They’re Just Like Us (Part 6)

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. 


Continue to Part 7

They’re Just Like Us (Part 5)

Catch up on the story here


My heart thumps in my chest and I can’t breathe. I’m out of options. 

“Brrraaaaaiiiiiiinnnnnsssss”

It takes a second for this to process. It sounds like the audio track of a cheesy horror film. I’m so confused and shocked that I blurt out, “What??”

His booming laughter fills the empty stone house. “I’m just messing with you, come out of there.”

I squeeze my way out of the hollowed out stump. “Are you fucking kidding me?!” My fists are balled at my side and my blood is pumping so hard I can hear it in my ears. But there he stands in front of me, this undead stranger with a smile from ear to ear.

“I’m sorry,” he’s still laughing as he says it. “I really am. I couldn’t resist fucking with you.” He smile dims a little when he sees how angry I really am. His hand extends out, filling the space between us. “It’s Maggie, right? You’ve waited on me a few times at Lakeside Grill. I’m Tripp.” 

Ignoring his handshake, I bend down and brush some dried leaves from my leg. When I finally straighten back up, his smile is gone and a concerned look is etched on his face, both hands now tucked into his front pockets.

“Hey, look, I’m really sorry. I thought for sure you would’ve recognized me. If not from the restaurant then from my website.” 

The worry on his face eases my anger a bit and I extend my hand out. “Maggie.” His face softens and we shake hands finally. “What made you think that would be funny? You scared the shit out of me.”

“I dunno, I guess being scary is one of the perks of being undead and you always had a sense of humor when you waited on me so I guess I just figured… I dunno.” He pulls a worn, faded baseball cap from the back pocket of his jeans and fixes it on top of his muddy brown hair, perfectly covering the bullet hole that gaped on his forehead near the hairline. Aside from his gray eyes, he looks like a normal, slightly pale, living person. 

My eyes fall to the ground and I focus on my feet. “I guess I’m not in a laughing mood, I was just at that house where the family was murdered last night.”

There was a few seconds pause before he quietly says “I hadn’t heard about that. Sorry.” He clears his throat and points at my camera bag. “Hey, are you a photographer?”

“Um, sorta. I mean, I guess I am.” I pull the black camera body out of my bag which he promptly snags from my hands. 

He flips through the photos on the tiny screen, nodding slightly as he does so. “Well, Maggie, it’s fate that we ran into each other again.” The camera gets shoved back into my hands. “I’m in desperate need of a photographer. My website The Undead Reporter has millions of followers and yet no decent photos. I take a few with my phone but they’re crap compared to your stuff.”

The… Undead Reporter? Never heard of it.” 

“Yeah, well all of the national news tried covering life inside the wall and they all portrayed it as terrifying and horrific and the worst conditions imaginable. They focused on all the wrong things. I was a journalist before I died because I was looking into the wrong story-“ he points to his baseball cap and I realize he’s talking about the gunshot wound. “So I figured it was my duty to tell people the truth about life as one of the undead. And that truth is that it’s pretty ordinary.” He digs the toe of his sneakers into the soft soil that is now the floor of the house. “Then when it became obvious that the CDC had no idea what made this all happen, I decided to investigate and report on every possible theory people had.”

“So what are you investigating right now that brings you out into the middle of the woods?” 

He chuckles. “Meteorites.”

The word hangs in the air between us.

“Seriously?”

“Yep. One of my followers said that there may have been a meteor shower that NASA wasn’t telling us about and maybe they brought along some bacteria or something from outer space. So I bought a metal detector and I’ve been scouring the forest the last week or so. Then I saw you so I dropped the detector and came over here and… well you know the rest.” 

“No offense but your fans sound kind of crazy.”

“I agree this theory may be a little… out there, but it’s my job: investigate every possibility.” Another pause. “So?”

“So what?” I say as I sling the camera bag back up onto my shoulder.

“So will you be my photographer?”

I scoff and walk past him and out of the house back into the forest. “Now you sound kind of crazy. Why would I want to work for you?”

He follows a few steps behind me. “I can pay.”

