FOR THE PRESERVATION OF THE SPECIES

This is an excerpt from a novelette that is now available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/For-Preservation-Species-ebook/dp/B009YQ8K3K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351661277&sr=8-1&keywords=for+the+preservation+of+the+species.

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Where the hell did she go?

Taking the keys from the ignition, Barry leaned against the car, annoyed that Amy couldn’t wait the few minutes it had taken him to pee and come back before wandering off on her own. She couldn’t have gone far, and looking both ways along the stretch of roadway told him she hadn’t gotten out to just stretch her legs; more than likely she needed to pee as well, although he thought it was surprising that she would venture into the woods by herself, especially knowing how squeamish she was about bugs. If anything, he thought she would have gone by the side of the car. He folded his arms across this chest, crossed his legs at the ankles, and waited. Any minute now he expected her to come tiptoeing out of the woods, jumping with a frightened squeak at every brush of a branch as if she’d been poked with a cattle prod. What he wasn’t expected was the blood-curdling scream that ripped through the silence of the countryside.

“Amy!” He pushed away from the car and ran across the road. He didn’t stop to look for the path of least resistance, but waded through the thick foliage, tearing at the branches and vines as they sought to slow his progress. “Amy! Where are you?”

Another scream echoed through the forest, bouncing off the trees, but he was close enough to be able to pinpoint her whereabouts. Changing direction, he pushed through a pricker bush and he spotted her a few yards away. He hurried over, but was brought up short at the sight of his wife sitting on the ground, kicking and crying like a child throwing a temper tantrum. There wasn’t any immediate danger, so he didn’t know what she was carrying on about.

He approached slowly, and as her screams subsided, he was able to make out her frantic rantings—“Get it off. Get off. Please get them off me.”—and a malicious grin broke out across his face as he realized what must have happened. Crouched down to answer her call of nature, one of Mother Nature’s natural pest exterminators must have crawled up her leg. The sight alone of any bug was enough to send her into a panic, but to have one crawling on her? Full-blown hysteria. He knew it was wrong to laugh, but he couldn’t help it, especially as he drew upon her and saw that she was sitting bare-assed on the forest floor with her pants tangled around her ankles, brushing frantically at her hands, exposed legs, and everywhere in between.

“Having problems?”

She turned her head slowly to look at him, her terror changing quickly to anger when she saw the grin plastered to his face and heard the light-hearted tone in his voice. “It’s not funny.” Despite the expression on her face, there was no anger in her words, only a pathetic quality that made him want to laugh harder than he was.

“If you could see yourself, you’d think differently,” he told her, but all the same, he moved closer and held out his hands to help her up. The grin he sported evaporated as quickly as a drop of water on an overheated skillet when he got an up-close-and-personal look at the severity of her situation. It wasn’t just a spider that had sent her into hysterics, or a single bug; the ground around her was teeming with life. Species that would normally be fighting with or feeding off the other seemed to be working in conjunction with each other—spiders, ants, beetles, earwigs, centipedes, and scores of others he wasn’t familiar with. Her hands and legs were covered in tiny pink welts, some of which were dotted with beads of blood, where the little buggers had bitten her. If he didn’t know any better, he would have sworn they’d been trying to eat her alive.

Gripping her hands firmly, he hauled her to her feet, and together they tried to brush off the insects that were still crawling all over her. As she continued to brush at the bugs, he bent down to pull up her pants and noticed the little shits were crawling all over his sneakers and trying to make their way under the legs of his pants. He stamped his feet, trying to dislodge them as he worked Amy’s pant up her legs. When they were at a point where she could take over, he looked past her, his eyes widening in disbelief as his jaw dropped.

The ground for as far as he could see was a crawling sea of bugs.

Where the hell did they all come from? Every bug in the fuckin’ world has to be here.

Afraid to take his eyes from the approaching ground swarm, he reached out blindly to take Amy’s hand. When she failed to take it, he glanced in her direction and saw she was still swatting at the bugs that were no longer on her. Behind her, the tree was alive with insect activity, their little brown and black bodies making it look like the bark of the tree was alive. “C’mon,” he said, grabbing her hand a little more harshly than he intended and pulling her away from the tree. Then he started to back away from the approaching menace. Amy followed like a dazed child, still brushing at the bugs with her free hand. He wished she would snap out of it, but it would probably take being within the safety of the car before she was able to focus on anything else but the bugs. That meant he needed to keep an eye in all directions until they reached the car.

Something brushed against the back of his neck and he reached behind time to wipe it away. Whatever it was rolled under his fingers, and when he brought his hand back around, he looked down. A small brown spider was trying to right itself, but it had been partially crushed. Barry finished the job, pinching the life out of the little bastard before wiping the spider guts on his jeans. He chanced a look up and he saw that there was a whole army of spiders descending from the branches overhead.

“Oh shit!” He turned tail and ran for the road, dragging Amy behind. Her stumbling progress slowed him down, and he urged her onward. “C’mon, Amy. They’re coming. Snap out of it.”

She stumbled over an exposed root and he stopped abruptly in his tracks to grab her and keep her from falling face first into the dirt. He could see her lips were still moving, and while he couldn’t hear what she was saying, he knew that in her mind the bugs were still crawling all over her and she wanted them off. Focusing on her lips, he could make out, Get ‘em off me, please get ‘em off me, over and over again. He cupped her face in his hands and tried to get her to see him, “Amy. C’mon, Amy. We gotta get out of her.” A spider touched down in her hair and it started to crawl immediately toward her face. He brushed it away before grabbing her hand again and pulling her the rest of the way through the woods until they reached the road.

Without looking either way for oncoming traffic, he hurried across the road and opened the passenger’s side door. Amy allowed herself to be guided downward until she was sitting in the seat, and she didn’t offer up any fuss as he lifted her legs and placed them safely within the vehicle. He slammed the door then rushed around to the other side. Throwing himself behind the wheel, he pulled the door closed and immediately started rolling up his window. Before turning his attention to his wife and buckling her seatbelt, he twisted the key in the ignition, praying the car would start.

A sigh of relief escaped his lips when the engine turned over and roared to life. Before pulling away, he glanced across the road. It was like watching a tsunami as wave after wave of bugs rolled out of the forest, seeming to consume the blacktop. Their forward progressing was so fluid, it was like watching molasses slowly and steadily spread out across a plate.

Barry shifted his attention to the road ahead. The path forward was clear, although he could see a gathering of insects at the side of the road, building up and ready to spill out like water from an opened floodgate. A check in the rearview mirror confirmed his worst fears. The road was awash in a sea of brown and black squirming, crawling bodies. It was as if they were a pack of cattle dogs and he and Amy the cattle. The bugs obviously wanted them to go forward, which in and of itself was all the motivation he needed to head back the way they came. He sat there, torn as to which way he should go. There was no way of knowing how far he would have to go before hitting the next town. If he headed back the way they came, it would be about three hours before arriving at the closest populated area. It was a no brainer, but if he needed anymore help in making up his mind, Amy’s next words were the clincher.

“Oh God! They’re inside me. I can feel them inside. Get them out. Barry, get them out.”

He shifted his attention to his wife and was alarmed by what he saw. Her eyes were closed and she was soaked through with sweat. Her breathing was ragged, and she kept tossing her head slowly from side to side, as if denying the horrors of the past few minutes. Her condition sent needles of panic into his gut. With all those bites from God only knew what, what kind of reaction was she having? What kind of toxins were coursing through her bloodstream, slowly poisoning her and the baby. The baby!

Moments ago he’d been griping about how the baby was already ruining everything, but now all he wanted was to get Amy and his unborn child to a doctor and make sure nothing was going to happen to them. Without giving it a second thought, he stepped on the gas pedal and swung into a U-turn, rolling right through the sea of bugs. There were so many of them that, even over the roar of the car’s engine, Barry could hear the crunch and crackle of their bodies being crushed beneath the tires, a macabre version of Rice Krispies. Listening to it, Barry’s gorge rose and he fought to keep from spewing all over the dashboard.

The road ahead was so thick with insects and spiders Barry had a hard time keep the car in a straight line. The gore from the crushed bugs made it difficult for the tires to gain any traction and the car was fishtailing left and right. It was almost as bad as driving on black ice. He needed to slow the car to a crawl in order to keep control of the vehicle.

Amy let out a moan. Barry risked taking his eyes off the road for a second to check on his wife.

Her lips were moving nonstop, but no words were spoken. Her skin was a fiery red and he knew if he touched her she would be burning up with fever. His gazed dropped to where her hands rested in her lap and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“Hun,” he said gently. “Don’t do that.”

But she didn’t hear him. She continued to scratch at her forearm, short, quick movement of her fingers, back and forth, and she had already scratched herself raw. Blood trickled in rivulets over her arm to be absorbed in the material of her pants. If she didn’t stop, and if he couldn’t find some way to restrain her, he was afraid she would reach bone by the time they reached town.

“Hun,” he said again. “Stop that.” She continued to dig at the raw flesh of her arm. “Quit doing that, Amy.”

Her eyelids fluttered and she turned her head to look at him, although he had a feeling she didn’t see him at all. There was a fevered gleam in her eyes that scared him. They looked like lifeless marbles gleaming under the sun’s rays.

“Gotgettumout.”

He turned his attention back to the road. Never in his life did he feel as helpless as he felt right now. “They’re not inside, Babe.”

What she said next chilled him to the core of his being.

“Eating me. The babies.”

A buzzing filled the air, drowning out the sound of the engine.

“What the…”

Looking ahead, he couldn’t see what was making the noise. Checking left and right didn’t provide any clues either. When he looked in the rearview mirror, the color drained from his face. “Jesus Christ.”

A storm was moving in. The sky had darkened, but this storm wouldn’t be bringing a deluge of water to wash the roads clear; no, this storm was bringing death, a painful death should the swarm of flying insects manage to find their way into the car.

Hoping to be able to outrun the swarm, Barry stepped on the gas, but immediately had to let up on the pedal when the car started to slew to the right. “God dammit,” he cried out in frustration.

The Heavens opened and the swarm descended. The sound of their bodies hitting the roof of the car sounded like hail stones. The windshield was covered with bees, wasps, hornets, and flies, the winged demons crawling over each other, totally obliterating Barry’s view of the road. It was terrifying to behold, and Barry was thankful for the protection the car offered. Even though he knew he was better off in the car, the incessant buzzing was already beginning to grate on his nerves and it was all he could do to keep from throwing open the car door and making a mad dash for safety. He knew the moment he opened the door, the car would be filled in a matter of seconds, and if he managed to get out of the car, he knew he wouldn’t get that far before he was brought down by the sting of thousands of winged insects. Instead, he gritted his teeth and held on to the steering wheel with his left hand in a knuckle-whitening grip while his right hand closed the distance to where Amy sat and grabbed hold of her hand. He wasn’t the praying type, but if there was ever a time to talk to The Man Upstairs, it was now. Bringing the car to a stop, he closed his eyes and began to pray.

