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?)
by Chynna-Blue Scott
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.
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.
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.
“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…”
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.
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.
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.