I’m dying. I know you'll be angry with me for writing you a letter instead of going to the hospital, but I couldn’t. You’re probably freaking out right now, but I need you to keep it together. You have work to do.
You always wondered why I spent so much time writing up case notes, attributing it to me being a control freak, which is true. But they were also my way of keeping track of all the crazy shit we dealt with until I could make sense of it all. I don’t know why I never told you—it was such a mundane thing, but I ended up recording so much more than case information. It was difficult to share. That doesn’t matter now.
I’ve gathered up a selection of the files; the ones pertinent to the current situation. Find them—they’re hidden, but that shouldn’t present any problem to you. Once you read them, you’ll know what to do.
I’m sorry. You’re furious with me—wondering why I went without telling you, aware that I couldn’t make it out alive—but you’ll understand.
There isn’t anything special about our town. It’s not built on a Hellmouth or a Native American burial ground. But it is plagued by the supernatural. You’d think, what with all the monster shenanigans happening in Pine Grove, South Carolina, we’d make national news, but most people were content to ignore what was going on. I wasn’t most people. When your 8th grade slumber party is overrun with vampires, it becomes pretty hard to buy into the whole “animal attack” excuse.
My Dad believed, too. He saw something at work. He never spoke about it, not even to my mom. He just came home one night covered in blood and shaking—a changed man. He paid for me to take lessons in every form of martial art, archery, fencing, and marksmanship.
I opened my business the day after my high school graduation. My Dad and Penny assured me that I wouldn’t hurt for clients.
On the third day, when no one had so much as walked through the door and I was ready to call it quits, I got my first visitor.
Her appearance was so sudden—so unexpected—that I didn’t notice her for several seconds. Not until she coughed and half-whispered, “Caro?”
She was silhouetted against the door, her hands twisting together. We may have a problem with the supernatural running wild, but she is honestly the last person I expected to see here—the mousy bookkeeper of the only department store in town, a real Melanie Wilkes without the hidden strength.
“Mrs. Speedman? Are you lost?” I couldn’t help myself; it seemed too good to be true.
“I heard you could help me?” her eyes were trained to the floor, feet shuffling against the floorboards.
“I—Yes—maybe,” I shook my head, “Let’s go into my office and you can tell me what’s going on.”
The 17th century diary chronicling an outbreak of werewolf attacks fell from my hands, the fragile binding cracking on impact with the floor as I jumped from the sofa.
I hadn’t used my actual office yet. I spent most of my clientless days idling in the reception room. A wall of heat burst out when I opened the door, sunlight streaming through the open blinds. Though I hadn’t used it yet, I loved this room. Vintage monster movie posters lined the walls around the full bookshelves, my desk was a massive lump of mahogany, and the light blue wingback chairs matched the rug.
“Can I get you a soda or water, or anything?” I asked, after I got Mrs. Speedman seated.
“No,” she shook her head, hands still latched together.
I crossed to the other side of the desk, sitting and opening my laptop.
“What brings you hear today?” I asked, resting my forearms on the edge of my desk in what I imagined was a thoughtful, attentive pose.
“I don’t really know where to start,” she brushed her short hair from her face, revealing her flushed cheeks.
“Tell me about the first time you noticed something strange.”
She pursed her thin lips, nostrils dilating as she gathered her thoughts.
“It started two nights ago with my kids. They woke up in the middle of the night screaming, claiming they saw people moving around in the woods behind our house.” She swallowed, throat convulsing. “My husband—he doesn’t believe in any of this—he told them they were imagining things.”
“But you believed them? Why?”
She dropped her head, watching her hands. If Mr. Speedman dismissed the claims of the children, it would take a true shock to make his wife go behind his back. Even then, she wouldn’t come to me unless she was terrified. I didn’t have the best reputation around town. Before all the monster madness, I was a sweet girl from an established family. Now, people either thought I was crazy, or they were afraid of me. I was a last resort.
“I saw them,” she said, tears leaking from her eyes in slow rivulets. “When I went to check on the children. I thought I saw something moving in the woods, but told myself it was the wind. On my way back to bed I saw it again and stopped.”
She was crying harder now. I pushed the box of tissues on the edge of the desk closer to her.
