REVIEW: The Shinigami Series by Julie Hutchings

Running HomeTitles: Running Home and Running Away

Genre: Horror/Romance

Author: Julie Hutchings

Other Works: Featured in the Dark Carnival anthology

Score: I’m awarding five stars to these spellbinding reads.

Full Disclosure: I was sent PDF copies of both books for review (However, I then went on to buy them, so that should tell you somethin’.) I am long-time friends with the author, although this in no way diminishes the integrity of my review. She’d kick my ass if I tried to blow smoke up hers.


Death hovers around Ellie Morgan like the friend nobody wants. She doesn’t belong in snow-swept Ossipee, New Hampshire, at a black tie party––but that is where she is, and where he is: Nicholas French, the man who mystifies her with a feeling of home she’s been missing, and the impossible knowledge of her troubled soul.

Nicholas followed an abomination that is one of his own, but finds that fate has driven him to New Hampshire. He is a being of the Shinigami, a heroic vampire order that save their victims from more tragic ends. And he knows why Ellie is human repellent… why physical agony grips them when apart.

Conceptualising this series is difficult. Think ‘Enter the Dragon’ meets ’30 Days of Night’, mix in a little of your grandma’s home baking and a side of black depression and that should just about cover it—⸺although that doesn’t even touch upon the bloody sexuality which lingers, unapologetic, between lines of brownie-scented bookshop prose.

The Shinigami Series is an exploration into vampire territory yet uncharted, which seems an impossible task in itself, given the sheer volume of vampire literature available these days. However, Hutchings pulls it off with aplomb. Urban scenery and/or small woodland towns are the usual backdrop to any vampire romance worth its salt, and though Hutchings subscribes to this mantra in the first novel, Running Home, her second deviates from the archetype in a way that forces the reader out of their usual vampire-genre comfort zone. In place of sprawling city-scapes and fairytale woods, we’re given mountainous Japanese beauty. In fact, the change of scenery is almost cathartic to the reader following the shock-ending Hutchings serves at the end of Running Home. As a result, the introduction of the fiery Kieran—⸺an Irish rogue of a vampire with a tongue-in-cheek attitude—⸺which accompanies this scenery change becomes a metaphor for the confusion felt by both protagonist and reader.

‘Confusion’ is a buzzword, here—⸺sexual tension does not accurately summarise these books. Sexual confusion is better, and a whole lot more accurate. It’s non-typical in that the romance isn’t in-your-face; even two books in, you’re still not quite sure what the relationship between Ellie and Nicholas really is. Rather than being irritating in its murkiness, it instead prevents the book from being written off as your average gal-meets-ghoul romance. The uncertainty lends itself to a rawness beneath the surface which resists any kind of typification, and with it, any chance of reader boredom. It’s refreshing—⸺if dark, brooding and blood-soaked cleanses your palate—⸺to see a romance not constrained by the usual tropes. And if the darkness gets too much, snow-topped Japanese scenery soothes the mind.

If the snowy backdrop is the yin, the introduction of a shadowy presence no doubt set to loom large over Ellie’s life is the yang in Running Away. The second book sees further development of our protagonist’s identity and sexuality as she seeks to define herself in an alien landscape. Only one of the many factors muddying the waters between Eliza and Nicholas, and opening the cracks for other potential suitors to slip through. Is their attraction natural, or a structurally-engineered tool of fate, designed to ensure they fulfil their prophetic destiny? In Nicholas and Kieran we see a juxtaposition of fire and ice which has the potential to burn Ellie right up, unless her shadow intervenes.

Ultimately, these novels prevent a fresh take on the vampire genre, and one definitely worth exploring. Warning: Although not a horror in the strictest sense, these novels do subscribe to some of the tenets of the genre; expect blood, death and darkness. If you like your plots cut-and-dried, perhaps these books aren’t for you. However if, like me, you like a little interpretation and introspection with your novels, definitely check them out.


Buy Running Home: United Kingdom / USA

Buy Running AwayUnited Kingdom / USA

Want to read more about these books? Cassandra Page previously interviewed the author and I talked to the characters. Or, check out her blog over on deadlyeverafter.com.

#13. Jerusalem’s Peak by Chynna-Blue Scott

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Today’s Soundtrack – Death Valley by Fall Out Boy (I’ve linked that because I DEMAND YOU LISTEN TO THIS SONG.)

So today it’s my turn to be crucified – I mean, it’s my turn to post. I’m obviously not going to sit and talk myself up because, please, you already know I’m about as cool as a baked potato. Also, I literally just realised that my story is number 13, and I’m a little overexcited about that.

I will tell you what I’m scared of, which is pretty much everything. Pitch darkness (I like the nighttime…as long as I have a lamp), heights, spiders, small spaces, tendons (or more specifically, of someone cutting my tendons. Don’t ask why), bugs in my food, wasps, ghosts (I can’t sit down at night unless I have my back to a wall/am in a room full of people), being awake but paralysed during surgery, that when we die we’ll just remain trapped in our bodies, or worse, float in a black void of nothingness, the world ending (I make contingency plans in my head, one of which is featured in this story.) I could go on, but I won’t. I like to think being so nervy only contributes to my imagination, making me a better writer…. (right?)


Jerusalem’s Peak

by Chynna-Blue Scott

Michael.

They’d been at the bottom of the wall for days now, scurrying like beetles. Like rats.

I had three good reasons for standing at the lip of our doom. One – today marked the 716th day since the creation of Jerusalem’s Peak (or Trash Mountain, or Mordor, or whatever the fuck you wanted to call it.) 716 days since a small slice of humanity had stopped running around like pigs in the slaughterhouse and decided to Take Some Definitive Action. And so we took the remains of a town, beat the shit out of everything until it all fell down, and built ourselves a town sixty feet higher than the last one and with a damn sight less structural integrity.

