“At Risk”

Holly wasn’t certain if the support group was helping her come to terms with the new realities of her life, or if she was just spending one night a month mutilating strangers in an orgy of violence because she didn’t have anything else to do. Left to her own devices, she mused that chaining herself to a radiator was an option.

Unfortunately, her apartment lacked a radiator. She owned a wrought iron bedframe, but handcuffing herself to the bed wasn’t a permanent solution. Plus, the bed frame had wheels.

Standing in front of Cliff’s Cafe on a Thursday evening, Holly wondered if the others had such thoughts. They didn’t talk much during meetings. In fact, the only person who really did any talking was Cliff.

Like every month, Cliff would let them into the meat locker, chain the door and leave them till morning. When the sun came up Cliff would be waiting, a “good morning” on his lips, a mop in his hand and a pot of coffee waiting in the kitchen. Cliff would clean up, and those that could left some money. 

Cliff always said “thank you.” 

The sun was setting on Holly’s back. Cliff was closing up the cafe and when he noticed her gave a little wave. So sincere was the smile on his face that Holly allowed herself to forget that he would be cleaning up steaming entrails later. 

In the sea of confusion that Holly found herself adrift in, Cliff was a lighthouse of optimism and understanding. 

She waved back, an act that felt like permission for him to stop waving. Passing a lightswitch on the wall as he approached the door, Cliff reached out with one finger and turned it off. Darkness filled the restaurant, save for the lighting of the kitchen. 

He flipped the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed.” He nodded, and Holly headed to the alley out back. 

Cliff was waiting, leaning against the brick wall and smoking. He wasn’t bad looking, with messy blonde hair and a bushy beard. Early fourties but in healthy shape, Holly thought, other than smoking.

“Those things’ll kill ya.” 

Cliff smiled. 

Holly smiled, but it felt wrong in her mouth. She was forgetting how. Cliff noticed her expression and exhaled, smoke masking his face. 

She stopped smiling. Keep it polite but sincere. Getting close to someone like Cliff would be as bad for her as it might be for him. She was searching for something to say when footsteps rang down the alley. 

Approaching were Stuart and Paul, the brothers. They had the same look, dark haired and sallow cheeked. Stuart wore a tracksuit with black stripes, baggy and loose. Paul was in sweatpants and a sweatshirt with cartoon strawberries on it. They were a matching pair of idiots, but Holly couldn’t help but admire their utilitarianism. 

“Hello, Holly.” Stuart was the talkative one.

“Holly.” Paul was the quiet one.

She nodded, and Cliff put out the cigarette on the bricks behind him. 

 “Shall we head inside?” He didn’t wait for an answer, simply stepping into the yellow light of the kitchen. Holly was last to follow and had to step through the collective body odor of Stuart and Paul. She suddenly admired them less.

The group assembled within the hour. Marcy and Tina, Edward, Troy, Stuart and Paul, and Holly. Lucky seven- or it would be, if not for the twenty-something with Troy tonight. Troy introduced her as “Laurel, first time.” 

Laurel had dyed lavender hair and a black denim vest covered in illegible band logos. Troy said he “found her on the way home last month, after group, all fucked up,” and knew that she needed their help. 

Laurel nodded along with Troy’s narrative, avoiding eye contact with the rest of the group. Names were exchanged while Cliff collected up the four-foot length of industrial chain that he called his “insurance.” 

There was no ceremony. The eight stripped down to outfits of minimal modesty, Holly keeping her leggings and two sports bras on while shucking off her jacket and t-shirt. The brothers Stuart and Paul were in boxers and undershirts, Troy in a tank top and basketball shorts. 

Marcy and Tina wore compression shirts and pants. If the circumstances were different, Holly might have found their matching outfits cute. 

Edward was the least dressed, standing in a pair of black boxer-briefs, his ample stomach hanging over the edge of his underwear and causing the elastic strip to fold over. 

There wasn’t any sexuality to their states of undress. It was a platonic arrangement. That was something she liked. To be Holly, alone in a room, no matter how many people were there.

Laurel wore a pair of black bicycle shorts and a black bra, her body graffitied with tattoos that in faded navy blue and dark green. Holly remembered how strange it felt her first time standing amidst the group semi-nude. She sucked air through her teeth and looked away.

The freezer wan’t cold, but the hum of air being pumped in filled the chamber. They were packed in tightly, even though there were no shelves. If Holly extended her arms she would touch at least three other people. 

It would be claustrophobic if it wasn’t familiar. Cliff gave a comforting smile to them, chain in hand. He asked if they wanted the light off.  A moment of fear crossed Laurel’s face. 

“On,” Holly blurted.

As Cliff closed the door the light above remained on despite a grunt of protest from Troy. The clanking of chains was muffled through the heavy door, and there was no escape until Cliff’s “good morning” indicated the night’s end.

Tina was first to start, rubbing her temples in a vain attempt to alleviate the pressure. Marcy rubbed her back and cooed words of comfort – “everything-will-be-okay” and “you-are-so-strong,” meant for Tina but brought Holly some small relief by proximity. 

Tina’s agony cascaded through their ranks. Troy was dry-heaving and Marcy’s platitudes became labored breathing. Stuart and Paul’s stink, assaulting Holly’s senses. Edward was stoic, his discomfort only visible as muscle tics. Laurel was hunched in the corner, soundlessly sobbing. 

As Holly’s higher faculties faded she had a twinge of melancholy for Laurel, but there was no time as the moon rose outside.

Holly was gone, and there was something else. 

Each pore in her body felt pierced as though by a serrated needle. She heard the pulse of blood in her acquaintances’ veins. Her jaw broke, her bones and muscles burned. The scent of blood was intoxicating as the others’ faces twisted and broke into shattered visages of pain and feral hunger. 

Holly saw her hands clasping Troy’s face, thumbs in his eye sockets. Something bursting in her grip. 

Distant howls and screams. 

The taste of Edward’s flesh.

Tina’s piercing shouts.

The splash of warm blood on clenched teeth. Someone tore a handful of flesh from Holly’s arm and she plunged her hand down their throat. Slick talons, wet bundles of something in her hands. Steam rising from entrails. 

The hum of the freezer. 

The buzz of the light above them.

Above the chaos Holly felt something come into focus. Laurel biting, howling, and screaming. 

The scent of Laurel’s blood, cut with nicotine with a hint of heroin. 

Laurel’s face, her mind trapped behind the curtain of veins throbbing in the whites of her eyes. 

Holly’s hands clutching Laurel’s lungs like wet dishrags. Laurel’s terror behind the bloodlust. 

Laurel’s eyes.

Holly was the last one standing, slick with blood and offal. She saw her claws on their corpses, tasted blood staining her lips. Laurel’s sightless eyes stared at Holly, absent of light.

When the change passed, the bodies of the fallen hissed and regenerated. Fur sloughed from the piles of dead flesh and Holly felt herself wither. Troy was tucking his penis between his legs in a clownish attempt at modesty while the brothers hugged and wept.  Laurel’s body was the last to reconstitute. Holly alone made it through alive and as the others reformed she watched Laurel’s body regenerate. 

Outside, the sound of clanking chains as Cliff unlocked their homemade cell.  

Cliff was standing in the locker’s doorway with a mop in his hand and a “good morning” on his lips. Holly knew Cliff ran the support group for several years before she showed up, but she wasn’t sure how he remained so positive. As always, Cliff left a stack of wet wipes on the island in the center of the kitchen, a small courtesy to the lone survivor. 

The others regenerated without much in the way of lingering blood spatter. This was because Holly devoured much of their flesh in the course of the night, and the newly grown skin had not been exposed to the storm of violence. Holly was surprised to see Laurel’s tattoos did not appear on the canvas of her flesh as she reformed, but there was much Holly didn’t know about their condition. 

As the group was pulling on clothes, Holly poured coffee and stretched. Cliff began to clean the freezer, humming tunelessly.

Holly’s eyes wandered over Cliff as he cleaned. He was crouched, and under his soft t-shirt Holly saw the muscles of his back. His gloved hands picked up globs of rent flesh and dropping them into a mop bucket.

She was feeling pangs of hunger already. She wondered what happened to the viscera she choked down in her frenzy – had it withered to dust in her belly? Did the caloric needs of her transformation burn it away? These were questions that were better left to whatever scientists would one day vivisect her. For now, she was simply Holly – hungry and messy.

As the rest of the group was dressing and cleaning up, Laurel was pouring herself a cup of coffee. Holly watched over the lip of her own mug, trying to divine any details about Laurel’s life. 

Laurel sensed her, and their gazes met. Holly turned away, the image of Laurel’s lifeless eyes rising up through the fog of the night. She set her mug down and shouted to Cliff.

“See you next month.”

Cliff sang to whatever song was in his head, “Take it easy.” 

