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The Green Nest 

The Green Nest is an off-cut from the Fallouts series. It was originally chapter 5 of the first book, but for pacing reasons (and the fact that the first book is massive), it was left on the cutting room floor. My editor thought protagonist Haru should get to his PoQ – Point of Quest – as soon as possible, rather than investigating another paranormal mystery, which is what he does here.

Halfway between Shovelling and Ra, my letter tin began to rattle.

The wastelands stretched out from horizon to horizon around me, uniform grey in the distance, revealing patches of viridian and sepia in the foreground. I paused for respite on the crest of a great scrap mountain. Directly to the north there were a few townships, a forest of sorts and a chain of marshland. Ra lay further east, with no civilisation of note between it and me.

I rolled myself a cigarette, and puffed away heartily as I checked my letter tin.

‘Dear Haruki,

I hear you’re currently located in western parts of the Ra Wastelands. We have several other agents in the area, and all have refused to take on this job. Don’t let that dissuade you; I’m sure it’s the business of the mender’s lifestyle that prevents the others from acting.

I did mention a job, didn’t I? Yes, it’s in HarringtonFord. The mayor there, one Gunstav Elbow, has written to the Monster Squad asking for help with a bit of a bug problem. Well, you know the Monster Squad. They’re up to their eyeballs already in things what need swatting, so a couple of ladybirds and an earwig are the least of their concerns. The Monster Squad has passed the case on to us, and so I’m passing it on to you.

Go and have a look, won’t you? I’m sure it’s nothing a solid smack with a rolled-up newspaper can’t handle. Be a good lad and make sure whatever bug-spewing rifts in the area are closed once you’re done.

Cheerio,

Georgom Thorn,

Menders’ Guild, Department of Wandering Mender Affairs.’

I stared at the letter for several minutes. On one hand, I was pleased to hear from Georgom. Georgom is the epitome of bachelorhood and has been my best friend for ten years now. He taught me all the essentials of a life of bachelorhood—smoking, drinking, and cheating at cards—when I was fourteen and he was old enough to know better. On the other hand, I was less than pleased about being called ‘lad’, and scoping out HarringtonFord would mean another day added to my trip to Ra.

I rolled myself another cigarette, using the blank corner of Georgom’s letter to hold the scant amount of tobacco I had left. And that decided it for me. I needed tobacco. I needed paper. Harrington Ford was close by, and as good as stop as any for fattening up my tobacco pouch.

Puffing like a windswept chimney, I replaced my letter tin in my pocket, and started down the mountainside. It was time to swat some bugs.

Night had fallen by time I reached HarringtonFord, a pleasant town on the banks of the Serpine River. I blame the night for my failure to notice what would have been immediately obvious during the day.

Harrington Ford’s only tobacco merchant was kind enough to give me directions to the mayor’s house. I’ve been through the town a few times before, and knew it well enough not to get lost in the dark. There wasn’t much town to know. Mayor Gunstav Elbow himself answered his front door. Once I explained who I was, and that I was here to see about HarringtonFord’s bug problem, Gunstav welcomed me into his home like a long lost nephew.

I did wonder briefly over a dinner of cold ham and salad why all the curtains in the mayor’s house were so astutely drawn, so that not even a sliver of night pierced the rooms. I also wondered about the doors and windows being shut tight, despite the heat of the night, though not a single one was locked.

Suffice to say I did not wonder enough.

I slept in the lounge room, since it was more spacious than the guest room, and Gunstav refused to let me retire to the garden. My time in Shovelling had been an unusual week for me in that I slept indoors the entire time. Had it not been so necessary to the case, I would never have considered it. Sleeping indoors is something I’ve never had much patience for. I’m a deplorable vagrant, I know. What’s more, I should have known something was amiss when Gunstav insisted I stay inside.

You’re probably thinking by now that what was amiss was Gunstav himself. Like maybe he wanted to shackle me to the couch and torture me with maths jokes for years on end until I finally went insane and brained him with an abacus. Not so.

This is what happened.

Here’s me, sprawled like a wet towel on the couch, sleeping as soundly as my disdain of the indoors would allow. Some remote part of my brain was telling me it was morning, but since the curtains were drawn, the lack of ambience clashed with my natural alarm clock, and I stayed sleeping.

However, there are creatures more sensitive to light than I. Moths are one such creature. This particular moth detected the phantoms of light trickling in around the curtains, and decided it would hide itself away for the day.

Well, what looked like a grand hiding place to this moth was old Haruki myself, perfectly stationed for being molested by a moth in the wee hours of dawn. The moth dropped from the roof, and the whumph of its wings woke me. With most moths, you won’t hear their wings opening. I heard this one. And I saw it, a split second after the noise had convinced me that yes, this was morning, and high time I got moving.

I moved, alright. A moth the size of an open atlas dropped onto my face, feelers sweeping over my hair, giant hairy legs clawing for purchase against my shoulders.

All I can say to you if you’ve never seen a moth up close is, don’t. Don’t see it up close. Especially don’t see it up close when it has feelers as long as your arm and eyes like a couple of disco balls wedged in the nightmare of its face.

I managed to get one hand up under the moth’s spiny, spongy thorax, and pushed it away from me. The moth took to the air, buzzing around the lounge room in corking, bewildered circles. I promptly fell off the couch, scrambled up off the carpet, and sprinted out of the lounge room. I found Gunstav Elbow already awake in the kitchen, sipping his coffee. A roly-poly bigger than a cow’s head was perched on the wall above the sink. A snail I could have ridden hung from the roof.

‘What god-awful business is going on here!’ I demanded, barely able to get the words out over my indignation. ‘This here isn’t a bug invasion—it’s a freaking monster invasion!’

‘Well, yes,’ admitted Gunstav Elbow, regarding me over his coffee. He had the morning newspaper spread out on the table. Just your regular Saturday morning, reading the paper before it was devoured by man-high snails. ‘It’s a bit like that. I thought you might be more inclined to help if you started with the smaller bugs and worked your way up to the biggens.’

I glared at him. I don’t really have what you would call a thousand yard glare, or the coiled potential of a cobra for intimidation purposes, but I believe Gunstav got my message.

He huffed. ‘There are bigger, you know. Widow Cabaggo on Pots Streets has been inconvenienced for a week by a ladybird the size of a bathtub living in her outhouse.’

I glared at him some more.

‘Tell me, master mender, do you believe this is in your line of work?’ Gunstav returned his attention to his coffee so he could ignore my glaring. Curse him.

‘I believe this is in the line of work of the 11th Squad Royal Terminators!’ I snapped, and stomped into the lounge room to fetch my backpack. Once I had it, I stomped pointedly past Gunstav and headed for the front door.

‘Wait!’ he cried, forgetting his coffee. ‘Please, don’t leave us like this! The other menders have all been too afraid to help!’

The other menders, yes. Georgom had mentioned them. Too busy with the mender lifestyle, he had said. Pah. Liar. The other menders were too sensible, more likely.

I knew I should go. Whether or not there was a rift to blame for this, as there surely was, it was not my job to take on hordes of bugs that swatted back. And I had to get to Ra. If I didn’t make it by Festival of the Dead, the curfew would keep me detained in the outer wastelands for another half a week.

The moment I had thought those words, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Slowly, reluctantly, I turned to Gunstav Elbow. He stood clutching his newspaper in one hand and his coffee in the other. A cockroach as long as Gunstav was tall slid out from around the kitchen door and scurried up the wall. Gunstav turned a whiter shade of grey.

‘Show me where the bugs were first sighted,’ I told him, feeling rather pale myself. ‘I’ll see if there’s anything I can do.’

Having seen all I wanted to of man-high cockroaches and overly gregarious moths, I bid Gunstav Elbow a good morning, and made my way to the town centre.

Saturday is market day in HarringtonFord. People swarmed around me, over me, and in the case of one curious pig, under me. I stood beside the pokey-yet-stupidly-prosperous newsstand, figuring it was as good a place as any to hear the gossip.

The marketplace was no freer from bugs than anywhere else in HarringtonFord. Millipedes, driven out of hiding by recent rain, moved in a black tide across the houses on the south side. They were studiously ignored, despite being of such proportions as to saddle and ride across the chimneys. Fleas as big as my balled fist made a fun game of springing through the throngs of shoppers. A particularly massive dung beetle cleared a whole cottage away with its roll of dung.

No one paid the bugs any attention whatsoever, and whenever I asked about them, people would look at me as though I were quite mad. I had more luck finding dirt on the esteemed Mister Elbow than I did of hearing an answer about why that hornet was carrying away that cat.

‘So you’re the mender staying with our Mister Gunstav,’ an old lady crooned, latching onto my elbow. I hadn’t uttered a word of my being a mender to anyone except Gunstav himself, who lived alone, and I had arrived in the pitch black of last night to stay with him. I couldn’t figure out how everyone in the market knew me, until I remembered the tobacconist. But she had been blind, deaf, and only registered I was in the store when I put a packet of tobacco in one of her creased hands and the money to pay for it in the other. She’d smiled and counted out my change. How she had given a full description of me to everyone in HarringtonFord by dawn this morning was one of those miracles of small towns.

‘He’s a lovely fellow, isn’t he?’ said my new escort, age one thousand. ‘He’s done an awful lot for this town.’

‘Been in council for twenty years now,’ another passerby chipped in. ‘You’d never think there was that rule about changing office every three years.’

My escort scoffed at this. ‘Mister Gunstav changes job titles, just like everybody else there. He’s just very good at his job, so we keep voting him in. Don’t worry about her, love,’ she told me. ‘We folks here follow the rules. No consecutive voting of councillors for us, oh no.’

She was referring to the Midgardian law that every three years, anyone in a position of power must be cycled out of that position. There are ways around it, but if the Surps get a whiff of any in-housing, you can bet the next news headline will be Mayor Such-and-such and his entire party being shipped off to the Monster Front.

I didn’t bother to tell my escort I wasn’t a Surp. Everybody knew the saying: if you think somebody is a Surp, you’re wrong.

‘I hear he’s got his eye on Treasurer this year,’ chirped a lady who was almost entirely hat. ‘Mister Gunstav, that is. Tell him he can be sure of my vote.’

