Tuesday, June 25, 2013

CORA: Episode 4


"The Forbidden Zone"

Dale’s motorcycle weaved down what had once been called Scottsville road.  Time and dilapidation had left some potholes and cracks that could easily have thrown him to his death, but he had driven the stretch to the old downtown enough times to know where most of the real dangers were.   The junk of five decades slowed him to a crawl in several areas.
Most of the town wouldn’t have wasted precious fuel to drive to the Forbidden Zone, but the risk had paid off many times.  Dale made his living stealing what others worked hard to collect, and he never had any problem trading for fuel or killing for it.
It was pretty rare to see other vehicles on this stretch of road since the work crews hadn’t got around to clearing it.  That made it much more dangerous.  Corpses were drawn to clutter.  It was as if they knew their slow gait and rigor mortis movements made them vulnerable.  Individually, they were easy to avoid, but if Dale was caught off guard by a group in this graveyard of the old order, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
They were totally silent other than what they bumped into or knocked over.  The sound of the motorcycle could conceal them until it was too late.  Since he couldn’t fight and drive, caution was his only defense.  Periodically, he stopped and listened, even turning off the engine at times.
Once Dale reached what used to be called 31 W, the road was clear.  Clean-up crews had been working steadily for the last decade to get rid of the debris.  Nashville and Bowling Green had created a large trade network and used the combined efforts of their inhabitants to maintain a clear route between all the markets and businesses that slowly rebuilt. 
The motorcycle engine revved up on the clean straightaway.  The rumbling engine, smoking from the tailpipe took him to the Forbidden Zone in minutes. 
On a side street next to an abandoned Taco Bell three corpses mindlessly beat at a glass door.  Dale slowed to get a better look as he passed.  The dead were drawn to the sound of his engine and re-routed their drunken stagger toward him.  He noticed they were fresh, not the skeletal amblers with dried leathery skin anchoring their bones together.  They leaked dark ooze from their eyes and mouths.  The shirtless one’s stomach had either been cut open or ruptured from the decaying process, and a mess of intestines slowly dripped out, one ringlet at a time.
He pulled his sawed off shotgun from his saddlebag.  The weapon did more against his human foes, but it would slow the dead down enough that they were no longer a threat. 
Keeping the gun leveled, Dale waited until they were about fifteen feet away.  Their twisted faces twitched in anticipation of the human flesh. 
The first explosion of the shotgun knocked the one with the open stomach down to the ground.  It was on its back missing a leg at the waist, a pool of blood rapidly gathering around it.
The next explosion opened a crater in the center of the other one’s chest, somersaulting it backwards into a mangled heap.
“Somebody must not have put momma and daddy to rest properly.”  He mocked as he watched the corpses struggle to regain their feet.  The legless one was down for the duration, and the other was going to be a while until it could find something to pull on.
All the bodies in the cemeteries had been exhumed and killed properly decades ago.  These pieces of shit either found their way out of the Forbidden Zone or somebody was in too big of a hurry to burn them.  He shoved his shotgun back in his saddlebag and drove off down a dark street.
A few minutes later, Dale killed the engine in the middle of street with ruined houses on both sides.  He was going to need to be quiet to sneak up to the barrier unless he wanted his head blown off.  The guards always shot to kill.
About fifty feet in front of him, the road ended in a chain link fence re-enforced with logs and old lumber.  The barrier enclosed a three mile area of the old downtown shopping area, and its sole purpose was to lock in the dead.  They had been drawn to the clutter of the ruined Greenwood Mall and the shopping centers.  The maze of debris had given them places to hide and wait for looters in the beginning of the chaos.  Their numbers grew as the newly deceased stood up and joined them.  It simply became easier to lock them in.
Putting the kickstand down, he drew his shotgun from the saddlebag as he whipped off the bike.  In his empty hand he drew a large wooden stake from the other saddlebag.
The moon gave some gray to the street before him, but it didn’t do much for the dark buildings.  Fall was weakening to the force of winter, and Dale saw his breath as he stayed in the middle of the asphalt.  Since the corpses moved slowly, he’d have plenty of time to assess his options.
His survival instinct suddenly flashed to life and the cold air against his bare arms was gone.  Adrenaline warmed him instantly.  The yellow dot of a flashlight came into view on his right.  The barrier patrol was headed straight for him.  There was no time to lose.  The patrol didn’t take prisoners.   
He ran for one of the houses missing a front door.  Dale’s map said the bootlegger tunnel started from the basement and ended in the Forbidden Zone. 
Suddenly A voice boomed out in the night with incredible volume.  “Halt!  No one is permitted in the Forbidden Zone!”
Dale ran faster.  There was no longer a choice.  He was running for his life.  He went to the floor and began crawling as fast as he could the moment he entered the house.   
Automatic gun fire blasted through the night.  He could see the glow of a flashlight coming from outside.  Dale backed up against the wall and peeked around the corner.  He saw someone wearing a large backpack lit up from the intersection of several bright lights.  The person was thin with long hair.  Their hands went up to shield their eyes.
Gunfire erupted in the night.  Sprays of meat and blood jumped outward from the twirling, spasming body.  When death settled, the corpse dropped.
Dale readied his shotgun.  He would go down with barrel blazing if they came for him.  Voices came from outside.  They had gotten the one they were chasing.  His heart beat with adrenaline fueled ecstasy when he realized they hadn’t seen him.  The patrol was chasing someone else.
The hallway he was in shown with the faint orange of what he knew was a large fire.  Across from him on the wall was a picture of a family.  Their smiles looked sinister in the glow of a death pyre.
#   #   #

