Stitched Saturday

Can you feel that? That sensation of impending dread? And that noise – that dreaded eldritch noise that can only signify the ominous dawning of another (dum dum duuuummmmm) Stitched Saturday?

Or, it might just be the pipes. They’ve been playing up.

Last week our resident Mistress of the Macabre MF Wahl gave us some pictures for inspiration, and we have a total of three tawdry little tales for your dubious delights. We begin with The Beauty Within by monstrous Mike L Lane, Skulduggery by me (errmm.. demonic David Court) and then Birds and the Bees by abhorrent Aiden Leingod.

The horror is then neatly topped off by the sixth part of nefarious Nick Paschall’s epic Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest. Aren’t we good to you? Join us tomorrow for next weeks inspiration posts, provided by the riddle shrouded within a mystery cloaked in an enigma that is horror scribe Aiden Leingod…

One

The Beauty Within – Mike L Lane

“How’s it coming?” Jolie asked, looking back at Blake over her bare shoulder and batting her eyelashes. His face was focused in stern concentration on her back like a magician struggling to break free from handcuffs.

“It’s coming,” he said shortly, the hum of the machine unwavering.

“Make sure you get it right,” she said. Her snide remark broke his concentration for the briefest moment. He released an irritated sigh and continued his work. “That dolphin you did on my ankle looks semi-retarded when I flex my foot.”

Blake finished up the last of the outline, taking his time to get every detail perfect. Jolie lay on her stomach. She had opted to go completely nude since he had locked up the shop for the afternoon. Her soft curves could be distracting if he let them and they clashed with her sharp, insensitive tongue. He had to be careful. Not only did he long to sit back and admire her beauty, she had a tendency to move at the most inopportune times. If not for his steady hand, this tat would come out looking like something his four year old nephew had scribbled. That wouldn’t do. Precision was crucial. She had requested a swirling yin and yang design that would represent her wild, but loving duality. It looked nothing like what he was inking.

“Are you still pissed about Wayne?” she asked, turning her gaze away from him and admiring her manicure.

“Why would I be pissed about that?” he answered, accidentally pressing down harder than he had intended. Jolie groaned before he realized what he had done. “Sorry.”

“You know our deal,” she said, looking back playfully. She loved to watch him squirm. “You can screw around on the side, too.”

For Blake, that was the problem. He didn’t want to see anyone other than Jolie. She, on the other hand, had no issues with seeking her pleasures elsewhere whenever the urge struck her. It was an urge she never seemed to satisfy. In the great restaurant of cock, she preferred the buffet. He hoped to change that.

“I’m fully aware,” he sighed, hoping to drop the subject. He couldn’t understand how she could be so nonchalant about it. He had walked in on her taking it from behind with a stranger who had more hair on his back than Cousin It. The sight of her mounted by a grizzly bear and enjoying it was burnt into his brain. After all, she appeared to be giving twice as much as the stranger was taking. Jolie was always the aggressor no matter what angle she was in. When it was all said and done, a pelt-soaked Wayne had been flippant about it, too, wiping the sweat from his brow and asking Blake to hand him his beer. He had considered bashing the beast over the head with it, but that would have done little to change Jolie’s behavior in his favor. Disgusted with himself, he cordially offered to get the bastard a cold one from the fridge instead. It was the way Jolie expected him to act. A naked, thirsty Wayne happily accepted.

“You say that, but you’ve looked like a wounded rabbit ever since,” she said, her condescending tone like acid on his ego. “Was it because of his size?”

Blake pulled the tool away from her before he caused any permanent damage and shot her a fiery glance. He had seen a lot more of the man than he cared to, but despite her efforts to belittle him, he knew there was very little difference between him and Wayne. They were both smaller than average.

“That’s not what I meant,” she said rolling her eyes and snickering. “Why is it every time a woman talks about size men think of their penis? I meant he’s a muscular guy. You might feel… inferior to him. Being so thin and all.”

By thin, she meant scrawny and Blake knew it. Beyond the layers of hair, Wayne had been a mountain of a man and if he was completely honest with himself, yes- it disturbed him. He had seen her with other men before, but they were always relative in size to him; thin, stringy individuals that were physical reflections of his own body type. In Blake’s mind, that meant she wanted to be with him and was just sowing wild oats, as his father would say. But Wayne changed that theory overnight.

