Posted on March 5, 2010 by Flames
The world ends with the flip of a switch. The thundering storms strike across the world, searing the earth, leaving destruction in their wake. Few will survive. For the folks living in Temperance, Illinois the nightmare is just beginning. When the sky roils in luminous colors, the people of the small town begin to die, and Randall Clay decides to escape. What he didn’t expect was the dead to come back to life or the nightmare that came after that.
Elder Signs Press has offered the first two chapters from this new zombie tale for Flames Rising readers to enjoy. Pallid Light: The Waking Dead is available now at Amazon.com.
Pallid Light by William Jones
The room disappeared in a flash of blackness, hiding the apartment in a heavy gloom. I smiled. Dark places never bothered me. I’ve lived most of my life in them—sitting in cells, hiding in the shadows. No, the light had always been my problem. No matter where I went, I needed to bring my own darkness.
But tonight it wasn’t the city-wide power outage that sent something cold crawling up my spine. It was the strange lights.
A hard storm rolled in from the west, bringing with it streaks of lightning, booming thunder, and a thick curtain of rain. It also brought red and blue lights—neon heavens.
“Rand, you there?” The voice was followed by a hammering on my apartment door. Fat drops of rain exploded against the window. I waited a moment, watching the sky, the lights, the streets. Sensing the strangeness.
“Rand!” The apartment door rattled again. “Let me in.”
“Turn it down.” I dropped off the wooden stool before the window, and moved toward the door. My pace was slow, really just to taunt Cada. She lived in a constant State of Emergency. I thought about that. Funny how people lose it when anything unusual happens. But she was like that before the storm.
“What do you want?” I opened the door, leaning to the side, avoiding her fist as it missed its target. “Pretty good swing.”
Her blue eyes widened, eyebrows forming a hard line. “Why the hell didn’t you answer?”
“Just did.” I pulled the door wide, waving her inside. “You know, you look like one of those fish that inflates when you’re angry. Maybe a little cuter though.”
“I’ve been calling,” she said.
“Ha. Guess the phone is dead. Or maybe I threw it away.” I shrugged.
She hoisted a finger at me, then pointed a different selection at the window.
“Have you seen what’s going on out there? No power and half the city’s flooded. And you’re sitting here, playing hermit and joking.”
Thunder shook the apartment. Another wave of rain tapped against the windows like a million anxious fingers. And the strange lights glowered above the storm.
She stomped across the floor, running shoes squishing with each step. “While you’re here doing . . .doing—” she threw her hands in the air— “doing God knows what, everyone else is sandbagging, trying to keep the town from washing away. Think about it, Rand. No power. No lights. No alarms. And you. . . here. . .in Temperance. Alone. If anything happens, anything . . .you’re taking the fall.”
After I’d moved to Temperance, Cada Finch befriended me. She was one of those types who thought loners needed friends, when really she was the one in need. Always the hero of some lost cause. This time the cause being me.
Cada just wasn’t made for Temperance. I wasn’t either. But a small town in Illinois, skirting the edge of Lake Michigan seemed like the perfect spot for an ex-con. Yeah, I still don’t get the “ex” part. Once a convict, always a convict. Jackson, Temperance, choose your prison.
“So you’re saying the town thinks I’m going on a killing spree?” I flashed a smile, strolling to the fridge. Flattering.
“No,” she answered abruptly. It seemed like the rest of her sentence caught in her throat. “No, not that. But really weird stuff is going on and they’ll pin you for it.”
I laughed, pulled a beer out, twisted it open. “You think I give a damn?” Took a swig, and returned to my seat.
Water flowed down Bridgeway Drive. It already crested the curbs and was swelling onto the sidewalks. I looked at the sky, it still glowed in unnatural colors. Hues of blue and green with jagged red lines of lightning.
“Does that look like an aurora to you?” I pointed the bottle at the sky.
“It’s just lights reflecting off the clouds.” She approached me. Wet, short strands of blonde hair clung to her face. The sweatshirt and jeans she wore repeated the trick but with her rangy body. “I saw Gordon Cleary tonight,” she said matter-of-factly.
