The Other Woman by Jesse Orr Episode 3: Group Therapy

Three: Group Therapy

Missy steps back onto the street and as she does after every shift of convincing the desolate there is hope, she lights a cigarette. Inhaling deep, she closes her eyes, savoring the burn in her lungs and the rush to her head. She opens her eyes, and exhales. It is beginning to be cold at night and the warmth of her breath mixes with the smoke.

She savors her cigarette, relishing its toxic taste more than the air she breathes as she walks the two blocks to the bus stop. Several of the city’s homeless population inquire as to whether or not she possesses any money she is not currently using, or any cigarettes she does not intend to smoke. She remains deaf to their inquiries, and finds an unoccupied corner of the bus shelter. Checking her phone, she sees from a local news outlet that Debra, the unfortunate damsel from Maine, has been found with some of her head intact.

Missy is still smiling as the bus pulls up and offers her passage. Stowing her phone, she deposits her fare in the slotted box and finds an empty seat beside an elderly gentleman who seems to be asleep. Placing headphones in her ears, she loses herself in music as she says a fervent prayer that the man will not awaken until she has left the bus. This prayer will be granted.

Stepping off the bus and removing the headphones, Missy strides down the chipped sidewalk, stepping around piles of dog refuse and broken glass. She hears whistles from across the road and rolls her eyes as the catcalls start. It never lasts longer than a few seconds, for here is the double door at the base of a short, squat apartment building coated in peeling beige paint. Once through the door, the oafish shouts are cut off.

The metallic smell of burning methamphetamine no longer register as anything but a fact of life as Missy bypasses the elevator she knows to be broken and makes for the stairway. After three flights of dirty stairs, all of which reek of outhouse, Missy opens the door to a dim hallway stretching in both directions, in which rats scurry from the sound of her heels in the flickering florescent light. She raps upon the door nearest the elevator while fumbling in her purse, and within a few seconds the pinprick of light at the door’s peephole vanishes, before reappearing as the bolt shoots back.

Thick glasses are framed by thicker blonde hair as the door opens first a crack, then swings open to reveal a skinny young man, headphones draped around his neck. Silver athletic shorts glimmer in the surreal light from a large aquarium as he leads her into the living room where she flops onto the couch as he takes a seat in the computer chair installed before the four glowing monitors. Electronic music plays from speakers flanking the computer desk as the young man swivels, spinning the chair and looking at Missy.

“So…?”

Missy looked away. “Just one.” She lit a cigarette. “Where’s a drink?”

The young man looked on with disapproval.

“You said you wouldn’t-”

“I know!” She took a mighty drag. “I was stressed. Where’s a drink?”

“Why were you so stressed?”

“Because I need a fucking drink!” Missy snapped. The young man leaned forward and opened a small refrigerator, extracting a small carton of wine. He tossed it to Missy, who butted her cigarette in the handy ashtray before uncapping the carton and draining it. Slumping back into the couch, she sighed, and lit another cigarette.

The young man’s face showed resigned disgust. “Princess?”

“She doesn’t fucking get it!” Missy exploded, rising to her feet in agitation and striding back and forth, waving her arms. “It’s all just a dream to her! She just wakes up, ready to go and there’s nothing I can do to stop her.” She stopped before a large mirror and stared at herself.

“She’s in there, now. Watching.” Missy glowered at her reflection. “I can feel her.”

Daniel came up behind her. “Calm down,” he said, catching her by the shoulders. “You’re not doing anybody any good.”

Missy drew on her cigarette, averting her eyes from those of his reflection. “Nobody is doing anybody any good.”

Daniel drew back, frowning. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“You promised me you could control her!” Missy yelled. “You told me, when this all got started! You told me… you told me…” Her voice cracked. “You don’t have any fucking idea… what it’s like…”

“I’ll talk to her,” said Daniel. “She’ll listen. She has to. She has to realize this can’t go on.”

“Good fucking luck!” Missy said with a shrill laugh which reeked more of hysteria than humor. “She’s never had to deal with anything her whole fucking life! She’s-”

With no warning, Daniel recoiled in surprise as the glowing tip of Missy’s cigarette was extinguished in the smooth palm. The smell of charring flesh filled his nostrils. His eyes were huge.

“If you would both like to cease your moaning and crying over what the naughty girl has done,” came the mocking tones of Princess, “I would like to remind you of a few facts.” She flexed her hand, relishing the sting of the cigarette burn.

“Nobody cares what you think you know,” sneered Missy. Daniel was taken aback by the loathing in Missy’s eyes as she looked at her reflection which no longer belonged to her. “You’re just a stupid spoiled whore and that’s all you’re ever going to be.”

“Thanks to Missy,” Princess said loudly, “all of my clothing from that night has been destroyed, and any forensic evidence has been washed from the shower. With bleach,” she added almost as an afterthought. “Nothing was left at the crime scene, and there is nothing to see in such a shithole.”

“You’re sure?” Daniel asked.

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” Princess said, shooting him her prettiest smile.

“I should be so lucky,” Missy snarled.

“Please, Missy. I very much doubt if anybody will even bother filing a report.” Princess smirked. “Nothing of value was lost.”

These words had barely finished coming from Missy’s mouth when a loud knocking, punctuated by the crackle of radio static cut through the apartment’s gloom.

“Police! Daniel Dasham, we have some questions for you. Please open the door.”

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The Other Woman by Jesse Orr Episode Two: Angel of Mercy

Two: Angel of Mercy

Missy wakes and spends a few moments staring at the ceiling, reflecting on her prospects for the day. She has a longer than usual shift, and she needs to check the news for last night’s proclivity. After a period of time in which she respires thirty times, she drags herself from her bed, makes her way to the bathroom, and to the kitchen. Her still fuzzy eyes see a note hanging on the fridge, secured by a rainbow magnet. A heart drawn in a pink marker. From Princess. Missy plucks the note from the fridge and wads it up, tossing it in the garbage before opening the cupboards to assemble the components for coffee.