Something buzzed in his ear.

With a start his eyes flew open and he looked around frantically. How the hell did it get in? It went by again, this time behind him. He let go of Amy’s hand and took a blind swing at it. Something flew across his field of vision, then another. How the hell are they getting in? None of the windows were open. Then his eyes dropped to the vents. A dozen yellow jackets were crawling over the dashboard, and more were coming in. He didn’t dare reach for the vents to close them because he didn’t want to rile them up. As if knowing they’d been spotted, the yellow jackets took flight, going straight for Barry’s face. He jerked back in his seat, pressing his feet down to push away from the aerial attack, and the car leaped forward. He tried to grab the wheel, but it was crawling with yellow jackets. He tried to brush them off, but the moment his hand made contact, they swarmed over it. The pain was unbearable as dozen of stingers penetrated his hand simultaneously, and at the same time those buzzing around his face launched their attached. Without meaning to, he floored the gas pedal, propelling the car forward. Amy screamed as the car began to spin. With nothing left to lose, Barry grabbed the wheel, but he wasn’t able to get control of the car. Somehow, in his panic, he managed to bring his foot down on the brake, but nothing happened.

Then all hell broke loose.

It was all happening so fast. There was a rending of metal and the side window shattered, sending a shower of glass fragments raining down over Barry. There was a burning sensation in his chest and he had a moment to wonder how a tree ended up in the car before the pain registered. The scream ripped from his throat and his hands flew to his side. A tree branch had pierced the door and ripped into his side, just below the ribs. By the time the car stopped moving and the point of the branch broke through the skin on his other side, stopping inches away from Amy’s swollen belly, Barry was already unconscious.

One Last Dream

This piece is something that sprung from a writer’s prompt over at Clever Fiction. It’s a little rough, but I feel that only helps to establish the character/narrator.

* * *

When I was a girl, I used to dream of a better life. We lived in a run-down trailer. The windows, they’s cracked, and when it rain the water would creep in to run down the walls, to be soaked up by the grungy, ol’ carpet. There’s stains on the ceiling, ugly yellowish-brown patches where the water came in. There’s always a musty smell that made my nose itch, kinda like wet rags left in a pile for too long. Forgotten. Folks say I should be thankful for havin’ a roof o’er my head, but is it wrong to want a better home? A nicer one that warm in the winter and cool in the summer and didn’t leak when it rain and snow?

‘Cause of the way we lived, Mama was sick a lot. We didn’t have money for her to get better ‘cause Daddy “drank it all away.” That’s what Mama was always saying. When Daddy was drinkin’ he used to love on me, ‘specially when mommy was sick. I used to dream about what it would be like if Daddy didn’t drink so much and hurt Mommy all the time. I didn’t like it when Mommy was crying and bleeding. I didn’t like it when Daddy touched me when Mommy was hurting because of things he did. I didn’t like the way people on the street looked at Mommy with all her bruises. They knew what was happenin’, but it wasn’t their place to say or do nothin’. I could see it in their eyes, though, the way they look at her, like it was all her fault, like she deserved it or something.

When I got older, I used to dream ‘bout running away. I had no idea where I was gonna go, but anywhere be better than here. I ‘member a song Mama used to play for me, told me to listen to it real close and live by it. I can still hear the woman singing, “Don’t you ever let a man hit you, Don’t you grow up like me, So I swore I’d never be like her, Or my grandmother, too, Even if it meant I’d be alone.” But I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted a man to love me even though that ol’ drunk was always tellin’ me nobody ever gonna love me. I wanted a man to treat me like a Queen. Silly childhood thoughts, but dreamin’s all I had in a day full o’ nightmares.

When I was 14, I thought my nightmare was over. That be the day he went and gone too far. They lock him up for it, and left me alone. They said I be too young to live on my own. Mama didn’t have no family I could stay with, and that bastard’s family didn’t want me. Says I no good. I guess they’s right. That’s what the other woman be screamin’ at me, the one I go to live with after The Home, after she find her husband humpin’ away in my bed. Call me a slut, a whore, and then they send me back. After that I don’t bother to unpack when they send me somewheres new. I don’t dream no more either. What’s the point?

After a while, even The Home don’t want me, and they couldn’t wait ‘til I turn 18 so they could be rida me. No job, no money, I did the only thing I knew. The only thing Daddy made sure I knew how to do. That’s when I meet him. I thought he be different. He say all the right things to me, buy me clothes, give me a place to live with them other girls, but he turn out to be like all them other men I meet an’ he put me on the street to make him some money. One day I don’t bring in enough, he beat me. I ‘membered that song Mama made me listen to, and I swears he never gonna beat me again. I went right back at him, and when he pull a knife on me, I lost it. I fought like a wildcat, and I managed to get that knife away from him, and I did the other thing that Daddy taught me real well. I did to that man what my Daddy did to Mommy. I cut his throat so deep I almos’ cut his head off. I thought those other girls be happy ‘cause they free now, but no… They call the cops on me. I shoulda ran, but where was I gonna go? I was tired o’ runnin’.

At least there be no more nightmares. I was wrong. The nightmares… They follow me here. Every night, the guards, sometimes one, sometimes more, they come. They says I a whore and they gonna treat me like one, but tonight gonna be different. I has in my hand my freedom. I stole it from the kitchen. The silver shine real pretty in the light. Like a diamond. It make me smile. I ain’t scared. My hand don’t even shake when I press the blade against my wrist. It only hurts a little bit it so sharp. I close my eyes, smile. I feel sleepy, and after all these years, I let myself dream one last dream…

Trick or Treat

One of the groups I belong to on Facebook posted a Writing Prompt on their page.

“For the last 10 years, kids have been festooning your home with toilet-paper sashes on Halloween night. Unfortunately for them, this is the year you finally decided to get even. Write about your night of retaliation.”

In the space of a few minutes, this is what I came up with.

——————————————————————————————————–

I wait within the shadows of the old oak, the fuel tanks heavy on my back. Despite the chill in the air, I am sweating heavily, my clothes sticking to my skin. My finger slides restlessly over the trigger, eager for some action. It’s been awhile and just as I start to think this year they won’t come, I hear them, those little bastards. TP my house, will they? Well, not this year.

I hear their giggling first, then the crush of brittle leaves as they try to move quietly into my yard. I lick my lips in anticipation, taste the salt beads adorning my upper lip. I watch as they creep across the yard, stealthy as shadows, and approach the jack o’lantern on the porch. One steps forward and picks it up. My hatred for them burns like the candle within that orange head. I watch as he raises it high over his head. There’s only the slightest pause, a nervous glance over his shoulder toward my front door, before he smashes it to the ground. it shatters on the concrete, and oh, what I wouldn’t give to shatter his skull on the sidewalk.

They gather round the pulpy remains, stifling their laughter so as not to alert the man within, but little do they know. I continue to watch as from their backpacks they remove their paper grenades. My finger twitches, but I release the pressure just in time. I watch as they position themselves around the yard, taking up strategic positions. There’s a poetic beauty in the way the move, all in perfect sync. As one, their arms pulled back, preparing to launch their bombs. Now was the time.

I step from the shadows. “Not this year, you miserable punks.” I laugh as they all give a start, taken by surprise, and before they have a chance to recover, my finger tightens on the trigger. The flame erupts from the nozzle, leaping forward, hungry for the taste of flesh. The night is filled with the heavenly chorus of their screams, and soon the smell of their charred flesh rises on the breeze. They try to run, but the demon’s breath follows them. No one will escape this night.
Silence eventually returns, save for the occasional crackle of their fat while it burns.

Tomorrow is going to be a bitch, I’m thinking as I turn to climb the porch steps, having to bury their remains. At the door I stop and turn, my gaze shifting from one smoldering corpse to another, when another thought comes to me. Why waste it? There’s plenty of room in the freezer in the basement. Yeah, I’ll be eating good for awhile.

Lemmings of the Sea: A WIP

I’m never going to survive this, he thought, head hanging over the porcelain surface of the toilet in the ship’s cabin.  He fumbled for the lever, letting the weight of his hand pull it down.  The sudden rush of water around the bowl was a blessed cool relief against his face, feverish, pale, and dripping with sweat. He watched the water circle around, sending his vomit swirling, swirling, then gone.  Too weak to get to his feet and rinse his face and mouth in the sink, he dipped his hand in the now-clear water of the toilet bowl and wiped his face before collapsing against the wall of the small tiled room.  The coolness of the cream-colored tiles against his heated flesh made him shiver.  “How did I ever let her talk me into this,” he asked of the porcelain princess.  He didn’t get a response, nor did he expect one.  Resting his head against the wall, he closed his eyes and sent up a prayer to the deaf gods for this sickness to pass.  They hadn’t answered his prayers yet and it had been three days, so did he expect today to be any different?  Not really, but he had nothing better to do while he waited for the next urge to purge.

He must have fallen asleep because the next thing he knew, she was calling his name softly and gently shaking him.  “Brad?  Brad, sweetie.  Wake up.”

Eyelids fluttering, squinting against the harsh glare of the bathroom light, he could barely make out her blurred form leaning over him.  “Wha. . .”  But now that he was awake, his stomach heaved, and he tossed his head over the toilet, the rush of vomit rising up his throat cutting off anything else he might have said.  Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he collapsed against the wall and looked up at his wife.  “Sorry, babe.”

“For what?”  She grabbed a face cloth from the chrome shelf over the sink and started to run it under cold water.

“Not exactly how I wanted to spend our honeymoon.”

She knelt beside him and wiped his face with the cool, damp cloth.  “It’s not your fault.  If I had known you got seasick this bad, I never would have suggested this.”  She got up, ran some water in one of the plastic cups and gave it to him to rinse his mouth.  “The pills the doctor gave you aren’t working?”

He sipped the water, swished it around in his mouth, then spit it in the toilet.  With a shake of his head, he said, “Can’t keep them down long enough to do any good.”  He pushed away from the wall, feeling the stiffness in his back, shoulders, and legs.  He needed to get out of this God-forsaken room, needed to stretch out on the bed, but he was afraid to, afraid that the slightest roll of the ship would trigger another bout of nausea.  He needed to take the chance, though; he would be damned if he was going to spend this entire voyage locked in the john.  She moved to help him, thinking he was going to try and stand, but his legs were too shaky and too cramped to even attempt it.  He waved her off.  “I can do it myself.”  She stood by helpless as he made his way ever so slowly out of the bathroom and across the floor.  She followed along behind, and once he reached the bed, only then did he allow her to help him up.  No sooner did he gain his feet when his knees buckled and he collapsed onto the bed.  He managed to straighten himself out and roll over so he lay on his back before closing his eyes.  His heart was racing from the effort, but at least his stomach was calm.

