Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard

-1-

He had six different names.

It was Francisco Sponelli on his birth certificate, but even his parents never called him that. They called him Little Frankie most of his life. A kid’s name that, once hung on him, made sure he’d never quite grow up. His father wasn’t even Big Frankie. Dad was Vinnie. Big Frankie was an uncle back in Sicily but who wasn’t called Big Frankie in Sicily; just when people talked about him. Big Frankie never set a goddamn foot on American soil.

In school—from about four minutes after he stepped onto the kindergarten playground—he was Spoons. It was better than Little Frankie in about the same way that a kick in the balls was better than catching the clap. Not a holiday either way.

In the old neighborhood in South Philly—he was Frankie Spoons for all of the six months he lived there. And that’s a cool name. Made him sound like a Made Man, which he would never and could never be, but it sounded great when he walked into the taproom and someone called out, “Hey, Frankie Spoons, come on and have a beer with the grown-ups.”

Actually, no one ever said exactly that, but it was in his head. It’s what he heard every time he walked into the bar. Especially when he saw one of the Donatellas there, who were third or fourth cousins. It was the kind of thing they said to each other because they were made men. The Donatella cousins worked a protection racket their family had owned since the sixties. They all had great nicknames and they all said cool things to each other. Francisco just like hanging out at that bar because it made him feel like a man, like a tough guy.

Then he knocked up a girl from the ’burbs, and next thing he was living in a crappy little town called Pine Deep in the inbred Deliverance backwoods of Bucks County. Near her folks and family, way too far from Philly, and although it was right over the bridge from New Jersey, it wasn’t over the right bridge. Cross over the Delaware up there and you’re in fucking Stockton or Lambertville or some other artsy-fartsy damn place where they put boursin cheese on a son of a bitching cheese-steak, which is like putting nipple rings on the Virgin Mary.

Out there in Pine Deep he was Spoonsie to the guys at the Scarecrow Tavern. Another stupid name that clung to him like cow shit on good shoes.

He longed to go back to Philly, but Debbie kept popping out kids like she had a t-shirt cannon in her hoo-hah. And any conversation involving “sex” and “condoms” became a long argument about a bunch of Bible shit that he was sure didn’t really matter to God, Jesus, the Virgin, or anyone else. Four kids and counting. In this economy? On his pay? Seriously? God wants kids to grow up poor and stupid in a town like this?

As his Uncle Tony was so fond of saying, “Shee-eee-eee-ee-it.”

But . . .

The nickname was only part of it. It was a splinter under the skin.

The kids? Well, fuck it. He did love them. Loved the process of making them, too, though he’d like to explore the option of stopping before he and Debbie turned their lives into one of those we-have-no-self-control-over-our-procreative-common-sense reality shows.

He suspected that she had some kind of mental damage. She seemed to enjoy being pregnant. Bloated ankles, hemorrhoids, mucus plugs, the whole deal. He was pretty sure that on some level Debbie was—to use the precise medical term—batshit crazy.

But she was also the most beautiful woman he’d ever talked to. Even now, four kids in and a bigger ass than she used to have, Debbie could look at him from out of the corners of her eyes and stop his heart.

Even now.

So . . . he stayed in Pine Deep.

And he worked in Pine Deep.

That was something by itself. A lot of people in town didn’t have jobs. The town was still recovering from the Trouble, and the economy blew. Sure, a few of the stores had rebuilt and there was some out-of-town money to rebuild the infrastructure. Federal bucks. And after the town burned down, there was that big rock concert fundraiser bullshit. Willie Nelson, the Eagles, Coldplay, bunch of others including some rappers Francisco never even heard of. It was on TV with that stupid nickname: ANTI-terror. With terror crossed out. All those middle-aged rock stars, none of whom had ever even heard of Pine Deep before those militiamen torched everything, singing about unity and brotherhood. Blah, blah, blah. If any of the money they raised ever actually reached the town, it never made it into Francisco Sponelli’s bank account.

All he got was an offer of free counseling for PTSD, which he didn’t have, and a stack of literature about surviving domestic terrorism, which he didn’t read, and a pissant break on his taxes for two years, which wasn’t enough.

On the upside—which Francisco didn’t think was really “up” in any way—the Trouble had kind of passed him by. He and Debbie and the kid—only one back then—were down in Warrington watching a movie at the multiplex when it all went down. They heard it on the news driving back. The news guys said that a bunch of shit-for-brains white supremacists put drugs like LSD and other stuff into the town’s drinking water and every single person went apeshit. What made it worse was that it was Halloween and the town was totally packed with tourists. All those thousands of people went out of their minds and started killing each other. Worst day of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. That much was a fact. Francisco took Debbie and the kid to her sister’s in Doylestown for a week. By the time they came back, Pine Deep looked like a war zone. Lot of people they knew were dead. Lot of the town was gone. Just freaking gone.

Lot of people out of work, too, because Pine Deep was built with tourist dollars.

One of the few businesses that didn’t go under was the one he worked for. The one owned by Tom Gaines, Debbie’s third cousin. Francisco’s workload tripled, but he didn’t get overtime. Gaines said he couldn’t afford it because a lot of the customers couldn’t afford to pay. Not right away. Some not at all.

But the job still had to be done.

And that was his life. Working for one of Debbie’s family at shit for pay. Not exactly starvation wages, but it was a job with no future. Not really. Sure, he could have the job for as long as he wanted, but there was nowhere to go. There was no promotion possible. The whole company was the owner, Mr. Gaines, and him. And a couple of guys they hired by the hour to help with some heavy stuff. All of the rest of it was Francisco’s to do.

Trimming all the hedges.

Pruning the trees.

Mowing the grass.

Digging the graves.

And . . . the other stuff.

The stuff he did at night.

So the graves wouldn’t be messed with.

Mr. Gaines sometimes slipped him a couple extra bucks when things got bad. And he let Francisco drink as much as he wanted on the job.

He encouraged Francisco.

It was that kind of a job.

-2-

Before the Trouble, the job wasn’t really that bad. Dead people don’t complain, they don’t give you shit. They don’t dime you out when you go into one of the crypts to smoke a joint. He could get to a level, get mellow, and that would carry him through even the longest shift.

