Hello, all you awesome people of Internetland! Today happens to be my birthday so I thought I'd give all of you a gift. This is a short story I originally published in my anthology Outbreak: Before and After a few years ago. It's set in the universe of my Outbreak series of zombie fiction. The stories take place at various points in the timeline of the main trilogy of books.
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Anyway, enough of the boring admin stuff! On with the show!
14 May 2011 09:38 hours Acorn Market Galeton, Pennsylvania
“Thanks, Mavis.” Officer Dale Peterson said as the older woman put his turkey and Swiss sandwich into a plastic bag and handed it to him with his change. He glanced at his watch then towards the cruiser parked outside. They had two hours left in a twelve hour shift and he couldn't wait to get home, take a fucking shower and get some sleep before Sherri, his wife got home from work.
The two peace officers exited the convenience store Dale's partner digging the keys out of her hip pocket as they approached the cruiser. Officer Dale Peterson was thirty eight year old tall white man who was balding and built like an aging tank, his frame muscular but well padded with fat around his middle. Officer Julie Sellers was twenty two with blond hair, blue eyes and a figure that had made Sherri a little jealous at first. Sure, Sellers had a pretty nice little butt but she was too skinny in Dale's opinion and besides he was old enough to be her father.
The two of them sat in the patrol car eating their sandwiches quickly between sips of their sodas. They had been shorthanded over the past couple weeks and Merle over in dispatch always seemed to know when they were trying to get a bite to eat. Dale had just stuffed the last bite of his turkey and provolone sub into his mouth when the radio squealed. Julie rolled her eyes and took one last bite of her own sub before rolling it back up in the wax paper and stuffing her food back into the plastic bag in her lap. “Every damn time.” the woman grumbled as she wiped her mouth with a napkin and grabbed the radio's hand mike.
There was a short burst of static. “Car three two. Car three two, this is dispatch.” Merle's voice came out of the speakers built in to the radio. “Three two, head over to the school. I just got a call from the main office. How copy?”
The two peace officers exchanged worried looks. A sudden knot wound itself up in Dale's stomach as Julie pushed the button on the hand mike with her thumb. “Good copy, dispatch. We'll be there in five.” she said as Dale turned the patrol car's engine over. Julie flicked the switch on the dashboard turning on the light bar mounted to the car's roof.
Galeton School District had one building in town for kindergarten through middle schoolers. The single story brick building was surrounded by a well maintained lawn, its lone basketball court and three tennis courts greeting arrivals as they pulled into the parking lot. Dale killed the light bar as he steered into the school's parking lot and glided towards the staff parking lot in the rear of the building. The two peace officers walked quickly towards the double doors near the loading dock and Julie pressed the button on the speaker mounted on the wall nearby.
The door made a buzzing noise followed by a click and Dale pushed it open. The main office was a quick walk down the hall and a short squat woman with graying hair stuck her head into the hall as the police officers drew near. “Good morning, officers.” Tonya Cullen, the school's secretary, said with a polite smile as she ushered them into the room. “Principal Vickers is waiting for you.”
Dale and Julie both nodded thanks and went through a door inside the main office where a rail thin man with thinning hair in a gray suit sat behind a huge chintzy looking desk. The man pushed back his horn rim glasses and smiled. “Thanks for coming so quickly, officers.” Principal Vickers said as he motioned towards a pair of chairs indicating that they should take a seat. “I ordinarily wouldn't have called you but...”
Something in the tone of the man's voice told Dale that this wasn't the usual middle school shithead with a dimebag in his locker. He waited politely for the man to continue. The principal fidgeted for a moment then continued. “A student here, Joey Giustino, has been absent for over a week. His parents haven't called the nurse and I don't think anybody's seen any of the family around town in a couple days.”
The two peace officers exchanged looks out of the corners of their eyes. There had been some odd reports on the news over the last couple of weeks. With the riots going on down south and that damn meningitis bug going around... Dale was a little surprised that school was still open.
“Alright.” Julie said with a small shrug of her shoulders. “Do you have the Giustino's address? We'll go knock on the door and make sure everything's okay.” She stood up and smiled at the man behind the desk. “I'm sure Joey and his parents are fine.”
It took a couple minutes for Mrs. Cullen to get the Giustino's address from the computer. Once they were back in the cruiser Dale frowned at the steering wheel. After a few moments debate he dug out his cellphone and dialed Merle's desk phone back at the station house. “Hey, Merle.” Dale said quickly. “I ain't got a lotta time to bullshit. We're gonna head up to the Giustino's house and have a look around. Nobody's seen the kid or the parents in a little while. I'll give you a holler when we're through poking around up there.”
