They Say… (Short Story – 100 Prompts)

“They say this is the boy’s bike…”

It certainly looked old enough to fit the legend. Every inch of the frame was rusted metal and bulky, nothing like the streamlined road bikes which they all straddled. The relic rested haphazardly against a long forgotten wooden fence post that at one time marked the edge of a farm that used to be here. Every ten feet or so, another gnarled wooden post stood, creating an eerie border, cutting through the woods. The six boys dropped their bikes to the forest floor and crowded around the rusted figure.

“Wait, what boy? I thought you said the ghost was an old man?” Sean tugged his backpack off his shoulders and tossed it down next to his bike. 

“It is, newbie,” Lincoln sighed. He stepped in front of the bike, centering himself in front of the group of them. It was obvious from the moment Sean first walked into Timberland Middle School that Lincoln was the leader of the seventh grade. Sean knew if he wanted to fit in, he needed to be friends with Lincoln. “His name was Willard Grady. They say he kidnapped kids and brought them to the river and drowned them.”

“Why?” Ezra had spoken up. Sean was sure this wasn’t the first time the other boys had heard the story, but Lincoln was in showmanship mode and all of them stood enthralled.

“He was crazy.” Lincoln squatted and touched the rusted bike frame reverently. “They say this bike belongs to his last victim. He disappeared the same day as Old Man Grady, nobody knows what happened to either of them; they say their bodies were never found.”

Lincoln stood back up and swung his bag around so it rested on his stomach. He dug in and pulled out a handful of things. “They say Old Man Grady still haunts these woods, ringing an old bicycle bell as he prowls for more kids to drown in the river. Sean, your dare, should you be so brave as to accept, is to walk to the edge of the river, light this candle, and shout out to Old Man Grady that you’re here and not afraid of him.”

Lincoln shoved the items into Sean’s hands: a white pillar candle, a pack of matches, and a flashlight. Sean didn’t relish the thought of walking into unfamiliar woods alone less than a week after moving to a new town, but he wanted to be part of the group, he wanted to show them he wasn’t scared. “Each of you has done this before?”

The five other boys emphatically nodded and added words like “loads of times” but somehow Sean didn’t believe them. “Ok, well how far until the river?”

“Walk for about 10 minutes in that direction and you’ll see it, you can’t miss it.” 

Sean loaded the candle and matches into his bag which he slung back on his shoulders. He stood at the rusted bicycle, hesitant to cross the invisible barrier where the fence used to be. With one last glance over his shoulder at the guys, he took his first step deeper into the forest. 

He told himself not to look back, that looking back was a sign of fear and weakness, but he couldn’t help himself and, after enough time had passed, glanced back to see if they were still there. Although he was far enough away that he couldn’t really tell them apart, he figured the one leaning against a tree was Lincoln with Thomas, Ezra, Nicholas, and Jace all sitting on the forest floor in front of him, the beams of their flashlights waving around madly as they fought with them. Even though it was only dusk, the dense canopy of the forest made it necessary for them to need flashlights. 

He turned away from them, thankful that they hadn’t left him as a cruel prank, and continued deeper into the dark woods. Sean told himself that he was almost thirteen, almost a man, and wasn’t going to be scared of a story. Everything was still and quiet this far in, the only sound is the constant babbling of water from somewhere ahead of him. The flashlight Lincoln had given him wasn’t anywhere near as strong as the one he had at home, it’s beam weakly lighting up a small patch in front of him as he walked. 

A small sigh of relief escaped from his dry lips as his flashlight finally reflected off the moving water ahead of him. He was almost done. At the water’s edge, there were several boulders. He walked up to the largest of the three, it stood about chest high and he placed the candle from his bag on top. Sean twirled the matchbook between his fingers, contemplating his options. He had made it to the river, he could walk back and say he did it. He was far enough away from them that even if he yelled out to the ghost like he was supposed to, they wouldn’t hear him. 

But did he really want to solidify his new friendships with a lie? Before he could think on it too much more, he struck the match and lit the candle. It wasn’t much, but the small flame helped make the forest seem not as dark. This was it. All he had to do was say some words and he could head back to his new friends. He cleared his throat and decided to scream as loud as he could, hoping that Lincoln and the others could hear him. 

“Old Man Grady! Here I am! And I’m not afraid of you!!” It would have felt empowering, if his voice hadn’t cracked in the middle of the word afraid. Was it from fear or puberty? If he thought the forest was quiet before, it was as if all sound had been blocked now. Even the river seemed to quiet down. 

A twig snaps somewhere to his left. He sweeps the beam of the flashlight in the direction, anxiously shining it’s light around searching for the source of the noise. It was a deer, or a rabbit or something, he told himself. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. He had done what he needed to. He blew out the candle and left it where it sat. 

