by Eddie L. Whitlock
-Sci-Fi – 10 Pages –
By the time the sun set on the first full day of the crisis, Sheriff Tommy Jennings was no longer convinced that it was mass hysteria. He was convinced that he had done what politicians rarely did in the face of a crisis: He had under-reacted. He pictured George W. Bush reading to kindergarteners while the World Trade Centers were being attacked. When this was all over, he hoped he would not be seen as the man who had missed the opportunity to stop the crisis and missed it.
The only such event anyone could remember was the tornado that destroyed the Dixie Textiles Number One mill back in 1953. That tornado had happened the year Tommy Jennings was born. Tales of it haunted his childhood. People had been trapped inside the windowless mill as it collapsed upon them. The boiler room had cooked three men alive, the flesh falling from their bones as they were removed afterwards.
Weather continued to provide the rare emergencies that Larcom County faced even into the twenty-first century. This past February, an ice storm had pulled down trees and power lines all over the county. He had handled that successfully. He had been praised in the local paper for it. They had even run a front-page photo of him carrying a small black child to safety after a tree had fallen on the home she shared with fourteen other family members.
When the sun had risen the morning that followed what some were calling “the Resurrection Plague,” Jennings was still convinced it was mass hysteria. Just another case of the media blowing something out of proportion to the point that nobody knew what to believe anymore. He was supposed to be leaving for Panama City next week, a trip his wife had brink of canceling already. Shark attacks were being reported all over Florida, she said. Actually, there had only been two reported attacks. And she wanted an excuse to visit her sister in the mountains. His first vacation since the election was in jeopardy because of the media hype.
He had been at home, packing for Panama City, when the television folks interrupted regular programming for reports from Pittsburg, the first place that the shit hit the fan. An hour later Jennings was getting calls himself. By dawn, the stories were crazier: the dead were rising and murdering and eating the living.
He wasn’t able to believe the stories. As an agent of the law, he had to keep himself grounded in the truth. Truth was the immutable constant. Dead people (other than Jesus and Lazarus) stayed dead and living people killed people.
The Larcom County Sheriff’s Department had gotten few calls through the first night. Most of those were from people watching television and frightened by the reports they were hearing and wanting reassurance that all was well here in the town of Spangler. When the sun rose on the first day, the number of genuine reports increased.
Larcom County’s population of sixty thousand was spread out, but the twenty thousand who lived in the county seat of Spangler were in a fairly small area. That dynamic slowed the spread of the plague. In the early hours of that first day, the few dead in the community multiplied their number gradually.
Patton-Williams Funeral Home’s secretary Carolyn DeAngelis unlocked the door to the business, walked to the office and was attacked by the resurrected body of Tommy Loefer. Larry Williams was the second to arrive and the second to be attacked. He was attacked by both the embalmed body of Tommy and the bloodied body of Carolyn.
When three other employees trailed in one by one just before nine o’clock that morning, they fell victim to the growing crowd of zombies within the facility. The Loefer family-there were only a dozen of them-began arriving at 10:30 for the 11:00 funeral.
They, too, joined the ranks of the undead.
And the last of them, Franklin Loefer, left the front door open. The reanimated corpse of Anita Johnston walked out and into the street in front of Patton-Williams. Carlos (Hispanic surname) swerved to miss her and struck a telephone pole. The front of his Ford van crumpled, pinning him inside and popping the driver’s side door open.
And so, Carlos was eaten alive on Taylor Street.
The things wandered the area, drifting toward the more populated area to the west. There was an auto repair shop nearby. When Larry Williams’ bloody body walked in, Hank Dillard thought he had been in an accident and ran to him. And Larry bit Hank in the neck.
The other two mechanics were likewise caught off guard.
By noon, the Sheriff’s department was inundated with calls. At first, deputies attempted to physically subdue the dead. This did not work, of course, and more than half the deputies on duty were dead by two o’clock.
Jennings was still attempting to find a logical explanation. His theory at two o’clock was that it was all mass hysteria. Although it didn’t explain everything that he was seeing, Jennings realized that he himself could be a victim and that would explain the whole thing.
The county jail was collocated with the sheriff’s office. Jennings attempted to turn his office into an emergency center. In the few cases in which a deputy had been able to subdue and muzzle one of the living dead things, the thing was locked in a cell there. The situation was worsening tremendously and quickly. Someone suggested using the old jail for non-violent arrests till things calmed down.