I gave it some thought. For a few seconds, I wondered which was stranger: lights reflecting off clouds during a power outage, or Cada seeing a dead man.
* * *
“I was at Greene’s store buying some Marlboros when the power died. Figured I’d need some batteries. Dave brought out a flashlight to help me find them, and that’s when Gordon walked past the front window.” Cada dug into her pocket, pulling out a crumpled pack of smokes. Water wrinkled fingers rifled through them. “Jesus, Rand, he was still dressed in his suit from the funeral home.”
She patted her pockets. I pulled out my Zippo. Her hands and face trembled as she tried to align the cigarette with the flame.
“Thanks.” Cada pulled deep and exhaled a stream of smoke, spilling out like dragon’s breath. “Dave didn’t see him, but I did. And he really wasn’t walking. It was more like someone was pulling him along like a puppet.” She took another drag. “Something’s wrong out there.”
Something did feel wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Not quite yet. And I didn’t want to mention it to Cada until I knew what it was. That had always been my thing. All of my life, just before things went sideways, I sensed it. Handy, sure. Handy enough to get me locked away for murder. But thanks to a fucked-up system, I got out on a mistrial. That one I didn’t see coming.
“It was probably somebody pulling a joke,” I said. “Dead men don’t walk. . . except in prison.”
As if to counter my words, glass crashed downstairs.
“What’s that?” Cada asked. Her State of Emergency just went up a notch.
“Sounded like a window.” Plenty of experience with breaking windows. And whoever broke this one didn’t care about being quiet.
Cada started pacing again, puffing like a train. “Where’s the guy downstairs?”
“Eric? He’s mostly not home.” Actually, I didn’t care for the prick. He always eyed me. Definitely had an itch to see me locked up again. I wouldn’t be surprised to find newspaper articles about me hanging in one of his bedrooms, accompanied by thumbtacks with strings stretching back and forth showing my whereabouts. I knew his kind. They were the fucking crazy ones.
Mixed with the rumble of thunder was the crashing of furniture. Maybe a yell or two.
“Shouldn’t we check on him?” Cada asked, halting.
No. “Yep. Right,” I sighed. I went to the door, Cada trailing. “You stay here.” I gestured at the couch. “Keep a spot there. And if you hear me tell you to run, you move.”
Temperance was a small town. Certainly not big enough for this much mystery in one night. Hell, it wasn’t big enough for more than one apartment building. When I moved in, I hooked a second floor flat on a side street. It’d been a boarding house years ago, back when trains existed. I guess it’s what most people would call cozy. I called it fucking inconvenient. Dorothy Ford owned the place. And she wanted it to stay just the way it was in the 1800s—it’s that old. No cable, no satellite. A phone, and a useless rooftop antenna was as high-tech as the place got. Of course, I understood why an ex-con lived in Dorothy’s historical museum of dead thrills, but why Eric Walker? A man with an expensive car, nice suits, and enough money to vanish for weeks—why would he live there?
Like I said, I knew the type. He was hiding something. And as I marched down the narrow stairwell, I hoped his secret didn’t decide to pay a visit.
When I reached his door, it was slightly open. I peered through the crack. Glimpses of furniture, paintings on the walls, and shadows were visible in the sickly glow cast through the windows. Now and then, a brilliant flash of lightning uncovered a darker recess.
Pushing gently, the door opened with a creak that was quickly swallowed by the marching of the rain. To my left, one of the bay windows was shattered. A stream of water rolled over the jagged edges of glass, pooling on the hardwood floor.
From the bedroom I heard the tumble of something hard—muffled by the ceaseless rain.
“Eric?” Calling for him went against my every fiber. But I wouldn’t put it past him to be sitting on the other side of the door, shotgun leveled. Waiting.
He knew my history, like most people in Temperance. And like most, he didn’t like me. No problem, I didn’t like most of them.
With soft steps, I moved across the room. The only weapon I had was a pocket knife. Mostly useless. And if I pulled it, I was on shaky ground—prowling through a flat in the dark, uninvited. Not worth it.
