Saturday, August 24, 2013

For Naught

A couple weeks ago, I posted an excerpt from a short story I was doing for a contest.  Unfortunately, I did not win THIS particular contest, but I still loved this story, and wanted to share it in lieu of this week's episode of What About Now?  This weekend, my last in Illinois, is so packed full of things, I won't have a chance to fully commit to doing an interview with one of my characters.  So, here is something else for you to Enjoy!

(picture credit "Exit Humanity")

For Naught

by Andrew Saxsma

      “Beware, thy brother, for when the world divides North and South, torn by color and creed, the devil shall choose a side.  May heaven have mercy on those poor souls, the ones who fall, and the ones who shall face him.”
      Willy dropped his cloth knapsack from his shoulder, flopping it down beside his bloodstained boots in a puff of dry, arid sand.  He huffed and puffed, chest hitching as he stared into the canyon ahead, lined by steep, golden cliffs towering, shadowing the small outpost just within the canyon’s mouth.  A hot breeze washed through Willy’s matted, greasy hair, kicking up a tuft of swirling desert sand.  He wiped his sweat-soaked face with the back of his hand, sliding the sleeve of his union uniform across his forehead.  He tried swallowing but without spit, his tongue could only click against the roof of his crusted mouth and chapped, sun-scorched lips.
      He stared at the shoddy collection of wooden-paneled homes and shops, shielding his eyes from the flaming sun in the sky, burning the ground around him, streaking waves of heat as far as the eye could manage.
      “The devil chose…” his cracked, waterless voice gasped, whispering to himself.  “He chose…he chose…”
      Willy’s head sunk to the side, mouth hanging like a deerskin in the sun, eyes still staring at the tiny outpost.  His eyes followed the split-post fence, funneling the dirt road into the center of town, to a sign with white painted lettering, ‘Diablo Canyon’. 
      He sneered, bearing his yellowing teeth and festering gums.  He slumped, scooping his knapsack by the strap, flung it over his shoulder, and balanced himself down a steep outcrop of sandy rocks, nearly face-planting into a tall, broad cactus.
      He made his way to the dirt road, cutting down the center of town, passing a rattlesnake that hissed then slithered away faster than you could shove gunpowder down the barrel of a musket.
      Willy eyeballed the hanging ‘Diablo Canyon’ sign as he walked underneath it, watched it creak back and forth in the hot breeze, knapsack bouncing against his back, clinking pots and cookware together.
      He scanned the empty windows of the buildings and homes, walking to the wooden porch of what looked like a general store.  He pressed his face against the front glass window, cupping his hands around his eyes to see inside.  A till sat on a counter, barring a shelf full of bags of grains and rice and horse feed, and bottles of whiskey.
      “Imma’ have me some ‘a that!” he said.
      He smiled then spotted a hand hanging out beyond the counter, on the floor, its owner hidden, soaking in a puddle of fresh blood. 
      Behind him, on the dirt road, he heard rustling.  In a blink, he pulled a Colt from a hidden holster and clicked back the hammer, spinning around on a dime.  He loosened his posture and eased the hammer back into place, staring at a tumbleweed bouncing further into town, flipping end over end.  He smirked, watching it roll along, and he spotted another body, feet poking out of an alley between a saloon and a stable; boots covered by the bottom of a bloodied dress.
      The more he looked around, the more he noticed the bodies, not quite hidden here and there, out just enough for someone to notice.  Limbs and faces around corners, puddles of blood flowing from underneath doors, and toward the town’s center, a pile of dead men, women, and children, stacked a foot or two off the sand and blood mixed ground.  The breeze licked up a cloud of sand, spewing it over the pile and Willy had to look away.
      “Oh, sweet, sweet, Willy,” a rather pleasant voice called from across the road.
      Willy looked, and there, in front of a tiny, one room church, stood a woman.  A bonnet hung over her the brow of her forehead, shadowing her face in darkness.  Dried blood stained the white cotton top of her gown.  Bloody handprints had traced lines around and over her chest.  The skirt of her dress swayed in the breeze, giving glimpses of her boots and bloody footprints they had left as she exited the church.
      “Look what you did,” she said, and Willy could almost hear her smiling.
      Willy, gun hanging at his side, quietly clicked back the hammer of the Colt.
      “Oh,” the woman said then giggled.  “Come on, Willy.  You should’ve learned by now, those don’t scare us.”
      Willy shifted his eyes, looking up and down the street without moving his head.
      “Think you’re gonna’ skedaddle again?  There’s nowhere to go this time, Willy,” she said.  She stepped off the church’s porch, boots crunching into the sand and stood, hands at her side, head hanging low, facing the ground.
      A cloud passed in front the blazing sun, blanketing the town in a brief, cool dimness, revealing dozens of reaching, dead, greedy hands, grabbing out from behind the woman, clawing at the humid air.  The sun edged out from behind the cloud, shaving away the hands, hiding them behind the light once again.
      Willy gritted his teeth, fighting back a tear and a shiver.  He gulped, hard, and tightened his hand around the colt.  Beads of sweat trickled down the back of his neck, fumbling down from his hair, gliding down his back and soaking into his undershirt and britches.
      “Your brothers in arms are waiting for you, Willy,” she said, and he could hear her smiling again.  “They missed ya’ back at Bull Run.  Word is, and I hate to believe rumors but, they’re saying you’re a deserter, that you’re yella’.”  She took a step forward, dress flowing.  “Ya’ know, before they died, your company, they all thought you were tougher than a sheet of iron crackers.  Oh yes, indeedy.  It’s true, Willy.  Now, though, I’m afraid you’d be hard pressed to get so much as a bluff your way.  Why, most of them, they want you to choke on an Arkansas toothpick, which I’m quite inclined to deliver.”