I stop short and he almost walks into me. I turn around and his face is inches away from mine as he tries to regain his balance from having stopped so suddenly. I instinctively take a step back. “How much are we talking here? ‘Quit the restaurant’ kind of pay?”

He flashes a charming smile which was probably used to coax stories out of unwilling sources in his former life. “If your photos are good enough, maybe.” He pulls a card out of his wallet and hands it over. “I’m gonna get back to meteorite hunting, my info is on there. Call me if you decide you want your pictures to be seen by millions of people all over the world.” 

He trots away around the back of the stone house and out of sight. Retracing my steps, I make my way back to the path and my car, absentmindedly flipping his card over between my fingers the entire walk.

Later that night I’m in my room sitting at my desk. My email is open and I’m mass-deleting junk mail but my eyes keep darting back and forth between the screen and his card propped up against my desk lamp. The promise of more money keeps tugging at my brain so I cave and snatch up the card, one handedly typing in the blog address. 

The site is plain, with a white background with black text; at the top of the page a landscape shot of the lake with the wall off in the distance has the words “the Undead Reporter” photoshopped overtop of it. A side bar to the right has a photo of an undead Tripp trying to look studious in a leather armchair and a brief biography underneath that. The main portion of the page is a scrolling list of the recent titles to his blog posts with two to three sentence previews. I scroll a bit looking for a post title that grabs me. 

The words “Meet the First” catch my attention so I click the ‘read more’ button. An unflattering image of Alex Ingleson appears, taking up much of the screen. Underneath that is an interview with Alex. It begins simply, a back and forth about this life before he died, his football scholarship and subsequent injury, moving back home to work at the paper mill, his alcohol addiction and his early demise thanks to a car wreck. His fault. 

After the basics are out of the way, Tripp gets into the tough questions.

Tripp: How did your family react when you showed up at their door that first day?

Alex: Not well. My dad grabbed the rifle he uses for deer hunting. Then they locked me in the garage until they could figure out what to do with me. They called the sheriff, who peeked in and then interviewed me through the locked door. He asked me all kinds of questions from my childhood and stuff. A few hours later he got more calls about undead and my family finally let me back into the house. 

Tripp: At what point did the CDC take you in?

Alex: I’m not sure exactly, it was a few days later. 

Tripp: And what did they do to you?

Alex: They asked me a bunch of questions, tried to take blood but that didn’t work too well, [they] had a bunch of wires connected to my whole body. Put me inside these big machines they said would help see inside me. They tried to explain things to me but I didn’t really understand most of what they were saying. All this went on for about two weeks before they let me go home, but they picked me back up every few days for another test or two. 

Tripp: How did that make you feel?

I get back to the main page and scroll for another article to read. Far down the list is an article called “Body Brigade.” After clicking it, a fuzzy picture shows the base of the wall and a sheet covering a human figure. 

It was day 3 of the CDC’s temporary barriers when the Body Brigade was formed. All along the temporary barriers, thousands of corpses were stacked, tossed across the gates by loved ones in the hopes that they would reanimate. None did, but that didn’t stop people from trying. The local sheriff’s department recruited anyone with a truck to patrol the fencing and load up the bodies to deliver to the CDC tents popping up at the entry points into the towns. 

“Those first few weeks were awful. We had round-the-clock patrols picking up body after body and dumping them in the CDC’s lap. Those poor bastards had the unlucky task of identifying and returning all of them,” Sheriff Haskins explains. “It’s slowed down as word got out that they stay dead when brought here but for some reason people still drop them off hoping it will work.”

The Brigade still does daily checks, once in the morning and once in the evening. 

The rest of the article continues with an interview of a woman who Tripp caught trying to toss over the body of her late father who she dearly misses. Having been fortunate enough to get my father back, the interview hits too close to home so I find another post of his to read. The bold all-caps headline “NEW MOON- VIDEO” catches my eye.

I convinced the CDC to allow me to keep my action camera on and recording all night. The following video is footage from inside the CDC containment center. It has been edited for viewing purposes. If you wish to see the full unedited 10 hour video, it’s at the bottom of the page.

