Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

We Now Pause for Station Identification

“. . . three-fourteen a.m. here at WGAB—we gab, folks, that’s why it’s called talk radio. So if there’s anyone listening at this god-awful hour, tonight’s topic is the same one as this morning, this afternoon, and earlier this evening . . . in fact, it’s the same topic the whole world’s had for the last thirteen days, if anyone’s been counting: Our Loved Ones; Why Have They Come Back from the Dead and What the Fuck Do They Want?

“Interesting to say ‘fuck’ on the air without having to worry that the station manager, the FCC, and however many hundreds of outraged local citizens are going to come banging on the door, torches in hand, screaming for my balls on a platter. And to tell you the truth, after being holed-up in this booth for five straight days, it feels good, so for your listening enjoyment, I’m going to say it again. Fuck! And while we’re at it, here’s an earful of golden oldies for you—shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Thank you, George Carlin . . . assuming you’re still alive out there . . . assuming anyone’s still alive out there.

“Look at that, the seven biggies and not one light on the phone is blinking. So much for my loyal listeners. Jesus, c’mon people, there’s got to be somebody left out there—a goddamn plane flew over here not an hour ago! I know the things don’t fly themselves—okay, okay, there’s that whole ‘automatic pilot’ feature, but the thing is, you’ve got to have a pilot to get the thing in the air, so I know there’s at least one airplane pilot still alive out there and if there’s an airplane pilot then maybe there’s somebody else who’s stuck here on the ground like I am! This is the cellular age, people! Somebody out there has got to have a fucking cell phone!

“. . . sorry, about that, folks. Lost my head a little for a moment. Look, if you’re local, and if you can get to a phone, then please call the station so that I know I’m reaching somebody. I haven’t left this booth in five days and that plane earlier . . . well, it shook me up. You would have laughed if you’d been in here to see me. I jumped up and ran to the window and stood there pounding on the glass, screaming at the top of my lungs like there was a chance they’d hear me thirty thousand feet above. Now I know how Gilligan and the Skipper and everyone else felt every time they saw a plane that didn’t . . . Jesus. Listen to me. It’s TV Trivia night here at your radio station at the end of the world.

“The thing that shocked me about all of this was that . . . it wasn’t a thing like we’ve come to expect from all those horror movies. I mean, yeah, sure, the guy who did all the makeup for those George Romero films—what was his name? Savini, right? Yeah, Tom Savini—anyway, you have to give a tip of the old hat to him, because he sure as hell nailed the way they look. It’s just all the rest of it . . . they don’t want to eat us, they don’t want to eat anything. All-right-y, then: show of hands—how many of you thought the first time you saw them that they were going to stagger over and chew a chunk out of your shoulder? Mine’s raised, anybody else? That’s what I thought.

“Oh, hell . . . you know, in a way, it would be easier to take if they did want to eat us—or rip us apart, or . . . something! At least then we’d have some kind of . . . I don’t know . . . reason for it, I guess. Something tangible to be afraid of, an explanation for their behavior . . . and did you notice how quickly all the smarmy experts and talking heads on television gave up trying to offer rational explanations for how it is they’re able to reanimate? Have you ever . . . when one’s been close enough . . . have you ever looked at their fingers? Most of them are shredded down to the bone. People forget that it’s not just the coffin down there in the ground—there’s a concrete vault that the coffin goes into, as well. So once they manage to claw their way through the lid of the coffin, they have to get through four inches or so of concrete. At least, that’s what all you good folks who’ve buried your loved ones have paid for.

“Think about it, folks. I don’t give a Hammer-horror-film shit how strong the walking dead are supposed to be, no way could they break through concrete like that, not with the levels of decomposition I’ve seen on some of the bodies. So, then, how do you explain so many disturbed and empty graves in all those cemeteries all around the world? Easy—you’ve been getting screwed. Those vaults that you see setting off to the side during the grave-side service? Have any of you ever stuck around to watch the rest of it be lowered over the concrete base? Shit—it wouldn’t cost anything to pour a base underneath the coffin. A lot of us have been getting scammed, people, and I think it’s high time we got together and did something about it! Funeral homes and cemeteries have been charging all of us for a single concrete vault that never actually gets put in the ground!

“Anybody out there got a better explanation for how a moldy, rotting, worm-filled bag of bones can dig its way out of a grave so quickly? If you do, you know the number, give me a call and let’s talk about it, let’s raise hell, organize a march on all funeral homes and cemetery offices . . .

