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Midnight Echo 10 – Ghost Stories.
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Dan Rabarts has been writing since he was big enough to hide a torch under the blankets at night and scribble stories in the back of his maths homework book. Because who needs maths, right?
His SF/F/H fiction can be found in ASIM, Aurealis, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in anthologies including Bloodstones, When the Hero Comes Home 2, and Regeneration. He has been a finalist for New Zealand’s SJV Awards multiple times.
Most recently, he has co-edited a chilling anthology of flash-length horror tales titled Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror (Paper Road Press, 2013).
Come visit at dan.rabarts.com.
Dan Rabarts’ Children of the Tide was awarded 1st prize in the AHWA/Melbourne Zombie Convention 2013 Short Story Competition. You can find all of the stories under the ‘News and Stories’ tab, or check out Zombie Hire’s amazing work on their website and Facebook page.
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MIDNIGHT ECHO: Where did you get the idea for your story?
DAN RABARTS: Like most of my stories, Children of the Tide began as a simple free-writing exercise, this one with a post-apocalyptic theme in mind. I had written the first few pages (pen on paper) establishing the main character and the house when another writer friend of mine pointed me towards the AHWA/Melbourne Zombie Con short story competition. I realised that with a few changes (replacing the Lovecraftian horrors slurping out of the sea with zombies) I might have something to work with. Everything else flowed from there – the themes of survival, of the inhumanity of humanity, of the ties of family, and of how no matter how brave we like to think we are, that everyone has a breaking point.
But I have to admit that it took me a very long time to get those last couple hundred words down on the page. I knew what had to happen, but that didn’t make writing it out any easier. Subconsciously I think I was trying to find a way out for my characters, when there really wasn’t any way out to be had.
Aside from that, I’ve always been drawn to write about my own backyard, the hills and bush and paddocks of New Zealand. We don’t see enough post-apocalyptic fiction set in our dark backblocks, so this seemed like a good opportunity to explore something other than the common zombie PA tropes of abandoned shopping malls, freeways, and junk yards. But as for the fear at the core of the story? Well, aside from the creeping dread of catastrophic climate change, the fear in this story comes from being a parent with two small children. I think that if you’re not worried about how things are going to turn out for your kids in the next few hours, or the next few years, you’re not doing it right. My kids are a constant source of both joy and terror for me, and that’s something that keeps cropping up in my writing time and time again.
MIDNIGHT ECHO: What are your favourite zombie stories/movies?
DAN: This is going to sound like some sort of sacrilege, but zombies aren’t my favourite genre, mainly because it’s been so long since anyone did anything truly original with them. I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Pirates of the Caribbean, and I Am Legend, but I’m not a big Living Dead fanboy. Although I have to admit, I am currently very much enjoying Paul Mannering’s Australian zombie apocalypse novel Tankbread (Permuted Press, 2013).
MIDNIGHT ECHO: It seems like brains are the flavour of the month. Why do you think the living dead are so popular right now?
DAN: Because vampires suck? (Ba-dum TISH)
But seriously, we exist in a culture where our most prevalent fears have a tendency to surface wearing different masks in our mass media, from the Godzillas of the Cold War representing our collective dread of nuclear annihilation, to the dead-eyed shambling masses of The Walking Dead representing our present-day fear of becoming dead-eyed, shambling masses beholden to gross consumerism and corporate machination. What’s interesting about zombies is more what they represent about humanity as a growing concern than the mechanics of the action around them. Zombie stories are not so much about zombies – or the variations on the theme about what caused the apocalypse or how you have to kill them – as they are about how people treat each other when dealing with a faceless calamity that cannot be reasoned away. Those times when power shifts, and people become casualties, and collateral, and currency.
I think this is something that people can relate to, particularly in an age of growing uncertainty around global financial stability, spiralling pollution and climate change, imperialist and sectarian sabre-rattling, and a myriad of other factors which are beyond the control of any given individual and which may in their own way contribute to a world not altogether unlike some of the PA fictions we’ve enjoyed on screen and in books for a long time. The zombie trope reflects this shift in our society over the past fifty years towards one where the individual is utterly distinct and self-determining outside of the social group in ways that we never were before, yet simultaneously we have become increasingly isolated from those around us, who in turn become the faceless masses of the quiet apocalypse. People feel this shift in their bones, I think, maybe more than they can relate to, say, how a thousand-year-old corpse who has forgotten how to feel, much less to love, wants you to be his/her eternal sex slave (until s/he gets bored of you).
