Free (Zombie) Fiction: When We Were Kids

“Remember when we were young and we used to walk on the stones in the stream?”

Brandon had asked that question as they walked along the very stream he spoke of. They were no longer kids and walking outside at any time during the day was more dangerous than ever before. Colby found that thought ironic, considering the state of the world before. 

“Yeah, I remember,” he said. “And when we got tired of walking on the stones, we tried to catch crawdads.”

Brandon laughed at that. It was a sound Colby hadn’t heard in a long while. He had heard screams and yells and crying from people as they died, ran, or ran then died or suffered from that thing called mourning when someone—or everyone—they loved was dead. Colby looked at his longtime friend and couldn’t help but smile. 

“What?” Brandon asked.

“You laughed. I haven’t heard laughter since …”

“Since Micah died,” Brandon finished.

“Yeah.”

They were silent for a few minutes as they walked the stream, coming up on the wide section a short footbridge spanned across. On the other side of the bridge was a path that led through a length of trees and then opened up into a park where no kids played anymore. Micah died at least a month earlier, but Colby could have never told you exactly when—time wasn’t measured in days and nights anymore, but in minute by minute. He closed his eyes, shook off the thought his only other friend who survived for longer than a couple of weeks when the world went to Hell. Boys

Brandon stopped. Colby looked back at his friend, at the deeply tanned skin, the hair much longer than it had ever been and in need of washing (like the rest of his body), his clothes covered in dirt, blood and who knew what else. He looked, as Colby thought everyone who was still alive probably looked, like the homeless of before. “What’s wrong, Brandon?”

“I wish we were kids again.” He stared at the water, at the stones they had walked across in another life. 

“Yeah. Me too.”

“Life was so much easier back then.”

“Everyone was still alive back then.”

“Yeah, that too.”

More silence followed, then ended when Brandon started for the water.

“What are you doing, man?”

“We can’t be kids again,” Brandon said. His green eyes seem to shine as he looked back at Colby. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to have a little fun. Heaven knows we could use some.”

With that said, he dropped his pack to the ground, his baseball bat landing beside it. He stepped from dry land onto one of the stones. It wobbled under his foot and Brandon shifted his weight to remain upright. His arms went out, his hands extended, making him look like a stationary airplane. His other foot went onto a flat stone that barely stuck out of the water. Brandon looked back at Colby with a smile that could have belonged to a six-year-old. “You coming?”

Though he knew it was dangerous—anything other than paying attention to one’s surroundings was these days—but Brandon was right. They needed some fun, needed something to make them feel less like the world was ending and more like they had a reason to continue living. 

Colby went to the edge of the stream, dropped his pack and the crowbar he kept in hand. The water was murky and brown and not like it was when they were kids, when you could see the bottom of the stream, the sediment, the rocks, water plants, minnows, and yes, crawdads. The water was cloudy. Though he could see the stones and the mud on them, he didn’t like that he couldn’t see much more than that. Still, he stepped on one of the rocks, pushed on it for good measure to make sure it was sturdy, then put all of his weight onto it. He found another stone, this one with a touch of green moss growing along the edges that stuck out of the water. Then he was stepping from that one to another one, his arms out very much like Brandon’s.

For a few minutes, Colby and Brandon, friends since the first grade, and possibly the last two people alive in their world, were kids again. They laughed. Their feet slipped from time to time, getting submerged in the water before they could get back on the stones. For a few minutes the world was right. 

Colby turned around when he heard the startled ‘whoa,’ from Brandon. He saw his friend’s arms pinwheeling, his eyes wide, as he tipped backward, his left foot slipping out from under him. He landed in the stream with a loud crash, water splashing up and coming back down. Then Brandon laughed. 

“DId you see that?” Brandon asked, still laughing. 

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, man. Nothing like being a kid ag—“

Brandon’s laughter came to a sudden stop. His mouth opened but he didn’t scream. From out of the water came his arm. 

Colby saw the blood before he heard Brandon finally scream. His forearm was missing a chunk of flesh and blood gushed from the wound. Behind Brandon came the corpse that had been hidden by the murky water. It’s bloated head lulled on it’s shoulders. The rest of its upper torso was waterlogged and the same shade of brown as the muddy stream water. It made no noises—the dead’s vocal chords died right along with their bodies. But it bit down on Brandon’s shoulder, sinking its sharp teeth through the wet shirt and pulling it’s head back, ripping cloth and flesh away. 

“No, no, no, no!” Colby yelled and forgot all about trying to stay on the stones. He ran and splashed his way to dry ground, scrambled up the embankment to where Brandon’s pack was. He picked up the aluminum baseball bat with the dented barrel and ran back to the stream. He waded in as Brandon tried to shove the corpse away, but shock and the sudden loss of a lot of blood made him sluggish and unable to pull free. 

A second corpse appeared from the woods. It wore a long sleeve work shirt and what Colby thought was a green pair of pants and heavy workbooks that didn’t seem to fit it’s withered feet. It didn’t so much as walk as it dragged it’s feet across the ground. Somehow, it didn’t fall. 

