Authors: William Todd Rose
“Shayla, baby,” he whispered to the darkness, “Daddy’s coming home. I
you, baby. I’m coming.”
A shuffling sound from the corner caught his attention and Tanner looked up in time to glimpse something moving in the shadows. Even though it disappeared like the remnants of a dream, he would have sworn on his oath as a Sweeper that what he’d seen was the flash of brass buttons on a red, velvet jacket ….
In the morning sunlight, the black smoke curling from the mound of earth surrounding Knoll looked like the arms of a malevolent demon pulling the community into its embrace. The smell of burnt oil was so thick that the air itself felt greasy and the mouths of everyone within the compound were coated in saliva that had absorbed the scent. Only the toddler had found respite in sleep throughout the long night; everyone else had dark bags drooping beneath bloodshot eyes and faces that somehow seemed leaner than when they’d first welcomed Tanner into their fold. They shuffled about with sagging shoulders, mumbling only the most minimal of comments to their neighbors between stifled yawns.
Rosemarie already had the cooking fire blazing by the time Tanner checked in on her. She still had that sallow, lost look to her, like someone who’d awoken from a dream only to find reality was so much worse than anything her subconscious could conjure. She stirred the iron pot and stared blankly into the distance. The oil lamp that had provided light for her preparations prior to sunrise still burned uselessly on the table next to her and Tanner placed the revolver he’d been carrying next to it. Perhaps it was because he had a daughter of his own, but he felt a special kinship to this waif and wanted to do everything he possibly could to help ease the pain in her heart.
“We need to save oil, honey.” He said softly as he turned the knob and extinguished the lamp. “How are you doing? I know … it’s a stupid question. But sometimes it helps to talk, you know?”
The girl said nothing, choosing instead to crumble something that looked like dried leaves into the steaming pot.
“Okay,” Tanner continued, “fair enough. I just want you to know that I’m here. If you ever need me. We’re both strangers here, after all, so I figure we got to stick together. And I
get us out of this. Even if it’s just you and me. Anyhow, I’m getting ready to call a meeting with all the residents. You’re free to come, if you’d like.”
Rosemarie looked up from her cooking and studied him silently for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was so quiet that it was almost lost beneath the crackling flames. “I think I’ll just keep cooking. Can’t let it get too hot or it’ll ruin my secret ingredient. Everyone seemed to really like it last night and I’d hate … I’d hate to disappoint anyone.”
“You don’t have to prove yourself.” Tanner reached for her arm, but the girl jerked away so quickly that he put up his hands to show he meant no harm. “I understand. I really do. When someone’s been through something like you have, it takes time. Time to trust again. To allow yourself to be happy. It may seem like that day will never come … but it will.”
He waited to see if the girl would say anything further and, when she didn’t, turned to leave. He still wasn’t sure what he was going to say to the citizens of Knoll, but knew what they needed now was encouragement. Even if it was a lie, they needed to be told that all was not hopeless, that there was a way out of this.
Passing the building which had been his quarters since he’d come to Knoll, Tanner noticed Roger’s barrel organ leaning against the wall. Chill bumps crept over his arms and he froze like a deer who’d just heard a rattlesnake. Part of him wanted to pry the lid of the instrument up, to prove that the workings weren’t comprised of cylinders with metallic spikes; but there was another part that blanched at the very idea. Even though it made him feel foolish and silly, he was positive that if he peered into the organ, he’d see the body of a little boy wedged into the machinery. The child would look up at him with lifeless eyes before tilting back his head to reveal the smiling gash.
He was just a Spewer. Just another vermin needing exterminated. By the time Shayla is a woman, he’d already be infectious. You did the right thing, Sweeper. For the community. For mankind. It had to be done.
Pulling his gaze away from the organ, Tanner realized the fire along the ridge was sputtering out. He’d have to make the pep talk quick and send a crew back to the kitchen for another barrel. All it would take was a few moments, a window of opportunity where the savages could throng into Knoll. They settlers would be overrun and it would all be over.
As if on cue, the drumming from the forest picked up again. It was the same dirge-like cadence that had echoed throughout the night, pausing only for a few hours while those filthy animals did God knows what. Instinctively reaching for his waistband, Tanner squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.
Tanner realized he’d left his revolver on the little table by the oil lamp. He’d been so preoccupied with comforting Rosemarie and mentally preparing for his speech to the residents, that he’d just walked off and left it. Thompson, the Sweeper who’d trained him, would have beaten him within an inch of his life for such a novice mistake and a flush of shame warmed his cheeks.
He trotted back to the kitchen as quickly as his limp would allow, only to stop so quickly that it was almost as if he’d walked into an invisible wall. For a moment, his mind couldn’t comprehend what his eyes saw. He stood in the morning sun with his mouth agape and brow lowered in confusion.
Rosemarie still stood beneath the fluttering canopy of the tent, but she was no longer the scared young girl she’d previously been. The blank expression was gone from her face, replaced with something that was a cross between grim determination and satisfaction. A cold light gleaned in her eyes and the corners of her lips were turned up in a smile.
But what caused Tanner’s stomach to churn was what the girl was
The long sleeve of her tunic was bunched around her shoulder and the pot of stew had been removed from the fire. She leaned over it, squeezing a blister on her forearm that was the size of a crabapple. Pus squirted from the sac of flesh and the smell of infection blossomed in the air, only to be quickly overpowered by the scent of warm stew as she stirred it into the pot.