Outside, Holly took a moment to breath in deeply. A sour smell assaulted her senses. She looked for the source. 

On the sidewalk a few feet from the door a bearded man in sweat stained and sun faded clothes sat. His back was against the brick wall of the cafe, adjacent to the wide window. He looked at Holly, and snorted.

“You look like shit.”

“Yeah,” she muttered, unable to dredge up the malice to respond in kind. She pulled her sunglasses from her coat pocket and caught her reflection in them. Dreadful. 

“That your place?” he muttered, looking over his shoulder. “Do you have a bathroom in there?”

“No,” she responded to all his questions, sliding her sunglasses on and striding away.

Holly headed to her usual day-after spot. When she arrived at the diner, she was relieved to see it was as decrepit as ever. “THE HIP JOINT” was a small favor the universe gave her – to be disgusting and invisible in a public place. To be alone in a room, no matter how many people were there.

The bell above the door clanged as she entered. None of the bikers at their booth looked up, nor did the waitress that was the sole visible representative of the diner’s staff.

As she slid into a booth a fantasy of stacked pancakes filled her head, right up until Laurel walked through the door.

Holly sighed, but there was no escape. Laurel slid into the booth, the plastic surface of one enamel badge on her vest whispering as it dragged across the lip of the table. 

“Holly, right? Can I join you? I was getting sick of looking at what’s-his-name’s dumbass grin.”
“His name is Cliff.” 

“Whatever. You go there a lot? That fuckin’ group or whatever.” 

“Once a month.” Holly did not attempt to conceal her irritation. The waitress returned with two glasses of water, then postured with hand on hip to indicate that she wanted them to order. Holly pointed to a picture of pancakes on the flimsy laminated menu. The waitress looked at Laurel. 

“Steak and eggs, rare and sunny side up.”

The waitress gathered up their menus while a brief expanse of silence settled on their table. Laurel spoke again.

“So, you ever kill anybody?” 

Holly was raising her glass to her lips when Laurel spoke. She gulped down a mouthful of ice water. 

“No.”

“Me neither.” Laurel seemed disappointed. “How’d you end up with those guys, anyway?”

“Cliff.” Holly omitted the details – shirtless in the alley, crawling and howling. Cliff throwing a bag over her head, hitting her with something heavy. The first “good morning.” The horrific realization she was not alone.

“How’d you get the thing?” Laurel’s phrasing was strained. Words felt insufficient when discussing their condition.

Suddenly there were plates on the table, the waitress setting their meals down and trotting to the biker table again. Laurel poked at the steak and stared at Holly. 

“Laurel, I get that you want some foundation of shared experience here. This can’t be personal or intimate. There isn’t room for that. We meet, we drink coffee, we try not to look at each other. We are slaves to this thing, as much as any addict. There’s no escape.” 

Holly sighed. It was the longest chain of words she’d spoken in months. She was clenching her knife with white-knuckle intensity but relented. Blood flowed back into her fingers. She looked up.

Laurel’s face was a mix of anger and disappointment. 

“Impersonal? That’s a joke. You know what’s personal? Looking me in the eyes while killing me.” 

Shock must have registered on Holly’s face, but Laurel didn’t relent. “I saw everything, smelled those nasty brothers’ guts. Those chicks tryna comfort each other while their teeth are falling out. Worst of all, your hands,” Laurel gesticulated wildly, searching for the right words.

“Laurel.”

“That grin on your face.” Laurel’s chin quivered. “You say it isn’t personal. I don’t know what else it could be.”

“Normally, we keep the lights off.” 

“Christ, that’s worse.” Laurel stirred egg around her plate. The steak had gone cold. Holly cleared her throat.

“You said I was grinning? What do you mean?”

Laurel pushed her plate away. “You’re gonna get that for me, right? On account of me being new and all.” 

Holly didn’t answer, trying to remember the meeting. She had grown accustomed to the carnage. One memory rose to the surface: The smell of Laurel’s blood, spiked with heroin. 

“Because if you don’t plan on covering the food, we’re going to have to run for the door here.”

“Are you on drugs?”

Laurel’s expression flowed from disbelief into rage. 

“What the hell? What are you, my mother? Screw you,” Laurel hissed.

Laurel uncoiled from her seat and moved towards the door. Holly watched Laurel pass out of view, then back into view as she walked by the big glass window at the front of the diner. Laurel did not look back.

Holly motioned for the check. 

The whole day was hers, but within the hour Holly was back home and flopping down in her bed. The impact caused the wrought iron bed frame to bang against the wall. She mused it’d been a while since she heard that sound. Her mind wandered and for a moment she saw muscles moving under thin t-shirts, knotted flesh concealed by easily torn fabric. She rolled over and exhaled.

The mercy was Holly had the day off from the curio shop, able to lay in bed staring at the crack in the ceiling and thinking about Laurel’s outburst until falling asleep. 

She woke, staggered around her meager apartment aimlessly for a few minutes, opened the refrigerator and took a beer and drained it before crawling back into bed. 

She stared at the crack in the ceiling until she fell into a restless sleep. She repeated this sequence long after the sun went down and until it rose again. Her dreams were of running free, unburdened and breathing deep. 

With the sun rising in her window, Holly showered and brushed her hair and teeth. She avoided eye contact with the mirror. She knew she looked rough, and each month she felt rougher. Her best efforts to avoid her reflection occasionally faltered, and she saw dark crescents forming under her eyes and a roadmap of creases in her forehead. She smeared on eyeshadow to make restlessness appear a fashion statement, pulled her jacket on, and headed to work at the curio store.

So it went, for 28 days and 28 nights. The sun rose and set and the moon blinked away and swelled. Her boss made vaguely sexual comments (calculatedly below the threshold where she could call him out), she flopped in and out of bed. 

The exhaustion faded from her face. She began to feel human again. Her thoughts were always the same, contemplated in the middle of the work day or while staring out the window with a coffee in hand; would she die of old age? Was there a cure for her condition? What would happen if she cut her own eye out – would it regenerate with the next full moon? 

What if she slit her own throat? 

Exactly on time but somehow always sooner than expected, the day on the calendar with the white circle was upon her. She woke to her phone buzzing impatiently. She dropped it over the edge of the bed and rolled onto her back, her eyes tracing a tiny crack in the ceiling. Was it larger than before?

Holly requested the day off recurring each month, so she didn’t have to deal with his carefully prepared entendres. The afternoon was hers before the night rose over Cliff’s Cafe. 

Leaping from bed, she threw on a pair of leggings patterned like black denim, a pair of sports bras and a baggy white t-shirt. Framed in her mirror, Holly noticed no dark circles under her eyes.

 The drinking and somnambulism paying off, she thought. She felt uncharacteristically positive. 

Wandering the neighborhood that afternoon, the crisp spring air cooled the sun’s touch on her face. She couldn’t place whatt elevated her mood. It wasn’t the night that awaited, trapped in the darkness and murdering acquaintances. It wasn’t the gnashing of teeth or taste of blood – she felt a sour bile in her throat contemplating it.

Her walk lead her to the cafe as the sun was setting. Tonight, like every month, Cliff would let her into the meat locker, chain the door from the outside and leave her there till morning. It would be Cliff’s smile waiting when that door opened, a “good morning” on his lips, a mop in his hand and a pot of coffee in the kitchen for her. That made her smile. 

The transient from last month was leaned up against the cafe, a monolith to Cliff’s patience. He lit up as she walked towards the entrance.

“I knew you work here.”

Holly stopped, saying nothing. 

“No place else is open, let me in. I gotta shit.”

Holly laughed out loud at the directness of it. She wished she was so bold.

“It’s not my place. If I were you, I wouldn’t hang around.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s dangerous.” 

He scoffed and stood up, his pants loose around his waist. He shuffled down a nearby alley, muttering profanity.

Holly stepped towards the window of the cafe. Inside was Cliff, turning chairs over on tables. He didn’t notice her, and she watched him. She wondered if she could give up meat and was running through protein alternatives when a shadow appeared in the service window, backlit by the kitchen light.

It was Laurel, purple hair in a topknot and hands tucked into the pockets of her denim vest. Laurel looked past Cliff, right at Holly, no emotion on her face. Laurel’s presence caught Cliff’s attention and he waved, but Laurel barely acknowledged him before walking out of view again. Holly felt her temperature rise. 

Cliff turned towards the entrance where Holly stood and she turned her face away before realizing that wasn’t going to work. When she looked back up, Cliff had the front door wide open and the “Closed” sign turned. 

Holly was caught off guard by that. They normally came in through the back door in the alley in a march of anonymity. Holly smiled, and for once it didn’t feel wrong in her mouth. She walked in, past Cliff, and towards the light in the kitchen. She caught Cliff’s smile out of the corner of her eye.

