by Jay Wilburn
Excerpt teaser from The Great Interruption Book 1: Leap Year
Chapter One: Reprocessing
“I had seizures when I was a kid, but it has been years. I thought maybe I was having one when everything changed around me. My …”
Katie stopped herself.
She thought, My God, I nearly told him I had a sister. It’s been too long since I’ve talked to anyone. I’m no good at this. Just stick to the story. You practiced this.
The uniformed man across the table didn’t seem to notice and didn’t look up from the binder. “I’ll need you to answer my questions with the truth … in just a moment.”
The soldier opened the binder on a folding table that had a plastic top which wavered along its surface warped and uneven. The edge of the table had bubbled up on one end from weathering as if it were slowly melting.
Katie sat in a folding chair sick with rust over its seat and legs. She knew it stained the back of her pants, but she didn’t care enough about the clothes to concern herself with the problem. She missed the leathers she had worn much of her life, but she had to ditch that gear to avoid discovery in this camp of “returns.”
She looked up at the inside of the tent as the soldier turned pages that looked and sounded wet. Something about the tent bothered Katie, but she couldn’t place it. The tent had been white before the abstract art of mold spread in point patterns over its interior surface. Mold didn’t concern Katie. If such things would kill her, she would have been dead long ago. The top edge of the tent ruffled into scallops in a way that encouraged pockets of mold, but also intended some sort of flourished feel that Katie didn’t understand. The mixed army unit in the camp had cut rough, wooden poles to hold up the interrogation tent. The metal ones had clearly not survived the years in between the vanishing and the return.
Katie thought. It was used for weddings. This was a reception tent in the world before the end. When was the last wedding on the Earth? Will these strangers start having them again in the ruins? I think I hate these people.
Katie coughed hard with a wet gurgle from her lungs that threatened to choke her. She had not caught a cold in years and didn’t know what this illness meant. Once she finished her hacking, she swallowed it back down instead of spitting on the damp, canvas floor of the soldiers’ wedding tent.
She lifted her head and saw the soldier staring at her. He sat still holding a page of his binder suspended in a three-quarters flip.
The cough concerns him too. That’s why he asked about a history of health problems. I’m in trouble. I’m twenty-six years old unless I really lost count. It has been a long time since I was in trouble with someone else. I hate these people for coming back. They don’t deserve to be here in my world.
Katie saw the stripes on the shoulders of his uniform. He had pins on his chest. She assumed he ranked as some sort of officer, but Katie didn’t know the meanings of the markings except that they meant she had trouble ahead of her. His uniform looked like a photograph from days gone by. When it happened to him, he must have been wearing the uniform.
He probably didn’t use to walk around all day wearing his pins.
The officer finally finished flipping his page. Katie saw the charts and pencil marks on the paper. Nothing in the camp looked printed from computers. She wondered if anyone still had a computer or the power to run one.
She heard the crackle in her lungs as she breathed. Katie fought the urge to cough, but it escaped her in a tirade of hacks anyway. Bringing up her elbow she spewed mucus into the crook of her arm. She lowered it without wiping it away as the soldier stared at her.
It’s not nice to stare. It makes me want to jab your eyes out, officer.
The soldier noted. “That’s a nasty cough you have there. We don’t have any antibiotics yet. Did you have it before the Interruption?”
What a stupid name for what happened. You have no idea.
“No,” Katie coughed again, “I got caught wet and underdressed out in the cold. It did a number on my immune system.”
The officer looked her up and down.
What exactly are you imagining? You got an active mind, jerk?
“I don’t think that’s how colds are caught actually, ma’am.”
My eyes are up here, Officer Friendly.
“It is how pneumonia is caught sometimes.”
The soldier folded his hands. “Do you have pneumonia?”
“I have no idea. Do you have an x-ray handy?”
The officer shook his head. He flipped the moist pages again.
“What did you say your name was?”
Not what is your name … what did you SAY it was. Clever.
Katie said. “My name is Holly Goodman.”
The officer glanced up at her and back down at the binder. “Where was it you had been during the Interruption?”
Katie coughed again. “I don’t know what happened. The world changed around me in an instant. The … it vanished. I was standing in a normal world and then just ruins.”
The officer sucked at his bottom lip and nodded. “Tell me your story … I’m sorry your name again?”
Katie bit the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling at his ploy.
Keep it together, Katie.
“Holly … Goodman.”
