Unedited, Uncensored, Unsettling. It’s that time of the week again! Last week’s challenge, In a Dark Wood, conjured up some wonderful imagery from a couple of masters of macabre, Mike Lane and Aiden Leingod. Light the campfire, grab your flashlight, and curl up with a few good tales.
Both were inspired by Picture Three, which is posted just above the stories. At the end, I’ve added the next thrilling installment of Nick Paschall’s novel, Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest. Be sure to check back tomorrow for another exciting challenge.
The Garden Keeper by Mike L Lane
Crouched behind a fallen tree, Raymond struggled to control his breath and keep from moving. Every sound he made in the forest amplified. If he slightly repositioned his cramped leg, the leaves rustled like blared television static seizing him in panic. A snapped twig under his weight cracked the rain soaked air like a gunshot blast and blood rushed to his ears with a maddening pulse. Even his heartbeat thumped like tribal drums to the tune of hunters on the warpath.
The shadow stalking him made no sound at all.
Raymond chanced a peek over the log, his eyes darting back and forth to scan the surrounding woods. That thing was out there searching for him. He could smell it. It was a pungent aroma that reeked of sweat, ammonia and a faint hint of sickly sweet bubblegum that drowned out all scents of rain and leaves. The rancid odor burned his nostrils, intensifying as the shadow drew near. If fear had a distinct smell, Raymond believed this was it. He ducked behind the log and covered his nose with his tie, his mind racing. He couldn’t hide here forever.
“You can’t hide from me forever,” the shadow called out with a thin, low hiss, practically plucking the thought from his mind. The sound bounced off of the trees and came from no particular direction he could pinpoint.
Raymond scrambled to his bare feet and fled through the underbrush, briars and thorns gashing his pants and summoning crisscrossed rivulets of blood on his skin beneath. Startled birds deserted their disturbed refuge and scattered into the wind. Their screeches reverberated in the branches overhead, cursing the intrusion and pierced his eardrums, forcing him to his knees. His vision blurred and the endless rows of trees blended into one and back again in rapid flutters like a reel-to-reel movie playing out across the landscape. Bile churned into his throat and he gagged on the acidity, clawing his fingers into the wet soil to keep from sliding off the face of the earth. Counting to ten in his head, the blurred, tilting world gradually settled. He shed his drenched waistcoat and frantically loosened his tie to breathe better. Shutting his eyes tight and tensing every muscle in his body, he fought to focus. The shadow was coming and if he couldn’t regain control, he was doomed.
On shaky legs, Raymond came to his feet and shook the mud from his hands. He looked around in wide-eyed terror, the foul scent invading his space. Between clusters of oaks, he watched the shadow creature slowly pass between the gaps. Its shape appeared human, but was black as night and stood in sharp contrast against the daylight filtering through the trees. Its spindly arms dangled by its side and lean fingers clenched into a fist in aggravation. Its gangly legs churned through fallen leaves without a sound and he passed through low hanging branches undisturbed. A burst of darkness encircled his throat like a collar full of long, thin spikes. For a moment, Raymond caught a glimpse of the creature’s haunting eyes, mere holes of light radiating within the spirit’s dark face. Raymond held his breath and felt his muscles tense in anticipation, the seconds stretching out into an eternity. The creature turned its gaze away from him and floated off in the opposite direction, failing to spot its prey.
With the shadow drifting from sight, Raymond crept further into the forest, periodically tossing furtive glances over his shoulder. He tried to remember how he came here in the first place, but his memories were a jumbled mess of fear and self-loathing. He knew he was being hunted and he knew he had witnessed something terrible, but didn’t know why or what. The broken memory played out in his mind. He was lying down on his back in one flash, at rest and peaceful. In the next flash, the creature straddled him seeking entry into his body, its dark hand groping inside his chest. He could remember its hand gripping his heart like a vise, asserting pressure and leaning close into his face. The black spikes pierced his throat and sucked air from his lungs like a vacuum. Darkness fell over him and the next thing he knew, he was running like a madman through the forest, fleeing for his life. His mind refused to fill in the gaps and he beat his palms against his temples in a futile effort to shake the memories loose. One thing was certain. Facing the spirit was a guaranteed death sentence and he wasn’t about to forfeit his life so easily. He kept moving, shifting his weight from foot to foot with careful precision. The shadow might not see so well, but its hearing was deadly.