I still had one of the old signs over my door for the sake of nostalgia, nostalgia for a town I only came across when it was no more than a bareboned corpse. Blue’s Diner, it read. I never spared a thought for who Blue had been as I nailed it over my doorway, or how they’d bit the dust. It took a while to lose that every man for ‘emselves outlook. But Jerusalem’s Peak sure as shit tried to knock that out of you. I don’t know who went and elected the religious folks in charge, but suddenly there’s a Church on Trash Mountain and no one to say nothing against it. And there’s my second reason for standing on the lip – it’s Sunday morning, though screw me sideways if I know how anyone’s keeping track of days in these times, and there ain’t no way I’m sitting through a service. I prefer to pay my religious respects overlooking the Lord’s own handiwork. I spat on one of the dumbass zoms scrabbling in the dirt below.

Is this your swan song, God? Your homage to the Black Death? A final plague to punish us all for our naughty, small-town deeds? Didn’t give to the collection plate, that’s an arm loss for you, Mrs Jones. But turning your own creations into vessels of the apocalypse, well, that takes guts. I guess the priests weren’t lying after all. My Lord is an Avenging Lord, and all that. The only prayer I needed was the one I’d thought every day since the black choppers stopped flying over: better here than pushin’ up daisies in Whitehill Frontier.

“Michael?”

I turned. Callie, her dark hair stuck through with a pencil she’d found God knows where and her waistband stuck through with her gun, was appraising me, her lips set in a hard line. They’d been set in that same hard line the day I found her, surrounded by ten gallons of blood and green shit that took that ‘frog in a blender’ joke to a whole new level. I never asked her what happened down in Montana, and she never told. My third reason for standing on the lip – avoiding Callie.

I shoved my hands down in my pockets, rocking back on my heels. The sun seemed to revolve in the air, sending out shimmering ripples that distorted the horizon. “Why, do I look like someone else?”

She raised an eyebrow, shades of the twelve year old she’d been when this shit started. She was sixteen now, but the ghosts behind her eyes and the sureness of her aim painted her older. Too old for my liking. There was a hell of a lot more men than women on the Peak, and I had a feeling I’d be breaking a few heads before the year was out. Callie could grow up all she wanted, but in my mind she was still the little girl too stubborn to admit she was scared but who held my hand anyway.

“Don’t be a dick. Janie was asking after you.” Callie strode over to the lip, echoing my earlier action and spitting on the zoms below. I held back a grin.

Now, if only there were a shortage of Janie’s. “Was she now? Sorry I missed her.” The back of my neck was itching; I rubbed at it irritably.

Callie grinned at my obvious distaste, her eyes dancing. “Slim pickings on the Peak, Michael. You have the sorry task of being the best of a bad bunch.”

I grunted. “If that girl knows what’s good for her, she’ll stay away from me.” Janie Prescott, barely twenty one years old and with more conquests than brains. It’s no riddle why she was after me. Girl like that wants one thing in times like these, and that’s protection. She looked at me and saw the epitome of a hunter, nothing more, and somewhere her female hormones started squealing and bumping into each other. She homemaker, me hunter gatherer, or some shit. I touched the ring I still wore on my left hand. Yeah, she’d better keep her distance.

***

Callie.

Michael had gone back to staring over the lip, and I knew I wouldn’t get a word out of him after that.

“I’ll see you back at home,” I called over my shoulder. He only grunted, squinting off into the distance, searching for God only knew what.

I could kind of see what Janie saw in him – sandy blonde hair, stubble, leather jacket and a gun belt. Still, he was Michael. He could probably be her father, allowing for a teenage pregnancy. I shuddered at the thought.

He’d burst into The Lodge like an avenging angel, axe in one hand and a pistol in the other, taken one look at me and spoke the first word I ever heard him utter. “Fuck.”

For a while there had just been us, until we happened across others and the idea for Jerusalem’s Peak was born. The break from nomadic living was welcome. The close quarters after so long living on the road were not.

The paths that wound through our little shanty town were mostly dirt and crushed rock, but they were uneven and sloped like crazy at times, meaning everyone walked around watching their feet. Just a few weeks ago the supply run had hit on Russian Vodka and one guy had gotten so drunk he slid right over the lip and down to the zoms below. I’ve never seen blood fountain so high in the air – Eric Pindle swore it topped ten feet.

I took a detour on the way back, knowing it would take me past Kenny’s, my heart already thudding unevenly as I laced my way through the slim backstreets. There was one sick advantage to seeing Kenny – as an orphan, he always had a free house.

I didn’t bother knocking, gently pushing the door open and half-whispering, half-calling, “Kenny?”

Arms encircled me from behind, a hand clamping over my mouth as I sucked in air to scream.

“Boo!”

“You fucker!” I fought my way free, glaring at him. He was laughing, blue eyes shining like I was the funniest thing he’d seen in weeks. Hey, no TV – maybe I was.

“Hey, now, what would Michael think if he heard you use a word like that?” Kenny smiled crookedly, pulling me back against him. The sizzle-pop smell of meat hung in the air and my stomach growled, making him chuckle as he nuzzled my neck. My own skin began to sizzle with tiny electrical pulses and I sighed, letting my head loll back.

“He’d probably be proud of me. If I were you,” I pushed a finger into his chest, “I’d be more worried about what Michael would think if he knew I was here with you. You know how overprotective he is.” I was a little breathless, a fact intensified by Kenny’s thumbs rubbing slow circles against my back. I pushed a hand through his dirty blonde curls, meaning only to feel them, pull them through my fingers, but then I was pulling his head down to mine, and for a moment we kissed, for a moment I could forget the blood and twitching body parts and death and feel life instead, in the fast beating of my heart and his breath on my lips and his hands pulling me closer, squeezing my hips…I pulled away, lips throbbing in that sweetly uncomfortable way, like fresh blood behind a new bruise. Kenny’s own lips were parted as he pressed his forehead against mine.

“There was a new priest in Church today,” he said casually, twisting a strand of my hair around his finger.

“Oh?” This was actually bigger news than it seemed – we didn’t get many new people on the Peak. Sometimes you’d get travellers who’d seen the high structure in the distance and come in for a closer look, but the zoms who hung out round the bottom of our trash mountain usually got them.

“Yeah,” he was nuzzling my ear, making it hard to think, “his name was Carver, or something like that. Carter.”

“Well, did Carver-Carter have anything interesting to say?”

He rolled his eyes at me. “What do you think?