Laurel was sulking, sitting on a folding chair against the wall that separated the kitchen from Cliff’s office. The expression on her face was unpleasant and focused. The others trickled in over the course of the next hour. 

Tina and Marcy were first to arrive, Marcy already hovering around Tina, preparing for the suffering to come. The brothers Stuart and Paul were next, both wearing second-hand sweatpants and sweatshirts. Stuart’s had a picture of a cat and was too large. He saw Holly looking at it and made an gesture she assumed meant “it was the only one they had in my size” or “I love cats.” 

“Yeah,” he said. Talkative as ever. Looking at Stuart and Paul, Holly realized she might be heading down a grim path.

Troy came next, in a tank top and basketball shorts as per status quo. He walked over towards Laurel but was rebuffed by her blank expression. Edward was last, coming in as the sky was turning gray outside.

Piling into the meat locker, Holly was the last to enter. As Cliff was looping the chain through the handles of the meat locker door, Holly reached through the opening of the door and caught his arm.

“Can we talk, in the morning?” She almost choked on the words. All things considered, this sentence was the most frightening part of her evening. Cliff smiled and nodded. He opened his mouth to speak when from the front of the building there was the banging of a fist on glass. He turned and looked over his shoulder, towards something Holly couldn’t see. The banging was insistent. Cliff started to move away to see what the commotion was about when Holly squeezed his arm. 

“The lock.”

Cliff, distracted by the noise, almost walked away without closing the padlock through the chain. He snapped it shut with the door still open and Holly watching.

“I’ll be right back, I promise,” he said, pushing her hand into the abyss of the unlit meat locker as he closed the door between them. He did not ask if they would prefer the lights on or off. In the dark, Holly could feel disgust oozing off of Laurel. She could smell it. Laurel’s blood reeked of it.

This was the first indicator of the moon’s position. Holly was getting used to the signals the change was coming, like the moment before she knew she’d drank too much. In the coal blackness, the only sound was the buzzing of the air intake and the heavy breathing that Holly assumed was Troy. He always got so worked up. He made it worse for everyone.

The huffing and puffing in the freezer had an effect on its occupants like someone throwing up on a crowded bus. The support group, shapeless in the dark, began their chorus of pained noise. Tina started moaning and Marcy began talking to her in a soft tone, the kind Holly felt most people saved for talking to birds. The smell of Stuart and Paul’s second-hand sweatshirts burned Holly’s nostrils. 

The sharp stink was becoming normal to Holly, familiar. In fact, all of the sensory assault was becoming common, soft and safe. 

The sound of dry heaving, a call: My name is Marcy, or Edward or Holly, and I turn into a monster. 

The twitching of muscle or spasming sob, a response: Hi, Holly.

The meeting began. Laurel told her story in howling screams that cut through the fray. Edward pulled his skin off in big heaps and threw it to the ground, naked in the darkness. Marcy and Tina in a binary star system of mutual destruction, the brothers reeking of co-dependence and Troy trying to find anyone at all that would care. Everyone screaming and spinning in the dark, looking for something that could not be found in that place.

In a moment of clarity, soaked in blood and steaming in the sarcophagus of the meat locker, Holly thought of someone outside. An island in the sun. A place outside the obtenebration, a place unpunctuated by anger.

Holly’s hazy thoughts were disrupted by the sudden impact of someone hurling her against one of the walls of the meat locker, which surprisingly gave way to the force. A beam of golden-white light pierced the dark of their cell, illuminating them in all their wretched seeming. Laurel’s face, twisted into a snout and tongue lolling out. One of Troy’s eyes, mutilated by an unknown talon and gushing ichor. Holly rose.  

They flooded towards the light, demons looking up at heaven and grasping for release. The chain padlocked in haste, their seal almost undone. Holly’s own hands, slick with gore and plunging into the light. Out there was what they wanted, the thing that could not be found in the locker. For some, understanding and acceptance. For others, love or independence. The taste of human flesh.

The chain was loose around the handle of the door, and through dim eyes Holly could see the kitchen. Hands surged past her face, snouts pushed against each other trying to find an exit. Wavering shadows, their blood pulsing in their veins, voices raised in the cafe’s dining room. Holly pressed against the door, her hands fumbled at the chain with their own will. Cliff’s shouting, followed by the voice of the homeless man from outside yelling something about a bathroom. Cliff’s face was close, close enough to kiss, close enough to lick, close enough to taste. Grasping claw, and screaming, the sound of metal unwinding against their collective fervor.

The chain came unbound, the lock shattered, and they were free. Cliff’s voice transmuted into a scream, then was interrupted. Things were all out of order, somehow wrong. Holly holding Cliff in her arms and pressing her face to his, something warm flowing over her. Edward in the air, coming down on the other man and tearing something off him. Marcy and Tina gathering with Stuart and Paul like a family dinner table. Laurel and Holly brushing muzzles over Cliff. Troy skulking up to join them. In a way, something inside Holly cried out, it was picturesque.

The dawn was unkind. Fur and tooth sloughed away and sense returned. Holly was last to rise from the bog of their madness, and as she returned there were panicked voices clamouring around the cafe. She was gasping and panting, wet and cold, and someone was looking at her, shouting something.

“Holly, get it together. We need to leave. Now.”

Troy, too close, reeking of offal.

Holly’s eyes moved away, to Laurel. She was sitting on the floor, purple hair matted and tangled, arms wrapped around her knees. Holly couldn’t tell if she was sobbing or laughing, but Laurel was calico with gore. Holly looked down at her own hands, held by Troy. Slick and red.

“We have to go, we have to get out of here.”

Holly pushed Troy away, stumbled to her feet and dry heaved. Edward was gone, Marcy and Tina nowhere to be seen. 

Across the cafe was the body of the homeless man who once lurked outside, hollowed out and torn asunder. Closer to Holly, Stuart and Paul were throwing a tablecloth over a pile of gore, a fair-faced and dead-eyed Cliff disappearing behind the spotted cloth that would be his shroud.

Holly stood in mute and stunned silence as the cloth blossomed crimson. She felt a mix of disappointment and fulfillment, as though she had got what she wanted but not how she wanted it. She choked, but pushed it down.

Laurel looked up at Holly through mascara-haloed eyes, shoulders hunched.

“Now what?”

Holly scanned the cafe, freckled with blood as well as scraps of flesh left to rot where it fell. She thought of all that flesh, the months of meetings, where it all went. Where was it all kept? The evidence of their baseness and cruelty, swept up and hidden away by Cliff’s steady hand. She wanted to ask him many things, but now she would never know.

“What do you mean, ‘now what,’ Laurel?” Troy was waving his hands wildly. “We need to go. Are you coming?” 

Laurel stared at Troy for a moment, then nodded weakly, capitulating to his plans. 

“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered, rising to her feet. She crossed the cafe, boots squeaking on the wet floors, and grabbed Troy’s arm. “Let’s go.” There was resignation in her voice. She looked at Holly, lips twitching as though to speak. No words came, and she tugged on Troy’s arm. 

“Holly, come on,” Troy’s voice, a whisper.

Holly shook her head. There was no escape. Not today, not tonight, not in a month when the moon grew fat. This was the end of it, the inescapability of her horrors. The reality of it all was oppressive, but at least it was no longer concealed.

“No, I’ll stay. Go.”

Troy fumbled for words, but another tug from Laurel and they were gone. Then there was just Holly, and it was as it was before. Holly, alone in a room, no matter how many people were there. 

Diane Remained

Diane’s bitter coffee had long gone flat and cold, and the sun had only minutes ago lazily pierced the gray morning sky with middling beams of tarnished bronze. She was shadowless in the gloomy diffusion of early day, and the cold seeped from the metal frame of her chair and through the cushion. Winter had come and gone, but Diane remained.

Along the tops of silent buildings birds danced in flying ribbons and traced swirling eddies through the sky with their course. Diane watched them with mute detachment for some time, waiting. As the sun unfurled its fingers through the shroud of morning overcast, a distant black slash of shadow seemed to be quickly drawing nearer to Diane and the flock of songbirds. It drew closer, and Diane focused on its shape against the canvas of grey clouds.

A sparrowhawk.

She watched from her seat as the sparrowhawk glided towards the flock of swirling songbirds. They were at first unaware of the approaching harrier, and Diane thought for a moment the hawk would have no trouble seizing its prey. However, a silent cry must have gone up in the flock, because all at once the entire mob took a startling evasive action – the speckled cloud that made up the body of the songbird flock suddenly dipped and swirled away from the sparrowhawk. Seeing that stealth was no longer an option the sparrowhawk dove with raptorial grace and plunged through the scrambling ranks. There was chaos, and even at the great distance Diane was from the conflict she could hear the panicked songs of prey and a single sharp screech from the raptor.

From disheveled black mass the raptor burst forth and though far away Diane believed she could see the captured prey – heart beating, throat bursting – in the talons of the sparrowhawk as it flew to its perch on some unknown face.

