Welcome to another (belated) Stitched Saturday! The pictures for the inspiration this week were suitably gothic in theme, and we have two tales for you this week. The razor-sharp mind of Mike L Lane gives us a smart slice of horror entitled The Dedicated Fool, and there’s a little something from me called The Evil at the Edge of the Woods. Each of those two tales is preceded by the picture that inspired it.
And to top it all off, we have Part Four of Nick Paschall’s novel Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest. You lucky, lucky people! A post with inspiration for the challenge next week will be up shortly, and I look forward to whatever horrors you produce!
The Dedicated Fool – Mike L Lane
The sleepy eye of the sun nodded on the horizon as Enoch Durkin trod up the hill towards the Winslet cottage. Barren trees streaked the skyline like lightning shadows clawing their way out of the earth and the wind pressed against him, almost urging him to stay away. The afternoon shower had left the path in a sloppy mess and he trudged through the mud in haste, his face stern against the stinging wind and his satchel in tow. The Winslet’s had sent word of their daughter’s illness and he was determined to cure the child.
The wealthiest family in the village by far, The Winslets rarely sought help from the commoners outside of the servants they hired from time to time. Enoch completely understood. Lanscroft Rock was populated by needy undesirables. It was a poor, filthy community struggling to get by and theft was second nature to the starving inhabitants. To be chosen by the Winslets was a blessing every villager prayed for. It was the equivalent of inherited wealth, a notion these people only dreamt of. They would pack their sparse belongings and rush away from their poverty, delighted never to be seen or heard from again. The Winslet family had never requested a physician during Enoch’s time in Lanscroft Rock and he aimed to make the most of this visit.
The shadow of the house fell upon Enoch and blended into the closing darkness as the sun bid a fond farewell and night staked its claim on the hilltop. He climbed the steps to the front porch and noticed it wasn’t as pristine as he had expected. It was far from being in a state of disrepair, but the dust on the railing and the few cobwebs overhead suggested neglect. Whatever villager the Winslets had hired for this particular job was failing. He scanned the front lawn and noticed that the grass was unkempt, as well. It had not grown into a sea of weeds, but the blades grew tall and uneven. The groundskeeper was apparently napping on the job. Even the hedges needed trimming and vines wrapped around the base of the columns. For such a well-to-do family, their judgement in servants was off the mark. He shrugged it off and reached for the brass knocker. Even it was showing signs of tarnish.
Before he could knock, the door flung open and a well-dressed woman ushered him in, abandoning all formalities and getting straight to the point.
“Thank God you have come, good doctor,” the lady said, taking him by the hand and leading him through the grand foyer. The great room was larger than most of the ramshackle homes in Lanscroft Rock, swallowing Enoch and his greeter whole as the heavy oak door closed shut behind them. An enormous chandelier loomed overhead, its crystals clinking against one another, disturbed by the slamming door. Dust particles lazily floated downward trapped within the candle light. A white marble floor stretched out across the room laced with lightning streaks of onyx. It was like standing on a flat iceberg, but didn’t hold the luster he would have expected from such a fine home. Dual staircases curved up to the second story like opposing snakes and the woman drug him towards one in haste. He was careful to side-step her plush velvet dress fully aware that this was no servant.
“I’m afraid my dear Cora is dreadfully ill, doctor,” she said, pulling the bottom of her dress up to ascend the stairs. She released his hand and marched up the stairway, beckoning him as she went. He placed his freed hand on the dusty banister, feeling the grit beneath his palm as he followed. She stopped at once and he nearly collided into her before taking a quick step back. “Where is the boy I sent to fetch you?”
“He was exhausted from the journey, ma’ am,” he answered. “He ran the whole way into Lanscroft Rock without stopping and nearly fainted dead in my arms, poor soul. I set him up to rest for the night. I will see that he is well taken care of, you have my word.”
Mrs. Winslet peered at him for an odd moment, before pleasantly smiling and thanking Enoch.
“He is a good lad, that one,” she said. Her voice was gracious, but stern, quickly shifting from the panicked breathlessness from before. “But I won’t have you put out by him. I’ll send a carriage to retrieve him shortly.”
“As you wish,” Enoch replied with a slight bow. “And my patient?”