The job was quiet except for occasionally chasing teenagers out of the crypts who’d gone there to drink or light up. Once in a while some prick vandal would use spray paint to tag a mausoleum or knock over a few headstones. But that happened in every cemetery, and everyone knew that, so Francisco adjusted to it as part of the job. The job was okay.

Even for a while after the Trouble it was tolerable. He worked mostly days, and Gaines didn’t go out of his way to be a prick. The boss was cheap, but not a cheap fuck. The difference mattered.

Then things started changing.

It started with people talking. The Scarecrow was one of the few bars that wasn’t burned down, and it was a good place for a plate of wings and a schooner of Yuengling at the end of a day. But the flavor of the conversation there changed as the weeks and months went on. It really started after the cops and fire inspectors sorted out the last of the bones. It had taken a lot of sweat and elbow grease to put together a list of all the dead. The official tally was 11,641. Two thirds of the whole town. Only the thing was that there weren’t that many bodies. The count was short. Eighty-four short, and that’s a lot of bodies to misplace.

They brought in teams of dogs to search the woods and the fields and under frigging haystacks. Still eighty-four missing.

The count stayed the same.

That’s when the vandals started hitting the cemetery. Knocked-over headstones, grave dirt churned up, his tool shed broken into, beer bottles everywhere. Couple of times he discovered that someone had pissed on a grave he’d just filled in. He mentioned all this to his cousins over a poker game. Near Danny was nodding before he finished describing the disturbances.

“Sure, sure, that makes sense,” said Near Danny.

“It does?” asked Francisco, confused.

“Yeah,” agreed Far Danny. “People are blowin’ off steam. With all that shit happening—”

“All those people dying,” added Near Danny.

“All that death and shit . . . ”

“ . . . they’re like obsessed with that death shit.”

“Morbid.”

“Morbid.”

Francisco looked back and forth between them. “Okay, but why trash the cemetery?”

Near Danny and Far Danny said it at the same time. “Power.”

Francisco said, “Huh?”

“Death came to that little fucking town and made everybody its bitch,” said Far Danny.

Near Danny nodded. “And that boneyard—hell, that . . . what word am I looking for?”

“‘Symbolizes,’” supplied Far Danny.

“Yeah, that boneyard symbolizes death. So . . . of course someone who lost everything’s going to go take a piss on it.”

“Show death that he’s alive, that he’s nobody’s bitch.”

The two Dannys nodded.

“Wow,” said Francisco.

Then Far Danny leaned across the card table and stabbed a finger at him. “But if any of these mamluke bastards fucks with you, then that’s different.”

“It is?”

Near Danny grunted and gave him a hard sneer. “You’re family.”

“Nobody fucks with the family,” said Far Danny. “No fucking body, you hear me, Frankie Spoons?”

“Any shit comes down you can’t handle, you pick up the phone.”

They sat there grinning at him like extras from a bad gangster film. Chest hair and gold chains, big gold rings, perpetual five o’clock shadows. But they were the real deal. South Philly muscle who were tough on a level that Francisco could understand only from a distance. It was the kind of feeling you got looking at the big cats in the zoo.

Then the conversation turned to sports, as it always did. Could the Eagles do anything about their passing game, ’cause right now it was like watching the Special Olympics.

More weeks passed, and that’s when people in town started talking.

Whispering, really. Real quiet, nothing out loud. Nothing in front of anyone. The whispers started over beers. At first it was late at night, before closing, guys talking the way guys do. Talking shit. Throwing theories out there because that was the time of night for that kind of thing.

Even then people talked around it. They didn’t so much say it as ask questions. Putting it out there.

Like Scotty Sharp who asked, “Do you think they really put drugs in the water?”

People said sure, of course they did. The Fed tested the water, they did blood tests on the people.

That’s when Mike DeMarco said, “Yeah, well my sister Gertie’s oldest daughter goes out with that kid, you know the one. He’s an EMT up in Crestville. And he said that only about one in four people tested positive for drugs.”

Then some guy would say that was bullshit and there’d be an argument. It would quiet things down. Until the next time it came back up.

Lucky Harris—and Francisco thought Lucky was a kickass nickname—asked, “Did you guys see that thing on the History Channel?”

They all did. A special about Pine Deep. Two thirds of it was the same bullshit you could get out of any tourist brochure, but then there was section near the end when they interviewed a few survivors—and Francisco wondered if they deliberately picked the ones who looked like they were either half in the bag or half out of their minds. These “witnesses” insisted that the Trouble wasn’t what the news was saying it was, that the white supremacist thing was a cover up for what was really happening. And this is where the host of the show changed his voice to sound mysterious right as he asked what the real truth was about the Pine Deep Massacre.

“It was monsters,” said the witness. An old duffer with white around his eyes.

“What kind of monsters?” asked the host.

All kinds. Vampires and werewolves and demons and such. That’s always been the problem with Pine Deep . . . we got monsters. And that night? Yeah, the monsters came to get us.”

The host then condensed the eyewitness reports into a speculation that the white supremacists were really servants of a vampire king—like Renfield was to Dracula—and that the drugs in the water and all of the explosions were distractions, subterfuge.

Then there was a montage of jump shots that lasted only long enough for a dozen other witnesses to say the word “vampire.” The segment ended with the kind of dumbass tell-nothing questions those shows always have, accompanied by stock footage of old Dracula flicks and shots of Pine Deep taken with cameras tilted to weird angles. “Was Pine Deep the site of an attack by vampires? Do the dead really walk the earth? Have creatures out of legend begun a war against the world of the living? And what about the missing eighty-four? Authorities continue to search for their bodies, but there are some who believe that these people aren’t missing at all and are instead hiding . . . and perhaps hunting during the long nights in this troubled little town. Government sources deny these claims. Local law enforcement refuse to comment. But there are some . . . who believe.”

The guys at the Scarecrow had all seen that special. Just as they all seen the headlines of the National Enquirer which had supposed photos of vampires on the front page at least once a month.