“I’m happy with my build,” he muttered, inwardly cringing at his own lack of conviction.

“Hey,” she said, reaching her arm back and taking his gloved hand. “You know I don’t care one way or another how you look. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

She offered him a smile of condolence as if she had just carved up a puppy with a butcher knife and felt bad for it. Then she added the final stab.

“Don’t be such a little bitch,” she laughed, letting go of his hand and turning her head back towards the far wall, careful not to mess up her immaculate hair.

He wondered how far he could press the needle into one of her beautiful blue eyes before it popped, then quickly shook the thought from his mind, feeling guilty. He loved her after all and he just wanted her to love him back. No matter how much time they spent together or how much love they made, he was painfully aware that she might not feel about him the way he felt about her. It was Wayne that had brought that undeniable truth to his attention, as much as he hated to admit it.

“She’s a fucking parasite, dude,” Wayne said, taking the knife from Blake’s trembling hand and placing it on the counter. He shoved Blake down into the recliner, knocking the wind from him. With both hands on his hips, Wayne towered over him, shaking his head in disapproval. “You would throw your life away for an easy piece of trash like Jolie? Dude.”

Catching Jolie in the act with Wayne had pushed him over the edge. In the moment, he handled the situation with as much false pleasantness as he could muster for Jolie’s sake, but as the night wore on, he couldn’t keep up with the façade. His brain just wouldn’t leave it alone. It started as a small ember of jealousy that evolved into a raging inferno he was helpless to control. Long after Wayne had left and Jolie had fallen asleep, contented and peaceful, Blake had gone to the man’s house with one thing on his mind.

He hadn’t expected Wayne to thwart him like a pestering fly.

“Let me ask you something,” the hairy behemoth said, keeping a wary eye on the little man who had tried to stab him. “Why try and kill me? I mean, I don’t know you for shit, right? So it’s not like I intentionally plowed your girl to make you feel like shit. I did what dude’s do. She’s obviously a one-and-done for me. Why wouldn’t you be pissed at her?”

“I am!” Blake protested, but that wasn’t entirely true and he knew it. He wasn’t pissed at what Jolie had done with Wayne or any of the other random guys for that matter. He was hurt. He wanted so badly for things to work out between them that he had put blinders on to the way she actually felt about him. The torment dripped from his face like watercolor.

“You love that skank?” Wayne asked, disgusted. Blake looked tearfully away from him and shock registered on Wayne’s face with the realization. “Alright, alright. Don’t fucking cry, dude, Jesus! Clearly she’s got your head so twisted right now you’re looking up into your own hairy asshole and loving the view, so I’m going to help you out. We’ll put an end to this bullshit right now.”

He marched off into the back of the apartment like a bull, leaving Blake a blubbering mess in his recliner. He was paralyzed in fear, certain the gorilla would return with a gun to put him out of his misery. His instincts screamed for him to bolt for the door, but his self-pity held him firmly in place. When he returned, Wayne held a battered, leather-bound book in his hands. He licked the tip of his finger and flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for. Blake’s cowering expression melted into puzzlement and Wayne laughed.

“No reason to shit your drawers, dude. It’s just a book,” Wayne said. He sat down on the edge of his coffee table, looking earnestly into Blake’s eyes. “Are you sure you love her?”

“Yes,” Blake answered. The pathetic squeak of his voice washed him in shame.

“You can’t imagine your life without her? It’s important that you know the right answer here, because if you can live without her, that’s your best course of action, hands down,” he said. An odd thought struck him and he laughed. “Remember Road House with Patrick Swayze?”

Blake nodded. He had seen the movie a long time ago but he wasn’t sure what bar fights had to do with his current situation.

“Great movie! People loved Swayze in that flick, but I tell you, Sam Elliott- he stole the fucking show. He gave the greatest piece of advice ever in that. Swayze’s character is so messed up over a girl and some bullshit trouble she caused him that he can’t seem to move on, even though there’s a hot doctor all up on his crotch. You remember what Elliott said about all that baggage Swayze was carrying around?” Wayne asked. Blake’s vacant stare was answer enough. “Cut it the fuck loose.”

