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BOOK: Dead Men (and Women) Walking
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I hear the horse before I
see it. When I look downwards from the edge of the loft, its long
sleek head and neck are already peering in through the crack in the
barn door. Its large obsidian eyes watch us evenly. It snorts
again, a deep watery sound, reassuring somehow. I remember this
animal. It’s one of the several horses we’d freed months before,
from these very stables. Its black shiny fur and single spot of
white surrounding its left eye mark it easily. It’s come back. I
look into its eyes and wonder about the things it’s seen on its
travels in the past days.

When everything was smoke
and ruins everywhere else, maybe it tried to return to its home.
The place it knew best of all. Or maybe now it returned to return
the favor, and now it’s here to warn us of impending doom. But it
watches us a while and then maybe it sees the disaster in our
vacant stares, or maybe it only smells the beginning of ruin among
us in the barn, and it leaves us as silently as it entered. With a
low snort it’s gone, and the soft sound of its cantering over the
dirt and stones outside diminishes with distance, and then we’re
alone with the huge quiet once again. Even the scurrying of mice
through their hay bale castles below and around us is
silenced.

Her voice whispers but its
sound startles me. It has become hoarse and I tell myself that it’s
only her frantic, troubled mind, the great fatigue she must be
feeling, that gives it its rough new edge. She whispers: We
promised each other. If one of us goes.

Again she leaves it
unfinished, and so I complete it for both of us. I turn to her with
tears in my eyes, and they blur her silhouette looming in shadows
before me, and I offer her myself: Bite me, Maria. Some dark humor
in it seeps through the horror of our situation, and I hear the
silly sound of the words briefly, as if hearing them in a distant
time when such words carried no real weight and meant only lighter
things.

The tower of shadows above
me only stands still, unspeaking. The silence is enormous, weighted
down with the significance of the moment. I think of the world
outside this barn, the country with its dark woods and lonely
fields, and the cities ghostly and empty beyond. And I wonder again
as I have countless times during these new days. Why are we in this
plight now, and what on Earth does it all mean?

Her voice grates from above
me, a croaking in the darkness. No, darling. I can’t…bite you. I’d
never. But you can use the shovel. And then…

She trails off, because the
rest of the words are even more awful for her to ponder than the
horror of the reality which she’s already accepted. I consider our
choices and quiver along my spine. I quiver and tremble and weep
because I realize it now more than I ever had before: I don’t want
to die. I want only to be with her, but not in any of the ways from
which I now must choose. I hear our old promise echoing in my
thoughts and I’m filled with shame as I realize that it doesn’t
hold strong for me anymore. Maybe I’m simply older now, too mature
for young-love pacts. Or maybe I’m only changing the way the world
sees fit these days.

The crunching from the
darkness jerks me from my reveries. The ice in my veins leaves as
another crunch follows and the memory of the sound from long ago
catches up with my tired thoughts. Maria’s taking little bites from
the apple in her hand, slow and deliberate because she’s ravenous
but mindful of the danger of too-loud sounds in the night. I listen
to her eating and become hopeful for her, and my own hunger swells
inside me. I reach to my gym bag and retrieve an apple for myself.
My teeth puncture its hard hide and the fruit’s juice is amazing
where it bursts onto my tongue. I can barely contain myself as I
munch along.

But then Maria’s coughing
violently, and then it becomes an awful retching sound smashing
into reverberating echoes from the tall barn walls as she heaves
and vomits into the hay. Through the faint glimmer of moon glow I
see the moist chewed remnants of apple amid the small puddle of
yellow and red water. I clench my eyes closed, knowing that it’s
truly begun its course now. I hear the ghost of the echoes that
rang throughout the barn and listen for answering cries from
outside in the night.

But the only sound is the
heavy clanking from before me. I look to the floor, perplexed,
squinting my eyes and discerning the coils of rusty chain glinting
feebly in the semi-light. Without my knowing, Maria has chained
herself to one of the wooden pillars set into the wall beside us. I
can make out the thick metal hoops where she’s looped them about
her ankle several times, multiple lacings because we’ve both seen
what the hungry others are capable of when in the throes of their
insatiable hunger.

