FREE Fiction Friday by Rex Crossley (Pt 4)
If you’ve been digging Rex Crossley’s epic “Where Were You When the World Changed,” you’ll be thrilled to hear that part four is a great read. If you’re not caught up, you can find part 1, part 2, and part 3 right here at The Horror Within.
Previously: Leaving his bunker for the first time one year after the zombie outbreak, Paul Layton discovered that the world had changed while he was away. Finding himself unexpectedly locked out of his shelter, Paul reconnected with Warren, the only man who might be able to help him re-enter his sanctuary. Arriving at an agreement to exchange water for his services; Paul, Warren and Warren’s brothers set out for Paul’s bunker but became trapped by a rampaging herd of deer overnight on the roof of an elementary school in the pouring rain.
Where Were You When the World Changed?
Part Four: This is Murder Anne!
by Rex Crossley
The rain was cold and relentless. Even with the emergency poncho from inside his survival knife, Paul was miserable. It was difficult to find a spot on the flat schoolhouse roof where the water didn’t puddle up and the collecting water had a dark, foamy film on its surface. Paul couldn’t imagine having to drink it. He had no idea how the others were able to stomach it.
The intermittent lowing of one of the injured deer down below. The wretched creature refused to die. Every pained moan stretched on for minutes and sounded like it had to be the beast’s last. But another one always followed, spaced just far enough apart to tease the exhausted men with the possibility of sleep.
Only Lee managed to catch any shut-eye. Despite the rain, they had managed to get his chin to stop bleeding, but had no luck getting their small bandages to stick. There was no closing the wound. A long, narrow flap of skin hung loose from his jaw. It jiggled when he snored, like a fleshy turkey’s waddle. Paul had promised to stitch the wound once they got his bunker re-opened and that suited Lee just fine.
By the time the clouds began to brighten, heralding sunrise, the rain had tapered off to an intermittent drizzle. The deer cried again and Alan moaned, pulling his poncho tight around his ears. Paul looked from him to Warren and was startled to see Warren staring back at him.
Even though Alan had been the one to antagonize the deer, Paul couldn’t help but feel responsible for their misery. After all, it was his fault they were out here in the first place. He opened his mouth to apologize but was interrupted by a gunshot from below. The report silenced the injured deer and had everyone but Lee scrambling for cover. Lee just sat up from where he lay with a weak “Wa da fu…?”
They looked in the direction of the dumpster, weapons trained on the roof’s ledge, ready for anything. When nothing presented itself, Paul crawled from where they squatted behind a rusted-out heating vent to the roof’s edge. From there he could hear movement and hushed voices coming from below. Heart racing, he mustered the courage to peek over the side.
The dumpster area was swarming with children. There were a dozen or so of them working on dragging the deer carcasses out of the enclosure. The tallest one was armed with a pistol but his weapon was holstered. Paul watched as they freed one of the deer from the pile and, with a mighty team effort, dragged the corpse around the corner.
“What you lookin’ at?” Lee’s voice was loud in Paul’s ear as he leaned over him to look down at the scene below. The kids stopped in their tracks and looked up at them. Paul winced and closed his eyes.
The older boy said something to one of the younger ones in a Superman t-shirt and the little guy took off running in the direction they were dragging the deer. Squinting against the drizzling rain, he looked back up at Paul and Lee. He raised his hand in a wave, making no move to grab his weapon. “Good morning.” Despite his relative height to the others, his voice was still untouched by puberty.
Lee waved back.
“You guys can come down if you want. We ain’t gonna hurt ya. In fact,” he motioned to the pile of dead deer, “we could use a hand if you’d be so kind.”
Paul was surprised by the kid’s openness. He looked at Lee, who shrugged, then back down at the kids. He couldn’t help but wonder where that other one had run off to. “Give us a minute.”
Grabbing Lee by his shirt sleeve, Paul half dragged him back to where the others crouched. “Kids. They seem harmless, but…” Paul shrugged.
“You never know anymore.” Warren finished for him. Alan nodded.
“They don’t know you guys are up here. We could…”
Warren shook his head. “We can’t assume anything. As much as I don’t want to expose us if that were true, I really don’t want to separate us if it isn’t.” He looked at his brothers who seemed comfortable deferring to his judgment. “We go as a group. See what’s up. Play it smart.” He looked directly at Alan. “Don’t go off half-cocked.”
Alan raised his hands, as if in surrender.
Paul nodded thoughtfully. “Okay. Let’s do this before we make them nervous.”
They holstered their weapons and stowed their ponchos before walking as a group over to the roof’s edge.
The kids were still working on moving the deer below but they were no longer alone. Standing beside the tall kid, and smiling as they chatted, was a middle-aged woman wearing a long smock, her hair tied back in a kerchief. Both the smock and her fingertips were covered in paint.
The boy saw them peeking down and waved again.
The woman followed his gaze, shielding her eyes as the sun shone through the thinning cloud cover. “Hello! Would you like us to fetch a ladder for you?”
Paul shook his head. “No thank you. We can manage. We’ll be right down.” Paul led the way back down, helping to steady Lee as he came behind him. Warren and Alan followed and they walked around the dumpster to where the woman and the kid waited for them.
