Carl had been sleeping – albeit not very soundly – when the music woke him up. He didn’t want to, but he rolled out of bed and staggered to the window, lifting up one slat of the yellowed blinds to look out. It was a clear night, clear enough that the minimal light from the wan quarter moon overhead was enough to illuminate the field behind his house, and he shook his head, letting the blind drop again. Damned zombies. He’d told everyone there were bodies out there, hell he’d found corn growing wild in that field a few times, he knew it had to have belonged to the old Johnson farm at some point. But no, nobody would listen to him, and now there were zombies out dancing around in the field in the middle of the night.
He considered calling someone, then decided he’d rather go back to bed instead. Fuck all of them. It wasn’t his responsibility to watch a field nobody believed anything was going to come out of. And it wasn’t like the zombies were going to bother him except maybe with their music. He fumbled in the nightstand drawer, fished out a pair of earplugs and jammed them into his ears. There, problem solved. And fuck Old Man Johnson too, for killing a shit-ton of people and burying them in pits all over his farm. The old bastard had to have known the land was contaminated, but he’d done it anyway and now they had shit crawling up out of the ground all the time, wandering around, sometimes trying to get revenge – they were usually pretty upset when they found out Old Man Johnson’s kids had been his last victims and the first to rise and avenge themselves on his wicked old ass, some of them even just fell apart on the spot once they were told. One or two had decided to try out just avenging themselves on the living in general, but Houdenville had laws to cover that kind of thing and word had gotten around the undead population that wanton killing would get you locked up.
And if there was one thing zombies hated, it was being confined. Supposedly it was the whole ‘digging out of your grave’ thing, left them with some kind of claustrophobic complex or something. There were people who protested at the courthouse sometimes because of that, they said locking up even the more murderous zombies was cruel and inhuman punishment. Carl himself had never much cared about the issue. Sure, it was kind of hard on them, but going to prison would have been hard on him if he’d started wantonly killing people too – if you’re gonna do the crime, you’d better be able to do the time, that was how he felt about it.
He’d been just about to drift back off when a loud knock on the window penetrated the earplugs and he sat back up with a curse; that hadn’t been zombies. He went back to the window, this time pushing the blinds to one side with a rattle of protesting plastic so he could glare at the pissed-off looking man on the other side of the glass. Carl rolled his eyes, unlatching the storm window and pushing it open. “What, Benny?”
The man’s mouth moved, and Carl made a show of pulling one of the earplugs out and shaking it at him. This time Benny rolled his eyes. “Don’t bullshit me, you don’t sleep in those,” he scolded. “Didn’t think you needed to, I don’t know, call the ‘catcher or something?”
“Don’t I remember you saying nothing was ever gonna come up out of this field, Benny? That it hadn’t been part of the farm?” Carl yawned, not bothering to cover his mouth. “Besides, they’re out there with a goddamn boom box, dancing the night away – ten to one they’re all gonna lay right back down once the sun comes up.”
“Lucky thing you’re not into gambling, you’d lose your shirt,” Benny snorted. “Where’d you think they got the tunes, moron?”
“I didn’t think, it was the music that woke me up the first time – I was half awake and pissed off.” Carl was plenty awake now, though. “Where’d they go first?”
“At least one of them was coming, not going,” Benny told him. “That one went through the Circle P and bought some batteries, then made tracks for the field. The rest of them probably rose here – and yeah, I did say this wasn’t part of the farm, so either I was wrong and so is the county map or the old man had been spreading out without telling anyone.”
“My sentiments exactly. We should probably re-survey the county, but they’ll never in a million years give us the money to do it – hell, you were at the last town council meeting, they want us to start buying our own greasepaint!”
“I thought your white was looking a little thin,” Carl observed. “I still think you boys should try to get one of the suppliers to sponsor the station.”
“I’d be happy to, if someone can figure out a way to make the proposal sound like it’s not written by crazy people.” One of the zombies came shambling up and he glared at it; it sort of shrank back a little. Another thing zombies really didn’t like, clowns. “You and your buddies are disturbing the peace.”
It made a face. This one had obviously been under long enough to rot quite a bit, so it wasn’t really obvious if it had been a boy or a girl – it was only obvious that it had been a hippie. “Man, we’re entitled to a little celebration,” it slurred. “Been down a long time…”
“Save it,” Benny cut it off. “You’re loud, either turn it down or it’s off to the tank for you.” It flinched again. “How the hell did you get out here, anyway? We didn’t think the old man owned this field.”
