Saturday, August 31, 2013

When They're Gone...

In the midst of a busy move between Chicago and LA, I'm posting another short story as I haven't had a chance to sit down and mash out a character interview.  This one, a favorite of mine, features my first ever Gay character.  I hope ya'll enjoy, and leave some comments!

Private Sam Greene tried to slow his breathing while he hugged the side of his squad’s tan Humvee.  He unstrapped his helmet and leaned his head back against the window, staring up into the pearly blue afternoon sky.  Streams of beady sweat trickled down his dirt and sand covered face, sliding along his chin.  He tightened his grip on his assault rifle and plopped his helmet back on.
“You alright, Private?” a voice called out from the other side of the Humvee.  
A burly lieutenant, Mackey was his name, rounded the front of the vehicle, holding his rifle with both hands while his backpack bobbed back and forth with each step.  “Greene, you okay?” he asked again while he adjusted his bowl-shaped helmet, sounding less formal.
Greene stared out into the swirling desert, sprawling forever in all directions.  He wasn’t sure if the lieutenant could see him shaking, if he could tell he was scared shitless.  His blood ran cold and he had that constant feeling like he was at the apex of a roller coaster, staring at a drop while the cart waits to soar its way down, anticipating the release.
You know shits gonna’ happen, it’s just a matter of when, he thought to himself.  
“This your first time off base, Greene?” Mackey asked with a chuckle while he inspected his rifle.  He slid it around his shoulder by its strap then unholstered his pistol, checking that out too.
“Yeah,” Greene said, a lump getting caught in his throat.  “First time.”
“First time’s always the shit-kicker,” Mackey said, patting Greene’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry, Private.  You’re in good hands,” he said with a grin through his sand crusted face. 
Mackey lifted a tiny flap on his equipment belt and pulled out a piece of folded paper with his thumb and pointer finger.  When it was out, he unfolded it and spread it across the hood of the Humvee. 
“’Mere a sec’, Greene,” he said, waving Greene over.
Greene took in a deep breath, held it in for a minute, letting his muscles relax, then sighed.  He bounced his rifle in his hand, testing the weight of his gun, like he’d forgotten how much it weighed.  He walked over to Mackey and stopped right beside him, staring down at the paper, which was a map of the area, five-square miles worth of sand and rock.
Mackey circled an area near the upper right hand corner with his pointer finger.
“Couple a’ brownies were spotted here a few days ago,” Mackey said.  “Haulin’ supplies and weapons, munitions; the good stuff, ya’ know.  Radio chatter went dead around two-thirty this morning.  Just like that,” he said, snapping his finger. 
“So,” Greene said, his voice quivering.  “What are we supposed to do?” 
“Well, our boys seem pretty sure the sand storm that’s been building up there spooked ‘em away.  We’re talkin’ hundred mile an hour winds.”
Greene squinted his eyes and cocked his mouth, confused.
“And they want us to go up there?” Greene asked, getting pissed.
“They just want us to see if they left anything behind.  Supply requisitions are backlogged so far I doubt we’ll ever get toilet paper again,” Mackey said, slapping Greene’s chest to get him riled up.  “I’ve done a dozen of these bag and tag ops.  Trust me, if there’s a safe time to go sneekin’ around, it’s during a fuckin’ sandstorm.” 
“You said they were gone!  Why would we need to be sneaking?” Greene shouted, leaning over the hood and shaking his head, his brain trying to talk him out of this. 
“Relax, Private,” Mackey said, picking up the map.  “Our boys said they are, so they are!”
Greene stood up and stared at Mackey for a second, wanting to believe him, wanting to believe they were fed the right information. 
Mackey reached out and grabbed Greene by his shoulders, looking to his eyes. 
“You’ll be okay.  I promise, I won’t let anything happen to you,” Mackey said, searching Greene’s eyes for a shred of trust. 
Greene nodded his head, agreeing, and quickly looked away in disbelief of what he was about to do.
Mackey tapped Greene’s shoulder a few times for reassurance then pulled a compass out of another pouch.  He got his bearings, studying the compass then shielded his eyes from the sun while he spun around, comparing the surrounding desert and rock formations to the map in his hand, flapping in the hot humid wind.
“The terrain is too rocky to drive, so,” he said, continuing to study, “we’ll have to walk.”
Greene stared at the mix of rock and sand beneath his boots, listened to it crunch as he stepped in place, waiting.  His mind was at home, in Ashland, Louisiana, standing at the creek behind his parent’s one-story house with the corny lawn decorations, watching the ducks bob their heads below water while bugs and birds chirped. 
“Okay,” Mackey said after a moment. 
Greene’s head was pulled back, halfway around the world, back into the Iraqi Desert, back where the fear was real and the sun seemed to beam down on you twenty-four seven.  He felt sweat slipping down his neck, down his shirt, and into his underwear.  His undershirt clung to his pits and his back.  He wiped his forehead then faced Mackey.
