The dead were rising.
At first, we thought it was a hoax. The kind of thing that was typical of a small radio station tucked away in the mountains, hidden from the long reach of mass communication. A prank no doubt, for the benefit of the city folk that had invaded the logging town of Fallsdale, like ants swarming to a summer picnic, in the wake of another hunting season.
The dead were rising.
And we laughed as we sat around the wood burner stove, trying to keep warm in the drafty cabin. The voice on the antique radio coming in broken and full of static.
We laughed, as the announcer spoke of walking corpses and gamma rays from space.
We laughed, as my grandfather told us of hearing Orson Welles’ broadcast of War of the Worlds. At how he and my great-grandfather had sat on the porch of their lonely farmhouse with loaded shotguns, waiting for little green men that never came.
The dead were rising.
Somewhere a bottle was produced to add a little extra warmth to the cold night. When it had made it’s way around the older men, my grandfather passed the bottle to me. I was only sixteen, but I knew that in his eyes I had become a man. After all, I had taken a buck that morning, which was more than either of my uncles could boast.
It wasn’t my first drink, but the whiskey was strong and it burned in my throat as it wound it’s way down into my stomach. My insides felt as if they had been scorched and I coughed hard, much to the delight of the others.
“Mind now,” my grandfather admonished after the bottle had been taken and the laughter subsided, “what happens away, stays away. That’s always been the rule.” He turned and pointed a gnarled finger at my two uncles. “The sames for you two. Your sister’s a good girl, but she won’t let the boy come away again if she finds out we’ve gotten her Jack drunk.”
“I’m not drunk,” I sputtered.
The dead were rising.
And that was how we passed the night, drinking cheap whiskey (rot-gut, my grandfather called it) and listening to a poor horror story on the radio.
The dead were rising.
I awoke to sounds in the night. I was disoriented, the way most people are when they are suddenly woke from a strange bed. My head swum with the departing residue of the liquor I had consumed. I wandered into the main room of the cabin to find Denny, the older of my two uncles, staring intently out the window that overlooked the backyard of our camp. He turned at the sound of my approached and hurried towards me.
“Go back to bed Jack.”
“What’s happening?,” I asked. The words came out sour with booze.
“Nothing.” He grabbed me by the arms and tried to turn me around.
The backdoor of the cabin opened. My grandfather, followed by a very pale Uncle Mike, stepped into the cabin. Urgency was written on their features so clearly, it was like reading words on a blackboard. Numbly, I realized my grandfather was only wearing his longjohns and a pair of old boots.
“What’s happening?,” I asked again, as I struggled against Denny’s grip.
“Jack, please go back to…”
“Let the boy go,” my grandfather interrupted.
“He doesn’t need to see this Dad.”
“Just do as I say.” Denny let me go with obvious reluctance. Grandfather nodded, satisfied that he was still obeyed by his sons. The old man grabbed two of the shotguns from the rack by the door. “Watch from the window if you want, but nones to go outside until Mike and I finish the job.” He thrust one of the guns at Michael, but the younger man backed away.
“I can’t,” Michael said. His voice was barely audile, a whisper that hardly passed his lips before dying away.
Grandfather only grunted.
“Would someone please tell me what the hell is going on?,” I pleaded.
The old man turned and saw me, actually saw me, for the first time since he had entered the cabin. He hooked a crooked thumb over his shoulder, gesturing at the curtained window. “You won’t believe me, so I won’t waste the breath.”
I stepped to the window like a man walking to his own execution. Fear, that great horned beast, had crawled into my belly and spread it’s foul wings. I pulled back the curtain slowly, expecting to see… What? I don’t really know and it didn’t matter. Nothing could have prepared me for what I did see.
The backyard was a circular clearing that hugged the rear corners of the cabin. The forest loomed beyond the opening, great trees that stood like sentinel soldiers. It was here, where the forest met the yard, that we had hung the deer.
The dead deer.
There were two of them. They hung from the tree branches by their necks, like men strung from the gallows.