“There were people in the woods, Caro. They were mostly hidden by the trees, but I’d see a flash of clothes or shoes as they walked.”
“Mrs. Speedman, if it was people in your woods, I can’t do anything for you. You should call the police.”
She blotted at her tears, fighting to get herself back under control. “They weren’t right. It was hard to see in the dark, but I think” she paused as her voice quivered and broke. “I think they were dead.”
Dead people in her backyard? That’s all I needed to hear. When I got her to calm down, I promised to stop by that night and check it out. Then I sent her on her way with a shot of whiskey. Hey, I’m nothing if not helpful.
As soon as the door was shut behind her, I grabbed my phone and called Penny.
“It’s not a good time, Spencer,” he snapped.
“I see we’ve given up on ‘hello’” I said. “It is a good time, darling, because I need you.”
His grumbling laugh rippled through the mystical cell phone ether and I shivered. “You know how long I’ve been waiting for you to say that?”
“I don’t need you for that,” I said.
“Liar,” he replied.
“Keep telling yourself that.”
“What do you want, Caro?” he asked, playfulness gone.
“I’ve got a case. Mrs. Janice Speedman has a zombie infestation.”
“Mrs. Speedman? How’d she get away from the hubs?”
“No clue, but she’s more terrified of them than she is of him. That’s something, I guess. Anyway, I’m going to check it out tonight. You in?”
“Do you know what day it is?” he asked.
“You still have a week to go. You’re coming.”
He made a clucking noise with his tongue against his teeth. “I’m not. I have little control over my emotions as it is. I’m not adding you and zombies into the mix.”
“For God’s sake, Penny, I’m going to pay you.”
The line was silent as he considered. “Fine,” he said and I knew he was fluffing his hand through his dark hair out of frustration.
“Good. Be here at nine.”
I hit the “end” button before he could say anything.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon brushing up on my zombie lore. And by that, I mean watching The Walking Dead.
Penny banged through the door at fifteen ‘til sporting two days of beard growth.
“Did your razor run away?” I asked, climbing off the couch.
“I told you I didn’t feel like going out,” he said.
“And I said I was paying you, so shut-up.”
He collapsed into the space I vacated, throwing his long legs over the couch arm and crossing his ankles.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” I said, whacking him on the back of the head with a rolled up magazine.
He cringed, rubbing the spot where the magazine connected. “Can’t you leave me alone while you get your shit together?”
“It’s in the car,” I said, drawing out each word.
“That’s what you’re wearing?” he asked, slumping back down.
“Yeah, no, that’s not going to work. Get up.”
I grabbed my keys off the reception desk crowded with discarded magazines and supernatural encyclopedias. Penny’s booted feet thunked as he swung them to the floor.
“Why can’t you be a normal girl and freak out about how you look?” he grumbled.
“Because we’re going out to hunt zombies, and for that I look fine,” I gestured to my long-sleeved black t-shirt, jeans, red leather jacket, and boots.
He clicked off the office lights as we trooped through the doors. “If this were a video game, that shirt would be three sizes too small,” he said.
“It would basically be nipple pasties with leather pants and stilettos.”
“Your hair would be to your waist. No ponytail. If you can’t keep your hair under control and fight off the undead, you don’t deserve to be called a woman,” he tugged at the short strands of hair at the nape of my neck.
I shoved him away with a laugh and we climbed into the car.
It was a fifteen minute drive from the center of town, where my office was, to the woods that ran behind the Speedman’s home. We listened to screamy rock music the entire drive—Penny’s choice.
I turned off the highway onto a gravel road that ran through the woods, pulling off into a small clearing between the trees. We exited the car in tandem, crossing to the popped trunk, where I lifted the carpet square to reveal an arsenal of guns and knives.
“Pick your poison,” I said, grabbing a 9mm pistol and a machete.
He flexed his right arm, muscle bulging. “I already brought my guns,” he said.
“Ugh, seriously?” I asked. “I’m putting a douche bag jar in the office.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” he said, grabbing an axe.
I snorted. “C’mon. The dead are waiting.”
“And I’m the one that needs a jar,” he said, taking a few steps before stopping, arching his neck, and pointing his face towards the sky. The lids dropped over his blue eyes and his chest began expanding and contracting in slow and even bursts.