‘Not mine,’ grumbled some old man on his way by. ‘I wouldn’t vote for the bastard unless it meant writing my name on a morgenstern and lobbing it at him.’

‘Far be it from you to vote for a candidate who isn’t a life support for a pair of tits,’ scolded the old woman attached to my arm.

I nearly choked. ‘Excuse me! I was asking about these bugs, not your opinion on the next election!’

Roughly half the marketplace turned to me and said, ‘What bugs?’

I grabbed a low-flying woodlouse the size of my foot out of the air, and thrust it under the nose of the hat lady. ‘These bugs. These giant bugs! But if you’d prefer to live with ladybirds filling up your outhouses, be my guest!’

‘Now, now, let’s not be hasty,’ a senior citizen told me hurriedly. It seemed Gunstav wasn’t the only one to hear of Widow Cabaggo’s bug problem.

‘There isn’t much we can tell you, dearest,’ said the specimen of prehistory who was latched onto my elbow. ‘I do believe Mister Adjango was the first to mention our little problem with the beetles.’

Now we were getting somewhere. I removed the woman from my arm, set her aside, and said, ‘Right. Where is he?’

A man with socks reaching to mid-thigh grunted, ‘Old Adjango’s got a farm on the outskirts o’ town. You follow Hansy Road to the end, you’ll find his place there. Got cedars in the front yard. Got a pig wants spittin’, too. Mind his wife, she bites.’

There was a general murmur of consensus around the market.

‘Thank you,’ I said, not as graciously as I should have. ‘If I ever need an opinion on which way to vote, I’ll ask you.’

The old woman laughed and slapped my arm. ‘We’re always pleased to have fresh meat in town.’

Rather than scream, I plastered on a smile and moved on. Most of the market-goers gave me a once over and approved, as though I was a horse out for inspection. One grumpy old fart muttered something about me corrupting the minds of his women. I ‘tripped’ and ‘accidentally’ booted him in the shin.

‘Terribly sorry, sir,’ I grinned.

‘Get outta here, ya big bastard,’ he snapped.

I didn’t need telling twice. With a skip, a hop and a jump, I was out of the marketplace and onto the street. Hansy Road wasn’t hard to find; anywhere else in HarringtonFord is hard to find if you can’t find Hansy Road. It cut straight through the middle of town, pausing only for the market square, and blazed on into the marshlands.

Adjango’s house was at the end of the road as promised. It was a cottage built on swamp, and cedars strained up from the wild front garden as if trying to fly free. A pig that could have taken on Widow Cabaggo’s ladybird in an even match was tied to one such cedar.

I gave the pig a wide berth as I clambered down the rugged garden path. The swine espied me across a nest of nettles and let out an almighty squeal. I hit the dirt, fearing imminent pig attack, and Adjango’s front door flew open. A thunderhead billowed out.

‘Who and what do you propose to be?’ the thunderhead demanded, kicking me stoutly as I struggled to my feet.

‘Are you Adjango’s wife?’ I ventured, not daring to give my name to such a frightening apparition. If she had my name and my nail clippings, she could hex me to death. It wasn’t a chance I was prepared to take.

‘I’m Adjango! Missus Adjango. Yella Adjango. You’ll be wanting Brown Adjango. Move along, boy, no use you sitting around on the path all day, the bloody pig will eat you. Get inside and I’ll make you a cup of tea. We’re having scones. You eat scones. Get inside.’ She must have sensed my reluctance to wander into a harpy pit, because she screamed and smacked me with her wooden spoon. ‘Get moving, stranger! Before I get sick of the sight of you!’

Since that particular event seemed to be no more than six seconds away, I hurried towards the house. The inside was a stark contrast to the front yard. It was immaculate. I was afraid to breathe lest my exhalations taint the polished air. Yella Adjango planted her wooden spoon into the small of my back, and pushed me through the house. A whole lot of embroidered cushions and crocheted kittens swam by until at last we reached the back verandah.

Here, perched at the table, eating scones, and looking very much like a mouse sitting on the trap to eat the cheese, was Brown Adjango. He was immediately unmistakable for anyone other than himself. He had the look of someone named Brown. He wasn’t really brown, not any more than the next lifelong farmer, but he was craggy faced and wild haired, with eyebrows obviously grown out for the express purpose of hiding from Yella.

‘You’ll be the mender, then,’ he said to me, before I’d had a chance to introduce myself. ‘Heard you’re staying with Elbow.’

‘Elbow’s a fool,’ Yella snapped. ‘Brown, mind your manners. Offer the guest a scone. Don’t slouch. You’re still slouching! I swear one of these days you’re going to slouch so much your spine will snap. Have a scone, boy! I’ll fetch the tea. You like it white with no sugar. I know the look of you. Sit down, what are you afraid of, electrified chairs? We only have them for Brown to stop him slouching.’

And Yella stormed off to rain havoc on the kettle.

‘The chairs aren’t really electrified,’ Brown told me, smiling apologetically. ‘I just pretend they are to please her.’

I took a seat warily. No electric shock. It must be my lucky day. The verandah overlooked an expanse of swampy farmland pushing against the tide of the scrap heap. A herd of donodin cast bulky shadows against the distant chain of ponds. The river widened at this end of town, spreading itself over half a kilometre of marsh. Between there and here I could see a swarm of giant gnats, a grasshopper devouring a fence post, a trio of cicadas bending a poplar tree to breaking point, and that wasn’t to mention the nest of prehistoric ants marching across the verandah ceiling, nor the ammonites swarming around our feet.

I checked to see that Brown Adjango hadn’t fled from his wife while he had the chance. ‘Those your donodin?’

‘Yup. Mine and Yella’s. Got about four hundred head of ’em spread about the place. Mind you, I lost half the calves this year to bugs. Reckon I never saw a dragonfly eat a donodin before, but there you have it.’ Brown’s expression was steady. His voice carried a note of sorrow. Sorrow, as opposed to downright terror, which I’m pretty sure I would have been expressing in his position.

‘I’m looking to help you get rid of those bugs,’ I told him, hoping I wasn’t lying. ‘I was told they begun appearing around your property before they showed up anywhere else.’

Brown nodded. His gaze was on the paddocks. ‘Yeah, reckon so.’ He sighed, suddenly and heartfelt, and his plain face twisted up like he was trying hard not to cry. ‘Yella told me this place was cursed. Last year, like. Before, maybe. We had a mender out here before, had trouble with our main dam. Wouldn’t hold water. O’ course we had salinity issues before that and the whole bit about the foot fungus on the young donodin, but our trouble didn’t really get started until the business with the dam. Now this. Gonna have to sell up. Aw, shit. Nobody with a brain would want to buy this place, and I wouldn’t feel right selling it to a simpleton. Some days I reckon I ought to wander out into that swamp and let the dragonflies finish me off. Be kinder than having to watch this happen.’

‘There’s always going to be trouble of some sort. We’ll have these measly couple of bugs sorted out in no time.’ I gave him what was possibly an encouraging smile. ‘You mentioned there was a mender out this way before.’

‘Yup.’ Brown paused as Yella blew like a hurricane onto the verandah, slammed our tea down on the table, and dropped a fresh plate of scones beside them.

‘I’m going out,’ she declared, face thunderous, ‘I’ve got my society meeting in town. You fellahs feel in need of another cuppa tea, you’re just going to have to wait until I get home.’

And with that, she spun on her black leather boot, and stormed back into the house. Her tea was strong, though not bad, and she had arranged the scones on a lace doily, complete with a porcelain tub of cream and another of jam. How she hadn’t broken the tubs when she threw them down on the table was a mystery to me. The porcelain probably wasn’t game to break while Yella had it in her sights.

Brown and I waited in silence until the front door slammed open and banged shut again a moment later. We breathed a sigh of relief.

‘She’s alright, my missus,’ Brown said, a touch guiltily. ‘She’s all bark.’

There was a squeal as Yella punted a hundred kilos of pig off her azaleas. ‘Back off, porky!’ she roared, and even from the front yard, the vibrations of her bellow stirred ripples in our tea cups.

‘She’s a flower,’ I agreed. ‘Now, can you tell me about the other mender? You said you had trouble keeping water in the dam.’

Brown shook himself like a man waking from a dream. Or a nightmare, you choose. He said, ‘Our main dam, yeah. You can see it out there, oh, I suppose you don’t know where to look. It’s alright now. About a year ago though, we had a whole lot of rain. If I recall, we had a hundred and eighty mil in a week. That’s a lot for this part o’ the countryside. Anyway, as you can picture, all that rain flooded the swamp, and the dams along with it. Every one of our reserve dams was overflowing for weeks. Not the main dam. That went down to half full within about a day of the rain finishing. It just outright refused to hold water. No matter how much Yella and I drained the other dams into it, even got the pump running ’tween the dam and the marsh, the water would always drop to half. Within hours, it would. We were pretty soon out of ideas about it, so I contacted a bloke who knows the Wardens well, and they sent over a mender.

‘I went out to the dam with her. She wouldn’t pick it without me, you know what these city folk are like. No offence, if you are one. All I’m saying is you wouldn’t know a half full main dam from a full reserve dam if your life depended on it. Girl took one look at the dam, anyway, and threw in this bit of string with a couple of bells on, and called it a job done. I thought it strange at the time, believe me, but I saw soon enough that it worked. The dam started holding water proper again. Farm ran smooth as butter after that.’

‘Until now.’

Brown nodded. ‘Yup. Until now.’

I thought for a moment, looking out at the paddocks. Although I wasn’t a city boy, I couldn’t pick the Adjangos’ main dam from a muddy puddle. I figured Brown didn’t need to know this. ‘From what you’ve said, it’s fairly obvious what’s gone wrong.’

‘Uh huh.’ Brown raised one furry eyebrow.

‘Yuh huh. She mistook the source of the rift.’ I pulled my backpack onto my knees and rummaged through it. Between the plate of scones and the tea cups, I sat a length of transdimensional string and two bells, one bronze and one gold. I glanced at Brown, ‘Look familiar?’

