This story was written for Chuck Wendig’s recent Genre Mashup writing prompt. I rolled the ‘zombie’ and ‘haunted house’ genres, both of which are practically choked by easy cliches and tired tropes. I tried to avoid most of those, with limited success.
Critiques are welcome!
Trigger Warning: Some of the violence depicted and discussed in the following story could be triggering.
Bloody Dandelion Blast
Caution abandoned, Kyle and Michelle raced through the forest, snapping twigs and rustling leaves with a lack of concern which would have been reckless ten minutes earlier. True, they ran a risk of attracting more of the ravenous husks, but the only alternative was to travel so slowly that they would be little more than sitting ducks. Michelle hadn’t dared looked behind her since they first took flight, relying instead upon the growing volume of the guttural, animalistic snarling of their pursuer. She hoped they would find a safe place soon – a hospital, a friendly encampment, or an abandoned house would do nicely. Just so long as we steer clear of any goddamn shopping malls.
This was all Kyle’s fault, and wasn’t it always? They’d found shelter, security, and a welcoming community, but Kyle just had to go to work on one of his typical scams. Always biting the hand that fed him, the sorry bastard, but she could hardly abandon him. Not after Columbus.
Their clamorous exodus had attracted more of the living dead. From the vicious growling which had joined that of the original pursuer, she’d guess that at least two more corpses were on their trail. Three years after the CDC’s report was released, everyone knew that the infected weren’t actually dead, but that hadn’t been enough to prevent the adoption of the hackneyed terminology introduced by a half century of popular media. Michelle figured this was a mental defense mechanism of some kind, allowing the uninfected – the ‘survivors’ – to dehumanise the infected enough to do what had to be done.
There was no cure, at least not yet, and the relentless aggression of the infected made non-lethal self-defense seem like the punch line to a joke that wasn’t particularly funny. It was easier to hack little Sally’s head from her shoulders if you could tell yourself that she wasn’t Sally, not even really human. You’d cling so tightly to comforting self deception, telling yourself that the scientists were wrong, that the government had lied, and that it wasn’t really betrayal that you saw roiling in Sally’s milky, bloodshot eyes before you landed the killing blow.
Michelle’s calves felt like they were nearly shredded from the constant exertion. A brief, comically macabre image of the dead greedily devouring the pulled-pork flesh of her legs came to mind, spurring her to even greater haste. She could see that Kyle was similarly spent – they’d had it too good at the camp, and neither of them had stayed in shape. She didn’t think either of them could go on much longer, but they didn’t have any choice.
When they came upon the clearing and the house, it seemed almost miraculous, like whatever god had presided over global events during the past four years thought it was, at last, the perfect time to intervene. The house was well fortified, surrounded by cement walls that must have been at least two feet thick, interrupted only by a heavy, iron gate, which was liberally threaded with rusted barbed wire. The obstacle would prove insurmountable to zombies, even to most survivors, but the fleeing couple had come prepared to scale a wall or two. It was easy enough to catch the claws of their grappling hooks on the barred windows of the second story, and they were descending the interior of the wall in no time. Reaching the yellowed grass which surrounded the house itself, they took a moment to catch their breath, listening as their attackers plowed into the concrete surface, snarling and grasping in utter futility.
“Well, we might as well knock. Hopefully, whoever lives here will let us stick around for a while, inside where these things can’t smell us. Once they’ve lost interest – tomorrow morning, probably – we’ll head back out. Hell, this place looks pretty well-prepared. Maybe they’ve even got a stockpile.”
Kyle nodded his agreement, raising his hand to knock on the front door. Just as his fist was about to connect with the heavy oak, the door swung open, creaking loudly on its hinges.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
There was no response. Michelle felt for her knife, suspecting that whoever had opened the door intended to spring some sort of trap. Still, the clawing monsters behind them showed no sign of waning interest, and there was nowhere else to go at the moment. They entered cautiously, muscles tensed in spite of their absolute fatigue. A staircase ran from the foyer to the second floor, its lighter, natural tones revealed by deep scratches which pitted the mahogany finish. The first floor was uninhabited, with the kitchen and living room serving as makeshift, though well-stocked, pantries. Rats scurried to and fro across floorboards ravaged by dry rot and mildew, likely evidence of prior flooding.
They mounted the stairs, only to find that the door at the top of the flight was locked. Taking a seat on the landing, they pressed their backs up against the wall, tempering their desire for rest with a reasonable degree of concern about the intentions of their unknown host.
“You get some sleep, Mitch. I’ll take the first watch.”
Luke’s pet name for Michelle hadn’t been amusing in years, but she was too tired to protest its usage. Propping her head up against her pack, she shut her eyes. The sound of the rats on the first floor made sleep difficult, and she woke abruptly three or four times, thinking she’d heard the sound of footsteps on the second floor.