The old jail, a two-story red brick building on the wrong side of town, had been built in the 1880’s after the original county courthouse burned down. Its history saw it move in and out of use every few decades. It had housed prisoners upstairs as late as the 1970’s. Since then it had been almost exclusively a storage unit for the county.
The upper floor of the county office building reeked of its previous residents: jailors, convicts, and -most recently- rats and roaches. The government green paint had broken ranks with the government cement block wall, chipping in a dozen different rebellions against order.
Windows high in the room showed the last remnants of daylight. Night was coming again, the second night.
In the dying light, the old bars shone a ghoulish gray-green. The place had not been used in twenty-plus years, but it had never been totally abandoned either. Now, with the insanity going on, the old county jail was being pressed back into service. Six separate cells stood in the center of the upper floor. Each cell contained its own metal toilet and small sink. A four-foot high privacy wall surrounded the toilet. There were metal bunks with thin pallets that served as mattresses.
Sheriff Tommy Jennings had directed the Correctional Institute warden to take a group of trustees to the old building and to empty the cells of the cases of records stored there, relocating them-temporarily it was hoped-to the dingy basement. Humidity was bad there, but the move was only temporary. If the records mildewed and cases were lost because of it, Jennings knew he would have to answer to the county commissioners in the short term and the voters later. Once this bizarre situation ended, the records would be returned to the second floor and the world would be returned to normal.
As the day’s last light moved from white to yellow to pink, that return to normal came no nearer.
The crisis was almost twenty-four hours old and showed no signs of ending. It was the worst case of mass hysteria Jennings had ever seen. It was actually the only case of mass hysteria he had ever seen. It was the worst of which he had ever heard. It was genuine mass hysteria. Not only did people convince themselves of the horrible stories they told, many of them were acting out the stories. No wonder even veteran officers were starting to believe there really were zombies in the streets of Spangler.
And so the cells on the second floor of the old courthouse were emptied and prepared to hold occupants as needed. The county’s huge new jail on the west side of town was serving as both jail and emergency center. Jennings wanted to use this as overflow space for the few prisoners coming in who were not somehow involved in the mass hysteria.
Jennings put Deputy Fred Gerard in charge of this temporary jail in the old county office building near the railroad tracks. It was a reliable situation, all things considered. Gerard was a man who did everything exactly by the book without regard to outbursts from prisoner or politicians. He was famous for going entire shifts without speaking. “No need to,” he would say when pressed about it. The strange behavior had earned him the nickname Gerard the Retard.
Gerard had just arrived at the main county jail when a patrolman brought in a young man, one Randy Harwell, on theft charges.
“I didn’t do anything,” Randy was saying.
The patrolman was not responding. He was completing paperwork at the counter. The clerk looked at the incident report. “Theft? Trooper Beam, we’ve got a lot more to worry about than theft right now.”
“Still against the law, ain’t it?”
“Yeah,” said Sheriff Tommy Jennings as he stepped around the corner. “But right now, we’ve got more than the usual amount of shit hitting the fan.”
“So I let him go?”
“No,” said Jennings as he thumbed through a stack of files at the desk. “Have Gerard take him over to the annex.”
“The old courthouse. We’re using it for extra space.”
“Right, right,” said the clerk. The sheriff found the file and left the area.
“I didn’t do anything.”
No one responded to his denial of guilt.
The clerk filled out custody papers and turned the young man over to Gerard who silently led him to another patrol car.
“I didn’t do anything,” Harwell kept saying to Gerard. “I didn’t do anything!”
Gerard was used to dealing with innocent detainees. They were all innocent. He had not responded to anything any of them said for the past forty years. “You’ll be staying here until tomorrow morning at nine when the magistrate hears your case,” said Gerard mechanically. The fact that one day had seen the world turned upside down didn’t mean that tomorrow would be the same. Gerard was passively confident that the dead would return to being dead by nine the next day. If the detainee didn’t think so, that was his problem.
Gerard was tall and bald. He shaved the little bit of hair that remained on his skull. His eyebrows remained bushy and black, making him look angry most of the time, regardless of his actual emotion of the moment.
Gerard’s look intimidated the young man, who didn’t fight back when placed into the cell. “Do I get a phone call?” he asked.
Gerard didn’t respond to the question. He walked out of the room.
Randy Harwell sat down on the cot on the floor. He looked around the room and wondered if he would ever get out. This was not a normal time. He should not have allowed the deputy to treat him like that. It was too late to reconsider that, though.