The forest was littered in a sea of orange, yellow and red, making each step difficult. The rain had softened the leaves, but not enough. Thorns pierced the soles of his feet and raked gashes into the sensitive flesh. He stifled cries of pain that tried to escape his parched lips. Each footfall was a painstaking trial of faith, resounding like crackling thunder in his acute ears and sending waves of anxiety vibrating through his core. Fallen branches rose up from the earth like the clawing hands of the undead, struggling to break free from their graves. These castoffs had to be treaded lightly. They easily snapped like splintered bone on the forest’s floor and alerted any surrounding wildlife of his presence. The occasional slither passed him by, sometimes rolling over his bare feet and adding to his tension. Bugs buzzed around his face, pestering and trying his patience, but he kept his focus on survival. He waded through the forest’s land mines until finally discovering a worn path, much to his relief.
The trail presented a new dilemma. The wet soil was perfect padding for noiseless movement, but it also put him in the open. He didn’t like becoming an easy target for the tracking shadow, but it was a risk he was willing to take. He looked down the winding path, hoping to see an exit into the comforts of civilization. Instead, he saw only more trees. He trudged on, hoping to find refuge around every curve and disappointed when he did not. No matter what, he kept a watchful eye to his back. The shadow was clever and its hunt never ending.
The beaten path snaked through the forest like a winding river. It was narrow at points and wide in others, but it moved on through an endless tangle of forgotten land. The way was dark, cloaked in overhanging limbs and vines only allowing the smallest amount of sunlight to shine through. He was safe for now, but the absence of light made his escape feel dreadfully bleak. The pent up fear and anxiety drained him and his body felt like dead weight, mindlessly shuffling onward into an abyss. His mind throbbed with dull fear and grasped at memories beyond his reach. He craved rest, but dared not stop. He had the unshakable sensation of impending doom looming in his near future and to stop was to surrender. Raymond refused.
A manmade structure caught his attention and hope burned within his chest. Buried deep within the forest, a wrought iron gate called him forward like a desert mirage. Skeptical, he cautiously followed the path to its destination, unsure if he should enter the gated area at all. It could lead to shelter, he reasoned, but he didn’t think it was a house. Especially not a home so far back into the woods. It looked more like a cemetery gate. A stone archway hovered above it and stone lions faced off against one another at the top. Thorns and trees strangled the wall, flickering up into the air like tendrils of smoke. The gate was open wide and a cloaked figure stood in the path, holding a walking stick and glaring in his direction.
Startled by the stranger, Raymond fled back into the woods, barreling through the brush and undergrowth. His feet screamed in agony, kicking out beneath him. In moments of fear he had always heard that the brain embraces two actions. Fight or flight. Running hadn’t worked totally to his advantage and fighting in his weakened state would only get him killed. Spotting a hollowed tree trunk, his primal instincts reminded him that there was another option- to hide. He scrambled into the dark hole. The tree wrapped its bark around him and he peered from inside, waiting for the hooded figure to pass.
The man didn’t call out after him, but Raymond could hear his robe dragging through the leaves and drifting ever closer to where he hid.
Pins and needles marched up and down his spine and termites crawled across his skin, but he dared not move. The hooded figure terrified him nearly as much as the shadow creature for reasons he couldn’t understand. He clamped his eyes shut and buried his face against the wall of the tree.
The man drew methodically closer. There was no rush about him, no sense of urgency. Just forward motion that sounded louder and louder as he approached the tree, drowning out the sounds of Raymond’s racing heart.
He tried to rationalize that the stranger might possibly help him in his hour of need, but the sinking pit of his stomach disagreed. Something about the man disturbed him and he couldn’t shake the feeling. The rustling sound of the robe stopped and Raymond slowly opened his eyes.