I halted at the bedroom door. It too stood ajar, but the angle was wrong. Couldn’t get a view inside. I rapped on it once, and waited. I thought I heard mumbling, but in the roiling rain it was hard to tell.
Slowly, I pushed open the door. There lay Eric. Flat on his back, sprawled across the floor, blankets spilled over the bed, folding beneath him. At his sides were two locals. Teenage punks who wanted to be tough, but who were afraid to leave the protection of a small town. They liked to mouth-off at me, knowing all the while they were safe. And I’d never seen them when their eyes weren’t glazed. I’d dubbed them Stoned and Stoner.
They ignored me. Hunched over Eric’s body, they pawed at what remained of Eric’s insides. His gut was split—clawed open. And the two punks unraveled his intestines, gnawing and chewing them.
A knot formed in my stomach. And I’m the monster?
Blood glistened on the floor, gushing outward. Their wet faces shone in the greenish light of the storm.
This was seriously fucked-up.
Then one turned his gaze toward me.
It was Stoned who clambered to his feet first, swaying back and forth. The other continued working on Eric’s eviscerated corpse.
The world spun for a split-second as I tried to understand what I saw. It wasn’t the blood, or the gore. I was used to that. I came from a world of darker horrors—decapitated heads in a bag, butchered torsos, knapsacks filled with limbs. And the agonized wails of the mothers and wives who discovered their loved ones. No, butchered bodies didn’t bother me as much as the horror-struck face of a mother who’d found part of her son in a bag, sent as a message.
And somehow this was different.
Stoned stumbled forward. A vapid gaze set on his face. Sneering lips revealed crimson teeth. Without him saying a word, I knew what he wanted. Another meal.
“You can’t be serious,” I said, pushing the door wide open. It bumped against a wall stop. “What a bunch of sick fucks. What the hell are you high on?” I wondered if Eric’s secret was some sort of designer drug.
A tepid growl came from Stoner. Maybe he was trying to talk, maybe not. I didn’t much care. What I did know was the guy downstairs who didn’t like me was dead, and was being eaten by two brain dead punks. Somehow, this was going to come down on me. That’s the way the world worked.
Then Eric sat up.
“Shit!” I stepped back. “You’re alive?”
A thick red liquid spilled from his mouth, dribbling down his chin, stringing into his open abdomen. Guess that answered my question.
None of this fit together in my head. Everything inside me screamed, “Get out!” But there was that feeling. That dark chill touching my spine. There was also a thick stench.
I raised my hands. “Ok fellas, I’m leaving. Have at it.” I stepped backward, eyeing Stoned, who seemed to finally get his footing.
With Eric upright, the second teenager turned his attention to me. He struggled to stand, slipping on the slick floor. With each move, gore spewed from his mouth, followed by a guttural hacking.
I backstepped into the living room, already knowing how this was going to play-out.
Stoned bolted forward, as though spurred by an electrical shock. His arms reached outward, fingers clawing the air.
I sidestepped, lifting my booted foot and pushing it against his knee. It made a crunchy sound, then he squeaked. I grabbed his shoulder and pushed, sending him down, face first on the floor.
Keeping my eyes on the other two, I planted my boot on the back of his neck. “Stay there,” I said to Stoned, “or I’ll put you down.”
He gurgled. The others made growling sounds.
I pushed with my boot, thinking Stoned might warn the others away. Instead, he uttered nonsense sounds. Eric and his new pal kept coming.
In the ghoulish light they looked dead. And Eric, innards drooping to the floor, dark blood washing down his legs, by all rights should be dead. It made less sense with each passing moment.
My thoughts whirled as though the storm outside had entered my head. Things had become so unreal, I had no choice but to accept them. I knew how the cops would explain them later, and that explanation involved me.
I started to lift my foot from Stoned’s neck. Then I thought it over. Eric ambled toward me, guts dragging on the floor, a stupid half-smile on his face. There’s no good ending here.