After a minute his eyes popped open, glowing with the light from the flashlight app on my phone. He took a few strides forward, bending to examine bent twigs on a tree.
“Something passed this way,” he said. “Not sure if it was a zombie or a deer.”
“It’s funny how those two things are often confused.”
“What exactly are we walking into here?” he asked, wrapping his hand around my arm to stop me from going further into the woods. “I don’t plan on getting eaten any time soon.”
“Don’t you think it’s interesting that these zombies haven’t attacked anyone? According to Mrs. Speedman, they’re just hanging out in the woods.”
“You have a theory?”
“Of course,” I said. His hand dropped from my bicep.
I led the way into the woods, the phone illuminating the few feet ahead of us. Once upon a time, heading into a dark forest to hunt for zombies would have terrified me. Now, the wisp of wind-shaken branches, the crunch of dry foliage underfoot, the shifting of shadows, was nothing but a typical night of my life.
We walked in silence; my eyes trained to the forest floor, searching for footprints and an excess of broken branches.
“Stop,” Penny said, but before I could question him, he put his finger to his lips. I wasn’t sure what he heard, but the ground in front of us was a churned mess of mud and tree debris.
“Do you smell that?” he whispered, grip on his axe tightening.
I inhaled, but all I got was the sweet scent of rotting leaves and crisp night air. Even though I didn’t smell anything, I trusted Penny’s instincts. I grabbed the gun, clicking a bullet into the chamber.
We inched forward, the gun and I a little bit ahead. A breeze kicked up, making the branches around us toss and pitch, carrying with it the heavy scent of decaying flesh.
Our next steps were slow and deliberate, feet placed in strange, uncomfortable positions between tree roots and forest plants to avoid drawing unwanted attention.
We inched around the trees until we could see the roof of the Speedman house in the distance—and a seething mass of the undead.
They grumbled and growled in a knotted horde straight ahead of us. I stopped, startled by the abrupt transition between no zombies and ohshitzombies.
I forgot that Penny was right behind me.
His torso slammed into my back, his legs wrapping around mine as he lost his footing. The gun and phone toppled from my fingers, skidding along the forest floor, as Penny and I crashed to the ground. Branches snapped underneath us, mingling with the oof sounds bursting from both of our mouths.
My face smashed into the cold dirt, the crackled edges of dead leaves poking into my skin. Penny’s face was against my neck for a few seconds, but then he rolled away. I scrambled to my feet, hands scrabbling to find the gun.
We no longer had stealth on our side.
A burst of light—Penny picking my phone up from the ground—made the shining metal of the gun gleam.
. My fingers wrapped around the lukewarm metal, and I stood, ready to fire.
There was no reason for alarm.
The mass of zombies didn’t even turn in our tumultuous direction.
“What in the actual fuck?” I asked, letting the gun drop to my side.
“No idea.” Penny snapped his fingers, a loud insistent click, but was not acknowledged by the zombies.
There was no question they were undead. If the smell of rotting flesh wasn’t enough, their skin was grey, sloughing from the bones in gruesome folds; a few had empty sockets where their eyes should’ve been, or gaping holes in their cheeks where tongues and teeth showed through. The clothes they were buried in were modern, but dirty and tattered.
Penny watched the undead with wary alertness, knees bent, shoulders hunched forward, ready to attack if needed.
“Penny,” I said, “what do you know about zombies?” The answer was easy: nothing. At least, nothing besides what he’d learned from Rick Grimes and Daryl Dixon.
“They’re mindless, flesh-eating assholes. They’ll attack anything alive in seconds—like piranhas.”
“And unlike what we have in front of us.”
“So?” he asked.
“These are voodoo zombies,” I replied.
The blue of Penny’s eyes rolled. “And?”
“Zombies, like the kind currently shambling all over pop culture, are created by a virus—or whatever—to make those infected come back to life and hunger for brains.” I pointed to a reanimated man shuffling in front of us, “These were created by magic, brought back from the grave to do the bidding of the one who called them.”
“If they don’t want to eat us, what do they want?”
I shrugged. “That’s up to the person controlling them.”
“This was your theory?” he asked, pointing at the corralled undead.