The smaller children untangling the deer carcasses stopped to watch them approach.
The woman extended a hand. “Let’s make this official. My name is Anne. I keep things running here as well as I can.” The men shook with her, each offering his own name in turn.
“This is Nicholas.” She forked a thumb at the kid beside her who flashed a big grin and another of his waves. “He’s what passes for my second, I suppose.”
Warren snorted and raised his eyebrows. “Really? Him? His pits don’t even stink yet. You’re the only adult in there?”
“Afraid so. I came here for supplies when everything went bad and some of the students were already here. The rest trickled in over time. After losing their families, the school was something familiar for them to fall back on. We take care of each other now.”
A small boy came around the corner, hugging Anne before walking past Paul to help his friends. Seeing Anne’s paint covered hands embrace him, something clicked and Paul had to know for sure. “These are the zombie kids, aren’t they?”
Anne laughed. “Yes, I suppose you could call them that.”
“Zombies?” Lee looked at them, not getting it.
Anne raised her hands and wiggled her fingers for him. “Painted to resemble zombies.” She looked back at Paul. “I do what I can to keep them safe as they look for supplies.”
Paul nodded. “Impressive.”
“Thank you. I was the art teacher here once upon a time. Listen, would you gentlemen like to join us for lunch? We’re going to have one heck of a barbeque.”
“Tell you what.” Warren stroked his beard thoughtfully. “We help you dress these critters, can we take some of the meat with us after lunch?”
“Now you’re talkin’! There’s more than enough for all of us.” Anne smiled.
“Deal.” Warren nodded for Alan and Lee to start helping the kids.
“Is there anything else we can do to help?” Paul asked.
“No. You’re our guests today. Let us be proper hosts. Would you like to come in and rest? I’m in the middle of a make-up and I’m sure they’re missing me.”
Paul looked at Warren, who nodded. “I’ll help my brothers with the deer. You go on in and make nice. With the three of us working, we won’t be long.”
Paul nodded and followed Anne around the corner as Nicholas began explaining the kitchen set-up to Warren.
They went through the doors that were chained shut the night before. Anne saw Paul looking at the chains as they swung, clacking against the metal door as it shut behind them. “Sorry about last night. We heard the commotion but with the herd of deer running around, we couldn’t tell for sure what was going on out there. I had to think of the children’s safety.”
“I understand. Just how many kids do you take care of here?”
Anne sighed, rubbing the back of one hand against her temple. “Twenty seven.”
“I know.” Anne led Paul into what must have been the school’s office before. “They mostly get along. Letting them go out for supplies helps. It makes them feel useful and gives them a positive outlet for releasing pent up energy.”
She walked behind the desk to a free-standing metal cabinet, producing a small ring of keys from her apron pocket. “We only have one requirement for you while you’re here.” She unlocked the doors and swung them open. Shelves that once housed sensitive school files were now lined with all manner of weapons. “For the safety of the children, we stow all weapons here while we are indoors. Any time you go outside, you are free to re-arm yourself. Both Nicholas and I carry a key with us at all times.”
“Of course. Safety first.” Paul watched Anne move a couple of handguns to clear a shelf. There were quite a few weapons stored there but the cabinet till looked pretty empty. He wondered how the others were going to feel about this as he placed his guns and knife on the shelf. “Don’t you need to worry about zombies?”
“Not so much any more. If one shows up outside, we have plenty of time to deal with it.”
Paul did his best to stifle a huge yawn, grinning sheepishly afterward. “Sorry. Long night.”
“Would you care to rest up while the barbeque is prepared? There’s a comfortable couch we put in the old conference room. We found it in storage when we cleared out the auditorium.”
“I really shouldn’t…”
“It’s no problem.” Anne raised her paint-speckled fingers. “I’m going to be tied up for a bit anyhow…”
He was exhausted and it had to be showing.
“I’ll have your friends wake you when they come in. The couch is right through here.” She opened a door directly opposite the entrance, beside a short hall ending in a door that read “Principal.”
“Maybe just for a minute to clear my head.”
Anne smiled and closed the door quietly behind him when he entered. He was out the minute he sat down.
Someone was kicking Paul’s boot. Paul woke with a start to see Alan standing next to him, his arms covered in blood to the shoulder.
“Rise and shine, Chief.”
Paul sat forward and rubbed his eyes vigorously with the palms of his hands. He couldn’t remember his body ever shutting down so completely before. He was grateful for the chance to recharge. “How long was I out?”
“Shit, I don’t know man. I just work here.” Alan turned and left the room and Warren stepped in, drying his hands with a crusty yet serviceable towel.
“Barbeque is nearly ready. We taught some of those kids how to cure some of that meat if they can get hold of some curing salt.”
“Cool.” Paul stood and beckoned Warren over conspiratorially. “So. What’s your read on this place?”
Warren shrugged. “Seems legit. So you know, Alan and I stashed a couple of pistols in that heating duct on the roof before coming down. Just in case.”
