Death Row

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Original Publication & Date: 
Undead Anthology - Permuted Press 2006

 

Undead AnthologyPastor sat with his back to the bars and took a long drag off of his cigarette. He didn’t pay much mind to the dead thing on the floor outside his cell. Hell, even the blood on his hands didn’t faze him, although, I suppose nothing much did these days.

It started a week ago. We’d only gotten the story in bits and pieces from panicked guards and workers on their way out of the jail; out of the city. They left us a few cases of canned fruit, bottles of Coke and water, and even set up a television set right outside my cell. They wished us luck, and left.

There were reports about a disease that made people change. The news was flooded with images of riots and mass evacuations.  It was chaos out there.

After a day or so all of the networks had switched to the emergency broadcast signal. The only station still broadcasting anything other than that annoying squawk was a local access Christian channel that ran a continuous loop of hymns over a static image of Christ on the cross.

Seemed a little late for that.

Today was the first time we’d actually seen one.

There were slow and clumsy footsteps in the hallway. At first we all thought it was someone else who got left behind and somehow made it out of their cell.

“Hey!”  Pastor pressed his face to the bars and looked down the hall. “Down here!”

There was no reply, but the footsteps kept coming. I could see him now, too, out of the corner of my eye;  a short, heavy guy in a grey suit, his left arm hung limply by his side.

Pastor shook his head. “This ain’t right at all.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Svelski muttered, and then yelled to the man in his grating nasally tone. “Hey, get us the fuck out of here! We got rights you know!”

The man kept shuffled toward our cells. When I got a better look at  him -  at his face -  a numbing sensation ran up my spine.

He looked up at me, teeth bared, and let out a deep, guttural moan. I stepped back, certain he would charge at me, but, instead he lunged toward Pastor, plunging his arms through the bars, and grabbed him by his sleeves.

“Hey! What the fu…?” Pastor let out a howl as the man dug his fingers into his wrists.

Pastor jerked violently to one side, snapping the man’s arms at the elbows. He reached around and clasped his hands around the back of the thing’s neck, and anchored himself as he forced  its head through the bars, eliciting a sickening series of grunts, cracks, and snaps.  

Once he was satisfied that it was dead, Pastor stood back and looked at his blood-soaked hands.

I could tell by his expression that this wasn’t the first time he’d seen them like that.

Pastor scowled as he wiped his hands across his chest. He lifted his leg, pressed his foot up against the thing’s face, and kicked it loose from the bars.

The corpse fell into a heap outside of his cell.

“Jesus Christ! The fuck was that?” Svelski stared down at the body.

“It’s…just a man,”  I said, kneeling to get a better look. The thing lay with its head twisted toward me, its face a pallid green covered in a web of bluish-black veins

“Ain’t no man,” Pastor said, still catching his breath. “Maybe he was once, but he ain’t no more. I looked in them eyes. Ain’t nothing there.” Pastor fell against his bunk and sat down. He rubbed at his arms where the thing dug its nails in. “Ain’t no man.”

“You all right?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Pastor said. “I’m just fuckin’ peachy.” He threw his legs up on the bunk and leaned against the bars, turning his back to me. As he lit up a cigarette, Svelski ran to the front of his cell and pressed his face through the bars.

“Hey, you got another one o’ those?” Svelski asked.

Pastor didn’t answer.

I pulled one from my pack and tossed it across the hall. The cigarette landed a few inches from Svelski’s cell. I still had a carton my uncle brought me just before this thing started, and, the way things were going, I figured I’d probably starve to death long before I ran out.

“Good man, Steve-O,” Svelski said. He knelt down and reached out for the cigarette, pausing as he looked at the body that lay a scant few feet away.

“It’s dead, Svelski,” I said.

“Yeah…yeah, I know that.” Svelski grimaced. “Smells somethin’ fierce, don’t it?”

“Smells like a dead man oughta,” Pastor said, still scratching at his arms.

A loud buzz emanated from the speakers as the cellblock lights shut down one-by-one.

Ka-CHUNK Ka-CHUNK Ka-CHUNK

It was automated evening on death row. Save for the amber glow of the exit signs, the hall was as black as pitch.

“So, that’s it, then, eh? I mean, this is really it.” Dancing shadows cast across Svelski’s angular face as he lit his cigarette.

 “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think,” I said, feeling my way back to my bunk.

“’Course you know,” Pastor said from the darkness.

“Oh, here we go,” Svelski muttered.

“This is the reckoning, people.” Pastor’s usually booming voice sounded weary and weak. “End times.” Pastor took another long drag off of his cigarette. “And you best believe when he does, he’s wipin’ the slate clean.”

“Shit, man. Why the fuck does everything gotta be about God with you?” Svelske asked.

“’Cause everything is about God, little man,” Pastor said. “If I was you I’d be makin’ peace with him. I know I have.”

“Oh please. You’re a fuckin’ murderer! Even if there is a fucking God, you’re gonna be frying like the rest of us.” Svelske said. “Am I right Steve-O?”

“Just shut the hell up, Svelske.” It wasn’t that I disagreed with him. I was just sick of hearing his voice, that nasally whine; the way he called me Steve-O.