Everybody knew about the stories. The conspiracy theories. As soon as the main shock of the tragedy died down, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert went ass-wild on the subject. They did bits about small town vampires. Conan started a running segment with a vampire dressed in farmer’s coveralls; at the end of each segment the vampire would get killed in some funny way. He’d go out to harvest, forgetting he’d planted his fields with garlic. He’d trip over a chicken and fall on a convenient sharp piece of wood. The vanes of a windmill would cast a shadow of a cross on him. Shit like that. Making a joke out of it because it was stupid.

Vampires.

It was all bullshit.

Except that as the first year crumbled into the dirt and the next year grew up dark and strange, it got harder and harder to call it bullshit.

Especially after people started dying.

There was a rash of car accidents in town. Accidents weren’t all that rare with all the twists and turns on A32, but before the Trouble it was mostly tourists who wrapped their SUVs or Toyotas around an oak tree they didn’t see, or college kids driving too drunk and too fast with too much faith in their underdeveloped decision-making capabilities.

But there was no tourism in Pine Deep right now. Maybe in another couple of years. Maybe if some outside group rebuilt the Haunted Hayride and the other attractions. Right now, State Alternate Route A32 was mostly empty except for farm workers coming and going to day jobs or farmers’ wives heading into town to work shifts at the hospital or at one of the craft shops.

So it was locals who started dying.

Linda Carmichael went first. Her six-year-old Hyundai went off the road, rolled, and hit a parked hay baler that was sitting at the edge of a field. The papers said she was so badly mangled that her husband had to confirm her I.D. by looking at a mole on what was left of her torso. Francisco didn’t know if he believed that part, but when he drove past the accident spot on the way to work the next day, the car looked like a piece of aluminum foil somebody’d crinkled up.

It was a matter of discussion at the Scarecrow, but the Carmichaels weren’t part of their circle, so the conversation moved on to sports.

The second accident was a bus full of Puerto Rican day workers. Nine dead because the bus skidded off the road and hit a panel truck. Both drivers were dead, too. There were no witnesses, but it must have been a hell of an impact to mangle everyone that badly.

“Yeah, maybe,” said Lou Tremons, “but here’s the thing, Spoonsie, there were no skid marks, and my cousin Davy heard Sheriff Crow say that it didn’t look like a high speed crash.”

“Well hell, son,” said Scotty, “you can’t kill that many people in a low speed crash.”

They all agreed that the sheriff, who used to be a drunk a long time ago, was probably drinking again and didn’t know his ass from his elbow.

The conversation turned to sports.

But the deaths kept happening.

A mailman ran his truck into a drainage ditch and went halfway through the windshield in the process. Aaron Schmidt’s son flipped his motorcycle.

Like that.

All violent accidents. Every body torn up.

Lots of blood on the blacktop.

Except . . .

Lou’s cousin Davy heard Sheriff Crow tell his deputy that there didn’t seem to be enough blood. In each case there was less than you’d expect.

When Francisco dropped that little tidbit the conversation at the bar stalled. Nobody talked sports that night. Nobody said much of anything that night. Even Francisco kept his thoughts to himself and watched the foam on his beer disappear, one bubble at a time.

The following summer was when the fires started. Everyone blamed it on the constant high temperatures, on global warming. But this was Pennsylvania, not Wyoming. There was a lot of water in the state, and even with the heat there was plenty of rain. Francisco found it hard to buy that a drought killed all those people.

And a lot of people burned up, too.

Three of the Carter family went up while they slept. Only Jolene survived because she was in the Navy.

The guys all talked about that, and Bud Tuckerman suggested that it was more likely bad wiring because Holly Carter always had the air conditioners going full blast, and it had been a lot of summers since her husband had bought a new unit. The other guys mumbled agreement, but nothing sounded like enthusiastic support for that theory to Francisco.

The other fires? Five dead at the Hendrickson farm when the barn went up and cooked some kids from the horse camp.

The wiring at the camp was inspected twice a year. Scotty said so because that’s what he did for a living, and he’d swear on a stack of fucking bibles that everything was up to code. Better than code, he said.

A lot of beers got drunk in thoughtful silence that night.

The weeks of summer burned away, and by fall there were four more fires. Two businesses, one hotel, one house.

That last one was a ball-buster. That’s where it hit home to the guys at the Scarecrow. It was Lou Tremons who got fried.

After the funeral, the guys met at the tavern in a missing man formation, with Lou’s seat left empty and a glass of lager poured for him. The conversation was lively for most of the night as they all told lies about Lou. Tall tales, funny stories, some tearful memories. Francisco talked about the time he and Lou drove down to Philly to play cards with the Donatella cousins. Francisco described how Lou nearly busted a nut trying not to laugh at what everyone called the cousins. They were both named Danny, and as cousins they looked a lot alike, almost like twins, except that one of the Dannys—the one from Two Street—was really short, maybe five-seven and the other Danny, the one who lived near Gino’s Steaks, was a moose, six-seven. They looked like the same guy seen up close and far away, and long ago the Don had nicknamed the big one Near Danny and the little one Far Danny.

Francisco warned Lou ahead of time not to laugh about it to their faces. Near Danny would break his arm off and beat Lou to death with it; and Far Danny carried a Glock nine and a straight razor and he was a bad mamba-jamba. They worked the protection racket and they were a pair of guys with whom you absolutely did not want to fuck. No sir, no way.

Francisco had a private motive for inviting Lou to the game. The Donatellas always called him Frankie Spoons, and he hoped Lou would pick it up and spread it to Pine Deep. But that didn’t happen.

They had fun, though. Francisco caught the laughter in Lou’s eyes all through the night, but Lou kept it a plug in it until they were back in the car on I-95 heading north toward home.

“Then he totally lost his shit,” said Francisco, and everybody had a good long laugh. Then they toasted Lou and tapped their glasses to his and drank. More than a couple of them had tears in their eyes.

Mike said, “Hey, Spoonsie, I saw a big bunch of flowers from the Donatella family. Was that the Dannys?”

“Yeah,” said Francisco.

“Nice of ‘em.”

“Yeah. They’re standup. They liked Lou.”

The guys nodded. Everyone liked Lou. What wasn’t to like?