The sun struggled to best the clouds as Diane rose from her chair and grabbed the long wrapped bundle she carried with her from its resting place in the frame of the coffee shop’s door. No one remarked on it, and no one commanded her to have a good day. She slung her bundle over her shoulder, gulped the last of her long stale coffee down and set off. It was time for her to go to work.

Diane trudged through the empty morning streets of downtown Flagstaff. The snow had melted just a few weeks ago, and the streets were only beginning to blossom with new green. The buds of her own garden had sprung new last week, and the sight of those vegetables beginning their early life on her exposed deck had filled Diane with joy. She had known that it would not be easy to go it alone, but she had not anticipated the satisfaction of a new crop.

Passing by the empty shop fronts and silent apartments of downtown, Diane felt her forehead tighten with anger as she reflected on her garden. She had come out of her shelter just three days after her garden had sprouted to find it massacred, every bit of green shorn to the soil line. Some of the vegetables might survive, and maybe she would too, but Diane was filled with boiling anger at the murder of her hard work. She had looked around for the perpetrator, and saw him bounding away in the distance – a whitetail buck with crooked antlers vanishing towards the steel and glass forest of the dead and silent city.

Since the day she woke up alone, Diane had avoided the city. That first day, she drove down the hill and into town and screamed and shouted for anyone to come out and say anything. Within an hour she had started sobbing when she found all the televisions were clouds of static. Unable to find a signal or Wi-Fi connection for her phone, she had already come to terms with the new world by noon of the first day. Everyone was gone, but Diane remained.

That was a year ago. Today, she was propelled by a mix of hunger and vengeance. She had not hunted since she was a teenager, those autumns spent with her father hidden in deer blinds and stinking of chemical deer piss. At the time, she had enjoyed spending the time with her father but hated the time spent hunting. Now, she wished she could have both again. Diane shrugged the bundle on her shoulder to distribute its weight and put the thought of her family out of her mind. She had a deer to hunt.

Turning the corner on Aspen, Diane sucked cool spring air through her dry lips as she came upon what remained of the Hotel Monte Vista. The winter had not been kind to the century-old building, and a stiff wind or heavy snow had yanked the neon marquee down from its perch atop the hotel’s roof. It now reposed in shattered illegibility, the only surviving script declaring “HOT MON STA” in mangled pagebreak. Every brick building in historic downtown Flagstaff had developed a cast of wear, but the Hotel Monte Vista slumped with a special degeneracy. The front doors, perhaps left open the day Diane found herself alone, remained open as she surmised they must have all winter. A wet smell like autumn leaves after a rain issued from the building’s mouth. Diane stepped towards the doors but suddenly froze at the sight of a collection of deer droppings on the naked sidewalk. She almost laughed aloud at that – the once bustling downtown now replete with uncurbed bucks – but caught herself. The deer was nearby, and the goosepimples crawled down her arms as she unslung her bundle.

Carefully and quietly, she unwrapped her recurve bow and her quiver of arrows. The bow was not the best or most professional kind for deer hunting, but she had it stored in the attic the day her garden was robbed. She could have wandered around town looking for a sports store, but she didn’t want to waste anymore time. After all, she allowed herself the small luxury of breaking into the ghostly coffee shop and boiling their old dry grounds over a fire in the shop’s fireplace. She’d wasted enough time. Diane affixed the quiver on her back and gripped the bow, stepping lightly into the hotel’s lobby.

The lobby was a wreck of weather damage, and it smelled as though the winter’s snow had blown in and melted across the hotel’s delicate patterned rugs and sleek black counter tops. There was pervasive fungality that seemed to permeate the hardwood floors. Diane stepped softly, her hiking boots placed one after the other across the creaking boards. In the corner of the lobby sat a baby grand piano, and for a moment Diane mused that she could theoretically drag it all the way back up the hill on its wheels. She was strong, that she knew, but she quickly dismissed the idea as preposterous – dragging something that heavy all the way home was certainly beyond her strength.

From somewhere beyond the blood-red hallway that lead to the cocktail lounge, something made a noise. Diane tensed and notched an arrow. There was little light that pierced down into the lower level that lead to the bar, and while she knew that deer were adaptable ruminants she found it hard to believe this one had taken to living in the cocktail lounge. Another sound, this one like the dropping of a bottle, caught her attention and dispelled her doubt. Diane crouched and edged closer, keeping the arrow notched in her bow.

As she entered through the open doors leading into the cocktail lounge, she was surprised to see that it was better lit that the hallway leading to it suggested. The long row of full-length windows along the street-side wall threw a silvery bar of light down across the empty bar. Other than the stink of animal and spilled liquor, the lounge seemed the same as Diane imagined it did before everyone disappeared. She scanned the small lounge with held breath, looking for the source of the noise.

Slowly, a pair of antlers rose from behind the bar and the bucks head and neck came into profile. The stag’s body was hidden behind the bar, and Diane was caught off-guard by it’s small size; She remembered it being larger, but there was no mistaking the creature as the robber of her garden.

The buck suddenly stiffened, sniffing the air and tightening the muscles in its neck. Diane quickly drew her bow back, but it was too late. The buck, alerted to her presence, panicked and whirled away in one spectacular motion . It leaped over the bar in a clumsy arc that left it momentarily sprawled across the floor, its legs kicking stools and a small table over.

Diane loosed an arrow, but it was deflected by a falling table and ricocheted off into the liquor bottles that lined the wall behind the bar. She muttered a curse and drew another arrow just as the buck staggered to its feet. With shocking speed it bounded away from Diane. An instant later, it burst through the glass window wall that faced the street with a terrible crash and call. The buck bellowed and turned broadside to Diane as it fled down the street. Diane loosed her second arrow amidst the chaos of breaking glass and it found purchase, the aluminum shaft passing through the deer’s chest and penetrating where Diane knew the lungs were.

The buck kicked its hind legs and continued to bolt, veering off into the distance with the arrow piercing it in a manner Diane found surreal for a moment. The deer flashed the white flag of its tail as it bounded some one hundred yards down the street before collapsing.

As Diane walked slowly up as the deer gasped its last through pierced lungs. She watched with detachment as the buck passed on. The fire of her anger was fading as the life cooled in the deer’s eyes, and she felt a pang of regret. She had come down out of the mountain for blood, but the deer had just been looking for food. The buck wheezed and made a wet sound.

When the deer was finally gone, Diane went to where she had set her bag down and brought it to the buck’s final resting place. Diane decided to begin the messy business of field dressing the buck, and drew a knife and rope from her bag. She spilled the deer’s entrails right on the sidewalk where it lay and its blood pooled in the gutter and disappeared down a storm drain. When she finished with the grisly work, she tied the rope around the buck’s antlers, jaw, and forelegs to pull it by and began to drag it back home.

As she pulled the lifeless carcass towards the mountain, she passed the front of the hotel. From the street, she could see the small piano in the lobby she had noticed earlier. Choking up on the rope that lugged the heavy weight of the deer’s body, Diane laughed to herself – she’d be back for the piano after all. Alone, Diane pulled the buck down the empty streets of Flagstaff towards her home up in the hills, where she would butcher the deer and plant her garden and survive another year. Though everyone else might be gone, Diane remained – and she planned to keep it that way.

Breedertown

If Jake didn’t get his delivery across the Breedertown border before the restaurant opened, he wouldn’t get paid. Plus, the package would certainly begin to smell.

Jake pumped his legs with the fervor of a drowning man, grinding the gears of his rusted bike as it crested over the paved hill of Washington street. He allowed himself to coast effortlessly downhill, eying the newspaper wrapped package in his bike’s basket. His ancient, poorly maintained bicycle shuddered with every small imperfection on the surface of the street. He was less than a block away from the border. He came to the bottom of the hill and began the laborious task of climbing the last hill before the checkpoint.

He could feel his visa shifting in the pocket of his dingy gray shorts, and it gave him a little comfort to know that he was prepared for the demeaning procedure that was quickly approaching. Jake had never wanted to be a delivery boy, but it was one of the only jobs that allowed people like him to leave the enclave. He knew that failing to get his package to its destination on time would likely cost him more than just his job.

He reached the top of the last hill and allowed himself the briefest pause to enjoy the view. Past the crumbling tenements of Breedertown, he could see the vastness of the Pacific ocean. Rising up from the sea, a few miles offshore, were the ruins of Avondale, waiting to disappear beneath the waves when the tide came in again. The salty wind seemed wasted on the folks he was delivering too, and he felt the gnawing prejudice of his parents creep into his thoughts for a moment. Can they really appreciate such a wonderful smell?

He shook his head and girded himself for the final downhill to the crossing. His bike groaned and choked in defiance as he navigated it down the shattered street towards the rust-chewed border checkpoint. As he grew closer, he caught the noxious scent of the guards before he ever saw them. The sweet smell of rot.