Both his seaweed eyebrows crept towards his hairline. ‘That string sure does. It has a funny sort of colour, doesn’t it? Sort of like you can’t see the whole of it, only what’s there. And what’s there isn’t everything there is of it. Yeah, that other mender had string just like it. She threw some of it in the dam. Called it by a name, like super string, or transient diabetic, er?’

He looked to me for help. ‘Transdimensional,’ I offered. ‘It’s string capable of existing in two places at once, with the interim residing as raw potential, possibly in the form of pure energy.’

‘Oh, yes?’ said Brown politely.

In circumstances like these, it’s best not to bother. But the Menders’ Guild code states that we should bother, in case one day someone somewhere actually understands what it is we’re talking about, and then we can kidnap them and force them to work in the Guild of Extra-Dimensional Technology, our sister guild and science department.

I looked Brown squarely in his muddled brown eyes and attempted to do the impossible. ‘The string converts the space between the ends, both of which you see here, into a one-dimensional data string, which of course being one-dimensional is completely invisible to multi-dimensional creatures like ourselves. Er. You mentioned the string looks like there’s more of it than you can see. You’re right. Except rather than there being an actual length of string that you can’t see, there’s energy which believes it is part of the string. When it comes into contact with a rift, which I suspect is at the bottom of your dam spewing beetles, it is capable of existing both inside the rift space and our own space, and when the rift is mended, the string is taken as compensation so that the rift no longer exists in this space.’

Brown stared at me. He was drooling. ‘I knew that,’ he said, shaking himself to sit upright. ‘I don’t know why you bothered telling me.’

I raised an eyebrow at this.

‘Alright, I’m lying. I didn’t understand a damn word you said.’

‘Speaking of dams, shall we get going? Oh, and before I forget, which colour bell did the other mender use? Gold or bronze?’

‘Bronze, solid bronze. I thought about fishing it up and selling it,’ Adjango said, getting up from the table.

I followed suit. We both stuffed our pockets full of scones. ‘Wouldn’t work. Fishing it up, that is. It was gone the second the rift was sealed.’

We set off across the paddocks before YellaAdjango could return and nag us to an early grave. After about a kilometre of swampy paddocks and barbed wire fences, I became aware of a mighty huffing and puffing behind us.

The puffing belonged to Gunstav Elbow. Against my better judgment, Brown and I paused for him to catch up.

‘Howdy, thanks,’ he gasped, breaking even with us. He huffed on to explain how he felt poorly for misleading me earlier, and wanted to repent by annoying me as much as possible. Maybe they weren’t his exact words. Maybe that’s just what I was hearing. Gunstav was alright as far as mayors go, but he was beyond retiring age, portly, and got hives when he ran. He wouldn’t be my first choice for backup against an army of bugs, or even my last. He just wouldn’t make the list at all.

His arrival meant I had to explain the situation again, although that was alright because I knew Brown Adjango was still struggling with it. People can have a hard time grasping rift theory, especially if they’ve not long ago woken up and expected the most they would have to do today is mow the lawn and read the paper.

‘The mender who helped you before had to decide whether the rift was sourced from the Gold World or the Bronze World,’ I told the pair, as we squelched through the paddocks, ‘She guessed wrong. Easy enough to do. In layman’s terms, it’s like this: a rift is a one-way passage between our world and another, and because of the natural laws of balance, rather than close the rift over, her actions projected a second hole to another world.’

‘You say Gold World and Bronze World, but I take it you mean the past and future of Midgard,’ Gunstav ventured.

‘No, I don’t. Forget that. Rifts are like magnets,’ I said, not willing to deviate from the issue at hand. Seeing the looks I was being given by Gunstav and Brown, I queried, ‘You do know what magnets are, right?’

‘Oh, yup, of course. They help you find north, and stick bits of paper to the salt box, that sort of thing,’ said Brown, eager to please.

Gunstav frowned. ‘Or do you mean magnets as in animal magnetism? I know several ladies of the town who have said that I have animal magnetism, and I take it to mean that I have the digestive prowess of a coal-powered goat.’

‘That’s animal metabolism,’ I said. ‘Animal magnetism means they find you attractive, or compelling.’

Or repulsive, I thought. Better to let him think the former.

‘Really! I did wonder how they knew so much about my digestion. It’s not a thing I tell many people about.’

‘Uh huh. Well, magnets and rifts are a bit like that.’

‘Speedy digestion?’ Gunstav suggested.

‘Forget about your digestion for a minute! A magnet has two poles, north and south. If you place two magnets beside one another, the sides that are similar, say two north sides, will push each other away. But if you have a north and a south side lined up, they’ll be attracted to one another.’

‘I see!’ Gunstav exclaimed. ‘Like how women are attracted to me!’

‘Sure, why not. Imagine that a rift is like a magnet. It has a north end and a south end. To close the rift, we need to use another magnet—these bells, which each represent a single polarity, say north or south—to hold it shut. And for that to work …’ I trailed off, wanting to test if enthusiasm to understand can lead to actual understanding.

‘For that to work, you’d need the magnets to be attracted to each other,’ Gunstav chipped in, ‘because if they were repelled, the hole would swing around the other way. But if they’re attracted, there isn’t any space in between the magnets, so the rift stays shut.’

I could scarcely believe my ears. He had understood it. And people say there’s no such thing as miracles. Ah, I’m rude. I should say, people say there’s no hope for humanity. And no miracles, either.

‘That’s exactly right. Gold star for you. I’m guessing the mender before me mistakenly used a bell that would repel the rift. Unlike magnets, repelling a connected space between worlds will create an opposite reaction, opening a rift between this world and the one not involved in the original reaction. That’s where these bugs are arriving from.’

I was getting funny looks again. Frankly, it was reassuring.

Brown gave a cry and pointed deeper into the paddocks. ‘There it is!’

His excitement over seeing a dam he had seen every day for the past twenty years without it being anything other than a dam that did dam things, was not in the least undue. I may have omitted to mention this, but all the while we were walking, the bugs were growing thicker and more furious around us. Cockroaches of standard size but torrential number swarmed over the knots of marsh grass. Black and orange beetles wheeled lazily in the sky like disorientated geese. Forgive me for not mentioning them. It seems the folks of HarringtonFord had the right idea in ignoring them—it wasn’t going to help us any to stand on chairs until the creepy crawlies went away. Still, Brown’s relief at finding the end in sight was unanimous amongst our muddy trio.

As we drew nearer the dam, moths the cousins of the one that had woken me that morning boiled over us like a thunderhead. I made to brush one away and its wings crumbled beneath my hand, showering me in dust. Their bodies were too fat, grub-like, as though they hadn’t fully metamorphosed before hatching.

‘This has got to be ground zero!’ I called over the drone of wings, trying to dodge the moths rather than crushing them. We three brave adventurers ducked under the swarm and ran for the dam.

Gunstav had more luck in running than Brown and I, who were hit with a descending wave of moths. Gunstav meanwhile cleared the swarm, and had just set foot on the clay verge of the dam when there was a sickening crunch and the eucalypt two metres to his left ruptured to splinters.

Brown and I ploughed through the moths and dragged Gunstav out of the path of the falling boughs. I left both men to check their limbs were accounted for, and turned back to the tree. The trunk had been wrenched apart clean down the centre, gory sap oozing from its splintered sides. Scurrying on the ground around it were cicadas as fat and heavy as hogs, desperate for cover. They had piled onto the tree until their weight snapped it.

Realising I was staring, I hurried back to Gunstav and Brown. Neither man was in the mood for conversation. Fine with me. We made our way quickly, silently over the dam wall so that we might better see the water and hopefully, the rift.

The dam’s surface was alive with flying, buzzing insects, from gossamer-winged ants to gnats and midges, to blowflies big enough to carry away a cow.

I fumbled with my backpack and produced the flat, resilient net that was my parting gift from Slazenger. I took an experimental swat at an overly amorous fly. The net worked better than expected; the fly uttered a snarling buzz and pinwheeled away over the lip of the dam.

‘Got any more of those?’ Brown wondered, his face ghostly white.

‘Sorry. I’ll try to keep them off you.’

We advanced through the mud at the dam’s edge. It was becoming terribly obviously that this would be no ordinary job. I could see the rift, a green eye hovering on the surface of the water, six metres from shore. Bobbing on the ripples below it was a ball made up of black and white hexagons. A thick rope was wrapped around the ball and presumably attached to a boulder on the dam’s muddy bed. The ball was so coated with slime that I never would have picked its original colours had I not seen one before, in a trophy room of fallout objects in the Valhalla Menders’ Guild.

‘That ball you’re using as a buoy,’ I said rather croakily to Brown. ‘That’s a fallout piece, isn’t it?’

‘Sure is. How’d you know?’ Brown seemed glad of any distraction, no matter how short-lived, and I couldn’t blame him. Giant bugs and plenty of them bustled curiously around us, in statistics too great to ignore.

‘Call it a hunch. I suspect it’s helped cause this mess. That buoy’s contact with an unevenly charged water supply created a friction blister between us and the Bronze World. When that popped, this rift opened up. I told you the mender before me mistook one world for another. That paved the way for a channel from the Bronze World to be opened up. The charge would have faded and the channel moved away, if this ball hadn’t been around. Think of it as a catalyst, ah, a trigger. I’m guessing the dam is back to half empty.’

‘You’re guessing right,’ Brown agreed. ‘And you’re right about another thing; when you’re living on the land, there’s always some shit to deal with. I only wish it would all stop happening at once.’

‘Welcome to the real world, sugar,’ I told him, and returned to rummaging through my backpack. This rift wasn’t a pretty little blister just waiting to be popped and repaired like the one in Ms Iyasuzi’s attic. This was open, and spilling bugs (in case you hadn’t noticed), and it needed to be closed now. I drew a length of string and two bells from my backpack, a bronze and a gold. Thanks to the demonstration I’d given Brown earlier, I had everything I needed sitting on top of everything I didn’t.

The string I cut in two, and tied to each bell. Then I changed my mind about how things should be done, and tied a knot in the string so that the two loose ends were joined.