The cloaked figure stood before him, tall and statuesque. The robe trailed out behind him and wound its way back down the curved path and out of Raymond’s sight line. His face was shrouded by the cloak, hiding the man’s intent. What he had originally thought was a walking stick was actually a spear and the adrenaline surging through him made Raymond feel sick at his stomach.
“What do you want from me?” he cried out, cowering within the tree.
The figure did not reply, standing erect and stoic before him. Raymond did not like the silence the man offered, but he felt a small sense of relief. If he had intended on impaling him, he could have easily done so already. Raymond tentatively crawled out of his hiding spot.
“Can you help me?” he asked. “My life is in danger!”
The cloaked figure raised an arm to his side and beckoned at the trees overhead. Two ravens darted down from above and Raymond instinctively braced for an attack. One bird landed on the man’s shoulder. The other gripped his outstretched arm. The raven at his shoulder hopped closer to the man’s hood and stuck its beak inside the darkness. When it reemerged, it held a glowing white orb in its mouth. The orb swiveled around in the bird’s grasp and Raymond stepped back in horror. The orb was an eye. Its glare landed on him and the world flickered again, forcing Raymond to his knees with a mounting sickness rolling like a tidal wave within the pit of his stomach. The raven blurred in his field of vision becoming two and then three duplicates of itself. He gritted his teeth, the tendons in his neck bulging under immense tension, and dug his hands into the soil. The bird became as one again and swallowed the eye. It flew off into the rain.
The other raven took its place on the silent figure’s shoulder and pecked within the hood. Its beak clamped onto something within and it pulled back with all of its might. A plump length of glowing red meat appeared, drawn taut in the bird’s grasp. The meat snapped under the tension with a wet popping sound, wiggling and squirming within the bird’s mouth like an oversized worm. The bird tipped its head back and swallowed. The cloaked figure remained still, standing guard over Raymond.
“With master’s tongue within my beak, I can provide the help you seek,” the raven said, but its voice did not sound anything like a cawing bird. It was a man’s voice, slippery and mischievous issuing from the raven’s throat. Raymond took a hesitant step back. As he did, the cloaked man drifted forward matching his movement. One single white orb glowed within the hood, locked on the man.
“Are you Death?” Raymond asked afraid of the answer. The figure wasn’t exactly how he had pictured Death, but it wasn’t too far from the typical description folklore had always suggested. For instance, the man was wearing a hooded cloak, but instead of it being black this particular garment was greyish beige with red trim at its base that flowed up the robe in diluted watery streaks. The bottom of the robe was bunched and gathered around the figure and resembled the rooted trunk of a massive tree. Instead of a scythe, the man gripped a long spear like a sentry on watch. Raymond didn’t know what he was and Death seemed the only logical explanation his mind could associate with the circumstances. The shadow was still out there and Raymond wondered if the cloaked figure was just waiting for his imminent demise.
“I am not the Grim Reaper,” the bird laughed, mockingly. “I am merely the Garden Keeper.”
The figure pointed the spear at the wrought iron gates. Raymond strained his eyes to look past the gate to see the man’s garden, but all he could make out were thorns, vines and roots.
“Can you help me?” he asked. “I am being stalked by a shadow. Have you seen it?”
“I have seen many shadows indeed,” the raven said, rustling its wings. “The shadows are my seed.”
Raymond didn’t know what to make of this. What did it even mean? Was it saying that it collected the shadows for its garden or was it implying that the shadow creature was his spawn? He shifted nervously on his sore feet and debated over making a run for it.
The other raven returned, landing on the opposite shoulder of the Garden Keeper. It made a gurgling sound within its throat and spat the white orb back into the hood. The orb locked into place an audible click. With one caw, the raven flew away. The talking raven cocked its head towards the hood as if the Garden Keeper was sharing secrets with it.
“The shadow that you fear, it quickly draws near,” the raven said, relaying the message. Raymond looked around wildly. The foul scent was already permeating the air like an invisible fog rolling in. He leapt forward and clutched at the Garden Keeper’s robes.
“Help me!” he cried, trembling below the hooded figure. His heart picked up the frantic pace and pushed his fears into overdrive. The cloaked figure tilted its head down towards him with glowing eyes.