“Far Danny called me,” added Francisco. “After Lou . . . you know.”

Everyone nodded.

“He said that he heard a lot of people been dying here in town.”

More nods. Nobody said anything.

“Then he asks me if I thought there was anything hinky with Lou’s death.”

“Hinky,” said Mike. Not a question, just keeping the word out there.

“Hinky,” agreed Francisco.

“Why’d he want to know that, Spoonsie?” asked the bartender, Joey, who was leaning on the bar, listening like he usually did.

“Like I said, he and Near Danny both thought Lou was okay. They told me they thought he was standup.”

Nods.

“I thought you said those boys were wiseguys,” said Joey.

Francisco shrugged. “Yeah, well . . . they’re not bad guys.”

Which was bullshit and they all knew it, but they were Francisco’s cousins and when you’re related to criminals—unless they were pedophiles or like that—then whatever they did wasn’t so bad. Or as bad. Or something. None of them really looked too close at it.

“If it was something hinky, then maybe they’d have come up here, looked into it. They’re like that. Lou was my friend and he didn’t shark them at cards, and they laughed at his jokes. So, I guess . . . you know.”

They nodded. They knew.

“But I told them it was just an accident,” said Francisco. “Just a string of bad luck.”

They nodded at that, too, but no one met his eyes.

The only one there who was nearly silent all evening was Scotty, and eventually Francisco noticed.

“What’s wrong, man?” he asked. Scotty was friends with Lou, but only here at the bar. They weren’t really tight.

“I don’t know, Spoonsie,” Scotty began, fiddling with a book of matches. He’d pulled each match off and distractedly chipped off the sulfur with his thumbnail and peeled the paper apart layer by layer. He stopped and stared down at the pile of debris on the bar as if surprised that it was there.

“What is it?” asked Lucky Harris.

“It’s just that . . . ” Scotty began, faltered and tried it again. “It’s just that I’m beginning to wonder if your cousin Far Danny is right.”

“About what?” asked Francisco.

“About there being something hinky.”

“About Lou’s death?”

“That . . . and everything else that’s going on in town. You know . . . since the Trouble.”

Everyone was looking at him now, and the intensity of their attention formed a little cone of silence around that end of the bar. Francisco was dimly aware of other people, other conversations, music, the Flyers on the flatscreen, but suddenly it all belonged to another world.

“What are you saying?” asked Mike.

“I don’t know what I’m saying,” Scotty said, in a way that said he did know what he was saying. Everyone waited. He took a breath and let it out. “I was watching that show again. You know the one.” They nodded. “And sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—I wonder if it’s all bullshit or if maybe, y’know, there’s something there.”

He suddenly looked around, trying to catch everyone’s eyes, looking for someone laughing at him. Francisco followed his gaze, looking for the same thing. But nobody was laughing. Nobody was smiling. Most of the guys did nothing for a few moments, then one by one they nodded.

That killed the conversation.

And it nearly stopped Francisco’s heart from beating.

He saw Scotty say something completely under his breath. Francisco read his lips, though.

Scotty said, “Jesus Christ.

-3-

Over the next few months things in Pine Deep seemed to swing back and forth between a rash of new deaths and periods of calm. In a weird way, Francisco was more freaked out by the long spaces between the deaths. It was too much like calms before bad storms. And each one was a little longer than the last, so each time it became way too easy to start thinking that it was over. This time it was over.

Except that it wasn’t over.

The guys still met at the Scarecrow. They still talked about things, and all the time what Scotty said stayed with them like they’d been tattooed with it. But they didn’t actually talk about it. Not out loud, not in words. But through eye contact? Sure. And with silences and with things that weren’t said aloud. They all knew each other well enough to have those kinds of conversations. Francisco wondered who would pick up Scotty’s conversational ball and run with it.

For his part, Francisco had to deal with another effect of the increased mortality in Pine Deep. He managed a cemetery. He dug the graves.

And he didn’t like what was going on at Pinelands Grove, which was what the place was called.

His discomfort with things at work started a few weeks after Lou’s funeral. It was an overcast day late in October. The colors of the autumn leaves were muted to muddy browns and purples as the slate gray sky thickened into an early darkness. A wet wind was blowing out of the southwest, and the breeze was filled with the smells of horseshit and rotting leaves. Francisco was working in the west corner of the Grove, which was almost a mile from the front gate. The Grove was huge, with sections of old plots that dated back to the Civil War and even a few to Colonial times. But the west corner was new. Before the Trouble it had been a cabbage field that belonged to the Reynolds farm, but all the Reynolds’ died that night and the farm went to a relative who sold it cheap just to unload it. Now the only thing that was planted there were dead bodies. Nineteen in the last month. Not all of them from accidents or fires, but enough so that it was a sad place to be.

That afternoon the O’Learys, a nice young couple, buried their thirteen-year-old daughter. She’d been run over by a UPS truck. The truck driver tried to swerve, at least according to the skid marks on the road, but he’d clipped her and then plowed right into a tree. Two dead. Francisco didn’t know where the driver was buried. Doylestown or New Hope, maybe. But little Kaitlin O’Leary went into the ground after a noon graveside service. Pretty pink coffin that probably cost too much for her family to afford. One of those sentimental decisions funeral directors count on. And, Francisco thought, Kaitlin was their only kid. She wouldn’t need a car, college tuition, or anything else. If buying a pink casket gave her mother even a little bit of comfort, then fuck it.

The family stayed while the coffin was lowered down by the electric winch, and they and all their friends tossed handfuls of dirt and pink roses into the hole, but Mrs. O’Leary lost it around then and her husband took her away before she had to watch Francisco dump a couple of yards of wormy dirt down on their little girl.

Francisco waited a good long time to make sure nobody came late. Then he used a front-end loader to shift the dirt. He tamped it all down with his shoes and pats from a shovel, put his equipment away, and came back to arrange the bouquets and grave blankets according to the parents’ wishes. The garage was by the gate, but he didn’t mind the walk. He walked four or five miles a day here at the Grove, and he was okay with that. Kept his weight down, good for the heart.