“No,” Colby whispered to himself as he ran into the water, the bat raised above his head. He brought the barrel down on the muddy corpse. Its head split open with a sickening pop. It fell back into the water, but didn’t sink right away. Colby turned to Mr. Work Clothes, knowing if he stopped to pull Brandon from the stream, he was as good as dead as well. 

Colby met the corpse near the edge of the water. He swung the bat at its knees and Mr. Work Clothes fell onto it’s side. The bat went above Colby’s head again and came down with all the force he could muster. The skull ruptured with a similar gross crack. One eyeball shot from its socket and landed in the water with a plop. Colby swung the bat down several times, screaming as he did so.

The bat slid from his hands when he turned back to the stream to see Brandon floating in the water, his face to the sky, eyes open and blank. Tears filled his eyes and the strength left him. Colby’s legs gave way and he crumpled to the ground, landing on the soft grass of the embankment. 

Colby cried for several minutes, his last friend in the world now dead and soon to be one of the walking corpses that had killed everyone in the world. 

Then, as if a sudden realization swept over him, Colby rolled onto his knees. He grabbed the bat and stood. “I can’t let him change.” His voice was hoarse from crying and his eyes were blurry and the lids puffy from the tears. He looked at the bat and shook his head. 

Colby didn’t cross the stream by hopping from stone to stone. He went to the bridge, crossed over the water and went to his pack. In the front pouch was the .22 and it was fully loaded. He dropped the bat, took the gun from the pack and took the slow and somehow very long walk (though it was only fifteen or so yards from where he stood to where Brandon floated) to the edge of the stream. 

He didn’t want to step back into the water. As he had feared, they didn’t pay attention to their surroundings and one of them ended up dead, and soon to be undead if Colby didn’t hurry. 

No other corpses came out of the water when Brandon fell in or when I splashed around.

The thought should have been reassuring, but it did little to calm his nerves or set his mind at ease as he stood on the embankment, staring. 

If you don’t hurry, he’s going to change and then you’ll really have issues, won’t you?

Issues was a nice way to put it. The freshly dead were faster, stronger and more limber than the stiffs that teetered on falling with each step they took. They were harder to put down—their skulls seemed harder, at least. No knife will do for the fresh ones. 

“Okay. I’m going.”

Colby stepped into the water, his nerves on edge, his head moving from side to side as he searched the water for anything that might move. At one point, his foot struck a submerged stick, dislodging it. It floated to the surface and Colby screamed, fired two shots at where he thought a head should be. When he saw it was a stick, he laughed nervously as his heart beat rapidly in his chest. 

“Get it together,” he said and waded through the stream. He reached into the water, grabbed the back of Brandon’s shirt and started back for dry ground. Once there, he started to slide his hands beneath Brandon’s armpits, then stopped. “All he would have to do is turn his head and then you’re as good as dead.”

Colby looked at the gun in his right hand, then down at his friend. He put the barrel to Brandon’s temple. “I’m sorry, buddy,” he said, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. The bang sounded like an old party favor they would get as kids—a simple cork-like pop that seemed to echo in a world where noise had become almost obsolete. It was followed by the sound of something striking the water; the bullet, he thought. Brain and skull, as well.

Colby tucked the gun in the back of his belt and grabbed Brandon beneath the armpits. He pulled him to dry ground, then sat beside him.

“Hey, Brandon,” he said. “Do you remember when we dug that grave for Micah?” He nodded, knowing that Brandon didn’t remember. As a matter of fact, he didn’t remember anything at all, and he never would again. “Yeah, well, I’m going to dig another one, so, you know, don’t go anywhere. Okay?” Absentmindedly, he patted Brandon’s leg.

The crowbar was all he had to dig with. He used the claw end to loosen the ground and pulled the clumps out by hand. After what felt like hours, though it had been not even forty minutes, he had a shallow grave dug out right next to the stream, a place of their childhood, one that, at least Colby hoped, Brandon had found some joy and fun at before death claimed him. He pulled his friend’s body to the hole, careful to step into it and drag him along before setting him down gently. 

Covering the hole was easier and took far less time to finish. Colby covered his friend’s body from feet up, ending with his head. He stood, took the baseball bat and drove the barrel into the dirt near where Brandon’s chest was. 

“Rest in peace, my friend. I’ll never forget you.”

Colby took one last look at the grave before grabbing both his and Brandon’s packs and his crowbar and walking away from the stream toward the town they had avoided by following the water. As day gave way to night, Colby sought out refuge in the back of a car that would have been considered old in the before. The owner was long gone, but whoever it had been had left a blanket behind. Colby covered up and used the two packs as pillows. 

Colby closed his eyes, but before falling asleep he said, “Hey, Brandon, remember when we were teens and we took our girls to the old drive in movies in Monetta? Yeah, me too.”

AJB

2/25/2019

2/26/2019

Flash Fiction Friday: Cassidy and Owen’s Cemetery For Almost Dead Things

Nobody noticed when Pop Callahan disappeared. At least not until Maggie Sue came calling and he didn’t answer the door.

