THE DEAD GROUND: A ZOMBIE NOVEL
Duke Blevins reached into the cooler at his feet, brushing aside the thick covering of ice and grabbed a beer. As he popped the top, it spit a little foam. Licking the spray from his hand, he kicked his feet up onto the railing and settled into the old porch swing. Rusted chains groaned under his weight and shed flakes of oxide with every little movement. It was a good evening to be home.
Actually, a perfect evening, he told himself, as he watched the sunset touch the horizon and cast its glow onto the underside of high clouds. The beer was cold, the heat faded, his bills paid and there was no one around to nag him about the high grass or the pickup truck resting on blocks in his yard. Life was good.
He took a slow pull on the beer, and then burped loudly, laughing. “Yeeeeeeah,” he shouted into the night sky, “It is good to be home.” Raising the can to his toast, he drained it in one long, last swallow.
Crushing the empty, one handed, he tossed it toward the bed of the old Chevy. It might have gone in if not for bouncing off one of the porch columns. As it was, the can flaked off a chunk of old white paint and lost itself in the grass.
Duke eyed the new scar on the column. The house was over a hundred years old and thinking about it now, he could not remember it being repainted in his lifetime. His father, grandfather, and he assumed his great grandfather, had been hard working men, but all that energy and effort went into the animals, machines, and implements of farming, rarely into the home. Heck, his grandmother had cooked on a wood stove until they had switched over to propane sometime in the 70s. Now, it was all his, and he was determined not to make the same errors.
Grabbing another beer, Duke swung his feet down from the railing and kicked himself upright. His boots made loud, hollow thumps on the old wood as he went down the steps into the yard. Taking a few long strides out, he opened the beer and took a more restrained sip as he turned back to examine his home.
At one end of the house, the porch was sagging and the lattice that had hidden the footings was long gone, so you could see the dry stacked cinder blocks that had been cheap repairs for the original brick and mortar. That would have to be taken care of. The handrail for the steps had been lost and replaced by something cobbled together from water pipes. He’d want to fix that too. The screen door was ripped and the frame was so far out of square that the main door’s upper hinge had to be shimmed out a quarter inch for it to close. He hoped fixing the porch would help that. A lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of money, and that was only what he could see from the front yard.
He took another drink.
This house was something he had been thinking about for a long time. Through both tours in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan, he had been saving and making plans. Everyone had a plan of some sort. He guessed, it was only natural when you're in the shit to think about what you have to do to stay alive and when things get quiet, think about anything but the shit you're in. Sergeant First Class Duke Blevins saved his money and made his plans to repair his parent’s home and restore their land. He felt he owed them that.
He turned the can up and let the last few drabs trickle into his greedy mouth, wadded it like paper and tossed it at the bed of the truck. He missed again.
For just a moment, he thought about making a pass through the grass to find all the old empties littering the yard, but then let it drop. He’d take care of it tomorrow before mowing. Right now, maybe just one more beer before Lyle gets here.
Taking the steps two at a time, his old shit kickers rattled the wood and his heavy clopping footsteps echoed out into the deepening evening like jungle drums. He had his hand on another ice-encrusted can when the first soft sound came from the direction of the sunset. Duke cocked his ear toward the overgrown fields and waited to catch the sound again. There it was; a soft moan that wafted over the grass like a question waiting for its answer.
The short hairs at the back of Duke’s neck stood up and tingled, giving him that old monster movie feeling. He stood up straight with a beer can dangling from his hand, looking out over the weeds and overgrown fence rows for any movement. Keeping his eyes moving from point to point, scanning the fields in quick snapshots, he curled his index finger under the aluminum tab. The can spit with a short loud psst that brought another moan from the weeds.
“Just the heebie jeebies,” Duke said, and took a drink.
The next sound was the crack of something dry and brittle breaking under a foot.
Duke flipped open the battered screen door and reached his free hand inside, while feeding himself another healthy swallow of beer with the other. He pulled out a short-barreled 12-gauge shotgun. Heebie jeebies or not, he was still a combat veteran only a few weeks out. He jerked the pump down and chambered a shell. The gun made that movie sound effect noise that will stop your heart if you know you’re on the wrong side of it.
