It was five AM on June the 20th, and the world stubbornly refused to end.
I stared at the ceiling for an hour. It had become a little ritual. Stare, and think of the nightmares from the previous evening. Stare as my muscles started to unclench, and let me move again. Stare, and hope that whatever horror my psyche had stirred up would wash away.
I finally managed to sit up and get out of bed. Shave. Shower. Move to the kitchen and make myself some oatmeal. Eat noiselessly.
Finally, I had to get dressed, and that meant going back into the bedroom. I was awake now, so I’d see all the cards. Condolence. Condolence. Condolence. Names I barely recognized. Platitudes. It’d only been five weeks and I’d gotten completely used to them.
What I still wasn’t used to was the bed. Too big for just me. Maybe that’s where the nightmares were coming from; they curled up on the empty part of the bed, waiting to embrace me when I slept.
I’m not a poetic man by nature, but that thought seemed to make sense to me. Maybe when Gary and Cindy came the following weekend to bring up my little great-nephew, they’d help me get a new bed, too.
Maybe get rid of the old one.
The thought took me a long time to process. Finally, I gave up. I sat down on the edge of the bed and buttoned my shirt, made sure everything I needed was in my pockets or clipped to the belt, then I got up to leave.
I still caught myself saying goodbye to no one at all as I left the empty house.
June had been royally hot. Even at seven AM, kids were looking for shade and trying to convince Mr. Patterson to open the fire hydrant on Main. He’d never done it before, I doubted he’d do it that day. But I guess hope springs eternal in the minds of the young.
I pulled into the office. Bill and Wayne were drinking coffee, and Wayne had his feet up on his desk while munching a doughnut. I cleared my throat as I walked in, and immediately the pastry vanished while Wayne assumed as much of a dignified position as his gut would allow.
“What’s it look like this morning, fellahs?” I said.
“Gonna go down to Maybel’s place,” Bill responded, “She says kids broke into her coop, did some damage. Carried off a chicken.”
I shook my head and sat at my desk, “You got paperwork filled out for it?”
“No, but we will have.”
“See that you do.”
I know the paperwork was the least favorite part of the entire shebang for those two; I think they joined the force because they thought it was going to be much more ‘wild west’. I’ve had more than one case hinge on a note that was made, or the proper information put in a filing cabinet, though, so I’ve been a stickler.
“Anything past that?”
“Some nasty graffiti at the Dexter place.”
“Take statements,” I grumbled. Lilly and Ben Dexter were a mixed couple. No one in town liked ’em. Now, I know, it’s considered uncivilized to look down at the undead, but illegal is illegal. I just couldn’t wrap my head around Ben’s choice. I’m sure Lilly was perfectly wonderful when she was alive, but…
“Oh, and some fed called.”
My train of thought was derailed by Wayne’s comment as he and Bill were getting ready to leave.
Wayne’s brow furrowed as he tried to remember details. “Some… Fed. Said he’d stop by today.”
“Does this fed have a name? A bureau? A reason to be here?”
Again, the furrowed brow. After a minute or three, “Sorry, chief.”
“You really aren’t that useful to me alive, are you?”
Wayne looked vaguely hurt, “Sorry, chief.”
I sighed and waved him off, “Just go. Call in if there’s a problem.”
“I’ll take care of him, chief,” Bill said, and half-dragged Wayne out of the office.
Within an hour I was finishing off some paperwork and taking little moments to fill out the crossword puzzle. The local paper had hired some new kid from Chicago to make the puzzles, and I had to admit that the mental exercise was something I missed from my days on the force back in the Windy City. That, and quite frankly, nothing else.
I had Wendy to thank for that. She and I had been introduced by friends while I was still walking a beat. It was all a whirlwind; we went to clubs, and spent time at the movies. I’d visit her at the office she worked at. I’d never met anyone like her. We were married a year after we met.
It was only two months later that the whole thing in Chicago exploded. I’m sure you saw it in the papers; the necromancy scandal. I was in the precinct that it occurred in. I won’t say I was unaware of what was going on. I will say I wasn’t part of it, but that didn’t really matter. Everyone was getting it in the neck, and even after I was cleared by internal affairs, my record was so bad there was no way I was ever getting promoted again.
Wendy’s sister-in-law lived out here, and had come down sick. Real bad. I remember sitting in my little apartment with Wendy; it was freezing, she was reading a letter from Ellen, I was trying to figure out what to do next, and a light went on. I mean, literally; a bulb we kinda figured was dead in the kitchen popped back on, then burst. We both jumped. Then we looked at each other, and… Wendy started laughing, and when she did, I did. It was like… We both knew. We knew we had to come down here.