The zombie shrugged. “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that, man. We came out here to protest animal cruelty and unsustainable farming practices, thought we’d actually got the old dude to listen to us. He said he’d been thinkin’ about that, wanted to show us a field he’d been experimenting with some alternative fertilizer in and see what we thought.” It waved a ragged hand at the field. “Next thing I knew, we were in a hole and he was cackling like a cartoon bad guy. Is he still…”
“His kids got to him first, so no,” Benny told it. His black-circled eyes with their exaggerated lashes narrowed. “I know your buddy must have told you we have laws around here that apply to your kind, right?” he said. “So don’t go getting any funny ideas, got me?”
It considered him skeptically. “What’cha gonna do, kill me?”
Benny smiled, red painted mouth stretching way too wide, and the zombie drew back with a whimper. “We lock you up in a tiny little concrete cell,” he said happily, smile widening even more when it whimpered again. “I mean it, deathbag, you mind your manners now that you’re up, got it? No protesting, no sit-ins, no trying to convert people to veganism…”
“How did you know?!”
Benny didn’t bother to point out the rotting but still legible Meat is Murder, Kale is King t-shirt it was wearing, and Carl just rolled his eyes. Zombies were so stupid. “Old Man Johnson didn’t like protesters,” he told it. “Now if you two don’t mind, I’m going back to sleep – I’ve got work tomorrow. And you stay out of my fucking yard,” he told the zombie. “I’ll put up with having you for a neighbor, but if I catch you trespassing I’m calling this clown back out, got it? And he’ll bring all his buddies with him in a tiny little car.”
Benny nodded gravely. “We’ve got one. It’s got a squeaky horn and it’s painted with polka dots all over,” he said. “You really don’t want to know how many of us can fit in it, do you?”
The zombie shook its head, stumbling back a step. “We ain’t gonna cause no trouble. We’ll keep the music down from now on.” And then it turned and shambled back to its friends as fast as it could go, muttering to itself about clowns.
Carl closed the window before Benny could say anything else, letting the blind drop back into place and putting his earplug back in as he climbed back into bed. He had work in the morning, he needed his sleep – and he needed the hours, since he was still trying to make up the three sick days he’d taken during the last full moon.
Sully waited in line at the grocery store, trying not to be too interested in the man ahead of him who was carrying a wrapped package under one arm. It was a really prettily wrapped package, shiny pink paper and multicolored ribbons tied into a puffy bow on top. It also looked like it was either leaking or had been set down in something wet at one point, because the paper had a brown-edged stain on it. He couldn’t tell if the cashier had noticed or not, but he knew it was entirely possible the man had noticed and just didn’t care – Carl was a nice enough guy most of the time, but caring about what other people did just wasn’t part of his makeup. At least, not unless it affected him in some way.
Sully didn’t hold that against the guy. In fact, sometimes he wished he could be more like Carl, care a little less, stand up for himself a little more. He wasn’t wired that way, though, and he never had been. Well, except for that one time…but Sully tried not to think about that one time if he could help it.
The man with the package finally finished his transaction and strolled out of the store, and Sully stepped up into his place and put his basket down, eyeing the pile of coupons Carl was still trying to deal with sympathetically. “Coupon clipper?”
“Thinks he is – half of this is either expired or for things he didn’t buy.” He pushed the coupons off to one side and pulled the basket over. “I’ll sort those out later, you’ve got ice cream.” He started ringing things up, stopping at one point to fish a coupon out of one of the stacks. “Hey, that works – a dollar off, even.”
“Thanks.” Sully cocked his head. “You look tired.”
Carl laughed. “Well, yeah – a bunch of zombies rose in that field behind my house last night, they were partying pretty hard and woke me up. Benny showed up and made them tone it down, though.” He tapped the side of a plastic deli container which was sitting on the counter and had a handwritten sign taped to it that said ‘Houdenville Police Uniform Fund’. “City council is trying to make them buy their own greasepaint now, the boss said we could put this up – we’ll either make enough money to get a crate of the stuff for them or shame the bean counters into doing the right thing for once. If you’ve got a nickel to spare, every little bit will help.”
Sully did not have a nickel, but he had a quarter and six pennies which he gladly pushed through the little slot cut in the top of the container’s lid. “No way they can get it wholesale online and then split the cost between them, like a co-op?”
