By: J. C. Eickelberg
An exciting 3-part story inspired by and in remembrance of the great George Romero.
Late morning sun glinted off a dusty truck driving to town. As the crew approached a neighbor’s property, buzzards were seen circling over a downed steer. A quick cell phone call let the rancher know about another carcass in the field. They took little notice of crows picking away on roadkill.
In town, trucks lined each side of the main street. Most people in town were running errands. Bad storms were predicted for later in the afternoon and no one wanted to get caught in them. At Frank’s Café the crew driving into town was looking to have a late lunch. Frank’s had a good menu and pleasant customers. The rusty and dirty crew cab truck pulled into a spot and quickly emptied. The lunch counter was unusually busy for so late in the lunch hour. They scanned the dining area for a place to sit.
“Halloran lost four more head last week,” one man was saying. “Is there something going around?”
“Not that I heard,” Frank said from behind the counter. “I’ll listen for any word about that. Doc Schuster comes in once or twice a week. I’ll have to pick his mind for some information.” He looked up from the packed counter. “Hi, Darrell. Treating the crew to lunch?”
“Yeah. We’re done with what we needed to do at the stockyard and wanted to catch lunch before heading back. We saw another dead steer in McAllister’s field on the way in. That’s…,” he thought a second, “eight for him this week.”
“Ten,” Wayne said from behind him. “I got a call this morning. He found two more last night. Buzzards got ‘em really quick.”
“That’s got to be a record for the year,” Frank said shaking his head.
“It’s been a record year for buzzards, too,” another counter sitter piped in. “I’ve seen clouds of them on the other side of town.”
“By the Romenesko ranch?” Darrell asked. A nod. “He’s commented about them. No one’s been able to figure why there’s so many.”
“I saw two on top of Rutlin’s Hardware. Could have sworn they were watching me drive by,” a coverall clad sitter said. He worked for one of the companies contracted to remove dead livestock.
“Driving your carcass truck today?”
“Nope. My pickup.”
“I’ve seen them in trees by the ball diamonds. Nothing anywhere near the trees for them to eat,” Frank said. “I brought a load of stuff to the snack shack yesterday and thought it was a murder of crows. None of the teams there mentioned a carcass nearby.”
A scream from outside and screeching tires got their attention. Two large blurs streaked down to the sidewalk.
Darrell and his crew ran out to assist. They exited the restaurant to find two buzzards attacking a mother and toddler. The youth was strapped into a stroller, bawling as the bird attempted to extract him. The mother was fending off her own attacker. Darrell’s crew didn’t break stride as they advanced to the melee.
One boot connected with the vulture attacking the stroller, sending the bird to the gutter. It lumbered back to attack the stroller not bothered by being kicked. A wing flopping off kilter didn’t faze the bird. Another more savage kick launched it into the street.
Screams from the mother slackened as Darrell grabbed the wings of her attacker and pulled it away. He gagged on its stench, but held firm. Struggling to get its meal, the vulture’s rabid movements broke its bones. Darrell stood, shocked as broken bones slipped out of the wings and the body of the bird fell to the sidewalk. It didn’t hesitate as it ran back to its target, wingless. Another observer ran up behind the mother, bypassed her and punted the bird over the street. A shotgun went off and a passing car was dusted with vulture’s remains. The bird in the street waddled back, a dent visible in its chest.
“What the hell?” exclaimed the punter.
“Stand clear,” someone bellowed.
Darrell saw the gun wielder step up, racking a fresh shell into the chamber. Darrell picked up the stroller and moved toward the hysterical mother. Two of his crew dragged her away from the scene. Another blast scattered fetid remains across two parked trucks. Clacking made heads turn back to the bloody scene. The bodiless head continued to snap at anyone nearby.
“Just die, already,” demanded the punter. He stomped the head flat.
“What the hell was that about?” Darrell asked. He looked around. “Dwayne?”
“They’ve been moving into the area,” Dwayne said, reaching down to pick up the spent shells. “This is the first I’ve seen them go after anything living.”
“What are you talking about?” Darrell asked, exasperated.
“I’ve been watching them for Dr. Marstedt. He wants to know why their numbers have grown,” Dwayne said. “A few soaring out in the boonies, some hovering by the stockyards isn’t unusual. Over the last few weeks numbers have tripled.”
“Why is Doc Marstedt interested in this?” Darrell wondered.
“Does anyone know what’s going around the herds to bring in the top veterinarian in the state?” Dwayne stated innocently. “If he’s looking into it, we’re not the only ones with this problem.”
“What bug is going around to do this?” Punter pointed to the splatter next to his boot. Everyone looked at the massacred birds. Three vehicles had remains painted across parts of them.
“No one knows, yet,” Dwayne said.
The woman was checking her child for marks, applying hugs and kisses liberally. A police car eased to the curb, lights on without the siren. An ambulance was rounding a corner heading toward them. Some people came out to investigate what happened. The cop went to Dwayne, the most obvious of weapon carriers. Darrel and his crew were questioned and let go.