“What . . . I don’t . . .”
Her head snapped up in response to Tanner’s stammering and, for a brief moment, he felt the hatred radiate from her. It buffeted against him like a hot gust of wind and his eyes flitted from the deflated blister to the pot of food below.
Like a cloud passing over the sun, Rosemarie’s expression changed again. Here was the lost and frightened girl that he so badly wanted to protect, the orphan whom he’d considered bringing into his own family once they’d gotten out of their current predicament. So forlorn and vulnerable with those big wet eyes shimmering behind a veil of tears … But then she laughed and as quickly as she’d appeared, that young girl was gone. Stooping, she pulled a burning twig from the fire, stood, and used it to light the lantern again. Her actions were fluid and graceful without a single wasted movement.
“Rosemarie, what …what are you …”
“I’m not Rosemarie.” The girl giggled momentarily behind her hand before regaining her composure and Tanner it dawned on Tanner why she looked familiar. He hadn’t seen her at a swap meet at all. In fact, he hadn’t recognized the girl at all. Just her features. “I am Asha, child of the Tribe of Clay, sister to Asham, and first born of Lila, chosen wife of Tolek.”
Memories pounded Tanner’s mind like it was one of the drums hidden within the forest. He saw himself in the Spewer village with that infected bitch yelling in his face:
You are a threat to my daughter.
And you are a threat to mine!
The same nose, the same sharp chin and blue eyes . . . her hair wasn’t fiery like her mother’s, but for all intents and purposes this could have been a younger version of the savage who’d lured him into the net.
Another flash of memory: standing by the fire with the girl he thought to be Rosemarie:
I think I’ll just keep cooking. Can’t let it get too hot or it will ruin my secret ingredient. Everyone seemed to really like it last night …
Tanner felt as though he’d been sucker punched in the gut. His stomach churned and wretched and he struggled for breath as the full realization of the girl’s statement dawned upon him.
“And you,” she said slowly and clearly, “enemy of The People, murderer of my brother … you, clear skin, are
The girl tossed the lantern she held and the glass shattered against the nearest building as a wall of blue fire spread with a whoosh. The flames engulfed the flimsy curtains dangling in the window and crept across the ground, pooling around the remaining barrels of oil. She then scampered over the ridge behind the kitchen, whooping with a loud trilling noise as she disappeared over the rim and returned to her waiting people.
The entire time, all Tanner could do was watch. As if paralyzed by shock, he was peripherally aware of the fire, of how quickly the dry wood crackled and burned and how the tongues of flame leapt from the first building to the next. His muscles felt tense and tired, as if he were wound up and worn out at the same time, and the beating of his heart was as shallow as the breaths of air he managed to gulp.
They’d eaten it. All of them. They’d shoveled spoon after spoon of slow acting poison into their bodies, had gulped down infection and went back for more. Even now, the Gabriel Virus was spreading within him, replicating and mutating cells as it turned his own body into an enemy.
He could never hold Shayla in his arms again, never kiss her wetly on the cheek or tickle until her giggles gave way to gales of laughter. With the virus raging within him, he’d infect anyone he came into contact with. There would be no more games where they laid in a field and connected the stars, no more walks through the forest or even something as simple as holding her little hand in his own.
A single tear leaked from the corner of Tanner’s eye as he walked to the table by the cooking pot. Picking up the revolver, he flicked open the chamber for visual inspection.
The citizens of Knoll had responded to the column of smoke rising from their own community and he watched the six of them, even the toddler (who apparently thought it was playtime) running for water with which to douse the flames.
They’re infected too ….
Six shots later, they were not.
Tanner stepped over the bodies of the dead, tossing the emptied firearm to the side and walked toward his quarters. The ground rumbled with explosions as flaming shrapnel from the oil barrels burst into the sky. The area he’d just left was now a wall of flame and the burning buildings crackled and popped amid the roar of the fire.
Slipping the strap of the barrel organ over his shoulder, Tanner Kline closed his eyes and turned the crank as the searing heat warmed his face. The conflagration crept slowly toward him, devouring everything in its path with an insatiable hunger. With dark smoke billowing into the air and the music of the barrel organ providing an off-key soundtrack, Tanner Kline made his final decision.
He would give his life so that others might live ….
Music is a vital part of my creative process. It inspires me and plays in the background as I write, lending its rhythms and tones to the story I’m trying to tell. Apocalyptic Organ Grinder was no different and I would like to acknowledge some of the songs and artists which helped keep me motivated as the story unfurled before me.
“Paint It Black” - Firewater
“I Want To Be A Machine” - Pornophonique
“Ratamahatta” - Sepulutra
“Eraser” - Nine Inch Nails
“Cantara” - Dead Can Dance
“Future Fail” - Front Line Assembly
“Headhunter” - Front 242
“Ja’her” - Skinny Puppy
“Sanvean” - Dead Can Dance
The Google+ Insider's Guide
as one of their top 32 authors to follow, William Todd Rose writes dark, speculative fiction which often lends itself to the bizarre and macabre. With short stories appearing in various magazines and anthologies, his body of work also includes the novels
Cry Havoc, Shut The Fuck Up and Die!, The Dead and Dying,
The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People
, as well as the short story collection
Sex in the Time of Zombies
. For more information on the author, including links to free fiction, please visit him online at