“Okay,” Duke said, then drained his third beer in one quick chug. “Remember, guns and alcohol don’t mix.” Without looking, he tossed the can, un-crumpled this time, completely over the bed of the truck. That was when he saw the dark figure silhouetted against the burning blood sky. It looked like a fat man, but walked like a drunken bear staggering and shuffling across the uneven ground along the western fencerow. Falling, then rising back up on unsteady legs, the figure began crossing the field heading toward the barn.
Duke watched for a moment, and then tracked backward with his eyes, trying to gauge from where a drunk might have come. There was nothing out there but a deep fallow field that butted up against a patch of woods and Ozarks limestone that could never be tamed. As he looked into the deep green hump of trees and vine that framed the limits of his family land, a little trickle of memory ran over his skin. It was the kind of memory that was more than memory; it was a real thing, a fear as tangible and fresh as the new beading of sweat that slicked his skin.
When he broke memory’s spell, and looked back to the field, it was empty. Whoever was out there had gotten lost in the old weeds and overgrowth. Duke sat down hard on the porch swing twanging the chain and put his feet back up on the railing to listen and remember.
Real memories came hard. They were mixed in with years’ worth of repeated stories and recurring nightmares. He did remember sitting on this same porch swing twenty years ago at the age of eight, listening to his father and grandfather argue in the front yard. Words that didn’t make sense to the boy, were clear in the man’s mind now, taxes, revenue, government man. Then there were words that even the boy knew, shine, jail, and kill. Young Duke couldn’t put all the words together, couldn’t understand the argument, but he did understand his dad calling his own father, “old fool.” He understood the anger and hurt on his grandfather’s face.
That was when things got really quiet, the two men standing in the yard staring at each other until his grandfather finally turned away and headed for the barn. Duke’s father joined him on the porch.
Looking back, Duke could see his father’s movements perfectly. He was startled to realize that he had exactly mimicked them, reaching through the same screen door to the same spot for a shotgun, and then dropping into the same porch swing to sit and wait. He thanked God that there was no eight-year old kid with him now, and then cursed him just as firmly that he had been there twenty years ago.
Dad had sat with him on the swing for a long time talking. Duke just thought he was telling stories, scary stories to take his mind off the argument. Going on and on about old Indian legends and Duke’s responsibility, Dad had told him about things that sounded like ghosts but he said they were real, things that walked around but were still not really alive. It was our responsibility he said; the family’s responsibility to take care of these things and send them all back. He kept telling Duke he’d understand everything in just a few minutes, then he would know what to do when it was his time.
That was where memory faded into the shadows of stories that he had been told and that he himself had told to others. They were all jumbled up in his head, because his father had told him things and said to keep them secret. His mother told the sheriff something else and swore it was the truth. People around town said other things. None of it was good.
There was a rustle in the brush that came from around the northwest side of the house out towards the barn. Something clattered against the barn wall.
“Hey,” Duke called out, “over here.” He raised his voice without quite shouting and felt like he was inviting the inevitable.
Something answered, not by calling back, not with words, but with a long, low moan that sounded like Frankenstein making love to his new bride, kind of angry and sad at the same time. It flowed like cold air, heavy and close to the ground, picking through the burnt brown grass to climb up the porch steps and dance on Duke’s spine.
Sights, smells, and sounds are like little land mines of memory. Hiding just under our feet waiting for the right combination of time and place, they explode into moments of perfect connection to the past. That is how it was for Duke just then. This one sound took him beyond memory to make him eight years old again. Sitting on this same porch with his father as the low moaning that seemed to be choked from the throat of death itself crept closer. He felt the same creeping fear he felt then.
Twenty years ago, the sound came out of the south cornfield directly facing the porch.
“Hey, over here,” his father had called too.
The moaning grew louder, like it was drawn to the sound of his father’s voice. His dad just sat there with him on the swing, as if this was just some company he had been expecting. Dry corn stalks rattled sounding as they did when a pig got lose in the field.
Duke watched his father stand up from the swing and lean against the porch railing, lifting his shotgun and pointing its long barrel at some invisible point in the cornrow. That was when Grandpa came out of the barn carrying his own double-barreled shotgun.
“Dad, no!” Duke’s father had yelled.
Duke didn’t really see what happened directly, he watched it reflected on his father’s face as resolve faded to worry and worry crashed suddenly to fear. When Duke turned back toward his grandfather, the thing had already come out of the corn and was on him. The old man was too slow and the big old gun was too cumbersome for a real fight.