“Why do you bother going if you don’t take it seriously?” I raised my eyebrows at him, only half curious. We all did things for the same reason nowadays – because the living did, and the dead don’t. We go to Church because we can. Because we’re alive to do it. Because there’s nothing fucking else to do except take your chances with the zoms at the bottom of Trash Mountain.  

He shrugged, echoing my thoughts. “What else is there to do?”

I grinned and slipped a finger under his waistband, deciding to take things in a lighter, more interesting direction. A ‘forget everything except me, baby’, direction. “I’m sure I could think of a few things…”

***

Janie.

For the millionth fucking time I sat at my shitty little table on my shitty little chair and stared out of the window. I mean, seriously, would it have killed someone to figure out how to get a satellite dish working? I couldn’t even remember how long it’d been since the last time I’d seen America’s Next Top Model. Too fucking long.

Kenny Chambers had tried to explain it to me. ‘They’re not broadcasting anymore, Janie. There’s nothing to see.’ Ugh. I flicked a bottle top I’d pulled off of a wall outside around on the table, trying to spin it like a top the way my daddy used to.

I couldn’t even lie to myself about the real reason I was so pissed off. Without TV, there was nothing to distract me from the inside of my own head. And my own head, despite its crappy effort in school, wouldn’t stop doing the same sum over and over again.

Two weeks late. I was two weeks late. The world ended but my cycle didn’t, and now I was two weeks late in the middle of a goddamn apocalypse.

I knew whose it was  – Ricky the Prick had his lucky night the day Eric Pindle and the boys struck liquid gold in the form of vodka. Ricky was dumber than a blunt tack and just as useful. I also knew whose it had to be if me and the little bodysnatcher had a chance of surviving. There was only one man worth his shit in Jerusalem’s Peak, and that was Michael Scott.

I smiled to myself, spinning the bottle top between my fingers. If there was one thing I was good at, it was leading men by the nose and straight into the bedroom – or whatever passed for a bedroom nowadays. Real beds were a shortage up on the Peak – the only big pieces of wood the boys would carry up were for building – and I’d settled for an upside down horse trough before now. He’d been avoiding me, and we both knew why that was. If I got him up close and all alone, he wouldn’t be able to resist even if he wanted to, despite that life raft of a wedding ring he still wore. Well, I didn’t see a wife anywhere. All it’d take was one night, and Michael would do the honourable thing. Jesus, all it’d taken was for him to run into Callie all alone and he’d as good as adopted her. His own child? Please. We’d be married before the day was out.

I was betting on it.

***

Michael.

I was sitting in what passed for a boozer on the Peak – a shack just as shitty as the rest of them, if not a little bigger, that served whatever Pindle’s boys had managed to scrape up – when I first saw him. Of course I spotted him straight away, even through the fug of cigarette smoke that revolved around the bar like the last wheezing breath of a dying smoke machine. If I hadn’t have noticed the suit, I’d’ve noticed the face. A stranger.

The chair squealed loudly against the floor as I stood and made my way over with slow, measured steps. The man broke off mid-conversation – he’d been chatting with Kenny Chambers’s cousin Albert, if I wasn’t mistaken – and looked at me with a strange gleam in his eyes, his head tilted back slightly as if to take me in all at once.

“Hi there.” I held out my chip hand, the standard greeting since handshakes became less a formality and more a means of checking the person you just met wouldn’t zom out without warning. He seemed to hesitate for a second, so briefly I almost didn’t notice, and when he held out his hand I saw why. The dot on his wrist glowed bright red, like the worst fucking skeeter bite you ever saw.

I’d yanked him to me and shoved my pistol under his chin before he could blink. His face was expressionless, though there was a small, steady tick under his jaw that said he was grinding his teeth.

“Whoa, chill the fuck out, Michael,” Albert tugged on my arm, eyes wide. “Carter’s cool.”

I curled my lip at him. “Did you even bother to check his chip before you let him saunter on up here, or are all of you dolts jonesing to be zombie bait?”

“You can’t exactly ‘saunter’ up the Peak…” One of Albert’s dumbass friends piped up. I silenced him with a look.

Albert was shaking his head at me. “Does he look like a zom to you, Michael? ‘Cause he definitely doesn’t to me.”

“The kid is right, Michael,” Carter drawled. He wasn’t even breathless. He sounded almost bored, as though he were discussing chess over tea, not hanging by his throat in the middle of a makeshift refugee camp. “Do I look like a zom to you?”

I jabbed the pistol against his jaw and he looked away, grimacing. “I’d show a little more respect if I were you, seeing as I’m the one with a finger on the big red button of your life right now. I’ve got a hand around your wrist, Mr. Carter, and I ain’t feeling no fucking pulse. Want to explain to me how that could be?

“You may not look like a zom,” I fixed him with a cold stare, leaning in until my nose was centimetres from his, “But you sure feel like one.” I drew out the words, wanting to make him sweat, but he just smiled, a sickly grin that showed too many teeth.

“If you’d just let go of me, I’m sure we could get this all smoothed out,” his voice was calm, as though he were talking to a child who’d grabbed a pair of scissors and started jabbing them at people, not a forty year old man with firepower and a healthy fear of red chips. My eyes slid to my wedding band and I blinked, hard.

“Uh huh, sure. And why don’t I just lay down right here while you take a bite out of me.”

I heard the bar door swing open, followed a second later by a small gasp. “Oh!”

My teeth snapped together. Janie fucking Prescott.

Carter was watching me, his eyes narrow, scrutinising my face. He glanced over my shoulder at Janie and I shook him roughly. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now.”

Janie gasped again, but it was muffled, as though stifled behind her hand. I felt the itch on the back of my neck start up again.

“You can see for yourself I’m no zom. I’m lucid – we’re having a semi-intelligent conversation right now – and I haven’t tried to take a bite out of anyone since I got here this morning. I also haven’t dropped down in a dead faint. You heard of the living dead, Michael? Well, you’re looking at him.” Carter hadn’t stopped smiling as he gave his little speech, but now his smile dropped away, leaving his face a cold, slack mask, like something out of a waxworks. “Kill me? Well, that’d practically be murder.”

