“The Worm Farm”
July 1, 2017
Lore’s Corner
July 1, 2017

Blood Ties Chapter Five: Becky’s Night Vision

The Leichts’ Home, November 30, 2006, 2:00 a.m.

Six days after her mother’s funeral, a crash jarred Becky out of a sound sleep. The Mylar balloons, cradling her head in soft, rounded orbs, blocked her view. She shoved them aside and saw her mother standing in the bedroom doorway against silver puddles of moonlight. The noise came from her banging open the door. Her mother stood there, a lean woman, still wearing her satin gown. Its sequins glimmered. Only now, she showed no signs of respiratory distress or other symptoms that plagued her when she was alive. A mop of gray curls crowned her head; more cascaded around her angular face.

“Becky, get up,” she said in a strong voice. “I’ve got to show you something.”

Becky glanced toward Steve. He was a vague hump under their quilt, asleep. No nightmares or insomnia troubled him; God bless him. She looked back at her mother, who was dead and yet not dead. Why? What did she want?

“We have unfinished business,” her mother said.

It’s only a bad dream, Becky tried to tell herself, but she felt compelled to get out of bed; her mom’s eyes were on her. She slipped from under the covers and swung her feet onto the floor. The powder blue rug felt soft as a kitten’s paw. The balloons fluttered on the pillow behind her. The dream seemed so real; she kept a safe distance. She didn’t want a ghost to touch her, even if it was her mother.

But she followed. They crossed the hallway into the living room. The balloon tree by her closet brushed against her side but did little to ease her shivering. “Put on your coat and boots,” her mother said. “It’s cold outside.”

“Sure.” Nostalgia crept in. Becky thought about the times she used to take Mom shopping. Her throat constricted. She struggled for the next breath. “I’d better get my keys.”

“We’re walking. After you hear and see what I’ve got to show you, you won’t be in any condition to drive.”

The chill inside Becky worsened. Dread began to fill the hollow places inside her with icicles. She halted.

“Hurry!” Her mother waved her hand, her voice insistent. “We’re going to be late. You need to see this because you’re going to have a baby.”

Pregnant? I doubt it. True, her cycle had run a couple of months late, but stress was causing it. Dr. Fitzpatrick had found abnormalities in her blood that he couldn’t explain, even after she had a bone marrow aspiration. Since her mother had suffered so much grief from her husband, Fitzpatrick kept the blood tests confidential and continued treating Becky. He advised Becky against having children and prescribed the pill. During the last few months, she and Steve had been discussing plans to adopt.

She expected her mother to unlock the door and head outside; instead, she passed through the wood. At that, Becky’s stomach cringed at the absolute terror that filled her. Only six days ago, her mother lay in her coffin, a lifeless figure with skin pockmarked by tears and bruises, and now Becky couldn’t resist the urgency in her voice. She slipped into her winter coat and followed her mother out to the porch.

She didn’t like this dream one bit. The softness of her rug, the caresses from her balloons, the wind sweeping the narrow street, the jingle of keys in her coat pocket spoke of reality, and that made the specter real, too. Once off the porch, her boots crunched over dead branches. Another little detail that made this nightmare real.

“Don’t you wonder why gruesome murders are happening in our city? Harry’s so-called friends say people from outer space killed them all. They’re right.”

Space aliens? Never mind. I’m dreaming.

A small tree branch poked Becky’s right shoulder, and she winced. Up ahead, her mother became a hazy figure in the gloom, her feet not making a sound. They were approaching a fork. The right fork led to Preacher’s Corner; the left fork to ... oh, my God, this is real.

“Most extraterrestrials want to learn about us, but some act as predators,” her mother said. “Teodon will go out of his way to help someone, but he’s made a lot of enemies.”

Uh, oh, here it comes. The truth about Teodon.

After taking the left fork, they took a straight path deeper in the woods. The ground dissolved into a cold, gelatinous mud under Becky’s feet, grabbing at her soles with ugly sucking noises. Her feet slipped. She grabbed the branches to steady herself.

She kept telling herself she was dreaming, but she knew better.

****

They arrived at a clearing. The moonlight illuminated a patchy profusion of weeds surrounded by chain-link fencing. Nicholas and his school chums used to play baseball here until something—Becky didn’t recall what—had gone sour. Her mother stopped at a gate overgrown with barren vines. The gate squealed. Becky followed her mother through the tangled weeds. She heard the distant drone of cars on Convent Way and water splashing below her feet. Water? What makes me think it’s water?

Her mother stopped before a utility hole cover and pried the lid. It came up with grating sounds. The full moon sailed from behind the stringy clouds, illuminating a ladder. Its rungs disappeared into a pitch-dark abyss. Becky trembled with a horror that she couldn’t understand.

Her mother looked at her with solemn eyes. “You are frightened. I love you dearly, but you need to make educated decisions about your child.”

“I’m not ...” Becky’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Tell me about Teodon.”

“He called his breed Kryszka. They look human, but they’ve got pointed teeth and red eyes. We met after George and I had our worst fight. George broke three ribs and cut me.” She pitched her voice to a soothing low murmur. “Teodon brought me to his clinic to treat my injuries.”

“What clinic?” Becky fought the dread that threatened to swallow her. “Why didn’t you go to a hospital?”

“I did, but the clerk there gave me a hard time about money. Teodon happened to be there. He said he was observing human interaction. He offered to treat me without charge and make the beatings stop. I was hurting badly enough that I might have said yes to the Devil himself.

“He was gentle with me. We talked about things. Loneliness blinded me to our differences, and God help me, Becky, we had an affair. I loved him, but I had Nicholas to consider. He was only five. When I realized I was pregnant, I contemplated an abortion, but I didn’t want to add murder to my sins.”

Now, pity crept in with the fear, and Becky longed to hold her mother and make everything all right. She cupped her hand over her mouth. Her cheeks felt cool. “Are you saying that I am part alien?”

“You’ve got the Kryszka physique and mind power, but you inherited my disposition and temperament. Sending me money, looking out for your students and Harry—you reminded me of myself when I was young.”

Her mother climbed down the ladder now, her face grim in the moonlight.

Becky’s mind began to slip. Her thoughts were a yammering cycle of you’ve got to scream yourself awake, it doesn’t matter if you wake Steve, scream yourself awake.

Becky tried to work up a scream, but only a thin whisper of air came. She bent over the opening. The hole, wide enough to accommodate two adults, was pipe-dark. A stench of rotting tomatoes wafted from the gloom.

“Come down here, Becky.” Her mother’s voice was a thin whisper. “You need to see for yourself.”

“I don’t want to,” Becky protested, but her limbs moved, one after the other, and carried her down the ladder. She stood beside her mother, knee-deep in mud, one hand leaning against a paneled door. Her fingers glided over smooth metal.

“This door is a gate to their underground city,” her mother said. “The Kryszka use mind over matter to open it. I think you can open it with yours, Becky.”

“Underground ... what?” Never mind, I’ll do anything to end this nightmare. She concentrated. The panel rolled open like a gaping, toothless mouth.

At first what looked like a red, gauzy curtain obscured her surroundings. Its rancid smell made her eyes water. As the haze cleared, Becky made out buildings—ten of them, lined with portholes and illuminated by pink lights. Splotches of dried maroon mud crusted the grass surrounding the buildings. The buildings looked like someone had spray-painted them with purple and gray glitter. Two more portholes opened at the front of one structure. Glassy fluid oozed down the openings, forming panes. The slanted roof of that building reached toward the overhead lights.

The mud puddles stretched, widening to the right, where an immense spider web hung over a pool of dark red liquid. Emaciated people hung from its thick white strands, dripping fluid into the pool, some lifeless and skeletal and others alive. A metal harness bound each person, looping around the waist and under both arms so that the body lolled forward in a half-bow. The live prisoners thrashed against their ties. The harsh wind carried the stink of carrion and rattled the skeletons on the web. Her fist went to her mouth. “Oh, my God …what is this?”

A shiver coursed through her mother. “A Kryszka dignitary targeted our neighborhood because George and his hunting buddies shot his mother. The Kryszka guards feed on the prisoners. Watch.”

Becky watched someone dressed in silver walk up to the prisoners. She couldn’t make out his face, but he was brandishing a tube-shaped device. It made whirling sounds before it sheared a prisoner’s leg. The prisoner screamed.

Her mother’s voice intruded on her observations. She looked down at Becky who had sunk to her knees. “Don’t ever go near these buildings.”

Her face radiated fear and a dreadful kind of patience. “Don’t come here looking for Teodon on your own, no matter how much you feel you need answers. Your father meant well, but those officers have scores to settle. They are always hungry.” Becky tried to work up another scream. She couldn’t.

“I can’t tell you what to do about the baby,” her mother said. “But your paternal background is a book that’s better left unopened. You’ve already had one close call.”

“But I never met ...”

“You did, but your conscious mind doesn’t remember it yet. It explains your preoccupation with those balloons.”

Her mother reached for her. The maddening whirling sound persisted. Becky over-balanced in her effort to get away from her mother, felt herself pitch backward. The buildings faded in and out of focus.

“Becky, whatever you decide, stay away from these buildings.”

Becky tried to scream before she sailed into grayness. She still heard the whirling sounds of steel cutting into flesh.

****

Becky had problems getting to sleep last night, after her mother’s visit, but once she did, it took two alarm clocks and a vigorous shaking by Steve to wake her.

Sleep felt like a pool from which she emerged by degrees. Sometimes she heard sounds but only remembered them as fragments of a dream. The whirling continued, smoother and quieter now. Water running. More whirling. Footsteps. A soft click. A door opening. Finally, Becky opened her eyes and saw the balloons covering her face. She remained still, waiting for reality to come all the way home.

The dream was awful, but not real. Her mother’s death, their last conversation, and the family meltdown at the funeral had provided fertile ground for nightmares.

Steve was shaving in the bathroom. Becky rolled sideways, hugging the blankets, and pushed the balloons off her face. “Steve, what time is it?” Steve emerged from their tiled bathroom, wearing a T-shirt and boxers. He laid his shaver on their dresser. “Six o’clock. Almost time for my morning rounds.”

Reaching forward, he traced one finger across her forehead. “Those balloons rubbed green dye all over you.”

Becky giggled. Her dream was losing its coherence. “They’re affectionate.”

“That’s very nice, Becky.” He smiled. “You moon over your balloons, and I’ll make some coffee.”

“Wait a minute.” Becky sat bolt upright, hating the thought of drinking Steve’s version of coffee. It tasted like paint thinner. She swung her feet onto the rug, ready to offer to make it herself when the words died in her throat.

She had on her coat and boots. The soles were filthy with mud. Her heart leaped in her throat. She threw back the covers and jumped to her feet. The sheets and blanket were muddy and soiled. Brownish footprints tracked the rug from their bed to the hallway.

“Becky, what's with the clothes?” Steve walked over to Becky’s side of the bed, then stopped, his eyes widening. “What happened to our rug?”

Mud stains splattered her navy coat and pink gown. She shed her coat and hiked her gown’s sleeves. Her right shoulder bore a bruise where she had bumped into the branch.

A scream reared up inside, a cold bolt of fear. Reality shimmered, reality with the muddy boots, soiled bedclothes, and bruised shoulder.

“Becky?” His voice more urgent. “Were you sleepwalking?”

Go ahead, tell him about your talk with Mom, her mind yammered. Tell him that Dear Old Dad moved here from another planet, and you saw his underground city.

Don’t forget to mention you’re carrying a baby that happens to be part alien, too. Let it rip, just like you did at Mom’s funeral.

“Becky, what’s going on here?” His eyes bulging, the color leaving his face now. “What happened to you?”

Becky sighed. Lying wouldn’t cut it. Steve learned the pain of lying when he was barely out of his diapers, when his father walked out, leaving him, his sister, and their mother to fend for themselves. He deserved the truth.

“Last night I saw Mom, or at least dreamt I did,” she said, looking at him. “She took me out to the woods.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.” Steve’s voice softened. “Sometimes stress can cause nightmares and sleepwalking. Do you want to talk about it?”

So far, so good. Becky kicked off her boots and stepped on the scale under her bed. Ten pounds heavier. Time to cut out the fried chicken lunches at the hospital.

Next, she went over to the calendar on her dresser. Each time she began menstruation, she marked an “X” on the calendar date. The information came in handy during visits with Dr. Fitzpatrick. She traced her fingers along the November page. No “X’s.” Ditto for September and October. She’d penciled in her last “X” on August 14, two weeks before Mom’s last ride to the hospital. “I’m three months late,” she said, more to herself than to Steve. “Mom said I’m pregnant. So much for birth control pills.”

“Is that so awful?” Steve’s tired look left, swapped for a pleased smile. “I never understood why Fitzpatrick made a big deal over it.”

“He thought the baby might not be normal. Given my circumstances, I shouldn’t have put off seeing the doctor.” In a halting voice, she described her walk through the woods. The underground buildings. Her mother’s version of her father. She gazed at Steve, watching for quivering lips, reddening cheeks, or another sign that he was going to lose it. She saw none.

“Mom called these people Kryszka,” she finished. “Do these aliens exist?”

“I’m afraid so.” Steve took Becky’s hands in his. His fingers felt warm and gentle; his tone was the kind he might use to explain a cancer diagnosis to his favorite patient. “I saw the autopsy report on Rob, the guy who fought with Harry. The rescue team found foreign skin tissue under his fingernails. The samples went to an Army research laboratory, and no one’s giving out details. They believe that a rare species of animal attacked Rob.”

He smiled now and looked down at Becky. “Don’t worry about what Fitzpatrick says. Unlike the Jackson Hospital team, he uses prehistoric equipment. That man couldn’t find his asshole with a mirror, a flashlight, and a team of assistants to guide him.”

Fitzpatrick’s ruddy face flashed across her mental screen, and Becky burst into laughter. She tried to imagine Fitzpatrick, a crepe-hanger type, hollering that he couldn’t find his rectum, and let out another stream of giggles. “I’m going to tell Fitzpatrick you said that,” she managed between snorts.

“Go ahead. Hey, if there were a problem, Betsy Ross Hospital would have found it during your employment physical.”

“Yes, they would have.” Especially if they hadn’t settled for Fitzpatrick’s report, the one that fudged my blood tests. “Between Mom’s sickness and Harry’s troubles, this last year was a bummer. Maybe God sent us a blessing.”

“I’m sure He did. I’ll ask Joe Hoffman at the research lab to take a look at you. He’s got horrible bedside manners, but he knows his stuff."

“That’s good. Call me on my cell phone with the time. I’m heading to the school for a bit.”

“Betsy Ross? You’re not due back until tomorrow.”

“I want to get a start on fielding complaints about my students. The staff respiratory therapists there hate working with students. They’re like animals that eat their young. This time, they targeted this quiet girl, Chloe. I’m concerned.”

No, not concerned; plenty worried described it better. Chloe’s got imaginary friends, one report said. Chloe talks to herself around patients. Becky slipped into a beige corduroy skirt, and floral print sweater then started toward the bathroom. “The aggressive students and therapists eat the shy ones for dinner.”

“Fighting for the underdog, are we?” Steve chuckled. “You may be the school’s heroine, but you’ve got green paint on your forehead.”

“Because I’m the Balloon Lady,” Becky sang with glee. “And I’m going to be a mom.”

****

Elizabeth Ross University, a decrepit maze of buildings known as Betsy Ross, grimaced at Becky from across the train station. She didn’t dare take her car since the neighborhood was rife with theft.

At her seventh-floor office, a room pinching her desk, a filing cabinet, and two chairs, Becky found condolences cramming her mail bin, along with grievances from the staff therapists: Your students ask the same tired questions. So and so broke an oxygen analyzer.

What did the staff therapists expect? They never allowed students to sit in on morning report, use their restroom, or drink from their water fountain. These people screamed obscenities that they learned through their world of pain, thrust there by abusive relatives and unruly children. They loved to share their wealth, especially with timid students like Chloe.

Becky penned her replies in blood-red ink: No one can learn when you bully them. Harsh knocking impinged on her concentration. Before Becky could invite the caller in, the door slammed against her filing cabinet. A slow-moving moose named Todd Bogart loomed over her desk; his bulk exuded the essence of stale cigarette smoke. He waved a crumpled paper in her face.

“You got me in a world of shit,” he said, grinding his yellow-stained teeth. “Thanks to you, I lost my football scholarship.”

Becky leaned back and looked at Todd, a dark cloud that haunted her office. His screechy voice sounded like that of a two-year-old having a tantrum. She couldn’t help giggling.

“This ‘F’ cost me, stupid,” he shouted. “It ain’t funny.”

“You’re right; it isn’t.” The laughter stopped. Becky summoned her “Authority” voice. She jabbed her forefinger against each finger on the opposite hand and roll-called his offenses. “You failed to attend the study sessions. You curse at instructors and staff therapists. You shoved Chloe and called her names. No, this isn’t funny at all. The ‘F’ stands.”

“I’ll get you where you live, creep. When you least expect it.”

“You don’t know squat about me, buddy.” Her gaze lingered on him. “So, you’d better shut up and study.”

Becky watched him storm down the hall. She felt a wave of nausea. Morning sickness, perhaps. It passed. Nothing about Todd was ever pleasant, but unlike last night’s dream, it followed the natural order of things. Her laughter set him off, though, and there was no telling what damage he’d inflict. She scribbled a memo about Todd to the boss, Raymond Glassman, in case things got ugly.

After dropping the memo into Glassman’s bin, she took the catwalk that led to the hospital section. It was mid-morning, the usual time to chat with students.

Everyone she met greeted her with a smile. Becky smiled back. On the way to ICU, her cell phone jingled.

“Becky, love.” Steve’s voice, sounding ecstatic. “Hoffman said he could see you at three. Can I pick you up at two?”

“Sure.” Becky shivered at the fear stealing back into her heart. “I’m not officially on duty so that I can leave anytime.”

“Great! I have a good feeling about this.”

From your mouth to God’s ears. Becky tucked the phone back into her pocket. Memories of her mother flooded her mind. She paused before the ICU doors to collect her thoughts. That was when she heard the shouting.

The voice belonged to Diane, a blonde wearing scrubs and heavy makeup. Chloe, her student, was in tears. Two red spots glowed on her pudgy cheeks like exclamation points. Sweat stains ringed the shoulders of her white scrubs.

“Whoa, there, ladies.” Becky smiled, trying for a light voice. “Where’s the fire?”

“No fire,” Diane spoke with the venom that sprang from unadulterated contempt. She jabbed her finger to the floor by the trash can. Her blue eyes glittered like glass shards beside a country road. “Look at the mess your student made. I’ve got thirty breathing treatments. I don’t have time for this shit.”

Becky looked at the floor, her face flushing. According to the rumor mill, Diane was bipolar. Bipolar or not, the slightest mishap caused her misery: a headache, traffic, or split fingernail. This time, brown glass fragments in a puddle of medicine had set her off. “So what? Call Environmental Services.”

“I can’t deal with this. Loony Tunes likes to talk to herself.”

“I can’t help it.” Chloe bursts into sobs. “Diane’s yelling makes me nervous.”

“Aw-w-w!” Diane sang with mock sympathy. “You poor thing.”

“Diane, stop.” Becky rubbed her forehead, trying to soothe a budding headache. She wished she’d stayed home the extra day. “I don’t appreciate you taking your frustrations out on my students.”

“Fine. You’re Chloe’s clinical director. You deal with her.”

“I can’t. I have a doctor’s appointment.” Becky looked at her bleary-eyed student. “Chloe, use this time to work on your case report. Tomorrow, Diane can assign me some of her patients. I’ll watch you treat them and co-sign your charting.”

“No problem.” Chloe wiped her puffy eyes.

“It’s your lookout.” Diane shrugged. “Get her out of my way.”

Becky watched Diane stride down the hall, her spiked heels clicking on the linoleum. “Diane could handle her workload better if she wore sneakers,” she said, giving Chloe a smile.

“Whatever.” Chloe wiped her puffy eyes. “Hey, I’m sorry about your mom.”

“I’ll make it.” Becky patted her on the shoulder. “So will you.”