As he turned to head back, his flashlight flickers, briefly engulfing him in the darkness of the forest, before coming back on. Sean never thought he would be so happy to have that weak stream of light. Not wanting to be there any longer than he needed to be, he heads off back out of the forest, faster than he had walked in. 

Brrring! The wind carried the distant noise to his ears, the sound which in any other situation would have been completely normal. But here, in the middle of the woods, the ring of the bicycle bell causes every inch of his skin to form goose bumps. Icy water had replaced his blood and he was colder than he ever thought possible. His chin quivers and he rationalizes that it’s probably just Jace, they said he was a prankster, so he probably added the bit about the bell so he could scare him. Yeah, that was it. 

And yet his feet stomp just a little faster. Something fast breaks through the cylinder of light cast by his flashlight. It took a fraction of a second. Did he imagine that? Maybe. But instinct takes over; his fingers and toes tingle as his body is flooded with the “flight” hormone. Sean takes off running at full speed, barely avoiding trees. 

He can hear his heart pounding, louder than he’s ever heard before. And yet over that deafening noise, there is something else. The sound is unmistakeable. Something is behind him and catching up. 

It’s too risky to turn and look but he has to know. Has to. Would he turn and see Jace red faced and laughing? Or would he see the ghost of a madman? 

He glances over his shoulder and his blood turns to ice again. It’s not Jace. 

But it’s not Old Man Grady either.

The figure chasing after him has the appearance of a boy, younger than him, but not by much. He wears overalls and his skin is sallow and gray. Even though he is keeping pace, his feet never touch the ground. He merely hovers along behind him. His arms are outstretched, reaching for Sean.

A part of him always thought if he did see a ghost, it would be see-through, like a fog. This apparition behind him was scarier. It seemed to have weight to it, as if it could really hurt him. Even though his legs ached with exhaustion, he pushed harder, trying to put distance between himself and the boy. 

Up ahead, the trees thinned and he could see the beams from five flashlights lazily floating around. An unintelligible scream escapes his throat. Part warning, part cry for help. Instantly all five flashlights find him. He can hear them screaming “hurry up!”

He can’t explain it, but Sean knows that if he can get past the old fence post, he’ll be safe. 

A raspy voice right behind him shouts “Run!”

He’s close enough to make out who is who in the dark, he can even see the shape of the fence post. He’s so close, he’s going to make it, he’ll be safe in just a few more seconds.

Before he can reach the invisible boundary, he is pushed to the ground from behind. The wind is knocked out of him and he lays there, gasping, listening to the frantic screams of Lincoln and the others just feet away. 

Cold fingers wrap around his ankles and with a sharp tug, begin to drag him back into the woods. His fingers claw for purchase in the forest floor, but find nothing but loose dirt and twigs. Sean lifts his head to see the five boys gathered next to the post, screaming to him. A sixth boy in overalls stands nearby, watching Sean with sad eyes. Without thinking, he kicks at whatever is holding him, glancing backwards just long enough to see the surprised look on the old man’s face. 

Scrambling on hands and knees, he heads for the fence post. The ghost of the little boy no longer scares him. Instead it waves it’s arms as if to say “yes, this way, come on!” 

Kicking off with his back feet, he reaches an arm out towards Lincoln to pull him to safety but it’s at that moment when Willard Grady’s ghost grasps his ankle again. Sean’s arms wildly reach out for anything to grab ahold of and they grasp the rough metal of the old bike frame. Before he can get dragged in again, Lincoln, Jace, Nicholas, Thomas, and Ezra each grab the other end of the bike. 

With two hard yanks, they manage to free Sean from the ghost’s grip and pull him to their side of the fence. They lay in a pile, breathing raggedly, and watch as Old Man Grady stalks back and forth along the inside of the invisible fence before giving up and heading back into the woods. 

The young boy still stands off to the side, smiling at them. He glances to the rusted bicycle tangled up in their arms. With a wink at them, a bicycle identical to the one they cling to, except without the rust, appears. The young boy hops on and turns to ride off into the woods, with a last brrrrring of his bicycle bell as a goodbye.


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 # 15: Write a story that begins and ends with a bicycle.

They’re Just Like Us (The Finale)

Catch up on the story here


Warmth. Something soft beneath me. A crackling fire. Tripp’s voice nearby, groggy, saying “what… what happened?” A scuffling sound. Cool hands pressing against my arm, my face. “Maggie? Maggie wake up.”

My eyelids are so heavy and I feel so comfy. I don’t want to wake up.

“What did you do to us? Come on, wake up, Maggie!”

The panic in his voice scares me, so I slowly open my eyes. After adjusting to the light, I see Tripp is sitting on the floor next to the worn couch I’m lying on.

