Undead Flesh, page 1
Copyright © 2013 Dennis McDonald
All rights reserved.
To Trinka (aka Jaemie Young); a beautiful gothic soul
taken from the world too soon.
All those who gave me valuable input to the content of this novel: Connie Graves, Telia McGuire, Daniel R. Robinson, Jerry Thain, Mari Fulgium, Daniel Moyer, and Yvonne Partovi.
Incredible cover by Gary Berger at DBGgraphix
And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, and the whole moon became as blood.
Not far from the great millennial age,
the buried will go out from their tombs.
Somewhere in north-central Oklahoma.
“Are we there yet?”
Jack Garrett glanced into the rearview mirror at his fifteen-year-old daughter sitting in the backseat of his Cadillac Escalade.
“You’re not seven, Kerri, so act your age and quit asking stupid questions,” he said.
“Screw you, Dad.” She reinserted her iPod earplugs and gave him an I-don’t-give-a-shit gaze as only a teenage girl can.
He turned to his wife in the passenger seat. “Did you hear that?”
“Just ignore her,” Kate said.
“My father would’ve kicked my ass on the side of the road if I talked to him like that.”
Kate removed her reading glasses and closed the Bible sitting across her thighs. “Jack, you insulted her maturity. It’s something she’s very sensitive about at her age. You need a more subtle approach.”
“I’m just saying what my dad would’ve done.”
“And he drank himself to death.” Kate sighed. “He’s not the best role model for raising a child.”
Jack returned his attention to driving down the lonely blacktop. Kate was right about one thing: His father had been a drunken asshole until the day he died holding a bottle of Jim Beam in a trash-strewn trailer. Since that time, he had tried hard to shed his father’s legacy like a shabby old coat. He’d worked his way through college and eventually into dental school, where he fell in love with Katherine Harmon, a leggy freshman beauty with cascading brown hair and luscious green eyes. She was also the daughter of rich suburbanites from Columbia, Missouri. Her parents were none too thrilled to find their perfect child dating a poor college student one step above white trash. Despite their adamant protests, he married Kate sixteen years ago.
Their first few years of marriage were happy ones. He managed to set up a lucrative dental practice in St. Louis, and they celebrated the arrival of Kerri Ann into their lives. It was after the birth of their eight-year-old son, Brett, that the road to happiness took a sharp detour. The catalyst was the untimely death of Kate’s father. He had served as a pastor at a large church in Columbia and had been a steadfast pillar of the community. One Sunday morning, he committed suicide by running a hose from his BMW’s exhaust pipe into the car’s interior. Grief-stricken by the loss, Kate turned to Christianity with the zeal of a nun bound for sainthood. She now spent many hours a day reading her Bible or praying. The vivacious woman Jack had married sixteen years ago had been replaced overnight by a prim impostor in an ankle-length skirt and hair pulled back in a tight bun.
Jack had a name for this new woman: the Church Lady.
“Are we there yet?” Brett mimicked his sister from the backseat.
“Don’t you start, young man,” Jack said over his shoulder. “Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Brett looked out his window at the rolling Oklahoma countryside. “I thought we were going to see some mountains. It’s too flat here.”
“When we get close to the Grand Canyon, there will be plenty of mountains.”
Kerri removed her earphones. “Why are we traveling across the country to see some stupid hole in the ground? I wanted to stay home and hang out with my friends.”
Jack shook his head. “There’s no way I’m leaving a fifteen-year-old girl home for two weeks by herself. End of discussion. The canyon will be beautiful when you see it. I promise.”
“I’m just going to sit in the car.”
“Fine. You do that.”
Brett shifted in his seat. “Dad, are we lost? I don’t think this is the highway we should be on.”
“Your mother got a lead on a cemetery. She thinks one of her relatives is buried there. Once we check it out, we’ll get back on the interstate.”
Kerri crossed her arms. “Really? Another stupid cemetery? That’s all we ever do is check out some old gravestones. Didn’t you promise we’re going to do something cool on this trip? I should’ve stayed home.”
“Tell it to your mother.”
Jack glanced at his wife. Even though she had returned to reading her Bible, he knew she’d heard every word of their conversation. Genealogy was Kate’s passion when she wasn’t in church. She had traced her family’s noble lineage all the way back to medieval England and knew the name of every third cousin or distant aunt. She organized all her research in detailed graphs and tables on her laptop. Jack’s family tree, however, was quite the opposite. The Garretts were a long line of addicts, convicts, and alcoholics, going back as far as anyone cared to remember. Kate had long given up on unraveling its tangled branches.
Brett leaned in from the backseat and pointed to a billboard that announced in sun-bleached letters “COBB’S CORNER GAS. 1 MILE.”
“Dad, can we stop at that station? I’m thirsty,” he said.