Except when he came walking across the damp grass toward the grave he could see that something was wrong.

The flowers were no longer standing in a neat row waiting for him to arrange them. They were torn apart and scattered everywhere. The grave blanket was in pieces, too. And the little teddy bear Mrs. O’Leary had left for her little girl had been mutilated, gutted, its stuffing yanked out and trampled in the dirt.

Francisco registered all of this, but what made him jerk to a stop and stand there was the condition of the grave.

It was open.

Open.

“Jesus Christ,” he breathed.

In the time it had taken Francisco to drive the front-end loader back and put his gear away, someone—some fucking maniac—had come up, dug up all the dirt, and left a gaping hole.

Francisco snapped out of his shock and ran to the grave, skidded to a stop and teetered on the edge, staring down.

The coffin was exposed.

Pale pink metal, streaked with dirt.

But it was worse than that.

Much worse.

The coffin had been pried open, the seals broken.

Inside there was tufted white silk. There was a photo of the whole family at Disney world. There was a letter from Mrs. O’Leary. All of that was there.

But Kaitlin was not there.

She was gone.

Gone.

God.

-4-

That was one of the longest nights in Francisco’s life. Calling Gaines. Calling the cops.

Answering a thousand questions.

The cops—Sheriff Crow—grilling him, almost accusing him.

Gaines looking furious and scared, and giving him looks.

Everybody watching as the sheriff made Francisco take a breathalyzer. Their confusion when he passed. No trace of alcohol.

All the rubberneckers showing up in crowds like someone sent out invitations.

The reporters. First the local guys, then stringers for the regional news. Then the network TV vans. Shoving cameras and microphones in his face.

Hour after hour.

Then the O’Leary’s showing up.

Yelling at him.

Screaming.

Mrs. O’Leary totally losing her shit. Nobody thinking that was strange, because it wasn’t strange. Francisco thought about how he’d feel if this was the grave of one of his kids. He’d fucking kill someone. Himself, probably.

Francisco saw Mike and Scotty and Lucky from the Scarecrow. Some of the other guys, too. Hanging back, standing in a knot, bending now and then to whisper something to each other. Scotty nodded to him once, and that made him feel a little better. Solidarity. He was still one of them, and that wasn’t a sure bet at first. Sometimes things cut you out and make you one of “them,” one of the people the guys talk about rather than talk to.

Debbie texted him a dozen times, asking if he was okay, telling him everything was on the news, telling him things would be okay, asking when he was coming home.

It was nearly dawn before the cops cut him loose and let him drive home. By then most of the crowd was gone. His friends were gone, and the Scarecrow was closed.

Even Gaines was gone. Probably on the phone with his lawyer, worrying about how much of his money he was going to lose to the O’Leary’s when they sued. And, of course, they would sue. This was America, everybody sued everybody. Might even mean that Gaines would fire him, cut his losses, try to blame it all on him.

The last person left at the cemetery was Sheriff Crow.

“You can go,” he said.

Francisco stood for a while, though, staring at the grave.

“Why?” he asked. For maybe the fiftieth time.

The sheriff didn’t answer. Instead he asked a question he’d already asked. “And you saw no one here?”

“Like I told you. I was alone here.”

“No kids?”

That was a new question and it startled him.

“What—you think some jackasses from the college—?”

“No, I mean younger kids. Did you see any young teenagers.”

“No.”

“No teenage girls?”

Francisco shot him a look. “What? Like girls from Kaitlin’s class?”

The sheriff just stood there, looking at him with an expression that didn’t give anything away. “You can go,” he said again.

Francisco trudged back to his car, confused and hurt and scared. Sad, too. He wanted to go home and hug his kids, kiss his wife, and check the locks on all the doors.

When he got into his car he checked his cell phone and saw that he’d missed a bunch of text messages. From Scotty and a couple of the guys. Shows of support. More from Debbie asking when he was coming home.

And one from Far Danny. He grunted in surprise. The Dannys sometimes texted him, mostly about sports or card games, and always on the birthdays of his kids, but he didn’t expect to hear from them tonight.

The message read: Saw u on the news, cuz. Somebody fucking with you?

For some reason it made Francisco smile. He texted back, Don’t know what’s happening. Thanks for asking.

As he was starting his car a reply message bing-bonged. Anybody gets in your shit, call.

Francisco smiled again, started the car and drove home.

-5-

Francisco headed down the long, winding black ribbon of A32 with music turned up loud so he didn’t have to listen to his thoughts. An oldies station. Billy Joel insisting he didn’t start a fire. Francisco not hearing any of the words because you really couldn’t not listen to your thoughts about something like this. His car was bucketing along at eighty when he topped the rise that began the long drop down to the development where he lived.

Immediately he slammed on the brakes.

Two people were walking along the side of the road, so close to the blacktop that Francisco had to swerve to keep from clipping them.

Two people.

A tall man with thinning blond hair.

A teenage girl.

Walking hand-in-hand.

They heard his car, heard the screech of his tires on the road, turned into the splash of high beams. They stared at him through the windshield.

They smiled at him.

Francisco screamed.

He screamed so long and so loud that it tore his throat raw.

The car began to turn, the ass-end swinging around, smoke rising from the rubber seared onto the asphalt, the world around the car spinning. The world in general losing all tethers to anything that made sense.

Francisco had no memory of how he kept out of the ditch or kept from rolling. His hands were doing things and his feet were doing things but his mind was absolutely fucking numb as the car spun in a complete circle and then spun another half-turn so that when it rocked to a bone-rattling stop he was facing the way he’d come, his headlights painting the top of the rise and washing the two figures to paleness.

Man and girl.

They stood there, still looking at him.

Still smiling.

Francisco kept screaming.

Screaming and screaming and screaming.

Long after the car stopped rocking.

The man and the girl hesitated, then they took a single step toward him.

Which is when the light on their faces changed from white to rose pink. Behind the car, off behind the humped silhouette of the development, the sun clawed its way over the horizon.

The man winced.

So did the girl.

Wincing did something to their mouths.

It showed their teeth.

Their teeth.

Their teeth.

The man spoke a single word, and even though Francisco couldn’t hear it, he saw the shape those pale lips made.