As it brews, filling the room with a rich, dark scent, Missy retrieves a flask of whiskey from a smaller cupboard in the corner. She adds two fingers of liquor to her coffee cup, then fills it to the brim with coffee. Replacing the whiskey bottle after taking a quick swig, she glances at the clock. She has one hour to be at her desk.

Sipping at regular intervals from her Irish coffee, Missy checks the various news and police feeds online. The emergency call list, police social media bulletins and regular news outlets are all screaming about the savaged carcass Bitch Slap the pimp has discovered in his quest for cash. Missy’s eyes fly through the words and photos, sipping her coffee with greater frequency as her teeth grind together. There is only fractional comfort to be found in the bewildered tone of all statements by law enforcement; it is still early.

Finishing her coffee, Missy tosses the cup into the sink and returns to her room. She dresses, tying her hair back into a ponytail. Brushing her teeth and applying makeup is done without any conscious thought. She is thousands of miles away, traveling at speeds immeasurable by science. That damn Princess, she’s thinking, as she wonders not for the first time how to kill her.

As the thought turns itself over and over, she returns to reality with a snap as she realizes she isn’t looking at Missy anymore. The face in the mirror smiles at her.

“Hello, you bitch,” Missy said, her voice a monotone as she applied eyeliner. “Don’t move.”

“Bitch yourself,” said Princess, keeping her head still. “I told you I took care of it. They don’t know anything.”

“YOU don’t know anything,” Missy sighed. “They could know exactly who did it, it’s not like they would tell the press that.”

“I took care of it,” said Princess, daubing lipstick on Missy’s lips. “So just quit worrying. It’s not like anything can be done now anyway.” She blew a kiss at her reflection. Missy scowled.

“It’s not like you’ll have to deal with it,” she said, her voice indignant. “As soon as anything gets dangerous, you’ll run and hide. It’s always my fucking problem. That’s too much lipstick. I’ll look like a whore.”

“I like it that way.”

“Looking like a whore?”

“Shut up, cunt.” Princess jerked her hand and the lipstick scrawled a jagged line across Missy’s cheek.

Missy gasped in outrage. “You miserable fucking…”

“Whatever,” Princess says, and then it’s only Missy, staring in silent fury at her lipsticked face in the mirror.

When Missy walks into the office with a freshly made-up face, the others on her shift are all at their cubicles wearing headsets, and eyes flick to the clock to see how late she is: twenty minutes. She’s definitely going to get a scolding.

Going to her spot and sitting down, Missy groans inside as she sees the supervisor’s door open right on cue. She straightens up and looks with artificial crispness and respect at the woman striding in her direction. Carol Elson is a large woman with iron gray hair and a fondness for tweed, as well as the rules. She stops before Missy’s desk and speaks in a voice pitched low enough not to intrude upon the telephone conversations, but not pitched so low that those not on the phone cannot eavesdrop on their conversation.

“Missy, do you know what time it is?”

“Yes, Miss Elson,” Missy says, and no more. She has learned through experience and observation that extra words prolong the suffering.

“Twenty minutes past the time you were supposed to be here, am I wrong?”

“You’re not wrong, ma’am,” Missy says. “It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t. Just to be sure, I’ll be subtracting twenty minutes from your pay this week.” The woman’s face breaks into her first smile of the day, her teeth large and wide like a horse’s. They always remind Missy of tombstones. “Now that’s enough chit-chat! Someone needs you!” She points to Missy’s phone, where a light blinks with the urgency which means incoming call.

“Yes ma’am,” Missy says, attempting not to clench her teeth as her mind flashes back to last night when Princess had peeled the skin from the girl’s body as she screamed to die. Maybe something of it shows in Missy’s eyes, for her supervisor’s malevolent smile falters a little.

Before Carol Elson can say anything, Missy dons her headset and says in a voice dripping with sympathy and understanding, “Thank you for calling the Suicide Hotline. I’m so glad you did. How can I help you?”

Her smile returning, Miss Elson retreats to her office. Missy’s eyes follow her all the way to her office door, and only when the door clicks shut does her own smile slip from her face. Taking a deep breath, Missy reaches for a pen and legal pad and begins to doodle as she listens to the tearful soliloquy pouring forth from the earpiece.

Debra lives in Maine and is calling while her boyfriend is in the shower. She tells Missy she has her phone in one hand and her boyfriend’s gun in the other. She’s just found emails containing naked photos of another girl on her boyfriend’s laptop. The photos go back for months. Boyfriend and the girl have been talking about getting married. Debra’s voice breaks as she says this, and Missy can barely make out that Debra and Boyfriend have been talking about getting married as well, before Debra dissolves into hysterical sobs.

“Debra,” Missy says, raising her voice just a little and losing none of her honeyed tones of sympathy and understanding. She lowers the volume on her earpiece, and Debra’s tears become softer. “Debra?”

A snuffling, wailing affirmation. Debra is listening.

“I understand you don’t feel like living right now,” Missy says, her tone as comforting as a mother removing a bee sting. “I don’t blame you. This is the kind of suffering that leaves a scar and changes who you are, deep down, as a person.”

A cry leading into more tears and blubbering. Debra was happy the way things were, she doesn’t want things to change. She wants to be with Boyfriend the way they had planned and can’t stand for it to be any other way. She continues to repeat herself and Missy draws a cat on the legal pad clawing at the margin. She is adding whiskers and a spike on the tail when Debra finally runs out of steam and is nothing but noisy breathing in Missy’s ear.

“I know, honey, but that can’t happen. If you can’t stand to have anything change, you should probably kill yourself.” Missy adds a mouse under the cat’s claw and elongates the claw, so it pierces the mouse through the stomach.

Debra sounds shocked.

“There’s no other solution,” says Missy, and draws a large pair of jaws around the cat. “You don’t want it to change, but it’s going to whether you want it to or not. It’s going to hurt you forever, so why don’t you just do it already?”

Debra is crying louder than ever.

Missy draws large fangs from the disembodied jaws, stabbing through the cat and mouse alike. “Kill yourself now, while he’s in the shower, and leave his laptop nearby so he knows why. You owe him that much at least.”