“I thought it was a possibility,” I shrugged, “since no one had been attacked.”
Chance of danger gone, Penny lost interest, pulling out his phone and madly clicking. With him distracted, I circled the zombies.
There were at least thirty of them, male and female, ranging in age from late teens to early forties. Whoever called them up, while not a novice at magic (they wouldn’t have been able to call them up at all), hadn’t mastered the art of the zombie. The link between master and subject was weak, which had forced the failed conjurer to magic up an extra barrier to contain them.
I unsheathed the machete, the freshly sharpened blade glinting bright silver in the moonlight
“Ready for some slaying?” I asked the phone engrossed Penny.
“Heh?” he said, looking from the screen with unfocused eyes.
“Undead need killing,” I waved the machete at the zombies. “We need to chop off the heads.”
“What happened to destroying the brain?” he asked.
“Won’t work with them. We’ll severe the heads and then burn the bodies.”
“I better get paid extra for this,” he said, giving his axe a practice swing.
I stepped over the invisible boundary, a pulse of magic tickling my skin. The machete arced through the air and bit into the neck of a twenty-something zombie. Her head separated from her neck easier than I expected, the extra force sending it spiraling through the air to splat at the roots of a nearby tree.
The zombies were slightly alarmed at our presence, pushing against one another to get away from us, but they didn’t attack. Did their master abandon them as a failed experiment—or were they biding their time? But for what?
An hour later, Penny and I were surrounded by corpses and heads, splattered in blood, associated gore, and sweat.
“I don’t think there’s enough money to re-pay me for this,” he said, swiping his axe blade in the grass to clean it.
Instead of bothering with a reply, I pulled a Bic lighter from my pocket, touching it to the shirt of the zombie at my feet. It went up like dry kindling, spreading from body to body until the entire clearing was ablaze.
I walked over to Penny and we watched the flames do their work. There had to be nothing left of the bodies to break the magic.
We watched the fire in silence, me stealing glances at Penny as his gaze remained transfixed on the burning undead. In the flickering light, I noticed the dark circles under Penny’s eyes and the deeper cut of his cheeks. He was exhausted; unwell. Maybe he hadn’t been exaggerating.
The flames sputtered and died in record time; the fire feeding off the magic until nothing—not bones, not metal fillings, nothing—remained.
“There’s no trace of any living person,” I said, once the fire had sputtered out.
“No,” Penny answered, even though I hadn’t asked a question.
“We won’t find anything,” I said. “Whoever very inexpertly conjured them, did it all from a distance. But we’ll look.”
And we did, traipsing through the woods in the dark; the light from my phone failing to illuminate evidence of others.
“What now?” Penny asked, as we stowed our weapons in the trunk.
“We find where they originated from. Check the news for any stories about recent grave robberies or cemetery vandalism. See if there’s any sign of the culprit.”
“That’s a lot of missing people from one cemetery,” he said.
“I’m banking on the inexperience of the practitioner,” I said. “They didn’t take into account how a mass exodus of cemetery dwellers would look.”
“I wonder what bullshit story they came up with to explain it away?”
He snorted. “That’s pretty tame compared to what we’ve heard lately.”
“I think they’re running out of chemical spills to blame.”
“Yeah, but nothing really compares to the good ol’ standby of ‘animal attack’,” he said.
“You would think someone from the town council would look into our bear and wolf problems. Those animals aren’t particularly prevalent to this part of the U.S.”
We went on in this vein until we pulled up to the office.
“That was some good zombie killing,” I said.
“You should put that on your business card,” he winked.
“Psh, it’s already there.”
He shook his head in mock disdain. “Okay, Great Zombie Killer, it’s time for sleep,” he said, climbing out of the car.
“Ha,” I replied, “you mean time for video games.”
He shrugged and smiled before jogging to his car and disappearing into the driver’s seat.
I had every intention of heading up to the office and starting to look into the grave robberies, but after stifling a yawn that lasted for about five minutes, I put the car into gear and headed home. I’d have plenty of time for research in the morning.
Back at work bright and early the next morning, even though it was Saturday and my hours were by appointment only on the weekends. Anticipating a cozy day, I wore fuzzy black sweatpants, and a light V-neck tee. My morning was completed with an enormous mug of coffee. Homemade, of course; the idea of Pine Grove having a Starbucks was laughable.
