Authors: Tim Curran
Well, a fine horror story, eh? I thought as much and I asked my Aunt Lydia about it. She looked like she was going to have a stroke. Her face went all gray and tight. It was true, she said, all of it. For Conrad had come back to claim his bride. Maybe all that wishing Rose had done by candlelight had kicked open the door of hell just wide enough for him to crawl through and, Lydia said, maybe it wasn’t Conrad at all, but just something
to be him. The sort of things that are out in the streets now. Who can say? Who can really say? But this much is true: The Connor’s moved out of that house and never came back. There were things they saw and things they heard which were even worse, local gossip had it. Nobody would live in that house after that. All sorts of wild tales about unwholesome smells and things whispering in the walls by night. An infestation of flies and worms that could not be put down.
Anyway, one night, as a Halloween prank, my mother, Aunt Lydia, and a few other daring girls went up into that boarded-up old house some ten years after the Connor’s fled one dark night, leaving most of their possessions behind. They went up to Rose’s room to hold a séance as girls will. Lydia said it was a simply awful night of blowing leaves and howling black wind as Halloweens tend to be in this part of the country. A perfect night. Well, the girls were petrified, but they saw it through. They set up their candles and began calling up spirits. Did ghosts begin flitting about and knocking in the walls? No, nothing like that. But the room grew cold and dank as the grave and they heard sounds from the attic as the Connors had. And a smell of bad meat started rising up, a horrible smell that made you want to vomit, Lydia said. Rose’s old bed was still shoved in the corner and about then one of the girls screamed. For there was something on the bed, something covered in a graying old sheet, something that was breathing. Lydia said that’s when they ran. For whatever was under that sheet was trying to speak, except it sounded like its throat was full of dirt. And whatever was under there, it began to rise up, the sheet stuck to it. Lydia claimed that my mother was the last out of that room, that she looked back and saw something with a face like a spoiled, oily mushroom…just white and oozing. That as my mother ran out the door, a hand brushed the back of her neck and the fingers were wet and cold and pulpy like being caressed by a slime mold. Lydia said there was something like mucus on the back of my mother’s neck with little black spores growing in it. From that day on, my mother scrubbed her neck vigorously. I remember her doing so when we were children.
“So that’s my story, boys and girls, take it or leave it,” Miriam finished by saying. “But with what’s out in the streets, I’m thinking you just better effing take it.”
Russel and Margaret looked afraid, breathless.
Lou Darin just shook his head. “Nothing but a story. Dead people don’t come back and that’s that.”
Miriam looked like she was about to scold him like a foolish little boy that didn’t believe that fire would burn, but something stopped her.
There was a knocking at the door, a slow and heavy pounding.
The color drained from Miriam’s face. “All right, you cocksure sonofabitch, now’s your chance. You say the dead don’t walk…then go and answer that door. Do you hear me?
Answer that effing door!”
The knocking came again.
Lou Darin did not move. He just looked like he was about to cry.
At the Styer Funeral Home, which was about seven blocks from Kneale Street over in Crandon, there was only the sound of the rain falling. Jason Styer
who had, eighteen months earlier embalmed Nicky Ericksen after he fell through the ice and supervised Nicky’s interment at Hillside Cemetery once the snows had melted and the ground thawed
was upstairs in his rooms above the funeral parlor. The power was out and there was little to do but listen to the rain against the windows and read by candlelight. Atmospheric, but impractical.
Styer had decided not to leave Crandon, at least until the waters rose a little higher. He was of the same mind as many others who thought the rain would just stop and all would be well. Besides, if and when they retreated, there would be a lot of work to do and Styer knew he would be busy. And rich. Because if a flood did nothing else, it produced a lot of bodies. Styer did not relish any of it. He wasn’t morbid nor unfeeling by nature, but business was business.
When he heard something below, in his place of business, he arched an eyebrow, but little else. The dead did not frighten him. As his father had said again and again, it was the living you had to worry about. So, with that in mind, he went back to his book.