Julie looked at her partner as he backed the cruiser out of the parking space and started away from the school. “What was that all about?” she asked as she waved to a group of school kids shooting hoops on their way out.
“There's a hundred old folks around town that have nothing better to do than watch Judge Judy and listen to their police scanners.” Dale explained as he hung a left onto Bridge Street and got the cruiser up to speed. “A lot of 'em have been listening long enough to know our radio codes. If I said we were headed up to investigate a missing person report half the town would know about it before lunch. By dinnertime the mayor'd have a panic on his hands.”
Julie nodded to herself. “Makes sense.” she said quietly. The Giustino's house was about a couple miles or so outside of town along Germania Street, the two lanes of asphalt quickly becoming almost like a tunnel thanks to the dense forest growing on either side of the roadway. It was pretty country up here and she was glad that she had left Pittsburgh to come here. Galeton would be a nice place to raise a family some day...
Dale pulled the cruiser off the paved road and onto a small bridge that spanned the tributary to Pine Creek in the center of town. The Reese family that owned the property a few lots down got in trouble with the zoning board because they had dammed up the creek to build a fish pond a few years back. The creek had backed up so badly that the Giustino's little bridge had been washed out leaving Helen and Victor Giustino unable to get to work.
The cruiser's brakes squeaked slightly when Dale stopped outside the house. It was a nice little two story job with a sizable storage shed in the back both of which were covered in matching white aluminum siding. A huge old oak tree shaded the yard its branches nearly touching the house's roof. Dale frowned. “That's Helen and Vic's cars.” he said motioning at the aging blue Honda Civic and newer black Toyota Tundra. “If they're home they should have answered the phone when the school called them.”
Julie swung her door open and popped the retaining strap on her pistol holster as she climbed out of the car. “Well let's knock and see what's going on.” she said as they started towards the house. Their boots clumped heavily on the stained wood of the porch. Julie stood off to the side and knocked on the front door while Dale went to a nearby window and peeked inside shading his eyes with one hand. After two more tries Julie tried to open the front door and found it locked.
Now Dale popped the strap on his sidearm as well. “Let's try the back door.” he suggested as they turned and climbed down off the porch. The two of them walked around the back side of the house the sense that something was very, very wrong here growing in Dale's gut. He had half a mind to get on the radio and call for backup. Then again if it turned out to be nothing then the rest of the guys would never let him live it down.
The grass hadn't been mowed in awhile and it almost came up to their ankles. “Weird. Vic mows his lawn once a week like clockwork.” Dale commented as they crept around the house their hands on the butts of their pistols. It was quiet save for the birds singing in the distance and the odd mechanical clanking sound of a tractor being run somewhere far out of sight.
Julie paused as they came around the back of the house. There were a handful of kid's toys scattered around the backyard and an apologetic looking swing set between the house and the shed. A narrow concrete path led from the door of the shed to a door that looked like it connected directly to the basement of the house about eighty feet or so away. A small pad of cracked and pitted concrete served as a patio in front of the glass door into the house proper. “Did you hear that?” Julie asked as she strained her ears hoping to pick up the noise again.
Dale swallowed hard that feeling getting even stronger. “No. What do you think it was?” he whispered hoping that he'd hear whatever he had just missed. It was obvious that nobody had been around the house in at least a few days maybe even up to a week... Dale had a horrible thought: some tweakers had come up from Pittsburgh or Philly and taken over the Giustino's house so they could cook up a couple quick batches of meth in the basement. There was a small chance of that happening but it wasn't outside the realm of possibilities...
There was a couple tense moments before Dale started onward towards the sliding glass door that appeared to go right into the kitchen. Dale motioned for Julie to move behind him as he crept up to the door frame and rapped on the glass. “Hello? Potter County Police Department. Anybody home?” he said loudly and rapped on the glass door again this time hard enough that Julie gritted her teeth as she thought he might break it.
They waited a few moments then Dale grabbed the door handle and slid it open with a quiet whooshing noise. “Okay!” he announced as he took a tentative step inside “We're coming in!” The room they entered appeared to be a combined kitchen and dining room. Off to their right there was a stove, refrigerator and sink separated from the large dining room table by counter space. Four wooden chairs were evenly spaced around the table.
The house was eerily quiet as Julie moved to check the floor behind the counter. There was a door that they hadn't been able to see from the back door. She moved back so that she was using the refrigerator for cover. “Got a door here.” Julie said just loud enough for Dale to hear her.