****

Joseph Hoffman’s office was a spacious suite on Jackson Hospital’s research floor. Steve never left Becky’s side. A nurse named Cindy swabbed her arms. “Do you have any pain or bleeding?” she asked in a neutral voice.

Becky shook her head. “Just gas and nausea.”

The tourniquet went on next. “Any weight gain or loss?”

“I gained ten pounds.”

“When was your last period?” Cindy went on.

“August 14.” Becky grimaced at the needle pricking her skin.

“Any other symptoms?”

Becky shook her head. She watched Cindy draw six tubes of blood. Six? What’s up with that?

“Are you getting enough sleep?”

Becky shrugged. “I try.”

Cindy labeled the tubes and wrapped them in a bullet to send to the lab. “The results of your lab tests should be back shortly,” she said. “Dr. Hoffman will discuss them with you.”

After Cindy had left, Steve and Becky discussed plans for the baby. Becky imagined a nursery with Winnie the Pooh Mylar balloons and stuffed animals. She was about to ask Steve’s thoughts on it when she glanced at her watch and started. “Hey, where’s Hoffman? We’ve waited an hour.”

“Beats me.” Steve yawned. “I’ll see what’s keeping him.”

As Steve moved to get up, the door clicked open. A wiry man with jet hair and ruddy cheeks marched in, cradling a chart. He wore a yellow gown over his suit, tied across the back, gloves, and a plastic face shield. “Steve and Rebecca Leicht,” he said, smiling under his face shield. “Rebecca, do you mind if I call you by your first name?”

Becky smiled. “Not at all, but I prefer Becky.”

“Let’s chat in my lab.”

“We’d rather talk here,” Steve said in a quiet voice.

“The lab is better.” Hoffman’s eyes narrowed. “It’s got negative pressure.”

“Negative pressure?” Defensiveness crept into Steve’s voice. “Why?”

“It’s protocol.” He crooked a bony finger and headed toward the door.

“Whatever.” Becky’s smile slid off her face. Something about the way Hoffman pushed his shield upon the blade of his nose didn’t feel right. She didn’t want to go anywhere with this man or listen to the bad news she felt pending. Maybe I’ve got cancer, she thought. Leukemia, like the kind that killed Steve’s mom. My God!

Don’t be ridiculous, she answered herself, trying to sound in her mind like Nicholas. Despite his temper, Nicholas handled every crisis with confidence. If you had leukemia, you’d be riddled with bruises.

Hoffman stopped at the front desk and said something to Cindy that Becky didn’t get. She looked over at Steve’s face, now a shade paler. His bulging eyes said this wasn’t supposed to happen.

Hoffman then led them through the research lab, and Becky’s eyes shifted toward the bottles of solutions and caged mice. She’d never seen the lab before, and if she’d come here alone, she would have explored, examining the blood analyzers and other equipment.

Hoffman propelled her and Steve into a cubicle and closed the door behind him. The terror that had haunted Becky during her dream sent its tentacles around her throat. “Dr. Hoffman, what’s going on here?”

She looked over at Steve. His face looked hollow as if the smallest blow could shatter him.

“Suppose you tell me.” Hoffman sat facing Becky, with his right hand curled around rolled-up computer sheets. He gave Becky the same look that she’d seen on Diane’s face when Chloe spilled the medicine. “You display symptoms of pregnancy, but don’t address them until your third month. You never mentioned the irregularities in your blood, including a hemoglobin of seven, and furthermore, who prescribed the …”

“Wait a minute,” Steve jumped in. “Becky didn’t know anything about her hemoglobin being low.”

“Didn’t know, huh?” Hoffman tapped his head solemnly. “Are you sure that Becky's honest with you?”

“I have no reason to lie,” Becky jumped in, surprised that the words came out so loud. She was thinking about Nicholas and how he’d react to such accusations.

As CEO, he would know the right thing to say. “I suspected I was pregnant, but I put off getting examined because my mother was sick. It was foolish of me, but it happened. Dr. Fitzpatrick mentioned irregularities in my blood cells, but he never said anything about my hemoglobin. He prescribed the birth control pills.”

“Joe, get to the point,” Steve said. “Do her blood tests mean anything serious?”

“Yes,” Hoffman replied in his desert dry voice. “Becky’s blood cells are half the size of normal human blood cells. We can’t figure out her blood type or other details.”

A terrible silence descended. Becky looked at Steve, her mind whirling. His face had gone parchment pale. For a moment, she considered the possibility her dream was real, that she was, in fact, part Kryszka, but the idea had ramifications that she couldn’t face.

“You should have gotten another opinion.” Again, that accusing tone in Hoffman’s voice.

“That’s why I’m here now.” Becky sighed.

“How will this affect our baby?” asked Steve.

“I don’t know.” Hoffman tilted back his chair with a creaking noise. “Cindy will arrange your admission to our unit. I recommend you get a therapeutic abortion.”

“I don’t want any abortion.” Becky fought to keep her last shreds of self-control. Losing it caused things to break, and she didn't want that. “It’s against my religion, I’m feeling good, and I want this child.”

“Easy Becky,” Steve said, rubbing her shoulder. “Joe, can’t you monitor her on an outpatient basis? She’s not having any unpleasant symptoms.”

“It’s worse than that,” Hoffman spoke in a high-and-mighty voice, the tone Nicholas used when he lectured Harry about his drinking. “I spent the last hour talking with medical examiners. With the last murder, they’ve analyzed samples of the killer’s blood. His blood does not match that of any human or animal. So, they’ve concluded he’s extraterrestrial.”

“What has that got to do with me?” asked Becky.

“They faxed me their reports.” He waved the rolled-up sheets at her like someone scolding a dog for piddling on the floor. “Your blood and the killer’s match.

Therefore, I must conclude that you and the killer come from the same …”

“Species,” Becky blurted in a low sob.

Blood Ties Chapter Four:

Harry Prepares for his Mother’s Funeral,

Harry’s Home, November 21, 2006, 9:00 a.m.

Harry’s slide into darkness began at eight o’clock, Tuesday morning when the phone screeched in his ear. He stumbled over three piles of magazines on his way to the receiver.

“Harry,” Becky’s weepy voice said over the wire. “I wanted to tell you that ... that ....”

“Mom’s dead. Go ahead and say it.”

“Mom gave it her best fight. I was at the hospital when her condition deteriorated, and it happened so fast. She tried to tell me something, and then she passed.”

I wonder what Mom told her. Harry gazed at the magazines, ancient relics of a time when his mother enjoyed reading.

“I’m sorry that Nick’s been so rough on you. I want to make it right. Why don’t you stop by after the funeral? Maybe I can help you help decorate Mom’s house for Christmas.”

There she goes with her Concerned Sister Act. The sermon will come next. “One visit won’t make everything all right,” Harry said in a calm voice. “Do you understand that?”

“Yes, I do, and ... Harry, you were right.” Her voice oozed sorrow, the kind that preceded a lecture about his drinking. “You can’t cure emphysema.”

“Mom was my hero.” Harry’s voice cracked.

“Mine, too. She spent money we didn’t have for a surgeon to reconstruct my mouth.”

“I remember that,” Harry conceded, still braced for a reprimand. “She worked at two jobs because Dad’s temper got him in so much trouble.”

“His drinking caused a lot of problems, too. According to Nicholas, he used to whale on Mom before I was born.” Becky fetched a sigh. “Maybe we should become our own heroes. I know you hate it when I mention AA ...”

Then why keep mentioning it? His hands clamped into fists, one gripping the phone, and the other twisting the cord. They felt like rocks on the end of his arms.

“I think you’d meet people who truly care. I’m speaking from my heart, Harry. Drinking’s too risky. What if whatever killed Rob came after you next?”

“That’s not going to happen.” God, he hated her preaching. Becky used a gentler approach than Nicholas, but she gave the same message: You’re not good enough, Harry.

“Look ... Nicholas is making the funeral arrangements. I’ll call you later.”

Then they hung up. Harry rubbed his arms, bracing himself for what would come next. Becky would give Nicholas a report on their conversation. She’d go into her whine, and Nicholas would call by the end of the day.

Harry fetched a beer from the refrigerator and plopped into the threadbare reclining chair. It was Mom’s favorite chair. In the early days, she used it for catnaps between shifts at the nursing homes where she worked as an aide. When Harry and Shari fought, Mom intervened from that chair. When the emphysema got ugly, she took her treatments and slept in that chair. Now, it had become Harry’s thinking chair. As he gulped his beer, Harry contemplated his last day at work.

“Mr. Tobin,” he’d said to his boss, “I have to take a leave of absence. My mom’s in the hospital.”

Mr. Tobin grimaced. “Oh, really?”

“The doctors say she’s got end-stage emphysema. She’s in the ICU.” He glanced at

Tobin’s narrowed eyes and set jaw, then sighed. “I can get a note from Meadowood Hospital.”

Tobin waved his hand. “That won’t be necessary. Emphysema can be tough. I’ll give you whatever time you need, but I’d advise you to get counseling for your drinking.”

“Why?”

“Clients have complained to me about your slipshod work and poor grooming. Take your time coming back, but when you do, be prepared to work. The next time I smell liquor on you, you’re fired.”

Harry remembered thinking that he wasn’t about to share his problems with strangers. Counseling wouldn’t save Mom, and besides, he could quit drinking anytime.

Harsh ringing speared him to the present. He glanced at his watch, then his caller ID. Diggity damn, Nicholas couldn’t wait to jump all over him. “What do you want?” he snapped into the receiver.

“An attitude adjustment,” Nicholas replied in a tone of deepest frost. “Becky thinks you’re trying to commit suicide.”

Give the girl a cigar! “Becky’s melodramatic.”

“No, Becky’s worried that you’re going to end up in a body bag. I’m angry because the stress you caused killed Mom.”

“Emphysema killed Mom. The doctors said so.”

“Your drinking and freeloading didn’t help.” A deep sigh followed. “Look, I’ve set up the funeral for this Friday, nine o’clock, and later, a catered luncheon at my house. Can you manage not to show up drunk?”

“I can try. Shari left me, Mom’s dead, and Nation Pride’s about to can me.”

“Friday will be Mom’s day, not yours. If you show up looking unsteady, I will have someone escort you out the door. Do you understand?”

“Yeah.” Harry sighed with ponderous patience. “Okay, I’ll lay off the sauce.”

After Nicholas had hung up, Harry went over to the TV cabinet where he kept his whiskey. He pulled out the shot glasses and lined up ten in a row. Ten was a good number. He filled each glass with whiskey.

“This soldier goes for Shari ditching me.” H raised the first glass to his lips. The liquor highballed down his throat like a moving van in a tunnel, exploding in his gut.

“This one is for Tobin giving me grief.” He let the next trickle down his throat.

“This goes for every neighbor who bitched about the lawn.” He reached for a third glass.

Harry offered his fourth drink to Becky and her unpredictable mind power. He tendered the fifth to Nicholas’s meanness; the sixth to Meadowood Hospital’s sloppy care. He dedicated the seventh to the grisly murders around Preacher’s Corner; the eighth to his late father’s brutal temper; and the ninth to Mom’s death. He reserved his tenth drink for the family fight he expected at the funeral.

Harry lurched to his chair, crying out with wretchedness. Becky and Nicholas had money and spouses, while he was alone.

His head jerked toward the cabinet again. “Mom, don’t leave me!”

Silence. In the cluttered room, his words didn’t even echo to give the illusion of company.

“Mom!”

No answer. Only the empty shot glasses.

He stood up, about to lurch toward the cabinet. Instead, the room spun around him, and he flopped back into the chair. His face turned to one side, and he vomited. He then eased back into the cushions and let the darkness wash over him.

****

Friday morning brought gusty winds and unseasonably cool temperatures. The chills sank through Harry’s bones as he donned his worn suit and climbed into his beat-up Chevy. His hands shook, but so far, he had managed not to spill anything on his clothes.

He had promised himself to get through the day without booze out of respect for Mom. Maybe for the next weeks until things quieted at work. He had his dwindling bank account to consider and his job in jeopardy. He’d rather stay employed than ask Becky or Nicholas for a loan.

Harry showed up sober at Little Flower Funeral Home, ready to participate in the eulogy. He knew any false attempt at comfort would stop if he made a comment that displeased Nicholas. When they lived at home, Nicholas used his fists, and his insults got ugly. Becky and Steve didn’t interfere, but Mom called time-outs. The tension speared Becky into her high-pitched keening, unleashing a mind thrust that shattered windows.

Harry got his first whiff of today’s forthcoming set-to when Nicholas failed to acknowledge him. Sobriety and the sight of so many people forced Harry to notice their interaction. The viewing took place in a miniature auditorium of folding chairs—the expensive ones with plushy seats. At the front, Mom rested in a rosewood coffin surrounded by bouquets of blood-red roses. She wore a white satin gown with crystal sequins and pearl earrings.

Becky and Steve sat in the first row with Steve’s sister Rosalie. How easy it was for Becky to preach sobriety when she had her entourage of supporters!

Following Becky and her companions, they all came—distant cousins, Nicholas’ colleagues, Becky’s work buddies, and people Harry didn’t recognize. He endured a plethora of platitudes: God works in mysterious ways; be glad that her suffering is over. By the time Nicholas and his wife Tiffany arrived, he felt like a battle-weary soldier.

Tiffany started toward him, holding out her arms. She looked thinner and paler than Harry remembered; dark bruises marred her chin. She’d blamed them on a fall, he remembered. “Oh, Harry!” she murmured, and then Nicholas jerked her toward the front row. Nicholas’ silver eyes held no tears. They were bright and clear with fury.

“Harry,” Becky called, waving her hand. “Come sit with us.”

****

Nicholas wore an expensive three-piece suit; his salt-and-pepper hair combed and face clean-shaven. Many of the people left after the service, but he proceeded with a eulogy with his best boardroom voice. “Mom was a fighter,” he said. “She took blows meant for me. She worked two jobs so she could buy me a second-hand car. No matter how tired she was, she made time to listen to my problems, hopes, and dreams. Right now, she’s up in Heaven, smiling on us.”

“Amen,” several voices whispered.

Becky stepped up beside Mom’s coffin, wearing gray and white lace. Despite her red, swollen eyes, she managed a smile. “I want to thank all my friends for coming. I consider myself blessed to have so much support.

“I was born with deformed teeth. My classmates in school made life miserable. Mom worked extra hours so she could pay for an oral surgeon to fix my teeth. She made me see that no circumstance has to own me.”

Becky sighed and gazed at her listeners. To Harry, her complexion looked paler than an albino. Mom once said that something with Becky’s blood had affected her complexion. Harry guessed that it wasn’t too serious because Becky worked sixty-hour weeks at the school.

“Before I can move on, I need to find out who I am.” Becky lowered her eyes. “Dad beat up on Mom for the slightest offense. Perhaps his dinner was a tad cold or the TV too loud. When your home turns into a war zone, you turn to others for support, as Mom did.”

She drew in a sharp breath. “Before she died, Mom said that a man named Teodon is my biological father, not George McMullen. If anyone here knows Teodon, could you please see me after the ceremony?”

With that, Becky returned to her seat. Hushed voices murmured among the listeners. Nicholas shot a glance at Harry, then Becky, his face reddening. “Why did you disrespect Mom’s memory?” he asked in a low voice.

“I wasn’t disrespecting anything. I’m grateful for any comfort Mom found, and I admire her candor. But, she passed before she could tell me the whole story.” Becky spoke in a patient voice as if explaining a simple math problem to a person with limited intelligence.

“Now is not the time to look for answers.”

Becky glanced over toward her mother’s body. “I said, after the ceremony.” She nudged Harry’s shoulder. “Go ahead. Let’s hear your take on Mom.”

“Mom was incompetent!” Nicholas shouted between clenched teeth. “She wasn’t getting enough oxygen to her brain.”

Becky spun around, giving Nicholas a sharp look. “I beg your pardon, but I worked with patients like Mom for years before I became a teacher. I recognize incompetence when I see it.”

That's right, Becky, you tell him. Harry kept his eyes on her, wondering how she’d handle Nicholas. Becky with a different father. It would explain the difference in hair and skin coloring.

“Mom was alert,” Steve said, looking at Nicholas. “Granted … it’s an awkward time, but this has been weighing on her.”

“Nicholas ...” Tiffany began, and as she turned, Harry noticed yellowing bruises on her cheek.

Nicholas glared at her. “Tiffany, do us all a favor and be quiet.”

Tiffany snapped her mouth shut.

“I’m supposed to air our dirty laundry in public so you can follow up on the ravings of a dying person. Is this what you're telling me, Rebecca?”

So, he’s resorted to using her formal name, Harry thought, trying not to smile. He must be pissed.

Becky kept looking at her older brother in her patient way, as if to say, go ahead and let off steam. The sooner you get it out of your system, the sooner you’ll relax and let me get my answers.

“I don’t believe this, coming from you,” Nicholas said.

“They’re not ravings,” an older woman dressed in blue spoke up. She was Alma, a neighbor and Mom’s friend. “Becky, you have a great life. Why dig through the past?”

“I want to know what my real father was like. What color eyes? What color hair? What kind of laugh? Was he a good person?”

“She never talked about the fellow. I’m sorry.”

Nicholas raised his hands in the air, as if pleading for divine intervention, then dropped them to his sides. Red crept out of his collar and up his neck. “I said now is not the time.”

“It’s okay; I’ll get my answers later.” Becky waved toward Harry. “Go ahead, Harry. Let’s hear your take on Mom.”

Harry struggled to his feet, shivering at the realization that dawned on him. Becky had her problems with Nicholas, too. The difference was that Steve covered her back, while Harry stood alone. At the dais, he turned and faced the other mourners. “Becky and Nicholas at least have partners. I, to the contrary, live alone.”

His eyes settled on Nicholas. Nicholas’ ice-gray eyes oozed anger. Any second he’d blow.

“Mom used to take us on day trips,” he went on. “Most of the time she worked, though, and Nicholas babysat us. Sometimes he took us fishing. Then our father started whaling on Mom, and things went sour. Things came easily for Nicholas and Becky, but I had trouble in school. Mom spent what time she had tutoring me. She’s gone, now, and I’ve lost my best friend. My only friend.”

“You deserve to be alone.” Nicholas’ ice-gray eyes fixed on him. He jabbed his left thumb toward the coffin. “Look at this mess. If wasn’t for you, she’d be alive.”

“Real men don’t hit their wives.” Harry looked back at Nicholas without flinching. “You can go to hell.”

“What did you say?” Nicholas asked in a soft voice.

“Go to hell.”

“I see,” Nicholas spoke with the studied triumph of a man who’d closed a major business deal. He stood before Harry like a judge about to pass sentence. “Becky wants the truth, so let’s give it. You let Mom die. You sent her to a dive of a hospital.”

“Nicholas, this wasn’t Harry’s fault,” Becky protested in a tearful voice.

“The hell it wasn’t!” Heads turned toward Nicholas. His eyes brimmed with tears. His ruddy cheeks glowed under the fluorescent lights. “Lung reduction surgery could’ve given Mom a few more years, but you let her waste away in that pigsty of a house.”

His voice rose to a scream. “What were you doing? Getting cock-eyed drunk while Mom suffocated? Trying to get an easy lay? If you had taken better care of her at home, she wouldn’t have gotten sick. What were you thinking, you low life?”

There they stood, right next to Mom’s casket, and Harry saw his fist fly. He saw the sleeve of his blazer pull back from the cuff of his white shirt. He saw the golden gleam of his watch. Becky and Steve had given the watch to him last Christmas, never knowing he would one day wear it to a fight with Nicholas. But his fist took on its own life.

His brother’s cheeks squashed under his knuckles with a sickening feeling. Nicholas stumbled. He grabbed Mom’s coffin to regain balance, knocking it aside.

One vase, top-heavy with flowers, crashed to the floor. Becky gasped. Steve leaped from his chair and pulled out his cellphone. “Both of you, stop this before I call the police. Let Mom rest in peace.”

“You like to settle scores with your fists, don’t you?” Nicholas grinned at Harry through a mouthful of blood. “That doesn’t surprise me, you stinking louse.”

Ignoring Nicholas, Harry shot a glance toward the pews. The other remaining mourners were exiting the door. His lapse cost him, for Nicholas sidled in his direction. He raced toward Harry, his mouth dripping blood, and fetched a punch upside Harry’s neck. Paralyzing pain exploded inside Harry’s throat. He’d need a bottle of vodka to deaden the sensation.