Wayne let his words hang in the air for dramatic effect, but his efforts were lost on Blake.

“Anyway, that’s my advice here. Jolie’s no good, mijo. I can see you’re hung up on her, but if you can find a way to sever the ties, I’d get to cutting.”

“She means everything to me,” Blake said in a tired, defeated tone.

“Alright,” Wayne shrugged. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you. In that case, here’s an alternative solution you might want to give a try.”

Blake stared at the symbol on the tattered page and the foreign language that surrounded it. He had no idea what Wayne was trying to show him or how it related to his relationship problem with Jolie, but that didn’t seem to matter much. There was a tingling sensation coursing through his body like he had never felt before. He gazed into that symbol feeling a pleasure tottering on the edge of pain and he couldn’t pull his eyes away. Wayne snapped the book shut, jarring him from his trance.

“You don’t want to stare at that too long, dude,” he said with an uneasy laugh. “It’s one thing to charge me with a knife in your hand, but if you do the same with your dick, we’re going to have a real problem.”

“What do you mean?” Blake asked, the heavenly sensation falling away from him.

“That symbol is… otherworldly,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders when Blake’s eyes questioned him further. “I wish I could explain it better, but that’s the best I can offer you. My grandmother was into a lot of mystic hoodoo and what-not. This book is full of crazy shit she passed onto me. She taught a lot of it to me as a kid. Good thing, too, because now I couldn’t read it if I wanted to. Anyway, that symbol represents an ancient love charm. You get a little buzz looking at it?”

“Yes,” Blake answered. “It made me feel uneasy and enthralled all at once. Like it tapped into my desires, but made me uncomfortable within my skin. There was a strange balance to it all.”

“Oh, it’s all about balance, dude,” Wayne laughed. “You get used to looking at it, kind of like a high. The first time is overpowering- that’s why I closed it on you- but every time after, the effect lessens. But if you use it on your heart’s desire, like actually implement it…she’s yours for life as long as the charm stays in place.”

Blake looked at him warily. He couldn’t deny the sensation he had felt, but what Wayne was suggesting seemed like something from a bad 80’s movie.

“Like a love potion?” he asked snidely.

“Something like that,” Wayne said, taking insult to Blake’s tone. He rose from his makeshift seat and turned towards the hallway. “But if you don’t want to give it a shot…”

“You have to admit, it sounds crazy,” Blake said. He hesitated, toying with the idea before finally giving in. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested.”

Wayne sat back down with a smile and explained to him what needed to be done.

“How much longer? I have somewhere to be tonight,” Jolie sighed, snapping Blake from his thoughts. She drummed her long, well-manicured fingernails on the table impatiently. “You know how much I hate it when you get all sulky like this. It’s a definite turn-off.”

“Nearly finished,” he smiled. The intricate design hovered just above the crack of her well-formed ass and he couldn’t help but admire his handiwork. The charm was supposed to be etched onto the person’s most valued possession for the magic to take hold. He had suggested using the back of Jolie’s mirror. To bind Jolie to him, all he need do was add a drop of blood into the center of the symbol. Blake had come up with a much better idea. He removed his glove, cut the tip of his finger and wiped down the love charm tattoo he had inked instead of the dumb design she had wanted. “All done.”

Jolie got up from the table to look at her new tattoo in the mirror. Blake watched her nude body glide across the room, his heart beating wildly in his chest. This was the moment. If the charm didn’t work, he would know it soon enough.

“What the fuck, Blake?!” she snapped, staring over her shoulder in horror at the strange design. She whirled around on him, her face scrunched up in righteous anger. The tattoo was nothing like the one she had picked out. She charged across the room full of hellfire and brimstone. He threw up his hands in defense, prepared for the worst.

She grabbed him by the shirt collar with both fists. Her eyes were a fiery red, close to spilling angry tears. He had betrayed her and the rage she felt was overpowering. She pushed him down on the table and the sensation hit her all at once. No matter how pathetic Blake could be, she was shocked to find that she… loved him. He watched the anger in her eyes turn to something else entirely. Like a feral beast, she ripped his clothes from his body, eager to have him inside of her at once.