We were so welcome at first. Wendy looked after her sister, and I got a job on the force. With my experience, and, while I don’t mean to brag, my quick mind, I helped put a murder and two burglaries off the active case load within five months. Everyone started looking at me and Wendy as such pillars of the community. When chief Hunkle had to retire due to his coronary, the town got behind giving me his job. I was never so honored in my life.
But life turns funny sometimes. Wendy’s sister-in-law got better fast, and Wendy started looking for something new to do. She talked to me about starting a vegetable garden. I was going to look at seed catalogs with her … I’m at work that day and I get the emergency call. Wendy’s unconscious at the hospital. I drive there like I’m the only one on the road. I get there five minutes after she dies. Brain hemorrhage. I just stare at her, there in bed. We had less than two years together.
I spent the next three weeks collecting condolence cards while staying at the bottom of a bottle. Two weeks ago I got myself clean and sober and came back into work. I keep waiting for the rest of the world to hurry up and end. All the good parts are gone.
Five letters, second letter ‘o’. ‘Wear Bombazine’. I was still fiddling with that one; I didn’t even know what bombazine was, when a man in a black suit walked in.
Conrad’s a little town. I know everyone by sight and name. The police station is in the middle of town, so we rarely get people stopping in asking for directions. This could only be one guy.
I stood, “I’m John Macey. You must be from Washington.”
The man kept an odd distance from me, as if somehow the Texas dust would rub off on him and contaminate him completely. A nod followed instead of a handshake, “Agent Driver. You’re the chief of police here?”
I nodded back and sat again, motioning for him to take a chair. “How can I help you, agent?”
He stubbornly refused to sit, which irked me more than a little.
“Are you aware of the necromancy going on in your town, chief?”
I arced an eyebrow, “Ben Dexter’s married to a ghoul. She wasn’t created locally. No one to arrest.”
Agent Driver’s expression didn’t waver, “Not what I’m talking about. You’ve got a full-blown necromancer here in Conrad. Within the next two hours they’re going to animate at least three corpses, in violation of the necromantic act of-”
“I know it’s illegal,” I cut him off, “You could’ve just called and let me know. I’d have taken care of it.”
“I did call,” he said. “When I did, I figured out your deputy is a simpleton.”
“Won’t argue there,” I replied, “Still, could’ve handled it.”
The agent shook his head as he stood, “This is out of your league. I was only making a courtesy call.”
Angrily, I stood, “Now wait just a damn minute-”
“Courtesy call. I didn’t want local law out of the loop.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“You’re really not.”
“This is my town, goddammit!”
He paused, then shook his head, “All right. Not talking you out of this. If you want to follow, I can’t stop you. But stay out of my way.”
I started scratching a note for Bill and Wayne, “Who are we picking up?”
“Ellen Constance. Know her?”
My blood froze. I tried not to show my horror as I nodded, “She’s the town librarian.”
The agent didn’t mind as I rode along with him. While I was silent and tried to put on my best stone face, my mind was frantically trying to find a way to make this all not true. It couldn’t have been.
Ellen had been everything to my wife. Everything. She had sat beside Ellen’s bed throughout her sickness. I remember sitting with her, too, when I had time. I would hold Wendy and say that everything would be better, and eventually, it almost was.
It took time for Ellen’s strength to recover. Wendy and I would take turns visiting her at her home, and each time she was so grateful for our cares and concerns. She’d never had anyone looking after her before. There was a day-
“You ever kill a zombi before, mister Macey?”
The agent’s question snapped me back out of my confused reverie.
“No,” I lied, “Head shot?”
“Yeah. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Remember two things; Zombis aren’t smart like you or me. They can’t even handle doors. Also, if the necromancer dies, the zombis go down, too, and necromancers tend to be a lot easier to kill.”
My gut sank as we pulled into the library parking lot. One car there. Ellen’s.
“How do you know she’s a necromancer?” I asked as we got out of the car.
He gave me a stern look, “Vital intelligence. Classified.”
“Now wait just a damn minute-”
“Classified,” He said, and that was that; he walked quickly, and with purpose, towards the front door. He was drawing his sidearm as I followed.
The front door was open, and slightly ajar. All the curtains were drawn, but there were still fingers of light creeping in at the edges of the windows. The dancing motes of dust made the room reminiscent of early summer days. Days where Ellen and I would meet here, before the place would open, before I’d go to work.
The agent motioned for silence, then pointed at me and the stacks to the right. He began to work towards the shelves on the other end of the room, not looking to see if I’d followed his instructions.