I hit the red play button in the center of the video frame. Instantly Tripp’s face fills the screen, the small rectangular camera strapped to his head with a black elastic band. He’s looking into a mirror in what I’m assuming is his bathroom.

“Hey everyone out there, it’s Tripp your undead reporter. I managed to convince the CDC to let me wear my camera all night at their containment center. Their only stipulation was that they review the footage first so hopefully they give it back to me and you can all see this.” 

A knock sounds in the distance on the video and the camera pans to the closed bathroom door before turning back to the mirror. 

“It’s showtime! My goal here is to try to vocalize everything I’m feeling throughout the night so you the viewers can get a first-hand look at what it is to be undead during the new moon.” A knock sounds again, louder this time. “I’m coming!” With one last thumbs up to the mirror, the video cuts to the inside of a bus. The camera jostles as the bus hits uneven road. Tripp rotates his head so we can see everyone on the bus with him, some sit silently staring ahead while others chat amongst themselves. 

Another cut and we are inside a large sterile white room. Two dozen cots with thin mattresses line the walls, with people perched or lounging on them. Tripp’s voice provides a soundtrack over the low din of people shuffling around and talking. 

“Since the undead don’t sleep or eat much, the containment center is pretty spartan, with about one cot for every three people here. There’s a few other holding rooms with more cots and more undead within the center. It’s-“ His wrist enters the frame. “a half hour left until sunset so until then we just kinda hang out.”

Without warning, the video cuts again and a sudden noise blares from my computer speakers, threatening to blow them out. Startled, I turn the volume down and it isn’t until it’s quieter that I realize what the noise is. Snarling, screeching, and growls. The undead who were so casually relaxing a second ago are now all standing, inhuman noises escaping their throats, hands desperately feeling along the walls of their holding cell, trying to find a way out. A few have already realized there is no way out and stand in the center of the room, their heads tilted back as they release loud un-ending screams of frustration. 

The camera’s image moves as Tripp moves, slowly around the room, his noises louder than the rest. This continues for several minutes before I close the web browser. As hard as that was to see, bringing up thoughts of my dad being like that, it has got to be even harder to live through it. Not once was Tripp able to tell us anything about what’s going on in his head. I realize that even though I’m mad as hell at him for scaring me the way he did, he truly does present the truth, no matter how it portrays him. I grab my phone and shoot a text out to the number on the card. 

“I’m in.”

Within seconds the reply. “Great. I’ll text you an address tomorrow, meet me there for your first assignment.” 


Read Part 6

They’re Just Like Us (Part 4)

Catch up on the story here


My mom has been hugging me for the last 5 minutes. She hasn’t said anything since the sunrise siren except for a few heavy sighs into my hair. Every now and then her grip loosens around me and I think she’s about to pull back but instead she just pulls me in even tighter. And you know what? It’s exactly what I need right now. Her grip loosens once again and this time she finally breaks the embrace. Her eyes are all red, either from exhaustion or crying, and she clears her throat before finally speaking.

“Do me a favor and take care of the front door so your father can get in. I’ll bag the arm up for the CDC.” She stands up and begins to tidy up the shattered glass and guns that have been strewn around the floor. “Then try and grab some sleep if you can.”

“Thanks, mom.” I leave her alone with her thoughts and unbolt the front door. I thought with all the adrenaline left in my body that there was no chance I would sleep but as soon as I stepped over the threshold into my bedroom, my whole body collapses onto the bed and I fall asleep immediately. 

I must have slept for a few hours because when I woke up I could hear my dad downstairs. After a quick shower and change of clothes, I head downstairs to the living room where my parents are sitting on the couch talking to two men in hazmat suits sitting in the armchairs across from them.  

“No, I don’t know any of their names, but I did recognize them from around town.” My mom’s voice sounds tired but strong and I know some of that strength is coming from the fact that my dad’s arm is around her shoulders. “Oh! Maggie’s up. See, I told you she would be down shortly.”

The men in hazmat suits have to turn their whole body to be able to see me coming into the room so to make it easier on them, I walk over and sit down next to my dad. “Hey,” I say because… what else do you say to hazmat covered CDC agents in your living room? 

“Please state your name for the record.” Left Suit stares intently at me, sitting forward in his chair. 