Debra’s crying stops abruptly as a loud BANG sounds in Missy’s ear, making her wince a little. She can hear, in the house somewhere in Maine, some guy shouting “Deb? You okay?” After a moment’s silence, he begins to scream.

“Thank you for calling the Suicide Hotline, and I hope you have a wonderful day,” Missy says, and disconnects the call. She smiles and looks at the clock. Nine more hours to go.

Free Fiction Wednesday: Last Stand by J. C. Eickelberg 3/3

Last Stand
Part 3/3 – the end

By: J. C. Eickelberg

3rd part of an exciting 3-part story inspired by and in remembrance of the great George Romero.

The survivors ran toward their cars.  Emily and Barb sprinted forward, leading the pack as they went.  Brando stayed at the back motivating the slower runners.  Harry ran to the building, grabbed a forgotten shovel and ran back toward Brando.  The shovel went up as he ran, then arched down.  Brando went around Harry, pushing one of Emily’s friends along.  A meaty thwack and a grunt got Brando to turn.  Harry swung again at the prone figure.  Another smashed melon sound echoed off the building.

“Stay down,” Harry spat.  A hand twitched.  “Stop already.”  He swung again and the shovel broke.  The figure stopped moving

“You killed him,” Brando said.

“Nope,” Harry said.  “Was already dead.”  He was breathing hard.  He pointed the broken handle at the gaping chest wound the corpse had.

“We need to go.  Now!” Brando said.

Harry drove the broken handle into the ground through the corpse’s chest wound as if it were a vampire.

“No, we’re not,” Emily said.  “The gate’s locked.”

A look of horror washed over Harry’s face.  “That can’t be.  The lock’s broke.  It wasn’t locked when we got here.”

“Nope.  It’s locked now,” Barb verified.  She pulled and rattled the locked gate.

“Any other gates we can use?” Brando asked.

“This is always the last one locked,” Harry answered.  “Whoever fixed the lock didn’t tell me.  It’s been broke since last winter.”

“Do you have any keys for the gate?” Brando asked.  Harry shook his head.  “What about the building?  We need to get inside.”

Harry answered with movement to the building.  His hand went to a pocket to get a key.  Emily and Brando watched for any dead walkers moving their way.  The rest waited for the door to open.  Rusty hinges motivated them into motion.  Harry was swept through the opening.  Brando pulled the door shut and locked it.

Barb found the breakroom.  She fell on a worn couch and shook.  Her friends paced, worrying about what happened.  Lights came on, giving more illumination than the emergency lights.  Harry sank into an overstuffed chair, rattled by what happened to his friends.  Brando and Emily fell to their combat training to secure the building.  They moved efficiently through each room.  A nearby maintenance bay had a door with a window.  This last door to be checked was found locked.  They looked out to see an empty parking lot.  Light from the flashlight moved with them.  All locks had been verified locked.  Turning back to join their friends, they didn’t expect the door to rattle.  A shadow appeared outside.  A light above the door showed a vacant set of eyes.  Emily and Brando watched the figure briefly.  It didn’t see them.  They faded into the shadows and made their way back to the others.

“They’re knocking on the door,” Brando said.

“Shit.  We’re stuck here,” Harry said.  “We’re in serious trouble now.”

“Do you have a phone here?” Barb asked.  “Maybe we can call the police?”

“Already tried.  They’re swamped with calls,” Harry said, rejected.  “Let’s stay here and keep calling.  This building is locked and secure as a mausoleum.”

“Hopefully not our mausoleum,” Barb said.  She was more depressed than Harry.

“Cheer up.  They need to get in to do anything to us.”  Harry offered Barb a smile.  She smiled back.  “I know this building.  I work here, remember?”

“And you’d know about getting out of here.  Right?”  Brando gave him a piercing look.

“Don’t give me that look.  I’m not brain dead,” Harry quipped.

“Then prove it.  You’re not shambling like them,” Emily said, pointing down the hall.  “Yet.”  Her look wasn’t far from vicious.

They settled in the breakroom and listened to the radio.

“This is the top of the hour news.  Reports have come in about groups moving around the city dressed as zombies.  Accidents are clogging streets from people walking into traffic.  Police have their hands full dealing them.  We ask people to stay on sidewalks and look both ways before crossing the street…”

Static garbled words as the station changed.

“Reporters on the scene have reported groups roaming through parks.  They have seen people dressed for a zombie party…”

Another station was tuned in.

“People have reported an unruly party at The Fire Alarm.  Party goers have relocated to St. George’s Necropolis Cemetery…”  The sound faded as another station was searched for.

“Keep it on that station,” Harry said.

“Why?” Emily asked.

“That’s where we are. The Fire Alarm is across the street.”

Emily turned back to the station.

“Reports are coming in about people being attacked in the cemetery.  Police have been alerted to graves being vandalized and mausoleums being broken into…”

“Broken into, my ass.  People have been breaking out.  There’s more dead walking than living out there.”  Harry paced with his hands on the side of his head.

“This just in.  The National Guard has been called in to help control unruly crowds.”  Emily and Brando looked at each other.  “Use of force has been authorized.  Police Chief Reynolds has declared all groups to disband and go home.  A curfew is now in effect.  Anyone found outside will be arrested and fined.

“Once again, a curfew has been implemented and the National Guard has been brought in to help disperse crowds.  Police and guardsmen are authorized to respond with force if they are attacked.”

Emily turned the radio down.  She stood surveying the room.

“Well that says we stay here,” Brando said.

“We can’t go anywhere, anyhow,” Harry said.  “The gates are locked and we can’t get to our cars to go anyplace else.”

“Good.  If we’re not going anywhere, I need to use the bathroom,” one of Emily’s friend said.

“I saw it before.  I’ll show you,” Emily said.  They walked out.  “I want to check the windows and doors again.”

“Do you think we’ll get out of here, Emily?”

“Yes, we will, Brenda,” she answered, showing more confidence than she felt.  “This building is strong enough to stand against storms.  What’re a few zombies leaning on doors?”

“Then why check on them?” Brenda asked.

“I’m too wound up to sit still.  I need to do something.”  Emily waited as Brenda used the bathroom.