As his bike slowed to a stop before the border station, one of the guards stepped out of the small booth and motioned him over. The guard was dressed in the standard uniform- brown button up shirt, brown trousers with black boots and a riot officer’s shield-like helmet. They never wore any sort of body armor, and Jake had always assumed it wouldn’t make much of a difference if they did. The helmets were more of a courtesy to bordercrossers like himself. The guard rested one leather gloved hand on his hip and the other hand on the grip of his holstered gun. His badge shone in the noonday sun and read “Officer Swift.”

Jake swung his body off his bike and walked it the last few yards to the checkpoint, the whole time the awful stench growing in intensity. He leaned his bike gingerly against the side of the small building and fished out his travel visa. Inside the booth, the other guard motioned him to the opening in the glass, and Jake slid his papers through the slot. He cast a wary glance at the guard standing outside, and noticed that flies were starting to gather around the package in his basket. He had to hurry. He spoke up.

“Hey, I don’t mean to be a pain, but you guys know me, right? I’m the delivery guy for Papa Ghede’s. Can we hurry this up a little?”

The guard behind the glass grunted, and something black oozed out from under his helmet and splattered on his brown shirt just an inch from the badge identifying him as “Officer Humes.” Jake crossed the border every couple of days, but wondered if the guards even recognized him. Do we all just look the same to you?

The flies were starting to buzz around the officer standing outside, who either failed to notice or failed to care. Jake was getting nervous, and found himself fidgeting and shuffling his feet. The guard behind the glass slid the visa back to Jake with another grunt.

“That doesn’t even look like you,” he managed to growl, spittle and something like old blood splattering against the backside of the tinted glass and dripping down to the counter. “It says you have green eyes, but they look gray to me. Do they look gray to you, Swift?”

The other guard grunted in disgust, and leaned into the booth.

“For God’s sake Humes, your eyes are starting to go. It’s clearly the kid. Let him pass so I don’t have to stand out here anymore, I’m getting the flies.”

Officer Humes grunted again, and a tooth fell on the counter. Jake stifled the urge to vomit.

“Fine. Your papers are in order. Get out of here.”

Jake permitted himself a small sigh of relief, then jumped on his bike and rode out of Breedertown and down the road towards New Phoenix. Waving the flies away from his precious cargo, he mused to himself about Officer Swift’s choice of words: “For God’s sake.”

As if those people believed in God.

He cruised the streets of New Phoenix with his head held high and his newspaper wrapped package carefully tied down. He had been making deliveries to Papa Ghede’s since he was old enough to ride a bike, and was used to the blank stares and occasion catcalls that would follow him as he passed the musty homes and businesses that lined the street. He’d had his fair share of trouble with the locals, but he had eventually become accustomed to his place as a necessary outsider here. He provided a particular service that, in a way, was all that was holding the country together.

Jake was born decades after the Calamity- the series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that laid waste to most of humanity and reconfigured much of the world’s geography. His great-grandparents had immigrated from podunk California during what they had often referred to as “The Real Big Ones” that eventually plunged the old West Coast into the ocean, and they had even survived the Pandemic that followed in its wake. He was the descendant of survivors, and his family had done everything it could to make a life for itself in the new country that was forming.

Before Jake’s grandfather’s passing, he would speak with a mix of awe and fear about the Decade of the Dead, the years following the outbreak of the disease known only as the Pandemic. His cataract blue eyes looked off into unfathomable distances when he remembered the infected rising from their hospital beds, blood cold and hearts unbeating, wandering aimlessly and driven by the need to consume human flesh.

“There were thousands of ’em, tens of thousands, and their numbers just kept growin’. We killed a lot of them at first, fer sure, but eventually they drove us out of the cities,” he’d told Jake one balmy summer night. “Only those that had the disease when they died got back up, see- the dead twernt rising from their graves or nothin. Some small comfort, I suppose.”

His grandfather told many such stories.

Jake rode faster and faster towards Papa Ghede’s, trying to shake away the memory of his beloved grandfather. There was no time or place for Jake to care about the world that came before him. He lived in the present, and had all the problems any regular 22 year old from Breedertown had to deal with. Getting a job, meeting girls- these were the things relevant to Jake. Grandfather never adequetly adapted to the new world, but Jake had no intention of being left behind.

The warm summer wind danced in from Buckeye Bay as Jake propelled himself through the desolate streets of New Phoenix. The ancient husks of ruined automobiles littered the torn streets and collected rust borne on salty ocean breezes. It was early in the day, but slowly growing warmer, so he doubted he’d see many Dead on the streets. He felt a twinge of pity for the guards stuck in the border booth, with the heat and the flies creeping over them. They were destined to decompose faster than the dead that worked indoors.

Jake let the soothing breeze calm him as it passed through his dark wavy hair, and breathed deep. He’d tried to never take for granted the fact he was warm blooded and breathing. Too many of the Living were content to simply be alive, but few seemed to take any joy in actually living.

The dead can’t appreciate the warmth of the sun, Jake thought to himself. He was almost content to stand on the street and let the warm sunlight caress his ruddy face, but snapped to attention when the buzzing of insects broke his revere. A halo of flies had gathered around the package in his basket- a reminder that he was on the job.

From the shadow of a door frame in an collapsed building, a low whistle went up, and Jake looked over hesitantly. A gravelly woman’s voice spoke.

“What do we have here- A little Breeder boy? What’s in the package, boy?”

From out of the door frame a tall woman in a torn red tracksuit stepped out, a nimbus of insects following her like a storm-cloud. She was Dead, her long mousy hair meticulously braided to stave off rot. He face was well preserved, not wet like the guards but more leathery and dry. Her mouth was drawn back to reveal her once pearly and chiclet-shaped teeth. What remained of her lips was stained with fresh lipstick. She watched Jake through her cloudy left eye; Her right eye was shriveled like a raisin. Jake turned away and took a deep breath of the sea air. She smelled like a mildewy towel.

“Just making deliveries, ma’am.”

She stepped out into the sunlight and immediately more insects collected, a swarm of gnats that she didn’t bother to wave away. Jake did his best to be respectful.

“I’m actually running a little late, ma’am. I best be on my way.”

She waved one bony hand in dismissal and motioned towards her porch.

“Now, now, your delivery can wait. Why don’t you come on inside and keep me company? I haven’t seen a Breeder boy in weeks. I can make you some lemonade.”

Jake knew he needed to respect his superiors, but he hated this game. It seemed like the Dead liked to push and push, just to watch him grovel.

“That’s a very nice offer, ma’am, but I really must be going. You have a good day. Stay fresh.”

Jake didn’t wait for her response, but quickly put his feet to the pedals and dashed off towards Ghede’s. The Dead woman watched him ride off down 5th street, clicked her teeth in disappointment, and returned to the shadow of her porch. The gnats followed her like little lovestruck ducklings.

Jake had spent many evenings in his family’s hovel in Breedertown listening to his grandfather tell stories about the way things used to be, when the living outnumbered the dead and you had to have a pulse to vote.

“Nowadays,” he’d repeat like a mantra, “anything that can crawl to a voting booth has a say in the way the country is run. It’s not right.”

Jake’s mother would reprimand his grandfather not to talk like that around him, but it never seemed to matter. One night, after a few glasses of homemade wine, Grandpa had become especially loquacious. He sat Jake down on their tiny porch and bore down on him with the full force of his indignity.

“Just adding insult to injury, they was. It wasn’t bad enough they started eating us, no, then they got uppity about it. A year or two after the first Pandemic the damn dead was talking, organizing. They were saying they were the victims- can you believe that?”

As a child, Jake believed a lot of things.

“Anyway, there was so many of them, and they had figured out that they needed the flesh, see? It was not having it that made them dumb and violent. Boy, that’s when all hell broke loose, dead people talking about Dead Rights and how we all had a responsibility to help them survive. Survive!” Jake’s grandfather had spit and roared at that.

“Ain’t one among them that survived nothing!”

That night, Jake’s mother cut Grandpa off early and sent both he and Jake to bed.

Jake’s parents were not much better. They knew what they had to do to make ends meet, but it they never seemed ready to accept that it was the way things had become. They had heard everyday of their lives about the time before, as he had for most of his. They behaved like they actually remembered it. They were born with a sense of Living entitlement that Jake struggled to understand as an adolescent. Growing up in Breedertown was hard enough, knowing that right outside the enclave’s limits were the Dead, some older than even Jake’s grandfather, and that it was really the Dead keeping the country together. It was the Dead working day and night without rest to keep farms operating and hospitals running- Jake himself had been delivered by a Dead doctor. As Jake saw it, the reality was that the Dead had as much a responsibility to the Living as the Living had to the Dead. Eventually, we all just had to get along.

