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Phantom [MultiFormat]
eBook by Paul Tremblay & Sean Wallace

eBook Category: Horror
eBook Description: No ax murderers hunting sexy teens . . . no brutal torture for torture's sake . . . because PHANTOM goes beyond the scare: Paul Tremblay and Sean Wallace have collected fourteen stories by today's most thoughtful writers of horror, each asking the questions beyond what is frightening? This is just the beginning, however, with stories from Steve Rasnic Tem, Lavie Tidhar, F. Brett Cox, Stephen Graham Jones, Steve Berman, Nick Mamatas, Michael Cisco, among other fresh voices in horror. From paranoid gold prospectors to lonely curators, Satan-worshipping Long Island teens, metaphysics-obsessed television reporters, and to Peter and Olivia and their devastating final choices detailed in the last pages of this anthology, the fourteen stories of Phantom present their horrors differently, but they all ask: How does anyone live through this?

eBook Publisher: Prime Books/Prime Books, Published: 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2010


1 Reader Ratings:
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"While its intended audience may be small for now, this slender volume of highbrow horror stories offers superlative craftsmanship without sacrificing the indispensable chills. The assembled authors, whose publishing credits range from Fantasy Magazine to the New England Quarterly, have in common twisted imaginations and respect for literary distinction . . . one can't fault their creators' abilities to startle the reader with unusual premises and unsettling imagery."--Booklist "Ghosts, disaffected wives, deserted towns, obsessive journalists and children who never existed haunt the pages of this stunning, elegant and frightful anthology of literary horror assembled by Stoker nominee Tremblay and World Fantasy Award--winning Wallace . . . deliciously creepy book of horrors that prove all the more terrifying for their everyday nature."--Publishers Weekly


THE CABINET CHILD

Steve Rasnic Tem

Around the beginning of the last century, near a small southwest Virginia town which no longer exists, a childless woman named Alma lived with her gentleman farmer husband in a large house on a ridge on the outskirts of this soon-to-be-forgotten town. The woman was not childless because of any medical condition--her husband simply felt that children were "ill-advised" in their circumstances, that there was no space for children in the twenty-or-so rooms of what he called their modest home.

Not being of a demonstrative inclination, his wife kept her disappointment largely to herself, but it could not have been more obvious if she had screamed it from their many-gabled roof. Sometimes, in fact, she muttered it in dialog with whoever should pass, and when no one was looking, she pretended to scream. Over the years despair worked its way into her eyes and drifted down into her cheeks, and the weight of her grief kept her bent and shuffling.

Although her husband Jacob was an insensitive man he was not inobservant. After enduring a number of years of his wife's sad display he apparently decided it gave an inappropriate impression of his household's tenor to the outside world and became determined to do something about it. He did not share his thinking with her directly, of course, but after an equal number of years enduring his maddening obstinacy his wife was well acquainted with his opinions and attitudes. Without so much as a knock he came into her bedroom one afternoon as she sat staring out her window and said, "I have decided you need something to cheer yourself up, my dear. John Hand will be bringing his wagon around soon and you may choose anything on it. Let us call it an early Christmas present, why don't we?"

She looked up at him curiously. After having prayed aloud for some sign of his attention, for so many nights, she could scarcely believe her ears. Was this some trick? As little as it was, still he had never offered her such a prize before. She thought at first that somehow he had hurt his face, then realized what she had taken for a wound was simply a strained and unaccustomed smile. He carried that awkward smile out the door with him, thank God. She did not think she could bear it if such a thing were running around loose in her private quarters.

John Hand was known throughout the region as a fine furniture craftsman who hauled his pieces around in a large gray wagon as roughly made as his furniture was exquisitely constructed. And yet this wagon had not fallen apart in over twenty years of travels up and down wild hollows and over worn mountain ridges with no paved roads. She had not perused his inventory herself, but people both in town and on the outlying farms claimed he carried goods to suit every taste and had a knack for finding the very thing that would please you, that is, if you had any capacity for being pleased at all, which some folk clearly did not.