“If you want any help from me,” the raven said dryly, adjusting its perch on the Garden Keeper’s shoulders, “you must be willing to pay the fee.”
“Anything!” Raymond cried as the shadow creature emerged in the distance, gliding through the trees. It spotted the Garden Keeper and came to an immediate halt, hovering in midair.
“Raymond, don’t!” the shadow cried out, but its warning was too late. The spear sailed through the air, straight and true, hitting its mark and piercing the spirit’s chest. Red steams of light escaped the wound as the shadow wailed in agony, the cries splitting Raymond’s ears. He fell to the ground and his vision flickered out of control again, the reel-to-reel film playing out in flashes before his eyes. The shadow grew faint under the blinding red lights and sizzled to ash, floating up on the wind.
Raymond tried to come to his feet, but found he could no longer move at all. He attempted to shift his arms, but they remained still like pieces of meat attached to his body and weighing him down. Even his eyeballs refused to move within their sockets, locked in a permanent position that fixed on the spot where the shadow had been slain. Panic surged through him, but his own heart refused to join in this time, a useless organ silent within his chest. The gouges in his feet no longer ached. The only thing left seemed to be his mind, constantly running but unable to control the body it was trapped in. The Garden Keeper’s robes came into view and the figure took hold of his useless arm, dragging him along like a ragdoll.
“The Reaper has a brother, don’t you know. I gather his harvest, so that I may sow,” the raven said above him in his smooth, slick voice. Raymond’s fixed eyes watched the passing landscape as he was drug along through the leaves, onto the path and past the iron gates. “You are here to serve my needs. I’ll plant you along with all the other seeds. With water and soil you’ll start to mend, growing deep within this earth I tend. You’ll escape again just like before and attempt to reunite with your core. But no matter how many times you escape the hole, you’ll always fight against the nature of your soul.”
Raymond fell into the grave like a stone and watched in horror as the Garden Keeper shoveled dirt over his unblinking eyes. He wondered how many times he had tried to escape this hell and how many times he had betrayed his soul. He wondered how long until the next time.
“Back in you go, another seed to sow.”
Wood for the Trees by Aiden Leingod
The map can’t be right.
There’s absolutely nothing here. I mean, X marks the spot. Right where I’m standing. Isn’t that the way these things are supposed to work? I see you rolling your eyes; there’s no point asking me, and yes, it is my first time but that’s a sorry excuse if ever there was one. I should know better being a bloody amateur. A chronically sad sap who dared to dream an honest day well-spent would amount to something, anything more than my own horrid mess.
It’s my own fault, really. I always had a terrible sense of direction. Even when things were pointed out to me, often right in front of my nose, I couldn’t see them. Never managed to dull my enthusiasm though. Oh, you’d better believe it. First thing I did when I stepped off the plane was to consult the highly-rated pocket-sized travel guide in what I believed to be the most dramatic way possible on the local…let’s call it language for the sake of argument.
I whipped the handy best-seller out pretending to be the biggest of all big shots, the jazziest of all jazz hands. All style, no substance. The action, that is, not the destination I’d paid a small fortune to absent-mindedly flick through the pristine pages of. From laminated cover to cover, in one ear and out the other, the preoccupied space in-between busier than the claustrophobic in-flight bathroom stall.
And I had apparently forgotten to wash my hands. The finer points lost somewhere in the small print suddenly brought to blistering, broken headlight by the grating sound and unpleasant smell of screeching brakes and burning rubber on uneven black-and-white tarmac. Getting out the way of runaway vehicles driven by what diminutive perspective lurked behind the abandoned hamster wheel seemed to be a good idea if I wanted to see my performance through to the end. Highly-rated? Middle of the road, at best.
You might be able to tell I’d done this before. Feeling like a million dollars, or whatever archaic currency passed for wealth in these parts, I nonchalantly strutted towards the terminal as the solitary control tower in the distance blinked intermittent crimson hues right back at me.