“Oh, uh- Maggie. Maggie Kirkland.” I look around and realize there’s a tape recorder on the table between us. Next to it is a sealed red biohazard bag which must contain the arm. 

“In your own words, please tell me what happened last night after sundown.” It was clear that Left Suit was in control of this interview. Right Suit sat back in his chair, almost seeming at ease in the bulky yellow suit. 

After they had heard my side of things, they asked a few more questions about the identity of the people in the horde, which unfortunately I couldn’t help much with. Then they packed up the items on the table and left, having ‘all the information they needed to complete their investigation.’ Mom went up to finally get some rest while Dad and I set to taking down all the plywood and hurricane shutters. He wanted to have it all done by the time she woke up so the house would feel normal again. 

We had just finished taking down the outside defenses and my dad could see it all over my face; I was antsy. I needed to be away from the house and doing… something, anything, other than this. A big exasperated smile stretches across his face, “Oh go on, Mags. I’ll finish up.” 

In my room I surveyed the different art mediums I had around. Do I feel like painting? Grabbing an easel and acrylics or maybe my travel watercolor palette? I could go basic and just grab pencil and sketchbook and do some people watching. I decided on my camera bag, slinging it on my shoulder as I run downstairs, kiss my dad on the cheek, and head out to my car. 

I didn’t have to drive far before I found my first photo opportunity. A large group of people are gathered outside a home a few streets away, kept back by the police barriers. I put on a telephoto lens, squeezed my way through the small crowd to get as close as possible, and snapped off a couple shots. Checking the tiny screen on the camera, I see several policemen milling about measuring things and taking photos of evidence. Another photo has a policewoman carrying evidence bags full of guns out of the house. 

“You just missed the bodies,” a smokey voice that sounds almost giddy whispers into my ear. 

“Bodies? Plural?” I turn and stare at the woman in disbelief. 

A cheshire-cat like grin spreads across her face, her desire to gossip outweighing her desire to appear as a saddened mourner. “Yep. Four of them. Apparently them undead that was loose last night found a way inside. Killed that poor family. I heard the gunshots you know, I live right over there.” She pointed to a house down the street. 

“Yeah,” I look back down at my camera and pretend to be adjusting the settings. “I heard it too.” I push away all thoughts of how that could have been me and my mom instead of this family and clear my throat. Before I’m able to speak again, I hear a clucking noise behind me. The gossiper and I both turn to the woman emitting the sound. 

“Oh don’t you start with me, you old hag. I’m just telling her what’s what,” the gossiper snapped before turning away from both of us to watch the live-action crime drama that was still going on. 

The ‘old hag’ turns her gaze to me and it feels as if she’s staring into my very soul. No one knows her name, but the whole town knows of her. She’s homeless and refuses assistance from anyone who tries to offer her food or a place to stay. Everyone just assumes she was wandering from town to town and had the misfortune to get caught in our town when the Wall went up. 

“Sorry,” I mumble, although I’m not quite sure why, and push my way back through the crowd, leaving the old hag, the gossiper, and the rest of the gawkers to their grotesque scene. 

Back in my car, I head towards the main road and out of my development. Normally, I would turn right and head towards the lake where I can always get some great photos, but today I wanted something different. I turn left and head towards the forest. Over the roofs of the rest of town, I can see the tops of the evergreens that make up the forest. Towering over them, from somewhere in the middle, are the smoke stacks of the paper mill that separates our town from Greenville, the only other town inside the Wall. I drive a ways into the forest following the paved roads until I hit the fork. Take the right street and it leads to the factory whereas the left eventually dumps you into a parking lot. I head left and park in the almost empty lot that is the beginning of several marked foot trails to follow through the forest.

I’ve lived here my whole life, which means I’ve taken these trails more times than I can count: nature trips with school science classes, midnight adventures with flashlights and friends, and romantic strolls with local boys. I choose one that I know has a few interesting landmarks I can photograph. I follow the trail for a half hour, snapping wildlife pics along the way, before I leave the well worn path for the humus of the forest floor. Leaving the path isn’t anything new either; a few years ago with a bunch of friends, we wandered this way and found an old abandoned stone house. That was where I was heading today. 