I take a foolish risk and
edge close to her. My hand finds hers and I lead her towards a
stretching line of moon beam where it pierces through the roof. I
wince because her fingers feel very cold in my own. She allows me
to lead her and when I turn to her my heart hammers with an ache
I’ve never known until this night. I look into her face and see its
haggard appearance, more weary than I’ve seen her in these long
strange days. Her cheeks are hollowed out, as if she hasn’t eaten
in a very long time, and her skin has a ghostly pallor which the
moonlight colors silvery and makes deceptively pretty. But her eyes
hold the same hollow cast as the rest of her, and behind the wall
of her weariness I see her great fear and I hurt everywhere. The
wound on her cheek has swollen her flesh, and the purpling edges of
the torn area where the boy-thing’s teeth had bitten in look raw
and moist. I look to Maria before me and see in her eroding face
the home I know and cherish most of all. I feel the rough notched
wood of the shovel in my fingers and feel cold and twisted inside
me.

I look at her shackled here
like some awful captured animal and tears blur her new ugly
features from me. I still see her beauty underneath and this is
what brings the tears. I have to be brave, now more than ever
before. But I want to live, darling, I tell her, my painful gift of
honesty to her, the best I can give to her under these dire
circumstances.

I want to die, and I want
her to die, too, but not by my hand. I’m sorry for my lingering
humanity, darling. I’m so sorry I can’t be as strong as I need to
be today.

She screeches suddenly and
spittle flies and spatters the dust at my feet. Her breath is a
wind of stink, a breeze carrying carrion and death. It’s the new
breath of the woman I made vows with, and who I was content to walk
into any kind of tomorrow with. Such romantics, the two of us, we’d
always joked, and knew it to be true.

Then the moaning comes again
from her mouth and I know for certain that all the rest of my
dreams will be haunted forever by the sadness of the sound. I stand
before her and she reaches for me hungrily, and with this gesture
she tells me that she’s gone forever. We stay this way a moment,
swaying on the noisy-creaky loft floor only inches apart, and I
think how this is no kind of dance the two of us should be acting
out.

Then, from outside the barn:
The moaning.

They’ve come. The country
about us is infested with them and they’ve heard us at last and now
they’ve come. Hell has spread everywhere.

I watch Maria, the shovel
heavy in my hands. I watch her closely and wish hopelessly for some
sign of her old life in the contorted face snarling before me. I
think of the black horse with its eye-patch of white, and I hope
that it’s galloping freely somewhere.

The moaning draws nearer,
ever nearer to us. Shuffling footsteps crunch through dirt and send
pebbles bouncing into the grass. The new brand of humanity edges
closer. The mice have begun a frantic scrambling in their secret
tunnels in the hay and walls. I watch my darling’s pale face and
black stare, and we sway together as we take in each other’s new
eyes. And it’s the longest and saddest dance we’ve ever danced. My
humanity quivers, hanging in the balance as the moaning draws
closer and the shovel’s rough wooden handle settles firmly between
my tightening, trembling fingers.

 

 

WAKING FINNEGAN

By Josh Benton

 

It was a black day when Tim
Finnegan died. It should have been a day of drinking and
celebrating. I'd just been released from six months in prison. I'd
been convicted of robbing Captain Kelly; I hadn't done it, but had
been sent away just the same. The things a woman can land you
in....

So that's how things stood
that day. I was in Bobby Thomas' pub when I found out. Daniel Boyd
rushed in, and told us what had happened; Tim had been climbing a
ladder and fell off. They said between the drink and the fall, he
probably didn't feel much.

Feeling much or not, it was
a shame. Tim was a good man; sure he'd had a bit of a taste for the
drink, but no man's a saint. My adventures with Ms. Bell had shown
me that. Nothing like being locked away for six months to help
clear up any lingering youthful illusions.