“Reporters have come across numerous accounts of ranchers reporting higher than normal cattle deaths in many western states. Findings have also been reported of larger populations of buzzards being seen circling over dead animals. No reasons have been found for the sudden death of cattle and sudden spike in buzzard populations. Scientists have no theories, or explanations yet, why buzzards have appeared in such large numbers. Veterinarians have examined some of the dead cattle and sent samples to labs with hopes of finding a cause of death. No signs of unusual illness or parasites in any animals have been noted.
“A little closer to home, reports continue to come in about graves being dug up throughout area cemeteries. Police have no leads about the whereabouts of those recently buried or why anyone would want to desecrate the graves. Anyone with information is asked to contact police.” The news was switched off as political commentary began.
“That’s sad,” came a voice from the kitchen.
“Yeah. No one can seem to stop the verbal diarrhea about politician’s behavior,” said the watcher.
“Emily, that’s not what I’m talking about.” A lean figure came to the door. “The graves. So many opened up and no one can find out why. I feel for the families.”
“Maybe some politician is finally finding where his constituents are living and want to shake some hands,” Emily said.
“Your impossible. Always slamming politicians. Give it a rest.” Emily looked like she could go a round with any politician in the boxing ring. Lean like her sister, but built more like a professional athlete, than the high-level manager she was during business hours.
“Barb. I’ll give it a rest when those grey hairs are rotting in their graves.” Emily sneered at the quiet TV as she tied her running shoes.
Barb walked to join her sister. They went through their ritual stretches.
“Emily, are you going to go easy on me with sprints?”
“Don’t outdistance me too bad this time,” Emily said. “That’s why I work you so hard on sprints, Barbie Doll.”
“Oh, shut up, Emmylou Harris,” Barb chided. She was ready to talk about something different. “I’ve seen guys swoon over you at Karaoke.”
“I’ll woo them with a song if I want. I can beat them down if they talk trash and they know it,” Emily said.
“You look it, too,” Barb said. “I wish I had a little more muscle like you. You look great.”
“And I wish I had some more of your Barbie Doll looks,” she replied. They smiled. “I like hanging out with you. You’re fun.” She went out the front door and down the steps.
“So are you. I like hanging out with my big sister.”
“Your older sister likes hanging out with her baby sister.” Emily narrowed her eyes at Barb. She was a little conscious of her appearance. They started jogging down the street.
“Shut up. I’m not a baby,” Barb said with a mock pout. She reached out to slap her sister’s shoulder. She missed.
“Catch me, first,” Emily said with a smile. She sprinted ahead.
“Slow down,” Barb said. “Bitch.” She laughed to herself.
Barb ran after her sister. She caught Emily a block later settling into a steady pace. Both ran easily, moving through afternoon pedestrians as they found their favorite paths into the urban green space. Barb griped about being pushed doing sprints. Emily griped back about her whining.
Jogging into a park was the warmup. They started walking as more people meandered through the lengthening shadows. They walked around picnics set up for an evening out for families and couples. They found a spot to run sprints. A few guys gave the sisters appreciative looks as they sprinted from one place to another. One invited them to a party when Barb called for a break. Heads shaken were the only answer the invitation got. The party goers went away broken hearted.
“Those guys are half drunk already,” Emily said.
“When was the last time we were invited to a party?” Barb asked.
“Not too long ago. These guys are barely out of college and just want to get into your pants,” Emily said. “I’ve got a few numbers at home. Some belong to a lot better looking guys than those. And more mature.”
Birds flittered around the picnic goers, looking for crumbs or a dropped chip. Crows flanked sparrows as they moved in to chase lost morsels. Shadows in the sky weren’t unusual as birds moved with the wind. Barb kept looking at the larger birds riding thermals.
“These are the largest birds I’ve ever seen,” Barb said. “Are those vultures?”
“They’re just large crows,” Emily said. She doubted her initial thought then, remembering about vultures being seen in the city. They had an easy run back through the park. A few more sprints and they turned toward home.
They ran back to their townhouse as a cool down. A night out was well appreciated. The banter from before the run continued as the pair got cleaned up for going out.
Walking into a club to meet up with friends, the sisters were all smiles when they found them. A couple of hours of dancing and a few drinks were enjoyed. Emily and her group got invited to a party by another group. In the group Emily met a handsome guy more interested in her than her fashionista sister.
“Brando, where’s this party?” Emily asked. They were wanting a smaller, calmer party to finish out their night.
“Out near St. George’s Necropolis Cemetery. There’s an old fire station across the street. Some of my friends are having a party starting in an hour,” he said. He looked like a young Marlon Brando.
“How far is it?”
“Two or three miles,” Brando said.
“How are we going to get there?” Barb asked. Her and Emily had taken a cab to get to the club.
“We have enough cars to get all of us there,” he said. He was showing maturity Emily liked to see in men. To be continued… Come back Sunday for part two.