It was almost 8 o’clock and Jake was speeding along as fast as he could, pushing his bike to its oxidized limits, when he finally made it to Papa Ghede’s. The restaurant didn’t open for almost an hour, and he banged on the steel back door and braced himself for the inevitable scorning. The door wasn’t even open all the way when the yelling started.

“Damn it Jake, you’re half an hour late! That’s the second time this week.”

The bellowing belonged to Papa, an old Dead man whose legs has turned black and fallen off years ago, confining his remains to a wheelchair that was rustier than Jake’s bike. Papa ate well, so he was preserved better than many Dead folk, but his hair had fallen out and he’d been overweight when he died. Those characteristics, combined with Papa’s bruised and ashy skin, reminded Jake of a slug. Papa’s stained, floral print shirt didn’t do much for Jake, either. A big, rotten, floral printed slug.

“Yeah, sorry sir, it won’t happen again. I got held up at the checkpoint.”

Papa affected a snort and rolled back into the kitchen. Jake grabbed the newspaper wrapped package and followed him, taking a deep breath of the air outside before entering.

Jake had a certain fondness for Papa Ghede’s – particularly the fact that it was very clean. Papa took pride in making sure his establishment, a little diner off Roosevelt, was spotless every morning and cleaned of all decomposed patron-parts at closing time. Papa Ghede’s diner was only open 18 hours a day, which was unusual in a city that never slept. As he lugged the twenty pound package up on the kitchen’s counter, Jake looked around furtively.

Papa noticed Jake’s searching glance, and groaned a little.

“If you’re looking for Helena, she’s in the walk-in.”

Jake laughed nervously, and Papa eyed him through clouded eyes. He wheeled himself into the dining room, shaking his misshapen head.

“No, no, I’m just admiring the décor,”Jake said to no one in particular.

Papa Ghede’s, despite being 1500 miles from New Orleans, had a definite Voodoo vibe. Papa had embraced the once derogatory term of “Zombie” and built his business around it- Images of top hat wearing skeletons and bottles of hot chili oil graced the shelves and walls, and streamers of purple and gold hung throughout the tiny diner. From a small boombox in the kitchen, the brassy sounds of zydeco music blared and filled the place with a nostalgic ambiance. Jake secretly wished there was a place in Breedertown that had a similar mood, but most of the establishments there were moody, poorly lit bars with little joy or life.

“Boy, just set the delivery down and get in here.”

Jake hated how the Dead always called him “boy,” but he knew there was no point making a fuss about it. The Dead were set in their ways. Jake followed Papa into the dining room, where he was punching buttons on the register in a huff. Behind Papa was a large poster of President Luison, who had not only been the first female President, but the first Dead one as well. She smiled that perfectly preserved smile down on Papa’s angry bald skull from beneath her perfectly coiffed blond wig.

“Twenty pounds at four bucks a pound-”

“6 dollars a pound, Papa. It’s fresh,” Jake interuppted.

Papa raised what was once an eyebrow at Jake, and smiled a broken tooth grin.

“Well, well, aren’t we fancy. I’ll set out the candles and good napkins for the guests tonight! I’ll make it the special,” Papa mocked.

Jake rolled his eyes, and Papa pulled a fistful of ten dollar bills out of the register and passed them to Jake.

“You want to stay for breakfast, Jake?”

The hackles on the back of Jake’s neck stood up and he shook his head gently.

“Don’t worry, boy, I think Helena could whip you up something vegetarian, if you are in the mood.”

As if in response, the sound of the walk in freezer closing sounded over the blasting zydeco music, and a moment later, Helena entered the dining room.

Jake felt the blood rush into his cheeks at the sight of her. Helena – pale and beautiful, with high cheekbones and long black hair like a waterfall of silk all the way down to the small of her back. Her skin was the color of milk, smooth and flawless, and her eyes were dark and clear. Jake’s heart beat hard in his chest. She saw him and smiled, her lips parting like they were actually alive.

“Hi, Jake.”

He smiled wide.

Jake had met Helena at a bar in Breedertown three months earlier. He’d bumped into her while trying to cross the border of the dancefloor, a drink in both his hands. He had smiled sheepishly and moved on, but after sitting at the table with his friend Benji, he found his gaze returning to her repeatedly. Her long slim arms moved with a serpentine grace as she danced with her friend and stranger alike. Jake had hardly noticed Benji’s swift elbow in his side.

“Stop staring and go talk to her,” Benji told him.

Jake threw himself towards the dance floor, fueled by desire and liquor and when she saw him she had gravitated to him without hesitation. They danced until Jake could barely stand, and when they fell into a booth together they ended up talking for hours while Benji entertained himself with a local girl. They talked about nothing in particular – the music, the people at the bar, and the weak drinks. It didn’t matter. Jake couldn’t tear himself from the beautiful, passionate energy of the pale girl named Helena.

It wasn’t until closing time when the lights came on and the power of drink had waned that Jake realized she was a Ghoul. His mind had reeled at that. Her laugh was infectious, and her smile was bone white in the blacklight blur of the Breedertown dive. When he’d asked for her number, she looked at him like he was insane but gave it to him anyway. He’d rushed home that night, his bike nearly collapsing under him, and thrown himself into bed. He spent the whole night thinking about her.

The next morning, he’d approached his Grandfather on the porch and asked what he knew about Ghouls.

“New-fangled Dead, that’s all. A bunch of self-important creeps, Jake. They think they’re better than us ’cause they’re Dead, and they think they’re better than the Dead ’cause they don’t have to eat flesh to keep from going to the worms.”

When he’d asked how they came about, Jake’s grandfather growled in disgust.

“The damn Pandemic never went away. The Dead carry it, some of us Living catch it, we die and go Dead.” Jake’s grandfather looked sad for a moment, then continued.

“Sometimes, little children or babies catch it, you know? And they don’t die – at least, not the way we Living do. They just stop living, but they don’t stop growing. It’s against the law for the Living to raise ’em, so the Dead come in when they hear about it and take ’em away to foster homes. The damn disease just keeps mutating, finding new ways to beat us. No surprise it turned into something new. One day, we’ll all be dead, Living and Dead alike.”

Jake’s grandfather had then started coughing, something deep and raw. He waved his hand in dismissal after catching his breath.

“Mark my words, Jake, you stay away from them. They’re a bad crowd.”

Jake nodded, but two hours later he had called Helena.

Since then, they’d seen each other a couple of times a week- mostly when Jake made the deliveries. She’d cross the border into Breedertown with a few of her ghoul friends to slum it with the Living, but inevitably Jake and her would find some private spot where they could talk. On one night in particular, he’d ran his hand through her hair and gasped at its softness.

“It never stopped growing,” she’d purred into the humid night air.

Shortly afterwords, Jake told Benji that he was seeing a Ghoul, and Benji had lashed out and punched him in the temple. Benji and Jake had not spoken since that night. Jake had decided then that it was better not to tell anyone.

A few days after that, Jake had been helping his father exhume bodies from the local dig when he decided to get some advice. “Dad,” he started, pulling his rebreather down so he could speak clearly, but his father simply motioned for him to continue digging. He pulled his mask back up and after they had cracked a few coffins and moved the bodies to the wagon, he tried again.

“Dad, when did you know you loved Mom?”

His Dad had said nothing for a while, looking out over the dozen holes they’d dug looking for something usable to sell. When he did speak, he looked Jake right in the eye.

“When her parents passed away, and we were working together at the butchers. She knew what she had to do.” Jake’s dad had then thrown his shovel in the back of the truck with the bodies.

Jake thought of all this while watching Helena wipe down the front counter. Papa eyed the two of them warily, then waved one fat hand at her.

“Get to prepping the meat, Helena, it’s not going to prep itself.” Papa laughed to himself, clearly pleased with his little attempt at humor.

Helena sighed, then glided back into the kitchen. Jake followed her without hesitation. The package Jake had brought was still on the counter, and a small cluster of flies danced merrily across its surface looking for some port of entrance. Helena swept them away with one motion of her bone-white hand and began to undo the string holding the mass together. Papa’s rusted wheels moaned and silverware clattered from the dining room, but Jake hardly noticed. He was watching Helena’s fingers gracefully undo the knot of string, her movements perfectly lifelike. She looked over at him and smiled again. He cleared his throat.

“I hope that business has been good?”

Helena responded with a neutral noise as the knot came undone. She peeled back the layers of the newspaper until the package had opened like a flower to reveal the mass of white bloodless flesh within. She didn’t react, but Jake had to turn away as the blood drained from his face. Helena separated the cuts of meat into stacks, and then looked up at Jake.

“It was fun seeing you the other night. I hope you didn’t mind my friends tagging along.”

Jake was looking out through the service window of the kitchen and spoke quietly.