The door swung open as Julie was just reaching out to check to see if it was locked. She stumbled back with a shout and might have tripped over her own feet if she hadn't caught the handle of the fridge. “Jeez, Mrs. Giustino!” Julie grinned awkwardly “You scared the crap outta me!”
Helen Giustino was a short woman with curly salt and pepper hair and thick black glasses. “Oh! Hello, Officer!” she laughed as well one hand going to her chest. “You gave me a start too! I thought I heard somebody up here.” She eyed the peace officers as she calmed herself. Helen walked into the kitchen when Julie moved out of her way. “Can I get you two a cup of coffee or something? Some lemonade maybe?”
Dale chuckled, relieved to find somebody home. “No thanks, Helen.” he said as he eased over to lean on the counter. “This isn't a social call. Joey's been outta school all week and they wanted us to check up on him. Everything okay?”
Helen froze for a half second her face going slack for the barest of moments. It wasn't much but it was enough to make the little hairs stand up on the back of Julie's neck. “He's fine, Officer.” Helen ejaculated then cleared her throat. The older woman started towards the sink then gave the police officers a smile that looked a little too forced to Dale.
“Ma'am, I'm afraid we're gonna have to see him.” Dale said flatly. He pushed off of the wall and studied Mrs. Giustino's face and the way she was holding herself. There was definitely something wrong with this picture... “Where's your husband, Mrs. Giustino?”
Helen looked from one police officer to the other clearly becoming shaken. “Vic? He's at work.” she sputtered then looked as if she wished she had said something else. “I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ask you to leave.”
“Look... Mrs. Giustino...” Julie said in the same voice she used with skittish animals and small children “We're here to help. If he's hurt or sick we'll take him to the hospital. They'll take good care of him.” She smiled and reached out putting a hand on the woman's arm. “Everything's gonna be fine. You'll see.”
Helen shrugged then let her shoulders slump defeated. “Okay.” the older woman sighed heavily. “I'll let you stick your head in real quick.” Helen shuffled off towards the living room. “Not you.” she added sharply when she saw that Dale intended to follow them.
The living room had a battered old sofa it's floral print upholstery so faded that it almost looked white along with two recliners that had also seen better days all pointed towards an ancient looking television that vaguely reminded Julie of an old fashioned radio. She frowned slightly and gave him a reassuring look indicating that he should wait here.
“He's down here.” Helen mumbled and flicked a hand towards the hall. “Come on.” Julie's nose wrinkled as she followed the older woman into the corridor. Something at this end of the house smelled terrible. She couldn't quite place the stench but it made her stomach do a sudden wheelie. Her hand came to rest on the butt of her pistol. The feral animal part of her brain screamed at her to turn, run down the hall and get the fuck out of this house. There's the kid to think about though. She couldn't leave without making sure he was alright...
Helen pushed open the last door on the left and stood aside. “See? My baby's just fine.” she said quietly as she let the policewoman past her into the room.
Julie's jaw dropped open in shock. What struck her first was how hot the room was. A close second to that was what could have been a half dressed ten year old boy lay tied to the bed, his hands and feet lashed to the bedposts with narrow nylon rope. She could see where he had worn the skin right off his wrists and ankles the open wounds clearly infected and oozing a blackish pus. The boy's eyes were white as a fish's belly as he lifted his head and made muffled groans around the pillowcase that had been tied around his mouth to form a makeshift gag.
“ohholyshitfuck!” Julie gasped as she took a step into the room. It took a second for her brain to process what her eyes were telling it. She started towards the subdued child her hands already digging the rubber gloves out of the little pouch on her Sam Browne belt. Behind her Helen's hand closed upon Joey's little league trophy from last summer. Julie knelt at Joey's bedside and turned just in time to catch the weighty faux marble base of the trophy on the side of her head.
Julie groaned as her pants legs turned into two tubes filled with Jell-O attached to her hips. Helen kicked the door shut with one foot then brought the trophy down again smacking the prostrate peace officer on the temple hard enough to draw blood. “Uh?” she asked blearily and raised her hands in an attempt to ward off another blow. The kid was thrashing on the bed and grunting like some wild animal trying to break its leash.
Helen felt around on the policewoman's duty belt until she found what she wanted. She pulled the handcuffs out of their nylon case and quickly chained semiconscious woman's wrists to the bed frame. There was a big yellow plastic thing that looked like a gun in a holster on the front of the cop's belt opposite these little rectangular pouches. Helen tugged it out after a brief frantic struggle with the strap across the back of it...
Dale was framed in the doorway when she spun to look at the boots Helen heard coming down the hall. The big fat cop's face made an almost comical 'OH SHIT!' expression when he saw the older woman crouched over his partner. The cop had his sidearm almost halfway out of its holster when white hot bolts of electric pain made all the air rush out of his lungs in a strangled groan that might have been a scream if he could have unclenched his jaw.
