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Authors: Eddie Jones

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
POKE SALAD ANNIE

I
stood on the dock watching the boat back away. After a few minutes, my ride became lost in the maze of trees. I slapped at a mosquito on the back of my neck, heard the outboard fire, then turned and started walking up the dock. By the time I reached the footpath, the drone of the runabout was nothing more than a faint hum.

The sun’s feeble light strained to pierce the canopy of limbs. I thought about the kidnapper’s warning to me:
The dead come alive at dusk
.

A breeze rattled leaves beside the path, and mosquitoes feasted without mercy. The path was made up of crushed oyster shells strewn over squishy black mud. About twenty yards in,
the route veered up and onto a dome of dark sand and hard-packed dirt. Judging from the increased elevation, the island appeared to be the remains of an old spoil area for inlet dredging, or perhaps an ancient burial site. I’d read in a magazine in the condo about how Seminole Indians ventured north from Florida to hunt panther.

The path ended atop the crest and at the edge of a clearing.

A weathered clapboard shack stood about twenty feet off the ground on knobby pilings. Its low-pitched roof channeled rainwater into PVC piping that emptied into a blue plastic barrel. Cords of cut wood stood stacked inside a lean-to shed. Beneath the shack was an assortment of tools: a shovel, a rake, a wooden wheelbarrow. Animal skins hung from ropes strung between the pilings. Skulls of various sizes lined the steps leading up to the porch railing. I wandered into the backyard and came upon a crude rotisserie built over a fire pit. Slabs of meat sizzled; juice dripped onto hot coals.

The smell of beef grilling reminded me of Dad’s backyard barbeques, the ones we used to have when we had our own home and were (almost) one big happy family. Dad isn’t a bad cook but he always ends up burning dinner, even when Mom warns (yells at him) to be careful. Some years ago Wendy began calling Dad’s outdoor barbeques the “The Caden Sacrifice” and his contribution to global warming.

I was still thinking about all the good times we used to have before Dad lost his job when suddenly I heard movement behind me.

I whirled and found myself looking down the bamboo barrel of something like a blowgun.

The barefoot woman wore a flowery dress reaching to her knees, a necklace of bones, and a seriously wicked scowl. Her skin was the color of motor oil. Glossy black dreadlocks hung over yellow-brown eyes.

“What you be doin’ sneaking ‘round?”

“Kat,” I stammered, “she … dropped me off.”

“Who dis Cat?”

“Works at the marina? She said she knew you.” The old woman grunted but made no effort to lower the blowgun. “Told me you might know what happened to my sister.”

“Hinny know all. Hinny heah tings odduh folks no kin.”

“Hinny? Hinny who?”

“I Hinny!”

“Oh, Annie, got it. So do you know where my sister is and how I can find her?”

“Hinny don’ know dat.”

“But you just said you know all.”

“All dat I know, I know. Dat I don’ know, how can I know?”

“You know, what you just said makes no sense at all.”

“Come. You tell Hinny ‘bout dis bad, bad ting dat happen to you sistuh.”

“You’re not going to shoot me with that thing, are you?”

She cut her gaze toward the barrel of the blowgun. “Depends. You lie to Hinny?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Ebbuh you do, I shoot you good.” She eyed the end of the barrel. “Knock you out whit dis dart.”

No trouble from me
, I thought.
I don’t want to become your next front porch rug
.

I followed her around the house. She walked barefoot on broken shells the way someone else might stroll down a beach. The inside of the shack was one large room with a kitchen in one corner and a sleeping area separated by bamboo bead curtains. Reptile hides and furry pelts were nailed to the walls: alligator and snake, fox and raccoon. The decor of mismatched furniture looked as if it had been purchased at a yard sale. The most interesting item in the room was an old-fashioned, foot-powered Singer sewing machine.

I pointed at the leathery skin draped across the sewing arm and asked, “What are you making?”

“Goat coat. Sit, Hinny fix you sump’n to eat.”

“If it’s voodoo gumbo, I’m not hungry.”