Alma had twenty rooms full of furniture, the vast majority of it handed down from various branches of Jacob's family. Alma had never known her husband to be very close to his relations, but any time one of them died and there were goods to be divided he was one of the first to call with his respects. And although he was hardly liked by any of those grieving relatives he always seemed able to talk them into letting him leave with some item he did not rightly deserve.

Sometimes at night she would catch him with his new acquisitions, stroking and talking to them as if they had replaced the family he no longer much cared for. She could not understand what had come over her that she would have married such a greedy man.

Although she needed no furniture, without question Alma was sorely in need of being pleased, which was why she was at the front gate with an apron pocket full of Jacob's money the next time John Hand came trundling down the road in that horse-drawn wagon full of his wares.

Even though she waved almost frantically Hand did not appear to acknowledge her, but then stopped abruptly in front of their grand gate. She had seen him in town before but never paid him much attention. When Hand suddenly jumped down and stood peering up at her she was somewhat alarmed by the smallness of the man--he was thin as a pin and painfully bent, the top of his head not even reaching to her shoulders, and she was not a particularly tall woman. The wagon loomed like a great ocean liner behind him, and she could not imagine how this crooked little man had filled it with all this furniture, pieces so jammed together it looked like a puzzle successfully completed.

Then Mr. Hand turned his head rather sideways and presented her with a beatific smile, and completely charmed she felt prepared to go with anything the little man cared to suggest.

"A present from the husband, no?"

"Well, yes, he said I could choose anything."

"But not the present madam most wished for." He said it as if it were undeniable fact, and she did not correct him. Surely he had simply guessed, based on some clues in her appearance?

He gazed at her well past the point of discomfort, then clambered up the side of the wagon, monkey-like and with surprising speed. The next thing she knew he had landed in front of her, holding a small, polished wood cabinet supported by his disproportionately large palm and the cabinet's four unusually long and thin, spiderish legs. "I must confess it has had a previous owner," he said with a mock sad expression. "She was like you, wanting a child so very much. This was to be in the nursery, to hold its dainty little clothes."

Alma was alarmed for a number of reasons, not the least of which that she'd never told the little man that she had wanted a child. Then she quickly realized what a hurtful insult this was on his part--to give someone never to have children a cabinet to hold its clothes? She turned and made for the gate, averting her head so the vicious little man would not see her streaming tears.

"Wait! Please," he said, and a certain softness in his voice stopped her more firmly than a hand on her shoulder ever could. She turned just as he shoved the small cabinet into her open arms. "You will not be--unfulfilled by this gift, I assure you." And with a quick turn he had leapt back onto the seat and the tired-looking horses were pulling him away. She stood awkwardly, unable to speak, the cabinet clutched to her breast like a stricken child.

In her bedroom she carried the beautifully-polished cabinet with the long, delicate legs to a shadowed corner away from the window, the door, and any other furniture. She did not understand this impulse exactly; she just felt the need to isolate the cabinet, to protect it from any other element in her previous life in this house. Because somehow she already knew that her life after the arrival of this delicate assemblage of different shades of wood would be a very different affair.

Once she had the cabinet positioned as seemed appropriate--based on some criteria whose source was completely mysterious to her--she sat on the edge of her bed and watched it until it was time to go downstairs and prepare dinner for her husband. Afterwards she came back and sat in the same position, gazing, singing softly to herself for two, three, four hours at least. Until the sounds in the rest of the house had faded. Until the soft amber glow of the new day appeared in one corner of her window. And until the stirrings inside the cabinet became loud enough for her to hear.

She came unsteadily to her feet and walked across the rug with her heart racing, blood rushing loudly into her ears. She held her breath, and when the small voice flowered on the other side of the shiny cabinet wall, she opened its tiny door.

Twenty years after his wife's death Jacob entered her bedroom for the third and final time. The first time had been the afternoon he had strode in to announce his well-meant but inadequate gift to her. The second time had been to find her lifeless body sprawled on the rug when she had failed to come down for supper. And now this third visit, for reasons he did not fully understand, except that he had been overcome with a terrible sadness and sense of dislocation these past few weeks, and this dusty bed chamber was the one place he knew he needed to be.

He would have come before--he would have come a thousand times before--if he had not been so afraid he could never make himself leave.