The temperature in the room seemed to plummet a few degrees as we stared at one another. In the back corner, Eric Pindle cleared his throat loudly. “Maybe you should let go of him, Michael. The guy’s a priest, for chrissakes.”

I swung my gaze to him. “Or so he says. You honestly believe this son-of-a-bitch is safe to be around us – around our families?” My thoughts went to Callie. I didn’t want this slimy motherfucker anywhere near her. Carter smiled wetly, as though he could hear what I was thinking. No one answered, and I let go of him in disgust, shoving him back so he almost skidded to the ground, managing to right himself at the last second.

I couldn’t stay in the bar a second longer. My skin was crawling like a swarm of beetles were running over it, and I knew it was from touching whatever that thing Mr. Carter was. He wasn’t human, and he wasn’t in Jerusalem’s Peak for any good reason. You could count on that.

There was a sour taste in my mouth as I looked around the bar, taking in one dumbass patron after another. Eric Pindle and his brother Micky nursing dirty glasses of stale beer, Louise and Lauren Keller dolled up with melted, waxy make-up as they tried to catch the eyes of the Pindle brothers, Albert Chambers picking right back up in his conversation with a deadman, Janie Prescott batting her glassy eyes at me – all slack-jawed and slow witted, too stupid to feel the blackness rolling off the thing in their midst. To hell with them all. I shoved out of the bar and into the cold air beyond, sucking in breaths as I stalked my way toward the lip, jamming my balled up fists in my pockets. It would be just too fucking bad if that thing zommed out and killed them all. Too fucking bad.

Just needed to get calm, and then I’d go home to Callie. It wasn’t safe for her to be alone, though she’d probably be with Kenny Chambers, a thing I knew she thought I didn’t know about. The girl underestimated me sometimes.

I stopped right at the very edge of the lip, toying with the pretend idea that I might just walk the hell off the edge. Some of the zoms were braver tonight – instead of scrabbling around the bottom, it looked like a few of them were actually trying to climb. I frowned. I’d have to make sure Pindle furthered the range of their next scavenging mission. We might need a few rifles if we were going to be picking off zoms from on the side of the mount.

“Michael?”

So, so similar to the way I’d been called for this morning, and so not the fucking person I wanted to hear from.

“Go away, Janie.”

She huffed, but then, seeming to collect herself, slipped slowly closer, hands behind her back as though a student approaching a teacher. I stiffened as she sidled up to me, her arm just brushing mine. The moon was like a penny on a string, almost sagging in the sky, dragging the backdrop down with it until the blue folded into black.

“Why do you pretend like that, Michael?” Her voice was carefully honed to be sugar on top of cream on top of sugar, and it seared my ears with its sickly sweetness.

I didn’t look at her, focusing on the shapes of other far off, abandoned towns in the distance, like cardboard cut-outs on long-lonely movie sets. I almost thought I could see the silhouettes of people, but no doubt they were zoms, the seemingly human-like gait a trick of the light. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”

She moved closer, and I could feel the outline of her breast pressing against my arm. “I think you do. I think you got some crazy idea that you and I would be wrong, Michael, like you’d be betraying your wife or something.” She bit her lip, making the pink flush a darker, cherry red. “But it’d only be one night. Wouldn’t she want you to be happy, just for one little night?” She caught my hand in hers, tracing my wedding band. I seized her wrist in my other hand and she gasped, eyelids lowering.

“If you know what’s good for you, you won’t mention my wife again.” My voice was razor sharp, but she only smiled lazily when I released her hand, lifting it to pop the first two buttons on her shirt. Deftly she flicked the edge of the cotton so that the two sides fell apart, revealing the curves of her breasts. She gazed down at herself as she traced along the smooth curves with her finger, and when she looked back at me her gaze was heated, hungry – but with a hint of something else she was trying too hard to hide. What was that – desperation?

She slid her arms about my neck, pressing her chest against mine so that her breasts swelled. “Just give in, Michael. It’ll be good, I’ll make it good for you, baby…” Her breath was too warm against my cheek, her arms too smooth on my neck, body too hot and ready against mine, like a ten dollar slut trained to get hot on command. I looked away, disgusted, and shoved her back, and for a moment the entire world teetered on the brink as Janie’s eyes widened, her arms wheeling frantically as she fought for grip that wasn’t there, her cherry lips opening in a soundless scream that was more terrible than any sound she could’ve made as she tumbled down over the lip, pale as the moon that watched her fall.

I stared, slack-mouthed, seeing nothing. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t bring myself to lean and see what I knew was happening even as I stuck my head in the safety of Trash Mountain and refused to hear the deafening snaps drifting up from below, the snuffling and gleeful grunts, cutting me like axe blows.

“My, my, Michael,” the snake-like drawl slithered across my skin. “That poor, poor girl.”

My muscles locked. That fucker had followed me. “I didn’t…I couldn’t…” I couldn’t force words past the revulsion, both at what I’d done and at the thing now standing before me with his hands clasped behind his back. Carter leaned to take a look over the edge, his face twisting in distaste. The wet, tearing sounds had started and my stomach roiled. I clamped a hand to my mouth, swallowing back bile.

“But you did.” He grinned, and for a moment his eyes seemed black. “I could always use one like you, Michael. Mule-headed, stubborn as a horse, but strong. A grunt worker.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” My mouth was suddenly dry, palms prickling with sweat.

He only smiled again. “I wonder how poor little Callie will go on without you?”

I snarled, lunging for him, catching him by the throat. “You stay the goddamn fuck away from her, or so help me God…”

Carter’s expression was serious again as he leaned to whisper in my ear. “God isn’t here anymore, Mr. Scott. This is my world now.” As he leaned away, the moon caught his eyes in a way that made them glow red as the chip in his arm. “Eric! Albert! You need to fucking come see this! I think Michael’s gone crazy!”


If you liked this, make sure to check back in next Sunday for the next link in our grizzly chain, by the ace Jani Grey! Also, one of our amazing writers, Julie Hutchings, has just been published! ‘Running Home’ is  now available on Amazon. Believe me – you want it. Click here to check out that awesome.