“Yes, of course!” she exclaimed, picking up the candelabra at the top of the stairs and leading him into a darkened corridor. Enoch found this odd. Only the poor still relied on candles for lighting. A wealthy home like the Winslet’s should have been fitted for gas a long time ago. “My Cora is in desperate need of your assistance, doctor. I fear the worst and pray that you may save her.”
Even in the dim glow of the candle light, Enoch could see how the house was in disarray. The light caught shimmers of cobwebs on the ceiling and cast shadows over the dusty floor. No maid had earned her keep here. He began to wonder if they were the only two people in the house. Clearly no work was being done around the home as he had expected. No servant had greeted him at the door and it was highly unusual for the matron of the home to greet guests, regardless of the situation. Mr. Winslet was nowhere to be found. Their shadows grew long down the corridor like misshapen creatures hiding from the light and although he had seen no one else in the home so far, he felt a presence was watching them. Cold sweat dampened the palm wound tight around his satchel and hairs raised on the back of his neck, frigid and alarmed. The feeling made him shudder, but he kept these concerns to himself, eager to please Mrs. Winslet. Keeping the distressed mother calm was just as important as the task that lay before him.
Mrs. Winslet tapped lightly on a door and without waiting for an answer she let the two of them in. Cold, abrasive air rushed to meet him, sucking the breath from his lungs like crackled ice. He rubbed the goosebumps from his arms and entered. The aroma of grapes filled the confined area, a sweet and pleasant smell he had not expected. The room was in complete contrast to the rest of the house, cramped and tight. An imposing canopy bed swallowed most of the chamber, pushing Enoch’s back against the wall as he traversed the narrow path at the foot of the bed. Layers of sheer, white curtains hid the shadowed form that stirred uneasily inside. Mrs. Winslet lit a bedside candle from her candelabra and quietly backed out of the doorway.
“Take care of my Cora,” she urged with a whisper, closing the door. The faint click of the lock unnerved Enoch, but at least they would be undisturbed.
“I’m glad you’ve come, doctor,” a small, thin voice said from within. “I’m in desperate need of your services.”
“Can you describe your symptoms for me, Cora?” he asked. He stood at the foot of the bed, unsure of what to do. There was a small chair on one side of the bed he could have sat down in, but the claustrophobic room compelled him to stay where he was. Besides, he could never get comfortable in such unnaturally cool air. His teeth were on the verge of chattering, a trait his patient might find unprofessional.
“What is your name, doctor?” the figure said, raising her head from the bed and sitting upright. Cora was much older than he had anticipated. The dark outline of her body placed her much closer to his age than the ill child he had expected to treat. He wondered what she looked like beneath all of this satin and lace, but quickly tossed the distracting thought from his mind.
“Enoch,” he started to answer, but the word cracked nervously on his lips. Her voice didn’t sound as weak as he had thought. In fact, it was a heavenly sound full of yearning desire that threw him completely off guard. He quickly cleared his throat. “Enoch Durkin.”
The girl giggled at this, soft and playful, shifting restlessly in her bed. Her movements stirred something in the air that penetrated the room’s pleasant smell. A whiff of peculiar sourness sifted past his nostrils and evaporated just as quickly, masked by the sweet scent of grapes. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, but decay was the word that came to mind.
“That is a unique name,” she purred, crawling towards the curtains. She paused just in front of the sheet and he could faintly make out the delicate features of her lovely face and fire ember hair.
“Yes, yes,” he laughed awkwardly. “But we are not here to talk about me. Can you tell me what’s wrong? What discomforts are you feeling?”
“I’ve been feeling run down, doctor,” she said in a pouty voice. Her hand emerged from the curtains and grasped his, placing his palm dangerously above the swell of her left breast. Her bare flesh was ice cold beneath the satin nightgown and he instinctively tried to retract his hand. She held it firm against her, easing it gradually lower with a smile.
“I’m weak and famished. No matter how much I eat, I never can seem to get enough. I feel… unsatisfied.”
Distracted by her actions, it took Enoch a moment to realize the real problem. No heart beat within her chest. He jerked his hand back as if he had accidentally groped a nest of coiled vipers. The girl laughed, but her merriment hid a tinge of sarcasm.
“Enoch Durkin,” she said snidely. The curtains magically drew back to reveal the partially nude beauty. The satin nightgown draped loosely on her perfect body, hardly hiding the soft, pale curves beneath. Her emerald eyes reflected the candle’s glow in flickers and her long flowing hair fell around her bare shoulders like flames. Her smooth, pale skin teased him and though he was fully aware of the danger, Enoch longed to touch her. She lightly tapped a finger on his chest. “Do you know what your name means?”