‘I told you already,’ Brown protested, ‘That mender sheila did that before, with the string and the bells, and now this dam is worse than ever. Least before it didn’t spit roaches over the place.’

‘That’s why I’m going to do it again, and do it right. We’ll properly close off the rift to the Gold World, then round as many of these bugs as we can back into the other rift, and close off the Bronze World.’

‘Wait. Are you telling me that you want to send these critters back where they came from?’

‘Sure. Why not? They haven’t done anything wrong.’

Brown was incredulous. ‘Wrong! Are you kidding me? Not only did they eat my calves, and my wheat, and cause my old lady to—well, alright, she was bad anyway—but who cares what they’ve done or not done! Just close that damnable hole and me and Gunstav here will kill ’em all!’

I stared dispassionately at him down the length of my nose. ‘That attitude is exactly why I’m sending them home. You may not realise this, but that rift is a shortcut between two worlds, neither of which are Midgard, honey. Wonder why your water disappeared? It was distilled into two separate parts and sucked into the Gold World. When that hole was pinned directly to the Bronze World by means of that buoy, water from there began to flow into here in an attempt to restore the balance. Soon the hole was big enough to allow these bugs through. It’s getting to be of a ripe size now, ain’t it?’

Brown was meek, though I could tell he wouldn’t be mollified for long. ‘I s’pose so.’

‘It is. Well, guess what? That channel to the Gold World is still there, waiting to be opened, just as big as it was before. When that rift, that green eye there, grows to equal the size of the Gold World channel, those two worlds are going to be dragged together like the opposite poles of two magnets. You know where the ends will meet? Here. Right above your dam.’

We all looked at the rift. It looked back. Gunstav ventured, ‘Would that be bad? If the channels met, that is.’

‘Bad is one word for it. Sinkhole is another. The land for sixteen kilometres around this dam will be flattened, crushed, sucked into the sinkhole, and be gone forever. This area will be sealed off from Midgard for good. You’ll be able to walk from County Bisk to Shovelling in a single step, and it will be like HarringtonFord never existed. Got that?’

‘No.’ Gunstav said.

‘You’re saying that when that green eye, that rift gizmo there, when it reaches a certain size, everything here will be destroyed, right?’ said Brown, the less obstinate of the pair.

It wouldn’t be destroyed. It would be obliterated. A sinkhole is a vacuum which abhors matter, and any matter will do provided it’s close and it’s Midgardian. The theory is that when two rifts of equal weight meet, a shortcut between the worlds is created. It’s a shortcut that excludes Midgard. If a black hole opened up in your backyard one morning, you’d be dead, but you would also know first hand what a sinkhole is. The result would be a seam in reality so tightly stitched that no one would even know it existed.

I gave Brown and Gunstav a smile that wasn’t in the least reassuring. ‘Right. And I’m confident I can be far enough away in two hours that I won’t be affected, but the pair of you have your family and friends at stake as well as your own lives. Now, either we spare the bugs, or I’ll walk away. Run, even. Want to risk sitting on this until another mender happens along? It could be a while. Folks get busy around Festival of the Dead.’

‘Hold on there just a berry-plucking second there, boy-o. You’d seriously risk allowing everyone in HarringtonFord to be killed for the sake of a bunch of overgrown cockroaches?’ Gunstav demanded. He was too stunned to be mad, yet.

‘Without a second thought. Someone has to stick up for these bugs. Odin knows you won’t do it.’

The anger was starting to filter through. Gunstav sneered, ‘How do I know you’re not inventing this entire fiasco? It sounds ridiculous enough.’

I shrugged, and made to leave. ‘Wait and see, then.’

A hand on my shoulder stopped me. It was Brown. ‘Wait there, son. Gunstav. It’s true what he’s saying. I know you don’t want to believe it, and neither did I, but there’s another world on the other side of that eye. I know it. These bugs aren’t mice. They don’t just spawn whenever you leave a piece of hessian in the paddock.’

‘Get a hold of yourself, Adjango!’ Gunstav cried, taking Brown by the shoulders. ‘What you’re saying is mad! Everyone knows that on the other side of these, these rifts, there’s no other world. Just ours. Past and future. These bugs are just the throwback of our grandparents’ mistakes. There’s no such thing as, as, as places being sucked into these rifts. You’re talking nonsense!’

‘No, Gunstav, he’s right. The boy is right.’ Brown put his hands on top of Gunstav’s, and forced the other man to drop his grip. ‘About a week ago I was down here—I’m not in the habit of getting too close too often, since as you can see it’s a bog-heap in these parts and nothing better—and I looked into that eye and I saw rain. Rain pelting down onto the dam from no more than two hands above the surface. And these bugs just keep crawling out. It doesn’t matter if it’s past and future or if it’s bronze and gold or if it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. All that matters is that it is. We’ve got to do as the boy says, Gunstav.’

Brown and I regarded Gunstav expectantly. He glowered back. Eventually he stared up at the giant insects and sighed. ‘Whatever. Do what you want to. You have my promise as mayor that I’ll help you round these critters up afterwards.’

‘You won’t regret it,’ I grinned at Gunstav, not caring now if he glared or bit me or threw himself in the dam. ‘Let’s get this done. Brown, can you please hold this string?’

While Brown stood awkwardly with the mud up to his knees and the string and bronze bell in his hand, I waded out into the dam. I made quick work of sussing out the rift to the Gold World, which as expected was busting to be noticed. I looped my end of the string around it, and gave Brown the thumbs-up to pull the string.

As he did so, I pulled the folding knife from my pocket and split the Gold World channel open. It yawned into life. I didn’t give it a chance to start producing bugs or lions or anything else it might have in store for us. Instead I hauled the string out of Brown’s hands, and crammed it into the rift. It shut with a snap. There. Rift one closed. Now, to round up some bugs.

I was four lurching paces from shore when a ripple shuddered across the surface of the dam. A chill ran through me. Without a second thought I hit the water. There was a howling buzz, half drowned by the water sloshing around my ears, and a dragonfly soared from the Bronze World rift.

Gunstav and Brown scattered. Gunstav followed my lead and plunged headfirst into the warm, muddy water. Brown’s gumboots were stuck firm in the mud. He couldn’t run. He struggled out of them, and the dragonfly circled sharply overhead.

This was not the sort of dragonfly children would hunt on a summer’s afternoon. It was the sort of dragonfly which hunted children for fun, and likely ate them too. It darted down, wings a blur of gossamer. Brown screamed as the dragonfly caught him around the chest with four of its spiny legs. It dragged him from the mud, Brown screaming and beating at it frantically.

I was already on my feet and running, for what I don’t know. I’d left Slazenger’s fly swat on the shore, and I think I had some dumb hope of throwing it at the dragonfly to distract it. Gunstav was right beside me. We surged up out of the dam like a couple of mud men.

Gunstav cried, ‘Odin above, Haru, we’ve got to—’

And that was as far as he got before Brown’s screams reached a crescendo and cut off in a ripe splat. He had freed himself from the dragonfly only to be dropped twenty metres onto a fence post.

Gunstav roared and scrambled up the clay bank. He caught the dragonfly as it swooped down to pick Brown’s carcass from the post. Gunstav threw himself over the dragonfly’s carapace, pushed his arms around its thorax, and ripped its head clean off. Yellow bug viscera spilled out over the tussocks of marsh grass. I stumbled and hit the clay bank, staring, and nearly a minute passed before I felt well enough to make my way to Gunstav.

Even without its head, the dragonfly was mobile. It darted low across the paddocks before flagging sharply to one side, then flipped across ten or so metres of grass and shrubs before slamming into a eucalypt. There it stuck, twitching sporadically, a hundred metres away from its head.

‘He’s dead,’ Gunstav choked, as I staggered up. This of a man in little better condition than the dragonfly. ‘That bastard thing murdered him.’

‘And you killed it.’ I slumped to my knees. Gunstav was kneeling over Brown, too distraught to be nauseous. I was plenty nauseous. I was nothing but nauseous.

‘A man is dead! Damn the bugs! I’ll kill every one of them!’ Gunstav snarled.

‘I don’t think you can.’ I sighed. My tobacco pouch was drenched from my spontaneous dive, but I could smoke underwater at the moment. I rolled myself an exceedingly droopy cigarette and lit it with a match frisked from Brown’s jacket.

Watching me roll a cigarette, smoke it, and roll another gave Gunstav the time he needed to calm down. He said, voice shaking, ‘You’re one of them, aren’t you? A fallout. No one but a fallout could have sympathy for this lot of demon spawn.’

I was too busy trying to light my second cigarette with the stub of the first to be offended. ‘You got me. I prefer fallout to demon spawn, mind you. Is there a problem with that?’

‘We ought to call the Monster Squad. They’ll destroy every last one of these blasted bugs.’

I took this to mean that no, he didn’t have a problem with my being demon spawn. Ah, I mean a fallout. I glanced at him over the bloody remains of Brown Adjango. ‘Let’s not. I can agree with the dragonflies. It won’t do anyone much good to have things like that buzzing around. As for the rest, I’ll write a letter to the Menders’ Guild and have them send out a team from the Beast Recovery Department. They’ll take the bugs away, no need to kill anything. For now I recommend you have everyone in town light their fires and keep their windows closed. The smoke might discourage any bugs thinking about sneaking indoors.’

‘What happened to sending them home?’ Gunstav wondered, eying my cigarette enviously. It was not a thing to be envied, but these were exceptional circumstances. Thank Odin I didn’t pour myself a brandy; Gunstav likely would have strangled me for it.

‘I’ll concede you this; we’re taking too much of a chance leaving that rift open. Who’s to say more of those dragonflies won’t happen through while we’re rounding up ladybirds?’ I almost smiled, but then remembered I was practically sitting on a dead man. ‘Help me close the rift, then we’ll take Brown back to the house. We’ll sort the bugs out later.’

Gunstav agreed. Maybe he would kill the bugs the moment I left town, or maybe not. For now, we had Brown to think of, and his wife to inform, and that was a thought that scared me more than the dragonfly.