“No, it was fun. I was surprised, I guess. Your friends don’t seem to get tired.”

Helena laughed a little as she set one cut of flank to the side.

“No, I guess they don’t. I never thought I’d hear you complain about something like that.” She picked at a bit of spotted skin on a thigh and then turned to Jake. “It’s okay if you don’t like them, you know. I know it’s sort of strange. I just want you to be happy.”

Jake didn’t turn to face her. From the Dining Room, Papa mumbled profanities and the red and yellow glow from a chain of lights flickered across the surface of the wall that Jake could see.

“Jake.” Helena’s voice was wary. He looked over at her right as she slapped a cut of brain down and a grimace spread across his face.

“What? What is it? It’s never bothered you before to see me work.”

He shook his head again and crossed his arms across his chest.

“Yeah, I just had a rough night last night, I guess. Sorry.”

Helena shifted her feet, black cowboy boots on rust colored tiles. “Papa will be pleased it’s so fresh, Jake, but isn’t it…” Helena searched for the words, looking between the liverspotted skin and Jake. “You know, old?”

Jake nodded.

“Yeah. It’s Grandfather.”

Helena made a sad sound and looked down at the slab of cerebellum.

“I’m sorry, Jake.”

The cut of brain oozed gently on the cutting board.

“It happens, right? People die. The Living, I mean. We die. It happens to all of us.”

Helena nodded slowly, then looked at Jake.

“Jake, do you think…” she hesitated, made a cross face, and waved away the rest of her sentence with one alabaster hand. “Nevermind.”

Jake looked right at her, searching her face for emotion, but her gaze was locked in rigor mortis neutrality. He ventured a guess.

“You mean about you and me?” he said softly. She hesitantly nodded. Jake searched for the words, but could not find them.

“I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Sadness seemed to well up in Helena at that, and she placed both her hands on the counter and hung her head, a river of black hair cascading down like a veil to cover her face from Jake’s point of view. He flashed a glance back out the service window, saw Papa was busy hanging a poster in the window declaring one of the specials of the day: “Brain Gumbo.”

Jake chose to risk it. He reached out and touched her, tenderly running his hand up and down her back in a way he had to assume was comforting to all beings. A quiet sob rose from her, but no tears flowed from her black tourmaline eyes. Jake’s heart melted, and he moved in close and turned her to face him, drawing her frail body to his and holding her close. Only his heartbeat interrupted the space between them, punctuated by the gentle shaking of her body sobbing in pantomime of life. She wrapped her arms around him and slowly grew still again. The silence clung to them furtively.

“What the hell is this?”

Jake and Helena broke away from one another with an unbecoming swiftness and spun in horror to see Papa Ghede, aghast and wide-eyed watching them. He rolled menacingly towards them at a snail’s pace.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” His voice grew louder and a foam of black spittle formed at the edges of his cracked blue lips. “In my restaurant?” Papa’s corpulence shook with rage in the confines of his wheelchair and he struggled to speak through his anger. Jake put his hands up and attempted to diffuse the situation.

“Papa, it’s not what you think. She was-” Jake began, but Papa waved one hand angrily and rolled forward .

“You goddamn Breeder kids, you think you can do whatever you want? I gave you a job, you breathing hunk of scum, and this is how you repay me?” Papa banged his fist on the arm of his chair. “With this?”

“Papa, he didn’t-” Helena tried to intercede, moving deftly between Jake and Papa’s wheelchair. The elder Dead’s rage refocused on her in an instant.

“And you! I take you in, raise you as my own- and this is the thanks I get?” His dead eyes bulged nearly entirely out of their sockets. “You…You god damn…Vita!” The slur left his lips effortlessly, and Helena flinched at its utterance.

Jake’s blood went cold – It was quickly becoming clear that Papa was going to report them, and then all hell would break loose. His mind was racing- My family’s business, Helena’s job! his heart froze, and he grabbed his shirt in a panic. There were even more dreadful consequences for the Living who consorted with the Dead, and Ghouls were no exception.

Helena was trying to reason with Papa as he wheeled backwards. His wheelchair banged into the refrigerator, and Helena’s pleading became more desperate.

“It’s okay, Papa, please don’t tell anyone, please!”

Jake’s heart was pounding so hard that the argument between the two Dead seemed muted and distant. His hands were shaking as he leaned against the counter for support. The cold bare flesh of his grandfather’s butchered flank filled his vision, and he closed his hands into fists. Something was in his closed right hand, and when he looked down at it something froze in his heart.

He was holding Helena’s meat cleaver. He looked over at Papa, who was pushing Helena away with one fat hand and grabbing at the phone on the wall with the other.

His body moved as though possessed. He crossed the short distance between the prep area and Helena in what felt like slow motion, gently pushing her aside with his free hand and raising the meat cleaver over his head. Everything seemed quiet and graceful. Papa turned his face to Jake just as the cleaver came down and severed the dead man’s phone-gripping hand. Papa looked surprised.

Time seemed to catch up to Jake and all semblance of grace or poise vanished as he kicked Papa square in the ribcage, throwing the wheelchair on its back and sending Papa sprawling across the kitchen floor. Black ichor poured from the place where his rotting hand had been, and Papa pulled himself up and raised his other hand just in time to catch the second swipe of the cleaver in the space between his index and middle finger. The blade caught just above the swell of Papa’s thumb, and Jake pulled it out and came down on him in a flurry of chopping and senseless screaming. When the blood ceased to thunder in his ears, Jake was surprised by his own wordless shouting, and Papa lay motionless on the floor, his skull a mess of terrible gashes and pooling gore. As the pounding in his head stopped, Jake became aware of Helena’s voice.

“Jake. Jake.”

He turned to face her, wiping a mass of decaying flesh from his cheek. Helena’s eyes were wide, and her mouth was set in an inscrutable line. Jake dropped the cleaver and it clattered loudly on the wet floor.

“Helena, I…He would have….We would have…” Jake stuttered and motioned meaninglessly, unable to chain the words into a full stream of thought. The grimness of the moment was beginning to descend on Jake like the swarm of flies that were giddily beginning to explore Papa’s inanimate corpse.

Wordlessly, Helena grabbed Jake by the sides of his face and kissed him. Her lips were cold, but for a moment it felt as though his own warmth was spreading to her. When she released him, he was speechless. She grabbed him by the hand.

“We have to get out of here, Jake, the breakfast crowd will be coming soon.”

He was flabbergasted, and motioned to the body of Papa on the floor and made an idiot noise. Helena turned Jake’s face to hers again.

“We don’t have time, Jake. We have to go. If the police find us like this, we’re both dead.”

Jake understood what she meant, but it was hard to ignore the still coldness of her hand clutching his. He nodded dumbly. From the dining room, there came a rapping of knuckles on glass.

Jake and Helena rushed as one to the service window and peered out. A small crowd of the Dead had formed outside, and several were amiably rapping on the glass and motioning to the sign Papa had hung earlier. Their voiced were muted and tinny from the other side of the glass, a chorus of questioning. Hello? Brain Gumbo Special? Anyone there? Hello? Brains? Helena quietly cursed and pulled Jake towards the steel door that lead to the alley behind the restaurant. The morning sun beamed down on them and began to dry the blood spattered all over Jake’s face. They looked around the alley for an escape route. Jake grunted something and grabbed his bike, wrenching the basket free and throwing it aside.

“Quick, jump on the handlebars, let’s go!”

Helena wasted no time, mounting the front of his bike and settling into the awkward position. Jake pumped his legs as hard as he could and they were off, careening away from the restaurant and the voices of the hungry Dead that waited for it to open. The salty air of the Pacific filled Jake’s lungs and a sea-breeze caught Helena’s hair up in its grasp, tossing it about like a ribbon of ebony hue. They were six blocks away when Jake finally spoke.

“I’m sorry I killed your foster dad.”

He was surprised to hear her laugh – that warm laugh that had made him fall so hard for her in the first place. She looked over one soft pale shoulder at him and smiled gently.

“It’s okay, Jake. He was already dead. But us? We’re alive.”

The Haunting of Eight Oaks

Ambrose was beginning to feel stifled by the coziness of the parlor. Reclined uncomfortably in an overstuffed rosewood sofa, Ambrose sighed deeply. The air was thick with the smell of old cigar smoke. He felt like he was practically marinating in it. The wooden mantel clock ticked away unceremoniously, and Ambrose rested his head in his hands. After what seemed like ages, Ambrose’s reverie was broken.

Sorry to have kept you waiting, my boy.”

Ambrose looked up from his hands quickly, setting himself in as dignified a manner as possible. Before him stood a man easily six feet tall in a chestnut-colored coat and dark trousers, possessed of a stately beard and slick black hair. Ambrose rose and extended his hand.

Ambrose Monroe, sir.” The older gentleman took Ambrose’s hand in a firm handshake. The heady smell of cigars nearly crippled Ambrose’s senses.