Maggie Sue lived down the road in a dilapidated singlewide trailer with streaks of rust running along its sides. She was a trashy little woman who thought an unbuttoned blouse and a pile of makeup was attractive. On that day the extra thick blush and eye shadow did little to conceal the shiner she had been given a few days earlier.

Cassidy answered the door on the third knock. Her golden hair was dirty and pulled back into pigtails. She had chocolate smeared on one side of her ten-year-old face and her pink dress was caked with dirt and spaghetti sauce—the lone staple in the Callahan house.

“Hey, Cassidy,” Maggie Sue said with a fake smile and a finger twirling in a lock of dirty blond hair. “Is Pop home?”

“No,” Cassidy responded. If there was one person in the neighborhood she disliked, it was Maggie Sue.

“D’yah know where he’s at?”

Cassidy shrugged her bony shoulders.

Maggie Sue gave a slight nod. “Can you tell him to come visit me when he gets home?”

“I guess.”

boy-1854107_1920Anger flared on Maggie Sue’s face in the form of creased brows and turned down lips. A storm brewed in her blue eyes. When she spoke again, her voice was less pleasant and held a demanding tone. “It would be nice if you would do that for me. Can you remember that, retard?”

Cassidy took a deep breath and held it. She forced back the words she wanted to say, then shrugged again. “I guess so.”  

Maggie Sue made it down the first couple of steps before Cassidy spoke again.

“Hey, lady, you wanna visit my graveyard?” A small grin traced across her lips.

Cassidy was known in Briar’s Ridge as a little off-center, special in the most special of ways. Questions like that were normal for her. But for Maggie Sue and her suddenly wide eyes and O-shaped mouth, it had sounded bizarre, even coming from Cassidy, the waif of a girl Pop had taken in when she was three, along with her little brother Ollie—short for Oliver, Cassidy told anyone who would listen. Truth be told, Callahan didn’t so much take them in as he took them from a prostitute who owed him money. The plan was to return the children when he was paid. The woman, a drug-addled whore named Harriett, died a few days later, killed by a john or maybe even herself. When the cleaning lady at the local ho-tel no-tel found Harriett swinging from a light fixture, her face blackened and one eye dangling from the socket, Callahan was stuck.

Maggie Sue stared up at Cassidy from the bottom step. She cocked her head to one side, shook it slowly, as if doing so helped her make a decision. “I don’t think so, little girl.” She stepped off the final step. “Let Pop know I came by, okay?”

Cassidy gave a half-hearted shrug, barely raised a hand to chest level and waved once before dropping it. She closed the door and rolled her eyes.  

“When Pop gets home. Whatever.”

Two days passed before Maggie Sue returned. Cassidy considered making her knock for a while, but answered on the fifth rap.

Cassidy stood in the doorway, the same pink dress on, the chocolate smears gone from her face, replaced by a red Kool-Aid moustache. Her blond hair was no longer in pigtails. A clump of hair on the left side of her head looked as if it was tangled in a broken rubber band.

Maggie Sue’s shiner had gone from purple and black to an ugly green and brown. Her hands shook and her eyes darted about, as if someone followed her. 

“Is Pop home?” Maggie Sue asked, her voice shaky.

Cassidy gave a shrug, a maybe/maybe not gesture.

“Well, is he, little retard girl?”

“No,” Cassidy said.

Maggie Sue shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “When did yah last see him?”

Cassidy put one finger to her chin, the nail thick with dirt beneath it. “When did he give you the colored eye?”

Even through the heavy make-up, Cassidy saw the red blossoms form on Maggie Sue’s face. The woman said nothing at first, only stared at her shoes. When she turned her eyes back to Cassidy, they were rimmed with tears. 

“That would have been Sunday.”

Cassidy nodded. “Then Sunday it was.”

“So, he hasn’t been back since Sunday?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You said you haven’t seen him since—”

“I haven’t seen him. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been here.” Cassidy rolled her eyes.  

“Where do you think he went and ran off to?”

“Does it matter?”

“Why wouldn’t it matter?”

“Why would it?”

They stared at each other until Maggie Sue wavered and looked back toward the red clay road that ran past Pop’s rundown shack and into town where the rest of the houses were as decrepit as the trailer she lived in.  

“Just tell Pop I came by. I need to see him. Really bad.”

“I’m sure,” Cassidy said and closed the door. She opened it to see Maggie Sue still standing on the porch, her eyes still searching, but probably not really seeing anything at all. Maggie Sue ran a brittle-nailed finger up one arm, drawing pink lines on her near white skin. “Hey, lady,” Cassidy said, snapping her from her thoughts.

“What?”

“You wanna visit my graveyard?”

“Umm …  no.” Maggie backed away, almost fell off the steps when her foot slid from the porch landing. “I gotta go.” 

“Bye.”

Cassidy closed the door and looked at Ollie. He stood just inside, his back against the wall. “She’ll be back,” Cassidy said.  