I went into my office, flipping on the overhead light, and staring directly at Lon Chaney Jr.’s hairy, bestial face in The Wolfman poster on the wall behind my desk. I’d only been open four days, but this place was already like home.
Just as my graduation-present MacBook blinked to life, the outer office door opened with a creak and a swoosh.
I wasn’t expecting anyone.
Adrenaline pounded through my body with each frantic pump of my heart, and I reached for the small caliber gun hidden in my desk. Before my fingers were even close to the drawer handle, a familiar voice rang out.
I rolled my eyes. “In here,” I shouted.
Penny strolled through the door, white bakery bag clenched in his fist and a smirk on his clean-shaven face.
“Are those doughnuts?” I asked, already standing up to move closer to the bag of pastries.
His smile widened as he opened the bag and pulled out a white box, presenting it to me as though it contained an engagement ring.
“Doughnut holes!” I squealed, pulling them from his hand, and popping a bite-sized doughnut between my teeth.
Penny made a sound like a laugh, but it came out as a snort.
“Shut-up,” I said, words garbled by the mound of half-chewed pastry in my mouth.
“Found anything yet?” he asked, collapsing in one of the chairs across from my desk and ripping into a chocolate-covered, sprinkled doughnut.
“Haven’t even started,” I said. “Some doofus came into my office and interrupted me.”
Penny made a tsk-tsk sound with his tongue against his teeth. “A wonderful, amazing guy brought you breakfast and joy.”
“Potato, potatoh,” I replied with a wink.
“Coffee?” he asked, head swiveling as he searched the room for a carafe.
I gestured to the reception area, “Hand-me down Keurig.”
He unfolded his long legs, traipsing into the other room.
“I see you found your razor,” I called after him. He gave me the finger.
As the aroma of brewing coffee filled the office, I got down to work.
Pine Grove was the biggest town in one of the least populated counties in South Carolina. We’re about an hour from Augusta and Columbia, yet somehow still in the middle of nowhere. Pine Grove and the towns in its immediate vicinity (none having a population over 500), were serviced by one newspaper, The Pine Grove Gazette. The other well-sized towns in our county, Riverview and Wilkesville, also had their own papers. I didn’t imagine it would take much time to skim through the archives of each for any mention of graveyard vandalism.
By the time Penny returned to the chair, a steaming mug of coffee warming his hands, I was reading through the latest issue of the Gazette. Seeing that I was otherwise occupied, he pulled out his phone. Soon, the only sound in the office was the click-click of his phone and the tapping of my index finger on the down-arrow key.
I thought that the limited number of towns and newspapers would make my search that much easier, but I was sorely mistaken. I slogged through months of archived issues of the Gazette, eyes itching and burning from focusing on the small, inconsequential type. I went back three months, but found no significant mention of cemeteries.
Once I finished the March archives, I allowed my eyes to drift close. I wasn’t interested in sleep. Instead I cleared my mind of the thoughts crowding to the forefront, letting it drift along on its own currents. It began filtering through local news reports from the last few months, searching for mention on anything of note.
…Girl Missing from Riverview Area; Two Drown in Lake Bartlett boating accident; Wild Spring Weather Causes Flooding in Pine Grove; Wilkesville High School Baseball Breaks Strikeout Record; 10 Animal Attacks Reported in the Last Two Months—Wildlife Experts Called In…
None of those were helpful. As the news stories dissipated, I noticed the distinct lack of smartphone key click from Penny. I shot a look over to his chair, and found him asleep—long legs sprawled out in front of him, arms limp at his side, head cocked at an uncomfortable angle, dark hair flopping against his forehead with each deep inhalation.
In the daylight, freshly shaved, it was clear why he thought the beard was necessary. His face was gaunt; dark hallows indenting his cheeks, bone and sinew starkly illuminated. Judging by the puffy, almost black circles under his eyes, this was the first time he’d slept in days. This thin unhealthiness didn’t carry over to his body; he was lean and muscular, as always. Just the same, he looked ill; he was ill.