“What’s your middle name?”
“Holly is my middle name. It’s what I go by. Lauren is my first name.”
“When were you born?”
The officer cleared his throat. “What year, Holly?”
Katie gave a year that was thirteen years earlier than the truth. The officer scratched out in the margin of one of his papers.
He looked up at her.
“You’re twenty-eight, then?”
Katie said, “Twenty-six, sir.”
The officer wrote some more and shook his head. “I get twenty-eight.”
Did I screw up the math? This is a ploy. This is one of their tricks to catch me in a lie. I’m telling a lot of them. My mother would be very disappointed for lots of reasons.
“I’m twenty-six. Do we count the years in between? I don’t even know how old I’m supposed to be if that’s true.”
The officer shook his head. “Twenty-six sounds good, Holly Goodwin.”
“Goodman … Holly Goodman.”
“Twenty-six is late for college, isn’t it?”
“How far were you from finishing?”
“Very far. I was scheduled to meet with my advisor once the new semester started. I guess that is off.”
He looked down and flipped a couple damp pages back into the binder. “Tell me your story, Holly … from before and after.”
Katie cleared her throat, but had another fit of coughing. She cleared her throat twice more.
“I was working at a camp – a Christian camp for girls. I was a counselor. I was in the shower by myself. Then, there was no water or light … the roof was off the showers. There were plants growing through the floor. I was standing naked, wet, and cold. My clothes were on the hook one minute. Then, they were gone along with everyone else. I walked outside shivering and the cabins were like … rotten and collapsed. It took me most of the day to find something to wear and even then it was a robe and a pair of old pants full of holes.”
Katie paused to cough before she continued. “I haven’t been able to shake this crud since, sir.”
“What date did you vanish, Molly?”
“Holly … It was March fifteenth.”
“That’s a bit early for a summer camp.”
“It wasn’t a summer camp. It was a weekend camp.”
“What did you do during the week?”
“Maintained the camp. Handled a few adult, religious conferences at the camp.”
“Camp Conwright Methodist Retreat Center.”
“You’re Methodist, Holly?”
“Your parents are Methodists?”
“What did you say Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin’s names were?”
Katie coughed again.
I didn’t say.
“Goodman … Daniel and Connie … my father passed away a few years ago from a heart attack. It was just me and my mom. I guess it was a lot of years ago now.”
“Where is your mother?”
“I don’t know. We lived at 301 Cooper Lane in Anders Cove. I was trying to get there. Can you help me find her? Please.”
The officer flipped through his binder. “That area is off limits. We’ll send patrols through soon. She may not have been there during her vanishing. I’m sorry, Holly.”
“Do you know if she came back? Her name is Connie Alice Goodman. Her maiden name was Johnson.”
The officer shook his head. “Our records are scant. We’ll have to deal with that later. Why were you at the camp in March, Holly?”
“I was between semesters. It is a camp I went to as a kid and they let me make money on short notice during the year.”
“Have you had any delusions or visions in your time wandering around?”
“No, assuming you are real, of course.”
The officer glanced back down at the binder without smiling.
“Any seizures or … fits, Katie?”
Did he call me, Katie?
She saw him staring at her.
She shook her head. “Holly … no, not since I was a kid. Like I said.”
“What songs did you like as a kid?”
“Happy Birthday … Jingle Bells …”
The officer looked back up and did smile. “No, I mean pop songs.”
Katie stared back for a moment.
Oh, that is a good gotcha. I didn’t think about that at all. I don’t even know how to look it up. I don’t remember when songs came out anymore. These guys are more clever than I thought.
“It’s been a long time. I don’t remember.”
“It has been a long time, Holly. You’ve been out there on your own for a long time haven’t you?”
“I wandered since I returned. I ran into a few other people over the last few weeks. Some of them were very dangerous.”
“Did you meet any ‘lingerers,’ Holly? Do you know what I mean by that?”
“I do,” Katie looked down. “I don’t know how to tell the difference. It was a long while before I realized I was a … an ‘early bird.’ People don’t talk much on the road to strangers.”
“That cough concerns me, Holly.”
Katie stared at him. “I hope antibiotics get here soon.”
The officer licked his lips. “Lingerers have lost their immunities to common diseases. If you have something to confess about where you were during the Interruption, it may be important to your survival.”
“I’m not a lingerer.”
The officer squinted and tilted his head. “I didn’t say you were, Holly. Why did you say that?”