The next thing he knew, a cool cloth was placed on his forehead and over his eyes.  She sat on the bed and the gentle sag of the mattress caused a flipping sensation deep in his gut.  Please, he prayed, holding his breath and waiting.  “What time is it,” he asked when it felt safe enough to speak without spewing.

“Almost six,” she replied.  “I was coming down to see if you felt like going to dinner.”

The thought of food made him feel sick all over again.  He groaned in response.

“I’ll take that as a no.”

He forced a smile.  “You go.  Enjoy.”

“It’s not right,” she protested.

“What’s not?”

“That you want me to go out and enjoy myself when I should be here taking care of you.”

“There’s nothing you can do.  This just has to run its course.  We paid enough for this cruise, so somebody might as well enjoy it.”  The effort to talk left him feeling dizzy.

“I guess.”  She sounded uncertain, but that didn’t keep her from getting up to leave.  “You want me to bring you back something?”

He shook his head slowly.  “Can’t keep it down.”

“Some soup and crackers,” she said, insisting.

“I’ll try.”  He closed his eyes again now that the dizziness had passed, and he heard the door close.  Minutes after she had gone, he drifted off to sleep.

The soft rush of the white-capped waves, the cry of the sea birds overhead, the playful barking of the sea lions frolicking in the water, the high-pitched call of the bottle-nosed dolphins, and the mournful base tones of the whales combined in a natural symphony that left him feeling completely at peace.  Weaving through nature’s orchestra was something out of place, yet strangely “right” amongst the calls of the wild, a rising and falling melody that could only be produced by a human voice, but the source of the melody went beyond human, bordered on the Divine, and it tied everything together in a seductive call that he found impossible to resist.  It slipped through the darkness of his subconscious with the ease and grace of a manta ray.  It brushed his mind with a feathery touch and he grabbed onto it, allowing it to drag him gently towards waking.

When he broke the surface of the dream, a chill breeze embraced him, and he thought he was actually adrift in the ocean.  The room was awash with a mystical blue light that he quickly realized were the rays of the moon breaking through the thick window glass.  The cold in the air came from the air conditioner, the hum of which did nothing to drown out the seductive melody that had pulled him from a sound sleep and still called to him.  As he threw back the blankets, he noticed the cardboard container on the nightstand next to the bed, and on top of the plastic lid were several packages of wrapped saltines.  The thought of the soup caused his stomach to rumble, but in a good way, indicating that he was hungry.  Had the sickness passed?  He looked atSharon, wrapped cocoon-like in the blankets.  He had no idea what time it was when she had come back, nor did he care. As he threw his legs over the side of the bed, the only thing that mattered was that haunting melody.   It caressed his skin like the finest silk, teasing and full of promise, and he shivered in anticipation.

He got out of bed and took a tentative step forward, afraid that his legs might still not be steady enough to support him, but the music seemed to give him strength.  He could feel it like a physical presence pressing intimately against his body, working its way into his pores, seeping its way into his blood.  There was an implied sensuality woven within the strains of music; it stirred feelings within him, a desire that manifested itself physically in his arousal, and he gave himself up to it, allowing it to lead him where it would.

He left the cabin and made his way through the deserted hallways.  The ship was eerily silent, and for a fleeting moment, he felt as if he might be the only one onboard.  It was ridiculous, but the complete absence of sound — no televisions, no music, no laughter — save for that divine voice and the soft wash of the waves against the hull of the ship, which he shouldn’t have been able to hear, left him feeling like the last man on earth.

As he made his way for the stairs, he heard the hum of an elevator off in the distance.  It was not something he would normally have noticed, but in the tomb-like silence that had engulfed the ship, it was a comforting sound that meant he was not alone.  Topside, he pushed through a set of double glass doors and stepped out onto the deck.  The moonlit sky was clear of clouds, and the stars twinkled brightly against the velveteen blackness.  This should have troubled him, but he accepted it without question. The summer nights inAlaskawere supposed to be as bright as the day, or so he’d been told, but it was a perfect moonlit night.  The air was still, with not even a hint of a breeze to ruffle his shaggy brown hair.  This, too, was strange.  Shouldn’t there have been some movement to the air as the ship pushed its way through the waters?

Barefoot, he walked along the deck, absent-mindedly undoing the drawstring of his board shorts and allowing them to fall unheeded around his ankles.  Without breaking his stride, he stepped out of them, leaving them where they fell, and he continued unashamedly along the deck, his erection leading the way like a divining rod.  He rounded the stern of the ship and stopped when she came into view.

She was leaning casually against the port side railing in a typical Hollywood-esque pose.  Her face was turned to look out over the water, her long, straight, white hair billowing behind her, stirred by an invisible wind that only touched her.  Her arms were stretched to either side, offering an unobstructed view of her nakedness, her hands resting gently on the railing.  Her skin was washed out under the moonlight and was as pure white as her hair.  She turned her head to face him and her beauty astounded him.  There was an Asian caste to her features that only served to stoke the fires of his passion.  Her neck was disproportionately thick — the only flaw in her delicate porcelain beauty — and his gaze continued down to her small, almost nonexistent breasts that showed only the barest trace of nipple, to her firm, flat stomach, smooth pelvis, and slim, girlish hips.

“Come to me.”

Those three words were full of sexual promise, uttered with a sensuality that could not be denied.  They came to him on the strains of song, and it didn’t fully register with him that her lips had not moved.  He continued to move towards her even as a man’s solemn voice whispered in the back of his mind, Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and continually bestow upon her your heart’s deepest devotion, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live?, immediately followed by his own voice saying, I will.  Those words were spoken less than a week ago, but they sounded to him like they were from another place and time, a distant memory from another life.  In the present, there was only this beautiful, mysterious woman and nothing else.

When he came to stand before her, she brought her arms up and held them out invitingly.  He placed his hands within hers and allowed himself to be pulled forward until their bodies barely touched.  The head of his cock brushed lightly against her stomach and he realized that her flesh was not flesh, but fur, sleek white fur that was soaked as if she had taken a dip in one of the ship’s pools.  He looked into her eyes, dark, hypnotic pools of onyx that drew him in.  He stepped even closer, the feel of her fur against the length of his shaft indescribable.  Shivering in anticipation, he brought his hand up to touch her cheek, feeling the same sleek fur, then turned her face up to greet his.  Her teeth, he could see through half-parted lips, were sharp, but that did not stop him from pressing his lips to hers.

She tasted of the sea, tangy, salty, with a trace of grit on her lips.  She returned the kiss with a passion born of the starved, ravenous with a desire to be sated.  Her tongue slipped into his mouth and he could feel the course texture of it.  His hands slipped around her waist, and he was surprised to find the fur covered her entire body.  As he let his hands slip down to grab her ass, he came up empty handed.  Where there should have been twin globes of flesh he found only a smooth expanse of fur-covered flesh.  He could feel the finely toned muscles moving beneath the surface.  He started to pull back, but she mirrored his actions and grabbed his ass, pulling him closer.  Claws punctured his flesh as she sought to pull him still closer.  Through the fog that was filling his mind, he was barely aware of the pain, and even as trickles of blood flood from the wounds and ran down his legs, he gasped as he was suddenly engulfed in silky warmth.  The angle was all wrong for penetration, but he was in her.  Her hands were kneading his buttocks, the needle-sharp claws digging deeper, spurring him to find a rhythm, and soon he was thrusting into her.  The feeling was unlike anything he had ever experienced before, the silken heat sucking at his shaft like it was a mouth, pulsating, trying to draw him deeper.  Each withdrawal bordered on exquisite pain, and with each thrust she threatened to consume him entirely.  He threw his head back and released a groan that was half agony, half divine pleasure.  Throat exposed, she ran her tongue from collar bone to the bold line of his jaw before clamping onto the stretched skin.  Her sharp teeth pierced the flesh easily.  He forced himself to stay calm for fear that she would tear out his throat.  He expected to feel a sucking sensation; instead, he felt a burning that quickly spread from where she had secured herself like a leech, up to his head and down throughout the rest of his body.  The scorching pain settled in his brain, where it felt like acid eating into his gray matter.  His thrusts became more frenzied until he was grinding into her with animalistic abandon.

Whatever toxin she had pumped into him with her bite finally reached his groin.  His nerve endings ignited in a flare of exquisite agony and he was almost overcome with the pleasurable pain.  His cock felt as if it had become engorged with ground glass and each thrust became torturous.  A scream ripped from his throat, giving voice to the warring sensations, the intense pleasure that played along his shaft and head externally versus the cruel flesh-rending sensation from within.  Terror gripped him, making his heart seize up as a certainty settled over him like a cold, damp blanket that she wouldn’t let him go until he had emptied himself into her.  He needed to concentrate, to block out the feeling of his dick being flayed and focus on the more pleasurable sensation that played along his sensitive skin, but it was so hard when his entire body felt like an open wound bathed in salt.  He tried to think of his wife, but it was as if his memories had been burned away.  He knew he was married, but he couldn’t remember her name or what she looked like.  His renewed thrusts were stilted, borne of panic, and he struggled to regain his rhythm.  Her lips on his throat were a constant reminder that she could end it all now if she so desired, that she could rip away a mouthful of flesh and allow him to bleed out on the deck, to be found by the ship’s crew in the morning.  He continued to fuck her with a renewed urgency, as if his life depended on it, and before too long he felt that tingling sensation deep within his balls.  It quickly traveled up the length of his shaft, and with a throbbing pulse, he was there.

With the first pleasurable spasm, the pressure disappeared from this throat.  His eyelids fluttered open as another pulse seized him and he found himself staring into the inky darkness of the black-soaked horizon.  She was gone, but how was that possible?  There was only one way to go.  He was seized by another wave of pleasure and he stumbled forward, falling into the void.

Arms flailing, he managed to grab hold of the railing before plummeting over the side.  He stared into the depths below, watching the white caps lapping against the sides of the ship.  As another spasm seized him, he collapsed weakly to his knees, eyes still scanning the surface of the water for any sign of her, but there was nothing.

As yet another wave of pleasure caused his hips to involuntarily thrust forward, a movement immediately below caught his attention and he watched as a thick white thread of his ejaculate fell towards the roiling waters.  It should have been impossible to see, but as he watched, the creamy white strand grew, took on shape and coloration, and by the time it hit the turbulent surface, it had taken on a life of its own.  He watched in wonder as the newly formed sea otter splashed about before disappearing into the ocean’s depths.