Steve punched numbers into his phone. Nicholas went still, squirming as if being held by an invisible force. Becky’s mind over matter, no doubt, and she had years of practice. But Nicholas had eight inches and more than 100 pounds over her, plus the fury of Mount Vesuvius. He broke loose with repeated shoving. Hand rubbing his neck, Harry shied behind the casket, gagging on the smell of Nicholas’ cologne.

“Still hiding behind Mom’s skirt?” Nicholas cried with cracked excitement.

Weeping and grinning, he dog-legged around the casket, fists flailing. One fist winged Harry on his cheek. Tiffany sprang from her seat. Somewhere in his cloud of pain, Harry noticed more bruises on her forearms. Their deep purple color defined them as freshly minted casualties.

Nicholas whirled toward Tiffany. Harry scooted forward and kicked him hard in the ass. “You hypocrite! I may be a drunk, but I don’t beat up on women.”

Nicholas flew backward, bellowing and spinning his arms for balance. He fell on top of Mom’s casket.

And the knife ran away with the spoon. Harry resumed his throat massage. The casket fell from its trestle, open end first, spilling his mother’s remains. Despite the ensuing shouts, he heard her body land on the beige rug with a sickening thump.

Kneeling by his mother, Harry put his face in his hands and wept. He didn’t care about Becky’s mystery father, Nicholas’s rotten temperament, or even the slaughters that had the police chasing their tails. At that moment, Harry grieved for his mother.

The trestle supports had fallen against the dais where he and his siblings had delivered their eulogies. Nicholas sat sprawled among the flowers, also weeping. The flowers, mangled and crushed, gave off a sickeningly sweet odor.

Sirens intruded on his grief. Steve must have called the cops.

The tinkling of glass shards sprayed the coffin and surrounding chairs. Hand shielding his eyes, Harry traced a glance toward the ceiling. Something demolished the glass in one overhead light fixture. Both fixtures swayed back and forth. The other bulb exploded. The two wall lamps on his right went next. Becky burst into high-pitched sobs.

Harry understood that Becky tried to keep her psychokinesis quiet out of respect for Mom. But no one could stay cool around Nicholas. He supposed she went through her brand of agony after Mom delivered her bombshell, but he could not respond. He stayed by Mom, face in his hands. He’d need more than ten shots of whiskey to dull this kind of pain.

Steve let the officers into the room. The funeral director, with help from an assistant, lifted Mom back into her casket. Harry did not stay to watch the cleaning-up process. He did not care to speak with any cops or anyone else. Instead, he crept out the back door and hurried to his Chevy. After jarring his engine into an angry roar, he tore out of the parking lot in a cloud of blue smoke.

Chapter Three: Becky Gets a Harrowing Phone Call

The Leichts’ Home, Philadelphia, November 20, 2006, 1:00 am,

With quivering fingers, Becky wedged eight Mylar balloons around her head and cheeks, anchoring them with their ribbons under her pillow. She used compressed air for these balloons. It had to be compressed air because helium would give her headaches if a balloon broke. Precautions taken, she hoped the soft balloons and their shushing sounds would lull her to sleep and drive away the images of the bloodied corpses.

For several days now, in her dreams since she stumbled upon Rob’s body, someone tied her to a spider web facing a maze of underground buildings. Harsh, putrid winds whipped at her cheeks. She and other prisoners hung over a pool of foul-smelling fluid. Though the poverty of light obliterated her surroundings, she assumed it was liquid because something splashed below her now and then. Guards wearing dark tunics hauled away the dead, their hungry, red eyes fixed on her.

The balloons cushioned Becky’s head with air; their shushing like ocean waves invited tranquility. Outside, the November wind howled. From the depths of those sounds, a male voice with a thick accent called, “Rebecca, I’m taking you to your mother.”

The voice faded, drowned by the hiss of escaping gas. Cords thick as her arms bound her to the web, stretching from metal poles. A thin, gelatinous substance around the cords held her like glue. Pain like a poison sun burned into her skin. The frosty wind threatened to freeze her cheeks, legs, and breasts—bare skin, she noted with horror.

Footsteps crunched. Two figures with ruby eyes swathed in gray grabbed a woman below her. In the dim lighting, she made out blood-red welts stretched across the prisoner’s shoulders and back. The figures hauled the woman into the shadows.

Seconds later, something ripped, as if someone were tearing off a turkey leg. Shrieking cries followed. Blood spilled into the pool below Becky. Ringing started in her ears. She screamed herself awake.

The cries and images faded. The ringing came from Becky’s bedside telephone. Steve had already gotten up and snapped on the light. He snatched up the receiver.

“It’s Fitzpatrick.” Steve touched her shoulder. “He’s got news about Mom.”

Becky struggled to a sitting position and rubbed her eyes. “Is Mom—?”

“He didn’t say.” Steve gazed at Becky with widening eyes. “Did you have another nightmare?”

“Yes. I’ll tell you about it later.” She reached for the phone. “Doctor?”

“Her oxygen saturation is dropping, Becky.” The doctor’s voice rumbled forth like a dirge. “Her carbon dioxide level is 120, three times the normal level, and her respirations are in the forties. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Oh yes, she understood all right. Becky had watched many patients battle emphysema before she went into teaching. The first admissions started with “tune-ups.” After a time, the attacks landed the patient in intensive care, with powwows on the benefits of living wills. When emphysema demanded a showdown after months on a respirator, the patient surrendered.

“Harry told me she wants to be made a no-code.” Fitzpatrick’s voice droned on like he had his nose in a book. “That means if her heart stops beating, we don’t resuscitate. I assume he discussed this with you and Nicholas.”

Becky quaked at the claws of rage inching up her spine. Of course, Harry acted without asking her or Nicholas. He’d justify his action by saying “that’s what Mom wanted.” Was Mom competent to make decisions regarding treatment? She wasn’t sure, given her recent lab values. “Nicholas wants everything done for Mom,” she said, forcing calm into her voice.

“This poses a problem.” Something about Fitzpatrick gave Becky the creeps. His voice reeked of cheer, as if he found this amusing. “I can’t make your mother a no-code without everyone’s consent. Talk this over among yourselves. In the meantime, I’d urge you to come to the hospital as soon as possible. Your mother said she had something important to tell you.”

“I’m on my way,” Becky said before hanging up.

Who died and made me family gatekeeper? Her chores, according to Nicholas, included cleaning Mom’s house because Harry was too lazy to do it and straightening out his messes, including damage control every time he screwed up their mother’s treatment. Her husband Steve became her assistant. Her hands trembled as she yanked blue corduroys and a white pullover from her drawers. Glass shattered overhead, sinking the room in darkness.

“Dammit!” Tears flooded her eyes. It wasn’t the first time that stress short-circuited her telekinesis and caused light bulbs to explode.

“Don’t worry, honey. I’ve got a flashlight.” Steve tossed aside the pillows. Becky’s Mylar sleep-aids rolled sideways and bounced on the floor. Yellow circles from Steve’s light illuminated glass fragments from the light fixture. How many light bulbs had they gone through this year? At least eight.

“Hold still.” Steve’s voice intruded on her thoughts. “I’ll clean up the glass.”

“Steve, Mom’s breathing got worse. Fitzpatrick doesn’t expect her to survive, and ... oh, my God!”

She groaned. “I’m sorry about the light.”

Steve regarded Becky, his brown eyes grim and wide. She guessed the call reminded him of his own mother’s slow, agonizing death from leukemia. “It’s okay. Mom treated me like a son. Here, throw me my sneakers. I’ll drive you to the hospital.”

Becky retrieved Steve’s shoes, shook them for glass, and tossed them toward the bed. “Harry made Mom a no-code without our knowledge. Nicholas will lose it when he finds out.”

“Harry might have a point. Mom’s condition has gone too far to consider surgery. Can she walk any distance or handle repetitive exercises? I doubt it, so physical therapy is out, too. Ask Mom what she wants before you involve Nicholas. She might be more alert than you think.”

Becky contemplated this while dressing and sidestepping the glass fragments. Steve slipped into dungarees and a green flannel shirt. It occurred to her that Mom had never talked about her wishes.

****

Night shrouded the streets surrounding Meadowood. The hospital boasted five stories, plus two separate wings for outpatient treatment and physicians’ offices. Even in the gloom, Becky couldn’t help noticing the foot-long grass and the gangly weeds that sprouted through the sidewalk cracks on the way to the glass entrance. Unkempt grounds meant inferior services, like the hostile glares Mom got every time she asked for pain medicine or a bedpan.

“Becky.” Steve tapped her shoulder. “Are you all right?”

Becky shook her head. “Look at this sidewalk. How could Harry send Mom to this pigsty?”

“Meadowood is close to home.” The doors rolled open with harsh, grinding noises. “Was your nightmare about Mom?”

“No, I dreamt about the spider web again.” Becky cringed at the sight of the lobby’s peeling paint and threadbare carpets. “This time, a prisoner dies in an ugly way.”

Steve gave a long, skeletal sigh. “Mom’s sickness and Harry’s behavior has gotten to you, that’s all.”

“Maybe, or it could be hormones.” Becky tugged at her snug waistband. “My cycle’s running a couple of months late.”

“Harry again.” Steve sighed.

“I don’t think so, honey. I might be pregnant. I’ve made three appointments with Dr. Fitzpatrick, but each time, I’ve had to cancel because of Mom and Harry.”

“It figures.” Steve shook his head. “Harry’s got growing up to do.”

“We can’t make him do it.” Becky managed a smile that trembled at the corners of her mouth.

"Harry’s got a disease. I get that. Nicholas expects me to control him.”

“No one can.” Steve rubbed her shoulder. “Want me to talk to Nicholas?”

“It’s not worth it. Nicholas can be downright ornery.”

****

On the fifth floor, Becky’s mother sat up in bed, hunched over, breathing through a mask with 100 percent oxygen, and hugging a faded blanket. The room reeked of disinfectant and urine, like everywhere else in this dump. Sweat trickled through the wrinkles around her dusky nose and cheeks. Her eyes glittered like silver marbles. Something inside Becky died at the sight of them.

“It’s okay.” Steve pulled her close. “I’m with you on this.”

“Mom?” Becky took a step forward and slid. She grabbed Steve’s arm with one hand and braced herself against the bedrail with the other. Looking down, she saw her loafer-clad feet standing in a clear puddle, leavings from a broken intravenous bag. “Yuck! What a mess.”

“Welcome to Ghettowood.” Steve heaved a sigh. “I’ll get a towel.”

“Please sit. They’ve got so little help—” Her mother’s words exploded in a cough that yielded a wad of green phlegm. Sweat poured down her cheeks in rivulets.

A vial of Proventil lay on the table. What’s the vial doing there, Becky wondered? Did Meadowood’s slip-and-fall staff expect Mom to self-administer her treatments? With a deep sigh, she filled the nebulizer cup and tucked the mouthpiece under the folds of the mask. “This will help you feel better.”

“Thank you.”

Moments later, her mother’s gasping eased, but her wheezing and coughing hounded her like ill-tempered bosses. “Becky, I’m not going to make it,” she said. “I want all of you to stop fighting and let me die in peace.”

Becky blinked, unshed tears crowding her eyes. What made Nicholas contemplate rehab when Mom could barely talk? “I don’t want to fight.”

“Then leave Harry alone. I’ll never survive any surgery.”

“Becky and I know that.” Steve looked up at her mother while he wiped the spill by the bed. “We tried to get you moved to Jackson Hospital so they can make you more comfortable. We’re upset with Harry because he canceled the transfer.”

“I chose to stay here,” her mother said, “so Harry wouldn’t have to drive.”

“Here we go again,” Becky whispered between clenched teeth.

“Don’t worry about Harry.” Steve rose to his feet. Becky had to admire his gentle but firm bedside manner. “Let him handle his problems.”

“Harry’s got a tender heart.” Another productive cough followed. Her mother knuckled aside the perspiration in her eyes. “Something inside him broke. He’s sick, like someone with emphysema or cancer.

You two and Nicholas have so much schooling; how come neither of you realizes that?”

Becky leaned against the bed rail with a sigh. Heat worked its way up her face. I understand that she longed to tell her mother. I’m angrier at myself. Steve and I should have cared for you at our home, but we dumped everything on Harry.

The words wouldn’t come. Becky studied her mother’s hunched spine and skeletal limbs; the bruises and lacerations that peppered her paper-thin skin. Years of steroid treatments had ruined her body.

The poverty of oxygen affected her brain.

“I’m not crazy.” Her mother held Becky’s eyes with her own. “Things never came easy for Harry.

You should understand because you’ve had your struggles, too.”

Oh, Lord, she’s talking about my psychokinesis. “I’m sorry about all this. What can I do to make it right?”

“Watch out for Harry.” Another cough. Her mother’s face turned deep purple, and then brightened again. “Shari’s always bugging him for money.”

You’ve got that right. Shari expects Harry to inherit a gold mine.

“I don’t want Harry to end up on the street, so I’m leaving him my house and my savings, with you as trustee. Promise me you’ll take care of him.”

Why me? Why not Nicholas? Becky massaged her temples. “Mom, I’ll make sure he has necessities. But please don’t ask me to finance his DUI’s or legal fees if he gets into trouble.”

“Necessities are all I ask.” Her mother’s narrowed eyes and firm voice discouraged argument. “Let me go in peace. No invasive procedures, no respirator.”

“Are you sure?” Becky nudged Steve toward the door. “She looks bad, but alert,” she said to him.

“We’ve got to call Nicholas.”

Steve shook his head. “What can Nicholas do? Harry signed the papers.”

“The papers won’t mean anything unless Nicholas agrees.”

“Becky, will you look at her? By the time we reach Nicholas—”

“This whispering at the door has to stop,” her mother cut in. “The other day, Nicholas told Dr. Fitzpatrick that I was incompetent. Right in front of me. Dammit, it’s my body. When I say no, I mean no!”

Remember the spider web, Becky’s mind sent up abruptly. The gel burning into your skin, the stink of dried blood, the screams. Maybe her subconscious was urging her to let her mother go. She walked back to the bed and took her mother’s hand. “I realize that.”

Her mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “Do you?”

“More than you know. I’ll tell Dr. Fitzpatrick to let you go without heroic measures.”

“He won’t do it unless Nicholas agrees. Nicholas wants me to have surgery.”

“Nicholas doesn’t have to know.” Becky darted a glance toward Steve. “Will you talk to Dr. Fitzpatrick and tell him we all want comfort measures for Mom?”

“Sure.” Steve edged out to the hall. “I’ll run interference, too, so you and Mom can have some quiet time.’

Becky watched the door close behind him. “We all love you,” she said, turning back to Mom again.

“You must know that.”

“I love you, too, and that’s why I’ve got to tell you one other thing.” More harsh coughing. Sweat dripped on her gown. “You didn’t get your mind power from George.”

Frankly, Mom, I hope I didn’t inherit anything from that pig. “Does it matter?”

“Yes,” her mother said between labored grunts. “George wasn’t your real father.”

Another cough. Perspiration. “Before you were born, George’s temper got ugly, and I left home for a while. I had an affair … and I got pregnant.”

Becky plopped into a chair and squeezed her eyes shut. More crypts cracked open inside her: Dad’s fists blackening Mom’s eyes, his harsh curses, the stink of whiskey oozing from his breath, her mother’s tired eyes after a sixteen-hour shift at the nursing home. Social life existed only in her mother’s imagination. “It’s okay, Mom. Dad’s temper wasn’t your fault.”

“Don’t give me that ‘it’s okay’ bit. You must wonder why no one else in our family looks like you.”

“Yes, but you used prayer to get through your problems.” Becky’s voice rose and fell. She stared at the door, badly wanting Steve close by, but dreading the thought of Meadowood nurses walking in on the conversation. “Right?”

“Becky, I love the Lord, but I’m human. Your birth father wasn’t from around here. He’s from—”

Another volatile cough accompanied her labored grunting. Her mother’s right hand went to her chest; the other grabbed her blankets. Her face turned duskier with each intake of breath.

I’d better call a nurse. I’m not ready to let Mom go. Not yet. Becky knew treatment might demand months on a respirator and countless blood draws. Did Mom deserve that kind of suffering? No way, and besides, nothing Nicholas said would change the outcome. Still, she was curious about this other man, if he existed.

“Mom.” Becky cranked up the flow of oxygen until it filled her mother’s mask. “Is my real father still alive?”

Incredibly, her mother was moving. Her wasted hands grasped Becky’s arm, but her head flailed against the pillows. Her mouth gasped, starving for air.

Oh dear God, she’s turning gray!

Her mother made a gurgling sound. She tried to speak. She managed syllables, but the words were unclear.

“I’m not going anywhere, Mom. I love you.”

“Caaaa,” her mother said. “Caaaa.”

Becky shot a glance toward the door. No voices or footsteps. What would she say when Nicholas started asking questions? That Mom had been dead for hours when the nurses found her? No, she’d let Steve do the explaining. Better yet, let Dr. Fitzpatrick take the fall.

“The woods near Preacher’s Corner,” her mother croaked ... and she grinned.

Becky stared down at her mother. The stress from family fights and Mom’s illness was causing her to hallucinate. A mad terror struck. “What about the woods?”

“Your real father lived below the woods,” her mother said in a clear voice, still grinning. Her eyes grew vacant. “He taught me how to count in his language.”

Liquid terror rolled through Becky, gripping her heart in its bony hands. Becky considered herself a born-again Christian, but no sermon had prepared her for this. She felt like putting on her track shoes and running.

“Who’s my real father?” she asked in a papery voice.

The grin. That was awful.

“Loneliness can kill, Teodon,” her dying mother whispered.

Who’s Teodon? My father? Becky rubbed her arms, shivering.

“Some of us consider humans mere animals. Keep her out of our city.”

“What?”

“Caaaa,” her mother said, and Becky smelled death on her breath.

“What city?” she persisted.

Her mother’s skin turned purple. Her eyes glazed. She took one last gasping breath, shuddered, and then became still. Becky expected her to speak again. She didn’t. She felt for a pulse. There was none.

“Oh, Mom, I love you.” She burst into tears. Darkness bloomed, spreading a wave over her eyes.

Somewhere overhead, as her shoulders heaved, the overhead light exploded.

Blood Ties 2: Harry Confronts his Siblings

Meadowood Hospital, November 15, 2006, 6:00 pm

Nicholas, Harry’s older brother, folded his bulky arms across his chest. “You’d better hope Mom survives, Harry. If she dies, I will ensure that you’ll sit in a jail cell for as long as possible under the law,” he threatened.

Harry sat in Meadowood Hospital’s solarium, gulping Jack Daniels from a metal flask he kept inside his leather jacket. Nicholas towered over him like a runaway truck, yet he moved with the prissy agility of most suits. His neatly parted, silver hair matched his cold gray eyes. The contempt in his voice was like a cloud of black rain, pregnant, ready to burst.

Their sister Becky dragged herself into the room from the hall. The vestige of recently wiped tears stained her pale face, now haggard with worry. “Mom looks bad. The doctors want to let her go if her heart stops beating.” She cringed when she relayed their mother’s dire medical state, anticipating the volatile Nicholas to lose his temper.

“What?” Nicholas’ jugular veins stood out against his thick, beet-red neck. His nostrils flared. “Why isn’t she getting the lung reduction surgery and rehabilitation?”

“Steve thought Mom wouldn’t survive the surgery, but he decided to arrange a transfer anyway and have a surgeon evaluate her.” Becky sighed. “Harry canceled the transport and the evaluation. I just want Mom to be comfortable.”

Not a trace of anger crept into her voice. That didn’t mean she wasn’t judging him. Coals of resentment glowed around Harry’s heart. First, Nicholas—God help anyone who called him Nick—and now, Becky. What was this, Let’s Shit on Harry McMullen Day? Had he ever cared about these two idiots preaching at him in Meadowood’s solarium? Had he?

He took another swig from his flask. His hands jittered. The flask slipped through his fingers, spraying its contents on Nicholas’ navy businessman’s suit.

