THE SHUFFLIN’ DEID
by Derek Paterson
Zombies, or reanimated dead persons, are generally not real. In popular films and television shows, they are portrayed by actors wearing make-up. However, should you encounter a zombie who is not an actor, remain calm. Do not attempt to engage the zombie in conversation. Retreat indoors and stay there until you are sure the zombie has gone away. Report the incident to the authorities using the emergency telephone number listed in the Scottish Government information leaflet titled, “How To Survive A Necrotic Reanimation Event.” If you follow the instructions you receive to the letter, you will probably be okay.
Marty awoke with a start. He found himself sitting alone, up the back of the empty bus. No people, no engine noise, just him. How stupid was he, falling asleep and not even realizing they’d arrived? What a wanker!
He grabbed his carryall and got up, but when he looked out the windows he saw he wasn’t anywhere near Millburn Street bus station. He wasn’t even in town. They’d stopped somewhere on a country road. All he could see were hedges and telephone poles with sagging lines strung between them.
Had the bus broken down but nobody had told him? Had they just left him here on his own? He looked out the front window. The dozen or so passengers had got out and gathered further down the road. They stood with their backs to him. Nice of them to tell him something was wrong!
Marty made his way down the bus aisle. The door was open, he climbed down and approached the group. They were all looking at something. One of the passengers glanced back over his shoulder and noticed him. He stepped aside so Marty could see better. Marty nodded thanks. The guy slapped his own neck. “Midges are awfy bad up here.”
Up here. He knew where they were now, in the hills above Braenock, just before the final stretch where the road started to descend until it finally joined the town’s uppermost housing scheme. The bus had stopped and everyone had got out because Braenock was burning. At least that was how it seemed to Marty. Dozens of smoke columns rose above the town, pushed sideways and spread out by the wind so the smoke drifted over the rooftops like dark mist. It was totally unexpected. It was as if war had broken out while he’d been asleep on the bus. He searched the sky for planes but couldn’t see any.
But that wasn’t the half of it. Between the bus and the town, completely blocking the road, were dozens of cars. At first Marty thought it might be a queue stopped for traffic lights—the road maintenance people were always tearing things up, all year round—but it was too chaotic, they lay at all angles, some of them had their noses buried in the hedges that ran along both sides of the road. The cars he could see appeared to be empty. Doors lay open as if they’d just been abandoned—as if everyone had decided to get out and walk the rest of the way and leave their cars sitting there for anyone to come along and steal. It was a joyrider’s paradise. Oh the irony.
“How am I supposed to know?” the bus driver, a big man wearing a light blue shirt, said to the woman standing beside him. He sounded irritated. Marty guessed she’d asked him how he intended to get his bus past the jam so she could get into town. She said something else, Marty couldn’t make out the words but he heard the sharp tone in her voice, an irate customer let down by poor service yet again. The driver shoved his mobile right up to her face. “Go on, you try if you think you can do any better. It’s not working, okay?”
Marty had checked his mobile phone when they’d returned his belongings to him at the gatehouse office, before they released him back into the wild. It was a pay-as-you-go supermarket cheapie. The battery was deid as a dodo. He couldn’t remember if he had any credit left on it anyway. Probably not. So he hadn’t been able to call anyone. Luckily he’d had enough loose change for the bus fare home.
“Here, come on now, there’s no need for that,” a man told the driver. He carried a thin leather briefcase, wore a suit under his amazingly clean anorak and spoke with a commanding classroom voice that reminded Marty of every dickhead teacher he’d ever had at school. But especially Mr. Goodridge, his fourth year maths teacher, a total fanny who’d made his life hell for no good reason. Marty had an instinctive hatred of that tone, it made his hands bunch into fists, it made him want to hit someone. He tried to stay cool. Stupid to get himself put back inside on the same day he got released.
“You suggest something, then,” the driver said, sounding like a man at the end of his tether. “I’ve not got wings. I can’t get past that lot.”
“Why did they all stop?” another woman asked.
“No idea,” the driver said.
“Maybe the police stopped them,” the teacher said. “There’s obviously something going on in the town.”
“Everything was okay when I came up over the hill at seven-thirty this morning,” the driver said, as if that explained everything.
“So what are we supposed to do?” the snarky woman pressed him.
“We wait for the cops to come and open the road,” Marty said. They all turned and looked at him. Instant dislike showed on some of their faces. Marty loved it when that happened. If they didn’t like how he looked, they could kiss his arse. “Or we walk the rest of the way,” he added. They liked that idea even less.
The driver nodded agreement. “That’s about the size of it.”
“I can’t go all that distance with my legs,” the snarky woman protested. “It must be miles.”