“I thought that’s what you were getting at. Maybe I misunderstood your meaning.”
The officer reached down into a tub by his feet. He took out a black, worn knife and set it on the table in front of her.
I’m in trouble, I think.
“Is this your knife, Holly?”
“I found it in a skull in a convenience store out on the road. I took it to protect myself.”
The officer spoke more loudly. “I asked if it was yours.”
“No,” Katie said. “I found it left in the body of a man that was killed by it and turned into a skeleton.”
“Someone just left it … for you to find?”
“There were other bodies. They looked like animals got to them at some point. Bones were scattered. I don’t know the knife’s story. I just took it.”
“It looks old … well maintained … but old.”
“I don’t know anything about knives. It just made me feel safe to carry it.”
The officer reached down into the tub by his feet where he had lifted the knife. He pulled out a blue sweater and set it on the bubbled table.
I’m in big trouble.
Katie looked up from the table, but did not speak.
“The tag inside this sweater says Katie. Do you have an explanation for that?”
Yeah, Katie was stupid to come here and think she could do this.
Katie shrugged. “It belonged to a girl named Katie?”
The officer stared in silence for several seconds. Katie held eye contact until she began coughing. The officer pushed the sweater across the table next to the knife in front of Katie. It looked like it had just come out of her closet.
“Does this sweater belong to you?”
“You are sure, Katie? Take a closer look. It has been a long time.”
“My name is Holly.”
“So you say … so you say … Do you want to try it on? See if it feels familiar?”
“It doesn’t look like it would fit me otherwise I would gladly take it. I’ve been stealing other people’s clothes for weeks.”
“Or longer … Do you think it would fit you thirteen years ago?”
Katie shook her head. “If what I’ve picked up from the outside is right, I was still twenty-six … thirteen years ago too. Right?”
“You tell me, Katie.”
The officer leaned back in his chair until it creaked. “We have someone that thinks he might know you. He thinks he knows the history of this knife. He wants to talk to you.”
I’m going to die here.
Chapter 2: Processing
Katie felt sad on her thirteenth birthday. She found reasons to feel sad all day. In the morning, she still held onto sadness from earlier in the week. Her friend Holly from camp had pretended to not know her at school. Katie confronted her because that’s what her mother suggested. Holly had yelled and embarrassed her in the cafeteria. Other girls had canceled on Katie’s party. Katie’s mom offered to call their parents, but Katie yelled at her until Katie’s father threatened to spank her even though she was about to turn thirteen.
She played putt putt golf with her family like she was five. Her brothers had been nice to her. It reminded her of how sad she felt. Her baby sister had no idea. Grace ate ice cream until she threw up.
Her parents took a break from fawning on Katie to deal with Grace.
“Should we check Gracie’s temperature?”
“She’s sick from the ice cream. I’m sure we’re fine, Elizabeth.”
“She had a seizure twice right after throwing up, Spencer. Remember?”
“Yeah, I remember. The last time was six … seven months ago. She’s been off the meds three months and she has thrown up since then. No problems.”
“She has the same shadow as Katie.”
“Katie has been fine for years too.”
I don’t feel fine.
Grace cried and Katie wiped away tears of her own.
Her older brother Mack threw the game. He was two years older than Katie and a foot taller. Katie still lost, but then he fixed the score to let her win.
Cody shouted. “I didn’t make a six on that hole. You’re cheating, Mack.”
Cody was seven, but almost as tall as Katie already.
Mack elbowed Cody. “Be cool, dummy. Remember what mom and dad said.”
In the car on the way home, mom sat in the back by Grace’s booster seat rubbing her stomach. Grace was three, but not big enough to sit in the regular seatbelt. Katie sat up front with her dad.
At a red light, Cody sounded out and read an advertisement for helicopter rides.
He leaned up between mom and Grace from the seat behind them in the van. “Can we do that, Dad?”
Mr. Gathers answered. “Oh, sure, once I am dead and my ghost is finished haunting you.”
Cody snorted and sat back against the seat. “Har, har, will that be soon?”
Mack added. “Katie rode in a helicopter when she was younger than Grace.”
“No fair,” Cody whined.
Their mom whispered. “You’re not helping.”
Katie’s dad looked at the others in the rearview mirror. “I can’t believe you remember that, Mack.”
He shrugged looking out the window at the sky. “Mom was crying. It was loud … the helicopter, not her crying.”