Jimmy stopped running between the ruins of two buildings.  His cold exhausted breath billowed from his lips in visible puffs.  The embrace of night was fully upon the land.  He knew he was pushing his luck being out and unarmed in this part of the old downtown.
His head cocked to the right as he heard a barrage of automatic gunfire.  It wasn’t down the street, but it wasn’t far enough away for comfort either.  For a second his heart lifted.  Maybe they had killed Dale, finally put a bullet in the vicious son-of-a-bitch.  Jimmy’s elation quickly passed.  It was far more likely that they had just sprayed a cluster of walking corpses looking for a way out of the contained area.  Either way, that sound let him know the guards were on alert this evening, and he realized his shortcut through the Forbidden Zone was even less of a good idea than usual.
On nights like tonight his cabin on the outskirts of the settlement seemed so far away.  Dropping to one knee, he pulled a long wooden spear out from behind a pile of rubbish.  The deadly point was the result of someone shaving a tip onto the wood with a very sharp blade.  Rags were wrapped tightly around the shaft just below the point. 
Leaning the spear against the wall next to him, Jimmy grabbed something on the ground.  There was a brief strain in his muscles as he pulled a short length of rope to open a crudely fashioned trapdoor that covered an opening into the old sewage system.
Fetching a lighter from his pocket, he flicked it giving rise to a small flame.  Jimmy had hunted the lighters for years.  An old man had told him what they were called in the old world.  They came apart easily, so Jimmy refilled them with the alcohol fuel people made in their stills.
The cloth easily lit, and with his torch in hand, the teenager climbed below the earth.  The cool metal tingled in his palm as he lowered himself into the darkness.  It felt much cooler down below.  He pulled on the rope, slamming the trapdoor behind him.
The fire revealed he was in a wide stone area with a low ceiling.  Jimmy only had to tilt his head a fraction to be comfortable.  Garbage was everywhere.  The human leg bones in his path were easily kicked out of the way, but when his eyes caught site of the teeth marks on them he felt a slight wave of anxiety.  Being this close to the Forbidden Zone was never without risk.
Hunching slightly, he pointed his weapon into the darkness and moved ahead.  If he moved quickly, he would be through the Forbidden Zone in no time.  He had the shortest route memorized.
The silence in the winding stone tunnels was only broken by the scurrying of rats and the splash of disturbed puddles.  Even though Jimmy had taken the route hundreds of times, he never let complacency set in.  The corpses were usually silent until it was too late. 
Meaningless graffiti scrawled its way along the walls playing tricks in the periphery of the boy’s vision.  He jerked around several times expecting to see an ambling dead man standing with a gaping maw.  Silent zephyrs of foul smelling cavern breath flickered the flaming rags on his spear to the point Jimmy feared he might lose his light.  He would be ready to strip off his shirt and rekindle his torch.  There was no survival in the dark.
In the middle of one of the flickers that nearly returned the sewer to darkness a sound echoed in the distance.  It was a reverberating of sorts.  Jimmy stood perfectly still and listened with his entire body. 
#   #   #

Dale’s directions led him down a tight flight of stairs.  The faint glow of the fire dimmed with each step as he moved into the thickening wall of gloom.  Reaching out into the darkness in front of him with his shotgun and his wooden lance made him uncomfortable.  There was no pretending this little adventure wasn’t stupid.  Corpses lurked in the dark, and if he touched one unsuspectingly, it would be on him and it would all be over.
As the map indicated, he made his way across the room.  The door was in the corner where he expected it.  His fingers found the metal hinges.  The moment he touched the knob, his attention was drawn upstairs.  Voices and boots made their way ungracefully into the house.
“Look around!  Carl said he saw another one run in here!”
The reply was a little irritated.  “Carl drinks more of our fuel than he uses in the jeep.”
Dale got the joke.  The few operating motors in the world had been converted to run on plant and sugar based fuel that doubled as whiskey for someone who didn’t mind walking.  During their conversation he eased open the door and slid into the unseen chamber.  He was crowded against boxes and clothing, but the door shut him inside with little effort.
Suddenly, the stairs came alive with heavy footfalls. 
“It doesn’t look like anyone has been down here in years.”
Dale felt his breathing growing rapid and shallow.  He feared he  would give himself away. 
“The Captain wants everything checked out.  You heard him as well as I did.”
The other voice challenged.  “This mysterious woman sneaking in the Forbidden Zone doesn’t make any sense.”
“Don’t be stupid, Adom.  Why does anyone sneak in this hell hole?  To take shit, weapons, supplies, all kinds of stuff from the old world.”
The one called Adom wasn’t backing down.  “Even the Captain says she just looks around.  Never comes out with anything.  If you ask me, it’s just too many long hours.”
“Shut up and look over there.”
Dale felt his blood run cold.  As quietly as he could he moved back in the depths of the closet.  He pushed himself into the clothes in time to hear the door open.  Perfectly still, he was between packed jackets. There was fire light on the other side of the room.
The voices were so close.  His mouth was dry, and he could feel moisture in his palms.
 “It doesn’t matter if people bring anything out of the Forbidden Zone.  The law says no one goes inside accept on Black Friday.  And that’s how it ought to be.  That place has more zombies crawling around than the whole city of Bowling Green.  We don’t need them getting out.”
Dale’s door closed.  The relief set his knees shaking.  He could hardly hold himself up.  The near miss increased his anxiety.  He gripped his gun thinking his only option was to kill his way out.
Their conversation ended with mutual agreement that no one was in the house.  It was many moments after Dale was sure they were gone that he felt his body relaxing. 
Feeling through the closet he found the loose board in the back.  Just like he expected, three boards lifted out of place.  The passage was barely big enough for him to crawl through if he left his weapons behind.

