Soon, we will be launching our next Kickstarter campaign, GHOSTS AND GHOULS AND OTHER CREEPY THINGS. Over the next thirteen days leading up to the launch date, we will be introducing you to the authors and titles involved in the projects funding, which are Eyes of the Dead, the brutal conclusion to the Corpse Fauna saga, by award-winning author James Chambers; Even in the Grave, an anthology of ghost stories edited by James Chambers and Carol Gyzander; and Rags by Ty Drago, a terrifying look into the dark side of magic and how it might have caused one of the greatest disasters to strike Atlantic City.
Inside the crashed yellow school bus, the dead partied.
At least, it seemed so at a glance: a teenage jumble of football, cheerleading, and marching band uniforms, slow-bopping to music only they heard, knocking around a handful of teachers and coaches playing chaperone. They mimicked a wild homecoming party coming off the high of homemade speed from a punch bowl spiked by the school science nerd. Then they saw me, Della, and Christopher stepping out of our Toyota Camry. As if a silent, invisible DJ doubled the beat and pumped up the volume, they thrashed at the windows and rocked the bus.
“Party bus from hell,” I said.
“You think they were coming or going?” Della said.
“Hmm, let’s say, coming home.”
“Okay, Cornell, but did they win or lose?” Christopher said.
“Let’s give them the win. Figure they checked out on a high note.”
“Could they have been trapped in there from the start of the dead plague?” Della said.
“Safe bet, looking as intact as they do,” I said.
“Sucks for them,” Della said.
I slapped a hand against a bus window. The dead boogied down for me.
Clustered against the glass, they bared blackening teeth and stared at me with dozens of impossible eyes, the eyes of lost souls that never belonged to those cold bodies. They watched from every limb and wrinkle of exposed flesh, a winking pox. I used to pity the dead, raised up and filled by those invading eyes full of hate and envy. After so many hundreds of miles and months of living in this rotten world, after standing up over and again to the glare of those eyes, of them watching me fight for my life, I couldn’t muster an ounce more of sympathy.
I waved my hands in the air and yelled, “Like you just don’t care!”
It drove them wild.
“Maybe we shouldn’t mess around with them,” Christopher said.
Only twelve years old, his voice carried a layer of fear. Dirty blond and with a lanky build that would bloom into muscles in a few years, he put on a brave face, but horror remained fresh in his eyes, deepened by the reminder that the future he should’ve grown into no longer existed. The young adapt fast, yeah, but they feel things more acutely than grown-ups, especially the thick-skinned criminal kind like me or an ex-prison nurse like Della. Christopher had survived his own hell before we met, lost his entire family to the dead, but a light still burned in him, and I never wanted to be the one who dampened it.
“Don’t be nervous,” Della said. “They aren’t getting out of that bus.”
“No, he’s right,” I said. “We shouldn’t push our luck. Good call, Christopher.”
He smiled at me, anxious but a little proud.
The wreck had stopped us dead in our path.
The bus blocked the lanes on our side of the highway, part of a line of piled-up vehicles that stretched from shoulder to shoulder and clogged up the oncoming lanes, too, leaving no way to pass. The bus lay tilted about forty-five degrees on its side, propped on a BMW crushed under it. The twisted metal of the Beemer blocked the front door. A smashed Lincoln kept the dead from escaping by the rear emergency door. A streetlamp toppled in the collision pinned shut the rooftop exit hatches. Thick windows held but trembled in their frames as the dead surged against their glass.
All their hungry eyes focused on us. So many eyes peering out from every inch of their exposed dead flesh. Their stares burned with a critical mass of resentment and violence wrapped up smack in our path and packaged inside what, in the old, living world, would’ve been a microcosm of the next generation’s promise.
A breeze tickled the overgrown roadside grass. Empty blue sky sprawled above us.
The air reeked of the dead. No signs of the living anywhere—except for us.
Right then, a familiar, deep bark rattled in the back of my mind. The cackle of my old pal and constant companion, the jackal waiting somewhere in the world to claim me the way death claims us all one day. His breath blew hot across the back of my neck as it had so many times before when he crept up from the depths of my subconscious to remind me of my mortality.
“Shit, we have to make a way through,” I said. The jumble of torn metal and machinery hung together like a house of cards with no obvious move that wouldn’t upset the pile that sealed the school bus.
“We should double back and find another way.” Della wore jean shorts and a navy blue tank top, and the breeze plucked at her silky, black hair, sweeping it across her shoulders and the back of her neck. “Better not to fool with this mess.”
We’d fled crowds of the dead together for longer than I liked to remember. On the road, wormfeeders turned to give chase when we raced by, but, slow as they were, they’d never catch up to us on the move. Turning back meant driving into the thick of them.
I shook my head. “We go forward. Christopher, drag Birch out here. We need his help.”
Christopher jogged to the Camry and opened the rear passenger-side door. Fascinated by the dead on the bus, Della stepped into the glare of hundreds of eyes that watched us from hands, arms, necks, foreheads, even from tongues visible on one whose lower jaw had rotted out.