“Easy,” Blake laughed, elated to find the charm had worked and worked well. He rose up from the table to help remove his pants, but she shoved him back down forcefully, his head thudding against the table with a painful smack. “I knew you would like it, but damn, girl.”

“I fucking hate it!” she yelled, terrified at the turmoil her mind and body was in. The last thing she wanted was this asshole touching her, but the heat burning within insisted that she have him. “What have you done to me?!”

She straddled Blake, slipping him inside of her and rocking back and forth uncontrollably to reach an impossible itch she couldn’t scratch. Her mind screamed in repulsive horror, held captive by sexual desire like she had never known. She dug her claws into his back, raking deep gashes in his skin that made him yelp.

“Dammit that hurts,” Blake said uneasily. Jolie had always been aggressive, but this was a whole new level. He felt blood trickle down his back and tried to ignore the pain.

Jolie pumped harder, desperate to reach a threshold beyond her reach. She needed to feel all of him and his minuscule member just wasn’t getting the job done. She reared back and closed her eyes, placing her hands on his knees and driving her pelvis into his. He writhed beneath her grinding hips, uncomfortable with the pressure she placed on him.

“Seriously, Jolie,” he said wincing. “Ease up a bit.”

She let out an earsplitting screech, primal and terrifying. Her eyes flung open wide and she noticed a red glow illuminated just below Blake’s skin. This inner light called to her, begging for her love. She lurched forward, covering his mouth and face with kisses. The skin across his cheeks and forehead were translucent with the red burning light. She bit his lip and tugged.

“Cut it out!” he screamed, jerking his head back. His lip was bleeding and his pelvis bone begged for mercy, cracking beneath the jackhammer on top of him. He tried to push her away, but she grabbed his wrists and forced them to the table. Jolie pounded away, oblivious to Blake’s objections as her mind slipped into madness with only one thing in mind. She dug her nails into his forehead and slashed into the skin to release the glowing light. Blake began to scream, beating at her back and face but unable to get her off, his blows having little effect on her. He struggled to get away from her gnashing teeth, thrashing his head side to side, but her animal instincts overpowered him. She gripped at the opening she had cut into his forehead and peeled away a slab of flesh, craving to get to the light beneath with an overwhelming urgency. Having worked loose a sizeable chunk of flesh, she bit down on it and ripped away strips of skin in an uncontrollable desire to remove Blake’s face. His wails and sobs were drowned out by her unsatisfied moaning. She clawed at his back where the glow directed her and she tore out handfuls of flesh while her teeth cleared away muscle and sinew from his face. The beautiful light needed to be released and if she had to remove every inch of skin from his body and pick his bones clean she would. She slung blood and chunks of meat from his lifeless body in a frenzied desire to get into Blake and find the beauty within.

Skulduggery – David Court

“Oh Skull, you are so beautiful”
she murmured, with a sigh.
But the skull, bare, bleached and lifeless,
Could offer no reply.

On waking, she would talk to it.
tell it about herself,
But the skull, a mere framework of bones,
Just sat there on the shelf.

In mornings, she would sing to it,
Songs joyous and bleak,
But the skull, as deaf as it was dead,
could offer no critique.

At lunchtimes, she would cook for it;
fine repasts, and such.
But the skull, bereft of appetite,
would leave the meal untouched.

In afternoons, she would dance for it.
She’d pirouette and spin,
But the skull could only lay there, smiling
With a forced white rictus grin.

In evenings, she would lay with it,
Caress the skin-stripped bone.
She’d hug it for mere company,
to help feel less alone.

“Oh Skull, you are so beautiful”
she’d whisper as night fell,
but no response would ever come
from that vacant bony shell.

Her hair, from red to grey it went,
Her songs came out less eager,
The dancing slowed to a slow waltz,
Food portions grew more meagre.

Until one day, she rose from bed,
But paused before the shelf.
“You are a skull, and nothing else.”
she said, pleased with herself.

“You give me nothing but disdain.
I’ll dance for you no more.”
She spat and cursed and grabbed the skull
and placed it in a drawer.

The outside world can be quite harsh,
To the weak and the naïve
And a cruel man can exploit such souls
through the expert lies they weave.

The name he gave her was the only truth
he gave about himself.
He’d wend his way into her good books
and drain her of her wealth.