Whatever it was that had come from the cornfield wore clothes and walked like a man, but it attacked like an animal, tooth, nails, and hunger. It sunk its teeth into the old man’s throat and ripped a huge bloody chunk off in one vicious lunge.
Duke watched the bright red swath of arterial spray spreading upward from the wound and feathering out in front of the fading sun, and wondered for a moment if it would make a rainbow like those he had seen in the water from the garden hose.
His father stormed down the porch stairs yelling for his own father in a voice that Duke had never heard before. He followed his running father and watched him raise the shotgun again as he got too close to miss.
The animal man swallowed the last bit of bloody red meat torn from Grandpa’s neck and turned to face the father and son. His eyes were hard black beads, the whites gone gray tinged with brownish red streaks. The mouth was open and smeared with fresh blood, but the teeth looked white and hard.
It moved forward one quick step, unafraid of them or the gun, reaching out to take them just as it had Grandpa. Then its chest exploded in a dirty brown splash.
The concussion of the shotgun blast rumbled in Duke’s chest and he put a hand up to feel if he had been hit as well. The second shot tore through the thing’s neck, blasting away almost all of the flesh but leaving the yellowish-white column of bone holding up the head.
Duke could swear the thing smiled then, even as it kept coming. That was when the shotgun thundered again, shattering the head into nonexistence. The body fell in a slow cartoon tumble.
With no concern at all for the man-thing he had just killed, his father dropped the weapon and bent to take up the body of Grandpa. Duke stared at the headless body for a long time before turning to see both of the men of his family in the bloody grass. He had always vaguely wondered if his father and grandfather loved each other. They had never said it that he had heard and they always seemed to argue. He saw the truth of it for the first time as his dad cradled the body of his own dad and cried.
A moan that was other than memory came again, slipping around the corner of the barn. Duke’s past melted into the present and he blinked back the first tears he had ever shed for his father or grandfather. For twenty years, he had denied the events of that night, and written off his own father as mad for all his stories about the returning dead and admonishments about responsibility. Now, despite belief and common sense, he knew what he needed to do just as surely as he knew his own name. He looked down at the shotgun in his hands and realized that he had been ready since the first whisper of sound had come off the fields.
Raising the weapon to his shoulder, Duke took his bead on the jutting corner of the barn.
“Here I am,” he called, and then waited.
Waiting didn’t last long. A shambling, fat wad of a man rounded the corner, stepping into the barn’s shadow, his chest lining up with the sights of the shotgun. Looking hard through the dim light, Duke could just make out the dark outline of a tie over a white shirt. It was wearing a suit.
Raising his aim, Duke let the little day glow bead of the sight follow the tie up to the neck, from there to a pale drooping chin over the open mouth, and centered it between two deeply sunken eyes.
“Just come a little closer,” Duke said softly. Too softly, he thought, to be heard by the thing in his sights, but he was wrong. The eyes that had been dark, flared with new heat and burned right across the quiet yard to lock onto Duke.
It took a step, thick legs twitching in an awkward motion. Another step and the thing lurched forward, settling into a broken gait, moving straight toward Duke who watched only the eyes. No matter how unsteady the step, the gaze never wavered.
More than halfway across the yard, it reached the bumper of the truck, knocking against the pitted chrome without notice. It was in easy range now and the eyes beyond the sights of the shotgun showed themselves to be faded of color, lifeless, yet full of intent. They were the hard hungry eyes of a predator stalking.
Shoulders hunched and flexed forward to bring the stiff arms up in a clumsy motion. Filthy, scabrous hands clawed the air reaching for Duke. Some of the fingers of the hands were broken and hanging at angles. Two were just nubs of white bone. Dry, brown blood, was all over them, but nowhere were they bleeding.
Another staggering series of steps brought it beyond the old truck and within a few feet of the porch. Duke’s finger tightened slowly on his trigger just as the thing in his sights began to glow with a soft, amber light. He hesitated just long enough to register the growing engine noise and the grinding of tires on gravel. With the thing illuminated in the headlights of the oncoming truck, Duke took one last look into the hard eyes that were stalking him, then pulled the trigger.
At that range, the head exploded in a brutal wet shower that glistened more black than red in the approaching headlights. As brakes squealed and knobby tires dragged in the dirt of the drive, the body slumped silently down into the shadow of the derelict Chevy.