He had left the room exactly as it had been on Alma's last day: the covers pulled back neatly, as if she planned an early return to bed, a robe draped across the back of a cream-upholstered settee, a vanity table bare of cosmetics but displaying an antique brush and comb, a half-dozen leather-bound books on a shelf mounted on the wall by her window. In her closet he knew he would find no more than a few changes of clothes. He didn't bother to look because he knew they betrayed nothing of who she had been. She had lived in this room as he imagined nuns must live, their spare possessions a few bare strokes to portray who they had been.

It pained him that it was with her as it had been with everyone else in his life--some scattered sticks of furniture all he had left to remember them by--where they had sat, what they had touched, what they had held and cared for. He had always made sure that when some member of the family died he got something, any small thing, they had handled and loved, to take back here to watch and listen to. And yet none was haunted, not even by a whisper. He knew--he had watched and listened for those departed loved ones most of his adult life.

His family hadn't wanted him to marry her. No good can come, they said, of a union with one so strange. And though he had loved his family he had separated from them, aligning himself with her in this grand house away from the staring eyes of the town. It had not been a conventional marriage--she could not abide being touched and permitted him to see her only at certain times of the day, and even then he might not even be present as far as she was concerned, so intent was she on her conversation with the people and things he could not see.

His family virtually abandoned him over his choice, but as a grown man it was his choice to make. He was never sure if his beloved Alma had such choices. Alma had been driven, apparently, by whatever stray winds entered her brain.

The gift she had chosen in lieu of a child (for how could he give his child such a mother, or give his wife such a tender thing to care for?) still sat in its corner in shadow, appearing to lean his way on its insubstantial legs. He perceived a narrow crack in the front surface of the small cabinet, which drew him closer to inspect the damage, but it was only that the small door was ajar, inviting him to secure it further, or to peek inside.

Jacob led himself into the corner with his lantern held before him, and grasping the miniature knob with two trembling fingers pulled it away from the frame, and seeing that the door had a twin, unclasped the other side and spread both doors like wings that might fly away with this beautiful box. He stepped closer then, moving the light across the cabinet's interior like a blazing eye.

The inside was furnished like some doll's house, and it saddened him to see this late evidence of the state of Alma's thinking. Here and there were actual pieces of doll furniture, perhaps kept from her girlhood or "borrowed" from some neighbor child. Then there were pieces--a settee very like the one in this room, a high-backed Queen Anne chair--carved, apparently, from soap, now discolored and furred by years of clinging dust and lint.

Other furniture had been assembled from spools and emery boards, clothespins, a small jewelry box, then what appeared to be half a broken drinking cup cleverly upholstered with a woman's faded black evening glove.

He was surprised to find in one corner a small portrait of himself, finely painted in delicate strokes, and one of Alma set beside it. And underneath, in tiny, almost unreadable script, two words, which he was sure he could not read correctly, but which might have said "Father," "Mother."

He decided he had been hearing the breathing for some time--he just hadn't been sure of its nature, or its source. The past few years he had suffered from a series of respiratory ailments, and had become accustomed to hearing a soft, secondary wheeze, or leak, with each inhalation and exhalation of breath. That could easily have been the origin of the sounds he was hearing.

But he suspected not. With shaking hand he reached into the far corner of the box, where a variety of handkerchiefs and lacy napkins lay piled. He peeled them off slowly, until finally he reached that faint outline beneath a swatch of dress lace, a short thing curled onto itself, faintly moving with a labored rasp.

He could have stopped then, and thought he should, but his hand was moving again with so little direction, and just nudged that bit of cloth, which dropped down a bare quarter inch.

Nothing there, really, except the tiny eyes. Tissue worn to transparency, flesh vanished into the dusty air, and the child's breathing so slight, a parenthesis, a comma. Jacob stared down solemnly at this kind afterthought, shadow of a shadow, a ghost of a chance. Those eyes so innocent, and yet so old, and desperately tired, an intelligence with no reason to be. Dissolving. The weary breathing stopped.

In the family plot, what little family there might be, there by Alma's grave he erected a small stone: "C. Child" in bold but fine lettering. There he buried the cabinet and all it had contained, because what else had there been to bury? Two years later he joined them there, on the other side.