I began to serpentine up and down the rows, hoping this was all some fever dream. Ellen had held me close a year before in the row I was in. It had been our first illicit kiss. The thrill and guilt was coming back now, twisted into a nightmare. This couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be.
I cornered into the biography shelves, and heard the slightest noise from below me. A little groan coming up through the grate. I didn’t want this to be so. It couldn’t be so. Ellen had found another lover; that had to be it. The guilt that had consumed her after Wendy died had finally worn off, and she’d found someone else. I could be okay with that. That had to be it.
Agent Driver hissed across the room at me, and pointed with his sidearm toward the stairs to the basement. I froze for half a moment, then nodded, following him there. He gently pulled the door open, and looked down into the darkness.
The scent that bubbled up was one of the dead. It wasn’t just necromancy; I’d had enough dealings with zombies in the past to know their scent. This was pure putrescene. Bodies were decaying down there.
I held back a gag that would’ve included my breakfast, and followed Agent Driver down into the darkness. Instinctively, I reached for the light switch at the bottom of the stairs, but the agent hissed and grabbed my hand.
The basement of the library was L-shaped, and we were at the base. Groans seemed to echo throughout the place, and the darkness made it impossible to tell where Ellen might’ve been. I wanted so much to call out; to get her to come and give herself up. More than that, I just wanted all this to not be true. But the shuffling of feet in the darkness shattered that dream.
I looked to Driver, and he looked back to me. The tables had turned; he had less idea than I did what was down here, and was looking for some sort-of guidance. I checked my pistol once, then holstered it and motioned for him to follow as I creeped down the hall ahead of us, one hand extended, hoping against hope I’d find nothing.
Driver was close on my heels. I had to cut short when my hand brushed against a desk that had been moved out into the hall, but the agent wasn’t so perceptive. He ran into me, and I stumbled forward, cracking my shin against the desk which resounded with a metallic thump.
The groans suddenly raised in volume.
Starting to panic, I ran forward. No groans were coming from ahead of us, and if perhaps we could have make it into a room, we might’ve been safe.
We got to the periodical archive, and Driver quickly and quietly clicked the door closed behind us, then let out a sigh of relief. He crossed the over to a desk on the other side of the room and clicked on the tiny desk light, then turned to me, a look of anger crossing his features.
“What the hell did you do?” He hissed at me.
“You ran into me. I ran into the desk. If you hadn’t been so damn close-” I tried to keep my voice down.
He held up a hand, and his anger vanished, “Sorry. We’re close on this one, but the zombies are going to be looking for us now. What other rooms does this place have?”
“Janitor’s closet, and the office at the far end of the hall out there.”
He nodded, “Okay. We lie low here until the zombies decide there’s nothing going on, then we run like hares to the other end, and put a stop to this. That work for you?”
I nodded, but didn’t say anything. I could hear the zombies getting closer. I stepped back from the door and waited for them to go away.
There was a few dead-groans outside, and then a thump at the door. Then another one. The groans grew in volume… Then stopped.
I didn’t get to breathe my sigh of relief.
The door handle started turning.
Driver’s eyes went wide as he went for his gun. “Head shots!” He reminded me.
I didn’t need to be told twice. The .44 I’d used to put down six zombies in a cold Chicago alley sprung to my hand.
But maybe I’d just gotten old. The door flung open, and I couldn’t step back fast enough. I caught it in the arm, and the report of the gunfire as the pistol was knocked from my hand made my ears ring.
There were four zombies coming through the door. As one of them reached for me, I could hear a dull explosion over the ringing; Driver had taken a shot, and a millisecond after I could feel the bullet drill past my shoulder, the head of the undead closest to me exploded.
This wasn’t like Chicago. There, I’d had my gun, and I’d had time to take the shot. There, the whole thing hadn’t had a sick, personal touch to it.
There, I hadn’t known the faces of the people I was trying to put down.
Brad and Sandra McKeller had died a month ago in an auto accident. Now, even with their faces mangled, they were recognizable as they grabbed my arm and my jacket. Driver was screaming something behind me, but whatever it was, I couldn’t hear it. I yanked hard against Brad’s grip, and the fact that the auto accident had broken Brad’s legs seemed to be in my favor. He toppled heavily, and I tried to backpedal, but we both pitched over a desk behind me. I cracked my head on the floor, and my ringing ears now was joined by sparks dancing at the edge of my vision.
“Brad, don’t do this!” I growled. I knew it didn’t mean anything. Even if these things had some infernal intelligence, they would’ve been under the thrall of whatever necromancer had raised them.
Brad put his hands around my throat, and I heard another gunshot explosion, then another. I grabbed Brad’s fingers and started bending them backward; normally enough to get someone to let go, but a zombie feels no pain. Still… I swear I could see something in Brad’s eyes as the bones snapped. If they could think, could they feel?