As time went on, this roguish knave
begin to win her heart.
“My love, I want for nothing more
than for us to never part.”

She took the man into her home,
devoid of apprehension.
They’d chat and dance. She’d cook for him,
Convinced of good intention.

He’d wander round the house at night,
This knave – scum of the earth –
Counting all her worldly goods
and totting up her worth.

One morning, as she lay asleep,
a drawer was disturbed.
The gleaming white skull was revealed,
The knave shrieked, quite perturbed.

She awoke, and ran to see what thing
had irked her lover so.
His eyes ablaze, he screamed at her
“This cursed thing must go!”

“No!” she cried, “The thing must stay!
To me it means the world.”
“It wasn’t a request,” he snarled,
“You’ll do as told, my girl.”

Seeing his mask gone, for the first time,
She felt a pang of doubt.
“Of course, my dear. Just as you asked.
Before the day is out.”

He raised his fist as though to strike,
to her horror and surprise.
But left her there, holding the skull
and staring in its eyes.

“I’ve cooked your favourite meal,” she said.
He grabbed it, simply glaring.
Little did he know that it was laced
with a box-worth of Warfarin.

“Oh Skulls, you are so beautiful”
she murmured, with a sigh.
But the skulls, bare, bleached and lifeless,
Could offer no reply.

Three

Birds and the Bees – Aiden Leingod

Why are bees dying?

Natural causes? Global warming? A secret society of revolting apiarists? The truth is nobody knows. Didn’t stop the damn faculty from asking though. Me of all people. A lowly researcher. An assistant one at that. The one who can’t even tell left from right on a good day. And so here I stand god-knows-where. It’s things like this why me and the wife don’t talk anymore.

We didn’t have some epic back-and-forth argument. No big show of emotion. Just total silence and a pained look in our tired eyes that said everything we wanted to say. Now the only communication we have with each other is done solely through our respective solicitors. Wish I’d taken a prenup out.

I imagine the tangled vines and twisting branches blocking whatever direction I’m heading in are the confusing subtleties of divorce law. Cutting through them is consequently much easier, cathartic almost. Reminds me of the initial meeting I had with my superior on colony collapse disorder. He referred to its title in full only once, at the beginning. The rest of the one-sided conversation littered with mentions of ‘CCD’. Since my attention was diverted elsewhere, the abbreviation rang truer to just another new-fangled technological format or sensationalist disease I’m not familiar with. I bluffed my way through by constantly nodding my head and keeping blank eye contact for the remainder.

As I understand it, there are many competing hypotheses on the plight of bees. Climate change, selective breeding, parasitic flies. Antibiotics, pesticides, fungicides. So many solutions; apparently not a single one that actually solves any problems. Though there was one hypothesis my superior strangely omitted: electromagnetic radiation.

You see, when bees remain in contact with active mobile phone signals, the workers suddenly abandon their hives after approximately ten days. The queens also produce eggs at a reduced rate. By general consensus this explanation is as legitimate as the other hypotheses, but considering my superior being as clueless as everyone else in the scientific community, perhaps his omission wasn’t that strange after all.

I learnt about the electromagnetic radiation hypothesis – amidst various crackpot conspiracy theories – thanks to my new-fangled mobile phone. Before embarking on what I still consider at this present time to be simply a bog-standard wild goose chase, I was given time to get my affairs in order. I had set my mind on fulfilling my boyhood dream of earning my racing stripes.

By which I mean buying a retrospectively overzealous vehicle that more or less resembled the nervous wreck I’d gradually became. What few friends I had managed to keep successfully dissuaded me on the begrudging grounds that such behaviour could be construed as pitiful signs of a classic mid-life crisis. Dangerous compensation not just for the ego, but also due to the unfortunate fact I can’t drive worth toffee.

Henceforth, the phone. Absolutely amazing what you can find out these days, and all at your fingertips. Inevitably, after I grew bored of running afoul of fake news I turned to the similarly shady world of dating apps. Seemed good to get out, meet new people. I soon recanted that statement. The pictures did not match the reality. And when they did, the personality often did not match the words. In short, the whole experience left much to be desired.