“What dis voodoo gumbo? You nyam up! Now sit!”

I pulled a rickety chair from the wooden table and sat.

The old woman pulled a dingy drinking glass from the cabinet and turned on the faucet. Filling the glass, she slid it across the table toward me.

“How be Rina?”

“You mean Katrina?” I sipped. The water had the temperature of warm spit. “She’s fine. She’s coming back to pick me up. Thought I better mention that in case you’re planning on making a rug out of me.”

The old woman grinned. For someone living in a swamp, she had an impressive set of orthodontics.

“Stuff you, maybe. But rug?” She shook her head. “Too bony.”

She opened the door to the cast iron stove and tossed a log in, sending sparks shooting onto the grooved-plank flooring. Without flinching, she stomped them out, snatched a wooden spoon from an overhead hook, and began stirring the black pot simmering on the stove.

The shack and surrounding yard reminded me of an article we’d featured on the
Cool Ghoul
website during our weeklong “Zombie Survival Marathon.” The article had talked about the importance of protecting your home base from the undead.

One critical element of zombie survival is the location of your fortress — the bunker where you will hide during the undead invasion. You want it to be in a remote location far away from people
.

A backwater bayou qualified.

Elevated, if possible
.

Check.

And fortified with an electric fence
.

I hadn’t seen anything remotely like a fence, but maybe she didn’t need one. Could have been that snakes and gators were her natural defense against marauding corpses.

Dig traps fashioned with spikes and bait with meat to attract zombies
.

On my way up the path I’d spied several piles of strategically placed palmetto fronds, suggesting possible pits that might snag a zombie.

Make sure you have a long-range weapon, as you will probably be shooting zombies from a distance
.

I didn’t know if a blowgun qualified, but it was better than nothing.

“I know ‘bout you mammy and farruh. ‘Bout how day no get along.”

“How could you? We’ve never met!”

“You tink you sistuh and you fix tings. Make one big happy fambly like was when you leely boy.” She interrupted her stirring to wave the spoon at me. “Hinny hep you fix tings, but fus’ you tell Hinny ‘bout you sistuh.”

So I told her.

I began with an explanation of how I wrote for the
Cool Ghoul Gazette
and that we’d received a comment from a reader on the
Cool Ghoul
website about the body of a girl who had died fifteen years earlier washing up on an oyster bed in Savage Creek. How before the authorities arrived, the corpse vanished, and I wondered if I came back at night at low tide if I might …

“What? See mo’ dead peopo?” She angrily whacked the spoon against her thigh. “Dis bidness ‘bout de dead, it no right.”

With a grunt, she put the spoon in the pocket of her dress and went searching dusty bookshelves. After a few minutes, she paused, tapped a finger against the side of her head, and quickly hurried outside. Moments later she returned carrying a worn, leather-bound Bible.

“Hinny fuhget she go in da yard whit her Bible to pray fuh de spirit of dat mun.”

“What man?”

She cut her eyes toward the open window that looked onto the yard. I walked over and stared down at the rotisserie.

“Don’t tell me you’re cooking a … person.”

“Shet yo mout! Hinny no like dat. Da mun, he no saved. Devil make ‘im do plenty evil. Kilt dat goat, he did. Say he make curse from da blood and put a hex on a mun. But I pray. Ask God fuhgive dat mun.”

She slid a chair beside me and opened the Bible, pointing to a page. “What dis say?”

I began reading aloud. “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days.”

She flipped pages and pointed to another passage. “And dis one.”

“Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the L
ord
your God.” I looked up from my reading. “So?”

“You go to dat creek fuh to see dead peopo and what happen? You sistuh, she get tek, dat what. Curse on you, maybe. Only Hinny no b’lee in such tings. Know what Hinny tink?”

No, please, tell me. I’m dying to hear
.

“Hinny tink some bad mun tek you sistuh. What you not tell Hinny?”

“Nothing, I told you everything.”

She clamped her bony fingers around my wrist. “No lie to Hinny! Hinny know all.”

“Except where my sister is.”