An image of his face as it used to be superimposed itself on the one in front of me. This face had small, sun-pinked pouches of fat over the cheek bones, which allowed dimples to appear whenever he smiled. His skin was golden and shining, and the violet highlights in his blue eyes were bright with the joy and invincibility of youth. The Penny with this face played baseball, but that hadn’t happened in over a year. Guilt prickled at the base of my skull, but was quickly smothered.
I would’ve gone on staring at him and reminiscing for hours, but his head slipped backwards and a trumpeting, gurgling snore erupted from his throat. I jumped, fingers going to the keyboard and typing in the URL for the Riverview newspaper.
I found it after skimming the last four issues of the Riverview Tattler. It wasn’t even a story, just a small blurb in the Crime Blotter section: “Willow Hill Cemetery Targeted by Teen Vandals; Damage Repaired by Local Volunteers.” I read the line twice over before it sunk in that this was the evidence I needed, and then I let out a delighted “Yes!” forgetting that Penny was in the middle of much needed sleep.
“You found it?” Penny asked, making me jump for the second time.
His eyes were completely alert, the exhausted bags underneath them only a little diminished from his nap.
“Yup,” I said, “Over in Riverview.”
“We going?” He asked as he yawned, stood, and lifted his arms in a deep stretch. The movement allowed his t-shirt to pull up, revealing a two-inch expanse of pale six-pack. My head snapped away from the view. I chose to ignore the smirk lifting the right side of Penny’s lips.
“Yes,” I said, closing my laptop. “Now get out, so I can change.”
“We’re getting food,” he said.
“Whatever, just get out,” I said, planting my hand in the small of his back and shoving him out of my office.
“You’re paying,” he called, as I shut the door.
There was a small armoire in the corner of my office, filled with office supplies, but also a few changes of clothes. They were nice to have around in case things got bloody, which they often did.
I kept my t-shirt, but swapped the sweatpants for jeans that were so dark a hue of blue they were almost black. I replaced my flip-flops with calf-length boots, and topped the outfit off with a waist-cut crimson leather jacket.
Before walking out to meet Penny, I checked the mirror affixed to the cabinet door, smoothing my chin length black hair, and ensuring that my clothes fell appropriately around my curves. Skinniness and I had never been close friends, and while I was in the same shape as most professional athletes, I still wasn’t what you’d call small.
When I stepped out of the office Penny sighed, “Finally. What took you so long?”
I thumped him on the side of his head. “Let’s go,” I said.
When we stepped out, the bright sun made me wince, and I had to shield my eyes with my hand. I’d had such an early morning that I was convinced it was evening, not sweltering afternoon.
As promised, we stopped at our only fast food joint on the way out of town. The rest of the half-hour drive was spent in silence. The radio, tuned to the local pop station, played a steady rotation of Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Macklemore and Eminem. With the sun glowing above us and the music softly flowing through the speakers, it was a perfect late spring day. You know, except for the living dead, and all.
The Willow Hill Cemetery, on the banks of the Grove River, had served the communities of Riverview, Sparks Creek, and Coeur de Coeur since the towns were nothing but a few clapboard houses patched together in the territories (the last two still weren’t much more).
I pulled the car into the gravel parking lot next to the small chapel. From outside the fence, the graveyard appeared deserted, but through the trees I could just make out the green canopy of a funeral home’s graveside service tent.
I jogged ahead, to see if the service was in progress, but the rickety wooden chairs were empty. There were no funeral attendants around, so I assumed it hadn’t started yet.
The crunch of gravel in the still afternoon air announced that Penny had caught up with me.
“We should get this done before the service starts,” I said. I pointed him to the right side of the road, while I took the left. I didn’t need to tell him what to search for; when a body is dug up it’s pretty difficult to hide all of the evidence.
We went row-by-row, scanning the ground for the smallest hint of disturbance.
It happened after we’d been searching for over an hour. It was a new grave, only seven months old. I wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary, except that the grass was lighter and there were clumps of dirt marking a clear outline of where the grave was dug up. I bent down, placing one knee on the warm ground as I pulled back the sheet of cheap Astroturf. The ground beneath was a churned mess; when I pressed my hand down into it, the land gave several inches.
I texted Penny: “Found one. Covered with Astrotuf. Careful where you walk. Count the graves.”