Cody asked. “You cried because it was scary?”
“Yes, it wasn’t for fun.” Mrs. Gathers said. “Katie was very sick and they had to get her to a different hospital that could stop the … that could make her better. I had to watch her fly away.”
Cody muttered. “Still think it would be cool.”
Katie bowed her head and rubbed at the headache between her temples.
I’ve been fine for years. I still have the family shadow deep in my brain where I feel sad all the time.
She felt sad in the evening because her dad didn’t make the joke she hated. She almost cried when he said it when she turned twelve. It hurt her feelings when he kept saying she was only three. Her mother elbowed Katie’s father hard in the ribs to make him stop that day a year earlier.
He didn’t make the joke on her thirteenth birthday and it made her sad. She would have been sadder had she known he would never make the joke again.
Katie was born on February 29th on a leap year. She had three real birthdays by the time she turned twelve. All other years she celebrated on March first like they did on her thirteenth birthday with no friends.
He didn’t make the joke.
She opened presents from the family. Most of it was clothes and trinkets. Katie felt three even if her dad refrained from making the jokes. One of the gifts was a light blue sweater that Katie’s mom had obviously knit herself. Her name, Katie, was stitched into a fake tag her mom had sewn into the collar. On the other side, it declared that the sweater had been stitched with love.
Katie stared at it for a long moment. She looked up at her mom and gave a fake smile. Katie held the knitting to her nose and smelled a mix of her mom’s lotion and perfume. Katie tied it around her neck instead of putting it on properly.
Grace asked Katie to brush her hair. It was something her little sister loved since she was less than one and couldn’t talk. Katie had become the official brusher in Grace’s eyes.
Katie shook her head. “Not right now, Gracie. Katie doesn’t feel well.”
Her sister squeezed her eyes shut and held her stomach. “Gracie doesn’t feel good neither.”
I hope you don’t have to go back on the medicine. It makes you tired and slow. I remember too. It is like sinking in the ocean and drowning.
“But you are watching everyone around you breathing just fine.”
Grace looked up with her face twisted. “What, Katie, what?”
“Nothing, Gracie. You’ll feel better in the morning and I’ll be there to brush your hair.”
Katie excused herself and went upstairs to bed early. She cried into her pillow in the dark before Grace was laid down for the night. Katie’s head hurt by the time she cried herself to sleep.
She felt confused when she woke up to her mother screaming.
It’s happening again. Why is mom screaming?
Katie tripped over her furniture on the way to the door. Something crashed to the floor. Her feet tangled in clothes and she stumbled into the door. Lights came on and shown around the edges of her door. Her mother continued screaming. Katie opened her door and saw the sleeves of her new, blue sweater wrapped around her ankles. She kicked it away and ran down the hall.
Katie found everyone in Grace’s room. Her dad held mom into his chest where she screamed and clawed. Mack stood in the middle of the room staring at the remains of Grace’s bed.
Katie stood in the doorway. “What’s wrong? What’s going on?”
No one answered.
Grace’s bed lay stripped down. Her Minnie Mouse clock still sat on the nightstand beside her pink lamp and a picture book missing most of its spine. The headboard was there lined with undisturbed, plastic princesses all in a row. The bed itself was just the frame and the box spring. The mattress and sheets were missing. Grace was missing. Her pink robe lay cast aside in a pile on the floor by her parents’ feet.
Katie screamed over her mother’s cries. “What’s going on? Where is Gracie?”
Katie’s dad growled. “We don’t know. We don’t know.”
Mack added. “Mom woke up and found the room like this.”
Katie covered her mouth, but moved her hand aside again. “Have you looked through the rest of the house?”
No one answered.
Mack threw his hands out. “I don’t know.”
Katie stepped back out into the hall. She looked down at Cody’s closed door. She looked back at her parents and older brother. Katie ran and opened Cody’s door. The seven-year-old curled in a ball in the center of his bed in the dark wrapped in his sheet and comforter printed with a giant platypus.
Katie crawled across the floor and looked under the bed. It was a standard hiding place for Grace. Katie saw trucks parked and wrecked, but no three-year-old girl. Katie checked Cody’s closet. She moved the debris of toys around, but found no one in the closet.
Katie walked back to the door to the hall and squeaked as she looked into her mother’s reddened eyes staring at her.
Her mother stammered. “No, no, not Cody too. Where are they?”
