Copyright (c) 2017 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
June Swafford turned off the television as soon as the end credits for The Lawrence Welk Show rolled. The program was of course a re-run but it brought back delightful memories. She and Elmo had often danced in the living room along with Bobby Burgess and Cissy King or while the Lennon Sisters sang. In the distance dark clouds rumbled as she closed and locked the front door, probably a storm brewing in the mountains above Motha Forest and set to fall on Comanche County during the night. It was a good thing the cows were in the barn and the chickens had been fed earlier. A tear stung the corner of her eyes when she said goodnight to Elmo’s picture propped on the top shelf of the bookcase just before she started up the stairs to her bedroom. He was too young to have died of a heart attack at age fifty-nine.
June awakened from a dream in which she was riding in a hay wagon with a group of other sixteen year old girls, they were going to a Christmas party at the Comanche County school house. Elmo was singing Somewhere My Love before he began to pound on the door. “Let me in woman. You promised me the next dance!” He’d of course been to Bingo and hadn’t gotten home until after dark … must have forgotten his key. He sounded drunk. She bet every beer in his bag was gone and hoped there would be at least one prize.
Still half wrapped in her dream, she slid open the bedroom window and called down. “You know where the spare key is you noisy old fool. Are you trying to wake up the neighbors or just Hicks?” It wasn’t until she heard him pull the lid off the milk can and then open the front door that full consciousness kicked in: Elmo was dead. She turned on the lamp next to the bed and stared intently at nothing.
He dropped something heavy on the kitchen floor and it fell with a loud thump that shook the house. Her breathing came in quick ragged gasps. She could hear him as he turned the water on at the sink and washed his hands. Next footsteps started up the stairs and the bed began to shake along with her arms and legs. This can’t be happening! Her mind continued to slap her - trying to make her wake up. I was at his funeral. I stood in Black Rose Cemetery and watched as that six-thousand, seven-hundred and eighty-five dollar coffin … “Would you want your loved one resting for eternity in anything less?” Egbert Callahan had insinuated. …was lowered into the ground and covered with dirt. She could hear Elmo’s footsteps on the landing now. There was a smell like damp ground plowed for the first time. She thought about jumping out of bed sliding the dresser in front of the door, anything to stop whoever or whatever was in her house. It couldn’t be her loving husband returned to life even as much as she wished it could be. He had been dead for over nine years. Her pulse revved like an old tractor with a broken piston. “Did you win anything?” Her voice sounded like gravel sliding to the bottom of a well but it was the only way she could keep from screaming. She was shaking so bad her teeth were chattering against each other.
“Not a damn thing!” His voice suddenly sounded low and ugly the way it had when Fred Hicks had driven a steel pipe into their hay field and irreparably damaged their swather (windrower) during hay season because Elmo refused to sell him, ridiculously cheap, forty acres of rich ground that bordered his rock and weed patch.
June watched the knob on the door turn as the light in the room dimmed but she was gone before the door opened - off to join her beloved Elmo in the next world.
The fire was going down just outside the tent otherwise Jim Hunting would have stayed in the sleeping bag. A light breeze had blown across Mawkat Lake just before sunset but everything was calm now. He didn’t mind sleeping in a forest … he just hated the dark. In the American Army compound just outside of DaNang all the lights were run by a portable generator. It was the first thing the Viet Cong knocked-out just before they attacked. Flames flashing from the barrels of M16’s and the constant welding torch fire from M60’s mixed with the screams of the dying and the shouts of those doing the killing to create the musical score to the first act of Hell if insanity were ever to take the stage.