They were dancing. There is no better way to describe it. The deer kicked their legs in the air as if they were trying to find purchase and loose the ropes from their necks. I found myself staring at the buck I had shot early that morning. His large rack knocked against the branches above it’s head, producing a loud clack! It was this noise which had disturbed my sleep.
The buck’s eyes shone in the light of the full moon, two black pearls waiting to be plucked from a depthless ocean. Drying blood glistened in the gutted cavity that had been it’s stomach. The wound flexed each time the deer jerked and I was reminded of
(the dead were rising the dead were rising the dead were rising the dead )
the way the bass would work it’s mouth after it had been removed from the cold waters of Chessman’s Lake.
I tore my eyes form the spectacle with a horrified gasp. The older men looked away as I tried to meet their eyes. I wanted to ask if it was real, but I knew it was. Instead, I asked what we would do.
In answer, my grandfather held one of the shotguns out to Denny. My uncle looked at the weapon as if it were a snake, waiting to sink it’s poisoned fangs into the soft, pink flesh of his pudgy hand. Slowly, he reached for the gun.
My hand found it first. Denny, who had been ready to drag me away from just watching, only a moment before, offered no protest.
“Are you sure, boy?,” my grandfather asked.
I nodded. “It’s my deer. I put down once, I can do it again.”
The old man grunted, though this time it held a note of approval. To Denny he said, “Mind your little brother now. He’s half in his cups already.”
And so he was. The bottle we had passed so joyfully earlier had reemerged. Michael sat in the tiny kitchen nursing it like an infant on it’s mother’s breast.
We stepped into the cold night. As we approached the hanging deer, I carefully fed the heavy slugs into the shotgun’s belly. I worked the pump on the gun, bringing a slug into the ready position. Ahead of me, I heard my grandfather doing the same.
We split up at the tree line. Each of us going to his own deer without saying a word.
I stood below the buck watching with morbid fascination as it struggled against it’s bonds. A hoof swung by my head, threatening to take a good sized chunk of my scalp with it. Ten yards down the tree line, my grandfather gave a low whistle.
“Blow it’s damned head off Jackie, then drag it down here. I’ll wait for you to do mine.”
I nodded, only vaguely realizing he wouldn’t be able to see it in the darkness. I needn’t have worried. Grandfather was used to being obeyed. He knew I would do as I was told.
The hoof swung at me again, this time actually brushing against the sweat soaked skin of my forehead. I jumped back, more from repulsion than from actual pain. I shook my head briskly, once, to clear out the cobwebs.
I stepped forward again, this time raising the heavy shotgun. I put the bead on the buck’s nose, breathed slowly, and pulled the trigger.
The deer’s head was vaporized in a mist of blood, bone, and tissue. The neck, freed of the troublesome obstruction, slid free of the rope. The body fell to the ground with a sickening thud. There was a sharp crack! as a bone broke.
I turned away from the sight of it. Moments later, a small puddle of vomit appeared between my feet. I had no idea where it came from.
“I’m here,” I answered.
“Is it done?”
I began to nod again and stopped. I forced myself to answer. “Yes.”
“Then drag it here,” he called with his usual brusqueness.
I reached for the rope, meaning to untie it from the tree and use it as a drag line, but my fingers were numb useless things. Tentatively, I kicked the deer, watching for signs of movement. Satisfied that it was dead again, I grabbed one of it’s front legs and pulled it to my grandfather. It was considerably lighter without the head.
The old man nodded as I dropped the carcass at his feet. “This is nasty business Jack.” I nodded without taking my eyes off his deer. It was still dancing in the tree. It’s legs kicked a frenzied tattoo against the hard oak.
“We’ll burn ‘em when it’s over. I guess that should keep ‘em dead.”
He grunted and flicked away the unfiltered cigarette which hung from his lips. When I remember my grandfather, it’s always that way. Calmly smoking a cigarette as a dead deer struggled in the air above him.
He stepped forward with the heavy shotgun raised. I braced myself for the blast of the gun, but it never came.