“’Cept dat.” She released my arm, got up, and went to the stove. Spooning the lumpy concoction into a wooden bowl, she set the porridge before me.

I bent forward and sniffed. “What’s in it?”

“Hinny’s secret recipe. Leb’n herbs and spices.”

“Is one of those spices roadkill?” I watched her scowl deepen. “Kat said you use snakes and some other things.”

“You try, taste fuh yo’self.”

I dipped the spoon into the bowl and slurped. “Hey, this is pretty good. For voodoo gumbo, I mean.”

“No gumbo, it soup! Corn crab chowder.” She pulled her chair close and turned to another Bible passage. “Dis say God sent Elijah da great prophet fuh to see a widow who be running out of cornmeal and fatback. Elijah, he tell dis widow dat God provide for her. Only she no sure. God, he say he put back dat cornmeal an’ plen’y fatback. Den dis widow, her boy get sick and die. Elijah lay on dat boy. Tree times, him did. Elijah, he pray fuh God to make dat boy live again.” With her finger she pointed to an underlined verse. “And God, him dun dat.”

“I’m pretty sure you can’t bring back the dead by lying on top of them.”

“Whit God you kin.”

Quickly she flipped through the Bible, showing me other stories of dead people. In one passage, some people threw a dead man into a grave. When the body touched the bones of a prophet, the corpse sat up and crawled out. Another time Jesus stopped a funeral procession and ordered a dead son to rise
from his casket. Later, that Jesus fellow told the dead daughter of a man named Jairus to get up and she did. Not long afterward, Jesus told a man who’d been dead four days to come out of a tomb.

I stared into those yellow-brown eyes and said, “So you really believe the dead can come back to life?”

“Bible no lie. Hinny see fuh herself!”

“You see dead people?”

“Whit faith eyes, yes.”

“Okay, well, I don’t have faith eyes.”

“Someday maybe.”

I slurped more chowder. The soup was excellent. And filling. Stifling a yawn, I asked, “You didn’t poison me, did you? Or drug me?”

“What you be talking ‘bout? It crab chowder like I say.” Shaking her head emphatically, she added, “Hinny no do drugs. Bad tings, drugs. You no should do ’em, either.”

“But you have that blowgun?”

“For gators and coons, no peopo.”

I yawned. “Are you sure you didn’t drug me?”

“What I just say? Hinny no like dat.”

I searched the room for a place to sack out. “Regardless, I need to lie down. I feel a nap coming on.”

She pointed across the room at a plaid sofa buried under pelts and hides. I followed her over and waited while she swept her work onto the floor. With a heavy sigh, I sank into mushy cushions, put my head back, and closed my eyes.

“Hinny hep you find you sistuh,” she whispered, tucking a scratchy blanket under my chin. “Teach’a you how to see whit faith eyes.”

I smiled. Moments later I heard a screen door creak open. Bare feet went padding onto the porch. I told myself I would rest for a few minutes. I told myself that Officer McDonald’s cousin was behind the zombie stunt and Wendy was probably in a hotel suite in Savannah enjoying the good life at the radio station’s expense — that my parents had probably been informed of the hoax by now and that Wendy would be waiting for me when I got back to the marina. Dad would land the job with Ms. Bryant, my parents would find a way to work out their problems, and we would move to Palmetto Island. That’s what I told myself.

In other words, I lied.

I lay there, wondering if my plan would work. I couldn’t imagine it would, but what choice did I have? Better to bait the trap and see than do nothing. The taste of the chowder lingered on my tongue. I decided the old woman was probably telling the truth. I’d been racing around all day trying to find Wendy without taking a moment to slow down, and now the soup, fatigue, and lingering effects of the sun warming me on the boat had finally caught up to me.

I listened for the old woman’s footsteps and heard a chorus of crickets, the drip of the water faucet, and wind blowing through trees.

Then I heard nothing at all.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
DEAD TO THE WORLD

F
rom the outermost edge of sleep, a rustling sound tugged me awake. I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. The moon’s silver light bled through the window next to the sofa, illuminating knotted pine beams. Day had turned to dusk, leaving the room a purplish-black. No sign of the old woman. No sign of Kat, either. Just me, alone in a shack in the middle of a swamp.