Enoch shook his head, captivated by her beauty in a trancelike stupor. Her words echoed dully in his ears, drowned out by the mad beating of his own heart. The enclosed room tightened its grip like a giant fist, threatening to crush the life from him.
“It means ‘dedicated fool’. Are you a dedicated fool, Enoch?” she asked. Her tongue rolled across full lips to reveal long, pointed canines. She laughed with a seductive smile as she rose from the bed and backed Enoch into the corner of the room. Cora glided smoothly across the floor, her bare feet gently grazing the tiles in an effortless motion. “Will you be my dedicated fool, doctor?”
“Please, Cora. You should remain in bed. Rest is your best recourse for such a fragile condition as yours,” he pleaded, reaching into his satchel as she drew ever closer.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret, Enoch Durkin,” she said coyly, her eyes locked on his with ravenous delight. “I’m not sick at all. I’m just starving, doctor.”
“I have a secret of my own,” he said sternly, dropping the charade and pulling the hawthorn stake from his bag. “I’m no doctor.”
The Evil at the Edge of the Woods – David Court
I was eight years old when I saw one for the first time.
I lie here now as an old and wretched soul who can count the number of breaths that he has left to give – Do not cry, child, we must all be brave at these times – When death comes let us go to our grave snarling and spitting in his face, not turning our backs to be cruelly dispatched.
Anyway, as I was saying… My hours are numbered in the single digits now, that much I know and my memories fade like the waning of the moon, but I remember every moment from that day. What made it most remarkable is that it was set to a backdrop of utter mundanity. It was High Spring, and it was a dry day. The weather was neither hot nor cold, and I was carrying out my normal duties of fetching the purple and red berries from the same spot in the woods in exactly the same manner as I’d been doing it for the three years I could be trusted to do so.
I was walking back and it leapt out in front of me on the path. We both froze and our eyes locked for a moment. I tried to open my mouth to scream but the breath had left me, and my piss moistened the floor of the woods. There was intelligence in the beasts’ eyes, and I could only watch as the creature calculated its next move. But then a cry from my mother further up the path and out of sight startled it. It looked at me one last time, and was vanished into the shadow of the trees.
I was an astute child and had always thought them the stuff of cautionary tales, beasts constructed in the songs and the fables of the Elders to stop us misbehaving – but now I knew that they were real. As I and my friends became teenagers, they all became jaded and believed the
beasts to be exactly that – silly stories – but I knew the truth.
So when the elders died and I reached my adulthood, I was prepared. I kept the tales of the beasts alive in their absence, lest the memory be lost to time. Then one day came, when my grey hairs outnumbered my brown ones, there was another sighting. It was put down to a mixture of a wild imagination and eating the fermented red berries, but then two sunrises later there was another – and another the sunrise after that.
And then the first of us went missing, and all the remained was a patch of red dampness in the woods from where she vanished.
But I remembered what I had seen. Though it was a thing of great terror to me back then, my memories were razor sharp.
The beasts were things of flesh and bone, I remembered that much.
They could breathe.
They could see.
They could die.
I went in front of the tribe, and I told them what I had seen. And I told them of my plans of how we should no longer tremble in the night in fear – how we should take the fight to them.
And as an army – as one terrible force of nature – we travelled to the edges of the woods, further than our kind had ever been.
And our foe lay before us. The beast, housed in caves of stone and wood.
My eyes swell with tears of pride as I think of what we did that day. Many were lost, but our future was secured. Our fur and claws shone scarlet with the blood of our foes, under a blood red killing moon. The tyranny of the two legs was defeated when the last of them lay there dying, bloodied throat ripped from vulnerable flesh. The war against the beast won, we threw our heads back and howled to The Goddess in triumph.
And now, with the moon at its height, I go to meet her, our Goddess – but remember the beast, my children. But no longer think of him as a thing of terror but what we can achieve when we seek a common goal.
And now I sleep.
Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest Part 4 – Nick Paschall
Slinking around the village while all the undead were awake and roaming was difficult, to say the least, but the man seemed to know what he was doing. He stopped a few times to fish out a handful of pennies, one coin at a time from a sack he had hanging off his belt. Whenever the ghouls seemed to be getting close, he threw the handful behind them while holding a finger to his lips.