After a quick look around, I realize we’re in an old stone house, but not like the one where I first met him. This house has been well tended to and is in perfect condition. The interior walls are still standing here and are adorned with paintings, the floor is polished wood and covered with crocheted rugs, and the stairs leading to the second floor look as solid as the day they were built.

A smokeless fire is burning in the hearth nearby and next to it, rocking in a wooden chair, is the old hag. For the first time that I’ve seen, she is smiling.

“Ah, see there?” she says in a frail, thin voice. “I knew she would wake soon, there was no cause for alarm.”

I sit up as Tripp fusses over me, making sure I’m feeling ok as I do so. 

“You both must have been very determined,” she continues to rock, watching up with a curious expression. “My wards have sent even the strongest hunters running off in the opposite direction, yet you two forced through them and even managed to cross my wall.” 

“What’s a ward?” Tripp asks as he moves to sit next to me on the couch. 

“A repellant spell, to keep people from getting too close to my home. Of course I also have other spells in place: a camouflage spell so the house isn’t visible to anyone who gets near enough, and the defense spell that you both are waking up from.” 

“Who are you?” I ask.

“My family name has been lost to me, but you can call me Patience. I am the Witch of the Woods.”

My head was swimming with questions; trying to sort and prioritize them was almost impossible. Instead of a well thought out question, I blurted out, “How old are you?”

Instead of getting angry, her smile grew even wider. “Old,” was the only answer I got. She turned her attention to Tripp. “I owe you an apology.”

“Me?” Tripp leaned forward, eager to soak in every word Patience said. 

She stopped rocking and slowly got off her chair, taking slow shuffling steps to the mantle above the fire. She pulls down a thin navy blue box. She runs her fingers lovingly across the lid before opening it like a book and sighing heavily. 

She begins to take shuffling steps towards us when Tripp hops off the couch and crosses the distance of the small room. I follow his lead to look at the object in her hand. 

What I thought was a box was actually a portfolio style case for an old tintype photograph. The man in the photo looks to be around his mid-20s and although he is posed stoically, you can see the warmth in his eyes. I look up to see Patience is choked up. I guided her back into her rocking chair, Tripp and I sit on the floor in front of her. 

“My Amos.” It seemed as if even saying his name was painful. “I have lived more lifetimes than I can count and he is the only man I have ever loved. I used my magic to extend his life, but all magic comes with a price. I couldn’t make him immortal as I am, but the spell I did extended his life immensely, but doing so instantly took my youth and vitality and made me into what you see in front of you.”

She closed her eyes, for a few seconds before continuing. “My Amos didn’t care. He loved me no matter how I was. We lived here blissfully, completely disconnected from the world around us for over one hundred years.” 

“He aged over the years, at a much slower pace than he would have without the spell. After enough time, we looked like a proper couple.” A dry chuckle escapes her throat. “Even though we knew it was coming, his passing was too difficult for me.” 

I glance over at Tripp and his gray eyes watch her raptly. 

“Those first days were the hardest of my life. I made the fateful decision one night after crying nonstop for hours.” 

Patience took a slow, steadying breath, but I knew what she was going to say. “You decided to bring him back.”

Her chestnut brown eyes opened and fixed on me, they appeared decades younger than the rest of her. “I did,” she nodded lightly. “A powerful full moon was approaching. At the height of it, I performed the ritual and within minutes he was back with me, just as he was before – except his eyes.” She shifts her glance to Tripp. “We spent the night holding each other and smiling.” 

She points to a shelf on the far wall, “my dear, bring me the doll over there.” I jump up and cross the room. On the shelf is a small, hand sewn doll made of a coarse brown woven material and a blue cotton shirt material. Small gray pearl buttons have been stitched on for the eyes. I never believed in magic before all of this, but holding this doll, it radiated with magic. 

I brought it back to Patience and she cradled it in her lap. “Amos and I spent the next two weeks back in our euphoric state.”

I held my breath, I knew what was coming. 

“But as I said, all magic has a price.” She looked back to the doll in her lap, unable to look at us as she continued to tell her tale. “The new moon came around. A full lunar cycle from the night he passed. As soon as the sun went down…” 

“He changed,” Tripp filled in when she couldn’t bring herself to say it. 

“He wasn’t himself. I had no choice but to-“ 

“You did what you had to,” I chimed in. 

She brought her gaze back up to meet my eyes. “I did. I didn’t know he would change back, I couldn’t leave him like that. So once again I was alone. It wasn’t long after… that when I noticed all the helicopters overhead. I ventured out past my  wall and into the town and saw that my spell had brought more than just Amos back.”

“I wandered the towns gathering information. I learned that everyone who came back ‘changed’ during the new moon but were themselves again the next morning. I should have broken the spell right then but despite the new moon challenge, I saw families reunited. I couldn’t break them up again.”

