drifts between Tripp and I it seems as if with just a look she somehow knows everything about who we are and what we’re doing.
Tripp spins around and grabs his backpack, digging through he gets out another water bottle and a bag of trail mix which he extends out, an offering to the hag. No one moves for several breaths as the hag looks Tripp over, possibly trying to determine if the food is a trap of some sort. She must have realized it wasn’t and steps forward, taking the two items from him. Without a word, she turns and shuffles back into the forest, disappearing into the shadows.
“Well that was weird,” Tripp says with a chuckle.
But unlike our encounter with the hag, Mayor McMillan did nothing weird the entire time he was in his office. The same went for his drive home and the first hour he was home. I had had enough by that point.
“Nothing even slightly weird has happened with the Mayor. He’s just a guy. I say we call it.”
With a heavy sigh Tripp admitted defeat. We drove back to his car and parted ways, with a promise that I would send a few stakeout highlight photos to him in the next few days.
Because of my shifts at the restaurant, Tripp and I agreed to meet once a week for me to follow him on his truth hunting adventures and take some pictures for his site. The second week we met in the cemetery near the lake.
“I swear each time you tell me a new ‘theory’ it’s more ridiculous than the last one.” I leaned against a tree trunk while Tripp passed the clicking Geiger counter around the base of the tree. “I mean seriously, radioactive spiders? We didn’t end up with a town full of Spider-Men fighting crime while swinging around from building to building.”
“It is possible for bugs to get into a coffin so someone sent in a theory that there was or is radioactive spiders that got into the coffins and bit everyone.”
I could only roll my eyes as I snapped off a shot of him squatting near a large wide headstone, passing the meter over it meticulously, listening for any increase in the intensity of the clicks.
The following week we met by the lake at midnight underneath the full moon. Tripp carried a grocery store tote bag that tinkled with the sound of glass clinking together with each step. “Ok so, I’ve tested the lake water at least two dozen times since the Rising, sending it out to different labs for results and even ordering in a kit to test it myself even though I had no idea what I was looking for. But this time someone suggested that I needed to collect the samples during the Full Moon since it was exactly at the peak of the full moon when we all came back.”
As odd as the theory sounded, it made for some really great photos. The reflection of the full moon rippled in the lake water as Tripp was shin deep collecting samples into several glass vials which he was going to send out the next day.
A little over a week passed and we met up for the most disgusting assignment yet. All he told me when he asked me to meet him was make sure my hair was up and to wear clothes and shoes that I wouldn’t mind tossing if they get messed up. I arrived on time at the storage locker he had texted me. A half hour later he shows up in a black pickup truck, a blue plastic tarp covering the bed.
I opened my mouth to ask where his Jeep was when he cut me off and handed me a cup of coffee. “Ok, now don’t freak out.”
Confused, I take a sip of my coffee and am pleased to know it’s cream only, just the way I like it. My happiness is short lived however because Tripp pulls back the tarp to reveal a fresh deer carcass staring back at me.
“I may need you for more than pictures today.”
With some effort we get the carcass onto an old hospital stretcher and wheel it into the storage unit. Tripp must have set the place up earlier in the week because there were temporary construction lights in each corner, a tripod at the back wall for my camera, and a table to the side with tools and a laptop. Also on the table were thin plastic zip up suits, complete with booties and a hood for us to wear.
Even though I had a good idea of what was about to happen, I didn’t want to believe it. My stomach was folding in on itself at the thought of what might be coming. It was only when he booted up the laptop and began a Skype video chat with a man who introduced himself as a Dr. Phelps, a professor of pathology that it really hit me.
“A deer autopsy?!”
“Well think about it, none of the wildlife came back as undead, but they were here and exposed to… whatever caused this. We can’t exactly send autopsy pieces of an undead human but maybe this deer has some answers. Dr. Phelps is going to walk us through an autopsy and we’re going to send him samples.” Tripp pulled on his suit and stared at me with a pleading face.
Resigned to the fact that this was happening, I set the camera on the tripod, framed the shot and set it to the time-lapse setting, so it snaps a picture every few minutes.
The rest of the day was filled with oozing blood and removing organs which were weighed and analyzed for color, texture, and every other gross thing you can think of. Tripp took chunks of each and placed them into a small plastic specimen jar which was half full of a clear liquid. He sealed them with tape and set them aside, waiting to be packaged up and shipped out later that day.
When it was all finished, we hung up the call with Dr. Phelps who was almost giddy with excitement about receiving his package. I grabbed a trash bag to begin cleaning up and Tripp told me not to worry about it, he had some hunter friends who were going to come by to help with that.
I stripped out of the plastic suit I had put on over my clothes and shoved it into one of the trash bags, happy to allow my skin to breathe and stop sweating.
“So as I’m sure you know, we only have a few more days until the next new moon but if you’re free I’d like to squeeze in one more investigation.” He followed my lead and pulled off his suit, balling it up and stuffing it into the trash.
I felt my stomach flip a little, this time out of joy rather than disgust. “Yeah that would be great. Just text me and let me know when and where.” I offered to help again with clean up but he told me I had done my fair share of work for the day.
He walked alongside me as I headed out to my car, flipping through the photos from the day. We decided on a few that he wanted me to send him after I tweak them in post-processing. I stood at the open driver’s door of my car, Tripp next to me with his hand on the door frame.
“So good luck with…” I glance back into the storage locker at the deer carcass and the pools of thick red blood that had spilled onto the floor, “all that.”
He laughs. “Yeah thanks, I’ll call the guys now and we should be done in an hour so it’s not too bad.”
“Well that’s good. Ok, well, good night.” I felt nervous. We had worked together for a few weeks now and everything had been great, we had become really great friends. But something in his gray eyes the way they looked at me, it almost looked as if he wanted to kiss me.
His body leaned closer an inch before backing away a few steps. He ran his hand through his messy hair. “Yeah, so, good night.”
As I drove home, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would have been like if he had kissed me.