#.12 One Girl. One Shot. by Kristen Jett…

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I’M BACK, BABY.

Today’s Soundtrack – Monsters by Hurricane Bells

Hey, babies! I have returned from sunny Morocco, and I come bearing gifts – the twelfth Zombie Project story by the fantastical Kristen Jett! Kristen was actually the first person I spoke to on Twitter, and she’s remained one of my Twitter friends for all of this time. She’s an ace person and an ace writer, and when the Zombie Project was no more than an undead seed I knew she had to be a part of it. She knows things about almost EVERYTHING. If you’re not following her on Twitter, then you have a problem.

Kristen is also co-founder of Pen and Muse, which you should definitely check out if you’re a fellow writer (which, let’s face it, most of you probably are.)


One Girl. One Shot.

by Kristen Jett

Shopping is the best thing about the zombie apocalypse.

It’s a bitch thing to say, but it’s true. If a girl has to be running around lopping off zombie heads like she’s some bad ass movie star, she might as well look good. Lucie Theroux, zombie slayer. Call me Luc. Everyone does.

That practical-yet-chic leather bomber I eyed last season? Perfect to protect me from rogue bites, and pairs well with my current ensemble. And since I was the only living person in Barneys, it was mine. All mine. Not that you can spend all day trying on brand name clothes…which was why I’m in the hunting goods store. I grab another box of rounds from the shelf, tucking as much ammo as I can carry without slowing me down into my bags. A machete swings at my hip, while a dagger hilt protrudes from my pink cowboy boots. Always be prepared. Once a girl scout, always a girl scout.

I should have been more prepared. My own father created this. Caused this. The apartment was practically a bunker, but he couldn’t even explain why. I wonder if Mom is still sitting there, locked away, certain he was going to come back to save the day. Hoards filled the streets, slowly making their way up our posh penthouse buildings, and still she sat waiting patiently.

Screw that.

A noise from the back of the store startles me, and instantly Berta, my pistol, is in my hand. The shotgun does more damage, but is a real bitch to get to quickly. Besides, shotgun ammo is heavy to lug around, even when I do wear that ugly bandoleer under my jacket.

“Don’t shoot!” A deep voice calls out from a corner I thought I’d cleared. This one little mistake could have gotten me killed. Most of the zoms are slow, but a fast one could have taken me out when I’d had my back turned. People are worse. They’ll feed you to a hoard if they think it’ll save their ass. Which it might. Except then they have to live with themselves. And the men? Well, let’s just say it’s been awhile since most of them have seen a girl who breathes. Not reassuring. I keep my gun trained on the corner, ready to blow his head off in an instant.

“Who are you?” My voice doesn’t even tremble. No one at my school would have believed it. Little blonde girly Lucie became Luc, the tough fighter who curses like a sailor. All it took was for the world to go to hell.

A figure steps out of the shadows slowly, carefully. His face slides into the dim light of the room. Seriously? Another hunk? Does it have to be another hunk? Hey Universe, haven’t I had enough to worry about what with the whole zombie apocalypse, and the boy, and having to leave him behind?

“Mason. Mason Hutchings. Who the hell are you?” I see him eying Berta as he talks. I push my jacket to the side to show off the fluorescent grips of the Glock tucked into my waistband. No need for him to get any funny ideas.

“Luc.”

“Like a boy?”

I roll my eyes. “You catch on fast, darling. Pronounced like the boy. You clear?”

He waves a wrist in front of me, and I catch a glimpse of green. Implanted. Makes my life easier. I try to notice anything else about him, like the just tousled enough to be sexy hair. If this was a movie, we’d be falling in love faster than you could say zombie apocalypse. But this isn’t a fucking movie, and the only thing moving fast around here is my killing arm.

“You.”

My wrist raises in the air. “No implant. I’m clean.” I eye him carefully. “In more ways than one. You know there is water in this town that’s not tainted, right?” Is there ever an excuse not to shower?

In a normal conversation, I’d ask where he was from, who he was, what his interests were.  This isn’t a normal conversation. None of us have any of that anymore. We’re just beating hearts trying to survive – not to be confused with the undead hearts trying to survive.

“How do you-” His question cuts off at my sharp stare. There’s no time for any of that.

Instead I toss him a bottle of water. He misses. Catch like a man, why can’t you? I flinch before it happens, knowing exactly what is going to happen.  There’s nothing worse than watching a big effing mistake happen and knowing you can’t do anything about it. It’s almost slow motion. The bottle flies past his head, knocking over metal (and empty) thermoses destroying the store in one noisy round of dominoes.

“Grab the fucking water and let’s go.” I can see the hesitation in his step. “NOW. Haven’t you ever watched a horror movie before? Noise attracts them.”

He doesn’t look as if he believes me, but something flashes in his eyes, and his feet start moving. Mine do too – in the opposite direction. I hadn’t seen a gun on Pretty Boy, and I certainly wasn’t going to give him one of mine. I may have morals, but you’re not separating me from any of my weapons. My mind’s racing – what would be best? “Can you shoot?” I yell across the store, not caring about the consequences. We’ve got maybe two minutes tops to get out of here, and my ass is going to be out that door regardless.

“Um….I’m a little rusty.”

Of course he is. Fucking pretty boys. Next time someone creeps out of the shadows, it better be a man who knows the difference between a .38 Special and .357 Magnum. I shake my head, grabbing a shotgun for him – better chance of getting a hit with a shotgun round than a rifle. My elbow smashes a glass case to grab the Walther. Easy enough to shoot, even easier to find ammo for.

“I only need one.” He’s climbing across the debris to reach me. The only answer he receives is a grueling look from me. To his eyes, I must look paranoid. Berta. The Glock. The pink shotgun. One machete. One dagger.  And he didn’t even know about the Lady Derringers I had tucked into my clothing. Because sometimes one shot’s all you need.

“I have an axe,” he continues. My second mistake of the day? Turning to see why his voice falters as he says that. The proof of my mistake groaned in through the door while my back was turned…with a few of his undead friends, and an undead man in a suit that I’ve been spending months trying to avoid. Since the boy. And we are not talking about what happened then. Or to the boy.