“Would you mind some company checking the doors?” Brenda asked.

“Not at all.  Why?”  Emily led her away from the breakroom.

“Harry is driving me crazy.  He’s too high strung to be around.”

“Brenda, you’ve said the same thing about Barb,” Emily said.  “You still hang out with her.”

“At least she knows and does something positive about it.  Like running with you,” Brenda said, smiling.  “Harry’s really wound up about what’s going on out there.”

“This is where he works,” Emily said, giving Brenda a hard look.  “This whole place is trashed.”  Brenda relented.

Emily went to the side door they used to get inside.  It was still locked.  Brenda peeked out through the window in the door before following Emily to the maintenance bays.  Emily looked out windows in the garage doors.  She stopped and stared out.  Shambling forms moved around the parking lot.  Nothing moved toward the building.  She sighed in relief.

Brenda screamed and threw a wrench across the service bay.  Emily locked a savage glare at her friend.

“God, I hate rats,” Brenda said.  She saw Emily and covered her mouth.  “I’m sorry.”  Wide eyes shimmered, ready to spill tears.

“What’s going on?”  Harry came running in.  Brando close behind.

“It would’ve been nice knowing you have rats in the building,” Emily declared, looking at Harry.  Her remark included Harry.  She moved purposefully away from the door.  Seeing the scuff in the floor, she tracked the course of the wrench.  Next to a garbage can sat a bloody wrench and a twitching rat.  A quick hit and the rat was dispatched.  “All that pitching softballs paid off.  Good shot, Brenda.”  She went to ease her friend’s stress from making noise when silence would have been better.

Harry came over with a shovel and took care of moved the rat into the can.

“We just heard on the radio buzzards and vultures are affected, too.  Who’s to say rats aren’t?”  Harry pointed out.

“I smacked it good,” Emily said.  The can rattled.  Harry picked up a brick off a pallet of loose masonry remnants.  He lifted the lid and looked in.  He launched the brick, looked in again and smiled.

“So, did I.  Now it’s not moving,” Harry said, satisfied.

“That won’t work for what’s out there,” Brando said.  He stood by the door.  “There’s about fifty zombies out here.  And they’re coming this way.”

Both doors for the service bays rattled with impacts from the horde outside.  The door shook again as another wave of bodies moved through the glow of the yard light.  By the sound of the door, it wasn’t going to stay intact.

“We’re so screwed,” Harry said.

The small door creaked, but held firm against the crowd.  The two big doors on either side flexed as more bodies pushed against them.  Brando moved along the wall of tools looking for options.  Emily saw this and joined him.  Shovels, lengths of pipe and a couple of wrenches were confiscated.

“What’s this used for?” Brenda asked.

“That’s a mattock.  Used to dig trenches with the hoe side and cut roots with the axe side,” Brando said.  He took it, implement end up and tapped it on the floor.  The metal end slide to the floor with a clang.  “Now it’s a bat.  Go to town, Slugger.”  She swung a practice swing and smiled.  “Good.  Keep it going down range.”

“Don’t stand behind her.  Her back swing is killer,” Emily stated.

“Noted,” Brando said.  “Harry, are there any trucks in the bays on the other side of the building that work?”

“An old pickup.  Runs rough, but will move.”

“It better.  We’re getting out of here,” Brando said.

“We won’t make it through all of them,” Brenda said.

“We only need to out distance them,” Emily said.  A long pipe wrench in one hand.  She wielded it effortlessly.  “All we need to do is keep them off the truck as we pick up speed.”

“Harry, get the keys.  Emily, let’s get everyone to the truck,” Brando said.

They went to the breakroom and gathered everyone together.  The group came out as Harry left the supervisor’s office with a set of keys.  He led the group to the other end of the building.  The lights flickered on as Harry flipped the switches.  In the nearest bay was a pick up with a dump box insert loaded with dirt.

“This won’t work,” Brando declared.

“The pickup is on the other side,” Harry said.  He walked behind the dump truck and looked out a window.  He tossed his shovel in the bed of the truck.

“Damn, man.  I’d rather take the dump truck.  This rust bucket is ready to fall apart,” Brando spat.  Emily and the other ladies looked at the dented, rusty relic that was old when they were playing with dolls.

“That dump truck has two flat tires and is slow as a snail.  We might as well walk out of here,” Harry said from the front seat.  Keys jingled and a whiny buzzer sounded.  “Get in.”

“I’m not climbing up there with a skirt on,” Barb said.

“Get in front,” Brando said opening the other front door.  “I’ll get the garage door open.”

“Don’t open it yet.  I want to make sure it starts,” Harry said as Barb pulled the door closed.

“I’m expecting to get out of here alive,” Barb declared.  Her large eyed expression locked on Harry.

“If you don’t, you won’t have far to go to find a place to rest,” Harry said as the truck turned over.  It gave a few anemic pops and shuttered to life.  “Now be quiet and hang on.”

Brando hit a button and hopped onto the truck.  No one shambled around anywhere in sight.  The truck moved out into the night, slowly gaining speed.

“Can’t this go faster?”

“There’s a reason this heap rarely leaves the cemetery.  We’re still going faster than they are,” Harry responded.  A group came from the side of the narrow road.

Brenda swung and connected.  The crack of a skull sounded over the noise of the truck.  Emily caved in another skull.  Gore clung in the jaws of the wrench.

“Just barely,” Brenda stated.

“Get out and walk then,” Harry shot back.  “Otherwise shut up and let me get you through a gate.”  The truck lurched over two obstacles in the road.  “Two less for you to swing at.”

“Just don’t hit a tree or tombstone.  I want to get home,” Barb complained.

“Front door service for the pretty lady.”  Harry smiled at her.

“Shut up and drive, Harry,” Barb said.  “Maybe I’ll give you a kiss when I’m home.”

“Don’t expect to get a prince from that frog, Princess,” Brenda muttered.  Another swing and a hit.

“I get first dibs if he grabs for her,” Emily said, as the truck made a turn.

“I’ll make sure he stays down,” Brenda said.

