Wednesday, January 17, 2018
MONSTERLAND: PART ONE
By Daniel Skye
PART ONE: BAT COUNTRY
Nothing is free in Monsterland. Nothing.
And though it may sound like an odd, outlandish amusement park or some cheap, trashy tourist trap, Monsterland is no gimmick. It’s the world as we know it.
The vamps in Bat Country are open to trade, if they don’t rip your throat open and drain you of your essence before you get a chance to make them an offer. A pint of blood–yours or someone else’s, the vamps aren’t picky–can get you a few days’ worth of rations or enough gasoline to take you where you need to go.
The vamps don’t fear humans because they know they outnumber us. They fear only one individual. Supreme. He doesn’t just take your blood. He takes your spirit, drains you of your memories, absorbs your intellect, relieves you of your strength, talents, and abilities and claims it all for himself. This makes him the most powerful vamp, not just in Bat Country, but the entire world.
A black Ford Bronco rolled past the empty ticket booth, exploring the desolate fairgrounds. It was an old truck and the shocks squealed with every bump they hit, but the tires were fairly new and the brakes were still good. And it was one of the only vehicles the group possessed.
The Bronco was an ’85 model and there were no doors for the backseat, which was the only major disadvantage. Whenever they stopped, someone had to get out and lift the seat so those in back could climb out.
They parked by the Tilt-A-Whirl and Tug got out and lifted the seat for the guys in the back. Hirschfelder and Wooderson jumped out, crossbows in hand. They had guns, but the firearms were merely a precaution. Guns won’t save your life in Bat Country. But an old fashioned bow and arrow seems to do the trick, especially after you replace the arrow with a wooden stake.
Hirschfelder and Wooderson stood guard. Murphy stayed behind the wheel with the engine running in case things went sideways and they had to make a speedy getaway. And Tug unloaded the “goods” from the back from the truck.
The vamp hovered under the shade of a red-and-white carnival tent, eluding the glare of the sun. Tug approached with confidence. No vamp would risk taking them in the daylight. As long as he kept his distance, he was safe.
Hirschfelder listened to the creak of a nearby Ferris wheel, its passenger seats swaying in the wind. Among the defunct rides and bumper cars was Terminal Velocity, a rusted rollercoaster that was slowly disintegrating with time.
This was Hirschfelder’s town…once. He’d lost his lunch to Terminal Velocity more times than he could count. The fair used to be open for business every weekend. It never moved away like other carnivals or drifted in and out of town like the circus. And now, it belonged to the vampires.
Hirschfelder let his mind drift for a moment, his lips smacking at the thought of the deep fried zeppoles they used to sell at the food stand. He could never resist them. And if it wasn’t the zeppoles, it was the cinnamon churros or the gigantic cones of cotton candy they swirled. He could almost smell the caramelized sugar and taste the fluffy pink treat melting on his tongue. Nick Hirschfelder wasn’t exactly fat, but thanks to his poor diet and penchant for Dr. Pepper, he wasn’t anyone’s idea of thin.
He snapped out of it and refocused his energy on the task at hand. The sunlight protected them from the vamps, but they had to be wary of poachers.
“What’s your pleasure, sir?” the young vamp inquired. He never stepped outside the tent.
“What can I get for seven pints?” Tug asked, presenting a galvanized pail that was practically overflowing.
“Seven pints? Not bad. Who’d you kill?” The young vamp grinned, exposing his ravenous fangs.
“Is that relevant?”
“No, it’s just for my own edification.”
“We ran into some poachers on the backroads. Needless to say, they won’t be bothering anybody anymore.”
“Did they suffer?” the vamp asked and that creepy grin edged across his mouth again. “I bet they suffered beautifully.” He stepped forward a bit, close enough for Tug to his see pallid, vein riddled skin and spiky blonde hair.
“I can assure you they suffered plenty. And they deserved every minute of it.”
“Splendid. Now, back to business. Seven pints can get you guns, ammo, food for your entire group, or enough gas to fill your tank two or three times. The choice is yours.”
“I was actually interested in something else.”
“Oh, do tell.”
“The whereabouts of the one they call Supreme.”
“And why would you want to know his whereabouts?”
“He killed a friend of ours. We’re looking to return the favor.”
“Are you really that eager to join your friend? Supreme will slaughter you, each and every last one of you.”
“I’m aware of his abilities. Now point me in his direction.” The young vamp didn't appear to have any backup, but Tug knew the vamps always traveled in packs, and the fairgrounds were usually crawling with them at night. Surely, he was not alone. If Tug stepped inside that tent, he may never step out. But the young, spiky haired vamp could see Tug meant business, and he didn’t want to press his luck with someone who looked like he could crush someone's skull with one hand. Tug was a tad short, but built like a brick-shit-house, which more than made up for his short stature.
“You have to go west. There’s a funeral parlor on the outskirts of what your people call The Dead Zone. You’ll find him there.”
“We’ll need some gas to get there.”
“I already gave you what you wanted. But I’ll throw in a full tank on the house.”
Nothing is free in Monsterland. Nothing.
“What’s the catch?”