Finally emerging on the other side of the brush, my guide points out a pyramid-like structure nearby. Virtually, that is. The map and translation apps proved so useful that I’d foregone the usual native companion for one I didn’t have to raise small talk with every five minutes, lest we be consumed by awkward silence.

Besides, for weeks I’d been thoroughly engaged in a promising conversation bordering on flirtatious with someone just my type. My last-ditch attempt at getting somewhere. Meant to impress, I’d nonchalantly said I would be away on business, on some sort of classified, glamorous adventure halfway around the world.

No reply as of yet. If she had told me she wasn’t interested, I could handle that, and probably try again. The waiting however, is unbearable. As I make haste to approach the structure, I hear buzzing. Lots of buzzing. When I have the pyramid in my line of sight, I see bees. Lots of bees. In fact, it’s impossible to miss them. There must be thousands, even hundreds of thousands, gathered around the surrounding area.

I begin to backtrack. Carefully, slowly. Clearly I’ve wandered into the wrong part of town. Even my colloquial language is beginning to lose coherence. My mobile vibrates in my trouser pocket, scaring me witless. The novelty alert, the tinny sound of a buzzing bee is muted in comparison to the deafening cacophony. I pull the damned thing out and frantically try to reduce its volume, set it to silent, turn it off; anything by using my increasingly unwieldy digits.

A reply. What luck. No signal in the city, but somehow in the middle of nowhere, one little yellow bar that refuses to die contrasted against the background of a low battery. Heartening, really. I tap the screen and realise the message is empty.

A split-second later, I recoil sharply from the same kind of feeling on my neck. The whiplash momentarily stuns me. I sink swiftly to one knee, my hand clamped over the weeping wound, the phone clattering to the searing vegetation beneath.

“Bollocks!” came a cry from behind, a short distance away. A group of humanoid shapes in apiarist suits, white and yellow-stained beekeeper attire, surround me as I writhe in unimaginable pain next to the scattered remnants of my phone, its display shattered. I recognise a face through a mesh covering, staring at me with blank concentration. The woman from the dating site. As I fade, she utters,

“Ever heard of the theory that only fools rush in?”

apoclypse_34

Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest Part 6 – Nick Paschall

Slipping through the underbrush with nary a sound, Jaime paused when one of the rotten began shuffling by, flaking skin crumbling with every movement due to the overgrown mass of weeds growing through its grass protruding from its back and forearms. The former human, for it was no longer discernible whether it’d once been a male or woman, clicked inquisitively, rotating its partially collapsed head to roll its milky white eye in mimicry of human sight. The zombie clicked a few times, tilting towards Jaime enough to make her pause, her foot half perched above the grass, the soles of her boot barely touching the earth. Raiding her bow, she pulled an arrow and took careful aim.

And then lowered it just as fast.

Three ghouls, able bodied and faster, rounded from an abandoned AutoZone, one with an arrow sticking out of its chest. The fact that they all had fresh blood dribbling from their cover told Jaime they’d caught someone, or something, in their impromptu hunt.

Derek said this was one of the most infested zones in town, Jaime thought, their old group may have been poking around when I kicked over the proverbial anthill. That arrow looks sturdier than mine, so they must be using pre-Darkness made shafts.

The thought of getting a hold of supplies for her own run to Washington crossed her mind, and Jaime smiled with a wicked thought. If she could snag some spare arrows, maybe a new bow or crossbow, she would be set for a while. Her compound bow had seen three years of use after she’d restrung it. It wasn’t about to give way, but a spare would be welcome in case she needed something else. Or picked someone up for a while.

You never knew when you’d find a survivor like yourself that you wouldn’t mind killing some time with, Jaime thought, breathing out as the rotten turned and walked towards the clicking ghouls. The loyal lapdog seemed to be on the hunt, and the ghouls were calling it in, possibly to feed on their scraps.

Jaime stepped carefully and began to follow the rotten, taking a step for every shuffle it made. They rounded the auto parts store, the windows boarded up long ago, and ducked beneath a tree where the ghouls led, clicking for the rotten to follow. The ghouls moved in a sloped fashion, their backs crooked and bent with their arms scratching the ground, their necks bent and warped so their heads could tilt and rotate. Their eyes were either absent or grayish white, stretch skin half-eaten away by colonies of wood roaches and wasps nesting in their bodies. One ghoul had centipedes, long red and brown bodied crawling insects, roaming over its preserved hide. A hole in its right hand seemed to be a favored traffic spot as they would wriggle in and out of the hand every few seconds to crawl up the nude frame of the creature.