They made a gentle turn around a large plot.  A gradual arc brought the shed into view.  Everyone voiced their opinions about going into the group of zombies.  Thumps and crunching announced less batting practice.  Speed gave Harry reason to be happy.  The old truck hit the gate with a satisfying crash.

“So long, George,” Brando yelled.  “Don’t forget to stay dead.”

Everyone hooted and hollered as they left the cemetery behind.  Lights blazed in the shed as shadows moved around the now quiet parking lot.  Scratching came from the roof as vultures settled next to other roosting birds.  One gave out a garbled croak.

“Shut your trap.  You missed out on your meal,” George scolded the vulture.  “I’ve got mine.”  He held Harvey’s head by the hair.  Harvey’s eyes locked into an upward gaze, as if looking at his savior.

***

Harry drove down streets normally busy, even at this hour of the night.  Few cars moved to slow their progress.  Occasional police cars could be heard down side streets.  One screamed past them, lights painting everything red and blue.  Barb pointed directions to the address she shared with Emily.  Outside a modest brownstone was a rare parking spot.  Parked, and drawing no attention from unwanted undead pedestrians, they started disembarking.  The truck sputtered and chugged after the key was turned to the off position.  It gasped and backfired.  Harry pointed at Barb’s door as Emily got out of the bed of the truck.  Emily opened the door and pulled her sister out.  Brando offered a gentlemanly hand to help Brenda off the truck.  She smiled and left a hand on his arm a little longer than necessary.

“Let’s go, love birds,” Harry said following Emily up the stairs.  She had the door open, waiting for them.  Brenda smiled at Brando and went up.  Emily had a quick thought of sadness.  She’d hoped for a bit of romance with him.  Everyone else was already inside waiting.

“You touch me and I’ll leave you out here,” Brenda told Harry.

“What’s up with you?” he asked her back.

“She doesn’t like you,” Brando said.  “Maybe it’s your choice in beds.”  He gave his friend a smartass smirk.

“Bite me,” he said.  Brando glared at him from two steps up, his gaze cold as ice.

“Any other night that’d be funny,” Brando said.  His hand tightened on the discolored mattock handle.

“Sorry,” Harry said, shoulders slumped.

Harry shuffled inside after the ladies.  Brando scanned the street and under vehicles.  All remained quiet.  The truck ticked as it cooled.  He turned to go in as a flapping of wings caught his attention.  A vulture landed on the square masonry post at the bottom of the steps.  The mattock handle made a soft whistle as he swung at the bird.  It exploded on impact with the hickory handle.

“Creepy ass bird,” Brando said, dancing up the stairs.

“Nice swing,” Brenda said.

“I was on a NCAA championship baseball team in college.  I coach a community team now,” he said.

They settled into talking once the door locked behind them.  The truck wasn’t going anywhere.  Brando told about a rapidly growing puddle under it.  He was soon talking with Brenda on the couch.  Harry and Barb were chatting amicably on stools at a kitchen counter.  Emily tuned in a news channel for updates about the zombie hordes.

“So, what about this kiss you mentioned earlier for getting you home?” Harry asked.

“I said maybe,” Barb reminded him.  “There was no guarantee offered.”

“I’ll second that,” Emily said.  Her cold gaze settled on him.  She placed the pipe wrench between them.  It rested on the counter in front of them with gore still embedded in the jaws.  “I’m no stranger to working on pipes.”  Warmth drained out of Harry as he became aware of Emily’s meaning.

A knock on the front door ended their conversation.  Harry swallowed hard as he watched Emily move to answer the door.  A sigh of relief escaped him as he turned back to Barb.  Relaxed, he offered a warm smile for Barb.  She was cleaning what she could out of the jaws of the wrench with a dish towel.

“She doesn’t clean off tools as well as I do,” Barb said, a half smile on her face.  He watched with the realization Barb was familiar with using the wrench.

Emily peered out the peep hole.  Uniformed soldiers stood outside.  Recognition registered and she opened the door.  Soldiers oozed through the narrow opening.  Four soldiers went through the lower level, then upper level in practiced cadence.  The most weathered soldier remained at her side as locks were engaged again.

“What’s up, Top?” she asked.

“Been trying to get a hold of you, Ma’am.  We’ve been activated,” he said.  “We came by to make sure you’re okay.”  His southern accent said he was a pleasant man, but his cold blue gaze scanning the room demanded a no bullshit response from anyone.

“I’ve been out.  Kind of an exciting night,” she said walking back to join her sister.

“So, you know what’s going on?”

“We just came from St. George’s Necropolis Cemetery,” Brando said, following them into the kitchen.

“Barb and Harry, can you keep Brenda company?” Emily said.  She had a commanding demeanor about her now, matching the blue-eyed senior enlisted man following her

“Sure,” she said.  The wrench was clean and went with her.

“Ma’am?” Brando asked.

“First Sergeant Grumman, this is Brando,” Emily said.

“Marlon Brando?” First Sergeant asked, a bit of humor to ease the tension.

“Staff Sergeant Miller, Marine Corps,” Brando responded.  His relaxed, night out posture evaporated.  His military bearing shown through his civilian attire.  “Six years active duty, now in the reserves, Top.”

“Thought so,” Top said, giving him a once over.  “Hope you don’t mind hanging with some army pukes.”  A statement.

“We all wear green and bleed red.  Have a common target.”  Brando heard a grunt come from the weathered, sharp eyed enlisted leader as he turned to check on his men.  “I don’t mind one bit.”

“He likes you, Marine,” Emily said, looking up from a message on her phone.  “Be right back.  I have to change.”

A few greetings came from the soldiers as she passed.  Brando went out to check on Harry.  He sat talking with Barb, giving her a respectful distance, and a friendly look at the wrench.  Brenda was shoulder to shoulder with a soldier at the window.  She turned to look at Brando when the minutes lengthened in the silence.  Movement down the hall got Brando’s attention.

“Brando.  You can put your eyes back in your head,” Brenda said.  “If she catches you drooling, she’ll clean the floor with you.”  The soldier next to her watched him, in a friendly manner.  Their resemblance was unmistakable.  Brother and sister, he thought.