Maggie Sue did come back. The next day. Her eyes held gray and purple bags beneath them and she hugged herself with both arms as if she were cold. Her blond hair was a tangle of knots and her lips were chapped and bordering on white.

Cassidy stood at the door, listening to the many knocks, a smile on her face. “Should we make her come back later, Ollie?”

Ollie stood by the wall. A frown creased his seven-year-old face. He shook his head quickly.

“Okay. Okay.”

Cassidy opened the door.  

Maggie Sue’s voice shook when she spoke and it came out as a whine. “Has Pop come home yet?”

“You look like crap,” Cassidy said, ignoring the question.

“Shut up, retard. I need to see Pop.” Her eyes were larger than Cassidy recalled them being. She dug her nails into her arms, leaving red crescent moons in their wake.

“You wanna visit my graveyard?”

Maggie Sue’s shoulders sagged, then she stood straight. Her eyes became narrow and her nostrils flared as she took a deep breath. “What is it with you, kid?” she yelled. “Why do you want me to see a graveyard so bad? What would you have in it anyway? Did you bury your kitty cat or something? Maybe a pet goldfish or a dog?”

Cassidy stood silent, unblinking as Maggie Sue ranted.

“Oh, I know. I bet you have a collection of dead bugs back there. Each one with their own little graves and markers? Is that it? You’re not a regular retard, are you? You’re some sort of sick-o retard, right? Huh? Is that it?”

Cassidy stepped back from the entryway and turned around. She walked down the short hall, leaving the door open. “If you want to see Pop, he’s this way.”

Maggie Sue’s tirade ended as quickly as it had begun. “‘Bout time, little girl.”

Cassidy stopped in the hall, looked back, her eyes slits on her dirty face. “Ollie,” she said and gave a nod.

“Ollie?” Maggie Sue asked. One side of her top lip lifted up in confusion.  

The clang of a shovel on the back of Maggie Sue’s head sent her forward, her hands out in front of her as she crashed to the floor. Cassidy leaned down. “I’m not a retard, whore.”

They waited patiently for Maggie Sue to wake up. When she did, Ollie was smiling, his teeth brown and rotting. They had bound Maggie Sue’s arms and legs to a wooden kitchen chair. Duct tape covered her mouth.

“Ahh, you’re awake,” Cassidy said. “Now, are you ready to see my graveyard? It don’t matter none. We’ll show you anyway. Okay? So you know, this is a regular tour, not a grand tour. A grand tour is where you get to touch the things in the graveyard, maybe even be allowed to dig up one of the things buried here. But this isn’t a grand tour.”

Maggie Sue’s eyes grew wide as Cassidy waved her arm behind her. “Welcome to the Cassidy and Owen Cemetery for Almost Dead Things.”

The yard was littered with small markers made of boards and plastic and bricks placed at the heads of mounds of dirt.  

“Over here we have Pippy.” She glared back at Maggie Sue. “Yes, my kitty is buried here.” She turned back to the graveyard, waved a hand past Pippy’s grave. “Over there is where I buried the head of Bruce, the dog that killed Pippy. Beside his head are his legs.”

She continued on, waving a hand like a game-show girl showing off the next prize if the price was right. “Around the small azalea bush are the remains of birds that have fallen out of trees or that were killed by Pippy. That one,” she pointed to a small headstone painted blue, “is where Barney is buried. He was a duck.

“I guess you really didn’t come here to see the animals, right? You wanted to see Pop.  Well, there’s one of his hands.” 

Ollie stepped over to a fresh grave, a paper plate with a stick pushed through, marking it. On the plate was a crude drawing of a hand in red crayon. 

“His other hand is over there. And one of his legs is by the fence over yonder.”

Maggie’s scream was muffled behind the tape, a sound caught in her throat, forever to remain there.

“Over there is his upper body, and right there, right in the center of the Pop Callahan Memorial section of our graveyard, is his head.”

Cassidy’s eyes narrowed. She walked over to Maggie Sue, grabbed her face with both of her small hands. “Did you know Pop called me a retard? I betcha didn’t know that, did ya? That was right before he hit me for the last time. I reckon he wasn’t done when he beat you up, so he came home and started on me.”

Maggie Sue grew quiet, her eyes big, the blue showing in the mass of white around them. 

“I betcha didn’t know he called Ollie a dumb retard all the time. And all ’cause Ollie can’t talk.”

Cassidy stepped away and motioned for Ollie. He came into Maggie Sue’s view. In his hand was a hatchet—one really too small for a man to use, but just the right size for a small child.  

“I betcha didn’t know I hate being called a retard, did ya? You know what else?” She paused, waiting for any sort of reply. “Ollie really hates it when someone calls me that.  Don’tcha, Ollie?”

The little boy smiled, brushed aside a heavy lock of dirty brown hair. He gave a nod.  

“I’ll dig the holes,” Cassidy said and turned back to Maggie Sue. “Welcome to the Cassidy and Owen Cemetery for Almost Dead Things. I hope yah enjoy your stay.”

