Well, I told you all I'd let you know how my submission for Severed Press' upcoming anthology Zombie Zoology would go--it seems it didn't. They, for whatever untold reason, decided to pass on it. I'm pretty bummed out about it, but life goes on and that means you get to read my story sooner...
Closing time. The sun beats against the windows as dusk staggers to its feet, declaring the death of yet another sticky-sweet summer day. Everyone has left for the day, except for Carter. Carter hangs the “closed” sign in the window, and grabs the vacuum cleaner. He flips it on and the noise drives the animals bonkers. The dogs claw at their cages, barking and yelping. The cats scurry away. The lonely rabbit remains steadfast but his eyes are wide and heartbeat rapid. Carter rounds the reception desk and snags a dum-dum pop from the candy bowl next to the sign-in book.
Having finished cleaning up the place Carter washes his hands and fishes out his dum-dum pop. He unwraps it and plants it into his mouth. Carter’s beard is so overgrown that tendrils of hair continually find their way into his mouth. He hates it but refuses to shave or even clean it up till he has to, and the last time he checked the mail he didn’t notice any weddings coming up, so what was the point? He resembled an animal, and he preferred it that way. He cleaned up well but didn’t do it often enough to leave an impression. As he twirled the pop in his mouth, hair from his face twirled with it.
Carter walked over to the dog cages. He ran his fingers along the tops of the cages, and the dogs howled with excitement. Each bark was as distinct as the beast that made it. Carter considered the dogs his children, and if he had had the room and the money he would have taken them all home. He had three dogs waiting at home for him as it was. All dogs from the Adoption Center, all dogs he had come to know and love: Bee-bo, an old rottweiler with visible burn marks from his previous owner; Lucky, a blind mutt saved from death row; and, Rusty, a young yellow Labrador whose keeper died and left her an orphan. He loved them, and as much as he wanted to get home to them, he didn’t want to leave the others stuck in their cages alone till morning. But he had to. He wiped his sweaty brow and grabbed a few treats, which he dispersed among his four-legged friends. He headed for the door.
Outside lying with its feet in the air was a dead bird—a sparrow. Its small body twitched. Carter noticed it immediately. Assuming it flew into the window and broke its neck, Carter kneeled down next to it for a closer look. The bird managed to work itself back to a standing position. It spread its wings and flew at him. Carter jumped back and laughed it off. The little sparrow flew at him again and again, with its beak snapping in rapid succession. Carter having handled animals all his life was used to being bitten, but he found the birds’ behavior to be extremely odd. He grabbed the bird and took it inside, holding it in a manner where it wouldn’t be able to bite him. He placed the bird in an empty cage. He covered it with a dark sheet and left a note for the morning vet, Dr. Jessica Pierce.
Jess—I found this little guy outside, was twitching. Thought it might’ve broken its neck, and then it got up and kept trying to bite me. Probably flew into the window. Talk to you when I get in—Carter
He headed for home in his small box of a car. Despite the pine-scented, tree-shaped car freshener, the vehicle smelled like wet dog and musty books. It had good reason to smell that way, and Carter didn’t mind it one bit. Though most of his friends would always opt for driving him rather than being his passenger.
The dogs, Bee-bo, Lucky, and Rusty, knew he was home before he stepped out of his car, and when he did they scampered noisily to the front door. They jumped up and down, competing to be first in line for the head rub-and-treat train that was now unlocking the door. Carter had to force his way inside, calming the “kids” down with enthusiastic head rubs and ear scratching. Once they allowed him entrance to the house he handed out treats—little bits of rawhide, which they would take to their own parts of the home to enjoy in private. Carter tossed his keys aside and glanced down at the phone in hopes of seeing a message—there was none.
He grabbed a can of Budweiser from the fridge and sat his ass into the same spot on the couch where he always sat. He dug out the remote from within the couch and turned on the television. He skimmed the channels briefly but stopped when he landed on an episode of COPS. He sipped his beer and was soon surrounded on all sides by his fuzzy roommates. He had a few more beers and a few more episodes of COPS before he decided to get to sleep early.
After he was cozy under his blankets he could hear squirrels fighting on the rooftop. Their screeching and skittering was enough to keep him from sleep and put the dogs on edge. He shrugged it off, but the noises continued throughout the night. He woke several times to odd animal noises. Carter even walked over to the window to see what the hell was going on out there but it was too dark to tell.