An hour-long walk later and the stone house stands in front of me with it’s half missing roof and a portion of it’s back wall crumbled, somehow looking both impressive and sad at the same time. I walk around the outside of the building and take several awkward angled shots that end up looking amazing. I circle the building like a vulture, looking for anything that, with the right filter, would look great on my Instagram. 

Having inspected and photographically catalogued the exterior, I head through the yawning black opening that used to be the front door. If there were any interior walls, they’re gone now and all that’s left is the shell of the house. A massive tree made it’s home in the back corner where the roof and wall collapsed, but has since died leaving a hollow trunk with a jagged top not too much taller than I am. 

I wander around the room, snapping a few photos here and there, but mostly just running my hands along the stone. What kind of life did these people lead? Did they ever have to deal with hordes of the undead? Probably not. Standing at a former window opening, I breathe in deeply and try to imagine what the forest looked like back when this house was in it’s prime. My thoughts are interrupted when I see someone walking in the forest and headed my way. I gasp and duck out of view. 

My dad will be so mad when he finds out I left my mace in my car, he’s always harping on me to carry it with me everywhere. Ever since the Wall went up, a small percentage of the people inside decided that the laws don’t matter anymore. There was looting and random violence everywhere in those first few months. It’s definitely slowed down over time as the CDC started to lock up the trouble makers, but you can never be too careful. Especially being alone in the middle of the woods with a strange man walking towards you. 

I look around the room to see if there’s anything I could use as a weapon if this encounter isn’t a friendly one. There’s nothing except maybe my camera. It’s heavy enough and the bag’s strap is long. I could swing it and get a good hit or two in if I needed to. Maybe I’ll get lucky enough and he’ll just walk on by. I take a peek back out the window to watch him.

He’s closer. And something’s wrong. His gait is off. He’s shambling, walking awkwardly with a limp. From this distance, I can see his gray eyes. He lets out a long low groan that sets every hair on edge. 

This can’t be. It just… can’t. It’s daylight. The new moon is over. He should be him again, not this. 

He’s almost at the house now. I need to run, I can’t stay here. But they’re fast, so fast, when they need to be. I’ll never outrun him. I tear myself away from the window and look around. The dead tree. Maybe I can hide in there. I take a step and the leaves crunch under my feet. Another groan, louder this time. A twig snaps way too close outside. 

Noise be damned, I need to hide. I take long strides and don’t breathe until I feel the smooth bark under my fingers. Slinking around the back, I try to keep the trunk between me and the front door. There’s a split in the wood I hadn’t noticed before. It takes some effort but I squeeze inside. For a few seconds, I actually feel safe. I may be ok. But through a crack in the trunk in front of me, I can see his shape in the doorway. 

With slow, deliberate steps, he crosses the room. 

His gray eye presses up to the crack in the trunk and he lets out one last low groan. 

He’s found me. 

Part 5

The Patient (Short Story – 100 Prompts)

 

In the tiny one story home, the sound of big band jazz music can be heard everywhere. It would actually be enjoyable if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the exact same songs that have played on repeat every single day for the last four years. Add to that the ever present sound of all the medical devices beeping and pinging out of sync with the music and you have a recipe for madness.

When Ella had first seen the advertisement for the job, she thought it was a dream come true. Home health nurse wanted for elderly patient, M-F 8am-5pm. After working 12 hour shifts plus overtime at the county hospital, it sounded like nirvana. All she had to do was take care of one patient while the family member was at work. The patient, Maude, had been in a coma for several years and during the interview her daughter Violet told Ella that all she was required to do was to make sure that the medical equipment was functioning properly, change out the nutrient and fluid bags once a day, and keep Maude’s music playing. Ella had asked about bathing and moving the patient, but Violet said she takes care of that at night.

“What kind of music does she like,” Ella asked, trying not to let her excitement show too much over finding such an easy gig.

“Only big band music. I’ve got a few CDs loaded into the player, you just need to be ready to start it over as soon as it ends. If there’s no music playing, her blood pressure sky rockets. It really keeps her calm.”