There in the pub, we all
hoisted a glass in memory of Tim Finnegan. A few of the lads even
had tears in their eyes. He was an odd bird, was Tim, but well
liked just the same. He'd surely be missed, and at the time, that
was no lie.

The wake was held in Tim's
house. Widow Finnegan had gotten the house in fine order as people
started to arrive. Tim was laid out on the bed, cleaned up and
dressed in his finest suit. A barrel of porter was set above his
head, and a gallon of whiskey was resting at his feet.

Richard Hanrahan and his
boys had arrived just after I did, and I could hear the music
starting up in another room. I wandered back in to mingle with the
crowd. Richard and his sons gave me a nod, which I returned with a
polite wave.

Voices were still subdued,
and everyone's face was lined with sorrow. Smoke was starting to
fill the room, and folks were circulating, sharing stories about
Tim. The band struck up a soft song, and a few people quietly
joined in. It was a sad song, but at the same time, it spoke of a
life well lived. I was heading for a piece of cake when Tommy
Franklin caught me.

"Liam, it's good to be
seeing you. Are you glad to be back?"

"Surely I am, Tom, I just
wish it was in happier times."

"That's true enough. I was
thinking about that time Tim caught us out. Do you remember
that?"

I smiled at Tommy. "Oh,
indeed. We were but small lads, and he caught us trying to sneak a
peek at Molly Henry swimming down by the river."

"Aye, and after he near to
skinned our hides, he stayed on to watch her for
himself!"

A few people overheard us
and laughed. Molly Henry had been a fine looking young woman, and
there was hardly a man or boy who hadn't tried to catch a peek of
her. She'd wound up getting with child, and moved to a farming
village near the coast. Many a heart, including Tim Finnegan's, had
been broken when that happened.

I gave Tom a hardy clap on
the back, and excused myself. I caught up a piece of cake without
being stopped by anyone else. It was a fine cake to eat, and the
first I'd had in months. People must have seen how intent I was
upon it, for not a one came to disturb me while I enjoyed
it.

I took my plate into the
kitchen, and then helped Mary Finnegan bring hot tea out. I passed
a few cups around before taking a seat for myself. Frank Riley was
sitting across from me, and we nodded politely at one
another.

"Doing well,
Frank?"

"Well enough, I think. How's
your old mum these days?"

"She's fine, and sends her
greetings to everyone. Glad to have me back, and threatening me
with dire harm should I chase any more 'slatternly
women'."

"Truly that sounds like
Rose. I remember the time Tim winked at her and offered her a
drink. I thought they must have heard her up in Heaven itself. Poor
Tim just stood there and listened the whole time. Then he nodded,
smiled and wished her a good day and God bless."

"Oh, aye, my mum's never
been a fan of the drink. She nailed my da's boots to the floor
once, and threatened him with a broom if he, 'set one foot outside
this house to go to the pub with that devil Finnegan'."

Frank and I shared a fine
chuckle at that. My da and Tim had grown up together, and I'm sure
that incident wasn't the only story of Tim Finnegan and Sean
O'Hanlon being passed around the room. Frank had been caught up in
another story of Tim's adventures, so I slipped away to visit a few
more people.

I spotted Old Man Conner off
by himself. Now, Old Man Conner truly lived up to the name: he was
old when my grandfather was just a boy. No one was even quite sure
when he'd been born, or if Conner was a first name or last. He
looked the part; a well-trimmed white beard, and not much left on
top. He still had a gleam in his eye, though, and that gnarled cane
he carried had caught more than one young troublemaker upside the
head.

"Mr. Conner, what a fine
thing it is to see you. Still in good health?"

He snorted at me, and gave
me a fearsome squint. For a moment, I didn't think he was going to
say anything.

"Liam, you're a grown man,
you are, and you've been up to the jail for half a year. So quit
calling me Mr. Conner, and just call me Old Man, or if you're
feeling kind, just Conner, like everyone else does."

BOOK: Dead Men (and Women) Walking
10.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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