Early in the morning, after a night of the worst kind of sleeping, the dogs began to bark wildly at the creatures outside. Now that the sun was coming up the dogs could see the culprits. Carter walked over to the window once again, rubbing his eyelids apologetically. He pulled open the curtains and could feel the heat trying to get inside already. After his eyes adjusted to the light, he could make out hundreds of birds in the trees and atop the nearby homes. Squirrels, chipmunks, and even a few rabbits could be seen moving about sporadically. Carter noticed there was something unnatural about the movements the animals made. And the amount of birds was just downright bizarre—they weren’t even making any noise, all lined up as quiet as could be.
Carter’s stomach twisted and he felt nauseous. He could feel something wasn’t right. He sat down and turned on the television—white noise. He went into the other room and turned on the radio. As he did so, something smacked into the window of that room. He ran over to the window and stared into the mangled face of a bat with tattered wings. It had congealed blood all over itself, and its wings were not fit for flight—yet it managed to cling to the sill and keep itself up. Carter gasped and jumped back, nearly stumbling over his own feet. The dogs rushed past him and began jumping and barking at the grotesque-looking bat. Rabies came to the forefront of Carter’s mind. Bats didn’t fly around in broad daylight. Least not the bats around here, his mind whirled—the bat had bites, and was covered in blood—it had to be rabid.
Before his mind could run around with any other thoughts, several birds swooped down to join the bat on the windowsill. They sat unnaturally, their feathers covered in blood. Some of them had cracked beaks and missing eyes. One was even missing most of its leg. The dogs continued to bark, and more birds gathered at the window. One began to peck at the glass. Then another, and another did the same. TIK TIK TIK, the glass began to splinter and chip.
Carter called out to the dogs, and as the glass began to splinter more he screamed for them. They ignored him, focusing on the birds and lonesome bat that were in the process of breaking through the glass and flying in. Carter ran to the dogs, grabbing Lucky and Bee-bo by their collars while calling for Rusty. He barely managed to pull the two large dogs out of the room. As Rusty begrudgingly followed, the glass finally gave way. The sound of tattered wings and breaking glass flooded the room. Carter slammed the door shut. The radio broadcast was nothing more than unheard background noise. Aside from what he’d just experienced, Carter knew nothing of what was going on. He could hear the room swell with the sound of flight. He noticed they made no other noise, no screeching or cawing—just the noise of wings flapping, feet skittering, and beaks now pecking at the door. He could see wings, feet, and beaks trying to reach him and the dogs from the thin separation of door and floor. He stepped back, still trying to handle the dogs. From the bedroom erupted the sound of glass shattering again—this was turning out to be one hell of a morning, Carter thought. He heard what was becoming a familiar noise—the flapping of ruined wings—and ran, pulling the dogs. Rusty was smart enough to follow along without being commanded.
Carter ran for the basement. The flutter of wings and the sounds of small bodies bouncing off the walls followed behind him. He opened the basement door and the dogs darted past him, nearly knocking him over. He slammed the door shut and leaned against it as kamikaze birds rammed into the door. THUP-THUP-THUP-THUP, the barrage was seemingly endless and shed new light on the term birdbrain.
The dogs stood at the top of the steps. Their voices became hoarse as they continued to bark. Carter’s head swirled and ached as he fumbled clumsily for the light switch. He found it and flicked it on, illuminating the small, dirty, and unfinished basement. He descended the stairs. What the hell is going on?, he thought, but was unable to answer himself. After a few moments Bee-bo gave up the ghost and sat next to his master at the foot of the steps. Lucky and Rusty quickly followed. Bee-bo licked Carter’s hand and Carter smiled at his friend, staring into the dog’s deep, dark eyes. Something was wrong, something was very fucking wrong, he thought, and Bee-bo knew it too.
