Authors: Rob Smales
Books & Boos Pres
Books & Boos Press
PO Box 772
Hebron, CT 06248
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 Rob Smales
Compilation copyright © 2016 Books & Boos Press
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form unless for review purposes. For information and permissions, address Books & Boos Press, PO Box 772, Hebron, CT 06248.
Edited by S & L Editing (
Cover design © 2016 Mikio Murakami
“A Night at the Show” first appeared in
© 2013 NEHW Press
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” first appeared in
Zombies Need Love, Too
© 2013 Dark Moon Books
“Photo Finish” first appeared in
The Ghost IS the Machine
© 2012 Post Mortem Press
“Mutes” first appeared in
, © 2012 Alliteration Ink
“Playmate Wanted” first appeared in
Dark Moon Digest #5
© 2011 Dark Moon Books
“One Sock, Two Socks” and “Those Little Bastards” first appeared on
, © 2012, 2013 Rob Smales
1. Smales, Rob—Author. 2. Fiction—Horror. 3. Horror stories.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Have you ever had a bad dream or a dark thought?
Then this one’s for you.
b : the sound due to such reflection
I’d like to say a word about the title of this book.
We all have darkness within us. Most of us try to keep it hidden, but it’s there, tucked up in the out-of-the-way corners of our minds, and secreted down in the shadowy recesses of our hearts. I don’t mean the darkest of darkness, the blackness you’d find within the heart of a monster: the serial killers, pedophiles, and politicians.
I mean the everyday darkness, the kind we all feel and maybe even recognize.
Ever shouted at another driver sharing your road, whether they could hear you or not?
Ever been out somewhere and had the urge to tell a mother that maybe if she spanked that child once in a while, they’d know how to behave—and considered offering your services, if she was feeling a little squeamish?
Ever been in line at the store, and the customer currently at the register is taking
way too long
? Maybe they’re rummaging through every coupon ever printed to find the one that’ll give them another ten cents off an
discounted sale item. Maybe they’re just being loud and pushy, trying to get a little something extra, to which they clearly have no right. And maybe—just
—you find yourself wishing, for a moment, that something would happen to them. Nothing terminal—you’re not a terrible person, after all—but maybe something
. Sudden onset laryngeal paralysis, perhaps? Or a gushing nosebleed? How about a case of explosive diarrhea?
You see? Our darkness is harmless! Sometimes—imagining the customer ahead of you suddenly browning their trousers, for example—it can even be
! It doesn’t have
to do with what you would find in the heart of the Dahmers, Gacys, and Mansons of the world, right? Right.
Or does it?
Just like darkness out here in the real world, the shadows we see—or, more accurately,
see—every day, our darkness within is a matter of
. Out here in the real world there are shadows, and gloom, and dusk, and night, and holes in the ground where the sun never reaches, and our pupils dilate enormously in a futile effort to penetrate the utter, complete blackness. Out here in the real world we beat back that darkness: once with fire, then with gas lamps, and now with electricity. Out here in the real world we try very hard to stay in the light.
Within we do the same. Within, unlike the Dahmers, Gacys, and Mansons of the world, who stand firmly amidst their shadows of the mind, we
people act very much as we do without: we walk around our darkness. We avoid it, maybe skirting the edges on occasion on our way to a lighter place, coming to rest comfortably in one of the brighter spots in our hearts and minds. Those darker places exist within us, but most people ignore them, uncomfortable with the thought of examining the blackest places of their souls. I mean, who knows what they’d find?
Every writer spends a certain amount of time looking within themselves—that’s where the stories come from, after all. The writer spends time poking about in the recesses of their own soul, looking for ways to connect with the recesses of yours. The romance writer tries to connect with the romantic part of you; the adventure writer looks for ways to touch the part of your soul where passion, excitement, and pride have set up house; and the horror writer . . . the horror writer probes their darkest places, searching for ways to stretch out a psychic finger and point your dark places out to you. Maybe even give them a poke.
Our dark places speak to your dark places.
They don’t speak directly: there isn’t any fantastical mental communication, or sci-fi telepathy at work here—there is no
psychic finger. We take the things we find within our stygian spaces and we shape them. We give them feature and form, pour them into voice and verse, couch them in pleasing phrases and mold them into compelling stories, then set them loose upon the world within the pages of a book.
As you read this book—taking in the dialogue, learning about the characters, discovering the plots—those hidden spaces you try to ignore, the places in your psyche you so carefully step around, will hear those echoes of my own darkness woven into the pages. And no matter the subject—be it peckish zombies, a crashing plane, a mother trying to protect her daughter, or even just a simple case of missing socks—those echoes imprinted on the page will, like a sound of the proper pitch when it arrives at the waiting tuning fork,
All great stories resonate with the reader. The reader connects with the story, experiences it along with the characters, sometimes even feeling a sense of loss when it’s all over. A story that has really
for the reader will have them putting the book down when it is done and saying
Holy crap, that was good
That’s what I’m shooting for. That is my goal. In the thirteen stories that follow, I’ve tried to capture at least some of the darkness that resides within me, some of the darkness we all share, and polish it up. I’ve tried to gift-wrap some echoes of that darkness and aim them toward your secret, hidden tuning forks, hoping for that resonance:
holy crap, that was good
Have I aimed my echoes properly? Have I gotten the pitch
Turn the page and find out.