Jim had been up for three nights smoking Vietnamese shake and loading a needle. Suddenly he was on guard duty at one of eight towers surrounding the compound and a mountain of stacked beer cases. Endless long hours spent staring into the darkness. The things that were hiding could kill you … the things that weren’t there attacked your mind. He couldn’t keep his eyes open. The first time it was less than a minute and Jim slapped his face hard half a dozen times and swore it wouldn’t happen again. The second time was more than ten minutes. He’d burnt his fingers with a Bic lighter until they blistered and bled swearing he’d die before he closed his eyes again …
`He’d woke up blind in one eye in an army hospital in Japan. One leg was mangled the other broken. He was expected to walk again with braces but one half of his face looked like pancake batter that had hardened during the bubble stage. He’d never marry unless the girl happened to be blind and in love with guilt. The VC had attacked from his corner of the outpost. Charlie Company lost thirty-five men including his best friend from school Brad Stevens. Jim looked at the photo taken outside a bar in Tokyo just before their arrival in Viet Nam every day. It always put a pain in his heart like cardiac arrest but he looked anyway. It was punishment like slapping his own face or burning himself with a lighter. Brad was to his right along with several members of Charlie Co. They were all smiling. Of the eight in the picture three were dead but it was Brad who seemed to stare directly at him through the years always asking the same question … Why?
Jim had arrived home from Japan just in time to attend Brad’s funeral in Black Rose Cemetery. Jim stayed back in the trees and didn’t mix with the family members. Guilt made him a prisoner and he headed for the incarceration of Motha Forest whenever possible.
Jim put another log on the ire and a shower of sparks rose toward the stars. The only sound was the chirping of crickets and the soft lapping of water on the shoreline. He was just turning to go back in the tent when he saw a rippling of water far across the lake reflected by the moon. He squinted his good eye to make out what looked like a dark figure in a canoe paddling toward him.
Jim was suddenly sleepy. All he wanted was to crawl back inside the tent, but someone was coming … Jim was sure of it. The first time he felt his eye close the canoe was halfway across the lake and Jim slashed three lines down his arm with a hunting knife honed to a razor edge. Never again! The pain was excruciating but two minutes later he opened his eye again and the boat was now close enough for Jim to see strong arms pushing a paddle though the water. Jim stuck his hand in the hot coals from the fire leaving it there until the smell of burning flesh and sizzling blood made him wretch and gag. Never again!
The canoe was closer now. Jim could almost see the face of the man paddling. He fought to keep his eye open but it was as if a weight were attached to his eyelid. Jim stumbled into the tent and searched through his duffle bag. The canoe was sliding onto shore and the smiling face of Brad Stevens shown in the moonlight as he stepped onto the bank.
Jim felt his eyelid begin to droop again as he lifted the M1911 pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. Never again!
It was still an hour before sunrise but the employees of the White Apron Bakery did their baking at 4AM and already a crowd of homeless people were forming in the alley for breakfast. At any minute, the big man with the scowling face would open the back door and toss yesterday’s unsold baked goods into the dumpster. “Wow! Look at how much she’s grown!” Antonio James Custler approached a ragged woman holding a bundle in her arms. He’d spent the last two weeks in jail for vagrancy.
“She gets a little bigger every day,” Beth gushed as she un-wrapped the blankets showing a rag doll with blue-button eyes and a red-stitched mouth.
“She sure does,” Tony said, taking the doll and rocking it gently in his arms. He scanned the crowd of hungry people. “Anyone seen Clarence Brown?”
“Clarence drowned in the Cottonmouth River while you was locked up,” Beth hung her head. “He went looking for that ring o’ keys you told us about, and fell into the fast current near the Townsend Bridge!”
Tony had inherited a small house from a rich man he didn’t know. A large ring of different keys all fit the lock on the front door but each key created a different life for the person who used it. It had been too much for Tony to handle and he had finally tossed the key ring in the river.
Tony shook his head. “Why the heck did that big, ugly, black, bear go and do something stupid like that?”
“He was looking not so much for a better life just something different,” Beth said. “life on the streets gets too predictable after a while.”
The crowd behind White Apron Bakery suddenly grew quiet when the back door to the business opened. “Damn mangy bunch of dogs!” a heavyset man complained as he lugged a huge tray filled with day-old donuts, bear-claws and cinnamon rolls to the dumpster. He scowled at those who looked hungrily at his tray. “Why don’t you all get jobs? I work for my meals … so should you!”