* * * *

THE END OF EVERYTHING

Steve Eller

A priest, talking about World Without End, that's all I have left from a childhood of Sundays. Sweating in my miniature black suit, clip-on tie dangling from a starched collar. My family's voices, singing and testifying, were just background noise for those three words. Yanking my wayward mind back from daydreams of chasing goldbugs or sharpening knives, fixing me to the pew like cold metal through the heart. Just like the nails in the glistening Christ above the priest. I remember raising my hands, to see if I was dripping blood too.

If that priest was here with me now, I'd carve those words into his face, and see what dripped out of him. Not that it would do any good. Not for me, and certainly not for him.

When was the last time I saw glass that wasn't broken? It's nothing but spiderweb cracks now, or jagged shards like teeth. I wonder if there's one smooth pane left anywhere, to gleam like a sheet of fire in the sun. Or rim the world in frost.

The city street below me is empty. Unless there's some word beyond empty. Everything gleams a greasy grey. There's no sun peeking through the constant clouds, which isn't unusual for Ohio in wintertime. I'm just not sure it's still winter. It might be early morning or midnight. It could be tomorrow or yesterday.

I lean through the window frame, looking straight up. With so much grey I lose my perspective, slipping toward vertigo. It would be so easy to just let go, surrender my balance and tumble out. It's not the first time I've thought about it. But I'm afraid of what might happen. Almost as much as what might not.

Just like the rest of the world, the sky is dead. A fragment of a song pops into my head. Three words again. Dead Ohio Sky. I can't remember the rest.

Ninth Street runs straight to the lakefront, where the horizon is all water from my twentieth-story view. Lake Erie is choppy and frothed with white, though there's no wind. If not for the waves, there'd be nothing to distinguish water from sky. I used to stare out this window-hole, wondering when a ship would sail up, full of experts who'd climb on shore. Soldiers and scientists who knew what went wrong, people who could help me, in more ways than one. But they never came. And the world never got fixed.

This building used to be offices, and the walls are lined with roll-front bookcases. They were full of binders, some kind of financial records. I took them all out and threw them down the stairwell, replaced them with food and water. I grab a random can and pull the zip-top. Whatever's inside is orange as clown hair. It could be chili or soup, maybe dog food. The electricity is still on in the building and there's a microwave down the hall in a break-room, but that's too much trouble. It's just food, after all. Fake-colored chunks of slimy meat. Warmth won't make it taste good. I grab a plastic spoon.

When it all started ending, I stocked up on water and canned goods. Everyone else was busy panicking, getting their stupid selves killed. But I can't criticize them too much. They can't be as used to death as me. I've spent my life around it. So while they were screaming and running, I was looting stores and lugging crates up twenty flights, making myself a safe and secret place. I figured I'd be Vincent Price in that old movie. The last person on the planet, with all the monsters out to get me.

After a few tasteless mouthfuls, I shoulder the fire-door open. Can and spoon go down the stairwell. I don't hear them hit bottom. The meal sits in my belly like a stone, and I figure walking might grind it down to pebbles. The elevator in the hallway is open and waiting, since I'm the only one who uses it. I wish I had've known it was still working when I was carrying cases of water up the stairs. I tap the button for Lobby and the door shuts behind me. Machinery clanks and sputters inside the paneled walls, until the car jolts to a stop at the bottom. The elevator can't be safe to use, and may kill me one day. But somehow, I doubt it.

"Hey, mister," a soft voice said. "What's your hurry?"

Staying still was hard. The night wind was cold enough to bite through wool and skin. Cold as God's heart, I thought. There was a knife in my coat pocket, and I pricked my thumb. Penance, for thinking such a thing, no matter how true. Moving was the only way to keep warm. But the voice brought me to a stop.

A tangle of highway overhead, ramps and interchanges. Tires rumbled and whined. In the shadows beneath, people huddled around a trashcan fire. All scarves and hats, it was hard to tell them apart. Bits of metal and glass littered the ground, twinkling in firelight. The one who spoke stood away from the others. A thin, hunched figure, rubbing ragged gloves together. There was enough light to see it was a young girl.

"It's cold out tonight," she said. "Take me home."