The zombie genre taps into many of the nascent fears we have for the future which we cannot change – not directly, at least. As people, we turn to the zombie because we like to watch our fears play out and find resolution in safe places, like behind the glass of a TV screen or trapped on the pages of a book, so they don’t take up so much room in our heads, or in our nightmares. So that we can sleep easy at night, because at least it won’t ever really get that bad. Will it?
MIDNIGHT ECHO: If you had to fight off a horde of zombies, what weapon/s would you choose and why?
DAN: I like the idea of a high-pressure water hose, just because it would tear rotten limbs straight off and push them AWAY from me, in case they’re those creepy zombie-arms where the hands keep coming even after they’ve been dismembered. Unfortunately this tool relies too heavily on working parts and intact infrastructure, and is not particularly portable (unless it’s mounted on a solar-powered fire-engine, but that wouldn’t really make for a speedy getaway vehicle). But assuming no such thing was readily on hand, I’d probably settle for a good old-fashioned two-stroke brush-cutter, with heavy blades (and all the appropriate personal safety gear, of course) and a 36-volt battery-operated reciprocating saw on standby for anything that got too close. And a solar charger, in the unlikely event that I survive and have to do it all again tomorrow.
MIDNIGHT ECHO: Aside from zombie stories, what do you like to write?
DAN: I write a fair amount of steampunk as a way to feed my desire to write dieselpunk, which civilisation has yet to embrace with the sort of fervour I’d like you all to. (Take note, civilisation: Dieselpunk!) I also tend to write science fiction with a horrific flavour, fantasy with a dark edge, and the odd bit of black humour. Aside from short stories, I have a number of completed dark fantasy novels which I’m currently shopping around, a few other novel-length projects on the go covering the gamut of Military SF Horror to Cyberpunk to Gothic Apocalyptopunk, and I’m co-writing a novella series which is part CSI, part Twilight Zone, and part At the Mountains of Madness. But mostly I like whatever I write to come with a punch in the guts, to hit hard and to hurt, just a little bit, and to leave you wanting more.
Oh, and shopping lists. I do like writing shopping lists.
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Children of the Tide
By Dan Rabarts
The crack in the window let in the ghosts. They came with the night breeze, whistling their mourning songs and carrying with them the stink of rotten water that lay across the paddocks, down past the crooked fence that bent and bowed where the earth had sunk away to let the sea creep closer. Where the salt ate the grass brown, then grey, before the water swallowed it up.
Morgan didn’t fear the ghosts, not anymore. They didn’t eat much, no more than thin slices of his soul like dry skin flaking away, the used and barren parts, the brittle things that were no longer any use to him. Memories of bone and blood and heart, of lost things forgotten. People, mostly, from days when there were no ghosts, no rotten sea, no creeping death and the things that lurched up from the water under night’s shadow to feed.
For Morgan, nights were for hugging little Sarah close, keeping her warm and safe. For half-sleeping, half-watching, half-dreaming. For never forgetting everything Dad had told him, before Dad hadn’t come home. About always looking out for yourself first. About not trusting anyone. About never, ever going out after dark.
He didn’t know why the dead ones feared the light, and now there was no-one left who could tell him, anyway. All he had left was Sarah, and Dad’s lessons, about finding and storing food and water, about where to hit a man with a hammer so he doesn’t get back up, and how the dead ones might be able to sniff you out but they’re slow, damned slow, so don’t try to fight them, just run away, but not so fast that you get puffed and they catch you up.
Dad had all the answers. Dad knew how to survive.
But Dad hadn’t come home.
So Morgan watched the night, and listened, and slept and dreamed, and woke shivering, and checked that little Sarah was warm and safe, like Dad would’ve done, because Dad had loved Sarah, loved her more than him, he was sure. Now it was Morgan’s job to love her. Rule number two, always look after your family. Yourself first, then family. And don’t trust anyone else.
The dead ones didn’t come that night. The sky began to lighten, and Morgan finally slept, deep and hard, until Sarah shook him awake, giggling, with sun slicing through the cracks around the roofing tiles, and she stole away down into the dark recesses of the house with its boarded windows in search of breakfast.