#  #   #

The weathered boards surrendered to the mass of the living dead.  Skin shredded from decayed hands and arms as they ripped their way past splintered wood.  The dead wave smashed forward into the dark tunnel.
There was no more sound as they ambled, no reveling in their success, no complaints about their ruined flesh and broken bones.  There was no goal, no direction.  The horde walked where there was no barriers preventing their passage.  The once goal-directed impulses that had allowed them to navigate the world as living humans now operated in perversion, propelling them without reason, without volition. 
Darkness meant nothing to them.  Their shuffling gait was unhindered by anxiety.  Dead arms flailed as they squeezed past each other to push through the narrow sewage corridor.  Their efforts to fight past each other left smears of blood on gritty concrete walls.
Jimmy held his flaming spear in front him to illuminate the distant darkness.  It did not reveal the source of the sound.  Something had banged and cracked.  He faced the pile of junk blocking the cylindrical stone passage that headed back toward the surface.
The stack of heavy debris had obviously been placed intentionally.  It had been some time since Jimmy had taken this route home.  Another traveler must have feared pursuit by the living dead.
Keeping his eyes trained on the gloomy passage before him, his free hand groped at an old metal mattress frame.  Thoughtlessly, he flung it away.  He dragged several large flimsy springs out from in front of the metal ladder mounted in the concrete.
Jimmy recognized the approaching footfalls.  His choices battled in his swirling mind.  Run back the way he’d come.  He could move forward and try his luck in battle, but advancing on the dead was as foolish of a move as he could make.  His hand pulled blindly at the waste of the old world to get a path to the exit.
His light cast a sickly glow on a moving blur of pale.  Three bloody-faced, sallow corpses staggered forward with hands outstretched.  Jimmy had to force himself to pull away a wooden box, so he could get closer to the exit.  His legs wanted to run.  His hands wanted to thrust his flaming spear.  He knew it was exit or death. 
Their advance came faster than he suspected.  His spear struck outward, exploding through the rotten skull of the lead corpse.  It fell to its knees when the teenager withdrew his weapon, and then it toppled over perfectly still.
His spear pierced the other in the throat.  Blood spilled down its front, and Jimmy had to shake the weapon violently to get it free.
The bottleneck the three lead zombies had created in the tunnel mouth was now broken, allowing the mass to spill forward.  Jimmy fought their advance with his spear.  His anxiety at being eaten alive rendered his blows ineffective.  His only chance was the exit tunnel. 
The undead bobbed and wobbled around him.  Their hands and snapping teeth reached out for him.  Jimmy moved backwards preventing them from closing the circle around him.  His only chance against these numbers was an exit path. 
His hands released his weapon, and the fire went out when it hit the floor. 
Jimmy threw himself in the last place he recalled seeing the ladder.  His leg hit something sharp, and a fiery pain burned inside him.  The touch of lifeless, fingers thrust against him.  Instinct forced a swing of his arm before he launched himself up the ladder.  It was pure luck he hadn’t been bitten.  Jimmy wasn’t stopping to test his luck.
His arms and legs propelled him up into the darkness.  The zombies were below him moving wildly.  The pain in his leg exploded through his adrenaline, and he lost his grip.  More shooting pain raced through him as his wounded leg smashed against the metal rung.  The surge of agony made him cry out loud.  At the top of the tunnel the cover refused to move against his thrusting arms.  He slammed upward against the cover with his shoulder.  He slammed again keenly aware of the creatures below him slapping at the ladder.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

CORA: Episode 3



Two heads ducked behind the remains of the wooden fence as Alex rode down the street on his bike.  In a bygone age, it had been a privacy fence to protect the suburban oasis of swimming pool, swing set, and deck from nosy neighbors.  Now, the crumbling monument to the old order offered a place for the two men to hide.       .
Night was fully upon them, but the sight of the silhouette holding the tall scythe made them take pause.  Neither of them spoke until the man turned and walked into the darkness.
“What do you think he told him?”  The bigger of the two men gritted.  Appearing to be in his late twenties, he was bald with a scruffy face and bad teeth.
The other one was closer to Alex’s age.  Everything about him was sleek and smooth.  His voice was still as much of a boy’s as it was a man’s.  “Will you relax, Dale.  I’m sure he told him the same thing he told us.  Be there at sun up in three days.”
His comrade growled.
Jimmy looked over at the older man.  “What do you expect?  His daughter’s a redhead.  He has to make sure her husband is strong.  Everyone will want her.”
When the bald man didn’t answer, Jimmy wasn’t sure what to make of it.  He didn’t think his cousin understood the seriousness of the situation.  “If Mr. Teeblum doesn’t follow the courtship rules, he’ll have a riot on his hands.”  
Dale’s cold smile and dark words sent a feeling of unease down the younger man’s spine.  “I don’t want to marry her.  I just want some of that…”  He licked his lips and let his words trail into another dark thought.  “When I’m done, he can have her body back.”
The grim thought made Jimmy more aware of the chill in the night.  He was glad the chosen suitor would have to earn the token to gain entrance to the Forbidden Zone.  Hopefully, Dale could be stopped.  His cruelty frightened the younger man.  Jimmy knew his threats of savagery could not be dismissed.  Cora deserved a better man. 
“I’m not playing this little game,” Dale hissed.  “She will be mine!”
Jimmy tried to conceal his fear, but there was no hiding the innocence in his wide, childlike eyes. “You try and go over there now, and he’ll think you’re stupid for being out this late.  He won’t give his daughter’s hand to an idiot.”
Dale pulled a folded brown piece of paper out of the back pocket of his jeans.  In the old order it was grocery bag.  Slowly, he unfolded it, running his eyes across the hand-drawn image.  “I’ve got a map to sneak into the arena.  And I know where some good shit is.”
Jimmy brushed his dirt-crusted bangs out of his eyes.  “Man, nobody gets into the Forbidden Zone until Black Friday.  You’re crazy!”
“I’m not walking in the front door, dumb ass,” Dale spat condescendingly.
Jimmy wasn’t like his cousin in many ways and his words showed it.  “Man, you can’t go in there alone.  It only works if large numbers go in to fight the crowds of the dead.  They will be eating your ass in no time.  Think about it, man.”
Dale’s evil grin spread like the dark embrace of a hungry corpse.  He aimed it at Jimmy with vicious intent.  “You think you’re gonna get some of that sweet Cora, don’t you?”  He flicked his tongue, crudely taunting the teenager, truly frightening him.
Jimmy stuttered briefly.  “No man, you’ll never make it.  Think about it.”  He was torn.  Dale had kept him alive in many situations; killed for supplies and shelter.  He had no conscious and would do anything.  Jimmy wasn’t like that.  He had his limits and might not even make it alone.  But he had seen Cora at the trading market and the Church.  From the very first time she had melted his heart.  She made him feel something he had never felt before, something incredible, something peaceful.
Dale gloated as he folded the map.  “I’ll be in and out with some good gifts that will make her stupid father think I’ve got resources to keep his little girl safe.”
He pushed the map deep in his pocket.  “Really, it’ll just be enough to get her to spread her legs.”
Jimmy didn’t move.  He was cold with fright.  His heart raced with revulsion as he watched Dale walk away from him.
Hopelessly, he slumped.  He knew he didn’t have a chance.  There were too many suitors for his princess’ hand.  Even worse, he knew none of them could win out over the wicked intent of Dale.  For a second he entertained killing his cousin.  He even reached for the knife strapped to his leg, but he quickly thought better of it.  He’d seen Dale kill three boys with nothing but his fists.
Dale’s motorcycle roared to life and drove off into the distance until the engine could no longer be heard.  The thought of his sweet Cora filled him with that peace, that warmth, that nothing had ever brought him in his hard existence.  In silence he prayed for God to let the dead eat Dale.  He didn’t care what the cause, just kill him.  Cora deserved better.