She turned away, grabbed the shovel from beside the house. When she looked back, Ollie was bringing the hatchet down onto Maggie Sue’s right foot.

(Cassidy and Owen’s Cemetery For Almost Dead Things originally appeared in the short story collection, Southern Bones, which you can find here. Or you can get the print copy of Southern Bones directly from me by sending me an email at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com)

Nothing But A Ghost–Free Fiction Friday

“Nothing but a ghost,” Bobby said as he looked from the ground where rails were covered in mud and weeds to the rusted out locomotive jutting out of the water.

“It’s a steam engine,” Hannah said and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She wiped snot on her pants, sniffled and dug both hands into her pockets. She didn’t care much for most boy clothes—she wore hand me downs she got from her older brother, Tucker, and hated them—but she liked those pants. The pockets were deep and she could stick her hands all the way in (unlike all of the ‘girl’ jeans her friends had).

“How do yah no?”

“Look at it.”

“I am looking at it. It’s nothing but a rusty locomotive.”

“But it’s more than that, Bobby-O.”

“Yeah, I guess so, Hannah. By the way do you know what a locomotive is?”

loco-178092_1920.jpgHannah rolled her big hazel eyes, not trying to hide it from Bobby. “It’s a train.”

“Nah. That’s not what it is.”

“Then what is it?”

“Crazy motion. That’s all. Crazy motion.”

Again, she rolled her eyes and shook her head to go along with it. Hannah stepped into the muddy water. Her shoes and ankles were suddenly cold, but she wouldn’t turn around. No, once she got something in her head, she followed through and she aimed to get a better look at the train in front of them. 

“What are yah doing, Hannah?”

“Checking it out.”

A few steps in and her right foot slid, almost sending her to the muck she now waded in. She corrected, regained her balance and looked back.

“Yah trying to take a spill?” Bobby asked with a snicker. “Yah almost went face first right into the river.”

“But I didn’t, so stop your laughing.” 

Hannah put her arms out at her sides and waded through the deepening water. She reached the front of the engine and put one of her hands on it. The heavy rust that covered it felt like chalky nubs of glass, not quite sharp enough to slice skin if she was careful, but if she wasn’t, oh the gashes it could cause. She put one foot onto the side rod. Water fell from her pants and sloshed out of her shoe as she reached up, grabbed hold of another rod and pulled herself up and out of the river. 

“Yah see anything?” Bobby called from the bank.

“Hold your horses and let me look.”

She shook her head, a little in disgust, a little in annoyance. Bobby was two years older and about six inches taller, but a hundred percent more chicken than she had ever been. Yup, his yellow streak ran from the back of his skull all the way down to his oversized tailbone. 

Hannah eased along the rod, and slid her hand on the side of the locomotive until she reached the cab. She leaned just enough to peak inside the open window. Sludge and weeds covered what she could see of the floor. There was a bench seat, rusted and corroded springs jutting from the ruined upholstery. Sitting on the bench were the skeletal remains of the engineer. Though his clothes were mostly tattered rags, a striped  conductor’s hat still remained on his fleshless skull. 

“What the …?”

She stared, her eyes big, her mouth open. Then the skeleton moved, its head shifting on its boney shoulders. It seemed to look at her with its blackened sockets and its forever grin. Hannah’s hands slid away from the locomotive, her left foot slipped from the rod and she tumbled backward. A second later, she landed in the brown water of a river that was once a lake and that one day, maybe even one day soon, would be a pond, then a stream, then nothing but a memory. She went under the surface for a moment, then popped up, took a deep breath and gathered her legs under her. 

Hannah stood, looked at the locomotive for another five seconds, then she turned back toward the bank. She said nothing until she reached a very dry Bobby.

“What d’yah see?” he asked.

“Nothing but a ghost,” she said and walked by him, water dripping from her clothes, her feet sloshing in her shoes.

Free Fiction Friday–Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage

(The family and I took a trip one spring break to St. Augustine, Florida. It was a fun trip—at least I think it was. I don’t know what the kids thought. They might have a different definition of fun. You would have to ask them to find out if they enjoyed themselves or not.

We took I-26 toward Charleston and then I-95 toward Savannah, Georgia. I-95 took as all the way to St. Augustine. Shortly after we crossed into Florida, Cate saw a man sitting in a lawn chair by the interstate. He had a drink in one hand and seemed to be staring off at nothing. She pointed the man out to me.

Over the next few minutes, I jotted down a few notes, mostly about the man’s appearance. Then I wrote the word ‘Why?’ Why was he there? Why was he sitting in a lawn chair with a drink in his hand? What was he staring at? Well, he’s staring at ghosts,A.J., my mind chirped. Of course, he was. Over the course of the next couple of days I wrote Rite of Passage, mostly at night when everyone was going to bed in the hotel we stayed at.

Some stories you just fall in love with. For me, this is one of them. The reality for Jake Eberly is he was not long for this world and he knew the parade of ghosts was an omen of death, in this case, his own. He faced his mortality and he was ready to move on, to join the rag tag band of journey folk. But not before letting his grandson see the rite of passage.)