“Bite your tongue, Sully.” Carl was grinning, though. “That’s pretty much what we’re going to do if we collect enough change, though – order it from our supplier and then just give it to them.” He reflexively checked the carton of eggs. “One of these is cracked, want to go get another one?”
Sully shook his head. “I’m going to eat it as soon as I get home. I felt like an omelet this morning.”
“Okay.” Carl kept ringing things up. Houdenville Market carried a good selection of products and kept their markup reasonable – enough so that nobody had ever been interested in starting another grocery store in town, anyway – but they didn’t have all the fancy bells and whistles a really modern store would have like scanners and self-checkouts. Sully sort of liked that about the store, though, the fact that it felt more laid-back than the high-tech stores he’d been in in other places.
Sully tried not to think about being in other places, though. He’d been in a lot of them, but Houdenville was the only one that was home.
Finally his groceries were all registered and bagged up, he’d shown his ID – a formality they always observed even though everyone knew who he was – to get his mushrooms, and then Carl was handing over the bags and Sully headed out the store’s pressure-activated automatic door into the morning sunshine. He packed up the bags carefully into the basket on the back of his bicycle and headed back home as quickly as he could, mindful of the ice cream and in a hurry to get it into his freezer. And then he could make his mushroom omelet and eat it, and after that he’d doubtless be feeling a lot more mellow and stop thinking about things he didn’t want to think about. Because it was really better for everyone if he didn’t.
Rhonda found the present on her porch that afternoon, wrapped in pink paper and tied with multicolored ribbons. She observed it from a few different angles, then picked it up and shook it gently; the contents reacted with a soft thud. She smiled and took it into the house to unwrap it, inhaling the scent leaking through the paper – visibly leaking on one side down at the bottom – appreciatively. Jackie was just so sweet sometimes…
Across town, two officers from the local police department were trying to deal with a 406 and trying to stay enough in the shade doing it so their greasepaint wouldn’t get too streaky from sweat. Which wasn’t easy, since the 406 had showed up in the middle of an abandoned parking lot just outside of town. “I’m going to wipe it off,” one of them said.
“You know if you do we’ll get zombies,” was the other’s reply. He was holding an umbrella. “I’m not protecting your ass if that happens, Todd.”
“I’m your partner!”
“You’re also an idiot – no hat, no base, no umbrella, just a lot of whining. It’s the middle of summer, moron, you knew it was going to be hot today.” He moved a step closer to the rusted metal gate that was leading down into who knew what, and then jumped back when a shiny green beetle scurried over one of the bars. “Aw shit, I hate these! I was hoping it was maybe a tunnel under the factory or something.”
Todd squinted, keeping his distance as the beetle was joined by two more. “Nope, those are definitely Death Scarabs.” He walked around the side of the pile of stone sticking out of the cracked asphalt. “I don’t see any vents, Jace. Should we just seal the door?”
“Do you remember what happened when Jim and Tracy tried that?” His partner walked around the other side, also inspecting the solidity of the stone. “I don’t see any gaps either. We could call for backup, I guess – if we had four people spraying at once it might be okay.”
“It would not be ‘okay’!” a cranky voice insisted, echoing out of the gate, and both officers hurriedly moved back around the pile and pulled their sidearms. “Do I come around to your house and spray toxic foam all over it with you inside?”
“My house doesn’t randomly appear in the middle of an abandoned parking lot,” Jace rebutted, rolling his eyes. “And it also doesn’t have flesh-eating beetles as guard dogs. Mind telling us what you’re doing out here?”
“Am I trespassing?”
The two officers looked at each other, and Todd shrugged. “I guess in theory?”
A chuckle. “Thought so. Police harassment looks bad in the papers, boys.” The gate creaked rustily open, and a wrinkled old man with a long white beard stepped out, the scratched jewel on the crown he was wearing not quite catching the light. He winced when he saw them. “Dammit, I was hoping you were just goth. Zombies?”
“All over the damn place,” Jace confirmed. He lowered his weapon so it was pointing at the ground in front of the man’s feet. “Who are you and what are you doing out here?”
“And why do you have Death Scarabs?” Todd wanted to know, lowering his barrel as well. “That’s possession…”
“They came with the tomb.” The old man waved it away. “I’m King Aurelius, Lord of the Underground and Keeper of the Sacred Jewel…” Jace fired, and a stream of water splattered on the ground in front of him, getting the front of his ragged robes wet. “Hey, show some respect!”