#   #   #

The dark-skinned, young woman kept low to the ground as she darted from one patch of shadow to another.  Her squirrel skin moccasins concealed the sounds of her steps in the cool night.  The dangling, black ribbon tying her dreadlocks back hung down the side of her neck and rested across her leather secured bosom.  She knelt on her fit legs bending from her short tunic of animal skins.  The quarter staff in her hand hung at her side as she surveyed the night.  Her slingshot and pouch were secured to her tunic.
Had Stephanie been to read, the meaning of the sign would have been lost to her.  In the old world, The Graves Gilbert Clinic had been a state of the art medical facility.  Under the darkness of a midnight sky, covered by unruly vines, it was debris.  The surrounding parking lot of the three story building was empty of cars.  A few sections of asphalt were broken.  It was the poles that made the Sick Beds different from every other place in Bowling Green.  They were spaced generously enough that a traveler could pass through them without difficulty.  They were about twelve feet tall.  Two to three foot lengths of chain dangled from the top of each pole as they stood like quiet sentries around the structure.    
Old woman Carter had been the one to tend to the sick as long as Stephanie could remember.  The people in town called her a witch.  Many were scared of her and didn’t even like to say her name.  But when a loved one was sick beyond all hope, trembling hands rang the bell of her domain.
She could hear the chains tapping the poles in the night wind.
One of the poles on the far side of the house of the Sick Beds had the unmistakable dragging form of a zombie standing next to it.  The uncoordinated arms slapped at something hanging from the chain.  The undead was fixated.  It’s slow movements were several feet below reaching the hanging item, but it never stopped.  The creature waited, head turned upward in total attention.
Clinging to the night swaths around the parking lot, Stephanie made her way to the target.  Stragglers should always be killed.  It was as true as the sun rose in the East and set in the West.  If stragglers died, hordes never formed.
For a clear shot, she had to break from the cover of trees and walk out onto the open field of tall metal poles.  Stephanie closed the distance quickly from about fifty feet away.  She was able to make out a human arm hanging from the chain.  It swung haphazardly as the dead creature bumped into the pole with its clumsy attempts at getting the appendage.  
She kicked something, and it scraped and bounced across the ground.  The night silence was broken as the huntress dropped her staff, clattering at her feet.  The die had been cast.  Surprise had been lost, and Stephanie pulled the slingshot from her tunic.  Her other hand fished a hefty iron nut from her bullet pouch.       
The zombie made a staggering turn in her direction.  Its dead lips parted, and a moan spilled into the midnight air.  Stephanie had heard that sound countless times before, but it never failed to send her heart pounding.  She wasn’t foolish enough not to fear the dead.  Her practiced hand put bullet to slingshot, and she drew back an arm’s length.
Her eyes sized up the weak spots of the rotten body.  This one was in bad shape, and by the look, it had been dead a long time.  The muscles of the naked corpse were dry, restricting its movements.  Its spine was crooked causing it to lean to the left.
The hand holding the slingshot adjusted in response to the spot she found, a piece of gleaming white femur was visible.
Stephanie released the iron nut, and the sling shot fired with incredible power.  A crack of bone filled the night as the creature topped over on its broken leg.  Unaffected by pain, the corpse waved and flailed mechanically. 
The sling shot dropped to the ground as Stephanie snatched up her heavy quarter staff.  She brought down a thunderstorm of blows to the grounded corpse. Her two-handed strikes dislocated both of the zombie’s arms at the shoulder.
Fully aware of the presence of food, its jaws snapped loudly as it bit at nothing.  Bone gnashed and gnashed again and again.  It had been years since the teeth had broken away.  The zombie’s drive to kill held no understanding that it was powerless to feed ever again. 
The sharpened point of her staff slammed into the eye of the zombie, bursting out the back of its head.  Dark liquid splashed across the earth beneath it, and the corpse stopped moving.
Several savage blows from her staff scattered the bones and dried muscle.  Her excitement subsided, and Stephanie stood alone once again surveying the nightscape around her.  She picked up the iron bolt from the ground and placed it back in her pouch.  Bullets were too hard to come by to be wasted.
As she moved swiftly toward the house of the Sick Beds with quarter staff in hand, the young woman made sure her slingshot and bullets were secure.  Where one corpse walked, there could be others.  Something drew them together, sound, smell, a faint memory of companionship from when they lived, no one knew, but the dead gathered.
A large door took shape in the darkness before her.  Mounted on the brick wall beside it was a bell with a piece of rope hanging from it.  As she clanged the bell, her heart beat fast again.  She felt like she were announcing to all the flesh eaters and all the criminals she was vulnerable if they wanted to attack.
From somewhere slightly above her Stephanie heard a muffled voice.  “Who comes to the Sick Beds?”
“It’s me, Stephanie,” she said politely in hurried fashion.  She wasn’t scared of the witch, but the woman never forgot who she was dealing with.  Old woman Carter was not an enemy she wanted.
There was movement behind the door.  Something solid moved away from it. Then a click and a squeak accompanied the opening door.  Night withdrew as the flames of a torch danced in the cool breeze.  An attractive woman in her thirties greeted Stephanie stoically.  “She awaits you in her study.”
Stephanie stepped into a dark hallway and waited for the woman to secure the door.  The floors were tiled in white and the walls covered in the remains of beige wall paper.  When she turned around, the torch illuminated black fatigues, including lace up boots and equipment Stephanie had never seen before.
“I’m Aphra, Commander and lone survivor of the Harpies.”
Stephanie stared in amazement at the woman who paid little attention to her as they hurried down the hall.  Aphra’s bare, sleek arms concealed rippling muscles with a feminine softness.  Matching black wrist bands supported the tendons of her strong forearms, and her raven hair flowed with a beauty so contrary to the hard world of dirt and survival beyond these walls that Stephanie didn’t think it was real.
The mysterious woman’s tan skin was flawless, and Stephanie noticed the redness of her lips seemed wet.  Her lashes were dark and thick with an arching eyebrow framing her dark eyes like onyx fresh from the earth.  Stephanie had never witnessed anything like her before.  Aphra was beautiful.
The duo wound through the ancient corridor and through heavy wooden doors.  By the time Stephanie pulled her attention from the beguiling stranger, she had no idea how to make her way back to the entrance.
“What’s that on your back?”  Stephanie asked.
Aphra’s face was expressionless and her tone was dismissive.  “A weapon.”
“I figured that.  It looks like every other machine gun that’s only good for a club now that all the rounds have been shot up.”  Stephanie had no intention of bowing to this woman.
Aphra turned with unexpected explosive intensity, pinning Stephanie to the wall with her forearm.  Her torch illuminated the shock on the visitor’s face.   “Are we going to have a problem little girl?”  She said coldly.
Stephanie’s struggle went unanswered by the obviously stronger and more skilled woman.  Out of frustration she erupted with anger.  “Who the fuck do you think you are! Get your hands off me!”
Aphra leaned in close as Stephanie fought to no avail. Her luscious red lips parted into a mocking smile.  “You’re lucky, the old woman has plans for you.  I’d rather use you as bait if were up to me.”
Immediately she stopped struggling.  Her eyes fixed harshly on the more powerful woman in front of her.  “Why don’t you go fuck some of the rotten dicks in the Sick Beds, whore.  Me and the witch have business.”
Stephanie concluded with a final jab.  “Servants aren’t needed here.”
Aphra released her hold and stepped quickly to the solitary door next to them.  She gave two quick knocks.  A weathered voice came muffled from the other side of the wooden planks.  “Come in.”   
Aphra opened the door.  She turned to Stephanie, nodding for her to enter.  Without a word, the woman in black continued down the hall until her torch disappeared around a corner.  Gentle firelight from the open door spilled out into the hallway replacing the missing torch.  The long shadow of a bent hag moved in the room.
Stephanie walked into a square chamber.  The back wall was dominated by a large table with metal legs and a scattering of folding chairs.  Books and papers were strewn over it.  The hunched form of the old witch leaned on a tall knobby staff before a small ring of stones.  A crackling fire licked upward toward a hanging pot.  Her gray shawl moved as she stirred.
“Would you like stew, child?  Bowls are on the table.”
“No thank you.”
Cara laughed.  “The young turning down food when these hard times make no promises.”
The old woman turned to face the girl.  She wore a light blue dress covered by a shawl.  Her white hair had a yellow tint to it from years of dirt and grime build up.  Flakey, sandal-covered feet supported her waif body.  “Bring me a chair from the table.  My bones are tired.”
Stephanie didn’t have to guess.  The woman’s crooked spine was undoubtedly painful.   She fetched two from around the table.  Respectfully she pushed a chair up near the pot, so the woman could sit near her stew. 
Before sitting the old hag took a wooden bowl from one her deep dress pockets.  She dipped it into her pot, carefully balancing it in her free hand she used her staff to lower her misshapen body into the chair.
Steam rose up into her face.  “Did Kyle finish the medicine?”
Stephanie was slow to answer.  She knew the witch wouldn’t be happy.  The dead sickness had begun to deteriorate Kyle’s mind when the boy with the bow showed up on the first floor to practice his archery.  Once he started screaming, she had to hide.
“He was found before he took it all, and they burned him.”
The old woman sipped from her hot bowl and croaked her rebuke.  “You were supposed to protect him, Stephanie.”
Cara greedily drank her stew giving the girl time to speak.
“It wasn’t safe.  I had to leave him.”
The witch took the bowl to her lap.  “This magic has to be tested.”
A storm of footsteps burst down in the direction of the meeting.  Stephanie looked up to see a boy about ten standing in the door.  His skin was brown from grime and his hair matted and wild.  “Cara!  Come quick!  The patient is ready for the last dose!”