They had a little food, and Morgan hoped it would be enough. Dad had had a plan to get them out of here, he knew, but there were details to that plan that Morgan didn’t know. The boat was on the trailer, hidden somewhere on the farm, loaded with a stockpile of food and water and medicine. Dad had planned on taking the boat down to the water, but he had gone off in search of something, the day he hadn’t come home. Something he couldn’t leave without.
As Morgan rolled out of the blankets and made his way down the rope ladder into the house he wondered about the ghosts, and hoped that Dad was with them. The alternative was too awful to contemplate – that Dad now walked with the dead; that with the dawn he stumbled down to the waters that lapped ever higher up the hillsides, brine poisoning the once-fertile paddocks, and went to sleep among the shifting currents only to stumble forth once more when evening fell, dripping and rotten and hollow-eyed, water slopping from his gaping mouth.
They were all mad, Dad had said, these people fleeing into the hills to escape the rising seas, to escape the dead. Seas weren’t going to stop rising, Dad had said. Just running away from the inevitable, whatever that meant. Better to plan for the worst, and so that’s what Dad had been doing. Planning. He’d been planning ever since Mum disappeared. Morgan wondered if, for all his planning, he couldn’t bring himself to actually up and leave until he knew what’d happened to her.
In the kitchen, Morgan found Sarah at the fridge, the door open and the light off. Neither the fridge nor its little bulb had worked since the power went out weeks ago, but the box still kept things cool.
“No milk,” Sarah whined.
Morgan forced a smile and rubbed her head. “C’mon, let’s go see Bess.”
She bobbed up and down, clapping, and they pulled on their gumboots and trudged out of the house into the morning mists with the buckets. The ghosts slipped sideways past Morgan’s eyes when he wasn’t looking. He should’ve eaten. He needed to sleep. But he had responsibilities now. The ghosts rushed past his ears sometimes, and he felt their flutters pass over his heart. But Sarah wanted milk, so they needed Bess, and then there were jobs that needed doing. It was going to be a long day.
Morgan wished Dad would come home. Then he remembered what Dad might be now, and hoped he never did.
They let Bess roam the top paddock. Better if she wasn’t tied up, Dad had said. Too easy for them to get her, he said. But she was a good goat, came when they banged the bucket and popped her head through the stanchion without a fuss. “Best-damn-tempered goat you’ll ever meet,” Morgan quipped, hearing his father’s voice echoing in his own, then set to the unpleasant task of cleaning Bess’s teats and pulling down the milk while Sarah held out grapevine leaves for her to chew on.
There was only a sliver of moon when the sound of a foot stepping into mud roused Morgan from his half-sleep. At first, he wondered if he had heard it at all, because it didn’t repeat; but then, he couldn’t be altogether sure what he could hear with the sudden thumping of blood in his ears. As the quiet stretched out, though, he began to think.
It wouldn’t be the dead. They didn’t come sneaking through the dark, nor lose their nerve when they stepped in a bog. Had it been the dead coming upon their silent farm cottage on the hillside they would have made all the noise of a herd of cattle, feet dragging through the slough and mouths muttering small hungry moans, uncaring of who saw or heard them. So, presuming Morgan hadn’t dreamt the sound, which he was fairly sure he hadn’t – though for all he knew it may have been the ghosts toying with him – that could only mean that there was someone alive out there.
And that, Dad had told him, was even worse than the dead. Living folk were cunning, and hungry in their own ways. Living folk were scared and desperate and greedy and wanted to take everything you had for their own. Just like it had been before the dead, and the rising seas, and everything that had followed. It just meant the stakes were higher and the rewards slimmer, whatever Dad meant by that. Maybe, Morgan had wondered, it meant like how people might kill you for your goat these days, when in the old days they’d only kill you for your money. Something about how what people valued had changed. How in the old days, Morgan would’ve beaten up any kid who pushed his little sister, but now if anyone came near her he’d plant a hammer in their eye. Because it’s what Dad would’ve done.
Because it was what he’d watched Dad do, more than once.
The noise came again.
Morgan eased from under the blankets, shivering in the cold, and moved silently across the boards he had laid out in the ceiling to go from one crack in the tiles to the next, looking for danger. Dark shapes, three, maybe four, hunched over to make themselves smaller in the thin moonlight, crept across the lawn.