For several seconds I remained on the sofa, listening, thinking about the kidnapper’s chilling words:
The undead come alive at dusk
.

Dusk: the edge of night. Dusk: the darkest stage of twilight. Dusk: when monsters appear.

From somewhere beyond the end of the sofa came the sound of the swishing of fabric. I lifted my head.

Heidi May Laveau stood in the doorway. Her tattered dress dripped onto the floor, leaving a sodden halo around her blackened feet. Skin hung off exposed bone.

What do you do when you come face-to-face with the living dead? How do you react when your night dreams become an unholy nightmare? My heart slammed against the walls of my chest, and like a frightened child, I pulled the blanket fully over me until only my eyes peeped out. This was the thing I’d feared, the unspoken question that haunted me:
What if I’m wrong about the identity of the kidnapper? What if the dead don’t stay dead?
The old woman had pointed to passages where the undead rose, walked and lived again, but for a lot of my friends and my parents especially, the Bible was nothing more than a collection of fables, myths, and superstitious stories.
What if they’re wrong?

Laveau moved with the halting rigidity of a mummy emerging from its tomb. With club hands, her outstretched arms banged against the doorframe like a monster finding its way in darkness. With an unsteady lurch, the dead thing pivoted and bumped the door open. In the moon’s cool white light I saw the deep gash across her shoulder and the pale curve of bone protruding from gray flesh.
No way that’s makeup; she even smells dead
.

The screen door slammed shut.

Dead feet clomped onto the porch.

I trembled among dark shadows, afraid of what would come next.

In a childlike voice I heard singing from the front porch.

“Ring-a-round the rosie
,

A pocket full of posies
,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down.”

I sat up and peeked out. Heidi May Laveau stood on the top step bathed in the moon’s yellow rays. I had not expected her voice to sound so clear and fluty. Grunts and groans, those are the sounds of a zombie. In a clumsy wobble, the dead girl swiveled and bumped down the steps.

Slowly I peeled off the blanket.

I tested my legs. They worked. Given how severely my knees shook, I hadn’t been sure they would. A quick survey of the shack confirmed that I was alone. I crept toward the door and peeped out. Laveau stood in the yard in all her gory grotesqueness.

Okay, Caden, think this through — how do you want this to end? With you on that rickety dock searching for a way off this island or capturing the thing that has your sister?

I took a deep breath and made my way onto the porch. As I started down the steps, I recalled a book I’d reviewed weeks earlier on the
Cool Ghoul Gazette
website. In it the author advised readers:

Sever the zombie’s head. If that doesn’t work, disassemble the corpse by hacking it into small parts. Finally, burn, bury, and pave over with top-grade asphalt. If you can plant your zombie in the middle of an interstate, so much the better. (Even if they survive, they will have a hard time dodging rush-hour traffic and thus remain occupied for hours.)

A few readers questioned whether this would actually work, but the book,
The Zen of Zombies: How to Get a Head and Keep It
, remained a top seller on our site, so I had to believe some of the information was accurate.

I reached the bottom of the steps and looked around at the assortment of tools scattered beneath the shack. I needed a weapon. Hacking up a zombie wouldn’t be easy. I settled on an ax.

With each faltering step my heart beat faster. I kept telling myself it was all a prank, some elaborate stunt sponsored by the radio station, and that Wendy, my parents, and Officer McDonald were hiding in the woods ready to spring and shout, “Surprise!” But the farther away from the shack I walked, the faster my heart pounded, and the less sure I became that my plan would work.

Trap a zombie — who am I kidding?
I mentally clicked off the crumbs I’d scattered for the suspects.

Crumb one: At the realty office I’d asked Matthew Carter if he knew about Poke Salad Annie. He did. Called her a swamp cracker. If he wanted to find me, he could and would.