Sunday, April 14, 2013

CORA Episodes 1 and 2


"The Archer" 

The arrow struck the black spray-painted dot in the hay bale—dead center.  Impact from the sleek shaft was accented by a solid thud.  A slight vibration moved the fletching at the end of the arrow.  Had it been a chest or an eyeball, death would have been swift.
Less than an inch away, the next arrow struck solidly in the hay.  It was followed by a third, also dead center in a black dot.
 Four bales stood lengthwise on a fallen refrigerator.  The targets had only been missed eight times, and even they were close.  But there were still nineteen more arrows for redemption.
Abandoned apartment doors were open allowing drab light to flow into the interior hallway of the empty complex.  A few other doors were closed with broken off doorknobs.  Dull, gray walls were striped with shadows, obscuring detail and distorting depth.  Grampa loved this area for practice.  He believed archery should always be done in bad lighting, so when conditions were good skill would elevate.  For the last two years, Alex had shot fifty arrows a day.  His father and Grampa made it part of his daily chore routine.  Sometimes they showed up to watch, but since Grampa had become bedbound with his cough, Alex had practiced alone.
The silhouette of the teenager took his stance and pulled his tenth and final arrow from his quiver.  He made a slow draw of the short bow, and brought the fletching close to his cheek.  He found the sweet spot with his strong eyesight.  His fingers moved an almost undetectable amount.  The feathers gave a soft tickle across his cheek as the arrow raced to its mark. 
From the corner of his vision, he saw a figure climbing through a window in the open apartment next to him.  There was no doubt, no question, no hesitation.  Alex turned and released a whizzing shaft of death.  Since a very early age, he had been taught to assume that anyone who did not identify themselves before approaching was a cutthroat or a zombie.  The town laws demanded the killing of them both.  
Instead of finding an intruder’s throat, the razor-tipped arrow vanished through a waving tatter of former curtains.  Mentally, he scolded himself for wasting an arrow, but he was really bothered for being distracted.  The practice area was more quiet than usual.  No collectors had come by to rummage for supplies.  It always surprised him when they did though because the oldsters said the place had been picked clean of useful items decades ago.  No one showed up today, not even the local kids that came to drink homebrew and make out.  There was nothing to blame but his unfocused mind             
Alex had developed his skill with the bow as a result of patience.  He had loved every part of the process from making the string, finding the wood for the bow and arrows, as well as the hours of stance training and arm strengthening his Grampa insisted that he do before releasing his first shaft.  This patience had filtered back into his life and given him great confidence, but today his nerves challenged his strongest attribute.  The boy had to dig deep to concentrate.  
On his way to the targets to retrieve his arrows, Alex passed several open windows.  He could tell afternoon was hurrying to dusk.  He had to get the last shots off.  Grampa would ask, and he wouldn’t lie to him.  His heart fluttered a little as he felt the pressure of time, but he did not rush.  Alex was well aware that the choosing of champions was approaching, and if he wasn’t at his best, receiving a token was unlikely. 
The young man had decided when he woke up this morning that today was the day to talk to Mr. Teeblum, but his practice was running longer than he expected, primarily because he kept running over the conversation in his mind.
Sir…I’ve known you for a long time, and you…No, that’s not it.  Sir, we’ve known each other since I was a small boy.  None of his thoughts found the right words.  
He released the next ten arrows in sloppy succession, but half of them struck true.  Torn between his duty and his heart, the final six arrows might as well not have been released.  They were embarrassing considering the skill Alex had amassed.  He was glad his Grampa wasn’t there watching.  His teacher would have chastised him for the obvious distraction.
Mr. Teeblum, Sir, I have proven myself in the skills of men.  I have learned the trade of my family.  He felt he was getting closer.  Alex just let the words keep flowing in his mind.  I can provide for…    
Alex was about to become a man.  The first sixteen years of his life, all the time his father and his Grampa put into teaching him, his dreams for his true love, his confidence all burned inside of him.  He was so proud.  He was going to be a champion.    
Finally, he released the last arrow.  It missed the bale entirely.    
Deflated and dejected, that single arrow, that solitary awful shot, suddenly became the omen for his dreams.  His head sank, and he was glad he was alone.  Tears pushed at his closed eyes.  Alex knew how serious the competition was.  Less than perfection meant failure and waiting another year, but in another year it wouldn’t be worth competing.
His meditation on self doubt was broken by a sudden scream that reeled him instantly back to the harsh reality of survival, of killing for supplies, and of the ever present danger of the cannibalistic undead.
Alex’s cool was a little shaken by the certainty of terror he heard in the voice.  A final trip to the targets allowed him to gather his arrows.  A tinge of confidence settled within him as he slid the shafts into position.      
The scream came again.  It was above him, but close enough that he was sure it was on the second floor.  Alex cocked his head and managed to extract a word out of the muffling walls and the anxiety pounding inside him.
His doubts about himself gave way to his adolescent drive for adventure. Deftly he flipped one of his trio of shafts into position and applied a little tension to the string.  Alex moved at a cautious pace to one of the open doors.
“Stephanie, Come Back!  I’ve got to finish it!”
Alex turned into an empty stairwell.  The concrete steps had been picked of anything useful, burnable, or salvageable long ago leaving them probably as clean as they had ever been.
Moving his gaze from behind him to in front him constantly, he made sure his path was safe or that a killing shot would be his for the taking. Once on the landing between the floors, Alex looked up to the next floor.  There was no door at all, just an empty frame.
“Stephanie!” It was a man, and he was filled with desperation.  Something was off about his voice, maybe he was hoarse.  Alex could tell for sure that he was on the second floor.
At the upper landing, Alex paused.  A wordless scream made him realize he was only a few doors away at most and brought to his attention that he was afraid.  The excitement had buried the primal feeling, but now it coursed through his body like a drumbeat.  He fought pulling back the string of his bow even further.  His Grampa had drilled into a long time ago that a forearm kept tense for too long was apt to misfire, but the novice archer wanted to be ready to release at a breath’s notice.