“I’d believe it,” he said.  He gave Brenda a friendly smile.

“She’s cleaned a few clocks with a pugil stick,” Top said matter-of-factly.  He watched Brando.  The no bullshit, blue eyed stare was back.

“Captain on deck,” one soldier chimed.

“This is war, gentlemen, no saluting, and no messes in my house if you can help it.”  She looked at all present.  The uniform enhanced her military attitude.  Her hair was tightly pulled back and off her collar.  “Captain Morgan to you now.”  She looked from Brando to Harry.  A finger went up.  “Either one of you makes a crack and you’ll look like vulture outside.”  Her manner was professional soldier now.  Her look was equal to First Sergeant Grumman’s.  Cold and businesslike.

Harry shrunk away from her, fear stained his face.  The wrench let him know how far to go.  Brando accepted the statement.

“We finished the vulture off for you.”

“We, First Sergeant?”

“Sergeant Stutzgard finished it,” Top said.

“That thing disintegrated when I hit it,” Brando stated.

“The head tried to bite me,” Stutzgard said.  “Sorry about the floor mat, ma’am.”

“That’s what it’s there for, Stutz,” she reassured him.  “First Sergeant, catch me up.”  He gave her the condensed version, filling her in on the official side.  Military was playing clean up with the zombies while the police tried to keep order with the citizens.  Everyone wearing a uniform wasn’t confident about the odds offered by higher ups.

Hours passed as reports came in about more hordes claiming the streets.  Cars were wrecked trying to run through zombie mobs.  Emily kept her guests comfortable as she managed her unit’s progress through the city.  Mobs of zombies followed groups down her street.  Weapons were kept inside and on safe.  Her military guests maintained a vigil watching front and back doors.  Radios they carried squawked, reports from others in their company filtering in kept information fresh.  First Sergeant Grumman’s second radio chirped.  Captain Morgan watched him respond.  They made eye contact.  A head nod confirmed the need to find a quiet corner.

He responded to the command frequency.  The report he received verified news reports.  Despite law enforcement and military efforts, zombies were overwhelming road blocks.  Increased numbers of zombies proved the curfew was enacted too late, or not heard by enough people.  The final statement chilled them.

“All units go to a secure location and get into an underground room.  Mission Neutron is on standby.  Go time in five minutes.  Report locations and sign off.  Power down all electronics.  Repeat.  Mission Neutron in T minus five minutes.  Get to secure locations.  Report coordinates and power down.  One hour from mission completion report in.  Command out.”

Captain Morgan looked scared.  First Sergeant Grumman looked grimmer than usual.  He closed his eyes and sighed heavily.

“Do you have a basement?” he asked.  He noted the time on his watch.  A trusty windup model.

“A wine cellar with no windows.  Middle of the basement,” she said.

“Excellent.  Get everyone there.  Close all doors on the way,” he stated.  “Go.”

T minus four minutes.

Captain Morgan gathered everyone and Barb lead them to the basement.  Questions were asked as they went.  No answers were given as everyone shuffled to the wine cellar.

T minus three minutes.

First Sergeant Grumman and Captain Morgan made a final pass through the house.  At the highest point he reported his location and signed off.  Hope was held out for seeing the end of the hour.

T minus two minutes.

Top felt like the last survivor of the Normandy invasion.  Looking out a window, he saw the faintest light glowing on the eastern horizon.  In the street a ragged group moved down the middle of the street with a familiar leader.

“You had your fun, George.  We’ll continue to love your movies,” he whispered.  “Time to go back to bed.”  A leer chased the statement.

His stride sounded loud in the empty hall.  Even paces let the others know his approach was purposeful.  Nothing followed him but dust caught in his wake.  Two heavy doors closed behind him as he joined is fellow survivors in the basement.

T minus one minute.

“Pushing your luck, First Sergeant?” Captain Morgan asked from the top of the basement stairs.

“Just making sure we had no visitors.”

“Anything?”  She led him down the steps.

“Just a parade of cadavers,” he said.  Gallows humor got him a few uncertain looks.  “You had orders to get down stairs.”

“I’m the captain of this ship.  Last one down.”  First Sergeant Grumman grinned at her levity.  He couldn’t argue with his commanding officer in her own home.

“What’s going on?” Barb asked.  Her eyes pleaded with her sister.  The quiver in her voice spoke to everyone’s concern.

“A solution to our problem. This is our safest place to be,” Emily said, giving her sister a caring look.  Everyone accepted the tone as comforting as refugees could.  No other details were offered.  Nothing else was asked for.

***

Outside, masses of undead moved around looking for more victims.  Crows cawed at movements surrounding deserted meals.  Glowing cat’s eyes simmered as they waited for an early morning meal to run out of a hiding place.  An occasional chirp sounded, welcoming the sun to rise over the horizon.  Thirty thousand feet overhead, a much larger bird flew through the clouds.

A light in the belly of the plane turned green.  Over the sound of the engines hydraulic pumps came alive.  The floor opened to let in cold air.  Klaxons sounded alerting the crew to be attentive.  Five seconds later the 10,000-pound cargo dropped out of the open doors.  The doors closed and the pilot advanced the throttles to full.  Free of its load, the plane raced to meet the sunrise at maximum speed.

Thirty seconds after the plane accelerated away, noonday brilliance ignited over the city.  Clouds were pushed ahead of the pressure wave and heat melted the rest.  Every surface was bathed in light as the flash expanded.

Chirps and caws stopped as birds fell to the ground.  Cats, blinded by the flash, never moved to catch another meal.  A vulture sitting on a concrete post in front of a modest townhouse fell to the sidewalk next to a splattering of feathers.  A beat up pickup truck from St. George’s Necropolis Cemetery sat at the curb, still oozing fluids onto the street.  The street was littered with a carpet of corpses.  All as inanimate as the truck.

An hour later the door of the townhouse opened silently.  Sergeant Stutzgard led the enlisted men out.  Rifle barrels swept across the steps, then the street as they came out.  One soldier nudged the vulture at the bottom of the steps.  First Sergeant Grumman and Captain Morgan stepped out.  He was grim, weary of what occurred the night before.  She stood regal and imposing, ready to start a new day.