I knew more about those eyes than most, but I still didn’t understand the phenomenon of the disembodied dead returning from insubstantial limbo to reanimate rotten flesh. Not why it had happened or what it meant.
The dead pressed together on one window by Della, decomposing bodies a single, writhing mass—until, with a sharp snap, a hairline fracture cracked the glass.
Della jumped back.
“Get away from there, Della,” I said. “Don’t rile them up.”
The rooftop hatches bumped and clanked against the lamppost as dead hands shoved at them from inside.
“Why do they have so many damn eyes?”
I met Della’s gaze for a moment, then shrugged and looked away. I knew one possible answer to the question, but until I believed it myself, I wouldn’t ask anyone else to do so either.
“They’re hardened,” Della said. “Flesh cured, like leather. Mummified, like.”
“They haven’t been out in the elements or fighting with the living. It’s a soft life on the school bus, all those cheerleaders with their pom-poms to keep your spirits up,” I said.
Della smirked. “Wise-ass.”
“You’re right, though. Thank your nurse’s eye for that. I’ve seen so many of these things, I can’t make heads or tails of them but to keep my distance.”
“That ought to be enough until we get where we’re going,” she said.
Lohatchie. The town on the edge of the Everglades where I grew up, where I kept a cabin hidden outside that forgotten scrap of civilization. I hoped no one, dead or alive, would ever find us once we settled in there.
Christopher returned with Birch, a former soldier turned microbiologist, who resembled a ghost—gray-haired, gaunt, eyes fixed on sights only he saw, his black cargo pants stained with mud and blood, but the Hawaiian shirt we’d found him clean and bright. His uncombed gray hair resembled a patch of dead weeds. He’d done no more than stare at us and nod or shake his head for days since he and I escaped a place called Deadtown.
“It’s going take all of us to fix this mess, Birch,” I said, “See the Buick sitting sideways against the bus?” Birch nodded. “That’s the only car not tangled up with another vehicle. It’s on the far side of the bus, which means we can push it out of our way, clear a path. The catch is the lamppost pinning shut those emergency exits is resting on its trunk. We have to heft that off there before we can move the Buick, which means we risk those hatches popping open and releasing the teen spirit brigade.”
“Why don’t we tie them shut?” Christopher said.
“Nothing there to tie onto,” I said. “All the hardware’s inside. Outside is smooth and aerodynamic.”
“Can we shove something else up onto them?” Della said.
“Won’t need to if we move fast,” I said. “It’ll take all four of us to lift the post, but if the Buick rolls, Birch and I can push it clear. Once we move the post, you and Christopher hop into the Camry and drive right up to the opening. Birch and I will jump in. We’ll be gone before that dead quarterback can call a play.”
“I don’t like it,” Della said.
“Neither do I, but that’s how it’s got to go.”
Della frowned. Christopher, I give him credit, kept quiet and listened.
“Birch, you in?” I said.
One nod. I studied his eyes, worried he might flake, but I saw enough of the old, scotch-swilling, mad-scientist Birch there to trust him for this.
I inspected the Buick for the dead and found it empty. Reaching through the broken glass of the driver’s side window, I put the car in neutral and hoped for the best. At least none of the damaged parts looked like they’d interfere with the tires.
“Everyone grab some lamppost,” I said.
We spread out, Birch and I along the length laying on the school bus, Della next, then Christopher at the top, the light itself embedded in the Buick’s trunk. Everyone gripped, then I counted down from three, and we pulled. The damn thing refused to budge. Our second try came no closer to freeing it.
“Christopher, you got the light end there, kid. What’s happening?” I said.
“The metal’s wedged into the lamp, kind of hooked on, but I see how to get it loose now. Give it another try, okay?”
I counted three again. We put our muscle into it. With a broken steel moan and a shattered glass tinkle, the lamp jolted loose. The weight of it shifted to our hands, heavier than expected, but we eased it clear. The bus hatches rattled like loose shutters in a hurricane. We strained and lowered the lamppost to the ground.
Della screamed: “Wormfeeders!”
From the near shoulder, a group of the dead emerged from the brush, all their hate-filled eyes sighted on us.
Other Books in the Series:
The Dead Bear Witness * Tears of Blood * The Dead in Their Masses
James Chambers received the Bram Stoker Award® for the graphic novel, Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe and is a three-time Bram Stoker Award nominee. He is the author of the collections On the Night Border, described by Booklist as “a haunting exploration of the space where the real world and nightmares collide,” and Resurrection House and the dark urban fantasy novella, Three Chords of Chaos. Publisher’s Weekly gave his Lovecraftian collection, The Engines of Sacrifice, a starred review and called it “…chillingly evocative.” He edited the anthology, Under Twin Suns: Alternate Histories of the Yellow Sign. His newest collection, On the Hierophant Road, which received a starred review from Booklist, recently released through Raw Dog Screaming Press. Moonstone Books recently published his new Kolchak novella, Kolchak and the Night Stalkers: The Faceless God. His website is http://www.jameschambersonline.com.
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