Then the sound came again.
Just a suggestion of something. But something that wasn’t quite right and laid bad in his belly. Unmarried and reclusive by nature, Styer was a man who liked quiet evenings by the fireside, book in hand. He was a man who knew the feel of his lodgings, his business below. Knew every nail and plank and tile. Knew how they felt and sounded day or night. And at night, they were generally silent as a tomb.
But not tonight.
Setting the book aside, filling his insides with something like concrete, he listened, knowing he would have to go down there. Knowing if he did not do it, there would be no sleep this night. He kept listening. Could hear the wind and rain outside rattling the eaves, making the sign out front sway and creak. The ticking of the clock on the mantle.
But something else, too.
Below, there was nothing really worth stealing. Nothing but the tools of the trade, chemicals and instruments. Nothing more. Just two bodies. And they did not move. He paid them no more mind than a stack of kindling. For, essentially, they were about as dangerous.
It was the flooding that concerned him.
The general disintegration of law and order. It brought the crazies out. The looters and thieves and God only knew what.
He went into his bedroom, pulled out his father’s Colt .38, loaded it carefully and calmly, then went downstairs, flashlight in hand. On the fifth step, moving as quiet as a tomcat, he heard a weird rustling noise. Whatever it was, it ended quite abruptly as if they (or it) heard him coming. At the bottom of the steps, he pushed open the door. It led into the front of the funeral home where the office and lobby were.
He paused there, listening.
He could hear nothing but the rain and wind. But there was something and he knew it. And who knew, really, what the storm might bring out? Maybe nuts who were eager to desecrate a corpse. It happened. It was rare, but it did happen. Everything in him was electric, supercharged, alert to an almost supernatural degree.
He went down the corridor past the viewing rooms to the back of his establishment
Even with the door closed, he could smell the chemicals, the residual stink of putrescence now that the air conditioning had gone out. Quickly then, Styer threw the door open and stepped inside. He reached for a battery lantern on the shelf and turned it on. Quivering, elongated shadows rose up around him, shrank back into their holes as the light flickered, filled the room with brilliance.
The corpses were still on their respective tables, covered in sheets. Just an old man who’d had a heart attack the day before and a young woman that had overdosed.
He had been secretly fearing that someone had slipped in and stolen them. College kids from the University maybe. Sometimes, they got a little crazy. But both cadavers were still there. But there was something strange about the old man…the sheet was stirring slightly, moving with a subtle whispering sound.
It couldn’t be.
The flesh at the back of his neck crawling, Styer stepped over there and flung the sheet away. The body was unmoved…though one arm seemed to have slid down from the chest, the fingers open now. The chemicals, that’s all. But what was that—
Styer stepped back.
There were five or six beetles lurking in the shadow beneath the old man’s chin. Others were hiding in his hair. A few more crept across his belly. Styer brushed them away and crushed them underfoot. Like roaches, they made for the shadows. As he turned back to the body, there were more beetles. Two of them sitting on his nose, rubbing their forelimbs together, making an obscene clicking sound. Others came out of his frowning mouth, his armpits, his crotch.
Infested, that’s what.
Styer had never seen insects exactly like them. Maybe the flooding had brought them out. The insects were large, though. Black and glistening, the size of cigar butts. It was crazy, though. Plain crazy.
One of them crawled up Styer’s leg.
Another ran across his hand.
He let out a cry as one leaped into his face, tried to land on his cheek.
The old man’s supine cadaver was swarming with them now, dozens of them. They moved over him like ants on a mound. Like maggots massing on a dead possum. Moving and chittering and hopping.
Something landed in Styer’s hair.
Then a second and third something. He clawed wildly, ripping out locks of hair. More of them fell on him. His face. His neck. Down the back of his shirt. He started to scream, to shriek, to dance in wild, almost comical circles as they nipped him and hung on with spurred legs.
A huge clicking cacophony rose up and saturated the air.
Styer looked up.