In the beginning, Ella sat mostly by Maude’s bedside, talking and reading to her. She only left the room to use the bathroom, grab some food for herself, or to answer the doorbell, which was always the mailwoman who had been on this route for 20 years asking how Maude was doing. “The same- unresponsive but her vitals are good.” Aside from being in a coma, Maude was perfectly healthy for a 78 year old. It’s apparent that she was never a pretty woman, even in her youth. Every time Ella looks at her, she is reminded of the witch from Snow White, which is probably why the house is occasionally under attack by the neighborhood kids screaming “witch” and hurling eggs. The few times this happened, Ella took it upon herself to hose the evidence away before Violet came home; she didn’t want to upset her.

Through her first year working there, Ella familiarized herself with the house, reading some of Maude’s own books to her; the ones in English anyway. Half of the bookshelves in Maude’s room were filled with what looked like really old cookbooks in a foreign language she didn’t recognize. She knew Violet had a bit of an accent she couldn’t place so she assumed these books were from wherever Maude had emigrated.

Ella was very content in her job, even if there wasn’t much to do. It wasn’t until the end of her second year she started to feel restless and bored. She had read through her ‘I’ll get to it eventually’ book pile and was tired of trying to read gossip magazines to Maude. Her time during the day began to be more in front of the TV and less in Maude’s room, rationalizing it to herself that Maude didn’t even know she was there. She always made sure that the music was playing and to check on her once every hour. But over time those hourly checks became every two hours, then every three, then twice a shift. As long as the CDs were playing and the beeping sounded normal, she knew everything was fine.

By her fourth year, Ella had settled into her routine of watching morning talk shows, then checking on Maude, then back onto the couch for daytime TV, including her soaps. One morning, after a particularly long night out with friends, she got to the house sure that she still reeked of wine. After a check on Maude and grabbing some water and aspirin, she laid down on the couch and fell asleep. A few hours later, the quickened beeping of the instruments woke her. It took her groggy brain longer than it should have to realize the music wasn’t playing. Ella scrambled off the couch and ran down the hall to see that although Maude looked the same, the devices around her were sped up almost double time. The dinging and beeping was almost as frantic as Ella as she pushed the buttons on the player to restart disc 1. Within seconds of the first few notes the beeping slowed to a normal pace. Guiltily, she spent the rest of the day next to Maude’s bed reading to her. The next day is when the trouble began.

It had started normal enough, saying good-bye to Violet, checking on Maude’s devices and nutrient bags, grabbing herself breakfast and sitting down to watch Good Morning America. It was sometime during the segment on a water-skiing squirrel she got a chill that sent goosebumps down her spine. It felt as if someone was standing just out of her peripheral vision staring at her. No one was there, obviously, but she got up to check on Maude, finding her exactly where she should be, all her equipment working normally. The whole rest of the day she couldn’t shake her feeling of being watched. That eerie feeling lasted a week and then worsened the following week with a constant dread in the pit of her stomach. Ella found herself sitting on the edge of the couch most days, looking at the TV but not really watching it, trying to convince herself that everything was all in her head and nothing was wrong. It was when she began to hear her name being whispered that she really started to freak out.

The first time it happened she ran into Maude’s room and stood in the doorway staring at the unconscious woman on the bed, convinced that somehow she was faking and was the one who had called her name. Movement just outside the window caught her eye and she threw open the dusty old crocheted curtains to see the mailwoman looking at her from the sidewalk twenty feet away. Is it possible she was just at the window and ran over there? No, she isn’t fast enough. Who was just here looking in? No one, there was no one here, you’re imagining things. Ella’s mind ran a mile a minute and she gave an insincere wave to the mail woman before drawing the curtains closed. Satisfied that Maude was still in her coma and not the source of the whispers, Ella made her way back out to the living room. She stood in the middle of the room, unsure of what to do with herself when she caught a snippet of dialogue from the soap on TV. “It was a ghost–” the show continued it’s ridiculous storyline, but hearing that word sent a fresh chill down her spine and made all her hair stand up.