Harwell had been accused of taking cash from an untended cash register at the Northside Kroger, which he had indeed done. Still, when the world was falling apart, what did a few stolen dollars matter?
Randy looked around at the empty cell and through the bars beyond it to the empty room and then the thought struck him: What if Deputy Dawg didn’t come back? A light case of paranoia seized him then and he began looking around for tools to enable an exit from this ancient jail. There were none.
The cell held a cot and nothing else. Randy remembered a Stephen King story about a man in jail selling his soul to escape. If the devil appeared right now, he thought, he might get quite a bargain: souls were being marked down quickly.
Nearly an hour had passed. It was after six. They hadn’t taken his watch when they brought him in. He had spent the whole time wondering what he would do if no one came back tonight. Or tomorrow. Or the day after that. He remembered hearing “the rule of threes” about death. A person would die after three minutes without air, three days without water or three weeks without food. He didn’t have to worry about that third one; it would be the second one that would get him. Just thinking about it made him thirsty.
He thought he heard a noise downstairs, a door opening. A few hours ago, he would have been too cool to yell out for help just because he heard a noise. Now that he had had time to reflect on just how much death scared him, he thought otherwise.
“Hello!” he called.
No one responded, but he did hear more noise downstairs. Maybe it was someone who had broken in to rob the place. Or maybe those things, those living dead things had broken in. At least he was safe here inside his cell. Should he call out if it were the zombies who had come in? He had no choice.
Then came the noise of footsteps on the stairs. Whoever it was was coming up. He could hear at least two-no, three sets of feet. In a moment the door opened. Gerard pushed two women into the room. From the far cell, he couldn’t really see much. The bigger woman staggered, apparently drunk.
Randy stood and called out, “Hey! Let me out of here!” Gerard didn’t even look at him. His attention-such that it was-was focused on the two new prisoners.
“The magistrate will be here tomorrow morning, ladies,” Gerard said. “Until then, you’ll be here.” Unlocking the door, Gerard guided a young woman into the cell and slammed the door. He then placed the other woman in the cell next to Randy.
“Are we going to get fed tonight?” Randy called out. “Can I get some water?”
“There’s a man in here,” the woman said.
Gerard slammed the second door. He started towards the door, ignoring the comments of the three prisoners.
“Hey! Hey! Don’t walk out of here without telling me something! Hey!”
“Hey, motherfucker!” the woman in the middle called out. “You can’t fucking leave us here with a man! This shit ain’t right!”
“My mother and I did not have relations,” he said. And then he walked out.
“Thanks, mom,” the younger woman said.
“The motherfucker shouldn’t have put us in here with some strange man,” the older woman said. Despite her reference to him, she did not look at Randy or even gesture in his direction.
“Well, you should have kept your mouth shut,” said the younger woman. “We don’t know when the man is coming back with food and water, like that guy said.”
Randy didn’t know whether to speak or not. If he stirred this difficult situation any, it could be an even longer night-or three days till he dehydrated-than it already would be. He looked at the two women. The older woman had her back turned to him, speaking to the younger one in the next cell. From here, he couldn’t see the younger one at all. The older one was what his mother would have called “chunky.”
“Well, he should have kept his mouth shut then. I have a right to know what is going on. When they arrest you, you’re supposed to get a phone call.”
“The phone lines are all busy,” said the daughter. “We kept trying, remember?”
They didn’t speak for a moment after that. Randy considered saying something.
He didn’t have to. The younger woman leaned past her mother and yelled to him, “Hey, what are you in for?”
“What am I in for?” It was the stereotypical prison-movie new-fish question, he knew, but it was also a logical thing to ask. “I guess I’m here for robbery.”
The mother turned around then and turned on him. “You guess you’re in for robbery? What the fuck does that mean?”
“I was taking money out of the cash register at Kroger,” he said. “A security guard grabbed me.”
“They ought to be grabbing the goddam zombies, not grabbing regular people,” the woman said. She staggered across her cell and grabbed the bars in front of Randy, who automatically took two steps back. She gave a half-smile and looked him over. “Well, Robin Hood, what are we gonna do now?”
She was what his dad would have described as “rode hard and put up wet.” Bleached hair showed dark roots, but no evidence of having been combed since the last dye job. She was wearing jeans and a white tee shirt that read HE LOOKED GOOD LAST NIGHT.