Patience whispered, barely audible. “I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t your decision anymore,” Tripp said. I could only watch, confused, as he reached forward and took the doll from Patience’s lap and stood up. He spun the doll around in his hand, slowly, inspecting every inch of it. 

I stood up as well, thinking he was looking for something on the doll. I stood mesmerized as he twirled it in his strong hands. 

“Maggie…” he began but stopped himself. 

Beside us, Patience worked her way out of the chair and made her way across the room to the small kitchen area, her back to us. I almost thought I heard a sniffle as she walked away. 

I looked up into Tripp’s gray eyes and felt something warm on my face. With one hand, he wiped away the tears that had slipped from my eyes. My body knew what was happening before my mind had caught up but in that instant, I knew what was happening. 

“No. Whatever you’re thinking, just… no.” More tears fell onto my cheeks. 

“I- all of us, we were never supposed to be back. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved having this extra time, but every new moon that comes around…” He wiped away more tears and left his cool hand resting on my shoulder. “It’s not right. We need to go back to wherever we were before.”

“There’s protocols, to keep everyone safe,” my voice is so shaky it doesn’t even sound like me.

“For how long? What if they fail?” But he doesn’t wait for an answer, he leans down and kisses me, his cool lips connecting with mine. 

A sob escapes my throat as he pulls back, he turns towards the fire. “No, wait, please!” I grab at his upper arm, desperate to hold him longer. “Not yet, please. Please.” 

A small cough comes from the kitchen, we both turn and see the old hag pointing out the window, the forest beyond the glass is orange in the setting sun. The new moon is minutes away. 

My breathing is ragged and I pull Tripp into a hug, not wanting to let go. He holds me tighter than he ever has and plants one last cold kiss on my forehead. Still in my arms, he tosses the doll onto the flames next to us. For a heartbeat nothing happens, but then with a flash of green flames, Tripp’s body crumples to the floor. 

I drop down beside him, draped across him, and weep. After several minutes, Patience sits down on the floor beside me. She gently puts a mug of steaming tea into my hands, I sit up and look at her pleadingly. 

“Bring him back.”

“Drink up, Maggie. Everything will be ok.”

The scent coming from the warm mug is floral and herbal and unlike anything I ever smelled before. As I lift the mug, my tears fall from my cheeks and mingle into the tea. With the first sip, my sadness lessens just a little bit. 

Outside in the distance, the futile air raid siren sounds. 

 

Epilogue

In a booth at the Lakeside Grill, I sit with my laptop open in front of me and my notebook open beside it. I scroll through the Undead Reporter website and all the articles that I’ve posted in the six months since The End. I told myself I would honor Tripp’s memory by reporting the whole truth. Thankfully, he had given me the username and password for his site so I used his platform to continue spreading the news. 

I scrolled through the titles of past articles I’ve written: The Witch of the Woods; the CDC Interrogation; the Body Collection; and The Wall Comes Down posted only two days ago.  

I go to the drafts page. The title stares at me in big bold letters: MY GOODBYE. 

The empty field for the body of the post stares back at me. I’ve started and deleted this post so many times. Saying goodbye to his readers feels like a final goodbye to him. Tripp’s dedication to the truth gave me the drive I needed in my own life. In a few days, I start a new job at the area’s number one news station. 

The Undead Reporter helped with that. My posts reporting on everything that happened got world wide attention. I had offers from LA to New York to London. I chose to stay local. My dad being gone again has been really hard on my mom so I wanted to be able to be with her and commute to work. 

I begin to type: Thank you, dear readers, for allowing me to bring you with me on this whirlwind the last few months.

A camera flash to my left breaks my train of thought. I look up to see a plump woman with unnaturally red hair. The stunned look on my face prompts her to take a step closer to my booth.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, it’s just – you’re her, aren’t you? Maggie Kirkland?” Her sweatshirt is a pale pink embroidered with the name of a coastal town I had never heard of, the seashell details obscured by the camera hanging around her neck. 

“Yes, I am. Hi, nice to meet you.” I shake her hand and as quickly as her name comes out of her mouth, I’ve forgotten it. She takes a selfie with me and goes back to her table, chattering excitedly and showing her pictures to the man at the table. 

This kind of interaction is nothing new, since the wall came down, our town has been flooded with tourists. They all have traveled here to see the empty CDC containment centers, the paper mill, the lake, and the woods. But no matter how far they search into the woods, they will never find the stone house that Patience occupied. 

The last time I saw her was that fateful day six months ago. I sipped my tea with Tripp’s lifeless body next to me. She told me the tea wouldn’t take away my pain, but it would make it bearable. She also said she was moving on from these woods, they would never be the same without Amos. She was going to find other woods to call her home. I drifted off to sleep and when I woke up, I was in the middle of the forest with Tripp’s body and both of our backpacks. I used his GPS to send my coordinates to my mom. I waited for hours until the retrieval team showed up. They took Tripp’s body and escorted us both out of the woods. 