Morgan’s stomach twisted. As quickly and quietly as he could, he slipped across the beams and eased the cover back over the hole in the ceiling, then lifted the fencepost over it. The wood made a rough dragging noise as he lowered it down and he bit his lip, hating himself for not setting the cover before he slept. But Sarah sometimes got up in the night to go and pee, and he had gotten tired of having to get up and move it for her in the dark. He’d become lazy, and it might have got them killed. Dad wouldn’t’ve been pleased.
He crouched there, shivering, listening to the sounds of the house, the sound of Sarah sleeping, and hoped that the intruders hadn’t heard. Hoped they were too scared – or too dumb – to figure out that someone might be hiding in the ceiling.
He shuffled back to where Sarah lay, pulled up the blankets and wrapped his arm over her. In his other hand, he gripped the hammer.
Listened as they tried the door, found it locked, forced it open.
Listened as they prowled the house, one room to the next, saw the sweep of torches occasionally flare through the gaps around a downlight.
Listened as the intruders tipped out drawers, opened cupboards. Opened the fridge.
Tried to overhear words as they gathered in the kitchen to talk in low, indistinct voices.
Listened as they left the house.
Listened to the broken door banging in the breeze.
Later, though how much later Morgan didn’t know, he must’ve slept. Waking and sleeping were becoming a blur, a shadow land haunted by the ghosts that whispered through the ceiling tiles and his fears of things made flesh, fractured visions that sought to decipher what it meant that the ghosts spoke to him. That they tried to draw him down to join them.
Morgan sat upright, startling himself from the dream.
Sarah was still sleeping, peaceful like nothing had happened in the night, like their home hadn’t been invaded and ransacked.
He moved around the roof space, checking each of his vantage points for signs of the intruders. They hadn’t camped on the lawn, at least, but that was all he could tell. They might be under the eaves, or in the trees at the edge of the top section, or they might be gone. He couldn’t find out without going down into the house, and he was afraid to do that in case they were lurking on the porch.
But why would they wait? The intruders were running from the dead. They should’ve left this place behind them just as quickly.
Morgan knew there was something important, something he wasn’t thinking of that he should, something Dad would’ve thought of, but all he had were the hollow whispers of the ghosts in his ears, the heaviness in his limbs and his eyelids, the desire to sleep warring with the fear of it.
He jolted awake. Sarah was shaking him. He’d nodded off, just sitting there by the ladder. Dumbass. “Hey, bubba,” he mumbled.
“I need to pee.”
The fencepost seemed awfully heavy this morning, where last night it had felt light as bamboo. Maybe in the night the ghosts had helped him lift it, he thought vaguely, and maybe now they were all sitting on top of it. It made sense, and suited their cruel and capricious natures.
Sarah dropped down the ladder and disappeared towards the toilet. Fuzzy with sleep, Morgan descended the steps more slowly. He went to the front door which stood open, the latch torn off where the wood had been splintered maybe by a crowbar, or an axe. He pushed it shut. He’d have to fix it later on. He didn’t want to see the mess they might’ve made of the bedrooms.
He heard the toilet flush and the sound of Sarah’s running footsteps. Always running, Sarah was. She never walked anywhere. “Bess!” she yelled, oblivious to the mess throughout the house, and he heard the back door open.
Damn them. They must have gone out through the top paddock and left the gates open. Didn’t they know anything about walking across a farm? Always leave the gate the way you found it. That’s just the rules. Maybe it was absurd to think that people might follow rules at all anymore. But if not for dark times like this when the world was falling to pieces, then what good were rules at all?
He walked back to the kitchen in a daze, hunger gnawing at his stomach coupled with an incessant dread that the intruders would have found and taken all his food reserves. Cupboards and drawers hung open. Some of the food was gone, but they hadn’t found all the secret hiding places that Dad had made, all the little corners and nooks where they’d stashed away supplies for just such an event. He allowed himself a smile. It was over. They were gone, and he and Sarah could go back to planning the escape Dad had laid out for them.
He opened the fridge.
The glass jug of goat’s milk stared back, quarter-full. The ghosts’ constant moaning hit a screaming crescendo in his ear at the sight, a soundless warning that stripped the air from his lungs. His heart skipped up a beat, his throat suddenly tight as all the awfulness his Dad had warned him about rushed up to choke him.
There were already tears in his eyes as he turned to run for the back door, even as he heard Sarah’s screams.