Seconds later my phone bleeped. “Found 2. New worst cover up.”
We continued for another hour, by the end of which I’d totally forgotten about the incoming funeral processional. It was with quite a bit of astonishment that I registered the grumble of engines and churn of gravel under wheel. They drove past, spraying chunks of rock and sending clouds of dust into the air in their wake.
To Penny: “How many?”
“14. We gotta wrap this up soon.”
I didn’t want us to draw attention to ourselves; hopefully, we could find the last four in the next few minutes and get the hell out of here.
That was wishful thinking.
From across the road, there came a surprised yelp, hastily stifled. My eyes scanned the area, but I didn’t see anyone for several long beats. And then—Penny lurched around a six-foot tall obelisk, ducking to avoid a blow from the shovel being swung at his face.
The attacker was in his early forties, he wore pressed khakis and a button-down tee, with carefully coiffed hair. Definitely not the type of person you associate with random acts of violence perpetrated with a shovel.
“You get outta here now,” the man said, pointing the shovel’s edge at Penny’s face. “I don’t have to guess what you’re up to, a teenage boy hanging out in a graveyard. We don’t want any of that.”
Penny raised his hands, not in defense, but supplication. “Sir, I’m not here to make trouble. We’re just—“ he lunged back as the shovel jabbed at his face.
“I’m not interested in your excuses. There’s a service going on, and the family deserves some respect. I’d appreciate it if you saw yourself back to your car. Don’t want any trouble.”
As he was the one wielding the weapon, I wasn’t so sure about that.
“Please,” Penny said. “I’m here with a friend. We’re looking at gravestones. She owns a business; let me show you.” His hand dropped to his back pocket for the business cards he kept in his wallet.
The shovel swung in a fast, high arc. Penny dodged it, but the sharp edge almost caught his cheek.
“I don’t wanna hurt you, son, but one more move and I will,” said the man.
“Okay,” Penny was nodding, “Okay. Let me get my friend and we’ll get out of here.”
Penny took a step in my direction, and that’s all the man needed. He lurched at Penny, swinging the shovel like a baseball bat. Penny jumped back, stumbling on uneven ground and falling to one knee.
That was my cue.
I sprinted across the road sectioning the cemetery, intending to incapacitate the man long enough for us to get the hell out of dodge. Neither of them saw me coming. I hit the man hard in the back, wrapping my arms around his middle to take him to the ground. He dropped the shovel as we fell, and while I was prepared for the impact, I was not ready for us to land in one of the inexpertly refilled graves. As we hit the ground, and then sunk several inches, I lost my grip on him.
I had the leverage, should have had no trouble regaining my hold; only, when we hit the ground a smell puffed out of him as though he were a scented pillow—and it wasn’t the reassuring scent of lavender or vanilla. Instead, it was sulfur and the bitter smell of burning rubber. It went straight up my nose, scorching my lungs. I let go of him, stomach heaving, eyes watering, and retched into the dirt.
He rolled away, reaching for the shovel, but Penny had tossed it well out of reach. Well, that was one crisis averted.
The man scrambled to his feet. I forced the nausea down, jumping up after him. I was just able to grab his elbows, managing to pull his arms back and pin them at the wrists.
The man struggled, twisting this way and that in an effort to break my grip on his arm.
“Hello, a little help here?” I said, through hard breaths and elbow dodges, but Penny’s attention was fixed on the ground, fingers grappling with something lodged in the dirt. My momentary distraction was all the man needed. With a quick movement, he stepped back, grinding the heel of his foot onto my toes. Pain radiated up my leg, and my grip on him loosened enough that he was able to twist one arm away.
I snatched at his now-free hand, but didn’t catch it before it plunged into his pants pocket and removed a pocketknife.
Everything happened quickly after that.
Our struggle had attracted members of the funeral party; a crowd of them sprinted towards us. Upon seeing the knife, Penny grabbed the shovel, but the man didn’t know or didn’t care. As I attempted to disarm him, he plunged the blade into my upper arm.
It was my turn to scream, but it came out more as a hoarse yell. People from the funeral were closing in, shouting. I pushed the man away from me, sending him plunging to the ground at Penny’s feet.