When the CDC team took the map and went back to the restricted area, they found nothing but more woods. No stone house, no wall, and no Patience.

I had no evidence for the CDC to back up my story other than a map to nowhere. But with no other explanation, they “unofficially” accepted my story. “Officially” all their reports claim it’s a freak combination of water and soil and bacteria that caused The Rising. 

After the “official” reports were released, hits on The Undead Reporter site skyrocketed. According to all the tourists that have been interviewed, no matter what the CDC says, my truth has become the “official” story of the people. 

Back to my laptop I delete what I had written and begin again. 

Thank you, Tripp, for showing me that the truth-

I hit the backspace key, deleting what I just wrote until all that was left was, “Thank you, Tripp.”

A satisfying feeling passed through me as I pressed the big green “PUBLISH” button on the right hand side of the screen. As I tuck my laptop into my bag, I see a pair of worn converse step up to my table. 

A familiar voice says, “Hi.”

I look up to see Tim standing over me. I only ever saw him sitting down and in a CDC hazmat suit, so seeing him out in the open like this was shocking. He’s muscular, and taller than I would have thought. 

“It’s nice to finally meet you,” he extends his hand and blushes slightly.

I shake his hand, comforted by it’s warmth. “Nice to finally meet you too.” 

He slides into the booth across from me and, without the aid of Patience’s tea, I feel like things might just be ok. 

They’re Just Like Us (Part 7)

Catch up on the story here


Leaves and twigs crunch under our feet as we snake our way through the forest at sundown the next day. We met at one of the trail parking lots and left the cars there, heading deep into the forest, leaving the trails far behind us. The barely-there crescent moon peeked through the treetops but doesn’t provide much light, so the small beams of our flashlights lit our way. Tripp talked excitedly as we trekked along.

“I’ve been so sure this whole time, that the paper mill has something to do with the Rising. I mean, a factory that uses a ton of chemicals smack in the center of this all just can’t be a coincidence.” He moves his hands more when he talks today than he has in the past. “You just know they are leeching chemicals into the water supply-”

I cut him off before he can go any further, “But even before the Rising, they had to have some sort of safety checks. And the CDC has done a few inspections since then, right?”

“They have, over a dozen times I think. I joined them on one of them.” He grins, proud of that fact. “They wanted to be transparent about what they were doing so when my site started to become popular, they asked me along to report on what I had seen.”

“So, if you know the CDC has already checked them out, and you even participated on the inspections, why are we headed there? And why didn’t we just park in their lot?”

“Because we’re not doing an inspection. I’m just…” he paused, trying to find the words. “I’m just so sure they’re the cause. I just need to find the proof.”

His whole demeanor seemed to have changed in an instant. “And how are we going to find it?”

He stops walking and turns to face me, hands clenched around his flashlight. I match his posture jokingly before realizing he wasn’t playing around. I relax my body. “Well?”

“I’m breaking in to look through their files.”

“You’re what?!” My hand clutches at the strap of my camera bag slung over my shoulder, wringing it tightly. “You can’t do that, you’re going to get caught – you’ll get arrested!”

“It’s a possibility, yes.” He digs into his pocket and pulls out a scrap of paper. “Maggie, you’re going to need this.”

I hesitate before finally taking the paper from his hands. Unfolding it, I see the words “AdminT” and “ISFTT1212” scrawled in his messy handwriting.

“It’s the login for my website, so you can report what happens, if something happens to me and I can’t.” He adjusts the brim of his baseball cap and nods, smiling. “It won’t come to that, but I figured you should have it.”

“Ok… yeah.” I shove the paper into a small side pocket in my camera bag. “Can we get back to the breaking and entering that’s about to happen though?”

“Don’t worry, I thought it through.” He turns away and starts heading toward the paper mill again. “You’re not coming in with me. I don’t mind breaking the law but I won’t have you do it too. I want you there to take some outside shots of me entering and that’s it.”

“I appreciate you saying that,” I sped up to match his pace, “but I’m going in with you.”

We argued the rest of the walk as to whether I was staying outside or going with him. The only thing that broke the argument was the chain link fence surrounding the mill coming into view.

Tripp made quick work of cutting and pulling aside part of the chain fence so we could slip inside.

The massive gray building loomed ahead of us, it’s idle smoke stacks reaching for the inky blue sky. We made our way around the side and to the back of the building until we reached a small shed attached to the building. Behind us we could see the massive dark shadows that were the piles of lumber that would eventually be pulped and pressed and who knows what else.

Tripp shoved his flashlight into his bag and in a hushed whisper explained, “the floor level windows and doors are all alarmed, but I’m going to climb this shed and pry open the second floor window to get in.”

“You mean we are going to…”

He looked as if he was going to argue but gave up and continued in his whisper “Ok, fine.”