“Not really,” Marty said. “If we start now we’ll hit the town in ten, fifteen minutes, easy.” He knew the area, he’d climbed these hills when he was a boy, with nothing else to do and no money to spend. She glared at him. Not a walking person, then. “If we go ahead, we could find a phone and call a taxi, tell it to drive up here and pick you up. You’d only have to walk down past the cars.”
“Sounds sensible enough,” the teacher, if that’s what he was, said. “We’ll stay together, keep up a brisk pace. No stopping for rests.” He rubbed his hands together as if welcoming the challenge.
The snarky woman ignored him. “Can you not turn this thing around and go back to Bragburnie?” she said, waving at the bus.
“The road’s too narrow,” the driver said. Marty knew he was right, trying to three-point-turn a bus between the thick hedges was out of the question. Not unless he wanted to wreck the hedges and have some farmer yelling at the bus company about compensation.
“Well, could you not reverse?”
“What? No.” The driver turned to face the small crowd. “All right, I’m going ahead on foot. Anyone wants to stay aboard the bus, that’s fine. But I’ll be taking the keys with me.”
“How long will we have to wait?” The same bloody woman, with her wheedling tone turned up full.
Give the driver his due, he didn’t blow up at her. Marty didn’t know if he could have been as calm. “As soon as I get hold of someone on the blower, I’ll make them aware of the situation, okay? If the road stays shut, Bragburnie will send a short courtesy bus to pick you up and take you back there. That’s the best I can promise.”
The driver’s announcement prompted some unhappy mutterings but no one spoke up. The snarky woman and three other passengers, two stout women and a man who was maybe in his seventies, voted to wait here. They tottered away back to the bus, mumbling among themselves. The others—nine in all, including Marty and the driver—were going to hoof it down the hill. This was going to be a long morning.
“Right then, let’s get moving,” the teacher said, as if calling together a class of primary kids going on a nature ramble. “I’m Colin, by the way.” He offered the driver his hand. The driver gave him a look and walked past him. The others followed. Colin wore a fixed smile that said never mind, not everyone is civilized, are they?
Marty easily caught up with the driver and fell into step beside him. “Where do you think the smoke’s coming from?” he said.
The driver thought about it as he stared at the town below. “Could be the container terminal,” he said. Braenock was a coastal town, ships came from all over to unload their cargoes, usually in standard freight containers that were stacked high beside the big cranes. When he was a boy, Marty and his pals would sneak in through holes in the rusty fence and chuck stones at the containers, the impacts making giant BOOMS! until the security man came rushing out of his warm portacabin and chased them away. “No effing signal, and we’re within sight of the masts,” the driver said. He nodded towards Nock Hill where a cluster of tall phone masts stood overlooking the town.
They slowed to a stop as they approached the first of the abandoned cars. Marty sucked in a deep breath. Some of the windows had been smashed. What looked like blood darkened the broken glass, and Marty saw more stains inside the cars, splashed across the seats, pooled in the seams. He didn’t get it—none of the cars were bashed up as if they’d been in a smash and their passengers had been injured or killed.
The people behind pushed forward to see but the driver held out both arms, becoming a one-man barrier. “Wait up, hold on a minute. Just stop, will you?”
One of the women who’d decided to walk into town with them said, “Oh my God, what’s happened?” Marty judged her age at around twenty, blonde streaks in her hair, a clone of his sister, Jane, who he hadn’t heard from since he’d got sentenced. The gap between her top and her jeans showed a piercing in her belly button. She wore a short jacket, useless for keeping out the cold. She must be freezing.
“Wait here,” the driver said. “No one move.” He went forward alone, stopping and bending down to peer inside the nearest cars. Marty let him get on with it. The driver checked out a dozen or so cars before he turned and came back, looking puzzled. “There’s no one in them, they’re all empty.”
“I’m not seeing any traffic lights either,” Marty said. Then why had the cars stopped? That was another mystery.
His sister’s clone said, “What, did they just get out and walk away? Why would they do that?”
“Don’t ask me, love,” the driver said.
Marty tried to figure it out. If the cars at the front had been damaged or wrecked—proof there had been a big smash—or if the cops had coned off the road, leaving some sign they’d attended an accident—then that would make sense. But all he could see were abandoned cars. The blood, the open doors, it was like something out of a horror movie. He looked around for a camera crew hiding in the hedges, filming them for a laugh, but couldn’t see anyone.
Colin spoke to the driver. “Look, if we can get all these cars moved over, right up against the hedges, maybe you could squeeze the bus past them?”
The driver took a moment to think this over. Marty figured it would involve moving dozens of cars. They’d just put them into neutral, release the handbrakes and push, steering them onto the narrow grass verge before they started to run away down the hill. But the driver said, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe.”