“It’s this way,” Mackey said, starting to walk down the hill beside the Humvee. 
Greene watched Mackey side-step his way down the hill then began to follow, reluctantly, with his rifle in hand.  Rocks rustled at his feet as he planned his steps, balancing himself while he walked behind.
After twenty minutes, Mackey reached the bottom, first, then Greene.  Mackey popped out the compass again then headed off toward an enormous bluff rising from the sand, stretching hundreds of feet into the air.
Greene wiped a gritty film of sweat from his brow with his sleeve and followed closely behind.
The wind picked up, brushing waves of sand over the rocks and into the air in misty swirls.  It whooshed by Greene’s face, pricking his cheeks.
Green pictured himself again, standing in front of the creek.  As he walked behind Mackey, he imagined fishing for catfish, his Iron Man tackle box by his feet, filled with live bait.  But there was something else there with him this time, something out of focus.  A person?  It gestured to him, with furry claws, and he could see it was smiling, and was it waving?
“What’s Ashland?” Mackey asked, trying to be heard over the growing winds. 
“What’s that?” Greene hollared, pulled from his day dreaming.
“Ashland,” Mackey repeated.  “You just said it.” 
“I did?” Greene said, staring at Mackey, confused, as they walked.  He wondered what else might have slipped.  The fact he was about as scared as a lost kid in a department store, looking for his mommy. 
“What is it?” Mackey asked, pulling out his compass and verifying their direction. 
“Ashland, Louisiana,” Greene said, watching the mosquitoes dance just above the surface of the creek in his mind.  A gust of sand blew into his mouth, drying his tongue and his throat.  He coughed then spit up the sand.  “It’s where I’m from,” he said, spitting up another wad. 
Mackey reached the foot of the bluff and turned to face Greene who caught up a second later.  He motioned his head up the bluff.
“We’re headin’ up there,” he turned and followed the rocky embankments up with his eyes.  “The slope ain’t that bad.”  He shielded his eyes from the sun then took a step back and looked to Greene at his side.  “Think you’ll be okay?”
Greene took a deep breath as he sized up the sand-covered, stony bluff.  He strapped his assault rifle around his shoulder.
“You first,” Greene said, looking worried. 
Mackey smiled, nervous, then walked up the slight incline to the first set of rocks jutting from the waves of sand.  He lifted his foot atop a tiny outcrop and reached for a rocky ledge above his head.  He lifted his body with a grunt, got his footing, then looked over his shoulder, down at Greene.
“You comin’, or you gonna’ wait for the brownies to give ya’ a lift?” he laughed.
Greene took another deep breath and let it out in a rough sigh.  He shook his head to himself as he followed Mackey up the bluff.  Sweat trickled into his eyes and burned as he climbed.  The grainy sand blew into his nose and mouth and smelled of dirt and age. 
“You got a wife back in Ashland, Louisiana?” Mackey shouted from above while he tested his footing on a rocky hump. 
Dirt and small rocks fell from underneath Mackey’s boot. 
Greene looked away until the debris had passed, then reached up and grabbed an apple-sized rock.  He gave it a good tug and it held tight. 
“I got an ex-wife,” Greene said with a strain while he pulled his body up higher and stabilized his footing. 
Mackey chuckled while he looked for a rock above to grab hold on.
“How old are you?” Mackey asked, shuffling a couple inches to his right.  His boot ground more sand down onto Greene.  “Sorry.” 
This bit caught Greene in the eye.  He looked down, blinking rapidly, and shook out what he could before the tears came.  He blinked away the tears in his eyes, now dirt-free again, then put his foot up onto a rocky ledge.
“Twenty-two!”  Greene shouted.
“Iddn’t that a little young to be divorced?”  Mackey hollered. 
Greene stiffened his jaw.  Anger welled in his gut, thinking about the separation, the god-awful divorce. 
“Not if she’s got a drug habit she can’t kick, and especially not when she runs off with five-thousand bucks that belongs to you,” Greene said, clearly still pissed about it.  “It’s actually why I’m here.  Army or the sidewalk.”
“You made the right choice!” Mackey laughed.
Greene shook his head.
“I’m not so sure,” he said.  “What about you?”
“Chicago!” Mackey grunted, pulling himself up onto another set of rocks.  He stopped to catch his breath.  “Good ‘ole Chicago,” he said to himself. 
“Wife?  Girlfriend?” Greene asked, looking over his shoulder at the ground now far below.  His heart skipped a beat.  Damn, that’s a long way down.  The wind built, gushing faster over the top of the bluff, filling the air with sand before dying back down. 
Mackey leaned back, trying to see the top of the bluff now that the wind had subsided.  He laughed.
“My partner, Mike,” he said with a grin, picturing him on the balcony of their third-floor apartment. 