“Dude, you’re wearing a little girl’s plastic princess crown,” Jace told him, rolling his eyes. “You’re not even king of my left nut. Bought the tomb off someone or just stumbled in and started squatting?”
King Aurelius drew himself up. “That’s not illegal, it was abandoned. And it accepted me as the new owner, anyway – the beetles aren’t eating me, right?”
“Point,” Todd admitted. “So did you just pop up randomly or are you here for a reason?”
The old man sighed and shrugged, letting go of the bluster. “All right, fine, randomly. Sort of, anyway. The tomb picked the spot, I didn’t. Not like I know how to make it move – it didn’t come with instructions!”
“Can you control the scarabs?” He nodded slowly, concentrated for a minute, and the green beetles scuttled back into the tomb. Both officers lowered their weapons the rest of the way. “Okay then,” Jace said. “No, you’re right, you aren’t trespassing – the owner of the factory is long gone. And honestly, we don’t give a damn if you’re out here or not as long as you keep your scarabs under control. You can get a waiver for them from Animal Control if the inspector passes you.”
That got a raised eyebrow. “Warrantless search, boys?”
“Don’t need one if you’re in possession of potentially infestuous pests,” Todd told him. “Chapter and verse from the rule book, Aurelious. Sticking with that as your name, by the way? Because Animal Control will take your prints and run a background check, just sayin’.”
Aurelious sighed. “Fucking bureaucracy is like a weed, it’s everywhere. Fine, fine – before I took over the tomb my name was Charles Goeringle, the new name came with the place, and honestly? I wasn’t upset about it, because nobody ever spelled my real name right anyway. So call it an alias if you want, but I’d prefer to be called King Aurelious.”
“We don’t have a problem with that,” Jace agreed. “Animal Control is on the other side of town, it’s the little round hill with a moat around the bottom, you can’t miss it. I’ll put down that we gave you a warning and you’ll be checking in over there for your waiver – you have 48 hours to comply or we’ll be back out here to seal the place, understood?”
The old man nodded grumpily, then turned and stomped back into his tomb, the iron gate closing behind him with a protesting squeal of rusted hinges. The two police officers went back to their car and Todd called it in on his cell phone. “Dispatch, our 406 is a Death Scarab tomb currently inhabited by one Charles Goeringle who now goes by King Aurelious. Yeah…yeah, he claims the tomb brought him here, we think he’s a squatter. We gave him the standard 48 to get inspected…no, Jace fired a warning shot and it didn’t appear to be burning him, so probably not. Yeah…no, not until we’ve had a chance to come in and touch up our makeup, it’s damn hot out here. Okay…okay, over and out.”
Jace snickered. “Another call?”
“Yeah, some of the zombies from the other night are trying to picket the grocery store. Benny is over there, but they want us to go be backup while he has another talk with them about causing a public disturbance.” He adjusted the car’s vent so that the barely-cool air was blowing directly on his face and neck. “Goddamn activists.”
“Yeah, I heard this bunch were vegan. Think any of them have figured out they need to eat yet?”
“I’m hoping they don’t. I’d rather sweep the bastards up than write them up any day.”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
The front entrance to Houdenville Market was surrounded by two half-rings of people, the outer ring keeping a pretty good distance from the inner one. And holding various gardening implements, pieces of sports equipment, and in one case a double-barreled shotgun. The inner ring was composed of zombies holding up signs, most of them very crudely drawn and all of them looking like they’d been made out of pieces of a vandalized picket fence. The zombies were making a lot of noise, shouting out things about animal cruelty and the need for humanity to embrace veganism if they ever wanted to be at peace. The ring of non-zombies did not look impressed, and on the Market’s front porch Carl was rolling his eyes and looking bored while the store’s owner, Betty Hawkins, stood beside him and fumed. She waved at the police car when it pulled up. “Arrest them!” she called out. “They’re blocking the entrance to my store with this idiocy!”
Todd got out of the car, as did Jace. “Where’s Benny? He was supposed to be over here.”
“He took off,” Carl called over. “Heat was getting to him, I think.”