“And why are we whispering? We’re doing this at night because you said the place would be empty?”

“No, I said the employees would be gone, but the mill has a security company that does sweeps through the building.”

That revelation should have changed my mind, but his quest for the truth was infectious and I found that I truly didn’t want to stay outside, no matter the risk. It also didn’t matter that I felt the paper mill wasn’t involved somehow, I just needed to see how this ended.

I began to climb the shed, which was difficult since there wasn’t much to hold, but Tripp was able to give me a boost- by using both hands on my hips to help push me up. My face flushed as I scrambled up onto the small rooftop. He was up on the roof effortlessly a few seconds later.

He rested a hand on my shoulder, his concerned gray eyes boring into mine. “Last chance to back out, Mags. If you stay here, you’ll only get a slap on the wrist for trespassing if we’re caught.”

“I’m coming with.” The decision was made and I wasn’t changing my mind now.

The large window took both of our strength to lift open but eventually lifted enough for us to scramble through. We stood on the metal catwalk that surrounded the entire factory floor. Below us were massive spools of paper, ten feet tall and two times as wide. Beyond the spools were conveyor belts and large machines and vats that contained the necessary paper-making supplies. During the day the factory floor would be bright, noisy, and a flurry of activity, but right now with just the security lights lit, it feels deserted and eerie.

Tripp points across the building, I follow his attention and see a row of office doors, closed, on the opposite wall. We’re halfway around the catwalk when Tripp grabs my arm and pulls me into a crouched position, huddled against the outer wall. It takes a second or two for me to see what he saw. The beam of a security flashlight bouncing around on the factory floor below us. A few seconds later the heavy set body of a pale skinned security guard comes into view.

I start to panic, afraid of getting caught. I look to Tripp and see his gray eyes are wide with excitement. He’s having a blast and here I am starting to hyperventilate. He mouths “it’s ok. Don’t worry” and nods for me to look at the guard again.

The security guard is almost directly below us and because of our higher vantage point I’m able to see that the he isn’t even paying attention to what’s going on around him. His head is down and although the hand with the flashlight is panning back and forth, his attention is focused on his other hand where his cell phone is held, the screen awash with colorful balls. He swipes across his screen frantically and a menagerie of sounds is emitted, like a slot machine in a casino. The guards deep voice drowns them out for a second as he shouts “yes!” Apparently proud of whatever he had just accomplished in his game.

My breathing returns to normal as the guard moves away from us, taking the sounds of his game dinging along with him. We stay hunched along the catwalk a few extra minutes to ensure the guard isn’t going to do a sweep upstairs.

The mill must trust their security team because the office door isn’t locked when we try it. The first office has old looking wood paneling on the walls, a desk in front of it, and filing cabinets along the walls. Each filing cabinet drawer is filled with purchase orders, supply invoices, and monthly expense logs. After several minutes rifling through the paperwork, Tripp signaled to me that we should move on to the next office.

The second office was similar to the first in it’s wood paneling decor and single desk. The only difference we found were the contents of the filing cabinets. Where the last was all financial numbers, these are filled with people. Or, their personnel files more accurately.

Drawer after drawer was filled with files on each employee, their resumes, performance reports, HR complaints, and things of that nature. Tripp didn’t make any motions to move on so we stayed, flipping through files for almost ten minutes. He knew what he was looking for and finally I heard him whisper “here it is!”

The file was for the safety officer at the mill; the person in charge of all the safety checks on the equipment, ensuring the seals on all the chemical vats, and dealing with the environmental protection agency regulations. Tripp flipped angrily through his file, finding nothing out of the ordinary, before stuffing it back into the drawer with a huff.

The door to the third office was locked, which quickly erased Tripp’s frustration and brought back the glint of excitement to his gray eyes. He dug through his bag and pulled out a small tool kit. Using two slim silver tools from the kit, he popped the lock and we slipped inside, silently shutting the door behind us.

This was clearly the office of somebody important. The space is much larger than the other ones, with two large windows flanking a massive, solid wood desk. The wood paneling must have been removed from the walls a long time ago and instead was painted a tasteful off-white. Two leather chairs sit in the corner on the left side of the room, an end table between them turned into a makeshift bar with lowball glasses and decanters full of dark liquors.

Tripp’s attention was focused on the wall to our right. A dark wood lateral filing cabinet sat there, the dim light from the parking lot out front coming in through the windows glints off the polished handles. Tripp knelt in front of it as a person kneels in front of a religious artifact. He tugged on the handles and found each drawer to be locked, which made him feverish. With the same silver tools, he unlocked the drawers, yanking out folder after folder, tearing through them with the voracity that got me worked up too.