“All clear,” came the soldier on the sidewalk.

“All clear in the street,” Sergeant Stutzgard said from the truck.

“What the hell?” Brando exclaimed, looking around the quiet neighborhood.

“It’s a new day in a brave new world, Marine,” First Sergeant Grumman said.  “We just have a little clean up to do.”  He hoped Oppenheimer wasn’t rolling over in his grave after the endgame maneuver.

THE END


J.C. works and lives in Wisconsin.  He has a beautiful wife and two active boys.  He enjoys spending time with family, reading, and, time permitting, writing.  Haunted and spooky places have always intrigued him.

Free Fiction Sunday: Last Stand by J. C. Eickelberg 2/3

Last Stand
Part 2/3

By: J. C. Eickelberg

Second part of an exciting 3-part story inspired by and in remembrance of the great George Romero.

Emily and Barb conferred with their friends.  They quickly agreed.  Everyone found room in the cars.  Finding enough parking close to the party was tricky.  They found an open gate near the cemetery’s maintenance shed and equipment buildings.  One of Brando’s friends was an assistant manager to the groundskeeper there and knew about a faulty lock on the gate and how to make it look secure.  The walk to the renovated fire station was half a block from the gate.

“Harry, is your boss working a crew tonight digging a grave?” Harvey asked.

“No.  Why?” Harry asked.

“Sounds like something’s going on over there.”  Harvey pointed up a rise in the landscape.

“Harvey, you need to get your ears checked,” Harry said.  “Maybe a hearing aid to go with those Coke bottle glasses.”

“Shut up.  At least I don’t sleep in a coffin,” Harvey stated.

“Don’t knock it till you try.  They’re actually pretty comfortable.”

“He’s right, Harry.  Something’s going on,” Emily said.  “Sounds like a party.”

Harry sighed, exaggerated.  “I’m tired of picking up after those parties.”

“Free booze if we bust it up,” Harvey declared.  “We could break up the party and take their stuff.  Party here in the shed until the start of the party at The Fire Alarm.”

“Wouldn’t that mean you’re as sick as them for partying in a cemetery?” Brando asked.

“We’d be in a building, not a mausoleum.  Right?”  Harvey said.

“Fair enough,” Brando said.  He looked around the group, silently posing the idea.  Everyone had reservations about going into a graveyard at night.

“I can’t pass up free drinks,” Harry said.  “What about you, Carl?”

“No cover charge here.  And free alcohol,” Carl piped up cheerily.  “I’m in.”

“As long as you clean up after yourself,” Harry said.  “The party at The Fire Alarm doesn’t start for half an hour.  We could have a little pre-party.”

Brando looked at Emily and Barb.  “You mind hanging out in the shed for a bit?  It actually has a decent breakroom.”  Their friends nodded in agreement.

“Sure,” Barb said.  “My feet are aching from our run this afternoon.”

“Don’t play that card.  You’ve had harder dance practices,” Emily said.  She remembered hearing about Barb’s hours long practice for her performances.

“At least I can dance,” Barb quipped.  She smiled and pirouetted.  Emily silently mouthed a mimicry of Barb and smirked.  The smirk quickly changed to a smile.

They proceeded along the path into the cemetery.  A flashlight was found in Harry’s car and used it to light their way.  Music could be heard clearly after walking fifty yards.  Dancing figures came in to view.  Lights were placed on headstones and hung on mausoleum doors.  Dancing figures disappeared into shadows, some staggered to a tree to be sick, or relieve themselves.

“Oh, man.  Do you know who’s buried here?” Brando said, excitedly.

“Who?” Emily said.

“George Romero.  I love his movies.”

“Who’s that?” Barb asked.  Everyone looked at her in disbelief.  “What?”  She looked at them innocently.  Emily named off some of his movies.  Her eyes widened as she realized what movies she liked he was involved with.

Cresting a rise, they heard clear sounds of people talking.  Other sounds mixed into a garbled murmur.  Shadows lessened and details emerged.  Forms on the ground turned into lost shoes, discarded beverage containers and clumps of soil.  Some headstones had large gopher holes on one side or another.

“For shit’s sake.  They’re making for a long day of cleaning up,” Harry declared.

Larger forms laying behind headstone were left alone.  No one wanted to disturb two lovers getting busy.  The scene was left untouched as the search went on toward the noise of a gathering.

“Harry.  Has anyone been painting headstones?” Brando asked.  He pointed to one smeared and streaked with a dark color.

“Not that I’m aware of,” he said, disgustedly.  “It sounds like the party moved.”  He led them toward the group huddled around writhing forms.

“Hands off, creep,” Barb declared.  She swatted a hand away.  Emily turned toward her sister.

“Barb, walk ahead of me,” she said.  The figure gave them a drunken stare.  Emily nudged him away as they walked.

“What was that about?” Harry asked.  He watched Barb carefully.

“Some drunk copping a feel,” Emily said.  Barb shivered at the memory.

Behind a cluster of mausoleums was the party.  Figures meandered around a plot full of granite headstones.  Music played on an old radio.  No one moved with any rhythm to the music.  Less interest was given to dancing, or talking.

“Where’s the booze?” Carl asked.  A couple of heads turned.  Vacant eyes swept over Harry’s group.  No emotions registered in the faces.  Silence answered.

“This isn’t a party, guys,” Harry pointed out.  “No one’s drinking.”

No bottles or cans littered the ground.  No one held a container of any kind.  More empty gazes turned toward the new arrivals.  Some with Goth paleness, some with grimy, worked-all-day grunge on their faces.

“I said hands off,” Barb yelled.  She turned and swung.  Her fist connected with the drunk.  The sound was like a twig breaking.  The drunk turned back to face her, jaw hanging off to one side of his face.  Barb screamed.  The drunk stared at her with vacant eyes.

“Get away from her,” Emily said.  She stepped toward the drunk and shoved him.  He fell back, landing with a thud.  As an afterthought he reached up slowly to grab at something.

“Let’s get out of here,” Brando said.