“Huh?” Greene said, confused. 
“I’m gay, dude,” Mackey said, looking down at Greene.  This wasn’t the first time he’d surprised anybody.  
“Oh,” Greene said, completely caught off guard.  His eyes widened.  “You make sure to tell them I didn’t ask that!”
Mackey laughed.
“Don’t worry, Private, that was repealed!” Mackey said, trying to reassure Greene’s discomfort. 
“That’s cool,” Greene said, unsure of what else to say.  His voice sounded uneasy. 
“Greene?” Mackey asked, getting Greene’s attention.
“I mean, I’ve just never met a,” Greene said, interrupted.
“It’s alright, dude.  You can relax,” Mackey said with a smile.  “No worries.” 
Mackey pulled himself up onto the summit of the bluff then lay down over the edge, reaching down to help Greene up the rest of the way.
Greene grabbed hold of Mackey’s arm and felt him yank, lifting him up onto the ledge.  He crawled to his feet while Mackey stood and looked out over the desert.  Greene brushed the sand from his pants then followed Mackey’s stare.  Oh shit!!
About a mile away, a wall of sand pushed its way forward, pluming toward the bluff, brushing up and along the canyon that stretched before them.   
“Their camp is right there,” Mackey said, pointing into the sand storm, near the end of the canyon rock walls.  “Just at the base.  It’s not much further.” 
Greene stared at the whirling wall of sand, anxious and worried.  Mackey didn’t show a shred of fear, a bit of unease.  Why?
“It’s better not to think about it,” Mackey said, as though he could hear Greene’s thoughts.  “We just…do what we have to.” 
Mackey looked over the edge of bluff, the side they’d have to climb down. 
“We’ll rest for a few, then head down.  Shouldn’t be as bad,” he said, looking back at Greene who took a swig out of his canteen. 
So, they rested a bit, talking about school, their homes.  Greene talked about his parents and of the creek behind his house, how the fishing was great during the summers.  Mackey talked about what it was like coming out to his family, how he’d met his partner, how he hoped they could marry legally one day. 
When Mackey called time, they gathered their gear together then began climbing down the bluff, Mackey first. 
After about an hour, Greene actually reached the desert floor before Mackey.  He watched Mackey climb down while he thought to himself about how gay people weren’t as bad as his dad had told him. 
Mackey dropped from the bluff and ran down the slope of sand, slowing to a stop beside Greene. 
“Told ya’ it wouldn’t be that bad,” Mackey said, slapping Greene’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” Greene said, following Mackey as he headed onward through the rocky canyon.
“It’s just a straight shot now,” Mackey said, heading toward the sandstorm looming in the distance.
The wind had begun to pick up again, but this time it didn’t stop. 
It kicked up dirt, tiny rocks, and waves upon waves of sand.  It whirled around them like a never-ending smoke and only got worse the closer they got. 
Greene had begun to walk with his eyes shielded by his hand, leaning into the wind.  Mackey pulled down a pair of goggles over his eyes.
“Where’s your goggles, Private?” Mackey shouted over the wind.
“I left them in the truck,” Greene yelled back.
Mackey watched the sandstorm, stared at it through his goggles as they walked.  For a second, just a second, he thought he saw something, a familiar something, flicker in the swirling sands.
He walked quietly with his thoughts and pulled his rifle from off its shoulder strap to make himself feel better, safer.
“Did you see that?” Mackey asked on a whim.
Greene moved his head from side to side, trying to hear Mackey over the wind.
“I can’t see shit, man!” he yelled, still shielding his eyes from the sand.
The sky and their surroundings began to disappear around them as the sand began to envelop them, creating a vale of golden dust. 
The wind pushed against them as they trudged forward, fighting for every step.  Green could only smell the musty sand, could only hear the whooshing and thrashing of the wind.  The sand whipped against his cheeks, stinging any exposed skin.
It became harder and harder to walk against the wind and Greene found himself being pushed back a few steps every couple of minutes.  He caught glimpses, through the blinding sand, of Mackey having the same trouble. 
The wind took Greene’s helmet off his head, whirling it out of sight in seconds.
“Fuck!” Greene shouted, patting his head, feeling for the helmet that wasn’t there.
He turned around to see if he could spot it and the wind shoved him, forcing him with it.  He spun around again, giving up on the helmet.  Mackey was a ways ahead of him now.
“Mackey!” Greene shouted, trying to get his attention.  The wind stole any sound, making it impossible for him to be heard.
Mackey disappeared ahead, swallowed by the sand, and Greene had never felt more alone.  He pushed himself harder, fought against the wind.  His legs were on fire, his muscles strained to the point of exhaustion.  His shoulders burned and ached from carrying the weight of his pack. 
He gritted his teeth, struggling to pick up his pace.  The veins in his neck bulged while he screamed inside his head, GO! 