She had a knit cap pulled down to her eyebrows and the hood of her quilted coat was up. But I saw her face. She might've been born like that. Maybe she was burned, or her family threw her from a moving car like an unwanted pet. The ruined skin made her smile too beautiful, and I thanked Heaven for the strand of shadow she passed through. Her scent was unwashed flesh and the acid breath of an empty stomach, but her eyes were clear and hard like the icicles hanging from the guardrail.

I wondered what could've brought this child to Cleveland in the dead of winter. Her life story had to be a tragedy, like her face. But I didn't wonder why she called out to me, instead of the other dark shapes along the street. Fate is a story all its own.

"How old are you?" I asked.

"What are you, a cop?"

"No. I'd just like to know."

"Old enough to make it worth your while."

It touched my heart that such perfection could exist in the world. In this tiny creature, waiting in frigid darkness, willing to trade herself for warm air.

"So cruel," I whispered.

"Huh?"

"Creation without hope of redemption."

"Hey, look. Do you want to take me home, or not?"

I wrapped her in my arms, and she didn't resist. She raised her face, like offering me a kiss. One of my hands touched her cheek, so she didn't speak anymore. Her spoiled skin was rough as corduroy. My other hand left the knife in my pocket.

"You are home."

I've seen the lobby countless times, but it's still a sight. Like a war zone, where the battle's over but nobody's left to pick up the pieces. There's dry blood across the floor, ink-black. And more is sprayed on the walls. In places it's like a stencil, an outline of the person who bled there, or more burst than bled, maybe. I heard there were stencils like this in Japan after the atomic bomb. People burned so fast they left a human imprint scorched in stone. Bloodstains would take longer to set. There are piles of leaves and trash in every corner, but no bodies. They either got dragged away, or stood up and left on their own.

The revolving door is nothing but a metal frame. I turn it, though I could just as easily step right through. The city is silent. I never realized, before it all ended, how noisy the world used to be. Now there's no cars or buses, no airplanes humming overhead. No human voices chattering nonsense into cell phones. The silence was overwhelming at first, and I'd squeeze my head in my hands to keep it from splitting like a dropped pumpkin.

The lakefront is the only place worth going. Nothing happens there, but at least there's movement. The quiet of the world is broken by my boots smacking the sidewalk. Every storefront I pass has shattered windows, and I catch my reflection in the fragments. My hair is long now, breaking over my shoulders. It must take months, if not a year, for it to grow to this length. I stop for a better look, amazed at how much white is creeping into my beard. The little eye in my head still sees me as the same person, but somewhere along the line I've been getting old.

Two blocks from the lake, I hear them, stirring nearby. Who knows how many. A warning jangles down my spine. It's an instinct as old as time, rational mind giving in to the ways of meat and bone. There's nothing to be afraid of, but the ancient part of my brain, the lizard-jelly, will never be convinced.

Maybe it's because I'm not carrying a knife. That's something I haven't been able to say since kindergarten. Hiding a knife on me was part of getting ready to go out into the world. The sure weight of a switchblade in my pocket. The chill of an eight-inch carver up the sleeve of my overcoat. Before the world ended, I had it all worked out. A knife was part of me. Cold, hard metal was the perfect complement to soft, warm skin.

They don't make any sound. Not with their mouths or throats. But with the city so silent, I hear them coming closer. Feet dragging on asphalt, liquid spattering from their sodden clothes. With no wind, it's hard to smell them until they're near enough to touch. My skin tingles, the muscle underneath bunching to run, to save itself. But all I do is turn around and look.

The girl warmed herself by the radiator while I heated milk on the stove. She peeled off clothes as she lost her chill. First her gloves, then her coat. A flannel shirt, several sizes too big, fell onto the pile at her feet. It was a man's shirt, and I wondered how she bargained to get it.

"Do you like marshmallows with your cocoa?"

"Sure," she replied. "Whatever you got."

Her back was to me and I watched long, straight hair tumble down when she removed her cap. Too black to be anything but from a bottle. And recently dyed. Such a slice of the human heart, that she was capable of vanity while living under a highway.

I poured steaming milk into two mugs and stirred until brown powder dissolved. I couldn't find any marshmallows, but didn't think she'd care. I took the two mugs and carried them into the living room. She was down to a threadbare tank-top and jeans. Toes obvious through worn-out socks.