That meant his makeup had been melting off. “Yeah, it’s been getting to me all day, I feel like I’m melting,” Jace agreed. “Okay you undead assholes, I know Benny told you the other night to keep your noise out in the field. So what are you doing here?”
That got several of the signs shaken at him. “They sell meat! Meat is murder!”
Todd cocked his head. “You eat meat.”
“We’re vegans!” a zombie wearing cutoffs and the remains of a hand-embroidered-in-Guatemala cotton shirt insisted. “Meat is murder!”
The two police officers looked at each other. “It sure is when you get hungry,” Jace finally said. “Since you eat people. Alive. Are you telling me none of you have eaten since you surfaced?”
That made the zombies all look at each other. “What do you mean, we eat people?”
“You’re zombies,” Jace informed them. “Zombies eat people. Occasionally animals if you can catch them. Zombies do not, in my experience, eat kale. But we can check.” He waved. “Mrs. Hawkins, would you please bring out some kale for these protesters?”
She frowned. “I’m all out of kale, but I have spinach.” She went into the store and came back out with a dark green and leafy bunch of spinach in her hand, which she tossed to the zombies. Two of them grabbed it and started munching, passing what was left to the others to share.
Thirty seconds later only two zombies were still standing, mouths open and signs on the ground. “Hey, what is this? You poisoned them!”
“Plant matter poisoned them,” Todd corrected. “I repeat: You’re zombies, you eat meat. Live. Meat. That’s what keeps you animate.” They didn’t look like they were wanting to believe that. “Okay, then eat the rest of the spinach. Get the leaves from the inside of the bunch, those wouldn’t have been reached by any spray, right?”
One zombie bent down and retrieved the rest of the bunch of spinach from one of his former friends’ withering hands. He looked it over, sniffed it, pawed through the leaves to get to the center, then cautiously put a small leaf in his mouth and chewed. He looked at his remaining friend and shrugged, pulling out a larger leaf to eat. “Tastes like spinach – organically grown, even, no pesticides. Good stuff.”
“Let me try that.” The other zombie took a couple of leaves and chewed as well, nodding approval. “Oh shit yeah, this is the good stuff! Do you guys get your produce from local farms around here or what?” His friend fell over. “Hey, wait a minute…!”
Jace rolled his eyes when that zombie fell over too, stepping out of the way of a clawing hand that very quickly stopped moving and started to wither. “I can’t believe they fell for that, I really can’t. How much do we owe you for the spinach, Mrs. Hawkins?”
She waved it off. “Don’t worry about it – nobody’s been buying spinach this week, I was about to mark it down anyway. I’d appreciate it if you called the street cleaner for me, though.”
“We’ll radio it in from the car,” Todd agreed. “Anyone know whose fence they took apart to make the signs?” The response was a round of shrugs and sideways looks. “Okay, we’ll drive out to the field they rose in, see if it was someplace between here and there.” One of the armed watchers, a short, pudgy man clutching a baseball bat, looked somewhat upset by that, and Todd gave him a hard look. “That’s not a tally-book I see in your pocket, is it, Jerry?”
Jerry immediately went on the defensive. “Of course it isn’t! It’s just…it’s just a little notebook I carry around. For writing things down.” He indicated the store. “Like my grocery list!”
“Oh, so that’s your grocery list,” Jace said, nodding. “That’s good, because if it was a tally-book I’d have to give you a ticket, maybe even run you in. You know that, right?” Jerry nodded violently. “Good, good. Why don’t you go on in and get your groceries, Jerry. I hear spinach is about to go on sale, good time to stock up.”
“Yeah…yeah, I’ll do that.”
The pudgy man picked his way through the rapidly dessicating corpses – not without a longing look at the sunken-eyed heads closest to him – and scurried into the store. Carl saluted Jace and Todd and then strolled in after him, followed by Mrs. Hawkins, and after making sure the rest of the crowd was dispersing the two officers got back in their car and headed back to the station, calling for the street cleaner to come out and sweep up the remains. Along with a request to be notified if any of the skulls were crushed when he got there. Jerry may have been one of the more recent ones to get sucked into that game, but he wasn’t anywhere near the only one in town playing it.
Now Entering Houdenville © 2018 L.S. Christopher. All rights reserved.
This series grew out of a writing experiment that was literally a roll of the dice, as in I'd roll some Story Dice and make up a story based on whatever elements the dice gave me. And then the stories all started to join hands in the weirdest way, and Houdenville was born.
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