Stopping as the ghouls revealed what was hidden in the bushes, she frowned; a teenager, no older than fourteen, had been ambushed by the zombies. They’d torn into her, ripping her to pieces before devouring the more delectable pieces for themselves. Already there were four rotten, withered limbs missing fingers, pulling harder to digest bits out to eat, a group that the lapdog joined with a series of happy clicks.

Jaime’s heart leapt to her chest when the ghouls all clicked at once and turned to look at her, one tilting its head so that the right ear was pointed at her. She stood as still as the mountains, and then heard it. The scraping of something meaty on the broken pavement. Turning slowly, Jaime saw a bull, hulking creature with only one arm that had at one point been struck by fire if the left half of its body was any indication. It was dragging two people by an arm and a leg, blood seeping out from their bodies as they slid over chunky gravel and sharpened rocks. One was a man with a wader hate and a vest with long sleeves while the other was a child.

She was conscious though her facade seemed to be that of someone experiencing shock. She stared ahead, her eyes skyward, her bushy red hair and freckled face marred by dirt. She had to be ten or eleven. She was in an over-sized green sweater and torn jeans, and didn’t appear to be bitten, just battered.

What are they doing? Jaime thought, never having seen bulls actually capture someone. They always died in her presence, as they were trying to batter her, or someone with her, to death.

Or apparently into unconsciousness.

It clicked, a deep rumble coming from a throat dominated by the roots of a small plant that’d broken away from it when it rose. The ghouls jittered, anew noise that she’d never heard before, and jumped in place in excitement. They slouched over and, after probing the man with their broken fingers, which were now supported by thin vines, they pulled him away from the bull and each took a careful, long bite out of his arm. They passed him around as if he were a piece of fruit being shared amidst friends, and they chewed his flesh happily. The bull lifted knelt next to the groaning man and delivered the coup de grace, biting the older man in the throat with a slow but firm crunching noise. It stood back up, chewing as if lost in thought, and clicked between bites. Two of the ghouls lowered their arms onto the dying man and shook, seizing violently to shake loose some of their insect occupants onto the torso.

Jaime had to keep silent as the bugs began digging, the sound of layers of wet paper being torn, into the man to dig into him. The only ghoul not to contribute was the wasp ghoul, who only stood with a cocked head, wasps buzzing around his head as he stood by in silent vigil. Jaime could only stare in horror as the man died, coughing and sputter enough as spurts of blood sprayed out from his neck and leaked from the multiple bites on his arms. The four corpses stood silent as they observed the passing, and then clicked between each other.

Are… are they making small talk? Jaime thought, disturbed at the idea.

But they stood for three minutes, blood drying on their faces and lying in a puddle at their feet until the man gave a twitch. Jaime’s eyes widened, and she watched as the man slowly sat up, his body slack and loose as if he’d taken too many muscle relaxers. His head lolled to the side and his eyes opened, his eyes rolling about in a disjointed fashion, one looking up the other gazing at his foot. He patted his chest, before he pursed his lips and clicked, rapidly.

The others clicked slower, one ghoul placing a hand covered in twig-like fingers on his shoulder. The head rolled to the side, as if responding to the touch.

Jaime didn’t like that. Zombies were numb. She’s lucky they were blind upon their rebirth, unlike what she’d learned about when she was younger. The disease that animated them ate at their nerve endings, consuming them until there was nothing but the barest framework left. The only thing the disease favored over the nerves was protein, and it consumed the mass of the zombie in equal portions unless it consumed a regular meal. If they starved for too long, they became rotten.

But the fact that they were this sophisticated! This went beyond what Jaime ever thought possible, what she thought anyone knew! They’d bonded with insects and plants, and transferred bites instead of consuming in a frenzy to breed, in their own unique way.

Suddenly, Jaime looked over at the young girl. Her eyes met the emerald green of the young girl, and she winced as she saw the girl mouth the words “help me”.

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