Paul nodded then followed Warren out of the room. Lee was sitting in a metal folding chair re-tying one of his boots. A clean, white bandage was taped over his chin. Alan was rinsing his arms off in a basin filled with semi-bloody water. Warren tossed him the towel and continued on out of the office.
“They turned one of the classrooms into a decent chow hall. Food’ll be hot, too. They’re sitting on a shitload of sterno. Apparently Anne had no idea what it was. Almost threw it out but figured it was important since there was so much of it.” Warren shook his head at the idea as he led Paul down the hallway.
Paul thought he sensed movement within the open doors of a dark gymnasium and slowed down as they passed.
“It’s supposed to be a secret but I heard one of the little ones excitedly whispering about putting on some show for us in the gym after we eat.”
Paul heard the sounds of a bustling eatery before they turned a corner and entered the first door on the left. After nearly a year on his own, it was a welcome sight. His chest swelled as he watched kids move up and down two long tables carrying trays laden with food. Those nearest the door smiled as he entered through barbeque smeared cheeks.
There was no pomp and circumstance surrounding the meal. Alan and Lee arrived and they all served themselves from the buffet set up. Venison steaks and some kind of brackish-looking, though tasty, potato were the mainstay. There were also fresh, nearly ripe strawberries for dessert.
The children kept mostly to themselves. The only one who sat close to the four adults was the little guy in the Superman tee. He played with his food while eating and introduced himself as Joseph when Paul asked his name. Neither Anne or Nicholas were in attendance. Paul guessed they were busy getting ready for the “show.”
Once they finished eating, they noticed that a girl around the same age as Nicholas had taken up sentry duty at the door. She smiled when she saw them looking her way and glanced around the corner, holding up her hand for them to stay put. Before too long (and after a dozen or so corner peeks), she turned toward them excitedly.
“It’s show time. Come with me.”
Paul smiled as the four of them joined her. “I’m Paul. What’s your name?”
She giggled. “I know who you are. I’m Lynne.” She led them around the corner, almost skipping in excitement. Bright light shone through the open gym doors now, coming from spotlights in the ceiling trained on the bleachers just inside where fifteen or so kids sat stomping their feet and clapping to the tune of an old Queen song. The bleachers faced a tall chain-link fence separating them and the entryway from the rest of the room. The remainder of the gymnasium was still in the dark.
The rhythmic pounding broke into applause and cheering as Paul and his group entered. Lynne motioned for them to take seats front and center and sat beside them. Paul also noticed Joseph sitting close by clapping along with the others.
As soon as they were settled, the spotlights on the bleachers dimmed and a stage across the gym lit up. It was also sealed off behind a fence. Standing in its center was Anne. She had cleaned up and changed clothes.
Warren leaned close to Paul. “What a waste of genny time.”
Anne raised her hands and the children settled down.
“Today is a good day. We have been blessed with full bellies and good fellowship. One of our new friends expressed concern for how we take care of ourselves. There’s no time like the present to show how we deal with those who transgress against us.”
The stage lights dimmed and overhead lights came on in the main gym. Just to the left of the stage stood two men. Beside each of them was a rope fastened to the ceiling by one end and shackled to one of their legs by the other.
The man on the left had a bushy black beard on his chin and piercing blue eyes. The way he nervously glanced around, he was obviously guilty of something. The man on the right was Scott. He was staring intensely in Paul’s direction and grinning like he’d won the lottery.
“Before you are Christian and Scott,” Anne continued. “Both men were welcomed into our house as friends. Both knowingly committed crimes against us.”
A spotlight brightened the area around the man on the left. “Christian was discovered to be carrying a small pistol, a pair of boot knives, a wallet filled with throwing stars, a hand grenade and a sword hidden in a walking stick inside our walls after relinquishing his visible weapons and agreeing to abide by our weapon policy.”
Warren and Alan exchanged impressed glances. Lee grinned.
The spotlight shifted to Scott. “Scott was reported by several children of making inappropriate comments and sexual advances toward a couple of the boys here.” The spotlight dimmed.
” In this world where only the strongest and smartest survive, these men will share a common punishment. They must climb to the top of their rope and pull the cord beside it that rings a bell to release the clamp holding up their opponent. Certain death awaits the loser below. This contest begins now.”
Anne nodded to the right of the stage and a metal door opened. Nicholas stepped out and propped it open then disappeared back inside. A metallic clunk sounded from the open room and within minutes the first zombies Paul had seen since the start of the outbreak shuffled their way into the gym. The kids in the bleachers cheered.
Paul jumped to his feet and gripped the chain mesh in front of him, looking from the walking corpses to the two men who began frantically trying to climb their ropes. After six zombies were in the gym, Nicholas reappeared and shut the metal door.
Paul watched, mortified, as Christian struggled to get past the rope’s second knot. Scott was doing better but the zombies were fast approaching.
“You can’t do this!” Paul shook the fence in frustration as Christian reached over and began twirling Scott’s rope, making him stop climbing and hold on tight.
Anne calmly met Paul’s desperate gaze. “Why not?”
“This is murder Anne!”
Thanks to Rex Crossley for this outstanding fiction series.