I heard the creek of Svelski’s bed springs as he slipped into his bunk, and watched the head of his cigarette fall to the floor. I stared at it, mildly reassured by its amber glow, as I drifted off to sleep.

****

I knelt beside her and brought my fists down on her again and again and again. With every blow she looked less and less like Lisa.

I was molding her.

I was changing her.

I was erasing her from my world.

In my dreams I’d shatter her bones, turn her teeth to powder.

And when I slept I’d hear her scream.

And scream.

And scream.

****

I awoke to the sound of Svelski’s high pitched shrieks and tumbled out of my cot, falling to my knees just in front of the bars. I’d somehow slept through the night, and the cellblock was once again fully illuminated by buzzing fluorescents. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw Pastor laying on his back in the middle of his cell, his arms splayed, scratched nearly raw. Blood trickled from the corners of his mouth and eyes, and, as far as I could tell, he wasn’t breathing.

Sveslski cried, “Jesus Christ, he’s dead, man! He’s fuckin’ dead!”

“Just…just calm down,” I said.

“Calm down?” Svelski shrieked. “What if…what if it was that thing? Man, I mean, what if it’s spreading in here now?”

I shook my head. “No, no…if it was in the air,” I thought about it for a second.

Was it in the air?

Then I looked at Pastor’s arms. “No, wait. Pastor, he got scratched,” I said. “That thing, it scratched him up.”

The revelation seemed to calm Svelksi a little. His grip on the bars loosened and the color came back to his knuckles.

“Yeah…” he said. “That’s right. That’s right. He touched it. He touched the fucking thing. I mean, we’re okay then, right? We’re okay?”

“Yeah…I think…” I said.

How was I supposed to know?

Just then I noticed Pastor’s fingers move.

“Svelski…” I whispered as calmly as I could.

Pastor’s fingers twitched again.

 “Svelski…” I said.

“What?” He grabbed the bars again and squeezed his rat face through, twisting his head as far as the bars would allow. “What…what are you lookin’ at?”

Pastor’s fists clenched.

I fell backward.

Svelski cried out. “What are you lookin’…?!”

Pastor convulsed wildly.

“Ah shit!” Svelski yelled. “Ah Shit Shit Shit!! ”

Orange foam spewed forth from Pastor’s mouth and nose. He hissed and spit, his arms and legs flailing against the cot and bars as he let forth a moan that was deep and pained and unearthly. In one rapid move, Pastor flipped from his back to his haunches, his hands on the floor in front of him, his teeth bared in a snarl and his eyes…

Dear God, his eyes.

Svelski flew back across his cell and hunkered in the corner, blocking his ears with balled up fists, and rocking back and forth like a scared child. “Oh Jesus Christ, no!”

Pastor snorted, a cloud of red and orange mist bursting from his nose, a thick strand of bloody mucous dripped to the floor. He cried out again, and charged, slamming into the bars. He pushed his arms through and clawed at the air, knocking over the stacks of canned fruit and soda sending them rolling in all directions.

“Kill him!!” Svelski cried. “Kill him!!”

“How the fuck am I supposed to do that!?”

“I don’t know…just… what the fuck?” Svelski covered his head in his hands and kicked at his cot. “What the fuck is he?!”

I asked myself the very same question. What was he? Who was he? He certainly wasn’t Pastor anymore. Pastor was dead. This thing…

This thing was just hungry.

****

Svelski finally calmed down about the same time that the thing that was Pastor realized it wasn’t getting out of its cage.

I watched it all day. When the lights buzzed out for the night, I could still see the glow in its eyes; fiery orange, almost ethereal. I noticed too, that the thing didn’t close them for a second. Hell, it didn’t even blink.

            As I sat there, staring at Pastor, there was a loud bang in the hallway; metal-on-metal, like cell doors slamming shut.

            “What was that?” Svelski whispered.

“No idea. Maybe…I dunno….maybe help.” I said. I didn’t believe it, but I wanted to.

KaCHUNK!

Another bang, followed by the sound of shattered glass; whatever was here, it was getting closer.

“Oh fuck. It’s another one of those things!” Svelski said.

“We don’t know that,” I said. “Be quiet.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck…” Svelski whispered. I couldn’t see him but I could tell by the sound of his voice that he’d moved toward the back of his cell again. I looked over at the Pastor-thing; still standing there, eyes glowing back at me. At least I knew where he was.

Down the far end of the cellblock I heard a dull thud. Something banged against the doors. There was a rhythm to it now, slow and steady, growing louder and harder. There was a brittle cracking sound followed by the jingle of glass raining onto the tile floor.

Now I could hear them.

 “Jesus Christ, Steve. You hear that?” Svelski asked. His voice sounded pinched, nervous. “Steve?”

“Shhhhh!” I hissed.

I could hear them scratching on the door, fumbling at the latch. Something gave. The door creaked as it swung open. They were in.

I moved to the edge of my cell, pressed my face between the bars, and peered down the hallway. My heart pounded in my chest as a wave of panic washed over me. I fell back across my cell, slammed hard into the cold brick wall, and froze. The shuffling and moaning all but drowned out the desperate prayers from Sveski’s cell as the things drew near. The air was thick with an almost indescribable aroma; a heady mix of dirty laundry and rotten meat.