After the third batch of ghouls, moss covered with strands of coiled vine in place of muscle, Jamie thought about adopting the strategy for herself for when she was next alone. It threw the hungering dead off their trail, and would clear paths to what turned out to be the largest building in town.
An old brick building that had a moss-covered sign bearing faded letters.
“James Madison High School?” She whispered, looking at her rescuer with a raised eyebrow.
“Hey,” he said with a smile, “this used to be one of the prison schools, a detention center for bad kids. Windows are barred, doors are made to take a beating… perfect to hold off a siege.”
“Know from experience?” Jaime said with a grin.
The man returned it. “Every time someone comes into town and riles up the dead like you did, yeah.”
Jaime winced at that. “Sorry, I didn’t think…”
“No,” the man agreed as he walked up the steps to the plate glass doors, “you really didn’t. Will take weeks for them to calm down and find new places to settle.”
“I’ve never seen zombies act this way,” Jaime said, watching as the man unlocked a set of chains looped around the handles, “normally they just rove in packs.”
“You’re traveling north I take it, to Washington?” The man asked, running a hand through his hair as he opened the door.
“Yeah, supposedly a colony of survivors there,” Jaime said, as if it were a stupid question.
“There is, we trade with them from time to time,” the man said, holding the door open for Jaime, “after you…”
“The name’s Jaime,” she said, stepping into the darkened school lobby. She didn’t get his name as he slammed the door shut behind her, locking the chains to seal the exit. She turned and hurled herself against the glass, pounding her fist in anger. “Hey! What’re you doing?”
The man shook his head and pointed up in the corner of the room, where she noticed a surveillance camera with a flashing red light. The room had numerous chairs that’d been knocked over, along with several rooms that had once been administrator offices. Running towards one, she found it to be a furnished bedroom. A lone cot with blanket and numerous pillows. Along with several water bottles and a bucket clearly used for “waste” if the stains were any indication. It made her think of her hidden nest in the old bookstore back in San Antonio… god, she missed those times. She missed being a merchant in the dead wastes, selling expired medication and looted ammunition to the various towns around the ruins of the former city. She’d been wealthy, with credit in every village and lovers in one that she could let her guard down around.
That was before she led them on a march through the wastes to most of their deaths, something she still held herself accountable for. It wasn’t the fault of the zombies, or the Preacher that showed up stirring trouble; the others had counted on her, and they’d ended up being food for cannibalistic undead instead of free citizens of a new town.
Picking up a faded magazine dated back to when she was seven years old, she tossed it onto the cot. Turning, she walked into the main lobby and looked at the camera.
“Can you hear me?” She asked, clearly enunciating her words in case they could only read her lips.
The intercom overhead crackled to life, and a low voice spoke in calming tones. “Yes, we can. The man who rescued you was Derek, and he brought you here to be processed. That means keeping you in quarantine for twenty-four hours to see if you were bitten or exposed. You stay human, we admit you into the halls of our little slice of heaven here in this backwater town.”
“So, I just have to wait a day and then I get to meet new people?” She asked. “What about my stuff I left out on the outskirts of town? I wasn’t planning on leaving it out overnight.”
“We’ll retrieve your belongings and make sure everything is for when you emerge. Just try to relax, and enjoy the peace for now. Once we find out if you are safe to be around, we’ll be talking to you about joining our community.”
“I plan on just passing through, truth be told,” Jaime said, noth bothering to look away from the camera.
The voice chuckled. “Well, then consider this a toll. We rarely get survivors who stir up as much trouble as you have, so we might need you to help us with some foraging before you leave.”
“And if I refuse?” Jaime asked, crossing her arms.
The voice fell silent for a moment. “You won’t,” it finally said before crackling and sputtering as it turned off.
Jaime was left alone in the dark of the lobby, the low clicks of the dead echoing in the distance. Jaime walked back into the administrator office and dropped down onto the cot, pulling the magazine. Lying back she folded an arm behind her head as she began reading the article on corporate politics that seemed to be written by a man far too impressed with his own voice.
“Huh,” Jaime said after a moment of silence, “guy never mentioned what he’d want me to scrounge up. Hopefully they don’t pillage my bike for the goods I have.”
And with that Jaime lost herself in the article before dozing off top the sounds of clicking and crickets in the salty night air.
To be continued…