We’ve gotta’  be close to their camp, he thought to himself, worried, alone. 
“Mackey!” Greene shouted again.  This time he screamed loud enough it burned his throat.  “Mack-“ he said, cut off by the sand blowing into his mouth.  He stopped and hunched over, coughing up sand.  The wind whipped around him while he fell to his knees, coughing up more and more sand.
He covered his eyes with one hand and his mouth with the other.  He peeked through the spaces between his fingers, looking for Mackey.  All he could see was the swirling sand before it started to get into his eyes.
Greene leapt to his feet and ran as hard as he could.  His legs screamed, burning and growing stiff.  His pack bounced against his back as he ran, fighting against the wind, his fatigued body. 
He had been running for a minute before he realized the wind and sand had stopped.  He uncovered his eyes and saw a stone hut in front of him, fifty or so yards ahead.  Almost right beside him, the canyon wall stretched up into a haze of clouds and whirling sand.  But, where is Mackey?
Parked in front of the stone hut was a rusty pickup with a mounted machine gun in the bed.  A fresh belt of bullets had been loaded. Greene could see a pile of spent shells covering the floor of the truck bed and the ground beneath the truck.  The gun was titled back, aiming into the sky.  They were shooting from that spot.  What were they shooting at?
Greene pulled his rifle off his shoulder and readied it in his hands.  He looked down the scope as he crept forward, listening to the quiet sandstorm swirling and surrounding the camp, as though he was in the eye of the storm itself. 
He saw movement in the hut through the square, empty window.  Mackey poked his head up, eyes wide with terror.
“Run!” Mackey shouted, standing up and waving Greene over to the hut. “Run, run, run!” 
Greene looked around.  His blood ran cold and he began to run even harder than he’d run in the storm.  He closed his eyes, concentrated on his legs.  He slammed into the wooden door of the hut and Mackey leaned into it, closing it tight. 
Greene collapsed against the wall and slid down, leaning against it, onto his butt, panting and trying to catch his breath.
“What the hell, Mackey!” Greene said between labored breaths. 
“Shutup!” Mackey said, hushing Greene.  He looked out the window, into the sky, rifle in hand.  “There’s something out there,” he whispered.
“What are you talking about?” Greene asked.
“Shutup, God-damnit!”  Mackey whispered violently.  He followed something in the sky with his eyes, watching it overhead.  Greene watched him cower away from the window, back into a corner, and begin to pray with his eyes shut tight.
A rotten, summery roadkill smell wafted into Greene’s nose and made his eyes water.
Greene looked around the tiny stone hut while his breathing found a good, calm rhythm.  It was dark and the air was heavy, filled with dust and that god-awful smell. 
His heart skipped a beat when he saw the dried puddle of blood in the corner.  He pushed himself back up along the wall to his feet and backed into the corner when he saw the other thing. 
A hand, severed, the source of the dried blood and the foul stench of decomposed flesh, sat in the corner, its fingers gnarled and contorted.  Flies buzzed around it, crawling over the torn flesh and stringy pieces of meat around the wrist.  Next to it, an overturned wooden table with a broken lantern beneath it was surrounded by shards of glass.
“Mackey!” Greene screamed, pointing at the hand in the corner.  He hugged the wall, sliding until he ran into Mackey and pulled at his shoulder.
Mackey shoved Greene away and continued to pray.
Greene fell back into the wall of the hut and caught himself before he fell then stared Mackey, pissed.  His anger left the moment he saw Mackey’s eyes.
Mackey stared at the ceiling, his eyes glossed over, tears flowing down his cheeks.  His mouth ran a mile a minute, mumbling to himself while he clutched his gun tight.  His face was drenched with sweat and his undershirt was soaked through. 
Greene inched closer, trying to hear what Mackey was mumbling.  As he approached, he looked at the hand in the corner through his peripheral vision.  He leaned in close to Mackey, staring at his lips.
“It’s not real…it’s not real…it’s not real…it’s not real…” he said, over and over again.  “It was just a toy,” he said to himself.  “It wasn’t alive…it wasn’t alive…”
In a flash, Mackey stopped and perked up, as if someone had called his name.  He looked around the hut, looked beyond Greene like he was the only one in the hut, like he was alone.
“Mackey, what the hell is going on with you?” Greene whispered, raising his hands to ensure Mackey that everything was okay.  “You’re okay.  Everything is okay!”
Finally, Mackey’s eyes rested on Greene.  He nodded his head ‘no’ then licked his dried lips, backing away from Greene.
A thud slammed down onto the roof, shaking the hut, raining dust down onto both Mackey and Greene.
They both looked up as more thuds shook, going from one end of the roof to the other.
“What is that?” Greene whispered, ducking low. 
The thuds stopped above the doorway.
“Those are footsteps,” Mackey said, frozen in place.  He was shaking, uncontrollably, skin pale and cold. 