Ever been in an army surplus or a hunting goods store? Typically the owners are serious about protection. Which means there’s usually only one fucking exit. Which means we’re trapped.

It takes 2.7 seconds for me to grab the shotgun on my back and cock it. I timed it once. It looks damn impressive too. Not that the zombies care. My old faithful is in my hands, reassuring me. I’d shot my first zombie with this gun, and if I was going out, I’d take out my last with it. “Get the fuck over here, Mason.”

For once he obeys, and even realizes he’s the sub in this relationship and stands behind me. We back ourselves into a corner, where at least we know nothing can grab us from behind. “You know how to hold your own.” His breath is in my ear.

Of course I did. How the hell did he think I’d made it this far? “My dad taught me.” Couldn’t this boy see I didn’t want to talk? Especially not about that.

“It’s kinda hot.”

Seriously? Seriously? That is what you choose to think about in the middle of a life and death situation? Men.

Boom. One zombie out. “Mr. Carter. You figure out how to control them now?”

Mr. Carter smiles at me. That cruel unbreathing smile. “You look healthy, Lucie. I’m sure your daddy would be happy to hear that.”

That son of a bitch is going to talk about my daddy? I take out the zom to the left of him as my only answer. Mason’s eyes are narrowed. “I’ve seen this guy. Where I came from.” There’s an awful hiss of a pause before he spits out the words, “I think he got my parents killed.”

Well, what do you know? Pretty Boy is smarter than he looks. I don’t have time to be his comfort blanket. “Take out the zoms first. Son of a bitch can control them.”

Know what’s sexier than a man with a gun? A man with a gun who only needs one shot to kill the walking dead. There’s more to this one than what meets the eye.

We take down the next seven in unison, while I mentally try to count rounds. Five guns, but no time to reload.

“Can you fight all day little Lucie? What about the boy…Mason? Doesn’t he want to join his family?” Mr Carter grins, a healthy glow to his cheeks.

The bastard’s playing with us.  The Glock raises to the ceiling, taking out the last lights that still manage to shine. If we’re going to play his games, we need to even the odds.

Now what? We’re backed into a corner, with a dead man who can control zombies in front of us. The room is clean of zoms, but who’s to say he can’t call more in? This situation can’t get any worse.

Until it does.

Even in the dark, I can see the glint of the gun as Mr. Carter points it at me. “Sorry, darling Lucie. I know this is hard to take in. How someone who’s known you all your life could want you dead. But it’s for the country, darling. One girl and one shot…doesn’t mean all that much when you think of the greater good. Your boyfriend here will just be a bonus…much like the last one was.”

Have I mentioned that I hate dead men? Because I fucking hate dead men.

“Shotgun down, Lucie. Slowly.” Mr. Carter’s voice is flat. “That pretty little Glock next. I believe Berta is empty now, so you can keep that.”  Guess I wasn’t the only one counting rounds.

My elbow nudges Mason, urging him to do something.

“I’m out of ammo.” His voice is a whisper in my ear.

“Cleavage.” I hiss the word with annoyance. Of course it would come to this. I slowly put my Old Faithful down, pushing my body further back into Mason to make this easier.

“What?”

“Gun in my cleavage. One shot.”

Sometimes all you get out of life is one shot. Mason’s hand reaches around me in the dark, sliding into my shirt, grazing maybe a little more than he should before settling on the gun. Three seconds to raise it, two seconds to steady his hand, one to pull the trigger.

One shot. Ready. Set. Aim.


If you loved this, make sure to check back in next Sunday for the next link in our grizzly chain, by ME! (Yikes!) Also, one of our amazing writers, Julie Hutchings, has just been published! ‘Running Home’ is  now available on Amazon. Believe me – you want it. Click here to check out that awesome.

#9. The Light by Jolene Haley…

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Today’s Soundtrack – Miss Missing You by Fall Out Boy

Jolene Haley is one of the nicest people I’ve met during my time on Twitter. She truly is. Finding someone who doesn’t like her would be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. And her story is killer – following directly on from its predecessor, #8. Thinking Big by Julie Hutchings. Jolene will light up your Twitter feed – so follow her. If you want to see more, check out her website, which is coming soon. She likes gritty stories, strong female protagonists and things that go bump in the night.

Less of the preamble; on with the show!


The Light

by Jolene Haley

Goodbye Haley.

I never actually thought I’d make it out of the small, crappy little town of Haley. Most residents were born here, raised here, and died here. Haley was the kind of town where kids have one dream: get out of town and actually make something of themselves.

Dreams.

Dreams were, of course, before the outbreak. Dreams were before things were hopeless. Before I had a glowing chip unwillingly implanted into my wrist to sell me out the second I was infected. Dreams were before the citizens of Haley started to drop like flies.

The warm night weighed on my shoulders and the stars glittered in the sky, like always. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that nothing had changed. But the stars lied. Nothing ever remains the same.

I stood alone in the dark, feet planted firmly in the dirt outside of Blue’s Diner, ready to run if anything unexpected were to leap out at me. I’d never experienced a zombie attack nor had I ever actually seen one in person, but you couldn’t be too careful these days.

Come on Mason. Where are you?

My head jerked in the direction of movement; the sound of shoes on dirt. My heartbeat quickened. I gripped the small axe in my hands.

Soon, the silhouette of Mason Hutchings emerged from the darkness, his bright blue eyes in all their glory. He looked like he normally did: blue jeans, black sneakers, and a dark hoodie. His hands gripped the straps of the backpack strung on his shoulders.

When he saw me he tucked a strand of unruly brown hair behind his ear before giving me a quick wave of his hand.

“Are you ready?” he asked, with a grin.

Boy had things changed. I’d met Mason Hutchings in the 7th grade and every day since that I’d spent my time lusting after him. Of course, he’d never known, but I had hoped one day I’d have a chance to tell him how I felt.

Now, I couldn’t find a time that was right. A crush was stupid and irrelevant to survival.

I flashed a confident smile; one that didn’t reveal the thunderstorm raging inside me.

“Ready.”