The screams continued, but whoever it was wasn’t moving.  The voice begged and pleaded that Stephanie come feed him.  Alex listened motionless as the caller cried out to be fed.  The boy had never heard anything like it.  It was cruel.  The unknown suffered whimpered and called out to God to be saved from the torment of hunger.
Alex wanted his legs to move, to carry him to do what he knew needed to be done, but the desperation in the man’s voice scared the teenager.  He wished his father were with him.  He always knew what to do.
He gave in and pulled his bow to a full draw.  “Hello?”
The voice replied with a fresh charge of hope.  “Hey!  Hey!  Help!  I need help!”
Alex moved out into the hallway.  It was dark.  Most of the doors were closed.  The failing light of dusk reached halfway down the corridor from an open door at the end of the stretch of apartments.  The door to the outside was open enough that he could see out.
The screams started again with an unpleasant urgency.  Alex felt even more frightened.  He was afraid to see what sad human could make such heart wrenching pleas.  “You can’t leave me!  When the dead come they’ll eat me alive!”
Such things happened and Alex didn’t like to think about them.  The stories of undead swarming a helpless man were gruesome.  Even though Alex had never heard of a sighting in this building, he lifted his bow.  Just talk of the cannibal, killing machines made him feel like he needed to defend himself.
“Please!” the unseen man begged.  “Don’t let me die.”  At the end lonely sobs of doom spilled into the hall.
Alex stood in front of a closed door.  The number 217 was on it.  He was torn between keeping his bow ready and turning the knob.
“I hear you out there,” the man spoke in a weakening voice.  “I won’t hurt you.  I can’t move.”
Slowly, he pushed the door open.  The smell of death was thick in the air.  Alex gagged and fought down a wave of stomach acid with a hard swallow.  The sound of raspy breathing mingled with the buzzing of flies.
A dirty mattress dominated the center of the room.  It stunk of feces and urine and was smeared with blood.  The gaunt man on it was equally stained by filth, and a trail of dried vomit extended from his face down to his sleeveless shirt.  His eyes were sunk deep in a face that was as much skull as Alex had ever seen on a living person.  The skin was pulled tight revealing a labyrinth of dark veins.  Clumps of hair, like the fallen fruit of a dying tree, stuck in the smears of blood.  All that remained were nightmarish, gossamer wisps of hair plastered to his face and waving like flags surrendering to the most powerful enemy.        
The man barely managed to wave before his slightly lifted elbow dropped back to the bed.  “I’m too weak to move.”  His voice labored through dry mucus and gore.
Alex stared in horror at the debris of life before him.  Dark flies landed on the man and ate from graying patches of rotted flesh with no more bother than a breeze to a man working the fields.  He didn’t even attempt to swat them away.  The boy’s revulsion was the result of a hundred years of societal teaching.  It triggered his muscle to draw his bow to capacity and aim for the man’s left eye. 
Something leaned against the wall behind the mattress, and a bowl of black paste sat on the floor close enough to the man’s right hand that had he had normal strength he could have eaten.
Alex’s eyes were drawn to the two side by side, connected metal tubes about two feet long.  They climbed up the wall from a curved piece of wood that the teenager knew was supposed to fit against a shoulder.  The little lever caught his attention, the trigger.  His Grampa had told him about guns, but this was the first time he had ever seen one.  Apparently when the dead first rose mankind had had many guns, but the fight had consumed most of them.  They were much rarer now.  
Hurriedly, the man’s eyes went to the bowl.  He had the energy to lift his head for speech only, then it dropped back to the pile of death-stained bedding   “You have to feed me that medicine.”
Alex stared in sickening disbelief.
“Old woman Carter gave it to me.”
He had heard the name of the witch before.  She lived near the forbidden zone.  The adults talked about her medicines when people were gravely ill.
In anticipation the near corpse started flapping his mouth and probing outward with his tongue.  “Hurry, kid,” he rasped.  “I’ve been bit.”
The words shut Alex down completely with a nauseating fright.  When someone said they had been bit it only meant one thing.  Not a dog scavenging or a rabbit being hunted.  When someone said they’d “been bit”, it meant they were dead.  It meant they had to be killed so no one else got infected.  It meant they had been bitten by an undead.
Alex’s fingers tightened on his arrow.  The conscious part of his brain screamed for him to release this poor soul from his misery and protect everyone he loved.  But the boy who had never even defended himself against an attacker could not dispatch a helpless innocent.  The man mustered energy and shook his head in protest.  “You gotta believe me.  My wife got the medicine.  The old woman said it would cure the bite.”
For a long moment Alex said nothing.  His unresponsiveness angered the man.  He tried to lunge forward off the mattress, but little movement occurred.  “Come on kid!”
Conflict, panic shut down his ability to act. Alex started backing out of the room.
“You can’t leave me like this,” the man whimpered, “You know what’ll happen!”
And Alex knew exactly what would happen.  The years of hard work by the town’s folk would be ruined.  They had cleared out most of the dead, driving them to the woods and caves in the outlands.  But if Alex did not perform his duty of disposing of the living dead, the scent of the rotten flesh would call to its brethren in the dark, in shadows, in the ruins of the old world, and bring them in numbers.  The war could easily begin again.
The boy shook his head.
The grounded man flashed with animal rage, snapping his teeth viscously, shaking head.  Gurgling moans pushed squirts of dark blood out of his nose and mouth.  His head lulled, and the man regained a fraction of consciousness accented by the rolling whites of the man’s eyes.  His muscles convulsed, and the final flood of waste emptied his body leaving the room in the fresh stench of rot.
Alex had heard about the fading of life in a diseased person, but he never expected to witness it himself.  The man ceased movement.  The terrified boy waited, bow still trained on the left eye.  The building was silent.  The man didn’t move again, but Alex knew soon that would change.
There was no longer a choice.  The boy put down his weapon and grabbed a corner of the bloody sheet.  Scared to be so close to the dead man, he forced himself to drag the remains of the man out to the concrete, stair landing.  
He reached into his pocket.  Alex wanted to believe it was right.  He had been taught it his entire life, but now, that it was his turn.  It felt completely wrong. 