“I don’t believe it.” Nicholas glared at Harry and swept at his jacket with a handkerchief. “Mom stood by you every time you got in trouble. She loaned you money without expecting repayment, but you’re rushing her to an early grave! Is this any way to show gratitude?”

Harry’s rage felt so great that he couldn’t summon his voice. His heartbeat pounded in his ears the way it used to after one of Dad’s beatings. Of course, I love you. But we’re family, and discipline comes with the territory. Small price. We can forget that we had this talk later, but right now school’s in session. If you do it my way, I’ll always love you.

“Are you listening?” Nicholas’ voice was firm and sure of itself. Harry guessed he’d gotten his “I-am-God” attitude to match his six-figure income as CEO of Morrison and Rowe. He’d taken emergency leave to oversee the transfer and evaluation Harry had canceled.

Harry managed a strangled noise he intended to be the word yes.

“You’re just as bad for going soft on him,” Nicholas said to Becky. “You should ride herd; use your mind over matter trick if necessary.”

“Let it go.” Becky dragged a set of manicured fingernails through her thick red hair. “Harry’s got enough problems.”

Mind over matter—shit. Becky rode herd, thank you very much, by prodding and poking. Where were you last night? When are you going to clean the house? Haven’t you had enough booze? Nag, nag, and nag, until he wanted to belt her one.

No one dared hit Becky because her mind carried a wallop. She used her mind to move furniture and people. Like the time Dad went after Mom, and Becky hurled him through a window.

Mom had sent Becky to a regular school, but her infectious laugh and outgoing personality won her friends who overlooked her red eyes and albino complexion. Becky taught respiratory therapy at Betsy Ross University and married Dr. Stevie Wonder Leicht. Now there she stood, “Madam-from-the-Twilight-Zone,” pretending to care.

“Mom couldn’t breathe, dammit!” Harry’s hands kneaded against each other. “I drove her to the closest hospital.”

“I realize that,” Nicholas said in his boardroom voice. “But later, Steve arranged a transfer to Jackson, where Mom would be more comfortable. Instead, you canceled the transfer behind our backs and let Mom rot in this dive. You’ve got no idea what tests the doctors are ordering or why. Why Meadowood?”

Two young girls who were playing with their dolls looked up, their eyes wide and vulnerable. The hell with it, Harry thought, now fighting the hot, salty tears rushing from his eyes. Let them see it’s a dog-eat-man world, even in families.

“Lower your voice,” Becky said to Nicholas. “Those girls are listening.”

Nicholas glared

at Becky and then swept his gaze toward the girls. “People shouldn’t bring their kids to a hospital. Quit your sniveling, Harry. You’re an adult.”

Harry’s tears wouldn’t stop. Emphysema was ravaging his mother’s body, and he couldn’t help her.

Nicholas said something he didn’t catch, and that was bad. Nicholas always stored such lapses in his internal files for further consideration.

“Just cut the waterworks!”

“Okay.” Harry pushed the strands of oily brown hair from his eyes and knuckled the tears aside. “Mom said she wanted to stay in a hospital close to home, so I canceled everything.”

Becky gave Harry a tearful look. “I wish you had discussed this with us first. Meadowood might be close to your house, but Jackson Hospital offers better care than this pigsty. You know that, right?”

“He might after another drink.” Nicholas’ voice dripped with sarcasm.

“What did you expect, miracles?” Harry shivered at the defiance creeping into his voice. Another swig emptied his flask. “Mom didn’t want to leave Meadowood because it’s familiar to her. I didn’t tell you because the bosses at Nation Pride don’t allow personal calls.”

“That’s right, I forgot.” Nicholas paced in front of the window, his crepe soles creaking on the linoleum. “You’ve worked for that insurance company three years. I’m surprised the drinking hasn’t affected your work.”

Harry buried his face in his hands. Another Harry-Is-A-Drunk tirade. Okay, you’ve had your fun. Now leave me alone! “Shari and I are having problems,” he said aloud.

“I wonder why.” Nicholas’ voice oozed contempt. “When you and that whore shacked up, Mom inherited two freeloaders.”

Harry balled his fists inside his pockets. He longed, positively ached to drive his fist up Nicholas’s head, but security officers were pacing the hall.

“Nicholas, stop this.” Becky shook her head. “Steve and I help when we can, but Harry drives Mom everywhere she needs to go. He bathes her and cooks for her without complaining. Cut him a break.”

“Are you kidding?” Nicholas snorted harsh laughter. “During my last visit, I found cockroaches and stains everywhere. He’s turned Preacher’s Corner, our neighborhood, into Slumlord’s Corner.”

Dizziness washed over Harry; his lips quivered. He needed to lash out. He thought of his mother trying to force air into her diseased lungs, and instead, he tucked his bottle inside his jacket pocket and buttoned down the front. “See you later.”

“Where are you going?” Nicholas glared at him.

“To a bar. I’ve had enough of your shit.”

“You can’t drive,” Becky protested. “You’ve had too much ...”

“Nicholas swiped my keys. I’m taking a bus.”

“At night?” Becky’s cherry-red eyes widened. “It’s not safe. The police found mangled bodies in the woods near Preacher’s Corner. They looked like wild animals tore into them.”

“I’m not going near the woods.”

“Maybe the killer picks up his victims on the street. How would Mom feel if something happened to you? Forget the bar. If you wait a few minutes, I’ll drive you home.”

“Don’t do me any favors.” Harry watched Becky and savored the thrill of making her squirm. “I’m leaving now. If the killer gets me, you look after Mom.”

“Harry!”

Without answering, he stormed down the hall.

***

The brisk October wind slapped at Harry’s back as he shuffled up the cement steps into the Bottom of the Barrel, about a mile from Preacher’s Corner, a Northeast Philadelphia development.

“Wonderful Tonight” wailed from overhead speakers. He sagged in a stool before the slate bar. The bartender sidled over to him with a plastic smile. “What can I get for you?”

“The usual.” Harry slapped a ten-dollar bill on the counter. “Keep those soldiers coming.”

Waiting for his drink, Harry took in his surroundings. Strobe lights danced red, blue, and green shadows on the slate bar and wooden chairs. People nearby laughed and chattered, but Harry didn’t join them. Dead men never indulged in idle chitchat. He planned to die after his mother’s funeral. Without Mom, he could not go on living. As it was, he forced himself through the motions of working, arguing with Shari, and justifying himself to Judge Nicholas and District Attorney Becky.

He looked up at the mirrored ceiling and saw his pale slip of a face. Outside, a full moon peered through the neon lights over the front window. Sometimes he polished off almost a fifth of Jack Daniels during his sojourns at the bar. Without his mother’s protection from hostile siblings and a demanding live-in partner, he lingered in a gray area between life and death.

After the bartender had deposited his drink, Harry took a long, deep swallow. He emptied his glass.

Drinking alone on a Saturday night. Life going down the sewer pipes.

More laughter impinged on his buzz during the fifth drink. A woman’s laughter. It was his partner, Shari.

Two tables behind Harry, Shari was talking to a suit, probably someone from her office. Her companion’s hands caressed her bare arms. The V-neck on her silk blouse showed the cleft between her breasts. Its cream color complemented her ash blonde hair. Her frosty blue eyes flashed toward Harry.

“Hello, Harry,” she said without smiling. “How’s Mom?”

“Not good.” Harry walked over to her table. Her companion’s tailored black blazer and alligator briefcase reeked of money. He averted his eyes and grimaced. Harry stepped closer to the table. “Who’s he?”

“My assistant Rob. We’re working on a special project.” Shari’s eyes narrowed; she waved her hand. “Get downwind, Harry.”

“Harry doesn’t bother me.” Rob gave Harry a chilling stare, tucking a smile into place. “As Bear Electronics’ future CEO, I can handle anything.”

I bet your projects involve warm sheets and KY jelly. It didn’t surprise Harry that Shari cheated on him. She hadn’t touched him since August. Three months ago. Looking down at his wrinkled dungarees and dirt-crusted fingernails, he winced. Now that he thought of it, he hadn’t showered since the beginning of the week. Damned if his boss hadn’t lectured him about body odor today.

“Go home and get washed,” he’d growled. “I won’t tolerate sloppy grooming.”

He counted himself lucky that Becky and Nicholas didn’t smell him. They must have been too upset about Mom to notice. Personally, he didn’t give a shit.

But he cared about Shari screwing another man. “What are you doing with this creep?” he cried, grabbing her hand. “Don’t you care that my mother may die soon?”

“Oh, give me a break.” Shari jerked her hand away and rolled her eyes at Rob. “Look ... I’m going away for a few days.”

The dark tumors of rage festering inside Harry mushroomed again, causing his head to throb. He leaned closer; his eyes fixed on Shari. “So you and Rob are fucking each other. Bitch! You’ve got the morals of an alley cat.”

“You pig!” Shari stood up, her eyes blazing with hate. “I’ll sleep with whomever I want.”

“Easy, Shari.” Rob got up, nudged Shari to her seat, and looked Harry in the eye. “Shari needs a real man like me. I could pulverize you with one swing.”

“You think so?” Harry clenched his fists. “We’ll see about that, Candy Boy.”

Harry charged forward and fetched Rob a punch upside the left jaw. Another shot went wide, and then Rob’s fist exploded 10,000 watts of agony in Harry’s gut. Arms gripping his stomach, Harry slumped to the floor. Another 20,000 watts followed as Rob rained blows on his head. He covered his eyes and rolled sideways, dreading the pain of breaking bones, and then nothing. Screaming erupted among the other patrons, who had watched the confrontation with horrified fascination.

Harry uncovered his eyes. Shari stared at Rob and screamed; the other patrons shifted their eyes between the slate bar and Rob. His sister Becky stood at the bar with her head tilted back, forehead creased, and slashing red eyes focused toward Rob. Nicholas called her talent “mind-over-matter;” her husband Steve labeled it telekinesis. Whatever people called it, Becky had given a twist to the fight.

Rob, a real man and the future CEO of Bear Electronics, screamed and bawled while his right arm stretched over his chest. Something cracked, and then he stumbled, landing on the floor with a sickening thump. He struggled to his feet, and in the next instant, his right foot shot out, followed by the left, flipping him back on the floor.

“You creep!” Becky shouted at him. “That guy happens to be my brother!”

Rob looked back at her, eyes dazed, right arm dangling limply at his side. Again, his left hand gripped the rim of the table. Just as he made it to his feet, his legs shot out from under him again. “Damn fleabag joint. Someone left a spill. I’ll sue this place!”

Harry looked over at Rob and burst out laughing. He couldn’t help it, despite the pain smoking from his injuries. Rob had it coming to him, the bastard.

“I don’t care,” Becky told him. “Leave my brother alone.”

“Harry, I’ve had enough!” Shari slammed her purse on the table. “Your sister’s behavior may cost me my job.”

"Serves you right, bitch. Don’t come crawling back to me."

“You don’t seem too concerned about your friend, Shari,” Becky said with a dry smile.

“Let’s cut the bull and call an ambulance.” Rob rubbed his shoulder. “You can bet I’ll call my lawyer. The cops, too. You started it, Harry. You could’ve killed me.”

“Harry didn’t do anything to you.” Becky raised one eyebrow and tilted her head. “Quit whining and get lost. It’s no one’s fault that you can’t hold your liquor.”

Titters arose from the onlookers.

“Both of you will hear from my lawyers.” Rob wagged his head, lips trembling. Left hand braced against the table, he got up and shambled toward the door.

Shari rushed to his side, taking his arm. “Let me help you.”

“Forget it!” Rob pushed her aside. “You’re looking for a meal ticket.”

“Meal ticket. That’s it.” Harry, still sitting on the floor, cradled his head in his hands. He needed another drink to dull the crushing pain. “She wants money.”

“Don’t worry about Shari.” Becky’s voice drifted through his cloud of pain. She wiped the blood from his forehead with a towel. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”

“No hospital.” Bracing one elbow on a chair, the other on a table, Harry rose to his feet. The room swam before him. “I just want to go home. Okay?”

Becky shook her head, her jaw set. “No, not okay.”

The room spun again. Harry squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them. “I know what you did and appreciate it, but we’re both going to land in jail. If Mom finds out, the stress might make her worse.”

“Maybe not.” Becky frowned, then shrugged. “Okay, I’ll drive you home. Steve’s there now, mowing the grass. He can examine you and decide if you need to go. I never wanted anything to happen to you.”

“I appreciate that. Let’s go.”

***

Outside, Harry savored the crisp cool air. He took slow steps, leaning on Becky’s shoulder. Her gentle voice reminded him of friendlier times when Becky confided in him the pain she felt over “being different.” Sometimes she entertained him by making silverware float in mid-air. Nicholas used to take him and Becky fishing or to the movies, anywhere to keep them out of their father’s way. Then their father’s temper got ugly; the beatings started, leaving Mom with bruises and black eyes. Everyone assumed new roles: Nicholas, the gatekeeper and disciplinarian; Becky, the assistant; and Harry, the loser, with his mother as referee, taking his side.

The crowded lot had forced Becky to park two blocks down the street. As they walked, the stink of rotting tomatoes chased the fresh air. A cacophony of cries issued from Olive Lane, the street leading toward Harry’s home and the woods. Police sirens blared behind him. Further ahead, a dozen people huddled like football players, looking at something under the bushes.

“Harry, keep moving.” Becky clutched her stomach. “I’m going to be sick.”

“No argument here.”

Instead, his legs developed minds of their own, carrying him toward the bushes. A man at the far right shone his flashlight on a severed leg and an alligator briefcase soaking in a pool of blood. Behind him, Becky let out a brrrp as she vomited on the sidewalk. Harry doubled over, hands gripping his belly; cramps hit him like lightning bolts. He never imagined casualties like these. But he knew, though the knowing brought no comfort, that Shari’s fling had ended. Neither he, Becky, nor the taproom’s manager would face any lawyers.

The briefcase and mutilated body belonged to Rob, a former real man and wanna-be CEO of Bear Electronics.

To be continued …

Barbara Custer

Death’s Toll

“Ashley, I killed your mother. Carol and David know it. It’s time you knew too.” Ashley Chamberlain’s father, the speaker, let out a long, winded sigh, sounding like wind blowing through leaves.

Her father hacked and wheezed as they rode the elevator to his attic. Beads of sweat dripped from his thinning white hair down his cheeks – blue-tinged cheeks, she noted with alarm. Any second, she feared, he’d collapse. Instead, when the elevator doors opened, he plodded past a maze of dusty bureaus, oxygen tank slung over his hunched shoulders.

A soft breeze from the window caressed Ashley’s cheeks. With a deep sigh, she knuckled aside the dangling cobwebs and kicked away chunks of fallen plaster. After slapping the dust off her jeans, she glanced back toward her father.

“Carolyn and David have it wrong,” she said, meeting her father’s gaze. “Some creep bludgeoned Mom, and you couldn’t stop him.”

“It’s not that simple.” A dark shadow crossed his wrinkled face. “I’ve gotten you a birthday present, something that should help you understand.”

“Then give it to me downstairs,” Ashley pleaded, watching his steady pace, despite his gasping breaths. “The dust here will make you sick.”

“I want this matter kept between us.” His glazed, reddened eyes met Ashley’s. “I’m getting to the end of the road. The doctors can only give me steroids and inhalers, but even those aren’t helping. I want to explain the circumstances regarding your mother before it’s too late.”

What circumstances, Ashley wondered? Ten years ago, she and her brother David had found their mother in the living room, lying in a pool of blood, pulverized and bitten by her attacker. Her father had staggered from the stairway, screaming something about a monster. He’d had a psychiatric evaluation which failed to show any impairment, and the police never caught the killer. Ashley remembered crying herself to sleep that night, fearful that the killer would come after her and her father.

David did not scream or weep. He rarely spoke to their father, and when he did, his voice reeked with fury. Carolyn avoided their father too, but her tremulous voice and flitting eyes betrayed fear instead of anger. When Ashley asked Carolyn what the matter was, she said the house had secrets that could kill. Listening to her father’s raspy breaths, Ashley concluded that her sister was right.

“Why do David and Carolyn avoid you?” she asked at last.

“Because I didn’t protect your mother.” Her father leaned against a wall and exhaled between pursed lips. “You’ve worked for David five years, long enough to know that he loves to play the hangman.”

Hugging herself and shivering, Ashley brushed the damp red curls from her forehead. Something had gone wrong with David all right.

At Chamberlain Shipping, where he was CEO, his summary firings became legend. Even minor errors merited tongue-lashings and written warnings. His steely gray eyes, when focused on a slacker, could turn the stoutest heart to jelly.

“David said you never looked out for anyone,” she admitted, “but he made my life miserable. I took art courses to forget about work, but it got so bad I had to take a permanent leave. I never believed anything he said.”

“Wise decision.” Her father laughed, a dry laugh of commiseration. “Fighting wouldn’t have saved your mother. My mistake was bringing her here to live.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You’ll see.” Her father ushered Ashley to a scratched oak door at the end of the dusty hall. Groping through his pockets with swollen hands, he fished out a key. The door whispered inward to the tower, a room with rectangular stained glass windows. To the right, Ashley spotted a fire extinguisher. Dad should have these in every room up here, she thought, and then started at the sight of a metal object just above eye level.

A gray cast iron bell large enough to cover an adult hung from the beamed ceiling on a rope pulley. Sunlight from an open window illuminated Chamberlain Manor, their home, etched in silver below its shoulder. Below it, six stones, plated with silver, studded its waist.

“Oh, my God!” Ashley cried. “Where did you get this?”

“My forefathers received this bell as a gift when they opened Chamberlain’s shipping company,” her father said. “It’s got paintings of your grandfathers.”

Shining a flashlight, Ashley illuminated six portraits in glazed silver on the side facing the rear wall. Black blotches marred the silver as if someone had scribbled over the faces. She then squatted underneath the bell and shone her light into its mouth. Instead of a traditional clapper, a metal skull hung on a chain from the head of the bell. Its eye sockets glowed red, and its mouth twisted into a crooked grin. Shudders ran up Ashley’s spine.

While she gazed at the skull swaying in the faint breeze, her father’s voice drifted from far away. “Happy Birthday, Ashley. The bell is yours.”

“Thank you … I think.” The chills settled around Ashley’s neck. She stood up stiffly.

“My father wanted David to have it, but I can’t trust him. Maybe giving this to a daughter will break the spell.”

Ashley gulped, her throat bone dry. Her eyes turned toward the glittering sketches again. How could something so beautiful relate to her mother’s death?

A car’s engine roared from outside, impinging on her thoughts. Ashley cracked a window and took a peek. Carolyn’s Porsche was crunching up the gravel driveway.

“Here come the vultures.” Eyebrows furrowed, Ashley’s father joined her at the window. “David threatened to shove me into a nursing home, and Carolyn goes along with him. Both of them are so mean they squeak. Maybe I deserve their treatment. After Thelma’s death, my work took me to the road, leaving David and Carolyn to fend for themselves.”

Ashley propped the window open, watching the sun peep between the cotton candy clouds. How many more sunlit days would her father enjoy? Not many, judging by his gaunt appearance and dusky complexion. She wished they had more time to spend together. He’d always encouraged her interest in drawing, and lately, she’d taken to etching shapes on glassware. Each time she finished a project, he offered a detailed critique. During those times, she could tell him anything.

Smiling, Ashley placed both hands on the lip. “Shall I?”

With speed and strength remarkable for someone in his condition, her father yanked her back by the shoulders.

“Don’t ever do that!” he shouted.

“Do what?” Ashley croaked, her throat dry as lint.

“Ring the bell.” Terror crept into her father’s voice. “I’m serious, Ashley. You’ve got to promise me never to ring this bell. Do I have your word?”

Ashley nodded, trembling. “You have my word,” she said, after finding her voice. “Why, Dad? What does this bell have to do with Mom?”

Her father adjusted his oxygen tank and headed to the hallway. “I’ll tell you later,” he said in a flat voice. “We’d better go downstairs before David starts trouble.”

****

Chamberlain Manor had sixty-five rooms, but Ashley and her father used the east wing and tower. The rugs, once plush and velvety, had worn thin. The plaster walls had dulled to a uniform gray, but the Gothic windows, crystal chandeliers, and antique furniture said that the house had once known prosperous times.