The wooden door blew inward, shattering into pieces and splinters.  The force behind it flung Greene against the wall and crashing to the cold stone floor.  His eyes blurred for moment and in the daze he saw something reach down through the doorway and yank Mackey out while he screamed.  It was gut-wrenching and guttural, the scream.
Greene launched himself to his feet, his vision still blurry.  Mackey’s scream travelled up, fading as it flew into the sky, up into the swirling sandstorm above the camp. 
Greene stood just outside of the hut, staring up into the storm, looking for Mackey, no longer hearing his scream.
“Mackey!” he shouted into the sky.  “Mackey!” he shouted again.
He waited, watching the shifting sands overhead.
Then he saw it, for just a brief second.  At first, he wasn’t even entirely sure he’d seen anything at all.  He almost laughed, in fact.  He thought he’d just seen…no…it couldn’t have been.  It’s not possible.
Back home, in Ashland, when Greene was just ten and walking home alone from tee ball one afternoon, tossing the ball up into the air and catching it.  He caught it, tossed it, caught it again, and tossed it, all the way up the schoolyard.  He crossed the street and continued, passing Cliff’s Theater a few blocks ahead.  Outside, an usher hung a movie poster and in between tosses, Greene saw the poster.  Werewolves From Space II.  He saw the furry werewolf wearing a space suit, and it scared him down to the bone.  He had nightmares for months after seeing that poster of the werewolf with a jetpack, descending down onto some helpless couple making out in a 50’s style Cadillac. 
He thought he’d just seen that werewolf, wearing the space suit, carrying Mackey’s dead body.  But there was more, something…something behind the werewolf, wearing its skin…and just when he was sure what he’d seen, it changed into something else.  He didn’t stick around to see what.
A chuckle broke from within the sandy mist over Greene.  It was vicious, deep, and powerful, and there was something else about it too.  Later, when he’d get state-side, still unable to talk about what had happened, he’d been able to put his finger on it.  There was hunger in that laugh, an old, never-ending hunger.
Greene retracted into the hut while a tear slipped down his cheek, a tear of sheer awe while the thing’s laughter rattled his bones.  He wondered what Mackey had seen it as, before it took him, before it killed him.  A toy?
He backed into the stony wall, hard.  His head bounced off the cold rock, but he wasn’t phased.  He wasn’t in the here and now.  He was elsewhere.  He was back in Ashland, fishing on the creek.
He sat in the corner of the hut, hugging himself.  Images of the werewolf flashed in his head and a voice pierced his mind.’re next, Greene-boy, a throaty voice said, whispering into Greene’s head.  It laughed again and Greene covered his ears to make it stop.  Remember the nightmares? 
After a few hours, the storm waned and the sands settled.  The sun set and Green stayed, huddled in the corner of the hut.  He wished someone would come, he didn’t want to be alone anymore.
Thanks for reading, and don't forget to follow me on Twitter and like me on FaceBook to stay 'in the know'.  

-Andrew S

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hell Breaks Loose - Episode 9 - "Good Morning, America!"

Mitch’s eyes eased open, pupils focusing in and out.  They were empty, waiting for the light to flicker behind them.  He blinked and suddenly there was life behind them again. 
  The haze in his vision sharpened into a ceiling fan whirling above him.  A tiny gold chain dangled from a baseball sized light bulb at its center, lazily dancing to the twirl above.  The fan blades hummed quietly as they spun round and round while the rest of the room focused.
  The springs of the tiny twin bed underneath Mitch moaned as he sat himself up.  The mattress was firm, not far from cardboard.  His side burned and was a great deal stiffer, his head dizzy, like he’d been sleeping far too long.
  Outside, the sun was setting.  Cool blues washed through the window at the foot of the twin bed.  A cluster of trees swayed lazily just outside the window, glistening with dusk’s light. 
  Mitch tried remembering what happened as he threw off the blanket covering his lower half to find he was in his boxer briefs.  His face flushed, cheeks growing hot with embarrassment and wonder of who had taken off his pants. 
  He remembered being bitten, that chunk being ripped from his side, the other gas pump exploding, and phoebe saying something about a tractor but that was it?  He had no idea where he was.
  Phoebe, I hope you’re okay.  Please, please, please be all right. 
  He slowly brought his legs around, gritting his teeth, sliding to the edge of the bed.     His feet touched the soft blue carpet, wriggling his toes in it, noticing the clouds and rainbow wallpaper lining the walls. 
  I’m in a kid’s room?
  In the corner of the room sat a navy blue dresser perfectly matching the color of the carpet.  Small action figures posed atop in a frozen battle.
  Mitch pushed himself onto his watery legs and fought his off balance equilibrium for a moment.  The tension in his side ached when he put weight on his feet.  The dizziness hit him, hard, and he sat back onto the bed with a firm creak.  He took deep, slow breaths to ease the warmth bubbling at the bottom of his throat. 