She woke again to find that Kyle was no longer seated beside her. Panicked, she leapt to her feet, which were bare. The door at the top of the stairs was open now, and there was a light on somewhere beyond the aperture. The steps which descended from the landing shifted in a black, hazy, fog, and there was nothing visible beyond the dust-coated glass of the window. Telling herself that this was a dream – that it must be a dream – she ascended the stairs toward the open, inviting door.
There were voices now, thick and trembling with raw emotion, playing over a background track of howling, hungry wind.
“You need to eat, Meg. You’ve got to keep your strength up.”
The response was an indistinguishable, muttered protest. Michelle kept moving forward, passing a door which was blocked by a heavy dresser.
“At least have a little broth. There – that’s better, isn’t it?”
A single word, voice cracking with grief.
“Emily would want you to take care of yourself, and she would have understood what you had to do – you know that.”
“What’s the point, now?”
Michelle had almost reached the bedroom at the end of the hall. The wind had continued to grow louder until it was impossible to make out the rest of the conversation. As she entered the room, she felt the wind whipping about her shoulders, sweeping the walls and ceiling away, carrying them into the aether in which the floor was now suspended. A woman knelt on the floor, weeping openly as the man whose head rested in her lap continued to bleed from deep, red wounds on his wrists.
“Mark… no… you can’t.”
“You said it yourself, Meg. What’s the point anymore?”
Meg nodded, broken, and withdrew a pistol from a holster at Mark’s hip. Ammo was always scarce, and ranked among the most precious of commodities in the pandemic economy, but she wouldn’t have any further need of their last few bullets. Michelle watched, frozen in place as if her feet were buried in drying cement, as Meg placed the barrel up against her right temple. As she squeezed the trigger, the wind’s fury intensified, blasting the dying couple away like the seeds of a dandelion.
Michelle woke with a start. Kyle was still seated next to her, though he’d proven unable to stay awake as he’d promised. The door at the top of the stairs was indeed open, and the landing had grown decidedly chilly. With a flashlight in one hand and a knife in the other, she mounted the steps, desperate to see what lay at the end of the darkened hall. The blocked door was right where she had dreamt it, though the bedroom at the far end remained unlit.
Stepping into the bedroom, she knew that the dream had been much more than a simple nightmare. Two skeletons lay sprawled across the floor. The forehead of one had been nearly obliterated, and both were surrounded by deep, dark bloodstains. There was a pistol clutched firmly in Meg’s hand. Survival instincts prompted Michelle to retrieve the weapon for herself, and she did so, shuddering involuntarily at the eerie scene.
Michelle was on her way back to Kyle when she heard the footsteps again, pacing back and forth. She was certain that the sound was coming from the barricaded room. Straining against the dresser, she pushed it back, passing through the door with the pistol raised and ready to fire. She was met by a cool breeze – the broken frame of the window clattered repeatedly against iron bars as the wind rushed through it. There was a third skeleton in this room, smaller than the other two, and its skull sat several feet away from the rest of it. Emily.
Kyle’s first scream ripped through the air, choked with pure panic. Michelle ran from the room, cursing herself for leaving him unattended as she barrelled toward the top of the stairs. She stopped short at the top step, bracing herself against a wall so that she wouldn’t hurtle headfirst toward the landing. Kyle screams diminished into weak, pitiable moans as the spectre clawed at his flesh, transparent, seemingly non corporeal digits ripping into his skin. Michelle yelled something – she wasn’t sure what – but the girl continued unabated. It was almost certainly too late to do anything to help Kyle, but Michelle had to try. Approaching the landing, she slashed tentatively at the spirit, unsurprised to find that the blade simply passed through the zombie as if it were nothing but thin air.
Kyle wasn’t struggling any longer. The front of his body has been chewed into a bloody pulp, and Emily was losing interest. It’s not as if she actually has to eat anymore, Michelle thought. The ghost seemed suddenly aware of Michelle’s presence, gnashing her teeth viciously as she turned. The lone survivor retreated up the stairs, walking backwards, refusing to let Emily out of her sight. Reaching the bedroom, she put her back to the wall, trying desperately to think of a way out. Emily was still pursuing, slowly limping down the hallway, her translucent figure barely visible in the flashlight’s dim beam.
Even knowing that bullets were unlikely to do anything against such a threat, she raised the pistol, aiming for the head as she’d done countless times before that night. Her hands trembled as she struggled to fire, but the trigger wouldn’t budge. Two hands wrapped around her own, comforting at first, then forceful and commanding. Her elbows bent, bringing the weapon toward her face, as a second entity gripped her chin and forehead, holding her firmly in place. The voices came in a disembodied chorus, soothing, and yet full of despair.
What’s the point anymore?
Her blood pounded in her ears, roaring like the wind, and calling to mind the bereaved couple of her dream, blown away in a bloody, dandelion blast. In the last trembling seconds before the weapon went off, the sentiment echoed through her head, finding silent, sympathetic agreement.