In the drawing room, David was stripping the oak cabinet of his father’s weapons collection. Thompson submachine guns, a Remington 31, and other guns from his father’s service during World War II lay in a wooden crate at his feet. Carolyn sat in a chair, her eyes on David, shifting and crossing her legs.

“David!” His father’s breath came fast and hard. A pulse throbbed in the center of his forehead. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I found a buyer for your guns, old man.” David looked up from his work, gray-sleeved arms folded across his chest. “You owe me serious cash, and whatever’s left you’ll need a good nursing home.”

With trembling fingers, Ashley wiped the sweat dripping down her flushing cheeks. Those guns meant everything to her father, but David wouldn’t care. His eyes glittered like tarnished silver. He gave their father a wolfish grin. More warmth exuded from the faces on the portraits lining the stairwell than from his shadowed features.

Her father laid his tank by the cream-colored sofa and sagged into the cushions. “I don’t owe you anything,” he said, meeting David’s gaze. “Besides, I’m not going to any nursing home. Ashley’s taking care of me.”

“I can see that.” Carolyn smiled, but her green eyes flitted like rabbits. She sat facing David. Her shaky fingers smoothed back her blonde hair. “David, let the guns go. This place gives me the creeps.”

“I’m not leaving until I get what’s coming to me,” David said coldly. “Dad owes us for Mom.”

“Don’t do this, David.” Carolyn’s voice edged with pain. “Harassing Dad won’t bring Mom back.”

“Listen to her, asshole.” Ashley shot a censuring glare at David and then glanced at her father. His face bleached paler than ivory, and he wheezed audibly.

Charging at Ashley, David grabbed her shoulders and pressed his face close until their noses almost touched. “What did you call me?” he whispered, and she gagged on the stink of liquor in his breath.

“An asshole.” She mustered as much defiance as she could. “Anyone who bullies the sick is an asshole.”

Ashley never saw his hand coming until too late. Stinging pain flashed across her left cheek.

“David, that’s enough!” her father shouted, his chest heaving. “What kind of bastard are you?”

“Just a bastard. No special kind. Look at this place.” Counting on his fingers, he roll-called the house’s deficiencies. “Water stains on the ceiling. Paint peeling from the windowsills. Cracked windows you should have replaced but didn’t. You’ve turned Chamberlain into Ghettoland.”

Carolyn slammed her purse on the coffee table. Her eyes flashed with indignation. “Nice way to remember your sister’s birthday, David.” Her voice dripped with ice. “Maybe your big mouth will provoke Dad into a heart attack. Will that satisfy you?”

“I’ll talk to Dad any way I want,” David snapped. His ice-gray eyes glittered with fury. “What’s your problem?”

Carolyn shook her head, her lips moving wordlessly. “Never mind.”

“I already gave…” Dad coughed harshly and hawked something into a tissue. “Ashley, where’s my nebulizer? I need a breathing treatment.”

“I’ll get it.” Carolyn jumped up. “Ashley, I left your gift in my car. Here, take my keys.”

Ashley took her keys but shifted her gaze toward David. His narrowed eyes held a crazed look. She hated seeing that look, but it remained, like the blind shine of dirt on still water. He was staring at the carton of guns. On the way outside, Ashley shoved the guns into the kitchen and hid them in the pantry.

She then proceeded outside toward Carolyn’s car. A Bloomingdale’s box lay in the rear seat. Reaching in, she retrieved an ivory silk dress studded with pearls.

While she held the dress against herself, the ringing of church bells echoed from the tower. After a moment, the ringing stopped, but the ground shook under Ashley’s feet. She told herself she was imagining things and headed back to the house. In the drawing room, Carolyn set up their father’s nebulizer, a mask, and reservoir filled with medicine. Their father cringed against the sofa, hugged the mask against his face, and sucked in greedily.

“Carolyn, thanks so much.” Ashley held up the dress for everyone to see. “It’s perfect.”

“Happy birthday, Ashley.” Carolyn smiled. “Enjoy it.”

“Be quiet!” David glared at the two women. “I’ve got enough nonsense dealing with Dad’s head games.”

The smile faded from Carolyn’s face like fingerprints wiped with bleach. “David, stop this. Dad isn’t your problem.”

David turned toward Carolyn, clenching and unclenching his fists. To Ashley, he looked like a steam engine about to blow. “Okay, Miss Freud, what is my problem?”

“You forgot to cry when Mom died.”

With a disgusted sigh, David plopped into a chair and reached for a newspaper. “Whatever.”

****

A stench of rotting meat floated through the drawing room as Ashley’s father puffed on his nebulizer. She and Carolyn sat on either side of him, watching the rise and fall of his chest, the intake of each breath. The wheezing persisted, but his breathing became even and unlabored. David remained in his chair, head buried in his newspaper.

“What stinks?” Ashley asked, regarding her father and sister.

Carolyn grimaced. “I don’t know, but it smells like something crawled in here and died.”

The nebulizer fizzled to a stop. Their father pulled off the mask and wrinkled his nose. His face went parchment. The mask dropped.

“Ashley, we didn’t lock the tower,” he said. “Did someone ring the bell?”

“I heard a bell ring when I was outside.” Ashley rubbed her arms, trying to soothe the chills crawling up her back. “I’ll check it out.”

She tiptoed down the hallway, opening each door. Nothing coming from the bathroom or dining room. The stink became nauseatingly strong in the kitchen, especially around the door leading to the patio and garden. She tested the doorknob. Locked. Her father had closed the other wings, and the two other doors led to the drawing room and study.

“I wouldn’t worry,” she said after returning to the drawing room. “It’s coming from the garden. Maybe there’s a dead animal.”

“Quit theorizing and do something about it,” David shouted over his shoulder.

“It’s pretty rank out there.” Ashley sighed, then gave him an eyeroll. “If you’re that upset about it, why don’t you go out and do something?”

“All right, I will.” With that, David got up and stomped toward the garden.

“You tell him, Ashley,” Carolyn said, laughing. “We’ve finally got peace and quiet.”

“It won’t last,” her father said.

Moments later, David rushed back inside, his face pale. He looked in their father’s eyes. “What’s going on outside? Something’s rumbling; I could feel the ground shaking.”

“Where at?” her father croaked, his face turning a shade paler.

“The garden.”

Ashley cringed at the sight of her trembling father but managed to keep her voice calm. “It’s nothing to worry about, Dad. I didn’t go near the bell.”

“I rang the bell,” Carolyn said. “While I was looking for your medicine, I made a side trip to the attic, hoping I’d find something to explain Mom’s death. The tower room was unlocked.”

“You found it all right,” her father said in a grim voice, reaching for his tank. “Ashley, go pack my medicines. We’ve got to leave now. That bell is cursed.”

“Cursed?” David rattled his newspaper. “Now you’re going senile.”

“No!” Carolyn cried in stunned surprise. “Dad, why would you keep a cursed bell in the house?”

“Ashley was supposed to guard the bell, to keep this from happening,” he said mostly to himself. “I was going to explain everything to her after you and David left.” His hands shook. His glazed, vulnerable eyes spoke of a devastating intelligence. Something inside Ashley died at the sight of them.

Carolyn’s eyes opened wide as saucers. “Explain what?” she demanded, anger edging into her voice.

Ashley swallowed again, gagging on the worsening stench – the stink of flyblown meat.

“Not now, Carolyn,” her father said, poking Ashley in the ribs. “Ashley, let’s go. You’ll have to drive.”

“No one’s leaving,” Carolyn said firmly. “Except you, Dad. I’ll call 9-1-1…”

Fists hammered on a door in the kitchen. Ashley started, her eyes on her father. His bulging eyes betrayed utter terror.

“Ashley, see what’s making that noise,” David said. “Get some deodorizer, too. The smell is making me sick.”

“I can’t,” Ashley said. “The door’s locked.”

“I’ve got a key,” Carolyn offered, getting up.

“Carolyn, don’t do this,” her father pleaded, grabbing her arm with his trembling hands. “Run while you can.”

Carolyn looked at Dad, her green eyes brimming with tears. Her freckles stood out like raised dots on her pale cheeks. “Dad, you don’t look well.” Her voice sounded like the decree of a weak queen. “Ashley and I will drive you to the hospital.”

Another loud thump from the kitchen, followed by the sound of splintering wood.

“I bet you hired someone to scare us, old man,” David said, glaring from his newspaper.

“David, shut up.” Carolyn wept as she pried her father’s fingers from her arm. Rubbings her arms and shivering, Ashley inhaled a sharp breath, eyes on Carolyn as she walked into the kitchen.

In the next instant, Carolyn let out a scream so shrill that David jumped and dropped his newspaper. He sank to the floor and rubbed his eyes. Ashley bolted to the kitchen in time to see a skeletal hand grabbing Carolyn’s arm.

Screams came and died in Ashley’s throat. A skeletal figure with leathery skin hanging from his bones pulled Carolyn’s arm toward the crack in the door.

Screaming, Carolyn thrashed against its grip.

Without thinking, Ashley yanked a hammer out of a drawer. Arm curled into an arc, she pounded away at the creature’s arm. Its bones shattered. Quickly she slammed the door on the intruder. Carolyn wept as she knocked bone fragments from her silk blouse. The rattling continued, followed by thuds against the door.

“What was that?” Carolyn stared at Ashley, her eyes bulging.

“A zombie.” Ashley shivered. Her eyes flooded with tears as she recalled the sight of her mother’s battered, bloody body. “That’s … what killed Mom.”

Carolyn shook her head. “This can’t be happening. Zombies don’t … the dead can’t come back to life. It’s impossible.”

Ashley blotted her eyes with a tissue. “Someone forgot to tell this creature.”

“David!” Her father shouted, pacing in the living room. “What did you do with my guns?”

Ashley edged back through the hall, eyes shifting between Carolyn and her father. Her father was in the closet, rooting through the coats.

David made no move to help him. He sat on the floor, legs drawn up, arms hugging his knees, and stared out the window.

Her father whirled around, facing David. “Answer me.” He shook his son. “Where are my guns?”

David did not move. The contempt faded from his eyes, replaced by a vacant, empty look. Saliva drooled down his chin and leaked on his pants.

“I hid them.” Ashley raced toward the pantry. After grabbing a shotgun and a box of large pellets, she returned to find her father sitting on the sofa. Tears slid down his milk-pale face. The thuds from the kitchen kept going, but the door held firm.

Carolyn grabbed him by the shoulders. “What did you do?” she asked, her voice cracked and dusty.

The tears stopped, and her father’s eyes became wet pools of sorrow. “That’s right, blame everything on me,” he shouted. “Just like you did when your mom died.”

“No one’s accusing you.” Carolyn’s voice hitched. “Just tell me what that thing was and why Ashley was supposed to guard the bell.”

“Forget the bell.” Ashley reached for a phone. “I’m calling the police.”

“The police will never believe you.” Her father sighed, his stooped shoulders weighed by despair. “During the revolutionary war, my great-great-great-great-grandfather saved a Gypsy from death in the battlefield. That Gypsy gave him the tower bell.” A sharp thud cracked from the kitchen.

“The Gypsy told my ancestor that when he dies, his image will appear on the bell. He should leave instructions for his family to ring the bell during the funeral. Its toll would revive him, enabling him to live forever. He figured he was dealing with evil, so he told his family never to ring the bell. Six of my forefathers have their faces etched on this bell now.”

Ashley shuddered at the liquid fear rushing through her heart. “If that bell woke your dead relatives,” she managed between chattering teeth, “what are they doing in the garden?”

“My family buried their dead in steel caskets outside because they were afraid someone might ring the bell. They thought that steel would confine the dead, and that we’d be safe in here.” His voice saddened. “The workmen asked about the bell when they installed my stained glass windows. When I came home from work one day, my dead relatives were dragging my wife through the living room. Something had bitten her face and arms. I didn’t stay to see more. I ran for my life.”

“You louse!” Carolyn clenched her fists. “Why didn’t you warn us? You could have—”

Crash!

The garden door landed on the floor. Shards of woods and glass sprayed into the kitchen and hallway.

The skeletal figure clattered through the hall, minus its right forearm, leaving dirt footprints on the beige rug. Blackened tufts of flesh and rotten linen tatters hung from his limbs. Bugs crawled through its ribcage and eye sockets. Chest heaving, her father aimed his shotgun. His hands shook as he squeezed the trigger.

The rib cage crumbled, and the figure toppled to the floor. Ashley watched the thing crawl into the drawing room, picking through splintered bone chips.

Leaning forward, she saw more figures lumbering through the hallway.

The creature struggled to its feet. Her father fired again, and the figure’s skull smashed into the one behind it. Both zombies tumbled to the ground.

Screaming, Carolyn sprinted to the bathroom and locked the door behind her. Seconds later, groaning issued from the bathroom, followed by thumping sounds. Ashley gazed toward the bathroom, longing to see if Carolyn was all right.

Her father fired again. The bullet ricocheted off the wall. Three figures congregated around David, who sat, legs, drawn, rocking back and forth. He hugged his knees and stared vacantly, seemingly unaware. Even as the figures fell on him, biting and tearing at his clothes, he did not scream or fight.

“Dad, look!” Ashley jabbed her finger toward the figures, one hand over her mouth. “We’ve got to help him.”

As she spoke, blood pooled on the rug surrounding the creatures.

“It’s too late. Come on, Ashley, get up.” Her father’s bony elbow nudged her side. Gasping between pursed lips, he pointed toward the framed photographs lining the stairwell. “Go to the tower room. Get your paint marker and take those portraits with you.”

Ashley edged toward the stairs, heart hammering in her chest, and eyes on the corpses. “Dad,” she shouted, “I can blow up that bell with an oxygen tank and a gun.”

She reached for her father’s tank, but he placed his hand on her wrist. “If you try to blow up that bell, you’ll take us and the house along with it.”

Raising his gun, he fired at a corpse staggering toward the sofa. The bullet left a hole in his skull. The figure dropped.

“You’ll have to sketch my father and grandfathers’ faces on the bell,” he said, watching Ashley intently. “The magic in the bell will then summon them back to the spirit world.”

Alexis looked at her father’s pleading eyes and nodded. He was desperate and wanted her out of the way. “Dad, I appreciate you trying to protect me, but we both know that won’t work. I’ve only used those markers on glass. I doubt that they would stick to metal.”

“I used a black paint marker on the bell when those things went after your mother. My drawings were crude, but they worked. Now move it.”

Ashley gagged on the stink of death as she pocketed her markers and scooped up the portraits on her way to the attic. She ran the three flights to the tower room. The bell hung from its rope, but its stones and etchings had disappeared. Ashley scanned the floor for silver shavings or other signs that someone had tampered with the bell. There were none. The drawings were simply gone.

Using a liquid gold marker, Ashley started with her grandfather. She sketched his eyes, nose, mouth, and a beard. Another blast sounded from her father’s shotgun downstairs. Though she used markers with a fine tip, her hand jittered, resulting in a crude sketching. She held her right arm with her left fist, trying to ease the quivering.

Another shot from downstairs. Ashley moved onto her great-grandfather’s face, a rough imitation of his portrait. Screaming impinged on her concentration—her father’s cry. Then silence. Her breath came out in choked sobs.

Scratching and shuffling followed. Footsteps. Faint, but unmistakably there, and getting louder, and followed by creaking on the stairs. Ashley darted a glance around the tower room and spotted the fire extinguisher still on the wall. The gauge read “full.”

Heaving a sigh of relief, she placed it at her side.

The fourth drawing went into progress. Ashley worked frantically, paying attention to hair texture, nose shape, and other features. The clattering noises faded, and she heaved a sigh of relief.

In the next instant, a deafening thud sounded from the other side of the door. Even with a deadbolt, the worn wood could never stand many hits like that.

Ashley’s hand cramped. She tried gentle stretching and flexing and then laid her palm on the bell. Capital mistake. Searing pain flashed through her hand.

When she jerked it away, blisters peppered her reddened skin. She never knew that burns could hurt so badly. Screams lodged in her chest, but her throat had gone slate dry. She barely mustered a whimper.

Another bang jarred her to attention. Splintering cracks sheared down the wooden door. Her hand throbbed as she sketched the fifth portrait, trying to get the dimensions right. A deep groan from behind the door followed, and then the scratching stopped. One more face remained. Just one more, and—

Exploding followed as wooden planks crashed through the room. One of them slammed Ashley square in the chest. One figure lurched toward Ashley, teeth clicking. She reached for the fire extinguisher and doubled over as burning agony knifed through her ribs. She tumbled to the floor, and for a second, her world went gray.

When her vision cleared, Ashley saw the figure looming over, cradling a wooden slat. Cobweb strands and putrescent strings of flesh hung from its rib and face. Blood and gristle bearded its teeth. David’s blood. Anger swelled in her chest, and a red haze swam before her eyes.

Teeth gritted, she slammed her feet into the figure’s pelvis. The skeletal corpse tottered, then lost its balance. She snatched the wooden plank from its blood-streaked hands. What felt like rusty nails twisted through her chest. Ignore the pain, she scolded herself, pounding the figure. Beads of sweat dripped down her forehead. Her breath came out in ragged gasps. She ignored it all as she slammed the figure with her plank. Its vertebrae cracked, and the creature lay still.

With shaky hands, Ashley sketched the last face. She gulped, swallowing the coppery taste of blood backing up in her throat. Her heartbeat slammed inside her head, driving white spots of light across her field of vision. She never heard the creature moving behind her until too late. Just as she finished sketching the mouth, cold cobwebs of bone wrapped themselves around her neck and squeezed.

Ashley’s marker dropped. Her hands flew up to her neck and pulled at the creature’s arms. The room spun, causing her surroundings to blur. A foul stench blew through her hair. The creature was determined to have its dessert before returning to the spirit world. She dodged sideways in time to avoid being bitten but cried out in pain as something yanked a bunch of hair from her head.

In the next instant, the chittering sounds stopped. Ashley whirled, gasping for air. Her assailant crumbled into a dust pile. Slowly, Ashley crept to the elevator. Badly as she was hurt, there was no way she could navigate stairs. So far, the house lay quiet. She heard no scratching or clawing noises.

She tried to scream but found she couldn’t. Sharp pain knifed through her chest, whispering a rumor of smashed ribs and perhaps a punctured lung. Blood from her cuts dyed her sweatshirt red. At the main floor, she heard a man groan. Her father. After looking right and left, she lurched into the drawing room. The house stank of rotting tomatoes, but she saw no walking corpses. Just two piles of dust on the rug.

David’s mangled body lay in a puddle of blood on the floor. The things that had gone at him had torn out his eyes and his hands. What looked like oatmeal drooled from his left eye socket. His mouth opened in a widened O of horror. Bloodstained tatters replaced his gray businessman’s suit. Bloody footprints peppered the rug, a further testimony to violence. Dark tumors of rage blossomed inside Ashley at the violations to her home.

She took two steps and stumbled. A look at the floor gave her the reason why. She had tripped on one of David’s hands. The other lay underneath the sofa.

Her father huddled against the cushions, shotgun cradled in his arms.

“Dad!” She limped over to the sofa.

Blood oozed from a gash in his chest, staining the sofa and his clothes, but he was still breathing. His face had turned gray as the cement stones lining his fireplace. Kneeling down, Ashley felt his pulse. It was weak and erratic.

“You did great,” her father’s old, breathless voice whispered. “Guard that bell and make sure this never happens again.”

Shouting from the hall. Carolyn emerged through the doorway, quivering, her face pale as paper. Her outfit was torn, with gristle sticking to her blouse.

“Carolyn,” Ashley cried.

“One of those things went at me, too. I was able to bash its head in with the hammer.” She gave a strangled laugh, then burst into tears. “Dad … Ashley, I’m sorry I didn’t realize …”

She clasped her father’s wrinkled hands in hers. “I’ve already called 9-1-1. I’ll do what I can to make it up to both of you.”

“Carolyn, let me go in peace,” her father pleaded. “Do me one favor. Look after Ashley.”

Blood dripped from his mouth. He closed his eyes. His pulse flickered to a stop.