* * *

He awoke in bed, feeling nauseous and weak.  The events of the previous evening had already faded from his memory like an elusive dream.  The curtains were open and the sun brightened the room, sending ice picks of pain into his skull.  I didn’t have anything to drink last night. . .  Shit, couldn’t even keep food down. . . So why do I feel like I’ve got a fucking hangover?  Shielding his eyes from the harsh glare, he rolled over to find the bed empty, the spot occupied by his wife cold.  He forced himself to sit up.  There was a pain in his buttocks he couldn’t explain.  He glanced around the room and found Sharon curled up on the loveseat.  Wrapped in a blanket, she didn’t look comfortable on the small seat.  What the hell is she doing over there?

The mattress springs squeaked as he made to get out of bed.  While not loud, the sound was enough to wake his wife.

“Where the hell did you disappear to last night?”  Though clouded with sleep, there was a chilly accusation in her words that froze him in mid-motion.  Slowly, he lowered himself to the bed.

“What do you mean?  I’ve been here.”

“Did you fuck her?”

Whoa!  Where is this coming from?  “Babe, how much did you have to drink last night?”

Angrily, she threw the blanket aside and got to her feet.  “Don’t try to make this about me. I didn’t have anything to drink.  But you. . .”  She approached the bed. “Christ!  You fucking stink!”

He lifted his arm and smelled his pit.  While he hadn’t showered yesterday, or the day before, the smell wasn’t as bad as she was making it out to be.  He looked at her, confused and scared.  He didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.  She had implied that he had sneaked out sometime during the night, but if he had, he couldn’t remember it.  He couldn’t see how he could have left the room, not with the way he was feeling, but something must have happened, otherwise she wouldn’t be acting this way.

“Who was she?”

“Shar. . .  There was nobody.  I swear.”

“Then where did you get all those scratches?”

“Wha. . .  What scratches?”  He looked down the length of his body and was surprised to find he was naked.  He had fallen into bed with his shorts on.  That much he remembered.  He glanced around the room, searching the floor for his shorts, but they were nowhere to be seen.  He made a move to search the bed, wondering if it was possible that he had slipped them off during the night, but the movement reawakened the pain in his buttocks.  He took a closer look at his body and noticed for the first time the scratches that marred his flesh.  There were all over his arms and legs and his dick looked like he had jerked off with coarse-grade sandpaper.

He stumbled from the bed and staggered towards the bathroom, where he examined his body in closer detail in the mirror over the sink.  On his neck was an ugly bruise that could easily be mistaken for a love bite.  God, I haven’t had one of those in years.  Long red welts ran from his shoulders to his stomach and a red rash covered his chest, stomach, and the insides of his arms.  He hadn’t seen an outbreak of hives like this since he was a kid and had rough-housed with his grandfather’s boxer.  The dog’s short, sharp fur had been like fiberglass, leaving him scratching for days.

He turned and did his best to examine his back. The same red welts streaked down his back and his ass cheeks were mottled black and blue.  It looked as if somebody had grabbed each mound of flesh in a vice-like grip.  Where the finger-like pattern ended, deep gouges ripped into his flesh.  They had scabbed over but were now bleeding anew, having been reopened by his sudden movements.  Fear enveloped him.  What the fuck happened to me last night?

A movement at the door caught his attention and he metSharon’s accusatory gaze in the mirror.   He could see the change in her expression as she realized what she was seeing in his face was raw terror.

“What happened last night,” she asked.

He shook his head slowly.  “I don’t know.”

Equinox: A WIP

1

The sun was almost down and the shadows crept over the earth in pursuit of the receding light, eager to lay claim to the land for the next few hours. Even though it was late in the season, the fairy-like lights of the fireflies still flickered here and there across the less-than-spacious front yard, in the shrubbery beyond, and occasionally in the air. It wouldn’t be long before their lights went out for the long winter ahead.

The fireflies weren’t the only thing clinging tenaciously to the last vestige of summer. The flowers they planted along the length of the porch still sported blooms, vibrant colors against the bland brown of the log cabin, and further out, wild flowers sprouted up between the majestic trees. The pines never lost their color, but the oaks. . . The oaks had yet to turn. Not a trace of orange, yellow, or gold could be seen amongst nature’s canopy, which was unlike the trees they had seen on the drive up. Autumn was arriving all across the northeast coast, arriving everywhere except for her. It was as if Mother Nature had placed a dome over this particular area of the forest, a barrier against the approaching seasonal change so she could enjoy summer’s beauty for just a little longer, before winter came and blanketed everything in a pristine coating of white.

Standing on the porch, Jake Dougherty breathed deeply of the crisp mountain air and took in the beauty that surrounded him. God’s country is what his father would have called it, land uncorrupted by the touch of humanity, save for the cabin they were staying in and the SUV parked on the dirt path that passed for a driveway. But even that cabin, as beautiful as it was, was as closed to primitive as you could get. The water was piped in from a natural spring, the sewer he assumed passed into a septic tank somewhere behind the building. There was no electricity. They used oil-fueled hurricane lamps and candles for light, and the rooms were heated by a series of fireplaces. It was as near to perfect as one could get. There was only one thing spoiling it.

As if on cue, the shrill voice of his wife of ten months broke the stillness that lay over the land. “Jake, did you remember to pack the camera?”

With a sigh, Jake reached in the breast pocket of his flannel shirt and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “Yes, dear,” he replied. He no longer tried to conceal the annoyance that peppered his tone whenever he spoke to her, especially since she seemed to be oblivious to it.

The door opened and he cringed inwardly and slipped the cigarettes back in his pocket as his wife came out to join him on the porch. She was a petite blonde with a flawless complexion despite the years she must have spent outdoors. Her skin was deep reddish brown, the product of a lifetime of sun worship, but it bore none of the damaging signs that would normally accompany that kind of exposure to the sun. As reluctant as he was to admit it, she was a truly beautiful woman, and any man would consider himself lucky to walk down the street with her on his arm, and so would he—if he was into that sort of thing. But Jake wasn’t.

Or at least he hadn’t been until this time last year.

Which is what he couldn’t understand.

He still had a hard time accepting the fact that he was married and, as Ivy Dougherty came to stand beside him, her belly fully of baby leading the way, that he was going to be a father. It was like living in a dream—or a nightmare, depending on your perspective. And for Jake Dougherty, it was a nightmare he hoped he would wake up from soon. But after ten months, if it hadn’t happened by now, he didn’t think he was ever going to wake up.

“Well, I looked everywhere and I can’t find it,” she said, placing her hands on her hips as if she expected him to go in and get it.

“Did you check in that blue sports bag?”

She turned a blank gaze on him, as if he had spoken in some language other than English. Whenever she looked at him that way, it was all he could do to keep from driving a fist into her face. He wasn’t violent by nature, but she was carrying this dumb blonde routine a bit far. Nobody could be that stupid. “That blue nylon bag on the bed.”

“No.”

“Then don’t say you looked everywhere when it’s obvious you haven’t.”

“Don’t be that way,” she pouted, lower lip pushed out, doe eyes turned up to try soften up his mood. She took a step in his direction, intent on sliding her arm through his, but he stepped away.

“Well, then don’t be so fuckin’ stupid.”

Before their exchange could escalate into an all-out argument, the door opened and Rafe Vargas stepped onto the porch, his wife, Daisy, hot on his heels. Despite the chill in the air, Rafe was shirtless, and the sight of the man’s bare torso, the deep caramel-colored skin with a thick coating of black fur covering the pecs that tapered off and ran in a thin trail down the man’s stomach to disappear past the waistband of his tight jeans, inexplicably took Jake’s breath away. Something stirred within him, but before he could put a name to the feeling, it was gone, disappeared at the same moment someone touched his arm. He looked down to see Ivy’s hand resting gently on his forearm. A shiver slithered along his spine and he jerked his arm away. The sudden movement caused his wife to lose her balance; she teetered on the top step and would have fallen if it hadn’t been for Daisy. Despite the fact that she was just as pregnant as Ivy, Daisy was quick to come to her sister’s aide, throwing daggers in Jake’s direction as she shoved him aside. Jake, grudgingly giving ground, met her gaze head on, willing them both to fall. Not that the fall would hurt either of them, but it might hurt the babies, and with the babies out of the way, maybe they, he and Rafe, would be freed from whatever hold these two women had on them.

As Rafe slipped between him and the two women on his way down the steps, he practically brushed against Jake in his effort to avoid coming into contact with either of the women. Their eyes met briefly. Jake could see the fear in the other man’s green eyes, a quiet, pleading desperation. It was the same look Jake imagined a fox might have in its eyes when it found itself caught in a trap and gnawed at its leg in an attempt to free itself and escape the death it knew was coming. It was the same look Jake saw in his own eyes whenever he looked in the mirror.

“Where ya goin’,” Jake asked.

Rafe paused, one foot still resting on the bottom step, and looked back at Jake. “We’re gonna need some more fire wood.” Jake noticed the way the man’s gaze danced back and forth between him and the wives.

“You want me to give you a hand with that?” Jake prayed Rafe heard the distress in his voice, his need to be away, but when the man responded, he realized he was on his own.

“That’s alright. I got it.” Before the words were even out of his mouth, Rafe was pushing away from the step. Without a glance at Jake, he hurriedly made his way around to the back of the house.

Under the watchful eyes of the Witches of Eastwick, Jake watched Rafe until the man disappeared from view. For a moment, he considered following the man out back, but he didn’t want to seem in desperate need of escape, so instead he went down the steps and started across the lawn. What he wanted to do more than anything else was to get into the SUV and head back to the city—Fuck everybody—but he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, leave Rafe to the mercy of those women. He felt a bond to the other man, one he couldn’t explain, that went beyond mere friendship.

He continued across the lawn, heading for the forest and that shadows beyond that waited for him to pass before they swallowed him whole. Halfway across the grass he stumbled as his head was filled with an annoying drone, a swarm of angry bees buzzing around in his skull. Looking around to see what might have caused him to trip, he shook his head, trying to clear it. It wasn’t the first time his thoughts had become clouded by this angry swarm, but this time he was able to think past it, which surprised him. There was only one thing that would clear it altogether, and that was distance between him and the woman he called his wife. The SUV called to him and he looked longingly at the huge forest-green vehicle. That would allow him to put a few miles between them in the shortest amount of time, but then thoughts of Rafe pushed their way into his head, and he knew he wouldn’t do it. Throwing a hate-filled glance in the direction of the porch, he turned and headed towards the tree line. He wanted—no, he needed—a smoke, and he didn’t want to hear his wife bitch about it.

2

Ivy watched Jake Dougherty walk away from the house. Deep furrows marred the beauty of her tanned features, giving her the appearance of an old crone, as she sent her thoughts toward the receding figure of the man. Stop. Turn around! COME BACK!