"A maiden in distress"

Dusk rapidly moved toward evening as Alex pedaled his bicycle down Oliver Street at full speed.  In the old times the crisscross of streets lined with houses was called a neighborhood, but no one used that word anymore. It would have been viewed as a safe place where children could sit in the grass of their yards waiting for their parents to call them in for supper.  But in the Age of the Dead nowhere was safe after dark.  
In the back of his mind, common sense nagged Alex for not waiting until tomorrow, but he could not quell the feelings within him.  Cora had been the love of his life since he was eight.  His words had never been sufficient to describe the incredible elation he felt for her or the lighter than air feeling that overwhelmed him when they held hands.  It was time to come forth with his intentions.  He knew she had the fire of God in her, the whole town did, and he was aware there would be many other boys besides himself seeking her hand in marriage.
Alex had been delaying this important matter for too long.  Black Friday was in a month, so he had to speak with Mr. Teeblum.  God willing, the recent massacre at the hospital had made his competition pause just long enough to be too late.
The teenager didn’t expect to see him outside.  He felt his courage dry up like the river in last summer’s drought. Alex slowed his pedal as he neared the man.
Black lace up boots ended just before the man’s thick calves began to rise toward his heavy tunic fastened by a leather belt.  His head was shaved, and his face dark with stubble.  Sweat of labor streaked his fit body like war paint.     
Mr. Teeblum moved through the sea of weeds in his front yard.  Adeptly he cut the waist high grass with his scythe.  The majority of the work had been done, and in a few minutes, his two-story, house would return to the glory of a suburban lawn from any era.
The bouncing metal of the bicycle caught his attention.  Every man who was still alive had heightened senses to his surroundings, especially as dark neared.  He turned to see the bike skid in his driveway.
“Good evening, Mr.  Teeblum, sir.”  The boy’s voice shook despite his efforts to appear calm.
“Son, ain’t it late for you to be this far from home?”  The man shook his head in disappointment.  Young folk didn’t take the dead serious anymore.  “I don’t think your father would approve, Alex.”
Alex got off his bike and laid it on the ground.  He felt so stupid, but it was too late.  There was no backing down, only silent enduring of the chastisement.  “Yes sir, but I got to talk to you about something.”
Mr. Teeblum wiped his forehead and approached with his scythe in hand.  “I’m sure this can wait til daylight when it’s safer out.”
The boy’s confidence was shaken.  Maybe he should have waited until tomorrow.  He was worried his disregard for the fears of the older generation put him at risk for being declined.  Alex tried to correct the situation with a quick response.
“I won’t keep you long, sir.  I have a very quick clear route home.”   
“Alex, part of growing up is knowing these things.  One day you’re going to be the man of a household, and you can’t be doing stupid stuff like this.”
If the mess he had created for himself could be salvaged, he had to take responsibility for his dumb idea.  “I know sir, but I’m afraid I’ve waited too long.”
“What is it Alex?”
“I want to marry Cora, and I’m here to ask your permission to go on the suitor’s quest.”
The gathering gloom concealed the man’s features, but Alex felt Mr. Teeblum’s hard gaze sizing him up.  “I love your daughter, sir.  I want to marry her.”
His answer had an edge almost as sharp as a hunting knife, and cut Alex’s heart.  “I ain’t worried about love, Alex.  I want a man who can take care of my girl.  I don’t think I need to remind you how special she is?”
“No sir, you don’t.  I’ve known it since I was a kid.”
“That’s not what I mean,” he tossed the scythe to the ground and brushed the grime off his hands, “you know what I’m talking about.”
Alex nodded.  He knew his love held the power of God within her.
“Does she know you’re asking?”
“Yes sir.”
Anger flashed in the man.  “Dam, son, she’s not supposed to know!  It’ll break her heart if I reject your offer!”  The man released a loud exasperated breath.  “You’re not impressing me with your disregard for the rules.”
Alex shook his head.  He was very aware of the rules.  “Mr.  Teeblum, we’ve been talking about this for seven years before I knew the chivalry rules.”
The man kept his eyes on the boy like he was waiting for a gunfighter to draw.  “What makes you think you can survive on the other side of the wall?”
“I got four brothers who’ve successfully gotten wives.  I know everything I can know without actually having been there.  I’ll be in and out with the best stuff.  I swear to you.”
His response seemed satisfactory, but the man continued his interrogation. “How are you going to support my daughter?”
“I’m good at raising crops, and some of my brothers moved to Nashville.  We are going to start bringing fuel and supplies up here, to Bowling Green.”
Mr. Teeblum approved.  “There’s good money in that since the government is loosening the rules.”
“Can I have your permission, sir?”
“Alex, you know the rules.  Only one suitor at a time.” 
The boy’s heart sank.  “Yes, sir.”
“Then be here at sun up in three days.  You’re going to have to prove yourself.  Now you better be getting home before night comes.”