****

Ashley spent two weeks in the hospital, leaving Carolyn with the task of handling the funeral arrangements for their father and brother. Chamberlain Manor went to Ashley, and Carolyn became the new CEO at Chamberlain Shipping. At her insistence, Ashley agreed to go back to work but to train as a commercial artist.

She hated what happened to David, but she couldn’t help a sigh of relief at the prospect of harmony.

After Ashley’s discharge from the hospital, Carolyn drove her home to Chamberlain Manor. Restoration services had been by to clean up the place, and now the rooms held a vanilla scent. Ashley went upstairs to inspect the bedrooms. No stains or foul odors there either. Next, a walk to the attic. Ashley made her way to the tower room. The door was missing, but someone had disposed of all the debris. The cast iron bell remained, suspended in wooden casements. The gold-colored drawings stayed intact, super-imposed on the silver portraits. Shudders raced through her body as she recalled her efforts to sketch them.

The rope beckoned to her, the familiar rope that would sound its toll. Something deep inside Ashley warned her to leave it be. She imagined the walking dead regenerating in their spirit world, ready to attack at the next ring of the bell.

Looking at the portraits again, she counted eight faces, including those of her father and David, and eight silver-plated stones.

The Job Interview

Job Interview Barbara Custer

Alexis’s Job Interview

October 1, 2010, Dr. Hoffman’s Office at Jackson Hospital

Alexis’s set-to with the dead began after breakfast when she drove to the deli to pick up lunchmeat. Blood-covered fists banged on her car window when she slid into the parking lot. Two zombies were trying to get into the car. Alexis let out a short scream, then mustered a psychic thrust. After dogging open the car door, she shoved the walkers away from her, using her mind over matter. Standing, she held out her hands. Her psychic energy surged through her fingertips to create an invisible force field that warded off the walkers as she headed into the store. After she had left, more walkers shambled in through the alleyway. It took several blasts of plasma to clear the path back to the car. She had to thank Governor Quyeba for the DNA fusion which gifted her with Kryszka traits, including telekinesis. To her right, a gray-haired, wiry man stepped out of his car and blasted two walkers with a pistol. He grimaced, looked at Alexis, then shrugged, as if shooting zombies to buy food was an everyday occurrence.

At home, her partner Yeron gazed at her from his chair, his shoulder swathed in bandages, his head drooped. “Are you sure you want this job, love? The walker infestation is worst now than it was in June. Besides, the staff did not treat you well when you worked at Jackson before. They will not accept you as you are now.”

“I’m not going to let the monsters or gossip mongrels dictate where I live and work. Besides, I need the medical benefits.” Alexis lowered her eyes, not caring to admit she hated asking for money.

“Zoltar can provide whatever care you need, and he will either barter the cost with you or not charge you at all.”

“True. But let’s say I fall and break a bone near the hospital. The insurance will come in handy because Jackson hospital is nearby.” Alexis kissed Yeron on the forehead. “It’s only part time, but if I sense any trouble, I won’t take the job.”

Yeron’s lips set in a thin line. “All right. Be careful.” ****

At Jackson Hospital, three walkers shambled into the garage while Alexis parked her car. The noise Alexis’s Honda made drew their attention her way. The stink of decay overwhelmed her when she opened her door. “Ah, shit!” She grimaced. “Second time today.”

Drawing in a deep breath, she worked up her psychic energy. With her thoughts, she smashed their heads together, spraying bodily secretions and flecks of oatmeal-like substance on the walls, the surrounding cars, and her navy pantsuit. “Bah fungule!” she shouted.

Thankfully, the hospital had showering facilities at the end of the tunnel. Alexis stepped into a stall, stripped her clothes, and scrubbed herself. Her skin had cracked and peeled with dryness, for her conflicts with zombie walkers necessitated two or more hot showers daily. Making a mental note to buy skin cream, she cleaned her suit as best she could; though the dark stains on her maroon pants remained. Her “big girl” pants, as she called them, since the DNA infusion gifted her with a four-inch growth spurt, necessitating the upsizing of her clothes. She’d worn a pantsuit, for anyone crazy enough to wear a flesh-revealing skirt or dress was asking for trouble from the walkers. She’d brought a pair of flats for the interview, but hadn’t thought to pack a change of clothes.

In the lobby, she headed toward the gift shop to buy an outfit. Instead, someone had posted a “closed” sign on its door, and robotic cleaners were mopping the hallway floors with disinfectant.

Robotic cleaners? Alexis gasped. Before her illness, Yeron had devised a robotic cleaner for the Intensive Care Until, but Jackson hired people to clean the rest of the hospital. What the hell happened to the staff? Resignation? Death? Probably both.

A service elevator near the lobby went to the seventh floor, where Dr. Joseph Hoffman did his research studies. The doors slid open like a gaping, toothless mouth. In the elevator, Alexis made out the faint outline of stains on the back wall. Blood never washed off easily, and with a heavy sigh, she concluded that something ugly—many somethings—had been through the halls during her months at the underground Kryszka compound. ****

The stench of flyblown meat from the garage altercation lingered in her nostrils despite the air fresheners placed in strategic points around Hoffman’s waiting room. Alexis touched her fanny pack. The feel of the hard plasma gun inside took the edge off her shivering.

Moments later, a nurse came out and waved Alexis into Hoffman’s office. Alexis stood up, fingering her ruby necklace, a gift from Yeron. Dr. Hoffman sat at his desk. His tanned complexion made him look healthy, but his gaunt build and the dark circling his eyes spoke of a poverty of appetite and sleep. He indicated a chair facing his desk.

“Please sit.” His bushy brows arched.

Without thinking, Alexis closed the door behind her—using her telekinesis from force of habit. It’s okay, she told herself. Hoffman’s too preoccupied to notice.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling.

Silence followed a moment, and Hoffman frowned. He scrutinized her with the eyes of a scientist.

“Your competency as a respiratory therapist was never an issue,” he said at last. “You’ll need to catch up on your continuing education and renew your license in another year. We’ve changed some policies and procedures, but none of that should be a problem. So I’ll get to the point: we need respiratory therapists badly. If you’re only available part time, that’s fine, but I need to know that you’ll show up when it’s your day to work.”

“Of course I will,” Alexis said quickly.

“I’m not talking about responsibility,” Hoffman said. “Too many people show off their guns at the interview, but run at the first sign of trouble.”

Like Mark. Another shiver crept up her spine. She met Hoffman’s scrutiny, her red eyes resolute as steel. “I never run from a fight,” she told Hoffman. “I just took out three walkers in the garage. That’s why my pantsuit is soiled. It never occurred to me to bring extra clothes.”

“I noticed,” Hoffman said with a trace of sadness in his voice. “You’ve gotten used to the colony’s controlled environment, but here, the infected are multiplying like flies. You should bring extra clothes wherever you go.”

“So I’m learning.” Alexis recoiled. “Because of the prion virus.”

“We call it PN428, or if you prefer, the Crazy Laurel virus. After one bite, the toxin spreads through the system. Hours later, you have another walker.”

“I heard about PN428.” Alexis shuddered at the bad memories of Laurel.

“I figured that.” Hoffman nodded as if confirming this to himself. “Tell me about your experiences underground.”

Uh, oh. Alexis winced inwardly but affected a shrug. “It’s a depressing subject. The Kryszka governor, Quyeba … she, too, ran afoul of the walkers and didn’t know what to make of them. At the time, I was sick, and her son Zoltar, who happened to be a scientist, came up with a drug to fight my infection. Yeron, my partner, came to my rescue when a renegade held me hostage, and he got shot. He almost died, but Zoltar managed to save him.”

Hoffman’s voice softened. “That must have been frightening for you.”

“It still is.” Alexis shivered. “Yeron needed two surgeries; he just came home a few days ago. My mother and I take turns changing his dressings. He’s going to need time to heal.”

Hoffman steepled his hands, his gray eyes intent on Alexis. “Yeron’s lucky to have you. I’m surprised that Matilda would approve your being with him, much less providing care.”

“Yeron got shot protecting me from a renegade. That meant the world to my mother. With my sister Robin dead, she only has me. Anyway, that’s why I can’t work full time. That, plus I teach an English class at the Kryszka compound two days a week.”

“Since when did you start teaching English?”

Where is he going with these questions? Alexis pressed her lips together. “Quyeba, Xian, and Zoltar expressed an interest in learning. They’ve got gadgets that enable me to teach through the Internet.”

“Indeed. Getting back to your mother, what does she say about the changes in your eyes and hair?”

Here we go. Alexis gritted her teeth. “The compound doesn’t have walkers, but they deal with frequent break-ins by renegade soldiers. My mom acknowledges that the changes in my hair and eyes make me look inconspicuous.”

“Uh, huh.” Hoffman resumed his analytical gaze. He stood up and paced around his desk, eyes on Alexis. “I’m familiar with genetic engineering and gene splicing … I’ve done it on mice to cure certain diseases with poor results. When I last saw you, you were average height, had brown hair and eyes, and arthritis had deformed your hands. But now if it weren't for your voice, I wouldn’t have recognized you. How did the scientists splice your genes?”

Shit! Alexis massaged her temples. “They didn’t, but they were able to reverse my arthritis. In addition to my infection, Laurel hurt me pretty bad. Getting me back on my feet required surgery, lots of physical therapy, and drugs with nasty side effects. Despite all that, I still walk with a limp.”

“So I noticed. Are you up to the walking that respiratory therapists have to do here?”

“Sure,” Alexis replied, shrugging. “The compound has a large track to encourage walking, and when a renegade shows his face, I run.”

“Uh-huh.” Hoffman waved Alexis to her feet. “I’m going to show you around the research floor because we’ve had major damage. If I were you, I’d reserve your hair dye and drug tales for your senile patients. No intelligent staff person will buy your act.”

Her cheeks flaming, Alexis followed Hoffman to the hallway. Without her thinking about it, a flick of her mind closed the door behind them.

“And that’s another thing.” Hoffman whirled around to face her again. His eyes narrowed. “Close the doors the way your mother taught you. If the patients see your telekinesis, they’ll freak.”

Welcome to Jackson Hospital. Alexis dragged her fingers through her thick curly hair.

The antiseptic smells caught her nostrils at the walkway approaching the laboratories. Every so often robots passed her by, spraying deodorant or wiping down the tiled walls. Yellow tape crisscrossed over the door to one of the laboratories. Alexis peered through the glass window. Inside, broken glass and shrapnel covered the floor. What passed for computers and other cumbersome equipment lay tilted on their sides, all the dials bashed. Without thinking, she shouted, “Holy shit! Laurel did this.”

“Not Laurel. Whatever did it wasn’t human. My office was in shambles, too, and a filmy dark liquid spattered among the cages. The mice had gotten out. About a week later, people began turning up sick or dead from the PN428 virus.”

Alexis drew in a deep breath. “Laurel’s still on the loose, but she isn’t human now. The renegades spliced DNA from a monster into her with disastrous results. Steve told you about the settva, right?”

Hoffman’s jaw jerked. His brow crinkled. “What?”

“Settva. It’s a Kryszka reptile that looks like a Tyrannosaur Rex, but smaller. It’s intelligent, cunning, and a man-eater.” Another deep breath. “The renegades spliced the DNA of a settva into Laurel. That was the thing that trashed your lab. I know because Steve showed me the recording from your cameras.”

“My God!” The authoritarianism fled from Hoffman’s demeanor, replaced by trembling and beads of sweat forming on his forehead. “Steve and Yeron told me about the reptile, but Steve pronounces it differently than you and Yeron do. When I saw the mutilated body, I figured that the renegades were behind it.”

“No, Laurel.” Alexis rubbed her arms, shivering. “Renegade Kryszka don’t normally vandalize property. Their goal is to kill, and if property destruction happens in the process, it’s by accident. This …” She jerked her thumb toward the window glass. “… happened on purpose. People better watch their backs.”

“The police and federal agents are looking for Laurel.”

“God help them if they find her. Most people underground are terrified by settva, but they breed the reptiles for their skin to use for clothing and accessories.”

Trembling, Alexis studied Hoffman’s face, his arched brows, the tension in his muscles. “What the doctors did to me … they didn’t do it lightly. The only treatments they had available worked on Kryszka. The DNA enabled me to not only tolerate their medicine but reversed my arthritis. That’s why my hands look—and feel—better.”

“I’m glad you’re well.” Hoffman scowled and crossed his arms. “All the same, I pray I’m never forced to splice someone’s genes to save them. You must consider those people saints.”

“Governor Quyeba’s trying to become a saint.” Alexis tried to keep a serious demeanor, but she couldn’t help a smile. “She scolds people if they curse around her, including me and her son, Zoltar.”

“Zoltar?” Another frown.

“Uh-huh. Zoltar recommended the DNA splicing to save me, and his mother donated the DNA.” She giggled. “Do you remember Johnny who used to work here? He’s dead now, but Zoltar’s got a sarcastic wit like he did. He can be moody, but sometimes he can be downright funny like Johnny.”

“Oh, yeah? I don’t find anything about this the least bit amusing.” Hoffman’s voice bled with resentment. “The trouble with Kryszka is that they think DNA splicing is the answer to every disease and injury, so they make no effort to find an antidote. Did you get pneumonia? Or tuberculosis? No problem, someone will splice DNA with you! Then when a malicious person creates a monstrosity like Laurel, people wonder why.”

Alexis took everything in, her fingers kneading the strap of her purse. Opening and squeezing. Ba fungule! God knows I need health insurance, and I’d rather have my spending money, but I’ll be damned if I listen to a bunch of overgrown kids insult my appearance. I’ve had enough with the long marches and guerilla attacks.

She opened her mouth, ready to deliver a healthy retort when an alarm blared overhead: “Code Gray, seventh floor ICU! Code Gray, seventh floor!”

Alexis started, then whirled around in the direction of the alarm. “What does code gray mean?”

“Walker break-in.” Hoffman rooted underneath his lab coat for his gun. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

“No, I’m going with you.” Alexis kept up with him, half-running and half-stumbling into the intensive care unit. By the nurses’ desk, people in yellow gowns congregated around a thrashing patient. The door to the room behind him had shattered. Bloody footprints and glass fragments tracked the floor between the bed and the nurses’ desk.

Not a patient, Alexis decided, upon getting a closer look. This patient was in the early stages of zombifying. He stank like spoiled meat; rat-bitten sores had opened around his chin. He let out screeches alternating with moans, limbs thrashing. His hands grabbed, and he bit anything or anyone that got too close. Without thinking, Alexis let loose her psychic energy, focusing on controlling the patient. He continued squirming; his mouth opened and closed, biting the air, but the reaching and thrashing stopped.

“Let him go. I’ve got him,” Alexis said.

“Are you crazy?” a nurse screamed. “He’ll bite and infect everyone.”

“I’m not crazy; I’m telekinetic,” Alex replied while maintaining her psychic hold. “Step back.” She glanced toward Hoffman. “Where do you want him?”

“In bed and restrained. The formula’s not working,” Hoffman said. “I have to destroy him. Everyone, clear!”

Alexis levitated the thrashing figure toward the room with the battered door. Still using her mind, she set the patient prone against his mattress.

A voice pierced the quiet tension, speaking so softly Hoffman gave no sign of noticing. For Alexis, with her sensitized hearing, another gift of the fusion, the words came through loud and clear: “Aw, fuck, she’s one of them!”

Ignoring the voice, Alexis held the zombie patient while Hoffman executed his headshot. More thrashing and moaning followed, but the cries faded and his movements flickered to a stop.

Alexis straightened up and cast her gaze toward the hapless nurses. All clad in yellow or white. Treating a prion virus in a ward around other patients? Where are the hazmat suits? I don’t believe this.

Hoffman two-fingered his cell phone and punched three buttons. Moments later, two robotic cleaners came in to clean up the glass fragments and blood.

“Let’s go.” He waved Alexis toward the door. “The cleaners will dispose of the body.”

Alexis gritted her teeth. “What are you going to tell his family?”

“They knew he was bitten.”

Alexis swallowed hard. “Why didn’t you sedate him until his family can visit and say their goodbyes?”

Hoffman whirled around, looked at Alexis, and sighed. “Our sedatives don’t work well with these patients. He might wake up and bite people when no one is around to intervene. After the cleaners do their work, I’ll notify the family so they can claim the body.”

Back in the office, Hoffman pointed to a chair. “Sit down,” he ordered in a tense voice.

Alexis sat, folding her hands. She lowered her eyes, bracing herself for Hoffman’s lecture, and the I-told-you-so she’d get from Yeron later.

“You spooked those nurses pretty good. They looked ready to bolt.”

“I’m scared, too, because they had no business treating a prion-infected patient in the same ward with other patients,” she said between clenched teeth. “Where were the hazmat suits? How about respirator masks?”

Hoffman lowered his eyes. “We don’t have enough hazmat suits or masks,” he admitted sheepishly. “The laboratory—the one in shambles—had a dedicated ward for prion victims. The capital budget hasn’t allowed for the purchase of new beds, repairs, or hazmat suits.”

It figures. “It’s really not my business.” Alexis heaved another deep sigh, then stood up. “I get that you don’t want me working here because of the fusion. I’m sorry this didn’t work.”

With that, she turned to leave.

“Get back here!” Hoffman shouted. “Don’t go putting words in my mouth. I never said I didn’t want you working here. I find the gene fusion ghastly, but I need you for the job.”

Why-y-y? Alexis gave him an eyeroll. Graduate therapists are a dime a dozen and good old Administration has turned Jackson into a pigsty.

“I don’t want you here just for breathing treatments and ventilator checks,” Hoffman went on as if he’d read her thoughts. “Senator Conoughy wants a bodyguard for his sister.”

“What?” Alexis jerked around, facing Hoffman.

“Conoughy has a big say on whether or not we get funding for research and capital equipment. Unfortunately, his sister Maddie works here and people bully her. An ex-employee decided to off her by dragging her to the woods. She’s alive because two Kryszka saw fit to intervene. Now, Conoughy has threatened to pull funding unless I provide a bodyguard to escort her back and forth to work.”

“Hold on a second.” Alexis wagged her finger. “Xian, a doctor, and I were walking in the area when this happened. She was evaluating my gait when we heard Maddie’s screams. We helped because that pig was going to kill her. And just so you know, that fusion makes me half-Kryszka.”

“Whatever.” Hoffman sighed. “Are you willing to put in time as a bodyguard?”

Alexis tapped her foot. “It depends on how much. I’m only going to be available twenty hours or thereabouts a week.”

“I’m not asking you to do this full time. If you happen to be working the same day as Maddie, drive her. Maybe twice a week, stop by her house, offer to drive her to the store or something. Keep your hand in just enough to make Conoughy happy.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, seeing as I live three doors from her house. So, my duties will be to come to work, learn the new policies, and protect Maddie. Anything else?”

“One last thing. You must have learned a few things during your time with the good governor.”

Alexis shook her head. “I spent my time below ground recuperating from injuries and watching over Yeron. He almost died.”

“But that part’s behind you now, right? So, when you take Yeron for his checkups, find a way to learn what you can about the Kryszka’s chemicals and equipment. Everything. I hear that Kryszka are vulnerable to PN428, too, and that they’d like to find an antidote.”

Alexis nodded slowly. “They sure would.”

“Learn their technology, Alexis, and share your knowledge with the scientists here. If these people are as benevolent as you say they are, they might be willing to work with us to find a treatment for the prion virus.”

Alexis groaned inwardly, but managed a smile. She reached out to shake his hand. “All right, Doctor. We’ve got a deal.”

The End

The Job Interview

Job Interview Barbara Custer

Alexis’s Job Interview

October 1, 2010, Dr. Hoffman’s Office at Jackson Hospital

Alexis’s set-to with the dead began after breakfast when she drove to the deli to pick up lunchmeat. Blood-covered fists banged on her car window when she slid into the parking lot. Two zombies were trying to get into the car. Alexis let out a short scream, then mustered a psychic thrust. After dogging open the car door, she shoved the walkers away from her, using her mind over matter. Standing, she held out her hands. Her psychic energy surged through her fingertips to create an invisible force field that warded off the walkers as she headed into the store. After she had left, more walkers shambled in through the alleyway. It took several blasts of plasma to clear the path back to the car. She had to thank Governor Quyeba for the DNA fusion which gifted her with Kryszka traits, including telekinesis. To her right, a gray-haired, wiry man stepped out of his car and blasted two walkers with a pistol. He grimaced, looked at Alexis, then shrugged, as if shooting zombies to buy food was an everyday occurrence.