The rope, worn thin by the deer’s constant struggles, finally gave. The buck, a smallish four point, hit the ground running. Grandfather never had time to react. The buck charged forward, it's ungainly dance of death replaced by the grace of it’s kind. The small rack led the way.
The antlers plunged through my grandfather’s stomach like a hot knife through butter. A spray of blood burst from the old man.
I could hear my screams over the roar of the roar of the gun. I fired until the weapon was spent. And then, I fired still. I dry pumped the gun until Denny yanked it away from me.
How long I had stood there shooting the twice dead animal, I don’t know. It seemed an eternity.
Grandfather lie on the ground. Blood poured from his stomach in crimson rivers. Small red bubbles formed at his lips as he gasped his last breaths. I knelt beside the old man, only aware that I was crying because the tears were freezing to my cheeks.
“…burn them…,” he gasped.
“Alright Dad. Just lie still.” Denny reached for his father’s hand, but the old man waved him away.
Grandfather’s gaze fell on me. His eyes were still strong as his body died. “…burn…me…too…”
He smiled. “…good boyyyyyyyyyy…”
And then he was dead.
The dead had risen.
I found a can of gasoline in the tool shed off the back of the cabin. I lumped the three corpses in a pile and waited for Denny to return with Michael. He came alone.
“He’s passed out drunk. He finished off the first bottle and most of another.”
I only nodded.
“Are you ready?,” he asked. His voice said that he wasn’t.
“Yes,” I answered. And strangely it was true. I felt no guilt at what we were about to do. My grandfather had asked for this. In his own words, he would have wanted to ‘keep dead’. “Say something Denny.”
“What? A prayer?” He laughed bitterly.
“A prayer would be fine.”
He did. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was adequate. I waited for the ‘amen’ to deliver the shot to my grandfather’s head.
“Jesus!” Denny nearly jumped out of his skin.
I didn’t bother to justify it. It had to be done and I knew I had to do it.
I tossed a lit match on the gasoline soaked bodies and walked away.
The dead had risen.
Michael was slumped over the kitchen table. Two empty bottles rolled around on the uneven floor at his feet. Denny rummaged through the cupboards and brought out another. He smiled wanly. “Dad loved his rot-gut.”
He poured two shots as he sat across the table from Michael. He downed his quickly and sat back in the chair with his head down. I took mine standing. The liquor still burned, but I managed not to cough.
I went into the bunkroom and lay in the dark. The still of the night stretched out before me. Behind my eyes, I watched my grandfather die for the hundredth time. His frail body bleeding on the snow covered ground, painting the white a brilliant red, when I heard the screams.
I bolted into the kitchen. I found them there locked in a wrestling match. Michael stood above Denny reaching for his throat. His face was a twisted snarl of rage and fury. Denny was holding onto Michael’s wrists, barely keeping him at bay.
Suddenly I knew.
Michael had not been passed out. He had died. He had drank himself to death while his father lie dying in the snow.
I looked for the gun even as I realized I had left it on the back porch. Instead, I ran to the wood burning stove. I opened the small door where the logs were fed in. I reached inside and cursed as I burned myself. I blew the hot embers from my skin and reached in again. This time I pulled out a log that was burning on one end.
Wielding the torch like a ball bat, I stepped behind Michael and swung for all I was worth. There was an audible fwoosh as the fire made contact with his dead skin. His flesh was as dry as a dead tree. The fire caught instantly.
The zombie, for that was what he had truly become, screamed. It was a monstrous sound. The flesh on my back prickled with goose bumps at it’s unwavering curl.
It, he, ran from the kitchen towards the back of the cabin. Fire danced of it’s body, spreading to anything and everything the creature touched.
I pulled Denny from the floor and raced from the cabin.
The dead finally dead.
We stood in the gravel driveway and watched the cabin burn. We would wait until dawn before going into town. There were cemeteries there.
“What will we tell our family?,” Denny asked in the voice of a man who has just woke from a dream. Or a nightmare.
He stared at me in disbelief.
“What happens away, stays away.”