Randy tried to force a smile. “I don’t know,” he stuttered. Her sneering stare made him add, “About what?”
“What you were asking him about,” she said. “Water, food.”
“I don’t know,” he repeated.
“Shit,” she said as she turned on her heel and started back across the cell. “Some fucking help you are.” As she finished the last word, she dropped on one knee, the alcohol having overcome her. Randy grimaced. If he had gone down on concrete on his knee like that, he couldn’t imagine the pain. She seemed to be feeling no pain from that or from anything else right now. She had managed to pivot enough to land face down on the cot. “I’m gonna take a nap. That’s what I’m gonna do.” Her next breath was a snore.
Randy had hoped the younger woman would take up the conversation now, but she did not. Instead she just stood there, looking at her mother. Randy wished the cell arrangement had been different. The jailor had probably done it on purpose. The girl was not as pretty as she had been in his imagination a few seconds earlier. Stringy brown hair framed a horsey-face. With prettier eyes, she could have been Julia Roberts. She was nicely shaped, he noticed. She had bigger boobs than Julia Roberts. That was a good thing.
He shook his head, disgusted with himself for even thinking that. It was thinking like that-and the behavior that was consistent with such thoughts-that had made his wife leave him and file for divorce. So. He was indeed a bastard, as her petition in court had phrased more politely but just as specifically.
Then the girl looked up at him and smiled, exposing a sexy little overbite. That made him forget the self-imposed guilt he was feeling a moment before. He was reminded of St. Augustine’s prayer, “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet.”
The smile hadn’t been followed by any conversation. The girl had sat down on her cot without a word and gone back to watching her mother’s heavy drunken breathing.
Lying back on the small cot now, Randy tried to get comfortable just in case this was going to be his deathbed. Somehow, a deathbed ought to be a pleasant place to pass away. No matter how he moved, Randy couldn’t find comfort. He wondered how old this cot was, whether it had indeed been the deathbed for previous inmates. Surely they threw out mattresses if someone died on them. And then he realized that surely they would not do such a thing with taxpayers being as adamant as they were these days about money being wasted. So not just one person had died in this bed, he fantasized. This was the freaking deathestbed of all the beds in the world.
He knew that if he kept thinking about the cot, he would relocate to the cement floor and that would be even more uncomfortable. Better to think about other things…even other unpleasant things.
And so yet again, he reflected on the previous six months. The divorce became final and his downward spiral accelerated. His job at the plastics plant had been phased out as that particular step of the manufacturing process had been moved to another location. Before he knew it, he was two payments behind on his car. His mom had offered to help if he ever needed anything. She didn’t really have it, either. He wasn’t going to take it from her.
The money from Kroger-there was about five hundred bucks-would have helped him keep the car. It wouldn’t have been enough to catch up the payments, just get the bank off his back. Stealing was a stupid idea. He remembered a song about not being “cut out to be no Jesse James.” That was the truth.
Stealing that money was a dumb idea. In hindsight, it was an awful idea. Now he was stuck here. Randy hoped his mother didn’t find out he was here. He wouldn’t be the first person in the family to go to jail. Not by a long-shot. But with all the crap going on right now, it was really bad timing. Thank God his mother lived with his sister Cindy. Cindy was the most stable of them all, with a husband and two kids and a decent house. If anyone in the family survived a zombie holocaust, it would be Cindy and her husband Ed.
He looked at his watch again. It was nearly 8:00. The thirst had faded when his attention had been diverted. Now it was back with a vengeance and he found himself obsessing on it. Suppose the deputy never came back. Would he die first because he arrived first? What if the drunk woman in the next cell died? How many rock stars had died choking to death on their own vomit?
He glanced at her. She still lay crumpled against the cot, snoring away. Behind her, he could see the daughter. The horsey-faced girl was just sitting there. If she spoke, he would answer, he had decided. But he wouldn’t speak first.
The mother snorted, phlegm catching in her throat mid-snore. She shook her head and came awake for a moment. She looked around and gradually seemed to remember where she was. Randy watched her quietly. She looked at him for a long moment and then turned back to face her daughter.
“Who the fuck is that?”
“We’re in jail, mama,” the girl said. “He’s our roommate.”
The drunken woman turned and examined Randy as if she had never seen him before. She closed her eyes, squeezing them shut and opened them again. She looked around the cell. “Jail?”
“Yeah, remember?” the horsey-faced girl said. “You called me to come and get you up at the Country Rock? You got in a fight?”