Night had fallen by time we reached the Adjango household. The Bronze World rift was safely sealed up and showed no signs of re-opening. Bummer. It meant I had no reason not to face Yella.

She greeted us on the verandah. Her usual thunderous manner soon dissolved as she learnt what had happened. Thankfully her reaction to her husband’s death was slow. She was shocked, but not yet ready to grieve. Moving as one entranced, Yella saddled up a mule so we could transport Brown’s body into town, and bid us a good evening.

Gunstav handed Brown over to the town mortician for safe keeping, left the mule tethered in the funeral parlour garden, and we both trudged the few remaining blocks to Gunstav’s house.

And that’s where we stayed. Bone weary, and in need of more than tea, but feeling revived after a hot shower and some sort of food that Gunstav apparently cooked himself. I can’t tell you what it was, other than that he called it food and that I obliged him by not commenting on how many shades of blue there were on the plate.

There were still bugs in town, but that was a challenge for tomorrow. I reckoned the fires would help. Me, I was doing my part to keep the beasties away by smoking constantly. Soon I would be a pyre of my own device, and able to scare off bugs a hundred yards distant. Well, maybe.

For what it’s worth, Brown Adjango, I’m truly sorry.

I’m sorry for the dragonfly, too.

I wish we could have found a way.

*——————————————————————-*

This is the only zombie story I’ve ever written… aside from one or two others. Well, okay, I’ve written a few. But this one is the most recent. Gosh just read it already if that, indeed, is what you’ve come here to do.

The Fear of the Dead

 I don’t believe the news at first. I think it’s a prank. But hell, is it real.

I’m in the crowd. Late afternoon, people going home from work. I’m a lousy kind of kid, I don’t got a job. I’m carried from the subway on a tide of bodies, onto the street where I may thrash my way through the bleak grey avenues to the house of my best friend, Hao Quan Vo.

The lights on the street are orange. Orange headlamps, orange street lights. The heads and shoulders of the mobile forest of people are grey. They’re unusually shoulder-to-shoulder today. I have my headphones on, I’m listening to the Jezabels. My name is Morty, you wouldn’t believe how I can relate to that young lady’s songs. I’m 19, I live with my grandfather. His name is also Morty. I go to TAFE three days a week in the off chance someone may finally teach me how to be responsible for myself.

I look into the drawn, grey face of the woman beside me. She looks back, her eyes are dead and bleak. I’m in a floating island made of music, the beat is crashing over me, I’m butting against these other human islands but none of them are as real as I am. None of them have the same soul.

None of them have any soul whatsoever.

I realise with a start that the woman walking next to me is dead.

The garden trowel buried in her ear is a dead giveaway.

Her dull eyes alight on mine, her mouth hangs open, a rope of drool slides over her teeth. My nose is jerked back to reality. What I thought was the stench of the city is actually the rank miasma of the grave. The woman realises I’m alive a moment after I understand she isn’t, and she reaches for me with that old mouth hanging wide open like she’ll eat me whole.

“Shit!”

I shove the guy on my other side, flinging myself out of reach of those jaws. I’ve seen the movies, I know the score. One bite and I’m dead. The living dead kill for food. They devour their victims.

A meaty grey arm wraps around my chest. I’m caught by the guy I’d shoved. I turn to thank him, or at least grunt a syllable to that effect, and his big blunt teeth come down and butt against my shoulder, and I scream, and it’s on.

I drive my fist into his face, hear the crunch of shattering brittle bone. My headphones slip. Between snatches of the song I hear the growls, the moans and hisses of the undead creatures all around me. I am completely surrounded. I am in a crowd of the dead.

I push the guy away and stumble through the narrow gap created by more of the creatures wising up to my existence, halting their blind shambling march through the streets and turning on my beacon of movement and life. Yeah, it’s an odd way to think of myself, of a guy who regularly clocks sixteen hours a day texting. But in this crowd I could have a couple of flares strapped to my back and not be any more obvious.

Hands grab me, teeth bash against me, I’m glad of my leather jacket. And Hao had said it wasn’t cool. Crouching low, I sprint through the crowd, my sneaker crushes the face of an undead who has no legs and is pulling itself sadly along by its bruised and broken arms. I hit the street, I notice for the first time that while the lights are on, none of the cars are moving. If their lights are on – they must have been here since at least last night.

I vault onto the back of a taxi to avoid the reaching arms of the dead on the road. There are more of the creatures belted into the cars, most with their throats torn open and chunks missing from their faces where the undead fell upon their still warm bodies. Grey faces, dead eyes. I leap from car to car. It isn’t far to Hao’s place. I have to hope that he’s alive. We have our Z-day strategy, of course, but it requires the two of us to work.

The street reaches an intersection and the distance between cars is too great to jump. I slide off the last bonnet and run for it. I have the attention of every zombie in a block radius. The headphones jostle around my neck, I can hear snatches of song over the choir of groans, over the thunder of my footsteps. There are tears in my eyes. All I can think is, how did it get like this? Three days ago I’d come to see Hao, everything was fine. Yesterday some of my peeps texted about zombies, I thought they were joking. The reason I was going to Hao’s tonight was to catch up on the fun. I have my backpack, I have my living dead survival kit. Hao and I made our survival plan years ago, when we were in school together. We’ll hole up in the munitions factory on the city outskirts. We knew it would be the one place other survivors were sure to call around.

But now, now the munitions factory is a million miles away, and I am running for my life. Feel cold dead hands flap against me, twisting fingers, breaking faces with a jerk of the elbow. Up the street, now the gathering dead are blocking the road. I’m right outside Hao’s apartment. He’s on the third floor. There’s a bus parked outside. I’d been seeing things in grey but now with my heartbeat slapping my ribs I can see in better colour. Everything is sharp, all the shadows are defined. I hop onto a car, shaking off the blue fingers which wrap around my ankle, launch myself at the back of the bus. The ground flies away beneath me. I hit the bus, my fingers flex around the top of the big back window, my sneakers scream against the glass. In a flash I’m on it, the dead swarming in their moaning mob against the bus. One bright spark has the idea of bumping his palms against the bus. The others catch on. Within moments the bus is rock-rocking beneath me, the groans grow in volume as the dead exert their haggard bodies.

Legs shaking, heart pounding, fully aware of the delicious gold-wrapped chocolate that I am, I jog along the top of the bus, getting closer to a set of traffic lights which are slightly taller and nearer the apartment. The lights are green. No one is going anywhere. The bus is shaking too much for me to jump safely. I hang out over the edge, grab for the lights, miss. The bus rocks me out of reach. It rocks back and this time I reach the lights, the box breaks beneath me and part of it falls into the upturned empty faces, and I’m slipping, reaching for the windowsill of the second floor.

The bus topples, slamming into the light post, and more in fright than strategy I jump, snatching the aluminium windowsill which bites hard into my fingers, swinging bodily against the brick building. My legs dangle in hard reach of the dead. If they figure out a pyramid formation, I’m doomed.

But I really don’t think they’ll have to learn. They only need wait until my bleeding fingers give way, and that will be any second. I feel ridiculous. Hanging from the side of an apartment in a God damn zombie apocalypse. What the hell am I doing? I’m bait!

“Hao!” I cry, jamming my sneakers against the brickwork. If I can’t climb up, I can at least prolong the grip I have on the windowsill. “Hao, it’s me, Morty!”

My sneakers slide against the flaking bricks. The dead are a sea below me, a softly moving grey tide, moving wetly against the wall, greedy for my ankles. I have a terrible thought. What if Hao is dead?

“Hao!” I scream. “Hao, help!”

Another terrible thought. I’d left Grandpa alone in our apartment. I’d left him watching reruns of American Idol. God. He could already be dead.

“Morty?” The window a storey above my tenuous position is wrenched up, and Hao leans out. I’m pressed against the building, out of his sight. “Morty, where are you?”

“I’m here, man! You gotta help me!”

He glances down. His eyes bug. “Morty! What the hell you doing – hold on! I’ll get a rope!”

My fingers are numb. My sneakers keep slipping. I press my head against the bricks, concentrate on the burning in my arms, trying hard not to cry. Not even sure why I was bothering. The singer’s voice is gentle, blending the sounds of the dead below into a rippling, undulating chorus, like the surface of the ocean.

A blonde head sticks from the window. “Hi, Morty,” Simone sings, “what’s up? You just hanging around?”

I turn a tense and weeping face to her. “This isn’t funny!”

She rests her elbows on the windowsill, cups her face. “It is a little. There sure are a lot of z’s down there. They can’t reach you?”

“If they could, I’d be dead!”

“Undead,” she corrects. She withdraws from the window as Hao returns. Ugh. Simone. Simone the Psycho. Rough-neck, bad attitude, country girl, and she isn’t even pretty. I don’t understand what Hao sees in her.

Hao drops a bundle of plastic clothesline from the window. It slaps my face. He calls, “The other end is secured. Pull yourself up!”

He’s had the foresight to tie knots in the clotheslines before dropping it. It takes great effort to move my aching arm. I jam my sneakers against the wall, brace, lift one hand from the windowsill and –

— clumsily slap the line away.

Then I’m falling, into the reaching hands of the dead.

I hit on my back, the hands knocking me headfirst between two living dead, breaking my fall to the sidewalk. My legs are caught in the densely pressed crowd, for a moment I’m stuck upside-down with only my head and shoulders on the ground. I kick free, all but swimming through the stamping feet. The dead lean down, eager for this warm bit of life squirming through their ranks. Two bash skulls above me and their heads split open, slopping coagulated blood over my arms. I keep on crawling to the double glass doors of Hao’s apartment.

The blood is cold, it’s rank. My stomach curls, I fight not to vomit. I crawl for the doors. Hands grab my jacket. I can see the doors, I can make it. I can make it, damn it! I’m lifted from the pavement, the doors blow open, there’s a snarl of an engine, and Simone’s dirt bike rockets from the apartment, rending the ranks of dead.

I roll aside just in time to avoid being run over. The bike screeches to a halt in the middle of the road. It’s cut a path through the dead. In a flash I’m on my feet and running to the door.

“Not that way, idiot!” Simone hollers, “get over here! We’re leaving!”