December 27, 2015
Bits and pieces. Images. Sounds.
His father, panicked, screaming at the horse to “Go! Go!” The bright, sunny world racing by as the wagon bounces and jounces over rough terrain.
His mother, eyes round with fear, looking about for escape. Finding none.
Her hand on his head, pushing him down—“Stay in here! You’ll be safe!”—before the thud-thud of her fist tamping down the lid. Her “I love you” forcing its way past the pounding. His father shouting. Mother crying out too, as, inside the barrel, the boy feels the wagon shudder. Slow. Tipping, the barrel sliding this way and that, battering the boy, though it remains upright. Mother’s shotgun booms. Father’s revolver fires twice, then a third time, and then there is only screaming.
He huddles in the barrel, listening as the screaming goes on forever.
Until it stops.
Silence and the smell, the terrible, rotten stink oozing between the shrunken barrel-slats, clinging to the inside of his nose, the back of his throat, making him gag.
silence. He makes out feet shuffling. Cloth ripping. Wet sounds . . .
they are chewing. And though he’s been told time and again they can hear quite well, he simply can’t help himself. He begins to cry.
Feet shuffle. Many. Moving closer as he tries to muffle his sobs. He clutches at his own traitorous mouth, trying to force the noise back in, but it’s like pushing a handful of water upstream in a river; the sounds rising from his hitching chest simply flow between his fingers, around his hands, until the top of the barrel is torn away, and strong, cold flesh twines into his hair in the exact spot Mother’s warm palm had rested upon to push him down.
A sudden, scalp-loosening yank, and he gibbers, begging them to leave him alone, please, leave him alone, but hands grip his shoulders, grab at his clothing, and pull him out, into the bright sunlight.
His sobs become a scream.
The words accompanied a sharp blow to his thigh. The boy opened his eyes to find the old man standing over him, dusty boot drawn back for another kick. Noting the boy’s open eyes, the old man returned the boot the ground and squatted, bringing his harsh, leathery face so close the boy choked on his breath: coffee, and at least one tooth going slowly bad.
“Them things can’t smell nothing over their own stink, and they can see pretty good, but they can hear better’n you and me, so far as I can tell. You gonna be making noise, you want to be awake for it, so’s you can choose to run or fight if one of ’em comes along. Y’unnerstand?”
The boy nodded. The old man stood in one fluid motion.
“Then quit’cher sleep-squallin’. Time to be up and moving, anyway.”
The boy glanced about, confused.
“Where’s Mom? Dad?”
The word was hard and flat, hitting the boy like a punch. The flashes that made up his dream crowded into his head, the world wavering as tears filled his eyes. His chest had just begun to hitch when a callused palm struck him across the face, shocking him into silence. The old man was crouching over him again.
“No time for that. Time for you to listen and do as I say, but not for that. How old are you?”
The boy stifled a sob. Touched his stinging cheek. “Huh?”
He flinched as the hand flew again, but rather than striking him, one bony finger extended to touch the tip of his nose.
“I’ve got more slap than you have sand, boy, believe me. Or time. Lost my horse getting you out of there yesterday. Lost some of my gear. We shook ’em, but that don’t mean they can’t stumble on us again. Now you best show me how it was worth losing my horse to get you out of there by
can just up and walk out of here and make it fine on my own, zombies or no.
, on t’other hand, may have a little more trouble. I talk. You listen. You answer. You
“Yes,” the boy managed, imagining for a moment being out there on his own, surrounded by the zombies that had taken his mom and dad.
his mom and dad. It didn’t seem real, though he knew it was. He looked up at the old man, fear strengthening his voice: “Yes, sir.”
The finger disappeared. “Good. How old are you?”
“You’re a tall one. I woulda taken you for sixteen, seventeen easy. Okay, now strip.”
The boy blinked. “Huh?”
“Strip.” The old man straightened again. “Get on your feet and out of them clothes. Hurry up.”
The boy’s mind flashed back to what his father had called “warnings”: stories about bad things happening to children caught out by bandits and survivalists. It wasn’t just young girls who had to worry about men with needs. He’d been explicit enough that Mom had left the room, and the boy’d had nightmares for a couple of days.
Fear-sweat broke out across his upper lip, and down beneath his balls. He got his hands under him and began slowly crab-walking backward on his palms and soles, his butt barely clearing the ground.
“Look, I, uh—”
He was suddenly gaping at the business end of a revolver, bullet tips peeking at him around the great staring eye of the barrel. He froze, his two eyes as unblinking as the revolver’s one.