“Open Sesame!” Although the automatic doors eventually put me out of my humble misery a few awkward seconds later it soon transpired that red lights – and scuffed carpets – do indeed spell danger. I secretly hoped the inconsiderate litterbug dashed against multi-layered panes of bulletproof windscreens. Unfortunate accidents to be duly noted somewhere down the line on buried column space urgently addressing the immanent moral panic of deserved karma. I can see it now. “Tall Tales from the Daily Races: Chasing Up Dead-Ends!”
Eurgh. I’d definitely stepped in worse things. Muddied foot in gaping mouths for example. To raise said foot in question took a surprising amount of concentrated effort, even for top-of the-line anti-air ergonomic wizardry. They don’t make them like they used to. However, the inedible industrial-strength adhesive stuck inexorably to my corrugated rubber sole and blemished steel-toe never got this particular post-it note.
I finally dislodged my utterly hysterical legs akimbo pose mere milliseconds before the automatic doors shut decisively behind me with enough force to sever my brightly patterned ties, never mind far from cool head, if I’d been wearing either one. Hate suits, by the way. Too stuffy. Which is more than could be said for the rest of my belongings. An hour or two must have passed before I realised the runaway luggage cart I’d narrowly avoided a near-miss with had done exactly what it said on the rusted tin.
The gleeful absurdity wouldn’t look much out of place in a tasteless comedy of errors or hidden camera show set to several looping, fake laughter tracks. I hadn’t so much jumped the shark as arrogantly played a losing hand of hopscotch and stranded the poor thing out of water. In the aftermath, the barren seabed mocking sport adorned with the same scuffed carpet commiserating the commercially-successful, critically-panned premiere of my very own tie-in platform game unanimously, unceremoniously awarded the dreaded consolation prize for worst stunt.
Events up to this exact point could have gone smoother. Impartially judging from my own track record though, not bad. Not bad at all. Nevertheless, officially from then on, this self-imposed bubble began to simultaneously deflate and roll downhill in perfect time to similarly distorted whines and little fanfare – ah, those inescapably catchy hooks – of criminally underrated, long-lost Eurodisco one-hit wonders crackling through countless banks of cold-war era speakers arranged neatly under flickering fluorescent strips.
I’d have gladly put my money where my mouth is that the aforementioned inconsiderate litterbug sucked all the joy out the non-stop, shameless bubble-gum melodies fuelling my bittersweet symphony. My very best, though admittedly not entirely sincere, attempts at fluent, articulate communication with the otherwise cordial natives were just audible enough to hear over the constant shuffling.
In dire need of transport I’d been around the block, each time gradually primed to knock it off, the broken-down communication savaged beyond recognition with a flurry of greatest hits spinning a chaotic crescendo of pained confusion and furtive glances. They backed away slowly as if suddenly remembering leaving the gas on near a naked flame or a rapidly defrosting chest freezer full of rotting meat open.
Remember that comedy? Yeah, add a foreign-language dub to it; the ones where the nonsensical translations don’t sync in the slightest with the performer’s mouths. Fantastic. Outside, I’m afraid to say, didn’t fare much better than inside. Clogged even more so if humanely possibly. All camera flashes and bleached smiles. I hated the tourists and I wasn’t even from this backwater country.
In their misguided haste to wrangle a fleeting photo opportunity, the throng of narcissistic posers nonetheless left the never-ending taxi ranks completely exposed. Darting through a narrow gap, I expected nothing less than a bilious mixture of borderline lament and mercurial sycophancy from my randomly selected driver, nose deep in a crude, duty-free, dog-eared magazine.
Expectations pleasantly subverted, he casually exercised a near-flawless grasp of English and proceeded to reel off polite greetings, a brief description of popular hotspots and history of the airport right up to the present moment. Not the time nor the place.
I abruptly interjected with a raised finger. “The Golden Orchard!”. Taken aback, the driver clammed up and simply pointed right back to where I had just arduously come from towards the nondescript building in question, returning to his glossy rag with a dismissive snort whilst shaking his receding hairline and greying temples in despairing disbelief.
Escorted by the friendly hotel staff surreptitiously keeping watch inside and tripping over themselves to help me – under no illusions that they were generously compensated for doing so – I at last managed to get to my longstanding reservation with no trouble at all.