  His pants lay in a wadded bunch by his feet, and when the nausea passed, he fumbled his way inside them, one steady leg at a time, using the bed for support, keeping the pain in check.
  He felt hungry and weak, like his blood sugar had crashed, and his stiff hip wasn’t helping.  He did his best to keep it straight, but as he bent to put on his pants, he caught himself grunting as pain pulsed. 
  He lifted up his shirt after his pants were on to check the missing chunk from his side.
Someone had bandaged it, and had done a pretty good job of it too.  A length of gauze was wrapped around his chest, keeping the bandage safe and secure from slipping and movement. 
  Mitch hobbled his way from the kid’s room into a dark hardwood floored hallway, passing an old antique night table with a green stained glass lamp atop, a white lace doily underneath it.  The walls were painted lime green, a harsh contrast to the cherry colored hard wood flooring.   
  The hallway took him by two other bedrooms, each clean and tidy and filled with the ticking of clocks.  They looked unused, guest bedrooms perhaps, but Mitch thought the owner could be a neat freak.
  Mitch rounded a corner and stood at the summit of a descending L-shaped staircase, matching cherry wood banister running the length. 
  At the bottom he could make out the faint, muffled voice of a man, older from the depth of his tone. 
  He got a good grip on the polished banister, still feeling weak at the knees, and took one step at a time.  Halfway down, a savory trace of roasted turkey drifted into his nostrils, instantly growling his stomach, followed by the tangy aroma of garlic and potatoes. 
  Mitch wiped away the drool escaping down the sides of his mouth and shuffled down the rest of the steps. 
  The voice was clearer now, definitely a man’s. 
  Mitch walked through an entryway, passed what he thought was a front door, and into a kitchen with blue linoleum tiles. 
  “Hey, he’s awake!” an elderly man said from a kitchen table.  He wore overalls over a red flannel shirt.  Grey hair lay flat on his head, dark circles under his eyes, face riddled with wrinkles, but his smile was cheerful, youthful.  Beside him, Phoebe tore into a mountain of mashed potatoes. 
  She looked up from her plate and leapt from her chair, running around the kitchen table and into Mitch.
  “Mitch!” she shouted with a laugh.  “I didn’t think you were ever gonna wake up!”
Mitch winced in pain while Phoebe squeezed the air out of him, but he smiled all the same.
  “Neither did I,” the grey haired man said.  “We thought you was in a coma.  Not that I would know one if I saw it,” he chuckled.  “The young’n kept askin bout you everyday, she did.  This old man didn’t know what to tell her.”
  “Everyday?” Mitch asked.  He dipped in his brow and wrinkled his nose, confused.     “How long was I asleep?”
  “Six days,”  The old man said, nodding his head.  “You gave us quite a scare that first night. This little one didn’t leave your side until the day before yesterday.”
Phoebe let go of Mitch and ran back to her chair and grabbed her fork, continuing to shovel mashed potatoes into her mouth.
  “These are so good!” she said, piling a forkful.
  “We was just sittin down to dinner.  Let me…”  The old man rose from his chair and walked around to Mitch.  He pulled out a chair and motioned for Mitch to sit then helped Mitch lower comfortably into it.  “Hope you like turkey and mashed potatoes.”
  “Smells great,” Mitch said, stomach grumbling again. 
  The old man grabbed a plate from a cabinet and silverware from a sliding drawer and scooped Mitch a gracious helping.
  “Must be starved.  I tried waking you up a few times to eat something, boys gotta keep up his strength, but neither hell nor high water could get you up.  Your breathing was so shallow, for an hour or two the other day, we thought you were dead.”
  “I can’t believe I was asleep for six days,” Mitch said, eyeing the plate as the old man set it in front of him.
  “Well, sleep is the hardest thing to catch up on.”  The old man laughed.
Mom said that THAT day, the day I went out.  Immediately Mitch’s thoughts played the encounter between the two of them at the gas station.
  Mitch felt his eyes watering.  A lump formed in the back of his throat.  He picked up the fork and scooped a fluff of mashed potatoes, hoping to shove the lump back down. 
  The old man grunted as he sat back down, opposite Mitch.
  “I’m Lyle by the way.  Lyle Witchett.”
  “He saved us,” Phoebe said, kicking her legs back and forth underneath the table.
  “That’s right, little missie, I did.  Me and Reggie, the farmhand, we was out on the porch enjoying a pipe when I seen this orange explosion down there by the highway exit.  From what I’ve seen, zombies too smart to do something so stupid, or too stupid to do something so smart, either way we took to my combine, Betty I call her, to check it out.  Wham Bam, thank ya Ma’m.  Here you are,” Lyle said.  He cleared his throat and pulled a small wooden pipe from the front pocket of his overalls.  With his other hand, he pulled a pouch of tobacco from another pocket and began to pack it.