I turn back towards the bike, see, yes, Hao is perched behind Simone, gesturing frantically for me to join them. With a sigh I shove the opportunistic dead away, jog through the narrowing corridor, help myself to a seat on the crowded bike. The plucky little Honda sags. Simone glances at Hao.

“I told you we shouldn’t have invited him.”

“He’s coming with us,” he says. He reaches out and casually beheads a zombie with his machete as it lurches towards him. “Morty, you ready?”

“Born ready.”

Simone hits the gas. The dirt bike shoots forward in a screech of rubber against bitumen, squeals in a tight circle that has Hao and I both clinging to Simone, and roars off in a beeline through the frozen traffic.

For a while I just sit there, clinging to Hao and Simone, trying to make sense of it all. The day dies around us. The traffic lights keep cycling. The traffic doesn’t move. There are lights in some apartments, illuminating the blood on the windows. We see a girl running on the rooftops. We see a man eaten alive.

“We’re going to the supermarket near your place, like we talked about,” Hao calls after a while, when we hit the highway and the traffic is less, and the dead are fewer. It’s the longer way to go to my place, but at the moment much safer. We’d planned this route nearly a year ago when we’d updated our Z-day survival kit. It’s kind of an annual thing. For a laugh, you know. You’re supposed to plan for bushfires, but we planned for an apocalypse of the dead.

“Can we stop by my apartment? I left Grandpa there alone.”

“He’s probably dead,” says Simone the Psycho.

“Shut up, Psycho.”

She swerves the bike so Hao and I nearly go flying off. We both cling to her, shrieking.

“That’s right,” says Simone. “Don’t you take no attitude with me, boy.”

I want to question Hao about his choice of girlfriend, but now is seriously not the time. Not while she has our lives in her hands. “Fine,” I tell her. “But I still want to see my Grandpa. He could be alive. There aren’t as many zo- as many undead in our area. I got on the subway without any trouble.”

“Well you smell dead enough,” Simone sniggers, and I think she may have a point. This jacket may have saved my life, but it’s in hella need of a wash if it’s fooling the undead I’m one of them.

“We gotta stop by the shops first,” says Hao. There’s concern in his voice. Like maybe he doesn’t believe any more than Simone does that Grandpa might still be alive. “Then we can stop by yours, Morty, so long as we’re quick.”

I nod. “What happened to your folks, Hao? Simone?”

“I told mine I’d meet ’em in hell,” Simone spits, and refuses to elaborate any further.

“Simone killed her parents,” Hao tells me. “The dead rose from their graves, bit a bunch of people, Simone’s parents included. They were amongst the first to rise, the newly living dead. She had to kill them, or they would have eaten her.”

“And then my motorbike wouldn’t have saved your punk ass,” Simone says with all due vitriol, but I hear her muffled sob, and know she isn’t as psycho as she’d like to be.

Hao sighs. “Mine went to work and never came back. They could still be alive. To tell you the truth, I’m too afraid to check.”

“I can understand that. But man, I’d rather know. Can’t you call them?”

“Ah,” he went. He stops, gets his breath, continues with his voice too high and trembling. “I would. I figure, you know, they’re okay, they can call me. Text me. So far I’ve heard nothing.”

Ouch. I have the comfort of knowing Grandpa doesn’t have a mobile phone. So while Hao’s answer is as good as on his lap, mine lies in a fourth floor apartment, a light or a patch of darkness in the bizarrely quiet city.

I hear a moan, start before I realise it’s coming from my headphones. I pull the phone from my pocket and close the music player. I think about calling Grandpa on the house phone. At the very least I can check the use in going home.

I haven’t quite worked up the courage when Simone pulls into the lot of a Woolworths down the street from my place. The bike puts along in the semi-darkness until it’s in the handicapped space closest to the glass entryway. There are a few dead strewn around, a handful of deserted cars, nothing too dramatic. An undead stuck in a hedge at the edge of the lot.

We pile off the bike, and Hao points out a corpse. “See that? Bite mark on the throat. From what I was able to see from the apartment, they typically rise within an hour of being bitten. We should be okay so long as we’re on our guard.”

I sling my backpack over my chest, pull out a hunting knife. “Right. Let’s go.”

Our backpacks are mostly empty, leaving plenty of space for supplies. The plan is to grab what we can and get to the munitions factory. We have a few other friends who are in on the plan, they’ll meet us at the factory. If they’re alive, of course.

Simone pushes her bag into Hao’s arms. “I’m gonna fill up. Never know when we might get fuel again.”

“All right. Be careful. Don’t make too much noise.”

Simone kicks up the bike stand. “Sure. I’ll wheel it over, keep the attention off us.”

We watch her walking the bike across the parking lot, to the dinky petrol station attached on the roadward side of the shop. Hao nudges me. “Come on, let’s accessorise.”

To our surprise, we aren’t alone in Woolworths. There are undead, the grave-risen kind, falling to pieces as they tread the aisles behind creaking shopping trolleys. Their trolleys are empty, they seem to be pushing them without having any idea of what they’re for. Occasionally an undead would stop, touch its withered fingers to a tin of beans, or a chocolate bar, and then its hand would drop and it wandered away again.

“They must recall some human behaviours,” Hao whispers. I nod. We move together through the aisles, steadily filling our bags. We try not to make much noise. It may be my reeking jacket, but the dead don’t notice us.  We don’t get too close to any, and we don’t talk, and make no sudden movements. Everything seems okay. I touch my phone in my pocket. I really want to call Grandpa.

I draw Hao into an aisle where there’s no one but us. “I’m gonna call home. Make sure we’re not visiting unnecessarily. Meet me outside?”

He agrees. I take my bag stuffed full of candy and protein bars and bottled water, skip the checkout. My heart dances. This is the part of Z-day I’ve always looked forward to; the free lunch.

Outside, standing under the orange parking lot light, keeping a careful eye on the corpses strewn around the lot, I call home. My fingers feel sluggish as I hit dial. The buzz of the dial tone lasts an eternity. The ring is startling loud, like the clanging of a great brass bell in an empty night. It rings once, twice, three times. Four times. Five. Six. Seven. Grandpa picks up.

“A-ambulance?” he stammers.

“Grandpa, it’s me, Morty-”

“Morty! Dear boy, are you all right? Where are you? These people…” he trails into silence. There is a clack as the phone drops onto the counter. I hear a muffled thump. Grandpa’s voice, far away.  A sharp bang, another thump.

And, presently, a groan.

“Gr-Grandpa? Grandpa! Answer me, Grandpa!”

A hand clasps my shoulder. Cold, limp. My eyes roll up, I see an undead of tremendous height standing behind me. Its vacant eyes. My pulse is hammering painfully hard, I’m shaking too much to break away. Grandpa. Grandpa was-

“Morty, heads!”

I hit the pavement. A boom, a wet splat against my skin and hair. The giant zombie topples on splintering knees beside me, its head gone, its neck a red mess.

Hao hurries over, shotgun slung across his arms, two backpacks bouncing on his back. He offers me a hand up. “Look what one of the z’s had! You all right?”

My ears are ringing. I think they might be bleeding. I’ll never appreciate the Jezabels the same way again. I swallow, nod, think I’m about to be sick. “Fine. Fine. Where’s Simone?”

Her bike is parked beside a bowser, but Simone herself is nowhere in sight.

Hao starts towards the station. “Maybe she went to pay? We’ve got to get out of here, Morty, if these dead are rising.”

“Grandpa-” I say, but at that moment Simone emerges from around the station, and Hao gives a cry of relief, waving her over.

She returns the wave, collecting the bike from the bowser. She calls, “I had to use the can! Thought this was a good time!”

Gees, does she have to yell? I see a recently dead stirring across the lot, another closer to the shops. Simone will have every undead in the city on our ass.

We’re almost together when the impossible happens. Hao and I step into a pool of orange light, he smiling at Simone, me grimacing, and then he is gone from beside me, dropped, dragged to the asphalt, an undead atop of him, and even as I wrench the hunting knife across its neck it drives its teeth into Hao’s throat, ripping free his jugular in a burst of dark blood.

I’m screaming, Hao’s screaming, Simone is screaming. Bent over the undead, I cut its head from its neck, toss the wretched thing across the lot. It hits a parked car and sets off the alarm, howling into the night. Hao’s hands are on his throat, trying desperately to close the wound, but his eyes are huge and frightened and he knows this is the end.

My knees hit the asphalt. I grip his shoulders. “Hao, no!”

Garbled syllables fall from his mouth. His body convulses as the life is wrenched from him. Simone is by his head, her hands cupping his face. He stares up at us, and there is no acceptance in his eyes, only terror, only the fear of death.

Simone eases the hunting knife from my hands. She presses it into Hao’s throat even as I scream for her not to. She shoves it down, severing his head. Peace flickers across Hao’s face, and then, nothing.

I fly at Simone. “You killed him!” I screech, shoving her to the asphalt. The knife skitters away. “You psycho bitch! You didn’t have to do that! Why did you do that!”

Surprise and then anger overcome her. She kicks me off her, drives her fist into my face. I drop gasping to the asphalt. She climbs up, spits, “I had to! You know I had to! You know he wouldn’t want to become one of those – those things!”

“Yes he would!” I shriek. I’m on my feet and I have her by the shoulders, the throb of pain in my face only intensifying my desperation to have Hao back, alive. “He would have loved it! He loved free lunches, and if you’d really been his friend, then you would have known that!”

Simone slaps me, twice, hard. “Get a hold of yourself! He’s dead, Morty!”

I turn to Hao’s pitiful body, soaked in his own blood, buoyed by the overstuffed backpacks beneath him. I stand there snivelling while Simone drops to her knees and wrestles the bags from Hao’s body, retrieves my discarded knife. When she’s done, she slings both the bloody packs over her shoulders, sticks the knife under her belt, and faces me.

“If you can stop crying, we’ll go see your grandpa.”

I realise I haven’t had the chance to tell her. My tongue won’t make the words to tell her that Grandpa is probably dead. I merely nod, and Simone picks her bike up from the lot and waits as I climb on behind her.