____________________

The truck slowed almost a full two hundred yards before it needed to. Jake Eberly held the steering wheel tight, his old hands hurting, the knuckles white. They would be sore later. His arthritis would flair up worse than it ever had. He licked his lips and his breath hitched. Jake swallowed dryness. He pulled off the road, coasted to a stop, and killed the motor.

“Grandpa, why are we stopping?”

Jake looked to the passenger’s side where his oldest grandchild, Camden, sat. He wasn’t an Eberly like him, not in name at least. His mother was Jake’s only child. She married a Hartnett. The bloodline might carry on, but in time it will be nothing more than an infinitesimal amount and the Eberly name will be no more. 

Staring up at him was a good looking kid. Hazel eyes stood out against his creamy white skin; his hair blond and his lips very much like his mother’s. At ten, he was older than Jake was when he was brought here, to the place he now parked.

“We’re here,” he said.

“Where?”

Jake looked out the windshield, then out both side windows. “Here. Now, help me get the chairs out the back.”

Jake opened the door as a semi went by and rocked the truck on its tires. He got out and held back a grimace as the raw pain of Cancer punched him in the gut. He didn’t think he had much time left. Maybe the end of the day. Maybe tomorrow. He was weak and tired and the pain that stabbed at his stomach constantly made him want to throw up. After today, after getting the boy home, he thought he might just lie down one last time and never get up. He looked over at Camden. “Come out this side, Son.”

Camden scooted across the seat, slid from it and closed the door behind him. They went to the back of the truck. Jake put the tailgate down. 

“Grab those, Camden,” he said and pointed at two folded lawn chairs. “I’ll get the table and the cooler.”

The table was nothing more than a square fold up card table, one that had sat in the basement of the old house on South Street since he, himself, was a young boy. Camden grabbed the two lawn chairs, one in each hand, and Jake grabbed the table. 

“Come,” Jake said and went to the front of the truck, his legs weak, and his insides being gnawed at by a disease only death would cure. He set up the card table, pushing down on it to make sure it wouldn’t topple over. With a nod of satisfaction, he looked to Camden. “Let me have one of those, if you don’t mind.”

Camden dropped one on the ground and unfolded the other. He set it down in front of his grandfather. Jake saw pride in his eyes. He couldn’t help but smile. The young boy set the other chair on the opposite side of the table, and then went back to the truck. A minute later he returned with a beat up red and white IGLOO cooler. He set it on the table. 

“Have a seat, young man,” Jake said, reached into the cooler and pulled out two sodas. He handed one to Camden, set the other on the table, then placed the cooler on the ground beneath it. He picked his soda up and sat down. His legs seemed to sigh in relief, but the biting in his stomach continued. He popped the top and took a long swig, letting the carbonated water both burn and chill his throat on the way down. 

“What are we doing, Grandpa?”

The kid looked at him with the curiosity of any young child, something he gathered most kids had at that age, one he certainly had. “We’re sitting down, having a drink.”

“Is that it?”

Jake gave a small smile. He understood impatience quite well. “We’ll probably talk some, but mostly, we’ll wait.”

“Wait for what?”

Another smile was followed by Jake taking a swallow of his soda. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “You’ll know it when you see it.”

Camden shook his head. There was no smile on his face, but more of a disappointed frown. He picked up his soda, popped the top and drank from it. 

They sat in silence, grandfather and grandson, both in their own world of thoughts, both probably seeing things far differently than the other. Though Jake didn’t know what Camden was thinking, he had a good idea. He, too, had sat on the other side of the card table between them, when he was only eight. His grandfather, known to him as Gramps, had brought him here in his old Ford back in 1952. ‘We’re going for a ride,’ he had said, and that is what they did. They stopped on the side of the road, back before it became I-95. It was just another road back then, and only two lanes at that. There were more woodlands and less traffic. Sitting by the road with a jug of water between young Jake Eberly and Gramps was as boring as watching paint dry. He would have rather done the painting than sit and do nothing. He told Gramps as much. Gramps gave him a nod, placed his yellowing ivory pipe between his lips and puffed on it. Gramps was patient with him then, just as Jake would be patient with Camden now.

GHOSTSLike Gramps before him, Jake stared off across the busy roadway and spoke words he remembered as if he had just heard them. “I reckon this isn’t much fun.”

“No, Sir, it isn’t.”

“It wasn’t much fun when my grandpa brought me here either.”

Camden looked at him with his big hazel eyes. He was his momma’s boy for certain. “Then why are we here?”

“It’s a rite of passage, Cam,” Jake said.

“A rite of passage?”

“Yup.”

“What is that?”

Jake smiled again. It was a good question, one he didn’t think to ask when his time had come to be here. Even so, he knew the answer.

“My grandfather brought me here when I was a kid. His grandfather brought him before that and his grandfather did the same before that.” He took a deep breath. The explanation, he believed, only got harder from here. “A rite of passage is like a point in someone’s life, much like graduating high school or getting married. They’re important moments in life. Like birth. And death. This … this is one of those moments.”
“Sitting by the road drinking pop?”