Helen looked from the writhing policeman in the hall to the groaning woman at her feet then studied the Taser in her hand as she tried to catch her breath. “Fine pickle I've gotten myself into now.” Helen grumbled as she went to the cop and handcuffed him as well. She stood with her hands on her hips and glared at her son. “I hope you appreciate all the trouble your mom's going to.”
A sudden panic struck Helen as if she had goosed herself with the Taser. The two deputies would have people looking for them before too long. “What to do what to do...” she mused aloud while looking around the room. Her mind started to race: she really was in trouble now and if...no...when the police started snooping around again they'd send her to prison and do something terrible to her little boy... A sudden idea occurred to her.
The big cop was starting to come around so she walked over and pulled the black club from the metal hoop on his belt. Helen smacked him on the head a few times until he stopped moving. The woman frowned again, feeling sick to her stomach. Officer Peterson was bleeding pretty bad where she had hit him and all the excitement was stirring Joey up. He was thrashing and groaning trying to get out of bed... “Shhh Joey.” Helen said quietly giving the boy a trembling smile. “Mom's just gotta take care of something and then she'll be right back.”
Helen grabbed Officer Peterson by the ankles and started trying to drag the man down the hall towards the back door. It was hard going as he was the man was easily two hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight. Plus he started to wake up once they reached the kitchen so he kept trying to grab things like the chairs around the table or the counters. It was more annoying than anything since he couldn't really hold on if she dug in her heels and pulled hard.
Once she had the cop outside Helen dragged the policeman over to the shed. He actually almost had his gun out by the time she had dug the keys to the padlock securing the door out. Helen stomped down hard on his hand. After a moment's consideration she unbuckled the policeman's belt and slid it off him then set it aside. “I'm sorry.” she said quietly then smacked him a couple more times with the club “If you had kids you'd understand.”
Helen tugged the door open after fiddling with the padlock for a moment. A tall figure stood on the corner facing the wall of the shed a length of rope tied from his ankle to the leg of the workbench nearby. “Hey honey...” Helen said, her voice trembling as the figure made a drunken about face and nearly tripped over the rope securing his leg. The man was short with a potbelly bulging under his tee shirt which was covered with stains from the black fluid oozing out of the corners of his mouth. “I-I brought something for you...”
Vic started stumbling towards his wife his eyes wide revealing faded blue irises his hands groping the air. Helen's breath caught in her throat as she backed out of the shed and started shoving the big cop's body into the room. She had tried making food for Vic and Joey but they wouldn't eat it. If they didn't eat they wouldn't get better... A couple days ago she had gone out to check on her husband in the shed and found him eating a cat that must have gotten in through a window or something. He seemed a lot calmer after that...
Helen rushed out of the shed as Victor fell to his knees over the policeman's body and slammed the door. She was crying and it took her a couple tries to get the shackle of the lock in place... Helen backed away from the door her hands going to her face. The late morning air shook with a blood curdling scream that seemed to make Helen's teeth rattle that she felt right to her very soul... It felt like she had grown roots. Very faintly she could hear this wet smacking sound like somebody eating something soggy with their mouth open.
Helen threw up in the grass then went over and picked up the policeman's belt. She slung it over her shoulder and started back towards the house on wobbly legs. If this worked she could...Helen crashed into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. Could she really do this again? That girl in the other room was what...twenty? Twenty five? She had seen her around town a few times as well as Officer Peterson... If it helped Vic then it would help Joey. Joey was what was important now. It was Vic's fault that Joey was sick anyways. He had gone out 'hunting' when what he really meant was he went out into the woods to drink himself stupid and come back with that bite on his forearm. He didn't want to go to the hospital. Then he coughed up that black shit into Joey's face when the boy sneaked into their bedroom to check on his daddy.
After a few more minutes to collect herself she down the hall and into Joey's room. Officer whatshername was still right where Helen had left her though she was starting to come around. The policewoman was tugging on her restraints and trying to use the radio clipped to the epaulet of her uniform shirt. The whole thing really was stirring Joey up something awful. Helen scowled at the young woman. “You stop that right now.” she scolded as she came a little closer “You stop that right now!”
Helen yanked the hand mike of the policewoman's shoulder scowling at her. She tugged harder pulling the wire from the radio which was still in the carrier on the officer's belt. “Really.” Helen muttered as she tossed the mike onto the top of the dresser. “Some people.” She put a foot on Julie's side and half rolled her over and dug the radio itself out of its holder. After putting the radio next to the mike Helen stood with her hands on her hips as she tried to think about what to do.