Randy knew of the Country Rock, a bar on the north end of town. He had never been there-country music wasn’t his favorite-but he knew it was a very popular place. It generated a great deal of business for the local bail bonding industry.
“Who was I fighting with?”
“Jodi. You and Jodi got into it over Uncle Paul.”
The woman seemed to think this was the stupidest idea that had ever surfaced. “I was fighting over Paul?”
“I got there late, mama. By the time I got there, you’d already knocked her wig off.”
The woman chuckled. “Did I?”
“It ain’t funny, mama. And then they asked to see my driver’s license and insurance card, and I didn’t have neither one of them with me.”
“So they locked you up, too? Why didn’t you call your daddy?”
“The phones ain’t working, mama.” The girl stood and walked to the bars, looking hard at her mother. Randy had the feeling this was not the first time the mother had been intoxicated when the girl spoke to her. “Mama,” the girl said, “Do you remember about the zombies?”
The woman was quiet a long moment as if studying her own memory, as if it were a complicated map. “I remember something,” she said and trailed off.
“This morning,” said the girl. “I tried to tell you what they were saying on the tv, but you were on about Uncle Paul.”
“What were they saying?”
“About people coming back from the dead, bodies rising, eating other folks.”
The woman listened, reflected and then laughed. “Oh, bullshit, honey.” Now she turned towards Randy, “Hey!”
He turned his head to look at her.
“You know anything about zombies, buddy?”
“Yeah, she’s telling the truth,” he said. “Bodies are rising from the dead, eating people.”
She laughed again. “Bull-shit!” she said.
The horsey-faced girl stood up and walked over to the bars, grabbed them and looked through at the woman. “It’s not bullshit, mama. I was trying to go pick up Craig when you called me. Now I’m locked up and Craig is wondering where I’m at. And I’ve got to get home to Dawson after that.”
“Craig? You need that asshole like you need a spare asshole. He’s nearbout old as I am.”
“Craig is a good man, mama, and Dawson loves him,” the girl said. “He’s stuck up there at the Pep Boys in Hampton. Ain’t no telling what’s done happened up there.”
Randy found himself wondering if his cellmates were escapees from a daytime talk show. But then, his own life was bad enough. And the dead rising? If that wasn’t the worst possible rerun episode of The Outer Limits, then what was it?
“All I know is Craig is a piece of shit and zombies is a bunch of bullshit.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, mama,” said the horsey-faced girl.
“Hell, I don’t know a lot of stuff,” said the woman. She pulled herself fully onto the cot as her daughter looked on. “You think because he’s older than you are, he knows something or he’s got something. You ain’t know nothing,” she mumbled. Within a moment, she was snoring again.
“Hey!” the horsey-faced girl called.
Randy did not respond, assuming she was trying to wake her mother.
“Dude!” she said. “Guy! Man! Hey!”
He sat up and looked at her. “Yeah?”
“I’m sitting here hoping Deputy Dawg doesn’t forget to come back and feed us.”
She laughed a little. “Deputy Dawg,” she repeated. “He ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed,” she said.
“He don’t know there’s a shed,” said Randy.
She laughed again. “My name’s Rita.”
“Randy,” he said.
“My name is Randy.”
He didn’t know what-if anything-to say next. Let sleeping dogs lie, he thought. Maybe it was a good idea to just let this dog fall asleep.
After a moment, she ventured another call, “How long have you been in here?”
“‘Bout an hour longer than you,” he said.
“I thought you had been here a while.”
“No, I just got here, too.”
“My mama is a hellraiser,” said Rita.
“She sure seems to be.”
“She is,” said Rita, not sure whether it was something to celebrate or lament.
“I guess that comes in handy sometimes.”
“Not often,” said the girl.
Randy chuckled, thinking it was the right response. It was surprisingly hard to talk about the woman who lay equidistant between them, sawing logs like a pulp-wood mill. He found himself wishing that he and the girl were in the same cell. Funny how quickly a fellow could go from thinking about dying to thinking about fucking.
“Are you from Spangler?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Well, not really from here. I was born in Macon, but my parents moved here when I was a baby.”
“Me and Dawson been here four years,” she offered. “It seems like if you’re not born here, you aren’t accepted.”
“They say that about most places,” he said. “I don’t know. I think most folks make their own way, no matter where they are.”
“I reckon you’re right. Mama has always moved a lot. This is probably the twentieth place she’s lived.”