Thank goodness, as I certainly wasn’t about to thank the breathless, wide-eyed trainee who had enthusiastically sprinted up how many flights of spiral stairs with my repatriated luggage, sent straight to check-in by mistake. A saving grace boiled down to just another glaring error.
In immediate lieu of disposable income I offered him a, quite frankly, indispensable tip – never expect anyone to give you any and never expect to take any from anyone. His bemused expression probably explained the stone-cold room service but did not explain why, despite carrying the gilded weight of a renowned luxury brand, my overzealously minimalistic hotel room contained only the most basic of amenities and complements in every sense and meaning of the redacted words on the assumedly scathing, preposterous customer reviews. Barring yours truly of course.
I had somewhere to be, therefore, the luxurious state of whatever suite I’d been penned into did not concern me as much as the location of the nearest exit did. This trip of a lifetime started months – years ago even – with an idea, a notion I’d bought into perhaps too hastily. I genuinely couldn’t believe my luck, which in retrospect, was probably about the only genuine thing on offer.
In reality, I’d just stumbled upon the bustling bazaar during a heady session of innocent window shopping elsewhere. An actual, veritable goldmine of curios and oddities once left by the wayside now packed tightly together in every conceivable, makeshift corner; truly something for everyone.
Incandescent sunlight bounced off various reflective surfaces, my demanding attention intrinsically drawn to a dishevelled pile slumped in one of those corners amidst the encroaching shade, a complex map of some kind lain peacefully on top. Scrawled on ancient material as braille to a blind man, I instantly knew my comparatively lacklustre moral compass was caught red-handed and bang to rights.
Twisting and turning, over and under; the inadvertently improvised choreography the very thing I’d been seeking all this time. Back in business, and it was high time to get down to it. I figured I’d gotten all my ducks and dives in a row, because the elegantly dressed vendor straightforwardly agreed to part with the mottled scrap for the very agreeable, princely sum of a single random octagonal penny I’d found rather conveniently discarded in plain sight just outside the bazaar.
Afterwards, while contently channel surfing that night in the sprawling comfort of my own glorious abode, I discovered – advertised within a series of endlessly rolling, condescending, shoestring budget infomercials hawking incompetent replica wares, memorabilia and paraphernalia, no less – that the penny accounted for just one instalment in its very own series.
A rare, out-of-print edition commissioned at the behest of a legendary queen, scientists, historians, archaeologists and the contemporary ilk placed the indeterminate date of origin somewhere between the first and last millennium.
Irrelevant, academic bones of contention all scattered like dust before my time. Concealing the wildly beating heart of the matter, the accumulated knowledge did not, no matter how hard I wanted, to alter the cold, hard fact that I willingly gave away an allegedly priceless treasure on a seductive whim, a flight of fancy in reverse easily funding a disgustingly sumptuous round-the-world search for the others – several if need be – and consequently by association, an embarrassment of riches instead of eternal chagrin.
Or perhaps, for all I know, the scheming and regret was likewise all in vain. My hard work could ultimately end up just gathering dust in an overcrowded, seldom-visited museum somewhere on the other side of the planet. I guess that had happened already, though the vendor definitely had serious bartering skill and must at least have the smallest inkling of the pennies’ potentially infinite worth.
Tossing and turning in the lumpy hotel mattress all night long at the long-awaited prospect of unearthing the map’s final instruction, I arose at precisely daybreak, bathed in what I could have sworn on my life was that very same incandescent sunlight.
State-of-the-art elevator stuck on the ground floor, wondrously failing to emerge with its jam-packed occupants, I enthusiastically sprinted down how many flights of stairs and eagerly jumped back in the dismissive driver’s taxi straight to that somewhere I needed to be. No raised fingers on this occasion, except for working out exactly what I owed.
Back to the current situation. Staring blankly at the map, I couldn’t help but feel I’d been short-changed; ripped-off and ruminating on the very real possibility I might just rip the damn thing up and wash my calloused hands of the whole sordid affair.
Ouch. Deep scratches run the length of my withered, weathered forearms. Just my luck to end up in the only forest without dock leaves. Hope it still has plenty of fresh air, if only to alleviate my aggravating, wheezing hyperventilation and stubborn allergies.