“But the ones who came out of the graveyards, they’re only a part of it, aren’t they? Remember the news footage of that Greenpeace boat that went after what they thought was a wounded whale, only once they got close enough to see that it was dead and had just come back to life, it was too late? One of them had already touched it by then. Christ, how many kids did we lose when they went outside to see that Fluffy or Sprat or Fido or Rover was back from doggy heaven? I smashed a silverfish under my shoe a few days ago, and what was left of it started crawling again. I’ve got towels rolled up and stuffed under the doors in case there’re any ants or cockroaches your friendly neighborhood Orkin man might have missed the last time he was here.

“Were television stations still broadcasting when Sarah Grant came home? Wait a second . . . some of them had to’ve been, or else I wouldn’t remember seeing it. Okay, right. Anyway, locals will remember Sarah. She was a four-year-old girl who disappeared about five years ago, during the Land of Legend Festival. Ten thousand people and nobody saw a thing. The search for her went on for I-don’t-know how long before they just had to give up. Well, about two weeks ago, the night all of this first began, what was left of Sarah Grant dug its way out of the grave in its pre-school teacher’s back yard and walked home. She tried to tell them what had happened but her vocal cords were long gone . . . so when the police showed up and saw her, they just followed her back to her teacher’s house where she showed them the grave. The police found the teacher hanging from a tree in the back yard; he’d evidently witnessed Sarah waking up from her dirt nap and knew what was coming.

“By then the police had seen more than a few dead bodies get up and start walking around, so little Sarah didn’t come as much of a surprise to them. A lot of missing children started showing up at their old homes. Sometimes their families were still living there, sometimes they’d moved away and the kids didn’t recognize the person who answered the door—this is when people still did answer their doors, in the beginning, when we thought it wasn’t something that would happen here, no—it was just going on in China, or what used to be Russia, or Ireland, or . . . wherever. Everywhere but here. Not here, not in the good ole US of A. Downright un-American to think that. Christ, there were idiots who stood up in front of Congress and declared that all of this was just propaganda from Iraq, or Hong Kong, or Korea. Can you believe that? And of course it was all a plot against America, because the whole world revolves around us. Fuck that noise. Nations as we knew them don’t exist anymore, folks—and this is assuming that the entire concept of ‘nations’ was ever real and not just some incredible, well-orchestrated illusion dreamed up by the shadows who’ve really been running the show all along. It doesn’t matter. It’s all just real estate now, up for grabs at rock-bottom prices.

“Remember how happy a lot of us were at first? All that news footage of people in tears running up to embrace their loved ones fresh from their graves? Mangled bodies pulling themselves from automobile accidents or industrial explosions or recently bombed buildings . . . all those terrified relatives standing around crash, accident, or other disaster sites, hoping to find their husbands or wives or kids or friends still alive? Reunions were going on left and right. It would have moved you to tears if it hadn’t been for a lot of them missing limbs or heads or dragging their guts behind them like a bride’s wedding-dress train. That didn’t matter to the grieving; all they saw was their loved ones returned to them. They had been spared. They had been saved from a long dark night of the soul or whatever. They didn’t have to give in to that black weight in their hearts, they didn’t have to cry themselves to sleep that night, they didn’t have to get up the next morning knowing that someone who was important to them, someone they loved and cared about and depended on, wasn’t going to be there anymore, ever again. No. They were spared that.

“It didn’t take long before we figured out that the dead were drawn back to the places or people they loved most, that meant everything to them while they were alive—at least Romero got that much right in his movies. At first I thought it was just a sad-ass way of reconciling everything, of forcing it into a familiar framework so we could deal with the reality of these fucking upright corpses shambling back into our lives—hell, maybe it was just a . . . I don’t know . . . a knee-jerk reaction on the dead’s part, like a sleepwalker. Maybe their bodies were just repeating something they’d done so many times over the course of their lives that it became automatic, something instinctual. I mean, how many times have you been walking home from someplace and haven’t even been thinking about how to get from there to here? Your body knows the way so your brain doesn’t even piss away any cells on that one. Home is important. The people there are important. The body knows this, even if you forget.

“But then the Coldness started. I . . . huh . . . I remember the initial reports when people started showing up in emergency rooms. At first everyone thought it was some kind of new flesh-eating virus, but that idea bit it in a hurry, because all of a sudden you had otherwise perfectly healthy, alive human beings walking into emergency rooms with completely dead limbs—some of them already starting to decompose. And in every single case, remember, it started in whichever hand they’d first touched their dead loved one. The hand went numb, then turned cold, and the coldness then spread up through the arm and into the shoulder. The limbs were completely dead. The only thing the doctors could do was amputate the things. If the person in question had kissed their loved one when they first saw them . . . God Almighty . . . the Coldness spread down their tongues and into their throats. But mostly it was hands and arms, and for a while it looked like the amputations were doing the trick.