  Mitch set down his fork and swallowed a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
  “We both owe you ours lives,” Mitch said, staring into Lyle’s watery eyes. 
  “Don’t get all butt hurt about it, now.  No thanks needed,” Lyle said, lighting and puffing on the pipe.  “We did what we had to.  Not enough of that going around these days.”
  Mitch started eating again.  After a moment of silence, Mitch started talking again.
  “So, you just hang out on the porch?  You’re not afraid of zombies wondering onto your yard, or getting in to the house at night?” Mitch asked.
  “Oh no.  Ain’t been a zombie out here in, oh, two weeks I’d say.  Seen em tearing apart ole Clifton, but they stay pretty close to town.  Ain’t much food for ‘em out here I guess.”
  Mitch sliced free an edible size of turkey from the breast on his plate.
  “Where’s the other guy at?” Mitch asked.
  Phoebe stopped chewing and looked from Mitch to Lyle then back again.  Her eyes and face spoke no emotion.  She set down her fork and stared into her plate.
  Lyle exhaled a plume of cherry scented tobacco.  He furled his chin upward.  A thin film of tears glazed over his dark circled eyes.  He cleared his throat and blinked away the sadness.
  “Reggie…uh,” Lyle cleared his throat again, “he...Reggie didn’t make it.”
Mitch stopped chewing the.  His eyebrows arched and lips turned down.  He looked at Phoebe, who he could tell already knew.  Of course she knew, he thought, she was there.  I was the one who passed out.
  He didn’t feel much for the man who was dead, the one he’d never seen but risked his life to save his.  Mitch’s mind was on his mother, but from the visible battle behind Lyle’s eyes, he could tell Reggie must have meant a great deal to this old man, and that was worth something.
  “I’m sorry,” Mitch said.  “He must have meant a lot to you?”
Lyle smiled, eyes shimmering with fresh tears.
  “Reggie was headstrong, a terrible quality to have nowadays.  But, he was my friend and he cared about people, you know, doing what he could.”
  Lyle wiped his eyes with his pointer finger.
  “There were just so many of them.”
  The group sat in silence, Mitch and Phoebe finishing off their plates.
  Lyle walked over to the kitchen sink, twisted his pipe upside down, and tapped it against the rim, showering the drain with grey ash.  He ran some water to wash it down while the cherry scented smoke drifted through the air.  He turned around, leaning his back against the sink, staring at Mitch.
  “The young’n told me what happened at the gas station before me and Reggie showed up.”
  Mitch stared at his empty plate, watching himself shoot his mother in his mind.
  “That wasn’t her,” Lyle said.  “Your mom is in a better place.  That shell left behind, that’s an abomination.  A crime of nature.  It ain’t right!”
  Mitch slowed the replay in his mind, focusing on his mother’s grotesque smile, the menace behind it.  It wasn’t her, but he had trouble disconnecting the feeling.  His stomach felt empty, even though he’d just eaten his fill.  His cheeks flushed and his eyes started burning with tears.
  “Why is this happening?” Mitch asked.  He folded his arms on the table and laid his forehead down.  His body jerked and spasmed as he blubbered out the frustration and the sadness.
  Phoebe walked over and hugged Mitch from behind.  Mitch lifted his head and leaned it against Phoebe’s then looked at Lyle.
  “Just what the hell is going on?” Mitch asked.
  “Well, I don’t think it’s a virus, otherwise we prolly wouldn’t be having this conversation.  ‘Sides, Reggie’d been bit and scratched before and nothing happened to him.  Near as I can tell, you get back up after you die, cept it ain’t you anymore.  You’re something else, something hungry that enjoys tearin’ apart families and lives, something that just enjoys the kill.  And they’re smart too,” Lyle said, pointing his pipe at Mitch.
  Mitch wiped his eyes dry.
  “They used my mom as bait.  I don’t know what they were doing, testing how many people were in the gas station, what kinda’ weapon I had, I don’t know.  But, they used her while they watched from the ditch.  She drew me out, and then…” Mitch said, letting his thoughts finish his sentence. 
  “They’re something else.  Gives me the willies’ just thinkin’ about it to be honest,” Lyle said, standing up straight.  He shoved the pipe back into his overalls pocket.  “Eat your fill, boy.  There’s plenty more left,” he said, pointing at the oven.  Lyle turned on the sink, grabbed Pheobe’s empty plate from the table, and began scrubbing it with a crusty dish sponge.
  Mitch ate a few more mouthfuls then stopped and set down his fork.
  “Was it just you two out here?” he said, breaking the silence.
  “What’s that?” Lyle said, turning off the faucet.
  “Was it just you and Reggie here?”  Mitch repeated. 
  Lyle wiped his wet hands with a towel then tossed it onto the counter beside the sink.  He took a deep breath.