When the man didn’t stop, her hand crept protectively to her stomach as an alien feeling made its presence known, a feeling that had nothing to do with the baby growing within her. She could feel that foreign sensation settle there like a seed, an acorn, and as she continued to focus her concentration on Jake, she felt that hard shell crack open and that feeling spread, like the roots of the mighty oaks that filled the forest around them. Had she a few more years to her, she would have recognized the feeling for what it was—Fear—but she was still young. The closest she had come to knowing fear for what it was had been she had been selected to venture out into the world for the first time.

The feeling began to subside slightly when she saw Jake stumble. When he managed to recover his balance and start toward the dense wall of trees, the feeling surged and she was thankful for her sister’s presence, one hand resting on her forearm, the other still protectively around her waist. She reached out and grabbed Daisy’s thigh as the sensation traveled upward through her trunk, making it hard to breathe even as her heart rate accelerated. “Something is wrong,” she gasped. “I can feel it.”

“It’s the baby,” Daisy reassured her.

Ivy shook her head. “No. The baby is fine. This is something else.” She turned and met her sister’s gaze. “The man we know as Jake is not responding. I cannot control him anymore. Something is wrong.” There was a tremor in her voice as she added, “With me.”

Once again, Daisy said, “It’s the baby.” She caressed Ivy’s stomach. “It is drawing strength from you, feeding off you, making it harder for you to harness and spool The Power within you.”

“I do not like this feeling. If it is the baby doing it, I want it out of me. Please, Sister, take it from me. Now.”

Pulling Ivy closer, Daisy murmured in her ear, “Soon, Little One. Soon”

“Now.” Ivy struggled to pull away from her sister and what was meant to be a reassuring embrace. “I want it out now.” Finally, she broke free from her sister’s embrace. “I want to go home.”

Stepping down from the porch, Daisy opened her arms wide and spun around, laughing. “But you are home.”

Ivy folded her arms under her breasts and pouted. “No, I am not.”

“Yes, Little One, you are.”

“Am not.”

Daisy sobered and looked at the younger woman, afraid of what Ivy might say next. “Yes, you are.” Although she knew it was necessary, she sometimes felt it was a mistake to send the young ones out into the world. The Gift bestowed upon them by the Old One only allowed them to live a little over a year on the outside before they needed to return for The Harvest. Sadly, there were those who chose not to return, seduced by the material things they were shown by the breeders they had chosen. She, on her first journey into the world outside 75 years ago, had been tempted not to return, but the fear of not knowing what would happen to her once The Gift was reclaimed was stronger than her attraction for the lights, the cars, the clothes, the jewelry,…the men. Upon her return, she had learned what had befallen those who had not returned for The Harvest and she was glad she had made the decision she had. Not even The Harvest was enough to make her turn her back on her people. At least she was alive.

Having experienced the seductions Ivy had been faced with, tension coiled within her as she waited for the other woman’s response.

“Then why can we not go and rejoin the others?”

Daisy smiled as the tension eased from her body. “Because it is not time yet. But soon, Little One, soon.”

“When?”

Climbing the stairs, Daisy held out her hand to her Sister. As Ivy reached out, Daisy answered her. “Two days. We can leave in two days.”

Ivy’s hand dropped, and the look of anguish that came over the younger woman’s face touched Daisy’s heart. She could not bear to see her sister so unhappy. Surely there must be something she could do, short of leaving at this very moment, to remove that sorrow.

As the sound of Rafe starting his work out back echoed through the clearing surrounding the house, Daisy had an idea. Rafe would be awhile, and she didn’t think Jake would be back any time soon, which meant there would be plenty of time for what she had in mind.

“It’s only two days,” she said, moving so she stood behind Ivy. “What’s two more days?” She slipped her arms around the other woman’s waist. She could feel the tension fade as the younger woman relaxed under her touch. Her hands roved over the younger woman’s belly; the energy that radiated from the life within was intoxicating, making her giddy enough to throw caution to the wind. Her hands continued to roam Ivy’s body, cupping her breasts and gently kneading them. Ivy responded to her touch with a soft moan. Daisy wanted nothing more than to take her here and now, so close to the forest, where the breeze would add its caress to their skin, slip between their heated bodies and reach places their physical form wouldn’t allow them to reach, but she needed to be careful. It was too close to The Harvest to arouse the suspicion of the men. Jealousy was an ugly creature, and there was no telling what their response would be to the two women doing what nature had intended them to do. When Ivy turned in her arms and reached out to unbutton her blouse, she knew the younger woman was feeling the Call of the Wild the same as she was. She was able to suppress her desire long enough to disengage herself from the other woman’s arms, take her hand, and lead her inside.

3

An overwhelming feeling of guilt accompanied Rafe Vargas as he made his way around to the back of the house, but there was something eating away at him, something that made him feel even more uneasy than being around his wife lately, if that was possible. It was ridiculous, he knew that; after all, he and Jake had been friends for years, but lately there was something passing between them that set off the alarm bells in his head.  It was there in the way Jake looked at him when he thought no one was looking, with longing and a thinly veiled simmering intensity that had Rafe blushing whenever their eyes met. It made him uncomfortable and he was always quick to look away, afraid that holding the other man’s gaze would invite something more, something his mind told him he did not want, but there was no denying his body’s response whenever that gaze was turned his way. And even though he turned away and was no longer looking at Jake, he could still feel the weight of the other man’s eyes on him. It always left him with an unshakable feeling that they shared some forgotten connection, a bond that ran deeper than just friendship. It was the same way Rafe felt when he first met Daisy, like something lost was suddenly found, and now that it was found he never wanted to lose it again, and while the feelings toward his wife were still there, every time he looked at Jake, he questioned the feelings he had for her. And lately, within the past month or so, whatever he felt toward Jake seemed to be growing. His feelings for his friend were becoming stronger than the ones he had for the woman he married, and that was just wrong. W. R. O. N. G. Wrong. Don’t get me wrong, he argued with himself as he walked. I love Jake. I do. We’ve been friends a long time. He’s like a brother to me. So, yeah, I love the guy. Just not that way. I’m not gay. I’m married, for Christ’s sake, gonna be a daddy any day now. But no matter how convincing the words might sound in his head, no matter how much conviction he put behind them, they felt hollow, like he was lying to himself.

He glanced over his shoulder in time to see Jake disappear into the woods. For a moment he considered forgetting all about the wood and going after his friend, even took a couple of steps in that direction, but then quickly thought better of it. Given the confusing swell of emotions coursing through him, not to mention the unwelcome swelling between his legs, he didn’t trust what might happen should he and Jake be left alone together. Better to focus on the task at hand. It was an effort to turn his back on his friend, but he knew he was making the right decision.

Stepping around the corner, he cut across the yard to the small toolshed. The building had seen better days and probably wouldn’t last another winter. The small window was busted out, and the weathered boards were badly warped. Next to it, scattered in the grass were three logs—hardly enough to get them through the week, but it would suffice for now. He’d split those tonight and tomorrow morning he’d head out to cut down another tree.

Reaching the shed, he reached out to flip the latch, but they never quite got there. Instead, his fingers fell on something carved into the wood of the door. It was a heart, and within that heart were a pair of initials—J.D. and R.V.—and below them, 2gether 4ever. From the smooth texture of the scarred wood, it was obvious that this had been done some time ago, but when? And by who? Those initials, it had to be a coincidence, but as his fingers slowly traced the deep groove that formed the heart, his mind was bombarded with a series of images, images that couldn’t possibly be real. A younger Jake, shirtless, grinning mischievously, a pocket knife in hand. Behind him, a shed. This shed. Jake carving something in the wood. Jake stepping aside to show what he had done. Jake taking somebody in his arms. Kissing that person. As the images flashed by, Rafe knew he was that other person. The phantoms of the past reached through the years, and he could feel the other man’s arms around him, could feel the press of his friend’s lips against his own. He could even smell the cologne Jake always wore, and below that was the intoxicating aroma of the man’s sweat mixed with the musky scent of lust.

What the hell is going on?

His fingers moved to the initials carved within the heart, and as his fingers traced their form, the images kept coming, as did the sense memories. He could feel everything as it was replaying in his mind, the press of Jake’s body against his own, the kisses fluttering on his shoulder, the other man’s arousal pushing against him. He closed his eyes and let the memories take him. His legs trembled at the intensity of the sensations, his own erection straining behind the zipper of his jeans. Phantom fingers circled his navel, trailed their way up along his stomach a feather touch that left him shivering in anticipation. His nipples hardened as invisible thumbs grazed ever so gently over them. “Do it,” he gasped. The breathy exhalation turned into a moan of intense pleasure, and as past and present merged together and impaled him, his crotch was flooded with the heat of his climax. Heart racing in his chest, he dropped weakly to his knees and continued to fall forward, catching himself with his hands before rolling over onto his back. The grass was cool against his heated flesh, and as he stared up into the darkening sky, he saw Jake leaning over him, looking down at him, a smile on his face and his eyes alight with the fire of the love they shared. Rafe reached up to pull the other man down, but just before he could slide his fingers through Jake’s hair, the man began to fade.

“Jake…”

Words failed him when he tried to say more. He wanted to get up and follow Jake, but whatever the hell just happened left him feeling as weak as a newborn.  He couldn’t even keep his arm up without his body shaking with the effort, so he let it drop to the grass at his side. The visions… the memories… whatever they hell they were continued to flash through his head so quickly he could barely keep up with them. They left him feeling dizzy, disoriented, and if he tried to slow the progression of images as they played out, they retaliated by sending a sharp, stabbing pain to his temples, so he lay there enjoying the afterglow of his orgasm and waited for the world to stop spinning and his strength to return.

4

                Once inside, Daisy wasted no time leading her sister through the rooms to the bedroom she shared with her breeder mate, and with each step they shed themselves of the symbols of modesty the society they lived in for the past year forced upon them. By the time they reached the mating chamber they were as nature intended them to be. There was no shame as they looked at each other with a burning desire in their eyes. It was as if the energy within them, magnified by the additional life force they both carried, would not be contained. It was shining out from their eyes and radiating from every pore, every opening, and was a sight to behold. Had it been able to manifest itself in physical form, Daisy knew she would have been blinded by the sheer intensity of it.

With a smile on her face, Daisy held out her hands to her sister, and the younger woman came forward eagerly. From the moment their fingers touched, the energy began to flow between them, through them, igniting a spark of pleasure that caused them both to gasp. They continued to move closer to each other until their nipples brushed together, igniting yet another spark of pleasure. Daisy slowly caressed her sister’s arm, enjoying the sensation the physical contact brought, and when she reached the other woman’s shoulder, she slipped her hand around her neck and pulled her in for a kiss. Ivy met her lips with an open-mouthed urgency as hands brushed her hips on their way to fondle her breasts. Every innocent touch was far more sensual and far more arousing than anything her mate had ever done to her, but then there hadn’t been that ethereal energy flowing between them. That was something she only shared with her sisters. With them there was no need for anything more intimate that what she and Ivy were doing right now—a shared kiss, an innocent caress—to trigger a climax. It was the energy flowing between them more than the intimate contact that brought about the sexual release. Already she could feel the pleasure beginning to build at the core of her being. It was too soon, but she knew there was little time for what they were doing. There was a chance either of the men could walk in at any moment, but she needed this. She had been deprived for too long and she wanted to make it last.