“Then the doctors and nurses who’d performed the surgeries started losing the feeling in their hands and arms and shoulders. Whatever it was, the Coldness was contagious. So they closed down the emergency rooms and locked up the hospitals and posted the National Guard at the entrances because doctors were refusing to treat anyone who’d touched one of the dead . . . those doctors who still had arms and hands, that is.

“The one thing I have to give us credit for as a species is that the looting wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Seems it didn’t take us very long to realize that material possessions and money didn’t mean a whole helluva lot anymore. That surprised me. I didn’t think we had any grace-notes left. Bravo for our side, huh?

“Look, I’ve got to . . . I’ve got to try and make it to the bathroom. I can at least cut through the production booth, but once out in the hall, I’m wide open for about five yards. The thing is, I’ve been in this booth for five days now, and while the food’s almost held out—thank God for vending machines and baseball bats—I’ve been too scared to leave, so I’ve been using my waste basket for a toilet and . . . well, folks, it’s getting pretty ripe in here, especially since the air-conditioning conked out two days ago. I gotta empty this thing and wash the stink off myself. If you’re out there, please don’t go away. I’m gonna cue up the CD and play a couple of Beatles songs, “In My Life” and “Let It Be.” I’m feeling heavy-handed and ironic today, so sue me. If I’m not back by the time they’re over, odds are I ain’t gonna be. Light a penny candle for me, folks, and stay tuned . . . ”

* * * *

“ . . . Jesus H. Christ on a crutch, I made it! It was kind of touch and go there for a minute . . . or, rather, not touch, if you get me . . . but here I am, with a gladder bladder and clean hands and face, so we’re not finished yet, folks. There’s still some fight left, after all.

“I need to tell you a little bit about our receptionist here at We-Gab Radio. Her name’s Laura McCoy. She’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and if it weren’t for her, most days at this station would be bedlam without the sharp choreography. Laura has always been a tad on the large side—she once smiled at me and said she didn’t mind the word ‘fat,’ but I do mind it . . . anyway, Laura has always been on the large side but, dammit, she’s pretty. She’s tried a couple of times to go on diets and lose weight but they’ve never worked, and I for one am glad they didn’t. I don’t think she’d be half as pretty if she lost the weight.

“Laura’s husband, this prince of all ass-wipes named Gerry, left her about ten months ago after fifteen years of marriage. Seems he’d been having an affair with a much younger co-worker for going on three years. Laura never suspected a thing, that’s how true and trusting a soul she was. The divorce devastated her, we all knew it, but she was never less than professional and pleasant here at the station. Still, whenever there was any down-time—no calls coming in, no papers to be filed, no tour groups coming through, no DJs having nervous breakdowns—a lot of us began to notice this . . . this stillness about her; it was like if she wasn’t busy, then some memory had its chance to sneak up and break her heart all over again. So we here at the station were worried. I asked her out for coffee one night after my shift. I made sure she knew it wasn’t a date, it was just two friends having coffee and maybe some dessert.

“Laura was always incredibly shy when dealing with anyone outside of her job. The whole time we were having coffee she spent more time looking at her hands folded in her lap than she did at me. When she spoke, her voice was always . . . always so soft and sad. Even when she and Gerry were together, her voice had that sad quality to it—except at work, of course. At work, she spoke clearly and confidently. Sometimes I thought she was only alive when on the job.

“I said that to her the night we went for coffee. This was, oh . . . about eight months after the divorce, right? For the first time that night, she looked right at me and said, ‘David, you’re absolutely right. I love working at the station. That job and the people there are the only things I’ve ever been able to depend on. That’s very important to me now.’

“After that, things were a lot better for a while. Laura took her two-week vacation just before everything started. In all the panic and confusion and Martial Law—which didn’t exactly take very well, as you might recall—no one thought to call and check on her. She’d said she was going up to Maine to visit with her sister, so I guess most of us just figured or hoped that she’d made it to her sister’s place before all hell broke loose.