A ghost? Could a ghost be responsible for everything I’m experiencing? She knew it all started with the lapse in the music, was the music somehow keeping a ghost at bay? It seemed ludicrous and if you had told her this scenario a year ago, Ella would be the first to tell you how crazy you sounded. But here she was, fully sane and considering a ghost. After talking with a friend that night, she bought a sage smudge stick to cleanse the house the next day. After Violet left, Ella lit the stick and walked slowly through the house, wafting it’s smoke into every corner, nook, and cranny, just as the saleswoman at the metaphysical shop told her to. An hour later, the whole house had been cleansed and she sat down on the couch relieved. For the first time in weeks she was able to actually watch TV, it was a news report on the massive thunderstorms that were going to hit very soon. Blackouts were a very real possibility during these storms, but thankfully Violet had all of the medical equipment connected to a backup generator that would kick in if the power went out.

And it did within an hour of the news broadcast, yet the beeping and big band played on. Between the lights being out and the storm clouds blocking out any hint of the sun, the house was pitch black. Ella grabbed the flashlight from the kitchen and made her way to the bedroom to check on Maude. The beam of the flashlight illuminated the instrument panels first and when everything checked out she turned to leave when the light from her flashlight fell onto the floor. She had never seen it before because it was always so dark but illuminated in the flashlight’s bright beam was paint on the hardwood flooring underneath Maude’s bed. Ella got down on all fours to check it out and she saw that the entire space underneath the bed was painted with symbols. She scratched at the one closest to her and the old paint flaked up easily under her nails.

As she pushed herself back up, the feeling of dread crept back in. It’s just because the power is out and this storm is making everything seem really creepy and there’s creepy symbols painted on the floor. There’s not actually anything wrong, you’re just freaking yourself out. And yet she hurried out of the room to grab another sage stick from her purse.

She dug through her large tote bag on the kitchen table and, unable to find what she was looking for, she dumped the entire contents of the bag out, spilling them on the table and floor. Lightning flashed and lit the house up for a fraction of a second before the BOOM of the thunder. In that fraction of a second she saw the sage stick on the linoleum floor next to some wadded up tissues and an old lipstick she forgot she even had. She dove for the bundle of herbs, somehow so sure that this would fix everything. Still on her knees, she tried to light the smudge stick when she realized it. She didn’t even know when it had stopped, but it had. The house was completely silent; no beeping, no alarms, and no music. And there, just at the edge of her vision, somebody was standing there watching her.

Fear jolted through her and she threw her whole body backwards and hit the kitchen cabinets behind her, she used them for leverage and pulled her body up. It was too dark to see clearly, but when another crack of lightning lit up the room, she saw everything… and wished she hadn’t. Maude stood in the entryway between the kitchen and the living room. She looked exactly how Ella pictured she would, except for the eerie grin on her face. The tubes that had sustained her in the coma now dragged behind her on the floor, dripping whatever substances they contained, and her body seemed stronger and less frail now than it had over the past four years. And then there was her eyes, they were yellow and had slit-like pupils like a cat.

With no warning, Ella was lifted in the air by an unseen force and dropped hard onto the kitchen floor. Blood immediately spurted from her nose and mouth, her tongue probed and found at least two broken teeth. But she didn’t have long to think about the pain before she was thrown hard to her right and into the stove, shattering the glass front and creating a thousand small cuts all over her body. Throughout it all, Maude hadn’t moved a muscle, except her eyes, which mimicked Ella’s movement as she was flung around the room twice more.

Ella lay mangled on the kitchen floor, blood pooling around her from countless injuries. The pain was too much to bear and she could feel her vision fading. With the last seconds of her life ticking away, Ella could only watch as Maude turned and walked to the front door, which swung open on it’s own as she got near. A flash of lightning outside briefly lit up the porch, where the mail woman waited, drenched and kneeling as if in praise of her former patient.

“Finally, it begins…”


 

All short stories in the “100 prompts” tag will be written using the flash fiction prompts list on Eva Deverell’s Creative Writing Blog.  They will all be stand-alone short stories unless otherwise noted. Check out the Story Index for more. (Image is from: Here)

This story was written using Prompt # 39: “She’d been coming here every day for four years, and there was never any work to do.”