They had seen the milk, tasted it, drank most of it, knew it was fresh. They had seen the kids’ gumboots, still wet with new mud, by the door. They had seen Dad’s boots, dry and piled in the corner, long unused.
They knew the kids were alone, hiding somewhere in the house.
They had found Bess.
They knew what it was to bait a trap.
Morgan barely saw the three bearded men as he sprinted across the muddy lawn, the hammer raised, an animal cry on his lips.
Not his sister.
She was all he could see, her eyes wide with terror, one of the men’s ropy forearms wrapped around her neck, his hand in her hair, pulling her head back, her feet kicking off the ground.
“Put her down!” Morgan screamed as he charged. He didn’t see the blow that took him in the side of the head and left him sprawled in a senseless heap in the grass, the hammer falling softly into the mud.
It was getting dark when he awoke, but not so dark that he couldn’t see her. They had laid her head by his, so that it would be the first thing he saw when he awoke. Blood stained her white skin, her throat slashed wide and her mouth hanging open in a rictus to greet him.
He screamed and rolled away, overwhelmed by the stink of offal, and vomited hot acid which burned his throat. After the heaving in his chest eased, he spat bile from his mouth, took several deep breaths and turned back to the corpse.
They had taken her legs, spilled her guts onto the mud.
“Bess?” he breathed.
Only take that which will keep you alive, Dad had said. The intruders knew this lesson too. Morgan swayed to his feet, his head spinning. There was dried blood in his hair, maybe his own, maybe Bess’s. Maybe Sarah’s.
They had taken Sarah. They had lured her out with Bess, then killed the goat and butchered her for her meat. If that was what they would do to a goat, then what would they do to his sister? Why go to the effort of kidnapping a little girl?
Morgan’s thoughts turned black. He may have been young, but his father had not allowed him the luxury of remaining a boy in this world devolved beyond innocence. He knew all the reasons cruel men might want to possess a little girl. Dad had told him, not to scare him, not to pervert him, but so that he knew the importance of protecting his little sister.
And he had failed.
Morgan had seen the magazines that the older boys sometimes brought to school and passed around surreptitiously on the field where no teachers could see. He knew what men did to women, and the thought of that happening to Sarah made his stomach turn. She would bleed. She would scream.
A trail of blood led from Bess’s mangled corpse up the paddock, into the hills.
Like breadcrumbs. Like they were daring him to follow them, or they didn’t care if he did because hell, he was just a kid, wasn’t he? A big kid, maybe, but no bigger than any one of them.
But there was no question of not following. Morgan ran inside, snatched a tin of creamed rice from its hiding place and ate it with his fingers while he found a good sharp knife, a torch and a precious handful of spare batteries, and pulled on his boots and jacket.
Perhaps they knew how to lay a trap. Perhaps they would butcher a goat, and maybe do worse to a boy not yet a man who came hunting them. But he was not letting them take his sister. He found the hammer where it had fallen in the grass and set off in the failing light after the blood trail. The ghosts sighed along in his wake, quieter now, but no less mocking.
Night was coming. He tried not to cry. Dad would’ve been disappointed if he’d cried.
Morgan knew where they were long before he saw or heard them. Their fire lit up the hillside and cut through the trees, and even from a distance Morgan figured they must have made camp near the waterfall. That was a good spot, he remembered, from summers gone by. A good swimming hole, the creek deep enough to ride rubber tyres down the rapids for a few hundred metres. Hours of fun. Dad didn’t let them play near the creek in winter. Creep up on you fast as the rain can fall, he’d say.
Maybe the kidnappers hoped that the noise of the waterfall would drown out the sounds of their cooking and talking, but what use was that if their fire would lead the dead straight to them? Hadn’t they ever learnt how to make a fire that no-one could see from a distance? And even if they had hidden their fire, the rich hot smell of cooking meat on the wind would be drawing everything towards them – living and dead, alike.
Dad had taught Morgan all this stuff. Life and death, son, he’d said. Life and death.
Morgan moved carefully, climbing from branch to branch so as to avoid any tripwires they might’ve laid on the path. It’s what Dad would’ve done. It was only when he got close enough that he heard the sound of vomiting.