“There’s a reason these people are on the streets and it has nothing to do with jobs!” A huge man stepped from the shadows with a face like bloody hamburger. The crowd gasped, it was Clarence Brown! Most of his facial features had been rotted away by the river and there were clumps of moss where his ears should have been. His eyes were milky white with tiny unmoving pupils in the center. He was dripping wet like he’d just came up out of the water.
The terrified big man dropped the tray of day old breads and turned to run back into the bakery. Clarence grabbed him by the back of the neck. “These people are my friends, Clarence said as he slammed the man into the concrete wall. “These donuts are bound to be a little dry … how bout you bring out some milk to wash ‘em down with?”
The man was too terrified to talk. He nodded his head instead.
“I’ll be expecting you back out here in two minutes,” Clarence said. “Don’t make me come in after you!”
When the White Apron employee went back in the bakery Tony approached Clarence. “What are you doing here?” he gasped.
“I went looking for that key ring you tossed in the river,” Clarence said. “There’s a lot of mud on the bottom of the Cottonmouth where it runs through the city… it took some time to locate them.” He tossed the keys to Tony.
“But how?” Tony caught the keys. He was astonished to see his long dead friend walking the streets.
Clarence smiled. “When you’re dead …you can hold your breath for a long long time!”
“Get us out of here, Jimmy!” Sheriff Walker retrieved a flashlight from under the seat and shone it in the deputy’s face. Outside the County police car throngs of the recently unearthed dead were trying to smash out the car windows. Jimmy Wong was in shock staring with eyes as big as two rickshaw wheels at the horror which was smothering them. “Let’s move now!” The sheriff reached over, jammed the automatic shifter into reverse and pushed down on Jimmy’s leg. The car groaned for a moment and then lurched backward. The arms, legs and other parts of the dead that didn’t slide off the hood and roof became caught between the tires and wheel-wells. Dried-blood, gristle and bits of rotted flesh sprayed the windows as the car backed onto the highway. The sudden shift from total dark to squirming nightmare brought Jimmy back to his senses. “Awwwggggaa,” he screamed as he found drive, jammed his foot on the gas pedal, and the car lurched forward.
Both sides of the highway were crowded with dead people come to see an automotive game of chicken. Enough bodies had fell away from the car for the sheriff to see they were between two cars hurdling toward each other at ninety miles per hour. There wasn’t time for anything else; Sheriff Walker unrolled his window and drew his Colt 45.
It was smoke burning his eyes that made Julio awaken. The tiny trailer just north of Black Rose Cemetery was shaking and bouncing. Maria was picking herself up from the floor. It felt like they were in the middle of a stampede but those weren’t cows outside they were bodies , a few recently diseased but most rotting flesh clinging to old bone. Julio could smell propane and could hear the hiss from the tank mounted on the front of the mobile house. One of the marching dead must have broken the line and a spark from something must have ignited the gas. “Tenemos que salir de que la casa va a estallar!” Julio screamed.
“It’s my fault,” Maria said. “I should have kept you awake!”
Julio grabbed his wife and forced open the door. Most of the risen dead from the cemetery had passed by the trailer and were heading toward the desert in the west. He tried to pull her outside but she resisted. “No sin la madre!” (Not without the holy mother) she insisted. She turned and dashed back inside the trailer picking the broken-glass portrait of the Virgin Mary from off the floor.
“This is my fault!” Julio put his head in his hands. “No one is safe as long as I’m alive!”
The glass frame in Maria’s hand crumpled and she struggled to catch the paper print before it hit the ground. There was not just one portrait under the broken glass but two. The first was a painting by Raphael of the Madonna but hidden behind it was another … a gruesome, fleshy rendering called the Mask by Pedronunez .
Maria was staring with such horror at the second print she didn’t notice Julio with the gun to his head until she heard the hammer click. “Wait,” she screamed. “We’ve been praying to the blessed mother … and to the Devil!”
Julio stared at her and the two prints as the house on wheels behind them exploded in flames.