Randy didn’t know how or even if to respond. He just nodded.
The girl was quiet for a moment before she finally spoke again. “Do you think this is the end of the world?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I hope not. I have a lot of things I need to do.”
She laughed, thinking he was joking. “I don’t know if that matters,” she said.
“I don’t guess it does,” he said, “at least not to anybody but me.”
After another moment of silence, she spoke again, “Have you heard anybody say why all this is happening?”
“Not really,” he said. “I don’t know what to think about it. When I heard the first news of it this morning, I thought it was just a bunch of crazy people acting crazy. Then they talked about it being something the terrorists had done. When I went to the store this afternoon, I saw what was going on. There were dead people-you could tell they were dead by their eyes-dead people walking around, killing people. And then eating them,” he said.
“Damn,” she said softly.
“Yeah,” he said.
“You tried to get the deputy to tell us when he would be back,” she said. “He is coming back, isn’t he?”
“I hope so,” said Randy. “I hope so.”
The girl, Rita, was quiet now. She returned to her seat on the cot.
Randy lay back on his own cot. He looked up at the ceiling, counting again the number of tiles vertically and horizontally and doing the math in his head to determine the square footage of the cell.
“Hey,” the girl said from a distance, “I hope he comes back, too. I’m hungry.”
“Me, too,” he said.
After a long silence, she spoke again. “I’m sorry about mama.”
He sat up on the bed. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“I hope Craig gets another ride home. I ain’t gonna make it.”
The woman smiled proudly. “She’s my little honey. Dawson’s my girl.”
“Yeah, me and her are growing up together. I had her when I was fifteen. She’s fourteen now.”
Randy did the math. Damn. The woman was only three years younger than he was. “She’ll be okay.”
“Who? Dawson?” The woman shook her head. “She’s okay. She takes care of me more than I take care of her. She’s okay.”
Randy lay back down on the bed.
Rita, the horse-faced girl, was crying as she watched her mother writhe on the floor. Randy couldn’t do any more than he had already done: join the girl in screaming for help. Whether the woman had suffered some sort of stroke or was actually choking to death on her own vomit, Randy couldn’t tell for sure. She had flipped off the cot while Randy wasn’t looking and was now moving in spasms on the floor.
Help was not coming. There would be no rescues of any kind tonight.
The older woman squirmed on the floor, her face a purplish color. Something was caught in her throat. Her movement slowed more and more. Randy thought again about the rule of threes.
She had been doing fine at first, snoring loudly but not seeming to be in any stress. She was “three sheets to the wind” as Randy’s dad would have said years ago.
Then she had sat up, trying to cough but only exhaling. Something was caught in her throat. She writhed and gagged, trying to stand. The fall on her knee earlier slowed her in doing this. She stumbled when she attempted to stand and fell to the floor.
Randy had hoped this hard fall, apparently flat on her belly, would dislodge the object in her throat. It did not. She sat up, her face turning a pale blue as the oxygen disappeared from her lungs.
Both Rita and Randy screamed for the woman to come to them, but she seemed unable to hear them or at least unable to obey.
They both had reached through to try to pull the woman over to help her. The girl had actually managed to catch her mother’s pant leg and pull her briefly. Then the woman kicked in a spasm. The girl lost her grip.
The woman stopped moving. After a very long moment, she relaxed. Three minutes, Randy thought to himself. She was dead. He was glad that he couldn’t see her eyes from this angle. He was afraid that the girl could.
“Mama! Mama, mama, mama,” the girl cried. Her face was a tight gnarl. “Mama, you can’t die.” Randy watched Rita slide down to the floor of her cell. Her groaning cry became a hard sob.
Randy sat down on the floor. He knew there was nothing he could or should say, but the words insisted on coming out: “I’m sorry.”
Needless to say, this did not lessen the young woman’s hurt. “Mama, mama. You said you was gonna quit drankin’… you said you was gonna quit… and if you hadda quit, you-you…” The poor girl was sniffling and talking and beginning to choke herself.
Randy’s gaze had drifted to the floor. When he saw movement from the corner of his eye, he automatically looked up. The woman was moving.
The girl looked up, too, and her face erupted with joy. “Mama! You’re alive!”
“No,” Randy whispered.
The woman sat upright with a jolt.
“Stay away from her,” Randy said.
“Mama!” Rita called out, reaching through the bars toward the woman.
“Don’t let her touch you, Rita!” He screamed. “She’s dead! She looks alive but she’s dead!