"Thanks," she said, cradling her mug in hands barely big enough to surround it. "This is a first."

"How so?"

"Usually somebody just hands me their..."

"We don't need to talk about that," I said.

She sipped, and I heard her stomach gurgle. It takes a while for a belly to get that empty. I couldn't tell which she liked more, the taste of the chocolate or the heat of the mug. I was barely started with my drink when she slurped the dregs of hers.

"That was good," she said, turning back to the radiator, still holding the mug.

I saw a ring of bruises around both her arms, the pattern like fingers. But there was no damage, like to her face. Her breathing was heavy and I wondered if there was a disease eating away her lungs. I could hear her heart. Or maybe it was just my own.

She was such a symbol of how callous God was. To make life and let it go its own way. Then let it end. But what does God know about dying? He leaves that to his children.

"So do you want to get started?" she asked.

"Like you said to me, what's your hurry?"

She turned around, locking her eyes to mine. Her shoulders were so thin, almost pointed. She seemed fragile, hollow-boned as a bird, like I could crush her in my bare hands. But life is never so easy to take.

"What are you," she asked, smiling gently, "one of those nice guys?"

"Far from it."

"You're not gonna try and help me, or save me?"

"I'll help you. Who knows if it'll save you."

"Not even gonna offer me a sermon?"

"Nope. Just a hot shower."

There's a line of them, maybe a dozen, coming out of an underground parking garage. I can't imagine what they were doing down there. At the head of the column is a young woman. She's coming straight at me, left hand raised, the other cradling her belly. Her eyes are gazing off toward the sky. It's unnerving, like interacting with a disabled person who uses senses in a different way.

She's in good shape. All her limbs attached, her clothes intact. Her skin is a pale grey, so she must've come back recently. The line behind her is a chronology. The further back, the older and more decayed they are. Maybe they move slower, or maybe they have less reason to approach me. On the shadowed ramp, the ones at the back are already turning and heading down again. They must've been through this before. Some of them look familiar. The girl must be new in more ways than one.

When she's an arm's-length away, she's the only one left. The others have all turned away, disappearing into the garage. This near, I see the cuts inside her arms. Long-ways, from wrist to elbow. She knew what she was doing. There's not even any blood on her t-shirt. Her wounds tell me all I need to know. She lived for a while, then ended her own life. She wasn't one of mine.

The girl stops, leans toward me. Her right arm, tight against her body, must be broken. There's nothing spilling out of her belly to hold inside. Maybe the arm was paralyzed while she lived. Her left hand comes close to my cheek and I feel the chill of her fingers. Mouth open, she tilts her head. Her gums are the color of dough. She has no breath, but her smell is old meat between teeth.

I've seen them kill so many times. The sudden burst of violence from their seemingly brittle bodies, fingers and mouths ripping chunks of meat they chew but never swallow. Driven by some strange instinct, or simple desire.

Her eyes could belong to a steamed fish, white and gelid. They roll down from the sky, meeting mine. But it's not sight, just coincidence. She doesn't move away, but her mouth shuts. I hear a sharp click where her jaw closes wrong. There's no blood in her, and her brain must be a puddle in her skull. But she's made her decision, and it's the same one all the others made.

"What am I to you?"

My voice doesn't keep her from turning away. They don't hear or see. No breath, so they don't know scents. I saw one of them without a tongue continue to eat, so they don't taste. But something draws them to people, and makes them walk away from me.

"What are you to me?"

When she's gone, I finish my walk to the waterfront. There are benches facing the lake and I pick one solely by proximity. The waves beat against the pier, moved by a power as mysterious as the dead girl's judgment. Sky and water, grey on grey, seem like one solid mass. I wonder if I stepped onto the waves, if I could walk across like Jesus. But even a messiah needs somewhere to go.

"I was wondering when you'd get here."

Her outline was a blur through the shower curtain, but her intent was clear. Steam billowed over the rod, clouding on the ceiling, smudging my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I figured she was enjoying the hot water. That's why she was gone so long. But she was waiting, certain I'd come in and join her. Like she needed to get this done now, so she could sleep under a ramp instead of in a warm bed.