Katie pulled her younger brother’s door closed behind her. “He’s fine. He’s still sleeping. Grace isn’t in there. We need to search the rest of the house.”
Katie’s mom turned around. “Yes, Spencer, Mack, we need to search the house now. We have to look everywhere. Oh, God, what if she’s hurt. What if they hurt her? Oh, God.”
Mack called back as he ran down the stairs. “Who do you think has her? She’s probably just hiding, mom. Calm down, please.”
Mom shook her head as she shivered.
What the hell is wrong with you, mom?
Their dad shouted as he followed Mack down. “Elizabeth, we’ll find her, I promise … Shut up and look, boy. Don’t talk to your mother like that. Especially not now.”
Their mom whispered. “Her mattress is gone. She couldn’t carry her own mattress. What the hell happened? Why is her mattress gone?”
The boys were already out of sight downstairs. Her mom turned and looked at Katie. The woman’s hands were shaking in front of her.
“Katie, where is her mattress? What happened to Gracie?”
Katie stared at her mother suddenly weakened and broken.
Stitched with love …
“Mom, I don’t know. I’m going downstairs to look.”
Katie slid around her mother’s outstretched arms and ran down the stairs.
Katie looked under and behind things. She checked the same places more than once. Their dad searched through the basement with a flashlight yelling for Grace. Things crashed and broke down there. Katie worried that her dad fought an intruder, but he continued calling for Grace. Mack took to the yard and yelled for Grace all around the outside of the house. Their dad went out with the flashlight and joined him yelling. The neighbors came out and started shouting too.
Eventually, dad came back in and called the police. When they arrived, the blue and red lights hurt Katie’s head and made her feel like Grace really had disappeared. The unreal feeling reminded her of coming back around after one of her fits from the shadow in her brain she shared with Gracie.
Used to share … share … used to share … shared … this isn’t really happening.
The neighbors stood around outside watching the house. The pair of officer’s interviewed her parents. They asked the same questions more than once in different ways. Katie sat on the stairs as the adults spoke and sometimes whispered. Her mom covered her face and cried while dad answered most of the questions. Katie sat and stared into the flashing lights outside and along the inside of the dark walls of the house. She did not process the words as they continued to talk and talk and talk.
Others came in and went past Katie on the stairs carrying suitcases and other equipment. They went into Grace’s room. Katie saw more flashing light in white along the wall of the hallway outside her sister’s room.
She was still looking when her mother’s voice barked out and startled her. “Katie … Katie … grab the newest pictures of Grace off the wall for the officers. Hurry.”
Katie ran up the stairs. Pictures covered every part of both walls of the stairs with just inches between the frames. Katie skipped over the ones of her holding Grace as a baby. She passed her parents’ wedding photo where they looked young, their haircuts were wrong, and the colors were muted. She skipped the photos before Grace’s haircut. Katie lifted all the three-year-old age pictures that looked like Grace when they laid her down for the night sick from ice cream. The wall behind had discolored rectangles where each of the missing pictures of the missing girl had been. As she took the pile of frames clicking together with each step down the stairs, Katie wiped her eyes with her hand.
I should have just brushed her hair one more time.
Katie handed the frames to one of the officers. He took them carefully in his big hands. Katie stared down at the red and blue light flashing off his shiny, black shoes.
His voice came out above the back of her head rough and rumbling. It reminded her of her dad’s voice after he had the flu last Christmas and couldn’t shake the cough. It seemed more like a voice for shouting down criminals with his gun drawn than a voice for comforting thirteen-year-old girls
Or three-year-olds if they were just counting leap years …
“We will do everything we can to help your sister.”
He didn’t say he would bring her back or that she was okay. He didn’t say either of those things.
Katie nodded without looking up or without saying thank you. She walked back to the stairs and sat. The others came back downstairs and left out the front door without a word. The first officer left with Grace’s pictures.
Her dad asked. “Did you get fingerprints?”
“We got what we could, sir. Eventually, we’ll need to get prints of the family members to eliminate the errant prints. That will all be later. We’ll be in touch soon.”
Katie felt sad as she sat up through the night worrying about her sister. Their mom stayed in bed during the day. Cody slept through it all and played like normal the next day. Her dad and Mack wandered around the house like they couldn’t figure out what to do. Everyone stayed home from work and school, but didn’t do much. Their dad took a lot of phone calls and kept stepping outside.