I wasn’t. I wasn’t ready to leave this town yet. Though I’d spent all of my teens talking to anyone who would listen about how I’d get out one day, fleeing my own imminent death was the last way I imagined my escape. I wasn’t ready to leave my family. I didn’t want to leave the familiarity of home, even though now it was covered with dust and overrun with rats.

“You didn’t tell her did you?” Mason stepped closer and placed his hand on my arm.

Ruth Ann was my sister who ran Blue’s Diner, the main source of food in town.

Most of the town recently started getting really ill. Two of the latest to succumb to the fever were Mason’s parents. I saw Mason at his parent’s funeral and we got to talking. We talked about life, the outbreak, and discovered that we both had the same goal: to get out of this town. Alive. So why not do it together?

I moved my arm out of his grip.

“Of course I didn’t tell her.”

But I almost had. One thousand times.

“It’s for the best, Penny,” Mason assured me with a lazy grin. I used to go weak at the knees for that grin.

He led me to the back door of the restaurant. I unclipped the keychain from my jeans and selected the spare key I’d “borrowed” from Ruth Ann a few hours before.

Mason and I had talked about this a few times. The plan was to sneak into Blue’s, grab a few sealed containers of food and alcohol (since all the uncontaminated water no longer existed), and leave this town forever.

I didn’t really like the idea of stealing this stuff. Believe me. If money still mattered and we even had any, lord knows I would’ve walked to the nearest store (had one still been open) and paid for the few items we planned on taking with us when we left.

I wasn’t about to die a victim. If there was a chance we could make it somewhere else, I was going to take it.

The door groaned when it opened, revealing dark empty halls and peeling paint.

Frankly, I didn’t want to be in front or in back of Mason. What I really wanted was to be living two years in the past. Mason must have sensed my unease, because he grabbed my hand as the shutting door enclosed us in complete darkness inside Blue’s.

I reached in my backpack and pulled out a small flashlight, handing it to Mason. He led us to the kitchen and I couldn’t help but wonder how differently this could have ended if it were a movie.

“Aha!” he said as he found the large walk in freezer.

When he opened the door, nausea hit me as the smell of rot hit my nostrils. Mason’s hand shot to his nose, clamping it shut. He slammed the heavy freezer door as quickly as possible, but it was too late. The hallway now smelled of putrid stink.

“I think I’m going to throw up,” Mason said gagging, leaning forward with his hands on his knees.

I didn’t blame him. I’d already swallowed down the bile rising in my throat. To think that I’ve possibly eaten something from inside was too much.

I snaked the flashlight out of his hands and motioned towards a storage room door.

“I’ll check in here.”

The door was heavy as it swung open and —

Holy shit.

A hand reached out from the inside the closet and wrapped around my wrist—hard. In shock, my axe tumbled from my hands.

“Mason! Help!” Shaking my arm I tried to wriggle free but it didn’t help. It only seemed to grip harder on my wrist, pulling me towards its gaping mouth and digging its blackened fingernails into my flesh.

It had a human form but it was no longer human. There was no skin. In place of skin were large red boils seeping clear and green fluids. Its mouth hung open revealing chipped teeth. It managed an eerie shriek from its open mouth that was spilling bloody saliva down its face.

Mason reached me quickly, just as the thing’s jagged teeth clamped down on my wrist. I howled but the screams made no difference. The pain was searing. It wasn’t just biting me, it was grinding its sharp teeth through my flesh.

“Help, Mason! Get it off me!” I managed, in between kicking and punching the thing.

“I’m trying. It’s not fucking letting go!”

Mason rushed over to the axe that  I dropped and came back swinging. I was freed quickly and Mason was already pulling me out the door with our bags slung hastily over his shoulder.

We didn’t stop running until we both couldn’t run anymore, and even then, we ran.

We only slowed our pace when we came to a sign that said, “Welcome to Ackles, Population: 247.”

“Mason,” I started turning to him. “That was—”

“You’re fine.” Mason placed a hand gently on my cheek. “We’re okay.”

I pulled him close and to my surprise he didn’t pull away. I melted into his arms and I was certain that everything would be okay.

I took a deep breath in. Everyone smelled of dirt these days but not Mason. He smelled amazing. He smelled like the forest. Like the air after a rainstorm. Wait, that wasn’t it. Mason smelled amazing like…a steak.

The realization of my thought made me gasp. What did I just think?

We slowly let go of each other and I turned towards the sky that was starting to change colors from the dark night to pinks and purples.

I was just tired. After all, we’d run for miles and miles. Everything was going to be okay.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to you sooner.” Mason said softly behind me. “I tried. I want you to know that. You understand.”

I turned around. What the heck was he talking about?

But when I turned back to Mason, my face wasn’t focused on his. It was focused on the axe in his hands that was raised and ready to strike me.

“Mason, what are you doing?” My heart was thundering. I was too young to die. This was ridiculous! I didn’t flee a town just to get killed.

“I saw that zombie bite you, Penny. I saw it. I’m not stupid. It’s just a matter of time.” His eyes were welling up with tears. He kept the axe raised and ready to swing.

“If I was turned, wouldn’t I be after you already?” The axe only lowered for a moment, but he quickly changed his mind and raised it back up again.

The breeze was blowing now, whipping through the hills and carrying a few clouds through the sky.

“Show me your chip, Penny,” Mason commanded.

I didn’t really know how they worked other than red meant you were infected, yellow meant that you were in the process, and green meant that you were okay.

“This is absolutely insane!” I threw up my hands in frustration. I held out my bitten arm to show Mason that he was way out of line.

A faint red light blinked up at me from under my flesh.


If you loved this, make sure to check back in next Sunday for the next link in our grizzly chain, by the sizzling Louise Gornall! Also, one of our amazing writers, Julie Hutchings, has just been published! ‘Running Home’ is  now available on Amazon. Believe me – you want it. Click here to check out that awesome.

Red, Part I

Today’s Soundtrack: Bad Things by Jace Everett. You know…to go with the story.

Hey, guys! So this is just a quick
little something I tapped out when a concept came to mind. Let me know what you think!

    Red
    Part I

 
 
“Miss?”
 