“You find Supreme, and when you do, you kill that son of a bitch. Drive a stake right through his fucking heart. Deal?”
Tug nodded. “Happy to oblige."
Hirschfelder was sweating bullets. He kept glancing anxiously at his digital watch. “One more hour of sunlight,” he said. “We’ll have to haul ass back to base.”
“Then haul ass we will,” Tug said.
“Do you think he was telling the truth?” Murphy asked as they took off down the road.
Tug shrugged his boulder-like shoulders. “If he’s lying, I’ll rip his fangs out with my bare hands.”
“How do Jodi and Sabrina feel?” Wooderson asked.
“How do they feel about what?” Tug asked back.
“About us going after Supreme.”
“It’s not their decision. And it’s not like we’re bringing them along.”
“I’m not leaving them behind.”
“I never said we were. We’ll come back for them. They’re safer out east than they are in the Dead Zone.”
They passed an abandoned Exxon station, the ruins of a Starbucks, and a demolished fruit stand that had once been a prominent staple of the east end. They were halfway home when they ran into a roadblock.
Murphy jammed on the brakes and they locked up, the truck skidding a few inches before it came to a shrieking halt.
“What’s your problem?!” Wooderson exclaimed.
“Look,” Murphy pointed.
“What is it?” Hirschfelder asked, a quiver in his voice.
“It’s a herd,” Tug said.
Zombies. But these were not your gray or blue skinned George A. Romero zombies with stiff legs and rigid postures. These things were the real deal, and they could move. They didn’t wander aimlessly, they walked with purpose and intent.
Murphy and Tug could see them as they drew closer, their blackened teeth, exposed muscle and sinew, the flesh rotting down to the bone.
“I’ve never seen a herd this far east,” Murphy said. “Usually they don’t stray too far from the Dead Zones.”
“Someone or something must have led them in this direction,” Tug said.
“Could be poachers,” Wooderson said. “This could be a trap.”
“Duly noted,” Tug said. “Everyone has a gun, right?”
“That goes without saying,” Murphy chuckled. “But I don’t think we have enough ammo to clear the path. We’ll have to double back and find another route.”
Hirschfelder had his .22 stuffed in his waistband. Not because it was comfortable or even safe, but it was what he’d seen in movies. In the movies, nobody uses a holster. They just carelessly cram the loaded weapon into their waistband or stick it behind their backs for the sudden reveal during the big standoff at the film's climax.
Nick Hirschfelder had never even fired a gun before he joined the group. But Tug and Murphy made it their mission to teach him. Knowing how to use a gun meant the difference between life and death in Monsterland.
But you can’t hesitate. And that was Hirschfelder’s problem. Alan Wooderson told the guys he was hopeless, that Hirschfelder would have just as much luck with a Nerf gun. But Hirschfelder was determined to prove him wrong.
Just pretend it’s a video game, he’d tell himself. Who doesn’t love video games?
Tug and Murphy didn’t need to pretend. Murphy, an Iraq war veteran, was more than familiar with his firearms and he felt very comfortable using them. Nobody knew for sure if Murphy was his first name or last. He refused to tell them. He’d been with the group since the beginning, before Wooderson and Hirschfelder, even before Tug came along.
Murphy had nicknamed him Tugboat because he was small in stature, but strongly built. But everyone in the group resorted to calling him Tug for short. The nickname stuck, and Tug didn’t seem to mind. Half the time, he couldn't even remember his real name.
Murphy, with his black sunglasses and leather driving gloves, tightened his fingers around the wheel. “Your call, chief. You want to give these undead bastards a run for their money or floor it in reverse?”
“I know what I’d vote for,” Hirschfelder said.
“I’m cool either way,” Wooderson said, his voice never faltering like Hirschfelder and his cowardly warble.
As the herd marched towards them, Murphy and Tug watched one of the zombies fall to its knees and crumple in the road, its head popped like a zit. Another dropped beside it, then another, and another; the bullets ripping through their skulls, their heads exploding like falling watermelons. Tug could hear the gunfire, but he couldn’t see the shooters. He assumed there had to be more than one. But when the herd was clear and the road was littered with rotting, headless corpses, a lone man stood with his AR-15 and a satisfied smirk across his ruddy face.
He approached the truck, his gun rested on one shoulder to let the men know he meant no harm. Tug rolled his window down and nodded, a sign of recognition and gratitude.
“Thanks for that.”
“Don’t mention. David Murdoch, but everyone calls me Duke.”
“Where you heading, Duke?”
“Anywhere but here.”
“Need a place to crash? It’s the least we could do.”
“I wouldn’t mind a warm bed and a fresh meal.”
“I hate to break it to you, but we’re not going to make it home before dark,” Murphy said. “We’ll have to find a place to camp out for the night.”
“Hey, Duke,” Tug said, “Ever been to Reggie’s?”
Reggie’s Diner was always open, for a price.
Nothing is free in Monsterland. Nothing.
This time, it all cost was a few CDs and paperback novels Murphy had found on their latest search for supplies. They sat in a booth and Norma, a young woman with a benevolent smile and shoulder-length blonde hair, came over to take their order.