Katie took down her own birthday decorations. She moved her presents up to her room and threw out what was left of her cake instead of saving it. Later, she found Grace’s brush by the couch and sat holding it and crying for a long time.
It would be about a week later after Katie went back to school that the police came back and took her dad away. Katie’s mom stayed in bed for days afterward and Mack tried his best to handle the cooking with Katie’s help.
The kids at school and the adults in town whispered and gossiped about what Spencer Gathers did to that poor, little girl. She ate alone in the cafeteria as Holly Baker led the whispering and pointing. Katie worked hard not to cry in front of them. Her friend Tracy sat beside Holly giggling behind her hand about Katie’s dad being in jail and Katie’s sister being dead and buried in the woods somewhere.
This nonsense continued until the bus accident that killed all those kids.
Katie held her forehead and leaned against the wall shivering. The unreal feeling hung on her even though she was moving again. She looked down at jackets and shirts cast aside on the sidewalk and in the gutters along the street. She considered checking for something dry to add another layer against the chill, but it felt too much like stealing from the dead.
Katie slid her fingers down to her chin over her gums just under her teeth. Pain racked back through her jaw. The gums hurt, the teeth hurt, and her chin hurt. She dropped her hand and felt around inside her lip with her tongue. The skin and gums felt inflamed from her pressing on them.
This will hurt forever and I can’t find a dentist.
She laughed out loud in one sharp hiccup of sound. In her ears, it reminded her more of a sob than a laugh. She covered her mouth to keep it from happening again and the pain returned to her chin and mouth until she removed her hand from her face.
Her head felt thick and soupy. The shadow was back in action.
I can’t do this alone. I just can’t.
She turned to walk up the sidewalk. The hilt poked at her ribs. She reached down and moved the sheath with the black knife back to her hip along her belt. The canvas sheath was not the one that came with the blade. That sheath had evaporated along with the problems that came with it. Her hip hurt, so she slid it back again.
She looked down at the knife and thought about stealing from the dead.
The cars sat abandoned and silent. They weren’t crashed. They remained parked and unmoved by the former owners. Some of the doors to the cars and buildings sat open, but most just sat empty and forgotten.
Katie stood in front of the door to the food mart. The door did not react to her standing on the sensor. The hanging sign read open, but the door did not respond and the lights sat dark inside.
Katie began to sniffle. “I don’t know what to do.”
No one answered and her voice sounded muffled in her ears in the empty world.
“Only crazy people talk to themselves, you know.”
Can the power be flipped back on to the town with a switch somewhere? Is there anyone left that would know how?
Katie reached out and grabbed the handle to the door. It hissed and resisted, but it opened as she pulled. The market was not as large as a full, grocery store. Katie covered her nose. She could already smell meat rotting in the coolers through the hoods and closed doors.
“The world is going to stink soon.”
At least there are no bodies … well, not many bodies, anyway.
Katie picked up a plastic basket and looped it over her arm. The vegetables were wilting in the bins. She stayed away from the coolers entirely. She could see ice cream dripping in the dark lockers. She stuck out her tongue and walked down the can aisle. As she pulled items from the shelves, the basket got heavy quickly.
This is a lot better than the convenience store … in a lot of ways.
She held the hilt of the knife and rubbed it between her fingers. After a few moments, she released it and moved along around an end cap of gourmet coffee beans.
She went up another aisle and got a jar of pickles. She opened it and fished out a spear from the greenish vinegar. She took a bite and made a face. In that moment, Katie realized that she was used to eating them cold from the refrigerator at home. She looked around and shrugged. Katie set the jar down in the center of the floor and dropped the bitten pickle down next to it. The lid slid out of her hand and rolled up under one of the shelves.
Katie lifted her heavy basket and stared at the open jar by her feet. She felt tempted to kick it just to see what might happen.
You’ll get glass in your foot. You’ll get tetanus and die with lockjaw because all the doctors are gone and the hospitals are empty … except for the people in lockers down in the basement. You can crawl down there with your gangrenous foot and close yourself in one at the last moment.
“Alone with my shadow.”
Katie shivered and walked carefully around the jar. She stopped and set her basket down. She turned around and tossed the bitten pickle under the shelf. She felt around under the shelf for the lid. Katie closed the jar and set it back up on the shelf.
She took the basket and walked out through the cashier stations. Katie lifted a pack of gum and dropped it into the basket with the cans. She stared at the other candy and thought about sweeping it all into her heavy basket.