Crimson twilight looms forebodingly on the fading horizon, the baying of blood-thirsty wolves, and other sinister machinations fast closing in. Carving out the prying eyes embedded in the gnarled bark to make a rudimentary door and the archetypal cabin to boot stylishly kills two circling vultures with one stone. Natural resources are abundant in this clearing but precious time I cannot
manufacture out of thin air and wishful thinking.
That, and I have no sharp implements to hand except my slightly unkempt nails and silver tongue, the latter capable of moving entire mountains with inaccurate, blunt force.
Kicking myself; should have bought an instrument capable of whispering to the many hidden, talented woodland creatures instead of this worthless, incomprehensible A-to-Z. Of course, without it, I wouldn’t even be in this horrid mess in the first place. Damn cheapskate.
Plan B then. The oxygen will come in handy if I need to make like a tree or, alternatively, set a fire. Smoke screen, blaze of inglorious obscurity – I’m keeping my options open, even if my surroundings are playing way too hard to get with my psyche. I’m so tired. Just for once why can’t something, anything go right!
Hollow. Huh. Slamming my aching foot on the unusually level ground beneath me in equal parts pent-up frustration and self-pity proved there was method in my temporary madness after all. Don’t worry about my calloused hands, the night is still young and improvisation is my (unofficial) middle name.
Digging deeper in the crimson dirt I uncover still more mounds upon mounds and though shattered, I’m determined not to falter now at this critical juncture. My eureka moment, time to shine then rudely interrupted by all-encompassing darkness. I drop, and my empty, growling innards and heart do too.
Unscathed, I liberate a lone match from cardboard packaging – and the hotel room – striking it against the rough surface. The resulting flame helps to confirm that ahead, bathed in silver moonlight, sits an ancient construct of wood and stone. Taking centre stage, the meticulously carved centrepiece in the unmistakable form of an iconic idol. My muse.
There she is. At last. I’d heard stories – everyone had at one time or another – but those hearsay, small talk, second-hand accounts are incomparable to the real thing, a revelation of beauty. To be absolutely, perfectly honest I felt unworthy in her glowing presence, deadpan gaze hiding an undeniable humanity, taking my short breaths away.
Not much to say now that my rocky start turned incessant rambling had almost reached a hopefully satisfactory conclusion.
“Penny for your thoughts?” A question answered with another question. “How in the blazes am I ever meant to get out of here?” I carefully lay the map in her cold hands. Nothing happens. Not in the traditional, material sense, anyway. Just the humble feeling of a good deed well-done, returning what has become yours to its rightful place. Finally I notice her outstretched, welcoming palms facing upward to the starry sky.
Using my bruised foot earlier slammed on the ground high above me, I receive a boost-up from her palms; a grasp and foothold on the unfathomable hole I had unwittingly dug by proxy. No room for presumptuous morals and interchangeable naysayers here. Heavy rain soaking me right through and chilling me to the bone, I climb.
Piece by piece. Bit by bit. Skin of teeth, claw and nail. By the time I ascend to the top and pass the exhilarating yet exhausting finish line, I hear the calling of woodland creatures no longer hidden. Turning around, the slow, steady dawn of incandescent sunlight bursts through the trees, rejuvenating me and revealing the way out.
Y’know, it’s true what the vendor said. “The best things in life are free”.
But she always did love a bargain.
Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest Part Two by Nicholas Paschall
Jamie crouched behind the rusted shell of an old pick-up truck, pulling another arrow from her quiver. The rotten she’d downed was merely a sniffer for the main group of dead that controlled this area, and the pack had shown up to investigate the sudden death of their loyal hound.
She counted eleven in all, three more rotten with seven fresher ghouls, led by a bull. The rotten were just like the first, all skin and bone with dry vine-like muscles beneath papery skin, hairless with spots where the flesh ran so thin you could see yellowed bone beneath. The remaining three were walking in a wide perimeter around the group, clicking out a series of harsh noises with rotten tongues and chipped teeth, blind eyes rolling about madly in their sockets as they tried to use their primitive echolocation to find Jamie.