“Are you crazy!” Jimmy Wong screamed as the sheriff leaned out the window with the high powered pistol. “Those people are dead!”
“Maybe so … but that damn Ford isn’t!” The sheriff fired three times in rapid succession before Hick’s black Falcon skidded sideways with a blown right front tire, rolled once and then became airborne. It bounced once coming down just in front of the bumper and a jagged fender tore out the radiator and half the engine before it flew over the hood scratching the roof with both tail fins and exploded into the car hurtling up behind them. Bits of torn metal and car parts blasted outward in all directions like shrapnel.
“That was close!” Jimmy was gasping for breath.
“Not close enough,” the sheriff said. He gestured towards the shattered windshield.
The walking dead began to move toward the sheriff’s demolished car as Jimmy tried to start the engine.
Maria tried to tear the awful image of the Devil but when it wouldn’t rip she walked toward the fire. With a flash as bright as lightning a goatish face appeared in the flames coming from the trailer. “You asked for my help many times and I never refused … is this the way you repay me?”
“Jesus is our only God … if we prayed to you it was by trickery,” Maria said. She halted her steps for only a second.
“I’m willing to make a deal,” the image said. “Place the painting back in the frame … this time with my image out and I’ll give you what you’ve been searching for!”
“You don’t have anything that we want!” Julio was furious as he pointed the gun at the flames.
“Look behind you …. I can make you a family again!”
Julio and Maria both turned. Jose was walking across the cemetery he looked as normal as they did. “Mama! Pappa!” Jose cried “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Julio covered his eyes with one hand … as he raised the gun with the other.
Bony fingers were reaching through the broken windows on all sides when Sheriff Walker checked the rounds in his gun. There were two bullets left. There were more shells in a box under the seat but there wasn’t time. “I don’t feel right about shooting you … first,” the sheriff said looking at Jimmy. “But it’s better than being torn apart by a bunch of zombies.”
“Do it,” Jimmy said closing his eyes and gritting his teeth. “I hate long drawn out goodbyes.”
Sheriff Walker cocked the gun, hooked his finger round the trigger and began to squeeze. There was a blinding flash of light along with a strange intense cold. Everything in the world began to slow and then turn black.
Maria heard the blast from Julio’s pistol and watched him slump to the ground. There was no time for pain … only for shock. She turned toward the flames; the demon was smiling. “Don’t forget your son,” he pointing to the young man walking toward them. “You still have your son!”
“I can bring father back to life,” Jose said. He was now running toward her. “We can be a family again!”
“I would rather spend one second with God than an eternity with sin,” Maria stared at the image of the Devil … and then she flung the portrait into the flames.
Sheriff Walker and Jimmy Wong opened their eyes at the same time. They were parked behind the large billboard advertising Conoco gasoline near highway one and Cass Elliott was crooning Dream a Little Dream of Me on the radio.
“What the Hell!” Jimmy said. “One minute we’re ready to be eaten alive by zombies and the next thing you know we’re trying to trap speeders jumping off the interstate!”
Sheriff Walker shrugged his shoulders and reached for the thermos filled with coffee on the seat between them. “This is Cloverdale,” he said. “You’d best learn to roll with the punches.”
“Bendecir a nuestro Dios en el cielo!” Julio burst through the door of the little house in Juárez Mexico. “The papers have been approved and we have the permits to immigrate to America!”
“But how?” Maria gasped. “I thought it would take many years and a fortune in bribes.”
“Sometimes miracles happen!” Julio took the portrait of the Virgin Mary off the wall and kissed it. “We must always believe that God is on our side.”
“What part of America will we live in?” Maria could hardly contain her excitement.
“In the northwest … in the state of Montana …” Julio picked up his ten year old son Jose and tossed him into the air. “We will both have jobs working on a ranch and Jose can learn to ride a horse!”
“Will we have to fight Indians like General Custer?” Jose’s eyes were wide.
Julio laughed. “Our troubles are no more. Cloverdale is a sleepy little town where nothing much ever happens!”