“I can come back for it any time.”
Just hold your breath once that meat rots for a few more days.
She stared at the shelves around the store. “Why did you still have food when so many others were out?”
The empty building gave her no answer.
She walked to the door and stopped by the shelf of sugar and pie crusts. She reached in her basket and felt the smooth tops of the cans.
“Are you going to tear the tops off with your bare hands?”
She imagined the metal piercing her hand and locking her jaw again. She shook her head and walked back into the store.
Get it together, Katie. You are on your own. Keep your head on straight and think like … a survivor.
“I’m still only thirteen.”
She stood and squinted at the signs along the dark ceiling. Her vision was fine, but she still felt like she was staring through water.
“Can openers … nonfood aisles. Think. Find it, Katie, unless you want to search empty houses for one.”
She turned up the drug aisle. Before she left, she grabbed aspirin, pads, and shampoo. She broke open a package of soap and dropped one loose bar into the spot between a can of baked beans and can of steak and potato soup.
She walked up onto the baby aisle. She looked at the bottles and jars. She turned and looked at the babies on the boxes of diapers. Her face screwed up for just a second, but she breathed deeply and drew the emotion back into herself.
You can cry when you get somewhere safe and warm again … whenever that is.
“Not while you are looking for a can opener.”
She looked away from the toddling babies.
They thought daddy killed you and escaped. I wish he had been with us. It was all harder without him.
She skipped two more food aisles and then the paper towels and pet food. The last aisle consisted of pots, pans, and utensils. She walked down looking past kitchen tools she either did not understand or did not need. She stopped at can openers.
She set the basket down at her feet.
Katie considered a small, wiry opener. It was old school and simple. She picked up another with soft, black and red rubber over the handles. Easy Glyde printed along the underside. She opened and closed the handles attached to the package. She thought about testing it out on a can.
I can pick anything I want. I can come back and pick again, if I don’t like what I pick first. I have the world to myself and all the time I need with no responsibility. I can pick any empty house I want to live in too. I can pick a mansion and pretend to be rich.
She snapped the Easy Glyde can opener loose from the plastic binds and cardboard backing. She cast the packaging aside on the shelf and stared at the opener.
“I want to go home.”
Katie tried to remember how many miles they had traveled before the incident on the road. She thought about the miles she added after she found herself alone.
She wiped her eyes.
Do you want to go back to that empty house? Would you feel better scavenging the grocery stores you recognize near your family’s empty house in the empty town of Garnett? I don’t know yet.
“You remember what shape they were in when you left.”
I don’t actually. Other people were still taking care of me then.
She turned to drop the opener into the basket and froze. The women stood blocking the mouth of the aisle staring at Katie silently like an apparition. The old woman’s pale skin nearly glowed in the darkness. The woman’s eyes ringed red in a way that scared Katie and made her think about the night Grace vanished. The stranger’s mouth hung open and her arms were loaded down with wilted vegetables.
Katie’s hand dropped down to the hilt of the knife without her realizing it. “Hello, my name is─”
The woman bolted out of sight dropping spoiled carrots as she ran. Katie clipped off her greeting in shock. She stood in the utensil aisle for several minutes.
Finally, she picked up her basket and walked to the front of the store. The door hissed and resisted as she pushed. Katie jumped at every shadow, but saw no one as she went.
She stayed in a house on the main road and slept on the couch after a cold meal of steak and potato soup. Katie found matches and kept them, but felt afraid to start a fire or to try to cook over it that evening. She made a vow to herself to try soon.
She woke up several times seeing a pale, old woman standing over her with ringed eyes. Katie grabbed at her knife and the ghost evaporated as she fully awoke.
Katie bundled in clothes the next day from sweatshirts, jackets, and a hat in the closets of her borrowed house. She filled up a backpack that had Kevin printed on the label. Katie packed it with cans from the food mart and supplies from the house.
She hiked with the heavy load while the sun still rose. Katie did not think about it too much, but as she left the town and fled her ghost with the vegetables, she walked in the opposite direction of Garrett and her former life.
Katie adjusted the strap on her crossbow and followed the tracks down through the field. She lost them near the next cluster of trees and started to backtrack.
She stopped once she saw the shape of the cabins. As she traced the shapes with her eyes, she thought about a man crucified against a tree and shook her head to erase the image.