At home, her partner Yeron gazed at her from his chair, his shoulder swathed in bandages, his head drooped. “Are you sure you want this job, love? The walker infestation is worst now than it was in June. Besides, the staff did not treat you well when you worked at Jackson before. They will not accept you as you are now.”

“I’m not going to let the monsters or gossip mongrels dictate where I live and work. Besides, I need the medical benefits.” Alexis lowered her eyes, not caring to admit she hated asking for money.

“Zoltar can provide whatever care you need, and he will either barter the cost with you or not charge you at all.”

“True. But let’s say I fall and break a bone near the hospital. The insurance will come in handy because Jackson hospital is nearby.” Alexis kissed Yeron on the forehead. “It’s only part time, but if I sense any trouble, I won’t take the job.”

Yeron’s lips set in a thin line. “All right. Be careful.” ****

At Jackson Hospital, three walkers shambled into the garage while Alexis parked her car. The noise Alexis’s Honda made drew their attention her way. The stink of decay overwhelmed her when she opened her door. “Ah, shit!” She grimaced. “Second time today.”

Drawing in a deep breath, she worked up her psychic energy. With her thoughts, she smashed their heads together, spraying bodily secretions and flecks of oatmeal-like substance on the walls, the surrounding cars, and her navy pantsuit. “Bah fungule!” she shouted.

Thankfully, the hospital had showering facilities at the end of the tunnel. Alexis stepped into a stall, stripped her clothes, and scrubbed herself. Her skin had cracked and peeled with dryness, for her conflicts with zombie walkers necessitated two or more hot showers daily. Making a mental note to buy skin cream, she cleaned her suit as best she could; though the dark stains on her maroon pants remained. Her “big girl” pants, as she called them, since the DNA infusion gifted her with a four-inch growth spurt, necessitating the upsizing of her clothes. She’d worn a pantsuit, for anyone crazy enough to wear a flesh-revealing skirt or dress was asking for trouble from the walkers. She’d brought a pair of flats for the interview, but hadn’t thought to pack a change of clothes.

In the lobby, she headed toward the gift shop to buy an outfit. Instead, someone had posted a “closed” sign on its door, and robotic cleaners were mopping the hallway floors with disinfectant.

Robotic cleaners? Alexis gasped. Before her illness, Yeron had devised a robotic cleaner for the Intensive Care Until, but Jackson hired people to clean the rest of the hospital. What the hell happened to the staff? Resignation? Death? Probably both.

A service elevator near the lobby went to the seventh floor, where Dr. Joseph Hoffman did his research studies. The doors slid open like a gaping, toothless mouth. In the elevator, Alexis made out the faint outline of stains on the back wall. Blood never washed off easily, and with a heavy sigh, she concluded that something ugly—many somethings—had been through the halls during her months at the underground Kryszka compound. ****

The stench of flyblown meat from the garage altercation lingered in her nostrils despite the air fresheners placed in strategic points around Hoffman’s waiting room. Alexis touched her fanny pack. The feel of the hard plasma gun inside took the edge off her shivering.

Moments later, a nurse came out and waved Alexis into Hoffman’s office. Alexis stood up, fingering her ruby necklace, a gift from Yeron. Dr. Hoffman sat at his desk. His tanned complexion made him look healthy, but his gaunt build and the dark circling his eyes spoke of a poverty of appetite and sleep. He indicated a chair facing his desk.

“Please sit.” His bushy brows arched.

Without thinking, Alexis closed the door behind her—using her telekinesis from force of habit. It’s okay, she told herself. Hoffman’s too preoccupied to notice.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling.

Silence followed a moment, and Hoffman frowned. He scrutinized her with the eyes of a scientist.

“Your competency as a respiratory therapist was never an issue,” he said at last. “You’ll need to catch up on your continuing education and renew your license in another year. We’ve changed some policies and procedures, but none of that should be a problem. So I’ll get to the point: we need respiratory therapists badly. If you’re only available part time, that’s fine, but I need to know that you’ll show up when it’s your day to work.”

“Of course I will,” Alexis said quickly.

“I’m not talking about responsibility,” Hoffman said. “Too many people show off their guns at the interview, but run at the first sign of trouble.”

Like Mark. Another shiver crept up her spine. She met Hoffman’s scrutiny, her red eyes resolute as steel. “I never run from a fight,” she told Hoffman. “I just took out three walkers in the garage. That’s why my pantsuit is soiled. It never occurred to me to bring extra clothes.”

“I noticed,” Hoffman said with a trace of sadness in his voice. “You’ve gotten used to the colony’s controlled environment, but here, the infected are multiplying like flies. You should bring extra clothes wherever you go.”

“So I’m learning.” Alexis recoiled. “Because of the prion virus.”

“We call it PN428, or if you prefer, the Crazy Laurel virus. After one bite, the toxin spreads through the system. Hours later, you have another walker.”

“I heard about PN428.” Alexis shuddered at the bad memories of Laurel.

“I figured that.” Hoffman nodded as if confirming this to himself. “Tell me about your experiences underground.”

Uh, oh. Alexis winced inwardly but affected a shrug. “It’s a depressing subject. The Kryszka governor, Quyeba … she, too, ran afoul of the walkers and didn’t know what to make of them. At the time, I was sick, and her son Zoltar, who happened to be a scientist, came up with a drug to fight my infection. Yeron, my partner, came to my rescue when a renegade held me hostage, and he got shot. He almost died, but Zoltar managed to save him.”

Hoffman’s voice softened. “That must have been frightening for you.”

“It still is.” Alexis shivered. “Yeron needed two surgeries; he just came home a few days ago. My mother and I take turns changing his dressings. He’s going to need time to heal.”

Hoffman steepled his hands, his gray eyes intent on Alexis. “Yeron’s lucky to have you. I’m surprised that Matilda would approve your being with him, much less providing care.”

“Yeron got shot protecting me from a renegade. That meant the world to my mother. With my sister Robin dead, she only has me. Anyway, that’s why I can’t work full time. That, plus I teach an English class at the Kryszka compound two days a week.”

“Since when did you start teaching English?”

Where is he going with these questions? Alexis pressed her lips together. “Quyeba, Xian, and Zoltar expressed an interest in learning. They’ve got gadgets that enable me to teach through the Internet.”

“Indeed. Getting back to your mother, what does she say about the changes in your eyes and hair?”

Here we go. Alexis gritted her teeth. “The compound doesn’t have walkers, but they deal with frequent break-ins by renegade soldiers. My mom acknowledges that the changes in my hair and eyes make me look inconspicuous.”

“Uh, huh.” Hoffman resumed his analytical gaze. He stood up and paced around his desk, eyes on Alexis. “I’m familiar with genetic engineering and gene splicing … I’ve done it on mice to cure certain diseases with poor results. When I last saw you, you were average height, had brown hair and eyes, and arthritis had deformed your hands. But now if it weren't for your voice, I wouldn’t have recognized you. How did the scientists splice your genes?”

Shit! Alexis massaged her temples. “They didn’t, but they were able to reverse my arthritis. In addition to my infection, Laurel hurt me pretty bad. Getting me back on my feet required surgery, lots of physical therapy, and drugs with nasty side effects. Despite all that, I still walk with a limp.”

“So I noticed. Are you up to the walking that respiratory therapists have to do here?”

“Sure,” Alexis replied, shrugging. “The compound has a large track to encourage walking, and when a renegade shows his face, I run.”

“Uh-huh.” Hoffman waved Alexis to her feet. “I’m going to show you around the research floor because we’ve had major damage. If I were you, I’d reserve your hair dye and drug tales for your senile patients. No intelligent staff person will buy your act.”

Her cheeks flaming, Alexis followed Hoffman to the hallway. Without her thinking about it, a flick of her mind closed the door behind them.

“And that’s another thing.” Hoffman whirled around to face her again. His eyes narrowed. “Close the doors the way your mother taught you. If the patients see your telekinesis, they’ll freak.”

Welcome to Jackson Hospital. Alexis dragged her fingers through her thick curly hair.

The antiseptic smells caught her nostrils at the walkway approaching the laboratories. Every so often robots passed her by, spraying deodorant or wiping down the tiled walls. Yellow tape crisscrossed over the door to one of the laboratories. Alexis peered through the glass window. Inside, broken glass and shrapnel covered the floor. What passed for computers and other cumbersome equipment lay tilted on their sides, all the dials bashed. Without thinking, she shouted, “Holy shit! Laurel did this.”

“Not Laurel. Whatever did it wasn’t human. My office was in shambles, too, and a filmy dark liquid spattered among the cages. The mice had gotten out. About a week later, people began turning up sick or dead from the PN428 virus.”

Alexis drew in a deep breath. “Laurel’s still on the loose, but she isn’t human now. The renegades spliced DNA from a monster into her with disastrous results. Steve told you about the settva, right?”

Hoffman’s jaw jerked. His brow crinkled. “What?”

“Settva. It’s a Kryszka reptile that looks like a Tyrannosaur Rex, but smaller. It’s intelligent, cunning, and a man-eater.” Another deep breath. “The renegades spliced the DNA of a settva into Laurel. That was the thing that trashed your lab. I know because Steve showed me the recording from your cameras.”

“My God!” The authoritarianism fled from Hoffman’s demeanor, replaced by trembling and beads of sweat forming on his forehead. “Steve and Yeron told me about the reptile, but Steve pronounces it differently than you and Yeron do. When I saw the mutilated body, I figured that the renegades were behind it.”

“No, Laurel.” Alexis rubbed her arms, shivering. “Renegade Kryszka don’t normally vandalize property. Their goal is to kill, and if property destruction happens in the process, it’s by accident. This …” She jerked her thumb toward the window glass. “… happened on purpose. People better watch their backs.”

“The police and federal agents are looking for Laurel.”

“God help them if they find her. Most people underground are terrified by settva, but they breed the reptiles for their skin to use for clothing and accessories.”

Trembling, Alexis studied Hoffman’s face, his arched brows, the tension in his muscles. “What the doctors did to me … they didn’t do it lightly. The only treatments they had available worked on Kryszka. The DNA enabled me to not only tolerate their medicine but reversed my arthritis. That’s why my hands look—and feel—better.”

“I’m glad you’re well.” Hoffman scowled and crossed his arms. “All the same, I pray I’m never forced to splice someone’s genes to save them. You must consider those people saints.”

“Governor Quyeba’s trying to become a saint.” Alexis tried to keep a serious demeanor, but she couldn’t help a smile. “She scolds people if they curse around her, including me and her son, Zoltar.”

“Zoltar?” Another frown.

“Uh-huh. Zoltar recommended the DNA splicing to save me, and his mother donated the DNA.” She giggled. “Do you remember Johnny who used to work here? He’s dead now, but Zoltar’s got a sarcastic wit like he did. He can be moody, but sometimes he can be downright funny like Johnny.”

“Oh, yeah? I don’t find anything about this the least bit amusing.” Hoffman’s voice bled with resentment. “The trouble with Kryszka is that they think DNA splicing is the answer to every disease and injury, so they make no effort to find an antidote. Did you get pneumonia? Or tuberculosis? No problem, someone will splice DNA with you! Then when a malicious person creates a monstrosity like Laurel, people wonder why.”

Alexis took everything in, her fingers kneading the strap of her purse. Opening and squeezing. Ba fungule! God knows I need health insurance, and I’d rather have my spending money, but I’ll be damned if I listen to a bunch of overgrown kids insult my appearance. I’ve had enough with the long marches and guerilla attacks.

She opened her mouth, ready to deliver a healthy retort when an alarm blared overhead: “Code Gray, seventh floor ICU! Code Gray, seventh floor!”

Alexis started, then whirled around in the direction of the alarm. “What does code gray mean?”

“Walker break-in.” Hoffman rooted underneath his lab coat for his gun. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

“No, I’m going with you.” Alexis kept up with him, half-running and half-stumbling into the intensive care unit. By the nurses’ desk, people in yellow gowns congregated around a thrashing patient. The door to the room behind him had shattered. Bloody footprints and glass fragments tracked the floor between the bed and the nurses’ desk.

Not a patient, Alexis decided, upon getting a closer look. This patient was in the early stages of zombifying. He stank like spoiled meat; rat-bitten sores had opened around his chin. He let out screeches alternating with moans, limbs thrashing. His hands grabbed, and he bit anything or anyone that got too close. Without thinking, Alexis let loose her psychic energy, focusing on controlling the patient. He continued squirming; his mouth opened and closed, biting the air, but the reaching and thrashing stopped.

“Let him go. I’ve got him,” Alexis said.

“Are you crazy?” a nurse screamed. “He’ll bite and infect everyone.”

“I’m not crazy; I’m telekinetic,” Alex replied while maintaining her psychic hold. “Step back.” She glanced toward Hoffman. “Where do you want him?”

“In bed and restrained. The formula’s not working,” Hoffman said. “I have to destroy him. Everyone, clear!”

Alexis levitated the thrashing figure toward the room with the battered door. Still using her mind, she set the patient prone against his mattress.

A voice pierced the quiet tension, speaking so softly Hoffman gave no sign of noticing. For Alexis, with her sensitized hearing, another gift of the fusion, the words came through loud and clear: “Aw, fuck, she’s one of them!”

Ignoring the voice, Alexis held the zombie patient while Hoffman executed his headshot. More thrashing and moaning followed, but the cries faded and his movements flickered to a stop.

Alexis straightened up and cast her gaze toward the hapless nurses. All clad in yellow or white. Treating a prion virus in a ward around other patients? Where are the hazmat suits? I don’t believe this.

Hoffman two-fingered his cell phone and punched three buttons. Moments later, two robotic cleaners came in to clean up the glass fragments and blood.

“Let’s go.” He waved Alexis toward the door. “The cleaners will dispose of the body.”

Alexis gritted her teeth. “What are you going to tell his family?”

“They knew he was bitten.”

Alexis swallowed hard. “Why didn’t you sedate him until his family can visit and say their goodbyes?”

Hoffman whirled around, looked at Alexis, and sighed. “Our sedatives don’t work well with these patients. He might wake up and bite people when no one is around to intervene. After the cleaners do their work, I’ll notify the family so they can claim the body.”

Back in the office, Hoffman pointed to a chair. “Sit down,” he ordered in a tense voice.

Alexis sat, folding her hands. She lowered her eyes, bracing herself for Hoffman’s lecture, and the I-told-you-so she’d get from Yeron later.

“You spooked those nurses pretty good. They looked ready to bolt.”

“I’m scared, too, because they had no business treating a prion-infected patient in the same ward with other patients,” she said between clenched teeth. “Where were the hazmat suits? How about respirator masks?”

Hoffman lowered his eyes. “We don’t have enough hazmat suits or masks,” he admitted sheepishly. “The laboratory—the one in shambles—had a dedicated ward for prion victims. The capital budget hasn’t allowed for the purchase of new beds, repairs, or hazmat suits.”

It figures. “It’s really not my business.” Alexis heaved another deep sigh, then stood up. “I get that you don’t want me working here because of the fusion. I’m sorry this didn’t work.”

With that, she turned to leave.

“Get back here!” Hoffman shouted. “Don’t go putting words in my mouth. I never said I didn’t want you working here. I find the gene fusion ghastly, but I need you for the job.”

Why-y-y? Alexis gave him an eyeroll. Graduate therapists are a dime a dozen and good old Administration has turned Jackson into a pigsty.

“I don’t want you here just for breathing treatments and ventilator checks,” Hoffman went on as if he’d read her thoughts. “Senator Conoughy wants a bodyguard for his sister.”

“What?” Alexis jerked around, facing Hoffman.

“Conoughy has a big say on whether or not we get funding for research and capital equipment. Unfortunately, his sister Maddie works here and people bully her. An ex-employee decided to off her by dragging her to the woods. She’s alive because two Kryszka saw fit to intervene. Now, Conoughy has threatened to pull funding unless I provide a bodyguard to escort her back and forth to work.”

“Hold on a second.” Alexis wagged her finger. “Xian, a doctor, and I were walking in the area when this happened. She was evaluating my gait when we heard Maddie’s screams. We helped because that pig was going to kill her. And just so you know, that fusion makes me half-Kryszka.”

“Whatever.” Hoffman sighed. “Are you willing to put in time as a bodyguard?”

Alexis tapped her foot. “It depends on how much. I’m only going to be available twenty hours or thereabouts a week.”

“I’m not asking you to do this full time. If you happen to be working the same day as Maddie, drive her. Maybe twice a week, stop by her house, offer to drive her to the store or something. Keep your hand in just enough to make Conoughy happy.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, seeing as I live three doors from her house. So, my duties will be to come to work, learn the new policies, and protect Maddie. Anything else?”

“One last thing. You must have learned a few things during your time with the good governor.”

Alexis shook her head. “I spent my time below ground recuperating from injuries and watching over Yeron. He almost died.”

“But that part’s behind you now, right? So, when you take Yeron for his checkups, find a way to learn what you can about the Kryszka’s chemicals and equipment. Everything. I hear that Kryszka are vulnerable to PN428, too, and that they’d like to find an antidote.”

Alexis nodded slowly. “They sure would.”

“Learn their technology, Alexis, and share your knowledge with the scientists here. If these people are as benevolent as you say they are, they might be willing to work with us to find a treatment for the prion virus.”

Alexis groaned inwardly, but managed a smile. She reached out to shake his hand. “All right, Doctor. We’ve got a deal.”

The End

Neferkare's Quest

When people read my tales about mummies or other monsters, they ask why horror? Why not science fiction or romance? At work, during morning break, when my coworkers ask how I spent my weekend, I’d tell them that I went to a mummy exhibit or other event about the macabre. My peers would then give me eyerolls, asking, Whyyyy?

Why, indeed? I spent my spare time at these venues searching for a new twist on the mummy theme. When I didn’t, I’d watch movie reruns of The Mummy or similar films. I told people that I used to love watching the Hammer movies and other monster shows, skirting the fact that my dance with mummies began forty years ago, in 1964, before my eleventh birthday, when I was visiting Atlantic City.

I had no other answers since the truth wasn’t appropriate for the uninitiated. At the writers’ meetings, I’ve told my story during Halloween for its entertainment value, but no one believed it.

When I was a child, my mother and I used to go to the Italian Village at Atlantic City’s Million Dollar Pier. The chefs there knew how to make mean prosciutto hoagies. Later, there was dessert, perhaps a cannoli or spumoni ice cream. The pier offered amusements and goodies where you could get four photos of yourself for a buck.

One day, outside on the pier, I happened upon a billboard that read, “See Live 3000-year-old man." In my young mind, I thought of an old man who had lived a thousand years. Inside the pier, I came upon a pavilion surrounded by black drapes. My curiosity heightened, I got in line. Inside the drapes, the people ahead of me formed a C-shaped ring around a limestone tub adorned with sculptures of faces and animals. Later, I learned that tub was a sarcophagus. Further ahead, I made out a man’s shriveled face surrounded by scraggly jet black hair. He wore an ornate vest-robe that went to his knees, but nothing else.

I stepped closer to get a look. Not a man after all, but a mummified, gutted skeleton. I stood there frozen, while the people kept looking and chatting among themselves as if they were gathering at a party. Seconds later, he turned his head and raised his right arm, extending his hand. Faint creaking followed as the lips moved. He grinned at me, revealing teeth like crooked tombstones, and beckoned me with his finger of naked bone. I bolted from the pavilion, screaming. That grin. Neferkare's ghastly grin stayed with me for years, driving me to the other exhibits. I thought writing fiction tales about him would diffuse my terror. It didn’t work. I just continued to have nightmares.

My mother later assured me that the folks who set up the display constructed machinery and invisible ropes to make the body move. But when a dead man looks your way, you don’t consider possibilities. You run. My mother bought a newspaper and looked up the advertisements and found that the Million Dollar Pier was displaying the mummy, Neferkare, an Egyptian pharaoh, who began his reign as a child. I didn’t care what his name was or when he ruled; every third night, I dreamt about his face, his malignant grin, his beckoning hand.