Over the past year moments like this were few and far between, which was a new experience for her. In the past she and her sisters, were she fortunate enough to be within close proximity of one of them, were able to openly share intimate moments with each other, and they were often encouraged by their chosen mates to do so. Sometimes the men would join in, but most times they were content to pleasure themselves while they watch. This time around, however, Daisy found she and Ivy had to focus most of their time and energy on keeping to the two men apart. It was the first time Daisy had ever encountered two men who were attracted to each other and showed no interest whatsoever in women. In fact, when she and Ivy first happened upon these two men, both were naked and the one with the darker skin was being mounted like a woman by the lighter-skinned man.

The press of Ivy’s lips against her neck brought her back to the present. The warmth of the other woman’s tongue leaving wet trail along her flesh and it descended down her chest and followed the swell of her breast caused her to throw her head back and emit a soft purr of contentment. She took a tentative step backward, toward the bed, and without missing a beat, Ivy followed. She brought a hand up and twined her fingers through Ivy’s hair, guiding the younger woman towards the aroused peak of her breast as she lowered herself onto the mattress. The sensations they were feeling would have been magnified a hundred times had they been outside in and direct contact with the earth, but they couldn’t risk discovery. At least not yet.

As Daisy settled onto the bed, Ivy lowered herself on top of her, flicking her tongue over the nipple of her right breast. She wanted her sister to linger there, but the younger woman must have sensed the urgency because it was obvious she had other plans. Ivy continued to kiss and lick her way down her body, taking a moment to coo softly in their native tongue to the child within, and Daisy spread her legs, making it easier for her sister to access her nether regions, where Ivy’s fingers were already at work, gently circling, teasing, but not penetrating. Daisy arched her back, all the while running her fingers through Ivy’s hair, gently urging her downward.

Suddenly all thoughts of pleasure fled as Daisy felt something within her rupture. She sat up quickly, pushing Ivy away. Her first thought was the baby, but it only took a moment to realize the baby was safe. They weren’t, however. She didn’t know how it happened, but the control she had over the man called Rafe Vargas had been severed, the breaking of those invisible reins so strong it was like a physical blow. She didn’t know how much time they had before he came barging in, so they needed to be away, and quickly.

She struggled to her feet and held out a hand to her sister. “Come. We need to go.”

“What has happened?”

Impatient, Daisy snatched Ivy’s hand and pulled her roughly to her feet. “There’s no time for questions. We need to leave.” She was already moving toward the door, dragging her sister behind her. “Now.” She spied the keys on the dresser. The idea of driving the SUV sickened her. She hated all vehicles with their toxic emissions, polluting the air and destroying the natural world, but this was an emergency. Without giving it a second thought, she snatched the keys from the dresser as she went, and was all but jerked off her feet when Ivy stooped to gather up her clothes,

“Leave them,” she snapped at the younger woman.

“But…”

“There’s no time.”

Heeding her sister, Ivy stood up and allowed Daisy to lead her outside.

Daisy approached the SUV. “Get in,” she barked, opening the driver’s side door and climbing behind the week. When Ivy was seated beside her, she stuck the key in the ignition the way she’d seen the man do and gave it a twist. The engine roared to life. She settled back in the seat and tried to remember what else he did. Her memory was usually better than this, but she wasn’t usually under this kind of pressure. She looked nervously out the window to see if the one known  as Rafe was coming around the side of the house.

There was no sign of him yet, but she sensed the danger approaching. She looked in the mirrors trying to see what was behind them. She prayed to the Goddess she wouldn’t see the one known as Jake running from the forest. Of the two, he was the more dangerous. The way behind them was clear, but that didn’t stop her from turning in the seat and scanning the field through the rear window. With no sign of either man, she allowed herself to relax a little, which helped her focus her thoughts. Taking a deep breath, she shifted the vehicle into “Drive” and eased her foot down on the pedal.

At first, nothing happened. She pressed down on the pedal again, harder, but still they didn’t move. She looked down and saw the other pedal and shifted her foot over and pressed down. Ivy let out a squeal as the vehicle leapt forward, driving them both against the seat backs. She quickly stepped on the other pedal, and they were thrown forward as the vehicle came to an abrupt halt. She shifted her foot back to the other pedal and gently pressed down on it. The SUV started to inch forward.

Feeling a little more confident, she gripped the steering wheel and guided the vehicle into a slow circle until they were facing down the dirt road. Breathing a sigh of relief, she gave it more gas. The large vehicle moved more quickly, and at first it was a struggle making it go in the direction they wanted to go, but she soon got the hang of it, and once she did, they were on their way.

WIP: Zombie Fight Night

The idea behind this project was originally conceived a short story for a themed anthology, but I found I quickly exceeded the word count, so it has become one of several novellas I am working on.

1

The gunshots echoed through the concrete canyons of New York City’s Greenwich Village. To David Valcin, who drifted in that blissful state between sleeping and wakefulness, it was the sound of distant thunder. He rolled over, waiting for the drumming of the rain to begin, but that first volley of shots was only followed by another round. He reached out to pull Mark closer to him, seeking comfort in the warmth of his lover’s body, but his arm fell on empty space. He opened his eyes to the darkness of their bedroom to find himself alone in bed. The space next to him was still warm, so Mark had only recently gotten up. Rolling over to face the window, he found his lover seated on the window seat, one leg curled beneath him, the other pulled up to his chest. His chin was resting on his knee as he stared out onto the street below. His nude form was a mask of shadows highlighted by the bluish rays of the full moon filtering through the grime-streaked glass.

“Whatcha thinkin’ about, Babe?”

Dave didn’t really need an answer to the question; he knew exactly where Mark’s thoughts were. He didn’t think it likely that Mark had put the events of the previous day behind him so quickly, but he had yet to really talk about it, as if by not talking about it would make it less real. It wasn’t that Mark was unaware of what was happening; he was just in denial, and the fact that this new reality had forced its way into his sanctuary, had threatened those who had been entrusted to his care, Dave feared it was a little too much for Mark to handle.

Dave knew something had happened at the school. The details had been slow coming in, but from what Dave had been able to piece together, the principal had suffered a heart attack and died, only to come back and attack one of the classrooms. One teacher and five students had been bitten by the time the police had arrived. The officers were left with no choice but to put them down, like they were nothing more than a pack of rabid dogs. This was the world they lived in now. The threat had been contained to one classroom on the second floor, so there was never an immediate danger to Mark and his class, who were on the fourth floor of the building, but the threat had been a little too close to home. When Mark had come home, he was quiet, never mentioned the incident, and Dave hadn’t pushed, figuring when his lover was ready, he’d talk.

When no response was forthcoming, Dave figured Mark hadn’t heard him. “Babe?”

Mark turned his head. “Did I wake you?”

“Nah.” Dave shifted, laying on his side, and propped himself up on his elbow. “Anything exciting out there?”

“Not really. Quiet, actually.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

Mark went back to studying the street below.

“Talk to me.”

After a long silence, Mark said, “It’s not fair.”

“Mark. . .”

“It’s not,” Mark whined. “This was supposed to be our ‘Happily ever after’. Our fairy tale ending. Not something out of a fuckin’ Stephen King novel.”

“Shit happens.”

Mark’s head whipped around. “How can you be so. . .”

“Rational? Matter of fact?”

“It’s a fuckin’ nightmare!”

“It’s not that bad.”

“Not that bad? There are zombies out there! Real-life fuckin’ zombies!”

Sensing that Mark was on the verge of another emotional meltdown, Dave threw back the blankets and got out of bed. He was naked and the slight chill in the room caused him to shiver. He crossed to the window and wrapped his arms around his lover, pulling the younger man securely against his chest. “It’s not that bad because I’ve got you with me.” He placed a kiss on top of Mark’s head before turning his attention to the street below.

The bar across the street was dark, the windows broken and boarded up. The newsstand next door to it was in a similar state, the glass panel on the door shattered, the display window gone. Glossy pages of skin mags littered the street, offering up an eye full to those who passed by – if they cared to look, but at this hour of the night, those who wandered the streets only had one thing on their minds. Food. Warm, living flesh and hot, racing blood. It was getting harder to come by. People had learned quickly that while the walking dead never slept, they were more active at night. During the day, the dead were drawn to cool, darkened interiors, the parking garages and the open warehouses, almost as if they knew the heat of the day would speed up their decomposition. What it would be like once the weather started to cool Dave didn’t want to think about.

Armed with that knowledge, the living took advantage of the daylight hours, venturing out and foraging for food and supplies. All that was getting scarce, too, which is why Dave thought it best if they put the city behind them. The reports on the news, of which there hadn’t been any in a couple of weeks, warned that the dead seemed to be drawn to the cities. Reports coming in from all over the world confirmed that the large metropolitan areas were no longer safe. But was anywhere really safe anymore? Who knew how long it would be before the dead outnumbered the living? It could realistically happen.

Dave shifted his weight from one foot to the other, the movement pulling Mark from whatever thoughts he was lost in. The younger man sighed.

“What is it, Hun,” Dave asked.

“Just thinking.”

“About?”

There was a hesitation before Mark spoke, as if he was afraid to give voice to his thoughts. He continued to stare out the window. “Do you think. . . Do you think things will ever be like they were?” There was a silent desperation in his voice, a need to be reassured, and Dave didn’t think he could give him that reassurance.  When Dave didn’t answer, Mark looked up at him. “Well, do you?”

“I don’t know.” Dave looked down and felt his resolve begin to slip as he met Mark’s gaze. He realized in that moment just how bad things were for Mark, especially when, after yesterday’s incident, that had decided to shut down the schools. Without the classroom, without the kids, there was nothing to keep the younger man occupied during the days when Dave was at work. Mark knew his own weaknesses, and facing down a zombie was one of them, which is why yesterday had to have been traumatic for him. Had that zombie broken into his classroom, he would have been paralyzed with fear, powerless to protect his charges. Dave had a feeling Mark would no longer have any desire to venture out, and how long would he last mentally if he cooped himself up in the apartment with nothing but books to pass the hours away while Dave worked? For the first time since all this came down, Dave felt scared, for himself and for Mark. He didn’t know what he would do if anything happened to Mark. And that’s when he had made the decision. They had talked about it, but yesterday had removed any doubt Dave might have had.