Spoonsie

Francisco screamed even louder.

And then the man turned and pulled the girl’s hand. She, more reluctant, finally turned and the two of them ran across the road and vanished into the black shadows under the trees.

Francisco screamed once more and then his voice ran down into a painful wet rasp.

The man and the teenage girl were gone.

Lou Tremons was gone.

Kaitlin O’Leary was gone.

-6-

Francisco didn’t tell anyone about what he’d seen.

By the time the sun was up and he was home and in Debbie’s arms on the couch, he was more than half sure he hadn’t seen what he’d seen.

Because he couldn’t have.

No fucking way.

Right?

That was a long, bad day. After he got a few hours of troubled sleep, Francisco got up, stood under a shower hot enough to melt paint off a truck, dressed, and drove back to the Grove. There was yellow crime scene tape around the open grave, but no cops. The reporters and news trucks were gone, too.

Francisco called Gaines to see what was what, mostly worried about whether he still had a job. Gaines sounded bad.

“Look,” he said, “can you work tonight?”

“Tonight?” Francisco hoped his voice didn’t sound as bad to his boss as it did to his own ears.

“We . . . we can’t let this happen again.”

“I—”

“I’m not blaming you,” said Gaines, in a way that left some doubt about that. “But we need someone there.”

Francisco didn’t want to mention that he was actually there when this shit happened. He said he’d stay late.

The image of Lou and little Kaitlin O’Leary went walking across the fragile ice in the front of his mind.

“Bullshit,” he said out loud.

That usually worked.

It didn’t do shit today.

He got back in his car, drove home, went into his bedroom, and got his gun. Debbie was out, the older kids were in daycare or school, and the house was empty. He sat on the edge of the bed and loaded cartridges into the magazine of a Glock nine that Far Danny had given him once.

“Hey, Frankie Spoons, this here’s a good piece,” said Far Danny. “Totally legal and shit. Not on any watch list.”

“Good for keeping your kids safe,” added Near Danny. “Long as you’re living out in the fucking boonies you got to be careful.”

At the time Francisco hadn’t wanted a gun, but even though they were family you simply didn’t argue with the Dannys.

Now he was glad they’d given him a gift like this.

Then a pang of mingled pain and fear stabbed through him.

Lou Tremons had taught him how to load and shoot the gun.

Feeling strange in more ways than he could describe, Francisco got back in his car and drove to work. There was a storm coming, and the day was so overcast that it looked like twilight, and it was only nine-thirty in the morning.

Francisco parked by the shed and began the slow, sad walk back to the grave. But halfway there he veered to his left into a different section. To where Lou was buried.

After a grave was filled in and the dirt had a chance to settle, Francisco brought in some rolls of sod and filled in the open dirt with green grass. It took a while for the sod to set, for the roots to anchor it to the ground beneath. It had been weeks since Lou was buried and the grass roots had long since taken.

But as Francisco slowed to a stop by the grave, he could see that there was something wrong.

The sod was wrinkled. There was a distinct bump in the middle.

He squatted down and stared at it, studied it.

He licked his lips, afraid to do what he was about to do.

Then he reached out a hand and pulled at the sod.

It came away like a heavy comforter. The roots were all torn, and below the layer of sod the grave dirt was wrong. It was loose, churned.

“No,” said Francisco.

He fell backward and clawed the gun out of his jacket pocket, dropped it, picked it up again, and bang!

His finger had slipped inside the trigger guard and the gun went off by accident. The bang was so loud that he recoiled from it, the gun bucked so hard that it fell from his hand, the bullet hit the granite headstone and whipped backward past Francisco’s ear. The sound scared a hundred crows from the trees.

Francisco sat there, his ass on the wet grass, feet wide, eyes wider, heart hammering, mouth opening and closing like a fish.

Above and around him the world ticked on into the next minute, and the next.

Then something happened.

Something awful.

The sod moved.

It rippled. Twitched.

Francisco absolutely could not move. All he could do was sit and stare.

The grass cover bulged and trembled.

The Glock lay on the edge of the grave, but Francisco could only stare as it rose up and thumped down as something moved beneath the sod.

Then a pale worm wriggled out from under the edge of the grass cover. Thick, gray, deformed.

And another.

And another.

Five worms in all, moving through the damp earth.

Only they weren’t worms, and Francisco knew it. His mind screamed inside his head that this wasn’t happening, that it wasn’t true. But he knew.

Not worms.

Worms don’t have knuckles.

Worms don’t have fingernails.

Worms aren’t attached to a hand.

A word boiled up inside Francisco’s throat and burned his mouth. He spat it out.

“L—Lou . . . ?”

The fingers stopped for a moment as if they’d heard him.

There was a sound from under the sod, under the dirt, muffled and indistinct. Like a voice heard through a closed door.

Like a voice.

Like a name.

Spoonsie.

Then Francisco was up and running as fast as he could.

He didn’t remember picking up the gun, but he became aware of it pressed to his chest with both hands. Hiding it because of his mistake? Or clutching it like a talisman? There was no time, no thought, no breath to answer those questions.

His car tires kicked showers of mud and gravel and torn grass as he drove the hell out of there.

-7-

Francisco spent the whole day at the Scarecrow.

The whole day.

Joey the bartender tried to get him to talk about it, probably thinking it had to do with the big thing last night. And it did, Francisco was sure of it, but he couldn’t talk about it. Not now. Maybe not ever.

The pistol was a cold weight between belt and belly flesh.

Joey must have made some calls because Lucky Harris showed up. Then Mike and Scotty. They clustered around him. Nobody said a word. For hours.

Joey put the TV on and they watched the news. Watched Family Feud. Watched The View. Watched the day get older. Outside it started to rain. There was a low snicker of thunder.

It was late afternoon inside the bar; outside it looked like the middle of the night.

Scotty was the first one to talk, to try and pry him open.

“Hey, Spoonsie, you okay . . . ?”

Francisco felt his nose tingle and then his eyes and then before he could get away from the guys and go hide in a toilet stall, he was crying. Really crying. Sobs, shoulders twitching, tears and snot running down his face.