When I slid the curtain back, she didn't so much as flinch. Her hair was soaked to a point at the small of her back. Her skin was pink as smoked pork. Eyes like gems in a stark desert of a face. Her starved body was flawless. Her only damage was to the thing all the world could see. Maybe that's why she was so eager to show the rest.

"Get your clothes off, already. And hop in. You're letting in a draft."

"I just want to look," I said. At God's Work.

"If you like to watch," she whispered, fingers moving over her skin.

My fingers moved, too. Into my pants pocket, around the handle of the knife. And it was over before she could raise a hand. She slumped and I caught her, helped her down into the tub. She curled like a child about to be born. I closed the curtain. The hot water would wash her blood clean, then away.

On my way back, I stop at the mouth of the parking garage. Staring down the dark ramp, listening. There's no sound of them moving, no sign of the dead girl. The rest must've followed her before. Now she's learned her lesson.

I take a few steps down the ramp, curious what could be below. Are they milling in the dark, waiting? Are they curled up, resting on the asphalt like sleepy babies? Do they need to save what remains of their rotten muscle for the next living thing to pass by? They could be sitting in cars for all I know, dreaming.

Relief sweeps through me as I walk back up the ramp, but it's only instinct. A basic need to be safe. My rational mind knows I could stop and sleep in the middle of the street. I wonder if I should look for someplace else to live. Closer to the water. Maybe I will, when the food is gone. That way, I won't have to carry it all back down. There's no reason for me to live in a hideaway, behind locked firedoors. I've never seen them climb stairs. And even if they could, they have no interest in me. Maybe I never needed to leave my ground-floor apartment.

Next time I walk to the lake I'll make a trip along the shoreline, and pick one of the abandoned mansions. There could be a comfy king-size bed to sleep on, instead of a carpeted office floor. There could be champagne and gourmet food. And a bucket and mop, in case the previous owners left a mess.

I spread plastic over the bathroom tile, the kind movers use. It clung to the floor and never curled at the corners. And it stuck to itself when it was time to ball it all up. I always kept a roll handy.

The air was cool, with no more steam. She must've used up all the hot water. My shoulder brushed the shower curtain as I unraveled more plastic, and it felt as cold as her breath, when I held her close under a highway. One more strip of plastic and there was enough to hold her. I trimmed it with my knife. A few red flecks dotted the seam, delicate as snowflakes. I thought I cleaned the blade better. Metal rings shrieked on the rod when I pushed the curtain open. It was freezing inside the shower and I shut off the water. I closed the knife and slid it back into my pocket.

She looked so small in death, like her miserable life made her larger. Bloodless pale, she could've been a porcelain statue. This was the gift I gave her. Something her creator could never imagine. Mercy.

I reached down to lift her out, and her eyes opened. I tumbled onto my back, and my wet fingers couldn't get any traction on the plastic. All I could do was watch as she stood, glaring down at me. There wasn't a hint of blood on her gaping throat. Her eyes kept going down, rolling to pure white. Her arms came up, hands curled like she was still holding her mug. She took a step, but couldn't lift her legs high enough to climb out of the tub. Instead, she toppled over, right toward me. On the way down, I saw her mouth open.

She was cold and wet, pale like some deep-sea thing. Heavier than I imagined, for a tiny girl with no blood in her. All her frigid weight was on me, and there was a wiry strength in her limbs. I couldn't get enough friction on soaked plastic to push her off. There was a clicking close to my ear, maybe fingernails on tile, maybe teeth on teeth. Her arms and legs pumped franticly, until she slid right off me.

I grabbed her hair, used her momentum to turn myself over. She was standing by the time I got to my knees. Pure reflex, I had the knife in my hand before I was on my feet. She wasn't moving, water pattering from her fingertips onto plastic. But I wasn't taking any chances. I jumped up. Two quick slashes, one to each side of her neck.

This had never happened before. Maybe I got careless. Or faithless.

She didn't weaken or fall. I opened her throat earlier in the shower, and the new neck-wounds completed a crooked letter H. But there was nothing left in her to seep from the cuts. She was dead, but not at peace. And there was nothing I could do.