The ghouls, all puffy with bloodless wounds and crusty brown stains on their clothes from the meals they’d enjoyed, hissed and clicked between each other, crawling about on all fours like great apes on the prowl. Their hands had gnarled into vicious claws, stained pink from the gore they’d created from a kill made within the past few days. One was a younger child, maybe ten before he was turned. The sight of him made a twinge of regret pass through Jamie as she remembered the little boy with dreadlocks she’d lost not so long ago. He stood next to the largest of the zombies, a tower of muscle and bony growths.
Blind like all the of the skulking dead, bulls were the fastest and strongest because, in their previous lives, they’d been the biggest and the toughest. From bodybuilders to athletes, all the way down to just huge people in general, they’d risen as the bane of every survivors existence due to their ability to rip through barricades as if they were cardboard on a stormy day. The bull sneered as it tilted its head, black gums loaded with oozing maggots that drizzled from its mouth onto the butcher’s apron it wore, the wrigglers happily sticking to the spattered spray of crushed meat that decorated the creature’s broad chest. Heavily muscled arms, thick with corded sinew beneath dirty gray skin, hung at its side, a large piece of rebar hanging limply from its right fist.
Fuck! Jamie thought, frowning at the sight. It has a damn tool… they’re getting smarter the further I head up north.
Jamie had been crawling along the Pacific coast now for months, avoiding large cities and stopping in the smaller communities she found to trade for supplies. She always needed gasoline for her bike, or at least a safe place recharge the solar cells for several days without interruption. She would raid the wastes of expired medicine and wild marijuana strains to trade with towns desperate for contact with the outside world. Ever since she’d ridden in from Caliente, Nevada, she’d been finding fields of poppy plants towering nearly ten feet in height, and marijuana groves planted by desperate survivors in former settlements that’d fallen to the ravages of the dead over the years.
This town, some place called Sutter Rest, was probably once a thriving tourist trap. Now it was a wasteland of old buildings overgrown with ivy, trees growing through the pavement, and undead marching about in search of living prey. Jamie looked around at her feet where she was kneeling, and smiled in victory when she found one.
Picking it up, she weighed it in her hand, and judged how far she could toss it and, more importantly, how accurate? Watching as a sloped back ghoul paced in front of the bull, she decided to take her chance.
Standing up, she hurled the rock as best she could, remembering for a moment the days when she taught Zack how to throw a baseball, and her own days in her softball league as a child. The chunk of pavement sailed high and struck the bull in the left cheek, tearing open a new bloodless wound that allowed for more maggots to wriggle out of its infected maw.
Mentally crowing at her success, she watched as the bull swung the long piece of rusted rebar forward, caving in the sternum and spinal column of the ghoul passing too close, sending the howling creature tumbling back into one of the other ghouls, which hissed and pounded at the sudden “attack” with withered bony hands, rending flesh from the crippled zombie. The others all hissed and yowled like feral cats, some clicking while all descended on the chaos in the hope they’d discovered food.
Deciding now was the time to act, she took an arrow and lined up the shot, sinking it into the right eye socket of one of the rotten. As it hit the ground she dropped another rotten, leaving only one of the sniffers up as it was too close to the bull for her liking. The bull had thrown aside its brethren, stomping into the fray to lift the crippled corpse up and bite into it. The whimpering thing had merely hung limply in the giant hand gripping it shook it back and forth, the giant’s teeth tearing away a long strip of rot away to be chewed like sun-dried jerky.
Spitting it out, the bull clicked and growled, dropping the zombie to the ground. It crawled for a few moments before going still, as if the very force animating it had been pulled from the body. Jamie knew it was setting itself up as a trap, as she’d watched undead do this very act too many times to count. She made a mental note that the corpse was to be watched if she came back through this area, and crept further along the row of parked cars, traveling deeper into the city.
She could see the rotten was leading them towards her bike, but she wasn’t worried. Unless they found a person sitting on it, the thing would be safe.
Plus, she thought with a smirk as she patted her jacket pocket, I’ve got the keys. No zombie stealing my ride today!
To be continued…(read the first installment here)