Crumb two: While surfing with Dirk I mentioned that I might ride out to visit the old woman living in the swamp. He’d acted surprised, as if he’d never heard of such a thing, but if he was telling the truth about being from the Palmetto Island area,
how could he not know?

Crumb three: While riding with Officer McDonald from his townhome back to the marina, I’d let it slip that I had one more person to question. When I’d told him it was Poke Salad Annie, he had warned me to be careful, that Gullah folk had peculiar ways and that occasionally “people go missing in that swamp.” Was that a threat or genuine concern? Had he alerted his cousin from the radio station? I felt like in a few minutes I would find out for sure if Officer McDonald could be trusted.

Crumb four: Kat knew exactly where I was. In fact, it had been her idea all along to visit Poke Salad Annie. Now I had, and Kat (surprise!) had not returned after work as promised.

Crumb five: The old woman herself. She’d welcomed me into her home, fed me porridge, filled me with tales about dead people from the Bible, and promised to find Wendy. And perhaps she could and would … at my expense.

I hung back, barely keeping the dead girl in sight for fear of getting too close.

I passed the fire pit with the rotisserie and, in the moon’s glow, studied the carcass of grilled goat. I recalled the old woman’s words:
Kilt dat goat, he did. Say he make cuss from da blood and put a hex on a mun
. What if Poke Salad Annie was
the one killing goats, draining blood, and putting hexes on people?
And what if I’m the next victim of a curse?

I stepped into the forest. A full moon played peekaboo above the treetops while somewhere to my left the unsettling chorus of frogs let me know the swamp’s murky moat hemmed me in. Oily black roots grew along the ground in gnarled clots. Dark syrup oozed from silken cocoons hanging from limbs. The forest reeked of dead vegetation, stagnant water, and the sour odor of exposed mud banks. Coastal smells. The previous evening on my bike ride to the church, I’d inhaled similar odors and found them welcoming, but no more. Now the stench reminded me I was trapped.

The dead girl tromped deeper into the forest, her stiff frame tilted forward as she crashed through tendrils of vines knitted between twisted trees. With my surging pulse pounding in my ears, I kept my distance, staying just close enough to keep her in sight.

At last I came to a clearing. Ferns covered the ground, their green leaves shimmering with the dew of dusk.

About twenty paces ahead I saw the dead girl hesitate, as if unsure which way to go. I held my breath, half expecting her to whirl and charge at me. Instead she sniffed the air like a dog. I needed to breathe but didn’t dare, not even a little. Suddenly she turned her head as if picking up a scent and pushed on, trampling ferns underfoot. At the far side of the clearing she plunged into a tangled fist of thorns and vine and melted into the woods.

With halting steps I entered the clearing. Ahead I heard crunching and snapping. I could almost taste salt as the night breeze blew in from the ocean. In the distance through a narrow slot in the trees, the moon’s glow reflected off the water’s oily sheen.
Maybe that’s what she smelled
, I thought.
Dead low tide with its sour odor of rotting seaweed and stench of decaying crabs and fish
.

Another step, then another.

The noisy thrashing in the forest ceased.

I froze.

Only the scratching of wind in the trees drowned out the pounding in my chest. A cold finger probed my heart, pushing it upward until it caught in my throat.
Come on, Caden, you can do this, you have to
. One step, three, ten. My eyes darted side to side. I scanned the perimeter, certain she was watching me. Nervous sticky-damp sweat clung to my upper lip. My feet became clay, legs heavy logs. Then I heard … moaning.

I whirled.

Nothing behind me. Just the rattle of dead leaves snatched by an autumn wind. I searched the forest, straining to see into the blackness. Once more there came a chilling groan. It seemed to envelop me as though a phantom creature hovered by my side. The hairs on my neck stiffened; tightness gripped my throat.

There it is again!

Slowly I lifted my eyes.

Poke Salad Annie dangled by her feet. Despite the vine
around her ankles, she’d managed to keep her knees together and her dress from fluttering over her head, and her long arms worked the gag over her mouth, trying to loosen it. It was tight!

She pointed, and I followed her wide-eyed gaze. She seemed to be studying something on the ground.