Any other time the guys might have fucked with him. Made fun, handled it like dicks because that’s what guys do when emotions get real for anything except the Super Bowl. But not after last night.

Scotty—the closest their group had to a hard-ass—reached out and took Francisco’s hand, gave it a squeeze, but didn’t let it go.

“We’re here, brother,” he said softly.

Without wiping his face, without looking up, Francisco said, “I saw that little girl.”

And he told them what he’d seen on the road.

Lou Tremons.

Kaitlin O’Leary.

Walking hand-in-hand.

Smiling at him.

With all those long, white teeth.

Saying his name.

And then . . . the five white worms under the dirt. And that voice down there in the dirt. Saying his name again.

Mike pressed a wad of paper napkins into his hand. Francisco stared at them for a moment, unable to comprehend what they were or what they were for. Then he wiped his face and his nose. Mike patted him on the back.

Joey poured some shots and they all had one.

No one told him he was crazy. No one asked him in he was sure. Maybe if this was another town. Maybe if the Trouble had never happened. Now, though . . . no one tried to tell him that he was wrong, or suggest that he’d imagined it.

It was Lucky who asked, “What are you going to do?”

It was unfortunately phrased. What are you going to do.

Not we.

There’s a line. If you stand on one side of it and let a statement like that go uncorrected, then the line becomes a wall. The moment stretched and everyone at the bar knew that Francisco was suddenly on one side of the wall, and they were on the other.

Lucky tried to fix it without fixing it. “Spoonsie . . . you should just say fuck it. You should call Gaines and tell him to shove his job up his ass.”

Francisco shook his head. “I can’t.”

No one had to ask why. This was Pine Deep, and this was America, and if the economy blew in the rest of the country, then it was going deep throat in Pine Deep. There were no other jobs.

“I got Debbie and the kids,” Francisco said.

It was a stupid thing to say. Crazy. Impossible because the town had become impossible. The job was impossible.

But there were no other doors marked “exit.”

For better or worse, this was his town.

His family lived here.

And he had nowhere else to go, nowhere else he could go.

The gun in his belt weighed a thousand pounds.

His heart weighed more.

-8-

When he was drunk enough that his legs could carry him and his terror, he staggered into the bathroom, locked himself into a stall, turned and leaned heavily against the door. It took nearly four full minutes to convince himself not to put the barrel of the gun into his mouth and blow his troubles all over the walls.

Inside his head, some maniac had started a slide show, flashing high-res images onto the walls of his brain.

A pink coffin resting on the canvas straps, ready to go into the ground.

The same pink coffin open. Tufted silk. An eviscerated teddy bear.

Cold dirt on white teeth.

White fingers grubbing through the soil.

Lou Tremons calling his name. On the road, under the ground.

Monsters.

In his town.

“God . . . help me.”

And as if in answer to his prayers, he heard the bing-bong alert of a new incoming text message.

How’s it going?

It was from Far Danny.

Francisco almost laughed.

How’s it going?

Well, fuck me, cuz, I think I’m growing a crop of vampires, that’s how it’s going. How the hell are things with you? How’s the leg-breaking business? Any goddamn vampires in the protection racket?

Those thoughts tumbled through his head and a laugh bubbled at the edge of his control. He had to fight it back because it was the wrong kind of laugh. The kind you don’t ever want to let get started because there’s no way you can stop it. That kind of laugh can break something you know can’t be fixed.

He stared at the stupid message.

How’s it going.

So, instead of laughing, instead of going totally apeshit out his mind, Francisco did something else equally crazy.

He called Far Danny and told him exactly how things were going.

Every goddam bit of it.

-9-

Far Danny took it pretty well.

After a bit.

At first he got a little mad and asked Francisco if he was fucking with him.

Then he asked him if he was drunk.

And he asked if he was crazy.

Francisco said no to the first question, yes to the others, but he didn’t take back anything he said. He couldn’t. It was out there. He wasn’t even afraid of pissing off the Dannys. Things had changed and getting his ass kicked by his goombah cousins didn’t seem so scary anymore.

Far Danny said, “Debbie and the kids? They okay?”

Francisco stiffened. It was already dark outside. He’d been here in the bar all day.

“Oh, god . . . ”

-10-

Francisco ran out of the bathroom with the Glock in one hand and his car keys in the other. Lucky and Scotty and the others yelled and started to make a grab for him, misunderstanding what he was doing, but Francisco blundered past them and headed out into the rain.

He drove badly and way too fast.

He sideswiped a mailbox and tore some expensive stuff off the side of his car, and he didn’t give a cold shit about it. The storm was pounding down on the hood and windshield and Francisco as fast as he could all the way out of down, along the wet black tongue of Route A32, into his development, up to his front door, skidding to a sloppy stop and splattering mud ten feet high on the front of his house. Left the car door open, ran onto the porch, banged the door open.

Scared the hell out of Debbie, who was putting supper on the table.

The kids started yelling. The baby started screaming.

Debbie saw the gun in his hand and the look in his eyes and she started screaming, too.

It took a long time to calm everyone down.

He had to calm down a lot to manage it.

He put the gun on top of the fridge, out of any kid’s reach.

He closed and locked the front door. Checked the whole house. Locked and pinned the windows. Took the cross down off the bedroom wall, the one Debbie’s grandmother had given them for their wedding. Heavy, with a silver Jesus nailed to it.

Francisco had to lie to make Debbie calm down.

He told her there was an escaped criminal in town. A madman.

She looked at the cross in his hand and then at the top of the fridge, and deep lines cut into her pretty face.

“Frankie,” she said very softly—too quiet for the kids to hear, “is this about . . . the Trouble?”

He stared at her, floored.

“What . . . ? How do you . . . ?”

She shrugged. “At the beauty parlor. The girls. We . . . talk.”

Outside the rain hammered the door and the thunder beat on the walls.

An hour later Lou Tremons kicked open the front door.

-11-

Francisco and Debbie screamed.

So did the kids. Even the baby, who didn’t know what was going on.

Lou smiled. He seemed to like the screams.