Colonel Landon Davis, my boy.” The Colonel released Ambrose’s hand and casually inspected him. “So, you’re the one whose come to teach my daughter. You’re younger than I expected- but you come highly recommended. Is this your first time in Louisiana?”

Ambrose nodded nervously. The Colonel eyed him carefully, and spoke again.

My daughter is a headstrong girl, as her mother was. Do you care for a cigar, Mr. Monroe?” The Colonel motioned to a small box set alongside a pristine crystal decanter on a mahogany table. Ambrose shook his head.

I appreciate the offer, sir, but I must politely decline. You mentioned the girl’s mother?”

The Colonel turned towards the window as if to look out it, though the heavy curtains were drawn. Ambrose noticed a weight descending on the Colonel’s brow. It seemed to Ambrose that he was struggling to remember something, but his expression quickly passed back into stern formality.

Sadly, she’s passed. Drowned. A terrible accident.”

My condolences, Colonel. Was it long ago?”

The Colonel made his pained expression once more, and Ambrose immediately felt foolish for pressing the matter.

It was long ago, and yet not. The serenity of our home at Eight Oaks can play strange tricks of time on you.” The Colonel looked back at Ambrose, his face reassembled in a mask of sternness. “You are the inquisitive type, I see. I suppose it will be a good influence on my daughter.”

From somewhere in the manor a sudden cry went up, and Ambrose felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up at the shrillness of it. The Colonel looked unfazed.

Speak of the Devil — If you’ll excuse me a moment, Mr. Monroe.” The Colonel affected a crisp bow and exited swiftly, the lingering smell of cigar smoke hanging in the room behind him. Ambrose stood in silence a moment, waiting for the hackles on his neck to relax and for the Colonel to return. From somewhere nearby, he could hear muttering voices, muted as if on the other side of a wall.

Drowned her, though it was never proven…

Ambrose looked around the room in surprise. Ambrose shook his head and pressed his fingers to his brow. The trip to Louisiana had been long and tiring, and he suspected his mind was beginning to play tricks on him. It felt as though he had been sitting in the parlor for ages. Just as he was turning to check the mantel clock, a woman’s voice echoed from somewhere down the hall.

Ambrose.”

Startled, Ambrose leaned out the door of the parlor and looked down the long hall adjoining it. An door down the hallway lay wide open, and the voice spoke again.

My Ambrose.”

Ambrose felt a strange recollection – for a moment he almost recognized the voice, though he could not place it with any certainty. As if drawn by invisible hands, he walked down the hall against his better judgment and sense of propriety. Muttered voices seemed to coalesce and dissipate around him, and he thought for a moment he could hear a Yankee woman speaking softly.

Rumored to have had an affair with their daughter’s tutor…

Ambrose reached the door and peered inside. A small bedroom decorated with heavy curtains and a modest bed was illuminated by a hurricane lamp on the bedside table. Ambrose looked about, but saw no one. Drawn by curiosity, he stepped inside and walked towards the bed.

My sweet Ambrose.”

Ambrose turned sharply to the sound of the woman’s voice in the room. Before him stood a beautiful middle-aged woman in lavish spreading skirts. Her beauty was arresting, and her crisp emerald eyes seemed to look right through him. His body move towards her as if of its own volition, guided by a force unseen. Before he knew what was happening, he felt himself locked in an embrace with her. His lips moved as if remembering something long held in a fugue at the tip of the tongue.

Olivia, my love.”

Her lips were cool against his as they kissed for what seemed like time immeasurable. The woman whose name he somehow knew to be Olivia smelled of lavender spiked with the smell of cigar smoke. There was something beautiful and painful welling in his chest, and he struggled to place its familiarity right until the moment that the Colonel spoke.

Lost, Mr. Monroe?”

Ambrose snapped to attention and spun to face the Colonel, who was leaning against the frame of the door with an expression of mild bemusement. He caught his breath and struggled to speak, making a small sound of fear in his throat.

Colonel, I…”

I see you’ve found the room you’ll be staying in, Mr. Monroe. I hope it suits your preferences?”

Ambrose turned his head sharply to where Olivia stood, but there was no one there. He turned back to the Colonel, whose bemusement was slowly shifting to impatience. Ambrose croaked a response.

Yes. It’s very lavish, thank you. May I ask what that cry was all about?”

The Colonel looked at Ambrose as if he were mad.

What cry, boy? Have you been sneaking into my private spirits?”

Ambrose went flush in the cheeks. “No, sir. I would never dream of such an impropriety.”

A woman’s gentle laughter resounded from the hall, though neither Ambrose nor the Colonel took any note of it. The Colonel stepped out of the doorway and Ambrose followed him, looking back into the room in confusion. The scent of lavender clung to his lapels. The Colonel motioned to a door across the hall with barely-concealed pride.

Only the finest amenities are to be found here at Eight Oaks, Mr. Monroe.” The Colonel turned to face him, indicating the door. As he spoke, Ambrose felt as though the Colonel’s voice reverberated with a distant one in chorus. “Indoor running water, and indoor facilities.”

While Ambrose was certainly impressed by the rare and luxurious existence of an indoor privy, he couldn’t shake the encounter he’d just had, nor could he account for the Colonel’s casual manner. The distant voices rose softly again, and Ambrose suddenly felt as though he were moving within a crowd of muttering strangers.

…After doing so to the tutor. No one really knows, but we all enjoy a little speculation…

Colonel Davis, forgive me if I seem dull for asking, but you mentioned your wife…” The Colonel interrupted Ambrose with a brusk laugh and clapped one mammoth hand on his shoulder.

Where are my manners? Of course, Mr. Monroe, let me introduce you to my wife and daughter.” The Colonel turned Ambrose down the hallway. At the end of the long stretch of hallway stood two women, one lovely and young and the other beautiful and in her prime. Both wore spreading skirts but Ambrose barely noticed it – from all the way down the hall the emerald eyes of Mrs. Davis captured him, and as he walked with the Colonel it felt as if he might drown in the turbulent tides of her inviting gaze. As he approached, Ambrose felt a distant recognition but struggled to place from when and where.

Mr. Monroe, my daughter, Chloe.”

Ambrose broke his gaze and faced the younger girl, but he could hardly see her through the haze of Mrs. Davis’ presence. He smiled politely and she curtsied in response. He vaguely recalled the sound of her crying out earlier and the Colonel’s egress to find her, but made no note of it. He quickly turned to face Mrs. Davis.

And my wife, Olivia.”

Mrs. Davis offered one gloved hand to Ambrose, who took it politely. He could feel the warmth of her body, alive and thrumming, through the gentle fabric of her white glove. “A pleasure, Mr. Monroe. We are all quite thrilled to have an educated man from Pennsylvania staying with us.”

Ambrose spoke, and the words left his lips as if in a dream.

The pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Davis.”

A silence descended upon the group, and from somewhere nearby, voices rose up, muffled as if behind walls, and the sound of their conversation passed through the Ambrose and the Davis family – though if any of them heard it, none made indication of its passing.

I’ve heard rumors that Eight Oaks is haunted.”

Melanie Pearl turned to face the group of tourists as she led them down the long central hallway of Eight Oaks and laughed gently. The young woman who mentioned the local legend smiled timidly. Melanie addressed her with the polite dismissal only tour guides have ever truly mastered.

That’s a legend we here at Eight Oaks often hear. The owners in the late mid-nineteenth century were the Davis family, and Colonel Davis’ wife is rumored to have had an affair with their daughter’s tutor. It’s also said that Colonel Davis drowned her, though it was never proven and there are no records to indicate any such foul play.”

Melanie walked slowly backwards as the group of a dozen tourists admired a crystal decanter on a table in the hallway. She forced her smile to remain rigid and polite.

It’s also said that Colonel Davis shot himself after finding out, after doing so to the tutor. No one really knows, but we all enjoy a little speculation. Here, however, is something of real interest, a unique rarity in the antebellum south; Indoor running water, and indoor facilities.” Melanie deftly changed the subject, as she was trained to do, and indicated the door of the bathroom. The tourists made impressed noises. She continued down the hallway into the parlor, still decorated in the style of the time it was built.

Here is the parlor, where guests would have been received. As you can see, the curators of Eight Oaks have done a brilliant job of maintaining the décor in a period-accurate style.” A two-backed sofa sat, empty, in the corner of the room. The tourists spread out to admire the artifacts of a past age, all but forgetting any mention of hauntings. The young woman who had addressed Melanie in the hall sneezed abruptly, then stifled another sneeze, and another. Melanie smiled as politely as she could manage. The woman approached her, sniffling slightly.

Miss…” the woman searched to recall Melanie’s name. Melanie indicated her name tag.

Ah, Miss Melanie? Why does everything smell like cigar smoke?”