Jake laughed at this, then took another swallow of his soda. He smacked his lips, said nothing and stared straight ahead. Cars, trucks, an occasional motorcycle and quite a few semis sped by, most of them doing well over eighty. Occasionally, Camden would let out an exasperated huff that Jake ignored.

“Grandpa, can we go?”

“Not yet, Camden.”

“I’m bored.”

“I’m sure you are, but …”

“I want to go,” Camden said firmly. His brows were creased downward, just as his lips were. His eyes held an angry storm in them. He stood and started for the truck. 

“It’s not time to go, yet.”

Camden turned around. His drink was still in one hand, but some of it had sloshed out of the can. “I don’t care, Grandpa. This is dumb. I could be at home, watching tv or playing video games, or I don’t know, doing anything but sitting here bored out of my mind, watching cars go by.”

“Camden, sit back down.”

“No. I want to go home. I thought we were going to do something fun, or just do something. We’re sitting here, doing nothing.”

“We’re slowing down, son,” Jake said. “We’re smelling the roses, so to speak.”

“The only thing I smell is smoke from the trucks going by. If I would have known this is what we were going to do, I wouldn’t have come.”

Jake set his drink on the table. With quite a bit of effort, he stood, even as his insides burned and grumbled. His shoulders slumped. Children weren’t what they were when he was a kid. They were more impatient and intolerant of things. They were less respectful and more argumentative. As he looked at his grandson, Jake realized something he hadn’t before. Maybe it isn’t the kids who are different. Maybe it is the adults who changed. He gave a simple nod. Yes, that’s it, he thought. And he, like so many others, had changed. 

“Okay, Cam …”

Then, as if time knew it was running out, across the road Jake saw what he came to see.

“There,” he all but shouted and pointed.

“What? Where?” Camden asked. “I don’t …”

Then they both grew quiet. The world around Jake Eberly didn’t matter at that moment. The rot in his gut that had grown worse over the last few months was nonexistent. His smile, something that had been forced a lot over the last year or so, was as real as it had ever been. 

“Grandpa …”

“It’s okay, Camden. Just watch.”

And they did.

From out of the woods came a young man. He wore a white button-down shirt and black pants held up by suspenders. His hair was brown, long and pulled back in a neat ponytail. He held one arm up above his head and slightly out in front of him. In his hand was a lit lantern that gave off no light at all. A rag tag processional of people followed, dressed in clothes Jake thought Camden had never seen outside of a movie, and maybe not even then. The women wore long dresses, and most of them had their hair up in some manner of a bun. The few children wore long pants, mostly browns and blacks, and button-down shirts tucked neatly into their waist bands. Some of the men wore long pants and long shirts; some of them carried muskets and wore floppy hats. 

“Grandpa, who are those people?”

“They are who we’ve been waiting on.”

“There’s something wrong with them.”

“What is that?”

“I don’t know, but …” Camden’s voice changed, as did the direction of his words. “Are they going to cross the street?” There was alarm in his words.

“They most certainly are, Camden.”

“But they’ll get hit by a car.” His voice rose with each word. 

“Just watch.”

The ghostly procession neared the interstate. 

“Hey!” Camden yelled. He stood beside the card table and waved one hand frantically, trying to get their attention. “Hey! Stop! Don’t cross the street!” 

The people neither looked left or right before the man with the lantern stepped off the grass and onto the shoulder and then into the road. 

Camden screamed as a semi rumbled by, going through the young man in the lead. Jake looked down at him to see his hands over his eyes and his back turned to the dead coming toward them. 

“It’s okay, Cam,” he said. 

“No! It’s not. That truck just hit that guy and …”

“It didn’t hit him,” Jake interrupted. 

“Yes, it did. I saw it.”

“You saw the truck go through him.”

“It hit him and …” His shoulders shook, and Jake heard the tears in his voice.

“No, Camden. The truck went through him. Cars can’t hit ghosts.”

“Ghosts?” 

“Yes. Ghosts.”

By the time Camden looked back up, the young man leading the parade of dead had made it to the center of I-95. From that distance, Jake could see his face was ashen and his sockets were sunk in. He looked more like a corpse than a ghost. When he looked back at Camden, the young boy’s eyes were wider than he had ever seen them. Jake didn’t think he was scared, but maybe awestruck by what he saw.

“Are they really ghosts?” Camden asked, his voice dreamy, as if he had just awoken from a long nap. 

“Oh yes. They are the ghosts of your ancestors.”

“My ancestors?”

“Your family—all the members of the Eberly clan who have died are right there.”

The young man was now halfway across the lane closest to them. His hair was dark, and his bottom lip hung open. His eyes were distant, as if he didn’t see them. Several vehicles went through him as they went along their way to wherever they were going. The drivers didn’t seem to notice the ghosts as they sped by. 

Jake looked at his grandson. His eyes were still wide, and his mouth worked up and down as if he were trying to say something but couldn’t find the words. He looked like he wanted to run away. The hand holding the soda can shook badly. His breath came in sharp, terrified bursts. His shoulders still shook, and his cheeks were wet from the burst of tears a few seconds earlier.