I saw Sandra fall with a ragged hole just above her left eye as I struggled free from Brad. He came at me again, flailing hard, his nails tearing my cheek. I cursed as I scrambled, and kicked hard. Brad’s weight was off me, and my pistol was only a few feet away.
I threw myself across the floor and spun after my hands found the pistol’s grip. Across the floor from me, Brad sat, unmoving.
I stood, staring for a moment before I finally realized; My kick had forced Brad back and impaled him on the leg of the overturned desk. He twitched, trying to free himself, but the damage I’d done to his hands made that impossible.
Driver’s voice was finally coming clear. I raised the gun. My hand started to shake. This was Brad McKeller, the guy who’d helped me fix Wendy’s radio back in June. The guy whose funeral I’d gone to, and even said a few words about his kindness and loyalty.
He tried to kill me, but that was only because of the necromancer. Brad had been my friend.
The entire top of Brad’s head exploded. Driver had taken the decision away from me.
That was it, then. No one could’ve not heard Driver’s gun. I had almost been deafened by it, but there was no mistaking the frustrated, panicked look on his face as he raced down the hall towards the offices.
I clicked on the hall light (which was just as well, as he was about to run into some shelving) and took off after him like my shoes were on fire.
I was two steps behind the agent as he rounded the corner into the offices. The smell of the dead was overpowering in the entry way, and every ounce of my being told me I didn’t want to go in there. But in the previous few weeks I’d become inured to the aura that surrounds death, and I could only feel my blood run cold as I pushed myself around the corner.
It was Ellen. Of course. It couldn’t not have been her. She stood in a circle drawn in what I could only assume was blood. Hers or someone else’s, I’ll never know. She had corpses, three of them, on tables, each with a sheet over them. She looked at me and my heart sank; she’d looked so strong when we held each other in her bedroom.. When she had been sick, it had always looked like the life was going out of her… Everything about her after she’d gotten well had turned to warmth and brightness, but now? Her cheeks were starting to get that unhealthy glow again. The look that Wendy had been so worried about. The one that we’d thought had just been her being sick …Now I knew where all that life force had really been going. Straight into raising the dead.
I wanted to ask her how long she’d been doing it. I wanted to ask her if she’d known how much Wendy and I had wanted her well, and how we’d done everything in our power to make that happen. I wanted to tell her that she had to stop, that I couldn’t let her die like that. That I’d… Fallen…
But I couldn’t ask her any of those things. For while she didn’t have any more zombies, she did have a gun. A big .45. And it was pointed directly at Agent Driver.
Driver had his gun pointed at her as well. “Chief,” He said, trying to remain calm, “Take her into custody.”
“Don’t.” She said, and there was a little throb in her voice that made my heart skip a beat.
“Don’t do it, John.”
My pistol was in my hand, but I couldn’t raise it.
“Chief Macey, I don’t know what sort of relationship you and this woman have, but you have to take her in. These are crimes against G-d and man, and you know that.”
I started raising my pistol. Ellen turned her gaze part-way towards me, “John, don’t.”
“Because you love me?” I said, both wishing and cursing the idea that she might confirm it.
“Because Wendy’s alive.”
My hand trembled, “You.. Brought…”
Driver yelled something at me, but I couldn’t hear him. I didn’t want to hear anything else.
“I’ve been working so hard, John… Missed her so much…” She began to tear up, and choke out her words, “But I did it. You saw. I can bring her back just as she was; no brain damage. She’ll be just like she was, John! She will!”
“Chief Macey, restrain the suspect RIGHT NOW!”
His thumb pulled back the hammer on his revolver.
She began to squeeze her trigger.
I saw Wendy’s hand start to come out from under the sheet.
Everything stood still for an infinite instance.
Ellen dropped wordlessly to the floor. Wendy’s arm stopped moving.
It was over.
I don’t really remember Driver bringing me to the hospital, though it’s on the official report. I was treated for a damaged eardrum, and various cuts and bruises. They gave me a bottle of pills, and told me to check in if things got worse.
Driver told me the paperwork would be forwarded to my office. He dropped me off at home. It was the last I ever saw of him.
Condolence. Condolence. Condolence. I sat in my quiet little house, still too big for one person, and I stared at the cards for a long, long time. What did mourning mean anymore when it’s always possible the one you love could be brought back?
I took a pill for the ache in my ribs.
Then I took another one.
Then I took the rest of the bottle.
I laid down in my bed and wept til the darkness overcame me.
But the next morning I woke again. The world once again stubbornly refused to end.