The young woman ignored him. “Mama! You’re alive! You’re all right! Mama!”
The woman rose slowly to her feet. This was the first resurrection Randy had ever witnessed. It was as if the thing came to life piecemeal, beginning with the head. It took a moment for it to get its legs to move just right so that it could stand. Randy wondered if the bruised knee was going to bother the thing in its current state.
Rita, her horsey-face smiling, was practically jumping up and down, her arms reaching through the bars toward the thing that had been her mother. “Mama!”
The thing was on its feet and edging toward the girl. Randy took off his left shoe and, reaching through the bars, through it at the zombie. The shoe bounced off her back. She turned to face him.
“Damn you!” Rita yelled. “Don’t hurt my mama!” Then she stopped speaking. She watched this thing stop and turn and raise its arms as it moved toward Randy now.
“It’s not your mother any more.”
The thing approached Randy and reached hungrily through the bars for him. He stepped back, out of reach.
“Oh, my God,” whispered Rita. “Oh, God.”
Randy looked into the face of the thing. The head was cocked at an angle. The eyes were vacant, seeing but not seeing. They looked hazy, veiled… dead. The mouth hung open and the arms reached toward him.
“This is not your mother,” Randy said. “She’s one of those things now.”
” No!” Rita began to sob again. “Mama!”
The thing persisted in its struggle to reach through the bars towards him, oblivious of its inability to reach him. If they were all this dumb, maybe it was possible to outmaneuver them. But they were also dead, which gave them plenty of time to be persistent.
Randy looked around his cell. There was nothing here to use as a weapon against this thing. There was nothing. What had he expected? It was a jail cell after all. Where did the prisoners on that HBO prison show get their weapons? he wondered. And then he looked at that thing again.
She (he couldn’t quit thinking of it as “she”) continued to reach at him. Her mouth hung open. Behind her, the daughter continued to cry.
Without a sound, it continued to struggle to reach for him. If it turned, he knew that the girl was liable to give in to it, seeing it as still her mother.
He lifted the mattress off his cot, looking for something, anything to use to destroy it. The cot was a metal framework bolted to the concrete floor. Nothing.
The girl continued to cry in her cell. He wondered if there were anything in her cell that could be used as a weapon. Even if there were, it wouldn’t happen.
“What are you gonna do?” the girl asked.
“I don’t know,” Randy replied. “I need to try to kill it, but I don’t have anything.”
“She’s already dead.”
“I saw the cops killing some of them earlier, when I was in town. They shot them over and over but when they shot them in the head, they died.”
“No guns,” she said.
“Maybe we can do it without a gun,” he said. “If I had a two-by-four or a metal rod or something…” He considered beating the thing’s brains out with his other shoe, but knew that was not a real option.
The girl began to sob loudly again. The thing heard her and turned and started across the cell again toward her. “Mama,” she said weakly.
Randy yelled, but the thing continued toward Rita. “Don’t get near her-it! He yelled. “It’s not your mother. It’s not-“
The girl did what Randy was afraid he would do if he had been in her shoes: she walked right up to the bars and tried to embrace the thing that had been her mother.
“No!” Randy screamed. “Get back!”
The horse-faced girl closed her eyes and even from this distance and through the obstructed view the bars allowed, Randy could see the blood drip down. The thing bit into Rita’s cheek, tearing the flesh away. It pulled her arm up to its mouth and tore it open with another bite. Rita screamed, but didn’t pull away.
“Dammit,” Randy sighed to himself.
“Mama,” Rita whispered. And then the girl slowly slid down to the floor as the thing continued to eat her alive.
As long as the flesh was living, the thing indulged its appetite greedily. Randy found himself watching it in detached… not horror. No, it was an education that he was getting. Whether he would be able to put this education to use was to be determined.
Finally the girl died and the thing stopped feeding. And in a moment, what was left of Rita stood. Parts of the face had been torn away. Much of the right arm was eaten down to the bone. The neck was torn open.
The mama-thing stood again and walked over to the bars that separated her from Randy. The Rita-thing stood where it was. They both reached hungrily toward him now. Randy moved to the far side of his cell and looked around it, still hoping for some kind of miracle.
By now he was sure that this was his deathbed. Randy had taken an assessment of the cell and realized that his best bet for a successful suicide was to hang himself with his clothing.
The two former females-currently things-continued to reach toward him hungrily. He had wanted to figure out a way to kill them, but that seemed neither likely nor productive.