She took a step toward me, and I lifted the knife again. I was running out of places to cut her, but it was all I can think to do. Her bare feet squeaked on plastic as she moved, but she bumped past me, out the bathroom door. I followed her, knife still in front of me. Naked, she walked to my front door. Breathless, I opened it for her.

They huddle around me. I'm only a few miles from the city, but I've never seen any of them. And obviously, they've never been near me. There must be twenty, all ages, rags of designer clothes hanging on their limbs. One woman still wears a diamond necklace. There's a man who must've been a sports star. Seven feet tall and broad as a wall, his clothes are still baggy. All the local heroes lived on the lake.

They each take a turn rushing up to me, then turning away. I stand still and wait for them to finish. Then I can get back to searching the mansion. It's got the largest deck I've ever seen, facing the water. I could live here, and pretend to watch the sunrise.

The crowd thins quickly, only a few stragglers coming up to me. Inside the house their smell is thick, clinging to my tongue like bacon-grease. After they're gone, I'll have to open up all the windows and let the place air out. But I'll keep the first floor windows shut, long-term, so newcomers don't tumble in. Actual, unbroken glass.

I make my way upstairs to the master bedroom, listening. There might be one of them up here. If so, I'll push them down the staircase. But it's deserted.

The scent of them, so many, has given me a headache. I search the master bath for aspirin. Inside the medicine cabinet, there's nothing but a bottle of sleeping pills. I turn on the cold water, splash my face and take a sip from my cupped palm. Another sip could wash the entire bottle of pills down my throat. But something tells me the only rest I'll be getting is on the master bed.

With so much chaos in the street, there was no need to hide my knife. Any blood I could spill would be lost in the flood. The girl I killed was obvious in the mob, white skin gleaming in streetlamp-light as she rode a struggling man down to the sidewalk. She wasn't the only killer, just the youngest. There were so many, most dressed in faded gowns or robes. And it made sense that if the dead rose, the first would come from hospitals and hospices. The crowd grew, but fewer clouds of breath rose from living mouths.

Something bumped my shoulder and I spun, knife ready. It was an elderly man in pajamas, a torn plastic tube taped to his nose. His teeth were bright red, the same as the throat of the girl in his hands. Two jabs and a slash from my knife, and his eyes were gone and his neck split open. But he kept chewing. The girl was limp, her breathing like bubbles through a straw. The bloody wad in his mouth fell out, and he went in for another bite.

I'd seen enough horror movies to know damaging the brain would stop the living dead. But my knife wasn't thick enough to go through skull-bone. So I searched the street for another weapon. A window suddenly shattered somewhere over my head, glass raining down. I lifted my arms as a shield, but nothing touched me. Huge shards crashed around me onto the sidewalk, and not a scratch. Along with the glass there was a piece of window-frame, long nails exposed. I grabbed it and hit the man on his head, three times. His skull was a soup-bowl, but he wouldn't stop. Not until the girl was dead, and he dropped her, walked away. A moment later, she got up.

She staggered up to me, palms open like begging. There was no way to kill her. No way to help her. I dropped the dripping wood, ready to accept my fate. At that moment, a pack of young boys, all in some kind of scout uniform, dashed by. They screamed, and the girl went after them. Heart hammering, I took the opportunity to run away.

Sitting on my deck, I watch the lake. The waves seem to form out of the colorless sky, vanishing as they hit the shore. Spreading more nothing on the world.

I found a collection of fancy knives in the kitchen, lined up on a magnetic strip. I would've loved to have them, back before everything ended. Now there's no more warm skin. The cold metal means nothing. Everything means nothing.

There's food in the cupboards, and there must be a store nearby. No need to go back for my supplies. I haven't checked the garage yet, but there could be a gassed-up car in there. Ready to take me out of the city. This might be an isolated thing, living people gathered in other places. But I doubt it. The tightness in my belly tells me that it's over. No matter where I go, I'll find the world the same.

I wonder if I stopped eating, if it would make any difference. The dead don't want to kill me. A hail of glass from the sky misses me. I'll bet the bottle of sleeping pills wouldn't make me yawn. And I can't give final peace to the afflicted.

Maybe the preacher was right. World Without End. And God gets the final laugh.


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