“You should’ve gotten something before we left the hotel.”
“Yeah, and I have to use the restroom,” Kerri chimed in.
“After the way you talked back to me? Why should I?”
“Fine. I’ll just bleed in my underwear then.”
“Jack,” Kate said without looking up, “she’s on her monthly, so please stop.”
“Okay, okay. We’re hours behind schedule anyway. Just don’t expect anything fancy way out here in the sticks.”
Jack exhaled a long frustrated sigh. The trip was fast turning out to be another boring vacation for the semi-dysfunctional Garrett family.
* * * *
As Jack had predicted, Cobb’s Corner Gas was neither fancy nor modern. Surrounded by a sea of rusted junk cars and used tires, it sat at a lonely junction of two county highways in the middle of nowhere. The one-story building of unwashed stone housed a single garage bay, and a faded mural of a large Coca-Cola bottle stretched across an outside wall. Two archaic gas pumps stood watch under the shade provided by a corrugated tin canopy. The place looked like it belonged in a black-and-white photograph from 1955.
Jack turned the Escalade into the gravel lot and ran over the bell hose. A resounding clang echoed in the bowels of the station as he pulled up under the canopy.
“It’s open?” Brett said.
“The sign on the door says it is.” Jack shut the engine off.
“I don’t know.” Kerri peered through her window. “It’s pretty early in the morning. I don’t see anyone inside.”
“I’ll go and check,” Jack said. “Everyone just sit tight for a minute.”
He got out of the Escalade but left the door open. Something didn’t feel right as he stood in the morning air. An odd tingling he hadn’t felt since he was a child penetrated the pit of his stomach. Back then, his early-warning system had told him when things
A man’s rough voice abruptly broke the silence with a stream of incoherent rambling. Jack paused to listen but couldn’t make any sense of the words. He peered through the station’s dusty front windows and found no one inside. He decided to check around the nearest corner of the building.
Below the faded Coke mural sat an old man on a cracked plastic patio chair. The weathered skin on his face had the texture of dried boot leather, and his scattered white hair bore a yellowish tint at the roots. He reeked of feces and urine, and there was a wet patch in the crotch of his greasy overalls. The old man continued muttering to himself while rocking back and forth in his own filth.
“Good morning,” Jack said, surprised. He could have sworn the man hadn’t been sitting there when he pulled up a minute ago.
The stranger stopped rocking and squinted up at him with cataract-covered eyes. Somewhere in the distance, a crow’s caw sounded, sending icy fingers down Jack’s spine.
“Is there a bathroom my daughter can use?”
The man remained silent and continued staring with his filmy gaze.
“Never mind. I’ll just ask inside. Sorry to have bothered you.”
Jack turned to walk away. With surprising speed, the stranger grabbed his shirt sleeve. “The sun will go dark and become as black as sackcloth,” he said in a raspy voice. “The earth will crack and the moon will turn the color of blood. The sixth seal has burst open on Resurrection Day.”
“Resurrection Day,” the man said, his broken nails digging into Jack’s arm.
“Yeah, I got it. Resurrection day. Thanks for telling me.”
The old man released his hold and returned to rocking back and forth. Jack shook his head.
Obviously, the mumbling codger wasn’t the only person at the station. Someone else had to be inside. He opened the station’s front door, triggering a little bell hanging above his head, but no one responded to its summons as he entered. The morning sun blazing though the dusty windows cast the room in a golden light. Covering the dingy walls were outdated automotive calendars showing buxom girls posing beside muscle cars. A sales counter in desperate need of repainting took up most of the room. The only modern furnishings were two vending machines standing just inside the door; the monotonous hum of the Coke machine’s compressor provided the only sound.
“Hello?” His voice made a dull echo. “Is anyone here?”
A tool clattered in the adjoining garage bay and Jack headed in that direction. Upon entering through the access door, he spotted someone wearing faded blue jeans and Nike tennis shoes sticking out from under an old jacked-up Ford pickup.
“Hey!” he called out. “Can I get some service here?”
The person remained motionless, causing Jack’s gut to tingle again.
He nudged the left Nike with his shoe to see if the person was still alive.
A young man sporting spiked black hair and a lip ring rolled out on a mechanic’s dolly and gave him a surprised look before removing the earbuds of an iPod. Jack guessed he was in his early twenties.
“Yo,” the kid said.
“I was beginning to think no one was here.”
“Sorry.” He stood and brushed off the front of his jeans. “I didn’t hear you come in. We usually don’t get customers this early in the morning. I was trying to get some repairs done before we got busy.”
Jack looked over the old rattle-trap pickup. “Is that a ’79?”
“Yeah, it’s my granddad’s. I brought it in today to work on the brakes.”
“My father drove one just like it.”