“I said we don’t have
for this shit. God
it, boy! I checked what I could last night, but I was too damn tired to fiddle with your clothes. I’m getting you out of here, but I ain’t takin’ a chance on you hiding sickness, then dying and turning on me in the night. You shitcan your modesty and peel off right now, and prove to me you ain’t been neither bit nor scratched, or—”
The gun never wavered, rock-steady as the old man thumbed the hammer back. The boy watched as a fresh cartridge rotated into place beneath that hammer, aimed along the barrel pointing directly at his left eye.
“—I’ll put a bullet through your head right now, to make sure you
be getting up afterward, then set about finding me another horse.”
Dark eyes gazed steadily at him over the chunk of metal death between them. One bushy eyebrow quirked.
“Are we clear?”
Silent tears ran down the boy’s face as he stripped.
“We’ll stop here for the night. Can you cook?”
“Some.” The boy nodded. “My mom taught—”
“Good. Get to digging a fire-hole.”
The boy looked about the space: a small clearing amidst a tiny copse of trees on the only high ground for quite a ways around. He dropped the saddlebags with a clank that drew a glare from the old man, then headed off sharp words with a question.
“Dig a hole?”
They spoke in near whispers, as they’d done all day, when not hiking in silence across the prairie. Mostly it had been silence. The boy had finally worked up the courage, by the time they’d stopped for a brief rest and a lunch of jerky and water, to ask why they were whispering.
“Shut your mouth a minute,” the old man had said, as if the boy had been jabbering away all day long, “and listen.”
The boy had listened for a second.
“What am I supposed to—”
“Just listen, damn it!”
So there they sat, listening to the sun shine for the better part of a minute. Then the old man leaned close.
“The nothing. The silence. That’s what it’s like being dead, boy. They ain’t talking the whole day. They’re quieter than any living man can be, no matter how hard we try. You’re breathing. Your heart’s beating. Your stomach even grumbled while we was sittin’ here. You hear all that stuff all day long and just filter it out. You’re used to it. It’s background noise. But they ain’t even got decomposition noise after the first bit passes. If they ain’t shuffling along the grass, or tarmac, or whatever, then they’s
. Silent as the grave.”
The old man nodded. “And then here come you and me, walking along, just shooting the shit. Right into all that silence.
they hear us. They ain’t got nothing
to listen to! So we got to try to be like them. Fit in, kind of like camouflage for the ears, if you take my meaning. If we don’t make any noise to attract their attention, then we won’t. Unless they see us. And we can see at least as well as they do.”
That was the only question the old man answered all day, though he’d demanded answers to any questions
had, and there had been a few, whispered as he’d kept them moving along the plain at a pace just within the boy’s ability to keep up. Barely.
Where had the boy and his family come from? Where were they going? What kind of guns had they had? Did the boy know how to
for them? Why had he hidden in the barrel? What had he planned on doing when he was found, as he, of course, had been? Had that been his first actual contact with zombies?
The boy had answered as best he could, every answer met with either silence or a snort of derision from the old cowboy.
Now, though, it was the old man’s turn. He either had to explain what he meant by a “fire-hole,” or dig the damn thing himself, and to be honest, the boy was so tired he wished the old man would refuse to answer.
No such luck.
“Dig a pit a foot across and two deep. Then another, ’bout a foot and a half away, big around as your arm, angled to catch the first pit near the bottom. Like the back door in a badger hole. The fire goes in the big pit, covered up with the griddle. That little hole feeds air to the fire. We keep the fire small, and we can cook us some supper without no chance of throwing off enough light to hook the zombies’ attention. They can’t see near as well as they can hear, but they sure as hell ain’t blind. Well, most of ’em, anyway. Them’s that still
The boy dug and the old man prepared some kind of freeze-dried stew, mixing it thick, with the absolute minimum of water—water, the old man said as they ate, weighed more than food, but was more important.
“Out here, the only thing that’ll kill you faster than thirst are those damn risen folk. It comes down to it, in an emergency or suchlike, and you have a choice between grabbing the water and the food, you grab the water. Every time.”
He began dry-scrubbing the empty stewpot with fistfuls of grass, then glanced up speculatively.
“I s’pose, if it
come right down to it, I could always eat
if I had to.”
He rasped a laugh, but the boy didn’t see the humor. He didn’t like the look in the old man’s eyes: though his lips were twisted into a smile, those sharp, calculating eyes said the old man didn’t really think it was funny either.
After supper the boy lay on the ground, unmindful of the dirt under his hair or the rock digging into his back. He had walked all day, saddlebags over his shoulder, and he didn’t think he had ever been so tired. His eyes closed, and his mind began to wander, but it wandered into places he’d rather it not go. All day long he’d been concentrating on something or other: the old man’s questions, the old man’s tasks, or even just putting one foot in front of the other as he tried to keep up. Now, though, thoughts crowded into his head as if they’d just been waiting for an opening, and he lay there thinking.