They stood before us, now; eyes like the Pastor-thing. Dozens of them, hanging there like a swarm of fireflies. I could sense their arms reaching between the bars of my cell, disturbing the air as they groped for purchase. Svelski’s prayers had given way to muffled whimpering but I could barely hear him above the cacophony of ragged grunts and moans.

They were louder now, more urgent.

They were in frenzy.

I stood there for hours, my back to the cold brick, my mind working feverishly, painting nightmarish images of what it was that stood before me in the darkness. When the lights finally did buzz back on, the reality was far more horrific than anything my imagination could conjure up.

Faces swollen and bruised. Skin torn and frayed, chunks of flesh missing from some; entire limbs missing from others. One of them was nothing more than a torso, its lower half a ragged mess of bloodied tissue, organs, and bone. It slithered across the floor, using its hands to propel itself, leaving a snail’s trail of blood in its wake.

These were the faces of the dead.

Yet here they were, seemingly very much alive.  

“Svelski?” I yelled, feeling my way along the wall.

There was no reply. I pictured him cowering under his bunk, eyes shut tight, and praying.

“Svelski? You hear me?” I yelled again. I couldn’t see him through the things in the hallway. I stepped up on my cot. The mattress sunk under my weight, and I felt myself teetering forward towardthe waiting arms of the things outside my cell.

I threw myself back, smacking my skull against the brick wall. The pain shot straight through to the back of my eyes, but I managed to keep my balance.

I could see him now. His face was pale as a winter moon; head tilted back slightly, a gaping slice across his neck. Svelski still clutched the bloodied peel-top from a can of fruit cocktail in one hand. The other rested in his blood soaked lap.

When the first gunshot rang out, I nearly fell forward again. There was another shot, and another, as the things turned away from my cell and shambled down the hall.

I heard a voice.

“Get the one on the left, Wally”

Another shot rang out, followed by the wet slap of blood and bone splashing across the tile floor. I scurried to the front of my cell and tried to look down the hall, but couldn’t see past the sea of the dead that shuffled toward the source of the gunfire.

“Hey!! Hey, I’m down here!” I cried.

“Woah, we got a live one down there, Tucker.”

“Just hang on, there, fella. We’re comin!”

The cellblock filled with the deafening roar of an automatic rifle. Bullets whizzed past, ricocheting off of the concrete and tile and brick, and I dove into the corner of my cell, instinctively wrapping my arms around my head until, mercifully, the gunfire ceased. There was a silence disturbed only by the sound of the last spent shells falling to the floor, and a high-pitched ringing in my ears. As I stood, I saw three men step into view; a middle aged man in a flannel coat and Yankees hat, a teenager with a pierced lip and jet black hair, and a big man in tattered fatigues cradling an M16 in his arms. The patch on his shirt said Tucker.

“Take care o’ that one,” Tucker said, nodding toward Pastor. The teenager smiled and leveraged a double barreled shotgun right under the thing’s nose. I blocked my ears as I watched the contents of the Pastor-thing’s skull splash against the baby blue wall of the cell. The thing dropped to the floor like a ragdoll. The teenager grinned.

“Righteous,” he said.

Tucker shook his head and looked back at me.

“This thing have a key?” he asked, gesturing toward the door of my cell.

“No…uh…down the hall. The guard room, I think it’s the…uh…the orange lever. It unlocks all of them,” I said.

Tucker nodded and looked at the middle-aged man. The man stood there for a moment, sighed, and walked down the hall muttering under his breath. After a few seconds the doors buzzed and Tucker swung my cell door open. As I stepped out, he aimed the M-16 at my chest.

“We ain’t gonna get any trouble from you, right?” he asked.

I held up my hands.

“No. No trouble at all,” I said.

Tucker gave me a long look, lowered his gun, and looked back at the other two.

“Alright, make sure the rest of this floor  is clear,” He shouted. “Then meet us back downstairs.”

“What about this one?” The teenager asked, pointing in at Svelski.

“What about him?” The middle-aged man shrugged. “He looks plenty dead to me.”

Tucker took a thoughtful breath and let it out slowly. “Better safe than sorry.”

The teenager grinned and swung open the door to Svelski’s cell.

Tucker grabbed my shoulder and escorted me down the hallway. A single shot rang out behind us.

We stepped through the emergency exit and started down the stairs. I heard scattered gunfire in the distance as we walked through the prison lobby.

“So what the hell’s going on out there?” I asked Tucker.

He smiled wryly as he stepped in front of me.

“Oh, it’s hell, alright,” he said as he swung the tinted glass doors open.

And then, as I saw the bodies and the chaos and the black plumes of smoke rising into the grey sky as the city burned around us, I understood why they came for us; why they came for me. A killer on death row.

Things had changed, now.

And then I remembered something Pastor said.

“This is the reckoning, people.”

There was no time for right and wrong.

There was no room for good and evil.

There was simply war; one between the living and the dead.

And the dead were winning.

And the living needed every man they could get.

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