“Another trap?” I asked.

She moved her head in the affirmative.

I crouched. “Here?”

She blinked.

I swept the ax head across ferns in a slow helicopter motion. I’d made almost a full circle when suddenly a lasso coiled among the ferns snared the ax head. The handle leapt from my hand and went shooting skyward. The ax made a horrific crash as it smashed into a tree. Oscillating back and forth like a bungee jumper, the ax dangled overhead like some macabre executioner’s weapon.

In disbelief I stared upward. “Great, perfect.” I balled my fists on my hips and turned toward the old woman. “Anything else I should watch out for?”

“Mumm isfff caaah!”

“Say again, I didn’t understand.”

My sarcasm was a nervous reaction to the panic I felt bubbling inside me. Without the ax I had no way to defend myself. Worse, I now I had no idea where the zombie girl was. As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt bad. It wasn’t the old woman’s fault I lost the ax. I also felt bad I couldn’t help her down, but she was, like, fifteen feet up in the air.

“Mumm aaurgh!” She was waving her arms now, gesturing at a break in the forest.

The shadowy tunnel of limbs hinted at a path. I examined the ground, inspecting every leafy fern. Taking small, careful steps, I approached the opening, peeled back thorny branches, and peered in.

There comes a point in any expedition when you know you should turn back. Admit you messed up and back away before you do something really, really dumb — like bump into a living, breathing zombie. I had reached that point hours earlier. If I’d been smart, I would have booted up my phone. Sure, it might have downloaded a virus from the Crime Watchers website. Then again, maybe not. I stepped onto the path. With a violent shriek, glossy black wings shot past my head. I labored to slow my breathing but could not. I was in full flight mode, ready to run screaming back to the shack.

I pressed on, leaving the old woman behind me.

About ten paces in, the path stopped. Palm fronds lay scattered over the ground. Slivers of moonlight broke through the treetops, illuminating something like a campsite or worship area. Conch shells lay arranged in a circular pattern, marking the outer edges of the place. In the center stood a cross, two benches, and a single palmetto tree.

Kat sat slumped forward with her chin resting on her chest and her back against the tree trunk.

Her hands lay in her lap, bound at the wrists with rope. There remained just enough of the moon’s glow bleeding
through the forest dome for me to make out the fist-size bruise on her right cheek. I couldn’t tell if she was alive or not, but I feared the worst. She still wore her Palmetto Islands Marina ball cap, only now the bill hid her large opal eyes. A wide strip of tape sealed her mouth.

I wanted to run to her. I wanted to cut loose her bindings, hold her close, and tell her it would be okay. Kat had been my first and only real friend on Palmetto Island. She’d sought me out the night Wendy went missing and been the one who encouraged me to visit Poke Salad Annie. She was my cheerleader, always upbeat, nudging me in the ribs in a playful sort of way.

And now she’d come back for me and paid a heavy price.

Jogging past the benches, I hurried toward her. But I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d looked around first and checked things out. Part of it was out of guilt. She’d come back for me. But part of it was something else. A longing to be of importance to someone my own age in a way I never had been before. Love was too large a word. Love was the word of my parents, and look what had become of them. But I couldn’t deny I was fond of her. I found her accent and folksy sayings funny.

I almost made it.

Another few steps and I would have.

But as I jogged past the wooden cross, I felt the palm fronds beneath my feet give way. For a split second I saw the earth yawn as if to swallow me. Then I slammed face first into cool, damp dirt. Air exploded from my lungs. My cheek cracked against something sharp and hard. I lay there for a
few moments unable to move. I kept trying to make my lungs work. Breaths came in short gasps. When I could finally lift my head, I saw the grave was maybe four feet deep and covered with bones. I was about to attempt to crawl out, but heard someone approaching.

I jerked my head up. In the radiance of the harvest moon, Heidi May Laveau stood over me. A sickly smile spread across her face.

“Ring-a-round the rosie
,

A pocket full of posies
,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down.”

My plan had worked. Laveau had taken the bait. Only problem was, now I was trapped.

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