At first he thought it was the ghosts, messing with his head, but as he edged nearer he saw through the branches a figure hunched over by the creek, shoulders heaving with spasms, pale white fluid spilling from his mouth into the water. Slipping from one branch to another, he saw that of the three men he had seen in the paddock, the second was lying on his side near the fire, curled up with his arms wrapped around his stomach. On the far side of the clearing where Morgan had spent so many summer afternoons enjoying the sun, the third man, the big one with the hairy arms, sat with his back to a twisted manuka, Sarah wrapped up against his chest like a shield, or a talisman. He was pale, even in the firelight, and Morgan thought that his hands were shaking.
A slow smile crept over his face, though he was careful not to show his teeth, so white in the darkness. He and Sarah had been drinking goat’s milk for as long as he could remember. It was something their mother had wanted, because just as Dad hadn’t trusted people, Mum had never trusted the commercial food chain, and Morgan and Sarah were products of all their parents’ fears. It took time to adjust to goat’s milk, and Dad had always been fussy about them cleaning out the buckets and boiling the glass jugs. That had always been Morgan’s chore, and maybe he hadn’t been so meticulous about it since Dad had been gone. The milk might’ve tasted a bit odd lately, but neither he nor Sarah had got sick – farm kids were tough. The intruders, he supposed, weren’t so hardy. Bess would have her revenge, at least.
Morgan crouched, hunted with his fingers for a rock, found one. He’d always been a good shot, but even so he couldn’t guarantee hitting the big guy in the head without hurting Sarah too. Not with the ghosts whispering in his ears.
But the guy by the creek was getting up, slowly. Morgan fingered the hammer.
The rock flew.
Morgan was sprinting across the clearing before the stone caught his target on the side of the head and spun him around. There was a splash as he hit the water. Morgan leapt over the fire where Bess’s haunch sizzled and smoked. With a grunt of effort and a crack of smashing bone, Morgan slammed the hammer into the big guy’s temple. Sarah screamed as blood and bone sprayed over her face, the tree, the mud.
“Run, Sarah!” Morgan yelled, raising the hammer for another blow.
Sarah scrambled out from under the big man’s body and for a few seconds Morgan couldn’t see her. All he saw was the blood, the rage. Never could be sure if a guy’s dead when you hit him in the head, Dad had told him. Might just be stunned. Best to be sure. The way his target flopped into the mud suggested he was probably a goner, but the ghosts kept whispering his father’s words back at him. Bastards had killed Bess, had traumatised Sarah. That deserved a few extra whacks.
He spun around. One man, lurching forward with his arms outstretched. If not for the livid set of his jaws, Morgan might’ve mistaken him for one of the dead. But he was slow, and Morgan was fast, with the ghosts whipping him around on their unseen wings. A hammer strike to the knee, a howl of pain, an overhead swing and the satisfying crack of vertebrae, the crunch of a body falling. The hammer rising and descending, arcs of blood glittering in the firelight.
Morgan turned away from the carnage, breathing hard.
Not again. It was like one of the ghosts’ nightmare fragments, a broken sliver from earlier in the day, his sister wrapped up in a monster’s arms.
“Seriously?” he screamed at the intruder, the only one that remained, and stalked forward, the hammer floating in his fingers. “Can’t you bastards just leave a little girl alone and fight for yourselves?”
The man was dripping with muddy water, his skin pale, hands shaking, blood marring his face and neck. He stared in horror at the boy, barely a teenager but bigger than most kids his age, spattered with the detritus of the kidnapper’s erstwhile companions – blood, bone, brain. “Hey, boy, let’s you and me make a deal, whaddya reckon?”
“Let my sister go, and I won’t smash your skull open,” Morgan warned, circling. “That’s the only deal you’re going to get. I won’t say it again.”
Dad would’ve been disappointed. Don’t waste your breath talking to dead men, he would’ve said.
But Morgan wasn’t his Dad. All he had was Sarah, and the ghosts, and from the way the kidnapper had his arm jammed around Sarah’s throat, he knew well enough that it would only take a quick snap backwards to break her neck. She was still so little, so vulnerable, not big like Morgan, big enough to learn to fight and survive on her own. All she knew how to do was run, and running from the living wasn’t enough.
The waterfall was behind Morgan now, his quarry turning in a muddy puddle between him and the fire. His plan was forming; it was risky, but better than nothing. He tensed to strike.