The drunk acted like nothing happened to him.  Emily dragged Barb after the group.  They wound through the headstones in full retreat.  Dead staring eyes watched them go.

“You’ve got a hell of a swing, Barb,” Harry said after walking for a few minutes.  She didn’t respond.  “Brando, do you know what’s going on?”

“No.  It’s creepy, whatever it is,” Brando said.  He stayed near Emily and Barb.

They huddled near an outbuilding deep in the cemetery.  Emily comforted Barb as they rested.  Everyone was looking around.

“Where’s Carl?” Harry asked.

“Shit.  He’s probably stuck on getting drunk and looking for booze,” Harvey said.  “Let’s go find him before he gets into trouble.”

Harvey and Harry lead the way back the way they had come.  Brando hung back with the group of ladies, more like a big brother than a romance seeker.  He helped keep unnecessary hands away from Barb and her friends.  Barb’s friends helped comfort her.  Creeping through the silence made for a tense search.  The radio still played in the distance as a beacon.

“Son of a bitch,” came a muffled protest.  They homed in on a small building.

“There he is.”  Harvey went to a prone figure.  “Shit, man.  Did you run into a headstone?  Your head’s bleeding.”

“No.  Someone threw a pillow at me,” he retorted.  “Yeah, I ran into one.”

“Carl, we were walking,” Harvey said.  “You walked your drunk ass into the side of a mausoleum.”

“I think that group is coming.  I don’t want to meet them again,” Emily said.

“I second that,” Brando said.  “How about checking out the party at The Fire Alarm now?  Leave this party alone.”  Everyone agreed.

They circumnavigated the partiers as they made their way back to the maintenance shed.  More blank faced revelers had joined the crowd following them.  Carl slowed their group down as they moved.  Dizziness kept him walking slowly.  Someone had to stay near him as a guide.

“What’s going on?” Carl asked dreamily.

A group moved toward them from the direction of their cars.

“Your slow ass is keeping us from having fun,” Harvey said.

They moved around the blank faced group.  Moving was slowed more because of the darker route than Carl.  Moving gradually toward the shed sounds moved in from more places as they went.  An occasional groper made a grab for someone.  One of them reached closer for one of the ladies.  Emily turned and delivered a series of devastating blows.  Something broke in the groper’s face.

“Damn, girl.  Where’d you learn to fight?” Brando asked, clearly impressed.

“Two tours in the Sand Box with an artillery battalion.  They can brawl like any MMA fight if need be.  After one bad joke and rude gesture, I showed off a few things I’d learned from a boxer training for a cage fight.”  Emily turned a warm smile to him.  “I prefer you not call me girl.  I think I’ve proven I’m not one.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  I was with Force Recon.  I did three tours in Afghanistan.  Never met any ladies in combat units,” he said.  “I’ll be on your team in any fight.  That guy isn’t moving.”  Brando looked at the downed figure.

“If we don’t move, we may need to fight more.”  Emily scanned the area.  Her intense look added more admiration to Brando’s impression of her.  “I don’t think this is a party anymore.  And I don’t feel sorry about that.”  She pointed at the down groper and walked away.

Groups were moving out of the distant parts of the cemetery.  Emily’s group settled to take the paved lane back to the shed.  They stopped to give Carl a rest.  He’d slowed to a shuffle.

“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Carl said.  He went to the side and lost his dinner.

“Numb nuts probably gave himself a concussion,” Harvey said.  “When we get back to the cars I’ll take him to the hospital.”

Harry went to check on their friend.  Carl sat against a headstone staring at nothing.  Harry nudged him trying to get a response out of him.

“I’m calling an ambulance,” Harvey said, reaching for his cell phone.  He dialed 911 and waited.  “911 is backlogged with calls.  I keep getting put on hold.  I’m going to flag down a cop and see if he can get someone here.”

Two steps and Harvey stopped, suddenly quiet.  His animated demeaner cooled to nothing.  Everyone looked at him and followed his gaze.  Emily and Brando went to high alert.  Others in the group tuned in to the tension.

“That’s not possible,” Harvey said.  His arm came up to point.

“No.  It’s not.  That’s why we’re leaving now,” Brando declared.  Harvey pointed to Carl.  “Leave him.  We get to the street and flag down a cop.  Call 911.  Whatever.  We’re not staying.”

“Why are we leaving so fast?” Barb asked.  “We’re here to join a party.”

“That.”  Emily pointed at the group moving in their direction.  One person out ahead focused on them.  “The one in front is George Romero.”  He led the group like any good general would.

“You said he’s buried here.  Right?” Barb stated.  “As in dead and buried?”

“He’s supposed to be.”  More people shambled toward their group.  A foul odor wafted to them.  Harry knew that as the smell of death.

“I’m not leaving Carl.  He’s a dumbass, but he’s a friend,” Harvey said resolutely.

“Keep up,” Brando said.  Doubt evident on his face.  “He’s your burden.”

Harvey struggled to support and pull Carl along.  Carl made a feeble attempt to walk.  He took one step for every four Harvey took.  Harry turned to say something to Harvey.  He panicked to see Carl turn his head and clamp down on Harvey’s neck.  Harvey’s scream stopped everyone.  Blood sprayed from Harvey’s neck when Carl tore a chunk out of his friend.

Slow moving figures moved out of the acres of headstones on each side of the path.  Some moved faster than others.  Carl fell as Harvey let go and stepped away.  He moved to the side, holding his neck.  Blood flooded past his hand as the fastest graveyard walkers closed in.  Harry’s flashlight swept the area.  Every pale faced person moving toward them went to Harvey.  Light reflected on pale complexions.  Dirt and decay marked the slowest moving walkers.  The light settled on the group on the path.  Some weren’t as dirt covered as the others.

One face in the group focused on Harry’s group.  George Romero watched them as his army of dead groupies slowly advanced.

“Let’s go,” Brando declared.  “They’re dead.  I don’t want to be.”

To be continued… Come back Wednesday for part three. 

Free Fiction Friday: Last Stand by J. C. Eickelberg 1/3

Last Stand
Part 1/3

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.