The kid patted the truck’s side. “She’s got over a million miles on her. It sticks a bit in first gear but still runs like a top.”
“Hello?” Kerri called out from the station’s interior.
“In the garage,” Jack said.
She opened the access door and the young man’s eyes widened. Jack had come to realize Kerri had blossomed into a beautiful young woman more mature in appearance than her fifteen years, and he despised the way men gawked at her like a lion eyeing a tender gazelle.
“You got a bathroom she can use?” he said, interrupting the guy’s visual assessment of his daughter.
“Oh, yeah. Sure.” The kid wiped his hands on an oil rag. “It’s back behind the building. I’ll go get the key.”
He flashed Kerri a flirtatious smile before disappearing inside the station.
“You’re so embarrassing,” she said after he’d left.
“Don’t tell him I have to go to the bathroom.”
“I thought you had to use it.”
“He doesn’t need to know that.”
“Sorry.” Jack shrugged.
The young man returned and handed Kerri the key. “Jiggle the handle because sometimes it doesn’t flush.”
Her face turned bright red. “I will.”
She shot her father one last angry glare before heading out the door.
Jack decided to take the young man’s eyes off his daughter’s backside as she walked away. “So, is that your grandfather sitting outside?” he said.
“My grandfather?” The kid’s eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t understand.”
“I just talked to him. If you’re his caregiver, he definitely needs some care. I think he soiled himself.”
“The man sitting in a chair under the Coke mural.”
“I’m the only one here.”
“No.” Jack shook his head in frustration. “I just talked to him a couple of minutes ago.”
He led the kid out of the station and around the corner to the spot where he had seen the old man. Jack stopped midstep. Both the strange man and the plastic chair were gone.
Jack pointed at the empty space. “He was sitting right here.”
“Are you sure?”
“That’s pretty weird, man.”
“You’re telling me. Who is he?”
“Old Puss.” The kid scratched the back of his neck. “Anyway, it sounds like old Puss.”
“Puss Cobb. He used to run the station before his mind went all to crap. After that, he would just sit out here and preach about the Bible and Jesus all day long.”
“Then that’s who I saw.”
“Yeah, well, that’s freaking strange, man. He’s been dead for three years.”
The hair rose on the back of Jack’s neck. “That’s impossible. I just talked to him.”
“You talked to his ghost then, yo.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” He searched the area behind the station and saw nothing but junk cars and high weeds. “Has anyone else seen him sitting out here?”
“You’re the first I know of.”
“Listen. I’m not making it up. I saw him as plain as I’m seeing you.”
“Whatever.” The kid shrugged. “I’d better get back to work.”
Jack went back inside the station. He ran his hands through his hair as he attempted to grasp what had just happened. Had he really spoken to the ghost of Puss Cobb in broad daylight? He didn’t believe in ghosts, but if they did exist, it seemed they would prefer spooky old lighthouses and dilapidated hotels, as portrayed on countless ghost-hunting reality shows, not run-down gas stations in northern Oklahoma. He stared once again at the empty space where the man and his chair had been a few minutes ago. Where the hell had that old man gone? Shaking his head in disbelief, he walked back toward the Escalade.
Brett opened t
“Okay.” He pulled a couple of dollars from his wallet and gave the money to his son. “But no candy.”
Jack leaned into the open driver door and found Kate staring at the laptop perched on her knees. He cleared his throat to get her attention.
“News on Yahoo says China just had a massive earthquake,” she said and glanced up. “What’s wrong, hon? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s funny you should say that.” He pointed toward the station. “Did you see me talking to an old man sitting over there against that wall?”
“What old man?”
“The one in a chair under the Coke mural.”
Kate shook her head.
“This is damned weird. I just talked to this crazy old man and now the kid inside tells me he’s been dead for three years.”
“That’s not possible.”
“I sure as hell didn’t imagine it.”
“You were moaning in your sleep last night. It sounded like another one of your bad dreams. I know you’ve been under a lot of stress lately. That can cause old demons to retur—”
“Don’t start with me, Kate.”
He knew she’d been about to bring up the fact that he was an alcoholic. In Kate’s eyes, alcoholism was the byproduct not of the addictive gene he’d inherited from his father but of some sort of demonic possession. Whatever the reason, Jack had started drinking when the stress of the dental practice and his wife’s sudden religious conversion proved too much. It started innocently enough, with his stopping after work for a few cocktails with friends, but it snowballed from there. In time, he began to suffer from blackouts and hallucinations. On one drunken binge, he nearly killed himself by wrapping his car around a tree and spent the next three excruciating weeks in the hospital letting the doctors put him back together. After that near-fatal event, he stopped drinking for good and went into rehab. He had been sober for the past six months, but as far as Kate was concerned, his little demon was always on the verge of making a grand comeback.