When I hit college age, I studied an allied healthcare profession, hoping that would make the nightmares stop. Still, I continued to dream about Neferkare, and none of the visions pleasant. I dated several men, but none of the relationships clicked. In recent years, I joined a writing group but tried to write about mundane topics. The writing fell flat, but that was okay because the nightmares about Neferkare dwindled to about two or three a year. At that point, I had forgotten his name.

About a year ago, club members proposed checking out the mummy display at the Museum of Medical Oddities. This time I looked up the advertisement. Prince Neferkare, a 3,000-year-old carefully preserved body, was to be on display along with other mummies of his time. The name didn’t look familiar, much to my undoing. My friends went to the second floor to look over some artifacts from the Middle ages, but I got in line to check out the mummies. At first, it was interesting – sarcophagi in different colors, with sculptures of pharaohs on the lids and hieroglyphics around the sides. Further on into the exhibit, the lights dimmed enough to give the museum an eerie appearance, and we approached open stone caskets. An odor of musk combined with sickly sweet oils penetrated the air, coming from their contents—skeletonized mummies. Neferkare sat propped up in a sarcophagus, clad in a knee-length vest, and head bent, and the memory of my meeting with him in 1964 came back with stunning clarity. His skin, taut and leathery, rode over his bones, tearing at the joints.

They had no business allowing children into that pavilion, I thought crazily, but in 1964, anything went. I tried telling myself that he’d been dead thousands of years and that he couldn’t hurt anyone, but my hands trembled inside their pockets and chills ran up my spine. In the next instant, I heard a series of gasps from the onlookers. My head jerked toward Neferkare.

He was sitting forward, face toward me. His eyes had opened wide, revealing empty pits.

A shriek caught inside my throat. Instead, I stifled it. Recoiling, I pushed through the crowd to the exit. Nausea hit me from the fetid odor lodging inside my nostrils. I bolted up the staircase, spewing vomit along the way. My stomach roiled, causing me to upchuck again at the landing. Ignoring the hushed whispers and stares from passersby, I hurried along to find my friends.

When my friends saw me, they asked if I was all right. I shook my head, mumbling something about a stomach bug, then left. Neferkare’s face seared itself into my brain. He haunted my thoughts all the way home. My stomach continued to churn, so I heated a bowl of chicken soup. I put it on a tray and turned on the TV to watch the news. Some headlines about the weather came first, then the stock market. Blah, blah, blah. “… shooting on Clearfield Street. The police are looking for a person of interest in the burglary at the Museum of Medical Oddities …”

At this announcement, my spoon clattered to the floor.

Sweat beaded my brows, and my breath hitched as I took in the details. Someone had made off with one of the mummies. The police suspected an inside job because there was no sign of forced entry. The screen flashed to the curator’s face—I knew him well, having been to the museum many times. He confirmed what happened, giving the mummy’s name as Neferkare. Then the TV screen zoomed in on the crime scene – black smudged footprints leading from the sarcophagus.

A cat. I needed a cat. Any species of cat would do, and there were plenty of strays in the back alley of the condominium complex where I lived. Every so often, I’d feel sorry for these animals, and I’d feed them. According to the mummy legend, cats were the guardians of the underworld, so mummies feared them, thinking that the cats would send them back to their death. With trembling fingers, I poured milk into a bowl. I tiptoed to the ground floor. After cracking open the back door, I looked both ways, but the alley appeared deserted. A harsh wind blew, rattling the trees behind the apartments; it was after all late November. I snuck down the alley. Moments later, a scrawny cat wandered out of the shadows. It was hard to tell its color because of its unkempt appearance, but it had the largest jade green eyes I’d ever seen. I whistled softly. Jade. That’s the perfect name for him. “Here, kitty, kitty,” I called, then placed the bowl on the pavement.

The cat bounded up to the dish and lapped up the milk. With my gloved hands, I petted it, then snatched it up to bring into the house. Jade mewed plaintively on the way in, and once inside, he scurried under the sofa. No doubt, a negligent owner had abandoned him, and now he was terrified of his new surroundings. It crossed my mind that I should have allowed Jade time to trust me, but my terror overrode any misgivings I had about the animal. Later, after the police had found Neferkare, I’d make a decision about adopting, but at the moment, I could only focus on my survival. After locking the deadbolt, then checking the windows, I turned on the news channel again.

“…a security guard found strangled, in his underclothes, near the exit at the museum where the alleged heist occurred …”

“Heist—bullshit!” I shouted at the TV. “That was Neferkare.”

“…bruises around his neck.”

Why is he after me, I wondered? Chills crept up my back, drawing a hard line of ice along my spine. Rubbing my arms, I looked up “Neferkare” under Google.

According to Wikipedia, he was a pharaoh who ruled 2278 to 2184 B.C. Neith, named so after the goddess, was a queen and wife to Neferkare. What kind of people they were, whether benevolent or evil, Wikipedia didn’t say. I then looked up both names under “images.” Clad in heavy armor, Neith had jet black hair that hung to her shoulders and a fair complexion like mine. Brown eyes, again like me. My hair used to be black, too, before its current salt-and-pepper look. If she were alive today, we could pass as sisters. That doesn’t matter, a voice inside whispered. You probably looked at him a certain way, and it crossed his mind to rise and come after you.

The chills settled around my neck. I looked under the sofa for my cat, but Jade wasn’t there. A search revealed him under the bed, way out of my reach. Searching through the refrigerator, I found leftover chicken scraps. I put them on a plate and slid it under the bed toward the cat. “It’s okay, Jade,” I soothed him.

“Everything will be all right.”

Heading back to the living room, I listened to an announcement about a second strangulation behind the ticket counter at the train station I used to go back and forth to the museum.

“He’ll never find my condo,” I assured myself. Oh, how badly I wanted to believe that. It was getting late, and I had to work the next day. That and go food-shopping. If I wanted to keep Jade, I’d need food and kitty litter. After doing another inspection of the door and windows, I got ready for bed. Moments later, I drifted into a fitful sleep. ****

A crash from the living room jarred me from my restless sleep. Jade, having ventured out from under the bed sometime during the night, hissed, then scurried back to his hiding place. Plodding footsteps followed. Seconds later, Neferkare was standing at my bedroom doorway against silver puddles of moonlight.

He’d swapped his sequined vest for a security guard’s uniform. Something glittered in his sockets. His face, now swollen, had taken on a chalky appearance, but there was no mistaking his mummified hands and neck. A gray hat covered his head; his chin jutted whitely.

“Neith, you’re the one.” His voice was gravelly from the effort of working a jaw long shut. His neck tendons creaked. “I’ve come to bring you home.”

“My name’s not—” Neith, I was going to say, but the last thing I wanted to do was engage his craziness. On second thought, I decided to get him talking while I figured out an escape. “How do you know English?”

“I’ve grown fluent in your language because people love to talk when they visit my neb ankh.”

“Your what?”

“Neb ankh. It means ‘possessor of life,’ or what you call a sarcophagus.”

Snapping on a lamp, I glanced around the room for something that would work for a weapon. I was wearing a flannel nightgown and had my flashlight, my car keys, my bureaus, and a bookcase near the window. I looked back at Neferkare, who was dead and yet not dead.

“Why …?” My voice cracked. “Why did you strangle those people?”

“I needed their organs and body fluids to regenerate. Besides, my love, those guards got in my way.”

“I am not your love.” I gasped, shivering. “You don’t even know me.”

“Sure, I do. You are the reincarnation of my beloved Neith.”

Damn, I should have dyed my hair blonde! Goose bumps rose on my arms. Another desperate scan of the room, hoping to spot a makeshift weapon, but there was nothing. “How did you get here without people noticing?”

“It’s dark, and at this time of night, few people walk the streets. But we should not waste time talking.” He plodded toward the bed with large shambling steps, arms reaching.

“I’m bringing you home,” Neferkare said.

“The hell you say!” Leaping away from the bed, I edged toward the window. “My cat will send you back to the afterlife.”

Neferkare sidled toward the foot of the bed, facing the window. Seconds later, Jade let out a hiss, then barreled to the hallway.

Neferkare gave a harsh, ghastly chuckle. “Your theory about cats and people like me is just a fantasy. I happen to like cats.”

Grabbing a bunch of books, I hurled them at my intruder while mentally gauging the distance from the window to the ground. I lived in a second-floor apartment, but my window overlooked the swimming pool in the courtyard of my V-shaped complex. Close enough to see, but too far to dive into it safely. It meant diving at an angle, and I’m no Olympic swimmer. I did have access to a fire escape, thanks to the good folks managing Preacher’s Corner Condominiums. Still a dangerous proposition, but I didn’t want a walking corpse to touch me.

The books hit him, followed by an elephant-shaped paperweight. Bone chipped from his chin and outstretched hands, but he kept coming.

With flashlight and car keys in hand, I climbed out the window out to the patio. The cement felt cold under my bare feet. My nightgown offered no protection from the harsh November wind, but that seemed so far away and unimportant. What mattered was that a monster had gotten into my bedroom, and I had to run. Scrambling over the patio fence, I latched onto the railing of the fire escape. It reminded me of the red monkey bars I used to climb as a child. Something clattered to the ground, but I kept going. I was sprinting down the fire escape just as Neferkare’s heavy footsteps thumped on the patio.

My car sat in front of the apartment, a loyal friend waiting to whisk me to safety, except that … my keys were gone! Ditto for the flashlight. I must have dropped them when I climbed onto the fire escape. With Neferkare at my heels, I raced across the parking lot. Despite his desiccated state, he could move damn fast. Breath panting, I sprinted toward the courtyard, then over to a picnic area that led to the street. At the gate stood several public buildings, including a well-lit restaurant. That was when sharp pains sliced into my feet.

I didn’t see the glass fragments until too late. The moonlight illuminated a grassy area littered with broken bottles. It wasn’t the first-time people had parties here and left their trash. The condo association had complained about it, but people do what they want. The chills from the cold air caused me to shiver. Stark terror filled the hollow places in my body. My feet cut and bleeding, I curled up in a ball, sobbing and bracing myself for the inevitable agony.

Seconds later, Neferkare thudded over dead branches, headed in my direction. His cold, bony hand grabbed my shoulders and rolled me toward him. I thrust my face sideways, but his other hand held my head and made me look at him. Dizziness washed over me; dark circles rose before my eyes. Neferkare’s face bent toward me; lips hard as stone pressed into mine, and the darkness waded in. ****

After what could have been moments or hours, the black faded, parted by veils of gray. When I opened my eyes, the sun shone brightly, but I wasn’t at the picnic grounds. I was lying in bed, under my covers.

That dream was the granddaddy of nightmares. An unpleasant odor lingered in the air, but I assumed it was just a remnant from the dream. “Time to get up.” I threw back the covers, sat up, and gasped from the stinging at my feet. Mud and wet leaves clung to my calves and nightgown. Ditto for my sheets. Books lay strewn around my bed. Blackish footprints trailed the hardwood floor around the bed. I looked down and saw that someone at least had cleaned and bandaged my feet. “Don’t get up, darling,” a voice called from the kitchen. Clacking footsteps followed, the sound of sandal-clad feet. What the hell?

Neferkare emerged from the hallway, smiling, still wearing his green vest. Only now, his face had fleshed out, along with his arms, chest, and shoulders. His arm cradled Jade; the cat purred with a trilling sound.

My eyes bulging, mouth gaping, I looked at the floor and screamed. His mummified legs were bony as ever, the skin cracked over the joints.

“Don’t be afraid, darling. I haven’t finished regenerating yet. After I’ve gotten my remaining organs and body fluids, I’ll be a whole man, immortal and invincible, and we’ll be together always.”

“No-o-o-o-o-o!” I covered my eyes.

“People talked about me as if I were a piece of trash. When I release my plagues, they will soon learn the error of their ways.” Bitterness edged into his voice; his eyes narrowed. He laid his free hand on my head, then continued, voice softening. “You shall become my bride. Love me, and I promise I’ll spare the rest of the world. You impress me as an intelligent woman; I know you’ll do the right thing.”

The right thing? I burst into tears, for I knew what he was trying to tell me. According to ancient lore, disturbing a pharaoh’s tomb could release the Ten Plagues of Egypt. I knew better than to believe Neferkare’s promise. What was to stop him from spreading the diseases throughout the world? My shoulders shook.

“There, there. Don’t be afraid.” He laid Jade in my lap. “Jade will keep you company while I make you breakfast.” Breakfast? How can I think of food? I rubbed my arms, trying to soothe the goose bumps. “Oh, Jade,” I sighed. “He’s got one thing right.”

Don’t be afraid. Be very afraid.

The End

Vampire or Zombie?

Most of my fiction writing these days revolves around zombies, and they have a way of showing up in my Night to Dawn magazine. I have author Jonathan Maberry to thank for infecting me with a love for zombies, and They Bite! written by Jonathan Maberry and David Kramer, provided some grist for this article. At one time, I wrote about vampires and nothing else. Then, revenants and walking dead (probably zombies, but I didn’t call them that) crept into my short stories. As I read about the different breeds of vampires, I realize that there's a fine line between zombies and vampires.

It’s easy to see how belief in vampires arose back in Medieval times. In addition to the pressures of crime, putting food on the table, and putting up with difficult masters, people had to travel on horseback or walk, often past deserted cemeteries at night. Because of their poverty of information, superstitions, and misunderstanding of the processes of postmortem decay, people came to believe that vampires existed. So, when bad things happened, they blamed it on a vampire. Perhaps there was an outbreak of the plague, and villagers assume that the recently deceased might come back from their graves to wreak havoc. Graves were dug up, and these folks mistook the natural decaying process for something supernatural.

Most laypeople think that a body should decay straight away. However, if burial took place during winter, inside a tightly sealed coffin, it might take weeks or months for putrefaction to happen. What's more, internal decay causes bloating, forcing the blood up into the mouth, which makes the body look like it ingested significant amounts of blood. Modern scientists know better, but back in Medieval Europe, people interpreted this as a sign that vampires existed.

Folklore prescribes several ways to destroy a vampire. Assuming someone identified the monster correctly—vampires came in different breeds—would these methods work? I think not. More likely, they'd get the would-be slayer killed. A stake through the heart would kill anything. Other methods included decapitation and stuffing the mouth with garlic or a brick. Archeologists dug up the body of a woman from a mass grave on the island of Nuovo Lazzaretto. Suspecting she might be a vampire, gravediggers shoved a rock into her skull to keep her from chewing on the shroud and climbing out of her grave. In 2013, two skeletons were dug up in Bulgaria with iron rods through their chests.

So, what did people do to protect themselves? It depends on the country where they lived, and the type of vampire, or revenant. “Revenant” is a catch-all phrase applied to a ghost or animated corpse that rises from the dead to terrorize the living. The revenant could be a zombie or any of the following vampire breeds described.

Let’s start with the Ghul (known to us as a “ghoul”), a monster of Arabic folklore, usually a female demon that haunts graveyards, deserts, sites of old battles, and other remote places where they can attack the unwary. “Ghoul” can also be a derogatory term to refer to a person who loves the macabre, but I'm talking about the kind that haunts graveyards. Per ancient folklore, Ghuls dwelled in cemeteries and other uninhabited places, but the Ghuls of the desert can shapeshift into different animals and birds, and they hunt in packs. Aside from feasting on the fetid flesh of the dead, the Ghul might lure unwary travelers to the desert, then attack and devour them. The Ghul preys on children, drinks blood, steals money, and eats the dead, then takes the form of the person it consumed. In the battlefield, the Ghul might pose as a nurse while looking to suck on a wounded soldier. Folklore dictated that the only way to destroy a Ghul was to kill it with one blow, for two blows might resurrect it. Anglicized as "Ghoul," the word identified a grave-robbing creature that feeds on the dead and children, blurring the distinction between ghouls and zombies.

In modern movies, the producers recast the ghoul as a zombie. In most zombie films, these monsters are mindless beings that rise from the grave and feed on human flesh and blood. The cinematic zombies are revenants that feast on the living and need appropriate means to be stopped. What people don’t realize is that “zombie” may be a misnomer; these creatures can be any of the vampire monsters I described below. All of them, including the Living Dead zombies, are reanimated corpses that feed on human flesh and blood. This is where I see the fine line between vampires and zombies.

The Nachzehrer (German) rises after a suicide or an accidental death. According to German lore, a person does not become a Nachzehrer from a bite or scratch; the state of being is not contagious. Usually, a Nachzehrer attacks and devours family members upon waking. Some people thought that the Nachzehrer would shapeshift into a pig, then drain the blood of its family. It could cause death by causing its shadow to fall on someone, or ascending a church belfry to ring the bells, bringing death to the unwary who hears them. Lore dictates that you can kill a Nachzehrer by putting a coin in its mouth and then chopping off its head.

The Craqueuhhe (France) is a malicious vampire revenant, created when a person dies unbaptized or in sin. This creature looks a lot like a typical zombie in The Dawn of the Rising Dead: a rotting corpse with sunken eyes, greasy hair, and broken fingernails from clawing its way from the coffin. It’s got the stench of flyblown meat. Maggots and other insects will crawl through tears in its flesh and clothing. It devours human flesh and blood. No matter how battered its appearance, the monster is robust and able to move fast. Because the monster has no regard for pain or disability, bullets won’t slow this one, and knives are useless. Destroying it takes a group of trained fighters to hold down the revenant and burn it to ash. All of it. If one limb escapes, that body part will continue moving and terrorizing humans. What's more, if you somehow manage to bury any part of the revenant in a cemetery, its remains will contaminate the soil and spread to other tombs, creating more monsters.

The Brukulaco (Greece) goes by different spellings of the name. Whichever way you spell it, the Brukulaco crave human flesh and blood and will resort to deceptive ways to get it. A person can turn into this vampire when he or she is excommunicated from the church. After death, the body will rise as a swollen shape with skin as hard as tree bark. It will hobble into the night, body hunched, teeth bared, similar to werewolves. The monster has a barrel chest and muscular arms, and each finger tapers into a long, serrated fingernail. Despite its appearance, it's considered a vampire, not a werewolf. When it's ready to feed, the Brukulaco lures its victims with a deceptively whimpering cry, choosing a pitch they sense would call their victim to approach. If someone goes to investigate the sound, the creature will wolf down its flesh and blood. This flesh-eating revenant is also known to spread the plague. Beheading is the best-known way to destroy this monster.

The Neuntoter (Germany) means “nine killer.” Thus, people believed it took nine days for the body to complete its change to vampire and rise from the grave. Sores cover this revenant's body, and it spreads the plague where it goes, destroying entire villages. Like other vampires, it feasts on blood. Many people believed that a child born with teeth is destined to become this monster, so any child born with this defect must be watched. The rite of exorcism involves the appropriate staking and beheading, as with other vampires, but stuffing the mouth with lemons instead of garlic.

The Blautsauger (German) means “bloodsucker.” One can destroy these monsters by staking or decapitating them. People have tried to scare off the vampire by stringing up garlic along their doors and windows. If a person owned a black dog, he might paint extra eyes on the dog to scare away the vampire. I must say, though, that I feel sorry for the dogs.

The Pontianak (Java) is a monster that rises from the grave of a still-born child or a woman who dies in childbirth. It takes the form of a beautiful woman but has two tell-tale signs: a hole in the back of its neck and a fragrance like that of the sweet frangipani flower. To attract potential prey, it will use the haunting cry of a child. Once the victim gets within striking distance, the call turns into a whimper. The woman turns into a hag with sharp teeth and pointed nails, and her body reeks like rotting tomatoes. The vampire will feast on the victim’s entrails and blood.

During the day, the Pontianak rests inside a banana tree, but at night it might shapeshift into a bird to scout prey. Some people believe that it sniffs out clothes hung out to dry to find victims. In any case, it goes after young children or pregnant woman perhaps out of resentment over not being able to conceive. These monsters can be dangerous to men as well. What’s more, there’s only one known to stop these vampires: by driving a nail into the hole in his neck. If that happens, the vampire will revert to the woman it once was, but if the nail comes out, the being will return to monster form.

Although the revenants in my short stories could be any of the above monsters, I can't lay claim to having any of them in my Steel Rose series. My brands of zombies came about through poison, microchips, and an engineered virus invented by extraterrestrials. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

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