The ceiling was covered in a lustrous, shining assemblage of them. Hundreds, if not thousands. You could not see the tiles up there, just that surging ocean of beetles.
Styer let out a scream and saw he was not alone.
A man stood there, a very tall man. He was dressed in something like a long black slicker, only it was greasy and glistening like leather. His face was cadaverous and perforated with holes, just gray and flaking and set very tight on the jutting bones beneath. It set off his eyes which were yellow and huge, almost phosphorescent.
Jesus…” Styer uttered.
The man smiled and a stink came off him like wormy viscera. “Not quite.”
Styer pawed beetles off himself, wild-eyed and terrified now, his chest tightening unpleasantly. This guy was dead. He was…well, he was a zombie.
The man pulled the sheet off the young woman and the flesh had been chewed from her chest and throat right down to the musculature beneath.
What?” Styer said, trying to make sense of it. “What…what is this? What are you doing?”
The man grinned and it was awful. “Doing? Why, I’m eating, of course. But I hate to eat alone.”
Then Styer looked up and that seething mass of beetles fell down on him in a hailstorm of biting bodies, covering every inch of him. On the floor, he writhed and twisted, but soon the waters of that hideous creeping sea washed over him and he went under for keeps.
Desecration,” the dark man said, pulling long red worms out of the holes in his face with skeletal hands. “Desecration.”
He dropped the worms onto Styer’s corpse.
After a time, the beetles abandoned the remains of the undertaker and surged up and over the dark man, became him until you could not see his form, just that vague manlike shape sculpted of thousands of beetles, creeping and massing and chittering. Properly clothed then against the storm, he left with a distant sound of piping.
The last thing Mitch remembered was driving those kids to the precinct house downtown. Maybe they should have taken them to the hospital, but the precinct was a good bet. They pulled the van into the police garage and got the kids out. They were choppered about twenty minutes later to the National Guard tent camp outside town. No point in trying to find their families, not on a night like that.
Afterwards, while Tommy chewed the shit with George Lake, his cousin who was a cop, Mitch sat in the van. Smoked and brooded and…that was really the last thing he remembered.
And now he was awake.
And it was no gentle rousing from an afternoon nap here, he jerked awake, rattled with panic. That dream. That godawful dream. Tommy was nowhere around. He was still sitting in the van. Alone. Pulling off his water bottle and wishing it were whiskey, he had a smoke and began to remember his dream.
It was about Lily, of course.
He was dreaming that Chrissy was gone and they had the house to themselves and it wasn’t raining outside. They took a bath together in the garden tub Mitch had nearly broken his back putting in. Then they made love there with candles burning, lots of suds. That part had been good. He seemed to recall they spoke of the trip to the Rocky Mountains they’d always talked about taking. Other things he could not remember. Lily kept talking and as she did, the color drained from her face, her body, until she was perfectly white. Then she began to bloat up, bits of her dropping away and floating around in the suds until she looked like some horrible B-movie zombie.
That’s when he’d come awake.
He sat there in the van, just physically drained and emotionally wrecked. His heart was pounding and his face was wet with tears. Chrissy was missing and Lily…Lily was probably dead. No, forget the
she was certainly dead. Dead and he would never see her again.
And how was that for a door prize to this madhouse?
Lily was dead. This was how all the good times and bad times ended, this is where the struggles and love and laughter and pain and triumph ground to a halt. It had started on that beach eleven years ago when he’d met Chrissy, then met her mother and fell in love and it had all gone terribly fast, hadn’t it? So fast, just thinking of it all left him dizzy and disoriented. It passed through his brain in some kind of crazy blur, like being on a subway train and watching station after station whir by with dazzling speed. He saw all the memories whipping by and it left him gasping. Why hadn’t he tried to slow it down? Why hadn’t he tried to dig in his heels and slow it all down so maybe he could have enjoyed it more, lived it more, maybe held some of it in his hand and kept a piece in his pocket for the horrible, dark times ahead when he would really need it? Just a bit of it to get him through the night?