Marty didn’t feel obliged to convince him. He was ready to walk, it was no skin off his nose if the bus stayed where it was. He turned his head as he noticed something out the corner of his eye. Someone was standing in the ploughed field on the other side of the hedge that bordered the road. At first he thought it was a scarecrow. But then he realized it was a man, not doing much of anything, just standing there with his back to them. Marty tapped the bus driver’s arm and pointed. Everyone turned to look.
“Who’s that?” his sister’s clone said.
“Hopefully someone who can tell us what’s going on here,” Colin said. He waved an arm to attract attention. “Excuse me! Hey! Over here!” This didn’t do anything so he waved his briefcase too.
Scarecrow guy turned his head round and seemed to notice them. What was he doing standing in a field? Marty had no idea. Part of the field, he noticed, was crossed by straight, dark lines that ran off in the direction of Nock Hill. He hadn’t seen anything like that before. They looked like scorch marks, as if someone had burned the lines into the earth. Some of the hedges further down looked blackened, too.
“We need a word!” Colin shouted. “Can you help us?”
“I don’t like the look of him,” a woman said. Marty hadn’t noticed her before now. She wore an anorak over a striped shop apron. He tried to judge her age, without success. Her glum face and short hair made it hard to guess. She could be as old as his mum or old enough to be his granny.
Scarecrow guy had turned around and was moving towards them, walking slowly and with an odd limp, as if he was dragging his feet. Marty decided he didn’t like the look of him either.
“He’s walking awfy funny,” a young guy said. He wore a blue tracksuit top and carried a sports bag as if he was on his way to football training. “Maybe he got hurt in the crash?”
“Maybe the poor soul’s been waiting for an ambulance all this time,” another woman suggested. She looked a good bit older than Marty’s sister’s clone and wore a cream raincoat that reminded him of Columbo, the TV detective. Marty couldn’t have picked a more boring bunch of people to be on a bus with if he’d tried.
He returned his attention to the shuffling scarecrow guy. His brain was dinging a warning. “There’s something wrong with him,” he said, wishing he knew what it was.
“Out of the way,” Colin said, pushing forward. “The man’s injured, he needs help. I know first-aid.”
Mrs. Columbo let out a surprised gasp. “What’s wrong with his face?”
“Looks like somebody chucked a pizza at him,” the driver said. No one laughed. But Marty knew exactly what he meant. Scarecrow guy’s face was all blistered and bloody. What the France had happened to him?
“Come on, help me,” Colin said, putting down his briefcase. He’d found a gap in the hedge and pushed his arms in, trying to make the gap wider. The guy in the blue tracksuit top obliged, he put down his sports bag and together they pulled the hedge open a little bit more.
Marty had no urge to volunteer because scarecrow guy was close now, only a few feet away from the hedge. His eyes were bloodshot-pink, as if he had really bad conjunctivitis. His crazy stare reminded Marty of a starving dog he’d once seen mooching about near the bins, desperate for food. Marty wanted to run back to the bus and close the door, but his feet wouldn’t move, they were rooted to the ground.
“Come on, mate!” the driver shouted encouragement.
“Something’s wrong with him,” Marty said again, surprised that the words came out because the sight of the shuffling man made him gag.
“That’s right, this way,” Colin said.
“Watch out, something’s wrong!” Marty shouted, but it was too late, the shuffling man had built up speed with his last steps and now he hit the hedge like a runaway train, forcing his way through the gap Colin and the sporty guy had made. Thorns ripped at his skin and clothes but couldn’t stop him. His questing hands found sporty guy’s tracksuit top and pulled him forward. Marty thought he was going to butt him or something, but the shuffling man twisted his head to one side and sank his teeth into sporty guy’s neck instead. Blood erupted from the wound, red and shiny.
The shop apron woman screamed. Everyone jumped back except for sporty guy, who struggled to free himself, but the clawed hands that held him just wouldn’t let go. Crazy scarecrow guy chewed at his neck. The wet, slurping noise made Marty’s stomach flip, he was ready to throw up the two rolls with square slice sausages he’d had for breakfast in the wee café in Bragburnie before getting on the bus. But just then the driver grabbed him and pulled him away.
“Loony bastard!” the driver shouted at crazy scarecrow guy.
“Oh, dear God,” Colin said. He put his hand to his mouth and turned away, unable to watch.
Sporty guy had stopped struggling. His body sagged, supported by crazy scarecrow guy and the hedge. Marty couldn’t help but think of a spider with a fly caught in its web, sucking the juice out of its victim. Sporty guy was deid, Marty knew it beyond all doubt, he was deid. Crazy scarecrow guy continued to suck at his neck while his unblinking bloodshot eyes remained fixed on Marty. They seemed to say, You’re next, pal.
End of sample
THE SHUFFLIN’ DEID
Back to my
Copyright © 2016 by the Author. All Rights Reserved.