“What?” I snapped, biting a hangnail. I narrowed my eyes at the cashier as she swallowed, watching the skin of her throat rise and fall.
 
“Did you – um – did you want to, um, order something?” She bit her lip, soft pink flesh compressing and bunching beneath flat white teeth.
 
I gave the board behind her head a cursory glance. What did I feel like having? What called to me?
 
“I’ll take a Cranberry tea, please.” Perfect. Hot. Wet. Red.
 
She turned away from me hurriedly. Her hands were trembling. I watched her as she moved around behind the counter. I could tell she felt my eyes on her, could almost see the hair rising on the back of her neck. Her blonde hair curved down her back, a perfect ‘S’.
 
The clock shaped like a bottle-top told me it was five past midnight, and yet the place wasn’t empty. A couple in that corner, and an old man with a silver flask that he surreptitiously touched to the lip of his coffee mug when the cashier turned away to make my tea. I pouted theatrically. I liked it better when places were empty.
 
“Here you go.” She pushed the glass mug toward me, the tea bag bobbing in the water. Her voice was polite, eyes betraying her wariness. I knew in her mind she’d be reassuring herself, her training forcing her not to be rude to a customer. Pretty, but none too bright.
 
I smiled at her, which seemed to put her at ease. My face was very reassuring to people. It was my inside they didn’t like. “I’m kind of lonely. Come talk with me?”
 
“Miss, I’m working. I have to stay behind the counter.” I watched as she slid her hands beneath the counter and gripped the edge, her knuckles turning white as the bones in her fingers pushed against her skin. Her confusion was clear – I ran hot and cold, glares and sweet smiles, sharp pains and soft touches.
 
I raised an eyebrow, still smiling, looking around us. “Does it look like anyone else is coming in?” I asked sweetly. She bit her lip again. I frowned. “Come. Sit with me.” My voice was forceful as I levelled my gaze at her. She blanched, paled – but obediently walked from behind the counter, following me to a table in the back corner, far from the other customers.
 
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” I smiled again.
 
“Um…no.” She had taken the chair opposite me. Every few seconds she glanced back at the counter. Her apron bunched in her fists as she toyed with it beneath the table.
 
“What’s your name?”
 
“Kiera.” It was almost a whisper. Shit, she was panicking. I could see the beads of sweat rising on her lip, the way her chest rose and fell a little too quickly. Too soon to panic, honey.
 
I spied the flash of gold on her left hand. “Is that an engagement ring?” I asked with unfeigned interest. Oh, this was too perfect.
 
A blush spiderwebbed across her cheeks, tiny capillaries dilating. She smiled involuntarily. There we go. “Yep.” I could almost smell the dopamine rush – mixed with a heady dose of cortisol. My presence still made her uneasy. With good reason.
 
“Can I see?” I held out a hand expectantly. Kiera gazed at me, her eyes a little glassy. I kept my eyes on hers and she yielded her hand to me, placing it in my palm. The ring was simple – gold band, small stone. “Pretty.” I murmured. I took hold of her finger and dunked it in the tea. She gasped, her cheeks turning bright pink, eyes watering, but she didn’t cry out. Perhaps she wasn’t so stupid.
 
I held it there for about thirty seconds, then pulled it out, marvelling at the bright red colour of her skin. The tea had been hot, but not boiling. I pouted. What does a girl have to do to get some blisters around here?
 
I put her finger in my mouth and sucked, hard enough for it to hurt. My teeth grazed her skin and she trembled, her mouth open; two parts terror, one part hungry curiosity. I stared at her again and she stilled. Sometimes, I fucking loved what I could do with my eyes.
 
The sound of a chair scraping back startled us both. It was the old guy, flask jingling against his keys in his pocket as he shuffled towards the door and out into the darkness. The couple in the corner still had eyes only for each other. I watched as the boy toyed with the hem of the girl’s skirt. They wouldn’t notice us.
 
Keira seemed to have the same realisation. She moved to stand, hand gripping the back of her chair. “Look, it’s closing time soon, and I should really –”
 
“Sit down.” She sat. I took a sip of the tea, imagining I could taste her essence – her fear, her innocence, her confusion. Leaning forward, I whispered in her ear, my lips brushing her cheek. “You know where I think this tea would look really good?” She stilled. I could hear her breathing, smell sweet shampoo. “All over your fucking face.” And I upended the cup over her head, the sticky red liquid oozing into her hair, bypassing wide blue eyes to skim her open mouth, down a tan neck and bleeding into her white shirt, staining her front bright, harlot red. The hot, red stain spread and for a moment I let my mind see something that wasn’t, see burning, scarlet blood and a mouth twisted in pain. See teeth marks in her finger and slices in her neck. I bared my teeth and she scrambled backwards, her hands slippery on the tile floor. The couple in the corner jumped up as though they were one body. I felt their fear, saw it on their faces, drunk it in. The boy pushed the girl behind him. I couldn’t help the laugh that slipped from behind my lips.
 
Flashing red and blue lights tore the black canvas outside. Fuck. And things were just getting interesting.
 
A black swarm of police buzzed though the doorway. In my mind they were stuck, trapped by their own stupid selves, a bunch of flies caught in a trap. But they wrenched my arms behind my back and dragged me from the café and I saw my laughing, screaming self in the glass – blonde hair, black eyes. I turned to Keira, still sprawled on the floor, a sticky pink starfish. “I’ll be back for you, honey.”
 


A Night For Beginnings

My soundtrack today is Locked Out Of Heaven by Bruno Mars. What can I say? I’m an angel.

Tonight I will be embarking on a scary and perilous journey – I will be beginning a new story. I have a basic plan in mind – I know the main character, and an important peripheral character, but that’s it. So I’ll basically be pulling it out of thin air. (I thought that sounded classier than ‘pulling it out of my ass’.)

I had this idea a while ago and it’s one that stuck with me. It’s for a YA Horror, something I haven’t done before, but my horror shorts have been fairly well-received, so hopefully I can pull off a full horror MS. Today is officially the Day I Started It. On the Day I Finish It, we can look back with nostalgia.

Our MC for this project? Hadley Valentine. (I just love that name).

Motivation appreciated!

Blue.