The man was yelling, screaming for help. “They’ve got weapons! Hurry!” he shouted.
“Shit,” I yelled. We took off running without looking back.
Penny was faster than me, but he narrowed his gait so that we ran in step with one another. Right before we reached the parking lot, he grabbed the keys from my jacket pocket.
My door wasn’t closed when he whipped the car onto the road. He floored it, trees flying by in green and brown smudges.
“We have a problem,” I said through gritted teeth.
“What, besides your stab wound?” he asked.
The slash in my arm throbbed with each beat of my heart. I had to grit my teeth to stop from yelling at the pain. I needed to take a deep breath to continue speaking. “I’m pretty sure that the man who attacked us was hexed or cursed.”
“You mean Carl Allen,” Penny said.
“Who?” I asked.
He fished into his pocket, pulling out a small, magnetic nametag. The Willow Hill tree logo was stamped in the corner, while the middle read “Carl Allen, Director of Landscape Management.”
I took the nametag, studying both sides because it was better than feeling the throbbing agony of the stab wound.
When we entered Riverview, Penny pulled into the parking lot of an abandoned gas station. Before I could ask what was happening, he was out of the driver’s seat and opening my door. He swiveled me so that my legs were out of the car, and pulled my jacket from my shoulders.
“Fuuuuck,” I moaned as the bloody lining of my jacket stuck to the wound.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, throwing the ruined, wet jacket into the back seat. “Where’s the first aid kit?”
“Under my seat, “I said, hanging my head back and groaning.
The backdoor snapped open and his shoulders pressed against me through the seat fabric as he grappled for the metal box of medical supplies. This wasn’t your typical Band-Aid Brand classroom first aid kit. Of course there was gauze and band-aids, Neosporin, and alcohol swabs, but there were also syringes of morphine, supplies for giving stitches, even a small defibrillator.
I pulled my t-shirt sleeve away from the wound, prodding it with my fingers and wincing as pain and blood surged up. Getting stabbed is getting stabbed, but the blade hadn’t hit anything essential.
The rear door slammed and Penny crossed in front of me, his eyes zeroing in on the blood that covered my right arm and the right side of my shirt. He stopped, his lips pulled back from his teeth. His nostrils dilated as he breathed in the scent of my blood and his eyes went all wrong, pupils shrinking and irises glowing bright blue.
“Penny!” I said it sharp, like a whip cracking. I wasn’t afraid, per se, he couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt me, but the quicker I brought him back to earth, the better.
He shook his head, flush creeping up his neck. “Sorry,” he chuckled, but wouldn’t meet my gaze. He knelt before me, gently taking my arm in his hand, holding it up to see the wound.
“Eh,” he said, grabbing some alcohol swabs from the kit, “it’s just a flesh wound. Make a nice scar, though.”
“Can’t ever have too many of those,” I gritted my teeth as he brushed the cold swab over the tear in my arm.
“What’s your favorite?” he asked.
“Scar?” I hissed through the sting of the alcohol.
“Mmmhmm,” he said, unrolling a skein of gauze and wrapping it around my arm.
I barely had to think about this one. “Arrow wound, left shoulder. The Shaman Librarian.”
He chuckled, “Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. He was a creepy one.”
“Well, you were otherwise occupied,” I said.
His smile turned sour. “So, I was,” he snapped the butterfly clips down, fixing the gauze in place. “I don’t think they’ll have to amputate.”
He fell back on his heels, but leaned forward again, brushing a callused palm along the right side of my jaw. “You’ve got blood, just there,” his voice had dropped a few octaves, and I still couldn’t breathe, but it wasn’t because of pain.
His eyes, back to their normal dark blue, were fixed on mine, and his hand slid up to caress my face, his thumb drifting over to trace the contours of my lips. They parted, but I hadn’t meant them to, and why was thinking so hard? He leaned forward, and I arched up, but—
Instead of leaning into the kiss, I jerked to the side, slipping between him and the car door, jarring my arm terrifically in the process. I sprinted to the driver’s side, refusing to check Penny’s reaction, but when I sat down, he was still crouched in the open door, one arm propped against the window.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, memorizing the cracks in the pavement ahead of us.
“Sure, whatever,” he said, swinging his tall body into the seat and slamming the door.