“Fuck it,” I said. “Never liked you anyway.” I stomped on the kid’s neck. It popped as my foot pushed into the soft flesh.
In two steps I was on the next teenager. Maybe if I kept him alive he’d talk when he came down from his high. No. It didn’t work that way for you.
I grabbed his throat, pulling him forward, and clocked him on the head with my elbow. He dropped like a ragdoll. Meanwhile, Eric was still taking robot steps across the floor. He plodded ahead, one foot in front of the other, swaying from side-to-side like walking a ship in a storm.
Saving him time, I stepped forward, and hammered a fist into his nose. The bone cracked. Blood oozed. And he didn’t blink.
I looked at his blue and bloodied face. There was something more than emptiness there. I wasn’t sure what. Maybe a little bit of Eric. Maybe a little bit of what he was hiding. His lips turned upward ever so slightly into a snarl. And for the first time, I’d noticed a faint glow in his eyes.
“Not happening,” I said.
He reached out—arms slow and stiff.
I grabbed his thumb and twisted, expecting him to drop to his knees in pain. Instead, he clawed at me with his other hand, coming closer, teeth snapping.
His guts dangled from his abdomen. And he kept moving. Obviously, my mind was muddled. Of course he wouldn’t feel any pain—he was beyond that.
I didn’t know what Eric was hiding, but I had always sensed a darkness in him. Drug dealer, serial killer, kidnapper—didn’t make a difference. I saw it there, and despised it.
“Bad day for you,” I said. With a free hand, I clamped onto his collar, pulling his head back. He gurgled, red spittle seeped from his mouth. I released his thumb, locked both hands on his head, and twisted. His neck snapped. Finally his body stopped squirming. I pushed him away, letting what was left of him tumble to the floor.
This was not how I’d expected my visit to go. Thought I might help the asshole. Maybe this was his secret, I decided. Some kind of cannibal and drugs scene. But it didn’t make sense. He was a traveler. He’d keep his secrets far from Temperance.
I knew something was up before I’d arrived. I knew it the minute the storm started. And something told me this was just the beginning.
I had a few minutes before Cada started worrying and decided to go looking for me. I scanned the flat. There was no use trying to clean up. And all of this was still going to land on me, unless I found something pointing in another direction. I had the one teenager who might tell the truth—doubted that. Figured I’d look around the place. Maybe find whatever Eric had hidden. The situation was beyond the point of getting worse.
Knowing the tricks, I headed to the bedroom, skirting the macabre decorations on the floor. Checking the dresser drawers was a waste of time. Amateur stuff. I didn’t bother. But I did take his car keys sitting in a bowl on top of the dresser. I had to hoof everywhere, and it looked like I might need to move a bit faster unless things turned around.
Outside the storm persisted. Loud cracks of thunder shook the building. The rain continued its ceaseless dance upon the roof and ground. It created a constant thrumming.
I opened the closet. On the top shelf there was a shoebox. It was too obvious to hold anything damning—but I still hoped. Inside I found a 9mm Beretta, three magazines, and a half empty box of cartridges.
Probably has a permit. I took the pistol, pushed in a clip, and stuffed the rest into my pocket. Just then, a familiar feeling settled over me. How many times had I followed this path? Getting ready to run. It was supposed to be over when I was locked up. And I’d told myself it would never happen again when they let me out.
Like I said, I bring my own darkness with me.
Right now, things needed to keep moving. I had to keep those thoughts at bay. One after another, I yanked clothes from the rack in the closest, tossing them aside. Eric wasn’t going to make this easy.
Mixed with the tattoo of the rain was the sound of a footfall from behind. I turned. In the doorway stood Stoner, eyes hollow, jaw slack. His face was painted in blood, as was the hoodie he wore. One foot plodded forward. He burbled some sounds. Maybe they were words. I sensed a rhythm. A shape to them. It wasn’t English. Regardless, his intent was clear.
I pulled the pistol from my belt and chambered a round.
* * * *
Pallid Light: The Waking Dead is available at Amazon.com.
This preview for was provided and published with express permission from Elder Signs Press and William Jones.