“I wonder where that undead came from?” she says when we’re cruising slowly down the street, winding between cars abandoned on the road, swerving occasionally to run over a rising undead. “Maybe he fell from a plane?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yeah. Probably all we can take it for is a sign. That shit ain’t safe nowhere any more. You still want to try for the munitions factory?”

“Uh huh.”

I’m thinking of Hao, of our school days, when we would waste hours drawing in class, passing notes. Making our Z-day survival plan, back when z’s were just a joke, instead of a harsh reality. We’d had a lot of fun. TAFE was no good without Hao. It was too damn productive. It made me think I should start being responsible.

“This your place?”

The bike putted to a halt outside a dark apartment block. No lights on the fourth floor. I nodded glumly, got off the bike. The street was very quiet, I felt very alone. “It is. Stay here if you want. I won’t be long.”

“No way. I’m going with you.”

I wish she would stay. I tease, “Afraid to be alone?”

“Hell no,” says Simone, “it’s just obvious you can’t handle yourself.”

Granted. The foyer door is unlocked, we help ourselves to the stairwell. Corpses slouch on the stairs, our shoes splash in shallow pools of blood. Simone stops by each one to cut its head from its body, sending each head bouncing down the stairs when she’s done. I have to steel my nerves. I know most of these people. My neighbours, their heads bumping together at the foot of their stairs, their eyes empty of all life, all spirit.

I lead the way onto the fourth floor. There are two apartments per level. I knock on the door of ours.

I can hear the disgust in Simone’s voice. “Don’t you have a key?”

I sigh, and push open the unlocked door. It opens halfway and bumps against something. The apartment is completely dark. I hesitate, my breath frozen, listening for the tell-tale groans of undead from within. I can hear a noise, not sure it’s an undead. It’s too far away. Certainly whatever is holding up the doorway is no z. I reach into the apartment, slap my hand against the wall until I hit the light. A hiss of breath leaves my throat.

There’s a corpse inside the door. Headless. Not Grandpa, but the woman from 4A. Simone pushes me gently into the apartment. First room is the living room. Ha. The phone is in the kitchen, accessed from the living room via a short, bent hallway.

We cross the living room in total silence. The clock on the wall ticks, keeping half count of my heartbeat. Bang, TICK, bang, TOCK. Into the darkened hallway, searching for the light. I remember the light is on the kitchen side. The hallway twists sharply. I hear a mutter and my heart leaps. I leap away from Simone, racing into the kitchen, flicking on the light. Grandpa’s pupils do not dilate as the light strikes them. He remains standing beside the sink. Blood oozes from the wound which tore his ear off. His skull is partly caved in. His colour is still good, if a little pale. He’s in his favourite cardigan, his brown slacks and his slippers. A reptilian hiss that no living soul could make crawls from his throat, and he staggers towards me frozen in the doorway.

Movement, unwanted movement, returns to my limbs. I meet Grandpa. I have no weapons. I knock aside his hand as he reaches for me, grab his other wrist. Maybe, just maybe he’s still alive. Maybe this is all a horrific prank and if I wish it hard enough, he will come back to me. He will be alive again. He will be himself again. My funny, kind, caring Grandpa.

But he isn’t. He isn’t what I remember at all. He is nothing but a reanimated corpse.

Simone is behind me. She presses the hunting knife into my hand. “Do it, Morty. Finish him.”

“No!” I cry, feebly. “I just want another minute! Just another minute, okay? Would that kill you? I just want to say goodbye!”

She tenses. “It won’t kill me, Morty. Just you. I won’t let an undead kill me. If I die, I’ll die human.”

I’m still searching Grandpa’s face for something I can recognise. The face I knew so well, loved so dearly, transformed by this ugly, sick parody of life. Knowing that Simone is right, and what is human and what is not is not defined by the features, but the spirit within. By the life. By the personality. By the love. By the hate. By all the strange quirks which make us what we are.

And I understand, then, what is so frightening, so fascinating, about the living dead. I take the knife from Simone and I press it into Grandpa’s throat, and I do not let up as the blood bubbles from under the blade, or as he chokes, and I do not let up until his head rolls back on the tendril of flesh keeping it attached, and then I let him gently to the floor, and finish the job, cleaning severing his head. And it is all I can do for him.

I nod to Simone. “Let’s go.”

For the briefest moment, I see sympathy in her eyes. Then it’s gone, replaced by the hard need to be psycho, to keep going in a world steeped in madness, in fear and in pain.

“Right.”

We walk together from the apartment. I climb behind her on the bike. And without another word between us, Simone rockets down the street, destined for the munitions factory.

What we fear about the undead is not the death, is not the violence, is not even really the thought of humanity being overwhelmed. It is the simple, desperate desire, the hope, that there is something which defines us, something everlasting, something beyond the mortal tenants of flesh and hunger.

  *————————————————————————————–*

This story is called Salt Pan Gospel. I wrote it a couple of months ago for a the Carmel Bird short story competition, which called for a Twilight Zone-style story. I missed the Twilight Zone by about a decade, and couldn’t find anyone who was a big fan to tell me all about it. I did do a little research, however, and came up with this cautionary tale about dry land salinity. Sort of about dry land salinity, anyway.

I didn’t win the competition, but I can hardly complain. These kinds of things are all about fitting the theme. And you know what? I love this story. It’s full of prose, and the main character, Samael, is just perfect in his role. I hope I get to work with him again. Enough exposition! Here it is!

Salt Pan Gospel

Old Scratch sat out front of the post office and every day the sore on his nose grew bigger, but the doctor said not to worry.

Old Scratch sat out front of the post office and every day the sore on his nose grew bigger, but the doctor said not to worry; there was nothing he could do.

Old Scratch sat out front of the post office and every day he died a little more.

A crow in the old dead sycamore tree cawed. Old Scratch looked sharply up from his paper. He hadn’t been reading. He hadn’t even been thinking. It took the caw of the crow to remind him he was even alive.

The crow, however, brought him no comfort. It meant only one thing.

Death was coming.

The desert was dry. The desert was hot. At night it was as cold as the grave.

Somewhere between here and there, each one and the other, Tom Stone ceased to be a good man and became merely… strange.

He had stared into the endless abyss of the salt and the dirt, and the abyss stared back into Tom Stone. He had his property here, his cattle treading spinifex, he needed many things in town but he had put off going for a long while. He didn’t like the town. He found the people intrusive and the landscape very weird. Houses and shops built on salt. Being eaten by the salt.

But there was another reason Tom Stone avoided town. The crow master. Directing the crows in their thousands to descend on any man and suck his soul right out of his body.

It happened in every town.

Stone had seen it too much in the city; that’s why he moved to town. That was why, eventually, he moved from town onto the farm. The farm on its flat hot plain, uphill from the salt pans, inescapable from the spinifex, breaking like glass under the hoofs of his cattle, and the skinny beasts lived with infections running riot in their neglected and diseased forms. But there was no escaping the crows. They were less, but they were here.

Some days Tom Stone sat on his verandah and watched the crows descend. A black cloud of cawing birds falling on a single dying cow. And Stone would feel the fever in his blood. He would see their white eyes on him, marking him for the day they would fall on him in their dust devil of clapping wings and cawing throats, and he would feed their hungry bellies through the night.

When it made him angry, he would grab his shotgun from inside the door, and fire into the dusk air, scattering the crows.

But time wore on and the crows grew less and less afraid of Tom Stone’s gun. They understood he didn’t have enough bullets for all of them. One night he grabbed his shotgun in a mad fit and pumped it and pulled the trigger and not a damn thing came out. He was out of ammo.

Tom Stone had to go to town.

Father Hollow had nothing but reservations about hearing the confession of a man he knew was no Catholic.

“Sinner,” he muttered, getting comfortable on the wooden seat the men of the town had hammered ten years earlier, when Father Hollow arrived. They’d build the church for free, had done it with pleasure. There were no gold mines out here and the farming was poor. They were glad to have a priest on their side, out here in the middle of Hell. But the man through the mesh was no glad Catholic, was no soul lost and in need of redemption. If this was Hell, than that man was-

“Sorry, Father?” a smile heard in words, unseen behind the screen. Knowing exactly what had been said. “Did you say something?”

Father Hollow did his best to lay aside his annoyance, and the small twinge of fear stirring in his breast. He cleared his throat. “You have a confession, child?”

That heathen monster had a thousand confessions if he had one, all of them of the utmost despair and destitution of spirit. When he walked with his back to the sun, his shadow fell not as man, but surrounded by a flock of scraggly black birds. Crows on his shoulders and crows on his head. Salt rose from the earth, crusting under his heel. His gifts were misery and death. No one knew where he’d come from, no one even knew if he were human. His appearance, sinful. His name, well. He only ever gave the one.

Samael. As if Father Hollow could take any comfort in that.

There was laughter in the wretch’s voice as he said, “I have many confessions, Father, as you may have guessed. One is that I uh, scare you, don’t I? Or is that just a scratch in your throat?”

Father Hollow’s teeth grated. He could hear Samael leaning against the confessional booth wall, comfortably, as if he owned the place, when in fact he had never set foot in the small church before today. There had been rumours in town that Samael would be struck by lightning were he to approach the church. Today the skies were clear and the lightning entirely absent. Father Hollow realised he had not replied, letting the seconds drizzle past. He opened his mouth and heard a caw.

Any fear left him in the heat of indignation. “You dare to bring an animal into the church? Don’t you know this is the sacred house of God? You-”

“Oh, Father,” Samael crooned, “I couldn’t leave her outside. She’s alone, she’s lonely.”

“Like all your other bloody crows?” the priest snapped.

There was no apology in Samael’s voice. Amusement, but no apology. “No. In fact, they’re all gone. It’s just me and her today. I promised I’d take her someplace new,” the sound of rustling cloth and creaking leather as Samael leant forward, eager for the conversation to continue. “Do you believe we’ve never been to church, Father? I confess, this is my first time. I’ve always wondered what it would be like. I was raised by parents who believed, but they never could get me through that door, not even when I was a baby. I gotta say, it’s pokey in here, it’s not at all what I had expected.”