#   #   #

The window was open a crack, and a breeze whispered to the opaque curtain on its way to flicker the candle sitting on the table next to the neatly made bed.  Cora turned away from the discussion going on outside and eyed the arsenal she had spread across her blanket.  Her long red hair was gathered in a single braid hanging down the middle of her back.  Her pink dress with a lace border at the neck and hem was in stark contrast to the 50 caliber Beowulf assault rifle that her fingertips glided across.  Five, ten round magazines rested beside it with a black boot knife crowning the pile.
Hearing her father talk about her to Alex like she were helpless pissed her off.  Cora didn’t need a husband to provide for her, and her father knew that.  He trained her in secret weapons that the rest of the world had never seen.  She could walk quieter than the dead at night to slice a man’s throat, and he wouldn’t be the wiser until his own blood rain down his chest.
In defiance, she lifted the gun, snapped the folding stock open, nestled it to her shoulder, and followed the red dot across the wall.  Her frustration grew into a disgruntled, adolescent moan, and she dropped the weapon to the bed.  She loved Alex and wanted to be his wife, but not like this.  Cora never saw herself as a prissy princess in a tower.  She was a warrior.  Her dad knew that, and that was why her heart ached.  She couldn’t contain her hurt feeling any longer, and tears streamed down her cheeks.
The girl flopped on the end of her bed letting her head sink.  Her shoulders shook as Cora quietly sobbed.  She didn’t look up when her bedroom door opened.  Cora was in no mood to argue with her mother.
The bed moved beside her, and she was aware of her mother’s presence even though she didn’t speak.  Cora wiped her face and quieted her sobs not knowing if this was going to be a conversation of support or another scolding.
“You think you’re a woman,” Shar’s voice spoke low but stern.  “You think you know what’s best?”
Cora turned to her mother and stabbed a look of defiance with cold eyes.  “I know what’s best for me!”
“I should slap that foolishness right off your face, little missy.  God knows, we’ve ruined you by being too permissive.”
Cora’s expression stayed defiant and her eyes didn’t move.
“Do you know why your father trained you so well?  Have you ever stopped to think about anyone but yourself?  Do you know why he gave up his life to make you as fierce a warrior as you are?”
Cora looked away in shame.  She knew her father loved her.  Suddenly, she felt ungrateful.  “No.”  The intensity of her mother’s stare did not relent, and she was embarrassed to look up.
“Men will kill to own you, Cora.  They believe you will give them children immune to the Dead Sickness.  No man will be able to keep you safe.”
She looked up with disbelief in her eyes.  “That’s not true.  No one is immune to the Dead Sickness!”
Shar’s face softened, but her voice held its grave tone.  “It doesn’t matter.  The hordes of the stupid are as dangerous as the hordes of the dead.”
Some of it must have sunk in, for Cora struck a cautious tone.  “I can cut my hair or color it with berries and bark.”
Her mother changed.  All of the hardness drained away and worry covered her features.  “You can for a while, Cora, if you take to the roads.  All the men here already know.”  She brushed a stray hair from her face.  “But you’re beautiful beyond any girl I have ever seen.  The men will flock to you.  They will come for you.”
Cora’s eyes stared off into the room in front of her.  The lessons of killing and wilderness survival meant something that she had missed.  Her father had been preparing her to be a free woman.  “Then I will fight.”
Her mother grabbed her hand.  “Your father has a plan to get you away from here, so you can start over.”
“I love Alex, Mom,” Cora said trembling.  “He wants us to have a family and be like you and Daddy, but it wouldn’t be that way.”
Shar squeezed her daughter’s hand lovingly.  For the first time, she felt like she was glimpsing the woman she and Daniel raised.  Her heart ached for Cora’s stolen innocence.  Her daughter might never know the joy of being a mother or of running a good home for a family.  She would have given anything to go back to sewing lessons and playing dolls.  Maybe if Shar would have started earlier, she could have come up with real plan to allow Cora to have a normal life.   There was no fighting the tears, but she let them flow in silence.  “Put your gun away.  You know you’re father doesn’t like them out.”
“So why are we pretending?  If it’s dangerous for me to marry because the other men will want me, I can’t marry Alex.”
“It is the custom.  When you are of age, you marry.  Women are fewer than men.  If our fragile world is to continue, we must pair.”
“I won’t put him in danger,” Cora said firmly, grabbing her Beowulf off the bed.
As if to remind her daughter of her place in the family, Shar snapped one last thing.  “It is your father who will choose your champion, and if he survives, you will marry him.”                      

#   #   #

Daniel watched the boy pedal down the street and turn the corner.  Alex was weak and didn’t have what a man needed to survive in the Dead Age.  Hopefully he wouldn’t be back.  Cora’s life was going to be hard enough.  He didn’t want her starting it weeping over a dead pup.
Alex’s ride home was not how he thought it was going to be.  He wished he never would have gone to Mr. Teeblum so late.  It just made him look like an immature kid.  Even though he had gone on corpse hunts with the men in the neighborhood, he had to show Mr. Teeblum that he was a man who could keep his daughter safe.  He had to present a strong image to the other suitors or they would try and kill him.
He pedaled furiously down Cave Mill Road toward the abandoned Kroger.  The last light of day would be coming soon.  He could see headlights coming up behind him, so he pulled over.  The lights followed him.
It was a dark pickup, but he couldn’t make out the color.  He also couldn’t get a good look at whoever was driving. 
“Get in, kid,” a woman’s voice said.  “You act like you don’t know corpses come out at night.”
Alex picked up his bike and lifted it into the bad of the truck.  He wasn’t stupid.  Of course he knew the dead came out at dark, but people acted liked they were all over the place.  There hadn’t been a corpse on this side of town in years. 
“Where to?”
“Shive Lane. The old elder house.”