I knelt beside him and opened the first folder I could, only to find blueprints for the building we were in. Undeterred, I grabbed the next folder which contained bills of sale on their delivery trucks. It went on that way for the next dozen or so folders I grabbed. Banal paperwork that kept the business running. No EPA warnings, no secret memos about chemical spills, nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Tripp was poring over an environmental impact report he had found and I had just opened a file that contained a map of the surrounding forest when we both froze. Metallic thuds come from outside and they were unmistakable –  footsteps on the catwalk. As quietly as possible, we shove the folders into the drawers and looked around for a hiding spot. I realized the map was still in my lap so I stuff it into my camera bag as Tripp pulls me to my feet and towards the front corner of the room. If someone came in, we would be to their left in the darkest corner behind a coat rack.

Hopefully that would be enough to hide us.

My back was against the wall and Tripp was as close as he could be without squishing me. I had gotten so used to his gray eyes and he always wore his baseball cap that covered his head wound but the lack of heat radiating from him was a shocking reminder that he was undead. That was something my mom struggled with when Dad first came back, the room temperature body heat.

I pulled my thoughts back to our current problem as the steps got closer. It was probably the guard on an hourly sweep, locked into whatever he was playing on his phone, and would walk on by as he did before.

But of course we aren’t that lucky. The footsteps come to a halt on the opposite side of the wall. The metal doorknob jiggles as a key slips inside and turns.

My heart is pounding so hard I wonder if Tripp can feel it. He frantically scans the room, trying to figure out our next move. The door swings open and a weathered man in his mid-50s enters. He’s taller than Tripp is with salt and pepper hair, broad strong shoulders, and arms that are thicker than a tree trunk. Any thoughts Tripp may have had about overpowering this man probably flew out the window the instant we saw him.

With a flick of the switch, the room floods with a warm light from overhead. The man makes his way towards the desk.

We have only a few seconds until he spots us.

Tripp grabs my arm and pulls me towards the door. I can hear a surprised shout from behind me but I don’t turn around. I follow Tripp’s lead and run as fast as I can along the catwalk, heading back to the open window.

“HEY! STOP!!”

The thudding behind me tells me he’s chasing us. Without looking back, Tripp yells to me “Don’t stop!”

He disappears through the window onto the roof of the shed ahead of me. I practically dive through it right behind him. With no hesitation Tripp leaps off the roof to the ground below. “Come on! Jump!”

I hesitate.

The ground looks too far away from up here. But I hear a noise and turn to see the man at the window, his could-be-handsome face is red with anger and he hollers at me again to stop.

Instead, I jump.

Like the graceful person I am, I land on my ankle wrong and tumble to the ground. Yanking on my arm, Tripp helps me up and pulls me back into a run for the hole in the fence he made.

I go through the fence first and as Tripp scrambles through the opening, I hazard a glance at the window. The man is still standing there, fuming quietly watching us slip away.

We run for as long as we are able to in the dark, stumbling over logs and roots in the dark forest. When we finally feel we’re a safe distance and not being followed, we slow our pace to a fast walk.

My chest burns with the effort of running. I wouldn’t say I’m out of shape, but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m in shape either. My breathing is hard and ragged and Tripp’s is equally as loud. I wonder if this is from running or because his brain feels like it should be doing that.

We walk in silence until the yellow of his Jeep is visible in the distance. He lets out a heavy sigh, the first sound he’s made since we escaped.

“I’m sorry we didn’t find anything, Tripp.”

“Yeah,” another long sigh. “Maybe it’s there and we just didn’t have the time to find it? Maybe we should try again after the new moon?”

“He saw us; he knows we were in his files. If there’s even anything worth finding, he’s not going to keep it there anymore, and he’ll probably beef up the security around the place after this.” The forest breaks into the open expanse of the trail’s parking lot. The tiniest sliver of moon hangs in the sky above us. “It’s over.”

His shoulders seem to sag with the realization. “Yeah,” he repeats, sounding totally defeated.

I dig my hand into my bag to fish out my keys and my fingers brush against paper wadded inside. I pull it out and realize it’s the map from the man’s office. “At least we got this nifty map of the forest.”

“Who cares? It’s public knowledge that they bought a large chunk of the forest as nature reserves. I guess they figured since loggers are cutting down forests for their paper, it’ll look good for the environmentalists.” He pulls his keys out of his backpack. “It probably is just a map of what portion they own.”

I unfold the map and smooth it out, laying it on the trunk of my car. Tripp was just about to hop up into his Jeep when I called his name. “Come take a look at this.”

In the middle of the map, deep in the forest, an area is circled in red marker. The word “RESTRICTED” is written beneath it.

His jaw hangs open as he inspects the map. His fingers trace over the word several times before he goes back into his frenzy mode. Out of his bag he digs a small ruler and his GPS. He does several calculations before he acknowledges I’m still standing there.

“There’s no roads anywhere near there that I can see, but we can hike it. It’ll take about three hours if you’re up for it.”