He was dressed in mud and rain water and his funeral clothes. He had Kaitlin O’Leary with him. And three other people. People Francisco had buried in closed coffins because they were supposed to have been too badly mangled in car wrecks or burned in fires. But they looked whole now.

They were smiling, too.

Wet lips, long white teeth. Red eyes.

Debbie screamed again and broke away from Francisco’s side, throwing herself between the vampires and her children. Francisco raised the cross, holding it up like a torch against the darkness.

A couple of them flinched. The little O’Leary girl hissed and backed away.

Lou Tremons said with a wicked grin, “Yeah, well, here’s the thing, Spoonsie . . . I’m a fucking atheist. If we don’t believe in something it can’t hurt us, and I don’t believe in that shit.”

A voice behind him said, “Do you believe in this shit?”

Lou turned. Everyone turned.

Far Danny stuck the barrel of a shotgun under Lou’s chin and pulled the trigger.

As it turned out, Lou was able to grasp the concept of buckshot.

Francisco screamed.

Debbie and the kids screamed.

Kaitlin O’Leary screamed.

The other vampires screamed.

Near Danny yanked the pull cord on a chainsaw.

He screamed, too. But for him and his smaller cousin, the screams sounded a lot like laughter.

-12-

Francisco sat on beach chairs between Near Danny and Far Danny.

It was the last day of October.

Halloween.

That night at the house was ten days ago, but it felt like ten years ago.

Debbie and the kids were staying with Far Danny’s mother in South Philly. Just for a little while. Until things calmed down. Until things got straightened out.

Scotty was gone. After that night at the bar, after what Francisco told them about Lou’s grave, he’d driven to a motel of town, then came back the next morning and put his house up for sale. Mike and the other guys were still here, though. But the nights at the Scarecrow were long and mostly silent. No one wanted to talk about what was going on in town.

The Dannys went back to Philadelphia for a few hours, then came back with suitcases. They moved into Francisco’s house. Near Danny slept on the couch. Far Danny slept in the La-Z-Boy. They’d brought more guns and other stuff.

The bodies of Lou Tremons and the others were back in the ground. Francisco had done that quietly, when no one was looking. The cemetery was a big place and these days not even the college kids went there to hang out.

Only Kaitlin’s body was above ground. It was in the morgue. It had been “found” by a motorist on the highway. No one could explain how she managed to get a big piece of sharpened wood buried in her chest. Some kind of post-mortem mutilation by the madman who dug her up. That’s what the papers said.

Sheriff Crow came and asked Francisco some questions, but not at as many as he expected. And the sheriff had a strange, knowing look in his eyes. He gave Francisco a smile and a pat on the shoulder, and that was the end of it.

Of that part of it.

Now it was ten days after the Dannys had come to Francisco’s house.

Ten days after a slaughter that would probably keep his kids in therapy for the rest of their lives. Something to deal with. Something else to deal with.

The three of them sat on beach chairs. There was an open plastic cooler between Francisco and Far Danny.

“Beer me,” said Far Danny, and Francisco dug into the ice, pulled out a longneck bottle of Stella, popped the top and handed it to his cousin. He opened a fresh one for himself.

They drank.

Sitting in a row. Three thirty-something guys. Cousins. Drinking beer in a graveyard as the sun tumbled over the autumn trees and down behind the mountain.

The grave in front of them was a new one.

A construction worker named Hollis who’d died when scaffolding collapsed on him. Or so the story went. Lots of injuries, not enough blood at the scene.

“Smart the way they do that,” said Near Danny.

“Fucking up the body so you can’t tell,” agreed Far Danny.

Francisco sipped his beer.

They watched the bare patch of dirt that Francisco had filled in and patted down three hours ago.

They’d brought a wheelbarrow with them. The handles of two shotguns stuck out the back, flanking the plastic grip of the Black and Decker chainsaw. There were other things in the wheelbarrow, too. Practical things. Holy water from St. Anne’s. The priest there was a fourth cousin. A Donatella. Bottles of garlic oil and Ziploc bags of garlic powder. From Aldo’s Pizza on Two Street. Stuff like that.

There wasn’t a lot of conversation.

Francisco had said his thanks. He’d wept his thanks, clinging to Debbie and the kids while looking up at the blood-splattered Dannys. It had all been said. And it was all understood. This was family.

You do not fuck with family.

Not even if you’re an undead blood-sucking soulless fiend. No sir.

To have kept thanking the cousins would have been weak. And even though he was not a strong man, Francisco knew that.

The sun fell away and the purple shadows flowed over the cemetery.

Near Danny lit a Coleman camp lantern.

They had another beer.

Far Danny lit a joint and they passed it back and forth.

The dirt trembled.

The joint paused in mid handoff, Far Danny to Francisco.

The dirt shivered and danced as something beneath it moved.

Near Danny sighed, bent forward, grabbed the handle of the chainsaw and sat back with it. Watching the dirt.

Francisco took the doobie and had a nice, long hit. Blew blue smoke out over the grave.

The dirt bulged as something pushed upward. Rising. Coming out.

Near Danny handed the chainsaw to Francisco.

“Yo, Frankie Spoons,” he said. “You’re up.”

Francisco took the chainsaw.

But it was Frankie Spoons who stood up with it, jerked the ripcord, and stood wide-legged, waiting for the dead to rise.

© 2013 by Jonathan Maberry Productions.
Originally published in The Bram Stoker Awards Weekend 2013 / World Horror Convention Souvenir Book,

edited by Norman Rubenstein.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Jonathan Maberry

Johnathan MaberryJonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and Marvel Comics writer.  He’s the author of many novels including Assassin’s Code, Flesh & Bone Dead of Night, Patient Zero and Rot & Ruin; and the editor of V-Wars: A Chronicle of the Vampire Wars.  His nonfiction books on topics ranging from martial arts to zombie pop-culture. Since 1978 he has sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, two plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, poetry, and textbooks. Jonathan continues to teach the celebrated Experimental Writing for Teens class, which he created. He founded the Writers Coffeehouse and co-founded The Liars Club; and is a frequent speaker at schools and libraries, as well as a keynote speaker and guest of honor at major writers and genre conferences.