Helen realized that the police car was still in the driveway out in front of the house. This was a big problem... It would have to be moved. She could have kicked herself for being down in the basement when they got here. Who was driving? She hurried out of the house and sprinted to the police cruiser hoping against hope... “Well poop.” Helen muttered under her breath. There were no keys in the vehicle's ignition. Who had been driving? They would have the keys...
She had been in the basement doing some laundry when the police showed up. Whoever was driving would have the keys... Helen scrambled into the house and burst into Joey's room. Without ceremony she dug into the woman's pockets. A money clip, a handkerchief, a jackknife...KEYS! Helen held them up by the fob and frowned. It didn't look like they were for the cop car but it was worth a shot.
Helen ran back out to the car and tried the first key that looked like a car key. It didn't fit! She dropped the keys and had to frantically dig around on the floorboard until she found them again. The good news was that she was able to get through the rest of the keys without dropping them. The bad news was that none of the keys worked. The keys had to be in the other cop's pockets...
She rushed to the shed, dug out her own set of keys and opened the door. The inside of Vic's shed looked like a great big water balloon filled with red paint had been dropped on the floor. Vic looked up with...with bits of the big policeman's insides in his hands. Helen felt the color drain out of her face and she spun on her heel slamming the door behind her. Helen put a hand on the shed and swallowed fighting the urge to throw up. “If you don't get those keys they'll catch you for sure.” Helen told herself, her hands curling into fists “If you go to jail nobody will be around to take care of Joey.”
That thought helped her fight down the nausea and revulsion. She stood, took a deep breath and opened the door again. The smell...the shed was always hot in the summer and now... Vic smelled bad and he was starting to look like he had gangrene or something and now... Now there was the stench of the cop. Vic had torn him open like he had the cat and had was eating the poor man's insides. There was blood everywhere!
However Vic did seem a lot calmer. Instead of getting all excited and biting at the air he was kneeling over the man's corpse mechanically shoving gobbets of flesh into his maw. In fact he barely seemed to notice that his wife was in the room. She slowly and carefully crouched down and reached every so slowly towards the dead cop's leg. A low keening wail made Helen jump to her feet. Vic's eyes followed her then he leaped and Helen barely evaded her husband's groping fingers.
Helen was out of the shed and into the house inside Joey's room in a flash. “You...you bitch!” she spat at the young woman still chained to her son's bed. It dawned on her what the woman had been doing with her radio. She had been sending out an alarm! Helen kicked her hard in the ribs then picked up the jackknife she had taken from the cop's pocket. “I-I'll fix you!”
The knife was sharp so it made short work of the ropes holding the boy's wrists and the ankle farthest from the prostrate woman. Her boy was hungry and it looked like her goose was pretty well cooked. No reason why Joey shouldn't have something to eat. It was one last thing she could do for him before they took her away from her little boy after all.
Joey scrambled like some kind of small necrotic crab until he hit the end of his tether his little tummy smacking hard on the bedpost. Julie screamed as the fucking crazy bitch who had clocked her backed towards the door putting her out of reach of the kid. Joey's head snapped down fixing the prostrate policewoman with a look of mechanical hunger. Unthinking she kicked and screamed her throat raw and writhed.
The boy's clammy hand caught her forearm and he pulled himself down his jaws opening wide. Julie screeched as Joey's teeth sank into the meat of her arm tearing away a chunk of flesh. She brought a knee up and smashed it into the back of the little boy's head as she thrashed trying to get him off of her. Julie rolled, got a knee under her then some how managed to stand flipping the bed over sending the mattress tumbling against the far wall.
Unthinking she started towards the door and made it about half a step before the bed frame got caught on the dresser. Eyes wild with fear she looked down as the boy's surprisingly strong hands wrapped around her ankle. The thing that up until quite recently had been Joey Giustino dragged itself forward and sank its teeth into the hamstring of Julie's right leg. She collapsed as soon as she put weight on the leg pulling the bed frame down on top of her and the boy.
Joey swallowed the piece of her trouser pants and flesh then took another bite. She howled in pain and tried to get through the door or at least away from the child that was currently mauling her leg. Somebody shouted and strong hands grabbed under her armpits trying to pull her away. “Oh for fuck's sake!” a voice shouted in her ear. There was a loud bang and her ears were ringing but the boy had stopped using her leg for a chew toy. White hot pain flared across the back of her calf. She flopped into the ground and somebody dragged her out into the hall. “Hey don't worry, buddy. We gotcha. You're gonna be fine.” the owner of the voice said reassuringly...