Father Hollow’s teeth ground together. He wanted Samael out. The house of God was no place for men like that. “Do you have an actual confession or not? If you don’t, you can get out!”

A groan of relieved planks as Samael helped himself up from the rough wooden seat. The humour in his voice was gone. “You all think I’m evil. Everyone in this dust spot of a town does. But I’m patient. I can wait. I always wait. I don’t need to tell you anything. You watch and see and you can draw your own conclusions.”

The door creaked, the floorboards followed under their thin veneer of carpet scraps. Samael’s crow rasped from his shoulder; Father Hollow watched their shadow pass his door. And he blessed himself. Again and again.

Because what he’d seen in Samael’s shadow, wasn’t human in the least.

The town was small, this is true. People scratched a living from the hot dry dust. There had been more people here, but now they were gone. The salt got into everything, the salt was the problem. The salt got into the boards of your house and split them, the salt got into the skin of your hands and cracked it, the salt got into your brain and pickled it.

Once there had been a proper town here. Now the people struggled to keep it clear of the salt. One day soon it would be a salt bowl like those downhill, and no one would come here, not ever again.

Samael stalked down the street, salt crunching under his heels, the warm air flat, the sun white and glary, draining the colour out of everything, burning nuclear shadows on the broken road. Once upon a time weeds had grown between the cracks in the asphalt, but now the salt was too much even for the weeds. Only spinifex grew here. Salt crystals lumped together in the dribble of water in the gutters.

Samael walked in silence for a while, until some of his anger burned off him and he started to whistle. He didn’t know many songs, compared to the people of the town with their dozens of church hymns. He didn’t care so much for music, anyway, preferring the caw of his crows and the wind whistling in the chimney, but at times he grew bored with these things, and for those times he had memorised songs he heard in the town tavern, and those of mothers singing to their young babies.

He walked to the store which sold everything, and was the only store in town. The tavern was across the street, and the post office next to that, the old dead sycamore tree marking the end of the central business district. Samael grinned to himself. Business, as if. The only business here was his own.

Bells jangled as he entered the store, the storekeeper glanced up from her plate of biscuits. Her cheeks were very pink. As Samael drew closer, he noticed that the pink colouration was due to a number of raised capillaries, hundreds of them pressed to the surface of the storekeeper’s skin.

“It’s you, Samael!” A nervous twitch of a smile, brushing crumbs from her considerable bosom. “What can I get for you today?”

“Nothing,” came the response. Samael was tall and thin. He inspected the tins on the top shelf with amusement but without desire. “I’m here to wait.”

“Wait for who?”

Her question was answered by the jangle of bells. Tom Stone stalked into the store, his dull eyes fixed on the counter. He noticed neither Samael nor the rows of goods, and only by the slightest inclination of his head gave any sign of seeing the storekeeper.

“Ammo,” grunted Tom Stone. “Flour.”

The storekeeper’s eyes slid from Tom Stone to Samael, who was grinning. The crow on his shoulder shuffled and cawed. Tom Stone swung his head sideways, finally noticing the other man, and a dry cry fell from his throat.

“You!” he lurched at Samael. “That wretched bird!”

Samael ran a tongue across the back of his teeth as Tom Stone grabbed his shirt. Startled, the crow hopped from his shoulder to the top shelf of cans. As companionably as he could, Samael said, “Stone, it’s been too long. I thought you’d left us.”

There was spittle on Stone’s lips and on his chin. His face was puffy and dark, he couldn’t have slept much in weeks. His voice hissed between yellow teeth. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, you bastard? If I left. You and your miserable crows.”

“Like it, love it,” Samael said in a low, sing-song tone, making no great show of hiding his anger, “I avidly await the day, Stone. You want ammunition? Why? You gonna shoot yourself?”

Stone released him roughly, spat, “I’ll prevail so long as you’re in this world. You won’t see me to damnation.”

“And the ammunition?”

“It’s for your damn birds.”

Samael stood, breath hissing softly through his teeth as Stone completed his purchase. But Samael’s quick temper worked both ways; he was as fast to cool down as to work up. He tagged Stone from the store. The sun was dipping westwards. His crows were nowhere to be seen.

“You ever hit one of ’em?” he asked Stone, curiously.

Stone’s face clouded. He was easy under the weight of the heavy flour sack. “Never.”

Samael tipped back his head and roared a laugh. “Then you ain’t done nothin’! And here I thought I’d take offence!”

He laughed and laughed, a death rattle of a sound which sobered the drunks on the tavern verandah and sent Old Scratch hobbling for his house behind the post office. As Tom Stone hunkered down the street, scowling, Samael perched on the horse fence outside the store, his one remaining crow on his shoulder, his laugh just as cold as the desert night. He was almost done with this town. Almost.

The townsfolk got together. They were none of them happy, and all of them restless. Everyone had some story to tell about Samael and his crows. They wanted him out, out! He and his damn birds could cast their sickly shadow elsewhere.

They met in the church, where they were guaranteed to be safe from Samael, who had not ventured again to God’s house in the week since his confession. It was a Sunday evening, the word to meet had spread in mutters over the past few days, most of them from the mouth of Old Scratch. Even Tom Stone was there, though his face remained puffy and dark, his eyes dull and mad. He carried his shotgun in his lap, sitting on the hard wooden pew, bouncing the barrel on his knee, listening to people argue about what was to be done.

“Run him out of town!” cried one.

“We don’t know what he’ll do!” protested Father Hollow.

“And nor do we care.” Tom Stone stood. The townsfolk fell silent. Tom Stone addressed them, the only movement in his face his small, hard mouth. “I’ll speak to him. And if he doesn’t listen,” he slung the shotgun over his shoulder, “I’ll kill him.”

A mutter of discontent went up. It was one thing to throw a bad apple from the barrel; it was another to have it executed. But Father Hollow said, “Then perhaps you will. There’d be no murder charge for you; that’s no human you’d be shooting. And if you should feel guilt for killing the Devil, then the Lord will forgive you.”

“I don’t need forgiveness,” Stone grunted, “only peace of mind.”

They talked awhile, they agreed it was the best idea. None of them wanted Samael dead, but if it had to happen, then it had to happen, and Stone was the man for the job. From his position in the pulpit, Father Hollow watched his congregation, again beating down the twinge of fear in his breast. What if what he had seen was wrong, and Samael really was a human being? Or worse, what if he were right, and Samael were so much more? Could they even hope to overcome such a monster?

But he had not the courage to express such concerns, and went with the townsfolk as one of their leaders as they charged from the hilltop church, picking up pitchforks and axes and shovels as they passed their houses, down through the main street to the very end, to Samael’s house by the graveyard. It was now quite late, and the moon was rising, fat and white and round over the tombstones cracked by the incursion of salt.

Samael’s house was no bigger or smaller than any other, a wooden shack he’d adopted from its previous, deceased, owner. It had been empty for a year before he arrived in town. It would be empty for years more. Perhaps, as one townsperson suggested, they should burn the shack as well as its owner, so that no one should ever occupy that cursed space again.

They gathered by the door. All thirty of them, and only thirty. Not even the women with their small children had stayed at home. There were lights on in the shack, but peering through the windows, no sign of Samael. Father Hollow knocked on the door. There was no answer. He exchanged a worried glance with Old Scratch.

“He’s gotta be there,” Old Scratch whispered.

Father Hollow nodded. He cleared his throat. “Samael! Are you home? I’d like to talk to you.”

“You and everyone else, the look of it.” A voice from the direction of the graveyard. Samael’s lanky figure hopped the rotting wooden fence and crossed the dirt towards them. “My friends, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Tom Stone shouldered his way through the crowd. One bastard crow sat on Samael’s shoulder, and that was it. Tom Stone had not seen a single cow drop dead since his confrontation with Samael in town last week. He had not seen a single crow. He snarled at the other man. “It’s no pleasure. It’s your choice: get out, or you’re dead.”

The moon was bright enough to illuminate the surprise on Samael’s face. “Your town will do without its doctor, then?”

Tom Stone jammed his shotgun against Samael’s stomach. “We’ll find another. We did before. In fact I think the last damn thing we need is another doctor, with your pills and your prescriptions. You’re no better than a demon pedalling disease. What were you doing in the graveyard? You like one of your crows, feasting on the dead?”

What should have been Samael’s temper failed him, and instead he felt afraid. This was wrong. This was all wrong. What had started as a superstition of the townsfolk had become their reality. He swallowed, his throat was dry as sand. “Well that’s quaint. Don’t you know this is the best time of day for a walk? In the evening, when it’s cool?”

“I don’t know jack,” Stone spat. “Now. Answer.”

Samael hesitated. As he had before he’d accepted the position in the city, just the fortnight before. Did he dare tell them now, that these were his last few weeks in the town, that they very likely would never find a replacement? Particularly not since it had been officially noted that a long time out in the heat, and the salt, could send a whole town deranged.

He felt the cool barrel of the shotgun against his stomach. He met Tom Stone’s dull, mad eyes. Tom Stone had just a glimpse of the real Samael, of the tall, thin man cloaked in shadow with his back to the moon, and then the crow cawed and it flew at Stone, and he shrieked and pulled the shotgun trigger.

The bang was enormous. Samael hit the dirt, his torso blown open, sounds bleeding together in his ears, the shudder of life leaving the body, and dead.

Crows, a thousand scraggly black crows, burst from the tree behind the house and soaked the night with their bleak cries, their white eyes flashing, sweeping over town before disappearing over the salt pans, a cloud of black diminishing in the night.

The doctor was patient, the doctor was kind. Now the doctor was dead, and the people of the town expired one by one from their cancers, their heart attacks, their suicides, and their miscellaneous causes of death.

**************

Whatcha think? Read it again! And then, please comment. I eat comments, it’s how I survive. I guess if you want me to die then you can just leave without saying a word.

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  1. I loved this story! Thank you for sharing it. Very well done and thoroughly entertaining.

  2. The z-tale was quite enjoyable actually. I am not a huge fan of the modern take on the things but that was fun!

  3. I loved Fear of the Dead! Your style is great, action-backed, humours and vibrant. Love it

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