“It’s okay, Camden. They won’t hurt you.”

“Are you sure?” His voice quivered.

“I’m as sure as you’re standing there right now.”

“Grandpa …”

Jake sidled over next to him, put one arm around him and rested the hand on his shoulder. Camden wrapped both arms around his grandfather’s waist and buried his face in his side.

“No, Camden. Don’t look away. You may never get to see this again, and if you do, it won’t be for a long time.”

He felt the boy’s face shift from in his side to toward the road, but the kid’s arms still latched tight around him. By then, the leader was in front of them. Jake pulled Camden to the side and let the procession of spirits pass by and through the card table. One by one, men, women and children walked by, their eyes forward, never slowing for the last of the Eberly’s and his grandson. 

As the final ghost made his way across the busy interstate, the strings on Jake’s heart gave a tug. With cane in hand, his grandfather made their way toward them. Hanging from his mouth was the old ivory pipe he used to smoke. Jake remembered his mother asking if anyone had seen it after Gramps died. No one had—and no one ever did after the day Jake and Gramps visited the side of the road.

Tears formed in Jake’s eyes as he recalled being here as a kid and not knowing that would be the last time he saw his grandfather alive. The next time Jake saw Gramps, the old man lay in a coffin in the foyer of the church his grandparents attended. If he would have known then what he knew now, he would have hugged his grandfather tighter that last time; he wouldn’t have complained about watching paint dry; he would have made sure to say, ‘I love you,’ even if it wasn’t the cool thing to do. 

“Gramps,” he said as the elder Eberly reached them. Like the others, he didn’t stop. Unlike the others, he turned his head just enough to look at Jake. 

Not much longer, Jake, he whispered. He puffed on the old pipe, nodded and continued through the table and into the trees behind them. 

Jake didn’t know how long he stared into the woods after the dead were gone, but it was Camden who pulled him free of the trance he had been in. 

“Grandpa, are you okay?”

Jake took a deep breath and let it out. His chest shuddered and the pain in his stomach had come back. He fought the urge to double over and grab his midsection. He nodded and said, “Yes, Camden, I’m okay.”

“You’re crying.”

Jake wiped his eyes and then his nose. “Sometimes it’s okay for a man to cry.”

“Like now?”

“Yes, like now.”

He took one last glance at the trees. The remnants of the dead were gone, but he knew that wouldn’t be the case forever. They would be back. And so would he, most likely on the other side of the road. He rubbed Camden’s head. “Let’s get you home,” he said. 

Camden grabbed the cooler and made his way to the back of the vehicle. Jake reached down for the soda he had been drinking. The can held icicles all around it. He picked it up, felt the freezing cold on his fingertips. He squeezed the can. It was hard like ice. He set the can on the ground by the road and folded up the card table. By the time he was finished, Camden was back and closing the chairs. 

With everything in the bed of the truck, they got in, both doing so from the driver’s side. Jake turned the key and the motor rolled over, caught and rumbled to life. He put it in gear, looked in the side mirror and eased onto the interstate. He glanced in the rearview mirror at the can he had left behind. It didn’t matter that it would be gone when he came back. Like all the grandfathers before him, he left a little piece of himself behind, a little piece of familiarity so when Camden came to watch the parade of ghosts in the later stages of his life, he would remember the day he came here as a young child. 

Jake Eberly took the first exit, circled back across the overpass and entered the interstate going in the opposite direction they had come. He didn’t look to the side of the road when they passed. With a tearing pain in his gut, he drove, hoping he would get the boy home before the pain grew too intense. 

“Grandpa?”

“Yes, Camden?”

“Was that your grandfather—the one who spoke to you?”

Jake licked his lips, nodded and said, “It was my Gramps.”

“What did he mean by not much longer?”

Jake let out a long breath. “You’ll understand soon enough. Let’s just leave it at that, okay?”

Camden didn’t respond. He just turned his attention to the world passing outside the truck. 

At Camden’s house, he let the young boy out and talked with his mother for a minute or two. They exchanged their goodbyes. When he started to get into the truck, Camden went to him. He put his arms around Jake’s midsection and squeezed. It was everything Jake could do not to grimace and let out a groan from the pain. 

“I love you, Grandpa.”

“I love you, too, Camden.”

The boy held on for a few more seconds, then let him go. When he looked down at Camden, there were tears in his eyes. 

“It will be all right, Camden,” Jake said and patted him on the shoulder. 

“I’ll come see you.” He wiped his eyes. “I’ll come see you.”

“I know you will,” Jake said, and then his grandson, with Eberly blood running through his veins, but not carrying the same name, stepped back. 

Jake got in the truck and smiled. A minute later he drove off. In the rearview mirror he saw the boy waving. He stuck his hand out the window and returned the wave. The boy held his soda can in the other hand.

(Rite of Passage appears in the mammoth collection, Beautiful Minds, which you can find HERE.)