  “Oh,” Lyle said, thinking back in time.  Mitch could tell Lyle was thinking of the friend he’d lost, could see it in his eyes.  “My wife Jeanie and me, we built this farm some,” Lyle said, squinting his eyes to remember, “oh wow, thirty years ago.  She, ugh, well…”
  Lyle hobbled past Mitch, scooping up his finished plate as he walked by.
  “She passed two winters ago.  She’d been fighting cancer for a couple years.  She was a tough nut, that one,” Lyle laughed.  “There’d be days when she’d have an extra kick in them heels, ya’ know.  She’d get up, go pick some strawberries from the garden and make one mean-ass strawberry pie.  Then there’d be days when she wouldn’t get out of bed at all.  She’d lay there, and sometimes she’d cry.  Jeanie hated me seeing her like that, said she didn’t feel sick ‘less I saw it.”
  Lyle ran faucet water over the dish then set it in the sink.  He leaned over the sink and stayed there for a moment, deep in thought.
  Mitch sat forward, trying to see Lyle’s face.  He wasn’t sure if he was crying or something else entirely. 
  “I didn’t mean to…” Mitch said, feeling awful. 
  Lyle waved his hand.
  “Don’t worry about it kiddo’.  It’s good to think about these things once n’ a while,” Lyle said, turning around.  “Anywho, in the end, the cancer won out.  That’s when I hired on Reggie and his buddy Bill Denningham.  They’d done work for Birdy Farms out of Paxton the summer before.”
  Lyle crossed the kitchen and sat across from Mitch while Phoebe sat on the floor, playing with her stuffed bear, singing quietly to it.
  “Bill left last week with his pickup,” Lyle said, turning to face the pantry beside the fridge.  “We’s been low on food for a while now.  I tried to get to tellin’ him not to go, told him we’d figure something out, but that boy is just as stubborn as Reggie, if not more so.  Anyway, he said he was gonna’ ransack the Walmart near Kankakee for some food stuffs.  That was last Sunday,” Lyle said, looking at the tabletop with an empty stare.  “Haven’t seem ‘em since.”
  Mitch’s stomach dropped.  This man had lost everyone in his life.  Guilt began shoving itself to the front of Mitch’s attention.  That story sounded oddly familiar.  If he hadn’t left, he wouldn’t be here.  His mom would still be alive.  Lyle’s friend would still be alive.  He wouldn’t be alone.
  Lyle broke his stare and looked at Mitch with a smile. 
  “And here you are,” he said, shaking his head in some form of amazement.  “Fate’s funny.”
  Fate’s funny, Mitch repeated in his head.  Ain’t that the truth.
  Lyle rose from his chair and put his hands into the pockets of his overalls.
  “If you don’t mind me bein’ a bit nosy, where was you two headin’ anyway?” Lyle asked, as though he’d been thinking about it for some time. 
  “I don’t really know,” Mitch said, thinking on it himself.  Where were they heading?   Where would they go?  Was anywhere safe?  Them Polacks’ got it right, Brian’s voice whispered, underground bunkers and all
  Mitch folded his arms on the table and rested his chin on the table top. 
  “We were just goin’,” he said.  “Phoebe had to pee.  Then all that happened.”
  “Hmm,” Lyle said, straightening his posture.  “Well, you’re welcome to my home and everything in it as long as you like.  You two seem like good folks,” he laughed.  “All I ask is that you help out with the chores.”
  Lyle walked out of the kitchen and stopped just outside the doorway and looked back.
  “I’m gonna’ turn in,” Lyle said, looking at the digital clock over the stove.  “I know you been sleepin’ for six days ‘n all, got a lot of buildup to burn through, so try not to make too much noise, mmkay?  You’re welcome to whatever’s in the fridge, just be mindful of others, yours isn’t the only mouth we gotta feed.”
  Mitch nodded his head, agreeing.
  “Thanks again,” Mitch added before Lyle smiled and headed up the stairs.
  “G’night, Mitch,” Lyle shouted from upstairs.
  “I’m sleepy too,” Pheobe said, yawning and stretching her hands into the air.  She flopped them to the ground, yawn finished, and scooped up her bear.  She shuffled by Mitch, pecked him on the cheek, then laughed as she ran up the stairs.
Mitch sat, fingers interlaced, folded on the tabletop, staring through the pitch black window. 
  Two weeks since he’d seen a zombie.  Is it possible?  Could it really be that easy?  The countryside?  Living out here wouldn’t be so bad.
  He thought it could work, thought it just might be okay.  Things may be looking up, for the first time in a long time. 
  When he saw a pair of headlights barreling up the road, headed to the house, beaming through the kitchen window, he thought wrong.
Thanks for reading.  Follow me on Twitter and like my page on Facebook to keep up with what I'm doing!

Andrew S.