“Two days ago, Laura came back to work. I can look over the console and through the window of the broadcast booth and see her sitting there at her desk. She’s wearing one of her favorite dresses, and she’s gotten a manicure. Maybe the manicure came before the great awakening, but it looks to me like the nail polish was freshly applied before she came in—and, I might add, she drove her car to work. I remember how excited I was to see that car driving up the road. It meant there was someone else still alive, and they’d thought to come here and check on me.

“I can see her very clearly, sitting there at her desk. About one-third of her head is missing. My guess is she used either a shotgun or a pistol with a hollow-point bullet. My guess is that this sweet, pretty woman who was always so shy around other people was a helluva lot more heartbroken than any of us suspected or wanted to imagine. My guess is she came back here because this station, this job, her place at that desk . . . these things were all she had left to look forward to. I wish I had been kinder to her. I wish I hadn’t been so quick to think that our little chat helped, so I didn’t have to give her or her pain a second thought. I wish . . . ohgod . . . I wish that I’d told her that she wouldn’t be as pretty if she lost weight. I wish . . . shit, sorry . . . gimme a minute . . .

“Okay. Sorry about that. Forty-fucking-three years old and crying like a goddamn baby for its bottle. I’m losing ground here, folks. Losing ground. Because when I look out at Laura, there at her desk, and I remember Sarah Grant walking up to her family’s home, and realize how many of the dead have been able to come back, have been able to walk or drive or in some cases take the goddamn bus back home . . . when I think of how they recognize us, how they remember us . . . you see, the thing is, Laura used to always bring in home-made chocolate chip cookies once a week. No one made cookies like Laura, I mean nobody! She’d always wrap them individually in wax paper, lay them out on a tray, cover the tray with tin-foil, and put a little Christmas-type bow on top.

“There’s a tray of home-made cookies setting out there on her desk, all wrapped and covered and sporting its bow. Half her fucking brain is gone, splattered over a wall in her house . . . and she still remembered. Is this getting through to you, folks? The dead remember! Everything. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been in the ground ten years or crawled out of drawer in the morgue before anyone could identify them—they all remember! All of them!

“Is this sinking in? And doesn’t it scare the piss out of you? Look: if they can crawl out of a grave after ten years of being worm-food and volleyball courts for maggots and still remember where they lived and who they loved and . . . and all of it . . . then it means those memories, those intangible bits and pieces of consciousness and ether that we’re told are part and parcel of this mythical, mystical thing called a soul . . . it means it never went anywhere after they died. It didn’t return to humus or dissipate into the air or take possession of bright-eyed little girls like in the movies . . . it just hung around like a vagrant outside a bus station on a Friday night. Which means there’s nothing after we die. Which means there is no God. Which means this life is it—and ain’t that a pisser? Karma is just the punch-line to a bad stand-up routine, and every spiritual teaching ever drilled into our brain is bullshit. Ha! Mark Twain was right, after all—remember the ending of The Mysterious Stranger?—there is no purpose, no reason, no God, no devil, no angels or ghosts or ultimate meaning; existence is a lie; prayer is an obscene joke. There is just . . . nothing; life and love are only baubles and trinkets and ornaments and costumes we use to hide this fact from ourselves. The universe was a mistake, and we, dear friends . . . we were a fucking accident. That’s what it means . . . and that makes me so . . . sick. Because I . . . I was kind of hoping, y’know? But I guess hope is as cruel a joke as prayer, now.

“Still, it’s funny, don’t you think . . . that in the midst of all this rot and death there’s still a kind-of life. You see it taking root all around us. I suppose that’s why so many of us have found ceiling beams that will take our weight, or loaded up the pump-action shotguns and killed our families before turning the gun on ourselves . . . or jumped from tall buildings, or driven our cars head-on into walls at ninety miles an hour . . . or-or-Or-OR!

“There’s a window behind me that has this great view of the hillside. In the middle of the field behind the station there’s this huge old oak tree that’s probably been there for a couple of thousand years. Yesterday, a dead guy walked into the field and up to that tree and just stood there looking at it, admiring. I wondered if maybe he’d proposed to his wife under this tree, or had something else really meaningful—pardon my language—happen beneath that oak. Whatever it was, this was the place he’d come back to. He sat down under the oak and leaned back against its trunk. He’s still there, as far as I can make out.