Then he saw the sudden wideness in Sarah’s eye. She was looking past his shoulder, into the firelit shadows behind him, towards the creek. He didn’t dare turn, but he heard the sloughing slop of footsteps.
The dead had arrived.
He leapt, and hoped that Sarah would do what she did best — run. His enemy had seen them too, and the sight had frozen him for long enough that he wasn’t anticipating Morgan’s attack. The hammer arced up and cracked open his eye socket, man and boy going down, Morgan throwing his weight into the fall and dropping the bigger man on the fire. Sparks exploded in a cloud of ash as Morgan rolled and his adversary screamed, the kidnapper’s clothes bursting into flame.
It wasn’t too late, Morgan thought as he rolled to his knees, scanning the clearing. The dead were strong, but slow. He and Sarah could outrun them.
He came to his feet, blinded by the fire for a moment, distracted by the man rolling and screaming in the mud in front of him, and tried to spot Sarah. Hoped like hell that she had run, was deep in the bush. He could find her. He knew where she liked to hide. It wasn’t too late. Please God, don’t let it be too late.
Time slowed down, thick like mud, twisted like a knife in his gut.
There were two of them, the dead things that stumbled up the muddy bank, their mouths hanging open, dark water spilling over black tongues.
Sarah stood between Morgan and the zombies, shivering.
His legs wouldn’t move. He couldn’t look away from the rotted faces shambling towards him.
“Dad?” He almost choked on the word. “Mum?”
His mother, or what was left of her – she had been missing much longer than Dad – crawled towards the body that lay near the fire, ignoring the burning man and her own daughter who stood, quivering, before her. Her eyes were rotted holes, nothing but smell driving her towards the hot reek of blood. Fingers like talons found the rents in the fallen man’s broken skull, her face disappearing into his mire of soiled hair as she fed.
Morgan forced his eyes away, looked at Dad, whose sluggish steps brought him ever closer to his daughter. He could almost believe that his Dad didn’t want to reach her, but he couldn’t stop himself.
“Daddy?” Sarah whispered, biting her fingers.
Morgan wanted to move, wanted to step between Sarah and Dad, wanted to break the spell, but for another terrible moment he stood horror-struck, the ghosts roaring in his ears like a storm trying to tear his world apart.
Look after yourself first, then your family, Dad would’ve said. Trust no-one.
“You couldn’t leave without Mum, could you?” Morgan said, refusing to look back at the thing his mother had become. For a moment his father paused as if listening, and his eyes, weeping pus and mud, turned towards Morgan.
They said that it took time for the dead to truly die. For a while, maybe a few days, maybe a week or two, some part of the brain lived on, trapped inside a body rotting on its bones. So maybe Dad could hear. “That’s why you left Sarah and me alone, to find her. You broke your own rules, Dad. And now you’ve come back for us. Is that it, Dad?”
Morgan thought that his father paused, that he met his eye, that a flicker of the man he had once been looked out from behind those rotten, sunken eyes.
“Daddy?” Sarah breathed again, and Morgan realised she was crying. She never ran to him when she was crying, only to Dad, if she could. Morgie was just her big boogery brother, but if Dad was there…
They were slow. He was fast. The ghosts were fast. The hammer was fast. To get Sarah, he would have to run towards Dad. But you never run towards the dead, no matter what. All it took was a scratch, and you joined the dead. Not straight away, but maybe by morning, maybe by tomorrow night. A stumbling corpse like Dad. Chewing on brains, like Mum.
Sarah started walking towards Dad’s outstretched arms. Morgan knew that he could still grab her, still run, maybe not far, but far enough. She’d scream and cry, but they’d keep going, they’d find the boat, they’d get away from here. There was no point waiting for Dad anymore. Dad had broken the rules, and breaking the rules got you dead.
Look after yourself first.
Dad lifted Sarah in his arms, those big, strong loving arms, up and over his head, like he always did. Sarah would always love Dad more than she loved her big booger.
“Daddy!” Sarah squealed.
Mum lifted her face toward Morgan, cheeks raw and bloody, teeth bared. Her tongue lolled, black and stinking, from her jaws. Dad swung Sarah over his head, caught her like he always did.
“Morgie! Daddy’s back!”
Morgan turned and ran fireblind into the night, the ghosts giving him strength and speed through the tears.
Look after yourself first. That’s the rules.
He didn’t stop when the screaming began.
* * * * *
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