You’re twenty-six and one month. That’s six leap years. It’s time to let go of a few ghosts, girl.
“It would help if you stopped making new ones.”
She walked up between the buildings and saw that they had been abandoned and overgrown for some years.
Probably all the years.
She found a sign and stared for a long while.
She read it out loud like an incantation for summoning spirits from the past. “Camp Conwright Methodist Retreat Center.”
After a pause, she added. “I’ll be damned.”
Katie tried to find her old cabin for a few minutes, but gave up on it after looking at several overgrown bunkhouses that all looked the same to her.
“All those girls are over a decade dead now … and they were bitches while they were alive.”
Katie heard brush crunching under foot in the woods behind her beyond the ruins of the camp. She unshouldered her crossbow and set a bolt as she crouched on the ground. As the noise continued, she hustled up to the dining hall and rested her elbow on the grey, weathered railing. She aimed out across at the approaching shadow.
The shadow became shadows. Then, the shadows looked wrong. Katie dropped down into the grass and continued to aim. A man in a business suit caked in mud and twigs emerged and looked at the cabins. A pair of sunglasses sat up on his head resting on his slicked back hair.
Katie tilted her head and stared.
What the hell?
He whistled and several others walked out of the woods. There were women and children. There was a tall boy wearing silver pants and a mesh shirt. He pulled a puffy coat closed over his exposed chest. The man in the suit took out a crisp, cigarette pack. He shook one out and lit it up with a silver, flip lighter.
“I did summon ghosts.”
The suited man blew smoke into the air. “Let’s search for any food, weapons, or other supplies. Stay together. Watch out for animals. We don’t want to stir up another bear, folks.”
“Or a lion,” one of the women shouted.
Katie shivered against the ground.
The man took his cigarette away from his lips and spoke with uneven smoke puffing out with each word. “Keep it quiet and just do what I say.”
They spread out from the woods. The children tried to run, but the women held them back as they walked together.
Katie crawled backward around the dining hall. She stood and ran to the edge of one of the bunkhouses. She peered around and saw the anachronistic group wander through the ruins. A few walked up into the dining hall as the boards creaked and threatened to snap under their weight.
Katie ran behind the building further into the camp. The boy in the mesh shirt walked out in front of her around the rows of cabins looking the other way. He poked at an IPod with wires from earbuds dangling against his oversized coat. She stared confused for a second.
She rolled back and sidled into the open doorway to the showers. She slipped around the corner through the dressing room. There was only one shower since it was a girl’s camp back during the world of people. She could see the boy through the gaps in the boards. She slid into the dark room with the corroded, shower nozzles. Part of the roof had fallen through and weeds grew up through the cracks in the poured foundation.
Katie looked up in the darkness and saw the body spin slowly on the noose suspended by the sagging, support beam. She gasped and then bit down on the noise. The girl’s eyes bulged in her sockets and shown milked over as she stared down from a twisted angle. Her throat swelled around the rope black and purple. She wore a pair of jeans full of holes and had no shoes. Bright pink polish adorned her toenails. The dead girl wore a threadbare robe with no belt. It hung open showing the sides of her pale breasts. Her blond hair hung down over her back and her broken neck.
Katie looked away. “You haven’t been hanging there twelve-and-a-half years. What the hell is going on here?”
She heard footsteps out on the stoop of the showers and she stopped talked to herself. Two people walked into the dressing room whispering. Katie knelt down by the opening and aimed her arrow at the empty space. The rope creaked as the body twisted in the air. Katie looked up at the dead girl and placed a finger over her own lips. She dropped her hand back down to the trigger of the crossbow.
“What’s that noise?”
Another girl’s voice said, “Nothing. This place is abandoned.”
“Jesus, this is creepy. There is nothing we need in a moldy, dark shower. Let’s get out of here.”
They walked back out over the stoop. Katie stayed ready by the door of the shower with the swinging, dead girl for another hour waiting for the strange group of travelers to depart.
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He has a Masters Degree in education and he taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of many short stories including work in Best Horror of the Year volume 5, Zombies More Recent Dead, Shadows Over Mainstreet, and Truth or Dare. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer. He also wrote the novels Loose Ends and Time Eaters. He is one of the four authors behind the Hellmouth trilogy. He cowrote The Enemy Held Near with Armand Rosamilia. Jay Wilburn is a regular columnist with Dark Moon Digest. Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Periscope as @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at JayWilburn.com