Again he heard the door downstairs. Was it the deputy or had those things gotten inside? The noise was a single set of footsteps. It was pointless to call out; it was pointless to be silent. What would happen to him was totally out of his control. The powerlessness-or rather, the recognition of powerlessness-was profoundly empowering.
The door opened and Gerard entered. He carried three paper bags. The two things turned, distracted and began to reach out toward him.
“Holy shit! What have you done to these women?” he screamed.
“What have I–?” Randy didn’t know how to respond. He just hoped that the bags contained food and drink.
Gerard walked over to what had been Rita. He examined her without coming within her reach. “She’s dead,” he said.
No shit, Sherlock, Randy thought, but he kept it to himself. “Yeah. The mother choked to death, I think. Then the mother bit the daughter. That’s the daughter you’re looking at there.”
Gerard was not happy about having being shaken from him normal way of operating. Without taking his eyes off the daughter-thing, he pitched one of the bags he carried in the direction of Randy, who reached through the bars in time to catch it.
Randy tore into the bag, finding a sandwich and a can of Diet Coke. He opened the drink and sipped long on it. He had eaten half the sandwich before he realized that it was his favorite: pimento cheese. He couldn’t help but hope that, since the two women were dead, the deputy would give him their food, too.
A gunshot rang out. Randy looked to see the Rita-thing staggering backwards, having been shot by the deputy who stood with his pistol in his outstretched hand. It came forward again, reaching again, its mouth open and hungry. He fired the gun again; the thing staggered back again.
“They don’t die easily,” Gerard said, “because they’re already dead. You have to knock out the brain.” With that, he raised the gun a bit higher and squeezed off a shot that dropped the zombie.
Randy wanted to ask about those other sandwiches, but the deputy seemed too preoccupied with his target practice to be bothered just now.
Gerard moved three steps to his left and looked in at the mother-thing that was now standing with its arms stretched out through the bars in his direction.
“This one is nasty looking,” he said.
“She wasn’t that great before she turned,” Randy said. He had finished the sandwich and was almost done with the Coke. “Are you going to leave me here?”
The deputy didn’t respond. He was enthralled with the mother-thing. He pointed his pistol at the zombie and fired. The bullet tore into the thing’s thigh. It staggered, but it moved back toward the bars again, reaching toward Gerard.
“Hey, can I have the other bags of food?”
The deputy snickered then. It was probably, Randy later realized, a laugh at the damage he had done to the woman; he had not even heard Randy. At the time, though, Randy felt quite slighted. He took off his right shoe now.
“Can I have the rest of the food?”
Gerard squeezed off another shot, this time into the thing’s other thigh. It collapsed on the floor, but continued to reach for him through the bars.
“Sir!” Randy called. Gerard pointed the pistol toward the mother-thing’s head and started to press the trigger. Randy hurled the shoe at him, striking the deputy in the cheek.
Gerard spun toward Randy. When he did, the thing in the cell reached out and grabbed his legs and jerked them out from under him. He lost his grip on the pistol and it scooted across the room. The thing bit into his leg and tore the flesh from it. Gerard was struggling to pull away, but the thing’s rabid appetite took its toll quickly. Gerard kicked with his right leg as the thing chewed his left. It grabbed his right leg now and tore into it. As he struggled, the deputy realized that both his Achilles tendons had been ripped out.
Randy reached out for Gerard’s hand and grabbing it, pulled him closer. “Help me,” said the deputy.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Randy said. The deputy screamed in pain and struggled without success to get loose from the thing, but it continued to tear the flesh from his legs.
The deputy lost consciousness in a moment. No doubt, he was in shock and bleeding to death. In a few more minutes, he would return to life. Randy knew he had to work quickly. Reaching through the bars, he grabbed the deputy’s shirt and struggled to get a grip on him. He pulled the limp body closer, having to fight against the zombie who continued to gnaw hungrily on its lower parts.
Reaching into the deputy’s pockets, Randy found an old-fashioned ring of keys. Seizing them, he quickly stood and unlocked his door. Stepping out, he found the gun that had been dropped earlier. He went out the door and started down the stairs. A thought struck him and he went back into the room where Gerard lay dead for now. He gingerly stepped over him and grabbed the other two lunch bags. He then scurried down the stairs, not looking back.
(This is a portion of my novel DEADSVILLE. Once I finish it, I will be shopping for a publisher.)