“What’ll you have?” she asked to nobody in particular.
“Egg white omelette,” Tug requested.
“You can have fried or scrambled eggs.”
“Scrambled it is. Oh, and a side of bacon.”
“No bacon or pork related products.”
“I’ll just stick with the eggs.”
“They have eggs here?” Duke asked.
“Liquid eggs. It’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s better than nothing.”
“BLT,” Wooderson said. “Hold the bacon.”
“Anything that’s fresh,” Hirschfelder said.
“So nothing for you then,” Norma said.
“I’ll have a Coke,” Duke said, then added, “Please.”
“We’ve got Pepsi.”
“What about decaf coffee?” Murphy asked.
“We’ve got Sanka.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Be right back with your stuff,” Norma said and sauntered away.
“She seems nice,” Duke said.
“She’s not bad once you get to know her,” Tug said.
Outside, the wind moaned as it carried through the streets. Tug cocked his head to one side and listened closely.
It wasn’t just the wind that was moaning. Someone was out there, screaming for their life.
He peered out through the diamond patterned windows of the diner and could just make out a vague silhouette. The silhouette rapidly evolved into the thin, frail figure of a woman with fiery red hair.
She scraped and pounded against the front doors, begging, pleading for help. Tug couldn’t leave her out there to face the vamps on her own. “Norma, toss me the keys.”
Tug unlocked the door and grabbed the girl by the arm, pulled her inside. She recoiled slightly at his touch and he let go when he saw the trepidation in her eyes. She was wounded, had a nasty gash above her left eye that was still bleeding.
“It’s okay,” Tug tried to assure her. “You’re safe here. Let me see if Reggie has a first aid kit in back.”
“No!” the girl cried. “There’s no time! We have to get out of here! He’s coming!”
“Who’s coming?” Murphy asked.
And just as he asked, they heard the thunderous pounding on the front doors of Reggie’s establishment.
“Amber!” a man screamed so loud his lungs threatened to burst. “Get out here now!”
“The girl is with us,” Tug shouted from the other side of the door. “I suggest you leave. You’re outnumbered. I’m trying to do you a favor.”
“I’m the one doing you a favor, buddy. You don’t know what she’s capable of, what she did to my friends. She has to die. Or she’ll destroy everything in her path.”
“I have no fucking clue what you’re talking about. But this is your final warning. Leave now.”
“Have it your way,” the man said, his voice trailing off at the end.
They waited until he was gone, then all eyes in the diner turned to the girl with the red hair.
“So you must be Amber,” Tug said. “They call me Tugboat, or Tug for short. That’s Murphy, and Hirschfelder, and Wooderson. And that big lug over there calls himself Duke.”
Duke tipped his invisible cap to Amber. “Evening, ma’am.”
“Now what the hell was this fella talking about? You have something you need to tell us?”
A gunshot echoed through the kitchen and a body dropped to the floor.
Tug drew his gun, but by then, the man was out the kitchen and he had Norma by the throat, the cold barrel of his gun pressed to her temple.
“I didn’t want it to come to this,” the man said, his voice cracking up when he saw just how outnumbered he really was. “But that girl is trouble. I have to end this before she spreads the plague again.”
With the man's eyes on Amber, Murphy made a move. But the man was too fast for him and the bullet went through his right hand. Then the gun returned to Norma’s head and they were back to square one.
“Put the gun down,” Tug said, trying to play the role of negotiator. “We can make a deal, work something out. Nobody else needs to get hurt.”
“You foolish bastard,” the man said, shaking his head. “There’s nothing you can offer me. You give me the girl and we walk out of here together, end of story. You’ll never see me again.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“Then I’m afraid we have nothing left to discuss.”
Duke, Hirschfelder, and Wooderson all rushed at him at once. Duke tackled him to the floor and Wooderson helped pin him down. Hirschfelder was attempting to wrestle the gun from his hand when it went off, the bullet entering and exiting through the man’s skull before anyone even realized the gun had been fired.
“Fuck me,” Duke said, wiping fresh blood of his brow.
“It was an accident,” Hirschfelder insisted. “He had his finger wrapped around the trigger.”
“No big loss,” Wooderson said and patted Hirschfelder on the back. “Nice shot, even though you weren’t trying to kill him. I’ll still give you points.”
“You alright?” Murphy asked, helping a distraught Amber back to her feet as Tug consoled a traumatized Norma. Amber had taken cover under one of the booths as soon as she heard the first shot.
“I’ll be okay,” she said.
“Nasty cut you have there,” Murphy said, brushing her head with his mangled hand. He didn’t mean to, but Murphy was a righty, and it was all instinct. But that’s all it took. Just one drop. One drop of Amber’s blood and the virus was coursing through Murphy’s veins. The extreme change was instantaneous and sent shockwaves through his system. His eyes grew dark and gray, the color of storm clouds.
The virus enveloped him and filled him with rage. Pure, unfiltered, endless rage.
“Murph? You okay?” Tug asked.
“Don’t!” Amber cried. “Don’t touch him! He’s infected!”
“Infected with what?”
To Be Continued With Part Two: CONTAMINANT