“Shift,” Dave said, giving the other man a nudge with his thigh.

When Mark inched forward, Dave slipped in behind him. He sat down and pulled Mark closer, resting his chin on the other man’s shoulder, cheek to cheek. The glass pane was chilled against his bare flesh and he shivered. As Mark turned his attention to the apartment building across the way, Dave wondered, not for the first time, how things had gotten out of hand so quickly.

It had only been six weeks — God, is that all it’s been? — since the first report had come over the news that a woman in Saint Mary’s Hospital who had been declared clinically dead had returned to life. She had been deemed a medical miracle until test results indicated that she was still clinically dead. No pulse. No heart beat. No respiration. No nothing. She should have been lying on a cold slab in the morgue, but instead she was up and walking around. Well, shambling around would have been a better descriptor. You could see from the film footage that it was an effort for her to put one foot in front of the other, like a marionette with an inept puppeteer pulling the strings. The news commentator did state that the woman, whose name was being withheld, did seem to have a healthy appetite. At the time they had failed to mention what the woman had had a craving for. It hadn’t come out until the next day that she had killed the morgue attendant, had partially eaten his body, and he too had come back from the dead.  He had been found on the third floor of the hospital, in the maternity ward. Enough said there, but there was no way of knowing how many people he had infected, as he had been free to roam the building the entire night before being found the following morning. The hospital had been placed under quarantine, but not before whatever it was that was causing the dead to rise up had escaped from the facility. The way the plague was spreading morbidly reminded Dave of that old Faberge shampoo commercial, the one that said, “I told two friends, and we told two friends, and so on and so on. . .” By the end of that first week, reports of the walking dead were pouring in from all across the United States, and by the middle of the second week, the situation had gone global.

A tension beneath his hands brought Dave out of the past and back into the present. Only one thing could spark this sudden reaction in his lover.

On the street below, stumbling from the shadows into the harsh glare of the streetlight was a woman. Or had once been a woman. You couldn’t think of them as people anymore, not when your very survival depended on your ability to put a bullet through their heads. Or an axe. Whatever it took to damage the brain. It was a short trip to insanity if you couldn’t put that kind of distance between yourself and them. It was a concept Mark still had difficulty wrapping his mind around. Whenever he saw one, he froze, like the proverbial deer in the headlights, unable to believe that the thing before him meant to do him harm. Even three flights up, in the safety of their apartment, he still suffered a strong reaction to the walking dead. If Dave hadn’t been around, Mark would have joined their ranks weeks ago. No matter how often Dave tried to drill it into his lover’s head, Mark still lived in the world of Denial.

Tightening his left arm around Mark’s shoulders, Dave’s right hand soothingly caressed the other man’s bare chest. Together they watched the zombie shamble its way down the street. Its gait was uneven, having lost one of its high-heeled shoes somewhere along the way. Dave fought to suppress a chuckle as an old nursery rhyme from his childhood played through his head: Deedle deedle dumpling, my son John, went to bed with his stockings on. One shoe off and one shoe on. . . His laughter would only serve to aggravate Mark’s delicate condition, but trying to find humor in this Romero Film Fest come to life was the only way he was able to retain his tentative hold on sanity. That, and the man in his arms. Mark had no clue how much Dave relied on him to be his anchor. Without Mark, would there really be any point in going on?

As it continued on its way, the couple could see that the back of the thing’s blood-stained blouse had been shredded, exposing skin that had been repeatedly clawed at by undead fingers eager for warm meat. The smooth flesh of its arms and legs was marred by ragged wounds where the skin had been bitten and ripped away. As it continued down the street, two more zombies came into view. There would be more. The night belonged to them.

Dave placed a gentle kiss on the top of his lover’s head and tried to gently pull him away from the window. “Come back to bed,” he whispered. “I want to make an early start.”

Mark tilted his head and looked up at him. “We’re still going?”

Dave nodded.

“But why? We’re safe here. Why can’t we stay here?”

“Babe, we’ve been over this before,” Dave explained for what seemed like the hundredth time as he led Mark back to their bed and gently pushed him down on the mattress. At times like this, Dave felt as if he was dealing with a child rather than a grown man. Mark allowed himself to be tucked in, but his eyes never left Dave as the man rounded the bed and crawled in next to him. Pulling Mark close and holding him tight, Dave sighed. “It’s not going to be safe for long. You heard what they said on the news. Those things are being drawn to the cities for some reason. We need to leave before we’re trapped here.”

“But this is our home,” Mark mumbled sleepily.

“Home is where the heart is, Sweetie,” Dave whispered in his lover’s ear. “And my heart is with you. Always. Wherever we go, as long as we have each other, we’ll always be home.” Dave knew how corny and cliché that sounded, but it was what Mark needed to hear. He needed the reassurance that they would always be together, even though Dave knew it was a promise he couldn’t keep. As he had said earlier, shit happens, and while he would do his damnedest to keep them both alive, he couldn’t guarantee that he would always be successful. Dave waited until he knew the other man was asleep before allowing himself to close his eyes and let sleep claim him.

2

Civilization had devolved so quickly once the dead started walking, and it had rapidly become every man for himself. The police had given up trying to stop the looting; they had bigger problems as they tried to stem the growth of the booming undead population. It was a problem they found near to impossible to contain; the civilian casualties were adding to the undead ranks faster than the police and military could cut them down. As a result, not a store front had been spared. It didn’t seem to matter what the store sold, from flower shops to sex shops, the jewelry stores and the video stores, if there was something to be had for the taking, it had been taken. This early in the day, the once-bustling streets of Greenwich Village had the abandoned feel of a ghost town. As far as the eye could see, the streets were deserted. The dead had taken to the cool interiors now that the sun had risen, but it was still too early for the living to be out foraging.

Standing on the corner of Bleeker and Christopher Streets, Dave waited for Mark to come down. Dave felt a pang of guilt as a patrol car passed by a block away, heading south along Seventh Avenue. Probably headed for City Hall to defend the City’s illustrious mayor. So many of his fellow officers had already abandoned their posts in the name of self-preservation, packing up their families and getting the hell out of Dodge before the much-dreaded dam broke and the dead came pouring into the city. He refused to judge them because as much as he had cursed them out at the time, here he was about to do the same thing. He would just be one more body who didn’t show up for roll-call this morning.

A sound drew his attention and he turned to look up the street. Across from the apartment building, the door to the boarded-up bar opened and a man stepped out. He was a tall man dressed in black jeans and a blue denim shirt, and while not fat, the man’s fondness for the bottle was beginning to become evident in the slight paunch he carried. His wavy brown hair, which normally hung loose to his shoulders, was pulled back in a ponytail, exposing the profile of a handsome bearded face. In his right hand was a 12-guage he had looted from one of the sporting goods stores.

Dave started up the street towards the bar. “Hey, Dean,” he called out so as not to startle his friend.

Dean Miller didn’t respond at first, only watched Dave approach. As Dave pulled up even with the man, Dean eyed the backpack strapped to Dave’s shoulders. “Finally abandoning the sinking ship, huh?”

Offering up an embarrassed grin, Dave said, “Yeah. The gun shots last night clinched it.”

“Didn’t hear it.”

You wouldn’t, Dave thought bitterly. Probably drank yourself into oblivion. “It’s getting worse. Mark. . .”

He’d been about to explain what happened at the school but the bigger man cut him off with a wave of the hand. “Don’t need to explain yourself. You’ve been talking about it the past few days.”

“You sure we can’t convince you to come along?”

Dean shook his head. “They’ll get them under control.”

“That’s not what they were saying on the News.”

“And when have they ever been right? Christ, they can’t even get the weather right.”

Dave bit his tongue. The bartender could be as stubborn as all hell, and was there really any point in arguing? Comparing a weather forecast to a zombie apocalypse? The man was almost as bad as Mark when it came to living in denial. Dave wished he could be so lucky, but he had always been a realist, even as a kid.

He had known his mother slept around. There had been no sugar coating that fact. Just like there had been no way to paint a rosy picture of the fact that his father liked to suck cock. His old man had been a heavy drinker, and then blamed the alcohol, but Dave knew the booze had only served to lower his father’s inhibitions and allowed him to give in to his baser desires. It had also been the only way of alleviating the guilt of betrayal he had felt every time he had one of his trysts. When the man was sober, the venom that spewed from his mouth towards the fags had made Dave fear for his safety when he was younger.

Over the top of the SUV parked at the curb across the street Dave could see the door to the apartment building open, followed by, “Some help here!” He grinned as he excused himself from Dean and started over to help his lover. Mark had just made it out the door. He had his backpack on and was struggling with two large boxes. Dave wondered what the hell was so important that it couldn’t be left behind. Taking one of the boxes, which was heavier than he had expected, he moved to the rear of the SUV and opened the back hatch. “What the hell do you have in here,” he asked as he opened the flap of the box. He hadn’t planned on taking anything that they couldn’t fit in their packs, but what he saw caused a lump to rise up in his throat and his eyes to well up with unshed tears. On top was a large white photo album with silver lettering that declared, “OUR WEDDING.” While the state of New York still didn’t officially recognize same-sex marriages, they did acknowledge domestic partnerships. He and Mark were still newlyweds. They had had their commitment ceremony just two short months ago and had taken their “honeymoon”, spending seven days touring the Down Under. They had only been back a few days before the shit hit the fan.

After Mark had set the box down, Dave, feeling the tears slip from the corners of his eyes and roll down his cheeks, pulled him into an embrace.

Mark returned the smile and wiped away the trail of tears. “Did I do good?”

“Babe, you did great!”

“I wasn’t sure. . . You know. . . If we were coming back.”

It was little things like this that made Dave love Mark all the more. Where Dave tended to see the big picture, it was Mark who thought of all the little details, and while it could be aggravating at times, there were other times, like now, that it was so endearing.

“I know what you said about packing light,” Mark said, pulling back slightly, “but I couldn’t leave them. . .”

Dave silenced him with a kiss. “It’s okay. Really. Now go say goodbye to Dean and let’s get this show on the road.”

As Mark went over to say his goodbyes, Dave finished stowing the boxes and backpacks, nestling them alongside the rest of the gear he had already packed while Mark slept. When he closed the door and turned around, the two men were standing by the vehicle. There was an awkward moment of silence as the men stood there, none of them really wanting to say goodbye.

Dave finally broke the silence. “You sure you don’t want to come with us?”

“Get the hell out of here.” Dean turned to Mark. “You keep him out of trouble, y’hear?”