“Because we found out, didn’t we, that as soon as the dead come home, as soon as they reach their destination, as soon as they stop moving . . . they take root. And they sprout. Like fucking kudzu, they sprout. The stuff grows out of them like slimy vines, whatever it is, and starts spreading. I can’t see the tree any longer for all the . . . the vines that are covering it. Oh, there are a couple of places near the top where they haven’t quite reached yet, but those branches are bleach-white now, the life sucked out of them. The vines, when they spread, they grow thicker and wider . . . in places they blossom patches of stuff that looks like luminescent pond-scum. But the vines, they’re pink and moist, and they have these things that look like thorns, only these thorns, they wriggle. And once all of it has taken root—once the vines have engulfed everything around them and the patches of pond-scum have spread as far as they can without tearing—once all that happens, if you watch for a while, you can see that all of it is . . . is breathing. It expands and contracts like lungs pulling in, and then releasing air . . . and in between the breaths . . . if that’s what they are . . . everything pulses steadily, as if it’s all hooked into some giant, invisible heart . . . and the dead, they just sit there, or stand there, or lie there, and bit by bit they dissolve into the mass . . . becoming something even more organic than they were before . . . something new . . . something . . . hell, I don’t know. I just calls ‘em as I sees ‘em, folks.

“Laura’s sprouted, you see. The breathing kudzu has curled out of her and crawled up the walls, across the ceiling, over the floor . . . about half the broadcast booth’s window is covered with it, and I can see that those wriggling thorns have mouths, because they keep sucking at the glass. I went up to the glass for a closer look right after I got back from the bathroom, and I wish I hadn’t . . . because you know what I saw, folks? Those little mouths on the thorns . . . they have teeth . . . so maybe . . . I don’t know . . . maybe in a way we are going to be eaten . . . or at least ingested . . . but whatever it is that’s controlling all of this, I get the feeling that it’s some kind of massive organism that’s in the process of pulling all of its parts back together, and it won’t stop until it’s whole again . . . because maybe once it’s whole . . . that’s its way of coming home. Maybe it knows the secret of what lies beyond death . . . or maybe it is what lies beyond death, what’s always been there waiting for us, without form . . . and maybe it finally decided that it was lonely for itself, and so jump-started our loved ones so it could hitch a ride to the best place to get started.

“I’m so tired. There’s no unspoiled food left from the vending machines—did I mention that I took a baseball bat to those things five—almost six days ago now? I guess the delivery guy never got here to restock them. Candy bars, potato chips, and shrink-wrapped tuna salad sandwiches will only get you so far. I’m so . . . so tired. The kudzu is scrabbling at the base of the door . . . I don’t think it can actually break through or it would have by now . . . but I’m thinking, what’s the point, y’know? Outside, the field and hillside are shimmering with the stuff—from here it almost looks as if the vines are dancing—and in a little while it will have reached the top of the broadcast tower . . . and then I really will be talking to myself.

“If anyone out there has any requests . . . now’s the time to phone them in. I’ll even play the seventeen-minute version of ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ if you ask me. I always dug that drum solo. I lost my virginity to that song . . . the long version, not the three-minute single, thanks for that vote of confidence in my virility. I wish I could tell you that I remembered her name . . . her first name was Debbie, but her last name . . . pffft! It’s gone, lost to me forever. So . . . so many things are lost to me forever now . . . lost to all of us forever . . . still waiting on those requests . . . please, please, PLEASE will somebody out there call me? Because in a few minutes, the vines and thorns will have covered the window and those little mouths with their little teeth are all I’ll be able to see and I’m . . . I’m hanging on by a fucking thread here, folks . . . so . . .

“. . . three minutes and forty seconds. I am going to play ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ which is three minutes and forty seconds long, and if by the end of the song you have not called me, I am going to walk over to the door of the broadcast booth, say a quick and meaningless prayer to a God that was never there to hear it in the first place, and I am going to open that door and step into those waiting, breathing, pulsing vines.

“So I’m gonna play the song here in a moment. But first, let’s do our sworn FCC duty like good little drones who are stupid enough to think anyone cares anymore, and we’ll just let these six pathetic words serve as my possible epitaph:

“We now pause for station identification . . .”

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Gary A. Braunbeck

Gary BraunbeckGary A. Braunbeck is the author of the acclaimed Cedar Hill Cycle of novels and stories, including the novels In Silent Graves, Coffin County, and the forthcoming A Cracked and Broken Path.  His non-fiction work includes the Bram Stoker Award-winning To Each There Darkness.  He has professionally published over 250 short stories, a dozen novels, and 14 short-story collections, including the recent Rose Of Sharon and Other Stories.  His work has received 6 Bram Stoker Awards, an International Horror Guild Award, 3 Shocklines “Shocker” Awards, a Black Quill Award, and a World Fantasy Award nomination.