      She raised her head, catching a glint of sunlight across her face.  Her eyes bled, spilling rivers of blood down her cheeks, pupils cloudy, empty.  Her mouth stretched back, tearing the corners of her lips like rain-soaked parchment, ripping into a horrific, grisly smile.  Blood dribbled down her chin, dripping to the front of her gown like a leaky well spout.
      “Beware, thy brother, for when the world divides North and South, torn by color and creed…the devil shall choose a side,” she whispered aloud.  “I’m thinkin’ pappy made the right choice, don’t ya’?”
      Willy’s free hand trembled as he reached slowly into his knapsack, sifting through papers and jerky, feeling blindly for them.  He licked his lips, nervous, and blinked again and again, scared shitless as she took another step forward, smile ripping up into her cheeks now.  She gurgled laughter, the tear spreading clear to her ears, and Willy could see something wriggling inside her skull, something black, something laughing at him.
      Willy sighed, pulling out a pair of heel cast three ringers, made especially for his colt, dipped in iron and quick-cooled in holy water.
      The thing inside the woman shut up real quick and the torn skin-smile fused together in a flashing singe, leaving a lumpy, bloody scar from ear to ear as her lidless, empty eyes stared upon the bullets Willy rolled around in his hand, his other hand still clutching his colt like the reigns of a wild mare. 
      “Ah,” Willy said, “you recognize ‘em, huh?  I dug these out of one of your buddies’ skulls.”
      The woman’s lips peeled back, sliding over her rotten, moldy teeth, a look of disgust on her evil face.  Her right hand rose from her side, wind whipping her dress, fingers dangling like freshly woven yarn except for her pointer finger, aimed right at Willy.  Her lips moved, making no sound, and this made Willy’s eyes water with fright.
      Willy flipped open the chamber of his colt, popped in two bullets, hands shaking, dropping one round in between a pair of floorboards beneath his boots, then whipped it closed again and aimed right between her eyes, tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth.
      She laughed and brushed her hand through the air, swatting at nothing, and Willy felt a wall of air slam into his chest, launching him off his feet, punching him through the window of the general store behind him.  He fired a shot on accident as he covered his face, flying in a cloud of broken glass and splintered wood, right into the till counter.  His head slammed into it, cracking the counter's broadside, and he was sure he was blind for a minute, seeing only hot-white sparkles with a droning high-pitched hum in his ears.
      He rolled over onto his stomach, gun still in hand, glass falling from his greasy, bloody hair.  He groaned, grabbing his tight, throbbing rib as he sat up onto his knees, head pounding.  He screamed out as he stood and turned, looking through the broken window, glass shards dangling from the sill.  A sliver of blood trickled down his forehead, around the grooves his nose, following the curve of his lip to his bruised chin.  He slouched, holding his side.
      The woman took another step forward, laughing like a donkey, amused.
      “Join your brothers, Willy,” she laughed.  “You weren’t supposed to survive.”
      Willy reached into his satchel, pulling out a bottle wrapped in a dirty-stained cloth.  He ran to the window, unwrapping it, and held a bottle of clear liquid out, popping off the cork.  He used his thumb to cover the lip of the bottle and turned it over, sprinkling the water over the edges of the window as the woman began running across the street with a sickening speed.
      He leapt to the door, sliding across on his knees and poured the rest of the bottle over the edges of the door in a straight, complete line.  The woman slammed her hands into the sides of the door frame, catching herself before she could enter, stopping her momentum all at once.  Her dress swooshed between and around her legs, flowing through the doorway and a bright white flame bit at its tips, singeing the fabric.
      She leaned in as close as she could, kneeling in front of Willy who simply looked up into her empty eyes, and she hissed, flinging her tongue around her scarred lips like a dagger.
      “We will get you, Willy, and when we do, oh, how you'll cry,” she whispered, grinning and tilting her head to the side.  Her grin faded when she felt the cold barrel of the colt press against the underside of her chin.
      Willy smiled.
      “We’ll see the devil at Appomattox,” he whispered, pulling the trigger.  The bullet went clean, up through her skull, ripping the bonnet off her head with a pop!  The woman sniffed the air, smelling the coppery, hot smell of gunpowder, shocked.  A black, liquid-like mist slithered through the bullet hole in her throat and bubbled out the top of her blood-splattered crown, dissipating into the air like a fine fog.  Her surprised corpse tipped forward, through the doorway, igniting into a fierce, white flame as it passed the threshold, until only a cloud of ash and a pair of scorched, burn-severed legs were left, bobbing back and forth to a slow stop.
      A gust of wind washed across the dirt road, whipping sand into the air in fierce slashes.  It flowed, snake-like, splitting and spreading over the corpses of the townsfolk like tentacles, wrapping around their arms and necks, flowing underneath their dead, bloated bodies.  They stretched, contorted, screaming to life, some rising to their feet, others crawling through the sand toward the general store, toward Willy.
      Willy watched, chewing on his lip, knowing he was out of bullets, as the dead folk closed in on the store, surrounding it, clawing out for him, wanting him.  He sighed, set the empty bottle of holy water on the till counter, reached underneath, and grabbed a bottle of whiskey and an empty glass.  He popped open the bottle, poured himself a shot and tossed it back with a biting hiss.  He hopped up, sitting on the bar, and topped off the shot glass again.  He raised his glass to the zombies, held at bay by the line of holy water in the doorway and window.  He held the glass raised, worried, for the first time in a long time, watching the water slowly drying up. 
      “We’ll see you at Appomattox,” he said, again, knocking back the whiskey.


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Andrew S.