Mark nodded, then threw himself at the bigger man, hugging him tightly. After a quick embrace between Dave and Dean, the couple got in the SUV. Dave kept his gaze fixed on the rearview mirror as they pulled away from the curb and drove down the street. Dean hadn’t moved. Dave held his breath, hoping the man would start after them, having a change of heart, but he only stood there staring after them. As he made the right turn onto 12th Avenue, Dave wondered if they would ever see the bartender again.

3

Neither man spoke as they made their way slowly uptown, maneuvering around the abandoned vehicles littering the stretch of road. Occasionally Dave would glance over at Mark; his lover had his head back against the high-backed seat, eyes closed. Dave envied him. He didn’t have to witness just how bad the situation was in the city. The street was awash with deep brown pools, evidence of the “roadkill” the police department spent much of the morning cleaning up. Roadkill was their term for what the zombies left behind. There was a fear of their numbers increasing, so every morning patrols were discharged to gather up the remains. In most instances there wasn’t enough left to come back, but still they gathered up what they could. The remains were loaded into trucks and transported to the Bronx, where they were burned. By midafternoon, the smell of burning flesh was so thick in the air that it reached the other boroughs.

Passing through the Meat Packing District, Dave prayed Mark would keep his eyes closed. The area was aptly named, more so now than in the past, and once housed butcher shops and slaughter houses that supplied the city’s supermarkets with fresh meat on a daily basis. Now it was a central depository for roadkill and zombies alike. Mounds of bodies and body parts had been dumped in the truck bays, awaiting transport to the Bronx. Armed soldiers stood around looking bored, a precaution just in case anything within those mounds started to move. Within the cool darkness of the buildings, Dave knew corrals had been built and were being used as pens to hold the walking dead. The President of the United States had handed down an edict that every city across the country was to round up as many active specimens as possible for research. It was not yet known what had caused the dead to come back to life, but Washington was determined to find out why.

The midtown stretch of the West Side Highway was so congested with abandoned vehicles and an overturned tractor trailer that Dave had to detour to the side streets, but the streets proved to be just as impassable as the main roadway. As he eased his way between a rusted minivan and a blood-splattered white gold Chrysler Sebring convertible with its roof shredded, his attention was so focused on making his way to the less-crowded sidewalk that he wasn’t aware of the corpse making its way towards his vehicle until pounded against the passenger-side window, earning a startled shriek from Mark.  It pounded against the window again, pressing its mouth to the glass as if it could bite through it. The wild mane of black hair matted with blood, the grey-tinged chocolate brown flesh, and the milky white orbs that seemed to stare through him had Mark pressing against him in an effort to put as much distance as possible between him and that thing, which made it difficult for Dave to reach the holster that contained his service revolver. He knew they were safe in the SUV as long as the doors were locked, but his police instinct kicked in. After a quick scan of the area, he unlocked his door and started to get out, but stopped when he felt Mark’s restraining hand on his arm.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting rid of it.”

With the door slightly ajar, the smell of death was thick in the air and Dave could hear the unmistakable moans, drifting like the wind through the leaves, emanating from the parking garage across the street. They had stumbled across a hive of them. Staring past the thing on the far side of the SUV, he could just barely make out the movement within the shadows. Without getting out of the vehicle, he pulled the door closed and locked it as his foot depressed the gas pedal. The SUV inched forward with painstaking slowness, the zombie easily keeping pace, pounding against the window with the flat of its hand. The big vehicle climbed the sidewalk with ease and then he floored the pedal. The zombie stumbled as the SUV leapt forward. At any other time, the sight of the woman’s breasts popping free of the stiff leather bustier it wore would have been comical, but seeing the bags of desiccated flesh swaying in the breeze as the thing fell left Dave feeling sick to his stomach. It was uncharacteristic for him, and he couldn’t understand why some things effected him and others didn’t. He could stare these things down and blow their brains out the back of their skulls without flinching, but something as simple as a “wardrobe malfunction” left him feeling shaken. Maybe it was the simple fact that it reminded him that these things were once human.

As they approached the corner and prepared to make the turn onto the Avenue of the Americas, a woman stumbled from the Old Navy, shopping bags in hand. She paused on the sidewalk in front of the oncoming vehicle, forcing Dave to step on the brake.  She seemed oblivious of the SUV bearing down on her as she looked frantically around. She appeared to be in her thirties and was dressed in jeans and a dirty, sweat-soaked t-shirt that clung to her pregnant form. Dave watched as the woman darted forward between two parked cars with a speed that belied her condition and bent down to pick up something from the street. When she stood up, she held in her hand a stuffed toy elephant that had seen better days. One ear was missing and the trunk was in danger of falling off. A tuft of fluff poked through the material, like the oozing puss of an abscessed wound. Even though the windows were closed, Dave had no problem hearing her as she cried out, “Victoria!”

With a quick glance in the rearview mirror to check how far back the hooker was, Dave opened the door and rushed around the front of the vehicle. He needed to quiet the woman down for her own safety. Regardless of the time of day, shouting was one way of agitating the dead. It was like ringing the dinner bell around a bunch of starving kids. The sound of slamming car door told him Mark was following his lead. Together they approached the woman.

“Ma’am,” Dave said, automatically switching into cop mode. “Miss?”

The woman turned, noticing them for the first time. She hurried to them. “Have you seen my little girl? She’s only six and she doesn’t understand.”

“Just calm down, ma’am. We’ll find her.”

In a practiced move, she slid the shopping backs into her wrist and clutched the stuffed toy in both hands, pulling it to her chest. Her eyes darted up and down the street. “I had to go to the bathroom. I told her not to wander off. Victoria!”

“Ma’am, that’s not a good idea.”

“What?”

“The yelling. It’ll draw them out from wherever they are.” Dave cast a glance over his shoulder. The hooker had managed to get herself onto her feet and was making her way towards them, hands raised in front of her like a blind person who had lost her cane. “I think it best if we move this indoors.” He indicated everybody should relocate inside the department store.

“But Vicky. . .”

“We’ll find her. But you’re not gonna do your daughter any good if that thing gets hold of you.”

The woman glanced at the approaching zombie then back towards the store she had just left. It was obvious she was torn as to what to do. If she chose to continue her search outside, Dave would leave her to it. As cold-hearted as that might seem, he wasn’t about to jeopardize their safety. He held his breath, waiting for the woman to decide. Finally, with a cry of frustration, she darted back through the glass doors.

The interior of the department store was a-shambles. Clothes littered the floor and display racks had been knocked over. Cash registers had been smashed to the floor and against walls in desperate attempts to break them open to get at the riches contained within. Dave turned to the woman. “Where did you last see her?”

The woman, whose name was Cheryl Peterson, scurried over to one of the check-out counters. “I told her to stay right here. I told her not to move.” Tears threatened to spill as her voice broke. “I was only gone a few minutes.” Her hands absently kneaded at the stuffed elephant she had clutched to her chest.

“I want both of you to wait here. I’m gonna take a look around.”

“You’re wasting time,” the woman pleaded. “I looked everywhere.”

“And while you were going up the escalator, she might have been coming down the other one. You might’ve been missing each other.”

When a thorough search of the lower level and the upper floors turned up nothing, Dave returned to where Mark and the Peterson woman were waiting. While Mark had taken a seat on the floor with his back to the counter, eyes focused on the door, she was pacing anxiously between the two escalators.

Seeing him, Mark asked, “Anything?”

Dave shook his head.

The Peterson woman came running at the sound of Mark’s voice. Without waiting for Dave to reveal his findings, the absence of her little girl with him evidence enough that she was not in the building, laced into him. “See! I told you you was wasting time. I already looked. She’s out there somewhere!” She pointed at the plate glass window for added emphasis.

Mark stood up and approached Dave. “What now?”

“I want you to stay here.” Dave shot the woman a glance. “Both of you. I’m going to take a look around outside.”

“I’m going with you.” Cheryl Peterson stepped up close and personal and Dave forced down his cop instinct to push her away. She was worried about her daughter, and with another one on the way, her over-protectiveness was kicking in. A little late, Dave thought, but he could forgive her invasion of his personal space.

“No. You’re not.”

“She’s my daughter.”

“And if you want her back safe and sound, you’ll do as I say.”

She opened her mouth to argue, but Dave cut her off. “There’s no telling how many of those things are out there. If I have to watch out for you, you’re only going to slow me down. Put us both in danger. Put your daughter in danger.”

“Vicky doesn’t know you. She won’t come to you.”

“When I find her, if that’s the case, I’ll make sure she’s safe before coming back for you.”

Cheryl looked as if she wanted to argue, but the look on his face and the tone in his voice said there would be no further discussion on the matter. Before she had a chance to recover her voice, Dave turned and left the store.

Mortality

Back in October, right after I finished up some major dental work, I detected a lump on the side of my throat.  When I questioned the dentist about it, he said it had something to do with the impacted wisdom teeth, and that once they were removed, it would subside.  I let it go at that, figuring I would eventually get around to getting the wisdom teeth taken out.  Well, in late February I made an appointment with the oral surgeon to have the wisdom teeth taken out.  He noticed the lump and refused to do anything until I had it checked out by my physician.  I still didn’t treat it as anything major, and I didn’t do anything to push up my physical, which was scheduled for some time in March.  It wasn’t bothering me, and there were no symptoms accompanying it.  No weight loss, no fever, no pain.  It was something that had cropped up literally overnight, and since October it had never gotten any larger.  Smaller, yes.  From smaller, it had returned to the original size.  But it had never gotten any larger.  My doctor, on the other hand, was immediately concerned, asking my why I hadn’t come in sooner.  He didn’t like my response, which was, “Because it wasn’t bothering me.”  He made an appointment with a head and neck specialist, who I went to see within the week.  While he didn’t seem to think it was any cause for concern, he did think it would be better if it was removed.  The sooner the better.  And still it didn’t seem to phase me in the slightest.

Well, the surgery was Friday.  I was home Saturday.  The mass that was removed from my neck was a little smaller than a golf ball, about the size of a jawbreaker candy, which surprised me, because it really didn’t feel that large on the surface.  They are running tests on it.  I’ll have the results by the end of the week.  And I’m still not feeling anything — other than the pain of the surgery.  I’m in more pain now than I was before the operation.

I had to wonder at my emotional response, or lack thereof, to this whole health scare.  Have the events of the past six years deadened me to the entire concept of death and dying?  In December of 2004, my sister passed away.  She was 48.  In 2005, I almost lost my mother.  She had become so sick that I was asked to sign a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate).  That was one of the hardest things I had ever had to do.  And then in 2006, my oldest brother passed away at the age of 53.  There are other things that happened afterward that I won’t go into because I don’t think they have any bearing on what I am going through now.  I think these three incidents are the key.  More specifically, that damned DNR.  I know I was doing the right thing when I signed it, but on that day, something inside me died.   Up until that time, I had always questioned the why of things; now I just accept things as they come, and that scares me more than anything.