Carter looked around the small basement. He had no radio, no television, no phone, no food—nothing but the damp basement and the dim light. He scratched at his beard, not knowing what else to do. He could hear the fluttering of birds, and at least one bat, above his head. He didn’t want to think of how much the repairs to the house would cost—windows weren’t cheap, and from the sounds of it, that would be the least of his worries. New sounds went through the house: raccoons maybe, cats, dogs, squirrels for sure—they were everywhere as it was, anyway—he could hear the odd hopping that must’ve been a rabbit. Then he heard the phone ring. His eyes widened and he moved toward the door, pressing his ear forward, trying to listen. After several rings, the answering machine picked up. It was Sarah. Her voice sounded shaky. He wanted to run out there and pick up the phone. They hadn’t spoken to each other directly in weeks and he just wanted to hear her voice. He couldn’t make out what she was saying, and it killed him. He couldn’t hear her anymore. The machine beeped to signify the end of the call. Carter sighed and returned to the bottom of the stairs. Lucky had something pinned underfoot and halfway devoured—it was a field mouse. Carter pushed Lucky aside and could tell that the field mouse was no ordinary mouse—its hair was matted with dried blood clinging to its body in clumps, and it had small bite marks that Lucky was much too large to make. Carter felt sick. He looked at Lucky, knowing she stood a good chance of getting whatever it was that made the animals go crazy. Carter scooped up the half-eaten mouse with an old box and set it aside. Bee-bo and Rusty kept their distance from Lucky, and she did the same. She knew she was sick. She sat at the far end of the room licking her paws and occasionally looking in their direction. Carter’s eyes grew red. These dogs were not just pets. They were his family—his children. He loved them more than anything, and he feared what he may have to do to Lucky to prevent her from infecting Bee-bo and Rusty. He looked around the room for something capable of putting her down if need be, and he prayed that he wouldn’t have to.
But there was only a hammer, an old baseball bat (which had been chewed to all hell by the dogs), and a few other items. It would be no easy task if it had to go down that way.
He and the dogs had only been in the basement mere minutes, though to Carter it felt like an eternity. How had a completely ordinary morning gone so rotten?, Carter wondered. Lucky looked sickly after a few minutes. Her continued licking resulted in clumps of hair coming off with the slightest dry lick of her tongue. Her breathing was labored and raspy, as if ready to cough or fade away entirely. Carter looked at her with what must’ve been the saddest set of eyes his face had ever held. Bee-bo and Rusty kept their distance, their faces sad, yet stern.
A few more minutes passed and Lucky breathed no more. Carter went over to her, his eyes red and rimmed with the salty tears of his sorrow. The other dogs began to bark furiously as Carter stepped closer to Lucky. Lucky raised her head, still not breathing. Her jaw hung slack and her dried tongue dangled over it. Carter breathed a sigh of relief and turned back around. Behind him, Lucky managed to stiffly get to her feet. Bee-bo and Rusty barked with venom as Lucky staggered forward. Carter turned, and as he laid eyes on Lucky he jumped—she looked terrible, lifeless. Bee-bo lowered her head and hunched her shoulders back. He was ready to pounce on her to protect his master and friend. Rusty was in a similar stance but his was not as urgent or as angry—Rusty was hesitant. Lucky continued to close the distance and as her foot touched ground once again, Bee-bo lunged at her. He charged head on and knocked her to the side. He slammed her against the side of the staircase. She didn’t huff, and didn’t seem phased in the slightest. She had no emotional response. She turned her attention to Bee-bo, as he was ready to pounce again. He rammed her with his head, knocking her back once again, but not eliciting any response. Rusty stood hesitant in the background, and Carter stood dumbfounded next to him. They watched as Bee-bo attacked Lucky once again. This time he bared his teeth and bit into her throat. Lucky shook like a doll between the massive vice of his jaw. Thick, soupy blood dripped from her neck and trickled down Bee-bo’s throat. He wrestled her to the ground, where she lay only momentarily before getting back to her feet. Carter couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He grabbed the old baseball bat and readied himself to swing. Bee-bo stopped fighting, sensing that something was wrong within his body. He backed away from Lucky, whimpering in defeat—he had lost.
Carter swung the bat over Lucky’s head. She slumped to the ground without making a sound. Carter’s eyes filled with tears and began to flow as he brought the bat down a second time, and a third, and a fourth. Rusty whimpered behind him, bringing his body to the floor and covering his eyes with his paws. Carter dropped the bat on the ground. He sobbed heavily. Lucky didn’t get back up. Bee-bo continued to whine. Carter returned his rump to the warm spot on the stairs where it had been before, his head in his hands. He dreaded the moment when he would have to put Bee-bo down the same way. Minutes later, Bee-bo stopped breathing, yet he rose to his feet. He had the same lifeless look that Lucky had. Carter put him down for good, splintering the bat many times over, until it was useless. He turned to look at Rusty, who remained on the ground with his paws shielding his eyes from the horror in the room. Carter sat next to him, patting his head. Neither of them had ever looked worse. Carter stared at the ceiling, listening to the noise of the many creatures roaming around his house. He wondered how long he had before they found a way down to the basement, or how long before he had to venture out. Maybe someone will come and get me out of here, he thought, then he laughed. He laughed for a good long time.