“Now?! No way! It’s pitch black out, by the time we get there it’ll still be pitch black, and it’ll stay pitch black for hours after we get there!” I snatch the map out of his hands. “I’m all for hiking it, but if we’re doing this, we’re doing it the right way.”

Tripp opens his mouth to complain but I cut him off. “We’re not hiking these woods in the middle of the night. It doesn’t make sense. We’ll meet back here first thing tomorrow and hike there. It’ll be light out so I can get plenty of photos of whatever is in this restricted area. And we’ll still have plenty of time to hike back to get you to the CDC containment center for sundown.”

His eyes dart to the map in my hands. “But -“

“No.”

“We can-“

“No we can’t. I’m hanging on to the map overnight. Go home. Get some sleep. We’ll meet back here at 6:30. That way we don’t accidentally walk into a sleeping bear or something.” I tuck the map back into my bag.

He chuckles, apparently accepting his fate that there’s no way we’re going on that hike right now. “Ok, first thing tomorrow morning. We’re going to finally find the truth.” His smile lights his whole face.

A tingling sensation builds in my stomach and I decide to be bold. I stand on my toes and press my lips against his, lingering against their coolness for a few seconds before pulling away. His smile is now lopsided, a combination of shock and joy.

I know my face is completely red, so I quickly say “See you tomorrow morning.” I hop in my car and pull away, watching in the rear view mirror as he does a touchdown celebration style dance before climbing into his Jeep.

The next morning, I turn into the same lot and see he’s already parked and double checking his pack. When he sees my car, he salutes me with a cup of coffee and stands there with a smile. We exchange the coffee for the map, which he studies for a few more minutes while I sip my coffee.

“Ok, so I’ve plugged the coordinates into the GPS. My estimate was right, it should take us about three hours to get there.” He slings his backpack up onto his shoulders. “You ready?”

I follow suit, strapping on the back I had packed earlier with everything I could possibly need on the hike: water, snacks, dry socks, books on local vegetation, and of course my camera equipment. “Yep! Let’s do this!”

We hike side by side on the trail for a half hour or so before consulting the GPS and heading off-trail for the remainder of the hike. Once we get off trail, Tripp speaks up.

“So… you kissed me.”

My stomach folds itself into knots, then unties, and folds again. “Yep, I did.”

“Lets do that again sometime,” he says with a smile that I can hear. He slips his hand into mine and we hike on. We take several rest breaks as we go, making sure to hydrate and grab a snack when needed. We also use the time to repeat the kiss from the night before. Each time we kiss, the cool temperature of his lips takes me off guard.

Tripp takes one last look at the GPS to confirm we’re going in the right direction. “It looks like we’re almost there.” He puts the GPS away and takes my hand again as we walk.

“What do you think we’re going to find?”

He’s silent for a few seconds, thinking, before he finally quips, “an alien landing site.”

I roll my eyes and laugh, happier than I’ve felt in a very long time.

It’s almost a half hour later when we spot it. An old stone wall in the distance. With a quick check of the GPS, Tripp nods to confirm that’s what we’re looking for.

The wall looks incredibly old but doesn’t appear to be falling apart or in ruins. It stands chest high and goes on with no breaks or gates as far as we can see. From where we are, it looks as if there’s nothing inside the wall but more forest.

“Here, give me your bag, I’ll toss them over, then I’ll help you over.” He’s already got his bag off his shoulders and over the wall by the time I shrug my pack off.

“Careful, my camera equipment is in there.”

He hops on his belly on top of the wall and reaches to set my bag down as gently as he can. Then he jumps back down and reaches for my waist. “Your turn.”

The feeling that builds in my stomach isn’t excitement at his touch this time. It’s dread. From the moment the wall came into view, I’ve had the uncontrollable urge to turn and run. Run as far and as fast as my legs can take me.

But I don’t. We’ve come this far and it would disappoint him too much if we didn’t search every inch inside this stone wall. So he gives me the boost I need to get to the top of the wall. I swing my legs over and hop down to the soft forest floor on the other side. The feeling of dread deepens even though there’s nothing I can see but more trees. I grab my pack and slip it back on over my shoulders.

“So, which way do you want to go?” I ask.

I watch his gray eyes scan the empty forest ahead of us, somewhat disappointed at what he sees. “This way, I guess.”

I’m fixing the twisted strap on my bag as he starts to walk. He takes a few steps and wobbles on his feet. I rush up behind him to help support him but before I can get to him, my vision goes hazy, as if I opened my eyes underwater.

I gasp for breath, unable to bring air into my lungs. My nails scratch at my throat, trying to claw it open for air. The ground rushes up to meet my face as I collapse. The last thing I can see through the haze is the shape of Tripp falling down a few feet away.


Continue to The Final Chapter

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